A/N: Hello and welcome to another installment of G&G…thanks to all of you still reading. Not sure how I feel about this chapter, but I hope all of you enjoy it (you didn't really think I was going to make all of this easy on them, did you?) My apologies for any mistakes that I missed via spell-check and proofreading- my only excuse is that it is almost two in the morning and I am without my usual dose of iced coffee today. Thanks to my beta last chapter, sissyhiyah-you're the best!
Additional author rant: Quite frankly, I don't know how much longer I'll be posting on this site. Every single time I upload a chapter, it eats all of my punctuation, which results in a lot of cutting and pasting and editing nonsense that I'm getting really tired of. I'm keeping a lookout for somewhere else to host the story (deviantart only allows a certain number of words per chapter, which would create a LOT of work for me in dividing up my chapters)…so we'll see. In the meantime, though, I'm getting really frustrated…as punctuation is sort of necessary. (end rant).
Disclaimer: This is Squaresoft's sandbox. I'm just playing in it.
Lies and Loyalties
Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles, confusion is nothing new
Flashbacks to warm nights almost left behind
Suitcase of memories, time after-
Sometimes you picture me
I'm walking too far ahead
You're calling to me
I can't hear what you've said
You say, 'Go slow',
I fall behind.
The second hand unwinds-
If you're lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you
I will be waiting
Time after time.
-C.L. Time after Time
Zell woke up with sand in his dreams and in his mouth. His head was heavy with lack of sleep, but from that slothful place there rose a sharpening awareness. They were still on the far outskirts of Timber, their stay having been extended by another week, and Zell could see the moonlight outside the thin vinyl skin of the tent, feel the hard ground beneath him, and-
Someone was watching him.
He sat up in his sleeping bag, his hand curled into a fist, ready to confront-
Selphie, who stood at the opening of his tent, the moonlight behind her and a bottle of Fisherman's Wharf Whiskey balanced against her hip. From the loose smile on her lips and the amount already missing from the bottle, she already had quite a buzz going.
"Sel, whuttizzit?" he asked, his voice still thick with sleep. "D'we need t' move the site?"
"Couldn't sleep," said Selphie.
Zell rubbed at his eyes, taking away a fair amount of grit in the process. Why the fuck were they bunking by a huge sand dune, anyway? Hynedamned sand everywhere, even in cracks and crevices he'd rather not think about. "Why can'tcha sleep?"
His friend lifted a shoulder in response. "Dunno. Old nightmares, you know? Kept seeing Trabia Garden, all smashed up." She adjusted the bottle on her hip. "I was trying to comb through the wreckage, trying to find my old friends, but I kept finding you all instead…kept finding your faces underneath the wreck."
"Selph…." Began Zell, sitting up a little further in his sleeping bag.
"Can I come in?" asked Selphie.
He hesitated, and it surprised him. Selphie was his good friend, had been for years, but there was something off dull and intense about Selphie's normally vibrant gaze tonight, something sad and restless that scared him a little.
She stepped further into the tent, and he could see that her eyes were red-rimmed from crying. "Irvine an' I broke up, y'know."
"It was me," she said in a small voice that Zell almost didn't recognize. "Called it off on the comlink." She looked pale for a moment, and Zell feverently hoped she was not going to throw up in the tent, because his little brother had thrown up in his sleeping bag once, and no amount of washing ever quite go the stink out. The news of his friends' breakup, however, soon washed all though of tent-vomit from his mind.
She smiled, and there were tears running down her cheeks now. "Lost each other a long time ago. And that's just it, idn't it? Going to lose everyone. That's what the dream means, right? Gonna lose each other."
"Of course we aren't." replied Zell. "We grew up together, Selphie, we fought together, hell, we'll probably die together-"
Selphie shook her head, still smiling that strange empty smile. "Oh, Zell," she said, in a way that made him feel like she'd thought he was just trying to make her feel better. The thing was, he though, he didn't think he was lying to her.
A breeze picked up outside, flapping at the tent, and Zell caught a glimpse of the cold night sky behind his friend, still pitch black and scattered with stars. "Come in, Selph…it's cold outside."
He paused. "What exactly happened with you and Irvine?" asked Zell, moving to make room for her in the small space as she ducked under the entrance of the tent, letting the flap slip closed behind her.
"Don't want t' talk about it. Just wanna have a drink with a friend." Selphie held out the bottle. "You'll have a drink with me, won't you, Zell?"
Reluctantly, he took the bottle from her, absently wondering where she had got the thing from. Still, one drink couldn't hurt. They had no other surveillance to run that night, and a little whiskey might chase away the chill a little.
"Yeah, sure, Selphie. Whatever you want."
"T' the Liberi Fatali, then," she slurred, raising an imaginary glass at him.
"Cheers," replied Zell, taking a healthy gulp from the bottle and enjoying the burning as it stretched fiery fingers down his throat.
"Can I stay here tonight, Zell?" she took the bottle back from him, taking a swig and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Don't wanna be alone…don't wanna dream anymore, you know?"
He hesitated. Selphie had always been reckless-it was part of her charm- but there was an undercurrent of something else in her demeanor tonight that set him on edge, something dark and restless and impatient that seemed to fill up the tent with its intensity, that seemed to overshadow his friend as she hunched over, the bottle dangling from her grasp.
"…I don't know if that's such a good idea, Selphie."
She laughed. "Zelly boy, since when has anything we've ever done in our lives been considered a good idea?"
She passed him the bottle, and he took it. "Good point," he said.
There was that smile again, as wide and empty as the Trabian plains as she raised the bottle again.
"….and as per clause 28.3 sub A in my contract, any condition which makes blood donation unsuitable for the sustained health of the individual will render contract null and void, so I will no longer be able to honor the contract, because of-"
"We are aware of your status," said Hojo, setting down his pen. "The happy fact revealed itself in your last blood test."
My last blood test? But…
Her brow furrowed, and Quistis deflated back into her seat. "You…know already?"
"So you know that under the contract that I'll no longer be able to donate."
"Not your blood, no," replied Hojo.
"What does…wait a minute." Quistis was staring at Hojo now. "To know this already, you would have had to test my blood specifically for human chorionic gonadotropin. The hCG isn't a standard test, especially not for someone with my medical history. Unless, you-" She paused.
Unless you expected it.
Kadowaki, her gaze hard. 'Quistis, have you been taking something for ovulation?'
Quistis's mouth tightened. "I want my medical charts. Now."
Hojo's eyes narrowed. Of course, the specimen was a doctor herself, and would have some working knowledge of routine medical procedures.
This was becoming inconvenient.
"Those charts are no longer a matter of public record. They are property of Shinra Corp."
"The hell they are," snarled Quistis. "I'm entitled to view them. It was an addendum in my contract, and you damned well know it. Give me my medical charts."
"As you wish." Hojo went to a filing cabinet, quickly rifling through a stack of folders before plucking out a small stack of papers. He held them out to her now, smiling as she snatched them and began to scan the pages. "I highly doubt you'll find what you're looking for," replied Hojo.
"Because you didn't chart it, did you?" Quistis was standing now, the chair between them. She looked hard into his eyes. "What else did you do to me?"
Hojo folded his hands in front of him."As per your contract, Shinra wanted to check all organ functions. Per Kadowaki's findings, some organ function was normal post-event, some was not. The question in this particular case was whether or not some organ function could be stimulated with the correct dosages of the appropriate medications. You seem to have found an independent sperm donor, which is only mildly inconvenient, but the medications seem to have been effective."
Quistis's hands were shaking around the arm rest. "And you thought it prudent to administer said medications without my knowledge?"
Hojo smiled at her- this one was wide enough to bare his small white teeth and gave her the feeling of icicles shooting through her veins. "Shinra certainly apologizes for any inconvenience this has caused you. In fact, we can remedy the lnuisance today. Of course, I must admit we would prefer that you carry to term before presenting us with the sample, but we are willing to accept-"
The blow knocked Hojo into the counter, sending several glass vials flying to the floor in tinkling crashes of glass and fluids. Quistis's hands were in fists, her breathing labored as she stood over him. "It will be a cold day in hell before you lay your filthy hands on my child, do you understand me?"
