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Retribution Part 4

Meanwhile, at the party, all of the SeeDs were having a good time, with some notable exceptions. Selphie was doing a good job of keeping the party alive, ably assisted, of course, by Irvine, and it was impossible to tell that the two of them had witnessed Chris’s sadistic, gloating video message. Likewise, Zell was putting on a brave face, taking on all comers at a hotdog eating contest, but anyone who really knew him could tell that he was simply comfort eating. Rinoa and Squall, who were at the centre of celebrations due to both the pregnancy and the mission, were both accepting congratulations and praise with good cheer, but inside, they were barely holding together, due to Laguna’s near-assassination. Quistis, however, was very much alone with her thoughts, which circled around Zell, Seifer, and Chris.

She had barely thought about Zell since her return from the mission, and was feeling slightly guilty because of it. Is that the kind of person I am? She thought to herself. Someone who jumps from one crush to another in the time it takes to snap my fingers? However, when Zell had come up to Quistis earlier in the afternoon, the feelings she normally felt for him were not present. Sure, Zell had tried to cheer her up, like he always did, but where before he’d seemed caring and optimistic, to Quistis, who just wanted to be left alone, he seemed pushy and arrogant. He’s a lot louder than Seifer, Quistis mused to herself. Zell’s always got to shout everything he says. Is that just optimism? I don’t know. Seifer, on the other hand, just seems more… balanced.

To Quistis, the Seifer she’d spent the last few days with couldn’t have been more different from the old Seifer. Arrogant, sneering and pompous would have been an accurate way of describing him as he used to be- but he had changed, and now, the words “listening, smiling and level-headed” could be used to describe him. He even displayed moments of genuine kindness and selflessness to Quistis, actions that she would never have dreamt possible for the old Seifer. However, people do change, as Quistis was finding out, both in a nice way and a not-so nice way…

She still had not been able to shake Chris’s attack from her head, no matter how hard she tried. She thought she had Chris’s personality all worked out- she never even thought him possible of such cold-hearted acts of so-called “vengeance”. However, as always, Zell was there to save her, but Quistis couldn’t help but think that if it had been anyone in that position, Zell would have jumped in to save the day. Hell, she thought to herself, even if it had been Seifer he would have done his best. Eventually, Quistis found her answer to the question she never asked, regarding Zell and Seifer- Seifer had declared his love for Quistis. Zell hadn’t. But do I feel anything for Seifer? Quistis thought to herself. Much to her surprise, she found herself smiling at Seifer’s little quirks, even when he shouted at her on board the Ragnarok, after she had re-set his leg for him. Classic Seifer, she thought to herself. She then realised that she did indeed feel something for Seifer, and while it may not be as full-blown as what Selphie felt for Irvine or what Rinoa felt for Squall, she thought to herself that it could very easily be the start of something big. However, Quistis then remembered that Seifer would not be staying at Garden for much longer. In fact, he’s probably packing his bags right now, she thought to herself. Quistis then shook her head. What good is it going to do just sitting here, moping about it? She thought to herself. Acting impulsively, she rose up out of her chair, and marched out of the quad, heading straight for Seifer’s quarters.

Meanwhile, Zell had sat down with a full stomach, having won (with ease) the hotdog-eating contest, and he was observing Quistis’s mope. Man, he thought to himself, should I go up to her or what? All throughout the afternoon, he’d been plagued by the memories of Quistis’s kiss on the Ragnarok’s entrance ramp, and the look on her face at that time. Could it have been just a friendly peck on the cheek? Zell racked his brains. Does Quis have a thing for ME? The idea seemed impossible to Zell- Quistis was always the quiet, aloof one, while Zell was, by his own admission, a loud, sometimes hyperactive guy, and while he’d had his own fair share of people he’d had a crush on, and people who’d had a crush on him, he would never have picked Quistis to be in the latter category. Zell had always thought of Quistis as being an elder sister, someone he could have fun with at times, sure, but not someone he saw as a potential love interest. Me and Quis like Selphie and Irvine? Ha! Not likely. Zell smiled and took another swig of his drink. She is pretty, though, he thought to himself. It’s a shame she always dates total losers. Just then, something fell into place in Zell’s brain, and everything started making sense to him. So THAT’S why she may have a thing for me, he thought to himself, she always dates total losers, and she wants the one guy at Balamb Garden who isn’t either already hitched, or a total jerk! Why didn’t I realise this before? Zell took a deep breath, and stood up, ready to walk over to Quistis’s table. As he stood up, however, he noticed Quistis do the exact same thing, only rather than walk towards him, she turned, and walked straight out of the quad. Zell immediately sat back down and thumped his drink down hard on the table, causing some of it to spill. Aw, MAN! He angrily thought to himself. Why does that always seem to happen to me? Still seething, Zell quickly finished his drink, and went off to get another.

Seifer was lying down on his bed, playing a portable videogame, when he heard a knocking at his door. Strange, he thought to himself, the party doesn’t end for another hour and a half. Putting his game away, he leaned over, and activated his intercom.

“Send them in,” he said to the guard. The door was duly opened, and Seifer sat up on his bed, surprised, as Quistis entered the room.

“Quistis! Hi! What are you doing here?” Seifer said, somewhat nervously.

“I, er,” Quistis stuttered, “I just needed to talk… to you.” There was an awkward pause between the two of them.

“Oh,” Seifer said, ending the pause, “please sit down.” Seifer gestured to the sofa in his room, and Quistis sat down on it, still feeling noticeably uneasy.

“Thanks,” Quistis said, gathering her thoughts. OK, she thought to herself, I’m here. Now what? Quistis silently cursed herself for not thinking her actions through properly, something she was normally renowned for. However, this was far from a normal situation for Quistis.

“So?” Seifer asked, ending another awkward pause.

“So… what?” Quistis asked in reply.

“So,” Seifer replied, “what did you need to talk to me about?” Quistis gulped- it was now or never.

“I wanted to talk to you about what you said on the runway, at Esthar airstation,” she replied. It was now Seifer’s turn to pause uneasily.

“Ah, yes, that,” Seifer said, after a few seconds had passed. “I was going to find you after the party and discuss that with you. Looks like you’ve saved me a journey.” Although Seifer was trying to lighten the mood, he was now as uneasy as Quistis was, and his attempts were obviously in vain.

“Tell me, Seifer,” Quistis said, her voice adopting the stern tone of voice usually reserved for disciplining unruly students, “if you’d known that you were coming back to Balamb with the rest of us, would you have told me what you felt?” For possibly the first time ever, Quistis’s authoritative tone of voice actually had the desired effect on Seifer, and he hung his head low, avoiding her gaze.

“Not there or then,” he finally answered, “but I would have done before I left for Esthar.” Quistis nodded- she was satisfied with his answer.

“Why did you tell me at all, Seifer?” Quistis asked, still in her ‘teacher’s voice’.

“I just felt that you needed to know the truth,” Seifer replied. “I’ve had some time to think about what I said, and I meant it. You’re a fascinating woman, Quistis.” Quistis looked down at the floor at this comment, making it look like she was formulating another question, when in reality, she was actually trying to keep Seifer from seeing that she was blushing. After a few seconds, however, Quistis’s cheeks started to return to their normal colour, and she resumed her questioning.

“Why do you feel that way about me, Seifer?” She asked, her authoritative voice starting to waver slightly.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” Seifer replied, incredulously. “I’m sorry, Quis, I didn’t mean to snap, I just don’t see how I’m supposed to know how the heart works. Maybe I’ve always had a thing for you, I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve never realised it until now. But when we were trapped in the hangar… I just feel that we connected. Maybe.” Quistis looked at her feet again.

“What if I told you, Seifer,” she started, “that I felt the same way?” Seifer was visibly stunned by this revelation, and looked over at Quistis, the shock written all over his face.

“I-I never expected you to feel the same way,” he replied.

“Why is it so unfeasible, Seifer?” She asked, trying to talk in her stern voice, but instead allowing a lighter tone to creep in. Seifer chuckled in response to her question. “What’s so funny, Seifer?” She asked again, this time managing to make her ‘teacher’s voice’ stick.

“You,” he started, “the prim and proper instructor who’s so well liked that she has her own frigging fan club here, and me, the outsider, the guy who everyone feared and hated during my time here?” However, Quistis was prepared for this response.

“You,” she retorted, “the author, the wise, intellectual man whose words have everyone enthralled, and me, the woman who’s seen as little more than a mother figure, or, at best, a big sister; the woman for whom love meant either a nervous groupie or a pompous, stuck-up toff who sees me as nothing but something to hang off his arm. Up until now, of course.” Quistis expected Seifer to laugh in her face after these comments- however, much to her surprise, her remained silent.

“I had no idea,” he said.

“I’m not exactly proud of my dating track record,” Quistis remarked. “The only person I ever felt something for eventually wound up with another woman, and I got left out in the cold, jumping from one pathetic boyfriend to the other, until, eventually, all I could do was just give up on love altogether.”

“Never give up on love, Quistis,” Seifer replied. Quistis smiled- everything Seifer had said to her so far had made perfect sense. Is this what it feels like when it’s meant to be? She quietly thought to herself. There was another pause, but this one was not as awkward as any of the others. Eventually, Seifer broke the silence.

“OK, it’s my turn to be the interrogator,” Seifer declared. “Why me? Of all the people you could have had, why’d you decide to pick me?”

“I didn’t decide to pick you, Seifer,” Quistis replied, “it just happened. And as for why?” Quistis sighed. “Like I said, all the guys I’ve dated have either not given a damn about me, or worshipped me like some kind of idol, and I can’t stand that. You treat me like a normal person, Seifer, and you’re kind, sensitive, you have a great sense of humour, and you’re humble.” Quistis looked over at Seifer, whose face was pointed toward the ground, trying to hide from Quistis the fact that he was blushing.

“That hardly sounds like the Seifer Almasy you knew several years ago,” he replied.

“The Seifer Almasy I knew several years ago is dead,” Quistis replied, “and I say good riddance to him. You’re a far better person now, Seifer. You have every quality I look for, not just as a friend or a lover, but as what my perfect guy would be.” However, as she finished that sentence, Quistis took a mental step back. Did I just say that? She thought to herself. Aren’t I exaggerating a little? Quistis mused for a while on that question. Actually, come to think of it, I’m not…

“Nothing between us could ever work out, Quistis,” Seifer retorted, “after all, I’m banged up in Est-“ at that moment, Seifer remembered Cid’s job offer, and he started smiling, knowingly. Quistis was quick to pick up on it.

“What?” She asked. “What is it you know that I don’t, Seifer Almasy?” She asked in a mock serious tone.

“Let’s just say,” Seifer said while leaning back, “that I might have been a little pessimistic with that sentence.” Quistis smiled, and then smiled at the fact that she was smiling- once again, Seifer had put her in a happy mood.

“So?” Quistis asked.

“So, what?” Seifer asked in reply.

“So what happens now between us?” Quistis clarified. There was yet another brief pause, while Seifer gathered his thoughts.

“We’ll just have to see where the spirit leads us,” he said, before chuckling again. “Holy crap,” he said, laughing, “That sounded dumb, didn’t it?” Quistis chuckled too.

“Yeah,” she said, “kinda.” She then stood up, and started to walk toward the door.

“I’d better get going,” Quistis said. “Squall and the others will probably be wondering where I am.”

“OK,” Seifer replied, trying to get to his feet.

“You don’t have to get up on my behalf,” Quistis said, watching Seifer’s valiant struggle against the force of gravity.

“Maybe I want to,” he retorted, still struggling, until Quistis finally went over and helped him stand fully upright. “Thanks,” Seifer acknowledged. He hobbled with Quistis toward the door, where they paused for a brief moment.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, then,” Quistis said, not wanting the moment to end.

“Yeah,” Seifer said, “maybe sooner than you think.” There was another brief pause, as the two of them simply stood by the door, not moving. “Well,” Seifer eventually said, breaking the deadlock, “bye, then.”

“Bye,” Quistis also said, quietly. Slowly, the two young adults leaned in toward each other, and shared a brief, fleeting kiss. Quistis then turned, and walked straight out of the door without another word. However, the blonde woman only got three or four steps before she turned, and smiled at Seifer. Seifer smiled back as the door was closed, shutting him off from the outside world, and his newfound love. Seifer hobbled back to his bed, and laid down on it, smiling out of pure happiness for the prospects for his future.

“Hmm,” Seifer thought out loud, “I wonder how I should accept Cid’s job offer?” He then reached for his phone.

