WARNING: boylove, shouen-ai, yaoi, explicit smut, swearing and pink carpeting.
Final Fantasy VIII belongs to Squaresoft. Bollocks.
Feedback very welcome, here or by e-mail (fanfic @ scribblemoose.co.uk)
Second story in the Magic series.
This series, for Gwen, with love.
Blood and Sand
Chapter 6 - Duty
Irvine woke early, when the room was still shrouded grey. Squall slept nestled into his side, one fist curled loosely by his forehead. He looked peaceful: his breath soft; face tranquil under the fall of dark hair.
Irvine smiled for a moment, until he remembered.
On the eighteenth morning that Irvine woke next to Squall, he was filled with a vague sense of guilt which stirred and grew until he couldn't lie still any more.
He should have treated Koshi better. He should have looked out for Cass. He should have known.
But he'd been too wrapped up in himself to see what was going on.
Then again, looking at Squall, asleep and beautiful and his, it didn't seem to matter. And that was the danger. Because it did matter. That much power and Seifer in the same place was bound to end badly.
And it was all his fault.
Irvine rolled carefully away from Squall, and slipped out of bed. He quietly sorted through the pile of clothes on the chair in the corner of the room to try and find something to wear, and had gathered together an armful of things before Squall woke.
Damn. Irvine had really hoped to slip out without disturbing him. He needed to get this sorted out in his own head before he told Squall any of it.
"It's okay. Go back to sleep, babe."
"Not here," said Squall, glaring accusingly at the empty space beside him.
"I'll be back in a sec, don't worry." Irvine dropped his clothes on the end of the bed and knelt over to give Squall a hug, nuzzling into the sleepy-warm of his neck.
"Hn. Better had." Squall hugged him back, finding his lips for a soft, wet kiss. Irvine made to move away, but found himself tugged hard enough that he fell forwards into Squall's arms. Then there were fingers in his hair, and Squall's tongue wriggling into his mouth, and Irvine's heartbeat was suddenly racing, blood pounding in his ears.
He forced himself to passively accept whatever Squall did to him without moving things along himself. Hoping, however much he wanted him, that he'd drift back to sleep. Because he didn't feel he had the right to enjoy this, not now.
"Back before you know it," Irvine whispered, gently disentangling himself from the warmth of Squall's arms. Squall huffed disapprovingly, but he was too sleepy to argue.
By the time Irvine had left the room Squall was oblivious again.
Irvine yearned for Balamb Garden's Training centre. To slip into the stillness of gun and bullet and the rhythm of breath; pure concentration. He was almost tempted to venture outside the city and find a few things to kill, but of course Esthar was still closed off, and besides, going out there alone would be reckless, however much he wanted to blow off steam. So Irvine headed for the palace gardens instead. Hidden away in a quadrangle, bordered by Laguna's private apartments, it was an oasis of growing things in the high-tec, man-made expanse of the city. The smell of leaves and the sound of softly bubbling water promised some kind of peace, however temporary.
To his surprise, Quistis was there already. Sitting on a low bench crafted in green-marbled perspex, she was lost in a book, reading glasses perched on her nose, twirling wisps of blonde hair around her finger. Irvine hesitated, not wanting to disturb her. But she knew, somehow, turned her head and smiled at him.
"Hello," she said, and shuffled up the bench, making room for him. "What on earth are you doing here?"
Irvine sat down next to her, folding his arms across his chest. The garden was heated, but there was still enough of a chill in the morning air to make him shiver.
"It's a nice morning," he said, not quite answering her question.
"Nice enough to drag you away from Squall?" she asked, one brow arched.
She looked thoughtfully at him for a moment, then carefully slotted her bookmark between the pages of her book and closed it. "Is everything all right between you two?
"Oh, yes," said Irvine. "Nothing to worry about." He managed a weak smile.
"You sure? I know he's not easy to deal with sometimes, but-"
"No, really. We're good." The grin got a little firmer as Irvine remembered the previous night. "Very good."
Quistis echoed his smile. "I'm glad. So..."
"It's nothing. Just not happy knowing Seifer's out there somewhere, waiting to cause trouble. Sometimes it feels like it never stopped, you know? As if Ultimecia was just the beginning."
"It is worrying. But nothing we can't deal with. And I suppose when we joined up for SeeD we asked for a lifetime of this, didn't we?"
Irvine shrugged. "I guess. Ignore me, Quisty. I'm just a little tired, is all."
"Of course," she said, softly. They sat in silence for a little while. Water bubbled over pebbles in the pool just in front of them, drawing Irvine's eyes, hypnotising him.
"Do you ever wonder," he said, mostly to himself, "what would have become of you if it hadn't been for SeeD?"
"Sometimes. I think I might have gone into teaching of some sort. But then... I would have had to stay with the family who adopted me, and they weren't too big on education."
Irvine continued to stare into the pool.
"What about you?" asked Quistis.
"I don't know," said Irvine. "It scares me, sometimes, to think... Everything I am, everything I've ever achieved, has been because of SeeD. Especially Martine. If he hadn't..."
