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 8 - Choice
On the twentieth morning that Irvine woke with Squall, they most definitely weren't alone. Someone was calling his name. Two someones. And it was freezing cold.
Irvine cuddled up closer to Squall's back, buried his nose in his hair and hoped the someones would go away.
"It seems a shame to wake them," came Selphie's voice. "They look so sweet all cuddled up like that."
Irvine thought he might have heard Squall snort into the rolled-up sweater he was using as a pillow.
"Irvine's a bad influence if you ask me," said Quistis. Irvine could just imagine the amused, smug little expression on her face.
There was a sudden and painful prodding in the small of Irvine's back.
"Ow! Go 'way!"
"Come on!" yelled Selphie. "It's nearly dawn and we've got good news!"
Squall stirred, eyes blinking open as he frowned up at their tormentors. "News?"
"Yes!" Quistis' eyes were sparkling, anticipating Squall's approval. "We think we know where Seifer and Cass are headed."
Squall sat up and went straight into interrogative commander mode. "How? Where?"
"The moomba," said Selphie, triumphantly. "He was trying to tell Laguna something last night, but we couldn't work out what it was. Then this morning, when the snow stopped-"
"The snow stopped?" Squall twisted his neck around to see the cave mouth. "Why the fuck didn't you wake me?!"
"Because it was still dark," said Quistis in her calm, matron-voice. "And we needed rest."
Squall opened his mouth to complain, but Selphie got in first.
"If we'd left then we'd never have known, so it was for the best." It was too early in the day for Squall to wrangle with that kind of logic, and while he was still trying to find the words to do so, Selphie ploughed on. "Anyway, he led us outside-"
"The moomba. Come on, Squall, pay attention. He showed us these markings on a stone a bit further up the path."
"What kind of markings?"
"That's the exciting part. It turns out it's a pilgrimage marker. You know, a milestone for people on a religious quest. Hasn't been used for years, the religion died out here not long after Adel-"
"Wait- the moomba told you all this?"
"Oh, heavens, no. It just showed us the stone and nodded a lot, and waved it's arms about some. But Kiros could read the writing, and he'd heard about this cult, from back in the sorceress wars. And he says... this is the exciting part!"
She certainly looked excited. Even Irvine found himself awake and hanging on her every word.
"This cult, they worship - you'll never guess what they worship. Go on, guess!" She clapped her hands together, clasped them in front of her chest, bouncing lightly on her heels.
Squall glared at her.
"Moombas?" ventured Irvine.
"No, you idiot, sorceresses! More specifically, this GF kind of being that's like a patron saint of sorceresses, called Hyne's Ward. There used to be a temple out on the Mordred Plains, just the other side of this ridge. That must be where Seifer's headed. Has to be!"
She and Quistis watched Squall, waiting for him to bestow his inevitable gratitude and delight.
"It could be a co-incidence," he said, cautiously.
Selphie's face fell a little.
"I don't think so, and neither does Kiros," said Quistis. "We checked on the map, and the route Seifer's taken follows the pilgrim path exactly. There's a lot of other, faster ways he could have got through the mountains, and much better places to hide. This has to be deliberate."
"They must be going there to perform some kind of ritual," said Selphie. "That has to be why they're following the pilgrim path, so that they can summon this GF or whatever it is."
"So we could catch him up," said Quistis. "We don't have any rules, and if they're going to this shrine, Kiros knows exactly where it is. We can get there in just a few hours, straight down the mountain and into the plain. Seifer's route will be about three times as long; even if he carried on through the night we'll get there about the same time as him. Maybe a bit before, if we hurry, or risk the Ragnarok. It's good news. Isn't it, Squall?"
The frown slowly faded from Squall's face, and at last he began to smile.
It looked like a whole load of random squiggles to Irvine, but then languages had never been his strong point. Squall seemed to be delighted with the etched milestone, though, and that was good enough for Irvine.
He leaned against a tree, arms folded over his chest, watching from underneath his hat as Squall, Quistis and Kiros huddled around the map, plotting a route to the shrine.
"I don't get it," said Zell, who was busy doing ab crunches, feet locked under a nearby log, apparently oblivious to the snow under his back. "Surely Seifer wouldn't bother with the whole pilgrimage thing? He knows how to draw GF."
"I think it's more than that. Kiros said there were rituals he'd have to perform at specific places along the way, or else he might risk not being able to get into the shrine or find this Ward thingie. That's probably what all those fires were about. Otherwise they could've just," he snapped his fingers, "pouffed there. Probably."
Zell snorted, clearly unconvinced. "That's what you think, huh?"
Irvine shrugged. "It's what Quisty said. Seems likely."
"Oh." Zell paused mid-crunch for a moment. "Well, in that case, yeah. Makes sense when you think about it." And he carried on working his already powerful muscles, barely breaking a sweat.
"I mean, I could've worked it out," said Irvine. "Only she beat me to it."
Irvine let that pass.
"Man, will you just look at that view?" he murmured.
"What?" Zell peered in the general direction of Irvine's gaze. He couldn't see much except snow and early morning fog. "What d'you mean?"
"Squall's ass in those pants," said Irvine. "'Specially when he's bent over that rock like that."
"Oh. Um. Can't say I'd ever noticed." Zell raced through three more crunches and jumped to his feet.
"It's just so tempting. Couldn't you just-"
"No," said Zell, quickly and very firmly. "I really couldn't. And I don't want to think about it, either."
Irvine was amused to see a flush rise to Zell's cheeks. "Sorry. It's been a couple of days and, y'know, a man gets kinda horny."
"No! I really don't!" Zell blushed redder. It had probably been a lot more than a few days for him, Irvine realised. "I don't want to know."
Irvine chuckled. "I guess it's not a good idea to be imagining your commander-"
"Stop right there! I don't want to know. Get it, Kinneas? Keep your perverted little thoughts to yourself, okay? I just... just."
The smile faded from Irvine's face as he took in the vehemence of Zell's words, the discomfort - and something else - in his baby blue eyes.
But before he could dig deeper Quistis was yelling orders: Laguna and Kiros to go back to base camp; the rest of them to head for the shrine, ready to go in ten minutes, and Zell scampered gratefully back to the cave to get ready.
It's probably nothing, Irvine told himself. The boy's just shy. Maybe even a virgin. Perhaps those rumours about the girl in the library were true.
"Alright?" Squall's hand on his shoulder was perfectly proper and comradely, but he may as well have grabbed Irvine's ass for the effect it had on his body.
"Fine, Commander." He returned Squall's smile, not-so-surreptitiously re-adjusting his pants. Squall gave him a look that made him weak at the knees, and moved on to talk to Laguna.
Irvine pulled his hat back over his eyes, and resumed brooding.
The sooner they got to kick Seifer's ass and go home, the better.
At least the mountains had provided some kind of variety. The Mordred Plains were flat and dull at the best of times; covered in an endless, uniform blanket of snow there was nothing to redeem the landscape at all.
He was tempted to ask Squall to drop Diablos' enclosure, just for the novelty of attracting a few monsters to kill. But he didn't think Squall would buy it, somehow. Not when he was in serious commander-mode.
So he was relieved, to say the least, when Quistis consulted the map, then her compass, and finally pointed at something brownish in the distance and said: "it's over there."
Squall shielded his eyes from the midday sun and squinted in the direction Quistis indicated.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," said Quistis.
"It's not as if it's competing with much else," said Irvine.
"And it's exactly on the co-ordinates Kiros gave us," said Quistis. "More to the point."
"Okay then. Check your junctions."