Hojo removed his glasses, shaking out a few pieces of shattered glass out of the right lens and wiping at a splatter of blood that now poured from his broken nose. "I think you will find that we are well within our rights to demand a sample. After all, the specimen was obtained only through our medications, our efforts, and as is stated by that little contract you are so fond of, Shinra has exclusive rights and entitlements to test developments that are the direct result of drug therapies administered and efforts-"
"Medications administered without my consent! Efforts enacted through no knowledge or acquiescence of mine!" spat Quistis. "On what legal basis are you entitled to anything?"
Hojo wiped a hand across his now bloody face. "As I've said before, if your condition is undesirable to you, I can harvest the sample today. You will be generously compensated for your inconvenience, of course, and Shinra Corp is willing to trade unlimited access to Draw sites in exchange for the fetus-"
Quistis held up the contract in front of him and ripped it down the middle, letting both halves fall to the ground. "You may piss the fuck off, is what you may do. I'm leaving."
"Shinra has not released your contract," replied Hojo coldly.
"I'm releasing myself," she snapped, grabbing her bag and heading towards the door.
"I think you'll find that rather difficult. You are dealing with a well-funded corporation, Miss Trepe, with many resources at their disposal. Surely that has not escaped you."
Quistis turned at the doorway. "I think it's you that will find it difficult to extract anything more from me, Hojo. You see, you're not screwing around with a criminal whose rights have been abandoned by his government, or some poor drunk you've plucked off the streets. I'm a rather public figure for the moment, I have powerful friends, too. The media used to tune itself to our comings and goings, and I think they'd still be interested in anything I have to say."
Hojo was looking at her with a quizzically inconvenienced expression, as if she were a stray specimen that had climbed out of her jar.
"Oh, I don't think I'll be able to take down Shinra…but I will be able to destroy you, you pluperfect asshole: your credibility, the medical ethics which Shinra has worked so hard to claim you possess. The powers that be don't care, as you've said, but the general public will. They're already stirred up because of that terrorist faction, aren't they? How many more news bulletins before they're lined up at your door, wanting your head?"
She took another step forward, pointing at him with one hand while shouldering her bag with the other. "I'll tell the truth about what kinds of things you do, what ways Shinra advances its science, what raw materials you've been gathering, the experiments you want to perform on a poor pregnant woman, and it won't be long before even Shinra decides it doesn't want to associate itself with such a loose public relations thread, no matter how many monsters you make them. How does Shinra cut people loose, Hojo? An extended vacation? Do they let you keep the company insurance?"
Hojo lifted an eyebrow. "Would you like to provide a DNA sample of the father now, Miss Trepe, or shall we wait for the sample for the complete profile?"
Quistis looked hard into the obsidian eyes, trying to find a flicker of fear or anger and careful not to let anything on her own face show. But there was nothing in the dark depths, nothing but the steady shine of the overhead light, her own angry reflection, and that same sick curiosity. "If you ever come between me and my child, I'll kill you." Her eyes, normally the color of a beach-blue sky, had hardened into something glacial and tumultuous, and Hojo appreciated for the first time that she was a beautiful woman that had killed many, many people.
Without another look in his direction, she left.
Minutes later, Lucretia walked into the room to find Hojo with a hefty amount of gauze stuffed into his nasal cavities, having reset his broken nose with the aid of morphine and a tongue depressor. He was currently holding his glasses up to the light, trying to shake a final piece of glass loose from the frame.
"What happened?" she asked, horrified.
"The trial was successful," replied the scientist calmly, giving up on the glasses and picking up the tweezers. A sizeable amount of glass had embedded itself in the flesh of his right cheek, and he was impatient to have it out so that the wound could be thoroughly doused in peroxide. He was not keen on an infection.
Lucretia watched the doctor work calmly at his injury. She had been around Hojo long enough to know that he experienced few in the normal range of human emotions, and expressed them indirectly, the way a killing cancer often presents itself as fatigue or weight loss. The disparity was disconcerting, as though a tidal wave were crashing over one with the force of a rain drop.
Currently, Hojo was enraged- she could read it between the lines of his shoulders and the dark smolder of his scowl as he tapped gently at his glasses.
"But then why was she-" Lucretia frowned. "…you didn't tell her in advance, did you."
"It matters very little. Miss Trepe has terminated the contract."
Lucretia shook her head, a cold lump forming in her throat at the thought of what Hojo had done, and at the calmness with which he had done it. She choked the lump down. It would not be her first qualm in working with the scientist, and it would certainly not be her last.
"So the experiment is over," she said, feeling some measure of relief at the thought. "We'll proceed with the stem cell trials, then?"
"No," replied Hojo, picking the last of the glass shards out of his nose. "The original trial has simply been postponed."
"By how long?" asked Lucretia.
"By 6-7 months, give or take," replied Hojo, tossing his glasses into the waste bin as he exited the room.
Lucretia hesitated, then followed.
It was official: Seifer Almasy was pretty sure he was as drunk as anyone had ever been or would be in the history of alcohol. It had started out as a simple bourbon and water at the Sealegs Lounge after he had finished tapping phones with Squall the Wonder Stoic.
Then, as he considered how much of an ass he had been to Quistis, there had been the scotch hi ball.
Next, he ruminated over Quistis, angry as hell with him and sitting alone with the great Serabin Glyphias at the lovely dark Estharian Opera…three Thundaga straights.
By the time he got around to obsessing over the last thing he'd said to Quistis before storming out the door, he was no longer sure what he was drinking and had forgotten the name of the bar.
Seifer set down his glass, disgusted with himself. Quistis should be back from her appointment by now…
He looked up from the counter suddenly, where he'd been trying to stack peanut shells higher than his glass with some measure of success before his fine motor skills had abandoned him. "This bar have a phone?"
The bartender, Ambrose or Amrose or something like it, whose main goal in life seemed to be to talk and shower as little as possible, gave him a surly look with the one ocular orbit obstructed by an ratty eye patch. "Local calls only."
"Just gimme the damned phone," he snarled. "An' a phonebook, while you're at it."
It took him only five minutes to find the number of the Esthar Hotel, given that the words seemed to want to blur and run off the pages with their numbers in tow. Once he had gotten the number and, with the failing dexterity of his fingers, a pen with which to punch said numbers in, he waited at the other end of the line for someone to pick up. If he was lucky, he could patch things up with Quistis, sober up, and spend the night in a nice hotel with Gaia's finest pair of legs wrapped around his waist.
"Esthar Hotel, how may I direct your call, please?"
"Quistis Trepe's room."
"One moment please."
There was a pause, and then, "I'm sorry, Miss Trepe has not checked into her room yet and….oh, I see here, the reservation was canceled earlier today. Perhaps you might inquire at-"
Seifer replaced the receiver and swore under his breath.
Quistis picked up her opera glasses and scanned the stage, skimming over the orchestra and appreciating the beautiful crystals in each of the five grand chandeliers and enjoying the cool, slippery feel of the dress against her skin. The golden silk was strapless and the flare of the bodice minimized the small bump of her belly, which was further concealed by her burgundy wrap.
Her golden silk gown was a well-deserved indulgence from her shopping in Esthar that day, one of many purchases acquired out of stress and spare time. After storming out of Shinra, she had been pleasantly surprised by a phone call from Serabin's aid, Ealeen, who brought the welcome news that though Serabin had been delayed at Shinra himself, he had sent both his personal plane and his pilot to attend to her every transportation need during the day. She'd chosen to fly to Esthar immediately, and, after a pleasant flight that had included a fancy flute of orange juice and a delicious cold shrimp cocktail, enjoyed walking around Esthar and securing the pretty new dress, some new stationary for Rinoa, and even a pair of Ruby dragonskin boots for Seifer, though he hardly deserved them. The shops had offered free shipping, and so she'd made out the shipping labels for the Sea Shack and to the Sea Cottage, welcoming the opportunity to not have to struggle with the large packages on the busy streets.
