Disclaimer: All the characters, places etc., are the property of Square, not me (::sniffs::). I'm just borrowing them for my own nefarious purposes. I promise they'll be tidied up, and sent home all clean an' sparkling.

(For summary, rating, etc., see previous chapters)

A/N - "If the plot flags, bring in a man with a gun." - Raymond Chandler.



Chapter Four

By Seshat

Selphie recovered first.


She launched herself at the cowboy, who was forced to take a stumbling step back, one arm around her waist, one hand on his hat.

"Hey there, cupcake…"

"It's soo good to see you! What are you doing here?!" She paused, her excited expression darkening. "And what did you mean by that…?"

No-one should have known they were in Deling. It had been late when they left Balamb, they didn't have time to let anyone know where they were going. It had seemed a little reckless at the time, but between Selphie's enthusiasm, and Seifer's determination, Zell had serious doubts that anyone would have listened to him. Actually, after their little chat, he wasn't altogether certain that Seifer was still talking to him. The Commander's behaviour was becoming more erratic with every passing minute.

And now, after being MIA for the past two years, the errant Galbadian conveniently turned up, possessing a much greater knowledge of their situation than he should have had. Than anyone should have had. Hyne, even they didn't know that much!

If Kinneas was about to tell them he was 'just in the neighbourhood', Zell would probably be forced to hit him. Unless Seifer got there first. He glanced over, expecting to see the semi-permanent pissed off glare in those jade eyes.

What he got, was Seifer doing a damn good `deer in the headlights` routine. Hell, they were all surprised. But Seifer looked…shocked. Shocked, and something else Zell couldn't quite define.

"Look, I don't know if we should be talkin' 'bout this here…" Irvine began, disentangling himself from Selphie's grasp.

Before anyone could say a word, Hyperion's blade tip was carefully brushing against the cowboy's throat.


"Shut up, Selphie…"

"Hey, hey…don't talk to her like that!" Irvine frowned, remarkably calm considering he was on the business end of one of the world's most deadly gunblades, wielded by an incredibly unstable mind. It was weird, but Zell swore he looked bored, as if he'd seen this all before, and was patiently waiting for Seifer to come to his senses.

Hell, he'll be waiting a while for that…

"If you have anything to say, Kinneas…" Seifer's tone was low, dangerous. "I suggest you say it now."

"Seifer…" Quistis pleaded. "Don't be crazy…Irvine's right, we can't discuss this out here."

"Yeah, man…" Zell agreed. While there had been plenty of times he'd have liked nothing better than severely kicking Kinneas' ass, this was a little extreme. "Besides, he ain't done nothing…" he glanced at Irvine. "Have you?"


"'Kay. Just checkin'."

Irvine's eyes narrowed. "Fuck you, Zell."

The gunblade in Seifer's grip jerked, just a fraction, just enough to scrape a shallow cut across Irvine's neck. Selphie gasped.

"Hey! The hell was that for?" Irvine's hand raised to the wound, as Hyperion was lowered. A horrified look crossed his face as he saw the streaks of blood on his fingers.

Close call…

"Sorry." He smirked, the gesture humourless and completely unrepentant. The glare was one of `you know perfectly well what that was for`. From the contrite look on the cowboy's face, Zell guessed that at least Irvine understood - even if the rest of them were clueless. "It slipped."

"Sure it did…" Irvine muttered.

"No, really." Seifer shrugged. "Fine, you want to talk? Let's go."

The others watched him stride away down the pathway, leading back to the street. Selphie latched back onto Irvine, while Zell and Quistis hung back.

"I don't suppose you have the first idea what all that was about, do you?"

"Sorry, baby…" he shook his head. "I'll bet that ain't exactly the welcome home party Irvine was expectin'. Not that he has come home, but…you know what I mean. Man, he had me freaked there for a second. I really thought he might…"

"I know…But why is he angry with Irvine of all people?" She frowned. "Aside from the fact that he hasn't been around, he and Seifer barely know each other. After Ultimecia, all Seifer did was work, kept himself to himself…and Irvine was always off on one mission or another…you know, I can hardly remember them even having a conversation before…"

Zell's thoughts were suddenly cast back to the first moment - at least since the orphanage - the two met; at Galbadia Garden, in the moment before they'd been forced to kick Seifer's ass yet again. Odd, somehow that Seifer had been completely aware that Edea was Matron, yet all Irvine had been to him was another Galbadian student. As far as he knew, Quistis was right; neither had really progressed any further from that point. Well, maybe Seifer had taken all of two seconds to learn Irvine's name, but that was pretty much it.

