Quistis fought not to sigh as she stood in front of the elevator. The elevator chimed and she looked up. Two girls stepped out and she fought another sigh. She ignored them as they giggled passed her. The clack of their footsteps seemed to echo around her skull and she was suddenly glad that she'd gone a little overboard with the champagne.

"Where are they?" She whispered aloud. Zell and Rinoa being late she'd come to expect by now. The two of them were always up to something. Squall was a toss up. He had become more punctual with his promotion, but if he was dreading the event he was usually dragging his feet. Selphie and Irvine being late was another matter. The two of them were rarely tardy for anything. In Irvine's case it only happened during rare periods of insubordination. Selphie was only ever delayed if her target moved, and Quistis hadn't moved.

When Matron and Headmaster Cid had left her at the elevators, she'd been assured that the others would be right up. Matron had just left them. She felt slightly left out that they had all been together while she was alone, but she shrugged it off. The feeling was too familiar. It's not that she'd been left out, but she'd left them behind.

The hallway felt too warm and she shifted on her feet. It wasn't really warm, just something reacting. She sighed in relief as she realized Rinoa was coming. Hopefully they'd all be with her. That she could now feel Rinoa was very confusing. Quistis had always had a bit of a sixth sense about Squall and to a lesser extent Zell and Him, but this thing with Rinoa was different. It wasn't something she'd learned. She'd woken up in the classroom at Balamb Garden at her teaching desk with all this anxiety and knowledge. She'd met Zell at the base of the elevator. He'd been found snoring in the library.

They'd been frantic not knowing where the others were. Though where they'd landed was far preferable to where Selphie ended up. They'd gotten a call from the Ragnarok. Selphie had woken up in the pilot's chair while the thing was racing towards Esthar. She'd parked at Fisherman's Horizon to ask for clearance from the city, then headed to the Presidential Palace and picked up President Loire. That left Irvine to worry about. They were in full panic, refusing to rest or eat or even unjunction trying to find him. Cid was powerless to talk them down and at one point Zell and Xu broke down to physically fighting in the control room, only to stop with Selphie's arrival.

Selphie had flown for a while, dropping Laguna and his companions in Winhill before making passes over Galbadia looking for Irvine. That he hadn't arrived with her only increased the anxiety. Zell had given Selphie only a few minutes to clean up before he'd bodily carried her back to the Ragnarok, her hair still dripping. Quistis had waited in the cockpit, her requisitioning of the jet done in record time. Selphie had finally passed out, her exhaustion getting to her, by the time Zell made his way to the cockpit. Quistis could still feel the shock when Zell had plopped down in a chair, too tired to even bother putting Selphie down and joined her in slumber. She'd felt more alone and envious in that moment than she'd ever felt in her life. It wasn't a romantic envy, just a jealousy of their closeness; that somehow after all they'd been through she was still on the outskirts of the circle.

She'd flown aimlessly, the a.c. on full blast to stay awake. She dutifully marked off a search grid, something Selphie had failed to do. A flash of red light over Centra had caught her eye before the sensor on the ship started blinking. A tiny warm hand had grasped hers when she clutched the armrest and she jumped in surprise.

"You found Irvine." Selphie's voice came out tired, none of her usual sparkle remained. Quistis nodded and curled up her hand, Selphie's fingers turning instead of pulling away. "Let's go get him, then."

As they got closer Zell woke up with a groan. "Is he at G-Garden?"

"How'd you know?" Quistis asked, not taking her eyes off the trees.

"You and I woke up in familiar places. I assumed he would, too."

"Yeah, but what about me? I woke up driving this stupid thing." Selphie spoke up.

Zell hesitated before he answered and the red rim of Galbadia Garden broke over the tree line. Quist squeezed Selphie's fingers in anticipation as Zell found his voice. "Selphie, you hadn't been at Balamb for very long before we left it again. And our enemy tore apart your previous home. This probably was the place you were most familiar with."

Quistis could barely make out a speck of brown on the Garden hull. "Yeah, I guess that's true. I just didn't want to think of it like that." Zell's hand landed on Quistis' shoulder and she sighed. She knew he'd wrapped an arm around Selphie and was just leaning on her to see the operations screens. She was taken aback when he kissed her cheek softly. "Look! There he is!" Selphie's voice cracked.

Quistis looked ahead, horrified at Irvine's situation. He was precariously balanced on the edge of Garden, one arm clinging to a cable while he balanced on the rungs of what used to be a gate. Selphie's hand trembled.