She'd also searched for something for Serabin, and after an hour of touring the shops, settled on a pair of Trabian made Grendel-skin gloves, the black leather smooth and supple, superbly crafted down to the hand stitching and the thin layer of snow lion fur for lining. She'd enjoyed a fantastic lunch at a small café along the boardwalk and had later changed into her gown at the same store she'd purchased the dress with the owner's permission. She'd put back her hair into a simple twist, only applying a swipe of lip gloss and running a quick brush through her hair, which was the only real primping she felt up to.
Though by all accounts she'd had a wonderful day, Quistis had not been able to shake the chill of worry that had seeped into her bones after her encounter with Hojo. Though the fare had been delicious, she had only picked at her lunch at Maramoso's Bistro, (a delicious salmon salad with cucumber drill dressing and feta cheese crumbles), and found herself staring out the window, her chin in her hand, her own worried expression reflected back at her.
What could she do if Hojo pursued the contract, really? And his question of the father…did he know? How could he? And yet, that was not what unsettled her the most- she had pressed every inch of her strength and influence against the man, bored it into Hojo's thick skull, and he had simply stared back at her with no expression whatsoever on his face. What kind of a monster was he, really?
Quistis knew it was dangerous to underestimate Shinra's influence, and even more dangerous to underestimate Hojo's tenacity. How could she face both of them…alone as she was likely to be?
Quistis had found her seat in the Estharian opera house easily enough with the help of an usher, and had enjoyed watching the crowd gather as she waited for Serabin to arrive. Serabin had private balcony seats, which afforded Quistis an excellent view of the entire theater. She watched the flicker of multi-colored jewels at ladies' throats and ears in the half-dark and listened to the rustle of silk as the other theater patrons took their seats. Serabin arrived ten minutes later as the lights were flashing, looking somewhat irritated as he climbed the stairs, declining a program as he walked into their private balcony. His irritation quickly flashed into a smile as he saw her, and he drew her into an embrace immediately as she stood.
"You're late!" Quistis teased him, folding her arms despite her smile.
"And you're enchanting," he said, stepping back and grinning down at her.
"Ha. You're forgiven." She laughed. "What kept you?"
"Bloody paparazzi," muttered Serabin, adjusting his sleeve cuff. "They follow me like dogs since the presidential nomination."
They took their seats, and Quistis reached into her purse to present him with his gift.
"I thought these might be nice for when you have time for training," she said, as he opened the box.
Serabin pulled them on immediately and flexed his hands beneath the supple leather. "These are wonderful," he said. "But it's far too much."
Quistis smiled and shrugged. "It's the least I could do, for such wonderful seats."
"My pleasure. I'm so glad you could make it," replied Serabin, carefully folding the gloves and putting them into his pocket. "You're by far the best guest I've had so far."
The young blond laughed. "Now that I don't believe. Wasn't it only last week that you had that Dolletian supermodel on your arm at the premiere of the new Stark play? What was her name again, Gwenessa Cadre?"
"As I said," Serabin said, kissing her hand, "The best company I've had by far."
Quistis rolled her eyes and picked up her opera glasses, scanning the hall. "It's a full house tonight."
"I'm not surprised," said Serabin, borrowing Quistis's program. "This is a really excellent rendition."
Quistis continued to scan the crowd with her opera glasses, which gave Serabin the opportunity to admire the subtly lit lines of her profile and the fire the chandeliers poured into her hair.
"The Pirates of Aembra," Quistis mused, setting down her glasses. "What's it about?"
Dismissing their attendant, Serabin turned back to her. "It's about two starcrossed lovers: Marose, a renegade pirate and traitor to the crown of Oeris, and Liara, crowned princess of Oeris, who falls in love with Marose. Together they attempt to journey to the fabled land Aembra, a legend of a pure paradise, in the hopes that they might be together there."
Quistis lifted an eyebrow. "Sounds doomed."
"Oh, it is," Serabin replied, grinning. "But there's some beauty in the futility."
When the lights dimmed, Quistis became so captivated by the story of the beautiful and tragic lovers that she did not feel Serabin's gaze on her, soft and intent in the darkness.
Seifer stared at the ceiling, watching it spin. At least, he thought it was the ceiling- sometime in the last hour, the ceiling and the floor seemed to have gotten mixed up, one folding into the other with a kind of lazy spiral that did terrible things to his stomach. He wanted to yell at the ceiling to stop fucking the floor so that he could find his hotel room, but he didn't especially relish the notion of being admitted overnight in a psych ward, which the bartender now wiping the glasses down would probably be only too happy to do.
He'd switched to coffee an hour ago, and was waiting for the effects to kick in so that he could find the floor and drag himself back to the hotel…wherever the hell that was. What city was he in, again?
"I'll have three fingers of cognac, neat." A light hand was on his arm suddenly, and Seifer tore his gaze away from the revolving ceiling-floor and focused on the voice next to him, which turned out to belong to a very beautiful, very blurry young woman.
"Am I disturbing you?" she asked. "Or may I buy you a drink?"
He blinked at the interruption, eventually distinguishing her as a division between the promiscuous floor and the slutty ceiling. A woman. A beautiful woman, at that. "Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?"
She lifted an elegant shoulder. "Aren't these modern times? Can't a woman buy a man a drink?"
She smiled. "What'll it be, then?"
He gripped his forehead. Fucking vertigo. "I've already tried everything else."
"So I saw. What's your name?" she said, and her voice sounded familiar. The alcohol-soaked organ that was previously his brain eventually extracted that her voice had been the one accompanying the piano for the past few hours. She had a nice voice, sweet and mournful and melodic, like a caged bird's song could be.
An image of Quistis came to mind, wearing a blue sarong and washing dishes in front of the window, humming to herself, her voice melodic and sweet and a little off-key.
He dashed it away.
At the pause at being asked his name, the woman smiled. "That's all right. I don't need to know your name. In fact, I think I like you better without one." She drummed her delicate fingertips against the polished shellac of the bar. "You can call me Psyren. It's my stage name, anyway."
"It's fitting," he told her.
"Thank you," she said, smiling a very slight, coy smile that told him she was very used to getting compliments like those.
The coffee arrived in front of him, along with her drink, and she lifted her glass in his direction. "A toast."
She smiled. "To forgetting, of course. Why else do people come to a place like this?"
Seifer clinked his glass with hers and took a long drink.
To forgetting…what a good idea.
"Did you like the opera?" asked Serabin, draping Quistis's wrap around her shoulders.
"Oh yes!" replied Quistis, her eyes still glittering from the sad tale.. The culmination of the star-crossed lovers' story had set off the water works...she was still wiping at her eyes. "Couldn't you tell?"
"I'm afraid I've never been much of a specialist concerning the reasons for a woman's tears," replied Serabin, smiling at her and shrugging his shoulders a little. "Curse of my gender."
Quistis lifted an eyebrow. "You make a habit of making women cry, then?"
"Never deliberately, and never you, I hope," he replied, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Shall we go?"
"Yes, I'm ready," she replied, tightening the wrap around her. "Where are we going?"
"To a late dinner at the Estharian Hotel. I thought we might forgo a taxi and enjoy the city lights, do you mind a quick walk?"
"Not at all."
Outside in the fresh air, Quistis took in the glittering lights of the city and felt sad for a moment, because she knew Seifer would not want her here, laughing with her friend and enjoying herself. He didn't want to spend time with her, but apparently he didn't want her to spend it with anyone else, either. Apparently, he just wanted her to be lonely and unhappy, sitting around and waiting for him to never come back. That thought made her angry, and it was in her anger and her gratitude that she turned to Serabin, linking her arm in his. "Thank you so much for taking me out tonight. It's been wonderful."
