"I'll let you know if anything happens," said the dark-haired woman whose house the four SeeDs and one resistance member had just crowded into. "Until then, make yourselves at home."

"Thanks, Chief," Rinoa said quietly, gesturing for the rest to follow her upstairs.

"She's the leader of the Forest Fox," Rinoa explained while they climbed. "Almost everyone's a resistance member in this town. But right now, we're the only ones that are really active." She sighed. "Let's stay here for a while."

Selphie noticed that Rinoa didn't sound like her usual self. Not that she really knew her well or anything, but what she'd seen so far had given her the impression that Rinoa was nearly as energetic and vivacious as Selphie herself. Not that I'm feeling all that great right now either, thought Selphie as she followed Rinoa into a small bedroom.

She sank down on the bed gratefully, rubbing her thigh where the butt of a G-army soldier's rifle had slammed into it just a few hours before.

"I still don't get it," she grimaced. "Why did Squall show up here? I thought he was a star cadet. Why would he suddenly run renegade and do something crazy like that?"

Seifer leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "He flunked the SeeD exam."

Selphie hadn't known that. Although, now that she thought of it she hadn't seen Squall in Headmaster Cid's office when he'd given the newly promoted SeeDs their grade reports.

Quistis sank down on the bed beside her and the small group, tired from all the excitement, was uncommonly quiet.

"I don't think that's why," offered Quistis hesitantly after a few moments.

Seifer frowned at her. "So what's your theory, then? He left B-Garden and showed up in Timber to see you?" The sarcasm in his voice was thick and disdainful.

Selphie saw the corners of Quistis' mouth turn down.

"Seifer," said the captain quietly as she looked at the floor. "If you speak that way to me again I'll have you demoted. I don't think I'm alone when I say that I'm too tired to deal with your bullshit right now."

Seifer's frown deepened and he unfolded his arms. "Listen, Trepe-" he began caustically.

Rinoa's voice, sharp with annoyance, cut him off in mid-sentence. "Knock it off. We don't have time for this. Whatever's going on with that Squall guy isn't important at the moment. We have to think of what to do next. Starting with getting out of Timber." Her gaze flicked around the room.

"Garden Code, Article 8, line 7," said Quistis, rubbing her temples again.

Selphie's brain immediately retrieved the correct section, and she clapped her hands delightedly. "In the event that returning to the assigned Garden is not possible, report to the nearest Garden," she recited grandly. Then she sat up straight at the thought that the nearest Garden might be T-Garden; she'd only been transferred from Trabia a few days before but she already missed it.

"Galbadia Garden is closest, right?" said Zell, and Selphie sagged again. I need to brush up on my geography, she thought to herself.

"The trains should be running again," said Rinoa. "We can take one to East Academy. G-Garden isn't too far from there."

"We'll have to cut through the forest," Quistis said. "I've been there several times before; we'll be fine."

"That's what we'll do, then," said Rinoa without much enthusiasm.

Again, silence fell. Selphie fidgeted a bit, uncomfortable with the thick apathy she sensed from every occupant of the small bedroom except herself.

"C'mon you guys!" she said finally. "Cheer up! We could be captured or even dead, but instead we're safe and still in the game."

Quistis and Rinoa gave her identical weak smiles. Seifer glanced at her and then away, as if he was disgusted by her and could not bring himself to gaze upon such idiocy.

"You know what we need?" said Zell suddenly. "Food. I haven't eaten in ages and I'm starving to death. I bet we'd all feel better if we got something to eat."

Rinoa perked up a bit. "Hey, you know what? There's a legend about Chief; they say that she took down many soldiers with her strength, cooking and beauty."

"That 'beauty' part sure makes it sound like a legend," snickered Selphie good-naturedly, and while no one actually laughed at her joke, she thought the atmosphere in the room lightened just a touch.

Just then there was a knock at the door and Watts eased into the room.

"Watts!" exclaimed Rinoa. "You're all right!"

He grinned at her. "Just arrived. Chief told me to tell you that she's cooking you guys some dinner. And I have news, too. Timber station's going to be shut down tonight. Almost all of the trains have already stopped running."

"Oh no," said Quistis.

Watts reached into his pocket. "Not to worry," he smiled at Quistis. "I have tickets for all of you on the last train going out of town today. It's going to East Academy. I figured even if you're not going there you'd at least want to get out of town, especially since it looks like they're locking the whole city down to find you."

"How convenient," said Seifer mildly.

"Will we have time to eat?" Zell asked, so plaintively that Selphie felt obliged to cover her smile with her hand.

"Train leaves in an hour, and Chief's probably about done," said Watts. "I may, uh, join you for dinner." He grinned sheepishly.

