Chapter II Capture
Balamb Garden set down outside the gates of the Presidential Palace,
adjacent to Deling City's Council Hall. An honor guard of Galbadian soldiers
greeted Squall and his SeeD party as they disembarked, and escorted them
inside to the hall's lobby. Among the forest of polished marble columns
they met Foreign Minister Kittering, in the flesh even shorter and slighter,
though his wide, fixed smile was undiminished. "You and your men--uh,
people," he hastily altered, noting Quistis and Selphie, "are
most welcome, Commander. If you'd like to see the chambers we've prepared--"
"We'll stay in the Garden," Squall told him. "The council
meeting is tomorrow?"
"It begins at noon. We'll send a messenger to bring you,"
the minister said. "Until then, you can visit the city--we can use
the tourism." He broadened his smile.
Squall didn't return it. "I'll tell them."
Behind him he heard Selphie whisper to Zell, "You and Sashi can
go to a restaurant here!"
He missed Zell's reply as the minister added, "I don't want to
seem impolite, but warn your people to be cautious. A few malcontents might
attempt to spoil our citizens' good reputations. You'll of course have
a guard, and our officers of the law are quite competent, but I wouldn't
want you to receive the wrong impression from a couple--"
"I understand," Squall said. "Thank you, but we can take
care of ourselves. Is that all?"
"Yes, I suppose--" The minister blinked as Squall offered
a curt good-bye and departed, the other SeeD following suit.
By the time they exited the council hall Selphie was on her communicator,
discussing a change in plans with Irvine over Zell's increasingly vocal
protests. The sharpshooter and Rinoa joined them at the Garden entrance,
neither half so interested in Squall's announcement as they were in convincing
Zell not to forgo his date. "I know a wonderful little restaurant,"
Rinoa said. "The best food in the city--"
"Great!" Zell latched onto his one escape. "You can show
"I'm sure Sashi won't mind having you along," Zell said hurriedly.
"How about you all come? Quistis? Squall? We can meet here tonight
at 18.00 and all go out together." Once he had confirmation he sauntered
Irvine stared after him. Rinoa shook her head. "Sometimes we don't
give him enough credit."
Quistis sighed. "Well, if it's not going to be a real date, I guess
I can come. Better see what I have to wear."
Selphie watched her go, her forehead wrinkled. When the others went
on ahead, the small SeeD pulled Irvine aside. "I think I know what's
up with Quistis," she whispered, "and I know what to do about
* * *
"What do you mean, not a good idea?" Fists on her hips, Rinoa
eyed the guard. "I'm a Galbadian citizen, and my friends are visitors
invited by the President himself."
"I didn't say you couldn't go," the guard said nervously.
"But there's plenty of other restaurants, with friendlier patrons--more
your style people--"
"We prefer here, thank you." Holding her head high, Rinoa
looped her arm through Squall's and strode past the guard, pulling her
escort along beside her. The other five followed suit, Selphie sticking
her tongue out as she passed.
The alley, lacking the streetlamps on the main streets, was dark and
forbidding, the doors in the towering brick walls tightly shut and the
windows shuttered. A cat's green eyes watched them suspiciously from under
a trash receptacle. Next to Sashi, Zell cracked his knuckles. "You
sure you know this place, Rinoa?"
"Sure I'm sure." Passing the cat's dumpster, she picked a
blank brown door and rapped sharply twice. A hidden panel slid aside, closed
again, and then the door was flung open.
"Rinoa Heartilly!" An enormous, ruddy-haired man, almost too
large to fit in the doorway, beamed down at her. "By the Brothers'
beards, you haven't come by in ages! The stories we've heard, wasn't sure
we'd see you again, if one quarter of 'em were true."
"They probably are, Lank," Rinoa admitted. "But since
we were in Deling, I wanted to come here. These are my friends. They're
SeeD--I hope that's not a problem?"
"SeeD, eh?" Lank looked them over critically, then gave a
deep chuckle. "Aye, there'll be no trouble, even if they weren't your
friends. Be enough here that might be interested in their services."
"Not tonight," Rinoa said firmly. "They're--We're off-duty."
"Understand that right enough," Lank winked. "I'll put
you where fewer will see you, then. So, you came in that Garden that caused
such a rattle this afternoon?" Rumbling on, he escorted them through
the door. Inside, the tavern seemed larger than the building without, the
warmly lit, white walls giving an impression of space, with tasteful frescos
and tapestries of mythological scenes to add color. The thick walls must
have had sound-proofing as well; once inside, they were inundated with
the hubbub of the crowd. Not a chair was empty, and many more stood around
the bar, with the coloring and costumes of a wide variety of peoples from
across the continents. Even a couple of Shumi merchants haggled at a corner
Lank must have seen their surprise. With a hint of a smirk, he said,
"Welcome to the Minotaur's Horn. If you'll sit here, I'll have the
Missus throw on the house special for all of you. Don't have any special
distaste for frankfurters, do you?"
"No, sir!" Zell assured him.
