AN: What the hell was I thinking with this story? I can't seem to leave this thing alone, but finishing it seems nearly impossible as well. For fun, I opened the document the other day, and this is what came out. The song Rinoa's singing is 'King and Lionheart' by Of Monsters and Men...it's a great song with a great music video that I thought was appropriate for obvious reasons. And as for Quistis's new get-up, think Ivan Vanko from Iron Man 2. Thanks to all who are still following. As long as there are people out there who want to read this story, I promise I'll try to finish it. Also, if there's anyone out there that wouldn't mind being a beta, I'd be more than grateful. I do read over a 'finished' chapter several times, but I don't always catch all mistakes.
Quistis spent the next few weeks in a kind of daze, wandering through her day without really looking at anything and barely remembering her conversations with others. Most mornings, she rolled directly out of bed and lurched headfirst into the toilet, then spent the rest of the day nibbling saltine crackers and sipping club soda in the lab, re-reading the same paragraphs over and over again.
She found herself picking up the phone several times to call him, but she had always replaced the receiver. What could she say? Moreover, what could he? He had made it abundantly clear he didn't trust her, and his absence over the last few months had stung her more than she could put into words. What would he say if she asked him why he'd been back so little?
Maybe the problem wasn't the questions themselves. Maybe the problem was that she didn't want to know any of the answers. And if she was afraid of what they had become, well, what hope was there for him?
What could she say, really, with that mistrust between them? More than once, she imagined revealing her news to him only to have him ask whose it was, words she knew she could never forgive him for. The feeling those imaginary conversations evoked was enough to make her roll away from the phone each night, her hands balled into fists and angry tears standing in her eyes. She refused to let any fall, however. Quistis knew as a soldier to acknowledge wounds only made them take longer to heal.
After almost a month of solid misery, of spending her days hunched over in the bathroom and every free moment with her head out of the toilet feeling sorry for herself, her daily sickness seemed to lift. She began to grow tired of self-pity and to seek out the company of others. It was in Quistis' nature to survive, if not to flourish- she was her mother's daughter, after all.
She began accepting Selphie's invitations to lunch and accompanying Zell on his morning jogs around the Quad. Irvine usually stopped by her room every other evening to relax, draping his long legs across her couch, catching popcorn in his mouth and making her laugh. Often, he brought a movie tucked under his arm and the two usually chatted into the evening, drinking tea and laughing at the latest B-rated disaster that Laguna Loire always seemed to manage guest-starring in. Xu was conspicuously absent, and Quistis knew that with as stubborn as they both were, that absence was likely to continue for awhile. She missed her friend, but she wasn't quite ready to forgive Xu for feeding her to the sharks. There was also the fact that if Xu knew she was pregnant, she would by rule be kicked out of Garden, and for now, she needed a place to stay. Fortunately, Kadowaki was keeping her mouth shut...for now.
Even Squall had stopped by her room to take her to dinner last week. They'd stopped at the Wharf, eating stone crabs over newspapers with wooden mallets, bare hands slippery with butter, chatting until close. While they ate, Squall mentioned that Rinoa would be in Balamb with Zack next week, and that they were both looking forward to seeing her. Squall had also mentioned wanting to take on a smaller role at the Garden, now that Rinoa was entering her second trimester and Zack was growing so quickly. Xu had begun picking out prospective candidates, and Quistis remembered a few from her old classes as they discussed their potential. Quistis privately wondered at Squall's ability to stay in the background of things, but maybe that was what all of them really wanted- a place away from the front lines for a change. Whether or not they could learn to live that way was a different matter entirely.
Squall was still rough around the edges, socially, but Quistis was impressed with how far he'd progressed. Years ago, he'd been a virtually mute emo kid with a silly fur jacket and a big chip on his shoulder, and here he was now, husband, father, and even the kind of friend that took his more pathetic friends out to dinner. If Squall could be a father, reasoned Quistis, why couldn't she be a mother?
She ignored the niggling voice in her head that said Rinoa had something to do with it and checked out every book in the local Balamb library on parenting, making notes on a separate piece of paper as she read. Quistis had approached her career as a soldier tactically- she knew no other way to function. So far, she'd learned about swaddling, SIDs, and the advantages of breast feeding vs. formula, and whether or not to let them sleep on their stomachs. She had yet to tackle which kinds of cribs were best to buy, or at what age babies started to eat solid food, but figured that 5 more months would be enough to acquire all necessary child-rearing equipment and to do the necessary research to plan for the child's first five years. She supposed Rinoa would be amused at her tactical plan to child-rearing, but it was how she approached everything else, and she didn't know how to stop now.
At four months, Quistis' stomach was now growing harder and slightly distended, and soon, she knew, it was going to be impossible to hide. For now her white lab coat shrouded her like a pale tent, but Quistis knew that eventually she would have to tell the others...or tell them she'd swallowed a beach ball.
Quistis had no idea why it was so hard to tell her news- despite her situation, she was happy about the baby, and often found herself doodling possible names in the margins of her anatomy texts. Would it be a boy? A girl? Would she be a good mother? The only thing she found she knew for certain was that she was not going to abandon this child, not for anyone or anything. She remembered Rinoa's letters about Zack, about the wonder of loving someone so much so soon that you had never met before. At the time, she had been baffled at the idea, but now, she found she understood it perfectly. It the span of time that it had taken Kadowaki to reveal the news to her, she had gone from Quistis Trepe to something else, something more, someone who was willing to die to protect the perfect stranger that grew inside her.
Her child. She traced the alien curve of her belly and smiled.
All her life Quistis Trepe had been a practical person, one grounded in what was rather than what she wished it to be. Concerning her future, she had always held a pragmatic view that leaned a little towards the pessimistic. But now, she found, after her brief childhood, after two wars and several heartbreaks, she had emerged as something different. Like the others, she had changed.
She had no cause to think that this child would survive, and no reason to hope it would be healthy if it did. She had no reason to think she'd make a good mother, or to rationalize that everything was going to work out for the best. And yet, for the first time in Quistis' jaded life, she dared to embrace an emotion she'd long ago forsaken as childish and impractical.
It burned in her breast, scaring her and thrilling her, filling her with a light that terrified as it illuminated, but she hoped just the same.
Serabin sat by himself in the study, the room illuminated by the lamps of the city that cast long, thin strips of pale light onto the oriental rugs.
A book lay open in his lap and an ice pack lay across his arm at Remilda's insistence, to reduce the swelling that had flared up around the Materia sphere again. All the ice pack was doing, however, was dripping down his arm. Remilda had gone home for the night long ago, leaving the large townhouse empty of her usual bustling sounds and inquiries. After living for so many years amongst the constant noise of Garden, Serabin found he missed the noise...the distractions...the layer of thought and sensation over his own troubling thoughts.
