Sins of the Living
Chapter 5 - dinner at the OK Corral
"No freakin' way!"
This from the startled throat of Irvine. It came oddly off his lips, since he was currently sprawled over Zell's living room couch like a lazy cat, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. His eyes were wide in astonishment though and gave him a slightly froglike appearance that she would have found amusing if she wasn't already so annoyed. Well, ok, it was amusing regardless of her mood.
"Yes 'freakin' way," Quistis growled back. She decorated the only chair in the living room rigidly, her anxiety level not allowing her to relax into its battered embrace. Irvine continued to stare at her, and she raised an impatient hand to forestall the comment she could see rising to his well-shaped lips. "And no, I have no real idea what prompted her to do it."
"Prompted who to do what? What'd I miss?"
Craning her neck, Quistis could just make out Zell as he came in his front door, the take out bags clutched tightly in his hands. He grinned at his friends, closing the door absently by leaning on it before moving into his living room with his usual bouncing stride. Even relaxed, he moved like he was about to explode at a moment's notice, or start flying.
Quistis watched with a sour expression as Zell kicked off his shoes into a corner, not even watching where they fell. The irrepressible blonde happily shoved Irvine's sprawled legs off his couch and flopped down, leaning to put the steaming bags on the coffee table. His bright eyes stared first at Quistis, and then at her annoyed expression, moved back over to Irvine.
Quistis waved a hand impatiently, unwilling to explain again. The cowboy grinned, the shock fading from his face as he sat up against the couch arm, readjusting his legs from Zell's rude intrusion by putting a socked foot on Zell's thigh.
"I dunno Trepe," he said cryptically for Zell's benefit, "I think I'm likin' the idea. It's inspired even." Quistis groaned and Zell looked back and forth between them, the confusion obvious on his transparent face.
"C'mon guys, give. What're you talking about?"
Irvine didn't reply, still grinning at Quistis as he snaked a long arm over to one of the bags. Opening it at the top, he sighed happily as the steam rose in a sudden cloud.
"Damn, but I love Ryo's noodles. Extra portions for me!" he exclaimed greedily. He reached into the bag and started pulling out the plastic containers, stacking them on the floor before discarding the paper bag over his shoulder behind Zell's couch. Quistis winced but Zell didn't appear to object so she let it slide. Wasn't her fault if her two friends were slobs.
Irvine handed one of the innocuous containers to Zell, before snagging a second for himself. He offered the third to Quistis with a raised eyebrow but she declined silently, getting up to peer into the remaining bags for her own favorite, the suicide rice balls. They weren't hard to find, the fragrant aroma nearly overpowering the smell of the rest of the food on the table. She retreated back to her chair, tucking her legs up comfortably as she juggled the steaming box in her hands. She waited until Zell had given up on questions in favor of food, and had begun stuffing the tasty noodles into his mouth. Then with a wicked gleam in her eyes, she dropped the bombshell on him.
"Selphie's invited Seifer to the Summer Festival."
Zell choked, noodle bits spraying everywhere. His head snapped up in disbelief, strands hanging out of his mouth like a catfish. Quistis had to laugh, and Irvine leaned forward to pound his friend energetically on the back.
"Sweet-sorceress-on-a-stick, what the hell was she thinking?" he finally garbled out. Quistis smiled sweetly at him, the annoyance bright in her eyes as she popped a rice ball in her mouth.
"Who knows," she replied, letting the raging spice spread over her tongue like a small fire. "Selphie's got some weird bug in her ear, and the best I could get out of her was something about Squall and Seifer's ongoing one-upmanship. I think," she said darkly, "that Selphie's trying to yank Squall back into reality by the short hairs."
Zell absently licked noodles into his mouth as he shoved Irvine back to his side of the couch with one straight arm to the chest. The cowboy sprawled, wincing when his back impacted the hard edge of the couch arm. The noodle box in his hand never wavered throughout the entire event and the two friends settled back in amiable comfort. Irvine propped his feet back up again on Zell's thigh as his friend settled back.
