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Irvine awoke to the heavy sensation of an arm draped across his waist, and wondered whose it was.

This was one of his favourite games of late. He was lying on his side, and opened his eyes to focus on his desk, just across the room, laden with neatly folded laundry and a pile of papers. The arm around him tightened, and the addition of a fine specimen of morning wood digging into Irvine's back solved the puzzle for him.

He pressed back into Squall's eager erection with a contented sigh.

"Morning," he murmured.

"Mmmm," said Squall, and started to rock his hips.

"Hey, guys," came Rinoa's voice from across the bed. "I hate to say this, but it's time for Irvy to get up, and anyway, you shouldn't be doing that. Not today."

Irvine frowned, trying to remember what reason on earth could keep him from a little fun with Squall and Rin on his way to the shower. Possibly also while he was in the shower, and maybe. . .

"Oh yeah," said Squall, a hint of laughter in his voice. "Of course. Sorry, man. You've got to keep your strength up."

"Wha. . .?" Irvine watched the arm as it was slowly withdrawn from his middle, Squall leaving him with a little pat to one hip and turning to Rin, taking a good portion of the covers with him.

"Selphie would kill us if we sent you to her all tuckered out," Rinoa reminded him.

Selphie. Irvine had almost forgotten. Today was the day he went to fetch Selphie back from Trabia. He'd see her in person for the first time in nearly half a year.

How could he forget?

He leapt out of bed with renewed vigour, although it took his body a while to catch up with his mind, which left him a little dizzy.

He was bringing Selphie back. His Selphie. Home.

He snagged a towel from the radiator, and padded through to the shower, sparing a glance over his shoulder at Rin and Squall just before he went through the bathroom door.

It had been fun, he thought, warmly. They'd kept him sane for the long, long months of Selphie's absence. And even now, as he watched Squall turn Rinoa onto her back and shimmy down under the covers to nuzzle between her legs, he was sorely tempted to take one last moment of companionable pleasure with them. Just for old time's sake.

Of course, they'd had several of those the previous evening. And one final, definitely, absolutely last time when they woke up all horny in the middle of the night.

But now it was over. Selphie was coming home, his Seffie, his bundle of sunshine, his joy, and everything would go back to normal.

He wrenched himself away from Rinoa's cries of ecstasy, and tried to decide what shampoo to use.

Eventually, he settled on the strawberry.

* * * * * * *

By the time Irvine had emerged from the bathroom, Squall and Rinoa were looking smug and pink and just a little sweaty. Squall gave Irvine a somewhat foolish grin, and padded off for his turn under the shower. Rinoa sat naked on the bed, knees hugged under her chin, dark hair flowing down her back and over her shoulders. Her soft brown eyes twinkled at him.

"You must be so excited," she said, watching Irvine as he wrapped his long hair in a towel and started to sort through the pile of laundry.

"Yeah," said Irvine. "It's been so long. Six whole months." He held up a pair of blue briefs. "Are these mine or Squalls? I can never tell?"

Rinoa squinted at them. "They're yours," she decided. "Squall's have a black waistband. Aren't you going to wear something more… special? The silk ones are in there somewhere."

Irvine threw a wink over his shoulder at her. "I wasn't planning on keeping them on that long," he said.

Rinoa laughed. "I should've guessed," she said ruefully. "I'd be surprised if Selphie's wearing any at all."

Irvine felt his skin start to tingle at the thought. That and the way Rinoa was looking at him, eyes sparkling mischief. He stepped into his jeans, deciding it might be safer not to do them up just yet; even his underwear felt a little tight. He scrubbed at his hair with a fresh towel, grimacing as he felt the knots and tangles, and wishing he hadn't run out of conditioner, or at least that Rinoa's hadn't simply smelt too flowery to use.

"Come here," she said, sorting through the pile of clutter on the bedside cupboard for a comb. "Let me sort that out for you."

Irvine sat on the edge of the bed and let her comb his hair, wincing as she got to grips with the worst tangles. Rinoa was very good with hair, but she couldn't be accused of being gentle. Whereas Squall was always too frightened of hurting to really get to grips with it, but his cautious fingers felt like heaven.

"So what do you plan on doing when you get there?" she asked. "If it isn't a silly question."

Irvine gave a happy sigh. "I've got it all worked out. I'm going to take her to lunch, and then back to her quarters for a long bath. And then I said I'd help out with this party she's organised for the night after."

Rinoa giggled. "Selphie has to be the only person I know who would insist on organising her own farewell party."

"Yeah," Irvine grinned. "That's my Seffie-girl."

Rinoa paused in her combing, laying the strands she'd already done out in neat lines down his back.

"It'll be odd, when she's back. I'm going to miss this," she said.

"Yeah," said Irvine. "But you can't tell me you'll complain about having Squall to yourself again. It's been really good of you to share him."

He felt the soft velvet of her lips brushing his ear. "You've certainly made it worth my while," she whispered.

"And it's been good of him to share you." Irvine adjusted his jeans, which were suddenly very tight again.

"Have you told Selphie about all this?" Rinoa gestured at the wreckage of Irvine's bed with her comb.

"No," Irvine admitted. "I never quite found the words, somehow."

"But you are going to tell her?"

"When the time's right. It doesn't matter. Seffie and I have always been open about things."

Rinoa had a shrewd idea that that wasn't strictly true, but she didn't say anything.

The bathroom door slid open and a nude, damp Squall stepped out. "You're out of conditioner," he informed Irvine, fastening his towel securely around his narrow waist.

Securely, that is, in the sense that it was just begging Irvine to show how easily it could, in fact, be removed. But not today. Today, he reminded himself, he was Saving Himself for Seffie.

"There. All done," said Rinoa, pulling the comb easily through Irvine's thick hair, already half dry in the summer warmth. "What colour do you want?" She tossed a bag of hair bands into his lap.

"Maybe green," mused Irvine.

"To match her eyes?" teased Riona.

"I was thinking of it matching my shirt, actually," said Irvine. "But yeah, now you come to mention it."

Squall scowled at the laundry pile. "Are there any of mine in there?"

"Black waistband," sighed Rinoa. "At least three pairs, I did them yesterday."

"Oh." Squall prodded the pile suspiciously. "I can't find any."

Rinoa bounced off the bed with a heavy sigh, and went to pluck a pair of briefs instantly from the pile. "There you go, Commander," she said pointedly, resisting the urge to plonk them on his head. Squall didn't always have a sense of humour in the mornings. "My turn in the bathroom."

"There's no conditioner," said Squall.

"There should have been enough of mine left to-" Rinoa sniffed Squall's hair suspiciously. "Squall! You knicked the last of my conditioner! You bastard!"

