edenbound: ((Squall) Cold)
edenbound ([personal profile] edenbound) wrote2008-01-10 12:00 am

FFVIII: Second Chance

Fandom: Final Fantasy VIII
Pairing: Seifer/Squall, past Squall/Rinoa
Warnings: Angst, deathfic
Rating: PG13
Summary: Only former knights are immune to the manipulation of a sorceress -- a fact that has Seifer dragged out of prison, to fight on the right side this time. For [livejournal.com profile] fated_children.



"So what have you hauled me out of prison for?"

"You're going to help us," Quistis said. Squall said nothing. Seifer looked from one to the other, ignoring Xu. It was surprisingly easy to offer them all the old facade, even after the war, the trial, and the year in prison; to lean back in his chair, stretch out his legs, and sneer at them all, looking down on them. He'd expected his voice to be scratchy, somehow, disused, but it came out just the same as ever. Mocking. Biting. And bitterly truthful -- he was never a good liar, and he'd gotten worse at it.

"Why should I? Come on, Quisty, you know the drill. You offer me something I want. That's the way Garden works, isn't it? For money, for what people can do for you, right?"

"Maybe the reward could be your freedom," she said. "If you do well."

"If I do well? What kind of promise is that? How long could you keep me dangling with that? I'd rather my cell. Besides, you'll always want to keep an eye on me even if you do let me go." He stretched his legs a little more. No matter what he said, it was good to stretch, to know he could stand if he wanted to, punch someone if he wanted to. He wouldn't get very far -- three pairs of eagle eyes were on him, and no matter what else they were, they weren't idiots. But he could do it.

"Your cell is tiny, cramped, and dirty. You can't even pace in there. One kind of imprisonment isn't the same as another," Quistis said, carefully. Her eyes were on his face. Xu made some movement, impatient and contemptuous as always, but Squall's face was blank, his eyes not telling Seifer anything. Seifer would almost have said Squall barely knew he was there, but he knew better than that.

"Tell me what you want and I'll think about it," he said, after a moment -- a small power, that, making them wait. But still. A power. A little freedom. He didn't look up at Quistis. "Tell me what I'm risking and maybe I'll decide it's a better imprisonment."

"Xu," Squall said, nodding to her. It almost -- almost -- made Seifer jump.

"So you can talk," he said, while pretending not to keep an eye on Xu. She was setting up some kind of screen, messing with wires and inputs and whatever it all was. Seifer smirked at Squall. "I thought you'd been zapped by some kind of permanent silence spell."

Xu turned the screen on. "This is a map provided by Esthar," she said, ignoring Seifer's little interlude. "They developed a new technology, capable of tracking magic users. GF supported magic is marked in purple. Sorceress magic is marked in red. Our ties with Esthar allow us to use the technology to track magic users."

"What do the little black circles mean?"

"Those denote places where Balamb Garden was based for any significant time -- usually about a week -- within the last month or so. As you can see, they're all marked in red. It's fairly obvious that the magic there is that of Sorceress Rinoa."

Seifer frowned slightly. "And the others?"

"Other sorceresses. We found other sorceresses using this, catalogued them, and -- "

"Started to spy on them. Yes, I know. What's this got to do with me?"

Xu gave him the impatient look she'd always given him, back when he was a student. He just smirked right back -- then and now. "The sorceresses we've been watching have begun to disappear."

"So you're getting rid of sorceresses. Great."

"We're not. That's the point."

"Someone else is doing your dirty work, and you're pissed?" Seifer rolled his eyes. "I suppose there is no profit when sorceresses get bumped off by non-SeeDs."

Xu pressed a button on the side of the screen without answering. The map flickered, and then updated. Seifer frowned, narrowing his eyes. There was a silence as he tried to figure out what he was seeing: Quistis shifted restlessly, but Xu and Squall stood and sat, respectively, as still as statues.

"Okay. So some of your blobs are disappearing. But... that one in Deling City in particular is much bigger."

