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by Neb

A sequel to “Bad Blood” by Neb, and the first instalment of the United Worlds tetralogy.

“In my opinion, it is that particular tragedy, above all others, that affected my dear friend Squall Leonheart the most. Had the avenger… not been so cold-hearted, so malevolent, then the death which resulted would not have happened, and my friend would still walk this planet with a smile upon his face, as opposed to having to carry the sorrow around in his soul for every moment that he is awake…”

Seifer Almasy, Memoirs of a free prisoner

The asteroid headed towards the planet, the inhabitants of the blue-green world blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe...

Seifer laid back on the couch in his prison cell. Actually, “cell” was a bit of inaccurate word- it was more like a one-room apartment, complete with soft furnishings, but Seifer was a prisoner nonetheless. A prisoner who had written four best-selling books, based on his experiences and philosophies in the three and a half years that he had been in jail, but a jailbird he was. However, he was a jailbird who was lost in thought.

“What should I put?” He thought to himself out loud, chewing on the pen he had in his hand.

“To Squall,” he started, writing down in the greetings card the same words he had said, “Many happy returns? No, that’s too ordinary. C’mon, Seifer, think! You’re supposed to be a writer, for crying out loud.” He racked his brains for another brief moment, before having a revelation.

“A-ha!” He said, loudly. “To Squall, here’s to a happy and joyous 21st birthday. May you celebrate many more. And make sure you do celebrate this one. Best wishes, Seifer.” He signed the card, then slipped it in the envelope and, after addressing it to his old friend, placed it with the other letters in his “out” tray. Since he became an author, Seifer had received numerous fan letters a day, and he made sure to handwrite a response to each one. They’d taken time out of their daily lives to write to him- why should he not do the same? It did take up his time, however, and just today, he’d received another thirty-odd fan letters. Scratching the stubble on his chin (he’d recently shaved off his beard, but had regretted it and was growing it back), he picked up the latest letter to enter his cell, and opened it. Taking off his glasses (he’d spent so much time reading and writing that his eyesight had suffered slightly), he unfolded the letter, and read it, unprepared for what it was going to say. Seifer gasped in shock, before re-reading the letter to make sure he’d read it right. Unfortunately, he had.

“You die, scum.” Three words, but three words with a powerful message. After the incidents, which included terrorism and torture, that had put Seifer into prison, Squall had promised to keep Seifer’s involvement in it all under wraps, for fears that he might be targeted as part of a hate campaign. Unfortunately, it looked like Squall had not been secretive enough. Either that or someone really, really hated his books. Regaining a positive attitude, Seifer assumed that it was the latter, and did not bother himself with the matter any further. He opened his next piece of mail, and smirked as he read it- it was from a 15-year old girl who had aspirations of becoming a writer just like him, and she wanted tips. With a broad smile on his face, Seifer pulled his typewriter towards him and began to write the girl a response, but still, he was unconvinced that his hate mail was just literary criticism...

It was just a normal August day. Squall got up at 6:30, same as always, and before heading to the cafeteria for breakfast, showered, brushed his teeth, shaved, combed his hair and got dressed, same as always. What was not the same as always, however, was that his wife was not in bed with him that night. Squall knew that given the chance, Rinoa would have made a fuss over his birthday, and his 21st in particular (her 21st birthday party, just a few months previously, had been huge, and he was sure she’d repay him in kind). Unfortunately for Rinoa, Squall was the Garden commander, and thus was in charge of where, and most importantly when SeeDs were deployed. Whilst he admittedly hadn’t sent Rinoa on as many missions as he had with other SeeDs, Squall felt that sending her on a simple peace-keeping mission to Dollet would keep her nicely out of the way, without endangering her too much. He was missing her, however, but comforted himself with the fact that she’d be back the day after tomorrow. Squall finished dressing, and was about to leave. Before he reached the door, however, the telephone rang. Oh god, Squall thought to himself, who’s this? Rinoa? Dad? Laguna had made something of a habit of calling Squall on his birthday and talking to him for hours on end. Squall didn’t particularly mind- he and his father had built up quite a relationship, and Squall and Rinoa often took holidays in Esthar, just to visit him. Squall answered the phone.

“Hello?” He casually said, expecting his father or his wife to greet him with a chorus of “Happy Birthday”. However, neither voice answered him, nor was the voice in song.

“Squall, it’s me,” came the serious voice of Cid on the other end of the line. “I need to see you over a few matters. Can you meet me in ten minutes in my office?”

“No problem, Cid,” Squall said, “but I was planning on eating breakfast first.”

“I’ll have some eggs on toast sent up- you can eat it here, I won’t mind,” Cid said. Satisfied, Squall nodded, even though he was talking on the telephone, and wondered (not for the first time) where he’d developed that habit.

“OK, Cid, I’ll be there shortly,” Squall answered, putting the thought about his habit out of his mind.

“Excellent. Oh, by the way- Happy Birthday, Squall.” Squall smirked- Cid hadn’t forgotten, or made too much of a fuss out of it. Just the way he liked it.

“Thanks, Cid,” Squall said, smiling. “Bye.” He hung up the phone, and grabbing his jacket, headed up to Cid’s office.

The meeting lasted nearly five hours, and bored Squall stiff- Cid had wanted to go over every single mission report for the past few months, which had taken ages. Normally, Cid trusted Squall, as Garden commander, to deploy SeeDs and acknowledge payment, but Cid had spotted some “irregularities” in the books. Fortunately, the irregularities were all worked out, and Squall, hungry, tired, and stiff after five hours of sitting still, decided to take a couple of hours off to eat and kill a few monsters in the (newly-expanded) training centre. First, however, he had to check his messages, and return the call he’d have inevitably received from his father...

Squall entered his quarters, and looked at the number of messages on his answering machine- 0. Not one person had left a message on his answering machine- not even his father. Maybe he wanted to talk to me in person, Squall thought, opting instead to ring Laguna himself, so he could get it over and done with quickly and then go and have some lunch. Very quickly, Squall thought as his stomach growled. He dialled the personal number of Laguna’s office, but it was not Laguna who answered.

“Hello?” the familiar voice of Kiros answered of the other end. Strange… Squall thought to himself before replying.

“Kiros, hi, it’s Squall here,” he said, still confused as to why Kiros would be in Laguna’s office. “Is my father around by any chance?”

“Laguna?” Kiros said, coughing a little bit. “No. Nope. He’s out of town for a few days, ‘urgent business’ he called it. Sorry.”

“That’s OK,” Squall answered, even more baffled, “I only called to say hi anyway.” Squall hung up the receiver, more confused than ever. He’s never out of town on my birthday… he thought to himself. However, Squall’s stomach growled again, and he quickly decided it was best not to think about it on an empty stomach. He grabbed his jacket, and made his way to the cafeteria.

Squall opened the cafeteria doors, expecting to find it busy. It was, after all, nearly noon, lunchtime for the more junior students. However, the whole cafeteria was deserted. Not a soul there. Squall was absolutely stumped. Was there a fire drill and I didn’t notice? He thought to himself.

“Hello?” He said to no one in particular, not really expecting a response either.

“SURPRISE!!!!!” Came the cry from nearly a hundred people who had been hiding in the room, behind tables, chairs, counters, you name it, they were hiding behind it.

“What the hell?” Squall thought out loud, as all the well wishers started to crowd him. Selphie, typically, was the first to speak up.

“It’s a surprise birthday party, dummy!” She shouted, strapping a party hat to his head. Squall began to see the whole picture- they’d wanted to get him out of the way so they could plan this all. Looking around, he could see all of his friends- Selphie, Zell, Quistis, Irvine, Nida, Xu, Ellone, even Cid and Edea were there to wish him well. Shame Rinoa couldn’t have been here, Squall thought to himself, before a pair of hands covered his eyes.

“Wha-?” He started to say, before being cut off.

“Guess who,” came a very familiar voice from behind him. Squall smiled a broad grin, took the hands off his eyes, and turned round to give his wife a long, long kiss.

“I thought I sent you to Dollet,” Squall said, cheekily.

“That’s me- never where I’m supposed to be,” Rinoa responded, as cheekily as Squall. “Are you gonna discipline me?” She asked, a wicked grin on her face.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Squall replied, impure thoughts starting to fill his mind. Well, Squall thought after feeling a little guilty about those thoughts, she is my wife, after all… Before he could think of any more impure things, however, Selphie, with one hand, dragged Squall away, while filming him with a video camera in her other hand.

“Come on! The food’ll get cold!” Selphie whined. She sat Squall down, rather forcefully, in his chair at the special banquet table, which was only wheeled out on special occasions. Selphie then parked Rinoa in the chair next to Squall with equal force. The whole congregation broke out into a chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” as the cake was wheeled out. It was a hugely extravagant cake, and Squall felt his cheeks start to go red from all the attention he was getting. He was, however, about to get yet another pleasant surprise.

“Care for a slice, sir?” The chef who wheeled out the cake asked Squall. Squall immediately looked up at the chef, stunned at the voice.

“Dad?” He asked excitedly, looking into Laguna’s grinning face (what part of it that wasn’t covered by the chef’s hat, anyway).

“Happy birthday, son!” Laguna said. Squall leapt up, and he and his father hugged for a brief moment before Squall parked himself back down.

“I’d love some cake,” Squall said to much cheering as Laguna cut the cake. After eating the cake and the following birthday meal (usually it was the other way round, but Selphie had insisted that Laguna wheel out the cake first), not to mention opening the seemingly endless presents that had been brought for Squall, and the inevitable speech from the birthday boy, all the partygoers had eventually dissipated and departed, sadly realising that they did have jobs to go to, after all. That only left Squall, Laguna, Ellone and Rinoa at the table, each of them full and tired from the day’s events.

“Whew,” Squall said, “I’m knackered.” He patted his belly- far from being too empty, Squall had eaten more in the past few hours than he usually did in 3 whole days. I’m gonna have to work all that off, he sadly thought to himself, as the janitorial staff cleared away all the plates and dishes.

“I hope you’re not too tired for one last present,” Ellone said, with a wry smile.

“Another one?” Squall asked. “Where is it?” Ellone smiled even further, before looking over at Rinoa and Laguna, who both sported wide grins.

“Follow me,” Laguna said, getting to his feet and walking out of the cafeteria, towards the car park...

Squall entered the car park, not expecting what to find. Rinoa’s hands were once again clamped around his eyes so he couldn’t see ahead of him, but he could tell she was giggling, and his father and sister were also making it clear how excited they were. Eventually, they stopped, and Rinoa removed her hands.

“Surprise!” Rinoa and Ellone shouted in unison.

“I hope you like it,” Laguna added. Squall looked at his final present, and gasped in awe- the Hardy Daytona motorcycle, the bike he’d wanted ever since he started riding them years ago, was finally his.

“Wow,” Squall said, genuinely grateful, “Thanks! This must have cost a fortune!”

“Well,” Laguna started, “Being President of Esthar means I get paid more than just about anyone else in the world, and I figured I might as well distribute the wealth.”

“What D’you think?” Rinoa asked. Squall put his arm round her and looked her in the eye.

“It’s perfect, Angel,” he said, kissing her on the forehead, before going over and thanking Laguna and Ellone. “Thanks Dad, Sis,” he said, hugging them both.

“Gonna give it a spin?” Rinoa asked Squall. He looked at her, smiling.

“Are you kidding?” He asked, slipping on a pair of sunglasses before climbing onto the bike and kick-starting it. Rinoa and Laguna watched him speed off through the car park exit.

“Take care!” Ellone shouted after her receding brother. Rinoa and Laguna were waving too, excitedly. Once Squall had vanished out of sight, they went back into the main body of the Garden.

Cruising down the open road, the wind in his hair and the engine roaring underneath him, Squall took the opportunity to reflect upon the day, and how lucky he truly was. He had everything- a beautiful wife, some of the best friends anyone could ever ask for, a sister who would always be there for him, a job he loved and would never get tired of, not to mention a dedicated and loving father. Can it get any better? He thought, musing over the events of the past few years.

Four years earlier, Squall Leonheart had been a moody, introverted teenager who nobody wanted to associate themselves with. All that had changed, however, when he met Rinoa. She opened his eyes, made him realise that there were people who deeply cared for him, and he should do the same. He started doing so, and felt a little better every day from then on. Squall may have been a little friendlier because of Rinoa’s influence, but it was not her influence alone that brought Squall out of his shell.