Squall looked sidelong at her, with a tiny grin and a twinkle in his eye. "Sorry," he lied.

"You smell like a girl," complained Rinoa.

Irvine was rolling on the bed in fits of giggles. Not that it was all that funny, really. It was just - nice. Over the past few months they'd slid into a domestic routine that suited all of them. Somehow a one-night stand intended to cheer Irvine up while Selphie was away had turned into five months of all but living together. It was intimate, and easy, and it soothed him. And not just him. Squall had been much less uptight, and Rinoa was definitely less anxious about the whole sorceress thing. Irvine suddenly realised he was going to miss it.

But not nearly as much as he'd missed Selphie.

Rinoa left Squall with a hard stare for his transgression, and headed for the shower. Squall stepped gracefully into his underwear, the mischievous smile still lighting his face.

"I'll miss you guys," said Irvine.

"We'll only be down the hall," said Squall, ever the literalist.

"Yeah," said Irvine, "instead of in here fucking my brains out, like you should be."

Squall flashed him a look, which Irvine wasn't quite sure what to make of. It looked kind of - reproachful? Amused? Apathetic?

Squall was still hard to work out sometimes.

"I'm sure Selphie'll keep your mind off that," he said.

Irvine's tummy did a little flip at the thought.

"We'll get our stuff sorted out while you're gone," Squall said, surveying the jumble of possessions that littered Irvine's room. "It'll be as if we were never here."

"Thanks," said Irvine. Although he didn't feel particularly grateful to lose the now-familiar clutter of Squall and Rinoa's possessions. Rather, he was pleased that he wouldn't have to see the actual going of them.

Better to leave like this, and when he returned with his Seffie, everything would be back to normal.

"You ready?" Squall asked, checking his watch. "The Ragnarok goes in half an hour. You haven't had anything to eat yet."

"Not hungry," said Irvine, pulling himself to his feet and zipping up his jeans. "I'll just wait to say goodbye to Rin and then. . ."

Squall nodded, and started doing up the various belts he kept around his person. "You ought to eat something, though," he said.

Irvine smiled. "Don't forget to go with Rin and buy her something nice to wear for the official opening, eh? You promised, remember?"

Squall frowned. "Did I?"

"You know you did. Before the second blow job last night."

"Oh, yeah." Squall's frown vanished, replaced by a somewhat dreamy expression. "So I did."

"You remember what we talked about? The whole shopping thing?"

"It's not enough to go, I have to pretend I like it?"

"Very good. And?"

"On no account can I wait outside the shop. I must go in with her."

"Excellent. And?"

"No sighing, yawning or leaning against stuff in a bored kind of way?"

"Yep. And?"

"I have to have Opinions," said Squall, his voice thick with dread. "I can't just say everything looks nice. I have to tell her," he checked off the points on his fingers as he went through them; "the colour suits her, or it makes her legs look longer, or it's really sexy, or she can carry it off so much better than Quistis would."

"That's it. And don't forget to at least try to give her head in a changing room, huh?"

"I'll try," promised Squall. "But I don't seem to have the knack for that kind of thing that you do."

"I'm sure you'll manage just fine." Irvine gave him a huge wink.

"Manage what?" asked Rinoa suspiciously, re-emerging from the shower all pink and damp and wrapped in a towel.

"To look after you when I'm gone," said Irvine, dispensing another wink. "Which," he added. "Is any minute now. I have to go, babe."

"Oh."

The three of them stood there for a moment, looking at each other, before Irvine pulled them both to him in a big hug, kissing whatever dark, damp locks happened to fall under his lips.

"Be good, huh?"

Squall snorted.

"Send our love to Selph," Rinoa told him. "Tell her we'll see her tomorrow and the whole gang's going down for that beach party when she gets back. If you'll let her out of your room by then, that is."

Irvine grinned. "I might."

He drank in the sight of them both for one last time. His best friends. His lovers. His lifeline for the past six months.

"It's been great," he said. "I can't thank you enough. For everything."

"It's our pleasure," said Rinoa. "Literally."

"We're always here if you need us," said Squall. "For, I mean, friends. If..."

Irvine put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, man, I understand. Thanks."

Squall looked relieved not to have to elucidate, and treated Irvine to a little smile.

Of course it was sad. It was only natural, Irvine told himself , as he gave them both a final hug, that he would feel choked and have to leave in a bit of a rush, without looking back, brushing something from his eyes. After all, they'd all but lived together for nearly six months, and he'd got used to having them around.

But it wasn't the same as Selphie. Selphie was his mate, his partner, the love of his life.

He set out for Trabia with a swarm of butterflies in his tummy and a song in his heart, and only the faintest inkling of regret.

* * * * * * *

The new Trabia looked nothing like the old one. Everything was chrome and what looked like plate glass but must have been some advanced Estharian plastic. Every inch of it gleamed, from the polished marble floors to the bright tiled ceilings, and the sparkle from the fountain that spurted over a sculpture of a lion in the entrance lobby was so bright it almost hurt to look at it. Irvine felt somehow shabby and out of place, and was irrationally worried that he might break something.

He kept wondering if he should have brought flowers, and had to repeatedly remind himself that Selphie didn't like cut flowers, she preferred them left in the wild rather than dying in a vase...

He almost didn't recognise her.

He heard her first, the same bright sparkle of a voice calling his name. But when he turned he saw a young woman a little taller than he remembered Selphie being, with an air of authority and responsibility about her. It was only when she flung her arms around her neck, whispering "hello, Cowboy," in his ear, that he really registered her as Selphie at all.

Her hair was different, he realised, running his fingers down the nobbles of a neat braid that ran down between her shoulder blades. But it still smelt of strawberries and cinnamon, and the little arms around him held him tight.

He hugged her back, this strange almost-Selphie, and wondered what was wrong with him. He'd wanted this for so long, and now...

"Missed you, Cowboy."

"Missed you, sweet thing." The words sounded hollow, strange, as if someone else were speaking them.

"Let me look at you." She stepped back, taking hold of his big hands in her small ones. "You haven't changed a bit."

"You neither," he lied. He touched her hair, all slicked back, longer than it used to be, still the same rich chestnut colour, bringing out the vivid green of her eyes. She was wearing smart charcoal grey trousers, and her boots had heels that gave her an extra couple of inches in height. She'd always worn skirts before, but he dimly remembered her mentioning this was part of the new Trabian uniform.

"Your hair's different," he said.

"It was getting a pain, doing the flip thing every morning," she explained. "We've been so busy, I can't tell you."

"You did," he said. "Thanks for all the e-mails and letters."

"I'm sorry I couldn't have you to visit. It's just I've had to be so single minded, and you're a distraction, being so sexy and all."

