Squall woke not with a start, but reluctantly, as if the dread he instinctively knew would soon drop into his mind made his limbs heavy and cold. He felt as though he was waking from a pleasant dream into the nightmare of reality. Which, he thought vaguely, he was.

Not that his dreams had been pleasant, but in this case at least he preferred the fantasy horror shows his mind made up in his sleep to cold hard reality.

He rubbed his eyes, feeling the headache that had been with him since the day before pounce on him with malicious glee.

What had that last dream been? He wasn't quite sure, but he thought he'd been fighting, leading an army. At first he had struggled mightily to keep his squadrons of men from being annihilated. But as the battle progressed, he'd realized that somehow he was fighting on the wrong side- and then he couldn't call his men back. War had been a slavering beast not obedient to his hand once unleashed.

Well, the explanation was simple enough. He'd been fighting for Garden his whole life, and only his single failure yesterday had given him a glimpse of what Garden really was.

This was the nightmare. Garden had scorned him, and although this did not hurt him the way it hurt Quistis, he found himself in a similar situation nonetheless. Unlike Quistis, he had neither expected nor hoped for compassion from Garden. All he had thought about was the fight, his training, and had assumed that they fought for worthy purposes. He had never imagined that pale shimmering hallways and lofty ceilings could harbor such indifference and greed.

Well, now he knew, for better or worse. Perhaps if he had passed the SeeD exam he never would have noticed. He would have fought his whole life, perhaps even given his life, to a system that cared little for him and nothing for honor.

And now his life was shattered. He knew he could no longer stay here; every second he remained steeped him further in filth. He was almost surprised he felt as strongly as he did. But then again, he had thought his whole life that Garden chose missions on their merit, not their monetary advantages.

He sat up, feeling all at once awake and determined to leave as soon as possible. Quickly he dressed in his own clothes and scanned his room for anything he would need. His gunblade, certainly, and the small amount of ready cash he kept in his desk drawer. He wanted nothing else.

As he opened the door to his room, he paused, remembering the strange girl from the night before. After he had left Quistis, he had been stopped by another girl, the same one from the infirmary that morning. She'd been attacked by a Granaldo, one of the nastier monsters that prowled the Training Center. She'd called his name in panic and he had dispatched the monster without hesitation. Then soldiers wearing white had taken her away. Squall hadn't thought too much about it, having had enough on his mind, but now he thought of her again. Who was she, and why did she seem to know him? He shook his head. He was leaving. This would have to remain an unsolved mystery.

Squall strode from his room without a backward glance and made his way to the elevator. It was early, but he knew the Headmaster would be up and about.

Indeed he was, for when Squall knocked on his office door, a voice immediately granted him permission to enter. He stepped inside the door and saluted reluctantly. The gesture felt false, but he needed the severance bonus orphaned cadets were awarded when they cut their contract with Garden, and so he had to follow proper procedure.

"Sir," he said.

The Headmaster waved a hand at him. "At ease."

Squall relaxed marginally, and Cid smiled at him. "How can I help you, Squall?"

"I'm severing my contract as per Regulation 167, Article C," he said bluntly. "Sir."

Dismay blossomed on the Headmaster's face. "Squall, I know how you're feeling right now, but surely you should take some more time to think about this. I understand why you did what you did, and I do have sympathy for you; I don't want you to become a machine. I want you to be able to think for yourself. I know you were reprimanded quite severely, but you have to understand; we have to follow our contracts to the letter."

"This isn't about the SeeD exam, sir," said Squall stiffly.

The Headmaster gazed at him sorrowfully. "I'd hate to lose you at a time like this," he said. "Garden has its own destiny, you know."

"I'm aware of the destiny of Garden," said Squall before he really thought about what might come out of his mouth. "The destiny of Garden is to make money. Sir." And again he saluted.

Cid flinched.

"I hate to let you go, thinking that way," said Cid. He reached into his desk drawer and drew out a form. "But you're probably right," he muttered to himself, so quietly that Squall could barely make out his words.

Squall blinked. The Headmaster was widely known as a kindhearted but not particularly competent administrator. Perhaps he knew more than everyone else assumed he did. Maybe the Headmaster was trying to change the Garden, but try as he might, Squall could not bring himself to have faith in the man, not after witnessing the way that he had been manipulated by the Garden Faculty the day before. How could the man change anything when his very words were dictated by the Garden faculty?

Cid scribbled on the form in a few places and turned it toward Squall after marking an X where he was to sign. Squall took the pro-offered pen and signed quickly.

The Headmaster reached into another drawer and counted out Squall's bonus. It wasn't a particularly large amount, but Squall hadn't expected more. And he would need every Gil he could get.

Cid stood, small sheathe of Gil notes clutched in one hand, and delved into his trouser pockets with the other. It came up with another wad of notes, and he held the whole mess out to Squall sheepishly.

"Take it," he said. "You'll need it, and I want you to know that some of us don't care about money."

Squall stood for a moment and looked at the older man. Then he accepted the Headmaster's gift, smoothing out the bills before depositing them in his own pocket. "I know you don't," he said. "But you don't have power here."

The Headmaster sat heavily in his leather chair. "I founded Garden. You'd think that I would, but you're right. Garden hasn't become what we wanted it to be, and now I can't fix it, not alone."

Squall shifted, wanting to get out of there but too polite to just cut and run. The Headmaster noticed and smiled sadly at him. "Go on now. I know you don't want to stand here listening to the ramblings of an old man. Go somewhere else and make a new life."

Squall nodded. "Good luck, Headmaster," he said, and walked out.

Soon after that he was walking the winding road to Balamb in bright morning sunshine. There was a train station at Balamb that ran to Timber. And from Timber he could go anywhere. The whole world waited for him.

********

Quistis folded her napkin into her lap neatly and eyed the hotdog on her tray dubiously. She'd heard some cadets talking the other day about hotdogs and how disgusting they were, but had not managed to catch any details as to their preparation or ingredients. She was almost glad she hadn't, for she liked hotdogs and didn't particularly want to know too much about them.

