Quistis was hot, sweaty, dirty and very, very tired.
But she had no intention of admitting it to anyone.
Instead, she kept her mouth closed and dutifully followed her two team-mates and their SeeD leader as they continued their long hike up one of the less challenging slopes of the Monterosa Plateau. The plateau all but encircled Galbadia Garden, only leaving one side of the massive complex open to face out toward the distant sea. As they worked their way up another wall of rocky terrain, Quistis glanced back over her shoulder, sending a secret, longing glance toward the cool blue of the ocean and the shining red shape of the Garden so very far below them.
Considering the importance of this particular training mission, Quistis didn't dare open her mouth to complain. She didn't know if the SeeD who was leading her and the other two junior classmen could actually deduct points from her for complaining but she didn't want to risk it. It was better to keep quiet, help finish their mission and pass the exam so that she could start on her training to be a real SeeD.
That was why this mission was so important -- it was the first real mission that cadets had to pass before they could start on the actual training to be a SeeD. When the cadets were twelve years old, they were allowed their first chance at the pre-SeeD field exam and everyone knew how important it was to pass. If a cadet didn't pass, that cadet couldn't do all sorts of things...start weapons training, take advanced courses, be eligible for the real SeeD exam...
Quistis quickened her pace, determined to stay on her team-mates' heels. She wasn't going to prove them right by being the reason their team didn't complete their tasks. She didn't care what they said about her being a girl, and that she had come there from Dollet and that she...
"Are we almost there?" asked Donal, one of her team-mates. Quistis hid her grin that he was one who broke and asked the petulant question first.
"Yes," the other cadet -- Hale -- snapped testily. "We've only got one item left. So suck it up and keep going."
At that pronouncement, their SeeD facilitator shot a Hale a strange look and Quistis wondered if that was going to have some bearing on his score. In fact, she couldn't help wondering what small things would matter in the end. Did it matter that she had taken the last position in the single-file line? Did it matter that she didn't keep checking her map? She wasn't checking because she'd already memorized it but what if the SeeD thought she was just being lazy? All of these little questions weighed on her mind and Quistis couldn't remember the last time she'd been so nervous.
Just when Quistis thought she couldn't walk another meter, Hale called halt on their trek and Quistis thankfully stopped moving. Hale was holding the map out, frowning at it.
Donal noticed. "What's wrong?" he asked, peering over his shoulder.
"Huh? Nothing," Hale replied, then sent an apprehensive look toward the SeeD. While the SeeD was there to grade their performance as well as protect them from things they couldn't handle, he wasn't allowed to aid them in any way.
And -- to Quistis, at least -- it was obvious that Hale thought they needed help.
She sighed and peered over his other shoulder. He was holding the map along with the last clue they'd gotten -- the clue that would lead to their final task. "Why have we stopped?" she asked.
"Trying to figure out where to go next," he hissed quietly, so that the SeeD wouldn't hear. "I thought that it meant to head toward the highest point as the intersection..."
Quistis was looking at the clue -- a few rhyming words that talked about the connection between air, earth and water. "Obviously, it isn't because we're here and there's -- nothing."
"I noticed." He glared at Quistis.
She returned the look, though she was careful to turn away from the SeeD as she did so. "I told you that I didn't think that was right," she pointed out. While she hated to say 'I told you so,' it was coming. They'd wasted an hour of their time limit trekking the wrong way after she'd told him several times that he was wrong. But, as the leader, Hale made the final decision and Quistis had to follow it.
That didn't mean she was happy about it.
"Yeah, Trepe, I remember;" Hale groused, still shooting her deadly looks whenever he thought he could get away with it. "Why don't you be helpful for a minute and not snooty, huh?"
"What do you want me to do?" she asked.
He jiggled the map at her. "Why don't you show me where you think we need to go? We might as well try it before we all fail miserably anyway."
Quistis pointed to the same place she'd indicated an hour ago -- before their detour at Hale's order. "I told you, we're supposed to be here. There's a cave there and ---"
Hale stuffed his map back into his pocket. "Let's just go, okay? I don't want to hear anything about it." Turning toward the area where the SeeD and Donal -- who had abandoned the discussion as soon as Quistis had started speaking -- were resting, he called out, "We're ready to move, let's go!"
