This One Walks Alone

Irvine thought about removing his hat as he stepped into the Deling Hotel bar but he decided against it, despite the low lighting and misty ambience. After giving the place a lazy appraisal, he made a beeline for the deserted bar, the few patrons of the place gathered closer to the piano and its lovely pianist. He flashed the bartender a smile as he ordered his drink, something sweet and bubbly -- like he liked his women -- and settled to enjoy it, just one more way to kill the hours and hours that stretched between that moment and the mission that had brought him to the city in the first place.

His team's objective to assassinate the sorceress kept rattling around in his head; he was the one who was supposed to do it, to fire the faithful shot that would end her life. That knowledge was a weight on him, the heaviest of the many he'd gained in the short time since the mission had began, though they were all parts of the same, great mystery. Matron's voice rattled in his head and old memories floated up, clogging up the space he needed for present problems. It made him unaccountably glad that the SeeDs hadn't yet saddled him with one of those GFs they used.

With half of the team out of town looking for some kind of number to convince the general to speak to them, Irvine had the night off from all SeeD-related activities and he was fine with it. Squall had chosen Zell and Selphie to back him up and the choice made sense; he was too new to be trusted, Rinoa wasn't even a member of their team even if she was tagging along, and Quistis...though she wasn't the leader, she was obviously the senior-ranking SeeD and he could see where Squall didn't need someone around who might second-guess his every move.

Irvine spared a thought for the two ladies left behind as he nursed his drink, realizing that he didn't have any idea where they'd disappeared to since the team had split up. Rinoa, he remembered, had left in a huff even before Squall, Zell and Selphie had, frustrated that she hadn't been chosen to go with them. Quistis had had little to say about Squall's choice but there had been something tense in the lines of her face as she wished them luck, though Irvine hadn't been able to tell if anything about that moment had been its catalyst.

As his mind idled on that image -- Quistis's drawn, frowning face -- it tangled with an older one, remarkably similar in expression and disapproval, tangled blonde hair spiked with green seaweed and sand. It was one of the many old memories that still made him smile, even there in a dark bar, even as he counted down the time until he'd have to kill the woman whose gentle voice had soothed too many of his childhood fears to count.

Like a specter -- and he had enough already, despite his age -- Irvine glanced around the bar again to see Quistis melting out of one of its dark, obscured corners, heading toward the bar where he sat. He watched her slide up to the bar close to his elbow, raising her glass toward the bartender to signal another of the same. The bartended nodded and Quistis settled on one of the stools. Only then did she notice Irvine's hunched presence.

He was surprised that she spoke first. "Irvine."

Irvine nodded, tipping his hat a little. "Quistis."

She cut her eyes toward him quickly as bartender returned with her drink. "So this is how you deal with the -- what did you say? -- the pressure and tension that only a sharpshooter can understand?"

"That's not exactly what I said." He shook his glass a little, watching the ice ping against the glass, frowning into its depths. He'd already been rattled by his mission when he'd made that comment on the train -- that and the seemingly universal amnesia that the SeeDs around him had been suffering from. It had made him mean, and had made him say mean things.

She shrugged. "Close enough, I think."

"No need to be testy and disapprovin' now," Irvine said, jiggling his glass in her direction. "It's just a touch of cola, nothing to cloud the mind or unsteady the hand before the big night."

"We're on stand-down until Squall returns," she said, taking a sip from her glass. "I don't care what you do or what you drink in the meantime."

As she lowered her glass back to the gleaming surface of the bar, Irvine finally noticed what was in it -- green, either bitter or sweet, unmistakably alcohol. He also noticed her hand where it curled around the glass. The fingers were thin, well-shaped; he wondered if there were callouses on them from her training, like the ones he'd gotten from years of handling his rifle, or if the dark leather had protected them from the abuse.

Instead of leaving with her drink, Quistis lingered at the bar, even after the words between them had died away. Irvine took it as a sign, of what he wasn't sure.

He cleared his throat, searching for some common thread. "Ready for tomorrow?"

She didn't answer immediately. "I don't know what part I'll be playing yet, so I can't be certain." She paused, then looked at him. "The better question is whether you are."

