AN: A requested Quistis / Seifer fiction. Happy birthday, irishais! Like always, no profit, all fun, well except for poor Seifer.

"I hate you." That was what he'd meant to say. At least, he tried to say it. The dust tickling his nose and clogging his throat made him sneeze halfway through; the effect was somewhere between a mangled groan and a cough.

"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I didn't understand that last bit. Care to repeat it?"

Seifer glared up at the woman who was proving to be the bane of his existence through his sweat-soaked bangs, refusing to give her the satisfaction of seeing him tremble as he rose. He coughed, spat, and tried again.

"I said..." he wheezed. "I hate you."

Smiling coldly, Quistis folded her whip. "Good, then we understand each other." As she turned to walk away, he lifted himself off of the ground - with monumental effort - and tottered to his feet.

"Makes you feel good, doesn't it!" he yelled hoarsely after her. "Kick a man while he's down. Some instructor you are!"

Her back stiffened at that, and she inclined her head in his direction. She didn't do him the courtesy of turning around fully, however - the insult being that he wasn't enough of a threat to cause concern. Damn it, he thought bitterly. I killed Odin! Vaguely, he realized that his mental argument was running dangerously close to sounding like don't turn your back on me, which smacked a little too much of desperation. So what if it was true and she really was his last chance? That didn't mean he was going to take her abuse lying down, even if she was the one who'd knocked him there. He took a few stiff, jerky steps towards her.

"I don't have to do this, you know," Quistis said softly, freezing his movements. "No one else wants to take you. No one wants to give you another chance, Seifer. You had enough of those before. You're the one who blew them all on your pathetic, hopeless dream." Cold, precise words, calculated to cut deep. She was good at what she did. Seifer hid a wry grin; he was good at what he did too, which was being a bastard. If Quistis was expecting him to back down just because of a few words, she was going to have to learn to start relying on sticks and stones. He took another step forward and she stiffened; it was then that he realized he'd gotten it wrong. Perhaps it was his last jibe that had cut too deep.

Seifer shook his head to clear it. No way. He'd had enough of feeling like shit to last several lifetimes. She was not going to guilt trip him now, not when she was the one who'd volunteered to make him her personal charity case.

"By all means keep talking, Instructor. Maybe then you'll tell me why the hell you wanted to teach me when you've obviously already made up your mind that I'm gonna fail." He couldn't keep the sharpness out of his voice, even though he knew it was in his best interest to get on his knees and kiss her ass. SeeD didn't often give former delinquents who just happened to be notorious war criminals second chances. Especially when the Garden in question was being led by his arch-nemesis, who also happened to be dating his ex-girlfriend, both of whom he'd tried to kill several times.

Although Seifer had never stopped thinking of Balamb Garden as home (and no other Garden would take him, honestly), he had been anything but thrilled to learn of his conditional re-admittance into the mercenary school. The condition being his constant surveillance and performance monitoring, all of which came in the package of a five-foot-six whip-wielding blond. The notorious Instructor Trepe wouldn't have been his first choice to oversee his training regiment and practical exams, but he was almost certain she was his last chance. That was the rub of it, after all; a certain morbid curiosity bloomed in his chest. "Why did you agree to take me as your student?"

She stiffened even more and turned her head back towards the doors of the Training Center. "You wouldn't understand," she murmured. And then with a few swift strides she was gone, the sharp click of her heels against the stone floor quickly fading into the hum of the jungle.

He leaned over and picked up his baton from where it had fallen. He didn't fight with a gunblade anymore; Hyperion was covered with too much innocent blood. Soldiers, civilians, fellow students even: every time he lifted the blade, he could see their faces in the smooth reflection of the metal. No, he couldn't bring himself to fight with his sword anymore, and so he chose a new weapon and started from scratch. It wasn't going well - Quistis was a fearsome mercenary who'd defeated him before on more than one account. Perhaps, with Hyperion, he could match her, even best her in one-on-one combat. But it would be too easy to give in, to pick up the blade and acknowledge what he'd been before - and Seifer didn't want that. He wanted a fresh start. He wanted another chance. He needed to redeem himself, to rid himself of the image of a sorceress' lapdog, and for that he needed to become a SeeD. A SeeD with exceptionally poor fighting skills, perhaps, but no one had ever said starting over would be easy, and at that moment pride was the least of his things which were being ruthlessly battered by his merciless Instructor.