He felt his smile broaden into a lazy grin, mostly out of habit. In fact, he felt a little hurt. It didn't seem fair, all of a sudden. Surely he could have found a way to help, without being a distraction. Besides, it had been distracting for him not to have her around. He'd hardly been able to function, until Rinoa and Squall had...

He missed them, suddenly, with a sharp pang that felt like homesickness. But that was ridiculous.

"Hello, Irvine."

He started at the sound of Quistis' voice, and turned to see her standing behind him. She, at least, looked the same as ever, dressed in the familiar Balamb uniform, long blonde hair captured in a rough bun at the back of her head. She kissed him on the cheek and smiled at him.

"I won't intrude on your reunion," she said. "I just wanted to say hello. It's been a long time."

"She wouldn't let me visit," he said. "Apparently I'm a distraction."

"I think I can testify to that," murmured Quistis, with a wink.

Irvine started to feel a little better.

"Have the caterers got the menus sorted out yet?" Selphie asked Quistis. "Only it was a complete mess yesterday. Oh, and the band need..."

Quistis put a steady hand on Selphie's shoulder. "It'll all be fine," she said. "Just leave it to me. You're not the only one who can organise a party, you know. You go spend some time with your cowboy. Trust me, I'll manage."

A look passed between the two young women, something that Irvine couldn't quite define and sensed he wasn't part of. It felt strange. Not how he'd expected to feel at all.

It didn't feel right. Any of it.

"Thanks, Quisty," Selphie was saying. "Come on, Cowboy, let me show you my quarters."

I have a name, thought Irvine. And Selphie's quarters weren't here. They were at Balamb, messy and with the best bathroom in the world. He's been there everyday, watering her plants and checking her things were just as she'd left them. It had made him feel close to her.

Far, far closer than he felt to her now.

He let her lead him away, casting a final grin over his shoulder at Quistis. But she wasn't looking at him. She had already turned to talk to a group of cadets waiting for her by the fountain.

He tried to put the negative thoughts out of his head, and watched the chestnut braid swinging between Selphie's shoulder blades as he followed her through the chrome and marble, to the room she seemed to think was hers.

* * * * * * *

"What d'you think? Isn't it cool?"

Irvine looked around Selphie's quarters with wide eyes. Every room was full of mirrors and soft carpets, absolutely huge compared with even Squall's back in Balamb. There was a proper kitchen and everything.

"There's no bath," said Selphie. "Just a shower. But that's not so bad, is it? I mean, showers are more hygienic."

"I guess. I was thinking, Selph, I could take you to lunch and..."

"Maybe. I'm not that hungry." She wound her arms around his neck again, standing on tiptoe to come within kissing distance. "Not for food, anyway."

That, at least, sounded more like the old Selphie.

"I've got stuff in the fridge for later," she said. "We could just stay here, if you like?"

"Sounds good." Irvine's doubts were fading as held her in his arms, and vanished almost completely as he kissed her, her lips sweet and familiar. His cock jerked to life, and although it briefly amazed him that it hadn't shown much interest up until that point, it seemed to be making up for it now. By the time they broke the kiss Irvine was breathless and his balls ached.

"Oh, Cowboy..."

"Seffie, oh, gods, Seffie, I missed you."

"Mmmm..."

"Where do you want it, babe? How? Just say, anything, I'm all yours."

She flashed a smile at him. "The bed. Through there. Just fuck me. I want to feel you deep inside."

He growled and picked her up easily in his strong arms, carried her through to the bedroom and dropped her on the bed. She gave a little squeak and a giggle of delight. He pulled his T-shirt over his head and took out his hair band, shaking his hair over his broad shoulders, knowing she liked it. She growled happily and grabbed his hand to pull him down next to her. He wanted to take his time, but she was having none of it, swiftly divesting him of jeans and underwear, shimmying out of her own clothes while he took off his boots and socks.

He wanted to kiss her all over, to spend hours stroking her and licking her and waking up every single nerve ending, making her tingle and writhe. But she wasn't in the mood for waiting, and before he knew it she was straddling his hips and lowering herself down on him, her eyes shut, head thrown back, encasing him in warm velvet. She wriggled on him and arched, hands clasped just above his knees to support herself, making the friction of his iron hard cock against her sweet spot more intense. He touched his thumb to her clitoris, and gasped at the feel of her soft fingers tickling him just below the balls.

She came quickly, and despite his best efforts, her clever touch brought him with her. Not that that would have stopped him, particularly. But she seemed to have had enough; she nuzzled into his neck and thanked him, as she rolled off his body. He lay there, dazed, reached out to her, still hardly believing she was really there. Selphie stretched, and yawned, and cuddled into his side.

She seemed as far away as if they'd still been on different continents.

He was suddenly overwhelmed by a huge wave of sadness, and he couldn't work out why. She felt good, lying there in his arms. It wasn't that it wasn't nice. It just wasn't how it used to be. She didn't feel like the Seffie he'd known nearly all his life. It wasn't comfortable and incredible and amazing, like it was with...

For the first time, Irvine thought the unthinkable, and it scared him to the core.

"You're every bit as good as I remembered." Her tone was almost polite.

"You too." He kissed her hair, breathing in her scent and trying not to panic.

"It's been a long time."

"Yeah." Too long, he thought. Maybe it's just been too long. "Selph, I-"

"Rinoa said you were really sad."

Did she? Irvine didn't remember Rinoa mentioning talking to Selphie about him. But then, she probably wouldn't have. She and Squall tended not to mention Selphie much at all, for fear of depressing him. But the thought that Selphie was concerned somehow made things feel a little better.

"Yeah. I was," he said. "But everyone's been really good to me, trying to take my mind off things." This was the moment when he should tell her about Squall and Rin, he thought. Explain exactly how they'd kept his mind of things, how good they'd been to him, although it was over now, and it didn't mean anything and...

The moment floated past like a leaf on the breeze, and was gone.

"I was sad at first, too," she said. "I did miss you. But I've been so busy, and it's so exciting. It's been incredible, to see it all built up from nothing. People have worked so hard, and to think it was a ruin and now..."

She told him all about the new Garden, the design, the building of it, all the new features and the hopes she had for its future, and for a while she really was his old Seffie again. All passion and enthusiasm, her eyes shining happiness. Except, not for him, as such. It was all for her job, for this place, these people.

"It's going to be great," she was saying. "After the official opening we can start training the first batch of recruits. Which reminds me, I must show you the training centre, it's completely state of the art, I've got all these ideas for training games I'm going to do with the cadets, and-"

"But you'll be back at Balamb," he said, a sense of dread creeping into his heart. "You're finished here now, right?"