One of the most hectic, not to mention traumatic months of Squall Leonheart’s young life began with the revelation that the man Squall couldn’t stand to be around, the man whose actions made Squall cringe with embarrassment, actually turned out to be his father. Oh yes. Squall Leonheart was 50% Laguna Loire, and Squall hated that fact at first. Then, the man whom Squall now considered to be his best friend launched a vendetta against him. Seifer Almasy- Squall’s lifelong rival had turned their rivalry into all-out war. In the end, it nearly killed both of them, but as Squall was about to die, his friends and his family refused to give up. They fought for him, and it made Squall realise that his mere presence made them happier, and their presence made him equally as happy. Just what was it about him that people liked? What made people care about him? He was a moody, introverted teenager, after all. What made people love Squall Leonheart? He hadn’t known the answer until a few months later, when he’d finally tied the knot with Rinoa.

Squall was not easily likeable- and that was an understatement. He threw up emotional barriers around him to prevent himself from getting close, but deep down, he had a heart of pure gold. Even when at the orphanage, he’d secluded himself, but the other children- his friends- had refused to just let him be, always asking him if he wanted to play with them. He never did, but that didn’t stop them asking. And when he grew older, he was seen as someone people could rely on. They trusted him, and wanted to like him, but still he secluded himself away. Squall knew exactly why he hid his feelings from even himself.


He’d seen everyone who he ever cared about leave him, and he was afraid that if he ever cared for anyone again, they’d be taken away too. Then along came Rinoa, and despite Squall’s best efforts, he couldn’t help but fall for her. And sure enough, as Ultimecia possessed Rinoa and his love fell into a coma, Squall’s fears became reality as he was faced with the possibility of Rinoa dying, or even worse- having to kill her himself. Rather than hide behind his fears, Squall had to face it head on, and it healed him. He came out of his shell. He opened up. He allowed himself to love, and felt much better for it. It wasn’t just Rinoa, though, all his friends had helped. They had shown that they cared for Squall, and eventually, he’d shown he’d cared for them equally as much. He even forgave his father and his sister for abandoning him, because they came back for him. He hadn’t recognised them at first, but they had come back. His friends had saved him from a self-destructive path. Gradually, up until the point when he’d become a SeeD, Squall had stopped caring about anything- even his own well being. Eventually, everyone reckoned it would only have been a matter of time before Squall’s corpse would have been brought back from a mission, having got himself killed and not even caring. Cruising down the open road, Squall shuddered at that possibility- he had so much to live for, so many people. Smiling at how he enjoyed the simple fact that he was alive, Squall was amazed to find that he’d ridden all the way to Balamb. Riding up to the town entrance and turning around, Squall headed back towards Balamb. It was getting late, and he didn’t want Rinoa worrying about him. He eventually arrived back at just past 11:30 PM, to be greeted by his wife.

“Hey,” Rinoa said, going over and leaning on the handlebars, “D’you like it?”

“It’s perfect,” Squall answered. “It handles like an absolute dream. Thanks.” Squall climbed off his new motorbike, and went over and gave Rinoa a kiss on the forehead.

“What was that for?” Rinoa asked, smiling.

“Helping me realise how lucky I am to be alive,” Squall replied. He put his arm around Rinoa and the pair walked back towards their quarters.

“Have Dad and Sis left yet?” Squall asked Rinoa.

“Not yet,” she replied, “they’re taking the Ragnarok back to Esthar tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll see them off, then,” Squall replied.

Before even they knew it, Squall and Rinoa were back at their room, and in no time at all had stripped and hopped into bed. Rinoa rolled over and put her arms around her husband.

“Squall...” she cooed, “didn’t you say earlier you were going to discipline me?” Squall smiled- despite being tired, he still had some energy left in him, and he intended to use every last drop of it.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten,” he started, “you’ve been a very bad girl indeed,” he continued, rolling over and pulling the sheets over himself and Rinoa...

Meanwhile, in his cell in Esthar, Seifer was sleeping peacefully at his desk. He had a bed, but he very rarely slept in it, as he dedicated every waking moment to his writing. Therefore, it made sense to him that he should be able to fall asleep writing and wake up the same way. It had resulted in slight lower back pain for him, but he didn’t care- it’s not as if he’d ever have to do anything physical ever again. And besides, he was getting used to sleeping slumped over a typewriter.

Seifer was not the only living creature in the cell that night, however. His companion made its entrance between the small bars that made up the window of Seifer’s cell, and plopped to the ground, hissing. The snake looked around, and saw its prey asleep, slumped over the desk. It slowly slithered across the floor, not making a sound, and crept up the leg of the desk, until it was within striking distance of Seifer’s arm. However, as luck would have it, Seifer stirred at that very moment, and awoke, moving his arm just out of the snake’s reach. He stood up and paced around the cell stretching his back, oblivious to his unwanted cellmate. The snake hissed, and Seifer stopped dead in his tracks. What was that? He thought to himself. That sounded like- no, don’t be stupid! It’s probably just someone flushing the toilet. He turned round, hoping to re-assure himself, but instead got the fright of his life.

“Waagh!” He shouted upon eyeing the snake. The snake simply waggled its forked tongue at Seifer.

“Guards!” He yelled, panicking slightly. “GUARDS!” He yelled again, starting to sweat. Seifer had always had a slight phobia of snakes- large, sword-wielding magical monsters he could deal with, but snakes just freaked him out totally. Even more so since he’d stopped using GF’s, which had helped with the phobia slightly. The snake plopped onto the floor, and made its way over to where Seifer was standing, paralysed with fear. He heard the guards approach outside, and made the mistake of diverting his attention towards them outside, taking his eyes off the snake. The snake promptly took its chance and lunged forward, biting Seifer in the shin and filling him full of his venom, before slipping away through a crack in the wall.

Seifer hadn’t initially felt much- just a small prick in his shin, but then, the pain really started to begin. He felt like his entire leg had caught fire, and he felt himself unable to stand. He started shivering, gripped with spasms of intolerable pain. He collapsed to the ground, curled up in the foetal position, as the guards entered the room.

“What is it, Mr. Almasy?” The lead guard asked, before seeing Seifer lying on the floor. “Mr. Almasy! What happened?” The guards always addressed Seifer politely- many of them had bought, read and thoroughly enjoyed his books and didn’t feel right ordering him about. On this night, however, their favourite author lay dying at their feet.

“S-snake,” Seifer managed to gasp between breaths, as he pointed at the small crack where the snake had disappeared. “Went in wall.” He was gripped by another spasm, and felt himself start to fade away...

The lead guard immediately called for medical assistance, and ordered his colleague to search the wall where Seifer had pointed- however, nothing could be found.

Seifer’s last, vague thoughts before he lost consciousness were of being lifted onto the stretcher, with a breathing mask being lowered onto his face. His feelings were simple. Why would anyone do this to me? He thought to himself, full of self-pity. Unfortunately for him, just as he passed out, he remembered EXACTLY why someone would try to kill him...

And still, the asteroid headed ever onwards...

Squall woke up the following morning at 6 AM, and quickly dressed. His father and his sister were leaving in about half an hour and he wanted to see them go. He kissed goodbye to the already-awake Rinoa, and departed. He only managed to get as far as the entrance gate, however, before he was stopped by shouting behind him.

“SQUALL!” Came the shout. Squall turned round, and quickly identified the shouter as Nida. Running towards Squall, out of breath, Nida shouted again.

“Squall! Wait!”

“What is it, man?” Squall asked, waiting for an answer while Nida regained his breath.

“Orders from Cid,” Nida said, between gasped breaths, “you gotta go to Esthar with Laguna and Ellone.” Squall was very surprised by this news.

“Why?” He asked, unable to fathom why he’d be ordered on a mission at such short notice.

“It-it’s Seifer,” Nida replied, “someone’s tried to kill him.”

Just a few hours later, the Ragnarok set down at Esthar air station, and Squall, Laguna and Ellone all disembarked, to be greeted by Ward and Kiros. While Ward escorted Ellone back to the presidential palace, Kiros filled Squall and Laguna in on what had happened.

“A snake?” Squall asked, not quite believing what Kiros had told him.

“An Esthar viper, to be precise,” Kiros clarified. “Very small, but very deadly. Fortunately, we were able to inject him with the antidote before it killed him.” Squall nodded- at least the murder attempt had been unsuccessful.

“Is he conscious?” Laguna asked. Laguna, like most of the world, had become a fan of Seifer’s books, and often made a point of visiting him in his cell. He’d grown to like Seifer, and was as concerned as anyone.

“Yes,” Kiros said, answering his boss’s question. “He was asking specifically for you, Squall. That was why you were called on such short notice.” At that point, the shuttle tube they had been waiting for arrived, and they embarked.

Arriving at the hospital, Squall said his farewells to Laguna and Kiros before entering the medical complex, and making his way to the secure room where Seifer was being treated (he was still a prisoner, after all). He identified himself to the guard outside the room and entered, smiling as he saw Seifer awake and reading one of his manuscripts.

“Another masterpiece?” Squall asked, startling his infirm friend.

“Squall! Hi,” Seifer said, putting down his manuscript and donning his glasses. “You came quick.”

“Nah,” Squall responded, “I just happened to be in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop in. I heard you were unwell.”

“Really?” Seifer said, his voice regaining some of the old, sarcastic edge it had in the old days. “That would explain why I’m lying in a hospital bed, then.” Squall narrowed his eyes- Seifer was never funny when he was sarcastic, but then again, he never set out to be.

“Any idea who did it?” Squall asked. Seifer laid back down.

“That’s why I wanted you to come,” Seifer said, deadly serious. “I’m sure it was a professional hit. That means funding, which means someone out there isn’t going to stop until I’m history.” Squall nodded- he couldn’t agree more.

“What do you want me to do?” He asked.

“I’ve amassed plenty of royalties from my books,” Seifer said, changing the subject briefly, “I think it’s time I used them. I want to hire a team of SeeD investigators to find out who it was who tried to kill me, and I want them to make sure it won’t happen again.” Squall whistled- that was no small request.

“That’s gonna cost, man,” he said, business-like, “even if I give you a discount.” Seifer shook his head.

“No discounts, man,” he said, simply, “I’ll pay my way.”

“Don’t the Esthar authorities have more experience with these type of things?” Squall asked.

“Tut, tut, Squall,” Seifer said, “don’t want my business? The Esthar police probably do have more experience- but they sure as hell haven’t turned anything up yet. And they can’t guard me 24 hours a day.” Squall new exactly what Seifer meant.

“You think whoever tried to kill you will try again?” Squall asked,

“I’m certain of it,” Seifer answered.

“Why?” Squall asked Seifer. Seifer simply stared at Squall, neutrally.

“You know why,” he answered. “Do torture, terrorism and GBH sound familiar to you? If not, have a look at that piece of paper pinned to the end of the bed.”

“No one knows about any of that, Seif,” Squall replied.

“Well what was that snake all about, then? Over-enthusiastic literary criticism?” Seifer snorted back. Squall nodded- Seifer had a point. “Obviously someone’s out for a pound of my flesh. Who, exactly, knows about my involvement?”

“Only SeeDs,” Squall replied, “and those who’ve been SeeDs for three years. In between retirements and casualties, there are only around 80 people who know, who are still at the Garden.” Seifer shook his head again.

“I doubt it’s a Garden student, or a SeeD,” he said. “Concentrate your search on SeeDs who retired just after the bombings. There can’t have been too many of them.” Squall nodded, and the two continued finalising their plan to find out Seifer’s assailant.

