A/N: If this story looks familiar, that's because it is. It's part of 'A Sorta Fairytale', which I hacked up into a suitable prequel for this story, as part of the universe. You might want to skim through it even if you've read it already, because I've changed the ending.

Instructor Galen has his hands folded behind his back as he surveys the cluster of students in front of him, all of whom are trying very hard to stand in the straight line he had demanded.

The nerves are so strong in this group that there is almost a distinct hum in the air. Faces are pale, eyes are round with lashes fluttering, and there is that familiar hint of bile in the air that suggests one of them has believed the terrible rumors about battling a T-Rexaur on the first day and has vomited before class. Fresh blood, in more ways than one.

One in every group, every year.

He looks at them all in turn. Most stare at their feet; a few meet his gaze, briefly. A red-haired girl gives him a wink. A boy with green eyes meets his gaze head-on, fearless; a blonde girl with ice blue eyes stares beyond him, as if she can already see her future.

These are all ones to watch.

Their first day is always his favorite.

"Welcome to Battle Tactics 101. In this class, you'll learn the basics of physical combat as required for future SeeD Training. Look to your left, and look to your right. One of the people next to you won't make the program. The other will most likely die on a mission. As for the person standing between the unfortunate two you just looked at, well, from where I'm standing, your scrawny asses got better odds for being struck by lightning than making SeeD. If anybody's feeling like they showed up to the wrong class, I invite all of you to get the fuck out of here, now, and go home to mommy."

Nobody leaves, although there are quite a few nervous shuffles and an increase in blinking. Whether this is because most of them are war orphans and have no mother to return to, or because they are bound and determined to wear a SeeD uniform, Galen is never sure..

Maybe both.

"Now, I want your name, and the vocation or weapon you're aiming for."

"Shira Anglave, sniper."

"Drew Aeden, close-range ballistics specialist."

"Seifer Almasy, gunblade specialist." It is the boy that so readily met his gaze earlier. The gunblade is a dying art- though the revolver does offer some advantage on the battlefield, the bulk of the gun makes up for it. Gunblade wielders are few and far between.

"Dirk Chevis, martial arts."

"Hunter Graves, healing medic, sub-specialty explosives expert."

"Raze Kile, martial arts, sub-specialty, computer tech."

"James Marek, nunchaku."

"Sidney Mason, bowstaff."

"Cedric Podney, hand gun."

"Dillon Seagray, bowstaff."

"Quistis Trepe, chain whip," says the girl with the arctic eyes.

If the gunblade is a dying art, then the way of the chain whip is dead, buried, and maggot-ridden.

Down the line, Galen can see the blonde-haired boy smirking at the girl's choice, though he is not the only one.

The list continues.

"Galanna Valentine, martial arts."

"Briar Wells, hand guns."

"Xu Yiang, ballistics, sub-specialty, demolition."

Still standing straight in line, Quistis feels her cheeks burn. Her first day, and already she is being laughed at.

Not a good start.

The first class passes without incident (with the exception of Briar Wells, who throws up during their tour of the Training Center when Instructor Galen mentions the resident T-Rexaur population.)

"Hey! You!" Heading to her next class, Battle Psychology 101, Quistis hears a voice call behind her. It belongs to the blonde-haired boy that smirked at her in line, and, as it happens, he is yelling after her specifically.

Seifer Almasy. Aspiring gunblade specialist. Scored within the 90th percentile on the GVAB (Garden Vocation Aptitude Battery). No surviving parents, like her. She has done at least a cursory research on all of her fellow classmates, and it seems like this Almasy is going to be a front runner for top of the class. Only Briar Wells scored better than she (by 1 point) on the GVAB, and the evidence of Briar Wells combat potential is now splattered all over a potted plant in the Training Center.

"So, a whip? Really?" He is walking next to her now. "You going to take up lion taming, or what?"

"Excuse me?" she says, adjusting the stack of books against her hip. No boy has ever talked to her this way before.

"I mean, what the hell were you thinking? What exactly do you think a scrap of leather is gonna do against a T-Rexaur?"

"This is criticism about my choice of weapon from the boy who chose a gunblade?"

"Say what?" Clearly, the boy isn't used to having his questions turned around on him or having anyone criticize his beloved weapon, which he probably picked just because he thought it made him look cool. But then, most boys share his train of thought, though few want to take on the daunting task of mastering a gunblade.

"I mean, it's a blade and a gun both. Did you need a backup, just in case either your swordsmanship or your aim is lacking? If that's the case, I think it's rather sad, really. If you need any help improving your skills, though, I'd be happy to help you, if you want."

She leaves him there gaping at her as the next bell rings.

Later in their next class, he leans over. "My name is Seifer Almasy. You'd better remember it, 'cause someday, I'm going to be famous."

...

...

...

Much later, in the dark of her room, she repeats his name out loud. Something hides inside that name, some sort of dj vu that nudges at her when she looks at him. But then, this is true of several things in her life- of people, place and things that seem to grasp at her, but never fully take hold.

Perhaps they have met before. It is certainly possible- from when she first came to Garden, she remembers only faintly being sad and then Shiva's presence blossoming in her mind, the occupation clean and crystalline like ice crystals numbing every thought. Early junctioning, they'd told her, was mandatory for every student, but after listening to Xu and some of the others, she thinks perhaps it had only been mandatory for her.

She does not remember her childhood, but then, she is not sure she wants to. She has no parents, no happy could it have been?

"Seifer Almasy." she repeats, narrowing her eyes and waiting for some spark to ignite in the dark pit of her memory. Nothing comes.

"Are you up there with a guest?" mutters her roommate. "Because it's rude not to share."

Quistis smiles in the dark. "Goodnight, Xu."

"Night, Quistis."

...

..

.

Blue mats have been set down in the gymnasium- they stand like random floating islands on the shiny marble floor.

"Today," says Instructor Galen, gesturing at the mats, "You'll be putting to practice what I've taught you over the last five weeks...on each other. I want weapon tips and edges covered with the black foam, and I want gun barrels open for my inspection, silicon-paint bullets only. Cut down your casts by half, and for those of you not yet comfortable with casting, don't do it at all. Now pair off and get going. You've the whole period- extra points go to hits in the critical zones we discussed."

She is still taping the barb on her chain whip when she notices a shadow looming over her. "Are you done yet?" He asks her.

She blinks at him for a moment before she realizes that he wants to be partners. She would never have thought he would have chosen her- she would have thought he would have picked Dirk Chevis or Dillon Seagray, who by all accounts are the more aggressive fighters in their class, and it is no secret also that Galanna Valentine has a less-than-subtle interest in 'partnering up' with young Mr. Almasy, whether on the mat or a mattress Quistis isn't sure.

Knowing Galanna, probably both.

Over in the corner, Xu gives her a quizzical glance. When Quistis shrugs in return, Xu walks over to Dirk Chevis's mat and promptly shoots him in the foot. He hops around, cursing at her.

"Hurry it up," Seifer commands arrogantly, his gunblade slung over his shoulder. "Or Instructor Galen'll have to dole out the first points for Briar Well's punching her own eye out."

Quistis gets to her feet. "Let's do it, then."

Seifer raises an eyebrow. "Here? On the matt? Really Trepe, first the whip, now this?"

She rolls her eyes.

Boys.

She hates that her cheeks are red.

They take a moment to warm up, her snapping the whip though its paces, him swinging the gunblade in a few fluid arcs to loosen up his arm.

"Well, let's see what that piece of dental floss of yours can do," he says, grinning.

There is no 'Go', no 'Count of three'- he rushes her immediately, his blade tip coming within inches of her face as he swings. She lunges to the side and uses her whip, still doubled up, to snap him in the meat of his back leg, making it give and buying her enough time to twist away as she follow through with another stinger to the side of his neck.

