What Quistis did Next by Mr D Heart

Welcome one and all to the first book of my brand new Quistis fanfic, "What Quistis Did Next." There are to more books and chapters to follow if you all like this one, so read and enjoy!

I’m currently looking into a webspace to host this on, so I’ll get the link spread around once that’s sorted out.

I would also like to state that I are the writer of this fan fiction and it's not allowed for distribution without my permission. Also please also note that this cannot be used for commercial purposes.

So, this is Mr D Heart, e-mailable at mr_d_heart_the_second@yahoo.co.uk with the first book.

Book One

Quistis thought this quiet, safe little town was a wonderful place to start the second chapter of her life. She’d left the Garden and her friends to seek my own path in this ever-changing blur of events that we call life, and she was looking forward to some hard earned downtime while she figured out where her place in the world was now.

So quite what she was doing slugging it out with an enraged lizard monster at 2 in the morning, down a dark alley miles from anyone who could help or care enough to at least scream in shock, desperately trying to stop it from both carving her into a slimmer figure and biting a chunk out of the terrified young girl cowering behind one of the dumpsters, was entirely beyond her.

Another swift tail swipe from the creature sent Quistis slamming to the ground, the barbed tip of the monster’s tail leaving a bloody gash across her cheek. Now that was going to be tough to explain away tomorrow in class.. She had no time to think about what flimsy excuse to come up with as the lizardman slammed its fists down on the cold concrete floor, inches away from where her head had just been. Whatever this thing was, it was getting the upper hand on her and Quistis needed to find its weak spot and take it out, and fast.

Her black outfit was covered with patches of dirt and filth from the alley, and her normally pristine boots were coated with household rubbish from one of the dumpsters overturned earlier in the fight. Quistis had happened upon this by chance, hearing the girl’s screams for help and rushing to the rescue, not knowing that pretty soon she’d be the one who could do with rescuing! The monster rushed at her, slamming its tail into the lone streetlamp that illuminated this little action scene and sending the bulb several feet above them swinging wildly from side to side, adding a disorientating strobe effect to further blur Quistis’ already hazy vision. She held her whip handle up protectively, hoping to get a lucky shot at the thing’s face, but the lizard grabbed at the handle with its own scaly claws and started to push it against her throat.

The monster’s hot breath hissed in her face, smelling distressingly like fresh meat, and Quistis was pushed back down to the ground as she struggled to stop the creature from throttling her with her own weapon. As it pressed its weight down on top of her, the edges of her vision started to blur and fade to black, which Quistis unfortunately recognised as the first signs of rapidly closing unconsciousness. If she passed out, the lizard would probably rip out her throat and then finish off the girl for dessert, and she wasn’t about to let that happen.

Managing to gain a foothold with her boot heel on the floor, Quistis arched herself upwards sharply to throw the monster up a little, enough for her to angle her knee squarely into its solar plexus. The lizard made a muffled ‘whoomph’ noise and backed off the pressure around her neck, so Quistis took her chance and threw it off of her.

Standing upright at last, she cracked her whip once against the ground as the lizardman slowly got up, crouching and ready to pounce. It hissed venomously at her, its narrow eyes darting from side to side, trying to guess her next move.

Luckily, it was a fraction of a second too late to catch her rapid whip crack across its shins, and as the creature yelped and crashed to the ground she followed up her advantage with a firm boot to its head. Feeling the creature’s tough skull under her foot, she leapt back and span on one heel, sending her whip flying out in a broadside attack that swept the beast over and into the wall at the far side of the alley. It slammed to the ground and lay still.

Quistis, panting with exertion, kept her eyes on the fallen creature but motioned for the girl to come over to her. The girl, her tear streaked eyes also locked on the lizard, shook her head and stayed where she was, wedged into a tight spot at one corner of the alley. Quistis irritably waved at her again to come over, and the girl slowly started to shuffle along the floor towards her. When she was a foot away, the lizard groaned and stirred, provoking the girl to yelp and dash for cover behind Quistis.

Facing down her by now badly wounded enemy, Quistis carefully lined up one last whip strike, unleashing it as the lizard got to its feet. The monster cracked its head against the alley wall, leaving an ugly splatter of blood, and this time was down for good.

Silence reigned in the alley for a few moments, until Quistis picked up the faint sound of the young girls sobs, her face pressed into Quistis’ thigh and her tiny arms clutching tightly around her boot. Trying to calm her breathing, Quistis wound up and hung her whip off her belt before crouching down to face the young girl.

"What’s your name, then?" she asked. The girl sniffed once, wiped away a tear and answered.

"Marie," she said.

"Well then, Marie, I’ll get you home and you can forget any of this ever happened, okay?" The girl nodded a few times, before looking up at Quistis with a puzzled gaze.

"But who are you?" Quistis smiled.

"Oh, I’m nobody. Just an out of date teacher trying to find somewhere to call home. So speaking of home," she said as she stood up, taking Marie’s hand in her own and walking out of the alley, "let’s get you to yours."

How Quistis actually found herself in this situation is a much longer story..

* * * * * * * * * * *

The final ball at the Garden was in full swing as Quistis stepped out onto the breezy balcony, away from the swaying crowds of precisely-dancing students and increasingly inebriated SeeDs. It was getting late now, almost midnight in fact, but the full autumn moon hanging in the sky lit up the forests and landscape around the Garden for miles in every direction. The stars were out, light puffs of fluffy white cloud drifted gently across the sky – it was like a perfect painting of how an evening should look, complete with lone flights of birds flitting across in the distance, even down to the glittering reflection of the moonlight on the waves of the beach just past the forest.

So why did Quistis feel like she was looking out into nothing but a deep black abyss? Despite all the attempts of her friends to cheer her up, despite the fact that they’d managed to face and defeat the insanely powerful Sorceress Ultimecia, and even despite the six or so vodka shooters that the Trepies had been plying her with all evening, Quistis still couldn’t stop feeling like she was at a different party altogether. And a little sick, although the height she was at and the mixture of fresh air and alcohol was probably causing that.

Squall and Rinoa were dancing away as though they were the only two people in the world, and the way Rinoa was careening energetically across the ballroom floor they were soon going to be the only two people there, a combination of the girl’s whirling and Squall’s famously clumsy footwork gifting them a large space on the floor all to themselves. Quistis had to admit that the girl looked good, having drafted her favourite shimmering white evening gown back out of the wardrobe for tonight’s celebratory dinner and dance, and she certainly seemed to be doing a good job of sharing the limelight with the rest of the team. Zell and Irvine were busy trying to drink each other under the table, surrounded by a posse of cheering students, Selphie was dashing here and there still making last minute touches to everything, having spent the past few days organising the decorations, the band, the food, the outfits – it was a wonder the girl ever turned her hand to combat, considering she was just as skilled at playing the hostess with the mostest!

The venerable Headmaster Cid, never one to miss a good party, was sat at one of the large dinner tables arranged around the circular dance floor, chatting away to the other senior Garden staff, his newly de-sorceressified wife Edea back by his side, and looking a lot better without all the gothic regalia she’d worn back in her world domination days. She still had a good line in killer figure-hugging black evening dresses, however, although this time her jet black hair was left to fall loosely around her shoulders, which also looked a lot better now the colour had returned to her skin. Cid himself looked like the king of the hill right now, and Quistis smirked to herself as she remembered the words of encouragement he’d whispered to Squall and the others when they’d graduated.

So everyone was happy, everyone was feeling that sense of accomplishment and the world in general was breathing a sigh of relief now that there were no more crazed time-travelling witches threatening its safety. Everyone was happy except for Quistis. Though she still but a brave face on in public, and had certainly not let anyone at the party see the dark cloud hovering over her, now that she had a moment to herself she let that cloud rain down on her for a while. She hadn’t wanted to spoil anyone’s evening, and she’d actually spent the past few weeks forgetting to be miserable or depressed about anything – they’d all been doing too much racing about and battling fiendish monsters to sit and mope about what was on her mind. Now she had a chance to think again.

She was going to leave the Garden. That part of her future was made up. She’d already handed in her papers and quit as an instructor before the Ultimecia affair, that moment out on the balcony in the training centre with Squall having been the moment she made her mind up. She had, in her own words, failed as an instructor, and the time had come to find out what she was actually supposed to be doing with the rest of her life, and that life lay somewhere past the walls of the Garden, and out there in that postcard view of the world she was looking out onto.

Then there was Squall himself, the brooding, introverted but commanding young man who’d led the team into the very jaws of Death and then back out again, blazing a trail all over the world and finally exterminating the evil that was threatening to devour it. Quistis hadn’t yet worked out how she felt about him. Whether the feelings she had were a crush (she had to remind herself sometimes she was still a teenager, even though she felt like she’d been at the Garden for nearly twenty years sometimes), exaggerated friendly affection or something more, or perhaps just a symbol of her longing to find the peace and happiness he seemed to have found in the arms of a bouncy young girl called Rinoa Heartilly.

Quistis certainly didn’t wish the girl any harm, far from it, and she wasn’t even what she’d class as jealous of her relationship with Squall. A little envious, but more of the emotional contentment she saw in Rinoa than the person she’d actually found that with. Quistis looked down at the half-finished vodka martini in her hand and swilled it round the glass a few times, staring thoughtfully into the bottom of the glass. As the liquid inside stopped swirling and she could make out her reflection again, she became aware of breathing next to her. Without looking up, she recognised the occasionally laboured breaths of Cid. The headmaster was barely in his fifties and in good health, apart from the giveaway slightly asthmatic wheeze that had alerted her to his presence. Without looking up, she spoke.

"I suppose you’re going to ask me what I’m doing out here by myself when the party is going on in there without me, right?" Cid paused, rocking back on his heels for a moment before replying.

"Actually, I was just going to comment on what a beautiful evening it was, but now that you mention it, yes, your friends are wondering where you’ve gotten to. I noticed you’d picked the one balcony that can’t be seen from inside the ballroom."

"I didn’t want to spoil their night with my moping, Cid," she answered, leaning her arms onto the balcony and resting her chin on her forearms. "I was just having a moment to wonder what happens next."

"You’re not the only one," he said, taking off his glasses and giving them a wipe with the loose bottom end of his dinner shirt. "I mean, I sent your team out to defeat the sorceress, and you did. I wanted you to restore peace to the land, and you did. And I wanted you all to come back in one piece, which thankfully you did. Although In Zell’s case I doubt his mind was ever all in one piece to start with." He grinned and looked down at Quistis, who was also smirking at the remark.

"Yes, I see all that. It’s just that for so long we knew exactly what we had to do and we got on with it. Now, it suddenly seems like there’s nothing for us to do anymore, like we’ve done all that we can."

"Oh, now, I wouldn’t say that at all, young lady," said Cid, turning and leaning against the balcony and crossing his arms over his chest. "There will always be evil to fight and peace to maintain. Just because we’ve defeated one enemy doesn’t mean another won’t come along, one perhaps more powerful than the last. I will always need you, the other SeeDs, the students and all my staff behind me to defend this world of ours." Quistis stood up and stretched her back, then turned to face Cid.

"I want to leave the Garden, Cid," she said bluntly. Cid didn’t look round for a few moments, then lowered his head and scraped one shoe along the floor, choosing his words carefully.

"I know," he said. "I already sort of knew you weren’t happy here, even though your student feedback was always glowing and your skill in the field was of the highest class at all times, but it wasn’t until squall mentioned it to me that I knew for sure."

Quistis reddened. Squall had told him? Of all the-

"Wh- when did he tell you?" she stammered, caught off guard for a moment.

"Oh, not long ago, just before you all finally jetted off to Ultimecia Castle, in fact. He was afraid you wouldn’t all make it back and didn’t want to leave any unfinished business. He only told me because he knew the Garden policy towards bereavement funds, and that if you were still an employee when you died the pension paid out to your next of kin was a lot more substantial."

"Oh," said Quistis, stumped again. "So, Squall told you to do what, exactly?"

"He told me to make sure you were still entitled to the full pension, even though technically your decision to leave would have been processed before your death." Cid looked up at her at last, seeing the young woman’s face a jumble of emotions. "He cares for you a great deal, you know. They all do."

"Wow. That.. I had no idea," she managed, not entirely sure what to say or think.

"So you see, whatever choice you have made is entirely up to you," said Cid, laying a fatherly arm around her shoulders and guiding her back towards the party, "but I just want you to know I still have yet to process that form, and I want you to make sure you’re doing what you think is best."

Quistis was silent as they rejoined the party, Cid drifting away once they were back inside. Selphie bounded up to Quistis like an eager puppy, and like a true professional social butterfly Quistis snapped out of her thoughts and put her disarming happy face on. It was hard not to grin when Selphie was around anyway, her enthusiasm and lust for life was infectious.

"There you are!" beamed the youngest of the team. "Come on, you’ll miss everything," she said, grabbing Quistis’ hand and dragging her across the packed dance floor.

"Wait, where are we going, Selphie?" she protested, but Selphie was too busy weaving through the crowd of dancers to respond. They were soon on the other side of the hall, where a makeshift podium had been assembled. Students and instructors alike were gradually congregating around it, and Selphie noticed Squall and the others were waiting too. Irvine motioned for her to come over so she did, as Selphie let go of her hand and disappeared off again.

"Irvine, what’s going on now?" she asked, as the auburn-haired sharpshooter fiddled nervously with the tie on his obviously borrowed dress uniform.

"I have no idea, something the munchkin’s been cooking up for us all night," he said, with a glance over to his partner Selphie, who seemed to be almost physically pushing the rest of the partygoers towards the podium.

"Just so long as they don’t all start chanting-" she began, but was interrupted by the crowd.

"Speech! Speech! Speech!" they sang as one, no doubt spurred on by the ‘munchkin’ Irvine so lovingly referred to. Quistis looked round. Rinoa was giggling as Squall slowly shook his head, his paralysing fear of public speaking taking hold of him, while Zell just grinned and leaned over to whisper in Quistis’ ear.

"I think we just have to go up and say ‘yeah, we blew up the bad guy, or girl, now let’s get back to the party!’ and then we can go again," he said, his trademark mischievous smirk in place.

"Good, because I was hoping that this’d be a low key-"

"Ladies and gentlemen!" boomed Selphie’s voice from the podium next to them. It was up on a little stage just to the side of the band who’d been supplying the ballroom music, and by now almost everybody in the whole Garden seemed to be there, making a huge throng of expectant faces looking up at little Selphie, clearly loving every second of this brief power trip.

"Oh wow, it’s so good to see everybody here! Okay, okay, briefly serious for a second. As you may know, this banquet is in the honour of a very special group of students, one of whom just happens to be me," she said, pausing for a ripple of laughter, "so I just wanted to take this opportunity to get everyone up here so you can show your appreciation, so without further ado, may I present the Garden class of the year!" She bowed and stepped away from the podium to a round of applause, and gestured for the others to join her on stage. One by one they climbed up, all except Squall who was almost literally dragged up there by Rinoa as if he was a naughty child. Quistis surpressed a chuckle and smiled at the crowd of clapping and cheering students. Cid and Edea were visible towards the back of the crowd, a proud smile on the headmaster’s face.

"Say something!" whispered Zell, "you could tell them to go and run off the balcony and they’d do it for you at the moment!" Quistis sent a scolding look at him and then stepped up to the podium.

"Thank you. On behalf of everyone in the team I’d just like to thank you all, first for coming here, secondly for believing in us and finally for giving us something to come home to," she said, putting on er silkiest announcement voice and receiving another round of applause for her words. "I do have an announcement to make this evening, however, and despite the fact that a part of me is currently screaming ‘what are you doing??’ at me," she went on, letting another murmur of laughter pass through the crowd, although a few faces had already become a little more perturbed by her words. With a deep breath, and trying not to look either Cid, Edea or any of her friends behind her in the eye, she continued.

"I know I haven’t been at the Garden long, but I’ve done a lot with myself in that time. saved the world at least once, last time I checked. But I think that the time has come for me to move on. I’ve always believed that you should never stay in the same place for too long – it keeps life interesting, and I feel in my heart that I have many more places to go and people to meet yet. I have loved every last second of my time here at the Garden, and it will always have a dear place in my heart, but I’ve made my choice for my future. Tonight had better be the best damn party this place has ever seen, because I, Quistis Trepe, SeeD instructor, am announcing my retirement and that I will be leaving Balamb Garden at the end of the week."

Silence followed. Quistis imagined she could actually see the Trepies starting to sob. No-one had spoke, the crowd having quietened as her speech had carried on until now, the distant sound of nocturnal animal cries from the forest outside was the only sound that could be heard.

"Well what are you lot waiting for, fireworks?" came a voice from the rear of the hall. There was a hubbub as the crowd turned to see who had spoken. It was Cid, trying to hide his teary eyes. "I’d better hear the biggest standing ovation for Instructor Trepe in my life in the next two seconds or you’ll all be out of here on your ear before you can say ‘snap’!" he started to clap. It took less than two seconds for everyone else in there to join him. Quistis reddened again as the cheers started, and as a smile broke out across her face she stepped down from the podium with a bow and a wave, and walked steadily past her dumbstruck friends and off the stage.

"Beat that, " she whispered to Irvine as she walked away.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The rest of the evening went as well as could be expected – as she’d hoped, it didn’t take the masses long to forget about Quistis’ announcement and get back to eating, drinking, dancing, drinking, laughing, drinking and then being sick or helping those who were too drunk to stand make their way back to their dorms. She’d managed to suppress a smile watching the others make their way through their little speeches on the podium after hers, although all most of them seemed to want to say was ‘thanks, now back to the party,’ apart from Rinoa who seemed to want to thank everybody she’d ever met for everything, and Squall, who just mumbled a few words then skulked away again.

She’d stayed out of people’s way as much as possible over the last week or two while she caught her breath from the whole saving the world thing, but tonight she was inundated every second with well-wishers, sad looking Trepies and people from all levels of the Garden’s faculty and administration wanting to pass on their good regards. Quistis answered them all with a smile and a hug (or a handshake, depending on the seniority of the potential hugee), and made most of her little fan club’s night by treating each one to a quick peck on the cheek for all their devotion. She normally loathed brown nosers and creeps, but the Trepies were a bit more honest than that – just a bunch of students who thought she was great, and Quistis had decided long ago they were a good pick-me-up when she felt a bit down, as long as she was careful not to let it go to her head.

One by one her friends had come over to say goodbye as well. Irvine was first, sidling up to her as she was pouring herself a glass of fruit punch. He slid a sly arm around her shoulders, inadvertently triggering a self-defence reflex in Quistis and nearly getting a face full of punch ladle for his troubles, but she stopped her elbow halfway along its path to his head and decided just turning and returning the hug was a more civilised thing to do.

"Wow. I mean, just.. wow. With everyone watching, too.. wow. Just.. wow." Quistis chuckled and took a sip from her drink as Irvine stumbled through what sounded like it was trying to be a compliment.

"Thank you, Mr Kinneas, I think you’re trying to say I made a good speech back there but I’m not a hundred percent sure.." She grinned and he followed suit, relaxing in an instant and getting himself a glass of wine from the well-stocked food and drink buffet in front of them.

"I’m not going to ask you why, or anything, don’t worry," he said, absently swirling the drink around in his glass, and also failing to notice he was splashing his once-pristine dress uniform with it, "I just wondered what you were going to do next. I mean, up there, when you were speaking, there was a glint in your eyes I haven’t seen for a long time, not since-"

"Not since we headed for the castle, no, you’re right. That was the last time I felt like I knew exactly what it was I was meant to be doing. I’ve lost my way a little, Irvine, and I just wanted to see if I could find it again." She walked away from the table and started to make a slow circuit of the dance floor, Irvine walked alongside her.

"I think I must be the only person who feels this, but when we got back here after that last fight, and I got back to my room and went to sleep, that was the best night’s sleep I ever had in my life. How about you?" Irvine blushed.

"Well, I, er.. Selphie came over and we didn’t get much sleep.." he said, looking down at his shoes coyly but powerless to stop a huge smile spreading across his face. Quistis smiled back.

"I had sort of noticed. Girls can always tell these things. You two go well together, you compliment each other’s natural sense of perkiness," she said, taking a sip of punch and scanning the ballroom for the others.

"So what next?" Irvine asked bluntly, and Quistis came to a stop as her mind turned it over for a while.

"Good question. Small steps to start with. I’m going to spend the next few days tidying up loose ends, organising replacements and generally putting my affairs in order, then on Saturday morning I’ll jump in my little car and just drive out the front gates, into the big wide world outside."

"So you’re going to look for a job in Balamb, then, " said Irvine without a hint of sarcasm. Quistis glared at him for a fraction of a second until she realised he was being honest.

"Maybe. Maybe I’ll try somewhere a bit further out, like Timber or Deling. And I’m still not sure what to actually do there, either. I think another teaching job is on the cards though – I didn’t make it as a SeeD instructor but I think the real world may be more within my limits."

"Quisty, the only reason you ‘didn’t make it,’ to quote you just then, is because you don’t have enough faith in yourself. And that is a terrible reason to give up."

"Irvine, you said you wouldn’t lecture me," she replied sternly, prompting Irvine to hold up his hands submissively and take a step back.

"I’m not, I’m not, all I’m saying is maybe you just need to find your faith out there and then maybe you’ll feel like you can take all this on again." Quistis stood thoughtfully for a long moment, before shaking her head to throw off the thousands of thoughts that had started to rush into her head.

"Not now. Maybe. Oh, damn it, Irvine! I just don’t know right now. All I know is that I need to not be here before I know where I want to be and what I want to do. You know?" Irvine stared blankly at her for a few seconds, then grinned and shook his head.

"Can’t say I do, sweetheart, sorry. But I hope you do find whatever the heck it is you’re after." He drained his wine glass and with a small belch placed the empty glass on the tray carried by a passing waiter. He tipped his hat to the man as he glared at Irvine.

"Much obliged, Jeeves," he smirked, before turning back to Quistis. "Go talk to the others, okay? They each want a few quiet moments with you." Quistis nodded and scanned the room for whoever was nearest. Spotting Selphie and Rinoa standing together, she wandered over to chat to them.

The girls were busy laughing and giggling about something as Quistis drew near. She coughed quietly once to draw their attention, only for the ever-enthusiastic Rinoa to leap at her and throw her arms round her. Not sure what to do with the affection, Quistis patted the girl gently on the back a few times until she let go.

"Your hugs are as famous as I’ve heard, then," she quipped, secretly trying not to look as winded as she was after the bearhug she’d just received.

"You!" chirped Rinoa, waving a scolding finger at Quistis but still grinning all the time. "Going and making a big announcement like that, trying to steal our thunder!"

"Rinoa, the gods themselves couldn’t steal your thunder and you know it. I just figured while I had everyone’s attention I may as well speak my mind."

"Well, you sure did that alright!" said Selphie, "the whole party’s been buzzing about you since that speech! Everyone wants to know what you’ll do, where you’ll go, when you’ll go.."

"Don’t know, not sure, and soon, to answer the questions," said Quistis. The three girls chuckled together.

"We’re all going to miss you, you big silly," said Selphie, delivering a less powerful but similarly affectionate hug to Quistis, whose ribs were starting to hurt now from all the attention she was receiving.

"I won’t be gone far. I’m going to travel out to Balamb or somewhere nearby to start with, then look at my options once I’m there. I feel like I’m discussing my life’s plans with everybody this evening – I have to keep reminding myself I’m not even twenty yet!"

"Youth doesn’t last forever," came a commanding voice from behind them. The girls turned to see Edea, their old matron at the orphanage and one-time nemesis, although who thankfully looked a lot less threatening these days. She maintained the impressive aura of someone who has spent a lot of time raising young children, and when combined with the large number of times she had soundly beaten Quistis and her teammates, they all remained a little bit in awe of her, much as she tried to deflect attention away from her past.

"So I keep hearing, Headmistress!" Quistis replied, with a nod of her head to respectfully acknowledge Edea’s recent appointment to headmistress alongside Cid.

"So you should make the most of every moment in this life that you get," Edea continued, "because too many people waste their lives settling for something, without really finding what it is they want." Edea laid a velvet gloved hand on Quistis’ shoulder and looked deep into her blue eyes. "You know I wish you every success in finding your path out there, Quistis, and I don’t need to tell you that you will always be welcome and among friends here at the Garden." She smiled, and Quistis laid her own hand on top of the one resting on her shoulder.

"Belive me, that’s one of the few things I do know for sure!" she replied, looking round at the three women before her and grinning again. "As long as you guys’ll keep having me back, I’ll be duty bound to pop in and say hello from time to time."

"Damn straight you will!" boomed a voice to her right, owned by the inimitable Zell, who was making his way over with Squall in tow. Squall looked even more downbeat than usual, and kept his eyes to the floor as though afraid to look straight at Quistis.

"You come to pay your respects too, huh?" said Rinoa cheekily, but Zell went straight in for a hug on Quistis without answering her.

"Alright, go easy on me, you lot, I’d like to be able to walk out of here without using crutches! At least I know you’re not the huggy type, right Squall?"

"Uh, yeah," Squall replied uncertainly, suddenly conscious of the attention on him. Quistis noticed his obvious discomfort and distracted the attention as best she could.

"So anyway, everyone, here’s my plan for the next few days," she said, drawing everyone back to her. "I’m going to be speaking to Xu and a few of the other instructors to get my duties covered and tying up my loose admin business, but after that I plan to head off early Saturday morning. I don’t want a big send off or anything, but a quiet little drink with you guys would be.. well, it’d just be nice. What do you say?"

"I think trying to stop Selphie organising another party may be the hardest part there, seeing as- ow!" said Irvine, interrupted halfway through his sentence by a sharp elbow courtesy of Miss Almasy. The others chuckled anyway.

"I can do a small party!" Selphie protested! "Just because my smallest to date has been a hundred and fifty people, doesn’t mean I can’t do small!"

"I leave it in your capable hands, then," said Quistis, looking around and spotting the person she was after, "but there’s just one last person I’d like to speak to, if you’ll excuse me," she said, leaving the others talking and walking off in the direction she’d noticed Squall slope off while everyone’s attention was diverted.

Squall was stood outside on one of the balconies, his hands clutching the railing as he stared out into the night. A light breeze gently ruffled both his spiky, flowing hair and the lapels of his dress uniform. Illuminated as he was in the moonlight, Quistis paused just outside the balcony for a second to admire him. Friend or not, Squall was still a damn fine-looking man. Nevertheless, she hadn’t come here to lust after him all over again, so with a deep breath she stepped out into the evening and took her place next to him. He didn’t look round. Knowing the way his mind worked, she started talking without waiting for him to speak.

"It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it? I was stood out here earlier when the headmaster came out to say hello. I was going to be a sulk and sit out here all night but he told me to go back inside. In a way, I’m glad he did, because I feel much better for having spoken properly to everyone, and it does feel like a big weight off my shoulders, now that-"

"Quistis." Squall spoke one word and she stopped mid-sentence. He still hadn’t looked round, and he still kept his eyes averted, a sure sign that he was digging deep to find the right words.

"That’s the rumour," she replied, waiting for him to speak again.

"I don’t want you to go," he said deliberately, "but at the same time I know it’s the best thing for you. I just wanted you to know I’ll miss you, that’s all." The silence stood for a few more seconds before Quistis giggled, drawing a stern glare from Squall.

"Why do you always do that whenever I try to be serious?" he said.

"Squall, you’re always serious, you don’t have any other way to be! Thank you, don’t worry, I know that emotional responses are often a sore point for you, so hearing you say that meant lot to me. Thank you." She beamed proudly at him, and he grinned a little, the tension having floated away into the night.

"Will you need any help sorting your affairs out?"

"Maybe a little, I’ll let you guys know," she said, looking out towards the distant city lights of Balamb with a sigh, "there’s just so much that I don’t know what to prepare for right now."

"Here, I’d like you to have this," he said, taking Quistis’ hand and pressing something into it. "I’ll see you back inside," he finished, walking back into the ballroom suddenly. Quistis looked after him for a few moments then looked down into her hand.

In her palm was Squall’s ring, the one he’d originally given Rinoa all that time ago. He’d gotten her one for herself since then, and had taken his original ring back. Until now. Quistis smiled at the gesture and tucked the ring into her dress uniform jacket pocket. She cast a final glance towards the night.

"Just make sure nothing happens to them while I’m gone, okay?" she asked of nobody in particular. With that, she turned and went back indoors.

* * * * * * * * * * *

And so as Quistis awoke the following morning, the weight of the world that had been resting squarely on her shoulders the past few weeks felt lifted at last. It had also been the best night’s sleep she’d had for as long as she could remember, a deep, dreamless slumber from the second her head had hit the pillow at about one in the morning, to rise again just after nine, feeling as though she’d slept for eight days rather than eight hours. Perhaps it was the relief at having first told everyone she was leaving and then surviving the rest of the evening, the two things she’d been terrified about for days, but more likely it was the freedom that she now felt rushing towards her like a tidal wave in surfing season.

Sunlight filtered into her room through the blinds over the windows, and Quistis sat up slowly in bed, stretching the nights drowsiness off of her. As an instructor, she was entitled to one of the more luxurious dormitory rooms, on one of the top floors of the Garden, even though she only really came here to sleep, preferring to spend more time with her students and in the regular parts of the Garden, for fear that she gain an element of the elitist snobbery that she’d seen some of the other instructors fall for.

Her room was furnished in a homely way, because Quistis only ever came in here to relax. Any computing work she did downstairs in the library, and all her teaching work was kept in the staff room so she didn’t need to keep anything other than her personal belongings up here. Rising slowly from the bed and heading to the wardrobe to pull on some old clothes for the day, she took a glance round her room and was surprised to realise how many of the little trinkets in it held a lot of meaning for her.

There was the half of Zell’s hoverboard from that day he’d crashed it into her jeep and she’d confiscated it from him, and the battered helmet that had landed at her feet after Zell (again) had wiped out whilst trying to board around the rings that formed part of the Garden’s mobile levitation system. There was the skirt that Selphie had made for her back when Selphie, Squall and Zell had graduated, even though it was a little too.. flashy for something Quistis would normally wear. Maybe she’d wear it on Friday night. There were a few framed certificates and diplomas in recognition of her teaching qualifications, plus a selection of photographs – some framed, some stuck loosely to the walls. Quistis made it a point of getting a photo taken with each SeeD cadet she successfully took through their first Guardian Force mission, and in amongst the dozens of snapshots of students who were variously tired, battered, bruised, lightly toasted, defeated, ecstatic and terrified, was the prized one of herself and Squall
after he’d beaten down Ifrit in the Fire Caves just outside the forest. He hadn’t looked up at the camera at all, so all there was to see was a beaming Quistis, soot-covered but happy, and Squall, his head down against his chest and black dirt marks all over his feather-collared jacket.

Other pictures included Quistis back at the orphanage, her early days at the Garden and the handful of friends she had there, the parties they’d been to and some memorable nights out in Deling (there was a story that one of the ambassadors had tried to chat Quistis up, but in her drunken state she’d accidentally laid him out cold, although she remembered none of the above). One in particular caught her eye – her honorary aunt, Nona Telway, whom Quistis had met when she’d brought her son, Jasper, to the Garden many years back, and with whom since then she’d formed a strong friendship with. She lived halfway between Deling and Galbadia in a little town called Dulcett, so Quistis would have to go pay her a visit soon.

Quistis slipped on a pair of faded grey combat trousers and a khaki green workshirt, noticing the pair of boots Irvine had bought her as a present at the bottom of her wardrobe. She smiled as she closed the door. One thing she could always rely on was that her friends would always care for her. Or if nothing else, be there to buy good gifts when the time came. Heading over to the little basinette in one corner of the room to finish freshening up, Quistis reached for a bobble to tie her hair back and noticed something glinting on the bed in the sunlight. It was Squall’s ring. Not wanting to be too obvious about it, she decided to hijack the chain from an old necklace and hang the ring around her neck, tucking it into her shirt so it wasn’t on display. Little things like that meant a lot to her.

She was glad she’d actually been able to remember a lot of these things – little Selphie’s revelation about how the use of guardian force spirits affected long term memory had actually earned her a fair amount of interest in the scientific community, and she’d co-written a paper on it that was currently doing the rounds of every major science fair in the country. As a result, Balamb Garden had banned the use of GFs in all of its operatives, and many other Gardens were following suit. Sure, having what basically amounted to your own personal monster to kick ass on your command whilst boosting your own natural abilities was a great combat asset, but it was no good if your troops forgot who they were supposed to be fighting along the way. Quistis had kept hers, though, and the blue crystal she used to summon little Shiva stayed on her desk, glowing softly and also doubling as an excellent nightlight.

She finished her daily ablutions and opened the door of her room to head down to the staff room, almost walking straight into Xu who was about to knock.

