Recently I've decided to start posting my thanks and extra tidbits at the end of chapters, so as not to detract from the main event: the story. However, I felt like this was important enough to share before you guys get to it.
Black Swan has reached over 1200 hits in just under two months. How amazing, especially for a fandom that is nowhere near as active as it used to be. Really, it's just downright incredible. This is only my second work-in-progress and it just astounds me that you guys have enjoyed the story enough to continue reading. I really can't put into words how eternally grateful I am to all of my readers. You guys are the very reason that pushes me to continue writing, to continue loving this so much.
With you, I wouldn't be doing this. So again, thank you.
Influence: the power of persons to be a compelling force on the actions, behavior, opinions of others.
What the hell was that supposed to be? Quistis thought, as the doors slid shut behind Seifer.
Her heart was still pounding from the unexpected confrontation and she pressed the heel of her palm into her chest in an attempt to calm herself down. Perhaps confrontation was too strong of a word but...what exactly had Seifer been trying to do with that little stunt?
The Ragnarok shook as it touched down on Esthar's landing pad, and she braced herself on the chair's armrest again. Once the ship had settled, she straightened and picked up her duffel bag, slinging it over her shoulder. Still flustered, she hastily strode out of the room and tried to smooth her hair down as much as possible. Just when she stepped out into the hallway, the elevator from the cockpit descended with Squall and Rinoa on it, and the trio followed Seifer out into the hangar.
The realization that Squall and Rinoa were getting off as well hit Quistis then and she turned to Squall. "Wait, I thought you guys aren't allowed to come with us on the mission?"
Squall opened his mouth to reply only to have Rinoa lean around him and explain, "We won't be here long. We're just going to visit with Laguna for a day or two, then go back."
"Ah, I see. Well that will be nice," Quistis replied as they walked into the boarding room.
Squall snorted as he pressed the button to lower the ramp. "Nice. That's one word for it."
Rinoa smacked him on the side of the arm, a slight frown on her face. "Squall! He's your father. We have to visit every now and then."
As they waited and the sound of the hydraulics working filled the room, Seifer piped up to say, "By the way, Leonhart, you fuckin' suck at flying this thing. That was the worst landing I've ever had the shitty luck to sit through."
Rinoa covered her mouth in an attempt to hide her giggle, and Quistis sighed as she shook her head. Squall looked over at Seifer and narrowed his eyes before responding, "Go to hell, Almasy."
"Been there, done that," the other man commented as he stomped down the now-lowered ramp.
Squall sighed before he muttered, "Remind me why we keep him around?"
The corners of Quistis' lips curled upwards and she said, "Because he's good at what he does, remember?"
Squall simply shook his head in response to Quistis throwing his statement from yesterday back at him, and the trio followed Seifer down the ramp. They made their way through the air station and when they reached the front entrance, Rinoa reprimanded, "You know, he's a lot better than he used to be. You two don't give him enough credit."
Quistis glanced over at the sorceress in shock, before she replied, "I'm surprised you're defending him, Rinoa."
With a quick glance to check that the street was clear, they crossed and just before they walked through the sliding glass doors of the car rental terminal, Rinoa said, "Well, we've spoken here and there since everything happened and...he seems more like the Seifer I knew before things went bad. But you know, older. I mean, you can tell he's changed. But everyone gives him such a hard time, all the time, that I think it's difficult for him to move on."
They finally caught up to Seifer who was standing next to the car rental panel. He must have already requested a car because the platform was already gone, and once they stepped up beside him, it reappeared with a low, silver and blue vehicle perched on top.
After they tossed their bags into the trunk and climbed inside, with Squall behind the wheel and Rinoa in the front passenger seat, the platform spun them around. The gate to the terminal opened, and the automatic ramp propelled them out onto the streets of Esthar. Once they reached the end of the ramp, Squall accelerated and they were on their way to the Presidential Palace.
As the city flew past them, Quistis took the time to gaze up at the skyscrapers that formed the Estharian skyline. The events of the Lunar Cry three years ago had devastated the city, and Quistis could still remember the disturbing crimson shade of the sky that day. The monsters had destroyed nearly all the buildings, reducing them down to rubble, and countless bodies had lined the streets.
