The Promise of Nightmares
by XmagicalX

Galbadia has been stopped. Ultimecia is defeated. We have saved the world.
Game over.

If only life were that simple.
If only a gift once given were so easily returned.
If only heroes after the battle could enjoy their hard-won peace.
If only...
It's not over 'til it's over. Don't hit that power switch yet.

Balamb Garden, his Garden, his home for most of his life, was a burnt-out shell. He ran down the scorched corridors, through broken glass and shattered doors, shouting. No one answered his calls. The devastation was incredible. Even Trabia Garden hadn't been damaged this badly by the Galbadian missiles. Not a room was intact.

The lift was gone. He pried open the doors to the shaft and climbed the steel ladder. Every clang of his boots on the rungs echoed through the long, vertical tunnel, making the silent blackness all the darker. When he reached the third floor, he wrestled one door back and clambered into the office hallway. The carpet was charred gray, huge slashes gouging the metal beneath. The air stank of sulfur, wisps of poisonous dark smoke floating low against the floor.

He crossed the hall in several long strides. A fallen iron beam blocked the entrance to the office and bridge. He vaulted it, then froze for an instant, spotting the body trapped beneath. Long golden hair draped over her stained red vest. Quistis Trepe, once his instructor, then his second. Her blue eyes stared up at the fractured ceiling.

Kneeling, he slipped off one glove and touched her throat. There was no pulse. Her skin was cool. One hand still clutched her whip, raised to her chest as if she had hoped it would protect her from the falling girder.

He closed her eyes and murmured a benediction. As he stood, the faintest sound caught his attention, a mew no louder than a newborn kitten's. Making his way around the wreckage of the collapsed bridge, he heard it again, a tiny, labored moan.

Half-buried in the rubble he found another corpse. The man's face was burned, contorted with the agony of his death, but the tattoo still recognizable. "...Zell," he whispered in shock, shaking his head. This couldn't be. Not all of them...this couldn't be.

Then he realized Zell had died with arms outstretched and fists clenched, as if in combat. A defense. Crouching, he began to dig through the wreckage, shoving aside planks and broken struts until he found her.

Her blue coat was black with blood, seeping from her wounded chest, but when he lifted her body in his arms, her eyes fluttered open. Their once-bright brown was clouded, but alive. She tried to speak. "...came..."

"I came, I'm here," he told her. "Lie still, don't move."

"...others..." Against his command she tried to raise herself, failed. "Where..."

"You're going to be fine. You have to rest, I'll--I'll help you." He thought to say he would find help, then realized there was none to find, not in time to save her. "You'll be all right," he chanted, a mantra, a prayer. "I'll help. You're going to be fine."

Her fingers closed weakly over his wrist. "Zell... Qui...Quistis..."

"Dead," he said, and heard his voice thicken. "They're...I found Selphie and Irvine outside, and Quistis and Zell--I've found no one alive." Only her. She weighed nothing in his arms; he didn't know if that was because she was so light, or because his arms were numb.


"No," he whispered, gathering her closer. She was cold as snow, but she didn't shiver. "I'm here. We're not alone. Never."

"Will be..." She would have coughed, had she the strength. He felt her breath catch, her chest barely moving. "...can't..."

"You have to. Please, Rinoa. Please. Don't..." He lost the last of his voice to the tears sliding down his cheeks. "Please," his mouth shaped the word.

"Good...bye..." She sighed once and sagged against him, her eyes closing.

He cried her name, but her eyes never opened.

Chapter I
The Opening

Jezikan Deling selected all of her wardrobe with much care and deliberation. If one was the President's wife, one must take one's appearance seriously. The people were attentive to wealth and its trappings; her dress should reflect the power of her position, without seeming either too flamboyant or too severe. Youth and beauty must be balanced with responsibility and good taste. She dressed carefully from the day of her marriage to Ferdid Deling, no matter that he was only a minister at the time. Blood is blood, and as Vinzer Deling's nephew there was little doubt Ferdid would someday take the highest office of Galbadia.