She toyed with her salad a bit, not particularly hungry. This was her first day on standby as a SeeD in over a year. A mission could come at any time; until then she was on restricted leave.

She didn't really know what to do with herself. No classes to teach, no papers to grade, no students to guide. And not even a mission to take her mind off things.

Like lunch, and how she ate alone at a table far removed from that of her former peers. When she had been an instructor she had eaten with her colleagues, and occasionally with Xu or Doctor Kadowaki. Now, she couldn't bring herself to go and sit with them, even though she knew they would probably welcome her. By now they would all know of her failure and she knew she wouldn't be able to handle that humiliation, however kind she was sure they would be.

And she couldn't sit with any of the SeeDs, either. She'd taught too many of them. She hadn't had time in just one morning to make friends with any of those that had ascended under other instructors.

She sipped her milk and noticed her fan club glancing at her from a few tables away. Grimacing inwardly, she set her glass back on the table. The Trepies had amused her before, but now she was ashamed; of them and for them. She hoped they wouldn't try to come and sit with her.

Her mind turned once again to Squall, another uncomfortable topic, and she pushed away the thought of him, wincing mentally. She felt responsible for his situation, even though his own actions had caused him to fail the exam. She knew she deserved the harsh words he had given her the night before, however impersonal they had been.

"Quistis?"

She jumped in her chair and looked up into blazing blue eyes.

Zell Dincht. Portions of Nero's file on him flashed through her mind

(capable abitexcitable tremendouslyhardworking loyal)

as she smiled her welcome at him. It was a bland smile, but a smile nonetheless.

He grinned and plopped down in the chair across from her, settling a slick looking T-board across his knees.

"Heya. The Headmaster sent me to tell you we've been assigned a mission. We're supposed to meet by the front gate at 1300 hours."

Quistis glanced at her watch.

"We'd better hurry then," she said, pushing her tray away from her.

Zell looked at the untouched hotdog in dismay. "Aren't you going to eat that?" he asked, fidgeting.

"Nah. I usually throw them away," she teased. The look of indignation on his face nearly made her laugh. "You want?"

"Hell yes!" he said, and snatched up the hotdog with no further prompting.

She stood and waited for a few moments as he inhaled the hotdog. He was finished faster than she would have thought possible.

"Do you always eat so fast? That's a good way to choke to death."

He blushed and scratched his head. "No. Well, not usually. It's just they're always out of hotdogs, and man, I love 'em. Not fair." He sighed and brandished the T-board theatrically.

"Let's go," he said, tucking the T-board under one arm.

They fell in step and strolled out of the cafeteria. Without speaking they both turned south toward the front gate and followed the curved corridor.

She noticed Zell giving her a sidelong look.

"What is it, Zell?" she asked, not really sure she wanted to know.

"Ah," he said. "I heard you're not an instructor any more."

She smiled, pained. "I wouldn't be going on this mission with you if I were, would I?"

"No, of course not," he said. "But, um, I was wondering. Did it have anything to do with Seifer? You don't have to answer if you don't want," he added hastily.

She frowned. Why would Seifer have anything to do- oh yes. He'd put her on 'the list.'

"No, he didn't have anything to do with it." Or had he? It was possible, but she doubted Garden administration really listened to the advice of its number one problem student. Even if he had passed the SeeD exam.

"Oh," said Zell, and asked nothing more. She didn't offer an explanation.

They walked the rest of the way to the front gate in silence, and she saw a small group standing there, presumably waiting for them. Cid, two Garden Faculty members, Selphie Tilmitt, and Seifer Almasy all turned to watch them as they walked the last few yards.

"Made it!" exclaimed Zell, grinning.

The Garden Faculty member standing next to Cid turned to him. "T-boards are prohibited within Garden. Have you forgotten?"

"Oops," said Zell sheepishly. "But I wasn't riding it. And it's really cool- may come in handy on a SeeD mission someday." He smiled hopefully.

"We'll be the judges of that," the Garden Faculty member said stonily. He reached for the T-board and took it from a surprised Zell. "Confiscate it," he said, handing it to the other Garden Faculty member. He nodded and strolled off. Zell looked after him longingly, while Seifer smirked.

The remaining Garden Faculty member turned toward the group of SeeDs. "All of you are members of SeeD, but nevertheless you are still students at this Garden," he said sharply. "Furthermore, because you are SeeDs, you must set an example to all others. Understood?"

They nodded their assent.

Cid spoke up, erasing the reprimand from their minds. "Well, about your first mission. You are to go to Timber. There, you will support a resistance faction. That is your mission," he said simply. Quistis spied a strange expression on Seifer's face, but could make neither head nor tails of it. "A member of the faction will contact you at the Timber Station."

"This person will talk to you and say, 'the forests of Timber sure have changed.' At this time you must reply, 'but the owls are still around.' That is the password," continued the Garden Faculty member.

"Just follow the faction's orders," added Cid.

"Uh, just us four?" asked Zell.

"Correct. We agreed to do this mission for very little money," said the Garden Faculty member. "Normally, we would never accept such requests, but-"

Cid interrupted him, his voice sharper than Quistis had ever heard it. "Enough talk about that." She thought of Squall suddenly, and knew what he would have thought of this conversation. She wondered for the first time exactly how much of what he had said was true.

"Well then, Quistis, you are the squad leader," Cid continued, in a more normal tone of voice. "Use your best judgment based on the situation. Zell, Selphie, Seifer," he nodded to each of the other SeeDs, "you are to support Quistis and give your all to carry out the faction's plans."

With that, the meeting seemed to be over. Quistis turned toward the Headmaster to ask him what the special circumstances leading to this mission had been, but he smiled at her and spoke before she could pose her question. "Quistis. I forgot to give you this." He pressed a small brass lamp into her hands. "It's a cursed item, but if one with enough power uses it, it should be of great help. Best of luck on your mission."

The Garden Faculty member was hovering close and she didn't really want him to overhear anything sensitive. She turned away, lamp still in her hands, question unasked.

