HI!

Beware: Long Author's Note at the end.

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Chapter Fifteen

The Cracks in the Ice

Quistis fidgeted.

She couldn't help herself. Not so long ago she'd been stuck in a prison with only dog-shaped mold to talk to; then there had been the dramatic rescue, and the more-dramatic debriefing. (Yes, Quistis thought idly, I am probably the one person in existence who could find a debriefing dramatic). The results of her conversation with Rinoa were pinging through her head as the mechanical part of her brain tried to fit them all together. There was too much going on, she was high on exhaustion and glory, and - she, through no fault of her own, was dressed like a damn Guardian Force.

So she stood at the sidelines of the ballroom and fidgeted. She smoothed the shimmers of the long blue dress she wore. She plucked and tugged at the elbow-high formal gloves. She even twirled the blue-streaked locks of her hair which fell over her shoulder (she had been livid when she caught Rinoa using the hair dye, but it was already too late, and Rinoa swore on Squall's job that it would wash out that evening). Her long fingers, trapped inside the pale gloves, trailed along the beads and gems of the jewelry draped about her neck, brushing lightly the ice necklace given to her by the GF she was currently posing as.

She felt stupid.

At the beginning of the festival, she'd amused herself (and made herself feel slightly less awkward) by watching the others. Rinoa had come, of course, as an angel; but to Quistis's surprise, the girl had (somehow) gotten Squall to come as her counterpart, wearing all black with a tiny pair of bright red devil's horns perched atop his head. Selphie was a golden butterfly, wings stretching all the way to the floor; Irvine had simply paired a bandana with his usual outfit and come as a bandit. Zell was having exorbitant amounts of fun with his vampire costume - complete with cape, hat, and plastic fangs which he used to bite/drool all over his date, Ambrosia, who was dressed as a princess but kept whacking Zell with her crown.

The benefit was actually quite nice, as Garden dances go; most of Trabia Garden seemed to be in attendance, as well as certain large-business heads Quistis recognized. The ticket price had been on the high end, as was the point of a benefit banquet, but most of BG had turned out in support.

The lights were twinkling, the music playing, and Quistis Trepe fidgeted.

Eventually she came to the realization that standing by herself and being nervous would only make the night drag on, so Quistis headed over to Headmaster Cid, standing beside Edea. Neither had chosen to masquerade; Cid wore a simple tux, Edea a long dress the color of indigo. Both looked pleased to see her (though she was sure Cid had already been informed of her rescue and subsequent return). Cid glowed with the pride of a Headmaster, and Edea shone with her simple grace.

"Quistis," Cid said with a nod. "Welcome back. You've got perfect timing, it seems."

"It was nice of you to throw this party for me," Quistis said with a smile. "You certainly didn't have to."

Cid laughed. "It is pretty glamorous for a welcome home party," he returned jovially, "but we thought you deserved it for all your hard work."

"Are you alright, Quistis?" Edea asked softly. "I heard you were a prisoner. We've all been pretty worried about you."

Quistis nodded, feeling the blue-tipped ends of her hair flick against her bare back. "I went through Medical this morning," she replied, with a shrug. She smiled at Edea, who was eyeing her with concern. "Nothing wrong with me except for the hair," she said with a fidgety tug at the ponytail. Edea laughed.

"Excuse me," said a familiar voice. "Is this Quistis Trepe I see?"

She turned around to find Headmaster Shain standing there, with a very welcome smile on his face and looking particularly handsome in his dark tuxedo. A sudden strange feeling of nervousness swept over Quistis, and it took her a few seconds to strangle it out of her thoughts.

"Right," she said, recovering her poise, "I'm glad to see my costume is doing its job."

"I hardly recognized you," Shain said, extending his hand for a handshake, and Cid laughed.

"Ah, see, most of us here at Balamb know Instructor Trepe as our Ice Queen," he said, and Quistis groaned and dropped Shain's hand.

"How in the world do you know about that?" she said, rounding on Cid.