She hadn't expected the inauguration to come so soon after his winning the Vice Presidency, but after Vinzer's demise at the Sorceress Edea's hands, the government had little choice but to put Ferdid in command. It was that or lose control entirely, and the ministers would no sooner let power slip from their fingers than Jezikan would herself. She liked the ministers, sly old back-stabbing foxes that they were. She understood how their minds worked.

It was important she make a good impression on them as well as on the rest of the citizens. The council meeting, two days away, wasn't too distant to begin planning. She racked her closets, removed a scarlet dress and draped it over her figure contemplatively.

"Too bright," said Dahl from where he lay across her bed. "You'd look like a dawn-bird out hunting worms."

"Perhaps this, then," she suggested, holding up a black gown with a long, silvery train.

"Only if you wish to remind them of the Sorceress," he said. Sliding off the bed, he slunk to the closet, passing close enough to brush her thigh. "I imagine you want a more favorable look." He shuffled through the array and selected one to his tastes. "This one, maybe?"

She swatted him lightly. "Only for you, and only alone. Even Ferdid hasn't seen me in that. Certainly not before the entire council."

"Why not?" He smiled, wolflike. "Seducing them en masse would be simpler."

"Not so obviously," she reprimanded. "I'll have my way with them, but only in time."

"And if they don't sway to you in time?"

She slipped a slender hand under the gold silk of his tunic. He too understood the importance of dressing his part, the bright colors of a palace dandy camouflaging the danger in his black eyes. "If they do not," she purred, "that's where your talents come in, my love."

A sharp retort on the door interrupted his response. "Lady Jezikan?" called the guard outside. "You wished to be informed. The minister is in communication with the Garden now."

"Excellent. Thank you," she called, then looked back to Dahl as he wound his arms around her voluptuous curves. "It begins. Are we ready, do you think?"

"If we aren't," he murmured in her ear, "it will still go well for us. If we are," and his eyes shone, "it will be glorious. I will see you on the throne of the world, my queen."

And you will be my king, she answered, though not in words.

* * *

The double doors to the office were slammed so hard they bounced open three times before closing. With that audio cue, Squall didn't even bother looking up from his reports to identify the comer. Nor did Zell bother waiting for a greeting before announcing his business.

"You gotta talk to Irvine, Squall!" the SeeD cried, flinging himself into pacing the office, hands jammed in his back pockets. "He's driving me crazy--I'm gonna punch him out one of these days. WHAM, he'll be on the floor out cold and you'll have to discipline me. Only it won't be my fault, it'll be Irvine's, 'cause he pushed me too far. I warned you. I'm telling you now so you won't surprised when it happens. Are you listening to me?"

He planted his fists on the desk. Squall didn't lift his head from the pages, pausing to take note of important details on his computer. "Are you listening?" Zell asked again.

"Yes, Zell." Squall shifted one report to the bottom of the pile and started on the next.

"Good. Because I'm serious. I mean, he didn't even tell me about it! He set me up with Sashi, you know, the girl from the library. Got us reservations for the end of the week at the best restaurant in Balamb, and he didn't even ask if I was free."

"Are you?"

"Yes, but that's not the point! He asked her before he made the reservations! He made sure it was okay with her, that she knew all about it, and then he finally remembered he me. So we're in the training hall, taking on a pair of Grats, and right as he's reloading Irvine looks over and says, 'Oh yeah, get your dress blacks pressed, you want to look your best for your date.' I didn't believe it! I still can't believe he did that to me!"

"...I thought you liked the girl from the library."

"I do, I think, but..." Zell covered another lap around the office, driving his fist into the palm of his other hand. "I want to take it at my own pace, you know? See how it develops. Sure she's cute, but I'm not even sure I really like her, and here's Irvine, the master matchmaker. Just because things worked out so great with you and Rinoa--"

Squall looked up from his papers with an expression that on anyone else would have been called 'mild.' Zell backpedaled rapidly, "I mean, uh, I know you aren't, well, sure you are, we don't need to--"

He entirely missed the small smile playing across his friend's lips, and would have kept pushing his foot deeper into his mouth if he hadn't been saved by the bell. The intercom on Squall's desk chimed, and Xu's voice sounded from the bridge above. "Commander, we're receiving a communication request from Deling City, Galbadia, direct from the President's office. Shall I put them through?"