"The pleasure's all mine," he replied.
"Not all yours," she teased, tightening her grip on his arm.
The Esthar Hotel was every bit as glamorous as she remembered, and Serabin, as a highly valued customer, had a table reserved far in the back. From the 16th floor, the restaurant provided an excellent view of the city.
Serabin set down his menu. "Would you care for a bottle of wine, Quistis?"
"Um. Iced tea, actually, would be great."
Serabin raised an eyebrow, but motioned for the waiter to bring their drinks. Dinner arrived shortly after, looking exquisite, but Quistis found herself moving the wonderful food around with a fork, and soon the waiter had taken their plates away.
Serabin was looking intently at her now. "Tell me, what has you so upset today?"
"I haven't been upset."
"Then you have been distracted," said Serabin patiently. "In someone like yourself, it amounts to the same thing."
Quistis hesitated. Serabin was a possible Estharian President, and had strong ties to Shinra as both a lobbyist organization and on a personal level, but he was a friend first, and once, he had been much more. The years had changed them, both of them- she was no longer the soldier she once was, and he had grown distant in ways she didn't understand, but she still found that after all the time had passed, she still cared for him and valued his friendship.
She drummed her fingertips on the tablecloth. "It's…well, a few weeks ago, I started getting sick. I thought I had the flu, but…it didn't pass. I was sick all the time. Selphie started joking about…well….and then I ran tests, over ten of them…" Quistis was aware that she was rambling, but found herself unable to stop. "I couldn't believe it. I went to see Kadowaki, and she ran some blood tests, and she told me…well, that I was pregnant."
An unreadable expression crossed Serabin's face for a moment, but it was quickly gone.
Quistis ran a hand through her hair, not noticing the change in her friend. "She then proceeded to recommend that I get rid it. She said there's never been a case of full-term pregnancy with a case like mine, or any pregnancy at all, really, and she said that there would most likely be terrible complications…"
"Does Seifer know about this?"
"…no," said Quistis quietly. "And I can't bring myself to tell him, or anyone else. But…I couldn't bring myself to do what Kadowaki asked, either. I haven't told anyone…except for you, now." She wrung her napkin in her lap. "I just…I don't know what to do. I've always known what to do, and now-"
Serabin reached out and took her hand. "This must be terribly difficult for you. These past weeks…."
Quistis blinked back tears and shook her head. "I went to Shinra for my appointment this month to tell them I could not longer honor the contract, and Hojo…he knew already. The bastard knew. He said...they would trade Garden exclusive rights to Draw sites, unlimited access, if I would give them the rights to the specimen. If I would…sell them my child. He kept calling it a specimen…like it was a thing. Hojo said…in the contract, they had the right to test any new developments in my body that were the direct result of drugs administered under their care, and...that….they could extract any tissue sample that they liked…"
Quistis twisted her napkins in her hands. "I bluffed him, told him that I would make his experiments public, but how could I scare him, really? Shinra has more money than anyone…they buy public favor like pocket candy…" Tears ran down her cheeks now, and she was too upset to be embarrassed at crying in front of Serabin in the middle of a beautiful four star restaurant. "I'm not going back there. I'm not. I don't care what Xu or anyone else…they'll have to drag me….I'll die before I let those monsters touch my child!" She hiccupped.
Serabin leaned across the table, taking her hand. "Quistis-"
"He said…he said the…specimen belonged to them, and they wanted the rights to test it." She hiccupped. "They would…prefer…that I carried it to term, but that they would accept the early termination as well. He offered to do it right away."
Serabin squeezed her hand. "And what did you say?"
Quistis looked up, her eyes blazing in spite of the tears. "I told him to piss off," she replied, "And I punched him in the face."
Serabin smiled. "Good girl," he soothed, petting her hair.
Quistis' angry expression was fading, melting into worry. "But what if he's right? What if somehow, legally…"
Serabin shook his head. "Don't worry a moment more about it. I'll speak to Hojo… personally." There was something in Serabin's expression that disquieted her, but it was quickly gone, and her friend's old reassuring smile had returned.
Quistis fingered the rim of her water glass. "Thank you, but I'm not sure how even you'll persuade him…"
Serabin smiled, cupping her cheek in his hand. "Don't worry a moment more about it. Trust me." He paused. "…do you trust me, Quistis?"
"Of course I do, but-"
"Quistis-" began Serabin, his hand on her cheek. She leaned into the gesture, wanting the comfort, wanting reassurance, wanting desperately to believe him that everything would be all right-
Movement in her peripheral vision made her glance up, and she turned her head just in time to be blinded by a flash of light.
From there, everything seemed to happen at once. Serabin pushed Quistis behind him, and grabbed ahold of a man's arm as he tried to run. Spinning him, Serabin picked him up easily by the neck and gazed into the man's eyes with a chilling calm. The man's camera swung at his side, dangling from his now limp hand. Serabin's thumb was pressed hard into the man's throat, his fingers grappled into the common carotid and the subclavian arteries. Quistis recognized the SeeD neutralization move- it was extremely painful for the recipient.
The candlelight that had once softened Serabin's gaze now seemed to highlight his expression in in an almost savage sharpness- for a moment, Quistis thought he was going to kill him. Serabin's face was normally decipherable by his soft expression, his calmness, his charm. In that moment, he looked like no one she recognized.
"You vermin follow me everywhere." Said Serabin in a very calm voice that scared Quistis far more than his angry expression. "You are like rats, tunneling into every crack and crevice of this city. I tolerate your presence because I recognize your needling as the most basic expression of your nature; you know no other higher calling. You are puddles to be stepped over."
The man's shoes were hovering above the carpet now.
"Tonight, however, you have interrupted my dinner. You have offset the course of my evening with this lovely young woman. Your presence has traversed beyond exasperation- it has become intrusive." Serabin's fingers tightened around the man's throat. "I will not tolerate it."
"Serabin, don't, please, it's not worth it-" she began, placing her hand on his arm. Serabin's gaze seemed to soften as he looked down at her, his grip slackening on the paparazzo's neck.
The manager appeared behind them suddenly, gasping for breath and sweating profusely. Security trailed behind him. "Mr. Glyphias, I'm so sorry, he just slipped past the hostess station. It won't happen again-"
Serabin nodded curtly to the manager and set the photographer back on the ground, where he immediately began gasping for breath. Two well-muscled men took each of his arms and began to lead him out.
"Wait." said Serabin, bending to pick up the man's camera and slipping it around his neck. "Here. Take the picture. I hope it was worth the trouble you took to attain it."
Without another word, the men led the coughing and spluttering photographer away. Serabin's eyes were back on her now, and his expression bore no traces of the intensity it had housed only seconds before, only the calmness and kindness she was used to seeing in her friend when he looked at her. "Please excuse that interruption. Quistis, Are you all right?"
"Yes, of course," replied Quistis, as Serabin helped her to her seat. "It...startled me, that's all."
You startled me.
She glanced behind her. "Perhaps we should leave…"
Serabin's tight expression melted into a smile. "But this calls for a celebration, of course!" He turned to the manager, who was wringing his hands anxiously. "Miss Trepe and I would like to see the dessert cart."
"Of course." Said the manager, and snapped his fingers. As if on cue, a waiter arrived immediately pushing a gleaming silver cart, each shelf bearing a different fancy dessert on delicate china with intricate gold filigree. Quistis had never seen anything so extravagant.
"Choose anything you'd like," said Serabin, once again taking his seat and draping his napkin across his lap, but not before casting a narrowed gaze at the exit. There were large wedges of cheesecake dripping with strawberry and chocolate toppings, fancy cakes with icing in every color and topped with elaborate sugar flowers, white chocolate bon bons wrapped in gold foil, and pies with wafer-thin crusts and large dollops of whipped cream.
