Wounded green eyes. Darkness all around them. Cloaked figures scratching, biting, clawing their way through his skin as if they could pierce through his bones with their talons. Tears welling up. Large, luminous green eyes. He had failed her. He failed everyone.
Squall Leonhart sat up with a soft moan, his bangs falling in front of his eyes and sweat beading on his forehead. He wiped the sweat and hair back and closed his eyes, he felt his heart beat begin to slow after its frantic pace. It was another nightmare about Selphie, and more bitter memories about Rinoa. Why hadn’t he reached the brunette sooner?
Getting up and throwing on a loose cotton button-down, Squall escaped the confines of his dorm dressed still in his bedclothes. The baggy pants swished with every step but it was light enough that he doubted anyone would hear. Along the dorm hallways were lounge rooms, and one was kept open for all-night study groups and the occasional celebration party. Squall went there for solace. Inside it was empty and he sat on the couch, one leg extended out over the table, the other bent at the knee with his foot just resting on the edge. His head fell back against the couch and he stared at the ceiling. It was better not to think at all right now.
It seemed the night was perfect for sleepless soldiers, for Seifer was up as well. He felt so determined to right his wrongs now, to make up for all the damage. The sorceress’ had used him, and now he had to correct his mistakes. He’d never apologize, he couldn’t, he doubted the word ‘sorry’ was in his vocabulary. It was strange how quickly Garden had re-adopted him. There were stares, of course, whispers, and frightened looks, but for the most part it was a calm awe that had enveloped the students as they beheld him.
He was desperate to pass the Seed test. If he couldn’t find a home in Balamb then were was he supposed to go? Galbadia would regard him as a failure…but wasn’t he?
“Not if I pass the exam,” Seifer whispered.
He turned on his desk lamp and sat under the golden glow staring at his textbooks. Trepe had loaded him up with more books than the other students, she had smiled, and told him she wanted him to do well, do better than everyone else. He had been surprised by the warmth in her words, she had been so brief, ducking into his newly furnished room with the books just before she went to her own dorm. Her composure was pristine, light in her eyes, her soft golden hair coming undone in the back like she had been ready to end her day but then suddenly had the desire to go this extra mile for him. She had put it back up, but he could see the strands beginning to slip. She still looked perfect though.
It was the one thing he never understood. Quistis was undeniably beautiful yet she didn’t act that way. She acted as if she had to hide her external grace, as if she didn’t see it as loveliness, but as something she had to take care of to be the ideal soldier. She needed self-worth. If only she wasn’t always so cold. Her warmth came in small doses and she wasn’t always generous with it, still, Seifer was glad he had Trepe as his teacher. She was the most competent of them all. Maybe if she were still up he would visit her, and get her to drill him with questions. He had to pass. If he didn’t pass he’d never be accepted on to the mission, though he would have to pass quickly in order to be on time for that.
Getting up he slipped outside and walked down the hallway to Trepe’s dorm. Butterflies flew into his stomach. What if she wasn’t up? Or if she declined? What if she was feeling frosty again? Hesitantly he studied the door and then he noticed there was faint music coming from inside. Gingerly the man knocked and waited, pulling a stoic face on to cover his nervousness.
Trepe came out dressed in a white robe, thrown over her pyjamas, and a glass of red wine in her hand. Her hair was splashing down over her shoulders and she looked…serene. That changed when she saw who was at her door. Her eyebrows rose sharply and her lips parted.
“I…uh…can’t sleep. I was studying—”
“Studying?” Quistis seemed to look pale, “Y-you were actually reading the books I brought you?”
Seifer narrowed his eyes, offended, “I want to pass Trepe, I need all the help I can get. I haven’t looked over this material for a long time and when I first learnt it I wasn’t paying much attention.”
Quistis now coloured but she nodded, “All right, would you like to go over the past few lessons together? I can mark while we go over things, why don’t we go to a lounge.”
Her suggestion was sincere and she turned around to grab a binder. Seifer saw that she had been marking to classical music, enjoying a peaceful evening with herself. He wondered if his presence was a burden, but she didn’t seem to mind. They walked to the lounge in silence, her in her robe, him in sweatpants and a hooded shirt, neither seeming to care about their casual attire.
Quistis smiled to herself. She prided herself for her level-headedness and her calm exterior. Seifer Almasy was a puzzle to her, she couldn’t understand where his obnoxious self had disappeared to, but perhaps it was the sorceress’ encounter with him that shocked him out of being so arrogant.
Internally she was worked up about being so close to him. It was odd, she didn’t feel like she was in any danger but her instincts still told her to leap away every time their arms brushed against each other. She tried to tell herself that he had changed, everyone deserves their second chance, she added sternly. He was no different now; he was just the same as them.
