The hell am I doing here


By Meris Ann

The hell am I doing here?

Not like anyone wants me here. I'm the only one who wants me here, and maybe Laguna. But he just wants the best for me, anyway. I mean, Christ, the guy faced off against every world leader known just to keep me from hanging in the gallows.

It's because of him that I have a life. Because of him I'm not some war criminal, suffering a war criminal's punishment.

Seifer took a long, deep drag off of the cigarette that he knew was expressly forbidden on Balamb Garden grounds. At least they had smoke lounges at Galbadia Garden. He leaned forward on the railing that enclosed the supposedly "hidden" meeting spot just outside of the training center, the supposedly hidden meeting spot that just happened to have the most amazing view of Balamb Garden from anywhere in the surrounding areas.

It looked like a giant, hazy, neon wedding cake. Seifer kind of liked it. It reminded him of Easter eggs at the orphanage as a child.

Matron would always yell at him for taking the white crayon and writing things like 'Zell sucks' on the egg before he dipped it in the dye, so it would show up afterwards. Seifer figured that he had spent half of his life in time-out because of that orphanage.

I needed all the time-out I could get. Obviously I didn't get enough. I still turned out all messed up.

It wasn't as if he had been totally ostracized upon his return to Balamb. Shockingly, most people went about their lives as if they didn't care that he had returned. No one had come up to him and screamed for him to leave, he hadn't had any anonymous death threats, and not even Squall or any of the old crew had told him to take a flying leap. Seifer was somewhat humbled that these people he was surrounded by were big enough to just let him back into their lives without a second thought, considering he had tried to kill all of them a couple of times.

The naïve generosity of human beings had started (and continued) to amaze him. He had never really paid attention to how good humans inherently were. There were bad seeds, like himself, and even worse seeds than himself, but on the whole…humanity wasn't totally evil. He'd always known his posse was good. It was the rest of humanity that he had been clueless about. His awakening to the purity of the world had begun with Laguna, and how the man had helped and helped Seifer when Seifer had shown up on his doorstep requesting salvation from the rest of the world. Laguna had given and given and given to Seifer without a thought of anything in return, except to see Seifer back in life.

To see him back in the real world, and enjoying it. To see him being a normal eighteen year old kid (which Seifer would never quite be again, but he could at least try, for Laguna's sake).

I feel old. Seifer looked down at his hands for no apparent reason, and then placed the cigarette in his mouth, inhaling. He looked up at Balamb Garden, the giant neon wedding cake Easter egg, through his cloud of exhaled smoke. It was the only place he thought he belonged to, now, even though he didn't even really feel at home there anymore.

There's nowhere you're ever going to feel at home again, boss. You crazy? You can't feel at home in a world you tried to take over. It just doesn't work that way.

Click. Crackle. Click. Scoot. Grind. He wasn't alone. Someone in high-heeled shoes was walking along the dirty pavement; walking slowly, deliberately, as if they wanted him to know they were coming. Walking like they were afraid he would turn around and slit their throat if they approached too quickly, too unannounced.

Seifer turned his head to the side and saw the dim, hourglass silhouette of Quistis Trepe, standing a good distance behind him. His cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth, and he drew off of it without removing it from his mouth. Following the exhaled cloud of smoke, he gave the following greeting: "Welcome to my den of iniquity, Teacher."

"You know that you shouldn't be smoking that here," she said, quietly, her clipped, Germanic-sounding accent said quietly in the darkness. "And you know that I'm not your teacher anymore. You certainly don't have to address me as thus anymore."

Seifer snickered. "What would you have me call you? Quisty? Like in the old days? C'mon, Matron's making pancakes! After that we're all going to go down to the beach! Yay!" He removed the cigarette from his mouth with a gloved hand and then turned back to the glowing pastel view of his wedding cake school-home. The deliberate clicking of Quistis's high-heeled boots started up again, and even though he couldn't see her, he felt her emerging from the shadows into the ethereal glow of the school lights.

The glow of the school was almost outshined by the glow that came from Quistis—no, from within Quistis. She was good. Seifer knew she was good. She was human. He'd never really noticed it before.