"I don't know what to choose…all of it looks wonderful," remarked Quistis, her mouth watering. She was becoming increasingly aware that she hadn't eaten for most of the day, and had only picked at her wonderful dinner.
"Then we will have one of everything," Serabin told the waiter. "And a pot of tea right away, please, with milk and honey."
"Very good sir," said the waiter, placing one of each delectable looking desserts onto the table and hurrying to fetch the tea. Quistis and Serabin each chose a plate from the selection to begin with.
"Now," Serabin dipped his fork into a slice of cheese cake, holding it up as if in a toast. "To your happy news, and to Hojo's future endeavors in self-fornication."
Quistis speared a slice of chocolate and caramel cake, and clinked her fork with his. "To your appointment to the Estharian presidency, or the political arena, or wherever you endeavor to wind up!" she replied. "May you swim circles around the sharks!" She smiled at him, her first real smile all day.
Serabin caught his breath at the look on her face- it was a true, unguarded smile, an expression he had only seen once before, when they had toured the city of Esthar years ago. She had far too much wine with dinner and taken off her fancy shoes as she walked arm and arm with him through the city. She had leaned her head against his shoulder as they watched the passing crowds, and he had felt a quiet contentment in himself for the first time he could ever remember.
"Cheers." replied Serabin, linking his arm with hers and bringing the cheesecake to his mouth. Quistis did the same, laughing around her bite. The cake was moist and rich, and the caramel melted like a thick ribbon of butter on her tongue.
Hours later, Quistis sat back in her chair with a satisfied sigh. The two had sat chatting for hours, and finished the entire collection of desserts in front of them.
A pot of tea, a tray full of desserts, and a night out with someone who made her smile for a change.
It was, reflected Quistis, patting her stomach beneath the table cloth, exactly what they needed.
After dinner, the two walked arm and arm around Esthar, looking in the shop windows and talking about their old days as Instructors with some of their more interesting students. Quistis was halfway through a story about Zell and a particularly funny incident involving whipped cream, a bed sheet, and his t-board, when Serabin caught her in a yawn.
"You're tired," he said. "I'll take you home."
"Back to my house. I've a room already prepared for you."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he shook his head. "I insist."
"I had my chance to go to Galbadia three years ago. I didn't. Doesn't that mean anything?"
"Yeah. Maybe it means you made a big fat fucking mistake."
"I accept," she said, beaming up at him.
"-and then there was the bar manager with a piano so stuffed with coke it wouldn't play, and a full house to attend to. Had to drag the whole piano out back and vacuum it out- the piano player was on pins and needles all night. Ramon thought twice before dealing with shady Trabian piano dealers again, I can tell you."
Seifer chuckled. "I'll bet." They'd been talking for the past hour, she sharing stories of her colorful past in traveling with carnival folk and singing in the lowest of the dive bars Gaia had to offer, him listening and, little by little, separating the ceiling from the floor until he felt almost certain he could walk on it long enough to get back to his hotel.
A pause as she took a tip of her second drink.
"You've got a nice voice," he told her. "Thanks for the drink."
"My pleasure. We don't often get handsome strangers passing through, so I have to collect them while I can." She smiled at him, and he recognized the warmth in it.
"Collect?" he asked stupidly, taking a long drink of his coffee. There was some separation between the floor and the ceiling now, but not nearly enough to walk on.
"Yep. Some girls scrapbook or collect figurines. I happen to collect mysterious strangers and their sad and mysterious stories. It's as good a thing as any to collect, don't you agree? Especially in a place like this?"
The parts of Seifer that hadn't gotten laid in almost three weeks wanted very much to be collected. Granted, 2 weeks of that he had spent in and out on missions and she had been on sleepless rotations, and the third week, Quistis had been acting like some kind of Hyne-damned mime, walking around the house like a zombie.
"You're a thousand miles away, stranger," she said, laughing. "Another woman on your mind?"
Seifer took another sip of coffee. "Something like that. What the hell are you doing in a dive like this with a voice like that, anyway?"
She shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. "People come here to forget. So do I." She took another large sip of her drink. "I never wanted to be under the bright lights of an opera hall, anyway- my voice is better suited to the dark. Not all of us belong in the big bright world after all, don't you think?
More than you know, he thought. "So, do you hit all your listeners up after your shows?"
"Only the handsome ones," she replied. "Besides," she said conspiratorially, leaning in, "It's two-thirty in the morning. Everyone else has gone home." She smiled at the look on his face. "Hadn't you noticed?
Actually, he hadn't.
Psyren was everything his life used to be about- spontaneity and reckless fun, and a kind of half-caring for everyone and everything around him that made transitions easy. Psyren's amnesiac lifestyle was very different from a house with perpetual plumbing problems, eating tuna fish sandwiches and watching Kri-Ball highlights before falling asleep on the couch at nine o' clock at night. Hell, he had caught himself using Helios to smooth over a patch of caulk in the wall just last week. What the hell had happened to him?
The young woman was smiling at him. "You're a real space cadet, Mr. Mysterious Stranger. But I like those eyes of yours. Pretty, but hard, too…soldier's eyes." She reached out a hand to touch his cheek, and her palm was soft, not calloused and rough from whip leather friction. He struggled to remember which holochip he had equipped, but memory failed him.
The girl was smiling at him again. "Mmmmm. All that intensity, all that pain." The songstress tilted her pretty head, one of her dark locks slipping over her shoulder and curling around the tip of her breast. He found himself staring, the buzz of the alcohol an appropriate backdrop to his muddled thoughts.
He knew she was going to kiss him at almost the same time she did.
Leaning in, she pressed her lips against his, and she smelled good, like gardenias and dark spices, a rich and heady mixture that intoxicated almost as much as her hands running slowly up his legs. He closed his eyes, letting her inch her supple little body off the chair and against his as she deepened the kiss, her soft tongue gliding around the edge of his mouth and parting his lips.
His brain swam, and he thought about Quistis, alone with the old Galbadian Headmaster, Quistis, her eyes filling with hurt in the small kitchen as he stalked past her, raspberries and salt air, and a pair of pale eyes and a softly smiling mouth, and she was twirling by the water, holding out her hands to him-
He jerked away from her.
The lounge singer opened her eyes, a small smile on her face, his collar still clutched in her first. "Is something wrong?"
"Still miles away, huh? Are you staying somewhere close?" she asked, and there was no mistaking the invitation in her eyes. Recognizing his hesitation, she leaned closer.
"Whoever she is, I can make you forget all about her tonight."
Serabin's house was a towering structure located in the thick of the city. She watched his profile as he unlocked the door.
Why couldn't it have been you, Serabin? She thought to herself. You would never have broken my heart, would you? You would have been happy about the news, and we could be planning a nursery now...
Serabin's house consisted of vaulted ceilings and a collection of dark wood furniture and oil paintings- its simplicity seemed to suit him. Taking her coat, Serabin led her through a kitchen of grey marble counters and gleaming copper pots, up the stairs to the west wing of the sprawling house. Serabin had indeed already prepared a room in anticipation of her acceptance, and a fresh nightgown had been already laid out on the bed. A vase of lilacs sat on the bedside table, along with an open book. Quistis picked it up. "The Once and Future King," she read. She paused.
"This is your room, isn't it?"
"I thought you'd be most comfortable here. It has the best mattress, after all."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her. "It's no trouble. I've taken to sleeping in the study, as of late, when I'm able to sleep at all. There are fresh sheets on the bed, and I hope the nightgown is to your liking. I had my secretary pick out something for you, and I confess I'm not familiar with Ealeen's tastes. Please," he said, gesturing to the nightgown. "Change, and I'll have a pot of tea brought up."
She slipped into the plain silken nightgown, luxurious in its texture and modest enough in its cut to suit her. She slipped beneath the cool, clean sheets, and had just picked up the book from the nightstand when there was a soft knock at the door. "Come in."