True to his word, the proprietor placed them at a long table against
the far wall, giving the SeeD an excellent view of the entire restaurant
while the low light drew no attention to them. With a little maneuvering,
Zell was seated beside Sashi, with Irvine on one side of them and Rinoa
on the other. If Lank noticed their not-so-subtle guidance, he made no
comment. But he did glance curiously at Squall once, small hazel eyes searching
the SeeD's face and coming to rest on the scabbard at his side. He said
nothing of it, however; most of the patrons had weapons barely concealed.
Once he left, Irvine planted his elbows on the table top and spoke over
the room's babble. "Rinoa, how'd you find here? Doesn't look like
a place your dad would frequent."
"That's how I found it." Rinoa admitted. "Trying to get
away from home. I worked here for a waitress for a couple months, before
my father found out and made me quit. But I'd made friends, and he couldn't
keep me from visiting. I always found interesting people here. Actually,
this is where I met the Forest Owls."
Squall looked up from his water glass. "Those Timber revolutionaries?"
Rinoa nodded. "Watt and Zone were recruiting for their cause. They
wanted a general or a prince..."
"You told them you were a princess?" Selphie asked, recalling
the title the two revolutionaries had always granted her.
Rinoa blushed. "I never told them that--I said I was the
daughter of an important man. They decided he was a king."
"King of where?" Squall cocked his head inquiringly. "There
are no countries with kings."
Rinoa shrugged. Irvine tapped Zell on the shoulder. "Hey, you're
being awfully quiet." Lowering his voice, he whispered, "Just
be yourself, that's the best way to go." Then, louder, he remarked,
"So, Quistis, Sashi, you've been working on that new cross-Garden
index, haven't you? Found any cool books of magic?"
"Hey, uh, yeah," Zell said, clearing his throat. "Like
He broke off so abruptly everyone looked to him, then followed his fixed
stare to the bar. They all jerked. "What are they doing here?"
Quistis muttered, one hand going to the whip on her belt.
Even given the wide range of patrons, the pair that had just entered
should have drawn more attention than they did. The man, as tall and wide
as Lank but with darker hair and complexion, towered over the whip-thin,
silver-haired woman. Their backs were to the SeeDs' table, but they didn't
need to see her eyepatch to recognize their former comrades.
"Fujin and Raijin," Zell growled. "Think they're still
tagging along with Seifer?"
"Easy, Zell," Quistis murmured. "I don't see Seifer,
and they aren't causing trouble."
"They seem to be known," Squall observed, noting Raijin gesturing
to the barkeep in a friendly manner.
"Mercenaries do hang out here," Rinoa began.
She was interrupted, not by any noise, but rather a sudden hush descending
over the crowd as five Galbadian soldiers marched through one of the side
doors. Everybody made such an effort not to meet the men's eyes that it
would have been less obvious simply to stare. Ignoring the quiet, four
of the guards strode to side table, grabbed the collars of the two seated
there, and yanked them to their feet. The fifth, a red-armored lieutenant,
announced loudly, "Malkon Amethyst, you and your comrade are under
The quiet deepened to an instant of utter silence. "What for?"
one of the men yelped, struggling fruitlessly. "Man, I've got rights!"
he screeched as the guards shoved him and his associate toward the door.
"We're citizens! What's the charge?"
The soldiers said nothing, until Raijin tapped the officer's arm. "Hey,
lieutenant, what's up? We're just here for a quiet drink, ya know?"
The lieutenant wheeled, then saw who had addressed him and immediately
straightened. "Official government business, Master Raijin."
"Master Raijin?" Zell hissed.
"You and Ms Fujin can enjoy yourselves. We'll be gone in a moment,"
the officer was saying. "As long as these traitors come quietly--"
"TRAITORS?" Fujin rasped.
The lieutenant jumped backward, then flailed for composure. "Yes,
Mistress Fujin, we've got it on good authority that Malkon's a ringleader
behind the police station bombing. Come along, now." He gestured hastily
to his men.
"Well, if it's government business, it's none of ours, ya know,"
Raijin said sagely.
"But it is ours."
The soldiers with their prisoners spun around. The crowd parted to reveal
six black-garbed figures who had appeared in the back, each wielding a
stunner. "Release them," the leader ordered.
"Get out of here," snarled the lieutenant.
Tension was building in the air. Across the restaurant, weapons were
suddenly not so concealed. "We've got to do something!"
"Do what?" Squall asked. "Who do we help?"
Two of the soldiers had their guns trained on the newcomers. "Hey,"
Raijin said, stepping before them with his hands raised. "Keep it
peaceful, ya know?"
"BUSINESS," Fujin said, and promptly kicked him in the back
of the knee. Raijin went down--and one of the black-clothed figures fired
over his head, stunning a guard.
It was all that was needed for all hell to break loose. While the first
shot was clear, whoever threw the first punch was lost in the tumult which
instantly exploded. An attack on the Galbadian soldiers was in no time
a full-blown free-for-all, fortunately keeping more to fists than weaponry.
Breaking away from the central knot of fighters, Raijin limped back to
his comrade, knocking patrons aside left and right. Fujin stood ramrod
straight against the bar, juggling her shuriken in her hand as she debated
where it could be most effectively applied.
The six SeeD and Rinoa stood by their table and watched. Having no way
to tell sides--not that this stopped anyone else--they did nothing, though
all reached for their arms when the Galbadian police joined the fray. Bottles
started to fly, along with plates and silverware. Squall was considering
ordering a discreet retreat when an airborne chair soared toward them.
