Phantom Strength

by Tenshi

this i swear you're the fiercest calm
i've been in the soul quake
happened here in a glass world
particle by particle she slowly changes
she likes hanging chinese paper cuts just
another fix
can i weather this

-- Tori Amos, "Concertina"

Irvine knew that Zell was strong. He had seen him take down monsters with nothing but his bare hands and some flimsy gloves with some spikes on them, while the rest of the team was busy with bullets and gunblades and blue magic. Somehow, though, that had never hit home quite as much as when Zell plucked an unconscious Squall from Irvine's arms as if a hundred and seventy pounds of bone and muscle was no more than a handful of phoenix down.

"I'll take him," Zell said, though that was already obvious; Irvine had been struggling just to get to his feet with Squall's deadweight. The advantage most of the team had in height over Zell was deceptive, as deceptive in fact as the thin dragon leather he wore around his knuckles.

"Uh, right," Irvine brushed at his vest, as if that would do something about the bright smears of Squall's blood down the front of it, and shouldered his rifle.

The hatch of the Ragnarok opened with a hiss and Quistis' frosty expression thawed instantly at the sight of their leader, limp in Zell's arms, deathwhite and bloody.

"What happened?"

"Hex dragons," Irvine explained. "We sprung a nest of them by accident. Must have been sixteen of 'em."

"We're both dry," Zell said, shifting Squall's weight. "I gave him my last cura but it's not near enough."

"Take him in the back," Quistis said, her voice low. "I don't want Rinoa to--"

There was a clatter of footsteps and a gasp, and Zell growled, "Too late."

"Oh my god!" Rinoa would have rushed right up to Squall but Irvine's arm caught her halfway.

"Hold your chocobos, kitten. He'll be all right. Just let Quisty zap him a few times, okay?"

"But--" Rinoa started, her eyes round on the shredded bloodstained leather, the pink streaks in the fur collar.

"He's had worse, Rin. Just give us a minute to fix him up and you can have him back." Zell's tone was harsher than Irvine thought Squall's wounds merited, as he elbowed past the sorceress.

"He's my knight, you know!" Rinoa called after him, and only Irvine saw the sudden tension in Zell's hands, as though Squall could slip from his grasp.

By the time Irvine had foisted Rinoa on Selphie and gotten enough cures cast on him to turn his ears green, Quistis had already finished with her first aid. The air in the bunkroom was still crackling with energy when to doors slid open to let him in.

"How is he?"

"He'll be out for a while," Quistis said, straightening and tugging her sleeves back down. "What did he do, anyway? He looks like he's been through a cheese grater."

"Limit break," Irvine said. "Damnest thing I've ever seen. He went into that pack of dragons like a renegade firework, took out five of them in under a minute."

"It was beautiful," Zell said, quietly sitting on the edge of Squall's bunk and peeling off Squall's gloves. "I've never seen anything like it." He sighed heavily, blowing back hair that had given up the gel hours and combats ago. "Damn near killed him, though." He leaned back against the bulwark, looking at Squall's still face, the scar standing out vibrantly on his still pale skin. "Dumbass," he added, under his breath.

Quistis tugged the sleeve of Irvine's jacket. "C'mere, you look like you could use a curaga yourself."

Irvine blinked. "Huh? No, I'm okay, Selphie got me at the--"

"I said," Quistis repeated, and the tug on his arm was considerably more forceful, "You LOOK like you could USE a curaga YOURSELF." She jerked her head in the direction of Zell and Squall, and Irvine, belatedly, got it.

"Oh. OH. Right. Yeah. We'll be right back. Holler if you need us."

Zell, his eyes still on Squall and one thumb running over the limp bloody glove in his hand, did not answer. Quistis dragged Irvine out the door, none too gently.

"You knew?" Irvine asked, just outside the bunkroom.

"Exactly how stupid do you think I am? I knew before you did, if you recall. And Selphie knows, and you know, and probably anybody who's stood in a room with both of them for ten seconds knows." She waved her hands, exasperated. "Except for Rinoa; all she ever sees is Squall."

"This sucks," Irvine said, and meant it. "I knew Zell had a thing for him, but I didn't know..." he shifted his weight, trying to find words, not willing to say it.

"Didn't know Zell loved him? Or didn't stop to think of it that way?"

"I knew. We've talked a lot, since Rinoa came back, since the Lunar Cry." Irvine tipped back his hat, looking at the silent closed door. "We've been so busy chasing Sorceresses, I just forget, not everybody's like me."

"Shallow and superficial?" Quistis prompted, dryly.

"Well," Irvine spread his hands. "Yeah." He caught her look and straightened, indignant. "Hey, excuse me for not taking romance more seriously! I'm seventeen and a mercenary, for the love of Odin, what do you expect? All I've got time for are one-night stands, wild oats, backseats, that kind of thing. I guess I thought Zell..." He stopped, reconsidered. "No, You're right, I hadn't thought about it. Zell's not like that. He's old fashioned that way, I guess. Or maybe he just doesn't do a damn thing halfway."

