This little ficlet sprang to my mind as i was running around the Balamb Garden area, fighting glacier eyes and bitebugs and fasticalons (nasty little buggers). I was pretty much neglecting healing either Quistis or Squall because i wanted to see Squall's limit break since it had been so long since i'd last played, i'd forgotten what it looked like.

so i'm out tromping around the mountains, carving glacier eyes into little cubes for sport (you know you can get jumbo cacutar cards out of them? a few of those, the Ifrit card and either a bomb or t'rexaur and you will -dominate- triple triad for awhile...) when i happen to get jumped by some bitebugs and damned if Squall didn't decide to go berserk on them. sue me, i couldn't help myself. i let him go to town and sat back to enjoy the fireworks as bladeboy carved them ugly things six ways from sunday.

and i'm watching the screen, thinking this is so cool, i - love - this game when he goes for Rough Divide. and damned if it doesn't look -exactly- like the opening scene when the two boys are carving each other up. the gunblade goes down, the sparks fly as he slides forward and the damn thing streaks up like its on fire.

and THAT pretty much made this story fall into my head like a brick from heaven. i cannot -believe- i never noticed the resemblance between the two events in the game. And then as i'm removing the brick from my head and cursing god for being so damn careless with the things, i'm looking at quistis on the screen, snapping her whip and looking bored, and then i'm wondering what the heck -she's- making of squall doing his little insane hissy fit all over a couple of measly bitebugs.

so it took a few days, i had to shake a few paragraphs out of my fingertips that refused to trickle down correctly and consult a japanese-english dictionary, but well .... there you go. hope you like :)


By Sexylyon

Damn, but she hated tardiness with a passion.

Instructor Trepe half-leaned, half-sat against the railing and glared with narrow eyes at the open courtyard that led to the main gateway of Garden. She was watching for a certain slim silhouette and every minute that it didn't appear, she got a little more annoyed. What was the boy doing, taking so long? She'd told him to meet her here when he was ready, but that was almost half an hour ago and Quistis Trepe waited for no man.

Moodily, she coiled and uncoiled her whip in her slim hands. The sleek roughness of the braided leather caught and slid through her fingers in a soothing, familiar ritutal. She'd give him another five minutes, and if he still hadn't shown up, she'd have him paged over the announcement speakers like a lost rookie. A little public embarrassment might convince her errant student to be a little more careful about who's time he wasted.

Her internal time clock had nearly run the self-imposed five minute deadline when she finally spotted his distinctive lean form striding away from the gate. Although he wasn't hurrying precisely, his long legs flashed in a deceptively casual manner, eating up the ground as he walked towards where she waited. Unwillingly, Quistis felt her annoyance fading a little as she watched his approach. Even from this distance he moved like a predator. The scent of sex and violence seemed to move around him like an invisible wind, marking him as what he was almost finished training to be - an elite mercenary of Balamb Garden, a professional killer. Just as she was.

It was so totally unfair that the boy was so damn gorgeous and so frustratingly oblivious to the fact. She couldn't help but admire him though, as he continued towards her across the open area of the courtyard that separated the entrance to Garden from the hard packed soil of the island it was built on. She studied him as he approached, wishing a little forlornly that she understood him better. She was pretty sure he wore his hair long so he could hide behind the stray locks, but it could equally well be that he just couldn't be bothered to get it cut. Either way, the effect was quite unintentionally stunning.

That deep darkness framed a face carved as if from porcelain, skin so pale and fine grained that it almost seemed to glow in certain lights. It gave him an ethereal beauty that somehow managed to avoid overt prettiness by a hair's breadth. Against the pale skin and the rich depth of hair, his storm grey eyes stood out like an accusation, so intense they were the first thing you focused on and stayed with you long after he himself had moved on. Add to that wealth a lean, hard-muscled body not overly tall, a preference for dressing in tight black leathers and an aloof and impassive disposition that fairly screamed out a challenge to those around him. If it was not a contradiction in terms, in one package you had the most desirable and the most unattainable person in the whole of Garden, and that was against some pretty stiff competition, herself included.

Quistis pursed her lips slightly as her unaware charge reached the top of the final stairs and started down to where she waited in barely concealed impatience. He wore his indifference like cold armor, walling himself off from any attempts to get to know him better. As far as she knew, he had no close friends, no lovers, no sincere attachments of any kind in the school. It was this "touch-me-not" attitude which comprised most of his appeal she felt, for physical beauty quickly palled as a main diet. Only the arrogant Seifer could provoke any response from the boy, even if that emotion was usually rage and quickly suppressed.

She had to admit, if only to herself, that she was just as susceptible to his unique charms as the students in her classes, even if she would never reveal her interest. Her thoughts had an alarming tendency to drift off the straight and narrow whenever she contemplated her second most troublesome student. Just as she was doing now.

