Chapter 2: Into the Dark
Seifer sipped at a cup of coffee with a scowl. He didn't like coffee. Never had. But with as little sleep as he'd gotten the night before, he knew he was going to need some serious caffeine to get through the day. Honestly, alcohol would have hit the spot a whole lot better. But with Garden out in the middle of the goddamn ocean, he was stuck with what the cafeteria offered, and at eight in the morning, that meant coffee.
Slumped in his chair, he listened with half an ear as Raijin and Fujin talked.
"I heard it was a pretty big fire, ya know?" Raijin was saying.
"Yeah. Worse than they're letting on. I mean, we're not moving again yet, ya know? The engine's still out."
Seifer grunted once to ensure they thought he was involved in the conversation, then allowed his mind to wander back to the night before - to the Training Center and the things that had happened there.
He didn't know why he kept tormenting himself like this.
He'd never been more humiliated in his life, and for someone with a history like his, that was saying something.
Stuck alone in a room with Quistis Trepe had to be the dream of nearly every guy in Garden. Add to the situation the fact that she'd been magically turned on and...well...the porno practically wrote itself. Yet he — in all of his infinite fuckery — had only managed to dry hump her for approximately two goddamn seconds before coming in his underwear like a useless boy. And, to add insult to injury, she'd imagined that he was someone else the whole time.
What a disaster.
Particularly so because he hadn't imagined someone else.
He'd been thinking about her the whole time.
And he hadn't stopped thinking about her since.
Quistis had always been a bit of mystery to him. Once, when they'd both been cadets, he thought he detected some interest from her. Looks that lingered a little too long. A shy blush whenever he glanced her way. Those sorts of small, puppy-love type things. But he'd had a lot of girls interested in him at the time and while he'd been contemplating whether or not to do something about Quistis, she unexpectedly passed her field test and got promoted to SeeD. Then she'd been gone and out of his life for the better part of two years.
By the time she came back a full fledged woman and became an instructor, any remote attraction she might have once felt for him was obviously long gone. He'd squandered his chance. And, as far as he knew, she'd never looked at him again.
Until last night anyway.
Though she hadn't exactly been looking at him in the dark. If she had, he doubted that she'd have let him do what he did - shameful and brief as it was.
Ugh. He wanted to crawl underneath the table, curl into a ball, and die.
He snapped to attention. "Huh?"
Fujin and Raijin both stared at him from across the table.
"You okay?" Raijin asked.
"Yeah. Fine. Just didn't sleep well last night."
"SAME." Fujin sighed. "ANNOUNCEMENTS."
"I slept right through 'em," Raijin said. "I got this white noise machine a while back. I usually set it to thunder storm but it can play all sorts of sounds. Like ocean waves and birds and stuff. Really makes a difference, ya know? I'll let you borrow it!"
"Uh...thanks. But I think I'll be fine without it."
"If you say so." Raijin shrugged.
Over Raijin's shoulder, Seifer saw Quistis walk into the cafeteria and went immediately rigid at the sight of her.
The night before, she'd been dressed casually with her hair up in a ponytail. Today however, she had on her uniform and had styled her hair the way she always used to, with some of it down framing her face and the rest pinned up to form a perky little swish behind her head. She had on her glasses, too. Very prim and instructor-like.
Not at all like a woman who'd rolled in the mud with an ex-sorceress knight a few scant hours ago.
She spotted him and his blood turned to ice.
"I've gotta go get ready for my class," he told Raijin and Fujin as he launched out of his seat. "See you guys later?"
Even though he didn't have a class to teach today, they didn't question the lie. He'd been making a habit of getting his lessons plotted out early lately. Of all the things he did around Garden, teaching combat was by far his favorite. He even held onto a faint hope that if he did well enough at it, Cid might give him more. Maybe even let him take over part of the gunblading class from Squall.
He was glad for the precedent of his own initiative to conceal his escape as he swept his tray off the table and returned it to the counter.
He started quickly toward the door but out of the corner of his eye he spotted a flash of gold as Quistis weaved through the tables toward him.
He increased his pace and slipped out into the hall.
Caught, he groaned in agony and slowed.
The quick tap of Quistis's boots against the floor came jogging up behind him. Steeling himself to actually have to look her in the face, he took a deep breath, then turned.
She froze for a moment, as if surprised he'd actually stopped, but quickly snapped out of it.