"It hurts to watch," Quistis said, folding her arms across her chest, looking at the floor. "I've been in Zell's place, but even then..." Her voice trailed off. "Squall became Rinoa's Knight, and Zell was just--"

"I know," Irvine said. "I know why Zell asked for the Esthar mission, and not to follow Squall into space. He lost Squall the day he walked out of Fisherman's Horizon with Rinoa on his shoulder, and he knew it."

"Don't say it like that," Quistis answered, hands gripping her upper arms, her eyes too bright. "We all have few enough comforts these days. I just wanted to give them a little privacy."

"Privacy for what?"

Both of them jumped, not having heard Rinoa approach. She could be silent when she wanted, or maybe it was even by accident, some latent sorceress power surfacing without warning.

"Uh..." Irvine began, but Quistis answered, smooth as glass, "Zell's checking Squall over to make sure we didn't miss anything. Until he comes to he can't tell us if he's hurt anywhere else."

"Oh." Rinoa shifted her weight. "I was hoping I could see him."

There was an awkward silence, and Irvine pressed his hand on the door mechanism. "Hey, I'll just go check if Squall's decent, okay?" The door whooshed open behind him, and Irvine fled.

"Zell," Irvine called out, as the door sealed behind him and Quistis' voice cut off like a recording, "Rinoa wants to know if..." He trailed off, realizing both that Zell wasn't listening to him, and that Irvine really didn't want him to.

Irvine had kissed Zell enough to know him, or so he thought. He had stayed behind in Esthar with him; they had watched the sky falling from the balcony of the presidential palace. They had heard the report of the lunar base explosion; Irvine had seen Zell turn his face from the sky.

For all that and the way Irvine let himself get used to the weight of Zell sleeping against his shoulder, he had never let himself believe that he was anything but a replacement, cold comfort for a weary injured body and aching heart, even after they had found Rinoa and Squall on the Ragnarok. Irvine knew Zell loved Squall the same way he knew Zell could take down monsters bare-handed. But like Zell's strength was indirect until he lifted Squall from Irvine's arms, so was love just a word for an emotion Irvine thought he knew until he saw Zell kissing Squall.

Squall was still unconscious, still under Zell in the dim shadow of the lower bunk. Zell held Squall's face in his hands, something almost chaste about his closed mouth and lowered blond eyelashes, the way he held his breath. His arms were bare, his coat balled up under Squall's head, the satin lining softer and warmer than the thin Esthar-army pillows.

Irvine felt his mouth go dry, a dull terrible ache in his chest as Zell pulled away like a thief. Irvine realized he couldn't count the girls he kissed in passing or in passion, forgotten a day later, a fine mechanical art he had honed to indifferent perfection. He saw the way Zell looked at Squall when Squall couldn't see, and Irvine realized very quickly that he didn't know much of anything.

Beneath Zell's hands Squall stirred without waking, sighing heavily. When he spoke it was sleepy, disoriented. "...Rinoa?"

Irvine's heart sank. He would have given anything, blood, sweat, or gil, for Squall to have said another name.

Zell went perfectly still. "I'll get her for you," he said at last, standing up and seeing Irvine for the first time. "What?" he asked, warily.

Irvine shook his head. "Nothing," he said, and it felt like he hadn't spoken for years. "Rinoa's outside."

They stared at each other a long time until Squall rolled over in the bunk, and Zell reached for the door switch.

"It's not right," Irvine said finally. Zell just looked at him, looked at Irvine the way he had been kissing Squall, and opened the door.

"He's asking for you," Zell said to Rinoa, and she brushed past him without a glance, her eyes only for Squall and not how much of his blood was on Zell's hands.

"Zell--" Irvine began.

"I'm goin' up to the bridge to get some sleep." Zell shoved his hands in the pockets of his shorts, nodding to Quistis on the way out. Irvine stood in the doorway until it poked him in the back, trying to close.

"It's not your problem," Quistis said, as Irvine opened the ammo locker and pulled out a fat bandolier of bullets.

"I know that, goddammit." Irvine snapped Exeter open, and peered down the barrel. "So don't go giving me a speech about how I should mind my own business and let 'em all be miserable if they want."

"I wasn't going to say that." Quistis' voice was almost lost in the roar as Irvine opened the hatch, gangplank lowering to the grass.

"Oh yeah?" Irvine was set for challenge, stomping down the ramp and digging in his pocket for his lighter. "Then what were you going to lecture me about, Instructor Trepe?"

Leather unfolded in her hands, the deadly coils of her whip slithering through her gloves. "I was going to offer to go with you."

Irvine considered her, cool and blonde and deadly, and grinned. The evening breeze on the island was cool and inviting, fresh after the stale air of the ship. Irvine pulled his hand from his pocket, lighter found. "You smoke, Quistis?"

She swept demurely past him, winding her whip as she went. "I think I do tonight."

Irvine pulled the last two cigarettes from his case.

When the sun rose over the small island the next morning, there wasn't a single solitary hexdragon left there to see it.


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