July '03'

Disclaimer: All the Final Fantasy characters in this fic belong to those talented people at Square. Lucky them. The main pairing will eventually be Irvine and Squall, possibly some others showing up later on…not sure yet.

This is YAOI - boys with boys, caring, desiring, kissing, hugging, groping…um, yeah…but that’s why you’re reading this, yes?

In The Cards - Part Four
By Garden’s Gnome

Reclining on the couch with his shotgun across his chest, Irvine listened to Quistis shuffle papers and sighed. He’d been there for the better part of an hour and was beginning to get bored. Arriving at the headmistress’ office just after lunch like ordered, the blond had peered over her glasses at him and pointed to the couch that was his usual resting place. Then she went back to studying the files on her desk, totally ignoring the cowboy. Irvine had used this time to clean his gun and think carefully on the events of the morning.

A little over a week the sniper had been on his self proclaimed mission and in that time he’d gained the trust of one of their targets, received valuable drug samples and kissed the commander. Squall. Everything else quickly faded into the background at the thought of the beautiful brunette.

Watching Squall and Seifer drive away from the Garden had been hard for Irvine. Not having the chance to explain his actions to the brunette ate at his conscience and he wished it could have been done differently. But like everything else to do with this mission, the less the gang knew, the more realistic their reactions would be.

Exactly how much Quistis now knew Irvine couldn‘t tell, but before he could even consider asking, the doors to her office burst open, admitting Zell, Selphie and Rinoa. While the two girls headed towards Quistis, the blond martial artist headed for the couch and the man upon it.

“I’ve been hearing some interesting things in the cafeteria during lunch, Irvine. I’m giving you the chance to explain yourself before I start to pound answers out of you.”

“Zell, leave him alone,” Quistis said not looking up from the paper in her hand. “And that’s an order,” she commanded as the tattooed blond turned to threaten the cowboy again. Zell moved away from Irvine to lean against the desk, still glaring at the relaxed looking Galbadian.

“Due to some…unforeseeable…events this morning, we have to make some immediate changes. Any classes that you are teaching will be taken by other SeeDs, except for Zell’s combat class,” the blond quickly stated when Zell looked ready to complain. Seeing the group agree, Quistis continued.

“As you have probably heard via the rumour mill, Squall and Seifer are no longer at the Garden. Therefore, Zell is now the commander until further notice.”

“Huh? What?” said the blond at the mention of his name, obviously distracted by something at the mention of their friends’ names. “You’re making me commander?”

“Yes, Zell. With Squall and Seifer gone, you are the next most capable of filling the position.”

“Hell, yeah baby,” Zell cheered, throwing punches into the air. “I’m the man now!”

“Right, your first action as commander is to read this and tell me what you think.”

Zell took the folded piece of notepaper from the blond woman, noticing Irvine stiffen out of the corner of his eye. Whatever was written on this had to do with Squall’s leaving. Opening it slowly to prolong the cowboy’s discomfort, Zell scanned the message inside.

Quistis, I’m not sure if this is going to help with Irvine’s mission or not - that’s up to him. I’ll be going undercover once he gets more information as some things have happened that have made me the best choice for this part. If needed, Rinoa should be able to locate me with her powers. Make Zell commander in my absence. Contact me once a decision has been made. Squall.

The blond martial artist re-read the message before looking at Rinoa. “Can you locate Squall if needed at a moments notice?” he asked the sorceress.

“I think so. Why?”

“Could you locate him now? He should then call us, right?” the blond asked as Rinoa nodded and frowned in concentration.

Quistis sighed and took the note from Zell’s hand. “He said only in an emergency and I gave the letter to you so we could discuss it, not for you to begin making decisions.”

“This is an emergency. We have to know if Rin can find him and if he can feel it. And while we are waiting for results, perhaps Irvine could shed some light on the rumours doing the rounds,” Zell said, turning to glare at the cowboy.

“Nope.”

“NO!” yelled Zell obviously expecting cooperation from the other man. He began to stalk towards the couch. “How do we know if what is being said is true unless you tell us? Some are saying that you chased him out of the Garden so you could take over, while others say you had a lover’s quarrel and he left with his…new…lover…Seifer.”

Irvine almost smirked as he watched the blond work himself into a small rage. It seemed that Zell was a bit uncomfortable with mentioning Seifer as Squall’s lover. Could it be that Zell had a thing for the tall blond? Irvine pondered this thought for a few seconds before he felt Zell’s hand clasp onto his shoulder firmly. He reacted the only way a trained gunman would when threatened and armed.