“Hello,” he said, speaking into the receiver, “can you put me through to my agents, please?” Seifer then smiled a wicked grin as the operator put him through to his agents, whom he had previously sent back to Esthar. “Fujin?” Seifer asked, as Fujin’s unmistakable tone of voice came over the telephone line. “Can you and Raijin get back to Balamb as soon as possible, please? I’m in need of your negotiating prowess…”

Zell was heading home to his quarters, having given up on the party following Quistis’s unannounced exit. That’s what you get for thinking things over, he thought to himself. He turned the corner, and nearly yelled out loud when he saw Quistis leaving one of the quarters down the hallway. Damn! He thought. What’s she doing there? Whose quarters are those? Acting quickly, he ducked behind a corner, so that Quistis wouldn’t be able to see him, and he silently watched as Quistis smiled warmly at whoever it was inside the living quarters, before walking off down the corridor, away from where Zell was secluding himself. Whose quarters ARE those anyway? The tattooed security chief thought to himself again. In his mind, he drew a map of the entire living quarters’ block, and tried to work out which corridor he was in, and which room it was Quistis had left. It took only a few seconds, and when he’d worked it out, Zell was not happy with the answer.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” he muttered under his breath, before walking down the corridor, and stopping outside the door that Quistis had left. Zell checked the door’s inscription- it read “GUEST: Charles Wilkinson.” In his mind, Zell cursed a million times. Charles Wilkinson had been the alias that Seifer had checked in under, and Zell had no doubt in his mind that it was Seifer, and no other, that Quistis was smiling at when she left the room. Damn you, Seifer! Zell thought to himself. You just gotta ruin my life one piece at a time, don’t you? Zell had immediately jumped to the conclusion that Seifer had somehow managed to woo Quistis, and, although his assumption was correct, it never entered his mind for one second that she might have been smiling out of friendship alone. Angry, frustrated and tired from the day’s events, Zell returned to his quarters, where he vented his frustration on his punching bag, attacking it until his muscles were sore, before he jumped into bed and fell into a deep sleep.

While he slept, Zell had a strange dream, a dream that reminded him of the ones Squall had talked about after their first abortive attack on the D-district prison, Seifer’s former stronghold, three and a half years previously. Zell found himself sitting over the edge of a dock, in his hometown of Balamb. Startled by something, Zell stood up, and turned round. Facing him was the figure of a man whom Zell had not seen in over ten years.

“Pa?” Zell asked, incredulously. Zell’s father simply nodded, before speaking.

“Let it be, son,” he said, in a fatherly tone. “There will be an answer, let it be.” He then turned, and walked off, heading for Balamb town. Zell ran after him, trying to catch him, but found himself faced with a wall of people, all keeping the man with the tattoos from reaching his father.

“Pa! Wait!” Zell yelled after his father, who was fast receding into the background. “PA!” Zell then felt himself get pushed over, and he landed on his back.

Almost instantaneously, Zell awoke in his bed. The sun was beginning to rise over the hills to the east, heralding the start of a new day. Curious about the time, Zell looked over at his clock, which read “04:35”.

“Twenty-five to five, huh?” Zell mused out loud. “That gives me an hour and a half before the start of the mission.” Zell then fell asleep again, before finally getting up half an hour later.

Squall, too, had woken up earlier than usual, but unlike Zell, he had been unable to get back to sleep. He was merely hours away from embarking on what seemed like a routine seek and capture mission, but Squall was anxious. He couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, Chris had the measure of him, and that he’d have numerous lethal traps waiting for Squall and his team once they reached Timber. Sure, his team consisted of himself, Zell, Nida and a dozen Garden security guards, but Chris had a proven track record when it came to evading capture, and what worried Squall the most was that Chris also had a proven track record of always using the dirtiest trick possible. What if somehow we all get wiped out? Squall glumly thought to himself. Can I really leave Rinoa here alone to raise two children? If it was just her, then sure, she understands the risks, but how can infants understand that their daddy had to fight and get killed? That was Squall’s main worry- ever since Rinoa had become pregnant, Squall’s primary concern had been for her and for the children that were developing inside her womb. Garden had a good insurance policy, sure, but a few million gil isn’t going to make up for a lifetime without a father- and Squall knew all too well how it felt to have no parents. Laguna hadn’t been there for him when he was a child, and Squall had no intention of missing any of his kids’ lives. Eventually, Squall’s tossing and turning woke Rinoa up from her sleep, and she rolled over, so that she was facing her husband.

“What’s up, Squall?” Rinoa asked, groggily. “It’s only quarter past four… get back to sleep, darling.” Rinoa rolled back over, as if to go back to sleep, but Squall had other ideas. I’ve got to discuss it with her some time, he thought, glumly.

“Angel,” he said, seriously, “tomorrow, the mission, has a high risk factor.” He took a deep breath, hoping that he’d word his sentence so as not to upset his wife too much. “If I don’t come back-“ He was not able to finish his sentence, as Rinoa rolled back over, and spoke straight into his face.

“No,” she stated, with a determined voice.

“Angel,” Squall said, still as serious as before, “we have to face the possibility that-“ Once again, Squall was unable to finish his sentence.

“No, Squall,” Rinoa once again stated firmly, “you’re coming back from that mission alive. I don’t care if Chris has a hundred snipers there waiting for you, you’re going to come back alive.” Squall sighed- Rinoa’s stubbornness was one of the very few things he didn’t love about her.

“Angel,” Squall tried again, “we have to at least face the poss-“ For the third time in a row, Rinoa cut Squall off in mid-sentence.

“No, Squall!” She stated in a raised voice, as tears started to form in her eyes. “There is only one possibility, and that’s that you’re coming back, and we’re going to have these babies together. I want you to promise that to me, Squall.” Rinoa took Squall’s head in her hands and stared straight into his eyes, into his very soul. Squall met Rinoa’s gaze, and felt his heart start to melt at the helplessness that he could see in her eyes. How can I not promise her? He thought to himself.

“OK, Rinoa,” Squall said, his voice adopting a caring tone, “I promise. I’ll come back to you.” With that, Rinoa wrapped her arms around her husband and held him in a tight, tender hug. Squall put his arms around Rinoa, and hugged her back, and a new sense of optimism started to fill the young commander’s head. Yeah, he thought. I’m coming back to you.

An hour and a half later, and Squall, decked out in his Garden uniform (complete with gold rank insignia on the sleeves) was standing in the car park of Balamb Garden, waiting for the rest of his team. He’d said his goodbyes to Rinoa in their quarters a while earlier, reiterating his promise to return alive, a promise he intended to keep. I’ll be damned if the last words I say to my love turn out to be lies, he defiantly thought to himself, as he continued his wait in silence. Eventually, Nida and Zell, both in their Garden uniforms, arrived with the security team. It was to be Nida’s last mission before his transfer to Trabia Garden, and Selphie was already planning a “Goodbye Nida” party for when they returned. As the two senior SeeDs approached Squall, however, the commander detected some animosity between Nida and Zell.

“Ready?” Squall simply asked. Nida and Zell both nodded, prompting Squall to open up the back of the truck they would be using.

“OK,” he started. “Zell, get your men in the back. Make sure they’ve all got full stocks of Shell and Protect spells- I don’t want them to be caught unawares.”

“Don’t worry, Squall,” Zell said, “my men are always prepared. You should know that by now!” Squall nodded, while Zell turned and faced his troops. “ALRIGHT!” The security chief shouted. “EVERYONE ABOARD!” The security team promptly marched up the ramp into the back of the truck, and when the last one had boarded, Zell followed them in, and took his seat at the back of the hold, just behind where the driver sits. With everyone aboard, Squall rolled up the ramp and sealed the truck, before turning to Nida.

“Is everything alright between you two?” Squall asked, seriously. He didn’t want some personal grudge to get in the way of a potentially lethal mission.

“Everything’s fine,” Nida replied. Squall simply stared at Nida. “…OK, maybe there is a problem,” the dark-haired SeeD admitted.

“What kind of problem?” Squall asked.

“It’s nothing that will get in the way of the mission,” Nida stated, officially. “It’s, uh, kinda personal.”

“Take every step to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the mission,” Squall ordered, before heading toward the passenger side of the truck.

“Squall,” Nida said, causing the commander to stop and turn around. “Before we leave, can I just say, as it’s my final mission here and all, that’s it’s been an honour serving with you.” Squall smiled, and walked back toward the twenty-two year old SeeD.

“Thanks,” Squall said, shaking Nida’s hand. “You’ll do Trabia proud.” Nida smiled and nodded, before climbing into the driver’s seat of the truck, and starting the engine up. Once Squall had climbed into the passenger seat, Nida drove the truck straight out of the car park, and toward Balamb town.

In the hold, Zell had watched Squall shake Nida’s hand, and his thoughts were in a muddle. Is he stealing my best friend away from me now!?!? He irrationally thought, before mentally calming himself. No, he’s probably just saying goodbye to him, Zell thought to himself, more calmly. When he’d heard that Nida was going to be on the mission with him, Zell had not been happy, but had decided to put up with it, seeing as after the mission, he wouldn’t have to see him again. This was before Zell observed Quistis leaving Seifer’s quarters however, a discovery that had put Zell in a totally different, more paranoid frame of mind altogether. Can’t anything go my frickin’ way just once? Zell self-pityingly thought, before mentally compiling a list of people who liked him, and who he liked, at Balamb Garden. He was surprised when he learned that the list contained practically everyone who lived and worked there. Hell, he thought to himself, more optimistically, maybe I’m just goin’ through a down patch. Nida and Seifer’ll both be gone this time next week, and I’ll have the whole Garden to myself again! Zell smiled to himself at this particular thought. Things ain’t so bad after all.

The truck arrived at Balamb docks, where the fifteen SeeDs all disembarked the truck, and boarded the boat, which had been waiting especially for them. Nida fired up the engine of the boat, and steered it away toward Galbaldia.

As Zell walked across the deck, however, he couldn’t help but be reminded of the dream he’d had about his father the previous night. Let it be, Zell thought to himself. Yeah, thanks Pa! That’s exactly what I’ll do! Zell was now a much happier man than he had been earlier in the morning, having had his hope for the future fully restored.

The boat landed on the beaches, just south of Timber, and the SeeDs all disembarked, and silently as one, made their way toward the small town.

When they arrived, they were surprised to find that the town was deserted. Not a soul was to be found on the streets- it was as if everyone had simply left. Squall was apprehensive about the situation.

“Everyone,” he ordered. “Shell. Protect. Now.” Squall listened to the sound of the magical spells all taking effect, and inwardly sighed with relief. At least THAT will protect us, for a while… The team headed onward, deeper into Timber, until they were standing in front of the Timber Maniacs building.

“Alright,” Squall commanded, “split up into groups of five. Find the fugitive, and take him down.” The fifteen then split into three equal groups, with Squall, Zell and Nida in command of one group each, and each group started to head off in it’s own direction.

Observing this all, from a concealed location atop the Timber Maniacs building, was a ponytailed sniper, who was carrying a prototype rifle, and a bag of bullets.

“Fifteen of them, eh?” Chris softly said to himself. “Each one with protect, shell, and most probably a full supply of each of them. That’ll complicate things.” He then looked down at the pouch of blue bullets he had hanging off his belt, and the pouch of black ones that were hanging next to it.

“Fortunately, though,” Chris continued, “all I need to know in life, I learned from Irvine Kinneas.” Chris, like Irvine, had the gun as his weapon of choice, and had a similar limit break attack to the man he initially framed for shooting Squall and Seifer. However, Chris’s limit break differed in one key way- his gun had two barrels, and he could load two different kinds of ammunition into each one.

“So that’ll be AP ammo first,” Chris continued, trying to suppress the urge to laugh out loud, “so those nasty little defensive spells won’t get in my way, and then some dark ammo, to make things a little interesting.” As the groups started to go their own way, Chris trained his fully loaded gun onto Squall’s back, and fired.

Squall was just leading his team toward the train station, when he suddenly stumbled forward, as if some invisible force had hit him. At the same time, he heard what he thought to be breaking glass, but he soon realised that it was not glass that had broken, but his defences.

“AP ammo!” Squall yelled. “Everyone get undercover!” The SeeDs all scrambled, trying to find cover for themselves so they could regroup, before a second bullet hit Squall, this time grazing his arm. The wound it had inflicted was superficial, to say the least, but it was never intended to do much physical damage.