"I'm gonna go help her," announced Rinoa, and her glance flickered to Seifer and away again before she left the room. Seifer watched her go emotionlessly, and abandoned his place by the wall to peer out of the window overlooking the alley.

Selphie looked at Quistis, who met her gaze briefly and shook her head. That's weird, she thought. They don't act like employer and employee...more like lovers having a spat. Did they know each other before this? They had to have, she decided. What a mystery! I'll have to ask Zell; maybe he'll know something.

Her stomach growled, and she stood up in response. "I think I'm going to go help too," she said. She heard the sound of laughter from downstairs and moved to meet it.

Zell leaned in conspiratorially after she posed her question in the hallway outside their private SeeD cabin on the train to East Academy. "Did you know Seifer spent last summer in Deling City?" he whispered.

Selphie glanced around. The corridor was empty. She turned back to the train window and pretended to look outside. "No, I don't know anything; I just transferred here from Trabia a few days ago to take the SeeD exam. Why was he in Deling City?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I just remember because the whole DC was gone for three glorious months." He grinned. "Didn't get busted once."

"They must have met there," she theorized. "Think anything happened?"

"It kind of seems like it. The way they're acting."

"Maybe they're secretly engaged!" Selphie giggled at the thought.

Zell scoffed. "Seifer, engaged? I really doubt it. And besides, seems like they're fighting or something. They all but spit every time they see each other."

"Well, that has to stop!" exclaimed Selphie, planning. "Can't have the lovebirds fighting!"

Zell's eyes widened. "You're gonna matchmake? Selphie, that's probably not a good idea. Messing with Seifer's life could get you seriously dead."

"Don't you like Seifer?" she asked suddenly.

"He's kind of a prick," confessed Zell, fidgeting.

"He picks on you, doesn't he?" she said, smiling.

"He picks on everyone," he glowered.

She nodded sagely. "Think about it. If Seifer is happy, he's not going to pick on you as much, now is he?"

Zell looked surprised. "That actually makes sense." He glared at her momentarily. "All right. I'll help. But if I get my head kicked in, I'm taking it out on your hide."

"It's a deal!" she clapped her hands.

"Galbadia Garden is on the other side of this forest," said Quistis, brushing the hair out of her eyes. Selphie wondered if she looked as scruffy as the blonde woman did. Her clothes were wrinkled, her hair was trying to escape her clip, and there were dark smudges under her eyes. She hoped not. "Let's go."

Quistis took the lead, marching alone and silently at the head of the group. Her step was as firm as ever, but there was a delicacy to it that spoke to Selphie of terrible weariness.

Selphie, at the rear of the party, grabbed Zell's arm and slowed purposefully, nodding ahead at Rinoa and Seifer. The brunette and the young man walked side by side, and she squeezed his arm brutally when she saw they were speaking softly.

Zell shook her off, annoyed, but he watched the two ahead with as much interest as Selphie herself did.

"Come on," she said softly, "I want to hear what they're saying."

"Uh," said Zell. "Selphie..." he tried, but the petite SeeD had taken possession of his arm again, and was dragging him closer to Rinoa and Seifer.

"I just want to know," Rinoa said, "so I can send you back to Garden if necessary."

Seifer shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. You can't get replacements- did you even read that contract?"

"Of course I did," she said sharply. "I'd still have three SeeDs, and that's enough as far as I'm concerned. I saw today how devastating just one SeeD cadet can be. Three SeeDs will be more than adequate."

She fell silent for a moment, but Seifer did not speak.

"You didn't answer my question," she said irritably after a few seconds. "What happened back there?"

"I was saving your life," Seifer said gruffly. "Or didn't you notice? Something's up with Squall. I don't know exactly what, but I've known him for years and the way he was acting, I think he might have killed you if he'd continued to believe you were a SeeD."

"Excuse me for not being thrilled," she said sarcastically.

Seifer shrugged. "You'd rather be dead?"

She sighed. "You just... laid the hate on pretty thick. I'm sorry if I was a little hurt, but I have to wonder if that's not how you really feel."

"I don't know, Rinoa. I don't like this situation. I know you say you didn't have anything to do with it, but this feels suspiciously like one of your games. And I know you; I know how you manipulate people. I'm getting to the point where I don't want to play games any more. It was fine last summer for you to use me against your father. My life and my career weren't involved."

Seifer walked on without her when she slowed in surprise.

"How dare you," she hissed as what he had said sunk in.

Selphie and Zell stopped quickly to avoid running into her.

"This isn't some kind of game," Rinoa said, her voice rising in anger. "How dare you judge my reasons when you don't even know them!"

Seifer stopped in his tracks, turned, and spread his arms wide. "Then tell me."

