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Balamb Fish

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"Here we go!" Selphie declared, and Irvine grabbed for the edge of the rolled down window and braced himself a moment too late to avoid the inevitable impact of his knees into the dashboard as the tiny car came to an abrupt, squealing halt on the cobblestone street.

Selphie was beaming, her hair hopelessly tousled from the wind and the start of a freckle flecked sunburn blooming across her nose. "Safe and sound," she pronounced, though Irvine had his doubts about his kneecaps. "I told you we'd get you back on time!"

'We' meant her new car, of which Selphie was insanely proud and not a little besotted. It was a new model Cactaur out of Esthar, designed for offroading in their far eastern plains, and much like its namesake it was small, durable, stupidly fast, and (by Selphie's preference) painted an alarming shade of lime green. Irvine, who still bore a collection of small pock marked scars across one side - leftover remnants of a cactaur nest and running low on curaga - was willing to admit it lived up to its marketing but drew the line at Selphie's fixation on the "cuteness!" of it. Cactaurs - whether cars or nasty little shits raining needles down on him - were not 'cute' in his opinion.

It was, however, undeniably fast, and even more so with Selphie at the wheel. "Thanks," Irvine told her, leaning over to brush a quick kiss across her cheek. "I owe you one."

Selphie grinned and stuck the tip of her tongue out at him. "I'll take some of what Zell's having," she suggested. Irvine snorted and used her shoulder to help lever himself out of the bucket seat, making her squawk protest from the shove.

"Nice try," he told her, leaning back behind the seat to hook the handles of his shopping bags with one long reach, "but no dice."

"Mean," Selphie complained. "Big meanie! See if I give you a ride again." She leaned across to the passenger side as Irvine pushed the door shut with one hip, her grin giving the lie to any threat. "Chocolate? Come on, that's gotta at least deserve some chocolate cookies."

"What," Irvine demanded, "a whole batch?"

"I'll share with Quisty," Selphie said brightly. "I'll even share with Squall if he's super nice. Pretty please? Come on, I totally saved your ass, Mister 'oh-no-we're-supposed-to-do-dinner-and-my-class-ran-late'!"

"Okay, okay," Irvine agreed, mock sighing. "It's cut-throat extortion. Next week alright?"

Selphie dimpled, all little girl smile, and sometimes Irvine could almost remember the bright eyed pig-tailed thing she had been. "You're the best!" She shooed him off with flicks of her fingers. "Go on, don't keep him waiting, what kind of date are you? Geeze, Irvine, I thought you were good at this. What is it, all hot air and hype?"

"'Ey," Irvine growled, rapping his knuckles awkwardly against the roof of the car, hands full of bags, "don't knock the rep. See you tomorrow, yeah? Thanks for the ride."

"Any time!" Selphie told him, and with a last wave she was off, car whipped into an about face in a turn as tight as a gil piece and as illegal as a fake coin, engine whisper smooth as she gunned it. By the time Irvine raised a hand in farewell she was already halfway down the sleepy residential street, the early evening sunset glinting red gold off her rear view mirror.

Sighing, Irvine ruefully straightened up, spine sliding into place with a series of muted pops. Cars sized for women like Selphie were not sized for men like Irvine, no matter how much he tucked and scrunched himself. Giving his neck a last crack, he shifted the bags to one hand and fished out his keys, taking the steps down to the door of the apartment Selphie had dropped him in front of. The lock stuck - it always did - and he jimmied it around with a bump and a few thumps from his hip before it opened for him. "Hey, hon, I'm home!"

Silence, and a dark, empty house. Irvine frowned, shoulder still braced against the door, and for one moment found himself taking stock - no guns on him, not even a knife, and the nearest firearm was his pistol hung on the rack beside the door but he'd have to open and reach around to grab it... and then sensibility caught up and he pushed the door open the rest of the way, reaching past not for his pistol but for the light switch. The lights flared on, bright and artificial, only the barest sliver of dull orange sunset creeping in around the edges of the blinds.