Estharians were resilient though, and they'd rebuilt quickly. Much of that was thanks to Laguna's never ending determination and positivity. The streets had long since been repaired and the reflective blue surface shined in the sunlight, as their car sped across.
Quistis glanced over at Seifer, who was gazing out the opposite window. If she was having a hard time with the memories of the past, she couldn't even begin to imagine how he must be feeling at the moment.
His eyebrows were furrowed, causing his forehead to crease up. He had his chin propped up on his palm, with his knuckles curled into his cheek. His other hand was in his lap, with fingers clenched just as tight. The look on his face was a mixture of irritation and discomfort, as if this were the last place he wanted to be-which was probably exactly the case.
Hesitantly, Quistis reached out and touched Seifer's hand to get his attention, and when her fingertips brushed against the side of his hand, he quickly pulled it away. Embarrassed that she'd even tried to reach out to him, she leaned back in her seat and he placed his hand back in his lap as he mumbled, "Sorry, reflex."
"It's okay. Are you...doing alright?"
"Fine," he said shortly.
With cheeks flushed with chagrin, Quistis nodded and turned to look out her own window. The city rushed by far too quickly for her to focus on anything in particular and she zoned out, lost in her own thoughts.
Never thought I'd try to comfort Seifer. Maybe Rinoa is right about him having a hard time. Or maybe her infinite optimism is just rubbing off on me, she thought, in an attempt to justify her actions.
Eventually, the car slowed and she glanced up, spotting the Presidential Palace's massive facade looming up ahead. A valet attendant was waving them over to the side of the cul-de-sac, and Squall maneuvered the vehicle right in front him.
The group climbed out as the attendant approached Squall and bowed slightly. In a jovial tone, he greeted, "Welcome to the Presidential Palace! If you would like to hand me your key, I can park your vehicle safely in our garage."
"Actually it's a rental, so if you just want to return it, that'd be fine," Squall explained, as he placed the keys in the attendant's outstretched hand.
With another bow, the attendant replied, "Of course, sir. Please check in at the security desk just through the front doors."
The man trailed away, back towards the valet stand, and Seifer grabbed their bags out of the trunk, slinging one over each of his shoulders.
Quistis huffed in annoyance and said, "I can carry my own bag."
Ignoring her, he followed Squall and Rinoa through the Palace's courtyard, forcing her to trail after him. She rolled her eyes at his back, and the group walked through the Palace's front doors.
Esthar's architecture had always been more futuristic, and the Presidential Palace was no exception. The grand entrance foyer had a transparent glass floor, with golden lines running through that divided it into large sections. Overhead hung an enormous copper light fixture with tubes of crystal dispersed in random disarray, and the sunbeams that shone through the pieces reflected patterns onto the floor. Esthar's moon symbol rested on a plaque in the center of the room, just in front of a desk where a woman in a crisp dress suit stood. Identical staircases flanked her that led up to a balcony directly above.
When the group approached, she also bowed and with a smile, said, "Welcome Commander Leonhart. We've been expecting you. As always, you are allowed to bypass the security check. Vice President Kiros will be waiting for you upstairs, just down the first hallway."
Squall nodded his thanks and the four of them ascended to the second floor. As the receptionist had promised, Kiros, who hadn't appeared to age a day, awaited them at the end of the long hall. His dark skin glistened in the light and his hair, save for the beaded dreadlocks that ran down his back, was still cropped short. His dark eyes were also as sharp as ever. Instead of his maroon leather uniform that he used to wear in battle, he now sported a tight fitting suit that he'd had tailored to allow for as little extra space as possible.
He bowed in acknowledgment and when he straightened, his deep, soothing voice called out to them. "Good to see you all again."
Rinoa closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. She leaned back and smiled up at him. "No need to be so formal, Kiros! It's good to see you, too."
Kiros chuckled as he turned and nodded at Squall, who returned the gesture. His friendly countenance faltered when he spotted Seifer, who stood just behind the Commander. Estharians didn't forget easily, and Kiros was no exception.
