Sins of the Living

Chapter 8 - auld lang syne

By Sexylyon

"Tell me again you know what you're doing."

Irvine glanced down at Zell, a wry look on his face.

"Nervous?" he asked finally.

"Hell yeah," the blonde replied. "Aren't you?" As if to emphasize his point Zell punched the floor, denting the wood with absent ease.

Irvine let it slide, not commenting on the wanton destruction of public property. It was far, far better that Zell work out his nerves on inanimate objects. Since his other option was having Zell work it out on him, it wasn't a tough choice. The blonde was wearing his best set of fighting gloves, the pair he'd named Maverick for reasons known only to himself. The braided leather and metal gleamed darkly over his knuckles. With bare hands Zell was a formidable force - with the gloves, he was a deadly whirlwind of destruction.

The wooden floor could take the abuse; Irvine was feeling fragile this afternoon.

He let his gaze rest on the crown of spiky hair nearly at his knees. Actually, Zell was being remarkably calm considering the circumstances. He was only barely holding in his own urge to fidget, and by training and inclination he was much better at waiting than Zell was.

As if to dispute the observation, Zell hit the floor a little harder and more dust leapt into the air in startled response. People nearby had already moved away but the station guards were definitely starting to eye them up, obviously trying to work up the courage to say something. He reached down with his free hand and gently touched Zell's shoulder. When the other Instructor looked up, he shook his head slightly.

"Hellfire Irvine, I'm dying here. You absolutely sure he's coming?"

Irvine looked again at the train schedule where it appeared in glowing letters on the board. It hadn't much changed since the last time he'd looked at it, three minutes ago. Damn things never ran on time.

"Be here soon enough. Jus' a little longer," he replied.

Zell straightened from his graceful crouch, to brush hands over his shorts where the dust had settled. They both stood quietly for a moment, tucked into a corner of the Balamb train station. He'd wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, but he pretty much assumed they were failing miserably. It had been a forlorn hope anyways.

He glared at the platform attendants and they wisely looked elsewhere. Between Zell's restless energy and his own edginess, it was probably best if they were left strictly alone. That dangerous gleam on Zell's hands and the very obvious rifle slung over his shoulder was a very convincing argument to the train security detail to find something else to do. Currently, the three security personnel were occupied, doing god knows what, but it coincidentally kept them very far away from Irvine and Zell.

Irvine might have felt sorry for them, but this was Balamb. If they didn't know how to cope with agitated SeeDs... well, no time like the present to figure it out. At least they had a good start on the proper approach. Irvine knew from experience that avoidance could be raised to a fine art, and the security guards were practising like there would be an exam on it later. Irvine half-heartedly wished he could ignore his problems like that, but his had a tendency to carry edged weapons. No ignoring that, no matter how much you tried.

At his side, Zell sighed gustily, warm breath caressing his skin. He found his gaze distracted by the blonde as Zell ran an obviously impatient hand through his hair. The crested spikes wavered before falling into a different set of contortions, still looking as though they'd been glued into position. In a random effort at distraction, a part of his mind wondered how the hell it managed to stay up.

Now there was a freaking mystery. In his less charitable moments, he subscribed to the popular rumor that Zell had chocobo in his ancestry somewhere. It would explain a lot about the blonde Instructor, the least of which was his gravity defying hairstyle.

Oblivious to Irvine's odd turn of thought, Zell managed to stand still for about three more heartbeats before dropping once again into his usual crouch. Irvine shook his head but still refrained from comment. If he tried to do anything so boneless, his hip joints would seize and he'd have to be carried off the field on a stretcher. The human body wasn't meant to move the way Zell did, but the martial artist never seemed to notice. Just had to be chocobo there somewhere - only question was how many generations back. He sure hoped it was more than a few, because he'd met Ma Dincht, and he couldn't imagine facing the woman with that thought running through his head.

"Gods, I hate waiting," Zell declared after a moment, yanking Irvine's attention back to the here and now. The blonde poked at the floor with one finger as if to measure the divots he'd left. "How can you be so damn calm? I'm about ready to explode or something."

A faint smile crossed Irvine's face even as he shifted his stance a little.

"I'm 'bout as calm as you are," he said finally, "but if I start shootin', it'll get messy." He dropped his smoky gaze as Zell looked up. "If you want t' punch the floor a few times for me, I'd 'preciate it."

Zell grinned up at him, eyes lighting with brief humor.

"Shoulda learned to fight like a real man, 'steada relying on machinery to solve your problems." Zell jerked his chin at Exeter, slung negligently over Irvine's shoulder. The gunslinger flexed his fingers on the trigger guard.