The sounds of contented munching filled the air for a few minutes as they all pondered Selphie's tenuous grip on her own reality.
"Gotta give the girl credit," Zell said finally, glancing at his friends. "It'll probably work. Nothing gets to Squall faster than Seifer's attitude."
Quistis snorted. "Get real, Dincht," she riposted back. "There are other ways to get under Squall's skin without resorting to an outbreak of insanity."
"I think I'm agreein' with Zell," Irvine said suddenly, surprising Quistis. He glanced around at them, his eyes unwontedly serious. "Selphie's more in tune w' things than we give her credit for sometimes. If she thinks that pullin' out the big guns is the way to go on this one, then I'm willin' to back her up on it."
"But this is Seifer we're talking about!" Quistis all but wailed. "That's like going up against a Grat with an Ultima spell in your back pocket! Look, I know, I know," she said as she waved a rice ball in the air to head them off, "Squall's backslid and fallen into his original 'touch-me-not' attitude, but give the guy a break. The love of his life's moved on to other things without him and that's gotta hurt, no matter which way you carve it. Squall's just going back to the tried and true - he'll break out of it eventually on his own." Quistis looked at her two friends across the coffee table. "Won't he?" she asked pleadingly.
Zell glanced at Irvine, who shrugged his shoulders.
"Who knows?" the cowboy said softly. "Though I don't think any of us really believe that Rinoa was Squall's one an’ only. Somethin' tells me that there's more goin’ on with the Commander than the breakup of a relationship that was never really on solid ground to begin with." Irvine chewed his noodles thoughtfully, enjoying the tangy sweetness as he thought about what he wanted to say.
"Squall's silent, yes, uncommunicative, hell yes, cold as an iceberg and half as cuddly, that's our beloved leader to the crosshairs. But y'all got to have noticed that the man doesn't talk anymore. Orders, sure, he's got those down like nobody's business. He wants you to do something, he tells you in no uncertain terms and you do it. But casual stuff, like 'hey, how's it going?' or 'wanna go get a hotdog?' - that's just plain disappeared from his conversational repertoire." Irvine looked around at his friends, his handsome face arranged in unusual lines of concern. "It can't just be me that he's doing this to."
The other two mulled it over, eating the food in their hands absently, Quistis in fact popping a rice ball into her mouth without even an anticipatory flinch.
"I got something for you guys," Quistis finally said, as a strange thought popped into her head. "I know I told you that I cornered Squall in his office last week, and the total ice wall I ran into. Well, I'm not sure if I mentioned that it was almost literally an ice wall. " Zell and Irvine looked at her in confusion, with almost identical expressions on their faces. It would have been cute if she hadn't been thinking so hard, trying to put her impressions into words without sounding like she'd gone around the bend. "After I got out of his office, the foyer felt like a warm sauna I was so cold. It took me ages to get warm again, even though I was wearing my SeeD jacket at the time. What the hell's with that, I wonder?"
Irvine still looked confused, but Zell's head jerked up at the description, his eyes wide and anxious.
"Oh hell, I know you didn't mention that before. Quistis," he said urgently, "what’re the chances Squall's still junctioned?"
Quistis' jaw dropped as the meaning of Zell's words impressed into her brain.
"Oh damn it Zell," she breathed in a shocked whisper, "I never even though of that. I just thought it was some oddball air conditioning thing and forgot about it. And I call myself an Instructor," she groaned.
Now it was Irvine's turn to stare back and forth between his friends, confusion written large across his moulded features. "Ok," he said after a moment, "you're scarin' me. What'm I missin' here?"
Zell ignored him.
"What was Squall's first junction?" he asked grimly. He was rewarded as Quistis' eyes got larger.
"Shiva," she whispered back. The two SeeD's stared at each other, both of them sorting out the implications of what they'd said
"Earth to cadets, come in cadets." Irvine's waving hand broke into their locked concentration. "What's so bad about Squall bein' junctioned? You guys do that guardian shit all the time."
Zell's face was grim, making him look older and more adult, as if something had just aged him. When he spoke, his voice was hard and flat, very different from his normal easygoing pattern.
