One: experience's height

She had always been too tall.

Looking back on life, in those small dull moments between responsibility and responsibility, had become a hobby for her; occasionally she was more than curious as to what it was that had made her - who she was. There was plenty of tragedy in her past, enough tragedy to shape a woman into what she was today. But that wasn't it. There had been many people who had shared the same hardships - there had been six of them in that orphanage alone - and yet no one had turned out quite like she had.

She had pinned it on the fact that she had been too tall.

As a child she was a giant - tall and thin, but never gangly - always graceful and poised, as if to avoid calling forth any additional attention. But the height gave her away; combined with her shining crown of golden hair, she had been unignorable. She stood a good head above all of her comrades: a little girl she was not. Even the boys had to look up at her. And she was forced, at that young age, to look down to them.

And it rubbed off. Spending childhood having people look up at you - no matter how literally or figuratively - rubs off. Childhood is that one time where honesty has a real, viable meaning; and appearances are so important. So this little not-little girl, the tallest of them all, had tried to become an older sister, using the height to what she thought was an advantage of sorts. It was as if she at some point had realized that the height had a meaning; and from that day her entire life was a struggle to live up to the extra height she had been given. She had decided that if she had to be so tall, she'd be tall, dammit, and make something out of it.

It hadn't exactly worked at that point. The towering five-year-old Quistis hadn't been able to pass her older-sister act off on any of them. But when she left the orphanage - that safe haven where everyone had known exactly what she was - she moved into more dangerous settings, where no one knew exactly what she was, and it was here that the height had helped her.

It had become a way of life. Even now she stood at five-foot-six: tall enough for a woman to look a man in the eye. She didn't tower over everyone like when she was a child, but there was still a lift, an extra boost - the height of experience. Prestige, rumor, legend: they were the high heels she wore, lifting herself once again over the heads of everyone else. Still crowned with that golden hair. She had made something of the height, though she was no longer striving to be an older sister; she was a leader, a teacher, an authority.

Her height had helped her as an Instructor, true - the fact that she had that extra bit of height in her walk, no matter how imaginary it was. She had looked out at the students and realized that they were all looking up at her; looking up in a familiar way, one she had seen her whole life. It helped her earn the prestige she never would have gotten any other way; it disguised the fact that she had not been much older than the students she was meant to teach. Somehow she had been able to keep that small edge of authority - the habit of looking down at everyone even if she had to look up - at times when she thought everything was lost.

Ask any student in the Garden about Quistis Trepe and they'd spout the same set of words. A genius; I hear she's super smart; insanely talented. Youngest SeeD, youngest Instructor. Cool and collected. Ice Queen. She's a genius. Wicked hot, too. Prim, proper, practical. Blond and beautiful. Detached. Never lets emotion get involved. A brilliant phenomenon. She has quite a gift. Isn't she some sort of child prodigy? Ideal soldier. Smart. I heard she aced her Instructorship. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.

It was the height speaking, Quistis knew; and part of her wanted to scream, to confess, to collapse and crumble. She'd always been so tall, and the height had driven her to make something of herself. She had to be perfect because people said she was perfect, and she was an unforgiving judge. But all the images were just a collection of standards that she always felt she had to hold herself to. It had been a challenge of a sort when she was younger, trying to make her outer image match with the image people held in their minds.

It had certainly helped her get where she was today. Cleverness, yes; perhaps intelligence; and good old-fashioned determination.

But she still both blamed and credited the height of her childhood.

She sat in her old office sipping rich coffee and staring about herself. The walls had been covered in a very systematic fashion with photos, newspaper clippings, souvenirs. Her office held no clutter; it was full, yes, but she knew the placement and order of every artifact and token on her walls. They were all gifts from friends and admiring students - as congratulations, perhaps, or thank-yous, or something else. These photos and articles formed a publicity record of the Sorceress Wars. A timetable graced her walls, one to which only she understood the real order and meaning.

Time is a plaything; she had learnt that on their travels, and in tribute to the great lesson she had scattered these memorials over the four sides of her office.

Not that she enjoyed many memories of the war. No one likes to remember war; it's the time everyone wishes would fade into memory - the actions we are now ashamed of, no matter how moved we were at the time. War is a funny mechanism in everyday life; an enemy is declared, sometimes arbitrarily and sometimes not, and a goal is defined. The normal people line themselves up behind the soldiers and the speakers and the singers and declare themselves a general cheering squad. That definite enemy and goal create a sort of unison: a binding force, perhaps, between forces not used to being bound.

And then the war is over, and everyone suddenly realizes that the other side is, in fact, human; and all are ashamed of what everybody did and said and didn't do and didn't say. Especially in Garden, she thought: especially SeeD. Every SeeD started out as a real person with a real life: and that very often grants both superhuman strength and terrifying weakness.