He looked at the pages of his book on the Lunar Cry analysis, staring but not actually seeing any of the words. A large fire crackled in front of him (also at Remilda's insistence), but he was still cold.
He was alone, and not alone.
The voices were returning.
They came like whispers from the fire; in fact, they almost seemed a part of the pops and hisses from the logs. They rose and spoke to him like old ghosts...like old friends forsaken.
They had spoken to him since he was a child, since he could remember, really, murmuring in his ears just before he fell asleep, whispering to him when he hid from Matron Pilkas in the old sycamore tree at the Eldas Children's Orphanage... talking to him through the gloom of those long and solitary days.
Sometimes they asked questions- other times, there was news of hurts, of scars, of changes- the voices male and female, young and old, and sometimes, a voice that was neither male nor female, but loud and insistent, a mix of pitches all balled into one that spoke of happiness and pain and of a 'WE' Serabin did not understand. He could not remember ever being afraid of the voices- they had simply always been there, as familiar as limbs.
They were the Nowheres, the voices that came from the cracks and crevices in his attention, and they kept him company during those early days at the orphanage when he was longing for parents he could now no longer remember.
He had been alone as long as he could remember. The other children had avoided him- no one wanted to play with the boy who talked to shadows. He could not remember really missing their company- their petty squabbles and temporary loyalties, their jeers and insults. They had seemed a world away to him, even then. He was not like them. They were not like him. They did not understand.
He remembered telling Matron Pilkas about the conversations, early on, when she asked who he was talking to one day in the garden. He remembered her old- sun-pruned face tightening up in the familiar sneer of disapproval all the children came to be familiar with, her bony fingers pinching his cheek hard enough to leave a red mark.
"Ridiculous boy! What family would take you in, with such nonsense about voices in your head? If you persist, you'll be in an institution, in your very own rubber room!"
-after that, he told Matron Pilkas nothing.
After that, he was a Good Little Boy that made his bed and ate his vegetables and did not talk to the Nowheres anymore- in fact, he talked to no one at all. The immaculately dressed and polite little boy had made an impression on all couples that came, and he was adopted by one of the most influential senators in Dollet, who later moved to Esthar on a rare grant of relocation.
Esthar had seemed so big to him, a gleaming, face-paced paradise of strangers. At the Glyphius mansion with its tall, cold and empty rooms and long silences, he was that same Good Little Boy. He made his bed, ate his vegetables, and he did not speak unless spoken to. This unnatural coldness did not bother his adopted parents in the slightest, so long as he smiled in the photographs and behaved himself at the diplomatic dinners. He had enrolled at Galbadian Garden when he was 12 years old, transferring to the SeeD program four years later. He studied hard, worked harder, and studied the Ancient magics in his leisure. He found friends in fellow comrades and instructors. In time, the voices had fallen into a silence so complete it was easy to pretend that they had been some obscure part of his childhood, as faded and removed as dreams.
They had begun again at Shinra...as if they had never left at all.
Floating in the fluid-filled tank with only the silence of the lab and his own thoughts, the whispers had stirred. During the treatments, they had strengthened from murmurs into full-fledged voices, and now, they crackled in his ears like bad static as he leaned forward in his chair, rubbing his temples.
"-aren't listening-" "...why aren't you listening? Have you forgotten?"
"...why aren't you listening? Have you forgotten?"
-the book he'd been reading fell to the floor in a heap of sprawling pages, rustling like a bird's beating wing. Slowly, he bent to pick it up, wincing as the materia in his arm throbbed with the action.
"-'s been a long time, little one-"
Serabin drained the rest of his wine and squinted, but it did not lessen the pounding. What had begun as a tapping in his head had grown into an insistent throbbing, and now knife-sharp stabs were clouding his vision, swimming with spots of light and color and sound, and the thunder of voices was rolling back again-
"wanted to see her again, one last time, will you tell her-"
"-was a little boy then, remembering the-"
"-worried about my mother, she was real sad-"
"Stop it," he hissed.
The pain was getting worse, and his arm was tingling, burning-
-No, his arm was engulfed, it was bubbling, the skin popping open around the sphere and blood bursting from the wound-
"-didn't mean to do those bad things-"
"-didn't want to go, but it was warm here, safe-"
"-can't find him, do you know where he is?"
"-you've forgotten the words-"
He tried to stagger up, away-
"-where is my little boy? Where did he go? He was just beside me-"
-and as he staggered to his feet he heard the wine glass shatter, a bright and sharp and far away sound-
"-have to help, draining-"
"-feel their pain, all my children...hurting..."
-he felt his knees give and something warm and wet spurt onto his arm, felt his skull strike the floor like some distant bell.
"-where is my little boy have to help was warm here didn't mean to just beside me my children leaving-"
Serabin laid his skull back down on the wooden floor and let the voices wash over him, his eyes squeezed shut. After a time, they quieted to a dull murmur, like the throbbing in his arm. Serabin cracked an eye open, his vision blurring.
"Where is my little boy? Have you seen him?"
How much time had passed? Days? Hours? He closed his hand into a fist, feeling the burn around the wound, but the pain was far away.
I am going crazy...
As his vision faded, he heard Remilda scream as her feet came into view, dropping the morning groceries, and then there was nothing, nothing at all, no voices and no pain, and his last thought was that he was glad of the silence.
He slept like an angel, black hair curling at the nape of his neck, his head resting on her arm and his breaths short and warm against her breast. She brushed a lock of hair off his forehead and rocked back in the chair. It was still the beginning of spring, and the air carried a chill. She'd wrapped them both up in an old quilt of Edea's, and told him all his favorite stories until he fell asleep. Beyond the porch, the waves, sprinkled with starlight, rolled in.
She liked the music of the sea. It had a rhythm, a predictability that hammered like a heartbeat against the rocks. So much of the world was chaos, anarchy, and though parts of her relished in that aspect of it, the mother in her craved dependability- if not for herself, then for her children. But tonight, the music of the water brought her no comfort.
Squall would be there at the end of the week, and though she knew his arrival wasn't for days, she caught herself watching the horizon more than once for the silhouette of the White SeeD ship.
With Zack's warm form nestled against hers and her unborn baby fluttering inside her, Rinoa closed her eyes and tried to focus on the warmth of the quilt. Softly, she sang to them.
"And in the winter night sky ships are sailing,
Looking down on these bright blue city lights.
And they won't wait, and they won't wait, and they won't wait.
We're here to stay, we're here to stay, we're here to stay."
Howling ghosts they reappear
In mountains that are stacked with fear
But you're a king and I'm a lionheart.
Zack nestled close to her in his sleep, unconsciously comforted by her voice. Rinoa stared out at the water, hugging Zack closer to her chest. The flicker of wave and starlight beyond the crest of the dunes. Across that water, she told herself, Squall was waiting.
