Sins of the Living
Chapter 6 - reverend cowboy
The day dawned bright, and for some people, painfully early.
Zell however, wasn't one of those people. This was Summer Festival after all, the biggest event of the year and eagerly anticipated by students, teachers and Balamb citizens alike. Since before dawn the Faculty had been setting up the tents, pavilions, food stands, games and contests on the grassy verge outside the Garden proper. When the sun officially broke over the horizon, the Garden was transformed from its normal military efficiency in a cross between a carnival and a county fair.
For the first time in Zell's memory, he didn't have to threaten bodily harm to get a hot dog.
It was barely breakfast but the concourse was already busy and getting more so by the minute as the SeeD candidates woke up and the guests started to trickle in. Unable to resist the temptation and not really willing to even try, Zell had a beautiful dog in each hand and was taking turns contentedly nibbling from each. He sighed in pure bliss and smiled benevolently at everybody as he passed. This was the way it should be every day. The fact that it often wasn't just made it all the sweeter.
The blonde instructor strolled through the Garden, trading greetings with the students he knew and the friends he worked with. He had until nine thirty to enjoy himself before he started his shift at the dunk tank. After that, he was scheduled to supervise the relay and obstacle course races until noon. Then he was free as a bird until three when all the SeeD instructors had been roped into weapon displays.
Zell vaguely knew that Quistis and Irvine had worked out some kind of trick shooting demonstration but he didn't feel like being that coordinated. He'd probably just do one of his personal training exercises; they were energetic and flashy enough to impress a crowd. And since a lot of his students would be watching it would be a good reminder of what they were working towards. He wasn't sure of the order of the displays - he hoped he'd be able to watch what everyone else had cooked up. It really wasn't often that he got to see what the others were doing.
And speak of one of the devils.
"Hey Trepe!" Zell called out, trying to talk around a badly timed piece of hot dog. Swallowing painfully, he waved energetically until she spotted him and raised a slim hand to wave back. He put thought into action and jogged over to where she was watching the crowd from the main foyer. Her cool eyes sparkled with good humor, and she seemed very relaxed, dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a grey tank that had certainly seen better days. She was leaning casually against the small wall bordering the walkway, watching the crowd drift by with reserved but happy eyes.
A grin split Zell's face as he fell to his knees to slide to her delicately crossed ankles. He began worshipping extravagantly, the effect only slightly spoiled by the hotdog in each hand.
"Oh great and wondrous Trepe," he intoned happily, "goddess of all things tight that aren't a uniform. I'm your humble, unworthy slave." He grinned up at her from his vantage point at her knees. A small blush touched her cheeks even as she gave him a mock scowl, nudging him with one booted foot.
"Oh get up, you big ass," she said sharply.
For effect, Zell did a snap back flip, sauntering back to lay a kiss on her cheek. She gave him a friendly push to the chest as scattered applause burst from the crowd for the impromptu show. Quistis rubbed her cheek in mock annoyance as Zell settled himself beside her on the half-wall. They fell into a companionable silence for a moment, watching the crowd together.
Zell took this opportunity to finish both his hot dogs and contemplated getting more. Regretfully he decided to abstain for the moment, since he'd be hitting the water fairly frequently in the next little while. He stole a glance at Quistis who was looking far more relaxed than he'd seen her in ages.
"Lookin' good this morning," Zell finally offered, "very avant-student. This a new look for you?"
"Don't get used to it," she grumped with a remarkable lack of heat. "I have to judge the tug of war contests at ten and I always end up dirty as hell."
A vision of the self-possessed blonde in a mud bath flashed across Zell's mind. Now it was his turn to blush, thankful that he no longer had a hot dog to choke on. Quistis stared at him quizzically but thankfully didn't seem to follow the dive and wallow into the gutter than his mind had taken. Waving a hand in front of his face to cool off, Zell couldn't keep the inane grin off his face. To distract himself and her, he babbled the first thing that came to mind.
"Seen Squall yet?"
A slight frown crossed the other Instructor's face and her happy mood dimmed a little. She stared pensively at her booted feet.
"I stopped by his quarters on the way down," she said quietly, "but there was no answer. I know that Laguna's coming in early this morning so I thought I'd go with him down to the docks; be a bit of moral support or a referee, whichever was needed more. But Squall's either not answering his door or he's hiding himself somewhere. Guess which option I think more likely," she concluded glumly.
"Maybe he's trying to sleep in?" Zell offered. Quistis gave him an exasperated look to which Zell put up his hands in mock surrender.
"C'mon Quistis, gimme a break. The Commander's gotta sleep sometime. If I was him and you were banging on my door this early in the morning, I'd probably put a pillow over my head too." She glared at him and Zell ducked as if avoiding the laser beams. "Ok, ok, maybe he's hiding. Just offering an opinion here. No need to hurt a guy."
"Keep your opinions to yourself, Dincht," she growled. Her tone lacked serious bite though and Zell took care to take no particular offense. He knew; hell, all of them knew that she cared too much to let it show easily. But thinking of Squall brought to mind the last time that particular subject had come up and he turned to Quistis, his humor dropping away.
"Damn, I just remembered that we really need to keep close tabs on him today. Who knows when Seifer's gonna show up?" His eyes unfocused as scenarios occurred to him, beginning to play themselves out in gory detail in his mind. "This could get unbelievably messy, more quickly than I wanna think about," he said, as some of the grimmer ones presented themselves for inspection.
Quistis leaned back a little more on the half-wall however, and held up a slim hand to forestall his words.
"Got that one covered at least," she replied with a confirming nod of her head, as if satisfied with her efforts. "Fujin and Raijin are escorting him in, and Fu promised to call when they made the train switch in Timber. We'll have a couple of hours notice before he gets here. As I understand it though, they won't be here until early evening anyways. Fu was pretty close-mouthed about it, but I had the impression that Seifer wants to avoid most of the festivities."
"But this is the best part!" Zell exclaimed, waving a hand to indicate the decorated concourse in specific, and the entire fair in general.
"No arguments from me," Quistis replied, "but Seifer's a special case. I can imagine why he'd want to avoid large crowd situations. And I bet you can too if you think about it."
"Still sorta sucks," Zell replied with a little heat. "Seifer was always really good at these games, and loved to prove it to everyone,” muttering under his breath, “whether entirely necessary or not.”
"It's Seifer's decision," she reproved gently, ignoring his last comment. "The fact that he's coming at all is a good sign, no matter what Selphie had to say to get him here. I still want to strangle the girl whenever I think about it though. I wish she'd consulted me before she just went ahead and invited him, if only to save me the heart attack."
"Huh?" Zell looked at her with a startled expression. "I thought that you thought this was a stupid idea. Now it sorta sounds like you approve. Change your mind?"
Quistis stared out over the crowd. Hesitantly, she rearranged her thoughts a few times, trying to put into words what she felt.
"When Selphie told me that Seifer was actually coming back to Garden, I was... appalled, I guess. He's been gone so long Zell, and I've been so angry with him." She stopped, fingers gripping the stone a little tighter. She stared blindly over the shifting crowd, for a moment lost to the present. Finally she sighed and continued in her soft voice.
"After the trial… when he walked away… he was so adamant about staying away, about making himself a new life away from all the... from everything that happened. I guess... I have to say that I admired him for that, for at least trying to figure out for himself where it all went so horribly wrong."
She came to a halt again even as Zell watched with compassionate eyes. There was so much between them, between all of them that it tied them together in ways that couldn't be explained, even if any of them had wanted to try. It was true that any friendships they had formed after the War were casual at best, even to Selphie who made friends simply by breathing. The ties that bound them together, that made them who they were had become so solid as to be almost visible to others. He didn't even think about it anymore - it simply was. And if Quistis couldn't find the right words, it didn't matter because he understood them anyways.
