Usual Disclaimers: Blah, blah, blah, bunch of legal-speak. The characters are owned by the corporate gurus that are Squaresoft. Even though they wouldn't have the sense to feature said characters if it tweaked their narrow little noses. Ahem. Yes, I am bitter. But I'm finding creative outlets for my rage so all you corporate hacks have little to fear. For now anyway.
You get to feel so guilty got so much for so little
Then you find that feeling just won't go away
You're holding on to every little thing so tightly
Till there's nothing left for you anyway
You wanted to get somewhere so badly
You had to loose yourself along the way
You change a name but that's okay... it's necessary
And what you leave behind you don't miss anyway ~ "Gone", U2.
Sleazy. This was the first word to enter his mind as he surveyed the room before him. If one could indeed call it by such an innocuous title. For the spread of the club was anything but harmless. It was Friday night and the party was just getting started. The loud, pounding beat of the live band juxtaposed with the shrieks of those intoxicated enough to try out the scuffed dance floor. By the looks of things, the main body of revellers that slithered and helixed over the heaving surface was more than inebriated enough. That suited him just fine.
He tipped his hat and strolled past the bouncer into the syncopated lighting of the club. Cool eyes observed his fellow patrons as he slid around tables and elbows toward the nearest bar. This was not his usual scene but tonight he craved the anonymity such an atmosphere would bring. Tonight he needed to be alone.
Of course, that did not stop him from responding to appreciative female eyes with his well-used and well-known smile. A smile that had melted many a female into nothing but a puddle. He was a man who loved women, of every shape, age, and size. He found the entire gender fascinating and did his best to understand them. A fact that had probably helped him earn his reputation as a player. However, he was offended by such a crude epithet. He would rather cut off his right arm than willingly hurt someone he cared about. And he never entered into a relationship without mutual regard.
The cadence of the wailing guitar and driving bass grew faster and the hoarse tenor of the lead singer increased in pitch as he leaned across the black wood of the bar to order his favoured blend. After paying for the drink, he opted to remain standing to observe the crowd instead of searching fruitlessly for an empty stool. He leaned against the metal rung of the bar so that he faced the pulsating scene.
Parting his lips ever so slightly he took a sip from the plastic glass. Surprisingly, it was not as terrible as one would expect from such a place. The gin was a tad too diluted by the limejuice for his tastes but it was palatable at the very least. After a few more samples, he set the glass on the bar behind him, to be forgotten, and returned to measuring the crowd.
If only his acquaintances could see him now, he thought with a wry curl of his lips. They would roll their eyes and shake their heads. Typical cowboy. That was why he had to get away. The club was perfect. In this seedy little corner of Balamb, no one even knew he existed. Just the way he wanted it. What he was looking for tonight had no need for names or backgrounds or emotions.
A little while ago, someone had told him he could have whatever he wanted with the flick of an eyelash. It had been said flippantly, and not without scorn. If the glances he had received since strolling into the congested club were anything to go by, the speaker had been prophetic. It was too bad what he really wanted could not be found in this room.
A short burst of applause followed by boisterous laughter sounded off to his left. Intrigued, he flicked his long ponytail over one shoulder and skimmed his gaze over the pool tables located in the corner recess of the bar. A voluptuous blonde was attached to a broad-shouldered man who, by the looks of things, had just lost a game. It did not appear as though he was willing to cut his losses and be a good sport about it, either. His fist was clenched and his stance was anything but compliant. Another man, this one shorter and dark-haired, said something that made them all laugh again.
He shook his head and was about to turn away when a strident female voice lifted over the clamour of cracking balls and violent drums. Instead, he now titled his head to watch a petite brunette approach the loser with a hand outstretched. The affixed blonde tossed back her wildly teased mane and said something he was sure dripped with cattiness, though he was too far away to pick up her words.
Whatever it was did not faze the brunette as she kept her hand out and her eyes on the man. It was not until the shorter fellow spoke again that her head snapped around and her fingers dug into her palm. By the time a third male had come up behind her and taken her by both arms, he was already on his way over there.
"Now, now, honey. Don't get all worked up. A filly like you should know better than to come to a place like this alone. Some would say you're asking for trouble."
"And some would say you're asking to die." The brunette ground out, eyes in flames. "Unless you're after losing them, take your hands off me."
His eyes widened in momentary shock when he recognized the enraged woman. He stopped short a bit back a self-mocking grin. So much for the visions of white knights and distressed maidens that had drifted through his mind. This was one damsel whom could take care of herself.
"I'd listen to the lady," he drawled. "She doesn't make idle threats." His voice was not loud but it immediately caught the attention of all five patrons. The brunette's dark eyes met his briefly then turned back to her harasser's.
"Oh, look," the blonde giggled into her appendage's shoulder, "Her little cowboy has come to the rescue."
The shorter man swaggered over to him from where he had leaned against the table. He was a good five inches shorter and had to crane his neck to address him directly. "Oh yeah? And what're you gonna do about it?" He flexed his triceps in what he must have assumed was his most intimidating manner. He jerked a thumb. "This slut just cheated us our money."