But across the ocean, across time, something else was waiting, too.
She shut her eyes.
Just a little longer...let me keep them just a little longer...please...
"And as the world comes to an end
I'll be here to hold your hand
'Cause you're my king and I'm your lionheart.
Though he would have liked to avoid the man as much as possible, their mutual project and shared workspace ensured that Gast ran into Hojo at least once a day.
That day's encounter transpired as the head scientist was collecting his mail. One particular envelope held his interest- an inter-office memo from another lab.
"How is Subject 16C?"
"Serabin? He is improving," replied Gast. "I've removed the spheres, for now."
"I've reanalyzed the results in our rodent test subjects, and relative to weight, I suspect the concentrations were too high by about .57KJ," said Hojo, tossing away an envelope without opening it. "I'll recalibrate the concentrations, and we'll re-implant once the swelling goes down. It's a minor setback."
For Serabin Glyphius, who had needed 15 stitches to close the gash in his arm, Gast privately thought that the miscalculation in Materia concentration had been more than a minor setback, but kept his thoughts to himself as he opened his mail.
Gast frowned. "This is a memo from Hollander from Project G. He's requesting an update on the glycolysis results concerning Specimen 24777-A. According to this memo, it's the second request he's sent in the last month."
In Gast's mind, Hojo's lack of response was adequate proof of guilt.
Gast's eyes narrowed. "Lest you forget, Hollander had the same access to 24777-A years ago, before we transported the specimen here. He's used the samples, too, you've seen the results-"
"Those 'things' are not results." The doctor jerked his head, as if physically shaking off the idea of Hollister's vastly inferior experiments. "Soon, Hollander will be a mere memory at this place, and you know it. Shinra is not pleased with his results, with half of a success and most of a failure."
"Be that as it may, this request will be filed," said Gast, waving the paper, "And it will come to light eventually that we have not been disclosing our findings with the other sections, with the other projects, that we have not been maximizing the potential of this new discovery by limiting our findings to our department only-"
"If Hollister wants the results, he can come to the lab and get them. I am not his errand boy." replied Hojo. "The preparations for the conference are finished, anticipating a more successful implantation of the new materia samples in 16C," added Hojo, setting a folder on his desk as he passed. The door slid shut behind him.
"You are two of a kind, you and Hollister." Gast muttered angrily. "There is an Ancient in our midst, a discovery that contains not only a lost culture, but the key to preserving a dying race, and all you and Hollander can think about is the military advancements, of personal distinctions and self-advancement-" The doctor trailed off as he realized he was speaking aloud to an empty room. It was an increasing occurrence, lately.
Grabbing the memo and a file labeled "Glycolysis Analysis: Specimen 2477-A," Gast exited the lab. Hollander's section was located on a lower level of the building, and by the time the elevator doors opened, Gast's frustration with Hojo had dissipated. Gast was not a man that clung to anger- his predominant emotions were mostly those of caring and curiosity- and he did not like to dwell on upsetting matters long. Working in close quarters with men like Hollander and Hojo meant that Gast accumulated and released a substantial amount of frustration during day to day activities.
The doors ahead read "PROJECT G" in large block letters. Below it was a smaller sign that read 'TESTING IN PROGRESS-NO FOOD OR DRINK PAST THIS POINT.' Swiping his keycard through the security terminal, Gast walked inside.
For those expecting a sterile laboratory environment with bubbling beakers and blinking machines, the first room provided a bit of a shock. Carpeting had been put down on the cold tile floors, and two small cots had been bolted to the wall on either side of the room. Motion cameras swiveled their mechanical necks to face him as he stepped into the small area. The overall impression of the room was cold and sterile and unremarkable, until you noticed the occupants.
Two children sat close to one another on the floor, enraptured over a book held by none other than Serabin Glyphias, who was reading aloud to them. A large bandage was wrapped around the arm draped across his knee, and his still-oozing wound was beginning to bleed through the gauze again. Serabin did not look up at Gast's entrance, but continued reading.
"You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one's tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don't want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror."
"What's he mean, like drawing in a mirror?" interrupted one of the children, a raven-haired boy with startling blue eyes.
"Well, have you ever stood in front of a mirror?" Serabin asked the boy.
"Well, everything's backwards, isn't it? Your right side is your left, and your left your right. It's hard to know what's what, isn't it, with your directions mixed up? You'd have to make everything backwards, draw backwards, to make it the same as it is outside of the mirror. That would be difficult, wouldn't it?"
The boys nodded.
"Well, time is the same way. It doesn't have the same rules, so it's difficult to see things clearly when you try to look through it from where you are."
"Is is different for everyone, then? Time, I mean?" asked the other boy, his knees drawn up to his chest, looking thoughtful beyond his few years.
"Yes," said Serabin simply. "Some people have a lot of time, while others have very little. For some people, time moves very quickly, while for others, things seem take a very long while."
"Nicely put," said Gast, smiling, making both boys look up.
Serabin looked up also, his unchanging expression indicating that he had been aware of the doctor's presence for some time. "What brings you here today, Dr. Gast?"
"I could ask you the same question," replied the doctor.
"These two were in the med-bay for blood draws, so I thought I'd accompany them back."
Sure enough, each boy sported a small band aid in the crook of his elbow.
"I'm glad to see you're feeling better," said Gast.
"Much, thank you." Serabin handed the book to the raven-haired boy, getting to his feet. "I became aware of this project through Hojo some time ago, but I was curious to see it for myself."
"Hojo told you about the project?"
"Inadvertently, I'm sure," replied the Ex-SeeD, flexing his injured arm.
"And your thoughts on it?"
"As I am not a scientist, I'm sure they are irrelevant," said Serabin. His tone was deceptively light.
"Mister Glyphias?" asked the other child; a small, brunette boy with metal-blue eyes. "Will you come back again and read to us sometime?"
"I'll try," replied the former SeeD, patting the boy on the head. "In the meantime, you can keep the book."
"Thanks." The child smiled and returned to the other boy's side. They looked too young to be able to read independently, but seemed to be enjoying the pictures all the same.
Serabin, however, was frowning. A few strands of the boy's hair had come loose when he'd patted the child on the head- among them a stark white strand that stood out from the rest.
"May I?" asked Gast.
Wordlessly, Serabin handed over the strands, and Gast clamped them in his clipboard. The children, engrossed in the book, noticed nothing.
A young woman came out from the main lab, pocketing a set of syringes. "Dr. Gast," she said, looking startled. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Only this," said Gast, handing her the file. "See that Hollander receives this report, won't you? He'll know what it is."
"I should leave as well," said Serabin. "Thank you, Margia, for allowing me to stay with the boys."
The assistant smiled at him with genuine warmth. "Of course, Serabin. Come back any time."