But, as he folded his baton shut and headed off for a much needed shower, one niggling thought surfaced above the rest of the confused muddle - why had Quistis Trepe, the bane of his former academic existence, volunteered to give him this second chance?

Seifer scowled. He didn't like mysteries or being in debt any more than he liked pity. At least Quistis understood that much; she'd certainly been anything but lenient with him over the course of the last month's lessons. Still, she was helping him despite their intense mutual dislike of one another, and he was going to find out why.


He hadn't meant to eavesdrop. Well, okay, he had, but it hadn't been planned. His big day was tomorrow, and he'd actually wanted to ask her about the "extenuating circumstances" she'd mentioned. What the hell was that supposed to mean anyhow? It sounded like a fancy way of saying "Screw you, you're not going to be allowed to participate in the finals. Tough luck!"

Her office door had been left slightly ajar, and he really hadn't expected to find Squall within. Most of the other cadets seemed to believe Squall's butt was welded to the Garden's command chair. Seifer smirked; he knew Squall's conspicuous absence from Balamb Garden's day-to-day activities probably had more to do with the fact that he hated the inevitable attention he garnered in public. Creeping towards the door, he cocked his head and listened to the low timber of Squall's voice and the sudden, high pitch as Quistis interjected.

Ah, so they were fighting. Swiftly melting into the shadows of the opposite wall, Seifer crossed his arms and leaned back. He let his eyes drift closed as he concentrated on making out their muffled words.

"... couldn't have delivered this report to my secretary?"

"This was important, Squall. I thought you wanted to deal with it personally." Quistis' tone turned sharp. "You're the one who told me to keep such a close eye on him. I'm simply following your orders. I don't see what the problem is."

A faint rustling sound punctured the brief silence; Seifer grinned. He could almost see Squall rubbing his forehead just then.

"This isn't about my orders, Quistis. In fact I don't think it's about Seifer at all."

A pregnant silence. Seifer held his breath.

"Squall, I'm simply trying to -"

"No." He cut her off brusquely. "This is the third time this month, Quistis. These weekly reports have got to stop. We both know that you know how to do your job. You don't need me to tell you anything. Why are you really calling me down here?"

"Squall, I don't like what you're implying." Her voice was downright frosty now. "I take my duties very seriously and I don't appreciate being accused of unprofessional conduct during a mission."

"A mission!" Squall was incredulous. "Just stop it, Quistis. You need to it let go. I already told you that I -"

"Stop," Quistis said suddenly, and Seifer started. This wasn't Instructor Trepe's voice he was hearing. This was the breathy, trembling request of a teenager. His grin faded into a knowing smirk. So that's what it was all about, huh? Still looking in all the wrong places for a knight in shining armor. Squall was a knight, to be sure, but he'd never be hers. Shifting against the wall, Seifer listened attentively; he was more entertained than he'd been in years.

"No. I can't do this anymore, Quistis, not even for you. No more weekly briefings, no more unnecessary status updates. If there's a real problem, contact me. Otherwise, hand in your reports to my secretary. I don't want to see you again this week. In fact, I don't want to have another private meeting with you about any of this until after the exams are over." Squall paused, drawing a deep breath. "I'm serious, Quisty. You need to learn to let go."

Footsteps. "Squall, wait!" The sound of brief scuffle. "Where are you going?"

"To see Rinoa."

Seifer flinched. The other half of Balamb's perfect equation. In his glee at reveling in Quistis' misery, he'd nearly forgotten that he also had an emotional stake planted in that minefield.

Squall spoke again, his voice pointed and heavy with the weight of finality. "Where I belong. I'm sorry."

