DISCLAIMER: SquareSoft hold the copyright to all names, likeness and rights of Final Fantasy VIII. All these characters and materials are used without permission, and I'm not profiting from this piece of fan fiction.

This takes place after the concert Selphie arranged, while the Garden spends its last night at Fisherman's Horizon. The encounter between Rinoa and Squall that took place here, is the not so favourable one where Rinoa is irritated by the music and walks out on Squall.

The dialogue appearing in the flashbacks comes from the FF8 script produced by Kikoutei Rekka <kikoutei_rekka @ hotmail.com>.

Note: I've given Irvine a slight Southern accent to make his thoughts and speech more distinctive to Squall's. It's also helped me visualise him as a character. Hope that this doesn't annoy anyone. Please treat it as an AU if it makes you feel more comfortable.

Key:  " ... " Normal Speech    / ... / Thoughts    // ... // Brief Flash back

Stress Relief

By Jacque Koh

Irvine was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling when he heard the polite knock on his door. "Yeah?"

"It's me, Squall. May I come in?"

Irvine suppressed his sigh as he got off the bed to unlock the door. He had been expecting the other man for some time now. What he did not expect, however, was the half-filled bottle of vodka that was shoved into his hand as he admitted his erstwhile leader.

"Thought I'd come with a gift. We-- need to talk."

The sight that greeted him was unexpected, to say the least. Irvine could not remember ever seeing Squall without his jacket and ever present double belts. Of his normal attire, the man had only retained his white T-shirt, jeans, and boots.

Irvine stood aside, allowing the other man to enter before locking the door again. He had to wonder if he might have made things easier on himself if he had thought to approach Squall, rather than have the taciturn man come after him. But a glance at the bottle in his hand reminded him that the man seemed less reserved than he might have thought and he _was_ dressed in a 'disarming' fashion.

Then again, Irvine couldn't exactly be sure of what the man wanted to talk about. An irrational fear rose in him that Squall might have talked to Dr. Kadowaki. The matronly doctor hadn't been happy with Irvine's refusal to talk about the injuries he had kept hidden from the others. But the rational side of him reminded him that the doctor was bound by her profession's oath of confidentiality to their patients. Irvine had to admit that he felt some relief the doctor did not know him and was unlikely to take the trouble of hunting down his SeeD counsellors at Galbadia Garden, given their current chaotic situation. The only other involved party was unlikely to have said anything to Squall in the prison. On that matter, Irvine made a promise to himself that should they both survive the current mess, he and Seifer were going to talk.

For Squall, Irvine's room was, in truth, the last place he wanted to be right now. Earlier that evening, Rinoa had walked away from him in a huff, upset by his apparent mockery of her request to share of himself with her. Squall wasn't an idiot, he knew that he should have gone after her and apologised. At least try and convince her that he was being honest and not snide as she thought he was. But he was still slightly fazed by the rush of events that surrounded him over the last few days.

Commander of the Garden... He still couldn't believe that Headmaster Cid made the announcement over the PA system, turning the entire Garden under his leadership. All he had wanted to do at the end of that hectic day was to return to his room and sleep. But Selphie had intercepted him on the way to his room and demanded that he speak to Irvine.

//"You hardly saw me, yet you still noticed that I was down and tried to cheer me up. How did you miss seeing how upset Irvine's been? He may be smiling, but he's really been stressed out and depressed for days!"// She then practically stripped him of his jacket, belts and gloves in the hallway before dragging him to Irvine's room, knocking on the door for him, and fleeing as soon as she heard Irvine unlock it.

"Selphie got ya this?"

"She said it was good." Squall shrugged as he grabbed the chair at the desk and straddled it. The alcohol was a... naughty allusion. /Well, at least it is less crude than the magazine Irvine left for me behind the stage./ For all her apparent airhead poise, the Trabia Garden transfer SeeD was more observant than Squall cared to acknowledge.

Despite Kinneas' expectancy, Squall really did not want to be in such close quarters with the man right now. He was in no way prepared to deal with the maelstrom of emotions that were tumbling through him about this man. Not when he had to consider his feelings for Rinoa too.

The singular mercy he had now was that Kinneas apparently thought he was there to talk about what happened at Caraway's Mansion. There was still a lot left unsaid about the Galbadia Garden sniper's breakdown during the assassination. It also helped that Headmaster Cid anticipated him wanting to learn more about Irvine and so made his file available for Squall to peruse without question. So... Squall had an out if he wanted it. He could keep the conversation centred on Irvine's breakdown during the mission if he wanted to, with no one else the wiser.

/Easy, right? Yeah sure./ Squall groaned inwardly as Irvine took a seat directly facing him on his bed. He was reminded, again, of what attracted him to the man when they first met. Without his trench coat, Stetson, the 'tacky' necklace, the leather chaps he usually wore over his jeans, and with his boots set aside for the night, Irvine just looked so... His whole tough exterior seemed stripped away as he sat there dressed only in that garish purple vest, which accentuated his lean muscular build, and blue jeans. Squall could almost feel himself transported back to Caraway's Mansion... The feelings he had then, of wanting to envelop the vulnerable figure in his arms, were returning with full force. He mercilessly squelched that desire by steadfastly staring at the bottle Irvine was nervously rolling between his hands. An awkward silence stretched between them.

"Could-- loosen things up if you opened the bottle, Irvine."

"Right..." Irvine obligingly pulled out the loosened cork and took a swig of the hard liquor. He _was_ grateful that Squall was trying to make the encounter as friendly as possible, but it was still difficult for him to start. They were in his room and while it gave him some balance of security, the situation was still tensed. /Nothing ta it but ta do it, Irvine. Make a stab at it an' get this over with./ "This is about mah-- freezing, ain't it?"

