"Irvine, tell Selphie to take off," Squall ordered, in the same kind of irrefutable tone that had made Cid hand over control of the Garden to an untried teenager in a moment of crisis years before. "Now."
Irvine was already going, taking the corrugated metal stairs up to the Ragnarock's cockpit two at a time, his boot-steps ringing in the cargo hold. Squall was slower to follow, burdened with the weight of an unresponsive Zell Dincht. The biting wind of Trabia's snow fields followed them up the access ramp, freezing the wet edges of Zell's torn clothing, whipping the fur spikes of Squall's collar into frozen spikes.
It was humbling, Squall thought, palming the ramp control panel and letting the whining hydraulics lift them up into the ship, that even after traveling to the end of time and back again, even after saving the lives of a million generations all at once, there were still things lingering in the corners of the world that could kill them. Squall glanced down into Zell's still face, blood and frost in the jagged peak of his hair, and felt his heart contract. Humbling, and terrifying.
The gangway clanged shut and the wind died around them, prickly snowflakes turning into little droplets on the floor. Squall shifted his grip on Zell's body as the engines whined to life, and braced them both against a bulwark as the Ragnarock tore upwards into the sky. They would be back to Balamb in two hours.
Squall hoped it would be fast enough.
"Old Galbadian ordinance from the war?" Zell asked, glancing up from the printout Nida had given them. "I thought all that was cleared out of Trabia years ago."
"Nevertheless, we cannot allow the reconstruction of Trabia Garden to continue until the weapons have been deactivated." Nida rattled his copy of the report for emphasis. "Though it is not directly on the Garden's property, it is near enough that were it to detonate--"
"This is a hell of a high energy reading for just some old piece of shit rocket," Irvine interrupted. "You guys sure that's what it is?"
Nida looked affronted, his eyes flashed. "So maybe it's two piece of shit rockets," he conceded. "But however many there are, they need to be deactivated and removed. I advise we send the explosives team at once to--"
"Don't bother." Squall flopped the papers down next to his undrunk coffee. "We'll go ourselves."
"Tell me why, exactly," Zell said, a day and a half later, when they were standing calf-deep in snow and staring down into the yawning maw of a cave in the Trabian mountains, "we're out here freezing our asses off instead of the bomb guys?"
Squall peered down into the shadowy depths of the cavern, and deliberately thumbed a fresh load of bullets into Lionheart's chamber. For some reason, the air coming out of the cavern felt even colder than the air outside, bitter and ancient. "Probably because if Nida's right and that reading is actually a couple of old rockets, then I'm a funguar."
"A funguar with impeccable hair," Irvine added, trying to keep his ponytail from slapping him in the face in the stiff wind, and failing. "How do you do that, anyway? It doesn't even move. Did you use Zell's product by mistake again?"
Squall rolled his eyes at Irvine and snapped the chamber of his gunblade closed again. "Come on."
For hours they traversed the cave's echoing depths, searching for the source of the energy reading and trying not to notice that every step further down only chilled them more. Their lights remained off, as the rock walls themselves pulsed with a green light, breathing as though they traveled through the very viscera of their planet. It only grew brighter as they went deeper in. More than once Zell said they should turn back and just wall the whole place off. More than once Squall considered agreeing with him. By the time it was over he wished he had.
There were no unspent rockets at the bottom of that cavern. None of them had a name for what they found there, though Squall thought it looked as though it might once have been human. It was not a Guardian Force, or at least, not any kind of Guardian Force as they understood it. It was interested in guarding only itself, and the presence of the three SeeDs was an unforgivable intrusion.
It was beautiful and awful and powerful beyond their understanding, with streamers of white hair and flawless ivory skin, and beast-slit eyes that throbbed with the same green energy as its lair. How long it had lain there, undisturbed, none of them could guess. But it turned aside their weapons and their magic with furious ease, and unloaded an icy wrath on them that they could not defend against.
"Is it a sorceress?" Irvine asked once, falling back to reload, empty casings littering the floor around his boots. He had called Ifrit again and again until the monster seemed to appear the instant it vanished, rising to Irvine's bidding with a willing haste that it usually only gave to Selphie. Its flames barely broke against the ribbons of ice the monster flung at them, but Shiva was powerless against it, and Quetzalcoatl's lightning only shattered the ice into tiny razors that slit Zell's face and his clothes with indifferent sameness.
"No," Squall gasped, skidding back. Zell charged past him, fists curled for another attack, even as Squall's cure spell knit his cuts back into whole skin.
"I thought it said--" Irvine began, but Squall made a sharp noise to silence him. He'd tried to draw from it, thinking it might have or even be a useful GF. He felt the thing's name hammering against the inside of his skull even as it rebuffed him. He didn't want to say it out loud. Who knew what forgotten power they might summon if they did? Squall had already saved the world once. He had no interest in doing it again.