Which put a severe dent in his original theory, that the Commander was understandably angry that a friend was withholding information about Squall. Seifer and Irvine weren't even close enough to be considered casual acquaintances.

So where the hell had all that posturing and cryptic glances come from?

"Maybe he's pissed that Irvine was just another person who wasn't around for his moment of triumph, huh?" Zell grinned, trying to douse his doubts with inane optimism. Tch, it usually worked. "Still can't believe we were the only two of his friends who showed up for the promotion party…"

Quistis stopped, struggling to keep the smile from her face, the giggle from her voice. For a second, he was so relieved that the tense look of concentration had lifted from her face, he didn't realise she was laughing at him.


"You just referred to him as your friend. Careful Zell, people'll think your standards are slipping."

"Tch, what standards? I married you, didn't I?"

"Bastard!" She slapped his arm playfully, even though the blow was a damn sight stronger than any woman had a right to be. "Fine, I guess I'll just be rooming with Selphie at the hotel, then…"

"And leave me with either of those two?" He stared at her in mock horror. "Gods, you wouldn't be that cruel, would ya?"

"Hmm…guess you have a point. Come to think of it, I don't think I could stand listening to Sefie rattling on about Irvy Kinneapoo all night anyway." Quistis rolled her eyes. "So I suppose you're forgiven."

"Thanks, baby…" he murmured, reaching for her hand. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."

"I'll hold you to that, mister." She grinned. "But we'd better hear Irvine out first."

"Then he'd better have a damned short story."

So he'd over-reacted.

He figured he'd had a right to.

Seifer idly wiped the thin streak of blood from Hyperion, by now fully convinced that things couldn't get worse. This had been the last thing he needed…no, wait, scratch that. The last thing he'd needed was for Squall to suddenly become Sorceress Airhead's deranged Knight. The second to last thing had been Irvine turning up. Especially now. Especially the way things stood. But there was no plausible way to get rid of Zell, Quistis and Selphie; that little display he'd treated them to probably meant they'd never leave him alone with Irvine again, for fear of someone winding up dead.

Fine, then. Let's see if the cowboy's learnt anything about discretion lately…

"So like…you calmed down any? Cause if you're gonna go all psycho on me again…"

"How about you talk, then I'll decide?"

Irvine stared at him for a long moment, before rising from his chair and beginning to pace. Under the bright hotel lights, it was easier to see the faint line that ran jaggedly, about three inches from the end of Irvine's ponytail. Faded now, to just a couple of shades darker than his natural auburn, though not quite back to the length it used to be before it was cut. Hyne…had it really been that long ago? It felt like only last week that Seifer had walked into that nondescript Dollet bar, and sat there impatiently for over an hour, not once recognising the guy sitting three barstools away. He could still remember that vague look of hurt in the sharpshooter's eyes when he hadn't been able to quite stifle his amusement.

He wished he could ask Irvine whether it had all been worth it.

"What did Caraway tell you?" Irvine asked, suddenly. "No, I can guess…denied it all, am I right?"

"Are you saying he's lying?" Quistis frowned.

"Not necessarily. But they have been here in Deling. Recently."

"How recently?"

"The past couple of months, on and off." Irvine shrugged. "As late as three weeks ago."

"And it never occurred to you…" Seifer tried to keep his breathing even, keep his voice level, keep his hands from unconsciously reaching for Hyperion again. "To let us know about this?"

Irvine glanced at him, a ghost of a smile playing across his lips.


"Why not?"

Thanks, Chickenwuss.

"Yeah…" Selphie pitched in. "I mean, you're still a SeeD, right? You never actually resigned or anything…and you never answered me, what are you doing in Deling?" Looking away seemed irrelevant, since her hurt was broadcast in her tone, her posture, but she did it anyway. "Why did you just leave, without telling anyone anything…?"

"I…" Irvine blinked, hesitated.

Careful, cowboy…

"Yeah man, whatcha been doin' all this time?" Zell frowned. "Cause it couldn't have been a mission or anythin'…"

"He did resign." Seifer broke in, avoiding Irvine's stare.