Zell pushed Sashi back, just in time; the chair smashed to splinters against
the wall an inch above her brunette head.
"How dare you!" Zell yelled, and vaulting the table he plunged
into the thick of the melee. Before Squall could speak, Irvine sprang after
him, and Selphie was hot on his heels, her whirling nunchakus cutting a
swathe through the combatants.
Quistis shrugged, uncoiled her whip, and inclined her head to Sashi.
"He--he saved me!" the girl gasped. "Zell!" Pushing
up her blouse's long silk sleeves, she hurtled into the fight.
Rinoa stuck by Squall, both of them dodging missiles and fists with
ease. "Squall!" she cried as she ducked, "you've gotta--"
broke off to block a kick and resumed, "--stop this!"
"How?" Squall demanded, as a table leg whistled past. He could
barely make out his friends through the melee, though he caught a glimpse
of Zell pushing toward Raijin. That didn't bode well. But what could he
do? Bringing magic or a guardian force into the battle would only make
things worse. "Stop!" he called experimentally, to no effect.
"SeeD, quit fighting!" he tried again. Rinoa threw him a shrug
and a smile, then yelped as a well-aimed pewter stein shattered the lantern
over her head. She flung herself back as the glass shards burst out, slamming
into a slight man behind her. Both went down.
"Rinoa!" Squall shouted, and pulled his gunblade. "Stop!"
Lionheart's brilliant blue was ghostly in the abrupt pause. Every fighter
near Squall and Rinoa took a few involuntary steps backward, leaving an
empty circle where the light shimmered on the scuffed floor. The rest were
motionless, some frozen mid-strike. All eyes were on the gunblade, and
not a few were saluting--all SeeD, Squall noted, doing a quick visual sweep
of the crowd, but also a number of others who were not possibly under his
command. And every face, patrons, SeeD, and Galbadian soldiers alike, held
the same look of awe, trepidation, and, oddly, recognition.
Excepting his friends, whose expressions showed chiefly consternation.
And Fujin and Raijin; Fujin was cool as ever, and Raijin's open mouth was
more surprised than amazed.
They all were quiet, though. Waiting, he realized, when Rinoa nudged
him surreptitiously. Squall cleared his throat. "Thank you."
Several people were pointing in his direction and whispering. He didn't
know what that meant, let alone what he should do about it. "...Soldiers,
if you're done, you can leave."
They had no reason to obey him, but they did, all edging for the doors.
Without the men they had arrested, he realized; those two notables had
vanished in the confusion. Fujin and Raijin remained by the bar, with Zell
a few feet away, trying to look like he wasn't glaring at them.
Before Squall could decide what to do about that, the problem was solved
for him. "Fujin, Raijin. There you are."
They and everyone else looked to the golden-haired man at the main entrance.
Even from his distance, Squall could see Zell's fists clench, and Quistis
adjusted her grip on her whip. The crowd shifted uneasily, though several
nodded with respect.
Seifer Almasy paid them no attention. He waited silently, a tall, handsome,
young man, as always clothed in the crosses of the knights of old. His
bearing and the gunblade in the scabbard at his side also might have belonged
to the ancient heroes; the scar across his forehead lent him a maturity
belied by the youthful arrogance in his eyes. That blue gaze locked with
Squall's, but Seifer's gunblade remained sheathed.
Raijin and Fujin paced over as he raised one hand. "Go about your
business," he addressed the tavern; then he looked again to his former
rival. "Enjoy your stay in Galbadia, SeeD. Try to keep them under
control, Commander Squall." Turning on his heel, he strode out, his
long coat flaring behind him. His cohorts followed.
Squall released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and
returned Lionheart to its sheath. A hand lightly touched his arm. Rinoa,
gazing curiously after Seifer.
"'Keep us under control'!" Zell stalked back to the table,
smoldering. "Why the hell is Seifer in Galbadia, anyway?"
"He needs a leash," Quistis agreed, waving her whip suggestively.
"You know him?" Lank returned to the table with the others.
"Reckon you would, at that--they say he's former SeeD."
"Wannabe SeeD, you mean," Selphie sniffed.
"Huh." The proprietor aimed a sideways look at their commander
as a waiter set about clearing away the broken plates. "So you are
him. Squall. Thought you might be, by the scar and the scabbard, but I
didn't want to say anything. Well! You weren't exaggerating about this
past year, were you, Rinoa?"
"What do you mean? You know Squall?"
"I know of him. All of you, I expect. There was a bard here a month
back, trying to write a song of your battle with the Sorceress. She wasn't
the first, either."
Rinoa's hands were tightly clasped in her lap. "What Sorceress?"
"What's that?" Lank squinted at her. "The Sorceress you
fought, of course. She who would've been Queen of our sorry state. I've
heard her called Edea and Adel most often--there's not a single part of
the story anyone can agree upon. Except that you did us a great favor in
defeating her--and there's those who'd argue even that." He shook
his head, sighing. "It's a terrible truth, that our great and noble
leaders would rather have accepted her power, forgetting all its evil.
Maybe you can remind them of it--they won't listen to us."