She didn't answer him at first; she looked away and twirled a strand of his hair around her fingers.

"Selph? You're coming home, remember?"

"Well, yeah. But-"

"But? But what, exactly?" His tone was sharper than he'd intended.

"They want me to stay," she said. "Or rather, to come back, after a couple of weeks vacation. To take charge of mentoring the new intake and helping with the admin. Just for the first year."

Irvine stared at her, not knowing what to think, and without a clue as to what he was feeling, or what he should say.

"A year?" he managed.

"Yes. Do you mind?"

Mind? Do I mind that I just got you back again, however weird it may feel, and now you're telling me you're going away again?

"Yes," he said, recognising the main emotion running through him as disappointment, with anger not far behind. "Of course I mind." He felt strangely relieved that he did, however much it hurt.

"Oh." She pulled herself away from him and sat up.

"I've just gone through six months of hell waiting for you to come back," said Irvine, forgetting for the moment the parts that, thanks to Squall and Rin, had been anything but hellish. "Six months! And now you're telling me you're going away for another year?!"

"I knew you wouldn't understand," she said, in a little voice. But for the first time, he looked at her and saw the Selphie he loved. Completely brave and stubborn.

"Seffie, I love you," he said. "I want to be with you. Not just at the end of a phone line. Really with you. A year's a fuck of a long time."

"I know. But this is my Garden. It's my career. It's what I want to do."

"More than you want to be with me?" He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"No! Yes, I... no. Not altogether. I don't want to break up. It's just... this is such an opportunity. I'll never get a chance like this again. Please Irvine, if you really love me, you'll understand how important this is."

And if you really loved me, you wouldn't want it. "Seffie-"

"No," she interrupted. "Don't say anything now. I know it's not been easy for you, I realised it'll take a bit to sink in. I'm going to take a shower. You think it over and we can talk it through later." She slithered off the bed, started hunting about in drawers until she produced a robe, which she slipped over her lightly-freckled shoulders. "Make yourself at home, eh? There's tea and coffee and juice in the fridge. I won't be long." And with that, she slithered out of his arms and padded towards the bathroom.

Irvine watched her go, his mind a blur of panic and misery.

How could she do this to him? Right out of the blue, just like that, when he'd waited so long and...

He picked up the pillow to throw it across the room in a fit of sudden temper, and froze. There was something underneath. An earring.

Quistis' earring. He'd recognise it anywhere; a little stud with the SeeD logo on it. She wore them all the time.

He was wondering if anything would ever make sense ever again when he heard his phone trillling from his duster pocket. Grateful for a relatively ordinary task to manage among all the confusion, he dug it out and answered it.

It was Balamb Garden's number. "Hi, Irvine Kinneas?"

"Hey Irvine." Squall's voice, calm and familiar. "I didn't expect you to pick up."

"Oh. No. Well, Selphie's in the shower."

There was a brief pause. "And you're not?" said Squall, bluntly.

"No."

"Oh."

"It's good to hear your voice," he said, truthfully.

"I was just going to leave a message. It's not important. Um. I didn't think you'd be answering your phone."

"Like I said. Selphie's in the shower. What was it?"

"Just would you have time tomorrow to go and pick up Kiros from the Shumi village? I said he could come back with us on the Ragnarok. He's supposed to be chairing this conference in Deling next week and I think he's trying to avoid travelling with Odine again."

"Sure. I can see that would be a fate worth avoiding."

"Thanks. Sorry for bothering you. See you tomorrow, then."

"Sure. Hey, Squall?"

"Yeah?"

"You're not busy, are you? I mean, you don't have to go anywhere?"

"No."

"Would you mind talking for a bit?"

There was a pause.

"Irvine, are you alright?"

"Yeah, fine, I just..."

"I don't do talking. You know I'm no good at it. And anyway, haven't you got other things you should be doing?"

"Things aren't right, Squall."

"What things? Is she okay?"

"Yeah, it's just... she wants to stay."

"Stay where?"

"Here. In Trabia. For another year."

"Really? That's odd."

"Well, yeah, I would've said devastating, but odd also applies."

"No, I mean odd that no-one asked me," he said. "It mustn't be confirmed yet."

"Oh, I see... I hadn't thought of that... hey! You could stop her!" Irvine brightened suddenly. "You could say that Balamb needs her more, right?"

"I could," agreed Squall. "But I'm not going to."

"What?! Why?"

"Because it's not true. They need all the help they can get in Trabia to get the new Garden up and on its feet. Selphie would be great at that."

"Squall!"

"What? Oh. You'd miss her."

"Of course I'd fucking miss her. I've only just survived six months. This is twice as long."

"Yeah. Mm. That would be tough."

There was a pause, during which Squall conspicuously failed to offer Irvine any suggestions.

"And there's something else," said Irvine.

"What?"

Squall waited.

"Um... this sounds kinda stupid."

"Irvine, what is it?" asked Squall, a little impatiently.

"I don't think she... I... it feels weird."

"Weird?" Squall was floundering. Irvine could hear it in his voice.

"It's just... she's got her hair different, and she's... gone responsible."

"Girls are always messing with their hair. Remember when Rin went blonde that time and then got all pissed with me because I didn't recognise her in the cafeteria? And Selphie's always been responsible. She's a SeeD, Irvine."

"Not with me, she's not."

"Oh."

"And I don't think she wants me. Not like she used to. I think she's got used to not having me around."

"Oh."

"And I think maybe she's sleeping with Quistis."

"Ah. Would you like to talk to Rin?" said Squall, helplessly.

"Is she there?"

"No, but I could get her. Really, man, I'm no good at this kind of stuff. You know I'm not."

"I've not got much time, she'll be out of the shower soon."

"Oh fuck. Well. Um... did you... er..."

"Yeah. But even that was weird. Do you think maybe she doesn't love me anymore?"

"Irvine, I really don't..."

"I could give her an ultimatum. Tell her to come back with me or I'll finish with her. What d'you think?"

"I really think you're talking to the wrong person. What the fuck do I know? I'm not there. I really don't..."

"I could beg. Should I beg?"

Squall considered this for a moment.

"I think you should talk to her," he decided. "You always tell me to talk to Rin when things go wrong."

"Hm."

"You know, it's not exactly a big surprise if she's been sleeping with Quistis. And you've been sleeping with us. Have you told her that yet?"

"No. Not exactly. No."

"Irvine, if there's anything I can tell you it's only what you've told me. Don't hide things. It ends badly."

"Is that what I told you?"

"Kinda. I think. Oh, and the breathing stuff. But that's not really appropriate right now."

"Oh."

