The Second Time
Sliding her glasses off her nose, Quistis leaned back in her train seat and sighed. Most of the seats around her were empty; not many people took the midnight from Deling to Timber and even fewer would be on the early-morning from Timber to Balamb. She was only on it because she had an early-morning contract negotiation back at Garden and she figured she could sleep on the train as well as she could in a hotel room.
The only drawback to her idea was that she was relegated to a single-seat instead of the usual SeeD cabin. Since she was alone, they hadn't reserved one of the sleeper cabins. The rest of her team had returned to Garden the day before but she'd been asked to stay behind and finalize some business with their last client.
It was her duty, not only as team leader but also as a name -- even now, years after Ultimecia's defeat, people still remembered and wanted to deal with her when more impressive names weren't available. Although Quistis didn't enjoy the little fame she'd won, she shouldered it as needed for her work.
Deciding that the remainder of the contract revisions could wait until the morning, Quistis powered down her laptop and stowed it, tucking her glasses into her satchel. She didn't plan to read anything else that night. Her eyes were gritty and she wanted nothing more than something cool to drink and then a quick nap before the train arrived in Timber.
Quistis stretched her legs as she stood, her back luxuriating in it after all the cramped sitting she'd done. Her car was pathetically empty with only three other seats taken, two of the three passengers snoring peacefully.
As quietly as she could, she stole to the back of the car and hurried through the passage between it and the next one, her goal the lounge car located in the rear of the train. She slipped through another mostly empty coach car and then down the hall of the sleeping cars. She was sliding into the dark, windy space between the last sleeper car and what she hoped was the lounge when her way was suddenly blocked by another body -- solid, strong, tall, completely barring her movement. Without much choice, she tumbled into him, both of them squeezed tightly together in the small space.
"I'm sorry, I..."
Her apology trailed off when she finally caught sight of the man she was tucked in with. At the look of surprise on her face, he grinned.
"Nice to see you, too, Trepe," he drawled.
"Seifer, what are you doing here?" she asked, eyeing him suspiciously. She didn't bother trying to move away, just stood pressed up against him, waiting for his answer.
"Same as you, I bet. I bought a ticket."
It made her angry that even though they were adults, he still towered over her, all broad shoulders and muscled chest. "You know what I meant," she huffed. "Last I checked, you were living in Esthar."
"And I noticed you keep checking," he said, looking pointedly down at her. "And you can stop that, you know. You can't still think that I'm that much of a threat that you need to have your bloodhounds on me."
Quistis didn't deny the implication that she kept tabs on him because she had. She'd made sure to keep an eye on him since he'd left Garden in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to reenter after the whole Ultimecia situation. That second break had been agreeable, at least compared to the first one; it had been mostly because he'd realized that he wasn't cut out for any kind of leash -- SeeD's or the Sorceress's. And Quistis didn't keep tabs on him because she thought he was a danger; it was more that she just wanted to know.
"Still doesn't explain how you ended up on this train," she continued conversationally.
"Needed a change of scenery, that's all," he retorted. "It's not really any of your business, is it?"
Yes, it is, she wanted to say. Ever since you stopped by my rooms in the middle of the night to tell me you were leaving and then you kissed me and walked away. Ever since then, you've been my business.
But she didn't. It had been a year since then and he'd made no attempt to contact her in the interim. Quistis had long since decided it had been just one more thing he'd done to try and make her look foolish and refused to ask him about it, to hand him the ammunition he needed to wound her.
"I could ask you the same thing," he continued. "What are you on this train for?"
"Heading back to Garden," she answered, still aware of how they stood, pressed together in the passage, close enough by necessity that she could feel his breath against her temple. She shifted a little, weight from one foot to the other, but it didn't help matters much. "I was looking for the lounge car," she finally said when he made no move to leave, no move to speak again. He just kept looking down at her in the dim light, pale eyes dark with something mischievous.
"Is that a subtle hint to let you pass?" he asked dryly. He'd propped one hand on the wall above her shoulder, boxing her in.
"I can be less subtle if need be," she said, just as dryly, shifting so that her knee was positioned perfectly for the one maneuver sure to lay a man low.
