"They'll string me up," he said casually over breakfast one day, "and burn me like a witch."
"A warlock," she corrected, not bothering to glance up from the day's newspaper.
"A warlock, then," he amended, and slathered some jam onto his toast. The knife scratched across the surface of the bread with an almost malicious intent. "One day, they'll do it. You'll see."
Quistis snorted derisively and neatly refolded the paper, holding it out in his direction. "Do you want this?"
He snorted. "Burn it. That's about the only thing it's good for. It can't even rightfully be called news. You want more coffee?"
A neatly manicured eyebrow raised as if to point out the absurdity of his question. In Quistis Trepe's universe, coffee was on par with breathing. There was never a question as to whether or not she wanted any more. Seifer plucked her coffee mug out from her hands and crossed to the other side of the kitchen.
"Why?" she asked, returning to the topic at hand.
"Because I'm an asshole." He shrugged and sat back down, passing her the mug. "With Leonhart's new promotion, they'll remember that. They'll remember how he got the damn job in the first place."
"Just because he's going to be making an obscene amount of money just by breathing now doesn't mean the witch hunt is going to happen all over again." Quistis always added exactly half a teaspoon of sugar to her coffee, and did so now, stirring it in with a relaxed hand, the spoon clinking against the side of the mug.
There was a pause, and then Seifer laughed. "Nice choice of words, there."
Quistis shrugged primly. "You started it. You said they were going to burn you at the stake. What would that be, though? A show of the Commander's good faith toward the people?"
"Probably." Seifer sipped his coffee–it had become slightly lighter brown due to the amount of cream he had dumped in there. He had never been able to drink it black, no matter how many times he had tried; today was no different, and he was relatively sure that tomorrow's coffee would be ingested the same way. "I wouldn't put it past him."
"Seifer..." Her tone was infinitely patient, the one that always made Seifer feel like a first-year cadet again when she leveled it on him. "The war is over. No one is going to kill you."
"Really." Quistis reached across the table and speared an uneaten sausage off of his plate with her fork. "Trust me. Squall would never rescind a pardon, especially one almost six years old, just because he got a bigger paycheck."
Seifer rolled his eyes, and Quistis smiled around the rim of her coffee cup. "Finish your breakfast," she added sweetly, and got up to put her plate in the sink.
Balamb Garden's ballroom was half filled with military officials of every rank and nation, from the world-weary SeeDs of Trabia to the pompous stuffed suits of Galbadia to the still-slightly-uncertain Esthar Garden representatives, and Squall Leonhart could not remember the name of the petite lieutenant in front of him to save his life. She had been carrying on about all the good that President Loire had done for Esthar Garden, how much she admired the man, and how honored she was to finally meet the Squall Leonhart in person, as if Squall hadn't visited Esthar Garden a hundred times in its first two years.
He tuned out most of what she was saying as he craned his neck to scan the crowd for his wife with the hope that Rinoa would be able to rid him of this obviously insane girl.
Wasn't Esthar Garden supposed to give their new recruits a psych screening or something?
"Commander Leonhart, if it's not too forward, I was wondering if you'd like to dance," the lieutenant finally blurted, and Squall sighed. He should have been anticipating that, and he opened his mouth to hopefully shoot down the lieutenant politely when a gentle hand clad in red satin touched his elbow.
"There you are," Rinoa murmured. "I've been looking for you."
He could have kissed her then, and instead settled for offering his wife his arm. "Excuse me," he said to the lieutenant, who smiled faintly and nodded, slipping away into the crowd. Squall let out a breath of relief when the woman was finally gone, and turned his attention to Rinoa. "What is it?"
"The press wants a photo," Rinoa reminded him. "And by one photo, I mean several hundred, but you did agree."
"I don't remember that," he retorted automatically, a ghost of a smile at the edges of his lips. "I'm sure they just want pictures of you." Rinoa laughed, and hit his forearm gently, her glove softening an already feather-light blow. Her dress, a sleek red floor-length gown, had been specially designed and imported from Esthar for the occasion, and Squall reached out to lift a rogue curl of dark hair off of one bare shoulder.
