"I can't believe he did this. Again." Quistis Trepe was tight-lipped and hard-eyed as she spoke, her head high and her slender frame vibrating with the fierce control she was keeping on her anger. "This is the third time."
"Don't forget who you're talking to," Xu, her friend and fellow instructor, glanced over at Quistis as she pushed the button to call the Garden Elevator to the first floor. "I was the instructor in charge when he failed the first time."
As the doors opened and they stepped on the elevator, Quistis shot her a quick, cutting look. "I know that."
Xu sighed as the doors slid shut behind him. "You need to get it off your mind, Quistis," she advised. "I think it's obvious to everyone that he's just not going to cut it. He's too..."
"...Seifer." Quistis finished, closing her eyes as her voice broke on the last syllable. "He's too -- Seifer."
It was good advice, Quistis knew. She needed to get Seifer off of her mind, especially since she'd been belaboring the point of his failure for the past half-hour. She only wished she could forget about it; she wanted to leave Seifer's problems behind her and focus on the dozens of other tasks she had left in her day -- there was the graduation ball to help finalize, paperwork on the students who had passed, paperwork on those who'd hadn't, along with a late study session she was covering for another instructor. Quistis Trepe had enough to do that didn't involve worrying about Seifer's third unsuccessful attempt at passing the SeeD exam.
But still, it preoccupied her, worried at her attention until it was all that she could think about. She should have been focusing on the successes of her other students -- Squall, Nida, Selphie -- and not dwelling on the one's failure but it seemed so much more important for some reason.
Seifer had failed.
She had been so preoccupied by it that she'd almost forgotten to congratulate Nida when they had passed him in the hall.
And, despite everything, she couldn't help but wonder how he was dealing with it -- this time.
"I just don't understand why he can't follow orders," Quistis admitted out loud. Xu raised an eyebrow at her. "I mean, who does he think he is? He has to follow orders. Everyone in SeeD has to follow orders. Otherwise nothing would ever be accomplished."
"You're taking this way too personally, Quistis," Xu pointed out as the elevator doors shushed opened when they reached the third floor. "You did what you could but Seifer's a bad seed. I never thought he was going to make it and, so far, he's proved me right. I don't see him changing."
The look on Quistis's face must have been stricken because Xu softened her tone as she added, "You said it yourself. He's just too -- Seifer. It's possible he's just not cut out for a military environment like this."
No, he's not, Quistis thought, words coming from a place so veiled in her mind she didn't know if she could trust them. He doesn't want to be a soldier; he wants to be a hero, a knight like the ones in the old stories. He has ever since...ever since...
The words trickled to nothing and something cold and bleak shut off the knowledge she'd be unwittingly accessing. It was such an abrupt and isolating feeling that it slammed into her like a physicality she hadn't expected. She faltered in her steps and Xu looked at her strangely.
Quistis cleared her throat and covered the slip by straightening the hem of her skirt and giving the bottom of her heavy boots a cursory check. Xu looked like she wanted to say something but Quistis waved away her concern by nodding toward the Headmaster's office door which was starting to open up. The two SeeD instructors stood just outside at perfect parade rest, waiting for the kindly Headmaster to call them into his office.
They were both surprised when Instructor Aki and not Headmaster Kramer stepped out into the hallway.
"Instructors," he nodded in greeting at the both of them. Xu gave him a bored grimace as her posture relaxed while Quistis answered with a quiet greeting of her own.
Aki looked incongruous next to them in his simple brown suit; he, unlike most of the other instructors there, was not a SeeD but a retired schoolmaster from Balamb who'd been hired at the Headmaster's request to teach core classes like History and Literature. Older than both of the young women in front of him, he was frowning at them with the same disapproving scowl he gave his students.
"The headmaster will see you now, Instructor Trepe," he told him as he stepped away from the door.
Xu spoke first, voicing what had passed through both their minds. "Just Quistis? I was under the impression that he wanted to see both of us."
"Just Instructor Trepe," he confirmed, a bit sourly as if Xu should have never questioned his words. She watched him with a placid, unworried expression. "In fact, there's something that you and I need to discuss, if you'd be so kind as to come with me."
The two SeeDs exchanged another look, both of them mystified. "And what would that be?"
Aki looked disgruntled by the question even as he answered it. "Almasy's punishment. While on the other occasions his failure was reprimand enough, this time there needs to be something more -- forceful implemented to deal with his reckless behavior."
Quistis flinched ever so slightly at "Almasy," "failure" and "reckless." She hoped neither of her colleagues noticed.