"Three thousand Gil, please," said the attendant, and Quistis handed over her plastic banking card. The attendant scanned it and handed it back along with their ticket, a similar card bearing a magnetic information strip.

"Let's go," she said to the others.

They made their way up the stairs to the platform and Quistis showed her ticket to the bored usher. "Please go inside right away. The train will be leaving shortly," he said, waving them inside.

The compartment they entered was large and devoid of furniture. Quistis looked around and saw a door that presumably led to a corridor- and their cabin.

"This train is awesome!" exclaimed Selphie, clapping her hands and bouncing up and down in place.

"A transcontinental railroad, baby!" Zell grinned. "It even runs through an underwater tunnel to get to Timber. Pretty cool, huh?"

She smiled her agreement absently before crossing the compartment to the door. She saw a small screen next to a slot and inserted her ticket.

"ID check...Confirming...Access Granted," displayed the screen, and the door slid aside silently.

"I'm gonna go check out the front," giggled Selphie. "Thanks!" She wasted no time in scampering through the open doorway.

"Let's go check it out, Quistis," suggested Zell. She waved him on and turned to the one remaining team member.

"Seifer. Are you all right?" she asked. Seifer hadn't spoken a single word to any of them so far. It was unlike him. Normally he'd be busy smirking and saying condescending things to all of them, especially Zell. But he'd spent their journey so far in brooding silence, and she was worried. Not that she had any fondness for him; he'd been one of her most troublesome students and she certainly had received her share of cutting, hurtful remarks from him in the past.

He frowned at her and folded his arms across his chest. "Leave me alone," he said simply, and pushed his way past her into the corridor.

"Stop," she said sharply. "That's a direct order."

Reluctantly the tall young man halted. He did not turn to face her.

"Are you upset because you weren't appointed leader of your first mission?" she asked, knowing better but too annoyed with him to let him pass.

He whirled so fast she fancied she heard his trenchcoat snap. In an instant he was a step away, glaring down at her furiously.

"I asked you to leave me alone," he snapped. "It's not your business." His green glare burned her, and she realized in that moment how tall he was.

"We all know about you and your leadership skills," he said cruelly. "And although we both know I'm far more suitable than you for the job, since you brought it up, that's not what I'm thinking about."

She blinked and took an involuntary step away from him.

"So just keep your suppositions to yourself, Trepe. If you harass me any more I'll file a complaint; I'm sure Garden will be happy to demote you as much as you like."

And he walked through the doorway, leaving her to wrap her arms around herself and fight off tears.

He's right, she thought. I'm a terrible leader. I knew something was wrong with him and I should have accepted that he didn't want to tell me about it. Instead, I attacked him.

She moved to lean against the wall, and couldn't help but cry just a little. Well, he's always had a terrible opinion of me. I guess it's just that he's right.

No point in worrying about his opinion. I'll have to try harder to be fair, that's all. Maybe Selphie and Zell will like me more. And maybe I can change Seifer's opinion of me. Probably not, though, she admitted to herself.

Quistis wiped her eyes and stepped into the passageway. Selphie stood on tiptoe by the windows, peering out and singing happily to herself.

Selphie saw her and smiled broadly. "Hey! I'm gonna hang out here for a bit. Zell and Seifer already went inside," she informed her, pointing at the doorway to their cabin.

Quistis nodded and pushed open the door.

Seifer sat sullenly on one of the long low couches ringing the cabin, arms crossed and expression closed. Zell enthusiastically examined everything in the room, exclaiming softly to himself each time he made a new discovery.

She smiled and made her way to a couch not too near Seifer, sitting and arranging her limbs comfortably. "Zell, how long is the ride to Timber?"

He stopped what he was doing and scratched his head. "About an hour, I think."

"Only an hour?" said Selphie, disappointed, as she closed the door behind her. She grimaced as she walked to the couch. "Oh well. I'm not really feeling great anyway." She sat down next to Quistis and yawned. "I'm really sleepy."

"You can rest if you want," said Quistis. "We've got some time."

Quistis glanced at the girl next to her, alarmed to see her eyes closed and her face slack. "Are you all right? Selphie?"

Zell groaned suddenly. "Something's wrong with me, too. I feel...sleepy..." As quickly as that, the short blonde SeeD was stretched out on the floor silently.

"Seifer," began Quistis quickly, but he had anticipated her order. He crossed the cabin quickly and threw open the window. Wind swirled into the room, making his coat bell out behind him.

"Stay there," she directed, and ran to the door, finding without much surprise that her hand had drawn her whip without instruction from her mind. She threw the deadbolt and knelt down by Zell. His pulse was slow but steady.

She stood and glanced at Seifer. He had drawn his gunblade, and she nodded approvingly at him before returning to the couch to check Selphie. Her heartbeat was faster, but still strong, and Quistis stood, confused, and glanced around the room again.

She couldn't find anything out of the ordinary.

"You cover the door," she said, her voice sounding clipped even to her own ears. "Whip's no good at close range."

He nodded and she took his place by the window as he crossed to stand next to the door. If it was forced open, he'd be able to attack from behind once they were through.

They waited. Tension filled seconds stretched into minutes, and still nothing happened. Quistis began to shiver as cold, musty air from the tunnel outside chilled her to the bone.

She almost jumped out of her skin when Zell stirred minutes later.

"Ugh," he groaned, and made his way slowly to his feet. She nodded at Seifer and went to Zell.

"You okay?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah, I think so," he said, rubbing his head.

"Go sit down," she ordered, and made her way over to Selphie. The young SeeD was already waking.

"Selphie? How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, I think," said the girl, yawning. "I had the nicest dream, though."

Just then the intercom chimed. "We will be arriving in Timber shortly. For those getting off, please be sure you have all your belongings," it announced, and Quistis started. I didn't think it was that long!

"But seriously," continued Selphie, "Sir Laguna was sooo cool!"

Zell stared at her in surprise. "Hey! There was a Laguna in my dream, too! He's a Galbadian soldier, right?"

