Legal-speak: This is a work of fanfiction. Thus, the characters, settings, and events portrayed are not owned by this scribbler. In addition, she makes no claim on the borrowed poetry of Jim Lambert, "Juicy Bites". No harm is intended and no gain will be made, monetary or otherwise. Distribution is for merely entertainment purposes. The remaining contents, unless stated, are fruits of the writer's dramatic imagination.

Enjoy!

Playing the Fool

The rough bark abraded Quistis' back as she rested against the towering oak. If one were to judge by appearances, she looked for all the world to be a content young woman enjoying a day by the sea. Several strands of loosely tied hair escaped free in the salt-air breeze, brushing over her face then swirling up and around. The patch of grass she reclined upon was shaded from the streaming sunlight by the mighty branches of the tree in full springtime greenery. It was a day meant for daydreams and flower chains. Letting out a soft sigh, Quistis opened her eyes and lifted her head. If only life were that uncomplicated.

Below the cliff waves crashed against jutting rock in restless and everlasting tumult. The water refused to settle in the path set out for it. Trapped, it demanded liberty from the unrelenting stone. Though it would take centuries, the waves would never cease their wearing away of the cliff face. Not until they were free to roam across new land. Not for the first time, she longed to capture a grain of that fortitude and hold it tight within her grasp. But it was useless to ponder if onlys and what ifs. The only place to go to was the future. She would just have to make the best of what she had been given. Or rather, what she had already given herself.

Turning her eyes from the setting, Quistis tried to bring her mind back to more pertinent matters. She reached into the book-bag set beside her on the fresh grass to pull out the folder of exams she was supposed to be marking for her morning class. As she hefted the pile onto her lap she caught sight of a thin slip of paper sliding out of the folder and onto the ground.

Eyebrows drawn, she set her marking aside for one more moment to examine the small pink note. The plummeting awareness in her stomach grew as she unfolded the sheet and revealed the overcrowded handwriting. Slightly sickened, she felt compelled to crumple the note in her fist and toss it in the churning sea.

Instead, with one hand rubbing her now-vibrating temple, her eyes involuntarily travelled down the page. Like one made nauseous by a terrible image, but unable to rip her gaze away. Nigh unconsciously, she let out a strangled moan as her brain deciphered the cramped print.

'To fall this hard for someone new

when I have so little to offer .....

I find it sorely embarrassing

to present such an empty coffer.

But there's nothing wrong with telling you

I think you're simply beautiful.

In the eyes of this beholder --

a peach; tasty and fruitiful.

Were you a peach

I'd juicy-bite 'til you dribbled down my chin.

Then I'd pause, lick my lips --

and juicy-bite again!

In the thoughts of one aging wizard

you're a "moving violation."

Yet firmly out of reach --

much to my consternation.'

It was unsigned. Thank the gods for small favours. At least she would be unable to match the poet with a student she had to teach on a regular basis. The thought of that increased the pounding in her head threefold. Not that she would have done anything about it. She knew the student believed he was being sweet. Just like the myriad of others who had dared slip her samples of their copious affections in the past. They had no idea how miserable it all made her.

Her hand fell to her lap, fingers still clutching tightly to the edge of the paper. With her other she slid off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. Birdsong rose and fell around her and she yearned. If only…She sensed the intrusion on her private moment not a second too late.

By the time she had pulled her expression back into one of controlled calm, he was easing himself down beside her. The scent of gunpowder, tobacco, and maple syrup emanated through her quiet aura. Inwardly, she cringed, willing him with her mind to stand back up and go away. She was not in the right frame of mind for conversation. Everyone else seemed to understand that and usually passed her by. Why couldn't he?

Before she could stop him, his nimble fingers were grasping the pink letter from her weakened hold. She let out a gasp and attempted to snatch the poem back. Away from his curious eyes.

"Irvine Kinneas! You should know better than to read someone else's personal business." Somewhat embarrassed about the whole situation, Quistis looked over at him in disapproval. She held out a hand. "I'd like that back, please."

Grinning mischievously, Irvine moved his long arm up and out of her reach. The effects of her responding scowl were lost on him. He knew her all too well. "What's it worth to you?"

"Enough to bring you vast amounts of pain." Rolling her eyes, she made a play for the paper again. When he continued to swing it just beyond her scope, she struggled to sit up. She shoved her glasses back onto her face and sent him her best disappointed frown. "Irvine, I'm really not in the mood to play games with you. I'm serious."

"Aw, c'mon, Quis. Just once? For your ol' pal? I like games." This time he let loose with an exaggerated wink.

