One hundred and fifty-two homework assignments. Nine late essays that I was foolish enough to accept a day late. A test to write up seeing as I mysteriously misplaced my previous copy. All due for my classes by tomorrow morning.
Ah, the sweet bliss of teaching. Somebody kill me now.
Thanking Hyne for the distraction, I looked up to find a cadet perched nervously at my classroom door. Smiling to put her at ease, I asked, "How can I help you?"
The brunette shifted as if embarassed but answered, "Instructor Xu asked me to come get you. Said it's kinda urgent, and if you could see her as soon as you could."
"Thank you Maya, I'll head out immediately."
Her chin came up and the girl literally beamed with the knowledge that I knew her name. Amused, I watched her skip out of the room, marveling at the exuberance of youth. Come to think of it, I wasn't much older than she was, probably no more than three or four years. Sometimes though, it felt like three or four lifetimes. There were moments I grew nostalgic for those days when all I had to do was study, train, and maybe participate in a bit of gossip. Life had, however, gotten a bit more interesting in the past year.
We cleaned up on Ultimecia and returned home to a hero's welcome. I'm not going to be modest and say we didn't deserve it - still, one can take mass adoration only so far. I mean, I already had the Trepies dogging my heels; now it seemed everyone wanted to join in on the act. My only consolation, sadistic as it may sound, was that my comrades-in-arms had to endure the exact same thing. Irvine, I think, ended up having a following that put mine to shame - he was more than welcome to that particular honor.
Soon enough, however, things calmed down. Irvine opted to return to Galbadia Garden while it was rebuilding and regrouping from its extensive, and in some ways embarassing, mistakes. We were all sad to see him go, but for the most part understood his reasons. Cid had offered him a posting here at Balamb Garden but he had turned it down, saying he'd take Galbadia, wacky bureacracy and all. Selphie and Zell went back to business, accepting the routine missions that still kept Garden running, while Squall and I were once again thrown into our respective leadership roles: he, as Commander, and I as Instructor.
Of course, there were repercussions to what had happened - there couldn't help but be. Edea rarely goes out in public anymore unless accompanied by SeeDs; usually it's Selphie, Xu, or me, but Zell and Squall often accompany her. It doesn't matter that she had no control of herself during that time; there are still those who are of the mindset the only good sorceress is a dead sorceress. Pray to Hyne it won't be any SeeDs they hire to do their dirty work.
Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes was the fact that Seifer was re-admitted into Garden. Cid was much too kind hearted for his own good; I doubt I'd have made the same decision in Cid's place mainly because, as far as public relations went, it further besmirched Garden's name. First our Headmaster is married to the former Sorceress herself, and now we let Her knight back in as well. Unfortunately, there are people who are unable to forgive or forget as easily.
To be honest, I'm not against Seifer coming back; he'd make one hell of a SeeD if he would put that attitude and pesky problem with authority behind him. It's just the inherent difficulties he would wind up bringing along with him, the problems that would no doubt arise from him being here when the whole world knew him for what he was as Edea's Knight. So far there had been no incidents to my knowledge, but he had been for the most part confined to Garden, unable to go out on any missions; knowing Seifer, he was probably chomping at the bit for an opportunity to get out.
Pushing these thoughts aside, I stood up and stretched. Thankful as I was to Cid for giving me back my old job, after what I'd gone through with our mission it was less satisfying than before. I wanted to be out doing something, saving the world again, not sitting in here grading papers. Teaching, while still a challenge, no longer seemed fulfilling.
Mindful of Xu's request, I headed out of the classroom and down the hall to her office. Thankfully, no Trepies were hiding nearby.
"Yes Quistis, you heard me right."
"But... ... he... I..."
"As sharp a wit as ever," Xu remarked dryly, earning a scathing look from me. "Come on Quistis," she insisted, the smirk easing up a bit, "weren't you the one who always said people need second chances? Well, this is Seifer Almasy's chance to try again."
"Again?" I snorted. "That's five times now, if you count this one." Really, I should have seen it coming; Seifer's older than most cadets who passed the student stage, it's about time he got another chance to pass. Seifer's potential was widely acknowledged, even by myself: he's poetry in motion on the battlefield and a brilliant tactician, but... "He won't take orders, he's still got major problems with authority, he's a walking time-bomb in harsh situations, he doesn't listen to criticism ..."