Judging by the concerned looks that Xu was sneaking her, her hope was a vain one. "Shouldn't Quistis be in on that discussion? Seeing as how Seifer is her student."
Instructor Aki gave Quistis one steady, scathing look. "No. I don't think her presence will be necessary -- not when the Headmaster needs her."
Xu showed her defiance by a look of palpable distaste but acquiesced with a shrug of her shoulders. "If that's the way it's going to be..." She moved back and motioned for Aki to move toward the elevator ahead of her. Once his back was to them, she nodded to Quistis encouragingly before following Aki toward the elevator.
"Just go in, Instructor," Aki told Quistis before he boarded the elevator. "He's waiting for you."
She sighed as she watched the doors close, leaving her alone in the short corridor that connected the elevator to the headmaster's office. It had been obvious that Xu was surprised by the change in plans and that worried Quistis -- suddenly Seifer wasn't the only thing on her mind.
Fighting against the unease settling like stone in her stomach, Quistis steeled herself and rapt sharply on the door.
"Come in," came the headmaster's muffled reply.
Quistis pushed the door opened and entered as the headmaster's head rose from whatever papers he'd been focusing on. He looked up and welcomed her with a smile, his face as kindly as always. But underneath the usual cheer, there was something tired and drawn in his features that made Quistis even more reticent about whatever topic they were about to discuss.
"Quistis, hello there," he said. "Please, come in, have a seat."
She did just that, taking a seat in one of the two chairs that sat opposite his desk, her utter stillness and outer composure at odds with the dread starting to creep through her. She sat with her spine ramrod straight, hands folded, legs and knees just so -- the perfectly correct posture for ladies when they sat in straight-backed chairs. Quistis had always blamed it on a life in a military academy but something about the way she was sitting and the rich, warm textures of the headmaster's office called a strange image to her mind: an unfamiliar woman who spoke with florid dictation and talked of manners, and courtesies and airs. She wanted to follow the thought, flush it out of its hiding place but the headmaster spoke and startled her attention back to its proper place.
Ignoring his polite greeting, she jumped straight to the point. "Instructor Aki said you wanted to see me?"
The headmaster nodded as he finished shuffling his papers around on his desk. "Yes, I did. There's something we need to discuss. Just the two of us."
Quistis nodded but she felt the dread grow, like something cold coiling around her veins to chill her blood. "Of course. What is it, Headmaster?"
Cid was watching her with such sympathy in his bespectacled eyes that she knew something catastrophic was on the horizon. "Let me begin by saying that you are, without a doubt, one of the finest young women I've ever met. Even after everything that I'd kn -- heard about you, you surpassed all my expectations."
Quistis could so clearly hear the "but" that lingered unsaid that she gave voice to it. "But...?"
"But," Cid admitted, looking chagrined. "...as you know, there was strong opposition from parts of the faculty about your decision to pursue a teaching license this early in your career."
She remembered the looks and the doubts and the lectures from instructors like Aki. "Yes. I know."
Cid sighed and his eyes broke away from hers. Unconsciously she began to wring her folded hands. "Quistis, I supported you through your training and throughout this first year and I had every confidence in you. However...now that exams have come around again, the results..." The headmaster shuffled around the papers on his desk again before staring at one set in particular, which Quistis assumed were the aforementioned results.
"This is the lowest percentage of graduates we've had since the program's inception. That, coupled with the situation with Seifer..."
The mention of Seifer galvanized her into speech, a childish anger building against him at the mere idea that his failure would be blamed on her. "I can hardly be held solely responsible for Seifer, considering that this is his third failed SeeD exam."
Cid nodded, still looking tired and sad. His expression made her fidget in her seat -- something she couldn't remember doing since she was fifteen years old. "I know. But Seifer's attitude and behavior have only worsened in the course of this last year and...as this was a probationary period...I don't really have much choice in the matter," he told her apologetically. "Your teaching licensure is hereby revoked. You will be back on the active SeeD roster, effective tomorrow. I -- I'm sorry, Quistis."
That dread she'd felt earlier had taken complete control of her body and she was cold even though her face was flushed with the stinging heat of embarrassment and her heart beat so quickly that blood rushed in her ears. There wasn't any real way she could categorize what she was feeling -- the disappointment, the anger, the resentment, the icy clutch of failure. She was hot and cold and numb all at the same time and she just wanted to get away before she did something completely unforgivable like burst into tears. "Is that --- all, headmaster?" Quistis asked, her voice strained and weak.
Quistis would never forgive herself if she cried in her front of the headmaster; it was something she'd never done as a child and something she refused to do, now, as an adult.
