South Down The Coast
"Life's a beach, and then you die."
Chapter One: Stress And Coffee.
"And what I think I'd really love is to get out by myself
On a little tiny island in the middle of the ocean
Just me and a book and a cellular phone
And a personal computer in case anything came up……
But actually I think it'd be really relaxing,
Just me by myself, in the middle of the ocean
And that's what I'd really love to do
More than anything else - except I'd probably hate it."
Stress, Jim's Big Ego
This fic is a sequel to my previously posted Government Bloodhounds and should hopefully keep to the same fortnightly weekend updates. There is a summary for GB at the bottom of this page, should you wish. Alternatively this story's supposed to be able to stand alone, however some minor plot points may not make much sense. I don't have one of those huge fanon things where you MUST have read all three of the previous fics, all thirty chapters each, before you have a cat-in hell's chance of understanding the complexities of the current plot, though. :D
It was a beautiful day in Balamb.
The sunlight glinted off Quistis' computer screen as she pulled her chair back carefully, trying not to spill the coffee in her hand.
The chair refused to move.
Quistis swore quietly and put the coffee down, jerking impatiently at the chair. Unfortunately this strategy only unleashed a tidal wave in miniature as the chair banged the table top and her coffee slopped over the rim of the mug onto a meticulously aligned pile of forms.
Another day stuck inside, doing Hyne knew what. Paperwork and bureaucracy, mostly. Surely single-handedly she must have contributed to the death of a dozen rainforests and the repatriation of at least seven tribes of pygmies.
It had been the same ever since she'd come back from Trabia. The Balamb Garden committee had decided not to fully renew her instructor's licence until she gained 'further experience': instead she was stuck teaching a couple of advanced weapons classes four days a week, and doing preference testing with groups of cadets two days, trying to find out which of them might have an aptitude for the whip.
Despite all the smutty jokes, she was surprised to admit she was enjoying it. And she was good at it, which was a totally different thing.
But not the paperwork. Never the paperwork.
She settled reluctantly down and took a cautious sip of the coffee. It was scalding hot and black as hell, the way she liked it. No sugar.
The noises in the corridor, always present, were muted as the Garden around her began to wake up. Quistis liked it at this time, six forty-five a.m, maybe because everyone else found it unnaturally early. No-one around except her, so she could finally concentrate in her work -and be alone. That had been all too rare ever since, if she thought back, the end of last year's ..troubles. She knew, through Xu, that Squall got at least a dozen requests for publicity a day, and he usually turned them all down. But once in a while there came one that you couldn't politely refuse, and the saviours of Balamb would all be trotted out like neat little ponies. There had been an event yesterday, the dinner of some important politician. Quistis's teeth still ached from carefully faked smiling.
The only thing worse than paperwork. Diplomacy.
She glanced round her desk, and then at Selphie's and Irvine's. They were all in the same room and in the SeeD hierarchy, this meant that they were all important enough to have a desk, but not important enough to have an office each. It was a nice room, though, with high windows, plush carpets, and three desks.
Selphie's desk was covered in pictures and posters, most of them featuring her and Irvine on some exotic vacation, cheerful and tanned. Those that didn't showed the rest of the 'orphanage gang' as Selphie cheerfully referred to them, in various states of surprise, and at least one case, undress. Piles of unchecked forms were dotted with hordes of miniature plastic trolls with identical Mohicans in a variety of neon colours. There were large trolls and small trolls, trolls in nurses' outfits and in suspenders and even one brown-haired one in a miniature SeeD uniform. Someone had inked in a diagonal scar across its face and a speech bubble saying "whatever.." on its cheek.
The stacks of forms made them all look like they were mountain-climbing.
Even being in the same room as Selphie's desk was guaranteed to put Quistis in a bad mood.
Irvine's desk was even worse. There were rumours that paperwork on Irvine's desk had independent life. There were whole plates of unfinished meals, oceans of pens, stacks of unopened mail, marked with increasingly desperate stamps "Please Read" "Urgent" "Very Urgent" "Emergency!!!" that had all, unsurprisingly, been ignored.
It was all covered with a thin layer of dust. Irvine was out on a mission and it looked like he'd be gone for weeks.
Quistis' desk, in contrast, had a cheerfully schizophrenic mood all of its own. Most of it was all Quistis, efficiently empty of paperwork, dusted, and neat. Piles of blank forms, each tagged with a colour-coded Post-It Note, were mathematically aligned with the edge of the desk, pens stood upright in regimented rows. Her computer, shiny and expensive, dominated the desk. Or it would have if it wasn't for a myriad of small decorations that appeared to be on a hostile takeover. There were about ten of them, desk toys, most in shiny plastic.
The whole desk toys thing had started out with Selphie. Arguing that Quistis was way to organised for her own good, the hyperactive Trabian SeeD had given her a small box for a holiday gift, and then watched entranced as she'd opened it. Inside the holographic rainbow paper had been a small box marked with "Executive Stress Toy."