Grunting, he jerks and swipes in a complete circle, winding her as the foam-covered tip of the blade plunges into her side. She needs the advantage of distance if she is going to be able to effectively use her whip. She twists back and watches for his approach: Almasy's style is aggressive- he does not wait, he rushes his opponent relentlessly until their defenses collapse. He relies on speed and intimidation to keep his enemy reeling, unable to set up an offense of their own. Seifer's goal is to keep combat close, to intimidate her and keep her on the run.

Quistis is also aware that knowing a strategy and knowing how to beat it are two completely separate things.

When he comes again, she darts away to the farthest corner of the mat, her whip over her head to wind it as her other hand comes up. His eye snags on the blue vapor of the ice spell brewing in her hand, giving her the opening she is looking for.

She goes for him perhaps a little more savagely than necessary, letting the whip circle for three complete revolutions before snapping it into the side of his face. Even with foam on the tip, the crack is enough to split the skin, and a small trickle of blood dashes down his cheek. He does flinches, but rushes her again. She knows he will not be fooled by the same trick twice, that he will risk the spell damage in favor of landing a physical blow.

He is a Hydra, but then, so can she be also.

It goes on this way for the entire hour. There may have been battles going around them, shouts and bursts of light- she doesn't see them. And if he doesn't cut down his casts as much as he should, if he pulls no punches as the foam-covered blade ricochets off her thigh, her side, her arm- it suits her fine. She is tired of being handled with kid gloves by these boys that seem to think she should be washing their sheets and polishing their swords instead of fighting at their sides.

After the class, exhausted, covered in sweat, and bleeding in more than a few places, they eat at the same lunch table, not saying a word.

They don't need to.

...

...

..

.

"Princess Trepe, the first blue mage at the Garden in ten years! Next Instructor Galen'll be rolling out the red carpet, and all lesser mortals will have to-"

"Stop it." She glares at him.

"Seriously, I thought the man was going to blow his load right there when you cast that Ultra Wave. Did you see the look on-"

"Stop!" she says again. Her cheeks are red.

He likes the blush on her cheeks, likes that he can put it there. "So, you'll save me a seat in the cafeteria?"

She pretends to consider a moment. "Well, I don't know, being that you're a lesser mortal, I may have to consider-"

He grins at her. "See you at lunch, princess."

She rolls her eyes at him as he jogs off towards the Quad. He is cocky, he is reckless, and he is irritating to boot.

She saves him a seat anyway.

...

...

...

They meet at precisely 8pm each night, (although they pretend it's only coincidence at first that they are there at the same time, in the same gym), each with their weapons taped for combat and each dressed in the black under armor that all Garden students are required to wear when sparring. The armor is light- it is intended to block the kind of magical damage that first year students are capable of casting, and can prevent around 25 HP worth of force from physical damage. Fortunately, or perhaps, unfortunately, both of them have long since passed that marker.

They are the youngest students in their class.

They don't talk- they never do, except for an occasional criticism (' keep your left side guarded' or 'don't put so much force into your uppercut'.

For the most part, the battle speaks for them in its native tongue of bruises and blood.

Seifer is a physical fighter- he is aggressive, he is light on his feet, and he gives virtually no quarter. Quistis, in addition to being Garden's top caster, is fast, fluid, and most of all, patient and analytical. She is content to prolong battle in order to learn an enemy's weakness, while Seifer always wants it finished quickly.

Quistis thinks this is because it gives him more time to gloat.

They spend hours in the Training Center, circling one another, panting for breath, lunging and thrusting and striking, and, rarely, falling back. Only when the last bell rings does the battle stop, and, bloody and bruised, they haul themselves off to bed without a word.

No mercy is asked, and none given. They dance in blood-splattered circles, testing each other's defenses and searching for weakness...all while trying not to reveal their own in the process.

It is, thinks Quistis, a poor substitute for dating, though not necessarily unlike it.

...

...

..

.

Quistis is sure that the girl's locker room adjacent to the gym is smaller than the boys. For economical reasons, why wouldn't it be?

Women make up roughly 20% of the active combat members in Garden- most of the others are involved with running it: lab techs, support staff, and those that push the paperwork. Quistis has a friend, Maira, that helps to run the Training Center Repopulation Program- Quistis herself has put in hours gathering T-Rexaur eggs to be raised in the hatchery.

Fortunately, T-Rexuars are not particularly attentive parents.

She does not envy Maira, most days, but there are times that she wishes she had chosen a life that did not constantly come with the territory of proving herself twice over.

The girls are changing and showering after the Battle Tactics class, talking amongst themselves. There is whispering and giggling, and two girls in the shower begin to throw the soap at one another, their shrieks echoing off the walls. Quistis quietly folds up her battle gear and places it in her locker, then changes back into her Garden uniform before going to the sink to wash her face.

Galanna, clad in just towel draped over her shoulders which just barely covers her breasts, takes up the sink next to Quistis. She is a beautiful 17 year old girl with curves to match the ruby red curls that spill down her naked back. Galanna could be a model, but then, Quistis thinks Galanna's tastes are better sated in bloodshed than fashion.

Quistis is nearly fifteen, and unsure of what to do with the curves that have been cropping up over the last year. She has tried to subdue them with lycra, with little success.

Nothing about Galanna is subdued. Rumor has it that she is no stranger to the Secret Area.

An ironic name, the Secret Area, thinks Quistis, seeing as every student and faculty member is well-aware of its existence. It is an indulgence of the powers that be, she supposes, a trade for the innocence they have already sacrificed to be here.

Their childhood for a place to neck.

"So," says Galanna, removing her toothbrush from her mouth, licking her lower lip. "You and Seifer Almasy."

Quistis looks at her, waiting for Galanna to finish her sentence. When it becomes obvious that the girl meant for it to end there, she asked, "Myself and Seifer what, exactly?"

Galanna laughs. "Are the rumors true?"

What rumors? Possibilities swim through her mind. The rumor that Seifer will become the youngest SeeD ever admitted? The rumor that he killed six Grats in a single stroke? These are probably all rumors that he has started himself...

"I'm sorry," said Quistis, bending over to scoop water over her face. "But which ones?"

The girl rolls her eyes. "Does he fuck like he fights?"

There was one she hadn't heard.

"I don't..." she stammers, hating that she can feel her cheeks heat like a child. "I wouldn't know."

"Of course not, you're just a little girl, aren't you?" says the older girl, smiling in a patronizing way. "Maybe I'll find out for you."

Another bell rings, and suddenly, Quistis is all alone in the shower room, biting down on her toothbrush hard enough to make the bristles crunch.

Does he fuck like he fights?

Galanna's crude words tiptoe around in her head, creating questions were previously no questions lived.

She is unsure how to deal with these new queries, so she ignores them and focuses on brushing her teeth. She stares at her reflection with narrowed eyes.

I'm not a little girl, she thinks.

But that's exactly what she is.

She's a little girl that can channel gods, that can crack a whip hard enough to flay skin open to the bone, but she's a little girl just the same, still scared under her mettle.

Ironic, she thinks, that she can stare down a T-Rexaur and be the first to volunteer for every exercise, but the thought of being alone in the Secret Area with a boy still terrifies her more than anything.

...

...

...

..

.

"What'd you get on Green's exam?"

"A ninety six. You?"

She grins at him as he grits his teeth. "A ninety one."

Their sparring isn't only in the gym.

..

.

...

"What did you get on the casting practical?"

She glares at him. He knows damned well how she did...he'd been there when she'd stalled the ice spell. She is still waiting for the fist-sized blister to pop.

Damn damn damn, weeks of practice with the spell, and when it comes her turn, she chokes on it.

"A forty five out of fifty," she grumbles. "You?"

"Perfect marks, of course," he preens like a peacock. "How much you want to bet I cream you on the Guardian Force exam, too?"

She is fuming. "You're on. What, shall we say... the loser carries the winner's books for a day?"

He grins at her. "You think too small, princess. Make it a week."

"You've been calling me that ridiculous nickname for two years now." she says. "Aren't you getting a bit tired of it?"

"No, why, are you?" he asks innocently, dodging the swat she aims at his shoulder and laughing.

Though it's most often directed at her, she likes his laughter- it's loud and reckless and it fills up these grand halls.