"Tell her how you feel. Do your usual Irvine thing. Shag her brains out. Then see if she still wants to stay in Trabia."

Irvine felt strangely comforted. The hiss of water on tile from the bathroom stopped.

"Thanks Squall. I'd better go now, she'll be back in a sec."

"That's okay. Bye for now."

"Bye."

"Oh, and Irvine?"

"Yeah?"

"If things go wrong, I mean if she... if you both... we're here for you. Me and Rin. Always. You know, if you want."

Irvine suddenly thought of what it would feel like, to hide in Squall and Rinoa's arms, to lose himself in their generous, willing bodies. But that was over. They were just friends now, close, good friends, but that was all. He had no right to impose on them any longer, and besides...

"Thanks, man. Bye."

He clicked off the phone, just as Selphie, clad in a big white towel, came back into the bedroom.

He reached for his clothes, and started to dress.

"Irvy? What're you doing?"

"I'm going for a walk," he said. "I need to think."

"But..."

"You can't dump something like that on me and expect me to just..." he looked at her, hair wet and dripping around her shoulders, green eyes big and round and pleading with him. "I can't stay here right now. I need to kill something. You have monsters round here still? Out there in the real world, I mean, not in this fucking palace?"

Hurt flashed across her face, and he regretted his words instantly, but he didn't take them back. Couldn't take them back. With a shock he realised he wanted to hurt her, just a bit, just to get his own back for all those months of loneliness and wanting.

"Take all you like," she said, her own fiery temper flaring. "Try not to get hurt. We've got better things to do with our infirmary than patch up testosterone-cases."

"I can handle myself," he spat, and shrugged his duster over his shoulders, snatched up his hat.

"You can't always get your own way, Kinneas," she said, coldly, as he headed for the door. "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices."

He stopped, one finger poised on the door release button.

"Oh, right," he said. "I see. Sacrifices. Let me tell you about sacrifices. I just spent six months waiting for you, when all I could do was think about you and miss you and want you. I put everything on hold until you finished fucking about here. How would you feel if you were told to keep away from the person you loved most in the world, because she didn't want to see you while she was working? How would you feel if you came second to a damn construction project? You've had it your way, every inch, everything you wanted, sugar. What the fuck do you know about sacrifices?"

Something made of glass shattered against the door by his head. She glared at him, shaking with rage, looking astoundingly menacing for someone who was barely 5' tall and wearing nothing but a towel.

"You stupid, arrogant bastard! You think this has been easy for me? I lost everything, you idiotic slut! My Garden, my home, most of my friends. Everything I'd built after the orphanage was here, and it was all destroyed because I failed. I watched the fucking bombs that blew my life apart and I couldn't do a thing. And you have the audacity to stand there in a sulk because you couldn't get your end away for a few months while I tried to put things right? Fuck the hell off out of my Garden, Irvine Kinneas, and don't come back!"

The blood drained from his face, and he stared at her in absolute horror.

"Selphie, I..."

"Get out!"

"But..."

She reached for her nunchaka, and Irvine fled.

* * * * * * *

"Hello, Cowboy. What're you doing out here all alone?"

Irvine looked up to see Quistis peering down at him. The sunlight that slanted in bright lines through the transparent ceiling glinted off her glasses. He guessed by her friendly, curious expression that she hadn't spoken to Selphie.

"Nothing much."

She sat down next to him, and he scooted up the bench to make room for her.

It was dinnertime, and the lobby was empty except for the two of them. They sat by the lion fountain in silence for a few moments, Irvine swinging the barrel of his rifle between his knees, watching the shadow it drew on the marble floor.

"How's Squall? Rin? Zell? I can't wait to see them all again."

"They're fine. Zell's still with thingie from the library. Squall and Rin are coming tomorrow, for the opening."

"Yeah, so I heard. Selphie's really looking forward to that, huh?"

Irvine gave the barest of shrugs.

"Where is Selphie, anyhow?"

"I don't know," said Irvine. He delved into his pocket with one hand. "By the way, I think this is yours."

He popped her earring into her waiting palm.

"Oh, wow! Thanks! I thought I'd lost it and they're my favourites. Where did you..."

"In Selphie's bed."

Her face fell. "Oh. I see."

"It's okay. You two were... well, long before I came on the scene, huh? And we're open, you know, me and Selphie, we never actually said we'd be faithful or anything and..."

"You're really hurt," Quistis interrupted, looking at him closely. "This has really hurt you. Oh, Irvine, I'm so sorry. That's the last thing Selph and I would want."

"It's okay. Really."

"She was so lonely, Irvine. So sad. I couldn't let her go on feeling like that."

"Lonely?"

"It started about a fortnight after she arrived. I found her over there, where the new training centre is now. It was just a building site at the time, the contractors were really fucking us about, it was a nightmare. She was sitting on this pile of bricks - they'd sent us the wrong ones, as I remember - crying her eyes out. She was all ready to pack it in and go home."

"Why? I thought this place meant everything to her?"

"It does. But so do you. She missed you so badly, she was about to give up her dream for you. You wouldn't have wanted that, would you?"

"Of course not. Whatever she might think."

"Me neither. So I convinced her to stay. We kept each other company, that's all. She found the only way she could cope was to try not to think about you, to work so hard that she didn't have time to miss you. I helped her through the times she wasn't working. If I'd ever thought it would hurt you..."

"You sure did a good job. She's going to stay for another year, has she told you that?"

Quistis looked at the floor. "Yes. I was surprised. But she's done so well, and she's always had a strong sense of duty. She knows how much her experience of the old Trabia is needed here. It can't have been an easy decision for her."

"Well, she won't have to worry about me this time. We're finished, Quisty."

"What?"

"We had a row," he explained, in a small voice.

"Finished?" Quistis gazed at him in blatant surprise. "You and Selphie can't be finished!"

"It just won't work. I can't go through that again. I just can't. Better to end it now and-"

"So you're giving up on her? Just like that?"

"No, of course not. But... she's changed, Quisty. However much she might have cared for me in the start, she doesn't care like that for me now. She's all distant and weird, and I don't..."

"That's bullshit. Of course she still cares for you. She was a bag of nerves this morning, and she... have you spoken to her about this?"

"Not much. She sort of threw me out."

Quistis sighed deeply. "Is this because of me and her? Only that's not important. We really didn't want to hurt anyone. It was just for comfort."

"No, it's nothing to do with you." He managed a shadow of his usual sexy grin for her. "I've not exactly been an angel myself. It's not that. I can't ask her to give up all this for me, and I can't face waiting a whole year, only to find out that she's forgotten me or..."

"Or that you've forgotten her."

"What?"

"It works both ways, Irvine. If you've been fooling around, why shouldn't Selphie think that you don't want her anymore?"