When they reached the lounge Quistis pressed her back against the door and pushed it open while leaning inside. Seifer followed her and they both started when they saw Squall’s glassy eyes gazing at the ceiling.
“Oh, sorry Squall, I didn’t know you were in here. Mind if we join you for some studying?” Quistis asked, unruffled by his unkempt appearance.
But then, why would she be? All three of them had been ready for some quality couch time and uniforms weren’t exactly lounge-material. Quistis watched Squall tilt his head up to look at them and then shrug wordlessly. She could see him stiffen at the sight of Seifer, and she could feel Seifer go rigid behind her.
“We’ll try and be quiet,” She added.
“Whatever,” Squall’s voice was toneless, as per usual.
But once Seifer and Quistis began to converse of answers, questions, junctions, stealth tactics and strategies the gunblader leaned forward in interest. It wasn’t until 4 am that he joined their conversation and Quistis was further amazed when he and Seifer carried out an almost friendly stream of communication about tactics of defence. The blonde-haired woman was surprised at how quickly Seifer memorized things, he was very intelligent when he put his mind to the matter at hand and now he was fully wrapped up in his studies.
At six am Quistis left to grab them coffee so they could keep going. She was blown away after seeing the light return to Seifer’s eyes He liked this work, he liked fighting, he liked going through the methodology and comparing different strokes and parries. She was grinning broadly as she hurried to the cafeteria and found one of the early morning workers staring bleary-eyed as they coffee pots all bubbled up.
Seifer leaned back and then closed the textbook he had been reading. Squall and he had lapsed into a comfortable silence a few minutes after Quistis had left but there was no hostility anymore. He had consumed her words like a starving man did his first mouthfuls of food.
“Seifer,” Squall spoke, his tone had turned from softness to edgy.
Seifer looked up, “Yeah?”
“I just want somewhere to stay,” Seifer smirked characteristically, “Balamb is probably my final chance.”
“I see,” Squall leaned back, his stormy eyes piercing Seifer’s rampart ocean-hued orbs.
“I was a fool to let this place go. I know that,” Seifer whispered, “and I know things won’t be the same, but if I can become a SeeD…”
“Why did you join the sorceresses?”
“They offered me power. A duty. Sense of place,” Seifer shrugged, looking troubled, “I wanted that.”
“I’m fucking better!” Seifer’s temper fizzled, “They used me, I was a puppet, I’m not anymore, I’m doing this for myself!”
This is when Quistis came in, and she was disappointed that they had become fiery in her absence but at the same time she was glad to see Seifer still had his old self. She would be saddened to think the sorceresses had robbed Seifer of his personality completely. Sitting down she wordlessly pushed them the steaming mugs of coffee and then taking a sip of hers she picked up the next book.
“Seifer, summons,” She said clearly, her limpid eyes catching his own and noticing the torment inside them before he blocked her searching gaze.
He recited all he knew and then was surprised when Quistis shut the book and laughed. Squall raised his eyebrows at the bell-like sound, musical in quality and probably the most rare noise on earth. A real laugh out of Trepe. Who knew ice could produce such a sweet sound.
“Looks like I can take this book back to the library, you covered everything inside it,” Quistis looked pleased and she tossed it to a free chair.
Seifer blushed, he couldn’t believe he was the reason for a crack in Quistis’ frozen heart. Squall was watching him now and when Seifer chanced the discrete look over to the man, as Quistis looked for more material, he noticed Squall was gazing sedately at him. He approved of this, somehow, Seifer sensed. Approved of what though? Of Seifer trying to become a SeeD? Of Seifer rejoining the orphanage team? Of Seifer and Quistis? Her acceptance of him seemed to guide the others on a similar path. Seifer owed Trepe a lot.
“Right, so, try listing me the properties of all status ailments and their available cures,” Quistis fired at him, having missed the interaction between the two men.
At eight in the morning they were dead tired and packing up. A silent breakfast amid the morning class students flew past and then they walked back to the dorms. Quistis had a class in two hours and was clutching another cup of coffee like the lifeline that it was, Seifer had class in four hours and would go for sleep, while Squall, fearing his bed and the nightmares it would bring, headed straight for the office.
Squall closed his eyes against the pain. The last words he had heard Selphie cry was for his sake. For his protection. He was a soldier, why hadn’t he protected her? He couldn’t save Rinoa at first, but then that was all he had done. Did that mean he could make it up to her? He didn’t even know if she was alive. The thought chilled him then, for it was the first time he admitted to himself that he had no idea where she was. Images of her smiling face conjured themselves in his mind and he felt tears glisten over his vision. Not Selphie. She couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t imagine not seeing her smiling face, trying to tune out her endless babble. She was life amid the chaos and death of every soldier’s daily progression.
Squall’s fist hit the door to his office with a dull thump and his forehead rested against the wood as hot tears caressed his cheeks.