It fills in spaces she didn't know were there.

...

..

.

"You took out all these books on purpose, you heartless bitch," he mutters, buried under 101 Guardian Forces, The Ashes of Pyrember, Fantastic Beasts and How to Kill Them, Junctioning 301: Mutualism or Parasitism?, The Art of War, and Critical Zones of the Brain and the Body.

Among others.

"I don't know what you're talking about," says Quistis, trying not to grin.

"You've seriously picked all these books because you wanted to read them tonight?"

"Don't be silly. I picked some of them because they had pretty spines." She is smiling now, and not trying to hide it. "You can put the books here, slave."

She would never admit it, but ordering him around gives her a certainthrill.

Maybe that dominatrix rumor isn't that far off

"I rest my case, you heartless wench," he seethes, glaring at her as he plops down the heavy load of books on the desk in front of him.

"Don't be such a sore loser," she tells him. "It's not my fault you and Quetzalcoatl didn't get along."

He glowers. "Who the fuck would get along with some magical parasite sucking on your brain?"

Seifer still has a twitch from the Guardian Force twisting around in his skull, crackling like a static worm, to say nothing of the booming migraine he'd suffered directly after the exam. The static came with the territory; the migraine was the result of him trying to hurry the damned thing up. Apparently Guardian Forces, like women, didn't like to be rushed. As a result of his very public spat with the GF, (in which he had apparently called the creature an 'overgrown static-cling chicken', among other things) Seifer has been eliminated from the select pool of SeeDs that are allowed to junction for missions. His junctioning days are over.

He tells himself it's no skin off his back as he prefers to work alone, anyway (and doesn't need some magical parasite picking at his brain while he sleeps), but now he has the pleasure of being Trepe's slave for the week, and she is taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Quistis shakes her head. "The week is almost over. Besides," she says, smiling, "All this heavy lifting is improving those scrawny little arms of yours."

It's a lie, of course- with all of his gunblade training, his arms are hard as tree branches threaded with tough muscle and sinew, but he's as vain as Narcissus, and it's fun to tease him.

It takes a moment for her insult to sink in. "Scrawny? I'll give you scrawny!" he yells, but she has already disappeared around the corner, leaving a peal of laughter behind her.

He tries to glare after her, but it's difficult. On the few occasions that she laughs, really laughs, he finds he wants to laugh with her.

...

...

..

.

Quistis sighs and turns a page in her textbook. Seifer, across the table, sighs every time she does it.

"Do you ever stop?" He blurts.

"Do you?" she retorts, not looking up from her page.

Another sigh is her response.

She looks up from her page. "The SeeD test is in less than a month," says Quistis, opening her SeeD manual and trying to memorize the regulation about appropriate magic force in a civilian territory.

"I know," mutters Seifer. "You tell me every damned day." He pushes the book closed. "So?"

"So, perhaps you should start studying." She opens the book again, only to have it closed, this time over her hand. Exhaling breath through her teeth, she gives him her best glare...the one that seems to have absolutely no effect on him whatsoever.

"Look, if we don't know it by now, we're never gonna learn it. Besides, you think they give a shit if we remember sub-article A under the enemy hostage clause?"

Her reaction is immediate and automatic- it's almost as if she can't help herself. "The taking of a hostage is permissible if and only if other avenues have been exhausted and the hostage taken is not considered a civilian by the standards of-"

"Stop!" he orders, pressing his hands to his temples. "Just stop. You're driving me nuts."

She looks petulant. "Then go and pester somebody else."

"No."

"Well, what do you think I should be doing, if not this?" she asks, exasperated, tapping her pencil against the desktop.

"I don't know, but if you crawl any further up Instructor Galen's ass you're going to need a flashlight and a spelunking helmet to get back out."

"If you came all the way down to the library just to make fun of me-" she starts, putting her hand back on the book cover with the threat of opening it again.

"We should do something to celebrate us becoming SeeDs," he says quickly, ignoring her impending tirade. "Something to take our minds off of the exam."

"What do you have in mind?" she asks, setting down her pencil. "Are Rajin and Fujin coming, too? I suppose we could plan a small-"

No. Hell no. She's not planning anything, he thinks. If she has her way, they'll be having high tea with the instructional staff, turning into bed at 8 before things get too wild.

"Hello? Earth to Seifer?"

He appears not to have heard her. "We'll talk about it at lunch," he says, glancing over his shoulder. "Meet me in the garage tonight, after last bell. Dress in your civ clothes."

"Last bell? But-"

"Just save me a seat at lunch!" he calls, as he disappears around the corner.

...

...

..

.

Garden's SeeD Candidate Schedule for the first two years is a block schedule. On A days, both Seifer and Quistis eat with their respective friends (Seifer with Rajin and Fujin, and Quistis with Xu, Shira and Maira); when their schedule is divided, however, Seifer almost always eats with her in the cafeteria. Both Rajin and Fujin are a year behind and still on the hundred level classes and Xu has Combat Specialty with Instructor Marek on B days, so it's just the two of them. It's just as well that Xu is on a separate schedule, as Seifer and Xu mix about as well as oil and water on the best of days. Quistis thinks it's probably because their insecurities are incompatible (and the fact that they tear at those insecurities to no end when placed in a room together.) Cats and dogs, and Quistis isn't sure which one is the cat and which one is the dog, but she tries to keep them apart for her sanity more than theirs.

Seifer and Quistis have fallen into the habit of eating lunch together, then walking to The Psychology of Battle with Instructor Arlin, where Quistis is expected to kick Seifer periodically to keep him awake.

Today at lunch, however, the seat she's always saved for him is empty, and remains empty until she eventually relinquishes guardianship to a first year cadet that does nothing but stare at her and try to shove food in his mouth at the same time, which results in him missing his target a good many times and slopping gravy down the front of his uniform.

Her eyes search the cafeteria-

- then she immediately wonders why she cares.

Seifer is loud, obnoxious, and over-confident, and when he isn't making her roll her eyes, he is usually laughing at her expense. Still, she finds herself missing the stories about his over-inflated achievements, and his grandiose (if naive) plans for the future.

She also misses his impersonations of Instructor Green.

She hadn't realized how much she enjoys his company until she doesn't have it, it seems.

The first year cadet has once again missed his mouth completely. Tired of feeling like a bug under a microscope, Quistis clears her tray and puts it away.

She is confused, more than anything- he'd told her to save a seat today, hadn't he? Then again, she'd junctioned Shiva all morning before passing the guardian along to Shira. They play Junction/Un-Junction like a relay race all through the week on Instructor Green's orders as part of his class. Having a high affinity with Shiva, Quistis has noticed only a few problems with her memory and some slight headaches, but it was never her short-term memory that had suffered before...

As she rounds the corner for her next class, she sees her missing lunch partner. He is standing in the hallway, one hand on his hip, the other balanced on the wall. Underneath that arm is Galanna Valentine, leaning in close, smiling as Seifer slips something into her hand. She whispers something in his ear than walks down the hallway, winking at Quistis as she goes.

Small loyalties are all Quistis has in her small world, and for some reason, she feels betrayed.

Quistis tells herself that the roiling in her stomach is due to the cafeteria's questionable version of Chicken a la King, and certainly not due to those Unanswerable Questions With No Good Answers bobbing up again.

She quashes them and kicks Seifer extra had to keep him awake in Instructor Arlin's class.

...

...

...

...

..

.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Hey. Princess!"

She finally turns around in her seat. "I told you not to call me that!" she hisses. "Now shut up!"

She glances back at the BlueBoard, where Instructor Green is droning on again about 'GF relations'. It is a consensus among the student body that Instructor Green should just fuck Shiva, die of hypothermia, and get it over with.

"Hey!"

"Shut up! You're going to get us in trouble." She whispers furiously at him.

He kicks her chair. She folds her arms and ignores him.

"Quistis!"

Desperate measures, if he is using her actual name. The corners of her mouth twitch.