"To the firing squad," she said gaily, and led him away through the throng.
"They'll string me up by my toes, then. Or stone me to death."
"This is all getting very macabre, Seifer. And don't sit on my desk. I have work to do." Lightly, she pressed a palm against his hip, enough to make him raise up so that she could rescue a sheaf of papers from being destroyed by his jeans. "I want to get everything done before the commander's ceremony tonight."
"A bunch of overstuffed military windbags," Seifer responded with an expression of mock horror. "You would rather spend time with them than with me."
"Seifer, you're sitting on my pen. How do you not notice these things?" He moved again, and Quistis retrieved the writing implement. "As much as I would love to spend my evening in your company, all of Balamb's SeeDs are going. If I didn't go, I would probably get fired."
Seifer finally hopped off her desk, stepping around her chair and putting his hands on her shoulders. She leaned back into his touch gratefully. "Leonhart wouldn't fire you. He depends way too fucking much on you to fire you." He worked his thumb into a knot on her right shoulder, and Quistis let out a little pleased noise.
"Mm. You're right."
"Someone call the press," he snorted, running his hands up the back of her neck.
"Ass. Oh, right there."
His fingers continued to move, applying gentle pressure to overworked muscles. "'Course," Seifer mused, sliding his fingers briefly through the hair at her nape and then back down again, "knowing Garden, it would be a firing squad. Leonhart is a traditionalist."
"Seifer," Quistis said with a sigh, leaning her head back to look at him through half-lidded eyes. "Squall is not going to have you killed. Please stop talking about it. What is with this new obsession anyway?"
He shrugged. "Maybe I'm just upset about losing my prominent notoriety."
"That would be a blow to your ego." She slid out from under his hands and picked up her pen again. "I really have to get this done."
"I see," he said, and planted a chaste kiss to her temple. "I know when I'm not wanted."
The balcony was surprisingly empty, littered only here and there with a few discreet couples, and as Rinoa slipped her arm from his and leaned against the railing, the oppressive air of the ballroom had lifted. Squall stood, hands still against the cool stone of the rail, breathing deep the salty sea air. He had spent his youngest years in an orphanage by the sea. Without it, his world seemed almost oppressive, like the air had become harder to breathe because it was missing...something.
Rinoa watched him unabashedly as he stood there, something hidden in her gaze that gave him the perpetual feeling that he amused her in some way. "Better?"
"Much better." He glanced over at her. "We'll go soon."
"It's alright. I don't mind this. And it's your party, anyway."
He raised his eyebrows and looked at her as if he hadn't considered that before. "Technically, then, I could go back in there and tell everyone to go home." The idea was more intriguing than he would ever admit.
"You could." Rinoa smiled at him, something in the curve of her lips decidedly encouraging him in this plan. "And then maybe we could go try to see without being blinded by flashbulbs."
"Yeah." He raked a hand back through his hair with a sigh. "That would be the day."
She tilted her head back then, her eyes fixed on the night sky above, and let him have the last word of the little skirmish.
They had been to space, and to Squall, there was no reason to go back, but Rinoa somehow,somehow after the thin mechanical voice had told her she was running out of air, was still drawn to something in the stars. He didn't get it. He didn't even pretend to get it, just let her watch the sky if it was what made her happy.
He shrugged out of his uniform jacket and settled it around her shoulders, the movement so graceful with his soldier's training that Rinoa did not even register what had happened until a moment after the fabric had settled.
"Don't you need this?" she asked. "In there?"
"I'm their commander," he reminded her, and it would have taken a Garden-trained voice analyst to detect the teasing note in his voice, or the keen instincts of his wife. "What are they going to say?"
She laughed. "Rebel."
