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Chapter III Pawns

As much as Squall pondered Cid's words, he did not grow more comfortable with them.

"I don't have all the answers, Squall."

Of course he didn't. The gods themselves couldn't answer every question that could be asked. And Cid was a mortal man--too mortal. It hadn't been on a whim that he had stepped down from SeeD leadership; his health had forced the decision on him. One day, eventually, he would have no answers at all, except the final one.

But not now. Not for a long time yet, Squall believed. Hoped. The Gardens without Cid--who could replace him? Who would?

...No. Too much to think about. Instead he concentrated on the Galbadian situation. Cid had given advice, nothing more. Once contacted, the former headmaster was perfectly willing to talk--but that was all. "SeeD is under your command, Squall," Cid had told him. "This is your decision. Would you serve Galbadia better by following the government's demands, or rejecting them?"

"I don't know."

"You'll have to find out, then. I'm not there; I'm not in a position to understand the situation. You are. It's your responsibility to decide, I suggest as soon as possible. There are others also in need of SeeD. Think hard. I know you'll make the right choice."

There was little Squall could say to that. He broke the connection, then realized he had never broached Cid's reasons for being in FH.

Irvine entered an instant after that occurred to him. His interruption coming on top of everything else, Squall didn't even let him get a sentence into his report. "Can't this wait?"

"Not according to you, it can't. You said you wanted whatever we found out as soon as we found it. I've talked with a couple buddies in the country. Sounds like the revolutionaries are more popular than the real government, out there, anyway. Of course that could be just 'cause of taxes--"

"I'll take that under consideration," Squall cut him off.

"Whoa!" Irvine folded his arms. "Should I salt my hat, or do you want to bite my head off without any fixings? What's up, Commander?"

As shortly as possible, Squall told him Cid's response. The sharpshooter shook his head. "Damn, you're really stuck in this leader-thing, aren't you? Good thing you can handle it." Irvine glanced at him pointedly. "You know, we all trust you for a reason. You always come through. Cid knew what he was doing when he put you in charge."

Squall almost protested it. True, he had been managing adequately. But there had been no emergencies, no questions. Even when fighting the Sorceress, the most difficult battle of his life, his duty had been clear. Now...

"Still." Irvine thoughtfully tipped back his hat. "I think it was a bad choice for you. Great for the rest of us, but you're getting the short end of the stick. You don't get to have fun, because you have to be a leader. Responsible and mature and all. Your birthday's after mine, but sometimes you're like a million years older. Even though you're awfully young to be a commander. Does that bother you, how everyone hiring us is older?"

"...Kind of."

It doesn't bother them, usually. We're heroes. They don't think of us as kids. When I was little, I always wanted to be grown up, but life was a hell of a lot easier before."

Squall had never thought of life being easy or hard. He couldn't remember wanting to grow up--not that he hadn't wanted to, either. If he lived, he would become an adult; what he wanted or thought about that meant nothing. Yet he understood what Irvine was clumsily expressing. "Responsibility makes things more complicated."

"You're telling me." Slouching in a chair, the SeeD swiveled it idly.

"If that's all..."

Irvine straightened marginally without standing. "Any reason you're chasing me out, commander sir? Like, Rinoa's coming up? Or is she behind your desk--"

He made a show of peering over it. Squall rested his forehead against his hand. "No. Rinoa's not here. She's...meeting with Seifer."

"Ah," said Irvine, in the tone of one greatly enlightened. "So that's it. She mentioned she was planning to go--glad she told you. You don't have anything to worry about."

"I'm not worried--"

"She can take on Seifer, easy, if he's going for a fight. And if he's not, he just wants to talk. She was a little worried you'd be jealous, but that's not your style, and you don't have any reason to be anyway. Rinoa might've liked Seifer way back when, but she loves you. You just keep that in mind. Know it won't make the cold, lonely night any shorter, but it's something special." Irvine winked as he strode out the door.

The reports could wait until morning, and he needed the time to think. Squall decided to retire to his quarters before any more friends arrived to cheer him up.

Though his lights were on most of the night, he came to no definite conclusions. And Irvine was right. The night was long, and when he finally slept, it was as cold as space, and as empty.

* * *

There was no light, and around her were voices of people she had never met. She couldn't make out their words, and when she tried to speak her mouth felt like it was filled with rubber. She raised her hands to pull the mask away, but her hands wouldn't move, like dead logs her arms were, and then she realized her eyes were open but she still saw only blackness. She was paralyzed and she was blind, and deaf except for the strangers' voices, and the mask suffocated her scream...

