Chapter XVII – Mighty Guard
The lonely and the lost…
Find the cracks in their shields…
All because of one journey.
She arrived at the hangar bay in what seemed like a blink of an eye. The distance from her dorm to her destination disappeared all too soon. The hand that held her bag felt numb as the rough fabric of the straps burned into her palms.
"Quisty! You're here!" A pair of spindly arms wrapped themselves around her like an Anacondaur. "I'm so glad because I thought you were out looking for me but I didn't want to go look for you because what if we end up running around in circles until—"
"Whoa! Slow down there, girlie! Everything's fine!" Irvine clamped his hat down on Selphie's head. "She's not that late! Besides, it's early in the morning, and everyone needs beauty sleep."
'Not that late'? What time is it? Quistis glanced at the red numbers on the hangar wall. 0643 hours. 13 minutes late.
"I apologize for making you wait so long, Selphie. I had an unexpected issue this morning."
"Don't worry, Quisty! You said we weren't taking off until seven anyway! The team is all here, so if you wanna leave now just say the word! Cid left me a message yesterday morning and told me to get my tools ready for a quick tune-up, so that's where I was in case you were wondering since we obviously never had a chance to talk last night. I'm just super-duper excited that Squall gave us permission to use Rocky!"
It took a moment before Quistis remembered that Selphie had given the Ragnarok, of all things, a pet name. "I'm afraid we likely won't make much use of the ship aside from the commute."
"Oh, I don't care! It's been too long since I got to play with him. Every second counts!" Selphie returned the hat to Irvine and ran into the ship ahead of the others. It was then that Quistis noticed her carefully chosen team of six other SeeDs had already arrived as well, which only added to her embarrassment.
The Instructor cleared her throat. "If everyone is ready, please board the ship and I will give a briefing en route. I will meet you in the Passenger Room." The SeeDs filed into the ship. Quistis felt Irvine come up beside her.
"Ladies first," he quipped with a gesture of his hat. Her boots clanged on the metal ramp and the steady thump of Irvine's steps followed. The ramp retracted behind them and Selphie's voice came through the speakers.
"Okay, everybody! I'm only giving you five minutes to sit down and buckle up, so you better hurry!"
Quistis and Irvine parted ways at an intersection; he headed for the cockpit and she to the Passenger Room. The SeeDs had loaded their luggage into the appropriate compartments and were just settling into the seats as she made a beeline for the front of the room. Quistis held on to a guardrail on the side of the room as the ship began to move. A few SeeDs murmured in awe at the ease at which the Ragnarok took to the air. The ship stabilized before long.
"Pilot to Passenger Room!" the speakers chirped. "Ship Master, do you copy?"
Quistis lifted her head. "Affirmative. Please set a course for Esthar and abide by the standard route, over."
"Copy that, Ship Master!" Everyone in the room felt the ship shifting.
"Ship Master to Pilot. Please maintain a speed in accordance with airway regulations. Do you copy? Over."
She knew Selphie wouldn't be too pleased. "Oh, boooooo! That's no fun, but okay…roger that, Ship Master. We should get there in about three hours, over!"
"Thank you, Pilot. Once I have finished the briefing, I will join you in the cockpit. Over."
She turned to her team. Her hands withdrew to her back, where she folded them neatly. She assumed her authoritative posture.
"Good morning, everyone. For the duration of this mission, I will be your Captain and you shall address me as such. In the event that I am absent to give orders, SeeDs Selphie Tilmitt and Irvine Kinneas will be seconds in command.
"As I briefly explained yesterday, we have been contracted by Dr. Odine to tend to an issue related to Time Compression effects left over from the most recent Sorceress War." She pressed a button and the screen lit up with a full-body photo of the scientist. The room echoed with laughter. "Yes, for those of you who have never seen him, that is indeed our client. Dr. Odine is currently the world's leading expert in Sorceress and Para-Magic research. At this time, we do not have much information. The remaining intelligence will be forthcoming."
Quistis pressed the same button again on the control panel. Names popped up on the screen in groups of three, with Quistis, Selphie and Irvine each leading a group of two other SeeDs.