"Laguna, Kiros, and Ward," said Selphie slowly. Quistis watched them, puzzled.

Seifer abandoned his place by the door. "I can't believe this," he said contemptuously. "You two should be sacked, making up shit like that. We thought someone was trying to take us out."

"We're not lying!" said Zell angrily. Quistis saw his fists clench and she spoke up quickly.

"We're all okay. I don't know what happened but this isn't the time to worry about it. After the mission I'll file a report, but for now let's just drop it."

Seifer snorted, and Zell glared daggers at him, but they did drop it.

Quistis had half a mind to agree with Seifer, but still, she wondered.

They stepped out onto the Timber platform and Quistis immediately noticed the heavy presence of Galbadian guards. Timber was a hothouse for resistance groups, she knew, so it made sense. She just hadn't been expecting so many.

She looked around a bit more and made a few internal guesses about the identity of their contact. To her dismay, as soon as she made eye contact with the short, unassuming man she had already picked out in her mind, he made his way over to her. He's not very good at stealth, she thought to herself. I wonder how this is going to go- honestly, if the rest of them are like this I don't see us having much chance.

The prospect of failing her mission made her feel gloomy, and she exchanged the passwords with him dejectedly. They're going to get us killed, Quistis thought as she waved at the others to follow them.

Not that my life's been so great lately anyway, she added silently.

The man, who identified himself as Watts, led them to another platform where they boarded a yellow train.

The compartment they entered was much like the main compartment of the train they had just vacated.

Another man with dark hair and casual clothing awaited them. "So you guys are SeeDs?"

She stepped forward. "I'm the squad leader, Quistis. This is Zell, and Selphie, and Seifer," she introduced her team, gesturing at each in turn.

"Nice to meet ya," said the man. "I'm Zone, leader of the Forest Owls." Quistis shook his hand. Zone then shook Selphie's hand but ignored Zell's, which had hastily been wiped on his shorts and presented. Seifer never even offered, but retreated to stand near the stairs, arms folded.

Quistis noticed Zell shadowboxing angrily, and smiled. Poor Zell, she thought. No one ever shakes his hand.

"Just take it easy," said Zone amiably. "Looks like you've already met Watts. I guess it's just our princess then."

"It's the princess' nap time," said Watts worriedly.

"Ah, man," said Zone, looking almost as nervous as Watts. He looked again at the SeeDs. "Hey, Quistis, sorry, but could you go get the princess?" He smiled at her weakly.

She frowned. "We're combat specialists," she said coolly. "Were we hired to run errands?"

He looked at her in dismay. "N-no," he stammered. "Are you a-angry?"

"Not yet," she said, trying not to smile.

Seifer interrupted their exchange. "Never mind," he said. "I'll do it."

Quistis looked at him in surprise. She never would have expected Seifer to volunteer for such a lowly errand. But she didn't stop him as he climbed the stairs and strode purposefully down the corridor.

********

The sound of the door opening roused Rinoa out of a sound sleep. She rolled over sleepily and opened her eyes, preparing to give whoever had just waltzed right into her room a good tongue-lashing.

All her sleep blurred eyes saw was the SeeD uniform.

Quickly, she swung her legs over the edge of her bed and launched herself at him. "SeeD is here! YES!" she cried, and looked up at him in confusion as he caught her wrist before she could hug him.

"Seifer," she breathed, and felt her eyes go round and her face begin to turn red. She hadn't really considered the possibility that the man who comprised half of her second-most complicated relationship would be assigned to the SeeD team she had talked Cid into practically giving her. At least, she hadn't considered it very much.

He looked down at her and she saw instantly that he was furious.

"What's wrong?" she said, confused, and then she knew. He thought she had requested him for her squad. And his angry reaction to that suspicion told her more than she wanted to know about how he felt about her, and never mind what he'd allowed her to do to him the night before.

He couldn't seem to put his accusation into words, so she did it for him.

"No. I didn't." She ripped her wrist out of his gloved hand. "I would never do that. And if you think I would, well, you're wrong."

Is that the truth? she asked herself. I think so. I never even thought of requesting him, and if I had, I still wouldn't have done it. I don't want to trap him. I just...Hyne, this is going to be bad.

Seifer still watched her warily, and she sighed, shaking her finger at him. "Knock it off, Seifer. It's not like that," she scolded. Then she grinned. "Thank Hyne they sent someone competent, at least. Now that you guys are here, we'll be able to carry out all kinds of plans!"

Finally he relaxed, and the charming Seifer she knew

(and)

emerged. He smiled at her. "That's right. Little did they realize they sent the best."

She clapped her hands joyfully. "So who's the squad leader?"

He rolled his eyes. "A failed instructor, Quistis Trepe. No accounting for taste, yeah?"

She tapped his chest with her index finger. "Now, now. Play nice, you big meanie. I'm sure she'll be fine, and even if she's not we still have you. Let's get out there, we need to go over the plans A.S.A.P. C'mon."

Rinoa shoved his chest playfully and led the way back to the main compartment.

A young woman with blonde hair met her gaze. "I'm Quistis," she said. "This is Selphie, and Zell. You've already met Seifer." Little do you know, thought Rinoa.

"Hi everyone!" She smiled at the SeeDs. "This way." She gestured to the door that led to the strategy room and suppressed a laugh as Zell, Selphie, Watts and Zone all tried to get through the door at the same time.

She gestured to Zone, and he took over the meeting. "Just stand anywhere you want," he said.

"This is a full scale operation. Our resistance, 'The Forest Owls', will be forever known in the pages of Timber's independence! Exciting, huh? It all started when we got a hold of top-secret info from Galbadia."

"I got the info, sir!" piped up Watts.

"There's a VIP from Galbadia coming to Timber," continued Zone.

"Super V-I-P!" trilled Watts.

"The guy's name is Vinzer Deling! Our archenemy, and the President of Galbadia," explained Zone.

"Vinzer Deling is a scoundrel," growled Watts. "He's a dictator, not a president. Not even popular in Galbadia, sir!"