Cid chuckled at her indignation and she felt her cheeks flush pink. "You hear a lot of strange things as Headmaster, Quistis," he said. "Students come to you with some of the oddest problems and hope that you'll be able to fix everything."

"And - and they called me - Ice Queen - to your face?" She was fighting to keep her voice from going all squeaky, all too aware of Shain's keenly amused gaze. Oh, her dignity. Because blue hair wasn't bad enough.

Cid launched himself into an imitation of a young SeeD cadet with vigor. "'Oh, Headmaster Cid, Instructor Trepe won't give me the time of day! She's like an Ice Queen! I'm afraid she'll never warm up to me ... if she'd only go out with me, only once...why won't she talk to me?'"

Shain burst out laughing, Edea chuckled softly, and Quistis groaned again and buried her red face in her gloved hands. "They did that?" she asked through silk fingers, and Cid nodded.

"More than once," he said to her. "And I had to explain to them time and time again that it was against SeeD Regs for an instructor to show more than mild friendship to any of her students."

"Oh, Hyne." Quistis shook her head to the heavens, laughing. A waiter walked by and she took the excellent opportunity to snag a glass of wine from his tray.

"It sounds like you had quite the fan club," Shain said, also selecting a glass.

She shook her head again, but this time Edea stepped in, her soft voice full of gentle laughter. "She did," the woman said. "They called themselves the Trepies, and kept track of all sorts of statistics about Quistis's rank and weapon... poor girl," she continued, directing it at Quistis, "no one had the heart to disband them."

Cid smiled. "Oh, Mr Almasy and the Disciplinary Committee used to give them detention all the time. I remember those complaints too: there would always be one detention for being out after hours, and a second one for 'being so completely asinine as to stalk Instructor Trepe'."

All three of them froze momentarily as Cid mentioned Seifer's name; Quistis recognized Edea's mild horror and Shain's shock, surprisingly. She made herself chuckle at Cid's joke, to be kind, but the mood had been ruined. The weight of her case and her debriefing tomorrow came crashing back down on her, and she sighed.

"Right, Cid," Edea said, her face smoothed over with her smile, "we should go say hello to Squall and Rinoa."

"Right," Cid agreed cheerfully, oblivious as always. "We'll talk to you later."

A sullen silence descended on Shain and Quistis. She took the opportunity to have a large sip of her wine, and then turned to Shain.

"Did you, by any chance, bring my papers?"

It was a harmless topic of conversation, and the first she could think of, and Shain broke back into a smile. "Actually, I have all of your things," he said. "They're on our boat, if you need them."

"Great," Quistis replied. "If I could pick those up before the end of the evening, that would be great."

"Tonight?" Shain looked at her. "The meeting isn't until tomorrow, right?"

"Well, you're right," she said with a shrug. "But I have a lot to put together tonight before the meeting, and it's hard to do without the notes."

Shain shrugged back, and nodded. "We can go get them whenever you'd like."

"Thanks," she said, smiling at him; he smiled back, and she felt her smile getting a little bit silly, so she looked away.

"So," she said, "it's a nice party. It should raise a lot of publicity for Trabia..."

"Why don't we get those papers now," Shain said hurriedly, downing the rest of his wine.

Surprised, Quistis looked at him. His face was serious and contemplative, not his usual joking demeanor, and she suddenly felt strange. Was something wrong? Or did he just want to get rid of her?

"Right," Quistis said, stepping back and downing the rest of her wine before Shain could notice the pink flush that was creeping across her face as well. The two of them stepped out of the ballroom; Shain sent a wave at someone which, she assumed, meant I'll be back soon.

But then Shain turned to her and said, with a sly grin that made her realize this had been his main reason for leaving the hall in the first place, "So what the hell happened to you, Trepe?"

Hyne, she almost stumbled in her relief, and then laughed at herself for being so nervous; why was she behaving so strangely? He just wanted to pump her for information! "Do I look that bad?"

Shain snorted. "You look ridiculously good," he said, "and I mean both the ridiculous and the good. But that's not what I'm talking about. What happened to you – in Argun?"