Irvine went through his usual routine; Quezacotl and Siren hummed to him, power balanced neatly for attack, defence and a little something in reserve in case of surprises. All as it should be.
A few minutes later they found themselves standing in front of an old, derelict-looking shack, dusted with snow.
"It doesn't look very shriney," said Selphie. She sounded quite disappointed.
"It's in the right place," said Squall. "That'll do for me. Irvine, Selphie, you're with me. Quistis, Zell, I want you to wait out here in case Seifer turns up."
"He must be." Zell pointed at the unblemished snow. "No tracks."
"Different entrance. The pilgrim path ended in some caves about ten miles north or here, so if we're right about him having to follow the rules, he won't come this way."
"But Seifer isn't a great one for rules."
"Exactly. He might just get bored and change the plan."
"We'll cover your back," said Zell. "Won't we, Quisty?"
"Of course. Be careful, Squall." Quistis gave Squall's shoulder a little squeeze. "And be safe."
Squall murmured something to her Irvine didn't quite catch, and led him and Selphie into the shack.
It wasn't any less of a shack on the inside. Irvine had harboured hopes of some kind of elaborate marble staircase or something, or at the very least a mystic portal. But it was just what it looked like on the outside: a run-down shack, full of old barrels and rotting sacks.
"Over there," said Squall, pointing to one dark, shadowy corner of the room.
"What?" Irvine couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary; in fact it was so dark he couldn't really see anything much at all.
"It's magic," said Selphie. "Look."
He still couldn't see anything at first, but just when he was starting to think they were either mad or winding him up, his eyes caught a flicker of light, tiny at first, then brighter, shimmering along the seam where the rickety walls met, the dirty grey and brown wood suddenly rich gold and silver, melting into light almost too bright to look at.
"Wow," said Selphie. "Cool."
Irvine could only agree. A doorway was forming, and the light softened enough that Irvine could make out the hint of a room beyond.
"Yep. That's magic alright," said Squall. "Come on."
Irvine and Selphie followed him through the narrow portal. It was bright after the gloom of the shack and took Irvine a few moments to adjust his eyes. They were in a huge, stone-walled chamber with a marble floor and a high domed ceiling spined with gilt arches and decorated with paintings of dragons, power and magic. Tiny sparkles of twinkling dust shone in streams of light that shafted through the room at impossible angles from non-existent sources, as if there were a hundred windows in the ceiling, and the sun was shining through all of them at once.
"Selphie, do some scans," said Squall. "Keep your eyes open, both of you."
"On it!" Selphie began to sparkle with magic as she cast her first spell. Irvine wandered vaguely towards the centre of the room, dutifully looking for something, although he had no idea what. As usual his eyes picked out details: a bright blue ribbon in one of the ceiling paintings; the intricate knot pattern outlining a circular paving stone; a book in the bookcase titled 'Sniper and the Empath'.
He ran his finger down the spine and pulled the book out to give it a closer look as Squall peered up at the ceiling and said, "I think this is about Hyne. Or maybe the making of the first sorceress... I'm not sure."
"Woah!" yelled Selphie, suddenly. "I've got something, I don't know what-"
And then Irvine disappeared.
Squall glared thunder at the horribly empty spot where Irvine had been, and the book thudded to the ground.
"Irvy!" squealed Selphie. "Where'd he go?"
Squall bit down the urge to yell at her. "Teleportation," he growled. Trust Irvine to stand in the middle of the big target-shaped spot on the floor and do... something.
Squall gingerly stepped over the patterned circle, and picked up the book that lay there. Nothing happened. He popped the book into his pocket and checked out the other titles on the shelf: they were mostly myths and legends, particularly involving sorceresses, GFs and... "Gods!"
"What? What did you find?" Selphie was instantly at his side, apparently also oblivious to any danger.
Selphie followed his pointing finger. "'The Lion who Saved Time.' Woohoo! That must be you! You're famous, Squall, they wrote a book about you!"
Squall scowled. "Don't like it," he muttered. "Sinister."
"It doesn't explain where Irvy went, though. Unless he's in the book! I heard that happened once somewhere. All these people were sucked into this book and had to live out these characters' lives, and-"
"Well, that's not what happened to Irvine," said Squall. "I recognised the spell. Someone teleported him somewhere."
"Oh. Cass, you think?"
"We know she can do it."
"Yes. Exactly. We'd better take a look outside."
"Er... actually, that could be tricky."
Selphie was pointing over his shoulder, apprehension all over her face.
"Looks like she teleported the door, as well."
Squall stared in disbelief at the smooth, butter-coloured plastered wall that was where the portal had been, looking old and worn and as if it had been there all along.
The screaming in Irvine's head finally stopped, and he found himself on his knees on hard tiles, indoors but the air had a bitter sting of cold to it. He caught his breath and looked up.
He wasn't really surprised to see Seifer.
"Give me the gun."
Irvine considered his options: his junctions had gone, no magic, and if he took a pot shot Seifer would probably kill him, or at the very least knock him out again. This one was going to take some thinking.
"What did you do?" He reluctantly handed over Exeter, running his fingers apologetically over the stock before Seifer snatched it away. "Where's Squall and Selphie?"
"Right where you left them, I expect."
"You're junctioned." Irvine could all but see the magical strength running through him, and Hyperion glowed electric blue. He felt suddenly very human and vulnerable.
"Looks that way. So don't plan anything rash, there's a good boy."
"Where the fuck did you get a GF from?"
Seifer shrugged. "The usual. Went on a hunting expedition to Centra, and found a little friend in an old abandoned mine there. Decided to hang onto it for a while."
Irvine shook the confusion out of his head and started to take in his surroundings. It was like a crypt: high, vaulted ceiling, rough brick walls, no windows. In an alcove to his left was a stone slab, with someone resting on it.
Cass. And beside her Odine, surrounded by pots and jars and bits of equipment, stirring something in a beaker and muttering to himself, apparently oblivious to Irvine's sudden arrival.
Cass looked deathly pale, and she wasn't moving. "Is she sick? You bastard, what've you done to her?!"
"She's resting," said Seifer. "I'm sure she'll appreciate your concern. You're so attentive to your exes, aren't you?"
"What have you done?" Irvine repeated.
"Quite the heartbreaker, aren't you?"
"That's nothing to do with you. Or this."
"I bet Leonhart would have a passing interest."
"Why the Hell would he care?"
Seifer just looked at him, letting the silence speak for itself.
How did he.... Irvine's eyes drifted to where Cass lay, still and pale, oblivious.
"She has lucid moments," said Seifer. "And she likes to talk, then. Says she likes having someone to listen to her for a change."
It wasn't as if Irvine had ever wanted his relationship with Squall to be secret. But there was something about Seifer knowing that felt flesh-crawlingly dangerous.
"It won't come as a surprise to Squall that you fucked her, I don't suppose," Seifer continued. "We all know your reputation, after all."
He came a few steps closer, so Irvine could see the ice blue of his eyes, the mocking quirk of his mouth.
"Oh, don't worry, Sniper," he crooned venomously. "I'm not going to shatter his illusions. I'm sure you'll do that all by yourself, eventually. It's just nice to know he cares. Makes you all... valuable."
A hostage. That made sense. Damn.
Across the room, Odine cackled delightedly.
"Tell me, Sniper." Seifer circled him, looking him up and down, trailing Hyperion's tip ear-squealingly across the floor. "Is he still a demon in the sack?"
Irvine lunged at him, but Seifer blocked him easily, caught his arm and bent it painfully behind his back.
