When I stepped off the escalator into the warm summer night, the air smelled of hazelnut coffee and firework gunpowder, and the pavement was gleaming with a faint mist of rain. Behind me the train station was a murmur of motion and engines, and the city-lit clouds above me were obscured by giant hot-air balloons, in purple and magenta and gold.
It was my first time in Deling City.
"Pretty, ain't it?" Irvine said, stepping off the escalator behind me and tilting his hat back to look at the monument in the middle of the city. "Good old DC. There's no town in the world like it."
"It's okay," I said. Irvine made me feel like a backwater hick, and I was no nearer telling him that I thought Deling was too big than I was to putting on a moogle suit and dancing the cha-cha. "Is this where you're from?"
He gave me a strange look then, but it could have just been the light from a passing bus, flashing light and shadow over his face. "I grew up in Garden," he said, as if I should have known that.
"Oh." A trio of kids my age walked by in front of me; one of them had his hair in lurid blue spikes. I felt oddly generic, tattoo and all.
"Festival air," Irvine said, making a show of inhaling. "like anything could happen, eh?"
"I just want to get this over with." It was cool on the street after the steam-warm underground, and I was glad for my jacket. "what the hell is keeping Squall?"
"Keep your shirt on, he's getting directions. Damn, I haven't been here since last summer. I hope we've got some time after we wrap this up, I'd like to go downtown." Irvine reached in his pocket, and opened a slender silver case. "I'm running low, and the shop at East Academy doesn't stock these."
I'd rather the aforementioned moogle suit and cha-cha to admitting I gave a damn about Irvine or what he smoked, but Squall was busy with the information stand and the map and getting seven different sets of directions. No doubt he wanted alternate routes in case we got separated, or so we'd never take the same way twice, or if the direct route was too easy, who knew with him? "What have you got there?"
"You smoke?" Irvine asked, offering. "I don't usually, these are special occasion." They were slim and brown and long, and smelled good, like the Balamb train station shop on a late fall afternoon.
"No thanks. I uh, I don't smoke." I tried to think of a reason besides the fact that I'd had asthma as a kid, and cigarette smoke made me turn green and pass out. That didn't sound particularly cool.
"I figured you wouldn't," Irvine said, selecting one and producing a lighter from one of his many pockets. It was silver too, and matched the case. "One of my roomies is hand-to-hand based, he doesn't either. Since your body is your weapon, and all that. It'd be like me using my rifle for a doorstop."
"Yeah, that's it." Thank you Mr. Kinneas, that's a better excuse than I could have come up with.
"So." Irvine snapped his lighter closed, and exhaled a long plume of smoke at the sky. "You nervous?"
I cracked my knuckles, making a show of shrugging. "Nah. It can't be worse than our test in Dollet."
"Pretty bad, huh?" Irvine's boots gritted on the wet pavement as he leaned against the wrought-iron station escalator railing, absently flicking ash from his cigarette. "I've heard the Test can be brutal. You passed it, huh?"
It occurred to me that Irvine was still a cadet, and had never taken the SeeD test. By rights, that meant I outranked him. The knowledge was sweet enough to make the inside of my jaws ache, like those violently sour candies the junior classmen traded during lunch. "Yeah," I said, lifting my head a little. "It was tough. But not the fighting, really. Just being cut loose, having to make your own choices."
Irvine nodded, smoke curling up under the brim of his hat before escaping. "It's more about that than about your aim, I'll bet. Anybody else in your team make it?"
I gestured with my elbow to the information stand, where Squall was folding his city map and tucking it in his jacket. "Squall did. Selphie kind of wound up with us by the end of it, too."
"Did she." Irvine murmured, looking towards a streetside coffee cart where Selphie was digging in her pockets for change, only to have Quistis brush past her and order for both of them, Selphie smiling with grateful delight. "And Quistis was your instructor. Kind of weird, that it's all of you."
I blinked. "Weird?"
Irvine took a long pull of his cigarette, and changed the subject. "One in blue. Rinoa. Where'd you pick her up?"
Rinoa stood apart from the other two girls, her arms folded across her breasts, looking unhappy and unimpressed. She shook her head when Quistis asked what she wanted.
"She latched onto us in Timber." Something in my tone must have been telling, for Irvine to arch his eyebrow in a knowing way.
"You don't like her."
"She's nice enough, as a girl." I shrugged. "I just don't like being ordered around by someone who doesn't know what they're doing."
Irvine laughed without amusement, and the sound made him seem old, bitter at the edges. "Then you're in the wrong line of work, Zell Strife."
"It's Dincht," I said, mildly annoyed. SeeD or no, he should at least be able to remember our names properly. "Zell Dincht."
"Oh." Irvine dropped his half-finished cigarette, and ground it out with his boot. "Sorry. There's a Zack Strife in my class, I must have got your names confused."
Maybe it was the way his hat hid his eyes, but I got the distinct impression he was lying.
Squall interrupted, coming over to meet us and frowning faintly at Quistis and Selphie as if he didn't approve of latte consumption during a mission. "These bus routes must have been designed by drunk moogles, but I think I've got how to get to Caraway's mansion."
Rinoa snorted unsubtly, and when we all looked at her, she just waved a hand, her smile tight. "Oh, don't mind me."
Squall looked as if he very much minded her, and having his mission briefing interrupted, but he shook out the bus schedule and went on. "It's number four and then number twelve, both on the green line. We'll break up in pairs and meet there; I don't want us traveling in a group."
"I'll escort Miss Heartilly," Irvine offered gallantly, coaxing a smile out of Rinoa as he swept her hand up to his lips. I couldn't help feeling a bit disgusted that he had no problems remembering her name. Quistis said something that sounded suspiciously like 'typical', and stalked off down the street with Selphie jogging after her.
Squall stuffed his map back in his pocket, and whether he was pleased or disappointed to be stuck with me was beyond my ability to divine. Not that it made much difference, since he didn't say a word to me during the bus trip to Caraway's mansion. I spent most of the ride staring at my sneakers propped on the seat in front of me, and wondering, beyond the mounting mission anxiety, just who Zell Strife was.