"I have divided us into specific teams of the most complementary combinations based on our skills and abilities. You were chosen for this mission for your interest and knowledge regarding Time Compression and Sorceresses. This assignment may prove to be quite educational for all of us. However, keep in mind that we were not hired to observe and learn – those are merely fringe benefits. While we may be here to aid in scientific progress, each task may have potential life-or-death consequences. Never let down your guard.
"The Presidential Palace will provide all accommodations and meals. We will have a briefing every morning and afternoon until the end of the mission. The duration of this mission is undefined until we have more details. Esthar's political landscape is currently stable. However, there may be some citizens that are opposed to Dr. Odine's research and may not be too pleased to see a mercenary presence, especially if they make the connection between Dr. Odine and us. Please conduct yourselves diplomatically. No other external factors should interfere with our mission. I will take your questions now."
A young SeeD eagerly raised his hand. Quistis nodded. "Captain, why does Dr. Odine look like a giant beach umbrella?"
"Because he is an eccentric scientist whose contributions to society have apparently earned him the right to look like whatever he wants. Any other questions?"
No more questions.
"Thank you for your time. Once we disembark, please form into your groups and await further instruction."
Each SeeD gave a seated salute. Quistis nodded curtly and left the Passenger Room. She heaved a sigh and straightened her uniform before entering the cockpit to join her colleagues.
"—phie, you silly Geezard, you know I put the 'cock' in 'cockpit'—"
"Ever the professional soldier, aren't you?" Quistis interrupted.
At the sound of Quistis's voice, Selphie's head snapped back to look at the Instructor. Selphie tried to slap Irvine and he made a half-hearted attempt at dodging. "Hey, Quisty! I guess we really don't have any other pictures of Dr. Odine, huh?"
Quistis eased herself into one of the seats behind the two. "The man isn't exactly photogenic. I'm not surprised that he doesn't want his picture taken, and that no one wants to take photos of him. Besides, he's much too busy for publicity. He has important work to do." She secured her bag beneath the seat and absently watched the map on the screen in front of her. A small blinking green light indicated the ship's current location.
The green light reminded her of his eyes. Reminded her of how they always watched her – unrelentingly so. Reminded her of how close his face had been – dangerously close…
She spotted a blob of yellow in her periphery. Selphie was sitting on the floor next to her. Blue eyes met green, and Quistis felt somewhat disappointed, as the green eyes she most wanted to see would have been several shades lighter and darker all at once.
"What can I do for you, Selphie?"
Selphie's grin overflowed with curiosity. "Whatcha thinkin' about, Quisty?"
"Shouldn't you be flying the ship?"
"Oh, don't worry, it's on auto-pilot! Rocky's only gonna be moving in a straight line and Irvy will be on watch!"
Irvine swirled around in the chair to join the conversation. "Yup, we've got things under control here."
Selphie pointed to the front of the ship. "Eyes to the skies, cowboy! I just said you're watching it!"
"Right, right, sorry!" He laughed and returned to his original position, adjusting his hat all the while.
Selphie looked up at Quistis again. How long had she been there? How could she have not noticed Selphie sneaking up to her? This is his fault, Quistis gathered. He makes me all discombobulated, distracted… She had not slept as much as she wanted, and had spent part of the night awake, not even thinking anything in particular about him but just thinking of him. She could not function this way.
"Sooooooo?" Selphie had been watching her quietly.
"What were you thinking so hard about?" she repeated.
"Just the mission, that's all."
Selphie brought her knees close to her chest, rested an arm on one knee, and cradled her head on her wrist. "And whaaaaaaaat is it about the mission that's making you blush like that?"
Quistis went red again. She didn't know that she had been so transparent.
"There it is! What on Gaia—" Selphie's eyes went wide. "Oh. My. Goodness!"
Quistis's pulse quickened. "What? What is it?"
Selphie shook her head and threw up her hands as if the answer had been obvious all along. "…You have a crush on Dr. Odine."
Two seconds passed before Irvine released a high-pitched squeal in amusement.
"That's—no. Selphie, I— That is not true."
"I should've known! Every time we bring him up, you're always defending him, saying how he has such important work to do all the time. I mean, sure, the guy looks like a circus tent, but I don't think looks really matter that much to our Quisty! Right, Irvy?"