"What?" Selphie gasped. "Why would you want to do that? Weren't you happy? Why didn't you even tell us…tell me? Was it something we did…?"

"No! No, course not, cupcake…I just…" Irvine shook his head. "It wasn't working out. I figured I needed some time alone…It wasn't cause of any of you, I just don't think I'm destined to become some hotshot SeeD, is all…"

"Hello, can we get back on track here please?" Seifer snapped, conceding to the need to dig both himself and Irvine out of the hundred foot hole he'd inadvertently dropped them in. Hyne, get a fricking grip Almasy… "You two can reminisce on your own time." Selphie pouted, but didn't argue. "What were they doing here?"

"There was no word that they were planning anythin'." Irvine shrugged. "If I'd heard somethin' along those lines, I would've told you. And let me tell you…If I hadn't actually seen them, I wouldn't have known anythin' was wrong. I'd have just taken it on face value; Rinny runnin' on home to Daddy cause she got herself in too deep."

"General Caraway told us he hadn't spoken to Rinoa for months."

"And I told you, that ain't necessarily a lie. I never said that's what she was here for. I don't know what she was here for, not for sure…"

"You sounded pretty damn sure earlier."

Irvine paused by the door, suddenly tensing, a muscle working in his jaw as he rearranged his hat.

"I am, about him…"

"You saw Squall?" Quistis raised an eyebrow. "What did he have to say for himself?"


"Yeah, that sounds like Squall." She smiled weakly.

"No, you don't understand…" Irvine turned around, sounding a little frantic. "He didn't say anythin', he didn't even recognise me. Neither of them did. I know how crazy it sounds, fuck I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it for myself, but…it was like they were strangers. You…you looked in their eyes, and they weren't them anymore…just some kinda shell, empty…scared the shit out of me." He shook his head, with a rueful sigh. "So like…did any of that make sense?"

Oh, yeah. Way too much sense for comfort.

"She's gotta have her claws pretty damn deep by now…" Zell muttered. "Wish we knew how long she's been like that…"

"Well, I…" Irvine began, before catching the unspoken warning in Seifer's eyes. "I don't know. Like I said, I knew they were here, but…" he trailed off, fastidiously avoiding the others' questioning looks.

"So that's it?" Zell's words were directed at Irvine, his pointed stare at Seifer. "After that totally melodramatic entrance, all you know is that Squall was in Deling a couple of weeks ago, and he didn't recognise you? That's all you break a two year exile for?"

"I couldn't just sit by, not after Timber…"

"Yeah, but…"

"Leave him alone, Zell." Quistis chided gently. "I'm sure Selphie can handle the interrogation. Which," she added, before the other girl could make good on the determined glint in her eyes, "I think we should leave for the morning."

"It is morning." Selphie sighed petulantly. "Technically…"

"S'okay darlin', you can be as much of a pest as you wanna be."

Selphie's response was a high-pitched squeal that Seifer could hear all the way out in the corridor.

He probably should have stayed, made sure Irvine didn't incriminate either of them. But if the sniper hadn't gotten the message by now…To hell with it. He wasn't going to last ten minutes with Selphie's enthusiasm, Quistis's peace-keeping, and Zell's unnerving new ability to see through every lie that came out of his mouth.

The street outside the hotel was deserted. This late at night, not even the highly efficient buses ran, and the normally bustling sidewalks were still. He leant his elbows on the railings, lit a cigarette, listening to the cool night air fluttering through the hotel's flags, billowing above him.

They weren't going to follow him blindly, forever. If Irvine's careless admissions didn't blow it, then his own lack of control would. Countless times he'd tried, but stoic reserve just wouldn't work for him. How the hell did Squall do it? Twenty-four hours since the attack on Timber, and Seifer was already closer to breaking than he'd even dreamt of before.

Dreamt of…

The exhaustion wasn't helping. He could feel it now, tangible, like a fuzziness creeping in at the edges of his mind, his vision.

Did you ever do this? Was there ever a night when you felt like falling apart over me? He felt a fleeting smile tug at his lips at the thought. Squall would never fall apart over anyone. He lifted his gaze, vaguely wondering why he was still mourning the lack of starlight over Deling. The city lights caught on the underside of dark, drifting stormclouds, and for a moment he could swear the murky grey diffused into an iridescent, jewelled blue.

