Author's Note: Ok, more than a week. My apologies. :(
Also, I'd like to say that I was strongly inspired by Jane Austen in writing this story.
Same disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me.
Chapter Two: Negotiations
Quistis loved St. Julian's Ladies' Academy. It'd been her home since she was five, and it would be her home, she mused, until she died.
The stone and glass castle was a temple that paid homage to ancient architectural styles. And Quistis knew every stained glass window, every gargoyle. She knew the historic ancient pieces that furnished each room, and the subject and artist of each and every painting that graced the long elegant hallways.
To others, the magnificent sprawling estate with its 200 rooms and 20 acres of immaculately kept grounds might have been intimidating. To Quistis, it was perfection in a building.
She pulled the hover up the long winding driveway and parked in front of the building, handing her keys to Jeffries. Two teenage girls had just come back from a walk, and smiled at Quistis in greeting. "Good afternoon, Headmistress. Welcome back."
"Ariele, Jenna, good afternoon!"
Welcome back indeed. Quistis took a long deep breath, and let the tension out on a sigh that was carried away by the gentle breeze. She scanned the neat green lawns; she wanted to kiss every single blade of grass she was so happy to be here again.
Forget the awkward and strained family meal she'd picked her way through. Forget the pitying looks she got from the other women at the balls. And forget the lecherous men who approached her, just because she sat alone and in the dark.
Forget Seifer Almasy, Hero of the World. And her lost shoes.
It didn't matter. That was a different world. One in which she did not want to be.
She was here.
She was free to be herself once more.
She turned and entered her home.
She read over the communication again.
And while she didn't doubt the authenticity, she once more checked the watermark, the ink of the laser-burned seal. Her fingers trembled as they followed the bumps of the notary stamp.
It was arranged. Already arranged.
Had there been an inquiry as to whether or not she wanted this? No.
How could this even be possible? The time for arranged marriages had long passed. There was no way a contract like this could hold.
And yet, the severe-looking signature on the bottom made it clear to her that she had to obey.
The General had again decided for her what was to come.
And for the first time in her life, she was afflicted with that hot fire of rebellion that had she'd previously not understood in Rinoa. She wanted to run away. She wanted to disappear. She wanted to just take the world, and turn it every which way until the way up was her way, the way that made sense.
How dare he? What did she ever do to deserve this?
All she ever wanted was to stay at St. Julian's. Hide away, fade from the General's mind. She'd been told all her life where to go, what to do. She wanted to be independent. In another two months, she would have been.
But this...this would end all her freedom. Chained to a man! To take his name!
Beyond that, to such a man!
She didn't even know him. But apparently, that wasn't important. What mattered was that he, Seifer Almasy, had a part in saving the world, and when asked what he wished for as his reward, he'd named her.
It was a long and extreme way to go for a joke or a lark. She hated how young people made these incredibly foolish and impulsive choices. It was why she lacked patience for them. Why she was frustrated and embarrassed to be around them.
Why on Earth would the world's most eligible bachelor choose to marry her?
Rinoa was already taken, to be sure, but there were other women out there. Women who were more suited to his fast-paced lifestyle. Who could glitter and glimmer complementarily. She was not supposed to be a hero's wife.
There was no denying that she certainly...wasn't aesthetically unpleasing. Quistis knew that.
And she had the elegance, the grace to carry herself well in public.
But to be married to such a man!
He had nothing she wanted. And she was pretty sure the only thing he wanted out of her was...well...she wasn't going to give him that. Not easily.
She didn't think he was that stupid as to go to this length just to bed her.
She looked up at the knock on the door. Jenny, her secretary looked nervous. "Yes, what is it?" she replied smoothly, fighting to keep her frustrations to herself.
"There is a gentleman to see you."
She had not anticipated any of the girls' parents to visit today. She quickly folded the document back up and put it in the top drawer of her desk. Standing up, straightening her suit, she replied to Jenny, "You can send him in."
Recalling her task before the delivery of this very unwanted, unhappy piece of news, Quistis reached for her notepad and wrote down a few more notes to the agenda for the faculty meeting that was to take place in an hour. When she looked up, she was almost calm, and had a diplomatic smile on her face.
It vanished into a frown when her gaze focused on her guest.
He was brave, coming in a mere hour after the notice arrived.
Her heart shouldn't have picked up, but it did. Her palms should not have become sweaty, but they did. "Well if it isn't my betrothed," she mused derisively. She managed to keep the nerves out of her voice, letting the smooth, placid tones ring with cynicism.
Seifer grinned. "Nice to see you too, Cinders." He took her in.
The suit's sharp angles were severe, but it was extraordinarily tailored, the cut so exacting that the thrust of her breast, curve of her hips, the nip of her waist were outlined perfectly. Not one loose thread or speckle of lint littered the perfect stretch of fabric. She buttoned her blouse clear up to her neck, hiding those elegant collarbones and the kissable freckle right above her right breast. Not one strand of hair fell loose from the austere bun.
"Disappointed?" she lifted an eyebrow over her spectacles.
"Just intrigued," he returned with one of his more brilliant smiles.
It annoyed her.
"Please, take a seat," she gestured to the seat across the desk from hers.
She considered him. If she'd wanted to get married, Seifer Almasy wasn't a bad candidate, she reluctantly admitted. If you considered only physical appearances. And the fact that he saved the world.
"See something you like?"
And completely ignored his cocky personality.
She'd had her fill of being shoved around and answering to summons.
"Not enough to tempt me."
