Into Esthar

BY : Chemotaxis
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 999
Disclaimer: We do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters in this story, nor do we profit from writing this story.



~ Chapter Eighteen - Collateral Damage ~



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Zayin House, Wednesday, 23rd of October, 9:13 am]

Squall was leaning heavily into the couch, his head tilted backwards and an arm draped across his eyes. In his free hand he loosely held an almost empty glass of water—his morning dosage of pills was all the breakfast he'd been able to get down.

The last clear memory he had of the previous evening was Seifer's phone call, ordering him to bed. He'd complied far too easily, a clear sign his mind hadn't been right. After that, everything was a blur of fevered images—dark fog, a black sky, cracked earth and dust. All of it provided the backdrop for a bleak kind of hopelessness that had squeezed his chest with the certainty he'd be trapped and alone forever.

It was confronting to suffer that particular nightmare again, and telling. Unlike just after the war, he hadn't dreamed of all the lost lives, of all the people he'd failed. He hadn't even dreamed of crazed, green eyes as an electric current tore him apart. After all this time, it seemed the worst nightmare remained and it had gained a far sharper, far more real edge. Whether it was the result of the broken bond or losing the one person who had promised to stay with him forever, he wasn't sure.

He groaned softly as his migraine finally started to abate, the meds kicking in. Raking his fever edged memories, he tried to remember what had happened for him to wake up in the embrace of a far too underdressed blond. Seifer had been pressed close, an arm wrapped tightly around his waist. He'd also found a small, wet towel next to his head, the cloth having soaked a large stain into his pillow.

Seifer must have tried to bring his fever down.

What he wasn't clear on however, was why they'd ended up in such an intimate position. Stripping down to one's boxers and getting under the blankets with a patient did not constitute necessary bedside manners. He would've been angry, if it wasn't for what little he did remember—the overwhelming relief at Seifer's presence. He couldn't be certain the man hadn't joined him at his own request. Even now, he still couldn't completely shake the unsettling nightmare.

It seemed there was no end to his shame. After the war, he'd allowed Rinoa to dull his dreams until they'd eventually disappeared altogether, but not once had he fallen far enough to crave physical comfort.

Cursing the broken bond and the debilitating weakness it had reduced him to, Squall startled when his phone vibrated in his pocket. With a groan he set down the glass on the coffee table and got out the offending item. One glance at the bright-blue display almost had him reconsidering the promise he'd made Rinoa the previous day.

"Yes?"

"Squall," the president intoned. "I've been trying to reach you. How are you, son?"

"I'm fine," he said, clenching his jaw at the affectionate term.

"Hn," the older man hummed noncommittally. "Rinoa told me what happened... From what she said, I wasn't sure what to expect. I should have trusted my gut feeling something wasn't quite right. The two of you spun one hell of a story, making everyone think you were still together."

"What we tell people is our business."

"It is," the president conceded, "but nobody should go through something like that alone."

"It's done. It's over and I'm fine," Squall said harshly. Hearing movement from the bedroom—drawers being pulled open and closed, a showerhead sputtering into action—he knew he had to wrap up the phone call quickly.

"How's the medication?"

Squall frowned. It seemed like Rinoa's report to the man had been comprehensive. "It helps."

"Good, that's good..." Loire said, trailing off. "You know, your friends have told me you're Garden's worst patient. I'm the same, I'm afraid. Can't sit still for a moment." A soft chuckle was followed by an awkward pause that instantly had Squall apprehensive. Loire rarely ran out of words.

"... If you'd stay at the palace, I'd leave you your space. You could—"

"No."

"Hear me out," the man pleaded. "You'd have all the space and privacy in the world, there would be a physician on standby at all times—"

"Loire—" Squall tried to interrupt.

"—I'd be at ease, Rinoa would be at ease, and quite frankly, I don't like lying to Quistis."

Raising a hand to knead at his brow, Squall took a few seconds to calm himself before answering. "I already have a place to stay. I'm not going to the palace."

"...Rinoa told me as much," the president yielded with a small sigh. "Don't fault me for offering, Squall. Anything you need, anything I can do, just let me know."

"I told you, I'm—"

"Fine, yes, yes. I know. As I said, I justed wanted to hear so for myself." The man paused. "So, you're getting along then? With this... Seifer Almasy?"

The way Loire said Seifer's name sounded too much like the man was reading the name off a file—as if he didn't already know everything there was to know about Seifer's past.

"He won't be any trouble," Squall replied, inwardly huffing at the lie. Seifer was always trouble.

"I sure hope so, for both our sakes," the president said. "Quistis called me last night, demanding to speak to you. She put me on the spot when I couldn't give her any detailed information. She's not an easy one to fool."

"What did you tell her?"

"Ah, well, what little I know from Rinoa, but the redacted version of course." The president let out an amused huff. "Can't say she was happy about it. She had me squirming faster than any politician could with those questions of hers. She'll be expecting a medical report sometime soon."

Squall suppressed a groan. "What else?"

"I took the liberty of contacting Odine."

"I'm not going back there."

"I had to give her something, Squall. It was either that, or she would've sent Doctor Kadowaki on the next train to Esthar," the man replied, not sounding the least bit apologetic. "I doubt she'd trust anyone else to examine you, and to be honest, neither would I."

When Squall didn't immediately reply, the older man continued. "I could arrange an appointment for you. No waiting list. You could have it over with by the end of the day."

Loathe as he was to admit it, Loire had a point. He couldn't ignore Quistis and Garden, nor could he ignore his condition. "What would the examination entail?"

"A full physical and some tests of your magic. Odine would like to examine what went wrong with your junction with Shiva as well." The president paused briefly. "He's already agreed to clear his schedule for the afternoon," he confessed. "Go in, hear what he has to say, and we'll take it from there."

Not having missed out on the "we" in that suggestion, Squall narrowed his eyes. "What time?"

"How about 12 o'clock?"

Squall frowned. He'd have to leave within the hour. "Not much of a heads-up."

"I know... but I only just managed to get through to you," the president said apologetically. "I can pick you up on the way if that makes things easier?"

"No," Squall immediately cut off, cringing at the prospect of a presidential escort. "I'll drive there myself."

"... Are you sure? It wouldn't be any trouble. Also, I would like to meet Mr. Almasy—"

"Loire."

The president sighed. "I can't help but be concerned, Squall, and not just about your health—"

No longer able to hear the shower running, Squall willed the man to get on with it.

"—When Rinoa came by... She's still crazy about you. I'm having a hard time believing she was the one to decide on such drastic measures." The man paused, uncharacteristically weighing his words. "Are you sure you made the right choice?"

Brow twitching at the man's audacity, Squall replied coolly, "There was no other choice."

"There always is," the president countered gently. "If you still love each other, I don't see why it has to end like this. I know it's... difficult for you to meet people halfway, but perhaps it's not too late. Perhaps you can still mend things?"

"There is nothing left to mend," Squall bit out, his fingers tightening around his phone. "Rinoa and me—we're over."

"I don't know what happened, son, but I do know some things are worth fighting for—"

"Don't."

Noticing movement from the corner of his eyes, Squall looked up to see Seifer standing in the doorway of the bedroom, watching him with a raised eyebrow.

"Alright, alright..." the president continued, unaware. "I just—I don't want you to regret this. Take it from a man who knows what it feels like—"

Gaze on the blond who was now heading to the kitchen, Squall interrupted the president. "I have to go."

"Right away?" the older man asked, recovering fast when Squall didn't reply. "Okay. All right... I'll see you at 12 o'clock then?"

"Yes."

"Great. See you there, son."

Giving a hum of acknowledgement, Squall snapped his phone shut and dropped his hand to the couch. Watching as the blond made himself breakfast, he slowly relaxed when the man didn't give any indication he'd overhead anything.

With a bowl of cereal in hand, Seifer walked over to sit next to the brunet on the couch. Squall looked better than he had the previous morning, but not by much. The man's expression was still drawn and his skin even paler than usual. It didn't seem like the phone conversation had helped. "The pills working at all?"

Squall leaned back in the couch and shrugged. "Somewhat."

"So you're feeling better?"

Biting back the urge to coldly dismiss the blond, Squall knew he'd lost all credibility the night before and hummed an affirmative instead.

"Good enough to go on a bit of an explore today?" Seifer asked. They'd drive each other nuts if they had to stay in the apartment all day. "I can show you the wonderful sights of the area or something."

Squall raised an eyebrow at the unlikely invitation. He had a hard time envisioning himself strolling about the city with his one-time rival, seeing the sights. "I have somewhere I need to be later."

"Where?" Seifer immediately demanded.

"None of your business," Squall replied, disinclined to bring an audience. He wanted to hear Odine's verdict in privacy. Loire's meddling would already be bad enough. Remembering the conditions of the tests, he faced the blond. "I'll need Shiva."

"You're fucking out of your mind, if you think that's going to happen," Seifer said under his breath. "And you're not fucking going anywhere on your own."

Squall narrowed his eyes. "It's not up to you," he said with forced calm. "I'm going, and I'm taking Shiva." This new concerned side to the blond was proving troublesome. Back at Garden, he could've walked off a cliff or taken on a T-Rex heavily injured, without even garnering the blond's interest.

"You're wrong, Squall. It is up to me," Seifer said, getting fed up with the brunet's attitude. "I didn't just nurse your ass back to health just so you can go out and screw it all up again." He barely paused to breathe. "I don't care where the fuck you're going, but I'm coming, and you're not getting Shiva. She's part of the reason why you got into this fucking mess in the first place." His next words came out in a low growl. "That, and the fact that you didn't fucking listen when I told you I'd been out for a month after Ultimecia."

He faced Squall head on. "What the fuck were you trying to prove going off on your own like that?" Shaking his head, not expecting an answer, he put the unfinished bowl of cereal down on the coffee table with a loud clang. "Fuck," he cursed, flopping back against the couch, his mood officially ruined.

Keeping a tight rein on his composure, Squall refused to be provoked by the blond. "You have no right to Shiva," he declared. Shifting on the couch until he was sitting face to face with the blond, he didn't wait for a response as he placed his hand on Seifer's leg, his mind searching for and immediately finding his ice goddess.

Not breaking their locked gazes, Seifer narrowed his eyes. He couldn't deny Squall Shiva, but he could damn well make sure the man knew just how little he approved. As Squall formed a connection with the Guardian Force in his mind, he was overwhelmed by Shiva's eagerness to return to the brunet. Clenching his jaw, he closed his eyes at the pain that suddenly consumed him.

Reveling in the sensation of his ice goddess reaching out to him, Squall contained himself. He wasn't entirely without caution—he'd simply draw her, not junction her. He shivered at Shiva's all encompassing cold as it flooded his consciousness and froze the air around them. His hold on the draw was tenuous, but her willingness more than made up for his shaky control, her enthusiasm spilling over and flaring brightly in the blue tendrils of magic licking the air.

When the magical connection finally died down, he drew in a tremulous breath, his ice goddess content to settle in the back of his mind unjunctioned.

Opening his eyes, he stiffened. Seifer's face was drawn taut, the man's fists white-knuckled and his breath coming in rushed and shallow. Before he could react, the blond was off the couch with a venomous glare sent his way, disappearing into the bedroom.

