"I'm sorry, Alicia," said Seifer. "I failed. They didn't come."
The woman called Alicia watched dispassionately as Seifer bowed on one knee in a posture of surrender. He was fond of doing such dramatic things, as though he were an actor always on stage.
"You told me it could not fail, Seifer," she said softly. "You told me that if Timber were to revolt, the Sorceress would be drawn out of Garden to participate. And yet this did not happen. Why do you think that is?"
"It has to be Squall," Seifer replied. "I can think of no other person who would keep her from it."
Alicia tapped one perfectly manicured nail against the armrest of her thronelike mahogany chair. "Where is this Squall, then?" she asked, still in a sweet, soft voice.
Seifer shrugged. "I don't know, Alicia," he admitted. "If he were in Garden, he would have been involved in the battle. But we saw no sign of him, either."
"There is no chance that they suspected you? That they refrained from leaving Garden because they knew you were there?"
Seifer smirked. "If anything, knowing I was there would have made them more eager to leave. They both know that the others wouldn't stand a chance against me. No - they could not have been in Garden when the battle occurred."
Alicia settled back on her throne, dark brown eyes studying Seifer carefully. "Tell me of Squall," she said. "Tell me what hold he has on the Sorceress."
Seifer grimaced. "She loves him," he said. "She's probably made him her Knight, but I don't think they understand what that is. It's just a title to them."
"Would this Squall accept the position if she offered it, without knowing what it entails?" Alicia asked curiously.
"Puberty-boy is completely gaga when it comes to Rinoa, Alicia. He'd declare himself a purple kitten if she asked it."
Alicia ignored Seifer's sarcasm, her fingernails continuing to make soft tapping sounds against the arm of her throne as she thought. At last, she said, "How many soldiers of Galbadia remain loyal to you, Seifer?"
Seifer blinked. It was his turn to think for a moment. Then he said, "Not that many. Maybe a few hundred."
"Gather them all," Alicia said indifferently, "and hunt down Squall. Bring him to me alive - but he does not need to be whole if that is too much for you to do." She raised her hand as Seifer moved to protest. "Do not tell me you can take him yourself. He is probably with the Sorceress, if he cares for her as much as you say. The two of them could kill you without breathing hard. You must overwhelm them quickly - and remember that Squall must be taken alive. Now, go. Do not fail me again."
Seifer rose to his feet, bowed from the waist, and left, trench coat flaring as he called for his posse. Once the sound of his boots had receded into the distance, she waved her next guest into the room. It was Doctor Odine. He wasn't anywhere near as subservient as Seifer had been, but waited quietly.
"Tell me how your work progresses, Doctor Odine," said Alicia.
Odine grinned, a wide happy innocent grin. "Ze experiments zey are a complete success, Alicia," he said cheerfully. "I haf no doubt zat ve shall enjoy ze projected results vithout ill effect."
Alicia nodded, but her expression did not change. "I have arranged matters so that the Sorceress will come here," she said. "You are sure that you can contain her power?"
Odine nodded. "Zat vill not be a problem," he dismissed. "I haf designed many tings to contain a Sorceress' power. Zis Rinoa is young, I studied her ven she vas possessed by Ultimecia. I can contain her power, zere is no problem."
"Thank you, Odine," said Alicia. "Let me know if there is anything further you require."
Odine bustled out, leaving Alicia alone with her thoughts. What those thoughts were, none knew save herself.
Quistis leaned back in her chair, happy that as Headmaster she was able to choose a large and comfortable one. It was after hours, but she had remained in her office for this chair and the reading lamp, as she hadn't gotten around to redecorating her newly appointed quarters.
She turned the page. The title on the spine read, "The Sorceress' Knight".
It had been one of Seifer's requested additions to the Library, some years ago. Since the only people to ever adopt the title were Seifer - who had been defeated - and Squall, who was SeeD, very few people in Garden had bothered to read it.
But Quistis was a researcher at heart. She felt instinctively that it was a bad idea to take a title if you didn't know what it meant, and so she had begun her study of the role. Squall might forever be Rinoa's, but Quistis had known him and loved him longer that Rinoa ever had and she would fight to the death to protect him from harm.
So far, it sounded like being a glorified servant. Demeaning, perhaps, but harmless. Quistis might envy Rinoa, but she didn't fear her. But then, she'd only managed to read a few chapters so far. Every time she found a few moments to settle in with the book -
Speak of the devil, Quistis thought to herself as someone knocked on the door. She sighed and placed her bookmark before calling, "Come in."