Serabin appeared in the doorway, holding a tea tray. He'd taken off his dinner jacket, and wore his simple white dress shirt unbuttoned and untucked over his dark slacks. His hair hung loose now, and Quistis marveled at the difference it had on him. He looked more relaxed, less serious. She had often told him she preferred the change.
"A butler, too?" asked Quistis, raising an eyebrow. "You're a man of many talents, Serabin."
"I gave Remilda the night off." He handed her a mug of warm tea and smiled at her, noticing the open volume in her lap. "That book was always my favorite as a boy."
"I loved it, too, " said Quistis, smiling. "But it was so sad, wasn't it? I remember rereading it and rereading it, always hoping that in the end, it would end happier for Arthur and the others. Especially Arthur."
"Hic Iacet Arthurus Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus," said Serabin, settling himself next to Quistis and propping himself up against a pillow.
"Here lies Arthur, the once and future king," translated Quistis. "Did you really think he would return, though?"
"As a child, I always hoped so. It disheartened me that so much was left unsolved at the end of the book…I always thought Arthur would certainly return to right it. And now? The more cynical part of me would have me believe it was simply a testament to Arthur's memory, meant to extract his shining metal through all his misery and mistakes, so like us all."
Quistis set down the book. "Must all heroes be tragic? And intended for tragedy?"
Serabin's smile was distant. "I think it is the nature of the heroic to be forever lonely. Such is the price of placing all other interests above your own, is it not?"
"Mmm. You know what I think?" asked Quistis.
"I think Arthur does return one day, a wiser man, and rules a wiser kingdom. Maybe he even finds someone to love him, someone far more devoted than Guinevere."
Serabin was looking at her now, a soft, intent look that was not unfamiliar, and it was full of possibilities.
Perhaps, she thought, but not this way, she thought, not with anger and fear. Not with another still in her heart and that man's child inside of her. She cared for him far more than that.
Turning her head away from him, Quistis drank the last of her tea and set it on the bedside table. She turned to Serabin again, her head propped in her hand. "Would you read to me?"
Serabin smiled down at her. "As you wish. Shall I begin at the beginning?"
"No, the beginning is the bottom of the hill. No momentum. Start farther in."
Serabin picked up the book and opened it to a dog-eared page, and the room was at once filled with the dark, warm timbre of his voice. Quistis closed her eyes against the softness of the sound.
"It was the most marvelous room that he had ever been in. There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time."
Serabin paused in his reading to look down at her. She had cuddled up to him as he read and was now fast asleep, her hand warm against his side, the other splayed across her belly.
She dreamed of the ocean, and of a baby, smiling, with eyes as deep and endless as the sea.
Serabin lay awake and watched her sleep.
He could hear the tide rolling in, smell the mist and the moss on the rocks and the chill from the sand rising in the cooling dark. He could feel her skin against his, sweaty and warm, her breasts crushed against his chest, her folded legs slick against his thighs. He slid his hands up her back, tangled his hands in that long curtain of hair and pulled her head back, exposing the long white column of her throat to the moonlight, running his lips and tongue over he neck, her shoulder, running his other hand up and down her side and feeling the swell of her breast, the dip of her waist, the hardness of her hip bone as it ground into him. Her hands were everywhere; in his hair, gripping his shoulder- he could feel the sharp skim of her nails as she drew them up his back and threw back her head, and she was lovely, so fucking lovely, he didn't want it to end, and yet, if it didn't end soon, he was going to die-
"Seifer…" she whispered, and suddenly, he found her mouth in the darkness, kissing her hard, his teeth skimming her lips, his hand gripping the back of her neck, and there was that heat, her heat, her scent, and he was drowning in it-
Shit, he was drowning-
Seifer woke up in his hotel room, with a mouthful of water- naked, alone, and sopping wet, sprawled on the shower floor. Apparently, after returning (alone) to the hotel room last night, he had attempted to shower away his aching head (and erection) and had wound up passing out in the bathtub.
Great. Fucking great.
Using the shower curtain to pull himself to his feet, he sagged against the cold tile as he remembered the end of his evening, which was much less pleasant than his dream.
She had been sitting there, warm and soft and inviting, her soft skin and her tanzanite eyes, but it was wrong, all horribly fucking wrong. The curve of her smile was off by a few degrees, and the eyes, the color of the eyes was off-
"I can make you forget all about her tonight..."
Quistis was probably a few miles away, fucking Glyphias on a bed of gil and rose petals, and here he was, with a warm and willing woman in front of him, one that wasn't going to bitch about him about calling a plumber, or act like a fucking mime and expect him to figure out her feelings. He opened his mouth to answer and-
"I don't want to forget," he muttered the answer aloud, freezing and hung over as hell, pounding his fist into the wall.
Idiot. Instead of waking up in the embrace of a warm and willing woman, he had a headache that could shatter his skull and blue balls the size of Doomtrain. Fucking conscience.
This was how the good guys lived? Hell. No wonder Puberty Boy was so fucking cranky all the time.
"Moron," he told himself, unsure of what exactly he was berating himself for. It was times like these that he missed the old Seifer Almasy. Sure, that version of himself had been a narcissistic, self-indulgent prick, but at least he'd gotten laid occasionally. He'd had moments of excitement, and he'd certainly never done home maintenance with Hyperion. Dirk Strife didn't kill people, he didn't stay out all night drinking, and apparently he didn't get laid, either.
There were times he really hated Dirk Strife, the limp prick.
Seifer stared at the bathroom mirror. The holochip was still working, feebly, his hair flickered from long and dark to blonde and clipped, his eyes from grey to green. Snatching the chip off of his wrist, he flushed it down the toilet.
"LIVE." Fujin had said to him. It had been the last thing they'd talked about before she died. He felt a flash of anger at Fujin then, a kind of directionless fury that while she had wanted him to live, she hadn't told him how to do it.
Just who the fuck was he, anyway? Fallen war villain? Redeemed hero? Which one was he supposed to be, anyway? A dead man? A living ghost? A hero or a villain, which was it?
Fujin, Edea, they all wanted him to live, to move on, but what the hell was he supposed to do? Take a dead man's name and drape it over all of his scars, play house by the sea and forget he'd been a weak and witless puppet for a sadistic witch intent on colliding time?
"The person for whom you carry your guilt is dead. Leave his shadows in the past-"
"But which is the dream, child? The life you lead, or the life that chases you in your sleep?"
"We both know what you are…you're a natural. The only job you can do, you're already doing-"
"May you be as Helios, a guiding light for men-"
"The skeleton boy…would he like to come out and play, I wonder?"
"I believe in you. I have always believed in you-"
He blinked, realizing that somewhere in the course of his thoughts, he'd sunk his fist into the mirror. Small bits of broken glass rained down into the sink, and blood was starting to ooze out onto the cracked glass from his knuckles.
Wrapping his hand in a hotel towel, Seifer promptly crawled back into bed, curled up like a giant (still drunk) shrimp, and rolled out of bed at noon. Wincing as the water hit his hand, he took a proper shower and ordered room service. He sent Xu coded faxes of his latest findings through the portable machine Ceres had set him up with, and only kicked it twice in the process. Getting dressed, he walked around Esthar to clear his head while he waited for his pick-up, eating a double serving of nachos and drinking two bloody marys at a local diner to try to ease the heavy ache of his hangover. He also bought a huge bouquet of white lilies at a local flower stand, their perfume keeping him company on a park bench as he waited for his contact to arrive.
While he waited, he planned. He would go home, give Quistis the flowers assuming they survived the journey, apologize for being a jackass, and hopefully, Hyne willing (please), get laid, and try to make some sense of the mess going on in his head.
Then he saw the newspaper stand.
Quistis woke up to the smell of coffee and eggs, nestled comfortably in a sea of down comforter and 650 count Centrian Cotton sheets. The sheets on the other side of the bed were undisturbed, but Serabin's form was indented in the comforter. She smiled. Always a gentleman.
She found a robe waiting on a chair for her, and tying it securely around her waist, she went downstairs.