It turned out to contain a clear plastic cylinder with a little ramp curling round the inside and a small container at each end. When you tipped the cylinder up, a series of pink globules dripped from a small hole and slid in a spiral down the inside of the tube to fill the bottom container, at which point you either turned it over and watched it all over again, or screamed and jumped out the window. It was water torture in disguise. Quistis could think of nothing else that so perfectly embodied the sheer pointlessness of office work.
She had quietly and politely filed the trinket in the dustbin and Selphie had quietly and politely fished it out every morning and put it back on her desk. In the end she'd given up the struggle, if only because it was so amusing to watch people's eyebrows try to climb up into their hairline every time they came into the room and noticed it on her pristine table. Over the months it had been joined by others, gifts from SeeDs who'd assumed that Quistis collected the ugly little things, and Quistis had kept them because it was easier than throwing them away.
Surprisingly, Squall had given her the only one she actually liked. Surprisingly, because she never thought Squall noticed anything personal. He'd come in one day to ask her about something, some time after Selphie had gifted her with the first toy, raised one eyebrow, said nothing, and left. The next holiday she'd found a matte black box on her desk " with greetings from Squall and Rinoa".
Unlike all the others, it was designed to screw onto the end of the desk, and consisted of a metal ball, on a string, attached to a thick lead plate that glued onto the top of her table leg. You dropped the ball, and it thwacked into the lead with a soft hollow thump. Just once.
Quistis often wondered where Squall had managed to find something that sounded so perfectly like the noise of someone's head hitting a desk.
She picked it up and let it fall.
Quistis glanced at the clock, another addition of Selphie's. On examination it seemed a perfectly ordinary timepiece, apart from that the numerals were replaced by silhouettes of common Balamb animals. When the hand reached the hour, the clock made the appropriate noise and annoyed the hell out of anyone around it, except Selphie, who insisted that it was cute.
Quistis guessed that it had been quite expensive.
Currently it was forty-five minutes past Moomba, or a quarter to Chocobo: time to get to work, whatever way you measured time.
She switched her computer on, taking another swallow of the strong bitter coffee as it clicked and whirred its way thought the startup procedure.
Two waiting messages, both from Squall, or at least from Xu, who was currently acting as both Squall and Cid's receptionist-cum-watchdog and liason officer. Quistis didn't envy her. She had enough to do trying to convince a bunch of spoiled first years that the whip really was a worthwhile weapon, she didn't need to deal with Squall's grudge against full sentences too.
She clicked on the first message.
To: Quistis Trepe
From: Intelligence, B. Garden.
Please find attached authorisation request for equipment for mission Delta one-three-six in Dollet. Send any queried items to Supplies for further authorisation.
Quistis clicked on the attachment and scrolled down the text, looking for the request form. She noted idly that Irvine was on the mission. Lucky him.
Boring, boring, ah, wait, requests:
One hundred metres nylon rope.
One nun's habit.
Seven rolls duct tape.
The list grew longer. Hyne, what did they need ten packs of Triple Triad cards for anyway? Not to mention the fertiliser.
Quistis called up the Supplies inventory and checked off the items, one by one, arranging for a driver to drop the motorcycle off in the Dollet airport long-stay car park, with the remaining equipment neatly packed in saddlebags, for the addresses and order forms of a religious supplies store and a farmer's merchant with instructions to drop their packages off at a weaponry store run by an ex-SeeD (the world seemed to be full of ex-SeeDs ) to pass the items on. It was the kind of meticulous work she was good at, requiring endless cross-checking and organising. But that didn't mean she liked it.
It was twenty past Snow Lion when she finished the request and clicked on the second message.
To: Quistis Trepe.
From: Intelligence, B. Garden.
A background check has been requested on the following Cadets First Class,
Please search histories for any sign of subversive elements. Use all the necessary precautions.
That was it. Background checks on new cadets were routine, but there was no indication of what she was supposed to be looking for, or even a thank you. Subversive? It could be anything at all, from being a card-carrying member of the Rebel Alliance to listening to death metal in high school.
Quistis decided to use her own initiative. Honestly. Sometimes she wondered whether the words 'Military' and 'Intelligence' could ever be reasonably used together.
She picked up her stress ball, gave it a good slam against the desk, and poured herself another coffee before she began hunting through the cadet lists.
Thirty-five minutes later her patience was just about exhausted.
Thirty-five minutes, and she still hadn't found anything at all suspicious on Cadet Sally Ames. High test scores, uneventful childhood, band practice, normal psychological profiles. The only thing that was weird about the girl, Quistis thought, was her joining Balamb Garden in the first place.
She clicked off the file, scrolled down the list of SeeDs, turned to the next name -and then hesitated.
Something familiar pressed its nose against the windows of her mind.
It was immediately wiped away by the sudden arrival of the post. A neat bundle of several letters and papers tied with an elastic band sailed across the room, sideswiped her coffee mug, skidded across the table trailing liquid and came to a wet, soggy mess in her lap.
The cadet on mail duty took one look at the expression on Quistis' face and fled.
Everyone knew no-one messed with the coffee. There were dire stories of exactly what happened to people that did, and most of them ended with the words 'and he was never found again.'