He tailed off again. Irvine wasn't usually the sort of person to dwell on what-ifs, but since his conversation with Koshi yesterday he kept playing certain episodes of his life over and over. Trying to find out where he'd gone wrong, what he could have done differently.
"Would it have been so bad?" said Quistis, gently. "There wouldn't have been the killing, or the danger. You could have had a normal life."
"Except... You know, I think the normal bits are the hardest of all. Look at Squall. He can kill monsters and sorceresses, take the toughest decisions, lead whole Gardens of people. But try to get him to talk about his feelings..."
"That's normal for an eighteen year old boy," said Quistis. "They're not all like you, Irvine."
They shared a grin that could, in some other universe, have been flirtatious.
"I did some bad things," said Irvine.
"We all do bad things from time to time."
"Nah. Not everyone. I can't imagine you ever doing a bad thing, for instance."
"I once gave Squall and Seifer detention just so I could watch Squall brood for an hour."
Irvine laughed. "You're kidding me?"
"Nope, it's true," said Quistis. "Thing is, they were so used to getting in trouble it didn't even occur to them that I might have had an ulterior motive. Oh, and if you ever tell Squall that, you're dead, you understand?"
"Of course." Irvine winked at her.
She took a long look at him, and he watched her fingers close around his arm, and squeeze.
"It's okay," she said. "We all make mistakes, Irvy. Maybe you shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
It was a nice thought, and one that Irvine tried to hold on to, briefly. But he wasn't sure he deserved it.
"I was an asshole to Selphie, wasn't I?"
Quistis took her hand away, and cleared her throat, very slightly. "It can't have been easy for you."
"It should have been. Meet girl, fall in love with girl, stay with girl. That's how it's supposed to be."
"But I don't think you were really in love with her, were you?" said Quistis gently.
"I-" Irvine had a sudden vision of Squall, his fingers resting on Irvine's heart, trembling against his skin, and his stomach flipped. He swallowed hard. "No," he said.
"It's easy to confuse your feelings, when you see someone you grew up with, especially someone as sweet and exciting as Selphie, when you don't know if you're going to live for another day, or week, or month, when you feel a bond and don't really understand it. Selphie's happy for you and Squall. She doesn't bear any grudges."
"Sometimes I wish she did," said Irvine with a wry smile. "I deserve it."
"It was her who went off with someone else." But there was an edge of uncertainty to Quistis' voice.
"After I pushed her into a corner. I'm not looking for excuses, Quisty. Not any more." Irvine sat up, and straightened his hat. "I need to take responsibility for my actions."
"Steady, Irvine," said Quistis, with the slightest of smiles. "I'm not sure the world's ready for that yet."
But he was serious. It was too late to treat Selphie better, or Koshi for that matter. But he could do something to put things right. He had to. He got to his feet, leaned down and gave Quistis a hug, sudden and tight enough to make her squeak. "Thanks, Quisty."
And leaving Quistis with a nagging worry in the back of her mind that she couldn't quite pin down, he walked away.
"'vine?" Squall raised his touseled, sleep-fugged head and blinked at him. Clutching his towel around his middle, Irvine leaned over and kissed him, his hair dripping water all over Squall's naked shoulders.
"Wet," Squall complained, but he tugged Irvine onto the bed nonetheless. "Warm," he noted, and nuzzled into Irvine's chest.
"Mmm." Irvine reached down to rearrange his cock as it started to swell, pressing against Squall's through the covers. It appeared that whenever the he and Squall were in close proximity, his dick was instantly awake and anxious to seek out its playmate. Irvine relished that thought for a moment, enjoying the feeling of sameness, the familiarity of Squall's body.
Squall was rocking his hips back and forth, tugging Irvine on top of him so their cocks rubbed against each other through the soft down quilt. Irvine smiled down at him, brushing the hair from his face and taking long, slow kisses. "You're frisky this morning, Leonhart."
"'m I?" Squall squinted at him through barely-open eyes, and kept rocking.
"I hope I didn't wake you." Irvine trailed his fingers across Squall's cheekbones, down the clean lines of his jaw. "I tried to be quiet."
"'s fine. I was dreaming."
"Yeah? What about?"
Squall frowned, dragging the dream back into his memory even as it tried to slip away. "We were trying to find Seifer. And then you remembered something. You were going out with Cass, or you had been, not sure which, and you remembered this place the two of you had planned to go, and we were trying to find it, see if that's where she'd taken Seif." Squall yawned, and Irvine tried not to bristle at the way he'd used the shortened version of Seifer's name, like they had when they were kids. And, presumably, as Squall had when they were lovers.
"Where was it? Maybe it's a clue."
"Hmph," Squall grunted dismissively. "That was the thing. You couldn't remember."
"Well, that's where you can tell it's a dream. 'Cos I'm the one who always remembers."
It was then that Irvine realised that he still hadn't told Squall about Koshi. And, worse still, he didn't really know where to start.
"Anyway," Squall continued. "We ended up going all over the world in the Ragnarok, looking."
"Needle in a haystack," said Irvine, but something was nagging at the back of his mind. He almost had the answer.