"No." Getting to her knees she leaned over his frame and made yet another hollow attempt. "Don't toy with me." Suddenly, his wide eyes became serious and she hesitated. The teasing smile evaporated from his expression to be replaced with a frown.

"I just wanted to see what had upset you. Figured pinching it myself was the only way since you never talk to me anymore." Quistis was thrown by this new concerned tone in his voice. Her gaze trekked up to see a reflection of the worry resonating deep in his eyes. Unsure of how to proceed, she drew back.

"I'm not upset. And it's nothing important." Quistis shrugged a shoulder and returned to a seated position against the tree, legs curled at her side. Her hands locked in her lap and her eyes fixed on the blades of grass in front of her. "If you're that interested, go ahead."

Next to her, she heard his weighty sigh. "That's cheating." He dropped the note onto the ground between them as a peace offering. "Shoulda known you'd play dirty."

When she continued to stare ahead, he tried a different tack. "So, what's a fine gal like you doin' all the way out here alone? You can't honestly be marking papers with a view like this." He gestured out toward the sparkling ocean and celestial beauty of the clear afternoon sky. His relief was immense when her complexion cleared and her eyes regained their normal essence as they followed his trailing arm.

"That's what I came out here to do but…" Her voice drifted off and her lips curved. "It was really only an excuse."

"Twaddling?" Irvine looked at her with raised brows. "You?"

"Guilty." Quistis laughed and once more felt secure enough to meet his gaze. "My students will just have to wait one more day."

"Glad to hear it." Making himself comfortable, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on bent knees. The shadows made by the brim of his hat blocked any chance she had of reading his countenance. "I'll make sure they thank me for it later."

"Uh huh." Following his lead, Quistis let herself relax. She shifted so her long legs stretched along the ground in front of her, crossed at the ankles. "So, what brings you to this enchanting location, other than to harass me?"

"I was in the neighbourhood," was his noncommittal answer.

"Twaddling?"

A hint of a smile bowed the corners of his mouth. "Guess you could say that."

Remembering the scent of gunpowder and the whiff of expelled magic that wafted from his weather-bronzed skin, she realized he had been out in the forests training. Again. He had been spending a lot of his free time out in the wilderness of Balamb lately, she knew. Always alone and always for several hours at a run. Ever since Selphie's departure…She respected his need to keep his own counsel on the matter and let it fall. In that area, at least, Quistis was fully qualified. She understood more than he would ever know.

Against her will, Quistis took the occasion to study him. She couldn't lie to herself and say she wasn't at all attracted. Not anymore. The long lean lines of him had not gone unnoticed from the start of their relationship. There was no denying his appeal, physically and emotionally. The low brim of his hat cast his face into various shadows, making a girl wonder what was really going on behind that handsome, rugged visage. He was the typical, brooding cowboy, snug-fitting denim and all. It made her feel like a spoony teenager. Like one of the dizzy cadets he had constantly following him around. So she often banished the thoughts as soon as they popped into her mind. But it wasn't just his appearance, striking as it was. Irvine was bone-marrow-deep, all-round nice. To everyone. He didn't just give lip-service to caring about other people – including strangers, he genuinely did, no questions asked. When she had a problem, she knew he was listening to her, not using her susceptibility as a chance to take her to bed. Which was why the man was included in her growing list of complications. She had no idea what to do about her feelings and so did nothing.

The silence that broke out between them was not of the awkward variety. It was restful, companionable. The kind that could only exist amid solid friends. There was no need to say anything at all.

Eventually, Irvine tore himself from his self-imposed reverie and turned to her with a grin. "Since we're both here just…twaddling, know what I'd rather do instead?"

"One can only imagine." Quistis snorted and gave his shoulder a sharp poke. "Keep your ideas to yourself, if you please, and out of the sewers."

"Hey! In my defence, you're the one who went there first." Pouting over it, he massaged the spot on his arm she had assaulted. "I was goin' to suggest a nice tame triple triad match. But, since you seem to want it so badly, I'll just hafta deal with the disappointment." Irvine wiggled his eyebrows at her in a ridiculous fashion and she found she couldn't stop the formation of her own grin.

"Can't say I blame you, really," he continued, rolling his shoulders and stretching. "To have a such a paragon of masculine virility so close must be overpowering to a female of your, er, spirit."

"My spirit, huh?" Amused, she lifted one brow. "I'm afraid to ask."