"That's right," Irvine agreed. His feet were on the control panel and he had reclined his seat to accommodate a more leisurely position. "Mental stimulation, that's the way to our Quisty's heart."
Quistis didn't know whether she should be offended or flattered. Nonetheless, she felt the need to explain herself. "All right, you want the truth?" she began sternly. Selphie nodded furiously. Irvine leaned an ear toward her. "I appreciate his work, I think he has a brilliant mind, but as far as attraction goes, I am only interested in his research. My feelings for his character and his person are ever so contrary."
Irvine let out a low whistle and returned to his only responsibility.
"What?" Quistis directed the query at Irvine. The irritation in her voice lingered in the air.
Selphie gaped at Quistis. "Wow, Quisty… I didn't think you would be so against the idea! Don't worry about it, it's just 'cause we've never seen you so worked up about something before. Actually, you're never really that passionate unless you're arguing with Seifer."
Quistis opened her mouth to object but Irvine spoke first. "And we don't blame you for not being able to tolerate him for too long. He seems like the kinda guy who's always juuuuuuust 'bout to—" His fingers spread to hold an invisible sphere, and he separated his hands while imitating the sound of an explosion. "—erupt, so to speak."
Quistis sat back in her seat. "Have either of you spoken to him since he's been back in Garden?" she asked.
Selphie curled up into a ball on the floor and hugged her legs. Irvine answered, "We've seen'im around and we've seen'im with you – you're usually bickering away with each other."
There was a small gap in the conversation until Selphie spoke again, "Yeah, we haven't really talked to him yet… It's hard, you know? We've all been through so much together, without him and against him… It's hard to know what to say."
Quistis was at a loss for words also. She only glanced at the top of Selphie's head.
"But I don't blame him, for anything that he did… He was just following orders like the rest of us. Very different orders, yeah…but that's how it goes. These things happen when there's a war. We're okay with that now."
"I'd probably have done the same," Irvine added. "If I had to protect my home, that is. Well, not home, in Seifer's case. I mean Matron. He probably remembered her and wanted to protect her from Ultimecia in his own way. I wish he'd told us. Maybe if the rest of us clued in on all that, we may've been able to help."
Quistis felt relieved and oddly unburdened to know that others felt similarly regarding Seifer's circumstances. All three heaved a collective sigh. Selphie giggled at how they were so in sync. "You know, Quisty…you and Seifer are kinda similar that way. You seem like you're always thinking about stuff. You don't really let other people in – and that's fine! 'To each his own' or however the saying goes."
"There're just so many things you don't tell other people about," Irvine remarked. "We just think you shouldn't keep'em bottled up, that's all. It's what friends are for."
The idea of friendship was too alien for Quistis. She understood the concept, of course, but she never believed herself to be one of those people who had 'friends'. Friends were for the privileged and the normal. People like her students and the children in the towns – those were the people with friends.
"It's what we are for, Quisty!" Selphie ecstatically jerked a thumb toward herself. "We gotta stick together! Nobody else went through what we did so who would understand us better than us?"
Quistis couldn't help but be a bit touched by Selphie's authenticity. What she said rang true, but the same thought plagued Quistis's rational side: If only those who fought in the War would understand her, and even those people barely understood her, then what chance did she have of anyone ever really understanding her?
She sighed and patted Selphie's head. "Thank you. If I need you two, I'll be sure to let you know."
"Yeeeeeaaaaah! Maybe when we get back, we can all have a sleepover and chat aaaaaalllll night long!"
"Ohhh, I'd definitely be up for that!" Irvine grinned.
Selphie jumped up, horrified. "Girls only, Irvy!"
"No, that doesn't include you!" She slapped the back of his hat and it fell off his head. He scrambled to catch it.
Quistis smiled wistfully at their squabble as she reached down into her bag. She put on her glasses and opened a book.
Seifer didn't know how long he had been standing at the door, but one thing of which he was very sure, was that he was completely alone in a place where he should never be left unattended.
Solitude in Quistis's dorm.