"Mr. Almasy. I trust that you will be on your best behavior while you are in our city?"
Seifer's lip curled a little, before he schooled his expression into something more neutral. With a grunt, he replied, "Yeah, I'll behave."
Kiros nodded as his lips tightened into a thin line. With another polite nod in Quistis' direction, he turned and led them through the next set of doors, their footsteps padding loudly on the plush carpet, until they reached the main room that branched off into the presidential quarters.
"Laguna is currently in a meeting, but he should be finishing up in the next few minutes. Squall, if you and Rinoa want to wait here, I can show them where their rooms are," Kiros explained.
Kiros proceeded down the hallway to their left, beckoning for Quistis and Seifer to follow him. Quistis waved to Rinoa, who was wandering over to the couches along the wall, before trailing after Kiros and Seifer.
"We couldn't put you in the presidential quarters, but we have plenty of space in the guest hall. I hope that will be satisfactory."
Seifer's eyebrow raised and when he opened his mouth to speak, Quistis piped up immediately to interrupt him, so that he wouldn't have the chance to say something sarcastic. "Of course. We appreciate you housing us at all."
Kiros glanced over his shoulder and with a grim expression on his face, replied, "No, we are in your debt. Laguna is...well, he's Laguna. We never would've thought he'd receive such a threat and it worries me. We couldn't be more grateful for your help."
He came to a stop then, gesturing to a set of doors on their left. Quistis gently laid a hand on his arm and reassured, "Even if Squall and Laguna weren't related, we still would have come."
The older man smiled and tilted his head in a small nod, before saying, "Feel free to get settled in and explore the city, if you wish. We'll go over the mission details tomorrow at 0600. I think Laguna wanted to spend some time with Squall and Rinoa before they leave."
"Yes, that's perfect. Thank you, Kiros," Quistis said.
After Kiros headed back the way they came, Quistis glanced over at Seifer who was staring at her.
"What?" she prompted.
He shook his head. "Nothing. You want your bag now?"
"That was unnecessary. I could have carried it myself."
"Back to being formal, huh?" he quipped.
Quistis' eyebrows scrunched together and the corners of her lips turned down slightly. "No, I-"
He interrupted her to say, "Never mind. I'll see you in the morning," before opening his door and heading into his room.
Quistis reached out and planted her hand against his door, stopping it just before it closed. In a rush, she asked, "Wait! Did you not want to go and get some dinner later tonight?"
She cringed at the desperate, breathless tone of her voice. Her question had slipped out before she could catch herself and now, she was having a foot-in-mouth moment. Why she'd even asked was beyond her. It's not as if they regularly saw each other or spent time together. Lately, it'd been an exception, not the rule. Knowing Seifer, he also would never let her live this down.
Seifer turned back around as he tossed his bag onto the floor. With a raised eyebrow he teased, "Is that you asking me on a date, Trepe?"
I knew he'd say something like that…
The insinuation made her stammer, as she said, "N-No, I just meant that we need food and...I didn't want to assume that Laguna would feed us."
"Yeah well, I like to avoid going out into the city as much as possible. Estharians don't like me much, remember?" he asked, as his smirk fell into the same neutral expression he'd worn earlier, when Kiros had reminded him to be on his best behavior.
"I'm good, Quistis. I'll see you tomorrow. I'm gonna change into something more comfortable, so you might want to get out of here," he said, as he walked over to shut the door.
She sputtered at his response and he winked before closing the door in her face.
Quistis closed her eyes, letting out a long exhale. He seemed upset. The tone of his voice when he'd tried to joke about Estharians' attitudes towards him, and the way that his face fell...She had to admit that it made her chest feel heavy. It was uncomfortable, knowing that he tried to hide the way he felt behind jokes and a tough exterior. It was also upsetting that she knew him well enough by now to recognize when he was doing it.
She couldn't help but feel like a terrible person for not asking him about it. Were they friends now? No, friends seemed like too strong of a word. They'd have each other's backs during this mission, but that was essentially their jobs. A friend cared about the other person's well-being. Did she care?
Who am I kidding? I wouldn't be asking myself if I cared, if I didn't already, she thought bitterly.
