Title: Haunted Song
Fandom: Final Fantasy VIII
Character: Quistis Trepe
Theme: #23, Experience
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: Quistis doesn't remember the song but it haunts her anyway. In-game. (FH, Garden Festival.) Quistis, Irvine main. 2100 words

Haunted Song

"You're kidding. Oh, no way. You can count me out. I have no musical aptitude."

The moon was high over Fisherman's Horizon, bathing the solar panels and the Garden Festival's make-shift stage in the same cool, blue tones that it cast on the dark seas that surrounded the small community. The stage lights that had illuminated the musicians during their performance had long since been turned off -- Selphie had made certain of that before she'd disappeared with Irvine, reminding her other friends to be sure to have a good time before the night was over.

Zell had promptly headed back to Garden, ostensibly for sleep but Quistis knew him better than that. She knew that he was going to make a late-night cafeteria run before he'd head back to his dorms, where he'd probably do anything but sleep, at least for a while. There was something about performing on-stage that got the adrenaline flowing; it wasn't exactly like the surge one got from battling but it was similar enough that Quistis knew that they were all probably too keyed-up to sleep anytime soon.

As for Squall and Rinoa...Quistis hadn't seen them since the concert had begun but judging by the knowing way that Selphie had giggled when she'd asked after them, she decided that maybe it was better if she didn't know.

So, as it had often happened, Quistis Trepe found herself alone.

At this late hour, few people were still out and about in FH, fewer still were loitering around the darkened stage where the instruments still sat, positioned strategically about the stage. However, something had been bothering Quistis all day -- ever since she'd first sat down at the piano and Selphie had instructed her to play. Although she'd begged off from the whole concert experience, she'd felt relieved when she had managed to keep up with everyone else once they'd started practicing. She'd never played an instrument before and she'd always avoided them like the plague, figuring that there was no need to struggle against nature. While Quistis was confident in the abilities she had, she knew that music was not one of them.

Still, it had felt nice to play the piano, help produce that lovely ballad by moving her fingers over the keys. It had felt...almost like a memory, or deja vu, she'd realized, like something she might have done once but didn't quite remember.

It was that doubt, that wisp of something more, that brought her back to the deserted stage in the middle of an empty city.

With only the cool light from the heavy moon above, Quistis quietly took her former place at the piano, sliding onto the polished bench with a studied ease of movement that came from years of physical training. The breeze rolling off the ocean had been warm and balmy in the early evening but had now turned cool so Quistis didn't remove her gloves before she allowed her fingers to lightly ghost over the piano keys, trying to recapture that strange double-vision feeling she'd had all afternoon at practice. Her touches on the keys weren't planned, but intuitive, never heavy enough to coax sounds from the piano. There was only the sounds of the oceans and the distant sound of someone's wind chimes to act as a backdrop for Quistis's contemplation.

Hands still hovering over the ebony and ivory, Quistis closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, as if in meditation. She let her mind wander, her fingers still sliding silently over the smooth keys, an echo of her actions from the concert.

There, on the edge of her mind, something whispered, that deja-vu feeling that had bothered her all day. She didn't try to force it this time, as she had before; instead, she continued to drift, hoping whatever it was that was niggling at her subconscious would rear into her conscious mind on its own.

And, just like that, it was there -- a thread of something she could remember even though it felt distant and stale, as if someone had just dropped it into a space where the memory didn't fit. But now she could recall the outlines of it...

...she saw a sun-drenched room, hung with fine tapestries, thought of wine-colored velvet and lace-edged scarves but then it was a cool, stone room -- a little dilapidated but neat and clean -- and the sweet salt tang of the ocean on the air. And through all the images and ghost-memories, there was a song in her mind, just one, the same -- at first tinny and tinkering as if it were played on an old music box, then played in the rich but halting tones of a piano, cautiously as if the musician wasn't quite sure of the notes. Suddenly black stains on lined music sheets swam through her mind's eye and she could read them, the notes and pauses that corresponded to the song in her head.

It took her a moment or two to realize that her fingers were slowly stroking at the piano keys and she was giving life to the wispy music that had haunted her, her hands sure and masterful as they flew across the keys. Quistis smiled, eyes still half closed, marveling at her sudden ability. The song was growing stronger in her memories and words were coming to her lips and while she was a better pianist than she was a singer, she hummed and whispered her way through the chorus before her voice faded so that only the clear-bell sounds of the piano filled the air and the empty makeshift auditorium.

Finally she reached the end, although she wasn't quite sure how she knew it. Her fingers slowed, stilled as she opened her eyes and smiled into the darkness, pleased and shy and just a little incredulous. She was glad that that haunted feeling had left her, to be replaced by the effervescence of the music, of the moonlight, of the quiet glow of accomplishment that she'd never felt before, at least artistically.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the loud, unexpected sounds of someone clapping.

Quistis twisted sharply to look toward the direction of the sound to see Irvine Kinneas, unmistakable in his cowboy hat and long jacket, emerging from the shadows that veiled the back of the stage set-up.