As the bullet whizzed passed his arm, drawing blood, Squall suddenly felt unwell. He felt nauseous, his eyes started watering so much that he couldn’t see, and his throat dried up completely. Immediately, Squall recognised the symptoms as being Poison, blind and silence- all three of which he’d had to deal with before, but never simultaneously. Squall struggled to his feet, and was helped off by two of his teammates.

“Dark ammo!” Squall faintly heard Zell shout. “Damn, what else has that son of a bitch got up there?” As Zell shouted, more men started to go down to the ammo combination- four security guards fell, one after another. One, having had confusion cast on him, even began to attack his comrades, before being subdued.

Squall felt the protective magic of protect and shell re-encompass him, and a drinks bottle enter his hands.

“Remedy,” one of his security guards shouted in his ear. “Drink!” Gratefully, Squall downed the contents of the bottle, blinked several times and took several deep breaths as his speech and eyesight returned to him.

“Everyone,” Squall commanded, “attack magic on the roof of that building on my command.”

Damn, thought Chris, it’s time for plan “G”, then…

“Alright, on three,” Squall commanded. “One, two-“ As Squall counted “two”, he suddenly felt the world begin to shake, and the town of Timber melted from around him. All around him, long grass started to spring up, and a blazing sun appeared overhead. Then, in the distance, a lone lion growled, before blazing forward toward Squall at a speed that no living creature could possibly achieve. Squall felt the lion thunder into him, and fell, in a heap, to the floor, his defences smashed, and his body once again ravaged by the effects of poison and silence. Squall watched as the lion continued it’s frenzied attack, knocking down each and every one of his men, before it disappeared, and, as suddenly as it had melted from around him, the town of Timber re-materialised around Squall, and the commander found himself lying on the floor, helpless. He looked around, and saw fourteen other men and women in a similar situation- all silenced, all helpless. With no way to cure the silence, and no way to re-raise their defences against an armed sniper, Squall found himself with only one option left.


Squall reached for the whistle he had hanging around his neck, and blew into it as hard as his sore throat would allow. The resultant sound was quiet, but audible, and the SeeDs all knew what it meant, Chris included.

Oh no you don’t, Chris thought to himself, quickly loading pulse ammo into his rifle, following his GF’s devastating attack. When his rifle was fully loaded, he pointed it toward the defenceless Squall, and pulled the trigger.

Almost as if in slow motion, Squall watched as the glowing bullet headed toward his unprotected body. Squall was twisting his body, trying to evade the lethal projectile, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. However, just as suddenly as the bullet had registered on Squall’s vision, he young commander felt something thunder into him, something much larger and heavier than a bullet. Squall turned his head, and saw Zell’s face, his mouth twisted into a silent scream, trying in vain to warn his friend of the danger. As soon as Squall saw his friend, however, the blond’s expression change from one of warning, to one of sheer agony. It took Squall no time at all to figure out what had happened.

The bullet hit him, Squall thought to himself. Zell just took a bullet for me. Squall had no time to waste on idle thoughts, however- he was still very much on the firing line, and Zell was lying, slumped, on top of him. Squall shook Zell a few times, trying to wake him, but to no avail- he was already unconscious and was losing blood rapidly. Thinking quickly, Squall stood up, and dragged his friend away from the town square, towards the fields to the south. Squall made a point of holding Zell’s unconscious frame at his side, relative to where the bullets had come from. I’ll be damned if I use my friend as a f**king human shield, he defiantly thought to himself. Squall watched as all around him, SeeDs started suffering bullet wounds from the hidden sniper’s gun- some in the chest, some in their limbs, and some in their abdomen. However, there were still enough to ferry the wounded out of the town, and toward their boat, which had waited for them. Along the way, they encountered several monsters, and were forced to run away from every single encounter- every second that they spent fighting monsters would be another second their colleagues’ wounds went untreated, and Squall would rather have become rusty from not fighting monsters than lose any of his men. The foul creations kept attacking, however, often in groups of three or more, and the situation just seemed to get grimmer and grimmer.

Eventually, however, they reached their boat, and Squall started ordering everyone aboard, the effects of the silence spell wearing off.

“Everyone aboard!” He rasped. “Wounded first. Once I’m aboard, take us straight to Balamb. Nida- get onto Cid. Tell him we have wounded and we need Dr. Kadowaki.” Nida, who had taken a bullet to the knee, nodded, grimacing, before boarding the ship and starting the engine. Eventually, all the SeeDs were aboard, and Squall boarded, heading straight over to where his blond, martial-artist friend lay on a table, possibly facing his last moments of life.

“Zell?” Squall croaked. The young security chief was a depressing sight- pale and in shock due to the blood loss, he was also shaking uncontrollably. Two SeeD medics were tending to the wound in his back, but Squall could clearly see that it was a deep wound, and was straight in the centre of his back.

Zell knew that Squall had had only one option once the GF had finished its devastating attack- retreat. Run away. It was what Zell hated to do, but he saw Squall’s dilemma- defenceless and incapable of attacking a hostile enemy? The only way was out. However, Zell also knew that once the sniper had finished reloading his gun, Squall would undoubtedly be his first target. This left Zell with only one option.

Protect Squall.

Protect Squall. Ensure that he gets out alive. Not just because he’s the commander, or even because his babies need their father, but because he’s a friend. The pulse ammo had immediately knocked Zell unconscious, and sent him into a deep coma. However, his mind was still active, at the subconscious level.

This day… Zell thought to himself, as he played with his videogame system in his room. This day… I know this day… I’ve been here before… Instinctively, Zell switched off his game, and went out onto the landing of his room. There, he studied his reflection in the mirror at the top of the stairs- he was just the average young kid, not very tall, with short blond hair. Zell suddenly heard voices downstairs. He couldn’t make them out, but the sound that followed was unmistakable to him- the sound of his own mother crying. Zell went downstairs.

“Ma?” He asked his tearful mother, “Why are you crying?” Suddenly, his mother rushed forward, and gave him the biggest hug he’d ever been given in his life.

“Oh, Zelly,” she wailed, “it’s your father, he- he’s not coming home.” Zell, sensing his mother’s distress, started to cry as well.

“Why isn’t he coming home, ma?” Zell asked, unable to comprehend the meaning of death.

“He’s gone,” his mother continued, unable to say the word ‘death’, “And he’s never coming back, Zelly.”

“But why?” Zell asked, impatiently, before he tore himself from his mother’s arms, and fled out of the front door.

As he ran down toward the Balamb docks, a thought crossed Zell’s mind. Wait a second, he thought, this isn’t what happened when Pa died. I didn’t run down to the docks, did I? Zell was lost in his thoughts as he arrived at Balamb docks, and was caught completely by surprise when he arrived at the docks to find that they were not there, but instead, there stood a golden staircase, heading off into the clouds. Standing at the foot of the staircase was his father.

“Come along, son,” the dead man said to the young boy. Somewhere, in the background, Zell dimly thought he heard voices he knew- voices belonging to friends of his, perhaps? However, the voices were indistinct, whereas his father was very much real, and was beckoning to him.

“Come along,” Zell’s father said again, holding out his hand for the young boy to take. Smiling, Zell took his father’s hand, and together, they ascended the golden staircase…

“He’s arresting!” The medic, who was tending to Zell, shouted as the young man suddenly stopped shivering, and the heart monitor he was hooked up to stopped it’s rhythmic beeping, changing instead to a single flat tone.

“You have to save him!” Squall shouted. Squall hated the feeling of helplessness- although he’d had plenty of first-aid training, he was far from qualified to deal with anything as serious as the bullet wound Zell had received. He watched as the medics tore open Zell’s shirt, and placed the electric shock paddles on the blond man’s chest.

“Clear!” The medic shouted, and as everyone backed away from Zell, an electric discharge was sent coursing through his body. However, the heart monitor did not change from its flat tone.

“Clear!” The medic shouted again, and another surge of electricity went through Zell’s body. Still, the heart monitor showed no change, and Zell’s body remained lifeless.

“Clear!” The medic shouted for a third time, and once again, electricity was sent cascading through Zell’s system. Once again, there was no change in the young man’s condition. Thinking quickly, the medic reached for a hypodermic, which Squall correctly assumed was an adrenaline shot. The medic stabbed the needle into Zell’s chest, and depressed the plunger. Squall thought that he saw Zell’s body shiver and twitch at the injection, but the heart monitor said otherwise, remaining monotone.

“I’m gonna try one last time,” the medic said, picking the paddles back up. “Clear!” The paddles once again delivered their normally lethal dose of electricity, and as they did, Squall silently hoped, prayed that Zell would recover, that he would continue the fight for his life. Come on, Zell, the commander thought to himself. Please…

The flat tone of the heart monitor continued, however. On, and on, and on… It was drilling a hole in the shocked commander’s head. Solemnly, the medic who was treating him went over to Squall, and shook her head.

“He’s gone, commander,” the medic quietly said. To Squall, it was almost as if he wasn’t there, but was instead witnessing his life as if it were some kind of movie.

“No,” Squall involuntarily said, “he can’t be gone! He can’t be!” With tears of grief and rage starting to well up in his eyes, Squall started walking toward where his deceased friend lay, only to be halted by the medic.

“Sir!” She shouted. “He’s dead! The bullet wound was too deep, and the blood loss too severe! Even if we’d got to him immediately, I doubt it’d have made a difference.” Ending his resistance, Squall turned away from the medic, not wanting anyone to see the tears now freely flowing from his eyes.

“Dammit!” Squall shouted, punching the hull of the boat. “DAMMIT ALL TO HELL!!!” Squall’s scream rang out across the sea, as if to let the whole world know that he was in pain, the kind of pain that never got better…

Meanwhile, back at Balamb Garden, Seifer had been feeling pretty pleased with himself, having had Fujin and Raijin negotiate a contract with Cid, a contract he was busy reading through before he signed it. As he was reading, however, he suddenly stopped, and dropped his pen, as if something elsewhere had interrupted him. Slowly, Seifer stood up, and walked over to the rain-streaked window. He looked out of the window at the thunderstorm that had just begun on the horizon, with a sombre expression on his face.

“Someone’s gone,” Seifer quietly muttered to himself, as he gazed, nonchalantly, at the lightning. He eventually managed to tear himself away from the window after a few minutes, whereupon he sat back down and resumed his reading. However, he still had a bad feeling in his mind. Somehow, Seifer knew that wherever he was right now, Squall was in pain…

Eventually, the boat arrived back at Balamb docks, and the thirteen survivors (along with Zell, another security guard had died en route back to Balamb) trudged out of the boat and into their truck, which had been waiting for them. Squall, along with a medic, carried Zell’s body out of the boat on a covered stretcher, and quickly placed it down in the back of the truck, where all the other SeeDs simply sat, silent, unable to come to terms with the loss that they had just suffered.

While Squall was by far and away the most popular and most respected of the group that had beaten Ultimecia, the other five had their fair share of admirers too. Within weeks, new fan clubs had begun emerging at Balamb Garden- the Trepies had almost trebled in size from the small following Quistis had amassed before the beginning of the Ultimecia incident; Selphie had rapidly become the most popular person at Garden, and her advice was sought on almost everything including dating, decorating, clothes, even her hairstyle started to get emulated. The Irvine Kinneas appreciation society had an enormous (all-female) population, before it was shut down by Selphie after she broke all the members’ hearts by marrying him; and wherever Rinoa went, she was sure to be hounded by several pre-pubescent boys and girls, all wanting to get to know her better so that they could get to know their hero, Squall, better.

In the midst of all of these “kiddie” fan clubs, however, there was another, more rebellious fan club that had started, and would last far longer than any of the others. This was Zell’s gang, and wherever he went, they were sure to be close behind, usually at his request.

Zell’s relationship with his fan club was far different than Quistis’s, for example. While she always kept a respectable distance between her and the Trepies, Zell was always thrusting himself into the middle of his followers’ affairs, and they didn’t mind one bit. Gradually, they started to learn new things from him (many were already accomplished martial artists), and when Zell was made head of Garden security, he didn’t have to look far when he had to form his first squad. In fact, most of the security guards he’d hired since he formed his first squad had, at one point, either been one of Zell’s close friends, or, at the very least, a groupie of his.

Ten of the twelve that had gone to Timber were part of what Zell called his “A squad”- that is, part of his fan club- and during the truck ride back to Balamb Garden, not one of them dared utter a single word, for fear of disrespecting the memory of the dead man who was not only their boss and their mentor, but was also their friend.

Such was the level of love that Zell commanded from his troops, without even having to try.

