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The School of Slight Knocks

The pen was black, but if he pressed deeply enough, it ran red.

The door chimed open. "Are you done with that report yet, Seifer?"

"But of course, dear Instructor," Seifer said as he pulled his arm behind the desk. "I've already submitted it to the central hub. No doubt you'll find it waiting for you at your terminal. And I suspect you'll appreciate my points on Galbadian torture techniques."

Quistis Trepe frowned. "Your assignment was on the agricultural exports of Timber."

"Yes, I worked other things in. You always told us to be creative with our theses, dear Instructor."

Her mouth thinned. "I'm not your instructor any more, Seifer."

"But you'll always be a teacher to me," Seifer said with a smile. "In my heart, if nowhere else. And after all, what else are we doing here? You lock me away. You make me read terrible books and write terrible essays. You want me to behave. If those aren't the acts of an instructor, I don't know what are."

Quistis looked around the small room, which was curved and white and cramped. "You know why you're here, Seifer."

His voice dropped. "Remind me."

"You know why. You disobeyed direct orders during the Dollet mission. Not only did you risk the lives of the cadets under your command, you threatened to disrupt the entire operation. Balamb Garden can't afford students who ignore instructions on the battlefield. The purpose of this detention is to drill some discipline into you."

At "drill," his left hand crept over to the damp grooves on his hidden right arm. "I'm not sure what agricultural exports will teach me about self-control, but very well. And will you write essays too? I think you would agree Balamb Garden can't afford instructors who raise their students to ignore instructions on the battlefield."

"If it makes a difference," Quistis said, "I argued against this detention. I told the committee that failing the SeeD test was punishment enough."

Seifer flinched. "Enough. You've come to give me more busywork, haven't you? Let's have it. Am I to write five paragraphs on the geographical features of Trabia? Or the marine ecosystem of the southern seas?"

"The traditional folk dances of Balamb," Quistis said crisply. She offered him a badly stained book.

"Ah, of course," Seifer said, and as he reached for the crumbling book, his coat sleeve slid back.

He froze, and her eyes flickered to his right arm, which was whorled in black and red crosses from wrist to elbow.

"That's pretty, Seifer," she said at last. "But don't let Xu see it. She might think I was letting you slack off."

She left him holding the book aloft. After she closed the door, he dropped elbow and book in one boneless thump. He looked down at his arm -- the better work of an hour -- and for the second time that day, Seifer wondered if he was going mad.

The pen had come out the first time, but now Seifer just sat and looked at his slowly oozing arm. The shallow punctures were crusting over on the back of his wrist, where he had started. Safe black crosses marked the trail of his artery, and the ink and blood on his elbow was still wet. Now that Quistis had seen it, his efforts seemed very stupid and sad.

He spat on the corner of his long coat and rubbed it against his arm. The red and black smeared together, and it barely hurt at all.

***

They had him sleeping in an ancient and unused set of barracks during his detention. It was just like Balamb Garden's cramped dormitories, except for the lock being on the other side of the door. And he wasn't allowed visitors. And Xu showed up every morning at 6 a.m. to escort him to his daily grind of folk dances.

"Rise and shine, cadet!" she shouted as she hammered against his door in steady staccato style.

Seifer pressed his fingers against his temples. "Truly, this is the cream of the mercenary crop."

Xu always gave him fifteen minutes to shower, shave, and dress. After his time was up (and she had returned from getting a cup of coffee at the cafeteria), she started hammering on his door again. "Are you up, cadet? Are you decent? I'm coming in!"

It was tricky to unlock his door while juggling her coffee mug, but by the third morning, Xu had apparently mastered the routine: Seifer didn't hear her curse at all. She flung the door open with a triumphant expression.

"Ready, cadet?"

"Ready, ma'am."

These halls, deep within Balamb Garden, were empty in the mornings. Xu hummed; Seifer slumped. Each ignored the other.

Seifer sourly wondered what she would do if he ran the other way, or if he hit her, or if he tried to resist his punishment. She was still carrying her mug in one hand, and her guard was obviously down. It would be easy to escape -- but they knew he wouldn't. Failing the SeeD test was punishment enough. He wouldn't do anything to damage future chances of becoming a SeeD. Because SeeD membership was the most important thing. Wasn't it?

His head lifted, as if he were a dog picking up an unfamiliar trail.

Xu gave him a sidelong glance and abruptly clapped him on the shoulder with her free hand. "So, cadet, how are those folk dances going?"

"Well," he said, dropping his head again. "They are going well. Ma'am."

"Glad to hear it. Y'know, all that information might come in handy someday. Like, if you ever need to infiltrate a folk-dance festival, or something."

Seifer couldn't tell if she was joking or not, but he hated her even more either way. "It's possible. Ma'am."

"Mmmmm," said Xu, because they had arrived at Seifer's cell and she was fishing the key out of her pocket. "Here's the sucker. And in you go, cadet. Good luck on your paper!"

