By Tenshi no Korin
Another turning point fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist directs you where to go
So make the best of this test and don’t ask why
It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time
So take the photographs and still frames in your mind
Hang them on the shelf in good heath and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while
It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right
I hope you had the time of your life.
Irvine was the one who remembered. He didn’t know how or why he’d been given this task but he knew better than to ask such questions, accepted his destiny and went on with his life. And even though the war was over he still had a duty to perform. So he took a couple of his several hundred earned leave days and with his new rank of Captain, no less, he procured a hoverboat from Balamb and headed south.
Galbadia had asked for him back, of course. There was much that needed rebuilding. But he politely declined, offering his support of Martine if the dude loosened up, for cryin’ out loud. Irvine was a SeeD now; Cid had made sure THAT paperwork was taken care of right after re-instating Quistis’s teacher’s rank. There was no place for him in Galbadia anymore.
Besides, he knew where he belonged. His friends were slowly learning to recall as much as he did, but it was going to take some time. Squall had looked at Irvine over celebratory champange and with a curious light in his gray eyes said, "You hated to be It when we played tag, didn’t you?"
It was the only memory of child-Irvine Squall could find, after much excavation. Perhaps a few relics could restore more. There were things, long forgotten, that Irvine had never quite managed to return. Squall’s one memory was quite a gift, and Irvine figured it was high time to give a few things back. To all of them.
The weathered paving of the orphanage echoed hollowly beneath his boots. He tilted back his hat and looked up at the sky, smiling to see pure white clouds against cool blue, even if the roof of the walkway should be there. Cid and Edea were planning to repair the place- as requested by Irvine and the others. It had been Squall’s idea to make it into a sort of retreat- a haven for Seeds who needed to recover from their duties at Garden. But before it got too popular Irvine was content to enjoy the sound of gulls, waves, and wind rustling in the wildflower field.
He sighed and removed his coat and hat, slinging them over a broken section of interior wall. He was careful to count twelve paving stones from the second column; what had been near leaps for a child were nearly lost in his ambling stride. The last stone looked like any other in the courtyard, and Irvine bent to pry it up with his fingers. It had been an arduous task for an eight-year old, the last one remaining, to heft up that rock. Hard to do it alone, even now, but ten years made the stone lighter and the pale sandy earth easy to dig through. The clay caked up his fingers as he piled dirt to one side, searching.
A few minutes work yielded a metal box, only the iron hasps rusted shut. Remnants of the plastic wrapped around it still remained; the small boy who’d put it there must have salvaged it from something, packrat that he was.
Irvine remembered the box being bigger, but then his hands had been a lot smaller. He fussed with the catch for a moment but had to break it eventually, one rap from Exeter’s butt enough to jar the lid open. It creaked protest and stale air as he exposed the contents for the first time in almost a decade, and Irvine sat back heavily, surprised by the lump in his throat.
An old bullet casing strung on a leather thong shivered in his muddy fingers. He’d had it around his neck when, three years old, sympathetic strangers had brought him here. The only other thing he had was his name and birthdate, etched like a desperate dog-tag into the casing by some hurried grown-up hand. Irvine traced the near-invisible lines. Even now he had no more clues as to who wrote them, any more than he knew which of the countless decimated villages he’d been found in, empty-eyed and hungry. Galbadia had grown powerful as Esthar withdrew; wars in those days were frequent and rarely worth record.
There were few others here at the time: An older girl with brown hair and a sense of authority; a boy Irvine’s age clung to her shadow and regarded everyone around him with deep suspicion. The rest would come later.
One would treasure above all else the book of fairy tales he held in his hand, a shiny new present that first solstice they’d all been here. It had survived the years remarkably well, perhaps having the unexpected resilience of its owner. Selphie had arrived almost immediately after Irvine and been taken under his wing.
For the first two months she did not talk. Once Irvine got her to, she didn’t stop.
He rummaged in the box and came up with a string of cobalt blue beads, found washed ashore by a Quistis who after was never seen without them. The strand broke as she was, in high protest, taken away by parents who would later abandon her to Garden. Irvine had restrung them and kept them with him at all times, in case Quistis ever came back for a visit. Irvine blinked, then blushed even though he was alone. He’d forgotten what a crush he’d had on her.
The next treasure made him laugh out loud, the sound echoing back at him from the stone walls. Wrapped up in a strip of possibly once blue blanket was a small stuffed mog, one ear long lost to time but the slightly crazed stitching of his smile matching that of the boy who had told it all his secrets.
