By Tenshi no Korin
You know you only hurt yourself out of spite
I guess you'd rather be a martyr tonight
That's your decision
But I'm not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man
The main problem with Balamb Garden, Irvine considered, was that it was entirely too round. He was never going to get used to the place, much less manage to match the little numbers on the keycard in his hand to some door that, according to legend, would have a bed inside with his name on it. It was late; there was no one to ask for directions. He was about to give up and just go to the hotel when a faint noise sounded over his shoulder, implying habitation and perhaps someone to point him towards the dormitory. Irvine stopped in the deserted hallway, silencing his boots so they would no longer muffle the elusive sound floating down the corridor. He retraced his steps and found the door of the ballroom unlocked, phantom music drifting like the warm tropical air wafting through the Garden's breezeways. The door whooshed open silently and the music enveloped him, pulling him in as the entrance hissed shut again. It was dark in here, but moonlight puddled on the parquet floor from the balcony doors, a moving shadow indicating the musician's presence there.
Edging his way around the large room as quietly as he could, he made his way to the source of the sound. The softly played tune echoed in the pure acoustics of the ballroom and became a haunting counterpoint to itself. It was still not loud enough to completely conceal his footsteps, and though Zell must have known Irvine was there he didn't stop playing to say so.
"I didn't know you were so good," Irvine said, by way of greeting.
Zell lowered the saxophone thoughtfully, not looking up at his audience of one. "Had lessons for a couple of years. Ma thought it would calm me down." He wet his lips and slipped the reed back in his mouth, and a jazzy riff replaced the still-echoing melody in the ballroom.
"Did it?" Irvine leaned on the balcony railing, not as comfortable as Zell was with perching on the marble banister, what with the long drop below.
"Nope." Zell silently pressed the keys, the felted stops padding against polished brass with a soft thumping noise. "Still the same old me." He let the instrument hang from the strap around his neck, looking out over the water that was glittering with the combined lights of Garden and FH. "How did it all go, anyway? After the concert?"
Irvine frowned. "I was hoping you'd know. I mean, since you and Squall-"
"Since me and Squall what?" Zell's head came up sharply, and the saxophone made a noise of protest under his hands. "Why would he tell me anything?"
"Uh," Irvine began, eloquently. Maybe he shouldn't trust scuttlebutt so much. "Quistis had mentioned-"
"Quistis," Zell said, frostily, "Should mind her own fucking business." He lifted the saxophone to his lips and inhaled to play something by way of dismissal.
"So you're NOT sleeping with Squall?"
Zell spat the split reed out of his mouth. "Do I LOOK like I'm sleeping with Squall? If I was sleeping with Squall, would I be on a balcony serenading the sharks at 0200 hours, you think?" Zell resumed his seat on the railing, digging in his shorts pocket for a replacement reed.
Irvine gave a low whistle. "Hey, don't take MY head off about it."
"Sorry," Zell scowled at a stray phoenix down, and shoved it back in his pocket. "I'm just..." He located the reed in his jacket and tossed the garment back onto a potted plant. "Nevermind."
"No, I don't think I will. You've had your hackles up at everybody since we came back." Irvine gave the blond a long look. "Enough to make a guy think you didn't WANT us to come back from that mission."
"That's not true!" Zell shot to his feet, but couldn't quite meet Irvine's gaze. "I didn't want anything to happen to any of you, I just…" He trailed off guiltily, staring at the floor. "I just wish you had taken her back home and left her there, that's all."
Irvine didn't need to ask who 'her' was. "Well, I tried." He tilted his hat up. "Was under orders to go get her out, and find out where the rest of you were, so I could come back and retrieve you without a rookie girl underfoot." Irvine sighed. "Rinoa's a problem, huh?"
"She's not one of us," Zell remembered the instrument in his hand, and popped the mouthpiece off to slide the new reed in. "Squall doesn't need to be hooked up with some bimbo from Timber who can't tie her shoes without help."
"That's no way to talk about Rinoa, Zell." Irvine was ready to defend a lady's honor even if she had kicked him downstairs. Twice.