"Then I woke up, and you were here, dripping. And now I want to fuck you," said Squall.
But Irvine was pulling himself away, off the bed.
"Where you going?" Squall asked, all disappointed indignance.
"Sorry babe." Irvine grabbed his jeans and tugged them on, wincing as he stuffed his still-hard cock into the unwelcoming denim. "I'll be back in a little while. There's just something I have to do."
"But-" Squall propped himself on his elbows, not quite believing what was happening. "You mean you're-"
Irvine risked another kiss, escaping just as Squall was about to wrap his arms around his neck and trap him there. "I'll be back, babe. Promise."
And with that, he was gone. Squall frowned at the closing door, mind still fuzzed with lust and the remnants of sleep.
"Oh," he said. "Bugger."
Mostly through shameless flirting, Irvine managed to convince the nurse on duty at the medical centre that any desire Koshi might have expressed to reject all visitors clearly didn't apply to him. He slipped into her room as she was eating breakfast; or at least shortly after her breakfast had been put on the table by her bed. She wasn't showing much interest in it.
She looked different: her brassy blonde hair was tied back in a smooth ponytail and she was dressed in an Estharian nightrobe which was a little too big for her and fell off one shoulder. She looked younger, somehow. The bruises were still there, tainting her jaw purple and yellow. She didn't spare him more than the briefest of glances.
"I told them no visitors."
Irvine ignored her and crossed the room to her bed. He put a box of truffles on the table next to her neglected breakfast. "Are you feeling any better?"
"What do you care?"
"It's my fault, isn't it? That you're here. So the least I can do is-"
"Spare me. I don't believe you anyway."
"I don't want to fight with you," said Irvine. "I want to help."
She hooked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and regarded him suspiciously. "I really don't think you could help me, do you? I think you've come sniffing around here for information so you can help your boyfriend out." She must have caught the flicker of truth in his eyes before he looked away. "You must think I'm stupid."
"No. I don't. Anything you can tell us would be useful, but... look, Koshi. I'm very sorry for what happened. I know I treated you badly. But couldn't you-"
She sighed. "Just spit it out, Kinneas."
Irvine opened his mouth to protest, but one look at her face stopped him. He felt suddenly wretched and hopeless, his plans fallen to dust. He couldn't make up for treating her badly, or Selphie, or any of the women in between. It was too late.
"I need to know where Seifer and Cass are," he said, dully.
"What makes you think I know that?" She flared anger at him. "And more to the point, why the fuck should I tell you if I did?"
"I don't owe you anything, Kinneas."
That was true. She didn't.
" This is about revenge, isn't it?" he said quietly. "You came here with Seifer to get your own back on me."
"You flatter yourself. I came with Seifer because I liked him. I'm a fool that way. I didn't even know you were here. I've spent most of the past two years trying to avoid you, and believe me, I really fucking wish I had this time as well."
He could see how hurt she was. Behind the bitterness she projected there were raw, painful emotions, and it was all there on her face. How he could have missed it before, how he could have not even realised who she was...
"I'm sorry. Look, this was a mistake. I'll just leave you alone."
He hesitated at the door, and looked back.
"If you weren't looking for us, then...."
"I was supposed to be talking to Cass. For Seifer. But I saw you and him in the club, and I lost it. That's one reason I got this." She touched her face and winced.
"Seifer hit you?" Rage welled instantly in Irvine's gut; he could never have enough reasons to hate Seifer.
"No." She managed a bitter kind of laugh. "Cass did."
"Cass? Cass hit you?"
"Yeah. Kind of. Let's say she didn't know her own strength. She said if I'd done what Seifer asked me to, you wouldn't have got dragged into it. Or Squall. She seemed very concerned about Squall."
"It doesn't matter, anyway. Seifer got what he came for, you and Squall have come out of it with your balls intact and I guess I got what's coming to me. So there you go. You're the fucking hero. You can take it from here."
It occurred to Irvine to wonder why Koshi thought she deserved to end up battered and bruised in a medical facility. But he didn't say anything.
"That's your cue to leave," she said, when he didn't move.
"Alright," he said, reluctantly. "But if you change your mind..."
The look she gave him made it perfectly clear she wouldn't.
Squall tapped his pencil on the pad in front of him, trying not to keep looking at the door. It's not as if Irvine even knew about this meeting; his father had called after Irvine had left.
And Irvine hadn't come back.
He'd asked Quistis to tell Irvine where he was, if she should see him. As casually as he could. Martine and Laguna would be here soon, and he had to concentrate. Irvine was fine, probably off training or something. It's not as if they were joined at the hip.
He'd been upset about something last night, Squall was sure of it. Kind of quiet and withdrawn, and although the sex had been phenomenal - a little smile crept onto Squall's face at the memory - everything else about Irvine was off. It was times like this Squall wished he'd written down every single bit of advice Rinoa had ever given him. Or had the courage to talk to someone else about it.
The door swooshed open, and his heart surged before his mind had a chance to still it with reason. Of course it wasn't Irvine. It was Martine. Worse still, it was just Martine; no Laguna.