She sighed (and the day had started off so well) and started to lift the mail of her lap, piece by piece, dripping coffee.
The first item turned out to be the Balamb Garden weekly newspaper- Garden Times. She flipped idly through it, noting that seven more cadets had passed their final exams, that a new rowing machine had been bought for the gym, that there had been complaints that students were persistently sticking chewing gun under the cafeteria tables in clear violation of SeeD regulation 21a (part B) and would they please STOP IT RIGHT NOW. There was even a brief interview with Squall. His replies seemed to consist mostly of blank lines.
Quistis grinned. Squall had got better, but not by much.
She flipped to the back page of the paper, newsprint sticking to her hands to leave grimy chiaroscuro fingerprints on coffeecup and desk. Ahh. The weather.
The tiny pixelated map was dotted with little smiley suns, irritatingly cheerful.
Damn. She'd been hoping for rain. Lots of lovely rain, to make her feel better about being stuck inside, but no, it just had to be sunny, didn't it. Again.
Quistis gave the bright sunlight pouring in through the window an evil look. Her eyes fell on the horoscope.
Oh, Hyne, not again.
She normally never read the horoscope, and not just because her personal opinion was that it was a load of hippy rubbish written by barefooted tree-huggers who had too much free time. Two month ago one of the more rabid Trepies had taken over, and ever since then Quistis' star sign had been filled with painfully precise predictions of heated romance with a certain ginger-haired cadet.
She glanced at it with the same fascinated horror that other people reserved for train wrecks. They weren't even in some kind of logical order, for Hyne's sake.
Quistis scanned Aquarius ( everyone thinks that you're an exciting and wonderful person…) and Sagittarius. (the hardest part of your year is over. Your horizons are opening out and a certain attitude adjustment will be needed. Instead of having choices forced upon you, you must now make and impose your own decisions. Are you ready for the relationship that will change your life?)
What kind of anencephalic asshole wrote this crap?
Ah, here it was. Libra.
You find yourself drawn more and more to the deep waters of true passion, wondering what it would be like and whether you could survive. Dare you do it? Romance will be found with a red haired man and the letter D. Contact the Astrologer for a personal consultation.
Why the hell should everyone with the same birthday have the same things happen to them anyway? Horoscopes did not compute.
Quistis folded the paper neatly and dropped it in the rubbish bin. Good riddance. Why did people even bother to print the boring stuff? What with internal gossip, if anything important happened in Garden it was all over the place in about three seconds. Waste of paper. And that damn cadet was a waste of space. Next time she saw him, she'd bust his ass. He'd be scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush for weeks. His toothbrush.
Quistis smiled evilly and picked up the next letter. This one had been drowned in the coffee flood, but its plastic window was more or less intact.
Why in Hyne's name did they even bother sending her all the junk mail anymore?
Ten minutes, four Readers Digest Prize Draws, eight magazine subscriptions, two competitions and a Trepie love letter later she was about ready to give up. Could you pull finger muscles?
One last letter. Quistis glared as if expecting it to bite her fingers and pushed her spectacles up her nose. It was small, white, crumpled, and badly stained with coffee, which had reduced the address to a blue blur.
It smelt good.
Quistis picked up her mug and made her way to the office coffee maker, the subject of not a few complaints and at least one sit-in after Irvine and Quistis had both refused adamantly to work without a drinks dispenser. She watched as it gurgled into the mug, took a big swallow of the unsweetened bitter liquid and sat back down, cradling the cup in her hands.
Happiness was coffee. Or if not, then it was damn close.
She ripped the top off the offending letter, sending flecks of paper showering across the desk in a miniature snowstorm. The torn sheet inside was still readable, if barely.
Exactly seven seconds later the mug dropped to the floor, spilling a tsunami of liquid and china shards across the carpet for the second time that morning.
Instructor Trepe: c/o Balamb Garden.
Anyone watching who was familiar with Quistis' poker face and moods would have noticed one of her fingers beginning to slowly tap on the desk. In the semaphore of body language, this coded for Anger. The tiny puzzled wrinkles that appeared between her eyes, almost obscured by the crosspiece of her glasses, meant Doubt. And the very faint suggestion of a smile, if interpreted by a knowledgeable observer, might have implied happiness.
The letter ended with a small scrawled doodle of something that could have been meant to be a cross, the bottom spike tapering to a triangle in place of a signature. There was a small and messy 'S' written directly below it, small enough that it might have been missed. It wasn't really necessary.
Quistis valiantly resisted the urge to bang her head against the computer monitor, picked up the letter and reread it carefully, scanning the text for clues as to where he might be.
The postmark was unreadable and dated over four weeks ago. A scrawl of redirections nearly covered the back. There was no forwarding address.
The handwriting was certainly Seifer's angular scrawl, scarcely any different from how she remembered it and inked in a nondescript biro that could have come from anywhere. The style of writing was slightly more formal than she'd have expected him to use, but then, Quistis couldn't remember when she'd last caught Seifer writing anything voluntarily. Except maybe ransom notes.