"All right, all right, I take it back." Zell's shoulders slumped, his voice sounding defeated. "She's nice enough, Irvine." Zell knelt, unslinging the saxophone and settling it back in its case. "But she's an innocent in the woods, and you and I both know it. Talking about what her friends went through in no way makes her the same as any of us, and neither does planning a revolution as if it was some kinda surprise birthday party. She's a spoiled little princess with no clue about what's going on in the real world, and thinks she can have her way by running away from home."
Irvine opened his mouth to protest, but Zell's blue eyes were deadly serious, and the sharpshooter knew he was right.
"Don't say it," Zell exhaled. "I like her, Irvine, I really do. She's sweet and funny and pretty, but she's not part of this, and she's just gonna wind up hurt or dead. Some things can't be solved with a smile and a clap and daddy's pulled strings." Zell busied himself with the fastenings on the instrument case, not looking Irvine in the face. "I'm glad you got her out of that prison when you did, because it was no place for her to find out what war's really like."
"She'll have to find out sometime," Irvine protested, but weakly. He'd been nervous as hell taking two girls on a half-cocked missile operation: one emotionally unstable, one barely used to combat, and Irvine unsure about pulling operations against his own country. Selphie, thank Hyne, had been a tough bitch in battle, but Rinoa was jumpy, constantly in need of reassurance that neither Selphie nor Irvine could give. It had been touch and go for a good while there, all of it much too chancy for Irvine's liking.
"She should just go home," Zell muttered, almost to himself. "It's one thing to be shoved into conflict, she could probably adjust. But she's young, Irvine. I don't care if she's the same age we are. Tell me the truth. How many times did you have to save her ass on that missile base? How many phoenix downs and Esunas did it take to keep her on her feet? How many times was she a liability and not a support? Had you already thought of what you were gonna hafta tell her dad? Sorry, Sir. It was Rinoa's life or the mission, and SeeD regulation 4.B clearly states-"
"All right, so what if I had?" Irvine snapped. "But she's gotten better. She's not trained like us but she's strong." Irvine meant it. Rinoa had a lot of raw ability. "With a little effort someday she might-"
"Not soon enough." Zell stood. "What happens when she's got a broken heart, Irvine? What happens when the rug gets pulled out from under her? She's in love with Squall, but she doesn't even know how he works. Someday he's gonna choose the mission over her, and it's gonna kill her. Maybe literally." Zell gestured between the two of them. "We're killers, Irvine. You, me, Selphie, Quistis, Squall. We can say what we like, but what it boils down to is that we take down who we're ordered to, wash off the blood and go on. We've lived with that every day for years. It's what we know. But no matter how much Rinoa grows up and no matter how much Squall talks to her, they will never, ever understand each other. One day he's gonna open up to her, the way she keeps begging him to, and she's gonna realize exactly what he is." Zell spread his hands. "You think she's the kind of girl who can love a guy like that? Past the cool veneer and the sharp shiny gunblade, once she really knows just what it is he does with it? She thrives on justice. We don't give a damn about anybody's justice but our own. We just get paid."
"You make us sound so heartless." Irvine smiled, painfully. "We don't always take down who we're ordered to. I didn't, anyway."
"Heh, but you fired anyway, didn't you, Kinneas." Zell flicked an imaginary speck of dust off the marble balcony. "You were up for transfer to Balamb for your test in a week, weren't you?"
Irvine started, surprised. "I would be taking it right now, probably. How'd you know?"
"I saw it on your record. Yeah, I looked." Zell's eyes narrowed. "You'll have to tell me someday, Irvine Kinneas, just why you choked on that assassination. Your record had you as the coolest man under pressure Martine had seen in a while. It was why he picked you. Don't tell me it was sudden fear of fame."
"Even I make mistakes," Irvine said, hoarsely. "Maybe Martine was wrong about me."
"I don't buy it," Zell returned evenly. "You're a SeeD, or close enough to know that you do what you're ordered and be fully aware of the consequences, and there's the difference I'm talking about. We have to live with that. Rinoa's too busy trying to piss off her dad to see what's really going on. We didn't know shit about that sorceress then, we just did what we were told. She coulda been somebody's mom for all we know."
Irvine shuddered, but Zell didn't notice. "What about you, Zell?" Irvine asked, resting his too-warm hands on the cool balcony railing. "Are you the kinda guy who can love somebody like Squall?"
