by Talya Firedancer

He was thinking too much again.

Quistis would say as an expert Squall-watcher, she could hazard a guess as to what the taciturn Garden Commander was thinking. She wasn't the only one who watched Squall. When the dark-haired SeeD withdrew into his own thoughts and away from the rest of them, they all noticed to varying degrees. They were a tightly-knit group the way they'd been as kids...only they were more close today than they had ever been.

Irvine tipped his hat onto Selphie's head and pushed away from the table.

"I'm out," he announced, gathering up the pitiful remnants of his deck.

"Aww!" Selphie exclaimed in complaint. "What happened to solidarity?" She was losing, too, as Zell raked in most of the cards and spoils from the betting they'd done. Dincht was demonstrating his newfound mastery of the 'Plus' rule.

"You kissed solidarity goodbye when you took my Eden and Carbuncle cards," Irvine told her, annoyed. Selphie was so cheerful it was easy to forget she was ruthless, too.

"Oh, fine!" She blew him a raspberry as he departed. "Sore loser! Am I supposed to take your worthless Bite Bug and Bomb cards?"

Quistis met his eyes as he moved for the far side of the table. There was a question in those watchful blue orbs and he gave her a little nod. Satisfied, she turned her attention back to the game.

"Let's play with Dollet's rules," the cool blonde instructor was saying as he left.

The Quad at night was a beautiful sight, even with the Garden stationary as it was now. Stars glittered overhead like diamonds cast against purple-black velvet, but they were outshone by the glowing radiance of the Garden itself. The luminescent blue structure never stopped giving off its faint but steady light, even during daytime hours.

"Pretty, isn't it?" Irvine settled against the railing about a meter from Squall.

"What?" The Garden Commander looked up from his apparent abstraction with the bulk of the radiant Garden.

"The Garden," Irvine clarified, though that was only one of the things he'd meant. "It's beautiful." *A goddamned work of art. And untouchable.*

"I guess," Squall grudged, glancing Irvine's way then looking at the softly-glowing walls again.

Irvine decided to cut straight to the chase. Subtlety was for girls. "It's been a year, hasn't it?"

Squall's inscrutable profile cracked for the barest of seconds, becoming something more vulnerable and alone. Then the shuttered look descended. "That is none of your business, fifth rank," he snapped in the tone that warned all comers to keep off; private property.

"Yes, sir," Irvine shot back, stung.

The look Squall gave him was a little startled...well, as startled as Squall got. As an expert Squall-watcher, Irvine could make a distinction between the man's non-expressions.

"You can have it one of two ways, sir," Irvine said, stressing the title. "I can be your subordinate right now, or I can be your friend."

Now Squall looked as though he were slipping away into thought. Exasperated, Irvine took initiative and broke the loop of introspection before it could get started.

"It's been a year since you broke up with Rinoa," Irvine said. "To the day."

Squall raked a gloved hand through his hair. "I didn't..." he started, sounding irritated.

"Hey, give me some credit, okay man?" Irvine said, moving closer. "I noticed what you did. You knew her really well, and you"

"You finished?" Squall interrupted. "I don't need to hear this." He turned away from the Quad railing, glanced at the card game, and stalked off.

"Hey...wait!" Irvine called, stretching an arm out, but it was useless. He jogged to catch up with Squall's long legs. It helped that his own legs were longer. "Man, just wait, will ya? You going to the training center?" At Squall's nod he continued, "Good, I'll go with you."

He ignored Squall's sigh.

It was nearing the two-year anniversary that marked the day they had defeated Ultimecia and ended the most recent Sorceress War.

Squall had returned to Timber to fulfill his contract, and as a newly-commissioned SeeD Irvine had accompanied him. Selphie had filled out the party to make the originally-signed on three. And due to their efforts, Galbadia had conceded shortly, still in chaos from the loss of its brain and backbone -- both the Sorceress and President Deling were out of the picture.

To her surprise, the people of Timber had elected Rinoa their Mayor by popular vote. They didn't care she was a sorceress; each and every citizen, every member of a resistance faction had known her before she received Edea's powers. They weren't a cowed and frightened people like the Estharians. So Rinoa had stayed in Timber, and Squall and the others returned to Garden.

The dissolution had been slow and painful for Squall's friends to watch. He had genuinely cared for Rinoa and it was difficult to watch him wall himself off again as the distance, longer than a round trip between Garden and Timber, grew insurmountable. The only one who could've broken down it was Rinoa.

She had her duties, he had his. And things would never be the same again, not the way they'd been during those few hectic months when a handful of raw SeeDs and a revolutionary had saved the world.

In the end she had given his ring back. In person, even. But it was Squall who'd acted coldly and harshly enough to convince her to break it off.

Irvine was the only one, he thought, who had really understood that part. He'd done something similar before. Squall was really more sensitive than anyone knew...he had given Rinoa someone to be angry at, someone to blame, so that the break-up wasn't her fault.

It was nobody's fault. It was time and distance and the loss of breathtaking intensity. And while Rinoa wasn't capable of looking at it that way objectively, intellectually, Squall was...and he had. And he'd acted, in true Squall Leonhart fashion.