In the cabin of the truck, Squall, who was driving the truck himself due to Nida’s injury, also spent the trip in complete silence, as he too was in shock over his friend’s death. However, while he was driving through Balamb’s main street, he saw a sight, through the tinted windows of the truck, that almost made him break down and cry- the sight of Zell’s mother, waving at the truck as it passed by, oblivious to the fate of her only son. How in Hyne’s name am I supposed to tell her that her son, her only family, sacrificed his life to save me? Squall unhappily thought to himself. As the commander of the mission, it would be his responsibility to deliver the bad news to Mrs. Dincht, and it was not a responsibility he enjoyed. He’d had to deliver similar bad news on a few occasions before, and had struggled to keep a stony face when confronted by the weeping faces of the relatives, usually the parents, who had sent their children to Garden so that they could build a future for themselves, only to have that future cut tragically short. It never got any easier for Squall, no matter how many times he’d had to do it, and the next time Squall had to do it, it would be the hardest of all…

In the car park of Balamb Garden, Rinoa, Quistis, Selphie, Irvine, Seifer and Xu had all turned out to welcome Squall & co home. Selphie, as vice-commander, had been the one who received Nida’s distress call, and she’d quickly rounded everyone up. Along the way, she’d also bumped into Seifer, who had cut short his contract reading, and was on his way to talk to Rinoa about the bad feeling he’d had about Squall. His plans were changed, however, by the perky vice-commander, who had dragged the tall author down to the car park with her. Together, the six young men and women watched as the truck pulled up, and a bruised and bloodied Squall solemnly climbed out of the driver’s seat.

Rinoa let out a sigh of relief upon seeing that her husband was, save for a few cuts and bruises, totally uninjured. When Selphie had telephoned her with news that the team was returning with wounded, Rinoa had secretly feared the worst. Sure, she’d made Squall promise her that he was coming back, but she was inwardly dreading the possibility that she was only going to the car park to see Squall’s corpse wheeled back on a stretcher. However, he was not wheeled out of the truck, but instead, he walked out. Unable to contain herself, Rinoa hobbled toward Squall, and wrapped her arms around him.

“Thank heaven you’re okay,” Rinoa said, burying her head in his chest. Squall put one arm around Rinoa, and held her tightly. However, Rinoa could instantly tell from Squall’s body language that all was not well. She looked up at his face, and saw Squall staring off into the distance, with glazed-over eyes.

“Squall?” She asked, anxiously. “What’s wrong?” Gulping, Squall looked down at the worried face of his love, then at the equally worried faces of his five friends. He took a deep breath, before finally breaking his silence.

“It’s Zell,” he said, quietly, “he’s dead.” Squall immediately looked down into Rinoa’s face- it was no longer anxious, but instead was registering a state of shock. With tears forming in her eyes, Rinoa buried her head back into Squall’s chest, and squeezed her love as tightly as she could, unable to comes to terms with the death of the man with whom she’d shared so many laughs, so many jokes, and whom she considered to be, next to Squall, of course, her all-time best friend.

Likewise, Irvine and Selphie took the news hard, and hugged each other, trying to console themselves. To say that they both considered Zell to be a friend would be an understatement- hardly a day went by when they didn’t have breakfast (and often lunch and dinner) with him, and now, they had to face the almost unbearable fact that they’d never share their mealtimes, never share their laughs, never share anything with him ever again. Zell’s death reminded them of their own mortality- they were, effectively, mercenaries, whose duty is to fight, but they’d never even considered the prospect that one day, one of them would not return from wherever they had been sent… Now, however, that prospect was all too real, and it scared them witless.

Quistis immediately felt her knees start to go weak at the news, and she took a few steps backward and leant on a car. If she hadn’t have done, it was most likely she’d have collapsed of shock right there, in the middle of the car park- the news had hit her that hard. Although Xu, who was also grief-stricken, was trying to console her, Quistis’s mind was shut off, not listening. Zell, she thought to herself, why did I never get the chance to tell you how I felt? Immediately as she thought that, her mind turned to the other man she presently had feelings for- the man named Almasy. Why is Xu the one consoling me and not him? She angrily thought to herself. Standing back upright, she glanced over at where Seifer was standing. Quistis didn’t know what to expect when she looked over at the tall author- she knew only too well that there was no love lost between Zell and him- but what she saw surprised her. Seifer had actually bowed his head, and closed his eyes, as if saying a prayer for the young man he’d tormented for so long. Stunned, Quistis walked over and put her hand on Seifer’s arm, ending his prayer. Seifer opened his eyes, and looked down on the blonde instructor. Their eyes met for a brief instant, and Seifer placed his hand on top of Quistis’s, which was still resting on his large bicep. He squeezed it gently, before letting it go, and resuming his silent prayer. Just as he did so, however, the back of the truck opened, and the battered, in many cases injured warriors all made their way out of the truck. The SeeDs, including Seifer, watched as one by one, they all walked, hobbled or limped their way toward the infirmary, their numbers including Nida, who had to walk with the aid of one of the less-injured security guards. As Nida and the rest of the team departed, Quistis, Rinoa, Selphie, Irvine, Seifer and Xu all turned to face the back of the truck, where, in total silence, Squall and one of the security guards were carrying a covered stretcher from the back. The figure on the stretcher had a painfully familiar spiky hairstyle. Another stretcher was then carried from the truck, following the one carried by the Garden’s commander.

Maintaining a respectful silence all the way, the six grief-stricken friends followed the stretcher-bearers all the way through the deserted corridors of the Garden and into the infirmary, where Dr. Kadowaki was waiting for them.

“Take them into the morgue,” the doctor said quietly but firmly. Quietly obeying, Squall, along with the other three stretcher-bearers, placed the two bodies down in the Garden’s infrequently used morgue, before quietly turning and leaving. Squall started to head out of the infirmary, but was interrupted by the Garden’s physician.

“You should let me treat your wounds,” Dr. Kadowaki said as Squall headed out of the door. He stopped, and simply shook his head.

“I’ll use some magic later,” he said, quietly. “I gotta go see Cid.” Not wanting to be impeded any more by the doctor, Squall quickly marched out of the infirmary, and headed up toward the headmaster’s office on the third floor. As he left the medical facility, however, he was surprised to see his wife standing there, waiting for him.

“Where are you going?” She asked, curtly.

“I’m going to see Cid,” Squall answered, equally as brief.

“I’m coming with you,” Rinoa replied.

“I have to do this alone,” Squall responded, displaying no emotion in his voice.

“Dammit, Squall,” Rinoa said, almost breaking down and crying, “you’re hurting! You need company!” To Rinoa’s surprise, Squall stopped dead in his tracks, and hung his head.

“You’re right,” Squall said, “but it’s not that simple. If I could do the thing I most wanted to right now, I’d take you back to our quarters, and hold you, and never let you go.” Squall closed his eyes. “Unfortunately, I don’t have that choice. I’m the Garden Commander- and that means I have responsibilities. Responsibilities such as telling Cid he’ll have to appoint a new head of Garden security.”

“Okay,” Rinoa quietly conceded. “But when you’re done, you come straight home, you hear?” Squall turned around, and nodded.

“I will,” he said, “I promise. You three are the most important things in the world to me.”

“You go do what you have to do,” Rinoa said, as Squall headed toward the elevator. Stepping inside, he pushed the button labelled “3”, and remained silent as the elevator made the short trip to the third floor. Upon his arrival, he stepped out, and knocked on the headmaster’s door.

“Come in,” Cid shouted from behind the door. Squall pushed the button on the panel beside the door, and stepped into the office.

“Headmaster,” Squall said in a sombre voice, something Cid immediately picked up on.

“What is it, Squall?” Cid asked in reply, his voice now as serious as Squall’s.

“I am afraid to report that we suffered two casualties on the mission to Timber,” Squall said. “Grade 3 security guard Michael Peterson, and Head of Garden security Zell Dincht.” Cid closed his eyes as he heard the news. He had known Zell for nearly a decade and a half, from his infrequent visits to his wife’s orphanage, and had grown fond of him- his energetic attitude and his short fuse may have made him the complete antithesis of the headmaster, but Cid nonetheless considered Zell to be a friend. How ironic, Cid thought to himself as he remembered another young man he’d first met at the orphanage, Zell should die on the same day I employ his nemesis. Cid opened his eyes, and solemnly looked at Squall.

“Do you want me to inform the pupils and staff?” Cid quietly asked. Squall shook his head.

“I should be the one to do it,” the young man said, quietly.

“As you wish,” Cid replied, standing up and gesturing for Squall to use the PA system. Gulping, Squall stepped up to the microphone, and activated it. A familiar bing-bong sounded throughout the Garden, before Squall commenced his speech.

“Attention, Balamb Garden,” he said solemnly. “It is my sad duty to inform you of the deaths of two of Balamb Garden’s SeeDs. Grade 3 security guard Michael Peterson, and Head of Garden security Zell Dincht, were both killed in action in a recent mission in Timber.” In the background, Squall clearly heard the gasps and shouts of surprise from the various students and SeeDs. “The dates and times of the memorial services will be announced shortly. Thank you for your attention.” Squall clicked the PA system off, and sighed with relief.

“You did well,” Cid said, in a fatherly tone.

“Thank you,” Squall replied. “If I may be excused now, I need to go back to my quarters.” Cid nodded, solemnly, and Squall left the office, heading straight to his quarters, where Rinoa was undoubtedly waiting for him.

Squall entered his quarters, and removed his jacket, throwing it into his laundry basket.

“Squall? Is that you?” Rinoa asked, coming out of the bathroom. Upon seeing her husband, she immediately went up to him, and wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could, for the second time in less than an hour. Squall returned the hug, almost completely encasing Rinoa in his muscular arms. They held each other in silence for several minutes, before Rinoa spoke up.

“So,” she asked, cautiously, “when will the memorial services be, then?” Squall sighed again- it was another piece of bad news he had to break, to someone who he knew would be hurting just as much as he was…

Selphie was sitting in her office, reading through mission reports, when she heard the knock at the door.

“Come in!” She said, putting on her usual perky attitude, when in reality, she was still hurting inside from Zell’s death. Squall opened the door and entered the office, and Selphie breathed a sigh of relief- she didn’t know how long she could have maintained her cheerful act if it hadn’t been someone she felt totally comfortable around, like Squall.

“Hi, Selphie,” Squall started, “I’ve got some news for you that you might not want to hear.” This caused Selphie to frown. What could possibly compare to being told that one of my best friends has just died? She thought to herself.

“As you know,” Squall continued, “there’s gonna be a memorial service for Zell.” Selphie nodded.

“But what’s that gotta do with me?” She asked, puzzled.

“I’m afraid, Selphie,” Squall started, “that as head of the Garden Festival Committee, you have the responsibility for organising it.” The news hit Selphie like a sledgehammer.

“M-me?” She spluttered. “Squall, I don’t think I-“ Squall shook his head, silencing Selphie.

“You can,” Squall said. “I’m absolutely certain it’s what Zell would have wanted.” Having calmed down a little, Selphie nodded.

“When will it be?” She asked.

“You decide that,” Squall replied, “but I need to know by the end of the day- there’s still one task I haven’t done yet, and it’s one I’m dreading doing.” Selphie nodded- she’d had to do the same thing on more than a few occasions, and it tore her up inside each and every time.

“Zell’s mom…” she whispered.

A few hours later, and Squall was standing, alone, out on the balcony of Balamb Garden, watching the sun set on one of the worst days of his young life. He let out a brief sigh as the last rays of sunlight finally flickered and faded away. At almost the same moment as the sun disappeared, the rain started to fall. Just a few drops at first, before finally developing into a gentle summer drizzle, coalescing on Squall’s face. Squall stared out at the faint lights of Balamb town, several miles away to the west. Zell’s hometown… the place where he grew up, and the place where, in two days’ time, he would be buried. Curious as to how long he had been out on the balcony, Squall checked his watch. Quarter past nine!?!? He thought to himself. Rinoa will be worried about me… Squall turned around, planning on heading back into the main body of the Garden, when he saw his wife standing there, in the rain. She smiled, briefly, as her eyes met with her husband’s.

“Hey,” Squall said, quietly.

“Hey,” Rinoa said, equally quietly, as she walked over to where Squall was standing on the balcony, and stood at the side of him, her arms wrapped around the man she loved.

“The funeral’s the day after tomorrow,” Squall said, sombrely, as he put an arm around Rinoa, and held her close to him. Rinoa said nothing in response, choosing instead to simply enjoy the view, and the company.

“We should head back inside,” Squall said. “You’ll catch cold if you stay out here any longer.”