With nothing else to do, she let herself into the room beside Seifer's, copying his action from earlier and tossing her duffel bag on to the floor. She stretched her arms above her head and leaned from side to side until she felt, as well as heard, her back pop.
Changing into something more comfortable did sound appealing and so she unzipped her salmon-pink vest,shrugged out of it, and her sepia-toned leather sleeves off as well. Kneeling down next to her bag, she shuffled through her things until she found the sheer, lightweight hoodie she'd had the foresight to bring. She hastily changed into her favorite black lace bralette and a sheer sweater, tugging on the hood when it got caught on her upturned hair. After yanking a pair of black leggings on, she stood and placed her hands on her hips.
A quick glance at her phone's locked screen showed that it was just after noon. While she hated to waste half of the day lounging around in her room, she wasn't sure if she was in the mood to go explore the city by herself. So instead, she ordered some lunch from the kitchen. After specifying that she also wanted an eight ounce steak for dinner, delivered promptly at seven, she placed the phone back in its cradle and sank down onto the bed.
Now what do I do for the rest of the day?
Her lunch was delivered a prompt half hour later and she scarfed it down. Once she was full, she proceeded to mull over the mission materials inside of the envelope for the next couple of hours. Afterwards, she turned on the television and stared blankly at the screen for another two hours.
Towards the end of the day, she went through her daily workout routine which ended with a few yoga poses, set to the backdrop of the Estharian skyline as the sun began to set. She preferred to do yoga either at sunrise or sunset, because the variety of colors that painted the sky relaxed her. The scenery in Balamb was beautiful, but so was Esthar.
By then, her dinner arrived and she took her time while enjoying the prime cut of steak that she'd ordered. Sometimes, it was nice having friends in high places. Quistis could swear that the fact that she didn't have to pay for such a high quality steak, made it taste that much better.
Hoping that she'd wasted enough of the day and could finally go to bed, she checked the time on her phone and groaned when it read 9:08 P.M. Quistis made it a point to wake up at exactly 5:30 every morning, and go to sleep at 9:30, every night. It would drive her crazy to break that habit by just shy of a half an hour.
Luckily, the Presidential Palace was well equipped for guests and the each one of the individual suites had private balconies that overlooked the city. It was there that Quistis now headed to waste a bit more time.
She swept the curtains aside and pulled the sliding glass door open, stepping out into the cool, Estharian night. The weather was perfect for what she'd changed into, but every so often, a stronger wind blew past and she crossed her arms over her chest to trap in her body heat. As Quistis stood there on the balcony and gazed out at the bright lights that twinkled below her, she found that her thoughts drifted from the mission to Seifer.
With every mission, she always hoped for the best. SeeDs aimed for efficiency above all else, so it was her goal to make sure that they finished this as fast as possible. After the briefing in the morning, she wanted to get to work checking out all the leads that they'd come across while on the Ragnarok. Though Seifer had never officially become a SeeD, he had many of the same tendencies and she hoped that he was on the same page that she was. Like she'd said to Kiros, regardless of Laguna and Squall's relationship, they would've treated this mission with the utmost importance. The fact that that relationship did exist however, simply expedited the process. If Laguna was in danger, she'd do her damndest to find out who was behind it.
As for Seifer…
Quistis glanced over to his balcony and found that he'd opened the curtains as well. He hadn't been lying earlier when he said that he was going to get undressed and was currently wandering around his room with nothing but a white towel tied around his waist. His back was to the door and she could see that a plethora of scars marred his tan skin, crisscrossing all the way down to the towel's edge.
Seifer turned slightly, the muscles in his calves flexing to support his sudden shift in weight. The sight triggered images of him in the shower—water running down his developed physique—to flash through her mind. Quistis flushed but her eyes remained focused on him, drinking in visuals that she never thought she'd see.
He grabbed the edge of the towel and her mind didn't have a chance to catch up to what she should have known was going to happen. Next thing she knew, the towel was off and tossed aside, leaving Seifer as naked as the day he was born.