“Back the fuck off!” Irvine grated out between clenched teeth and then watched as the blond held up both hands and took two big steps away from him, removing Exeter‘s barrel from contact with his cheek.

“Put the gun down, Irvine. We’re not going to hurt you,” Quistis said calmly.

“Well, tell Zell to keep his distance and I won’t hurt him either.”

“But what about Squall? You still haven’t shared what happened,” Zell asked, now back against the desk.

“Yes, Irvine what about Squall?” asked Rinoa, a hostile tone entering her voice. “I just found him and he’s feeling rather confused…what did you do to my friend?”

“Hyne, will you lot just stop it! I’ve already pulled this gun on two people today and I’m not sure if I’ll hold off on the trigger for the third. Friend or not,” Irvine told them, his frustration beginning to show.

Selphie moved from her place at Quistis’ desk, remaining silent until now. “We only want to understand so we can help, Irvine. We’re your friends.”

“Thanks Sel,” Irvine said to the petite brunette, giving her a small smile before turning to look at Quistis’ phone that had begun to ring.

“Trepe here.”

“I said only an emergency, Quistis.“ came Squall’s voice. Everyone crowded around the monitor to see the brunette.

“Well, looks like everyone is there, even the cowboy,” came Seifer’s voice as he stepped into view behind Squall. “We are going to have words, you and I,” the blond told Irvine.

“Let’s get this over with…do you have any new information or is this just a social call?” Squall asked Quistis.

“Irvine hasn’t told us anything new yet, plus we were trying to see if Rinoa could really find you,” Selphie said.

“Okay, so you found me. I’ve got to go…”

“We’ll be moving the Garden to Esthar. Doctor Kadowaki wants to consult the specialists about some samples Irvine managed to acquire. She’s having no luck figuring out what the second drug is. We leave tonight after curfew,” Quistis told Squall, who nodded his understanding.

“If that’s all…” he began to say.

“Squall, have you heard of a place called the ‘den’?” Irvine asked the brunette before he had the chance to hang up. Squall startled slightly at being addressed by the cowboy but then relaxed. Or at least he tried to.

“Yes, I’ve heard of it. Is that where you’re going?” he asked, not looking directly at the sniper. Irvine sighed.

“Yeah, end of the week Tobias has arranged an interview for me. We’ll be going together.”

“Okay,” the brunette at the other end said before shifting into commander mode. “Zell, bring to Timber one of the undercover kits. I want kit number…”

Irvine let what Squall was saying fade around him, just listening to the tone of the brunette’s voice. This was where Squall was comfortable - giving orders and doing the mission. Not with facing someone’s feelings about him, and certainly not his own emotions. Irvine felt someone tapping his shoulder and looked down at Rinoa.

“He feels so confused, and it’s more pronounced when he was talking to you. What did you do to him? He hasn’t felt this conflicted since I was taken by the Esthar officials to be sealed away.”

“It has nothing to do with anyone else. It’s between me and him.”

“You are both my friends and I want to help. Tell me please.”

“No, Rin. Leave it alone.”

“But I can feel his uncertainty and I want…”

“Hyne Rinoa, what do you want me to say? Sorry I kissed Squall but it was for the mission?!”

Silence. Irvine listened to the gasps around him and realised that he’d spoken louder than he meant to. He watched Rinoa gasp and place a hand to her chest…Hyne, Squall! Irvine turned to the monitor to see Squall place a hand to his chest like Rinoa had, the sorceress somehow feeling his shock, before he turned and walked out of the room. Seifer’s glaring face filled the screen.

“Fuckin’ idiot, cowboy! If you were listening earlier when I told you to run, forget I said that. We are going to have a little chat. I’ll see you in a few hours Kinneas. Quistis, send Irvine with the gear instead of Zell. We’ll be in touch.” And then the blond ended the call.

Irvine stumbled blindly back to the couch, his brain vaguely registering that every eye in the room was on him. Foremost in his mind was the need to tell the brunette that it was a lie, that the kiss wasn’t just for the mission, that it had meant a lot more to him. It was a lie. I’m sorry, so sorry, his mind chanted over and over, the words pouring from his lips in a hushed whisper.

“What’s a lie?” asked Rinoa, coming out of her shock to address Irvine. The cowboy sighed knowing an explanation was unavoidable now.

