Prior to Fisherman's Horizon, Garden briefly runs aground. Squall and Zell go to the beach.
Before any of the SEEDs or cadets on board had even gotten over their shock enough to try finally getting out of Garden and onto solid ground again at last Headmaster Cid was making an announcement, ordering everyone to stay indoors. Garden hadn't stopped, it had just tried passing through a channel too thin for it and gotten wedged up against a deserted island off the coast of Trabia with a shore too high for it to pass over easily. It was still moving, he assured them, and would eventually either work its way over the island or sideways back into the water. Anyone who disobeyed orders would risk being abandoned on the uninhabited rock until a ship passed by to rescue them.
Five minutes later Zell was banging on Squall's door. "Yo, Squall, you're in there, right?" he yelled when he didn't open up right away. "Get up!"
He was just raising his hand to knock again when the door finally slid open. "Zell," Squall said coolly, and really, sometimes it was nice that Squall acted like words were a waste of time, since as long as he didn't come out and say 'go away you annoying idiot' Zell could go right ahead and pretend he didn't notice his expression saying the same thing.
"C'mon, man!" he said, practically bouncing. "Haven't you noticed we've stopped? Let's get out there! Stretch our legs, fight something other than Grats for a change!"
Squall examined him silently for a few more moments, then said, "Go find Irvine" and began to close the door.
"Hey, hey wait!" Zell shoved his hand between the door and the frame, and was very glad that Squall at least liked him enough not to go ahead and smash it. "I already saw him on the way up here. He was busy flirting with some girl. Come on Squall, aren't you sick of being in this place as much as everyone else is?"
"Didn't you hear the Headmaster's orders, Zell?"
Okay, he'd kinda been hoping Squall wouldn't bring that up, but luckily he had a trump card ready for just such an event. "Maybe it is, but it's not like I never disobeyed orders for you/. Remember /Dollet, Squall? Not just going up to the tower, but jumping off that stupid cliff? If that penalty had been enough to keep me from making SEED it would've been on your head, buddy! You owe me one!"
There was another of those damned Squall-pauses, where he looked like he was getting lost somewhere inside of his own head, then he said, "You can't get out the gates. The propeller would tear you to pieces even if the fall wasn't enough to kill you," and Zell knew that he'd won.
"You just leave that to me! Grab your gunblade, and I'll get us out of here!" he said, grinning broadly, and punching the air a few times in victory while Squall did as he'd said.
He came back a minute later, hooking his gunblade to his belts as he walked. "Lead the way then."
"To the basement!" Zell cried out, pointing in the general direction of the elevator. Squall rolled his eyes, which Zell might've found insulting except, hey, annoyance was an emotion and with Squall you really had to take what you could get when it came to him expressing those.
Squall stayed silent on the way to the basement, which didn't really surprise Zell too much. Actual conversation would be too much to hope for from the other man. It wasn't until he was prying up a certain floor panel near NORG's ruined pod that Squall finally asked, "/What/ are you doing, Zell?"
Zell flashed Squall a cocky grin and tore the metal panel free with one more good yank, revealing a hidden emergency escape tunnel underneath it. "Did I ever tell you I'm good with machinery? So I wanted to check out this pod, see if there was anything I could do with it, an' instead I noticed this part of the floor sounded weirdly hollow. Dunno if NORG had this thing put in back before he got too fat to use it, or if it was put in way back when for times like this when Garden's moving; all that matters is it's our way out!" He started lowering himself down onto the ladder before Squall had time to make any complaints. "Kinda wish it had an elevator, but what can you do?"
He'd swear he could feel Squall's stare on the top of his head, but he kept himself focused on the ladder in front of him and soon enough heard Squall start down after him. "Get ready to stop when you hear me do it," he called up the shaft. "There's another emergency door I've gotta open to get outside, an' a rope ladder to let down to get us to the ground."
Squall grunted, and Zell thought that'd be the only response he'd be getting when Squall surprised him by asking, "You've come all the way down here by yourself before?"
"Just to the hatch! Would've been kinda dumb to climb down the outside before it stopped moving, right?" He pretended not to hear Squall muttering something about it being pretty dumb to go down then/. "Checked the rope ladder to make sure it was solid, though. I /figured we might have to use it one day. Call it a hunch!"
"Garden's gates are too high up for anyone to get out of them now. That's not much of a hunch."
"Okay, call it foresight! I got some of that! Hey, stop now!" Zell let go of the ladder with one hand, turning his attention to prying open the door. He was glad he'd done it before. The last time he'd been down there he'd had to bang at the door for awhile to get it to open, which'd have been embarrassing with Squall right there. But it was much easier now that it had been opened again once, and in no time at all he was climbing down from it to the island below. "/All right!/ This is way better than sitting around in your room, don't you think Squall?"
The look Squall gave the bare stone land around them made it clear he didn't feel the same way. "You're outside. Now what were you planning on doing here?"
"Uh... well..." Zell looked around, and had to admit to himself that Cid's announcement just hadn't given him a good picture of how deserted this particular island was. He turned slowly in a circle, and was just about to admit that there really wasn't much to do other than start jogging laps, when-- "Hey, a beach!"
Squall followed his line of sight. "...It's on the mainland, Zell."
"So? It's not that far! Bet we could swim it in five minutes!"
"...........Garden could start moving again at any minute."
"Oh, come on! It moves so slowly that there's no way we wouldn't be able to get to the ladder before it gets too far. Live a little, Squall!" He started dashing towards the water, stripping off his shirt and kicking off his shoes as he went.