"President Deling is taking a private train from the Galbadian capital," continued Rinoa.

"Our plan is to-" began Zone.

"Blow it to smithereens with a rocket launcher?" Selphie interrupted.

"Ah, not quite," said Zone.

"So get to the point!" Zell said impatiently. "Just tell us what to do!"

"Shall we begin?" smiled Rinoa. "All right. Our goal is to kidnap the President. Here are the models." She pointed to the workbench. "See the two trains? This yellow one is the one we're riding in now. But see the red car on the end? That's the dummy car. We're going to switch the president's car with the dummy car using the switch points leading up to Timber.

"We'll be following behind them on the same track. The first step is to get from our first car to their second escort. Then we uncouple the second escort from the president's car. This has to be done before the first switch point.

"At the first switch point, their second escort will continue onto the second track. Then our first escort will be right behind the president's car. Next we uncouple their first escort from the president's car, before the second switch point. Then, their first escort will continue on the track, we'll release our dummy car from the back of our train and switch the tracks; we'll exit onto the second track along with the president's car and after that switch the tracks again so their second escort connects with the dummy car. Piece of cake!"

"It seems feasible," Quistis admitted. "But why bother with the dummy car at all? Why not just snatch the president's car and have done with it?"

"That's the best part," said Rinoa. "The dummy car is a complete replica of the president's car. And inside will be a mechanical replica of Vinzer himself. With what he's programmed to say, his guards won't dare disturb him. They'll never know the real president isn't there until it's far too late to catch us."

"Dummy car, dummy president," murmured Seifer.

Rinoa beamed, gratified that he liked the idea.

"But what about the uncouplings?" asked Selphie, who loved trains and knew them inside and out. "You need passwords to initialize the uncouplings."

"I've got them," smiled Rinoa. "We have exactly five minutes to complete the procedures."

"Five minutes? You sure that's enough?" asked Zell.

"According to the simulation that we ran, it should only take three minutes to complete the operation," said Zone. "Piece of cake for SeeDs, right?"

"Right," Quistis affirmed.

"By the way," began Selphie slowly. "This model's nice but the president's car looks kinda shabby. Why is that?"

"Yeah, Rinoa made it. That's why. We bought everything else at the gift store," Watts answered, and cringed at the look Rinoa gave him.

"Uh, I thought some kid made it. The paint job sucks, too," said Zell, who at times was not very quick on the uptake.

Rinoa noticed Quistis covering her mouth with one gloved hand, and that did it.

"Oh, shut up!" she snapped. "I made it look like that on purpose. It represents my hatred towards Deling."

"It's one of the...ugliest things I've seen in my life. You must really hate him," said Selphie innocently. Rinoa saw the corners of Seifer's mouth twitch and knew she was blushing.

"Are you guys finished?" she said, exasperated. "Enough about the model! Can we get on with it now?"

"That's way too much hassle," said Selphie. "Hey! How about this? Let's derail the president's car. Y'know, hit him with a big log or something. Then we watch it crash and burn! Ooh...So what do you guys think?"

Everyone in the room stared at her.

Finally, Zell ventured, "What's the point of killing him before abducting him?"

Selphie smiled serenely and Rinoa took that as her cue to finish the strategy meeting up.

"Okay. That's all."

"Quistis, I want you, Selphie and Zell to handle the uncoupling between the first escort and the president's car. That one will be harder because there are more guards. Seifer and I will take the other uncoupling. Sound okay?"

Everyone nodded.

Rinoa nodded to Zone. "Let's get going then."

The wind whipped wildly through Rinoa's hair and she wished she'd had the foresight to pull it back. Their train was rapidly catching up to the president's train and she firmed her grasp on the handrails that ran along the roof, squinting. The trains collided with the smallest of jolts and she smiled happily. Zone was such a good driver; he'd matched their speeds almost perfectly. Quickly she gestured to Quistis, who nodded to her teammates and led the leap onto the roof of the enemy train. Rinoa waited until they were clear and she and Seifer followed immediately after.

They ran low, crouched over against the wind. Fortunately they weren't going all that fast, but still it was dangerous. Her heart beat quickly and she thought she might be hyperventilating. Or maybe she was just having trouble catching her breath with all that wind. It seemed to take forever to get across the roof of the second escort, although her watch told her it had taken only thirty seconds or so.

They leaped again, this time onto the roof of the president's car. Rinoa pointed over the side, and Seifer set to with grappling cables right away. He yanked twice to see if it would hold his weight and then he was over the side and out of sight.

Rinoa lay flat on the roof, one arm holding tight to a handrail, the other extended over the side of the train where Seifer could see it.

She looked over as far as she could and saw his thumbs up sign. Quickly she extended four of her fingers and waited for the next thumb sign. It came, and she fed him the next three numbers of the code in the same way. As she gave him the last, she felt rather than heard the car they had just left disengage. She turned her head and saw it losing speed behind them.

Rinoa grinned and gestured for Seifer to come up. He was up like a shot, and after he'd taken care of the cables they flattened themselves against the roof of the car and looked ahead for the other half of their team.

They had made it to the far end and she could see Selphie on lookout, watching for any disturbances. Zell lay flat on the car, much as Rinoa had a few moments ago, and Quistis crouched on the edge of the car, waiting for her cue.

After a stress filled minute, she felt them pass the first switch point. She gestured wildly, but Quistis had already dropped over and was presumably entering codes.

She waited, and after she felt it had taken too long, she glanced at her watch. Quistis had been over the side for a whole minute.

Rinoa watched, and Quistis came up again and yelled in Zell's ear. She fidgeted, she couldn't help it. Something had gone wrong. But Zell yelled back and Quistis went over again. This time she came back up almost immediately and grabbed the cables without stowing them at all.

The three jumped back to the president's car, but the uncoupling hadn't happened. Rinoa felt no deceleration. She wanted to scream, or cry. What had gone wrong?

But just as the three SeeDs rendezvoused with Rinoa and Seifer, she felt the uncoupling engage, and nearly fainted with relief.