Standing in that egg-shaped room and looking at the terminal on the desk, Seifer almost wept at the steady, stupid tedium of it all. But he hadn't cried since he was five years old, and he wasn't going to start again now. Instead, he sat down and started reading about the traditional folk dances of Balamb.

***

Xu refilled her mug and lurked outside the administrative offices until Quistis emerged with a sheaf of papers. "Hey there, Trepe!"

Quistis took a reflexive step back. "Hello, Xu. Is our little prince in his office?"

"Yes, ma'am," Xu said with a grimace. "I just locked him in."

"Good, good," Quistis said. She looked away and started moving toward the elevator. Xu, gripping her empty mug, followed.

"And how is our little prince?" Quistis asked wearily as the elevator doors opened.

"Actually, that's what I came up here to talk to you about," Xu said. She pressed the button for the first floor. "He is not his normal spunky self."

"He's being punished, Xu. Surely that's good?" The elevator plunged downward.

"Not like this. I expect to see resentment and anger and maybe regret when they have this sort of punishment. But Seifer -- who's idea was this, anyway? Solitary confinement and folk dances don't seem your style, Quistis."

"No," Quistis said. "No, it was Cid. He thought this would be a humane way to...rehabilitate him. I hear the Garden Master wanted Seifer thrown out of Balamb completely."

Xu blinked. "The Garden Master? Since when has he shown an interest in this kind of thing? I thought he didn't interfere with the day-to-day stuff here. I thought he was more in the -- you know, the financial end of things."

"I don't know." Quistis shrugged. "But Cid won the argument, and so Seifer remains in Balamb."

The elevator doors opened on the first floor with a cheerful chirp, and the two women started forward. "So now we get to baby-sit him while he writes pointless essays," Xu said. "Gee, Cid. Thanks a lot. I still say that we oughta have thrown him in the normal detention with the others. With the kids who break curfew or cheat on their tests or whatever."

Something flickered behind Quistis' eyes, but her voice was flat. "But he's not a kid, Xu. Not anymore. And Cid and I both agreed that putting him with others might lead to problems."

"Well, I agree, he's a natural dictator. And what was that group he ran? The Disc and Spleen Society? With those two other knuckle-heads?"

"The Disciplinary Committee," Quistis said. "Yes, we've never had a problem with Seifer shirking leadership roles."

"Yes, I guess a full-fledged revolt in the detention hall would have been messy," Xu said, smiling. "But it is a pain for us."

"Yes," Quistis said. "It is a pain."

They were walking through the main concourse of the Garden when three cadets came running past. One of them brushed roughly against Quistis, who jerked away and dropped her papers. The cadet half-stopped to shout back something that might have been an apology; then he was running again to catch up with his mates.

Xu helped Quistis pick up her scattered papers. "Did you recognize him? I didn't get a good look at his face," she said.

"No," Quistis said as she snatched up another errant sheet.

"Ah, he's probably going to breakfast. We'll just wander over to the cafeteria and see if we can find him there. I bet he just feels awful about nearly knocking you down. Are these in any kind of order, Quis?" Xu looked at the sheet in her hand. It was upside down.

"No." Quistis plucked the sheet from Xu with unnecessary force, but the other woman didn't appear to notice.

"Good, good. I think it's the lack of discipline, Quistis. We're training these kids to be soldiers, but we let them get away with all these little things. It's not good. Things would be better if there was more discipline."

"Like Galbadia Garden?" Quistis snapped. "I hear Martine has wonderful results with caning disrespectful students."

"Martine is a man ahead of his time. Or possibly behind it. I can never decide. Come on, I want to see if we can catch that kid in the cafeteria."

Quistis stalked alongside her. "You were saying something about Seifer," she said suddenly. "Earlier, you said something was wrong."

"Oh, that. Yeah. So, I would expect our little prince to be angry. And he was, on the first day. He was just furious. I was impressed! But now he's this little angst-bucket of a boy. He droops, Quistis! Can you imagine our little prince being droopy?"

Quistis was silent, but it didn't matter; Xu was on a roll. "And it's not regret about his insubordination in Dollet either. I can tell he doesn't give a damn about that. He doesn't give a damn about anything. I tried to pick a fight with him this morning, and he couldn't be bothered to fight back. And Seifer Almasy, passing up a chance to fight? I never thought I'd see the day."

"Hmmmm," Quistis said, clutching her shuffled papers to her chest. "Hmmmm."

"And so he's broken? He's broken after three measly days of writing essays? I don't know, Quistis; maybe the Garden Master was right. Maybe we should kick Seifer out of the Garden. If he can't hack this, I don't know how he's going to handle being a SeeD. I wouldn't want to see him under torture."

"I think he could handle torture fine," Quistis said dryly. "It's not this, Xu. It's the SeeD test, I think, and his failure there. I don't know. You're right, he's different now."

"It reminds me of that guy he's always getting into fights with. Leonheart? Very dark and brooding?"

Quistis smiled at last. "Neither would thank you for the comparison, Xu."