Squall sat stunned as the sound of slamming doors was immediately followed by the distant sound of retching. Realizing he'd made a mistake—that there'd been more too Seifer's refusal to give back the GF—he pushed off the couch and followed after the blond. Opening the bathroom door, he stared at the sight before him. The blond was bent over the sink, his features contorted in pain.

"I've never seen anyone react like this," Squall said with a frown.

Tilting his head up to meet the brunet's gaze in the mirror, Seifer forced his expression under control. Ignoring the twitch another wave of pain brought to his features, he turned around and placed a firm hand on the brunet's chest, forcing the man back out of the room.

Finding himself shut out a second time, the sound of retching immediately resuming, Squall resigned himself to waiting the man out. He didn't understand what had brought about such a violent result. As a cadet the blond had never had any trouble with junctioning or drawing. He couldn't chalk it up to Shiva being exclusively compatible with himself either—he'd been forced to let others draw her a couple of times in the past and never with a result like this.

A disconcerting thought niggled its way into his mind. What if it wasn't just himself that had been affected by the broken bond? What if Shiva had been damaged as well? Carefully, he examined her presence in his mind, but he couldn't be sure without junctioning and he didn't dare risk it after the disastrous results of last time.

He startled from his musings when the bathroom door finally opened. Seifer only spared him a brief glance before heading into the kitchen. Following suit, he curbed his questions when his gaze was drawn to the box of painkillers Seifer had gotten out of the cupboard.

Watching as the blond swallowed down two pills, Squall thought back to the morning they'd both been hung-over...Seifer had asked for Esunas, and when he hadn't been able to cast, the man had resorted to Antidotes instead of his own curative magic.

"You don't junction anymore," he stated with a frown. It was the only conclusion that added up, yet it made no sense at all. Seifer had been good with his magic. He couldn't imagine the blond giving up any of his GFs.

"No," Seifer said, not caring to elaborate in the slightest. He was still pissed at Squall for going ahead and drawing Shiva. And now Squall knew how fucking low he'd sunk. No fucking GFs to back him up. No magic. All he had left was his fucking gunblade.

Squall eyed the blond carefully. "Why?"

Seifer snorted. "You saw what happened."

"It's like that every time?"

Looking away and gritting his teeth, Seifer put down the empty glass of water. "Since the war," he admitted gravely. Walking over to sit down on the couch, he brought up a hand to knead at his forehead.

Rooted in place, Squall had trouble accepting the implications of what Seifer had just said, but he pieced it together easily enough. Seifer meant since Ultimecia—since the bond had been broken. He felt his chest constrict. His chances of full recovery had suddenly become very slim. Taking in Seifer's weary expression, he balled his hands into fists. What more had Ultimecia taken from the man?

As the silence stretched on, Seifer refused to wallow in front of Squall. "Who needs magic anyways?" he said with a shrug, wanting to dismiss the topic alltogether. "I'm doing fine without it."

However unconvincing Squall found the blond's indifference, he at least agreed that Seifer had indeed managed without. The man was a force to be reckoned with, whether he used magic or not. It would be different for himself. Magic was his edge, how he set himself apart. Garden would no longer have a use for him; he'd have nowhere to go.

Letting out a sigh, Squall considered his options. This changed a lot. It wasn't just about him anymore—Seifer had a stake in this as well. Whatever conclusions Odine would arrive at, they'd probably be relevant to the blond. Bringing up a hand to knead at the bridge of his nose, where a dull ache still throbbed behind his eyes, he already regretted the decision forming in his head.

"I'm seeing Odine today."

Pulled from his thoughts, Seifer regarded Squall suspiciously. Of all the places he'd imagined Squall to run off to, Odine's laboratory had never even occurred to him.

"Check-up?"

Squall nodded.

"I'll take you then," Seifer said, as if they hadn't just argued about the exact same thing ten minutes ago. "When do we leave?"

At Seifer's assuming words Squall nearly thought better of his decision. Giving in like this went against years of rivalry and standing up to the blond. "Don't misunderstand," he warned, giving the man a level look. "I'm not bringing you in as a chaperone."

"Well, you're not going in alone," Seifer said firmly.

Squall rolled his eyes at the blond's one track mind. "I'm going in to check my magic—to find out when I can get back to the field. You never had that chance. I might not trust Odine, but... you get to hear what he says."

"...You think it's the same for us?" Seifer asked. "That your magic will be affected like mine?"

Squall shrugged, not feeling the levity of the gesture. "It's a possibility."

"Fuck," Seifer cursed lowly, wanting to punch something. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me you'd do something as stupid as breaking the bond?" he demanded as he shot off the couch. Squall couldn't be affected like him—that'd mean the end of his career.

"When are we going?"

"We should leave in fifteen minutes. The appointment's at twelve."

"All right... Okay."

As the blond grappled with his hypothesis, Squall considered how to broach the one thing he hadn't mentioned yet. It wasn't so much that he didn't want Seifer to know—he'd simply never had to explain the unlikely situation to someone as of yet. Everyone just sort of found out, Rinoa being the first. With one of his friends informing the other within the time span of a week, he'd been spared the ordeal of trying to broach the awkward subject.

Watching as Seifer grabbed himself a drink and moved to sit on the couch, the man's expression grim, Squall decided on the straightforward approach. No matter how he phrased it, it would still come out sounding ridiculous.

"I wasn't the one who made the appointment," he started, uncomfortable. "President Loire did. He'll be there." Pausing, he let that fact sink in first.

His drink forgotten, Seifer studied Squall. "What the hell for?"

"...He's my father. I found out after the war."

"You're fucking with me," Seifer said, not even considering it being the truth. When Squall just held his gaze, reminding him that no, the brunet never did fucking joke, his brain struggled to keep up. "How the fuck did you find out?"

"Loire told me," Squall replied simply, the full account far too fanciful to just drop on the blond.

"And you believed him?" Seifer asked, not buying the story for a second. "He probably just wanted a prodigy for a son or something," he found himself saying, but immediately realized the flaw in his statement—Squall's reputation might be well known, but the man's identity certainly wasn't. Worst of all, Squall seemed convinced it was the truth. "Does he have any proof?"

"Ellone," Squall said, hoping he wouldn't have to explain about the woman's powers or her connection to him and Loire. "She...showed me," he simplified. "And I requested a DNA test."

Seifer raised an eyebrow. "So it's true?"

He should have expected the lack of reply, but hell, Squall had to know anyone would have trouble wrapping their head around something like that. Leaning back against the couch, he ran a hand through his hair. This was ridiculous. Of courseSquall's dad had to be the fucking President of Esthar.

The idea of Squall suddenly having a dad in the first place was absurd enough on its own. He couldn't imagine Squall as part of a family. Neither of them belonged in a domestic setting like that. If anyone suddenly came along and told him they were his mom or dad, he'd tell them to fuck off.

"What's his excuse?" he demanded. "For leaving you behind."

Sighing, Squall moved to join Seifer on the couch. When Loire had first come forth, he'd often wondered which was the most tragic—the scenario of abandonment he'd feared as a child, or the truth. Now he just felt numb towards the whole ordeal.

"Loire didn't know about me," he finally said. "We found out around the same time."

"Really? ...What a headfuck," Seifer said, eyeing Squall. "How did he take it?"

"Better than me," Squall replied dryly. "He's trying to act like a father—make up for lost time."

The thought of anyone trying to act like a dad to Squall briefly put a smirk on his Seifer's lips. "So you don't get along well?"

Squall considered the question. It had never really been a case of them not getting along, but rather of him not needing anything from the man to begin with. "...He wants a son. I don't want anything from him."

"Do you see him often?"

"When I can't avoid it."

"And when's that?"

Squall glanced at Seifer, the man's curiosity catching him off guard. "On the job, mostly. Dinner occasionally." He huffed. "When I'm seeing Odine."

"Shit, I'd already forgotten about that," Seifer let out. He couldn't believe he was going to meet the president of Esthar—Squall's dad—and soon. Coupled with his headache, it felt like his head was about to explode. "You think your dad's going to make me disappear into a cell somewhere? I did kinda piss on his territory and all..."

Squall frowned at the blond's remark, realizing the implications of what Seifer had just said. No one entered Esthar under the radar—strict migration policies and a secret service prevented any "unwanted" elements from disturbing the status quo.

"The moment you crossed the border and applied for Estharian citizenship, he knew about you," Squall said, his frown deepening. Loire had purposefully hidden Seifer's whereabouts from Garden, and he'd like to know why.

"Maybe my name just got lost in the system," Seifer mused.

Squall shook his head. "Not in Esthar..." Everything was monitored here. That was when he realized his mistake—that the blond couldn't possibly know about the Treaty of Nortes. He'd never had the chance to broach the topic the last time they'd talked about the war. He regarded the blond, unsure of how the news would be received.

"No one is looking to punish you... The war isn't public knowledge because it's been kept that way," he said, weighing his words. "After the war there was a diplomatic summit to deal with the aftermath—top brass only. A general exemption was signed."

"An exemption for what?" Seifer asked as he furrowed his brow.

"It was meant for the Galbadian soldiers that followed Ultimecia's orders, but in effect it exempts everyone that acted under her rule," Squall explained, his thoughts returning to the chaotic weeks after Ultimecia's demise. The vacuum of power after Ultimecia's defeat had plunged Galbadia straight into civil war, nearly dragging the rest of the world into war as well.

"Why?" Seifer demanded with a frown.

"Galbadia needed its soldiers. There was no time for tribunals, and informing the public would've created a panic," Squall replied evenly. "All nations signed the exemption and a contract of non-disclosure to prevent escalation. Garden signed as well."

Seifer let out a deep breath. "...Damn." It was hard to believe that no one would ever make him pay for what he'd done—that no one even had the right to. He'd stopped looking over his shoulder early on, not wanting to spend his life worrying about what punishment might come, but he'd always expected it would come, sooner or later. It had only been a question of when.

Pushing up from the couch, he walked to the kitchen. It was early to start drinking, but he needed something to get his head around this. Pouring some whiskey into a tumbler, he leaned back against the kitchen counter. "So no one can do anything?"

"It's to no one's advantage," Squall said with a shrug. "Politics isn't about justice or integrity."

Huffing, Seifer took a large gulp of the golden liquid before resolutely placing the glass on the counter. "So the president knows I'm here and can't do anything about it. And you're his son." Whom I slept with. "And now you're bringing me in to see him..." He shook his head. "You know this is fucked right?"

Squall frowned at the blond's breakdown of the facts. "I'm bringing you in to see Odine," he corrected. "Loire is none of your concern."

Thinking the president could very well become his concern, Seifer took another mouthful of whiskey. No matter the circumstances, he wouldn't let Squall go in on his own—he wasn't about to risk a repeat of what had happened to Squall at the hotel. Glancing at his cell phone, he clenched his teeth. 11:22 am.

"Fuck. It's time to go," he grumbled as he pushed away from the counter.

Getting up from the couch, Squall tried to suppress his unease. He'd just complicated everything by involving Seifer; the one person he least wanted to see him this weak. Any hope he'd had for a positive outcome at the lab was diminishing the more he thought about it, and to top it all off, he'd also have to contend with two of his least favorite people—the mad doctor and his father. With a soft huff, he shrugged on his jacket and hoped he wouldn't regret the decisions he'd made.



