Aug '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 Six
By Garden’s Gnome

Sitting quietly at the bar of the Dollet pub, Irvine sipped his drink and watched the other patrons behind him via a mirror that lined the back wall. He’d been left waiting while Tobias went to see his boss so he’d gotten comfortable and spent the time recalling the trip there, starting with his expulsion from the Garden.

Opening the door at the first knock, Irvine had smiled at the sight of both Seifer and Zell with passion-swollen lips. Obviously the taller blond had taken his advice and in his heart he wished them the best of luck. He also wished he could be around to watch the fledgling relationship get started but he had other things to do, including his own relationship with a certain brunette, if it could be called that…yet.

“Well, congratulations boys,” he told the two blonds before stepping into the hallway and dropping his bag and gun on the floor, setting his hat firmly atop his head. “So, who gets to carry my stuff and who gets to pound into me?” he asked only to see Seifer grin evilly at the unavoidable double meaning of the words. He should’ve known not to ask.

Grabbing the collar of the cowboy’s ever-present duster, Seifer had then hauled Irvine’s form down their dorm hallway and others in the direction of the front gate. Along the way, the blond had spoken in a loud voice, accusing the sniper of hurting his best friend and of breaking their trust and of lying to the orphanage gang. Irvine just struggled along as best he could, noticing the occasional opening of a dorm door, which was then quickly shut. By the time they reached the main foyer, Irvine was pretty sure that the whole Garden was awake. Coming to a halt near the directory, Irvine saw Quistis, Selphie and Rinoa waiting for them. Time to play.

“Seifer, what’s the meaning of this? It’s after curfew and you’ve woken the whole Garden with your noise. What has Irvine done?” she asked, glaring at the blond and his captive.

Seifer shoved Irvine in front of him and forced the cowboy to his knees in front of the three women. With a sigh, Zell dropped Irvine’s stuff beside him and moved to stand next to Quistis.

“Well Seifer, tell us what the hell is going on!”

“I just got back from where Squall is now. He won’t be coming back for a while and it’s all his fault,” Seifer told them, more playing to the gathering crowd than the group as he lightly hit the back of Irvine’s head, dislodging the hat. “I found Irvine snooping around his room. That’s two crosses cowboy!” the blond whispered loudly in Irvine’s ear.

“Irvine, what do you have to say about this?” Quistis asked. “Will you tell us what you did to make Squall leave?”

“I told you a few days ago Quistis, it’s none of your business,” Irvine growled out as he retrieved his hat off the floor and glared at Seifer. “And yes, I was in his room. So what.” This comment earned him a slap from Rinoa. After all, Squall was her knight.

“For Squall to leave like this it must have been something bad, Irvine. And if you won’t tell us how can we trust you not to hurt someone else, another student or even one of us?” Rinoa asked quietly.

“It’s so easy for you, Rinoa. Even though you’re not SeeD, you have a place here with the others. I have no place. All I did to Squall was try to see if I had somewhere here that I fit.” Irvine shook his head and sighed. “Obviously not, seeing as though he left,” Irvine said, standing and gathering his things.

“Where are you going Irvine? We are not finished yet.”

Irvine looked Quistis directly in the eye and sighed. “I also told you the other day that you have no hold over me. I’ve done my bit for the world and without a rank I have no place here. Goodbye.”

Irvine walked past the group and headed for the gates. Hearing the many whispers from the audience that they had attracted, the sniper allowed a small smile and continued walking.

Catching the train to Balamb and spending the night at the hotel, Irvine had awoken to find not only Tobias in the hotel foyer but also Thomas, Kyra, Cianne, Larse and Josef. Spade, Diamond, Club and Jack of the Card Club respectively. The cowboy didn’t know what their presence meant exactly but he hoped that the others would note the missing members and find out what they were up to. Then he’d left with Tobias and together they caught the train to Dollet, playing cards the whole trip.

Reaching down into his vest, Irvine pulled out the chain around his neck and gently stroked the Griever ornament. He knew he should believe the blond’s words as to why he was given the chain but he needed to hear the words from Squall himself. Feeling the cold comfort of Shiva’s searching presence, he dropped the pendant back under his clothes.

Well? he asked the ice guardian.

My master is here. Close by.

That’s good to hear, Irvine told the GF.

Siren says he is safe and unharmed. Irvine almost choked on his drink at the thought of his Squall in danger.