His eyes scrutinized the room by the amber light of the sunrise. The walls were barren, and there were no dents and scratches as was the norm in most Cadet dorms. The furniture was arranged tidily with everything placed at ninety-degree angles. Like its mistress, the room was clean and calculated. But beneath all of the stagnant forms and functions, it must be hiding something. He was sure of it, and he was going to find it. But it proved to be much more difficult than expected.
I don't even know where to begin.
He had dreamed about this moment; in his most rational reveries, he would only have a few minutes at a time, but the fact of the matter was that he was really here, and she would be gone for at least a day. He could take all the time he wanted without interruption. He had been standing near the door all this time, contemplating away the valuable minutes. Now more than ever, he needed to live up to his reputation as a man of action. His first instinct was to go to the bedroom, but no…he too had methods, and it was time to put them to work.
Seifer Almasy was nosy, but he wasn't stupid. Everything had to be put back where they were after he was done. Quistis could never know he had been prying. Again, the question bounced back and forth in his head.
Where to begin?
The lingerie stash? No – save that for last. If he started with that, he'd never move on to anything else. Breadth was the most important. After he'd had a little taste of everything, he could then go back and decide what deserved more of his time.
Remember your methods. Start with her façade, then work your way in.
Books. She was always carrying books.
He took a tentative step toward a very small bookshelf that sat pompously against a wall. There was no need for her to own that many books – she had the library for that. He bent down to examine the top of the shelf and saw only a few dust particles. His head began the slow descent to the first level, where his eyes were met with a row of hardcover textbooks that he recognized from years of familiarity.
Typical. She always puts work first.
The second level was as tightly packed as the first, but this tier contained various periodicals and scientific journals. He placed a finger on top of a spine and edged it out and away from the others carefully. He stuck a finger from the other hand into the slot where the literature had been to keep from losing its place in the lineup. Seifer propped the journal on his knee and began to flip through the pages with his free hand. Quistis had apparently marked up a few things with comments on the margins. The pieces that captured most of her attention were those on Guardian Forces and Para-Magic.
He slipped the journal back into the gap where his finger had been. He applied the same approach for several other publications in order to peruse them briefly, and then he decided to ignore the last level that only held more of the same. A small wooden desk almost went unnoticed next to the bookshelf, and the surface of the desk was clear save for a silver work lamp.
Seifer walked past the dining table and chairs that were occupied barely an hour ago. His legs guided him toward the pool of sunlight that illuminated the tiles. The bathroom was spotless and sparse, and much more spacious than his own. The glass doors of the shower wore only the faintest trails of dried-up water. There was no towel on the rack and no bottled products in the shower; Quistis had taken those with her. He turned to see a tiny metal medicine cabinet positioned above a matching console sink. Sitting on the storage space of the console were extra towels and one extra bottle of shampoo. He placed a palm on the topmost towel and pushed down. The towel seemed to close around his hand in a fit of unbridled luxury. He snatched his hand away as a sudden sense of unease descended on him.
This kind of thing wasn't for his kind of men.
Seifer busied himself with snapping open the shampoo bottle. He held the bottle under his nose and took a small whiff of its contents. The fragrance met his exact expectations, for it smelled exactly like she did the night before: simple and clean. Nothing fruity, nothing frou-frou. Plain as bread. But it reminded him of her, and plain bread almost became a mental feast.
He rose up and reached for the door of the medicine cabinet, ignoring his own reflection. The bottom shelf was empty, where he figured she must have stored her toothbrush and toothpaste. The rest of the cabinet was filled with bottles ordered alphabetically, and consisted mainly of painkillers and vitamin supplements.
What does she need painkillers for? She has Magic for that.
Journeying back into the living area, he noted that even the faculty dorms did not have kitchens, which would have been too much of a fire hazard. There was only one place left unexplored.
His boots stopped at the doorframe that separated the front stage from the inner sanctum of her life. It was almost difficult for him to bring himself to cross the line. He was apprehensive and all too excited, like a cartographer standing on the edge of a new world, preparing to disturb an uncharted virgin territory for the sake of wealth and knowledge.
The first step was the hardest, but each passing footfall erased his frets as effectively as the last. He envied her double bed while he had to make do with what he was given in the Cadet quarters: a twin bed that almost bred claustrophobia for someone his size. The bed was made and the pillow was fluffed. At the foot of the bed sat a small dresser. He turned his palm upwards and grasped the handle on the top drawer.
