Laguna stomped around his office, yelling into the phone. Kiros watched with a slight smile on his face, exchanging an amused glance with Ward.
"No, we fucking can't!" he shouted. "What do you think we are, a bank? Some kind of techno-ATM you can ask for money every time you screw up?" He kicked the edge of his desk violently. "Come back to me – ow – in a week when you get in your head that we aren't your damned mommy!" He threw the phone into the plate glass window. It bounced off.
Laguna slumped into his desk chair, fuming. He was not mollified by the smirks on his friends' faces. "What?"
Kiros forced his expression blank. "Nothing, Laguna. It's just… the Lunar Base Commander's call was terminated about three minutes ago."
Laguna blinked at him. "Really?" he asked weakly. Ward nodded. "Damn," Laguna sighed, all ire suddenly gone. "That's the second time this week." He rubbed the back of his head, further mussing his already chaotic dark hair. "I had good reason to be pissed, though. They've misfired another Ragnarok. We've already given them funds for versions two, three, and four, but now he has the gall to tell me they've 'figured out what they did wrong,'" he said, putting on a mincing, sycophantic voice. He kicked at the desk again. "How about entering the fucking data correctly, you idiots!"
Kiros rolled his eyes as a young secretary sidled in. "Um… Sir?" she said timidly, watching the President of Esthar having a cursing fit.
Laguna's head shot up. "Oh. Yes, what do you need?" he asked politely.
"You have a call from Commander Leonhart of SeeD, sir. He says it's important."
His face broke into a sunny smile. "Why didn't you say something?" He scrambled for his discarded phone.
"She did," Kiros muttered, shaking his head.
Laguna ignored him. "Squall!" he said brightly. "How are you? Do you need something?"
"Er, hi, Dad." Squall's voice crackled over the long-distance connection. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Did you test out the aircraft I sent you?" he asked eagerly.
"Oh, yeah, it was really nice." Squall's voice sounded strained. "Thanks a lot."
"Dad, do you know where Ellone is?"
Laguna stared into the distance for a moment, his ecstatic train of thought derailed. "Ellone?"
"Yeah… is she in Esthar with you?"
"Um…" He motioned Kiros over. "Hang on a second. Kiros, can you put it on speaker? Thanks. Now – where's Ellone?"
Kiros glanced over at Ward, who rolled his eyes. "She's staying with you," Kiros said slowly. "In the Presidential Palace, remember?"
Laguna started. "Oh, yeah! Why are you looking for her, Squall? Is there trouble?"
"Well, sort of. Not big trouble. Just something I need Elle's help with. We're landing the Garden near Timber. How soon do you think she can be here?"
Laguna sat up straight at the worried note faintly heard in his son's voice. "Are you sure everything's all right?"
There was a long pause. "There's something the matter with Irvine," Squall said quietly. "He's – well, he's not himself. I was hoping Sis could come and help us."
Laguna paused, thinking hard. Irvine, Irvine – 'Oh. The cowboy.' "Irvine Kincaid?"
"Kinneas. He was one of the people who came into time compression with us. Sis and I grew up with him."
The president threw a look at Kiros, who nodded and left the room quickly. "We'll send Elle as soon as we can, Squall. I'll put her on my fastest plane."
"You don't have to –"
"Nonsense," Laguna said firmly. "He was one of the people who saved the world for us. How could you think I would take my time helping him?"
"Thanks, Dad." His voice sounded tired. "I'm sorry I can't talk, but I've got –"
"It’s all right. We'll talk later. Take care of yourself, okay?"
"Yeah. You too." The phone disconnected, leaving the crackle of interference.
Ward looked at him silently, a curious expression on his face.
"Yeah, you and me both," Laguna sighed.
Dr. Kadowaki had come up to Squall's room a couple of hours after he called Laguna. She was just as confused as the rest of them, but after watching Irvine for a few minutes determined that they had been right to keep Squall and he together.