"Hello, Furu." Irvine smoothed the grayish white fur. "I know somebody who’ll be very glad to see you."
Irvine set the mog with the other treasures and reached into the box for the last two items remaining. He stopped before bringing them out, not prepared to disturb them as they lay in a perfect X like two scars overlapping. Two wooden swords, both abandoned on the same day for the real thing. One had clumsily carved lettering in the hilt reading ‘Seifer’ with a cross for additional identification. The other bore a lion that some adult had inked lovingly, and tied on the hilt was a faded green hair ribbon that Ellone had left behind.
It was chillingly symbolic, and Irvine shuddered in the sunlight, thinking it best to bury it all again and leave it in peace with the rest of his dead. He had piled everything back in and was reaching for the lid when a breeze fluttered up from nowhere, and a white feather drifted lazily in the box, settling amid the treasures as if it belonged there.
Irvine knew better than to ask where it came from. He replaced the paving stone and, box stowed in the passenger seat, turned the prow back toward Balamb and the rest of his mission.
"Irvy! What for?" Selphie hugged the brightly wrapped parcel in her hands. She’d show the same enthusiasm if he’d given her a diamond ring, or a gil he’d found on the sidewalk.
"Ah, just something I thought you’d like." Irvine barely managed to contain his smile. Selphie was going to flip.
"What is it?" she tore the paper like any exited child. "Jewelry? Adamantine nunchaku? A new-" her voice faded as the book emerged, bright green eyes blinking in puzzled recognition before welling up with sudden tears. "Irvine," she hugged the faded tome to her chest as if it were a long lost child. "Where did you FIND this?"
"Hey, hey, I didn’t mean to make you CRY." Irvine reached down to wipe tears away with his thumb. "I just thought you might want to have it back. You were so happy about going to Trabia, you left it behind."
Selphie put her hand over her mouth. "I remember! You.. you were the last one still there and I-" She stopped abruptly and flung her arms around his waist, pressing her face into his chest. "I’m sorry," she sniffled. "I didn’t mean to leave you behind, too!"
Irvine smoothed the red-gold hair and looked uncertain. This was hardly the reaction he expected from Selphie. "Hey, It’s okay, really. C’mon, I’m here now, aren’t I?" He lifted her chin. "Smile for me Sefie, or I might have to kiss you."
Selphie, blushing, smiled automatically at the nickname, and Irvine tsked.
"See, there, you missed your chance. Guess I don’t have to kiss ya now. Maybe some other pretty girl won’t smile for me..."
"Irvine!" Selphie swatted at him with the book. "You jerk! See if I talk to you anymore!"
Irvine grinned as Selphie stalked off, the petite SeeD glancing back to make good and sure he saw her. He waved when he caught her peeking, and she stuck her nose in the air.
"Hmph!" Selphie hesitated in the doorway from the Quad, looking down at the well-loved and carefully kept book in her hands. "But...Thank you, Irvine."
He smiled slowly up at her from under his hat, and the silence stretched out a long, heavy moment between them before Selphie shook herself and managed to scowl in the face of Irvine’s seductive expression.
"That doesn’t count as speaking to you!" she snapped, and hurried out.
Irvine laughed softly to himself as the sound of her retreating boot heels ricocheted down the hallway.
"Hello Irvine." Quistis smiled politely up from her cup of tea. "I hope you’re all settled in okay?" she gestured to the seat next to her.
"Yeah, fine." Irvine flipped out his coat as he sat, stretching his long legs to the side. "How ‘bout you? Happy to be teaching again?"
"I suppose so." Quistis said, to her cup of tea. "I know it was NORG and not Cid that asked I be removed. Cid apologized profusely and made sure I was given back my rank with promotions, but..." She trailed off and stirred her tea absently, "I don’t know."
"Kinda fun being a grunt like the rest of us, huh?" Irvine raised an eyebrow, and Quistis tilted her head over, winking at him.
"Yeah, it was."
"So get Cid to keep you on the active duty list. You know you want to." Irvine took off his hat to run fingers through his bangs, and with a smirk plopped it down on Quistis’s head, over her eyes. "Blind!" he teased.
"Ack! Irvine!" Quistis fumbled in the depths of his hat, emerging with a rebuttal on her lips but it was seriously hard to scold that beatific smile. She sighed. No wonder he got so many girls. He was terribly charming.
Not that he was anything close to her type. Never. Absolutely not. Too young for her anyway.