Even drugged and spelled, the girl struggled against the bonds tying her to the bed. Dahl shook his head at her weak motions. Half that dosage of tranquilizer or the hold spell alone should have kept her comatose, and yet she fought both. The minor mage stationed outside had to constantly renew the spell, lest she break it. The strength of her magic, or her will, was formidable. And no surprise, considering who she was. What she was.

He turned to the other men in the cramped room. "I won't do it. I already told you."

"Warlock." Ferdid made the title a curse. "You will do what's necessary--"

"It's too dangerous," Dahl snapped. "She's the Sorceress. Do you have any idea the power that implies?" She didn't look it, he had to admit. Only a slip of a girl, pale and pretty but not approaching Jezikan's elegance. She looked as if Ferdid could snap her in two between his large hands. Her closed eyelids twitched as she shifted, her dark hair falling across her face and over the pillow in damp, limp tendrils.

"Of course we know!" The doctor's heavily accented voice was brimming with outrage. "Without that power, this endeavor would be useless! Utterly pointless! But if we can tap it..." He bent over the girl, peering at her intently. "Or find its source--I have found ways to block it, yes, but producing it, ah, that is the puzzle--"

"Doctor," Ferdid said, "please keep the task at hand in mind. We called the SeeD to get her. Can you complete the device now that you have her?"

"I might, I might. We shall have to see, shan't we?"

"If you can hold her long enough," Dahl muttered, watching the girl slowly twist against the binding cords.

Ferdid's brow lowered. "If you'd use your power--"

"Forget the abomination, Lord President," said the doctor. "We have no need of his false magic."

"I'm only as abominable as you made me, doctor," Dahl snarled. "And my power is no spell your trinkets can defend against. Don't drive me to test it on you again." As if weary of threats his anger abruptly faded. He tossed his pale hair back, gesturing like a fop. "These confines are stifling. If there's nothing else, President Deling, I'll leave."

Ferdid watched him exit. "He's more dangerous than this girl, I'll wager," he growled once the lord was gone.

"A matter of perspective, my Lord President," the doctor jabbered. "Danger and power are close, but not the same. This child here, she is great in both, and we must use both to the maximum. And court danger ourselves, while we gather power." He hovered over her proprietarily, stubby fingers not quite touching her brow. "A fascinating study, even if it does not succeed. Do not fear, my Lord President; the device will be completed yet. With all its power and danger, yes. As much power as you desire. As much as anyone desires."

* * *

Squall awoke with a vague uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, as if something wasn't digesting right, though he hadn't eaten since dinner the night before. It was barely dawn when he threw on his jacket and left his room. The hall was empty. So was Rinoa's room. She must have stayed at her father's.

He took a carafe of tea from the dining hall and headed up to the bridge, where he proceeded to try to contact General Caraway. He was informed by a pleasant electronic voice that the general's residence was unavailable. No reason was given.

The hot tea tasted fine, but the discomfort in his belly only increased. It was still early; no one would be awake for a little while. There was time. Putting the computer on standby, he started for the door, just as Nida entered.

"'Morning, Commander!" the pilot exclaimed, startled. "I thought I was the first of the day shift up."

"Why are you here at all?" Squall asked. "The Garden's not going anywhere yet."

"Doesn't mean we just leave the bridge empty."

"...Oh." Of course; the need for security was obvious. By now Nida probably thought of him as 'Squall the moron,' considering how many idiotic things he'd said and done in the other SeeD's presence. Starting with forgetting his name after they had graduated together and going on from there.

None of that showed in Nida's face, however. His smile looked sympathetic, actually. "So are we going somewhere soon, or not? Have you decided?"

"I think so," Squall said. "We're rejecting the petition. I'll make a general announcement when I get back."

"Okay--wait a sec, get back from where?"

Squall was already out the door. Alone in the office, Nida waved after him. "Good luck, sir." He swiped the steaming cup of tea from the desk and sipped contemplatively. "Whatever the heck you're up to."

* * *

There were guards outside the Caraway mansion--not private security but Galbadian soldiers in full body armor. Two were standing at the front gate when he arrived, the slump in their postures suggesting that they had been there for a while. Still attentive, though; when he approached they immediately raised their blades. "Who're you?"

"Squall Leonhart. SeeD Commander."

"Why are you here?"

"I want to enter."

"Really, boy? Never have guessed it." The other man sniggered. "Why do you want in?"

"I want to see someone."

"I'm sorry," the soldier said, not sounding it. "You can't see the general. This house is off-limits until the President declares otherwise. So scram."

"I'm not trying to see the general," Squall said. "And I will go in." In one smooth motion he drew Lionheart and crossed both their swords with the glimmering gunblade. "I don't want to fight, but I will."