Selphie watched Rinoa and Seifer in fascination as their tempers and their voices rose. But before Rinoa could launch into the detailed, scathing explanation she was obviously planning, Quistis abruptly turned around.

"For Hyne's sake," she snapped, completely exasperated. "Can't you two behave like adults for two se-" She stopped abruptly in mid-word, and Selphie looked at her just in time to see her eyes roll back in her head. The tall blonde woman fell to the forest floor; the only sound of her descent was the soft thud of her body hitting springy earth.

Selphie started forward immediately to help, but Zell, pulled along by the strong grip of her arm, chose that moment to lose his balance and toppled into her. She hit the ground with a startled squeak, and a moment later emitted a surprised 'oof' as Zell fell on top of her, knocking the wind out of her lungs. Black spots began to flicker in and out of her vision. Everything faded to gray and she knew no more.

(kiros, are you sure this is the place?)

(positive.)

(i don't wanna be patrolling the wrong place, like last time.)

(Oh, the dream world. What are they doing now?)

(ahh, sorry...this ain't the place.)

(this is it. let's go, commander.)

(crap, i brought the wrong map. somehow, i have a bad feeling about this. nah, everything's cool. hey, make sure you guys are fully equipped. well, we are on duty. let's get a move on and check things out.)

(but seriously. this place sure is strange. what the heck is this big pile of rocks? you think these are natural rocks used for carving tombstones?)

(who knows? or cares?)

(speaking of strange...why have you been...running around so strange?)

(strange? what do you mean strange? ...just bein' cautious. that's the basic rule of thu...hey?)

(Weird. Laguna sounds like a SeeD!)

(looks like we've got company. esthar soldiers. still wearin' those flashy uniforms.)

(wasn't our mission just to patrol?)

(seriously! i wasn't expecting this at all!)

(there are more coming.)

(there's no end to this!)

(better make a run for it!)

(look, the ocean! we're saved! lady luck is on our side! we can escape to galbadia!)

(one would say we've been run down. that's what they'd normally say.)

(don't say that. it might come true. didn't your grandmother tell you that?)

(if you say something bad. it will come true. yeah, i think she did.)

(ggghh...rrrhhh...)

(what'd you say?)

(i think his throat was injured. he lost...his voice.)

(it...wa...fu...you...)

(say again?)

(it...was...fun...you...guys...la...guna...ki...ros...it...was...fun...)

(ward, that's way uncool. it's not cool to say things like that. just for that, you're getting' the cuchi-cuchi treatment! how's that, huh? want more? well?)

(Aww, Laguna's so cute!)

(...)

(check it out, a boat! we're getting' on!)

(you guys sure have guts. you know how high this cliff is?)

(oh sh...! no way...AHHHH!)

Selphie opened her eyes and blinked. She was staring at the ground; it was less than an inch from her nose. She frowned, unsure of what was happening, and remembered her trip to the dream world.

"Oh no! Sir Laguna's in big trouble!" she yelled, and tried to get to her feet. Unfortunately, Zell was still lying on top of her and her efforts were in vain. "Get off me! Jeez, you're heavy! What the heck do you eat? Bricks?"

She somehow managed to roll the still-unconscious Zell off of her and staggered to her feet. She brushed herself off, muttering under her breath about big fat SeeDs with stupid hair, and looked around.

Selphie felt her eyes widen in surprise.

Seifer sat at the edge of the path they had been following. He still looked angry- in fact, he looked absolutely furious. In the protective circle of his arms, Rinoa sagged, unmoving.

She stood, unsure of what to do, and realized how silent the woods were. She turned and looked down the path; Zell lay on his back at her feet, Quistis a few yards further.

Selphie turned back toward Seifer and Rinoa.

"Uh," she said brilliantly. "Everything okay?"

At the sound of her voice Rinoa lifted her head from its resting place under Seifer's chin. When she turned her face toward the petite SeeD, Selphie saw that her eyes were red and her face was wet.

Rinoa smiled wanly and tried to get up. She couldn't get her balance, and fell back against Seifer. She emitted a half-sob of frustration; it was the sob of a person who has just finished crying and is too soon presented with another obstacle.

"Easy now," Seifer said, in a far gentler tone than Selphie had ever heard from him. He stood, helping Rinoa up with him, and she noticed that determination had edged its way into his expression.

"Selphie, can you go check on Zell and Quistis?" he asked, briskly pulling a cloth handkerchief from a pocket. Before Selphie turned to obey his order, she saw him press the white square into Rinoa's hand.

Zell was already awake, sitting up and scratching his head sleepily.

"Laguna again," he said. "This is so weird."

"Yeah," she said. She leaned down and whispered in his ear. "I think Seifer and Rinoa made up."

"Wonder what she told him," he said, and bounced to his feet.