"Is that what the arrest attempt was about?" asked Rinoa.
"Aye, and they aren't the first." Lank's broad face was rigid
as a statue's. "We're a people in turmoil, and it's only darkened
since the Sorceress fell." Just as quickly he shook off the mood,
his customary grin returning. "But I reckon off-duty soldiers have
no need to talk of grim affairs. The Missus keeps the kitchens running
come hell or high water; that little scuffle won't have slowed her cooks
the least--you'll have your meal soon enough."
Sashi, tenderly prodding the bruise forming over Zell's cheekbone, raised
an eyebrow. "'Little scuffle'?"
* * *
They didn't get anything more out of Lank, neither about the arrest
attempt nor their old mates' presence in Deling City. But when Squall,
Zell, and Quistis entered the Galbadian council hall the next day, Seifer
was there, seated at the right hand of the Minister of War.
It was too late to send Zell back. Squall hoped his friend could control
himself. Quistis would cause no trouble; Zell wouldn't intentionally, but
his temper often got the best of him, especially around Seifer. Squall
had asked them both to stay quiet unless he called for them to speak, but
under pressure Zell might forget that. He was a great fighter and a great
friend, but not the most level-headed of individuals. If only there had
been some way to justify bringing Rinoa; she might not be SeeD, technically,
and she could be as volatile as Zell, but he could use her insight. And
it rooted him somehow, made him feel more a part of wherever he was, when
he was with her.
Alone, he walked onto the dais ringed by the council's table and faced
the man in the central chair. "President Deling. I'm Squall Leonhart,
The President, a large, black-haired, amber-eyed man, nodded ponderously.
"Greetings, Commander. You and your people are welcome to Galbadia.
Thank you for responding so swiftly. As for our request." He glanced
over his ministers, then past them. In the corner of his eye, Squall saw
a pair seated in the first row of the empty audience tiers. A woman in
dark green, and a man in a beige suit less formal than the council's conservatively
cut jackets and ties. Though this part of the council meeting was not open
to the public, Squall was just as glad he and his teammates had come in
full SeeD uniform, as Rinoa had suggested. While inexperienced in the art
of politics, he understood enough to know appearances mattered.
Ferdid Deling was speaking in stentorian tones that reminded Squall
of Vinzer. "You may have heard of the terrorist bombing of the city's
main police station last week. This is not the first such incident; nor
is the capital the only place hit. Over the past year such vicious, cowardly
attacks have become increasingly prevalent throughout our nation and our
holding provinces. Our citizens live in greater fear every day. Trade is
difficult when merchants fear attack and our ports and stations are damaged.
We are a strong people, but even the most powerful tree cannot grow when
insects eat away at the trunk from within the bark.
"We're doing all we can, but our forces were weakened by the Sorceress.
In light of this, we prevail on you. SeeD is well-known for accepting difficult
tasks; routing out these terrorist revolutionaries isn't a normal duty
for mercenaries, but frankly, we have no one else to turn to. We're willing
to pay whatever price you ask, and we'll board all your people, wherever
they need to be, until the job's done."
Squall stood still for a minute, considering it. "You want to hire
us to find the people responsible for the attacks?"
"Yes. Everyone in the circles--there's more than one group. The
ministers of War and Internal Matters will tell you more when you're officially
"Why are these circles attacking?"
He saw a couple of the ministers react angrily, brows lowering and shoulders
stiffening. Ferdid's countenance remained placid. "They have different
demands. They're confused." His tone changed, from an official speaker's
to one more expressive, more personal. "To be blunt, much has been
a mess recently. The Sorceress's appointment--which you know something
of--threw everyone into hysteria, and her murder of the President stirred
up the chaos. I admit that I myself am part of the problem. As our lifelong
President, Vinzer Deling should have ruled for another decade at least;
there are some who oppose me now because of that. They'll stand in the
way of progress because they can't take or don't want to accept the future."
Squall remembered hearing that argument some time ago, before he became
SeeD. Then it had supported Galbadia's ceaseless expansionism, a reason
for their continued holding of Timber and their attack on Dollet. Those
who weren't powerful enough to defend were told to accept their future
as a Galbadian holding. Superficially, Timber and the others had to, their
forces too weak to throw off that rule. But it didn't stop those peoples
from revolting in every small way possible. Including terrorist attacks,
if necessary, and resistant groups had scraped together the money to hire
SeeD for some attempts. How many of these attacks now were in support of
those causes? The council did seem cagey about the actual demands of the
It wasn't a question he could ask outright, however, though not long
ago he would have been tempted to. Diplomacy meant using other channels
to learn the truth. "We'll consider your petition," he said.
Quistis was gesturing covertly. With his permission, she stepped forward.
"If I may ask, Mr. President, how many casualties have there been
in these attacks?"