Gently, Zell laid a hand over Quistis' where it rested on the rail; she gave him a small smile, feeling the warmth of his protection flare over her again. He worried more than he ever let on, and although he might fool others around him with his carefree ways, he didn't fool her anymore. She curled her fingers under his, returning the gesture before continuing.
"I just felt that hauling Seifer back here would be overkill. But I guess I should really admit that I just didn’t want deal with having him back in Garden again. He's a walking time bomb Zell, even at the best of times and damn it, it's just gotten back to something approaching normal. Squall and Seifer in close proximity to each other… is an invitation to disaster, no matter what romantic idea Selphie's got in her head."
Quistis rubbed her forehead with a slender finger, a deep crease forming between her eyes.
"But I've been watching Squall like a hawk the last couple of weeks," she admitted, "and there's something... something really wrong with him. He won't admit it, and every time I try and talk to him he just glares at me from behind those walls and walks away. Maybe... maybe Seifer can get through. Gods above know I can't."
"Don't beat yourself up," Zell said, squeezing her fingers for a moment. "You're not the only one he's closed out."
Quistis gave him a startled look, but then her eyes softened. She gave him a half-smile, understanding his underlying pain without words, before even that faded from her face. She almost whispered her next words, as if afraid that saying them louder would make them real.
"If Seifer can't pull Squall out of himself, I think... I think we're going to lose him."
That bald statement caused Zell to jerk back slightly, appalled.
”Can’t be! It’s not that bad, surely?” he asked in a near whisper.
Quistis gave him a sad look that haunted her eyes, although her face still maintained the facade of even reserve.
"From the few things that Fujin let slip," she said softly, "I have a feeling that Seifer's in no better shape. In some strange way, those two almost seem to need each other, as odd as that sounds considering they've never been friends. But I do know that they haven't spoken since Squall bailed him out of the trial and Seifer disappeared. Damned if I know how Selphie tracked them down again, but that's Selphie for you."
Quistis looked at Zell with an earnest expression, trying to form her thoughts and impressions into words that he might understand.
"They've been at each other's throats for so long, I swear it's like some sort of desperation. It's just got to shake something loose in them to be together again, especially here at Garden. I don't think Squall can go on much longer the way he is, and he's getting worse, not better."
"Yeah," Zell agreed on a puff of air, "he's a stubborn ass, our Commander. I know Irvine was going to try and corner him at some point, but I doubt he'll have any better luck than we did." He stopped for a moment as a thought occurred to him. "Does Seifer know all this?" he asked abruptly. "I mean, I know Selphie invited him and he's coming, but did she tell him its because we're worried about Squall?"
Quistis pursed her lips for a moment and shook her head.
"No, I don't think so. As I understand it, she told Fujin a little of what was going on and let her figure out what it would take to get Seifer here. He's walking in blind as far as I know, which makes me a little nervous." She stopped, and then corrected herself, giving the other blonde an honest look. "Ok, it makes me very nervous but it can't be helped I suppose. I doubt either of the boys are going to take very well to being manipulated."
A large swirl of kids went by, loud and happy and it startled both of them, jolting them out their self-contained focus. Surprised, they watched the kids with blank eyes until they'd passed by. It really wasn't that long ago that they would have been the ones making the noise and oblivious to the ones they disturbed. It was an odd feeling, for both of them.
Zell leaned absently on the railing and chewed thoughtfully on what Quistis had said, his eyes starting to track the crowd again.
"What happens if Seifer can't do it?" he finally offered back, very carefully not looking at her. "What if Seifer can't or won't play the old game, or if Squall refuses to be drawn out? Do we have any backup plans?"
"Well," she said after a moment, a thread of dark humor running through her voice, "we could always try kicking their asses, separately or in tandem but I'd really rather not go that route. Somebody might get killed and damned if I want it to be me."
"Amen to that sister," Zell replied absently, and then shuddered as the idea of that particular fight played itself out in his head. Zell was confident in himself and in his skills, hadn't he stood up with Squall and Irvine against that evil bitch Sorceress? That had been the toughest fight of his life but they'd won out in the end, damned if they hadn't.
Problem was, Squall was the one who'd been right in her face while they'd bled themselves dry trying to keep him on his feet and swinging. But Squall had come through, had saved them all and damned if he wanted to face the guy across the steel of his gunblade. Truth be told, even the thought of facing the Commander or the Sorceress' Knight in a real fight gave him the outright chills. He really tried to avoid broken bones, especially if they were his own.
A grimly humorous thought came to mind and he leaned over.
"Let's hire Irvine. They'll never see it coming."
Quistis choked with unexpected, startled laughter. Zell felt a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as her expression lightened, worry lines fading slightly from her face.
"Damn it Dincht, unfair," she groaned, but offered up another small smile for his attempt at comfort.
Zell glanced at his watch and groaned himself.
"Gotta run Quistis, the dunk tank waits for no man. I'll catch up with you later, ok? We'll figure out some kinda plan to keep our two nutcases from killing each other while they sort out their issues." Zell stood up, his calm gaze continuing to hold hers for a moment. Concern, protection, support were all there and he held her hand a moment longer, squeezing gently as if to refute all her reasonable worries.
She gave his callused fingers a reassuring pressure before releasing them to wave him off. Zell gave her a half salute before turning and bouncing away in his distinctive stride. Quistis watched him go with a slight smile before breaking away herself to head back up to the private quarters of the Commander. She just had time to do another check before she too was needed to man her own station.
Squall wasn't in his quarters and truthfully hadn't been there the first time she'd checked on him. The SeeD Commander had been wandering Garden since before dawn, unable to sleep. In the predawn chill he'd grabbed his old jacket, unaccountably wanting the security it gave him. It was warm over his skin, the faint scent of the leather washing him in half-remembered memories.
Eventually he'd wandered up to the top of Garden and had remained there ever since, watching the activity of the Faculty as they’d set up the Festival in the grey morning. Eventually the sun had risen through the morning clouds and burned off the lingering cold. Now it was almost too warm for the jacket but he perversely kept it on, not willing to abandon its comfortable, familiar embrace.
From his vantage point on the command deck, Squall continued to watch the gaily decorated grounds with a closed expression. The warm morning breeze ruffled his hair gently but he didn't bother to rearrange the haphazard strands. From here, it looked like the Garden had suddenly and unexpectedly broken into bloom. The happy contented buzz of voices rose very clearly to the isolated Commander.
Right at this moment he was probably supposed to be down at the docks, ready to welcome the Esthar president and entourage to Balamb. His gaze narrowed as his sense of duty nagged at him; but there was just no way he could face dealing with his irrepressible father. And no doubt he was also expected to be mingling at the Festival, being both SeeD Commander and the unwitting hero of the Sorceress War. Damned if he wanted to do that either. He was not a walking advertisement for Garden and SeeD, no matter what fantasies the tabloids wrote about him.
So he hid from responsibility here, where only the sound of the wind had any reality. Here, where the air was clean and if he looked up, all he would see would be blinding sky. It was only a temporary refuge and he knew it; soon enough some enterprising soul would track him down and drag him out of his increasingly necessary solitude.
Squall sighed but stayed leaning against the cool railing. Even the thought of walking among so many people gave him a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach. His control was so damned ragged these days, the edge of nightmare barely blunted by the pills he'd been taking. He'd been getting more sleep at least, but it was starting to bleed into his waking life when he least expected it. Rage tinged nearly everything he touched, red and terrible, coloring his reactions to everything he did, everything he said. Moving through a crowd of well meaning people, all them wanting to touch, wanting to talk… at this moment he wasn’t sure if he could handle it without reacting. And his reactions had become deadly swift.
In desperation, he'd done everything he could think of, all the tricks that had worked for him before. He'd locked it all down tight and thrown up the strongest walls he had to keep it caged inside.