"This ain't a piece of machinery," he growled back. "This... is the sweetest lady I've ever had the pleasure to dance with. You ain't nothin' but a back street kid who's found a gimmick. This girl," he said, hefting the stock of the rifle, "it takes a little class to show her a good time."

"You're a scary man, cowboy," Zell said. "You probably fondle that thing before you go to bed."

Irvine grinned at his friend.

"I'll never tell," he replied. This at least was familiar territory. Zell was related to an idiot bird species and Irvine adored his gun. The sun rose and set on that, at least in Balamb.

The humor was only momentary. Zell's face sobered and Irvine felt his own grin slipping away. Questions were rising in Zell's eyes - this was a side of his friend that not many got to see. Most saw only the extroverted and cheerful exterior and completely missed the sharp intelligence that lay behind it. Irvine himself had been mislead at the very beginning but he was good at seeing through the masks that people wore. Zell never seemed to mind how he was constantly underestimated. He had the sneaking suspicion that Zell enjoyed playing the fool.

But when things got serious enough that Zell dropped the pretense, there was no dodging the man or putting him off. Well, he'd avoided the messy details for longer than he'd actually thought possible. Zell was just going to hate the rest of his plan, he just knew it. No real help for it but at least they'd made it to the station before it occurred to the blonde to ask the obvious questions. And Zell wouldn't walk out on him now, leaving him holding a busted pair against the Knight's three of a kind. Zell just wouldn't do that to a friend... would he?

"What the hell we really doing here cowboy?" Zell asked, right on cue. "No, better yet, why the hell ain't Quistis here too? Or Leonhart with that ass-kicking gunblade of his? I've got my gloves like you asked but if you intend to scrap it out with the posse, we are seriously out-manned and under-equipped. I could probably take Raijin or Fu one on one but in case you forgot, Hyperion ain't just a pretty piece metal with an edge. Seifer can make the wind bleed with that thing."

Irvine took a brief moment to admire that honest, if somewhat colorful assessment. He looked down into Zell's serious face, incidentally giving himself time to consider how he wanted to word this. Zell was as cocky as they came, and wasn't particularly afraid to show it. After all, this was a man who could dance his way through a rain of weapons' fire to emerge unscathed on the other side - Irvine had seen it and still wasn't sure he believed it. For the blonde to admit he was outmatched was tantamount to a declaration of religious awe.

"Easy," he replied softly. "I sure as hell don't intend any fightin'. Think of it… as an honor guard. Seifer deserves at least that much from us." He watched as grudging acknowledgement flickered in Zell's eyes. "As for the Quistis thing, she ain't here 'cause I asked Selphie t'distract her. Right now, she's probably swimmin' in last minute schedulin' problems." He deliberately ignored the comment about the Commander. Leonhart was the reason he was here after all - didn't need the man himself breathing over his shoulder, messing things up more than they probably were already going to get.

An grin seemed to twist unwillingly on Zell's lips for a moment. Irvine felt an answering twitch on his own face. Quistis was damn near unflappable, but Selphie was a hurricane on wheels. Too bad they couldn't be there to watch the fireworks.

"Woulda made it even odds," Zell pointed out after a moment, "if Trepe was here. Seifer's a big boy, and I'm all for giving him all the honor he can handle, and a little more for insurance."

Irvine shook his head.

"Zell, you're an Instructor, an' a damn good one but sometimes you ain't good at figurin' people out. Seifer steps off that train and sees three of us armed to the teeth, and it will be a fight without any of us sayin' anythin' to start it. If its jus' you and me now, he don't know me that well an' he thinks he knows you. He'll have his two lieutenants behind him and that'll make him feel comfortable enough not to start the next War out of sheer nerves."

Zell might be intentionally oblivious to things he didn't want to know, but he wasn't slow to grasp Irvine's reasoning. Understanding flashed over his face and Irvine nodded in confirmation.

"As for Quistis," the cowboy continued, "she's an admirable gal, but she an' Seifer have never been much on polite speakin' terms. An' I got t' talk to Seifer before he gets to Garden." He hesitated for a second, before plunging on with the rest of it. "That's the reason you're here an' not Trepe. You're gonna occupy the posse while I have a little heart t'heart with our returnin' compadre."

"Hell fucking Fire! Irvine, you trying to get me killed?" Zell's eyes flashed wide as the startled words burst forth. "Or you just got a death wish yourself?"

"Didn't you jus' say you could handle the posse on your own?" Irvine felt his logic was inescapable. "I'm takin' Seifer."

Zell was almost spluttering as he jumped to his feet to face the cowboy.