Donal and their SeeD facilitator had barely even crossed the meters that separated them from Quistis and Hale when a strange echoing sound reverberated through the air. Quistis twisted toward the noise so quickly that her long braid whipped around to hit her in the face. When she saw the cause of the noise, her eyes widened in shock.
"Move!" ordered the SeeD, his voice suddenly much more commanding and threatening than his kind, lazy-voweled words had been that morning when he'd offered them all encouragement before the pre-SeeD exam had begun.
All three junior classmen stared in shock at the huge monster that had suddenly appeared before them, even as the SeeD ordered them to take up defensive positions. It was another reason that the SeeD was with them: the junior classmen hadn't taken anything beyond basic defense courses and they'd had no weapons training, as per Garden rules. Their foray into the unprotected lands surrounding G-Garden had meant that they needed a SeeD to take care of any monsters that crossed their paths. They'd been lucky -- until now.
Finally, Quistis's reflexes kicked in and she obeyed the command, hurtling herself out of the monster's path as she took refuge behind some large rocks. She watched with wide, fearful eyes as the SeeD stepped up to face the monster, calm and collected and fierce-looking. Quistis slowly swept her eyes from the SeeD over to the monster that he was facing.
She recognized it, of course; she'd had the Garden database of monsters nearly memorized before she'd been there six months. But she'd never seen one before -- not up close, like this.
Her mind easily accessed the knowledge: it was a Belhelmel, a strange flying monster that looked to be made of sawblades, gears and frightful Kabuki masks. She knew what it could do -- attack physically, cast Thunder magic and status-altering spells. She knew that its strange two-faced visage could dictate which strategy it would use in battle. She knew its basic statistics, as well, all the way down to gains it made in strength and life when it was a higher-level monster.
But even though she knew it all, she didn't really know how to fight it.
That was what frightened her so much.
The SeeD attacked the Belhelmel and it recoiled, its sides spinning madly as if to indicate its ire. It retaliated but the SeeD was quicker, evading the hit when the ease of long practice.
That only seemed to make the monster angrier. It spun madly before shooting off a strange beam of magic, the beam wildly bouncing as the Belhelmel spun.
Quistis knew she was safely out of the beam's range but she quickly realized that Hale wasn't so lucky. She shot up to her feet as the beam swerved toward him. "Hale!"
He reacted to Quistis's warning but not quickly enough -- the Belhelmel's beam grazed him and he flew backward, dazed. He might have escaped injury if it hadn't been followed by a round blade flying off the creature, its momentum hurtling itself toward Hale. When the saw blade buried itself in the flesh just above his knee, Hale howled, falling to the ground in agony as blood poured from the wound. Quistis bit back a gasp of horror while Donal moved himself into a more secure position, terror on his face.
Grim-faced, the SeeD swiftly moved between the monster and the injured junior cadet, intercepting any more attacks that the Belhelmel might have launched in Hale's direction.
Quistis scrambled across the terrain as quickly as she could without getting injured herself. She collapsed at her injured team-mate's side, frantically pulling at her pack to get access to the first-aid supplies they all carried with them.
Hale was still moaning, his eyes glazed and feverish with pain.
"Calm down, it's alright," Quistis murmured, trying to be soothing as she finally found the potion and the bandages she'd been searching for. She ripped open the paper packaging on the bandage and broke the seal that held the potion in its bottle, soaking the bandage in the liquid as she eyed the injury warily. She'd never be able to tend it without pulling the blade out first.
"This is probably going to hurt," she told him tightly, "but I have to do it." Not waiting for a response, Quistis reached out and gingerly grabbed onto the protruding edge of the blade and slowly began to pull it from Hale's flesh.
She didn't get very far; suddenly there was a strange burning in her hand -- the one touching the blade -- and it quickly spread up from her fingers to her arm and her chest. It made her light-headed and feverish herself; so much so that she almost doubted what she saw when she looked down at her burning hand. There was a bluish-colored light -- magic, her mind supplied -- wrapping around her, spiraling up the path the burning feeling had, rippling across her flesh. The magic seemed to cool the burn but it only exasperated her light-headedness. She swayed, suddenly feeling drunk and sluggish.
She dimly registered that she'd been struck in the back by one of the Belhelmel's stray counter lasers; she also dimly knew that Donal was calling out to her, as was the SeeD. Quistis swayed again -- she felt so strange and she was burning again -- but swerved around, looking past Donal, past the SeeD, until her eyes focused on the monster.