The two men found themselves the sole occupants of the elevator. Since the altercation with Hojo a few weeks ago, Gast had seen very little of Serabin. Though he probably should have, he did not feel particularly uneasy in the man's presence, assuming correctly that Serabin's animosity was entirely directed at Hojo.
"With your permission, I'll sign myself out of Shinra's care."
"Certainly," replied Gast. "If you are feeling better, Miss Crescent can take your vitals and supply with you some ointment and bandages before you go. Some aspirin and a topical NSAID for the pain and swelling. We will try re-implantation in three weeks, if you are still amenable."
"I would understand, of course, if you no longer wished to continue the experiment," added Gast.
"And I appreciate your concern, but I would like to see things through," replied the young man.
"It was kind of you, giving them the book."
"They have no other toys," replied Serabin.
"They are not always at the lab," said Gast. "They have homes, mothers, to return to."
"But not fathers?"
At Gast's silence, Serabin's eyes narrowed. "They are still children, whatever else they are while they are here." There was an icy vein in the young man's tone now, an ominous undercurrent beneath those ever-present manners.
Gast studied the look in the young man's eyes- Mako eyes were difficult to read- too bright, too cold. "You will not be unhappy, I think, when your collaborations with Shinra have ended?"
Serabin's gaze remained on the elevator door. "You are not wrong. I'll admit it surprises me that you are in a place like this, Dr. Gast. You seem to be concerned with science's capabilities for improving the quality of life, rather than exploiting it."
It occurred to Gast in that moment how very much of Serabin was contained behind the rigid soldier's disciplined he carried, from his expressions to his bearing to the things he thought about Shinra Corp. Always immaculately groomed, always polite and calm and composed, there seemed to be a darker current contained within the young man, a kind of constant tension that Gast had never noticed before.
And in that moment, though he had worked closely with the young man over the course of the last year, he wondered that he knew him at all...if anyone did.
The doctor chose his next words carefully. "Here, at Shinra, there are equipment and other resources that would not otherwise be available to me, and advancements I would be able to make nowhere else."
"I see," said Serabin, looking down at him now with those uncanny Mako eyes, bright and alive and terribly cold. "So, like Hojo, the ends justify the means?"
"You must believe in some of that," replied Gast, somewhat defensively. "You are here yourself."
"As a willing participant, yes," said Serabin. "The same, sadly, can not be said for the majority of Shinra's subjects, dead or alive, can it?"
"Progress demands sacrifice, the sacrifices of few benefiting the many," replied Gast. "Anyone who says differently is fooling themselves. As a soldier, I should think you would be intimately acquainted with such a notion."
"How interesting that you think the principals of science and war should be weighed on the same scales."
"Are they not the same in several respects?" asked Dr. Gast, as Serabin stepped off the elevator.
The former SeeD now looked him in the eye. "No. And I don't think you really believe that, either. If you did, your job here would be much easier, wouldn't it?"
The doctor had no response.
"Good day, Dr. Gast."
Dr. Gast rode up six extra floors before remembering to get off the elevator.
Quistis stared in wonderment at the tiny mass of black and white on the monitor, at the flicker of its two-dimensional organs within the surrounding darkness of the screen. The gel was cold on her belly, and her hand grasped at the crinkly paper on the table as she sat up for a better look. She wished for a moment that it was someone's hand that she was holding instead of the stainless steel table, but she dismissed it. Rinoa was an ocean away, and besides, her friend still had no idea what was going on. Still, it would have been nice to have a friendly face beside her, instead of an empty chair.
As Kadowaki had no equipment specifically for her condition, Quistis now went to a small private clinic on a few blocks away from the sea. The doctor was young and very kind, and did not wear the thin veneer of disapproval Quistis thought she caught on Kadowaki's face every time she looked at her. The relationship between the two women had been strained ever since the discovery of the baby.
"Ah, here it is." said the doctor.
The distorted thump of the heartbeat seemed to fill up the room.
"Would you like to know the sex?" asked the doctor kindly, grinning at the look of wonder on her face.
Quistis leaned in, squinting at the screen. "I…does everything look all right? Is it okay? The heart? Normal growth, normal dev-"
"Yes, everything looks fine. Normal. You can see the heart here, beating very healthy, and there's-"
"Normal. That's all I need to know," she said, smiling. "Just as long as it's okay."
The doctor smiled. "I can print out a few of the pictures for you, for you to show the proud father, if you like?"
At the mention of the father, Quistis's smile dimmed.
"I'm sorry," said the doctor quickly, flushing with embarrassment. "I thought, the ring-"
Quistis glanced down at the gold and silver band. She really needed to take it off, but the weight had grown comforting.
"No, it's all right. I know of quite a few people who would really like to see those, actually, and I'd love a copy for the baby book." She'd bought the photo album a week ago, the cover a shade of neutral yellow with little baby chocobos stuck to the front. The pages inside had a glossy laminate covering, perfect for pressing little scraps of papers, photos, even a lock of hair from a first haircut or a congratulatory card. Although Quistis was an aspiring doctor with an intern's meager salary, she already had a small collection of baby things in a small box in her closet, tucked away from the eyes of her visitors. Her secret collection was growing so quickly, she was running out of room to put her coats. She was beginning to feel like a gerbil hoarding nuts. Worse, she was beginning to feel nuts.
Quistis had already begun the hunt for a suitable apartment in Balamb, but was finding it a more daunting task than she could have anticipated. She had a list of addresses in her purse, and was planning to have a light lunch at the Wharf and go apartment hunting in the afternoon. So far, her housing excursions had met with little success, and it all had to do with the baby's room. Quistis had imagined a bright little room with wide windows, bright rugs, and room enough for a rocking chair, and so far, had only found cramped little bedrooms, and the only one with a window had been overlooking the fish market. But Quistis was not deterred; she would find a suitable place this afternoon, she was sure of it.
Her day was blessedly full to keep her mind off things; she had three more places to look at, and there was a consignment store she wanted to see for baby clothes. As part of her day out, she was also planning to treat herself to a giant plate of waffles at the cafe down the street. She also needed to call Serabin, and thank him for the flowers.
Since her visit to Esthar, he had sent her a bouquet of different flowers every week to her room Garden, always with a small personal card attached that Quistis knew he did not really have time to write. This week, it was a large bouquet of Estharian lilies that Quistis felt compelled to lean over and smell every time she walked by. Serabin had again mentioned his offer of Quistis coming to live with him in Esthar, but Quistis knew she could not take him up on that offer. She was already wary of depending too much on her friend...or anyone else. After all, nothing lasted forever, did it? Her current situation was proof of that.
Still, it would be nice to call him today, thank him for the flowers and tell him about the ultrasound, and have someone on the other end of the line that would at least pretend to care.
