Inception: beginning; start; commencement.
The hollow sound of Quistis' heel tapping against the metal rung of the bar stool echoed throughout the room. With every tap, the vibration pulsated through the bones in her leg and while it wasn't exactly a comfortable feeling, she appreciated the fact that she could still feel. Considering the rest of her was pretty numb at the moment, the sensation was definitely welcome.
There were other things assaulting her senses currently, that most would find offensive. For starters, the particular bar she was at was relatively new, but it was already beginning to accumulate the stale scent of urine. Throw in the rancid smell of day-old vomit, and that was what Quistis was lucky enough to breathe in. The boisterous sound of drunken individuals surrounded her, and surprisingly, she welcomed the distraction. The more she concentrated on the problems of others, the less terrible her life seemed to be. Or at least, that's what she kept telling herself.
It had been three years since the defeat of Ultimecia. Since then, all of her friends had settled into their respective roles. Squall was Commander at Garden, and worked closely with Headmaster Cid on executive decisions concerning SeeD missions. Rinoa, of course, was beside him at all times and offered a third-party view when the Headmaster needed it. She'd never 'officially' become a SeeD, claiming she just wasn't cut out for the life of a mercenary. Frankly, Quistis agreed with the dark-haired optimist. Rinoa's heart was in the right place and she was too kind; the unforgiving tasks she'd be asked to do as a SeeD didn't mesh well with the type of person she was.
Selphie and Irvine, along with Zell, remained at Balamb Garden. Irvine could have returned to Galbadia, but after the corruption he'd seen in their military, he didn't feel any sort of loyalty to them in the slightest. Besides, as the sniper had said, "Where Sephy goes, I go!" Zell was still Zell: as rambunctious and energetic as he'd always been. Lately, Quistis had been spotting him in the Training Center more frequently. He claimed he was perfecting his moves, though he'd never explained exactly why he was so driven. Quistis suspected that he might be getting ready to apply for the Martial Arts Instructor position.
Matron had returned to the ruins of the orphanage on Centra, claiming that she wanted to rebuild the ruins of the home they had all shared in the past. Headmaster Cid couldn't exactly abandon Garden so he'd been forced let her return alone. Now that she was no longer a sorceress, she didn't have to hide who she was, and he wasn't worried about her wellbeing. However, that didn't mean he wasn't lonely without her by his side; Garden swung by the orphanage once a month to check up on her, as well as see how the orphanage was coming along.
As for Quistis herself, she'd been working as a SeeD in the interim, until she could apply to become an instructor again. Despite what Garden Faculty had thought when NORG was in command, she truly did love teaching. Being able to make a difference in cadets' lives and in their education, was something she'd taken great pride in. Yes, it had hurt when they'd taken her license away and claimed that she wasn't ready to be an instructor. At the time, she'd been bitter and had disagreed with their decision. During the events of the second Sorceress War however, she'd realized that they'd been right. She was so young then, so naive. Even during the past three years, she understood that she'd changed quite a bit. Now she knew, with absolute certainty, that she was ready once again, She just hadn't taken the last step in her application, which was to actually turn it in. There was a part of her that was terrified of failing again. The other part of her however, wanted to stand behind that desk, and to be called 'Instructor' again, more than anything.
So, she'd taken the elevator to the third floor this morning, to the Headmaster's office, to finally turn in her application. Today was the day her life would return to normal. When she'd gotten there though, Squall and Rinoa had been talking to the Headmaster.
Quistis hesitantly stepped into the Headmaster's office, her eyebrows furrowed in apprehension. Rinoa and Squall were speaking softly to Cid, who was gazing at them, his eyes warm. When they heard her timid footsteps tapping on the carpet, Rinoa turned, her excitement nearly tangible in the air.
"Quistis! I'm so happy you're here! We have news for everyone!" the raven-haired sorceress exclaimed, as she sprinted over to stand in front of Quistis, grasping her friend's gloved hands tightly.
"Oh? News?" she replied, as she glanced at Squall. She was surprised to see a gentle smile on his lips. It was such a rare occurrence when he did smile, that whoever was witnessed it tended to stop in their tracks. Except Rinoa, since she was normally the cause of his more pleasant facial expressions.
"Yes! We wanted to tell everyone all at once, but I just couldn't wait," Rinoa explained breathlessly.
"It must be really exciting then," Quistis commented warily. Rinoa was generally always upbeat, but her current level of excitement was borderline Selphie-like, which was a little frightening.