Both pairs of eyes fixed on his weapon. They didn't miss its unnatural glow in the brightening morning, nor the graceful familiarity with which he wielded it. One guard swallowed audibly. "You really are him--holy sh--"

"We're sorry, Commander," the other said, holding his arms stiff to keep his sword from contacting Lionheart. "Go right in."

There were more soldiers on the grounds, but they ignored him, assuming since he walked the path openly he must have permission. Unobstructed, he marched to the front door and rang the bell, then banged on the knocker. The heavy oak portal swung open, revealing a middle-aged, tuxedoed servant. "What's going on?" Squall demanded. "Why are there guards here? What's happened to Rinoa?"

As the butler gaped, a voice behind him spoke. "Rinoa? What about my daughter?"

The servant stepped aside as General Caraway strode forward. Even out of uniform, his neatly pressed civvies had a military cast, and his posture was ramrod straight as any ensign's. Iron gray hair and steely eyes completed the image of the perfect career soldier, and the strength of his hand grip attested that he was one officer who could handle himself in battle as well as his troops.

At the same time, he was not one to underestimate others. There was a definite measure of respect in the gaze he leveled on Squall. "Commander, welcome back to my house." He lead the SeeD to his study, then turned to him. "Now what were you asking? What trouble is my girl in now?"

"You don't know?" The general had no reason to lie, and yet Squall found himself searching the man for signs of dissembling. "She's not here?"

Caraway sighed. "I haven't seen Rinoa since she ran off with you and your SeeD last year. I'm only her father; why would she be here?"

"She was planning to come last night. She was thinking she might stay over, and when I couldn't call this morning--" He forcibly reigned himself in. "I'm sorry for disturbing you. When I saw the soldiers outside--"

"I see," the general said understandingly. "The soldiers are my own problem, and the incommunicado as well."

"Your problem? I thought you were the chief general."

"I was. Technically I still am, but it's a sorry commander who's put under house arrest by his own troops. It goes past mutiny and into treason, if it weren't for the President's order."


"Why the order? Because I disagree with certain recent policies." Squall nodded, remembering who had orchestrated the attempted assassination of the Sorceress. "And because I'm difficult to shut up. They can't kill me; if they depose me, they'll have an uprising in the army. Once the soldiers join the revolutionaries' side, the game is over. They're doing their best to keep the men loyal to me as far away as they can, and fill the city with those they commissioned themselves...though right now there's few enough soldiers in the city at all. They're up to something, but I don't know what--"

"General, excuse me," Squall cut in. "This is important, but I need to get back to the Garden and find out what happened to Rinoa--"

"I expect she's fine," Caraway said. "It's hard for me to accept sometimes, but she's no little girl anymore, and she can take care of herself. She's got plenty of friends in the city with whom she could stay with. She might be trying to contact you now."

"Then I better go." Though he didn't believe it. She might have many places to be indeed, but she had intended to come here, and once Rinoa decided something she rarely changed her mind. And she had decided to see a man who wasn't her friend, no matter what she might have thought, or what he might have been. The unease in his stomach was beginning to manifest as worry. Though it did no good to panic when he was already doing whatever he could, it was not a feeling he could ignore, however futile it was. "I'll come back soon, hopefully."

"I'll expect you." The general ushered Squall back into the hall. Before the threshold to the entryway he paused. "I have to ask. I've been hearing...stories. Rumors about what might have happened last year. Nothing certain, but you were in the middle of it, weren't you. All of you. My daughter included."

Squall nodded. Caraway drew a deep breath. "Squall, tell me honestly. Is my daughter a sorceress?"

"Yes." The general's expression was implacable. Squall tried to lessen the blow. "Ultimecia is gone. The Sorceress you wanted assassinated. We stopped her. But Rinoa inherited the Sorceress Edea's powers. Rinoa is a sorceress. The only one, we think." He still couldn't read the older man's face. "Do you still want her to come here?"

Now his expression changed. "Yes. She's my daughter. This--this affects my feelings for her as much as it affects your own."

Squall studied him for a long moment. "General Caraway, I love Rinoa."

There was a minute softening of the general's iron jaw. "I know, son."

* * *

"What do you mean, he left?"

Zell's shout could have been heard in Trabia Garden. A lesser man might have faltered. Nida, who was SeeD, a year older, and an inch taller than Zell, and also had known him for years, didn't flinch. "I mean, the commander left. Like, he used his legs and walked out the door. And out of the Garden, I guess."

"And he didn't say where he was going?" Quistis pressed.

Nida shrugged. "That's Squall," Selphie and Irvine said together, leaning forward in perfect synchronization. Selphie ruined the effect by covering her mouth to block a giggle as Irvine continued, "He probably went to see Rinoa. She's not here either, notice. She went to see her father last night; she's probably still there. And so's Squall, I bet."