“Yeah,” Rinoa quietly whispered. Not letting go of each other, the two expectant parents walked back to their quarters, allowing Squall to finally put an end to the day…

Meanwhile, in Seifer’s quarters, he and Quistis were looking out of the window at the rainstorm, and reflecting on the loss they had suffered that day.

“The funeral’s the day after tomorrow, then,” Seifer said, lost in thought.

“Yeah,” Quistis replied, also distracted by her own thoughts, passionate thoughts, all centred on her dead friend. Why can’t I stop thinking romantically about him? Quistis thought to herself. When she’d decided that she wanted to be with Seifer, rather than Zell, she never thought it’d mean her never getting a chance with Zell. She always assumed that if it didn’t work out with Seifer, she’d always have the blond-haired martial artist, even if it was just for friendship at first. However, it was not to be. Zell was gone, not coming back. Sure, Quistis still had Seifer, and she didn’t regret choosing him, but she couldn’t shake the cocky, spiky-haired SeeD from her mind, not even for a second. Why do I feel this way? Quistis angrily thought to herself. She had never been good with her feelings, even back when she had a crush on Squall, she spent endless hours trying to work out exactly what it was she felt. She was doing the same thing now, only with Zell. However, her thoughts were interrupted by a loud whistling sound to her left. She turned, and saw Seifer with his thumb and his forefinger protruding from his mouth.

“Hello?” Seifer asked, condescendingly, “Garden to Quistis? You were light-years away for a moment there.”

“Sorry,” Quistis replied, quietly, turning back toward the window. “I was just thinking about Zell…”

“I don’t think there’s a single person in the Garden who isn’t,” Seifer replied, losing his condescending tone in favour of a gentler one.

“Even you?” Quistis asked. She, more than anyone, was aware of the bad blood that lingered between Zell and Seifer, even after years with no contact between the two.

“Yeah,” Seifer said, looking down at the floor, “even me.” Seifer’s thoughts, however, were as much of a jumble as Quistis’s, if not more.

What am I supposed to feel? Seifer thought to himself. I never liked the guy, but I didn’t want him dead, for crying out loud! Now everyone expects me to go to the funeral and grieve like all the others. How am I supposed to do that? Just then, Seifer made a rash decision.

“I have something I need to say,” he started, before pausing.

“What is it, Seifer?” Quistis asked, inquisitively. There was another pause before Seifer answered.

“I’m not going to the memorial service,” he finally said. Quistis was incredulous.

“What do you mean, ‘I’m not going’?” The blonde instructor asked her new boyfriend. “How can you not go?” Seifer simply shook his head.

“I never liked the guy, Quis,” Seifer responded, sighing. “And I know for a fact he couldn’t stand me. I’d just be a hypocrite if I went. I mean, I made his life hell, I don’t want to kick off his death like that.” However, Quistis was not convinced.

“I always got the impression that Zell secretly respected you,” she countered. However, Seifer simply shook his head again.

“It must have been a very well-kept secret, then,” he retorted. “You didn’t see the conversation we had in here after I moved in.”

“Bad, was it?” Quistis asked, still unconvinced that the mutual dislike was as bad as Seifer was saying.

“Well,” Seifer responded, “let’s just say that it really started to get bad when he pinned me against the wall and blamed me for everything bad that happened to him over the past decade.” Seifer sighed. “The sad thing is, he may have had a point.” However, Quistis was far from convinced.

“You’re lying,” she said. “I don’t believe you. He wouldn’t have done something like that.” Doubts about her choice of boyfriend were starting to form in Quistis’s mind. How could I have ever chosen Seifer over Zell? She incredulously thought to herself. Seifer tortured me, for crying out loud! He strapped me to a rack and whipped me with my own weapon! Before she could continue her thoughts, however, Seifer began speaking again.

“Don’t underestimate hate,” he said, in a wise tone. “It’s a powerful emotion. I’m not saying it was all his fault- in fact, come to think of it, I probably started it. But consider this, Quistis- a few weeks ago you wouldn’t have thought that Chris Duncan was capable of murder, would you?” As he said the words, however, Seifer inwardly cursed. Ah, crap, he thought, I shouldn’t have said that…

“How dare you compare Zell with that animal!” Quistis snapped. “He was kind, gent-“ Seifer held his hands up and started talking, interrupting Quistis.

“Okay, okay!” He said over the top of Quistis’s rant. When she had finished, he continued speaking. “I’m sorry, that was a really poor comparison. All I’m saying is that everyone is capable of doing something that nobody at all thought possible of them.” He then paused, before continuing, defiantly. “Take me, for example. When I was a student here, did you honestly think I was capable of betraying the Garden, torturing Squall like a sadist, destroying Trabia Garden, need I go on?” Quistis looked at Seifer with a calmer expression on her face.

“You were under the sorceress’s influence,” Quistis replied, at which Seifer simply shook his head.

“Not for all of it I wasn’t,” he replied. “I hadn’t even met sorceress Edea by the time I held Hyperion against Vinzer Deling’s throat.” Quistis nodded- Seifer had a point. “Okay, Zell had more integrity than me and Duncan combined, but it didn’t mean he was incapable of the odd moment of madness, same as all of us.”

“You’ve got integrity, Seifer,” Quistis said, no longer angry with the tall, blond man. However, Seifer once again shook his head.

“Not as much as he did,” he said with a smirk. “I’m kinda surprised you didn’t fall for him instead of me.” Quistis felt her cheeks go crimson and her eyes start to well up with tears at Seifer’s statement. How did he know? She irrationally thought to herself. She stared out of the window again, hoping to hide her emotions from her boyfriend. However, Seifer was too shrewd.

“Hey, Quis,” he started, sensing that his girlfriend was upset, “what’s up?” The realisation then dawned on Seifer. “You did have feelings for Zell?” He asked. With tears now starting to flow from her eyes, Quistis nodded. Seifer sighed, and leaned his head back.

“Oh, babe,” he said, “come here.” Immediately, the tearful Quistis went over to Seifer, and wrapped her arms around his large frame. “How long did you have these feelings?”

“Not long,” Quistis said, sniffing and trying to regain her composure. “A few months, maybe.” Seifer smoothed Quistis’s ponytail against her back, trying to calm her down.

“Do you still have feelings for him?” Seifer asked, cautiously.

“I’m not sure,” Quistis replied. Seifer closed his eyes, and sighed. Damn, he thought, I knew it was too good to be true.

“I understand,” Seifer said, feeling somewhat defeated. Quistis sat up, and looked into her boyfriend’s face.

“No, Seifer,” she started, “you don’t. I still have feelings for him, I just don’t know what they are, that’s all. My feelings for you haven’t changed one bit.” Smiling, Seifer held Quistis against his body again, hugging her an extra bit tighter.

“Did you ever tell him how you felt, while he was alive?” Seifer asked. Quistis shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I was afraid he didn’t feel the same way.” Seifer smiled again.

“Kind of like how I felt on the runway, then,” he said, barely suppressing a laugh. Despite herself, Quistis giggled a little too.

“Yeah, I suppose,” she said.

“Maybe that’s what the problem was,” Seifer said. Quistis looked at him again.

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“Maybe you’re regretting not telling him how you felt,” Seifer replied, “as now you’ll never get the chance.” As if by magic, everything snapped into place in Quistis’s mind- Seifer had hit the nail on the head- what she was feeling was regret for not telling Zell how she felt while he was still alive.

“You’re right,” she said, before slipping into a mournful tone of voice. “I should’ve told him…”

“Hey,” Seifer said, “what if he didn’t feel the same way? Would you have been prepared to feel the way I did on the runway in Esthar?”

“That’s why I didn’t say anything,” Quistis replied. “I just didn’t want to be rejected again, more than anything else.”

“You made the right decision,” Seifer said, hugging Quistis a little bit tighter. However, Quistis broke out of the hug, sitting up and looking Seifer in the face.

“How exactly was it the right decision?” She asked, confused. Seifer simply shrugged.

“If you had told him, chances are you wouldn’t be here with me right now,” he replied, smiling with mock confidence. Quistis simply laughed at his statement, before snuggling back into Seifer’s chest.

“Cocky…” she said, jokingly. Just then, however, an alarm on Quistis’s watch went off. Knowing immediately what it meant, Quistis sat up.

“What’s up?” Seifer asked.

“10 PM, curfew,” Quistis responded. “Even for senior SeeDs and instructors, without written permission from the headmaster.”

“You’ve broken it before,” Seifer replied. “What’s different now?” As if on cue, the security guard who was stationed outside Seifer’s quarters walked through the door.

“Instructor…” he started, before stalling, as he saw Quistis sat atop Seifer. Although they were both fully clothed, it was nonetheless a position the guard didn’t expect to find them in. He coughed, before beginning again.

“Instructor Trepe,” he said, trying to hide the embarrassment in his voice, “it’s ten o’clock, time for you to be leaving.” Sighing, and sharing one last smile with Seifer, Quistis stood up, and followed the guard out of Seifer’s quarters. Once she was gone, Seifer moved over to his bed, where he laid down, stretching himself out so he occupied as much space as possible on the small single bed. Damn, the future looks bright, he thought to himself, as he smiled, before undressing, and trying to get to sleep. As he tried to drop off, however, he kept on being reminded of the man who had just died, whom his girlfriend had had secret feelings for. What if Zell did like her? Seifer thought, guiltily, as he lay awake on his back. Eventually, he did fall asleep, but it was not for a very long time…

The alarm clock went off at 6:30 sharp, heralding a new day for Squall, as it always did. The commander reached over and clicked the alarm clock off, before rolling back to face his wife, who was still fast asleep, having slept straight through the alarm, as she often did. Sleepy old Angel… Squall thought to himself, smirking. He leaned over and gently kissed his wife on the lips, waking her from her slumber.

“What time is it, Squall?” Rinoa asked, groggily.

“It’s half past six,” he replied.

“You don’t have to be up for another hour, Squall,” Rinoa stated. “You should get some more sleep, you have a big day ahead of you.” However, Squall simply shook his head.

“It wouldn’t feel right,” he replied. “Not with what I have to do today.” Rinoa nodded in agreement.

“When are you going to Balamb?” She asked, quietly. Squall closed his eyes.

“At about 11,” he responded. “Then it’s on to Dollet for Peterson’s family. I should be back by four.”

“I see,” Rinoa responded. “Who’s going with you?”

“I’m going alone,” Squall said, getting out of bed and heading toward the bathroom.

“No way,” Rinoa responded, also getting out of bed. “I’m going with you.” She followed Squall into the bathroom, and found him sitting on the toilet, slouched.

“It’s something I have to do alone, Rinoa,” Squall said, his voice full of defiance, but his body language giving away the fact that his statement was untrue.

“Why, Squall?” Rinoa asked, sitting down on the edge of the bath. “Why do you have to do it alone? Why can’t you just share your pain for once, rather than bottle it all up?” Squall simply shook his head.

“It wouldn’t feel right,” Squall replied, “giving her that kind of news then leaving her alone, while I have a shoulder to cry on.” Upon hearing her husband’s explanation, Rinoa simply smiled, and sighed.

“It’s okay to have someone, you know,” she started. “Even if someone else doesn’t have anyone, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. Let me go with you.” Squall looked at his wife, and upon seeing her smile, sighed, and smiled himself.

“You’re right,” he said, “I’d like that a lot.” Smiling, Rinoa and Squall both stood up and gave each other a long, loving hug, before deciding to get dressed and have some breakfast. Once they had eaten, they both changed into their SeeD dress uniforms, and headed to the car park, where a car was waiting to take them to Balamb town.

“I guess it’s now or never, then,” Squall said anxiously, as the driver opened the door, allowing Rinoa to enter. Letting out a sigh, Squall climbed into the car carefully, so as not to crease his uniform, and instructed the driver to head to Balamb. Noticing how anxious Squall was, Rinoa leaned over, and took his hand in hers. She gave Squall a brief, comforting smile, but Squall did not smile back- he was all business, his mind focused on the task he had been set.

Squall remained silent all the way to Balamb, and Rinoa was wise enough not to try and make him break his silence, knowing how delicate his emotions could be at times. Eventually, however, the car came to a halt in Balamb’s main street, outside the house where Zell had been raised, and where his mother was undoubtedly sat inside, awaiting news of her beloved son.