Still smiling from her appointment, Quistis tucked her ultrasound photos into her purse and walked out in the sunshine and fresh air, a spring in her step. She did not notice the young man in the blue uniform slip into the clinic behind her.
"Hello, this is the office of Serabin Glyphias, how may I help you?"
"I..yes, may I speak with Serabin, please?" Quistis silently thanked the waiter as he set down a platter of strawberry waffles in front of her. The light from the little cafe window was warm on her arm.
"Who may I tell him is calling?"
"One moment, please, Miss Trepe. I'll patch you through to his private line."
"If he's busy-" began Quistis.
"Not at all, Miss Trepe. Mr. Glyphias has requested that all your calls be patched through to his private line, regardless of the hour." Quistis heard the smile in the woman's voice.
Quistis listened to a brief burst of airy elevator music, and then the ringing sound of the call transfer. Dipping her fork into the whipped cream mountain that topped the waffle, she snuck a quick bite.
"Quistis. I'm happy you've called." A beat. "Nothing's wrong, is it?"
"No, no, I'm fine. We're both fine." Strange, being a 'we'. "I just wanted to thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful."
"I'm happy you enjoyed them."
"You don't have to send-"
"I know I don't."
Unable to resist any longer, Quistis broke a square of her waffle off and dipped it in the warm puddle of syrup surrounding her plate. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
Quistis could imagine him in his office, his long, lanky form reclining in his desk chair, feet up on the desk. "Not at all. I was hoping for a distraction, actually."
Quistis swallowed before she spoke again. "What, bureaucracy isn't the mile-a-minute lifestyle you were hoping for?"
A sigh. "...I'm starting to miss being shot at, actually."
She smiled. "Did you want me to hire an assassin? An early birthday gift?"
"How thoughtful. Make it a sniper, would you? I want windows to make me nervous."
She laughed, and he laughed with her.
Hyne, it felt good to laugh for a change.
If you asked Zell, having Leviathan junctioned was a bit like having a dryer sheet stuck to your skull. Besides the increased vitality and the advantages that came with having a demi-god following your around, however, the trade-off to cerebral static cling was that the sea serpent sensed people approaching faster than you did.
"Hello Irvne," said the young martial artist, setting down his book on combat techniques. Irvine stood alongside the quad bench, but did not sit.
If his friend was surprised, he didn't show it. "Zell." The young man's normally warm, jovial voice was flat and cold. "I think you know what I'm gonna ask you."
In truth, Zell had been dreading seeing Irvine after the mission, because he thought it might go something like this. "Sorry man, mind-reading's never been my strong point. You'll have to say it."
"What the hell happened between you two in the desert?"
"Well, Squall's an attractive guy, but he's really not my type-" said Zell, attempting to make light of the situation. Irvine's expression didn't change, however,
"Selphie. You and Selphie." Irvine snapped.
Zell got to his feet and gave his friend a hard look. "If you have to ask me that, I guess we're not as good 'a friends as I thought."
Irvine's mouth tightened. "If you can't answer it, I guess we're not as good of friends as I thought."
"Guess not," snapped Zell, and for a second Zell thought his best friend might try to take a swing at him. The moment passed, however, the the cowboy turned and left without another word.
Zell sighed and sat back down on the bench and opened his book, staring blankly at the pages. As a soldier, you expected to lose your friends sooner or later, whether in the senselessness of battle or in one of those glorious stupid gestures his heroic friends were so fond of.
He just never thought he'd lose them by degrees.
Quistis peeled up the hem of her tank top and peered at the image of her somewhat convex stomach in the mirror. It was more of a belly now than the flat plane of muscles she had once cultivated as a SeeD; a hard, round bump that was just starting to slope over the edge of her waistband. She traced over it with her hand, tilting her head as she measured the difference between her old body in this strange new softer version. She wasn't sure what to call the ever-expanding mass inside her, but 'bean' seemed as good a thing as any, given its shape on the earlier ultrasounds.
As a SeeD, her body had to be streamlined, muscular, agile, and she was quickly becoming anything but. She was almost clumsy now, not used to the extra weight and bulk and often overcompensating for it, which accounted for more than one banged knee and stubbed toe.
Today, she'd met her four month marker...give or take. Her doctor had given her an approximation, but nothing was exact.
At four months, the baby book suggested that the organs associated with hearing were developed enough to transmit sound. While she ran her errands, she had picked up a pair of cushioned headphones that could stretch around her middle. She was already planning concerts of classical and light smatterings of jazz, and occasionally, to liven things up, maybe a few of her work out mixes on low volume. Right now, the baby was being treated to the Estharian Opera's version of "Adella" on very low volume.
She was beginning to feel real movement, too...not the light flutterings that had felt more like soda bubbles inside of her but real, tiny tremors that sometimes woke her up in the middle of the night with their strangeness. Pregnancy was not conducive to sleep, especially not a sleep that was as naturally light as hers. She found herself taking more and more naps during the day, sometimes in the infirmary or at her desk. She could not ever remember feeling as tired before in her life.
A bigger problem was that her little secret was becoming harder and harder to hide. Her lab coat did wonders for covering her body in a forgiving white tent, but her regular clothes were starting to become snug, and eventually, Quistis knew she was going to have to break down and purchase pants with an elastic waistband. She had never forseen a future with stretchy pants- most soldiers lived and died as lean and stringy as grizzled old roosters. It felt strange...unnatural...to be...round.
Absently, she wondered what Seifer would think of the changes in her body. She instantly derailed that train of thought with a chain of the words that came to mind: disgust, disinterest, repulsion, and quickly pulled her shirt back down before slipping into a pair of sweatpants. Flapping the elastic to give her expanding midsection some leeway, she then went into her fridge and pulled out a small carton, grabbing a spoon as she went and being careful not to dislodge the ear phones.
Weeks ago, Quistis had read that 80% of miscarriages happened before 12 weeks of pregnancy, so she had decided to celebrate each week over twelve as a kind of victory over Kadowaki's grim prediction. To celebrate the grand fourth month marker and the bean's developing ears, she had smuggled a small carton of ice cream from the cafeteria. She removed it from her mini fridge now as she crawled into bed, a spoon between her teeth. She ate a spoonful, and closed her eyes. Chocolate chunk and marshmallow with toffee pieces in a caramel swirl. Had food ever tasted so good? ...maybe the tortilla chips smothered in liquid cheese she'd had for lunch, or the five pickles she'd eaten for breakfast...she really needed to stop eating so badly.
Cerberus curled up next to her, his head on her thigh as he looked up at her with hopeful eyes.
"Sorry," she told the dog, shaking her head. "But you know chocolate isn't good for you."
The dog thumped his tail in protest, whining appealingly. She relented and picked him out a marshmallow piece, sucking the chocolate off of it before letting him lap it out of her palm.