[Odine's lab, Chimera district, Wednesday, 23rd of October, 11:48 am]

Taking in the complex of steel blue skyscrapers in front of them, Seifer pulled his key out of the ignition. He'd never passed by Odine's new lab before, but he had seen it advertised on numerous public announcement displays around Esthar when it had first been completed. A benchmark of Estharian technology and architecture. A small park meandered between the buildings, no doubt an attempt to try and distract from what went on inside. He'd read the headlines about the magic and monster research that supposedly went on in there.

When the passenger door slammed shut next to him, he got out of the truck and followed Squall across the parking lot. It was impossible to miss the long black Torama limousine parked near the entrance. Guards were posted next to it, leaving no doubt to whom it belonged. Fuck. He hadn't figured out how the hell to deal with that part of their outing yet.

Entering the huge lobby, he followed as the brunet led them down a maze of corridors before coming to a halt inside a hover lift. Squall had been nothing but rigidity and determination since they'd arrived—the man definitely didn't like the place. Not that he could blame the guy. The brunet's entire future depended on what would happen the next couple of hours.

Growing tense, he stared ahead as the levels whizzed by. Squall hadn't ever done anything to deserve this. What had happened to himself, he could accept. He'd fucked up and he was paying the price, but Squall—Squall had done everythingright and now the man's entire future was on the line, simply because he'd fallen for the wrong fucking girl at the wrong fucking time.

When the lift's energy field dissipated, Seifer forced himself to unclench his hands. In front of them a short corridor led to a double door with two guards posted in front of it. They wore the exact same get-ups as the guards he had spotted next to the president's ride.

He watched as Squall sent the two men a curt nod and spoke a firm "He's with me." When the guards stepped aside without any sign of surprise and with the respect they would show any high ranking official, he studied the brunet. Just how much power did Squall have over the president's private entourage?

Only given a second to ponder the question as the doors slid open, his eyes immediately fell to the man waiting inside the next room.

"Loire," Squall offered in reluctant greeting.

Breaking away from his study of Odine's outlandish machines, Laguna smiled and suppressed the ever present giddiness he felt whenever he was meeting his son. Even after more than two years, he still hadn't gotten used to seeing the young man—he looked so much like Raine.

Walking over to his son, Laguna hid his surprise at the unexpected guest lingering only a step behind Squall. Tall and blond, he recognized the man from the photos in his file.

"Squall," he greeted with a broad smile, more than used to his son's lukewarm hellos. Bringing up his hands to briefly squeeze Squall's shoulders, he scrutinized the brunet's appearance. Satisfied the man looked his usual self and nothing like he had feared, Laguna dropped his hands and looked between his son and the tall man expectantly.

"Seifer Almasy," Squall introduced, casting a glance over his shoulder.

Laguna stepped forward with an easy smile and extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Seifer."

Seifer shook the president's hand. "You too, Sir," he said with less firmness than he would have liked. The man hadn't called for his guards yet and seemed friendly enough, but it just didn't feel right. He'd attacked the man's country for Hyne's sake and now he was being treated as a friend of Squall's.

Sensing his son's close scrutiny, Laguna knew from years of diplomatic experience that he had to break the ice and fast. "I must admit, I wasn't expecting Squall to bring anyone. You've caught me by surprise," he said affably. "Rinoa told me my son has got you playing host?"

"Host and servant," Seifer corrected. "If you don't cook for the guy, he doesn't eat." When the president's smile widened at his words, Seifer felt some of his tension fade. "I'm surprised as well," he added. "I can't believe you managed to persuade Squall to come in for tests. That's quite a feat."

Laguna raised his hand in denial. "I don't think anyone would dare presume to have such sway over my son," he said, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

"Not if they want to keep their balls," Seifer added quickly, turning to smirk at Squall.

Great. Kindred spirits. "Where is Odine?" Squall asked, cutting short the niceties as he walked further into the lab. Already he felt tempted to take Seifer up on the challenge he was sure he'd heard in the man's words. Apparently the idiot wasn't attached enough to his balls to heed his own advice.

Sobering up at the question, Laguna sent Seifer a regretful smile. His son was the most impatient person he'd ever met. "Odine is making preparations in his lab for the moment. He said we should head downstairs for the first part of the tests. A full physical, I believe."

"Fifth floor?" Squall asked tersely. He'd accompanied Rinoa there once, at the time of her first consultation. It was the only place in the entire building that looked like it was actually meant to treat patients.

"That would be it," Laguna nodded.

Curiosity piqued at another hint of Squall's familiarity with the place, Seifer quickly caught up with father and son. "Come here often?"

Calling the lift down, Squall regarded the blond. "With Rinoa," he replied tersely. He didn't want to think about her, when too much about the place already reminded him of her.

"Why?"

Noticing the stiffening to his son's shoulders, Laguna tried to diffuse the tension. "Odine has been helping Rinoa," he explained. "She wasn't born a sorceress and was never instructed on how to control her powers. Odine is the leading authority in the field—" He gestured for the two young men to enter the lift when the energy field faded. "—the same reason we're here."

Walking ahead, Seifer considered the president's words. He hadn't expected Rinoa to need any help... or for Squall to have accompanied Rinoa to such appointments. Squall must've really been smitten with her, to spend his free time holed up in a lab. "I see."

When Seifer let the topic rest, Squall met Loire's gaze. The man had just saved him an unpleasant conversation with the meddling blond, omitting in the right places without resorting to outright lies. Ignoring the president's smile, he looked away.

The moment the lift came to a halt, he exited and made for the assistant who was standing in wait for them. "Commander," the man nodded in greeting. "Mr. President."

Tuning out the formalities as the assistant led them to a consultation room, Squall wished they could skip ahead to the examination of his magic and junctions. He knew his physical condition was improving—a lifetime of suffering injuries had taught him how to interpret his body's signs and limitations. Apart from the piercing headaches, the weakness he'd felt the day before had disappeared almost entirely.

Ushered into a large room with a desk, chairs and examination table, Squall took in his surroundings. The space almost passed for a room one would find in any hospital, if it hadn't been for the camera mounted on the ceiling. Behind him, Loire was grilling the assistant on the exact proceedings of the day's tests. Whatever. He just wanted it over with.

"Can we start?" he asked, turning to face the assistant.

"Of course," the man said, sitting down by the desk. "I'll start with some questions."

Pulling up a chair, Seifer was surprised when Squall didn't tell him to get the fuck out of there. He didn't really have any right to be part of this, but it seemed the brunet didn't care either way. Happy enough to take advantage of the situation, he leaned forward in his seat, not about to miss anything.

"First of all, please tell me what happened after you and Ms. Heartilly broke the bond?" the assistant asked, his gaze neutral and his pen ready.

Loathe to inform a total stranger about something so personal, Squall distanced himself from the facts—the way he always did when debriefing. "I junctioned Shiva. Immediately after, I left the lab and drove to a hotel." Pausing, he forced the next words past his lips. "I then lost consciousness. I was out for three days."

"And how did you feel before you lost consciousness?"

"...Disoriented."

"In what way?"

As Squall supplied yet another brief reply, Seifer arched an eyebrow. If this was how it was going to play out, then it would be about just as exciting as watching Squall going in for a dental appointment. He should have stayed home in bed.

Next to him, the president was listening intently, hanging on to Squall's every reply, no matter how succinct. The man really seemed to care—there had been genuine excitement in his eyes when he'd laid eyes on his son.

Seifer couldn't deny the resemblance. The older man was attractive, just like his son. His hair was darker and longer, and his eyes were green, but even without a paternity test, you could tell they were related.

"Have you had any nightmares?" Seifer heard the assistant ask, pulling him from his thoughts.

Realizing he'd missed a bunch of questions, he waited for Squall to answer. At the simple "no," he frowned. He was certain Squall had been suffering from nightmares the night before.

Wondering if Squall was lying about other things, Seifer listened more closely to the next questions, but Squall answering in the negative every single time couldn't hold his attention for long. The only thing Squall had confirmed so far were headaches and nausea and that much he'd already guessed. This was starting to look like one giant waste of time.

Leaning forwards, he let his hands hang between his knees. He hadn't even brought along any form of entertainment. The only thing that was even remotely interesting was the bizarre father-son thing. From the president's answer in the lift, it seemed like the man actually knew Squall quite well—much better than he'd expected. Squall wouldn't have told just anyone about Rinoa unless he'd absolutely had to.

He frowned. Maybe Rinoa had been the one to keep father and son in touch? Looking back over to Squall, he couldn't help but wonder just how different the brunet's life had been to what he'd imagined.

Half-hearing the next question, concerning hallucinations, he narrowed his eyes when he spotted Squall tense in his seat. There was no way those shoulders could be set any straighter.

"... No," Squall replied after a short pause, unrepentant. When the assistant didn't seem to notice his hesitance, he relaxed. He knew hiding the hallucinations wasn't the best solution, but it was his only real choice.

Feeling the blond's eyes on him, he glanced to the side and immediately stiffened. Seifer was looking at him intently, when before the man had looked bored out of his mind.

The bastard couldn't possibly know. He'd barely hesitated. He'd skirted the truth with plenty of the other questions, denying nightmares and disturbed sleep, not once earning Seifer's scrutiny. His unease mounted—bringing Seifer had been a mistake.

Growing more and more impatient, he kept his answers as brief as possible, rushing the assistant along. He didn't want to give the blond any opening to pipe up. When finally the last inane question had been ticked off on the assistant's clipboard, he was out of his chair.

"Well, that wasn't too bad," Loire said pleasantly, sending him a smile. "Next are the physical tests then?" he directed to the assistant.

"Yes," the assistant replied with a nod, standing up from his chair. "The tests do require some exertion. If you prefer, it's possible to change into more suitable clothes in the changing room—it's the second door down the hall, on the right."

Glad for the excuse to leave the increasingly stifling room, Squall ignored the blond's fixed gaze and strode past him into the hallway.

Definitely a mistake.



[Odine's lab, Chimera district, Wednesday, 23rd of October, 3:17 pm]

As the lift came to a halt on the fifth floor, Seifer waited for the electric blue energy field to dissipate. Just down the hall to the right, he could hear Laguna still talking business on the phone. Throughout Squall's physical tests, the president had been busy in the background, all the while keeping an eye on his son.

Unfortunately, that meant the only thing to occupy Seifer's attention had been watching Squall undergo one mindnumbingly boring test after another. At least it seemed the brunet's physical condition was almost back to normal—Squall had done well in the endurance and strength tests. A lot better than Seifer would've put money on.

Walking over to the president, he held up a sandwich to get the man's attention before placing it on a nearby table. Laguna had suggested sending out one of his employees to get them lunch, but Seifer hadn't been able to take another minute of idleness and had insisted on going out himself. Nodding at the president, he turned around and headed down the hall. Just before he'd left, the assistant had been instructing Squall on the last test, so Seifer knew just where to find the stubborn man.

Stopping in front of the changing room, he leaned against the wall and waited. At the sound of the door to the changing room opening, he straightened and shoved one of the sandwiches he'd bought into Squall's hands.