“You’d better go,” Rinoa said to her tense husband. “She’ll have heard the car pull up outside.” Squall nodded, and opened the car door, stepping outside. It was just a normal day in Balamb, people were walking up and down the high street, going about their usual business. Children were playing, and people were laughing. This made it all the more difficult for Squall, and at one point, he had to fight the urge to dive back into the car and order it to drive back to Balamb Garden. However, Squall’s nerve held, as it always seemed to do, and he walked up to the front door, and rang the doorbell. Squall gulped, as the door opened, and the familiar figure of Mrs. Dincht stood before him.

“Squall! Hi!” She said in her usual, ‘cheerful mother’- type tone. “What brings you out here?”

“Mrs Dincht,” Squall said, his serious tone only wavering slightly, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you about your son, Zell.” Mrs Dincht gasped.

“What’s happened to him?” She asked, as she started shaking ever so slightly. Squall reached into his pocket, and handed the anxious woman the telegram he’d been keeping in there.

“I’m afraid,” Squall started, hesitating slightly, “he’s dead. He was killed on a recent mission in Timber.” Slowly, Mrs Dincht opened the telegram, and read what it said. Once she had finished, her face went pale, and she started to shake more violently. All the while, life in Balamb went on, the people impervious to the suffering of their fellow townsperson.

“There will be a memorial service for him tomorrow at Balamb Garden,” Squall stated, in a business-like tone. “You, and all Balamb citizens, are welcome to attend.” Almost as if Squall’s words had been her cue, Mrs Dincht finally stopped shaking, and broke down, crying tears of pure anguish. Cautiously, Squall opened his arms, inviting the weeping woman to his breast, and without hesitation, Mrs Dincht ran forward and clung onto Squall, crying onto his shoulder for what seemed like hours to the young commander. Please, he thought to himself, please, someone, ANYONE come and comfort her. Squall didn’t mind being a shoulder to cry on in both the figurative and the literal sense, but he knew that he would not have been the weeping woman’s first choice, due to his lack of comforting skills, and this knowledge made him uncomfortable. Please, Hyne, someone, he thought, trying to fight the urge to fidget, which was being caused by his discomfort. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, the door to Mrs Dincht’s neighbour’s house finally opened, and the resident, a middle-aged woman who clearly knew Zell’s mother, ran up to the crying woman, and took her out of Squall’s arms, ushering her into the house from which she had only emerged a few seconds before. Letting out an inward sigh, Squall headed back to where the Garden car was parked. I hope that was OK, Zell, he thought to himself as he climbed back into the car, and ordered the driver to head for the train station. Squall looked over at Rinoa, who was smiling a comforting smile at her husband.

“You did that well,” she said. Squall simply nodded, and looked at the floor.

“Now I’ve got to do it all over again,” he said, thinking of the other parents who were soon to learn that their beloved child was killed…

Meanwhile, back at Balamb Garden, Selphie was busy directing the transformation of the quad into the place where everyone would say their final farewells to Zell. The work was being carried out by a gang of roughly two dozen Garden students, all of whom had signed up (under Selphie’s persuasion) to the Garden festival committee. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the work, none of the crew, Selphie included, were wearing smiles.

“OK,” Selphie said through a microphone to the four students who were carrying the altar, which would be used for the service. “Place it down just there. That’s great.” Selphie switched off the microphone and sighed- the work had been more mentally tough on her than she had first imagined it to be. The fact that she was confined to a wheelchair didn’t help her either.

“Not goin’ well?” She heard a familiar voice ask from behind her. Selphie quickly swivelled her wheelchair round, and ended up staring straight into the face of her husband. Selphie smiled at the sight of Irvine’s face, even though he was sporting a serious expression.

“We’re ahead of schedule,” Selphie replied, “but I really wish I didn’t have to do this, Irvy.”

“I know, Sefie,” he replied, kneeling down and giving her a comforting hug. “But when you signed up for the festival committee, you knew it wouldn’t just be all fun and games.”

“I know, I know,” she replied, before looking solemnly at the floor. “I just hope I give Zell the send-off he deserves…”

“Hey, Sefie,” Irvine said coolly, “of course you will. If anyone can, you can, and I’m sure that Zell’s up there right now, thinking ‘Hey, nice going, Selph, this is just what I wanted’.” Selphie perked up a little at Irvine’s comforting words, just as she always seemed to do.

“You think so, Irvy?” She asked, hopefully.

“I know so,” the man in the trenchcoat replied. Selphie smiled, and grabbed Irvine, giving him the biggest, tightest hug she could muster.

“Thank you,” she whispered in his ear, before an idea entered her head. “Say, Irvy,” she asked, “are you doing anything for the next hour?” Irvine shook his head.

“Nope, nothing I can’t cancel,” he answered.

“Good,” Selphie said, smiling, “then you can help all the guys down there!” Irvine looked at the Quad, where all the students were working, and shrugged.

“Okay then,” he said, taking off his hat and his coat, “you got yourself another workman!” Irvine placed his hat atop Selphie’s head, before joining the rest of the workforce in the main body of the Quad.

As Irvine entered the Quad, however, one student, tired and sweaty from all the hard work he’d been doing, entered the portable toilet that had been placed on the Quad. He sat down on the bowl, and leaned back, trying to take some of the strain off of his back. As he did so, he let out a quiet chuckle.

“Isn’t it ironic,” the student said, “that I should be preparing for his memorial service, when I’m the guy who shot him.” Chris smiled an evil smile- all he’d needed to regain entrance to the Garden was a haircut (he now sported a regular crew cut as opposed to his usual ponytail), a latex mask, and a pair of spectacles. He’d even walked right past Selphie, the woman he nearly crippled, and she hadn’t even blinked.

“Oh, I do love being in the right place at the right time,” Chris said, rubbing his latex mask in an attempt to scratch the multiples itches that had developed on his face as a result of the latex combined with the sweat. Well, he thought to himself, no one ever said revenge came easy. Chris sighed, then flushed the toilet, and exited the small stall. Tomorrow’s going to be a day to remember, alright, he thought to himself as he continued his work.

The following day, people began entering the Quad almost two hours before the service was due to begin. Zell’s mother was the first to arrive, accompanied by several of her friends and neighbours, and was closely followed by the mayor of Balamb, who was arranging for a statue to be made in the young man’s memory. Then, all the SeeDs, Garden faculty, students, even the cafeteria workers (who had known Zell VERY well) showed up, and by the time the service started, Cid, who was leading the service along with Squall and Selphie, estimated that over three quarters of Balamb Garden’s pupils and staff were in attendance.

However, there was one new member of Balamb Garden’s staff who was not attending. Lying on his bed in his quarters, and wearing a black T-shirt as a mark of remembrance, Seifer watched the televised memorial service on his TV set. Also watching with him were Fujin and Raijin, who, following their negotiations with Cid over Seifer’s contract, had asked to speak privately with their friend and boss.

“I don’t even know why you’re watching, ya know?” Raijin incredulously asked Seifer. “It’s not like you were friends with him! Hell, you couldn’t stand the little punk!”

“AGREED,” Fujin stated. Seifer shot an angry glance at the two of them.

“Have some respect for the dead, you two,” he said, seriously. “Yeah, maybe he was an arrogant little shit, but he was still a good fighter and he deserves a good send-off.” There was a brief pause, before Fujin spoke up.

“SOFTENED,” she stated, enigmatically. Seifer looked at her, puzzled by what the one-eyed woman said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seifer asked, anger starting to creep into his voice.

“What’s it supposed to mean?” Raijin responded, incredulously. “It means that you’ve gone soft, Seifer! What happened to the “take-no-crap” Seifer we used to know, ya know?” Seifer simply shot a dirty look at the man in the business suit.

“’Take no crap’, huh?” Seifer asked, aggressively. “You mean crap like that?”

“SOLD OUT,” Fujin simply stated. Seifer started to laugh.

“You think,” he started, “that I’ve sold out because I’ve taken a job here at the very Garden I tried to destroy on more than one occasion? Well that’s just a huge, steaming pile of chocobo crap. You want to know what happened to the old Seifer Almasy? Huh? Well I’ll tell you- he’s still in here. He’s just less of an asshole, that’s all. I still don’t take any crap. I’m just not in any mood to dish any out, either.” Fujin and Raijin were unsettled by Seifer’s outburst, but managed not to let it show.

“Yeah, that’s as maybe,” Raijin started. “But I still prefer the old Seifer, ya know?”

“THE SAME,” Fujin stated. Seifer simply nodded.

“Then you’re in a minority,” he said, turning his attention back to his TV screen. “Hell, even I prefer the new me.” Fujin and Raijin said nothing further after that- they make not have liked his change of job and change of attitude, but when all was said and done, he was their boss, and what he said, went.

Meanwhile, in the Quad, the mayor of Balamb had finished his speech, sitting down at his seat in the audience. All the speeches had now been completed, save one- the speech by the commander of Balamb Garden. Taking a deep breath, Squall stepped up to the lectern, and began reciting the speech that he had spent over six hours perfecting the previous night.

“There was not one person,” he stated in a business-like voice, “that didn’t respect Zell Dincht. He was brave, noble, and a hell of a guy. I was proud to call him my friend.”

As Squall continued his long speech, however, he was being discreetly observed by the man who was responsible for Zell’s death. From his vantage point on the third floor balcony, Chris couldn’t have had an easier shot. There were no obstacles that would have prevented him from putting a bullet straight into Squall’s head, but something was preventing him.

“That’s too obvious,” the now short haired sniper thought out loud. “There’s no way they would have him out there unprotected.” Chris knew that once he fired his gun, he would have had several dozen SeeDs descend upon him like a ton of bricks, so when he did fire, he would have to make his shot count.

“I can’t even scan him for protective magic,” Chris said to himself, his voice full of frustration. “He’d detect the scan immediately.” Looking for an opportunity, any opportunity to avenge the death of his sister (which Chris blamed both Squall and Seifer for), the young man looked over the balcony, scanning the crowd for anything he could use to his advantage. He had only been searching for less than ten seconds when the very opportunity he had hoped for presented itself, as Rinoa rose from her seat, and headed toward the toilet, clearly feeling unwell. Mrs Leonheart, Chris thought to himself, formulating a new, evil plan. Thank you, Hyne. Just what I wanted. Chris guessed that the dark-haired wife of Balamb Garden’s commander was heading for the nearest toilet facility, which was located just outside the infirmary. Acting on this assumption, he immediately left his sniping position on the third floor, and, as quietly as he could, ran through the Garden’s deserted corridors, finally entering the ladies’ restroom that he had assumed Rinoa had been heading toward. Crouching on top of the bowl in one of the cubicles, Chris grinned a wide, evil grin as he heard the door open, and the familiar clicking sound of a pair of crutches enter the room…

Eventually, the memorial service ended, and the students, SeeDs and guests began to depart. Irvine and Selphie were accompanying Mrs Dincht back to Balamb, where they planned to stay overnight, in case the middle-aged woman needed any additional comforting. Quistis had already left, too, heading for Seifer’s quarters, and Cid and Edea had briefly headed back to the headmaster’s office, fetching the equipment they would need to dismantle the elaborate stage that had been erected in the Quad. This left Squall all alone with his thoughts, which revolved around the friend he had lost. I’m gonna miss you, man, Squall thought to himself as he scanned the departing crowd, looking for his wife. When he couldn’t find her amongst the masses of people, he looked for a second time. When his third search turned up no sign of Rinoa, Squall began to panic slightly, but didn’t let it show. Just then, Edea returned to the Quad, carrying a file, which probably contained instructions on how to dismantle the stage. Squall took the opportunity to voice his concerns, and he approached the woman who, to all intents and purposes, had raised him.

“Matron,” Squall asked cautiously, using the name by which he had known Edea for all of his life, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Rinoa, have you?” Edea simply shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Squall,” she said, plainly. “I haven’t seen her. She isn’t in the crowd?” Squall shook his head.

“She wouldn’t have left early, without me, would she?” Squall asked, anxiously. Edea smiled- while he was undoubtedly a great leader, Squall did have a tendency to worry over the most trivial of matters.

“She was probably just feeling tired, and went back to your quarters for a lie-down,” the middle-aged former matron said. Sighing, Squall nodded.

“You’re right,” Squall said, “she was suffering pretty badly from morning sickness when she got up. Thanks.” Squall stepped off of the stage, and headed back up the stairs, into the main body of the Garden.

When he arrived at his quarters, however, Squall found no trace of Rinoa. Starting to panic slightly, he reached for his telephone and dialled the number for her mobile phone. I hope she remembered to switch it on after the service ended, he thought to himself. Squall listened as the telephone rang 8 times, before Rinoa’s answering service kicked in. As it did, however, Squall immediately noticed that something was wrong.