As she ate spoonful after creamy spoonful, she thought about her friends, about Irvine and Selphie and Zell, mostly, and about the mysterious occurrence that had knit such tension between the three. She sincerely hoped it would be resolved soon, but couldn't see any way to help if they didn't wish to tell her what was going on. It was bad enough she had her own problems with Seifer- she didn't want the rest of her small 'family' torn apart. Was pregnancy turning her into a meddler? No, she decided, after a moment, she had always been a meddler.
Licking a strip of caramel from the spoon, Quistis sighed. She missed her close-knit group of friends. She missed her bed at the sea shack with the rusty mattress springs. She missed Styx and Rajin and his cooking, and she missed watching Glyph fish in the surf at low tide, screeching and stomping its feet at a missed catch. It had been a kind of family there, the kind she had so desperately wanted (if not the kind she had dreamed of specifically.)
Most of all, (and in spite of her denial), she missed...him. She missed the sound of his voice, his laugh; she even missed arguing with him over something as inane as washing his shaving cream down the sink.
...but what good did wishing do? It was like fishing without a line, without the hope of any tangibility.
The practical side of her urged to see reason- she could not change Seifer anymore than she could change herself, and they were very different people. What had happened between them would have happened eventually, with or without her news. She had to believe that, because the idea that they had something that could have continued on, that could have lasted, was too painful to hold on to.
And because it caused her pain, Quistis let her current line of thought go.
She was eating and feeling for two now, after all, and she wanted the baby's world to be one of peace and well-fed serenity for as long as possible. The well-fed part wasn't a problem; so far, Quistis was pretty sure she was now eating as much as Zell during his carb-loading training periods.
She let the sound of Cerberus's snoring lull her mind into a kind of content coma as she polished off the ice cream and traced meaningless designs across her belly, wishing she had someone, anyone, there to celebrate the four month milestone with her besides a dog that was more interested in her ice cream than her current predicament.
Dinners at the Sea Shack had become a decidedly strained affair since Quistis had left.
Styx pined at door for signs of her return, moping. Seifer found himself no better, looking for any excuse to glance out the window. Rajin's reaction, however, was the worst- he was Seifer's only option for conversation and he'd been all but giving him the silent treatment, and tonight was no different. The big man hovered over the stove, stirring the hamburger in the pan in what Seifer considered to be an accusing silence.
It had been almost a month since Quistis had left, and Seifer had spent the better portion of it drunk, miserable, and more often than not, both.
She'd taken the bulk of her things, but had left certain things behind. Things that were her, were Quistis...things Seifer couldn't seem to throw out no matter how hard he tried. He couldn't remember ever being this wretched, and for him that was saying something. One night, he'd hovered, drunk, at the edge of the water, the box gripped firmly in his fist. He'd considered chucking the useless thing out into the water and watching it skip, but instead had wound up jamming the ring back into his pocket and storming back into the house. It didn't help that a week after she had left, a pair of red dragonskin boots had arrived in the mail for him, with Quistis's unmistakable penmanship on the shipping label. She must have bought them for him in Esthar. Seifer had considered dumping the boots in the trashcan, but wound up yanking them onto his feet instead.
To make matters worse, they were comfortable as hell. Fucking boots.
Seifer glared at Rajin's back and opened the newspaper with an unnecessary crack. Styx didn't move from his usual post from the door, his tail occasionally thumping hopefully against the tile when he heard a noise. Even Glyph was acting weird, which, for the Chocobo, was really saying something.
They were acting like this thing was his fault, damnit. He wanted to shout at them to look at the Esthar Sun Society page. That wasn't him in the arms of Serabin Glyphias, for fuck's sake.
Seifer balled his hands around the paper at the memory, tearing a large hole through the sports and culture sections respectively. He wanted to shout. He wanted to break something. He wanted to storm over to Esthar and break every bone Serabin Glyphias's perfect fucking face.
Rajin was now spooning heapfuls of his hamburger stir fry onto two plates. "You should really go and talk to her, ya know." He said, in a voice uncharacteristically quiet for him.
"And you, as usual, don't know what the fuck you're talking about," replied Seifer nastily.
Rajin slammed his plate down in front of him, making Seifer look up. "Yeah, I get that I'm not the smartest person in the world, but even I get that Quistis wouldn't ever cheat on you, ya know. And if you don't know that, you don't deserve her." His friend's dark eyes narrowed. "You've been a real ass since she's been gone, so don't give me that shit about how you don't care, or how you're better off. Quistis is the best thing to ever happen to you, ya know, and instead of getting her back you've been sulking around the house for weeks and taking out your anger on everybody but the person that really deserves it."
"And that is?" asked Seifer sarcastically.
"Look in a fucking mirror, man," snapped Rajin, picking up his plate. "C'mon, Styx." Without a backwards glance, the dog followed him outside.
Seifer scowled at the door. Traitor dog. He had been abandoned all fronts.
Seething, Seifer crumpled up the paper and threw it against the wall. He was looking for something more satisfying to throw when the phone rang. He briefly considered throwing it, too, but opened it up instead. If he destroyed another phone, Arya was going to have his head. He'd already cost the tech department more than any of the other White SeeDs combined.
"What?" he barked.
"Get your ass down here, Strife," Xu barked back at him, undeterred by his tone. "I want you to check out the Balamb cure site. I've got some JC's that're supposed to be cleaning it out, and I want it double checked after they leave. They'll have two SeeDs with them, but this is for a big client, and I need it done perfectly."
"Fine. I'll need to stop by and stock up on some extra fire magic," replied Seifer. "I ran out in Esthar. Have it ready at the usual drop point."
"Of course, your highness." drawled Xu. "Anything else?"
Seifer was tempted to tell her what else he would like for her to do with the phone receiver, the cord, the charger, and the electrical socket to which the entire apparatus was attached, but he hung up on her instead, shoving back from the table and shrugging into his coat. He was grabbing his sword from the couch when his phone rang again.
Xu, although her voice now sounded tense. "Change of plans. Enc-none and meet me in my office. We have a situation."
Great. Just what he needed now. Another situation.
Which of the following is TRUE regarding a lesion of the right vestibular nuclei?
a) The left PPRF is more active than the right PPRF
b) The fast phase of nystagmus is to the right
c) Stumbling to the left
d) The left lateral bestibulospinal tract is more active than the right
e) Slow phase of nystagmus to the left
Quistis narrowed her eyes. The lateral vestibulospinal tract was an ipsilateral projection that ran the whole spinal cord, so only the left vestibulospinal tract would actually be functional where a lesion was concerned. She circled 'd', and went to check the answer key.
The phone was on its tenth ring before Quistis decided to answer it. "Hello?" she yawned, wiping her sleeve across her face. She'd fallen asleep ten minutes ago, and was still trying to rub out the button marks she'd imprinted on her face from sleeping on her sleeve.