Looking up from the sandwich to meet Seifer's serious gaze, Squall instantly realized the ambush he'd walked into. Quickly, he schooled his expression and started down the hallway, past the blond.

"Hey, wait up—I want to talk to you," Seifer said firmly, grabbing the man's arm when the brunet didn't listen. The glare it earned him only spurred him on. "Why did you lie?"

"Let me go," Squall bit out, not inclined to come clean in the slightest.

"Not until you tell me what the hell is going on," Seifer plowed on. "Tell me about the damn hallucinations."

Bristling at being held in place like a disobedient child, Squall yanked free from the bastard's hold. "There's nothing to tell."

"Wrong fucking answer and you know it. So let's hear it. The truth this time."

When the brunet still didn't say anything in reply, Seifer didn't feel any remorse at resorting to blackmail. "Either you tell me or I tell them," he said, cocking his head in the direction of the other end of the hall where the president was still busy talking on the phone. "Ready for daddy dearest to make sure you're not hallucinating?"

Following Seifer's gesture down the hall, Squall stiffened. "Don't."

Seifer raised an eyebrow. "No?" he asked, eyeing Squall briefly before starting down the hall.

Squall instantly regretted the mistake of presenting Seifer with a challenge. Grabbing Seifer's arm, he directed the man back into the changing room before Loire would notice. Closing the door behind them, he turned to glare at his assailant. It seemed his decisions always boiled down to choosing the lesser evil lately.

"Visual, olfactory, and auditory," he deadpanned.

"Like what?"

Curbing the reflexive urge to lash out at the blond, Squall clenched his jaw. Seifer always did this—pushed his boundaries and exposed what he didn't want anyone to see. "...Black fog. Noise," he ground out. It seemed so harmless and ridiculous when he said it out loud.

Looking away, Seifer took a few steps farther into the room. "When you were out of it, you seemed sensitive to sound—as if it was painful." He turned around. "Is the noise like that?"

Surprised at the information that was new to him, Squall wondered just how much Seifer had figured out by himself. "At its worst."

"How often does it happen?"

"Often enough," Squall said evenly.

Not liking Squall's evasive replies, Seifer stepped closer. "And just what the hell does that mean?"

"On and off since I came too," Squall said, his voice clipped as he stared the blond down. "You done blackmailing?"

"That depends," Seifer said, crossing his arms. "Why did you lie about it?"

Squall cast the blond an incredulous look—he'd have thought his reasons would be self-evident, most of all to Seifer. "I can't have 'hallucinations' on my medical record."

"You can't go on missions with hallucinations either," Seifer immediately retorted. "And maybe it's easily treatable... maybe not receiving treatment will make it permanent."

"If it's permanent, it would be worse than standard injury protocol," Squall said darkly. It wouldn't stop at him being kept from missions. Garden would declare him "unsound of mind" and he'd be honorably discharged. They could even order him to hand over his GFs if they deemed him too unstable. "I can't risk it."

Seifer let out a deep sigh. Any regular SeeD would be relieved of duty immediately, but this was Squall... Garden's commander. Garden owed everything to Squall. "You really think Garden would give you up?"

"I'd never see the field again," Squall said. "A desk job given to me out of pity maybe," he added bitterly, "so they can still use my name."

Seifer ran a hand through his hair and looked away. He just couldn't imagine it: the brunet's life as a mercenary over... They had to find a way around it.

"Maybe I could say something," he said, immediately realizing his poor choice of words when Squall tensed up further. "I mean, I don't have anything to lose. Maybe I could ask about treatment for me. Say that I've been hallucinating since the bond was broken."

"You have them?" Squall asked, his expression falling. It would explain why Seifer had seen through his lie. He'd already seen for himself the blond hadn't escaped Ultimecia's bond unscathed.

"No," Seifer replied, trying to remember what it had been like when he'd come to at Fu and Rai's. Only weird ass dreams stood out, no hallucinations. "At least not that I know of." He still didn't remember anything from the first month after Ultimecia's death.

"Then it's not worth it," Squall dismissed. The last time he'd dragged up Seifer's knighthood was still clear in his memory, and he didn't want to put the blond through anything like that again.

"I don't give a shit what anyone thinks about me. You need proper treatment."

"No," Squall replied with a shake of his head. "You don't know Odine. He doesn't take patients, only test subjects." The questions would be endless; questions about Ultimecia, about the nature of their bond and more. Odine wasn't known for his tact.

"Either I do this, or you come clean. Your choice."

Frustrated at having come full circle with their useless argument, Squall glared at the impossible blond. This wasn't a fair choice and Seifer knew it; he refused to sacrifice Seifer's privacy and anonymity for a possible fool's errand, but risking his place at Garden, his life as a SeeD...

"You know I can't."

Committing to his decision, Seifer unfurled his arms. "It's settled then," he said firmly. Cutting short any further discussion, he turned and exited the room.

The nerve. Clenching his fists at the underhanded tactic, Squall started after the blond, but stopped short of speaking the sharp words on his tongue when he spotted Loire. The president had lowered his cell phone slightly, his attention on their exchange. Of course, the bastard blond just kept walking.

Reigning in the urge to deck the man, he caught up with him and hissed in a low voice, "I don't want this kind of help." Ahead of them, Loire was doing a poor job of pretending he'd returned his attention to his phone call.

"Too bad, Squally-boy—you're gonna get it," Seifer said, smirking at his victory. Squall wouldn't dare bring up the topic in front of his father.

Squall's mouth drew into a thin line, but he refrained from further comment as they walked up to Loire. The man cast them a curious glance, but luckily whoever was on the other end of the call was keeping the president occupied. Moving to lean back against the wall in wait, he glared at the blond for good measure, but the man just bit down on his sandwich in obvious satisfaction.

Finally hanging up, Laguna faced them fully with an apologetic smile. "That should appease the secretary for another couple of hours." Turning the sandwich Seifer had given him over in his hand, he let his gaze travel from his scowling son to the blond.

"Don't mind him, he just can't stand it when I'm right," Seifer said, returning the President's curious gaze as he took another bite of his sandwich.

At the unimpressed snort the comment elicited from his son, Laguna rose an eyebrow. "And what, if I may ask, are you right about?"

"Well, Mr. President, I'm afraid that's classified. A man's gotta look after his balls every once in a while," Seifer answered, his lips quirking into a lopsided smirk.

"Priorities," Laguna intoned in a voice of understanding, hiding his bafflement at the "classified." His son could be difficult about many things, so he hadn't actually expected the argument to have concerned anything important. His train of thought was interrupted however when Squall stalked past them, heading towards the elevators with an expression of barely contained annoyance.

"Better follow the Commander, eh, Mr. President?" Seifer said, unable to speak the titles without a smile on his lips. Here he was with two of the most powerful men on the planet, yet they acted like nothing more than a concerned dad and a petulant kid.

Humming in agreement, Laguna started down the hallway in step with his son's peculiar friend. Until that day, Kiros and Ellone had been the only ones to poke fun at his title and address him as "Mr. President" in jest. Going by the not quite so reverent "Commander," he smiled at the realization that Squall hadn't escaped the same treatment. "Please call me Laguna."

"All right," Seifer said, nodding briefly at the President. "Laguna it is."

As they stopped by the elevator next to Squall, Seifer's smile widened at the wary look the brunet was sending him. When the elevator arrived, he strode in first, not caring for proper protocol in the least.

Filing into the elevator after the blond, Squall tried to ignore the ill-boding fact that Loire and Seifer were already on a first name basis. Impossible as such an outcome had been to predict, somehow he felt like he should've known. So far he hadn't met a single person who wasn't endeared with Loire in some fashion or other, and Seifer... people seemed to either hate or love him. Squall frowned at the implications of that disturbing train of thought, but Loire quickly broke it off.

"Not hungry, son?"

Squall ignored the pointed look Loire was sending the untouched sandwich in his hand. "No."

"Did you eat anything this morning?" Seifer asked, growing suspicious.

Biting out another "no," Squall stalked out of the lift when it came to a halt, away from the two gazes fixed on his back.

Brow twitching as Seifer continued to stick closely to him, Squall didn't give the blond any openings for more meddlesome questions and strode straight into the doctor's laboratory without stalling. At their arrival, Odine rose from his desk chair to meet them, looking far too pleased for comfort.

"Commander!" the man greeted, too focused on his soon to be test subject to bother acknowledging the two other men in the room. "I have gone over ze results of the physical tests and zey are as I expected." As if to underline his point, Odine tapped a finger on his clipboard, eyes skimming over the results.

"So far zere are many similarities between you and some of my former research... participants. Magic tests should confirm zis." Riveted to his clipboard, he turned to walk, gesturing in the direction he was going. "I vill conduct the first test in ze magic diagnostics room."

Seifer stayed in place. "You got something to help Squall's nausea?" he asked firmly, crossing his arms over his chest. It had to be the reason Squall wasn't eating—the brunet wasn't stupid enough not to eat when he needed the energy to get better.

Turning around when no one was following, Odine looked up at the towering blond with one eyebrow hitched high. "Nausea?" the man intoned derisively. "I did not rush away from other experiments to treat nausea—" he started, but was quickly cut off when Seifer stepped closer.

"Well tough luck, because you're getting Squall something for it right now," Seifer said, his voice brokering no room for argument.

Looking entirely unimpressed, Odine directed his gaze at the president, but he was only met with an equally firm expression. Grumbling beneath his breath, he walked to the nearest intercom to bark his orders. "Send someone up wiz some antiemetics. Now!"

Only briefly looking back at his guests, he resumed his brisk pace towards a room in the back. "If you would follow me," he sneered with mock politesse.

Long used to Odine's questionable work ethics, Squall followed the doctor after sending Seifer a withering glare for the stunt he'd just pulled, but all he received in return was a smirk. Bastard. He hadn't even finished the thought, when behind him Loire decided to pipe up as well.

"Before you start anything, I'd like to know something. The former research you mentioned, in what way does it pertain to Squall's condition?" The president did not sound pleased.

Neither did Odine when he turned around to regard his boss with exaggerated impatience. "Ven I first researched magic, many of ze test subjects did not accept a junction and responded aversely. Ze symptoms ze Commander listed are similar enough to suggest a broken sorceress bond is not unlike zese failed junctions. However—" the doctor paused for emphasis, his gaze travelling pointedly to his desired destination, "further tests are necessary."

"If that's everthing," Squall said brusquely, not caring about the specifics of Odine's theories or methods. Only the diagnosis that would end up in his medical report mattered. Casting his two self-appointed babysitters a narrow-eyed warning, he turned to walk to the examination room. Odine immediately started after him, clearly approving of his haste.

Inside, Squall let his eyes roam the machinery and monitors taking up over half of the small space. On the left side there was a large window that looked into another room.

"Through that door," Odine ordered, gesturing towards a heavy, metal door right next to the large window. "On the blue dot."

For the sake of getting the damned tests over with, Squall let Odine's attitude slide and entered the room. Absolute silence followed the slam of the metal door, the large room apparently soundproof. Looking around him, the only thing that broke the monotony of white concrete were two large dots painted on the floor—one red and one blue. After a moment of hesitation, he moved to stand on the blue dot.

