by Tenshi

Zell Dincht could never quite manage to be cool. He was popular, at least in the regard that most of the Garden students knew him on sight. That could hardly be helped, with the blond spike of hair and the flamboyant tattoo and ambient volume. He'd even go so far as to say he was pretty much liked, for his sense of humor and his ready smile and his irrepressible personality. Most of the town students had parents that knew his parents or did business with his father's fishing fleet; his mother's cooking was legendary and Zell was liberal in the sharing of his care packages. Girls liked him because he was so unassuming, and more than willing to be the go-between on the perpetual no-mans-land between girl students and boy students. He was often sent to find out if so and so would go out with such and such or to reassure a dejected girl that the boy she liked really liked her back or if not, that he was just stupid. He should be so lucky!

The response was invariably a sniffly smile and a hug and for Zell to be told that he was just the sweetest thing ever and some girl would be really lucky to have him for a boyfriend. Except that was the closest Zell ever came to being asked. Girls in Balamb Garden weren't interested in nice, they were interested in cool. They went glossy-eyed over Leonheart's rebellious indifference and fell hopelessly in droves for Almasy, even though he wouldn't hesitate to tell them to move their fat asses out of the hallway or to quit blocking fire escapes.

Zell studied it for a long time, gnawing away at the gordian knot of adolescent society, and came to the conclusion that it wasn't assholishness in general that was the desirable element. It was the cool, a strange and inimitable quality that one either had, or he didn't. Squall Leonheart was cool, even though he ignored everyone and everything around him, and his grades were mediocre. Girls didn't care about grades. Seifer Almasy was cool, even though he ran the disciplinary committee like his own personal dictatorship and had flunked his SeeD exam more times than Zell could count. Girls didn't care about that, either. Girls cared about having a cool boyfriend and Zell, not being one, couldn't manage to ever be the other. He was too loud, too nice, too hometown, too average, too unarmed, too hyper, too short, dammit all, and he could ink every inch of his skin in black flames and still never quite manage the same air of badass that Squall Leonheart exuded even when he was doing something as mundane as dropping off his lunch tray.

And, having seen girls often enough with their guard down, and sworn solemn oaths to keep secrets that they turned into weapons, Zell began to think maybe he didn't want to. Girls were foreign turf to most of the male population of Balamb Garden, but Zell, like an interloper welcomed into the herd, knew them better than he wanted to. They were in no way less petty or more desirable company than the boys were; in some ways they were worse. The feminine mystique that flummoxed Zell's male peers was nothing more than a cultivated glamour, sticky fly-trap sap. Balamb Garden was a military school, after all, and the girls had learned early how to make the best use of their mercenary training. They were ruthless, and it was as much for each other as for the boys that they competed. Boys, at least, would get into a fist fight and be done with it (or maybe like Squall and Seifer just keep getting into the fist fights), but at least they didn't pretend to be best friends and all made up and then go around passing vicious rumors as if they were daggers to go between the ribs.

By the time Zell was seventeen, he was running fewer errands. Girls at that age were able to throw down their own gauntlets, and his services were required less. He was still an occasional "friend date" for the girl who had just been dumped or the plain younger sister, but little else. He had given up on being cool and on girls, for the most part, and tried to be content with just being Zell Dincht. The standards, he found, were easier to reach, and he enjoyed dancing with a punching bag far more than with a disinterested girl checking out her best friend's date. With less time spent on unattainable social goals, he spent more time in the library, and was fighting carnivorous plants in the training center when most of his peers were busy necking in the secret area. So it happened that when he was ready to take the SeeD test Zell was hardworking, likeable, unassuming, and utterly unaware that though he might not be cool per se, he was deadly.

"This is a stupid idea, Seifer," Squall spat, wiping a spatter of snake ichor off of his uniform. Zell, sidestepping the unfortunate remains of the Dollet soldier who had been the snake's last meal, was silent in his agreement. He wasn't prepared to voice his discontent again, though, and to put himself squarely in the path of Seifer Almasy's disdain. Squall however had lived in that spot for his entire life, and he could take their squad leader's scorn. "We shouldn't even be here, we have our orders--"

Seifer's un-uniformed arm shot out, fisting in the front of Squall's jacket. "You've got orders, all right. Mine. Now quit bitching and start following them. I want to know what Galbadia's doing with that tower." They snarled at each other, unwilling to retreat and yet somehow even their petty squabble didn't make a difference in their individual brands of coolness. Zell thought he'd been stuck with them solely to reinforce his own mundanity. Seifer failed SeeD tests with clockwork regularity, and Squall--who knew what he was thinking--but Zell's entire future was riding on this mission, and this test. He had no choice, really, but to be as by the book as he could manage, and hope for the best. Which was why he was scanning the area for more enemies while Squall and Seifer were daring each other to swing first, and how he saw the Galbadian soldier before they did. He was moving stealthily through the brush, assault rifle lowered, its barrel honing in on the unmistakable target of Seifer's scar.

Zell coiled back and sprung forward on adrenaline-fueled instinct, and had slammed the man's face into the pavement before the other two noticed the man was there. Zell rocketed through the undergrowth on the trail, and had dispatched the other two soldiers lurking there while Seifer and Squall were still reloading their gunblades.

"Hmph," Seifer said, looking down at the blood pooling on the stones from the first man's shattered face. "I guess that's why it's a good idea to keep a grunt around. Come on, let's move."

He strode away, coat belling out behind, him, without another word of thanks or praise.

"You're pretty fast," Squall said, in something like a compliment. Zell barely heard his first kind word from Squall Leonheart; he had curled his shaking hands into fists and was staring, numbly, at the three dead men staring back at them. Concussive fractures, he thought, in a detached kind of way. The first to the cranium, second and third with successive blows to the neck and chest. Severe internal trauma. Cures are only effective if administered instantly, but the wounds are almost always instantly fatal. It had been on page 356 of his field medicine training textbook, next to the diagram of cure-healed and natural-healed scar tissue.

"I killed them," Zell said, hoarsely. "Goddamn."

Squall lifted one shoulder, disinterested in the corpses. "It's what we've been doing since we got here."

"You guys maybe," Zell said, with half a glance at the gunblade that now, he was not quite so eager to see. "I've been hitting to KO."

"Huh." Squall shouldered his weapon. "I just thought you weren't as tough. Hand-to-hand, and all. Didn't know you were pulling your punches."

"I--" Zell began, looking helplessly from Squall to the dead Galbadian soldiers, noting a certain similar detachment in their eyes.

"B-Team!" Seifer shouted, from the rise of the trail. "Get your worthless asses up here! That's an order!"

"I'd start hitting to kill from here on if I were you," Squall said, following Seifer at no great hurry. "It's what we're here for. It's what he'd do."

"That soldier?" Zell said, jogging backwards from the carnage, reluctant to turn his back on the bodies.

"Seifer," Squall corrected, with almost a laugh, bitter and indifferent. "Come on. He's too cool to get himself killed, unfortunately."

Zell shivered. It had never occurred to him before that coolness, by its very etymology, was a heartless kind of cold.


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