"We use guardians because sometimes its necessary, but according to the Balamb combat handbook, you're never supposed to junction more than two, and never for longer than a few weeks. The longer you junction one, the more, uh, in tune with it you are,” he explained, looking sideways at Irvine. He waved a hand in frustration, trying to describe something in words that one could really only feel. Quistis took up the explanation as Zell ran an impatient hand through his hair, causing it to stick up in even higher spikes.
"Come on Kinneas, you remember, you were there. What did it feel like to call Leviathan to your hand?"
Quistis' eyes were intent on his, and Irvine shuddered with sudden, suppressed memory. Rattled, he put his noodles down the table, suddenly not very hungry any more. He hugged himself without realizing it, remembering how Leviathan had ripped through his mind like a tidal wave, rolled him over and dragged him down to drown in dark waters. Zell broke out of his own furious thought to lean over and rub a hard, comforting hand over his friend's leg. Irvine grinned weakly at him, feeling a faint ghost of alien emotions color his reactions.
"Man, I'd almost forgotten what that felt like," he murmured unsteadily. "Guess it's somethin' you just don't want to deal with in your wakin' moments."
"Yeah," Zell breathed in sympathy, "it's a little like plugging yourself into a light socket, only a thousand times more intense. For that moment, you are the guardian, and not yourself at all anymore. It's scary as hell, and utter rapture at the same time. That's why we're not supposed to use them unless its absolutely necessary, and to unjunction them at the end of every mission."
Zell's voice was subdued, but Irvine was too wrapped up in his sudden recollection to notice. Quistis gave the blonde a sharp look, but Zell waved her off her concern with a couple of fingers. She subsided, letting him exorcise his own ghosts.
They were all quiet as Irvine regained his equanimity. Quistis rubbed a couple of fingers over her lips, worry and concern rising in her eyes. Absently she licked the corner of her mouth, where some sauce was smudged. When she spoke again, her voice was dry, teacher-mode, but neither of her friends were fooled.
"Use one guardian a few times, and it will come to your aid faster and more willingly, as you build rapport with it, creating the pathway that it needs to travel in your mind. SeeD training is meant to prevent or delay any bonding, which is why guardians are swapped around so frequently and so casually here. Nobody wants to risk phasing with one." She lapsed into silence, thinking furiously. Zell glanced uncertainly at her and then back to Irvine who still looked a little lost.
"Think about it cowboy, think about carrying a guardian around inside you all the time, all day, every day. Waking or sleeping, its always there, at the tips of your fingers, in the back of your mind, needing to be needed." Zell's eyes were bright, his voice carrying a fever-tone of some unknown emotion. "They love you, they want to be with you and eventually you start to love them back, you can't help it. Even if you don't summon them, they're always there in that corner of your mind, wanting and needing. It's hard to shake that kind of devotion, and after a while you don't want to." Zell looked away from Irvine, his hands clenching into fists as he stared at them with blank eyes. "It's an incredible feeling, when they love you like that."
Quistis was looking at Zell in sympathy and Irvine had the feeling that Zell was more than intimately familiar with this particular guardian problem he'd never heard of. Quistis spoke up again, taking up the thread of explanation and drawing Irvine's attention away from the distracted Zell.
"The guardian exercises we practice here in Balamb are meant mostly to learn how to seal yourself away from all that power, to just let it happen when you need it and stuff it away in a little box in your mind when you're done with it. That's why you have to be SeeD to get a guardian, you need to be trained in how to handle one. You, Irvine, were an absolutely special case, being that we were in the middle of a mission that nobody expected to take more than a few days."
Quistis took a deep breath, liking this possible explanation less and less. If Squall had done it, if he'd kept his guardian junctioned... she took up the thread again as Irvine's eyes looked more and more worried.
"That's why on longer SeeD missions, it's common to be given two guardians to carry. If you call more than one constantly they almost seem to, well, conflict with each other, neither of them gaining a solid place in your mind. I think," she said quietly, as if trying out the idea in her head, "that's one of the things that kept us sane during the War. All of us, we had to have had four or five of the things all the time, but none of them were able to phase with us fully before being displaced by the next.