Meanwhile, outside the building, a janitor was cleaning the window of the room above Seifer’s. However, he had more than just a bucket and a chamois- he had, on his hip, a piece of surveillance equipment that many had mistaken for a personal radio. It was currently tuned in on Seifer’s room, and he was hearing every word that was being said. My two enemies, the so-called window cleaner thought to himself, together at last. What a perfect opportunity. He winched himself down to Seifer’s room, and braced himself, expecting to be rumbled. However, Seifer and Squall ignored him. The blinds were closed, and they couldn’t see him. Perfect. Just the opportunity I’d been waiting for. He took his “radio” off his belt and activated a small screen on it, and reacted with surprise. I’m staring at him, he mused, his thoughts and his vision centred on Squall. I’ll never get a better opportunity. While the blinds were closed, they were more than open enough to let a small bullet through. A small bullet much like the one he had in his rifle, which had been conveniently hidden underneath one of the planks of his winch. He quickly replaced the plank, and loaded his rifle. My two enemies, both killed by the same gun, the ponytailed sniper/window cleaner thought to himself. Nice. He lined up his shot, aiming at Squall. Obviously, he wouldn’t be able to aim directly at him, but his hidden camera gave him plenty enough information on Squall’s position in the room. He took a few more seconds finalising his aim, before pulling the trigger.

Squall and Seifer had been discussing the SeeDs who were to be assigned to him, when the glass shattered. Immediately, Squall felt a sharp, intense pain in his armpit. Blood had started oozing from his new wound, something that had not gone unnoticed by Seifer.

“SECURITY!” Seifer shouted, as loud as he could, before diving under the covers and huddling himself into the foetal position. He felt two bullets enter him- one in the knee, on in his forearm, and another grazed his bicep. Then, however, a security team entered the room and immediately started firing. When they’d stopped, Seifer emerged from his cocoon, still in pain and bleeding badly from his wounds. Laguna was standing there, as were a team of doctors and an entire armed response team. There was no sign of Squall.

“W-what happened?” Seifer asked, in shock from the bullet wounds. “Where’s Squall?” Laguna went over and calmed Seifer down.

“Squall’s fine,” Laguna started, “he’s being treated in the other room. Don’t worry, we’ve got everything under control.” Seifer managed to calm himself down, but not enough for the doctor’s liking, as he felt a hypodermic enter his arm and he quickly fell asleep...

Meanwhile, Squall was almost as shocked as Seifer was by the attack- the first bullet had come straight out of the blue, and had only just been removed from his left armpit, where it had done quite a bit of damage. He’d have to wear a sling for a few weeks, but that was not his primary concern at the moment- that honour was held by his friend. Someone’s tried to murder Seifer, he mused to himself, and would have shed no tears if I’d died too. While Squall was lost in thought, the doctors had finished dressing his wound. He carefully put his (ruined) shirt and jacket back on, not happy at the prospect of paying to have the jacket repaired, and exited the room, heading straight to where his friend was lying, unconscious. Squall looked down at Seifer, who had had a hard 24 hours. There were four armed guards in the tiny room, along with Laguna.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Squall asked Laguna, referring, of course, to Seifer.

“I’m having him moved to a secure cell, no windows,” Laguna said. “It’ll be safer there, at least until you find out who was behind this.” At that point, the guards all started marching out, wheeling Seifer on his bed with them.

“They’re taking him to the theatre so they can have the bullets removed,” Laguna explained, anticipating his son’s next question. “Do you want me to send them to the Garden for analysis?” Squall shook his head.

“We’ve got the one they pulled out of me,” he explained, holding up a small bag with a bullet in it, while simultaneously pointing at his injured shoulder. Laguna grimaced out of sympathy for his son’s injury.

“How is the arm?” He asked.

“As well as can be expected, having just had a bullet forcibly inserted then removed,” Squall sarcastically retorted. Laguna nodded, as if to say ‘OK, stupid question.’

“Are you going back to Balamb now?” He asked. Squall nodded.

“It’d probably be best, we should get this bullet analysed as quick as possible,” he said to his father. “If the assassin is an ex-Garden student then he may be using Garden equipment. It’s a long shot, no pun intended, but it’s the only one we have.”

“OK. See you son,” Laguna said, shaking Squall’s hand. Squall nodded, giving his father a brief hug.

“See you, dad,” he said back. Squall left the hospital and headed back towards the Ragnarok.

Later that day, Squall settled down to bed, musing on what had turned out to be an eventful chain of events. Upon returning, he immediately sent the bullet down to the munitions lab for examination (he’d have preferred Irvine’s opinion, but he and Selphie had been away on holiday since the previous night). That, followed by numerous meetings with Cid, Zell (new Garden head of security), Xu and Quistis (new deputy head teachers) over the possibility of a Garden traitor, combined with his shoulder injury, had left Squall understandably shattered. Rinoa was once again away on a mission in Dollet, and wasn’t expected to return until the following afternoon. This left Squall with a perfect opportunity to gather his thoughts on what had happened. Someone, possibly a Garden student or ex-student, is out to kill Seifer, he thought to himself, and is only too happy to kill me if I get in the way. Why? Squall shook his head- he knew exactly why someone would want Seifer dead- he’d felt the same way at some point, and Squall shuddered at the memory. Revenge, he assumed. That’s the only answer. But who would want revenge against Seifer? Eventually, once Squall had counted all the possibilities from the senior SeeDs alone, he got depressed and fell asleep, hoping that a new day would bring a new perspective.

He was awoken at a quarter past six by his telephone ringing. Probably just Rinoa ringing to say hi, he thought to himself, slowly getting out of bed. He answered the phone.

“Hello?” He said. He was surprised to hear Zell’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Squall,” he said, sounding somewhat subdued, “the forensic team’s finished. You’d better get down to the lab.” Zell’s voice was almost morbid in tone, and Squall didn’t like it one bit.

“I’ll be right there…” he replied, before hanging up the phone.

Squall entered the lab to find Zell and Cid standing there, looking as grim as Zell had sounded over the telephone.

“What is it?” Squall asked the two.

“The results of the forensic tests are in,” Zell announced. “The bullet came from a Fox-17 sniper rifle.” Squall, not being a weapons expert, was none the wiser, and wondered why Zell found it so significant.

“And?” This time, it was Cid’s turn to answer.

“The Fox-17 was manufactured to be used exclusively by Garden students and SeeDs, and are very hard to get your hands on. Only three people can authorise the use of this weapon- the headmaster,” Cid said, pointing at himself, “the commander,” this time he pointed at Squall, “or the armoury chief.”

“Who would be Irvine,” Squall continued. “I still don’t see where this is heading.”

“Squall,” Cid continued, “this Garden is meant to have a full supply of 12 Fox-17’s. It has only eleven. All the other Gardens have a full stock, which means the rifle must have come from this Garden.” Squall waved his hand in the air- it was early morning, he hadn’t had breakfast, and he was confused.

“Cut to the chase, Cid,” Squall said, his head not being able to assimilate all the information, “what are you trying to say?” Zell butted in.

“Squall, what we’re trying to say is that Irvine is the assassin!” Squall blinked, and stood still for a moment, not quite believing what he’d heard.

“Excuse me?” He asked.

“Think about it man,” Zell continued, “he’s the only one who’s accessed the rifles in the past three weeks. He suddenly goes on a trip, and the very next morning Seifer gets shot. It don’t take a genius to work it out!” Squall was incredulous. How could they even think such a thing? To Squall, as it was to everyone, the thought of Irvine doing something that vindictive was simply inconceivable. Squall voiced his opinion.

“You honestly think that Irvine Kinneas is capable of cold-blooded murder?”

“Our opinion doesn’t matter, Squall,” Cid continued, “It’s the evidence that does. I have a new mission for you two-“ Cid pointed at Squall and Zell- “you’re to take the Ragnarok back to Esthar and take Irvine into custody. You’re free to refuse the mission if you want, I won’t hold it against you, but I feel it would be best if you were the ones to do it.” Squall and Zell both nodded at that sentiment. “Well?” Cid asked. “Do you accept?”

“Yes,” Squall said, looking at the floor in a combination of shame for accepting the mission, and fury for even being assigned it in the first place.

“Yeah,” Zell also said, biting his lip. He felt the same way as Squall, and he was close to losing his cool. Cid nodded, grimly, knowing that the two young men were not looking forward to their mission.

“You leave at once,” Cid ordered. “Nida will be your pilot- the two of you will be solely responsible for the act of arresting Irvine. Will you require any back-up?” Squall shook his head.

“No, we can handle it,” Squall said, grimly. “I still say we’re jumping to conclusions here.” Cid nodded.

“Maybe,” he said, “but the evidence is too strong. Either way, we’ll have needed him for questioning. This way, we can also formally eliminate him from the investigation.”

“But what if he did do it?” Zell asked. Squall did not take kindly to that remark.

“Zell!” He barked, letting Zell know his feelings on the question he’d just asked. Cid hung his head.

“Then he will be tried and punished for his crimes,” Cid simply stated. “The death penalty would not apply in these circumstances, but he could expect up to 16 years in prison.” Squall and Zell both nodded grimly, before exiting the room.

Irvine and Selphie were sitting at a table outside a café in Esthar, eating lunch, totally unaware of what was about to happen. The two of them had got married six months after Squall and Rinoa had, in a ceremony held at the old orphanage. Irvine and Selphie had selected that location as it was where they first met, close to 16 years ago now, and they both felt it was appropriate that they should begin their married life there. Ever since, they’d been inseparable, spending as much time as possible together. That time had shrunk since Selphie was promoted to field commander by Squall (effectively making her one of his deputies), and while Irvine was none too happy at first about Selphie constantly bossing him around, he eventually got over it, and rarely were the two not seen sharing a smile. On this afternoon in Esthar, however, Irvine had something very serious he wanted to ask his wife.

“Sefie,” he started, taking her hand in his, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time...” Irvine trailed off, not knowing how to phrase his request perfectly.

“What is it, Irvy?” Selphie asked, trying to prompt the usually talkative Irvine. It worked.

“How would you like to have a baby?” Irvine blurted out. Selphie gasped- she’d been taken completely by surprise.

“Irvy!?” She asked, still surprised by his question. “Are you serious?” Irvine chuckled his usual chuckle, letting Selphie know that he meant business.

“I’m as serious as you can get, Sefie,” Irvine replied. “I want me and you to start a family.” Selphie paused for a few seconds, not knowing what to say. “Well?” Irvine asked, trying to prompt Selphie into giving him an answer.

“Woohoo! I’m gonna be a mommy!” Selphie shouted, enthusiastically. She leaned over the table towards her husband, and they gave each other a big, long kiss.

“We start tonight,” Irvine said, deadpan. Selphie giggled.

“Yes sir!” She said, still grinning broadly. They were interrupted from their celebrations by Squall and Zell approaching the table, both wearing deathly serious expressions on their faces.

“Hey guys,” Irvine said, noticing his friends approach. “What’re you doing in Esthar?”

“Is it about Seifer?” Selphie interjected. Squall and Zell both nodded, grimly.

“I heard what happened,” Irvine said, nodding seriously, “we were gonna drop in and see him later.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Zell said, walking behind Irvine. “Stand up, please.” Irvine stood up.

“What’s going on?” Irvine and Selphie both asked at the same time. The answer they got was Zell handcuffing Irvine’s arms behind his back.

“Irvine Kinneas,” Zell began, “I am placing you under arrest for the attempted murder of Seifer Almasy and Squall Leonheart. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be taken as evidence.” Zell marched Irvine into a waiting car.

“Sorry, Irv,” Squall muttered as Irvine was marched past him. Irvine wore an angry expression on his face- as if to say “how could you think such a thing?” Squall understood well how Irvine felt. Once the car had driven off, Squall’s thoughts were interrupted by Selphie behind him.

“Squall,” Selphie started, with an angry, serious tone replacing her usually bubbly voice, “tell me this is some kind of joke.”

“Selphie,” Squall said, as he tried to place a re-assuring hand on Selphie’s shoulder. Selphie was in no mood for it, however.

“Don’t touch me!” She shouted, not wanting Squall’s sympathy.

“If it means anything, Selphie,” Squall started again, “I refuse to believe it either. However, all the evidence points to Irvine being the sniper.”

“I don’t care about your evidence!” Selphie said, raising her voice even further. “He didn’t do it!”

“Selphie,” Squall said, again trying to place a re-assuring hand on her shoulder. This time, however, Selphie reacted badly.

“I SAID DON’T TOUCH ME!” She shouted, before rearing back and slapping Squall hard across his face. Squall was surprised by the blow, taking a few seconds to regain his composure. When he did, he was greeted by the sight of Selphie storming away from him, her head hung low.