"Did he tell you I got there first?"
Irvine struggled hard, only stopping when it occurred to him it might be hard to beat Seifer into a bloody pulp if his arm was broken.
Seifer laughed. "Did he tell you how I used to fuck him in the library after hours? Bent over a desk like a whore? Or how he cried like a baby the day I left him?"
"Relief, I expect," Irvine spat out through gritted teeth.
"Aw, poor cowboy's jealous!"
Seifer let him go, shoving him away so he had to fight for his balance.
"You frightened I'm gonna come back and steal him away from you after all this time?"
"Just try it, Almasy."
Seifer's ice-blue eyes narrowed slightly, the smile fading from his face. "He didn't tell you everything, did he? To be expected, I suppose. So out of touch with his feelings, our Squally-boy."
"Fuck you." Irvine looked away, determined not to let Seifer see the doubt that crawled all over him, making his flesh creep and his guts lurch at the thought that maybe Squall had lied. Maybe he had cared for Seifer after all. He racked his brains, trying desperately to remember if Squall had ever even denied it... A vision of Squall wet and shivering in the show flooded his memory. He'd said it had just been about the sex, that he hadn't cared. Hadn't he?
"She's awake!" Odine snapped both men's attention back to Cass. She sat up, blinked at them, and for a split second Irvine saw the old, familiar Cass, ordinary, untainted with magic.
"Irvine?" Terror closed in on her and Irvine started towards her without thinking, but Seifer's hand clamped down on his arm and held him back.
"He's here to help us, Sorceress," said Seifer.
"Help?" she said weakly. Somewhere between and echo and a plea.
"If I can," said Irvine, straining in Seifer's grasp.
Cass yelped as if she'd been slapped; Irvine could see the magic growing in her, too fast, crackling and fizzing in electric flashes around her. She screamed and fell back to the bed. Seifer shoved Irvine out of the way and rushed to her side, checked for pulse and breath from her unconscious form. Let out a long sigh that Irvine took as evidence she was still alive. Seifer turned on Odine, snatching the little man by the throat and raising him off the ground until his limbs flailed and he gasped for air.
"What went wrong this time, you moron?!"
Odine squeaked, Seifer's fingers too tight to allow words to escape. Irvine made a dash for his rifle, but he was no match for Seifer's GF-heightened reflexes. He flung a spell at Irvine without so much as taking his eyes off Odine. "Stay where you are, Kinneas!"
And Irvine found himself forced to do just that; his limbs were set in stone, and it was all he could do to draw shallow, painful breaths.
He watched as Seifer let Odine down, drew the tip of his gunblade to his heart. Barely able to make out any sound through the muffle of the spell Seifer had cast on him, he could imagine what he was saying.
Anger surged through Irvine; all he could think of was Squall, and Seifer, and whether or not...
He had to stop. Had to think of something else, anything, because raging at Seifer wouldn't help him, or Cass. He had to find a way to turn the tables.
Preferable through the use of extreme and gratuitous violence.
The spell wore off all at once, sending Irvine crashing to his knees as feeling returned to his limbs, every nerve ending tingling as life flooded through numb, twitching muscles.
"Make it work," Seifer was saying. "No more excuses, no more failures. We don't have any more time to waste."
Odine was scuttling about on the floor, muttering calculations and rearranging equipment; apparently ignoring Seifer completely.
"Things not going your way, Almasy?" said Irvine, as soon as he found the breath to speak.
Seifer glared at him. "You shouldn't sound so smug, Kinneas. If this little shit can't get his act together, she'll die."
Irvine let that sink in for a moment as he struggled to his feet. "Let me help, then."
Seifer snorted derisively. "You seriously think I'd fall for that one?"
"Can you take the chance?"
"And what the fuck do you think you could do?"
"I don't know. Depends what the problem is. But Cass is my friend. I won't let her die."
"More than a friend." There was a flash of jealousy in Seifer's eyes that Irvine rather enjoyed.
"That's in the past."
Seifer's derision had faded somewhat; he cast a glance at Cass. Suddenly uncertain.
"Look at it this way," Irvine said. "I boned your sorceress, you boned by boyfriend. Let's call it quits, eh? Or do you really want her to die while we stand here having some kind of pissing contest?"
Seifer gave a snort of frustration and stalked over to Cass; he stroked her face back from her hair, and his shoulders slumped. "The power's too much for her," he said eventually. "It overwhelms her, makes her sick. Makes her... change."
"Change? What, into a monster, or-"
"No, you moron, I mean... like Her."
Irvine's stomach dropped. "Ultimecia?"
"It's getting worse. If Odine can't fix it..."
"Have faith, and patience!" Odine exclaimed, his hands flying over the keyboard of a small computer he'd produced from Hyne knew where. "You can't rush science!"
Seifer roared at Odine, raised a hand to strike him, stopping himself at the last minute to punch the wall instead. "We're running out of time, can't you see that?"
"Oh, yeah, the ritual," said Irvine, carefully. "What was that about again?"
"Magic," said Seifer. "It'll help-"
"The bonding ceremony!" Odine interrupted cheerfully. "I, Odine, rediscovered this ancient rite, a matter of course for sorceresses of old, a joining of sorceress and Knight where power is shared and loyalty pledged for all time!"
Irvine couldn't help but laugh. "Now I understand. Oh yeah. I can see how that would work out really well for you, Almasy. With the power sharing and all. Very selfless."
This time Seifer's fist met with Irvine's jaw; pain seared through his skull. "You know fuck all about anything, Kinneas! Shut the fuck up and stay still or I swear I'll..."
"Yeah, yeah." Irvine massaged his throbbing jaw. "Whatever."
"I'm not the one who goes around taking advantage of any screwed-up little tart I come across. This is... all I want is..."
Power, thought Irvine. That's all he ever wanted, really.
While Seifer was struggling to finish his sentence there was a rustling sound from behind them and a shriek from Odine; Cass was rising again, and this time there was no fear, no pleading, no screaming. No humanity. Just dark, cold eyes fixing on Odine with nothing short of contempt; one slender arm lifting, pointing at the terrified little man.
"No!" Seifer and Irvine yelled, in unison.
Distracted, she turned her attention to them, magic fizzing to nothing down her arm. Her fingers twitched, as if it hurt to have the power returned in such a way.
Energy crackled around her, blue and fierce, seething and writhing under her skin. There was nothing of Rinoa's quiet strength, or Ultimecia's tight control, or Adel's cruelty. Cass had no focus, none of the clarity of purpose Irvine had seen in other sorceresses. Her magic was a wild, untamed thing, and at the same time more powerful than anything he'd ever known.
All of a sudden, Odine lunged at her, and before either Irvine or Seifer could stop him he'd latched onto her ankle, screaming as pure energy shot through him. There was a cloud of smoke and stars, and when it cleared Odine was on his knees, whimpering, and Cass was Cass again. Crying, trembling; Seifer and Irvine both rushed towards her, but Seifer got there first.
"What have you done?" Seifer spat at Odine, pulling Cass into his arms.
"Bangle," panted Odine. The tips of his wild, wiry hair were singed. "Power limiter."
Irvine noticed it then, on her ankle, a band of gold run through with pulsing veins of magic.
"Odine brand," said Odine, triumphantly, then fell onto his back and passed out.
"It's so heavy," Cass whispered. "It hurts."
"It's just for a little while," said Seifer. "Until we can perform the ritual. Okay?"
She didn't answer him; Irvine's guess was that she hadn't even heard him.
