Author's Notes: I seem to have writer's block. It wouldn't be the first time. I know what I want to put but it isn't turning out right. Hmph. Still, I hope this is OK (I nearly put it out incomplete but then pushed myself to finish this instead of an overdue assessed paper - shows where my real interests lie...) This is another mammoth of a chapter; I hope you enjoy it. I figured it was about time to set the record straight on one point; I love writing long stories. My record is 200,000 words plus. I just don't like starting the silly things because I never know how many background details to add in the first few chapters. The thing I find difficult is short stories; Clouded Night was just about my first (until it got kind of, well, lengthened).

Warning: Shounen-ai, angst and all the other things we like. And one incredibly pissed off blond Adonis. Yummee.

DISCLAIMER: I'm kind of running out of clever things to say... the setting belongs to Square, the story doesn't. Will that do?

Darkened Sunrise

Chapter Sixteen - The Cry of Distress

By Persephone

"Squall?"

Seifer dug his fingernails into his hands as he stared down at Squall, who was curled up across three pillows with his head buried in Ellone's lap. He couldn't think. It was like the road of his mind had been washed away in a flood of emotions, or torn up by a leviathan formed from nothing but savagery. He'd never felt so helpless, so angry, so full of pain.

When Laguna had told him the reason for Squall's collapse he hadn't wanted to believe it. He didn't want to believe he'd been so blind. Even now, less than five minutes later, he didn't know what had happened in the few seconds after Laguna had shown him that photograph. He only remembered fury, and an overwhelming urge to destroy.

He moved to the side of the bed, knelt down and touched his lover. Squall didn't move, and Seifer couldn't know if that was because he was too weak and grief-stricken to do so or because he didn't know Seifer was there.

Ellone was scowling at him. She spoke to him using telepathy, in the manner of a sorceress. (He thought you were angry with him. He's frightened you'll leave.) She stroked her stepbrother's hair protectively, possessively.

He wasn't her Knight. He couldn't answer her back and tell her he would never do a thing like that. Except by example. He slid Squall out of her embrace and pulled the younger man into his arms. "I love you," he told Squall in a whisper. "I'll never leave you."

He couldn't stop shaking. Damn it; I can't even comfort him properly. He buried his face in Squall's hair and pressed kisses to the scarred forehead beneath his mouth. Maybe he only imagined the tiny returned squeeze round his chest. Maybe it was nothing but his own conflicting emotions fighting for release.

Squall's loud sobs had subsided but his tears continued to fall, soaking Seifer's shirt and chest hair. Seifer forced himself not to cry. He ran a hand around Squall's back and tried to massage out the tight knots from clenched muscles. Maybe - just maybe - if he concentrated really hard on soothing Squall he would manage not to burst into tears himself. But he couldn't even lay a hand on his lover without thinking of the list he'd drawn up of places Squall didn't like to be touched, without remembering his blithe assumption that all the flinches were due to old injuries, without thinking of the absolute motherfucking bastards who'd made him hate himself so much...

He jumped when someone touched his shoulder. It was Ellone, her annoyance gone, replaced only with sorrow and an echo of Seifer's all-consuming anger. She didn't speak, even inwardly, but laid an arm round him and held him to her, telling him without any words that she knew how he felt, that she understood.

The bathroom door slid open again. "I've got most of the glass up," Laguna said in a subdued voice, "but I wouldn't come in here barefoot for a while. Think we can sneak in a glazier yet?"

"I wouldn't bet on - Laguna?" Elle broke off.

Seifer looked up at the President. "Did I do that?"

Laguna touched the red mark above his left cheekbone and dropped his hand to wipe a trace of blood off his chin. "Not all of it. I got hit by some of the window. You did give me the black eye, though. Don't worry about it." Only Laguna Loire could say something like that and mean it. Seifer lay his head back down on Squall's and tried to think of nothing at all.