"You can call me Quisty, if you want," she said, not coming up to lean beside him on the railing. Instead, she remained a step behind him, arms folded over her chest, head slightly turned to one side, face calm. Demeanor calm. "It is a variant of my name, after all." A moment of silence. "What are you doing out here?"

Seifer realized the absurdity of a good, rule-abiding ex-teacher asking a notorious bad student and troublemaker what he was doing in a forbidden area after regulated hours. He chuckled. "What are you doing out here?" he turned around on her, and leaned against the fence with his back, hooking his elbows over the railing. She merely blinked. "Aw, c'mon, Quistis. Folk would expect me to be out here at this hour. Not you. You had to have known my inquiry was coming."

"I don't know." Her reply was calmly terse.

"Touchy subject?" he asked, even though he knew that if it was, his comment was gently prodding the touchiness. He shrugged it off. "You smoke?" he asked conversationally, holding out the cigarette to her. She looked somewhat bewildered, and held up one hand slowly in shock. She never once uncrossed her arms from her chest, though.

"I—" She cleared her throat. "—ah, no. I've never, um, smoked…before."

Seifer gave her a rakish grin. "My dear Teacher, please, allow this humble vagabond the honour of corrupting you." He still held the cigarette out to her. "Go on. Take it. You seem like the smoking type to me." He hesitated a moment, and then added: "It calms the nerves."

Quistis looked coolly shocked. "What makes you think I have frazzled nerves?"

"Call it a hunch. Maybe it's your way of standing, so that you're hugging yourself like you're afraid your guts would spill out if you let go." Seifer shrugged. "Maybe. It could be that. I don't know." Quistis had still made no move at all to reach forward and take the offered cigarette from Seifer's gloved hand. The good in her was almost blinding Seifer, and the Easter egg glow from Garden was giving her a halo.

"Just try it," he urged, one last time. "I won't tell anyone you let your resolve crack just this one time."

A tentative, thin, brown-gloved hand reached out and took the cigarette from Seifer's hand, and withdrew it unsurely. Quistis looked at it, wide-eyed, and then held it uneasily, bringing it up to her lips. The end glowed brighter.

"You gotta inhale it, Quisty. None of this girly-girl shit. I'll be damned if the first time I get my teacher to smoke something, she doesn't inhale." Seifer grinned.

The end glowed brighter still. Quistis withdrew the smoldering stick from her lips, and looked down at it, blinking. Her halo could have landed a plane. Seifer nodded slightly at her.

"Exhale," he instructed good-naturedly. "It's not meant to be held in forever, honey." A quick, breathy exhale, and Quistis was waving a cloud of bluish-grey smoke away from her face, coughing lightly. Her arms had come uncrossed, and yet her insides were not spilling out. The hand not ushering smoke away from her was handing the almost spent cigarette back to Seifer, daintily. He took it and laughed slightly, and then took a drag off of it himself. He watched Quistis through his cloud of smoke.

"You alright there, Quisty?" He gave her a somehow (he felt, anyway) snide grin. "Don't worry. If you start throwing up, I'll hold your hair back. Wait, it's pinned up. Okay, if you cough up a lung, I'll catch it so it doesn't get any grime or shit on it."

Quistis did a most unladylike thing—she spit on the ground, ignoring Seifer's banter. "Oh, that's awful. That's…awful," she murmured, shaking her head.

"Feel free to use coarser language," he said gleefully. "This ain't a classroom, you know."

She gave him a look. "I think I've had enough corrupting for one evening, Seifer. You have just reminded me in an unfortunate way why I had never tried smoking before. Somehow I knew it would be disgusting, and my instincts had never steered me wrong before." Suddenly, as if she had just been stricken, she seemed to solemn and even recede a little. Her arms went back across her chest. Seifer waited for more dialogue, but none came. She had fallen strangely silent.

Seifer had seen the good in people. Since there was no one else around, maybe he could show a little good. Not that he was afraid to show it in public, but chances were the larger the group he was in, the less people that would believe it. Better to start one at a time, because people talk. Word spreads.