Squall reached for the com. "Yes."

Zell sat down out of view of the camera as a stranger's balding head came onscreen. "Greeting," the man said. "I'm Minister Kittering, Foreign Affairs. You're Squall Leonhart, correct? Leader of the SeeD mercenaries and Balamb Garden?"

"I'm the SeeD commander. Cid is the head of the Gardens."

"Good, good. You're the man I want. My government wishes to contract your SeeD." The minister's mouth was barely wide enough to hold his smile. It seemed to stretch beyond the borders of his lips. "All of them, or as many as you can offer. We're willing to pay whatever price."

"What's the mission?"

"President Deling can explain. In two days we're having a council meeting; it would be ideal if you could attend."

"We will. Expect us." Squall cut the connection, then contacted the bridge and ordered Nida to set a course for Deling City.

Zell bounced out of his seat the moment the minister was off the air. As soon as Squall had announced their destination over the general intercom, he starting talking. "Galbadia wants us? Last time we were in Galbadia, they threw all of us in prison. Think they'd try that again?"

"I doubt it. They were being ruled by the Sorceress then."

"Yeah, but they're still jerks. They let the Sorceress take over because they wanted to rule the world. Maybe they just want another Sorceress to try again--"

Squall's stare was not so mild this time. Zell swallowed, retreating a step. "I mean, uh...that's probably not it at all. The President wants to hire us SeeDs, right?" He thumped his chest. "They need soldiers and they know their troops aren't good enough. So why not ask for the best? That's it. President Deling--" He paused. "Hey, I thought President Deling was killed by the Sorceress."

"Vinzer Deling was," Squall said. "I think this is his nephew. I don't remember his name."

"Big surprise," Zell muttered. "Look, it's nearly lunchtime, I better get down to the cafeteria before the hot dogs are gone. Catch ya later," and he scooted out the door.

He poked his head back in again a second later. "Oh, hey, Squall, keep forgetting to ask. I can use my T-board in the Garden, right? I'm not going to be ramming people or nothing. Please?"

The burden of command. Squall dropped his head into his hand. "All right," he said. "But only in the halls. Not in the dorms or the cafeteria."

"Great!" Zell took off in hot pursuit of his primary sustenance.

Zell wouldn't be the only one with questions about this most recent mission. Better take care of other things while he had the chance. Pushing the reports aside, Squall reached for the communication panel to put through a connection to Cid Kramer. The headmaster needed to know current Garden and SeeD assignments; he might also have some idea what Galbadia might be requesting from them. It never hurt to be prepared.

Of course, there were many things there was no possible way to be prepared for. Squall had learned that in depth last year; becoming SeeD commander was only the beginning of that list. If any luck was on their side, this job wouldn't be added to it.

* * *

"Quistis! Quisty! Did you hear what Squall just said?"

Quistis barely stepped out of the way before Selphie Tilmitt burst through the door. The small SeeD was in her standard yellow frock, her short hair tied back and holding her nunchakus. She came from a training exercise on the Quad to search out Quistis, who was enforcing Dr. Kodowaki's lectures to a few recalcitrant students. "Training duels are not to be taken as opportunities to win battle scars," the doctor was saying, "our commander's example aside. Yes?" She glanced over at Selphie, bubbling in the doorway.

"Excuse me," Quistis murmured, sweeping a sharp, ice-blue gaze over the students. "Listen to Dr. Kodowaki, now."

"Yes, Instructor!" the students chorused obediently.

All eyes were on her as she stepped out. Once in the hall, Selphie commented, "Looks like the Treppies are still around."

"More than ever," Quistis sighed. "Did you hear about the party they threw when I made Instructor again?"

