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Seifer remembers crawling back to Garden. Standing in the headmaster's office, his back straight and his fists clenched at his sides. He had a whole - a whole speech ready, a whole -- everything he'd thought of, sitting on the docks in Balamb, wasting time and not being able to think about the future 'cause that'd mean facing up to the fact that he didn't have one.

What it came down to was Fuck you both, you did this to me, you made me, what the hell else am I supposed to do?

He stood there, Cid and Edea watching him, watching him with pity on their faces, and he couldn't force any of it out. A thousand angry words boiling in his mouth and he didn't say any of them.

And Edea -- Matron -- held out a hand, and smiled, and said, "Welcome back, Seifer."

* * *

Seifer remembers walking the halls at Garden again, crowds parting for him, whispers and glares following him everywhere he went. Just like old times.

And Seifer remembers the Chicken-wuss' reaction to seeing him back again -- the same old defensive posture, fists up, feet braced, jaw set. Only now he looked harder, looked pissed -- almost dangerous, Seifer thought, and nearly laughed, thinking back. Remembered taking them all on, Quistis' whip and Squall's gunblade and Zell's fists, somewhere in there with all the rest of it.

"Long time no see, Chicke--"

And suddenly he was on the floor and his jaw felt like it was fucking broken.

The Chicken-wuss was standing over him, fists trembling at his sides, and before Seifer could get up or fight back or even finish the goddamn insult, he'd turned and walked away.

* * *

Seifer remembers running into Squall again, for the first time. "Well, if it isn't Mr. Hero."

Squall stopped, narrowed his eyes -- and for just that second there was something there of the old rivalry -- then crossed his arms, looking away. Shook his head. "I don't know why they let you back in, Seifer."

Seifer's scar tingled a little, itching like there was a storm coming, the same way his fingers itched for Hyperion's hilt. He smirked. "Is this where you tell me you'll be watching me? One wrong move and you'll kill me?"

Squall uncrossed his arms and shrugged, like this was nothing important, like they were talking about the weather. "I won't have to. Everyone else at Garden will do it for me."

Seifer remembers yelling after him. "What, you don't want first blood?"

"I have more important things to do than fight you, Seifer."

Seifer remembers watching him walk away.

* * *

Seifer remembers spending a hell of a lot of time in the training center. Alone.

* * *

Seifer remembers stepping into the Ragnarok the day of his field exam, and finding Dincht already there, trying to look still and professional. Seifer stopped short, cadets nearly bumping into him, and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Zell scowled, opened his mouth, and Xu cut him off, stepping between the cadets and moving to stand next to him. "SeeD Dincht," she said, emphasis on 'SeeD', "will be one of the supervising SeeDs on this mission." She took a second to look at each of the cadets in turn while they moved around Seifer to take their seats. "That means if he gives an order, you follow it, no questions asked." She was looking right at Seifer, now. "Got it?"

What a joke. Seifer took one of the only seats left -- near the front -- and sat back, waiting to hear whatever lame-ass training mission they'd been assigned this time.

Xu briefed them -- oh, boy, guard duty -- and when she was done the cadets turned and started chatting nervously with each other, lifting their voices over the rising hum of the engines. Xu turned to Seifer, her uniform spotless and her hands clasped in front of her. "Seifer," she asked coolly, "why are you here?"

Seifer bit down on everything, and ground out, "I'm going to pass."

Seifer, you'll never be a SeeD, she didn't say. "Last chance."

"I'm going to pass," Seifer said again.

She looked at him steadily while he bit his tongue hard enough to keep himself from telling her off, from getting up and walking out and telling her she could take her goddamn field exam and shove it up her ass. But the ship was already lifting off, and after a minute she turned to look over the cadets. "Good luck," she told them, and walked out.

Dincht was looking at him. "The hell do you want?" Seifer snapped.

Zell clenched his fists, then caught himself and crossed his arms, hard. "You really gonna try and pass?"

"Yes," Seifer snapped, thinking hard about the Attitude section of the evaluation instead of saying, No, I'm here to sabotage the mission, or No, I'm here to make sure you don't fuck it up. And then, "You gonna try not to piss your pants?" God damn it.

