Starburst


She was slightly drunk, and not on just the alcohol.

Would wonders never cease? Prim and proper were her middle names - if she'd come with middle names - and she never got drunk. Drunk meant sloppy. Sloppy wasn't in her vocabulary, not when she wore the SeeD uniform special, but tonight she said fuck it and took the glass of champagne and sipped and her liver ached with failure.

Quistis Trepe was not good enough to be an instructor.

SeeD by age fifteen. They'd had to put off promoting her or she would have been one by fourteen, and they never made uniforms that small. She'd been all hands and feet and elbows and IQ, with an aim that made her weaponsmaster weep. She could have mastered anything she wanted, but she wanted a whip - she wanted a whip because it was even harder to control than a gunblade, and because it was almost deadlier in hand-to-hand combat, because she knew how to crush the trachea with it and break the bones and because she'd stood in the mirror with it at age ten and liked the way it had looked, clutched in her hands -

Instructor at seventeen. She'd carefully, lovingly put the licence in her Box, along with the baby certificate of the orphanage she'd come out of and the awards she'd gotten growing up in Balamb (godforsaken hypocritical hellhole I hate you Seifer I hate you Squall I hate you hate you hate you Cid Kramer) and her hand had not shaken when she'd given it back, had it revoked, filed away in the compartment where all the other pity-cases went when they were rejected.

No leadership qualities, they said. Like they were looking for something, anything, to push her off her pedestal with. No leadership qualities. She'd passed hundreds of SeeDs their tests, got them in and got them out, made them soldiers. She helped to mother an army, she thought drunkenly, gave birth to cadets with bright bright weapons in their hands.

Where had she gone wrong?

"What was I supposed to do?" the blonde muttered into her champagne. "Not man the guns? Squall - he was going to die, I was just looking out for him, always have - "

Where had she gone wrong, indeed.

Squall. The alcohol was warm and bitter in her mouth like blood. Her most precious of students, responsive as a Balambfish and with the same kind of heat, never heeding any of her words unless they were the simplest kind of soldier-commands. Lift the blade higher, Squall. Focus your energy more on the centerpoint -

She did love him. She loved him like a mother loved a newborn taking the first tottery steps towards the sunlight, like a girlfriend clutching the railing with a boyfriend in a duel below. Quistis had thought him in such need of love, but it rolled off him like water off a duck's back. She'd tried to love student-Seifer too, once upon a time, but he disdained her love as if it was vomit being flung in his face and now he'd been rejected as surely as she was weeping in a corner of the Garden inside his head, never a SeeD, surely it was her fault, all her fault...

Fuck that.

She toasted herself. "To St. Quistis the holy virgin martyr," she said solemnly, and drank, though she was neither holy nor virgin though definitely a martyr and the champagne burnt as she downed it. She hated the way she looked, leant back against the pillar of the ballroom with all of the new SeeDs too frightened to approach her and all of the old ones too unnerved and the instructors pitying. If she closed her eyes the lights went fuzzy and the candles looked like snowflakes, the strains of the orchestra in the corner turned to tin. She was only eighteen and already she was like a bitter thirty-year-old bored and tired with her life.

Squall was nowhere in sight. She should seek him out. She was going to fling her failure in his face like virulent poison. Would there be apology in his eyes? Did he care?

Did anybody care?

The fluted glass spun in her fingers and she stared at her white gloves. Her dress uniform, navy with dignity, skirt instead of pants because no it wouldn't to for a female SeeD to be able to actually run in case of emergency. So pretty. Pretty, pretty, pretty. The waitress came and took her glass and watched her suspiciously and she hardly noticed. Pretty blonde girls didn't get drunk and Quistis knew she was pretty, because that's what they said - it was the reason she had her position. Titters mixed with horrified giggles as they imagined her going down on portly Headmaster Kramer, because it must have been the reason she got the position, mustn't it, not because she got the fastest time on her SeeD test in ten years and had been better than any of the boys -

She felt like getting drunk, though. She looked up at the skylight at the stars and wished they would all fall and explode like missiles, breaking down on the dancers in the hall, covering her in earth and darkness so nobody could see her face.

