Sowing the SeeDs : Part 1

a fanfic by Greenbeans gbeans@tyrlen.org
additions by Corvus corvus@centragarden.net
and Nightbreak nightbreak@hotmail.com
edited by Corvus corvus@centragarden.net
based on the world of Final Fantasy 8
created by Square Electronic Arts L.L.C. www.squaresoft.com



"Come along, child," Matron took her small hand gently in her larger one
as she led the way down the long hallways that would be her home during the
upcoming years. Quistis Trepe clutched tighter to the bag strap that was over
her shoulder. All her personal belongings were held in the single bag on her
back.

"Balamb Garden looks huge, but you'll become familiar with it soon
enough." The woman cooed reassuringly. "They've assigned you a good roommate.
She's a very kind person and will be an excellent mentor for you."

Matron's monologue left no room for comment, so she assumed none was
wanted. Her eyes greedily took in her lush surroundings. It was almost an
oxymoron for a mercenary school to be so beautiful. If anything, this Garden
(as it was called) certainly lived up to its name with a wide variety of plants
and flowing fountains of water. It made for very pretty surroundings.

A handful of these mercenary schools had popped up around the world during
the last decade. They produced an 'army' of highly trained soldiers that
worked for money and were completely autonomous of the countries that hosted
them. In short, Garden was a military academy of sorts.

This frightened Quistis somewhat. How could she survive in the cool,
disciplined environment she always envisioned as the goings on of a Garden?
The SeeDs were Garden graduates. They were fast, ruthless, cunning, and
professional. Very professional. She'd seen a SeeD once. He had a stone-cold
expression on his face as he walked purposefully to wherever he was going.

She once again she wondered if could she even make it as a SeeD? Only a
very small percentage were successful in the rigorous training they underwent.
What happened to the students who weren't cut out to be SeeDs?

"Ah, here we are," Matron stopped in front of a door that looked the same
as the many others lining the hallway. She tapped lightly twice before opening
it. The room's occupant, a girl several years older than Quistis with shoulder
length, dark-brown hair, stood up and saluted. It was a gesture Quistis hadn't
seen before. The girl brought her right hand up with the palm a few
centimeters away from her nose as her heels clicked together.

Matron waved the gesture aside, while gently nudging Quistis in front of
her and into the room. She looked up at the woman -- no longer sure that this
was such a great idea -- when the girl spoke.

"How are you? My name's Xu. I'll be your roommate until one of us
graduates or they decide that we cause too much trouble together," she winked
with a broad grin on her face. Quistis stopped resisting, enchanted by the
prospect of having some fun (which trouble was often the result of, but she
could enjoy it before they were caught).

"I'm Quistis Trepe," she introduced shyly. Her shoes suddenly became much
more interesting then they ought to be as she studied the ground.

Xu stepped forward, bending down on one knee so that they were on a more
eye-to-eye level. "Quistis is it? That's a lovely name. I'm sure you'll make
it one to be remembered by the time you're a SeeD," she smiled. It was an
infectious thing, her smile, for she found herself returning it. Matron had
slipped away at some point, leaving the two of them to get acquainted in
private.

"Matron told me that they expect great things of me," she admitted in a
confiding whisper.

Xu nodded her head. "This is a school for the very best, nothing else
will be accepted. Do you feel up to the challenge?"

The little girl screwed her face up in thought. It was an incredibly
child-like gesture from the up-and-coming child prodigy of SeeD. Ten years old
and looking every bit of her youth. Xu privately questioned the wisdom of
placing someone so young under so much pressure.

Xu arrived at the Garden when she was thirteen. They didn't expect the
sort of things from her that they wished to draw out of the child standing
before her. Quistis wouldn't be given the time to develop and grow that the
other students had. Was it really fair to her?

Quistis shuffled some, trying to peer around the body that was blocking
her view of the room. Xu stood up and gestured for Quistis to put her bag down
on the unclaimed bottom bunk. She did so, then sat down next to the bag and
continued to look around her.

The room was simple in layout. A bunk bed was along one wall with a pair
of desks sharing the wall opposite it. Shelves ran the length of the room
above the desks. The shelves that were above Xu's desk contained many books
and little else. In fact, the areas that were reserved for Xu's things were
free of personal items. There were no pictures of her family or knickknacks
sitting about.

This both frightened and encouraged her. It was unsettling on the one
hand because it could mean that Garden life really was as stringent as she
feared it would be. On the other, it meant that she wouldn't be out of place
for not having any pictures of her own family to put up. When she arrived at
the Matron's house, she didn't have much else besides the clothes she wore.
Her collection of items had grown some since then, but nothing more than the
bare essentials and some outfits came with her.

"How old are you?" Quistis asked after several minutes of quiet
observation.

"I recently turned sixteen. Why do you ask?" Xu sat herself at her desk
after swiveling the chair around to face her new roommate.

"You're a lot older than me. Why did they stick an older student with a
new one?" Her eyes gleamed with curiosity. There was no doubt in Xu's mind
that this child possessed some greater gift judging by the intelligence in
those eyes.

"It's a tradition, I suppose. Older students are less likely to pick on
the new ones. That sort of behavior is frowned upon. If anyone picks on you,
you tell me or one of the Faculty right away."

"Don't worry, I can handle bullies," she sat up straighter.

"That may be so," Xu waggled a finger at her, "but that's not the point.
We're a team now, and you have to learn to be a team player. If someone
bullied you, it wouldn't be only you they were insulting, they'd be attacking
me as well. So we resolve the problem together, got that?"

Quistis nodded, surprised by the SeeD cadet who was ready to stand up for
a junior classman.

"Good! How about we put your things away and then I'll show you around
the Garden? I'll introduce you to Doctor Kadowaki in the Infirmary. Not only
is she great when it comes to healing scrapes and cuts, she's also an excellent
listener."

"I'd like that," her confidence was increasing. Perhaps everything will
work out with Xu supporting her. She pushed aside the voice of doubt that
reminded her that she had no place to go if she failed to make it at Balamb
Garden. Her ticket here was one way and the only path she could take was a
successful one.

Matron spoke at length about what an opportunity it was for her to be
accepted to a Garden. She looked up to Matron, for she was the one who brought
stability to her life after her parents died. Quistis avoided probing that
memory too deeply. The point was, Matron believed in her ability to succeed,
else she wouldn't have gone through all the trouble to bring her here. She
would give it her all, for herself and for Matron.

"Let me explain a few things about the Garden," Xu said as she carefully
refolded one of Quistis' shirts to put in the dresser. "There is no dress code
other than to wear something clean that isn't shabby. Instructors and Faculty
may require you to wear the Garden issued uniform at times. Most students go
ahead and wear it all school day and then change into more comfortable clothing
afterwards. That way they can't catch you if you forget to wear it on a day
they required you to." Xu frowned in a way that clearly expressed dire
consequences for those who violated that part of the dress code.

"There is a curfew that goes into effect at lights out. Don't get caught
out of your room after curfew unless you're practicing at the Training Center."

"The Training Center?" Quistis' sharp ear caught onto the fact that this
was a significant location.

"I'll show you it later. In fact, you'll undoubtedly be sick of the place
by the time you become a SeeD," she chuckled lightly. "The Cafeteria is open
from 0900 to 2100. If you need a meal during hours that they're closed, you
can make arrangements beforehand."

Quistis wiggled her nose at having to convert the military times to
something she understood. Xu grinned, "That's how times are given around here.
You'll get used to it soon enough.

"The Library is open from 0900 to lights out. That's another place you'll
spend a lot of time at. The study panels are a good resource and are faster to
access information with than having to track down a book and find the page. Oh
my, I think I'm going too fast," Xu admonished herself.

"It's alright," Quistis put the last of her things away, then stood by the
door. "I'm ready to see these places you're telling me about."

Xu led them out of the Dormitory block. She walked with slow measured
steps to allow the gawking Quistis to keep up. She didn't fault the child.
The Garden was a pretty amazing place, especially to a ten year old -- when
*everything* appeared to be twice your size.

As they made their way through the student lounge, Xu thought back to the
conversation she had with Headmaster Cid a week ago after she'd returned to the
Garden from spring break. He'd impressed upon her the importance of making
sure young Quistis succeeded. He told her to consider it as her first SeeD
assignment. She thought that was jumping the gun a bit since her graduation
wasn't a sure thing. The written and field exams would prove her mettle more
than keeping an eye on Quistis would.

She idly wondered if the girl even realized how much was expected of her.
When she was ten, she didn't have much on her mind beyond getting out of class
and going to play with her cousins. What about Quistis? How to give her a
fulfilling childhood while forcing the requirements of an adult world upon
her..?

Xu chided herself. It wasn't her problem to deal with. Yeah, right. She
could tell herself that countless times and she would still worry. She found
herself already warming up to the kid. She'd do all she could to protect her
from the dangers that prevailed in the Garden.

Quistis' eyes grew wide as she took in the sight of the main entrance area
of the Garden. A directory sat at the center the intersection with a few
students milling around it. Xu showed her it briefly before explaining how the
Garden was laid out. "The overall shape is kind of like a gear. The corridor
we just walked down would be the circular base of the gear. The breezeways
that lead off to the various areas of the complex are the teeth."

Xu pointed past the directory towards a set of stairs that went over a
pond that ran around the inner circumference of this level. The stairs led up
to a circular half-level with an elevator shaft at the center of it. "The
elevator leads to the second floor, which is where many of the classrooms are.
The third floor is the Headmaster's office. You can't go up there without his
permission."

Xu turned them around so that their backs were to the elevator. She
explained that the long, broad corridor they were looking down led to a guard
at the inner gate. Past him was a courtyard with fountains and benches. Even
further beyond that was the true outer gate of the Garden. There was a
significant amount of distance between the complex and the front gate from how
she explained it. Quistis had come onto the grounds in a vehicle and walked
into the complex through the Parking Garage, so she'd missed seeing all of
this.

Gently, Xu nudged Quistis towards the westward corridor, which was the
opposite way they'd come. They took the first breezeway they encountered to
their left. This led to the Infirmary. Doctor Kadowaki was a nice woman. She
reminded Quistis a lot of Matron.

After the Infirmary they visited the Cafeteria, Training Center (though
they didn't go in at all), and the Library. Quistis' eyes immediately lit up
when she saw all the books that were available. "There aren't many books here
for pleasure reading," Xu commented as Quistis tried to keep her glee in check.
It didn't matter, books were books and she wanted to try to read them! She
would definitely make it a point to stop by here again before too long.