Someone tapped on the door. Squall shuddered and huddled against Seifer; Ellone rose and went to the door, leaving to talk to the person outside rather than admitting them. Laguna dabbed at the cut on his face with a tissue before hurrying after her.

Before he reached the door Ellone slipped back inside. "It's Kiros. He says the questioning's going nowhere and Lamond's refusing to talk but the search teams may have found something important."

"I'll fucking make him talk," Seifer growled under his breath. The idea that the guy could be pretending to be innocent when they all knew what he'd let happen to Squall made him so mad he could hardly breathe.

"Harassment of prisoners is illegal," Laguna muttered.

"So arrest me. I won't hurt too many people when I break out again."

Ellone stirred. Laguna jumped and turned to her. "What are you thinking?"

She tried to look innocent. About halfway through the attempt she realised she'd failed and gave up. "Come on. Is scaring people illegal? No. So we might as well try it."

Laguna shook his head vigorously. "You," and he stabbed a finger in Seifer's direction, "are going nowhere near that man. I mean it." But it was said defensively and he didn't look too upset with either his wife or his son's lover.

Ellone rolled her eyes and went back to the younger men. She gently detached Squall from Seifer and nestled him back on her own shoulder. "Seifer, go destress. I don't much care how, so long as you come back here without glowing red pupils."

He nodded curtly. The dismissal hurt. Part of him wanted to prove her wrong, wanted to show her that he could set aside his own feelings and be gentle. Another part knew that she was right that he wasn't in any state to hang around anyone as emotionally bruised as Squall was now.

He bent and kissed Squall's cheek. The one visible eye didn't open. "I'll come back soon," he whispered into the boy's ear. A fractional nod was the only response. He squeezed Squall's hand one more time before moving away and leaving the room.

Laguna followed him out. "Seifer, I was serious earlier. If you want to kill something go out of the city and find a Torama or two. Don't go anywhere near any of the suspects till you can behave yourself."

Seifer shrugged, feeling a kind of inevitability settle over him. He didn't care what he said to whom, what he did to whom, because nothing and nobody could undo what had been done to Squall. "Yeah, sure, I'll play by the rules and touch that shit with feathered fingers. But that's what brought us to this, isn't it?" He felt Laguna's eyes digging into his back as he walked away.

He didn't feel appreciably better even after he'd extended Laguna's suggested brace of Toramas to include six Imps and a sow Behemoth. Not even the fact that he'd killed one of the big cats cleanly enough to provide a nice new spotted rug for Squall's quarters could improve his temper. He returned to the Palace still fuming, and it got worse the second he stepped off the lifter.

"What do you mean I can't come in?"

"There's a security problem and -"

"I know there's a security problem. I'm meant to be investigating it. Hell, my boyfriend fucking uncovered it. Now let me in before I break a hole in your cordon," and Seifer straightened up and hefted Hyperion with a dangerous look in his eyes.

The leading guard reacted surprisingly well, especially given the fact that, like many Estharians, he was even shorter than Squall. "I'll require more ID than that, sir."

"Fuck this," Seifer muttered. He cast his mind back to the moment he'd left the meeting room an hour and a half ago. "Is Selphie Tilmitt behind this?"

The guy blinked. "She and Ward Zabac made the arrangements -"

"Get one of them here and tell them to give me a pass or whatever they're doing." The guard hesitated for a second then retreated behind the cordon to the internal phone. Seifer glowered at the other soldiers still blocking the door, dug his hands in his pockets and waited.

Before the soldier had even hung up the phone the door opened. Ward took a long look at Seifer, as if deciding whether he was calm enough to re-enter the Palace yet, and motioned to the soldiers to let him through. "Thanks," Seifer growled, marching past the squad and trying to look haughty. The act faded before he got to the door and he turned to Ward, wondering how many other men there were around who he had to look up at. "How's Squall?"

The older man frowned and signed that there had been no improvement. Seifer bit his lip. The longer Squall went on like this the worse it looked. For the first time Seifer started wondering if he would ever bounce back.