"The size of the mark is roughly related to the amount of power a sorceress has," Quistis said, softly. "It's not accurate, but we can use the technology not only to locate sorceresses, but to gauge how powerful they are. We've been keeping this surveillance up since just before your trial, for a little more than a year. Sorceress powers appear to be stable -- they don't grow, or lessen, with time or practice."

"What's happening here then?"

"We believe that one sorceress is murdering the others, and absorbing their powers."

"Under SeeDs' noses?"

Xu's expression hardened a little more. "Yes."

Seifer almost felt like grinning at her obvious discomfort. Instead he leaned back in his chair, glancing over at Squall. "Right. I get the situation, but... why me, then? I'm not some kind of expert on sorceresses, unless you need someone to teach Mindfuck 101. Squally-boy's the closest thing you have to an expert, what with being knight to your resident sorceress, right? And for that matter, why can't Rin help you?"

A look flickered between Xu and Quistis. Xu looked almost human for a minute, he thought.

"Rinoa's dead," Quistis said, quietly. Squall still sat there as if he couldn't hear a word they were saying, though there was a little flicker of something there at her name, at what Quistis said. "She was murdered."

He was on his feet before he even thought, making Xu's twitchy hand leap for her little handgun. "Who the fuck did it? You killed them yet?"

"That's what you're here for."

"But why?"

He half expected Squall to finally snap out of it and say something. But he didn't. Quistis cleared her throat. "We've been doing a lot of research into the sorceress-knight bond. It's what SeeD was created for, you know -- to protect the world from, well, Ultimecia and her kind. What we found is that only people who've been knights before can resist that kind of magic. Particularly the... manipulation."

"You pulled me out of my cell to tell me to go face a sorceress, the reason I'm in there? What the fuck makes you think I'm going to play nice?"

Xu's face darkened a little. "Don't forget who -- "

"Rinoa," Squall said, getting up. Xu shut up immediately. He looked at Seifer. "Will you do it for Rinoa?"

"You bastard," Seifer said, softly. And then, slowly, he nodded. "Yeah. Okay."

----


"Why are you following me?"

"I don't trust you."

She was like a harpy. Seifer kept going down the corridor, hoping he really did remember where he was going. Everything was familiar, everything had changed. Xu came right after him.

"I'm keeping an eye on you."

"That much, I gathered. Did Squall ask you to do that?"

"No. I just don't trust you."

"Fuck, don't you get it? I'm a well trained little puppy now, I've learnt my lesson. Everybody's going to be keeping an eye on me, you don't have to go out of your way. If Squall wanted you to personally assign yourself to me, I think he'd have asked you. But if you're going to stick around, make yourself useful." He cast a look over his shoulder: a challenge. "I need to get caught up on everything. All the news I missed back in the Hole."

"Why?"

"Isn't it obvious?" he rolled his eyes. He turned, heading for the library. "Know your enemy. And know the territory. I've been out of touch."

"I suppose. Maybe you'd better come to my office instead of the library. I'll give you some limited access to the databases and you can read about the things we kept from the general public." She gave him a sharp look. "Not that I trust you."

"Yeah, yeah, so you've said. I get it. Lead the way."

She gave him another distrustful look and turned, heading back the way they'd come, and turning into a corridor he didn't remember from when he'd been in Garden. As if she heard the thought, she spoke. "This is a new wing. For me and Quistis, and other high-ranking SeeDs."

"Privileges?"

"Necessities. We're doing more work now than ever before."

"How's Shiva's lover as a commander?"

Xu considered it for a moment as she let them in, sitting at her console and entering codes. "He's... he's like nothing Garden's had before. He doesn't know what he's doing, but everything he does comes out right. It can't last." She looked up at him suddenly, a sharp look, accusing. "Why do you want to know that?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'm going to be working with him. I need to know if he's a loser or not, obviously. Quit worrying that I'm going to do something to mess with Garden. I learnt my lesson."

"So you say." She stood up. "I've limited your access to what I think you need to know."

"Going to stay here and babysit me?"

She was silent for a moment. Then she shook her head. "If you crack my codes, there'll be an alarm. And Quistis is next door."