"But I've always... we've both..."

"It's different, though, isn't it? What did you think, when you found my earring? Really?"

"That... that she'd made a new life here, with you," he confessed.

"And if Selphie had come back to Balamb Garden a week early, what would she have found?"

He stared at her, eyes wide. "Oh," he said.

"Exactly. You've both found ways to cope. There's bound to be weirdness. You can't just pick up where you left off. You need some time to fill in the gaps."

"But what's the point? Even if you're right, we'll no sooner have got back what we had than we'll lose it again. If what you say is true, if she does still care, then why would she want to go through all that again? Surely it's better to make a clean break of things and..."

He was interrupted by the click of bootheels across marble, and looked up to see Selphie walking towards them.

Quistis rose to her feet, smoothing down her skirt. "It's up to you," she said, softly. "Don't be so quick to throw away the best you ever had, Sniper."

She walked away, and he was looking up into Selphie's face, her eyes sad, her mouth set in a determined line.

"There's something I have to show you," she said. "Will you let me?"

He got up, and followed her.

* * * * * * *

In the middle of the new Trabia Garden was a massive atrium. It was a jungle of trees and exotic plants, a stone path winding through the foliage next to a stream, which somehow both started and ended at a waterfall in the centre. Three stories above was a clear perspex ceiling, an open view to the ice-blue Trabian sky. There were birds, singing and rustling in the trees, and the sound of the water babbling and hissing its way around the room.

It was stunningly beautiful, and Irvine had no doubt as to whose vision it was.

Irvine stood by the waterfall with Selphie, so awe-struck that he forgot for a moment that things weren't right between them.

"It's unbelievable," he breathed. "Oh Selph, it's wonderful. Did you..."

"It was a team effort," she said, modestly. "I'm glad you like it. But this is what I wanted to show you."

She led him round the next corner, and there, nestled among the trees, was a little cave entrance, with a few carefully arranged rocks forming a seat.

Irvine gaped.

"It's... it's from beach by the orphanage," he whispered. "It's our cave." He hadn't known she'd remembered.

"Come on." She jumped neatly across the little stream to the cave, holding out her hand to help him across.

He took her hand, and somehow when he was safely in the cave with her, he didn't see the need to let go.

It was a perfect match of the den they'd played in as children. Right down to the little alcoves weathered into the rock, where they'd kept secret supplies of food and bits and pieces they'd used for games. And just under the smallest of the alcoves, chiselled roughly into the rock, were their initials. S and I, with a little plus sign in between. He remembered putting it there - well, in the original version - the day he left the orphanage.

"This was finished about a month ago," said Selphie. "I've come here everyday since, and thought of you."

"Oh Seffie..."

"I never thought I'd get over you," she said. "When we were split up, after the orphanage - I couldn't imagine being alive without you. I still can't. It hasn't been easy, you know. It's been fucking hard, and..." Her eyes were filled with tears, and hurt, and he couldn't bear it.

He pulled her to him, and held her tight. "I'm sorry," he breathed into her hair. "I'm so sorry, Seffie, please forgive me. I'm a stupid, stupid man. I won't leave you. I'll never leave you. We'll find a way, I promise. I'm so sorry."

Her arms snaked around his middle, and hugged him back. "I missed you so much." Her shoulders shook, and she sobbed against his chest. "I couldn't even have you come visit, because I was frightened I couldn't let you go back and I'd give up, and I have to do this, I have to make Trabia better, I..."

"Shhh, Seffie, shh. It's okay. Don't worry, please don't worry. We'll sort something out. I promise." He had no idea how. But that didn't matter, for now. The important thing was that she was here, in his arms, that she still loved him, that not so very much had changed after all. His own tears fell into her hair, his guts twisting with every sob she choked out against his body. "Oh babe, Seffie, please... don't cry, sugar. Please don't cry."

"I can't help it," she sniffed. "I thought I'd lost you."

"Never."

He tilted her chin, and brushed the tears from her cheeks with gentle fingers. She looked up at him, her face flushed, and he kissed her, tasting her salt on her lips, feeling the tremble of the last few sobs racking her body.

It felt right, at last.

She kissed him back urgently, desperately, pressing herself against him, sliding a hand along the narrow gap between his shirt and his jeans, finding the hollow of his spine and stroking there in little circles.

He broke the kiss and rested his forehead on hers, breathing hard.

"Can just anyone walk in here? Can we... I mean, will anyone..."

"I don't care," she panted. "Kiss me again."

He didn't need asking twice.

He moved his mouth slowly over hers, his hands resting lightly on her hips, murmuring delight as she wriggled against him. She pressed her tongue between his lips and darted it into his mouth; he chased it with his while he combed out her braid with his fingers until her hair fell softly over her shoulders. She rubbed her pretty little nose against his, and her eyes twinkled at him, only the vaguest hint of sadness remaining in them.

He resolved to banish that shred of unhappiness just as soon as he could.

He kissed her again, pulling her shirt out of the waistband of her pants and running his cool hands underneath it, touching her skin and relishing it's softness, working his way up her back to deftly unhook her bra. He moved a hand around to the front to cup one breast, still kissing her, his tongue fluttering over the sides of hers. She responded eagerly, rubbing the aching ridge in the front of his jeans with the backs of her knuckles.

He tore himself away from her to lay his duster out on the ground. He could have taken her quickly, up against the rough wall, and he knew she would have liked it, fast and urgent and dangerous. But for once, he wanted to do her his way, slow and mostly gently.

He knelt on his duster and pulled her down with him, tangling his fingers in her chestnut hair, feathering her face and neck in kisses. He slowly undid her shirt and pushed it over her shoulders, followed by her bra straps, took a moment to flick out his tongue at her nipples, each in turn, and then sucked one into his mouth properly, tickling the sensitive underside of her breast at the same time. She started to undo his jeans, slowly, teasingly, sliding her hand inside and hooking her fingers around the leg of his briefs, teasing the edge of his balls. He moaned into the soft cushion of her pale breast, stroking the so-soft skin with the tip of his nose, quickly dispensing with the catch and zipper of her detested trousers.

He'd have to speak to her about that, he thought. However much he wanted to support her in what she was doing here in Trabia, he drew the line at her giving up the short skirts he loved so much and that suited her so well. Except maybe when he wasn't around...

He pushed them down to her knees, pausing to tug off her boots and socks before wrenching them over her pretty little feet. Then he licked and kissed his way back up, gently parting her knees to gain access to the spot on the insides of her slender legs, halfway up her thigh, where there was a little freckle, a magic spot that was half-ticklish, half-nice. He tortured her there for a while, until her thighs were trembling and he could smell her arousal.