"Come on." Seifer guided her towards the middle of the room, casting Irvine a warning glance on the way. Irvine shrugged, stepped back, a plan half-forming in his mind. Six steps to his rifle, a moment to aim...
Seifer was chanting, tossing some kind of powder over both their heads; it didn't fall but stayed in the air, twinkling stardust.
Just six steps, just waiting for the right moment... Seifer had closed his eyes, that's it, now-
Then the wall behind Seifer came crashing down, and there was Squall.
Afterwards, Irvine harboured some regret that he hadn't had the chance to take that shot. Not least because it had been such a perfect excuse to do Seifer some serious damage, even if the bullet's power would have been sorely diminished without a GF on his side.
But at the time, all he felt was relief.
Squall stood on a mound of rubble in the clearing dust, coat swishing around his legs, Selphie at his side, and Irvine caught a glimpse of gilt and golden light behind them. He must have been next door all this time.
Seifer flung an arm out angrily in Squall's direction, shooting a column of flame from his fingertips, but Squall deflected it with the merest gesture of his hand, and it fell harmlessly to ashes at his feet.
Sometimes Irvine forgot how powerful Squall had become. So, judging by the look on his face, had Seifer.
"Cass?" said Squall.
She'd slumped to the floor, face buried in her hands, silent although her shoulders heaved with massive sobs. The band around her ankle was glowing brightly.
"He's put some kind of power limiter on her," said Irvine. "It's-"
There was a shower of blue sparks, and suddenly he couldn't make a sound. Fuck. A simple silence spell. It had been a long time since Irvine had been so vulnerable to such common magic.
On the other hand, silence was no enemy to a sniper. A smile twitched at the corner of Irvine's mouth; he exchanged the barest glance with Squall, and took a half-step backwards.
"Don't do this," Squall said to Seifer, his voice soft, carrying more compassion than Irvine really thought was warranted. "It's not too late."
"But it is," the apparently recovered Odine interjected. "If you rush the experiment the results will be inconclusive! Disaster! Disaster!" He waved his arms about dramatically.
"What the fuck is he on?" Seifer muttered.
Irvine took another silent step backwards.
Seifer let out an exasperated sigh, and ignored Odine, turning his back on him. "If you try and stop me," he said to Squall, "I'll kill your boyfriend in an instant."
"And then I'll kill you," said Squall, calmly. "So what's the point?"
Seifer laughed. "I'd like to see you try."
And another, to the right this time. Another.
"Let's do it." Squall drew Lionheart in a flash of blue light and stood ready. "Never mind hostages, Almasy. You and me, here, now. Let's settle this once and for all."
"Sorry, Squally-boy. You'll have to wait. I have an appointment."
Seifer tugged Cass to her feet, clasped her hand and punched the air with their joined fists.
Exeter leapt into his hands; Irvine dove, rolled and took the shot; his bullet passed clean through Seifer's shoulder, blood spurting for a moment before the healing magic flowed over him.
But it was enough.
Seifer dropped her hand and turned on Irvine, and when the ceiling opened and the light poured in, it was only Cass it fell on.
They all watched transfixed as Cass was engulfed in vivid blue streams of energy. Seifer froze, Irvine forgotten, and wailed as the anklet shattered to dust. She wasn't crying any more. She raised her face to the sky with a smile, both arms outstretched as she wallowed in more power than any human being should be able to stand.
"Shit," said Selphie.
Irvine could only agree.
"Cass? Are you okay?" Seifer looked wretched - not surprisingly, thought Irvine, seeing as he'd just missed out on all that blue sparkly goodness.
"Cass?" said Squall.
If Cass heard them she made no sign of it; the flow of magic had stopped and she was intent on a shimmering shape that was forming in front of her, flickering into an unmistakably female figure.
It spoke in a deep, rich voice, reverberating through the chamber. "Who brings this child of Hyne to The Ward?"
"Me," said Seifer. "Your humble servant."
"I see. And is this your Knight, child?"
"I d..don't know," said Cass. She didn't seem afraid; somewhat overwhelmed, maybe, but there was none of the terror she'd shown before.
"Cass!" Seifer howled. "You do know! It's me, remember, we agreed..."
"I'm sorry," said Cass, not unkindly. "I know what we said, but now it's time... I'm just not sure. I'm sorry."
"You are new to the magic," said the Ward. "You invoked my power to bind you to the world. The choice is yours."
"You don't have to choose Seifer," said Squall. "I'll serve, if you want."
"Or Irvine," said Selphie.
Irvine reeled, from a stab of jealousy on the one hand that Squall would offer himself so freely, and at the notion that he could be someone's Knight himself on the other. He tried to catch Squall's eye, but his gaze was fixed resolutely on Cass.
"Please!" Seifer dropped to one knee, bowed his head. "Do me the honour, Sorceress. I will serve faithfully, to the end of time itself. Please."
"Oh, have some dignity, man," Irvine muttered under his breath - audibly, he realised. The silence spell must have worn off.
"I'm the only one who really cares," said Seifer. "I promise, I'll-"
"You can't trust him!" said Irvine. He took a deep breath, decision made. "I'll do it. You've known me for years, we're friends, even if things did, um... I know I haven't always been very... but if you'll have me I-"
"Irvine!" Squall glowered at him. "You have no idea what you're doing! Being a knight isn't something you can just promise on a whim! It's a lifetime commitment! You're offering to be tied to her forever, to follow her everywhere, you're giving her a power over you like you don't understand. You can't possibly-"
"Better me than him," said Irvine.
"I'll do it," said Squall, exasperated. He turned to Cass. "I'll be your Knight, Sorceress. I can help you. I know what it is to be a Knight and-"
"You've already got a fucking Sorceress, Leonhart!" Seifer yelled. "How come you get another one?!" And then to Cass, "take no notice, Cass. The Cowboy's a faithless jerk and the so-called Lion of Balamb is an emotional retard who can barely cope with the Sorceress he's already got. I'm ready for this. I'm ready for you. I promise."
Cass looked wretchedly from one to the other of them, more uncertain with every passing moment. Finally she turned to The Ward. "It was a mistake," she said, voice shaking. "All of it. This shouldn't have happened to me. It's his fault," she waved a hand vaguely towards the niche where Odine was hiding under the slab, "and the binding... they said it would stop it hurting. I don't want to be a sorceress. I don't want a Knight. I just want the power to go away!" Tears spilled down her cheeks; for all the magic crackling around her she looked as vulnerable as a child. Irvine felt a sharp pang of guilt; if he hadn't neglected her, if he had been a better friend, if, if, if...
Seifer started towards her, but The Ward shot him a look so terrible he froze in mid step. Then she turned a kinder face on Cass.
"It is your birthright, child. You have always been a daughter of Hyne. Whether you came to fullness through inheritance or interference matters not."
"But it hurt! It would have killed me."
"No. Your magic is raw and new, is all. A new power is a rare and miraculous thing. You shall tame it and make it yours, and in time you will pass it to another."
"I will?" she raised her head uncertainly, still trembling.
"You will." The Ward nodded, once.
"Then..." Cass looked again at Squall, and Irvine, and lastly and for longest at Seifer. "Can I do it alone?"
"It's too dangerous," said Squall. "If you lose control, innocent people could be hurt."
"Is that true?" said Cass.
"Yes," said The Ward.
"But I could do it? I don't have to have a Knight if I don't want one?"
"It is as you wish, child."
Cass raked her fingers through her hair, apparently unaware of the magic that crackled around her skull as a result. "I don't want to end up like Adel, or... but..."
"Then choose," begged Seifer. "I'll protect you. Please."
