(comes after whatever the last one was... disk 4 spoilers...)
Battle Grounds: In the Trenches
"Squall, will you go lay down?"
The reply was short and to the point, the words - any words - tasting like chalk in a mouth and throat long since gone dry. "Someone needs to keep watch."
Quistis sighed. Slim hands gathered up the loose fall of her hair, twisting the mass with the ease of practice and doubling it back, the clasp clicking quietly into place as she secured it. "Which is what I'm going to do," she pointed out, patting the whip coiled at her belt. "You need rest. Go lay down."
Bossy. Some glimmer of memory rose from the depths of fatigue, bursting randomly across his mind. She had always been bossy, instructor or no. "You..."
"Haven't had nearly as hard a time of it as you have." She cut him off, her frown daring him to contradict her. It wasn't just domineering; there was concern in her eyes. "Squall... even Zell laid down, and you know how he is. Just get some rest. If anything comes along that I can't handle, I'll yell."
Fatigue was probably the only thing keeping him upright. It was easier to stay where he was, the wall a solid comforting presence against his back, then to move. Even if moving meant laying down. Which was a deplorable way of keeping watch - staring outwards just because he didn't have the energy to blink properly. The shadows in the long hall seemed to shift when he wasn't looking, dancing just out of sight in the corners of his eyes.
"Just for an hour," he told her firmly. He couldn't afford the sleep he needed. It was better to keep going then to stop, the snatched moments of interrupted half sleep seeming worse then none at all.
Quistis didn't argue. "An hour," she repeated. She settled into the spot beside him, sinking down to the floor, the edged length of her whip set beside her feet.
Squall supressed a groan as he pushed himself away from the wall and forced his feet to take his full weight once more. "You'll wake me?"
Quistis nodded wordlessly, waving him on before she leaned forward to loop her arms around her raised knees, fingers sliding restlessly along the coils of whip. It was cool and damp beneath the stone shadows and there were chill rashes dotting her pale skin.
Squall hesitated, then shrugged out of his jacket. The leather was worn and tattered but the lining, where it rested against his skin, was warm. He slid it around her shoulders, only shrugging slightly at her startled glance up. "If anything happens..."
Quistis smiled. "I'll wake you. Promise."
He said nothing, just nodded. Words took too much energy. Everything did.
The alcove they had stopped to rest in was quiet, filled only with the soft sound of lungs and breathe and sleep. Rinoa was closest to the entrance; she had taken off her outer sweater and bundled it under her head, curled on one side on the floor, fast asleep. She looked like a child, pale face brushed with strands of hair in the dark, one hand tucked beneath her cheek.
Squall stood and watched her for a moment, counting breaths and noting all the little motions she made in her dreams. Too tired, too worn; it was showing in the shadows under her eyes and the hollows of her cheeks, like the mark of a long illness that breaks the body under its fever. She hadn't said anything, not a word of complaint, and she had kept their speed and fought along side them to the best of her abilities. He had seen the power burning in her eyes but each time they stopped to rest she seemed a little hollower, more worn and strained, her face pinched, as though the power leeched away her strength and ate at her from inside.
She wasn't SeeD. She shouldn't have been there. He couldn't think of a single damn way it could have been done different, couldn't trace out any route that wouldn't have brought her with them, but somehow she should have been taken safely somewhere else.
But there she was. They would keep going. They had to. He could only hope that whatever rest Rinoa might be able to get would be enough, and that he could keep her safe in what was to come. She slept deep and soundless, trusting, never stirring as he stepped around her into the heavier shadows at the back of the alcove.
Irvine was sprawled out across the floor by the wall, his hat draped over his face. His shotgun rested at his side, one hand on the handle even in sleep, finger never more then an inch from the trigger. His coat was bunched in folds at his other side; as Squall stepped closer he realized it was draped over another body curled up next to the sharp shooter. Selphie, he guessed.
Irvine's stirred as Squall walked by, gun hand lifting lazily. Tipping his hat back from his eyes, he made a shushing gesture, finger pressed to his lips, then pointed to his companion. Squall nodded wearily, dropping down to lean his back against the wall and sighing softly as he stretched out legs that felt cramped and leaden.
"'bout time," Irvine whispered softly. "Told Quisty she'd have to use a sleep spell on you."
Squall closed his eyes, leaning his head back. The wall was hard stone, cold against his shoulders, but just the act of sitting was a luxury. "No," he muttered. Taking a breath, he roused himself a little. "Selphie been asleep long?" The brunette had been more tired then she wanted to show, slim shoulders slumped as she leaned against a wall when he'd last seen her.
Irvine pointed past Squall. "Out like a light the minute she sat down. Don't think she'd wake up if a quake hit."
Startled, Squall followed the other man's gesture. Selphie was there, half hidden in the shadows, her slim body curled around the small carved figure of a snarling lion. Her arms were crossed across its stone sculpted back, her head pillowed in the crook of one elbow as she slept.
The demand for sleep was making his thoughts slow and distant. Squall glanced back at the other man and the figure beside him. "Then who..."