It was Irvine. "You better come to the front gates," he said. "I think we have trouble." Then he turned on his boot heel and sped off - presumably to find Selphie or Zell. As the only relatively free member of their group, he often ended up acting as a priority messenger.
Quistis carefully set the book down so as not to damage it or lose her place, and did as Irvine had bidden.
The entire group had assembled at the front gates to greet their guests. It was less a gesture of friendship and more in the interests of security; the 'guests' in question were a very haggard looking Fujin and Raijin.
"Ya gotta help us, ya know," said Raijin. "Seifer's gone nuts again."
Fujin's single eye glittered with emotion, but she said nothing - only nodded.
Quistis eyed them both. It had been only a few weeks ago that the two were helping Seifer liberate Timber. "Perhaps we should go to my office," she said. "We shouldn't let the cadets overhear too much." Unspoken were the words And you'll have a harder time escaping if this is a trick, but the group understood.
Quistis' office was large enough to accommodate committee meetings, so there was room for the whole group and the 'guests' to sit down. Neither did, however. Raijin was too agitated, and Fujin...well, nobody ever really understood Fujin. It was possible she remained standing simply because she was too stiff to bend enough to sit.
"Now," said Quistis, "What is all this about?"
"I told ya, man," said Raijin. "Seifer's lost it. Again. And we don't have anyone else to rely on but you guys."
"Again," said Selphie, with a smile. "All right, is there another Sorceress we have to worry about?"
"Hey, we can kick her ass if there is," said Zell. "Remember Ultimecia? Wham, bam, and she was out!" He threw a few punches at the air to demonstrate.
"No, she's not a sorceress," denied Raijin. "She's....ah, hell. We don't know what she is, but she isn't that. She'd have fried us if she were a sorceress." He was clearly upset. "She's twisted Seifer all around, ya know? He's like her puppy or something."
Fujin scowled and kicked Raijin in the shins. "Hey!" he yelled. "Knock it off, will ya Fuuj? It's true. He hasn't been the same since he met her."
"I'd say if Seifer's got a girlfriend who isn't a Sorceress, more power to him," said Irvine. "He'd probably be a lot easier to deal with if he got laid more often."
Selphie turned an indignant glare on Irvine, who promptly hid his face under his hat. "Well, some guys need that," said Irvine.
"But this chick...she's got some weird power," pleaded Raijin. "Seifer's strong, he wouldn't go nuts for a girl on the first date. But this chick, he was her puppy before the day was out. And he's been all weird since."
Quistis and Selphie shared a look. "Is there something you're not telling us, Raijin?" asked Selphie sweetly. To everyone's surprise, Raijin managed to blush fiercely under his dark skin.
"Well...uh..." he stammered. "He was grinnin' the next day, I mean you've never seen Seifer grin like that. And me, I asked him what was up, ya know? And, uh..."
Everyone was staring at Raijin as he stammered his way into silence. "And what, Raijin?" asked Quistis, trying to be reassuring.
"And...hesaiditwasthehalfhourorgasms," said Raijin quickly.
The group blinked for a few moments as they mentally inserted the spaces, then as one burst out laughing.
"And you want to stop that?" asked Irvine incredulously. "Shit, I'd pay good money for that!"
"You'd what?" demanded Selphie.
"I mean...uh...I'd pay good money to have you learn that?" he tried.
"I'm serious, man!" yelled Raijin. "You know nobody can do that. And it's seriously screwed Seifer up!"
Quistis was laughing so hard she had to wipe tears out of her eyes, but she tried to stop long enough to talk. "Raijin, if you want to leave Seifer there's always a room for you here," she said, "but as for rescuing Seifer...I don't think we can help you. We're not exactly trained for this sort of situation."
Raijin grew angry, and Fujin moved to stand next to him. "We're not leaving him," he snapped. "We're his posse, ya know? We thought maybe you guys could straighten him out, like you did before. But if ya can't do it, we'll just have to see how far we get on our own! C'mon, Fuuj!" And the two stormed out of the office.
"Oh, let them leave," said Quistis into the intercom. "I haven't had that good a laugh in years."
The group spent that afternoon trying to quit laughing, but Zell's impressions of Raijin weren't helping matters any. So none of them saw Fujin and Raijin leave, nor did they think to have the pair tailed.
It was only after the next day's work that Quistis thought to pair Raijin's comments about Seifer's girlfriend with Squall's warning that Seifer had probably found a new employer. With a sudden sense of misgiving, she searched her office...and along her com-line she found a small wiretap. She removed it, but realized she was probably too late; by now whatever information the pair had come to obtain they had probably acquired.