"I wanted to talk to you. Do you have a minute?"
"Sure." He crossed his arms. "What about?"
She flushed and clutched both hands in front of her. "Um...about last night."
Crap . This was going to be painful.
"Okay," he said slowly.
She wrung her hands together for a second, then took him by the elbow and ushered him aside, out of the main flow of traffic and toward one of the fountains where the noise of the water might drown out their words to passersby.
"I just...I don't want you to think that I'm normally like that," she said softly.
"Like what? Like the sort of person who would screw around with someone like me?" he blurted out, then immediately cursed himself for it.
When would he ever learn to keep his goddamn mouth shut?
Quistis frowned. "That's not what I meant. It doesn't have anything to do with you."
"Oh. Geeze. That makes me feel better."
"All I'm trying to say is that what happened is not something I would normally do. Ever. I hope you aren't taking it personally or reading too much into it. Things got so out of hand so quickly… Between how late it was and the aura magic, it could've been anyone."
Seifer's heart wrenched painfully. "Anyone, huh? Well, it wasn't anyone. It was me."
"I know. And I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
God. She was apologizing to him. How much worse could this get?
He shrugged, trying to look casual. "I guess it's no big deal. It's not like anything serious happened. We didn't even take all our clothes off. Or kiss. Or do much at all. It was nothing."
"Right." She swallowed hard. "So, we can just move on? Act like it never happened?"
"Okay. Good. And you won't tell anyone about it?"
As if he was going to go around bragging about the fact that Quistis had to be magically whammied to notice him.
"I won't say anything," he promised.
Her shoulders sagged with relief. "Thank you."
She stood there a moment longer looking up at him, her blue eyes huge and sparkling behind her glasses.
Hyne, she was pretty. He hadn't had much occasion to notice it lately, but Quistis was objectively knock-out beautiful.
His gaze drifted to the lapels of her jacket and to the smooth column of her throat. The memory of his mouth pressed just there as he rocked against her hit him hard. A brief sigh, thick with longing, escaped him before he could stop it.
Quistis's lips parted.
And then someone called out her name.
They leapt away from each other and turned to see Squall walking up. Chicken Wuss trailed behind him, lugging a huge red duffel bag.
Quistis flashed them a charming smile. "Good morning." She gestured at the bag. "Is something going on?"
"I'm sending Zell down to help work on the engine," Squall replied. "I was hoping you could go with him."
"Of course. I'll have to grab something to eat first, but then I'm free for the rest of the day."
"Great." Squall glanced at Seifer with a glint of surprise, seeming to notice him standing there for the first time. "Seifer...why don't you go along, too? I was going to ask Irvine, but since you're right here…"
The B-levels of Garden were dirty and dangerous, infested by all sorts of nasty creatures who liked heat, darkness, and oil. Though the thought of tangling with whatever decided to crawl out of Garden's bowels bothered him a lot less than the fact that he would be stuck spending the rest of his day with Quistis and Zell.
Squall gave him a hopeful look and Seifer knew the choice had already been made for him.
He recognized exactly what this was: a chance to do more. To show that he was capable and could be trusted. A step toward all the things that he wanted for himself in Garden.
He gritted his teeth and forced a smile through them.
"Okay," he managed to reply. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you're ready," Squall said. "I want Zell on this ASAP. The engine's in pretty rough shape."
Zell nodded in agreement. "The fire when it failed was pretty big. It even set off the sprinklers in the Training Center! Good thing it happened so late at night and nobody was in there."
Quistis looked for a moment like she might fold in upon herself.
"Yeah. Sounds like a real mess," Seifer replied.
"You have no idea," Zell said. "It's a total mud pit."
They agreed to meet in front of the elevator in ten minutes and went their separate ways to prepare for the mission. Seifer fetched Hyperion from his room and arrived early. Zell was already there.
He immediately leveled Seifer with a hostile glare. "I know Squall is trying to give you a second chance and all, but I don't trust you and I'll leave you behind down there if I have to. This engine has to be fixed if we want to do anything but drift aimlessly around the ocean. So no messing around. Alright?"
"Chill, Chicken Wuss. I'll be on my best behavior. I swear."
"You'd better," Zell grumbled.
Seifer rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall to wait.
After a moment, Zell asked, "So, what were you talking to Quistis about?"