“Selphie!” He shouted after her, but she continued her march down the Esthar high street. Squall tried to follow her, but eventually lost her amongst the crowd. Sighing, he returned to the shuttle tube station, and caught the next car to the air station, where Zell was undoubtedly waiting for him.

Zell drove the car back to the air station, all the while feeling Irvine’s stare burn through the back of his head. How can I tell him this is nothing personal when I’ve arrested him on his holiday? Zell and Irvine were about as close as friends could get, and it was as if Zell had turned on him. That was how it felt to Zell, and to Irvine as well. Still, Zell just couldn’t let Irvine believe that he thought he was capable of shooting someone in cold blood. When he had seen the results of the weapons locker logs, he had been in a state of shock. He’d somehow managed to convince his brain that Irvine might have, under extreme circumstances, committed the crime, but his heart totally refused to accept it, and Zell wanted to let Irvine know what he really thought.

“Irv,” Zell started, “I’m really sorr-“

“Save it!” Irvine snapped, cutting Zell off. Irvine had felt nothing less than betrayed by Squall and Zell- his so-called “best friends” had actually believed that he was capable of attempted murder. How could they believe it? From him, of all people? A man who wouldn’t even dream of taking another person’s life. Irvine was angry, furious. And right after he and Selphie had agreed to have children together! Before Irvine could complete his thoughts, however, the car pulled up outside Esthar air station, and Zell was helping Irvine out. Squall was also there, waiting. Irvine stared straight at him, and spoke from the heart.

“Where do you get off, Squall?” He asked. “Arresting me? Do you honestly think I could shoot you just like that? What kind of a friend are you anyway?” Squall had no answer, instead staring at the ground, his cheeks burning. Squall felt more ashamed at that moment than he had ever done in his entire life. The three of them boarded the Ragnarok and departed for Balamb.

Meanwhile, Selphie was back at Irvine’s (adoptive, of course) parents’ house, trying to explain to them why their son was arrested on charges of attempted murder.

“They did WHAT?” Eddie, Irvine’s father, shouted. Lucy, his mother, simply gasped in shock.

“I-I can’t explain it,” Selphie said, sitting down on the couch between them. “They just marched right up to our table and handcuffed him.” Selphie was in a state of shock herself- not over Squall or Zell’s actions, but her own. I hit him! Selphie thought to herself, shamefully. I actually hit Squall! What was I thinking? Selphie was not your typical “girly” girl- rather than romance movies, she preferred action films. The more explosions, the better, and Selphie was hardly afraid of anything. Her friends had eventually started to recognise these traits, and one of them (Selphie thought it might have been Rinoa) dubbed her a “closet psychopath.” Still, never in her wildest dreams would Selphie have imagined that she’d ever physically attack one of her best friends. She felt ashamed, too ashamed to even tell her in-laws.

“Afterwards,” Selphie continued, “Squall tried to explain it to me, but I-I just walked off. I couldn’t bear to hear it.” Irvine’s parents, naturally loving people, comforted Selphie. Irvine’s father in particular was a kind and gentle man (Selphie could see where Irvine got many of his qualities), and he put his arm round Selphie’s shoulders, re-assuring her.

“Come on, girl,” Eddie started, “it’s not like you’re to blame.” Selphie flashed him a weak grin, the memory of her attack on Squall still raw in her mind. “Once they’ve interviewed him,” Eddie continued, “they’ll see that he couldn’t possibly have shot at them.” Lucy had words of comfort too.

“Irvine idolises Squall,” she said to her daughter-in-law, easing her even more. “There’s no way he could ever take a shot at him. Or Seifer, for that matter. You know how much Irvine loves his books.” Selphie nodded- Lucy was right on all counts. Irvine respected Squall more than any other person he knew, and he had bought and read all of Seifer’s books from cover to cover, and was deeply moved by all of them.

“Where did you say they were taking him?” Eddie asked again.

“B-back to Balamb,” Selphie replied. Eddie stood up at this, and urged his daughter-in-law to stand up as well.

“Well then,” he said, once Selphie was fully upright, “we’d better get you on the next train back, hadn’t we?” Selphie was somewhat dumbfounded.

“Wha-?” She muttered.

“The first face Irvine will want to see when he’s released is yours,” Lucy interjected. Selphie perked up a little at this.

“OK then!” She said. She knew that it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding, and she and Irvine would get down to the task of making babies…

“There’s something else I need to tell you,” she started, remembering what Irvine had asked her before he was taken away. “Me and Irvine are going to try for a baby!” Eddie and Lucy were both pleasantly shocked at this news.

“Really?” Eddie asked. Selphie nodded, a huge grin on her face. “Well then,” Eddie continued, “we’d better get you back to Balamb as quick as possible so you can start trying right away!” He led Selphie out of the house to his car, and drove off towards Esthar train station (Laguna had ordered that the rail network be extended into Esthar some time ago). Lucy waved them off, and Selphie had cheered up no end. In just a few hours, she would see Irvine, and then they would start conceiving their child. Selphie mused over the fact that it had been Eddie who had put her in this good mood. Like father, like son, she thought to herself. Until she remembered the fact that she’d also have to see the man she’d slapped across the face. Squall… she thought, how am I going to explain myself to you?

Irvine spent the trip back to Balamb confined to the Ragnarok’s observation lounge. He was still angry, but had calmed down enough to know that anger wasn’t going to solve anything. Eventually, they landed outside the Garden, and Irvine was escorted to the interrogation room via the back entrance. Before he entered, however, he had words of his own for Squall.

“When I get out of there, Squall,” a still-angry Irvine said, “Me and you are gonna have words.” Squall could detect the unusual hostility in his voice, and nearly found himself crying at the words. He avoided eye contact with Irvine, as he had done since they’d arrested him. He watched Irvine being escorted into the interrogation chamber, and took his seat behind the magic mirror on the other side, where he could see Cid and Zell questioning Irvine.

“I don’t see what this is gonna accomplish,” Irvine started, “you both know I didn’t shoot them.”

“It doesn’t matter what we believe, Irvine,” Cid started, “it’s the evidence that counts. Did you, or did you not, remove a Fox-17 sniper rifle from the weapons locker on the day of August 7th?”

“I did,” Irvine replied.

“For what purpose?” Cid asked.

“For test purposes,” Irvine responded, glaring at Cid, who was remaining stoic, and at Zell, who was avoiding his gaze the same way Squall had done some time earlier.

“Where are the results of this test?” Cid asked.

“They’re unfinished,” Irvine responded. “I was three-quarters of the way through them when I departed on vacation.”

“Did you, or did you not, take the Fox-17 with you to Esthar?”

“I did not,” Irvine responded.

“Are you sure?”

“Why would I take it with me? I don’t mix business with pleasure. You know that.”

“Irv,” Zell interrupted, “someone took it to Esthar and shot Squall and Seifer with it. If not you, then who else?” He was trying to prompt Irvine- in Irvine’s mind, it almost seemed as if he wanted to get him off the hook.

“Who else had access to the Fox-17?” Cid asked, also trying to prompt Irvine into remembering something he otherwise wouldn’t.

“Only you and Squall,” Irvine responded.

“Where did you keep it?” Zell interjected.

“What?” Irvine asked, puzzled by the question.

“Where did you keep the rifle when you weren’t testing it?” Zell allowed himself an inward smile- it was a clever question for him, and he knew he was on the right track toward getting Irvine off the hook.

“In my secret cache,” Irvine responded.

“Which is where?” Cid asked, seriously. He’d never heard of Irvine’s secret weapons cache and was VERY intrigued as to what else he had in it…

“Behind my sofa, in a recess in the wall.”

“Anything else in there?” Cid asked.

“No sir,” Irvine responded, “only the ones I test.”

“When did you last take it out of the cache?” Zell asked, again proud at asking another intelligent question.

“Three days before I left.”

“Did you check to see whether it was still there before you left?” Cid asked.

“Why would I need to?” Irvine responded. Cid turned to Zell.

“Zell,” he started, “retrieve all security tapes from corridor 7J for the past five days.” Zell nodded- he knew what Cid wanted done. “Irvine,” Cid said, turning to the sniper, “I am releasing you on provision. You are not to leave the Garden, or enter the training centre. I will also have to confiscate all weapons you currently possess,” Cid said, emphasising the word “all”. “You will also be relieved of all your duties as armoury chief.”

“I understand,” Irvine said.

“Questioning suspended 19:46,” Zell said, before getting up and opened the door. The three of them departed the room, heading for Irvine’s quarters. When there, he turned over all his guns to one of Zell’s security officers, and opened up his secret weapons cache, letting Cid and Zell look. He was shocked at what he found, however.

“It’s gone!” Irvine shouted, staring at an empty recess in the wall.

“Most probably,” Cid started, “it is in the possession of whoever shot Squall and Seifer.”

“That person who wasn’t me, you mean?” Irvine asked, challenging Cid. Cid didn’t take to kindly to having his authority undermined, but let it slide this one time.

“The tapes will determine that,” Cid said, regaining a degree of control over Irvine. “You will report back to the interrogation room at 8AM two days from now. We should have this all cleared up by then, one way or the other.” Irvine nodded. “I’ll see myself out…” Cid exited Irvine’s quarters after Zell and his security team, leaving Irvine alone on his bed. He was not alone for long, however, as he heard a knocking at his door. Leave me the hell alone… Irvine thought, assuming that Cid wanted to rebuke him some more. Nonetheless, he leapt up and answered the door. His pained expression was replaced by one of pure happiness.

“Boo!” Selphie shouted, smiling up at her husband.

“Sefie!” Irvine shouted, giving Selphie a kiss and a big hug. “Since when did you get back?”

“Just now,” Selphie perkily replied. “Your dad drove me to the train station.”

“I bet they’re taking the news well,” Irvine said, as he and Selphie sat down on his old couch.

“Come on!” She shouted. “They know you couldn’t have done it!” Irvine smiled.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said back. “On a more important note, didn’t we agree to try to have a baby?” He grinned coolly at Selphie. She smiled wildly and started taking off her dress. Meanwhile, Irvine locked the door to their quarters and started undressing himself…

Zell sat in the security office amidst a pile of burger boxes, pizza boxes, hotdog wrappers and empty shandy cans. He’d been studying the videotapes of Irvine’s quarters for the past 8 hours and he was bored stiff. He’d not been able to find a single thing that would exonerate his friend, and he began to think it was all pointless. Suddenly, the door opened, and Quistis entered. Zell stood up, surprised.

“Quis! Hi!” Zell said, accidentally spluttering half a mouthful of pizza over the floor. He quickly swallowed, and sat back down again, swiping a load of his garbage off the chair next to him so Quistis could sit down. She did so, apprehensively.

“What brings you down here?” Zell asked, taking another swig of shandy, and offering Quistis a can.

“No thanks,” Quistis said, refusing Zell’s offer. “I thought you could use some company, you’ve been cooped up in here for hours.” Zell smiled.

“Yeah,” Zell said, “it’s been lonely down here. But hey! I get paid well for it.” Zell took another swig of shandy, but swallowed too fast and accidentally belched. “Sorry,” Zell said, embarrassed at having belched in front of Quistis. She waved her hand, letting him know she didn’t mind. Zell smiled, and took another swig.

“Have you found anything yet?” She asked. Zell frowned, and shook his head.

“It’s like I’m banging my head against a frigging wall!” Zell said, angrily even for him. “I know Irv didn’t do it, I just gotta prove it!” Quistis nodded- she hadn’t believed that Irvine could have even dreamt of shooting Squall or Seifer, and she had even issued a formal request to Cid that Irvine not be arrested on those charges. A request that was, of course, denied. Still, Quistis felt that she should give all the help she could.

“Need any help?” She asked Zell. Zell was surprised.

“You serious?” Zell asked back. Quistis nodded. “Alright!” Zell shouted, enthusiastically. “Grab a screen and start watching!” Zell swung his legs up on the table in front of him, and, laughing, Quistis did the same. Together, they started to watch the screens.

Secretly, however, Quistis had an ulterior motive for wanting to help, and it wasn’t just to save Irvine’s reputation.