She gave herself a mental shake and composed herself, reminding her straying thoughts that she was annoyed at being left to wait, like an eager date or something. Quistis Trepe did not wait, least of all for a student who had conveniently forgotten to compete the prerequisite course when he was supposed to. She felt her annoyance rising at that, and her lips flattened into a more appropriate thinness of line. Heartbreakingly beautiful he might be, but he was not for her, not now, and probably not ever. It was simply out of the question.

But still, the fantasy remained.

"You're late Leonhart," she said sharply as he arrived, the faint guilt over her wayward thoughts coloring her words a little harder than perhaps she intended. She stood up from her leaning position and faced him squarely as her knowledgeable hands coiled and fastened her whip to her beltloop without conscious thought. "I expect promptness in my students, especially if I am making time out of my busy schedule to help with their neglected homework. This should have been done this morning," she warned, a reminder that repercussions were still in the offing over his illicit morning brawl with her number one troublesome student, Seifer.

Unwillingly, her eyes were drawn to the newly-Healed scar that ran in a jagged line from eyebrow to cheek, a souvenir of that unsanctioned fight. It had given her the shivers this morning when she'd seen it in the Infirmary, and truly left her cold when she'd seen the mirror that Seifer had worn. It was fantastic that Seifer had marked the boy so indelibly and yet with such precision considering the gunblade he'd been using was nearly four feet in length. The precise control that was necessary for that wound was almost staggering in its implications.

The fact the Squall had somehow managed to return the favor was nothing short of miraculous, if that was the right word to use when talking about such weapons of lethal destruction. The ragged scar was unsettling in a way that she couldn't explain to herself, but somehow it defined him, as if he had been incomplete before its presence. It took the beauty that had almost been too perfect to believe and made it more human, if no more approachable. It didn't mar his face, so much give it a focus it had been lacking before.

A small, inane portion of her mind wondered if Seifer felt the same way about his own early morning present. Somehow she thought not.

The boy's eyes had widened just a little at her tone, but then shuttered away into passive listening mode. And that really bugged her; she knew that meant he was hearing every word she said but none of it was hitting where it was supposed to. He shrugged finally, and a small part of her mind noted reluctantly how well his shirt pulled over his taut chest with the movement. A moment or two drifted by as she stared at him and then she realised he wasn't going to attempt anything even remotely resembling an excuse. Her body stiffened into a definitely aggrieved posture.

"Are you ready to go?" she finally clipped out.

"Yeah," came the monotone reply. He looked at her out of eyes that might have been marbles for the amount of expression he let leak out of them. That apparent indifference made her grit her teeth in helpless reaction, and she felt herself straightening to her full height, her own expression chilling down to ice water to match his.

"This is not a training exercise, cadet," she said with sharp, puncutated words. "This is the first step towards completion of your training at Balamb Garden. I will see that you follow the protocols of this field test, and to report to Headmaster Cid the fact of whether you pass or fail. I will provide backup should anything come up that you cannot handle alone, but the responsibility for your actions is yours, and yours alone."

She glared at him, making her words as cold and precise as possible in full force teacher-mode.

"You will attempt the Fire Cavern trial, and you will prove to me that you have absorbed the teachings of your instructors and have the skills to follow those teachings through. If you pass this prerequisite, you will then be given the opportunity to test this afternoon for your SeeD rank. If you pass that, you will take your place among the other graduates of Balamb Garden. Fail either test, and you go back to the classroom until you either figure out exactly what you missed, or until you are released from Garden as a washout. Do I make myself clear?" She watched him for a moment, looking to see if anything was sinking through. His expression was still blank, but he was no longer passive about it. Satisfied, she softened her tone a little to finish up her lecture. "Seifer might be trying to set some sort of record with the sheer number of times he's going to test, but I expect much more from you Squall."

She was rewarded with an honest look of determination from those gorgeous eyes.

"I understand Instructor Trepe," he said with a steel note in his soft voice. "I will not fail."

"See that you don't," she said with satisfaction. "Are you ready to begin?"

Squall touched the hilt of the gunblade over his shoulder, as if making sure that it was still there. He nodded at her, and she turned to lead the way. She even managed to get a few steps into it before a sudden realisation overtook her brain, knocking loudly on her consciousness. She stopped abruptly and voiced a small groan, Squall nearly running her over before he caught himself. She turned and stared up into his face, berating herself for forgetting something so basic in her annoyance at his tardiness.

"Squall, did you remember to bring the guardians assigned to you?"

She hoped he had because if he had to go all the way back to the classroom to get them, they would be really late starting out. They couldn't go without them either. It was part of his test to handle them and no way would she try and sneak that infraction past the Faculty. And then trying to explain to the Headmaster why the SeeD mission in the afternoon was also correspondingly late was not how to she wanted her day to end up. To her relief, Squall reached into his jacket and pulled out two stones, innocent and quiet in the palm of his gloved hand.