"He might be there. But I don't think Rinoa is." The five SeeD turned as Dr. Kodowaki entered. "I was taking my morning constitutional when I noticed a problem by the main entrance." Before she could explain, a furry form rushed past her legs and leapt to the center of the room, barking furiously.

"Angelo!" Selphie cried, rushing forward to throw her arms around the dog.

"He was outside the gate, fighting to get back in. The idiot Galbadians keeping watch didn't know what to make of him," the doctor said. "I practically had to bribe them to let him through--they thought we'd have a no pets rule, I suppose. One wonders what they'd make of the training grounds. So what's he doing here, without Rinoa?"

"That's the question." Quistis folded her arms in an attempt to look dependably mature, and therefore unafraid.

Selphie didn't bother trying. Her eyes were round with worry. "Angelo, what's wrong? Where's Rinoa?"

"Dogs can't talk," Zell muttered.

"I know," Selphie shot back. "But if he could--something's wrong. He knows it. Rinoa must be in trouble--"


Squall's quiet tone was moderate as always, but every head in the room instantly snapped to his figure in the doorway. Quistis took an automatic step toward him, then saw something in his face and stopped. "Squall, where's Rinoa?" Wanting her to be behind him, knowing she wasn't, seeing his expression. His eyes, falling on Angelo, Selphie's arms clasped around the dog's ruffed neck. Anyone who thought Squall showed no emotions just didn't know where to look for them.

"I don't know where she is," he said. "But I think Seifer does. I'm going to ask him."

"Just ask him? Man, we'll tear it out of him!" Zell shook his gloved fists in the general direction of Deling City.

"I'm going to ask him first," Squall said.

"Alone?" Zell wasn't the only one to react to that. "You can't go alone, not with Seifer," he verbalized all their protests. "He's got a gunblade too, you know! Even if you're junctioning every guardian force we got--I mean, you're good, Squall, you're better than Seifer, easy, but he cheats! And if Rinoa's at stake here--"

"You're right," Squall agreed, then, before Zell could celebrate, turned to Instructor Trepe. "Quistis, will you come?"

"Of course." She joined him by the door. "Before we go--about Galbadia's petition--"

"Yeah." Squall looked them over. "We're rejecting it. But I want to talk to Seifer before I tell the President. We might need to search Deling City to find Rinoa, and we'll need the unrestricted access. Does that sound right?"

They all agreed. "You go get Rinoa," Irvine told him. "And let us know who did this."

The others nodded. You don't take on SeeD without retribution. Zell shadow-boxed the air, eagerly imagining what he could do to the person responsible for this.

That is, he corrected, watching his commander's eyes, if there was anything left after Squall found them.

* * *

Quistis didn't ask how Squall knew where to go. She followed silently as he maneuvered through the streets to a brick building, set between the council hall and the army barracks. He didn't have to knock; the door was open. They ascended the porch steps and walked through marble-floored hallway to a small central courtyard. A training ground, to judge from the circle of beaten earth and the equipment racks. It was empty save for Seifer. He stood in the center, his gunblade sheathed at his side and his arms crossed. "So she decided not to come," he said as they approached, then raised an eyebrow sardonically. "One against two? Hardly sporting. I'd have thought better of you, Instructor. Squall. Or should it be Commander?"

"Whatever. Where's Rinoa?"

"Rinoa?" Seifer frowned. "You'd know better than me. Wherever you left her, so she'd be safe--I wasn't going to hurt her. You could have trusted me that much." He sounded disappointed. More than that, he sounded serious. Honesty, not the bravado of a lie.

Maybe she could shock him out of the act. "Seifer, it's too late for that. She's gone, and you know where she is."

"Rinoa's gone?" It had to be an act, and yet the mix of surprise, even concern, in his voice sounded genuine. That wasn't right. Quistis was used to reading Seifer easily. It wasn't that he wore his heart on his sleeve so much as that he had few emotions to display. Two, generally--pleased, when someone acted to further his ends, or annoyed, if he believed someone was hindering him. Only when Squall entered the picture would he show true anger.

But here was a different side of Seifer, and how much of it was deception she couldn't tell. Duplicity was one of the few faults he lacked; even when he was the Sorceress's Knight, he had never pretended otherwise.

If Squall noticed, it didn't matter to him. "Rinoa's gone," he said flatly. "She went to see with you last night, and then was going to visit General Caraway. She never arrived there."

"She never arrived here, either." Could that apprehension be sincere? "I just thought--she's been missing since last night?"

"You don't know." It was a statement, not a question.

"On my honor as a knight, Squall, I had nothing to do with it."

"Then why are you here?" Quistis demanded, ignoring the claim of honor from a man with none.