"And here I thought you had no musical aptitude," he said as he approached her, grinning at her with an odd little smile. "I think you were holdin' out on us, Miz Trepe."

"How long have you been there?" she wanted to know, a bit pink at the idea of someone listening to her play and sing.

"Long enough to hear you're pretty good," he told her as he leaned over the piano top, propping himself up on folded arms.

"Thank you," she told him stiffly, still embarrassed. There was something about the twinkle in his eyes that told her that he'd heard her attempts at singing. She looked at him pointedly. "I thought you were out with Selphie, 'enjoying the evening breezes.' I believe that's what you said you were planning to do."

Irvine shrugged, his chestnut ponytail slithering over his shoulder. "We did and now we're done. Selphie, she's got some ideas about proper and I'm just gentleman enough to let her keep them."

Quistis shook her head, just a little amused. While she still didn't know Irvine well, he'd grown on her during their time together on the Garden, waiting for the runaway Centra shelter to stop drifting over the water. For starters, she'd learned that he was a terrible card player, a shameless flirt and absolutely besotted with Selphie. "I'm sure you've been the perfect gentleman," she told him dryly.

"You said it, Quistis, not me," he told her teasingly. Then he paused, tilting his hat up with one gloved hand to use to almost point at the piano. "You play pretty good. I mean it."

His smile was less jovial and more fragile as he spoke but Quistis didn't understand that at all. She shrugged elegantly in response to his question, lightly tapping a key so that the note quietly rang through the air around them. I can't even remember where I learned it," she told him. "I can't really remember learning to play either. I just..." she trailed off, pausing. "It's almost like a dream."

"Maybe it was just a real long time ago and you forgot," Irvine pointed out, his smooth voice strangely serious. "Maybe it's slipped your mind."

She thought about how strange the almost-memories had felt, like they'd been stuck into her mind out of sequence. But, really...how could she not remember? Quistis scoffed. "I think I'd remember something as labor-intensive as learning to play the piano, Irvine."

It was like a light went out in his face, she noticed, watching as he took a moment before answering. "You'd be surprised at what a person can forget, Quistis. Under the right circumstances."

His smile was so sad -- and so incongruous with what she knew of Irvine Kinneas -- that Quistis frowned. "You're very maudlin tonight, you know. Selphie must have turned you down rather harshly to make you so unhappy," she told him.

Irvine's expression lightened a fraction. "That's it," he nodded, reaching out to awkwardly pat her on her hand, until the combined weight of his hand on hers pressed into the keys and created a cacophony of sound that made them both wince.

"Are you sure you're alright, Irvine?"

He nodded again, his face obscured by his hat for moment. When she could see him again, the smile was there, only a little smile but also very gentle. "That song you were playing," he began, gesturing toward her hands where they lay against the keys. "It's a nice tune. I've always liked it."

"Really? You've heard it before?" she asked him.

"All my life," he explained. "It reminds of some people I once knew. One girl in particular."

She snorted. "Another one of your adoring 'little gals,' I bet," she teased.

"You couldn't be more wrong," he assured her, smiling at her with level of fondness she'd rarely seen him show anyone other than Selphie. Usually, something like would have made her uncomfortable and it probably would have with some other guy. But there was something about Irvine, Quistis was quickly learning, that might have made her annoyed or frustrated or amused but never did she feel anything but comfortable in his presence.

"She...she was family to me. Like a sister, I guess you could say. Cute kid, though," he said, smiling. "Long blond hair she never wanted to brush, always had sand and bits of seaweed in it from playin' on the beach. Feisty, but sweet." Irvine leaned in a little closer and, instinctively, so did Quistis. He was pantomiming the shape of something square that was about as big as his palm. "She had this old tin music box -- about yea big -- that she got for her birthday one year. She played that thing all the time. I can't hear it without thinking about her, even now and that was back when we were little kids."

"And it played that song," Quistis guessed.

"You got it, Quistis." Irvine said.

She thought about her recollection of the song, that tinny music-box version she'd heard in her head and wondered if she'd ever had a music box like the one that Irvine's little friend had had. "What's she like now?"

Irvine didn't answer immediately but his dark, laughing eyes lingered over her face for a minute, taking in every moonlit detail of it before he spoke again. "Well, she grew up to be a beautiful, smart and saucy lady, just like I always thought she would. I...I'd like to see her sometime -- get a chance to really talk to her about old times."

"Maybe you can, when this is all over," Quistis told him sympathetically.

Irvine's smile was looking a little fragile again and she felt her heart clutch for him and how much he seemed to miss his family.

"Maybe I will," he agreed before clearing his throat and eyeing the polished bench she sat on. "Mind if I join you?"

"You play?"

"Enough," he answered as she slid over and he sank down next to her. He was grinning devilishly. "I bet we can make beautiful music together."

Their laughter was the most beautiful music of all.

the end.

Author's notes: This was written for the LJ community, 30 fantasies. I'll have to write 29 more Quistis-themed stories before I'm finished. Please review.