One small stone was a solid blue, the other an ochre yellow. She reached out knowledgeably and let the palm of her hand drift over the innocuous rocks, feeling the faint shiver of cold from the blue one and the tang and sizzle from the yellow. Shiva and Quezacotl then. She looked up into Squall's eyes and saw a faint uneasiness there, reassuring her that her reckless student at least had the sense to be nervous about handling a guardian for the first time.

"Do you want me to review guardian junctioning?" she asked calmly, watching him with steady blue eyes.

Squall stared at the stones in his hand for a moment, as if reviewing the lessons in his head in fast forward. He shook his head in the negative.

"No Instructor, I understand what I am supposed to do," he replied with studied confidence. "Should I junction both?" he asked, a wary question in his eyes.

"Only if you wish to," she returned gently. "If you prefer, I will junction one and you the other until you are comfortable with what summoning a guardian means."

A look of cautious relief filled his eyes and she was glad she'd been able to give him the option.

"All right Squall, we'll have one apiece. Which one will you keep?" she asked with a gleam of curiosity. He looked down at the stones in his outstretched hand and a faint frown crossed his face. He reached with his other hand and separated them so that he held one in each palm. His fingers clenched and he held them both tight for a space of a few heartbeats, a serious look of concentration on his face. It was only for a moment, then with a smooth movement he held out the yellow stone to her.

With a faint smile on her face for guessing his choice correctly, Quistis took the guardian Quezacotl from him and felt the prickle of lightning tingle up her arm from the contact, even through her own gloves. With practised movements, she transferred the small orb to her belt, settling the stone into a custom made pocket sewn to the inside of the leather. This close to her skin, she could feel the guardian settling into her mind, a tingling sensation that she did her best to ignore. Squall placed his stone into a simliar pocket on his gunbelt, if a little more awkwardly than she had.

That left the two of them facing each other from a distance that was suddenly a little too close for Quistis' comfort. She took a step back, missing the flash of cool humor in Squall's eyes. With a quick nod, she then turned to lead the way away from Garden and out onto the undulating plain surrounding the school.

For a while they travelled in silence, the only sounds rising from the grasses around them. Ahead in the distance was the dark green of the Ocampu Forest, nestling against the larger red-brown mass of rocks that ultimately led the way to the Fire Cavern. The plains rolled gently and Quistis set a stiff pace, knowing the morning was trickling away into afternoon and if Squall was going to make this trial and the SeeD test, they had to get moving. She kept a wary eye out and soon enough saw the distinctive blue flash and sparkle that signalled the approach of a swarm of everpresent bitebugs. It was an auspicious beginning; she could take the swarm herself if necessary but it would give her the chance to judge Squall's fighting reactions in a real life situation.

"Squall," she said in a warning tone to get his attention. When he shifted his gaze to her, she nodded with her chin towards the approaching flyers. His eyes narrowed as he saw the threat and drew the gunblade from its sheath on his back.

With a little thrill that she categorically refused to acknowledge, Quistis realised she was really looking forward to seeing Squall use that thing in combat. She taught theory and guardian junctioning and although she was well-rated with the whip she carried, she'd never seen a gunblade specialist at work. Seifer was the only other gunblader in the school at the moment but she really could not imagine herself asking the arrogant student to demonstrate his skills. In an odd way, Squall was the more comfortable of the pair, even though she could count the number of words he said in a day on one hand. And then the time for odd reflection was over as the bugs were almost on top of them. She unclipped her beloved whip from her belt and shook out its whispering, teasing length.

The bugs tried to swarm them as was their nature, their distinctive droning a harsh counterpoint in her ears. Quistis was more than ready however, snapping her whip to keep them at bay while they circled. Squall bided his time, having fallen into a slight crouch as he watched the flyers through eyes that tracked movement and intent, internally assessing speed and vulnerability. Quistis let him size up his enemies for a moment, offering no immediate words of advice or encouragement. This was his test after all, not hers. The swarm moved and shifted around them and Quistis kept her whip moving in lazy figures as Squall worked out his approach.

"Instructor," he breathed after a minute or so. She glanced at him, but didn't turn her attention away from the glitter of the flashing wings. "I can feel... heat from them. Like each of them is a little fire," he continued in a matter of fact tone. "Shiva wants it, I can feel her reaching for them.".

"That's good Squall," she confirmed in an approving tone. "Shiva is junctioning properly to you if you can feel what she feels. The guardian hungers for magic and will pull it from the creatures around you if you let it. Its part of who she is and what makes a junctioned SeeD such a formidable weapon." She continued her rapid fire explanation as he listened, for once the concentration apparent on his face. "Remember the class exercises in splitting your attention, and let her take as much as she can while you try and fend off the bugs without killing them." She paused for a moment to swat away a few flyers that buzzed a little too close for comfort. "The more magic she drains, the stronger you will become so try not to fight it."