"I'm going to go tell Quistis that we're heading out early," he said, and walked at a staid, measured pace back through the crowd, and Rinoa thought that if it weren't for the ramrod posture, the slightly more muscular build and the neater kempt hair, he might still have passed for that awkward new SeeD she had asked to dance seven years past.
A gentle wind slid across the back of her neck, and Rinoa tugged her husband's uniform jacket tighter around her frame.
She sighed, and put a bright and practiced smile on her lips for the photographer.
"I don't see why I can't go."
Quistis watched her reflection with a critical eye as she finished knotting her uniform tie. As much as she hated wearing the thing–the long lapels were nowhere near battle worthy, and whoever had decided that the short skirts were a good idea would not want to meet Quistis Trepe–it did make dressing for these formal events much, much easier.
He flopped back on the bed, deliberately rumpling covers and hiking his t-shirt up over his ribs. Seifer let it lay like that, and lazily rolled his eyes in her direction.
"You just spent the entire day convinced that Squall was going to open up a witch hunt against you with this new promotion, and now you wonder why you weren't invited?"
He rolled his eyes deliberately this time, and gestured in the general direction of the ceiling. "If he does," Seifer pronounced, "I want to be there for it."
"It isn't going to happen."
"How do you know?"
She glanced upward in a "why me" gesture, unsure even if there was a higher power present. If there was, they certainly were having a lot of fun at her expense today. "I'll get out as early as I can, if it makes you feel any better."
"Depends." He propped himself up on one elbow. "What do we get to do after you get back?"
Quistis ignored him and sat on a spare corner of the bed, tugging her stockings back into an arrangement that better suited her toes. She looked at the black heels that had been unceremoniously dropped on the carpet earlier, and then back at Seifer. He grinned.
With a sigh, Quistis curled the toes of her left food around the heel of the shoe and dragged it across the carpet towards her. She tried very hard to ignore the deliberately light pressure of Seifer's palm against the small of her back as she slid her feet into the shoes.
"Don't wait up," she said, and pressed her lips against his with the promise of things to come, her fingertips brushing against his neck as she pulled away and headed for the door.
"Tease!" he called, his tone good humored even as he chucked one of the decorative pillows at her. It bounced off the door frame with surprising accuracy, and Seifer dropped back against the remainder of the bedding.
"Where is your jacket?" Quistis hissed as Squall approached, nodding briefly at several guests in his path. She eyed the plain grey button down shirt he had under it, the collar a thin band that wouldn't show above the uniform neckline. Standard issue, designed to not be seen, but look acceptable if it was, and here came the youngest commander in Garden history walking through his own party wearing it. So much for public image. The press was going to have a field day once the pictures got out. "There are paparazzi everywhere..."
"Quistis," Squall interrupted, cutting off her tirade with a brief shake of his head. "Rinoa and I are leaving soon. Can you take care of winding everything down?"
She blinked at him, but her expression shifted quickly with a sigh. "You never change," she commented with a resigned smile.
He eyed her curiously. "I hope I have."
"You've always hated these things," Quistis elaborated, sidestepping the awkward moment deftly as she waved a hand at their surroundings. The commander had changed; they all had in the seven years since Ultimecia, since the war, since–
She brushed aside a fleeting thought of the cowboy and his little sunshine. Tonight was not meant for mourning. Quistis had done her grieving, said her speeches, shined their lives like badges not to be forgotten. It was the soldier's way, and to her core, Quistis Trepe had never been anything but a soldier.
Squall nodded, the gesture not as awkward as it had been when he was still her student. Here, it was merely a motion, easily done by a man not too fond of words. Words could be manipulated, twisted, turned into a thousand things. Actions were what they were, nothing more, nothing less.
"Thank you," he said, and drifted back into the crowd to find his wife.
He did not have to look very far, because from somewhere out on the balcony came a scream.
Seifer ambled through Garden's deserted halls, ignoring the SeeD guards posted at every strategic point, and thought about crashing the party anyway, if for no reason than it might take his attention away from the spirits that seemed to be following him at every corner.
I can see you.