The president's car zipped off onto the second track at the next switch point, and their own train soon came up behind them. Rinoa lead the jump onto their own roof and they all climbed down the access ladder with windburned cheeks.

"What happened?" was Rinoa's immediate question.

Quistis gave her an uncharacteristically unfriendly look. "I realized, when I was entering the codes, that if the uncoupling happened we wouldn't have time to jump back to our own train."

Rinoa covered her hand with her mouth. Oh no! She's right! I can't believe I didn't think about that.

"But thanks to Zell, I was able to put a delay on it."

She blushed ruefully. "I'm so sorry, I didn't even think about that." She felt like such an idiot.

"SeeDs are resourceful if not downright devious," said Quistis, and it sounded like a quote to Rinoa. From their regulations, probably. "Zell, I'm recommending that your SeeD rank increase." Zell blushed and looked gratified.

Just then Zone burst into the main compartment. "Finally!" he exclaimed. "We've waited so long for this encounter with Vinzer."

"Well then, as soon as you're ready, I'll begin 'serious negotiations' with the president," said Rinoa, still a bit nervous about what had happened with Quistis.

But Quistis only nodded, so Rinoa pushed the incident to the back of her mind and led the way to the president's car.

Rinoa stood at the front of her group, flanked by a nervous Zone and four SeeDs who frowned and fingered weapons.

"President Deling," began Rinoa in a clear and ringing voice. "As long as you don't resist you won't get hurt." She paused uneasily, wondering why the president hadn't even turned his head at the sound of her voice.

"And if I do resist? What would you do? Young lady?" The president's voice grated in her ears, not quite human, and she gasped involuntarily.

"What's this?" said Quistis quietly.

"Boo hoo. Too bad," said the president, and unfolded himself jerkily from his seat. Rinoa took a step back, still shocked.

"I'm not the president. I'm what they call...a body double." He paused, and his arm twitched disturbingly. The SeeDs drew their weapons smoothly.

"All these rumors about the many resistance groups in Timber. You pass along a little false information and they fall for it. How pathetic. Seems like there are only amateurs around here."

"Amateurs?" said Rinoa faintly.

The fake president wiggled in place. "Ah, my butt hurts from all this sitting, young lady. Ahh." He wiggled some more, and Rinoa, horrified, backed up, stopping when she bumped into Seifer who put a steadying hand on her shoulder.

"So what did you have in store for me had I resisted? Why don't you tell me?" His voice jittered and wavered unsteadily. "Quite amusing though, for being such amateurs."

He jumped at them, a longer jump than any human could have made, and roared. "How dare you insult the president!"

Seifer pushed Rinoa behind him and charged, gunblade slicing into the body double's neck like a hot knife through butter. He didn't bother to press the trigger; the force of his blow had nearly severed the creature's head.

He half-turned back to the group and Rinoa watched in horror as the damaged creature behind him lurched up to its knees. Its head flopped to the side, the wound in its neck spurting blood everywhere, and it shrieked, a sound that hurt her ears. It jittered some more and started to change.

It gurgled and chuckled, lurched and shook, and Rinoa wanted to quietly turn her head and vomit. But she swallowed her bile, and then Quistis shouted, "Undead!" Green light shot from her gloved fingertips and the thing screamed in rage.

Selphie and Zell took their turns with their weapons, fearless, and Rinoa fingered her Pinwheel nervously.

When they were out of striking range she launched her weapon, glad that she didn't have to be in close range to damage it. It struck the creature's arm, and it turned an evil glare toward her.

She shrank back under that malevolent gaze, and when it sprang at her, wasn't able to avoid the blow it dealt with its misshapen arm to her temple. She cried out and it sprang away, only to be run through by Hyperion.

This time, Seifer fired the trigger. The creature had no time to scream before its chest exploded in a shower of gore and gray flesh.

She rubbed her head, disoriented, and found Seifer watching her. He handed her a small glass bottle.

"You all right?"

"Yeah, I think so. It just smacked me pretty good." She wanted to cry. They'd pulled off the kidnapping but their efforts had been in vain.

She struggled with the cork, feeling foolish. Seifer took the bottle back, uncorked it, and handed it to her without comment.

"Thanks," she said, and downed it, noting that it was sweet, the way lilacs smelled but didn't taste.

Rinoa turned her attention to the others. They were talking quietly, and when Quistis nodded Selphie clapped her hands and ran over to the dead monster. She glared at it furiously and it burst into white flames. Rinoa watched, surprised, and when the body was consumed by the flames a few moments later, Selphie frowned again and the flames went out.

I didn't know the Gardens taught para-magic. Well, it's a good weapon, so I'm not about to complain. She wondered what other sort of surprises the SeeDs kept hidden.

Watts burst through the cabin door, nearly bouncing with excitement. "Info, sir! New info!"

Rinoa nodded at him. "Let's go back to the strategy room." She eyed the small mound of ash that was all that remained of the undead body double. She didn't really want to be around it any more.

Watts managed to hold his information inside until they reached the strategy room, but Rinoa privately thought he looked like he was about to burst. She wanted to smile, but felt too tired.

Once they were there, however, he launched right in. "It's big news! I found out the real reason why the president's here, sir! The president's going to the TV station! Security's really tight, sir!"

Rinoa frowned. "The TV station? Why in Timber? They can broadcast just as easily from Deling City."

"Do you think the Dollet communication tower has anything to do with this?" wondered Selphie.

"What's that?" asked Zone.

"Dollet has a communication tower that can transmit and receive radio waves," explained Quistis. "It had been abandoned for a long time, but the Galbadian Army got it up and running yesterday." She glanced at Seifer, who ignored her.

"The only TV station that can handle broadcasts over the air is in Timber. Other stations use HD cable, which only supports online broadcasting," said Zone.

"So what's that supposed to mean?" Rinoa wondered.

"They're planning on using radio waves. This way, they can transmit images to regions with cable."

"I know that!" she laughed. "What I want to know is, what is the president going to broadcast? Why use radio waves? There must be something they want to say to the whole world. What can it be?"

