AN: Have I ever mentioned what wonderful, encouraging people my reviewers are? Well, let me say it again. I love you guys. A thousand thank yous would never suffice.
Sickly warmth dragged at her like a smothering blanket of death. Her lids were just too heavy, and she wanted nothing more than to lie back—wait, she was already lying back, tangled up in heavy weights, feeling like hell warmed over—and let sleep take her away. Sleep meant no thinking. No pain. She tossed her head in irritation at the annoying sounds of someone calling her name. Couldn't they just leave her alone?
Wake up, coward.
I'm no coward.
She opened her eyes.
The color burned so empty that it reminded her of...(death?) something, some distant memory that she couldn't quite catch. Her thoughts moved with all the speed of paint drying, which was at least still faster than her limbs. The damn things refused to move at all.
Disoriented, she realized that she hadn't been inside of Dr. Kadowaki's infirmary in a long, long time. Which she supposed was a good thing.
Her mind was blissfully blank for only a second before everything came back to her in an overwhelming tidal wave of confusion.
Quistis jolted up, and then collapsed again as the world tilted and spun like a top gone out of control.
"Quistis," came a concerned voice, "Lie back down. You still haven't recovered fully."
"Matron!" Quistis felt gentle hands guiding her down back onto the cot, and feel her forehead.
"Sh..." she said tenderly, smoothing back a stray strand of gold, shining so brightly against the pillow.
She felt the familiar sense of tugging that were her memories as they struggled to escape from their GF induced prison. They lingered, even though she couldn't quite grasp them, like wistful ghosts who were reluctant to leave.
Magic stirred in the air; the hairs on her bare arms prickled to attention. Matron sighed as she channeled the energy, and dark blue glow surrounded her hands. Ice entwined with a rush of fire burst through her veins, as fierce as a stampeding herd of horned horses.
Her delicate hands slipped back, and Quistis slowly, cautiously, sat up. Feeling no pain, she checked her shoulders for signs of the dragon's ravaging claws, and found nothing but a set of four parallel lines, jagged and faintly red.
Off in the distance, she thought she heard the unmistakable roar of a Ruby Dragon, followed by panicked shouts and the equally unmistakable cackle of a Marlboro.
"Matron, what's happened?" She couldn't keep the agitation from surfacing in her voice. Damn. Damn. Damn.
"Someone broke into the shipment of Island monsters. The magic seals were torn away."
Her hands clenched hard around a handful of blanket. "But no one is strong enough to break the seals, only a few magic users—"
"First, Quistis, tell me what happened." Her voice was soothing, but Quistis noticed, for the first time, the faint purple smudges under her eyes, a tightness around her mouth, and the way she gripped the edge of the bed so hard that her knuckles were white.
"I was attacked by a blue dragon..." She relayed what had happened coldly, distancing herself from the incident. It was as if what had happened hadn't occurred to her, but to some stranger. If she tried hard enough, she might even be able to forget that she had damn near died.
Death wasn't something she was afraid of. What she was afraid of was dying this way: alone, unhappy.
What am I thinking? I'm not alone. I have Selphie, and Rinoa, and Zell, and Irvine, and even Squall...to some extent.
"Did you see anyone?" Matron's tone, normally so serene, was urgent and all but demanded an answer.
As soon as the words left her mouth, something, someone, flashed inside her mind.
Quistis opened her mouth to say correct herself, but she was cut off as Matron abruptly rose from her bedside and strode to the phone. She leaned her aching back onto the pillow behind her, and her pulse quickened as she heard the echoing scream of a Grendel.
"Squall," Matron said, and there was relief in her voice, "she says it wasn't him. Please, bring him and come now."
What's going on?
She still felt the aftermath of Edea's healing, warm and glorious, a rush of heady power that swarmed across her vision like the potent buzz of alcohol. The shuddering breath she drew tightened her lungs painfully, and she squinted her eyes closed, counted to three, tried to clear her head.
Someone had broken the Garden seals; the seals, which only the most powerful magic users could get past, and even they would have been weakened considerably. She'd once tried to break those seals, at Matron's request, to test the strength of the barriers. It hadn't been easy, letting the power build and build and build to a towering flood of pure mental energy. But it hadn't been able to get past the seals, not with just brute force. Instead it had come flooding back to its owner in a monstrous rebound. In the end the strength of her own magic had nearly broken her.