He noted that her panties were Trabia-issue white briefs, and allowed himself to snatch them boldly from her, the thin cotton ripping easily in his strong hands. She squealed in protest and gave him a disapproving look, but the mischief in her eyes told him not to take any notice of it.

He knelt on back on his heels and spread her thighs a little wider, so he could see her. He trailed his fingertips through her wetness, using both hands, one index finger to stroke each of her swollen lips, meeting at the top to gently squeeze her clitoris. Then he did it again, and again, and each time her sex was juicier, and her cries a little louder.

After a while he slipped a finger inside her, and another, and a third, and started to rub her sweet spot, watching her writhe under his touch for a moment before dipping his head to taste her. She came almost instantly at the nudge of his tongue against her clit, spasming around his fingers so hard it almost hurt. He lay his tongue flat and firm over her until she'd finished, letting the rock of her hips tell him when she was ready for more.

He continued to rub and taste and stroke her, dipping the tip of his tongue into all the folds and hidden places of her sex, raising his head every now and then to drink in the sight of her. She wound her fingers in his hair, tugged gently, the signal that she wanted him to stop teasing and make her come again. He did as she asked, pushing his tongue firmly against the hard nub of flesh that pushed willingly back at him, squirming around on his mouth. He moved his fingers inside her with the rhythm of her cries, losing himself in her mounting pleasure until she clamped her thighs around his ears, and gushed over his hand, and throbbed under his tongue. He found he was moaning himself, so strongly was his pleasure linked with hers, humming against her tender, quivering sex so strongly that she came again almost straight away.

He'd missed her so much. He'd missed this, the passion that felt like second nature to him, all bound up in love and tenderness and familiarity. Selphie was so wanton, so free and easy with her desire and pleasure.

This time he pulled back when she'd finished, leaving just one finger gently moving in and out of her, spreading her wetness around. She pulled his other hand to her lips and licked her juices from his fingers, watching him as she did it. Intimate, sexy, deliberately provoking.

He pushed his jeans and underwear down over his hips and far enough down his thighs to free his cock. It didn't really occur to him to strip properly, he was so focused on Selphie and her body laid out naked and waiting for him. It only mattered that he please her, that he make it up to her for being so stupid and blind he hadn't seen how much she loved him, how much she'd missed him, how brave and clever and dedicated she was.

She pulled his shirt over his head, being none too gentle when it got stuck on his pony tail, anxious to expose his chest to kiss and nibble on. She teased his tiny nipples, licked around his well-defined muscles and stroked the sleek skin spread taut over them. His cock throbbed in his hand meanwhile, as he ran the head gently back and forth through her juices, pausing to rub her clitoris, making her gasp and buck towards him. He teased her mercilessly, positioning himself at her entrance over and over, for all the world as if he were about to plunge inside her, and then at the last minute switching back to torment her clit, until she was nearly ready to take her pleasure from the gentle rub of his hard flesh over hers, and then he'd switch back to her entrance.

Finally, she couldn't stand it any more. As quick as a flash she unbalanced him with one leg hooked around his, rolled him onto his back and sat astride him, sinking herself down on his cock with a cry of triumph. Down and down and down, all the way, until every last inch of him was sheathed in liquid velvet. She squeezed hard, tweaking his nipples at the same time, sending shocks through his body from all directions. Then she started to fuck him, bouncing in slow motion up and down his cock, squeezing on every down stroke, leaning behind her to torture his balls, scraping her nails ever so carefully across the tightly wrinkled skin.

She looked glorious, his Seffie, smiling down at him with wicked mischief in her eyes, making him doubt his self control more with every thrust, every time she clenched around him threatening to be the one that threw him mercilessly over the edge. She picked up speed, finding his serious rhythm, their serious rhythm, and he ran his hands up her lean thighs, resting his broad hands over her hips and sliding his thumbs between her plump, moist lips to find her clitoris again. He bullied it from both sides, pushing it's hood back and forth, watching as she bit her lower lip with her sharp little teeth, hissed in breath with the intense pleasure, moving faster now, grinding against his groin when he was rooted deep inside her, pausing for a tantalising moment with just the purple, throbbing tip of his cock touching her lips at the other end of the stroke. One time his cock slipped in her wetness and brushed against her anus instead; she gasped and he noted the expression on her face, a sudden interest, desire. He considered pushing inside her there, now, taking her in a whole new way, but he didn't want to hurt her, and there wasn't time to prepare her properly for such an invasion. So he bucked his hips and plunged back inside her cunt, winking at her so she knew he'd understood. Another time. Next time. Soon.

So willing. So eager. So full of lust and affection and need.

He slipped a finger around to her ass, and teased her there, jumped when she dipped below his balls and did the same.

And suddenly, it was all too much. His balls felt full to bursting, his cock was so sensitive it almost hurt when her cunt clenched around it, she was panting and crying out and fucking him so hard, so fast that he could hardly tell one thrust from the next. He kept from taking his pleasure only by concentrating on hers, teasing one nipple with his tongue and lips, stroking her clit and her ass, pressing his fingertip just a little way inside...

Her final scream echoed long and loud off the walls of the cave, and she pulsed so hard around him that he had no choice but to join her. She milked the come out of his cock with her cunt, pulling out every last drop his balls had to offer, shaking with the force of her own orgasm and thrusting in harmony with his.

He realised his cheeks were wet, and his hands were trembling. He pulled her down to lie on top of him, his dick spent but still hard, buried deep inside her. She was crying, kissing every last inch of his face, his cheeks, his eyelids, his nose, his hair, his mouth, and again, his mouth.

He wrapped his arms tight around her, and held her until the shaking stopped.

* * * * * * *

Irvine cradled Selphie in one arm, stroking her hair, enjoying the warm puff of her breath on his chest. It was getting dark, and the cave was lit only by the dim glow of the floor lights under the path. He pulled his duster over her shoulders, protection against the chill of the air conditioning, and tenderly kissed the top of her head.

"Irvy... what are we going to do?" She whispered.

The fact that she'd said 'we' and not 'I' didn't escape him. He squeezed her a little tighter.

"First of all there's some stuff we need to talk about," he said. "Then we'll have to find a way to be together and do the things we need to do."

"What stuff?"

"Well, there's Quistis, for one."

"Oh." She shifted a little awkwardly in his arms.

"And there's Squall and Rin for another."

"Squall and... oh. Oh! You mean..."

"I think we both needed to find some comfort while we were apart. You had Quisty and I had- "

"That's not fair," she teased. "You get two and I only have one?"

He grinned. "I didn't know we were rationed," he said.

She slapped him playfully on the arm. "Greedy slut."