She watched him worriedly but it seemed her concern was misplaced. It was only a moment before she could feel the magic swarming in the air around her, pulling haplessly from the dancing creatures they were facing. Shiva was greedy and the draining went on and on as Squall kept his blade moving to fend the worst of the bites away. Quistis did the same, lightly touching the place inside her mind where Quezacotl had settled and allowing him access to the living world. It was an odd dual sensation as half her attention was on swinging her whip and the other was sidetracked in a greedy desire for the warmth that burned so close to the surface. It was hardly more a feeling of need, for Quezacotl was hardly more than a whisper in the back of her mind, but his desire for warmth pulled the fire into herself until she fairly glowed with it.

She kept as much of an eye on Squall as possible, but although his face couldn't seem to settle on an expression, his gunblade never ceased its movements. Soon, she could almost see the glow settle over him as well, only visible out of the corner of her eye. When Quezacotl seemed satisified, she gave a meaningful glance to Squall. They both switched from passive drain mode to aggressive attack, but Quistis held herself back a little from the gunblader. This was his fight still and it was up to him to decide what to do.

She waited while Squall pulled himself from dual to single focus and his eyes narrowed again as he sized up his opponents. Then one of the irridescent bodies ventured just that little bit too close and Squall lunged in a smooth, deceptive motion to meet it. His blade drove forward with deadly intent, a sweeping slice that carved through the bug like so much jelly. There was a muffled explosion as he pulled the gun trigger at the apex of his movement, and it startled Quistis. She hadn't realised the thing could be so loud and her whip faltered for a second out of sheer surprise. However, the wounded bug was scorched and fell back, its wings flapping erratically as it tried to compensate for suddenly missing a good third of its thorax. The other bugs seemed just as startled as Quistis and dashed frantically around, as if searching for the lethal noise.

Quistis recovered quickly, trained reflexes coming to the fore as her deadly whip licked out and delicately separated the wounded bug's head from its body. The carcass crashed to the ground as Squall made another lethal move and speared another of the bugs on his blade. Quistis fell into the rhythm and followed behind him, systematically dispatching the damaged creatures as they tried to fly away after being thrown away from the silver flash and flicker. In a few minutes it was over and the swarm defeated, leaving the two of them amid a small scene of carnage.

Quistis looking appraisingly at Squall who was standing there looking around with an indecipherable expression on his face. He met her non-committal stare as if trying to remember what to feel, but eventually he turned away without speaking. He began systematically pulling the large plains grass out in tufts to clean his blade. Quistis kept an eye out for any predators that might be attracted to the scent of blood and death. She felt stronger for the magic that Quezacotl had absorbed for them both, and it was a heady feeling. No doubt Squall was feeling the same so she let him come to terms with that while he quickly but thoroughly brushed the blood from his blade.

Squall finished with economical motions and stood, sheathing the blade with an ease that seemed totally unselfconscious. He looked back inquiringly at Quistis, who motioned him onwards. They began to move once more and left the battlefield behind them in very short order, until the small creatures of the plains again started up in chorus and the air was lively with their invisible sounds. Quistis let the silence stretch for a bit, letting Squall take the fore with his longer legs and incidentally giving her a good view of the play of leather as he walked.

He had felt the junction click into place without her having to remind him to use it, and had seemed to have no problems with splitting his mind between the needs of his body and the needs of the guardian he carried. When it had come time to finish the fight, he had been a little slow at the beginning, obviously trying to figure out his best attack mode, but once he had committed to the fight he had held nothing back, moving through his attackers like a wind through grass. A little more experience under his belt and he would be a formidable opponent indeed.

Quistis felt a tinge of sadness touch her thoughts at that as well as a flicker of pride. She had seen him lose a measure of an innocence he probably hadn't even known he possessed, and when he made it to the SeeD test he would lose a little more. He hadn't flinched from the discovery that he could kill without hesitation and as a mercenary, she was proud of him for that. He would do, she had no doubt, he would go the distance with her.

Before they reached the forest, they were attacked again by a sudden swarm that rose up out of nowhere, but this time Squall hesitated not at all. He methodically attacked them where they were most vulnerable, where the wings joined the body behind the head, obviously have watched where Quistis had attacked with her whip. She almost had to do nothing at all, and she gave him a nod of approval when he had finished carving his way through the bugs. He nodded back after a moment and then they were moving on again, until the cooler air of the trees surrounded them. She put a gentle hand on his arm to stop his forward progress, halting them for a moment in a small copse. He turned to her with a question in his eyes and she took that infinitesimal moment to savor having that brilliant color focused on her face. Then she was all Instructor again, her blonde hair waving gently in a unfelt breeze.