Selphie spread her arms wide. "Everybody. Love and Peace!"

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if the first broadcast could be the declaration of Timber's independence?" said Rinoa.

Watts looked thoughtful. "That might be possible."

"Let's come up with a plan then! Can you guys give us a minute?"

Quistis, Zell, and Selphie shared a glance, and the squad leader stepped forward. "Before you go any further, can we see your contract with our Garden?"

"Oh sure," she said, and pulled it out. "Cid is such a nice man." She handed it to Quistis and squatted on the floor with Zone and Watts.

"We're going to the TV station," said Rinoa quietly. "What does security look like?" she asked Watts.

"Tight, sir. City trains aren't running. Sentries patrolling the streets. The guards are situated in the hotel. There's no way we can approach the TV station directly. That whole part of the city is heavily guarded."

"I've got that covered," said Rinoa. "I know a back way. It won't be heavily guarded since it's hard to access. You know the alley behind Aphorora Pub?"

Zone nodded. "We're still going to run into guards, probably quite a few once we get inside. Think they can handle it?" He nodded toward the SeeDs grouped around their contract.

"If they can't, nobody can," said Rinoa. She glanced at the SeeDs. Quistis was talking fast and furiously, too quietly for Rinoa to catch her words, but she could see how white her face was. The blonde woman touched Seifer's arm, and Rinoa felt a twinge of jealousy. Seifer frowned and shook his head, and Quistis talked some more. Selphie and Zell watched them intently. She wondered if it was about the contract.

"I think that's it," she said, turning back to Zone and Watts. "Simple and effective."

The alleyway behind Aphorora's Pub smelled distinctly of vomit. Rinoa wrinkled her nose in distaste.

"Whew!" said Selphie. "Nasty!"

"C'mon. We're not far now," she said to the others. "Let's get a move on."

They hurried over cobbles slick with liquids best not scrutinized too closely. It was dim, so that wasn't too much of a problem. The buildings that gave the alley its shape effectively blocked the sun out.

They made a sharp turn and Rinoa pointed. "There it is. The crew door is at the top of those stairs."

"Whoa, look! An outdoor TV," said Zell, and indeed, Rinoa could see a large screen set into the side of the TV station.

As they looked, it flickered and displayed a podium. Standing behind it they could see a very excited man, apparently one of the president's aides.

"P-people of the world! Can you see me? Can you hear me?" Rinoa thought privately that he looked like he was about to have a stroke. "Oh, this is incredible! Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a recording! This is an actual broadcast over the air! Yes, it's been seventeen years since a live broadcast has been possible! We would like to present to you today a message from the lifelong President of Galbadia, Vinzer Deling. Ladies and gentlemen, President Deling." He stepped aside and another man took his place. Vinzer Deling, dressed in a rich dark suit, looked magnificent and benevolent. Rinoa wanted to sneer.

"Greetings. I am Vinzer Deling, lifelong president of Galbadia. Today, I stand before you to make the following proposition. We the people of the world have the power to end all wars."

"See, see! It's a peace proposal to the world. I knew it!" bounced Selphie.

They climbed partway up the stairs and Watts pointed. "Look at all the guards."

Rinoa grimaced. "Maybe we should think of a new plan."

"We can take them," said Seifer grimly. "Now or never." He looked at Quistis meaningfully, who nodded.

"All right. Ready?" She looked at the SeeDs she had hired, weapons drawn and eyes facing the enemy.

"Seifer," said Quistis quietly. "You get the President. I'll cover you."

He nodded, and then the SeeDs lunged up the stairs ferociously. Rinoa followed behind as fast as she could.

Seifer cut his way through most of the guards standing sentry and kicked the door open. Quistis took care of the ones he missed, and Zell and Selphie covered them, leaving Rinoa to leap as carefully as she could over the bodies. She was the last one through the door, and was surprised to see that it led directly to the studio. She tried to orient herself, but all she could see were people fighting.

By the time she picked out the SeeDs it was essentially over. The SeeDs held weapons on those few guards who were still standing, and Seifer was just cutting his way through the last of Vinzer's bodyguards when her eyes found him.

Seifer's gunblade rose to point steadily at President Deling's throat. At nearly the same moment, Rinoa, standing in the open doorway, noticed a shadow fall over hers. Her eyes widened, but that was all she had time to do before a leather clad arm circled her waist, pressing her arm firmly against her side. Before she really knew what was happening, a silver gunblade was biting gently at her own neck.

She smelled sandalwood and leather, sweat and impending rain. Her mind went blank.

"Seifer," said a cool voice in her ear. She saw Seifer turn his head.

"Squall!" Rinoa recognized Quistis' voice.

"Should've known you'd turn up here," said Seifer darkly. "Haven't learned your lesson yet, have you?"

"Put it down, Seifer," said the man holding her hostage, unruffled.

"Over my dead body," said Seifer, and laughed. The sound reassured Rinoa, but only for a moment. "You picked the wrong girl, Leonhart. You kill her and the permanent contract she landed is void. I kill Deling and it's fulfilled. Either way, I'm outta this shithole."

Rinoa felt her eyelids flutter shut. Hyne, what a mess. All she'd wanted was to help Timber, and she'd messed it up. Seifer hated her. She wished she'd had the foresight to request that he not be on the squad. She wished she'd never met him.

"Sorry, but I don't believe you," said Leonhart. "Garden doesn't hire out permanently."

She heard Quistis hiss, and out of the corner of her eye saw her cover her face with her palm.

The cameras are still running, she realized. The whole world knows Garden was involved in an attempt on Deling's life. Oh, Hyne. Galbadia will retaliate, I know it. Our best hope for freedom, gone, and it's all my fault.

"I see," said the president, amused. "So you're all from Garden. Should anything happen to me, the entire Galbadian military will undoubtedly crush Garden. You can let go of me now," he said to Seifer.

Seifer snorted. "You kidding me?" He nodded to Rinoa. "General Caraway is that girl's father. He runs your army, right? You think he's gonna do anything if you aren't there to make him? She's the one who hired us, you know. She's a traitor. You think your soldiers are gonna be happy about spending their lives to destroy Garden when their General ignores the traitor who paid us to do it?"