"I--" /Do you really want to talk about the other... 'thing'?/ "H-- Headmaster Cid let me read your case file. You have a solid record, Irvine Kinneas." This was much easier. Falling straight into the professional 'leader' mode was better than making a fool of himself, Squall decided. "Galbadia Garden claims that you're the most promising sniper they've had in the last two decades. A natural marksmen.

"Your records show no lack of bravery under fire. They even claimed that your final SeeD exam was a solo mission on the field against a terrorist coup at Esthar, where you took out three radicals with your marksmanship. You handled that job at an over 700 metre targeting range. The Sorceress Edea was a lot closer to our position. If we're to continue to work together, I want-- need to understand what happened back there." Squall looked at him inquiringly.

Irvine hid his relief as he looked down at the bottle in his hand. It was only about the mission. That wasn't an easy subject either, but it was... 'safe.' He took one more swig to compose himself before handing it to the man sitting across from him. Squall took a companionable drink and waited patiently.

"Do... ya remember me asking ya earlier-- 'bout questioning yer mission?" Squall had to lean forward slightly to catch the hushed words. "'bout knowing whether or not yer enemies were pure evil?"


[Irvine] "So like... is it true that SeeDs aren't supposed ta question their missions?"

[Squall] /There are times I'd like to know myself. Like... now for example. But.../ "What do you care?"

[Irvine] "So like... if ya knew yer enemies were pure evil, ya'd get more fired up ta fight them, right?"

[Squall] /... An enemy that is pure evil? Right and wrong are not what separates us and our enemies. It's our different stand points, our perspectives that separate us. Both sides blame one another. There's no good or bad side. Just two sides holding different views./

//end flashback//

"I-- remember."

Irvine looked up at him, his eyes fairly shone with confusion and half suppressed tears. "There's no such thing is there? No real black or white... no real good or evil? No knowing for sure if what ya're doing is absolutely right. If the person-- if it's really necessary ta kill someone.

"Ah wasn't cut out ta be a sniper, Squall." The southerner's tone was low. "Like Ah said ta ya earlier. Ah can't handle the pressure."

"But the decisions aren't yours. It's just--"

"That's not it! Thoughts an' words don't count for the sniper." Irvine looked up at him sharply. "Responsibility for a life doesn't stop with the commander. When Ah look down mah rifle sights, Ah'm holding a life at the end of that barrel. Can ya understand what kind of pressure that puts on a sniper?"

"It's a job--"

"It's not *just a job*!"

"Then explain to me what you're going through! Zell told me this crap--"

"About what? Mah 'whining' 'bout Sharpshooters being loners by nature? Feeling the pressure of the moment? Facing the tension alone? It's all that an' then Ede--" Irvine shot to his feet to tower over the seated man, but he pulled back just as quickly to fall back on the bed again. /Close, Irvine. Ya nearly spilled the beans, didn't ya? This sucks. Why am Ah the only one who remembers the orphanage? Who remembers... Matron? Ah can't believe how bad things turned out. Could have thrown me for a loop ta see her decked out like that.../

//flashback//** JK: I supplied Irvine's thoughts in this sequence. Only the spoken words are what actually appeared in the game.**

[Squall] "It's all up to Irvine."

[Irvine] /Wha-- what's Seify-- is that where he got to...? Matron? No, it can't be-- She can't be my target?!/

[Squall] "Don't tell me you're getting the jitters..."

[Irvine] "Ah..." /The Matron is the Sorceress Edea? She raised me-- us after our folks were killed./ "Ah can't do it."

[Irvine] "Ah..." /Can't you remember her too, Squall? She took care of all of us./ "Ah can't..." /Please, I can't be the only one with these memories./ "Ah'm sorry. Ah can't do it."

[Irvine] /Dammit, he doesn't remember me, or her. Think, Irvine! He needs a reason why you're stalling./ "Ah always choke like this..." /Yer making yerself out ta be a coward, boy. But... yer can't shoot her./

[Irvine] "Ah try to act all cool, joke around but Ah just can't handle the pressure..." /Ah can't shoot someone Ah've loved before. Ah just can't!/

[Squall] "Forget it. Just shoot!"

[Irvine] /No!/ "My bullet..." /Matron... Ya can't ask me ta. Please, Squall./ "The sorceress..."

[Irvine] /Ah can't do this alone. Plugging strangers is already bad enough. This isn't-- Ah'm not saving any lives, this is all political./ "Ah'll go down in history." /It's just... political./ "Ah'd change the history of Galbadia... Of the world!"

[Irvine] /Ah know her! She was the first person ta care for us. I can't shoot--/ "It's all too much..."

[Squall] "Enough! Just shoot!"

[Irvine] "Ah can't, dammit!" /We all loved her! Why can't ya remember this too?!/

[Squall] "Irvine, calm down. Everyone's waiting on you. I don't care if you miss. Whatever happens, just leave the rest to us. Just think of it as a signal. A sign for us to make our move."

[Irvine] "Just a signal..." /An' she's... she *is* different. Not--/

[Squall] "Please."

[Irvine] /She's not-- the Matron anymore./ "...Just a sign." /Things have changed. She's-- not the mother figure we loved. Matron... forgive me./

//End flashback//

Irvine closed his eyes at that memory. He had fired the shot, but Edea blocked it and part of him rejoiced at that failure. But what followed after... That-- encounter with Seifer and Edea when they confronted him as a Galbadia Garden SeeD-- made an example of him ... before Seifer remembered him and relented, then arranged to let him go and to take Rinoa with him.