Gods, he needed sleep. Badly.

He might have been able to put the nightmares, the fear aside for an hour or two, if it wasn't for Irvine. He didn't need any other reasons tonight; the Galbadian had just dredged that barely submerged remorse right back to the surface, and swaggered off with a coy little smile and a tip of his hat, abandoning him to his guilt. Ultimately, it didn't even matter what the cowboy told the others. Irvine would deny it, Seifer would doubt it, and everything would become so damned awkward, they couldn't help but know. If they didn't know already.

Hyne…how did you keep it together, and manage to keep from strangling any of them?

Tomorrow. He'd explain everything tomorrow. He'd already resigned himself to telling them about the Vessel Rinoa mistakenly thought he had. While he was certain he possessed no such thing, it could prove dangerous if she was adamant that he did. Damn, he had one thing to thank Kinneas for; he'd kept Selphie's mind occupied long enough for her to forget about Adrasteia. She couldn't have mentioned it…Zell and Quistis were still speaking to him, that was enough proof.

He didn't look up as a figure leant back against the rail. Long, elegant fingers reached over, plucking the forgotten cigarette from his grip, disturbing an inch of precariously balanced ash in the process.

"Y'see…this is what happens when you start tellin' lies. One leads into another, and then another, till you don't even remember what was true anymore." Irvine took a leisurely drag on the cigarette, casting a sidelong glance at Seifer. "I should know. And I did warn you…"

"If you've told them anything…"

"Why would I? I've got as much to lose as you do, Commander." He laughed, softly. "Just gave them a new version of an old story, is all. Gotta admit though, I almost died when Sefie goes and asks `whatcha do to your hair, Irvy?`."

"What did you tell her?"

"The truth." Irvine flashed a small, satisfied smile, when Seifer flinched at his words. "That I needed a change. Hyne, you're too damn jumpy, Almasy…what's gotten into you lately? Or should I ask, what hasn't?"

"Shut the fuck up…"

"Alrighty." Irvine nodded amiably. "I just won't answer all those questions you're just dyin' to ask."

The dark clouds ambled a little closer, the soft breeze took on a cold edge. Fat, heavy raindrops splattered the otherwise silent street. Seifer pulled his trenchcoat around him a little tighter, realising to his chagrin that for once in his worthless life, Irvine Kinneas was actually going to listen to him.

"I thought you quit that particular job two years ago, cowboy?"

"I quit a lot of things two years ago." The shrug was noncommittal. "Don't mean it was a good idea…maybe I was a little…hasty."

"Yeah, right…" Seifer shook his head. "What the fuck are you doing back here Kinneas? And I'd like the non-bullshit version."

"I told you…I couldn't just do nothin'…"

"Why not? It's what you usually do."

"Yeah, but people weren't gettin' killed before." Irvine sighed. "Look, what I said back there was honest to Gods. I know you, you've probably raced all the way up here blamin' Rinny for everythin'."

"What?" Seifer choked back a laugh. "Since when did you become head of her fucking fan club?"

"I'm not." Irvine's expression hardened for a moment. "But the last time I saw them…whatever was happenin' to him, was happenin' to her too. I'm just sayin' don't jump to conclusions…"

"What's happening to her is that she's a stupid, naïve little girl, finally realising that she can't deal with the forces she's been toying with!" He snarled. "I'm not jumping to conclusions. I have a town full of corpses backing me up on this one."

"Hey, hey…" Irvine held up his hands. "Okay. I'm just sayin' be careful."

"And why the fuck would you care, huh? You gave up that right two years ago too."

"Like I said…I was hasty."

"More like greedy. Was getting what you wanted really worth it, Irvine?"

"I don't know…" the casual smile faded into a frown. "I guess it don't matter anymore. But I made a mistake. I meant what I said, if I had any idea they were plannin' anythin' like Timber, I wouldn't have kept that from you."

"Wouldn't you?" The bitterness in his voice surprised even himself. "Face it Kinneas, the only reason you're here now is because you've got nowhere else to go. You're not doing this for him, or for me. You're doing it for yourself."

"Probably." Irvine shrugged. "But that don't change the fact that right now, I'm all you've got Almasy. Go 'head, ask your questions while I'm still in a givin' mood."