WHAT?!? he yelled within his mind only to hear her laugh lightly.

He is not a captive if that is what you are thinking. You’ll find out what is meant soon enough, sniper.

Irvine shook his head as Shiva’s presence once again left him. Noting that Tobias walking down some stairs and heading in his direction, Irvine finished his drink and turned to the card player. “How’d it go?” he asked.

“Well enough. He wants to meet you but first I have a question,” the club member said as he nodded towards the cowboys chest and the chain around his neck. “How did you get Squall’s necklace? He’s not known for taking it off.”

Irvine once again pulled out the chain and shrugged. Last night at the hotel he had come up with a reason for his having the precious item. “Stole it. I expect that Squall gave it to Seifer as a guarantee that he would return to the Garden,” Irvine said and then smirked evilly as a thought came to him to make the lie more believable. “This way I’ll get to see Squall again, especially if he wants it back.”

Tobias returned the smile, easily convinced, and moved away from the bar, motioning for Irvine to follow. Walking up the stairs and across the walkway above the main street, the card player led Irvine into the small cluttered room that belonged to the Queen’s son. Looking up from some papers on his desk the man closely scrutinized the cowboy before standing and offering a hand.

“Mr. Kinneas, welcome to Dollet. I am Marius. Tobias says that you’re looking for some work and may be of use to us,” he greeted Irvine, shaking his hand gently. Irvine immediately disliked him. He didn’t trust men who couldn’t hold a firm handshake.

“Yeah, got myself kicked out of Balamb Garden. However, I am originally from Galbadia Garden and I’m sure they’ll let me back in there,” Irvine said, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his chaps.

“What work would you like me to offer you? I have various interests, beside what we sell at the Garden,” Marius asked the sniper, leaning back in his chair.

“I could do the same as Tobias and sell items and such or I could be a guard here,” Irvine offered, unsure where this conversation was going. He wanted to stay and be with Squall but needed to find the base of the drug operations if it wasn’t here.

“Do you play Triad, Mr. Kinneas?” Marius enquired politely.

“Tobias here has been helping me brush up on my skills. I think I’m not too bad,” he told the man after giving Tobias a small grin.

“Have you challenged any of the Club members directly?”

“No, sir. Never really got the chance.”

“He beat me in every game on our way here and easily too,” Tobias spoke up, looking slightly ashamed at being beaten by another.

“Did he now?” Marius commented with obvious interest before nodding his head as he came to a decision. “Here’s what we’ll do. I have other duties for Tobias to attend to before his return to the Garden. I want you to stay here, play Triad with my customers and get a feel for everything in general. Then when Tobias returns, we will make a decision of where you can best serve our interests. Either here as a guard or even a dealer at one of the other tables, at Galbadia Garden as a seller or…elsewhere.”

“Sounds like a fair deal to me. Just show me a room to dump my stuff and I’ll wander down and take a look around,” Irvine agreed easily, glad to be through the first test. He listened as Marius instructed Tobias to show Irvine to an upstairs guest room and then take him down to the Den.

After being shown to a small but modestly furnished room, Irvine and Tobias made their way back to the main drinking area. Heading towards a small alcove off to one side, Tobias pulled the heavy curtain aside to reveal a door. Using a security card which he then handed to the cowboy with the instructions of not to lose it, the card player entered the room beyond.

“Welcome to the Den.”

Although the room into which they entered was large, the atmosphere of intimacy was immediately felt. Small tables were spaced about the room, some with two chairs, some with four. Each had it’s own light and most were currently in use. Along both sides of the room, dimly lit alcoves containing large comfortable divans and sofas left no question to the other entertainments available as Irvine watched one patron lead a young woman into one of the areas and close the curtain. At the end of the room was an open doorway guarded by two men and a set of stairs leading down. Near it was the bar.

“That’s for those who wish to spend the night,” Tobias said quietly to the cowboy as he noted his interest in stairs at the end of the room. Irvine just nodded and almost jumped as Shiva spoke suddenly in his mind.

Master…

Where? Irvine asked.

Turn around.

Turning slowly to the doorway that lead into a cloakroom, Irvine felt slightly giddy at the sight of the person approaching him. Starting from the ground and working his way up, Irvine felt his heart beat a little faster at the long legs encased in a pair of shiny black lace-up ‘come-fuck-me’ boots. Ending just above the knee, a few inches of pale creamy skin was visible before being covered by a short forest green suede skirt. A matching green vest over a white collared shirt, with the first few buttons open; and a black velvet choker encircling a slim neck to complete the outfit.