"Hey, it's Xu. What are you up to?"
"Nothing," she replied, absently patting Cerberus's head as he inched towards her for attention.
"Good! Then you can babysit a bunch of rookies that I've got clearing the Draw Point north of Balamb. Apparently there's an freak infestation of some new breed of abyss worm that likes dirt instead of sand. Shinra lost a couple of scientists, so they want it taken care of. Truck's leaving in about twenty minutes, should take a couple of hours, tops. I was going to make Kadowaki go, but she's still no good on her leg and our latest support casters have shit for stamina. Bring your med-kit and your whip along, you can take care of any mag-burns or paper cuts those idiots manage to inflict upon themselves, but I don't anticipate injuries. It'll count towards your field hours."
Quistis had known Xu long enough to recognize each of her many mercurial moods, and she recognized the call as Xu's way to 'make nice' over their little spat. Then again, Xu's improved mood might have more to do with the fact that Shinra had mysteriously decided to extend their contract to site use. Most likely it was both. Xu was nothing if not practical, and she was as interoperable and transparent with her emotions as her motives.
And as much as Quistis wanted to remain angry, the truth was that she missed her friend.
"Fine." Quistis replied dully, rolling onto her side, removing her feet from under Cerberus's belly in the process. She had already exceeded her field hour requirement by a full day's worth, but she was tired of sitting in the room and staring at the same question for five minutes at a time. Besides, she'd been able to handle abyss worms since her second year, and they presented the same small amount of danger with or without her magic. In Quistis's mind, tackling an abyss worm while pregnant was the equivalent of standing in front of a microwave while she heated up a cup of tea.
"Good! Knew I could count on you. They'll be ready to go in about fifteen minutes."
Fifteen minutes would give her enough time to clean up the bags under her eyes and freshen up. Quistis closed her notes, patted Cerberus on the head, and set about trying to find her SeeD jacket and her medical id card. Now that Xu was headmistress, SeeD clothing had become a lot more practical. JC's still wore the same uniforms, but SeeD uniforms were dark, streamlined garments which, to Quistis's relief, did not involve ironing.
Cerberus's tail thumped against the mattress hopefully as she took her card key. Quistis smiled and shook her head, ruffling his ears.
"Not this time, boy. Keep the bed warm for me. I'll be back soon."
Quistis arrived at the parking garage ten minutes later, tugging on a pair of dragonskin gloves and pulling her hair into a ponytail. Her orange battle gear a thing of the past, she now wore a plain leather breastplate under a dark SeeD windbreaker and standard-issue pants. One couldn't traipse around in a skirt forever, after all.
...especially while four months pregnant.
Despite the fact that it had been years since she'd held the title, Quistis still turned at the voice to see a group of people leaning against a g-mo, waving at her. She instantly recognized two SeeDs from her old classes- Mica and Blake. Blake had the same bright red hair in disarray around his eyes, and Mica gave her a small, warm smile, her dark hair pulled back in a braid and slung over one shoulder. The three JC's next to them looked nervous- one of the young men was bouncing on his heels, reminding her irresistibly of Zell.
"I'm not your Instructor anymore, Blake," she said, returning their eager smiles. Blake was as cocky and earneset as Mica was calculated and reserved; despite their differences, they had been among her favorite students, and she looked forward to seeing them in the field now that their skill sets were fully developed.
"Well, yeah, but you know what they say, old habits die hard." Bilow gestured. "This's Brie, Kale, and Tekk, the JC's we'll be breaking in." Each of the cadets saluted in turn. The one called Tekk winked at her...an Irvine in the making. She smiled at him.
"It's an honor to be escorted by one of the Liberi Fatali, ma'am," stammered the one identified as Kale, swallowing hard. His eyes were a bright, baby blue- young eyes, thought Quistis, not hardened and sharp like Blake and Mica's.
She wondered, absently, if her gaze had ever been as clear. Doubtful.
"Just Quistis will be fine, Kale." she said, adjusting the clasp on her whips.
When she had lost her casting ability, Quistis had compensated for the loss in damage output by taking on a second weapon. She had always relied more on her magic than her ability to do physical damage, but now, she'd have to double that damage if she wanted to remain in the field.
If training with one whip had been difficult, training with two was even more so, the beginning of which reminded Quistis of a very frantic game of double-dutch jump rope. Misjudging a swipe and tangling the links often resulted in a dangerous backlash that had more than once nearly flayed her face. Still, having first mastered the rhythm of one whip down had aiding in the addition of a second, and in less than a year, Quistis had become more than proficient with the new weapon, which was a perfect copy of Save the Queen, down to the shar spikes and the marlboro tentacles. She was now the first and only dual-whip user Garden had ever harbored, though it was more out of necessity than ambition. If Quistis could have traded in her second whip in exchange for her casting ability, she would not have hesitated to do so.
Aside from her whips, Quistis was traveling light. In a small backback strapped diagonally across her chest, she carried several hi-potions, a few Esunas, and a small but complete medical kit. The gear was quickly becoming standard for each mission, regardless of class. In the event that support magic was unavailable or ill-advised, Xu wanted each SeeD at least mildly competent in triage and field stabilization. One of Quistis's jobs, aside from treating any minor injuries in the field, was to train each cadet in the use of basic first aid.
"Shall we go?"
The drive to the coast would take about an hour, though, with the way Blake drove, it might only take them forty-five minutes. Quistis gripped one of the door handles and resisted the urge to rest her hand over her belly with each of the organ-jostling bumps of the large vehicle. Hang on, bean, she thought.
Blake's brown eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. "Feeling all right, Instructor?"
"Fine," she replied. "Now, who can tell me the proper procedure for treatment of a third degree burn without benefit of support magic?"
Blake groaned. Quistis choked back a laugh when Brie and Kale released their grip of the truck support handles to raise their hands, both of them smacking their heads against the roof as the truck careened over another rock.
The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, the small group happily chatting amongst themselves. Quistis, caught up in their youthful spirit, even told a few stories of her own. At least, the truck came to a stop in a grassy area with a small red fencepost stuck in the side, marking their entry point.
Once they stopped the truck, Quistis was glad to see that Blake's carefree attitude quickly sharpened into a grim attention. He motioned for the group to stay at the vehicle as he got out, shouldering his gun and walking outside for a few minutes while taking stock of the area. Opening the door, he stuck his head back in. "This is the checkpoint Headmistress Xu wanted us to start at. We'll start here then move west towards the Fira site. Dispatch all hostiles, burn corpses down to bone to prevent scavengers moving in. We've had reports of up to five worms but there may be more. Questions?"
The JC's shook their head.