"Oh, sorry, I was just coming past to say hello," said the ever-smart instructor. Xu was almost a teacher’s pet in that she was generally always seen at the headmaster’s side, and was often put in charge of any larger scale missions or sent out as an ambassador and representative of the Garden. Not that Quistis minded, she knew that Xu was the best instructor in the whole place, even if she had difficulty dropping the formality when off-duty.

"That’s okay, Xu, I’m on my way downstairs to start reorganising my rotas from next week onwards. Care to join me?" Quistis locked her room and walked over to the elevator to take her down to the teaching level on the second floor. Xu followed her and waited with her as Quistis called the elevator.

"So I imagine you’re into your last few elements of business to finish off, right?"

"Something like that. I’m setting things up for whoever takes over from me, basically – notes about my classes and students to keep an eye on, stuff like that," said Quistis. The elevator dinged to announce its arrival and the two ladies stepped in. Quistis hit the ‘2F’ button and the elevator slid smoothly down to the second floor.

"This place will b a lot different without you, you know," said Xu as they stepped onto the mezzanine walkway leading to the classroom black. Various students and lecturers waved their hellos to Quistis as they walked.

"Xu, this place will get on just fine when I’m gone, just like it has done when instructors have gone in the past. It’s not like I’m irreplaceable at all!"

"I don’t mean that, I just mean your character will be missed. Your unique way of dealing with your students. And the fact that you’re the only instructor with a fan club," said Xu, motioning to three Trepies standing outside one of the rooms. Quistis waved at them and they all snapped to attention, saluting her smartly. Quistis chuckled and carried on to the staff room at the end of the corridor. Pushing the door open she was greeted by the ten or so other instructors of the Garden, who were ready with what she’d been dreading the most

"Surprise!!" they yelled as one, and as Quistis laughed they set off the party poopers, turned up the stereo and brought out the cake.

"Oh for the love of.. thank you, thank you all very much," she said, one hand placed to her heart to show her gratitude. "I didn’t want a big fuss made of me-"

"So it’s a good job we haven’t made one!" shouted out Rack, the thirty-something male combat teacher, "this is just something we knocked up in a few minutes or so!" More laughter, and Quistis looked down at the cake as her colleagues began to sing ‘for she’s a jolly good fellow’ loudly at her, compounding her embarrassment but making her feel warm and fuzzy at the same time. The cake was a simple one, sponge with white icing, but the elaborate design on its surface made her chuckle – it was stylised representation of a caricatured Quistis, complete with bullwhip, surrounded by fawning Trepies with the slogan ‘First Garden – Now The World!’ written on it.

"Thank you again, everybody," she said, trying not to get emotional, "and even though part of me is glad to never have to see any of your faces again, the other part of me will still miss feeling like that!" Another cheer and then the offensive on the cake began. A tactical attack that resulted in the cake being carved away into nothing before Quistis’ very eyes by her greedy colleagues, although they did save her a large piece which she gladly wolfed down.

A few hours later things had calmed down a little. Quistis was sat behind one of the staff room’s terminals, her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose as she stared at the glowing monitor. She’d been busy reorganising her schedule and arranging for cover for her classes while the day’s work had gone on behind her – instructors and lecturers filed in and out of the room around her, some bringing more good wishes and occasional hot drinks, others just relaxing for a few minutes between shifts. Quistis only had one more group to sort out – the junior class she was teaching ethics to – to cover for, when there was a small cough behind her to get her attention. She turned in the chair, draping one arm over the back rest, to see Dallara, the pretty blonde sharpshooting instructor, who was badly hiding a large gift wrapped box behind her back.

"Ahem. Sorry to bother you, Q, I just wanted to pass this on to you in a quiet moment. A few of us put what cash we could together to get you a little something for your travels." She handed the box across, and Quistis gleefully placed it on her lap as she unwrapped it. Leaving the sparkling paper to fall on the floor, inside she found nothing but swathes of crisp white wrapping paper.

"Er, Dallara dear, there doesn’t seem to be anything actually in here.. were you having another one of your ‘moments’?" said Quistis with a wry smile, referring to her colleague’s famous lapses of memory.

"You’re not looking hard enough! Try rooting around at the bottom," Dallara replied cryptically. Quistis obliged, and her hand came across a small metallic object. Lifting it up into view, she saw that it was a key. A car key, in fact.

"Is this what I think it is?"

"You betcha. The second part of this is waiting down in the garage for you," said Dallara excitedly, "so let’s go!" She grabbed Quistis by the hand and yanked her out of her seat, racing downstairs to the steps leading out to the parking area. Rack, Xu and some of the others were waiting there, crowded together to obscure what was behind them.

"But I’ve already got a car!" Quistis protested. "I mean, I know it’s old, and it doesn’t go very fast, and the mileage sucks too, but.."

"Which is why we got you this," said Xu, and the instructors parted to display a gleaming, brand new top of the range land cruiser jeep, painted in the Balamb Garden colours of blue, white and grey.

"Oh.. my.. god! That is so great!" Quistis leapt forward and threw her arms round Rack for a hug, knowing that Xu would have snapped under the pressure if she’d tried the same trick on her.

"Well, we couldn’t have you going out into the world in your old car, now could we?" Quistis hopped over to the jeep and peered in through the window to examine the luxurious interior. "And don’t worry, we moved all your junk from your old car to this so you’ve still got everything."

"So that’s your tapes, your maps, your empty food cartons, your fluffy toys, your old clothes, and all those odd bits of metal in that box at the back," said Xu, ticking the items off on her fingers.

"Oh, you mean my craft project?" said Quistis, referring to the metal box. She’d been trying to build herself something, but she’d started it so long ago she’d actually forgotten what it was. never mind, the bits always came in handy at odd times so it was a comforting thing to have around.

"Yes, that thing too. Good as new! And ready for its first and so far only owner to take it out into the big, wide world," said a beaming Xu as Quistis opened the driver’s side door and hopped in. The leather seated interior hissed satisfyingly as she sank into the seat, feeling the reactive surface mould to the contours of her body. She gave the steering wheel a few practice turns, then put the keys into the ignition and started the engine.

It purred like a kitten lying in a sunbeam, and a huge smile spread across Quistis’ face as she experimentally revved the highly torqued engine. Seeing a button for the sunroof, she clicked it and couldn’t suppress a laugh of joy as the roof of the jeep slid smoothly back, making it into a convertible in seconds.

"This baby will do 0-60 faster than you can crack that whip of yours. It’s got reactive off-road suspension, a V12 180bhp engine that could scale a sheer mountainside with enough juice, and it’s got enough fuel mileage to make it to Centra and back!" shouted Rack over the roar of the engine. Quistis cackled with glee.

"So are you guys getting in for the first ever test drive or what?" she shouted, and as one Xu, Dallara and Rack leapt in. Quistis floored the accelerator and with a burst of tire smoke squealed away, down the ramp that led from the car park out to the road outside the Garden and out into the surrounding countryside. Other students whooped and cheered as the high performance jeep screamed its way around the perimeter of the Garden, the instructors hanging on for sheer life but Quistis having a look of fire in her eyes that she thought she’d lost.

Quistis had a thing for fast cars.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It took Quistis a good hour of racing around in her new jeep to wear herself out, although her queasier comrades had bailed out after just a few minutes, leaving Quistis free to go bouncing across the sand dunes down at the beach before heading back to Garden. By the time she pulled into the underground car park, the once pristine and shiny bodywork was coated with muck and filth, making it look like it had been running a rally every day for the past five years. Which was, of course, just how Quistis liked it.

Dusting herself off and wiping the sweat from her brow, she took off her shirt and tied it round her waist, a plain black vest top underneath being comfortable to wear in the afternoon sun over Balamb. It was always warm and sunny in this part of the world, although Balamb had its share of heavy showers in the early and late parts of the year. Quistis left the jeep in her parking spot and headed back up to the staff room. As she walked through the reception area of the department, she bumped into one of her better students, a young girl named Annabelle Mochika. The girl had shoulder length black curly hair, a pale complexion and looks that made a small part of Quistis burn with envy every time she looked at her. Annabelle specialised in recon and scout operations, and had perfected the habit of slinking quietly round the Garden, appearing out of the shadows behind people and leaving a trail of frightened nerves behind her. Plus, she’d adopted a manner of dress that leant her towards floor length, figure hugging skirts which completely hid her feet, and helping her silent shuffle manner of walking that bit extra.

"Oh, hello Instructor," she said in her soft, upper class tones, "I take it you enjoyed your little drive around?" She gave Quistis a wry smile which the instructor returned.

"Let’s just say that if I need to get out of here in a hurry I have the right tools for the job," she said, heading for the elevator Mochika followed her.

"I’ve heard about the big party that we’re holding for you on Friday night, it sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun," she said, not noticing the sudden look of fear on Quistis’s face at the mention of the word ‘party.’ Especially when it was preceded by the word ‘big.’

"Party? Oh no, that must be for someone else, I was just after a quiet drink with my-" she began, but stopped as Mochika carried on.

"It’s been being announced since the day after the victory ball, everyone’s talking about it. It’s probably going to be even bigger than that! We’ve got a famous band flying in, there’ll be a huge buffet, and I think pretty much everyone in the Garden got an invite as well," she said.

"Look, are you sure we’re talking about the same thing here? I told Selphie specifically that I didn’t want a.." Quistis trailed off as she saw a poster in front of her, just outside the entrance to the tunnel leading to the ground floor staff area. It was large and eye-catching, especially as it was emblazoned with the words "The Biggest Party Garden Has Seen!" Quistis read on with a cold hand of terror closing around her heart.

"Celebrate the achievements of Balamb Garden’s favourite instructor with the largest party ever attempted within the confines of this fine institution of ours!" it read. "Live music by the renowned rock band ‘Quattro’ and a buffet laid on by the highest rated chefs we could get our hands on. So don’t miss your chance to say farewell to the one and the only Quistis Trepe this Friday evening, in just about every single part of the Garden!"

"Oh god.." said Quistis softly, stepping back from the poster and blinking a few times, hoping each time she reopened her eyes to find that the poster had gone and this was nothing but a bad dream.

"Instructor? Are you all right?" asked Mochika, looking concerned about the fact that Quistis had suddenly turned paler than she was.

"Umm.. tell you what, Annabelle, I may have to catch up with you later, okay? I just need to, er.. go and take care of some business," she said, turning and racing away before Mochika could ask what was wrong.

Quistis disappeared into the downstairs toilets and darted into one of the cubicles, bolting the door and collapsing down onto the seat. Her breath came in short, sharp bursts and she clawed at her chest to try and free whatever it was that felt like it was lodged in her throat, stopping her from breathing. She felt the salty taste of a tear slide down into her mouth and she realised she was actually crying, something she hadn’t done for a long time. She buried her head in her hands and tried not to sob as the full weight of everything came crashing down onto her all at once.

This was stupid of course – having a panic attack about her friends throwing a goodbye party for her! Most people would be glad about such a thing, but for some reason it had triggered all these unexpected responses in the young instructor’s mind. She’d asked there not to be loads of people there for a reason – the big speech at the victory ball a few days ago had absolutely terrified her, and the last thing Quistis wanted to do was have another big evening where everyone was looking at her, wondering about her, thinking about her, asking her what she’d do next, talking to her about the future – being asked over and over again a million permutations of the same ‘So what now?’ question, one that she still didn’t have an answer for no matter how many people asked her or in however many different ways. You’d have thought that someone who’d faced down the terrifying monsters she had could handle a bit of public scrutiny, she thought bitterly, but the truth is I’m afraid of what happens now. I want to make something of myself but I still have this fear that nothing will come of it. What if I spend the rest of my life searching for somewhere to belong and never finding it?

A knock on the cubicle door shook her out of her reverie – it was Mochika, who’d followed her into the bathrooms.

"Instructor? Are you alright? You suddenly looked very ill," she said in a concerned tone of voice, "and I just wanted to check you were okay."

"Yes, yes, I’m fine thanks, Annabelle, I just- I think I just came over a little nauseous for a second or something. Must have been that sandwich at the cafeteria I ate earlier!" Quistis said, lying through her teeth but thankful of the cubicle door to shield her from the students eyes.

"Okay then, just as long as you’re okay! I’ve got to get to class now, so I’ll see you Friday if I don’t see you before then!"

"Yes, Friday.." said Quistis, her voice drifting off again. She heard the bathroom door close and it jolted her back to reality, so grabbing a handful of toilet tissue to dry her eyes with, she stepped back out of the cubicle and over to the sinks and mirrors to make sure she didn’t look like she’d been crying. That was when she heard another voice, sobbing quietly, from a closed cubicle at the far end of the row of stalls.

Quistis walked slowly and carefully up to it, listening more closely to whoever was inside. It was another female voice, trying its best not to make any sound and crying quietly away. Leaning back to check the floor, Quistis made out a pair of black platform-booted feet inside, and a rucksack that suggested another student, most likely one of the junior ones. Quistis took a breath then clicked into Concerned Instructor mode, rapping her knuckles lightly on the door. The sobbing inside stopped at once, and Quistis spoke out over the silence a few moments later.

"Hello in there," she said softly, having been in this situation herself many times before, though unfortunately on both sides of the door.

"Er.. hello?" said the voice, clearly startled by this intrusion into its own private grief.

"Don’t worry, I’m not planning to bust the door down and drag you out here to answer me or anything. I just heard you and hoped there was something I could do to help. What’s your name?"

"Zoey.. Zoey Tyburn," came the voice, sounding like it was coming from an eight year old when filtered through the tears but seeming more like one of the middle school students, placing her at roughly fifteen years old.

"I’m Quistis. So what’s gotten you into a place like this, Zoey?"

"Oh.. oh, nothing really. *sniff* Just stupid stuff. You know."

"Well, I know the usual sorts of things, but you’ll have to give me a little more than that to go on, I’m afraid! Trouble in the class or out of it?"

"Out of it," said Zoey, seeming to have shaken off the sadness a little now she had someone to confide in.

"Well, then I can divide that into four categories for you," said Quistis, counting them off on her fingers as she spoke, "boys, girls, teachers or something else."

"Something else.. well, kinda boys, too. *sniff* Maybe it’d be best if you just left me to it, Quistis, I’m just being a stupid little girl again," she said, and Quistis spotted a possible lapse back into the waterworks looming. Perching herself on one of the sinks, she carried on.

"Don’t be daft, I asked you what was wrong because I wanted to help, and help you is what I’m going to do," she said, assuming her more familiar instructorly authoritative tone. "Now then, you mentioned boys, so I’ll work on a process of elimination. Someone in your class?"

"No, someone in the class above me. He’ll be graduating soon."

"Okay then, good progress. Is this a romantic thing in any way?"

"Yes, he’s my boyfriend," said Zoey, "but he may not be much longer."

"Sounds bad – is something going to break you two up then?"

"When he graduates! You know about the curse, don’t you?" Zoey sounded very serious all of a sudden, provoking Quistis to inquire further.

"Wasn’t aware of it, what curse?" she asked, although a vague recollection of something started gnawing at the back of her mind. Zoey sighed heavily and continued.

"The curse of the Garden, it only affects couples who aren’t in the same year when they graduate. They always break up, always! And I don’t want to lose him! Danko and I were made for each other.. I can’t lose him, I just can’t!"

"Wow. That’s the first mention I’ve heard of the Curse for about five years, you know that? I guess people must have been avoiding it on purpose before now.."

"You don’t understand, you wouldn’t know what it’s like! Nobody understands.." Zoey had started to snuffle again, but Quistis’ thoughts were racing ahead of her by now.

"Yes I do, Zoey, yes I do. I knew a boy when I was an instructor and he was a student. I thought I had feelings for him, but I guess now I’m not sure what they were. I told him how I felt but there was always something in the way. When he graduated, he met someone else, and I had to spend a long time watching the two of them fall more and more in love with each other. He’d have died for her if it meant that she’d carry on living. I sometimes wonder if he’d ever have done that for me, or I for him."

The crying had stopped, and the cubicle door had peeked open a little so that Zoey could look out at who she was speaking to. Her eyes widened when she recognised Instructor Trepe, but Quistis was still engrossed in her story and didn’t notice.

"These days, I’m not sure I ever really understood what it was I felt, but what I do know is that, curse or no curse, when you find the right person for you, you’ll stay with them no matter what. Even if they move away, even if something happens to one of both of you, you’ll never lose them. At least that’s what I believe, other people may see it a little differently.." Quistis paused when she saw that the cubicle door was now wide open, and little Zoey Tyburn was looking up at her with a mixture of awe and mild shock.

"Wow. I mean.. Instructor Trepe?" Quistis gulped.

"Well, I know I’m leaving at the end of the week but consider this one of my extra-curricular activities," she replied, hoping that Zoey wouldn’t figure out who she’d been talking about.

"No, no, that’s great, it was.. it was great to hear you say those things," said Zoey, smiling at last and visibly brightening up.

"Well, don’t go telling everybody," warned Quistis with a grin, "they’ll think I’m going soft! I have an image to maintain, after all.." Quistis hopped down from the sink as Zoey got up and left the stall. She was a slip of a girl, with short bubbly blonde hair and big, innocent looking blue eyes.

"I suppose I’d better get to my next class.. but thank you, Instructor," she said earnestly.

"No worries, that’s what I’m here for. And my colleagues too. Anytime you feel like this, or have something you need to talk about, go find a teacher. They can’t talk about what you tell them to anyone else so you can always confide in them, okay?" Zoey nodded and bustled out of the bathrooms. Quistis turned to face herself in the mirror again. This time, she was more pleased with what she could see.

"Looks like you’ve still got it," she said to her reflection, "so let’s hope it does you some good when you’re not part of this place anymore. And let’s hope it can work without you!" Quistis turned and walked out, feeling a strange sense of satisfaction that seemed to have been lacking the past few days.

Once outside the bathrooms, she made her way back up to her quarters. There were a few things to tidy up before the evening, and she had a night out in Balamb with the other instructors planned to get ready for. Maybe her last week wouldn’t be so bad after all.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday morning. Just one more day now until the fateful final party to look forward to. One last day of relative freedom and one last day free of pressure. Well, mainly – Quistis had managed to organise replacements for her shifts without too much trouble, and all but one of her regular classes had been informed of her impending departure. As far as she could make out, pretty much all of them were going to the party tomorrow night anyway, so there wasn't much to do with any of them.

She had one final class today to take care of, just after lunch – her 'intelligent' class as she put it – the small group of students who consistently scored the highest in their written exams and would no doubt make fine SeeDs once they graduated. These were the students who would end up leading other teams, having displayed good leadership qualities on other field tests, and so Quistis enjoyed the hour a week she spent with them, mostly going over old combat strategies and discussing ways that old lost battles could have been won.

They would probably approach her with the least questions with regards to what happened after Friday and beyond, and that was what she was thankful for. Her magic tutorial of the junior year had almost become very emotional when the class had all asked if they could go with her on her trip beyond the Garden. She felt like she was leaving for a war of some kind as she explained to them that after that lesson she wouldn't be coming back as an Instructor, and as some of the more emotional students had begun to well up at the prospect of losing her, she had to admit she'd begun to get a little misty-eyed as well. Kids had a habit of doing that.

Quistis was sat in her room, the windows open to let the beautiful mid-morning weather filter into her space and hopefully blow away the dark clouds lingering over her. She was dressed in her school clothes, a navy blue jacket and black skirt, her hair tied back into a small bun with two long bangs hanging forward across her face. Her reading glasses were perched n the end of her nose, and she was waiting for the realisation that this was the last time she'd wear this outfit to sink in when there was a knock at the door.

"Come in," she said lazily, having at least half an hour before her lesson started. She'd been leaning back in her plush leather-backed chair, her feet resting up on her desk and her boots still on the floor next to her unmade bed. Protocol had taken a back seat in her normally impeccably tidy quarters just lately. The door swung open to show Selphie, looking a little sheepish.

"Erm, hello, Quistis," she said meekly, bracing herself as if expecting a barrage of abuse following her transformation of Friday night's intended quiet round of drinks into another massive party.

"Come on in, Miss Tilmitt," said Quistis, waving an arm at her and motioning for her to shut the door. "And take that scared look off your face, I'm not angry at you. A little advance warning would have been nice, however."

"Well, the thing is, you see," Selphie began to protest, "I told Zell and he said we should make it a big celebration and then little Suki Longbow came walking past, and I mean you know what a gossip she is, and anyway she said 'gathering? Oo, who's having a party?' and I said 'no-one – well, sort of for Instructor Trepe, only not really,' and then she went 'a party! Wow! Who's invited?' and I was trying to tell her 'well, just us lot, really,' when her friends Cordelia and Siana came walking past and asked 'a party? Are we invited?' and before I knew it the whole Garden was asking me, and then without me even realising it became a massive party and so I had to make posters telling everyone and just hope I could come see you before it got too out of hand-"

"For goodness' sake, Selphie, take a breath before you pass out cold!" ordered Quistis, watching Selphie try to cram a week's worth of events into just one sentence. "I get the idea, really, and it's okay. As long as I can still have that quiet drink with everyone like I originally wanted, then a bigger party afterwards will be fine."

"Really?" said Selphie, brightening up at the prospect of not actually being punished.

"Really. It'll be fine. Of course, now you are unfortunately honour bound to make sure it's the best party that the Garden has ever seen, but I'm sure a girl of your.. unique organisational abilities will be able to sort that out no problem." Quistis beamed. "Come on you, I've got a class to get to soon and I haven't decided what I'm going to tell them yet."

"I've been hearing good reports so far, Quistis," said Selphie, sitting down on the bed and kicking her heels just above the floor. Despite being just two years younger than Quistis, Selphie came across as being a lot younger sometimes, although Quistis knew her youthful spirit was nothing to be ashamed of at all.

"Good reports? In what way?"

"In that you've been making the students feel happy. You know, they're sad that you're leaving but at the same time they're behind you all the way. You've made them feel like they're inspired, that they needn't feel like they have to do something anymore, and that it's okay to want to change your mind and go somewhere different if you want to."

"Oh great, Cid'll be coming to see me because I'll have started a mutiny at this rate!" said Quistis with a chuckle.

"Oh yeah, I meant to say, Cid asked if you'd go see him after your last lesson. Just a quick word, he said, nothing heavy."

"I'll remember. I'd best be heading off then, Selphie, I'll catch up with you later. Meeting in the cafeteria for dinner at about 6 as usual?"

"The normal table is reserved, Miss Trepe," said Selphie, standing and saluting smartly with a giggle, "so we'll see you there!"

"You sure will," said Quistis, as Selphie headed back out the door. Quistis stood up and pulled on her boots before walking over to the windows and looking out. The windows in her room afforded her an excellent view of the Garden and the landscape surrounding it. Currently, as it was nearing the end of the lunch hour, the fields outside were full of lounging students soaking up some sunbeams before heading back inside. Groups of boys were playing ball games with complicated rules, usually dreamt up during dull lessons, although most seemed to involve lots of jumping on each other and mock fighting. Small gangs of girls were watching the boys, trying not to make it look as though they were keeping an eye on them as they chatted amongst themselves. A few pairs of instructors were patrolling around to keep a watchful eye on things, and Quistis realised for the first time how much she'd miss little moments like this. The feel of the sun's warm rays on her face, the smell of the midday breeze as it picked up a million intangible scents from miles around, the faint sound of waves crashing against the beach, the more noticeable sounds of the students out on the fields below her – all the little things she'd taken for granted a little before now.

No time to get sentimental, she told herself, there was work to be done. Closing her window, she left her room and made her way downstairs to the classroom where the Group Tactics class was waiting. The class of twelve smartly dressed students stood smartly to attention as she entered. She grinned, trying to remember that this little powertrip was the last one she'd enjoy.

"At ease, class, I gave up paying any attention to that sort of stuff a long time ago and you know it!"

"Sorry, instructor," said Derin Maldrew, the unofficial class leader thanks to his good looks and charm, "we just thought it'd be a mark of respect in your last ever lesson with us."

"Yes, I've been thinking about what to do with this lesson for a while now," said Quistis as her students took their seats again. "a normal lesson plan just seemed a bit of a cop-out somehow, and yet I want to do something constructive with this last hour of our time together. After a lot of headscratching, however, I came up with the following idea – I'd like you each to take a piece of paper out." She didn't look round to check on them, because she knew they were all reaching for their pads and pens as she spoke. Quistis stood and walked over to the windows that overlooked the green fields outside.

"Please tell me you're not throwing a pop quiz on us in our final lesson with you, instructor?" asked Steen, a young sportsman who had the makings of an excellent SeeD.

"Relax, Steen, just go with me on this. I'd like each of you to write down three things that you would do, or change, if you were the headmaster of Garden." There was silence behind her as the class processed that idea, so Quistis turned to face them to explain herself a little better.

"It is an important quality of leadership to show initiative in battle. The most famous leaders of our history have not been the ones who've followed orders blindly, they've been the ones who took risks, who thought outside of the box, sometimes even the ones who disobeyed direct orders that conflicted with their own judgement. That all links in to the dual purpose of this little exercise – I want to see what kinds of ideas you guys and girls have for the future of this Garden, because some of you will doubtless be staying on to teach and maybe even run this place in years to come. I want to read your ideas and know I passed on the right kind of wisdom to you. And, when I go to my appointment with the headmaster and headmistress after this, I'd like to be able to take these papers along, lay them on his desk and say 'This is the future of Garden, and this is my legacy to you.'"

Several of the students grinned, some were already writing before she'd finished, being way ahead of her, but one stayed chewing his pen thoughtfully as he looked out of the windows. His name was Marael Daraq, and he was often the quietest student in class but always the one who produced the best written work. Quistis had long thought he'd make a better artist than soldier, but as she'd been saying all week, your life was up to you and not someone else's perception of it.

"Searching for inspiration, Marael?" she asked. He didn't look round, but slowly and deliberately removed his pen from his mouth before he answered.

"What if there's nothing you'd want to change?"

"There must be something, even if it's just the recipe for the hotdogs!" A ripple of laughter, but Quistis was, as ever, intrigued by the way young Cadet Daraq's mind worked, and she leaned forward at her desk to listen more closely to him.

"I don't think someone like me is going to change this place. It takes the right kind of vision which I just don't think I have. There are some things I'd do differently, but they're with my own life and nothing to do with the Garden."

"Is it anything you'd like to share?" asked Quistis, noticing that several of his classmates had also stopped what they were doing to listen in.

"I don't think I'd have come here if I'd had the choice. I lost my mother when i was very young, and my father wanted to make sure I made something of myself, so he sent me here. Personally, I'd rather have become an artist. There are some things I can do here outside of the curriculum, but I think perhaps I didn't take the right path when I was younger."

"Are you saying you want to leave the Garden, Marael?" asked Quistis, a little concerned that her actions may have inspired someone to follow her footsteps right out the front gate.

"No, instructor. I'd like to teach art. But I'd like to teach art here, at the Garden." Quistis smiled.

"Then write that down. That counts as something you'd do differently. I think there are several students like you who don't want to leave here but feel that they've still got something to offer the Garden. Maybe it's time we gave them the options to do that!" Quistis settled back as Marael and the others got back to work. Most were still writing when the class bell rang a while later. Quistis having spent the lesson answering occasional questions. As her students filed out, each placing their suggestions on to a pile at the edge of her desk, Quistis made a point of thanking each one personally for their time and attention over the past few years. Marael paused, the last to leave, as Quistis packed up the papers into her briefcase.

"Instructor Trepe?"

"Quistis, please. I think the time for formality passed when I announced my resignation!"

"Alright then, Quistis. Just one question, if I may."

"You may," said Quistis, noting that Marael seemed to have been considering his words for some time.

"Would you ever come back here? If the right offer was made and the situation was good?"

"You know what, Marael, I've asked myself that many times over the past few days. And my answer is still definitely maybe but probably not," she said with a grin. "There are just too many other things out there I want to try first. It's nice to know I'll be missed, but for now this part of my life," she said as she snapped her case shut for emphasis, "is over."

Marael nodded his agreement and left the classroom. Quistis stood up, and mad her customary sweep of the room to make sure all the terminals had been switched off, and there wasn't anything important left behind by her class. She noticed a piece of paper on top of Steen's desk and picked it up. It had been scribbled on quite heavily, and it seemed like he'd used it to work on his ideas for the test she'd set them. When she examined it closer as she approached her desk, however, she spotted something else.

"Quistis Forever," it read simply. "The memorial goes online Friday night at midnight. Pass it around." A cryptic message that had Quistis frowning in puzzlement for a few moments before the next class arrived, and she picked up her case and left, saying hello and goodbye to Instructor Yseult as she left.

A memorial? Perhaps it had something to do with the Trepies? Quistis' own personal fan club were rumoured to be planning something big for the party on Friday night, and she dreaded to think what. Whatever the situation, she had that appointment with the Headmaster to keep now, so without further ado she made her way towards the elevator. She did her best not to notice the poster advertising Friday night as she left the teaching block.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The elevator ride from the main mezzanine floor up to the headmaster's plush suite on the top floor seemed to take a lot longer than usual, and Quistis fidgeted nervously as the numbers on the counter above her head updated agonisingly slowly on their way up to the summit. With a thunk and a hiss the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, revealing the red carpet that led up to the entrance to the headmaster's office. The short corridor leading up to it was plastered with photos of SeeDs past and present in their endeavours around the world – Quistis tried not to spot the one of Squall, herself and the others on their victorious return to Garden after sending Ultimecia back to the future in a selection of pieces. Cid's receptionist, a Faculty member called Rianna, looked up as Quistis approached and gave a friendly smile.

"Go right in, Instructor, the Headmaster is expecting you." Quistis nodded and walked straight in through the double doors into Cid's office. There were two desks in here now, at right angles to each other but facing towards the centre of the room where a row of seats stood. Cid was behind one desk and Edea was at the other. Cid stood as Quistis entered and pointed her towards the chairs with another friendly smile. All these friendly smiles were becoming more than a little bit unnerving, but Quistis sat anyway. Cid's office was backed by an enormous pair of windows which faced the distant Galbadia Garden, although you needed the antique telescope in one corner of the room to see it properly. The walls were dark wood panelling covered in paintings, murals and photographs, and several exotic looking plants gave the room a homely feel. A large fireplace sat framed by one wall, ready to warm the office up during the cold winter months.

"Good of you to drop by, Quistis, I imagine you're busy so this won't take me too long," said Cid benignly, moving around his desk to sit on the edge of it closest to Quistis, who pulled her knees up demurely and sat her case down in her lap.

"There's definitely something about this office that always makes me feel like a schoolgirl about to be expelled," she said, "although I think on reflection it's probably the chairs." Edea failed to stop a snort of laughter from escaping, but as Cid looked up she simply reddened and with a smile waved him to continue.

"Sorry, private joke," he explained. "Now then, my dear, there's just a few last things I need to run through with you before you take your leave of us," said Cid. "A few bits of form filling-out that you can complete at your leisure," handing her a sheath of papers as he spoke, "but really this is just the last chance I'll get to have a quiet word with you before the big, ah, celebration tomorrow night, so I guess I really just wanted to ask you, er, what do you have planned?"

Quistis just about resisted the urge to throw her head back and laugh out loud at the question she'd been avoiding all week come from the one man she couldn't get away from, but reigning herself in she managed to answer.

"Well, as you can probably imagine I've been asked that a lot all week, but for you, Headmaster, I think I finally have an answer. I'm going to start by visiting my aunt Rosen in the little town of Dulcett for a few days, then I think I'll take a walk around Balamb to see what's gong on in there."

"Will you be looking for employment?"

"Yes, I have plenty of things I want to try and now is the best time of my life to try them, I think. I'll check the three schools in the area for positions, then move on from there."

"A teacher, eh? I suppose trying to teach students in the real world perversely seems very appealing at the moment," said Cid, cleaning his glasses on the end of his red tanktop, despite disapproving tuts from Edea.

"Absolutely. My life has been so extraordinary for so many years, I want to experience a normal life for a change. Maybe I'll hate it, I really can't say. I do know that I have my reasons for wanting to leave here and I intend to honour them."

"There'll always be a place for you here, you know. You're without a doubt the most promising young instructor I've seen here in all my years at the Garden, and I would hate to see that lost because you didn't think you could return to us." Quistis smiled, touched by the headmaster's sentiment.

"Thank you, sir. That's good to know."

"Of course, we also want you to know that we support you one hundred percent in whatever you do with yourself outside of these walls. Isn't that right, dear?" said Edea, and Quistis struggled not to giggle at her affectionate way of talking to him regardless of who was present.

"Yes, yes, your links with this Garden will remain whether you are still inside these walls or not. We have a proud history of students who have left us and gone on to achieve great things in this world – leaders, diplomats, ambassadors, teachers, and last time I checked we even had a very popular musician amongst our ex-cadets!"

"I'll be in good company then," said Quistis.

"Absolutely. Yes, yes. So, ah, is there anything left you'd like to talk to me, er, I mean us, about?" Cid leaned back, his head resting on one hand as Quistis opened her case and took out the papers from her previous class.