Zell clenched his fists, started to move forward -- and was interrupted by Xu again, stepping into the seating room to say, "Take your seats, everyone," even though Dincht was the only one standing. "Make sure you use this time to check your Junctions and equip your GF."

* * *

Seifer remembers the field exam. The fourth one. The one where they finally -- finally -- let him pass the goddamn thing.

It was supposed to be straightforward. Terrorists at one of the O-Labs, demanding an end to unethical experimentation, and threatening to start killing hostages if the Esthar government didn't give in.

Seifer's team got the honor of taking out the guys at the back entrance and then just standing there, guarding it while the SeeDs got to do the real work.

Dog training again.

Seifer put up with it for 15 long minutes, listening to the rest of his team -- two cadets younger than he was, probably never fought anything tougher than a Grat -- talking about the mission.

"Seems pretty ridiculous," one of them was saying. "I mean, killing people to protest unethical experimentation? Where're they getting their definition of 'ethical'?"

"Yeah, and Xu said in the briefing that they haven't even clarified what experimentation they want stopped -- like, are they protesting a specific project, or --"

"Hell with this," Seifer announced, turned, and headed inside, leaving the squad leader -- a scrawny Trepie with a whip -- calling after him, yelling about abandoning his position.

The sublevels under the main lab were a grey maze of numbered doors, and Seifer stalked through the halls looking for an elevator -- upstairs, that was where the actual fight was, where the SeeDs'd be trying to free the hostages.

He'd already lost track of which way was back when he heard footsteps behind him, and thought, The hell? Couldn't be a scientist. All the ones who hadn't escaped in the initial attack were upstairs in the main lab. Seifer glanced around, ducked around a corner and pressed himself into the wall, waiting.

The guy who walked by was wearing combat armor. Had a machine gun in his hand and a radio clipped to his belt. Seifer watched him turn a corner down the hall, then pulled himself away from the wall to follow. One of the terrorists? Why the hell wasn't he upstairs with the others?

Seifer heard footsteps again, running this time, and turned to see the Chicken-wuss, headed straight for him. "Seifer!" he yelled, barreling right into Seifer and grabbing his arms, almost impaling himself on Hyperion. "Seifer, you stupid idiot! What the hell do you think you're doing?!"

"Keep it down, Dincht. I just saw one of the terrorists and if you don't shut up --"

"I can't believe you -- you, what, you want to fail this thing? I'm goin' around tryin' to make sure the cadets are alright and you're --"

There was a faint crash somewhere down the hall, that he almost didn't hear over Zell's ranting. He clamped a hand over Zell's mouth, and there it was again.

Zell gripped his wrist, hard, pulled his hand away. "The hell was that?"

"That's what I'm trying to --"

Zell lifted a hand for silence, and moved off in the direction of the sound. They came to an open door, yellow light spilling out into the hallway, murmurs and thumps coming from inside. Zell pressed himself to the wall next to the doorway, and jerked a hand so Seifer followed suit.

Taking a quick breath, Zell looked into the room, then pulled his head back. Held up four fingers. Seifer rolled his eyes and leaned past to look for himself.

Four. Two of them carrying guns, while two of them were messing with some kind of wired box behind a sheet of broken glass. They were stealing? The whole 'ethical terrorist' thing was a cover for this?

He shook his head, pulled back. Glanced at Zell -- who scowled up at him for a sec, but then held up his fists, nodding. Seifer lifted Hyperion, and they went in.

Seifer remembers how easy it was to work like that, Zell at his back. The fight was hardly a fight at all, over in a few seconds.

Silence. Seifer let out a breath, wiped his gunblade off on one of the dead guys. Zell crouched to look at one of their guns, frowned. "I think this guy's Galbadian. The hell d'you think they were doing?"

Seifer turned away, took a look at the wired box they'd been messing with. Judging by the broken glass littering the floor and the cut wires hanging loose from the wall, the thing'd been under some heavy security. "Stealing Esthar tech, obviously." There was nothing special about the box -- just a bunch of numbers stamped on it, and some connectors dangling off. "I knew something here wasn't right," he went on, turning back. "They didn't even make their demands --"

There was a crackle of static, and they both froze. " --Two, this is One, come in."