The cafeteria doors were open, and the escaping odors heralded a host of muffins and scrambled eggs. It was still early, but the cafeteria was nearly full; students knew that muffins ran out quickly. Everyone was more interested in the baked goods than the two SeeDs standing by the door.

"Hmmm. Do you see him?"

"I don't see him," Quistis said.

"Well, come on. Let's stand in the back. It might be easier to see him there."

There were some cadets smoking in the back tables, but they guiltily stubbed out their cigarettes as the two SeeDs arrived. Normally, Xu would have been on them like a sack of hammers, but she was hunting bigger game this morning.

"I hope that muffin is just sitting in his stomach. I hope he can't digest it, he's so scared. I hope he keeps looking over his shoulder, terrified that the long arm of Xu is going to come crashing down on him. I hope he pukes. Quistis? Do you see him?"

Quistis had been staring at a nearby table of cadets, but she jerked her head back to Xu. "What? No, I don't. He's probably not here, Xu."

"Oh, he's here. I can sense him. In the air."

"Um," Quistis said. "Can I leave this in your hands, then? I have to go to the library, Xu." She said this last part loudly.

Xu was scanning the cafeteria again. "Maybe he's hiding under a table... What, the library?"

"Yes, the library," Quistis said, slowly and clearly. "I have to find a book for Seifer's next assignment." She said the title and author of the book and repeated herself twice. "But first I need to go back to my office."

Xu gave her a sidelong glance and, after a pause, clapped her on the shoulder. "Okay! You do that, Trepe!" she said kindly.

"Right. Office. See you later, Xu."

"Right, see you later, Tr--A-ha! My culprit! I see you there, behind that potted plant! You can't hide from Xu!" She waded into the sea of students, and they parted to let her pass.

Quistis didn't wait to see Xu collar the boy. As she left, two students sitting at a nearby table turned to watch her go.

***

On the first night, Seifer had been angry. He had lain in his narrow cot and plotted out his new list of enemies.

It was terrible that Balamb Garden couldn't recognize the righteousness and glory of his actions in Dollet, but it was obnoxious, absurd insult to injury to punish him with the agricultural exports of Timber.

His main dilemma was the location of Quistis, and whether she should be above or below Xu. He had spent nearly half an hour working this out. He had just arrived at a satisfactory placement (Quistis won, but only narrowly) when he first heard the music.

Seifer's detention quarters did not have windows, but he could hear the faint sounds of an orchestra whispering from a ceiling vent. He frowned for a moment, trying to place the music, before its obvious occasion swept over him in an icy rush.

It was the ball. It was the ball for new SeeDs. It was the music for the ball for new SeeDs.

Seifer's day had been long and terrible. It had been a day of lectures and punishments and disappointments and, finally, imprisonment. And now they were going to keep him awake with the music that he should have been hearing as a newly minted SeeD.

He was so angry that he could not breathe. Spots swam in front of his eyes, and there was a roaring in his ears, but he could not breathe. All he could think about was the ball and the SeeDs and the music in one endlessly fatal loop. He was drowning.

And then a new thought -- Rinoa -- broke through, and Seifer curled up on his cot and gasped for air like a stranded fish.

In all the fury of the day, he had forgotten about Rinoa. She was up there, right now, looking for Seifer the SeeD because Rinoa needed SeeDs. Rinoa needed a knight.

He rolled over and pressed his face against his pillow. Thinking of the music had made him angry; thinking of Rinoa made him sick. Would anyone tell her? Would anyone tell her that he wasn't a SeeD? Would anyone tell her that he was being punished like a child? Or would she just hopelessly wander the ball and look for him until the musicians packed up and went home? She could be as helpless as a kitten, he knew; she might be too shy of the other SeeDs to even ask for help. Which was maybe just as well, because he knew the other SeeDs, and he knew they would not help her. Not Xu or Quistis, those smug bitches. Not chicken-hearted Zell or that clumsy Trabia girl. And not that lazy, indifferent Squall.

Rinoa would be all alone. He hoped she wouldn't cry when the ball ended.

He hoped no one would tell her where he was and how he had failed.

He hadn't cried since he was five years old, and he wasn't going to start again now, but it was strangling temptation while the music ghosted in from above.

And hours later, in the dim and silent morning, Seifer had looked at his helpless arms, which suddenly seemed as blank and brainless as fresh canvas.

***

Forty-eight hours later, Seifer looked down at the shiny network of thin scars crisscrossing his right arm and said, "Damn it."

At the time, he had barely thought about what he was doing. It had felt as if he had been carving a name he did not quite remember into his flesh. He had impatiently dragged the pen along, trying to see what the letters would spell. Two days later, the puckered remains were note glorious. It had been a childish thing to do. It had been a bloody thing to do.

It wasn't only that he kept reopening the scar tissue whenever he stretched out his arm or rolled over in his sleep (leading to some artistic stains on his pillow case). It wasn't only that it throbbed deeply but inconsistently, startling him every time. The pain seemed greater than the wound would warrant, and Seifer had uneasy thoughts about that pen and blood poisoning.