Shira Anglave giggles. Dirk Chevis makes horrible kissing noises until Seifer turns and kicks him hard in the shin. Both Dirk and Seifer feign intense concentration when Instructor Green turns from the board to regard them suspiciously.

"Quistis," he says again, once Instructor Green has turned around.

"For Hyne's sake, what is it!" she whispers furiously, turning in her seat to face him.

Dirk Chevis is still clutching his shin, mouthing curses at Seifer.

He seems caught aback to have her full attention, all at once. "...are you coming tonight?"

"It all depends on-"

He scowls. "Depends on what? You're either comin' or not, it ain't a trick question or anything!"

There goes that stomach twist again. "Why don't you ask Galanna instead?"

He frowns. "The hell would I ask her for?"

She turns around, ignoring him again, although he looks genuinely perplexed at the question.

Scowling, he tears out a corner of his Junctioning textbook and scribbles a note before balling it up and throwing it at her. It catches the side of her neck before dropping to the ground. Shoulder blades tensing with her temper, she nevertheless snatches the note and smoothes it open on her desk. It reads:

"Why the hell would I ask Galanna to come? Girls like her are only good for one thing."

Narrowing her eyes, she scribbles back. "And by that logic, which thing am I good for?"

The return note hits him in the eye. Cheeks reddening, he quickly scrawls another message. This time she catches it.

"What the hell crawled up your ass?"

Fuming, she crumples up the note and throws it at him. "You-"

"Miss Trepe. Mr. Almasy. Is there something of greater importance than Compatibility statistics that I should be aware of?" Instructor Green is wearing his 'We are not amused' face, a look which makes him look slightly constipated and usually ends badly for the recipient.

Everyone else in the class is wearing their best "Busted!" face (except for James Marek, who is wearing the half-sympathetic, half-relieved "Better you than me" face, as he has just been woken up from his daily in-class nap.)

"I've asked you a question, I believe," says Instructor Green.

"N-no sir," stammers Quistis quickly.

"No sir," says Seifer smoothly, leaning back in his seat.

"Need I remind you that your SeeD exam is in less than one month?"

"No, sir." This time, it is only Quistis that speaks up. Seifer is already staring into the distance.

"Fifty laps around the Quad after class, both of you. And after that, I think a three page dissertation on the benefits of a single junction vs. a multiple junction is in order. Since you so obviously don't feel the need to pay attention, I can only imagine this material to be so beneath you that writing a paper will be mere child's play. I look forward to being dazzled by your profound insight."

"So do I," muttered Seifer.

Instructor Green's face is now as red as a tomato. "And for that, Mr. Almasy, you will both be scrubbing the 1st floor men's toilets tonight. With your own toothbrushes."

"But-" stammers Quistis with something akin to panic.

"Add to that the 1st floor women's toilet as well, Miss Trepe. Perhaps you'd like to go for the faculty's as well? I must confess I've been missing that pine-fresh scent of a perfectly waxed floor."

A low murmur rises up in the class, punctuated by giggles. Quistis's face is as pale as a ghost, and she sinks a little in her seat, looking near tears. Seifer, however, maintains a stony expression, his arms crossed.

Hearing the giggles, Instructor Green turns on the rest of the class. "What are the rest of you grinning about?" He barks. "Do you want to join them?"

Smiles and snickers quickly flatten out into a somber silence befitting a funeral procession.

So much for allies in arms, thinks Quistis bitterly.

"Good. Now, as I was saying, there appears to be a direct correlation between vitality and compatibility statistics when dealing with Guardian Forces, to say nothing of the speed advantage in the summons-"

Neither of them looks at the other for the rest of the class.

...

...

...

"So..you going to...help me...with the paper?" he asks her on their thirty-second lap, his sentences broken by his breathing. She is doing her best to ignore him, a strategy not made easier by the fact that he has taken to keeping pace with her. Instructor Green is watching them from a bench, grading papers. The colossal prick.

"Help you?" she pants, glaring at him as her ponytail swishes from side to side with her gait. "Why on earth would I help you? You're the one... that got us into this mess! I've never...had detention in my life!"

"You worry too muchwhat people think, Trepe." He says. " Besides, what're you...talking about? If you hadn't ignored me, we wouldn't have-!"

"I wasn't ignoring you!" she lies. "We were in class!"

"If you would've...had the courtesy to turn around the...first time, none of this would've happened."

"Courtesy?" She glared at him. "I'm being lectured on...courtesy from the guy...kicking my chair for half an hour...throwing wads of paper in my hair, getting me into-"

"See? You admit it- you were ignoring me." He looks both slightly winded and smug.

"Only because you make it...so worthwhile," she huffed.

He grins. "Now, princess-"

Some men, she is sure, call women 'Princess' to sound endearing. This is no such man. His every endearment is gritty like sandpaper, made to scrape rather than soothe.

"I told you to stop calling me that!" she snaps.

They are drawing stares. It is nothing new to see Cadet Almasy running laps for one infraction or another, but it is quite another to see Quistis Trepe, model student, keeping pace beside him.

"What's wrong...with being a princess?" he asks, grinning.

"Nothing at all...if you need rescuing," she snaps, then speeds up.

This time, he lets her pull ahead.

"See you in the men's bathrooms tonight, princess!" he calls after her, making the surrounding students erupt into laughter.

Quistis's fists ball as she runs, but she knows that giving her classmate a matching pair of black eyes is not going to endear her to the faculty, and she is already hurting for favor.

...

...

...

...

...

..

.

"Knew you couldn't stay away," he says, grinning, as she approaches him. It is after hours in Garden, and not a soul roams the halls save for the Shumi, a few students sneaking into the Secret Area, and of course, any students unlucky enough to be serving detentions, which, from her observations, seems to include only them.

"Did you know that in prison, a toothbrush can be carved into a shank and used to sever a man's jugular vein?" she asks, kneeling down beside him on the men's restroom floor. She has to hike up her skirt to get on her knees, and he watches her do it out of the corner of his eye.

She is fifteen, long-limbed and still a little gangly, but she is pretty now and someday, she will be stunning. She is the subject and scrutiny of many of the boys in their class, though she mostly ignores them.

But not him, he thinks.

She saves him seats at lunch, kicks him awake in class (perhaps harder than necessary), and trains with him in the Training Center almost every night. He is not sure why he likes her attention so much- whether because she awards it so seldom, or because she's so much fun to tease.

Probably both.

The women's JC uniform is not at all suited to work of this type...or running, or slaying beasts...or high-kicking...absently Quistis wonders just what the men who ordered the women's uniforms had in mind. She resists in relaying her misery to Seifer, who would probably delight in telling her '101 Uses for Garden Uniform Skirts', none of them appropriate.

It does not surprise her that Seifer is here ahead of her, dutifully scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush. (Although she'd be willing to bet that it isn't his. In fact, she does a double-take to make sure it isn't hers.) Though Seifer balks at authority, he understands it as a necessary evil for accomplishing his goals, and though he struggles, he keeps his harness on.

She wants to cry when she sees that the boy's bathroom is indeed almost twice the size of the girls, which is large itself to begin with. Still, it looks rather like the girl's bathroom. She isn't sure what she expected. Jock straps swinging from the ceiling? Half-naked pin-up girls taped to the walls? She considers asking Seifer if it's always like this.

Instead, she takes out a new toothbrush she's purchased from the canteen (punishment or no, there is no way in the island closest to Heaven that she is using her own.) She really hopes that Instructor Green is not going to make them brush their teeth in front of him when this is all over, because she has only been scrubbing two minutes and already a coarse black curly hair is tangled in her bristles. And suddenly, she wants to cry again. She has never had the slightest infraction in her life, and here she is, scrubbing floors with a horrible boy that lies and gets her into trouble and tells her to save him a seat for lunch and then does Hyne-knows-what with the resident Garden bicycle-

She isn't sure what bothers her more- that she's stuck scrubbing bathroom floors all night, or that she's actually more upset about being stood up for lunch.

This idiot has gotten her priorities all messed up, and she isn't exactly certain what type of idiot that makes her.