Carefully, she set the wiretap on her desk. Tomorrow the group would be very busy. Squall's warning seemed to be valid.
But tonight, she had a book to read.
The Garden was once again in motion, as the commanders of SeeD met in council.
It sounded more formal than it was; the group of friends had purloined more junk food and soda from the cafeteria than would be required for a party. Xu, as a relative newcomer, had initially been worried about this but decided to shrug it off. After all, if they were going to be here a while, it made a sort of sense. She just wished they'd thought to get some snacks that weren't heavy on the sugar. Zell on a sugar high was well-nigh unbearable.
Selphie was holding the wiretap in her hands. "I can't believe we fell for this," she said. "I bet the whole story was made up just so we wouldn't notice Fujin planting this."
Quistis shook her head. "I'm not so sure. Raijin is a terrible liar. He probably believed what he said, but that doesn't mean Seifer and Fujin didn't manipulate him to believe it. The question is, why?"
Xu took a deep breath. "I think Squall is right," she said. "Seifer wouldn't come near Garden again unless he had a reason. And I know it's hard to take seriously, but if Raijin wasn't lying...well...pleasure can be addictive. Squall suspected Seifer was working for someone, and all we have is this story of his new girlfriend."
Irvine shook his head in disbelief. "Look, anything anywhere to do with sex, I studied. To keep up the reputation, you know. What Raijin said this girl does is impossible. I mean really, physically, impossible. And Seifer wouldn't lie about something like that, it'd kill his stud-boy image." Irvine grimaced. "I can not believe I just said that. Excuse me while I go wash my mouth out."
"Look, I don't care if Seifer's bonking his own mother," snapped Zell. "It'd be just like him, anyway. I want to know what information his stooges were after."
Quistis lowered her eyes. "We must entertain the possibility that what they wanted was Rinoa's whereabouts," she said. "Remember that Seifer asked after her; that's all we have to go on."
Selphie shrugged. "Then we call them back - or we grab the Ragnarok and pick them up. No more problem."
Xu shook her head. "We can't bring Rinoa back here yet," she said seriously. "Since taking the position of Commander, I've had no less than two dozen SeeDs asking when we're going to take her down. By the sound of it, the only thing that kept them from making the request before was the possibility of angering Squall. They think she's enchanted him, just the way Ultimecia did Seifer. Garden is a powder keg - if we bring Rinoa in here, it could blow."
"We could still pick them up in Ragnarok," said Selphie. "They'd have the protection of its armaments and speed then."
"And you'd get to go flying," added Quistis. "But the truth of the matter is that the only places a ship like Ragnarok could refuel are Esthar, FH, and Garden itself. Garden is most secure but we can't risk leaving Rinoa around the SeeDs until we've calmed them down. And as for the other two, there's only one place in each location they could refuel. Seifer could probably watch both locations and just wait till Ragnarok runs out of power."
"So having those two run around on foot, without even a GF to summon, is safer?" asked Irvine. "'Scuse me, but that sounds like bull to me. There's got to be something we can do."
"Selphie and I can't leave Garden," said Quistis. "We have too much to do here, with the Garden in the state it's in. And we need Irvine's smooth tongue to convince the SeeDs that Rinoa is not a target. Zell...you're the only one of us we can spare. We can get someone to take over your kickboxing classes. You're welcome to as many GFs as you can junction. If you think three is any better than two if Seifer's up to trouble, you're welcome to go."
"Damn straight I'll go," growled Zell. "Nobody else can, and we've gotta do something. I'll make sure they're ok, you can count on me!"
Selphie grinned. "I can help this much; I can take you right to 'em in the Ragnarok. At least, as soon as we know exactly where they are."
Xu frowned. "Squall's reports are the bare minimum required by protocol. If it were anyone else I'd say he was hiding something, but..." she shrugged. "Anyway, I know they've left Esthar and are headed for Winhill. But they could take any course they wanted for that. And I'm going to have to alert them to the possibility of attack, which means they'll be even harder to track."
"Won't they have to cross the Horizon Bridge?" asked Quistis. "We could just wait for them to show up there."
Xu shook her head. "Quistis, between Rinoa's magic and Squall's survival skills, those two could cross the ocean on a log if they wanted to. If they know they could be targeted - and I have to tell them, as we have no idea how long it will take Seifer to act or whether we can get to them first - then the very first thing they're going to do is either cross that bridge very very quickly or alter their plans so they don't cross it at all. The Horizon Bridge is a narrow, easily sealed off route; they won't want to take the risk of attack while crossing it. It would be worse than shooting a flare saying 'here we are'. I don't have Squall's trust the way you guys do, but every SeeD knows what he can do. The only way we'd find them on the Horizon Bridge is if they're on it right now. Which we really shouldn't hope for."