"Shut your mouth, Almasy," said Irvine, "or I'll shut it for you."
"Leave him alone," hissed Squall. "It's her choice."
Irvine was silenced more by the stab of betrayal at Squall defending Seifer than by his argument.
"I'm sorry, Seif," said Cass. "Sorry, Irvy."
Irvine tried not to feel rejected. It wasn't as if he'd ever wanted to be a Knight, anyway. Seifer turned away, his reaction hidden although Irvine noticed a shake to his shoulders. Irvine allowed himself a smug little smile.
"Squall. Can you help me?"
Squall nodded, and in his best Commander voice, said: "As you wish."
"No," Cass smiled. "Not as my Knight. I mean, if I choose to do this on my own, will you help me? Make sure I don't get dangerous, and if I do..." - a flash of fear crossed her face - "will you stop me?"
Irvine could feel Squall's relief as if it were his own.
Perhaps it was.
"Of course," said Squall. "You have my word."
Cass turned back to The Ward. "I choose to have no Knight," she said.
"Woohoo!" said Selphie, with a triumphant bounce. "You go, girl!"
Squall gave her a disapproving glare, but she ignored him.
The Ward hooked a hand around the back of Cass' skull, and for one horrible moment Irvine thought it was all a mistake and she was about to do Cass some dreadful harm. But Cass was smiling, and the smile grew and grew as the two of them were shrouded in blue and pink light.
Then there was a flash, and darkness.
Squall blinked. The sun was painfully bright, low in the sky but sending fierce, white-gold spears of light across the scrubby ground.
"Present." Irvine adjusted his hat to shield his eyes - or perhaps his expression, Squall wasn't sure which. Something wasn't right between them all of a sudden, and it shocked him to realise it.
"We all seem to be in one piece," said Selphie. She helped a dazed-looking Cass to her feet. "You okay?"
"Yes, thanks I'm-" said Cass, and promptly passed out. Selphie caught her neatly, and quickly checked her vital signs.
"She's okay. Just the shock. I'll give her a remedy; we need to get back to Esthar and have her checked out."
"Are you sure she's okay?" Irvine took Cass' hand, clasped it between both of his and peered anxiously at her sleeping face.
"Power reduction!" said Odine. He was waving some kind of instrument at Cass; its twin antennae glowed at the tips. "Magic reduced by forty one point two per cent across the spectrum. Within normal paramagical parameters to correlate with her physiological limitations." He sighed. "Such a waste."
"You could have killed her!" yelled Irvine. "You stupid little-"
"Leave it, Irvine," said Squall, but too late. Odine had bolted, disappearing with remarkable speed into the scant undergrowth. "Oh, great."
"So we lost the mad scientist," said Irvine. "With a bit of luck he'll get eaten by something."
"He knows more about paramagic than anyone in the whole world. We can't afford to lose him." Squall felt tired and exasperated, and he knew that Kiros wouldn't be best pleased to find out that Odine was still at large. He was about to start after him when he felt Selphie's hand firm on his arm.
"He'll come home when he's hungry," she said. "Or we can go find him later. Right now we need to get Cass somewhere comfy."
Much as he hated it, he knew she was right.
"What about the other jerk?" Irvine nodded towards Seifer, who sat a little way off, showing no signs of trying to escape. His was hugging his knees to his chest, head bowed, fingers clasped in his dirty blond hair.
"Leave him to me. Selphie, call Quistis, get some transport here. Irvine... just stay out of trouble."
Irvine watched as Squall took the dozen steps to where Seifer sat and slipped a gentle arm around his trembling shoulders.
Then he buried his face in Cass' neck, so he didn't have to watch at all.
The Ragnarok arrived in less than an hour, and the journey back to Esthar was brief and uneventful. Cass slept most of the way cuddled into the crook of Irvine's arm while Squall and Seifer sat a few rows back and spoke in hushed tones. Irvine held the new sorceress close and battled with a knot of jealousy so tight it took all his energy to stay in his seat.
It was starting to make sense, at least. He knew now why he'd never been the jealous kind.
He'd simply never cared enough to be jealous before.
He cared now. And it hurt, twisting in his guts as sure as if Seifer had Hyperion writhing there. It hurt that Squall should care enough to let Almasy live, never mind be so nice to him. There was no logical motive for that, as far as Irvine could see. The man was dangerous and had broken most all of the conditions of his agreement with Cid and Edea after Ultimecia. He didn't deserve this. Didn't deserve Squall.
Had never deserved Squall.
Cass stirred a little, stretched and arm across Irvine's chest and twined a strand of his hair around her fingers. It was oddly comforting and familiar, and at the same time it felt all wrong.
When they arrived there were med teams waiting to rush Cass away for tests and observation and Hyne-knew what else, and security teams to fetch Seifer. He went without so much as a surly glance.
For a moment Irvine and Squall found themselves standing side by side; but it was all Irvine could do to look at him, and when he did he saw his own uncertainty mirrored a hundred times over, and with it a cold anger that shocked him to the core.
What the fuck had he done?
Then Kiros arrived and bundled Squall off for debriefing, and Irvine found himself left standing in the plaza outside the Presidential Palace, tired and hungry and without a clue what to do next.
"Cheer up, Cowboy." Selphie hooked her arm through his and gave him a bright smile. "They'll probably let him go in a day or two."
Irvine somehow managed to return her smile, and gave a little whine. "A day?" He summoned his most pathetic look. "I'll die!"
Selphie laughed, and gave his butt a playful smack, apparently fooled. "Meanwhile, you want to get something to eat? Me and Quisty were thinking of trying that new place in the mall."
"Nah," said Irvine. "Thanks for the offer, but I think I need a long bath. Work the kinks out." He rolled his shoulder, which gave a resounding crack as if to prove his point.
"So long as you stay just a little bit kinky," said Selphie. "I'm sure Squall wouldn't want you to lose them all." She winked, and it was so, so easy to wink back and grin and pretend there was nothing wrong. So easy that it felt like betrayal.
"I'll see you later." He gave her a hug, and strode into the palace with a brief wave at Quistis, who was on her way out.
"That's that one done and dusted then," Quistis said to Selphie, with some satisfaction. "Zell's got permission to call home so he said we should go on without him. I'll just need a shower, then we can go. Is Irvine coming?"
"No," said Selphie, still watching the revolving door that Irvine had just passed through.
"I don't know," said Selphie, with a frown. "But there's something wrong."
Quistis gave a deep sigh. "Boy stuff?"
"Probably. That was one hell of an atmosphere on the Rag. I thought Irvine was going to deck Seifer the minute we landed."
"Well, yeah. Squall. I haven't seen his 'whatever' face for a long time."
"Because Irvine's jealous?"
"I'm not sure. I think there's something else there, but Hyne knows what. Could be anything, knowing Squall. All I know is they're both as stubborn and growly as bears, and there'll be no peace 'til they sort it out."
"Ah well." Quistis gave her friend a quick hug. "I suppose it was too much to hope that everyone could congratulate themselves on a job well done and revel in our shared accomplishment of saving the world from disaster. That would be too simple for the male gene to cope with, eh?"
Selphie giggled. "I guess. Come on, let's get going. I'm starving. And I think I might be about to have a good idea..."
It was easy to slip from meeting to meeting, from hand shake to hand shake, without having to think about anything. Squall barely noticed how angry he felt - how anything he felt - until he found himself alone in the corridor that led to his room. The last meeting done.
He stopped just outside the door. Wondered if Irvine would be there, or if he was still with Cass. Or off doing something hopelessly irresponsible. Or in danger. Or...
