Author's Note: Bleh, first person and present tense. xx I'm not too good at writing either of those and I'm not sure just what possessed me to try it for this. This, by the way, was the result of a roundabout challenge. ^^' I dared my sister to give me a fic summary to write from and she did; ain't she cool? ^^

Cowboy's Choice

By Balinese no Neko

It's been a month now. A month since the final battle with Ultimecia, a month since we've seen anything of Seifer, a month since, well, our lives returned to normal. Or mostly. After all, I'm still wandering the halls of Balamb Garden as if I actually belong there; what's normal about that? I should be back in Galbadia, helping there as Selphie's helping in Trabia, maybe even finishing up my last few credits to finally qualify for that damn SeeD exam. But I'm still in Balamb.

I shake my head, letting out a ghost of a chuckle as I tipped my hat down a bit more to cover my eyes. Even my thoughts are becoming repetitive. I should go and do something about that, maybe hunt up a T-Rexaur to get my blood flowing, do something, anything, really, to get out of my little rut. Instead, I keep strolling through the darkened corridors, thinking myself even deeper into my aforementioned rut. If anyone manages to catch me out in the corridors after curfew, I'll just tell them I'm on my way to the Training Center.

You know, I never got why the Training Center was always open at night when everyone is supposed to be safe and snug in their little, and I do mean little, dorm beds. I mean, if you're not supposed to be out wandering around Garden, how are you supposed to get to the Training Center at all?

I shake my head and smile. The damndest things catch and hold my attention. The whole Training Center thing, for example. Or why Squall wears three belts, for goodness sake. The way water droplets glitter on blond hair . . . . I hurriedly shake myself away from that thought.

Did I ever mention why I'm still here in Balamb? Another chuckle and I shake my head. Asking myself questions I know perfectly well the answers to, that just shows you how far the mighty has fallen. And, oh, how I've fallen.

Well, so much for avoiding the blond hair thing.

I met someone here at Balamb Garden. Okay, so I've actually met a ton of people here, but not like . . . him. I snort to myself. This thing's gotten way out of hand if I can't even think his name. Think about his hair, yes, occasionally wax poetic over his blue, blue eyes, most allowable, but if I can't say Zell's name in the privacy of my own head, then there's no hope for me.

Well, what do you know? I guess there's hope for me after all.

I sigh and swerve over to the side of the corridor, letting the sound of falling water soothe me. You gotta hand it to Garden to create such a serene backdrop for the best damn mercenaries the world over. I run my hand along the wall separating the water from the walkway, finding the coolness oddly calming.

So, where was I? Ah, yes, talking to myself about the melodrama that is my life. You know, I seriously need some help. But who could I ask? Squall is, well, Squall. Ask him a question and get an entire monologue you can't even hear. Rinoa's kinda got her hands full with our resident lion. Selphie's over in Trabia; besides, I know what she'll do. No suggestions, just straight to the action for that girl. Useful when infiltrating missile bases and such, but not quite what's needed here. I shudder at the thought of what Selphie could do. Quistis . . . is a possibility, but she thinks just a bit too much for my peace of mind; it'd be just my luck for her to agree with some of Selphie's more drastic measures. Zell is, of course, right out of the question. And there's just no one else I know well enough to confide in.

I absently turn left down the path to the Training Center, letting my feet go where they will. It's actually kinda peaceful in here at night; never really would've thought so. Then again, pretty much the only time I'm in here is when I'm looking for a fight. If it's all peace and quiet, I just move on. But tonight . . . . I stop and lean my head back, taking a good, long look at the stars shining softly. Maybe it's not a good idea, stopping in the middle of the Training Center just to stargaze. Still, it's nice to just stop and let myself be for once. On the other hand, I can let myself be in the Secret Area and have the added advantage of not being chomped to bits because I'm not paying attention. Easier to see the night sky from there too, way up above the trees. I shake my head and laugh quietly as I start walking again. Secret, huh? Just who is it a secret from?

On second thought, it may very well have been a secret from those seriously creepy Garden Faculty. Man, I've never seen such killjoys! We may not have had as many hanging around Galbadia Garden, but those we did have were more than enough to convince more than one year of students to be very circumspect when planning anything even remotely fun. And every kid deserved to have some time to, well, just be a kid. Playing pranks. Running around and laughing.

I've been offered a position here. Me, teaching, ain't that a laugh? But Squall said even I'd be better than those faceless drones they had before. And then Rinoa hit him. I remember grinning and not wanting to change places with Squall for the world; that girl packs quite the punch, you know.