While she did perform some half-magic, half-medical procedure to prevent any 'digestive processes', she flatly refused to give Irvine an IV. "If what you've told me is true, then if you roll over too far in your sleep, he could rip the silly thing out for flailing!" She shook her head. "Until we get him stable, I won't risk injuring him further." She patted Squall's arm encouragingly. "I'm sure everything will be better in the morning. Just get a night's sleep. Works wonders."
The problem, Squall thought, was actually getting to sleep. Dr. Kadowaki had insisted that Irvine wear warm clothing, though she hadn't given a satisfactory reason – Squall suspected that she was just giving directions on principle. But he had had Zell dig around in their wardrobes for something that would work, and between the two of them they had dressed Irvine in a soft shirt and trousers, abandoning the cowboy hat and duster to Squall's office, along with Irvine's precious shotgun. Irvine put up little resistance as long as he stayed close to Squall, so the process had gone fairly smoothly. He held Irvine in a standing position with one arm tight across his chest while Zell knelt, sliding off the stained and torn jeans and easing a fresh pair of pants up his legs.
"For Hyne's sake," Zell muttered, standing.
Zell shook his head, hands busy with the odd fastening on the trousers. "I think he has about four feet of leg. It's ridiculous. And the pants are loose."
Squall rolled his eyes, shifting his grip to Irvine's narrow waist, just above the hipbones, while Zell tore away what was left of Irvine's loose purple shirt and tugged one of his own over his head.
After Zell left, Squall carried Irvine into the bedroom and placed him carefully in the middle of the bed, lying down beside him fully clothed. Irvine immediately turned toward Squall, blindly burrowing into his side. Squall propped himself up on his elbows, watching Irvine cautiously.
He sighed after a few moments of this. "Might as well make you happy," he muttered. By lifting Irvine gently away from the bed, he managed to get the covers over the two of them. He awkwardly placed his arms around the tall boy, who nestled into the embrace with contentment. Irvine's long hair tumbled wildly around the pillow as he tucked his head under Squall's chin. "We must look pretty silly," Squall whispered, laying back. He listened to Irvine breathe for a while.
He was dozing when he felt something wet on his shoulder. Pulling back in shock, he saw tears leaking steadily from beneath Irvine's tightly closed eyes. Oh, no. He wiped some of the tears away with his thumb. "What are you crying for?" he wondered aloud. He frantically tried to remember what Rinoa had wanted him to do when she cried. He rubbed Irvine's back softly for a minute, and smoothed his hair away from his face. This seemed to help: the tears abated, for the most part, and Irvine settled into Squall's shoulder quietly, though still shaking.
Squall swallowed away the tightness that had risen in his throat. 'Oh, Hyne. I hope Elle can help us.' He petted Irvine absently, trying to soothe his own mind. 'Please let her help us.'
Quistis stood blinking in the early morning light as she watched a slight girl in a pretty blue dress step off the large transport that had landed in the field. She looked around the tree-dotted landscape for a few seconds until she saw Quistis. "Quisty!" she called brightly, quickly walking over. A young male attendant followed her more slowly, lugging a large suitcase.
"Hello, Elle," Quistis said warmly, wrapping her into a hug. "How have you been?"
"Oh, I'm great! I've been staying with Uncle Laguna in Esthar, you know?" Ellone tugged her green wrap more tightly about her shoulders. "He's been really nice to me."
Quistis led her to the Garden car, motioning for her bag to be put in the back. "I'm sorry we sent for you on such short notice." She had to hide her smile as Ellone fumbled for a tip for her attendant, and paid the young man herself. "I hope it wasn't an inconvenience," she went on, sending the young man back to the Esthar aircraft.
Ellone quickly shook her head. "Don't worry about that," she said firmly. "Uncle Laguna said that Irvy was in trouble. I had to come." She tucked her short, dark hair behind her ears as she settled into the passenger seat. "Tell me what happened."
Quistis was nearly done with the story as they pulled up to the Garden. "So all we can figure is that something happened to make him retreat into his head," she finished. "He doesn't open his eyes, or talk. The only signs of life are when you try to remove him from Squall."