"I dunno, but it must have been pretty bad. She was crying, and he looked pissed."

"He always looks pissed," Zell said grumpily.

She laughed. "Probably. Guess we don't have to play matchmaker anymore, huh?"

"Guess not," he agreed.

"C'mon, let's check on Quistis," she said, nudging him.

They walked the short distance to where the captain lay, still flat on her back, breathing slowly but steadily.

"She looked really tired earlier. I wonder if she was just so exhausted she didn't wake up after the Laguna dream."

They stood for a moment, watching her, and as if in agreement with Selphie's suggestion the blonde woman rolled onto her side and drew her legs up to her chest. Coiled loosely in her hand was her whip, a Red Scorpion.

"Aw," said Selphie quietly. "She looks so sweet. I hate to wake her up but we need to get going."

"Quistis," she bent over and called quietly. "Wake up."

The captain opened her eyes blearily, and Selphie felt a stab of guilt. If anything, Quistis looked even worse than she had before her nap. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, and as an added bonus, there was also a liberal smear of dirt on her cheek.

She sat up slowly and looked at the ground, rubbing the back of her neck slowly. Selphie recognized the look; she'd had it herself on a few occasions, on the rare mornings where her alarm clock woke her up too early. She'd get up, intending to go take a shower, but instead would find herself still sitting on the edge of her bed minutes later, staring off into space and thinking of nothing in particular.

Selphie reached into her pocket and took out a small vial of blue liquid.

"You look beat, captain. Drink this."

Quistis looked up and blinked. "What is it?" she said disinterestedly as she reached for it.

She shrugged. "Potion."

The captain didn't hesitate at all before uncorking the vial and downing the contents. She sputtered, and coughed, but sat up straighter. Color bloomed in her pale cheeks almost immediately.

"That was no potion," she accused.

"Sure it was," Selphie said cheerfully. "Elixir."

Quistis shook her head and rose gracefully to her feet. "Shouldn't waste supplies like that. A potion would have done."

Selphie inclined her head in acknowledgement of the mild reprimand, but the change in Quistis was obvious. She felt that it had been an elixir well spent.

Selphie knew she didn't like Galbadia Garden before she ever set foot in it. They had approached it on foot from the forest, swinging over the meadows to intercept and follow the road, which was easier to walk on and safer in general. The Garden was much, much bigger than her old Garden, Trabia. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, as Balamb Garden was even bigger than G-Garden. But B-Garden's shape was more elegant, somewhat reminiscent of a huge, noble ship, and was surrounded by green meadows, hills, and clusters of forests. Not to mention the blue ocean a stone's throw away. G-Garden crouched on the brown, flat plains of Galbadia like a patient, hulking predator.

Or maybe she just didn't like the color red.

They found themselves at the gate and halted. The gate guard glanced at them placidly and returned to his magazine without pause.

"It's so different," she said slowly.

"Quiet," remarked Zell. "I don't even hear any birds singing like at home."

"Who cares?" said Seifer. "Let's just get on with it." He turned to Quistis. "So what do we need to do?"

"I'm going to go talk to the headmaster. I've been here several times and I know him pretty well. I'll explain our situation."

Seifer glanced at Rinoa. "Are you going to tell him Rinoa's here?" he inquired.

Why wouldn't he want the Headmaster to know she was with us? wondered Selphie as Quistis assumed a thoughtful expression.

"That shouldn't be a problem," said Quistis finally. "Our contract with Rinoa stands until Timber is liberated."

Seifer nodded, but Selphie was still clueless, and could see that the others were too.

"So what does that mean?" she asked.

"Well, someone has to take the blame for the attack on the President." Quistis' voice took on a lecturing tone. "You can't hold a knife to the throat of the most powerful man in the world and get away with it. As far as I can guess, Galbadia will do one of two things. It will retaliate against Garden for the attack made on the President by SeeD members, or," and her eyes slid toward Rinoa momentarily, "or they will retaliate against the person who hired them to do so." She sighed. "Since our Garden Code clearly states that Garden is impartial, and that SeeD will not act beyond the exact wording of a contract, that means that the second choice is more logical. Especially since we know that for some reason, her father has recently been demoted. In all likelihood, he did something they didn't like, and executing his daughter will be the final blow to his career."

Seifer glared at the mention of execution, while Rinoa blanched.

"Um, wouldn't that make it more dangerous for Rinoa to be here? Isn't it possible that Garden might turn her over to Galbadia? As a peace offering?" asked Zell.