Quistis’s love life had not been as smooth as either Selphie’s or Rinoa’s- she had not been able to find the one man she wanted to be with for all time. Well, not since Squall opted to be with Rinoa, anyway. While she had accepted Squall’s decision, it had hit her hard. She tried to explain away the crush as some sort of “big sisterly” thing, but deep down, she still secretly wished he had chosen to be with her instead. However, she had not simply sat and sulked about it. She was one of the most popular people if the Garden, and had more than her fair share of male admirers. She had tried dating a few of them, even going on a date with Nida once, but she eventually discovered that her mere presence terrified them, so she ultimately decided it best to let the “Trepies” (as they were still called) admire her from afar. Instead, she tried going for more hard-to-get men, specifically those who were intelligent and well read like herself. Ultimately, though, that ended in disaster as well, as she discovered that she wasn’t particularly fond of boring men who treated her like she was an object, and the final straw came when she caught Sacha, her latest boyfriend, kissing another woman. She’d immediately returned to the Garden from her holiday, and locked herself in her room. Why must I always have the bad luck? She thought to herself, self-pityingly. Unfortunately for her, none of her friends were there to help her, as it was the holiday season in Garden. Squall and Rinoa were in Esthar visiting Laguna, and Selphie and Irvine were at Trabia Garden, visiting some of Selphie’s old friends. Even Xu, her oldest friend at the Garden, had found herself someone to be with, and had married him that summer. As she had done for Rinoa and Selphie, Quistis had assumed the role of bridesmaid. All of these things combined had made her fall into a depression after her break-up with Sacha, but for Quistis, relief had come from the most unlikely of sources.


Zell Dincht, the loudmouth, the one whom Quistis found uncouth and tactless when she first met him, had taken the time out from his holiday with his folks and had driven back to Balamb Garden for the day just to cheer her up. He even offered to let her stay at his place for the rest of the holidays, an offer Quistis had turned down and later regretted not taking. Afterwards, although Zell’s words were not that comforting (it was tantamount to ordering her to cheer up), Quistis simply couldn’t stop thinking about him. It all suddenly made sense to her- Zell wasn’t like either the Trepies or the snobs she’d dated before- he didn’t feel nervous when she was around, he didn’t treat her as some sort of prize- he was a true friend to her. And he made her laugh. Quistis was, at times, an insufferably aloof person, smiling and frowning like everyone else, but keeping her personal emotions to herself. She felt it was not her place, as an instructor, to go around everywhere giggling like Selphie, Irvine, or, indeed, Zell had been known to do. However, it was Zell who could change that at the drop of a hat. Often, she found herself creased up with laughter, unable to talk at times when Zell was telling one of his jokes, or delighting all with a hotdog-eating marathon. Quistis quickly realised that she had a crush on Zell, and was initially appalled at the thought. However, she forced herself to look at things differently. Stop being so stuck-up, Quis! She thought to herself. OK, so he may be a slob, but at least he’s honest, funny, and even sexy, in a twisted kind of way… Over the following few months, Which included parties for Zell’s 21st and Quistis’ 22nd birthdays, she tried to find the right time to tell him how she felt, but something kept stopping her. Being as intelligent as she was, however, Quistis immediately knew what it was.

He’s never expressed any interest in me…

All the men that Quistis had been out with had approached her- even the “snobs”, as she called him, had to make the first move with her. Actually asking Zell to be with her was a prospect that terrified Quistis. What if he says no? She thought to herself. She didn’t relish the thought of losing the man who had quickly become her best friend all on some silly crush. Nonetheless, the more Quistis thought of Zell, the more she wanted to be with him, and when she learned that Zell was going to be studying the CCTV tapes alone, she saw it as her perfect opportunity. OK, she thought, mustering up the courage to talk to Zell, here goes nothing…

“Zell,” Quistis started, but never got the chance to finish.

“YES!” Zell shouted, jumping to his feet. “Did you see that, Quis? Did ya see it?” He rewound the tape to let Quistis see what he had seen. She put her glasses on and squinted, trying to see what Zell had seen, which was a hunched-over figure of a person in a trenchcoat entering Irvine and Selphie’s quarters, and leaving 45 seconds later with a parcel, which looked very much like it contained a rifle.

“That’s Irvine entering his quarters. So what?” Quistis remarked.

“Look at the time, Quis!” Quistis squinted again at the time display.

“11:22 AM, August 23rd. What about it?” Then it hit her. “We-“ Zell finished her sentence for her.

“-Were in the cafeteria, getting ready for Squall’s surprise party! All of us, Irvine included! He’s got half the Garden as an alibi!” Zell was now really excited- the past 8 hours had not been in vain.

“Have you got video evidence?” Quistis asked. Zell nodded, fetching another video. They played the two simultaneously on different monitors, matching the time on both videos. They clearly showed that while “Irvine” was fetching the rifle from his quarters, he was also clearly helping Rinoa & Selphie lay tables in the cafeteria.

“This is the proof we were looking for,” Zell simply stated. He ejected both videos and slipped them into a bag, before heading towards the exit of the office.

“Where are you going?” Quistis asked.

“To see Cid, of course!” Zell replied, still enthusiastic at his discovery. He exited, leaving Quistis alone in the office. Damn, she thought to herself, another opportunity wasted… Quistis looked around at the mess Zell had left, and, smirking, opted to leave herself, rather than stay and clean it up.

Approximately fifteen minutes later, Squall, Zell, Cid and Irvine had convened in Cid’s office. Cid, Zell and Squall all had their heads hung low. Irvine’s expression was more neutral than anything- he was a little fatigued after his “workout” with Selphie.

“And we have concluded,” Cid continued, in his business-like tone, “that in light of this new evidence, we have no other option but to drop all charges currently against you, and reinstate all rights and responsibilities that had been previously stripped.” Cid looked into Irvine’s eyes, expecting to see anger, or spite, but instead saw forgiveness. Cid’s mouth turned up a little at the corners. “On a personal note, Irvine,” Cid continued in his serious tone, “I just want to say how truly sorry I am, and this will never happen again.” He offered Irvine his hand, which the sharpshooter accepted and shook. Cid then quickly departed the room, stating that he had work to do elsewhere. In truth, he’d never been good at apologies, and didn’t want to stick around any longer. This left the three young men alone. There was an uneasy silence, before Squall decided he’d speak first.

“Irv,” he started, looking at his feet before facing Irvine, “I can’t say how sorry I am for the whole thing. If there’s any way I can make it up to you, and I mean ANY, just tell me and I’ll do it. Anything at all.” Irvine smiled, and waved his hand- he’d known that Squall hadn’t meant anything personal by the arrest, and he’d forgiven him once the charges had been dropped.

“That’s OK, man,” Irvine started in his usual friendly voice, “I knew it wasn’t anything personal. I forgive you. Both of you.” Irvine nodded at Zell, who had also been reluctant to look him in the eye. He offered both of them his hand in turn, which they both gladly accepted and shook.

“So we pretend this never happened?” Zell asked. Irvine thought for a second, then said in a deadpan voice-

“As good as, I suppose.” He smiled again, to let Squall and Zell know he was just being his usual jokey self.

“On a more serious note, though,” Squall continued, “we still have the small problem of someone out there having a top-of-the-range sniper rifle and not being afraid to use it. Plus, they live in this Garden.” Zell and Irvine both nodded seriously at that- it was a serious matter.

“We could use a gun nut like you on the investigating team,” Zell started. Irvine simply smiled.

“You got yourself an investigator, then!” All three of them smiled at this- things were back to normal. All they’d have to do was find the person who was responsible for the shootings in Esthar, and life would be truly as it was before…

And the asteroid headed ever onwards.

After leaving the office, Squall had gone back to his quarters, where he’d laid down on the sofa. He had several letters and reports to deal with, and he wanted to be comfortable when he did them. He was about halfway through when the door entered, and a panting, sweating, jogging-suit clad Rinoa came through and flopped on top of him. He wrapped his arms round her and kissed her on the cheek.

“How was your run then?” He asked. Rinoa took a few deep breaths before replying.

“Exhausting,” she replied.

“You know, you should really do some warm-down exercises, or you’ll be really stiff come the morning,” Squall helpfully informed her. She simply shot him an evil look and snuggled deeper into his embrace.

“I’ve got tomorrow off,” she replied, “I don’t care. How’d it go with Irvine?” Squall smiled.

“It’s all OK now,” he said back. “It’s like it never happened.” Rinoa smiled upon hearing that- she knew how much Squall and Irvine liked each other, and didn’t like the thought of them falling out for much longer.

“That’s good,” she replied. “By the way, I bumped into Selphie on my run, and she said she wanted to talk to you about something that happened in Esthar. Any idea what that’s about?” Squall shook his head.

“Not really,” he said. Unless she’s hung up over slapping me when we arrested Irvine… he thought to himself. “I’ll have a chat with her over dinner,” he decided out loud. “First, though,” he continued, addressing his wife, who was still crashed out on top of him, “you need a shower.” Rinoa grinned.

“I’m not THAT bad, am I?” She said, smirking.

“You’ve just been for a five-mile run,” Squall retorted. “You’re awful.” Squall said it in a jokey voice, to let Rinoa know he wasn’t being totally serious, even though she had a lot of sweat dripping off her. Rinoa simply grinned and snuggled even further into Squall’s arms.

“Well I’m very comfortable where I am, thank you very much,” she said, burying her head in his chest. “Besides,” she added, feigning tiredness, I’m too tired to get up…” Squall simply sighed and stood up, carrying her in his arms.

“Looks like I’m going to have to take you there myself,” he said, as Rinoa grinned a very broad grin, “and if you’re very lucky, I may even decide to take a shower at the same time…” They both entered the bedroom, where they stripped off and entered the shower cubicle together…

Meanwhile, Irvine and Selphie were in bed, following another baby-making session, but unlike the snoring Irvine, Selphie was not asleep. She’d slept briefly, but had woken up following a dream she had, where she kept replaying that moment in Esthar where she’d slapped Squall. Irvine and Squall may have talked everything through and become best of friends again, but Selphie hadn’t been a part of that conversation, and she felt she needed to make her peace with Squall. Deciding that there was no time like the present, she unwrapped herself from Irvine’s arms (where she had slept, as per usual), and picked up her telephone, dialling Squall’s number. It rang a couple of times, before Rinoa answered the phone.

“Hello?” the soft, friendly voice of Rinoa came from the receiver.

“Rinn?” Selphie asked, quietly so as not to wake her dozing husband.

“Selph? What’s up?” Rinoa asked back. Selphie nearly stalled, by asking Rinoa how she was, how her training was going, but she bit her tongue, took a deep breath and got straight down to business.

“I need to speak to Squall,” she whispered.

“Why are you whispering?” Rinoa asked.

“Irvy’s asleep next to me,” Selphie replied.

“It’s a bit early for bed, isn’t it?” Rinoa asked inquisitively.

“Well,” Selphie said, smiling and forgetting all about why she rang up in the first place, “Irvy and me are trying for a baby!” Rinoa nearly went berserk with excitement on the other end.

“WOW! SELPH, THAT’S-“ Rinoa giggled a bit, before returning to a more normal decibel level. “Sorry! Don’t want to wake the father-to-be, do we?” Selphie giggled some more. “You can tell Squall when you speak to him!” Selphie stopped giggling, as the purpose of her call came rushing back to her. “Why do you need to talk to him anyway?” Selphie involuntarily shuddered, before answering.

“It’s something private, Rinn. Is he there?”

“No,” Rinoa replied, slightly worried about her friend. “He’s in the parking lot with his new bike. He’s got his mobile phone with him if you want to talk to him.”

“I’d rather talk to him in person, if that’s OK,” Selphie said.

“Sure,” Rinoa replied, still a bit curious as to why Selphie would want a private face-to-face meeting with Squall. Probably has something to do with what she mentioned earlier, about Esthar, she thought to herself.

“Thanks, Rinn,” Selphie said. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Rinoa said, before her voice was replaced by the sound of the dialling tone.

Selphie hung up the phone, and immediately headed towards the door. She nearly left before remembering she was stark naked. Allowing herself a little giggle, she quickly went back and put some clothes on, then left hers & Irvine’s quarters, heading for the parking lot.

Sure enough, Squall was in the parking lot, carefully painting an intricate Griever mural on the offside of his bike. As he wouldn’t be able to ride it for a while, Squall figured that he might as well do something with it until his arm healed. He was interrupted by a voice from behind him, which caused his paintbrush to slip slightly.