*****


With hands deft from years of practice, Xu tied the yellow bow of her
uniform and then looked at her reflection in the mirror. The gold embroidered
shoulders and cuffs of her dark blue tunic gave it a certain look of
sophistication while reminding a person that they were indeed in a uniform and
expected to behave accordingly. The entire effect was defeated by the bright,
happy, yellow bow that hung down across her chest. The scandalously short
skirt that completed the uniform was another indication of the efforts to
undermine its natural authority.

The female SeeD's black uniform was similar to the cadet's with a smart
looking red tie, instead of a yellow bow, and a longer skirt that was only a
hand-span above the knee. The uniform of a full SeeD looked *sharp* in Xu's
opinion, which motivated her all the more to graduate and get out of the silly
looking cadet's one.

She brushed a few wayward strands of dark hair back into place before
turning to see how Quistis was coming along. It was her first day of class,
and thus her first morning of fighting with the oft-rebellious yellow bow.

Xu didn't want to dress Quistis for her, but it was obvious that she
wasn't strong enough to give the bow the final hard yank required to tighten
it. The girl kept at it though, refusing to admit to her weakness. After a
few more minute of watching her struggle, Xu began to offer her help, but
Quistis spoke first.

"I can't get it," she admitted with her brow creased in frustration.

"Let me show you how the younger girls tie their bows," she knelt down and
tied the bow in a fashion that she hadn't since her first few months at the
Garden. "No one will think less of you if you tie it like this until you're
able to do it the correct way." Xu tried to reassure her, but that statement
only seemed to upset Quistis more.

"I'll practice tonight until I get it," the girl stated stubbornly.

Xu was taken aback, torn between wanting to encourage her to figure it out
and scolding her for being so proud. She decided on the former, since that's
undoubtedly what Headmaster Cid would expect of her.

"If you need some help..." Quistis nodded sharply in acknowledgement, the
ponytail her hair was tied up in bobbed. "As it is, we need to get going.
I'll show you to your homeroom."

Along the way to Quistis' homeroom Xu asked, "Did you want me to come by
when you get out?"

Quistis shook her head. "You showed me where the Library was yesterday.
That's where I want to go after class."

Xu hid her smile by looking away. The girl certainly was anxious to dig
into her studies! She could think of a few of her fellow classmates who could
learn a lesson from her.

She turned back to Quistis; a serious expression hiding the humor she was
feeling. "Very well, just don't forget to eat dinner tonight," she said it to
tease the girl, but had the feeling the warning was a valid one.

Quistis bowed slightly to the upper classman. They were outside her
homeroom and it was time for them to part ways. "Thank you," she gave a small
wave before going into the room to join her classmates.

Xu doubled back down the hallway to go to her own homeroom. 'I'd better
check on her tonight to make sure that she does eat dinner,' she thought to
herself.

She crossed through a T-intersected hallway when she heard someone calling
her name back down the other way. She stopped walking to wait for whomever it
was to catch up.

"Ah, Headmaster Cid, good morning," she greeted.

"Xu, I'm glad I caught you before class," they walked together since he
was the Instructor of her homeroom. It was unusual for a Headmaster to be
teaching, but he insisted on having his hands in on 'the building of the
future', as he put it.

He was also one of the few people who wasn't (and could get away with it)
a stickler for titles. She always addressed him as 'Headmaster', as was
proper, but he was on a first-name basis all of his SeeDs and a select few of
his students. She was one of them.

"How is your new roommate settling in?" He walked with his hands firmly
clasped behind his back. He looked every part the Headmaster with his hair
neatly parted down the middle, round-framed glasses on his face, and a tight
vest holding in his slight potbelly.

"Miss Trepe seems to be settling in well enough," Xu wondered briefly if
it was appropriate to use the form of address reserved for SeeD cadets with a
student that was still a junior classman and wasn't officially in training yet.

Cid smiled, an act that caused his eyes to crinkle closed as he grinned.
"As formal as ever, Xu?"

"Of course, Headmaster," she returned his jab with a smile of her own.

He hmph-ed and made a dismissive gesture. "Impertinent child. I knew
you'd be perfect for this task," he motioned for her to precede him into the
classroom they stood outside of.

"Everyone take your seats. We have much to accomplish today and our time
is limited." The students who were rushing to their places continued to their
desks. The ones who came to attention when he walked through the door resumed
their seats. Xu hurried to her place in the second row back from the front of
the room.

"The beginning of a new school year is a busy time. As many of you
already know, a new class of students has been arriving throughout the weekend.
They will begin their studies today. Most of you are being paired up with our
new sprouts, as I've heard them referred to as by some," a chuckle ran through
the classroom. The term of 'sprout' was fitting considering the naming
convention behind Garden and SeeD.

"I expect all of you to conduct yourselves responsibly. You all were
sprouts once. It is your turn to fill the role of mentor for this new class as
the previous classes have for you. While some may see the sprouts as a burden,
I would remind you all that a lesson in teamwork can be learned from this
experience. No matter how well balanced, every team will have its weak points.
You must strive to compensate for the weaknesses and build an even stronger
team.

"With that said, let me post last week's hand-to-hand skills test results
and the individual training schedule for this week," Cid walked behind the
large desk at the head of the class and sat himself down. He turned on the
terminal and plucked away at the keyboard before the results and schedule were
displayed on the class's study panels.

Xu ranked third on the test. It wasn't a bad score considering that this
was the first test after the break, but it wasn't the top slot she'd been
hoping for. It's just as well that Quistis didn't want to meet after homeroom,
Xu was scheduled for training this afternoon. She'd have to rush to their room
and retrieve her sai during the lunch break, then meet the Headmaster at the
Training Center for individual practice. That sneaky man! He probably
scheduled things like this on purpose to throw Quistis into the deep end on her
first day of class by leaving her escortless.

A thought then occurred to her. She hoped that the girl was at least
familiar with the Shumi Tribe of Trabia. How unfortunate that she'd forgotten
to warn Quistis that the very non-human Shumi taught a majority of the classes
at Balamb Garden. The robes and hood they wore did a fine job of disguising
most of their appearance. With their stringent attitude, they came off as more
intimidating than frightening. 'Oh well, if she's going to make it as a SeeD,
she's going to have to learn to roll with the punches,' Xu told herself.

She dragged her attention back to the class discussion that was going on
as she mused. It was turning into a lively debate regarding the mission and
ethics of SeeD. There was no better person to have such a discussion with than
the Headmaster himself. The stuffy Faculty members would have told them to
spend more time on their weapon studies and leave the ethics to their leaders.
When one was in a profession that let money dictate ethics, it was probably the
best advice they could give. But it didn't prevent some of the more
intellectual types from questioning the true goals of SeeD.

"Headmaster, what if a conflict pitted one Garden against another? Where
do our loyalties lie then?" A cadet in the back row of the class retook his
seat after standing to address the Headmaster.

"An interesting scenario, that is," he dug his chin into his chest as he
considered the answer. "Your loyalties must first be to yourself, for that is
the easiest person to betray. Stay true to yourself while maintaining the
allegiances you have made. Next, is loyalty to your team. You are Several
bound into One, any breaks in trust among you effectively shatters the One," he
held up the appropriate number of fingers as he spoke.

"Loyalty to your home Garden is third on the list. This is the place that
has raised you and is your home," he spread his arms out to encompass the
entire facility. "SeeD as an organization is your final loyalty. And when I
say final, I do not mean that it is last, for these four loyalties must be
maintained in harmony with one other."

The student who asked the question looked even more baffled by the
Headmaster's answer. Cid walked down the aisle of desks to stand besides the
student who asked the question. He put a hand on his shoulder as he continued.

"I have no doubt that at some point in our future we will face this trial,
it is an inevitable thing. I trust *you*," then he turned to include the
entire class in his statement, "all of you, to do as you believe in your hearts
to be *right*. You would not be here if you did not have a good heart and a
fair mind. *Trust it!*" He gave the student's shoulder one last squeeze before
walking back to the head of the room.

The class sat in numbed awe as his words sunk in. Xu once again admired
the Headmaster's ability for giving inspiring speeches. It was part of the
reason he was so well loved by those who followed him. Many SeeD members saw
their loyalty to the organization as a loyalty to Cid himself. The Headmaster
was careful to make the distinction clear, but they were so closely intertwined
that they were nearly one.

Class continued until the lunch break. After the mid-day meal, cadets
were assigned individual or small group work for the rest of the afternoon. It
was then that the 'practical' half of their training was done to complement the
bookwork they did during the morning. The junior classmen, like Quistis, were
in homeroom all day and didn't usually begin afternoon training sessions until
their second or third year.

It took Xu quite a bit of flip-flopping between a long knife and sai to
decide which weapon she wanted to specialize in. A pair of sai won out since
they better suited her melee style of fighting. The long 'blade' (though her
sai had no edge) coupled with a pair of upturned prongs for catching weapons
with gave her more defensive options than she would have with just a knife's
edge alone. She liked to get right into a monster's face (or whatever was
passing for one) and beat at it ruthlessly. Her battles were fast-paced and
could leave an observer breathless due to the casual grace she conducted them
with.

After lunch, Xu met the Headmaster at the Training Center with her sai
fastened on the belt loops added for that purpose. Cid scratched the back of
his head after entering the Center itself and began patting down his pockets.

"Oh dear, I've lost my whistle," his frown deepened. Cid was probably the
only person to enter the Center and not fight. He had a whistle that, for some
reason, the monsters ran away from when blown. Xu often wondered if the
monsters here were wild or tame for as well as they behaved around Cid --
almost as though they *knew* to show deference to the Headmaster. They would
never be attacked by a T-Rexaur -- a large, aggressive, dinosaur-like monster
-- unless Cid wanted it to happen.

His gave her a sideways look through slitted eyes. "Do you feel up to
protecting both of us today?"

"On the honor of Balamb Garden I will protect you, Headmaster," she
brought her sai across her chest and bowed to him.

"Then let us proceed," they walked through the right-handed gate that lead
to the indoor pond. The Training Center was like a miniature jungle. A pond
complete with a rickety boardwalk was just one of the obstacles to be
encountered here. Large boulder formations allowed monsters and cadets alike
to hide from one another. The foliage was thick; creating a stifling blanket
that also provided good cover.

The Training Center was completely enclosed within the Garden complex
itself. A series of gates kept the monsters contained to the Center. There
was also an overlook that was a popular place for the less diligent students to
go and make out after curfew.