Dare he do it? There would be no turning back afterwards. But he was Seifer Almasy, so he tugged the drawer open without another thought. He glanced down and raised an eyebrow.
He saw only extra bed linens. Not what he expected. Not in the top drawer anyway. He tried the second drawer. This he expected.
He knew it. He knew it would be true.
Quistis was definitely the type of person who folded everything, including underwear.
Seifer nodded to himself victoriously while he lightly thumbed through the stack of folded cotton underwear and neatly arranged brassieres. Everything was black – a darkness in which a man could dream forever, a darkness into which a man's lust could drag him down to be lost in his own personal hell.
He removed one of them from the drawer and laid it on top of the dresser, slowly unfolding it to remember how to fold it back later. It was completely unadorned and devoid of sensuality, but it was never the clothes that made the girl. Not with her. Seifer examined the garment in an almost scientific manner before his imagination got the best of him. The room felt warm and his throat felt dry. He needed to plunge himself into the frozen depths of the Balamb Sea. Right now.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
He tried to fold the underwear back by following the creases, but his quivering fingers made multiple failed attempts at perfection. Seifer returned it to where it once lay and shut the drawer to close the alluring chasm.
That was all. There was nothing left. The adventure had come and went and he had barely anything to show for it except conflicted thoughts and desires.
Feeling dejected by Quistis's empty hole of a dorm, he kicked off his boots and sank into her bed. He didn't care that he was messing up her sheets. He was angry. Bitterness clouded his mind and he couldn't think straight. It was so cruel of her to leave him here like this, alone in a room full of treasures he'd always wanted to see and touch, only to realize that the real treasure was the only thing that ever left this place.
And there was so much order here. The pillow beneath his head was the perfect consistency, and that annoyed him. Seifer wanted to thrash and break everything in sight just for the sake of chaos. This cleanliness and neatness was so dreadfully unnatural.
Like Quistis. She put up such unnatural fronts; yet she made even that look so natural. He wanted to thrust his fingers into her perfect hair and reel each thread into disarray. He wanted to slide her shirt off of one perfect shoulder to disrupt the symmetry. He wanted to make her scream his name (so perfectly) as he threw her world off balance.
He gave himself over to the irresistible daydream, a perfect trap for the most imperfect soul. He inwardly fought for some semblance of control, fought for the thought that he was better than this. But he was so devastatingly drawn to it, and the magnetic force of her perfection peeled away his iron will until he could do nothing but kneel before its power.
It was nothing short of an epiphany for him, when he realized that he only wanted perfection because he could never be perfect. He wanted everything because he could never deserve any of it. He wanted everything of hers. He wanted everything of her.
But Seifer knew she wasn't perfect – she only seemed that way. In fact, she was probably extremely repressed, given her choice of hobbies (GF research? Really?) and especially her lingerie. She might even be the most messed-up person in Garden for all he knew (second only to him, of course, because he always had to be Number One). So why was he falling for it? Why was he falling for the façade?
Maybe he wanted to. A part of him had always wanted to. He wanted to believe that someone like her could turn out so right in this cruel and crooked world. The same could never be said for him. If he couldn't be perfect, then he'd at least try his hand at protecting perfection. He only ever wanted something to defend, to live for his romantic dream of being a Knight to the helpless and the good. And in his mind, Quistis, being what she was (flawlessly perfect and perfectly flawed), needed protection more than anyone. There was no better person.
He never intended for his romantic dream to lull him to sleep. When Seifer awoke, it was already midday. He stretched and, upon fully entering consciousness, remembered that he was not in his room. He must have had a fitful sleep, as only a corner of the blanket was still on the bed. There was no way he could put these sheets back in the same state. Quistis was bound to notice. If he was going to be caught, then he was going to make the best of it.
Seifer groggily shuffled to the bathroom and grabbed the extra bottle of shampoo to take with him into the shower. Hot water spewed out almost immediately, extracting a scowl that complained about the irregularity of such a normal comfort in the Cadet dorms.