"Hey, d'you believe people are meant to be together?" Irvine said, looking at Squall's profile again.

"What?" Squall jerked to a halt, glaring at him with stormcloud-blue eyes.

"I'n Selphie..." Irvine scratched his head sheepishly. "I thought we were gonna be together forever, you know? But sometimes...I guess sometimes things just don't work out that way."

"Spare me your analysis," Squall said dryly. "I already know that."

Irvine shrugged. It had been worth a try. That is to say, Squall was worth a try. It was Rinoa's loss that she'd let distance and duties come between them for good.

Squall pulled up short by the directory. "Wait...I need my gunblade."

"Well, that's no problem, right?" Irvine said, confused. "I thought you were gonna swing by the staff quarters...I've gotta grab my shotgun, too."

"I left Lionheart upstairs in my office," Squall said shortly. "I don't want to use some basic Revolver they've got hanging on the rack."

"What, Squall Leonhart is unarmed?" Irvine teased, leaning close, looming over the shorter SeeD. "So if a pack of Glacial Eyes came through the front gates right now..."

"Just because I look unarmed doesn't mean I am," came the surprising reply.

"All right, all right." Irvine followed Squall to the elevator, holding his hands up.

Once the doors slid shut and the button had been pushed, Irvine found himself pinned with a disconcerting grey gaze.

"What?" Irvine said defensively.

Squall frowned. "You're not wearing your hat."

"Oh." Irvine lifted a hand to his head, running it over the top of his brown hair to ensure it wasn't fritzed out. He was surprised Squall had noticed. "Yeah...I left it at the Quad, man. Didn't you notice?"

"I'm not used to seeing you without your hat." Squall folded his arms.

Right. Sparkling conversationalist. Irvine decided to risk his life and leaned towards Squall in the crowded space of the elevator. He planted a hand deliberately beside Squall's head, leaning. It was all about the distraction factor, after all.

"So, if you don't have your gunblade on you, what exactly could you be hiding that would take out a monster or two?"

He was looming again, he knew. But it was one part distraction technique, and one part the sheer intoxicating pull Squall had about him. All of them felt it. Squall was like gravity, and they circled around him trying not to stare at the sun.

There was pressure near his groin and Irvine's eyes flicked down.

"After I take out your assets, you can ask me that question again," Squall told him calmly.

The edge of a six-inch knife was pressed up against Irvine's chaps, high near the juncture of his thighs. Irvine inhaled slowly.

"All right," Irvine said, holding very still. That knife looked very sharp. "Point taken."

Squall's eyes flickered. He took the knife away and the elevator came to a halt with a quiet ping. When Irvine looked at him again, the knife had disappeared.

"Where'd you stow that holdout?"

"If I told you that," Squall answered, moving from the elevator, "then it wouldn't be a holdout."

Irvine followed, puzzling over it. He hadn't grabbed it from his boot, that much was certain. Irvine had been too close, and no one was that fast, to bend and unsheathe boot-knives with him not noticing. Spring-loaded wrist sheath, maybe?

Squall had a third-level office near the Headmaster's, and the newly-appointed Garden Master -- a SeeD responsible for overseeing funds for all three Gardens and now the White SeeD ship as well. It was rumored that he ate and slept in those offices, but Irvine and the rest of Squall's friends knew better. Squall simply kept off-beat hours.

When the office door closed behind Irvine, Squall turned to face him, one hand at his waist, hips cocked.

"All right," the other man said, tone quiet and level. "What's going on?"

"Huh?" Irvine passed a hand over his hair again, smoothing it though the action was unnecessary.

"You've never asked to come with me to the Training Center before," Squall observed calmly. "What is this, some plan of Quistis'?"

"Hey," Irvine said, nettled. "So we've never been bosom buddies. Still, we grew up together, until we were eight at least. You think I wouldn't notice if somethin's wrong? Out of all of us, I think I understand better than anyone what's eatin' you."

Squall shrugged, and his eyes sparked with something fierce in the depths. "It doesn't matter what you think you understand," he said crisply. "I didn't ask for your help."

"That's why you need it," Irvine countered. "Ever since you were a little kid you've been pullin' away from the rest of us. Well...we're older now. Smarter, maybe. And I'm not gonna let you pull away when maybe you don't have to be hurtin' alone."

Squall's eyes narrowed. Then he turned on his heel and, boots clicking, moved further into the office.

Irvine sighed, a little amazed at the words coming from his own mouth. Did he really want to put everything on the line like this? Damn, Kinneas, far cry from the teen two years ago who refused even to play cards with one Squall Leonhart on the grounds that he only played with girls. Flagrant overcompensation...and he was still surprised no one had called him on it.

In a moment, Squall returned carrying the Lionheart, its blue steel-carbide blade more luminescent than Garden. "Let's go."

Irvine gestured. "That's it?"

There was a glint in Squall's stormcloud eyes. "You said you'd come with me to the Training Center," he replied. "So let's go."

Irvine sighed and trailed him back to the elevator. Squall was stubborn...and single-minded. He remembered a story Zell had told him not too long ago when he'd been probing for information.