I blink at the vegetation surrounding me, recognizing the beginning of the path to the Secret Area. I shrug and slip through it as quietly as possible. Which is pretty damn quiet, let me tell you; you don't survive as a sniper if you don't know how to move quietly, especially when you're trying to hide.

The Secret Area's empty, I notice. Middle of the week, of course, and classes are still going, even if there are more students in any given class than before. Maybe I should take Squall up on that offer. What with that whole NORG thing, Garden lost a whole bunch of teachers and the SeeDs that were Instructors before now have twice, three times, even, as much to do, trying to cover all the slots. Quistis, bless her heart, has taken charge of that situation; she's already organized it to a fare-thee-well. No leadership qualities, my ass; that girl could organize an army. Heh, that's what she's done, though, isn't it?

I finally end up by the railing, facing the center of Garden itself. I close my eyes, letting the soft glow play over my face, trying to lose myself into the soft serenity the light seems to generate. I don't have much luck; I was wandering the halls because I'm restless, remember?

"Hey, Irvine, 'sup?" The voice is uncommonly soft and I still start, opening my eyes and glancing to the side to make sure he really is there, that I've not gone off the deep end entirely and started to hallucinate him.

"Not much, Zell," I manage to say after I get my breath back. I face out from the room again, as much to see the beauty out there as to not drive myself insane with the beauty right beside me. "Couldn't sleep, felt like walking." I hear him make himself a bit more comfortable and resolutely keep my eyes facing forward. If I start looking now, no way will I be getting to sleep tonight and I have things I have to do tomorrow. Or maybe I should say "today"; it is pretty late.

The almost comfortable silence that falls between us is broken when he asks, "So, um, Irvine, you decided what you're going to do yet?"

Well, no, of course not. Why else would I be here far too late at night? "Nope, not yet," I say with a carefully careless chuckle. I take note of his minute shifting; frankly, I'm surprised that he isn't shadow-boxing or moving around a bit more. Then again, even he has to wind down sometime, right?

"Well, what's the problem, then?" he pressed. I glance over to see his face, so earnest in the Garden's light. "Maybe it'll help if you talk it out."

"Who says there's a problem?" Of course, there is a problem, but this wonderfully clueless boy isn't exactly someone I can ask for help with it.

He snorts. "Of course there's a problem," he says, echoing my thoughts far too neatly. "Why else would you still be here when Galbadia Garden's clamouring for their very own war hero to return to them? Why else would Squall still be waiting for your answer on that teaching thing? Why else would a cowboy who loves his sleep still be up in the wee hours of the morning for supposedly nothing more than a walk? Just 'cause I don't say anything doesn't mean I don't see anything." I duck my head to hide my smile. Suuuuure, and I'll sprout wings and fly. "So?"

I shake my head, almost resigned. He's asking and there's no one else I can talk to, especially without them getting suspicious at some point in the conversation. But Zell, now . . . . For all his "I can see stuff, too," he remains . . . clueless.

"It's . . . a bit complicated," I say at last, and offer him a rueful half-grin. He waves it away like it doesn't matter and I continue. "There's this person." I fall into silence and try to figure out what to say next. "I'm deeply, passionately, madly in love with someone here and I can't tell you who it is for fear that you'll realize it's you." Yep, that would go over good. "I, the Galbadian cowboy and all-around flirt, am in love. With a guy." Another winner right there.

"A person?" he asks in disbelief, interrupting my internal pick-and-choose-how-we'll-die-of-embarrassment moment. He cracks his knuckles. "You want I should talk to this person for you?"

I almost laugh as I slide my hand over to catch his arm. Dear Hyne . . . . Have I mentioned he's clueless? "No, Zell, it's not like that. Not at all."

He stops with the knuckle-crackingówhich is good, because I was about two steps away from cracking his head for himóand looks at me. "Then what's it like?"

"Iówell, I . . . ." Of course, my voice decides to give out on me. Damn, I'd better be careful or I'll end up confessing everything to him shortly before I plunge off the balcony. Either he throws me off or I throw myself off; must be better than the embarrassment, right? I sigh. "Don't laugh, okay? I'm kinda . . . uh, attracted to someone here." Ah, last minute substitutions, how I love thee. Can't have Zell killing himself with laughter, now can I?

His forehead wrinkles. Have I mentioned lately how unbelievably cute he is? No? Thought not. "And that's why you're sitting here in limbo? Because you like someone?" He pushes me gently. "Just go tell her, get it over with already."