Hey, guess what! Seifer's not a heartless, maniacal bastard after all!

He played shrink to Quistis's glaringly obvious inner turmoil. "Lemme guess, since you used 'had never steered me wrong before', aside from smoking, there has to be something else that your instincts took a crap on, right?" he asked, casually flicking the spent smoke over the railing. "Hey. C'mere. I'm not gonna slice and dice you if you come and stand next to me, you know."

Quistis did not move.

"I don't bite. And I promise I won't make you smoke again," Seifer said, holding up two fingers in a pledge. "Scout's honour."

Slowly, reluctantly, Quistis walked up to the railing where Seifer leaned, and stopped merely an inch before it, arms crossed, gazing out at the glowing edifice of Garden. The sky blue neon reflected in her eyes that Seifer had never been able to pin as either purple or grey. "Didja make a bad decision, Quistis?" he asked, and wondered why his tone sounded so mocking to him. Maybe that was just the way he sounded. In any case, he was trying to be sincere. He felt sincere.

"Yes," Quistis answered finally, heavily. She looked off in the distance, at something near Garden, and then sighed, looking upward. She did not look at Seifer, even though he remained back to the rail, head turned so he was looking directly at her profile. They were only about two feet apart. How she could not look at him, he didn't understand. He always had preferred to look people in the eyes.

Oh, except for that one little time where all those world leaders wanted you to answer for your crimes—that was one time you didn't look in eyes, boss. Too ashamed? Too afraid? Are you gonna get on her case about not looking you in the eyes when you couldn't even answer for the shit you did, and look people in the eyes? Pot call the kettle black.

Seifer nodded and made a 'hmm' noise. Truth be told, he thought he had a pretty good toehold on what was under Trepe's skin. He just wasn't sure about how to state it. Finally, he decided to just be blunt, since all that delicacy stuff was never his forte, anyway. "Squall." It was only one word, but it was enough. Quistis finally turned to look at him, and the neon glared like a beacon off the water pooling in her eyes. Seifer, being the person he was, looked straight into her eyes, unflinchingly, although he was somewhat shocked by what he saw there. The depth. The meaning. The absolute, boundless, all-mighty shitload of pure good. She was hurting. Her eyes said she was screaming on the inside, and trying to be a perfect lady on the outside. It was hard to lose. Especially hard when the game was two girls, one boy.

Seifer, of all people, knew it was hard to lose.

"Listen—" he began, hoping he didn't sound as snide as he thought he did, "—I think I've got as much of a say in this thing as you do, Quisty, because it's my old girl that Squall's supposedly madly in love with." Seifer paused. Show her. Let your guts come spilling out. She might be afraid of it, but you…can't be. You can't afford to be. "And if you even think for one second that I was completely over her when she came back into my life, then you're mad. I look back sometimes, and wonder…why didn't I stay with her? Why didn't I clean up my act? Why? Why? Why? You know, that is the most fucking annoying word in the English language."

"Why?" Quistis asked doubtfully, but she was not asking him why why was annoying. She was asking him, why the word why?

"No one's ever really sure of the answer, if you think about it," he replied. "So, my dear, you could sit there and beat your fucking brains out over why Squall picked Rinoa instead of you every day for the rest of your ever-lovin' life. And you know, you'd never come up with a real, concrete answer. One that would make you feel any better, anyway."

Quistis shook her head, and looked back out at Garden as if it were the most depressing thing in the world. She blinked, and Seifer swore he heard the sound of iron slamming against more iron. "No. There's got to be an answer, somewhere. He didn't just flip a coin. She—she—has to have something that I—"

"Don't say that shit." Seifer cut her off. "We could sit here and whine all night long about what we ain't got, and who's got it instead. We really could. But come sunup, would anything have changed? No. We'd just be two really, really bitter people. I've been down that path before. I'm not gonna live that way anymore, Quisty. I don't have room for it anymore. I mean, how the hell do you know that he didn't just flip a coin? You inside his head?" he inquired, staring at her patiently, waiting for her to look back at him. He felt that his words would have more gravity if she were looking at him.