"Sure, I can handle either of them. Hell, I might even be able to handle 'em both. But you're dreaming if you think they're just gonna stand back while you and Seifer figure out who's faster on the trigger. If you're gonna take him on you'd better do it in one shot, or he'll carve his name in your hide for trying. And that would leave me alone with Fujin! You don't know her cowboy, that woman scares the socks off me. The way she looks at you...." Zell shivered under Irvine's impatient gaze.

"Damn it Zell, it ain't gonna be that way! How many times I gotta tell you that?" He glared at the blonde until he could almost see the rising panic wilting under his hot gaze. "Lemme explain it this way. I'm gonna peel the posse away, and you're gonna escort 'em back to Garden. Gently escort 'em, Zell. Show 'em the sights of Balamb if you like, hell, take 'em to your mom's place an' feed 'em dinner. I don't care what you gotta do, but keep 'em occupied an' out of my way."

Zell ran a hand through his hair. He still looked a little panicky, but it seemed like his native good sense was kicking in again, if a little belatedly. The blonde took a couple of deep breaths, obviously getting a grip on himself. The clear blue of his eyes pinned Irvine where he stood.

"Ok cowboy, ok. You want it, you got it. You're calling the shots here and I'll back you. But you damn well better know what you're doing because I'll be damn lucky if its only skin I lose over this."

Zell's gaze bored into his and Irvine did his best to give him a confident look. Zell didn't need to know he was sweating bullets himself over it. He'd seriously considered not bringing weapons at all to this little tea party, but at the last couldn't force himself to leave Exeter behind. The familiar weight of his rifle gave him a sense of security, false as it might turn out to be.

Intent on each other, neither of them noticed as the train schedule flashed to announce the impending arrival of the Timber train. As it was, the approaching whistle startled them both and they looked up as the platform started to tremble under their feet. The rumbling continued for a few long moments and then the train coasted into the station, metal gleaming dully as if with exertion. Its whistle shrilled again even as it shuddered to a stop, steaming as if pleased with itself. For a moment, all was still, as if everyone on the platform was waiting to breathe.

Then everything broke into swift motion. The security guards suddenly came to the forefront as they began to segregate the crowd into those waiting for arrivals and those who would be embarking for the return trip to Timber. The waiting crowd forgot all about their nervousness of the two SeeDs and babbled excitedly amongst each other as they complied with the shouted instructions. People swirled and moved in front of them as if they were suddenly invisible but Irvine at least could feel no humor in the situation. Despite his best efforts, tension was rising with each heartbeat. Deep breathing helped a little, and he could feel Zell at his side doing the same. There was a shared comfort in that.

It seemed like forever, but truthfully couldn't have been more than a few moments before the platform was organized and ready. There was the sound of sliding metal, and a hatch opened near the front of the passenger compartment. A few people began to trickle out of the train and then a flood began to disembark. It was barely organized chaos for a few moments as those waiting surged forward to greet the arrivals.

Irvine and Zell watched from the back, looking for Seifer's distinctive form. Encouraged by the platform staff, the excitedly chattering arrivals began to leave the station and the platform began to empty again. Patiently, the embarking passengers waited to the side behind their red rope, boarding passes clutched in hand.

Zell glanced at Irvine's profile.

"See him?" he asked.

Irvine shook his head but didn't look down, still scanning the few people in front of him from his advantage of greater height. Nobody tall enough or with the right combination of entourage stood out.

"You think Quistis got the wrong train?" Zell ventured after a few more moments.

"Nah," he replied automatically, "Trepe just don't make mistakes like that." Irvine frowned and adjusted Exeter on his shoulder. "But if that's th' case, where the hell is he?"

Perhaps he'd been waiting for the question. Without fanfare, a familiar silhouette filled the arch of the shadowy gangway. It paused for a second before striding out onto the loading platform and then down the steps to the station proper. Like shadows, his posse appeared behind him but Irvine's attention was riveted to the Sorceress Knight.

Against his will, he could feel his internal temperature spike. At his side, he could feel Zell rise to the balls of his feet but he couldn't spare any attention to the blonde. He watched Seifer walk away from the train, letting body and mind fall into familiar stillness. Time almost seemed to slow for a second as unwanted scenarios ran through his head. Anything from Seifer going for Hyperion as soon as he saw them, to something only a little less drastic that ended up with blood splattered all over the station and civilian casualties that hopefully he wouldn't be around to have to explain to the SeeD Commander. Gods help him, he'd better get this right the first time, or the ill-equipped train security would really learn what SeeD could do.

But with those grim thoughts flashing through his mind, even knowing that Seifer had to have changed, he'd somehow still been expecting the man he remembered from the War to come walking off that train. And damn it, it just didn't seem to fit what he saw in front of him.