"Oh man! We've got to get him now!" Zell cried out, breaking through Quistis' shock.

Her training quickly reasserting itself, she took command. "Zell, the cargo bay!" He ran off without reply. Quistis pulled her hand from Selphie's and stood up. "Selphie, you're the best pilot." She pushed the smaller girl gently into the chair and reached over her shoulder to flip the com on in the cargo hangar. "Zell, can you hear me?"

"I'm here."

"Okay, good. There should be a hoisting mechanism in there."

"Got it."

"Snap it around yourself and wait at the edge. I'll be down there in a minute."

"Yes ma'am."

Quistis left the com on so Zell could hear the plan and directed her attention to Selphie. "How long can you hold us stead for?"

"As long as you need."

Quistis looked at her sharply, but decided to accept the response.

"Okay. We're going to hover right over him. Zell's going to lower me down. I'm going to buckle with Irvine, and then Zell can use the hoist to get us back aboard. Shouldn't take too long."

"Quistis?" Zell's voice crackled out of the speaker.

"What?"

"Shouldn't I go down to get Irvine instead of you?"

"No, you're stronger in case the hoist gives out and I have my whip to catch me if needed."

"Roger that." Selphie giggled.

"Listen for our yells." Quistis directed at Selphie before squeezing her shoulder and walking out of the cockpit.

Quistis remembered being honestly nervous, but swallowing it down. The plan to get Irvine had gone off without a hitch and they'd met the Garden in the Estharian Strait. Quistis didn't remember too much after that. The Garden authorities trying to talk them into resting; Zell curled up on the floor sobbing; caked blood flaking like rust off Irvine's boots; the veins in Selphie's left eye popping with strain; and finally relief. The four of them had felt it at once, but Quistis noticed the looks Edea and Cid exchanged. Selphie had pushed Nida out of the way and immediately steered the Garden into the Gulf of Tears. Squall's beacon had activated as the Garden circled around the headwind off the sea cliffs to approach the orphanage from the north. Irvine's sharpshooter eyes, enhanced with the spotter binoculars had been the first to find them in the flower field. Zell's worried face was the last thing she remembered before Rinoa in the infirmary. She preferred to think of it as going ahead instead of being the first to give in.

She felt a tingling in her toes join the warmth a moment before the familiar vibration of the elevator ran through the floor. Zell's hearty laugh and Selphie's giggling preceded the ding of the bell. Quistis swallowed her irritation down and forced a smile as the doors slid open. She glanced over everyone in the elevator, relieved that at least Selphie and Irvine had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. As Zell stepped out she fell into stride next to him. "It's about time you all made it. I think even the last of the stragglers are already at the party."

"Yeah, well it happens." Zell said.

"And it's not like the party really starts until we get there anyways!" Selphie piped up from behind.

Irvine stepped in front of her to get the door as Zell grabbed the other one. Quistis threw him a grateful nod and he tilted his hat to her. The little gesture was annoying as usual. She surveyed the room as everyone filed in behind her. She was correct in her assumption that they would be the last to arrive. From the looks of things their delay had in no way slowed down the celebration. The party was in full swing and the alcohol was flowing. Still, the room was empty compared to the usual celebrations. They'd lost some SeeDs in spite of Rinoa's efforts and a ball without clients was strange. She spotted Angelo in a corner eating hot dogs and smiled. At least there was one odd guest. They'd all become attached to Rinoa's pet and in her case she warmed up to the dog faster than the owner. Zell offered his arm and she took it. He guided them towards the sound equipment where Cid and Matron were waiting patiently. She stepped to the side so Squall could move forward and speak for the group, pushing her feelings down.

"Headmaster, Matron." Squall nodded in greeting. "Please excuse our late arrival."

Quistis hid a chuckle behind her hand as Cid answered. "Squall, everyone. No excuse necessary, this party is for all of you after all. If you'd just indulge me for a few moments as we address your fellow SeeDs, I'll let you get to the festivities." Squall made one of his gestures to the podium and Quistis stepped quickly to fall into place behind it as Cid cleared his throat. "Good evening everyone!" The crowd quieted and turned their attention to the Headmaster. Quistis felt her breath catch as all of those eyes fell on them. The thrumming that always seemed to be in her fingertips when she was near Rinoa sped up. She found herself stepping closer to the rest of the group. "I hope you are all enjoying yourselves!" Cid was silent a moment as a cheer went up. "I just want to take this moment to thank all of you. Without the support of every person in this room, our fight would have been lost." Cid cleared his throat as heads around the room bowed. "I believe your commander has a few words he'd like to share." Cid stepped back awkwardly, overcome with the moment.