/Do ya want ta tell this man?/ Irvine had to ask himself. /Squall, the little loner. Why is he, of all people, in mah room now? An' how much do ya really want ta tell him?/ Irvine knew that he needed to talk, needed to let loose somehow. He had already been carrying the tension within him for nearly a week. If he didn't find some release somewhere soon, he was going to crack wide open. Ordinarily, he would have found an outlet back at Galbadia Garden, but after that fiasco of a mission, he doubted that he would be very welcomed there now.

Irvine noted that the dark-haired man had fallen silent, waiting for him to speak again. He was surprised that the taciturn man was actually making an offer to listen. Squall had been a loner as a child. First impressions of his old childhood playmate didn't make him think he changed much. And their interaction, since they came together, didn't give him any cause to think that the SeeD was that compassionate a man to bother with this type of situation.

/Just keep it safe then, at least till ya figure out why ya're the only one who still remembers them. If ya don't slip then ya don't have ta tell him everything. Not that he can check yer story anyway. He can hardly talk ta Seifer./

Squall stayed silent. He reminded himself that he was there to listen, not to judge. As the appointed leader, he was responsible for the welfare of everyone under his command and that included the responsibility of understanding them. That was officially why he was in the room of Galbadia Garden's sniper right now.

But as he sat there, there was another part of him that still wanted him to put his arms around the lost man and hug him close. Why?

Desperate to put things in perspective, Squall tried vainly to think about his relationship with the few friends he had come to grow close to over the last few days. Quistis, Selphie, Zell, Rinoa... they had all become close friends and comrades. But would he be able to stand to stay and listen to them as he was doing with Irvine right now? He had obviously blown it with Rinoa earlier that evening, yet right now... He sincerely thought he-- cared more about listening to Irvine than he could conceive doing for any of the others. Squall flushed inwardly at a thought. /Quistis.../

In spite of all the time he had spent with her as her student, he had been cold to her when she came to him looking for someone to talk to. He had listened to her as she unburdened herself on him after she lost her instructor status and he-- he just brushed her off. Yet here he was... actually seeking to listen to a near stranger. Was this just male bonding? Would he even offer to do this for Zell, who he practically studied with through the long years in the Garden? What was he feeling for this corky cowboy? Then there was Rinoa... He *really* did not want to think about her right now.

Squall stayed silent as he watched Irvine pull himself into a sitting position on the bed. From his current perspective, Squall thought he could maybe understand the turmoil running through the man now. Irvine appeared to be too social a person to accept being a loner as he claimed snipers to be. He could scarcely believe this subdued man before him was the same bold and corky man he was introduced to at Galbadia Garden not that many days ago. Perhaps the training as a loner really was making him miserable and adding greater pressure to the job than he was prepared to deal with. Or... Maybe he just couldn't deal with the killing...

"'One bullet, one life. No wastage, no second chances.' That's what Ah was taught." Squall almost missed Irvine's softly spoken words. "Ah never missed before." A cough of laughter shook his frame as he reached for the bottle Squall obligingly offered to him again. "'course that record's shot now."

"Your aim was perfect. Edea raised a shield and blocked it."

"Yeah, lucky for us, ain't it?" Irvine raised the bottle for another long drink. "'else Ah'd have really blown it for us."

"*We* were tricked, Irvine."

"How do ya make sure it doesn't happen again?"


"'One bullet, one life. No wastage, no second chances.' That's the result all snipers must produce, Squall. Instant kills. But what if the orders are wrong, what if it's a mistake? Just like with Edea, what if she hadn't sensed us? What if she hadn't raised her shield?" He sat up angrily and glared at the other man. "Ah would have killed her, Squall! For sure! Just as Ah killed all mah other targets."

The expression in Irvine's eyes shifted quickly from anger to anguish as he looked at him pleadingly. "Is it true? SeeDs aren't supposed ta question their orders? Ah--Ah don't know if Ah can accept that, Squall." /Ah'd have killed the woman who took care of us when we were kids. Never mind what she made Seify do ta me later.../ "Ah've been through this training since Ah started at the Garden an' Ah still can't handle it. Ah can't--"

Squall stayed silent, sensing that Irvine wasn't finished. Again he squelched his own need to reach out to the hurting man. He eyed the level of the bottle surreptitiously. As he had hoped, the alcohol was loosening his tongue. It was a bit underhanded. Still, he wondered if Irvine understood what he was up to with the offer of alcohol. Quite contrary to Selphie's intention, but Squall didn't believe that he needed to let her know how he used her gift.

The man in question stared at the rapidly emptying bottle. /Well, so far so good. He hasn't accused me of being a coward an' he hasn't walked out in disgust yet. Ya can keep it safe. Get over that mission. Ya had enough problems *before* ya joined up with the Balamb SeeDs./ Irvine eyed the bottle thoughtfully. It would be an easy excuse, blaming his rambling on the alcohol. /Damn./ He needed to talk, and if it did blow up in his face later, he could blame it on the alcohol. At least for now, it was a temporary solution to ease the stress he was still feeling after the failed assassination.

"Just-- just me an' mah target. No defence-- well 'cept for sorcery, no ordinary defence. Anyone Ah target, dies... They never see me coming. Ah'm just an assassin..."

Squall winced at the loathing he picked up in the tone. "You're not a hired kill--"

"Aren't Ah?" Irvine waved the bottle at the other man. "Who do Ah take orders from? Who pays mah salary? Who decides for me who mah next target is? Martine-- played us out. Who'd have known? Never got mah orders directly from him before."