“Perhaps you would care to wash your hands before joining the Triad tables, sir,” the woman asked in a soft but distinctly feminine voice.

Irvine looked down into dark green eyes framed by black lashes. Tousled black hair streaked with bright red fell into those eyes obscuring where a scar should’ve been. He hadn’t seen Squall since the phone conversation at the Garden but his body was telling him that this woman was indeed Squall.

“So you’re the new girl…” Tobias said, looking her up and down in appreciation. “Have you been claimed yet?”

“No, sir. I am as yet…untouched. Only two so far have beaten Marius and I was able to deny them as they did not…appeal to me,” the green eyed woman said, even though her eyes never left the cowboy. Tobias smirked, noting the obvious and mutual attraction.

“Looks like you may have to challenge Marius, Irvine…That is if you want to spend time with her. Anyway, I’m going to get a drink and watch some games. Explain the rules to my friend here. Perhaps he’ll make a play for your time. Watch him though, he‘s a charmer. He‘ll steal your heart.” Then with another appraising look and a wink at Irvine, the card player wandered towards the back of the room.

“Please follow me, sir,” said the dark haired woman before turning and heading for the cloakroom.

“Certainly…didn’t catch the name tho’, lovely,” Irvine said as he admired her slim waist.

“Storm, sir. Please, follow me.”

After the glare he’d received from ‘Storm’ at the endearment, the cowboy was positive that it was Squall. Entering the small room and leading him over to a small table, she took a soft cloth and washed the cowboy’s hands in a small basin of warm water before grabbing an equally soft towel to dry his hands with.

“Care to tell me why I’m carrying your deck of very rare Triad cards?” he asked under his breath, standing close as Storm dried his fingers with a fluffy towel. “And why you smell so nice?” he asked after taking a deep breath in an attempt to keep his body under control when all he wanted to do was hold Squall and kiss him.

“Because it’s possibly the only way my identity will remain intact,” Storm began to explain in hushed tones. “All the girls are available for a price. One which they have a chance to refuse. If a client wants some private company, he pays for it with a Triad card - the higher the level, the more time allowed. However if the girl in question wishes to refuse, she must surrender a card of higher value. In this place and definitely in these back rooms, Triad cards are more valuable than gil. Most of the girls’ free time is spent playing for the higher-level cards. So far I’ve been lucky but I don’t want to be taking any chances.” Storm shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. “The perfume was a gift from my blond brother,” she said with a small smile and a light blush.

“Ah, blondie. But how am I going to get you alone then? Or is that what Joker meant by challenging Marius?”

“Because I am technically untouched, anyone wanting to spend some time with me must first defeat the manager. He’s the Card Club Queen’s son so he knows how to play. It’s only happened twice since I arrived a few days ago, but I was able to refuse them with a few level 9 cards I had won. Almost all the patrons have challenged for time with me. The other girls know that I can play well and so I am having some trouble getting more cards. But now I can claim that we spent some of our time playing cards as well as…other things,” she said, the light blush deepening. “Hope you’ve been brushing up on your playing skills lately, you’re going to need them.” Storm finished drying his hands and placed the towel back on the table. Irvine grabbed her hand and looked deeply into green eyes, wishing they were the stormy blue he loved.

“So it’s little more that a well disguised brothel for card players. And when I win, you won’t refuse me, right?” he asked, unsure if he could pull this off.

“Have to make it look realistic.”

“That’s so reassuring.”

Standing there in the small room, practically alone except for the other patrons outside, Irvine fought hard to keep the charade together. Squall just stood there gripping his fingers, still blushing slightly at the thoughts running through his head. Irvine’s closeness did affect him in ways he’d never felt from anyone before. Not even Seifer. Squall could see the sniper battling the need to hold him close and was about to step back to make it easier for him when a voice interrupted.

“I heard that you were quite taken with our newest addition, Mr. Kinneas. Perhaps you would care to challenge me?” asked Marius, leaning casually in the doorway.

“I guess I will,” Irvine said once again looking down into green eyes before releasing Storm‘s hands. “Let’s do it.”

“Very well, follow me,” Marius said leading the way out of the room but turning back to look at the green eyed woman as Irvine waited just outside. “But remember Storm - he must beat me in Triad before you can spend time with him. If he loses, you are not to go near him. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that you both had a look that said given the chance when left alone for too long, you won’t keep your hands to yourself.” Smiling benevolently, he again turned and went into the main room.