Xu was certain that the Faculty took pleasure from busting students who
were caught there, though she never heard of any that were too severely
punished by the Headmaster. It was a rule at Garden (and especially as a SeeD)
to carefully consider the consequences of any relationship. SeeDs in general
chose to remain free of relationship bonds because of how it would complicate
their lives. That resulted in most liaisons being a matter of convenience for
both parties and free of any future obligations.

It was a matter Xu had thought on many times. She wondered if she was
truly capable of being so -- superficial -- about her needs as a woman.
Intimacy wasn't a luxury SeeDs allowed themselves, not when it was their way of
life to live in harm's way. More than the training, or even the fear of dying,
*that* was Xu's largest obstacle to overcome if she was to join the elite
group.

"There are a pair of Grats behind that tree," Cid whispered to her as they
moved cautiously along the path. Xu had spotted them several meters ago and
was watching them carefully.

Grats weren't that difficult of a monster to defeat, though they certainly
were a pain when she was just starting out. They have four long limbs that
sway above their bulbous bodies, giving them an attack range that makes it
impossible to engage them without being within reach. They also cast a Sleep
spell occasionally. If one was hit with Sleep, there was nothing to be done
about it until the Grat smacked the sleeping foe with one of its limbs, thus
waking them up.

"Orders, Headmaster?" She drew her weapons and prepared to strike if that
was what he indicated.

"It's your training session, Xu. If you think you can handle two Grats by
yourself, then by all means, engage them," he watched her carefully as she
sized up her opponents.

To her amateur eye, they appeared to be a challenge, but within her
capabilities. 'If you're wrong, the Headmaster can't call them off,' a part of
her mind reminded her. This battle was going to be entirely up to her. It
might be better to keep going until they encountered a single Grat, but the
Headmaster might think less of her if she didn't challenge herself fully...

Xu signaled her intention to attack the Grats. Then motioned in a way to
indicate her wish to take them by surprise. There was a rock ledge near the
tree the Grats were at. They could pinch them up against the ledge so that
escape was impossible if they were careful in how they approached.

They were successful in getting into position. Xu leapt at one Grat with
her weapons drawn, raking across its thick, plant-like flesh before it even
realize it was under attack. Another quick stab to its jugular (such as it
was) and its four limbs went limp as death set in.

The other Grat hit at her with its limbs while she was disengaging the
vanquished monster. She was knocked against the tree, mildly stunned by the
impact. Its maw opened wide as it spewed its sleeping gas at her. She
couldn't resist the spell's effect as she began to nod off. A hard thwack that
knocked her against the ledge she'd hoped to catch the Grat against woke her
up. She was the one unable to escape and badly hurt from the impact. Her body
began to feel hot, almost like she was going to combust at any moment.

Through the haze of pain and befuddlement in her head, Xu heard Cid
shouting something she could only partially make out, encouraging her to gather
her fear and rage into herself. His yell distracted the creature. It
hesitated in attacking her, confused.

Focusing fear and rage... Wasn't that something Xu heard in class? She
struggled to control the rising tide of emotions and remember the words at the
same time. Limits... special skills that tapped the innate power inside every
person. They appeared in times of great need, turning desperation into a
fighting chance for victory. The energy of terror and raw rage could be
transmuted into unbelievable power if it was focused properly.

And now was the time to test that theory.

With all of the will that had seen her through her years at Garden, Xu
gathered the energy inside herself and concentrated on directing that energy at
her foe. The energy collapsed inward, pulling more of itself toward the
growing explosion like a black hole of power. And when it reached its critical
mass it burst through her entire self, permeating her body and soul as she
cried words that were released from the depths of her consciousness. "PEARL OF
HEAVEN!"

The internal energy embodied as an iridescent white shell around Xu lifted
her half a meter off the ground. From within that pearl of force a thundering
shockwave of blue fire erupted toward the unwitting Grat. The creature was
surrounded and crushed by the tidal wave of power. When the energy faded and
Xu's feet touched the ground once more, she saw that the monster had been
utterly devastated.

Xu smiled beamingly to the Headmaster, and then her shaking knees gave
out. Her legs folded and she collapsed to the ground.

"What an unexpected turn of events," Cid mused. He crossed the distance
between himself and the girl and began examining her. "I think this is enough
training for today. Let's get you to Doctor Kadowaki."

He retrieved a small whistle from his breast pocket and blew on it. No
sound came out of the whistle, but the rustling in the surrounding underbrush
was a clear indication that other monsters had been watching them and were
ready to pounce upon the injured team. The monsters fled now, chased off by
the whistle Cid blew a few more times before dropping it back into his pocket.

"You devious man," Xu accused, still shaken by the experience, as he
guided her to the gate they had first entered through.

"And you see where it's gotten me? Let this be a lesson to you," he
waggled a finger at her.

"You wouldn't have let the Grat," she gulped down her fear, "finish me,
would you?"

He shook his head. "Certainly not, child. I had the whistle to my lips,
about to blow when I spotted your Limit energy gathering. You were coming up
for Limit training here shortly, just consider it a bit early."

"'A bit early?' That's a graduate-level skill," her body still pulsed
with the energy she had released so unexpectantly. She swore that the hairs on
her arms were standing on end under her sleeves.

"How many graduating SeeDs do we lose because they never discover or
master their Limit Skills? You're already one up on all of them," he smiled
fondly at her.

Xu blushed slightly at the Headmaster's apparent approval. She had to
admit that her mind was savoring the feeling of reigning in the
near-uncontrollable energy that flashed through her for those few moments. It
also frightened her some. Would she have self-destructed if her Limit energy
wasn't purged?

The Headmaster seemingly read her mind, for he pulled her aside to sit on
one of the many benches that lined the hallways of the Garden. "You can't hide
the fear that's in your eyes. I doubt the Grat is what's frightened you so,"
his voice was gentle, inviting her to tell him the fears she felt.

"Could the Limit kill me? What if I hadn't use it?"

He shook his head firmly in the negative. "Limits are an *opportunity* to
focus your frustration, your anger, your fear behind a powerful attack. It
will not kill you if you choose not to use those raw emotions. Well," he
drawled slowly with a droll expression on his face, "it might kill you if you
*don't*, but I'm certain you understand the distinction I'm making.

"There is much training done to prepare a student for the first time they
try to use their Limit," he thought for a few moments, muttering things to
himself under his breath. When he seemed satisfied with whatever it was that
he was mulling over, he stood up and resumed walking towards the Infirmary.

"Headmaster?" Xu asked, confused by his suddenly odd behavior.

"Come along, Xu, we have the rest of the afternoon ahead of us once the
good Doctor has assured me that all your parts are still intact."

"Yes, Headmaster," Xu quickly caught up to him and kept pace a respectful
half step behind him. "May I ask what we're going to do?"

"We are going to the Library, where you are going to take the final exams
for your class level and begin a new class that matches your skills on the
morrow."

Xu caught herself from stumbling. Fortunately, the Headmaster was in
front of her and couldn't see the startled expression on her face. She quickly
schooled her features to a neutral expression. "Of course, Headmaster."

Fortunately, Xu was behind Cid and couldn't see the broad grin that
crossed his face at her ready acceptance of such a daunting task. These were
the types of people the core of SeeD would be made of. Today's exhibition
confirmed the nagging suspicion he'd been having for some time regarding Xu's
placement in her current class. It was below her level and she would be held
back no longer!

"Have you gone mad?!" Kadowaki protest when Cid informed the Doctor of his
intentions. Xu was seated up on the examination table and kept tactfully
silent during their conversation about her.

"No offense to you, Miss Xu," Kadowaki amended quickly. "You're a fine
student, but you should be resting for the remainder of the day. A few more
days on top of that wouldn't do you a lick of harm either," the Doctor glared
at Cid.

"I agree that perhaps a lighter physical regiment for the next week would
be in order, but there's nothing wrong with her mind. That is what I need to
test," he spoke in the most reasonable of tones while the Doctor continued to
fume.

"That's the last thing you should do after giving her such a shock.
You'll stress her to death!" Kadowaki applied a bandage to her right calf. The
Cure spells went a long way towards healing wounds, but it was always best to
let the body do the job on its own. Kadowaki systematically patched up her
various cuts and scrapes so that she looked a lot worse off than she felt. On
the other hand, once she was over the excitement of the afternoon, she'd
probably feel horrible.

"I'd be placing her under no pressure that she wasn't ready for. Isn't
that right, Xu?" He spoke to her for the first time since entering the
Infirmary.

"Yes, Headmaster," she answered promptly. She did trust him not to
challenge her beyond what she was capable of. What he wanted would be
difficult, no doubt, but not impossible.

Kadowaki threw her arms up in resignation. "You trained her to say that!
Fine, go work her to death if wish, but don't come crying to me when we lose
another prime SeeD cadet to the rigors of the gantlet you put her through!"

"That was harsh, Doctor," Cid said, genuinely hurt.

Kadowaki applied the last bandage, then turned to the Headmaster. "It was
meant to be, you old kook. I'm as fond of this one as you are," she favored Xu
with a smile. "Just don't send her off to conquer the world tomorrow, okay?"

"You have my word on it, dear friend," he offered a hand to Xu to help her
down off the examination table. "Let's go to the Library and get you started.
I want you in your new classes by tomorrow if at all possible."

"Do get some rest if he'll allow it," the Doctor pressed some healing
potions into her hand. "Drink one of these if you're in pain."

"Thank you for everything, Doctor," Xu said over her shoulder as she
followed Cid to the Library on the other side of the Garden complex.

*****


Quistis stuck her head into the Library hesitantly before moving the rest
of the way in. There didn't look to be anyone much younger than Xu here. The
female cadet standing at the checkout counter leaned over it to peer down at
her.

"I'm afraid that we don't have any books here for a person your age," she
said with an apologetic smile.

"That's all right, I'll read other books then," Quistis nodded, agreeing
with her own idea.

"Other books, eh?" The cadet leaned back as she thought for a moment. "I
may have a few books for you to cut your teeth on. Let me get them down for
you," she came from around the counter and walked over to a nearby shelf.
Climbing up a small stepladder, she took a few books down after reading the
spines to be sure that they were the ones she wanted.

"This one is a history of Galbadia told from a child's point of view. It
takes place before the Sorceress Wars, so it's pretty interesting," she handed
the book over to Quistis. "This one is about the more common monsters in this
region of the world, illustrated edition. And this one," she held up a spiral
bound volume, "is the SeeD Regulations Handbook. If you're going to be a cadet
here, you'll end up reading this one several time over."

Quistis' eyes boggled at the books she had to read. She'd never get
through them all this afternoon! "May I take them to my room?"