The girls were silent as they started up the ramp into the Garden. "I'll need someone who's willing to go back into his memory," Ellone said finally, somber.
"Squall has already agreed to do it," Quistis assured her. "He said he may as well use his time efficiently, if he was going to be attached to Irvine. Typical Squall."
Ellone put out a hand and gently stopped Quistis just before they entered the Garden. "If we figure out what it is, what are you going to do about it?" she asked softly. "I can't force him out of the sleep. Squall came to me with Rinoa after she was possessed by the sorceress, remember? I can't take them out of it, I can only find out what caused it."
Quistis nodded. "I know," she said, looking down. "But maybe once we know what happened…"
Ellone looked at her sadly. "Maybe."
Ellone sat on the edge of the bed, watching Zell and Squall arrange Irvine more comfortably. "How do you want to do this?" she asked.
"Well, I thought you could send me back to several points in his memory," Squall said. Irvine was now holding only his arm close, so Squall could sit easily. "All we know is that something terrible must have happened, and he snapped."
"I'm gonna wait in the living room," Zell said. "Call me if you need anything." He shut the door quietly behind him.
Squall was silent for a moment, looking down at Irvine. "Elle," he started. "I should tell you something. Selphie came to me a couple of days ago and told me that Irvine had some issue with Seifer. She doesn't know what it is, but she seemed worried." He glanced up at her. "She asked me not to send them on mission together, but I did. And…" He shifted on the bed, feeling embarrassed and guilty. "I didn't mention it to the others, but Irvine seemed – well."
"He started screaming when Seifer yelled at him," Ellone said quietly. "Quistis told me."
Squall nodded. "I don't know what it is between the two of them, but I'm worried that – that something happened."
She closed her eyes. "Has he shown any fear toward Seifer, besides that night?"
Squall frowned. "Not that I've seen."
"Well. I suppose I should look farther back, then." She crossed her legs. "Get ready."
A high-pitched buzzing sound filled the room, and he clapped his free hand over his ear. He hunched down, grimacing in pain. The world went white –
Irvine sat in his bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling. An almost empty bottle of whiskey was clutched in his right hand. He raised the bottle to his lips with a slight, distasteful grimace, coughing slightly as he swallowed the last of it.
"Irvy?" Selphie's voice penetrated the still silence of the room while she banged on the door. "What are you doing? You missed the briefing!"
Irvine started violently, scrambling to shove the bottle under his bed. "Um… wait, Selphie –"
She slid the door open and stared at him. "Not again."
He scrubbed at his face, feeling guilty. "Er… I'm sorry about the briefing. I was – I overslept."
"No, you didn't," she said, sounding sad. "You were drinking again. I can smell you from here." She slid the door closed behind her, and flicked on the light. She slumped into his desk chair, trying not to look at the several empty bottles there. "Since last night?"
"Yeah," he said roughly. He rubbed his eyes, not looking at her.
"Irvy, why –"
"What happened at the briefing?" he asked dully.
"I'm going to Trabia with ten SeeDs. We're helping them clear out some monsters," she said, watching him with a frown. "I asked Squall if you could come with me, but he said no." Irvine shrugged, still not looking at her. Her frown deepened. "He said that as punishment for missing the briefing, you were being sent to Centra to clear a dragon nest with Zell and Seifer."
Irvine winced. "Really?" he said, finally meeting her eyes. She nodded, and he let out a long breath.
"I told him –" Irvine looked alarmed, "– that you had a problem with Seifer, even though I didn't know what it was, and that it would be better if you came with me." She shook her head, watching him with disappointment. "Squall said that if you really had a problem you would sort it out. He said he wouldn't reassign you and no complaints if you didn't like it."
Irvine scraped his hands through his hair. "Hyne," he said.