Without conscious thought, he'd automatically started to catalogue his target as soon as he'd spotted Seifer in the doorway. As tall as he was, he was pretty sure they would stand eye to eye although the last time they'd met, height comparisons had been the last thing on his mind. The arrogant gaze, the swagger in the step, that he remembered very well. The blonde hair might have been a little longer, perhaps a little messier than it used to be, but not so that anyone else might notice. The blue heat of those eyes was sweeping over the station even as black boots struck the floor with an aggressive sound. Irvine could feel himself reacting to that challenging look even though its owner had yet to spot him. Damn, but Seifer could project arrogance like nobody else. It made Irvine's hackles rise even from half a room away.

But this man was wearing a pair of worn blue jeans and a black muscle shirt with some abstract blue pattern on it. The only concession to a fashion statement was a wide silver-studded belt that emphasized the lean physique. It was Seifer, no question, but the man he knew always dressed for maximum intimidation effect. This was more casual than he could ever recall the Knight being and it jarred against Irvine's expectations. The Seifer he knew was as flamboyant as all hell, but at first glance this man was pretty much dressed like any other person intent on enjoying the Balamb Festival.

He had to admit though that the pared-down look suited somehow. From the way the shirt was painted to the chest, the man hadn't let himself fall out of condition in his self-imposed exile. That gave Irvine a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Against that casual clothing, the buckled strap that held Hyperion to his back was ominous. The famous trenchcoat was conspicuously missing but that might have been simply because it was a warm day. The gunslinger himself had left his armored duster and chaps behind at Garden, albeit with some misgivings. Damn it, he'd played it right when he'd chosen not to wear all his gear. But at this moment, watching the dangerous play of muscle as Seifer stalked forward, he regretted the heat of the day that precluded the unobtrusive use of body armor.

It was obvious when Seifer picked them out in their semi-concealed position. They weren't precisely hiding, but absolute stillness was an effective camouflage in itself, even in the nearly cleared area.

There was just the smallest hesitation, easily missed perhaps but Irvine was so wired he could have counted Seifer's eyelashes if he'd wanted to. It was only barely perceptible and then the Knight was moving towards them. Irvine found himself coming forward to meet him. It was weird, but almost by pre-arrangement both Zell and the posse hung back a little, leaving the two men to face each other.

"Seifer," he said before the other had a chance to speak. "Welcome home."

Something dark flickered through those eyes but it was the familiar sardonic grin that answered him.

"Damn rights," the Knight growled back. "You the welcoming committee?" He made a show of looking over Irvine's shoulder, flashing a wider grin at the presence of Zell behind him. "Where's Trepe? Woulda figured the Instructor couldn't possibly stay away."

"Head Instructor now," he corrected. Seifer returned his hard gaze to the cowboy.

"Well, well, moving up in the world. What's next on the agenda I wonder?" Seifer looked thoughtful for a moment before his grin flashed again. "Betcha she's got the hots for the Headmaster position. You know she's ruthless when it comes to competition. Better warn Leonhart she's probably gunning for him." Seifer leaned forward conspiratorially. "You let me know if she starts getting out of hand, and I'll put her straight for you."

Those intense blue eyes gleamed with mockery even as Seifer rocked back on his heels. He considered letting the comment slide, but something about Seifer's attitude warned him against the easy road. He chose to answer the underlying intent, gambling that the Knight was looking for backbone. Wouldn't do to disappoint the man. He narrowed his own eyes as if annoyed and spat back at the blonde.

"Stuff it Seifer, you ain't impressin' me. I said welcome back, and you don't know how much I mean that, but now ain't the time to remind me how much of an asshole you can be."

Seifer's smirk got larger, showing white teeth.

"Didja really miss me, Irvine-baby? Never knew you cared - you was always so busy being Galbadia's pride and joy and all. But maybe it was you that was secretly pining for me, and not Trepe after all." The voice was light and caressing, but those eyes were as hard as nails, assessing Irvine's reaction. "Y'know, I always figured you for the type to play both sides of the field, if you know what I mean. You was always so friendly, even as a kid."

Bloody hell. That was dirty fighting. Irvine could feel a muscle start to twitch in his jaw as he tried to keep his teeth from gritting. God damn but Seifer was fast on the attack. That was an old sore spot, and one he'd thought he was long since past but trust Seifer to have the right combination of sneer and maliciousness to make him feel about eight again, being teased for kissing his friends.

Seifer's grin deepened as Irvine felt the old resentment start to burn, sparking in his eyes and tightening the skin on his face. He took a couple of deep breaths, letting the silence ride after Seifer's last statement. By the look in his eye, the Knight was enjoying the show. Well, if the intent had been to piss him off, it had worked. Damn Seifer for being the world's largest walking ego. His feigned annoyance was quickly slipping into the real thing.