He pressed himself back into the shadows as Squall burst out of Quistis' office, his expression dark and angry. Quistis was following immediately behind him, and Seifer nearly revealed himself from the shock of it. He didn't recognize her face. The look of open, naked longing and hurt that were clearly written across her features didn't mesh with his own image of Balamb Garden's Ice Queen. This girl staring after Squall - she looked human. Her mouth opened in a silent gasp of pain, and then she turned and closed her eyes, driving the heel of her palm into it and biting down forcefully. Her shoulders were shaking, her eyes were closed, and for the first time Seifer felt that maybe he was doing something wrong, to be a spectator watching the unflappable Quistis Trepe flayed open so brutally.

But she didn't cry. After a few tense moments, she straightened off of the doorframe and withdrew her hand from her mouth. Her eyes were dry when she opened them, and Seifer found himself looking directly into them. He saw shock flicker across them, over a myriad of other countless emotions that he hadn't even realized she had. He froze against the wall, caught red-handed in his voyeurism. Then her walls slammed shut, and this vulnerable, unfamiliar Quistis Trepe was quickly replaced with the much more familiar Iron Maiden. It was almost a relief to watch her slipping back into her role.

"Enjoying yourself, Seifer?" she said acidly.

That was his cue. He pushed off the wall, preparing to snipe, opened his mouth, and -

"Relax, Quistis. I won't tell on you."

Wait, no. He was supposed to be blackmailing her! This was not in the program. He scrambled to get his smirk in place even as she stared at him with a look of utter disbelief. Then he abandoned the attempt completely when she replied in a voice he'd never heard her use before; it was low and choked with almost palpable hatred.

"I don't need your pity."

He was suddenly furious. Oh, he understood her well enough; he hated the thought of being pitied just as much as she did. It implied you were pathetic, worthless, a complete and utter failure. No, it was the emphasis she'd placed on where that pity would come from that struck him dumb. She didn't want his pity, and he knew why. Because if he was the lowest of the low and he offered her his sympathy, then what did that make her?

"Fuck you, Trepe."

He whirled off the wall and stomped down the hallway, seething. He could feel her eyes on his back like brands; his scowl deepened. He turned the corner, and she didn't chase him.


Seifer strode into the hallway, his familiar grey duster billowing out behind him. It was a somewhat less impressive entrance than in times long past, when Hyperion had been slung over his shoulder. Still, he refused to wear the cadet uniform. Besides the fact that most of them were a few sizes too small - he'd had another growth spurt when he'd turned nineteen - it almost seemed blasphemous to show up to yet another one of these things wearing anything but his own "uniform." There was only so much he could give up without losing himself. So, Seifer swung his baton over his shoulder and tapped it impatiently while glowering at the chaperone who dared to approached him. He held his glare until the man backed down. There was only one person he'd be taking orders from today, and for once, she hadn't yet arrived.

It was just as well that he was separating himself from the rest of the students; he was older than any of them, and the weight of experience was creating a gulf that he didn't think he could breach. They were so young, these children eager to prove themselves, to fight - how long would it take before they lost that shining optimism, before they knew how exactly it felt to witness death, to even be its herald? Seifer sighed and squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe it would be an easy test this year. Guard duty, or some equally useless patsy job. It'd be a welcome relief.

"Seifer." His eyes snapped open at the sound of Quistis' voice, and he turned to face her. She was dressed smartly, full SeeD uniform, clipboard in hand. Her face was schooled, not a single hair out of place, and it was like the previous evening had never even happened. He struggled to identify the confusion he was feeling... he might have hated Quistis as a teacher, but it wasn't like he really wanted to see Instructor Trepe spilling her guts in front of all the other students.

"You won't be taking the exam with the other cadets," she informed him coolly.

The confusion was solidifying into a dull anger. "What do you mean?" he asked quietly. Too quietly.

"I told you there'd be extenuating circumstances concerning your final exam," Quistis said primly, her eyes flicking down to her clipboard and flipping through a few pages. "According to my analysis of your performance, adding you to the active team of cadets today would not be an asset to the mission."