"I think everyone did. Did you hear Squall on the intercom?" Selphie twirled her nunchakus. "We're going to Galbadia! Do you think we'll attack Deling City?"

"I think Squall would've mentioned that."

"Maybe he's keeping it a surprise! We come in, fire a missile and BOOM, before they know what hit them!"

Selphie beamed. Quistis eyed her doubtfully as they took the lift to the third floor office, formerly Cid's, now the SeeD commander's. Squall rose from his desk as they entered, his expression faintly troubled.

"Squall, that announcement. Was it serious? We're going to Galbadia?"

Squall nodded.

"To blow them up?" Selphie asked hopefully.

Squall shook his head and tersely explained. Quistis and Selphie soon took up his concern. "I don't know about this," Quistis said slowly. "They don't exactly like us. We were trying to stop them in Dollet and in Timber. Last time we were in Galbadia, they had us in prison for trying to kidnap the president and assassinate their ambassador."

"We were ordered to do that!" Selphie protested. "And their ambassador was the Sorceress, after all."

"Yes, still...then we escaped and destroyed their missile base."

"Well, that," Selphie admitted. "But they tried to blow us up first!"

"Then we fought Galbadia Garden and nearly destroyed it," Quistis continued. "Then we worked with Esthar, and Esthar has been Galbadia's enemy for practically forever. And along the way we fought a lot of their soldiers and demolished some of their best war machines. Now all's forgiven, and they want to hire us?"

"I know," Squall said. "But it sounded like an honest request. I spoke with Cid, and he doesn't think it's a trap. He thinks it's important that we go. With Trabia Garden still being repaired, and Galbadia Garden at Fisherman's Horizon, we're the only active SeeD contingent."

"We have to show we're ready for anything," Selphie agreed. "Even Galbadia!"

"Why is Galbadia Garden at Fisherman's Horizon?" Quistis inquired.

Squall shrugged. "Undergoing renovations."

"You don't know for what?" Quistis crossed her arms. "Squall, aren't you SeeD commander? Doesn't that include the SeeD still in Galbadia Garden?"

Squall shrugged again. In truth he wasn't sure how far his authority reached. Until last year, there had been no SeeD commander. Cid, as founder and head of the oldest Garden, had had supremacy, but the other Garden headmasters had generally acted independently as they saw fit. Martine had renounced his position in Galbadia Garden, however, and the Trabia Garden headmaster had died when the Garden was bombed. They had temporary leaders now, not a problem since neither Garden was fully functional. When they were back to full strength, who would head them? Cid still had influence, but he had made Squall commander. Commander of all SeeD, or only Balamb Garden?

He didn't want to think about it. Irvine was a SeeD from Galbadia Garden, but Irvine lived at Balamb Garden now, along with many other SeeD from Galbadia and Trabia Gardens. A SeeD was supposed to follow the orders of whatever leader they were under, and as Squall was the commander of Balamb Garden, they listened to him. But Squall noticed Irvine saluted him, while the sharpshooter had never saluted Headmaster Martine. He wasn't quite sure what to make of that. Maybe it didn't mean anything.

Cid had told him Galbadia Garden was being overhauled by the artisans at Fisherman's Horizon. Did Squall have any responsibility beyond knowing that? "The renovation was Cid's order," he told Quistis. "Should I question it?"

"Not if you don't think you should," she said. "You can trust Cid. But maybe you could take some interest in what's going on around you. At least make it look like you care."

"I do care. But there's a lot I have to be interested in. I need to concentrate on Galbadia now, figure out why they want us."

"Why bother? They'll tell us when we get there." Quistis whirled and strode out. Selphie hurried after her, nearly running down Irvine Kinneas, who was just emerging from the lift.

The sharpshooter steadied her, then tipped his hat to Quistis. "Hello, ladies. Also visiting our stalwart commander?"

"We're through," Quistis said. "I wouldn't bother. He's not in the most communicative mood."

"He's thinking," Selphie supplied.

Irvine grinned. "Sounds like our Squall. So we're definitely going to Galbadia?"