It swelled up from somewhere deep within her but suddenly Quistis was wishing the Belhelmel dead with all her might and something surged through her, hot and cold and bitter, and she couldn't control anything --- not herself, not the flash of whatever-it-was, not her own limbs.
The next thing she knew was more screaming coming from somewhere and pain -- everything went white, then black and finally, Quistis fell into blessed darkness.
When the darkness lifted to something grayer and thinner, Quistis slowly became aware of her surroundings. The rough cotton, the smell of antiseptic -- she knew instantly that she was in the Garden's infirmary. She was a little less clear on how she'd ended up there but she was very clear on the fact that she needed to be -- everything hurt, especially her eyes. They were scratchy, dry, raw -- like her eyelids were made of sandpaper or like someone had thrown vitriol into her face. She hoped neither scenario was close to the truth.
Quistis was just about to sit up and pull the loose gauze away from her eyes when the sounds of adult voices reached her ears -- heavy footsteps and the increasing volume of their conversation told her that they were moving closer to her. She decided to wait them out and start struggling to sit up once they'd passed her by.
She was surprised when they stopped near her infirmary cot; she was even more surprised when she recognized two of the speakers: one was Professor Daigo, her homeroom teacher, and the other Headmaster Martine. The third voice belonged to a woman that Quistis didn't know.
She lay still in bed, feigning sleep as the three adults continued to speak.
"What if...she's a sorceress?" Professor Daigo asked, fear creeping into his voice. Quistis wondered who they were talking about.
"That would make this a very delicate situation," Martine added.
"I doubt she's a sorceress," the woman announced, her impatience for the two men plain in her voice. "If she was, it would have manifested itself much earlier than this."
"Then what happened? What does it mean?" Martine demanded to know. "She performed magic without any of the paraphernalia needed -- if she's not a sorceress, I don't know what to call her!"
"I don't understand it at all," Daigo chimed in.
The woman made a noise in her throat that made Quistis think that she was even more disgusted with the men than she had been a moment before. "Have either of you read any of Dr. Odine's works on magic? He discusses both paramagic and innate human magical abilities."
"I'm sorry to say I haven't," Martine told her, a little disgust creeping into his voice. "We don't teach that kind of thing here. We rely on real military skill, not -- some kind of foolish pseudo-science."
"Well, it's a good thing that I'm visiting then," the woman returned dryly. "You need someone here who has."
"You're familiar with Odine's work?" Daigo asked, disbelievingly.
"As a matter of fact," the woman told him. "I am. I know exactly what's going on here."
"What?" Marine snapped. "You do mind sharing? I'd like to know."
The woman didn't answer and her hesitation made Quistis uneasy. She must have twitched or something similar because when the woman gave her answer it was, "Explanations will have to wait. I believe my patient is waking up."
She felt the presence of someone -- presumably the unknown woman -- move closer and strong but gentle fingers closed around her wrist. "How are you feeling, Miss Trepe?"
"I'm -- fine," she answered feebly, still not able to see. "I -- hurt."
"I bet you do," the woman said sympathetically as she helped Quistis into a sitting position. The girl felt the cold metallic disk of a stethoscope pressed against her. "I'm Dr. Kadowaki," the woman said in introduction. "I'm visiting Galbadia from Balamb Garden."
"It's nice to meet you, Dr. Kadowaki."
"It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Trepe," Dr. Kadowaki returned warmly. "Now, I'm going to remove the bandages from your eyes and then we'll move this examination forward from there, alright?"
Removing the gauze from her eyes was a mixed blessing. Her eyes were still painful and light didn't help much -- Dr. Kadowaki called it 'photo-sensitive' and had the light lowered to a comfortable level for her. On the other hand, she could see well enough to put a face with the voice, and Dr. Kadowaki had a strong but kind face that Quistis liked. It help that the doctor had warm, dark eyes and a genuine smile that she smiled at Quistis as soon as her eyes were unclothed. She was completely different from the stiff and seemingly disinterested nurses who usually tended injuries in the infirmary.
After all the appropriate additions had been made to Quistis's medical chart, Dr. Kadowaki pulled up a chair and sat at her bedside. Her face was still kind-looking but it was also very serious.
Quistis had the sudden fear that she was dying from some nameless disease, most likely the same one that might have killed the parents she'd never met. It was one of her stranger ideas about what might have happened to them.
"I'm sure you're wondering what happened out there," the doctor began. Quistis nodded.