As soon as her mind processed that she was staring at his rather firm ass, she gasped. He bent at the waist slightly to pick something up off of the bed and his massive thigh muscles went taut. When he started to turn to the side, Quistis realized that she was about to get a front row seat to the all access Seifer pass, and with what could closely be described as a squeal, she yanked the patio door back open and jumped inside her room.
Oh Hyne, I hope he didn't see me!
With an embarrassed huff, she stripped out of the rest of her clothes except for her pullover, turned out the lights and clambered into bed. She shut her eyes, trying to will her thoughts away from naked Seifer and concentrated on slowing her breathing. When a half an hour had passed and she was nowhere near falling asleep, she threw the covers aside with a frustrated groan. Padding over to her bag, she sifted through it for the sleeping pills that Dr. Kadowaki had prescribed to her a few months ago.
She tried to avoid using them since they left her groggy for most of the next day. But there was no way she was falling asleep with the mental image of a completely nude Seifer refusing to leave her alone. In her opinion, she was acting like an infatuated teenager, and that frustrated her. She was an adult and was perfectly in control of her own thoughts and actions. With that mantra running through her mind, she quickly shook out two of the pills from the little orange bottle and headed into the bathroom to get some water. After tossing them back, she climbed back into bed and double checked that her alarm was set for 5:30 AM.
She hadn't exactly been tired when she got into bed but now that the lights were off and she was laying there in silence, she found that she was wide awake. Her pills wouldn't be kicking in for some time.
The image of Seifer's face from earlier, crestfallen and closed off, flashed into her mind—replacing the more recent, more suggestive version of him—and she rubbed her temples, trying to force the visual away.
With a frustrated sigh, she threw the covers back and got out of bed. Shoving her feet into a pair of flats that she'd brought along, she yanked her door open and went over to Seifer's room. Right before her fist made contact with the door, she hesitated.
Is he even awake? He'll probably tell me that I'm being nosy if I so much as ask him how he's doing…
Before she had the chance to change her mind, his door opened and she jumped, caught in the act. She noticed that he'd gotten dressed in a plain white shirt paired with jeans. Which wasn't a bad thing—or so she should have thought.
When Seifer saw her standing there, her hand poised in mid-air, he raised an eyebrow at her before a smile slowly spread across his face. "You tryin' to sneak into my room, Trepe?"
Quistis snapped her arm back to her side and stuttered, "No! Hyne you almost gave me a heart attack. I just wanted to check in with you about the briefing tomorrow."
"What about it?"
"It's at 0600."
"Yeah, I know. That's what that guy said earlier, right?"
"Right, so...why you reminding me?" he demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Didn't think I'd wake up on time or something? I'm not a kid anymore, Hyne."
"I just wanted to make sure you knew," she muttered.
"You sure you weren't tryin' to sneak in and catch me naked or something?"
"What? Why in the world would I do that?!"
"Well you were watching me change earlier."
At that, Quistis sputtered as a blush spread across her cheeks. Of course he'd seen her. He was trained to be observant. It would've surprised her if he hadn't seen her out on the patio, what with his curtains wide open. Mentally, she kicked herself for hoping for the impossible.
"I-I wasn't watching you. I just...I was standing on my patio and you...whatever, that's not why I came over here!" she stammered, due to being flustered.
"Woah, no need to be so defensive, Trepe. It's alright if you've got the hots for me. I know my reputation precedes me," he teased, the corner of his mouth curving up into a smirk.
He sighed as he leaned against the doorframe, his hand held out to prop the door open. "Great, you're breakin' out the 'Instructor' tone. If that's not why you came over here, then what? Spit it out, I don't got all night."
Quistis huffed and placed her hands on her hips as she spoke. "I came over here to ask about how you were feeling."
"No, not physically. I mean, how are you dealing with being here? In Esthar?"
"What is this, a therapy session? I'm fine Trepe. I told you that earlier."
"Will you stop that?! I'm not gonna fuckin' pour my guts out to you because you break out the tone."
"No, you just need a bottle of whisky in you for you to act like an actual human being, don't you?" she retorted.
His eyes narrowed at her. "The amount of alcohol it would take for that to happen would kill me. But bravo, Instructor. Your comebacks are improving."