Ward gestured for him to go to the Security office. He added that Selphie wanted to see him there. Seifer resisted the urge to point out that he and Selphie were probably most use in different places, and hurried off.

The quicker I get this over with, the sooner I can see Squall again.

People were running in and out and through the office area, carrying papers and floppy disks and weapons. Seifer stuck his head through the door and regarded Selphie, in the centre of the human Spaghetti junction, buzzing around directing people. She looked up and waved at Seifer. "Hey! I need you to take a message -"

"What's happening?" Seifer cut in before she could finish. "And you're the message girl, not me."

At any other time he'd have got a crack back along the lines of You seem to like boys well enough to be a girl, but Selphie just wrinkled her nose and answered, "The Palace is sealed except for people Ward and I clear personally. He's making sure none of the self-important bureaucrats get out and spread the alarm. Kiros is trying to get something out of the suspects before going back to Lamond. Meiroth's wading through a load of files the search teams picked up, to work out who shouldn't have got their hands on which secret documents they've squirreled away. And Laguna's running backwards and forwards trying to organise things."

"And you're doing the real organising."

She nodded proudly, but her face suddenly darkened. "Laguna told me about Squall," she said, a little awkwardly. "I tried to go say hi to him but he wasn't happy and Elle told me to go away. She'd thought she'd got him calmed down but then he started thinking about it again."

And started crying again, no doubt. Seifer counted to five before asking, "Where is the piece of Geezard dung who calls himself Dayn Lamond?"

"In the cells over there but -"

"Then that's where I'm going." Selphie moved to stop him going in; he picked her up by the back of her shirt and moved her out of his way. "Stay out of this, midget. I thought you knew -"

"What he's done? Sure I do. I just don't want to have to let him out on bail because you've attacked him. I don't want to have to pull you off, either."

"Like you'd have a hope." She put a hand on her nunchaku and raised the other in a casting stance, intoning the first syllable of the complicated Rapture incantation. That made Seifer stop and think for a second. He hadn't thought she, of all people, would be willing or able to stop him.

OK. Try another line. "When's Kiros coming back to talk to him?"

"I was expecting him here already."

"Fine. I'll wait for him." Seifer stalked to the nearest chair and sat down, picking up a cup of coffee that was probably Selphie's and settling back to let the action unfold around him. Selphie glowered at him for a second, then raced off to do something. Seifer sipped the coffee. Ugh. Five spoons of sugar; definitely Selphie's. He relinquished the cup and watched the door.

Kiros appeared inside thirty seconds. He only double-took for a second when he saw Seifer. "If you're coming with me, you'd better behave," he said over his shoulder as he headed for the cells.

Seifer nodded. "Have you got anything at all yet?"

"Kasha's highly suspicious of one of the others. She hasn't said who yet because she's looking for more evidence. Lamond's said nothing except to ask if he'll get let off lightly if he incriminates his accomplices." He didn't add that there was no chance of that at all. "Oh, and to demand a lawyer."

"Why hasn't he - oh. Treason case. But you'll still have to get him one in the end. And then he'll complain about being denied justice."

"Yes, and if you try to kill him won't there be a pretty story on the front pages tomorrow?" Kiros ran his swipe card through the lock. "He might even spill something about why you're so upset with him. If I were you -"

"- I'd keep my temper, yeah, yeah," Seifer finished. "I'm getting sick of hearing that."

"That might be because you're stamping around here like a bull Behemoth who got stung by a wasp."

Lamond was almost literally twiddling his fingers. He couldn't do much else as he was handcuffed and had two soldiers standing behind him. A tape recorder was running on the desk next to him. Kiros glanced at one of the guards; the woman shook her head, to say Lamond hadn't said anything interesting.

Kiros sat down opposite Lamond; Seifer stood behind him, leaning on the wall. Lamond glanced at him indifferently, then said, "Is my solicitor here yet?"