"You may check all of them out except the SeeD Regulations Handbook. Your
roommate should have a copy of that if you haven't been issued one yet," the
cadet gave her a small wave, then returned behind the counter to help some
other cadets with their materials.

Quistis went back to the study lounge area of the Library and climbed up
onto a chair with her books. She decided to flip through the monster guide
first since it had plenty of pictures. (Not that pictures were required for a
book to be good, but they certainly went a long way towards improving it, in
her opinion).

She'd been reading for perhaps an hour when she heard a familiar voice.
Xu walked into the study area of the Library with a portly looking fellow next
to her. She waved enthusiastically at her roommate, who acknowledged her
briefly with a nod and a slight smile. Quistis picked up on the hint that now
wasn't the time to be social, so she went back to her book. The man she was
with noticed the exchanged and had a few words with her.

"Of course," Xu walked over to Quistis and motioned for her to stand up.

"May I present to you Miss Quistis Trepe," Xu gestured to Quistis, who
curtsied politely. This man was important, whoever he was. Best to be on her
manners.

"Miss Trepe, allow me to introduce you to our Headmaster, Cid Kramer."

"It is indeed a pleasure to finally meet you, young Quistis," he held a
hand out to her. Her hand was enveloped in his larger one as they shook. He
had a kind face and didn't squeeze her hand too tightly like some teenagers
did.

"Thank you for allowing me to come to Balamb Garden," she said,
remembering that it was a school that only allowed those who were qualified to
enter; and even then the enrollment was limited and competitive.

"I'm certain your joining us will be a decision neither of us regret.
Please give your best to all your studies and remember the three Garden
Precepts: Work hard. Study hard. Play hard."

"Thank you," and she really was thankful for the opportunity. The more
time she spent here, the more she came to like it. The robed Faculty member
who taught her homeroom frightened her some at first, but not to the point of
nightmares. He/she/it was just different. The guide to monsters had lots of
creatures in it that could definitely give her nightmares if she had to face
them by herself!

Xu and the Headmaster left her to resume her reading. At least he hadn't
commented on her not having her bow tied correctly. She *would* learn how to
do it tonight even if she had to stay up all night.

She didn't remember Xu having all those bandages this morning. She
wondered what happened to her roommate that caused her to be patched up. SeeD
training must be as hazardous as she suspected.

She thought back to her first day of classes. She wasn't the youngest
one, a fact that surprised her, but she wasn't far from it either. Most of the
other students seemed to be twelve or so. Her class had quickly worked their
ways into groups. She tried to join them, but group work had never been one of
her stronger skills. The Faculty member assured her that she would be well
accustomed to groups and teamwork by the time she completed the SeeD program.
That was one thing she had no doubt of.

Perhaps it was the uncurbable brashness of youth that prompted her to ask
the Faculty member that taught them today why it wore the robes that it did.
It huffed some at her boldness, and then answered that humans were very
narrow-minded creatures. They couldn't easily accept that which was different,
so they endeavored to disguise themselves in sameness for the sake of their
students.

It made sense to her, even if it was a bit insulting. She spent the rest
of the morning trying to catch a glimpse of the Shumi under the hood to no
avail. Sometimes her curiosity would not be easily sated. 'Perhaps that nice
cadet at the counter would know of a good book on the Shumi?' She wondered,
making a mental note to ask about the book after she was finished with the ones
she had. It wouldn't do to bite off more then she could chew, now would it?

Quistis resumed flipping through the monster guide. Here's an interesting
one: Bite Bug. Cute name, the book didn't describe it as being very strong.
Oh, now this one has a cute name and looked cute too. A lot like an oversized
caterpillar. It looks like it would be more dangerous than the Bite Bug as
well... The rest of her afternoon was spent boning up on the monster life of
the Alcauld Plains.

*****


"Oh man, I'm tired and sore," Xu winced as she flopped herself down onto
her desk chair. Quistis followed her into the room with an armload of books.
These she set carefully on the other desk that was still free of personal
items.

"I see that you made good use of your time in the Library. I've flipped
through that monster guide a time or two myself when I was younger," she gave
Quistis an approving smile.

"The cadet at the counter said that you would have the SeeD Regulations
Handbook..?"

"I do," she pointed up at the spiral bound volume sitting on the shelf
above her desk, "but your copy of it should be in the top right desk drawer."

Quistis pulled the drawer open to reveal that it was filled with many
useful items, the handbook included. She carefully pulled it out and set it on
the desk in front of her. "They gave me one already?"

"Officially, no, but I suspected that you would want a copy, so I got one
from the Headmaster for you. He also gave me most of the things in that
drawer, saying that you needed to be properly supplied," Xu laughed lightly as
the surprised look on her face.

"What were you and the Headmaster doing in the Library this afternoon?"
She kicked herself back and forth some on the swivel chair that was for her
desk. Xu really did look beat, a striking contrast from the energetic cadet
she had left with this morning.

"Oh, the Headmaster is up to his old tricks again. You'll become used to
his wily ways soon enough, let me assure you." Xu winced while reaching for a
small bottle that she'd brought with her. She drank down its contents before
she continued.

"I stumbled upon my Limit Skill while in training today. A Limit is a
desperation move that can only be performed when one is critically injured.
It's a technique that allows one to perform a ravaging attack by channeling the
pair, fear, and desperation from battle behind one focus. It's a skill that
isn't taught until late in SeeD training because of the dangers associated with
it; primarily that the only way to practice it is to let yourself be critically
injured on purpose."

Quistis indicated her understanding, so Xu continued. "To make a long
story short, I was critically wounded this afternoon and used my Limit Skill
without any more than a cursory knowledge of how to go about it. The
Headmaster decided that I must be in the wrong class if I was ready to learn
Limit Skills, so I spent the afternoon in the Library taking one test after
another to see if he was correct." She held up a hand before Quistis could ask
her the results. "I don't know yet. He'll call for me either way. He said
that we should know before the day is out."

"This has been such an exciting day!" Quistis was nearly jubilant with all
the goings on around her. This place was alive with activity!

"Indeed," Xu shifted herself painfully on her seat. "Tell me how your day
went."

Quistis chattered on about the Shumi and her classmates and how cute the
caterpillars-like monsters looked in the book she was reading and so on for
over a half-hour. Xu listened politely, inserting occasional comments into the
monologue that gave her new insights into the things she had seen and
experienced today.

A light tapping on the door interrupted their conversation. Xu called for
whoever it was to enter, then stood up immediately and saluted when it was the
Headmaster who stepped through the doorway. Quistis got to her feet as well
and mimicked the salute Xu gave as best she could.

"At ease, both of you," amusement colored his voice. Xu brought her right
hand down from in front of her face and back to her side. Quistis followed her
lead.

"I'll forgo my usual speech-making and simply say that you've done it,"
the pride in his expression made his entire face glow. Xu kept her expression
neutral, resisting the urge to jump for joy and hug the Headmaster.

"Now comes the difficult part; catching up with your new classmates. At
this level, emphasis is put on independent study and self-motivation to
succeed. Your homeroom meets three times a week and for only an hour then.
Many of your scholastic studies will be taught by a Faculty member instead of
me, though I will still instruct you in combat training as I have been."

He rummaged through the contents of a small box he'd brought with him. He
drew a printout from the box and handed it to her. "This is your new schedule,
but you don't start until next week," he handed the box over to her. It was a
lot heavier than it looked.

"You're under Doctor's orders to change your bandages once I leave and to
then rest for a few days. Rest physically, that is, there's nothing wrong with
your mind. Your textbooks are in the box. I've put a note in each one
indicating where your classmates are. Please try to catch up with them as soon
as possible," he knelt down to Quistis' level to speak with her.

"Your roommate has done very well, young one. Endeavor to be like her."
Quistis nodded her head in acknowledgement. "She may need your help in the
upcoming days to go fetch things for her or whatnot. Are you willing to assist
her?"

"Yes, Headmaster. I'll help Xu," she looked up at her roommate with eyes
glowing with admiration. Xu flushed some from the hero worship.

"You have a good heart," Cid patted Quistis on the head before standing
upright again. "I'll leave you ladies to it then. Recover quickly, Xu, or
I'll never hear the end of it from Kadowaki."

"Thank you, Headma-," he was out the door before Xu could finish thanking
him. She sat down heavily with the box on her lap. Her mind was reeling from
the events of today. Perhaps getting some rest would give her time to resort
the balance in her life that Cid so merrily upended. Yes, she would change her
bandages and then go to bed.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Quistis turned to her, eager to
assist.

"No, I just want to sleep," Xu placed the box on her desk, then went to
her dresser to pull out her pajamas. It was an abnormally early hour for her
to be going to bed, but she was so very tired.

"Have you eaten dinner?"

Xu had to admit that she was feeling a bit hungry. She waved the question
off. "I'll survive until the morning. I'm not feeling up to going to the
Cafeteria."

"You said that I had to eat dinner, and so do you," Quistis reasoned.
"I'll go get you something to eat!" And with that, she was out the door.

Energetic girl, she didn't even ask what Xu's preferences were. As long
as she didn't bring back any of those nasty hot dogs everyone seems to love, Xu
would be happy. Xu hoped that Quistis had the way there figured out already.
She was as motivated to go searching for her roommate as she was to go to the
Cafeteria in the first place.

*****


The Cafeteria was the next hallway over from the Dormitory along the main
corridor that was the backbone of the Garden. A counter manned by kitchen
personnel greeted the students when they entered. Beyond that opened up a
larger room with tables scattered about it. From her vantage point Quistis
could see that about half the tables were occupied by students eating their
dinners.

"We're out of hot dogs," the lady behind the counter said as soon as
Quistis stepped up to order something for Xu. It was then that she realized
that she'd forgotten to ask her roommate what she wanted to eat.

"I'm getting something for Xu. Do you know what she likes to eat?" It
was a shot in the dark, but Xu's been around long enough that she might know.

The lady at the counter thought for a moment and then went to the back
with a tray in hand. She returned a few moments later with a bowl of rice and
a plate filled with various cooked vegetables. "Xu's a vegetarian, if you
didn't know that already," she pointed to a condiment island off to the side.
"I think she likes soy sauce. There should be packets of it that you can take.
Be sure to return the dishes to the dish-belt in the morning if you can't bring
them back tonight."

"Thank you," she carefully carried the tray over to the condiment island.
A group of male upper classmen was standing around it getting their own
condiments.

"Hey, you're that new kid, the one who asked the Faculty member why they
wore the robes," one of them recognized her when she approached.