"Ok cadet, we're obviously going to cut through the Ocampu here since we don't have time to go around it, but the creatures that live here are deadlier by far than the bugs on the plains. It's easy to stumble into a clearing and disturb a drowsing caterchipillar. The damn things are almost impossible to see until you're practically on top of them. Then they flare up and you wonder how the hell you could miss the damn thing. I authorize you to Summon the guardian Shiva as you see fit, and I heartily recommend you do so as you will need her presence in the Fire Cavern. You need to get used to her and she needs to get used to you." She waited a moment as the command sunk in and Squall's expression went remote again. "Ready?" she said in a tone of voice that really didn't leave him a choice. He nodded his compliance with her orders and she pushed past him, taking the lead through the forest. His nearly silent step fell in behind her and they travelled for a distance in wary companionship.

It didn't take long before they practically fell over the first caterchipillar, saved only by the fact that the thing had been just as unaware of them as they were of it. It was bloody, messy work and Squall hit the ground hard when he lost his focus and his footing, distracted when the thing swiped at him with its tail. He got right back up again though and Quistis held off on the healing spell, letting him continue on since he showed no signs of faltering.

The magic hummed frantically in the air, tangled with the taste of lightning. Quezacotl rumbled his happiness deep in her mind as his own magic merged with that of the caterchipillar. When it lay dead she moved over to inspect Squall's side. Thankfully, it was only bruising, nothing broken and he waved off her offer of a Cure. It was his test, so she didn't force it on him, silently turning to reorient herself and strike off again in the direction of the Cavern.

It was easier after that, as they fought a few more of the ubiquitous monsters. Squall was becoming more and more confident, falling in and out of dual focus with his guardian without missing a beat, surging to the attack when Shiva was replete with stolen magics. It was exhilarating to say the least and Quistis found herself more and more falling into a support position as Squall began to dictate the pace they were setting. Soon enough the trees began to thin and the undergrowth lessened as they approached the edge of the Ocampu. She could in fact see the plain again through the trees and the rising rocks that signalled the climb to the Cavern. She hurried after Squall, relieved to be nearly out in the open again.

But just when she knew they were in the clear, she heard the dreaded, distinctive roar from behind them. They'd been targeted as prey. Her blood froze and she began hopelessly cursing in every language she knew and a few that she didn't. Whirling, blonde hair flying, she faced the lashing greenery as the T'Rexaur stomped through it

Its gleaming little eyes were focused on the pair of them. Damn it all to hell, she thought to herself as she stared up into its slavering teeth, they were supposed to be rare in this cursed forest! Just her damn luck that they had to find the only one for miles around, and damned if it didn't look hungry.

"Squall, on my mark, get the hell out of here." Quistis didn't look at him, but edged slowly away to split the T'Rexaur's attention. "Try and lose it in the rocks. Its feet aren't suited for climbing. It'll stop chasing if you can reach them." God she hoped that was true. It was very difficult at the moment to remember what the textbook said about T'Rexaur habits and vulnerabilities.

It could only go for one of them and right now it was swinging its blunt head back and forth as it tried to decide which of them looked the tastier treat. It took a moment, but then Quistis realised that Squall hadn't moved. The boy was in fact staring up at the monster with an expression on his face that she immediately distrusted.

"Squall!" she yelled, trying to head off the inevitable. Too late. Her insane student had already fallen into a fighting crouch.

"Sorry, Instructor," he replied in a tone that didn't sound sorry at all. He remained unflinching as the creature roared again and thundered a pace forward, its head lowering as it glared at them. And that was all the warning she got.

Across the small distance that separated them, she could all but see it when he Summoned his guardian. His hair began to wave in a wind she could not feel, blue light flickering over and around his body as he went rigid, his eyes snapping forward to stare at nothing. She'd seen it before in others, knew that his gray eyes had become reflecting mirrors of ice as Shiva burned to way to the light. But this was his first time and Shiva was slow in the coming, struggling to rise at his need.

Quistis let a few more oaths fall from her lips for good measure, but leapt to the attack, trying to distract the T'Rexaur while Squall remained motionless, gripped in the icy fingers of the guardian.

Her whip was next to useless against the massive body, its hide too tough for the leather to penetrate, but she had made Instructor by knowing exactly how to use what she had. Its weakness was its size, for in the trees it couldn't turn quickly or well. She fell into trance, reaching for Quezacotl, letting her urgent desire for speed ride her consciousness. Quezacotl stirred in his depths, and the stored magic flooded her body, enhancing reflexes and reactions as her guardian junctioned to her needs.

Like lightning she moved, striking again and again for the 'Rexaur's vulnerable places; nose, belly and eyes. It worked even better than she had hoped and Quistis suddenly didn't have the breath to curse anymore as it tried to catch and dismember her. She dodged and wove through the undergrowth, whip flicking in lethal circles as she taunted it, struggling to stay just outside of its destructive reach.

Quezacotl stirred hungrily in her mind, stretching forward as her carefully managed fear trickled down to it. She knew without thinking about it that she didn't have the time to Summon him forward - she would die before he could manifest. Desperately she risked a look at Squall, and saw the ice wind drifting around his body. Shiva was imminent, and not a moment too soon.