Zell went still as he looked out over the water. "I killed four Galbadian soldiers in Timber, Irvine. Most of 'em I knocked out, but four of 'em I felt their spines crack, saw their eyes fade out. In the prison it was eight. And my test in Dollet-" he looked at his hands. "Nine. I was nervous, hit too hard, it was all adrenaline. One of them looked younger than me. Twenty one, Irvine. Twenty one people. Boom." He held up his ungloved fist, and pointed to the narrow space between his first two knuckles. "Right here. And don't think I don't think about them every single day, that my being clumsy or hurried or desperate made the difference between a concussion and death. Rinoa never took a one down anytime that I saw. And she looked away every time Squall charged, and not, I bet you, cos she was scared he might get hurt. So she's kept her innocence. Let her have it as long as she can, Irvine. We lost ours a long time ago. She should go home, before she starts making the count in her mind. Before she starts making the count for Squall. Before she can't look at him at all, much less when he's pulling the trigger." Zell blinked, as if realizing how much he'd said, frowned at the sky. "Sorry, I guess I got carried away. Maybe I'm the only one that thinks about it. Maybe I'm the one that shouldn't be here."
There was a long silence of water against the Garden and the slap of rope in the tide on the pier, and Irvine shifting inside his coat. "Eighteen, I think," Irvine said at last. "I might have gotten more, in the prison. I know I got one breaking free of the crowd after the parade. Hell of a thing, not knowing how many you killed." He exhaled in a rush. "Zell, Squall went off alone tonight. Not with Rin," Irvine clarified, at Zell's surprised look. "Rinoa's spending the night with Selphie. You and Squall-" Irvine made a hazard. "Quisty was right, wasn't she? About you two."
"Yeah," Zell admitted, pale under the moonlight. "He'd just started to come out, just a little, but then she came back and he has to be big strong knight in shining armor because it's what she expects, and he clammed up again just as fast. My dumb idea anyway, thinking it was more than one night. And no, before you even say go find him, I'm not going to be an idiot and go flinging myself at him again." Zell snorted, resting his folded arms on the railing. "I'm as bad as Rinoa. I got no right to give her shit." He mussed his hair in frustration, and the familiar blond spike tumbled into his eyes.
"Does Squall know?" Irvine rummaged in his coat, pulling out an engraved metal flask. It wasn't as heavy as he'd hoped it'd be, but there was plenty enough for two. "That you love him?"
"I don't know." Zell folded his arms on the smooth marble. No denial, but then Irvine hadn't expected one, not from Zell, who was as honest as the mark on his face. He raised an eyebrow at the proffered flask, but accepted it and took a swig without question. Zell trusted him, Galbadian or no. Galbadian liquor was another thing entirely. "Geez," Zell coughed, but took another sip, more cautiously this time. "What is that?"
"The good stuff." Irvine tipped it back slowly, savoring it. "So you wanna talk about it?"
Zell was uncommonly serious. "I don't know, you wanna listen?"
Irvine passed Zell the flask. "I forgot to mention, I'm fucking lost." He waved his keycard. "So I got nowhere else to be. C'mon. I like listening."
"Bet it really gets the girls," Zell grinned, and toasted him.
"Fuck, Zell." Irvine supposed it was true what they said about the loud ones, how no one ever knew what they were really like underneath the noise. Zell was still and quiet in the small hours of the morning, voice lower than ever heard before as he confessed the sins of others like they were his own. "You haven't told anyone else this, have you?"
It was hours later, both of them sitting on the balcony ledge, feet dangling through the railing. The flask had been emptied long since.
"No." Zell's smile was sharp and strained, the edge towards himself. "Why, you think I should go in for counseling?"
"This bunch of us?" Irvine wrinkled his nose, making a derisive noise. "We could probably all use some counseling."
Zell, surprisingly enough, laughed. It made something twist loose in Irvine's stomach, grateful that maybe Zell was going to be okay after all. "What's so funny?"
"Can you imagine me telling this to Kadowaki? I bet she's heard worse than I'm in love with my commanding officer. " Zell dissolved into snickers. "Although maybe not for Squall. The Trepies must give her hell. Take a fuckhead like me to fall in love with Squall the Iceberg Leonheart." Zell made to tip up the flask, forgetting that he'd given it to Irvine. "I think I'm drunk," he announced seriously, studying his empty hand.