He squeezed a generous helping of shampoo onto his hand. The scent once again reminded him of the night before and he inadvertently paused in reminiscence. Memory transformed into explicit contemplations, and he had to stop himself before he went too far in his own mind. It was useless, this constant daydreaming of situations and circumstances and positions and whispers and words that would never surface in reality. He was tired of being tempted by her when she was nowhere near. He rotated the dial to welcome an icy blast of water and quickly ended the shower.
He hesitated for a moment before reaching for one of her spare towels, but decided that he didn't care anymore, and didn't care whether or not he 'deserved' something; if Seifer Almasy wanted it, then he was going to take it. No one was going to hand it to him, and nothing could redeem him enough to make him 'deserving' of anything. Wrapping his damp fingers around the towel, he brought it up to his face and smothered himself in softness. The decadence of the cotton felt like a refuge for his skin, and each loop of fabric ate up the water droplets with ravenous indulgence. His ego delighted in the fact that he was rubbing his body all over something of hers (to do the same to her, he imagined, would be no less glorious). He knew that once Quistis found out that he had touched her precious things, she'd likely set fire to all of it and replace them in a flash, which would be a lot of trouble for her indeed. Seifer was accustomed to causing trouble, so he thought nothing more of it.
It'd serve her right. I could see it now, that uptight and pretty face wrinkling in disgust…
He dressed efficiently, having only brought with him his pants and boots. Seifer took one last look around and walked back to the bookshelf, took some of the textbooks and placed them on her desk in a random display solely to create clutter.
At least it'll look like I was studying in here.
Speaking of which, his field exam was tomorrow. If he put in a full day of training today, he could feel a little more productive. The water pitcher on the table was still half full and he drank the rest of it straight from the pitcher. He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and set the pitcher down. There was nothing more to see here, and if he stayed any longer he might get angry again.
He opened the door and stepped out, only to come face-to-face with a young Cadet.
"Ahhh!" came a small cry. "H-hey! What are you doing in Instructor Trepe's dorm?"
Great. I need this like I need an aneurysm. Seifer spoke condescendingly to the Cadet. "Look here, kid… Our dear Instructor is away for a few days, and she asked me to water her plants. Got a problem?"
"Uh, well…" The flustered teen tried to put on a brave face and attempt to catch Seifer in a lie. "If you were watering plants, then where's the watering can?"
Seifer let out a conceited chortle. "Are you stupid? She's the one with the plants, not me. Obviously, the watering can is inside her dorm. What, you just thought I'd bring it back out with me every time? That's just dumb."
"If you're just watering plants, then where's your shirt?" A shaky finger pointed itself at Seifer's chest. That was fine. Seifer was used to people trembling and cowering in his presence.
Seifer rolled his eyes and proceeded to harangue the boy. "Have you not been listening? She has plants in there. She needs to keep things pretty humid. Now, I don't know about you, but I really don't like to be uncomfortable when I'm watering plants. If I know I'm going somewhere humid ahead of time, I'm going in prepared."
"Um, so…how'd you get in?"
"She gave me a spare key."
Seifer pretended to root through one of his pant pockets, and then feigned surprise before he asked, "What's your name?"
"Name," Seifer demanded.
Seifer mustered up his best voice of mock incredulity. "Well, Brian, guess what? I seem to have left the key in her dorm. I probably would have noticed and had enough time to turn back to get it before the door closed, but I was busy answering your stupid questions. I don't even know when she'll be back. I guess her plants are just gonna die now." He watched Brian's eyes widen. "When Instructor Trepe comes back and gets on my case about her plants, I'll have to tell her that it was all Brian's fault."
"Please don't…she'll hate me…"
Seifer produced a key from a pocket and waved it in front of Brian's face. "Just kidding, moron. Now shut up and scram."
Brian, humiliated and furious, stalked off, but not before glancing back behind him to glare at Seifer one more time. One the Cadet was out of sight, Seifer walked across the hall to his room and opened his own door with the key he had shown to Brian.
This place is just full of spineless idiots. The education they're giving out here is absolutely bogus.
He went inside his dorm to take Hyperion out for a day of practice and carnage.
UPDATE (March 4, 2016): I kid you not, the next chapter is actually up after 3+ years. Please read on!