The other students were beginning to whisper, staring at him, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. What was she talking about? The past few weeks, the humiliation of training, studying the basic classes, trying so hard to prove that yes, even Seifer Almasy can listen sometimes - was it all for nothing? Was she summarily going to dismiss him now, after all that work, just because he'd gotten a glimpse of her feelings?

And there was his dream again, dangling within his grasp, so close and yet so far out of reach. Once, he'd wanted to be a knight in shining armor. He'd wanted to save the world. Now, all he wanted was to save himself. But it was starting to look like he'd been chasing false hopes, again. His knuckles whitened against the grip of the baton. Quistis was droning away, marking boxes on the clipboard and not even bothering to lift her eyes and look at him, look at him while she consigned him to failure.

"... afraid that despite your potential, your lack of direction and inability to follow -"

He cut her off brusquely. "I trusted you."

She trailed off, her mouth hanging open as she finally looked up and met his gaze. She hid her surprise well, but not fast enough. He didn't care; he was furious. He stepped closer to her and leaned in, trembling with barely suppressed rage. Even now, he refused to make a spectacle of himself. He was tired of being the centerpiece, tired of the looks and whispers and pointing fingers. Wasn't that why he'd been doing this all in the first place? The anger surged again and he struggled to control it. To direct it. He waited until the other cadets finally began to file out of the hallway, en route to their mission, leaving them in relative privacy, or at least as much privacy as the corridors of Balamb Garden could afford. Quistis stiffened as he brought his lips directly against her ear.

"Fuck it all, but I was actually stupid enough to trust you." His voice was a low, dangerous whisper. "I actually thought you were gonna give me another chance. Maybe not a fair one - hell, Hyne knows I didn't earn that, but I thought you'd at least let me try."

She was smart enough to let the pretence of the exam fall away, but apparently not smart enough to back down. "I've done nothing wrong," she said firmly, lifting her chin. Maybe she hadn't yet realized that she was playing ping-pong with his life. Well, too damn bad.

"And that's why Squall has to order you not to see him anymore," he hissed at her. "You just keep tellin' yourself that, Trepe." He gave her a wry smirk as he saw her recoil from his attack. "Never really worked for me."

Quistis recovered quickly. "Really?" she asked him, her voice smooth and cutting. "You didn't appear to be in the habit of questioning your actions while you were working for Ultimecia."

And there it was. The lowest of the low blows. He'd gotten away with most of it on claims of possession, bolstered by the unwavering support of Cid and Matron. They couldn't very well pardon Edea and land him as the scapegoat. But there would always be the whispers, the glances and the looks. Maybe he hadn't been possessed. Maybe he'd chosen his side. Maybe he was evil.

Sniping, he was so tired of sniping. A great weariness settled over him, the anger that had been thrumming through his body seeping out, only to be replaced by a hollow, wooden feeling. So that was it; his last dream was over before it had even really begun, and he was more the fool for following it.

"You're a real bitch, you know," he told her conversationally, but he had no malice left to back up his words. This time, he knew she understood what he was really telling her, that he was giving her his capitulation. He almost wondered why she looked so surprised, before he remembered that he didn't give a shit about what Quistis Trepe thought and turned away from her.

"Seifer -" she barked out, reaching for his arm. He shook her off violently, throwing his idiotic fighting baton down in the process. Fitting, that he himself was just about as useless as the weapon that had represented his new start. It hit the floor with a loud clatter and rolled away.

"I fail. I lost. I get it, you won. Happy now?" he spat at her.

Her hand fell limply to her side, clipboard forgotten. "This was never about you," she finally said.

Her admission was met with silence. That simple offer of honesty had revealed a truth Seifer had suspected, a reality that was colder and more unwelcome than all of her biting reprimands combined. At least when they fought, he could pretend it was because she was dealing with him, that he was somebody. Somebody that she hated, sure, but still more than just a failure. He didn't know what to say, not even what to feel. He'd already told her she'd won, and here she was, grinding her heel into his shattered remains. SeeDs were thorough, all right; her victory was complete. He couldn't even look at her; the pain and the anger were still too raw.