Quistis bit back the retort on the end of her tongue which related to her costume. "Oh," she said, mostly a sigh. "Yes."

"Hey," Shain said with a shrug, "you left Trabia in a big hurry, and the next thing I know, it's been weeks and weeks, I still have your things, and Squall Leonhart's phoning me about you." He threw her another sly grin. "As the keeper of your suitcases, I think I deserve to know what happened."

"Ah," Quistis said. "Right." She took a deep breath to begin the story, but in that moment realized that they were heading out of BG. "Where are we going? The garage is that way."

Shain kept his eyes ahead, but his lips twitched with a smirk. "Our boat is in the harbor, Quistis. Can't park a boat in the garage."

She laughed. "Sorry, I'm so used to flying, I forgot not everyone has a Ragnarok."

"Rub it in, Trepe, rub it in." He looked at her now, and she returned his smile involuntarily.

"It's a walk to Balamb," she said at random, because her thoughts were jumbled by Shain's smile.

"Enough time for a story," he said, "so spill."

They walked out of Balamb Garden and into the cool night air - a welcome change for Quistis, who sighed happily. "You're incorrigible," she said, feeling a little carefree.

Shain laughed. "Think of it as a practice-run for tomorrow's debriefing," he offered.

She shook her head and fell into step beside him. "Alright. So, that first time I went to Argun, I had made up an identity for myself - just some random name, I told them I was SeeD from Trabia. That's how I got them to tell me the location of their fearless leader, and that's where I found Seifer."

"Yes," he replied, and Quistis was impressed at the lack of reaction in his voice. "I remember."

"So I went back," she continued idly; it was a little chilly, but that would soon go away with the walk. "I told them that as a good, Trabia-loving SeeD, there was no way I was joining an organization that followed Seifer Almasy. At this point, the man I was talking to left to arrange a meeting with some of the higher-ups." She shivered at the memory. "While he was gone, I Junctioned a GF into their security system to provide myself with a window."

"Wait," Shain said, his steps slowing. "You did what?"

"I Junctioned Siren into their ethereal lines," Quistis replied.

"That's crazy," Shain said, shaking his head.

"You haven't heard the craziest part," she said, laughing. "Later that night I snuck out, talked Shiva into creating an Encounter-None field – which she did – and then half-Junctioned her and used the window Siren made to slip inside Elsevier."

Shain stopped walking altogether. "Hold on," he said, a disbelieving smile on his face. "You had a GF willingly learn an ability - out of battle? Not to mention, an ability not innate to the GF's normal functioning?"

Quistis lifted her hands in the air as if to ward off the verbal attack. "I know as much as you," she replied slowly. "It just … happened. It was like … Shiva almost suggested it to me."

"Tell me," Shain said, "I'm intrigued. How, exactly, did it happen?"

She shook her head and began walking again, but Shain reached out and grabbed her arm. "Quistis, this isn't an idle question," he said, smiling at her in that way that made her feel like a close friend. "I'm really curious."

She bit her lip, remembering, ticking the events off on her fingers without even noticing. "I'd gone to a bar that had a dance floor, thinking that anyone trailing me would assume that normal behaviour for a troubled SeeD … I got on the dance floor … it was horrid, by the way … and Shiva just … I asked, and she did it." Her voice trailed off; it wasn't an explanation that would ever make Coulter's Handbook, but it was the closest she could do. Why was her tongue tied?

"Could you do it again?" Shain asked, and there was something both eager and wistful in his voice, and Quistis laughed: he sounded like a small child asking a favour.

"I'll try," she said, and reached into her sub-consciousness for Shiva. She felt silly, like a little child, dressed the way she was; but Shiva responded eagerly, as always. It was easier this time. The air began to cool; she waited for the feeling to settle, and opened her eyes, expecting to be safely within the field.

Shain's eyes, however, were still fixed on her; frowning, she closed her eyes to check her connection to Shiva.