Irvine emptied his pockets onto the table beside the door, dropping bags of groceries on the floor as he pushed the door closed behind him. "Babe?" he called, cocking his head to listen for the sound of the shower, but the house was far too quiet to be anything but empty.

Irvine huffed softly to himself. "Lucky me," he reasoned, and scooped the bags back up, making for the kitchen.

It was a smaller apartment - one bath, one bed, a kitchen barely big enough for Irvine to turn around in - but it had the benefit of being both not in Garden quarters and not under Ma Dincht's roof. Not, Irvine would have hastily corrected, that he had anything against the woman - quite the opposite, she had nothing but his utmost respect - but he drew the line at living in the same house with her no matter (or in spite of) how he was carrying on with her son. It would have just been entirely too awkward otherwise.

Instead, he dutifully showed up and stayed for dinner frequently enough that Ma Dincht was reasonably sure he wasn't about to wither away from starvation and blow off in a brisk breeze. On the days when he didn't then more likely than not Zell was to be found at Irvine's; a bag of his clothes had taken up permanent occupancy, rotating between the closet and the washer, and his soap and toothbrush cluttered up the counter in the bath. His books were on the shelf hopelessly mixed in with Irvine's own, a spare pair of shoes languished next to the door, and Irvine routinely shoved the other man's laptop and headset off of the tiny dining table to make room for his own. It was almost, he thought with a smile, like living together, except that neither of them wanted to be the first to say it.

The kitchen could be cleared with a too strong sneeze but it was just big enough to be functional. Irvine emptied the grocery bags onto the square of a counter and started putting things away, then took out two pans and lined up what he needed in easy reach, pausing to tighten the elastic holding back his hair. He'd promised dinner - contrary to what Ma Dincht might think Irvine could cook, he'd done one of Galbadia Garden's summer student work tours in a restaurant once and the concept of following a recipe wasn't any worse than memorizing for a test - and had been sure that between getting out of Garden and having to swing by the store he was going to be pathetically late to his own planned date. It was a relief to find he wasn't; Zell had taken a field class out that day and they must have run even later than the small arms class Irvine had been teaching. With any luck he could put the vegetables on to soak, prep the fish, and still have time to clean up a bit before the other man walked in. Absently whistling, Irvine dug out the sharpest of his small knives and set to work.

It was over an hour later, the table cleared and set and the warm smells from the kitchen suffusing the outer room, when Irvine next glanced at the clock. The readout made him frown, glancing at the now dusk darkened window blinds to confirm it. Late was late - it happened, especially on Garden schedules, but a first year field class didn't usually stay out that long. Irvine sighed, went to go turn down the burner on the stove, and then went to fish his cellphone out of the tangle of keys and spare change on the table by the door.

It rolled over to voicemail after three rings and the cheerful brightness of the other man's voice, even in recording, made Irvine smile. "Hey, this is Zell. I can't come to the phone right now - chances are you don't wanna know why. Drop me a message, I'll get back to you later."

The line beeped and Irvine tucked the slim curve of the phone between ear and shoulder. "Babe, hasn't Squall made you change that message yet? All that crap about proper etiquette for SeeD and presenting a professional face and stuff. Anyways, where are you? We're having dinner tonight, right? Give me a call when you get this."

He clicked the line off and started to snap the phone shut, then glanced at the clock again. He hesitated, then slowly pulled the phone open again, thumbing through another number by memory. That time, it rang five long times and was starting on a sixth before the line finally picked up with the fumbled clatter of a real person. Irvine let out his breath and put on his best smile, even though it wasn't as though a body could see through the phone line. "Hey, Mrs. D. Sorry to bug you but... oh. Oh, no, that's fine. Yeah. Um... okay. Okay, yeah. No, I'll be sure to do that. I'll remember. I'll tell him. Yes. Okay, yeah. You too. Talk to you later."

Irvine hung up the phone with a harder stab of the button that time, leaning a hip against the dining table as he glanced at the clock and the kitchen and back to the phone in his hands. He tapped it thoughtfully against his lips for a long minute, the casing smooth and cool to the touch, then snapped it open again and pressed speed dial.

