by Tenshi

"It's fine," Squall says, one hand pressed to his side, up under his jacket. His t-shirt has not been white, not for days, or since however-long-ago it was that they first stumbled into this castle perched on the edge of time. But under the grayed fabric is a crimson as bright as Zell's jacket was once upon a time, and it has soaked wetly through Squall's glove and left a patent-leather sheen on the hip of his dusty pants. "It's just a scratch, it'll mend on its own."

"Doesn't look like a scratch," Irvine mutters, but he stands down at Squall's glare, makes a show of examining his rifle.

"I can fix that right up," Zell says, with forced brightness. "It'll only take a cure--"

Squall snarls something unintelligible, hand clenching in the bloody shreds of his shirt. "I said it's fine. Don't you fucking dare waste a spell on me now, Dincht, that's an order."

Zell flinches, unable to stop himself; always as honest as the mark emblazoned across his face.

"Hey, Squall," Irvine tries, in mollifying tones. "Zell is the medic when Rinoa's not around. You should let him do his job."

"His job is to follow my orders." Squall fetches up against a crumbling wall fountain, but the basin is full of dead leaves, long dry.

"And doesn't that just sound like someone else I used to know," Irvine says, not under his breath. "If I didn't know better I'd think your scar was going the other way."

Squall hears him, all too clearly. His head comes up, and for a moment his eyes are as transparent as Zell's. Zell won't look at him, staring at some grotesque, crumbling statuary in the empty garden, and bouncing lightly with what he pretends is just excitement.

Squall pushes his cheek into the furred collar of his shirt, like a lion hiding in its mane. The hairs cling to the cold pain-sweat along his jaw. "Sorry, Zell," he says. "But we've got to save it. You can cure me when I can't walk anymore."

Voices in the stairwell, Selphie's nervous giggle, Quistis' contralto murmur.

"Here come the girls," Irvine says, needlessly. Echoes turn into whispers in this place; none of them can endure the silence for long. The whole trip has been a series of useless comments, of wonder what this does or Cid should hang this one in his office.

Squall stands up straight, leaving a bloody handprint on the chipped marble basin. He zips his jacket halfway, to hide the worst of the wound. Weakness, for Squall Leonheart, is only in the showing of it, as he strides past Zell to wait at the top of the stairs for the rest of the party, for his sorceress.

Zell's hand closes into an impotent fist, an imploring look at Irvine only gets a shake of the head in return. Irvine doesn't pretend to get the mentality of command, and he's got better sense than to fall in love with it.

Zell, however, was not really asking permission anyway. Not from Irvine. "Hey, Squall," he says, strolling over to their leader, putting a hand on Squall's elbow as though only to get his attention.

"What? Let go of--"

Quetzalcoatl sends an electric flash across Zell's eyes, licking white lighting over his tattoo and sending a burst of icy magic into the small of Squall's back, like a supercharged snowball. Cure magic is always cold, but even it has the taint of a preferred summon. Squall's cures, as Irvine once put it pithily, are like getting fucked by an icicle. But Zell's always taste like ozone and oranges.

"Sorry," Zell says, once the magic is spent and lost, and a new pink scar is creeping across Squall's ribcage. "You, uh, looked like you were going to fall over. For a second. There."

Selphie bounds into existence on the landing, as full of artificial cheer as Zell tries to be, and in the chatter of reunion no one notices Squall's small, defeated smile.


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