"From one prison to another," he muttered, but took the seat she'd been in, and opened an entry from the database at random. Xu stood watching him for a moment -- his skin crawled at the feeling of her eyes on his back, like she was trying to bore right through him with contemptuous looks alone. But he didn't turn, or flinch, and finally she turned and left the room, shutting the door behind her.

----


They gave him his old room to sleep in. No roommate now, just an unused bed, and none of their crap left over, but some of his stuff was still there. Old copies of Weapons Monthly magazines. Gunblade polish for a blade he no longer had. Ammo. Seifer lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling, and tried not to think about anything except that the cracks had widened, spread, cobwebbed out.

Outside the room, there were four little beeps as someone put in the code. The door slid open. Seifer didn't move. "Squall," he said, quietly, unsurprised.

"Seifer," Squall said. He set something down in the dark by the door. Seifer didn't bother to look.

"What happened to the kid who shared my room?"

"Died." Squall moved to sit on the bare mattress of the unused bed. "In the war."

Seifer winced. "Did I -- "

"No," Squall said, but Seifer didn't know how he could know that. He kept staring up at the ceiling.

"Shit," he said, and then, "How are you holding up?"

"I'm alive," Squall said, dryly.

"It's a start." He closed his eyes now. His voice was steady, flat, and didn't shake. "When Ultimecia -- it was hard. It was like we'd fused and then she got ripped out of me. Felt like my brain was flayed. I thought it'd kill me."

"Rinoa, she -- " Squall stopped. He'd never been any good at that part, actually talking about what was sticking in his throat. "Yes," he said, simply, and left it there, hanging.

"How are we going to do this?"

"I don't know."

Silence again, for a while. Seifer opened his eyes and looked over at Squall, who was mostly shadows, though some moonlight came through the window, illuminating one side of his face. "Never got a chance to say sorry to her. Though, knowing her... I don't know. You know I was the one who first called her princess?"

Squall made a noise that might have been a snort. "Sounds like you."

"It suited her. The tantrums she had..."

"She grew up."

"Still a princess, I bet." Seifer shifted uncomfortably and then sat up. "So what's going to happen to me if I help you and we get this thing all neatly tied up? Do I go right back to the prison?"

"I don't know. No."

"As long as I behave, huh?"

"I don't know." Squall ran his fingers through his hair. When he spoke again, there was more decision in his voice. "We can't go yet. We need to train together for a while. Like we used to. No scarring this time." He might even have been smiling a bit at that, at the old memory. Seifer smiled a bit too, but then shook his head.

"Hyperion's gone."

Squall shook his head. "Garden confiscated her, not the prison. I've got her. I -- I haven't messed with her, but I kept her in good shape. You neglected her, during the war."

"I neglected everything during the war," Seifer said, with an edge of self-contempt. Squall shrugged and got up, going over to the thing he'd left by the door -- a gunblade case, Seifer saw now. He took it over to Seifer, placing it on the bed beside him and waiting. For a moment, Seifer hesitated, thinking about blood on that bright, deadly blade. And then he opened the case, slowly, and lifted Hyperion out. She was heavier than he remembered. His muscles had suffered from the time in prison, and he realised with a start how much training he'd have to do to get back in fighting trim.

"We could start training tomorrow," Squall said, quietly. Seifer looked up.

"I'll be in the training center most of the day."

Squall nodded, like he'd expected that. "I'll meet you there in the afternoon. When I can." He went to the door then, and Seifer looked down at Hyperion for a second, and then back up.

"Squall?"

Squall turned at the door, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"I missed this -- you. Talking to you. Fighting with you."

"Yeah," Squall said, and left, letting the door close behind him. Seifer sat there in silence for a moment, Hyperion in his hands, and then carefully put her back into the case and lay back on the bed. The minute he closed his eyes he was asleep.

----


Sparks flew as the two blades clashed, sliding against each other. Seifer gritted his teeth, jumping back, moving fast, faster. Squall met his every attack -- that was annoying, as it had always been, and exhilarating, and he found himself grinning into Squall's grim face as they clashed again. "Almost like the old days, huh?"