"You'd think so," said Quistis, smiling wryly. "And don't think that's not a possibility. But there are other factors at work here. Our contract is still in effect. Which means that we can protect her, even if Garden gives us a direct order otherwise. According to the Code, the contract must be upheld during the mission, even against direct orders from Garden itself. That's so that clients have complete confidence that Garden won't back out and leave them hanging in the middle of an operation. But the Code wasn't meant to deal with the kind of contract you got, Rinoa. All the ones I've seen were very long, detailed, complete sets of orders, so that SeeDs knew exactly what to do and how to know when the mission was over. But yours is vague, and the operation is ongoing."

"But how can just the four of us protect her if they decide to seize her?" Selphie wanted to know.

Quistis uncoiled her whip from her hip and stretched it tightly between her hands, smiling.

"Against all those SeeDs?" Zell demanded.

"There aren't any SeeDs here," said Seifer. "Just students."

Selphie nodded. She'd had to take the field exam at Balamb Garden, and all those who passed were stationed there permanently.

"And we have GFs," Quistis added. "They don't. There's no way they could take us. We could hold off the entire Garden if we had to, for a short while at least. Long enough to get her out."

"But it won't come to that. I know Martine pretty well. Just trust me." She smiled. "For now, take a look around, and stay out of trouble. I'll make sure they page you."

Quistis walked through the gates.

"Can we just find a place to sit down until they call us?" asked Rinoa, hesitantly. "I really don't want to attract a lot of attention."

"Sure," said Seifer, and they followed slowly after Quistis.

Unlike the Garden they had started their journey from, G-Garden did not sport a central administration column, or the massive fountain that ringed it. Instead, the whole room was open, although it was smaller than B-Garden's main court. Looking up, Selphie could see the second floor balcony that ringed the edge of the court.

In the very center of the room the Seal was pressed into the marble stone; the familiar white and black symbol was as long as Selphie was tall.

They sat all four on a low stone bench facing the Seal and waited, not speaking.

I wonder what Martine's going to do with us, Selphie wondered.Quistis is gonna ask to stay here for a while, right?

"Seifer!"

The loud voice was as startling as the report of a rifle in the quiet of Galbadia Garden and she jumped nervously.

Looking, she saw two vaguely familiar faces approaching them. She tried to remember where she had seen them, but came up with nothing. The young man was dark-skinned, bulky with muscle. He must be six and a half feet, she thought to herself. The slim woman striding beside him was a complete contrast with her pale skin, short platinum hair, and severity of expression.

Seifer's friends? she wondered.

Her guess was confirmed a moment later when the young man stopped in front of Seifer, grinning. "Thank God you're here, boss. Timber's a mess, ya know? Couldn't even get near the place."

While he was speaking, the young woman with him cast her one-eyed glance over the rest of the party. Her gaze paused on Rinoa for a moment, but slid over Zell and Selphie without recognition or interest.

"Raijin. Fujin. What are you guys doing here?" Seifer stood up.

"This is our field exam. We're bringing you guys new orders," said Raijin.

"New orders?" Rinoa said faintly.

"Do you know what they are?" Seifer asked.

The big man shrugged. "Nope. We couldn't get into Timber so we came here. I'm glad you made it. We were worried when we saw the news."

Fujin snorted.

"Wait," said Seifer incredulously. "This is your SeeD exam? Who gave you the assignment?"

"Headmaster," said Fujin. Does she ever say more than one word? Selphie wondered.

Seifer looked thoughtful, but didn't comment.

Raijin shifted his weight from one side to the other. "Boss? We should probably be getting back to Balamb. Our assignment said to come right back."

Seifer nodded absently. "Timber Station should be back up tomorrow morning. Get back to B-Garden on the double. No goofing around," he said, and gave Raijin a pointed look. The giant nodded sheepishly as Fujin turned away, and then they broke into the steady trot that would take them out of G-Garden and onto the path that led to Timber.

Seifer sat down again. Selphie saw Rinoa give him a questioning look, but just then the intercom paged them. "Attention, SeeD party from Balamb Garden: Please wait in the second floor Reception Room."

"Listen," Seifer said. "They're going to present us with new orders. I don't know what Trepe will have told the Headmaster, but Rinoa, this is still your show. We'll 'accept' the orders and decide what we want to do later. It's better this way- less chance of trouble."

Selphie understood perfectly.

"Let's go," Seifer said.

The second floor Reception Room was both elegant and comfortable. Selphie stood by the window and watched the paratroopers practicing outside in the sunshine. The others arranged themselves on the two long couches in the center of the room.

The waiting was silent and alert, and eventually, the door opened and Quistis stepped inside. Selphie wondered if it was just her, or if the air in the room was really getting heavy.

"How'd it go?" Zell wanted to know.

"They understand our situation," she said. "And Balamb Garden is safe." The tension in the room lightened considerably.

"The attack on the president in Timber was classified as an independent action. There was an official notice from the Galbadian government saying that Balamb Garden is not being held responsible." She looked at Rinoa.