Squall came up behind his sorceress then, and placed his hands on her shoulders, his black gloves a stark contrast to Rinoa's light-blue duster. "Just tell her, Rin," he whispered fondly.
Rinoa glanced up at Squall, her eyes filled with adoration and love, and Quistis cringed inwardly at being the third wheel in this situation. Other than Headmaster Cid of course, who was still watching the exchange from his desk.
When Rinoa's chestnut brown eyes finally returned to Quistis' vivid, crystalline ones, Quistis found that for some strange reason, her stomach dropped in anticipation of what Rinoa was about to say.
"...I'm pregnant!" her friend blurted out, her voice brimming with happiness.
Quistis' mouth dropped open and she tried to close it, only to find that it fell open again. She realized that she probably looked like a gaping Balamb Fish at the moment, gasping for air. Or maybe a Fastitocalon, in her particular case.
"Wow, that's...amazing. Congratulations, you two," she mumbled, knowing that she didn't sound nearly as happy as she should have.
Luckily, Rinoa was in such a cushioned bubble of elation, she barely even noticed Quistis' trepidation. She squeezed Quistis' gloved hands and threw yet another 'exciting' announcement out.
"And...we're getting married! I want to be able to wear my mother's dress before I start showing, so I figure it'd be a good idea to do it sometime soon! I'm planning on asking Selphie to help me with organizing everything, but Quistis...I was wondering if...you'd want to be a bridesmaid too?" Rinoa asked, her tone of voice rising hopefully at the end of her spiel.
Quistis' lips formed a surprised 'O' and she sputtered a couple of times, nonsensically, before she could reply. "I...would be honored!"
Rinoa's arms wrapped tightly around Quistis' torso, and the younger woman squeezed them in an excited hug, before she let her golden-haired friend go.
"Yay! I'm so happy to hear that! I have to go find Selphie, but I'll come find you later so we can talk about stuff!" she exclaimed, as she grabbed Squall's hand and dragged him out of the Headmaster's office.
Quistis had watched them leave, speechless and shocked. The Headmaster had simply patted her on the shoulder sympathetically, before returning to his desk. She was happy for her friends; really, she was. But she couldn't help the wave of sorrow and loneliness that swept through her, as the wooden, double doors to the Headmaster's office had swung shut.
What felt like the fifth sigh of the night, escaped from Quistis' rosy lips. She raised her hand and waved at the bartender lazily, accepting the fact that she was probably going to be here for the rest of the night. She didn't normally drink. The training center was her stress reliever of choice but there'd been a handful of cadets in there earlier, working on their techniques for the upcoming field exam. Field exam dates were generally kept a secret and announced the morning of, to remind cadets anything could happen and that they should always be prepared. Somehow though, they always found out prior to the official announcement.
The bartender, a portly man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, wandered over at Quistis' beckoning. His soothing, deep voice called out to her through the drunken haziness that was affecting her senses.
"What can I get ya now?" Though his voice was warm, his attitude wasn't. Quistis supposed that came with experience in working at bars, which were almost always filled with less than respectable people.
"I'll have...whatever it was that I had before," Quistis mumbled, her words slurred.
He nodded and walked off, presumably to prepare her drink. She leaned back on the stool, her hands grasping the edge of the counter. As the muscles in her biceps flexed, she sighed again. The despair she felt permeated every breath she exhaled forcefully, and she wondered why she couldn't just be happy for Squall and Rinoa.
She knew Squall deserved this happiness, she'd always believed that he did. When she had still been his instructor, and even before as kids, she'd only wanted the best for him. The image of him broke her heart every time: his small frame, draped in that yellow striped shirt that he'd always worn, standing in the doorway of Edea's orphanage waiting for Ellone to return. She'd stepped in then, hoping to replace the 'Sis' he'd lost but he'd already begun to close himself off, reluctant to trust again. When she'd been adopted by the Trepes, she was sure that hadn't helped the situation, either.
Now, every time she saw the way he looked at Rinoa, a mixture of awe and pure devotion gracing his features, she was glad that he'd found the sorceress; no matter how difficult the path had been. That joy she felt for Squall was sadly tainted by jealousy. Was it really too much to ask for? Too much for the universe to give her a happy ending, too?
The bartender returned then, a square whiskey glass in his hand, the amber liquid swirling within its confines with every step he took. He placed it on a white paper napkin in front of Quistis, his gaze expectant. She waved her hand in the air dismissively. "Just put it on my tab. I'll be here for...a while, I think."