This time Ferdid didn't quite quash the anger. He quickly forced his
squared jaw into a smile. "Of course you can ask, young lady. Fortunately
there's been relatively few. However, there have been deaths, and the property
damage is astronomical. And we fear our luck will soon end as far as our
citizens go. These circles are clever campaigners, but they don't care
for anything but their own ends. People are only pawns to them, and if
they decide murder will support their causes better, they won't hesitate
Squall nodded, thinking as he did that the same could easily be said
about most governments. Including this one, he imagined. Galbadia had been
ruthless in its conquests even before the Sorceress's rule. He knew it
was that rule, and the attack on the Gardens, that fueled some of his feelings,
but it was also simple reason. Politicians tended to care for people's
votes more than their persons. Not all, he admitted to himself, thinking
of Esthar's president. But most...still, it was a petition, and he had
to consider it as open-mindedly as he could. Even if his gut was telling
him to reject the offer there and then. "We'll decide within the next
"Thank you," said the President with formal gratitude, and
extended his hand toward the SeeD commander. Squall turned and left without
a word, Quistis behind him. Zell, leaping forward, pumped energetically,
then jogged after his friends.
Two others caught up with them in the building's lobby. Squall recognized
the green and beige of the pair auditing the meeting, and gave them a closer
look. The woman was striking, certainly. Her long dress swept the floor
and rose to cover her slender arms and neck, yet the velvet hardly concealed
the well-formed curves beneath. Carefully styled auburn hair fell in waves
down her back, braided with tiny golden charms to match her narrow throat
chain. Yet none of this ornamentation detracted from her eyes, like the
palest sapphires in a setting of dark red lashes, gazing boldly out of
her smooth, oval face.
"If I may have a word with you, Commander," the woman murmured
in a low alto.
Squall indicated for Zell and Quistis to go on ahead and faced her.
"I am First Lady Jezikan," she told him, "Ferdid Deling's
wife. I only wish to ask that you consider my husband's petition in our
favor. The palace has been spared by those...people, but I fear..."
Her musical voice caught a little. "I fear something may happen. Especially
to my husband; there are those who hate him..." She trailed off, her
rose cheeks paling, and placed one hand on his arm as if to steady herself.
"Please," she breathed.
He looked at her, and then down at the hand clutching his jacket.
"We will pay you," she whispered, low in her throat, "in
whatever coin you wish."
He looked back up. She was a tall woman; her eyes were level with his,
half-lidded but intense.
"Milady," murmured the man, and she withdrew as he bowed to
Squall. In the lady's shadow he was less noticeable than he might have
been alone. The light tan of his suit was darker yet than his fair skin
and still fairer hair. It shone like white gold in the sun, and if not
for the faint pink flush his skin might have been marble. His face and
body had the aesthetic, slender fragility of classical sculpture. But if
he were a statue, his eyes were carved from onyx, a blue so black the irises
could have been mistaken for pupils. There was something dangerous in those
eyes, too dark to be read.
"My lord commander," the man breathed, "it is...an honor
to meet you. I scarce imagined I would have the chance." He daintily
held out one white hand, the fingers dangling like limp petals.
Squall regarded the offer silently. Jezikan laughed prettily and batted
the man's hand away. "Oh, he's not the time for that, Dahl."
She turned back to Squall, the gold charms twinkling in her hair. "You
must excuse Lord Dahl. He's quite the follower of warriors and battles.
I'm afraid you're something of a hero to him, Commander."
"It's...nice to meet you," Squall said, realizing something
was required of him before they would let him go.
"Charmed," purred the woman.
"Oh, indeed," Dahl gushed. "Wonderful--it was
quite worth your coming just to see that Garden float down from the clouds,
as if a jewel from the heavens! Even if you don't accept our petition--well,
you have your reasons. You've done so many deeds; asking you for
any more, it's practically overkill."
Squall tried to tell if he were serious. The lord's smile was so vapid
and his prattle so light it must have been affected, but who except an
idiot would affect an idiot's demeanor? He knew more than one important
personage who were quite intelligent but nonetheless fools. Dahl might
be sincere, or sarcastic, or he might only be kissing up; it didn't affect
Squall one way or another. Did it matter?
But his eyes were unreadable. And the SeeD couldn't shake the impression
of danger beyond their opaque ebon surface.
"It was an honor and a pleasure, Commander," the lord said,
and with another bow retreated to the council chamber.
"Please, if you have need of anything, only ask," Jezikan
said. "Or even if you only want." She lightly pressed her fingers
to his glove, a butterfly's touch, and then she was gone in a swirl of
green skirts. The scent of lavender lingered after the click of her heels
on the tile faded.
Squall sighed and started back to the Garden, wishing Rinoa had come
* * *
Once at his office, Squall called a meeting with what most SeeD referred
to as the 'inner circle'--Rinoa and his closest comrades in SeeD, plus
Xu and a few trusted others. A short discussion of the Galbadian petition
proved his uncertainty was shared by all. "It stinks," was Zell's
major contribution. "Like a week-old fish." The others, though
less blunt about it, seemed to be in agreement.
He assigned them to investigate various angles of the petition. Once
they were dispatched, Squall tried to contact Cid. His communication to
the orphanage was immediately answered. "Hello?"
Squall frowned. The person responding could not have been more than
ten, a round-faced, pig-tailed imp of a girl. One of Edea's adopted children,
now living at the orphanage since Ellone's SeeD ship had been retired.
The girl's violet eyes went very large as she stared at her screen. "Wow
wow! You're him!" Pulling herself so straight he suspected
she was standing on her toes, she executed a reasonable facsimile of a
salute. "What do you want, Mr. Commander Squall?"