Irvine rapped his fingers on the table and stood to go. "Ah, I got stuff to do. Hey, d’you still like to wander on the beach?"
Quistis’s eyes crinkled wistfully. "I never seem to have the time anymore. I suppose I should get back in the practice of it, shouldn’t I?"
Irvine retrieved his hat as she offered it and adjusted it on his head. "Yeah, you should. You never know what you might find." With an enigmatic smile over his shoulder and a twitch of chestnut ponytail he left the cafeteria, causing a bevy of young cadet girls to giggle and swoon after him. They darted furtive glances at Quistis and then huddled in a group, whispering.
Quistis schooled her expression immediately. It simply wouldn’t do to be caught gazing after Irvine Kinneas like that. The rumor mill would go nuts. She let herself daydream behind her blank features, imagining a quiet empty beach and warm fine sand between her toes, a breeze to rumple her hair and the thrill in discovering something unexpected.
She lifted her cup to her lips and started when something inside caught the corner of her eye. Blue flashed in clear liquid; the flashback so strong it nearly took her breath away. Carefully, with her spoon, she lifted the glittering necklace from the heavy Balamb-issue mug, glass chiming on the sides. A flood of memory washed over her like a tidal wave, the bit of jewelry sparkling wet in her hands enough to drown her with recollection.
"How-?" belatedly, she realized her moment of blindness in Irvine’s hat had been a cover. "That little sneak," she muttered, but couldn’t quite stop smiling.
The bright clear morning had turned into a cold downpour by the time Irvine made it into Balamb. He silently cursed the unpredictable weather of the Alcauld plains as if summer thunderstorms NEVER blew up in Galbadia and wished for the hundredth time he’d gotten a car from Garden. When he arrived on the Dincht’s doorstep a small waterfall had already begun steadily dripping from the brim of his hat. He rang the bell and waited, Zell’s mother appearing in a glow of light with a warm comfortable scent of homemade clam chowder.
"Irvine! Hyne’s grandchildren, dear, did you swim all the way from school?" Mrs. Dincht clucked disapprovingly over the sharpshooter dripping puddles on her rug. She ignored his greater height and plucked hat and damp oilcloth coat from him like a child pulling apples from a tree, and bustled him towards the stairs.
"Zell’s in his room, just go on up. You’re staying for supper of course, aren’t you? And if the storm doesn’t let up you’re welcome to stay the night. Zell’s very sweet to spend some of his leave days here at home but I know he misses his friends." She gave him a swat across the backside to start him up the stairs. "Scoot! Don’t hang about underfoot!" she winked and Irvine grinned.
"Yes Ma’am." He knew he’d have better luck arguing with a wall than with Mrs. Dincht, and obediently went up the stairs, wringing out his ponytail on the way.
"Ninety EIGHT, Ninety NINE, One-"
"Bored out of your mind yet?"
Zell checked his last punch and spun around, manic smile lighting his face. "Hey! What’re you doing here?"
Irvine shrugged. "Spending the night, if your mom has any say. It’s raining chocobos out there. You mind?"
Zell tried to pretend he wasn’t turning pink under his tattoo. "I wouldn’t mind the company."
Irvine strolled over to investigate Zell’s antique guns. "I bet you wouldn’t. Missing Squall? Why doesn’t he come over? He’s not doin anything."
Zell coughed. "I asked him not to. Um, he can get kinda...loud. Besides, he took off for a few days. S’why I’m here. He wouldn’t be at Garden anyway."
Irvine raised an eyebrow. "Esthar?"
"Hn. Hope it goes okay." Irvine ruffled damp bangs to coax them into drying faster.
"I think it will." Zell tossed Irvine the towel hanging next to his punching bag and began to strip off his practice gloves. "I mean, it’s gonna be kinda awkward but Laguna’s a really great guy, ya know?"
"You’d know better than I would, all that past shit you guys did." Irvine pulled his hair free and rubbed it with the towel.
"You’re fucking drenched, dude. You wanna change of clothes or something?"
Irvine blinked from beneath wet tendrils of hair. "Like you have anything that would fit me, ma petite cherie."
Zell turned an indignant crimson. "I do so." He flung a clean pair of black sweatpants at Irvine’s face. "And don’t call me cherie."
"Aww, why not?" Irvine wiggled out of his wet chaps and jeans and Zell busied himself rummaging for a tank top.
"Because it’s embarrasin’. You’re probably louder than Squall and Ma-"
"Boys!" Zell’s mother’s voice floated up from downstairs. "Dinner!"