"Guess that's always been the real problem, huh."


At first he thought hearing his name called out over the Garden intercom was some kind of sick joke. Awarding the successful cadets their SeeD medallions while at the same time expelling him from the school. Life just kept on getting better.

When he got there, though, there were no guards standing in wait, no angry Squall or cool Quistis to apprehend him. Just the milling rows of nervous students and then the announcements, the polite applause and the subsequent low murmur of conversation as the crowd gathered around the posted SeeD list.

Somehow, impossibly, his name was on that list. Seifer stood in front of the board, staring blankly at the cramped black and white print spelling it out. Right near the top, too. "ALMASY, SEIFER" it read. "SeeD RANK C." Normally being associated with such a low mark would have irked him, but the troubling fact that he hadn't actually taken the exam seemed a bit more pressing at the moment. How in the hell had he passed? He scanned the bottom of the list and saw the authorizing signatures... and sure enough, there she was. "TREPE, Q. INSTRUCTOR #14." He was certain she hadn't left on the mission with the other cadets; they'd been long gone while he and Quistis were still hashing it out in Garden's hallways.

For one crazy, panicked moment, Seifer wondered if he'd somehow been possessed again. Maybe he'd gone to Trepe's room, threatened her somehow, picked up Hyperion and forced her to give him that pass. But none of the other SeeDs were rushing to apprehend him - in fact, very few of them were sparing him a passing glance. The few who did were eying him warily, as though he might snarl and bite them if their gaze lingered too long.

Seifer's shoulders dropped slightly. So. He was a SeeD now. He'd accomplished his dream; he'd made the cut, he was supposed to be one of them. And still they were looking at him like he was some kind of communicable disease. Somehow, he'd thought it would be different, that after everything he'd been through, finally proving himself this way, showing that he was changed would give him some semblance of his life back. Apparently it wasn't going to be that easy. Almost reflexively, he scowled at the few students who were still brave enough to stare at him and slumped against the corridor wall. Fine; so they didn't trust him? He'd deal with it. He always had.

A gloved hand thrust itself under his nose, interrupting his thoughts. Seifer looked up quickly and almost wished he hadn't. "Chickenwuss?" he gaped.

Zell's nearly-blinding grin wavered only slightly before tightening into a near-grimace. He thrust his hand almost aggressively towards Seifer, daring him to take it and nearly crushing it when Seifer finally did. "You'll never stop bein' an asshole, will you?" he muttered, giving Seifer a narrow-eyed glare. But then Zell's grip loosened, and so did his smile. "But hey, you're one of us now! Welcome to the club, man."

It was like the other blonde had cast some kind of magic spell. Just like that, the other students began to melt around him. Wary glances became tentative smiles. A few murmured congratulations were even tossed in his direction. For a brief and undoubtedly historic moment, Seifer was wildly grateful to Zell, that idiot. Who would've known the Chickenwuss would have it in him to be the bigger man? Well... maybe he did know, somewhere deep down inside. Seifer wasn't the only one who'd changed during the war, and Zell had proven himself steadfast and loyal on the battlefield time and time again. He stared down at their joined hands, strangely jealous of the naive, happy optimism Zell still had. His own had been ripped away from him, stolen by Ultimecia, and what was left in its place had scarred over, wounded beyond repair. He let go of Zell's hand, waiting for the moment of forced camaraderie to pass, surprised when feeling didn't fade even after Zell wandered off to congratulate some of the other cadets.

None of the other candidates were brave enough to openly congratulate him, but he was stopped from making a quick exit by another set of SeeDs... this time the cowboy and his Trabian girlfriend.

"Nice work, Almasy," Irvine drawled, tipping his hat in Seifer's direction. One long arm was looped around Selphie's shoulder; the shorter girl seemed tense, and pinned him under a bright emerald stare. After a few uncomfortable moments, it softened faintly - Seifer noticed the mild squeeze the cowboy had given her - and she smiled tightly at him.