"When me and Squall walked up. I didn't think you two ever hung out or talked or anything."
"We don't. I was…" He latched onto the first lie he could think of. "I was asking her for help with my class."
Zell's eyebrows shot up. "Your combat class?"
"Yeah. Not with the combat part. I've got that. More administrative stuff. Grades and lesson plans. That sort of shit. Figured she was the only instructor who might be willing to offer me any advice."
"Oh." Zell chewed this over for a moment. "Quistis is real nice like that."
As if summoned by their compliments, Qusitis walked up then. She had her whip coiled at her waist and was finishing a bagel smeared with strawberry cream cheese. She licked a bit of cream off her thumb and smiled at them brightly. "Ready to go?"
While Seifer tried - and failed - not to think about Qusitis's tongue, Zell opened the access panel to the B-level and started down the ladder. Quistis followed, leaving Seifer to bring up the rear.
He'd heard about the B-level but had never been there himself and had to admit to some amazement as the area underneath the floor opened up into a vast, dark cavern filled with ladders and catwalks. It smelled like dust, gasoline, and hot metal.
"Do you know where we're going?" Quistis asked Zell.
"Yeah. Follow me."
Zell started off, his tool bag hitched over one shoulder. Quistis put one hand to Save the Queen and followed. Seifer fell into step beside her.
Discounting the spiders - some of which were absolutely massive - they didn't see much worth fighting and arrived after perhaps a thirty minute walk at a huge, smoldering engine. Signs of the fire were everywhere, from scorch marks climbing the walls to foamy puddles on the floor from the fire suppression system.
A small team of people wielding hammers and wrenches stood about, banging on things here and there, generally looking puzzled. They all breathed an obvious sigh of relief when Zell arrived.
"Is Chicken Wuss really the best mechanic we've got?" Seifer asked.
Quistis leaned in to reply, "He took some time off after the war to study Garden technology in FH. He's pretty good at this."
"What are we going to do while he works?"
"Watch the perimeter." She waved to a couple other SeeDs who appeared to already be on watch. "We'll take that area over there." She pointed to the other side of the engine where no one else was standing.
They walked around to their positions and Quistis peered over the railing down into Balamb Garden's deep and mysterious depths once before leaning back, apparently satisfied that nothing was going to crawl up out of the darkness to get them.
Seifer propped Hyperion against his shoulder and watched her.
She studiously avoided his gaze.
He sighed. "I'm no good at waiting around like this."
"I know. It's why you failed your last field exam."
True. "You have to admit though, I was right about Dollet."
"For all the good it did you. The Galbadians still managed to activate the radio tower, sent a giant robot spider after your squad, and everyone barely escaped with their lives. If you'd taken a risk like that and changed the outcome of the battle, you might not have been docked so much. But you put your whole team in danger and didn't gain a single thing for it."
No one had ever put it to him in quite that way.
"If I'd been more free to modify our orders in the field, then maybe we could have made a difference."
"Maybe," Quistis allowed. "But it doesn't matter now."
Because he'd failed and promptly tumbled down the slippery slope into being a war criminal. He often wondered if things would have been different had he passed. Would he have still been so easily swayed by Edea at the TV station if he hadn't felt like he had so much to prove?
Quistis was right, he supposed. It didn't matter now.
What was done was done.
They stood in silence for a while, watching the shadows while Zell and the other workmen labored over the engine behind them.
His impatience at having nothing to do must have shown, because eventually Quistis turned to him and asked, "Why did you agree to come along anyway? You obviously don't want to be here. You've been fidgeting like crazy. Is it my presence that's bothering you?"
"You? No. I'm here because I figure that if I'm a good little ex-sorceress knight, Commander Puberty Boy might give me more classes to teach. If I've got to take on a few lame missions to get that, then so be it."
"Lame?" She shook her head and turned away from him, her arms crossed tight across her chest. "Of course you'd say that."
"It is lame. We're standing around doing nothing while Zell plays with a monkey wrench."
She huffed. "Nevermind. Forget I even asked."
What the hell? Had he said something wrong?
"Is this about last night?"
He knew enough about women to recognize that her answer had been far too quick. She was definitely pissed off about something from the night before. He could guess what.
"Listen…" He shifted closer to her and dropped his voice. "You should know that I'm not normally like that either. I swear, I don't usually do it anywhere even close to that fast. I can't explain why it happened. But it's nowhere near typical for me, sexually speaking."