And damn it, Seifer was just trying to provoke him into unthinking reaction. He wasn't going to fall for it, he'd be damned before he'd fall for it. He wasn't eight years old anymore, as pleasing as it might have been to jump the guy and pummel him into the ground.This time however, there was no Matron to pull them apart and ground them to different sides of the house. This time, it would be Exeter against Hyperion and even if he won the draw, Squall would kill him when he got back to Garden. Losing his temper simply wasn't an option, at least for the moment.

So Irvine held his rising temper in check and kept his glare down to a minimum. Moments ticked by as he refused to respond until he could think of something civil to say. Nothing came to mind however and Irvine belatedly realized that if Seifer couldn't get a rise out of him, then his next target would be Zell. He hoped the other Instructor could restrain himself, but truthfully held out little hope. On certain subjects, Zell was as predictable as snow in winter. Heavy snow.

True to Irvine's estimate, Seifer did the expected. Nice to know his assessments were on target, even if it didn't help him much at the moment.

"Hey chicken," the Knight called out as he craned his neck to one side to look again over Irvine's shoulder, "didja miss me too?"

"Like a hole in the head, Seifer," came the growled reply. Irvine didn't have to look back to know the dark expression Zell had on his face but the response had a level of restraint in it that surprised him. Normally, after a taunt like that, Zell would have said something really regrettable. For the other Instructor, it had been practically strangled with politeness.

"But I missed you so much, sweetheart," the Knight cooed. "Thought about you every night, you know I did."

Irvine held his breath for a second, but amazingly the fighter didn't take the bait. Knowing Zell, realising that the blonde had to have a literal stranglehold on his explosive temper in order to keep his mouth shut, gave Irvine his sense of perspective back. This was Seifer, for gods sake. It would be strange if the man didn't push for dominance every time he walked into a room. Seifer was always out to prove something and god help you if you didn't measure up to the Knight's expectations. For some reason, Irvine had almost forgotten that.

And overall, this conversation was going about the way he'd expected it to, even if it had degenerated into name calling faster than he'd figured. But maybe now that they'd all reaffirmed their respective testosterone levels, he could get this dialogue moving in the right direction. Zell was a paragon of virtue at the moment but he probably couldn't hold up under pressure. Hell, he might not hold up if Seifer decided to haul out the big guns. The fact that he'd kissed both Squall and Seifer in a fit of enthusiasm at the tender age of eight was small potatoes. The Knight could dredge up bigger things than that if he wanted to get vindictive.

"Alright Seifer, you've had your fun. Can we move along t' the important stuff now?" he asked.

It was interesting to note how fast the malicious humor fell away from the Knight's eyes. Hard blue sapphires stared cooly at him, judging god knows what. Irvine held fast, letting his own expression mirror only waiting blankness. He could feel the air start to charge between them but did nothing for the moment to change it. Seifer never tolerated challenges to his authority, and that much at least did not seem to have changed. That was too damn bad, because Irvine wasn't going to let the man blindside him again. He was calling the shots on this one, however much Seifer was going to hate it.

He could feel Zell shifting forward a breath more even as he knew the posse were edging closer. He refused to break his concentration on Seifer. This was what he had brought Zell along for after all.

He stared hard into that piercing blue, refusing to back down from the implicit challenge. Was there anything there, anything there at all that could be used to mend what had broken? He'd never really bought into the common perception that Seifer only used, and never gave. There was no question in Irvine's mind that Seifer cared, and cared passionately about the things that were important to him.

But that didn't actually mean that Seifer could help, or even that he would want to. Did Seifer have the key to Squall? Would he use it? Or was he just buying into Selphie's insane hope that something could actually be done? It was impossible to tell. Not from this distance at least. He had to get much farther inside than the few feet that separated them.

"Let's start this again," Irvine said softly. "Welcome home, Seifer."

Something wavered in that deep color, something hungry and desperate. Even as it flashed it was gone, buried in an instant. No matter. Irvine had seen it.

And the Knight had to know he'd betrayed himself.

Irvine saw the silent acknowledgement in the mocking twist of Seifer's lips even as the Knight glanced over his shoulder. Whatever look he gave to the posse caused them to ease back. Zell lost a measure of tension at his shoulder and the cowboy breathed an unobtrusive sigh of relief. Everyone was still standing and nobody had even drawn a weapon. It was a bloody miracle. They'd all survived the first few minutes - now it was time to take real control of this before the Knight could figure out a new direction.

When Seifer turned back, the sardonic facade was firmly reattached in place.