"I trust Quisty's judgment," Selphie told him simply by way of congratulations. Seifer realized that she still hadn't quite forgotten Trabia just yet, but it seemed her boyfriend was willing to force her to make the first move. It was just as well that he had; Seifer couldn't forget Trabia either. The silent wall of tension had been breached, though, and it was a start. He gave Irvine a tiny nod of thanks and pushed off, feeling uncomfortable.

Before he could move through the door, another figure blocked his way. Seifer froze, steeling himself for the inevitable confrontation. He noted with some amusement that Squall was still wearing that retarded feather jacket and six too many belts, but chose to hold his tongue, waiting for the other man to speak first.

After a silent clash of wills - neither blinked - Squall reached inside of his jacket and slowly drew out a folded slip of paper. He held it out to Seifer, who took it cautiously. "From Matron," he said.

Seifer managed to hold the hand clutching the message steady, though his grip on it tightened enough to crease the paper. "Thanks," he ground out, but Squall was already pushing past him, joining the others as they welcomed the latest generation of Garden mercenaries.

With trembling fingers, he unfolded the scrap, reading the graceful script inside. The message was short and simple, obviously written in Edea's flowing hand.

"I knew you could do it."

That was all, nothing more, not even a signature on the note. But it was more than enough. Seifer made a hasty exit from the hall, unwilling to have an audience as he sorted through his confusion. It was supposed to be the worst day of his life, the day that the last of his dreams finally gave up and died, and instead that dream was blooming so rapidly it was threatening to overwhelm him. He hadn't even realized how much Edea's simple faith in him had meant, but as he read the words over and over, he knew.

It wasn't the uniform that he'd been seeking, nor a pardon for his crimes. It wasn't even the stiff, polite smiles the other students were suddenly feeling comfortable enough to show him. No. In the space of a heartbeat he had been transformed from a former criminal to an upstanding SeeD. He looked at his hand, which still tingled from Zell's overly-enthusiastic grip. He could have friends; he could even have a mother if he wanted. It was all there before him, offered with outstretched hands.

Suddenly overwhelmed, Seifer ripped the glove off of his hand and covered his face with it, leaning against the wall. He had it. He finally had it, he had earned his Chance. And by Hyne, this time he was going to take it.


Afterwards, in the dark, away from the drinks and dancing and noise of the celebratory SeeD ball, Seifer reflected that his day - surprising as it had been - was still somehow incomplete. There was still a certain gaping hole missing in it, one which was taking the form of the woman's silhouette, leaning against the balcony just outside the ballroom. He closed the door quietly behind him, and she flinched at his approach. He stopped abruptly, surprised at his sudden disappointment.

As if she could tell, she quickly reassured him: "I don't have a lot of good memories out here."

He looked back inside, through the slightly fogged glass of the French doors, and he could see the couples whirling in each others' arms, laughing, dancing, belonging - ah-ha. "Got dumped here, did you?"

Quistis sucked in her breath sharply and clenched her hands against the railing, and he shrugged. What exactly had she been expecting? They were both porcupines; he certainly wouldn't know how to interact with her without their bristles. Besides, after six weeks of living directly in a hell of her construction, he thought he deserved a little honesty. And if he was going to be honest, there was nothing polite about their relationship. He cut straight to the point.

"Why'd you pass me?" He sprawled backwards over the railing and lazily rolled his head around to look at her. "I didn't even take the test."

Quistis pursed her lips and fell silent. She was still for so long that he almost thought there was magic at work; that the moonlight was transforming her into a frozen, marble statue of the palest white. He reached out a hand to touch her, to gently prod her cheek and see if it was all really just an illusion, but stopped himself before his thumb made contact with her cheek. She didn't blink, let alone look at him. He dropped his hand and scowled at her. "Fine." Collecting himself, he pushed away from the railing and made to leave.

"You've been tested enough." That stopped him. He slumped back down against his prop and directed a fierce glare in her direction.

"Are you shitting me?" When she didn't reply, his annoyance tripled. "You mean put me through all that crap... six hours in the library, four in the TC, every day for six fucking weeks, and then decided I didn't need to be tested after all? Just like that?"