Squall didn't answer, but attacked again. Seifer'd got used to most of his new moves, and parried easily, sliding his blade in under Squall's guard to touch skin -- and then back, breathing faster. The last time they'd fought like this -- on this level, with this intensity -- they'd scarred each other. Their eyes met for a second and he thought Squall was thinking the same thing. They both stepped back at once, lowering their weapons.

"You're in better shape now," Squall said. He moved back to where they'd begun, finding the bottle of water he'd set down there. He took a sip and then put the lid back on, tossing it to Seifer.

"Prison didn't do me much good."

"But you're ready now."

"I don't know." He shrugged, going to sit down next to Squall, putting his back against a large fallen tree trunk. "I can keep up with you now."

"A little more than 'keep up', I think," Squall said, with a bit of amusement there. Seifer glanced at him.

"Compliments? From you?"

"Truth," he said, shrugging. He took the water back from Seifer, drinking again. "I think we should go, soon. Stop putting it off."

"How did the surveillance go?"

Another shrug. "We've got some leads. Places to start. Enough to go on. Quistis will keep us updated."

"Why not Xu?"

Squall looked uncomfortable. "She's been opposed to it all from the start. She never wanted to bring you out of prison, and even once you'd been briefed and agreed, she didn't really want to admit you and me are the only ones that can do this. So... she's not going to know when or where we're going. I'm sure she'll figure it out, given the information available to her, but she's likely to try and make it difficult if she knows before we leave."

"There some kind of trouble with her? Other than this?"

"She used to be one of the most important people in Garden. During the war, she could accept the commander's position as something necessary, and believed that because she'd always been more important in administration, the power to make decisions would be handed back to her once Garden didn't really need a commander anymore..."

"But you'd impressed Garden's sponsors."

"I managed to impress everyone. I didn't want the responsibility, at first."

"Got used to it, then."

"I suppose," Squall said, and then, as if realising he'd been holding a civilised conservation -- by his standards, almost talkative, he shut up for a while. Seifer leaned back against the tree, trying to get a kink out of his back, and said nothing. Finally, Squall looked up. "We'll go in three days."

"I'll be ready."

"Good." Squall nodded and got to his feet. "Shall we do some more?"

Seifer got up, too, stretching a bit and then raising Hyperion. "This time, I'll kick your ass."

Squall wouldn't have ever said something taunting and cliché like try it, then. But that was there in his eyes, and he rose to the challenge -- as he always had.

----


Hyperion was in several pieces on the hotel bed. Seifer didn't care what they'd think about the gunblade oil on the sheets: he needed to take care of Hyperion and that was that. Despite his focus on the weapon, he knew when someone came up the stairs and down the corridor to their room, knew it was Squall by the time he was opening the door. He didn't look up. "Any luck?"

"No," Squall said, shutting the door behind him. Anyone else might have slammed it.

"Nothing new from Quistis?"

"No." If it'd been Seifer, he'd have smashed something. The tension, the anger, was there. But he'd never been one to let loose. He sat down. "It's -- damn it! What am I supposed to do? You're just sitting there and not doing anything!"

"What do you want me to do? You're the commander, the one with the plans. I'm the prisoner with a temporary ticket out of jail. Should I come rub your shoulders or something, sir?"

For a moment, Squall responded the way he always had: silence, and a glare. Then he flinched a little, looking away. "I was hoping you'd have an idea, that's all."

There was silence for a moment. Seifer began to put Hyperion back together, intent on that for a moment. He didn't look at Squall when he spoke. "Xu said that you don't know what you're doing, but everything you do comes out right. Just put some thought into it, and then act." He glanced up briefly, then. "I'll back you up."

"Seifer -- "

"And don't say thank you."

The tension slipped, just a little, and Squall almost smiled. "I wasn't going to. I'm going to look over the reports one more time. I think -- would you look at them, too, later?"

Seifer looked down at Hyperion again, reaching for a cloth to wipe over the blade. "Yeah," he said, after a moment. "Maybe I'll see something you don't."

"Why don't you want me to thank you?"