Seifer gave her one of those smirky, devilish grins she remembered from their school days. "I got your message loud and clear, Trepe. I'll be seeing you."
As obliging as he made himself out to be, Seifer made sure to take advantage as he slowly pushed past her, taking obvious pains to slide his body against hers, brushing every point that aligned from her shoulders to her shins. Quistis was too old to blush but something must've flared in her eyes while she watched him because his grin widened as he finally wriggled out of the tight spot. "Nice seeing you," he said mockingly, tipping an imaginary hat before he stalked away back toward the coach cars.
Quistis sighed, suddenly heated. She all but fled into the empty lounge car, suddenly in desperate need of something cool to drink.
Once she'd downed her bottle of water, Quistis headed back to her seat. Although she didn't want to admit it, she kept a lookout for Seifer, wondering where on the train his seat was. She hadn't seen him in her car but he could've been in the other one she'd passed through. He could've also had secured a cabin if he had the gil for it.
She was unnerved by running into him that night on the train. She'd tried to bury that one, strange memory between them but it had worried her over the last year, sweeping up into her thoughts at odd times when she'd least expect it. She could still remember how he'd been when he'd showed up to tell her that he couldn't stay at Garden any longer. Seifer had been so serious and earnest -- uncharacteristically so. It had worried Quistis, that difference, but she'd let him speak, listening to how he said he wasn't made for being ordered around, for being chained to something like authority. Quistis had been reaching out to comfort him -- just a hand on his shoulder, it was all she'd planned -- when he'd swept her up and kissed her. It had been quick but strong, blazingly intense and she hadn't had time to do anything but be surprised before he was pushing her away and disappearing, before he was gone from Garden and she'd had too much time to think about whys of it to do anything but let him go.
Quistis was tempted -- sorely tempted -- to ask him why now that they were there together on that train. But part of her didn't want to know, not if the truth were as cruel as she feared. Better to keep her mouth shut and wonder, she'd decided a long time ago. Quistis would just have to ignore temptation to do otherwise.
Once she was back in her seat, Quistis settled down and closed her eyes, trying to catch a little sleep before she had to change trains in Timber. Her body was longing for it, exhaustion deep in her bones after a long mission, and even her curiosity about Seifer couldn't stop her from drifting once she stilled.
Quistis was almost asleep when she sensed movement around her. She figured that it was another passenger and she didn't stir -- at least not until she had the itchy feeling she often had when someone was watching her.
She opened her eyes to find Seifer lounging in the one of the seats in front of her, back pressed against the windowed wall and legs propped up on the extra seats that made up the row. She sighed. "What?"
He shrugged. "Just figured you owed me a couple of minutes of your time -- unlike some of us, I don't have my old associates staked out by my own little force of snoopers."
She rolled her eyes, straightening up as she abandoned any chance of sleep. "Is there something you want to know?"
"Not really," he told her bluntly. "But it's past 2AM and I don't have anything better to do than to talk. So, talk."
Seifer caught her eyes for a moment, searching. Then he broke off the contact and spoke. "Tell me what's been going on at Garden if you can't think of anything else more interesting to say."
"It's the same as always, I suppose," she said. "Nothing new."
He raised an eyebrow. "Same old, same old, huh?"
"It's a shame that a whole school full of SeeDs are so damn boring." Seifer observed.
"We get by," she told him, leaning closer, balancing her elbows on the back of Seifer's seat. "It's not as if we're begging for excitement in our lives between the life-and-death missions and all."
He was watching her, something expectant in the way he tipped his head to see her face as he spoke. "But I bet you still have time to miss me, huh?"
Quistis glared at him, unsure of how to respond. "Probably as much as you've missed me," she retorted, deciding to stay flippant. But her heart was pounding and she could feel the heat rising in her skin. She tried to steady her breath.
His pale eyes lingered on her face, sweeping from her eyes down to her mouth and back up again. Then he leaned forward, crowding into her space once more. "That's what I wanted to hear," he said, voice low and deep.
The questions were bubbling up in her; Quistis leaned away from him, moving back into safety, safely away. "I don't think I have any more small talk left in me," she told him.