"How was it with your-- other targets?"

"Ah had mah instructor with me then, he usually gave me mah targets. This-- was my first mission without him nearby." Irvine pushed himself against the headboard of the bed and leaned back. A small smile graced his lips as he let himself be pulled into his memories.

Squall had to be thankful Irvine wasn't paying any attention to him then. In spite of himself, it was starting to get very uncomfortable and restricting to be seated straddling the chair while watching this beautiful young man. As long as Irvine continued to talk, he had something to concentrate on. But the pauses of silence let his attention drift back to studying this vulnerable figure before him. The dark-haired man discreetly shifted his chair to get himself under control again, though he could not resist pulling his chair closer to the bed as Irvine started to speak again.

"Instructor Marsden... He taught me everything he knew about firearms. About how ta learn ta use any strange firearm that may fall inta mah hands. How ta learn the range an' capability of the weapon quickly, an' adjust ta any target discrepancy or errors with its sights. How ta restore a damaged or badly maintained firearm for mah own use.

"Training ta be a sniper came on top of the regular Garden curriculum. Guess it was purposely so. That way Ah'd get preparation from the start on being alone, on working without friends around ta watch mah back. Ah was hardly ever with the rest of the class. Spent almost all mah free time with my Instructor." The southerner reached into the drawer of his side table to pick up a small handgun. "He gave me this."

Squall could feel his eyebrows arch slightly as Irvine began to twirl the handgun on his right index finger.

"Don't worry it's not loaded, Ah only use this for weight training. Replica of a Colt .45. Instructor Marsden taught me how ta juggle the handgun ta strengthen the trigger finger. Snipers have ta be rock steady when they're ready ta shoot. Also means we have ta have the strength in our fingers ta squeeze the trigger of whatever firearm we're given. *Not* pull the trigger. That could throw ya off by a fraction of a millimetre. Just a millimetre difference translates ta centimetres off yer target when we're talking 'bout distances over four-five hundred meters. No easy laser-targeting sights for us, it would warn the mark."

Squall watched in mute fascination as the handgun was easily twirled back and forth on Irvine's right index finger. He'd occasionally throw the twirling weapon carelessly in the air to catch it easily again with a nonchalance that told of long practise. "Trains dexterity in the hand as well, it's a whole lot more fun then using finger weights an'... it impresses the girls."

A snort of laughter escaped his lips before Squall could control it and Irvine turned to throw him an impish grin at his release. It gave Squall some relief that the man did not appear as utterly depressed as he sounded. A thought hit him then and there.

"It's all an act, isn't it? This flirting with the girls."

"Hell yeah, can't believe ya guys were actually taking me seriously. One of those bad habits Ah picked up from the Teach. Gave me that crack about the girls when he slipped me the gun. It's all fulla shit." He laughed bitterly as he stopped juggling the handgun and eventually replaced it in the drawer. "The folks in Galbadia knew that, guess Ah didn't really think that it was any different here. Mah bad. Too used ta having folks flirt an' tease right back." /Thought ya were all familiar with me too, or at least remembered me like Ah remembered ya./ "It's all in fun. Harmless stress relief. An' being a sniper *is* stressful. The fieldwork is nothing like the classroom. Hell *ya* know that. It's not the same ta kill another human for real."

Irvine yawned and closed his eyes for a long moment. Squall wondered whether he had fallen into a drunken sleep. As if sensing the question, Irvine opened his eyes to look up at the man who was almost hovering over him.

"Take more than this lil' bitty bottle ta make me drunk, leader man. Takes more ta affect mah dexterity too. Not a good idea ta be a sniper in this state tho'. But ya got me good an' chatty. That's what ya wanted, right?" Irvine winced inwardly. The alcohol was making him chattier to be sure, but he was also losing his tact.

Squall held back his wince. He hadn't expected to get away with the 'deception' anyway. "Whatev-- Only if you want to talk, Irvine." He already blew it with Rinoa with his indifference, he wasn't going to do it again with Irvine.

"Sure ya want ta listen?"

At Squall's nod, Irvine settled back against his pillow again. Suddenly, Irvine was feeling glad to have someone who would listen to him. Maybe it was the influence of the alcohol too that he just wanted to talk. It did surprise him somewhat that it was the taciturn Squall who he was pouring his heart out to and not... maybe Selphie or Quistis. But the man did appear to genuinely want to listen and he did feel the hunger to unload everything.

"Mah first kill-- Damn..." Irvine chewed briefly on his lower lip. "Ah still can't think of it any other way. Marsden kept telling me off 'bout it. 'bout not thinking of it as a kill, but as the first time Ah saved a hostage. Ah was-- just a few months shy of fifteen."

"And he took you out on the field?"

"Yeah, could-- couldn't be helped." Irvine shrugged. "The sharpshooter at Galbadia Garden was elsewhere on assignment, she couldn't have made it back in time ta handle this. Marsden already quit a long time ago cause of an injury, he couldn't take it either. Most of the other cadets an' SeeDs were fair shots, but Ah-- Ah was the only one they had in training as a sniper in the Garden. Was at it on the shooting range for over six months by then."

Squall was impressed. The records had indicated that Irvine was a gifted marksmen, but he hadn't thought that anyone could be that good with so little training.

"It was a hostage crisis at the bank. The robbers were interrupted, law enforcement types were surrounding the building. Ah had the leader in mah sights. An easy 450 meters. Made a shot like that hundred of times on the practice range. Nothing between him an' mah bullet." He closed his eyes at the memory.

"Ah couldn't do it.