“Squall?” Selphie had asked, apprehensively. Squall looked at the new silver streak Griever had running down its face, and frowned.

“What is it, Selphie?” He asked, annoyed at the decimation of his mural. Selphie picked up on the annoyance in Squall’s voice, and chose her next few words carefully. She put a bit too much care into it, in fact, and Squall was left waiting. “What is it, Selphie?” He repeated, with a more urgent tone to his voice. He turned round to face her, and saw her shaking slightly. His attitude immediately softened. “Hey, Selphie,” he said, in a new, more caring tone, “what’s up?” He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Selphie relaxed with this friendly gesture of Squall’s, and started talking.

“It- it’s when you did that,” she started, still apprehensive, “p-put your hand on my shoulder, in Esthar, and I-I-“ Squall cut Selphie’s sentence off by giving her a friendly hug.

“Oh, come on, Selph,” Squall started, “we were both under pressure. I know you didn’t mean it. I hope you didn’t, anyway,” Squall added a more jokey tone to the last part of his sentence. Selphie giggled slightly.

“Of course I didn’t, silly!” She retorted, smiling happily. Squall smiled too, and gave her another brief hug.

“We’ll just pretend this never happened then, OK?” Squall said. Selphie nodded, smiling her usual perky smile, at which Squall couldn’t help but smile too.

“Yes sir!” She spunkily answered, before leaving Squall alone in the car park. Squall allowed himself a brief grin- he’d been worried about Selphie ever since Rinoa had mentioned that Selphie had wanted to speak to him- although she was very happily married to Irvine, she was still one of his closest friends (and one of his biggest fans), and she had a quirky habit of getting worked up over silly little things. Well, Squall thought to himself, at least we’ve worked THAT one out, as he remembered the other times Selphie had thought she’d offended or otherwise hurt Squall, and had spent ages needlessly worrying about it. Squall allowed himself a few more seconds of his grin, before turning to look at his bike, and the silver streak now running down the side of it. Sighing, Squall picked back up his black paint pot, and started giving Griever its face back.

A few days passed, and life started to get back to normal in the Garden. Even Squall’s arm was healing quicker than expected, but not quick enough for Squall, who wanted to get back to enjoying his Griever-emblazoned two-wheeled birthday present. He spent most of his free time down there, while Rinoa was keeping up her training schedule. She had been in training as she’d noticed she’d put on a few pounds (which she attributed to over-indulgence at Squall’s birthday party), and she’d also been put in command of an up-and-coming SeeD peacekeeping mission near Deling City. Rinoa had officially been a SeeD for nearly two and a half years, passing the exams with ease, and she’d been dying for a command for ages, so when she finally discussed it with Squall, he’d been only too happy to accommodate. Rinoa had threatened a boycott in the bedroom department, which only encouraged Squall to give her leadership qualities the recognition they deserved. Always wanting to be at her best no matter what she did, Rinoa felt it was only right to be in perfect shape when she led the mission, and had consequently increased her fitness regime. Following her talk with Squall, Selphie had regained her normal bouncy attitude, and she and Irvine had resolved to spend as much of their free time as they could continuing their efforts to become parents. Zell and Quistis had also been noticeably growing closer, and while Quistis was obviously infatuated with the tattooed security chief, Zell, in his innocence, wasn’t aware of it all.

Another thing that the whole group, indeed, the whole Garden was not aware of, was that there was an armed assassin in their midst. The boys had not given up their investigation, which forced the gunman to keep a low profile. However, as a trained SeeD, the gunman was very good at keeping a low profile, and had managed to sneak both himself and his (formerly Irvine’s) rifle back into the Garden, and had continued going about his daily life as if he’d never been away. On this particular sunny summer afternoon, he was standing alone on one of the new balconies overlooking the quad, reflecting on his failed mission.

“So, both of them lived, eh?” He thought out loud to himself. “No matter. I have them living in fear. I had them turning on one another. I bet Irvine was surprised when they came up and arrested him. And to think he was the one who taught me how to be a good marksman!” He smiled to himself. “That is irony.” He looked over the balcony, and what he saw prompted a new, evil thought in his mind.

“Mrs. Leonheart,” he said quietly to himself, as he spotted Rinoa running laps around the quad as part of her workout routine. He quickly unpacked his rifle and set it so it was overlooking the quad. Even though Rinoa was a moving target, the sniper had no difficulty keeping the crosshairs firmly centred on Rinoa’s head.

“Know the sorrow that you put me through, Squall,” the sniper said, picturing a grieving, heartbroken Squall in his head. Before he pulled the trigger, however, he had a change of heart.

“No,” he said, raising his rifle. “Do not stoop to their level. She doesn’t deserve to die.” He re-aimed his gun, after having had another thought. “But that doesn’t mean she can’t play a part in my revenge…” The gunman aimed his gun at Rinoa’s head again, before slowly aiming further and further down Rinoa’s body…

Rinoa had just completed her 16th quarter-mile lap of the quad when she suddenly collapsed, screaming as a white-hot agony filled her knee. At first, however, she suspected no foul play, merely believing herself to have torn a tendon or ligament or some such thing. She grasped her injured knee, and was alarmed to find that it had a moist texture. Rinoa looked at her injury for the first time, and anger at herself for allowing such an injury to happen suddenly turned into shock, as she saw that her once cream jogging bottoms had turned crimson from her blood. She immediately knew what it meant. I-I’ve been shot, she thought, falling into shock. Why… Rinoa passed out from a combination of blood loss and shock, only dimly aware of the crowd gathering around her.

Meanwhile, on the balcony, the gunman simply packed up his rifle and moved on before anyone determined his location, chuckling as he went, congratulating himself on a job well done.

Squall was busy reading mission reports when all of a sudden, Nida burst in, running. Why is that guy always running? Squall thought to himself. He would have thought further, had he not noticed the serious expression on Nida’s face.

“What’s up?” Squall asked, innocently enough. Nida took a few seconds to catch his breath, before responding.

“Squall,” Nida said, gasping for air, “you gotta come quickly to the quad. It’s Rinoa- she’s been shot.” Immediately, Squall vaulted over his desk and sprinted down the hallway towards the quad, with only one emotion running through his mind.


As Squall ran, the fear ate away at his soul with every step. This was Squall’s fear, the one thing that he was afraid of- having his loved ones taken from him. Outwardly, Squall was a lion. He was, to all intents and purposes, the alpha at Balamb Garden. Everyone looked up to him, and while he had become far friendlier over the past few years, he still projected the image of being the fearless leader of the Pride, ruling nobly and not letting anything break him. However, Nida’s words had broken him into a thousand pieces. Squall kept sprinting down the hallway, ignoring the pain that shot through his shoulder with every step, until he got to the quad. He didn’t know what to expect, but the fear consumed him, and his head was filled with images of Rinoa’s corpse, a sight Squall knew he would never be able to see. Four years ago, facing his fear may have made him a better person, but Squall saw no way that it could help him today. He reached the quad, and immediately sprinted over to where a large group of people were gathered in a circle. No doubt standing over Rinoa’s… Squall morbidly thought to himself.

“Everybody outta my way!” Squall shouted, jogging up to the crowd. They diligently parted, allowing Squall into the centre, as he knew they would. Inside, he found Xu kneeling over a very pale-looking Rinoa. He knelt down next to the dark-haired instructor, taking Rinoa’s hand in his and squeezing it.

“I-ish…” Squall tried to say ‘Is she dead?’ but he simply couldn’t articulate the thought, let alone the words. Xu simply shook her head, and Squall sighed with relief.

“She unconscious,” Xu, who had been supervising the quad at the time of the shooting, said, “and she’s lost at least a pint and a half of blood. I’ve tried to stop the bleeding, but she needs to get to the infirmary right away.”

“Then where are the stretcher-bearers?” Squall asked. Xu simply shook her head.

“I sent someone out to the infirmary, but no one’s come yet.” Squall immediately sprang into action and grabbed a 6ft plank from the nearby construction site, where the new outdoor stage would eventually go. He laid it down next to Rinoa, and Xu, immediately sussing what Squall had in mind, helped him lift Rinoa onto the plank. Squall immediately squatted down, placing his hands underneath the plank, ready to lift it.

“Squall,” Xu started, “your shoulder…”

“Screw my shoulder,” Squall replied. Xu nodded- she’d long since learned that it was pointless, not to mention counter-productive, to argue with Squall once he’d made his mind up. Together, they counted to three, and lifted the makeshift stretcher, carrying it up the stairs and just down the corridor to the infirmary, catching Dr. Kadowaki completely by surprise.

“What happened?” The doctor asked, taken aback by the state of Rinoa on the plank.

“She was shot,” Xu answered, “She’s lost a lot of blood.” Squall remained silent- his shoulder was in sheer agony, and besides, he didn’t wish to say anything on the matter.

Dr. Kadowaki immediately sprang into action, preparing a bed for Rinoa. Squall and Xu obediently followed the doctor’s instructions in exchanging Rinoa from the plank onto the bed.

“Right,” Dr. Kadowaki said, taking charge, “you two have just become nurses. Take off your gloves and jackets and put on medical gowns. I need to see what damage the bullet’s done and to fix it if necessary.” Squall and Xu quickly donned the medical gear as Dr. Kadowaki probed Rinoa’s leg with an endoscope. Fortunately, the damage had not been too severe, despite the loss of blood (which was swiftly dealt with via a transfusion), and the doctor and her two impromptu nurses were finished within two hours. Squall, who hadn’t said a word throughout the operations, simply took off his robes and placed them in the basket, ready to be sterilised. He put his jacket and gloves back on, and was about to leave, when Dr. Kadowaki stopped him.

“Squall,” she said, in a soft tone, “I have to keep her in overnight, for observation. You can pick her up tomorrow morning.” Squall simply nodded.

“I’ll have Zell post a guard outside her door. I won’t leave her unattended,” Squall responded, with very little emotion in his voice, something Dr. Kadowaki picked up on.

“Squall,” she replied, “do you really think that’s necessary?” Squall gave Dr. Kadowaki a sideways glance.

“There’s an armed maniac loose in the Garden. Yes I think it’s necessary,” he replied. Dr. Kadowaki simply nodded, which prompted Squall to take his leave of her, without so much as a ‘goodbye’. Xu emerged from the changing room a little later, having taken more time to change, as she’d got a little messier than Squall had.

“Keep an eye on him,” Dr. Kadowaki advised Xu. The dark-haired deputy head teacher simply nodded, knowing all too well how moody Squall could get at times, especially at times like this, when he didn’t have Rinoa by his side…

Squall returned to his quarters a full nine hours later, following several interminable Garden security and situation meetings with Zell, Irvine, Cid and the forensic team, who had managed to find the bullet in the quad (it had actually passed all the way through Rinoa’s knee) and identify it as coming from the same rifle that shot Squall and Seifer in Esthar.

It looks like Seif was right, Squall thought to himself as he lay on his bed, it was a Garden student after all. Not just a Garden student, but most probably a SeeD who has been trained in covert ops. Swell. SeeDs were trained to the highest possible standard, so much so that they were widely regarded as the finest soldiers in existence. They had only a small covert operations unit (which had not only been founded by Quistis, but was also taught by the instructor), however, the graduates were already carrying out missions that would have been deemed impossible for regular SeeDs a few years ago. As such, they were very good at getting in and out of places undetected, including, sadly for Squall, Gardens. He had ordered Zell to assign every spare security team to hunt down the would-be assassin, and to trawl through all the CCTV tapes, a task that wouldn’t be finished until morning. Dr. Kadowaki had promised to inform him immediately when Rinoa regained consciousness, which left Squall with only one more task to do before he was done for the day. Sighing, he picked up the receiver on his telephone, and dialled the number of Seifer’s hospital ward in Esthar (he had not yet been discharged due to fears for his safety). The phone rang, before the receptionist answered.

“Hello, Esthar hospital, how may I help?” The cheerful voice of the receptionist said.

“I’d like to speak to Seifer Almasy, please,” Squall answered in a serious, business-like tone.

“I’m sorry,” the apologetic voice of the receptionist replied, “but he is in a meeting with his agents and does not wish to be disturbed. Agents? Squall thought. Since when did Seifer have any agents? He decided to pursue this line of thought.