"There are a few things, Headmaster, but you can look over them in your own time. I'd like to think I've made up a kind of blueprint for the future of the Garden for you, or an instruction manual on how to build the Garden of the future." She placed the papers in Cid's outstretched hand and stood up again. "I think you'll find them all very enlightening reading," she added.

"I'll make sure he reads every last one, dear. We'll see you tomorrow evening then!" said Edea from behind her desk, with a pleasant smile. Quistis bowed her head once respectfully and took her leave of them both, leaving Cid engrossed in the papers.

Once outside the doors, Quistis made a beeline back to her quarters, eager for a chance to meditate for an hour or so and clear her thoughts. The night on the town with Xu, Rack and the other instructors had been rescheduled for tonight, so she had enough time to get changed and have dinner with Squall and the others before having to get ready to go. She was most of the way to her quarters when Mochika appeared out of nowhere next to her.

"Hello, Instructor, I didn't mean to scare you!" she said as Quistis jumped halfway out of her skin when she began speaking.

"That's okay, Annabelle, but i still say I need to get you a bell on a collar or something for when you're moving around this place!" Mochika chuckled and followed Quistis as she carried on heading for her room.

"I've just been speaking to Zoey Tyburn. She told me, in strictest confidence, about the little meeting she had with you yesterday, and I just wanted to tell you that I thought it was one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for that girl around here." Quistis allowed herself a satisfied smile.

"She gets picked on a lot, poor girl, and she's often very emotional, but she's had a determined look in her eyes since yesterday. I think it was the first time anyone had ever really tried to speak to her, and you can take some pride in the knowledge that you helped hr turn a corner with what you said."

"Excellent! I wish I'd had someone like me to talk to when I was in her year," said Quistis wistfully, before suddenly remembering the details of her conversation with Cadet Tyburn. "Ah, she didn't give you much of the detail of it, did she? Only some elements of it were a bit personal, and I'd hate for anybody to-"

"Don't worry," said Mochika, holding her hands up to reassure Quistis, "she mentioned that you seemed to have made some pretty personal references but she kept them all to herself. That girl'll be a loyal supporter for you from now on, wherever you end up!" Quistis breathed a sigh of relief.

"Whew! There were a few things I don't share with many people in there.. I think she brought it out of me somehow."

"That happens sometimes. Anyway, I just thought you'd like to hear that, and I'll leave you to you evening now."

"Thanks, Annabelle," said Quistis as the student slinked away again. Quistis wore a proud grin as she entered her room to change for dinner. Wearing half of what she'd later go out in to save time, she made her way down to the cafeteria to join Squall's group in their regular table over by the far end of the food counter. The usual suspects were here – Squall, Rinoa, Selphie, Irvine and Zell. They'd taken the liberty of fetching her food already, but thanks to their graduate status they were entitled to a slightly better menu, so Quistis sat down to a plate of steaming meat steaks and vegetables that looked good enough to eat. So eat it she did.

"So, you're out on the town with Rack and the boys and girls of the staff later on, I hear?" asked Irvine as a hungry Quistis tucked into her meal.

"Why does everyone in this place seem to know what I'm doing before I have chance to tell them?" she said through a mouthful of potato, "it's like you're spying on me or something!"

"We prefer to think of it as being 'well-informed,'" replied Irvine.

"Yeah, and we're just trying to make sure your last few days here go as smoothly as possible, so any additional organising we can do for you is our way of saying thanks!" said Rinoa. Quistis waved a fork at Selphie.

"If that young lady has anything to do with the organising, then count me out," said Quistis, "I'd have hundreds of people following my every move!" The table laughed together, something they hadn't had the luxury of doing for a while now.

"And anyway," continued Rinoa, "we just wanted to check because we're all out too this evening, and we hoped we could meet up with you later on."

"That'd be really nice, I'd like that," answered Quistis. "I'm not sure where we're going yet, Xu won't tell me. She says it's a surprise, and seeing s how they've also asked me not to drive I'm guessing it's going to involve those three new bars that have opened up in the town centre at some point!"

"Sweet," said Zell, "we’ll probably take in a few of those as well. You see, we have a little something to celebrate as well!"

"Really? What?" asked Quistis. The others suddenly looked a little bit shifty, as though they didn’t really want to tell her the news but now they were going to have to.

"We all got our new assignments. Holiday leave is over the Monday after your party, and we’ve all been given our new missions and stuff," said Irvine, as the others continued to look a bit guilty.

"Oh? When did you find this out?" said Quistis, still eating and not really noticing the change in atmosphere.

"Well, earlier this week, but we kept it quiet because-" began Rinoa, but Selphie interrupted.

"Because we didn’t want you to worry about us, basically!"


"Well, yes, I mean, we wanted to make sure that everything was perfect for your last week, and so something like this announcement, well.." Selphie faltered a little as she searched for the right words, so Rinoa took up the baton again.

"We decided to leave it so we could concentrate on you instead." Quistis finished her mouthful of steak and rolled her eyes at her comrades before continuing.

"Honestly, what are you lot like? We’re all friends, we all went through a lot together and there is no reason for any of us to hide anything from each other. And as for concentrating on me, well, I think that’s been done more than enough this week so I’d actually be glad of diverting the attention for a change!" She laughed and the others followed, the possibly tense moment having passed. "So what are you all doing?"

"Well, Zell is shipping out to this city called Talerin in the morning to be a bodyguard for this professional racing driver out there," said Selphie.

"Yeah, my natural interest in racing means they asked for me by name! Maybe I can pick up a few tricks while I’m out there too," he added with a grin.

"Irvine and myself have got ourselves a job in Fisherman’s Horizon, working on training up local people at this new martial arts and rifle range training centre they’ve set up. They’ve asked several Gardens for help assembling a squad of teachers, and Cid asked us tow if we’d like to go," continued Selphie.

"Yeah, man, how could I refuse to get paid to teach civvies how to shoot little painted targets all day?" said Irvine with a grin.

"What about you two?" said Quistis to Squall and Rinoa, forgetting for a second that Rinoa wasn’t actually a SeeD, having teamed up with the others during their first mission together and tagged along ever since.

"Well, as you know, I’m kind of a technicality around here," said Rinoa with her ever present wry smile firmly in place, "but I’ve spoken to Cid and he’s said I can go along with Squall’s mission, so that suits me."

"And that would be?" said Quistis, looking over at the always quiet Squall. He spoke in his usual hushed tone.

"The forest of Timber. Locals out there have made reports of large packs of wild creatures roaming the area, I’m going along to help the rangers there co-ordinate their efforts and try to get rid of whatever’s out there," he said, hardly looking up.

"And I’m going with him, which is doubly handy for me because I can go back and see the Forest Owls again!" enthused Rinoa.

"Sounds like your plans are all made up then," said Quistis, "I wish I had somebody handing out orders to help me work out where I’m going next!" The conversation turned to the events of the next few days after that, with Quistis explaining her plan to go and see her aunt the morning after the party, and also mentioning the plans from her final class that she’d passed on to Cid and Edea.

After the meal, the group said their goodbyes and made their ways up to their quarters again. After having spent so long out on the road with them, it seemed odd for Quistis to not head back to the dormitories with the rest of them, but that was just one of those things. She got changed reasonably quickly, only swapping her combat trousers for a knee-length sparkly black skirt to go with the sleeveless top she’d thrown on for dinner. It was warm until quite late in the evening at this time of year, so she planned to take advantage of that. A knock on her door told her that Xu was ready and waiting for her, so Quistis just had chance to tie her hair back up a little more neatly before the girls left the instructor’s quarters. Meeting up with Rack and the others downstairs, Quistis hopped into a waiting taxi to get a ride into Balamb town, hoping that the night had some good suprises left in store for her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The beep-beep of Quistis’ alarm clock early Friday morning split her head in two like the claws of a T-Rexaur, and continued to stamp around on her battered and bruised grey matter until her flailing arm managed to catch the offending clock and send it slamming to the floor of her room, where gravity thankfully played a part in popping it open and silencing it for good.

Quistis opened one eye experimentally, but as the beautifully sunny Friday morning came crashing into her fragile brain she clamped it shut again, trying her best not to do any more damage. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this hung over, although that was probably because she was having difficulty thinking anything other than ‘oh god, my head’ at this precise moment.

She groaned and shuffled round in her bed, looking for that sweet spot on her pillow where she could rest her head ant have it hurt anymore. She failed to find it, and after a few more minutes of rustling round in bed she sat up at last. Pressing one hand to her forehead to try and cool it, she was shocked to find how hot she was. Even though all she had was a bad hangover, it felt more like a fever.

Luckily, a girl like Quistis was always prepared for eventualities like this, and so she reached for the cooler underneath her bed and took out a two-litre bottle of ice cold mineral water, gulping it down greedily to try and pay penance to her body for the sins she committed against it last night. The first part of the night had gone fine, a few quiet drinks in a few quiet bars, everyone getting on fine and no worries at all

Then, Xu had insisted they try the first of the three new bars on the night out, the aptly named Slammer, which turned out to be an uber-trendy tequila bar where the group had rapidly degenerated into a mess of drunken fools, giggling and falling over each other in the space of a few rounds. Next up, Rack’s choice was hot Balamb nightspot Shaken & Stirred, where the party managed to look sober enough to get in before getting twice as blasted on fancy cocktails. Quistis had lived in the Balamb area for years but never heard of any of these places – Balamb wasn’t the sort of town that screamed ‘trendy bars!’ anyway, but they’d found plenty to keep them busy, finishing the evening at Dallara’s choice of venue, a traditional gypsy themed pub where dancing on tables and loud, raucous singing was both compulsory and easily encouraged given the state of most of the patrons.

Quistis had dim memories of making it back at some time around four in the morning, leaning on and being leaned on by Xu as the two tried to get back to their rooms as quietly as possible, giggling and shushing each other as they clattered off the walls all the way around the Garden. She’d flopped down onto her bed and passed straight out, half waking up just enough to throw off most of her clothes and clamber under the covers before waking again at what must only be about 10a.m.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the sink and was happy to notice she didn’t look too much like death warmed up, despite what her body was telling her. She finished off the last bit of the first bottle of water and grabbed a second, the fluid intake already starting to ease the pounding in her temples a little. Getting up, she looked down and saw she wasn’t wearing much, so grabbed a dressing gown in case anyone came round. There wasn’t much of anything she had to do today, thankfully – the entire Garden had been given the day off in readiness for tonight’s party.

Oh god. The party. It had thankfully been at the back of her mind from the moment the first drink of the evening had hit the back of her throat, but now the full awfulness of the trial she faced later came rushing towards her, and she shut her eyes and tried not to listen to the millions of voices suddenly screaming at her what a bad, bad idea this was. Quite where this fear of social gatherings had come from she wasn’t sure, but it was probably something to do with how this event was the culmination of her time here, how it was the full stop on her career, and maybe some part of her was still, despite her best efforts, desperately afraid of all that.

Still, there was little she could do about all that now. Selphie had spent all week getting things ready, so all there was for little old Quistis to do was finish packing her things away and get ready for the night. If she could survive a one-on-one with the Ultima Weapon, deep in the depths of Ultimecia’s castle, and come out in one piece, then a few hours of hiding her nerves and putting on the brave party face would be no trouble at all. In theory.

She turned to her wardrobe and opened it to check what was left. Her clothes and accessories wouldn’t be a problem – Cid had given her a few extra suitcases as part of her leaving gift so all she needed to do was fold them up and pack them away. Reaching up to the top of the wardrobe for the first of the cases, she hefted it down on to the bed and threw its lid open. As she did, she noticed something had been dislodged from the top of the wardrobe onto the floor, and she knelt to pick it up for a closer look.

It was a photograph, dusty and faded but fairly recent, of a smiling Quistis and three equally happy looking people, outside a ski resort that she recognised as being in Trabia. She grinned as the memory of the event came back to her – the other people in the photo, dressed like her in shades and expensive jumpsuits and skiwear, were her best three friends from before she’d graduated to become an instructor, and the people she’d been closest to before meeting Squall, Zell and the others. Consisting of two girls and one guy, the foursome was known as Q-Dis on account of their first names, respectively being Dexter Malchisy, Isabella Takagi and Serena DuCont. They were four people she knew while she was a regular SeeD, friends from Balamb who’d drifted apart over the past two years but who’d enjoyed a few years of high times together. She flipped the photo round and saw each had written a message on the back. Quistis had scribbled ‘Camp Balkirk Resort – Q-Dis hit the slopes again!’ and below that were lines from the others. ‘Q – you ski like a pregnant chocobo but you’re still better than Izzy! – Dex,’ ‘Together again, sharing everything except broken bones – love Izzy XXX’ and ‘Quisty, always remember how drunk you were when this picture was taken! – Serena.’

She chuckled and put the picture on her desk. Now was the ideal time to catch up with her old posse again. She had their numbers and addresses written down somewhere, so she’d have to track them down soon. None of them were SeeDs too, which helped – she’d met Isabella and Serena when they were on holiday at a beachside town Quistis had been sent to help patrol from a possible pirate raid, and the three of them met Dexter a few months later when he was a fellow passenger on board a cruise ship the girls were partying on board on one of Quistis’ rare holidays. They’d been away plenty of places together – the ski slopes of icy Trabia, rock climbing in Centra, dune buggy racing in the deserts outside Galbadia – and had only fallen out of touch when Quistis became an instructor, losing the free time she used to have to spend with them. Last time she’d heard from them, shortly after the trip where the photo was taken, they were all still living in and around the Balamb area, so she’d have to check up on them when s
he left.

It didn’t take long to get most of her clothes packed away, leaving out a modest outfit for the evening and more casual clothes for today and tomorrow. She picked up one of the old boxes she’d picked up from the cafeteria and started carefully laying her personal effects down in it when there was a knock at her door.

"Come in," she said, and looked up to see Rinoa wander in with a cheery wave.

"Just wondered if you could use a hand packing," she said, "so you can relax a bit longer before tonight!" Quistis wondered if Rinoa had a bad bone in her whole body sometimes. She patted the bed for Rinoa to sit and waved her hand across the bits and pieces lying all around the room.

"I’m just doing little things at the moment, so grab a box and go for it. Pictures, jewellery, valuables at first, and after that my music and things." Quistis carried on with her box, moving on to the row of ornaments that lay across her windowsill. She noticed the window was shut so stood up to open it and let some of the glorious day outside into the room, the reassuring sounds of the students at play accompanying the cool breeze that wafted in.

"It must be strange, packing everything away like this," said Rinoa absently, peeling off the many photos carefully from the wall. "I mean, you’ve been here for how many years now?"

"Since I was about eight," answered Quistis. "I went from the orphanage to my aunt’s place for a few months, once they’d managed to locate her, and during that time we found letters from my parents asking that I be given the Garden entrance exam when I was old enough."

"Wow. When I was eight I was still playing with dolls at my father’s mansion and dreaming of becoming a princess!" said Rinoa. Quistis grinned.

"I suppose our years at the orphanage together were the best times we had," she said, fondly looking at a statue of the Tear’s Point Memorial she’d been given a while back. "I mean, we didn’t know or care about what the future held for us, we just had fun together every single day. Matron always looked after us. Sometimes I wish I could remember more of those times. We all used our GFs so much over the past few months I’m surprised I can remember my name when I wake up sometimes."

"I sometimes wish I shared that the way you other guys do, you know," said Rinoa, looking wistful for a moment. Quistis could sense that a deep conversation was looming and so put her box down to give Rinoa more of her attention. The raven-haired girl carried on taking down the framed pictures from the wall as she spoke. "You, Squall, Zell, even Seifer – you went through so much together I’m still amazed we get on so well together sometimes."

"Well, you were with us for a lot of those experiences, Rinoa!" said Quistis diplomatically, fully aware that Rinoa had a slight sense of alienation sometimes with the others. She’d spotted the young girl sat by herself in the cafeteria or just walking round the Garden when the others were tied up on official business, and even though Cid had given her free reign of the place she identified with Rinoa’s feelings of displacement at times.

"I know, I know. I just would like to have been part of it all. I sometimes get jealous of all those extra years you’ve known Squall for!" she said with a cheeky smile. Quistis fought back a blush and answered her.

"It doesn’t mean I understand him any better, I’m afraid! Although I do have that ability to be able to finish his-"

"Sentences," they said together, sharing a laugh at the private joke.

"You shouldn’t feel like you do, Rinoa," Quistis continued. "We’d all feel at a loss without you around, and it’s as though we have known you since we were children, given all we’ve been through with each other."

"That’s how we feel about you, even though I think the others don’t know how to say it," said Rinoa profoundly. "You going is like each of them losing a part of themselves, and they don’t know how it’s going to affect them. I mean, they all have their new assignments still, but they’ll be keeping in touch with each other. They’re a little afraid that they won’t hear from you again, I think." Quistis stopped to think about that for a moment. She’d been so caught up in herself the past few days, she hadn’t given any thought to how the others might be feeling about her going. Probably because she’d let her paranoid mind rationalise that they’d all be fine without her and so she’d not thought about it again.

"You may be onto something there, Little Miss Angelwing," said Quistis, making a reference to Rinoa’s new found status as a sorceress (which Rinoa herself downplayed due to her own fears of ending up like Adel, the sorceress corrupted by her powers that they’d fought during their travels). "I think maybe I should talk to everybody later to set a few things straight at last."

"They’d appreciate it. I mean, I know you’d never dream of losing touch with any of your friends, right?" enthused Rinoa. Quistis threw a glance at the photograph on her desk and felt a sudden pang of guilt.

"I certainly hope so," said Quistis quickly. "I don’t plan to cut myself off from everyone completely, at least. I just don’t plan on being a part of the Garden anymore. I’m sure our paths will still cross many times yet."

The remainder of the packing took place under discussion of less heavy subject matter, lifting Quistis’ spirits a lot in preparation for the evening. She could now count the hours until she was gone, although she tried not to in case it sparked off another attack of nerves. Tidying up her room sent the hours passing by a lot faster than she realised, and before she knew it the plain clockface on the wall told her it was almost 8 o’clock, and that the party would be starting in a handful of minutes. Quistis stood before the mirror in her room and laid her modest yet fashionable selection of makeup out in front of her. Lip gloss and eye shadow was a luxury whilst out in the field, which was why the female SeeDs always took advantage of being able to use it when back home at the Garden. Quistis herself favoured a subtle approach – a little lipstick, a hint of eyeshadow, that was it. Tonight, however, was going to be the last time she wore makeup here, so it had damn well better be special.

Black eyeliner, dark red lipstick and eyeshadow to match gave her a pleasantly brooding look, and when combined with the off-the shoulder dark purple top she was wearing – one that had been looking for an excuse to be worn for some time now. She added the skirt that Selphie had made for her and stepped back to look herself up and down, for once actually quite proud of how she looked. Quistis was often bemoaning her lithe figure, saying she was too skinny to wear anything flattering, but tonight even she was forced to admit she looked pretty damn good.

Now to find out what the night would bring. Switching off the lights in her room and locking her door, she mad her way down to the main floor, following the sound of music coming from the parade ground.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The halls and corridors of Garden were eerily empty as Quistis headed downstairs – at this time of night the halls were usually buzzing with students who were either taking advantage of the cafeteria’s late lunch service, heading to the training centre for night exercises, or just heading for the social areas of the Garden to relax for the evening. Students were always congregating in the main hall before heading out to Balamb town for the night, but this evening everywhere was deserted. The faint sound of dance music could be heard in the general direction of the parade ground, home to Selphie’s famous Garden parties, so Quistis headed for that.

Sure enough, as she drew closer the hubbub of dozens of students, instructors and cadets all gathered together started to rise to a crescendo, peaking as she entered the corridor leading out to the parade ground. The rhythmic thump-thump of the music was making some of the metallic sections of the walls vibrate and rattle, and Quistis made a mental note to stay away from the speakers that evening if at all possible. Zell was waiting at the end of the corridor, and bounced over to her with a grin when he saw Quistis approaching.

"Hey there, guest of honour!"

"Oh, stop," said Quistis, dismissing him with a wave of her hand but smiling all the same. "I’m just here to have a good night, like everyone else."

"Yeah, literally, everyone else," said Zell. "I’m not kidding when I say there isn’t a person in the Garden not here tonight, Quisty! And it’s all for you!" Quistis tried to suppress the flutterings of panic she felt in her stomach and managed a weak ‘oh really?’ in reply. Zell tugged at her arm for her to follow him.

"Come on, my duty is to escort you in so the party can really get started. Ready?" Quistis sighed.

"I suppose so, Zell." Zell beamed and took Quistis by the arm, leading her round the corner and into the start of the parade ground area. There was a long flight of steps, flanked by mini-fountains and outcrops of greenery, and the area turned slightly to the left to accommodate the main stage where the Garden’s various bands were always found playing. This evening, however, the hall was jammed full of students, all in their best party clothes and taking full advantage of the buffet table that spread round two of the walls. The stage was home to a DJ at the moment, but the drum kits and mic stands behind him show that the bands had not taken to the stage yet.

Selphie stood near the head of the mass of guests, scanning the stairs for the approach of Quistis and Zell. When the two reached the top of the steps, Zell, whistled to signal to Selphie that the evening’s guest of honour was here, and with a wave of her hand Selphie triggered an enormous cheer and round of applause that deafened Quistis down every single step of the long, brightly lit staircase. The DJ stopped on cue as well, leaving just the noise of the cheers to greet her.

Quistis put on her most diplomatic smile, actually not feeling too freaked out by all the attention on her for once, waving regally to the crowd as she made her way to the bottom of the steps. Selphie, whose voice seemed to carry all around the hall as easily as if she was using a megaphone, spoke out to announce her.

"Ladies and gentlemen of Balamb Garden, three cheers for our guest of honour this evening, Instructor Quistis Trepe!" Three cheers duly followed, and Quistis lapped up the applause for a moment, although she hoped that the party would start again in a moment and she wouldn’t feel under the spotlight so much very soon.

"Thank you everybody, it means a lot to me to see you all here tonight. But this night isn’t all about me, it’s about us all getting together to have a big old party, so let’s forget about me and get on with the evening!" shouted Quistis, which was followed by a cheer of acknowledgement and a rush of all the male students heading equally for the free bar and the free food. The DJ started up the music again, and in moments the dance floor area before the stage was full of students letting their hair down, preferring this more energetic celebration to the rather more formal ballroom event of the previous week.

Quistis headed for the bar where she spotted Squall and the others, who welcomed her with a series of hugs – Squall for once managing a public display of affection! A round of drinks was already waiting, and with a clink of raised glasses the friends toasted to their futures.

"You are so gonna love what we have lined up for this evening, Quisty," said Selphie, grabbing at her comrade’s arm to demonstrate her earnestness. "Your favourite band is coming to play later on, and we have this great buffet, and then later on there’ll be a fireworks display, and-"

"Easy, squirt," said Irvine, sliding an arm round Selphie to restrain her, "you’ll pass out if you don’t remember to breathe!" Quistis grinned at him.

"Thank you, Selphie, it all seems perfect. I couldn’t have wished for a better day. Even though we seem to have skipped that quiet drink I was coming to find you all to have before all this kicked off.."

"Er, yeah, sorry about that," said Selphie guiltily, "I’m afraid that was kind of my fault because I got too excited to wait any longer.." Quistis laughed away Selphie’s worries.

"Don’t worry about it. As long as you lot don’t mind me being in the background for the night, I just want to make sure everyone else has a good time." She adopted an authoritative tone for a moment. "Selphie Tilmitt?" she ordered. Selphie played along and stood to attention.

"Yes, ma’am!"

"I order you to ensure that everybody has a great time!"

"Yes, ma’am!" saluted Selphie, evoking another ripple of laughter from Selphie’s group.

The evening went on as well as Selphie could have hoped, and thanks to keeping a low profile Quistis managed to enjoy herself as well. People came by to wish her well, but not so many as to turn the evening into an uncomfortable reworking of the previous ball – she spent most of the evening propping up a corner of the bar with her friends, chatting indiscriminately to everyone who came past as long as they avoided the topic of what was going to happen to her any time after the end of the party. The other instructors toasted to her, her friends toasted to her, she shared a quiet drink with Cid – it went just how she wanted it all to.

Many hours later, when a lot of the guests had finally given up, Quistis sat at one of the tables arranged to the left of the buffet with Rinoa, Xu and Mochika, each girl having partaken of plenty of the free drink on offer as signalled by the table full of empty wine and shot glasses in front of them. There wasn’t an official legal drinking age in the Garden, but most of the students were well-behaved enough to not get blasted on a regular basis. Which is precisely why so many of them were currently unconscious in their quarters and would wake up with an enormous hangover.

"An-an ananother thing," slurred Quistis, waving her finger dramatically at Rinoa to prove her point, "maybe I won’t settle down anywhere shtraight away."

"’Shtraight away’?" mocked Rinoa.

"Yesh!" shouted Quistis. "Anyways, where was I.. yeah, and another thing-"

"What about if, if, you know, like, if you find, like, a nice bloke or something?" said Mochika with difficulty, squinting as though trying to focus on words written in the air in front of her.

"Maybe.. who knows?" said Quistis, leaning back in her chair and almost sending it clattering to the floor. She grabbed hold of the table to pull herself forward. "Important thing, right, important thing is.."

"Yes?" said Rinoa, the least drunk of the foursome. Quistis paused and frowned, then slumped forward in defeat.

"I dunno," she said, her forehead resting on the table. "I just want to have a good life. I always feel so.. so.."

"Like you should know what you’re supposed to be doing?" said Xu profoundly. Quistis looked up, a happy gleam in her eyes.

"Yes! Yes! That is, like, totally it, right, yes," she said, waving her arms enthusiastically. "You get put into, into the system, yeah?"

"Yeah," agreed Mochika.

"And then, then there’s all these people, saying stuff like ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and you have to just say, ‘I don’t know!’" Quistis continues, affecting a deep boomy voice for the role of ‘all these people.’

"You’re like, ‘I’m still a kid! I haven’t grown up yet!’" said Mochika, the two of them really connecting over this issue.

"Exactly!" said Quistis, thumping her palm on the table for emphasis. "Exactly. Who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up when they were a kid?"

"I always wanted to be a princess.." said Rinoa, starting to look a little hazy-eyed.

"Well, yeah, there’s stuff like that," said Quistis, "but I mean who knew how they wanted to spend their life when they were just a kid? Who could be, like ten, or something, and know what they wanted to do until they were, like, fifty or something?"

"Yeah, yeah!" agreed Xu, her exterior breaking down in the face of Quistis’ superior drunken logic.

"No-one does! Well, a few people do, but the point is," she said, waving that accusing finger at nobody in particular again, "the point is, I’m not one of those people. I don’t know what I want to d0. I’m only.. I’m only.." Quistis frowned and counted her age on her fingers. "I’m only not quite nineteen but almost!"

"You’re still a kid!" said Xu, looking like she was going to end up on the floor some time soon.

"Right!" said Quistis. "But I’m a kid who has decided to not just, like, sit back and listen to the man anymore, trying to tell me what to do, or nothing. I’m going to find out for myself."

"Yes!" said Mochika, punching the air triumphantly. Xu slid quietly off her chair and crumpled to the floor, unnoticed by the other three. Rinoa yawned like a lazy cat and stood up, a little unsteadily.

"Ah’m gonna go to bed," she said sleepily, "you three, er, two, have fun, mmkay?" She tottered off and out of the parade ground. The band had long since finished playing and were packing up their equipment. The hall was largely empty apart from a few Faculty members with black bags clearing up some of the detritus of the night, and as Quistis scanned the place she spotted one of the Trepies sitting in one corner, enjoying a crafty cigarette out of one of the slightly ajar windows overlooking the fields at the rear of the Garden. Quistis stood up and wobbled her way over to him. He saw her approaching and in one fluid movement tried to flick the cigarette out of the window, but it bounced back off the pane and landed in his lap. He beat frantically at the ashes, but saw that as Quistis was nearly in speaking range he had no other option than to grab the cigarette and swallow it in one smooth gulp.

He was still coughing and retching when Quistis stood in front of him, hands on her hips authoritatively. He couldn’t bring himself to look directly up at her, and merely spoke with his head half bowed.

"Y-yes, Instructor Trepe?"

"Student Kyle Denear, am I correct?" she said. Kyle looked up in surprise that she knew his name.

"Yes, ma’am!" he answered, not sure whether to salute or not, and trying not to notice that the cigarette he’d swallowed appeared to be trying to slowly burn its way back out of his stomach.

"Good. In recognition of your years of faithful service as one of my loveable, if misguide, fan club, more commonly known as the ‘Trepies,’ I hereby grant you this special, once-in-a-lifetime-and-don’t-you-forget-it award. Please stand." Kyle didn’t know what to do, but decided that slowly standing was the wisest course of action, given the determined look in Quistis’ eyes.

In response, Quistis grabbed Kyle’s head squarely between her two hands, puckered up and gave him a huge kiss full on his lips. His eyes bulged in shock for a moment, but before he had chance to react Quistis had pulled away again. She nodded once, satisfied with her work.

"Thanks a lot, Kyle. See you around," she said, and with that she turned on her heel, walked past him and straight out of the hall.

Kyle stood in silence for a few more moments before collapsing back into his chair.

"Woah.." was all he had the strength to mutter. Quistis’ work here was finally done.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis woke up on Saturday morning as she had done so many times before with a sense of peace. The Garden thankfully kept weekends largely free for non-curricular activities for its students, promoting sports and other recreational clubs to allow the students to develop their minds and bodies in other, non-combat orientated ways. This meant that everyone who was at the party last night (which accounted for 99.9% of the Garden, staff and students) could enjoy a nice long lie-in to recover from their hedonism the night before. Sports teams had cancelled matches, field trips were postponed, and life at the Garden in general was on pause for the day.

All of which suited Quistis down to the ground, because it meant she could sneak away early in the morning as she’d planned, and not have to worry about a big goodbye ceremony. She rose and dressed at about 9am, having arranged the previous day to catch a boat out to Dulcett at around 11 from Balamb Harbour. Carrying her last suitcase and backpack downstairs took a bit of effort, but she’d had the sense to load up most of her stuff into her new jeep yesterday to save time this morning. The Garden was eerily quiet again, but this time with a sense of relaxation than of anticipation compared to last night, so Quistis quietly and carefully made her way down to the garage.

Tossing the last two bags into the jeep, she started the engine and sat for a moment, letting it warm up. The full impact of what she was about to do was thankfully lurking elsewhere at the moment, so she could recline, catlike, in her seat and allow herself a very satisfied sigh. Reaching up to the sunblinds to pull them down and grab her sunglasses, she saw the photo of Izzy, Dex and Serena she’d stuck up there to remind herself to track down her old friends. Shifting the jeep into gear, she drove forwards slowly towards the exit.

Somebody stepped out in front of her suddenly, and she slammed her brakes on to avoid hitting them. It was Irvine, a cocky grin on his face as always, and he looked pretty out of breath. Quistis slid her sunglasses down onto the bridge of her nose so she could peer critically at Irvine over them.

"Sorry! Whew, almost missed you," he panted, motioning for her to wind the window down so he could talk to her better. With a grin, Quistis hit the sunroof button and let the jeep transform itself into a convertible. She stood up in the car and leaned on the windscreen.

"So should I ask why you want me to run you over?" she said with a wry grin. Irvine pushed his trademark hat back up on his head before he answered.

"I just needed to pass on a message to you. I had a feeling you’d try to sneak off this morning without making a scene, that’s your style!" Quistis grinned, taking the remark as a compliment. "Anyway, I just need to tell you that Squall’s waiting by the main entrance for you, and he just wanted to say a few words to you before you went."

"He did, huh? Interesting.." said Quistis, her thoughts wandering off for a second. Irvine cleared his throat to draw back her attention.

"So, anyway, do I get a goodbye hug then?" he said, opening his arms in anticipation.

"I’m sure you got plenty last night, but one more won’t hurt! Come here, you daft thing," said Quistis, reaching out and giving Irvine a squeeze. "Now that’s your lot, alright? I’ve got a boat to catch."

"Come back and see us again soon, okay?" said Irvine as Quistis started the jeep up again. "Don’t forget where we’re all going to be stationed!"

"I won’t!" she shouted back. "See you later!" She waved at his reflection in her rear-view mirror as she drove up the ramp that led out of the garage. Once outside, it was a short drive round to the front of the Garden, and then on to the gates and security wall that ran round the perimeter of the Garden’s grounds. Sure enough, sat at the gates on the concrete walls, kicking his heels in the dust at the end of the access road, was Squall. Quistis pulled up a few metres behind him and got out to walk up to meet him.

"Thanks for stopping," he said as she drew near, without looking up at her. The morning sun was out in all its glory, sending glittering flecks of light back from the sea and lighting up the lush green landscape of Balamb for miles all around. Even Squall’s own personal storm cloud appeared to have been left behind, so Quistis aimed to take full advantage of this hopefully lighter mood. She walked to his side and hopped up to sit on the wall next to him.