His voice must have been louder than he'd meant to make it. "Shhhh," Irvine hushed. "Took forever to get him to go to sleep."
Zell. Squall rubbed at his eyes, trying to erase the burn in them. "Is he alright?" The martial artist had been favoring one hand by the time they had stopped to rest and try to regroup, but he had insisted nothing was wrong.
Irvine grimaced. "Broke his wrist. We got it fixed up." He inclined his head slightly, indicating Squall's far side. "Your arm?"
Squall flexed his fingers, clenching a fist. The healed scars were still a deep pink against his skin, streaking in long jagged lines from shoulder to wrist. "Aches."
Irvine sighed. "Seems like nothing works quite right in this fucking place."
"We're lucky it works at all," Squall pointed out. Irvine waved his hand in silent acknowledgement.
Stillness again and Squall let his eyes close. But despite it all, sleep was elusive - the silence was too silent, opressively so, and nerves too long wound tight would not relax their vigilence. Sighing softly, he opened his eyes. Irvine had slid his hat back down, the brim covering his face, but Squall doubted the other man was any more asleep than he himself was.
"You scared too?" His own whisper, the words coming to him unbidden, slipped into the darkness like the furtive secrets shared between the beds of small boys after the lights had gone out. Memory and present, shifting and blurring, and only after he had said them did Squall recognize their source; Seifer's words from that day so long ago, spoken there on the Balamb docks and echoed now on his own tongue.
"Hell yes." Irvine's voice was equally low, but the edge in it was audible. "Have to be stupid not to be."
Squall could hear his own heartbeats in the silence, ticking away seconds that no longer existed in a realm without time. Tired thoughts twisted around each other and he wondered, idylly, if it was all the same heartbeat, repeated over and over, endlessly looping, his body unable to tell the difference between one moment and the next. In the eternal gloom he couldn't pick out the details of Rinoa's curled form from where he sat.
"Do you think we'll make it?" Irvine whispered.
If he reached down he could trace the cracks and bumps in the stone floor through the thin leather of his gloves, the surface cold even through clothing. "Does it matter? We don't have a choice."
Irvine reached up again to tip his hat back slightly, the look in his dark eyes unreadable. "There's optimism for you."
"What I think won't change anything," Squall said flatly. "We fight because we have to. We're SeeD."
The other man was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke his voice was thin and soft in the darkness, meant only for the two of them. "Rinoa's not."
Squall shut his mouth, lips pressed tight and rigid.
The silence stretched outwards, a wordless answer that made Irvine nod. "That's what I thought."
Stung, Squall looked away. "What about Selphie?" he asked harshly.
Irvine's low chuckle answered him. "If you think Sefie can't take care of herself in a pinch, you're severely underestimating her."
Glancing back at the other man was like a moment of disorientation, pieces of a puzzle he hadn't know he was putting together abruptly sliding into place to reveal the hidden picture. It was there, he realized, for anyone to see if they were looking; there in the barely visible shock of pale hair that was pillowed on Irvine's casually outstretched bare arm and in the draped folds of the sharp shooter's coat across another's body. He just hadn't ever thought to look. He hadn't wanted to. Taking a breath, Squall shook his head, his voice barely exhaled. "And Zell?"
Irvine's eyes met his sharply, the other man's ghost of a smile shadowed. "Zell was carrying your sorry ass out of here earlier. I don't think either one of us needs to worry about him."
It was like a dream, the words, the specific phrasing of them and the emphasis Irvine placed on them, taking a moment to sort themselves into sense within his mind. The answer he found there was sour to the taste, even as it called up faded memories of the sparkle of champagne and distant music and sea salt and the bitter tang of fear. "He told you." The words were flat in Squall's mouth, not really a question. Irvine just nodded and Squall looked away, elbows hugged tight to his ribs. "It was nothing."
More silence, but he could feel the sharp shooter's eyes on him. "You know, Leonhart," Irvine said at last, his quiet voice conversational, "you're a good card player. But you're a fucking awful liar."
"You don't know..."
"Anything?" The other man cut him off, voice blunt. "I'm starting to think I know a hell of alot more about it all then you do. You're a real anti-social piece of work, you know that?"
Words had never been his weapon of choice; uncomfortable with them, unable to find a rebuttal, his normal response was stony faced silence. But there, in the dark and the quiet, he found the angry words came easier, driven and fueled by the tight ache that seemed to settle in his stomach. "Fuck you. You don't know anything. You weren't there, Irvine. It's between me and him..."
"And Rinoa?" Irvine asked sweetly.
"Leave her the fuck out of this," Squall snapped hoarsely, struggling to keep his voice low. "Rinoa's different."
The single question, quiet and serious, brought him up short. The rush of words failed him, stuck against the tightness of his throat. Fumbling, unsure why he was even bothering, he tried to put something into sentances. Something about the vibrant life found in a pair of eyes looking up into his or the warmth and energy in a teasing smile. Something about a caring so utterly different from what he expected to find.
But Irvine was staring at him, waiting, his expression sober, and Squall could almost hear the other man's answer as though it had already been spoken - 'but what makes her different?'