"General Caraway is no longer in charge of G-Army," said the president mildly.

"Yeah? Stupid of you. Whoever you got can't be half as competent." He turned his attention to the man still holding her. "So, you still gonna kill her, Leonhart? Since you care so much for Galbadia now, it'll look kind of bad when you murder the daughter of one of its generals, dontcha think?"

"You said it yourself," said Squall. "She's a traitor."

"Looks like we're at an impasse, then."

For the life of her, Rinoa couldn't understand why Seifer was smiling.

********

Squall woke up feeling annoyed and vaguely disoriented. He blinked, frowning, and felt for his gunblade. He received a nasty jolt of panic when his fingers did not find it at its usual place on his hip. Sitting up quickly, he looked around.

And then relaxed.

Timber. I'm in Timber. He was sitting in a booth in the back of a breakfast diner. He'd ordered coffee and a bagel and had spread the newspaper he'd bought over the table.

And then he'd fallen asleep.

He looked at the bagel. One neat bite marred its circular perfection. I took one bite and fell asleep? I wasn't even tired. Now he was puzzled and worried. I wonder if something's wrong with me. Had that weird dream, too. I dreamt I was a moron. Laguna. It didn't feel like a dream, though. It had been unpleasant. He'd been doing the goofiest things, he remembered with distaste. Whoever heard of getting a leg cramp when an attractive woman was around?

Squall took a sip of his coffee. Still hot. He hadn't been out long, apparently.

He decided that he felt fine. If it happens again I'll worry. But it's pointless to think about it now. There isn't anything I can do about it anyway.

Glancing down at the newspaper, he noticed that it had been printed not in Timber but in Deling City. He wondered why, but it soon became obvious.

"Need more coffee, hon?" The waitress, a hard looking woman, snapped her gum.

"Thanks," he said, and waited while she poured.

"No problem, hon." She leaned closer to him conspiratorially. "I hear the Timber Owls tried to abduct the president. But they failed, and now there are guards everywhere. No other faction's gonna have a chance at anything at all." She shook her head.

Ah, he thought. So Timber was basically a nest of resistance factions, which would explain why Galbadian forces didn't allow Timber to print its own newspapers.

"That's interesting," he said blandly, and the waitress shrugged and strolled away.

Squall scanned the newspaper quickly. The cover story was naturally about President Deling's visit to Timber, and suggested vaguely that he might introduce a new ambassador, with whom he would make plans for world peace.

He had to wonder what else was on their agenda. He knew he didn't have an objective view, having lived at Garden for as long as he could remember where Galbadia had a reputation as an extremely hostile country. But then, news was written in Garden and their network did not access the outside world. Wishing he knew the whole story, he tossed Gil on the table and glanced out the window.

To his utter surprise, he immediately spied Seifer, Quistis, Selphie, Zell, an unassuming gentleman, and a young dark-haired woman. They strolled past the window, talking amongst themselves.

What is SeeD doing here? he wondered, and then he knew. Vinzer Deling is in Timber to give a speech. Something about a peace proposal. Of course Garden will try to interfere; if Deling actually comes up with something, Garden will be out of business.

At that moment he would have been willing to bet his life that it was an internal Garden mission.

They're going to try and take out the president. He slipped out the door of the diner and stretched, circumspectly looking for the SeeD squad. But not if I can help it.

He trailed them covertly, slightly amused that he was using skills learned in Garden against them.

"Looks like we're at an impasse, then," said Seifer.

Squall didn't bother to reply. He was in a bad spot. Seifer knew him very well, knew that he wouldn't take the life of the girl he held against him. He thought Seifer might have had a surprise coming if he'd continued to think that the girl was a SeeD. And Squall knew that Seifer had no qualms about murdering the president. They were stuck until someone broke their deadlock. He was afraid it would end with Seifer slicing Deling a new grin from ear to ear.

He moved out of the open doorway, dragging the girl with him until his back was to the wall of the studio.

A sudden wind blew the door shut and the sound it made when it slammed into its frame distracted him from the girl. She took the opportunity to grind her heel into his foot. He held onto her grimly, not wanting to hurt her.

The lights went out.

Squall swore quietly and moved Revolver enough away from the girl's neck to make yanking her even more to the side safer.

"What the hell is that?" someone exclaimed in the darkness, and he looked up quickly.

He blinked, not sure of what he was seeing. That wall is glowing.

It was indeed glowing, pulsing green and purple made a shimmering pattern where there had been none before.

A figure emerged from the light and immediately power was restored to the room. A woman wearing a long black dress stood calmly at the far end of the room and raised her arms.

Spheres of magenta light flowed from her hands toward the SeeDs. When they hit, the target crumpled.

Deling pushed Seifer, who was slumped over and holding himself upright only with gunblade he had stuck in the floor, away and brushed at his sleeve.

She must be the ambassador, Squall thought.

"I thank you," said the woman in a solemn, lilting voice. "But you can let her go. She's no danger."

Squall nodded and pushed the girl away from him. She fell to her hands and knees but made no attempt to rise.

Many images flashed through his mind; a meadow full of wildflowers, an abandoned lighthouse, Galbadia Garden, a hand on his arm. He blinked and the woman spoke to him again.

"I am the Sorceress Edea. Do you remember me, Squall?" Her voice echoed in his head and he shook it.

"I thought you might not. But we've met before."

"Where?" he croaked, barely able to find his voice.

"Later. For now," she waved her hand languidly. "I have a proposal."

He couldn't speak.

"Help us. Help us make the world the place it should have been for you." She leaned forward and captured his gaze, and her eyes were the color of soft gold.

"No more war. No more orphans." Her voice trembled with sadness and he realized that she really understood how he felt, understood what had happened to him and why he felt the fury he did.

Together they could destroy sorrow. Squall stepped around the kneeling, unmoving girl before him, hefted his gunblade, and found his voice.

"Yes."