"Morning Leonhart," he said, gruffly.
"Morning," said Squall. "Have you seen-"
"Cid just arrived. I believe Laguna's gone to meet him. They'll be along shortly."
Martine put a folder down on the table, choosing, as usual, the spot directly opposite Squall. He went to the side table and poured himself coffee.
"I take it this is bad news. First the City's closed, and now Cid turns up. That usually means things are heading towards some kind of disaster."
"I'd rather wait until the others get here before we start the meeting," said Squall abruptly.
"Alright." Martine stirred his coffee, glancing sidelong at Squall with a curious expression on his face. Squall shifted uncomfortably, without really knowing why. Martine often made him feel uncomfortable - particularly for being young and inexperienced - but this was a whole new world of uncomfortable. He looked almost amused.
Squall ignored him, returning his attention to his tapping pencil, concentrating hard to keep himself otherwise still.
"I hear you've taken up with Irvine Kinneas," said Martine.
Squall's pencil flew out of his hand and landed with a clatter on the floor behind him.
He stared at Martine, his mouth open but empty of words.
"I always liked him," Martine continued, ignoring Squall's reaction. "He's got more potential than he knows. Don't ever take him for granted."
Squall closed his mouth, and blinked slowly. Martine held his gaze.
"I hope he found what he's looking for," he said. Almost to himself.
Squall hadn't even begun to gather his wits when the door opened again to admit Cid and Laguna. Suddenly he was caught up in a wash of parental affection, too shocked even to brush off the hugs and hair-ruffling.
By the time he'd recovered, the bustle of greetings and coffee-getting was over, and Squall found himself flanked by Laguna on one side and Cid on the other.
How did Martine know? Did Cid know, too? Had Laguna put out a bulletin over all of Esthar or something...?
"How are you coping, son?" Cid's hand folded over Squall's, patted it a couple of times.
Squall pulled his had away and was about to say something snippy, but as soon as he caught the look on Cid's face he stopped himself. He recognised something there, something deep and hollow and painful. "Okay," he heard himself saying in a tight, choked voice. "I miss her."
"Me too, lad," said Cid, softly, and to Squall's embarassment tears pooled in the man's eyes. "All the time."
Martine and Laguna were talking about something in the background - Trabia, it sounded like - but Squall's head was fuzzed with emotion he couldn't deal with. Confusion at Martine's concern for Irvine; the familiar pang of emptiness at Rinoa's absence; and pity for Cid, which was always laced with resentment. Squall hadn't forgotten that it was Cid who'd dumped the burden of leadership on him. If Cid hadn't been so weak...
But more than that, Squall was forced to admit that this time he really did understand Cid's feelings. It was bad enough missing Rinoa the way he did, the broken link between them leaving a constant, nagging ache somewhere inside of him. But Cid loved Edea, really, truly, deep in his heart, and he'd already lost her once before. For the first time, Squall could imagine how that must feel. As if it wasn't just Rinoa who'd gone, but Irvine too...
He swallowed the last few cold drops of coffee, picked his pencil up, lay it carefully on the table and took a deep breath. He couldn't afford feelings. Not now. They had a sorceress to deal with, and he was commander of Balamb Garden. He had a job to do.
He cleared his throat, attracting expectant looks from all around the table, and when he spoke his voice was low and steady.
"We don't have time for small talk. Laguna's brought you here because we have a crisis on our hands. There's a new sorceress..."
And he drove on, relentlessly, with no pause for argument or even questions, until he'd relayed the story in as much detail as he could call to mind. By the time he'd finished he was firmly and securely back in command.
And if from time to time a voice chimed up in the back of his mind to wonder where Irvine was, he did his very best to ignore it.
He remembered now. He remembered being flattered by her devotion. He remembered sneaking her, giggling and nervous, into his room at Galbadia, where he made love to her for the first time. Astounded that she surrendered the gift of her virginity so freely.
He liked her, of course he did. But after a while it got too intense. She wanted to see him all the time. She kept telling him she loved him, but he couldn't say it back, because he knew what love felt like and this wasn't it. He dumped her, not to save her from heartache as he said at the time, but because he couldn't handle the way she felt about him. It made him feel guilty. So he'd told himself (and her) that a clean break was best, that she was better off without him.
He'd been an arrogant, selfish bastard, and she had every reason to hate him. What right did he have to come and ask her favours?
He jumped at the intrusion of Selphie's cheerful voice into his thoughts, suddenly brought back to the pink plastic reality of the tiny office they were working in. "What?"
"Are you okay? Only you've been staring at that screen for ages and even you don't read that slow."
"There's nothing here," said Irvine flatly. "Nothing at all. We'll never find her."
He rubbed at tired eyes, treating the chair leg to a savage kick for good measure.
"Of course we will, silly," said Selphie. "Don't worry."
"Why don't you go find Squall? Take him for lunch. Or something." The giggle in her voice suggested just what form something might take, and Irvine would make himself a liar if he told her he wasn't tempted.
But if he went to Squall now, he'd have to explain where he'd been this morning. He'd have to tell Squall exactly how much of a bastard he'd been. And an idiot, on top of that.