"Well, now." He drawled out his next words, deep, rich, and indolent. His grin was as broad as his dimple was cheeky. "It's a well-known fact you've had the hots for me for quite awhile. Near crazy about me, they say."

"Who says? I want names," she demanded, playing along.

"Like I say, it's hardly your fault you fell for my charms so quickly. Heck, it'd be stranger if you hadn't."

Quistis pretended to think the concept over. She cocked her head to the side and regarded him with sobriety. "You may be right about that. But it wasn't your, ah, charms that won me over."

"It wasn't? What was it then?" He pushed back his hat and swivelled to face her directly. "My debonair smile? My brilliant fashion sense?"

"Not exactly."

"How about my money?" Digging in his pockets, he pulled out a few coins and a cellophane caramel wrapper. "Wait, scratch that, got no money. My skills with a gun?"

Laughing, she shook her head. "Nope."

"What else is there? My razor-sharp wit? My scintillating logical mind?"

"Sorry."

"Inquiring minds want to know. Give me something to tell the fans back home."

"The truth is, Irvine." She slid closer to lay a hand on his knee. "I'm only after you for your body."

His eyes lit. "Baby, you got it." He moved smoothly and almost too quickly. He had her on the ground and firmly up against his frame sooner than she could register his intentions.

Unconcerned, Quistis played her advantage by pinching his vulnerable side between the fingers of her one free hand. Though she caught mostly the thick material of his coat and vest, she knew there was enough twisted skin to cause him discomfort. Using some smooth moves of her own, she had him off her and howling within seconds. She glanced over at his tortured expression and knew the pain there was only half in jest. Served him right.

"You're a cruel woman, Quistis. Drive an innocent man nuts." Aggrieved, he rubbed his side and shook his head.

"One of these days, cowboy, I'm going to actually take you up on one of those offers of yours. Then what will you do?" Readjusting her clothes, she gave him a haughty look.

"What do you think?" He looked back at her pointedly.

This time all the jocularity had faded. The genuine lack of innuendo in his eyes nearly took her breath away. Ordering her nerves to a low simmer, she tried to push her hormones aside completely. But the truth was, she had not been entirely frank earlier. Nor had she been lying. At this point in her life, she did not feel she could afford to be either. Here come all the damn complications again, she thought, struggling to maintain her outer dignity. Not now.

"Uh, Quis?" His tentative manner had her swiftly coming back to reality. "You might want to look behind you."

Bewildered, she did as bid. "What?"

"Made ya look!" On a leap, he was snatching up the pink-coloured note and dashing away, toward the brink of the grassy precipice. The look on his face could only be described as gleeful. He couldn't believe she'd fallen for his pathetic efforts.

"You are so childish. I'm not even going to compete with that." Annoyed and humiliated that he'd been able to distract her so easily she folded her arms and sat back. She wasn't about to drop her guard around him ever again. "Zell."

"I'm telling him you said that." Irvine gave her an arch look before he had to clamp on the inside of his cheek to prevent another silly grin.

She looked so cross sitting there. It was adorable. Her glasses had been knocked somewhat askew during their little tussle and she had yet to fix them so they still slid sexily down her nose. The ponytail she sported did nothing to stop shorter golden strands from tumbling about her face in the most attractive manner. Her lips sulked, making them appear even fuller than usual. She looked petulant, ingenuous, and deliciously rumpled. He rolled his eyes skyward and forced himself to concentrate on the letter in his hand. Seeing she wasn't going to impede him this round, he unfolded the paper and began to read.

From lowered lids, Quistis carefully gauged his expression as he took in the verses of the poem. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking from that angle. His face remained impassive, driving her mad. It didn't take him long to finish and when he did he looked up. She quickly averted her gaze and waited.

For awhile nothing was said. Struggling to hold himself in check, Irvine made a pass at politeness. "Ah, well, he has a pretty good handle on rhythm. Not sure there's such a word as 'fruitiful' but his rhyming skills ain't so rusty either." It was floppy, he knew, but it was the best he could come up with given the circumstances.

"You're laughing." Her tone was accusing.

"I am not!" Irvine waved his arms in the air fervently. "It's good stuff. Really."

"You truly believe that." Narrowed eyes concentrated their power on him and he struggled against contrasting urges to gulp and chuckle at the same time. "You think that, that poem," she pointed, "is good."

"Uh…yeah?"

Muttering something unintelligible under her breath, Quistis rose to her full height and strode over to where he stood. Later, she wouldn't be able to say what had set her off but all she knew was, Irvine's comments had made her angrier than she'd felt in some time.