But he tried to avoid thinking about it, and he tried to avoid looking at it, and that was the thing, because shaving was a bitch when he could not look at his hand in the mirror. He just grimly concentrated on his left earlobe and hoped for the best. As Seifer used a straight razor -- a long, lethal blade that folded into its handle -- which required concentration even with full visuals, the best was rare.

After she unlocked his door that morning, Xu gave him a critical glance and told him that blood-stained tissue paper was the facial decoration of choice in some southern tribes.

Seifer briefly wished he had brought his straight razor with him. With Xu, he could probably stomach seeing his scars for as long as it took to open her up.

***

"Is there normally this much violence in the folk dances of Balamb?"

Seifer shrugged. "It's very symbolic, dear Instructor."

Quistis looked up from his report. "Symbolic of what?"

"The harvest. Winter. Dead things."

"Really?"

"Oh, yes. There's deeper things under all that jumping and kicking," Seifer said, gesturing with a potato chip. Quistis had brought him lunch when she arrived to discuss his latest essay.

"Ah. Subtext. I see." Quistis rolled her eyes (which made Seifer smile) and produced another threadbare book (which did not.) "Is there anything else you'd like to discuss about folk dancing?"

"No."

"Then you'll probably want to use this book for your next assignment."

"Which is?"

She told him.

"Fine," Seifer said. He reached for the book, but Quistis held on for a second too long and Seifer had to tug it away. He glared up at her, but she was staring at her fingertips, where bits of the cover had flaked off.

"It's time for your break, isn't it?" she asked suddenly.

"I'm still eating," Seifer said, and he stuffed a potato chip in his mouth to prove the point. He chewed defiantly.

Her mouth thinned. "I'm sorry, sir. I will allow you to finish your meal." And she stood there, staring down at him, while he chewed.

Seifer swallowed uneasily under that stare. It was not that Quistis held power over him; it was that she thought she did. Even as a cadet, she had been smug and aloof, and as a SeeD, she had been worse. She was only a year older than he was, and she wasn't any better than he was. Becoming his instructor had been salt to the wound, and no matter what she now claimed, she still acted like an instructor. Putting Quistis in her place had been high on his list of things to do, once he was a SeeD.

Not that it mattered now.

He swallowed again.

"Done?" she asked.

"Yes."

They walked through rooms stacked with cardboard boxes and oxygen tanks. This part of Balamb Garden had never been completely refurbished from its former life as a shelter. Cid used it as a storage space for the squash uniforms, the blackboard erasers, and the ammunition clips. The high-set windows were rarely washed, so the sunlight through the grimy panes was dappled and inconstant.

Seifer received four fifteen-minute breaks from his cell to prevent blood clots and enable bathroom breaks. These breaks involved boxes, cobwebs, and Xu or Quistis, so there was nothing to recommend them. Seifer found himself looking forward to them by his second day. They were a temporary escape from the egg, at the very least -- or that's what he told himself. Or it could be another sign that he was going mad. Mad people looked forward to walks like these.

"Did you say something?" Quistis asked.

"What? No. I didn't."

"Oh." Quistis looked away.

They walked forward through the dust and gloom.

"It's just," Quistis said and stopped and started again. "It's just that I've been talking to Cid. I've asked him to end your detention early."

Seifer stopped dead. "What?"

"I told Cid that you've learned as much of a lesson as you're ever going to learn from this experience. I told him that we should release you, and that we should allow you to sit for the next SeeD exam."

Inside Seifer, the voice that was weaker every day said: Oh, God, thank you, an escape from this hell and a return to my proper place in the Garden. The voice that was stronger every day said: She's vulnerable and by the time they found the body, you'd be on another continent. But the loudest voice just said: What?

"What?" Seifer said. And then, stupidly, "Why would you do that?"

She stared at her feet. "At a time like this, we need every SeeD we have. Or can get."

"What?" It was a word he seemed to be saying a lot. It was a word he hated saying.

Quistis took off her glasses and started polishing them. "Well...we're obviously running at a low capacity if we're sending SeeDs off on missions within an hour of their ceremonial ball."

Here, at last, was a statement he could comprehend.

"Squall," Seifer said immediately. "You sent Squall somewhere?" He chuckled deep in his throat. "Oh, what a disaster. Balamb must be scraping the bottom of the barrel."

Quistis didn't say anything.

"So, where'd you send him?" Seifer asked cheerfully.

"I'm not really at liberty to say..." Quistis trailed off.

Seifer kept smiling, because he was familiar with Trepe's sense of secrecy. He sat on a cardboard box (labeled BUTTONS AND BULLETS in black marker) and looked up at her expectantly. It was hard to read her expression in the underwater lighting of the storage halls, but Seifer could tell she was agitated. She twisted her glasses back and forth in her hands and said nothing. Neither did he.

It was hard for Quistis to keep secrets. They fluttered free at the first opportunity. Seifer figured it had to do with asserting her authority: secrets were only powerful when told and didn't do a damn bit of good if silent. Raijin thought that Instructor Trepe just trusted people enough to share all her thoughts with them, even if she wasn't supposed to. Fujin just thought she was an idiot.