In the other room, Laguna immediately moved to the window to keep a constant eye on the brunet. To his left, Seifer did the same. He knew Squall was safe, but the sight of his son confined like that, while Odine was scuffling around in the background and fiddling with his machines... It was too reminiscent of how he had found Ellone so many years ago.

"What kind of test is this?" he asked, suddenly needing to know exactly what Odine was going to do.

The doctor didn't look up from his work, his eyes sweeping over several monitors as he answered. "Zat room is sealed to contain para-magic and zere are sensors in ze walls. I vill evaluate ze Commander's junctioning and magic capabilities." Flicking on a few switches, he tugged a microphone a bit closer and turned his focus to the brunet in the other room.

"Can you hear me?" he said, tapping against the mic.

None too happy with Odine's disregard for proper explanations, Laguna resigned himself to keep a close watch on the proceedings. Inside the sealed room, his son looked around with a frown. Having located the speakers, the young man then turned to watch them.

/Yes,/ Squall's voice came from a speaker inside the observation room.

"Have you junctioned or cast magic since ze breaking of ze bond?"

/No./

"Ze readings show zat you carry seven GF's. Name zem."

/Shiva. Diablos. Eden. Griever. Fenrir. Atomos. Anima./

"Which GF was involved in ze unstable junction?"

/...Shiva./

"Junction Shiva."

Watching Odine's eager expression, Seifer felt like strangling the gnome. He just knew the little freak would jump in joy if Squall's magic had taken a turn for the worse. The whole place was giving him the chills.

Watching closely as Squall's irises changed to a soft glowing silver, Seifer didn't miss the slight flinch that crossed the brunet's features. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the man smoothed it away with a small frown, but it didn't fail to put Seifer on edge; Squall never flinched.

"Ze computer has assembled an inventory of your spells. Every minute I vill give you an order to cast one of zem. You vill aim over ze other red dot. Be precise and do not delay once ze order is given. Cast Ice on my mark." The doctor paused to fiddle with a final few settings.

"Now."

At the appearance of the first spell, Seifer frowned. It had taken a full two seconds longer for the cone of ice to appear than usual... Those timings were hard-wired into him from their countless days of sparring. The next spell materialized after an even further delay and it even flickered slightly. Seifer ran a hand through his hair as he watched Squall's eyebrows draw further together. This is bad.

"Can you tell anything from the readings?" he asked as he tried to decipher the graphs and numbers on the monitors himself. None of the numbers or graphs made any sense whatsoever.

When he only got an impatient "shhh" and a dismissive hand gesture for his efforts, he had to curb the rekindled urge to throttle the gnome.

"Now."

Switching his attention back to the white room, Seifer waited for the ice to appear. The delay was even longer this time. There was no doubt about it—Squall was getting worse with every spell he cast. Stepping closer to the window, he spotted the brunet's right hand clenching slightly.

"Now."

Seifer didn't miss the way gray-blue eyes shut for a fraction of a second this time, more strained than a normal blink. It had been brief and almost unnoticeable, but it had been there.

Looking back over to Odine, Seifer hardened his gaze. "He's in pain and his magic is affected. Even if your fancy machines can't tell you that, I can," he said firmly, then charged on. "How much more does he have to do? Just what exactly do you need?"

"Pain?" Laguna asked instantly. Squall had seemed composed to him, as if concentrating. "Doctor?"

"I am well aware of ze fact. My equipment is quite adequate," the doctor replied with a huff, his eyes never straying from his monitors. "Now," he spoke into the mic, ordering the fifth Ice spell before turning to face the two men. "In order to correctly assess his condition, I must determine his limits. Without zis data, no diagnosis can be made."

An assistant chose that exact moment to knock on the door and step inside. "The antiemetic you reques—"

"On ze table!" Odine snapped, taking out his frustration on the assistant who rushed to place the meds on the table before hastily showing himself back out. The moment the man had gone, Odine bent towards the mic again.

"On my mark, change to Fire spells."

Unimpressed by Odine's explanation, Seifer forced himself to relent to the man's knowledge for the time being. Turning his gaze back to where the brunet was standing in the other room, he grit his teeth. Squall didn't protest before carrying out Odine's next order—even though it obviously hurt him.

The minutes ticked by slowly as he watched Squall cast one spell after another. The casting times were ridiculously slow now—there was no way the brunet would be a match for even a lowly cadet. Squall's hands were clenched into fists and a deep frown marred his brow. Seifer wanted nothing more than to see Squall cast Ultima or Holy with the same grace and speed he'd shown during the war.

Hearing Odine firmly demand another spell, Seifer frowned when the brunet didn't move. Squall wasn't reacting whatsoever. Not even a single twitch—nothing. Catching sight of the brunet's eyes, he immediately rushed to the door separating them. Squall's eyes were flickering between silver and gray-blue, just as they had back at the hotel.

Forcing the door open wide, he immediately began drawing the icy goddess. Offering no resistance this time, the Guardian Force calmly settled in the back of his mind. As the brunet started to collapse a few feet away, Seifer didn't have any time to deal with the searing headache and nausea that assaulted him. Closing the distance between them, he managed to hook his arms under Squall's shoulders just in time, the brunet falling back against his chest.

For a brief moment he was ready to tear the entire lab apart, to take it all out on Odine, until he felt Squall move in his hold. Helping the man stand back up, he distanced himself slightly, but kept a hand held out for the brunet to steady himself on.

"Squall?" he asked, eyeing the man carefully, needing to hear recognition in the man's voice. When no reply came, he stepped within the brunet's point of view. "Who am I?" he asked, unable to mask the urgency in his voice.

"An obnoxious bastard," Squall ground out without bite, gingerly stepping away from Seifer's support.

"Says the Princess," Seifer replied with a huff, bringing a hand up to knead at his brow.

Squall glared weakly in return, until realization hit him beyond his own massive headache. "You okay?"

Dismissing Squall's question, Seifer looked over to where Laguna was standing by the door. He felt about ready to vomit all over the floor, but he'd be damned if he'd show any weakness in front of Squall and the president.

"What just happened?" Laguna asked shakily as he entered the room.

Spotting Loire's focus on Seifer's pinched face, Squall knew he had to act fast before the wrong questions would lead both Loire and Odine to all sorts of questions. He could explain away his own state, but not Seifer's.

"Ask Odine," he said with feigned nonchalance, stepping into the president's line of sight. But before the president could reply, Odine piped up through the speakers.

/Commander, Mr. President. Please leave ze room./

When Seifer turned to face the doctor in the other room with narrowed eyes and a straight back, no words of protest ensuing the man's order, Squall knew enough and cursed inwardly at the blond choosing the worst possible time for compliance. He would not let the doctor involve Seifer in this.

"Then I assume my tests are over?" he asked tersely, hoping Odine would prioritize him over whatever readings he had picked up on Seifer.

/Zey are not. I must simply exclude ze possibility zat my equipment is compromised./

At hearing the rational explanation Squall knew wasn't sincere, the far too impatient tone to Odine's voice confirmed his suspicion. Whatever the doctor had gleaned from his machines and monitors, the man wasn't letting it go. Seifer wasn't any help either, regarding him with narrowed eyes and the clear order to scram already.

Idiot. This wasn't the noble self-sacrifice the blond had envisioned; it was pointless and Squall wouldn't allow it.

"Your equipment is fine," he said evenly. He couldn't deny what Odine had seen on his monitors, but he could deny the doctor the opportunity to examine Seifer instead. "Either you examine me, or no one at all."

"Just do as he says," Seifer let out at Squall's continued stubbornness. "I can handle the imp."

"Why?" Squall retorted. "So Odine can get a new pet project? This has nothing to do with—" Loire's presence registered in his peripheral vision, the room's mics still picking up his every word. "—with your concern."

"I do not keep pet projects." Odine's voice dripped with distaste as he walked into the room. "If you are aware of zis man's readings," the doctor said sharply, jabbing his finger in Seifer's direction, "then you are aware zere are certain similarities you vill not have me ignore."

Regarding the doctor with contempt, Seifer resented the fact that he actually agreed with the gnome on something. "I used to be a knight," he said firmly as he eyed Odine. "Now fix Squall's problem."

Watching Odine's eyes widen at the idiot's revelation, Squall suppressed a groan. He could practically see the cogs turning in the doctor's head, plans taking shape that weren't likely to benefit either of them.

"Ze opportunity for a comparative study is very fortunate indeed. Zis vill certainly allow better understanding of ze Commander's test results!" Odine paused, looking at Seifer with clear intent. "I must know. Who vas your sorceress? How vas ze bond ended?"

"Ultimecia," Seifer said, his expression darkening. "And she died," he added in a lower voice, warning Odine to reel in his curiosity. He stepped closer to the doctor. "I'll tell you what's going to happen," he said, his behavior erring on threatening. "I'll do the tests you just had Squall do so you can have your little comparative study, and then you theorize and figure out how the hell to fix this shit. That's all."

Squall wouldn't have deemed it possible, but the doctor's eyes grew even wider with excitement. "Ah! I never did get access to zose files!" the man exclaimed happily, clearly unbothered with breaching comfort zones. "Vat was your name again? How long vere you bonded? And to vich of her incarnations?"

Seeing Seifer's eyes narrow warily in a revised examination of the doctor, Squall felt like supplying the blond with a dry "I warned you." Situating himself between Seifer and Odine, he forced the doctor's attention on himself. "Cut the questions. Finish my tests, and then we'll talk."

"You're not doing any more tests," Seifer interrupted resolutely from behind Squall. "He has all the information he needs."

"I most certainly do not!" the doctor exclaimed in outrage. "I am yet to determine vether his affliction is specific to ze GF Shiva or not. How are his summoning abilities affected? Vat of his magic defenses? Surely all zat is of importance. I do not even know vether ze Commander's incapability is limited to Fire and Ice magic. Ve have all but started!"

From his silently observing position near the door, Laguna didn't quite know what to make of the escalating argument playing out before him. "I'm not sure I've understood everything going on here, but this bickering stops now," he interrupted sternly, making sure he had everyone's attention as he stepped further into the room. "Clearly, Squall needs to have more tests done." Spotting the instantaneous effect his words had on Seifer's displeasure and Odine's excitement, he quickly continued to discourage both.

"My son getting treatment; that is the priority here," he emphasized, "not scientific experimentation." He eyed Odine sharply. "As for your curiosity concerning Mr. Almasy, you will curb it until a more appropriate time."

Waiting pointedly until Odine offered a reluctant nod, he then faced Squall. "We'll be right here on the other side. Warn us this time around—don't wait to unjunction until it's too late."

Pissed off at his opinion being so entirely disregarded, Seifer cursed under his breath as he made for the door.

"You are forgetting ze GF," he heard the little imp call out behind him. Turning around, he sent Odine a deadly glare before focusing his attention on Squall.

"Take her," he demanded, his stance forbidding.

Squall studied Seifer's drawn features, unsure whether the man could handle the strain. "Later," he refused. "I can do other tests first." Remembering Seifer's earlier request and the doctor's assistant, he added, "You should take the antiemetic."

Clenching his jaw, Seifer narrowed his eyes at the brunet. He wasn't sure what pissed him off more—having his opinion so completely disregarded, or having his weakness pointed out in front of the others. "Fuck this. I'll be in the other room." Turning around, he stalked out the door.