"Please get Mr. Kramer," Squall said.
She vanished. A minute later a face he knew popped onto his screen--not
the one he had asked for, though. A man, but rather younger than Cid Kramer,
in a cap. "May I help you, sir--oh, it is you, sir! Hello,
good morning! Can I help you?"
Squall refrained from sighing. "Hello, Watt. I'm trying to talk
to Cid. It's important. Is he there?"
"Well, actually, no, sir." Watt scratched the back of his
head. "He's not. Can I take a message?"
"Where is he?...forget it. Is Edea there?"
Watt nodded earnestly. "I think she's talking with Zone. I'll go
get her right away, sir." He rushed off.
The moment he was gone the girl returned, along with two other children.
The oldest, a skinny, black-haired boy, squinted at Squall suspiciously
through thick glasses. "Are you really Commander Leonhart?"
The suspicion vanished like hot dogs in front of Zell. "Oh, cool!
Can we see your gunblade? Is it really five feet long? Do you--"
"Mak, Palli, Danna," someone called offscreen, quietly but
with enough force that all three children instantly snapped to attention.
"Go finish your lessons, now. Thank you for answering the call, Danna."
He heard the girl chirp, "You're welcome, Matron," as the
kids ran off, and then Edea came into view. Petite and elegant, her long,
black hair still had no gray, and her face was a match to his faded childhood
memories. No longer bearing the weight of the sorceress's powers, she appeared
much younger than her husband, though she was always more somber and that
evened things out.
Squall bowed his head. "Hello, Matron."
She smiled, quiet but gentle. "Hello, Squall. You wanted to talk
with Cid, didn't you? I'm afraid he's at Fisherman's Horizon now."
"...Oh. Why...Never mind. Can I contact him there?"
"You can contact him. As for why, he's overseeing the renovations
on Galbadia Garden. He had some concerns." She paused. When he said
nothing she went on, "It's already night there. You might want to
wait for your evening to try. How urgent is this?"
"It can wait until then."
"Good. He needs his sleep." Edea smiled. "Make sure you
get some, too. You and Rinoa and the others are all in good health? I'm
glad. Good luck, Squall. I hope Cid can help you, but I know you'd do well
"Thank you, Matron," he said, and meant it. He was nearly
smiling when he disconnected, not quite as confused, some measure of confidence
restored. It wasn't what she said exactly, or even how she said it; it
was that she had said it at all. He didn't question Matron. She believed
in him, and he wouldn't, couldn't, betray that trust.
* * *
"What kind of monster commands the SeeDs, anyway?"
Jezikan was in a fine temper. She had maintained her poise for the rest
of the council meeting, but once she had returned to her chambers all semblance
of calm was lost. Her maids, familiar with these occasional flashes, wisely
fled, taking the more fragile curios from the room as they did. Once she
had stripped off her dress and torn the ornaments from her hair, the lady
stalked to her closets to choose a new costume. Rejected garments were
flung across the room as she snarled to herself.
Dahl, slipping in through his regular side entrance, narrowly missed
getting slapped by a copper-trimmed sleeve. He caught the attacking gown
and laid it carefully across the bed, then settled himself beside it. "It
could have gone worse," he remarked.
"How?" Jezikan whirled on him. Dahl wondered if she was aware
of how attractively her eyes sparkled when she was angry, how enticingly
her breasts heaved. Almost definitely. She wouldn't miss a trick like that.
"How could it have gone worse? Maybe if he were a woman--or a ceramic
doll!" She flounced across the room to pick up the last dress thrown,
pulling it on with short, violent jerks. "He's a boy, Dahl!
Not even as old as our so-wonderful Knight. I should've had him wrapped
around my finger before I even spoke."
"Like you did with the Knight?" Dahl reminded her.
"I wasn't trying with him," snapped Jezikan. "He's not
important enough to bother. But this commander--what went wrong? What's
wrong with him? A boy that callow, and his expression never changed once!"
"Maybe he is too young. Or maybe I should give it
a try," the fair man suggested with a smirk. "We don't know which
way his tastes swing."
"I suppose." Slightly mollified, she concentrated on tying
the dress's lace sleeves.
Dahl came up behind her to assist. "It doesn't matter anyway,"
he remarked as his dexterous fingers worked. "I've met him now. Enough,
"It better be enough." Jezikan turned her head enough to see
him, keeping still while he arranged the dress. "They aren't going
to go along with it. I could see that much on his face. They don't trust
"But we'll still go ahead with it?"
"Yes," she said. "We suspected this would be the case,
and Ferdid knows it too. He's taking action tonight, if he can." When
Dahl paused in irritation, she reached back to stroke his cheek. "At
least we have them here. We've come too far now; even the SeeDs and their
stone commander won't be able to stop us." Her eyes narrowed spitefully
as her fingers combed the warlock's ashen hair. "And I'll laugh when
* * *
The SeeD commander was known to have impressive patience, especially
given his youth. But bureaucracies had broken stronger than even him. It
was fortunate Rinoa came when she did, or else Squall might have given
in to his rising temptation to smash his fist through the communicator.
When he heard the knock he gratefully raised his head, not caring who it
was. Any interruption would be better than this. "Come in."