"Hmf."

"So you don't mind, then, about Quistis?"

"I'm not really in any position to, am I? Besides, we always said that stuff didn't matter. It's how we are with each other that matters, right?"

"Right," she agreed, and settled to running a finger up and down his breastbone in slow lines.

"And you're okay about Squall and Rin?"

"Yeah," she said. "I thought something had happened. You got a lot... well, not happier exactly, but less miserable, certainly. I'm glad it's them."

"They understand. About us, about how much I love you. It's all over, now I've got you back. We agreed." He still felt a pang about that. A surprisingly big pang, in fact, considering how happy he was lying there on the rough cave floor with Selphie in his arms.

"So, what are we going to do? I want to stay here, and I want to be with you. I can't see a way out."

"Well, how about if I put in for a transfer? They must need instructors. I could do that."

She raised herself up on one elbow to look at him.

"You'd do that? You'd give up everything at Balamb, and come here, for me?"

He swallowed hard, and nodded. "Yes."

She looked at him for a moment, running the possibility through her mind. "Squall would never agree to it," she said. "He couldn't spare you. He needs you too much. He would never agree."

"He might, if I explained," said Irvine. "Let's give it a try, at least."

He had to admit to himself that she was probably right. He also knew that part of him was hoping she was right. His priorities were clear: he'd made a commitment to Selphie, and he loved her more than anything. But there was something between him and Squall that was growing faster than he dared even think about, and that something was pulling him both ways.

He couldn't be without Selphie. He was absolutely sure of that.

But he wasn't entirely sure he could be without Squall, either.

They had lapsed into a close, thoughtful silence, and they stayed there, cuddled close together on the floor of the cave, until the PA announced curfew for cadets.

Then they went back to Selphie's room, and lay in each others' arms, one way or another, until dawn.

* * * * * * *

The following afternoon found the pair of them, along with Quistis and the newly-collected Kiros, waiting for Squall and Rinoa in the entrance hall. Selphie was pacing the marble floor, looking around anxiously for anything Squall might disapprove of.

"Do you think he'll like it? Really? I mean the lion fountain, and the special gunblade training area and everything? Really?"

"He won't approve of the trousers," grumbled Irvine. He'd lost that particular battle so far. In fact Selphie had accused him of being sexist, and threatened to tell Quistis, which he thought was a little unnecessary.

The huge swing doors opened, and Squall and Rinoa were standing in front of them.

Irvine's tummy flipped, and it was all he could do to stop himself from flinging his arms around Squall there and then. He satisfied himself by hugging Rinoa a little harder than strictly necessary after a mere twenty four hour absence, and it was nice, and there were sparks, and it was more than her magic that made him tingle.

But it was Squall's soft voice that made the rest of the world go blank and caught his attention.

Damn. Why did everything have to be so complicated? Why couldn't he fall in love with just one person at a time, like normal folks did?

"I got your message," said Squall.

"Yeah?" Irvine swallowed hard, trying to read Squall's answer in his face and failing; the Commander mask was on and there was only the slightest flicker in his cloudy grey eyes.

Then Quistis took Squall by surprise by a kiss to his cheek, and the moment was gone.

There was a lot of hugging and talking at once, and an over excited Selphie was dragging them off for a full tour of the new Garden. It was a good hour before they were all sat down around a big table in the cafeteria, drinking hot chocolate and catching up on news. Selphie clutched Irvine's hand in hers, still far too excited, a little ball of nervous energy.

"Do you like it, Squall? Really? Do you?"

"Yes," said Squall, for at least the tenth time. "You've done a great job. I'm proud of you, and I'm proud of Trabia."

Irvine noticed a gleam of tenderness in his eyes: he really meant it. My, but Squall had come a long way.

Squall caught his eye for a long second, then looked away.

"You got our request, then," said Selphie. "Have you had a chance to thing about it? I mean, we'll understand if you haven't had time and I'm sorry to dump it on you but..."

Irvine watched Squall and waited, knowing he was doomed. Either Squall said yes, and he'd be in Trabia with Selphie for the next year, missing Squall, or else he'd be in Balamb missing Selphie.

He finally admitted to himself that he couldn't honestly say any more which would be worse. Or better.

"I can't keep you from Trabia, Selphie," said Squall. "Everyone says how much you're needed here, and I can understand why. We'll miss you back in Balamb, but this is your Garden."

Irvine stared at the table, polishing the gleaming glass top of it with the sleeve of his duster.

"And Irvy?" breathed Selphie.

"I'm sorry, I can't spare both of you," said Squall.

Irvine closed his eyes, tried to think through the roaring of his ears. Squall, but no Selphie. Squall, but no Selphie...

Squall was still speaking. "...At least not for a whole year, full time. But I can see how short of good SeeDs we are here, especially firearms specialists. I spoke with Xu, and we came up with some kind of a solution. We could manage if Irvine spent two weeks out of every month here, and the rest of the time back at Balamb."

"Squall!" Selphie squealed, launching herself across the table to take him in a huge bear hug. Squall blushed and tried to fend her off, but she was having none of it. He cast Irvine a long suffering look.

In fact it was all Irvine could do to stop himself from doing the same.

"It'll mean a lot of travelling to start with," said Squall, finally managing to disentangle Selphie's arms from around his neck. "But you can use the Ragnarok, at least for the first few months. Odine wants it back in February to make some modifications."

Kiros shuddered. "I always worry when that man talks about modifications," he said. "It usually ends badly."

Squall raised an eyebrow. "It's just a spaceship," he said. "What could go wrong?"

Kiros just stared into his half-drunk hot chocolate, and shrugged.

The conversation flew way over Irvine's head; he was only dimly aware of his surroundings. He was still back in the moment, just a few short minutes ago, when Squall had saved the day. He caught Squall's gaze, and to his surprise, Squall winked.

A smile spread slowly across Irvine's face, and he breathed again.

Selphie gave him a hug and a tingly kiss to his earlobe, and took Rinoa and Quistis off to show her some paintings at the other end of the cafeteria. He heard the start of a discussion about the new Trabian uniform as they went; to Irvine's disgust it seemed that Rinoa agreed that the trousers had some merit.

Squall leaned over to him, and spoke quietly. "I hope you don't mind," he said.

"Of course not," said Irvine. "It's the perfect solution. I didn't want to be away from Balamb completely." He took a deep breath. "I would have missed you."

He looked into the depths of Squall's cloud-grey eyes. There was recognition there, understanding, and something else, something deep and honest, that made Irvine's heart beat faster.

"Me too," said Squall. "More than..."

He didn't have to say any more. The two men exchanged a single nod, and with it an understanding, an agreement.

And a new beginning.