Squall sighed and refocused his attention on Loire, the man watching Seifer's retreat with a raised eyebrow.

"Will he be okay?" the president asked.

Squall huffed softly. The blond would get over himself. "Temper issues."

Laguna nodded after a moment of consideration. "Remember what I said. Don't push yourself." Receiving only a blank stare from his son in reply, he reluctantly let himself be ushered out the door by Odine's impatient muttering.

In the other room, Seifer stood leaning against the wall with his arms crossed in a forbidding stance. The young man only greeted him with a narrow-eyed gaze, before fixing his attention on the connecting window. Thinking better of striking up conversation just yet, Laguna instead watched his son as well.

He'd already known Squall had a protective streak when it came to Rinoa and his friends, but he'd never seen it manifested quite so... immaturely. His son usually kept a more level head, backing up his decisions with sound reasoning rather than simply forbidding something outright. Seifer had been no better. He hid a smile at the behavior he'd deem cute in eight-year olds, but he sobered quickly when Odine finished his preparations and spoke into the mic.

"Name and junction ze GF with ze second highest compatibility rating."

/Griever./

Laguna held his breath as Odine repeated the same orders to junction and cast on his mark. Squall's eyes changed to that eerie silver and focused on the target. Again Laguna failed to identify pain or anything more than slight strain in his son's expression as Squall cast spell after spell. He knew about Squall's tendency to keep a tight lid on any feelings or troubles he might have, but now he realized his son was just as good at hiding physical discomfort.

Casting an uncertain glance at Seifer, the blond's deep frown was infinitely more telling. It seemed this man could look beyond his son's mask. "How do you think he's doing. The same as before?"

"Worse."

Laguna frowned at the curt statement. "How can you tell?"

"Years of practice with the fucker."

"I understand it you two were classmates? Rinoa told me you were at the orphanage as well."

Seifer furrowed his brows. "Which orphanage?"

Remembering how his son had only found out about the orphanage later in life, Laguna quickly realized the blond's ignorance, even if he didn't understand why. He would've expected either his son or his friends to have informed Seifer a long time ago, but then again, he supposed it couldn't be an easy truth to share, certainly so because of Edea's involvement.

He summoned a mildly puzzled expression and shrugged. "Ah, forgive me. I must have misremembered. You were classmates though, right?"

"Only in our final year," Seifer corrected as his lips drew into a thin line. He didn't remember his last year at Garden fondly, especially not with how it had all ended.

"You knew each other outside class then?"

"We were the only gunbladers at Garden. Didn't have much choice in the matter."

"I see. No choice but to spar together for years," Laguna teased with mock understanding. He doubted anyone would stick around his difficult son for such a long time, if not out of choice or some form of friendship.

"Well, he wasn't half bad with a blade," Seifer admitted as he watched Squall. A slight smirk appeared on his lips. "And he's fun to rile up. Takes a while to get him steaming, but it's worth the hassle."

Laguna chuckled. After what he'd just witnessed, he could imagine it vividly. "You do match my son in obstinacy, I'll grant you that."

Seifer's smirk grew. "I might be stubborn, but no one can match Squall on that front. The fucker almost froze to death because of it once, back when we were teenagers." Seeing the eager expression on the president's face, Seifer couldn't help himself from elaborating. "An instructor wrongly accused us for a stupid prank in class. We both denied it, but the guy made us kneel outside in the snow until we would confess. Blessed with brains, I chose cleaning floors inside where it was warm over freezing my ass off, but Squall... he refused to admit to something he hadn't done."

Seifer shook his head slightly. "Later, when I'd finished, I looked for him. I just had to rub in how stupid he'd been for spending any minute longer outside in the snow than absolutely necessary." He huffed as he remembered the sight that had greeted him. "He was still there, his hair frosty and lips blue—in the exact same position I'd last seen him. He still wouldn't let up, all pissed off. In the end I had to get the instructor, who was, of course, horrified. The stupid prick had forgotten all about Squall... He went out and ordered Squall to get his stupid ass inside and report to the infirmary." He shook his head again. "Squall thought he'd won. Even when he was still suffering from a cold a week later."

Laguna laughed and shook his head at the story he hadn't heard before. "Hyne, that's awful...Sounds just like him, though." His gaze travelled back to his son, his own words catching up with him. Squall's tendency to disregard his health clearly wasn't a recent thing.

Seifer frowned at Squall's drawn expression and clenched fists. "He's close to his limit," he spoke lowly. Impatient for Squall to end the junction, he walked over to the window and banged on it loudly. When he had Squall's attention, he drew a line across his neck in an clear gesture for Squall to put a stop to the test.

Meeting Seifer's narrowed gaze, Squall swallowed thickly. For a brief moment he considered disregarding the man's warning, but already the edge of his vision was swarming with flecks of darkness. He could not manage it; a series of the simplest spells and he could not manage it.

He closed his eyes, unable to stand another second of Seifer's gaze, and unjunctioned. He let out a sigh as the piercing headache ebbed away and the darkness receded. Unfurling his clenched fists, he shook away the slight tremor in them with a quick flexing of his fingers and wrists. He did not dare look back at the window—he knew Seifer could see it all.

The speakers crackled alive with Odine's voice. "Zis vill not do," the doctor complained with a suffering sigh. "Commander. Ze apparent time limitation to your ability to junction necessitates a change in plans. Ve vill abandon gradual build-up." Squall could hear the man ruffling about, before the doctor relayed his new order.

"Ven you are ready, junction and summon immediately."

A faint protest sounded through the speaker, Loire no doubt, but Squall knew the stakes better than all of them. He needed to know, without room for speculation or doubt, how bad his condition was. Keeping his gaze fixed on mid-distance, he junctioned. The pain returned instantly, along with the dark swimming at the edge of his vision.

It was too much, too fast. Gritting his teeth, he refused to give in and summoned.

Griever materialized, not calm and menacing by his side, but stalking around him in a protective circle. The effort of maintaining the summon took everything out of him, his head reeling and the onset of a blackout already threatening to overtake him. Even as he felt it happen, he could not control the connection—his disorientation and frustration flowed into the GF's mind unfiltered, unguided.

The lion bared its teeth in a low growl and stopped its protective stalk to fix yellow eyes on the window, on the three men in the other room—the perceived cause of their captivity and its master's distress.

Crippled with pain, Squall looked on powerlessly as the beast threw itself against the window, the metal frame groaning in its bolts under the impact. The glass trembled ominously as Griever retreated for another throw, again and again. The noise rang sharply in his ears, and it was all he could do to stay conscious.

/No,/ he tried to convey to his lion. /They are friends./

Griever didn't hear him. The glass held, but the bolts were beginning to give at the relentless onslaught. Slumping forward, Squall clutched his hands to his temples and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Stop!" he shouted, doing something he'd never done before—unjunctioning while a GF was still summoned. It was like pulling out the plug; crude and immediate. Griever's shock surged through him as the beast finally disappeared, leaving behind angry claw marks on glass and concrete.

Disoriented, he tried to right himself, but the room was swirling violently. Dark wisps of fog licked a slow path along the floor, towards him. His heart ran cold at the sight.

A loud thud sounded as the metal door swung open and someone ran towards him. He couldn't see anything—only darkness. Bile rose at the back of his throat as he swayed on his feet, but then someone grabbed hold of his arms, steadying him into place.

Keeping a firm grip on Squall, Seifer watched as gray-blue eyes finally rose to meet his. Squall still looked like he was in pain, but at least there was recognition in gray-blue eyes. As the man stood perfectly still, he carefully let go of his arms.

"Was that...?" he asked, nodding briefly towards the floor, certain he'd just caught Squall hallucinating.

Leave it to the blond to notice everything, Squall thought uncharitably. He looked back at the floor, but the dark, curling fog that had swallowed his feet was gone and the room no longer spun out of control.

"Squall! Are you okay? That GF—What happened?" Loire was walking towards them, his face pinched and a slight stiffness to his leg betraying the onset of one of the man's more peculiar traits. Squall eyed it warily and quickly gave Seifer a covert nod in reply before Loire could notice the exchange.

"I'm fine," he reassured, taking a step away from Seifer's side.

Seifer snorted. Crossing his arms, he turned to face the President. "You still gonna push for more tests?"

Laguna shook his head, looking bewildered. "...No. No, of course not." He glanced at the observation window, to where Odine was scuttling from machine to machine, the doctor's attention riveted to his readings. "That was certainly not what I had in mind when Odine said he needed more tests."

Releasing a sigh, the president gave his now fully cramped up leg a stretch and returned his gaze to his son. "What happened?" he repeated, not bothering to comment on Squall's statement that the man was doing fine.

Squall had no ready answer. All he knew was that he'd had no control over the summon. None whatsoever. And he'd been only moments away from blacking out a second time. Years of magic training, all his abilities, lost. The image unfolded in his mind's eye; his squad looking at him for help, for the skills that would turn their situation around, but he'd be powerless. Useless. And the hallucinations...

This meant the end of his career, simple as that.

Feeling increasingly trapped, Squall was unable to remain still in the confinement of the concrete room, under the close scrutiny of the other two men. Avoiding meeting anyone's gaze, he walked towards the door. He needed air.

"Where are you going?" Seifer asked, falling in step just behind the brunet.

"Outside."

At the distant quality in Squall's voice, Seifer felt the weight of what had just happened. Stopping in his stride, he held out an arm and stopped the President from following his son.

"Let him go," he said, keeping his voice low. "He needs space." He let his arm drop when the president remained silent. "Squall had no control over his summon. It's just as messed up as the rest of his magic." Running a hand through his hair, he left the room.

In the observation room, Odine was glaring at the door Squall no doubt had just stalked out of. "Zis is ridiculous!" he exclaimed, his hands raised. "Of course, Mr. President! I vill clear my schedule for ze Commander, Mr. President! Vat else could possibly take precedence!"

Turning around, the red-faced doctor directed his rant at the two remaining men. "How am I expected to vork like zis? Vith constant interruptions, and now, vithout ze test subject!"

"Just do," Seifer said harshly, walking to stand in front of Odine with crossed arms.

"You dare tell me how to do my job?" the doctor almost squeaked. "Vat do you know of science?! Vat else vill aid your dear commander, if not my expertise?"

"Odine," Laguna interrupted warningly. "You will have to do with the information you've got. What can you tell us?"

"Zat ze commander is possibly lying," the doctor answered. "I vas surprised to find zat his case was so similar to previous test subjects, all but in one aspect. Hallucinations. The majority of failed hosts suffered zem, but ze commander stated he does not." Grabbing a printout from the other side of the room, he stabbed his fingers at the data and supplied thinly, "Zis strongly suggests otherwise."

He looked up at Seifer, his voice a sarcastic deadpan. "Shall I trust ze commander's word, or ze tests you so firmly protested against?"

Seifer glared at the doctor. He didn't want to expose Squall's secret, but couldn't risk him missing out on proper treatment either. "Just fix whatever the hell you think is wrong with him."

"Ze tests it is then," Odine said smugly. "As for any conclusions, I still have to examine zese last readings in more detail. I have never seen anomalies such as zese in a summon. Most fascinating!"