Dust motes drifted through the murky light, and Seifer could see the secret struggling across her face. At least, something was creasing her forehead and biting her lip, and Seifer suspected it was Squall. She always worried about her little pet. He was the first head she looked for in the classroom; he was the first one she called on for answers. Seifer imagined she told all her secrets to Squall. Not that it mattered: that stupid boy wasn't any good at eye-contact or answers or secrets. And now he was a SeeD, sent off somewhere to weigh heavily on Instructor Trepe's heart.

Seifer was good at secrets. He was also good at answers. Not that it mattered, as Instructor Trepe never called on him. Sitting among the discarded chalk boxes and chessboards, Seifer felt his smile pulling back so far that it hurt.

At last, Quistis put on her glasses and sighed through her nose. "Timber. They were dispatched to Timber. But it goes no further, understand?"

"Who would I tell?" Seifer laughed. "Xu? I don't see anyone else, dear Instructor." And he drummed his fingers against his cardboard box, happy to have wrested the secret out of her -- until he actually thought about it. "Timber. God."

"Did you say something?" Quistis asked.

"Who else did you send?"

"Zell Dincht and that girl from Trabia, Selphie."

Seifer kept waiting, but there were no more names. "Wait. Wait, you only sent the three of them? To assassinate the Galbadian president?"

Quistis might have blinked; in the gloom, it was hard to tell. "Ah. Yes, I had forgotten. You had contact with the contractor a year ago, didn't you?"

Seifer grimaced. Trust Quistis to remember that particular banquet. "Never mind that. You only sent those three? God, they're mincemeat."

"They're SeeDs."

"They've been SeeDs for four days." Seifer said, and he slammed his fist into the cardboard box as hard as he could.

"We wouldn't have made them SeeDs if we didn't think they were up to SeeD missions," Quistis said. "You don't think they can manage it?"

Seifer's first four thoughts, in succession, were: 1) Rinoa; 2) Squall was probably ready to tear his hair out after dealing with the Forest Owls; 3) Quistis was worried; and 4) his hand hurt. In fact, his entire arm throbbed.

"For what the mission requires? Dear Instructor, I was their squad leader for Dollet. No, I don't think they can manage it." He grinned maliciously at her. "President Deling is heavily guarded, so any assassins might end up fighting the entire Galbadian army. And all the Garden dispatched were three rookie SeeD members? If they're lucky, they'll just die. If they're unlucky, there's always a Galbadian prison."

"Yes, I seem to recall you just wrote a paper on that subject. They are not pleasant places."

Seifer ignored her. He was still working himself up, and he felt better than he had in days. "And those are their options: death and death. Because there's no way that the three of them -- the three of them in particular -- can succeed. So how will we find out about their deaths, dear Instructor? Will we see it on the news sites? Will we receive a telegram? Will we just have to guess, after we don't hear from them for a year?"

"Our field agents will inform us, according to our protocols," Quistis said. She might have been smiling slightly, but it was hard to tell. "I'm surprised at you, Seifer. Yes, they may die; death is part of our stock in trade. I hadn't thought you would be squeamish about it."

"I'm not squeamish," Seifer shot back. "But I'm not wasteful either, and it's wasteful to send the three of them to fail at killing the Galbadian president."

"But we could not afford to send any others," Quistis said. "I'm not sure what you think we do here in Balamb Garden, Seifer." She gestured to the jerseys and jet packs surrounding them. "We are mercenaries, and we train other mercenaries, and we all die, one way or the other."

Seifer scowled. "That is an awfully cynical attitude, dear Instructor. Why did you come here if you held Balamb Garden in such low expectations?"

"I came here because I thought I would be good at killing things," Quistis said. "And it turned out I was right. Why did you come here, cadet?"

He had come to Balamb Garden to become a righteous and glorious knight, but Seifer was damned if he was going to tell Quistis that. "And so that's all that SeeDs are? Despite all of Cid's seminars on self-esteem and your folk-dancing essays? Don't we aspire to something higher than murder?"

"No," Quistis said. "As long as we stay within the Garden system, murder for money is all we do. As long as we follow the rules."

She said these last words with great insistence, but Seifer was already thinking back to Rinoa and Squall. "But they're going to fail, Quistis," he said, and he hated the whine in his voice.

She looked at him through freshly polished glasses, but he couldn't see her eyes. "I'm inclined to agree with you, Seifer."

Seifer rubbed his forehead. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Didn't I mention that before? I've asked Cid to end your detention early."

"What does Squall and Timber have to do with my detention?" Seifer asked, but there was a dumb sort of hope blossoming in the back of his throat. "Even if I sat for the next exam, I wouldn't become a SeeD in time to take the Timber mission. How can I help them, even if I'm released early?"

She arched an eyebrow. "Of course you can't," she said with faint contempt. "I wasn't referring to you, cadet. But if I wasn't forced to babysit you, I would be free to assist the Timber team."