"Galbadia is searching for you in Timber as we speak. They're saying you're to blame for this."

"Well, I am," said Rinoa faintly. "Did you tell them I'm here?"

Quistis nodded. "I explained to Martine what happened and he assured me that he has not seen you, nor will he have seen you after we're gone." The implication was clear.

Seifer looked pleased. "And what now? I heard we were getting new orders."

"Yes, but as I've already told you-"

Seifer interrupted. "I've explained that already." Selphie wondered if he was worried about recording devices.

Quistis didn't seem offended. "Good. We're supposed to assemble in front of the gate. We should get going, SeeDs." Her glance at Rinoa was meaningful and obviously understood; the slight brunette saluted in agreement. Seifer wordlessly reached over and corrected the placement of her hand.

Their haste was totally unnecessary; they'd been standing on the walkway outside the Garden for almost an hour before the large military vehicle carrying the Headmaster appeared.

"What," said Seifer scornfully. "He can't walk like everyone else?"

Quistis shushed him, but Selphie privately agreed.

The truck rumbled to a halt and a tall dark-haired man stepped out. He was clad elaborately in a long dark jacket trimmed with silver, and Selphie fought an urge to giggle at the pompousness of the display.

They lined up all five in proper SeeD formation and saluted. The Headmaster looked over each of them without friendliness.

"Good day," he said shortly. "I have official orders from Headmaster Cid addressed to you."

Martine began to pace slowly back and forth before them. "Following regulations, I have gone over these orders. After careful consideration of our options, we have decided to fully assist and cooperate with Headmaster Cid. Actually, we too, have been planning for this quite some time now. In order to stress the importance of this mission, I must first brief you on the current situation."

"At ease." Selphie relaxed minutely along with the others.

"You all know about the sorceress being appointed as the peace ambassador for the Galbadian government. However, this ambassador thing is just a cover up. There will be no peace talks, only threats. The sorceress creates fear among people. Therefore, peace talks are impossible. Galbadia is planning to use this fear to negotiate favorable conditions for itself. It is clear that Galbadia's ultimate goal is world domination."

Martine stopped his pacing and looked at the SeeDs sharply. "Garden is no exception, either. It is a fact that the sorceress is planning to use this Garden as her base."

He paused and watched their reactions. The sorceress wants Garden as her base? That'slikely to go over well. But still, the thought was disturbing, and Martine must have seen it on their faces for he nodded.

"We have very few options available to us. We entrust world peace, and the future to you. Details of the mission are enclosed in these official orders."

He handed a large manila envelope to Quistis, who opened it and scanned it quickly. Selphie tried not to fidget but she was so curious about the contents of the envelope that it was difficult not to.

"Any questions?" Martine said after a few moments.

"The orders say, 'by means of a sniper.' We have no one with that skill," said Quistis slowly.

"Don't worry about it," Martine said. "Let me introduce an elite sharpshooter from Galbadia Garden. Kinneas! Irvine Kinneas!"

They all turned to look in the direction the of the Headmaster's call. At first they only saw several figures, presumably students, lounging in the grass off the paved path. But one of them rose slowly up to his feet as they watched.

Selphie suppressed a smile. Irvine Kinneas, apparently, was a wanna-be cowboy; he sported a wide hat, a knee length duster, and of all things, chaps. She felt the urge to smile evolving into a need to giggle and instead checked first one heel of her boot, then the other. By the time her little ritual was completed and both feet were solidly back on the ground the desire to laugh had passed.

That outfit is ridiculous, she thought, gazing at him. At least he's not short. That would make it even worse.

"This is Irvine Kinneas," said Martine. "He will be your sharpshooter. Leave whenever you're ready."

He looked the SeeDs over one last time and said, in an air Selphie supposed he thought impressive, "Failure is not an option."

Martine returned to his truck, and Irvine must not have been impressed much either, for he pointed a long finger at the Headmaster's back and softly said, "Bang."

Then the sharpshooter turned and offered them a lazy smile. "Looks like I'm with you rubes from Balamb. Greetings."

As one, the party of five stared at him.

"What the hell is your problem?" Zell finally demanded.

Irvine's smile grew wider. "I say things that get a rise out of some people. Just don't let it bother you and we'll get along fine."

"We'd get along better if you'd remember that each and every one of us is SeeD. We outrank you, cowboy," Seifer said coldly.

Zell shot a startled but gratified look at Seifer.

"That's enough," interjected Quistis. "Irvine, this is Seifer, Selphie, Zell, and Rinoa. I'm Quistis. Let's just try to get along and make it through this mission."

"Yes ma'am," said Irvine diffidently, tipping his hat at her.