"You're in a permanently giving mood…" Seifer muttered, just loud enough for Irvine to hear.

"Hey, is it my fault if people take advantage of my natural generosity?" The cowboy smirked. "'Sides, ain't like you to be complainin'…"

"Oh, shut up." Seifer glared. "You want questions? How's this - why the fuck didn't you tell me?"

"Come on…" Irvine glanced up at him. "Would you have, if you were in my place?"

"Have you known, all along? Because if I ever find out you lied to me about this Kinneas…"

"No! I told you…I've been hangin' out in Deling City for less than a year, and I know for a fact they weren't here when I moved in. Only the past couple of months Seifer, I swear…"

"Did you ever have any intention of telling me? Even before…?"

"I don't…" he trailed off, looking away. There was a soft scraping, as the cigarette was crushed beneath Irvine's boot. When Seifer finally turned to look at him, Irvine was staring blankly at the rain, one hand absently running across the already healing scratch on his throat.

Fuck, why the hell did he always end up scarring them…

"Why, Irvine…?"

"He scared me. Him bein' an asshole, I can deal with. Him bein' an icy little bastard, I can handle. But when he's…gone, to all intents and purposes, gone and left absolutely nothin' in his place…" Irvine shivered, imperceptibly. "When I heard about Timber, I figured you'd come here sooner or later. Alls I had to do was stake out Caraway's place…Did I frighten you? With what I said?" He asked quietly, not waiting for an answer before he continued. "I know it sounded crazy, but…that's how it feels. That's the way I felt when I looked into eyes I didn't know anymore…Did you ever stop to consider that I didn't tell you, cause I didn't want you seein' him like that? I've seen some pretty fuckin' weird shit Seifer, we all have, but…he wasn't Squall, he…he wasn't anything. Lifeless. Like he don't even remember about…"

"Don't." Seifer interrupted. "Don't even fucking start…I've had too many of you telling me he's a lost cause…You of all people can't give up on him…"

Irvine stared at him.

"But you haven't seen him Seifer, you don't…"

"I don't care. None of you know, none of you can ever understand what he's going through right now. Keep your dumbass opinions to yourself, cause you have no fucking idea…"

"Maybe not." Irvine agreed, levering himself from the railing. "Maybe I've never been a Sorceress' Knight, maybe I'm not part of that exclusive little club. But I do know what it's like to face one. Ain't no stranger to the brainwashed, darlin'." The cowboy sauntered towards the hotel door. "I remember fightin' you. I remember your anger, and your pride, and your passion. Your fire. But he's just empty."

"…kinda sad…"

"If you think he's still worth fightin' for, then I'm with you. Always. You're right, I'll never give up on him…" The hotel door swung open, a warm rush of air tumbled out into the chill night. "But what are you gonna do if he's already given up on himself?"


His name, her voice. Even though it was a sleepy mumble this time, it had the same effect as her stern tone, the day she'd caught him trying to sneak a look into the girls' locker room when he was thirteen. Guiltily, he pulled back from the window, closing it quietly.

Not that it mattered. He could have slammed it so hard the glass fell out, and Seifer wouldn't have blinked. Just stood there in the rain, staring after Irvine.

"What are you doing…?"

"Nothin', baby…"

He caught just snatches of the conversation, but enough to remind him that making assumptions as he had been earlier, was a damn crazy thing to do. Especially about those two.

Casual acquaintances? Tch, sure, that's all that was…

"Good." She smiled, snuggling back into his arms. "I was starting to think Seifer's insomnia was catching."


To Be Continued…



Authors Notes : AARGH! All plot!! No smut!! Unless you look really, really hard. (Note to Self - Smut, and soon). Ah well, can't be helped. Y'know what they say - you've got to build it up if you want to tear it down. ^_<

Um…you guys are okay with a mildly happy ending…right?


As for the `cliff-hanger` that kinda fell a bit flat, I honestly thought I'd included enough oblique references to make it pretty obvious. Maybe not…maybe I'm too oblique. Heh heh…that'd explain a lot, actually…(new note to self - no more espresso at three a.m.)

As always, PLEASE tell me what you think - this is my first serious attempt at writing the cowboy. Let me know how it went ;) Irvine starts sentences with "So, like…" a hell of a lot…

Here's hoping you're as confused as I am.

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