"Seifer! I am trying to be compassionate. It can't be easy being here again. I saw how upset you were earlier. I'm just telling you that I'm here if you want to talk about it."
He sneered at her before replying, "I'm not a fuckin' girl. I don't want to talk about shit and I don't want your pity. Besides, you were being real compassionate when you skipped out on me the other day, after I did exactly what you're asking me to do again. What makes you think I'd want to tell you anything now?" he ranted, as he let go of the door and brushed past her into the hallway.
She let out a deep sigh before she followed him. "I'm not asking out of pity, Seifer!"
He stopped abruptly in the middle of the hall and she nearly crashed right into him, before he turned and faced her. "What the hell do you want me to say, Trepe? That I'm fuckin' miserable being here?"
"I just want you to tell me the truth. I need to know that you can handle the pressure of being here, for the mission's sake."
"Yeah it's always about the damn mission with you, isn't it? Like I told you earlier, I'm fine. You know, it's pretty damn convenient for you that you get to push me about my feelings—or whatever shit it is you want to know—but you get to keep avoiding my question."
"What? What question?" Quistis asked, goading him into continuing his thought.
"The same damn question I've asked you twice now, that you keep avoiding! You want me to talk? Then grow a pair and tell me why you left me at the hotel, alone, on the fucking floor! After I told you something that I've never told anyone before. How's that for being fucking compassionate?!"
"I'm sorry, okay? Is that what you wanted to hear? I left because...I didn't know what to say to you. I didn't expect to see you at the bar, I didn't expect to go to the hotel with you. I didn't expect for us to...I didn't expect for any of that to happen."
"And you think I did? It's not like I stalk that fucking bar, waiting for you to come back. I wasn't expecting you either but at least I'm man enough to face you the next morning."
"Well...I don't know, that's something you're used to, I guess. It's not every day that I wake up in a hotel room with some guy I left the bar with."
"Oh, so whoring myself out is a new trademark of mine? I have to pick up chicks from the bar because they'd be the only ones who wouldn't give two shits about who I was? That's why it must be the norm for me, huh? And I'm just some guy now? Like we didn't know each other before, like I didn't offer to let you stay in my room because making you walk through the fucking rain back to Garden would've been a dick move. You know what? Fuck you, Quistis," he spat before he turned around and stalked away.
Throughout Seifer's entire tirade, Quistis hands had clenched tighter and tighter, her fingernails leaving painful crescent marks in her palm. She watched Seifer's retreating back, his shoulders hunched and his hands clenched into fists at his side. "Where are you going?" she called out to him.
"Somewhere that isn't here! Thanks to you, I need a fuckin' drink now!" he shouted back at her over his shoulder.
He disappeared around the corner and she clenched her jaw so tightly that her cheeks ached. Seifer had always been difficult, even when he'd been her student. Now that they were older, he was more vulgar, his emotions locked down behind the even thicker wall he'd erected to keep everyone out.
Oddly enough though, Seifer had always been the only one who was willing to call her out on her bullshit and apparently, he'd just done exactly that. As much as she hated to admit it, he was right. Like a coward, she'd ran away that day, afraid of exposing her vulnerable side to anyone, let alone to him. Surprisingly, he'd been the first one to open up and share a piece of himself with her. She hadn't even thought to consider how difficult that must have been for him and then the next day, she'd disappeared, like everyone else in his life. As if it had meant nothing to her that he'd put himself out there.
She shook her head, exhausted from their confrontation, and slowly walked back into her room. Collapsing into bed and pulling the covers over her head, she closed her eyes and her medication finally kicked in. She drifted off to sleep, her heart heavy in her chest.
A/N: Thank you to Franny Mika, my wonderful guest reviewer, Yadda Wadda BaddaBoom, Ally Todd, Team Wingless, and lily anson for the amazing reviews—so happy to know y'all are enjoying the story and I love hearing from you guys!
Thanks to realityisanillusion, SabersDragon, staceums (I fangirled when I got that notification, so thank you!), lily anson, and hecatesbrat for the follows (as well as the favorites!)
Last but not least, thank you to Arenoptara and Layla Evercrest for beta-reading :)