"/Zell!/ We're in Trabia/!" And if he wasn't already diving into the ocean Zell might've been /amazed at how Squall actually sounded stressed, maybe even a little worried/. But it was pushed right out of his mind by how /cold the water was.
He swam a few strokes, determined to at least try making it to the shore, but would've turned back around before long if he hadn't heard the splash of Squall entering the water behind him. No way was he turning back after that; not because he was too proud to, but because when would there ever be another chance to get Squall Lionheart to do something that crazy?
Still, thank god he'd actually overestimated the amount of time the swim would take, because he didn't think he'd have been able to stand staying in the water any longer.
"I hope you had a reason for coming over here," Squall said, and of course Mr. Frigid himself wouldn't even have chattering teeth when he'd had to strip all the way down to his boxers before getting in the water, while Zell was about to shake out of his skin in his shorts. He wondered how the hell Squall did it, how anybody could be that in control, but, hell, it was /Squall/. Control was what he did.
"Well, we could... Cards?" He pulled his deck out of his pocket, glad that the case he kept them in seemed to have left them mostly dry.
Squall pinched the bridge of his nose. "You couldn't have done that back in Garden?"
"I could've/, but it wouldn't have been on the beach. You don't need an excuse to visit a beach, Squall!" He started shuffling the deck. "I /know you like Triple Triad, Squall. You've beaten, like, every player in Garden. Since you don't have your deck, I'll split mine and we'll both use half, all right?"
"Whatever." Which, with him, was pretty much the same as a 'yes', so Zell kept shuffling away while Squall walked off behind him.
"Hey, don't go too far. This won't take that long."
"I'm not." And, sure enough, Squall came back a minute later, carrying an armful of driftwood. He set it down and, with a quick spell, had a fire going. "Get warm, Zell," Squall said, not bothering to look at him.
"You..." Zell stared at the flames for a second, then grinned and cut the deck. "Hey, thanks man. Here, choose your cards."
"Hn," Squall grunted, but, if Zell was reading the slight change in his expression as he grabbed a pile of cards right, he actually seemed a little pleased that his effort was appreciated. "Which rules do you want?"
"Straight Balamb rules good?"
"Fine." Squall started looking through his deck, picking out his hand. "You know, the first time I played..." Squall trailed off, looking thoughtful, and Zell wondered if he was actually going reveal something important to him. "...It was the day of the exam at Dollet." Okay, maybe not.
"Really? /Damn/, you got good fast. You've been beating people who've been playing for /years/"
"It's... fun." And boy did Zell wish he had a tape recorder, or a camcorder, or anything to record Squall actually admitting he enjoyed something. "That's not something I feel often."
"Well, I'm glad you found something you like doing, man." Zell said, picking his own cards, then tossing down a Malboro for his first move. They played in silence for a while, then, as Squall put down the card that won the round for him, Zell finally worked up the nerve to bring up the subject that had made him want to get Squall in private to begin with. "Squall, back at the prison... why'd you do that?"
"I did a lot of things." Squall replied, studying Zell's cards as he picked the one to take for his own half of the deck.
"Hey, don't play dumb! I know you were hurt, and you oughta have let one of the others come down if you wanted to save my hide, but you didn't. And you know as well as I do that SEED law's against going back to save one man when it puts a larger group at risk. Why did you break it for me? The screw up who's big mouth almost got Garden blown up?"
Squall glared down at the cards like they'd insulted him, and Zell wondered if he'd pushed too far. Then, slowly, Squall said, "I won't leave anyone who trusts me behind. I won't abandon anyone else. If I can't just be alone anymore..." He trailed off, looking blankly into the distance, but for the first time Zell got the feeling that that blankness might just be covering something else.
"If you can't, than... ?" Zell pressed carefully, knowing that talking might just make Squall shut himself off again, but also somehow sure that this was important. Too important to just let Squall trail off into his own thoughts.
Finally Squall focused on him again, studying his face closely, and eventually quietly saying, "I won't lose anyone again." Some small part of Zell thought that Squall suddenly sounded very young.
Squall's face twisted suddenly, and he rubbed his forehead like he had a headache. "There is no again. I've never been close to anyone before."
"You said 'again' Squall. I heard you, man. Nothing wrong with my ears."
"There is no again/," Squall repeated, more forcefully. "/Now. Now that people have gotten close, I won't abandon them. You."
"And what's so special about /me/? Seems like half of Garden's been trying to get close to you since I joined, and no one's ever managed it before." Zell's cards had fallen to the ground by his side my now, completely forgotten.
"I don't /know/. You're an overexcitable idiot, and you don't know when to shut up and leave someone alone, and you ignore the rules when you think it'd be fun then hide behind them when we're going to break them in a way that scares you, and..." Zell was starting to feel insulted by Squall actually getting wordy for a change just to insult him, but forgot it when the other young man was suddenly close up in his personal space. "Live a little you said, right?"
"Uh... yeah," Zell replied, swallowing around the knot that had suddenly appeared in his throat.
"Maybe I'll try that." And then Squall, Squall /Leonheart/, the guy whose picture ought to be next to the term 'ice-cold loner' in the dictionary, was kissing Zell. And Zell didn't have much, or, well, /any/, experience but he thought it was a damn good kiss. He wondered if Squall had done this before, or if it was just Zell not knowing the difference between a good kiss and a bad one, and then he stopped thinking anything at all.
Finally Squall pulled back, and somehow between starting and ending the kiss he'd managed to get his cold mask back on. He studied Zell for a moment, then pushed himself to his feet and doused the fire with a water spell. "We need to get back to Garden," he said, and turned to walk away without saying anything else.
And Zell was left to gather up his cards and wonder what had just happened.
And, what would it take to make it happen again?