He turned into the stairwell leading to the second floor, and was assaulted by a phantom.
Fujin reached a pale hand out of the shadows and stopped him with a touch to his forearm before Seifer headed up the stairs, and for a moment, there was a flash of Ultimecia behind his eyes and he blinked hard to wipe it away.
"Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
Fujin rolled her eye. "Idiot."
"You had better be dead; we buried you." Seifer rested his arms on the railing of the stairs and looked her over critically. "You look pretty good for a dead woman."
"Shut up," Fujin said mildly, brushing back light brown bangs courtesy of Balamb Garden's wardrobe department. She had wiped off most of the makeup, he saw, the dim lighting revealing faint smudges along the hairline of her wig. "Commander Leonhart?"
Seifer jerked his chin in the direction of the second floor. "Busy having a party," he said, not bothering to hide any of the disgust in his voice. "You would think that he would have better things to do, like run a Garden."
"Screw Rinoa," Fujin added casually, flipping a lock of the wig back over her shoulder in a rather good imitation of the sorceress. Seifer chuckled, and tossed his arm around Fujin's shoulder. She slipped from his hold with practiced ease with a roll of her eye.
"Come on, let's go crash us a party."
Fujin gave him a once-over of her own, taking in the rumpled Garden Athletics Department t-shirt and worn-in jeans that had seen one too many laundry cycles courtesy of Quistis, who could not let laundry go for more than two days. Fujin finished her examination with a glance at his old sneakers. "Classy," she proclaimed, and Seifer offered her his arm in an exaggerated gesture. She looked at it. "Wash it first."
He feigned hurt. "Bitch."
Fujin simply smiled primly at him, and led the way up the stairs.
There was something wrong; the flash from the camera came too low, flaring dimly and accompanied by a quiet pop.
She touched her stomach with a satin-gloved hand, and felt warmth.
Rinoa wasn't sure when her legs had given way beneath her, only that suddenly, the stone floor seemed much closer than it had been. Somewhere near her, by the doors, someone was screaming–"Oh my god, oh my god"– and someone's hands were on her shoulder, turning her on her back and she saw the stars, winking and glittering, blurring themselves in and out of her vision–"Rinoa!"
It took a great force of effort to keep her eyes open, and so she let them close, the stars blinking out as her eyelids slid down–"Rin, wake up– someone call Kadowaki, tell her we've got a situation"–
and then her ears shut off with her sight, leaving only the pressure of hands against her gut, but it didn't take very long before that sense disappeared, too.
Quistis didn't argue as Seifer pressed a styrene cup of coffee into her hands, just lifted to her lips and took a long pull of the drink, not caring that it was hot, not caring that it seared her tongue. Her taste buds told her that it was slightly burnt. She didn't care much about that either.
"Thanks," she said, and lapsed back into silence, her eyes making another sweep of the corridor above the rim of the cup.
"How long has she been in there?" he asked, inclining his head to the door at her back. Above them, a blue-lit sign declared "Operation In Progress."
"A few hours," she said, and glanced into the cup, swirling the contents with more concentration than it really required. Seifer settled himself against the wall just to her left, crossing his arms and tilting his head back against the wall. A casual observer would have pegged him for weary, but it was false and practiced nonchalance; any trained soldier would see the coiled lines of his body and know that he was ready to strike at a moment's notice.
Seven years since being spat out of Time Compression into a flower field in Winhill– or so he claimed– and he was still anticipating someone to leap out and attack him from every corner. Six years since Squall had granted a pardon declaring the greatest war criminal of all time to be acquitted of all charges provided he remain in Balamb Garden's custody.
The order had been to "lay low" when the commander had called Seifer to his office. Seifer Almasy, whose ego thrived on notoriety, stripped of glory, of weaponry, of even his old tattered coat. At the time, he had seemed shrunken without it, deflated, but as time passed, and as she grew to know him (and then know him), he was lighter for its loss.