"Well, I wasn’t about to just drive away, now, was I?" she said cheerily, looking out towards the harbour in the distance. She could just about make out her ship approaching, some way out at sea and coming from the mist-shrouded continent of Galbadia, but she still had about an hour to get to the town yet.

"I’m happy for you, to see you going through with all this," said Squall, his eyes still downcast. "I know what it feels like to not feel as though you belong anywhere."

"Yes, I know, that’s why I’m glad you’re here, right now, Squall," said Quistis. "It shows me that I’m not the only person feeling like I do, and that there are people who understand what I’m setting out to try and do here." Squall looked up at her for the first time, and she smiled back at him. The emotion of the moment had started to creep up on her like an old, familiar sense of dread, but for once Quistis felt inspired to use what she normally ran away from for once.

"What re you thinking about?" asked Squall, noticing the sudden gleam in Quistis’ eye.

"I did something last night I’ve always meant to and thought it was all the business I had left here, but I think there’s one last thing I need to do," she said, reaching forward and planting her hands round Squall’s head suddenly. Before he had chance to respond, she leaned in and kissed him. He didn’t struggle, as though he understood that this was just something Quistis needed to do. She didn’t linger, keeping the moment fresh, and when she was done she leaned back without a trace of guilt in her expression.

"So what did you find?" he asked.

"I think I know why Rinoa loves you so much," she said, releasing him and stepping down off the wall. She walked over to her jeep and leapt back in, only turning to look back at him once she was sat down again.

"Take care of yourself, Instructor Trepe," said Squall with an uncharacteristic grin, waving at her. Quistis just smiled back, started the engine and drove away, leaving Squall sat on the wall behind her. She mentally crossed off the last item on her ‘to do’ list and cleared her head to concentrate on the journey ahead.

With the roof down, the brisk Balamb breeze flowed deliciously throughout the jeep, prompting Quistis to switch on the cassette player and play some of her favourite road music – a classic rock band from the Galbadian deserts, whose easy rhythms and tunes full of references to taking long, wandering car rides out to the middle of nowhere took on a new meaning this time. Balamb Town came rushing towards her, her foot getting heavier on the accelerator as she put as much distance between her and the garden as she could. She slowed as she reached the city limits, filing in with the light town centre traffic to make her way round to the harbour.

Her brand new jeep and loud, blasting music drew all sorts of looks from the townsfolk, some reproachful from the elderly or those who found young girls in nice cars playing rock music very suspicious, and others agreeable from like-minded youngsters in the town. Several waved and she waved back when she could, enjoying the relative anonymity she had out here.

The harbour area was busy as always – one of the fishing boats had just arrived in from its morning trawling runs, and was bringing dozens of hungry seabirds in with it. There was a hubbub of activity as the fisherman drew their ships closer to the docks, and the dock workers started readying the cranes and other equipment to scoop the fish up out of the trawlers and into the waiting freezers. Quistis was due to take a trip out to the east coast of Galbadia on the 11am ferry, so she parked her jeep up in the relative area and got out to take a walk around.

She had a gnawing sense of excitement growing in her stomach. This was it now, no turning back – even though the plan for the next few weeks wasn’t exactly clear, she had things to do and that was enough to keep her going. Once she’d seen her aunt Nona for a little while, she could track down her old friends and then go about getting some work to supply her with a little temporary cash. There was about three quarters of an hour to kill before the ferry showed up, so Quistis took the time to do a little investigating.

Walking into the main town centre, Quistis looked down the cobbled street that led off to all the shops and numerous coffee houses, searching out the offices where her friend Izzy used to work. She strolled down the street, checking off the building names as she went by. Dexter had moved on to somewhere nearer Trabia, she’d remembered, and so with Serena living in this busy city called Sidonia, near Deling, it was most likely she’d find Izzy here still, or at least someone who could tell her where to find her.

Spotting the right little office, she opened the door and walked in, mindful of the jangle of the bell hung over the entrance to announce new visitors. Izzy worked for Balamb’s temporary job agency, helping the locals find work in an around the area. A desk job suited her style – she was an organised and efficient person who loved to keep everything filed and tidy, although this often had her at odds with the occasionally sloppy Quistis whenever the two had shared a room anywhere on their holiday trips. Quistis approached the young, nervous looking girl behind the front desk to ask about Izzy.

"Excuse me, I wonder if you could help," she asked. The girl jumped a little at the sound of Quistis’ voice, having been engrossed in something before she’d walked in, but looked up and answered.

"Er, yes? May I help you? At all?" Quistis smiled, trying to ease the girl’s nerves.

"I’m just looking for somebody who used to work here, is all, a girl by the name of Isabella Takagi. She would have been here about seven or eight months ago, I think, but I don’t know if she moved on at all."

"Oh, yes, I remember Izzy," said the girl, "she was the one who helped me settle in here. I think I took on her job when she left, about two months back."

"She left? Do you happen to know where she went?"

"Um, yes, just give me a minute," said the girl, starting to leaf through a rotating file of address cards on her desk. Quistis could see she was getting more flustered as she couldn’t find it, so gently took the cards out of the girl’s hands with another smile.

"Relax, I’ll find it, okay?" Quistis stood and walked to another side of the office, settling down in one of the comfy chairs as she clicked through the cards. She soon found Izzy’s number, apparently she was listed here as still living in Balamb, but there was only a mobile phone number. Quistis glanced at her watch – the ferry would be here soon, she’d have to call Izzy later on. Replacing the cards on the girl’s desk, she left and made her way back to the car park.

A surprise was waiting in the form of Seifer’s old henchmen Fujin and Raijin, who were standing by a beaten up old sports car in the same car park as Quistis. Raijin was talking to the monosyllabic Fujin when he noticed Quistis approaching. She tensed up – the two had switched sides with alarming regularity during the Ultimecia crisis, but these days kept to themselves. She walked over and folded her arms expectantly.

"Alright, what are you two doing here?" she asked. Raijin opened his mouth to answer but Fujin silenced him with a wave of her hand.

"HOLIDAY," she said, the loud voice booming from such a petite girl never failing to startle her. Almost as much as what she’d actually just said.

"A holiday?" said Quistis. "That seems awfully.. tame for you two! What’s the occasion?"

"We’re off to visit an old friend, ya know?" said Raijin, his upper body rattling from the myriad of bracelets, necklaces and trinkets he wore. "Someone who’s not been around for a while, so we missed him and thought we’d better say hello."

"It’s a ‘him,’ huh?" said Quistis, turning to Fujin. "Not an old boyfriend of yours we scared off, is it?" Quistis couldn’t resist being sarcastic to these two – after the fights they’d had with each other, they deserved it in her opinion! Fujin slapped Raijin on the arm for giving out any detail of their ‘friend’ and answered Quistis.

"PRIVATE," she said, folding her arms and turning away to indicate she wouldn’t say another word.

"Fair enough," said Quistis, "as long as you pair of misfits stay out of my way I don’t think we’ll have any trouble." She walked back over to her jeep and hopped in, seeing that the ferry was on its final approach to the harbour bay. She watched Raijin argue a little with Fujin before she just smacked him once across the head and stabbed a finger at the car to order him to get into it. He complied, rubbing the back of his injured head with a sour look on his face. Quistis chuckled – the two were probably lovers but just doing a very good job of hiding it, but that wasn’t really any of her business.

The ferry sounded its foghorn to signal its arrival, and harbour attendants roped off the car park area as the large ship closed in on the dock, it’s ramp lowering to allow the cars to drive on board. One by one, the waiting vehicles were waved onto the ship, Quistis waiting her slot and then rolling steadily up and into the depths of the ship. Parking in her marked space and then making her way to the top deck, she walked round to the brow of the ship, tasting the salty tang of the sea air in the swift winds chopping across the water.

Galbadia lay off n the distance, but the sun was still out and beaming down on the world, so Quistis felt an overwhelming sense of excitement at whatever lay ahead of her. After the last car was on board, the ferry sounded its horn again and then slowly rumbled away from the dock, bobbing slightly on the light waves as it plowed its way through the sea towards the shores of Galbadia.

So far, so good.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The rest of the journey across the sea continued without incident, although Quistis did keep finding herself having flashbacks to the day of Squall and his friends’ final SeeD exam, where they were heading out to assist in the military action liberating the city of Dollet from attacking Galbadian troops. Squall and Zell had been abandoned by Seifer and had met up with Selphie, the start of their long companionship, and Quistis had managed to save all their hides when the fearsome Galbadian war machine XATMOS-92 had pursued them all the way back to the beach, using the deck guns of the ship that had carried them all out to blast the monstrous metal spider and giving Squall enough time to leap onto the boat as it pulled away.

Dollet was a much happier place now, free from occupation and any threat from the Galbadian army, and ever thankful to Balamb Garden for its help in fighting the invaders off. Dollet was more in the direction of Trabia, some way away from where Quistis was currently heading. The shores ahead of her were drawing ever closer, and the weather was still perfect, making this possibly one of the best days in Quistis’ life. She was still stood against the brow of the ship, leaning on the railings and looking out to sea. She’d been disturbed a few times by the loud noises of Raijin retching violently over the side of the ship, but she tried not to let it bother her.

The main cabin of the ship was casting a shadow behind her, and there was a line of chairs laid out in front of it so she settled down into one of those, soaking up the warmth of the day and picking up the sounds of the other passengers milling around. She was drifting casually on her own thoughts when a shadow fell across her. Holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, she looked up to see who this intruder into her space was. It was a tall man of average build, looking down on her.

"May I help you?" she asked.

"I was just about to ask if you’d mind if I sat here, that’s all," said the man pleasantly, sounding like he wasn’t much older than Quistis, "but you seemed lost in your thoughts, and they looked like happy ones too, so I was going to wait for a quiet moment to ask you properly." Quistis smiled and looked back out to sea.

"Sure thing, sit anywhere you like. I’m just soaking up a few rays," she said, stretching out in the chair. She was wearing a black t-shirt with mock army fatigues patterns on, with a knee-length denim skirt and her boots to finish the outfit off. Her hair was tied back to try and get some sun on her normally pale skin.

The man was dressed in a pair of plain trousers and a check shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. He took a seat next to her and kicked off his boots, removing his socks next and then arranging them carefully on the floor in front of him to make a tiny makeshift rug. Quistis watched, confused, as he began to scrunch his toes on the socks therapeutically, settling back in his chair with a faint happy smile on his face. Quistis watched him bemusedly for a few moments then had to ask him what he was doing.

"Sorry to ask this, but what exactly are you doing?" she said. The man looked over to her, then sat back up in his chair to explain.

"It’s a trick I learnt from an old traveller once. I hate trips like this, I get very bad motion sickness all the time. I was sitting on this boat once, getting increasingly more sickly, when this old guy sat next to me pipes up and says ‘do you want to know something that’ll stop you feeling bad?’ So I say yes, what? He tells me to do this," said the man, indicating his feet. "He said if I scrunch my toes on a good, soft rug, or at worst your own socks will do, then that’ll ease the tension in your whole body and make you feel a million times better. Something to do with the nerve endings in your feet – it’s sort of like a mini massage for you!" The man sat back in his chair, hands behind his head and eyes closed from the sun as Quistis looked on, intrigued by this new arrival. He opened one eye and extended a hand to her in greeting.

"Oh, I’m sorry, allow me to introduce myself – the name’s Justin. Justin Talbeck."

"Quistis Trepe," she said, shaking his hand.

"Well then Quistis Trepe, what brings you out here on this sunny Saturday morning?"

"You tell me," she said, settling back down and propping her feet up on top of each other. "I packed my bags and got on board but I don’t really have a plan to speak of after that."

"What did you pack from? You came on board at Balamb, always seemed like a nice place whenever I visited," said Justin.

"It is, and it was my old job I was getting away from. Actually, my whole old life in general. I’m making a fresh start," she said optimistically. Justin chuckled and she turned her eyes to him accusingly.

"Yeah, been there, done that. I hope you have more luck than me! I’m on my way back to my old job, old life, and old everything else," he said, reaching into his shirt pocket for his wallet, locating a picture and holding it up for Quistis to see. It was of a pleasant looking building, surrounded by other smaller places and huge trees, with a crowd of children standing in front of it.

"Were you a teacher?" asked Quistis. Justin smiled.

"Yes I was, Setton Elemental. I taught Literature up until about a year ago, when I headed out to try and find my higher calling."

"I take it you didn’t find it," said Quistis, knowing all too well how Justin felt.

"Well, sort of. I ended up in this city just past Dollet called Kabernia, looking for whatever it was that had drawn me to the place. What I found was.." His voice trailed off.

"Was what?" pushed Quistis.

"Not important right now," he finished. "It’s kind of a long story, I’ll save it for a quiet moment later in the trip."

"We’ll be docking at Borough Harbour in less than an hour, so I have a feeling you’ll get round to telling me pretty soon!" she said, and the two shared a smile. They both had their secrets but were keeping their cards close to their chest. Quistis caught herself before she blurted out some very lame pickup line, and realised with some surprise that she was on the verge of flirting with this guy. He seemed genuine enough, and you didn’t get many literature teachers of young kids who turned out to be evil sorceresses from future dimensions, after all. And even if he was, she could quite easily kick his ass if he tried anything. She decided to push her luck.

"So what are your plans once you get to the harbour? I’m heading out to meet my aunt in Dulcett, but I’ve got some time to kill first if you felt like keeping me company," she said, attempting a coy smile but most likely making a real mess of it. Quistis had legendarily bad luck with boys, and an annoying tendency to fall for the most inappropriate ones. To her relief, Justin seemed interested.

"I’d love to, it’s been a while since I was here myself so I could do with a little time to reacquaint myself with everything. I do know that there’s this great little café at the harbour where we can stop off for a while. I take it you drove?"

"Yup, my jeep’s down in the cargo bay."

"Excellent – I didn’t so you can give me a lift in return for my company," he said with a cheeky smile. Quistis laughed and nodded her approval.

"Deal." This didn’t seem to be going too bad at all! Quistis spent the next half an hour chatting away to Justin as the landscape of Galbadia drew closer, before the two headed down into the cargo bay to get back into Quistis’ jeep. Justin whistled to show his appreciation as Quistis unlocked the still gleaming new vehicle.

"Now that is an impressive piece of machinery, my dear!" he said, looking the jeep up and down. "What’s she called?"

"It doesn’t have a name, it’s just a car," said Quistis.

"Doesn’t have a name? Aw, man, you can’t not christen her!"

"’Her?’" said Quistis, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Absolutely, all cars need a name. It helps you bond with them, and I believe makes them run better. Think of a the first thing that comes into your head when you look at it and use that. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it." Quistis looked down at the jeep, her hand on her chin as she pondered what to call it. With a grin she decided.


"Beep?" said Justin incredulously.

"Yeah, Beep the Jeep," said Quistis. "It’s the first thing that came to my head. It’s a cheerful name for a cheerful car!" she said triumphantly. Justin stared at her for a few seconds then shook his head with a smile.

"Whatever you say, Quistis, it’s your car after all!" he said, still examining it and nodding his head in agreement from time to time. The ferry sounded its horn from some way above them, signalling it was on its approach to the harbour.

"Hop in, I’ll put the radio on for a bit before we get to the shore," said Quistis, vaulting into the driver’s seat. Justin stepped in and settled himself down.

"This is an exceptionally nice car, you know," he said, looking around the interior. "How much did it cost?"

"Actually, it was a present," said Quistis, not needing to look round to know Justin’s eyes were widening at her remark. "The people I used to work with got it for me as a going away gift. They sold my old, beaten up car and used the money from that and their own cash to get me this little beauty."

"Wow! Where did you work, the First Bank of Balamb or something?" Quistis decided it was time to spill one of her secrets to him.

"Balamb Garden," she said without any accentuation. "I was a SeeD instructor for a few years until this morning." She turned to him to gauge his reaction. He just nodded again, more thoughtfully this time.

"A SeeD, huh? Remind me to give you a call if I’m ever being mugged, I could do with a friend who knows how to kick ass!" He smiled, meaning wholeheartedly what he just said. Quistis was thrown for a second by his honesty, but then relaxed again.

"Whew, I was afraid that’d put you off me," she said, searching for a cassette to play. "Most guys get as far as that line and then just say ‘Really? Well, anyway, I must be going..’"

"Naah, don’t worry about it. I’m actually quite interested in the way the whole SeeD thing works, I used to know a couple of friends who worked at Galbadia Garden. They left just before all that hostility started up a few months ago." Quistis shuddered at the recollection – Balamb and Galbadia Garden had been set against one another as part of Ultimecia’s plans, and had ended up crashing into each other, with a vicious battle between the two factions of students waging all across both Gardens. Quistis lost a few friends that day.

"Yeah, I remember.. not a good time back then," she said, trying to change the subject. "Aha! Here we go," said Quistis as she found the tape she was looking for and slotted it into the radio. A loud blast of very heavy metal music blasted out of her speakers. She laughed over the noise before turning it down, noticing that Justin had clamped his hands over his ears in a reflex action.

"What the heck is that?" he said over the headache-inducing mix of distorted guitars and high speed drumming.

"One of my favourite bands, actually, a local Balamb group called Toxic. Good bunch of lads, I used to hang about with the singer when I was younger. Rock music not your kind of thing?" she said with a hint of friendly sarcasm.

"Don’t get me wrong, I like my good music and all," said Justin, mindful of the disapproving stares that Quistis’ choice in tunes was drawing from the other ferry passengers as they returned to their cars, "but I believe there is a time and a place to rock on, and at this precise moment, this," he paused to activate the sunroof to seal the jeep off again, "ain’t it."

"Point taken," said Quistis, turning the volume down some more.

"Best not to piss everybody off before we get out of here, right?" said Justin. Quistis agreed with him, but then noticed Fujin and Raijin again up ahead, climbing into their old car. Fujin scanned the car bay before climbing in, and Quistis made a mental note to keep an eye on where those two went, just in case it was something she needed to know about.

Quistis and Justin chatted a little more, mainly about Quistis’ life at the Garden, as the ferry made its run in to the harbour. Within a few minutes the doors leading to the ramp and car bay slowly swung open, illuminating the interior of the ferry with the still brilliant sunshine outside, and one by one the cars lined up and drove off, down into the harbour. Quistis followed Justin’s directions to a small car park just outside the harbour limits, and as she got out she watched Fujin and Raijin drive past. Fujin eyed her suspiciously as they went, and Quistis made a note of their car’s registration number to look them up later on. You could never be quite sure with those two.

"This is the place," said Justin behind her, and Quistis turned to see him pointing towards a quiet-looking little café by the roadside, called Borough Bites. Justin crossed the road and headed towards it, and after a final glance towards the departing Fujin and Raijin followed him inside.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The two travellers pulled up chairs inside the café, which was cool and fresh inside thanks to the extensive air conditioning, obviously turned up high to compensate for the heat outside. Quistis scanned the menu while Justin called over a waitress.

"What’ll it be?" she asked pleasantly.

"Uh, I’ll just have a coffee, and Quistis?"

"The same. Milk and three sugars, if you would!"

"Certainly," said the waitress, heading back towards the bar.

"Three sugars? You must have one heck of a sweet tooth," said Justin. Quistis grinned in reply.

"Not really, I just like my drinks strong enough to knock me out. Keeps me on my toes."

"You don’t strike me as the sort of girl who’d have to worry about that much," he said with that increasingly infectious half-smile of his. Quistis laughed the comment off and looked out of the windows that walled the café for a moment, noticing a large cruise ship drawing closer to the edge of the bay.

"Wow, now that’s a pretty big ship," she said, squinting to read its name.

"That’ll be the Kazuzu," said Justin without looking round, "it’s the cruise ship owned by the governor of the big city a few miles out from here, Kabernia. He’s pretty well off and likes to make sure people know that by parading that monstrosity around for all to see."

"What does it actually do?" said Quistis, intrigued by this ship.

"Well now, that’s a matter of great local debate," said Justin, leaning forward and speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Quistis leaned forward too to get in on the act. "Some people say it’s loaded with sophisticated spyware and surveillance gadgetry to allow him to keep an eye on his territories and those of his rivals, some say it hides a secret army ready to jump off and batter his enemies at a moment’s notice, others think it’s full of highly illegal testing labs for anything from magic users and telepaths to genetically modified soldiers and trained monsters." Justin settled back in his seat. "Of course, I just think it’s some rich guy showing off his bank balance, but those other stories are just so much more interesting!"

"Wow, " said Quistis again. "I suddenly feel like I’ve been living a sheltered life all these years.." Their drinks arrived as Quistis’ mind wandered for a moment, and Justin stirred his coffee, watching Quistis thoughtfully for a moment. She blinked as her mind came shooting back to her, and she looked around for a second before she remembered where she was.

"Sorry, must have spaced out for a bit," she said, scooping some of the froth from her drink absently. "I do that sometimes."

"That’s okay, you looked quite sweet going all hazy-eyed like that," said Justin with a smile. Quistis caught herself blushing slightly, something she hadn’t done for a while.

"So, er, anyway, tell me about this school you teach at?" she said in an attempt to divert attention away from herself.

"Used to teach at and hopefully will be again, you mean," he said. "Setton Elementary, a nice quiet little school in the town of the same name, about ten miles south of here. Full mainly of bright-eyed local kids who don’t have anything better to do, and unfortunately several stuffy old teachers who have values as old-fashioned as their dress sense."

"Sounds like most schools," said Quistis as she took a sip of her coffee.

"It has its moments. The kids are a good bunch, don’t give me any trouble, and as long as you play by their rules the other teachers don’t mind you either. I started making up my own rules, hence my exit for a while. I got an offer to go back, apparently they’re looking for a lot of new staff members. How about you? What did you teach at the Garden?"

"Well," said Quistis, making a mental note to edit out any sensitive information, "I started as a regular cadet, graduated and stayed on to be an instructor, the youngest one there as it happens." Quistis stirred her half-empty coffee cup thoughtfully as she continued. "I mainly taught new recruits in the basics, you know hand-to-hand combat, magic use, weapons training, stuff like that. I was a SeeD at 15 and an instructor at 17, but after a year of teaching, I was told I wasn’t making the grade."

"What were you doing wrong?" said Justin, genuinely interested.

"You know, I have no idea. They said I ‘lacked leadership qualities’ or something like that. Maybe they wanted me to be demoted to a SeeD so I could accompany Squall and the others.."

"Who’s Squall?" asked Justin. Quistis was thrown by the question for a moment, and composed herself before answering.

"My last student. His team were sent out on missions against the Sorceress, and I became part of that team. If I’d have still been an instructor I wouldn’t have been able to leave the Garden for long."

"Sounds like you were trusted, though," said Justin.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, think about it. The people running the Garden knew they wanted you as part of the team but couldn’t get you out of your duties unless you were demoted. It was a pretty heavy handed way to get around their won rules, but they were obviously prepared to do what it took to get you out there, even at the cost of your old job. Maybe they’d have wanted you back when it was all over?"

"You know, I never really asked about it," said Quistis, looking at her situation from a new angle for once. "Maybe they did. Huh.." she trailed off again. Perhaps Justin was right? They wanted her to go along with Squall’s team but were forced to fire her from her job to do so? It certainly made a lot of sense, Quistis knew in her heart she wasn’t bad at what she did, and she certainly wasn’t bad enough to justify being sacked. Maybe she’d bring it up with Cid next time they spoke.

"You’re doing it again," said Justin with a smile, waving his hand in front of Quistis’ face to bring her back to the real world. She chuckled and continued.

"So, we did the missions, and as you know, the Sorceress problem wasn’t a problem anymore-"

"That was you? Now, I’m impressed," he said. Quistis soaked up the compliment for a second.

"Well, it was a team effort, there were six of us in the team, and so I can’t take any individual credit for anything," she said modestly.

"Well, maybe, but you trained this Squall guy up in the first place, right? So that kind of makes you pretty important to it all!"

"Now, see, you’re just embarrassing me!" she said, blushing for definite this time. "Look, instead of making me all blushy and stuff, you could give me some ideas on where to find myself a job around here. Once I’ve seen my auntie for a bit I’m going to have to start earning a living. If nothing else it’ll fill the hours while I carry on trying to ‘find myself’ or whatever it is I’m trying to do."

"Why not come to the school with me?"


"I said before they’re on the lookout for new staff, why not give it a try? You have teaching experience," said Justin.

"I hardly think training eight year olds how to kick each others asses qualifies me to be a normal schoolteacher," she replied.

"No, I’m serious, I think you’d be great. What about teaching P.E.?"

"A gym teacher? Now I know you’re joking.."

"I swear on the grave of my pet chocobo Randall, I think the school could use a hot girl gym teacher." Quistis laughed out at that last remark, but gave the idea careful thought for a second. Teaching normal kids? It could prove interesting – and after all, she’d been a good instructor in her opinion. Maybe it could work out?

"Alright, maybe I’ll give it a shot," she conceded, "leave me a number and I’ll give you a ring in a week or so. Give me time to mull it over first."

"Excellent," said Justin, snatching up a serviette and taking a pen from his pocket. He scribbled down two numbers and handed the napkin to Quistis. "The first is Setton Elementary’s number, the second is my number just in case."

"Well, it’s taken me a good few hours to get your number out of you, so I guess that takes you out of the ‘easy date’ category," she said with a sly grin. Justin laughed.

"I’m so glad," he said, then glanced at his watch. "Well, this has, naturally, been a whole lot of fun, but I have to be on my way just now. I’m catching a train out to Setton in about ten minutes so I’d best head out to the station." He stood up and put on his jacket, extending a hand for Quistis to shake again. "Pleasure to meet you, Quistis Trepe, and I look forward to hearing from you soon."

"Same to you, Justin Talbeck," she said, shaking his hand with a smile. "Catch you later." He nodded and left her some cash to pay the bill, then walked out of the café doors and followed a sign towards the station. Quistis watched him walk away, turning over the idea of being a teacher in her mind. It was definitely an avenue to be explored, but for now she’d better be heading over to Aunt Nona’s place. It was about an hour’s drive away because of the windy local roads, but she knew the route quite well despite not having visited for many years.

Quistis wandered back over to her jeep. Chuckling at the name it was now blessed with.

"Well then, Beep," she said to it, "looks like it's just you and me for a while now! All you have to do is get me to Dulcett without breaking down." Quistis opened the door and climbed in, adjusting the rear-view mirror and gasping in surprise to see a cloaked man standing directly outside her car. She turned in her seat to see who it was, but the man was already disappearing into the crowds of early afternoon shoppers walking the harbour's streets. She stepped out of her car and looked all around, but there was no sign of him.

"Huh!" she muttered. Far too many odd things were happening just lately. That guy on the ferry, seeing Fujin and Raijin again, and now that. Quistis hoped it was just some random nutjob walking the streets who'd gotten a bit too close for comfort, but all the same kept a niggling doubt at the back of her mind.

Perturbed, she climbed back into her car and started the engine, folding out the map of the area of Galbadia she was in across the passenger seat. By her calculations, it would be about 3pm by the time she got there if she followed the main routes, so Quistis let the signposts guide her out of the harbour and through the adjoining town of Borough until she was out on the roads again. It was a comforting feeling, blasting along the countryside in the warm afternoon weather, the jeep's top down and nothing on her mind. Well, except seeing Justin again. And taking up his offer of becoming a teacher. And what the odd things that had been happening meant.

Quistis shook her head to rattle the thoughts out of it, and slammed in another cassette instead to pass the time. The road to Dulcett took her through several lushly forested areas, the sunlight leaking through gaps in the thick foliage above her as she passed by occasional hikers and backpackers heading in an out of the woodland. Eventually, she came to the edge of a dip leading down into a deep valley, which she remembered from memory as being the start of the road into Dulcett. It had been many years since Quistis was last here, before she'd graduated even. Her Auntie Nona wasn't technically an aunt, as Quistis was an orphan just like the others, but she was someone who'd been appointed as her legal guardian after she'd left Edea's care at the orphanage. Quistis had spent her pre-teen years here, in the quiet little town full of people who always seemed to be a lot older and wiser than she was, but it was a search for more action in her life that had eventually led her to the Garden.

She'd picked Balamb Garden over the closer Galbadia Garden on account of reputation more than anything else – Gardens were a lot like schools and universities, they had league tables and prospectuses, and after careful consideration Quistis had singled out Balamb as the place to be. Perhaps it was the small town mentality she was used to that had attracted her to the more isolated Balamb, who knows, but now she could appreciate Dulcett for what it really was – a great place to take a holiday but not the best place to live.

The road down from her current vantage point was steep but easily driveable in her jeep, so she decided not to waste any more time and make her way down the valleyside to the waiting arms of sanctuary below. At least, that's what she was hoping – Nona knew she was coming so Quistis was just looking to spend a week or so putting her feet up and making some enquiries about where to travel to next. Setton was looking like the best option at the moment still, regardless of what a certain admittedly quite good-looking schoolteacher may have recommended about the place.

She shifted the jeep into gear and began her descent.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It took Quistis about twenty minutes to work her way down and into the dirt track that led up to the outskirts of the town. There were quicker and easier routes from various points around the valley's lip. But being the kind of girl she was meant Quistis preferred to dive in and get on with it, thus it was a much dustier car that reached its destination a short while later. Dulcett was a typical little town – its relatively isolated location hadn't affected its growth, and the town boasted a church, a business sector of sorts and several residential areas. There were roads leading up to the more luxurious houses up in the hills, which were more spread out but still within a stone's throw of the little green in the centre of the town. Supply routes to and from nearby towns and cities kept the place in the loop trade wise, and its most interesting feature was its main manner of transport out of the ravine – a flying ferry service known as the aerolift, which was basically a large helicopter-styled machine that
made periodic trips from the edge of the valley down into the centre of town. It was a local sight of interest, and as far as Quistis knew was the only one of its kind in the whole continent. Rumours that the secluded Shumi tribe had assisted in its construction were just part of the local folklore.

Quistis drove slowly onto the start of the road network leading through the town, passing by some sunbathing young girls on one of the small fields which banked a glittering ice-blue lake. Dulcett Cathedral was on the opposite side of the lake in all its gothic majesty, several hundred years old and still looking as imposing as it always had. Quistis recalled how terrified she'd been of the building as a child, especially when its south face's archways and main gates resembled a huge, monstrous face. Well, it did if you were a ten year old with an active imagination, anyway..

Her aunt lived in one of the houses up on the hillside, but Quistis wanted to say hello to a few familiar faces on her way there. She parked in the main town centre and walked into the local shopping mall, looking for the stall she'd visited so often as a child. It was a book and comic store where Quistis had spent many happy hours, reading up on all the different places in the world and then stories of the famous adventurers who'd found them in the first place, as well as hyperactive action stories and comics that fuelled her desire to look for a more exciting place to be. The shop was called 'Another World' and it was owned by the at once impressive and friendly form of Mrs. Rusard, a widower who'd been romantically linked to many of the adventurers whose books she sold, or so local legend said, and who had fed Quistis' lust for knowledge early on, treating the young would-be SeeD as a willing protégéé.

Making her way through the crowds of shoppers, Quistis's heart fluttered a little in anticipation when she saw the familiar hoarding above the entrance to the shop. She had no idea if Mrs. Rusard was still working there or not, but she certainly hoped she would be. Taking a deep breath before pushing the door open, Quistis was thrown back into her childhood here – the smells of the older books, the well-read second hand section with its faded print books and tattered covers, the blaring flashes of colour that the comics stands promised, and to her delight the familiar form of Mrs. Rusard standing behind the counter, ringing p some prices and ticking off a list as she checked a new supply of books in front of her. Quistis stepped up to the counter, picked up a book that she knew would draw her attention and casually slid it across the counter. Mrs. Rusard, a full-bodied woman in her fifties with a mass of black hair and reading glasses perched imperiously on the edge of her nose, didn't look up at first, reach
ing to ring up the price of the book before happening to glance up at the face of the girl she hadn't seen for almost seven years.

"You look strangely familiar, my dear, do I know you?"

"Now I'm disappointed, Mrs. Rusard, I always thought you'd recognise your little adventurer if you ever saw here again!" said Quistis with a broad smile, watching recognition light up the features of the shopkeeper as she deduced the identity of the striking young girl in front of her.

"Quistis! Quistis Trepe, how on earth have you been?" she said, reaching across the counter to envelop Quistis in a bear hug that squeezed the air out of her. Mrs. Rusard laughed happily and patted Quistis on the back as though embracing a long lost daughter. Which, in a manner of speaking, she was – Quistis had always seen Mrs. Rusard as a kind of mother figure.

"I've been fine, Mary," said Quistis, feeling old enough to address her by her first name, "I did all the things I wanted to but I still kept that lust for adventure you always loved about me, so in a roundabout kind of way that's why I'm here."

"You made it to the Garden then? Your auntie gave me reports when she could, but we never heard from you that often!" said Mary, almost scolding Quistis for cutting herself off from her spiritual home.