"Oh," Seifer said. The room seemed to crowd in around him, and his arm throbbed.

She checked her watch. "Your break is up, Seifer."

Seifer didn't speak on the walk back to the egg, and it was only as Quistis was pulling out her key that he thought to ask, "So what did Cid say? When you asked about ending my detention?"

"Oh," Quistis said as she unlocked the door. "He said no."

Quistis waited until the door was locked behind him before she started to smile.

***

It took Seifer two hours before he was calm enough to even look at the book Quistis had left him.

He ground his teeth for a full fifteen minutes. The second fifteen minutes was spent on revising his mental list, on which Quistis moved much higher (but still remained beneath Cid). Quistis' meteoric rise had disturbed the fragile equilibrium of his enemies, so it took some time to straighten everyone out. When he got to Squall, he abruptly abandoned his list and started thinking about Rinoa and Galbadia and futility. That took half an hour.

For the second hour, he considered his plans. His whole life had revolved around becoming a SeeD, which had once seemed synonymous with becoming a knight. Not any more. If he had to choose -- and he knew he had to choose -- the glory of the knight trumped the SeeD. But how could he leave? He had spent his life here.

Squall had spent his life here, and now the Garden had spit him out to do something impossible, and Rinoa was going to die for his failure. And Seifer could do nothing to stop it as long as he followed the rules.

These thoughts were churning messily away as he reached for the book which Quistis had left. As he lifted it, a slip of paper slipped from between the pages and dropped to his desk.

The writing on the paper were as round and hesitant as a child's, and the sloping words read: "hey, boss, want to help let us know what to do."

And after that, just one word, all capital letters: "RAGE."

His thoughts stopped churning, and Seifer began to grin. He tapped his pen against his teeth, turned over the paper, and wrote his message on the other side.

***

"These papers are not at all what you assigned," Xu said, dropping the terminal's printouts with disgust.

Quistis looked up from the memo she was writing at her desk. "Oh, I know. Seifer doesn't follow explicit instruction. If you want him to do something, you have to let him think it's his idea." She finished typing at her terminal and hit the SEND button. "Sometimes, you have to let Seifer reach his own conclusions."

Xu stared down at her coffee mug and considered violence in Balamb folk dances. "But Seifer's conclusions aren't always nice."

"It is a risk you run," Quistis said with a sigh. She pushed her glasses back and looked at the frowning woman on the other side of her desk. "Is there something you wanted, Xu? Or did you just come by to look at Seifer's essays?"

"Actually, I was hoping for a quick game," Xu said, brightening. "I got this awesome new Fighting Weevil card from Nida, and I was hoping to try out my new deck and--"

"I'm sorry, Xu, but I can't right now," Quistis said firmly. "I have a lot of work to do."

"I hear you have a new deck, Quis."

"A lot of work. And it's not really new."

Xu smiled. "You're no good at secrets, Trepe."

Several different emotions shuttered across Quistis' face. "That's what people keep telling me, Xu."

"Oh," Xu said, a little confused. "Okay."

"Is there anything else I can help you with?" Quistis asked with obvious patience.

"Hmmm," Xu said. "Well, there was one other thing. What with our little prince being so moody and all, I wonder if we should trust him with that razor of his."

"Why?" Quistis asked, startled. "Do you think he might harm himself? I've never seen him as suicidal."

"Eh," Xu said. "I don't know, but he did a real hatchet job at shaving himself this morning -- I guess you saw that -- and it reminded me of his general weirdness of late. I just don't like that razor of his." Xu saw the scowl on Quistis' face and raised her left hand defensively. "Hey, hey, Kadowaki agrees with me. Normally we don't let the kids take sharp objects into detention."

"Normally the kids in detention aren't old enough to shave. And he's not a prisoner, Xu. Cid wouldn't agree to taking away his personal grooming equipment."

Xu rolled her eyes. "Cid is one step away from making us all attend self-validation seminars, Quis. I don't seriously consult him when it comes to discipline."

"If we take his shaving razor, he'll know that we don't trust him."

"We lock him in his room at night, Quistis. I think it's pretty clear that we don't trust him." Xu stood up and stretched. "Well, whatever. It's almost time for the little prince's next walk."

"Leave him the razor, Xu."

Xu stopped in the doorway and looked back. "I just don't want anyone to get hurt, Quistis." She shrugged and closed the door as she left.

"Too late," Quistis said softly, staring at the papers on her desk. "Too late."

***

That night, Seifer slept like a baby. He had confusing dreams full of queens and horsemen and blood, and his right arm was always exploding or falling off, but he woke refreshed and content. He whistled as he shaved and only cut himself twice.

When Xu arrived to unlock his door that morning, he was waiting.

"Good morning, cadet!" she shrieked.

"Good morning, ma'am," Seifer said, and he smartly stepped out into the hall and started moving toward his egg.

Xu, who was used to dealing with a shambling, mopey boy in the mornings, had to run to catch up. "You're awfully bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today, cadet."

"Thank you, ma'am," Seifer said. "And ma'am, do you remember that book I had you return to the library last night?"