"Think Instructor Green'll take time out from his rigorous schedule of humping Summons and actually check on us?" asks Seifer.

She does not respond, but makes a face as she encounters a questionable white substance by one of the toilets.

Men are disgusting.

"What, you're still not talking to me for whatever imaginary thing I did to piss you off?" he asks, glaring at her.

Quistis has learned that the worst punishment for Almasy is not actual punishment itself, but being ignored. A vain creature by nature, he will take any sort of recognition over not having any at all.

After another hour of his sulking, though, she finds that she is bored as well and decides to take pity on both of them. By this time, he is scrubbing sullenly on the opposite end of the bathroom, completely silent. And it's a little funny that a boy that can fight like a demi-god sulks like a child.

A smile hints at the corner of her mouth as she thinks of what to say.

"Knock knock," she says, not looking up from her scrubbing.

He glares up at her. "You finally decide to talk to me, and it's some fucking knock-knock joke?"

"Knock knock," she says again stubbornly.

He rolls his eyes. "Who's there?" He relents. Her knock-knock jokes are awful.

"Boo." she says, trying hard not to laugh now.

"Boo, who?"

"Don't cry, Seifer," she says, "It's only a joke."

"Hyne, your jokes fucking stink, you know that?" But he's trying not to smile, too, and she notices that he moves a little closer to her as he scrubs the next tile.

"Fine, you're such a great comedian, you tell one," she says.

"All right," he replies, sitting back on his haunches. "There's these two guys out hunting Cactuar, right? All of a sudden, one of the guys drops over, looking really pale. His eyes roll back in his head and he doesn't seem to be breathing. His buddy panics and calls a Med-Evac, and he says to the operator, 'You gotta help me! My friend is dead!'"

Quistis pauses in her scrubbing to listen.

"The operator says in a calm voice 'Okay, I can help you. But first, let's make sure he's dead.' There's silence on the other end for a moment, and then a shot is heard. The guy comes back on the phone and says, 'Okay, now what?'"

Quistis groans, but she smiles. "I still like mine better."

"You would," he says.

They are closer now, nearly shoulder to shoulder as they scrub.

"You missed a spot," says Seifer, peering over her shoulder.

"I did not!" she replies indignantly. "If anyone missed a spot, it's-"

She trails off as she looks up from her work and directly into his eyes. She knows they are green, of course, but up close (when did he get so close?) they are sea green with flecks of amber, rimmed with a darker emerald hue. He doesn't say anything, just looks back at her. His shoulder is warm as it presses into hers, and she has never been this close to a boy before-

"And how are we progressing?" a voice startles them. Quistis nearly loses her grip on her toothbrush. They both scramble to their feet at attention, Seifer holding his hands behind his back.

"Fine, sir," says Quistis. "We're nearly finished here."

"Good." he says. "And when you've finished the girl's toilets, you can finish the faculty's as well, after which time I want you both directly off to your dormitories. You both have a paper to write, after all." The Instructor pauses at the doorway. "And no cutting corners. I want to be able to see my reflection in every crack and crevice of this bathroom."

"Oh, he'll be able to see his reflection, all right," mutters Seifer after the Instructor has gone. "In the toilets, no problem, the prick-" Still muttering, he pulls out a small paper bag from his pocket.

"What's that?" asks Quistis. "Poison for Instructor Green?"

"Even better," replies Seifer, pulling out a glass bottle from the slim paper bag. "Odine's Firewhiskey. 100 proof. Apparently before the guy became a famous scientist, he was kind of a drunk. Well, he probably still is, but now he invents shit on top of-"

"Alcohol?" says Quistis, her eyebrows raised. "Seifer, you know you're not allowed to have alcohol on school grounds! It's cause for expulsion from the SeeD program!" A pause. "However did you get it, anyway?"

"Galanna's dating some bartender in Balamb. She gets pretty much whatever she wants, and, for a fee, is happy to distribute her wealth to the student body."

If the rumors are true, Galanna enjoys distributing more than liquor to the student body, but Quistis keeps her mouth shut as she processes this new information.

Seifer, slipping Galanna something in the hallway...

the truth dawns on Quistis, and instead of wanting to scold him, for some reason she feels like smiling.

So she does.

"Anyway, it was supposed to be for our celebration, but this works, too." Unscrewing the cap, Seifer takes a drink. "You want some?"

She eyes the flask as if it's the reincarnation of Pandora's box. "I-we can't. It's against the rules."

"Yeah, well, some rules are made to be broken." He grins at her as he takes another gulp. "Let me guess, Little Miss Perfect doesn't drink."

He's right of course. Little Miss Perfect doesn't drink, she doesn't stay out past Garden curfew...then again, Little Miss Perfect doesn't get detentions, either.

Maybe, she thinks, Little Miss Perfect isn't so Perfect after all.

She wonders why that thought feels so liberating when it should feel so terrible.

She doesn't know whether it's that thought or the superior smirk on his face that makes her grab the bottle from him and take a big gulp. It's only a small bottle of alcohol, anyway- what harm can it do?

In later years, she'll come to better understand liquor proofs.

Immediately her insides are on fire. She chokes and sputters, eyes watering- absently, she feels him thump her hard on the back.

She's about to thank him for her concern when she realizes he's laughing at her.

"Whoa, Trepe, it's not orange juice! Holy hell!" he says, taking the bottle back from her and taking a longer swig, not to be outdone. He pauses. "Did they have strawberries for lunch today?"

"Strawberry cheesecake," she says, still trying to clear her throat and swallow the remainder of the awful stuff that seems lodged in her throat.

"That's it," he says, licking his lips as he hands the bottle back.

The fact that he is tasting her lips from the bottle causes something strange to squirm inside of her that isn't only the fear of things beyond her experience.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she takes a smaller sip. Her sinuses are still aflame, but she doesn't choke this time.

"Better?" he asks.

"No! Hyne, what is this stuff? Turpentine?" she gasps.

"Tch. It'd better not be, for what she charged me," he says, examining the bottle.

And it goes on like that for awhile- they pass the bottle back and forth between each other, until Seifer regards her a long moment, says she's had enough, and polishes the rest of the bottle off himself. He looks immediately sorry that he's done it.

Quistis, meanwhile feels a little lightheaded, and strangely carefree, like the mountain of rules and responsibilities she's been heaping onto her back have all sort of slid to the floor in a relaxed little puddle. This, she thinks, is what other students do with their time- they laugh, they break rules, they have fun; but not her, no, never her, not Miss Perfect, she sets her alarm clock and writes in her planner and toes the line wherever they see fit to draw it.

And look where it's gotten her- headfirst into detention without a backward glance by that prick Instructor Green. Perhaps rules are only as good as the people that make them.

She sets down the toothbrush.

"Get up," she says, suddenly.

He eyes her. "Why?"

"Just do it," she says. "And step back. Way back."

She has some ice spells junctioned, and as she flicks her wrist, they rattle to life, making her arm feel like it's been slammed in a freezer.

Her heart hammers beneath her ribs- one of the only times she feels alive like this is when the magic surges through her. This is probably because it's the only time she feels reckless- she does not have a complete handle on the magic yet and every summon, every cast is a calculated risk.

She's been studying the water types in Blue Magic, and though what she really needs is a Water Crystal to learn the complete spell, she's assembled a kind of cheap knock-off in the meantime. It's not a Limit Break, not even close, but she thinks it will do the trick nicely in this case. Enough of the Ice summon to supply the bulk of the cast, a little fire to melt it and heat it...and...

Her muscles spasm as she casts. It's a little overkill, but then, she's still feeling a little dizzy.

She steps back. The bathroom is doused in a heavy spray of hot water from top to bottom, and faint streams of steam are rising from the walls, sinks and counters.

Normally, students don't hybridize magic in this way- there's little point. If you want to ice an enemy, you ice them. If you want to burn them to a crisp, you use a Fire variant. It's neither advisable nor time/cost effective to blend spells, because you can easily get killed in the time it takes to combine them. In her studies and in her daily life, Quistis is intensely practical, but as a Blue Mage when it comes to magic, Quistis is more interested in what she can do rather than what's actually deemed prudent.