"That's amazing," he said, and she opened her eyes again. He was walking around her in a soft, slow circle, reaching out with a hand to brush at parts of the air, and suddenly she got it.

"You're a Sensor," she said, incredulously, and Shain nodded.

"Comes in handy as a Headmaster," he said. "Sorry for making you go through all that, but I wanted to see what it looked like."

She blinked; the field wavered. "It was right," she said, not realizing she was speaking out loud until Shain shot her a quizzical look.

"I-" She started laughing, inexplicably. "I usually refrain from Junctioning and un-Junctioning too much in rapid succession, but I couldn't help it this time; I'd had to un-Junction to get past Elsevier's electronics, anyway. I had a withdrawal dream. You were in it, and you were talking in other people's voices, and Rinoa said –" She had to stop from laughing too hard. In retrospect, it was hilarious. She hadn't laughed this hard in ages.

Shain was eyeing her, still testing the field. "Dreaming about me?" His lip curved in a smirk. "I'm not sure why that's so funny."

Quistis tilted her head back, looking up at the sky with a smile on her face. Shain frowned, and took a step closer. His hand reached out and grazed her neck slightly; both jumped.

"What are you -"

"What is that?" He was staring at her neck, fascinated, his fingers still tracing the icy necklace along her collarbone.

Quistis shivered, slightly, from the softness of the touch. "Shiva did it," she whispered.

"I can tell," Shain murmured, his hand now resting idly on her shoulder as he looked at it. "It's pulsing magic." He looked up at her, excitement in his eyes, not even noticing their physical closeness. "This is unbelievable. Physical manifestation of a Blizzard spell, manipulated by the GF itself."

Quistis was enthralled; this Shain was as excited and intrigued as one of her young cadets casting for the first time. "Is that -" Her words were cut off as Shain looked up at her; they both simultaneously realized how close they were, and Shain took a formal step backwards.

"It's never been done, Quistis, and I want to talk to you about this some more – these developments with Shiva are probably a breakthrough in Guardian Force compatibility studies – but for now, the rest of your story."

"Oh." Quistis turned back to the road, and they started walking again. The chill had left something like goosebumps on her arms.

"So you broke into Elsevier using a GF trick that's nearly statistically impossible," Shain said, prompting her. "So what did you find?"

"Two very important things," Quistis said, glancing around her and over her shoulder to ensure they were alone; she sidled next to the Headmaster and pitched her voice low. "This is strictly confidential," she said.

"Are you sure you should be telling me this?" Shain looked down at her, and she saw he was actually serious.

"You don't want to know?" she retorted, throwing him a smile. "Yes," she continued, "I know. But you know the rest of it – of what happened. You need to know this part as well."

Shain's mouth twitched upward. "I am the keeper of your suitcases," he reminded her lightly. "So continue."

"The first thing I found," Quistis said, her voice still low, "was cold hard evidence that Elsevier is framing Seifer Almasy. They've set him up to take the fall while they do their dirty work elsewhere, behind the scenes." She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice. "The second thing – which is the more important one – is that all of this, along with the fund dispensations allocated to keeping Seifer a veritable Argun prisoner, was on Galbadian GCC."

"Garden Code?" Shain stopped walking. Quistis paused; of course. This was a lot of information to drop on someone at once. "Garden Code?" he repeated. "From Galbadia?"

Quistis nodded. "All of it. Funding, SeeD reports, the Seifer mission. Galbadian GCC, from this year, to be exact."

Shain raised an eyebrow and she added hastily: "I've memorized certain familiar Garden Codes just from seeing them so often."

He chuckled unexpectedly. "I am not surprised."

He turned away, continuing the walk; they were passing through Balamb proper at this point, almost to the piers. "So Seifer is … innocent."

Quistis could hear the emotion in his voice now. "I'm not going to make you say he's innocent, Shain," she said softly. "But he's not behind Elsevier. He's their prisoner."

Shain shook his head, as if to clear it. "So did they catch you inside the building?"

"Negative." Quistis stepped back up beside him. "I decided to head back to Galbadia and see what those GCC numbers related to. While I was there, I was apprehended by Era Maxus and taken hostage."