The lines were so cliché and the situation so ridiculously hackneyed that he had a difficult time withholding a few snickers. Incredulous, he lifted both hands and took a step back, glancing at the woman with twinkling eyes in order to share the joke. She did not seem to find it as funny.
"Hey, I don't want any trouble. I'm just dropping a few words of advice. That, ah, filly packs a pretty hard punch."
Taking advantage of her captor's distraction, she twisted around in his grip and jammed her hand into his solar plexus at a forty-five degree angle. Breathless, the man could not even muster the energy to let out a moan before he slid to a puddle of muscle on the floor. She tossed her dark hair out of her eyes and stood glaring at him with her hands on her hips.
"Touch me again and you won't be feeling anything for a very long time."
He had to cover his mouth and lower the brim of his hat to cut off his amused guffaws.
"Hey!" the blonde frowned against the man's cotton t-shirt. "You can't just do that and get away with it." She finally released the muscle-head from her red-lacquered grip. "Do something."
With a roll of his eyes, he crossed his arms and prepared to watch yet another man turned into T-Rexaur excrement. What was that old saying about brains and brawn, or was it the other one, about thinking with the wrong head? He almost felt pity for the guy. Almost.
He hauled the woman against the metal of the pool table by her waist. Leaning down, he was about to tell her exactly how he punished sassy whores like her who didn't know their place. But he never got the chance to finish before he found himself on the floor. On the other side of the table.
She brushed off her shirt as if to eliminate whatever germs his close presence might have left on her and smoothed back her hair. "You all seem really determined to lose those hands."
When the man had hobbled away on the arms of his companions, he decided to risk addressing the remaining woman. Hands in the deep pockets of his coat he sauntered over. "Hey there, darlin'. You come here often?"
Her smile was arch and her reply was swift. "Bite me, Kinneas."
Now he did allow himself to laugh. He lifted his hat in appreciation and settled it back crookedly on his head. "Now, Xu. You know me better than that. My teeth mean a lot to me."
She rolled her eyes once but remained silent, obviously deciding his remark did not deserve comment. Instead, she reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a thin object of what looked to be made of anacondor skin. With a bored expression, she flipped it open and he realized it was a wallet.
"Hey." He took a few steps closer to examine the item in her hands. Impressed, his eyebrows lifted and his lips curved in a slow smirk. "Not bad."
She shrugged and continued to thumb through the contents. "Hardly worth it." Snorting, she pulled out what little cash remained before idly tossing the tacky billfold onto the green surface behind her. "What I suspected, however. Only an moron would gamble with so little in his pocket."
"I can't believe I'm seeing this." Irvine shook his head in a mix of admiration and bewilderment. "Xu, top SeeD and thieving hustler. Who'd've thought?"
She glanced up at him and arched a brow. "I'm more complex than you think." Her words were clipped, giving off the impression of impatience. She did not appear to be pleased with his company.
He wasn't offended. He couldn't remember a time in their short acquaintance when she had ever addressed him otherwise. Though he was a natural flirt there were two women in the world with whom he never practiced his trade. Xu was one of them. Prickly and aloof, she was too cold for even his charms to crack.
"Well, I'll see ya 'round." Offering her an over-exaggerated salute and gracious bow, he turned back toward the bar and the music, which had heightened into a dramatic bass riff. "If you need anythin', just holler."
Head cocked to the side, she watched him stroll across the floor with little heed to the writhing bodies and flailing arms around him. He stood out amongst the crowd with his flowing coat and cowboy hat yet managed to blend in at the same time.
Smooth, she thought to herself. Kinneas could be very smooth when he wanted to be. She was accustomed to that trait in the male species. But that slickness was all jumbled in with layers of perception and genuine honesty. Not at all typical qualities. There was nothing she appreciated more than candour. It was a good thing she was immune to charming cowboys or he would make up one dangerous character.
She decided that he intrigued her, and, like anything that piqued her curiosity, she was not hesitant in her desire to discover more. Since her evening entertainment had proven disappointing, there really was not anything else for her to do anyway. She pulled herself away from the table and tucked the few bills into her pocket, eyes on the bar area.
"It's on me." Opting for the blunt approach, she slid onto the open stool next to where Irvine now stood, ordering another drink.
Surprised, he swivelled his head toward her slightly. "I'm honoured."
"Don't be." Xu held his gaze steady, smirking a little. "Unless that's champagne in your glass, I think I can swing it tonight."
He let out a low chuckle and turned around so he could relax against stained timber. He propped both elbows on the bar, appearing for all the world as a man at perfect ease with himself. Jealous, she looked away.
"Do you make a regular habit of this?" Knowing she preferred it, he met frankness with frankness. He was clueless as to why she had sought out his companionship but figured if she wanted to inform him, she would. And if not, who was he to refuse the company of an attractive woman? Even if this particular woman happened to have more frost on her tongue than a herd of blue dragons.
She shrugged a shoulder before requesting her own beverage from the bartender. Once the transaction was completed, she pivoted her petite frame on the stool and faced the club. Snagging her heels on the top rung, she took a long drink.