"Unless you have a good reason not to. Even if you do, he probably doesn't want to hear it." Quistis stepped past them into the lift, the doors closing before they could follow.

Irvine scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Has Quisty been grumpy lately, or is it just me?"

Selphie sighed. "She's like that all the time now. I think she's stressed. She's an instructor again, but there aren't many regular classes right now, what with fixing the Gardens and assigning SeeD to do stuff. And Squall doesn't always listen to her, or he doesn't always seem like he's listening to her, anyway, so she gets mad at him."

Not the best way to get Squall's attention. "She's always been that way," Irvine remarked. "Good old bossy Quistis."

Selphie giggled. "Better not say that when she's got her whip!" Then she sobered, curls bouncing as she shook her head. "She's not always like that, though. She used to laugh at Squall all the time, whenever he was too serious. Like Rinoa does. But Quistis doesn't at all now, and it's not because he's commander. It's bad."

"Very bad," Irvine agreed wholeheartedly. "Beautiful women are supposed to laugh. Something must be done."

"We've got to do something," Selphie agreed. Then paused. "What do you mean, 'beautiful women'?"

"I mean like you, Sephie," Irvine said in all sincerity.

"Just checking." She stood on her tiptoes to give him a peck on the lips, taking the opportunity to swipe his hat. By the time he realized it was gone, she had already ducked into the lift and was on her way down, twisting the hat's brim as she pondered the problem at hand.

* * *

Come evening, Galbadian President Ferdid Deling summoned his wife to his bedchambers. She came, dressed demurely, her robe straight and opaque and her head lowered respectfully. When the oaken door closed behind her, Ferdid marched over and jerked her chin up. "Don't play the wilting flower with me, lady wife."

"Never to you, husband." Jezikan shoved away his massive paw and stared up at him haughtily. Compared with Dahl's languid feline poise, Ferdid was a bear, one of the shaggy, black beasts of the frozen north, yellow-eyed and clumsy. Not slow, in either action or wits; she couldn't have borne that. But lazy, unless he was motivated, and his ambitions were not high-reaching enough to suit her. "Why have you called me?"

"Desiring your beauty is not reason enough?" Ferdid's tone was pregnant with irony. She only arched a thin auburn brow, and he clumped back to his desk, gazing at the computer instead of her. "My ministers contacted the SeeD today. They're coming to the council meeting."

Her smooth face gave no sign she had heard this before. "I see. Is that all, husband?"

His back was to her. "I've decided to carry out the raid as you planned. As well as implement certain other measures which we had previously discussed."

"Other matters?" Sapphire eyes widened as she realized his meaning. "Husband, we agreed--"

"There was no agreement. We discussed it. I had made no decision. I have now. The doctor convinced me."

"He's a foolish old man, halfway a lunatic!"

"And half a genius. He believes it may be necessary."

"Dahl has refused--"

"His refusal matters little. We don't need him. I'd rather we didn't need the Sorceress, either, but as we do--"

"According to that addlepated doctor!"

"As we do need her," Ferdid went on as if he hadn't heard, "we must have her, your pet warlock's penchants aside. I am the President, wife. Not you."

In appearance he much resembled a younger version of his uncle Vinzer, his bristly hair blacker but his shoulders just as square. But Vinzer had been a weak-willed coward, eagerly placing the burden of power on the Sorceress's shoulders. There was too little of that weakness in his nephew. Ironic, that what had first drawn her to Ferdid should divide them now. There was no arguing with him, not about this; she knew him that well. "As you say, my lord husband," she replied, essaying a curtsey not entirely sarcastic. "The raid proceeds as we planned?"

"The ships have already sailed," he told her. "They'll arrive within a few days. More than we originally thought to send, at the doctor's suggestion."

"Very well. Is that all, husband?"

Ferdid turned from his desk, amber eyes tracing her figure. "Yes, wife."

Her fingers were on the gold-wrought door handle when he spoke again. His tone was different, softer, a voice suited to a bedchamber far distant from this opulent room. "Jezikan, there was a time I'd have called you for much less, and you'd have come happily."