Quistis turned to face him, her cheeks on fire. "Oh my God. You're worried that I think you…? Seifer. I'm not. It hadn't even occurred to me. And even if it had, I could hardly blame you. I wasn't exactly left...unsatisfied."
Heat coiled low in his belly.
He'd thought she had, but he hadn't been totally sure.
He had to clear his throat before he could speak again.
"That's probably thanks to the aura spell, right? The...uh...speedy finish?"
She hadn't stopped blushing. "Probably."
"Has it ever happened to you before? During the war or something?"
"No! Of course not!"
"But you used aura a lot during the war. Right?"
"Yeah. But I never… It's not like I went out with Zell and killed a ruby dragon and then tackled him in the bushes." She sounded horrified at the mere idea, which gave Seifer a flash of hope. "Last night was an aberration," she continued. "A perfect storm of bizarre circumstances that will never repeat themselves."
"But you said it had nothing to do with me," he pressed. "So if it had been Zell locked in that safe room with you, the same thing would've happened?"
She opened her mouth to reply and then closed it, her eyes flashing with irritation.
The answer was clearly no, even if she wouldn't admit it.
At least he had that much going for him: he was more desirable than Zell. Though that wasn't saying much.
"Hang on. Zell was a bad example. What about...I don't know...that Galbadian guy who's always hanging around the Messenger Girl?"
She planted both hands on her hips and glared at him. "You really need to start using people's names."
"Answer the question, Quistis."
He had to know. Was this a you're-not-the-grossest-guy-I-know sort of thing or more along the lines of I-actually-find-you-pretty-attractive ? If it was the former, he'd walk away and leave her alone. But the latter...well, he almost didn't dare to hope it was the latter.
Her jaw flexed.
"I don't know what would've happened if it was someone else," she finally said in a furious whisper. "Because it wasn't. It was you. And, you know what? I'm glad it was you. Because if it had been Irvine, it might've ruined our friendship. But with you I've got nothing to lose."
Ouch . Okay. Maybe he shouldn't have pushed his luck.
"Can we please just let it go now?" she said. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"Alright!" He held up his hands in surrender and went back to his pointless look-out duty.
Despite her protestations, Qusitis evidently was not done discussing the matter because half a second later she jabbed a finger at him and demanded, "What about you?"
Seifer arched an eyebrow. "What about me?"
"If it had been someone else in the room with you besides me, would the same thing have happened?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
She visibly bristled at that. "Who were you thinking of?"
She crossed her arms, locking them protectively over her chest. "The whole 'you can pretend it's someone else in the dark' thing was your idea. You must've had someone in mind when you brought it up."
"I brought it up because I thought it would help you, not me. I wasn't fantasizing about someone else."
She pursed her lips, still fuming, but he could tell she was beginning to lose some steam. That had clearly been the right thing to say. Did that mean she didn't want him thinking of other women? That she cared about what he felt or what went on inside his head? God, this all had him turned him upside down.
"Is that why you gave into it?" he asked her, afraid what the answer might be. "Did you imagine I was someone else and it pushed you over the edge?"
She softened a little more. "I wasn't thinking about anyone else either."
"Were you thinking about me?" he asked quietly.
She bit her lip and he could make out the wild thrumming of her heart at the base of her throat. He moved a little closer, curious how she'd respond, and was heartened when she didn't step away. He wanted so badly to reach for her but didn't dare.
He stopped just shy of touching her, well within her personal space but not yet totally violating it.
He dipped his head close, his voice a low rumble when he added, "I was most definitely thinking about you."
Quistis's mouth dropped open. "I...um…"
"Hey, guys!" Zell's voice echoed down from high up on top the engine. Seifer swore under his breath and glanced up to see the annoying blonde's head peek over a railing at them. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Sure, Zell!" Quistis called back. She'd already put space between them, her retreat instant the moment she'd heard Zell's voice. "What do you need?"
"I need to cycle the power. There's a control room down that ladder right over there where you ought to be able to do it. Can you go down and flip the switch? It's big and red. Can't miss it!"
Quistis eyed the ladder he'd indicated, then gave Zell a thumbs up. "Okay! We're on it!"
Zell vanished back over the other side of the railing.
Quistis started toward the ladder and Seifer moved to follow.