"Doing anything important?" she inquired. "I want to
tell you something."
"Tell me. There's time." He glanced at the still screen. "They've
had me on hold for twenty minutes."
"What are you doing?" She came around the desk to peer over
his shoulder. "Contacting Fisherman's Horizon? Why?"
"Oh. Because of Galbadia Garden? I wonder how that's going--you
should ask him."
"I will. But I have to report the situation here first."
Rinoa nodded, taking a step back. "That's what I came about. You
asked me to talk with Lank about the revolutionaries."
"Yes. Is that--"
"That's fine. If anyone knows anything, he would, and he'll tell
me. I can tell him why I need to know, right? Then it'll be okay. He likes
me, and he respects you, Squall. And he'll want the SeeDs on the right
side. So it's not a problem. I just wanted to tell you that I might not
be back tonight. Talking with Lank might take a while, and then..."
She looked down, toeing the floor. "I might visit my dad. If he'll
"He will, I'm pretty sure. He loves me. I just...I haven't seen
him at all since last year. There's a lot I need to talk about with him.
Things I need to tell him about. Like the Sorceress. And you." She
glanced up again, almost shyly. "So I'm going. Just wanted to let
you know, so you don't worry if I'm not back tonight."
She hesitated a mere instant, rocking back on her heels. "Oh...and
I'm going somewhere else. A friend left me a message; he wants to see me
tonight. I think I'm going to. Is that all right?"
"Why ask me? It isn't my business--" The communicator beeped.
Squall broke off as the screen flashed to life, asking the lady who came
on, "Is Cid Kramer there?"
"Who is this?" demanded the woman.
He told her. Rinoa propped her elbows on the desk and watched as the
woman, after verifying his identity, asked him to wait. The screen returned
to the holding pattern. Squall banged his fists down on either side of
the comm. "They still don't like us; they're doing everything they
can to delay, even when I told them it was important. Damn it. I hate this."
He noticed Rinoa was smiling. "What?"
"Just thinking. A year ago you never would've admitted that. You'd
have kept it all in here." She poked his forehead with one finger.
"You're more fun when you let yourself be human."
He sighed. "This is driving me nuts. She didn't even say how long
"You'll get through eventually. Good luck. I guess I should go,
Lank will feed me dinner. You're sure you don't mind me seeing Seifer?"
"No, that's your--Seifer?!"
Rinoa had the grace to look embarrassed. "He's the friend. He sent
a message a little while ago--it must have been right after the council
meeting ended. He wants to talk with me tonight. Only an hour, he asked
for. He swore on his honor no harm would come to me--he can be awfully
formal, when he wants to be."
"Rinoa, you said a friend--Seifer..."
"He was my friend," said Rinoa, as soft as Matron and just
as undeniable. "He was more to me, once."
Once. At one time he might have been. A year divided then from now,
and much pain. Battles and betrayal. Seifer had become the Sorceress's
Knight; he had stood first at her side, fought for her and lead her troops
against them. And when Ultimecia demanded it, he had given Rinoa to Adel,
brought a girl he had perhaps at one time liked to the mouth of the beast
and thrown her to it. Not smiling. But he had done it. He was no friend
to her. No friend to any of them.
Though he said nothing, it must have been visible on his face. Rinoa
reached for his hand, caught it. "Squall, it wasn't his fault, not
entirely. Ultimecia was controlling him--I think she always was, a little.
Even when he was young, giving him that dream through Edea. She wanted
a knight and she chose him. Like she chose me to do her evil...I know what
it's like, to be controlled like that. How it feels not to be able to do
anything, not even to fight it--to barely be aware of yourself. I understand
what it was like for him. Maybe he wants to apologize now. And I want to
"Maybe. You don't know. Even if she was controlling him for a little
while, it's still Seifer."
"People change." Rinoa laughed, barely audibly. "I hate
talking in cliches. But we do. We grow up, we get older, and things happen.
I thought I had everything figured out, and then I met Seifer. And then
you, and then Ultimecia...and I'm the Sorceress now. I'm not Ultimecia,
but I'm not Rinoa Heartilly, either. Not the same one."
"I know." He wondered if he could have loved that Rinoa as
much. That princess of the Timber Forest Owls, bold and giddy and somehow
much younger than she was now. And she had known Seifer then, when he was
only an arrogant SeeD cadet.
At one time Squall never would have noticed the differences, never would
have cared. Rinoa wasn't the only one who had changed. Still, Seifer...
"I'll be fine," she said. "I'm not going unarmed, and
I'm junctioning more magic than Seifer could even hold. You don't need
"I'm not," he denied, too quickly. "You shouldn't be
in danger. If he gave his word, he'll probably keep it. But--"
"I'll be careful." She let go of his hand, and then, without
warning, she leapt on him, flinging her arms around his neck as she had
when they first officially met, on the train in Timber. She was no longer
leading a revolution, and he wasn't her hired mercenary, but some things
remained the same. Though he hadn't put his arms around her then the way
he did now. And she hadn't rested her head on his shoulder, murmuring,
"You really don't need to worry. I liked Seifer. But I love you, Squall.
That's never going to change."
At his desk the communicator chirruped. Rinoa released him. "Duty
calls. Mine and yours."