He pointed excitedly at a wildly spiking graph on the screen. "You see zis? Zese are ze first readings of its kind! Failed hosts from my earlier experiments suffered similar difficulties maintaining junction, but zey definitely could not summon! I speculate zat ze commander's extraordinary GF compatibility rates have been unaffected by ze sorceress' intrusion, allowing him to at least establish ze apparition of—"

"Doctor," Laguna interrupted, most of Odine's rant sailing right over his head. "Cut to the chase. What is wrong with my son? And what's this I hear about hallucinations?" He hadn't missed Seifer's evasive reaction.

All the while reading through yet another printout, Odine gave a vigorous nod. "Yes, yes. Hallucinating was one of ze main symptoms test subjects suffered from after an unsuccessful junction. A junction—" the doctor paused, tapping his index finger to his temple, "—is all in here. Ze host's brain is vere ze GF resides and zis comes at a price. Memory loss, yes?" The doctor fell silent for a moment, humming in distraction at something on a screen, before continuing.

"Ven a junction backfires, for vatever reason, certain types of trauma can occur. Too long exposure of an unfit mind to an invasive junction is particularly damaging, especially ven aborted. Like a leg amputated, ze brain must deal viz ze disappearance of ze GF. One could liken ze hallucinations to phantom pains, caused by ze sudden lack of sensory and magical input of ze GF in ze brain."

Gathering several printouts into a clipboard, the doctor turned to face them, his voice matter-of-fact."I have now sufficient data to verify zat ze sorceress' bond is indeed a junction of ze most invasive kind; ze knight is ze host, ze sorceress ze parasitic entity. And ze commander was exposed for over two years. I hypothesize zat we are looking at problems of dependency and trauma to ze brain."

Seifer balled his hands into fists. "What's the treatment?" he demanded. "And what about the others? Did they recover?" In the end that was all that mattered. "Would reestablishing the bond be able fix it?" he asked somberly.

"Any particular order you want zose answered in?" Odine replied in mock servitude, but the rest of his retort was dissuaded by the president's headshake. Releasing a grumbling sigh, the doctor continued.

"Vit ze limited data at hand, it iz impossible to predict ze result of reestablishing ze bond. GF junctions and sorceress bonds may be alike in how zey activate in ze brain, but zere seems to be one big difference. Control. A GF relinquishes it. A sorceress takes it. Ze balance of power is inverted." Odine paused, his frown suggesting he'd come to a reluctant decision. "However informative its study would be, I would advise...against rebonding."

The doctor let out a wistful sigh, eyes pouring over his clipboard again. "Unlike GF junctions, ze bond does not seem symbiotic in nature; parasitic fits ze bill better. I dare even speculate zat a form of addiction is involved. Ze knight is made dependent on ze magic of his sorceress, ze access to his own innate magic cut off. Zat is vat ze readings suggest. And considering Miss Heartilly's problems are simply suppressed for now, not controlled, I vould not readily invite such a precarious bonding."

"As for ze treatment of ze failed hosts; it was very straightforward," Odine said, moving towards the intercom. "Medication to manage ze various symptoms, vile zey kept practicing junctioning and magic. Some came to tolerate junctions with varying levels of success, some failed but recovered once zey gave up practicing. Only a few suffered permanent damage." The last statement was delivered with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if such statistics were within perfectly acceptable norms.

"I suggest a similar approach for ze commander: medication and practice, under close monitoring. His system must fight off the bond's addictive properties; his magic must become self-sustained again. However— " Odine intoned, turning his narrow-eyed gaze to Seifer, "—If ze meds I prescribe are to optimally alleviate ze commander's symptoms, you must answer some of my questions. Vat kind of hallucinations is ze commander having? Vat else has he been dishonest about?" He paused. "And wiz you being ze only past case, I vill also need to know ze symptoms you experienced after your Sorceress's death and vich of those have persevered until today."

Returning Odine's stare full force, Seifer wished he could dismiss the doctor's demand for answers with an insulting remark. He still didn't want to break Squall's trust and the brunet had been right earlier—no information about hallucinations could make it into the man's file. Nor could anything that tied Squall to himself make it in there. He hadn't considered the damage Squall's reputation would suffer if anyone found out about their current connection—about the Commander staying with the man who spearheaded the opposite side of the war.

"I'll answer your questions," he said, leaning back against the edge of a desk. "But there will be no mention of hallucinations in Squall's file." His gaze was firm. "Nor will there be any mention of me in there. Whatever you put in your files, don't link me to Squall."

Laguna frowned at the requests. He could understand why the association between Squall and Seifer should be kept under wraps, just like his own connection to his son had to be. The hallucinations, however—those worried him. Deciding to trust the blond for now, he nodded at the doctor to proceed.

Odine rolled his eyes. "Confidentiality is required of me daily, mister Almasy. I have no qualms about zat."

"... His sight, hearing and sense of smell is affected," Seifer said as he focused on what Squall had told him. "Like everything else, he hides it well. He's told me he has them on and off. Black fog, noise, that kind of thing. Sounds can be painful. Also..." He grit his teeth. "He couldn't recognize me when he first came to. He just reacted on instinct, like an animal. I cast Sleep on him and then when he woke up again he seemed like himself. I think he's had nightmares as well."

Laguna's eyes widened slightly at all the new information. Earlier, when Seifer had rushed in to assist Squall, he thought he'd misheard the man ask "Who am I," but now he understood. "Could it happen again?" he asked, realizing just how much Squall had downplayed his condition. "The lack of recognition, I mean."

Odine hummed lowly, nodding as he drummed his fingers against his clipboard. "Most curious. Zis never occurred wiz my previous test subjects. It must be specific to ze broken bond," he mused. "My readings indicate zat ze strain of ze broken bond does not allow for junctioning, hence causing ze peculiar state. It should be avoidable by drawing ze moment ze Commander loses control over ze junction—as Mr. Almasy demonstrated," he added with a disingenuous smile sent to the blond.

"Then, I'd say you have all the information you need, doctor," Laguna said, his thoughts wandering to his son sitting somewhere outside, or worse, having gone off somewhere on his own. "How soon can you have the medication ready?"

Seifer tuned out as the doctor started to drone on about all the pills Squall would soon be popping. When the doctor scheduled an appointment for Squall the following week and wanted to pen him in as well, he grimaced. The last thing he wanted to do was to answer more of the little gnome's questions and go through the tests himself, but the doctor had said a comparison would be helpful in treating Squall. Maybe he could get some answers of his own.

Agreeing to an appointment before work the following Tuesday, his eyes dropped to the pack of antiemetics on the desk and he couldn't stop himself from asking outright. "Is there any chance the treatment would work for me?"

Odine looked up from his schedule. "Hard to say, viz so little to base conjecture on. I vould not exclude ze possibility, nor attest to ze improbability."

Seifer pushed away from the desk. "I'd like you to prescribe me something for the nausea and pain," he said firmly, grabbing the antiemetics on his way out.

Eager to leave as well, Laguna turned to Odine. "I'll be in touch, doctor," he said, making for the door as well. "And send those meds right down. For both of them," he emphasized, in case Odine's more vindictive trait would make him forgetSeifer's request. He hadn't missed the doctor muttering "oaf" under his breath at the blond's departure.

"Yes, yes," the doctor said with a dismissive wave of the hand, his attention already fixed on his screens again. "Until ze next family crisis."

Laguna sighed and let the man's attitude slip. Nothing short from funding cuts could keep that man in line—the downside of having a brilliant scientist under his direct command.

Joining Seifer outside in the hallway, in wait for the lift, he considered all that had transpired that day. He was grateful for the blond's presence, well aware how differently things would have gone without him there.

"I can see what Rinoa was trying to tell me now," he said, breaking the silence. "I wanted to take Squall in at the palace, but...well—you know how Squall is. He doesn't listen to me... Not the way he seems to listen to you." Meeting the blond's gaze, he smiled. "He wouldn't have allowed any of his other friends to accompany him today."

Turning his lips down at the corners at the unlikely use of "friend," Seifer realized just how little the man really knew his son. "He just wanted me to hear what Odine had to say. Similar circumstances and all."

Laguna nodded as he entered the lift. "Perhaps, but isn't that telling in itself? Earning his trust and concern isn't easy. Either way, I should thank you for helping my son. I can rest assured now."

Huffing, Seifer followed Laguna into the smaller space. Squall bringing him along had nothing to do with trust or concern. Just some strange sense of righteousness. But then he remembered how Squall had physically stepped in front of him as if to shield him from Odine and how the brunet had been thinking about antiemetics for him when the man should have been far more concerned with his own condition.

Following Seifer out into the lobby, Laguna's optimism flagged at seeing the blond so solemn. "Odine seemed confident about his proposed treatment," he tried. "Give it your all, and save the worrying for when all else has failed. That usually works for me."

"He'll be back to normal in no time," Seifer reassured, knowing he'd do whatever he could to make it the truth.

Laguna nodded as they came to a halt by the large sculpture in the large entrance hall. "Let's not forget about you," he said with a smile. "I hope you'll fare just as well." He looked around but there was no sign of anyone bringing down the meds yet.

"Seems like we're in for a bit of a wait," he said, glancing at the time on his phone. "You'll have to tell me some more stories about your cadet days. If I'm to believe Quistis, my son was nothing but a model student." He chuckled. "I suspect you have a more interesting take on things."

A smirk grew on Seifer's lips before he chuckled as well. "I can tell you a story or two," he admitted, his voice doing nothing to hide his eagerness at spilling Squall's dirtier secrets to the brunet's dad. "And trust Quistis to make Squall out to be the perfect student. You know she used to have a crush on him, right?"

Laguna's eyebrows shot up high. "I didn't until now."

"As far as the rumor's went, Squall managed to kill any romance early on by telling her to go talk to a wall," Seifer said with a grin. "I don't suppose that helped his nickname much."

Shaking his head, Laguna stiffled his laughter. "And what nickname would that be?"

"The Ice Prince," Seifer said unapologetically. "He used to keep to himself."

Laguna gave a slow nod. He'd already gotten the impression that Squall's friendships didn't predate the war. "I'm sure he still would if he had any say in it. Thank Hyne for stubborn friends, " he said, smiling. "So... others understandably called him Ice Prince, but I distinctively overheard you calling him Princess."

Seifer smirked brazenly. "Yeah, he's always hated that," he said as his eyes caught on a lab assistant heading their way with a white plastic bag in his hands. "About time," he said, nodding in the direction of the approaching man.

"Here you go, sir," the assistant said, holding out the small bag to the President. Impatient, Seifer didn't ask for permission when he snatched the meds from the man's grasp.

"I'll take those."

"Thank you for your trouble," Laguna said quickly, smoothing over the blond's crass behavior with an apologetic smile.

"No trouble at all," the assistant muttered. "Those were the pills we had in stock, but Odine upped the dosage to fit the symptoms. We'll have new pills customized by next week." Keeping his explanation short, he nodded at the both of them in parting.

"Sirs."

When the assistant was out of earshot, Seifer eyed the president seriously. "Let me deal with Squall. On my own. The less people he has to deal with, the better."

Letting out a sigh, Laguna nodded. "I understand. It's probably for the best." He doubted he was the one Squall wanted to talk to right now. He'd already convinced his son to come to tests in the first place, so he wouldn't push his luck.