Mica nodded. "Brie and Kale, you'll be my unit. We're taking cover point behind Blake, Tekk, and Instructor Trepe. Move out." She motioned to Kale, who nodded and began walking. Quistis waited for Tekk to follow, but he motioned her ahead. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she walked sandwiched between the two soldiers. Had Xu told them that she needed a babysitter? She had been doing missions like these since she was fourteen. She could do this one alone, for Hyne's sake.
Quistis removed her whips from her belt as she waded into the brush, the tall blades of grass tickling her arms. Kale's broad back blocked her view of the path ahead, and the smell of dirt and shore pine was pungent in her nose. She remembered this old feeling, this sharpness of sense that rose up in her blood and her brain on missions- it had saved her life more than once. Though her body was slightly sluggish now, rounded where it had been lean and lithe, she still retained her old instincts, and they were as sharp as ever.
Strange, to have a baby inside her and a whip coiled in each hand.
Still, Quistis supposed, checking to make sure Tekk was keeping up behind them, the two qualities were not incongruous in the female gender. Lionesses with swollen bellies stalked the southern grasses, their footfalls slower but their teeth just as sharp. Why should humans be any different?
Blake stopped, suddenly, holding up his hand for them to do the same. Quistis motioned for Tekk to watch their backs and walked up to Blake's side to see the reason for the delay. Coiled on the ground was an abyss worm; deep scorch marks scarred its belly and its side was open and bloody and the intestines were partially spilled. Blake knelt down, dipping his finger into the wound.
"Still warm," he said quietly, straightening and rubbing his fingers together. "Whatever killed it is most likely still in the area."
"The Shinra scientists-" began Quistis.
"Were ordered to evacuate yesterday, in anticipation of our mission," replied Blake grimly. "There shouldn't be anyone here." The communicator at his belt beeped, and he removed it to answer it.
"Mica to Kale," the voice came in, crackly. "We...have a problem." Having had her as a student for over two years, Quistis recognized the guarded tone in the young woman's voice.
"Yeah?" said the young man, looking around. "There's something strange here too. What's the trouble over there?"
Quistis got her right whip as high as her shoulder before she felt a barrel pressed hard between her shoulder blades.
It was official. Seifer was never going to get used to having Diablos scrambling around in his brainstem, and he was never going to get used to the ghostly, off-feeling of Enc-None, either. Unfortunately, when the bulk of your work was reconnaissance and your success largely dependent on not being seen, Diablos was a necessary evil. Still, there was just something creepy about walking down halls and fields without anyone taking any notice of you, passing like a ghost with a dizzy, kind of nervous hum around you.
Quistis would probably say it was because he liked being the center of attention.
By the time he got to the Headmistress's office, he was more sick of being unable to have a thought in his head that didn't involve his ex-girlfriend/ex-instructor than anything regarding guardian forces.
Xu held up her hand as he slipped inside, shedding the cloak. "Shut up for a second." Hitting a button, she spoke into the intercom.
"Kadowaki to the Headmistress' office, please."
"Plans have changed," Xu said, switching off the intercom and turning back to Seifer. "The site's been compromised. You've got permission to kill if necessary, but ideally, I want them all brought in for questioning, separate rooms-"
The doctor rushed in, looking harried. "I've left a Cure diffusion set-up hanging, Headmistress. What is it?"
"You're going to need to prepare for incoming injuries," replied Xu. "Mica just radioed in. The cure site we were having de-bugged today is under attack, they think by the same terrorists that have been defacing the other points. Q's is on site, but-"
Kadowaki paled. "Quistis is...you have her on active mission status in her condition?"
Xu frowned at the doctor. "What do you mean, 'in her condition? What's wrong with her?'"
Seifer was also wearing a similarly suspicious expression.
Kadowaki shook her head from side to side, looking pale. "She didn't tell you...either of you?"
Seifer was looking at both women suspiciously. "Tell us what, exactly?"
Kadowaki drew a hand over her face. "Oh, Hyne..."
"It's not..." began Xu, her expression faltering. "She's not sick, is she?"
"Will somebody spit something out, for fuck's sake?" snapped Seifer.
Kadowaki dropped her hand from her face. "Quistis is pregnant," said Kadowaki, without preamble. Patient confidentiality be damned. If Quistis was too foolish to go while on inactive status, then….. "She is about four months along, give or take."
Xu paled. Seifer looked as if he had been struck by lightning.
The doctor sighed. "She came into my office two months ago, saying the tests she'd taken at home could not possibly be correct. I tested her myself, and when the results returned positive...I recommended an early-term abortion due to her…condition. She refused."
Serabin was just trying to comfort me…
I've been trying to tell you…
"This whole time, she's been keeping it to herself?" asked Xu, her voice rising.
The phone call...Shinra...it all made sense, now...shit.
Seifer stood as still as a statue, blinking stupidly at the two women in front of him.
Xu's phone began ringing again, breaking the stunned silence. "What?" she barked into the receiver, but then quickly swiveled her chair around and flipped a button on the communication system.
"-ignored our warnings. Then let this be the first of many statements. Unless you withdraw all equipment and personnel, khhhhhttttt...happen on every occupied site the world over. Blood has been regrettably spilled...continue to flow so long as the greed of Shinra Corporation supersedes its sense...be a lesson to all that the friend of our enemy must be our enemy. Khhhhhtttt...speak now."
Seifer's heart jolted in his chest as he heard the familiar voice crackle onto the com system.
"This is Quistis Trepe, Instructor number 15 and field medic on mission to purge Fira site of hostiles. We have two injured soldiers here...do not send help...perimeter for extraction...explosive charges around the extractor, the leader-"
The sound of a scuffle ensued and someone (not Quistis, please, thought Seifer) let out a muffled cry.
"Shut them up." someone snarled. "...two hours, you may come...collect the remains...come sooner...blow this area sky high. In lining your pockets you have filled coffins...much...soldiers worth to you? And Shinra, unless our...es...are met...withdrawal from all sites..."
With that, the radio communication fell silent.
"Instructor 15? That's not her number." said Kadowaki.
"No, it's the number of enemies in the area." said Xu. "The interference, though...something's blocking the signal."
"There's a cave just east of the Fira site." said Seifer. "They could be broadcasting from there."
"They're not bargaining." said Xu grimly. "If they mean for us to come in two hours, they probably intend to dispatch the hostages right away and blow it in under an hour."
"This's Headmistress Chang. I want a full SeeD squad deployed to the Balamb draw point A-5, and I want them there now. Who've we got on active status today? Tilmitt? Fine, send Tilmitt. Tell them to prepare for heavy combat. Make sure Tilmitt's junctioned, I want it wiped clean. Bahamut? Fine. Tell her White SeeD's on scene."
Damnit. Shinra at her back, and now these crazy bastards on her flank-
-and now her best friend in the middle.
Xu slammed down the phone and met Seifer's gaze.
"Wipe them out." she snarled.