In her life, Quistis had seen her share of difficult things. Her students slashed up from a split second lack of focus in the training center. Mission targets taking bullets to the brain right in front of her simply because another of their enemies had gotten to them first. Monsters falling from the sky, and an even more terrifying fall through a mixed-up time stream.
So over time, she'd come to an understanding with herself, an understanding she would never have agreed to when she was a teenager looking to prove herself a warrior, an adult. The understanding was simple, and the understanding was this: if it gets to be too much, back off.
It wasn't healthy, floating through life on mission after mission. Work-life balance, the self-help books in the Garden library noted. Saving the world, or on a much smaller scale, saving a life time and time again left little time for Quistis' own life. She'd survived her teen years with a combination of strong coffee and sheer force of will, but as she entered her twenties, she knew that taking a break from time to time would only benefit her in the long run. She'd emerge from her small breaks more eager to get back into the fray, refreshed and determined.
She and Zell had been undercover for five months in Deling City, getting close to one of the crime bosses that had popped up in the Galbadian capital after the stranglehold of Vinzer Deling had loosened. They'd gotten their intel, the syndicate crumbled, and Quistis could think of herself as "Quistis Trepe" again instead of every last detail of her alias.
She had earned her break, and Squall had signed off on it, asking no questions aside from her expected return date - a mere two weeks. Quistis wasn't greedy, after all. Leave time granted, she'd packed a bag with equal parts clothing and trashy novels for what ought to have been a quiet, peaceful vacation in a rented villa on the rocky coast north of Dollet.
And she'd gotten her freedom for a whole day before he showed up.
She was midway through a romantic mystery set in the chilly snows of Trabia, barefoot and relaxed on the villa's balcony when she heard the shout.
There were only two people in her life obnoxious enough to not only crash her much needed alone time, but to use the word 'yoohoo' as a form of greeting. And it wasn't Selphie.
She slid her glasses off her nose and shoved her bookmark into the paperback, setting it down on the wooden deck before leaning over the rail with a frown. "How did you find me? I didn't tell Squall where I was going!"
It was the summer tourist season in Dollet, and even with the breeze coming off the water, it was fairly warm. Irvine had stalked her without his long, signature coat, opting instead for what could only be defined as 'cowboy on the beach' chic - his hat, a Galbadia Garden athletics department tee, and some tight jeans tucked into his boots. He looked ridiculous, but she wasn't laughing.
She'd deliberately tried to cover her tracks, traveling by boat at off-peak hours, finding a villa rental that didn't ask too many personal questions, and yet he'd still found her.
He pointed his finger and thumb at her like a little pistol, smiling his awful, pretty smile up at her. "I'm a tracker, darlin'. I'm used to the solitary joys of the hunt."
She scowled in return, dangerously close to smashing her glasses in her fist. "Go away," she said, having no better reply. Her brain was pretty much mush after five months of lies and the precarious slope that was undercover work, and the terrible fiction she'd been reading all day didn't lend itself to granting her any witty comeback lines. "This is my vacation."
"Well, whaddaya know?" he called up to her, hoisting a pack from the downstairs patio and tossing it over his shoulder. "Looks like I put in for some time off, too." He moved over to the door and jiggled the handle. "Let me in, will ya?"
Things with her and Irvine had developed over the past year or so, and he was equal parts irritating and charming. The charm usually won out, but she didn't really want it to this time. She'd been gone for nearly half the year. The radio silence had been tough, really tough, and now that she was back and she was Quistis Trepe again, she wasn't sure where exactly that left the two of them.
That was part of the reason she wanted some time alone. To figure out if there even was a thing with Irvine to return to, and if so, was that what she wanted? But he'd gone ahead and made up her mind for her, showing up at her doorstep.
She stomped her way down the stairs in a way that Irvine would probably say reminded him of when she was a younger, far bossier form of herself. She unlocked the door.
"Didn't you miss me?" he asked with a sly grin, taking off his hat. "Can't this just be a romantic surprise?"
"I don't like surprises," she grumbled, allowing him to enter against her better judgment.