"That was a pretty gutsy move," another of them commented. "I'm surprised
you weren't reamed for it."

"It was an honest question," Quistis defended while placing a few packets
of sauce onto the tray. "They're here to answer our questions, aren't they?"

The students laughed. "Sure they are! They're also here to tuck us in at
night and hold our hand when we're scared," one crowed.

"..." Quistis picked up the tray and headed for the door. They obviously
didn't understand what it meant to be a teacher if they thought it was wrong to
ask questions. She was so distracted by her thoughts that she almost ran into
an older cadet.

"Hey!" His quick reflexes caught the tray before she dropped it without so
much as a grain of rice being dislodged from the bowl. She carefully accepted
the tray as she apologized profusely for running into him. "It's alright,
sprout, just be more careful about how hard you think while walking," he waved
jauntily at her before heading into the Cafeteria.

She returned as quickly as she could to her room. She didn't want to run
into any more people tonight, figuratively or otherwise.

Xu was already in her pajamas and skimming one of her new textbooks when
Quistis kicked the door lightly for her roommate to come open it. The older
girl relieved her of the tray, thanking her for her kindness. She looked over
the meal and smiled over at Quistis. "I was wondering what you'd bring back."

"I asked the Cafeteria lady and that's what she gave me. She said you
were a veg-it-ter-e-an?" Quistis couldn't quite form the word correctly, not
entirely sure of what it meant.

"Vegetarian," she corrected. "A person who doesn't eat meat. Strict ones
don't eat any animal products, but I don't go that far."

Quistis was flabbergasted. "You don't eat meat? Why?" The thought of
eliminating a major part of one's diet didn't appeal to her at all.

"My family believes that eating living creatures make humans no better
than the monsters that attack and eat us. While I do believe that there are a
few more things involved that makes humans superior to monsters, it's the diet
I've grown up with. Whenever I try to eat meat, it gets stuck in my throat and
sits poorly in my stomach if I manage to get it swallowed down," she made an
ugly face to illustrate her difficulties.

"Would it bother you if I ate meat?" Quistis had a concerned look on her
face.

Xu laughed lightly. "It's good of you to be concerned, but I wouldn't
force my diet upon another person if they didn't want to follow it. Eat
whatever you want. Though keep in mind that you are what you eat, so don't eat
too many sweets unless you want to turn into a candy bar," she winked at the
startled expression on the younger girl's face.

"You're teasing me!" Quistis realized after thinking about the candy bar
comment for a moment.

"Yes, I am. Does that bother you?" She asked between bites of her meal.

Quistis shook her head. "No, you do it in a nice way, not like those guys
in the Cafeteria."

Xu glanced over at her. "'Guys in the Cafeteria'?"

She nodded. "I don't think they know what a teacher is. They teased me
for asking a Faculty member why it wore robes."

Xu quickly swallowed her rice to keep from spitting it out. She sipped
from a glass of water, then nodded. She could see why they would tease her
regarding that question. While it was the Faculty's job to instruct, one
treaded carefully around them. They weren't known for their sense of humor or
wish to elaborate on subjects that weren't directly related to the class. Then
again, she would have surely heard about it by now if Quistis had been burned
for asking her questions...

"You're right, the Faculty and Instructors are here to teach you and
answer your questions. I wouldn't waste their time with silly questions, which
shouldn't to be confused with *simple* questions, but questions asked with an
earnest intention deserve an answer."

Quistis seemed reassured by this and sat on her swivel chair. She pulled
out the book on Galbadian history that she'd checked out and began to read
through it carefully. It looked as though tonight would be a quiet study night
in their room.

*****


A week passed with both girls adjusting well to their new schedules.
Quistis was proudly sporting the yellow bow that she'd mastered tying after the
first night of practice as she swore she would. Xu was ready to join her new
classmates when they met tomorrow.

Today was the weekly free day for Garden students. They were encouraged
to get away from their studies and go enjoy the world around them. Xu decided
that they'd spent entirely too much time cooped up in the Garden, and thus
proposed that they walk down the road to Balamb and spend the day there.

Quistis hadn't even realized that there was a town nearby, but she was
excited by the prospect of getting to visit it. She dressed casually in a
turtleneck and a pair of overalls. Xu stuck with her usual SeeD cadet uniform.

"I don't want to ruin any of my clothes if I have to fight off a monster
while we're walking there," she explained when Quistis asked her why she wasn't
wearing something more casual.

"You mean monsters might attack us on the way there?" She gulped down the
lump that formed in her throat.

"Monsters are a fact of life," Xu shrugged as she pulled her sai out of
the velvet bag she kept them in. She hooked them through the loops on her belt
as she continued speaking. "You needn't worry. There's nothing roaming around
on this continent that I can't handle as long as we keep out of the forests;
wild T-Rexaurs have been spotted in those."

The two girls walked to the front gate, Quistis still hesitant about
leaving the safety of the Garden. "Are you sure it's safe?" She asked as Xu
signed them out with the gatekeeper.

"As safe as anything in this world is," she reassured with a smile.

They were walking down the broad steps that lead to a beautiful courtyard
when someone called out to Xu. Quistis was stunned when she realized that it
was the same cadet she bumped into last week. He was out of uniform, wearing a
pair of jeans and a short-sleeved, button-up shirt with a slim necktie.

"I'm glad I caught up with you! The guard told me that you were going to
Balamb and I thought it might be best if we traveled together," he favored Xu
with a charmingly impish grin that was known to swoon more than one woman. Xu,
however, was accustomed to his wiles and simply nodded in agreement.

"Traveling together would be safer. Let me introduce you to my roommate,
Quistis Trepe," she gestured to the girl who was studying her shoes instead of
meeting his eyes. Xu sighed to herself and forged ahead. "Quistis, this is
Sean, he was in my previous class."

"The sprout and I have already met, though we didn't speak long enough to
exchange names. How do you do?" He held his hand out to her. She accepted it
shyly and disengaged as soon as manners permitted.

Xu took up a position at Quistis' right while Sean covered her left. "I
assume that you're armed?"

He patted the holstered pistol riding on his left hip. "I'm always
prepared," he boasted. While Sean wasn't her first choice for traveling
companions, she did feel better to have someone accompanying her who was a
trained combatant.

Sean's weapon of choice was an automatic pistol that he fired with good
accuracy. With more practice, he would undoubtedly become a crack shot. The
Faculty was trying to nudge him over to using rifles (since his range would
increase dramatically with their use) but he wasn't cut out for the pressures
involved with sniper work.

He was a nice enough guy, in Xu's opinion, if not a bit strange. He was
always making weird references to books no one else had read and off comments
that some might consider witty. He was taller than most of the cadets, and
*very* lanky. She'd heard others refer to him as a walking twig, though she
wouldn't call him that herself. He had a lean build that didn't give any hint
to the muscle years of training had added to his bones.

Quistis kept closer to Xu than was necessary. She'd noticed that the girl
had an incredibly broad shy streak that presented itself whenever she was
around anyone besides herself or the Headmaster. Sean didn't seem to take
notice, keeping up a light chatter as they watched out for monsters.

Despite sticking to the side of the road, a pair of Bite Bugs swooped in
on them from behind. They were fairly small (as monster sizes went), but huge
when one considered their
flying insect-like appearance.

Xu took up a defensive position in front of Quistis. Sean drew his pistol
with his left hand and stood sideways towards the monsters, aiming at one of
them with a seemingly relaxed stance. He quickly shot them both out of the
sky, then reholstered his weapon.

"Piece of cake," he ran his fingers through his dirty-blonde colored hair.
Xu had already resumed walking, not waiting for him to finish his posturing.

"Hey!" He rushed to catch up with them. "You're so cold towards me," he
muttered after rejoining the group.

"There are better places for impressing a woman than on a battlefield," Xu
said pointedly. She didn't want to have Quistis in harm's way any longer than
absolutely necessary. Not that she was especially interested in him to begin
with.

"I get you," he held up his hands to concede the point as they entered the
outskirts of Balamb.

The seaside town had a 'friendly' air to it. A crisp breeze played with
the many banners that hung from lampposts and outside some of the businesses.
The roads were made from a blue-green brick that well matched the color of the
sea and abundant vegetation. The residences were constructed from a dull
whitewashed stone that made them appear to be one building with several doors
leading into it.

"How about we stop by the cafe that's near the pier and I'll buy you
lunch?" Sean tried his best to sound charming, but Xu promptly stepped on his
hopes of conquest.

"Can't, we have plans," she took hold of Quistis' hand as she led her into
Balamb proper.

"Man, you *are* cold today," he shook his head and followed them.

"Don't you have your own things to do?" Xu stopped on the sidewalk and
glared at him.

"Nope! So, where are we going?" He leaned against a lamppost as he waited
for Xu to lead the way.

Quistis watched the two cadets with a puzzled expression on her face. He
was trying to pick up Xu, that much was obvious to her, and Xu was giving him
the cold shoulder. Despite this, he continued to pursue her. Quistis wasn't
entirely sure what to make of the situation. It struck her as a battle to see
who could make the other give up first.

Xu sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and
forefinger, a sure sign that a headache was come on. "I heard a rumor that the
Queen of Cards has been hanging around Balamb lately. If that's true, I want
to challenge her to a game. Even if she's not around, I want to build Quistis
a starter deck."

"A starter deck for what?" Quistis asked.

"Triple Triad, what else?" Sean answered. "It's the gaming craze the
world over from what I hear. I can believe it considering how popular it is at
the Garden."

"It'll help you meet more people. Most of the students carry a deck on
them at all times and will play a game between classes with anyone who
challenges them. You should have a deck for when people come to challenge
you," Xu took hold of her hand again as she led them down the boulevard. Sean
followed on their heels.

"The mechanics of the game are simple enough. You play on a three by
three grid with five cards that have four numbers in the upper left-hand
corner. The two players take turns laying down cards. The object is to flip
over your opponent's cards by laying down a card next to it with a higher
value. So, if your opponent has a card down on the board with a three to the
west, you could lay down a card with a four to the east next to it and flip it
over," Xu checked to see if Quistis was following her.

"It's one of those things that's better explained while watching a game,"
Sean chimed in.

"We'll show you, don't worry," Xu promised. "Different regions of the
world play by different rules. While the basis is always the same, additional
rules can be agreed upon by both players before the game starts to make it more
interesting. A common rule for this area is called 'trade one', which means
that the winner gets to take one card from the five the loser played with and
keep it."

"It sounds like if you're good you could end up with a lot of cards,"
Quistis commented.