"...Quisty? Do you know where Zell is?"

* * * * *

It always amazed Irvine how much younger the other man looked when he was sleeping; younger and quieter and far too still, all of the fire that animated him damped down into nothing. Hazard of the profession, he thought dimly - they each knew only too well what the other looked like when they'd gone down, when a heart or lungs needed restarting, and it was only the quiet rise and fall of Zell's chest beneath the blankets that kept Irvine from itching for the blue green heat of a cure spell in his hands.

As though the weight of Irvine's gaze was enough of a disturbance even from the other side of the bed, Zell twitched, taking a deeper breath in preparation for waking. Irvine pulled up a smile, wan though it might be, and reached to thread his fingers through the bare hand flung out across the sheet. "Hey."

Zell blinked his eyes open, bright slivers of electric blue slitted into a squint, and his fingers tightened lightly around Irvine's. It took him two times to find his voice, rough and dry. "'Ey. Wha...?"

"T-rex," Irvine replied promptly. He leaned his elbows on the edge of the mattress, dipping forward to press his lips to the black curve that curled around the other man's forehead. "And a bomb. Or, bomb first, then the rex, I guess. Oh, and a handful of scared shitless cadets, all of whom are safe and sound, thanks to you."

Zell made a sound in his throat, coughing. "Oh, yeah," he groaned. "That."

Irvine's smile turned up a bit, a genuine laugh building beneath his breastbone. "Yeah," he agreed, "that. I'd say you gave us a scare, but we both know you're tougher than that."

"Better be," Zell grumbled, closing his eyes again, but his hand tightened around Irvine's. "Sorry. Kept you waiting, huh? Whole thing just went stupid. How late it is?"

Irvine tipped his hand to look at his watch and gave the other man's hand another squeeze. "Try early morning. That rex tapped you a good one on the head. I tried to tell Kadowaki you're naturally thick skulled," he added and Zell snorted, "but she wanted you overnight anyways."

"Awww, shit," Zell breathed, coughing again. "Totally stood you up, didn't I? Damn..."

Irvine let the smile drop away. "Zell Dincht, if you think for one minute that was what I was thinking..." It was a joke, of sorts, although a bad one - Zell squeezed his fingers, letting him know it was, message sent and received.

"Speak for yourself," the other man managed, huffing softly. "I was looking forward to that."

Irvine relented, leaning in to brush another kiss carefully over his lover's cheek. "Kadowaki'll spring you before breakfast. How do you feel?"

"Flat," Zell replied promptly. "Sore all over, but being stepped on by a damned rex will do that. Hungry."

Irvine leaned back, untangling their hands. "Yeah, you skipped dinner and ate up a few curagas. Kadowaki left some of those protein shakes - shit brown and chocobo puke pink, you know the drill." Zell, in answer, stuck out half his tongue in a lackluster display of disgust and the relieved laugh that had been slowly building in Irvine's chest broke free, spawned in knowing after two frantic calls and another breakneck car ride back to Garden and hours spent beside a too-white bed that Zell was, if not perfectly alright, at least easily on the road to recovery.

"Ooooor," he added, dragging the syllable out in the long vowels of a southern Galbadian accent, "or I might just be the sort of guy that thinks if his boyfriend is going to throw himself in front of a t-rex to save a cadet and get stomped on for it then maybe he deserves something better." He leaned over the side of the chair he had pulled up beside the infirmary bed, making a long armed reach for the thermal wrapped dish left there, and pulled it up, depositing it neatly across Zell's blanket covered knees. "One pan seared Balamb fish, special delivery. Might even still be warm. Happy anniversary, hon."

It was hard to judge under the pale fluorescent of the infirmary lights, but the golden shade of Zell's summer tan turned suspiciously rosier. "Crazy cowboy," he muttered, but his hands were warm on Irvine's, fingers fitting neatly in between the other man's, and when he turned his face up for Irvine's kiss the first ghost of his normal bright grin was already stealing across his lips, chasing away the lingering remnants of stillness.