A star fell, and Quistis waited patiently for the world to explode.

It didn't. As she looked down, the star twinkled off into the darkness like a piece of glitter, and her attention was drawn to a girl standing alone on the dance floor. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed and a white dress glimmered on her skin like milk, and Quistis unsteadily thought she might hate her, out of principle.

She looked at Quistis and she smiled, pink lips creasing with a dimple in her cheek, eyes sparkling as if there was a star-secret between them. Confidently, she crossed the space between them, over to Quistis' pillar - oh, please, don't come over here - walking on the strappy heels of her sandals as if she'd been born in them.

The blonde straightened up, dignified. 'Report me if you must,' she was going to say. 'My name is Quistis Trepe and I'm in trouble and if you get me into any more they'll sink me down to Cadet again can you do that and why am I asking you you know shit all about the military, but can I ask you anyway?'

Instead, the girl had a voice like honey and there was nothing like recrimination in her tone. "You're the best-looking girl here."

Quistis was confused. This was not in the obvious script.

"Dance with me?"

The tall SeeD stared down at the girl because she was clearly insane. Groping for something to say, it came out in a cringing tumble of lame confusion; "Women are not allowed to dance with other women at formal occasions unless there is an unequal number present, and the Master of Ceremonies gives his permission."

The brunette bit her lip, as if she was trying to stop her laughter bubbling out. "I'm a rebel. I'm allowed to change the rules."

Quistis still said nothing - words were not coming - so the star-girl sighed. "Let me guess. You'll only dance with someone you like." No, you little fool, I don't want to dance, I don't want to dance at all. "Okay, then. Look into my eyes."

She forced her gaze down, feeling incredibly stupid and flailing out of her depth. The girl had eyes the exact colour of hot chocolate before you added the milk, deep and warm and fathomless, framed with thick black lashes. Quistis had never had thick black lashes; her eyelashes were pale and blonde and mean. Star-girl had a heart-shaped face that would fit in the upturned cups of her hands and lips like strawberry icecreams and maybe they tasted the same.

I can't be drunk. I had one glass of watered-down Garden-function champagne that wouldn't inebriate a twelve-year-old.

Very seriously, the girl raised one finger and drew it in a slow circle in front of Quistis' eyes. She noticed a callous on it, which was odd. Her own were hidden by her gloves.

"You're-going-to-like-me," the girl intoned, as if she was trying to hypnotize her. "You're-going-to-like-me. Okay. Did it work?"

"Uh," Quistis hazarded, "No?"

"You don't like me?"

"I don't even know you!"

"Can you dance?"

"All SeeDs dance," she answered automatically, and wanted to bite her tongue; she should have claimed they all had two left feet and that dancing was against her religion. She had a feeling, however, that it would not have worked.

"You'll be fine, then." Shock and horror, she slipped her hand impatiently into Quistis', grip like steel. She heard of girls who liked other girls and they had short haircuts and tried to look like men. Maybe the girl was a terrorist and was going to shoot her; Quistis quite liked that idea. "I'm looking for someone. I can't be on the dance floor alone."

And then they were in the middle of the dancers, getting stares as if they were a silly pair of twelve-year-olds who had invaded the floor, and Quistis gawked at the girl stupidly and knew not what to do.

I can almost hear everybody laughing at me from here.

The girl impatiently drew Quistis' hands to hers, one gloved at her hip and the other clasped with hers in the air, and both immediately bumped forward into each other as the two girls tried to lead at the same time.

"Okay, okay," the girl immediately ordered. "You lead."

Cheeks afire - weren't they? She must have been blushing. Her knees felt as if they would give in any moment now. Quistis started with stiff dignity to dance, hardly bearing to look at anything but the girl's face, drowning in her own dread. Why did they have to be at the center of the floor? Where on earth was the room in the girl's dress for her to pull out a revolver?