"I made it all the way, just like you hoped – made it as a SeeD, became an instructor, saved the world a few times, travelled round most of it too, but after a while it still felt as though something was missing. I'm here to gather my thoughts for a while."

"Have you been to see your aunt yet?"

"Not just yet, I literally just arrived in town," Quistis replied.

"Well go and see her, let her know you're here. I won't be going anywhere, swing by later on tonight if you can, otherwise the two of you are welcome to drop by for dinner and drinks this evening, just make sure she calls me first!"

"No problem. I'll see you later, Mrs. Rusard!" said Quistis, leaving the shop with a wave. She couldn't shake the happy smile off her face for some time. It was like a sort of mini-homecoming, and she could see her time here passing very well indeed. Within a few moments she was on her way to her aunt's house again, a short drive out of the town centre and up into the valley sides leading her to a long drive covered overhead by the thick evergreen trees that grew in this region. There were several of the larger houses leading off this drive, and halfway down was her aunt's place. The large, white painted house of her youth loomed before her, its large windows looking out onto the driveway reminding Quistis of so many happy times spent here. She parked her jeep outside and stretched a little before getting out, walking up to the front door and ringing the doorbell to announce herself. The front garden was full, as always, of a rainbow of flora and fauna, with the tall pine trees at the houses rear standing watchful guard over it all.

Her aunt came to the door and welcomed Quistis in with another big hug, leading her inside and over to the dinner room. Nona's house was decorated in a pleasantly old-fashioned way all around its interior, from the wooden rocking chairs to the huge fireplace, although more modern whites and chrome had sneaked in over the years to update the place a little. The dining area was home to a long, twenty-chair table that had seen its share of lavish dinner parties, given her aunt's penchant for entertaining, but right now there were just two places set – one for Quistis and one for Nona, with a selection of nibbles and drinks ready for the doubtlessly weary traveller.

"How was the journey over here, then?" asked Nona, a woman in her mid-forties but blessed with youthful looks and a slim figure still. Her shoulder-length straight brown hair framed her face, with its attractively tanned skin and big, brown eyes. She was a chatty person who knew just about everyone within several square miles of her home, and did plenty to get herself involved in the town's affairs. She was divorced from her husband of several years after he'd moved all the way out to the city of Charon, near the Lunar Gate station, and the two had found the distance impossible to work with, but despite that she was a happy woman, content with her lot in life.

"It was fine, it was actually a good nostalgia trip to head down the valley again, see the aerolift working, stuff like that. I stopped by and said hello to Mrs. Rusard as well, she’d like us to drop over later on."

"Sounds good, saves me from cooking dinner!" said Aunt Nona, getting up to fetch them both a cup of tea from the kitchen, prompted by the noise of the kettle boiling over. "So, what’s the news from Balamb, you didn’t go into much detail in your letter, just that you were coming by for a visit," she shouted from inside the kitchen.

"I left the Garden, Auntie," Quistis replied, looking up to see her aunt’s face poking around to stare incredulously at her.

"You did what? I thought being a SeeD meant the world to you?"

"Well, at first I did too, but it didn’t turn out that way in the end. It just felt as though I wasn’t going anywhere, you know?" Nona sat down, handing a cup of tea to Quistis and sitting down with a second cup for herself, a concerned look on her face.

"But why? When you were little, you’d talk to me and Mary every day about wanting to grow up to be an adventurer, to ‘see the world and right wrongs wherever you found them,’ said Nona, quoting the youthful Quistis’ own words back at her.

"I did everything I wanted to, I guess – I travelled the world, fought evil, righted wrongs, but when I came back all I felt was empty. I guess there are other ways to go about finding my calling in this world. Or maybe I just made a mess of that opportunity and now I need to look for a new one."

"I remember you mentioned being demoted from an Instructor, what happened there?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," said Quistis, taking a sip of tea thoughtfully, "maybe they felt I wasn’t making the grade or something. Perhaps they wanted me to go along with the others.. whatever. It just sapped my confidence, is all."

"I can imagine, you put your heart and soul into that place and that was all the thanks they gave you?"

"Things change, auntie, what can I say," said Quistis.

"What now? You must have some other plans lined up. How long will you stay here?"

"A week or two if that’s alright with you."

"Of course it is, dear, anytime you want to come by is fine by me," said Nona with a smile.

"What I’ve got planned is not much – I’m going to spend a bit of time chilling out here, make a few enquiries, look for some work, stuff like that." She remembered the note Justin had scribbled her earlier that day. "I do have one definite thing I can try.."

"There’s plenty of work going in the town in the meantime, just ask around. I’m sure Mary would like a hand at the bookshop!" said Nona. Quistis smiled.

"She always said I was a little too young at the time, that would be pretty cool to help out there for a few days!"

"First things first. I’ll call Mary and organise dinner, and then we’ll get you settled in upstairs. Your old room’s still here, because I’ve got rooms to spare in this place after all!" she said with a grin. Part of the divorce settlement meant she could stay in the house she’d shared with her husband, which was largely paid for by his high wages from Esthar. Nona disappeared to make some phone calls, leaving Quistis to retrieve Justin’s note and turn it round thoughtfully in her hands a few times. She’d call him in the morning and see what he had to offer, she decided.

A pleasant meal spent catching up on the last seven years was spent at Mrs. Rusard’s house, with the three girls swapping stories and Quistis spending a lot of the evening relating the events of the whole Ultimecia saga – carefully omitting the brief tender moments with Squall. Nona and Mary gasped at the tales of the terrifying monsters Bahamut and Ultimate Weapon, laughed at the vision of Squall and the others racing across mountain ranges on their chocobos, and were moved to fond smiles and sighs at the heroic rescue of Rinoa from deep space by Squall. In fact, Squall figured quite prominently in the story, Quistis unconsciously playing down her role in everything as usual.

"It sounds like you’ve had enough adventure to last several lifetimes, Quistis! And you’re not even twenty yet! Why, you’re less than a third of my age," chuckled Mrs. Rusard.

"There’s plenty more to be found yet," said Quistis. "I just intend to go about it in a different way from now on. I’ve got an offer for some work which I’m going to take up, I think."

"Really?" asked Nona. "That was quick, where from?" Quistis told them about Justin and the teacher positions going at Setton Elementary, and how there was a possibility she could become the new gym teacher.

"That sounds like as good a place as any to get started, my dear," said Mary. "I think if you spend some time teaching normal kids, keeping yourself fit through your job as well, then you can make plenty of cash and then fund yourself on more trips to do some exploring."

"Did you ever stop to think you maybe had too much danger in your life?" said Nona suddenly, as though the idea had just struck her.

"Too much? What do you mean?" asked Quistis.

"Well, think about it. The only time you’ve left the Garden is to fight. The only time you’ve been in other parts of the world is when you’ve been trying to overthrow some evil dictator, or battle some huge dragon, or go through some kind of trauma. You’ve never gone anywhere just to see what it was like. I think that’s part of the problem here – you only remember the world as a place of violence."

"Yes, yes, I see what you mean," said Mary, picking up the thread of Aunt Nona’s logic. "You need to see the world through fresh eyes again, without having to worry about finding something to fight. You’ll learn more about yourself and the places you’re visiting if you go in as an explorer instead of a warrior!" Quistis stared at the two of them for a few moments.

"That was very profound of you both," she replied. "But it does make a strange kind of sense as well.."

"Trust us, we’re always right," said Nona. Mrs. Rusard murmured her agreement and the two ladies took a sip from their drinks in tandem, a peculiar habit of theirs.

"Well, I’ll call this guy and speak to him. Setton’s only an hour or so away from here anyway, so I won’t be far away whatever happens. Do you two really think I should go for the job?"

"Absolutely!" said Aunt Nona. "I think it’d be the best thing in the world for you to try."

That was that then.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ring ring.

"Hello, Setton Elementary Headmaster’s office, how may I help you?"

"Uh, hi, my name is Quistis Trepe, I was calling in about-"

"Ah yes, Miss Trepe, I was wondering when you were going to call us. Mr. Talbeck has already spoken to me and told me to expect a call from you." That was awfully bold of him, thought Quistis. Maybe he knows me better than I thought!

"Well, in that case you’ll know I’m interested in taking up one of the teaching positions at the school, so I guess I’m just calling to see what needs to be done next!"

"It’s very simple," said the secretary. "If you can swing by the school sometime today, one of the staff here will meet you and show you around for a little, then you’ll meet the Headmaster, Mr. Shrewsfield, and he’ll talk to you about the position you’re interested in."

"Don’t you need to know if I have any qualifications first?"

"Mr. Talbeck already mentioned your previous post as a SeeD Instructor at Balamb Garden, and the headmaster took that very favourably. He’d like to see you as soon as possible!" Quistis thought for a second. Today seemed a little sudden – it was the morning after the dinner with Aunt Nona and Mrs Rusard, and she’d called the school almost as soon as she was up. On the other hand, it was only an hours drive away so shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.

"Sure, I’ll be there by lunchtime all being well. Is that okay?"

"That’s perfect, Miss Trepe, I’ll set up your appointment with Mr Shrewsfield for two o’clock. Have a good journey and we’ll see you later today!"

"Uh, thanks, bye." Quistis hung up. Well, that looks like that was settled then. Seems that Mr Justin Talbeck actually wanted her to be at that school more than she’d realised! Plus he’d guessed that she’d definitely call in, and had told the staff about her SeeD background. That could turn out to be a good or a bad thing, she’d have to see.

Quistis replaced the phone receiver and headed downstairs to the kitchen, where Aunt Nona was cooking up breakfast, The smell of the grilled bacon and gently simmering scrambled eggs had wafted up through the wood-panelled house into Quistis’s room from early on, waking her up and making her think for a brief moment she was back in her youth again, looking forward to a cooked breakfast before setting out for the day. Aunt Nona was humming busily to herself as she clattered plates and cutlery around, laying out the breakfast table. She looked up and smiled as Quistis rounded the corner in the stairs and walked down into the kitchen.

"Morning, dear. Bet this is like a blast from the past for you!"

"You can say that again, I spent a few moments thinking I was ten years old again before I remembered where I was!"

"Well, take a seat and eat a good breakfast, I’m sure you can remember how to do that. I don’t know what kinds of food they serve up over at the Garden but I’ll beat it can’t beat one of my breakfasts!"

It certainly can’t, thought Quistis as she tucked into the sizzling meal before her. Over breakfast she told her aunt of the decision to drive over to Setton after she’d finished eating.

"I think it may work out quite well, especially because they already know about my SeeD qualifications."

"And this young chap you met doesn’t have anything to do with it, at all, I take it?" said Nona with a sly grin.

"Well, maybe just a little," said Quistis, reddening slightly. "Either way it’ll be an excellent opportunity for me to meet real people for a change. Plus, teaching kids could be.. well, fun, really. I’ll have to see how this interview goes."

"Let me know when you’re ready to set off then," said Nona, clearing up the breakfast dishes. Quistis headed upstairs to grab a few things for the journey. Once safely back in her room, she sat on the bed and started gathering up her daily items to cram into her well-used satchel bag. She had no idea what to do at an actual job interview – her SeeD training had been like school at first, and her graduation was swiftly followed by her Instructor training course, so she’d never really had to sit down and talk about her skills and qualities, much less promote herself. She wasn’t the kind of girl who was comfortable with talking about how great she was anyway, so hopefully this school job would skip past anything like that.

A short while later, Quistis was settling into the jeep and adjusting her mirrors as Aunt Nona stood by her, running through a mental checklist of the things she’d need.

"This is going to sound very hackneyed, but just try and be yourself and I’m sure they’ll want to offer you something," said Nona. "We both know you’ve got the ability to do something like this, so just go for it."

"Thanks, Auntie. I’ll call you when I’ve had the interview and let you know what’s going on!" With that, Quistis started the jeep and headed out towards the main road. Within five minutes she was driving out of Dulcett and after ten she was heading out towards Setton. A tape of loud music accompanied her, as always, and she reached down into the glove box to bring out her notepad, the front page of which had been handily marked ‘Things I Must Do!’ in triple-set black ink. There was a list underneath, the first option being marked ‘Get to Aunt Nona’s.’ The second was ‘Find Work’ and the third was ‘Stay In New Job.’ With any luck, she’d get all three done by the end of the day.

A little under an hour later, after driving through Galbadia’s always easy on the eye lush green landscape, she was following a sign directing her towards Setton, a town which seemed to have the words ‘sleepy little town’ written all over it. She was about a mile away now, passing along a few half-built roads and getting deeper into a very thickly forested area. Even though it was still sunny and only just approaching lunchtime, the tree cover here gave the whole of Setton a very softly lit ambience, and there was also a lot of moisture in the air thanks to the woodland. Quistis imagined this place being very spectacular in the autumn, always her favourite season for the rich sights and smells the world gave her.

She pulled to a stop at an old-fashioned fingerpost positioned at the middle of a four way junction. One path was marked ‘Town Hall and Council buildings,’ one was ‘Town Centre,’ the third was ‘School’ and the last was ‘Theatre.’ She hadn’t seen much in the way of buildings yet but the town limits appeared to start about half a mile away from this fingerpost, a very old-world architectural style strengthened over the years by slightly more modern-looking extensions and annexes to the existing buildings. It seemed a lot like Dulcett, only without the huge aerolift station that dominated the centre of the city.

She hopped back into her jeep and followed the road for the school. It was a bumpy road but her jeep’s suspension was more than adequate, and after a short while she parked up at the gates of Setton Elementary. It was like an old master’s painting, with the elegant wings of the main building framed on all sides by blossom trees and tall oaks at the rear of a huge playing field. The sounds of children playing drifted across from those fields, and as Quistis got out of her car and walked up to the front doors, she remembered her first day arriving at Balamb Garden. Nona had gone with her to drop her off, and she recalled the nervous excitement knotting her stomach as she walked up the steps for the first time, and laying eyes on Headmaster Cid for the first time as well.

As she stepped in, she looked around for the secretary’s office. The inside of the school started with a large reception hall, with the classrooms all leading off from corridors branching out from this hall, going three floors up via a selection of creaky old timber staircases. There was a sign marking the office suite in front of her, so she headed towards it. Inside a small annex off the main entrance hall there were three office doors marked for the senior teaching staff, and a lady sat behind a desk who Quistis assumed was who she’d spoken to on the phone that morning.

"May I help you?" she asked, peering at Quistis over the bridge of her reading glasses. She was a thin woman, wrapped in a shawl despite the midday heat and busy in piles of paperwork spread over the desk before her.

"Yes, I’m Quistis Trepe, I’m here for the job interview?"

"Ah yes, just bear with me a moment, I’ll find one of our staff to show you around. Would you like to take a seat?" Quistis looked over her shoulder at the four comfy chairs lined up against the opposite wall and took a seat. The secretary put a call out for a teacher to visit the reception desk, and within moments the familiar head of Justin popped into the annex.

"You rang?" he said with that lopsided grin Quistis liked so much.

"Yes, Mr Talbeck, Miss Trepe is here if you’d like to show her around."

"Aha!" Justin turned to face Quistis and held out a hand as she got up. "Glad you could make it, Quisty, allow me to show you the place." Justin walked out of the office and Quistis followed. Justin headed up the first staircase on the left of the entrance hall, pointing out paintings of old teachers and masters of the school as they climbed to the top floor, as well as large ornate boards listing school captains, sports teams and also which students had joined Gardens, fought in conflicts, things like that.

"This place is pretty old fashioned, really," said Justin, "but it does the job. A lot of the teachers are older than me and a bit more set in their ways, so it’d e nice to have someone more like-minded around!"

"Hey, you don’t know if I’m staying or not yet!" said Quistis, but Justin just grinned at her as he reached the top of the stairs. There was a long landing with corridors leading off on both sides, and the landing was also set back about twenty feet to accommodate another two rooms behind them.

"This is central station, as it were. That way," he said, pointing to the left wing, "is the humanities block with all the language and art students, this side is the science block and behind me is the way down to the gym. These two room behind us are just general purpose form rooms." He headed past the two rooms on the landing to a staircase heading out to the back of the school. As Quistis walked along, she looked out of the windows on the landing to get a better view of the size of the place. Its ground stretched out quite a way in each direction, and there seemed to be a few hundred students here from ages 7 to 14.

"This is probably where you’ll end up," said Justin as they neared the bottom of the stairs. It fed out into a large gym hall, fully equipped for every conceivable type of indoor sport. "This place is big on its sporting history, apparently. Must be a local thing."

"They certainly take it very seriously," said Quistis looking all around her. The ceiling of the gym hall must have been thirty feet straight up, with the walls covered with climbing frames and gymnastic equipment and the floors marked out into several indoor ballgame variations.

"Out those doors at the back is the playing field, where we do all the usual track and field events. That’s all you really need to see for now, if I take you back to the staffroom you’ll see pretty much everything else along the way."

"Quite a tour," grinned Quistis, "don’t I get a map or anything?"

"Heck, I’ve been working here for years and I still get lost, I don’t think it’d help!"

"You’d better show me to the headmaster’s office then, Mr Talbeck, so I can see if they want me here or not!" Justin motioned for Quistis to go on ahead and guided her back towards the entrance hall and the reception. The secretary announced their arrival to the headmaster, Mr Shrewsfield, via her intercom, and a few moments later Quistis was called inside. She knocked once then stepped meekly into the room.

The headmaster’s study was what she’d expect, given what she’d seen of the old school building to date – a long, mahogany desk, pictures, photos and certificates framed all around the walls, a fireplace set into one wall for the winter nights, and a clear view of the playing fields. Quistis could imagine Mr. Shrewsfield stood there imperiously watching his students, even if it was only to make sure they weren’t kicking each other in to kill some time between lessons. Mr Shrewsfield himself was a tall man of medium build, with a wisp of grey hair on top of his head and a pair of thick set reading glasses. He was dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, and was sat behind his desk leafing though a few files, probably other job applicants, as Quistis entered. He motioned for her to take a seat.

"Good afternoon, Miss Trepe, I trust you’ve received the tour of the grounds already?"

"Yes, Just- Mr Talbeck showed me the lay of the land." Quistis tried to avoid using that familiarity just yet. It may count against her.

"Good, good," said Mr Shrewsfield, reclining in his chair and stroking his chin thoughtfully. "It Was Justin who made the suggestion about you to me in the first place, he was impressed by your previous credentials and felt you’d make a good addition to our staff."

"I must remember to thank him for his faith in me!" said Quistis, trying to smile pleasantly.

"To be perfectly honest, I know how left out he feels being at least ten years younger than any other member of staff at times, so I appreciate his aim to recruit some younger teachers. I know this is very impolite of me, but how old are you, Miss Trepe?"

"Twenty, give or take a month or so," said Quistis.

"My, you are starting out young! Although I understand you were a SeeD instructor at Balamb Garden?"

"Yes I was, for a three years, and I was a SeeD for three years previous to that."

"That sounds like an excellent pedigree to me, my dear! Tell me, what attracted you to the ‘mercenary’ lifestyle, though I hesitate to use the word, of the SeeD Gardens in the first place?" Quistis pondered her response. Suggesting she wanted to become a famous explorer and follow her childhood dream of seeing the world didn’t suggest itself as the required answer here.

"I wanted to pass on what I knew to generations below me, in the hope that I’d be making the world a safer and better place in years to come," she said diplomatically. That was only a half-truth. Shrewsfield seemed impressed.

"Good motivation," he said. "I’d like to offer you a position here, based on what I’ve heard from you and the reference your Garden headmaster Cid Kramer passed on to me, on a trial basis for a month to see if you fit in around here. There are openings in our science, humanities and sports departments, you are free to choose any of those. What would you say to that?"

I’d say thank you very much and I had no idea it would be that easy, thought Quistis, but wisely replied instead with "I’d say that sounds like an excellent plan. I wasn’t aware that you’d been in touch with Headmaster Cid, though!"

"We’re old acquaintances, actually," said Shrewsfield, "when Justin mentioned your past there I thought it was a good excuse to give him a call, and he gave you a hearty recommendation." The sly old dog, thought Quistis, but I guess I owe him for that one.

"I hope I can live up to his praise of me, then!" said Quistis. "I know that from what I've seen this looks like a great institution for me."

"Oh it is, I can assure you," said Mr Shrewsfield, following it with a hearty laugh at his own bon mot. Quistis chuckled diplomatically.

"Well then, if you’d like to leave your contact details with my secretary outside, you can come back on.." he checked his diary. "Wednesday morning? We’ll sort through your induction for the next couple of days and all being well, you can start on Monday!"

Wow, thought Quistis. This may be easier than I thought!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis could barely sleep Tuesday night, but she managed a few hours before her alarm jolted her back to consciousness at around 8am on the Wednesday she was due to start her induction at Setton. Considering the things she’d faced in her past, the challenge of becoming a normal teacher to normal kids seemed pretty tame by comparison, but there was definitely something new and exciting about it that was somehow filling every fibre of her body with nervous anticipation. She hopped down the stairs and grabbed a cup of coffee out of Aunt Nona’s patiently waiting hands, before jogging out to her car and starting the engine. When she looked in the rear view mirror and saw Nona standing expectantly in the doorway of her house, Quistis realised she’d forgotten to have any breakfast or indeed say anything to her when she’d come bouncing down out of her bedroom a few moments ago.

Quistis sat down to a light breakfast, her stomach too full of nerves to leave much room for her to eat, but in between mouthfuls she jabbered hurriedly about what she was hoping to get to do and see today. Nona just nodded throughout the conversation, a slight grin on her face as she saw Quistis acting more like the wide-eyed wannabe adventurer of all those years ago, hungry to explore the world and find new challenges to face, than the tired, almost burned-out young woman who’d arrived at her house a few days previously.

She was soon on her way properly, and made the trip to Setton in quick time on account of having sped almost all the way there. Police forces only really operated inside the towns and cities, leaving open roads like the one she was travelling on free for people like her to express their love of speed. Parking outside the school by driving through the entrance gates and swinging her jeep into one of the visitors spaces just to the left of the front doors, she hopped out of the jeep and made her way to the receptionist’s office. Justin was waiting for her there already, and stood with a smile on his face when she walked in.

"Well, well, you came back. That already makes you one of the best candidates we’ve seen for a while!" Quistis laughed and followed Justin as he left the office and started the walk up the stairs and round to the gym and sports halls at the rear of the school.

"So what’s the plan today then?" she asked as they reached the top mezzanine floor.

"Well, Miss Trepe, and you’d better get used to being called that because that’s your new official title, today I’m going to talk you through your duties as one of our new gym instructors, and also help you sort out your secondary subject."

"Secondary subject?"

"It’s a school policy – both as part of the shortage of teachers and the fact that we like to have multi-purpose teachers to cover staff holidays and illness, the school likes to have all its teachers take one other subject. Something less heavy, normally, which is why most of the gym teachers take something easy like geography."

"I taught plenty of stuff at the Garden, things like Ethics and Political History, so I’m sure I can work something out," said Quistis. Justin smiled as he held open the door to a set of offices just outside the pupil’s entrance to the gym block. Quistis entered. Inside were four desks arranged in an open plan office, two of them fairly bare except for a phone but the other two decorated with a host of personalised trinkets, wallcharts, piles of books and papers and other teacher’s tools that Quistis recognised.

"I take it this is my new home?" she said, motioning to the empty desks.

"Sure is, your colleagues are out in morning lessons at the moment but we’ll get you introduced in about 45 minutes or so. Take a seat," he said, drawing up the chair at one desk while Quistis took the other. He proceeded to grab a book on school regulations from one of the other desks and flipped through it, outlining the things relevant to Quistis’ new job – all the basic stuff she knew already like non-fraternisation with the students (a brief image of Squall flashed through her mind but she let it pass), no racist, sexist or physical abuse of students or colleagues, and other things like when and where staff meals were served, typical working hours and lesson structures as per the school’s curriculum.

Quistis had heard most of this a few years back during her Garden instructor’s training, so transposing the information across to this new job would be no problem. The basic plan of her new job was to get to the school by about 8 and leave at around 5 or 6pm each night, with lessons fitting in with the current schedules to work out at about 4 or 5 hours a day, the rest being taken up with staff meetings and breaks. For her secondary subject, Quistis picked Ethics and Morals, something she had good grades in herself from the Garden so she figured it would be easy to teach.

Just as the two were finishing talking, Quistis’ two new workmates walked in – a tall, thin man with a black beard and a sour face called Mr. Taylan, and a thick set, burly man with greying hair called Mr. Coprase. They introduced themselves with handshakes and smiles, and Justin made his excuses and left to get back to his Language class, leaving Quistis alone with the two other teachers.

"So we’ve heard a little bit about you from Justin but not much, so please, tell us what we need to know," said Taylan, settling down gratefully into his leather chair and putting his feet up on his desk. He rubbed his shins thoughtfully as though massaging away a potential pain. Coprase turned on his desktop computer and started shuffling round files on his desk. Quistis tried to think of a good way to make a first impression with the edited highlights of her life thus far.

"Well, I grew up in this little orphanage just on the coast of Centra, before moving in with my aunt in Dulcett, a little town about an hour away. From there I passed the exams to go study at Balamb Garden, and after a few years there I graduated to become a SeeD. From that I trained as an Instructor and worked as that until a few months ago, when I made the decision to leave and find a new challenge."

"Challenging is certainly one way I’d describe this place," said Taylan, grinning at some private joke and throwing a glance to Coprase. He smiled back.

"Yes, we have some interesting students here! I imagine you’ll spend the rest of today being familiarised with the place. Just don’t expect to be prepared for anything when you start on Monday and you’ll do just fine!" he said, following it with a chuckle that seemed to rumble out from his belly and threaten to shake the paintings from the wall. Great, two macho boys to deal with, thought Quistis, and they probably think I’m some little slip of a girl who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing!

"So give me some intel then, boys, what would a typical day here take in? And what are the different years of students like?" Taylan settled back in his chair, using one hand to rummage around in his desk and bringing out a small half-eaten packet of sweets. Coprase was still flicking through the papers on his desk.

"A typical day in Setton involves a handful of lessons with the local kids and then a few hours either sat in staff meetings or marking the work from your secondary subject."

"What do you guys teach?"

"I take History, Dos here takes Geography." Coprase huffed at being reminded of the subject, obviously not something he relished.

"Dos, huh? That’s an interesting name," said Quistis, talking shop.

"It’s pronounced ‘Dose’ apparently, it was my grandfather’s name. He was a scholar in the old days of Galbadia. I, on the other hand, know nothing about anything highbrow like that. All I can do is teach kids how to run around and catch things. And they’re all useless at that, as well." Coprase was obviously quite a grumpy man, but his level seemed to lie in dirty jokes and drinking. Taylan spoke up next.

"The years here are mostly the same – all the local kids round here are pretty quiet and well-behaved. About as much as you could ask for, really. I’ve had some pretty grim jobs in my time so this is like a walk in the park most of the time."

"What kinds of things did you do at the Garden, then? Isn’t that like a military training thing?" asked Coprase.

"Kind of, it’s more like a mercenary force really, although we don’t do any kind of black ops or stuff like that." Quistis caught herself still using ‘we.’ "I mean, they don’t do stuff like that. Anyway, I taught a variety of things really, but physical exercise was a large part of the curriculum, so that’s why I took this up. I can’t see my training in firearms and hand-to-hand combat needing to be used all that much, though!"

"I don’t know, class 11B can get a bit rowdy sometimes," grinned Coprase, "and I’m sure you cracking a few skulls together would shut them up!"

"The thing about the older years here is that they’ve got a bit bored of smalltown life," said Taylan. "They want to hurry up and finish their education and get out of here, but as long as you help them do that they won’t give you any trouble." Taylan looked up at the clock behind Quistis. "Time for us to go, old boy," he said, knocking Coprase on the arm. "We’ll be back in about an hour, Quistis, see you then." They both gathered up their papers for the next lesson and left. Quistis used the opportunity to nose around the office a bit more, taking in the long school photographs dating back many years and chuckling at some of the frankly frightening haircuts adopted by the staff. She looked around the desks of her co-workers a little to get some more clues as to their personalities – it seems her guess about Coprase was right, he was a jock to the bone and his life seemed to consist of drinking, sports and occasional teaching.

Taylan was a bit more straight-edge – his desk was neat and tidy, very organised and had hints of possible obsessive compulsive disorder in the number of personal hygiene products stacked up in one corner of the desk. Quistis did wonder a little about what working with these two was going to be like, but decided she’d reserve judgement until after her first working week. She stood and looked around the office again. Something was odd about the school photographs, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was just yet. She was busy peering at one of them when Justin walked into the office.

"If you’re looking for embarrassing photos of me, don’t bother," he said, "I’m new enough to only be on the most recent one out in the foyer." His grin was fixed firmly in place, but it dropped when he noticed Quistis hadn’t looked round when he came in. In fact, she was still staring intently at the photos on the wall. "What’s up?" he asked.

"I don’t know yet, but there’s definitely something funny about all these photos," she said. She stared for a few more seconds, then shook her head to clear the thought away. "Whatever, it’ll come to me. What’s up next, Mr Talbeck?"

"Well, I’ve been through the rules and regs and you’ve met your co-workers, plus you’ve had a tour of the gym, all that’s left is to get your secondary subject sorted out then you can go away and come back on Monday. We’d normally have to run all manner of background checks and give you some more training and stuff, but your old boss’ recommendation was good enough to impress the headmaster into letting you off all that."

"Remind me why I left there again?" said Quistis with a smile.

"I don’t know, you’ve been trying to tell me since we met but I don’t think you can quite explain it yourself just yet." Quistis nodded thoughtfully – that was actually quite a profound statement from Justin about the whole business.

"Show me to the class then," she said, pointing towards the door and following Justin out of the room. Quistis’ teaching room was over in the school’s west wing, a small, tidy classroom with her large wooden desk at one end and thirty smaller desks facing her. Windows in the right-hand wall faced out onto the luscious greens of the playing fields, and the other walls were covered in pinned up pieces of work, murals and paintings from the lower years and other bits of school decoration. Quistis swanned into the room and raised her booted feet up onto the desk, reclining back in her chair like a kitten on a fur rug.

"Now this is what it’s all about," she said, her eyes closed peacefully. She sighed happily for a second, then opened one eye to notice Justin looking admirably at her. When she sat up again she spotted him blush visibly and look away, afraid that she’d caught him checking her out. She surpressed a grin and listened in as he ran through the basics of her class. Teaching materials for new staff were readily available in the libraries and staff room, so if she wanted to take a few books away and refresh her memory with them she was welcome to.

So after a browse through the teaching section at the back of the library, using the chance to have a look at some of the students in a work environment, Quistis was on her way back out of the building again.

"So we’ll see you Monday, then?" he asked, hopefully.

"Relax, I’m coming back," said Quistis, patting him on the shoulder. "This seems like a great place, I look forward to starting here."

"Excellent," he said, looking relieved. "I was afraid DC and Salem would have scared you off."

"Who and who? Oh, you mean Mr Coprase and Mr Taylan," she said.

"Yeah, they’re their nicknames. I’ll explain it all to you next week. consider that an advanced training lesson," he grinned. "I’m sure you’ll have one of your own very soon."

Quistis waved goodbye and hopped back into her jeep, keen to get home and leaf through the books she’d picked up. On her way out of the town she had to slow down as an ambulance appeared behind her and sped past her, and a few minutes later she caught up with it again just as she was driving past the river that fed into the town. Craning her neck to see what was going on, she was alarmed to see a squad car of law officers helping drag what looked like a badly mutilated body up the riverbank, the ambulance crew standing by. The unfortunate victim looked pretty dead to Quistis, but soon trees were blocking her view so she headed for Aunt Nona’s, trying to put the grisly scene out of her mind.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Monday morning couldn’t roll around quick enough for Quistis, who spent a few days poring through the books she’d borrowed to refresh herself on ethics with a view to teaching it. Her predecessor in the department had left plenty of teaching aids like lesson plans and curriculum guides, so her first month or two’s worth of work was already planned out for her. It seemed a little odd that the woman whose job she’d taken had left so suddenly, particularly midway through the term, but that wasn’t really any of Quistis’ business. She knew a lot about waking up one morning and suddenly realising you had to be someplace different, after all.

A spot of shopping around Dulcett brought in a new wardrobe of smart clothes for the job. Quistis wasn’t amazingly comfortable in smart suits and shirts most of the time, but to make a good impression she left Nona and Mary pick her out a selection of suits, shirts, blouses and skirts that made her look like a professional if nothing else. On the Sunday evening before she started, she decided to sit down and write out an email of thanks to Cid for his good reference, and promising to let him know how the first few weeks went. She also asked him to pass on an update of how she was doing to Squall, Zell and the others, and to get one back from them if he could. That last job done, she settled down to sleep.