Zell crashed to the cave floor at their feet, his skin glittering with magical frost, and tiny ruby beads of blood welled in fresh lacerations. Squall tried to produce magic to heal him, but all he managed was a faint spray of sparks between his gloved fingertips. Zell shuddered, made a little moan of pain, and went limp. The creature screamed in an almost human noise of triumph, and shifted its gaze to the two men still standing.
"Fall back!" Squall shouted, scraping Zell up into his arms and dragging him away as the creature reared, one immense white wing beating the air above them. The cave shuddered; rock and ice thudded around them in a ponderous rain. "Fall back, now!"
Irvine didn't need telling twice. They ran, lugging Zell between them, pursued by the beast's laughter and the sound of collapsing tunnels. Squall couldn't remember the last time he'd had to run from a monster. All he cared was that they were not followed, that the gray, natural light around them grew as they approached the cave mouth, and that Zell's heart still beat faintly under his hands.
The northern mountains could keep their secrets. That monster belonged to some other hero. And Squall knew, as he emerged onto the Sorbald Snowfield and scoured the landscape for the bloodstain that was his ship, that he was not the one.
Zell was wet to the skin with barely-melted ice and his own blood. Irvine's last cure spell had healed the cuts, and his flesh was whole in spite of his soaked t-shirt and the crimson streaks obscuring his tattoo, but he was cold as seawater under Squall's ungloved hands. He lay motionless in the bunk of the Ragnarock's sleeping quarters, his breathing shallow, his eyes shut.
There was nothing quite so unnerving to Squall as Zell unconscious. Even in regular sleep he was restless, squirming or snoring or stealing the blankets. This eerie silence set Squall's teeth on edge. His magic was spent, and even if it hadn't been, Squall didn't know what spell would bring Zell back from the cold depths of such a spell-wound. Instead he went back in his mind to his earliest training as an underclassman, long before they were granted weapons and magic. Through a GF-filled haze he recalled his basic field medicine classes, the first aid for shock and trauma to be used on civilians and fellow students alike.
Off came Zell's torn and soggy jacket, the sneakers, the jeans with bloody holes around the knees. The armored gloves of dragonskin and fish-mail had to be worked off Zell's still-clenched fists, but the t-shirt, already in sad shape, was simply ripped away. Once Zell was bundled under the blankets in nothing but his tattoo, Squall's jacket followed Zell's to the airship floor.
"If Irvine walks in now I'll never hear the end of this," Squall said, hoping for some response from Zell but getting none. His crossed belts jangled as they came off, harnessed boots clunked into a corner, and jeans and t-shirt remained wherever they fell. Shivering, Squall crawled into the narrow bunk behind Zell, wrapped his arms around him, and willed whatever heat he had into Zell's lifeless body.
It was not without irony that Squall looked at his present situation. His cold nature was the stuff of legend; underclassmen whispered that he wore gloves so as not to give his comrades frostbite. But now he was naked under an old Esthar army-issue blanket, the wool itchy on his bare skin, trying to pull Zell back from some spell-spawned hypothermia with nothing but his own body heat. Zell felt like wet clay against Squall's chest and thighs, doing more to freeze him than the other way around.
"C'mon, Zell," Squall muttered, chafing Zell's arms with the palms of his hands. "I'm used to a little more reaction when I get naked, you know."
Nothing, not even a tremor of an eyelid. Squall sighed, pressed his cheek to Zell's shoulder, and waited. The Ragnarock hummed around them as it raced towards Balamb, and Squall hung on tighter, as though Zell was actually slipping away. He did not know how long it took. But slowly, miraculously, little pockets of heat began to bloom between them, under Zell's armpits and at the backs of his knees. Squall's feet still felt like lumps of ice, and he didn't think that was going to change anytime soon, but at least he still had some warmth to give.
As Zell's body turned back into flesh and blood, Squall's took note of the transformation, and responded in kind. Now that the rush of life and death urgency was past, other sensations had room to make themselves known. Squall was made intimately aware of the sleek planes and supple curves that made up Zell Dincht: his body honed and powerful and compact, heavy as it rested against him. Zell, occupying only the physical space in Squall's arms, was not his personality or the long history of their times together. Without his loudness and his laughter and everything that Squall usually thought of Zell as being, he was only his face and his form, and he was as beautiful a weapon as Squall had ever held.
Squall's fingers crept over a landscape as unfamiliar to him as the surface of the sun: the perfect angles of Zell's shoulder-blades, the rippling plain of his belly, the ropes of muscle just under his forearms. His hands were square, small, deadly. There was blood and dirt under his fingernails. Though almost invisible to the eye, there was a faint roughness along his jaw, a day's growth of beard glittering in the black, sinuous lines of his tattoo.
Squall convinced himself that it was still field medicine, comrade to comrade and nothing more, and pressed his face into the soft space behind Zell's ear. His lips parted and he tasted blood and sweat, and something else sweet-sharp-citrus that was only Zell. His nerve-endings sang gently with a slow yearning, his hands splayed possessively over Zell's chest, and he forgot that they had ever been cold.