"Irvine, what the fuck's the matter with you?"
Suddenly there was no giggle in Selphie's voice at all; her pretty little face suddenly looked shrewd and determined, wise beyond her years.
There was no escaping Selphie when she looked at a person like that.
"I messed up," said Irvine.
Selphie's eyes narrowed, and Irvine flinched. She looked downright frightening now.
He swallowed hard, and considered his escape routes.
There were none. They were in a windowless room, and Selphie was between him and the door. He didn't stand a chance.
"Tanya isn't really Tanya. She's called Koshi. I dated her when I was a cadet in Galbadia. She never forgave me."
"Oh." Selphie seemed relieved. "Is that all? I thought you'd done something mean to Squall," she said. "I would never have forgiven you."
He could well believe it.
"It made me think," he continued, brushing specks of dust off the desk. Not quite able to look her in the eye. "I've been a total bastard. I didn't really think about... Seffie, I'm sorry I hurt you."
"'s okay," she said, in a small voice.
"I didn't think. I've been so wrapped up in my own feelings, I didn't really... you know how much I care for you, Seffie. I can't believe that I hurt you."
"Irvine, stop. It wasn't just you, remember? Sure, we started fighting because you couldn't stop looking at other girls, but in the end... well, you kept your dick in your pants, didn't you? It was me who..."
"Shagged that guy I sort of knew from Galbadia." He shifted uncomfortably, blowing the bangs out of his eyes, only for them to flop back down again. "Yeah. About that."
"I was out of order," Selphie started. "I-"
"No, don't. It wasn't... look it wasn't just you, okay? I know I said all that stuff, because I was jealous, I really was, but... you weren't the only one. You remember what happened that night?"
"You went out," Selphie said. "We were here on weekend leave and you took off for the night after we had that fight. I went to some party and you said you went to a club."
"Cass. I went to the Tomara and met up with Cass and we... well, stuff happened. I'm not proud of it. I was going to tell you, but then I found you in bed with whatshisname, and..."
He tailed off, waiting for her to start shouting. But she remained perfectly, coldly silent.
"Oh fuck. What a mess." Irvine buried his face in his hands, banging his elbows down on the desk.
"I wish you'd told me," she said, quietly. "But, you know, I don't really give a toss. We were over anyway, and I've got better things to do that go round pining after what might have been like a dumb puppy. If we were good together, neither of us would have... and Irvy, if we hadn't broken up, I wouldn't have locked you in a room with Squall for revenge. And if the two of you hadn't been forced to talk to each other..."
No tinsel. No leather. No ripping each others' clothes off and making love under snug covers as the snow fell outside.
No mornings waking up with a warm, happy feeling in his heart just at the sound of another person's breath.
"I still wish I hadn't hurt you," he whispered.
"This may come as a surprise, Irvine 'gods'-gift-to-women' Kinneas, but actually, I'm over it." Her eyes were vivid, piercing green, leaving him in no doubt that she meant every word. "You're like a brother to me, a big great dumb oaf of a brother, who I love dearly but really, I'm happy it's Squall you're playing grease the rifle with. Very happy. It's... right."
Irvine couldn't speak past the lump in his throat, so he tugged Selphie to him and hugged her hard instead, breathing the warm, familiar scent of her hair, gasping at her strength as she hugged him back, all but winding him.
Then he laughed. "Grease the rifle?"
Selphie shrugged. "You know what I mean. Now. Go talk to him. Tell him about Tanya, or Toshi or whatever her name is."
Irvine's face fell. "I can't."
Selphie made an exasperated little noise, and smacked him none-too-gently on the arm.
"It's not as if she was the only one," he said. "Or you, even, or Cass. There were... lots." He fiddled with the cuff of his shirt, tugging at a loose thread. Selphie tugged his hand away and held it in both of hers.
"Everybody knows you were a bit of a slut, Irvine. Squall's not that naive. He knew what he was getting himself into. It's not the past that counts. You're with him now."
"And what's so important about this Koshi chick anyway?"
"I think she knows where Seifer might be. But she won't tell me, because she hates me. So if Squall doesn't find Seifer, and Cass takes over the world, it'll be all my fault."
Selphie was silent for a moment. Thinking. Absentmindedly stroking Irvine's big hand with her little one.
"You know, that's a pretty big leap of logic," she said eventually. "You don't think that Seifer might take just a little bit of the blame for being a raving meglomaniac?"
"Well... I guess."
"And Odine. Don't forget the mad scientist."
"Oh." Irvine had forgotten. Completely.
"You made a mistake, Irvy," she said gently. "It's okay. It happens to all of us."
He wanted to believe her. He wanted to let her words soothe him and take the guilt away.
The meeting was over and Martine and Laguna had already left. Squall found himself alone with Cid, who sat cleaning his glasses with the edge of his sweater, while Squall gathered cups and stacked them on the tray. He didn't have to, but it seemed the right thing to do, for some reason.
He realised he was expecting Cid to talk to him. Wanting him to, even.
It seemed like an age before they so much as looked at each other, perhaps because it was so painful to see the loss reflected in each others' eyes.