The spiky-haired combat instructor had related a story from back when they'd been fourteen, fresh into the start of the school year and learning how to use Guardian Forces, and fight in the Training Center. Zell had followed Squall there and watched him from nearby, ostensibly visiting various Draw points. Zell had watched, amazed, as Squall had come up against a T-Rexaur...and refused to run away. "He just kept summoning Shiva over and over again," Zell had said, eyes full of remembered awe. "Even though he knew he couldn't win...and she appeared faster and faster each time. Squall wasn't gonna run. He was gonna stand and fight until it fell, or until he fell."

"So what happened?" Irvine had asked, fascinated. He could almost picture the sight of a determined fourteen-year old Squall in cadet uniform, jaw set, hand spinning out from his brow as he summoned.

"Ah, well...we ended up having to revive him with a phoenix down," Zell said, rubbing his chin. "But damn! He almost had it, ya know?"

Irvine understood. Squall was just that way.

And the moral of the story, as he took it, was if he wanted anything from Squall a frontal assault was doomed to failure. Sometimes Irvine thought fleetingly that Rinoa must have bewitched him...determined as she was, Squall was twice as stubborn and he resisted the headlong approach.

"So." Squall reached forward and punched the elevator button. "Why you?"

Irvine looked at him, briefly puzzled. "What do you mean, why me?" It didn't pay to get distracted around Squall...but the man himself made for such easy distraction.

"Did you get elected to keep me company?" Squall clarified, expressionless. "Or did you take it upon yourself?"

"Y'know, you can really be an asshole sometimes," Irvine retorted before he thought. He leaned back against the elevator wall. "No one nominated me to be your keeper, if that's what you mean. And if you think I'm takin' anything upon myself, you better look up the definition of 'friend' again."

He looked away. So maybe this was a mistake. So maybe he was reading into things more deeply because of his own situation. In the end, if Squall rejected him he couldn't say he hadn't tried.

"Hn," was Squall's reply to that. The dark-haired Commander wore that skeptical, introspective expression that they all knew so well. Squall thought about things more than any person Irvine knew.

Time for drastic action.

The doors pinged open, and they headed for the Training Center again. "Squall, you wanna know why Selphie dumped me?" Irvine asked, tagging closely behind.

"No," Squall said over his shoulder.

"Harsh!" Irvine staggered. "Well, tough. I'm gonna tell you anyway."

At this time of night all the cadets were in the dorms under curfew regulations...or they'd sneaked away to the 'special place' where cadets made out. So he felt he could speak freely. "Hey...wait up."

Squall paused, turned, and gave him a look that wasn't precisely friendly. "Why is it that every time someone tries to make me feel better, they always end up talking about themselves?"

"Because you don't feckin' talk at all!" Irvine burst out. They stared each other down. Heartbeats ticked past. "So let's go to the Training Center and kick some ass. Forget it. You don't need to listen to me."

Squall regarded him for a moment longer then turned, ruler-precise, to keep going towards the Training Center. After a long moment, during which Irvine wondered if he should press the issue or drop it completely, Squall asked over his shoulder, "So...why did Selphie break up with you?"

Irvine felt his stomach bottom out. This was it, put up or shut up.

"She said I was great at romance," Irvine said casually. "And lousy at sex. Chemistry level zero, in point of fact. So, aside from the additional problem of distance, sound familiar?"

Squall froze. The line of his back was stiff.

"That is NONE of your fucking business."

Irvine reached up to adjust a hat that wasn't there. "I think it is. I think you made Rinoa break up with you for the same reason Selphie broke up with me." He swallowed convulsively.

Overcompensation; she was the first person to cast that word up to him in the final throes of their relationship. He flirted with every skirt so that no one would suspect him of anything else. He liked to be with Selphie, cuddle and talk, but he was terrible at making love to her. He tried too hard, she'd complained. And the frequency wasn't enough to suit.

"So what?" Squall didn't turn around. He started walking again, one slow step at a time. "You think that makes me the same as you?" He broke into a run.

"N-no...!" Startled, Irvine hurried after him. "I'm not sayin' it's the only reason or even the main one..."

Squall didn't respond.

In the hall that led to the Training Center he slowed down, then stopped completely, bringing them both to a halt. Squall turned to face Irvine, looking faintly puzzled, Lionheart dangling from his right hand.

"I don't really feel like doing this anymore," he stated.

Irvine shrugged. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Squall shrugged too. "You're right. She broke up with me a year ago. But...I wanted her to. It was easier to make her want to break up than it was to tell her I was wrong."

"That you couldn't keep your promise?" Irvine hazarded a guess. "It's the hardest thing in the world...telling someone that you love 'em, and you want to be with 'em forever, and realizing later that you were wrong." That was the hardest thing of all. Caring so damned much, and it wasn't enough.

Squall's eyes flickered. "You do understand," he unbent enough to say.

Irvine tipped an imaginary hat. "Toldja I did," he said with a winning smile.

Squall shrugged uncomfortably. "Want to go back up to my office?"

Irvine studied him for a moment. "Why?"

With a nonchalant gesture, Squall started walking past him. "I've got a bottle of rum up there...and some cola to cut it with."

"You're on."