It was only barely enough. He could feel it still, trembling below the surface.
It was hardest when he was around the others, for they knew him the best and refused to leave him alone behind his cold barriers. In desperation, he'd taking to avoiding all of them as much as possible, keeping his dealings with them on a strictly professional basis. He could still function at there for it didn't touch his raw nerves, the requirements of duty a thin coating of soothing ice over his emotions. It was when they pushed, when they demanded, that his control came closest to snapping.
He ran a hand over his face for a brief moment, rubbing at his pale skin as if to erase a stain. They were his friends and he couldn't deal with them, couldn't give them anything for fear of finally giving them too much. It terrified him when he let himself acknowledge it, knowing what he was capable of, knowing only his walls kept his friends safe from what he throttled inside. He'd tried letting it out in small, safe pieces, in the silence and darkness while the rest of Garden slept. The monsters in the training center were a necessary conduit, a place where the brutality and the blood could be only constructs, only images of his reflected rage.
But it wasn't enough anymore, not nearly enough of what he needed. What he had to have or go insane with the pressure.
And that bleak understanding left him here, alone in the clear air, trying to gather enough cold silence to get through the rest of what promised to be a brutal day.
Damn it, he was stronger than this. He'd hold on until the pills finally gave him enough relief or until he could figure out another solution. He'd survived a damn war; he'd survive this as well.
It was the sound of the lift behind him broke him out of his circling thoughts. Involuntarily he tensed but refused to turn around. There was no one stationed in the pilot's area, which meant somebody with bridge clearance had finally tracked him down. He didn't move away from the edge; didn't acknowledge the footsteps behind him either until a long body leaned next to him, also contemplating the view below.
From his peripheral vision he saw a twist of amber-red hair and the ever-present black hat. Irvine then. Squall was faintly surprised; he'd assumed that it would be Quistis who'd have persisted the longest. Instructor Trepe was nothing if not focused in her quest to be everything to everyone. Irvine didn't say anything right away, just settled himself next to Squall with a small sigh. The two men shared the space quietly enough, although Squall felt his gut knotting a little, waiting for Irvine to haul him back to his neglected duties.
"Nice view y'got here," Irvine finally commented. Squall shot him a look out of the corner of his eye and saw the cowboy looking down, one hand reaching absently to resettle his hat to a new angle. His expression, the profile that Squall could see at least, was a little distracted, a little remote. The transplanted Galbadian had dressed very casually for the Festival, in low cut jeans that hugged his hips and upper thighs but flared at the bottom to accommodate heavy boots. A black tank top and the hat he never left behind completed the outfit. It was very non-regulation even though technically the Garden didn't have a dress code. It was jarring, that relaxed clothing that spoke only of comfort and pleasure without any consideration for protection. The trademark cowboy hat was the only thing that remained of his working outfit and it left Squall with a strange feeling of disorientation.
During those frantic weeks he'd just gotten so damned used to having the sniper always just a step behind him, with his rifle slung casually over his shoulder and the sound of his boots in almost perfect time to Squall's own. He didn't even have to close his eyes to feel it prickle over his skin again, the dusky scent of Irvine that was always faintly overlaid with gunpowder and metal bringing back unwanted, flickering feelings. It would only take Zell at his other side to make it complete, and Squall could feel a shudder building deep inside like presentiment.
They were his lodestones after all, his bloody talismans of war. For a time they had fought at his side like angels of fire and lightning, until the end when it had all shattered apart and he... had shattered with it. For a brief moment, the heated taste of copper filled his mouth and he swallowed convulsively. He struggled to keep the raw feelings from his face, emotions that he refused to face beginning to surge inside, moving relentlessly under the veneer of ice.
Irvine leaned his forearms on the railing, the soft denim rubbing sensually over his legs as he stretched his body, pretending to watch the Festival below. In reality he was watching Squall out of his peripheral vision, studying his chosen target. The morning was warm and getting warmer but the Commander remained huddled in his jacket, the collar ruffling slightly in the breeze to tangle in his hair. It was a study of contrasting softness, the white wolf fur against the ragged spikes of chestnut and cinnamon. A bar of sunlight lit a brief corona of gold, making the cold face all the more startling against that warmth. Right now the Commander seemed to be staring at the people below, a mixture of irritation and annoyance ghosting over his features every now and again.
Well, perhaps Squall wasn't precisely huddling. He was leaning easily enough over his own portion of rail, hands braced against the edge, but there was the definite feeling that the jacket was more for emotional warmth than physical. The face was familiar enough, indifferent and closed but Irvine wasn’t fooled, and he doubted the others would have been either. They'd been through hell with this man and had battled their way through to the other side of that insanity; Irvine wasn't mislead by the impassive expression. Trouble was, knowing that Squall was slowly drowning in his own darkness and doing something about it were two very different things.
So far, the Commander hadn't even acknowledged his presence, not by so much as a look or the twitch of one beautifully arched eyebrow. The ice was almost palpable, so thick and impervious that Irvine felt a touch of despair and an aching feeling centered on his heart. He thought suddenly of Seifer with his arrogant attitude and cocksure smile, Seifer who never seemed to suffer from the irresolution that always plagued Irvine. He found himself thinking that the Knight would have immediately jumped into this conversation, demanding by his mere presence that Squall respond to him with a blithe disregard for probable consequences.
Hell, Seifer would probably welcome the chance to play around with the chance of serious injury. The two hadn't traded matching scars by playing cards after all. The arrogant blonde never did anything by half measures, that was for damned sure.
Irvine felt a little hollow with that. At the very least Seifer wouldn't still be standing here, figurative hat in hands, trying to figure out how to keep a friend's head above the dark waters. Say that for the man - when he made a decision, he never wavered from it or backed out when the going got rough. As hard as that had made it for the rest of them.
He swallowed that feeling of betrayal with the ease of long practise. Seifer never explained, not even when his friends suffered at his hands. Or perhaps especially that his friends had suffered. And it was the one at his side who had bled the most.
"Sure's a long way down," he offered tentatively, staring but not really seeing the crowds below. "Betcha it was Cid's favorite spot. Bring his rivals here, an' push 'em over th' edge." The cowboy leaned out a little further as if inspecting the drop and was rewarded when Squall turned his head slightly to look at him. "Hit them fountains below, sink outta sight for sure. Easy as shooting 'calons in a barrel." He brushed a thumb thoughtfully over his lips, as if judging the idea. "Gotta remember this spot, case I ever get enemies needin' quiet disposal."
A small noise escaped Squall, hardly more than a breath of wind but still a comment in return. The Commander had turned away again so that Irvine could only see a sliver of pale skin, but there was no doubt in Irvine's mind that he was at least listening. Then, surprisingly, Squall put the comment into words.
"You don't have enemies, Kinneas."
The tone had been quiet but there was a flat note of accusation. The cowboy felt a brief flash of startlement at the callous remark and he stared outright at Squall's profile, not sure he'd heard right. The Commander continued to ignore him, letting the bald remark stand without alleviation. The surprise settled on his heart and flared into an ember of anger.
Damn the man for being an insensitive bastard. Irvine was the absolute best at what he did, which meant the SeeD Commander assigned him personally to the contracts that Garden accepted. Squall should damn well know what being a sniper meant from a purely logistical standpoint. Hire person A to assassinate person B at the request of person C. Simple, straightforward and so damn cold blooded that Irvine sometimes wondered which part of himself was missing. It was a question he really tried not to ask himself too often, and the anger flared a little brighter as he glared at Squall, eyes narrowed and challenging.
"Oh, I got enemies," he breathed in a deadly calm voice, touching the rim of his hat with the tips of his fingers in a habitual gesture, "but they're usually called 'loved ones'. Personally, I'm a real likeable guy.”