He shrugged. "I know more about crazy sorceresses than anyone alive. I can't imagine crazy sorceresses with the stolen power of every sorceress they can find. And I can't imagine that a former knight, a failed knight, would go down well with whoever it is. So. Self-preservation, I guess."

"So it's just selfish?" Squall raised an eyebrow.

Another shrug. "I don't know. I guess I don't want to see the world getting ravaged again either. And... there's getting revenge for Rin."

Squall flinched a little. "I suppose there is," he said, as if he'd forgotten. He got up, going over to get his laptop out and starting it up. Seifer sat there a while longer, polishing Hyperion's blade even though it didn't need it, and watching Squall.

----


"I told you you'd be right," Seifer said. He said it between gritted teeth while Squall rummaged through his bag looking for potions, but he was smiling as he said it. Squall rolled his eyes, getting up and going over to Seifer's bed with a couple of the potions he'd found.

"I told you to lie still," he said, pointedly, opening a potion and pushing Seifer's shirt up to eye the wound. He hissed at the sight of it: a huge purple bruise all across his side. "What if you've broken a rib? Cracked it?"

"It's fine. Just cast a few curagas, dump a potion over it and let it be. Or isn't that the policy in Garden anymore?"

"Not generally." Squall hesitated, but then poured the potion out over Seifer's side, making him flinch at the sudden cold. "It always worked for me, though."

"And me. Got a curaga?"

"Yes." Squall finished pouring the potion over Seifer's side, and then shifted so he could hold his hands above the fading bruise. He frowned for a second as he focused, then cast once or twice, glancing at Seifer's face. He made a face at first, and then carefully began to sit up, taking a deep breath.

"That's better. Can't be anything broken or that potion and the curagas wouldn't have been enough." He ran a hand through his hair, looking up at Squall, looking almost surprised at how close he was. "We fucked that up badly, though. We should have had some tactics ready for fighting her. All we've done is get beaten up and alert her to the fact that we're onto her."

"I know." Squall sat back a bit, looking tired. "I should have thought -- "

"We should have thought."

"Alright," Squall said, almost with a smile, almost with gratitude. "We should have thought. What are we going to do?"

"We'll have to figure out something." Seifer rubbed the back of his head, silent for a moment in thought, and then shook his head. "I can't think of anything right now. I thought this'd be the easy part, but... Hasn't your research on sorceresses pointed up any weaknesses? Anything?"

"I don't know."

"Well." For a moment Seifer wanted to hit something. All this, and Squall had no idea what to do, and -- he pushed the irritation back, stomach twisting a little at the lost, guilty look on Squall's face. "Were you hurt?"

"Nothing bad. I took a potion."

"We should probably get some rest. Not think about it for now."

Slowly, Squall nodded, but he didn't move. Seifer pushed him a little, wishing he'd snap out of it.

"Go on. Let's both get some sleep. Talk in the morning."

----


"I can't find anything we can actually use," Squall said, abruptly. Seifer sat up, looking over at him. He'd been staring at his laptop's screen for hours, scrolling through page on page of notes and observations, artefacts, hypotheses... Seifer had given up on it hours before, sure they'd looked at everything in that database worth looking at.

"I could've told you that hours ago," he said, almost sharply. He shook his head. "There's nothing. We're going to have to bring more people into the equation."

"I'm not sure even that will help." Squall rubbed his forehead, sighing. He was almost slumping in his seat -- with tiredness or defeat, or both, Seifer couldn't have said. "It was more luck than anything, with Ultimecia. We had a sorceress on our side then. And Ultimecia wasn't as powerful."

"What do we have?"

Squall considered for a moment. Seifer could almost see him going through the mental filing system. "There's the fact that we're immune to her mind control and somewhat resistant to her magic. There's Odine's inventions, but I don't know how we could use those at all without getting near her, and getting near her is the problem. We could find one of the other sorceresses and ask her to work with us, but I doubt they'd be well disposed towards Garden and it could result in our enemy getting more powerful still."

"Odine's inventions?"