"Are you trying to get rid of me?" he asked, faintly mocking. "You haven't been this jumpy around me since I first tried to come back to Garden."
"This is the first time I've seen you since the night you left," she snapped back.
The anger -- hurt -- in her voice hit a nerve; Seifer's face shut down until it was an icy, blank mask. "Yeah, I noticed," he said, anger in his voice.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded. "You disappear in the middle of the night and you're angry at me?"
Seifer made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "Isn't that the usual between us, Instructor?"
No one used her former title in a more grating way than Seifer. "I haven't been that in a long time, Seifer," she reminded him.
Silence crept in. Quistis studied her hands, folded in her lap, and Seifer looked faraway in his thoughts, once in a while running a hand through his short hair in a manner Quistis interpreted as agitated. She wasn't sure what she wanted or expected but this sullen awkwardness was familiar if not welcome. They'd made strides against -- or so she'd thought -- during the time when he'd tried to rejoin SeeD but something was back between them where they'd once removed the obstacles.
"Really wanna know why I'm on this train?" Seifer asked suddenly, his tone challenging. Quistis was startled by the abrupt return to speaking.
"I thought we'd already talked about that."
"Come on, Trepe," he sneered. "You don't think that was it?"
"I didn't give it much thought, actually," she said, truthfully.
He was giving her that look again, that deep, assessing look that made her want to squirm in her seat. "I saw you," he announced finally. "In Deling."
"You...did?" she said, frowning. "I didn't see you."
"I know," he told her. "Although with the kind of tabs you keep on me, that was real sloppy of you, Trepe. Still don't know how you got to be a SeeD so young."
She snorted and ignored the usual dig about her young SeeD-hood. "Where did you see me?"
"In the hotel with your team, last night," he revealed. "I even heard some of your conversation."
"Really?" Quistis couldn't help but frown, wondering how he could've been that close without her noticing. Seifer was right in that respect; it was sloppy.
"Yes, really," he said. "I knew you'd be taking this train back," he added.
Quistis's eyes widened. "So you're here because..."
"Because it's obvious that no matter how long you stalk a guy, you won't actually speak to him," he cut in. "Figured I'd given you enough time."
Quistis laughed shakily. "Who's the stalker, now? You followed me onto the train."
"Call it a grand gesture," he told her moodily, sarcasm dripping from his words. "Or maybe just one more insane thing in a line of them."
"That, I believe," she said, watching him thoughtfully. Just as she'd suspected he was agitated, shoulders tense and hunched. And she was even more curious now, wondering why he'd bother following her to Timber. "Why?" she heard herself asking.
"Why?" He looked at her as if she were as crazy as he'd just called himself. "Why?"
"It was the question I asked," she said, bristling.
He snorted and shook his head. "How can someone be as smart as you are and still be so damn stupid?"
For some reason, that stung where his other barbs hadn't â€" mostly because she could tell that he meant it. She crossed her arms defensively, glaring across at him with a foolish wish that looks did indeed kill. It didn't change anything because he just sat looking back at her, incredulity all over his face.
"There's no need to be insulting," she snapped.
"Oh, yes, there is," he disagreed. "Especially if you're really that dense. I can't believe you really..." Seifer trailed off, his face going blank again. He sighed as he stood and Quistis couldn't help but admire the fluid grace in the way he moved. "Never mind, Trepe," he told her, obviously disappointed. "Forget I stopped by."
For the second time, Seifer watched away leaving confusion in his wake. She watched him until he'd stepped into the next car and the doors slid closed behind him and, even once he was out of sight, she was still wrapped up in mulling over the perplexing scene that it had just unfolded.
A guffaw from behind her startled Quistis into turning around. There sat the only other awake occupant of the train, an older woman with graying hair holding a paperback novel in one hand.
"Ah, you make me glad that I'm not young anymore," she said, smiling indulgently at Quistis.
"I beg your pardon?" Quistis sat, still a little bewildered by Seifer's departure.
"You and your young man." The older woman nodded toward the door where Seifer had exited. "All that romantic nonsense is much too tiring for me. Entertaining, though," she admitted, waving her book for emphasis.