Zell flashed a panicked look at the dead guy's radio, and Seifer bent to pick it up. Clicked the button. "One, this is Two, go ahead." And now Dincht was giving him a look, like, The hell are you gonna do? Seifer shrugged at him.

"Are you done yet?"

Seifer hesitated, Zell watching him, then answered, "The thing's hooked into some kinda security matrix. We need more time. Stall."

"We've got company, and the charges are already set." Zell's eyes went wide. "Get a move on." A burst of static, and then nothing else.

Shit. "Let's go."

Zell looked like he was going to say something to that, but instead he shook his head. "Elevator's this way," he muttered, pushing past Seifer.

There were two teams standing outside the entrance to the main lab, waiting for the order to move in. One of the SeeDs turned, looked at Zell, looked at Seifer, then said, "Shouldn't you be guarding your post?"

Seifer opened his mouth, but Zell cut him off. "We gotta clear everyone out! The place is gonna blow!"

The SeeD blinked. "We still have an hour and a half until their deadline. We're trying to negotiate, here."

"We intercepted a message from the terrorists," Seifer cut in. "This whole thing's a diversion while they tried to steal some tech, so get off your ass already and give the order."

The SeeD's expression turned dark, but he looked to Zell. "He telling the truth?"

Zell nodded. "Give the order, man, we got no time to argue."

The SeeD nodded, turned away, and pressed a hand to his ear. "Sniper one, take the shot. Sniper two, stand by. All squads, prepare to evacuate hostages." Then he turned back to Zell. "We're going in." Jerked his head in Seifer's direction. "Get the cadet back to his post."

Seifer was gripping Hyperion so hard it hurt, but before he could snap out an answer to that, Dincht had grabbed his arm and was dragging him back to the elevator. "Seifer, just keep your mouth shut and you might still have a chance to pass," he gritted, punching the button.

Seifer shook him off. "The hell do you care?"

"Look, man," Zell snapped, jabbing a finger at him, "I dunno why they even let you back in Garden, but you're tryin' and everyone knows you could pass this thing just fine if you'd quit bein' such an asshole and start following orders!"

Seifer remembers the sound of a single gunshot -- and then the explosion, rocking the building, knocking him to the floor. And when he looked up, Dincht was already scrambling to his feet, heading back to the lab. He turned and shouted something Seifer couldn't hear over the ringing in his ears. Probably an order to get back to his position.

Seifer got up and went after him.

* * *

Seifer remembers graduating. Remembers Cid taking him aside to say, "Congratulations, Seifer. You passed." And then hesitating, scratching at the back of his head, "...Barely. Abandoning your position was a serious breach of orders, and more than enough to fail you. However... one of the SeeDs on site made on appeal on your behalf, saying that not only did you catch the thieves, you were a great help in getting the survivors out and tending to the wounded."

He went on, talking about honor and SeeD and taking orders, victory and defeat and making decisions on the battlefield, and Seifer didn't hear a word of it.

"Welcome to SeeD."

* * *

Seifer remembers Zell holding a hand out to shake, saying, "Way to go, man." And then, after a long pause, like it took a hell of a lot of effort and concentration to say it, "...You earned it."

Seifer remembers standing there for a long, long time, looking at Zell's outstretched hand and thinking, You passed. Barely.

Seifer remembers slapping that hand away, starting a fight. "I don't need your goddamn help, Chicken-wuss."

* * *

Seifer remembers that year's SeeD ball, remembers standing there and sipping champagne, being congratulated by people doing a shitty job of pretending to give a damn about him. And a worse job of pretending not to notice his black eye.

Dincht was there, too, in his dress uniform, the bruise on his jaw purple and swollen. Scarfing hors d'oeuvres and avoiding Seifer.

Seifer remembers leaving early, getting changed, heading for the training centre.