"Ok, you got me. I'll bite. What's on your mind cowboy?" But before he could answer, the famous smirk flashed again. "Make a habit of greeting old friends with a loaded weapon to hand?"

He grinned back at Seifer. Surprisingly, he didn't have to force it much at all. He deliberately leaned his weight on one leg, cocking Exeter at a jaunty angle. In an instant, he fairly radiated relaxed good humor. Seifer's eyes widened a fraction, before narrowing again. Irvine didn't think he had a chance of figuring out what was going on. This tactic worked on Leonhart like a charm, so it ought to work on Almasy. The two were eerily alike in so many ways, and not understanding Irvine's sense of humor was not the only thing they shared.

"When its you, you bet your sweet ass," he admitted cheerfully. "I'd've broken out the twenty one gun salute and the flag wavin' and military escort an' all, but El Presidente Loire got that this mornin' and everyone's still plumb exhausted from the excitement. Besides, they're all at Festival by now, so you just gonna have to settle for us two medium-ranked SeeDs for escort. Trepe would've wanted to've been here too I suppose, but I guess I just plain forgot to tell her. Don't know what I was thinkin'."

He was rewarded with a startled look. He continued smoothly.

Besides, you an' me, we got things we need to talk about, an' that's hard to do when you got 'Rexaur tryin' to chew your tail. Exeter's pretty much along for discouragement."

Seifer was silent, hard calculation on his face but a wary confusion in his eyes. Irvine gave him one of his best grins, letting him draw his own conclusions, as incorrect as they'd probably turn out to be. Finally Seifer shrugged.

"So we're walking to Garden."

Irvine let his smile deepen.

"Yup. Think you're up to it?"

His answer was a derisive snort.

"Used to run that trail in hard winter and half-asleep. Won't be a problem. What about you? Think you can keep up, cowboy?" The blue eyes were frankly assessing, sweeping over Irvine as if judging his stamina. He had to give the Knight credit, he sure recovered fast.

"Hell yeah. But I'm willin' to help you along the rough parts. You jus' let me know when it gets too much and we can rest some."

Seifer's eyes glinted with appreciation at the verbal baiting. He'd obviously taken the right tack then, by pushing Seifer back from his original aggressive stance. But whatever he'd said was obviously a little much for the posse. Fujin stepped up to Seifer's right shoulder even as Raijin mirrored her move a shade later on the left. Zell leaned in to glare at the lieutenant and the tension instantly spiked. Irvine put a cautionary arm out to bar Zell's chest even as Seifer put a hand on Fujin's shoulder. Nice to know that neither of them wanted to fight.

"S'ok Fu, me and the cowboy are just getting acquainted. Aren't we, cowboy?" Seifer asked, with a quirk of his eyebrow at Irvine.

"Jus' getting acquainted, ma'am." He tipped his hat to the silver haired woman. She didn't seem at all appeased but suffered Seifer's arm to be draped over her shoulders without complaint. Her ruby eye glared at Irvine with all the warmth of a laser beam from her diminutive height. He could see why Zell spoke her name with such a level of respect and healthy fear. This was no lady to cross. He could understand now why Zell had chosen to face off against her, even though the man who guarded Seifer's other side was a mountain of hard flesh. She was the dangerous one.

And Seifer held her complete devotion. That said something for the man, that he could command such a fierce loyalty from such a fearless creature. His hope for the Knight rose a notch.

"Ok cowboy, I'm getting tired of standing around here collecting dust. By all means, let's go play tag with the local wildlife." Seifer waved a hand in a magnanimous gesture, as if to indicate the way. "It'll be just like old times. Try not to bleed on me though, ok? Its a bitch getting bloodstains out of my hair."

Irvine didn't move though. Tucked under Seifer's arm, Fujin continued to glare at him out of a baleful eye. The lady obviously suspected something and Irvine found it surprisingly hard to ignore her. Damn she was unnerving. Zell really knew what he was talking about.

"No, Seifer. Jus' you and me."

Seifer went from quiet to absolute stillness as a single eyebrow lifted but the Knight's expression didn't so much as flicker. It was Fujin who tried to step forward, moving in front of the large frame of her commander, a snarl lifting her lips. It was Seifer's hand on her shoulder that kept her restrained. Irvine tried not to let that distract him, watching the Knight with all his trained attention.

"Zell here's all excited to show your friends the sights of Balamb while I take you up t'Garden myself, so's we can have a chance t' talk a bit."

"Iz'at right?" Seifer drawled after an unblinking moment. "You and me, huh?" He peered over Irvine's shoulder. "You ok with that chicken? Wouldn't want to abandon you or anything, if you was hoping to spend more quality time with me."