"Long ago," she reminded him.

"But it was real, when you were happy. Your smile was real. Your laughter."

"Perhaps," she said. "I don't remember if they were."

She lifted the latch and swung the door open. She didn't hear his footsteps on the rug until he was directly behind her, his breath hot on her cheek. "I know your lover," he whispered. "Don't think I'm blind to the warlock's little games."

Under her robe, he could not see her back stiffen. Her low alto remained cool. "Will you slit my throat first, or his?"

"Leave," he hissed. Planting a broad hand against the small of her back, he shoved her into the hall. The guards respectfully kept their eyes fixed on the opposite wall while the door slammed, and said nothing as they escorted her back to her chambers. Idly she wondered who they were loyal to, him or her. It was inconsequential, really. In the end they would all follow the orders of their leader, whoever's voice it was.

* * *

Alone in the darkness, Squall caught his breath. Heart still pounding madly in his chest, he wiped a film of cool sweat from his forehead. There was no danger. Resisting the urge to dive for the light, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark. Every shadow was where it should be. Bed, bureau, desk. His jackets hanging on the wall above. The black case by the chair, where Lionheart resided. He reached out and ran his fingers over the embossed silver lion adorning the cover, almost feeling the blue magic which pulsed through the gunblade. It would light the room if he opened the case. He left it closed. Going to the commode, he splashed water on his face, his shadowed reflection observing him silently from the mirror. The eyes in the image looked haunted. He turned back to the empty room. He had only been SeeD for a year; he had never had single quarters before then. Sometimes it still felt odd, being alone. The total silence at night.

By the time he realized he wasn't heading back to his bed, he was already in the corridor outside his quarters. Should go back. Wouldn't be good for morale, if anyone happened to see their commander pacing the halls late at night.

The round white lamps along the walls glowed like artificial moons. At the end of the corridor the window let in true starlight, steady through the clouds whipping by the traveling Garden. He took four steps toward it, and then he was standing in front of her door. He shouldn't wake her. Returning to Galbadia was in its own way harder for her, with her father and everything from childhood she had left behind in Deling City. Squall understood about fathers. It had been far easier for him when he believed himself an orphan. She hadn't bothered him about their new destination the way everyone else had, but being quiet wasn't like her. She'd do better with sleep.

He knocked on her door, once, not loudly enough to wake her. No answer, of course. He should go back to his room--

The door opened. Rinoa blinked at him. "Squall?"

When necessary, Rinoa could look older than her eighteen years. Here in the pseudo-moonlight, her dark hair ruffled and a navy satin robe thrown over her flannel pajamas, she didn't look ten. Her brown eyes were serious, though. "What's wrong?"

"...Nothing." She was fine, she was safe. He had to sleep; they both did.

"Try again." Taking his arm, she pulled him inside, pushed him onto her bed and sat down next to him. "Tell me what's up."

"It's..." He looked at her helplessly. This was a bad idea. Once Rinoa started with questions, it was easier to slay a tyrannosaur with a toothpick than get her off them. "I didn't mean to wake you up. I'm sorry."

"I was already awake, kind of. You knocked; you were looking for me. Now you don't want to see me?" She mock-pouted.

"No, I..." He put his hand to his head. "I had a dream. Not a good one."

"A nightmare?"

"I guess." It was as dark in her room as in his, but for some reason the memory of the dream, so frightening before, now seemed embarrassingly silly. "I was...falling. Like in space, I just kept going down and down. It was dark but I knew I was dropping, I could see shapes rushing past, feel the wind. There were voices but they kept getting blown away. When I shouted, I couldn't hear it. And I couldn't see the bottom, but I knew there had to be one, and every second I fell I was getting closer to it. Then I woke up."

He half expected her to laugh, but she put a warm arm around him and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Sounds like a normal nightmare to me."


"Dreaming you're falling. Everyone has nightmares like that. I do. They're scary." She shivered. "Even when you know you're dreaming, and you'll wake up before you hit the ground, it's still terrifying."