The haughty scorn with which he turned to her was more what she expected from him. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, Instructor, but there are some who actually appreciate ability. I may not have been accepted as one of your so-glorious elite, but the army here is happy to learn from a knight."

"A knight?" How long had it been since anyone had seriously claimed that title, outside of the Sorceress's thrall? "So now you're proudly training thugs?"

"Can your SeeD here do anything but ask insulting questions, Commander?" Seifer raised his chin insolently. "If you wanted backup, I'm surprised you didn't bring along Dincht. If he was scared you could've just dangled a hot dog in front of him."

"Please don't insult Zell," Squall said quietly.

"Why shouldn't I insult that chicken-wuss?"

"Because he's my friend."

"Why?" Seifer challenged.

Squall shrugged, as if he had no idea himself why he would have any friends. Seifer waited, then lifted his shoulders and let them fall. "I don't know where Rinoa is. You can believe me, or not, but you'll figure out it's true eventually. And soon, I hope, because she might be in real trouble. There's dangerous people here. I wouldn't want her hurt."

Quistis watched him narrowly. "Why would you even care?"

He didn't look at her but at Squall, steadily. There was a sober depth to his expression as he answered, a hand resting on his gunblade's hilt, not threatening but as one might swear an oath. "I'm the Sorceress's Knight. Even with Ultimecia gone, I'm still the Sorceress's Knight."

"Rinoa has a knight already," Squall said, and his face was just as serious. "But I believe you."

"Just like that?" Quistis looked at Seifer, looked to Squall. Then nodded without a word and fell back to her commander's side, just as her communicator chirped. Quickly she snatched it from her belt. "Yes?"

"Quistis, you're with the commander? We need him back here." Even over the radio Xu sounded disturbed. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but this is urgent. We just got a message--I can't give it over an unsecure line. Not here."

Also listening, Squall nodded. "We're coming," Quistis responded quickly, and switched it off.

As they turned to leave, Seifer spoke. "Squall. When I first came here, they asked me to lead their troops in battle. I said I wouldn't. And then they asked me where you sunk the Lunatic Pandora. I said I didn't know. It's over. All that stuff. For me, it's over. That's what I wanted to tell Rinoa."

"I understand," Squall said. "But it's not over for her. For us." He bowed his head once. "Goodbye, Seifer."

Seifer raised his hand, like a lord might take leave of his vassals, or a knight honor a peer. "Goodbye."

* * *

"It's not about Rinoa." Xu answered Squall's first question before he could ask it. She met them at the lift to give them a quick rundown on their way to the office. "Nida picked it up about half an hour. It's a repeating communique; we listened to it, checked its legitimacy, and then called you. It's from the Shumi village, Commander. They're asking for our help."

"The Shumi?" Quistis exclaimed. The Shumi were proud of their self-sufficiency, and generally had little respect for humanity; they didn't actively dislike human beings, but with a few exceptions they tended to avoid foreigners. That humans sometimes enslaved moombas, one evolved form of Shumi, probably didn't improve this attitude.

Though the Gardens had initially been funded and mastered by NORG, a Shumi merchant and something of a renegade to his people, Squall knew of no instance that they had ever hired SeeD before. "What do they want us for?"

"Defense," Xu said shortly, and they entered the office. To a person, the SeeD present looked distressed. Nida, seated behind the desk, played the message.

The Shumi's bubbling accent was crystal clear; it was hard to interpret nonhuman emotional tones, but if Squall were to guess he'd have said the speaker sounded scared. "Burururu. We ask for the help of the SeeD of the Gardens and Commander Squall. Our village is under attack. Our defenses are inadequate against the Galbadian soldiers and crafts. Fushushu--please help us. They seek to take our people. They are searching and looting our homes. We beg for your protection. Bururu. Come, please." The message cut off with a burst of static.

"It's coming from the village," Xu said. "As far as we can tell, it's not a trick."

No, the Shumi would have no reason to trick them. "Could be a slave raid," Irvine said soberly. "Galbadia usually trades for moomba workers, but if they needed a lot for some reason..."

"What are we going to do, Squall?" Zell demanded. "Those Galbadian bastards can't get away with this--we gotta help the Shumi--"

"But what about Rinoa?" Selphie asked. "Did you find anything?"

"No," Quistis replied for him. "Except that Seifer doesn't know about it. But he implied he might know who did it--he said there are dangerous people around."

Right on cue there was a knock at the door. "Come in," Squall ordered, but they only knocked again.

Zell leapt over and flung the door open. Then balled his fists. "You!"

"Yeah, us." Ignoring the accusation, and the wary stares of the other SeeD, Fujin and Raijin strode past Zell and headed toward Squall.

The commander watched them with solemn curiosity. "Why are you here?"