"It's . . . not that easy, Zell. IóI . . . ." Might as well go for broke. I pull my hat down a bit lower, hoping to hide my red face. "I think I . . . love this person." After a rather long moment of silence, I sneak a peak at his face, only to find him watching me. I blush even more and look away.

"So why not tell?" The gentle question hits me out of the blue.

I snort angrily. "Yeah, like the Galbadian flirt is going to be believed when he suddenly swears undying love to some poor unsuspecting soul." I lean on the balcony railing, a bitter twist to my mouth. "If I don't say anything, I can't be rejected, right?"

I get the impression that he blinks, but there's no way I'm going to take a look and see if I'm right. The way I'm feeling now, I wouldn't be surprised if my every emotion is written on my face for the world to see, and if that's the case, looking at Zell will entirely defeat the purpose of me keeping quiet about it.

"So that's what's keeping you?" he asks at last. "You don't want to leave the girl you love behind?"

I have to hedge my answer a bit. "Pretty much."

"Then where's the big decision? Stay here, maybe you'll get the guts to tell her, maybe she'll see for herself."

I sigh and shake my head. "Not that simple, Zell. Yes, I want to stay here, yes, I want to tell this person how I feel, but no, I don't want to stay here and say all that. What if this person hates me? Doesn't believe me? I'd almost rather not be around than have that happen." Another slightly bitter smile twists my lips. "Rejection isn't good for my peace of mind." I sense rather than see a blond head shake in what I guess is disbelief at my indecisiveness.

"Okay, we'll leave that for now, then." I'm more than happy to let the subject drop; it's what I came all the way out here to avoid, right? "Tell me who she is?" I choke and he's instantly pounding my back, trying to help. I wave him off hastily and just set my hands on my knees, trying to get my breath back. Once I manage to get my breath back, I turn my head and glare at him. He steps back and raises his hands in a placating gesture. "Whoa, okay, maybe that was the wrong question to ask."

"Damn straight it was," I mutter, standing up again to lean against the rail. I direct my scowl down towards the ground far below. I feel like shaking him. Telling him I love someone here and telling him who it is are two entirely different things, even if he did ask both times. Rejection, remember?

"How about a hint?" he asks, carefully taking a position beside me, facing into the Secret Area. I can see him looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I give my thoughts of that idea with a decidedly inelegant snort. He nudges me with his elbow. "Hey, I've been in love, too, you know, I know how it feels. And if you haven't told anyone else about this, I bet you're just dying to have someone listen to everything you see in this person, right? And I'm offering."

Well . . . . Maybe he's right. I know it's been killing me to keep it all inside. And it might help distract me from his "I've been in love, too" statement. Who was he in love with? Wait, is he still in love with whoever it is? Yep, distraction is definitely needed here. Breaking down into tears over a maybe won't go a long way for my reputation.

"So . . . . When did you meet her?" He's obviously taken my silence for assent.

I cross my arms over the rail and hunch down to rest my head on them. Pronouns, pronouns, which should I use? I don't want to outright lie to Zell, but neither do I want to make it easy for him to figure out who I'm talking about. The "devil's advocate" part of my mind respectfully points out that Zell assumed the person we were talking about was a she, so it wouldn't be lying, exactly, if I continued using it. I just . . . wouldn't be correcting him. "I met her at Galbadia Garden, believe it or not. It wasn't too long after the whole Sorceress thing started happening. Martine had just gotten the order for the mission in Deling, in fact. She was . . . ." I sigh. "Zell, I don't know how to describe it. She was just so beautiful. Inside and out."

A soft smile I can just see at the edge of my vision. "And you decide right then and there that you loved her? You hadn't even talked to her, I bet."

I reach over and swat him lazily. "I'll have you know that I did talk to her before I figured out I was in love!" More like I was hit in the head by it. "And I didn't figure it out until we all got to Balamb Garden, okay?" Yeah, nothing like being stuck in a worthless hunk of junk you can't even control with one hyper-active brunette who loves to blow stuff up and one entirely too energetic blond who has no patience for waiting to let you know just who you love. Take a guess who would have been tossed out if I could've opened the hatch. Yep, that's right. I'd've tossed myself out and locked them both in there, just for driving me crazy.

"So how did you know?"