“Hello,” a familiar male voice said over the phone. Chris, Squall thought to himself.

“I’m afraid Mrs Leonheart is busy right now,” the recording of Chris’s voice continued, “in fact she’s gonna be busy for the foreseeable future. Oh, and Squall, if that’s you, two letters- FH.” The message ended with a ‘beep’, and Squall found himself talking into the phone in shock.

“Son of a bitch,” he said, quietly, before putting the receiver down.

On the bridge of his small boat, Chris had heard Rinoa’s mobile phone ring, and when he was convinced that the caller had rung off, he looked at the screen, hoping to find out the identity of whoever had rung.

“’You have one new message,’” Chris said, reading the phone’s display, “’from home. Would you like to listen to it?’ Hmm, I think I would.” Chris pushed the ‘OK’ button, and held the phone to his ear. He listened, and smiled, as Squall’s message was replayed for him. Discarding the mobile phone over the edge of the boat, Chris took one final look at the Fisherman’s Horizon docks, where he had moored his boat, before descending into his boat’s hold and flipping on the light switch. In the middle of the floor, still in the same black dress she wore to the memorial service, laid Rinoa, unconscious, and bound and gagged. Still wearing his same wicked smile, Chris walked up to her, and knelt down over her head, breaking wind in her face. Rinoa woke up, coughing from the effects of Chris’s bodily function.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” Chris said, standing up, “the game is now very much afoot. Your dear husband will be here shortly, but believe me, I’m ready for him. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t interrogate you a little in the meantime.” Chris picked the young woman up and sat her down in a nearby chair. Rinoa bristled as Chris reached up her dress and pulled down her tights, exposing the bandage she still wore on her injured knee.

“Ouch,” Chris said, “that looks nasty. How did you do that?” Chris then laughed a fake laugh. “Oh, wait a minute, that was me who did that, wasn’t it? Silly old me!” Chris then unravelled the bandage, fully exposing the bullet wound, which had yet to properly heal. Chris stared into Rinoa’s eyes, hoping to see fear. What he saw instead was defiance, and that displeased him. After he had made doubly sure that Rinoa was securely tied to the chair, Chris carefully removed the gag.

“It’s time for my fun to begin, Mrs Leonheart,” Chris stated. “I told you I was going to interrogate you, didn’t I? The only problem is, I can’t think of any questions, so I’m going to ask you to do a few things for me instead. Number one.” Chris knelt down in front of Rinoa, and stared into her eyes again. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you love me.” Rinoa took a deep breath, before spitting in Chris’s face, as hard as she could. Chris closed his eyes, and took a deep breath of his own.

“You know,” he started, “if I wasn’t in such a good mood, I’d have torn your throat out for doing that. Instead, I’m gonna do something much more painful.” Chris walked over to what appeared to Rinoa to be a workbench. He returned a few seconds later, grinning manically, and carrying a small, pen-like device, along with a car battery. Using a pair of jump leads, he attached the small device to the car battery, and instantly, the tip of it started glowing bright red. Rinoa’s eyes widened at the sight, but she remained totally silent, not wanting to give Chris any satisfaction whatsoever.

“Do you recognise this, Mrs Leonheart?” Chris asked. “It’s a soldering iron. Useful if you want to attach new components to, say, a circuit board. Also useful if you have, say, a spoilt little bitch who won’t cooperate.” He held the red-hot tip of the iron in front of Rinoa’s face, hoping to intimidate her. He’s not gonna make me scream, Rinoa defiantly thought to herself. Squall’s gonna come through that door any second… Despite herself, Rinoa started quivering as Chris slowly brought the iron down the length of her body, until it was level with her knee. Her wounded knee.

“I don’t like being spat on,” Chris said, menacingly, as he drove the iron into the wound on Rinoa’s knee with as much force as he could muster.

Rinoa’s scream could have been heard from several hundred yards away, had Chris not had the foresight to pay to have the entire docks closed, meaning that no one, save for her torturer, heard the young woman’s cries of pure agony. Eventually, Rinoa’s long scream ended, but it was not long before she was screaming in agony once again, longer and louder than before…

With a determined look on his face, Squall marched up to the entrance of the car park. Waiting by the entrance, however, were Cid and Edea, who looked as if they had been waiting for him.

“Outta my way,” Squall said, trying to barge through the couple, only to find that the doors to the car park were locked. Enraged, he started banging on the locked doors. “Dammit! Let me through! Rinoa’s been kidnapped!” Cid grabbed Squall by the shoulders, and spun the young man round so that he was facing him.

“Squall!” He said, firmly. “Calm down! We know about Rinoa. Edea brought your concerns to me, and I reviewed the videotapes. They show that Rinoa entered the restroom near the infirmary, but never left.”

“So what are you gonna do about it then?” Squall asked in an aggressive voice. Ignoring Squall’s tone of voice, Cid replied.

“I’ve mobilised a task force that are going to search for her,” the middle-aged man said, still trying to calm his young commander down.

“I already know where she is,” Squall replied angrily. “That bastard’s got her at FH!”

“Right!” Cid exclaimed. “I’ll get a security team there in a jetcopter ASAP!” Squall simply shook his head.

“It’s not good enough,” replied the man with the facial scar. “I have to go too.” However, Cid simply shook his head.

“It’s you he’s after,” Cid said. “You’d be putting yourself at risk for no reason.” At this, Squall seemed to calm down.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said, noticeably calmer than he had previously been.

“Good,” Cid said, placing his hand on Squall’s back and leading him back into the main body of the Garden. “Now if you’ll just-“ Cid never got the chance to finish his sentence, however, as Squall suddenly unsheathed his gunblade, and with one swing, shattered one of the glass windows separating the car park from the adjacent corridor. Without hesitation, Squall then jumped through the broken window, and ran over to where his motorbike was parked.

“Squall! Wait” Edea cried in vain. It was too late, however. Squall started his motorbike up, and put it into first gear.

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t get out of the Garden,” Cid said, heading over to the control panel for the outside doors. However, he discovered too late that Squall had no intention of leaving the Garden, watching, almost in slow motion, as Squall pointed his motorbike straight toward the pane he had broken moments before. Squall revved his bike, and it effortlessly jumped through the window, landing in the corridor.

“What are you doing?” Edea asked Squall, incredulously.

“I’m doing what I have to do,” Squall quietly responded, before revving his bike up again, and speeding into the main body of the Garden. He rode his bike up all the flights of stairs until he reached the helipad, where Balamb Garden’s three jetcopters spent their time when not in use. On this particular day, though, one was being prepared to take off. Switching off his bike’s engine, Squall marched right up to where the pilot was sat, inside the vehicle.

“Goin’ to FH?” Squall simply asked.

“Yes sir,” the pilot responded. “We’re gonna get your wife back sir, I promise.” Squall nodded.

“I know,” he replied calmly. “Because I’m coming with you.”

“Sir,” the pilot said, “Headmaster Kramer has given us explicit orders that we are not to let you join this mission.” Squall shrugged.

“Is Cid here now?” He asked the pilot, who shook his head.

“No, sir, but-“ the pilot never got a chance to finish his reply.

“Take us to FH then,” Squall ordered. Knowing that further argument was pointless, the pilot simply nodded, and slowly manoeuvred the jetcopter off the ground.

“Yes sir,” the pilot said, as the jetcopter lifted off fully, and, using its powerful engines, flew south, toward Fisherman’s Horizon.

Chris was standing on the deck of his boat when he saw the jetcopter fly overhead. He doesn’t waste much time, does he? Chris thought to himself as the aircraft flew toward Fisherman’s Horizon’s helipad. He calmly walked back into the hold, where Rinoa lay on the floor, bleeding, and barely conscious.

“Well, well, Mrs Leonheart,” Chris said, smugly, “in just a few minutes, your husband will be on this boat, looking down the end of my rifle. A few seconds later, I will take my revenge.” As Chris was gloating, however, he was suddenly surprised by a familiar noise coming from directly above him.

“The jetcopter?” He asked, incredulously. “What the hell is it doing?” The boat then started to rock from side to side, as a result of the jetcopter hovering above it. Slowly at first, but within a few seconds, Chris started to have difficulty staying on his feet. He hastily staggered out of the door and back onto the deck, where he untied the ship’s mooring and started the engines, speeding out of the dock. Chris knew that they were hovering above him in an attempt to capsize his boat, and expose his weakness- his inability to swim. However, Chris was not going to go down without a fight.

“He’s heading out to sea,” the jetcopter pilot said to Squall.

“Pursue him,” Squall responded. “Don’t let him get away.”

“Aye aye, sir,” the pilot said. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours to Squall, the jetcopter had caught the boat, and was once again hovering over it. However, this time the boat was unaffected by the jetcopter.

“It’s not working, sir,” the pilot said to Squall. “The boat’s momentum is giving it extra stability.”

“Alright,” Squall said, mulling over his options, which were slightly limited. In ordinary circumstances, he would have no hesitation to pummel the boat with any weapon at his disposal, but the circumstances were not ordinary- his wife and his unborn children were aboard the boat. “Time for plan ‘B’.” Squall picked up the jetcopter’s harpoon gun, and, once he was sure one end of the rope was tightly secured to the inside of the aircraft, he leaned out of the door.

“Take us forward!” Squall shouted over the roar of the engines, knowing that if he fired the harpoon while directly overhead, the drag on the rope would send the spear plummeting harmlessly into the sea. Squall smiled as he felt the speed of the aircraft increase, and, once he was satisfied that they had a good enough lead over the boat, he fired the harpoon.

Chris was beginning to panic- the jetcopter was not going to give up, and he couldn’t leave the controls of the boat, as it had no automatic gear. He knew that once the boat was stopped, the SeeDs would simply hover above him, and wait until he capsized. Fortunately for him, he had enough fuel to last until they reached Balamb, the nearest harbour, and he doubted that the SeeDs would try anything stupid. However, in that respect, he was wrong. Chris heard a loud whistling noise from behind him, and watched, aghast, as a large spear embedded itself in the back of his boat, and, suddenly, the boat began to spin round, as it stopped moving under it’s own power, and the jetcopter effectively began “towing” it.

“Shit!” Chris shouted. “Shit shit shit!” Chris looked up at the jetcopter, flying nearly 200 feet above him, and saw a dark blob appear at the top of the “towrope”, and rapidly descend. Only when the blob reached the bottom of the rope did Chris realise exactly what, or rather, who, it was. Squall hit the deck rolling, and immediately drew his gunblade.

“Where is she?” Squall asked Chris, who had yet to arm himself. Chris knew, from his SeeD training, that he should stay calm in dangerous situations, and situations didn’t come any more dangerous than having an armed, and angry, Squall Leonheart wanting your blood. Remaining silent, Chris simply edged away from the now defunct controls, heading toward the hold, where he kept his rifle.

“Answer me!” Squall shouted at the unarmed man. Chris, Realising that he was within five feet of the door to the hold, suddenly bolted, entering the room where he was keeping Rinoa. Seeing Chris’s sudden movement, Squall also bolted, and managed to get to the door, kicking it in before Chris had the chance to lock it. Chris had been knocked over by the force of Squall’s kick combined with the impact of the door on his face, meaning that the man who was Zell’s murderer, and Rinoa’s kidnapper, was now lying on the floor, his throat under the tip of Squall’s gunblade. Looking around the room, Squall saw Rinoa lying on the floor, not eight feet away from where he had the quivering Chris pinned underneath his blade. He briefly thought about simply decapitating Chris, snatching Rinoa and running, but Squall was a hero, a knight- his conscience didn’t allow him to murder a defenceless person in cold blood, no matter how evil that person was. However, Squall quickly realised that Chris’s legs were apart- Squall’s conscience said nothing about a sharp kick to the private parts. He pulled his right leg back, ready to strike.

Unfortunately for Squall, Chris lying with his legs open was not an accident- Chris knew of Squall’s gallantry, and had deliberately opened his legs in the hope that it would lure Squall into his trap. As Squall drew his right leg back, Chris span around on the floor, kicking Squall’s left leg out from underneath him. Without a leg to stand on, Squall was sent crashing to the floor, and Chris narrowly escaped having his throat cut by Squall’s gunblade, which went rapidly up his neck as he fell. With Squall temporarily incapacitated, Chris scrambled to his feet, grabbing his gun, and he staggered toward where Rinoa lay on the floor. He hauled her to her feet, and placed the gun across her throat, while placing his free arm behind her neck, bending her head forward uncomfortably.