Her sleep was troubled, however. A series of unsettling dreams and stark images punctuated her rest, most involving her standing out in a desert, or plain, or field of some sort, calling out the names of the people she knew and finding nobody there. A shadow would shortly fall over her, but when she turned to see who it was there would be nothing but darkness behind her. Other images concerned fighting against something in a series of flashes, as though she was opening and closing her eyes mid-battle. When she finally woke the next morning, she found her pillows bathed in sweat and the bedclothes a ragged mess, almost as if she’d literally been tearing them up in her sleep. She wandered downstairs and made herself a light breakfast, although she felt too exhausted to eat it. Nona was out so Quistis quietly dressed in one of her smart new outfits – a charcoal grey blazer and skirt with a blue blouse – and trotted out to her jeep. The sun was out and the air was pleasant and warm, a swift breeze thankfully sweeping all thoughts of the night out of her mind, leaving her ready to start the day. She started up Beep and was on her way to Setton at a much more leisurely pace than a few days previously, trying to ignore the knot in her stomach as she headed out through the countryside.

The landscapes around her seemed to be bursting into life everywhere she looked. Back when Ultimecia was still around she couldn’t remember the sun having shone for more than a few hours a day, instead it was dark, stormy skies and rain every time she looked up. Now all that was over, it was as though the fair weather had decided to say hello again, bringing the world back to life as best as it could. As she drew near Setton, however, the mist that enveloped the sleepy town like a blanket of fresh snow started to creep in around her, particularly as she drove along the road through the thick forest that led to the town limits.

Quistis was busy adjusting a stubborn lock of hair using her rear view mirror when a dark blur shot out of the woods in front of her. She yelped and slammed the jeep’s brakes on but couldn’t slow down in time, thumping heavily into whatever it was in front of her. It must have been some kind of animal, because it let out a howl of pain and carried on racing across the road, disappearing into the trees before Quistis could make out what it was. Shaken, she turned off the engine and stepped out to survey the damage. Sadly, whatever she’d hit had racked the left-hand headlight and left an ugly dent in the panel around it. Quistis knelt down for a closer look and saw traces of blood and fur that had caught on the bumper and jagged smashed headlight glass. Turfing around in the back of her car for something to collect the samples in, she had to settle on a small plastic bag, into which she carefully scraped the creature’s residue off her jeep. She assumed the school would have a biology lab where she could take a closer look at these things later. She’d also better ask about a garage in the area where she could get that light fixed. Sighing and settling back into her seat, she was soon on her way again.

Parking outside the front gates at half past eight, the sounds of the school’s early arrivees playing out in the fields rang around her ears as she headed up the steps and into the main building. Students young and old were milling around the foyer, and as Quistis weaved through them she heard Justin call her name to get her attention. She stopped and waited for him to reach her. He looked a little harassed for the first time since she’d met him.

"Morning, you! Is everything okay?"

"Hmm? Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine," he said distractedly, "we had a little problem with one of the kids this morning but it’s all okay now. I just wanted to remind you to come to the staff room before we have the morning assembly, so you can be properly introduced to the rest of the staff."

"Will do. I was just going to drop my stuff off in the office," she said, indicating the bag over her shoulder. "I’ll see you down in the staff room in a little while." He nodded and hurried off again. Quistis hadn’t seem him look that preoccupied before – his laid back nature had made him very reassuring to this point. She headed over to the PE Department office to drop off her bags, then she swung back towards the staff room. The school was building up its level of activity ready for the start of the day, and as new students arrived in ever increasing numbers, Quistis finally got a feel for the size of the place – she was estimating almost seven hundred students were at Setton Elementary.

She walked out of the foyer and down a small flight of steps that led to the staff room, opening the door and being greeted by the bustle of about thirty people all having conversations with each other at a variety of volumes. Taylan, Coprase and Justin she knew already, and Justin waved her over to introduce her to the other teachers. They all seemed a pleasant enough bunch, and before long the call came over the intercom for the teachers to head for the morning assembly.

Taking their seats at the rear of the large school hall, Quistis felt like a tourist as she scanned the walls. The students were seated before her and in the balcony upstairs, with a stage at the far end of the high-ceilinged room where the headmaster and deputy head stood behind lecterns. The walls were host to large plaques bearing the names of previous headmasters, students who had fought in wars and conflicts around the world and other records of achievement. The assembly itself passed in one ear and out of the other, as Quistis was too busy thinking ahead to her first lesson at 10am.

When it was all over, the assembly finishing off with a hymn to which only half the school seemed to know the tune, Quistis filed out with the other teachers and made her way back round to the PE Block. Taylan joined her in the office.

"Ready for day one?" he asked.

"I think so," she replied. "I figure the best thing to day is make a good first entrance and start from there. My first day as an Instructor was a bit easier because I’d already been at the Garden for a few years."

"The way to win over PE classes is to work them fairly hard from the outset and then ease back or toughen things up when you get a feel for the class. Don’t be too soft or hard on them straight away or you’ll find it tricky to adjust. I made that mistake once, so consider that my advice to you!"

"Thanks a lot," said Quistis. "I’d best get changed then, class’ll start in a while."

"Do you remember where all the locker rooms and things are?"

"Not a problem." Taylan nodded to her and left again, a slew of books under one arm. Quistis sat alone in the now empty office for a few minutes, gathering her thoughts. The bell to announce the start of the day’s lessons rang somewhere in the background, but Quistis didn’t need to get ready for another half an hour yet. Her first lesson was with a group of year nine students, thirteen year olds who’d probably been through a variety of stand-in teachers from what she’d been able to glean from chatting briefly to her colleagues that morning. Seems the turnaround of teachers and students here was quite rapid, more than you’d expect from such a small town, but Quistis put that down to the quietness of life around here. With big cities like Deling and Galbadia nearby she could see the temptation in moving on as soon as possible.

Soon it was time to go. Quistis made her way to the staff locker room and changed into her teaching outfit – a black t-shirt and a pair of grey shorts. Tying her hair back with the customary two long bangs reaching down from her temples, she sat and listened as her class moved into the changing rooms adjacent to the lockers and got ready for the lesson. Once the noise had died down and they were all filed in, she made her entrance.

The students were standing around but filed smartly to attention when she walked in. They’ve been well trained, she thought, noticing a fair amount of blushing and surprised looks on their faces as she stepped into the gym. Considering they’d been expecting the typical female PE teacher stereotype – an overweight battleaxe with a face like an angry dog – it must have been a pleasant shock to see young, slim Quistis stroll into the gym. A clipboard was tucked under one arm and a whistle was hanging by a cord from her neck, more for show than practicality. She let the class stand for a few moments then delivered her opening line.

"Alright. I want you lot to drop and give me twenty." A grin crept over her face as the boys reluctantly hunkered down and began their series of push-ups. This was much simpler than teaching an eleven year old how to handle a crossbow, which is how her first day as an Instructor had started..

The lesson went as well as she could have hoped. After introducing herself properly and checking off the names of those present, she ran the class through a series of warm-up exercises and then some simple gym circuits, impressed with how obedient and well behaved the class was, and also with herself for discovering she was still a good teacher. Since she’d decided that the only reason she’d lost her status at the Garden was so that Cid could send her out to accompany Squall and the others, she’d found she had a lot more confidence in her abilities and so she was busy to go about proving it.

Afterwards, she dismissed the students and headed back to the office, pleased with how her first lesson had gone. Coprase was already there, nursing a hangover by the looks of him, but he managed a weak smile as she walked in.

"So how’d it all go then, blondie?" Quistis winced at the nickname but replied anyway.

"Perfect. The kids here are a pretty quiet bunch, just like you said. In fact, they seemed kinda scared of me, or at least of something about this place. Does the school have a history of tough discipline or something?"

"It’s a long story," he said, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. "I’m sure you’ll find out all about it in due course though." He kept quiet after that, so Quistis, although puzzled by his remark, left him to his thoughts.

"One thing I will say, though," said Coprase a few moments later, startling Quistis who was starting to get absorbed in her lesson plan for later that day, "is that Setton has some unusual local wildlife and keeping an eye out for them is always a good thing."

"Well, it’s funny you should mention that, I think I hit something in my jeep this morning," she said. Coprase sat up and took notice of her.

"Like what?"

"I couldn’t tell you," she said, "this big.. thing just ran across the road in front of me, and I bumped it. I don’t think it was hurt too bad, though, it ran away before I could take a look at it."

"Whereabouts was this?"

"The woods on the main road south leading into town, maybe a few miles outside the limits." Coprase’s look darkened as she mentioned the last point, and he returned to his reclined position with a muttered ‘hmm..’ Quistis thought she’d better leave him to it and gathered her books up for the Ethics lesson she was due to teach in twenty minutes.

" Well, I’ll see you later, Dos," she said as she left the office. He just replied with another ‘hmm,’ still deep in thought. Quistis shut the door, but her years at Garden had left her with a degree of awareness in situations like this so she knew what to do next. Her danger sense had started yelling when she saw the look on Coprase’s face as she described where she’d hit the mystery animal, so she pressed one ear to the office door to see if he’d call anyone about it.

Sure enough, the tell-tale click and beep of Coprase dialling in a phone number greeted her ears, and she strained to make out what was being said.

"Hello? It’s me. Yeah, we’ve had another sighting. No, she didn’t know what it was. What concerns me is how close she said it was to the town. Call another meeting for tonight, we may need to step up our efforts." He hung up, and Quistis decided to leave the scene before he found out she’d overheard. This was something that needed investigating, for sure. She tried to put it out of her mind until later on, but following Coprase after school seemed like her best plan at the moment.

The rest of the day passed without incident, her teaching lesson also being a cakewalk thanks to the surprisingly well-behaved students she had to teach. By now, however, Quistis had started to get the feeling that there was a definite reason to how quiet all these kids were, and it was up to her to find it out. When the school day drew to a close, she packed up and headed out on time, but hung around just outside the school grounds for Coprase to leave. When his old saloon car rolled out of the school gates, she started up her jeep and did her best to track him at a distance, the dark roads running through the town and the mist cover from the trees helping her remain undiscovered.

Coprase’s car ran through a series of twists and turns into a part of the town Quistis was completely lost in, following the distant red rear lights of his car for dear life. When she saw him come to a stop, she slowed up and drew closer, making out many more cars as she got nearer, all parked in a circle round the perimeter of an old disused council building. Looks like this was the ‘meeting’ he’d been talking about. Now she needed to find a way to listen in.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis stopped her jeep a little way outside the perimeter of headlights set up by the array of cars parked outside the old council building. There was no activity outside but she could see lights on and people moving around inside. Getting out of the jeep, she decided to move in to get a closer look. Obviously whatever it was that had struck her as odd about the town was a well-known situation, but what it was and what all these people were here to do about it was less clear at the moment. She wondered why they’d all left their lights on around the building – so they could see what they were doing? The building was part of a complex of smaller, also disused buildings but it seemed like the town had separated itself from them like a trapped lizard shedding its tail, leaving them at the mercy of the forest surrounding Setton. The woods had gratefully received these treasures and made a start on claiming them as their own, with vines and moss creeping and crawling all over the walls and roofs of the large, two-tiered council townhouse. The town had probably developed further away from this complex and elected to leave it behind and start anew, as the roads nearby turned from solid rock to natural soil about a mile and a half back. The trees and accompanying mist afforded their usual level of cover as Quistis was able to sneak through the trunks and branches to get to the edge of the near-floodlit area, thankful she’d worn dark clothes today to help her blend in.

Sneaking around outside wasn’t going to get her to the bottom of this, though. She needed to get closer. These lights would mean she’d be spotted as soon as she got within thirty feet of the building, so an alternative route was in order. Looking up at the treeline above her, she was pleased to see that branches from several trees struck out very close to the upper floor windows of the townhouse. Returning to her car to grab her trusty chainwhip, and sensibly deciding to swiftly exchange her business suit skirt for a scruffy pair of combat trousers, she headed back and started to climb one of the trees nearest the buildings. The regular branches made it an easy climb, especially for someone agile like Quistis, and before long she was at the far end of a branch that ran within a few feet of a second floor window.

Now this would be the tricky part. She stamped her foot on the branch a few times to test how it’d bend under her weight, then assumed a tightrope-walker position to carefully edge forward along it. About halfway across the tree groaned loudly and the branch sagged alarmingly, but Quistis made it most of the way along before stopping. Now all that remained was a quick heroic swing – locking onto a piece of balcony above the window, she retrieved her whip and snapped it tight around the edge of the balcony. With a deep breath, she swung forward into space but landed on the window ledge safely. Hanging from the whip with one hand and using the other to prise open the window, within moments she was outside.

Voices from the main hall, as well as the lights, drew her attention. The floor she was on was a mezzanine balcony that ran round the inside edge of the townhouse, looking down into the main room below. There was about fifty or sixty people sat down there in a series of rows of chairs, with four people up on a stage before them all. The crowd was noisy, lots of people were shouting at once and nobody seemed to be getting anywhere. Quistis noticed Coprase among the men on stage, one of whom she recognised as the town’s mayor, who stood and held his arms up for silence.

"Quiet please, everybody, quiet please!" The crowd trailed off to an occasional murmur. The mayor waited patiently then began again. "Thank you all for coming again at such short notice, but I’m afraid it’s more bad news for you." There was a collected groan from the assembled townsfolk. "We’ve had a sighting inside the boundary again. A new teacher at the school claimed to have hit something that disappeared off into the woods, her description of it matches one of our targets." Quistis remembered she’d forgotten to get that blood and tissue sample from the wild animal she’d hit this morning checked – it was still in her jeep. Hopefully it’d keep till the morning.

"Where is this teacher?" someone shouted out.

"She doesn’t know much about what’s going on yet," said Coprase, rising from his chair to address the hall. "I don’t know if we should keep bringing new people into this all the time, in case-"

"In case they get hurt?" said Quistis from the balcony, aided by the hall’s natural acoustics to be loud enough to hear. The surprised crowd turned in their seats as one to find the source of this mystery voice. Now that she had their attention, Quistis walked leisurely down the stairs from the gallery to the hall, and from there down the middle of the rows of chairs, that were neatly divided into two halves. She stood in the centre of the crowd, arms folded, silence hanging heavy all around her as people variously wondered who the hell she was, what the hell she was doing here and how the hell she got in past the lights without anyone noticing. The mayor tried to look unimpressed, but over his shoulder Quistis caught Coprase grinning in a satisfied way – looks like she’d won at least one person here over.

"And who might you be?" he asked.

"Quistis, Quistis Trepe. The ‘new teacher’ you referred to a moment ago."

"Well then, Miss Trepe, I’m not sure how you managed to get in here without anybody seeing you, but that doesn’t matter now. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave. This is a very private and confidential town meeting, and you are not welcome to join in the discussion here."

"If the discussion is all about how you’re trying to stop these creatures, or whatever they are, spilling out of the woods and into the town, then it seems that my little accident this morning shows you’re not doing a very good job," she said defiantly. Quistis had faced down gigantic monsters with enough raw destructive power to level entire cities in her time – a pissy little town mayor wasn’t going to be a problem.

"Now just a minute!" shouted somebody from the crowd indignantly. Quistis turned to see an angry-looking middle-aged man, who seemed to have been dragged away from an early night in bed given his state of dress, stand up and shake an accusing finger at her. "What right do you have to just-"

"I have every right in the world if I’m going to be living in a town that’s being overrun by monsters!" she shouted back. "I came here to find out what’s going on, and I’m sure you can fill me in on the details. I also came here to help. You could use someone like me around this place," she said, scanning the room but meeting mostly blank faces. Her speech had left them a little confused, mainly because they didn’t know what to do even before she’d stormed in with her offer of assistance. Coprase cleared his throat to dispel the silence and stepped down off the stage to stand before Quistis.

"I think I have a little explaining to do, so maybe we ought to have a quiet word while the meeting goes on without us," he said, motioning with his hand towards a side room to the left of the main hall. Quistis nodded and followed him into it. Once the door was closed, the meeting started up again, although all talk was now of Quistis.

Inside the room, which used to be an office of some kind but was now sparsely furnished and a little chilly, Coprase stood facing a window looking out into the pitch black forest while Quistis sat down on the tattered old leather chair behind the desk in the centre of the room.

"Start talking, then," she said firmly.

"It all started happening a few years ago," he said without turning round. A howling wind had kicked up outside, punctuating his words with occasional shrieks and wails. "At first we just thought the game and wildlife round here was getting a bit more adventurous, the same way you’ll see small wild animals adapting to urban life as cities build over their territories. Then people started turning up wounded, stories of being attacked and chased through the woodland and fields by – and I hesitate to use the term – ‘monsters.’" Quistis was surprised to hear Coprase talking like this, his calm, troubled manner a world away from the easy-going gym teacher she’d met earlier that day.

"What did people think it was?"

"We kept it quiet until we could figure out what was going on."

"Who is this ‘we’ you keep mentioning?’"

"Mainly the mayor, myself and a handful of other people who’d seen or heard the creatures. We’ve tried to keep it as quiet as possible until now but things are starting to escalate past a point where we can keep a lid on it all. Kids are being attacked on their way to and from school. People are being killed in their own homes. It’s becoming so it’s not safe to go out at night without a hunting rifle. As more people become affected, so this little group we have here grows every week."

"Maybe it’s time you went public with it all?" Coprase shook his head.

"It’d cause panic. We’re trying to find out why these things are attacking us so we can stop them before things get any worse."

"I think it’s pretty bad already.. how many more people at the school know?"

"Just you and me, although I think your friend Justin is getting suspicions as well. He found a kid who’d been bitten by one earlier today and it spooked him pretty bad." Quistis recalled how worried Justin had looked when she’d bumped into him a few hours ago.

"Any idea what these things are? In my time I’ve probably locked horns with every kind of monster in the world, I reckon."

"None. We’ve got photos and tissue samples but no matches. This is only a small town, Quistis, the facilities we have aren’t the best available by a long shot. As far as we can make out, it’s some form of mutated local animal, although the mutations have taken various forms. Some fly, some crawl, some run. They’re all aggressive and all very dangerous." Quistis sighed and placed her hands behind her head thoughtfully.

"I see. So these things just showed up one day, and their attacks have been increasing since then?" Coprase nodded.

"About six or seven months ago. At first they scavenged for food, then they started making quick attacks on people out in isolated areas. In the past few months they’ve gotten more daring and are starting to get closer to the centre of town, and the most populated areas."

"Which fits in with the idea of them originally being local animals, right?"


"So do you want my help or not?" she said, expecting to be asked to put her considerable combat training to use.

"Not. I’m sorry, but we can’t get more people involved in this, and the last thing we want is a loose cannon running around. It’d get noticed. We can’t have that."

"What?" Quistis stood up, shocked at his rebuttal. "I’ve fought things a million times worse than all this! I’ve had to take out a hexadragon with my bare hands before now!"

"Quistis, please," said Coprase calmly. Quistis bit her lip and began to count to ten inwardly until the anger subsided. She was up to the mid-forties when Coprase spoke again.

"The best thing you can do now is go home, get some rest,, and forget what you saw here Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful of your offer for help, but we want this to be a quiet operation, not a full-blown warzone."

"So what, I’m supposed to just ignore what I’ve seen and heard here?"

"Yes," Coprase said bluntly. Quistis opened her mouth to answer but closed it again when his stern look told her she wouldn’t get anywhere.

"Fine," she said, composing herself again. "You guys carry on your little crusade and your happy hunting until people start turning up dead in the dozens right on your front door. Maybe then you’ll realise I can help you, whether you like it or not."

"Quistis, for your own good don’t say a word of this to anybody. We should be able to contain and wipe out these things without the majority of the town ever finding out. The mayor wants it kept that way."

"Maybe so, but sooner or later they’ll be dredging people out of the lake every day as opposed to once every few weeks." Coprase’s face darkened – he obviously knew about the incident from the other day Quistis was referring to.

"Quistis, please, just go home and watch out for yourself. If nothing else you know what’s out there now. be careful and leave us to sort this all out. Until then, go about your business at the school. I’ll let you know how all this is getting on." Quistis rolled her eyes at his forced stubbornness and left the room, throwing the door open and storming out of the townhouse. She could feel the assembled group watch her leave in a mixture of relief and suspicion, but she was too pissed off to care right now.

Back outside and safely in her jeep, she sat for a moment considering her next move. The hunting party in there obviously wasn’t going to give her any more info, so maybe it would be best if she went and did some investigating of her own. She started the engine and began the drive back to her aunt’s house, her mind turning over all the possibilities in her mind. The townsfolk were probably out of their league, but she’d wait for the test results from that blood sample she had before deciding on a course of action. The equipment in Setton may be basic but she was sure somebody back at the Garden could help her out. Flustered, she wound the windows down to let some of the cool night air in and tried to clear her mind for a second. As she looked out into the dark woods of Setton, not sure what could be moving around out there in the thick mist, she suddenly felt very apprehensive for the first time in a long while. Her image of a pleasant little town life had been rudely shattered after just one day. Now it seem
ed, as it always seemed to end up, like it was back to work again for her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis didn’t sleep well that night, but by the time she got to the school in the morning, things suddenly seemed to feel out of focus somehow. She read the thoughts of her co-workers and students from the looks on their faces, noticing at last the signs of the suspicions which had been scratching away at the back of her mind for a while now. These people were scared. A very small number of them had an idea what to be scared of, but most just knew that something bad was out there and there didn’t seem to be anything they could do about it. She passed the school photographs from previous years on her way to the offices and noticed at last what had confused her about them the first time she’d seen them. There were students and teachers who just disappeared from one year to the next. Faces that never grew up, who started out in one photo but never made it to the next, people who should have been moving up through the years of the school but instead just vanished. Last night, Coprase had told her that these attacks had been going on for a few years, and the evidence in front of her here seemed to prove that.

The question was what to do about it? Her first step was going to be to get the blood sample she’d collected off to the biology labs at Balamb Garden. That’d take a few days but would yield much better results than the equipment at the school. That’d tell her what she was dealing with and thus how she could fight it. Quistis sighed as she opened the door to the PE Department office, wishing she had a squad of SeeDs handy to patrol the woods and keep the monsters at bay.

Coprase and Taylan were chatting as she came in. She locked eyes with Dos for a second but he did well to not show any signs of betraying their last conversation as he nodded good morning and then carried on talking. The volume of the outside world had seemed quite dulled to her this morning, and their chatter was at a similarly muffled level. It was only when it fell silent for a few moments that she realised she was being addressed.

"Huh? What?" she said, blinking back to alertness.

"I just asked if your first day went well, Quisty, I didn’t see you again after the morning," said Taylan.

"Oh, yeah, er, it went fine, yes. I didn’t really notice it go by," said Quistis, still distracted by her thoughts.

"Yeah, that kicks in early on – before too long you’ll find the weeks just fly by at this place," continued Taylan, settling back sagely in his chair.

"The buzz from the kids is that she’s the best new teacher we’ve had here for many years," said Coprase, turning to face her, "so I think you’re settling in pretty well!" He smiled, an unspoken signal to her to keep up the small talk until Taylan was out of earshot.

"Yup, they’re all good kids," she said half-heartedly, trailing off into silence again.

"Well, I’m due for swimming class in a few minutes, catch you both later," said Taylan, getting up and walking out. Quistis turned to Coprase and opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand to stop her, listening for the click of the external door to show that Taylan was out of range.

"Quistis, thanks for keeping quiet. Believe me, you’re doing more good by this than if you try to tell everybody what’s going on. I know everything must seem a little fuzzy today, I was like that when I first found out about it all, but trust me, keep working as you were before and let us get on with this behind the scenes."

"I still think you should let me help," she said, a little petulantly.

"I know you could, but it’s not up to me. The mayor calls the shots and he decided no outside interference. I know what you can do, I spoke to the head and Justin and got a look at your file, but like I said, it’s not my decision to make."

"Well I hope the mayor changes his mind sometime soon then," said Quistis, "because I’m not just going to sit back and let this happen." She gathered her books for the first lesson of the day and stood up.

"Now I know you’re not going to try anything stupid here," said Coprase cautiously.

"I’m going to find out what we’re up against. That’ll be a start, right?" She turned and walked out. As the door closed, she heard Coprase speak once more.

"It will. Thanks."

Her first lesson of the day was a track lesson, based around short sprint training with a year nine group. The thirteen-year old kids were in pretty average physical shape compared to the standard thirteen-year old SeeD cadet, but she set up a 10 metre straight for them to race up and down, accompanied by a series of increasingly faster bleeps to build up their pace and speed. It was a simple enough lesson, and once it was over Quistis had enough time to leave the school for a moment to drive round to Setton’s postal depot. She packaged up the sample and paid for it to be shipped out to Balamb Garden. A phone call the previous evening to Mochika meant it would be picked up and taken straight to the labs upon its arrival, so she’d know very soon exactly what kind of creature she’d hit. There were probably others, but it’d take a little time to get hold of samples for the rest of them. Hopefully finding that bit of intel out should win over the mayor, and from there she could start lending the experience of her years in the field to the townsfolk’s efforts, which if she was being brutally honest they’d probably need to stop most of them getting killed.

The day passed without incident, Quistis reflecting sadly that she’d hardly seen Justin since she started work, making a mental note to get him to take her out for a drink or a meal sometime soon. When the lessons wound down for the day there was nothing left to do but head back to Nona’s house and hope that Mochika got back in touch sometime soon. Quistis started up her jeep and rolled out of the school’s front gates, and was about to head for the road back to Dulcett when a thought struck her. She turned left instead and back round into the town centre, which was just lighting up for the night as shops shut down but the town’s handful of bars and entertainment centres opened up, and the quaint antique replica streetlamps lining the roads flickered into life. Quistis found somewhere secluded to park her jeep, and wandered back out into the town centre. Setton’s centre was built around a large square, occupied by the work of a few local sculptors and artists and an ornate fountain, lit up to impressive effect
by the floodlights surrounding it. There were also rows of small lamps set into the pavements all around the town, making the centre of Setton a safe, friendly atmosphere to live and work in, and exactly the kind of place where you’d like to settle down and raise your kids.

Which was exactly what Quistis was afraid of. If there were monsters running loose in the woods and getting gradually closer to the town limits, they’d make mincemeat out of the citizens here. In a rougher area like Centra or the deserts of Galbadia, you’d expect the people living there to be a bit tougher, and basically be a bit more than just walking kebab meat should any natural or unnatural predators decide to take a stroll down the main high street. What infuriated her was that the mayor’s stubbornness could get many of these people killed, simply because they’d be unprepared for what might be heading their way and thus would be fatally slow to react to any attacks.

So that’s why Quistis had had this sudden thought which she was now testing out. A little patrol of her own, both allowing her to stake out likely areas of activity and maybe get a chance to take down one of these marauders first hand, thus both working out what she was up against and also, hopefully, winning over the team of hunters she’d gatecrashed last night.

Yeah, right.

She’d spent about an hour scoping out the few places in town that weren’t brightly lit when she made her first discovery. Working on the theory that the monsters were mutated versions of natural local animals, she started in the vicinity of Setton’s restaurant quarter, a curved street that was home to four large diners, each catering to a different style of food. Wild animals were drawn to the rubbish bins at the backs of these things like moths to a flare, and sure enough, once Quistis had snuck down an alley made up of the sides of the first two buildings, she was confronted with the garbage area. The sounds of the restaurants warming up for the night’s business chattered around her as she stole through the shadows, looking for any places where these animals could get in. The thing she’d noticed about Setton was that it had no real barriers against the woodlands that surrounded it, so anything that took a liking to its bright lights could just stroll into town unopposed. She didn’t like the idea of that, so hoped that her vantage point here would give some clues as to local animal movements. She hopped up onto one of the bins and from there the roof of the kitchens of the first restaurant, crouching down and scanning the thick trees that walled off this end of the town.

Quistis didn’t have to wait long for results. Even over the noise of the kitchen staff joking around and shouting at each other, and occasional clatters of plates and cooking pans from inside, she soon made out a couple of small rodent-like creatures scuttle over from the trees and disappear into the bins, emerging moments later with a few scraps of food. So far so good, thought Quistis. Now to just wait and see if anything larger shows up. Once again, it didn’t take long for her theory to prove itself.

A light wind rustled the leaves above her, but when the rustling continued after the breeze died down she rook notice. A good job too, sitting on top of a roof in the early evening was gradually numbing every muscle in Quistis’ body, so when she watched the greenery in front of her being steadily parted by something moving through them, she crouched down low, alert and ready to spring to the floor in a heartbeat. The rustling came closer, and she could just about tell the creature was only a few feet from the end of the treeline, even though she couldn’t see it yet. Then it stopped. A little alarm bell began to ring as Quistis heard the sound of something sniffing at the air, and she realised it had detected her. She leapt from the roof and down into the garbage area at the same moment the creature turned tail and fled, so by the time she ran into the thickets she was only a fraction of a second behind the rapidly escaping monster.

She couldn’t see what it was, only that it was slightly smaller than herself, roughly humanoid, and damned good at running through the dense forest around it. Quistis’ combat-honed senses took over, running her body on autopilot as they leapt over stray rocks and branches and dodged from side to side to match the creature’s movements. She could tell she was being drawn away from the town but that didn’t matter – as long as no more of these things showed up she should be ok.

Quistis suddenly ran out into a small clearing, about ten square feet in diameter. Her breath came in short gasps from her sprint through the trees, but she tried to stay calm and focused as she rotated slowly, looking for any signs of movement. She had her whip in one hand, still balled up so it wouldn’t snag on anything as she ran, but ready to crack into battle in an instant.

Silence came down over this particular part of the woods, but not just the absence of noise. It was the silence of something trying not to make any noise. Quistis realised with a heavy feeling in her gut that whatever she was chasing was smart, and that it was trying to guess her next move. Quistis had faced something like this before, when she’d been split from the others as they trekked through the ice forests of Trabia, and she’d come face to face with a terrifying snow lion. She’d since practised her reactions in situations like this, so she knew what to do next. Closing her eyes and standing a little straighter, she focused herself and concentrated fully on every tiny noise around her. An oddly misplaced feeling of calm swept over her as she listened for sounds of breathing or movement, succeeding in locating her target moments later. It was a few feet in front of her, just past the lip of the clearing, watching and waiting. Quistis’ hand tightened around her whip.

With one fluid movement she let out a short battlecry and lunged forward, cracking her whip into the space where the creature was at the same time. It was far too fast for her, however, notwithstanding her lack of breath after the chase, and dodged smartly to the side as she leapt forward. She had half a second to register that it had moved before something heavy smacked squarely into the side of her head, throwing her to the floor and crashing into unconsciousness in the time it took her to think ‘Ah, it’s moved out of the way, then.’

Quistis drifted back to the world from a very pleasant dream which seemed to involve her and a dazzling lights show to find herself staring at something large and dark before her. As her eyes gradually returned to focus, she saw that she was facing the base of a tree, and that she appeared to be lying awkwardly on her side on the forest floor. She sat up, blinking and shaking her head a few times to try and dispel the stars flitting around it. It was a few hours later, as the night had firmly taken hold of the skies above her, and an assortment of insects and birds were hooting and chirping merrily all around her. Quistis stood up, a little shaky on her feet, and pressed one hand to the very sore side of her head that had taken the impact. When she took her hand away she saw there was blood on it, and checking closer she traced an ugly gash along her left cheek, as well as what felt tenderly like the start of a bruise just below her eye.

"Great," she said out loud, knowing full well that’d be a hard one to explain away at the school in the morning. She felt a little winded still, but carefully made her way towards the lights of the town a little way ahead of her, emerging through the treeline like some kind of scavenging wildman about thirty minutes later. She wasn’t too far from where she’d left her car, so keeping to the shadows she crept back to it, and then raced back to Nona’s house at top speed.

The experience had proven a few things, though. These creatures were indeed able to get into the town without a problem, they were very tough, and they were going to be a big problem if left unchecked. Time to step her campaign up a gear.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was past midnight when Quistis crept into Nona’s house and stepped stealthily up the stairs. She could hear the TV on in the front room so assumed Nona was still up – since the Galbadian army had recovered the ability to broadcast earlier that year, the renewed television companies took advantage of the gap in the market and the airwaves had filled up with programs since then. Quistis was halfway up the stairs to her room when Nona called out to her.

"You know, it’s at least polite to say goodnight before you go upstairs, dear." Quistis sighed and headed back into the front room, pulling her hair forward to cover her cheek wound as best she could. Nona was curled up on the sofa, the fire in the hearth before her crackling away in the background, and the TV nestled snugly into the bookcase that took up most of the living room’s far wall.

"Sorry, Auntie. I had a busy night and I was just trying to get to bed."

"Well, come sit down for a second and tell me what you’ve been up to, then!" said Nona, sipping from a mug of coffee and motioning to the armchair nearby. Quistis sat down in it, surreptitiously turning her face away from the light of the fire.

"Nothing much," she said, "I just spent some time looking around Setton a bit more, you know, to get used to the place."

"Mm-hmm," said Nona, "sure you weren’t looking for trouble?"