She turns to regard Seifer, her shoes a little wet and still more than a little tipsy on her feet.

Seifer, meanwhile, is looking at her as if he's never seen her before. "You're full of surprises, aren't you?"

She doesn't answer. She's surprised the hell out of herself.

"Why the hell didn't you do that before?"

She shrugs. "Hurry up and help me cast aero, then let's get the rest of this done. You have to write a paper, after all."

"You wrote yours already?"

"Of course," she says. "You might want to cite Rolphus Manger's point about every simbiotic relationship being somewhat slanted in a single organism's favor, although you could easily make an argument either way as to the greater advantage enjoyed by- "

As she drones on, Seifer rolls his eyes.

The more she changes, he thinks, the more she stays the same.

...

...

...

Even with Quistis's new and improved method, it takes them another hour to tackle both the faculty and the girl's first floor bathroom. By the time they make their way over to the dormitories, they are tired and their shoes are soaked enough to squeak.

Seifer insists on walking her to her room, whether out of chivalry or to make sure she doesn't break her leg over a potted plant is anyone's guess. She is still a little tipsy. Quistis Trepe, model student, tipsy and out after curfew. She doesn't know whether she wants to giggle or be horrified at her behavior. She settles for a lopsided smile instead.

"So, tomorrow," says Seifer. "Meet me by the garage after curfew."

She wants to rail at him that the SeeD exams are in just over two weeks, that they're already skating on thin ice with Instructor Green, that what they're already doing is a huge mistake, but what she says is, "Why?"

"We won't get into trouble, if that's what you're worried about. Don't you trust me?" He takes her hand, and for an instant, she isn't sure what he intends to do with it. He could twist it behind her back and pin her into the wall, could take the arm and use the momentum to flip her- but he does nothing, he just holds it, and her own instinct to flip him passes.

"Is that a trick question?" she asks, leaning up against her door frame. The hallway is still spinning a little. His hand is warm.

"Could be. Dress civ. I'll meet you there." He bows low, smirking, and his lips brush her hand. "Night, princess."

Instead of correcting him, she rolls her eyes, then frowns when she sees him walking the opposite way. "Isn't your room down-"

"Yeah, it is." He says. "I've gotta return Instructor Green's toothbrush first."

She can't quite figure if he's kidding or not.

Probably not.

She stares at her hand for a moment before she remembers she's standing alone in the hallway, and lets herself into her room.

...

...

...

..

.

Quistis's civilian clothes consist of a black pencil skirt, a white blouse, a pair of khakis and a dark blue pea coat. She plucks a spider web from her khakis and thinks that she really needs to get out more.

She has to resort to drastic measures and borrow from Xu's closet, all the while wondering exactly what the hell she's doing.

"All this time I've tried to get you out of here, and you pick now to go?" Xu watches her comb through her closet, her arms folded. "If it's with that Almasy kid, don't even tell me where you're going. When your mutilated body washes ashore, I want to be able to tell them I don't know anything."

Rolling her eyes, Quistis holds up yet another blouse before Xu becomes frustrated and shoulders her out of the way. Muttering, Xu selects a stone-washed jean skirt and a short-sleeved powder blue t-shirt with a scooped neck, throwing them at her as she sits on the bed. Xu is slightly shorter than Quistis and the shirt has to stretch in the chest a little more than Quistis would like, but the outfit is serviceable.

The older girl scrutinizes her roommate from the perspective of experience as Quistis twists and turns in front of the mirror, trying to pull down the skirt. Xu doesn't trust Almasy: the little shit is cocksure, reckless, and narcissistic to a T.

However, if he can nudge Quistis out of her shell, well, she can't despise him (entirely).

At 15 years old, Xu knows for a fact Quistis has never been to a party, never held hands with a boy, much less kissed him, and has never snuck out of Garden for a night in the city. And yet Quistis can map out all the critical zones in the body, and only last week broke a Geezard's spine like a matchstick with her whip. She is terribly ahead of her age in some ways, and painfully behind in others.

And though Xu wishes her friend all the fun that accompanied the risks in a social life, she certainly doesn't wish her the heartache that sometimes tags along.

The kind that is sure to tag along with a careless boy like this.

Xu squints at Quistis for a minute. "You're not going out like that, are you?"

Quistis turns, and her expression falls. "This is a big mistake, I know, it's a bad idea, I shouldn't-"

Xu rolls her eyes. "Who said anything about it being a bad idea? I've been trying to get you out since you became a SeeD candidate." says her friend, grabbing the ponytail in her hair and pulling it out. "Hair like that, you wear it down. Now c'mere, you're a mess."

Quistis submits.

Fifteen minutes later, Xu smiles at Quistis as she slips out the door, watching her as she hurries down the hall.

The girl is bound to be shit at sneaking out...perhaps a distraction is in order.

"Quistis." She hisses.

Quistis stops, frowning at her and silently mouthing, 'what?'

"Whatever you hear, keep going," says Xu, then shuts the door on Quistis's bewildered expression.

...

...

...

...

...

..

.

The garage is as silent as a graveyard. She weaves between the cars, her blood pounding in her ears, watching for movement.

She should not have come, she thinks. She is breaking about seven Garden rules less than a month before the SeeD trial, and if she gets caught by Instructor Green, who knows what type of foul thing she'll have to clean next-

Something clamps down over her mouth and she instantly turns, leading with her elbow to wind her attacker, her mind already following up on a snap with the heel of her hand into the soft cartilage of the nose and-

-she meets air.

The hand is removed, and suddenly Seifer Almasy is standing in front of her, grinning. She almost feels bad that she was about to break his nose.

Almost.

"Didn't want you screaming, Trepe. Scared, were you?"

"Of course not," she lies, crossing her arms. "You startled me, that's all. What're you doing, skulking around?"

"Didn't know who it was." Seifer is wearing a pair of baggy grey cargo pants and a black shirt with what Quistis guesses is some sort of band name emblazoned across the front.

Quistis wants to know exactly what he would have done if it was an Instructor, but keeps her mouth shut.

"Well, let's go," he says.

"Aren't Rajin and Fujin coming?"

"Nah," he says. "They're probably asleep. Why, you wanna go wake 'em up?"

"And sneak down the hallway again?" she asks. "No way. How are we going to get out of here, by the way?"

Seifer hasn't quite worked out how to get past the sleep-deprived guard they've newly stationed at the entrance yet, but he doesn't dare tell Quistis that, lest she see his plan for the poorly constructed thing that is and march directly back to her dormitory.

"Well, we're going to have to hoof it; we can't take one of the cars-"

Suddenly, the sharp beep of an alarm sounds inside. Both Seifer and Quistis whip their heads around-

"Disturbance in dormitory sector A reported. All available personnel report for inspection." It is the monotone voice of one of the Shumi. In a moment, all monitors will be swarming the dormitories...leaving none outside.

"Xu." mutters Quistis.

"Huh?"

"Nothing," she says.

He grabs her arm. "Perfect. Let's go!"

And before she can protest, before she can process the very real insanity in all this, he's dragging her along, helping to vault her over Garden's gates.

He finally releases her arm, and they walk in silence through the fields. He doesn't seem worried about monsters, and really, neither is she. They're junctioned constantly now, and she's well-stocked enough to take on anything the Balamb plains have to offer.

She thinks, anyway.

After a minute, it occurs to her to actually ask where they're going.

"That Summer Solstice Carnival's in town," he says. "You ever been?"

Of course he knows the answer to that. These past years, her world has only been as big as Garden's walls.

"No." she says. "Am I dressed appropriately?"

He shrugs. "It's a carnival, not high tea." Really, her outfit is more than serviceable, particularly the scooped neck on the shirt.

"Oh, okay."

"Come on," he says, grabbing her hand as they run through the gates, and she feels a rush of adrenaline, as if all that confidence of his is infectious. She even forgets to glance behind her.