"Yes, cadet?"

"I need that book back, ma'am."

Xu stared. "What? You need it back? Why?"

"I have just remembered that I did not write down one of the page numbers for something I quoted." And as Xu kept staring up at him in astonishment, he added, "I need to document my source, as I would hate to inadvertently plagiarize. Ma'am."

Xu's mouth was hanging open. "Um. I see, cadet. Very well, I'll have SeeD Trepe bring the book when she comes by this afternoon."

"Thank you, ma'am." Seifer swept along down the halls and Xu hurried to keep up. When they arrived at his egg, he smiled benevolently down at Xu, who was so flustered that it took three tries to unlock the door.

***

"You really alarmed Xu this morning, cadet." Quistis' voice sounded amused, but when Seifer looked up from his terminal, she was not smiling.

"I don't know why a request for a book is that alarming, dear Instructor." She was holding the book in her hands, but Seifer avoided looking directly at it.

"Hmm," Quistis said, turning the book over in her hands. "I think it might have been all the 'ma'ams,' actually. Being called 'ma'am' breaks Xu's brain."

"Yes, I noticed," Seifer said, trying not to look at the book with all his self-control. "That's why I do it."

"And it's not easy to alarm Xu, you know. She once faced a band of guerilla insurgents with nothing but a wheelbarrow and a fork."

"A fork?"

"A fork can do a lot of damage to a jugular vein," Quistis said, touching her own neck. "But just so you know. She's not easy to alarm, but you seem to succeed regularly at it."

"Ah," Seifer said, momentarily distracted by the mental image of Xu armed with cutlery. "At last, an achievement I can take pride in."

"At last," Quistis agreed. "Anyway, Xu said you needed this." She casually handed the book to Seifer, who tried to be casual about taking it. "Try to have better notes in the future, cadet."

"Thank you, Instructor. I shall just get cracking on this. Right away."

"Good." Quistis no longer sounded amused. She took a step toward the door, and then she stopped and turned around. "Cadet, I hope you remember what we've taught you here about responsibility and compassion."

Seifer lifted an eyebrow. "The folk dances of Balamb were supposed to teach me compassion?"

"Your entire education at Balamb Garden has taught you, I hope."

Seifer put down the book and stared at Quistis in sincere surprise. "This isn't what you said yesterday. I thought we were good at killing things, and we were all going to die."

"I was angry yesterday, and maybe I was wrong." She looked at him, then at the book, and then away. "Maybe I am wrong. I hope you have compassion somewhere deep inside, Seifer. You'll need it, if you want to be a SeeD."

He didn't want to be a SeeD any longer, but he asked "Why?" anyway.

"SeeDs make tough choices. We're always choosing the lesser of two evils, but people get hurt and bad things happen no matter what we do. We...we have to chose between our principles and our instructions, between seeing a friend hurt or having your team dead." Her mouth was set in a grim line.

Seifer had no idea what Quistis was talking about, and he really did not care. Under his desk, he stroked the book, and the crumbs from the disintegrating cover gathered under his fingernails.

Quistis exhaled. "I hope you make the right choices, Seifer. You made the wrong choice in Dollet, but...you can still make the right choices." She readjusted her glasses and said, in an entirely different tone of voice, "And how is your arm?"

The question took Seifer by surprise. Since its original sighting, Quistis had never referred to his arm. He put the book on the desk, pulled back his right sleeve and displayed his arm to her. The deep red lines had faded into a series of pink streaks and raised brown scar tissue that he could (and often did) peel away from his healing skin.

Quistis looked down at his arm and asked, "Does it hurt?"

"Not much," Seifer lied.

"I probably should have had Kadowaki look at you that day, the day you did this."

It was a rare moment of tenderness from Quistis, and in another life and another universe, it might have bridged the distance between their different fears, suspicions, and agendas.

Instead, Seifer jerked his arm back and said, "No worries, dear Instructor. You just made the wrong choice, dear Instructor, but I'm sure you have compassion somewhere deep inside."

Quistis went rigid and her glasses flashed as she pulled back her head. She inhaled; she exhaled; she said, "I should have been in Timber, cadet." She turned on her heel and stalked from the room, and Seifer heard the door lock with a vindictive chime.

For a moment, Seifer felt a strange emotion that seemed equal parts guilt and exhilaration, but it passed quickly. He looked down at the book and smiled.

He flipped to the back. He was sure that both Xu and Quistis had looked through the book before Quistis delivered it, but they were careless and underestimated him. He used his pen to start pushing at the bottom corner of the endsheet, which was pasted to the inside of the cover. The endsheet had already been torn free and re-glued, so it wasn't hard to pry it up. When he succeeded in lifting the corner, a small rectangle of paper slipped out.

It was a train ticket from Balamb to Timber. Seifer wasn't certain how Fujin and Raijin had found the necessary money, but Raijin had probably sold his tropical fish collection and Fujin must have auctioned off her stash of rare Adel erotica. Seifer wasn't certain, but he was grateful. The train ticket was the key to the fourth part of his escape plan.