She paid for that momentary distraction however with a vicious line of fire across her chest as the T'Rexaur caught her with a massive claw and flung her halfway across the clearing. It roared its bloodlust and the ground shook as it charged to where she had fallen. Ribs snap like twigs but she rolled immediately to her feet, the Cure already burning on her lips as she forced her body to Heal instantly, the magic twisting and raging through her flesh without remorse. She scrambled away through the underbrush, narrowly escaping having her body bitten in half as the T'Rex lunged.

Panting, she lost her whip as it tore out of her hands, and she stumbled and hit the ground with bruising force. She rolled onto her back and froze, belly dissolving in a pit of fear. It was practically on top of her. Even Quezacotl couldn't protect her from that amount of damage.

Then Shiva came.

The huge pillar of ice rose in an instant, coalescing with inhuman speed out of the air around Squall. He was almost instantly engulfed, encased in it as Shiva rose above him, obediant to his will. The goddess glittered inside the cage of ice, her closed eyes snapping open to gaze hungrily at the T'Rexaur.

For a long moment, all was still, Quistis nearly sobbing her relief as the monster swivelled its head to glare at the sudden appearance of something it had no way to understand. Then with a fury of rage, the barrier between the goddess and the world exploded, dissolving into mist and an icy wind that blew fiercely across the clearing in a presentiment of arctic fury. Quistis waited breathlessly until the Rex had fixated on Shiva, turning to lumber towards its new, larger prey.

She dove to the side to get away from what she knew was coming. She really didn't want to be in front of Shiva when the guardian struck. She fumbled her whip from the thorny brush that had snagged it and ran like a deer. She wanted to be away from Shiva's target so she scrambled for the ice queen's side, the safest place to be in the next few moments. Light began to grow between the guardian's slender fingers and Shiva's eyes sparkled with deadly glee. The T'Rexaur began to ponderously charge, a roar of blind animal fury rumbling through the air.

Quistis had time for a moment of pity for it - but only a moment.

Lazily, stretching her body in coy parody of sensuality, Shiva brought her arms over her head as the light intensified between her fingers, until it was too bright to see. The air turned instantly to such a bitter cold that Quistis gasped in agonizing reaction, but she kept moving grimly forward. High and cold the goddess laughed and threw the light. The magic tumbled and cracked, streaking for the hapless creature that had no chance to avoid it. It slammed into the Rex, a living wall of ice that shattered its flesh and caused it to roar in agony. The blow pushed it back from its headlong charge, its heavy claws raking deep furrows in the ground.

The guardian gestured, malice in her eyes as the huge creature staggered, nearly falling under that concentrated blow. The conjured ice shivered, cracked and then blew away in a whirling wind, piercing the animal again with hundreds of diamond spears. A moment longer Shiva remained, the joyous laughter ringing in the freezing air. Then she began to fade, reaching ethereal fingers to caress Squall's hair as she left the world. She seemed very pleased with her charge, Quistis could tell. Guardians were her specialty, and she'd never seen such a reaction from one on the first summoning. She didn't have the time to contemplate what that might mean.

Grimly, Quistis saw the T'Rexaur was bloody but unbowed. Already it searching around for its targets as Shiva faded from sight. Even as Squall was released from the ice, to stand with dazed eyes as Shiva bled away from him, Quistis reached inside and Summoned Quezacotl.

The next few moments were lost to recollection as she struggled with the Thunder Storm, the fierce taste that was Quezacotl inexorably rising inside her body, leaping in delight. She was deaf and blind to anything else, the lightning ripping up and down her spine it spiraled closer and closer to release. It was pain, it was rage, it was the purest desire she'd ever felt. When it finally arced free of her body, she nearly cried with the joy of it, the glory that was Quezacotl spreading his fiery wings to the open sky.

Her eyes were white lightning as the guardian struck, and they both laughed with the sensations of completed desire. It lasted forever and not long enough, the lightning striking again and again as they both poured themselves in the pure light. Then both rage and desire were satisified, and Quezacotl began to fade away, to leave her. She cried wordlessly against it, grasping after his retreating presence even she felt his ghostly pinions caress her cheeks. Intense satisfaction and faint regret washed through her. With that he was gone and the living world that she had so briefly left came crashing back.

The T'Rex still stood, but it was looking very much the worse for wear. Blood streaked its flanks and one eye was charred and blinded. It didn't seem to matter for it still attacked, refusing to fall. Squall was facing it grimly, gunblade slick coated with gore but he was still on his feet and fighting, thank all the gods. Quistis felt control of her body snap back into place, and she rushed forward add her attack to his. The Rex was damaged and its reactions were slowed, but it was very much a creature to be feared. The thought of running no longer crossed her mind. They were joined in battle and they would win, or die.

And die they would.