"Of course I am," he said. His confidence rang hollow even in his own ears, so he continued. "Will be, I mean. Nothing I can't handle." She was watching him intently but there was something more like kindness in her eyes. It echoed of another memory -- his bossy little friend, arms akimbo, asking if he was fine after a tumble from a crumbling pillar -- and it made him forget the wariness he'd decided to have with the strangers who wore the names of his childhood companions. "You ever been on one of these teams before?"

"These teams?"

"A team..." Irvine lowered his voice, leaning close, beckoning her to do the same. She complied until he could feel the warmth of her cheek against his. "...with this particular objective?"

"Ah." She pulled back some, pensive in the way she tilted her head to catch his eyes, cast in shadows by the brim of his hat. "I have, actually."

"Really?" He hadn't expected a positive response. Assassination attempts were rare, even among SeeD mercenaries and he couldn't think of anyone who'd been killed recently enough for Quistis to have been on the mission.

Quistis no longer seemed inclined for confession, pulling away from him to stare down at the green alcohol in her glass. He was starting to worry that he'd already crossed a line in their already-fragile relationship until she slowly nodded.

"Yes, really," she said, still looking at her glass. "I was secondary point that time, which I doubt will happen on this mission."

"Secondary point?" Irvine wasn't ashamed to admit that the weakest point in his SeeD education was the military lingo.

A ghost of amusement touched her mouth for a moment before fading into movement for speech. "On this mission, Mr. Kinneas, you are primary point. I was secondary, to take up the objective if the primary did not succeed. I will leave you infer the meaning from that."

It didn't take him but a moment to draw the proper conclusions. "I can hardly believe that," he admitted. "I can see how my expertise lends itself to being primary...I can't see how that fancy-looking whip you use is made for that kind of quick work."

"While it isn't exactly a gunblade, the whip isn't a beginning's tool," she told him. "I have other skills."

"I just bet you do."

She was giving him that disapproving look again. "You had better mean that the way I'm choosing to take it."

"I've got nothing but respect for your skills, Miz Trepe." In another time and place, he might've taken the chance to flirt, to play the charmer he was known to be but he couldn't there, not when it was Quistis -- Quisty, frowning down at the words in the storybook she loved to read, the one that was almost as big as she was -- and not when he was now half an hour closer to having to murder the sorceress wearing Matron's face.

He didn't think he could do it.

It must have shone on his face -- maybe in his eyes, not shadowed enough -- because Quistis reached out, a quick brush of suede-soft fingers over his arm that lay on the bar, an unconscious gesture of comfort. "I'm sure your skills will be prove more than adequate."

"I'm not worried a bit." He knew the lie was still on his face but he couldn't stop himself from saying it.

She watched him for another moment, then sighed, rising to her feet. "It's not as easy as it looks." Quistis dropped a handful of gil on the bar beside her unfinished drink. "Didn't you say that yourself?"

He nodded, forced his voice past a sudden constriction of his throat to answer. "And I'm not alone as I thought, huh?"

She didn't say anything but inclined her head ever so slightly. "Goodnight, Irvine."

He tilted his hat again. "Same to you."

Irvine watched her leave, eyes drawn to her hands, now clenched at her sides. He couldn't help but wonder what other weapon she might have handled with the same accuracy as the whip she carried now, what she might've used in his place as an assassin. He thought about the way she handled her weapon now, the way he'd seen it curl around her hand, twisted in her grasp as she called upon the magic junctioned into her mind...

It was then that he remembered something else, a minor scandal in Dollet a few years before, the unexpected death of a council member suspected of being in league with Vinzer Deling, who had tried to push legislature that would leave the dukedom more vulnerable to Galbadian treachery.

The councilman had been found dead in his hotel room, strangled to death by a garrote wire -- a deadly, silent sister of a whip if Irvine could ever think of one. The official story had mentioned something about robbery and gambling winnings but no one had believed that little coincidence.

Without thinking, he reached for Quistis's unfinished drink and tossed it down, the bitter alcohol burning as it slid down his throat.

He didn't think he'd been honed enough quite yet to be the kind of weapon they needed him to be.

He wasn't sure if he ever would.

The End.