"... He's standing right behind you."
Only Xu saw my face at that moment, for which I'll be eternally grateful. I really didn't appreciate her amused expression, though, as I hastily composed myself and turned to greet Seifer.
Unfortunately he beat me to the punch. "Seeing as we now know that Instructor Trepe's personal opinion of me will obviously color her report," Seifer stated with a condescending smirk, "would it be so difficult for me to be assigned a new partner?"
I wholeheartedly agreed with him, but Xu was shaking her head. "The decisions are final. Garden trusts Instructor Trepe to give an unbiased report." She shot me a pointed look to which I replied with an affronted glare. I had never let personal opinion rule my judgments and I wasn't going to start now: I just had my doubts Seifer would be any better this time around. Serious doubts.
Something occurred to me as I glanced around the room. "Where are the other SeeDs going with us?"
"Well, that's another thing I need to talk with you about," Xu stated. "We've decided to keep this small, with the fewer people knowing the better. Therefore, it's just going to be the two of you until the contact."
I nodded. So, a covert operations assignment. A bit unorthodox for a graded mission, perhaps, but normal otherwise. My doubts about Seifer not passing solidified; there was no way he could be inconspicuous or covert; it just wasn't in him to be such. And having such a well known face didn't help matters either.
"Just the two of us?" Seifer drawled, quirking an eyebrow in Xu's direction. "Is this another 'deal' Cid made? We're going to be sent to another 'poor oppressed township' to help their resistance factions again, or maybe it's a small village that needs a couple SeeDs to milk their cows for them..."
"Your assignment," Xu continued in a decidedly neutral voice, unwilling to rise to Seifer's not so subtle bait, "is to infiltrate another Garden."
That shut Seifer up faster than I thought possible. "Another Garden?" he echoed incredulously.
I blinked. "You're sending us to spy on another Garden?" Gardens were autonomous, neutral ground for anything; I wouldn't think a Garden could go against another Garden. Wasn't it a breach of ethics, or at least etiquette?
"It's not necessarily the Garden we're sending you up against. Here, these are your orders." She handed me an envelope, which I took and immediately ripped open. I heard Seifer come up behind me as I unfolded the letter and read its contents:
"There have been rumors of factions still loyal to the Sorceress are congregating in Galbadia. Posing as visiting SeeDs, your mission is to enter the Galbadian Garden where you will meet up with your contact. From there, it is the job of Seifer Almasy to infiltrate any such factions using his previous status as Sorceress' Knight to whatever advantage is possible. Quistis Trepe will be his backup, and consort."
Surprised, I glanced back over my shoulder to see Seifer backing away, and cold expression on his face. "I'm not going on this mission."
"Seifer, it's your SeeD test," Xu stated patiently, but Seifer cut her off by slicing his hand through the air.
"No, I'm not going on this stupid mission. I *fail* this test!"
Xu blinked in surprise. "I'm afraid it doesn't work like that Seifer. You go, or you're out of Garden."
"Then I want out," he grit out, eyes blazing.
I don't know who was more surprised, me or Xu. She glanced at me and I read confusion in her eyes that mirrored mine. What was making him act this way? "Seifer, will you calm down," I tried, only to have him turn on me.
"Was this your idea? Some sort of cruel joke?"
It was strange having the bully of the garden calling me cruel. Anger quickly replaced any bewilderment I felt, but I was NOT going to go off on a student in front of Xu. I'd always been of the mindset that such things required privacy. Controlling my expression, I turned back to Xu and said, "We accept the mission, please tell Cid we'll be on our way in the next few hours."
A growl sounded from behind me, and it didn't take an empath to know that Seifer was about to blow up. Allowing my own anger to show, I slanted him a look that I knew spoke daggers, the one that would have had my younger students quivering. "I'll talk to you outside."
His face flushed and his lip curled in total disgust, Seifer just glared back at me but didn't say any more as I walked past him and out into the hall.
I stopped across from the door. Seifer kept on walking away.