"But if its true," Zell continued grimly as Quistis faltered, in a voice that Irvine had never heard him use before, "and Squall's kept Shiva junctioned to him, he's had her since the damn War started. And that is hell and away past the book mandated two-weeks exposure."
All three of them were quiet, sorting out the implications in their heads, going over recent memories to either confirm or deny what they suspected. Quistis and Zell locked gazes and some dark understanding flowed between them, a shared knowledge that excluded Irvine.
"Is it likely though?" Irvine asked. "I mean, that fact that Quistis thought Squall's office was cold one day is pretty thin t’ hang all this suspicion on. And Squall just ain’t the type to go against Garden rules."
Quistis was already shaking her head even before Irvine finished. Even Zell gave him a wry look.
"Don't look at the sober, strait-laced exterior that passes for Squall's poker face," Quistis said ruefully, "and think that's all there is to it. Remember, I was his teacher and I know exactly how much trouble he could get into. Most of it usually involving fighting and Seifer.”.
"Yeah," said Zell with a certain amount of admiration and relish in his voice, obviously making the attempt to shake off the mood that had fallen over him. "You wouldn't know that Irvine, being from that backwater Garden and all." Zell ducked as Irvine grabbed a stray pillow and threw it at him, fielding it easily with his quick hands. "Squall only follows the rules because most of the time they go his way."
"Backwater Garden, huh? I'll meet you out on the shootin' range, and we'll see how well your fancy dance moves stack up against Exeter."
Zell only grinned and continued as if he hadn't been interrupted.
"He follows 'em only so far as they don't inconvenience him. When they get in his way, or he doesn't agree with 'em, he just steps right over the rulebook as if it didn't exist and keeps going. It can be damn scary following him sometimes because he lets nothing stand in his way, and I do mean nothing." Zell threw the pillow back at Irvine, a gleam in his blue eyes. "The Sorceress War is just the latest, finest example of Squall's outlook on life. Ultimecia never knew what she was up against."
"And if I can get your attention back to the matter at hand," interjected Quistis dryly, "what that pretty much boils down to is not if Squall would keep a junctioned guardian against regulations, but whether he actually did or not. But you're right Irvine, a cold office could mean nothing more sinister than a faulty air conditioning unit." She chewed a fingernail absently, before finally shrugging, looking at the boys ruefully.
"I guess I just don't know," she admitted. "Squall's normally locked down so tight that the only way I'd know if Shiva was still junctioned would be if he summoned her in front of me to freeze my ass for asking. Anyone else I'd have a shot at, but our fair Commander doesn't let anything slip unless you beat it out of him with a stick. And he's already stopped reacting to the Rinoa button, so I can't use that one any more."
"Seifer's comin'," Irvine drawled after a moment.
Quistis and Zell glared at him so quickly that he threw his hands up in mock defense.
"Didn't we all just agree that Seifer can rile Squall up without even half tryin'? You wanna know if the Commander has an illegal guardian up that non-existent sleeve? Seifer will flush it out of him three minutes after walkin' in Garden's front gate, three an’ a half if Squall has to come down the elevator to meet him."
"Oh, that's nasty," Quistis said after a moment with a reluctant grin on her lips. "Just plain nasty. Seifer's never junctioned, he won't know what hit him."
"An' if we're just imaginin' things, then the boys can exchange some nasty words and its fun and games in the Garden, just like old times. But if Shiva ends up doing a little ice dance all over Seifer's arrogant... ah, body," Irvine said quickly with a glance to Quistis, "then we'll be there, an’ prepared to deal with it. Right?" he asked hopefully.
Zell said nothing, but the grin that was slowly plastering itself all over his face was pretty indicative of the fantasy he was playing in his head. Eventually, even Quistis nodded her agreement. Irvine leaned forward again to recapture his forgotten noodle box.
"So there you go," he said smugly. The other two looked at him quizzically as he took a healthy scoop of food. "Selphie really does know what she's doin'."
And ducked as they both threw pillows at him.
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