"That-- that's when Ah really started ta understand what Instructor Marsden meant by the stress involved. He was with me, talking ta me... trying ta calm me down. Kept telling me that Ah was there ta save lives, that Ah was just taking a hand in trading one life for a whole lot of others. Then... there was this little girl."

"What happened?"

"Ah-- waited too long, the robbers were getting nervous. The leader was starting ta yell at the others an' he grabbed this little girl off the floor." Irvine sucked in a deep breath as the events of that fateful day flashed through his mind again. "Ah-- didn't even think then, just-- just sighted an' shot him before-- just before he could slit her throat."

"That was close."

"Yeah. The lessons came through. Marsden said that Ah had a clearance of 3 centimetres. Made a clean head-shot, he died instantly. Ah nearly-- could have shot him through her if Ah pulled on the trigger instead of squeezing, an' Ah nearly *did* shift. It was still in the early days of mah training, didn't have that much strength in mah hands an' weren't so rock steady then. Must have gone into shock, couldn't remember putting the gun away or anything that followed." Irvine managed to hold down the shudder that threatened to run through his body. But his disquietude with that fateful mission still showed up in his subdued voice. "First time Ah ever-- killed another man.

"Marsden kept telling me that the little girl was alive because Ah shot that man. That even if Ah had missed, the shot was a signal for the law ta swarm in an' take down the robbers while they were still surprised an' disoriented from the close call.

"But Ah couldn't take it. Ah wanted ta quit then, but he kept right on me. Distracted me for a while teaching me how ta trick shoot. How ta hit mah target no matter what position Ah happened ta settle into. Valuable lessons those." A faint smile touched his lips as he turned towards Squall. "One thing ya'll realise about me, leader man, is that sometimes Ah don't bother ta bring mah gun up ta eye level ta aim or use both hands. Learnt from mah instructor that the time it takes ta get mah weapon inta textbook position could spell the difference between life in death at close quarters. An' with shooting one handed?" A wider grin pulled at his lips as he looked up again and pantomimed aiming and shooting at a target on the ceiling. "No one seriously expects me ta hit mah mark when Ah use just one hand, but that's just ta mah advantage. That's where they're wrong 'bout me. It just takes a lot of strength in the arm an' wrist ta hold the gun steady.

"Wouldn't suggest anyone else try it though. Ah spent *a lot* of time on the practise range learning how ta target accurately when shooting from the hip, an' with one hand. It's *not* something just anybody can learn." Irvine locked eyes with Squall again, letting the other man read the confidence behind his statement. "So ya don't have ta worry about me missing mah targets, leader man. Not even when Ah'm not using the gun sights. Once Ah learn about the weapon in mah hands, Ah'm accurate in any position."

Squall was impressed. He had wondered about Irvine's marksmanship in the regular melee when he first saw him in action. It seemed incredulous to him at first to expect much accuracy with the way he handled his shotgun. But Irvine's explanation made a lot of sense. He had little doubt now that the man could be depended upon.

"Ah prefer the little skirmishes, o'course. Ya don't have ta worry about me there. It's just-- the assassin bit..."

"But that wasn't your only time, was it?"

"No, after that, Instructor Marsden took me out more. Guess he was trying ta numb me ta the job, get me used ta the situation." Irvine sighed. "He was always with me, cajoling me. Telling me that Ah was making a difference, that Ah was saving lives by-- by-- that Ah was saving more lives by taking them out an' not giving the targets a chance ta defend themselves. Ah trusted him. It was-- it got easier-- but the feeling-- the stress never went away.

"That's when Mrs. Marsden took a hand too." Irvine's smile quirked at the memory. "She was some lady. Got ta understand how Marsden coped with his own stress when he was on the job. 'parently she stayed with him whenever he was on a job."

To Squall's surprise, a blush started to creep up Irvine's face.


"What?!" Squall winced as he said that louder than he intended. The inappropriate feelings he had entered Irvine's bedroom with hadn't exactly subsided. And despite the sense of duty surrounding this whole interview, he was growing painfully more aware of how good Irvine looked to him with each passing minute.

"Sex, 'ccording ta Mrs. Marsden, is one of the best stress relievers the human body knows." The blush got redder. "She-- started flirting with me. He got her ta do that. Ah thought it was freaky at first, then Ah realised it helped ta dissipate the tension. So Ah flirted back. Started, doing it with mah classmates in the Garden." Irvine snorted in laughter at the memory. "Ah was so mortified ta find out that they were wondering when Ah'd start. Seems they were all told that Ah'd be passing some promotion level if Ah started flirting. It was-- it was fun. A bit freaky, but it was fun an' it worked.

"'course it came with a lot more ethics lessons too. Marsden was always on ta me 'bout doing right ta mah partner, being mindful of their feelings, using protection, an' other stuff like that. Well, he didn't need ta worry, really." Irvine's cheeks reddened even further. "Ah wasn't ready for that just yet anyway."

"So... were you tensed when you were assigned to travel with us to Deling City?"

"Yeah, ya could say that." Irvine smiled wryly at the memory. "Ya people are too serious. An' Ah wasn't up ta flirting with guys yet."

Squall stopped himself from sucking in a deep breath at *that* statement. He could even feel a slight lightening in his heart. /From what? A casual comment about flirting?/

"Ah mean, it was okay with Instructor Marsden, since Ah knew him. An' Ah trusted him. But-- Ah-- Well, Ah didn't think Ah'd want Zell ta deck me. It wasn't..." Irvine trailed off when he realised what he had just revealed. He didn't notice any reaction from Squall, but then who could tell. Squall always seemed to keep that same neutral expression, no one could tell what he was thinking. Irvine hoped that he didn't notice the little slip.

