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"You were supposed to bring me back champagne, not a bunch of idiots," grumbled Selphie as they entered the lab. Fujin's good eye narrowed and she brought her chakram up reflexively.

"SILENCE," she snapped. "ALLIES."

Squall set Seifer down on the bed. "Alicia's done the same thing to them she did to me, Selphie," he said. "You needed information - well, they have it."

Selphie's eyebrows went up. "Really?" she asked. "And after you saw what happened to Squall, you let her? Squall, did you know your sleeping friend over there set fire to Quistis?"

"We didn't have a choice, ya know?" said Raijin miserably. "We got to see what Alicia did to people she didn't like," and here he shot a quick glance at Squall, "and we didn't want that to happen to us. She didn't tell us it was lethal." He frowned. "She told us Squall would have lost his power by now. We were supposed to get Rinoa and bring her back. But I saw him shoot Seifer clear across the street, ya know? She's been lyin' to us. Not that we're surprised. And Seifer...she screwed Seifer's head up bad. He can't be held responsible, ya know?" Raijin's voice was almost pleading.

Squall simply nodded, giving Selphie a look that said leave it.

Fujin had checked over Seifer to make sure he was going to be all right, then she looked around the lab. "EVIDENCE?" she asked.

Selphie glanced up. "Oh yeah, forgot you had a sciences background, Fuuj," she said. "Here - you should be able to read this." And she handed Fujin a clipboard. Fujin's silver hair covered her face as she bent her head to read the notations.

"Seifer didn't know what he was bringin' ya to, Squall," said Raijin suddenly. Squall turned quickly to face him, eyes narrowed. "No really, he didn't. Alicia told him ya were just gonna be held in a cell until after we'd gotten Rinoa. She kept him away, and she made us not tell him. He wouldn't have gone for that - Seifer's got too much honor to resort to that." He grimaced. "Us, she made us look. Said that would be us if we crossed her or told him."

Squall's expression clearly said what he thought of Seifer's sense of honor. "Don't mention it," he said, meaning it. "We'll help you as much as we can, but Seifer doesn't need to know about...that. You're out of Alicia's grasp now." He paused for a moment, thinking. "What does Alicia want with Rinoa? Not the same thing Seifer has in mind, I think."

"AGREE," came Fujin's response as she handed Selphie back her clipboard. "PURPOSE, OTHER."

"Except we don't know what it is," said Raijin. "She only put up with us because Seifer wouldn't stay with her otherwise, ya know? She never told us anything."

"Well, if you'll just sit still while I get some blood samples," interjected Selphie, "We'll see what we can find out." She drew the samples, then said, "By the way - sorry about before. Rinoa told us about Alicia's power."

Raijin blushed. "Well, we shoulda realized how it would sound," he said. "And, uh, we're sorry about Quistis. We tried to go easy on 'em, but Seifer'd just left Alicia and he wasn't listening to reason, ya know? Hey, how long is Seifer gonna be out? How hard did ya hit him?"

Squall looked up from his reading; he'd picked up the copy of 'The Sorceress' Knight' to amuse himself. "I don't know," he said. "That's the first time I was actually trying to use it. Not long, I think."

"Good guess," said Seifer, opening his eyes. "What, you guys volunteer to be lab rats?" he said to Fujin and Raijin. Raijin prepared to argue, but Fujin simply grabbed Selphie's clipboard back and showed it to Seifer.

"BETRAYED," she told him. "CONDEMNED."

It took Seifer a little longer to sort through the notations, but when he handed back the clipboard he'd lost some of his swagger. Selphie took it without comment, but turned to Fujin and said, "I could use another hand. Wanna help?"

Fujin nodded, and Selphie set her to work.

When Irvine entered the room trailing a printout, he was so surprised he nearly backpedaled into a wall. "Hell-o!" he said. "When did this become the site of the annual Posse convention?"

"When Squall carried Seifer in like a baby," said Selphie with an evil grin, earning glares from both Seifer and Squall. "Turns out Alicia pumped these three full of glowing goodness too."

"Well then this is everyone's lucky day," said Irvine. "I've got word from Quistis and Xu that Alicia's underground holding was discovered and captured, thanks to Squall's tip. They didn't get Alicia or Odine, but they did get undiluted samples of all the artificial-GF materials and Odine's latest notes." He sorted through the printouts until he found the one he wanted, then handed it to Selphie with a flourish. "Here ya go," he said. "That's the makeup of the compounds, and a copy of the readable notes."