"She needs me," Squall said, the words thick and heavy in his mouth. "Rinoa needs me."
"Is that what you want?" Quiet and low and putting into audible form all of the things he had avoided asking himself. His teeth were clenched so tightly that they ached.
"Yes." Silence echoing inside of him, cold and bitter, the truth coming slow and reluctant to his tongue. "Maybe."
"She's a nice girl," Irvine said softly. "Kind, caring. Loyal. Brave. The perfect princess for a protective knight. It's the role she was born to play."
There was nothing mocking or offensive in his voice and Squall exhaled, feeling the edge of the tension inside of him slowly defuse. "I know."
Irvine took a few moments to respond and when he did it was in a forced, distant tone. "It's your choice."
Squall glanced sideways to where Zell, shifting in his sleep, had pillowed one cheek firmly on Irvine's arm, a gloved hand laying across the sharp shooter's wrist. "Doesn't look that way from here," he pointed out flatly.
"Which just goes to prove you really are that blind, if you believe that for a minute," Irvine said bluntly.
A hard breath hissed out between Squall's teeth. "Are you trying to pick a fight?"
"No." Irvine sighed softly. "Look, I'm trying to shine a light on your dim head, though Hyne knows why I'm bothering. You're going to be one of those that goes down in the history books, and they'll be talking about how courageous you are. You're not. You're just stubborn and you don't know how to quit. But that inspires people. You're our best fucking chance, and we all know it. It gives us," he tapped a finger against his own chest, "the hope we need to keep going."
Squall shivered. The words were like weights, each one piling atop the other, heavy and hard against him. "What are you trying to say?" he demanded.
"Nothing..." Irvine replied. Squall could just see the curve of the other man's wry smile. "Love, friendship and courage, Squall. That's all we've got."
Loire's words. "Don't quote that idiot at me," he snapped.
"You think that's bad?" Irvine shook his head, the motion small. "You haven't sat in the same room as Selphie for an hour."
Squall dropped his head back, the wall cold and hard behind him. "What does this have to do with Zell? You're not making any sense."
"Probably not," Irvine agreed mildly, the words punctuated with a yawn. "Look, Squall... you may be stubborn, but Zell is loyal. And you had his friendship long before I did." Dark eyes peered up at him, half closed, the sharpshooter's expression closed. "What you do with that is up to you."
The shadows bred cool, musty air, unstirred for ages. It clung damply to his lungs, his chest tight and uncomfortable. "Rinoa needs me," he repeated slowly.
Irvine said nothing for a long moment. "That your final answer?" he asked softly.
"Dammit, Kinneas..." Squall hissed. He sat up, pushing away from the wall, half twisting on one knee to face Irvine. "Don't you get it? Rinoa needs me. She's not one of us, she's not prepared for this, she's in over her head... I fucking promised her I'd see her through this, and I keep my promises!"
Irvine hushed him sharply. "Alright," he whispered. "Alright. You owe that to her. But if we do make it through this? Try to think beyond the next fight, Squall. If we do this, if we win - what then?"
Squall ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the loose strands. "I don't know," he admitted slowly. "I can't think that far, Irvine. This isn't the place for dreams; I have to be here, now."
"Stubborn," the other man accused.
"Maybe," Squall replied tiredly. "Maybe I'm just realistic." An arm's reach away, on Irvine's other side, Zell slept on. Squall wrapped his arms around his chest, feeling the chill. "Right now, I have to make sure Rinoa makes it out of here. I have to keep her safe."
He let out a slow breath. When he reached forward Irvine's hand came up - not stopping him, but a clear warning. He met the other man's gaze, then reached past him; hair the color of sunlight was soft beneath his fingertips, the details lost through the worn leather of his gloves. He had seen every type of blood splashed across that hair and over that skin. Zell stirred slightly as he brushed the dark shadow of the tattoo on the sleeping man's cheek and Squall stilled, drawing back.
Irvine's eyes were still on him. Squall faced him squarely, reaching out to wrap his fingers around the sharpshooter's wrist in a fierce grip. "You," he rasped, "keep him fucking safe. You hear me, Kinneas? I don't care how you do it - you make sure he gets out of here. You make sure."
He expected an arguement but Irvine only nodded, once, expression somber. "You have my word," he said quietly. "If we do make it..."
"If we make it, then there'll be time to sort it out then," Squall snapped. "Right now..." He swallowed, finding the words in his throat rough. "You just keep Zell safe. I have to take care of Rinoa... and I can't be two places at once."
"You do what you have to," Irvine told him. "I'll take care of my part." The wry smile returned as he twisted his wrist loose. "I would have done it anyways. Lay down, Squall. Get some sleep. When this is over..." he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, his eyes drifting to where Zell lay against his arm. "We'll see. Then."
It was a promise, both good and ill. Squall nodded once, sharply, sinking back down once more. Irvine fell silent, even the remembered echo of their words dampened and stilled by the heavy shadows. Laying down, eyes open to the darkness, it was a long time before Squall slept.
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