The carnival is like nothing Quistis has ever seen before. Seifer insists on riding each ride- she laughs and shrieks when he rocks the seat on the Ferris wheel and almost gets them kicked off, nearly throws up on the whirl-o-matic, and blushes when their bodies slam together on the spin-o-whirl, Seifer insisting that they have to lean their weight into each turn to maximize the spinning. Seifer is obviously a veteran of the Summer Solstice Festival, and she is reassured that he must be very good at sneaking out and sneaking back in, as his record concerning truancy is squeaky clean.

Seifer buys chili dogs and she treats for funnel cakes, and they both nearly get kicked off of the bumper cars when she pins Seifer's car to the rail so hard it sends showers of sparks scattering across the arena.

They play the ring toss and even have their palms read. Quistis has a long lifeline and a daunting task in her future, and Seifer apparently has a mysterious woman to meet in his. Rolling their eyes, they duck out of the tent, laughing.

The Summer Solstice Festival is packed full of noisy, sweaty people that were probably already half-drunk before noon, filled with the dampening, heavy smell of fried foods and beer and the subtle toilet bowl cleanser stink of the port-a-potties that line the gates, and strung with incessantly blinking lights and irritating noises from the games.

She has never had so much fun.

Quistis tries her hand at the bazaar of games, and finds that she isn't very good at them. Seifer, however, wins an overlarge stuffed cactuar and a small silver keychain. He gives the stuffed cactuar to one of the kids that orbits the games like a hopeful moon. Watching Seifer shake his head as the kid grapples with a stuffed animal roughly the same size as he is, stumbling away and muttering his thanks, she smiles. Seifer gives the keychain to her, and when he grabs her hand to lead her into the House of Mirrors, he doesn't let go.

The House of Mirrors is a veritable maze of aluminum glass and bare bulbs that swing and hum in the dark. At first, Quistis laughs at the distortions, fat Quistis, skinny Quistis- Seifer leans close and makes a face in one that seems to distort one's reflections like a rippling pond. After awhile, however, she comes to a mirror that is not distorted, and she is suddenly looking at a stranger. This girl, with long blond hair that falls around her face , the skirt and just the tiniest bit of lip gloss swiped across her face, who is she?

Is she the real Quistis Trepe, or is the real Quistis Trepe back at Garden?

She thinks she likes this Quistis just a little bit more. This Quistis smiles more, laughs more, and doesn't care as much what others think.

(except for him, maybe.)

She must be lagging behind, because Seifer grabs her hand again and pulls her around a corner. Her laughter echoes through the wide room.

He laughs with her.

.

..

..

.

"That was fun," she says as they jog silently down the halls. They are both tired, sweaty, and smell like the grease and grit of the fair, but they are also breathless with laughter, still humming from their previous exhilaration.

"Yeah." He grabs her hand, suddenly, and jerks her into a doorway.

Her eyes adjust quickly to the dark as she looks around.

It is the Secret Area.

"Is this the-" she looks around. "But we can't be in here, they'll-"

"You worry too much Trepe," he says, and then he surprises her again-

-by kissing her.

It is her first kiss, and as soon as her brain can catch up to both the novelty and the sensations, she closes her eyes and puts her hands on his shoulders, where (she thinks) they are supposed to go.

His lips are soft for all his aggression- this close, she can smell him, feel the heat from his skin, and she can't ever remember being this close to someone before without trying to hurt them. Until this moment, she didn't realize how much she wanted (needed) human contact, but now that she has tasted it, she is starving. Her fingers tighten around his shoulders and she presses her body into his (warm, hard, and alive) and she breaks contact with his lips just long enough to gasp his name.

Not 'Almasy' this time.

Just 'Seifer'.

He likes his name on her lips almost as much as he likes the press of her body (breasts, belly, thighs) against his. His hands go around her waist and pull her closer, and suddenly she is flush against the training center wall, her hands fisted in his shirt and his body rubbing up against hers.

And suddenly, this thing she's never had before, never known- she wants more of it.

They're both clumsy- hands hesitate and at first, their mouths don't know quite how to fit together, but soon even the hesitation fades and she can feel his tongue sweeping her mouth, his hands traveling up and down her back and only just hesitating at the hem of her t-shirt.

It's like Instructor Green's seminar on hand-to-hand combat, except her thighs aren't trying to compress his windpipe this time, and the stokes of his hands aren't aimed towards her kidneys. If they are fumbling teenagers they are also mercenaries, and nothing about their movements are gentle- they are as harsh and demanding as every other aspect of their lives.

It's just like fighting, and she gives him no quarter. Anything he can do, she can do better, and if he expected some shy virginal sacrifice, he's certainly not complaining about what he's gotten instead.

She pulls up his shirt and puts her hands underneath, tracing the skin (surprisingly soft) and outlining the muscles of his stomach with the tip of her thumb (hard and twisting under her touch). He grunts and jerks his head when she reaches the bulge in his pants, and what is she supposed to do with this?

She hesitates, but then his hips rock into her hand and she grasps at him, her touch similar to her own shy explorations when she's alone in her room.

He tears his lips from hers and buries his teeth into her neck, and though she should be turned off (nice girls in the books she reads don't let boys touch them this way, perhaps a chaste kiss or two after several bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates), she gasps and rocks her hips hard into his, and he's trembling now, fingers just a little unsteady as they trail up her thigh and skim the edges of her panties, and she twists against him in search of any kind of relief to the searing pressure that's pulsing through her-

She wants this, wants him, and the consequences of what they are doing are the furthest thing from her mind-

Light swinging in the corner of her vision, and the world, which had previously condensed into Seifer's hands and mouth, now widens back into the Training Center, and there's something coming towards them-

"Seifer," she whispers, but he only drags down one side of her underwear, muttering something into her neck, and she wants to weep with frustration, but she repeats his name again.

This time, he surfaces, his eyes narrowed at the interruption. "What?" He sounds out of breath.

"Someone else is in here." She says, and he turns around and curses when he realizes that she's right.

"Come on," he says, grabbing her hand again and pulling her out of the room before Instructor Green's flashlight can sweep across them.

..

.

.

..

.

They don't talk on the way back to the dormitory wing, and Quistis can feel doubts sinking their teeth into the happiness she'd felt only minutes before, making it feel dull and flat.

Does he think it was a mistake?

Was she a terrible kisser...or was it his first kiss, too?

Is she now condemned to the category enjoyed by girls like Galanna Valentine, only good for one thing?

He stops at her door, and for a moment, he looks awkward, glancing up and down the hall, staring at their joined hands. But then that uncertainty vanishes from his face, and he leans in, pressing a kiss against her cheek.

"Night...princess," he says.

As he jogs down the hall, she watches him go.

She thinks perhaps being a 'princess' might not be so bad after all.

.

..

.

The next few weeks are a kind of dream neither one could have ever hoped to have dreamt before. They train hard, they sit through their classes and take dutiful notes, but there are now the accidental touches, the lunches eaten with their shoulders touching, the looks in class and the stolen moments in the Training Center. that are a world separate from any they have ever had.

They have mornings to look forward to, and a waiting affection that neither can ever remember having before. Quistis has never had someone waiting for her, making plans with her, and Seifer revels in the smile she wears only for him, the way she meets his lips as eagerly as he when he pulls her aside between classes. He guards her affection like a dragon wraps around its gold, and Quistis soaks up his attentions like a plant long in the dark.

Sometimes they sit in the Secret Area, just holding hands and talking.

Sometimes, they do much more.

They should have known it would be too good to last.

.

..

.

"I thought you'd be happy for me," she says, standing in the doorway of his dormitory.

At one time he would have pulled teeth to have her standing in his room, looking at him imploringly- now he wants her nowhere near him.

She looks both wounded and warmongering, a duality about her that has always fascinated him about her. She can demolish a house with a well-placed cast, can break a man's neck with a flick of her wrist, but underneath, underneath she has an underbelly of made of tissue paper.

It's dangerous knowledge with him; he's always had the dual desire to protect her or tear through her.