The girl spun out and Quistis almost forgot to pull back, the movements like knots in a piece of string and hard to thread. The girl's smile was warm and safe and sympathetic, as if she knew what was happening inside her head, as if she was sorry that she had pulled Quistis out in the middle of the dance floor among all these people who hated her and made her stand out.

"What's your name?" the girl asked, soft and warm.

"In - Trepe." What was her rank now? "Captain Trepe. Rank five," she added, unneccessarily, because she had been demoted.

"I mean your first name, silly."

"Quistis," - and she bristled; "And I'll thank you not to call me silly."

The girl's laugh was like silver. "I'm sorry, Captain Quistis Trepe," and she knew she was silly.

Girls felt bumpy, she realized stupidly as the star-girl brushed up against her body, they weren't straight and blank like men and why couldn't she breathe?

The music was drawing into the close. Soon she'd be released from the bondage of pain, and with a burst of energy Quistis danced as hard as she could, the heels of her shoes clicking on the tiles as the girl spun in her hands like a top. She just laughed, smiling at Quistis like she was the star that had fallen, and Quistis pulled her hard from the spin up against her body. She put her hands up against Quistis' shoulders, fireworks reflecting on her milk-white skin from the window outside, and one finger came up to touch and measure the blonde's whirling heartbeat. She looked up at the ex-Instructor's face, and then over her shoulder, and broke the hold.

Queerly, as if satisfied, the girl raised her hand to touch Quistis' lips twice and stepped back from her, fingers clasped in front of her pretty pretty dress. "Thank you," she said, simple, and she winked and walked away.

Leaving Quistis bare and naked, and torn apart.

Squall was out on the balcony opposite, and she held her head high and looked at him, and looked at nobody else. He looked at her as if was sick or perhaps insane - as much as Squall's apathetic glance could be melded to that - and her hand itched to slap him suddenly. You should have been out there in my place. You should have been out there in hers.

Instead, she was silent, and he said, "I didn't think that was part of regulation."

He was laughing at her, the little freshly-scarred shit.

"Sometimes we have to go outside the boundaries of regulation," and she didn't know what she was saying, but she could still hear the waltz and feel the bumps. "I note that you were out here and not in there because you can't stand being around me."

"... Whatever," he dismissed, his silent fuck-you. "You're an instructor, and I'm your student." Not any more, bucko. "It's kind of awkward when you don't say anything."

"That's true," she admitted evenly. "I was like that myself." Stop pretending you're better than me, I was like you, I am like you, only I was made of sterner stuff.

"Oh, I completely forgot," - because she hadn't, and her voice sounded thin and funny, as if she was about to cry. "I wonder what's to become of me? I came to give you an order." Not like I can any more, but you don't know that, do you? "Meet me in the secret area."

"Are we going there to tell everyone they're violating curfew?" he grumbled, like an irritated younger brother. "If that's the case, forget it. Leave that for the disciplinary committee."

There is no more disciplinary committee, she wanted to shout. Seifer's failed and he'll give as many orders as I now will, which is none, and like I care about students necking after hours. Somehow, she managed to laugh. "Go get changed and meet me in front of the training centre."

"This will be my last order," she added, and he just stared, as if she was suddenly talking fluent Shumi. No, if she thought that was hit home, she was aiming for the wrong segment of his armour.

Squall turned away, and then suddenly turned back.

"Hm? Question?"

"... Why did you dance with her, Instructor?"

She smiled, slow and crinkly and brittle, and the lights looked like snowflakes again. "Because I wanted to."

Quistis realized it was true, walking the back way down the cold concrete corridors with the strange chill of the night upon her. She changed out of her SeeD uniform in her new quarters - she couldn't sleep in her old ones, they were for instructors, and she had been demoted - and looked outside her window and wondered where the star had fallen.