"But you're so good with them," he praised her. "Quick reflexes. Nobody can catch you unawares." He set his bag down on the floor and flopped onto the living room couch without taking his boots off. "Well, except for me."
She moved into the small kitchen, grabbing some glasses to fill them with water. "If you're doing this because you're upset with me or mad because we haven't had a chance to catch up since I've been back..."
"I'm not upset or mad," he said, accepting the glass when she presented it to him. "I've just been goin' crazy without you."
She pursed her lips at his honest, open admission. Quistis had always struggled with honest, open admissions. "You know what I've been doing and where I've been," she told him, taking a seat in the chair opposite the couch. "I'm trying to relax, center myself. I wanted to be..."
"Alone?" he said, finally shrugging out of his boots, wiggling his feet a bit. "You shouldn't be alone. Not now."
"You think we didn't follow how it all went down?" he asked her, smile gone and a firm look in its place. "That gangster tried to use you as a human shield."
Quistis shrugged. Part of the job. By the time the Deling City authorities had entered the compound, she and Zell were already compromised. "We handled it just fine," she said, not sure why she had to justify her actions to him. "The job is done, now I'm relaxing."
Irvine leaned forward, setting the glass down on the coffee table. "You've been somebody else, a stranger, for months. I think you should just let me show you how much you've been missed. How happy I am to have you back in the real world. The real you, Quistis Trepe. I think it would be better than sitting here alone. Seriously, you rented out this whole place. Let me take care of you. I won't make a fuss. I'll clean up, I'll do anything. And I make a mean stack of hotcakes in the morning."
The guy was a sniper, the epitome of working alone, being alone. But it didn't suit him, not really. And then when they'd all forgotten, he'd remembered - alone with his knowledge of their shared past until he couldn't take it any longer and helped jog their memories. Irvine had been alone for too long. He seemed to thrive on closeness where he could get it, masking it with a wink and a compliment.
Quistis was just so used to taking care of herself, working her way through her issues without a sympathetic ear that someone like Irvine who was always teetering on that edge between serious and not always threw her off. She never knew if he pursued her simply because she allowed it or because he had genuine feelings for her. A half-year casual fling and a half-year undercover had left her confused.
"Thinking too hard," he chided her. "You scrunch your face when you do that. I'll leave if you really want me to leave. I just thought...heh, I dunno...most girls would like this sort of thing."
She didn't even bother to remind him that she wasn't most girls.
Maybe if he stayed it would clear up how she felt about him and give her a sense of what his own feelings were. They could hash it all out now instead of when she got back to Garden and back to her metric ton of other responsibilities. Work-life balance, she reminded herself.
"This is still my vacation," she decided. "So you'll pay for your own food, provide your own entertainment, and you'll sleep on the couch down here."
He beamed from ear to ear, holding his hat over his heart. "You won't regret it. I live to give."
And boy, did Irvine give, Quistis thought with a small grin as she sat down at the breakfast table the following morning. Irvine had left her alone the night before, letting her take a long soak in the tub and finish her book. She'd gotten a great night's sleep, woken only by the smells in the kitchen downstairs.
True to his word, he had out a skillet from the villa's furnishings, and a few bags from the market in town. They were a few miles from civilization here - he'd had to get up really early to go into town.
He set down a plate overflowing with pancakes, drizzled with syrup and topped with fresh berries. Quistis had the worst diet, relying on cafeteria meals and snacks on the go between her duties at Garden. Not that a plate full of sugary sweetness was going to make things better, but a home cooked meal was certainly a luxury she'd miss once she got back to Garden.
Irvine joined her with a plate of his own, and they both lapsed successfully into food comas on the couch before deciding on a swim.
The day passed quickly as they both took to the water, bobbing up and down on the waves until the sun grew too warm overhead, retiring back to the villa for a nap before walking into town to pick up ingredients for dinner. They cooked together, Irvine surprising her with a pasta recipe of his own design. He'd worked for a while in the Galbadia Garden cafeteria, something she hadn't been aware of in all the time they'd known each other.