"Ah-- Ah mean Ah just graduated. Ya were all strangers ta me." Irvine felt a slight tightening in his heart. /Familiar strangers who couldn't remember me like I remembered ya./ "There were also a lot of things back in Galbadia Garden Ah had ta think over... Ah could have handled it a lot better. Ah was-- Ah was getting better with the sniper deal. Least Ah thought--"

"You would have made the shot if Edea's shield hadn't come up."

"Yeah, it-- wasn't mah worse."

Squall waited again. He wasn't going to push it if Irvine wanted to shut up now. At that moment, the bottle of vodka was almost completely drained. Squall could tell that while Irvine wasn't drunk yet, he was starting to drift off.

Irvine was himself wondering if he should stop. He was getting tired, but he still felt the need to say more. For whatever reason, he wanted Squall's respect. He didn't want the other man to have any reason to doubt his ability or think badly of him. And there was still so much more to get off his chest.

"The-- the SeeD final exam ya talked about? That almost broke me after it was over."

Squall hadn't believed that it was possible for Irvine's face to get any redder, but it did. He was almost crimson. "If you'd rather not..."

"Most all the time it was all hot air, Squall. No substance ta the flirting. But that exam... Ever wonder why ya're saddled with me, a new graduate, rather than the experienced Galbadia sharpshooter?"

"It doesn't matter to--"

"She was murdered while off duty." Irvine continued as if Squall hadn't spoken. "The unrest in Esthar was getting nasty an' the rebels decided that they didn't like the ruling party having a handy sniper taking out their commanders at a distance. Their spies got her while she was relaxing before they organised that coup.

"That's when they called me in." This time, Irvine couldn't suppress the shudder that ran through him at the memory of that mission. "Ah-- found out for the first time then 'bout the bounties that snipers carry on their lives, 'specially in war torn situations. Life expectancy ain't that high for us. Mars-- Marsden didn't really want ta tell me, but Ah found out that she-- that the killers took her hands as proof that they got her. Did-- did a number on her as well 'fore she bled ta death...

"Records were right." Irvine breathed deeply as he closed his eyes and let his mind drift back to that field exam. "Ah took out three moving targets in quick succession, at a distance of 750 metres. Saved the President by removing the biggest threats ta his life an' gave the Esthar guards enough time ta rush in an' take control of the situation... ended the coup." He opened his eyes again to look towards Squall. "Ah admit, it was-- Ah thought it was rightful vengeance. Ah was part of the whole operation just for her. Managed ta keep mah cool through it. Ah really needed it then. 750 metres... weren't easy targets either. Had ta be careful Ah didn't shoot the president or his staff through them too. It was close though."

He looked away to stare at the ceiling. "Couldn't-- couldn't help but think later that-- how things might have been different if-- if Ah made a mistake. If Ah accidentally shot the President too. But Ah wasn't thinking of him, mah targets, or Martine's orders then. Mah mind was on mah predecessor an' what was done ta her. That's probably what kept me calm then.

"Galbadia Garden graduated me, but... Ah thought Ah was over all that stress an' fretting over the killing." Irvine's hand reach up to cover his eyes momentarily as he pulled his hand down his face to cup his lips behind his palm. His next few words were slightly muffled. "But Ah wasn't--" His hand continued it's journey down his face to slid over his chest and grip top of his vest; His fingers curling over the material. "Mah targets-- *Ah* chose them on that mission. Di-- didn't even know anything about them. Not their name, whether or not they had family... Whether or not they really deserved ta die." He chewed on his lower lip in remorse. "Weren't likely that they were my predecessor's murderers either. Thinking back, Ah really didn't have the luxury ta try any fancy shooting an' wound them maybe. The situation was too dangerous. Ah had ta shoot ta kill. One bullet, one life. No wastage, no second chances.

"Ah was going crazy, Ah couldn't deal with it." Squall had to lean closer now as Irvine's voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "Skipped out in the middle of the Garden Festival. Instructor Marsden found me crying in mah room when he came looking for me. With the other sharpshooter dead, Ah just knew they were going ta send me back ta Esthar an' then Ah'd have ta-- have-- It'd just be a job. Ah--"

Irvine had to take a deep breath before he could continue. "He an' his wife took me home with them. Least ta keep anyone else from seeing my breakdown. They tried ta calm me down, but Ah was so out of it-- It took me by surprise. Not sure if they expected me ta react the way Ah did-- but Ah needed someone close an' so Ah kissed Mars--"

Squall swallowed hard during the silence that followed. He admitted to himself that he had expected the alcohol to loosen Irvine up to talk, but he hadn't expected the man to lay bare his soul. It took a while longer for him to realise why Irvine didn't say anymore.

Irvine closed his eyes in panic. He really hadn't intended to say that much. The mention of flirting with men as well as women had slipped out unintentionally, and he had been relieved that Squall had let it pass as harmless talk. But to let someone, practically a stranger to him, know that he had broken down completely after a mission and as a result slept with another man... Irvine was afraid to look up and see disgust scrawled over the other man's face. So he kept his face down when he heard the sound of the chair scraping back, expecting to hear his door open and slam at any moment with Squall's departure.

Contrary to Irvine's belief, Squall couldn't stand to stay away from him any longer. Irvine looked up in surprise when he felt the bed shift and found Squall sitting beside him almost face to face. The dark-haired man moved closer to lean over him and stroke his cheek with one callused hand.