She returned his incredulous query with one arched eyebrow.

Seifer shook his head and swore under his breath. "Are you some kind of masochist?"

At this, Quistis smiled faintly. "Well. I do enjoy using my whip."

He couldn't help it; he laughed at her riposte and tried his damnedest to ignore the strange feeling that was overcoming him from making sexual innuendos with Ice Bitch Trepe. The world had seen stranger things, he supposed. Like Seifer Almasy clad in a full dress SeeD uniform.

Seifer's laughter died out and they were left with only themselves and the fine, comfortable tension that resulted from not really being friends, but no longer truly being enemies. He couldn't leave well enough alone, though.

"Why?" He could have kicked himself as soon as he spoke; he didn't really want to know why. He was in a good mood, he'd accomplished his goals, and the last thing he wanted was to hear that it was just some kind of convoluted retaliation scheme, a last-minute chance to torture him for all that grief he'd given her in school years before. Or even worse, that maybe she wasn't even doing it annoy him, but rather doing it to annoy Squall. That last thought turned his stomach, for if, once again, he was not starring in the lead role of the fiasco that he currently called his life, he really didn't want to know it.

"I..." she drew the word out, clearly uncomfortable with his question. But she was Quistis Trepe, the woman who had more balls than most men, and she forced herself to answer his question. "I did it because I was wrong. About you. About a lot of things." A pause. "I was being selfish."

Seifer snorted. Yeah, so she was. He could've told her that a dozen times over in the last three years. Not that he was going to point it out to her now, though; no sense in the pot calling the kettle black. Besides, it was apparent that she was feeling bad enough as it was. Guilt and self-castigation were things he was intimately familiar with. If pushing him to make SeeD in order to enact some kind of petty revenge against Squall made her feel a little more human, then who was he to begrudge her that? It wasn't as if Squall was his favorite person in the world either.

Tipping his head back, Seifer studied the star-encrusted sky, partially obscured by the garish neon lights of the Garden's docking rings. Yet another moment of perfect beauty marred by their artificially created reality. He supposed he should feel grateful for the chance she'd given him, but somehow her admission was rubbing the shine from his evening. He fingered the note in his pocket. Still, it wasn't a total loss. He was being given a chance, and it didn't matter who was giving it, or why or even for what reason. He wasn't going to blow it this time around, not anymore.

"Yeah, well, thanks," he told her gruffly. "I got what I wanted in the end."

Quistis wasn't looking at him. "I didn't," she said simply.

Seifer cocked an eyebrow. "Why the hell not? You won, you proved whatever it was you were tryin' to," he told her, gesturing at himself. "I made it. I won't embarrass you or Balamb. Well, maybe I will, but not about this," he added, fingering the lapels of his SeeD uniform, the one he'd once believed that he could never, ever voluntarily be convinced to wear.

"I didn't win," she replied, looking down. "I used you."

His attempts at good humor were rapidly deflating in the face of Quistis' brutal honesty. Couldn't she fucking pretend for at least one night? "Will you lay off it?" he snarled at her in annoyance, more for himself than for her at that point.

Quistis' head shot up, startled at his vitriolic tone. "Oh no, I didn't mean -" she began, then shut her eyes and quietly cursed under her breath. "That's not why I passed you. I did it because..." Her hands were twisting together, fraying a loose piece of gold thread on the cuff of her uniform sleeve. "Because you were right. It wasn't about you. But it should have been."

Seifer was surprised by her admission. He looked at her, really looked at her. He'd never really thought of Quistis as pretty before, but at that moment, in the moonlight, she was radiant. This was no Ice Queen before him, this was an Ice Goddess. Maybe it was because he could almost see the chip finally falling off of her shoulder as she straightened her back and faced him.

"We're not just some minor characters in Squall and Rinoa's story," she said insistently, her eyes brightening from within with some kind of newfound determination. She stared at him, and her eyes were so very blue and faintly, Seifer began to panic. She was digging past his prickles and exposing his soft underbelly, and all she was doing was looking at him, and oh, shit.