"This," she said, practically tearing it from his hand. "Is crap." Irvine reckoned if a millimetre of his flesh had been in the way, she'd have ripped that off too. "Tripe, rubbish, whatever you want to call it. And you know what I'm going to do with it?"

With firm, satisfying strokes, she tore the pale pink paper into long strips. When that was done she tore the strips into squares. Releasing her hands, she then let the pieces scatter over the side of the cliff. Together, they watched them cavort in the breeze, rising and falling with each successive current, all the way down to the rocks below.

After a few moments, Irvine decided it was safe enough to approach her once more. She continued to stare down, troubled lines worrying her brow. His heart cracked clean through. Before he could say or do anything to ease the tension, her shoulders collapse and she buried her face in her hands.

"Oh, Irivne. I'm such a fool."

He waited one beat before wrapping an arm around her shaking body and drawing her against him. She flinched, habitually and Irvine believed reflexively. But ultimately her muscles relaxed against his. Her eyes were dry when she looked back up at him. Dry but full of barraged emotion. He couldn't trust himself to speak. They stayed that way for a time, each unsure at how to progress the current situation. There were so many things he wanted to say. So many clichés he wanted to whisper in her ear. So many reassurances he wanted to give. But they all seemed empty now.

Almost all his life he had prided himself on knowing women, on how to treat each individual one to get the desired results. A woman's enemy was his enemy. He had always felt confident in his abilities to make them feel at ease, no matter how prickly or how timid her nature. All of a sudden that knowledge had dissipated from his mind the instant Quistis Trepe had looked up at him with her liquid eyes and all that junk over her face. She might as well as slammed him in the solar plexus.

Luckily for him, she seemed to recover on her own and a smile traced its journey over her patrician features. He felt the effects of that smile somewhere deep in his belly.

"I wonder if I should've done that with all the others." Her voice was soft but light. "If I had known it would make me feel this kind of release, I would have."

"All the others?" echoed Irivne. "You mean, there's more like that? Golly, and I thought I was your number one fan. I'd better get a move on, eh?" He'd meant it as a joke, to lighten the atmosphere. Though his tone stayed sombre.

"Don't even think about it, Kinneas." Quistis' frown was stern. Discovering she was still half-way in his arms, she disentangled herself. "Or I'll be throwing you off next."

"But seriously, Quis." Hands deep in his pockets he slowly made his way back to the thick trunk of the tree behind her. "Do you get a lot of that kind of stuff? Poetry, love letters, marriage proposals, y'know what I mean."

Stopping by her bag, she knelt down to pack up her things. There was no way she was going to be able to concentrate on work anymore that day. Not keen on the subject at hand, she tucked back her hair and shrugged. "I don't know. It comes in spurts, I guess. That was the first since the start of term. It's not  a big deal. I'm sorry I made it seem that way."

"They're not…" he fought to find the right verbalization, not to be brushed aside. "They're not all from the same person." It was a statement.

"I really wouldn't know. Hardly any are ever signed. I don't pay too close attention to the style or script either."

No, he guessed not. Fame had been a new thing for all of them to deal with. During and after the long-over "Battle of the Century", as one daily rag had coined it, their faces, biographies, and exploits had appeared in nearly every newspaper and magazine throughout every city and hamlet. It was only natural. They were young, attractive, and members of the highest ranked elite force in the world. Hell, they were considered heroes, saviours, saints, even – though this notion had been disputed in many a tabloid. Over time, this had generally faded to a dull roar. While he was occasionally recognized on the streets of Deling if he chose to venture out in his customary garb, the fan-mail and giggly telephone calls at all hours of the night had ceased their irritating echelons. Most of them had laughed it all off. He had never paused to think how it had affected Quistis. For her, idol-worship had been a constant and she was not the type to soak it up with a dazzling smile. If anything, each missive received would be more insult than flattery. He could have shot himself right then and there for his insensitivity.

Determined to make things right, he crouched down next to her and put his hand over hers just as she was reaching for the buckles. Straight away, she went still. But she did not tense or pull back so he considered it a victory.

His hand was warm as it covered hers. Warm and callused and strong. Not unlike the man himself. Instinctively, she trusted him. She had no reason not to. It was herself she was not so certain of.

"Talk to me." His rich, quiet tenor reverberated in her ear. She hadn't noticed how close he was.

"There's nothing to say. Everything's fine now." Her voice sounded weak and she cursed her somersaulting pulse.

"I thought we'd agreed on no applesauce."

Recalling the old conversation, she nearly smiled. Dependable, faithful, honourable Irvine. She owed him.