"Captain," snapped Quistis almost immediately.

Selphie could see Zell's expression. He was practically bouncing in place. Wow, he really took an instant dislike to the guy.

She offered the newcomer a small commiserating smile. After all, the others were kind of in a bad mood. Not really his fault he said the wrong thing. Compared to G-Garden, Balamb probably does seem kind of lax in the discipline department. And it is kind of in the middle of nowhere. God forbid he ever venture to Trabia, she thought, amused.

The sharpshooter grinned lazily back at her, and she looked away quickly when she realized she was about to blush. Does he always give girls that look? she thought as she stared at the ground.

"Captain?" Rinoa ventured. "What are the new orders?"

Quistis looked down at the opened envelope in her hands. "It's a direct order from both Balamb and Galbadia Garden." She paused. "We're to assassinate the sorceress. We're to shoot her from afar. Kinneas will be our sharpshooter. We're to support Kinneas to our fullest. Should the sniper fail, we are to attack head on."

"Thanks," said the sniper, "but I never miss my target."

"Eliminate the sorceress," Quistis repeated. "That's our order. We're to head to Deling City and meet up with General Caraway to go over the details.

She glanced quickly at Rinoa, and then fell silent.

"That sounds pretty good, actually," said Rinoa, before noticing the surprised glances of everyone except for Irvine.

"There's nobody better at devious plans than that man," she said darkly. Selphie nodded. The explanation was oblique, but she understood. And she could tell by their faces that the others got it, too.

Garden's orders had just become Rinoa's new orders. It worked perfectly.

"So when are we going?" Irvine asked.

"We're supposed to be there tomorrow afternoon," said Quistis. "We'll stay here tonight and rest up. Martine said we could stay in the guest suites if we wanted. And that train station outside goes only to Deling City- we'll catch the train around noon."

Selphie thought that was a fine idea. Even though she didn't particularly like the place, the prospect of sleep, food, and a bath made her almost want to run back into G-Garden.

********

Quistis looked moodily out the window of one of Deling City's public transport buses. She didn't like the city at all. Not for any rational reason, she knew. The city was clean, the roads were paved nicely. Parks took up quite a bit of space on the center of the city; flowers and green lawns looked especially attractive in the afternoon sunlight.

She hated it because the sorceress was here. She understood that getting rid of the fearful woman was their mission, and also understood that wherever the sorceress went, that place would also be the last place Quistis wanted to be.

And not because she was afraid. She kept trying not to think about the subject, but there really wasn't any hope that she might be able to just stop dwelling on it. The facts were that the sorceress was here, that Squall was with her, and that therefore they were near the greatest source of longing and unease to which her emotions could possibly be subjected.

How can I fight her if he is with her?

She shook her head minutely, determined not to think about it for at least a few moments.

The bus jolted to a stop quite suddenly, and she was forced to grab the headrest of the seat in front of her to keep from being tossed into the aisle.

"This is our stop," said Rinoa.

They filed off the bus quickly and found themselves at the top of a small hill on the edge of town. Looking away from the city, Quistis could see a large house through the trees. That's Caraway's, I suppose.

She looked her question at Rinoa, who nodded.

They walked along a path lined with trees. The branches met over their heads and the leaves above blocked enough of the sunlight that the ground appeared mottled. It was cool, even though it was early summer and quite warm out.

The party did not get very far underneath the green canopy before they were hailed by a sentry wearing the Galbadian uniform. Quistis stepped forward to identify her group.

But the guard seemed to know who they were, for he began to speak without waiting for introductions.

"General Caraway's mansion is right through this gate. But I can't just let you walk in," he said apologetically.

"He's been informed of our arrival," Quistis explained.

"Yes, indeed," said the guard, and inclined his head respectfully. "I was ordered not to let you through until your skills have been tested."

"What the hell's he talking about?" said Zell.

"He's still so skeptical of people," Rinoa said, narrowing her eyes scornfully.

"We're SeeDs, you know!" Selphie chirped.

"What does he want us to do?" asked Seifer.

"The Tomb of the Unknown King is to the northeast. All you have to do is go there. It's real simple, but you have to bring back proof you were there. A code number."

"A code number?" Quistis echoed faintly.

"We came all the way out here for some stupid test of courage? Who does he think we are?" Zell's hands formed shaking fists, and the guard eyed him nervously.

Silence fell for a few moments, and then Quistis spoke.

"No," she said simply. "We will not."

The guard looked at her askance. "I can't let you pass without the code. Really, it's quite simple," he reasoned with her. "Just bring back a student ID number from the Tomb. It should be right there in the main hallway."

Quistis made a fist and punched it into her open palm. The smack of leather upon leather made a furious sound in the quiet air. Everyone was watching her, she knew, but she was too angry to care.