"When you start drinking all night, this is the sort of thing that can happen, Irvy." He got out of bed quickly, going to the wardrobe and pulling on clothes. She swiveled the chair to face him. "Please tell me what happened! I know I could help –"
He whirled around swiftly. "No!" he said savagely. "I can't, all right? I just – I just can't." He went into the bathroom and grabbed a comb, putting his hair in order.
"I'm sorry," Selphie said quietly. "I know I promised not to ask." She watched as he tied his hair back roughly. "But –" she swallowed, reluctant to go on. "It's going to get harder before it gets easier. You know that."
He braced his hands on the sink, taking several deep breaths. "I'll manage, Sefie. It was a long time ago, all right?"
Selphie shook her head again, standing up. She walked over –
Squall groaned, blinking rapidly as he woke. Ellone watched him worriedly. "Was that it?" she asked.
He shook his head, disoriented. "No, but it helped." He waited for the sick feeling in his chest to go away. "It's farther back. That was just a couple of days ago. Can you look for something with Seifer?"
"I can try," she said, closing her eyes.
Irvine's eyes went wide, and he stared at the man on the Sorceress' brightly lit parade float, paralyzed. "No," he croaked. "It can't be…"
Squall looked around at him. "What?" he asked. He followed Irvine's gaze. Irvine heard a sharp intake of breath. "Seifer."
The sniper glanced at him, surprised. Squall's eyes narrowed dangerously as he watched Seifer lazily wave his sword at the crowd, his blonde hair flashing under the fireworks. "Bastard," he said flatly.
Irvine watched the float, silent, mind racing. 'How did he get here? Why is he with the sorceress? I thought he was from Balamb…' His chest contracted painfully, and he shut his eyes. 'Don't think about it, don't think about it, don't –'
"C'mon, we've gotta go help Rinoa!" he said. "Now's our chance! Come on!" Irvine crouched down and started away, turning back when Squall didn't move. "What are you waiting for?"
They ran behind the float and climbed to the roof of the ornate Presidential Palace. Irvine felt his heart pounding as he followed Squall up the ladders. 'Don't, Kinneas. Not this time, don't freak out, forget about him –' They scrambled over the parapet and found Rinoa being harried by two huge lizards.
'Don't, Kinneas. Don't think about him.'
Irvine closed his eyes –
"Squall!" Ellone shook his shoulder.
He sat up, breathing heavily. "That was closer, Sis." He clutched his head, trying to make the room stop spinning. "A couple of months before that, though. We're getting there."
"Are you sure you want to keep going?"
"Yes. Remember – try for memories with Seifer. I know something happened." He stroked over Irvine's arm. "I'm ready."
A young girl edged into the room, and clapped her hands over her mouth. It was a mess – papers were scattered everywhere, broken glass littered the floor, and the air reeked of alcohol. Irvine lay facedown on the bed, clad only in old, stained jeans. He raised his head and leered at the girl, obviously drunk. "What do you need, Erin?"
"What – what happened?"
"Well, I decided to have a party, didn't I?" Irvine slurred. "I'm such a good Galbadian, too – I'm only drinking Galbadian whiskey, the very best kind." He shakily pushed himself up on his arms, flopping onto his back.
Erin backed away. "Um… Instructor O'Rourke sent me to find you. He says you have to come to class now that you aren't showing any Balamb cadets around anymore."
Irvine flipped back over, glaring menacingly at her. "Don't talk to me about Balamb," he growled.
She squeaked. "I'm sorry, Irvine, I-I didn't mean to offend you," she stuttered, frightened and confused.
"Get the out of my room. Tell O'Rourke I'm not feeling well."
She nodded, looking terrified, and bolted from the room. As soon as the door closed, Irvine's face lost its anger, and he slumped back to the bed, curling into a fetal position. "Damn it," he mumbled. A tear slipped down his cheek, and he brushed it away roughly.
He pulled a bottle out from under his pillow –
"Ellone! Keep me there! Just a few days before, don't lose it –"
She nodded, straining to hold onto the memory.
Squall took a deep breath.