I thought I owed you this…..
You were dead….
You were. I saw you.
She pushed her hair back from her face, exasperated.
Or I saw a body…
She should have known from previous experience that the only way to kill Seifer Almasy was to cut him into pieces, stamp on the pieces and bury them under a very large rock. The man had more lives than a cat. The description was less than apt: Seifer also unfortunately rejected other catlike characteristics such as washing frequently and knowing when to walk away from fights.
Maybe it was a fake, some kind of trap. But why? The last she'd seen of the Galbadians, they'd all thought he was dead too.
No. Only Seifer would have scribbled the fire cross at the bottom. And only Seifer would have written a letter containing absolutely no apology, no 'thank you for saving my life' which was ironic, but also extremely typical, seeing as the last time she'd fought with him she'd saved his butt at least once. Any normal person would have tried to be more grateful. Or at least faked it, just to be polite.
So it had to be genuine. Which lead to the question, what should she do about it?
How am I going to tell Edea?
Their Matron had been devastated when Quistis had come back from Trabia with the news that Seifer was really dead this time. Her Knight. In some ways, maybe he'd been her favourite of all, and he was certainly the only person living who could emphasise with most of what she'd been through, apart from maybe Rinoa, but then Edea hadn't brought Rinoa up. And Seifer had been the one person of the orphanage gang who'd stood by her. He'd done the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
Some of the right reasons, anyway.
Some of the right reasons, and lots of the wrong ones.
Quistis sighed. She rested her head in her hands, took off her glasses and placed them on the desk. Sometimes it just made sense to view the world with the fuzzy edges left in.
All I have to do is pick up the phone. It'll make her so happy… and she's never been the same since it all happened…. but then how many times can she cope with all this? One minute he's dead, the next minute he's alive-
Forget Edea. How many times could Quistis cope? And oh, yes, she was going to have to, because the lead weight of responsibility and Doing What Was Right had just fallen round her neck like a millstone.
I'm the only one who knows.
The selfish bastard.
I wish he'd never written.
The childish thought was out before she could stop herself.
With a groan Quistis steepled her hands in front of her, pressing cool fingers to her temples. Her head throbbed.
What in Hyne's name should I do?
Relax. It's not the end of the world. There was a faint memory of someone else's voice saying the words, a hint of laughter and teasing. This time tomorrow, it'll be all over and you'll wonder what you were making such a fuss about. Other noises associated with the memory slowly, the comforting flow of distant conversation, birds calling high above her head (seagulls?) footsteps crunching on a gravel path.
Quistis closed her eyes and tried to recall the words of the psychologist who'd counselled them all on the effect of GF induced memory loss. Relax. Let it come. Open yourself.
There was a sudden and incredibly annoying sense of something vital just beyond her reach.
Focus. Breath in and out.
The noise of someone running up behind her, fast and untidy, and a sudden vision of pebbles and sand flying up behind small shoes.
The scream sent Quistis bolt upright in her chair, nerves jangling and the threads of memory flying from her grasp. Hair falling round her face, she snatched her glasses up off the desk and looked wildly around.
The clockface started smugly back at her.
Ruby Dragon. Figured.
Quistis slumped back in her seat with a sigh, ankles twining round the legs of her chair. The bitter scent of spilled coffee drifted up from the floor. Right. Have to clean that one up. Soon.
The letter stared back at her malevolently.
Two options. Firstly, she could be a good little SeeD, go tell Squall, and then sit tight and deal with whatever diplomatic catastrophe finding that Seifer was alive again released this time. The practical, ruthless option. If it was true that a person's worth could be measured by the calibre of their enemies, then Seifer Almasy was a remarkable man. She'd heard many such remarks, most of them unprintable.
Secondly, she could do nothing.
All a matter of trust. Distrust, mistrust, whatever…
The letter indicated that Seifer had thought she was trustworthy. That she'd be able to keep a secret. That he owed her the truth. And just because the truth might make a lot of people very unhappy wasn't an excuse for concealing it.
What the mind doesn't know the heart doesn't grieve after. Another misbegotten snatch of mother-logic that might have been Edea, long ago, or one of her teachers..or maybe even real family. The truth can make you free.
The truth could make Seifer dead.
But then, legally, he was dead already. So she wasn't lying, just..not telling the truth.
The thought flicked a button in her brain. Of course .The cadet list.
The computer had long since gone into power save mode, activating a screensaver of dancing hippopotami. Quistis flicked a key, and the screen flickered into action, scrolling down a list of names in various brightly artificial colours. The name she'd just checked, S Ames, was in green script, indicating a trainee. Seifer's name, three spaces above it, was in black. This only confirmed what Quistis, until two minutes ago had thought she knew. Dead.
She clicked on his name and typed 'request files' in the box that came up.
Maybe she'd be able to work out exactly where he'd gone…..old family links, something.
The computer gave a loud and angry bleep.
She retyped her password into the box that blinked up.
ACCESS DENIED. You do not have clearance for this file. Please contact administrator.