The battle raged on, and Quistis could feel it in the lassitude of her arms that made it harder and harder to lift her whip, in the Cures that healed their wounds but did nothing to ease the agony of motion. Squall was panting with the effort, for the Rexaur was blind with anger and impervious to the injuries they inflicted on it. Again and again the gunblade flashed and struck, Squall somehow managing to evade most of the animal's furious rushes. But they were slowing, unable to keep up to the frantic pace needed and the monster never faltered.

Desperately, she tried to call Quezacotl to her aid again, but the guardian was a pale shadow of itself, its strength momentarily too spent to manifest. If Squall could still reach Shiva he would have done so by now, so she could only assume that his guardian had also retreated out of Summoning range. Fatalistically, she set herself to sell her death as dearly as possible.

It happened in front of her eyes - Squall finally faltered, slipping for a moment on the blood slicked ground. With a roar of triumph the Rexaur struck, razor teeth grabbing the boy and viciously throwing him into the surrounding bushes. The body flew limply and she knew he was dead.

She had no tears to shed, wrung dry by the fighting, but sick fury exploded in her heart sending a surge of false energy through her body. She charged forward, her whip a deadly wind as she forced the monster away from savaging the body of her student. It would not have Squall until she was dead, of that at least she could make sure. She drove it back grimly, struggling to keep on her feet. If she could just hang on long enough, Quezacotl would return to her. Once more she would ride the lightnings and she would have vengeance.

From over her shoulder a dark blur of motion surged forward, jerking the monster's attention away from her. It engaged the 'Rex in combat and her mind stupidly wondered who her saviour was. It took a moment for her exhausted mind to register that it was Squall, but a Squall she almost couldn't recognize.

The jacket was torn away somewhere and the red ruin of his shirt gleamed with the heavy blood that coated his chest and side. He moved like stormwaters, like quicksilver, a deadly dance of steel and silver as he slashed and dove. Again and again his gunblade screamed with lethal skill, unerringly striking for maximum damage.

Quistis could only gape at him, for she could have sworn nobody could have survived the wound he had taken. An insane rage had settled over Squall's features, a mask of fury that was terrifying in its intensity. The Rex roared but gave ground, raging in retaliation but in the end it could do nothing against the deadly silence that Squall had become. Again and again the Rexaur was struck until finally it staggered and then staggered again as the lean, vibrating form of her student leaped away to come to a sudden, shocking standstill.

Squall crouched, resting on one knee as he leaned on the gunblade, eyes locked on his target to the exclusion of all else, including the frozen form of Quistis. Blood continued to slick his side, pulsing with every breath he took but he still seemed unaffected by the severity of his injury. The T'Rex shook its massive head slowly from side to side, bloody gobbets of flesh and saliva dripping from its neck and jaws. Its one good eye fixed on Squall, motionless on the ground and one last time its primal scream ripped through the forest as it charged its enemy down.

Afterwards, Quistis could never explain what she had seen, for it defied any real description. One moment Squall had been all but collapsed on his gunblade, the next he was up in a single smooth motion and charging, the steel tip of his weapon dragging on the ground and casting false sparks. That silver sweetness flashed up as the two opponents collided, and the scream of the Rexaur was nearly drowned by the lethal explosion of bullets that ripped cleanly through its head and into its brain. At the top of his leap, Squall reversed the grip on his weapon and came crashing down, pinning the tremendous skull with the force of his blow. The Rexaur fell like a stone, Squall riding its body down, crouching atop its massive head as it dropped.

As it fell, life and hatred blazed in its eye as it denied its own demise. But it was already dead when it hit the ground.

In the aftermath, Quistis thought she must have lost her hearing, for there was no sound at all anymore. She hesitantly moved forward, one step, then two and then she was running without clear thought or volition.

For Squall was falling, stumbling away from the steaming body to stagger a few steps and collapse to his knees, hands sinking into the torn earth. She slid to the ground beside him, Cure burning like a firestorm through her hands as she laid them against the grevious wound in his side. She ripped the life out of her body, slamming into his. Again she called the magic to twist and flame, riding agony across her skin, choking on the blood from her bitten lip. And then again until his breathing caught, stuttered and then firmed. His breathing came in painful sobs under her trembling fingers, blood flecking his lips but sweet blessed gods, alive.

Sweat and unacknowledged tears stained her face as she jerked the shirt up, needing to see with her own eyes. The Healing flesh twisted and closed over the gaping hole that had shown shredded bone and muscle bare moments before, ribs that had cracked like matchsticks. Blood smeared thickly over that pale skin as she ran anxious fingers over the jutting ribs, counting each like prayer beads. Squall shook under her ministrations but did not protest the familiarity, the hair fallen forward to shield his face as he shuddered with reaction.

Finally, Quistis was able to reassure herself that he wasn't going to die. In fact, he might even be in better shape than she was, barring a little more blood loss. She rocked back on her heels and absently pushed the stray hair out of her face, the after battle reaction finally starting to buzz in her veins. Hysterical relief rose, and with it, familiar anger.