"This is my life," she continued firmly. "I've finally realized that I need to start living it for myself. Proactively, I mean, not just experiencing it like some bystander or reacting to other peoples' decisions. I need to live. I think... you needed that, too." She ducked her head, and for a brief moment shame clouded that painfully bright, shining essence that was nearly blinding him. "Some instructor I am indeed. It took me entirely too long to see my own mistakes. What I was doing to you." Her chin trembled, but she met his eyes and refused to drop her gaze. "I was wrong," she repeated clearly.

Coming from Quistis Trepe, who strove to be perfection embodied, those words meant so much more than a mere apology. It was for all intents and purposes a final surrender, and stupidly Seifer realized that he hadn't even known they'd been fighting. She stood there, waiting for him to say something, to acknowledge her defeat.

Shit. His throat seemed to have sealed itself shut about halfway into her speech. ShitHynefuck. He wasn't ready for this, he wasn't ready to feel this way again -especially not for his second-worse Garden nemesis of all time. But he'd won; she stood there, before him, bathed in glory and moonlight, and finally, she was looking at him, not through him, and wasn't that all that he'd ever really wanted? Her eyes were wide and unshuttered, and he could see her heart behind them, exposed to the chill night air for once, rather than locked away in that iron casing that she called a chest. It was almost enough to break him. She waited there, open, willing, fully expecting him to punish her - Hyne, she thought she deserved it. She probably did.

"We were all wrong, sometimes," he managed to somehow tell her, even with his heart squeezing painfully in his chest. And thank Hyne, it looked like it was the right thing to say because just like that, she relaxed and even went so far as to offer him a small, uncertain smile.

"Thank you, Seifer," she said, and then she stretched out her hand. He looked at it dumbly and then back at her, but there was no sarcasm in her expression. All he could see was a fragile, shaky offer, if not of friendship then at least acceptance.


He took her hand and squeezed it, his eyes never leaving hers. The sound of the brittle wall he'd erected around his heart snapping roared in his ears, almost audible in the moonlight. If Irvine had his camera out, Seifer was going to have to kill him and destroy the film because he was certain his face was splaying his deepest thoughts and feelings openly in that moment. He held his breath, waiting for her inevitable rejection, perhaps accompanied by a look of disgust.

But Quistis only smiled and tightened her grip slightly. "Congratulations," she told him warmly. "Don't doubt yourself. You truly earned this, Seifer." And he could see that she meant it. After another moment, she dropped his hand awkwardly, and his palm felt cold and empty in the absence of her touch.

"... I should be getting back to the party," she said after clearing her throat. She turned away, and with a muted sense of shock he realized that no, she hadn't felt it. She didn't realize that when they'd touched, she'd shifted something fundamental inside of him, almost as certainly as the day he'd finally released Hyperion. She thought she was surrendering, when instead she'd finally managed to soundly, damningly disarm every last shred of his defense. And she didn't even know it!

Seifer let her retreat back to the safety of the ballroom and watched with fascination as she tried to mingle into the sea of SeeDs, teachers and students. Obviously it was something she'd never done before; she was garnering a lot of unwanted attention and surprise from the other celebrants. But she was Quistis Trepe, and if there was one thing she could do exceptionally well, it was perform under pressure. She smiled, turned, cocked her head and murmured polite nothings into the crowd as if she'd done it a dozen times before. And then she stopped, turned her head and in a rare, unguarded moment, looked through the balcony doors and offered him a small smile.

See? I can do this. I'll be fine. So will you.

Seifer felt a grin tugging at his lips and waved her off. Turning towards the balcony he leaned himself over the railing and couldn't repress the hoarse laugh that erupted from his throat. For perhaps the first time, he felt free to live his life for himself. He sucked in a deep breath of the cool night air and considered what was waiting for him inside. The future. His future. And for once it didn't fill him with a distant, abstract sense of terror. A smile was splitting his lips, and he didn't particularly care who witnessed it. He had it now, his new beginning, his big chance, and Seifer knew he was going to take it for all it was worth.

... damned if he was going to join the Trepies, though.