"I forgot you've spent a year in prison." Squall sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Rinoa used to wear a power limiting bracelet, sometimes. To make people feel more comfortable with her powers by ensuring she couldn't use them. Some people thought it was useless, but it did work. If we could get her to wear something like that... but why would she? Rinoa chose to wear the bracelet, to be normal and to help people be comfortable with her."

"So she'd be able to recognise what the bracelet would do?"

"Yes, I think so. How would we give it to her, anyway?"

Seifer smirked a little. "I think it's time for a good idea from me, don't you?"

"You? A good idea?" Squall asked, dryly. Seifer resisted the urge to make a face -- Squall's sort-of-teasing didn't trouble him enough to make him want to punch him: in fact, it sort of reminded him of when they'd been a bit younger, before they discovered the joys of beating each other senseless. He smiled a tiny bit.

"Yeah. Brilliant, in fact."

"Please, don't leave me in suspense."

Seifer shrugged, leaning back on his hands. "I go to her with the bracelet. I spin her a bunch of lies about how I want revenge on Garden and the bracelet isn't what it seems. She puts it on, I give a signal, we both attack. Simple."

Squall sat quietly for a minute, then looked up, shaking his head. "Seifer -- "

"Don't tell me it's stupid until you think of something better. Besides..." he shrugged, not meeting Squall's eyes. "I'd rather die trying to rid the world of a sorceress than be imprisoned for being mindfucked by one."

Squall moved closer. "You didn't really... in the trial, you didn't make a defence."

"People needed a scapegoat. And I hated myself at the time, too." Seifer shrugged again. "It didn't seem so bad at the time."

He made a small movement, as if he meant to touch Seifer, and then aborted it, looking aside. "If this succeeds, you won't have to go back there."

"Thanks," Seifer said, without sarcasm.

Squall's voice was suddenly fierce. "It has to work. If you die, I'll -- just don't get killed, Seifer. You've had enough trouble with sorceresses."

Seifer looked up, catching his eyes. They were strangely emotional -- completely unguarded, in fact, as he'd never seen them before. There was frustration, pleading, maybe fear. He looked away.

"I'll be fine," he said, not caring if he was lying. "I'll be back, and then you can tell me why you're so desperate for me to live."

"That's a promise, then," Squall said, quietly. Seifer nodded.

"It's a promise."

"It's still a stupid idea."

Seifer smiled. "Don't say that until I've messed up."

----


If there was one thing that he'd learnt about sorceresses, it was that the mad ones usually had a gigantic weakness for flattery. There had been times -- not often, but it'd happened -- when he escaped punishment because he knew how to flatter, knew what to say to ease the moment and leave her feeling that, for all her knight's failures, still the world saw her as she wanted to be seen.

They weren't memories he wanted to dredge up, but they were in his mind anyway, from the moment he parted from Squall to the moment he found himself in her presence. It was strange -- standing before a sorceress, tasting the power in the air, metallic, like blood, and knowing she couldn't worm her way inside his mind.

"Sorceress," he said, quietly. She looked at him with piercing eyes, eyes with gold in them, eyes that glowed with the power inside her. Something inside him twisted. He barely noticed anything about her but the eyes -- he knew, dimly, that she was tall but thin, almost skeletal, that she had dark hair, dark like Rinoa's. It was the eyes that were important. Slowly, he sank down on one knee, bowing his head. He was terribly aware of how vulnerable he was. Squall had Hyperion; he'd bring it with him when he got the signal.

"Why are you here?" she asked. There was nothing musical about the voice -- it was all power. It made him feel sick at the same time as it woke the old whispers in his mind -- hints, enticements. He shook them off by raising his head again.

"To serve, Sorceress," he said, quietly. He waited until she inclined her head slightly, and then got to his feet.

"You?" There was awful laughter in her voice now. Seifer ignored the shiver that ran down his spine.

"I brought you something that belonged to Sorceress Rinoa. Something that you might use."

"Why?"