"I'll check the Bridge first then," said Selphie. "If you think they might have reached it by now. Then I'll check south of Esthar City. By the sound of things we ought to move fast."
Quistis nodded. "Seifer and anyone with him may have had as much as a full day to act on whatever knowledge they acquired. On the chance they were after something else, Xu and I will keep looking at the communications logs. If we find anything, we'll let you know. Irvine, if things get ugly we may need to be able to bring Rinoa within the walls of Garden safely. Get busy on those SeeDs, will you?"
"No problem," said Irvine, tipping a finger to his hat. "See you." And he strode out.
"We'll get going too," said Selphie. Zell jumped up to follow her out, towards the parking garage.
Quistis and Xu looked at the wreckage of her office. It looked like a particularly vicious party had taken place there. "Something for the Disciplinary Committee to hand out as a punishment," commented Quistis. "I don't like being caged here, but I have to admit being Headmaster has its advantages."
Xu laughed. "Let's get at those logs," she said. "If there is something worse that those three could do, I want to know about it."
It was possible that the Horizon Bridge was the loneliest place on the planet. Anywhere outside the cities was lonely, as only the hardiest could make a home in monster infested territory, but on the Horizon Bridge there was...nothing. Monsters left it alone as there was nothing for any of its prey to survive on along the deserted tracks, and the narrow expanse was too confining for the majority of them. People left it alone because the trains had stopped running and crossing the entire expanse on foot could take months or more, and there was only one city anywhere near it. The only form of life that had adopted the Bridge were the gulls, who used it as a nesting place and a handy perch from which to watch the waves. And even they didn't stay longer than they had to.
To Rinoa, it was paradise. There were no enemies to fight, and the chest high walls that bordered the Bridge easily blocked any breezes at need. And in the quiet of the waves crashing against the Bridge's supports, there was Squall's company. Occasionally he would still test her on SeeD protocols, just to keep her memory fresh, but she had apparently learned enough - and well enough - to satisfy him. Having no other duties to hide behind, Squall fell often into silence. Rinoa had begun using the silences to draw him out of himself. She knew that he was an introvert by nature, but she also knew that he hated being alone with his thoughts too much. Here on the Bridge, with no other distractions to draw him out of his thoughts, she was able to draw him into conversation about a variety of topics. She was even learning to interpret his silences, learning when he could be drawn into speaking and when he really did want to think something over. At the moment, he was willing to talk - so Rinoa decided to try prying information out of him.
"Squall...will you tell me about your dreams?"
He blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean what you dream of, at night."
He looked puzzled. "I don't dream. Where did you get that idea?"
Rinoa smiled. "I'm surprised you don't remember. You've almost brought the tent down on us more than once, and you talk in your sleep."
"This isn't going to be one of those times when you see how far you can annoy me, is it?" he said. "Look - I don't remember this happening. I know I've woken up in the middle of the night before, but I thought that was because I heard something."
"You did. Your voice, for one," replied Rinoa. "You've woken yourself up that way quite a few times."
Squall sighed. "All right, if I talk in my sleep - what do I say? And don't you dare say you're not going to tell me."
Rinoa shrugged. "Not a lot that's made sense to me so far," she said. "But I think it's a recurring dream. You're sure you don't remember this?"
"Not a bit," replied Squall, but he looked worried. "Since this is probably why you've been so tired the past few days, why don't you tell me what's been going on?"
"Um," said Rinoa. How do I tell him what he does in his sleep? I mean, it's him, shouldn't he know? "Well...you start tossing and turning," she said, trying to find words that didn't sound silly. "I've seen you claw the air around you with your hands...you'll just get worse until you say something and wake yourself up, or I touch you. For some reason if I touch you, you just stop everything."
Squall frowned. "Claw? Like I have no weapon?"
"Yes!" smiled Rinoa. "You are remembering?"
He shook his head. "No..." he said, worried. "What do I say? In these dreams?"
"Well...in Esthar you said "you will not have us forever" or something like that. I've heard "we grow stronger", too, and "We will fight you."
Squall's frown deepened. "We? I'm fighting something without a weapon and I'm saying 'we'? I don't like this."
Rinoa blinked. "Yes," she said, thinking it over. "You've always referred to yourself as 'we'. Never 'I'. I would have mentioned this sooner, but I just couldn't believe you didn't know this. I mean, they're your dreams. I thought you just weren't ready to talk about it."