"Yep, and those cards will all be hard won since you can't purchase them
from any shop, you have to play for them," her eyes widened at the thought of
the challenge behind that. Sean shrugged before the grin returned to his face.
"It's a hobby."

It didn't take them long to spot a young woman a few years Xu's elder
playing Triple Triad with someone near the staircase that lead up to the train
depot. Once the game was finished, Xu approached the young woman to ask about
playing a game. Sean and Quistis kept a respectful distance away as the two
began setting up.

"I use the trade one rule for card exchange."

Xu nodded her agreement to the proposed rules for the game. That done
they began laying down cards. The Queen was no slouch, but Xu eked out a win
by flipping over two cards with a single one being laid down late in the game.

The Queen of Cards frowned when she realized that she'd just lost one of
her better cards to Xu. Instead of picking the best card from her hand, Xu
proposed another form of trade. "Say, I'm trying to build a starter deck for
my friend over there. If you're willing to donate a few low level cards to the
cause, I'd be satisfied with that for trade."

The Queen of Cards blinked with surprise. This one would give up a high
level rare card in favor of a few low-level common cards for a starter deck?
"Alright," she thumbed through her cards and pulled out four cards she had
duplicates of. "Will these be satisfactory?"

"Quite, thank you," Xu accepted the cards, then bid her a good day before
rejoining her friends.

"Your turn, Sean. Do you have a few cards you can donate or do I have to
win them from you?"

He chuckled hesitantly as he drew a deck of cards from his shirt pocket.
He selected three cards and handed them to Xu. Xu then pulled out her deck and
added three more cards to the others she had already collected. These she
handed to Quistis.

"Here's a starter deck. I would recommend practicing against either Sean
or myself before taking on the Garden. Neither of us will enforce the trade
rule while you're learning how to play," she shot Sean a look that said if he
did, she'd come to reclaim the cards herself.

Quistis held the cards carefully in her hands more interested in the
monster portraits than any sort of game she may try to play with them.

Sean cajoled them into going to the cafe he'd mentioned earlier. They
showed Quistis how to play while Sean ate a lunch large enough for someone
twice his size. Quistis nibbled on half a sandwich as her mind quickly picked
up on the mechanics of the game. She was well on her way towards developing a
strategy by the time they left the cafe.

They then went to the junk shop so that Sean could see if any
modifications could be made to his pistol, which would improve its performance.
He was missing a few of the raw materials needed to modify the weapon, so
nothing could be done in those regards. That started him talking about some
very nice pistols he'd seen in the Garden's armory.

"What's your weapon preference?" He asked Quistis, suddenly realizing that
she was unarmed as far as he could tell. That didn't mean much since she could
easily have a knife stored in a calf-sheath or be a hand-to-hand student.

"I haven't used any weapons," she admitted.

"Really?"

"She's only been here a week," Xu pointed out. "I suspect they'll start
her with some hand-to-hand training before too much longer."

"Don't let yourself get stuck with hand-to-hand," Sean recommended in an
undertone meant only for her, but was audible to Xu as well. "If I were you, I
would go for the guns as soon as they allowed me one."

Xu snorted. "Guns are for those without the physical stamina for a more
demanding art."

"You see, Xu is biased," Sean continued with the undertone to Quistis.
"She's one of those crazy people who likes to sweat. Not to say that she isn't
sexy when she's dripping with perspiration, but there are more entertaining way
to get into that conditi- OW!"

Sean reached for the foot Xu stomped on. "That's quite enough of *that*!"
She huffed angrily.

"You're such a prude!" He grumbled, favoring his squished foot.

"There's no reason to be saying such things to a *ten year old*," she
retorted.

Quistis giggled, thinking that they were the perfect match. They couldn't
bicker like they did and not have some feelings of friendship towards each
other. She found herself coming to like the strange guy. She wouldn't mind if
he came around more often.

"You know I love being abused by you," he wiggled his eyebrows at her,
undaunted by her rebuff.

"Go court a T-Rexaur if you want abuse," she sniffed indignantly.

"But I'm sure you'd look much better in lingerie than it would."

"SEAN!"

And so the rest of their afternoon went.

*****


Xu's prediction of upcoming hand-to-hand training had been right on the
mark. A Faculty member took them to the Garden's training room to begin
getting them into shape. It was several weeks before they learned more than a
few simple stances and punches. Most of their time was spent exercising and
changing the flabby child-flesh into honed muscle. It would take months -- if
not years -- for Quistis to match the physical conditioning of her roommate,
but she was well on her way.

Her roommate gladly worked out with her when their schedules allowed it.
Sean was correct in saying that Xu liked to sweat. She worked herself very
hard to keep in peak condition.

Sean didn't let himself become a stranger either. It didn't take him long
to figure out when Xu and/or Quistis would be training and would join one or
both of them. Quistis enjoyed it when all three of them trained together.

He had the advantage over Xu in raw strength, though the difference was
entirely due to his being a man and her a woman. Xu often pointed out that he
could be a lot stronger if he worked harder. He'd retort that she was a
masochist while Quistis giggled to herself as she performed her exercises.

They also took to eating their meals together. It was then that Quistis
could get information out of her two mentors that couldn't be found in any
textbook.

Sean waved them over to the table he'd claimed for them. They'd all spent
the afternoon in the training room and were still damp from the showers they'd
recently taken. His tray had more plates on it than Quistis would have thought
possible. Half of those were already cleared of the food they once held.

"Sorry that I didn't wait. I was so hungry!" He paused in his eating long
enough to say.

"You're a walking stomach. I'm surprised that you don't blimp out from
all you put down," Xu set her tray on the side of the square table opposite
him. Quistis took one of the sides between them.

"I'm a growing boy," he patted his belly, "and I worked hard today."

"There's a first time for everything," Xu conceded since he had put in a
solid training session this afternoon.

"That tongue of yours is going to get you into trouble one of these days,"
he wagged his spoon at her.

"You're right there with me," she pointed out, neatly cutting the boiled
potato on her plate into bite-sized chunks with her knife.

"Heh," was all he said since he couldn't argue that. He turned to Quistis
to start a new conversation. "You be careful not to pick up any of your
roommate's nasty habits such as eating lots of vegetables, sweating for the
wrong reasons, and doing all your homework, got that?"

Xu gave Sean an exasperated look and continued eating without comment.

"I always eat my vegetables, though I do like meat too," Quistis glanced
over to Xu before going on. "There's nothing wrong with sweating. I do that a
lot since I'm not in very good shape yet. Once I am, I'll be able to run
around the track without having to catch my breath!"

"And Quistis is more of a bookworm than I am," Xu added, smiling fondly at
her roommate.

"Gyah! I'm too late," he placed a hand over his heart in a dramatic
fashion.

"Troublemaker," Xu muttered.

"Would you have me any other way?" He asked sweetly.

They settled down and ate for several minutes before Quistis worked up the
nerve to ask a question of Sean. "Where are you from?"

"Deling City," he answered promptly.

"Deling City? Why aren't you training at Galbadia Garden then?" Xu's
curiosity was piqued by this irregularity. Galbadia Garden was a short train
ride away from Deling City, why not study there?

"Galbadia is too militaristic for my liking," he shrugged before taking
another bite of food.

"You're in the wrong profession if you're trying to get away from the
military," Xu commented thoughtfully.

"There's a difference and you know it."

"What's the difference?" Quistis piped up.

"You know that Deling City is the capital of Galbadia and that Galbadia is
a dictatorship headed by President Vinzer Deling?" Quistis nodded.

"The military controls the city, the Garden, and pretty much everything
else. They have a program at that Garden for unsuccessful SeeD candidates to
be integrated into the military officer corps. In practice, Galbadia Garden is
more of an academy for future Galbadian officers than it is a home for SeeD
members.

"I've known since I was little that I wanted to be in some sort of
profession that made a difference for the common man. It was natural for me to
see either SeeD or the Galbadian Army as my two choices. When it came down to
that, I would much rather be in SeeD. Not only is the pay scale better, but I
can live with fighting for a man with a conscience -- like the Headmaster --
instead of a cold, mechanistic organization like the military." He shrugged.
"Balamb Garden is where I can follow my dreams in a manner that I consider
honorable."

"I never realized there was so much behind your being here," Xu admitted
sheepishly.

"Thought I had the depth of a plate, didn't you?" A bark of laughter
followed. "I like it here. Balamb is my home and my heart will never leave it
-- even if my body must."

He grinned slyly. "So, tell us Xu, where do you hail from?"

Her head quirked to one side, then she returned his grin. "Balamb Garden.
Any home I had before this one matters not."

Sean glanced over to Quistis. "And you, sprout?"

"Balamb Garden is my home," she answered after a few moments of careful
thought. Sure, Matron was her family as well, but not in the way the people
here were becoming. Matron had many children to look after. She couldn't be a
true mother to them all. Not that anyone here was her mother either, but in
her heart, she considered Xu a sister. The idea made her smile on the inside,
but also feel insecure wondering if Xu would be all right with that?

Sean's grin was now broad enough to crack his face in two. He held up his
glass of water for a toast. "To our home, sweet home!"

"To Balamb Garden!" Both girls clinked their glasses with his and drank.

If the occupants of the nearby tables though that they were a bit weird
for cheering on Balamb, no one mentioned it. The fact that they all had a
special place in their hearts for this Garden allowed them to join the toast to
Balamb in silence.

*****


Quistis hit the Submit key on the study panel after giving her nightly
homework one more look through. She'd actually finished this assignment a
couple weeks ago, but wanted to double check her answers. That done, she
picked up the history book she'd borrowed from the Library and resumed reading
it.

Xu had some student evaluation tonight, thus she wouldn't be in until
late. That didn't bother her like it would have her first week here. She was
feeling comfortable with her surroundings now.

The academics half of Quistis' life was a cinch for her. She challenged
herself in that arena by raiding the Library for books on advanced topics. She
was consistently ranked at or near the top of her classes.

Her diligence scholastically hadn't gone unnoticed by the other students.
At first, she hadn't bothered to hide the fact that she was studying out of
higher level books. Once the teasing started, she was careful to do all her
reading in her room, where Xu enthusiastically supported her efforts to excel.
As long as she kept sending her homework in on time, no one important would
complain.

It was on the physical side of her training that she needed more work.
Even with Xu's help, she wasn't progressing at a rate that was fast enough for
her.

A tapping on the door broke her train of thought. Sean was standing on
the other side of it with a textbook in hand. "Hey, sprout, is Xu around by
any chance?"

"No, sir," she used the proper form of address that they had learned in
class today for speaking with an upper classman.