"Yeah, I think you're drunk too." Irvine got to his feet, boot heels clicking on the marble floor. "C'mon, let's get you into bed." He tugged at Zell's shoulders but Zell brushed him off, gripping the railing.
"I'm okay, I can get up by myse-" He stumbled, one sneaker hung in the bars, and his arms pinwheeled for balance before Irvine caught him. "Heh, okay s'maybe not." He wriggled his foot free, leaning on the sharpshooter for support.
"God, Dincht, you're toasted."
Zell didn't move, resting his cheek against Irvine's vest.
"Zell? You don't pass out when you're drunk, do you? Cos I don't know where to carry you to."
His answer was a pair of arms around his waist, strong with corded muscle and warm. "Thanks, Irvine." Zell muttered. He was quiet and still and the top of his head came neatly to Irvine's chin, the hammer of his heartbeat like beating wings against Irvine's ribcage. He smelled like oranges and thunderstorms, wet and sharp and sudden, and the scent clung to Irvine even when Zell let him go too soon and bent to retrieve the saxophone case and his discarded jacket. "I'll show you where the dorms are. What was your section number?"
Amazing, Irvine thought, how fast a Garden key card could get whisked out of one's fingers by an innocent errant ocean breeze. At least that was the story he was sticking to, as the small silver rectangle flashed silver on its way to the ocean below. "I think I lost my card."
Zell blinked, pausing as he straightened his collar. "Really."
Irvine did his best to look sheepish, but he was no longer so sure of just what Zell could and couldn't perceive. "Yeah. Can't remember what the room was, either."
Zell looked studiously at his bare wrist. "It's late," he declared. "Really late."
Irvine squinted at the stars, as if he could actually tell the time by them. "I don't suppose-"
"You're fucking tall for one narrow dorm bed, even if it is in a single." Zell shook his head. "But I'm short, so I guess it's even. Can't have you sleeping in the hallway."
"Look bad on your Garden, you know." Irvine agreed.
"Right." Zell said, and with remarkable composure, passed out cold.
"...You must be lost." Nida, even in his pajamas, toothbrush in hand, still tended to look like the perfect SeeD. Or maybe it was because he was so perfectly unruffled at the situation, as if sharpshooting Galbadians regularly wandered around his dormitory at five in the morning, saxophone case under one arm and unconscious martial artist under the other.
"Look, I'd appreciate the non bullshit version, if you don't mind." Irvine shifted Zell's weight. "Do you know where his room is or not?"
Nida sighed heavily, probably tallying up the full list of things he could report Irvine for, were he an actual Balamb student and not a visitor. "End of the hall on the left. The locks on the singles are palm-scans, his input code is 5567."
"Thanks." Irvine started to head off down the indicated hallway, then turned back, Zell's sneaker toes dragging on the tile. "Wait, how'd you know that?"
Nida just smiled, waving a hand idly as he strode the other way to the shower rooms. "I'd ruin my image, if I told you that."
Irvine's estimation of the Garden pilot went up another notch as he plugged in the numbers and Zell's door whooshed obligingly open. He didn't bother with the formalities, depositing Zell on the bed that was worth four of the standard bunks at Galbadia G. And as Irvine had cause to know, you could fit three in one of those beds; this was going to be downright roomy.
"Not that I'd take advantage of you or nothing," Irvine explained, swinging his coat over the chair and kicking his boots off. "But if I wanted to, it's a damn sight more space than I'm used to. Galbadia has four to a room. Not near this fancy."
Zell mumbled something incoherent and curled up on his side, giving Irvine more space to settle down beside him. Irvine closed his eyes, tilted down his hat, and tried to sleep, but all he could think of was the way his hip flask felt, the spout warm from another pair of lips. Belatedly, he remembered his GFs and felt a stillness in his mind as he unhooked his junctions one by one. The blocked off fatigue hit him full force without the cushion of defensive spells and Irvine was almost grateful, knowing he would sleep. Zell shifted, his hand moving restlessly over the sheets until it found Irvine's necklace and curled around it, the weight of his arm warm and comfortable across Irvine's chest.
"Damn, Kinneas, what the hell kind of mess are you getting into?"
He was asleep before he could give himself an answer.
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