"Me and my what?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Trepe -- is that your name?"
"Quistis," she corrected. "Trepe is my last name."
"Aye, Quistis," she continued. "The boy â€" it's rather obvious that he was hoping you'd be a bit more happy to see him," she explained gently. "And I think he was hoping, too, that'd you find him before he had to find you."
"Well, I..." she said, staring at the woman's knowing look. "I never..."
"That's obvious," the woman announced as she re-opened her book.
It took Quistis about three seconds to decide her next course of action before she was on her feet, striding down the path that Seifer had taken. She found him sitting in the empty lounge car, feet propped up as he stared out of the window at the scenery rushing back. Between Deling and Timber, there wasn't much other than the flat, green plains where the forests used to be, the land meeting the dark sky in sharp, bold lines.
"You have to stop that," she stated without preamble.
He glanced up at her, one eyebrow lifted in inquiry.
She glared, still standing over him. In the dim light of the empty car, the light from the moon lit his face, casting a strange glow over his eyes and the stubborn pull of his mouth. "You can't make these â€" these grand gestures and then just leave when I don't react the way you want me to, especially when you don't give me any time."
"A year's alot of time," he drawled.
"Not when I didn't understand," she argued. "You just kissed me and left!"
"Yeah, I kissed you," he admitted, rising to his feet so that she no longer had the height advantage as they glared at each other. "What wasn't there to understand?"
"And then you left," she reminded him. "What was there to understand?"
Seifer opened his mouth as if to respond but then thought better of it. She could tell he was reining in some outburst. "You've got to be the only woman on this planet who doesn't know what a kiss means," he told her, still looking shell-shocked. "It's a pretty simple and accepted signal."
"Speaking of signals," she said, hands on her hips, "have you ever heard the term 'mixed signals'? Because that's what happens when you show up at my door, tell me goodbye, kiss me, and then disappear."
"I figured you'd let me know what your opinion about that," Seifer explained. "When I didn't hear anything, I figured that was your answer."
"I didn't know you'd even asked me a question," she admitted. "I thought it might have been a -- joke. Or a kind of pity thing. Or you were just intoxicated when you stopped by."
He leaned against the cool glass, snorting his dark amusement. "Always thinking of the worst of me, aren't you?"
"I could ask you the same," Quistis replied, eyes intent on his.
"True." He was quiet for a moment and she wasn't sure what to say either. She chose to clear her throat to keep the silence was stretching out between them.
Seifer took the hint. "So, if I've got this right...let's say I was to make another grand gesture and give that signal another try. You think you could figure it out?"
"I think I'm a reasonably intelligent woman," she told him haughtily, trying to cover her nervousness. "Given that we've mostly cleared the air and now you have some idea of what --"
As he'd proven in the past, Seifer wasn't a talker. He cut off the rest of her comment with a kiss, one arm wrapping around her to pull her close. His mouth muffled her words until they dissipated into more like an embarrassingly satisfied sigh, his lips movng against hers. With one arm firmly around her waist, Seifer's other arm worked its way up her back, like a steel band that prevented her from moving away -- not that she was trying. She'd stop thinking the moment he'd leaned in and her arms were moving of their own accord, up and around his shoulders, knotting in the heavy material of his coat.
In some dim corner of her mind, Quistis was remembering to be mortified later -- by her enthusiastic response, by the way she melted into him, by the way she was just as demanding as he -- but at the moment she couldn't be bothered with it.
When they finally broke apart, Seifer's hold on her loosened just enough that she could breathe.
"Clear?" he said her softly, smugness in every line of his face.
"Crystal," she replied wryly. She was flustered but smug, too, since Seifer was far from unaffected, his dilated pupils only one sign of how affected he was.
"Glad we straightened it out," he said, still holding her close. His touch gentled, becoming less like a vise but no less insistent.
"Likewise," she murmured. "That was a better one of your...grand gestures."
"Yes," she nodded. "I do."
Quistis tightened her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, this time their breaths mingling by choice. "Now, I think it's time I return the favor."
As always, thanks to Abby!