His voice had an edge sharp enough to draw blood. It earned him a startled look from Squall and it was almost worth it to see the shutters come up for a moment, to have Squall actually see him instead of just react to him. Too bad he couldn't appreciate it, turning back to the view as he tried to swallow the sudden, acid feeling.
It took a moment but he regained a measure of calm, enough at least that his voice was almost normal as he tried grimly to continue the conversation.
"Ok, how 'bout Selphie's enemies then? Or anyone else needin' quiet removal."
Squall's eyes remained on him. He refused to turn, to see if those grey stormclouds had cracked open at all, to let the human bleed through. To see that Squall had been jolted out of himself enough to notice his pain would be bad enough. To turn and see only rigid ice would probably make him do something he'd regret later. He amended the thought; not probably, it would definitely be something he'd regret later. He ducked his head, letting the hat hide his eyes. Hair too short to tie back fell forward to give him at least partial cover while he tried to push his anger back into its accustomed box.
Squall must have decided against noticing the sharpness of Irvine's reaction. When he replied his tone was dry and matter of fact, without the tinge of anger that had bordered it before.
"Wouldn't be quiet Kinneas. Long way down, they'd be sure to scream."
Irvine forced a small smile to his lips, refusing to let Squall's serious lack of social skills interfere with this actual conversation. This was the first time in weeks Squall had spoken to him about anything that wasn't Garden or mission related and it was too precious an opportunity to waste on anger. He let humor trickle into his voice, using every vocal trick he knew to try and keep Squall interested and talking. His smoky voice wasn't far from a deep growl, and he deliberately slowed and thickened his accent to make it harder to understand.
"Not to mention disposin' of Selphie's enemies would mean losin' half the teachin’ staff. Then I'd have ta throw myself over th' edge." He glanced up quickly at Squall, letting his eyes twinkle a little with amusement as if inviting the Commander to share the joke. "I know I could stay quiet on th' way down, but Zell'd scream blue murder f'sure."
Irvine prided himself on his seduction techniques; this really wasn't so different although the goal was to keep Squall's attention focused outward, not to lure the man to bed. The familiar whisper of his libido piped up to ask wistfully if they couldn't change the plan. It was what Irvine did best after all, with the possible exception of assassination. After all, nothing like a little rough and tumble to solve a multitude of problems.
Regretfully, the cowboy took that voice and stuffed it into the same box as his anger and sat on it - firmly. Now really wasn't the time to let his illicit fantasies of the Commander run around like unruly children.
"Still going through with the revenge plan then?" Squall asked, obviously clueless as to Irvine's sudden turn of mind. Curiosity was moving through those blank eyes. Irvine grinned internally when the Commander responded unconsciously to the verbal cues, turning to half face Irvine with one leather clad hip coming to rest comfortably against the steel edge. It physically brought him a little closer, showing he was focusing on the cowboy instead of ignoring him. Irvine stretched his spine a little and rolled his shoulders before replying, as if working out kinks. Squall continued to watch impassively, but didn't make any moves to turn away as Irvine obviously relaxed in his presence.
Got you, the cowboy thought to himself but didn't let triumph touch his face or voice. Instead he nodded grumpily, hair swinging absently to bump along his jaw as he resettled his hat again as if out of habit.
"She's gonna kill me, she finds out I'm involved. Kill me twice if she finds out I'm coordinatin' the damn thing. Hell if she don't deserve it though, w' what she put us through." Eyes of turquoise jade gazed up innocently into wary grey ones as Irvine shifted his legs, incidentally moving a little closer until he could feel the heat of Squall's body touching his side. The Commander's expression was actually wavering, as if the ice was having a hard time holding up to Irvine's subtle assault.
"C'mon Leonhart, help me out. I'm a good boy, an' one of the best SeeD's you got. You can't afford t' lose me to unnat'ral forces, now can you?" He stared up at Squall, a grin playing over his lips as he tried to draw the man out. "You're SeeD Commander. You can give me a mission that's far, far away from here. It'll keep me alive ‘til Hurricane Selphie blows over." His tone was light and teasing and he gave his best flashing grin, determinedly keeping anything other than purely innocent charm locked down and deeply buried.
For a second, Irvine knew he had him. Squall damned near smiled, eyebrows twitching in reaction. Irvine's grin began to widen in response, staring up into his friend's face. But then he faltered, for the unmistakable ice suddenly crystallized in those gray eyes and stiffened the negligently leaning body. It was damned unnerving how fast the Commander threw his barriers back up, and Irvine cursed whatever had made the man close up again. An instantaneous catalogue of the last couple of seconds offered no clues to the sudden reversion. Squall was no longer relaxing in Irvine's presence, had in fact drawn slightly back, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Sorry Kinneas," the man finally managed to stutter out, but there wasn't any real emotion in the voice. "Going to have to take your lumps with Zell."
Irvine's assessing gaze lingered on Squall's face as he wondered what the hell he'd said exactly to set the Commander off. He hadn't been asking for time off or anything, even Squall had to have known he was joking. Irvine felt a perplexed frown settle on his face as he wondered what had suddenly changed, but nothing obvious sprung out at him. For a long moment they continued to stare at each other, but then the younger man abruptly turned away, propping up a booted foot on the lower rail. Squall leaned away, obviously giving himself space. Something in what Irvine had said or done had set the man off - all he had to do was figure out what and why.
As if he could feel the cowboy's confused gaze Squall tucked his head down slightly, letting that gorgeous hair shield his face. The eyes had flashed something incomprehensible before they'd been shuttered away, but Irvine had no idea what he'd seen. The Commander's posture fairly screamed that Irvine's presence was no longer welcome, that the conversational tidbits were now over. Rising frustration and worry resurrected his anger, and this time he didn't try to tamp it down. He'd tried small conversation, and it hadn't worked. Time for a different approach.
The cowboy straightened to his full height, a half a head taller than the Commander and cocked a slim hip against the balustrade. The movement didn't seem to signify for Squall continued to ignore him, effectively cutting him off over a tight leather-clad shoulder. Irvine hesitated, staring grimly out from under his hat. Damned if he was going to let the other wall him out like this. Damn it, he was owed. Maybe Rinoa couldn't handle it, maybe she'd left because she couldn't understand being frozen out, but he wasn't so easily dismissed.
Maybe he was made of sterner stuff, or maybe he had just never damn well figured out when to take no for an answer. But whatever it was, he'd come up here with every intention of finding out what the hell was wrong. Damned if he was going to get shut out so quickly.
Squall was staring out across Balamb like he'd already forgotten Irvine was there, but his body was so tense that waves of it were practically rising into the air. The cowboy seriously doubted Squall was seeing much of anything but his own inner landscape. He paused a moment longer because this was Squall, and you didn't touch the Commander unless you were willing to risk a body part to frostbite. Then with an internal shrug he laid a firm hand on the Commander's shoulder. He was intending a rough shake to pull the man out of the no doubt fascinating conversation inside that messed up head.
He wasn’t even remotely prepared for the reaction.
Squall's hand flashed up as he whirled, angrily hitting Irvine's casual reach away. But more than the overreaction, it was the look in Squall's eyes that sent a startled shaft of ice through his belly. The Commander's face was still impassive, locked and cold but that hardly signified. Motes of anger danced on the surface of that storm gray, but it was the burning silver rising behind that smoky color that sent a wave of prickling cold over his skin.
Memory rose, of something almost desperately forgotten. His body reacted before he could, sleek muscles sliding under skin as he half turned to present a smaller target, lean legs tensing to spring away. He knew, dearest gods he knew what that silver could promise.