She laughed to herself, thinking: I sound so bitter and cynical again. But I can't help it, I've been this way my whole life; and I doubt it's going to change any time soon, thank you very much.

But she was bitter and cynical for a reason. There were reasons out there, she knew. The world was driven by reason: reason and rules. Cause and effect. Underlying each and every action lies the force which drives it. And each action has an equal and opposite reaction.

She had lived her life by that: scientific boundaries. Logic was her weapon, the undeniable force of the truth a guide she looked for. Grit and determination paired with a fantastically quick mind - a mind that, no matter what, could detach itself from reality and think - that was Quistis Trepe.

That and her height - the undeniable height of experience.

Quistis stood, pacing slowly forward from her old desk to look out her old window. It was panic, she mused, that made her feel like this; restless, unsettled. Her thoughts tended to dwell in the past rather than the present mess she found herself in. Her eyes glanced over the familiar pattern of the pictures on the wall, the words she no longer had to read, for they were burnt into her mind.

Time is a plaything - for some.

She bent her head, closing her eyes, thinking back into the past. Remembering. Calling forth memories, fighting against the presence and pressure of the Guardian Forces, sifting through them with her scientific mind - trying to determine when the tides had turned. Searching.

Cause and effect, action and reaction. What force brought her here?

After the War ended - the War with a Capital W, the Sorceress War in its second incarnation - after the War ended everyone had returned to Balamb. They clung to each other like some sort of nightmarish creature, and yet no one would admit it. Balamb was home for everyone because everyone was there. It was as simple as that.

Everyone slept for about a week straight. She remembered poor Kadowaki, throwing well-kempt hysterics, thinking that the saviors of the world had all been stricken with the Time Kompression Flu or something; but they were simply exhausted. They received hasty room visits from doctors and Headmasters and officials and occasionally SeeD cadets and news reporters who slipped past the vigilant guard. It took them about a week - that long, dark, in-between week - to realize that these room visits meant they had been given rooms. And thus Balamb Garden became an official home - for the time being.

After they woke up from the week-long nap they found that someone had decided to throw a party. "A party," complained Quistis to her new roommate Selphie. "We just got back from the bloody future, from a Sorceress who likes to muck around with our foster mother and Squall's girlfriend - and they think we want to go to a party? Here we are, recovering from Time Compression - a week ago we were wandering around, trying with all we've got to remember each other and pull together - and someone thinks it would be a good idea to get us together with some chips and dip and some shitty music in the Balamb Garden Quad?"

Selphie innocently shook her head, deciding not to tell her new roommate that she was excited about the party and would be bringing her new video camera.

Selphie had understood about human nature, much more than Quistis ever had - and still more than Quistis understood, even now. She had realized that after a horrible time like that when the world isn't really sure what just happened; after monsters have been pouring down on the earth from the moon; after Sorceresses Awoke and Gardens Flew; and, for one brief and horrible moment, time did not exist - after occurrences such as these, people like to just get together under the pretense of confirming that they are all, in fact, alive. People gather around somewhere and look each other in the face, relieved by the fact that things have perhaps returned to something that could be called normal. People revel in the fact that everyone is safe (safe being a relative term, of course) and do stupid things like steal other people's cowboy hats and choke on hot dogs just because they can.

Lesson one. People take comfort in the company of other people. Something she'd never understood, for she'd never had anyone else's company to enjoy. Quistis Trepe had always worked best alone ...until now.

Gritting her teeth, Quistis turned back to her desk.

They had all applied for Instructorship together, she remembered - well, all being herself, Zell, and Selphie. Squall had been swallowed in the surprising amount of administration work left over from the War, being Balamb's Commander; Rinoa had been swallowed by publicity and controversy, being that she was the first Sorceress in the history of the world to apply for SeeD candidacy. And Irvine - well, that cowboy hadn't yet decided whether or not he'd settle or wander.

Quistis couldn't help but chuckle, remembering: Irvine hadn't decided who, if anyone, wanted him around. The memory was sweet, however: she knew that poor Irvine had finally figured out where he belonged. He and Selphie, joined at the hip, the way it had been all those years ago in the stone house on the beach - that story, at least, had a happy ending. Just like Squall and Rinoa's story promised to end. Like her story would not. Could not.

Headmaster Cid had actually offered them all Instructorship, Quistis remembered, clenching a fist at the memory. Offered it. Knowing that the experience they had gathered during that War with its Capital W had made them quite possibly the most qualified SeeDs on the planet. Knowing that Balamb Garden couldn't let this prestige and authority slip through its proverbial fingers. Perhaps feeling a little bit of guilt and sympathy for the children he and his wife had raised so long ago - for the terribly tough trials fate had thrown at them.