His eyebrows raised in surprised. "Since when have I been a 'sir' to
you?"

She blushed. "The Faculty told us that was how we were to address upper
classmen."

"Huh, I seem to remember being taught that too, Miss Trepe."

She was really blushing now, for he'd addressed her as one would a SeeD
cadet. The fact was she wasn't a cadet yet and probably won't be for a few
years still. They all knew she would join the SeeD program as soon as she was
eligible. It was just a matter of finishing the junior classman
pre-requisites.

He chuckled at her discomfort. "Let's not stand on ceremony unless we
have to, deal?"

"Deal," she agreed.

"I don't know if the Faculty mentioned this or not (probably not)," he
muttered. "But all students here are ranked as equals. The form of address
and privileges may vary, but we're all 'children' of the Headmaster. This even
applies to SeeDs when they are stationed here. A first year junior classmen is
to be treated with as much respect as a top-ranked 'A' SeeD."

Sean was right, the Faculty had neglected to mention that. Now that he
mentioned it, she seemed to remember reading something to that effect in the
Regulation Handbook.

He leaned against the doorframe as he thought. "No Xu, huh..? Guess I
can't ask her how to do this problem. Oh well... I don't suppose that you'd be
up for a game of cards? I could really use a study break."

"I've already finished my homework," she stepped aside to let him in.

She returned to her desk and neatly stacked her books onto a corner so
that they had room to play. He pulled the chair from Xu's desk over and was
drawing out his cards when he noticed the book on top of the stack. He looked
over at the book he'd set on Xu's desk. They were the same math book.

"Is that Xu's math book you have there?" He asked, pointing to the stack.

"Yes, it was Xu's book from her last class. I've been working problems
out of it after I finish my regular homework."

Sean somehow kept his jaw from cracking on the desk when it dropped down
in surprise. He readily admitted that math wasn't his strong suit, but to have
Quistis working out of the same book!

"You wouldn't happen to have done lesson three from chapter five yet?" He
asked.

Her cheeks flushed red. "I did it this weekend," she admitted meekly.

"Excellent! Could you show me how to do problem fifteen?" He reached his
long arm behind his back to retrieve his book. He opened it to the appropriate
page and set it in front of the girl.

"You aren't angry with me?"

"Angry? Heavens no! I've been stuck on this one for the last half-hour.
If you know how to do it, I'd be grateful if you showed me," he drew a pencil
from a belt pouch and prepared to take notes on some sheets of paper that were
slid between the pages of the book.

Quistis gave a small sigh of relief and showed him how to do the problem.
It really wasn't that hard once one had the trick of it figured out.

"By the mythical Cafeteria hot dogs, I am dense!" He proclaimed, slapping
his forehead. "You have a real knack for this," he complimented as he jotted
down a few more notes.

"I like math. It's logical; kind of like a puzzle."

"You're a rare one, sprout," he patted her on the head by way of thanks.
"How about we play that game of cards now?"

"Don't you want to finish your homework?"

He laughed. "I'm still in need of a break. This is the last thing I have
to do tonight, so I have plenty of time to finish it and play a game or two."

Quistis took her deck of cards out of a desk drawer. She still played
primarily with Sean and Xu, though a few students had challenged her with mixed
results. She had eleven cards now, she thought proudly. Neither of her
mentors played to trade cards, but they did agree to randomly selecting five
cards from the deck to play with to keep things interesting. That made the
outcome of the game not only a matter of skill, but a test of luck as well.

"How have your classes been going?" He asked as he won the dice toss, and
thus got to lay down the first card.

"They're going well. I'm scoring highly," she said with justifiable
pride. "Though I wish I was better at hand-to-hand combat."

He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Don't workout too
much, and I say that will all sincerity. You're going to start maturing here
soon. You'll see many changes as far as your body is concern in the upcoming
years, and, if I may be so bold, I don't think you'll be disappointed with the
results."

She stared intently at her cards as she tried to regain her composure. "I
want to be pretty like Xu."

"My dear girl, you don't need to worry about that. For one thing, true
beauty is a reflection of the spirit, and yours shines brightly. Secondly, you
have the natural makings of a beautiful woman. I don't doubt that you'll be
beating the boys off with a stick once they come to their senses and realize
girls don't have cooties," he smiled encouragingly.

That wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear, but his intentions were good.
"Thank you," she mumbled. She quickly put down a card since she'd been holding
up the game.

He placed a card before asking another question. "Is there anything else
on your mind?"

She shook her head, wondering if she'd already said too much. She didn't
want to bother him with her insignificant problems and insecurities. So far,
she was holding her own and would continue to do so.

They played a few more games, keeping the conversation to neutral topics,
until Sean noted that he really should get back to working on his math
assignment. He thanked her again for helping him out before leaving.

He walked past the room he shared with his roommate and down the main
corridor out of the Dormitory block. He continued to the elevator that was at
the center of the Garden complex and punched the button for the third floor.
Students weren't permitted on that level without the Headmaster's permission,
but he was expected.

He saluted upon entering the Headmaster's office. Xu was already seated
across from Cid, who was at his desk looking over some printouts. He motioned
for Sean to sit on the chair next to Xu before giving his report.

He slid a few pages of notes across the desk to the Headmaster. "There's
no doubt about it, Quistis is definitely at an advanced level in math. I
didn't believed you when you told me that she was studying out of your old
book, Xu," he shook his head. "Those are the notes I took when I asked her to
help me with a problem from chapter five."

"Anything else?" Cid glanced up from the papers before him.

"Besides her becoming a demon at Triple Triad?" Sean thought carefully on
how to best express something he only sensed. "I'm not sure how solid this is,
but I get the feeling that she's terribly insecure. She asked me if I was
angry with her when I asked her to show me how to do the problem I noted."

He turned to address Xu directly. "And she really looks up to you. Says
she wants to be pretty like Xu is."

Xu shook her head while Cid chuckled.

"I assured her that the beauty she sought would be forthcoming with age.
With every hormone in my body, that much I'm sure of," he grinned impishly.

Xu refrained from making any scathing comments in the presence of the
Headmaster, though she was sorely tempted. Sean seemingly realized that she
was behaving herself and winked at her when Cid looked back down at the papers
on his desk.

"Yes, indeed," he looked up again. "It's not unusual for someone her age
to be insecure. As long as she gains confidence as she grows things will turn
out fine.

"You both have been very informative regarding this student's evaluation.
I remind you that all matters discussed here tonight are to not be repeated.
Your reports combined with those of the Faculty have confirmed that we aren't
challenging young Quistis enough. Adjustments will be made that'll hopefully
better test her skills. I trust that both of you will help smooth the way if
any problems present themselves."

"Of course, Headmaster." "Yes, Headmaster," were the responses he
received.

"Thank you both, dismissed."

They rode together in the elevator to the ground level when Sean spoke.
"I think things are about to get interesting," he combed his fingers through
his hair, then shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.

"On this, I agree with you..." Xu reflected thoughtfully. "Bet you're
regretting chasing me around now that the Headmaster has you pulled into his
web."

"My dear Xu, I will *never* regret chasing you," he said with all
sincerity.

Xu felt herself begin to blush.

"Especially if it was from behind," he added, spoiling the mood.

"Pervert," she stepped off the elevator and headed back to the dorms.

He followed on her heels, feigning hurt. "I speak with my heart!"

"And something else," she amended.

"That isn't my heart?" He asked in a confused tone.

"Is this how you swoon the ladies?"

He shook his head. "It's all for you!"

Xu pinched the bridge of her nose. He was too much sometimes! Perhaps if
he was less aggressive in his pursuit... No, she was a SeeD cadet, not a prom
queen. At least he was mostly harmless.

*****


Quistis' new schedule was slid under the door the next morning. She
puzzled over it for several minutes before asking Xu what it was.

"You know what a schedule looks like," Xu said while tweaking her bow
straight.

"Yes, but all except one of my classes have changed," she showed the paper
to her roommate.

"Hum... So they have. Guess whoever makes the schedules caught wind that
you weren't challenged enough with your current classes," she shrugged.

"Are student's class schedules changed often?" She knew that Xu changing
classes was unusual because she jumped a grade level entirely. Quistis'
homeroom remained the same, but she was moved to higher level classes in every
other subject.

"All the time, especially when you're younger and they're still trying to
figure out what your skill level is. You learn to just roll with it," she made
a waving motion with her hands. "If anything, this new schedule allows us more
time in the training room if you want?"

Quistis looked over it again and saw that Xu was right about being able to
fit more training in. On the other hand, Sean said not to overdo it.
"Maybe..." she said finally.

"Either way, you need to get ready," Xu prompted. "You now have class in
20 minutes instead of in an hour and a half. If you don't hurry, you won't
have time for breakfast."

Quistis did have time to grab a roll on her way to her first class. Upon
entering the classroom, the first thing she noticed was that everyone who was
standing around was Xu's age. The second thing she noticed was that all of
them had the embroidered patch on their sleeves that indicated they were SeeD
cadets -- meaning that she was the only junior classman in the room.

She sat at an unclaimed study panel in the back. None of the other
students sat down next to her. She was beginning to feel rejected when a
familiar face entered.

"Hey!" Sean waved, coming back to sit next to her. "What are you doing
here?"

"This is my new class," she showed him her schedule. He gave a low
whistle as he looked over it.

"If it makes you feel any better, we share another class besides this one.
I'm also in the military tactics class right before lunch break."

Hearing that *did* make her feel better. It meant a familiar face and a
study partner.

"Attention!" The Faculty member called as it entered the room. They all
stood and saluted, including Quistis. She wasn't required to do so, but it
would look odd to be the only one not saluting, in her opinion.

It shuffled to its desk before releasing them to sit down. It then looked
through some papers it'd brought with it. "We have a new student joining us.
Student Quistis Trepe stand up."

She did so. Now the entire class knew for certain that a junior classmen
was among their ranks. She returned to her seat when it motioned for her to do
so. If she could have turned into a puddle of goo and slinked under her desk,
she would have done so.

She glanced over at Sean. His attention was completely focused on the
lecture it began giving. She locked her mind onto that and discovered that she
was a few lessons ahead of the class. Maybe this won't be so bad.

The Faculty was a good lecturer, explaining the concepts presented in a
variety of ways so that all of its students understood. It demonstrated a new
way to do the problems that wasn't in the book. That was the mark of a good
teacher, in her opinion. When they didn't just feed you the book, but truly
offered new insights regarding the material.