Shain said nothing, so she continued. "They took me back to Argun for holding. Squall Leonhart staged a fake trade-off with Rinoa Heartilly in exchange for me. It was supposed to be a distraction tactic while SeeD Ops snuck in the back door, but Rinoa's Sorceress abilities reacted strangely with the Elsevier electronics, and they ended up handling the rescue mission themselves."

"So … what?" They'd stepped on to the pier, and Shain paused, turning to look at her in the dim lighting. "We have a group dedicated to stealing the Sorceresses, after Garden from the inside? How does Maxus fit in? And why bother to frame Seifer?"

Quistis shook her head, smiling. "This is a group run by someone completely paranoid," she replied. "Everything that's been done has had its tracks covered. Seifer takes the cake." She shivered, involuntarily. "By throwing suspicion on everyone else, they've only made it worse for themselves."

Shain was looking at her funny; she raised an eyebrow at him. "Why didn't you tell me you were cold?" he asked finally, shrugging off his jacket.

"I hadn't noticed." It was true; now that she was thinking about it, the chill was glaringly obvious.

"You can't get your GF to warm you up?" Shain asked, coming behind her to wrap the coat around her shoulders. He briskly rubbed her forearms through the fabric.

Quistis smiled wryly. "I'm not sure how good Shiva would be at warming anyone up."

Suddenly, Shain had wrapped his arms around her; Quistis stiffened. "I was worried about you," he said, chuckling; she relaxed slightly. He was warm. "Plus, I needed that closet space."

"Don't lie," Quistis retorted into his shirt. "You told me you didn't use it."

He rested his chin on top of her head. "Don't ruin the moment," he said lightly. "You're …you're a very special woman, Quistis, and I think I would have been quite upset if Argun had swallowed you alive."

Quistis stepped back slightly, looking up at him, her face inadvertently coloring at his words.

"I'm serious." Shain stepped back too, dropping his hands. "You don't take compliments well, do you."

Quistis winced. "Is it that obvious?"

Shain chuckled back at her. "Your face is bright red." She must have blushed even harder, because he laughed again. "Quistis. It's alright. Is it really that hard to tell someone how much you like them?"

"Shouldn't be," Quistis managed to choke out around her utter embarrassment. "Sometimes it is."

Shain shrugged, turning back to his boat. "Let me get your things," he said.

By the time he came back up, Quistis had managed to recover enough to be mortified at not offering to help with the bags – "Look at your stupid shoes," Shain said, mock-irritated. "Like you could carry anything."

"Then you can carry them all back to Garden," Quistis replied primly.

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Okay!

After a year-long hiatus, I pick this back up. I've learned a lot in the past year. Mostly that it's really fucking hard! to pick a story up after an entire year. I wonder how many of those exclamation points the stupid editor will delete. There are supposed to be four of them.

I apologize for the delay. I do plan on finishing this story eventually. It will be slow. I will make no promises. But I do want to end it. This is mostly just a short, silly filler chapter to help me get back into things. I've gotten back into writing in the past six months – shorts mostly – but I'm doing a collab FF8 story that basically is what inspired me to launch back into this.

So here are two things of note:

A lot of my writing has moved to Livejournal. You can find me on LJ as 'firstseventhe' and all of my writing under 'brokenprism'. Most of the LJ writing is shorter, drabble-y stuff that I don't feel is quite suitable for There's a lot of challenge/prompt stuff. Anyone can go: brokenprism(dot)livejournal(dot)com.

I'm doing a collab with Enkida! Check us out under "Seventhe and Enkida" author-name, or search for "How Not to Date Blondes" in the FF8 section. It's probably the most hilarious thing I've ever written. Easily. I cannot sit down and write my share without giggling ridiculously at …something. I'd love to link it, but I know ff-net will eat the link for dinner. You can check my profile, though!

Anyway. Again, apologies for the delay, and hopefully I will keep up the momentum on this one and wrap it up. Cheers - Sev