Instead of Serabin, however, she found a slim, dark-haired woman who was probably thirty years her senior. She was wearing a simple dark housedress and an apron, and looked older but sharp for her age. "Good morning, Miss Trepe," she said, giving her a small bow, "I am Remilda, Mr. Glyphias's housekeeper."
"Hello, Remilda," replied Quisits. "It's nice to meet you. Is Serabin-"
The slight woman bowed again. "Unavoidable and unexpected business. He sends his regrets. In the meantime, I am to relay his message to stay as long as you like, and to make you anything you desire for breakfast." The matronly woman folded her hands. "What shall it be? Eggs benedict, waffles…Mr. Glyphias informs me your are partial to pancakes, I could whip up a batch of blueberry and cream cheese pancakes with fresh maple syrup, if you like?"
"That would be wonderful,if it's not too much trouble." replied Quistis, taking a seat at the large marble countertop.
"A glass of juice?" asked Remilda. "Tomato, orange, apple?"
"Orange juice, please," replied Quistis, and within seconds, a tall glass had been placed in front of her. Quistis took a sip- it tasted freshly squeezed. Why was she surprised?
"Would you prefer to sit at the dining table?" asked the housekeeper, gesturing towards a very long, very ornate oak table complete with candelabra and a beautiful flower arrangement of orchids, lilacs, and lilies…all of her favorite flowers. It seemed terribly long and elegant and lonely at the large table…and Quistis had been feeling lonely enough these days without the additional solitude.
"Does Serabin often take his meals there?"
"Only when he has guests. Usually, he keeps me company at the island, here, while I prepare his meals."
"Then I will as well, if you don't mind."
"Not at all. Serabin had those flowers brought in his morning," said Remilda, gathering the arrangement from the table and placing it in front of her on the counter so that she could smell their lovely perfume. "I believe there's a card there for you, somewhere."
Taking a sip of her orange juice, Quistis located and opened the card hidden within the lovely bouquet.
My dear Quistis,
Thank you for the wonderful evening. I can't remember when I've had a better time- except, of course, than that time we spent in Esthar together all those years ago. Unfortunately, unavoidable business has called me away this morning, and I'm afraid I will be gone for the duration of the day and part of next. Please, allow Remilda to fix you whatever you'd like (she's an excellent cook), and feel free to stay as long as you wish- the house is yours. I have a full library to occupy your time, and I have informed my chauffeur, Tonin, that he is to escort you wherever you desire. Should you need to depart, however, Remilda can arrange for my private helicopter to transport you. Please believe, however, that nothing would make me happier than to return to find you here.
If you desire anything, please inform Remilda- she has resource enough to attend to your every wish (in addition to being my housekeeper, she is also something of an assistant).
Quistis, I hope you remember our conversation last night, and that you believe me when I say I will take care of Shinra. I am even now attending to it. When I asked you if you trusted me (before we were so rudely interrupted), I believe you were about to say 'yes'.
Please believe me when I say, also, that I shall do all I can to earn, and to maintain that trust. I do not wish for you to worry.
You are familiar now with my direct line. Do not hesitate to call me, for any reason, and should you require or desire it, my home shall always be yours as well. Nothing would make me happier for you (and eventually, the baby) to stay here, with me.
I remain your devoted friend,
Quistis sighed, neatly folding up the handwritten note and tucking it into the pocket of her bathrobe. Remilda had already started the pancakes, and the warm, homey scent of browning batter made her stomach rumble. The two women chatted easily as her breakfast cooked, Remilda being as adept at conversation as she apparently was at cooking and cleaning, and afterward, Quistis spent part of the day in Serabin's study, tracing her hands along the hundreds of leather-bound spines and curling up in his big leather chair, staring out the window between chapters. She arranged for Serabin's private jet to escort her back the next day, and spend the day walking the streets, reading Serabin's old books, and buying a few gifts for her generous host (as well as a few maternity items). She considered it a kind of vacation- in a day, she would have to go back to the real world, which was cold and complicated and not at all like the wonderful books in Serabin's study, in which people had adventures and thoughts and always which were always wonderful, and always resolved.
The Estharian streets outside of Serabin's gates were lively- Quistis watched the vendors push their carts and the human traffic come and go, chattering animatedly.
Something buzzed in her pocket, and Quistis realized that she had slipped her communicator off of her dresser into the robe. She brought it to her ear.
"This is Quistis."
"Trepe, what the fuck did you do?!" Quistis held the phone away from her ear, wincing at Xu's less-than-dulcet tones. "I get a notice this morning from the Shinra Science Division with the notice that they're terminating our leasing rights agreements on every single one of the sites, owing to a violation of the contract."
At Quistis's silence, Xu's fury seemed to triple. "Well?"
"Well, what?" asked Quistis calmly, absently tracing patterns against the softly swelling skin of her belly.
"Well, what the fuck happened?"
They hadn't told her? "Shinra wanted more materials for testing. I refused."
"They've been bloodletting you for weeks," snapped her friend. "Surely one more hunk of tissue couldn't make that much difference."
Anger swelled in Quistis, anger that had been festering at her friend from the moment Xu had sabotaged her with the contracts in the first place. It crawled out of that place that had for so long taken up the better portion of her expressions, the 'don't make trouble place', and exploded full-force, carried by her fury at Hojo. "If it's no big deal, why not ship yourself to Shinra and strap yourself down in one of their chairs, and let that swine Hojo leer over you like a zoo animal?"
"If they had wanted me, I would have. I don't understand why now, of all the fucking times, you have to-"
"I don't care if you understand or not! I'm done!" shouted Quistis, gripping the phone with enough force to make the plastic covering groan. "You're going to have to find some other sacrificial maiden-"
"Sacrificial maiden my ass, you were asked to do one simple thing for this institution-"
"You asked me?" replied Quistis, seething. "You sent me in blind with no advanced notice, no warning, no-"
"-and it pales in comparison to the other shit you've done over the years, without being asked-"
"-don't you dare confuse the work I've done as a mercenary with this shit errand you contracted me into-" retorted Quistis, dimly aware that some of Seifer's language was rubbing off on her.
"I wasn't aware," replied Xu nastily, "That your dedication to this place had been reduced to the point of favors. Or that you now required handling with kid gloves."
Cold fury washed through Quistis. "Tell you what, Xu. Since my dedication is lacking, you can be Garden's new prized pig. It's easy, no phenomenal anomaly, really, no miracle, just like I've been trying to tell you all along! Just stock up on spells, walk outside, and blow your fucking veins to kingdom come!"
"Quistis, at least explain what the hell-"
"I'm not returning to Shinra, not for any reason, ever. I'm done." Replied Quistis. "And if you didn't owe me a warning, then I certainly don't owe you an explanation. Goodbye, Xu."
With that, Quistis shut off the communicator, removed the batteries, and threw the rest of it down Serabin's state-of-the-art garbage disposal, listening to the crunch and crackle of the plastic and the wiring with no small amount of satisfaction.
She spent the rest of the day in Serabin's vast library, combing through old stories and wondering how her own was going to resolve itself, putting off the moment when she knew she would have to return home.
The Shinra Science Division had no formal hours- the lights were always on, and there was always a pot of coffee brewing somewhere within the lab. In sector C, Gast and Hojo often worked well into the night, gathering print-out, running gels, harvesting samples, and generally ignoring the other's existence.
The two men had been working for over 34 hours straight when the flashing light on the grid made Gast glance up from his coffee and his notes.
"Alarm in Sector G. Shall I call security?"
"No need." Hojo glared up at the tall figure partially illuminated in the doorway. "The breach is right here."
It was Serabin Glyphias's form darkening the doorway. His normally elegant appearance was disheveled- his silver hair had come out of its pony tail and draped wildly down his back. He was holding something behind him, but it was too dark to make out.
As Serabin stepped forward, his green eyes seemed to glow in the dark, and Gast had to remind himself that the effect it was simply a result of the prolonged Mako exposure.