For four days Selphie was slowly starved in her cell. She watched bitterly as the food they gave her became less and less until it was a glass of water. Shivering with her dress wrapped around her she ached for food, for light, and for warmth. With her forehead lowered to her knees and her arms wrapped loosely around them she waited dimly for whenever the man would come back.
She had to wait two more days of weary defeat for that to happen. When he came back he looked cheerful, handsome, and utterly despicable. He had to help her walk out of her cell for she was too weak to do it herself. Selphie hated being in physical contact with him, she couldn’t help her lack of strength though, and the support was necessary.
She was dropped into a chair and bound to it though the brunette knew she couldn’t move if she wanted to. The man appraised her silently and then gently brushed his thumb over her lower lip.
“You look much prettier when you’re healthy,” He tilted his head gravely.
Selphie gave him a deadpan look and if she could have she would have tried to kick him through her many skirts. He smiled softly and then with a flourish of his presented the empty room for her.
“It’s a hanger bay,” He announced.
“I’m not stupid,” Selphie said hoarsely, coughing to try and free up her voice.
“Of course you’re not. You designed the engine of the Aries.” The man grinned broadly, “We know, it’s true, and guess what, you’re going to make the engine here, OR you can tell us all the components and we can put it together,”
“No,” Selphie smiled back, “Never. The ship is mine.”
Her eyes had been dull and glassy but now they shone brightly, surprising the man. Her determination and will had just made a startling recovery. He sighed, knowing that wouldn’t be easy.
“The ship will be ours. If you don’t tell us now we’ll torture the information out of you. Electric shocks, burning, suffocation, slow bleeding…whatever it takes.”
Selphie was chilled but she shook he head resolutely, “Your choice then doll.”
This was a perfect moment for a knight in shining armour to rescue her. Unfortunately Selphie knew he’d never find her there.
Seifer paced back and forth. Pacing was becoming quite a habit for him and other agitated Balamb students. Quistis was watching more people walk back and forth than those simply walking to their daily destinations. As Seifer whirled around for lap nineteen a solid pale hand slammed into his chest. He was knocked back a step and his eyes flared wide as Quistis’ berry-blue eyes bore into his own.
“Trepe?” He resisted the urge to snap, ‘What the fuck?’
“Almasy, quit wearing the carpet down,” Quistis raised her eyebrows and a tiny smile hovered on her face.
Seifer looked down at the hand on his chest. The fingers all perfectly manicured but not too long to cause trouble for her. He looked back up and opened his mouth before shutting it.
“Is it my turn for the test?”
“It is,” Quistis nodded, leading Seifer away from the classroom he and several others breathlessly awaited in.
Quistis had a devil of a time convincing the Headmaster and Commander that Seifer was ready. She had begged, pleaded, done special favours, and finally she had coldly demanded it putting as much frost in her eyes to drop the temperature in Cid’s office. Quistis might not have a high-place position in Balamb, but she could certainly rule over it when she needed to.
“Seifer, we can’t let him take the test early Quistis, how do we know if we can trust him? It’s against our code to let juniors take the test so early,”
“I don’t give a damn if it’s against the code. Seifer WILL take the test. I suggest you change your records to accommodate that.” Quistis had ground out to Xu.
“Hyne. You know Quistis there are two women inside you. One is my friend, and the other…I don’t know but she acts like queen of the world,” Xu replied, her eyes dark and flat.
“And what has this character done Xu? Helped prevent the sorceress wars, saved SeeDs and juniors alike, graduated early—”
“I know your achievements Quistis.” Xu had snapped, “Just don’t graduate HIM early because this is a personal matter to you.”
“Do you doubt my ability to teach?” Fire and ice clashed in the sapphire blues of Trepe.
And that was her final card, because Xu headed to her computer and altered the schedule.
“Will Instructor Trepe please report to the headmaster’s Chamber at once.”
“You wished to see me?”
“Why is Seifer on the testing list?”
“I put him there.”
“He is ready,”
“So were you, and we made you wait,”
“Headmaster Cid, I believe it would be strategic for Seifer Almasy to graduate, if he passes the final test, now.”
“We have enough problems to deal with Instructor Trepe, we cannot have a potential betrayal on our hands as well.”
“If you believed Seifer Almasy would betray us you would not have let him become a junior with a second chance, headmaster.”
Quistis sighed and walked briskly down the hallway beside Seifer. What a trial it had been, and what a trial was still to come. She soon placed Seifer in a room with three written exams, which he had six hours to complete. He was allowed one fifteen-minute break where she supplied him with food and drink and then she returned to her lone chair in the room and watched him.
Seifer felt perspiration bead on his forehead as he scribbled down answers while remaining ever so conscious of Trepe’s sedate gaze. All her lectures, all the nights they spent studying surfaced to his mind and he would jot down every thought in the margin until his once-pristine exam was a mess of black ink.