The cowboy looked much too tempting to Squall now with his slightly flushed face, crimson both from the alcohol and from embarrassment. He had been staring at the pair of soft pale lips for so long, he wanted to try them to see if they were as sweet and soft as he was imagining them to be. But with that pause at the mention of Instructor Marsden's name, Squall couldn't be entirely sure that his move would be welcomed. He was prepared to draw back instantly if Irvine offered any resistance, but so far, the cowboy hadn't moved even though they were almost nose to nose. Somewhat encouraged, Squall slid one hand behind Irvine's head to pull him closer. But his nerve failed at the last minute and he landed the kiss on Irvine's forehead instead of his lips.

Irvine blinked at Squall kittenishly as he drew back slightly. "Ya flirting with me, leader man?"

"Noth-- nothing wrong with a little harmless flirting if you need it, Irvine." Squall cursed himself inwardly for his cowardice. "Sounds like Instructor Marsden drilled you soundly on responsibility. So it doesn't make me think any less of you to know that you took it further when you felt the need."

A small smile pulled at Irvine's lips and he felt some of the tension in his body leave him with that statement. "Th--Thanks, Squall. Weren't-- weren't sure ya'd be cool 'bout--" Irvine looked down again. There was still one obstacle he was stuck on. "Why-- why haven't ya asked me about mah loyalties?"

"Do I have to? You're SeeD--"

"From Galbadia Garden... an' Galbadia's the place that's in the middle of all this ruckus now."

"It was the Sorceress who ordered the launch of the missiles, Irvine."

"Edea... who also happens ta be the wife of Headmaster Cid." Irvine looked away from Squall. /Who's also the Matron who took care of us until we were adopted. An' I still don't know why no one else remembers this but me. Then again, Seifer remembered a bit. He let me go at that prison cause of that an'... more./ "What *is* going on, Squall? Ah don't know who ta believe anymore... who Ah'm supposed ta fight. Ah can't take orders as a sniper like this."

/What can I say to that, Irvine? I don't know any more than you do and now... I'm in charge./ "I can offer you one assurance, Irvine." He said at last.

The cowboy turned back towards him in curiosity. "What's that?"

"You're stuck with us now." Squall smirked at him. "And since I'm in charge, I won't ask you to act as a sniper until we're a whole lot more certain over what is happening.

"I won't try and force you to do anything you're not comfortable with, Irvine."

"Ya-- don't think that Ah'm a coward?"

"You're a man with a conscience. That's nothing to be ashamed of." Squall shook his head. "I'd be concerned if you were a trigger happy killer, which I'm glad you're not."

The smile Irvine gave him was reassuring, though still slightly troubled. "We're in *some* mess, aren't we?"

"That's an understatement." Squall's lips quirked in a grin again.

At such close quarters, Irvine had to cover his mouth with his yawn, but it wasn't exactly enough as Squall's nose wrinkled with the waft of vodka on his breath. "Sorry. The bottle's about done, Ah guess."

Without really thinking of what he was doing, Squall took the bottle from Irvine's hand and put it aside. It was easier this way, to move first and think of the consequences later. Squall slid onto the bed beside the riveting figure, and pulled him into a hug that had the other man's head leaning against his chest and tucked under his chin. Irvine had stiffened momentarily when Squall drew him against his chest, but he didn't pull away and Squall felt an arm automatically snake around his waist. Squall was aesthetic to feel him relax trustingly in his embrace. It felt good. Now he just hoped that his heart wasn't going to start pounding like a freight train and possibly discomfort the man in his arms.

It surprised Irvine somewhat that he didn't feel threatened or uncomfortable with Squall's proximity. But he realised that he did trust the man. It felt strange at first, but Irvine was too soused and comfortable to care at that point. Squall's acceptance had released a lot of the tension he had been carrying with him for the last few days. It felt good to relax in his arms, and to be able to talk to someone.

Irvine yawned again, he felt almost too comfortable. It was as if the loss of tension had finally made him realise how tired he really was. He wasn't that ready to fall asleep yet though, there was still one bit he needed to get off his chest. But he wasn't sure he was ready to talk about his encounter with Seifer and Edea with *anyone* just yet. While Squall was offering that listening post now, he wasn't sure if the man would give him this chance again. He had proved understanding so far. Irvine hoped that it wouldn't change with the morning, but for now he did trust the other man.


"Irvine," Squall interrupted quietly. "If you'd rather not--"

"'sokay, it helps ta talk."

"You don't have to, Irvine. You can keep your secrets." Squall brushed Irvine hair lightly with one hand as he felt the man tremble lightly in his embrace.

"Need ta talk some time. Can't talk about this with Marsden."

"Why? What he do to you?" Squall's blood turned cold at the thought that this vulnerable figure in his arms had been taken advantage of. "Irvine, did--"

"Nothing that Ah didn't want. Knew he wanted ta for a long time, but as mah instructor, it wasn't 'zxactly ethical. Ah--" Irvine chuckled at the memory. "Looking back, it played like some clinched movie with him asking me if Ah was sure, me saying 'no' but Ah didn't want ta stop.

"Honestly, that's how it happened. Ah wanted-- needed someone close. Little words an' hugs an' kisses... they weren't enough anymore. Ah was-- Ah was so messed up, Ah needed something more physical. Ah did want-- Ah needed it then.

"It was... special. Mah-- mah first time really." Irvine felt the heat of the blush burning his cheeks again. /Least I have some pleasant memories for a first time an' not--/ He killed the thought, he really didn't want to go there right now. "Ah-- Ah didn't want ta stop-- couldn't bear not ta do it. Maybe it was clouded by the stress, but-- they did give me lots of chances ta say 'no'. They were willing ta back off."

"Er-- 'they'?