Remembers finding Zell already there, moving quick and sharp, taking down Grats and hardly breaking a sweat. He ran out of them, eventually, and stopped to breathe, rubbing his gloves off on his pants. Wasn't until he turned around that he finally noticed Seifer. Stopped. Clenched his fists.

And Seifer just looked around at the dead Grats and asked, "You want a real fight?"

* * *

Seifer remembers the training center, late at night. Almost empty, except for the two of them, almost silent, except for the sound of them throwing punches and tossing off insults.

He doesn't remember who won that one, or any of the others. Mostly he remembers blood and bruises and Zell, quick and fierce and really really angry sometimes, when Seifer pissed him off just right.

He remembers the flash of Zell's grin as he took Seifer down, remembers the feel of training center mud on his back, the wind knocked out of him. And once in a while, Zell offering a hand up without really thinking about it.

* * *

Seifer remembers how easy that first mission was, escorting some Dollet diplomat nobody ever heard of on a tour of Deling City, trying to stay awake through meetings about trade and who was going to pay for upkeep on the Communications Tower. Standing outside the guy's hotel room door and having to endure Zell's babbling about Dollet's foreign policy until the ambassador finally poked his head out and said, "I can hear you, you know."

He remembers the next mission after that, stuck working with Zell again, this time guarding an engineering team repairing HD cables just outside Winhill. Off-duty at night and not a damn thing to do in the whole town but argue with each other.

Remembers bitching about the mission and complaining about the town and actually saying something that made Zell laugh, at one point, loud and sudden.

Seifer remembers a hike through Grandidi forest, sweaty and mosquito-bitten, all on some stupid mission to find some ancient ruins or some crap. Lasted a good two weeks, though it felt more like ten goddamn years, with the Chicken-wuss babbling the whole way and Squall saying, "Whatever," every five minutes to try and shut him up.

Seifer remembers knowing they were lost and that Squall just wasn't admitting it 'cause he was supposed to be Mr. Bigshot Leader now. So of course Seifer said so, and ended up spending who-the-hell knew how long arguing with Zell about it.

"We can follow the river north to the temple ruins," Squall said. Sounded like he was talking to himself. Seifer wondered if he was starting to lose it. Probably from having to listen to Zell talk. "We just need to... find the river, first."

"I think we're goin' the right way, though!" Zell said, like he was actually trying to make Squall feel better, or cheer him up or something.

Seifer snorted. "How the hell would you know?"

"Tch! 'Cause! The ground's been sloping down," he stepped over a tangled tree root, "the trees are gettin' thicker, and," he pointed at a patch of tamped-down moss, "there are Hexadragon and Cockatrice tracks headin' this way, see?"

Seifer stopped. Looked over at Squall, to see that he'd stopped, too.

Zell crossed his arms. "What? Don't you guys remember Survival Training?"

"That..." Seifer glanced over at Squall again. "That actually made sense." They'd definitely been wandering out here way too long.

"'Course it did!" Zell crowed, puffing himself up. "Maybe you guys should just let me lead the way," he said, then tripped over a tree root and fell face-first in the mud.

* * *

They did manage to find the river, eventually. It was wider than Seifer'd thought it would be, moving fast and reflecting the green all around, even a little blue from the line of sky it was letting in. It looked clear and clean, and Seifer was never so happy to see anything in his life.

"OHHH YEAH!" Zell shouted, then peeled off everything but his shorts and splashed into the water. Seifer dropped Hyperion and followed him in, peeling off his sweaty dirty clothes and feeling the dried mud cracking off him until he hit the water, cool and refreshing, washing everything away. He dunked his head under, getting mud and dried leaves out of his hair and feeling better than he had since they walked into this stupid forest, however many days ago that'd been.

When he pulled his head out again, dripping, Zell was waving at Squall, still on the bank, still covered in dirt. "C'mon in, Squall, the water's --"

Seifer splashed at him, and Zell got a mouthful of river water that left him sputtering.

"You bastard!" Zell splashed back at him, grinning like a lunatic, and Seifer got close enough to shove Zell's head under the water. Held him there for maybe three seconds before Zell did -- something -- to Seifer's knee that sent him under, too.