"Well, to put it simply..." Dr. Kadowaki paused, as if to arrange her thoughts. "Some people are born with very special abilities -- magical abilities -- that are just a part of who they are. Oftentimes, the circumstances conspire against them and they never find out about it. Are you with me?"
Quistis was watching her as carefully as she could with her irritated eyes. "Yes, of course."
"Well, Quistis, today -- today just happened to be the right day for you because...it turns out that you were born with special magical abilities. And it took coming into contact with Belhelmel's saw blade to 'bring it to life,' so to speak."
"I have...magical abilities?" Even to Quistis -- a secret lover of fairy tales, a volume of which she always kept tucked between the pillows on her bed -- the idea sounded farfetched.
But Dr. Kadowaki was serious, even if she was smiling gently at her. "Yes, you do, Quistis. You were born with an ability known as blue magic."
It wasn't until the next day that Quistis was allowed visitors in the infirmary and, by that time, the whole school knew about what had happened and what Quistis had been able to do. Even as isolated as she was in the infirmary, Quistis had heard the rumors -- what exactly was she? they whispered. No one at Galbadia Garden had never manifested those kinds of abilities before and many students -- and professors -- were jumping to the most obvious and frightening conclusion: that she was a sorceress.
Dr. Kadowaki had explained to her that she wasn't, though. Her blue magic, though innate, was nothing like a sorceress's power. Blue magic meant that when Quistis came across special items with the magical resonance of certain monsters within it, it would allow her to learn the magical attacks used by those monsters. It had been the saw blade, she'd explained, that had given Quistis the ability to use the Belhelmel's laser-eye counterattack. There wasn't a way of knowing which items and which monsters she'd be able to learn from, Dr. Kadowaki had told her, but lists of possibilities did exist in the research of a man named Odine .
Dr. Kadowaki thought it was a wonderful, amazing thing. Quistis wished she felt the same.
All she really felt was -- confused.
Her confusion only heightened when she had a very unexpected visitor -- Hale. And Hale hadn't come alone: he'd brought Donal and some other friend of his along. The three of them had stood stiffly at the foot of her infirmary while she picked at the coverlet, at a loss for what to say.
"I guess I should say thanks," Hale mumbled, looking at something above and to the right of Quistis's head. "Since you tried to help me."
"You're welcome," she said stiffly. "How's your leg?"
Quistis smiled faintly. "I thought it would be the other way around -- you'd be in the hospital and I'd be paying the visit."
"Yeah," he coughed, still looking around.
"So, what are they going to do with you?" asked his friend, the one she didn't quite know by name.
At that, Quistis's head shot up. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what are they going to do with you?" he wanted to know. "They can't let you stay here."
She frowned. "Why not?"
He snorted. "C'mon, Trepe. You gotta see what I'm talking about."
"I don't," she said icily -- at least as icily as any twelve-year-old could.
"You've got some weird freaky sorceress powers or something," he explained slowly, letting Quistis see just how badly her secret had been kept. "You can shoot lasers out of your eyes. That's not normal. They're gonna have to send you somewhere."
"You mean I'm being expelled because of this?" She was still frowning.
He shrugged. "I dunno if they'll say it like that but...you can't stay here. Even if you're not a sorceress like they say you're not, you're still...you're like -- a monster or something."
Her mouth fell open in shock. "A monster?"
"I'm just telling you like it is. No offense."
Even after the three boys had left her alone, his words still echoed in Quistis's ears. Was she -- a monster? She'd never thought about it that way but maybe...maybe he'd been right. The only things in the world other than a sorceress that could use magic without special help were monsters. Could she be...?
She thought back to her book of fairy tales, the one she kept tucked under her pillows so no one would know that she read them whenever she felt homesick. They made her think of Matron and the lighthouse and the sea -- and she missed them all so much, even after years away from Centra. She knew almost every story in her book by heart; she knew about mythical princesses and sorceresses and noble knights and -- monsters. The stories also talked of demi-monsters, of matings between humans and beings that created creatures that were part-human and part-monster; sometimes they looked like humans and other times not. Could it...?
She'd always thought of them as stories and nothing more. But they were told in the same volumes as stories about sorceresses of the past and she knew that sorceresses were real. Everyone did. So could those stories be true?