Seifer's escape plan was genius, and Seifer deserved all the credit. Raijin and Fujin didn't know -- and might never know -- all the details, and Seifer felt a pang of regret that they couldn't savor his genius with him. It passed quickly.

Seifer tucked the ticket in his pocket, plastered the book's endsheet back with his own spit, and waited for Xu to show up and walk him to the last night he would spend in detention.

He had a feeling he wouldn't be seeing Quistis for a while.

***

Seifer's escape plan was such genius that he didn't sleep that night. He just went through the plan, again and again, with the same meticulous care he paid to his mental list of enemies. His arm throbbed throughout the night.

The fourth part of his escape plan involved traveling from Balamb to Timber, which was why the train ticket was key. He planned to arrive at Balamb's train station at approximately 0800 hours and board the 8:10 train to Timber. He would watch the scenery, enjoy a leisurely meal in the dining car, and peruse the newspaper while en route. When he arrived in Timber, he would ascertain the current condition and position of the Timber SeeDs and the Forest Owls, and he would determine his next set of actions.

At this point, his genius escape plan ended and Seifer would be playing things by ear.

He didn't know if Rinoa and Squall were still alive, but Quistis seemed to believe they weren't dead yet, and Quistis had access to better information than he did. If they were alive and still in Timber, Seifer supposed he would need to rush in and save them from themselves.

If they were dead, Seifer would be playing things by ear.

The third part of his escape plan involved traveling from Balamb Garden to Balamb town, which would require a car to reach the train station in time for the 8:10 train to Timber. Seifer planned to steal a car from Balamb Garden's garage at 0715, crash through the Garden gates no later than 0725, arrive on the outskirts of Balamb town by 0745, abandon his car in a discreet location by 0750, and arrive at the Balamb Town train station at approximately 0800.

To prevent joy-riding students, Balamb Garden's cars required authorized keycards. The keycards were hard to obtain, but they had been given out to all the team leaders of the Dollet Mission. Seifer had landed so quickly in trouble after the mission that the garage staff hadn't had the chance to demand the keycard's return. It was sitting in his dorm room, next to his gunblade.

Crashing through the Garden gates was bound to raise alarms, but as joy-riding students crashed through the gates all the time -- keycards weren't that hard to obtain -- Seifer was counting on the Garden to pay little initial attention to the breakout. By the time the Garden realized what had happened and mobilized their forces, Seifer would be on his way to Timber.

Quistis would be sent after him. Or maybe she wouldn't, but then she would just go to Timber, and they would end up in the same place anyway. Seifer smiled at the thought.

The second part of his escape plan involved traveling from his dorm room to Balamb Garden's garage. He needed to retrieve the keycard to steal the car, and he needed his gunblade in case he encountered any resistance on his desperate sprint through the Garden. He might not encounter anyone, though; he planned to depart his dormitory at 0700, when most students and faculty members were still asleep.

He supposed they wouldn't take him back after this episode. He was already in trouble, and an armed escape from Balamb Garden would destroy any chance of becoming a SeeD. But that was fine; Seifer didn't want to be a SeeD now. It was a life of blood and money, and Seifer wanted a life of songs and romance and glory. He wanted to be a Knight, but he couldn't be a Knight here. It was time for him to leave Balamb Garden, the place that sent rookies off to die and stored its buttons and its bullets in the same box.

If Seifer had been more introspective, he might have thought about Quistis' cryptic conversations and strange behavior during the week. He might have even wondered whether Headmaster Cid's sweater-vests and self-esteem seminars might undermine the Garden's ostensible purpose as a school for mercenaries. But a week of isolation and a night of sleep-deprivation meant Seifer was in no condition to ponder hidden motives; his focus had shrunk entirely to his genius escape plan, which was entirely due to his own cunning (with only minor assistance from Raijin and Fujin and no one else).

He sat on his cot and went through the plan, again and again.

"Rise and shine, cadet!" There was a thunder of accompanying thumps from Xu's fist before she left to get her morning cup of coffee.

It was morning, and Seifer was already awake and dressed. He was even shaved. His right arm was as hot as a lamp -- not from the faintly visible scar tissue but from a deeper source, as if his bone marrow was on fire. It was as if his arm knew what it was about to do, and it was ready.

He opened his straight razor and crouched just beyond the door.

The first part of his genius escape plan involved traveling from the disciplinary barracks to his dormitory. His prison was located deep within the secure zones of Balamb, and there were several high-level doors between here and his dormitory. At this time of day, there would be no one in these halls to see or hear him, but he needed to get through those doors, which was why the first part of his genius escape plan required Xu's access keys.

Crouched there, he suddenly thought of compassion and Quistis for no reason at all. He was going to have to make a choice -- a choice complicated by images of wheelbarrows and forks -- but he didn't know whether to choose mercy or murder. His eyes were dry, and he needed a glass of water, and he decided to let the glowing arm with the straight razor make the decision for him.

When Xu arrived to unlock his door that morning, he was waiting.


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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