They surfaced together with a splash, half-wrestling and half trying to drown each other, and both remembered Squall at the same time: still on the bank and still dry. He looked like he was mentally writing his report on the mission. Seifer smirked, Zell shot him a wicked grin, and they both aimed the biggest splashes they could at him.

Squall, still on the bank, still muddy, and now half-soaked, glared at them a second before putting a hand to his forehead. Zell's eyes widened. Seifer snorted, "What, are --"

Squall extended his hand, a look of total focus on face, and dropped a Water spell on their heads.

* * *

Seifer remembers finally finding the ruin, grown so thick with trees and vines he couldn't tell where the stone ended and the forest began. No evidence of any GF, except that the only trace of monsters for a good distance around the ruins were nothing but bones. Skulls and skeletons with vines growing through and around them, some of them strung up in trees or caught in a cage of thorns.

It was Squall who finally found the entrance. One second he was there, looking around and frowning, and the next he was gone. "Whoa!" Zell shouted, and they rushed over to find a narrow crack in the earth, and Squall at the bottom of it, getting to his feet on the stone floor, illuminated by the thin shaft of light coming in from above.

"Squall! You okay?" Zell yelled, and Seifer had to grab the back of his jacket to keep him from diving in head-first like an idiot.

"...Fine," Squall said, after a minute, but there was a sound now, coming from somewhere in the dark. A hissing. And shadows on the floor, slithering toward him like snakes.

"Squall!" Zell yelled again, jerked himself out of Seifer's grip and jumped down the hole, a Firaga already building in one fist.

Seifer remembers sighing, and pulling Hyperion out, and jumping in after him like an idiot.

* * *

And he remembers what they found inside: some kind of forest GF, the pissed-off grandaddy of all Grats.

He remembers working with Squall to cut through thick vines wrapped around Zell's throat, leaves slashing at his face. Remembers Zell yelling in his ear and hitting him to shake him out of a Sleep spell. Remembers forcing an antidote down Squall's throat, even remembers obeying the rapid-fire orders Squall shouted at him while they got the hell out of there, pieces of the ruins falling down around their heads.

He remembers getting a raise in his SeeD rank after that mission, though hell if he could figure out why. And he remembers that walking out of the forest took a lot less time than walking in. Or seemed to, anyway.

There was this one night, on the way out. Camped by the river.

When Seifer woke up he could hear shuffling outside, louder than the chirp of crickets and the rustling of leaves. A quiet clatter, and he rolled over, intending to kick Zell and tell him there's a monster outside, go take care of it.

Zell wasn't there. Squall was sound asleep against the other wall of the tent, not showing any signs of waking up. Seifer swore under his breath and crawled out of the tent, grabbing Hyperion as he did.

Zell was on the other side of the clearing facing off with a Forbidden, the rusty sword biting into his forearm. In the time it took Seifer to reach them, Zell had broken the thing's sword arm and kicked its ribcage in. It clattered to the ground in a heap, the bloody sword with it.

Zell glanced over at Seifer, a hand pressed to the gash in his arm, frowning. "I hate those things. They're creepy."

Seifer grabbed at his arm. "Nice block." And realized he'd left his coat and gloves in the tent and now he had Zell's blood on his hands. Idiot.

"It caught me off-guard," Zell said, defensively.

Seifer pulled a Potion out of his pocket, bit the stopper off, and poured it over the wound. Wouldn't have spilled so much if Zell weren't squirming the whole time. "The hell are you even doing out here?"

"I couldn't sleep," Zell answered, shaking Seifer off. Rubbed a hand over his tattoo. "The new GF's not sittin' well." He jerked his head at a sound Seifer didn't hear, went still for a second, then blinked, turned back. "The forest is... loud. Full of trees 'n monsters 'n stuff."

Seifer snorted. "Amazing powers of observation, there, Chicken-wuss. You should put that in your report. 'The forest had trees in it.'" Zell scowled at him. "Give me the GF, then."

Zell shook his head, pulled away even further. "I can handle it!"