Maybe they were and maybe that was why she'd been raised in an orphanage. Maybe her parents had abandoned her because of her freakish nature instead of them having died in the war or from a disease or from being trampled by wild chocobos, which had been one of Seifer's favorite explanations. Maybe...
Maybe there was a reason she'd always felt so alone.
Quistis tried to ignore the things that the cadet had said but she couldn't quite get them off her mind, especially with nothing else to do in the infirmary. By the time Dr. Kadowaki came around to see her that evening, Quistis was morose and heavy-hearted -- facts which the doctor could see plainly on her face.
"What's wrong with you?" Kadowaki asked bluntly as she pulled up her usual seat to Quistis's bedside.
For a moment, Quistis thought of not telling her; but then she looked into Dr. Kadowaki's kind but sensible face and remembered the way she'd spoke of her abilities and the words came tumbling out of her. She told her about the cadet's comments and the rumors and the books she'd read. She also told her about the way the headmaster had acted when he'd come by earlier and the way the nurses watched her around corners and the way she'd always felt so different, so she thought it made sense that there was a logical, biological reason for it.
When she was finished. Dr. Kadowaki was frowning thoughtfully and her dark eyes watched Quistis's face intently.
"So let me understand this," the doctor began. "You think...you're a monster? Or a half-monster? Like the ones out of your stories."
"Yes," Quistis nodded. "Maybe. I'm not sure. I just -- it makes sense, doesn't it? Since I'm so different."
Dr. Kadowaki was silent for a moment. "So you like fairy tales, Quistis? Fables? Very old stories?"
"Yes," Quistis answered shakily. "I do."
Dr. Kadowaki folded her arms and look down at her. "Then let me tell you a story."
"There was once an ancient and magical race who lived on this world. They were the ancestors of the Centra who are the ancestors of the Estharians and the Dolletians -- and us. They all had impressive natural magic abilities and almost all of their magical abilities were tied to nature. Some could heal, some could grow things from the earth, others could mimic the natural world in other ways. And the most special of them were so attuned with nature that they could speak the language of the animals and they could learn the secret knowledge of the universe from the wisest creatures -- like dragons or chimeras or even Belhelmels -- and nothing could not be learned from them."
"What happened to them?" Quistis wanted to know.
"Oh, what always happens to ancient races," Dr. Kadowaki explained. "They married with others, some lost their way. But their magical blood is in many of us and, every once in a while, someone -- not often, though -- will be born with enough of that magic in them that they can do some of those things. That's what you are, Quistis," the doctor told her, squeezing the young girl's hand affectionately. "You're a special girl who was born with so much of that ancient magic in your blood that you can call upon the ancient knowledge that's spoken in a language no human can ever understand. You're not a sorceress and you're certainly not a monster. Don't you ever believe otherwise, either."
The doctor was smiling; and, slowly, Quistis returned it until the mirth reached her too-serious eyes and made them look young again.
That night, Quistis feel asleep and dreamed of exotic birds who sung in trilling whistles that she could understand and grand, old dragons with onyx scales who spoke to her of history and alchemy.
A week after her pre-SeeD exam, Quistis Trepe -- dressed in one of her best traveling dresses, her blond hair mercilessly tamed and braided -- stepped off the train that had brought her to this new place from Galbadia Garden. The first thing she noticed as she stepped off the train was the tang salt smell in the air -- it was the sea.
Smiling, Quistis closed her eyes and breathed deeply. It already felt more like home than G-Garden had.
With her one piece of carry-on luggage slung over one shoulder, she marched down the steps of the train station and into the glorious sunlight of the late morning, smiling shyly to all the warm and friendly people who said hello to her as they passed. So absorbed in the white-stone architecture of the town around her, it took Quistis a moment make out Dr. Kadowaki as she hurried toward her.
After the customary greetings had been exchanged, Dr. Kadowaki took her by the hand and led her a little down the street. "There's someone I want you to meet," she explained. "After that, we'll go."
A moment later Quistis was being introduced to a short, plump man with glasses and an infinitely kind smile. He knelt down so that they were eye-to-eye -- something that wasn't all that difficult for him in the first place. "Hello, there," he smiled at her. "I'm Headmaster Cid Kramer, from Balamb Garden. Let me be the first to welcome you, Quistis. I think -- you'll feel right at home here."
She smiled, enchanted by him and the small town and the sea air and everything else that made Balamb right where Galbadia had been wrong. "I think I will, too."
From that moment on, she always called it home.