If Quistis hadn't been able to break the seals, then who—?
Throwing back the covers, she reached for her normal peach assemble, shivering as the cold air cut past her sheer hospital nightgown.
She whipped her head back in alarm at the weak tone in Matron's voice. She was leaning against the wall, head sagging, and her breath hitched slightly.
"Matron, what's wrong?" Quistis crossed the room in a few small steps, and placed a steadying arm along her narrow shoulders to help her to the chair. Edea promptly collapsed.
"The Island monsters, Irvine and Selphie and Zell are taking care of. But there were injuries because we failed to take the necessary precautions in protecting the junior classmen." She took a breath, and continued. "Dr. Kadowaki and her staff were under prepared as well, and I have always had a talent for healing."
"Were there many students hurt?"
"Why are we all alone in here then?"
Matron shook her head. "We moved everyone underground a few hours ago. The infirmary isn't under attack anymore because we've managed to crowd the monsters back into the training center."
"You didn't answer my question."
"I need tell you something, dear. Better sit down."
I don't like this.
"I know this will come as an emotional shock to you, but I'm sure that you'll pull through." Her eyes, still tired, were disconcertingly direct. She attempted a smile, which did nothing except make Quistis more nervous, then continued on.
"When Cid asked the Garden Council to reassign you your position as an instructor, they agreed."
Of course they did. We saved the world, after all.
"But lately they have been reconsidering their decision, ever since that minor—" she coughed into her hand, "incident with SeeD Granski."
Quistis winced. She knew she shouldn't have agreed to take the overly enthusiastic kid to the Fire Cavern so early. But he had sworn to junction properly. And he had done nicely enough in her Intermediate Magic class.
Of course, all those things had been completely useless, considering that the he had been very, very drunk when they had set out together that day. One of Granski's friends had spiked his bottle of soda. And Quistis had ended up having to call the Balamb Hospital Ambulance when he had fainted halfway on their way to the forests.
My fault. I should've noticed.
Granski's parents had thrown a fit about incompetent Garden instructors. Naturally, the council had heard. So now here she was.
Her work was slacking, and even she knew it.
"They think their original decision was made on unsubstantial ground, and they think it was too hurried. So, they've demanded evidence that you are in fact fit to keep your position as instructor." Matron looked at her, and the expression on her face was apologetic.
"Am I going to lose it again?" Quistis knew her face was as smooth and blank as a sheet of paper.
Here comes the "but".
"But we've decided that it's best you prove your capabilities."
" 'We'?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
"Cid, Squall, and I. The council gave us the final say on your 'test', so to speak." She laughed. The melody of the sound stirred some hidden emotion in the back of her head, and she felt her ties to Ifrit give a brief tremor. But the barrier to memory held. Quistis shook her head, tried to clear it out. Stop bothering me.
"Lucky for you, we get to decide what your test is." The laughter had faded.
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
She sighed. Quistis noticed that the tight line of her mouth had relaxed just a bit. "That's where the hard part comes in." She paused, hesitating. "Quistis, you were lying unconscious outside of Garden on a float spell. Do you know who found you?"
A flash of ebony hair.
"No." A sense of foreboding twisted in her stomach. "I just thought that it was one of the SeeDs. Why?"
Matron stopped as someone tapped three times on the door, and without turning around, Quistis could recognize Squall and the soft scent of his aftershave.
Quistis got up, and turned to face him. Saluting, she said, "Commander—"
The words froze in her throat, and her eyes went on to register what she was seeing even as her mind reeled with shock. There was Squall, looking at her with a wry expression on his face. And behind him, of all people, was Seifer, and she thought irreverently, Oh, look, he still has that leather choker around his neck.
"Matron. How was your trip?" Squall asked, but his eyes were on Quistis, searching and to some extent, wary.
"Fine," she said distractedly. "Brun's got what he wanted out of me with his problems." She was watching Seifer intently, scrutinizing, as if trying to see something the rest of them couldn't. "You really should talk to Laguna about the way he's running Esthar, Squall. Next time I'll have to stay longer. I can't do that when Garden's like this."
Quistis watched her mouth form the words, but the strange buzzing in her head intensified.