Seifer rolled his eyes. "Then quit bitching about it and go back to sleep. "

Zell looked back at the tent, frowned, then poked at his wound a bit, managing to get more blood on himself. Hard to tell if it was healing. The blood looked black in the moonlight, dark and sharp as the tattoo.

"Stop that," Seifer said.

"Wanna spar?" Zell asked.

Seifer blinked at him, glanced back at the tent. No sign of Squall. He shrugged. "What the hell."

A flash of Zell's grin in the dark, and they headed down near the river to fight.

Seifer remembers how quiet that fight was, just -- breathing. Swings and punches and the wash of the river nearby. No insults, no bickering, none of Dincht's stupid boasting. Just darkness and quiet and each other.

When it was over, Seifer lay on the grass and looked up at the stars, aching and sweaty and awake, now, wide awake, Zell breathing nearby.

The moon, there, bright and close and impossible to reach, and he remembered standing in the Pandora, watching the sky fall and waiting, waiting for Squall to come stop him.

"Why'd you come back?" Zell asked, somewhere out of the dark.

Seifer blinked, snorted. Of course he couldn't just shut up and let everything be quiet. Probably going to wake every monster for a mile around. Not to mention Squall. "Why, did you miss me?"

"Tch! Yeah right!" Zell was suddenly glaring down at him, blocking out the stars. "When you were gone and everything was over, Garden was like -- quiet. I got hotdogs."

"Sounds boring," Seifer said. Zell frowned, sat back again. Quiet, for a long time, until Seifer heard himself ask, "Where else was I supposed to go?"

Zell didn't say anything to that. Eventually, Seifer heard a quiet splash, and sat up to see that Zell'd got in the water and was finally washing the blood off his arm, moonlight on the curve of his back.

If Seifer looked hard enough, he could make out the marks he'd left.

* * *

Squall took one look at them the next morning, frowned and said, "Have you guys been fighting?"

Seifer swallowed a mouthful of the disgusting canned stew they'd been eating for over a week now and opened his mouth to say that was none of his damn business, but Zell cut him off.

"Couldn't sleep," Zell said, tipping his head back and tapping the last of his stew out of the can. There was a fresh bruise on his jaw that Seifer hadn't noticed last night.

"Chicken-wuss was scared of the dark," Seifer explained.

"Blow me," Zell told him, and got up to start breaking the tent down, restless and ready to go. Seifer couldn't tell if it was the GF, still, or if he was just sick of the woods.

Squall looked unimpressed. "Are you trying to start a fight?"

Seifer shrugged, took a second to watch Zell pulling the tent pegs up and struggling to fold the sides down. "Dunno why the hell they keep partnering me with him," he said. Finally gave up on the stew and tossed the can into what was left of their fire.

"Nobody else wants to work with you," Squall said matter-of-factly.

Seifer stared at him. "...What?"

Squall shrugged, went back to checking the edge on his gunblade. "They don't trust you."

"And he does?!"

"I don't think it's occurred to him that he can refuse." His hair was hiding the look on face, but he actually sounded like he thought that was funny.

"C'mon guys, let's get going!" Zell called, done with the tent now and coming over to bother them. "Man, I can't wait to get back to Garden and get some real food!"

Seifer got to his feet. "You're a fucking moron," he said.

Zell threw his fists up. "The hell?!"

"...Seifer," Squall warned.

Seifer turned on him. "Why the hell didn't you refuse, then?"

Squall finished checking his blade, got up and shrugged. "You've made it through this many missions with him," he said, gesturing at Zell, "without losing it." Then he turned and walked away, like that explained it, headed for the trail back out of the woods. "Let's go," he said, and Seifer had no choice but to follow him, Zell trailing behind.

* * *

Seifer remembers the look on Zell's face.

"Cid says you were possessed. That you couldn't control yourself, couldn't fight it. Like Matron." And the look on his face was so open, so ready to hear it, that for a second Seifer actually wanted to lie to him.

To say, Yes, I was brainwashed, No, I couldn't control myself, Yes, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

"Cid's fucking senile," Seifer said, and they ended up fighting, more blood, more bruises, no rules, no glory in it at all, just flesh and blood and breath and pain. Felt good. Felt honest.