He nodded again, his shrewd eyes lingering on her as he turned to help other customers. He was a smart businessman, this bartender. Though he didn't know her personally, he could sense she'd had a rough day and was using it to his advantage. By the end of the night, probably twenty-five percent of the revenue he'd earn would come from Quistis herself.
She lifted the drink off the counter and raised it to her mouth, her lips pursed and ready to take a sip. As the cold, hard glass touched her skin, a voice she'd never expected to hear again, called out to her.
"Well, well, well...if it isn't the dear Instructor Trepe."
She froze, the masculine, husky tone drifting over her. His voice was as dry as she remembered, and still as hostile as the day she'd become his teacher. She steeled herself, stiffening her spine and setting the glass back down on the counter, before she swiveled the stool around to face him.
Seifer Almasy. My most troublesome student, Quistis thought bitterly to herself.
His striking cerulean eyes were in her direct line of sight, his eyebrows furrowed over them; he still towered over her at six foot two, but the bar stool was rather high, so she was able to look him directly in the eyes. The blonde, slightly disheveled locks of his hair were even longer now, the ends nearly grazing the top of his ears. They were brushed back from his face, but that single strand he'd never been able to tame still hung over his forehead. The puckered, angry scar that ran across his face between his eyes, mirroring Squall's, was still as intimidating as it had been three years ago-though Quistis had never fallen prey to his threatening aura. Time had weathered his features, hardening them from the still boyish looks he'd had when she'd last seen him, to the more defined lines of masculinity. He was also sporting a light dusting of blonde stubble.
The same, grey trench coat he always wore still engulfed his large frame. Its hem was tattered and torn now, the edges darkened by grime; why he still wore the old thing was beyond her. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his shoulders tense. Fujin's tiny silhouette and Raijin's hulking profile could be spotted hovering just behind him. As always, they hung back, ready for their leader's command.
I can't believe they're still following him around. Honestly…If Quistis could roll her eyes mentally, that's what she would be doing.
"Seifer. What an...unpleasant surprise," she commented, the alcohol loosening her propriety, allowing her honest opinion of him to show its true colors.
Seifer's lips curled upwards in a sneer, and he distastefully said, "I would say you haven't changed Instructor, but frankly, I'm surprised to see you in a bar. I didn't think you even knew what these were."
"Ha,ha…," she trailed off, and spun around in an attempt to pointedly ignore him.
Unfortunately, Seifer knew her personality and so he sat down on the stool next to hers, making it his official mission of the night to annoy her as much as possible. Fujin and Raijin wandered off, after Seifer nonchalantly waved his hand at them, shooing them away. Quistis sighed again, though this time instead of despondency, it was saturated with annoyance. He'd always known the fastest way to push her buttons.
"So Instructor, it's been a while. What exactly drove you to the bottle, huh?" he asked sarcastically.
"You know full well that I'm no longer an instructor, Seifer. It was all thanks to you, as a matter of fact," she replied, her tone as frosty as Shiva's Diamond Dust.
Seifer scoffed in disbelief. When he spoke again, his words were laced with unbridled anger. "Is that what you tell yourself at night? It's easier to blame all the shit that goes on in your guys' lives on me, isn't it?"
"You know what, Seifer? This is my pity party. Go find your own."
"Nah, I think I'll stay right here. You're obviously enjoying my company. I'm surprised, Instructor-" Quistis cringed outwardly this time. He had to be doing that on purpose. "-You're like a completely different person when you're drunk. In fact, I think I could even say you're fun."
"Ugh…" Quistis raised her momentarily forgotten glass swiftly to her lips, and swallowed the bitter liquid inside in one gulp. Seifer made a low sound of admiration that oddly, sent shivers down her spine. She shifted uncomfortably at the unexpected sensation.
"Wow, I'm impressed. Never expected that from you, Instructor."
Frustrated at his insistence on calling her 'Instructor' after she'd told him not to, Quistis quickly clambered off the stool, stumbling slightly at the sudden motion. The soles of her boots stuck to the floor; the aged, syrupy consistency of spilled alcoholic beverages impeded her ability to regain her balance.
"Enough, Seifer! I am not an Instructor, and you know it!" she exclaimed, as she swiped her arm through the air in a dismissive motion.
Seifer whirled around on his stool, his black glove grasping the edge of the bar tightly for support, as she'd done herself only a few minutes ago.
"I'm sorry Quistis, did I strike a nerve? Am I annoying you? Do you want me to go?!" he needled.
Her pale blue eyes narrowed and she planted her hands firmly on her hips in her signature pose. "Don't you dare pin this on me. I was here first."