"One request though," he added. "Could I have your contact information? Squall tends to ignore phone calls." He already had the information—he'd read reports and files about everything the blond had been up to since his arrival in Esthar and more, but he made the request all the same. Reaching into one of his pockets, he pulled out a card. "You can reach me personally at this number."

Taking the card and borrowing a pen and paper from the President, Seifer scribbled down his own phone number and address. "If I don't answer right away, just leave a message," he said, handing the piece of paper to Laguna. "I'd say 'feel free to drop by' but I know that's not really an option given your job and Squall would probably throw a hissy fit."

Wondering just what Squall had told Seifer, Laguna hid the jolt of hurt the blond's words caused. "I'll refrain from unannounced visits," he acquiesced, the same promise he'd made with Rinoa. "That doesn't mean the two of you can't come to the palace instead, of course. I've been looking forward to having my son over for dinner ever since his leave started."

"I'll let him know," Seifer said, not mentioning just how unlikely it'd be for Squall and him to show up at the palace for a visit, as friends no less. He'd do what he could until the brunet was better, but he'd be surprised if Squall stayed for long.

Laguna forced a smile at the reply, not bothering to press further. "I trust you to make sure he'll take those," he said, nodding at the bag of meds.

"If he doesn't, I'll give him hell," Seifer said with a brief quirk to his lips. "Anyways, I better split."

"You better," Laguna agreed, extending his hand. "It was good to meet you, Seifer. You boys take care."

"You too, old man," Seifer replied as he shook the man's hand. "And good luck with running the country and all," he added with a smile. Before the president had a chance to reply, he turned and headed for the exit—time to track Squall down.

The man hadn't gone far. The moment he stepped outside, his eyes automatically landed on the brunet. Squall was leaning against the translucent fence not far away from the entrance, lost to thought. Seifer picked up his stride.

"We're done for today," he said as he stopped by Squall's side. He didn't get any reaction apart from gray-blue eyes raising to meet his. Brooding couldn't have helped the brunet's mood much. "You'll be fine. I've got your meds, so let's go," he said before starting down the path leading to the cars.

Squall pushed away from the fence and looked back at the building. Loire stood at the entrance and waved at him, giving no sign of coming out to say goodbye. Nodding at the man, he followed after Seifer with a frown. He hadn't expected for Odine to let go so easily of not one, but two guinea pigs. Going by the tense set to Seifer's shoulders, perhaps the man had just rushed out in a temper.

"That's it?" he asked when he drew even with the blond. He'd expected more tests, more bad news. The declaration that he would be "fine" seemed rather ridiculous at this point.

"Yup. You just have to take these pills," he indicated the bag in his hand, "and practice using your magic. You'll be back to normal in no time."

Squall regarded the far too large bag of meds warily. Waiting for Seifer to unlock the car, he slipped into the passenger's seat and stared ahead. There was no such thing as an easy fix in this world—he'd learned that the hard way.

"We'll both have to go in for a check-up next week," Seifer said, before passing the bag of meds to the brunet. Putting his key in the ignition, he pulled out of the parking lot.

Not missing the "both" in that statement, Squall sighed and brought up a hand to knead at his temple. The headache still hadn't gone. Not in the mood to instigate another fight with the blond over this, he looked down at the seemingly innocent paper bag.

"The pills should get rid of your symptoms, including the hallucinations," Seifer said evenly, aware he might become very familiar with Squall's gunblade after this. "Nothing will go in your file about hallucinations. Nor your connection to me."

Slowly turning to watch the blond, Squall felt dangerously close to the limit of his patience. "You told them."

"Odine's readings gave it away. There was no point in denying it—apart from possibly fucking up your treatment. Odine's test subjects had them too," Seifer said, yanking the gear stick up a notch. "I made him swear it wouldn't be recorded anywhere. No one will know."

Squall huffed, letting go of the matter. No one knowing would do him little good in the end if it was permanent. Opening the paper bag, he inwardly groaned at the multitude of jars, his stomach protesting in advance. This "treatment" of pills and practice sounded far too naive.

Pulling a random jar from the bag, he eyed his codename written on the label. "E. Vargha." Apparently Odine was capable of confidentiality. The instructions written below however were far less innocent. "Nightmares, night terrors, insomnia?" he intoned incredulously. "What else did you tell them?!"

Seifer met Squall's glare head on. He couldn't believe the man had the gall to speak to him like that after everything he'd done to help the fucking icicle that day. "The truth."

Eyes narrowing, Squall turned his gaze back to the paper bag. He had no reply to Seifer's statement, not without risking bringing up the previous night and the very real nightmare he'd had. Mood souring further, he picked out another jar which read "balance impairment and vertigo," the recommended dosage 4 pills a day.

"Look, I don't know what happened last night, but I told them what I saw. To me, it looked like you were having a nightmare. I know you said you didn't have any, but maybe you just don't remember. Odine said sleep disturbances were common, so it's worth trying, right? I mean, you've been more tired—maybe nightmares are the reason."

Squall suppressed a snort. Seifer didn't know half of his sleep troubles, and he'd like to keep it that way. Dropping the vertigo pills back into the bag, he picked out another jar with a frown. Turning it into his hand, he had to read the fine print to make out its purpose. Some kind of magic stabilizer he was supposed to take throughout the day. If they were anything like Rinoa's magic suppressors, he knew he was in for unpleasant side effects.

He'd just take the meds he felt he needed. It was the only thing he had control over—the amount of meds that would be circulating his system. He didn't allow himself to think they might actually work. He would do without false hope.

Going through the content of the paper bag, his mood deteriorated even further at the high dosage he found on every label, but it wasn't the painkillers or stabilizers that caused him pause. Rereading the labeling on the inconspicuous looking jar, the words remained the same.

"Big oaf. That would be you, I assume," he stated dryly.

Watching the blond's fists clench around the steering wheel, Squall felt little sympathy for the man after he had blabbed to Loire and Odine. He returned his attention to the bag, pulling out another magic stabilizer, for Seifer this time.

Apparently the conclusions reached at the lab were promising enough for Seifer to place hope in the simplistic treatment of drugging the hell out of them both and "practicing." He looked at the paper bag with new eyes.

He'd known Seifer's nonchalance about his crippled magic had been feigned. As much as he didn't like the thought of exposing the blond to Odine's whims, he hadn't stopped to consider that Seifer might not share his reluctance to seek help.

"...You think these will help?"

"They did for others," Seifer replied without inflection. "The research on magic and junctions Odine mentioned—he seemed to think the bond you had with Rinoa was similar to that. Sounds like it did quite a number on you," he commented, pausing briefly as he overtook a car in front of them. "He said it was like a parasite, that you've probably become dependent on her magic and now you can't use your own... Hence the retraining."

"The hallucinations are like phantom pains—like your brain's way of trying to deal with the lack of input where Rinoa used to be." He shrugged. "I don't know." He ran a hand through his hair. "I asked if rebonding would work, but Odine advised against it. That was before he told us about the treatment and his past successes."

Squall mulled over the new information. He put little faith in Odine's "past successes" when he and Seifer were the first knights the doctor would attempt to treat. "And you?" he asked. The blond kept talking about the issue as if it concerned Squall only.

"Worth a shot," Seifer said, even though he didn't really believe it'd work for him. The doctor hadn't seemed convinced either way and Seifer's magic had been neglected for over two years—not the best starting point. But he'd take the pills and hope for the best. Even a slight improvement could change so much.

Squall's gaze fell back to the pills in his lap. Retraining. He thought back to the pain and disorientation he'd experienced in that white labroom, the destruction he'd almost allowed Griever to cause. He'd struggled with the most basic spells, spells he'd mastered at the age of twelve.

He'd always been ahead of the pack when it came to magic. It had been his only source of pride as a cadet, when for years he'd been scrawnier than everybody else, lagging behind in physical exercises. It had been the only thing to set him apart from other SeeDs at a later age as well, the only reason to feel some confidence in his capacity as commander.

To have that taken away from him... Squall sighed and let his head fall back against the headrest. Retraining would be difficult, not only because of the physical strain. But then a thought occurred to him. It seemed unreal, an uncanny twist of fate, that for a second time in his life Seifer would be there, training with him. Squall glanced at the blond next to him. To know that the blond was in the same boat as him made his predicament a little more bearable.

"I know somewhere we can practice," Seifer said, wanting to get started as soon as possible. "There's an unused warehouse where I work. It would be perfect. We could start tomorrow morning."

Squall grew thoughtful at the suggestion. Seifer had already thought up the specifics for their training, when all he'd done was panic and flee out of the lab. He contemplated the location—away from civilians, just him and Seifer. He couldn't assume accidents like Griever wouldn't happen again. "...Okay."

"I start work at ten. If we get up around seven, that should give us a couple of hours."

In spite of his own lack of faith, Squall drank in the familiarity of the moment. Seifer hadn't changed in how he approached obstacles; charging them head-on and never accepting defeat. The blond's effect on himself hadn't changed either.

"Sounds good," he agreed, more than used to training at ungodly hours of the day and being pushed by Seifer into more and better.

"It'll be just like old times, huh?" Seifer said, a smile growing on his lips.

Not expecting a reply, he began considering the practical side of things. Squall was bound to want to keep up his physical training and get back into that as soon as possible as well. Even back at Garden, Squall had been ruthless with his training regime, hating to lose as little as a day's worth of training.

"You should sign up at the local SCTA for your work outs," he said, focusing on the traffic in front of them. "It's close by and should have everything you need. If you feel like taking your frustration out on something, there's even a training area with your usual fake monsters." He smirked. Back at Garden, if something had bothered Squall, he'd always been able to find the brunet by following the trail of missing monsters at the training center. The respawn timers' set intervals were no match for a brooding Squall.

"Of course, they're stripped of their magic for the sake of the lovely sheltered Estharians, but you can always draw the attention of a dozen for a bit of a challenge." He glanced at Squall. "We can sign you up tonight if you want. I gotta swing by there anyway."

Meeting Seifer's gaze, Squall nodded. He could use the physical exertion to distract himself, but he'd skip the monster area. He wanted to wield his gunblade in a training session that demanded his best—not some easy targets that gave none of the satisfaction real monsters did. Even though he was tired and not in the best of shapes, he knew what he wanted.

"Let's spar."

Hearing those words again—words that had always been a prelude to his best times at Garden—Seifer couldn't suppress his excitement.

"We'll have to be quick then," he said, knowing he couldn't shirk his duties. "I have class from eight to ten and after that I have to go in for work." They'd be pressed for time for sure. But to spar with Squall... It had been far too long.

Squall frowned at the mention of "class." Seifer hadn't mentioned any kind of studies before. The blond had never prioritized class over sparring either, luring Squall into skipping class more than once in the past. It seemed both of them had been forced to accept accountability for their actions since the war. Grudgingly, he accepted the imposed time limit.

"Quick it is."



A/N: Finally a new chapter! Sorry for taking so long. We skipped the beta process this time as that would probably have meant another couple of months before posting (with us being super slow and pressed for time at the moment). Something is better than nothing, right? :) If you spot any errors, do feel free to send us a PM and we'll try and fix it asap.

Hope you enjoyed the chapter! Let us know if you did - reviews definitely inspire us to work harder on getting the next chapter out sooner rather than later :)



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