"I'm good," Zell said, shifting slightly at Irvine's shoulder. "Got all the quality I want already."


It took a moment but since Seifer's lips didn't move, Irvine realized that the hard negative had come from Fujin. He tipped his hat to her respectfully, keeping Seifer’s face in his peripheral vision.

"I'm sorry ma'am, but I got some things t'say to the man without witnesses. I'll be careful with him, an' you can have him back safe an' sound at Garden."


That word came out in a fierce hiss. Irvine could all but see the bristling defenses. He risked a brief glance at Raijin, to judge the other half of the posse. The man looked worried, but was obviously taking his cues from Seifer's relaxed manner. Irvine shelved him as a potential problem; Raijin wouldn't do anything until Seifer told him to. Fujin was another matter however - she seemed more than capable of starting trouble on her own initiative.

"I'm truly sorry ma'am, if it distresses you, but me an' Seifer got some words t' share. If its any consolation, Zell ain't invited either."

"Amen to that," came a low mutter at his shoulder.

He couldn't help himself, glancing down at Zell for that heartfelt remark. The blonde didn't look up, but a reluctant grin seemed to twitch on his lips at Irvine's amused stare.

"S'alright Fu," Seifer was saying. Irvine dragged his attention back to the Knight. "It'll feel great to stretch my legs for again, that last hour on the train nearly killed me. We've been travelling all day and my ass is sore. You know I got Hyperion and the cowboy here's got his fancy pea-shooter. We'll be lucky if anything bigger than 'bugs get in front of us. Don't worry so much." The voice was oddly cajoling, the fingers gripping Fujin's shoulder quite gently. The words sounded strange coming from Seifer but Irvine didn't let his expression change. He noted it though, and filed it away for consideration.

"Don't like it, ya know."

That voice was a bass rumble, so deep it was almost startling. Having dismissed the man from active consideration, Irvine had almost forgotten the other half of the posse.

"Ya know I'm not liking this. Ya shouldn't be leaving us." The man's face was pulled into a worried frown, his arms folded uncomfortably over his chest. He was staring at the back of Seifer's head like the answers to the universe were written there. Seifer didn't turn around to answer him, instead pinching the bridge of his nose in a universal gesture of an impending headache.

"I'm surrounded by god-damn babysitters," the Knight finally commented. Dropping his hand from his face, he shot a hard look over his shoulder at Raijin. "I'll be fine. Go hang with the chicken for awhile. It'll do you good to talk to someone who doesn't understand you." He turned back to fix his blue eyes on the back of Fujin's head. His fingers squeezed and she looked over her shoulder at him, taking her attention off Irvine. "You too. You're never gonna get a date if you don't start stringing more words together. Practice on blondie - he's harmless and oughta be safe enough to play with."

At his side, Zell nearly choked. Seifer smirked down at Fujin. In return, her expression had all the warmth of a snowbank, but she didn't protest when Seifer gently shoved her forward. She gave him a sour look over her shoulder but that was the extent of her rebellion. She switched her gaze back to Irvine and he did his best to look trustworthy. He must have passed inspection because she allowed him to remain standing. Delicately she stepped around the tall Galbadian to confront Zell.

She eyed up the blonde fighter, and with a bemused thought, Irvine realized they were practically the same height. It must have been a novel experience for Fujin; not many men were built to her scale. Not that she was short really, it was just that in the company of Seifer and Raijin, she was definitely dwarfed in the size department. Zell seemed to be finding it an experience as well. From his vantage point practically on top of the man, he could see a crimson flush staining the roots of the blonde hair.

Irvine blinked in surprise. Zell was blushing?


Fujin's voice was non-committal, as if trying out the word, but Zell shot an angry look at Seifer. The Knight's smirk only got wider. Something about the situation was very amusing to the man. Irvine added that to the list of pending questions.

"Not 'chicken'. My name is Zell," the fighter said impatiently. Fujin was silent for a moment, as if trying to figure out what word would best work in this situation.


Definitely a challenge this time. Irvine wasn't sure what Fujin was trying to do but it seemed to be getting a reaction. The blonde thrust his chin up in a gesture that Irvine recognized very well and glared right back at Seifer's lieutenant. Judging by the scalp color, his flush was receding.

"No. Zell. That's my name. Just 'cause Seifer's never figured it out is no excuse for you."

Irvine was amazed. He shot a look at Seifer but had no idea what that smug look might mean. At his side, Fujin and Zell were now involved in some kind of staring contest. Irvine didn't want to intrude, curious how this was going to resolve itself. At this point, the likelihood of weapons was remote so it was weirdly amusing to watch the two of them size each other up.