"You're right. But I don't know what you want me to say. I mean, short of resigning my post and leaving Garden, there's nothing I can do about the whole thing. It just hurts. So much sometimes." Quistis sighed and angled her neck to face him. Her hand flexed beneath his. "I wonder if they're even listening to a word I say in class. If all I am is some kind of object. Like a model in a trashy magazine. If that's all I'm worth. A ticket to an adolescent boy's wet dream." The desolation in her voice was almost a physical presence.

"For that matter, it makes me doubt everything I've ever accomplished. Do I really have what it takes, or did I just come by my status by, by other means?" Her words broke at that last and she was horrified to find her eyes filling. Crying here, now, was not an option. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be saying all this. It's silly. I have to go."

Even though he was aware she would hate him for it later, Irvine could not keep himself from reaching out. He wasn't letting go. Not this time, not the time after that. The guilt darkening his mind from ignoring her so long had him gripping her shoulders forcefully.

"Listen to me. I know you don't want to hear it and I know you think you're protecting yourself but I want you to really listen." He gave her a faint but jarring shake and her eyes widened. The cavalier, lazy, half-teasing twinkle that had always lingered somewhere in his smile and violet irises was gone. His dark brows furrowed and his jaw clenched. She had never seen him so incensed in all their time as friends. It startled her enough to gape.

"Whatever you've been telling yourself, it's not true. I also think deep down you know that. There isn't a single person on this island who doesn't respect you. Someone has hurt you, and badly. I don't know who and I'm not going to ask. That's your business. But you've tricked yourself into believing that's all it's ever going to be. That no one will ever be able to see the real you inside. Damn it all, Quistis, what do I gotta do to prove to you I'm not like all them?" Frustrated, his hands clenched down further on her shoulder blades. She felt his hands, hot through the fabric of her shirt.

"I know you're gonna keep turning away from me, you think I'm lying. I ain't gonna tell you I don't think you're beautiful. I'm not goin' to say you're not worth more than a zillion of them poems either. And I'm not giving up. You can yell at me, slap me, whatever you feel ya need to do. I'll understand and I'll keep on comin' back for more. You might be willin' to accept things as they are but I won't. You get it?"

Her eyes had cleared and she now searched his expression. He knew what she was looking for and was bound and determined not to let her find it there. He was innocent and he was prepared to do all he could to restore her faith.

"You are crazy." Quistis' voice was husky and she coughed. Feeling a little barmy herself, she shook her head and chewed the inside of her cheek. "You'd have to be, to want to deal with the mess I've made. I'd thought I'd've driven you away by now."

"That's just it, Quistis. You won't trust anyone to stay. You won't trust yourself enough to let them. You've made yourself into, what did he call it? A moving violation. Out of spite." Aggravation depleted, he tenderly swept away the tendrils of hair along her cheeks. His touch was gentle and his rubber features had softened as his eyes drank in her bemused countenance. "It hurts to watch you punish yourself over and over."

"Irvine." Swallowing, she gazed up. His face was so close yet she felt no desire to run away this time. She wondered what it would be like, instead, to close the narrow gap. "I do trust you. You have to know that." Reaching up, she took the hand that rested on her cheek in hers and squeezed. "I don't understand why you're doing this, is all. You have your own problems."

The world suddenly seemed to revolve in slow motion from where they crouched on the ground. Her eyes cast about, fluttering up to look directly into his and hold. His fingers moved of their own will to twine themselves with hers.  His other hand stroked a finger down her jaw-line. "I'm not above going through it all again. I'm willing to hear you cry, if you'll let me." Testing them both, he lowered his cheek to rub against hers.

There was comfort in the touch, and friendship, and promise. But there was also something else. Something in the way he murmured her name against her ear. In the way his breath caught, then released, soothing and stirring all at once the sensitive skin of her throat. She tried to define it but when she felt the brush of his lips in her hair her thoughts scattered like the bits of paper off the cliff.

He couldn't have stopped what happened next if he had wanted to. She had yet to pull away. Riding high on that, on the sensations eddying around his system, he could not help but continue, even if it meant destroying all the ground he'd gained. Just once. It was beyond all desire. It was natural, an intrinsic need, even more than his next breath.

From her hair his lips shadowed down her cheekbones. One hand lightly seized her chin to bring her mouth upward. Her fingers constricted around his and her lips parted on a sharp inhalation. The world grew smaller. The opportunity was irresistible and he was not a man distinguished for his willpower. Telling himself he had no choice, he covered her lips with his own. He gave himself a minute to enjoy her taste, to experience the softness of each tiny corner. A minute to feel her quiet sigh and yielding form against him. A minute, he soon discovered, was not nearly enough. He'd beat himself up later.