Squall was a breath away from violence; it shivered over skin like storm warning but Irvine knew better than to back down, knew better than to run. He waited, the world forgotten as his focus narrowed to clarity, body humming to itself with his own lethal potential. It flickered in his eyes, clear warning that he also was not to be trifled with.
They stood locked for a frozen moment as Irvine's thoughts flickered back and forth like confused swallows. This was Squall, damn it, even if achingly familiar insanity lurked behind eyes wide and burning. This was his friend, his chosen leader, the one who had personally saved his ass so many times he didn't bother counting the coup anymore. But he didn't relax from his fighting stance. Friendship and trust meant nothing against that gleaming molten edge, the color of war.
Perfectly still, he waited for Squall to make the first move, wanting every advantage he could get. His fingers twitched unconsciously as the ingrained reach for his absent rifle asserted itself.
"Temper, Commander," he finally warned neutrally. The Commander's expression faltered slightly, a brief terror flitting across the fine-grained smoothness of his face. That flash was all he got as the walls slammed down again with an nearly audible sound. Then it was just the Commander again, staring at him with a cold, almost hostile expression. For a moment, Irvine wondered crazily if he'd actually seen what he'd thought he'd seen. But he couldn't have mistaken that heavy silver edge, his body was still tense with reaction to it. He waited, not sure what the hell was going on. His confusion must have communicated itself to the other man.
"Back off, Kinneas," Squall growled, voice rough and heavy. "Leave me the hell alone."
The Commander seemed to have used up his small store of words for he didn't elaborate any further, but the implicit threat hung in the air between them. Irvine found he was already shaking his head, a sardonic grin beginning to touch his lips. He'd cracked the mask, perhaps in a way he hadn't expected, but he wasn't going to let the opportunity slide. Now was the time to push, to find out what lay beneath that startling, half-glimpsed transformation.
"Oh no, Leonhart, I'm not leavin' this alone," he purred. "You're so wired you're almost sparkin'. You don't put me off that easy."
He cocked a slow head, letting his eyes pin Squall's from under the framing blackness of his hat. A mirthless grin continued to touch his lips as he deliberately leaned forward to close the distance. Tension rose to near unbearable levels but Irvine refused to back down, intentionally pushing boundaries.
For a moment, Squall's eyes flickered down and away. Then they rose to stare angrily back, no longer retreating as the cowboy crowded him.
"I said back off, Kinneas," the Commander warned, "this is none of your damn business."
He continued to ignore that implacable voice, even as he ignored the tensing body and the clenching hands. He kept his attention locked on those eyes, watching the hard gray for that betraying flicker of berserker rage. And was it colder all of a sudden?
"Oh, I'm makin' it my business Commander," the cowboy said with steel in his warm voice. "You've been walking th' edge for weeks now." He wanted to take Squall by the shoulders and shake the man, lash out against that streak of stubborn, destructive self-reliance. "What? Think we wouldn't notice? Think your friends that blind?" Panic flickered over Squall's face for a moment, but it was such a fleeting expression he almost missed it.
"No," he breathed, his breath almost caressing Squall's face as he leaned closer still, "the Commander doesn't give a shit about his friends, the Commander's too damn stubborn to admit he's got a problem." Irvine could feel his own helpless, frustrated anger come boiling out, making his words hard and bitter. He wasn’t even sure if Squall was hearing him, not sure if anything was getting past that unreasoning refusal that glared back at him.
"Give it up Leonhart, damned if I'm goin' to let you get away with this. You have friends, and they care about you, although I'm damned if I can figure out why when all you do is push us away." He leaned closer still, putting his face dangerously close to Squall's, so close that his breath did touch that pale skin, ghosting over lips tight and drawn. "You don't scare me and you can't freeze me out. I know you too damned well," he whispered against Squall's skin.
He stared into those hard eyes, seeing something flash for a moment in those blazing depths. He pressed a little more, ruthlessly chasing down that look of sudden vulnerability.
"I ain't Rinoa to turn tail and run when things don't go my way.” He stopped, arrested by the thought. He wondered if that was what he'd seen, cursing Rinoa viciously in a corner of his mind for what her abandonment might have done to his friend. Squall still didn't reply but didn't move away either, even though the cowboy was very much inside his personal space, face only inches from Squall's own. “I don’t break that easy,” he concluded desperately, almost losing track of what he was trying to say.
"I can break you," Squall said unexpectedly, in a whisper of such soft darkness that Irvine wasn't sure for a moment he'd actually heard the words. Then the sense of it caught him by surprise. He couldn't have hidden his startled reaction even if he had wanted to.
And as if Squall had only just realized what he'd said, panic rose in those eyes, choking and tight. Irvine reached up and impulsively touched Squall's cheek. His hand was rough with concern even as it forestalled the Commander's abortive attempt to move away. That pale skin was shockingly hot, almost burning to the touch and Irvine stared almost helplessly into the eyes so close to his own.
He could finally see it, could see something breaking apart and he instinctively moved closer, incoherently wanting to ease the anguish he could see so very clearly.
He was unprepared for the hand that shoved him brutally away. He stumbled backwards gracelessly, nearly sliding to one knee with the force of the blow. He looked up in indignant surprise just in time to see Squall staring at him with dismay, but that expression was already fading into the more familiar anger even as Squall drew himself up into an aggressive posture.
"What the hell's gotten into you, Kinneas?" Squall spat in a voice gone cold as a winter wind. "Leave me the hell alone! Whatever my problems are, they're not yours!" But something trembled below the surface if one was listening. Irvine wasn't even remotely fooled by the surface camouflage.
"The hell they aren't my problems," Irvine growled back, slowly standing as he glared at the Commander. The angry push had moved them apart again and Irvine was nearly vibrating with resentment. Damn it, that was the second time Squall had caught him off guard and it was really starting to piss him off. "You keep pushin' people around like that, you're going to start comin' across as an antisocial bastard. You're my damned Commander, an’ worse, you're my damned friend. You think I can stand by an' watch you die by inches? You think I can do that? Fuck you Leonhart!’
Squall didn't bother replying, just glowered at him out of eyes that resembled ice chips. Whatever vulnerability he thought he'd seen in them before was lost, buried and locked behind the impenetrable walls again. The cowboy grinned savagely and without humor at Squall's attempt to cut him off again. He deliberately struck an insolent pose, hooking casual thumbs into his front pockets even as he straightened to his full height to glare down at the shorter man.
"You've been treatin' me like shit," he growled, "ignorin' me, shutting me out and damned if I'm going to put up with it any longer. I'm not your damned girlfriend that you can run off when things get bad, nor am I willin' to put up with your crap indefinitely." He narrowed his eyes as he stared at Squall, watching for the reaction. It could be seen in the flaring nostrils and darkening eyes but otherwise the Commander remained calm, his eyes still gray. "Talk to me Squall, or I'm goin' to kick your ass into next week," Irvine promised in voice tight with his own barely contained ire.
The Commander's head snapped back at that and his eyes gleamed sudden fire.
"You can try, Kinneas," Squall finally replied, a dark invitation weaving through his words.
Irvine checked for a moment, staring in disbelief at the other man. Squall stared back defiantly, a definite challenge in those eyes. Irvine felt the idea settle into his hindbrain without even bothering to check in with his reason. A different smile grew on his face, hot and male.
"So you wanna play it that way?" he said cryptically after a moment. "Alright, you cold little bastard, let's see what you got."
With no more warning that that, Irvine lunged forward to grab for the front of Squall's jacket. But the Commander wasn't there anymore, already twisting away so that the edge of the cowboy's reach nearly brushed his shoulder. Squall spun around but Irvine had already pulled up short, out of easy range for the shorter man.
"Is this easier for you, Commander?" Irvine breathed angrily as he began to circle, looking for an opening. His reason was yammering something terrified about survival in his ear, but he ignored it in favor of his own rising anger and frustration. Squall was reacting, damn it, that was what he wanted, right? Seifer did this all the time, and it always seemed to work for him.