How did I know what? Oh, right, the love thing. Well, it kinda dawned on me when I was thinking of ways to shut you up, Zell. I thought, you know, maybe some heavy flirting, a kiss or two would keep you out of my part of that damned machine. A clue for the clueless, as it were. After that, I just sat myself down, set myself to ignoring both you and Selphie, and thought it through. Trust me, it's not like I really wanted to fall in love with you, especially not then and there, where the temptation to shut you up by telling you that became damn nigh unbearable at times. I shrug. Not a good thing to tell him. "I dunno," I answer. "Spent some time with her in close quarters before Galbadia Garden attacked, I guess, and I didn't go starkers and that made me re-examine a few things." I slant a look at him. "Why the curiousity? You said you'd been in love before, you know how it is."

He gives a shrug himself. "Dunno. Maybe I thought I'd see if your reaction was like mine." Silence reigns for a few minutes before he starts up again. I hide a grin; shoulda known he wouldn't be able to stay silent for long. "What's she look like?"

I snort. "Why? So you can go tell her all this?" Let's just keep to ourselves the real reason why I don't want to describe "her"; blind Zell may be, but even he's gonna sit up and pay attention when I start going on and on about a certain tattoo.

"Of course not!" he says indignantly. "I just . . . wanna know, okay? I won't tell anyone."

Dilemna time. Tell Zell and risk him realizing just who I'm talking about or not tell Zell and hurt his feelings. Gee, let me think. Against my better judgement, I give in. "Well, she's blonde."

He rolls his eyes. "C'mon, d'you know how many blondes there are in Garden?" As a matter of fact, no. Why should I when I have one right beside me? "Say, it isn't Quisty, is it?"

My life is passing front of my eyes again. Quistis?! "Excuse me, but do I look like I need to be whipped within an inch of my life?"

He pounds my back helpfully. "Well, then give me more details, man!"

I grin slyly. "Okay, then, he has blue eyes like you wouldn't believe. Pale, pale blue, like the mid-day sky in summer." I see the strange look he's giving me. "What? I can't appreciate beauty now?"

He starts grinning. "You said 'he'," he points out.

I did? Oh, shit . . . . "Didn't!" Too panicked, too hurried, and far too high-pitched. Where have all of my smooth evasions gone?

He chortles gleefully. "You did. The cowboy's in love with a guy!"

I scowl at him, hurt, and turn to walk out of the Training Center. If he's just going to laugh at me, then maybe I'd better go and find my bed. I'd like an early start tomorrow when I leave for Galbadia Garden. He grabs my arm, stopping me.

"Hey, Irvine, I'm sorry, okay?" I consider turning around and acknowledging his apology, but the fires of hurt are still flickering in me. He gently, but firmly, turns me around. He sighs. "Why are all the gay men I know so bloody touchy? Look, I'm sorry if it seemed I was making fun of you, it was just . . . . Okay, so maybe I was making fun of you, but can you blame me? You go chasing after skirts every hour of every day, it seems, and you don't even so much as look at guys. It was a bit of a shock."

I look at him for a moment, then decide that walking out of here mad just ain't worth it. Not tonight. "So, you know many gay guys, then?"

He grins at me, happy that I've accepted his apology. "Plenty, but I ain't telling you who they are, cowboy."

"And why not?"

"'Cause Seifer would so kick my . . . ass . . . ." He wilts as I start grinning.

"Seifer, huh? Never would've guessed."

He snorts. "Trust me, you would've if you'd seen him and Squall going at it."

My eyes widen. No way. "They . . . going . . . ?" I'm not exactly coherent.

He blinks at me, then, amazingly, turns bright red and smacks my arm. "No, you pervert! I didn't mean like that! I just meant when they, you know, fought. Or practiced. Or did whatever the hell they did when they were trying to cut each other to pieces." And he noticed that? Maybe I shouldn't've told him anything after all. "Of course, I didn't see any of this until after everything was all over and I had some time to think stuff through." I breathe a silent sigh of relief. Hindsight is perfectly acceptable to me.

"So, ah, does Squall know?"

Zell shakes his head. "No, and that's the funny thing. I mean, I thought for sure Squall would know, but judging by the way he's acting, he doesn't. Who does he think he's trying to fool anyway? It's not like everybody doesn't already know."

I'm having just a little bit of trouble with all this information. "Are you trying to tell me that Squall's in love with Seifer?" I ask slowly.

"Yep, and the other way around, of course." He stops and looks at me. "You mean you didn't know? Man, where've you been this past month? Even Rinoa knows."

Trying to decide whether I want to go crazy being close to my love or being far from my love. "I've been busy," is my defensive reply. He grins, but lets it pass. "Soooo . . . . What's Rinoa gonna to do about it?"