"Why on earth-" began Quistis, but Nona held up a hand to stop her mid-sentence.

"Quistis, I’ve known you for years. I raised you from when you were brought round to me, and I’m pretty sure I know how your mind works by now."

"What do you mean?" said Quistis, realising her body was betraying her and she was blushing a deep crimson. She never could lie to Nona. Or Mrs Rusard for that matter.

"I mean, I know how you like to keep your mind and body active in ways beyond sports and recreation," said Nona. "You always did have a habit of going looking for monsters, although when you were little you’d just run away from them instead of beating them up like you do now."

"I don’t know what you’re talking about" said Quistis in as innocent a voice as she could manage, although she realised that wouldn’t be a very good one. Nona glared at her for a few seconds until Quistis cracked. "Alright, I was checking something out and saw.. something. I’m not sure what it was. I chased it but it got the drop on me." Nona sat up and came over to examine Quistis’ injury, tutting under her breath.

"Let me get you some antiseptic and a bandage," she said, her maternal instincts effortlessly coming into play. "I’m used to you knocking yourself about, I suppose." She headed out and into the kitchen, checking the cupboards for the appropriate medical supplies. She soon returned and started fussing over Quistis, who’d experienced this enough times to know sitting quietly while Nona cleaned her up was the best tactic. Whilst out in the world with Squall and the others, she’d had to stitch together a wound in her side that was seven inches long after a nasty encounter with a pack of blade-headed horses, and cauterise (by means of a low power fire spell) a bullet wound in her leg after escaping from Galbadia’s desert prison, but she felt now wasn’t the time to tell Nona she’d grown up and could look after herself.

"I’m fine, really. I didn’t even see what it was, but it surprised me and then ran away when it had laid me out."

"What on earth were you doing chasing monsters through the woods anyway?" asked Nona. Quistis thought for a moment then decided it was in her aunt’s safety to know what was going on. She asked Nona to sit down and then related the entire affair, from the suspicions of the first day to the hunters meeting and as full a description of the night’s stakeout as she could recall. Nona sat in silence for a few minutes afterwards, digesting everything she’d been told.

"Well," was all she said, before falling silent again for a while longer. "What are you going to do about it?" she said at last.

"I’ve got some friends back at Garden working on those blood and tissue samples I got, to help me find out what we’re dealing with. After that, I intend to try and take a few of these things out so I can win over those stupid hunters. That way I can at least get a few more people helping me out."

"Don’t you think calling in some more, well, professional help would work better?"

"You mean SeeDs?"

"Something like that, yes. I know you’ve still got links to the Garden, Quistis, but you’re not technically one of those soldiers any more. This sort of thing isn’t your duty." Quistis reddened and leapt to her feet.

"Isn’t my duty? Nona, I read in the paper yesterday that the body I saw them fishing out of the river was that of a fifteen-year old girl! She’d been savaged by a wild animal and left to die. I will not let that happen, whether I’m still a SeeD or not, while I have the ability to try and stop it!" Quistis was shouting, incensed to sudden anger by a combination of the night’s events and the frustration she’d been bottling up the past few days. Nona just watched her, calmly, until Quistis’s rage passed and she sat down again, a little sheepish at losing her rag in front of her aunt like that.

"Are you finished?"

"Yes," said Quistis quietly, eyes to the floor.

"Quistis, I just don’t want you getting hurt. Much as I tried not to admit it, when you went away to Garden I didn’t have one day without thinking about you and worrying about you in some way. I knew you were travelling around, exploring the world and doing everything you’d dreamed about when you were a child, but at the same time I knew you were fighting things every day, risking your neck to help others and putting your life on the line wherever you went. And it was killing me, Quistis. It was killing me to worry about you every day that you were away. Whenever I heard from you again, it’d help make the feelings go away for a while, but they’d just creep back in on me and take over again, time after time after time!" Now it was Nona’s turn to get angry, shaking as she let years of pent-up emotion out at Quistis.

"Aunt, I made my decision to go to Balamb and train to do what I do, and I still think that even though I’m not part of that world anymore I have skills that other people don’t, skills that can stop people around me getting hurt or killed. Whatever these things are, they’re moving into the town and they’re going to start attacking people, and it’s going to happen soon!" Quistis moved to sit down on the sofa next to Nona, who was teary-eyed and trying to calm herself down again. "I know you worry about me, I worry about me too. But if anything ever happened to you, I’d just never be able to forgive myself for not helping you. That’s why I have to do this. I have these abilities and I have to use them, or innocent people could die while I’m just sitting around doing nothing!" Quistis tried to quieten her voice again before carrying on. "This is what I do, Auntie. I know I’ve moved away from that life but I can still make a difference to the world, whether I’m a SeeD or not."

"I know, I know," said Nona, gratefully letting Quistis hug her as the two curled up against each other for comfort on the sofa. "You’ve been like a daughter to me since you came into my life, and I still don’t think I could cope if.. if anything happened to you."

"Nothing’s going to," said Quistis confidently, her eyes closed to show her confidence in that statement. "I’m going to go upstairs to bed then go to work in the morning, and then I won’t try anything else until I hear from Mochika at Garden about the test results." Nona patted her on the arm.

"It’s sweet of you to lie to me like that, Quistis," she said, "but at least I know you can take care of yourself. You may not realise it, but all the time you were off fighting Ultimecia, you and the others kept popping up on news reports every five minutes. Your battles were the biggest news story for seventeen years – in fact, the only news for seventeen years, or at least the only news that could be broadcast to anyone. The Gardens pledged their backing for you, and even though details were sketchy I knew you’d come back safely at the end of it all. Bet you didn’t know that, did you! Quistis?" Nona looked down and saw that Quistis was fast asleep, purring softly and just audible over the roar of the fireplace. Nona smiled, stroked a few stray locks of hair out of the way, and then carefully got up so as not to disturb her, returning moments later with a pillow and blanket from Quistis’ room. Wrapping the sleeping girl up, Nona left her to her rest and headed up the stairs to bed herself.

Quistis’ sleep was troubled again. This time, she seemed to be running down an endless series of corridors, each one linking round into another identical one. Doors lined both walls but none would open. All Quistis knew was that there were people she cared about trapped behind some of these doors, and she had to find them quickly before something bad happened to them. She wasn’t certain what, only that it was definitely bad. she’d tried countless hundreds when one finally opened. She received a flash of recognition at the person stood before her, before a blinding flash of light obscured their features a moment later.

She awoke with a start, a little disorientated to find herself on the sofa and not in bed, but once it clicked how she’d ended up there, she sat up and hugged her knees for comfort, shivering a little despite the warmth the fire’s embers still left in the room. She’d recognised the face before she woke up, that much she knew. She just couldn’t remember who it was or where she’d seen them. Never mind all that now, one glance at the clock told her she had an hour or so before school started again, so she stretched out to activate her tired muscles and hopped up the stairs to the bathroom to start getting ready.

Today was Friday, which meant at least that she’d soon have the weekend to do some more investigating into the matter of Setton’s little infestation problem. She was towelling her hair dry after a quick shower as she walked back into her room when the phone rang. Quistis picked up the receiver by her bed and answered it, hearing Mochika’s voice on the other end of the phone.

"Instructor Trepe?"

"Yes it is, morning Annabelle. And remember, it’s just plain old Quistis now."

"Sorry. Although you wouldn’t find many people here who’d refer to you as plain!"

"I take it the test results came back?"

"They did indeed, but.. well, it’s certainly made for interesting discussion here. You’d better sit down." Uh oh, thought Quistis, that can’t be good. She sat on her bed and carried on drying off her hair.

"Go on."

"Well, your information about the sample possibly being from a mutated form of local animal DNA was spot on – the creature you hit was initially a small mammal called a betrucius, normally something that keeps to the trees and is a herbivore by nature."

"How large are they?"

"Oh, about the size of your forearm when they’re fully grown."

"Which doesn’t explain why the one I hit was the size of a wendigo, then!"

"Well," said Mochika, and Quistis could hear the sound of rustling papers as the student wrestled with an armful of notes. "We managed to identify the chemicals that had caused the creature to grow in size – it had been given large doses of compounds called Gerynium 24 and Asdilion-G."

"Which means very little to a non-chemistry student like myself, I’m afraid! In English?"

"Man-made steroids and growth hormones."


"However these things got into the creature’s system, they weren’t picked up from polluted water or food supplies, and they couldn’t have just absorbed them from their environments, the chemical levels in the blood are far too large for that."

"So what, someone purposefully injected these things?"

"That’s what it seems. They may have injected some and left them to breed, which explains the high numbers you said seem to be present locally. At least, that’s the best we could come up with."

"I see," said Quistis, her mind filling up with dizzying possibilities and conspiracies. "So for whatever reasons, these things have been introduced to their old habitat-"

"And now they’re breeding and spreading much faster than anticipated, I’ll expect." Mochika’s voice displayed her concern. "Instr- Quistis, I mean. This could get out of hand very quickly, if it hasn’t already. The samples you sent us displayed alarming regeneration properties, and from what we could gather of its biological makeup these creatures are very strong and very smart."

"That much I know already, Anna – I had a run-in with one of them last night."

"Oh no! Are you alright?"

"I’m fine, it got away from me." Quistis took a deep breath and considered her options. "Thanks for calling, Anna, I’ll ring you in the evening after school."

"Alright. Take care." Mochika hung up and Quistis replaced the handset, expelling the breath from a moment ago as she slumped her head into her hands. Man-made chemical stimulants? Why would anyone want to do that? And more importantly, how was she going to stop them if there was, as Mochika theorised, an ever-growing army of these things? Did someone start the creatures up as a hunting game and have it spill out of control? To use a cliché, were they an experiment gone wrong? Quistis fell backwards onto her bed with a soft *whoomph* as her mind overloaded with possibilities. Nona called her from downstairs to bring her back to reality.

"Breakfast’s ready, sleepyhead!" Quistis sat up and headed downstairs, trying to push these thoughts to the back of her mind until she had chance to sit and think about them later.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"What on earth happened to you?" asked Taylan as Quistis strolled into the PE offices that morning. Her head was still a little foggy from the scrap with whatever creature it was that had given her the cut and bruise down her cheek, as well as the discoveries Mochika had made for her back at the Garden. Quistis looked puzzled for a second, then continued the act by putting a hand up to the bandage on her cheek and seeming to remember all of a sudden.

"You would not believe it – I am so accident prone I amaze myself sometimes!" she said, smiling to disarm Taylan, who looked genuinely concerned. "I was up late last night and was sat by the stove in the kitchen making a cup of coffee, when I must have dozed off or something, and the next thing I know, BAM!" she said, clapping her hands together for emphasis. "I clocked myself on the edge of the stove on the way down. It looks worse than it is!" She waited for a few tense moments to see if Taylan would buy her story, before sighing with relief internally when he rolled his eyes and chuckled at her.

"You ought to watch yourself, Quisty," he said, "there are plenty more ways to do yourself an injury round here!" He shook his head at the comedy of it all and went back to the papers on his desk. Quistis sat down and tried to look busy until the bell rang for the morning’s first lesson and she was left on her own again. If she could keep coming up with excuses to hide any injuries she should be okay – demonstrating her accident-prone nature wasn’t going to be hard, so as long as her stories fitted in with the severity of her wounds, she’d be alright. Of course, avoiding getting any more injuries was her real top priority, but it never hurt to have a back-up plan ready.

"Miss Trepe? Miss Trepe! MISS TREPE!!" yelled the voice. Quistis blinked a couple of times and realised she was being shouted at.

"Huh? What? What’s the matter?"

"I, uh.. I think I’m stuck again, Miss." Quistis looked up and sighed. It was the end of her third gym lesson of the day, a day that had passed mercifully quickly given what Quistis had on her mind at the moment, and once again, little Zechs had stranded himself at the top of the climbing ropes, some twenty feet up into the air. Swaying gently above her, Quistis looked around and realised the rest of the class had long since left. She must have spaced out and the kids finished the lesson and left without disturbing her. That just left her with the problem of how to get Zechs down. He got stuck quite a lot.

"For someone who likes climbing so much, you seem to get stuck remarkably often!" said Quistis, her hands on her hips as she looked up at the hapless student.

"The ‘up’ part is fine, it’s getting down again afterwards that I’m a little sticky on," he said. "So, er, can you get me down, please? My mother’ll be here to take me home soon.."

"Relax," she said, "I’ve got a plan." Quistis left to grab something from her office before returning to the gym a few moments later, her hands behind her back. Zechs gulped nervously.

"Er, so, like, what do I do now, Miss Trepe?"

"Trust me, Zechs. Close your eyes and no matter what happens don’t open them till you feel your feet back on the ground. Do you understand?" Zechs nodded and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. Quistis revealed her whip, hidden behind her back to avoid freaking out the scared kid at the top of the rope. The other students had heard rumours about her SeeD past (no pun intended), but so far Quistis had neither confirmed nor denied them. This would just be another little story they’d tell about her. She took careful aim and cracked the whip once at the point where it’s harness linked onto the ceiling. It buckled and snapped, and Zechs and the rope hurtled towards the ground, but Quistis was already in place to catch him before he was halfway down. His eyes were still clamped closed as Quistis lay him feet first onto the floor of the gym, before stepping back and concealing the whip again. She coughed once to make him realise he was safe. Zechs peeked open one eye and then the next, before breathing a heavy sigh of relief and scurrying out of the gym, throwing a ‘Thanks, Miss!’ over his shoulder as he darted out through the swing doors at the entrance. Quistis sighed too – it had been a long day and this little rescue was the finale of it all. She heard footsteps behind her and tensed automatically, turning round slowly to see who’d walked in.

Justin stood just inside the doorway, hands in his pockets and the trademark half-cocked grin on his face, leaning up against the wall of the gym. Quistis relaxed but tried to keep the whip behind her back.

"Nice work, I thought he was a goner for sure," he said. Quistis looked sideways at him – how much had he seen?

"Well, you spend enough time around kids and you work out the things they get themselves into," she said, trying not to give herself away," lucky I was here to help out."

"So how long have you been training with that whip thing, then?" he asked, his expression unchanging. Quistis was rumbled. At least she knew she could trust him.

"Er, what whip?" she said, chickening out completely and blushing a deep crimson as she did so. Justin just looked at her and she gave in. "Okay, okay, this was my weapon of choice back at the Garden. If the headmaster found out I still had it with me on school grounds I’d be in a lot of trouble, but in my profession I learned that it always helps to be expect the unexpected."

"And using said weapon of choice to effectively cut down and rescue stranded gym class students?"

"I’d put that down as ‘shows initiative’," said Quistis with a grin as she walked past Justin and out of the gym. He shook his head and chuckled to himself before following her out.

"So what’s been on your mind just lately, anyway?" he asked as they walked back through the school, Quistis having changed back into her civvies and Justin having wished he could have found a way to watch.

"What do you mean?" she replied, trying not to look guilty. And probably failing.

"Oh come on, Quisty, I can read you pretty well already, and more than enough to tell when you’re distracted by something. What’s up?" Quistis opened her mouth to answer, then out of the corner of her eye saw Coprase talking to another teacher. He hadn’t seen them, but Quistis grabbed Justin’s arm and walked him smartly towards the doors anywhere.

"Not here," she said under her breath to him. "Come on."

Quistis drove along, Justin in the passenger seat, wondering what she could say to him, how, and where. Eventually they came to a quieter area just past the edge of the forest lining the town limits, and Quistis pulled over to a stop. The little space was almost like a natural car park – a flat piece of ground, walled in by trees on three sides and with other vehicle tyre tracks on the ground and dirt around her. Quistis turned the jeep’s engine off and sat back in her seat, not looking at Justin even though she knew he’d been looking at her for most of the silent journey here.

"This had better be important, because I’m missing a great dinner I had ready back home for this," he said, trying to lighten the mood. Quistis’ scowl told him it wasn’t going to work much. The sun was setting outside, filtering gently through the leaves around them, but Quistis kept her shades on. The jeep’s windows were down to let in the air and sounds of the woodland around them.

"I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything to you sooner, it’s still early days for me with all this."

"Early days for what? What’s going on?" he asked.

"Justin, you know about the attacks around here, right?" Justin’s face betrayed him as his suspicions were confirmed by that one little sentence. He looked away with a sad little smile, and bowed his head to nod once.

"I’ve been noticing things for a while, even before I went away for a while. When I came back things had just gotten worse. Nobody really seems to know about them, but I was trying to find out what I could before going public with it. Well, as public as you can go in a small place like this, anyway."

"You don’t know how close you got, Justin," said Quistis sadly, still feeling too guilty to look him in the eyes. After another deep breath she removed her shades and looked across to him. "There’s something out there and it’s trying to find its way in."

"What kind of something? I had it down as a wild animal or escaped lab creature, something like that."

"From what I’ve been able to determine, someone has been tampering with specimens of local wildlife, who have then mutated into larger and more aggressive forms and started to move in on the borders of Setton, attacking civilians as they get more daring."

"Tampering with the wildlife? How?"

"That part I’m not sure about, but there are traces of steroids and other chemicals in the creature’s blood. I don’t know where it came from yet."

"And you said they’re moving in on the town?"

"I managed to bump into one of our little critters the other night," she said, indicating the cuts on her face. Justin winced sympathetically.

"Yeah, I was planning to ask you about all that," he said.

"It was scavenging for food round the back of those two restaurants on Wolden Street, but when I chased it things got a bit nasty. It was smart enough to lead me into an ambush, and then it knocked me out and made off. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it did seem to be roughly human-sized."

"Jeez!" said Justin. "So they’ve grown up a lot, by the looks of it. What’s the plan? Does anyone else know about all this?"

"Yes, and that’s another story entirely," said Quistis, brushing a hand through her hair as she brought all the information on the mayoral-led monster hunting party to mind. "The mayor knows, as do about thirty other townspeople, but they’ve decided to keep it quiet to avoid causing panic."

"Well, that kind of makes sense," said Justin, but quickly shut up when he saw Quistis’ dark look.

"They think they can contain what’s going on, but I only had to gatecrash one of their little meetings to see that they have no idea of what they’re dealing with. They’re just a bunch of people who’ve seen, heard or bumped into one of these creatures, but don’t know where they’re coming from, how to stop them or how bad it’s getting."

"Did you offer to help? I mean, you must still have friends at the Garden, right? Couldn’t we get some SeeDs out here?"

"I thought about that, but I need more evidence, because the mayor will deny all knowledge unless I either prove conclusively that there is a problem, or the public at large find out anyway and the town descends into chaos."

"Any theories on who’s behind it?" Quistis shook her head.

"None yet. It doesn’t make much sense. Who would purposefully breed these things and set them on the town? Maybe they’re some first year science student’s experiment who escaped and are now multiplying out in the wild? What if some nefarious property developer is trying to drive out the people round here so he can bulldoze the town and turn it into a giant car park?" Quistis and Justin glanced at each other for a moment, then shook their head dismissively at the same time.

"I have faith that you’ll find out. I take it me keeping quiet is the best thing to do here? You know, leave this all to the professionals, that kind of thing?"

"Seeing as ‘the professionals’ basically means me at the moment, I’d say yes. You keep on doing what detective work you can, but don’t let on about it to anybody. The mayor told me they’d made a decision not to involve anyone else in what they’re up to, so that means I’m on my own. I have a few things to try tonight to get some more answers, so I’ll be back in touch with you tomorrow about it all." Silence filled the jeep after Quistis finished. Justin was attempting to add to what he already knew about Setton’s pest problem, while Quistis was wondering whether getting him involved was the right thing to do.

"Listen," they both said at once, turning to each other. They laughed to break the tension.

"You first," said Justin.

"I was just going to say be careful. I know you want to help, and believe me, if those idiot hunters aren’t going to let me chip in I’m going to need all the help I can get. Just don’t try to take one of these things on. I’ve faced monsters large and small all over the world, but I still say the worst thing you can ever fight is something that thinks. These creatures are clever. For all I know, they may get cleverer."

"I appreciate the concern. I was going to say thanks for trusting me. I know you don’t want anything to happen to me," he said, returning the grin that Quistis allowed herself, "but I want to help both you and this town before anyone else gets hurt or killed by these things." Quistis relaxed. Justin was clever enough to not take on anything he couldn’t handle, and he also seemed willing to defer to Quistis’ experience if things got rough. Her emotions got the better of her for a moment, and she leaned across to embrace him. He seemed surprised for a moment, than locked his arms around her in return.

"Thanks," she said. "I was beginning to think I was on my own out here."

"I’m not going anywhere, Quisty," he said. "Nowhere at all."

They stayed in each others arms for what seemed like hours before Quistis composed herself again, started up the jeep and dropped Justin off home. The drive back to her aunt’s gave her enough time to start to formulate a plan for the evening. Tonight she’d find one of these things and take it down, and that would give her the proof she needed to start a real war against the monsters.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis sat in her room, some music playing quietly in the background, but she wasn’t really listening to it. All the lights were off except for one small bedside lamp, as Quistis was trying to clear her head ready for the night’s activities. She’d got her plan of action sorted out in the time between leaving Justin and finishing her evening meal with Nona. She hadn’t let on to her aunt what she was going to be up to, because she’d try to stop her and Quistis’ mind was already made up. People were dying in this town, whether the hunters wanted to believe that or not, and it was up to her to take charge of the situation before it got out of hand.

She sighed and buried her face in her hands for a second, trying to cool her brain which felt like it was trying to achieve a liquid state and ooze out of her ears. How the hell had she gotten herself into this awful mess? She’d arrived in this town just a few weeks ago full of anticipation; the prospect of starting her life over, making her own little place in the world and leaving her past behind her. Now it seemed to have caught up with her again like some kind of shadow, creeping over every part of her life and returning Quistis to a world full of conflict, turmoil and struggle.

Her mind was made up now. Tonight, she’d head into Setton and patrol the streets, looking for one of the monsters, then she was going to take it down and drag its body out to the town hall. Maybe then the mayor would listen to her. She’d come this far and there was no turning back – the situation in the town wasn’t going to get any better if she just sat back and let things take care of themselves. How long before one of those creatures found its way into the school grounds? Or what if she came home one night and found Nona dead at the claws of these things? She’d never forgive herself if anyone else was hurt because she chose not to act now. She took a deep breath and walked up to her wardrobe to check herself in the mirror set into the door.

She was dressed in her old SeeD uniform, kept clean and crease-free more out of a sense of tradition than any kind of subconscious desire to go back to her old life. Head to foot in black, the fur-lined collar of the blazer was still a tiny bit itchy, but the black-knee length skirt and boots looked as good as they always did. If nothing else, dressing up in the uniform always gave Quistis an odd sense of purpose. Tonight, it was more of a symbol of her professional attitude towards the monster problem. Plus, it made her look good and had a specially-fitted sleeve to carry her whip more easily.

Sliding open the bedroom window and stepping lightly out onto the roof outside like a rebellious teenager sneaking out for the night, Quistis hopped from one layer of the house to the next and was down at the garage in moments. Popping the jeep into first gear and rolling it a little way down the road allowed her to get far enough away from the house to be able to start the engine without fear of waking Aunt Nona up. Her house was on a slight slope so rolling the car didn’t take much effort. Before long Quistis was heading towards the outskirts of the town centre, and she soon passed the same spot she and Justin had spoken a few hours previously. She looked down at her watch. It was just after 1am. Nightlife in Setton was quiet and confined to a few areas of town, so she shouldn’t bump into too many people if she kept to the right streets.

A few minutes later, Quistis drove into a deserted car park on the edge of town, used during the day by shoppers but left unmanned at night. She hopped out of her jeep and locked it up, then scanned the nearby streets for a likely place to start her patrol.

"Now, if I was a monster, where would I lurk.." she muttered under her breath. Across the street from the car park was a small supermarket, next to her was a garage and on her other side was a restaurant that seemed to be closed. The road past the car park went up a hill and towards a small residential area, so she headed up to that to see what she could find. The roads around her were bathed in the orange glow of the streetlamps, and apart from the occasional car or truck rolling past, there was no sign of life. People in Setton kept to themselves by and large, Quistis had discovered, but that made her job tonight a lot easier.

She turned into one street and walked along, detached houses lining one side of the street as she passed by a fenced-off sports court, part of the local leisure centre. Trouble always seemed to find her when Squall and the others were roaming the world trying to avoid it, but now here she was actively seeking out a fight and there was nothing to be found. Quistis turned again, heading along the street at the back of the restaurant near the car park, which was peppered with small alleyways and paths as she drew closer to the town centre.

Suddenly, there was contact. A scream pierced the night up ahead, and Quistis darted towards it. It sounded like it came from a young girl, a few hundred yards up in front of her somewhere. Quistis ran on and found herself in a dizzying network of streets and alleys that led out to several more shops and residences in the area. Setton was littered with these little mazes, a sign of how the town had started off small – very small – and had expanded and built onto the old streets as the years went on. Quistis paused to catch her breath, listening again for the girl’s voice. There was another yelp and some kind of odd barking sound, close by to her left. Quistis turned on her heel and leapt forward, finding herself at the lip of a dead end alley running alongside a motorbike showroom. A lamppost at the end of the alley illuminated the scene before her, giving her a few fractions of seconds to assess what was going on and how to stop it.

There was the young girl who’d led Quistis here, a blonde slip of a thing who couldn’t be more than about ten, cowering for cover with her arms above her head as the creature attacking her towered above her. It seemed to be some kind of lizard, humanoid and stood upright on two feet, hissing and baring its fangs at the girl as its long tail flicked rapidly from side to side. Quistis took in the wickedly spiked barb on the creatures tail before drawing her whip and shouting out to get the monster’s attention.

"Hey!" was the best thing she could think of to say. Normally, some kind of witty comment would have been the norm, but there wasn’t enough time to think of something right now. The lizardman turned round, very slowly, its eyes narrowing as it observed this intruder. Its tongue flicked in and out of its mouth a few times, unfortunately drawing Quistis’ attention to its rows of razor-sharp teeth, and it stepped away from the girl to take up a defensive stance opposite her.

"You there. Hey, kid!" she hissed, not taking her eyes off the creature. "Take cover, I’ll take care of this." Out of the corner of her vision, she saw the little girl nod and shuffle backwards down the alley. There were two dumpsters against one wall of the alley, and the girl hid around behind those. The lizardman hadn’t moved much, and Quistis got the feeling it was sizing her up, deciding whether to make the first move or not. And that unnerved her quite considerably.

"Alright, ugly, time to see what you’re made of," she said, cracking her whip against the concrete floor once. The lizard ducked back instinctively, before making that strange barking noise she’d heard before and lunging towards her.

Its first blow caught her off guard, its strength overwhelming her and slamming her to the ground as it barged into her and jumped over her prone form, landing silently and turning round to watch her struggle to her feet again. Quistis looked down at her now muddy uniform and glared at the lizardman.

"Right. That does it," she said, cracking her whip round in a short, sharp arc, connecting with the creature’s torso and leaving a stinging cut that sent it yelping back into the alley. The creature was more shocked than hurt, however, and resumed its stance from before, ready to strike again. Quistis jumped in to the attack, kicking out at the lizard and knocking it sideways. It crashed bodily into one of the dumpsters, tipping it onto its side and scattering foul-smelling rubbish all over the floor. The girl who had been hiding behind the dumpsters screamed and ran away as far down the alley as she could.

Another swift tail swipe from the creature sent Quistis slamming to the ground, the barbed tip of the monster’s tail leaving a bloody gash across her cheek. Now that was going to be tough to explain away tomorrow in class.. She had no time to think about what flimsy excuse to come up with as the lizardman slammed its fists down on the cold concrete floor, inches away from where her head had just been. Whatever this thing was, it was getting the upper hand on her and Quistis needed to find its weak spot and take it out, and fast.

Her black outfit was covered with patches of dirt and filth from the alley, and her normally pristine boots were coated with household rubbish from one of the dumpsters overturned earlier in the fight. The monster rushed at her, slamming its tail into the lone streetlamp that illuminated this little action scene and sending the bulb several feet above them swinging wildly from side to side, adding a disorientating strobe effect to further blur Quistis’ already hazy vision. She held her whip handle up protectively, hoping to get a lucky shot at the thing’s face, but the lizard grabbed at the handle with its own scaly claws and started to push it against her throat.

The monster’s hot breath hissed in her face, smelling distressingly like fresh meat, and Quistis was pushed back down to the ground as she struggled to stop the creature from throttling her with her own weapon. As it pressed its weight down on top of her, the edges of her vision started to blur and fade to black, which Quistis unfortunately recognised as the first signs of rapidly closing unconsciousness. If she passed out, the lizard would probably rip out her throat and then finish off the girl for dessert, and she wasn’t about to let that happen.

Managing to gain a foothold with her boot heel on the floor, Quistis arched herself upwards sharply to throw the monster up a little, enough for her to angle her knee squarely into its solar plexus. The lizard made a muffled ‘whoomph’ noise and backed off the pressure around her neck, so Quistis took her chance and threw it off of her.

Standing upright at last, she cracked her whip once against the ground as the lizardman slowly got up, crouching and ready to pounce. It hissed venomously at her, its narrow eyes darting from side to side, trying to guess her next move.

Luckily, it was a fraction of a second too late to catch her rapid whip crack across its shins, and as the creature yelped and crashed to the ground she followed up her advantage with a firm boot to its head. Feeling the creature’s tough skull under her foot, she leapt back and span on one heel, sending her whip flying out in a broadside attack that swept the beast over and into the wall at the far side of the alley. It slammed to the ground and lay still.

Quistis, panting with exertion, kept her eyes on the fallen creature but motioned for the girl to come over to her. The girl, her tear streaked eyes also locked on the lizard, shook her head and stayed where she was, wedged into a tight spot at one corner of the alley. Quistis irritably waved at her again to come over, and the girl slowly started to shuffle along the floor towards her. When she was a foot away, the lizard groaned and stirred, provoking the girl to yelp and dash for cover behind Quistis.

Facing down her by now badly wounded enemy, Quistis carefully lined up one last whip strike, unleashing it as the lizard got to its feet. The monster cracked its head against the alley wall, leaving an ugly splatter of blood, and this time was down for good.

Silence reigned in the alley for a few moments, until Quistis picked up the faint sound of the young girls sobs, her face pressed into Quistis’ thigh and her tiny arms clutching tightly around her boot. Trying to calm her breathing, Quistis wound up and hung her whip off her belt before crouching down to face the young girl.

"What’s your name, then?" she asked. The girl sniffed once, wiped away a tear and answered.

"Marie," she said.

"Well then, Marie, I’ll get you home and you can forget any of this ever happened, okay?" The girl nodded a few times, before looking up at Quistis with a puzzled gaze.

"But who are you?" Quistis smiled.

"Oh, I’m nobody. Just an out of date teacher trying to find somewhere to call home. So speaking of home," she said as she stood up, taking Marie’s hand in her own and walking out of the alley, "let’s get you to yours."

As the two walked back towards the lights of the town centre, Quistis keeping one hand holding a tissue pressed to her cheek to stop the bleeding from the wound on her cheek, she heard a siren wailing behind her. Craning her head round to look, she saw an ambulance go speeding past on the road a few feet away from her. She looked down at the girl by her side.

"Looks like they got sent to the wrong place!" she smiled. The girl smiled back, feeling safe now that her guardian angel was with her. "Which way is it to your house from here, honey?" asked Quistis. The girl pointed in the direction the ambulance had just sped off, and Quistis nodded and started walking. They were coming into an area with some apartment blocks, still on the lip of the town centre. "I suppose I should ask you what you were doing out in that alley at 2 in the morning," she said, looking down to get an answer.

"Dunno," sniffed Marie. "Was asleep, then I just woke up and that fing was carryin’ me. I screamed an’ it dropped me. Then you came."

"It took you out of your home?" asked Quistis. The girl just nodded. This was bad, thought Quistis. If these things are breaking into people’s houses now, who knows what’s going to happen when more of them start appearing? Maybe the people of Setton were going to find out about this sooner than planned.

They’d been walking a few minutes when the duo turned a corner to see the ambulance from before. It was stopped by a car parked in an empty car park, like Quistis jeep about a mile away. There was a police officer there, putting up crime scene tape around the edges of the parking area, and a small crowd had gathered, mainly people from the apartments nearby in their nightclothes and dressing gowns.

"I live up there," said Marie, pointing to one of the apartments just behind the car park.

"Okay, just give me a minute to see what’s happened here and then I’ll get you back home, okay?" Quistis walked up to the ambulance crew, who were loading up a gurney and its cargo, an ominously zipped black body bag, into the back of the ambulance. She could see that it looked like something had attacked the car, shattering the windows and ripping the door off. There was a lot of blood spattered around, whoever had been attacked obviously hadn’t made it.

"What happened?" she asked one of the ambulance men while the police officer was busy taking eyewitness statements.