Squall turned and strode away from his room, heading for his office at the other end of the palace. A muscle twitched in his cheek; his fists were clenched at his sides. He shoved down the panic and fear that had returned to him at intervals ever since the moment when Irvine vanished.
This is what it would be like, he told himself. If he didn't stop it now, this is what it would always be like. Irvine was Irvine. Guns and women. There would always be Selphies and Tanyas and Casses around the corner.
And one day, Irvine would leave, and Squall's name would be added to the list for his next conquest to torture themselves over.
May as well get it over with then, Squall told himself. Why wait? Why wait when he was falling more in love with the man every day, when it would hurt more and more to lose him? Why-
"Excuse me, Sir?"
He came to a halt, and blinked at the girl in front of him. One of Laguna's assistants, out of breath and looking a little scared.
"Message for you, Sir, from the President. He wants you to go here," she passed him a slip of paper with something written on it in Laguna's untidy scrawl, "and wait for him as instructed."
Squall frowned. He was certain Laguna had told him he was having an early night.
"He said it's about Dr Odine, Sir, and that you should hurry."
"Okay. Thanks. I'm on my way."
She saluted smartly and rushed off, obviously keen to escape his presence.
Squall sighed, and stuffed the piece of paper in his coat pocket. The lining felt soft and familiar; funny how fast he'd got used to the new duster. Leather usually took forever to wear in, but this just... fit.
It was no good thinking like that. No good thinking at all. Relieved for the distraction of another worldly crisis, Squall shoved his own cares away and set out into the cold Esthar night.
Irvine leaned against one plush wall in the back room of the Torama, and tried not to bring to mind the memory of a naked and wanton Squall lying on the futon. He didn't want to bring Squall to mind at all. He'd spent most of the time since they'd got back trying not to think about Squall, but actually he'd done nothing but, emotions swinging from guilt to jealousy and back again so fast it made his head spin.
He wished Selphie would hurry up and get here to talk about whatever problem it was she had. It was about the only thing that he could imagine might take his mind off his own.
So when the door swooshed open and Squall stepped into the room, his heart didn't just sink. It plummeted to his boots faster than a G-prison elevator, leaving him dizzy and sick and stupidly speechless.
"What're you doing here?" said Squall bluntly.
Irvine bristled; he couldn't remember them actually having the row he'd imagined a hundred times over in the past few hours, and yet Squall was behaving as if they had, and worse.
"Hey," said Irvine. "I'm meeting Selphie. You?"
Squall's brows shot up. "Selphie?"
"Yeah. And you?"
"Laguna. Something about Odine."
"Oh. Well, as soon as Seffie gets here we'll shoot out of your way."
Squall leaned rather awkwardly against the closed door, and folded his arms over his chest.
Irvine searched desperately for something to say, but he couldn't think of anything. He'd rehearsed a hundred lines, but none of them fit. He wanted to take Squall in his arms and hold him; he wanted to pin him against the wall and demand to know what had happened between him and Seifer; he wanted to fall at his feet and grovel.
He did none of these things, but the sheer effort of stopping himself meant he didn't do anything else, either.
The silence grew between them, thicker and more awkward by the second.
In the end, Squall broke first. "Where the fuck is he?" he muttered. "He should be here by now."
"Yeah. Seffie too. What did you say Laguna wanted to see you about?"
"Something to do with Odine. Look, I'll just go and, um, wait outside. In case he goes the wrong way or something. Okay?"
Irvine nodded; Squall turned and swiped his card through the exit panel.
He tried again.
He typed in the Esthar security override code.
It gave a single, desultory beep, and then...nothing.
"What the fuck?"
Somewhere in the confusion of Irvine's mind, suspicions began to form. "Who told you to meet Laguna here?"
"His Assistant. Gave me this note, in his handwriting and everything."
"And Selphie sent a message to me, too. In her handwriting and everything."
"I think we've been set up."
"What? Some kind of conspiracy, you mean?"
"No. Well, yes, but not the political, danger-to-the world kind. The Selphie and Laguna kind."
"Remember the last time we were locked in a room together?"
Squall did. He remembered being pissed off, horny and scared. In roughly that order. Then horny again. And then... "Oh."
"I wouldn't rate our chances on getting out of here for a while," said Irvine.
Squall said nothing, just stared at the floor.
"It's my fault," said Irvine. "She must have thought there was something up." Willing Squall to say she was wrong, of course there wasn't, it was all fine and by the way he'd just exiled Seifer to the Island Closest to Hell forever without a GF or a weapon of any kind.
"I guess she's right," said Squall. Still staring at the floor, weight on one hip, hair falling in his eyes.
"Yeah," said Irvine, his voice cracking. "I guess."
"It's none of their business."
"No. They mean well, but... no."
Squall's eyes met his, miserable and strong and cold and Irvine couldn't bear it.
"What the fuck happened?"
"I..." Squall tried, but he couldn't find the words. He slumped back against the door. "I don't know." He sucked in a deep breath, wrenched his eyes away again. "I think maybe it's over."
It hit Irvine harder than a wendigo attack. An actual, physical pain, deep inside, where things were soft and tender and didn't always heal right.
"I love you," was all he could say. All he could think, or feel.
"For now," said Squall, his voice barely audible.
"For now? What d'you mean, for now?"
"It won't last, will it? It never does, for you. Seeing you with Cass today... I know you don't mean to hurt anyone, you're trying to do the right thing, and sure, you love me now, but... you loved her once. And Tanya. And Selphie. And... however many others there are. Thing is, I don't think I can take it again."
"You think I'm going to leave you," said Irvine, shocked to the core. "Like Seifer."
"No, not like Seifer, but... what d'you mean, like Seifer?"
"He said... things. About the two of you. About you. About your feelings for him."
"I had no feelings for him." Squall scowled. "I didn't have feelings in those days, remember?"
"I understand Seifer. He's not that complicated when you get to know him. But I've never loved him."
"Then what d'you mean, you can't take it again?"
"I was thinking more... Rinoa."
"You see, it's different for you. You're used to all this. I'm not. I think I hurt easy. That's why I shut people out. It's so much easier that way. And every time I let anyone in..."
Irvine felt something wet on his cheek, realised he was crying. "You want to leave me because it's going to hurt you when I leave you," he said, flatly.
Squall ran that through his mind. "Yeah. That's about it."
"And you think I'm going to hurt you because-"
"Because you are... who you are. I can't change you. Love means something different to you is all and-"
Irvine crossed the space between them in three strides, took Squall by the shoulders and shook him, hard, forcing him to look him in the eyes, tears and all.
"You want to know what love means to me? Really? I'll tell you exactly what love means. Love is something strong and rare, that pumps through your veins like life. Love is blood and tears. What I felt for Selphie or any of them wasn't love. It was nothing. It blew away like sand and when it was gone I barely missed it. Love is... love is standing here like a fool and hating Seifer and wanting you more than anything I've ever wanted in my whole fucking life. Love is..."
Squall lifted a shaking hand to Irvine's chest, put a finger to his lips. "Blood," he said. "Life. Yes. That's how I feel about you." A sense of wonder about him, as if he'd never thought such a moment possible. And wariness, still, that he was being lured into some kind of trap.
"And Seifer?" Irvine hated himself, but asked anyway.
"Sand," said Squall. The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. "You moron."
Irvine heard himself laugh, and then the breath oomphed out of him as Squall clutched him tight, fists pressing into his back. Irvine wrapped an arm around Squall's waist, another around his shoulders, fingers threading through silk-soft hair, lips closing over skin, kissing his forehead, his eyes.