"Wonderful!" said Selphie, leaping up and giving Irvine a kiss. "With this we can tell how the stuff changes when exposed to a human body. Thanks, Irvy!"

"Ooh, my heart is a-flutter," said Irvine, playing the comic lovesick romantic. "It's getting a bit close in here, though, so if there's nothing you want me to send out, I'll get back to the com center." Unspoken but evident was Irvine's opinion of Seifer as being about as fun as a roadkilled skunk.

Seifer turned to Squall. "Just one question," he said. "How do you stand it?"

Squall raised his eyebrows, looked over at Raijin and then back to Seifer, but did not reply. "Who do you need here, Selphie?" he asked.

Selphie checked her lists. "Mmm, you're good to go for now," she said. "I'll need these three for a few more hours yet, and Fujin's help if she's willing to offer it. Come back in, oh, about five hours, 'kay?"

Squall checked his watch; that would be at around ten o'clock tonight, rather late. But he couldn't argue with Selphie's desire to get things done - time was short. He nodded, and quickly left the room.

By the time Rinoa caught up to him, he had found a perch next to a wide window that offered a magnificent view of Esthar City in the late afternoon light. He was shaking.

"What is it?" she asked quietly.

"I carried him," said Squall, by way of an answer.

Rinoa thought she understood. "You touched him," she said, and Squall nodded.

"How can I function this way, Rinoa?" he said. "I did what I had to do, but I wanted nothing more than to throw him as far away from me as I could. And not just because it was Seifer."

"And yet you did carry him. It will take time," was the only response she had. "All healing takes time."

"I don't have time," said Squall, shaking his head. "I can feel it. I feel colder and colder...but it isn't cold, is it?"

"No," said Rinoa sadly. She reached out. "May I?" He looked at her a moment, then nodded. She reached out her hand, and willed her power to heal him. Poured it into him, as though he were a vessel to be filled. When he raised his head, she withdrew her hand.

"Thank you," he said, and drew her down next to him on his perch, wrapping his arms around her. "I promised myself this," he said quietly into her dark hair.

"Whenever you need me," was Rinoa's reply.

They stayed that way, unmoving, as the sun sank into evening and then into night.

* * * * * * *

As it turned out, there was no set rule on the books for dealing with a traitorous SeeD. Cid and Edea had never foreseen such an event, and the one known case of a rogue hadn't been a SeeD. Seifer and his posse had only been cadets when they left to serve Ultimecia. SeeD was the epitome of Garden's teachings - the best, the brightest, the most loyal, the most well-adjusted. Quistis had been forced to take Mikhal in the very public forum of the Cafeteria, or risk him fleeing. Thus the whole Garden knew that a SeeD had turned against Garden - the one contract everyone believed a SeeD could not be hired to take.

Quistis had been the most bloodthirsty; Mikhal's actions could very well have placed Squall in danger, and she had very definite views about that. At the very least he had endangered the President of Esthar, for word had been sent that Laguna had gone alone some days ago to Odine's labs and had not been heard from since. In that light, Quistis was in favor of a graphic execution, to make sure no one even thought of trying such a thing again.

Selphie, radioing in from Esthar, was in favor of turning Seifer and his posse loose on the boy; she believed this would serve as a suitable deterrent to would-be traitors, and offer Seifer a chance to prove his loyalty to Garden.

But the traitor was a SeeD, not a cadet - and had not committed a crime that affected Garden's cash flow. So the ultimate decision rested on Xu's shoulders. Right then, she regretted giving Squall the 'vacation' she knew he'd needed. No matter what decision she made, a significant portion of Garden would disapprove - she did not carry enough weight with the SeeDs to quiet dissenters, as Squall did.

As Commander, Xu was junctioned to Eden at all times - both for her safety, and to make sure the holder of the junction was trustworthy. It occurred to her that perhaps the Guardian Forces might have something to say about having one of their own given over to experimentation.

She tentatively sent a tendril of query to the portion of her mind that Eden claimed. In response, a small scale manifestation of the mighty Guardian Force materialized before her, simplified as a perfect outline of a sphere dotted with arcane symbols.

Where is your enemy? came Eden's thought/query, sounding curiously echoed.

"I have none," said Xu, and proceeded - very quickly - to explain the situation.

Give him to us, came Eden's reply, sounding like multiple voices were rolled into one.

Xu blinked. "Um, how?" she asked.