"Matron," Seifer said, respectful. What I wouldn't have given to have him address me like that two years ago. Then his eyes cut to her, and cocked his head. "The dear instructor is fine now, ain't she?" When she said nothing, just stood there with her mouth hanging open like some lack-witted fool, he laughed, the deep baritone that she had come to dread over the years, because it had always meant that he was going to steal Zell's hotdogs, or pick a fight with Squall. Or for that matter, pick a fight with her. Maybe she was just being a wimp. Probably. She could see Seifer agreeing with that.
She supposed she shouldn't be so surprised. Seifer was indestructible, and bound to return to Garden to cause even more trouble than before. And now that he had been officially pardoned (by Balamb, at least), he wasn't the one to miss the chance. He was opportunistic. Impulsive. Brutal. Honest. And she'd thought that she'd understood him, his moods, the way his eyes sparked with challenge everytime he looked at Squall. His unpredictability, the extreme mood swings, from wild to tender (Rinoa) to brooding and back. But at the same time he was himself. Seifer Almasy. Uncensored, she might say.
She'd envied him.
And then he had gone and lost himself in his dreams of knights and ladies.
She'd thought she'd understood him. More fool her.
He was watching her with his cat eyes, and there was an almost bitter amusement to his voice, as if he knew what she was thinking. "Well, I thought I would be getting a better welcome than this. I did save you after all."
"It was you?"
"Yeah, it was me. Sir Knight, at your service." He swept a bow, every line of his body mocking her, mocking himself.
She gathered herself mentally, and opened her mouth to let out some scathing remark, but Matron interrupted. "Quistis, remember, the Garden council." There was warning in her voice.
"No," she said. "Wait—"
"There are more important things to worry about right now," Squall said.
Damn him for always being right.
"Squall, Matron says the seals were broken, and you know that no one outside of us is strong enough to get through them. And how can you be sure that..." Quistis trailed off, remembering that Seifer was right there in the room with them. She looked up, and his green eyes met hers with a disturbing intensity.
"I didn't do it," He said it with a quiet conviction, and Quistis was tempted to believe him, wanted more than anything to believe him. But she remembered the other broken promises that she had been naïve enough to think that he would keep his word.
"He didn't do it. Trust me on this, Quistis." Matron's soft voice carried an uncharacteristic note of steel.
Squall shook his head. "The seals...only one of us are strong enough the break them. Even if you were all-powerful, getting past them requires some...finesse. Finesse and knowledge. It's knowledge Seifer can't have."
" 'A knowledge that he can't have'..." Quistis repeated. "How can you be so sure?"
"Seifer has been in Fisherman's Horizon for the past few months." She heard the unspoken words. No suspicious activity has been reported.
There was a tense silence in the little room.
He continued on. "We were extra careful with this shipment, because there were Marlboros. However..." he trailed off.
For the first time, she realized that maybe they didn't just assign her to be his teacher. She glanced back at Squall, and he was looking at her with an equal intensity.
"You realize I can't spend all my time with him."
He shrugged, and Seifer smirked.
She shivered, and suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed, standing there in the hospital gown. Outside there came a dull roar as someone summoned Shiva to their aid.
"Irvine, Zell, and Selphie have it under control now. We...were taken off guard." His voice was rough, and he shook his head, smoothed back strands of hair. She noticed his fingers were clenching and unclenching, white and strained. "There were a number of casualties."
"How many?" she asked. Casualties. Dead. She dreaded the answer.
"Twelve, all junior class," he said, and his face was a stone mask.
"Squall..." She paused, unsure of what to say.
"Garden can't afford anymore losses. The Galbadian attack last year took out too many. And now this..."
Casualties. Just another fancy word for the brutal cycle of life. It was death, plain and simple. Uncensored. Casualty of war. Just another. And another. And another—
Seifer kept his silence, but his eyes were focused, intent, taking in what was being said, and what remained unspoken. No, Seifer Almasy was no fool. She could attest to that.
"From now on, there will be twice as much manpower put into the security and patrolling of Garden," he said. She watched as he straightened his shoulders, but the dull look was still there in his eyes, the downward drag of his mouth.
"Quistis, the regular scheduling of classes will begin again on Monday. We can't let the bastard that did this see how much this has hurt us." He paused.