"Looks like some kind of wild animal attack," said the medic, "the guy was waiting in his car for whatever reason when something went for him. He put up a fight and the struggle alerted local residents. They called the police but they guy was dead when we got here."

"That’s terrible," she replied, looking down at Marie, who was blissfully unaware of the fate that she’d been saved from. Quistis had probably missed being able to save the car occupant’s life because she was busy saving the little girl. Not a great sequence of events.

"Yeah, the guy was in pretty bad shape. We I.D’d him as a teacher at the local school," continued the ambulanceman, and Quistis’ heart sank. Had Coprase fallen foul of the things he was trying to protect his town from at last?

"Who was it? I work at the school too," said Quistis, trying to compose herself.

"Er, Talbeck. A Mr. Justin Talbeck. Nice guy, he taught one of my kids. Ah well," said the ambulanceman, turning as his colleague passed a message on to him then getting back to closing up the ambulance doors. Quistis stood, stock still, as it drove away, the blue flashing lights illuminating her face as it sped away. She didn’t speak, her mind attempting to process what she’d just been told. She was brought back to reality by Marie’s insistent tugging at her skirt.

"Best get me back now, miss," she said. "Maybe more munsters." Quistis nodded, still in shock, and let Marie lead her back to her home.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Quistis was vaguely aware of meeting Marie’s parents, of their grateful tears and handshakes at bringing her back, and of being shown the little girl’s room, complete with broken window where the beast had climbed in to get her. She could just about recall the walk back to her jeep, but when she sat down at the steering wheel and turned to the passenger seat, where she’d exchanged her last words with Justin earlier that day, the full impact of what had happened hit her. She erupted into floods of tears, great heaving sobs of pain, banging her fists against the steering wheel and screaming out to whoever was around to listen.

"You stupid, stupid, bastard!" she yelled, anger, frustration, grief and remorse all rolling into one intangibly huge emotion inside her head, making the walls of the world fall away around her. She slumped forward in the bar, her head resting against the dashboard. The tears wouldn’t stop – they rolled down her face and onto her lap, mixing with the blood that was still dripping from the cuts she’d taken in the fight earlier on. Everything was spinning round, she felt dizzy, faint – taking deep gulps of air wasn’t helping, just making her more light-headed. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again the sun had started to rise. That one moment had actually lasted three hours. She sat up in her seat, at a loss for what to do next.

She’d lost friends and comrades in the field before, it was all part of becoming a member of the world’s top mercenary force. Losing Justin was different, it hit her in a place she thought she’d never feel anything in again. She wasn’t sure how she’d felt about him, now she’d probably never know, but it felt worse than any war wound, any pain she’d ever felt before.

Wiping the tears away, she started up her jeep and began to drive back to her aunt’s house. She couldn’t keep her thoughts together but driving kept her concentrating, so when she rolled to a stop and walked in through the front door, she’d managed to put everything out of her head for a while. Slouching up the stairs in a daze, she feel, fully clothed, onto her bed and into a deep sleep the moment her eyes closed. She was dimly aware of Nona’s voice but it wasn’t enough to bring her back from the blackness.

Her sleep was troubled again, dreams of running towards Justin’s car but never getting any closer, seeing him inside, alive and healthy, then looking fearful and finally screaming for his life as something she couldn’t make out blocked him from her view. She ran for what felt like hours but was always just as far away from him. When the day finally flickered into view like a faulty neon light some time later, she craned her head to see she’d been asleep for nearly eleven hours, and it was now early afternoon. It was safe to assume she wouldn’t be going into school that day.

Quistis sat up, her bones creaking painfully, and she became aware of bruises and cuts that had welled up overnight, especially from the cuts on her face and hands from her fight in the alleyway. As she rubbed her sore neck to try and ease some feeling back into the muscles, there was a light tap at her door.

"Quistis? Are you up yet?" said Nona softly.

"Yeah.. yeah, I’m awake, auntie." Quistis arranged her pillows for support and sat up on the bed as Nona came in, a glass of water in her hand.

"I’ve popped my head round the door a few times but you’ve been out all day," she said, placing the water down on the bedside table. Quistis opened her mouth to say something, but Nona held up a hand to stop her. The look on her face was a mixture of fury and concern, the kind of look parents reserve for their children after catching up with them again following losing them in a shopping mall for several nerve-wracking minutes. "And don’t even try to talk your way out of this one. I know exactly what you were up to," she said. Quistis looked down and realised she was still in her muddy and scuffed SeeD outfit, boots and all.

"Ah," she said simply.

"You may not even remember this, but you were briefly interviewed on the local news channel early this morning, as a witness at the scene of that poor teacher’s murder," Nona said, her arms folded to stop her wringing her hands as she walked over to the bedroom’s window. A blustery afternoon wind was settling in, rattling the windowpane and sending arcing trails of leaves spiralling through the air.

"You’re right, I don’t," said Quistis, noticing that the shock of finding Justin was starting to settle in a little as she felt surprisingly numb thinking about him again.

"I’ve worked out that you sneaked out of the house late last night, which is a stunt you were pulling when you were a kid so you’d have thought I’d have gotten wise to it by now," Nona continued. "And then that you went out looking for one of those.. one of those things you were telling me about the other night. Then all I can work out is that you just happened to come across your friend Justin later on."

"That’s about it," said Quistis, feeling very fragile all of a sudden and finding herself instinctively clutching a pillow for support. "I saw an ambulance pass me when I started to take the little girl home.."

"Little girl?" asked Nona with a raised eyebrow.

"Something was attacking her so I fought it off and took her home," said Quistis, recalling the blur of events of the previous night as though they were someone else’s dream. "As we were walking I saw the ambulance and it turned out Justin had been attacked just down the road from this girl’s home. I dropped her off with her parents then got back here." Quistis was staring out of the window, mesmerised by the swirling leaves in the wind outside as her brain switched off all its higher reasoning functions to stop her emotions throwing her into another breakdown.

"There wasn’t anything you could have done, then," said Nona. "If you’d found and saved Justin, that little girl would have been killed."

"That’s what I’ve been telling myself," said Quistis, hugging her knees protectively. "But right now that isn’t bringing me much comfort." Nona looked down at her for a few seconds, then started to walk out again. She stopped at the door.

"I’m too glad that you’re not hurt to be mad at you right now, and also I know how terrible it must have been to find him like that. Get some more rest and we’ll talk about this later. I called the school for you so they’re not expecting you in for a few days." Nona gently closed the door and Quistis waited for her footsteps to fade out of earshot before allowing herself to start sobbing again.

She couldn’t remember what happened to the rest of the day – as far as she was aware, she spent it looking out of her bedroom window, curled up tightly around one of the bed’s pillows and trying not to think about anything at all. The insistent beep-beep of her phone finally roused her to movement again, Quistis noting with surprise when she turned round that it was now almost seven o’clock at night.


"Hey there, stranger," said the familiar voice at the other end of the line. Quistis smiled despite her mood, rubbing the dampness away from her eyes and trying not to sound like she’d been crying for the past few hours.

"Hello, Irvine," she said. "Good to hear from you again."

"Same to you, Quisty, I bumped into that Mochika girl the other day and she told me what you were up to, then when Cid told me you’d wanted to be kept up to date on what we were all up to, I felt strangely compelled to give you a call." Quistis could actually hear Irvine’s famous lop-sided grin, somehow always adding an air of humour to whatever came out of his mouth.

"I’m sorry if I sound a little zombified, Irv, I’ve had a rough few days."

"Rough how?" asked Irvine, noting with concern how drained Quistis seemed. She sighed once and then recounted the last few weeks as briefly as she could, finishing with finding the monster last night and then finding that Justin was dead.

"Good grief, woman, you really know how to keep landing yourself in it, don’t you? Makes what Selphie and I have been through sound like walk in the park. A nice park too. In the summertime." Quistis laughed at the funny but still found good humour hard to come by. "Seriously though, I can see this isn’t a great time for you right now. I’m free most of the rest of this week, so hows about I give you a call back in a few days or something?"

"I’d like that," said Quistis with a brave smile. "Thanks for being so.. well, understanding, Irvine."

"No problem, babes," he replied, "I know what you’re going through. Been there myself. We all have. Doesn't make it any easier, though, does it?"

"No, no it doesn’t," said Quistis. "Thanks again, speak to you soon."

"See ya!" chirped Irvine before he hung up. Quistis replaced the receiver and lay back down on the bed, a little sad that she hadn’t felt like speaking to Irvine but glad he understood her need for some quiet time. She closed her eyes and drifted back off to sleep, thankfully dreamless this time.

A quiet evening meal with Nona was the only real thing Quistis achieved with the rest of her day, heading outside to the impressive view of Nona’s garden as the night crept over the town below. The house’s hillside position meant that as well as Nona’s carefully maintained and colourful front garden, the whole of the valley and the brightly lit town of Dulcett below was clearly visible from the wooden chairs set out on the lawn. Quistis sat in one of those, watching the town light up and the clouds slowly crawl across the sky as the sun packed its bags and left for the day and left the door open for the moon to saunter into the sky. She’d wrapped an old shawl around her, but was still wearing her dirty SeeD uniform, having gotten too lost in her thoughts to remember to change. She’d sat still like an obedient six year old as Nona cleaned up and dressed her wounds, Nona having had plenty of experience at patching up the youthful Quistis years ago. A untouched and now cold cup of coffee sat by Quistis’ feet as
she stared out down into Dulcett, and she didn’t move as Nona came out to join her, pulling up another of the chairs.

"Nice night," she said off-handedly, looking not at Quistis but at the town also, sipping on her drink. "The police rang, they may need you to go to the station tomorrow to answer some questions. Do you feel up to that?"

"Whatever," said Quistis quietly. The grief and loss of earlier today had started to be replaced by a heady mixture of indifference and rage, anger directed at the incompetence of the hunters in not moving sooner to stop the monsters before they started killing people.

"Justin’s been on the news, poor lad," Nona continued. "So far the report is just of ‘a wild animal’ but nobody’s said any more than that right now."

"I’m going back out there," said Quistis icily.

"No you’re bloody well not, young lady," said Nona sharply, sitting up and looking straight at Quistis. She didn’t return the gaze.

"As soon as I’m better. These things will just keep killing. I have to stop them."

"These ‘things’ are too much for you to handle! You only just managed against one of them! Let the authorities deal with this, it’s what they’re meant to do. They’ll bring in the rangers or something, maybe the ones from Timber." Quistis hook her head.

"That’s where Squall is, they’ve got their own problems. I know exactly what’ll happen," said Quistis coldly. "More people will turn up dead until the mayor is forced to admit there is a problem. And then there’ll be panic. The hunters won’t be able to keep the monsters under control, and the place will turn into a ghost town quicker than you can say ‘I told you so.’"

"And you can make a difference all by yourself, is that it?" said Nona, her voice rising in anger. "Just you against this tide of creatures, threatening to overrun the tiny little town?" She added mock dramatic emphasis to her words to highlight how ludicrous Quistis’ statements were.

"I can try. Justin’s dead because I didn’t try hard enough," Quistis said sadly.

"Justin’s dead because he was just trying to find out how to protect his home, not because of you!" Nona said. She rubbed her eyes to focus her thoughts then spoke again, more softly this time. "You can’t blame yourself. He knew the risks, you said yourself you’d spoken to him about what was going on."

"Maybe. Maybe I was just too slow. If I’d taken that thing down faster I’d have found Justin before.." she trailed off, her voice almost breaking, and she bit her lip to stop a fresh flow of tears. Nona just shook her head sadly.

"It’s not going to bring him back. If you really want to do something useful, get more people involved in this. Call in the Garden, anything, just don’t do this by yourself. You’ll only get yourself killed. What will that prove?"

Quistis didn’t have an answer to that. Nona sighed heavily at the young woman’s stubbornness, knowing it only too well herself, then retreated back into the house, leaving Quistis outside and alone with her thoughts. Quistis spent another hour or so out there, barely moving, until she stood up, left the shawl out on the chair and walked back over to the house.

Moments later her jeep started up and Quistis started to drive back into Setton. She had work to do.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The bug crashed to the ground, still at last. Quistis stood over it, breathing heavily to try and snatch some breath back, her whip coated with chunks of the insect’s flesh and blood. She watched it carefully for a few more seconds, making sure it was definitely dead this time. She’d encountered this particular mutation a few times before – it looked as though it had once been some kind of innocent little bug like a caterpillar or woodlouse, but now it had grown into something the size of a large dog, covered with a thick shell and armed with a bite that could punch through a solid wooden door.

Quistis looked round. She was in somebody’s back garden, and lights were starting to flicker on in the house behind her. Children’s toys lay strewn carelessly around the grass, and there was a pleasant little rockery at the far end, just in front of the old wooden shed all these little suburb houses seemed to have.

Or, at least, there used to be a shed and rockery, before Quistis and the bug had come crashing through the fence that separated the garden from the footpath running alongside the house, splintering the shed and trampling over all the plants. She’d picked the thing up during a patrol of one of the more affluent residential sections of the town as it was busy trying to swallow somebody’s pet cat, and had chased it for what felt like an hour but was actually only about twenty minutes. The chase was hampered by the limited flying ability the creature had.

Once she’d cornered it, taking it down was relatively easy, and so as she saw movement inside the house she still had enough energy to lift up and hurl the carcass over the fence before making a disappearing act herself. Once on the other side of the fence, she pushed the body down the riverbank that bordered the footpath, and waited for the tell-tale ‘splish’ of it sinking underneath the water. As the angry voices of the house’s occupants started to drift out to her, she made her getaway into the night.

Quistis was about sixteen days into her campaign now, clearing up the streets of Setton like some avenging angel, knocking the stuffing out of a variety of misshapen freaks and mutated animals, vanishing into the night after each kill to look for more trouble, working from the moment the sun went down to the moment it rose again. Her outfit was starting to show signs of wear, mainly a selection of stains from the body fluids of the creatures she kept spraying out into the world – and mostly all over herself – but her determination was as strong as it had been that night out in the garden of Nona’s house, when she’d promised to make up for losing Justin by exterminating as many of these things as she could.

Repeated attempts to get the hunters and the mayor on her side had come to nothing – dragging the carcasses of recently killed monsters right into their secret meetings and demanding help had allowed her to make a little headway, but on the whole they were still deliberating over what to do. She had a sneaking suspicion they were going to let her do all the dirty work and then swoop in to claim the glory afterwards. To be perfectly honest, she was past the point where trivial things like that mattered to her. She had a job to do and that was all she focused on. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so driven to do anything, but while she had the motivation she wanted to make use of it.

School was proving a useful distraction. Coprase kept trying to talk to her about what she was doing but she kept quiet about it. He was probably just worried about her, but again that wasn’t anything to concern her now. She was coming up with a variety of ingenious excuses to hide any injuries she showed up at school with, ranging from being scratched by pets to slipping as she got out of her car and hurting her wrist/arm/neck/ankle, whichever was in need of an excuse.

Irvine had rang back, as promised, but they hadn’t done anything beyond chit-chat for half an hour before he had to go. She’d learned that he and Selphie had enjoyed some success over at Fisherman’s Horizon – the normally pacifist residents had decided that the best offence was a good defence after the trouble they’d had with Galbadian troops and the Sorceress, and so had commissioned the martial arts centre and rifle range to keep the populace ready just in case something like that happened again. They’d recruited several citizens and trained them up as teachers, so Irvine and Selphie were effectively managing the respective centres, passing on their experience and keeping Fisherman’s Horizon up to date with the latest combat techniques.

There was no news on Zell or Squall as of yet, although Selphie was sure Squall had written to everyone, just that the letters were taking their time, and that Zell was due a holiday soon so he was planning to drop by and visit. As for her other friends, namely Isabella, Serena and Dexter, Quistis had managed to track them down a little further but had to shelve meeting up with them for the time being. Her daily routine consisted of get up, go to school, work, get home, eat, patrol until daybreak, catch a few hours sleep then rise again for school. She was tired but she’d started to survive on two or three hours sleep a day. She was scared to spend a day resting in case somebody was killed and she was too busy sleeping to save them.

One night, about two and a half weeks in, the tables turned on Quistis. She was out patrolling near the school, having discovered that the trees around the edges of the playing fields were a good spot to find lurking monsters, when she heard the tell-tale sounds of some of the lizard-like creatures similar to the ones she’d encountered on her fateful first patrol. Looking ahead of her, she surveyed the terrain carefully – she was walking around the perimeter of the grounds, just past the main pavilion overlooking the field and next door to the indoor swimming pool, and ahead of her was a small hill that led down onto the field proper, bordered on her left by fencing separating the school from the road running past outside. Straight ahead lay the start of the wall of trees and bushes that lined the whole area, and it was from there that the noises could be heard.

It was after midnight, but the small lamps set into the pavilion and building around it stayed on all night for security, so Quistis used them to just about discern human-sized figures moving around in the foliage up ahead. It had been a long night already – she’d been chasing down a pack of flying monsters that looked unsettlingly like huge flying worms, and the rooftop-leaping hunt to keep up with them had taken a lot of strength from her. Taking a deep breath, Quistis closed her eyes to focus again for a second before approaching the treeline, stealthily creeping forward to keep the element of surprise on whatever was lurking in there. She made out two figures, who seemed to be hissing to each other. Maybe they were communicating? Quistis hadn’t really had the time to do much research on what she was fighting, although when she did have some info she sent it on to Mochika at the Garden to see if she came up with anything.

Right now, she had a problem to deal with. Choosing her moment, she leapt forward through the trees and tackled the first creature to the floor. As she thought, she’d bumped into two of the lizard mutants, but the second made a break for it as she barged the first to the ground.

Reaching down and grabbing the thing’s head in both hands, she twisted violently and heard the crack that told her its neck was broken. Leaving the body where it lay – she normally cleaned up after herself but there was no time for that just now – she leapt up and raced after the escapee. The lizard raced for the fence and cleared it in one bound, scurrying out into the town as Quistis scrambled over the fence after it. It dropped to all fours to continue running, crossing the main road that ran past the school and up a hill towards one of the housing areas. Quistis knew how fast these things were, and if she didn’t catch it soon it’d outrun her in no time at all.

Looking around, she was about to try commandeering a likely-looking motorbike at the side of the road when she saw the creature stop and turn to face her. She applied the brakes and came to a stop as well, about ten feet away from it. It regarded her with its narrow, cold eyes, hissing quietly under its breath, before leaping to the side and into a street that led towards a small cluster of houses. Quistis cursed under her breath and started to run after it again.

She’d only taken five steps when she stopped again. Something was wrong. Her hackles rose and she started to pace backwards, before hearing a ‘thud’ from behind her. She turned to see her quarry, having hidden itself in a tree overhead and then dropped down to cut off her exit. She grinned and cracked her whip, ready to take it on. The houses formed a crescent around her, so the only way back out was through this thing. Fine by her.

Then she heard another ‘thud’ to her left. She turned to look. Another lizard had dropped from the trees overhead, which were peppered throughout this part of town. Then another jumped down. Two more followed behind her, and two more to the left. Quistis paced backwards, tensed, as the group of monsters started to slowly advance on her, fangs bared and dripping.

"Seven to one, huh? Sounds like fun," she said, cracking the whip once for effect. She noticed with a growing sense of alarm that not only were these creatures not put off by the sound, they also appeared to be spreading out to encircle her. She was preparing her next witty remark when the lead creature hissed a command to the others, and as one all seven of them leapt to the attack.

Quistis leapt backwards, her right foot lashing out in a swift kick that took one creature down, and she ducked under its partner’s blow an instant later. Swinging the whip round, she snagged it round the neck of a lizard and pulled forward, bringing the lizard to the floor. One hit her from behind, and another sent its tail swinging towards her face quicker than she could block it. She raised her forearm to defend herself but took a painful gash from the barbed tail.

Staggering backwards, she hopped in the air to avoid a low tail strike from one monster, and once back on her feet she lunged forward with a flurry of punches and chops to knock her attacker back. The monster next to it roared at her and loomed forward with a clumsy bite attack as Quistis knocked the other to its knees, forcing her to duck back to avoid it.

This gave the two lizards behind her chance to move in, each lashing out with their claws and leaving her with two deep wounds on each arm. Quistis yelped in pain but swiftly retaliated by slamming both fists back into the faces of her attackers. They yelped louder than she had and stuttered backwards out of range. Quistis got chance to catch her breath and survey the scene. All seven monsters were still going, the ones she’d knocked down at first slowly getting back to their feet. All of them looked just as determined to finish her off as they had at the start of the fight, all ready to remove this intruder into their world, this force that was wiping them out when they were just getting started in the world.

Without warning, two more leaped in to attack. Quistis caught the first, wrapping an arm round its head and slamming it to the floor, but the second lashed out and caught her, this time leaving a claw mark along her belly. Quistis shouted out in pain, noticing the blood she was losing for the first time with an oddly detached sense of annoyance. She snapped her whip forward as another creature rushed her, cracking it against the side of the monster’s head and bowling it out of the way. She stomped angrily towards the lead monster, rage in her eyes wrestling the controls of her brain away and directing her to fight back, kill or be killed.

It replied by slashing at her with its claws, forcing her to block a volley of blows before she could get in with an uppercut of her own. As she felt the lizard’s fangs loosen from her blow, she didn’t see one of the other monsters wrap its tail round her legs until they were snapped from under her and she hit the ground. One of them was instantly on top of her, biting at her face and trying to get to her neck. She struggled with it, but it managed to sink its teeth into her shoulder. She cried out and kicked out, flipping the creature up and over her and taking a chunk of her shoulder out with it.

Getting up, she was too slow to stop two more of them double teaming her with punches, kicks and tail swipes, Quistis reeling from the blows to her chest and stomach until she crashed into the prone form of the first lizard she’d knocked down. She fell to the ground and was caught off-guard again as she stumbled to get up, taking a kick to the face that hurled her to the floor. As one the monsters descended on her, biting and clawing, scratching and tearing, until Quistis’ body started to go numb from a combination of shock and blood loss. She couldn’t feel their fangs and claws anymore, couldn’t feel her life slipping away, couldn’t feel anything at all..

A shot rang out and the creatures bolted, suddenly springing Quistis back to consciousness. She lurched upright, yelling out more in alarm than in pain, before realising she was lucky not to have been separated into five bite-sized pieces by that last onslaught. Ash she crashed back to the ground again, feeling the world fade away to black, she dimly made out a pair of legs approach her, and the smoking barrel of a rifle. Voices echoed around her skull as though it was a huge, empty cavern.

"Good lord, look at her."

"Not much left, good job we got here when we did!"

"Come on, call an ambulance, I’ll try to stop this bleeding."

Quistis just about felt herself being lifted up but after that it seemed that her mind detached itself from her body and drifted off into a quiet, blissful part of the world, far away from the shell it had left behind.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It seemed very cliched to her to come round to the sounds of the steady blip-blip of a heart monitor, along with the regular hiss and wheeze of a breathing regulator, but in her current state Quistis was in no position to complain about her environment. As she slowly forced her eyes open, replacing what had been just darkness and those sounds, fading up from nothing a few moments previously, the harsh, bright light of the outside world flooded in, forcing her to creak her heavy eyelids open one fraction at a time to avoid burning out her retinas.

Yep, she was in hospital all right. She’d passed Setton General Hospital many times on her way to work each day, but had so far managed to avoid ending up in there. Her room was typical – all clinical whites and blues, sunlight filtering through a blind casting long fingers of shadow across her, while the IV drip in her arm reflected the light to cast strange swirling patterns on the far wall. The heart and breathing equipment was clustered to her left hand side, and as her gaze scanned the room she could make out a figure sat on a chair to her right. It was a male, head down as though reading or sleeping, and for a heart-fluttering second Quistis thought it was Justin, but as she blinked once the fog cleared from her eyes and she saw that it was someone entirely unexpected.

Headmaster Cid. He was dozing lightly, clad as ever in a comfy cardigan, this time with a yellow shirt and brown slacks, looking like he’d just walked out of his front room straight into the hospital. Quistis tried to move but realised a second later that about fifty different parts of her body were in pain. She lifted her head slightly, noting that she also had a very sore neck, and saw that even with the covers over her she could make out a variety of bandages dotted all over her person. The movement stirred Cid, whose head jolted back up into alertness. He blinked a few times, saw that Quistis was conscious, then smiled, adjusted his glasses and dragged his chair a little closer to her.

"Perfect timing, I thought you’d be up again sometime soon."

"How long.. have I been in here?" said Quistis with difficulty, realising how exhausted she was.

"A few days. You’ll feel tired because of the painkillers in your system. that, and the whole almost being eaten alive by a pack of monsters thing." Cid’s voice was full of disarmingly good-natured humour, but Quistis could see right through it.

"Why are.. why are you here?"

"I was contacted by your aunt when you landed yourself in here. She and I talk quite a lot, you know, in fact she was telling me only the other week.." Quistis raised a hand weakly to signal to Cid that she knew, thank you very much.

"How bad.. is it, then?"

"Oh, you’ve been hurt worse. Only once, mind you, like the state you were all in after you finished off Ultimecia, why, we ran our blood bank reserves dry keeping you lot alive after that – but I digress. In technical terms, your condition is serious but stable. You’re not getting any worse but you are officially ‘pretty messed up,’ as I keep hearing my students saying."

"Feels like.. I was something’s lunch.. only I didn’t taste too good," she said, a hint of a weak smile on her lips. Cid smiled back. he seemed relieved that she was alright, but also she sensed a confidence in him that she was going to pull through this anyway.

"Nona told me about your mission," he said, the friendly smile never leaving his face, although Quistis felt a sudden drop in the room’s temperature.

"Ah," was all she could manage.

"Admirable though it was, it was also fuelled by the wrong reasons as far as I can make out. You should have called in some help instead of making it a personal vendetta, but having said that I can appreciate how you were trying not to raise the alarm to the townsfolk."

"Wasn’t doing.. too bad," she replied.

"You weren’t, but it was an impossible battle. Sooner or later you’d have wound up dead and you know it. You may have gone some way to ‘avenging’ the death of your friend, but living for revenge is no way to live your life." Cid’s words cut through to her. He was right, of course, and she’d known it since the night she went back out on patrol again after Justin had died, but it was something she’d made every effort to block from her mind.

"What now?"

"SeeD representatives are assessing the situation. And, more importantly, taking over the hunters operation and taking absolutely no crap from the mayor. They’re here to get the situation under control. One of your old students is in charge, actually, lad named Daraq. Very good leader and tactician." Cid grinned. "That’s not why I came here, however."

"Checking.. up on me?" said Quistis, finding breathing a very laborious exercise.

"I did want to see how you were, yes, but that’s besides the point. I want to offer you your old job back." Quistis stared at him for a few seconds then started to laugh. It hurt too much to do anything than cackle inbetween coughs, but it got the point across.

"You want.. to do what?" she said.

"I want you back at the Garden. I was a fool to let you go in the first place, but now I want to make you an offer. You can turn it down if you wish, but unfortunately I think that events have led to your place here in Setton perhaps being a little untenable now."

"What.. does that mean?" asked Quistis, having a sinking feeling that she knew where this was going.

"The school were informed about your little accident. They were told it was a wild animal attack, but unfortunately the SeeD involvement led to Mr. Coprase, who I believe was another gym teacher, being exposed to the headmaster and other senior school staff, and your involvement was also mentioned." Cid noted Quistis’ dark look. "I swear I had nothing to do with that. He was the one who decided to spill the beans about you, Quistis. I’d never purposefully interfere in your affairs."

"Doesn’t look like it," muttered Quistis sarcastically.

"What I’m doing now is offering you a lifeline," Cid continued, choosing to ignore her last remark. "Your life here has unfortunately been irreparably damaged by all of this. You can be safe in the knowledge that we will get this all under control, but for now this is no longer your fight." Quistis closed her eyes and looked away, opening them again to look out of the window. It seemed to be an ironically pleasant day outside, contrasting to the dark clouds gathering over her bed at this moment. She sighed and turned back to Cid.

"What do you want me.. to do?" she managed. Cid smiled.

"We have a class of students who are proving to be a handful for every instructor that tries to train them. They’re fantastically gifted in their chosen field, but they lack direction, discipline and any respect for authority."

"A whole class?" said Quistis.

"Well, actually, there’s just three of them," Cid admitted. "A gunblade specialist, a magic user and a martial artist. They’ve driven every other instructor at the Garden up the wall, and I’m at my wits end with them."

"Why don’t you just.. expel them?"

"I don’t want to. I can’t let their talent go to waste just because we couldn’t find anybody who could handle them."

"Why me?" Cid sat back in his chair and cleaned his glasses, contemplating his next words before he continued.

"You’re the best I’ve got. The best I’ve ever had. Why do you think I made sure you could go along with Squall’s team? I trusted you with that mission. Squall may have been team leader but I knew you’d get the job done if anything went wrong." Cid’s heartfelt statement suddenly lifted Quistis’ spirits. She was right about why she’d lost her instructorship, it wasn’t anything to do with her ability. She closed her eyes again and tried to calm the raging storm of thought lashing the inside of her head for a moment. As the thousands of flashes of images gradually faded into blackness, she smiled then opened her eyes again, looking straight at Cid.

"Alright," she said, then without another word she turned in her bed and closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep in seconds. She was half aware of Cid’s chair scraping as he stood up, and the headmaster leaving her room, before sleep took hold of her completely and she slept soundly for the rest of the day.

She woke up a couple of times during the night, seeing the world through hazy eyes and dozing off again to the surprisingly soothing sounds of her heart monitor, the rhythmic bleeping proving quite hypnotic to her tired ears. It was the first good night’s sleep she could remember for many weeks despite all that, and when she came round to the sound of the day nurse bringing in her breakfast, she felt refreshed like she’d been out for a week. Or at least, as refreshed as she could be with all the injuries she was still attempting to heal up. The nurse checked her chart and seemed surprised by her progress, but Quistis had always been a fast healer. Potent magic spells had just as good an effect, but many years of being battered, bruised, cut, stabbed, shot and generally thrown to the four winds had gifted Quistis an iron constitution.

"So what’s the diagnosis this morning, doc?" she asked as the doctor swung by on his rounds later that week.

"Well, you’re surprising us all with your rapid recovery, Miss Trepe," he said, noticing Quistis proud smile beaming at him, "so all I’m waiting for is the results of a tox screen to make sure there are no chemicals left in your body, then we can move you to a less serious ward."

"Good stuff," she said, wincing a little as she stretched out lazily. "What chemicals were you looking for, though?" The doctor flipped a few pages over on his chart and read from them.

"According to the information passed onto us by the Balamb Garden representatives here, the animals that attacked you could have passed on some toxins from local pollution, so we’re just making sure we’ve flushed them all out." He closed his chart, wished her a good day and left the room. Animals, thought Quistis sardonically, that’s one way of looking at it. Genetically modified killing machines is another.

The rest of the day passed quickly, Quistis catnapping in between finishing off the magazines she’d been brought by Nona and watching some visual wallpaper from the TV set up in one corner of the room. By the evening, the doctor popped in again to confirm she was okay to be moved to the standard recovery ward, but that she’d be there a while longer while the rest of her wounds healed up. Quistis tried not to grind her teeth at the thought of being out of action for that long, but Cid had given her a couple of updates on the progress of the SeeDs patrolling the town and they seemed to be picking up where she left off without a hitch so far.

She’d been in the hospital for a couple of weeks when Cid came back to ask her whether she still wanted to take him up on his offer. It was late in the evening, and Quistis was half dozing, watching a music channel and letting her brain fade in and out of consciousness. She was off painkillers so there was no IV drip or heart monitor to worry about, just the painfully dull process of letting her body slowly heal itself. Quistis turned as he came in and sat down, a cup of coffee in his hands. Quistis took a sip of water as he spoke.

"Evening, Quistis. How are you doing now?"

"The doc says I can be out of here in a few days, all being well. I seem to have patched myself up pretty fast, they were just making sure there were no toxin thingies left over from that attack." She lifted up one of her bedclothes sleeves to show off the marks from several bite and claw marks. "I should also get at least a couple of cool scars out of all this, so I can show off and impress people in bars in years to come." Cid grinned at her joke, knowing that it was just Quistis’ way of distracting herself from how she felt about it all still.

"You’re still certain you want to come back to Garden?"

"Don’t pull that one on me, it was your idea. I just agreed to go along with it," she said, picking up the remote and flicking idly through the channels again.

"Just wanted to make sure."

"What’s the plan, then?" I mean, when I get out of here." Cid finished his coffee and continued.

"I’ll pick you up and we’ll take the ferry back out to Balamb. Once there, we’ll get you back into the system and start you up with the new class after a few days. Your assignment is simply to teach them the rules of Garden and be their instructor. You don’t have to become a full-time member of staff, and they’ll be the only students you have to teach."

"Normally I’d say ‘what’s the catch?’ but in this case I already know it," she said. "They’re going to be tough work, aren’t they?" Cid just nodded. "Ah well, what’s the worst that could happen?"


Book 2