"...am I dreaming, are you drunk, or is it my birthday?"
Squall jerked back too fast, he realized belatedly, for him to be anything other than guilty. "Zell!" It was suddenly hard to find his voice. "You awake?"
Zell stretched and shifted his hips; Squall devoutly wished he wouldn't move around so much. "I think so," Zell grinned at him over his shoulder, and Squall was discomfited to find that even now, with all of Zell there and not just his body, the newfound appeal of him was unchanged. "But then I also think you're spooning naked in bed with me, and that doesn't seem really likely."
"I was trying to keep you from dying," Squall retorted. "And how did you know it was me?"
"Irvine doesn't have a bigass ring in his..." Zell's pause was just long enough to be telling, Squall was too aware of a ripple of tension in Zell's unfairly perfect backside. "...on his finger."
Squall felt a rush of blood to his face, heat that would have been a hell of a lot more useful an hour ago, and he rolled away from Zell. "Yeah, well. I don't think you're dying now, so I'm just gonna--"
The door to the bunk room whizzed open. Irvine leaned in, his mouth open to say something that he promptly forgot all about. He gave a low whistle instead, eyes wide at the scene. "Well goddamn, Squall. Afraid he was gonna die and you'd miss your chance at him?"
"Fuck off, Kinneas," Squall grumbled, kicking off the blankets and trying to find his pants. They were on the other side of the room, and Irvine was watching him with narrow eyes. Squall wasn't sure his dignity would make that sprint intact. "It's basic first-aid for hypother--" Squall broke off, as his explanations bounced uselessly off of Irvine's leering grin. "...whatever."
Irvine winked at Zell. "Yeah, sure, man. Just make sure you still respect him when we land. Which is in five minutes, by the way. Help you find your pants?"
Squall's left boot, at least, was nearby, and his aim was perfect. Irvine retreated with a yelp as it sailed through the air and hit the door switch. The door hissed shut, narrowly avoiding the sharpshooter's fingers.
"Well hell, I was just asking!" Irvine shouted from the other side, put-out.
Squall ignored him, hissing in displeasure as he pulled his wet jeans back on. He could feel Zell's eyes on his ass, but turning around didn't seem like a very good solution. He wasn't sure why he was being so modest; Zell had made it pretty clear that he was aware of his commander's anatomy and its adornments.
"Hey." Zell clambered out of the bunk, blanket around his hips. "Thanks, Squall." He held out Squall's t-shirt to him, his smile sheepish. "Thanks for not leaving me back there."
"I put you there in the first place," Squall said, taking his shirt without meeting Zell's eyes, though the expanse of Zell's bare chest wasn't much better. He yanked his clammy shirt over his head, hoping it would have the same effect as a cold shower. "I'm not going to leave you."
"Still," Zell persisted. "I'm grateful."
Their eyes met, Squall's arms forgot how to get into a t-shirt, and the moment grew hot between them. Don't expose someone frozen to heat too quickly, Zell, Squall thought, trying to swallow. You'll just scald them.
It went on too long, but Squall wasn't sure how to break it, or if he even wanted to. It only dissolved when the ship lurched under them, landing with an uneasy bump. Zell automatically reached out to steady Squall, warm fingers on bare hipbones. His blue eyes burned like the flames on his jacket, and they went from Squall's eyes to his lips in one meaningful motion, and Squall felt the pull. The two of them tilted together like planets drawn together by gravity, and met like a conjunction. Zell's mouth had never known what it meant to be cold, and Squall plunged into it, shivering at the warm welcome. Zell's blanket crumpled to the floor and was forgotten.
"Hey, assholes!" Irvine's fist boomed on the locked door. "We're home! Kadowaki wants to check you both out, so get yer pants on so she can tell you to take 'em off again."
Zell did not let Squall startle away this time, fingers hooked firmly in Squall's belt-loops, tongue coaxing him to stay a second longer. They only parted when the Ragnarock's engine fell silent, the drone becoming a hesitant staccato of plinks and thuds as the ship powered down.
Selphie's rap on the door was less indignant than Irvine's. "You guys aren't dead, are you?" she called out. "Because that would be a total bummer."
"Totally," Zell agreed, into Squall's mouth.
Squall shuddered, and pulled away. They were on solid ground now, and Squall fumbled around for his jacket and his boots.
"We'll be right there, Selphie!" Zell called, but his eyes were still on Squall as he picked up what was left of his own clothes. "So what are we gonna tell Nida?" he asked, slithering into his jeans. "That there's a really nasty monster at the bottom of that cave, and we don't want to fuck with it? I don't think that'll work."
Squall picked up his jacket. It was a twist of soggy leather and wet fur, and smelled like it. He yanked one of the blankets off the bunk instead. "Tell him it's three piece of shit rockets," Squall said, wrapping the blanket firmly around him and striding out of the narrow room, blood roaring in his ears and his lips burning. "And they're staying there."