"We came in through the back. A secret entrance, ya know?" Raijin offered. "Didn't want the Galbadians seeing us, ya know?"

"Why'd you come?" Squall repeated.

"REQUEST," Fujin supplied.

"Seifer, of course," clarified Raijin. "He asked us to come, ya know? Soon as you all left he told us to. There were things he wanted to tell you that he couldn't there, ya know? Being in the city."


Squall nodded. "You came to tell us?"

"And to help. Seifer told us to help you. Whatever you need to do, we're here."

"You're going to help us? Just 'cause Seifer said so?" Zell demanded belligerently.

"Yeah. We're still his posse, ya know?"

"Great!" Irvine grinned, then caught Zell's glare. "What? I've seen these guys fight--better them on our side!"

"What did you come to tell us?" Squall asked them.

"Several things." Fujin stepped forward, garnering stares from those who had never heard her use more than a single word at a time, let alone a normal voice. Accustomed to letting Raijin talk, her speech was soft and halting, but articulate nonetheless. "First, Rinoa is probably unharmed. And she won't be. She was taken because they know she is the Sorceress. They would not risk hurting her."

"Who's they?" Squall demanded tightly.

"The President, and his wife."

"Lady Jezikan, ya know," Raijin specified. "She's a witch, even if she's not a sorceress. And then there's the other guy, Lord something--"

"Lord Dahl, the Warlock," Fujin said. "He works for Jezikan. There are others, not just soldiers."

"I met Jezikan and Dahl," Squall said. "Dahl's called the Warlock?"

Raijin shrugged. "Think it's because it sounds cool, ya know? No one ever says he does magic. Seifer doesn't like him."

"He doesn't like any of them," Fujin said.

"But he's sure willing to let them pay him--"

"Zell, please." Squall turned back to Raijin and Fujin. "Do you or Seifer know where they might be holding Rinoa?"

"Not really. They don't tell us secrets, ya know?"

"SEIFER." Fujin slipped back into her normal mode of speech.

"Yeah, Seifer might guess. He's been--"

"All right. Thank you for the information." Squall looked at the circle of people around him. "I'm going to call the President and tell him we're refusing his petition. I won't mention Rinoa or the Shumi village attack. Tonight I'm going back, when Seifer won't be afraid of anyone overhearing, and find out what else he knows. Irvine, since you know the city, I want you to come with me. The rest of you will take the Garden to the Shumi at maximum speed and stop the Galbadians. Try not to engage them unless you have to. Leave the Ragnorak shielded in the mountains outside the city, and Rinoa and I will join you in it as soon as we can." He faced them. "Okay?"

"Sounds fine to me," Irvine said, smiling. Selphie and Zell nodded agreement.

Quistis and Xu exchanged glances. "All right, Commander."

Squall turned to Raijin and Fujin. "What do you want to do? Go back to Seifer?"

Raijin shook his head. "He told us to help you, ya know? We'll go with you or the Garden."

"Fine. Decide what you'd rather do. I'm going to contact Galbadia and get ready. You leave for the Shumi village by nightfall." Squall was out the door before anyone could reply.

"Definitely the commander, ya know?" Raijin remarked to no one in particular.

* * *

If the call had come two minutes later, Squall would already have been on his way. As it was he paused on the threshold of his room, debating whether to answer the chime. Duty won over urgency. "Commander Squall here."

He wasn't expecting the face that flashed onscreen. Were it not for the green eyes, he might have been looking into a mirror of the future, seeing a reflection of himself aged thirty years. Squall didn't need anyone to point out the similarity; he had noticed it himself, the first time he had actually met the man in person. Laguna Loire, ex-Galbadian soldier, former traveling journalist, now the leader of the most powerful country in the world. A man of many titles. Mr. Loire, President of Esthar. Sir Laguna, in a couple of cheesy old movies most people thankfully didn't know existed.

Squall could use another, but didn't. He had called no one 'Father' for all of his life; it was too late to begin now. That this might be disappointing to his father Squall realized, but it wasn't enough to change his ways.

"Laguna," he said instead.

"Hello, Squall." Laguna looked him over, thoughtfully, without speaking. He had come a long way from the moronic soldier he once had been, but as far as Squall was concerned he still had a fair amount to go. Though his plan had been behind Ultimecia's final defeat. The mind behind those guileless emerald eyes was shrewder than they let on.

Squall quickly tired of the silent regard. "What is it?" he said. "I'm in a hurry."

"Going to the Shumi village?"

Laguna knew about that? "The Garden is."

"What about you?"

He didn't have time for this. "I have to stay here. Something's come up. Rinoa's in trouble." That should be enough. If there was one duty Laguna put stock in, it was love, the importance of aiding those one loved.

