[eight maids a-milking]

Silver and Gold
by Tenshi no Korin

Zell Dincht had a problem. A five-foot-eight, leather-clad, incommunicative problem.

Squall Leonhart was many things, but he was not the sort of man to say what he wanted for Christmas. If, in fact, he had even noticed it was Christmas at all, except to inquire as to why, precisely, the Winhill Tulip Trees in the quad had suddenly taken to lighting up at random, multi-colored intervals. This produced rather a problem for Zell, as he was sleeping with the guy and therefore felt compelled by social custom to get him a Christmas present. It was just the way he had been brought up. Not, of course, that Ma Dincht had any notion that Zell and Squall were sharing quarters in an only one bed sort of way. But if she had, Zell was sure she wouldn't hold with Zell neglecting to get Squall a present. That is, after Zell had hypothetically gotten her a very stiff drink and she'd boxed him around his ears a few times.

However, Zell was in luck, because he happened to be in close with the very person that could solve his problems. Captain Irvine Kinneas, firearms instructor and unofficial supply officer, could find anything under the sun. If it existed, he could get if for you.

"But it'll cost ya."

Zell rolled his eyes. "Irvine, I don't think an Estharian double jointed identical twin porn vid is exactly what Squall wants for Christmas."

"Really?" Irvine blinked surprise, as if he could not conceive of anyone not wanting such an item. "Well, damn, he is tough to buy for." Irvine considered his boots, propped on the desk of his so called office. It was really a supply closet that had been refurbished with a desk and a terminal and, at Irvine's pained request, a small window looking out over the quad, which was white with snow. "Maybe you could, you know," Irvine's grin went devious, "tie yourself up in red silk ribbon with a big strategic bow, and wait in bed for him."

Zell arched one pale eyebrow. "Right, Irvine," he replied, dryly. "And while you're at it give me a phoenix down so I can bring him back after he kills himself laughing."

Irvine tugged at his ponytail. "Funny, Quistis seemed to like that sort of thing." He sighed. "Okay, well, we know Squall's not a material sort of guy. He wears the same four sets of clothes, not counting his uniform, and renews his subscription to Weapons Monthly every March 14th on the dot. Probably at noon, exactly. He has one necklace that he wears all the time, and he replaces his equipment religiously. He's not really much on bric-a-brac."

Zell stood up, began pacing the small area. "Tell me about it. I live with him. For his birthday I just took him out to dinner, that grill in Deling City he likes so much. But I'd really like to give him something, you know? Something just I could give him."

Irvine stared at Zell's face for a long moment, obviously thinking hard. He blinked, and as Zell tipped his head quizzically, a grin broke out over the sharpshooter's face. "Zell Dincht, you are lucky you've got me. I know just the thing."

The Garden, during Winter Break, was peculiarly quiet. Without regular classes there was no tide of students moving through the halls at hourly intervals, so the denizens used to such rhythms of noise found the school to be eerily still. Like Galbadia Garden, a good percentage of Balamb's student body was home for the holidays, leaving most rooms empty. The few remaining students formed those unique friendships that come from being the only ones left together in their suites. Selphie called it ‘wacky,' explaining that in Trabia everybody stayed for Christmas, and there were parties and big snowball fights and a dance in the snow, out on the basketball court.

Squall Leonhart had never known any other kind of Christmas. True, this one was exceptional in itself. Christmas last year or any other year before that was hard to remember, overlapping with Seifer's warm bodyheat, take out crab cakes from some dockside deli in Balamb, snow-wet boots by the heater, frosted windows and the echoing emptiness in the halls outside. But this year, there was no Seifer, he was in Trabia, helping with reconstruction. This year there was a letter from Squall's father, twelve pages long, in different colored inks where he had started, stopped, lost his pen, and started again. Squall had not read it, not yet. It was enough, in his coat pocket, to know it was there, to know what it said. In his pocket also was a shorter letter, on pink stationary, from Rinoa. Apologetic, and expected, she couldn't come to Garden for Christmas. She and Watts and Zone had gotten a gig, a really good gig, her letter had emphasized, Christmas Eve in Deling. His ring had bounced out of the envelope, chiming like a single silver bell. I'm sorry, she'd said. Squall could not find it in himself to be surprised.

This year too, he could say he had people with whom he would be willing to spend a holiday, in the faculty break room of the cafeteria. Quistis had conspired with Nida and Xu for a small party, no more than ten people, staff only. Irvine had laced the eggnog and there was warm greasy takeout from the best places dockside, snow still on the bags when Selphie and Zell had returned with it, red-faced and triumphant. There was, under Squall's arm as he made his way to his room, a dusty bottle of warm amber liquid from Irvine, expensive and hard to find. With it was a flat shiny coffee table book of various gunblade modifications that Selphie thought he would like, and from practical Quistis a pair of black dragonskin leather gloves, supple and indestructible. Gifts from friends who knew him, who had chosen them carefully. There was, also, a long look from Zell, an a promise of later.