Another meal under their belts, she retired back up to her room with her books. The next few days followed in the same fashion. They cooked together, laughed together, walked up and down the beach, agreeing that Dollet's beaches were nice, but nothing compared to the beaches of Centra with the lighthouse welcoming them home.
What surprised Quistis the most over the course of the week was how different Irvine acted. Then again, they'd only had those few months together before, sneaking moments where they could in between missions. There'd been little time for small talk, little time to simply relax and enjoy one another's company.
He was still Irvine, of course, with his flirty comments designed to make her blush and scowl simultaneously. But he didn't push her. Though he'd obviously been worried about her while she was gone, he didn't try to get physical with her, didn't pry into the months of her life where she'd been on edge every waking moment.
He instead let her open up on her own terms, and he spent hours without saying a word as they sat on the villa balcony in the dark while she described the time in Deling City, how Zell had been her only lifeline, her only link to the life she knew. And when she finished, she felt like a weight had lifted. If she'd been here by herself, trapped with only her books and her often overanalytical mind, she might not have found this kind of closure.
He got out of his seat, setting his hand down on top of her head, ruffling her hair a bit. "I'm glad you're back."
"I'm glad I'm back, too," she admitted, shivering a bit at the chill in the air now that the sun was hours gone. "This is my job, though. You understand, don't you?"
"I could get back to Garden, and Squall could have a job for me here or in Esthar or on the moon for all I know. I like my job, Irvine. Even when it's hard."
His hand vanished, and she already missed it as he slid open the balcony door to head back inside. "And that's why times like these...you shouldn't be alone. Because even if you've got someone with you on a job, it's the job first and you second. The job is a solitary thing, and it's not healthy to come home and be alone even more. That's all I'm saying."
He bid her a polite good night and slipped inside, leaving her alone in the dark. She rubbed her bare arms to warm them up, listening to the steady, soothing sound of the waves crashing along the beach.
He was right, in a way. Much as Quistis liked the chance to recharge on her own terms, it wasn't so bad to have someone in arm's reach. No matter how hard she trained, no matter how planned out the mission was, risk was what SeeD was all about. Any day on a job could be her last.
She got out of her seat and headed inside, closing and locking the door and going through her before bed routine. It was only when she was under the covers, completely unable to sleep, that she realized just how much this week had meant to her. How much Irvine's presence had warmed her. The simple things like sharing a meal, walking side by side. He'd toned himself down for her benefit, until she was ready. He'd proven his sincerity and affection. Everything that had confused her about his intentions before seemed rather straightforward now. He cared about her, and she was glad for it. And she cared about him too.
She avoided the squeaky step as she crept downstairs with the moonlight to guide her, finding him curled up on the couch hugging one of the gaudy throw pillows against his chest. He'd taken the tie out of his hair, and it made him look younger, wilder. She decided to be a little younger and wilder in turn, leaning over the side of the couch to flick him on the forehead with her finger.
He opened his eyes, chuckling. "What's the big idea?"
She said nothing, walking around the couch until she was facing him expectantly. He tossed the pillow and his blanket away, sitting up in his Garden t-shirt and boxer shorts.
"Sleepwalking or insomnia?" he asked.
Quistis slid her shorts and panties down to the floor, stepping out of them. "Neither."
She moved forward, clambering onto the couch until she was on top of him, hearing his sharp intake of breath as she sat on his lap. "Well now," he said, fingers sliding under the thin fabric of her tank top.
She brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth and smiled. "Well now, indeed."
She woke in the morning still on the couch with the blanket and Irvine's scent around her, and much as she wanted to never move, she could smell the sausage frying in the kitchen. She fumbled around on the floor for her clothes, just in time for Irvine to set down a plate on the coffee table for her.
"Good morning," she said in return, a comforting warmth spreading through her at the sight of him in his t-shirt and shorts with his messy hair. Quistis never thought she'd experience such a domestic scene with the life she led.
"Hope you didn't think I'd stop pampering you once I got your pants off," he said with a grin. "Got a whole week left here, and I've got a brain full of recipes you haven't tried yet."
Work-life balance, Quistis thought as they dug in to their breakfast. This definitely fit the bill.