You want to see those eyes again.

Finally, her cracked, terse reply came: "No." She leaned her head way back and stared directly upward, at the black sky. "No, no, no. No." She gave the most unhappy, depressing smile Seifer had ever seen in the world. It looked more like she was crying than smiling, to him. "Now that's the most fucking annoying word in the English language. I…" She dropped her head back down and looked out at Garden.

Look at me. Look me in the eyes, girl. You're nuts if you think he's all there is.

Seifer gave a snort. "He'll get tired of Rinoa. She talks in her sleep. And kicks, horribly. And then, when he's down and out and comes crawling back to you, you're gonna be strong. I'm going to have built you up enough by then so when he comes back on hands and knees begging to you, you can plant one heeled boot squarely in his face and shove." Seifer gave a shrug. "Fuck him. Who's he, anyway? No one to you."

Quistis looked at him suddenly, smiling the crying smile again, this time with pearly white teeth, this time with tears flowing down her china cheeks in small streams. "Are you my personal coach now?" she asked, laughing. It sounded so hollow. It made Seifer want to jump off the balcony he stood on.

"You want one?" he asked, genially. He spread his arms. "I mean, I'm available at the moment. I expect some sort of payment, naturally," he said, haughtily, "but, sure, I'll be your personal coach."

There was some silence. She turned away. Later startled by his own sudden boldness, Seifer reached out and grabbed Quistis's forearm. He was shocked at how thin and unsubstantial it felt in his hand. She looked at him, teary-faced and shiny-eyed.

There they are. There are the eyes.

"Lesson one," he said, quietly, firmly. "Someone gets you down, you don't need 'em anyway. Life's too short to let people depress you." Quistis made busy wiping away her tears with her free hand while her other arm was held limp captive in Seifer's grip. "Lesson two," he went on, "this is your new motto: fuck 'em. Use it profusely. Get used to it. You'll be using it the rest of your life." He realized suddenly that she was somewhat unnerved by the hand on her arm. He released her with more gentleness than he thought himself capable of. "There's gonna be assholes your whole life. You can't let 'em get you down every time you run across them. You're too good for that."

Quistis was silent. She looked as if she halfway believed.

"Aw, what kind of coach am I?" Seifer asked, grinning. "There's got to be some sort of exercises, right, otherwise you don't learn anything? You were a teacher, you'd know." A split second afterward, Seifer wondered in the back of his mind if he should have mentioned her former career. "So—repeat after me: I'm too good for that."

Quistis was still silent. Finally, she spluttered a bit and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. "Seifer," she said with a tone she had never used with him before. He was used to hearing her teacher-tone, scolding him, telling him what was good for him. And now, the role was reversed. "I—I feel so…silly."

"Humble pie," Seifer commented, with a somewhat dry tone. "We all have to eat it sometime. Say it. I'm too good for that."

Quistis stared down at the ground, picking at her long nails at the ends of her thin fingers in a fragile, china-doll-girl way. "I'm too good for that," she said after a bit of picking, reticently, faintly. Seifer figured he wouldn't push her. He didn't want to make her cry any more than she already was.

"Life's too short to let people—especially stupid people—depress me." He beckoned. "Now you say it."

"Life is too short," she began, and then sighed halfway through, and stopped. Gathering her obviously scattered wits, she tried again. "Life is too short to let people depress me."

Seifer couldn't hold his tongue, being the semi-smart ass he was. "You forgot the bit about stupid people. You can't take shit from them just because they're morons."

Quistis looked up at him, rolled her eyes a bit, and gave a glimmer of a genuine smile. "Oh, really, Seifer. Don't judge by things like that."

Seifer was secretly taken aback, on the inside. Only someone good would say something like that. Only someone good would deal with blatant morons with patience and caring. He knew she'd probably seen her share of that kind of people during her teaching career. Garden was chock full of grade A imbeciles. Only she had the grace not to say so. "Hey," he said, jovially, to hide the fact that he was thinking about it, "I thought I was the coach, here. Don't usurp me. At least let me have this glory."