The kiss continued, never deepening or changing tempo. It was a tender, careful exploration. She ignored the growing cramp in her thighs born from squatting in the dirt. Their knees bumped and it was all she could do to remain upright. His hand moved from her chin to the pulse at her throat and she made a tiny sound. Her nose filled with the scent of him, of smoke and dust, of soil and perspiration. Altogether, the situation sounded unpleasant. It wasn't.

She made him feel young and inexperienced. Like he was kissing a girl for the first time again. He wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands or how to shift his head. Her teeth slid over his bottom lip and he thought he'd keel over on the spot. No woman had ever made him feel so clueless before, so unsure of his footing. She had the power to lay him flat with one restless whisper. He was fumbling and the terrifying thing was, he liked it.

All too soon, it seemed, she was pulling away. Gasping for air, for clarity, she dragged herself from his much too tempting mouth and stood. It was then she noticed the full extent of the pain in her legs and winced. Obviously more time in the training centre would be in order.

Irvine followed suit, standing so he filled her immediate line of vision. He had not been the only active participant in their little exchange and was not disposed to giving her a chance for regret. "Quis…" She held up a hand to signify her need to speak first. It trembled only once.

"I'm not going to deny I didn't want that. On many levels." Quistis drew a deep shuddering breath. "And I'm not going to deny that I very much would like to find out where it all could lead."
"But?"

"But, I'm just not ready yet. I'm sorry but I'm trying to be as honest as I can, given the circumstances. I need time. I don't want to threaten the chances of something occurring between us because I have a feeling, well, that it could be mutually satisfying. But as things stand, I'm not prepared to make any formal engagements. What the heck are you grinning at?" Brows raised, she pursed her lips.

"You." The grin amplified several watts. "You have such an interesting way of talking when you're flustered. I never noticed that before. 'Course, don't think I've ever jumbled you quite this way either." His hands slid into his pockets and he winked. "Think I like it."

"Jerk." She swatted at his shoulder but she could not keep the exasperation in her eyes for long and directed him a grin of her own. "Don't be thinking you can distract me so easily, cowboy."

"Wouldn't dream of it," he quipped. "So what you're saying is, you aren't ready to take…whatever this is any further. That you need time to sort out all the gears in that mystifying head of yours before you can make any promises of future canoodling opportunities."

"Canoodling? Where do you come up with these things?"

"It's cool. I can wait." He rolled his shoulders and regarded her openly.

Caught off guard, her jaw fell in surprise. "It might be a long time," she warned. "My gears are fairly well jammed."

"How long?" he baited.

"I don't know," faltered Quistis. "At least a few months."

"Done." His bold smile returned full blast.

"But…"

"But what? After today, you think I'm just gonna throw it in? Give me some credit. My mind was already made up. I'll just hafta tell my libido to join it and I'll be all good." He titled his head. "Now if you wanted me to wait a whole year, it might be another story. But I'm sure I'd manage somehow."

"You're serious." For her part, Quistis was stumped.

"Of course. It ain't no joking matter that's for sure." When she continued to merely stare at him, Irvine amended his final statement. "Look, it's your decision. If you need to be alone for awhile I'm not going to pressure you. I want to make this work and I'm not afraid of starting over if I have to. But I am going to do my best to change your mind."

Feeling a tiny bit of the barriers around her soul begin to falter, Quistis moved cautiously to hug him. Cagey but enjoying the easy manner with which he hugged her back, she let herself be relieved. It couldn't hurt for a little while. She'd worry about all the complications of today's events later. But for now she did not feel like separating fact from fiction. She wanted to be happy.

He made no efforts to hold her when she shifted away again. Knowing he'd already taken more than she had been eager to give, he let her step back. This time.

"So, you said you wanted names, right?" Irvine began to count off on his fingers after she had finally slung her bag over one shoulder. "Zell mentioned something last week, 'bout the way you've been making eyes at me. Only yesterday, the head of the fire platoon told me he'd caught you scribblin' at a love letter during the staff meeting. With my name at the top—."

The rest of his self-esteeming diatribe was cut off when Quistis swiped the hat from the top of his head and commenced in soundly beating him with it. "Bite me, Kinneas."

"Don't mind if I do."

It was in that moment Irvine came into brutal contact with the true meaning of pain. And laughter.