It was dangerous ground, and he knew it. He dredged up all the memories of the dreary time in prison -- and the memories of all the little injustices, all the little fights, all the little extra hurts that were inflicted upon him because he wasn't just a prisoner, he was the prisoner. And those grievances were in his voice when he spoke. "I expected you to want to take revenge on Garden for their prying. I'd -- I'd like to serve you, since I failed Sorceress Ultimecia so badly."

"Hm," she said. If she was anything, she wasn't an idiot. She didn't believe him yet. He drew the bracelet out of his pocket, moving towards her -- the picture of eagerness, of duty.

"This is what I brought. She claimed that when she wore it, it dampened down her powers."

"I heard of that," the sorceress said. He felt as if she were looking right through him. He held the bracelet out to her.

"Leonhart showed me it. Once you put it on, it increases your powers -- not the other way round."

She stood up. She was taller than he'd thought, skinnier, like a skeleton dressed in skin, but the power she had was unmistakeable. It tightened his throat, almost choked him. He thought of Squall and his concerned eyes, and all the things that he'd been trying not to think about him -- and he thought of Rinoa, of her soft eyes and her soft laugh and everything he'd adored about her, and even the things he'd hated. And he straightened his back more and looked straight into those golden eyes.

Her mouth was twisted in contempt. "Do you think I'm a fool?"

His reply was immediate, his shock almost genuine. "Of course not!"

"I can feel what that thing does. It would strangle even my power."

His smile was sly. "Of course, you would think that." He sensed her hesitation, pressed his advantage. In his mind, the firaga spell was ready, right at his fingertips, ready to cause the small explosion that would bring Squall running in. "It's designed to make it appear that her power is contained. The labs could never sense her or where she went when she had it on."

The sorceress reached out and took it from him. For a moment, he didn't breathe. It was a stupid, stupid idea -- he knew all of a sudden that she'd see through it right away. The scent of metal -- blood -- was stronger than ever, close to her. He shoved the fear back, and tried to be the insolent, arrogant, deathless knight. Respectful, but ambitious. A sharp tool.

"You failed your own sorceress," she said, softly. He nodded, forcing himself further into the role, and his head bowed a little. The spell burned in his mind, barely under control. Easier than trying to cast under pressure, though.

"To my shame," he said, quietly, like he really was ashamed.

"I'll give you a second chance," she said, with all the graciousness of a queen, and she slipped the bracelet onto her wrist. The firaga burst forth gladly, smashing the windows, and the room was plunged into confusion. The sorceress shrieked, high, without words, mindless. It wasn't just Squall. It was all the SeeDs deployed in that area -- Squall had found them, bullied them, promised them she'd have no power over them. They flowed into the room like a dam bursting, and somewhere among them was Squall. He tossed Hyperion to Seifer and they plunged into it together.

The woman still had some power. The other SeeDs hung back, so it was Squall and Seifer that cut their way through the barriers to her. Afterwards, Seifer would remember little of the fight but her golden eyes, and the voice inside his head, and the harsh sound of Squall's breathing as they fought side by side.

The SeeDs dealt with the toadies, the people bewitched by her power. The knights dealt with the sorceress. They'd never speak afterwards about the vigil they stood, watching her as she gave up every piece of her power, until she could die.

Seifer didn't think he'd ever forget the hatred in her golden eyes, or the way that when it faded to brown, they were still twisted, hating. He didn't think he could ever forget her hands, like claws, clutching at him. His ears rang for days with the sound of her stricken scream.

----


"You're free to go, now," Xu said. She was standing straight and stiff -- angry, he thought, looking at her. She looked so normal. Her eyes were brown, like the sorceress', but the hate was human. He found he didn't mind it. Her eyes would never pierce him, never haunt him. "You did your job well."

"I thought Squall'd be the one to tell me that."

She shrugged, stiffly. "He told me he couldn't."

"Yeah?"

Xu hesitated, for a moment, obviously thinking of keeping the words from him. Then she shrugged. "Because he was afraid he'd ask you to stay, he said."

"Ah," Seifer said. He turned away from her and started to walk away from Garden.

"Where are you going?"

"None of your business," he said, without any real aggression. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Tell Squall I'll be back. I haven't forgotten what he promised."

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