"Yeah. Marsen wasn't that young anymore-- it was intense. They took turns ta keep up with me. Ended the evening in the middle. Open invitation ta go back, or call them anytime Ah needed t--" Irvine's face burned. If anyone had told him that he'd be sharing such intimate details with the cold, aloof, Balamb Garden SeeD, he would have laughed in their face. Worse, with his ear pressed against Squall's chest, Irvine couldn't help but notice the increased heart rate. /Damn the alcohol. Ah must have embarrassed him. Ah should probably shut up./

The man in question was blushing at the hentai thoughts that suddenly flooded his mind of him and Rinoa doing it with Irvine. Fortunately for him, Irvine couldn't see his face from the position against his chest. /But there's no way Irvine is missing this blasted heart rate./ Squall winced to himself as he tried vainly to get his pounding heart under control. /He's quiet again. Probably thinks I'm embarrassed./ "How do you feel about Instructor Marsden after-- that?"

Irvine breathed into Squall's shirt. "It's-- awkward. Different now that Ah slept with them. Know that Instructor Marsden's feeling a bit guilty an' he's afraid that they were taking advantage of me. Ah don't know what Ah felt... the release from-- well-- from sex just felt so damn good an' Ah really needed it then. Probably won't hesitate ta return if Ah'm that stressed again though. But... Ah guess, Ah'm still a bit confused about the whole thing."

"How are you feeling now?"

"Comfortable." Irvine yawned and looked up Squall with a smirk that took his breath away. "Guess Ah'm over what happened at Caraway's Mansion. Shouldn't really dwell on that too much since Ah didn't kill mah target." But a shadow fell over his eyes again as he continued. "Still don't know what Ah'll do once this whole mess is over an' Ah get assigned on another sniper mission."

"That won't be anytime in the near future. If you don't want to take an assignment, Headmaster Cid will support you, you know?"

"What about mah responsibilities? Snipers aren't numerous." Irvine huffed into Squall's shirt. "After that last job in Esthar, Ah probably have a price on mah-- hands too. Then with this whole mess with Galbadia... Ah can't 'zxactly go visit mah former instructors now."

"Irvine," Squall tightened his hug and breathed into his hair. "You said that snipers were loners, but you don't have to be alone. This isn't a one off deal. I'll be here to listen and talk if you need me. I know that I can hardly be a substitute for Instructor Marsden, but-- if I can earn your trust..."

Irvine almost couldn't believe his ears, the offer were enough to bring tears to his eyes. "Ah wouldn't have listened ta ya an' shot at Edea if I didn't trust ya."

Squall could feel his head swelling with giddiness at that statement.

"Squall?" Irvine promised himself that he'd air this one last matter and then he'd call it a day. "Rinoa didn't *have* ta, as she said, 'scratch me ta death' ta get me ta come get your butt out of that prison. Ah--" /Was still in a bit of shock then. But still.../ "Ah--just didn't want her around, thought she'd slow me down.

"Would have done it alone after Ah dropped her off at her dad's place." /Wouldn't have left ya ta Seifer's mercy, for sure. Ya both were rivals since ya were kids. Didn't care how mad he'd be with me for turning back. Not after.../ Irvine winced inwardly. "Lucky for Zell Ah let her come, heh? Wouldn't have been there in time ta save his life otherwise."

"Why didn't you tell us then?"

"Didn't matter ta me what she thought. Wasn't interested in challenging her word anyway, it would've taken too long ta explain." Irvine yawned again. Sleep was starting to pull strongly at him now. "Sorry.



"Thanks for listening."


"Ah-- can return the favour if ya ever need it."

"May-- maybe I'll take you up on that one day." Squall waited, wondering when Irvine would start to pull away from him.

Irvine was also wondering when Squall would move and leave him alone in his room again. But the hug didn't end, and he really didn't want to make the first move to leave the comfortable embrace. So he stopped thinking about it and let sleep claim him. Maybe if he was lucky, Squall would still be there when he woke up the next morning. If not... he had the memory of that quiet night to sustain him and the knowledge that he had someone to turn to talk to when he finally felt ready.

Squall studied the sleeping man in his arms for a moment before he reached over to loosen the hair tie and spread Irvine's red-brown hair over his back. He stroked the soft strands, listening to the contented sigh that Irvine released at his touch. Squall wondered if he dared to hope, or dream about the possibilities. Irvine had shared of himself much more than Squall could admit that he would ever reveal to anyone. And what he knew now of the man made him respect him even more.

He frowned as his thoughts were drawn back to Rinoa and their earlier meeting. A barrage of questions deluged him. Was this what she wanted from him? Could he let down his guard that much to pour his heart out, like Irvine did with him? Could he bear to let himself be that vulnerable with her? Why-- was it so much easier for him to listen to Irvine, who was almost a stranger to him, when he was so stiff with Rinoa earlier? And-- when he was so callous with Quistis not that long ago.

Irvine shifted in his sleep, his arm tightening around Squall's waist slightly bringing the dark-haired man's attention back to him. /Would I feel-- easier about talking to Irvine rather than Rinoa? He did offer and I didn't brush him off or hesitate like I did with her. What do I feel?/ Squall groaned inwardly. /As if I didn't have enough on my mind./

He looked at the man in his arms again. Squall still wasn't exactly certain he would say that he was in love with Irvine Kinneas. But he could say the same of Rinoa too. The only thing he was certain of at that moment, was that he felt much too comfortable to move. With that last thought, Squall pulled the slumbering man closer and closed his eyes, hoping Irvine wouldn't mind waking up in his arms when morning came.

The End

Return to Archive