"I'm not leaving," he whispered. "Not leaving. I wouldn't... I'm absolutely, definitely not leaving. I'd rather stop breathing. You got that?"
A muffled voice came from somewhere around his neck. "Got it."
Irvine kissed around the curve of Squall's ear, palmed his jaw and tilted his face up, took Squall's mouth with his, groaned when Squall's tongue thrust between his lips, skimming over teeth, slick and firm and hungry. Felt himself shoved back towards the futon, and Squall's leg hooking behind his knees to steal his balance. They fell into the pile of cushions and Irvine swiftly rolled Squall over in a squeak of leather so that he was on top, tongues twisting together, fingers in hair and burrowing into clothing, popping buttons and zips in a confused need to reach bare skin. A few moments later they came up for air, a dishevelled tangle of limbs and half-discarded clothes and rumpled hair, and Irvine forced himself to concentrate and get Squall's shirt properly off. But Squall wasn't interested in such details, apparently; he seemed determined to distract him with kisses and licking his jaw and bucking his hips, humping Irvine's thigh.
"Naked," said Irvine, firmly. "Want you naked."
Squall grunted in protest and squirmed a little, but he did lift his shoulders so Irvine could strip the shirt from him, and let him go for long enough that Irvine could peel the trousers off his legs. And then he was naked, all hip bones and broad chest and strong limbs, and Irvine fought his way out of his own clothes in a frantic struggle to feel Squall's skin against his own, smooth and warm and beautiful. He had to pull himself away to tussle with his boots and jeans, and when he turned back Squall was kneeling up, hair falling over one eye, clutching a small bottle in one hand.
Irvine stole a kiss first, with every intention of lying down right after, but somehow the kiss got long, and as Squall tugged him close his impossibly hard dick rubbed against Irvine's, and after that Irvine didn't care. He just wanted, anything, everything, the feel of Squall's hand and cock and lips and tongue and everything, just wanted, and next he knew he was on his back, because Squall always got his way, and slick fingers were inside him, squirming and stroking and opening him up, getting him ready, and the mouth on his dick was hot and wet and sucking, and he was murmuring something into Squall's hair that sounded like begging.
And then Squall was kissing him: his mouth, no tongue, just gentle lips nibbling at his, panting breath mixing with his, hands stilling and stroking at him, parting his thighs, resting calm on his belly as his cock filled him inch by glorious inch.
"I love you," Squall's voice rich and soft, lips tickling his ear. "This hard, this deep. I love you."
Irvine cried out, a sob escaping from the knot in his chest, and he tugged Squall's head down, kissed him hard as he wrapped his legs around his back, close as he could, full and hot and tight and lost; and Squall didn't start to move until the itch started, until Irvine wanted it so bad he thought he'd die, and then there was slick heat pumping inside him, cool fingers on the outside, twisting the pleasure out of his cock in confident, irresistible strokes. Irvine couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't see, even; all he wanted was to move and feel and let Squall do anything to him, anything so long as this never ended.
Only, as soon as he'd decided it was perfect and it would last forever, he came. He couldn't help it, couldn't stop it, completely out of control; he came screaming and bucking and all over his chest and belly and Squall's fingers, too long since last time, he just kept coming and coming until his balls hurt; was subsiding into ache and bliss when Squall cried out and thrust deeper than deep inside him, held him tight as he rode out his pleasure, body shuddering, voice hoarse, spurting wet inside Irvine's ass until he had nothing left.
Irvine drifted, dimly aware of Squall slipping out of him and rolling away; of soft kisses to his neck and a warm body nestling into the crook of his arm. Hair tickling his nose. A soft sigh; steady, even breathing.
He realised he was smiling. "Very."
He wasn't ready to sleep, though, not really. He stroked Squall's fingers, splayed across his still-sticky chest.
This felt too good to miss by sleeping. And besides, there was still one thing left to ask.
"Tell me about Rinoa."
His body stiffened slightly; he twisted his head around to blink up at Irvine through his rumpled hair.
"Why?" he asked, suspiciously.
"Because I want to know. I want to understand, properly."
"How you feel."
There was a long pause; Squall lay back again, his head against Irvine's shoulder, so still that Irvine might have thought he'd fallen asleep if he hadn't been watching his eyes.
"Did you ever think about the orphanage gang?" he said, eventually. "Before we met up with you again at Galbadia, did you think about us much?"
"Always," said Irvine. "I missed everyone so much it hurt, everyday. I had loads of friends, but it never felt the same. It always seemed wrong, the way we were split up and sent all over the world. We should have been together."
"Well... it's partly like that. I just... miss her. Feel as though she should be here. Same way as I'd miss anyone: Selphie, Quisty, Zell."
"Um... no." Squall rubbed his nose on Irvine's collarbone. "You're different. This is more just a friend thing I'm talking about."
Irvine felt warm inside.
"But that's just part of it," Squall continued. "The other part, the magic... it's more like a junction. It's like when you've been linked to a GF for days, for weeks, and then you let it go, and you feel empty and hollow inside."
"Because the power's gone?"
"There's more to it, though, isn't there? You get used to having a presence in your mind, sharing everything, knowing everything. Only it feels right, really, to let the junction go... and this feels wrong. I thought it would get better, and it has, kind of, only it still sort of aches. Like there's something missing. Something important."
"Oh." Irvine hesitated for a moment, and then, in a small voice: "I can't make that better, can I?"
"No. Or at least, you can't make it go away. I think it's meant to be there."
Irvine stroked his hair, letting himself understand at last. "You don't love her, then? Not like this?"
"I told you, Irvine," said Squall with a smile in his voice. "I'm gay, remember?"
"Oh. Yeah." He smiled back. "Good."
"Well. That means I've only got half the population to feel jealous of."
Squall laughed, a deep rumble vibrating against Irvine's side.
"Ooh, look." Irvine reached out to the low table by the bed. "Elixir."
Squall's eyes lit up.
"Special occasion?" Irvine grinned at him.
"Feels pretty special to me." Squall grabbed for the bottle, but Irvine, with the advantage of longer arms, held it out of reach.
"You want to go again already? You really do have Galbadian blood flowing through those heroic veins of yours, don't you?"
Squall scowled at him, just hard enough that Irvine got worried that he hadn't recovered his sense of humour yet. But as soon as he took his attention off the elixir, Squall darted in, so fast Irvine could have sworn he must have been junctioned, and snatched it. Irvine squealed in protest and flailed after the precious bottle, but Squall was much too quick for him, even convulsed with laughter as he was.
"You... may as well... stop... struggling," Squall gasped between something that could only be described as giggling. It wasn't a sound that Irvine had ever heard Squall make before, and he was fascinated. "You... know I'll... win."
Irvine flopped back onto the bed. Squall was right. And besides, he had to admit he was curious as to what Squall planned to do with his prize.
"That's better," said Squall, kneeling astride Irvine's thighs, laughter subsiding. "Now lie there and do as you're told."
Irvine's cock twitched, jerking from its nest of curls to stretch up towards his navel. Squall noticed, raised an eyebrow and shuffled closer, his balls tickling Irvine's; his own soft cock nuzzling Irvine's stiffening one, velvety and just a little wet at the end. Irvine's body arched as a sudden quiver of pleasure shot through him.
And Squall hadn't even taken the stopper off the elixir bottle yet.