"Your solicitor will not be able to enter the Palace till this time tomorrow -"

"Then you might as well not come back until then."

"Will you offer any information in your own defence?"

"Not until I've taken legal advice."

"You're only worsening your position. We have an unimpeachable witness."

Lamond snorted. "The President's precious boy. It's not as if he's beyond doubt. Crying wolf, and all that."

Seifer's hands started itching. He told himself not to go for his gunblade. Kiros said coldly, "There's every reason to accept Commander Leonhart's testimony." Lamond made a face like he didn't believe a word of it. "Unless you have evidence to the contrary -"

"It can wait until my solicitor arrives, sir."

Seifer's temper was badly fraying. "How would you know what he was talking about unless you were there?" he demanded.

Lamond sneered. "Well, I might have made some guesses based on what I know of his rather weak character. Pretty-boys like him are fairly predictable."

The sound of the traitor's voice insulting Squall was way too much for Seifer. Hyperion's black blade flashed up to point at Lamond's throat before he even knew what he was doing. "Say that again and you die," he grated. "You aren't even fit to touch him."

"I don't know about that." Lamond almost smirked as he leant away from the blade, raising an eyebrow at Seifer with a lascivious glint in his eye. Seifer's vision misted over. He could hear a low-pitched growling noise. He barely realised he was the one making it. He twitched the blade back, and was about to bring it smashing down through Lamond's skull when someone grabbed him from behind and pulled him away. It was Kiros, barely avoiding Hyperion's edge himself. Seifer rounded on him; but one of the guards was there, and the other got in between Seifer and Lamond, and the moment passed.

Kiros shook himself free. "I don't think we're gaining anything," he muttered. "You two, your relief will be here in half an hour. Seifer, come with me." He stalked off without waiting for the younger man. Seifer cursed himself and Lamond aloud, and hurried off after the Minister of State.

As soon as they were outside Kiros said, "I ought to take you in charge. You really, really shouldn't have come with me."

"I wanted to know a couple of things." Like whether he'd had my boyfriend before I did. Oh, Squall - if I start thinking about it I won't even be able to go back to him. Calm down, Seifer.

Kiros refrained from commenting. "Go back to Squall's until you're ready to help out again. You might want a word with Laguna on the way." Seifer didn't question the dismissal. His head was starting to ache with the effort of reining himself in. He stomped back through the Security offices to the elevator. Thank Hyne he didn't run into Selphie on the way. He couldn't face an 'I told you so'.

It was only when he got upstairs that he figured out Selphie wasn't in the offices because she was busy somewhere else. She was outside Laguna's apartment with her arms full of Storm Loire, who seemed to be missing his mother. "Mummy's busy," Selphie was trying to reason with him, "but she'll come soon."

"Want Mummy now!" Storm wailed. He was trying to wriggle away from Selphie, and looking crosser and crosser.

Squall's bedroom door slid open and Ellone hurried out. She looked very upset, and Seifer wondered why she was taking it so much worse than before. Storm jumped out of Selphie's arms and ran up to Elle; she picked him up and dried his eyes. She half-turned; "Seifer." She jerked her head towards Squall's bedroom and gave him a meaningful grimace before starting to fuss over her son.

Seifer pushed the door open and stopped in the doorway. Squall was upright at least, but he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands pressed to his cheeks. His bloodshot eyes were wild and frightened. Laguna was sitting next to him, an arm round his shoulders. "You can do it," he gently pressed. "You can."

"I can't!" Squall gasped. He was halfway to hyperventilating. "They won't stop it. Make them stop it! I want - go away..." He started crying again. Laguna pulled him straight into his arms; Squall almost cowered against him, sobbing out half-formed words along with the tears. He was almost completely incoherent and the few fragments Seifer managed to figure out made him less optimistic, not more. Laguna made little noises like he was agreeing with whatever Squall was trying to say, reaching back for a tissue at the same time. Seifer felt like less of a fifth wheel when Laguna gestured for Seifer to pass him the box.

