Irvine Kinneas was not a brave man.
He wasn't a particularly introspective man either, most of the time, but he liked to think he was at least honest enough to acknowledge his failings when he was smacked in the face with them. Lately, it seemed like he was confronted with his own faults at every turn. He'd had plenty of opportunities to contemplate them over the past week or so, and to come to some conclusions.
A brave man, he thought, wouldn't break down in the middle of a mission no matter how hard that mission was. A brave man would go to prison with his friends rather than save his own skin. A brave man would have been honest with those friends from the beginning, and not have pretended that they were just as much strangers to him as he seemed to be to them for fear of what would happen if he spoke up.
A brave man wouldn't be sitting there on his ass watching from a distance while a friend suffered alone.
The harsh brilliance of the afternoon sun bleached the sands of Cactuar Island nearly white, unrelieved and almost too bright to look at, swimming with convection currents and mirage reflections. In the midst of it, Squall was a dark, indistinct figure, bent over himself on his knees on the crest of a dune, while Irvine sat in the shadow of the Ragnarok on its boarding ramp - sitting on his coat because it was too goddamn hot for that much clothing out here - and wished, selfishly, that Squall were doing battle with something that he could see and understand and shoot at. He found himself faintly jealous of Selphie, who had the inner workings of the Ragnarok to distract her, and of Zell, who could absorb himself in shadowboxing at the drop of a hat and not be left with nothing to do but sit and watch and contemplate his sins and end up feeling like a coward.
Footsteps vibrated gently through the ramp, bringing Quistis into Irvine's peripheral vision. "How is he?"
"Same." It had been like this since they'd put down - since Zell had burst into the Ragnarok's cockpit, eyes wide and panicky, and told Selphie that they had to land right now. Irvine hadn't been able to get out of Zell exactly what had happened, but the moment the ramp had gone down Squall had fled the ship, with a snarled "Get away from me!" that had stopped his friends' attempt at following him cold.
Quistis didn't say anything else, and her silent worry and confusion and helplessness weighed down on Irvine along with his own, even heavier than the pressure of the hot air against his skin. If this was what it was like for Squall, it occurred to Irvine to think - if what they meant as a supportive presence felt like this kind of weight - then it was no wonder he'd been desperate to escape them.
Why was just being there for someone so damn hard to do?
Disgusted with himself, he pushed himself up to his feet, hefting the Exeter's reassuring bulk into place as he started down. "Stay in the shade," he told Quistis over his shoulder, and started off across the sand towards that small dark figure.
Squall's head lifted only a little as Irvine reached him, eyes looking askance through his ragged hair with such weary resignation, such a defeated "what now?" look, that Irvine felt a little chill of guilt move through him in spite of the heat. He stood in silence for some moments, weight shifting from one foot to the other, trying to find something to say that didn't sound stupid until it became clear that he was going to end up not saying anything at all, becoming another well-meaning silent pressure added to the weight that lay almost visibly across Squall's bowed shoulders. Say something even if it is stupid, he thought at himself desperately, and as his mouth opened he only just managed to keep from asking Squall if he was okay.
"Hey," he said instead, and could have kicked himself for the falseness of his nonchalance, but he pushed the rest of the words out anyhow, "remember the time I twisted my ankle exploring those caves down at the beach?"
Squall didn't answer him, except to look back down at the sand, between his hands where they were braced to hold him up. There was a stain of bile spattered there, and Irvine's usual lazy drawl began to fail him, the words coming out of him faster. "I dunno whose idea it was - mine, I guess, or Zell's - but we went climbing all over the place in there, and I slipped or something and wrenched my ankle. And Zell ran off to get Matron, but I started freaking out 'cause it seemed like he was taking forever, and I was thinking that the tide would come in or something and we'd drown. So, like, you hitched me halfway over your shoulder, and it must have been the most ridiculous thing 'cause you were such a runt and I was already taller than you, but damn if you didn't haul me all the way outta there. And me cryin' like a baby the whole time 'cause my ankle hurt."
He made himself stop and suck in a deep breath, and when he went on his voice was, he hoped, a little more even. "You always were a stubborn little bastard. Not bratty about it like Seifer'd get, you know... you'd just get all quiet and go on and do whatever it was you wanted to, and half the time nobody'd even notice until you were done. I'd forgotten about that time myself until we were all hiking across that godforsaken salt lake on the way to Esthar, and I was just watching you carrying Rinoa like that and thinking about how long that bridge was and thinking, 'there's no way.' And you just kept on going, all the way to Esthar, and I remembered about that time in the caves when we were kids."