"How should I know?"

Actually, why did I think he would know? I mean, I go on and on about how clueless he is and he blind-sides me with the whole Seifer and Squall thing. Maybe that's why I thought he would know. I settle for a shrug and let the silence settle around us again.

"Say, it's not Seifer you're in love with, is it?" he asks suddenly.

Personally, I think if I choke any more, I'm going to end up over the railing and back into the thick of the Training Center. "Do I look insane?" I manage to gasp out, eyes still wide. "First off, from what you told me, Seifer is Squall's. No way am I messing with either of them. Second, when would I have met him? The first time I visited Balamb was after we'd made it to Fisherman's Horizon in that . . . machine from the missile base; he was long gone by then. And last . . . . Unless Seifer started wearing contacts, I could never, in a million years, mistake his aqua eyes for pale, pale blue."

He looks . . . . Well, shit, I don't know how he looks. I'm still trying to catch my breath here and by the time I have enough air in my lungs, his face has already managed to smooth itself out.

"What about Selphie?" It constantly amazes me the different ways his mind goes.

"Huh?" I am genuinely confused here. Is he trying to say that Selphie looks like Seifer? Damn, even I look more like Seifer than she does. "What about Selphie?"

"Does she know about this guy?" I'm almost tempted to pretend to still be confused, but I manage to control myself. Barely.

"No, she doesn't. And she's not going to," I say firmly. Like I said before, I'm genuinely terrified of what she'd try to do to "help" me.

"Don't you think it's kinda unfair?" I'm blinking, I know I am. "I mean, isn't she your girlfriend or something?"

Oh, that's what he's talking about. No worries there. I let myself show a little bit of my exasperation. "Selphie's . . . special. She's one of my best friends, Zell, that's all she is. Dating Selphie is something . . . ."

"Something?" he prompts gently.

"Well, I don't know quite how to put it, not without sounding incredibly . . . boorish."

He grins, just a little. "I won't tell if you don't."

I have to laugh at that. "Okay, then. Dating Selphie is something I just can't see myself doing. I mean, she's sweet and enthusiastic and cheerful and everything, but there's nothing there. I'd rather have her as a little sister than as a girlfriend." I look over at him and frown, just a little. He's looking pretty tense there for some reason. "Hey, if you were wondering if Selphie was, um, free, now you know." I cannot believe I just said that! Tearing my hair out by its roots and screaming up at the moon seems to be an appropriate response to such a stupid action on my part.

He blinks and meets my eyes. "What?" His eyes widen as what I say gets through to wherever he was. "No! Hyne, no, Selphie's safe from me." He purses his lips thoughtfully and goes back to staring out over the Training Center. "Actually, I think she might have her eyes on Nida, to tell you the truth." He shares another small grin with me.

" . . . Nida?"

He chuckles. "Yeah, don't you think two pilots would get along pretty good? As long as he leaves the Ragnarok alone and she promises not to try flying Garden, I bet it'll be fine."

I shake my head and smile. I guess I was really out of it this past month to not notice something like this. Finally, I push away from the rail and step back. "I think I'm gonna head in and crash," I tell the back of Zell's head. "I'm going to need a lot of rest."

"So have you decided?"

I smile wearily. "Yeah, I've decided." I stretch lazily. "I hear Squall's still looking for an Instructor or two, figured I'd see if I could still take him up on that offer. Maybe see if I can get my head out of my ass and just tell the guy I like him." Is it just me, or did he relax just a little? I rub at my eyes, trying to massage the soreness out of them. Ha, good luck with that. "Say, what were you doing out here this late?" Yeah, so sue me for being self-absorbed.

He turns to look at me. "Just need to work some things out. Hey, you want company going back through or is the big, bad sharpshooter not scared of T-Rexaurs who haven't gone to bed yet?"

I mock-scowl at him. "I suppose I might as well accept; wouldn't want you coming up against something you couldn't handle."

He snickers. "Yeah, and the fact that we're not supposed to go into the Training Center alone never crossed your mind." Well, actually, it hadn't. But I'm not about to tell him that.

"Sure, I'm only ever thinking of your well-being. Wouldn't want you to lose a rank or two because you broke the rules." Our chaffering continues even as a pair of Grats try to surprise us and I feel that familiar warmth inside of me as both move into position, side by side.

Yes, Zell, I'll stay here and try to tell you how I feel. And in the meantime . . . I'll just be happy that I can be with you at all.

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