For he felt clumsy and out of place and useless. And the knowledge that this was eleven months' guilt and shame spurting out at the edges of Squall's self-possession made it all the worse. He'd been there for nine of those months and hadn't noticed a thing. He touched Squall gingerly and didn't get any more of a response than Laguna was getting. This can't be Squall. This can't be happening.

Ellone, minus Storm, came back in and visibly restrained a groan at the sight of Squall. She took Laguna's place without a word. Laguna straightened up - only now allowing himself to look as shattered as he obviously felt - and laid a hand on Seifer's arm, his face very serious. Seifer let the President tow him out of the bedroom.

Only when the door had closed did he say, "You'd better have a good reason for pulling me away; he needs me!"

"He needs someone. Too bad none of us make the grade." Laguna closed his eyes for a second and said, "He's no more stable than he was two hours ago. He's stuck somewhere in a flashback. Elle can't get in to calm him down - she tried everything she could, up to things that might have hurt him if they'd worked - and she got nowhere. She can't even get Sleep spells to work on him so he can rest."

And Ellone's magic was powerful. "Then we need a proper sorceress. But we'll never be able to get Rinoa - " And then he knew. "Of course. Edea." He glimpsed a glittering fragment of hope. Her powers were stronger than Elle's; if anybody could get through to Squall, she could. None of Edea's children, Seifer least of all, could ever rid themselves of the notion that Matron could make the worst problems go away if she really tried. He couldn't help believing that she could heal Squall's shattered mind.

He shook off the childish hope as Laguna said, "That's what I was thinking - and I'll swear Elle's had the same idea. Is she at Garden?" Seifer nodded. "Convenient. Look, you'd better count Squall out for the rest of the mission. You can take charge - but you'll need a couple more people here. You can pick them up at the same time."

It took Seifer a few seconds to notice the second person pronoun. "Me?"

"The Ragnarok's the only ship free to pick them up. That means either you or Selphie. And she's busy, and you're too angry to be sensible - or to babysit or to look after Squall or to do anything except work off the stress and go on a short flight."

"But he's my boyfriend, damn it. I want to be here -"

"You're making no difference. He doesn't mind whether it's you, me or Elle with him. Seifer! Someone has to do it. And we really need Selphie here."

"You can - rationalise - all you want. It won't make it any easier."

Seifer closed his eyes, took a deep breath and tried to calm down. The bad thing was that Laguna was right. He wasn't getting through. And the person who had the best chance of doing so was half a world away. All the same, it hurt. It felt like he was abandoning Squall.

He told himself again there was no alternative, and this time he seemed to get the message. Somewhere inside he calmed just a little. "I'll be back in four or five hours," he growled. "You better have someone around to let us through."

"It'll be OK."

And Laguna meant more than the simple mechanics of gaining entry to a restricted area. He wanted Seifer to feel reassured - even though there might not be any hope.

Seifer rarely fooled himself that the odds were any better than they were and he didn't appreciate it when people did it for him. "Yeah, sure," he muttered, and strode off with his trenchcoat flapping round his legs. The dramatic gesture suited his mood. Isolated, and impotent, and afraid.

He couldn't even leave the Palace for half an hour thanks to Ward's security innovations. It took him another two to fly to where the Garden had been four days earlier, and another one to find out it had decamped to Balamb to let the cadets clear out a rogue T-Rexaur colony. By the time he touched down outside the disarmingly tranquil military academy he was ready to look for something to attack again. It didn't make him feel better to know he was acting just as Laguna had said he was. At least I'm in the right place to find something else to slaughter.

"Seifer? You're here?"

And no, I didn't mean him. Still, that's the way the die flips sometimes. "Yeah, Chicken-Wuss, I'm glad to hear you can see straight. Now will you go tell Cid I need to talk to him, or do I have to rip your head off and take it up for you to have the conversation?"