Then Irvine thought no more about it for Squall's eyes were still locked on his, dark and angry.
"You'd rather fight than talk to me, wouldn't you?" he growled as he continued to stalk forward, a predator's unknowing grace in his long stride. "You'd rather fight than let me get close to you. Rather fight than do anythin' that might let some damned human emotion bleed out of that ice."
Irvine didn't wait for a reply but lunged again, this time managing to clip Squall's shoulder as the other man dodged away. The leather jacket absorbed most of the damage. The cowboy spun on one heel and reached out with cruel fingers, managing to get a grip on the fur collar to yank savagely to the side.
Squall retaliated as he was dragged closer with a punishing elbow to the ribs. Irvine grunted with pain but didn't let himself get distracted, struggling to lock Squall's right arm against his side. The cowboy almost had it, but Squall came up on his toes and then spun down and away, wrenching himself out of the confining jacket before Irvine could consolidate the restraint hold. The sniper was left with the dangling leather as Squall whirled to face him again from a few steps away.
No pretense now. It had finally broken through that cold skin to bleed raw and unmistakable against that pale color. No sane gray left in those eyes at all, only the silver insanity that had suddenly and simply slipped its bonds of control. Oddly, there was no fear in him now to face those terrible eyes, only a savage expectation and a burning sensation in his blood. Perhaps this was the way to reach Squall, the only way to get past the ice to the fire that lay beneath.
With the feeling of something inevitable falling into place, he knew. This was what Seifer felt, what Seifer saw every time he danced with the Commander. Irvine laughed to himself, low and mocking as he finally, irrevocably understood why Seifer always came back. Such an intense sweetness to see Squall stripped down and laid bare without his defense of cold indifference, to see raw emotion moving over that heartbreakingly beautiful face and all of it focused on him. It was suddenly hard to think of anything else, to remember why he'd wanted to confront the Commander at all.
Slowly, with something that was almost tenderness, Irvine draped the jacket over the nearest object before advancing once again, one lazy step at a time.
"You don't get away that easy, Leonhart," he purred in a smooth voice, dark and suddenly sensual. "You want to play this particular game with me, you'll damn well play until I've had satisfaction."
This time it was Squall who surged forward, white fury on his face. Irvine was forced to defend himself from the insanity that they had all helped create. Back and forth they moved across the slick deck, unseen by all but the gliding birds high above. The Galbadian was taller but Squall was faster, and bodies flashed and wove in deadly patterns as they struck and moved as if in a choreographed desire. Irvine lost himself in it, reveled in it, for they were meant for this, carved by war into beautiful instruments of violence.
When Squall whirled, nearly in the circle of his arms and slammed a fist of steel into his ribs, he hardly felt the pain, so deep he'd fallen into the trance. The cowboy recoiled reflexively with the blow, absorbing the kinetic effort as he felt bones break. But this time Squall was too damn close to dodge away. One hand thrust in that silky hair, fingers curling as he yanked Squall's head savagely back to expose the clean line of throat.
And suddenly Irvine lost his focus, staring blindly at the pulsing, compelling tempo that beat so erratically close. It was only a moment but it was enough - Squall tore himself away and Irvine just recovered himself in time to duck a vicious blow aimed at his temple. He avoided injury but his hat did not suffer a similar reprieve, sailing off his head to land in a crumpled heap halfway across the deck.
Irvine followed its flight with shocked gaze, before looking back up again at Squall. The Commander had frozen too, as if the destruction of the hat was something terrible and heart breaking. The panicked expression was back again in his eyes as his gaze flickered to the hat and then back again to Irvine. The Commander stared mutely as he slowly rose from the crouch he'd fallen into.
"You're gonna pay for that," Irvine promised with deadly sweetness. "That was my best hat. My favorite hat. Ultimecia herself couldn't take it off my head and you damn well wrecked it."
The Galbadian loomed over Squall as he reached with savage fingers to slip his hair tie off. Amber hair snaked down to trail fire past his shoulders, bright against the contrast of black fabric and golden skin. Irvine shook his head with feral grace to free the last entangled strands, his eyes blazing with an emotion that had no more definition than Squall's.
"You're so goin' to pay. Dance with me, Leonhart," Irvine challenged, spreading his arms wide as if in invitation.
With a stunned look, Squall flinched back at the words even as his body curved in a rigid posture. Brutal recognition raced over his face, his eyes startling wide.
Bewildered, Irvine saw Squall's pupils contracted only to expand in a rush, drowning his eyes in blackness. Skin that had been flushed with anger now paled to white wax, shocky with panic. Irvine continued to hesitate at the abrupt change, brows drawing together in a perplexed frown. Squall looked like he'd just seen a ghost. It was so damned odd that Irvine faltered as well, hands lowering slightly.
"What th’ hell? Squall?" he asked, cocking his head sideways as he started to straighten.
The Commander remained frozen, obviously lost somewhere in his head although his black gaze was still riveted on the cowboy. Irvine still paused, uncertain of what to do. Anger and adrenalin wavered for long moments before finally crashing, leaving him feeling hollow and faintly cold.
"Squall, what's wrong?" he asked more urgently. The Commander didn't respond, staring at Irvine with eyes that showed only rims of silver, body tense and trembling. Really concerned now, Irvine took a step forward.
"Dance with you?" Squall said suddenly, breath rushing out between his teeth. Anger flickered hotly in his voice as he came out of his locked stance, surging up to stand aggressively. Irvine checked his forward motion in belated defense. Squall flexed his fingers as if missing his gunblade. "Why should I? You always leave me," he replied in a voice that was raw and tight. The Commander continued to stare up at the Galbadian with an expression that defied understanding. Irvine at least had no hope of deciphering the crazed reaction, and he knew it.
The cowboy cursed himself in angry exasperation for being thrown out of his depth again. Once again Squall had deflected him from target. This was getting damned annoying and confusing as hell. What was going on? The Commander seemed to have been dropped into some internal nightmare and he was dragging Irvine along for the ride across the demented landscape. It was as unnerving as hell.
Squall shivered under Irvine's confused gaze, eyes snapping back into focus. Without warning he began to stalk forward, muscles sliding with liquid ease under that pale skin. Irvine fell back one step, then two as their positions were weirdly reversed. Now it was Squall who pushed him.
"Squall, its me," Irvine said urgently, not really sure what the Commander was seeing, not even sure he really wanted to know. He fell back another desperate step; trying to remember what tangent Squall had gone off on. "What th' hell you talkin' about? I'm right here, and I ain't leavin'."
Squall didn't hesitate at all, continuing to glide forward with that terrible anger in his eyes, so different from just a moment ago although Irvine couldn't say exactly what had changed. This almost wasn't Squall anymore, strange as that sounded. Irvine continued to circle away, casting a look over his shoulder so he wouldn't get hung up on the railing.
"You always leave," the Commander hissed in a hard voice, following him.
"Never. Never leave you." Terror stuck the words to the back of his throat as he realized how much of himself he'd exposed in those words. He tried to cover it with a lopsided smile, bringing his hands up in a placating gesture. "We're buddies, remember?" His smile wavered for a moment before he fixed it firmly in place, dredging up something approaching his usual carefree attitude to fill in the crumbling corners.
Something in his voice must have reached through the odd reaction, for Squall slowed and then stopped, a line creasing between his eyes. The Commander stared at him and Irvine cursed under his breath, trying to figure out what to say next, before Squall did another one of those crazy internal shifts and swung back into rage again.
It was barely a question, whispered. Irvine stopped retreating; still holding himself ready in case he'd misjudged the situation again. To his relief though, the strangeness in Squall's eyes was definitely receding, submerging into the hard gray that was Squall's normal expression. The cowboy gave a small sigh and dared to straighten up a little - damned if the Commander wasn't almost starting to look like himself again.