"Quistis..." the headmaster was rising to his feet and coming around to the other side of his desk; Quistis tried to look at anything but his kindly, sad eyes because nothing was so painful as seeing disappointment on so warm a face. She couldn't escape him, though, because he took the seat next to hers and patted her hands affectionately. "Don't be so sad about this. You're still very young. I'm sure, in a few years, once you've had some more experience, you'll be ready to try again if you'd like."
"Of course, sir," she murmured, still trying not to look at him. Her eyes were still dry but she could feel the tears building up and she was fighting against them.
He must have sensed something before he looked away from her and cleared his throat. "I don't know if this will help but...the problem is -- the biggest problem we had with you was...you're young, Quistis. Only eighteen."
She nodded. "I know, but..."
He gently interrupted her. "But you don't know. That's it, you see? You're not much older than any of your students -- you're the same age as some. You don't...you don't have the authority of a Instructor Aki or a Dr. Kadowaki -- that, that something to make the children listen. To keep them in line." He chuckled sadly. "I don't have it much myself. It's only my age that makes them listen to me. But you don't have that."
"I...I tried." It was all she could say in the face of his gentle, honest criticism. It was all she had left.
"I know that." He was patting her hand again but she was still too numb to do anything but dimly register the touch. "You did the best you could. And you produced some very good students along the way. But...I don't think it's wrong to say that you just don't have the leadership experience under your belt that you need to teach these kinds of students the things you need to teach them."
Quistis couldn't answer. She just looked at him, her eyes glittering with the possibility of tears she'd never let herself shed. Her spine was still straight as she sat in her chair, head still held high.
She didn't know it but it made Cid Kramer proud to see her like that. It almost made him feel better about what was coming -- whenever it was going to come.
"You know, there's an old saying," he told her, fiddling with his glasses that were threatening to slide from his nose. "I'm sure you've heard it. It says Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. You certainly can do, you know. You're one of our most capable and cool-headed SeeDs -- of any age. So, please, don't be too upset over this. I think it was just a...matter of bad timing. The timing will be better, sometime in future. Alright?"
"Yes," she nodded, finally managing to speak.
She started to rise but the headmaster still had a grip on her hand. She looked down at him, startled by the sudden seriousness on his face. "I know it's been very hard for you...teaching these children. You're so...close to them -- in age, I mean. Ever since I first saw you as a little girl, you've acted very grown-up but...you're still theirs...their age. It must be hard not to be friends with them."
She wanted to say no; no, because she and Seifer had stopped being friends before she'd ever become an instructor but then...she wanted to say yes. Because, yes, it was difficult sometimes.
Sometimes there was this feeling, this pang, when she saw some of her students with their friends. It was something between melancholy and envy and longing, wanting what they had that she didn't. But other times, it was the sight of some of her students alone that made her feel it --- seeing Zell Dincht after one of his run-ins with Seifer...once, she'd almost reached out to comfort him, arm around his shoulders and hand wiping the dirt away from his face. She hadn't, of course; she'd already been warned by the other teachers what fraternization with a student could mean for her. She'd settled with giving Seifer a piece of her mind and some quality time with Xu in detention. It hadn't been enough to ease that hollowness but Zell's grin of thanks a few minutes later had almost been.
And then there was Squall -- her brightest student, who always made her want to break that rule about being friends with her students, the one whose stiff, lonely countenance always gave her that hollow feeling. It pained her so much that she skirted that edge, skimmed it regularly, hoping against hope that something would give and she'd stopped feeling that way.
"It's...fine," she assured him as she pulled away, distancing herself from everything but her need to find somewhere to hide and recover. "Was there something else you wanted or...?"
Cid sighed and stood up, too, a little groan and cracking of bones in the action that left him faintly embarrassed. "No, no, nothing else. I think that's quite enough. But, uh, consider yourself off duty tonight. You can take some time to think things through? Maybe see if there's not something you might like to do now that you don't have so much responsibility on your shoulders?"
Quistis immediately thought of Seifer and wondered what he'd be doing that night, the third night he'd spend reliving his failure over and over again in his mind. She wondered if he wanted any company, this time. "Thank you, headmaster. I'll see you in the morning when I report for my new orders."
"Good evening, Quistis," he said, his voice still subdued and sad. "I hope one day you understand this."
She nodded again, unsure of what to say because she didn't think that there was much to understand on the matter -- she had failed.
As she took the elevator down to the first floor, Quistis wondered if this new hollow feeling would ever go away.
She still hadn't figured out how to ease the old one.