"Be careful, please,"uot; he told her, and with a thumb's up and
a smile she was gone.
* * *
In a private corner of the Minotaur's Horn and with only Rinoa, Lank
was willing to talk. Most of what he had to say was no surprise to Rinoa,
who had spent most of her life exposed to the hairy politics of Galbadia.
The past year was reaching new levels of discord, she soon learned, of
which Sorceress Edea's rule and the President's assassination were only
overtures. The major problem now had a name, apparently--"Not Ferdid,"
Lank told her. "He's bad, but he's only a minnow. The shark... Maybe
Jezikan, his wife--some would rather he were married to the sorceress herself.
No few of the revolutionaries want Ferdid out because it will get her
that much further away from power. She's a poison, and those they call
terrorists are cutting to bleed out her venom. We're--I mean, they're hurting
as few people as possible; if there were any other way to make them listen
they'd do it. They're trying to save this nation, these 'terrorists' are."
Rinoa couldn't make guarantees, but she promised Lank she would tell
Squall everything, and she was fairly certain SeeD would reject the petition.
Squall didn't like it much anyway. She wondered how Cid had advised him;
the former headmaster wasn't in Galbadia, but he still might understand
the situation. And Squall would in the end make his own decision--it would
be the right one. She had no doubt of that.
Seifer's designated meeting place was several blocks away. Rather than
take the bus, she walked, seeing with her own eyes how much had changed
since she was young. Very little; it might feel like years ago, but she
was barely an adult, her childhood still close. The streets were darker
than they had been, with many streetlamps smashed and not replaced, and
more police and guards on patrol. But the shops' windows still shone well
into the night, and the crowds were resplendent as always.
She heard a howl somewhere behind her. Automatically she reached for
her shooting star, then realized the call had a familiar ring. Turning,
she found a large brown and white dog bounding toward her, its red tongue
dangling between dripping canines.
Rinoa frowned. "Angelo!" She crouched as pedestrians cleared
out of the animal's path. "Here, boy. Heel!" The dog halted before
her and thrust his wet nose into her hair, panting eagerly. "You're
not a good dog," she informed him, scratching behind his ears. "You
were supposed to stay at the Garden." Not that Angelo ever did. The
one command he had never completely mastered was 'stay.' If she went with
others he would usually remain behind, moping. But if he knew she was alone,
or in a dangerous situation, he tended to pop up, regardless of what she
had told him to do.
"You aren't going to go home, are you? Come on, then." The
dog at her heels, she set off again. On her way to meet with Seifer. Seifer
Almasy, former SeeD cadet, former Sorceress's Knight. Former friend...maybe
more. Had she loved him? She wasn't quite sure. She knew he had never loved
her. And what she had felt that summer with him was nothing compared to
what she felt with Squall now. It had been exciting, and fun, and she had
craved it desperately, just the idea of being in love. Now, though...she
didn't know if she was in love. That was a light feeling, giddy and absorbing.
What she had now, what she and Squall had, wasn't only emotion. It was
reality; it was being. She loved him, and was loved by him, and everything
they were was multiplied a thousand times over for it.
But Seifer had been a friend if nothing else. And she wondered how much
of what he had later become was her own fault. If she hadn't asked him
to Timber, asked him to attack Vinzer Deling, might the Sorceress never
have found him? Never have taken him to be her Knight, banishing everything
else he might have been. He had given his soul to Ultimecia, and now that
she was gone, what did he have left?
The message he had left her, voice only, hadn't sounded like the Seifer
she had once known. Still brazen, not begging, and calm without being peaceful.
But there was something missing in the baritone, something broken. The
confidence that she had admired in him, the feeling that he could take
on the world and maybe come out on top, that was gone. He had no challenge
now, nothing to fight for, his dream irrevocably shattered.
Angelo whimpered and bumped his head against her hip. Startled out of
her thoughts, she stroked her pet's head. "What is it?"
The dog whined again, then growled, deep in his throat. Instantly Rinoa
raised her arm, the straps of her shooting star tightening around the flexed
muscle. With her back to the closest building, she scanned the faces of
the passing people. Her battle-ready stance was winning her a few odd looks,
but nothing suspicious--
The prick was no worse than an insect's sting, but when she looked down
a tuft of green feathers protruded from her arm. She wrenched the dart
out, her head already spinning. Angelo growled as two soldiers marched
up. One of the armored men flicked his hand; sparks from his fingers flew
into the dog's eyes.
Rinoa felt the energy surge. Fire magic. With a pained howl, Angelo
ran. Not far, but enough that the other soldier could take her arm. "Are
you feeling all right, Miss? Here, come with us."
She tried to tear away. "No--stop! Help!" In her mind she
summoned the magic to cleanse herself, esuna's power driving away the dart's
drug. Then there was another prick, and with it the whisper of a sleep
spell. That darkness fell too fast to banish.
The soldiers caught her as she crumpled. Just a young lady who must
have over-indulged, swooning on the streets. Nothing anyone would deign
to notice, especially when she had guards to protect her. Only Angelo tried
to stop them. Another sleep spell knocked the dog out cold. The soldiers
left him lying in an alley, and spirited their prize away.