The class went faster than she thought it had. By the end, she was
furiously taking down notes that she would copy over more neatly tonight. It
had been a stimulating class, and she was glad for the change of pace. She
disliked being bored. Even more than that, she disliked knowing that she was
bored. That's why she challenged herself; to sharpen the dull edge that was
everyday school life.

Sean left, promising to catch up with her again when they met for military
tactics. She had her homeroom to go to, which used to be her first class of
the day.

They all stood as their teacher glided in, not saluting as SeeD cadets
were required to. By now, Quistis had come to the conclusion that her homeroom
was nothing more then a sort of 'welcoming' class to help them get acquainted
with the Garden and its facilities. She also believed that the Faculty member
that taught this class had a sense of humor, despite what people told her about
the Shumi lacking one. It was too accepting of the off questions to be
completely humorless.

"Students are keeping up with their homework?" It asked, looking around
the room. She doubted anyone would have answered 'no' regardless of what the
case may be. "Any questions for today?"

Quistis raised her hand. It acknowledged her. She stood up as she asked
her question. "Why are all the Shumi here called 'Faculty'? Don't you have
given names?"

A gasp ran through the class as she retook her seat. Her classmates
waited for the axe to fall, but she was confident that it wouldn't punish her
for her impudence.

It rustled its robes, then stood beside her desk. "You are a curious one,
Student Quistis Trepe. Shumi do not have given names as humans use them. Our
function is our title and what we are referred to as. I am Faculty. If
Student Quistis Trepe were Shumi, she would be Student. Understand?"

"I understand. Thank you, Faculty," she answered respectfully.

"Any other questions?"

The class was too stunned by her receiving an answer to ask any more. It
took their silence as a 'no' and launched into the day's lesson. All through
class students kept shooting glances at her like she was suddenly going to be
struck down or something. She shook it off. There was nothing wrong with an
honest question.

After homeroom, she went to tactics. Sean was already there and had a
seat saved for her.

"I think you'll like this class. It's very logical," he winked at her.

He was right. It was a subject she could get into because it stretched
her mind to think creatively while remembering the lessons of the past.

When she finished her homework later that night, she was happy because she
didn't have as much free time before bed as usual.

*****


"I dun like it, I tell ya! She's makin' us all look bad," a cadet
complained to his tablemates.

"What are you going on about now, Lee?" Sean stopped eating his pastrami
sandwich to ask fairly certain he already knew the answer.

"Never you mind," he growled.

One of their companions, a female cadet, glared at Lee and then answered
Sean. "He's upset about that Trepe girl. It was okay when she was top of her
own class, but she's quickly gaining ground on the SeeD cadets in the upper
division courses."

"Dun tell him that, he's in cahoots with her and Xu."

Sean laughed. "You're feeling threatened by a junior classman? That's
rich!"

"Shut yer mouth! This ain't a laughin' matter. We gots to do something
about her o' we'all look bad," he pound his heavy fist on the table. He was
one of the larger cadets at Balamb Garden, hovering near the seven-foot mark.

"Studying harder is one solution," Sean suggested.

"Studyin' does no good if she's blowin' the curve!" Lee thumped his fist
on the table again.

"Why should you even need a curve? If you put in as much time studying as
she does, you'd be ranked second and still get the grades," he said between
bites. "Besides, we're all aiming for the same goal here -- to be SeeDs.
Spend less time worrying about what she's doing and more on your own efforts."

"Ya dun understand. They only graduate so many SeeDs y'know? If she
keeps goin', she'll take one ah our slots and one ah us won't graduate," he
leaned closer to Sean. "How y'd like to be bumped from bein' a SeeD by her?"

Sean swallowed, then shrugged. "If she's better qualified than I am, more
power to her."

"Bah!" Every plate on the table jumped as both hands came down this time.
"Yer just sayin' that because yer from Galbadia. They'll take ya in their
military if ya don't make it as a SeeD."

He sighed, commenting to himself that he wouldn't join the Galbadian Army
if it were the only military establishment on the planet. "So, what are you
going to do about it?"

"Ha! Like I'd tell you! Y'll go runnin' to the Headmaster and squeal
like a pig, y'will," he favored Sean with a menacing smile. It sent a chill
down his spine to think of it being directed against him. He did shiver when
he thought of the anger behind it being used against Quistis.

"He doesn't need to," a very authoritative voice said from behind Lee.
The cadets all stood and saluted the Headmaster, who had a frighteningly calm
look on his face.

"I trust that you have the time to come with me to my office to discuss
your dislike of *Miss* Trepe, Mister Lee," he emphasized the title.

"O- o' course, Headmaster." Their size difference would have been comical
in any other context. At the moment, Lee was about three inches tall compared
to the Headmaster and the strong aura of displeasure he was emitting.

Cid motioned for a waiting Faculty member to escort the cadet to his
office. Once he was out of the Cafeteria, he spoke again in a voice loud
enough so that all could hear him. His message was abundantly clear.

"I would remind all of you that disloyalty towards your fellow students is
equivalent to insubordination of myself, a SeeD, or a Faculty member. Those at
Balamb Garden are a team, and even more so, a *family*. You would not speak
poorly of your sister. I will not tolerate my students behaving in such a
contemptuous manner," he glared around the room, careful to catch every
student's eyes before leaving.

"God, I don't think I've ever seen the Headmaster so angry," the female
cadet sitting next to Sean whispered. The room was subdued with resuming
conversations sparse.

"Lee was out of line," he shook himself mentally and returned to eating.
Would he have believed that so firmly if Quistis wasn't involved? There would
always be some students jealous of those who achieved great things. It was a
demon she will face her entire life, he suspected.

Should he even mention this to her? Rumors spread like wildfire around
this place and the Headmaster had made no efforts to keep this quiet. In fact,
scolding the students like he did would guarantee the opposite effect. He
decided to take his cue from the Headmaster. He'd make sure that *everyone*
knew how angry Cid was to discover a cadet bad mouthing a junior classman.

It came as no surprise to Sean when a Faculty member got him from his
afternoon group session to speak with Cid. The Headmaster wanted his account
of the conversation since he'd heard only the end of it. Sean repeated what
was said to the best of his recollection and without using Lee's heavy accent.
'Where did they pick him up from, a barn?' He asked himself silently as he
recalled Lee's truly sloppy speech patterns.

"Yes, that was the gist of what others reported as well," he typed a few
more notes into his terminal. "Thank you, dismissed."

"Headmaster?" He remained standing before Cid's desk.

"Yes, Sean?"

"May I ask how you wish for me to proceed?" He kept his eyes locked
forward, not allowing the nerves he felt to be shown in his expression.

"In what regards?" Cid was being obtuse and they both knew it, but he
needed to say this.

"It is my opinion that the sentiments expressed by Mister Lee are not an
isolated thing. I wonder if the Headmaster has any specific orders for me in
regards to the protection of Miss Trepe."

"Indeed..." Cid's eyes gleamed with amusement as he considered the
situation. "Xu would be touched if she knew you cared so," he teased lightly.

Sean wasn't prepared for that remark as a small smile creased his stoic
expression.

"I believe that the arrangements as they are now should be adequate. Xu
has done a fine job of intimidating any troublemakers through sheer force of
will -- that or converting them to the cause," Sean's expression quirked again
at the laughter in Cid's eyes. "You have a knack for finding those who would
cause trouble. Use your best judgement should you find yourself in another
situation."

"Yes, Headmaster. May I ask what is to become of Mister Lee?"

Cid's expression creased into a frown. "I dislike releasing students on
principle, so I've decided to transfer him to Trabia Garden. We recently set
up an exchange program with them. I hate to use the system to get rid of our
troublemakers, but he does have the talent to be a SeeD member. I don't
believe that he would be a positively contributing member of our family if he
remained at Balamb."

Sean didn't respond since his opinion wasn't asked for regarding the
matter. He saluted once more, then went to the elevator. He had some time to
kill before Xu would likely be in the training room, so he played a couple
games of Triple Triad with one of the junior classman who was running about.

The training room could be entered via a side entrance or the locker
rooms. He skipped the locker rooms for the time being to see if Xu was even
here yet. He was pretty sure that she would be, but things came up from time
to time. She wasn't in the weight room or at any of the workout machines.
That led him to check the sparring area next. He found her there with
Headmaster Cid.

She was dressed in her usual workout garb: a sports bra with a sleeveless
turtleneck over it, shorts, and her short hair pulled back in a tail that
inevitability fell free. Today's lesson was apparently weapon work because her
sai were drawn and flashing from the speed she was wielding them with. Cid
watched her from the safety of the sidelines, his arms crossed and a scowl
marring his features.

Xu finished the exercise, panting some from her efforts. Sweat traced
down the sides of her face and made her loose shirt cling to her back. The
Headmaster shook his head with disapproval.

"You slowed down after the second jab coming off of the twist. Repeat the
exercise faster this time!"

She took a deep breath and settled back into her ready stance. Suddenly,
fury exploded as Xu lashed out at an imagined target. Anything that was the
focus of her attack would have surely been killed within the first few strikes,
in his opinion. Sean dragged his eyes away from the marvelous display Xu was
putting on to see how the Headmaster was taking it. His expression hadn't
changed.

"What's wrong Xu? We both know that you're faster than this. Step up the
pace!"

She grunted as she immediately launched into the exercise again without
pausing. Even Sean's inexpert eye could tell that she was indeed faster this
time. It was amazing.

He caught himself before he stepped further into the room for a better
view. This was something that shouldn't be interrupted by an unexpected
visitor. He made himself as small against the doorframe as he could.

The Headmaster was pushing Xu so hard! He never rode Sean like this, and
he wasn't nearly the fighter Xu was. Could it be because Cid expected greater
things from those more capable of delivering them? Sean held no illusions that
his career in SeeD would be unremarkable and as completely average as they
came. He simply didn't have the drive to change the world like Xu did.

He rested his head against the doorframe as he watched Xu practice. She
really was a lovely woman. Her dedication to her cause made her spirit shine
brightly and her physical looks were nothing to scoff at either. The years of
training had given her a strong, athletic build and honed a woman's curves into
something breathtaking.

He liked her. He admired her. And a very small part of him was willing
to admit that he loved her...

*****


Any troublemakers that remained quickly buried themselves in a hole after
Lee was transferred to Trabia Garden. His transfer was seen as an exile by
some. A justifiable fear considering that Trabia was near the northern pole
and *very* cold most of the year. Trabia did have a reputation for producing
some very fine SeeDs. That's because there's nothing else to do there but
study. With only one tiny village nearby and roaming monsters that were a
challenge for even graduated SeeDs, few distractions present themselves.