There was no label between them, because it would have meant something. Quistis had thought he hadn't wanted it to mean anything and had tried to school her mind into believing the same, that the matter of his moving of a box or two of meager possessions into her apartment had simply been a matter of course after three years of...whatever it was. He had been spending most of his nights there, anyway.
She wondered, briefly, if she were to ask him what they were now, what he would say.
Overhead, the "Operation In Progress" light winked out, and across the hallway, Squall jerked his head up as the doors slid open.
Seifer huffed quietly. "She can't die. She's a fucking sorceress."
"Shut up, Seifer," Quistis murmured, and watched as Squall listened to the surgeon, his face a mask of indecipherable emotion, absorbing all the facts and figures with brief nods. It was enough to indicate that he heard and comprehended.
It had been his tactic for twenty-six years, and it would work now.
"She's in recovery. Would you like to see her?"
Squall looked over the doctor's shoulder at Quistis, and gave a barely imperceptible tilt of his head. Quistis knew a dismissal when she saw one, and Seifer put his arm around her shoulders to lead her out of the surgical wing, out of the ICU, out through the small lobby of Balamb Hospital's emergency wing, and out to the parking lot where he unlocked the car doors for her and slipped into the driver's seat. The ten minute ride was done in silence, and Quistis was grateful for it.
Later, when he was half-asleep with the cadence that a brief summer storm drummed against the window, she slid under the covers next to him and nestled her head against her forearm to regard him seriously.
"What?" Seifer mumbled, draping an arm around her waist and shifting her closer to him, reassured by the warmth of her skin against his. It was proof that some deep-rooted part of him required, the knowledge that they were both still alive. It was some combination of soldier's instinct and sheer human need that made him do it, and Quistis let him have that without complaint.
She rested a warm palm on his shoulder, one finger gliding absently along the curve down his neck. "Nothing. I'm just thinking."
"You think too much."
She smiled briefly at that. "Says you."
A small laugh escaped her lips at that, and Seifer kissed her forehead, but neither made any move to speak again. She burrowed against him in the silence.
Somewhere back in the living room of her apartment, her mobile phone let out a sharp ring.
"Ignore it," Seifer said, his voice turning husky in her ear as he ran a hand down her arm. Quistis wished like hell that she could as his lips glanced over the line of her jaw.
Quistis threw aside the covers and went to do her job.
–"It's time to wake up"– it hurt to open her eyes, hurt too much to look at the light again, and so she fought to remain in the comforting embrace of the darkness, so very warm and quiet – "Rinoa, it's time to wake up."
I don't want to wake up.
No. I like it here. I don't want to wake up.
The voice was stubborn, stubborn like her husband, stubborn like her ex-lover, stubborn like young Rinny Heartilly, all caught up in the startling ideals that she could change the world. A soft thum-tha-thump in her ears, the beating of her heart, the rushing of her blood.
It was serene, silent, comforting. It didn't hurt here; pain seemed to be a vague and distant thing, and when she tried to reach for it, her synapses were sluggish, unresponsive, sated and dull with the lure of the dark. She looked up and she could sort of see the stars, flickering in front of her, tiny pinpricks of light, faint at first and growing the closer she looked.
She did not know how long she stood there, only that she could hear the thum-tha-thump of her heart, and that the voice had gone silent.
I like it here, she repeated, and the words fell from her lips like a favorite song.
Thum-tha-thump. Thum-tha-thump. Thum-tha-thump.
"Rinoa...it's time to wake up."
The lights became searing beams, hard, hard to look at and so she closed her eyes tight against them, pinpricks still slipping through that stung at her pupils.
The light worked its way between her lashes, forcing her eyelids apart like a lever.
And the voice called her name again, again, again.
She felt the pressure of Squall's hand on hers as her eyes betrayed her and she blinked hard against the unforgiving fluorescent lights. For a moment so brief that she may well have imagined it, Rinoa mourned the loss of the darkness.
The voice in the back of her head whispered, it's time to wake up, Rinoa.