"Yeah, it's me," the cowboy replied encouragingly. "You back with me, Leonhart?" he asked hopefully.
"Never left you," Squall replied cryptically, his voice damned nearly normal as he also straightened. Only the frown between his eyes and the faintest quaver betrayed anything different.
"Well, maybe you never left," Irvine replied, lowering his hands again as it looked like the fighting was over, "but I sure had no idea where the hell you were."
A spasm of pain passed over Squall's face, but surprisingly it wasn't shuttered away or hidden.
"You..." Squall finally stuttered out, even as he turned to present a clean profile to the cowboy. The Commander stepped back as if to give them both room, running absent hands over his upper arms momentarily as if cold. "You said… it reminded me of something."
"Do I dare ask what?" Irvine asked, deciding to push the question. Squall hesitated and Irvine could see the excuses running through his eyes, even across the distance that separated them.
"Don't," he said tiredly, putting up a hand to forestall the lie. Squall looked at him in surprise and Irvine gave him a crooked smile, trying not to let his sudden hurt show. "Jus’ - don't. Guess I don't feel like playin' twenty questions right now. Forget I asked."
Squall studied him with a distant expression, and Irvine felt that twisting pain go right through his heart like a knife. Damn it. Damn it to fucking hell. Leonhart might be able to turn his emotions on and off like a tap, but Irvine felt like he'd been rubbed raw in a more than few places. That look of suddenly cool indifference was more than he could take.
He turned away, incoherently wondering where the hell his hat had ended up. After a moment or two, he spotted the damn thing crumpled in a heap. Determinedly not looking back, he strode over and picked it up with negligent fingers. Stroking the soft fabric absently he began to reshape it, working out the damage. His eyes were still dry, but he found himself cursing angrily under his breath.
Damn it, it didn't matter if Squall had retreated behind his barriers again and locked him out - it certainly wasn't the first time, and sure as hell wouldn't be the last. Zell had even told him he was wasting his goddamn time.
This time his name was impatient, with an edge of command. The cowboy looked up to see Squall run a hand over his face and through his hair, the fingers tangling briefly in that warm darkness. Squall sighed heavily, as if to himself, but then moved forward until he stood in front of Irvine. The Commander looked up into his eyes from a few steps away, gaze tight but with something indecipherable lurking just behind that expression.
"I remembered," he said flatly, as Irvine almost forgot to breathe, "a nightmare."
He was silent for so long that Irvine began to wonder if he was going to say anything else. When he finally did continue, the words were precise enough that Irvine knew just how much it must have cost the Commander to say them.
"I was...alone. In darkness, so cold... I was frozen with it. But then someone promised me... promised me warmth if I could only find it, find him. And I looked," he said with a fragment of ragged emotion that reflected imperfectly in his eyes, "and I hated that voice... because I knew it lied."
The sense of the dawned on him and Irvine's heart clenched once, abruptly. The seconds ticked by and Irvine knew that Squall couldn't force any more words out, that the Commander had probably exceeded his personal limits with that admission of private terror.
"I'm here," he said urgently, concern and worry rising in his voice. "I ain't leavin' you." His voice held an anguished note and he suddenly didn't care what it sounded like, needing to say something to answer those eyes of clouded gray. "I'm here," he repeated as he took an abrupt step forward, ducking his head to look more deeply into those churning stormclouds. Without even thinking about it, he dropped his forgotten hat to the deck and raised his hands to grip Squall's shoulders, fingers biting down into heated flesh. This time, the Commander tolerated the touch, in fact seemed to barely register it.
"I know," Squall finally sighed, but his eyes never wavered. "You're my damned nanny, aren't you Kinneas?"
"No one better," the cowboy agreed intensely.
Unexpectedly, Squall reached out with one hand to place his palm against Irvine's chest. The Commander dropped his eyes to stare at his hand and the cowboy could feel his heart beating crazily against that pressure. Irvine tensed but remained steady, not sure what Squall was up to. As a rule, Squall never intentionally touched anybody unless it was to heal wounds or assess damage or any of a half a dozen other reasons, none of which had anything to do with human comfort. It felt strange, that touch and something near his heart stuttered to painful life.
"Have I ever told you," Squall said in a voice that echoed a growling darkness, "how much I hate you?"
Lambent eyes flashed up to pin Irvine where the cowboy stood in sudden, transfixed shock. Irvine could feel his eyes widening in startlement even as the Commander flexed his fingers, digging into his skin as if to reach for his heart.
"When She fell," the Commander said in a voice gone cold and remote as an arctic wind, "you should have let me fall with Her. I wanted... to fall with Her."
Irvine could only stand rigid, his mind a sudden, numbing white. The words were cold, colder than the ice the Commander was famous for but it was the broken confession in his eyes that made Irvine flinch in reaction. Maybe... maybe a part of him had always known that Squall had not wanted to survive, for even now there was no surprise in him. But to hear the words made him feel heart-sick, a wounded hurt like an animal caught in a trap.
"There's nothing left anymore," the Commander continued to muse in an eerily conversational tone, as if it was commonplace to speak to Irvine this way. "Nothing but the pain and the blood. Sacrificed it all, everything I had left, at the last. Didn't dare do anything else." His eyes, his voice, everything had gone remote and distant, nothing but the words themselves to show the darkness that Irvine was slowly realizing went much farther down than he had ever wanted to believe.
And yet," Squall continued in that strangely calm voice, "even in nightmares....you are my amulets of war, you and Zell. The sacrifice was for you." A smile that contained nothing of humor in it played over the Commander's smooth lips. "Rinoa was the reason it started, but in the end it was for you. To keep you both safe. To keep Her... from taking anyone else."
He stared down at Squall, only now seeing the truth in those burning gray eyes. No rage to mask it now, the berserker madness they had demanded of him for it had been brutally necessary to survival. What he saw twisting in those depths pierced through the carefully crafted layers like light, rising to the surface to rest cold and clear on those grey seas.
It wasn't romantic or beautiful or anything like the fantasy that he'd secretly hoarded through all those long weeks of pain and exhaustion. It came from those depths, dark and grudging and as bitter as dregs, but no less than true. Or perhaps truer for the darkness that stained it, that even through the wreckage it still remained.
The hand still pressed hard against his heart, fingers spread as if to cover as much of his skin as possible. His own hands refused to remain steady as he took those fingers into his own, curling them between his palms as if they were as fragile as butterflies. Even as he brought them to his lips, his eyes closed with the sharp, overwhelming emotion.
It was too much, to see that flaring light in Squall's eyes, and see it edged by burning silver rage.
Squall stood there without protest even when Irvine brushed his lips over the knuckles, barely grazing that warm skin with its calluses and scars. The warm breeze ruffled them both, lifting hair of both fire and cinnamon to dance in the brief wind, the only motion between them for long moments.
"Damn you to hell," Irvine whispered. "Don't you dare say it was for me. I remember," he choked, "so much blood I was drownin' in it, never knew you could lose so much and still stand... still fight. And I was damned near to burstin' with every healing magic I knew, every Cure I could lay my hands on because I knew... I knew you'd need it. I'd hoarded 'em, y'know. Been saving 'em for weeks, knowin' that we were close." He had to stop, for anguish was ripping through his words and closing his throat.
"And Zell," the Commander continued gently, "Zell had junctioned enough life magic to raise an army of dead." That dark voice was rock steady, uninflected as if he spoke only of trivial things. "And we needed it, didn't we? I was the army; I couldn't be allowed to fall."
Squall's hand spasmed in Irvine's, giving lie to the calm words. Irvine's gaze finally stuttered open, the image of Squall's face forming and shattering through the haze.