"Everyone has dreams like that?"

Now she did laugh. "Maybe not everyone, but a lot! You didn't know?" She craned her neck to look up at him. "You never talked about dreams with anyone, did you."

Though it wasn't what she meant, he had a sudden memory of Seifer, his rival, his enemy, discussing his romantic dream the day of their SeeD test. A dream that almost destroyed him, not much later. "...No."

He felt Rinoa sigh. "Squall, sometimes I don't know if I should be annoyed by or sorry for you." She laughed, the light, quiet chuckle he never tired of hearing. "I have to laugh. I think that's best."

"I don't mind."

She smiled, nestling her head against his shoulder again. "So what's bothering you?"

"...Bothering me?"

"People have nightmares because they're upset about something, usually. Worried, or whatever. What's wrong? Is it going to Galbadia?"

"Maybe." He thought about all the concerns that had already raised. How many more might come up when they reached Deling City. "I spoke with Cid. He said it was my call, but that he thought it best we went."

"So you're not worried about that?"

"Not really." Are you? He didn't ask it aloud. "It was..." He wasn't sure how to put it into words. "I was talking to Cid. I tried to ask him..."

"Ask him what?" She sounded wide awake, leaning against him.

"What SeeD is about," he said. "I can't...I didn't know, before. When I first became a SeeD, I didn't know, I didn't care why we existed. But then we found out what we were really for."

"Fighting the Sorceress."

He nodded. Battling Ultimecia, a sorceress from who knew how far in the future, an evil raging unchecked across time, striving to end everything. Did even Cid know the true nature of the enemy at first? Edea might have; she had created SeeD and the Gardens, and it was she who took Ultimecia's powers when that Sorceress died. Was that in the past, or the future? Whose past, whose future? Didn't matter; it was over. They had won. Squall had lead his friends and together they had destroyed her.

And yet she hadn't even been born, and wouldn't be for years, maybe centuries. Maybe longer. Squall had seen that future, a glimpse of it, at least, and there had been SeeDs then, fighting the Sorceress in her own time. But what of all the years in between? "There is no Sorceress to fight. There won't be, if Ellone and Dr. Odine are right. Ultimecia was trying to reach as far back in the past as she could; she won't be bothering with the present, or our future. Until she's born..."

"There's still a Sorceress," Rinoa said, and a shudder ran through her.

He tightened his arm around her. "You are not Ultimecia, Rinoa. I won't fight you. Never."

After a moment she relaxed. "So what did Cid tell you SeeD was for, now?"

"He hasn't, really. Except...a while ago, right after we defeated the Sorceress, he told me I was still commander of the SeeD. I asked him if there should be SeeD and Gardens, still, since we'd done what we were created to do. And Cid said of course there should be. 'Our real duty begins now,' he said."

"Your real duty? What?"

"I don't know." Squall rocked forward, resting his elbows on his knees with his hands clasped before him. "He didn't say that. Maybe it's like we thought originally. We're mercenaries. We just do what we're hired to do."

"No," Rinoa said fiercely. "You're more than that. You're heroes. You did a lot of stuff before you ever heard of Ultimecia, you and all the SeeDs. You helped people, all over the world. You saved nations and gave hope. That's important." She put her hands over his, bending forward to look at his face. "If you're ordered to do something you know is wrong, you don't have to do it. Even if they pay you. Just throw the money in their face and walk out."

"I'll hear what President Deling wants, first."

"Okay. Just remember, you have a choice. You always do. You forget that sometimes."

Because it wasn't always true. In the faint starlight from the window he studied her face, the dark hair falling softly over her pale cheeks. Rinoa hadn't had a choice when Ultimecia had possessed her to free Adel, or when Edea had transferred her powers and made her a sorceress. The only Sorceress, now.

Gently brushing her hair back from her face, he leaned forward and kissed her. When they separated, she wrapped both arms around him and put her head against his chest. Voice muffled by his tunic, she asked, "Squall? Do you want to sleep here tonight?"