Immediately she put a hand out to stop him. It landed right in the middle of his chest, her fingers splayed out over his heart in a way that made him suck in a sharp breath.
She pulled her hand back and shook it like she'd been burned. "What're you doing?"
"Going with you."
"I don't need any help. I'm just flipping a breaker."
"Chicken Wuss told both of us to go and I'm trying to be good about following orders."
Her jaw clenched once, then relaxed. "Fine."
The rickety ladder they had to go down seemed a bigger threat to Seifer than any of the monsters that might be lurking about. The bolts holding it to the wall rattled alarmingly as they descended, like it might fall at any moment and send them tumbling into the abyss.
Just what they needed. To be trapped together again in a dark, out of the way corner of Garden. Who knew what would happen?
Great. Now I'm getting turned on by the thought of being stuck in a basement.
This whole situation was getting really out of hand.
The ladder brought them to a perilous catwalk that rattled as they walked down it toward a small room positioned at the end. It had thick windows, a heavy metal door, and electronic panels all over the walls.
"That must be the control room," Quistis said.
She grabbed the door handle and gave it a tug. It didn't budge.
Seifer peered over her shoulder. "Is it locked?"
"No. Just wedged." She braced her feet against the catwalk and pulled harder. "All the doors down here are like this. Honestly, it's amazing Garden runs as well as it does. I don't think anyone has ever bothered to do any maintenance since the day this place was built."
The door still refused to budge, no matter how hard Quistis pulled.
"Here." Seifer nudged her aside. "Let me try."
The catwalk was so narrow that Quistis had to turn sideways to let him pass. She leaned back against the railing, practically folding over the side to make room, but it didn't matter. They brushed together - chest to chest - as he sidled past.
Quistis bit her lip and closed her eyes.
Seifer would've given almost anything to know what she was thinking.
Shame and regret at being forced to touch him again? Or was that arousal, fueled by memories of a hasty coming together that could have been so much more?
He wished he'd given her more.
He wished he'd given her everything.
A little breathless, he turned his back on her and focused on the door. It seemed to be sticking at the top, so he pushed his weight down on the handle and gave it a strong jerk. The door scraped open with a metallic screech, revealing the small control room beyond. A spider the side of his palm skittered up the far wall and through a hole where it squatted, the tips of two hairy legs sticking out.
Okay. Maybe being trapped down here wouldn't be so sexy after all.
Quistis followed him in and looked over all the switches on the control panel. "This one must be it," she said and put her hand on a large, red lever. She pulled it down, waited a moment, then flipped it back up.
Above them, something huge and mechanical began to hum.
"That's it? We done?"
"I think so. Let's head back up."
Seifer shut the door behind them, having to kick it to get it back in place, and then they started down the catwalk again, toward the ladder.
When they arrived back at the engine, it was buzzing with power and the mechanics were all talking excitedly as Zell finished tightening a bolt. Finally, he stood back, brushed his hands off on his shorts, and called out to one of the other workers: "Okay! Start it up!"
Quistis elbowed Seifer gently in the side. "You're going to want to cover your ears for this."
He did, but it hardly made any difference. The massive engine started up with a roar that rippled his clothes.
Zell punched a fist in the air and whooped in victory, his cry utterly lost in the cacophony.
Their job done, everyone left together in one mass exodus. Seifer and Quistis, by lieu of their position on the other side of the engine, brought up the rear of the pack. Once Seifer's ears stopped ringing, he made out some of the others up ahead congratulating Zell on a job well done.
"Let's all get lunch to celebrate!" Zell called out, waving dramatically at the whole group.
Seifer didn't think that the invitation included him, but thirty minutes later he found himself squeezed in between Quistis and some SeeD he'd never seen before in the cafeteria, listening to everyone around him talk shop about engine repair.
Since he had nothing to add to the conversation, he ate quietly and dwelled on how close Quistis's thigh was to his...and how her chest expanded against her clothes every time she breathed...and how her fingers gripped her fork so delicately...and how much more tempting every part of her looked than his lunch...
He had to find a way to stop looking at her like this because the chances she would ever return those looks were slim to none. And even if she had returned them - just for a few seconds under the influence of powerful magic - that wasn't a moment that was going to repeat itself.
It was over. He needed to move on.
Allowing himself to dream about Quistis Trepe was just asking for heartbreak.