"She must be very frightened," Cid said eventually.
Squall scowled at him, confused. Why would Rinoa or Edea be frightened? Was Cid keeping something from him? He fought back panic. "Why? What happened?"
Then it was Cid's turn to look taken aback. "What do you mean, hap... Oh. Oh I see. No, I meant Cass. It must be hard for her, coming into her power all at once like that, with no-one to guide or protect her."
Squall hadn't really thought of that before. He suddenly remembered the way she'd kissed him in the alley outsde the Torama. And how upset she'd been afterwards.
Seifer must have been waiting for him to go inside, he realised. He'd probably seen everything, while Tanya distracted Irvine, and of course when Squall had left Cass alone he would have moved in...
"She has Seifer," he said flatly.
"Not as her knight, surely!" Cid seemed shocked by the idea.
"I think that was the plan all along. He must miss it, however bad Ultimecia was. I can only imagine-"
"But to take on a new sorceress... I don't think that's ever happened before. And besides, why would she accept him? He's the one who kidnapped her, after all, and-"
"Assuming she was kidnapped. If she was looking for help, if she thought he could be her knight, she would have gone willingly, wouldn't she?"
Cid let that sink in a little. "If she was just coming into her powers... uncertain, impressionable... yes. You're right, she would have accepted help from anyone who seemed to understand. And Almasy would have known exactly what to say."
"Yes." Squall ran his fingers through his hair. If only he hadn't left her in that alley. If only-
"There's no room for regret in leadership, Squall. You can't make the right choice every time."
Squall bristled. "That's not the point."
"Whatever. I don't care who's fault it was. The point is that Seifer's out there with a sorceress we know nothing about, and a scientist just dangerous enough to make things worse. I need to find them. And soon."
"Yes," said Cid. "And I'm right behind you, son. Every step of the way."
Squall would dearly have loved to have been able to say that. For a moment he wished, and not for the first time, that Cid had been stronger; that he hadn't deserted Garden when it needed him most; that he hadn't burdened Squall with duties and responsibilities which were way ahead of his years.
But then if he hadn't, who's to say what would have happened to Rinoa and Irvine and the rest of them? What if Ultimecia had won?
No, it was better this way.
Even so, it was with a weary set to his shoulders that Squall finally left Cid and the meeting room, and went in search of Irvine.
Quistis slipped into Koshi's room, and lay a set of clothes carefully over the back of a chair.
"These are for you," she said. "I think we're about the same size, although it might not be what you'd usually wear. Still, I hope they'll be comfortable for you."
"They'll be fine, I'm sure. Thank you, it's very kind of you. I'll return them, once I get home." Koshi gave Quistis a smile; the first genuine smile she'd offered since she'd been brough in. It lit up her face, made her look pretty. She seemed different; more subdued. Less angry.
"I hope Selphie didn't wear you out," Quistis said. "She can be a bit over-enthusiastic sometimes."
"No. She was very, um, interesting to talk to."
Quistis arched an eyebrow, but Koshi avoided her gaze, suddenly intent on examining her hair for split ends.
"When do you think they'll let me go?" she said.
"It looks like that might be a little while yet." Quistis crossed to the window, and looked out at the fading daylight, the twinkling lights still subdued by the last shafts of bright, winter sun. "Movement throughout the City is severely restricted at the moment. They even cancelled the Music Festival."
"The Music Festival. It's a big annual event, I understand, and Laguna was determined it was to go ahead, but the police talked him out of it. Risk of mass hysteria, I believe."
Quistis ran one fingertip slowly along the window blind, marvelling at the total lack of dust. "Because there's a powerful sorceress on the loose. The people of Esthar tend to get nervous about sorceresses, I believe."
She didn't turn, but she could see Koshi's reflection clearly enough in the slightly mirrored window to note her surprise.
The girl really couldn't see past the end of her nose.
"You can't deny she's powerful," Quistis continued.
Koshi put a hand up to her jaw and the swelling there that had yet to subside. "No, I suppose not. But... Surely she wouldn't hurt people?"
"She hurt you."
"But that was different. She was mad at me, she didn't know her own strength, really. It's not as if she meant to do any damage. Or at least I don't think so. She was just trying to protect-"
"It's a terrible thing, responsibility."
There was a pause.
"What do you mean?" Koshi's voice was quiet. Wary.
"Well, sometimes we can end up being responsible for things that we can't control. I imagine that would be very frightening."
"I don't know what you-"
"Like starting a fire." Quistis squinted throught the blind at the street below, as if she were looking for something or someone. "You might only have meant it to be a little fire, perhaps a small campfire to cook on. Perfectly innocent. Something you could easily put out if there was any danger. But then you accidentally toss something on it that's more flammable than you thought, and suddenly the flames are forty feet high and out of control. Whoosh. Just like that. It's still your fire, your responsibility - but you can't do a damn thing to stop it. You just have to watch as it consumes the whole forest and everything in it."
Koshi's head was bowed; Quistis thought she saw her shoulders shake.