“The kiss. It wasn’t just because of the mission. I’ve wanted to kiss Squall for the longest time. Just unfortunate that the timing of it had to be because of a mission. He left so quickly, I never got a chance to explain why…”

“It never was a girl at the club, was it?” Quistis asked, having enough information to confirm her suspicions about that night. Irvine nodded.

“Yeah, sweetest, most innocent guy I have ever seen,” he told them before turning to address Zell. “You asked why I didn’t approach him? Guess I felt that such innocence should be left untarnished. That and the night did feel tainted because of the drug seller. Who knows, if that guy hadn’t approached me…Part of the reason I fell for Squall. The commander looks just like the cutie from the club.”

“What will you do?” Zell asked Irvine as the cowboy stood to leave the room. Irvine gave them all a small smile.

“Continue the mission. I’ll go see Tobias and tell him I have to leave for a few days and that I’ll be back in time to go with him. Then you guys can kick me out of the Garden in disgust.”

“We would never had shunned you because you like Squall as more than a friend. You should’ve told us sooner,” Selphie told the cowboy, giving him a quick hug.

“I know that now.”

“Yeah, we could’ve helped you get together,” Zell said. Irvine smiled wickedly at the tattooed blond.

“Like we could help you with Seifer?” he asked and then grinned as the blond blushed a nice shade of red while muttering something about know-it-all cowboys and oblivious blonds.

“What about Squall?” Rinoa asked quietly, still with her hand on her chest.

Irvine walked over to the sorceress and took her hand in his and kissed her palm lightly before smiling gently into coffee coloured eyes. “When I get a chance, I promise to talk with Squall and make everything right. Until then, keep an eye on him for me?” he asked, rubbing a thumb over the place where his lips had brushed. Rinoa smiled back and nodded. She continued to smile as the cowboy left the office and even after he had closed the door behind him. Quistis looked at the smiling girl strangely.

“What are you looking so happy for?” the blond woman asked her.

“Squall might not have heard any of that but he felt it and I think it helped,” she told them, tracing her fingers over her palm.

*****

Seifer looked at the blank screen, cursing the cowboy with as many words as he could. Bloody moron, he thought as he went to find his companion who had fled the room. Squall had told him the whole story from his point of view and that made it hard to figure out the Galbadian’s intentions. By getting Squall out of the Garden, they would have a person in place when Irvine arrived to meet Tobias’ boss. But the manner that was used had left the brunette very confused.

Unknown to the group, when Seifer and Squall had been in Esthar before Seifer made SeeD; the blond had made a pass at his commander. However, Squall had said no because he thought of the blond as an older brother and nothing more than that. After the one kiss they had shared, the bond between them had grown stronger and neither of them had let that event affect their friendship.

Now, though, Seifer could almost swear that Squall had felt something when Irvine had kissed him. Asking the brunette to describe the kiss and what he felt had been almost impossible. Not because Squall didn’t want to use words but because he couldn’t. First word he had said about the kiss was minty, and then he had retreated into his mind, obviously thinking about it. Not forceful or shocking, but minty. Irvine liked to chew mint-flavoured gum and it was the taste was what Squall remembered first.

Seifer sighed. He would talk to Irvine later, but now he had to deal with Squall. He found the brunette on the small balcony of their motel room, watching a group of kids that played below.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I guess,” Squall replied, not turning to look at the blond.

“Wanna talk about it?” Seifer asked, trying to get Squall to open up. The brunette just shrugged.

Seifer stood thinking for a minute or so as they watched the children together. A group of boys and girls ran around the alleyway below them playing a game. Catch and kiss. Seifer smiled as one of the girls cornered a boy and planted one on him.

“Squall, if Irvine hadn’t done what he did and grabbed your butt, would you have ended the kiss?” he asked, turning from the scene below to watch the brunette’s face.

Squall frowned. What kind of question is that? he asked himself. He wasn’t kissed long enough to know. Sure, Irvine had tasted like mints and his lips and tongue had been warm and something about being in his arms even for those few seconds had felt right. But when Irvine had grabbed him hard, it had hurt slightly and shocked the brunette. He’d reacted without thinking when he had slapped the cowboy and fled before he could be drawn into another, more mind numbing kiss.

Shit.