Quistis held her breath as Squall stepped forward. "Hello everyone." Squall shifted his weight as he hesitated. Quistis found herself copying the movement. "Headmaster Cid is correct. Without your support, not only would the fight have been lost, but everything would have been lost. This party is for you, you who stayed and fought and bled so that the world could still exist today. You have my sincerest gratitude. Thank you." The ballroom was deathly silent as Squall bowed to the crowd. Quistis felt overcome, he once again surprised her with this outpouring of emotion. She scanned the crowd, the shock and pride on everyone's faces matching what she felt. And then she bowed as well. Squall didn't just speak for himself, but for her and everyone who climbed that wretched castle. Not just the SeeDs in this room, but all of the SeeDs to come, they were the rungs of a horrible ladder of sacrifice that had to be climbed to victory. Something she'd known but hadn't really understood until this moment. After a few moments, she straightened back up as did the entire ballroom who'd bowed with Squall.

"And so let's celebrate!" She smirked as she watched Squall throw his hands up, feebly attempting to bring back the revelry. An awkward pause and some in the crowd began clapping out of pity. Quistis brought her hand up to her mouth to stifle a rising giggle. Selphie and Zell quickly stepped forward to either side of Squall.

"What our commander means is, PARTEH!" They exclaimed in unison, Zell following it up with a high backflip while Selphie spun a cartwheel. The crowd cheered, the music came back on, and Squall's failed effort at enthusiasm was quickly forgotten.

"That wasn't too bad." She said as Squall stepped back in place next to Rinoa.

"I told Headmaster Cid that I didn't want to say anything."

"You spoke well…except for that little ending bit." Quistis replied.

"Yeah...good thing Selphie and Zell are here." Rinoa tossed in. Quistis followed Rinoa's gaze to where Selphie and Zell were at the front of the stage, dancing together in an effort to lead the crowd.

"You want to dance?" Quistis looked over to find Squall and Rinoa had moved closer together; the statement hung between the two of them.

"Yes, but not up here." Rinoa replied. Quistis tried her best to look casual as she walked past them towards the stairs and Irvine.

"Okay." Squall's reply came a few moments later than a normal person's, but at least he responded. She didn't have to look back to know that he'd hesitantly taken Rinoa's hand and was following her towards the stairs. Irvine fell into step beside her at the stairs. She took his offered arm and let him steer her towards the buffet.

"Punch?" She shook her head and grabbed a glass of champagne. She took a zip and watched him ladle his own drink. She'd gotten used to his quiet over the course of their adventure, but something about it now was unsettling.

"Irvine?" She started when he was finished and they had both taken places by the wall. She continued when he tilted his head towards her. "You seem a bit lost in thought. Is there anything you would like to talk about?" She waited patiently as he let out a heavy sigh.

"I don't know where to start."

"Start with who, then why, then your available actions."

"Matron." He muttered under his breath. Quistis was shocked, she thought since Edea had passed on the sorceress power that everything was okay now; that Edea was no longer a threat. Quistis glanced to where Squall and Rinoa were dancing.

"You think she's still a threat?"

Irvine huffed. "No, dammit, I feel bad about taking a shot at her. Squall said my shot was perfect, that only a very powerful protect kept her alive."

"Your emotions don't make any sense. You were doing what you had to do."

Irvine looked up from his gaze on the floor to glare at her. "I might as well be talking to a wall, honey." He replied coldly before he turned to go.

"Wait!" She put a hand on his arm to stop him. "That wasn't how I meant it." She continued when he didn't shake her off. "I mean it's not your fault or hers. It was just a bad situation. Since you're sorry about that, maybe you should tell her. Make it a formal apology?" Her last sentence ended in a question as insecurity crept into her thoughts. She'd failed as a leader and instructor, who was she to tell anyone anything?

"You know, that's not such a bad idea." He turned to face her finally and gave her a good long look. It was rare to see him so serious and she blushed. Finally he continued. "You do better when you say what you're really thinking and not what you think is proper. Excuse me."

She was left staring after him in shock as he sauntered off to refill his drink.