"Just lie still. Close your eyes." Squall trailed his fingers over Irvine's chest, smoothing his hair out of the way. Irvine relaxed, enjoying the rush of blood to his cock, the way it throbbed and pulsed to life, nuzzling against Squall's. If felt so right.
"This might tickle a bit."
Then there was a pop and a fizz, and a tingle of cool liquid that fell on Irvine's breastbone first, then spread, gentle fingers swirling and smoothing over his skin. Irvine arched up to meet the touch, air leaving his lungs in a long sigh, and the next splash hit a nipple. Squall swirled his fingers around the stiffening flesh, the delicious liquid sending waves of pleasure straight to Irvine's groin.
Irvine just moaned.
Squall switched to the other nipple, and Irvine couldn't resist opening his eyes, just catching the fading blue haze as the magical liquid soaked into his skin. Squall watched as Irvine's flesh responded, nipple puckering tight and hard. He looked fascinated, brow furrowed in concentration, fingers dabbling around in the pool of liquid, spreading it around Irvine's chest and over his ribs. Down towards his flat, quivering belly.
Squall tipped the bottle again, but it didn't fall on Irvine's straining cock, as he'd expected. It splashed over his balls instead, in a haze of multicoloured sparkles, and Irvine screamed, the sensation so intense he could hardly bear it. Then the tickle subsided to a fierce, glowing, pleasurable ache; he'd gone from generally horny to desperate to come in about ten seconds. He reached for his cock, knowing it would take no more than three strokes, needing it more than breath, but Squall pushed his hand away.
"Please," begged Irvine. "You do it, then, but please..."
Squall's devilish, lopsided grin told him he could beg forever and it would make no difference.
"Please?" he tried anyway.
"Patience," said Squall, tipping a palmful of elixir into his own hand. Irvine's fingers twitched towards his aching erection, but Squall stopped him with a glare.
"My way," said Squall, firmly.
And to think that at one time that would have meant hard and fast and over in a minute, Irvine told himself. What a turnaround.
"My balls are about to explode," Irvine complained.
Squall ran his tongue over his lower lip, his expression totally devoid of sympathy. "Not until I say so."
"Oh fuck," Irvine whined. "You're not kidding, are you?"
Squall just grinned, shifting his legs to part Irvine's thighs and kneel between them. Cupped Irvine's balls in his elixir-coated palm; oddly soothing now the shock of that initial drenching had eased a bit. Clever fingers working their way around the root of his cock, spreading a thin layer of magical fluid all over Irvine's skin, working up the shaft one inch at a time, too slow to give satisfaction but firm enough to keep the ache alive. Irvine was panting; back arched, eyes closed; it was taking all his concentration to keep from thrusting into Squall's hand. So when he opened his eyes to see Squall straddling him again, holding Irvine's cock firmly by the root so it pointed straight to the ceiling while he poured a cascade of magical fluid over the head of it, he thought he was done for.
"Shhh," Squall whispered, wiggling around to get himself in position. "Just breathe. You'll be fine."
"I won't," said Irvine. "I can tell you now, if you do what I think you're going to-"
Squall kissed him silent, moving his mouth gently over Irvine's, making him ache inside, abandoning his cock for a moment to thread his fingers tenderly through Irvine's hair and stroke his temples, his jaw. Stopped for a moment to do something Irvine didn't quite see, but when Squall started kissing him again his mouth was full of effervescent liquid, pouring from his tongue to Irvine's; Irvine drank the elixir down, feeling its glow spread through him, and all of a sudden he realised his cock was pressing at the soft dimple of Squall's asshole, and Squall was pressing back, letting Irvine in on a rush of slick elixir. Still kissing, still stroking, soft and gentle and determined, and Irvine surrendered with a whimper. If he came now, well, Squall had only himself to blame, he decided. It all felt so good, was so good.
As it happened, it lasted much longer than he'd have thought possible. Somehow, once he was completely buried inside Squall's body; when Squall lay trembling on top of him, quivering with pure pleasure and lust; once they fit together like a puzzle and he felt closer to Squall than he ever had to any other human being in his whole life, the edge wore off his physical need, and all he really cared about was how very, very good it made him feel. Just to be here. Like this. With this stupidly heroic, fucked-up, quietly passionate man that he loved with all his heart.
Squall raised his head, far enough that Irvine could focus on his vivid blue eyes, on dark, impossibly-long eyelashes and perfect cheekbones; on swollen, damp lips and a glimpse of pink tongue.
Squall gave him a little smile that made his spine turn to jelly. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Irvine wished he'd said it first, wanted it to be more than an echo.
Next time he'd be quicker.
And then Squall started to move. Just circling his hips at first, rising up on strong arms so he could grind down hard into Irvine's groin, his beautiful cock reaching up straight and proud, damp at the end. Irvine held out his hand, nodding towards the bottle Squall still clutched in one fist, and Squall poured the last of it into his waiting palm. Quickly, before it evaporated, Irvine spread it over Squall's erection, enjoying the resulting gasp from Squall's throat.
"Slowly," said Squall, huskily. "Slow as you can."
Irvine did his very best, but inevitably as Squall started to move himself on Irvine's cock they fell into their own familiar, irresistible rhythm, and Squall thrust into Irvine's hand as Irvine thrust into his ass, and there was no holding back any more. It wasn't hard and fast, but it was consuming and unstoppable; all Irvine was aware of was the blissful slip and twist of hard flesh in his hand, and the glorious, snug fit of Squall's body. Sweet, sweet friction.
"Oh gods," Squall whispered, arms quivering with tension. "I can't... I'm... oh gods... I'm... don't stop. Please don't stop."
"As if I ever would," Irvine chided, and Squall managed a grin before his pleasure overtook him, eyes squinching shut, mouth open as he yelled, the first shot arcing through the air to splash on Irvine's face, the second on his chest, the third and more coating his hand as he kept stroking, pumping every last drop.
His cock was still hard, still twitching, balls still locked up tight as Irvine clutched his hips, holding him still as he pounded his last few strokes into him; his body so fixed on holding back that it took that long for him to finally let go, and even then the first spurt was a battle between restraint and need, an almost painful release. Then Squall's fingers were in his hair, soothing; he could taste Squall's come on his lips, feel it sticky on his skin; and at last his orgasm consumed him, blanking his mind of everything but overwhelming pleasure.
It left him gasping for breath, body heaving, every nerve ending on fire. And Squall was kissing his face and his hair and his neck, his body warm and bony and familiar on top of him, and Irvine wanted to cry.
"You're crying," came Squall's voice, surprised.
Okay, maybe that thought had gone further than he'd acknowledged.
"Nah," he said, his voice coming out all croaky and hoarse. "Something in my eye."
They looked at each other.
"Yeah, right," said Squall.
Irvine scrubbed the wet from his eyes with the back of his hand, and grinned a little sheepishly. "So, d'you think they've opened the door yet?"
Squall shrugged. "How'd they know when we'd made up? Unless-" A possibility crossed his mind; he paled visibly. "You don't suppose- ?"
"Who knows? Where Seffie's concerned, anything's possible."
Squall looked nervously at the ceiling.
Irvine laughed. "Don't be daft. They wouldn't do that. Besides, the Torama has a reputation to uphold. A lot of top secret things take place in this room. No way they'd allow surveillance."
"Oh." Squall relaxed a little. "Okay. Well, I'll go see if it's open." He swung himself off Irvine's body, and yawned. "Mmm. Maybe in a minute."
"Yeah." Irvine tugged him down beside him, wrapped his arms around him, hand settling possessively on his belly, legs tangled together. "In a minute."
By the end of a minute, they were both fast asleep.
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