"I keep letting you down," he concluded wretchedly, and watched as Squall's body hitched, a little quiver of motion that made Irvine think he might throw up again. The thought made him swallow hard himself. "We all keep letting you down. We don't really know what's going on or what we should do, and we keep looking at you for answers because you keep managing to pull it off somehow... so we keep forgetting that you don't know what's going on either. And we let Rinoa speak for all of us 'cause we couldn't figure out what to say, but we never stopped to think that it wouldn't be enough, or, you know, what we'd do if she wasn't around to do the talking."
Bringing up Rinoa was the wrong thing to do. Irvine understood it clearly moments too late when Squall's head dropped, his fingers digging into the sand and his whole body drawing tighter until his back and shoulders quivered beneath the black leather of his jacket, lips curling back from his teeth.
He crouched down in the sand, and almost reached to put an arm around Squall's shoulders, but then thought better of it. "We're gonna go get her," he said, low and urgent now. "She's gonna be fine. I just - all I'm tryin' to say is - you don't have to carry us all. You can't carry us all. You know?"
Squall still said nothing, but after several long moments filled by deep, unsteady breaths drawn in and let back out again, some of that horrible tension eased, and his head lifted enough for him to look up at Irvine's face. In the painfully bright glare of the sunlight he looked pale, drained and ill. When Irvine offered a hand to him he looked at it blankly and a little warily, like he wasn't sure what it was for.
"C'mon," said Irvine, and managed a crooked little grin in spite of everything. "You better get out of this sun before you roast."
It took another long pause, but Irvine's outstretched hand hung suspended patiently in the air until finally, throat working as he swallowed, Squall reached up to close his gritty fingers around it and let Irvine haul them both up onto their feet.
"Geez. I don't know how you can stand it in all that leather." Irvine considered him briefly, and with an exasperated little sigh lifted the wide-brimmed cowboy hat from his own head to drop it over Squall's. "I bet you end up sunburned. You were always the first one to start turning red."
The hat was too big, of course; it settled comically low over Squall's forehead, casting his face into shadow, and he blinked in surprise and vague incomprehension, brows drawing together in that way they did when his mental gears were spinning frantically to keep up. Looking down at him, Irvine found that suddenly he could see past the scar and the stress and the shadows under his eyes, could just see something of the boy he'd known a long time ago - a quiet and thoughtful child, but still a child, still innocent and not yet burdened by so much weight.
It took him off-guard, and he didn't pause to give himself the chance to think about it, just closed his arms tightly around Squall and tugged him close, sun-hot leather and the hard, awkward angles of his gunblade and all. He was so tense it almost hurt to hold him, muscles knotted tightly under his jacket, and his hands curled into fists against the fabric of Irvine's vest, but he didn't try to pull away, and even if he had Irvine wasn't sure he'd have let him go.
"Maybe we do a rotten job of proving it," he said, the words thick in his throat, "but she's not the only one who loves you."
It would have been better, he thought, if Squall could cry, even a little - or scream, or something, even beat the shit out of him if that was what it took to purge some of the emotion that was so bottled up inside him. But it seemed it wasn't going to be that easy. Irvine held onto him, stubbornly ignoring the heat and the sweat and the fact that the grip of Squall's gunblade was digging uncomfortably into his hip, until eventually the hands on his chest relaxed a little.
"Irvine..." Squall's voice came out in a husky murmur. "...thanks."
"Yeah, well." He thought about saying something about 'what are friends for,' and dismissed the idea because he could think of a lot of things friends were for that had nothing to do with this, and frankly he was sort of hoping that neither of them was ever going to have to go through this again. He settled for taking a step back, releasing his hold on Squall with exaggerated care. "Think if I cast a Sleep on you, you'd be able to get some rest for a little while? 'Cause I don't know how you feel, but you look like shit. Warmed over."
Squall hesitated, brought up a gloved hand to rub it vaguely over his face beneath the brim of Irvine's hat.
"You're probably gonna need it when we get there," Irvine pointed out gently when it seemed that Squall wasn't going to answer.
That did the trick; Squall let his hand drop, the breath coming out of him in a quiet sigh, and his head bowed briefly in something like a nod. "Yeah. Probably."
Good enough. "Let's get going, then." This time, Irvine didn't try to touch him, just tipped his head toward the Ragnarok where it crouched on the sand like some great gleaming beast, and let Squall take his own time in picking his slow, slogging way down the slope of the dune. He trailed along behind, retracing his own footsteps in the sand, and feeling somehow weak-kneed and breathless like he'd only just dodged a bullet.