“His agents, you say?” He asked the receptionist.

“Oh yes,” the receptionist answered, “a weird-looking couple. Especially that girl with the eye patch.” Oh, no, Squall thought to himself, grimacing, he hasn’t. Tell me he hasn’t… He asked a question he knew he wasn’t going to like the answer to.

“What colour was the girl’s hair?” Squall asked, bracing himself for the worst.

“Funny you should ask,” the receptionist answered, “it was the greyest hair I’d ever seen. Especially on someone as young as her.” D’oh! Squall thought to himself.

“Can you pass on a message, then?” Squall asked the receptionist, still unable to comprehend how Fujin and/or Raijin could become literary agents.

“Yes, I can do that,” the receptionist replied.

“Tell him to ring Squall as soon as possible,” Squall said, wanting to end the conversation as soon as possible.

“OK, got that. Anything else?” The receptionist, of whom Squall had already had more than enough, asked.

“No thank-you. Goodbye,” Squall said quickly, hanging up the phone. With his final task of the day over and done with, Squall laid back down on his bed, trying to get to sleep, but inwardly wishing that the phone would ring and Dr. Kadowaki would tell him that Rinoa was conscious again. Squall laid awake for nearly four hours, hoping that the phone would ring, but eventually, he drifted off to sleep.

Quistis was working late into the night, as usual, setting out training schemes and organising exams. As deputy head teacher, she had a lot of responsibilities, and even in a time of crisis like the Garden was going through, she still had to carry them out as best she can. However, it was getting late, almost 2AM, and while she still had a stack of work to carry out, Quistis was tired, and opted to retire to her quarters, get some sleep, and continue the following morning. She turned off the lights, and set off down the corridor to the lift.

She only got 75 yards, however, before encountering someone she knew very well.

“Chris?” She asked the young SeeD who had been sitting on the wall, dangling his legs over the edge. “What are you doing up so late?” Christopher Duncan had been one of the star students in her covert operations class, and had become a fully-fledged SeeD only 4 months ago.

The gunman turned around upon hearing his former instructor’s voice, and stood up in front of her. How ignorant, for someone so intelligent, he thought to himself.

“I-I couldn’t sleep,” the gunman replied. “I kept having nightmares about Nikki…” Quistis nodded at this remark. Nikki was Chris’s elder sister, and was also a student at the Garden, until Seifer had captured her and brainwashed her, and turned her into a suicide bomber. Chris had idolised his sister, and her death hit him very hard.

“I understand,” Quistis replied.

The gunman inwardly bristled- how dare she say she understands what I’m feeling! The gunman thought to himself. However, he was able to control his surface emotions, and continued talking to the blissfully unaware Quistis.

“Thanks,” he said, keeping his reply short in case his anger did boil over and his cover got accidentally blown.

“You know,” Quistis continued, “it often helps to talk to someone about this kind of thing.” She smiled, to let Chris know that she was his friend. “I’m always available, if you ever need a friendly ear.”

The gunman smiled too, but it was a fake smile. She’s very pretty when she smiles, the gunman thought to himself.

Quistis smiled again, and started to walk away from Chris.

“Instructor,” the gunman started, conflicting thoughts swimming through his head. How far should I take this? He thought to himself.

“Mmm?” Quistis replied, turning around to face the confused SeeD. “What is it, Chris? And call me Quistis, you’re not a student any more.” She smiled again.

The gunman, however, was not smiling, but had an eerie frown on his face. He moved toward Quistis.

“You’re very pretty,” he said out loud, in a voice as eerie as his expression.

“Ch-Chris?” Quistis was disturbed by Chris’s voice and his expression, and backed away from him.

The gunman kept single-mindedly walking toward Quistis, and reached a hand out to stroke her cheek.

Quistis was now anxious, and started to fear for her safety. She backed away from Chris as he tried to stroke her face, but before she could back away fully, his hand clenched into a fist and made contact with her jaw at a very high speed. Quistis was caught completely by surprise and was knocked to the floor, and the books and papers she was carrying flew everywhere as a result. Quistis was dazed and confused by the attack, and before she knew what was happening, Chris had leapt on top of her and had wrapped a gag around her mouth and was restraining both her arms behind her back. He manhandled her to her feet, his grip on her arms not lessening one bit as he did so.

“I feel like talking now,” Chris said, still in the same eerie voice. “Your quarters or mine? I think you’ll find my bed is very comfortable,” he said, leaving no doubt as to what his evil intentions were. Quistis tried to struggle free, but his grip was too strong and too expertly held. She instinctively closed her eyes and concentrated, and cast a blizzaga spell on her attacker. A split second later, however, she felt the ice-cold pain hit herself, instead of her attacker.

“Reflect is a handy spell, don’t you think?” He asked the still-struggling Quistis. “And to make sure no GF’s come into play…” he concentrated himself, and cast silence on Quistis. “Now, shall we dance?” He started to drag the near-hysterical Quistis away, but before he could get to the lift, he himself was attacked from behind, and his grip on Quistis was loosened, allowing her to wriggle free. She turned around to see who her saviour was.

“Go on!” Zell shouted, struggling to keep a squirming Chris under control. “Get the hell outta here!” However, Chris managed to get one of his arms loose, and elbowed Zell hard in the ribs. Before he could follow up on his attack, however, a still-trembling Quistis had managed to draw her chain whip and cracked it at Chris, narrowly missing him. He concentrated again, and cast an Earth spell on her, knocking her to the floor. When she got up again, he was nowhere to be seen. She went over and helped Zell stand up.

“Are you OK, Quis?” Zell asked once he was back on his feet, albeit still a bit breathless. Quistis simply pointed at her throat, to indicate that Chris’s silence spell was still in effect. Zell quickly gave her an echo screen, and as Quistis inhaled it, went over to the nearest intercom, and started keying in the code for a red alert- the highest alert condition possible in the Garden. Quistis had managed to regain her voice, just about, and she went over to Zell.

“What are you doing?” She rasped. “You can’t order a red alert while everyone’s asleep!”

“Watch me,” Zell simply said, hitting the button and setting sirens off in every part of the Garden.

Chris heard the sirens and knew exactly what they meant. In just a few seconds, the whole Garden would be swarming with SeeDs, and he needed to escape. He was still wearing his SeeD uniform, which would help him, but by the time Zell or Quistis reached a PA terminal, he’d be doomed. Frowning, he headed upward…

Squall had been asleep for about 20 minutes when the sirens brought his slumber to an abrupt end. Immediately, Squall’s mind started racing. Rinoa? He thought to himself, panicking slightly. Is she-? Squall immediately calmed his mind down and ordered his thoughts. No, there wouldn’t be a red alert! This is something else. Something big. He immediately donned his boots and jacket and picked up his gunblade, just in case he needed to use it. His left shoulder was still, for the most part, out of action, but Squall knew he’d be able to get by with just his right hand. He left his quarters, and, amidst a stream of SeeDs, headed up to his office, which had been the designated meting point in the event of a red alert.

Selphie and Irvine departed their quarters together, a few minutes later, having needed more time to get dressed than Squall had done. They too were heading towards Squall’s office when the sirens stopped, and Zell’s voice boomed over the intercom.

“Attention Garden,” he started, as business-like as he could get, “there is a renegade SeeD loose in the grounds. His name is Christopher Duncan, and he is to be stopped at all costs. Do not hesitate to use deadly force. I repeat, the use of deadly force is allowed.” The intercom cut off, and the sirens re-started on a lower decibel level. Irvine and Selphie were in shock- Irvine had taught Chris practically all he knew about sharp shooting, and Selphie had been in command of Chris’s first mission as a SeeD. Nonetheless, they knew that he was now a renegade, and while it may be tough, he had to be stopped. The sirens then cut off again, and the Garden computer’s voice could be heard.

“Intruder spotted on the 3rd floor hallway, north section,” it calmly said. Irvine and Selphie looked at each other for a brief second, then quickly ran the short distance towards the stairs to the third floor. They made it up, through a gaggle of still-tired junior SeeDs, and caught sight of their former ward sprinting off down the hallway. Unsurprisingly, since it was quarter past 2 in the morning, the hallway was mostly deserted with the exception of the newly arrived SeeDs. Being the most senior one there, Selphie took command.

“Everyone!” She shouted, getting the attention of all the SeeDs there. “CHARGE!!!!!” The SeeDs all stampeded down the hallway after the by-now panicking Chris. Irvine started to load his gun while he ran, silently praying for Chris’s forgiveness.

Chris really was panicking now- the passageway from the eastern stairwell was coming up soon, and he knew that if there were even 5 SeeDs coming out of it, he’d be done for. He would never surrender, of course, trying instead to take out as many as he could before he eventually went down, but it was not the end he had envisioned for himself. The door was now very close- 50 yards, 40 yards…

The door handle started to be turned. Acting quickly, Chris cast a thundaga spell on the door handle, causing it to electrify. The door handle immediately returned to its default position, and did not move an inch as Chris sprinted past the door. Obviously his plan had worked- electrocute the poor person trying to open the door, and pray that he or she was blown backwards into all the other SeeDs climbing the stairs. Unfortunately for Chris, that tactic would not work on the southern stairwell, as it had already been opened, and at least 30 SeeDs had already poured out of it. Luckily, Chris had a contingency plan. Through the outside windows on the newly-constructed 3rd floor circular corridor, he saw that he was overlooking the car park, and almost directly underneath him was a pile of old mattresses and cardboard boxes that he had dumped there a few hours ago… Nothing like forward planning, he thought to himself, as he concentrated, and cast a tripled blizzaga spell on the window. It didn’t have much effect at first, but when Chris followed it up with a firaga spell, it eventually started to crack. Chris seized his opportunity, and almost as both sides of pursuing SeeDs were upon him (he’d had to slow down and eventually stop next to the window), he dived, headlong, through the window, doing a forward flip and falling 30 feet before landing on his back on the cardboard boxes. Still slightly winded, he climbed into a nearby car and drove off. Selphie was the first to arrive at the window, a mere few seconds after Chris had landed on his safety mat, and her instincts took over. She climbed onto the windowsill, and dropped the same thirty feet that Chris had.

Unfortunately for Selphie, Chris’s forward planning had taken this into account, and as Selphie was 15 feet above the ground, she watched in horror as the mattresses and boxes skidded away, tied to the back of Chris’s car. She tried to adjust her fall so that the damage wouldn’t be too great, and tried in vain to cast a float spell on herself, but time ran out and she hit the ground hard. Immediately, she felt something snap in her right leg, and she heard a loud cracking noise as the rest of her body hit the ground. Selphie didn’t know where it came from, but she screamed in agony as her entire pelvic area suddenly felt like it had had the Ragnarok land on it.

“Sefie!” Irvine yelled, from the third floor.

“Irvy!” Selphie yelled back, quieter than usual due to the pain she was in.

“Someone get the doctor!” Selphie heard Irvine yell before she blacked out from the pain.

Chris was cruising down the road, continually checking his mirrors for any pursuers. He’d eventually got over 3 miles before he convinced himself he’d got away with it. He was planning to drive all the way to Balamb and catch the train there, before he remembered that he was a mere 800 yards away from the Ragnarok landing site. Smiling as another evil plan entered his mind, he took his car off-road and turned off the lights, stealthily heading towards the spaceship…

And the asteroid drew ever closer.

Four hours later, the sun rose over Balamb Garden, bringing with it a new day, and new worries. Cid watched the sunrise from his office, before turning to the SeeDs attending the meeting he’d called. In total, Balamb Garden had 6 senior SeeDs and 2 senior instructors. All of three had turned up to the meeting- Squall, Zell, and Nida (whose decision to wear an ankle-length leather jacket in a weird bastardisation of Squall’s and Irvine’s dress styles still baffled everyone, not least Cid). Rinoa was still in the infirmary but was conscious, and due to be discharged within the hour. Selphie was also in the infirmary, having had to have her leg bolted back together following her fall, and was also suffering from a suspected fractured pelvis. Irvine refused to leave her bedside, which meant that half of Cid’s senior SeeDs were not present. As for his two senior instructors, well, Quistis was still very shaken from her attack, and Xu had taken it upon herself to be with her until she calmed down fully (which, given the nature of the attack, was likely to be days, if not weeks). Sighing, Cid addressed the SeeDs who were there.