But that was fine. Quistis still had a couple of tricks up her sleeve. Three times was the charm, before the program latched onto what she was doing and alerted security.
She tapped her pen idly on her spectacle frames, humming under her breath. Password, password.
Her hand hovered over the keyboard for a second, and then typed in 'geraldo' in the box. The password appeared as a string of small asterisks. Enter. She crossed her fingers. Not many people knew that one of the passwords for the highest level of clearance was the name of Cid's stuffed ex-pet Chihuahua.
Thank Hyne for Xu.
The computer whirred thoughtfully, flickered and then displayed a list of files.
"Quistis!" The jubilant words floated round the door, followed by the strange hairstyle of Balamb Garden's newly voted 'SeeD Most Likely To Be On Mind-Altering Medication', Selphie Tilmitt.
A guilty flush spread across Quistis' face, but Selphie didn't seem to notice.
Her finger flicked the keyboard, activating the screensaver. At the same time her left hand reached for the letter, crumpling it into a safe ball and stuffing it in the pocket of her sweatpants.
Selphie shot her a glance. "You're early. Been working out again?"
Quistis tried not to look guilty. Other people could lie like a rug and still keep a straight face, but she'd never acquired the knack, somehow. "Uh, yeah. The training centre's so quiet at this time in the morning."
The grin threatened to split Selphie's head in two." Training centre. Riight." She held up a finger. "Just one tip. Beware of the Weirdos in the Bushes."
As Quistis' face turned beetroot red, she licked the finger and placed it against her cheek. "Szzzz. You're blushing"
"But I'm not.."
"That's what they all say." A sweep of Selphie's arm sent trolls tumbling for cover. "So who is he? Anyone I know.?" She stuffed papers under her arm while simultaneously giving Quistis an evil smirk across the desk and making a suggestive gesture with her free hand. "Is he..um, ya know..?"
Quistis tried desperately to change the subject with a large fake smile. Move on, folks, nothing to see here. "So, how's Irvine doing?"
Selphie's grin widened until it would have shamed a Cheshire cat. "The cowboy's just fine. Oh, don't worry. Your secret's safe with me." She leaned over the desk and glanced at her watch, her other hand absently flipping over a couple of Quistis' more poisonous looking desk ornaments. "Got to fly. Lesson. Catch ya later."
She swept out of the office like a hurricane in miniature, trailing forms and trolls.
"Not if I can help it " Quistis muttered. A flick of her finger activated the computer.
The files labelled were mostly standard procedure, reports, test results, medical checkups. She scrolled to the more recent and then hesitated as she saw her own name. Of course. The mission report from Trabia. A hint of bitterness coloured her thoughts. No liar like someone who thinks that she's telling the truth, Seifer.
Why didn't you tell me?
Quistis scrolled back along the dated list. The search was a guilty secret curiosity, something like going through a friend's closets. She'd never even looked at her own files before, let alone anyone else's that she hadn't clearance for.
They were surprisingly boring, the same headings flicking past on the screen, annual health checks, reports, exams, over and over again. Lots of reports. Quistis imagined they were probably filled with comments like "get this horrible child out of my class NOW" scrawled along the top.
Certainly a fair portion of her reports on him had been.
She watched the dates diminish along the right hand side of the screen until they suddenly and abruptly stopped, the cursor blinking next to a date twelve years earlier than what she would have expected
Didn't Seifer have any files from before he came to Garden? Maybe it was an orphanage thing. Did she have the same blanks on her record? Or maybe the files were elsewhere. Surely Edea would know.
Quistis stopped that thought right there. If she asked Edea, she'd want to know what the hell Quistis wanted them for, and well, perhaps it wasn't a good idea to tell her, not now, perhaps not ever.
She clicked on the last file and then waited impatiently while it loaded, the old computer whirring. The sound of footsteps in the corridor made her jump and then relax as a cadet considered straight on past without looking.
Never try subterfuge, girl, she told herself.
There was a click as the page finished loading, displaying the data on screen.
It seemed to be compiled as several pages of forms, listing the application paper, medical and psychological tests that all cadets had to complete before they were green-lighted for admission. Quistis recognised it vaguely from her own testing, and then was surprised she'd even bothered to remember it.
Not surprisingly, there wasn't any place-of-birth listed and the space for parent/sponsor name gave 'E & C Kramer' as legal guardians.
So that was a dead-end. No family, place of birth, zip, nada, nothing.
Maybe medical records?
Quistis hummed as she typed the request, feeling slightly less guilty as it became clear that she wasn't going to find anything.
The medical reports were old, scanned-in copies of paper forms probably dating from before Balamb had a network. The handwriting was curly and hard to read, ink obviously faded even before the files had been added to the computer records.
More importantly, the space for 'current physician' was blank.
Quistis sighed and stared out of the window.
She should get back to work. This obviously wasn't going to lead anywhere, except down murky roads she wasn't particularly sure that she wanted to travel. What was it Xu had said when she started accessing the database? "Never look at a friend's medicals, it can kill the romance real fast."
Which might have had some bearing, if they were friends. And Xu had definitely used the word in the biblical sense.