"How bad?" Laguna asked, worry crinkling the corners of his eyes.

"I don't know. Her life might not be in danger. She's been kidnapped by the Galbadians."

"Because she's a Sorceress?"

He definitely was brighter than he looked. Or acted, for that matter. Squall somehow still felt like the adult in the conversation. "Yes. I don't know exactly what they want her for, but that probably has something to do with it."

"Squall, that's important, are the Shumi. You have a responsibility to them--"

As if Laguna could lecture him on responsibility. Laguna who abandoned his duty as a soldier to wander the world. Laguna who had left Raine, his wife by everything except the law, and never returned, not before she died, not even long enough to find out he had a son. Laguna who danced through life relying on luck and faith in people's better nature, and for some reason had never been let down.

Squall tried to keep his resentment from boiling over. "The Garden is going--"

"They asked for you, Squall." How Laguna knew that Squall could only guess. Esthar had probably picked up the Shumi's broadcast. "They don't like asking people for help, you know. But they respect you. If the Garden comes without you, and they don't think you care at all--it's wrong. It's against everything the Gardens are for."

Whatever the Gardens were for. Laguna talked like he knew. Maybe he did; Cid and he might even have discussed it. Squall wished he had been let in on that secret as well. No time to get into that now, though. "If the Shumi are so important, why don't you go help them?"

Laguna's face fell. "I want to. But we've got the city--" meaning the entire continent--"closed off now. We're in the final stages of the exterminations." The exterminations, Squall guessed, were of the moon monsters the Lunatic Pandora had called down to Tear's Point and flooded all of Esthar. That it had taken only a year to deal with the aftermath of the Lunar Cry was a credit to Esthar's power. The barren lands around the city-country would probably still be infested in a century, but at least citizens wouldn't be eaten now. "They won't let me leave the palace for anything," Esthar's President said. "Kiros would kill me. That's why I called you."

Because if Laguna couldn't go, the SeeD commander was the next best thing. His lineage was the main reason the Shumi held him in such high regard, Squall knew. It was Laguna whom they truly honored; his resemblance to his father was the key to their respect for him.

Never mind that Laguna had told him that wasn't it at all, that they heeded not his bloodline or his face, but his heart. Which didn't explain to Squall why moombas had a tendency to call him 'Laguna'--father and son might have the same blood, but not the same heart. Laguna hadn't tried to explain that. He'd only laughed when Squall mentioned it.

"Laguna, I can't go to the Shumi village either. Rinoa needs me."

"The Shumi need you. Rinoa needs a rescue, but your friends are fighters too," Laguna said. "They definitely fight a hell of a lot better than me 'n Kiros 'n Ward ever did. Send them. That's the way you've gotta work this. Delegation. That's what leadership's all about."

But there were some things that couldn't, shouldn't, be delegated. No matter how much he trusted his friends and their skills. He did, implicitly. That wasn't the issue.

Then what was? He didn't have to say it to know Laguna's response. Or maybe it was his own response. Laguna was right after all. Much as Squall dislikes to admit it, he usually was. He did have a responsibility to the Shumi...but Rinoa...

"I'll--I have to think about it," he said.

"Talk to your friends," Laguna told him. "That always helps me. Just remember it is important--both things are. But the Shumi might not accept help from SeeD if you're not there, and Rinoa would." He shook his head, his hair falling in his eyes. "Well, that's what I called for. Know you've got a lot to do. I wish I could really help." He sighed, pushing the distracting mane back. "Guess it's good-bye, then. Uh...Squall?"


"When this is over, all of it, I mean--would you like to come to Esthar? Just for a little while. A vacation. You could bring Rinoa, or all your friends. I know Ellone really wants to see you. And I get discounts, free things--it's be fun. If you'd want to."

"Maybe. After this is over," Squall said reluctantly. Wondering if he could possibly figure out vacations. The last time he hadn't had anything to do, no classes or work or practices at all, was when he was still in the orphanage. And he had come to Balamb Garden when he was five.

But Rinoa would know what to do. And it would be good to see Ellone. He would like that.

After everything was over. "Goodbye, Laguna." Squall disconnected, wondering if he had in fact promised anything at all. Everything was probably not going to be over for a very long time. And meanwhile he had a decision to make. In the end, that was what leadership was truly about. Deciding. Good, bad. Right, wrong. Left or right, black or white, yes or no.

Sometimes he hated it. But if he didn't choose, who would?

* * *

"The SeeD have rejected our petition," Ferdid reported to the select council. Only half the official members were present for this meeting; with no audience, the great chamber was cavernously empty. Those familiar with the government might have identified the absent faces as the more experienced, the more noble, the more honest.