In that later Squall was not sure what to expect. He had heard, of course, that Zell had been conspiring with Irvine with regards to his present, which meant that he could very well expect to find Zell in bed tied up with red ribbon. Squall shook his head, lowering his eyes and his smile even though there was no one in the halls to see. He hoped, if he found such a gift in his quarters, that he could keep a straight face for the sake of Zell's dignity.

However, in their small shared space there was nothing untoward save Zell's shirt on the chair, and water running in the adjacent shower room. Their quarters were neat most likely because of Squall's upbringing and Ma Dincht's insistence on organization, which meant that of all the rooms in the Garden, the Commander's was probably the only one free of stray socks. Except, of course, for Nida, who probably checked his hair part with a slide rule. The water cut off, and the shower curtain rattled.

"You left early," Squall said, depositing his gifts on the table. "Is everything all right?"

"I had to get some stuff ready." Zell sidled out of the bathroom, tying the strings on his sleeping pants. "You like your presents?"

Squall, toeing off his boots, was staring at the two page spread in the gunblade book, featuring the legendary lion heart. The attached description was about none other than Squall Leonhart, commander of Balamb Garden and only known wielder of such a weapon. "I never thought I'd see my name in footnotes."

"Selphie probably got it for you because you'd never find it on your own." Zell grinned. "You're famous, you know."

Squall made a vague noise, peeling out of his shirt, necklace jangling. "Right."

"So, ah," Zell crossed his arms across his bare chest, and shifted his weight. "About your present..."

Squall waited expectantly, fingers abandoning the buttons of his jeans halfway. "Yes?"

Zell put his hands on his hips, ran them through his hair, cracked his knuckles. "Where, ah, where would you want it?"

Squall went back to his pants, shedding them. "Want what?" When he stood up again, folding leather over his arms, he saw that Zell had a small, sleek, deadly looking thing in his hand.

Not a weapon, the thought, on his first, trained instinct. At least, not directly so. Holographic pattern display capability, sixteen ink chambers, unlimited color range. Tattoo gun. He'd seen Zell cooing over it in a magazine, three months ago. He stared at it, and Zell stared at Squall, uneasily.

"I, I didn't even know if you would want one, you know? But it's something I could do. Irvine said you really liked the Galbadia Garden emblem I did for him but if you don't, really, you don't have to, it was just a stupid idea-- Squall?"

Squall had placed his jeans over the back of the chair and calmly walked to the bed, stretching out over it on his belly, arms wrapped around the pillow. "Just don't do anything stupid looking," he said, one grey eye closing lazily. "And I'm taking your word for it that those things don't hurt."

"Well, they don't hurt much..." Zell stared at the entire canvas of Squall's body presented to him, the curve of his ass and lean lines of his shoulder blades. It was absolute trust, and Zell knew it. "Um, where... where did you want me to put it?"

Squall shrugged. "Wherever you think it'll look good."

Zell couldn't imagine a place on Squall where it wouldn't look good. "Right." He climbed onto the bed and straddled Squall's thighs, contemplating the image he'd programmed into the gun and here it would look best. He targeted the gun in a few spots, moving the hologram over Squall until he got it where he wanted it.

"Try to hold still, okay?"

Squall, trained as he was, might well have been dead. The gun hummed faintly and the skin on Squall's shoulders prickled with a faint warmth that was not exactly unpleasant.

"Doesn't hurt, does it?" Zell asked.

"mm." Squall returned, keeping his breathing shallow. "s'warm."

Zell guided the gun over the faint blue holographic lines, injecting ink into Squall's skin. The needle, invisible-thin and moving rapidly, traced in delicate lines the image Zell had spent the last two weeks working on. It was complicated, to say the least. Traditional style it would have taken the better part of a week, and then only if Squall could stand the pain. Zell grinned, not taking his eyes off his work. If Zell had presented him with a set of needles and three bowls of ink, Squall probably wouldn't have batted an eyelash at that, either.

Even with the gun it was nearly two hours later when Zell sat back on his heels and popped the crick out of his neck. Outside, the sky had turned indigo-dark, and snowflakes whirled against their window.

"You're done." Zell put the gun down on the bedside table, and rubbed fingers numb from the vibration of the tool.

Squall reached tentative fingers to his back, but could feel nothing except a slight tingling, left over from the anesthetic injected with the ink. "Where is it?"

"Here." Zell made an outline with his fingers, something sweeping broad across Squall's back, like wings. "I did the design myself."

Squall twisted his head around and smirked at the martial artist. "Well, I'm sure it's gorgeous, Zell, but I can't see it with you sitting on my ass."

Zell started, having been absorbed by the way color rippled across the muscles of Squall's back. "Oh, right." He hopped onto the floor and rubbed his palms on his pant legs, nervously. "Here, over here."

Squall knew where the mirror was in their room, but didn't feel like saying so. Some might have found it vanity, that all the rooms in Balamb G had full length mirrors. Some also would have been sure to have never been required to put on full SeeD dress uniform, with all its precise braid and brass buttons.

He was expecting Griever, or perhaps the Balamb emblem, like Irvine's. What he found, painted in swirls across his shoulders, was the inside of his mind.