Oh well. Quistis pushed up her spectacles and rubbed her aching eyes. Her brain hurt, and she could always think about it later….surely it was almost noon by now, and she'd hardly got a thing done.
Her glasses dropped down onto her nose and she pushed the cursor back to the top of the page to click the records off when a stray word caught her eye, outlined against the jumble of old-fashioned blurry handwriting.
Wait a second.
Quistis scowled at the page, deciphering the faded cursive script letter by sloping letter.
"…subject was found to have healed fractures in right humerus, right clavicle, left metacarpals two, three & four, proximal left carpals two & five, left radius & ulna, costal ribs twelve and thirteen…when questioned subject referred to childhood accidents..
…above average height and weight for age…
…..on balance we find subject in perfect current health and recommend that no rejection can be made for service on physical grounds.."
Shit, Seifer, what were you in, a car wreck?
The small sound made Quistis launch herself halfway across her chair, clicking the file off reflexively and wildly scanning the room for intruders, or worse, Selphies.
Heart beating fast, she relaxed, and then cursed as the message icon flashed up on her screen, cheerful cartoon face stating 'You've got mail!' with the bright yellow script and emphatic exclamation mark that often made her want to punch it in the head. Whoever thought that people wanted to be around a lot of yellow, especially first thing in the morning?
Quistis sighed, took a big swallow of her now almost-cold coffee, and clicked on the animated icon.
To: Quistis Trepe
From: Headmaster's Office.
Squall Leonhart requests your company in his office at the earliest convenience.
Or, Get your ass down here. Now.
Quistis' brain froze for a moment, her hand flying to the letter in her sweatpants pocket
How can he? Quistis resisted the temptation to ascribe Hynelike qualities to her boss. Damn. Security isn't that good. I've met them. I've met him
This is going to be some obscure little summons for something I've forgotten about weeks ago.
It's the letter. It can't be the letter.
She swallowed, the sound seeming suddenly loud in the silent room.
Dead? He's going to wish he'd stayed dead by the time I get my hands on him.
The letter weighed heavy as lead in Quistis' pocket until she was half-expecting it to rip right through the seams to make a neat hole in the floor, and carry right on down till it fell out the bottom of Garden. Sweat prickled in the palms of her hands and the roots of her hair.
The HMS Quistis Trepe was now officially a nervous wreck. She shut down the computer with shaking hands. The keys stuck guiltily to her damp fingertips.
Think, damn you.
Quistis pushed her chair back, ran her hands through her sweaty hair and then rebraided it in a businesslike bun. Her hairpins skewered the neat globe precisely as thrown knives. No point in going into whatever kind of conversation this was going to be unprepared. She gave a single critical glance down at her casual clothes. Should have changed, but it was too late now.
She stood, shook the creases out of her trousers and vest and rested her palms on the windowsill for a second, trying to relax and calm her breathing. They left damp handprints on the sill. Her heart thumped in her chest like a nervous animal's as Quistis wondered exactly what was wrong with her. She hadn't been this wired since her final exams, and she'd walked them.
Scene one: It's all some kind of mistake and you're getting upset over nothing
She liked scene one.
Scene two: He's going to ask me if I know anything and then I can show him the letter. I didn't show it him before because I was busy. Seifer's in prison, all's right with the world.
Scene three: I'm going down for concealment of evidence and aiding and abetting a known criminal.
The third scenario ran through Quistis' head on replay no matter how unlikely she told herself it was. Failure. Prison. Even worse..demotion.
She turned and strode casually towards the headmaster's office. The feeling of nervous apprehension, though by no means an uncommon emotion for most cadets summoned to the room, was a new one for her, and she analysed it carefully. Equal parts of fear, guilt and anger arrayed themselves in neat ranks on the microscope slide of her mind. Sympathetic nervous system activated in fight-or-flight response, symptoms as follows: sweating, dry mouth, vasoconstriction leading to pallor, bronchodilation and hyperventilation, the scientific words running easy as blinking through her head.
The air felt cool on her sweaty skin as she reached Xu's desk. Xu was the closest thing that Quistis had to a real best friend, the kind girls like Rinoa and Selphie seemed to pick up as easily as smallpox, although the nearest thing they'd ever got to a women's night in was meeting in a café for some girl talk and a game of canasta, and she glanced up smiling as Quistis approached.
"Quistis! Squall said he wanted to see you. There's ten minutes before he has to se the Galbadian trade delegation, so you better be quick." She shot Quistis a sharp and assessing glance that went straight to the target as normal. "Are you all right? You look pale."
She managed to force the words out through the lump in her throat. "Fine."
Xu regarded her curiously but said nothing. "Go right in."
Quistis pushed open the door.
The headmaster's office was all old-school formality, as usual. So far Cid had refused Squall's requests for redecoration, and mentally reviewing Squall's choice in clothing, Quistis thought that was just as well.
Despite what Xu had said, the room was empty. Squall had somehow managed to leave almost no trace of his personality on it. The pictures on the wall were left over from Cid's tenure as headmaster and unlike Quistis, Squall had wisely avoided any kind of desk ornament. In fact, the heavy desk was empty except for a carefully framed photograph of Rinoa, a large pile of forms and two books.