Squall felt the blond still watching him, obviously waiting for an answer. Closing his eyes, he shook his head slowly, admitting to himself that he probably would have continued to kiss the cowboy. He had tasted so nice. Squall heard Seifer chuckle next to him and felt something warm brush across his hand. Like soft lips. He opened his eyes and looked at the blond. “Did you just touch me?” he asked.

“No,” Seifer answered, one brow raised in confusion. “What’s up?”

“It feels like someone just kissed my palm,” he told the blond while frowning at his hand. He then gasped as he felt the same palm stroked gently.

“What is it, Squall?” Seifer asked, becoming concerned.

“What does this feel like to you?” the brunette asked, lifting the blond’s hand, kissing the palm and then stroking it with his thumb. Seifer pulled his hand away and looked at it, frowning like the brunette.

“It feels like…I don’t know…a comforting or placating gesture? But how?” Seifer’s brows drew together in concentration. “Are you still in contact with Rinoa?” he queried, an explanation forming in his mind.

“Um, I think so.”

“Who is gentleman enough to soothe Rinoa if she was worried about you? And in such a manner?”

“Irvine…” Squall whispered, his eyes widening in slight shock as he drew his fingers over his palm. Seifer smiled gently at the unconscious action.

“I guess Rin decided to share. Irvine must’ve told them what happened, and maybe something more. Like how he feels,” he told the brunette gently.

“Why do you think that?” Squall asked, dropping his hands back to the railing.

“I saw his face after you left. He was hurting because he hurt you.”

“You really think that?”

“Yeah, I do.” Seifer turned to head back inside. “Anyway, let’s get something to eat and wait for Irvine. He’ll be here soon.”

*****

Irvine stepped off the train and walked down the stairs. He’d been told by Quistis that he was to head to the Timber pub and that Seifer would find him. Yeah, find him and beat him to a bloody pulp.

Seifer had obviously gotten Squall’s version of what happened out of the brunette but what that was, Irvine did not know. Good or bad, he couldn’t back out now. Entering the pub, the cowboy approached the bar and grabbed a drink before finding a seat where he could see the whole room and observe patrons as the came in. He only had to wait a few minutes before the tall blond entered and purchased his own drink, joining him at the table.

“Stupid cowboy.”

“Hi to you too, blondie.”

Seifer sighed and took a long sip of his drink. Originally he was going to chew out the sniper for hurting Squall, but after talking to Squall and seeing the look of anguish on the cowboy’s face, the blond decided to ask a few questions instead.

“What happened after we got off the phone?” he asked first, needing to know how much the others knew that he didn’t.

“I told them everything,” he said, toying with one of the ashtrays on the table. “In truth, I wanted to fall into that kiss and never come back. Been wanting Squall for the longest time and I’m sorry I had to confuse him like this as part of the mission.”

“Confused is one was of saying it. Do you realise that he’s only been kissed by Rinoa and myself?” Ah, shit

Irvine digested this information slowly, hiding his shock at the blond’s slip of the tongue. Seifer had kissed Squall at some point and the brunette had turned him down…or not. “What happened then?” he asked, needing to know.

“He said no and we became best friends.” Seifer smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way now and that‘s all I‘m saying on the topic,” he continued casually before leaning across the table threateningly. “But make no mistake. Hurt him and I’ll hunt you down.”

“How is Squall?” Irvine asked quietly after a few moments of silence.

“He’s starting to go all quiet again and he is definitely confused. You should have done this differently, but there’s no turning back now.” Seifer drained his drink and stood to leave. He had to return to the Garden soon himself and wanted to make sure Squall was organised for his covert mission before leaving. “Anything you want me to tell him…I might pass on the message.”

“I meant the kiss,” Irvine said softly, the words only for the blond to hear.

“And your intentions are honourable?” Seifer had to ask, wanting to be sure.

Irvine looked up into Seifer’s green eyes and the blond saw his answer. If needed, the cowboy would give his life to protect the brunette and Seifer hoped it never came to that. Smiling, he picked up the small bag that Irvine had carried in with him and turned to leave.

“I only said I might tell him. The rest is still up to you, Kinneas!” he said over his shoulder and left the cowboy to his thoughts.

END PART FOUR

Notes from Gnome: Sorry for not playing with Squall’s wardrobe yet but I promise it’s coming real soon. And now everyone knows and the only ones who aren’t sure are the main pair themselves. But they’ll figure it out shortly. Maybe. ^_~ Laters!

continued - part five