"Wow, nice reasoning. That was something a five year old would say."
Quistis threw her hands up in the air as a sharp exhalation of air left her lips. She swiftly pivoted on her heel and stalked towards the door, fed up with his behavior and the fact that he'd interrupted her night. "By all means Seifer, take the bar. I'll simply go somewhere else."
Before she could reach the door, the bartender's throat clearing caught her attention. She froze and slowly turned around, facing the bar again. He was gazing at her expectantly and she trudged back over to him, scrounging in her pocket for Gil. She tossed a hundred casually onto the counter, not particularly caring that she just left a huge amount of money for the tip. She stalked back to the front door again, the feel of Seifer's heated gaze boring into the back of her head, as her boots sharply clicked against the concrete floor. The door flew open and banged against the outer wall due to her unnecessary force, and she stepped out into the warm, Balamb night.
Once the door had swung shut behind her, she took a deep breath, reveling in the sensation of the breeze rushing into her lungs. She closed her eyes and tried to regain the composure she was well known for having. After a few seconds of therapeutic breathing, she turned and started to head towards Balamb's front gate.
Now that she had time to reflect again, she found that thoughts of Seifer coursed through her mind, rather than of the day's events. What were the chances of seeing Seifer here, in Balamb, in the same bar she'd been at? Not only that, why had he decided to sit down next to her? He could've easily ignored her, choosing instead to walk back out. Because of her involvement in the war, she was easily recognized in both her civilian clothing and official SeeD uniform. Regardless of that fact though, Seifer would've recognized her even faster than a civilian would have. They had history, after all.
Was it because he was essentially still the same boy she'd known at Garden? Back then, he'd had a sarcastic comment ready to retaliate to every single thing she'd said to him. He'd always sought out ways to irritate her; pushing over piles of graded tests she'd had on her desk, speaking out of turn during her lessons, and making sure to come in late to class every, single, day. Was that what he'd been doing tonight when he'd sat down beside her and called her 'Instructor' at every opportunity?
She shook her head quickly, frustrated that she was even allowing him to haunt her thoughts like this. The past was over and done with, and none of them had anything to do with Seifer any longer. She'd seen him, they'd spoken briefly, and then she'd left. That was all tonight was. If word got back to anyone at Garden that they'd been seen together, that's exactly what she'd tell them.
The sound of her boots on the asphalt of the path that led back to Garden, echoed around her. The moonlight reflected off the surface of the ocean; a single white streak from the moon's reflection cut through the dark, almost black waves. The sand on the beach glowed a pale periwinkle, and even from where Quistis stood a few feet away, she could see the fineness of the grains. The rolling meadow that lay between Garden and Balamb surrounded her and the gentle breeze that drifted through the valley caressed the blades of grass, causing them to waver slightly. The two locks of hair that framed her face also swayed with the motion of the wind and she smiled fondly at the beautiful landscape.
The sights helped calm her and she walked the rest of the way back to Garden in silence. She normally rented a car or used one of the standard issued vehicles they had in the parking garage, but she knew she'd be drinking and had chosen to walk to town instead. Now, she was grateful for the decision she'd made because the walk was helping her sober up. She was human, so she didn't expect any of her friends to judge her for drinking her problems away. If they asked though, she'd have to explain why she'd chosen to get drunk and that was a conversation she didn't particularly want to have just yet.
Her thoughts started to drift back to what Rinoa had told her earlier and she shook her head fervently trying to rid herself of thoughts she knew would only send her spiraling downwards again. They all deserved happiness, and she was glad that Squall and Rinoa had found that in each other. She was happy for them, really. She just needed to work on acting like it.
Seifer's face, with the long, harsh scar marring his features, which she had to admit didn't detract from his looks, popped into her head then. He'd always been handsome, even when he'd been younger. His broad shoulders were even more muscular than they'd been when he was eighteen, she'd easily noticed the contours of them through the strained fabric of his trench coat. The dry tone in his voice, that he'd had even as a teenager, had remained but it had deepened. It had become richer, more gravelly. It was...
Sexy...Oh Hyne, I need to stop, she thought frantically to herself, as she gripped her head with her gloved hands. It's just Seifer. He hasn't changed, I haven't changed, nothing has changed. Remember that, Quistis!
That thought haunted her the rest of the way back to Garden, all the way up until she collapsed into her bed for the night. The last thing she saw in her mind, was the piercing turquoise shade of Seifer's eyes as she'd turned away from him at the bar.