"My ... name ... is ... Zell," the fighter said slowly and distinctly. "Keep calling me 'chicken' and I won't take you home and feed you my mom's home cooking. You don't wanna miss that, 'cause its chili night in the Dincht household, and my mom makes the best chili in the world, swear to god."


Fujin's startled voice almost made that a question. Zell bobbed his head, suddenly enthused.

"Oh yeah, best chili around for miles. Just hot enough to make the beer go down so smooth its like heaven, and enough garlic on the bread to knock over a swarm of 'bugs at a hundred feet. My mom's been cooking it since this morning. I tried to stop by on the way in for a taste test, but Irvine was all bent outta shape about getting here. That was a pain in the ass, but my mom probably wouldn'ta let me near the pot anyways, she always says I eat too much and spoil my dinner...."

Zell sounded like he could have kept going for hours. Fujin looked like she was trying to cut him off at the pass but Irvine considered telling her to save her breath. His friend was on a roll and picking up steam.


"...but I don't eat that much, swear to god, just a little bit since I'm a growing boy and all. Y'know you gotta check it, make sure there's enough chilies in there, not too heavy on the salt either. She forgets sometimes that I don't like too much salt..."


Fujin's voice was loud and exasperated. Irvine knew exactly how she felt. Zell could drive a saint to suicide. She'd finally gotten through as Zell stopped his chatter and blinked at her in startlement. A second later a huge grin bloomed on his face.

"Alright! Wasn't so hard was it?"

Fujin blinked. She still didn't have any real expression on her face, but Irvine would have bet hard gil she was struggling to keep it that way. Zell had that effect on people.

"Ok, now that we got that all worked out, lets get going! Gotta tell mom to put a few more bowls out and stuff." Zell halted and eyed up Raijin with trepidation. The man was built like a T'Rexaur, and even the lean bulk of Seifer right next to him didn't do much to disguise the fact. "Gotta remember man, only so much chili to go 'round." Zell's face brightened after a moment. "Can have as much bread as you like though. Always got lots of bread, mom knows I love the stuff and stocks up."

Casting a covert look at Raijin, Irvine saw an actual grin on the man's face. A little lopsided perhaps, but the first open expression he'd seen on any of them.

"Ya know I love chili," came that rumbling voice, "and I've heard about your mom's cooking. Famous all over Balamb, Ma Dincht. Ya gotta know I'm looking forward to dinner."

Zell grinned back, obviously pleased with the recognition of his mother's superior cooking skills. His gaze flickered back to Fujin and although he wilted a little, his enthusiasm didn't fade entirely. Fujin, on the other hand, was looking like she'd swallowed a bug but didn't want to say anything about it. Irvine kept his amusement strictly to himself. Zell had that effect on people too.


Fujin's tone was almost hesitant. The Knight waved his hand in a shooing motion.

"It's all right Fu, told you that. Go pester the chicken for awhile. And don't eat too much chili. I gotta sit next to you on the ride back, remember." Fujin looked like she wanted to smile at that. She looked past Seifer.


Now that was definitely a command. With a hard look at Seifer, the second half of the posse began to move. For such a large person, he was surprisingly light on his feet. Or perhaps not so surprising. This man had gone through the War too.

As Raijin passed in front of Irvine, he halted and stared down at the sniper. It was a new experience for Irvine. He was used to being the tallest one around so it was odd to have to look up slightly.

"Keep him safe, ya know? Anything happen to him, you don't bother coming back either."

Irvine didn't reply, not really sure what to say to that. Raijin took his silence for assent, and nodded once before continuing on.

As Raijin began to bear down on him, Zell began to back up a little toward the station entrance.

"Ok kids, the glorious sights of Balamb are this way. Keep in line, try not to get lost." Zell peered around the advancing bulk of Raijin to spear Irvine with a bright blue eye. "I'm gone, try not to get killed."

Irvine couldn't help but grin at him and with a last look, Zell turned and sauntered off, Raijin and Fujin trailing behind. He watched them go and few moments later they disappeared down the front stairs. Irvine swung back to Seifer.

Now that the others had gone, Irvine realized just how intimidating the Knight could be, up close and personal. Seifer was still grinning, but the effect had very little to do with humor. He was eyeing up Irvine like the sniper was on the menu for tonight's dinner. He just smiled back, unphased by the subtle menace in the Knight's body - Seifer might think he was the biggest badass on the planet, but Leonhart was worse. If he could handle the one, he sure as hell could figure out how to handle the other.

"Ready?" he asked the blonde.

"I was born ready," Seifer replied easily.

Irvine nodded, and turned on one heel to lead the way.

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