* * *

Seifer remembers how easy it sounded: just put the uniform on, walk in, steal the prototype, and walk out. And it would've been, if the access codes they'd given him had actually worked. But they didn't, and the alarm went off, and he was left with a choice: fight or run. Abort the first solo mission they'd trusted him with, or get in there and take the thing back, any way he could. Wasn't much of a choice.

Seifer remembers tossing the machine into the passenger seat and peeling away from the base in a stolen G-Army transport, crashing through the security gate while a hail of bullets rattled against the windshield.

Remembers the exact sound the tire made when it blew, somewhere out in the middle of the fucking desert, remembers bloody gloves slick on the steering wheel when he tried to swerve.

Remembers hiding half-buried in the sand while the soldiers fanned out from the empty transport. Staying still and quiet, his breathing controlled, the prototype tucked under him to keep it out of the wind while he bled from more bullet holes than he wanted to count.

Remembers coming to face-down in the sand, the soldiers gone and the sun burning overhead. Trying to patch himself up with Cures and Potions, but the uniform was caked and the sand was brown with blood, and some of the wounds wouldn't close up, already festering.

He'd almost made it to the train station when the rescue team finally came for him -- only it wasn't a team, it was just Zell, casting Scan spells and calling his name. Dumping him in a rental car and hitting the gas, heading straight for Timber and a safe route back to Garden. And bitching the whole time, calling Seifer an idiot and an asshole for not calling off the mission when the codes didn't work, complaining about how he was supposed to be off this week for the fishing festival in Balamb and instead he got stuck draggin' Seifer's ass through the desert. Leaning over to shake Seifer's shoulder every time he started to black out, swerving the car all over the place instead of keeping his eyes on the road.

He doesn't remember how he got to the Infirmary.

Just remembers that as soon as he was well enough to walk out, he went straight to Xu's office and barged in to give her hell. "I did not need a goddamn rescue mission," he growled. "I can take care of myself. And I swear if you ever assign Dincht to come looking for me again, you're going to need to send a search-and-rescue for him."

She looked back at him calmly. "Are you finished?"

Seifer actually tried to set her desk on fire before remembering that they'd stripped his junctions in the Infirmary.

"Yes? Good." She stood slowly, hands on the desk. "Now I suggest you sit your ass down and listen, because I'm only going to say this once. You are a SeeD, and that means you are expected to demonstrate good judgement on a solo mission, which you have spectacularly failed to do. I'm docking you a rank, and you're suspended from active duty until Dr. K gives her approval."

"What?!" he snapped.

"And as a SeeD, search-and-rescue missions will be sent after you according to Garden policy, regardless of your feelings on the matter. Got it?"

Seifer opened his mouth and --

"Good," she cut in. "I'm glad we understand each other, and I don't have to dock you another rank for insubordination."

Seifer forced his mouth closed. Turned and walked out.

"And for the record," she said, before he reached the door, "I didn't assign Zell to the rescue mission."

Seifer turned to look at her.

"He volunteered."

* * *

Seifer pounded on the door a few times, and when Zell finally answered he was breathless and sweating, his shirt off and his knuckles taped, the punching bag still swinging behind him.

His face lit up. "Oh, hey man! You up already? Kadowaki said you lost a ton of blood."

Seifer breathed, one hand gripping the doorframe.

"...Seifer?"

Opened his mouth, and what finally came out was, "The fuck is wrong with you?"

* * *

Seifer remembers that last mission with Zell, crouched behind a crumbling chunk of wall for what felt like hours, hoping the sniper keeping them there would miraculously run out of bullets before they missed the deadline.

He could see the generator right over there, hooked into the main power. Just a hundred feet away of bare concrete and no cover.

"This is bad," Zell panted out.

"I know that," Seifer muttered. Inched his boot past the edge of the wall -- and jerked it back when a bullet hit the floor, close enough he felt the sting of concrete kicked up into his face. Shit.

"Do you have any Protect spells?" Zell asked.

"No," Seifer told him. "Used my last one when you blew up the security gate."

Zell shifted, one hand on the ground, crouched like a runner at the starting line.