"I don't know what happened between you and Irvine," Quistis said. "And to be honest, I don't much care. I know he hasn't always behaved very well. But this isn't about you and Irvine any more. It's about the safety of ordinary, innocent people, here in Esthar and all over the world. I can understand the need for revenge, even though it doesn't appeal to me much personally. But this isn't about revenge. It's gone way beyond that. A sorceress isn't something to take lightly. Cass is more than capable of destroying this planet and everyone on it, if she so desired, and as she seems to be totally unstable, that could be exactly what she desires. Do you understand me, Koshi?"
There was a pause; Quistis thought she heard a muffled sob.
"Yes," said Koshi, so quietly Quistis barely heard her.
"Good." Quistis turned from the window and smiled pleasantly. "Now, will you please tell me where Seifer and Cass are?"
Koshi looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to be like this. It wasn't supposed to-"
"I know, dear," said Quistis. "Here." She passed Koshi a box of tissues. "Dry your eyes. And then we'll go and find a map."
It had been a long day, one interminable meeting after another, mostly about security and communications. The Estharians wanted to clamp down on the former, and minimise the latter. Which was all very well for Esthar, but Squall needed to know what was going on outside. It took him an hour just to convince them to lower the shields for long enough to get a message to Xu.
And he still hadn't found Irvine. Or rather, Irvine hadn't found Squall, as Squall hadn't had a minute to himself to do any looking. So it was with surprise and huge relief that Squall opened the door to his quarters to find a familiar hat and duster flung over the back of a chair.
"In here, babe."
Squall hurried eagerly into the bedroom, where he found Irvine sitting cross-legged on the bed, with a parcel in front of him. He also appeared to be reading an official report, much to Squall's astonishment.
Squall tried to keep a bit of cool distance between them - after all, Irvine had gone off that morning without a word, and hadn't answered any of his messages. But Irvine looked up at him with such a pathetic expression on his face that he just couldn't.
"Nothing, babe. Here. I got you a present."
"It's not my birthday."
"No, I know that. It's just a gift."
Irvine gave him a quizzical sort of grin. "So, you gonna come here and open it?"
"Um. Yeah." Squall joined Irvine on the bed, and obediently tugged at ribbon and paper. The warm, familiar smell of leather wafted up to greet him.
It was a black, full length leather duster, with belt and buckles that made a satisfying clinking noise as he pulled it out of the wrappings.
He didn't know what to say.
"You'd better try it on," said Irvine. "I can take it back if it doesn't fit right."
It fit perfectly.
"I don't know what to say," Squall mumbled. But he guessed Irvine could tell he was pleased anyway, because he saw the reflected pleasure in his eyes as he gathered Squall up in a creak of leather and a jingle of buckles and kissed him. Squall felt himself melt into Irvine's arms; it seemed so long since he'd let him go that morning, and it felt so good.
"Damn, but you look sexy in that," Irvine mumbled, running his hand down Squall's spine to slap his leather-clad bottom.
"I've never bought you anything," said Squall.
"I've already got a coat," Irvine pointed out. "It's no big deal. I just thought you could do with one. And I have a few contacts here in Esthar." He was kissing Squall's neck, his face warm and soft with a hint of evening stubble.
"They cancelled the music festival," said Squall.
"So I heard. So..."
"Dad was really disappointed. I don't think I really understood before, how difficult he finds the people here to deal with."
"Different culture, eh?"
"Yeah. And they're so difficult. They don't always listen, even though they think the world of him." Squall recognised a glimmer of pride in him at that, which surprised him. The more time he spent with Laguna, the better he was coming to understand the way he worked. He had to admit that over the past few days he'd seen a lot of complexity under the blundering fool he'd taken his father for. He'd learned more about diplomacy and leadership from watching him than Cid had ever taught him.
"He seems happy, though."
"Yeah. Well, he always does. I think he's one of those people that makes the best of every situation, you know?"
"Yes." There was a twinkle in Irvine's eyes that suggested that perhaps Squall wasn't exactly the first person to notice that about Laguna.
Irvine's hand slipped inside the duster and around Squall's waist, tugging him closer. He kissed him, soft and gentle, teasing. Good.
But there was something wrong. Squall knew there was something wrong. Ignoring the sudden desire that flared though his body, Squall pulled back.
"You left, this morning," he said.
"Yeah." Irvine looked down, and away, and his arms dropped from Squall's waist. "Sorry."
"Whatever. It's just..." Squall grasped for words, feeling horribly out of his depth. "You okay?"
Irvine raised his eyes, and Squall could see for himself that he wasn't.
"I'm fine," Irvine lied.
Squall tentatively reached out and brushed Irvine's bangs back from his face. "No," he said, simply.
Irvine looked panicked then. Scared, even.
He spoke all in a rush. "There's something I have to tell you."
Squall's heart thudded. This was it. Irvine was bored with him. He'd had enough. He'd found some girl he liked better and... He tried to think straight, to listen to the calmer voice inside that reminded him that Irvine had said he loved him, that Irvine was still holding him, that Irvine had made love to him last night in a way that...