Offered it. As if he hadn't swiped it out of her hands less than a year previous. As if he hadn't shattered her life by revoking her first license. Offered it as if he were offering a truce, or a gift. It had almost felt like an insult.

She had refused to take the gift, wanting to earn her reinstatement, even though she knew that the exam was a bitch and the trial active demonstration was graded very harshly; and Selphie and Zell had followed her lead, to her chagrin (and private relief). The three of them had studied and trained and applied together; and together, they owned that exam.

It had been so much easier the second time, dammit. She knew that they had all gathered immense amounts of experience on all of their travels - but it made her feel as if time had in fact been correct, as if everyone who had told her so was laughing in her face.

Perhaps she had been too young to take on Instructorship the first time?

She didn't like thinking that. It made her feel strange, being wrong in such a major way. It ran along the line of regret. And Quistis Trepe didn't believe in regret.

She hadn't been a bad Instructor, she knew, and she wasn't a bad Instructor now. She had just always taken the job too seriously. And back then there had been the additional ingredient of the forgotten pasts. Seifer and Squall had stirred the pot a little too much; she had never understood why they never really respected her authority over them, or why she just couldn't bring herself to crack the whip on their asses and dunk them in the detention tank. It had been quite a shocker when she finally remembered everything - when, fueled by Irvine's revelation, her mind had opened up that box and she had been presented with golden-crowned Quisty, tall as trees, trying to be everyone's older sister and not getting away with it.

Seifer and Squall - they had known. She wasn't as tall as she presented herself to be. They hadn't been fooled by experience's height - though they hadn't known why either. Just as they hadn't remembered why they kept spurring each other on, always competing, trying to be on top.

The second time around had been much easier. She'd been put directly into the upper-level classes, teaching the hardcore Junction Theory labs and Limit Break Development studies. Stuff she never would have trusted herself to teach; but again the height of experience came through, and she found that she could teach it, and teach it fairly competently as well. She almost enjoyed the job. It was a lot of work, but she had always liked being a leader. She liked to know that she could have some sort of effect on something - that she could affect a life or two for the better. She could make sure that things were done right.

And she would've stayed in that vein forever - content as anything - if it hadn't been for Squall.

Quistis sighed. It hadn't been his fault; and he surely had given her an opportunity that she hadn't even dreamed of. But between Squall and Cid - always two of her greatest weak points, brother and father, two strings on her heart - her fate had been sealed. It was as simple as an equation: their idea plus her ambitions of perfection equaled one perfect opportunity, one undeniable goal - and one sorry mess.

That's where it was, she realized, and sighed. That was the point where everything started to change. That one mission - the mission of a lifetime, the chance of a thousand dreams. That damn mission. The promise. Action and reaction. And now I'm fucked.

Her height had, for once, fooled even Squall into thinking she was tall enough. Tall enough to make this choice - this sacrifice, for it was a sacrifice, at least now. No one had known it would be quite so hard; but even Cid had thought that she was tall enough to make it all come together.

But Quistis knew better. She had never admitted it, even to herself; but she did now. She wasn't really tall. She wasn't. It was an air she carried, the shine of perfection, a shine like gold; reflecting the light around her, like her bronzed hair. But she wasn't tall, she wasn't made of gold; and, dammit, she wanted people to stop treating her as if she were.

It all came back to that mission: her last mission. The mission where - although she had won through in the end, she had been successful - her height had failed her.

It's not that she hadn't been good enough - she'd won. The mission, at least. But Quistis felt trapped now. Her brilliant mind, as everyone else referred to it, had faltered. She'd won the mission, but lost the war - her own war. And for once in her life, she couldn't think of a way out.


Sorry about the delay. Life has - quite literally - turned me upside down, dropped me, and then jumped around on me for a while. Frankly I haven't been in the mood for fanfiction: my mind has been elsewhere. A lot. But I think finally that a little writing and a little imagination will be good for me.

I like Quistis. Always have. Although I don't like a lot of what they do to her in the game, which is funny. I always kind of related to her - the blond with the glasses and the brains who was always just a little more mature than everyone around her. I'm a lot like her, and I can relate to a lot of her story. This will end up being a little bit about me, too - except that I don't have the sweet magic powers and the whip.

This story is pretty much all planned out, and the beginning, at least, has been written. However, in the interest of my own sanity, I'm going to try to keep updates on a bi-weekly basis. I apologize for those of you who went through the frenzy that was 'sincerity cowboy'. I just can't do that right now XP

Oh, and this does happen in the same storyverse as 'sincerity cowboy'. I suggest reading it before you read this. A shameless plug if I ever saw one, but it may come in handy.

Hope you enjoy.