Zell opened his mouth to return the insult, but he shut it again after a long look at Seifer's face. Maybe the signs of grief were visible under the anger. The thought that everyone could see how upset he was brought Seifer even closer to the edge. Zell acted like he saw that as well. "You should take five before seeing him. He'll not be impressed if you blow up at him. I'll come with you -"

"No. Go pack your bags; we want you in Esthar."

"What's up?"

"Tell you later. And, if you want to help me any, go get Squall's medical files from Kadowaki. Don't care what you tell her."

"How about the truth? What's happened to him?"

"He's - ill. The Esthar docs want his records." He brushed past Zell and headed for the Headmaster's office.

To say he wasn't in the mood to be stopped by Cid's secretary was an understatement. He stormed past the woman, feeling better for blatantly ignoring her protests, but stopped in the doorway when he saw Edea sitting beside Cid looking over a report. "Sorry," he said lamely to her. "I kind of have to interrupt."

Cid eyed him suspiciously. "I take it your mission isn't over. Why have you returned, and what made you see fit to barge in here?"

"The situation in Esthar's changed. For a start, Squall's been taken ill. Laguna relieved him of command and passed it over to me. We need two or three more SeeDs."

"I suppose you want to hand-pick them too. You don't have that authority."

"Squall would -"

"Not in his capacity of leader of the Esthar mission, but as SeeD Commander."

Edea laid a hand on his arm. "Let Seifer finish, Cid. I know there's more."

Seifer half-smiled at her in gratitude. "Headmaster, we're dealing with a high-security mission here. Unless I can get hold of the SeeDs I want, we'll have to do without, and at the moment it's just me and Selphie over there and we need backup, for intelligence work as well as combat."

"What's wrong with Squall?" Cid asked.

"I'm not at liberty to say. But he'll be out of action for weeks, if not months, until he recovers on his own. The doctors can't do anything for him."

"Can Ellone?" put in Edea.

"No. She can't get her powers to work on him." He took a deep breath and wondered how to phrase it. "Edea -"

She waved a hand at him for silence. "I can guess the nature of the problem from what you've told us. I might be able to help Squall - if I came to Esthar and saw him."

"Oh, please -"

"Of course I'll come."

Seifer let out a sigh of relief and turned back to Cid. "I'd like to request that Zell, Quistis and Irvine get dispatched to Esthar to assist us. I know Quisty's on assignment but if we could switch another SeeD for her -"

"Quistis was injured in an attack on the President of Galbadia's official residence. You didn't know?"

"No, I didn't." Seifer absently wondered if the attackers had anything to do with the Estharian conspiracy. "How bad is it?"

"She's off active duty for three weeks. We're due to send out a replacement today anyway. You said you needed someone in a non-active role - would she be suitable?"

"Sure. That leaves Zell and Irvine."

"Irvine's also assigned. He's out of radio contact, unfortunately."

Seifer held back the urge to swear. "How long's he away for?"

"It might be another three weeks before he returns."

"Well, if this goes on that long I'll be back for him. I'll take Zell, then, if I may, and I might as well give Quisty's replacement a ride to Deling." If Zell replaced Squall on active duty in Esthar and Quistis took over all the operational stuff, he would have time to help Squall recover. If there was anything he could do for him.

"We should be able to spare him. I'll call him and Nida up here to explain the situation." Cid turned to Edea. "I can't come with you, dear; will you keep me posted?"

"I'll tell you as much as I can," Edea answered, with a troubled glance at Seifer.

Cid dismissed Seifer from the office; he met Zell in the hallway, minus Squall's medical records and with an order for Seifer to report to the infirmary to get them himself. When he got down there, Kadowaki subjected him to a lecture about the meaning of professional privacy before grudgingly handing over the record. It wasn't like he wanted to look at the sheets himself. It was just for the doctors. All the same he had to resist a kind of morbid curiosity that prodded at him to open the file and find out if there had been anything Kadowaki could have picked up on months before. Anything that might have averted this growing disaster.