He'd been worried then, Squall remembered. Something wasn't right, even when they felt so close, so-
Irvine was pulling away; Squall had been brooding just long enough for him to lose his nerve, it looked like.
"Tell me." It came out more harshly than he'd intended; even to his own ears he sounded gruff and commander-like, no matter how small he felt inside.
Irvine slumped back on the bad, and stared at his feet. "It's about Tanya."
Oh gods. Oh Hyne. Oh fuck.
He remembered lipstick and the way her perfume lingered in Irvine's hair when he'd almost caught them in the back room of the Torama.
Cold dread spread through Squall like poison. He felt numb.
"It's all my fault."
Squall didn't want to hear it. He shrugged off the duster and flung it in a chair, reaching for his old jacket on the way out.
He should just keep walking, he knew he should, but there was something in Irvine's voice that stopped him.
He didn't want to know, but at the same time he had to. He cleared his throat, squashing down the panic. He couldn't turn around, couldn't look at Irvine at all.
"What's your fault?"
"Koshi did this to get back at me. It's my fault."
"Who the fuck's Koshi?" Squall's mind was a ball of confusion. He forced himself to breathe.
"Tanya. I remembered, and... Squall, I know you're mad, you've every right to be, but... please, wait and hear me out. I need to tell you this."
Squall clenched his fists; it was almost more than he could bear.
"Please? You need to know."
Squall spun around and glared at him, and Irvine noticably flinched. "Hurry the fuck up, then."
"No. No fucking Babe. Just tell me."
Irvine looked more worried than he had last time they faced a ruby dragon. A lot more. He was shredding a bit of the gift wrap with anxious fingers, not able to meet Squall's gaze.
"I went out with Tanya back in Galbadia. Koshi's her real name, she looked a lot different then, I didn't recognise her. I didn't treat her well, and she took it personally, and all this time... this is all about her hating me. She won't help us because of me."
Squall watched the bits of paper flutter to the floor between Irvine's feet. His mind started to clear.
Irvine wasn't leaving him.
"I think she knows where Seifer is," Irvine continued miserably. "I thought maybe if I talked to her, reasoned with her, apologised to her, she'd come round and tell me, but she wouldn't. If anything I think she hates me more than ever. If it wasn't for me she wouldn't have run away to FH and met Seifer, and Seifer wouldn't have found Cass..."
Squall slumped down on the bed next to Irvine, suddenly exhausted as the rage and fear melted away. Irvine wasn't leaving him. Irvine hadn't been unfaithful to him. Irvine didn't want someone else.
"What did you do to her, exactly?" He rested a hand tentatively on Irvine's thigh, and he could sense Irvine's relief in the muscles that quivered under his touch.
"I used her, I guess," Irvine said quietly. "I did that a lot after Rainbow. I didn't see it that way at the time, but looking back... I didn't realise it meant more to her than that. But I should have."
Squall waited for a moment.
"Is that all?" he asked.
Irvine ventured a weak smile. "Isn't it enough?"
Squall shrugged. "We all make mistakes."
Irvine still wanted him.
Squall grabbed Irvine's shoulders, kissed him hard, passionately, so forcefully that he pressed him back down onto the bed. Because he couldn't explain. How could he tell Irvine he'd doubted him, even for a second? And that if it wasn't true, if Irvine still loved him, hadn't gone off with anyone else, still wanted to be here, that nothing else in the world mattered?
"I love you." He managed to choke out the words between gasping sobs of breath that he hoped Irvine would think were something to do with passion. "It's okay."
Irvine hugged him so tight he could hardly breathe. "Oh gods," he whispered. "I thought you were going to be so mad."
"Not mad," said Squall, sliding his hand under Irvine's shirt to feel his bare belly. "'s okay." He let the tingles from the touch of Irvine's skin race up his arm, lust fogging his brain and relieving him of any need to think. He kissed Irvine again, more softly, twined his tongue around Irvine's and sucked the tip, feeling the resulting shudder course through his lover's body. His hand reached up under Irvine's shirt to find a nipple, brushing it swiftly to hardness, stroking and pinching it lightly until Irvine groaned, his own fingers clutching tight at Squall's hips, fumbling with belts.
Then there was a noise, and Irvine was murmuring, "babe, the door," even though he was showing no sign of letting Squall go, and too late Squall realised he hadn't put the lock code on the door when he came in, he'd been so pleased to find Irvine home...
Squall recognised Quistis' voice and was caught between the drive to spring guiltily apart from Irvine and a deep anger at having been interrupted. In the end he let go of Irvine with a whimper and barked out "in here!" with as steady a voice as he could manage.
He glared at Quistis with sullen reluctance as she came into the room, and knew instantly that he must have looked mad, because she flinched. But being Quistis, she rallied immediately. "I'm sorry to interrupt you," she said.
"Good," said Squall. Irvine chuckled, his hand stroking Squall's back in calming circles.
"We need you in Laguna's office now," said Quistis, and Squall felt a little rush up his spine at the tone of her voice.
"Why?" he asked, gruffly.
She smiled at him, and her expression was one of triumph.
"We think we know where Seifer is," she said.
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