"If you ever," she finally growled out in a voice she hardly recognized as hers, "ever disobey me when I tell you to run for it cadet, I will personally nail your hide to the wall and feed whatever's left of your carcass to Quezacotl."

Squall panted shallowly, breath hitching still but smoothing by the moment. His gaze was still firmly fixed on the ground, but she could have sworn a small smile crossed his lips at her furious words.

"Yes Instructor," he finally replied.

She blinked in confused astonishment at his surprisingly meek tone, her righteous wrath stuttering apart at the seams with that unexpected capitulation. But when he lifted his face to look at her, she was damn near blinded. A light shone in his eyes, so pure and fierce in that storm silver that she could only blink in non-comprehension. Her justifiable anger couldn't stand up to the onslaught and after a moment it drained away, taking with it her fear for him and leaving her a little empty in reaction.

"Damn foolhardy students," she finally managed to say against the triphammer of her heart, "are gonna be the death of me yet."

"Yes Instructor," he agreed again and this time the dry humor in his voice reached out to touch her, warming a part of her that had been cold. He stood then, brushing shakily at the dirt and blood that clung to his trousers before reaching down to offer her a hand up. Without conscious thought she took it and then they were standing together, staring at the hulk of the monster that had so nearly been their deaths.

After a moment, she realised they were still holding hands but it seemed the natural thing to do so she didn't protest. She let her wondering gaze fall on Squall's distracted profile, his face quiet in reflection but somehow not closed at the moment, not guarded against her.

"What did you do?" she asked quietly after a moment or two had crept past. "I thought ... Damn you Squall, I knew you were dead when you fell. How did you manage whatever the hell you managed at the last? I've never seen anything like it. You moved so fast it was unreal."

Then she knew her thoughtless question had lost him again, for that profile chilled and the familiar blank mask began to settle over his features. She clutched his fingers in pained reaction and that seemed to pull him back out of himself. Startled, his eyes flew to where their fingers were still entwined around each other, and then moved up to stare guiltily into her eyes. A small blush appeared on his pale skin and Squall dropped his eyes to stare down again at their joined hands. His chest expanded as he took a deep breath, then two. Gently he began to separate their fingers.

The hurt burned a little around her heart but she let him go willingly enough. Her own damn fault. Always had to know what was going on and now she'd driven him away again. But he surprised her by keeping her hands in his when she tried to pull away, staring down at them where he clasped her slim, whip-callused hands in his larger ones.

"This morning," he finally whispered to her, his breath touching her skin with shy fingers, "when I saw Seifer's blade coming for my face, that's when I knew how to do what I just did." He stopped speaking for a moment, and Quistis could do nothing but breathe, thinking inanely that she'd never heard so many words from him at a single time. She was afraid to move in case it scared him away, closed him down once more, and she held as still as sunlight, waiting for the rest of it to work its way to the surface.

"Renzokuken," he said, darkness washing through his smoky voice although he still didn't look at her, "is that which continues."

Finally his gaze flashed up to pin hers, the silver color dimmed but still present at the rims of his eyes, burning into her with an intensity that locked her muscles in sympathy.

"Life is the dance and death the music it moves to," he said gently, "and at the moment you are closest to death, you are closest to life." She could see the struggle in his face, as he tried to express something that was perhaps inexpressible in words. He licked his lips and continued in a halting tone. "Seifer knows," he finally whispered, barely audible to her ears, "he's always known how to make me feel alive. For a moment," he said, turning his blind eyes back to the sprawled monster on the ground, "it was almost the same but it had to die to bring the renzokuken."

A frown touched Squall's face and Quistis could only watch helplessly as the familiar blankness began to fall again like drifting snow over his features, this time remaining until only his eyes contained any semblance of life.

"He gave me the understanding of what renzokuken is, showed me how to be both the dance and the music. I must thank him the next time we meet." His eyes slid back to hers and only the grey storm clouds remained, the silver swallowed up and lost. "Thank you Instructor," he said softly as his hands slid away from hers, "for saving my life."

Quistis could only swallow in reflex and nod jerkily, at a loss for how to respond. She understood and felt no sadness as he stepped away from her to begin wresting his blade out of the poor dead creature's skull. She turned herself and began to glide across the churned earth, searching for her dropped whip.

It was infinitely precious, that clarity of sight down into the depths of a crevasse she hadn't even known existed. She'd probably tripped across it every day and never even noticed it was there. Like a precious light he had opened it up and shown it to her and then closed it up again, as if inspection was damaging to something so fragile - as perhaps it was.

Her silly dreams of sexual conquest and desire seemed very childish at the moment. She let them go, dropping them into the stained soil to nourish the ground along with the blood. It was enough that they were friends now, having somehow survived what should have rightfully destroyed them. She smiled softly to herself as she leaned down to pick up the familiar leather coil, suddenly wanting its slim length in her hands.

Renzokuken indeed.

That which continues.

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