Quistis squinted and turned her head sideways to read the titles. Chicken Soup For The Stressed Mercenary's Soul lay beneath a small, leather bound and open journal she recognised as one of the free diaries they'd all been presented with. After recognising the amnesia caused by GF use, Cid had insisted that all of the Sorceress's War Heroes be given psychiatric appointments designed to 'help them cope' with the stress.
She'd been bored silly, personally. Logic puzzles were no problem for a person with an IQ off the scale. Squall had refused to play along with the Rorschach ink-blot testing, describing each diagram flatly as 'Ink'. Irvine had said that they all reminded him of 'Sex-because everything does.' He'd diagnosed Selphie as manic-depressive, and then looked surprised when she'd threatened to hit him with the chair.
Quistis had heard the psychiatrist muttering something about how they all obviously must have brain-damage, never mind amnesia when he stormed out. But before he'd left they'd all been given a diary each, with instructions to write down their memories and use then to guard against any further GF-induced amnesia.
Quistis' was propping up the table in her room.
Squall's had obviously seen a bit more use.
Quistis sidled over to the table, in a nonchalant manner, so that a casual observer might have thought that she had just moved to admire the view. As she passed the desk her gaze just happened to fall onto the open pages of the journal.
There was a date scrawled in Squall's angular hand on the first page. Underneath were two words.
Out of curiosity, she picked it up and riffled through the pages. Dust came off them. The whole book was blank except for a few doodled phone numbers on the back page and a scribbled memo to 'Meet Rinoa for dinner Thurs PM.'
So much for an insight into his tortured soul, although Squall really wasn't that tortured any more unless he wanted to be. She'd heard that Rinoa had bought fluffy handcuffs from one of Selphie's catalogues. Sometimes he even spoke in snatches of more than one sentence, and though Quistis knew he must get bored with the endless delegations and events, he hid it passably. At least, only those familiar with Squall's moods recognised his 'I'm-so-bored-I could-just-stab-myself-through-the head-with-my-fork' variation of his poker face which looked amazingly like his' I'm really interested, please do go on' poker face.
She put the little book down, trying vainly to wipe smeared fingerprints off with her sleeve. A second surreptitious glance at the desk revealed no clue to the real reason of her summons and the waiting was beginning to get on her nerves. Damned if she was going to be chewed out by Squall in front of a gawking herd of Galbadian officials.
The door creaked open.
Squall shut the door quietly and stepped over the chewed remnants of what had to be Angelo's bed. Today he just looked tired.
"You're late" Quistis's nervousness made her slip back into the older familiar roles of instructor and pupil before she remembered. A wave of blush rolled up from her throat like a great red tidal wave.
Squall either didn't notice, or decided to let it go. His voice was carefully noncommittal. "Training. Hard to get a minute to do anything now. Except work."
They shared a smile, mutual sympathy almost but not quite overcoming Quistis' mood of vague apprehension. Squall placed his gunblade carefully in its case and gestured to a towel. "You mind?"
She shook her head, not really knowing what the hell she was agreeing to. She was slightly disappointed despite herself when all he did was rub his hair vigorously a few times before combing his hair into semi-domestication, meaning that it still looked like a dusty and feminine pincushion. Quistis thought he looked absurdly cute.
You have to get yourself a piece of that….down girl.
She decided to change the subject, flicking her hair from her eyes in pretence of collected calm.
"So, where's Rinoa?"
Squall pulled back the chair and settled in behind the desk, resting his elbows on the tabletop with a bony thud. His eyes unfocused. " Camping. In the woods near FH. He smiled. "She's wet. Doesn't like it much."
Quistis mentally kicked herself for asking such an obvious question. They'd found out soon after the wars that Squall and Rinoa pretty much kept track of everything the other one was doing. Something to do with the whole sorceress thing, she guessed. "No, I mean..why's she there?"
Squall shrugged with one shoulder. "Part of her training. She can't be the SeeD PR liason officer without knowing what we do." A quiet grin. "It'll be good for her."
Quistis agreed mentally that was a sure thing. In her opinion, anyone who used the amount of personal grooming products Rinoa did was in need of a serious attitude adjustment, not that she disliked the girl. They'd long accepted her as one of them, and well, she'd done wonders for Squall, but there was just something so….well, unprofessional about Rinoa. If Quistis had been heading the Forest Owls during the wars they would have probably assassinated the president themselves and be well on the way to world domination.
She realised she was drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair.
Squall shot her a mildly curious look and Quistis decided to bite the bullet, dropping easily into Formal Mode.. "So, sir, what did you want to see me for?"
"Sir?" Quistis' fingers flew to the note in her pocket as she wondered whether this was some kind of new code for being expelled from SeeD, with extreme prejudice.
They expel you…..and your desk…..and your pencils, but look on the bright side, at least the desk ornaments would go too..