It was only when she felt the glide of smooth alcohol down her throat that she chose to answer. "No." She shrugged again. "I was bored." She met his eyes and her grin was wicked. "I wanted to make sure my skills weren't getting rusty."
He let loose with a full-bodied laugh that travelled up from his diaphragm and resounded into the air, almost drowning out the torment of the singer. It was the sound of pure emotion. "And?" He ceased his laughter to take a swallow of his beer.
"Not a bit." She continued to grin at him despite the light panging sensation that corroded her chest.
A man who laughed like that would cry with just as much intensity, she realized. With all he had lived through, she wondered at how he had retained such an ability to feel. And to feel so deeply. SeeDs could not afford overwhelming emotion. She had learned to close off that part of herself long ago.
"Don't you feel just the slightest bit of conscience for taking his wallet?" He asked her, still chuckling. "I mean, those fellas were pretty helpless."
"Why, Kinneas, whatever gave you the idea that I had a conscience?" Snickering, she drained her glass and lobbed the clear plastic toward a bin a few yards away. She didn't pay attention long enough to see it fall in. "Besides, they were hoping to do the same to me. Not my fault they suck at pool." When he continued to observe her with impassion she leaned back and crossed her legs. "They'll be back tomorrow night to try to hustle someone else." She grinned again, a white flash of teeth contrasting full claret lips. "Though I doubt it'll be a female."
He tilted his head back to take in her words. Justice, he thought, had many forms. Her variety may not be poetic but it cut to the quick. When he looked at her again, it was with raw understanding. He could shoot himself for being so narrow-minded. She was right. There were so many layers to an individual, so many little facets waiting to be exposed. Everyone was entitled to his or her facades ~ he certainly had them in spades. But he felt stupid now for being taken in by hers.
They observed the dancers, if that was what one could call them, in silence for a few minutes longer. Listened as the singer rasped out over the microphone. The lyrics were indistinguishable but it was not their meaning that mattered. It was the feeling they emitted. The drummer lost all control and seemed to direct his sticks at random. His foot drove rhythmically against the floor, crashing the high-hat over and over again. Eventually the sticks flew from his hands and into the air, so he continued with his hands. No one in the room was going to complain about the quality of sound. Not as long as the beat carried on.
Finally, the number slammed to an end as the musicians all but fell to the stage with exhaustion. The singer leaned heavily against the microphone, sweat rolling down the sharp planes of his face. With both hands, he gripped the stand as he announced the next tune. Not missing a stroke, the bassist set them up.
Out of the corner of his eye, Irvine observed the woman next to him. One slim, but well-toned arm was slung against the rung of the bar while the other ran an absent hand through her hair. A denim-clad leg was tossed artlessly over another as a foot, encased in heeled boots, knocked out the rhythm of the bass against the metal of the stool. Overall, she was a cool, tight package, maintaining an air of detachment. He would never presume to say he knew her, or even understood her. In reality, he doubted there was more than a handful who did, or who would ever get the chance. But he was glad to have had a fleeting glimpse of the woman who lived inside that sharp veneer. He somehow knew he would be a better person for it.
Sensing his study, she shifted to catch his gaze. She was not irritated to find his eyes already on hers, nor was she startled. The look in them was neither lascivious nor distant, as she was familiar with. It was friendly and a tad curious. He did not bother to hide what she would term platonic interest. Yes, Irvine Kinneas had her very intrigued indeed.
"So, you willing to take me on?" The question was abrupt and her lips quivered in amusement. "I could use a little diversion before heading once more into the woods."
His eyes sparkled and his lips curved, willing to play along. "You know you love it."
"With all my heart." She uncrossed her legs and straightened to look at him directly. "Does that mean you're too scared?"
"Darlin', you have me petrified." The wink he shot her was so boorish it took all she had not to snort with laughter. "A filly like you could take an awful lot of advantage over a callow man like me." The leisurely drawl had her tossing her head.
"Callow, my ass." She smirked. "Call me a filly again and I'll do more than take advantage of you."
"Well, now." He unbent his lanky frame and reached out a hand for her to shake. "You've got yourself a deal."
Xu stared at him a moment before breaking out into full laughter. She shook her head, lips and brows twitching. "Kinneas, you are unbelievable." She rose off her chair and stood in front of him, a good foot shorter.
"Was that a compliment from the almighty Xu, A rank SeeD and field administrator of Balamb Garden?" He slung a companionable arm around her shoulders. "I'll be danged." If he noticed how deftly she moved out from under his touch, his expression did not show it.
"Don't push it. We're only off duty for a few more hours."
"Yes, ma'am." His reply was agreeable as he followed her over to the billiard tables. "But how about instead of pool we play darts? Loser has to pay the winner a compliment, and mean it."
"Darts, huh?" A calculated smile stole over her features. There was not a game made she wasn't born to win. Gleaming eyes challenged gleaming eyes.
Goodbye you can keep this suit of lights
I'll be up with the sun
And not coming down…I'm not coming down
And I'm already gone