He went back to the spaceship only to find that he was the first one back. He stalked around outside the ship for a few minutes, begrudging Nida and Zell every second they spent packing their equipment. Despite the fact that they got ready very quickly - Zell because he travelled light, and Nida because he had already known he was leaving - he growled at them when they appeared. "Couldn't you have taken just a little longer - and given me time to solve Fermat's Last Theorem while I waited?"

Nida looked taken aback. Zell ignored his moodiness and said, "We've got Edea to wait for. Cid said."

"I'm here." Seifer turned to see the sorceress waiting by the Ragnarok's ramp. "We can leave whenever you're ready."

"I was ready half a minute after I landed." Seifer turned and strode into the spaceship. He could feel the others exchanging uncertain looks behind him, and wanted to strangle the men at least for daring to act like that around him. Then he reflected that he was acting in such a way as to give content to their unspoken thoughts. That just made the whole thing worse. Having them think he was a grouchy asshole was one thing: being one was another. But I've got a good reason, Hyne damn it all...

He couldn't even relax on the ride. Zell pried at him for information almost all the way to Deling City. Eventually Seifer frightened him off with a few well-chosen loudly-voiced insults, and handed him a parting injunction to be patient until Quistis joined them. At least Edea and Nida had the sense to stay out of his way.

Deling didn't come soon enough for any of the Ragnarok's four occupants. Seifer resolutely stuck to the helm himself despite the fact that Nida and Zell were both more experienced pilots than he was. When the hour-long flight was finally over Seifer bumped them down into a field rather than bothering getting clearance for the airport. He didn't even leave the cockpit for fresh air. He couldn't move for the weight of his thoughts.

The ship was quiet after Nida had left. Maybe Zell had gone with him. Huh. That was unlikely. Seifer wanted it way too much for Hyne to allow it to happen.

He heard the whine of machinery behind him and tensed up. "It's only me," Edea said almost demurely, her footsteps approaching him. "Zell went with Nida. You don't need to hide behind your fašades anymore - if you don't want to."

He wanted to tell her now. He wanted to break down in her arms, while he was safely away from Squall and he didn't need to worry about upsetting him any more. But he knew that if he started talking now and started crying now he wouldn't be able to stop until some time after Zell and Quistis had returned.

He opened his mouth to try and explain, but she touched him on his shoulder and he realised there was no need. She understood him as nobody except Squall did. He leant back and rested his head on her arm until they finally heard people moving about below them.

The hatch banged, distantly, and the lift whined. "We're here - at last," Zell said from the back of the bridge. "Took me forever to pry Quis away. You gonna tell us what's happening now?"

Seifer brought the Ragnarok to life. "Why should I enlighten an undersized punk like you?" he said over his shoulder, as the ship shivered and jumped forwards like an overenthusiastic racehorse.

"There's no need to be so unpleasant," Quistis said tartly as she came up to the front of the bridge. "Really, Seifer, I thought you'd grown up just a little."

"Well, now you know better." He remembered doing this years ago, pushing back his own pain by hurting other people. He'd thought he wouldn't need to do it again. But he was on the edge. Like Squall had been ever since - it had happened. Only Squall had gone over the edge. And he needed Seifer to pull him back up again. He didn't need Seifer to jump over after him.

Quistis sighed, leant over him and programmed the autopilot to take them to Esthar Airstation. "Seifer, get your head out of your backside and talk to us. If we're meant to be working with you, you've got to learn to communicate." He suddenly felt the pressure of her eyes on him. "Is something the matter?"

He caught her hand and pulled her into the next seat. Edea and Zell moved closer. Seifer tried to sort out his thoughts enough to tell them what was going on; he settled for starting, "We've got a problem in Esthar."

"Care to expand on that?"

"Our mission's out of control and Squall's had a nervous breakdown."

There was silence on the bridge for a few seconds. In the end Quistis said, "Concentrate on the mission for now."