"Seifer. Come. Here."An instructor learns how to modulate their voice, utilizing it for anything from commanding to cajoling, and knows just when to use them. That was my most commanding tone, and it didn't faze him one bit.
Beyond ticked now, I ran up after him and planted myself in his path. For an instant I thought he'd barge right past me, but instead he stopped in front of me, folded his arms, and smirked down at me. "You rang, Instructor Trepe?" he asked snidely, his gaze patronizing.
He knew how to push my buttons better than anyone else but I kept my cool. "What was that you pulled back there?" I asked, mentally congratulating myself for sounding so calm.
His smirk widened and he shrugged. "I don't want to go on the mission. It's as simple as that."
"But throw away all your training here?" I let some of my incredulity seep through and his smirk faltered. Encouraged, I pressed on, "Seifer, whatever the reason it can't be worth that."
The smirk widened again as he leaned close in on me. "Maybe I just don't want to do the mission with you."
I was ninety-nine percent positive that wasn't the reason, but somehow the remark still stung. Not letting it show I replied instead, "You're scared, aren't you?"
"No I'm not!" Seifer's eyes rose heavenward and he shook his head in disbelief. "You've said a lot of stupid things, Instructor Trepe, but that takes the cake."
Ooh, ouch again. I rolled my eyes and let out a calming breath, then stared back at him. "If you remember nothing else I say," I stated in an icy voice, "remember this, Seifer Almasy. I am your Instructor, whether you want it or not, and I will not allow you to talk to me in such a way. Unless you can tell me a legitimate reason why you are unable to perform this assignment, personal reasons aside, I don't see why you can't take this mission. This is your job, Seifer, what you've been training for since you were a child."
A muscle ticked in his jaw, but he said nothing. "To be frank," I continued, halfway thinking aloud, "I don't know why they wanted me with you. It's well known that you don't like me, and in my mind this would blow our cover..."
"What about you?" Seifer interjected smoothly.
"'What about me' what?"
A hint of the smirk was back as Seifer answered, "Did you read the whole mission plan? Weren't you the least interested in the 'consort' part?"
To tell the truth, that line had confused me. I had been about to ask Xu before Seifer had ruined that idea. "If it's part of the mission, then I accept."
"So, you don't mind it that you're assigned to be my consort?" The smirk was fully back in place, and his right eyebrow lifted.
Putting it that way, and from Seifer's lips, it suddenly took on a more ominous note. I hoped they didn't mean the way it sounded, but I couldn't be sure. In fact, the more I thought about it the more worried I became that it might be just the way Seifer was predicting.
Evidently reading my thoughts, Seifer chuckled. "So, Ms. Instructor, just how willing are YOU to go on this little excursion, hmm? Bet you can't wait to be my "date", eh?"
"At least I'm not being a chickenwuss about it," I snapped at him, and was gratified to see his face get stormy. "I'm telling you this once, and that's it: I'll pick you up at your dorm room in one hour. If you're not packed, tough. If you're not there, I'll send three of my biggest and best students to hunt you down and make you come. And if that doesn't work, I'll take you down myself and drag you behind the transport, do I make myself clear?"
"Yes ma'am," Seifer replied with a mocking salute. His face quickly lost all humor and got intense as he added, "I can't wait to see how you deal with this mission."
Getting a sudden cold shiver up my spine, I managed a nod and turned back to Xu's office. I HAD to ask her what the whole "consort" business meant. I had called Seifer a chickenwuss earlier, but I could almost feel feathers poking through my skin as I walked back. Oh Hyne, please let it not be that, please let it not be that, please let it not be....
It was that. Oh, the horror, the insanity.
... Well, damn.
Xu filled me in on some of the details pertaining to the mission, although I have to say I missed at least a quarter of them due to the shock of my role, minor though it may be. Our contact would meet us inside Gabaldia Garden; they would know who we were. Our presence would be in no way cloaked; if anything, we were supposed to flaunt that we were there. Or at least, Seifer should, but I had a feeling that wouldn't be much of a problem. He liked to make his presence known wherever he went. I was basically backup, taking on the role of (and my soul cringed at the thought) significant other to hopefully waylay suspicion.
If I ever found out who'd assigned me this post, I was probably going to kill them.