Squall turned to root in the depths of one of the capacious filing cabinets behind him .He pulled a file out, throwing it onto the desk to fan neatly typed sheets and photos across the paperwork.
"Xu pointed out that you haven't taken any vacation time for over a year. I think you've got some due."
"Have there been complaints?" Quistis guiltily snatched her hand away from the note in her pocket, her heartrate beginning to subside. Had she done something wrong, or not? She couldn't work it out at all.
"Oh." Quistis picked up a stray brochure. "Isn't there any mission I could go on, or something? I'm just in the middle of teaching the advanced combat classes right now and it's always so busy at this time of year." She turned the paper over to find that the people on the cover were involved in suspect sports activities with big, big beachballs while wearing very little clothing.
Squall sighed. "One, this is the quietest time we've had since the wars. Two, no diplomatic events are scheduled until Rinoa gets back from boot camp, or, as we like to call it, 'character development.' Three, it states quite clearly in clause thirty-six of the SeeD handbook that every active member is to take at least three weeks paid vacation time a year except in exceptional circumstances as I'm sure you'll appreciate, increased levels of stress can lead to reduced performance and unnecessary risks."
"I'm not stressed…."
"Did I say you were?"
"Well, yes, and .."
He cut her speech off with a hand. "Quistis, I'm sure after what happened last winter you could do with some vacation."
"Your schedule's fuller than Selphie at an all-you-can-eat buffet special and you're telling me to take time off?"
"Quistis, this is not the issue here…" Squall's poker face was beginning to crack.
"You can't force me to take a holiday." The thought appalled her. All that work, just not getting done. Building up. She was going to spend the whole time just worrying about the amount of stuff she'd have to do when she got back
He pushed the folder towards her and Quistis recoiled from it as if it were a snake. "Well actually we can. Your ticket's already booked. The train leaves tomorrow, early. It's all been taken care of, hotel bookings, transport, allowances, the whole lot. Southern Trabia/Esthar border, little town called Hana. You'll like it."
"Or what?" The light at the end of the tunnel had turned out to be an oncoming train. The pictures in the brochure looked nice enough, but what in Hyne's name was she going to do?
"No arguments. You're going." Flatly. "The class…"
"Will manage. I'll get Selphie in to teach them, Or maybe Zell. Or I'm sure we can find someone else" he raised an eyebrow "who's good with a whip."
Quistis smiled sweetly "Will you be taking auditions?"
Squall was saved from replying by the buzz of the intercom, Xu's voice was tinny but recognisable."…ir..? albadian…elega…tion..here. In the Slightly Oval Office."
It sounded as if she was talking out of a jar.
"I'll be there." Squall was already getting up from the desk and moving to the door, obviously considering the conversation over, thank Hyne. "And Quistis?"
"Have fun." The door slammed behind him in emphatic punctuation that sounded like the tread of doom.
Quistis muttered 'and your hair looks like a hedgehog'under her breath at the unresponding wood.
They couldn't force her to have fun. Or it wouldn't be fun. The whole point of fun was that it was voluntary. And this wasn't.
She flicked through the folder out of morbid curiosity. They'd thought of everything, or at least Xu had. There were train tickets there and back, hotel reservations, and a generous living allowance inked in. Damn the woman. Quistis knew what was good for herself, and it certainly wasn't a holiday.
However, she thought, a holiday would give her a chance to decide what to do about the letter. It hadn't been dated, so Squall wasn't going to know when she'd got it, is and when she decided to tell him. And in three weeks, she was going to have plenty of time to think.
Discalimer: as everyone knows, I do not own any of the ff8 characters. Nor do I own some of the quotes and one-liners scattered round the fic. I collect funny one-liners magpielike and can't always remember where I got them, or even if I just made them up. More obvious injokes..Quistis' desk ornament thing is very much like Richard Mayhew's collection of trolls in Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere. Selphie got the trolls. The desk toy Squall gave her is Death's from one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. The town Hana is imaginary but its name of course is instantly recognisable to any Strangers In Paradise fan as the town on Maui where the cast go to think and angst the hell out of everyone within nine yards.
Government Bloodhounds summary for all those interested:
Seifer comes out of time compression and finds work as an assassin in an urban slum until a crop of wanted posters appear with his face on them. Realising that he's wanted by both Martine and Cid, he starts running and is caught by an ex-Seed somewhere in the snowbound Trabian woods, Quistis is sent to take him back to Balamb Garden for trial or exoneration, and given a sensor linked to her vital signs that allows her to
track his movements and cause acute pain when she feels like it. On the way to the ship they run into a party of Galbadian soldiers.
Later, forced into an uneasy truce, they take refuge from hungry monsters in an
abandoned mansion, but it's not quite as abandoned as they think, and its
supernatural inhabitant turns out to have an unhealthy interest in the Sorceresses' Knight. While Seifer fights both his inner demons and the one searching for a foothold in his subconscious, Quistis has to figure out a way to reach a truce with the Galbadians and get them both out of there alive and sane. She fails-or does she?
Chapters two and three should have a bit
more explanation as far as the plot of GB goes…but if you liked this fic, why
not read the prequel?