"Here?" He glanced at her bed. There were lines and lines, and despite Irvine's continual suggestions, most of them had yet to be crossed. They were too young, and too busy, and too often unsure of where anything stood, between them or anyone else.

Rinoa giggled at the break in his usually calm voice. "We both need sleep, and we don't need to be alone. Come on." She pushed him back. "I've slept in your bed. It's the same kind of mattress and sheets as in your quarters."

But whenever Rinoa fell asleep on his bed, usually after a long planning session or conversation, he grabbed an extra pillow and slept on the floor. Now she crawled under the covers and curved up next to him, spoon fashion. It was automatic to put his arms around her. She was very warm and soft, and her hair, tickling his nose, smelled of sweet wildflowers he didn't know the names for.

For a moment they lay still, and Squall allowed the even rhythm of her breathing to soothe him. Strange, that sound could be more calming than silence. Sleep came easier than it usually did, but a thought occurred to him before it overtook him completely. She was still awake. He asked, "Rinoa, do you ever have nightmares?"

She shifted against him, finally whispered, "Sometimes."

There were so many reasons she could have nightmares. So many real dangers, so many moments in her life already that could have so nearly gone terribly wrong. And so much she had to worry about now. "If you do," he said, "you can come to me. I--maybe they won't be as bad."

"I don't think they would be," she murmured. "Thank you, Squall." She snuggled closer. He could feel her smiling as he drifted off.

* * *

Citizens of Deling City, capital of Galbadia, were not easily impressed. No provincial farmers, they had weathered the ruling of the Sorceress and the murder of their President with the hardened ennui of true city folk, going on with their lives without hardly batting an eye. The Sorceress's parade last year was still talked about in the country, but in Deling City the terrorist bombing of the police station last week was old news. It was said that a Deling man would only notice Bahamut if the King of Dragons breathed fire on the street before him--and then only if the fire were in his lane.

The appearance of a hovercraft as big as a mountain turned more than a few heads, however. Automobiles screeched to a halt as their drivers craned their necks at the spire towering overhead, the tip of what looked for all the world like an enormous piece of jewelry, a giant golden pendant studded with pearls and emeralds. Majestically it floated along the city walls, its size giving the illusion of slow motion, though anyone close felt the wind as it rushed past.

"What, by Odin's eye, is that?" exclaimed the busdriver as he pulled his vehicle up to the hotel stop. Ignoring the passengers disembarking to gape, he squinted through the windshield at the sight. It looked vaguely familiar, though he couldn't quite place it. On the ground, and not moving, it would almost look like--

"GARDEN," a sharp rasp cut through his thoughts. He turned to the two who had just climbed aboard, nodding politely while he tried to remember if he'd ever heard the woman speak. They had ridden his bus before, and though they usually sat in the back the pair was hard to forget. The woman, with her eyepatch and silver hair, he had suspected of being mute. Small wonder she didn't talk much, if her voice always sounded like that.

Her burly, swarthy companion, on the other hand, was rarely silent. "Balamb?" The woman nodded, and he copied the gesture. "Didn't think it was Galbadia, ya know?"

"Balamb Garden, you say?" the busdriver asked. Now he remembered hearing that the SeeD Gardens were mobile, though not that they were airborne.

"Looks like," the man said. "They must have business here. Probably the council meeting, ya know?"

The woman's single eye was on the Garden. "REPORT," she said.

The busdriver blinked at the non sequitur. The man nodded again. "Yeah, we should be getting back to the palace. Got business, ya know?" He gestured to the busdriver, then took a seat, remarking to his companion, "Though Seifer must know about it already. It's kind of hard to miss, ya know?"

"You'd have to be blind not to see it," commented the busdriver, his hands idle on the wheel. "Wonder what they're doing here. You two have any idea? Not that I've got nothing against the SeeD, but I know folk who'd shoot a mercenary soon as say hello, and with the revolutionaries stirring up trouble--"

"DRIVE," the woman ordered.

He drove.

Chapter II