The hours fell past like dead-weights and Seifer was amazed by how calm and unmoving Quistis was. A pretty portrait sitting on a chair, that was Instructor Trepe, and he was just the awed audience before her. He had always appreciated how much time and effort Quistis spent into making herself look gorgeous. When her and Seifer stood outside under the sun their hair was alight with fire. In the fading dawn their eyes still shone brilliantly. He was surprised no one had offered to make them marble statues to keep their deity-like good looks eternal. While Seifer had a rampart ego, Quistis’ was coiled beneath the surface of her smooth skin.
Finally the last half hour approached and Seifer signed the last question away to seal his fate. He stood up and nearly fell, as both his legs were sound asleep. If Quistis noticed the blunder she didn’t show it at all. Her hand reached out to accept the exams and then she whisked away to be replaced by the eerie Instructor Elvelyn.
Unlike he had expected, she merely warmed him up with a bit of light sparring to get the effects of sitting for so long out of his tired limbs. She fought him with a very plain long sword which surprised him, since he had thought she would be more for exotic weapons. When she finished practicing with him Trianon flipped her blue hair back behind her shoulders and sighed in fulfillment. She seemed to have caught his look of surprise as well.
“The blade itself is not important as long as it is well crafted. If one’s agility, dexterity, endurance, and strength is up to speed, and their skill is superior, any foe will go down no matter the weapon of choice,” She instructed calmly, “But this blade is, true enough, not what it seems.”
She very gently tossed him the sword, which he caught on the flat of his hands. Seifer stared at the blade, trying to discern what was so special about it.
“Cast an ice spell on me,” Trianon ordered swiftly, “I can counter, do not worry,”
Seifer held out his hand, the sword in the other, “Blizaga!”
The sword flashed blue and he could feel it grow colder, though not uncomfortably so. His eyes widened and Trianon nodded shortly. She retrieved the sword from him and Seifer was given the unpleasant sensation of his magic returning inside him, running up through his arms.
“It is a keying blade,” Trianon announced, “Elemental magic can be filtered within it for a greater attack, it can be also used as a runic blade, and absorb magic, but one must have that specific skill.”
Seifer nodded, still shocked. Oh, he had seen blades with fire magic inside them, but never a blade that could have anything the user willed it to. Trianon sheathed it and walked him down the hall where Quistis was waiting. The two women flanked Seifer and took him outside Balamb as Trianon kept talking.
“If you pass the next test, the mission, then you will be able to take Advanced Weapon Methodology with me. I have an assortment of weapons this school has yet to use, and I will be training students with all of them,” Instructor Elvelyn nodded.
“I’ve signed up for the class already,” Instructor Trepe offered, “I saw in your personal database that you have a choke vine whip, I’m interested in it. Is it really a plant? I would think that would break in combat.”
Trianon grinned, a real smile she hardly ever showed, “The plant is alive, its root cluster contained in the hilt. It is a scaled plant, with thorns running its length and a poisonous barb at the end, I think you would be well-suited to it Instructor Trepe.”
“Where did you get all these weapons?” Seifer pressed.
“I found them.”
Quistis and Seifer exchanged a discrete look of confusion and perplexity. Did she find them…or steal them? Buy them perhaps? Maybe there were gifts? Quistis shook her head slowly. With Selphie captured this was no time to wonder, but once the brunette was back Quistis was determined to figure out just who Trianon really was.
Thinking of Selphie made Quistis very sad. She missed her terribly, and they didn’t even know if Selphie was okay! All of them had been doing their best to push the bad thoughts out of their mind, to concentrate on the research and try and to figure out where she might be. It was hopeless though.
“We have set up the Fire Cavern with a new twist in it.” Quistis began, “Even Instructor Trianon and I do not know what is inside there waiting for you. Personality tests judging your weaknesses and strengths provided in the exams have been used to configure the ideal test for you. Good luck Almasy. Your goal is simply to get to the end, I believe your objectives will either be blatantly obvious or forthcoming,”
Seifer stared at her, unease creeping into his stomach, “Who designed the test?”
“A qualified team,” was all Quistis replied with.
Seifer looked at the entrance to the Cavern and then boldly walked inside. When he disappeared from sight Quistis sat down on a rock and rested her chin on her hand. She felt just as queasy as Seifer had looked when she told him she had no idea what was in store for him. She wanted Almasy to pass. Selphie said he could change, and Quistis felt that in Selphie’s absence she had to prove her friend right. Her inner turmoil must have reflected itself on her face for Trianon knelt beside her and looked up with mild concern.
“Are you ill Instructor Trepe?”
“N-no, just uneasy,” Quistis started, always shocked by the strange eyes of her co-worker.
Trianon nodded and stood up. Quistis quietly brought her porcelain mask over her face. She waited through the written exam, and so she could wait through this.