Currently, he's leaning towards the latter.

"Happy for you? What, happy that you've joined the ranks of Garden's elite lap dogs?" he snaps.

"Which, until a day ago, you were trying to join yourself, as I recall!" she shoots back at him. "If you could have only followed orders-"

"Followed orders of that simpering moron Seagrey, who wanted to lead our offensive uphill?" he spits.

"If you haven't noticed, Seifer, that simpering moron Seagrey was among the names called today," she replies nastily.

He glares at her, and she looks immediately sorry. She takes a tentative step towards him.

"Seifer, it's fine, next time, when you retake the exam-"

"You just can't wait to be one of them, can you?" he sneers. "All 'yes sirs' and salutes already, already on your knees just gagging for an order to follow. Then again, I already know how good you can be on your knees, maybe you should just-"

It's out before he can stop it, and he regrets it instantly, but then her hand is sweeping across his cheek with a resounding crack, and there's no taking that back, either.

She's hurt him, hurt his pride, and he's done the same, and that's all they really have, isn't it? Not a world that was handed to them, but the world they've build for themselves, the fragile shell of their identity, their integrity.

She's breathing hard and there are tears in her eyes. He wants to apologize, wants to hold onto her and say that he didn't mean it, but there is a wall so thick between them now it's almost visible. Hell, it is visible- she's wearing it. He wants to ruin this for her; wants to drag her down so they're on the same level again, so that he can reach her, reach out to her-

"Enjoy your ivory tower, princess," he says, and he spits the last word with as much venom as he can muster. It isn't much, but judging by the crumpled look on her face, it's enough. She turns and walks away, and he thinks he catches her wiping that ornate sleeve across her eyes as she walks away.

The sight stings worse than the right side of his face, and that's saying something.

.

..

.

..

.

Xu pats Quistis's trembling back as she sobs, her comforting touch both clumsy and unpracticed.

Quistis doesn't say anything.

But then, she doesn't have to.

Xu knows it's the boy, knows it's Almasy. She knew the second Seifer flunked his SeeD exam and Quistis passed with flying colors that it was over, would be over between them- knew that all that tenuous happiness, those fragile smiles of Quistis's would come tumbling down like a house of cards. And while every instinct lurking in Xu's synapses wants to tenderize Almasy's face, she stays and awkwardly pats her friend's back instead.

She can always pummel Almasy later.

Ironic, she thinks, that they can summon shields out of thin air that are nevertheless tangible enough to stop a bullet, that they can deflect a cast or throw a hold, but they have no defenses against each other, against the kind of damage that flesh and blood and feeling can do.

Xu doesn't say anything, and it's just as well.

Words of comfort would feel as alien on her tongue as another language. Orphans don't know the language of the coddled, and anyway, Quistis's ears aren't trained for sympathy, having never heard it before.

..

.

"RETAKE." says Fujin firmly.

"Instructor Green's a dumbass, ya know. If SeeD were as simple as just followin' orders, they'd all live through their missions."

Seifer is standing in the Quad with his hands jammed in his pockets, staring out into nothing.

His friends hover two tentative paces behind them, glancing worriedly at each other behind his back.

He knows they're trying to help, and he bites his tongue against telling them to leave him the hell alone.

"It doesn't matter, man," says Rajin. "This next time, we'll all make SeeD together, ya know?"

They don't know about Quistis- during the past few weeks, he'd wanted to keep her all to himself. And now, well, now there's no point in bringing it up at all.

"Yeah. You're right," says Seifer. "It doesn't matter."

Turning around, he walks past them back into Garden.

But that's the thing, isn't it? It matters. She mattered.

(Too much.)

.

...

...

.

Days pass and he sees her in the halls from time to time

(watching for her)

and she's wearing that calm, cool composed mask that he knows is both her legacy and a complete and utter lie.

She walks past him without a word- doesn't even look in his direction, and he hates that she can look so calm when his own insides are turning themselves inside out.

Their paths have diverged now; he sits through classes and she is on missions almost constantly.

Word is around Garden, (probably emanating from that stupid new fan club of hers), that she's now top in Junctioning, and has Shiva as her near-constant companion on missions.

She is a model soldier, a model SeeD.

Cadets cluster to her. Instructors hold her up as a model example.

15 confirmed kills.

All he can think about is the girl who played hooky with him one night to ride a Ferris wheel.

.

He keeps to himself, and so does she.

He screws Galanna Valentine up against the wall of the Secret Area, and pretends it's her. But it isn't her, isn't her voice, isn't her golden hair in his fist, and when he comes, it's dull and empty, tainted with the lie.

She avoids the Secret Area, pretends it doesn't exist.

They both tell themselves that it's better this way.

Neither believes it.

..

...

.

She is an Instructor now. His instructor. He can practically taste the irony on his tongue as he grinds his teeth in the back row. 36 confirmed kills, and counting. Evidently she's killed enough living things now to teach others to do the same.

She gazes across the classroom with eyes as cool and distant as ice, and he is not sure if the frigidity of her gaze is due to the fact that she has forgotten him, or because she remembers.

He can't decide which would be worse.

Then she turns her gaze to Squall Leonhart, and he knows he has found a new, fresh hell worse than either previous option.

.

..

Gravel crunches under his boots as Squall's last hit forces him back- the clang of swords is sharp in the air.

A storm is coming- it raises the hair on his arms and the ozone tastes almost metallic on his tongue.

Let it come.

Squall's gunmetal gray eyes are on him, his gaze even, always even, betraying nothing and Seifer hates him more than ever in this moment. He hates his indifference, his calm stoicism, how Squall can shut away the world when every nerve inside him feels on fire on the time, feels like he's being torn apart piece by piece, second by second by the disparity between what he has always dreamed and what has always been instead-

Grinning, he crooks his finger at the boy and front of him.

Come and get me.

He does.

Fighting is the only time he feels alive these days, feels vindicated and filled with purpose. The Instructors note that he is driven, ambitious (often to his detriment) but the truth is that all he wants a direction for all his anger, he wants somewhere for it to go that doesn't lead directly back to him, that doesn't cycle itself day after day in his head like some festering sore.

And so he buries it in the boy in front of him.

The way Quistis watches him in class is only one of the reasons he opens up Squall's skull.

The look of fury that finally lights in his opponent's eyes is more than worth the sister scar he gets in return.

She does not visit him in the infirmary, and he hates that he wants her to.

...

...

...

He has a girlfriend.

She is beautiful and rich and has a chip on her shoulder that's almost as big as his. She is fun and careless and utterly naive about the world of mercenaries. She thinks war is a way to get back at Daddy for not tucking her in at night.

She has no fucking idea how big the world really is.

She giggles when he compliments her and wears short skirts that billow around her thighs as she twirls. She hates her father and misses her mother. She still thinks the worst thing that can happen to you in your life is to die; he knows differently.

The worst thing in life is to live when nobody wants you.

She understands nothing about his sordid little life- she likes the way his cadet uniform fits him and she likes that playing around with a Balamb Garden soldier pisses daddy off.

He likes that she doesn't know anything about the critical zones of the body, likes that she doesn't have a clue about the fifty ways you can kill a Grat.

She is not a blunted war orphan whose instincts have been sharpened to serve a sentinel purpose. She does not tell knock-knock jokes or worry too much about everything or even attempt to make him behave himself.

She is nothing like Quistis Trepe, and as she lies beside him in the grass, her pulse fluttering in her pretty neck and her hair fanned out beneath her like a raven's wing, he hates himself for wishing differently.

...

.

..

.

Adrenaline pounds in his veins, and the latest blow from Leonhart yields a trickle of blood down his side.

He looks at them all in turn, searches them for understanding.

He finds none within himself.

He looks into her eyes, those same sea-blue circles that once gazed up at him from the grounds of the Training Center with hope and once, with something more.

"Am I still your favorite student, Instructor?"

She is a lioness as she stares him down, golden and singular in her wrath. "Not anymore."

He knows then that he has lost everything.

It is the beginning of the end.