Quistis cleared her throat. "In most cases, I suppose I should be flattered that such a hero should choose to bless my humble self with his attentions, but I cannot allow it. I will inform you right now that this arrangement has only confirmed my low opinion of you."
He shouldn't have found her miss-ish headmaster tone very attractive, but he thought it absolutely adorable. "I'm sorry sweetheart, but I was running out of options," he replied lazily, sinking back into his seat.
Quistis started to pace. He watched her legs. How did she exercise? Running? Swimming? "Why, because I turned down the previous one of going to bed with you from the start? I will not marry you so that you can get another notch on your bedpost, or some trophy to drag around and show off. Go find someone else." It amazed her that she hadn't lost facility over her speech yet; among strangers, she rarely performed so well.
"It's not about bedfellows, love. It's about you and me."
"There is no such thing as 'you and me'," she enunciated stiffly. "And don't call me things like that."
"There will be," he smiled. "But just to make sure you're comfortable with it all, we'll just make it a nice long engagement. How's a year for you?"
"How's about a century?"
"While I said this was not about bedfellows, I'd just like to say that it would be nice to still be able to enjoy my conjugal rights."
She scowled at him, "If you proceed with this idiotic practice, I can make sure you won't enjoy any rights with any women for as long as you live."
"Strong words," he mused.
"I'm stronger than you think."
"I'll bet you are. But why don't you sit down. You're not going to get anywhere if you keep on standing there and pouting. I've got a contract with your father, and it doesn't matter if you throw twenty tantrums-"
"I'm not throwing a tantrum." Her eyes flashed darkly, and Seifer thought to himself that he'd never seen such a beautiful color in his life.
"Discontent aside, why don't you sit down and let me talk this through with you for a second, sweetheart."
She caught herself before she could say something she'd regret. Though at this point, she highly doubted she'd regret anything. "Don't call me sweetheart," she returned quickly, temper temporarily under control. She took a seat back at her desk.
He wanted to just toss the contract in her face and inform her that he could call her whatever he wanted, and that she was in no position whatsoever to put up a fight.
But he also wanted her consent and cooperation, and he was not going to get that unless he was patient...and fair.
He always played fair, of course. But it didn't mean that he couldn't dream of cutting corners every once in a while.
"What would it take for you to marry a gentleman of your acquaintance?"
Quistis raised a brow. "A gentleman?" she sneered.
So he didn't know who his parents were. It gave her no right to make it sting. "Yes."
"I'll say right now that it was never in my plan to get married."
Seifer shook his head with a wry smile. "You'd be content to stay here, being headmistress for the rest of your days."
"That was the plan. I have my inheritance, so I certainly shan't want for anything."
"And you were happily waiting until you reached that majority so that you could declare your independence."
"Again, that was the plan."
Seifer considered her carefully. "We digress. I didn't ask you to confirm my suspicion that you'd happily remain the virgin spinster the rest of your life. I asked what it'd take for you to marry."
Quistis sighed tiredly. "I don't need money, and I don't need position. Really, the only thing that I'd ever be able to get out of a husband that I don't have is companionship. So I suppose that if I were courted, and felt fondly for my prospective partner, I'd marry."
Seifer got off his seat. Quistis warily watched as he came around the desk to look out the window. "We'll have a courtship period, then."
"You want to court me."
"Sure. If that's what it takes."
"And if you court me and I won't be wooed?"
"Then we marry anyway."
Quistis pressed her lips into a thin line.
"And if you court me and you change your mind?"
She was watching him carefully. He opened his mouth to speak. He was surprised how easily the lie came, "Then I suppose I'll simply call the whole damn thing off."
Quistis was silent as she considered her well-manicured fingernails. "You'd court me here."
"I'm afraid I can't do that. Duties have me busy in Deling, so I'll have to court you there."
"I cannot leave my students here," Quistis said rigidly.
Her eyes held a resolve so unshakable. He'd have to pick his battles. "A compromise: I'll court you here for the next four months. Then you spend your summer holiday in Deling, where I will continue to court you."
"There are still changes to the curriculum that I needed to-"
"You will take care of it from Deling," Seifer said.
Quistis opened her mouth to protest.
"Or we could just get married next week," he said.
Quistis snapped her mouth shut.
"We'll publicly announce our engagement in September," he stated with certainty.
But the new school year would start then. She'd be busy with the new class of students. When were they going to-
He wasn't really anticipating her coming back here, was he? Sure, she might just get one more school year out, under the guise of extensive wedding planning. But after that, that was it. Nothing more. Just being there. As his wife. She looked at him insolently. His jaw was clenched and though she'd never had truly violent thoughts before, she wanted to punch him in the face. Stomach. Groin. Anywhere.
"If you still want to marry me," she said defiantly.
Seifer looked at her coolly. "If I do."
It was perverse, really. At this point, he probably would have married her no matter what now, just out of principle. She examined her fingernails, focusing her attention on each one, trying to keep her thoughts together. She swallowed the painful lump in her throat. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't going to do anything to make him see her weakness.
And of course, she could still completely disgust him before September.
Quistis tried not to grip her desk too tightly as she pushed herself out of her chair. And tried not to look over her office too longingly and lovingly. It wasn't over yet. She didn't have to start thinking in morbid terms yet.
"We'll see about that. If you'll excuse me, Mr. Almasy, I have a faculty meeting to prepare for."
He extended a hand, but she refused.
Perhaps he should have persisted, or established something at this moment, but he didn't press.
He had seven months, after all.