She was such a sensible girl. Seifer told himself to ask Hyne to bless her next time he prayed. He couldn't think about Squall and talk about the mission at the same time.

"We were looking into a leak in Esthar Intelligence - some double agents were sabotaging missions and handing over codes to the enemy. But it's turning out like the double agents are working for some overseas group that probably wants a war. We don't know which group. So we need to find out and watch out for an attack at the same time."

"You know who the double agents are?" Zell asked.

"One for sure, and a few more suspects."

"Got the suspects in custody?"

"Yeah, but we can't keep them there for long unless we actually arrest them. So when we have to let them go we might have problems."

"And Squall picked the wrong time to bow out, huh?"

Seifer's arm snaked out. Before he realised what he was doing he had a hand wrapped round Zell's neck. "Say one more word like that and I will personally strangle you, Dincht. You know nothing - you..." Seifer dropped him and turned away. What did he think he was doing? Zell wasn't one of the monsters he'd been hunting earlier - human or otherwise. "Sorry," he whispered.

"It's OK." Zell didn't sound angry, just puzzled. "Seif, I ain't seen you act like this for years. And I ain't ever heard you apologise to me before." He stopped, all expectant like he wanted an explanation.

One that Seifer felt obliged to give. "I'm upset about Squall," he managed.

Quistis touched his shoulder. "Why did he collapse, Seifer?" It was an instructor's voice, one that instilled calm and required obedience. Required an answer.

"He was on one of the missions that got wrecked by the double agents. He - he got captured by rebels - they..." His voice cracked but he continued, "They attacked him and - sexually assaulted him. Raped him."

He ignored the horrified gasps and went on, "One of the double agents was there - when Squall saw him in Esthar he couldn't bear it any more - he broke down. The doctors called it post-traumatic stress - look, when I left Esthar he'd been crying for two hours straight. Selphie was going to call if he got better - so I guess he hasn't..." He finally had to stop. He'd borne it for the past five hours by not thinking about it. Thinking too hard was fatal at times like this. He ought to know it.

He felt a gentle hand on his arm. He stiffened as the light scent of Edea's perfume reached his nostrils. For a moment he thought he could keep what was left of his composure, then he realised it would never work and turned and buried his head in the crook of her neck, shuddering with the release of so many pressurised tears. The hand moving through his hair told him he no longer had to be strong. She could support him.

It might have been minutes or hours later when he stopped shivering and looked up at the others. Quistis had half-wrapped herself round him and her eyes were red. Zell was sitting down, staring into space, alternately looking like he couldn't believe it and like he wanted to hit something. Seifer was only surprised he hadn't yet done so. Edea still held him, her face pale and haunted, a semi-maternal grief shining in her eyes.

Zell jumped back to the present like he'd been thrown back. "He's gonna get better - right?" he asked, looking sideways at Seifer.

"I don't know. Just think about how upset he's been - he's frightened of being around people. He has been ever since before I got back to Garden; he just tried to hide it before. Now he's even unhappy when Selphie's in the room."

"And Ellone can't help him." Edea didn't question; she stated a fact.

"She can't reach into his mind. She wants to stop him being so afraid but she can't reach him. She can't even make Sleep spells work on him. I -" Seifer caught himself. "I want him back," he said softly. "If he comes back we'd have something to work with at least. But right now there's nothing and it's so frightening it's just not real."

Edea hesitated before answering, "I can probably do something."

"But...?"

"But the less intervention the better. Whether it's myself or someone else who intervenes. He won't be happy to know I've been interfering with his mind."

"But you only want to help," Zell protested.

Seifer snorted. "So did the doctor he almost literally threw out of his bedroom earlier. Only difference is, he knows Edea."

The sorceress nodded. "And it might be an important difference - if he'll trust me enough."

"He's past trusting anyone."

"We'll see."

They hardly spoke any more until the gleaming city of Esthar became visible ahead.

 

(to be continued...)

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