"Wait a minute. What about Raijin and Fujin?" Seifer watched him with the inborn stillness of a natural warrior, and only his coat rustled around him.
"They're waiting for you in front of the dorms. They'll take you to your room." With that, Squall turned to go. "Quistis, outside. I need to talk to you."
She walked out of the room with a backward smile at Matron. Seifer she tried to ignore.
The infirmary door swung close behind her. She looked at Squall, and even at this distance of a few feet, she had to tilt her face up. The stormy eyes, ever changeable, were regarding her with a frankness that she didn't like. Because when Squall was acting so friendly towards her, it usually meant he wanted something. Like for her to take over his paperwork, just for a few days. Or for her to deal with the pesky Galbadian diplomat who'd arrived the week before. Or—
"Who better than you to handle this, Quistis?" His eyes were serious. Oh god, this is ridiculous. She stifled the inane urge to laugh.
"Think about it." His voice was laced with encouragement. Like a councilor. Or a shrink who wanted to screw with her head. Tell me about this...problem of yours, Quistis.
"Okay." She leaned backwards against the wall, arms crossed, watching the tense line of his shoulders, the shadows under his eyes. No one seemed to be getting any sleep this last week. No one, including her. "I thought about it."
He raised an inquiring eyebrow.
She thought she saw impatience move behind his tired eyes. "Quistis, you were his main instructor before...Time Compression." She heard the hesitation in his words. You were going to say Ultimecia. "You were his last hope. You were one of Garden's best—"
"Right." She sighed, tucked a wayward strand of hair out of her face. "That's why I got fired, Squall."
"And rehired. And that was because you showed favoritism. That's what I want you to do this time."
I. He said I.
Damn, she was weak.
He gave a half smile. "You showed favoritism to me. Look where I am now." He flicked his hair out his eyes, and she inched backwards, kept her eyes resolutely on his face. Weak. "Commander of Balamb Garden." His words were tinged with something bitter.
"Squall," she said, words stiff. "You know that instructor..."she searched her mind, grabbed onto some random name. "...Sheiara would be much better qualified. She's strict, demanding, she's—"
He shook his head. "This is bull." Tiredly. "You can be just as strict, and we both know it."
She wanted him to stop asking her. She wanted to flee from this suffocation. Pressures, his expectant gaze that was like a heavy weight on her shoulders. She didn't want this, but his eyes were an unwanted responsibility she couldn't ignore.
"Why are you doing this?" She had to ask.
He shrugged, and his eyes unfocused, blurred into distance. "Maybe I think Seifer deserves another chance." A beat of silence. "I told you once."
"Told me what?"
"Seifer's not a bad guy. He's just..."
Delusional? Crazy? An ass?
She blinked, unsure of what to say. Her bunny slippers made no noise on the tiled floor, and she noticed they weren't as blood splattered as the rest of her clothes had been. Thank Hyne for small favors.
"I thought you hated him."
His eyes were a shadowed blue, and they flicked around the hallway, avoiding only her. "I thought so too."
No. She wanted to say the word, save herself from weeks of the irritation by the name of Seifer Almasy. But her mouth stayed sewn closed, and when she forced them open, the words came out—
Her skin tingled with a curious relief. The look in his eyes as he pushed back his hair again was relieved too. And oddly triumphant. He was content. Manipulative bastard. Politics was a sticky business, and Squall Leonhart the Commander of Balamb Garden had as much chance escaping it as Zell had of actually honoring his promise to his girlfriend—what was her name?—and swearing off hotdogs. Hotdogs contain very unsafe ingredients, Zell Dincht, now you listen to me right now or— It didn't matter how many times he asked her or Xu or Cid to sit in for him at a council meeting. It was, to borrow an old saying, sink or swim.
Maybe he had learned something as commander. Maybe.
He gave her a graceful incline of his head. "Matron will be happy to hear." A brief smile, but it disappeared in a flash of quicksilver. He turned to go. I should've known better. "See you around, Quistis."
She left herself, feeling oddly cheated.
AN: I think the beginning of this story is as tired out as it can get. Unfortunately, I /didn't/ think that when I first started writing it, naïve fanfic author that I was. But I also like to think that it's going to get better after a few chapters. Yay for all of us. *cheers tiredly while trying to bat off errant plot bunnies* Stupid Inuyasha is gonna be the death of me one of these days...