"No, I- duck!" he cried, throwing himself flat on the ground and dragging Rinoa down with him. Bullets struck the concrete supports near where they had been walking. Shortly afterward, an airplane buzzed the Bridge, and soldiers climbed over the walls.
Galbadian soldiers. They had to have been waiting for them, but the only excuse for not noticing the airplane was mental preoccupation. Squall swore under his breath; he'd gotten complacent. There were soldiers on all sides. "Back to back," he snapped curtly. "Go for quantity."
Rinoa stood and did as he bade, her eyes glowing with sorcerous power. As Squall leaped forward, swinging LionHeart wildly, she summoned a tornado to whirl some of the soldiers off the Bridge.
Combat training took over, and the movements of the pair were in perfect harmony as they fought...but gradually they were separated by sheer press of numbers. Squall couldn't see Rinoa any more, though he could still feel the wind of her spells and see the flashes of lightning she summoned. As long as he knew she was still fighting, he wouldn't worry.
Then he saw Seifer, and realized the odds had tipped against them. The soldiers, numerous as they were, couldn't take him or Rinoa down...but Seifer was almost a match for Squall just by himself. Seifer plus dozens of soldiers and probably Fujin and Raijin...this was bad.
Seifer smirked, that I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass look plastered across his features. "C'mon, puberty boy," he grinned. "Wanna save your girlfriend? I got her now."
Seifer was after Rinoa! Without thinking twice, Squall charged into the attack, fighting like a madman. After a time, Seifer was pressed back...but if anything his grin widened.
"You've improved," he said in a voice dripping with wicked humor. "Pity it doesn't matter."
At that moment, Squall felt the jabs of half a dozen needles in his back, and the world went dark. Seifer nodded to the soldiers who had shot the tranquilizer darts. "Let's get him out of here, before the Sorceress knows what's going on," he ordered.
The soldiers kept fighting Rinoa until Seifer got the unconscious Squall aboard a small water-plane under the bridge and took off. Then all of them who could retreated.
There were many, many charred soldiers, and for a moment Rinoa was wondering what was going on. Soldiers didn't retreat, they fought. But they had run...she looked around.
"Squall?" she called. He had been here just a moment ago, she was sure she'd heard his gunblade firing...
The only living human on the Horizon Bridge was Rinoa. Search as she might - and she eventually resorted to throwing every body off the Bridge to make sure - there was no sign of Squall, or where he might have gone. She looked up; there was a small plane flying south. Looking down, she saw a transport craft move out from under the Bridge and follow it to the Galbadian shore. She was tempted to call the lightning down upon it until it sank. But what if Squall were on that boat? He could be on either the boat or the plane, and she had no way of knowing which. Alone, and frightened for Squall, she began to cry.
Another roar overhead brought her hands up, ready to strike it down. She lowered her hands when she realized it was the Ragnarok....just those precious few minutes too late. It quickly made a delicate, makeshift landing that propped it on the Bridge's side walls. The exit ramp lowered as far as it could, but when Zell bounded out it was still five feet above the ground.
"What the...?" he said, looking around. "Hell it looks worse down here than it did up there! What happened? Where's Squall?"
Rinoa tried to do Squall's teaching credit. She managed to hold her voice steady as she said, "Galbadian soldiers, too many for me to count. We fought but they separated us...and they took Squall."
"They what?" Zell cried. "We thought they were after you! We tried to get here to warn you -"
"They weren't after me, Zell," Rinoa said sadly. "I think Squall thought that too...which made it easier for them to take him. I saw a plane fly south, and a transport craft head west. I don't know which one Squall would be on. Zell, we've got to get him back! Why would anyone kidnap Squall?"
Zell's normally cheerful expression soured. "We know who's behind this, Rin," he said. "Raijin and Fujin planted a bug in Garden a few days ago. We're sure Seifer's behind this."
Rinoa's eyes started to glow again as she digested that. "I'm going to kill him," she said in a voice so toneless it screamed her grief. "Squall wanted us to leave him alone, said he wouldn't do any harm away from Ultimecia! I'm going to kill him, Zell. I'm going to make Seifer regret the day he was born."
This little speech didn't have a reassuring effect on Zell. If anything, it made his skin crawl. He managed a, "Yeah, well get in line," but the sight of the normally sunny and carefree Rinoa promising torture and death with eyes that glowed with power took all the bluster out of his words. "C'mon, Rinoa," he said. "We've got to tell Garden what's happened."