"What the hell are you doing," Seifer growled.

Zell's eyes were on the generator, his pulse jumping at the base of his throat. "If I don't make it, you gotta double back and cut them off."

"No."

Zell finally looked at him, pissed off now instead of adrenaline-calm. "We don't have time to argue about this, Seifer. We gotta blow that generator, now, or Quistis and Nida are gonna get fried when they climb the fence!"

"I know that," Seifer growled. "And if you go out there, they're gonna get fried anyway, and I'll be stuck picking your brains up off the concrete!"

"You got a better idea?" Zell demanded. Blood and dirt on his face and a hand fisted in Seifer's collar, and Seifer couldn't think. Closed his eyes and all he saw was Zell's body lying in a puddle of blood and brain matter.

Opened them again. "I'll go," he said.

"The hell?" Zell asked, startled enough to let go of Seifer's coat.

"You'll probably screw it up anyway," Seifer said, holding a hand out. "Gimme the plastic."

Seifer remembers the look on Zell's face because he couldn't read it.

Remembers the way Zell turned away, crouched again, and took one step out from behind their cover before Seifer grabbed his arm and yanked him back, hard enough he hit the ground at the same time a shot rang out.

And Seifer remembers how fast he lost that fight, one strike of Zell's palm in the center of his chest and he was down and gasping, curled around the pain. Son of a bitch.

"I'm the squad leader," Zell was saying, loud and clear and crouched over him, "and if I don't make it, I order you to go back the way we came and try to stop them in time, got it?"

"Zell," Seifer choked out. Grabbed a hold of his jacket and pulled him in, close enough to feel the heat of his breath, catch the way his eyes flicked down. "If you don't make it," Seifer managed, "I'm gonna fucking kill you."

Silence for a second, and Zell snorted out a short little laugh. "That doesn't even --"

Seifer kissed him, quick and hard, watching his eyes go wide, feeling the surprised little sound he made against Seifer's mouth. Feeling the way his hands came up to grab at Seifer's coat, his mouth opening under Seifer's tongue, eyes fluttering closed. Made a sound somewhere in the back of his throat that sent a sharp shiver of heat straight down Seifer's spine, and Seifer shoved him off.

Grabbed the C4. And ran.

* * *

Seifer remembers running, bullets flashing past his head and Zell screaming his name. Kept his head down while Zell spat a rapid-fire string of swear words after him, didn't stop when a flash of pain ripped through his arm. A spray of blood on his face and he kept running, didn't look back when the bullets suddenly stopped coming.

Didn't look back until he'd hit the deck behind the generator, and when he did all he saw was Zell drawing the sniper's fire, making a running jump and hauling himself up into the guard post to cave the bastard's helmet in. Goddamn motherfucking stupid-ass Chicken-wuss.

He remembers setting the detonator one-handed while he bled all over the concrete, the deafening blast of the generator going up. Remembers standing in the wreckage afterwards, letting Zell wrap his arm and lecture him about orders, the heat of the fire at his back.

Remembers the debriefing, Quistis and whatshisname listening politely while Zell complained about Seifer disobeying orders and Seifer demanded to know what the hell the SeeD handbook had to say about attacking a sniper head-on. Xu threatened to cut their ranks and kick both their asses, but she didn't follow through on either.

* * *

And he remembers opening his door to find Zell looking up at him, restless and fidgety, a sharp edge to his grin. "Hey man, how's your arm? Wanna spar?"

Remembers how fast he lost that fight, too, the wind knocked out of him and Zell on top of him, mouth wet and warm, fingers digging in to his bruises. Remembers Zell's hands tugging his shirt up, Zell's mouth panting out his name.

* * *

Seifer remembers all of that, and he still can't figure out how the hell he let this happen. There's a trail of clothes from the door to the bed and Zell's asleep on top of him, warm and heavy and breathing deep, crowding Seifer out of his own goddamn bed. Seifer elbows him awake so he can kick him out, tell him to hog his own damn pillow, and Zell wakes up just enough to flop back on top of him and start snoring into his shoulder.

Seifer gives up and lets him.