*****

“Any idea when they left?” Quistis asked the small group, receiving negative responses from everyone. Selphie and Rinoa sat in their usual places in the chairs at the large desk. Seifer sat on the couch, distractedly looking at the door as if waiting for someone to arrive.

“Hey, sorry I’m late guys,” said Zell as he made his way to the couch, sitting beside Seifer and giving the other blond a warm smile. “But I got the information about the passengers on the train for the last few days. All the club members that left here went with Tobias as far as Balamb. Unfortunately after that, I don’t know.”

“That’s okay, Zell. We’re just going to have to do this the hard way now.” Quistis pulled out some envelopes and handed them out. “I’m sending you out to look for them. I’ll stay here and Xu will become interim commander. Zell and Selphie will be one team, Seifer and Rinoa the other.”

“But…” said Zell, looking at Seifer imploringly. What now? Quistis thought to herself before denying the tattooed blond’s unspoken request.

“No Zell, it’ll be easier if you split up. I’ll keep the Garden here in Esthar for as long as I can and if we move you’ll be notified through my private channel.” Quistis drummed her fingers on the desk and sighed. “The thing that has me worried is that even with the other members gone, we still don’t know who Heart and King are. And because of this, any communication between us needs to be through our private channels from now on.”

“Where are we going?” asked Selphie, rummaging through the contents of her envelope.

“The envelopes contain tickets to Balamb. From there, I don’t know. My suggestion is that if you don’t find any leads, follow the path Squall took for the card quest. It’s a long shot but maybe those who had cards will have some information. We must act quickly though. It’s unlike the club members to leave the Garden as a group, so something must be happening.”

Seifer stood first, stretching our a few kinks as he addressed the group. “We’d better get packing. I’m taking Squall’s stuff with me, Quistis. If I need to get him for this, I want him to have his own gear.” The blond woman nodded her agreement with Seifer’s plan.

“Seifer…” came Zell’s voice and the green-eyed blond looked down at him and smiling softly at the pout on the other’s lips.

“I know, I want to go with you too but it’ll be better this way. Less…distracting.”

“Distracting?” asked Rinoa.

“Um, yeah. We’re…um…together now,” Zell said, standing and taking Seifer’s hand in his own.

“Woohoo!” squealed Selphie, bouncing over to give the two blonds’ a hug, joined by Rinoa and Quistis. “When did this happen?” she asked as she released them all from the group hug.

“The other night when we threw Irvine out of the Garden,” Seifer informed them with a happy smirk as he still held Zell close to him. “Decided to follow his advice.”

“We’re still sorting things out but it’s getting there,” Zell said, practically glowing with happiness.

“Well, as much as I’d like to let you two spend time together sorting yourselves out, your train leaves in little under two hours,” Quistis told the group, checking the clock on the wall.

“Guess we really have to go then. We’ll be in touch Quisty,” Selphie said, grabbing Zell and pulling him out of the room while asking for details on his and Seifer’s relationship.

Quistis closed the door after Seifer and Rinoa followed the other pair out, their heads together planning what to take with them. Sitting back down at her desk, she sent a silent prayer to Hyne for their safety and mission success.

*****

Outside the headmistress’ office, two sets of eyes watched the departure of the four SeeDs from the shadows.

“The moment their train leaves, put our plan into action,” said the first voice, a light tenor but clearly male.

“Yes, King. As you command,” agreed the second, her voice a soft whisper.

“Soon the Garden will be under my command. A fitting gift for the Queen.”

END PART SIX

Notes from Gnome: *dances* IxS, Irvine and Squ-all. Getting it on…Woohoo! *stops dancing* Er, hang on I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, as you can guess in the next chapter *drum roll* LEMON!…or at least very heavy lime, depends on how much the plot wants to interrupt…might shoot the plot bunny and let the smut bunny take over *evil smirk* And yes, I might tell you all who are Card Club members Heart and King…you’re welcome to try and guess (those of you who know - no telling!) So see you all next chapter! *wanders off to find Exeter to go bunny hunting, jumping over the six bishies making out on the mossy floor of the Grotto…hmmm, stops to take notes* *snicker* Yes Hecate…much smut to be seen in up coming fics, promise to write it soon! Laters ^_^

continued - part seven