He wasn't sure where Shiva ended and Bahamut began, some merging of ice crystals and wings and flames. He was not certain, either, of how Zell had pulled from Squall's own mind the Lion, maned and golden with fire licking great heavy paws, amber eyed and solitary, flanked by goddess and dragon. Tangled in the middle between them was the Garden emblem, black and gold and blue, ice and sky and fire. The whole image, color blending into detail and line until a viewer could get lost in it, spiraled up to two points on his shoulders and tapered to the middle of his back, an elegant triangle.

The silence must have stretched a long time, because Zell's voice was thin with waiting when he asked, tentatively, "Do you like it?"

Squall took his gaze from his own reflection. Zell's eyes were expectant, and he was gnawing his thumbnail nervously.

"It's beautiful." Squall looked back over his shoulder, at the cascade of Shiva's hair, trickling over his spine. "I don't deserve it."

Zell breathed for what was probably the first time in several hours. "Of course you deserve it," he said, as if it was all one word. "I wasn't sure, you know, what to do for you, no one thing was just right but I didn't want to do anything huge, but it wouldn't stay simple, it's sprawling all over your back and I'd wanted- -"

"I'd never seen your work before."

Zell fumbled over his humility. "You... haven't? But what about Irvine--"

Squall's fingers crept to the small of his back, barely touching the tip of the lion's forepaw. "I told him I liked it. He didn't say that you'd done it for him."

Zell boggled. "You let me just go for it on your back without even knowing what I would do?"

"I trust you." Squall smiled, triangular and rare, like the image on his back. "Besides, with Quez all over your shoulders the way she is, I felt kind of plain without one."

Zell shivered, as if feeling the thunderbird on his back flicker. "I just wanted to give you something Right."

Squall's palm was warm against the side of Zell's face as he closed the space between them. "Thank you," Squall murmured, open mouthed against Zell's cheekbone, fingers sliding into soft blond hair, tilting Zell's head back. This, at least, was a gift he knew how to accept, in the motion of Zell's lips across his own, Zell's fingers warm on Squall's sides.

"You're cold," Zell said, leaving gooseflesh behind the sweep of his hands. "Come to bed."

But the blankets remained underneath them, since both of the young men sprawled on top of it were far too preoccupied to bother with turning the covers down. Squall's gratitude was a thing best not expressed in words, but even for his silence his mouth could be eloquent, and he spoke his thanks for a long time, leaving no turn of phrase or heartfelt speech unsaid. He rumbled feline contentment in the back of his throat, and the winter break quiet was punctuated by Zell's ragged breathing. Zell's hands, buried in Squall's hair, seemed to forget to ache from the hours of holding the tattoo gun.

The chronically intermittent heat, too, was forgotten in each other's warmth, and knowing that the six rooms on either side of them were empty was enough to uncheck their voices, demands and encouragement spoken freely, pleasure given full voice. Squall put his own marks onto Zell, ones that would fade quickly, from teeth and blunt nails, and Zell traced the pattern he knew by heart, arms wound around Squall's illustrated shoulders.

It was well past midnight when they stilled, Christmas Eve seeping into Christmas Day. The light outside was no longer the purple of midwinter night, but faded grey of not-yet-dawn, the color of Squall's eyes. They were shut, now, but Zell knew the shade better than he knew his own name. Squall was sleeping, eyelashes soot-black against his face, sheet rucked around his hips, not quite enough to cover the tattoo. Zell was contentedly drowsy, tracing abstract patterns over Squall's skin, watching him sigh contentedly in his sleep. Too soon, now, the sun would rise, and Selphie would be all for bundling up everyone and going out in the snow, to head into Balamb for the parade and Ma Dincht's promised hot chocolate and dinner. Zell, sleepy and heavy and sated, wasn't ready to give up Squall and Christmas Eve, not just yet.

Something flashed across his hand, and Zell, eyes half-closed, blinked in the dim non-light from the snowy window. When it had appeared on his hand, he had no idea, probably sometime in the night when Squall was busy with his fingers, and Zell had failed to notice. Silver and winged, stretched across the band around his ring finger, frozen in constant motion. Griever.

"Squall," Zell breathed, disbelieving.

"It never fit her," Squall murmured, his voice not much more than the falling snow. His eyes were still closed. "It was always too big. Sometime, someone will give her one that fits her." His hand found Zell's even without looking. "but it won't be me."

"She gave it back?"

Squall smiled into the curve of Zell's shoulder. "I think it was a present for both of us." He opened one eye, considered Zell's face as he held his hand to the light. "Sorry. I suppose I should have gotten you something new."

Zell shook his head, laying his palm in the center of the pattern on Squall's back. The ring gleaming on his finger seemed to fit into the design, there in the middle of the SeeD emblem. "...thank you." He knew his delighted smile was too wide, knew it would make him look too young. Not that it mattered, Squall had shut his eyes again, lips parted as he drifted off against Zell's shoulder. Zell curled around him, giving in to slumber, cheek pressed to his drowsing lover's hair.

"...It's just what I wanted."

Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k