It still puzzled me about Seifer's resistance to the mission. I honestly thought he would have liked it; being the ex-Sorceress's Knight must be something he's proud of. She would have chosen the best, or closest to it. Of course, in the end we had beaten him so perhaps reprising the role would be a constant reminder of the fact that, no matter what he thought, he wasn't necessarily the best. Even that, though, didn't seem to jive right, and I gave up trying to get into his mind. His brain could be as convoluted at times as...Squall.
You know, I always curse the times when my mind turns in that direction. Why did everything seem to come down to him? Alone in my quarters, I sat down on the bed and leaned against my empty suitcase, giving into a moment of self pity. I didn't do it often, but this assignment had brought up all sorts of unwanted thoughts.
What might have happened if this whole sorceress fiasco hadn't occurred? Would he ever have noticed me? I rarely ever saw him anymore, seeing as how he'd moved up in the SeeD ranks, shooting far past being a mere student. I suppose that was to be expected after all he did, but it basically took him out of my life. He was no longer a student under my tutelage but a company commander. And then there was Rinoa.
Much as I hated to admit it, I really liked Rinoa. She knew my feelings for him and yet didn't hate me, instead seemed to almost take me under her wing. It pains me to admit it, but my initial reaction on meeting her wasn't quite the same. When Rinoa had first come into the scene I had taken one look at her and immediately labelled her "Ditz". I had stubbornly held onto that belief for a while too, although to be utterly frank Rinoa hadn't quite disabused me of the notion; the more I'd gotten to know her, the more firmly entrenched the idea became. It was only as I grew to know her better that other words started to be associated with her as well: loyal, amusing, tenacious. Likeable. I think that with any other person I would have resented their role in breaking the ice around Squall's heart, but I knew their story personally; we'd lived through it together. She had done something to Squall I never had been able to do: make him feel again. It pained me to admit that I was only a friend to him, and would be only that unless I botched it again, but is it so wrong to say he's ruined any other men for me?
I checked my watch: twenty-five minutes until I had to pick up Seifer. I still needed to get the transport, load my gear, and make it to the students' dormitory or else I'd be late. I sincerely doubted he'd let me live it down if I didn't show up on time. Ditching the pity party, I hustled around my quarters, getting the things I figured I would be needing for the mission and laying them carefully onto my bed.
"No I'm not. Are you ready?"
"I was ready when you told me to be, but right now I'm not so sure..."
"Stuff it Seifer. Grab your gear, and follow me to the transport."
I knew he was smirking behind me the whole way there, but it wasn't going to bother me. He could smirk all he wanted, but we were still going to do our job. So what if I was two minutes late; it wasn't like it was habit. Unlike him, I knew the importance of being punctual. It was difficult however when you had to somehow lose ten Trepies who'd just gotten wind of your mission and had come to enthusiastically see you off.
I loaded my bags into the back seat as Seifer swung his large black duffel bag up and over into the trunk. The armored car bobbed on its axis, and giving the bag a dubious glance I couldn't help but ask, "What all do you have in there?"
"Wouldn't you like to know," he replied snidely.
Rolling my eyes, I prayed to Hyne that I wouldn't have to put up with this attitude the whole way there.
"Hey Seifer, Instructor Trepe!"
Seifer and I both looked up to see Raijin and Fujin jogging towards us. "I was afraid we'd missed you guys," Raijinn exclaimed, huffing and puffing a bit.
"SAFE," Fujin stated, staring at Seifer.
"Yeah, we just wanted to wish you good luck and all, and come back safe, and if you need us we'll help." He glanced at Fujin, and she nodded to him.
"Keep the disciplinary committee alive and well for me guys," Seifer stated, giving them a hint of a real smile.
I started the car, audibly giving Seifer the hint that we needed to be going. He climbed inside the cab and stretched indolently out, propping his booted foot on the center of the dashboard and giving a negligent wave out the window as we headed out of the parking lot. Raijin was waving madly after us while Fujin just staring as the car left the building. "You've got an interesting posse there, Seifer," I commented.
"Well, I didn't see any of your Trepies coming to see YOU off," he retorted.
Glad that I hadn't told him the reason for my tardiness, I glumly settled into the fact that this was going to be a long trip.