Quistis reverted back to her holding-her-insides-in stance, head falling into its trademark inquisitive tilt. She waved a hand at him, airily, like she always did to everyone, as if she were indicating a stretch of land, or an expanse of sea. "You can have all the glory you want. Just because you aren't ruling the world doesn't mean you don't have glory." She tucked her hand back, and shrugged slightly. "Sometimes…sometimes people can't see their own glory."

There was silence.

"Take your glory blinders off, Teacher," Seifer said, solemnly. "It gives me…honour to say that you have more glory than I'll ever have. You've got more glory than most people I'll ever meet in my dirty, scum life."

Quistis opened her mouth to speak, but Seifer waved his hand at her, and started past her, heading back for the training center. He felt vulnerable, exposed. Suddenly, he couldn't stand to do any more soul searching with Quistis Trepe. He needed to go back to his tiny little room, and sleep. He needed to see Raijin and Fuujin in the morning, and act normal. He could deal with Quistis later, when it was just them around, if that was possible.

That seemed to be better, to him. He liked it that way. She seemed more human and less portrait of a lady around just him.

"Don't say it, whatever it was," he said, stopping some distance away, not turning around. He could feel Quistis watching his back, questioningly. "I'm startin' to feel like a piece of wet spaghetti with all this kind of talk. I'm getting all sentimental."

Quistis was quiet, but it was the kind of quiet that people have when they want to say something but they're holding back on it, not sure if they should.

"Oh, what?" Seifer said finally, in a tone that felt like annoyance to him (unintentionally), but sounded to Quistis like a parent looking at their pouting child, asking out of sympathy. He turned halfway and looked at her over his shoulder.

"Are you too sentimental to have company back through the training center?" she asked, tentatively. "If so, it's not like I can't make it through on my own. It's just that—"

"Company is always nicer," Seifer filled.

"…Well, yes." She shuffled a bit. "If you'd like, I'll wait to enter until you're more than likely a good way through. I won't intrude upon you." She gave a little chuckle. "Again. I sort of…butted in on you, here."

Seifer turned his head away from her again to hide the smile that was finding its way there unbidden. Butted in on me? I mean, I was standing there. Did it look like I was doing anything special? Talk about afraid to offend. But that was the nature of Quistis' goodness; quiet, gracious, and polite, always sensitive to everyone else. Always willing to go through hell herself to avoid making someone else even break a sweat. Ha ha, funny, Seifer the Monster's new best friend is his waiting for canonization ex-teacher!

"Yeah, you butted in on me, seeing as I was so busy and all," he said, with a short bark of a laugh. "Two's company. Grab your whip and get ready to whup ass, Teacher. I'm eager to crash in my bed and sleep in until an ungodly time tomorrow."

Quistis, obediently uncoiled her whip as her shoes clacked in a strangely efficient sounding manner across the ground, as she came up along side him. "Alas, I've forgotten what it's like to sleep in until an ungodly time. I always have meetings upon meetings in the morning. Squall always—" She choked a bit on the name, but quickly recovered. "—schedules meetings for the crack of dawn, or as close as he can get to it."

"Does it bother you much?" Seifer asked, grabbing hold of the smooth, metallic handle to the door of the training center. He yanked it wide open with a flourish, holding it for his ex-teacher. He indicated it. "Does it bother you that Squall don't ever open doors for no one? That he makes you wake up so damned early?"

Quistis looked at him for a moment, and the glimmer of the sunny smile broke through the cloud cover of her face, and the grey eyes smiled at him. "I suppose it does," she said, lightly.

Seifer grinned, dropping his free hand and gripping Hyperion. "That's the way. Find what you hate about 'em and go from there. I'm going to change you yet."

She went in the opened door, and Seifer followed, gripping and regripping Hyperion as if it had changed, or as if he was somehow unused to the feel of the hilt of the weapon.

Grey. By God, they're grey.

To quote Blood Sweat And Tears: "You make me so very…happy."

--meris ann