Take him to a public place, and summon us, came Eden's multiple-voiced reply. Xu couldn't tell if it was referring to itself in a royal 'we', or if it meant summon all the Guardian Forces...and very quickly decided she wasn't going to ask. We will deter your SeeDs from such a course again.

"Thank you, Eden," said Xu, and the Guardian Force's manifestation vanished - though she could still feel its presence in the back of her mind. Xu quickly transmitted her intentions to Selphie and to Quistis, and to her surprise both of them thought it was a very fitting punishment.

The next morning, every person in Garden was summoned to the Quad to witness the punishment of Mikhal - the only exception being Zell, who had disappeared with Carbuncle. Xu and fourteen other SeeDs, Quistis among them, stood in a line, each junctioned to a Guardian Force. When everyone was settled, each called on that Guardian, and bade them attack Mikhal, who was standing handcuffed in a roped-off space.

There should have been chaos, as each GF tried to pull Mikhal into its own no-place. But there was not. Each Guardian Force appeared by itself, forsaking its usual surroundings, and the horde tore the hapless SeeD limb from limb. Then each Guardian Force simply faded from view.

There was complete silence for a moment. Not a drop of blood remained to show where Mikhal had been, but Quistis for one was going to think twice before she next summoned Alexander. She suspected that similar thoughts were ranging through the crowd. As soon as Xu gave the signal to disperse, they did so. In complete silence.

"Well, if that doesn't discourage our students from experimenting on GFs, I don't think anything will," said Quistis mildly. "How did you think of it?"

Xu was still staring at the roped-off space. "I asked Eden what I should do," she said slowly. "After all, he betrayed SeeD by handing over a GF for experimentation."

"GFs answer questions?" said Quistis, surprised. "Remind me to try that next time someone summons Shiva in the girls' shower room."

Xu turned a serious gaze on Quistis. "I don't think I'm going to recommend we junction GFs on missions until I've learned more about them," she said. "I never believed before now that they led such completely different lives from ours. But they were angry at Mikhal."

"Wouldn't you be?" asked Quistis reasonably.

* * * * * *

Laguna turned to Kiros and said, "This is getting bad."

Kiros gave his old friend a look that said, gee, ya think? but said, "Look man, we've got a good position here, handy food, water, toilet facilities, only one door to defend...we can hold out until help comes."

"Yeah, but...a cafeteria...I mean, I didn't even know Odine had a cafeteria in here. Even if it is a pretty dinky one."

Which was putting it mildly. The room was about fifteen feet square, with a single toilet, sink, and vending machine. The three of them had been holed up in it for - well, they weren't sure exactly how long, but long enough to give them all a bad case of cabin fever.

Kiros blew out a long breath; they'd covered this ground before. "It was your idea to come here alone in the middle of the night," he said at last. "If we'd left you here, you'd be dead or worse by now, and they'd have what they came for. At least now we can sleep in shifts."

"How long did you tell them to wait if they didn't hear from you?" Laguna asked. "Not that I'm complaining," he said quickly. "Wish I'd thought of it. But...days?"

"Everyone knows the state Odine keeps his labs in, my man," sighed Kiros. "I said two days 'cause I thought it'd take us that long to unearth a phone."

Laguna was forced to admit that that had been a reasonable assumption. He checked the condition of the folder reflexively; when it wasn't his turn to Defend the Door, he spent as much time as he could trying to memorize the contents. There was no way to know how valuable the packet truly was until he could get it to Selphie, but he didn't want to risk it. "I'm glad they haven't left," he said suddenly.

Kiros turned to stare at him. "You developing a taste for month-old cheesy crackers?" he asked.

Laguna laughed. "No way," he said, glad for a reason to smile. "But if they leave, that means they've found what they were looking for. As long as they're here, we can be pretty sure that this is what they're looking for." And he tapped the folder. "Which makes it what we were looking for, too."

"You know, some year you might just prove you're as smart as you claimed you were seventeen years ago," said Kiros with a grin.

Laguna laughed again. "Nobody's as smart as I claimed to be back then," he said. "I'm surprised you two didn't shoot me."

Ward rumbled, and Laguna grimaced in embarrassment while Kiros laughed. "He's right, you know, man," said Kiros. "It'd be a waste of time to shoot someone who was doin' such a good job of it all on his own."

"I heard you, I heard you!" groaned Laguna. Then a huge wind battered at the flimsy cafeteria door, and he looked over at Kiros. "Wind attack," he said. "Makes it your turn, Kiros."

Kiros drew his katal and lined himself up with the doorjamb. "Back in a few," he said. "Cover me if you can."

Chapter 22

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