"You will destroy all reports and samples relevant to Quistis Trepe."
"What?" said Hojo.
"I won't ask you again." Without looking, Serabin kicked over a table of test tubes, which shattered.
Hojo got to his feet. "You come into my laboratory at this hour, threatening me, demanding data to which you have no right? You have destroyed valuable equipment…unacceptable!"
Serabin walked forward and picked him up as if he weighed nothing, pinning him to the wall by his neck and sending several sheaths of papers and test tubes flying. "You have upset her. This I find unacceptable."
Hojo met the man's gaze across the arm keeping him aloft."Gghhhhtnnnn…what are you….talking about…"
"Quistis Trepe. Wrack your formidable brains and I am confident it will come to you."
Hojo's eyes narrowed. "Her blood and whatever thing is inside of her belong to the Shinra corporation-" he began, although, with his neck compressed, it sounded more like a garbled babble than a coherent sentence.
"You own nothing." He leaned in, closer, a twisted sneer on his face. "Shinra rents the world and its resources, for the time being, and you are its humble parasite. You understand nothing."
Hojo struggled, gasping for breath. "You need me, you idiot."
Serabin tilted his head, a nasty smile on his face. "Do I?"
Gast's hand hovered over the emergency call button.
Serabin adjusted his grip on the doctor's neck, squeezing more tightly still. Hojo's legs now kicked feebly in the air.
Gast moved to stop him, but Serabin simply extended the item in his hand. "Stay back, Dr. Gast. I do not wish for you to get involved."
The thing in Serabin's hand now came into full view then: it was a longsword at least five feet in length, its wicked edge winking at them in the light. Serabin wielded the blade as easily as if it were nothing more than a matchstick.
Hojo also shook his head at Gast, holding up a hand for him to stay where he was.
"Without me...the treatment stops..." gasped Hojo. "You need me."
The young man lifted a shoulder. "For now, perhaps."
As Hojo began to turn a mottled purple, Gast reflected that between the broken nose and this near-asphixiation, the doctor was having somewhat of a poor week concerning subject feedback. He was only half-ashamed of his thoughts.
"You will renew the Garden contract concerning Draw point use." Said Serabin.
"I don't believe you." Serabin sneered down at him, increasing the weight on Hojo's throat. "But listen closely, because I very much want you to believe me. From this moment, for every tear you make her cry, I will squeeze an equivalent amount of marrow from your bones. Even an insect understands self-preservation, doesn't it?"
When Hojo nodded, Serabin released him, and the scientist sagged limply to the ground, clutching at his throat and gasping for breath.
"Good evening to you, Gast. I apologize for the late hour."
Without further words, Serabin presented them with his back, stepping over the broken door as if it were a perfectly normal way to exit a room.
Gast got up, helping Hojo to his feet. "You can no longer control him, Hojo." Said Gast quietly. "This has gone far enough. End the trial."
Hojo rubbed his neck as he got to his feet. "I will tell you when it has gone far enough. He will do nothing- he needs us."
"Yes. For now," said Gast grimly, echoing Serabin's words.
"Maybe you'll think twice about those Jelleye now," Quistis told Styx, gently dabbing a swab soaked in vinegar onto the dog's swollen nose. Usually, the Jelleye were most common on the Abadon Plains, but Quistis supposed it was a testament to the current shifting currents that they had shown up here as well. The dog was lucky that the monster he'd chosen to chase through the shallow surf was a juvenile- an adult would have done much more damage.
Styx whimpered in response, his tail tucked between his legs as he endured her ministrations. She'd stitched up his snout here the Jelleye's barb had torn through the skin, and, after the vinegar, intended to ease the sting, she applied a thick coat of triple antibiotic paste around the wound. She would have given anything to have her healing magic back in times like these, but contented herself with what she could do rather than lamenting what she couldn't.
Cerberus was watching the process with some canine disdain, as if he could not quite believe he'd propagated such a dense creature.
Taking a critical look at her work, Quistis sat back in her chair. "There, all finished. That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Styx thumped his tail on the floor good-naturedly, the indignities of home-surgery already forgotten. Smiling, Quistis gave him a treat from the biscuit tin on the counter, and Cerberus one as well, because he had been supportive (if not superior-looking) throughout the process.
Quistis heard the screen door slam shut. "Seifer?" she asked, getting to her feet. It couldn't be Rajin, as he had just set off for a four-day excursion at sea…unless he had forgotten something.
The young man in question stomped into the kitchen, looking both muddy and murderous as he slammed a folded newspaper down onto the counter.
Quistis found a mix of emotions rise at seeing him: happiness, that he was back, anger at their last conversation, dread at the talk that loomed ahead of them….
"Mind telling me what the fuck this is?"
Quistis glanced down at the paper: THE ESTHAR SUN.
She leaned over, frowning. "Esthar industry showing marked improvement in-"
"Open it up." he cut her off, seething.
"Just open it up!"
Giving him a strange look, Quistis opened the newspaper, her eyes widening as she took in a picture of herself and Serabin at the Esthar Inn. Her eyes were closed and his hand was on her hair and cheek in what looked like an affectionate caress.
"GALBADIAN POLITICS IN BED WITH BALAMB GARDEN?"
Quistis blinked. "Seifer, this is-"
The young man's gaze fairly glittered with fury. "What is it about him, anyway? Is it the money, the fame? Does he have a 12 inch dick, what the fuck is it?"
"Seifer, this isn't what it looks-"
"What?" he snarled. "You're trying to tell me that isn't you-" He jammed his finger down with enough force to tear the paper. "And that isn't Serabin fucking Glyphias?"
"It's completely innocent!" Exasperated, Quistis set the paper down. "I was talking to him about…I've been trying to tell you-"
"Tell me what, exactly? That you've been out screwing the ex-Galbadian Headmaster every chance you got? That you're done slumming it and you're ready to fuck your way up the political ladder? Well, don't let me stop you!"
Quistis' cheeks were beginning to heat as well as she jumped to her feet. "If you'd just calm down and listen to me, I'd be able to tell you! I was upset, and Serabin was just trying to help-"
"And doing a bang up job of it too, from the looks of it," replied Seifer nastily, filling up a glass of water from the sink before turning to face her as she approached him. "Did he help you out of your clothes, too?"
They were nearly toe to toe now- she could feel the heat from his breath wash over her cheeks. Not for the first time, she loathed the very real gap in their height because she couldn't stare him in the eye without having to look up. "Well, you're never here to do it! In fact, you're never here for anything!" she shot back, gritting her teeth. "In fact, when was the last time you laid a hand on me? You certainly don't seem to want me anymore, so what do you care if I fucked him, or if I didn't?"
"I DON'T!" Seifer hurled the glass- it shattered against the opposite wall. Quistis winced, but she didn't back down from him.
Silence stretched between them, cold and thick and threatening. Both of them were breathing hard, glaring daggers at the other.
Quistis looked down and realized that one hand was splayed over her stomach, shielding the secret from her anger and his. She wasn't going to tell him now, wasn't about to throw it out there with anger and resentment. It wasn't bad news...shouldn't be bad news. She refused to tell him like this.
"Fuck this shit." he said. "Let me know if you come up with anything to say that's not a bunch of half-assed lying crap."
To Quistis's own fury, she found her eyes filling with tears. Damnit, not now, of all the times…
"I'll try to come up with something that you'll believe the next time you happen to pass through," she replied, her voice as stable as she could make it.
"You know what, don't even bother," he replied, storming out of the room. "I'm fucking done."
The screen door slammed behind him, and she could hear the dogs barking again.
Quistis stood and seethed after him, her fists balled at her side. The motorcycle's engine revved and roared- the sound of him pulling away was a shriek of rubber and a blare of muffler that trailed into the silence. She seemed to melt into the chair in front of her and let her head fall into her hands- tears spilled freely down her cheeks.
You should have told him.
If you told him, he would have left sooner.