With this council, the Lady Jezikan had a chair next to her husband, and Lord Dahl sat at the table further down. He never spoke, but the councilors didn't ask why he was present, and they tended to lose their place in their speeches if they noticed he was watching. Jezikan said little herself, but she often murmured in her husband's ear. The councilors didn't question this, either.

"We weren't expecting SeeD to accept, were we?" remarked Kittering, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

"No," the President agreed. "But I'm concerned by more than the rejection. He informed me the Garden will be leaving by tonight. There was a definite possibility that the Shumi got out a distress call before we blocked their radio signal."

"Even if they head right there," pointed out the assistant Minister of War, "it took them several days to come here. They shouldn't get there for nearly a week, at that rate."

"Exactly," Deling nodded. "Which is why I'm ordering the troops out tomorrow, except for one ship. The others will proceed to the primary site--since the Shumi apparently did not have what we were seeking. Correct, Doctor?"

The doctor was seated at the opposite end of the table from Dahl. He jerked up at the address. "Yes, my Lord President. I doubt even your foolish soldiers could misread my sensor. If the device detected nothing, than there was nothing to be found. We did not necessarily believe that the Shumi would possess any such thing. Therefore we must take it from the source, since I am having difficulties--" At Jezikan's glare he blinked, recalling that the council knew nothing of the girl held prisoner downstairs, and hastily changed it, "little luck with my other projects."

The council members missed his verbal flinch in the face of other concerns. "Take it from the source?" the assistant war minister cried. "You suggest an attack on Esthar itself? Madness!"

"Not Esthar," Ferdid corrected. "We'd be mad indeed to strike directly at the Country of the Shield. But they have a colony not nearly so protected, which should have the technology we require." Even if the SeeD stopped the Shumi raid, they would be too far away to prevent that strike. Peaceful and undefended, it would be easy to take from the colony what they needed. And once the doctor completed his work, no one, not even Esthar, would deny Galbadia anything she demanded. "Our second force is already deployed. In two days we attack Fisherman's Horizon."

* * *

In the end it wasn't that difficult a decision. Squall told his circle the problem, they agreed with Laguna's assessment, and all volunteered to go in his stead. Wary of Zell working with Seifer, he asked Quistis and Selphie to accompany Irvine. Selphie had experience in espionage; she had managed well enough at the Galbadian missile base last year. And Quistis of any of them had the best chance of getting something out of Seifer. Besides, if they had to fight the Galbadians personally at the Shumi village, he wanted Zell's skill. Squall was used to fighting alongside him. Zell's fists were a perfect counterpoint to his gunblade; though his friends were all excellent fighters, there were none before Zell he would choose to battle beside. Except Rinoa, and she wasn't available.

They were ready within the hour. He met with the rescue party at one of the lower exits, where they could slip out and infiltrate the city unnoticed. "Good luck," he wished them, since that was proper to say at these times. He didn't ask if they were prepared; he knew they would be.

"We won't let you down," Irvine assured him, saluting jauntily before pulling down his hat and sliding off the ledge to the ground below.

Selphie touched his shoulder and shook him slightly. "Rinoa's gonna be fine," she said. "She's going to be worried about you, too, so don't get in trouble!" Giving him a bright smile, she hopped down.

Quistis had tucked the Ragnarok's homing beacon safely away in her vest. She was holding her whip, the delicate chain threaded through her fingers. " can trust us."

"...I know." He didn't know how to express it, how it twisted him up inside, watching them go and he not with them. Why should he be so disturbed, when he did trust them? "Just...Quistis, be careful. Seifer..."

"Seifer's what he always was. He's not any older than us, or any wiser. I can handle him. And we can take on the Galbadians, no problem." She met his eyes steadily. "We'll bring Rinoa back. And she's not going to care that it was us and not you. She'll understand. She loves you, Squall. Even if Seifer helps rescue her and you're not there, she still loves you."

Of course he knew it was true; he had heard it enough times before. So why did it help for Quistis to say it again? "I know," Squall said. "Good luck," and he meant it earnestly this time.

Quistis nodded, then stepped off the ledge and dropped to the earth alongside Irvine and Selphie. Together they moved off to a copse of trees planted outside the city walls. In a few minutes there was a deep rumble, as if the earth itself were groaning, then a higher shriek. Slowly the Garden's field-wheel began to spin. Wind whipped the leaves around them as deliberately, majestically, the giant craft rose into the sky.

"Goodbye!" Selphie yelled over the deafening roar, waving. Irvine clutched his hat to his head. They all watched the Garden ponderously turn, then progress away from the city. It seemed to move at a snail's pace, but they watched until the tip of the spire disappeared over the mountains into the burning sunset. Then they settled under the trees and waited for full darkness to fall.

Chapter IV

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