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the situation,” he started. Squall, Zell and Nida all nodded. “Good. The investigators have finished searching Mr. Duncan’s quarters, and have found magazines of ammunition for the Fox-17 sniper rifle. They also discovered a hidden incubator, in which was found a nest containing eggs. Snake eggs, to be precise.”

“Let me guess,” Squall interjected, “an Esthar viper, right?” Cid nodded.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Christopher Duncan is behind the assassination attempts on yourself, Seifer, and Rinoa.”

“Any idea where he is now?” Zell asked, eager to get on with the task of finding him. However, Cid only shook his head.

“He was last seen heading down the road to Balamb. I’ve sent the security guards there his physical details, but he was highly trained in covert operations, don’t forget. It’s feasible he could be anywhere in the world right now.”

“Esthar,” Squall muttered, quietly.

“Squall?” Cid asked, genuinely curious as to why Squall would think the way he did. Squall looked up, and addressed his boss.

“Esthar,” he repeated, more sure of himself this time. “He’s going to Esthar. I know it. He knows he won’t be able to get back in here anytime soon, so he’s gonna go after his other target.”

“You mean Seifer?” Cid asked. Squall nodded. Cid contemplated Squall’s idea for a few seconds, before nodding too.

“We are still providing personal security for him, correct?” Cid asked his security chief.

“You betcha,” Zell answered. “Chris ain’t gonna get within 100 miles of Seifer without one of my guys knowin’ about it.”

“Not good enough,” Cid responded. “We need to deal with Mr. Duncan before he makes another attempt on someone’s life.”

“What do you have in mind?” Squall asked. Cid contemplated his options for a few seconds, before making up his mind.

“Zell, Nida,” he started, “go to Balamb. Try to find out where he was going. He’ll have to have taken the train, so I’ll contact the train station and get them to turn over all the CCTV tapes to you, along with copies of all boarding passes issued today. If you find out where he’s gone, contact either Squall or myself, and we’ll send Irvine to meet you. You could probably use a sniper in your party, I doubt he’ll turn himself over willingly. You will go by train only- this is officially an undercover mission, and the Ragnarok is not exactly the most discreet method of transport. Zell, you’ll also have to try to cover your tattoos, as well.” Zell and Nida both nodded, although Zell was noticeably unhappy about having to hide his tattoos.

“Anything else?” Zell asked, standing up and preparing to leave. Cid shook his head. “OK then!” Zell then left, closely followed by Nida. Squall remained behind, and addressed his boss.

“Cid?” Squall started, something obviously troubling him.

“Mmm?” Cid replied, curious to know what it was that was obviously troubling his young commander. “What is it, Squall?”

“What if we’re barking up the wrong tree here?” Squall replied. “Suppose he has gone to Esthar, but not Seifer?”

“If not Seifer, then who else?” Cid asked, before realisation dawned on him. “You mean-“ Squall nodded.

“He’s shown that he’ll hurt my family and friends in order to get to me. Laguna and Ellone are my family,” Squall said, confirming the headmaster’s thought. Cid nodded, accepting Squall’s argument.

“I’ll contact Esthar security, inform them to increase protection around them,” Cid said.

“I hope that’ll be enough…” Squall said, before leaving Cid’s office.

Chris had parked his car at Balamb car park, and was walking down the main street in his disguise, reflecting on the morning’s events. It was close, he thought to himself, smirking, but it was easy, in the end. His thoughts then turned to all the people he’d hurt over the past 7 days. The murderer, he thought of Seifer, the man he considered to have murdered his beloved sister. He got what he deserved. Part of what he deserved, anyway. The rest will follow in due course… He smirked again, and glanced down at his holdall, which contained his invaluable sniper rifle. The coward, he thought of Squall, the man who’d not told him that his sister had been a suicide bomber until Chris had passed the qualification exams and become a SeeD, three years after the event. That, more than anything, made Chris angry. Why didn’t he tell me? Was he afraid? What was his problem? He then decided not to bother thinking about it. His feelings towards Squall were uncertain, except for one point- he wanted him dead. The little wife, he thought to himself, his mind turning to Rinoa, the woman who’d actually fallen in love with Squall and married him. I hope he likes women who have limps, he evilly thought to himself. The thought led him nicely onto Selphie, the next of his victims. The little commander, he thought to himself. He wondered briefly what went through her mind when she hit the tarmac, rather than the mattresses. Her spine, perhaps… he again thought, chuckling out loud. The sharpshooter, Chris reminded himself. He’d done a very good job of framing Irvine as the one responsible for the attacks in Esthar. A shame it couldn’t have lasted, Chris again thought, but then again, you can’t have everything, I suppose. And last but not least, the instructor. Chris frowned upon recollecting his attempted attack on Quistis. He’d had numerous dreams about her ever since her started at Balamb Garden, and they finally looked like coming true, until he was stopped. Suddenly, Chris realised someone- I’ve left someone out, he thought to himself. He’d read all the mission reports of the Ultimecia incident, all about the six heroes- Squall, Rinoa, Irvine, Quistis, Selphie and Zell. Chris was a man who hated leaving things unfinished, and continued walking towards the train station when he noticed something written outside one of the houses that gave him an idea.

“Dincht residence” was what it simply said. Chris smiled, and headed toward the nearest post office…

Squall entered Balamb Garden’s infirmary and took the wheelchair that had been left for him by Dr. Kadowaki. He wheeled it into one of the adjacent rooms, where he was greeted by a sight he’d only had to live without for 18 hours, but to him, those 18 hours had seemed like a lifetime.

“Hi,” Rinoa said, keeping the smile that had made Squall so happy.

“Hi,” Squall said, smiling back. He placed the wheelchair by Rinoa’s bedside and gave her a long kiss, before he scooped her up in his arms and gently sat her down in it. “Is it just me, or have you put on weight?” He asked his still-grinning wife.

“It’s just you, of course,” Rinoa replied, jokily. She then gasped slightly, as she adjusted the position of her extremely sensitive knee. Instinctively, Squall crouched down beside her.

“What is it? Are you alright?” He hurriedly asked Rinoa. She giggled, amused by Squall’s panicky response.

“Of course I’m alright, silly,” she said in a giggly voice that also made Squall laugh somewhat, “it’s just my knee. Now, are we going home or what?”

“Of course!” Squall said enthusiastically, wheeling Rinoa out of the infirmary, and trying not to let the pain his shoulder was giving him show on his face. Squall didn’t care about any pain, however- all he cared about was that his love was back with him.

In an adjacent cubicle, however, another couple were about to receive some not so good news.

Owww… Selphie thought to herself as she slowly awoke from her anaesthetic-induced slumber. My leg hurts. My hips hurt. Why do I hurt? She opened her eyes, and was immediately comforted by the sight of her husband, who had fallen asleep in the chair opposite her bed.

“Hey,” she said, waking Irvine up from his slumber. He pushed his hat back on top of his head (he had had it over his eyes while he slept), and addressed his wife.

“Hey, Sefie,” he said. “How’re you feeling?”

“I feel… hurty,” she replied, still a bit drowsy from the anaesthetic. “My leg especially feels funny.”

“I’m not surprised,” Irvine said, with an air of genuine concern in his voice, “you broke it in two places. The only thing holding it together right now are the screws they had to put in you.”

“Screws?” Selphie asked, the fog clearing slightly. “In my leg? Was it that bad?” Irvine nodded seriously. “Yikes,” Selphie said, quietly. Just then, Dr. Kadowaki walked in, holding a clipboard. She had a grim expression on her face.

“Ah, Selphie,” she said, even more seriously than Irvine. “I’m glad you’re awake, I have a few tests I need to run first, though.”

“What tests?” Irvine asked the doctor.

“Just a few questions,” Dr. Kadowaki replied, maintaining her serious tone.

“Shoot,” Selphie said, starting to smile slightly.

“OK,” the doctor said, looking at her clipboard, “I just need you to tell me your name, age and rank.” Selphie nodded.

“My name is Mrs. Selphie Kinneas, I’m 21, and I’m field commander at Balamb Garden. Was that alright?” Dr. Kadowaki nodded.

“That was fine,” she said, before looking up from her clipboard. “Selphie, Irvine, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.” She turned to Irvine. “You may want to sit down before you hear this.” Irvine obediently sat in a chair next to Selphie’s bed, and instinctively grabbed hold of his wife’s hand.

“Wh-what is it?” Selphie asked, fully awake but still weak from her injuries.

“I’m not sure how to say this,” Dr. Kadowaki said, looking at the floor. This didn’t exactly fill either Selphie or Irvine with confidence.

“What?” Irvine asked, starting to panic. “She’s not dying, is she!?”

“Oh, no,” Dr. Kadowaki said, shaking her head. “She’ll make a full recovery. It’s just that last week, when you came to me asking for advice on how to start a family, I naturally assumed that you two had started trying for a baby.” Selphie nodded.

“We are,” she said, nodding.

“Well I’m afraid that it will no longer be possible,” Dr. Kadowaki said, in a business-like tone. The news hit Selphie and Irvine like a wrecking ball.

“What?” Selphie asked, slightly shocked at the news.

“What? Why?” Irvine asked, shocked, but also angry.

“When you broke your pelvis from the fall,” Dr. Kadowaki explained, “you also bruised some internal organs, including, I’m afraid, your uterus.”

“Can’t the damage be repaired?” Irvine asked, still angry. Dr. Kadowaki shook her head.

“A part of the membrane has become weakened. You can conceive a child, yes, but you won’t be able to carry it for longer than 6 months without risking severe internal injuries.” She paused for a minute, before adding- “I’m sorry. I wish I had better news.” Irvine snorted, before leaning over and giving his wife a long, comforting hug.

“I’d best leave you two alone…” Dr. Kadowaki said, backing out of the cubicle, and leaving Irvine and Selphie alone, crying on each other’s shoulders…

Zell and Nida entered Balamb by car, both wearing their disguises, which Zell was none too happy about. While Nida had been able to disguise himself with the aid of just a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, Zell had been forced to wear a balaclava, which not only covered his tattoos, but flattened his hairstyle as well. Man! Zell thought to himself angrily, how am I supposed to stand out when I’m dressed like a dick? They pulled into Balamb car park, and parked on the top floor. Nida had been telling a story about his holiday in Esthar all the way there, and Zell had tried his hardest not to listen to it. If they’d been paying more attention to their surroundings, they might not have driven straight past Chris’s car without noticing it. Zell stopped the engine, and got out of the car. Nida followed suit, finishing off his tale.

“…Can you believe it? President Loire actually remembered my name,” Nida exclaimed, expecting a response from Zell. When the balaclava-clad man was not forthcoming, Nida decided to give him a little prompt. “Zell? Are you listening?” Zell jumped slightly, and tried to piece together a response from what little he’d heard.

“Mmm. President Loire’s name. Yeah,” Zell hastily replied. He was leaning on the railing at the top of the car park, looking over his hometown. He had an uneasy feeling that something wasn’t right, somewhere…

“Have you even heard a word I’ve said?” Nida asked Zell, getting slightly frustrated.

“Of course I have,” Zell replied, going on the defensive. “A few of them, anyway.” Nida grunted, and threw up his arms in exasperation.

“A few of them?” Nida asked. “Is that all? Sometimes, I wonder why I bother going on holiday in the first place.”

Because it does us all a favour… Zell cruelly thought to himself, before turning and walking towards the stairs. Nida followed him, complaining all the way. They reached Main Street, but as Nida turned to head towards the train station, Zell kept walking on.

“…Pain in the butt sometimes!” Nida whinged, before noting that Zell had not turned to go down the street. “Where’re you going?” He asked Zell.

“I’m gonna drop in and see Ma before we go,” he replied. Nida nodded.

“Cool,” he replied. “Maybe she’ll be interested in my holiday.” Zell grumbled, thinking some evil thoughts about how to shut Nida up. His thoughts were interrupted by his travelling companion, however. “Which one’s your house?” Nida asked him. Zell stopped, and gestured towards a house just down the road.

“This one,” he said, and as he pointed towards the house in question, both Zell and Nida were horrified to watch a huge fireball come out of the house, followed by a loud bang.

Part 2

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