"Coming, Ma!" Zell answered, and shook a warning finger at a smirking Irvine. "And don’t you even start, Skinnyass."
"Start what?" Irvine asked, all innocence. Zell swatted him across the backside and they jostled their way downstairs like any pair of teenage boys on a sleepover.
Ma Dincht smiled at the clamor and poured an extra cup of soup.
"It’s open!" Squall didn’t look up from the pile of laundry on his bed, absently flicking undershirts and boxers into some semblance of folded before aiming them at a drawer. They mostly landed in it.
"Mornin’." Irvine, brown paper parcel under one arm, stuck his head through the doorway. "Laundry day?"
Squall gestured to what was obviously the last clean clothes he’d had to wear that morning: jeans that were more hole than denim and a tank top that was probably Zell’s. "Pretty obvious, I guess."
"Heard you got back from your trip." Irvine took the lack of dismissal as an invitation, and let the door shut behind him. He’d just gotten back from the introductory firearms course that Cid had somehow wrangled him into teaching, and he tugged absently at the collar of his SeeD uniform. He’d never liked uniforms much. Oh well. His class was made up of females and one lovestruck boy; he might as well look his best. Hyne knew, they didn’t listen to a thing he SAID. "So how’s your- Laguna?"
Squall’s motions slowed a bit, he very carefully folded the gray t-shirt in his hands. "It’s-- It’s pretty okay, I guess." He flashed the triangular smile that Irvine couldn’t get used to seeing and chucked the shirt at a nearby drawer. "He’s learning to shuttup and I’m learning to talk, so maybe we’ll get it right."
"Better late than never."
"Speaking of WHICH," Squall reached across the rumpled bed and fished a bedraggled stuffed mog from the blankets. "Are you responsible for this?" He gave Furu a little shake, making its few remaining whiskers wiggle.
Irvine grinned. "Yeah, I guess I am. Why, has Zell spurned you for his old love?"
"A mog for a rival." Squall gave the stuffed animal a trademark Leonhart stare right in one glass eyeball, just so the mog knew its place. "What would Seifer have to say about his replacement?"
"You got me. Last few times I saw him it wasn’t at his best, and any other impressions of him are about ten years old. Do you even know where he is?"
Squall’s fingers fondled a hole in his bluejeans, ragged bangs shielding his eyes. "I could find him if I had to. I think... we can always find each other." He frowned at the fibers in his hand. "You know, I think these were his. Before he got too tall for them." The corner of his mouth twitched ruefully. "It’s funny what’ll come back to you. I don’t think I could tell you his birthday."
"December 22," Irvine replied automatically, and held up a hand sheepishly at Squall’s pained look. "Hey, sorry, it’s habit. But speaking of coming back to you... I got a favor to ask."
Squall raised an eyebrow. "Don’t think I haven’t heard about your little gifts-- I hesitate to ask what you have there."
Irvine shrugged as he handed over the parcel. "Seifer’s is in there too... I wanted to get it back to him, but I dunno where he is. Besides, you’d probably be better at it anyway."
~Great,~ Squall thought, as he tore the wrapping, ~somebody else with illogically high faith in my people skills.~ He blinked, staring for a long moment at the wooden swords. "These... where’d you--?"
"You know me, I hang on to stuff." Irvine ruffled his long bangs, obviously missing his hat. "Listen, do what you want with those. I figured-- well nevermind that. I just felt like you’d know. Gut instinct, I guess."
"It’s okay, Irvine." Squall very carefully wrapped up the swords. "I’ll take care of it." He smirked, just across his eyes. "You can quit shifting your weight in my doorway-- the whole Garden knows you’ve got a date with Quistis. Don’t piss her off by hanging out with me."
Then Irvine REALLY missed his hat, with nothing to hide the blush under. "Yeah, well, um, whatever."
"Get outta here." Squall grinned, jerking his head at the door. "An’ quit stealing my lines."
Irvine nodded. "Right." He paused as the door vented open for him, and glanced back at Squall who had resumed his laundry.
Fold fold toss. Fold fold toss. Fold fold miss. Swear. Fold fold-
"Next time you see him, tell your dad I think his kid turned out pretty damn cool, okay?" Irvine tipped two fingers to his forehead in a mock-Galbadian salute, and the door sighed shut.
Squall stared after him, underwear dangling from his fingers. "Thanks," he said, long after Irvine had gone. Leaving his laundry unfinished, he took out the two play swords again from their wrapping and held them for a long time, thinking.
~owari part one~
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