"And between us we broke you open, didn't we?" Irvine said in his sudden, bitter understanding. "You're still fightin', aren't you? Me an' Zell, we healed your body, but you're still bleedin'."
Squall didn't say anything in reply, his silence assent enough to Irvine.
"Damn it Squall," he said viciously, hopelessly. "Damn it to fuckin' hell! You were suppose' to live happily ever after, that was what Rinoa was for. You weren't supposed to keep on dyin'. I didn't save your ass then to lose you now to a war we fuckin' won!"
"Couldn't be helped, Kinneas," Squall breathed out softly, his hand still oddly solid and warm in Irvine's. "You were there. You know what had to be done."
Irvine could only shake his head in mute denial. He refused to believe it, didn't want to believe it. How could he have been so goddamn blind?
"It was necessary," the Commander said simply, answering the unspoken question, "and I was the strongest." He stared up at Irvine with a challenging expression. "Should I let this happen to Zell? To Quistis? Selphie?" Squall's words were hard and impatient, as if pointing out something Irvine should have already seen.
"How much death, Irvine? How much before you're dead inside along with the bodies you're stepping over? I couldn't do that to Zell, couldn't have watched... seen him break under it. Refused to watch it break you."
Honest, raw emotion bled through that voice, staining it with a pain that Irvine could all but see.
"All of you," the Commander continued, in a voice that struggled for impartiality even as his fingers clutched convulsively at Irvine's, "feel too much. How much death? We slaughtered everything that stood against us, destroyed everything that got in our way. It nearly crushed him. Nearly crushed you and you're not the weakest of us." The eyes had gone hard again but Irvine was still lost in that voice of broken darkness, feeling his own memories rising to drown him. "You both deserved so much more than that. It was better... that it was me."
For a moment, Irvine could all but feel the hot wind blowing over his skin again, the taste of exhaustion and blood and the fighting that went on, day after day, without surcease. The memory of always having his rifle within reach even while he slept, knowing exactly how many shells he had and of what kind. The constant assessment of what he could spare for each enemy, the cool calculation in the middle of heated battle that ripped off healing spells between shots, that allowed him to reload without fumbling, without thinking, targeting between the flashing blurs that were Squall and Zell.
That memory still gave him nightmares, remembering how close they'd fought together, how he could easily have killed either of them with even a second's misjudgement, a moment's distraction.
But that was the point wasn't it? By the end, he couldn't have missed. He hadn't even thought about targeting over Squall's shoulder, between Zell's fingers, he'd just done it. By the end, he'd been a killing machine. And the same had been true of Zell.
"Let it go," he whispered finally. "We're not ... we made it, damn it. The fightin's over an' we won. Let it go."
"I can't," the Commander returned simply. "I've tried... and I just can't. It's the only thing I can feel anymore," he admitted quietly, with such a flat weariness that Irvine caught his breath on it.
"Maybe you were the strongest," he started out blindly, needing to say anything to refute the ruin he heard in that voice, "but it didn't save you, did it? We didn't save you. Damn you Leonhart, we're your damn friends! You should have told us what it was doin' to you, turned to us. There had to have been another way!"
Squall was already shaking his head, rejecting Irvine's impassioned plea.
"There was no other way. And by the end, there was nothing left to save." The Commander's voice was so leeched of emotion that he might have been speaking of the weather. Irvine flinched at the dead tone, but the eyes still told him the truth, showed him the fracture. "You can't fix this Kinneas, there's just nothing there to patch together. Rinoa tried, and it nearly tore her apart." The eyes darkened at that admission, guilt and grief clear to see.
"The hell," Irvine choked out in a burning voice, "the hell I'm going to let you drown in this. I ain't damned Rinoa and I don't run! I'm fuckin' here and I ain't losin' you. You feel this?"
He threaded his fingers through Squall's and gripped so tightly that it forced the Commander to return the pressure or risk injury.
"This is real. This is you an' me, here and alive in Garden. Don't tell me there's nothin' left," he said wildly, "'cause I don't believe you!" He glared down at the smaller man, daring him to dispute the statement. He kept their gripped hands between them like a pact, a promise.
For a long moment, Squall did nothing, simply looked back at him out of dead eyes that were so deadly calm that it nearly shook Irvine apart. But finally the pressure on his fingers tightened until they were holding so hard to each other it was bound to leave bruises.
"This is real," Squall agreed in voice so frozen that it cut Irvine to the core. "You and I, alive in Garden. I can't give you any more than that."
But the pressure never faltered and Irvine stared down into those eyes that somehow denied the wasteland of the words, seeing still the shadow of rage and terrible love that twined in that depth of color.
Finally, almost reluctantly, the Commander began to pull away. Those terrible eyes flickered down, heavy lashes lowering to shut Irvine out again. The cowboy refused for a moment, fear crossing his heart that somehow Squall would vanish if he let go. He knew it was irrational, but it took a hard effort to force his grip to yield. He released the fingers reluctantly, licking dry lips without thinking about it. There had to be something he could say, but all his words seemed to have left him, lost in the welter of his anguished empathy.
When the Commander stepped back, Irvine could all but feel the searing heat of that separation. His eyes stabbed down into Squall's lowered face, trying desperately to find a way to say something, anything to deny the terror that whispered to his heart.
The Commander raised his gaze, and Irvine swallowed a hard lump in his throat. Those grey eyes had gone blank, cold and growing colder as the Commander began to distance himself, retreating emotionally even as the cowboy watched in helpless anguish. Irvine could see the ice beginning to form, the sheer necessity of those walls agonizingly clear now. Squall couldn't function without that numbing cold, the barriers that kept him strangled inside himself but also that held those fragmented pieces together.
Long moments passed as they looked at each other, across a chasm of a single step. When Squall finally turned away, Irvine still hadn't found any words, let alone the right words. He wondered crazily if words even existed that could answer what he had seen. He could only watch mutely as his friend turned and walked away, leaving him in his locked silence.
He began to shake, small tremors that flickered through taut muscles like living creatures. He stared with unknowingly dazed eyes as Squall reached out to take his jacket from the place that Irvine had laid it so many hours ago. The Commander shrugged into the slick leather without breaking stride, letting it cover him like a second, impervious skin. A breath and he was gone, swallowed by the darkness of the lift.
Irvine was alone, a feeling of sick despair coiling in his bones.
He found that his hands were trembling as he reached up impatiently to scrub at the moisture staining his skin. Squall's pain was worth more than tears, but it seemed that was all he had to offer, useless as they were. He cursed reflexively, impotently, not knowing what else to do. Sweetest gods, he'd wanted to know what was wrong. Now he knew but could do nothing about it.
He laughed out loud, sharp and dangerous into the empty air. What could he say that would make Squall's pain any less? What words existed that could ease a man's wish to die?
He stared blindly at the sky, tilting his head back to stare at the blue dazzle until his eyes watered with light. He knew, dear sweet gods, he knew what Squall felt, if only dimly. Could he have stood in the Commander's place and made those decisions, those brutal choices and remained himself? Irvine had the sinking feeling that he knew what that answer would be.
He'd followed Squall almost blindly by the end, after all. He'd known, he'd trusted the Commander's focused intent. Of all of them, Squall had been the one who'd never hesitated, never once faltered. He'd relied on that, relied on Squall to see them through what needed to be done, no matter what the cost.
Even if it turned out the cost was his friend's heart and sanity.
He cursed again in impotent anger, at himself for what he'd allowed to happen by his failure to see, at Squall for hiding what they'd done to him. And for good measure, he cursed Seifer who'd betrayed them. Not once, but twice when he'd just disappeared, left them all to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.
But at that thought, his head snapped down and he stared with shocked realization at the hard metal wall opposite, jade eyes widening with consternation.
Seifer was coming.
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