Dincht paused in mid-punch, his shadowboxing fists hovering in the air. Tilmitt, who was not technically Squad B, had taken Zell's seat, laughing off her own adrenaline by doing impersonations. (Her Squall was the best: stiff upper lip, monotone, "...Whatever.") She was a quick study. No one stressed the breach of protocol; even Xu was smiling.
Leonhart himself, seemingly unnoticed, was sitting with his back to the wall, withdrawn as ever; the only evidence of recent events in the puddle of seawater dripping from the hems of his jacket.
But the mild commotion died a quick and painless death when Quistis Trepe walked down into the hold.
As an Instructor, she never lost her composure, never raised her voice. But now, as she smiled tightly, pulling off her piloting gloves one finger at a time, the Garden students gave her a wide berth, coughing and suddenly interested in polishing their weapons. Zell sat down, too quickly, in Squall's puddle.
Only Xu rose, wearing her official frown once again, to stand at Quistis' elbow. For support. Seifer smiled without humor. Idly he wondered if it was worth it to stand, to be properly called on the carpet, or if he could just as easily keep his feet propped on the table, berated in relative comfort.
Lifting one eyebrow, he said, "Yes, Instructor?"
Her voice was pleasant, but her shoulders were shaking, her eyes on fire. With deliberate slowness she adjusted the glasses on her nose. Xu indicated that he ought to stand, but Quistis waved it off, intent. "A word with you?"
"Of course." Faced with that well-known glare, Seifer rolled his eyes. He'd expected this, naturally. Truthfully, this was the longest she'd ever waited; they had to be halfway back to Balamb by now. Ready for the disapproval, the upbraiding, anything she could throw at him.
...Anything, that is, but what she did. Quistis' eyes flicked from his face to-- Squall, of all things. Squall, sitting against the side of the carrier, eyes half-closed, breathing still ragged. Squall with Zell at his elbow, wrestling him out of his drenched uniform jacket, Squall with his hair drying oddly stiff with saltwater.
And Seifer did not miss the blush that crept across Quistis' pale features. Too easy to return her look with a sneer of his own. "And what are you looking at, Instructor?"
Xu cleared her throat, resting a hand on Quistis' shoulder and shooting him a warning look.
But as though Xu weren't even there, Quistis met Seifer's eyes again, taking a deep breath. Her voice was quiet, nearly failing in its attempts to be stern. "You almost got him killed."
He shrugged, not looking at her. There was gooseflesh on Squall's arms, the familiar silhouette of him against the greymetal bulwark. (Squall would always shiver, out of the shower. No bodywarmth. There, bare-armed and panting, the image of him was eerily commonplace. Only the scar was new.) Seifer grit his teeth. "I knew he'd make it." Leonhart won't die on me yet.
The anger was steadily leaking into her discomfiture, Xu's hand restraining, now, more than reassuring. "How dare you--"
Vaguely he remembered another SeeD exam, three years ago, their first. The one she had passed. Her tone of reprimand was the same, though the words might have changed. Then, she'd been shocked and embarrassed that he hadn't worn his uniform. Maybe in some masochistic way it was for her sake that he wore his own clothes, each time thereafter. If he couldn't make SeeD with his gunblade and his brains, what did the outfit matter? Hadn't he made the cut as brilliantly as darling Trepe? His prelims had gone smoothly enough-- Hmph. Never wanted to be a SeeD, anyfuckingway. Wouldn't take much to have better dreams than that.
He interrupted her tirade with a careless wave of one gloved hand, and a cocky grin for Xu. "We made it back to the transport on time, didn't we? What's the big deal?"
Quistis' hands were tight fists clenched at her sides. "You aren't the golden boy you'd like to think you are," she said, coldly furious. "In spite of you, Squall will go far." But under her words he could hear desperation and quiet hope, and for a moment, looking into her eyes, he hated her.
Recklessly he said, "I've bent him in ways you can only dream about, Instructor--"
"That's enough!" Xu snapped, though Quistis had already turned on her heel and stomped off, the sound of her booted footfalls echoing loudly through the hold. Xu's eyes were hard. "That's more than enough, Almasy. You know very well you're out of line."
"You'd be bored without me," he said, under his breath, just to feed the flames of her temper. He might have lifted his hand in an obscene parody of the SeeD salute, but that Leonhart, behind them, cleared his throat.
Xu shot him a look, too, for good measure, and turned on her heel. To find Quistis, no doubt. Seifer sneered after her, until he caught Zell and Selphie staring, wide-eyed. Squall was expressionless.
"You have something to say to me?" Seifer shot, to the room in general, and didn't wait for an answer. The deck stairs rattled under his heavy steel-toed boots, but the salt air was a refreshing sting against his face. Losers, all of them. He kicked the steering console, not quite gratified by the protesting clang.
By the time he'd swallowed the burning in the back of his throat, there was someone behind him.
He knew it was Leonhart before he turned around.
Squall met his eyes across the deck, wind ruffling the uneven fringe of his bangs. He made no greeting. His hands were holding tightly to the railing, and Seifer could tell he wasn't as steady on his feet as he tried to appear.
Seifer tossed him an uneven smile. "Still shaken, Leonhart?" It was not what he wanted to ask. Never seen you run like that before. You gonna thank me, brat, for saving your ass up at the top of that tower?
Squall's stormgrey eyes never wavered, unsaid words flickering beneath the cloudy surface of his gaze. His jacket was still missing; Seifer wondered if Dincht was busy wringing it dry, belowdecks. The thought made him ill.
Squall shrugged, and Seifer saw more grace to the lifting muscles of his shoulder than in all the careful, practiced elegance of Trepe's whip maneuvers. "You?"
"Fuck no." He squinted over the bow, trying to make out their harbor destination. He laughed with a mirth he didn't really feel. "Try not to let the politics get me down."
Something in the tone of Squall's voice grated against Seifer's one last nerve, and he made a face. "Didn't ask you, Leonhart. Just shut up." Desperately he wanted to shout, or shoot something, a fine undeniable noise to race along the waves of Dollet Sound. Hyperion would have made a resounding clap across the clouds-- but that he had run out of ammunition some time ago. He hadn't noticed when. ...Maybe they'd been closer to defeat up on that communication tower than he'd wanted to admit.
The hollow noise of the hammer going back on an empty chamber sounded flatly against the low-hanging sky.
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