“You take one step closer,” Chris said, threateningly, “and I’ll break her neck!” Squall hesitated- he didn’t doubt for one second that Chris would carry out his threat, if given reason. However, the mere sight of Rinoa gave Squall much distress- she had only been in Chris’s custody for less than four hours, but already she had multiple cuts and bruises, and the bullet wound on her knee was bleeding again, also looking like it was infected.

“What have you done to her, you bastard?” Squall asked, his voice full of outrage.

“This?” Chris asked, regarding Rinoa’s injuries. “This is just a little fun I had while I was waiting for you. Do you want to save her life, Squall? Throw your gunblade to the floor.” Squall was reluctant, and Chris tightened his grip on Rinoa’s neck. Squall looked at Rinoa’s face, which was starting to turn purple, and suddenly, a glimmer of hope appeared. Rinoa winked at him. She had a plan. Squall opened his right palm, and Lionheart clattered to the floor.

“You’re a good husband, Squall,” Chris said, his voice actually displaying admiration for Squall’s actions. “Kick it over here.” Squall kicked Lionheart toward Chris, who in turn kicked it toward the side of the room, well beyond Squall’s reach. I hope that plan of yours works, Angel, Squall thought to himself, as Chris pushed Rinoa off him, sending her flying to the floor a few feet away from where he stood, gun still in hand.

“On your knees,” Chris said, coolly. Squall dutifully dropped to his knees, and Chris pointed his rifle straight at the middle of Squall’s head.

“Finally,” Chris said, “vengeance will be mine. Do you have any last words, Squall?” Squall nodded. “Don’t let me stop you, then,” Chris said, impatiently.

“My last words are as follows,” Squall said, deliberately. “Now, Angel!” Chris was taken aback.

“What?” He asked, as he finalised his aim on Squall. As he was about to fire, however, his vision suddenly left him, replaced by a cloud of black smoke. Chris instantly realised what had happened- Rinoa had hit him with a darkness spell.

“Bitch!” Chris said, as he fired his gun in the air. Unfortunately for him, he had forgotten to put the automatic reload on his weapon, meaning that once he fired his shot, he was defenceless. Squall immediately took advantage of this situation, and rugby tackled Chris to the ground. They hit the deck hard, and Chris had the wind knocked out of him. The blinded sniper then felt Squall’s fist connect with his face very hard, and blood started trickling out of his nose.

“That one’s for Zell,” Squall said, menacingly, as he rushed over and grabbed Rinoa.

“Are you alright, Angel?” He asked his semi-conscious wife.

“Yeah,” she said, groggily. “I love you, Squall.” Squall kissed Rinoa on the forehead.

“I love you too, Angel,” he said hastily, “but we gotta get out of here right now!” Squall picked his pregnant wife up in a fireman’s lift, and, once he had retrieved Lionheart, he left the hold, sprinting back to the rope that still connected the boat and the jetcopter. He urged Rinoa to grab the rope, which she duly did, holding on with all of her strength, before he heard the hold open behind him, and he turned round to see Chris scramble up on to the top of the hold, rifle in hand. However, his hands were shaking, and his eyes were watering as a result of his newly broken nose.

“Squall!” He shouted.

“Hey, Duncan!” Squall shouted, referring to Chris by his surname. “I got a surprise for you!” At that point, Squall grabbed on to the rope, and cut it with his gunblade, sending him and Rinoa rushing up into the sky with the jetcopter, while Chris, and the boat, were sent spiralling to a halt. Chris aimed at the rapidly receding aircraft, but by the time his hands stopped shaking, they were too far away. Sighing, Chris was about to head back into the hold of his ship when he heard a soft beeping sound from behind him. Slowly, he approached the harpoon, which had remained embedded in his boat when Squall cut the tether between it and the jetcopter. Chris was surprised to find that the harpoon had a counter attached to it, and it was counting down seconds. Chris immediately recognised what it was, as the countdown reached ‘6’.

“You bastard,” Chris said quietly to himself, as the countdown eventually reached zero.

Squall and Rinoa were being hauled into the jetcopter when they saw the boat explode in a huge ball of flame. Once the fireball had receded, all that remained of the boat was burning wreckage.

“Hey, Duncan!” Squall shouted. “I’ll see you in hell!” Sighing, he turned to face his wife. “It’s over now, Angel.” Rinoa smiled, and looked Squall straight in the eyes.

“I knew you’d save me,” she said, softly. “You always do. I love you so much.” Squall smiled.

“I love you too, Angel,” he replied. Eventually, they were both hauled aboard the jetcopter, and they embraced each other tightly. Once they were finished, Squall turned to the pilot.

“It’s done,” Squall stated. “Mission complete. Take us home.”

“Aye aye sir,” the pilot said, igniting the jet engines and flying to Balamb Garden, as Squall and Rinoa kissed each other, passionately.

Upon their return to Balamb Garden, Squall and Rinoa were greeted by an unhappy-looking Cid.

“Ah,” Squall said quietly to Rinoa, remembering the minor rampage he carried out on his motorbike. “You stay here, Angel.”

“Okay,” Rinoa responded, equally quietly, as Squall kissed her on the forehead. Squall approached Cid, apprehensively.

“Headmaster,” Squall started respectfully, standing to attention, “I humbly apologise for any damage I caused to the Garden, and also for disobeying your direct orders. I will accept any disciplinary action you see fit, no matter how severe it may be.” Cid simply sighed, and walked toward Squall.

“Squall,” Cid said, “under ordinary circumstances, a student pulling off the stunts you just did would be booted out of the Garden for life. However, if I did that to you, I’d probably be lynched. You’ve left me in a really difficult position, Squall.”

“I understand, sir,” Squall said, not moving a muscle as Cid walked around him.

“I can’t just let it slide,” Cid continued, “so I’m afraid I am going to have to fine you two weeks’ wages. Is that understood?” Squall sighed- a fine was much less severe than he had been expecting.

“Yes, sir,” Squall replied.

“Good, good,” Cid said, standing in front of Squall. Much to Squall’s surprise, Cid then offered the young commander his hand, which the confused Squall accepted, and shook. “And congratulations on a mission well done,” Cid said, with a smile. Squall smiled too.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, gratefully, as the headmaster left the helipad, re-entering the Garden. Once Cid had gone, Squall walked back to where he wife was sat, on the steps of the jetcopter.

“We’d better get you to the infirmary,” Squall said, picking Rinoa up in his strong arms. Rinoa simply smiled, and, with her energy spent from the day’s events, fell asleep in his arms.

She awoke with a start a few hours later. Looking around, she found herself in hers and Squall’s quarters, lying on the bed, wearing nothing but a nightie.

“Squall?” She asked, hoping to catch her husband’s attention. However, Squall was not in the room. Slowly, Rinoa got to her feet, and walked toward her closet. As she opened it, however, she let out a loud scream, as Zell’s corpse fell out of the closet, landing at her feet. Panicking, she limped as fast as she could toward her door, and she hastily opened it, hobbling outside. As she left her quarters, however, a large man grabbed her from behind. The man covered her mouth with one of his hands, and restrained her arms with the other.

“My, my,” the familiar voice of Christopher Duncan whispered in Rinoa’s ear, “we are looking pretty today, aren’t we, Mrs Leonheart?” Chris then span Rinoa round, and pinned her against the wall, still covering her mouth. “Do you remember the boat, Mrs Leonheart? Do you remember what it was like, being with me?” Rinoa was quivering with fear- she tried to cast a magic spell on Chris, but her mind wouldn’t clear up. Rinoa then watched, her eyes wide, as Chris produced a knife.

“Time for mummy and her two babies to say night-night,” Chris said, as he rammed the knife as hard as he could into Rinoa’s abdomen. Rinoa felt herself fade away, as the blood left her body.

“Squall!” She shouted, weakly, as she began to slip away. She fell to the floor, gasping for breath.

“So long, Mrs Leonheart,” Chris said, as he stood above her, and brought down his foot as hard as he could on her face…

Rinoa awoke, screaming, and confused, in her own bed. As she woke up, she felt a familiar pair of arms wrap themselves around her body.

“It’s okay, Angel,” Squall whispered in her ear. “It was all just a dream. You’re safe now.” Rinoa sighed, and leaned her head onto Squall’s chest, silently sobbing. It was just a dream, she thought to herself. Thank Hyne, it was just a dream…

“Squall,” she sobbed, “it was horrible, I-“ Squall pressed his gloved finger to Rinoa’s lips, silencing her.

“It’s okay,” Squall said, calming his wife down. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” Rinoa nodded, and huddled herself closer to her husband. It was just a dream, Rinoa again thought to herself. Chris is dead. He’s never coming back. The danger’s over. Rinoa began to cry tears of happiness.

“Hey,” Squall said, realising that his wife was crying, “What are the tears for?”

“It’s finally over, Squall,” Rinoa said. “It’s finally over.” Squall simply smiled, and held his wife a little tighter.

“That’s right,” he replied. “There’s no more danger, and in six months, you and I are gonna be the parents of two beautiful babies.”

“Yeah,” Rinoa said, smiling even more. Squall then let go of Rinoa, and laid her back down in the bed.

“Now you get back to sleep,” Squall said, authoritatively. “And if you have any more nightmares, just remember- I’ll always be there for you, every step you take.” Squall leaned down, and gently kissed Rinoa on the lips. “I love you more than life itself.” Rinoa smiled, as she started to drift off to sleep, again.

“I love you too,” she said, nodding off.

The following morning, Squall called a meeting of all the senior SeeDs, plus Seifer. There, he announced that Chris had been eliminated, and that the threat was over. He also announced that, as Chris was technically still a SeeD, there would be a memorial service in his honour, the following day.

However, when the time for the memorial service came, the only people there were Cid, Edea, Squall, Rinoa, Seifer, Quistis, Irvine, Selphie, and Xu. There was no sign of the massive throng that had attended Zell’s memorial service, and, eventually, the nine of them retreated indoors, none of them wanting to sit out in the rain. They all sat in the deserted cafeteria, in silence. Eventually, Irvine broke the silence.

“I still can’t believe he’s dead,” the sniper said. “I always thought that maybe, just maybe, he’d see the error of his ways like you did, Seif.” Irvine had always seen Chris as his protégé, and had been shocked when he’d turned against the Garden.

“Wishful thinking,” Seifer said, responding to Irvine’s statement. “It’s like I say- hate is the most powerful emotion for some people. It sucks, but that’s just the world in general for you.” Everyone nodded at Seifer’s statement- they didn’t like it, but they were forced to accept that it was true.

“So what do we do now?” Asked a downcast Selphie, who, like her husband, had seen Chris as one of her protégés.

“Where do we go now?” Squall asked in reply. “I’ll tell you. We go onwards. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot, and we must never forget that, but we can’t live in the past. We’ve got to plan for the future, ‘cause that’s where we’ll be spending the rest of the lives.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Cid said, standing and raising his glass. “A toast- to the future.” All the others raised their glasses as well, joining in the toast.

“To the future,” Edea said, looking around the table at the young men and women, most of whom she raised when they were children, now all successful young adults. Make your futures good ones, my children, she thought to herself.

“To the future,” Xu said, looking around the table at her friends. She had been an only child, and had very few friends when she was growing up. Now, however, she had all the friends she ever wanted.

“To the future,” Seifer said, casting a brief glance at Quistis.

“To the future,” the blonde instructor said. Seifer and Quistis knew that their futures were intertwined, and while they may not have been displaying it on the outside, inwardly, they were almost bursting with anticipation over what the future held for them.

“To the future,” Irvine said, looking down at where his wife was sat in her wheelchair.

“To the future,” Selphie said, leaning her head against Irvine’s arm. When they had first been told that Selphie was incapable of bearing children, the couple had been devastated. After all they’d been through in the past few weeks, however, they realised that they didn’t need children to be complete, just as long as they had each other. They’d still be looking at adopting a child, of course, but that was just another adventure that lay in their futures.

“To the future,” Rinoa said, looking lovingly at her husband.

“To the future,” Squall said, looking lovingly back at his wife. In a short amount of time, the two of them would become four, the couple would become a true family. Not too long ago, Rinoa had wanted nothing to do with her family- now she was going to have one of her own. Not too long ago, Squall didn’t have a family at all- now he had a father, a sister, all the friends he could ever ask for, but most importantly of all, a wife whom he adored, and soon, two children, whom he knew he would love unreservedly.

The nine of them finished their drinks, and sat back, smiling. They had lost so much over the past weeks, but the one thing that they would never lose was their hope for the future.


Part 5

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