"We will not. Caraway is not our commander. We have direct orders and they do not involve running around on wild goose chases for his pleasure."

She paused, glaring at the unfortunate guard. "Go tell him that. And remind him, since he has apparently forgotten, just what SeeD is capable of. Remind him that it's a bad idea to anger us."

"Are you making a threat?" stammered the guard, shocked.

"Yes," she said, very quietly and firmly, so that even an imbecile couldn’t possibly mistake her meaning. "Go on, before we decide to pass you by and take the message ourselves."

The confused guard fled.

Quistis watched him go and then turned to the others, feeling slightly foolish for her outburst. Well, I've had a tough couple of days. Anyone would be grouchy.

Rinoa was holding her sides, laughing helplessly, and the others were grinning, even Seifer. She grinned back, hesitantly.

"Go Quistis!" said Zell, and then they were all laughing.

"PMS Power," she said through her giggles, and Rinoa and Selphie were forced to clutch each other to keep from falling over as they howled their glee.

They had just about managed to suppress their snickering by the time the guard came trotting back to them.

Quistis drew herself up and gave him a cold look, prepared for confrontation.

But the soldier bowed to them. "General Caraway would like to see you at your earliest convenience."

"That's better," said Rinoa lightly.

"This way," the sentry beckoned, and they followed him along the path to the mansion.

Ten minutes later they were comfortably arranged in the General's living room. Rinoa and Seifer sat on a couch together quietly, while Selphie gazed out the window, and Irvine rested with his feet up on a desk that was probably worth more than all his possessions. Quistis examined a cabinet of fine china and tried not to think of Squall.

Instead she wondered about Rinoa's contract with Garden. How had the girl gotten such an unprecedented document? She wondered gloomily if Seifer's theory was in any way true. She still remembered what he'd said so furiously in the Timber Owls' strategy room: "They're looking for a way to get rid of their most troublesome students. Me, definitely. Don't even pretend you disagree with the idea that I'm a problem, even more so now that I'm a SeeD. I don't follow rules, and that's a potential catastrophe on any mission. It was only chance I wasn't leading the Dollet exam; I would have done exactly what Squall did and you know it."

It wasn't chance, Quistis had thought to herself bleakly.

"And don't even get me started on you," he had said darkly. "You're almost as much a problem as I am."

"Hardly," she'd protested.

"Think about it," he'd said. "I won't go into it with these two listening in, but you know what I'm talking about. You're not exactly gold in Garden either, Trepe. But that's not the point. The point is they're trying to kill us off, I don't like it, and I want to know what you as captain are going to do about it."

At that point, she had tried to mollify him. Surely he was seeing a conspiracy where there was none. Surely, even if something like that were true, Garden would not have sent two innocents along with them to their deaths. He'd quieted at last, but she knew he didn't really believe her.

But now, facing a mission that seemed impossible, destroying a sorceress, she found herself considering his past words.

She hadn't reached any useful conclusion when Selphie spoke.

"What's taking so long?"

Rinoa jumped up out of her seat. "He always does this. So discourteous. Making people wait. I'm gonna go complain." She stalked from the room.

"What's up with her?" Selphie wanted to know. "This is her house, right?"

Seifer shook his head noncommittally. .

Just a few moments later a soberly dressed man entered the room.

"Where's Rinoa?" Seifer said sharply.

"She has not received the type of training you all have, and may become a burden. It's for the best that she stays out of this operation," he shrugged.

"Lt. Frass tells me you kids are feisty," he continued. "Good for you." Quistis felt a twinge of anger, and stared at him coldly. I'm really getting tired of this disrespect.

No one responded, and he smiled, amused. "Well, then. Let's get on with the briefing."

"I'm sure you know about the Galbadian government reaching an agreement with Sorceress Edea. There is going to be a ceremony tonight to commemorate the event. Follow me." He gestured at them and exited leisurely. The SeeD party followed him at the same pace.

Nothing was said until they reached the main road. Caraway crossed the street, unhurried, and they trekked along a pathway bisecting another public park and toward the center of the city.

They reached a large paved area in front of a huge mansion that was obviously the Presidential Residence. Caraway ambled to where the pavement met green grass, and addressed them once more.

"It'll be held here. During the ceremony, you will split into two teams and get in position. The gateway team will enter the gateway," here he turned around and pointed at the huge arch in the center of the city, "and stand by.

"The sniper team will stand by here until the ceremony is over. Once the ceremony is over, a parade for the sorceress will begin. That's when the gate to the Presidential Residence will open. Lay low until then; the parade will be cancelled if there is any commotion. We must avoid that at all cost.

"Once the gate opens, the sniper team will move out. With the parade drawing the crowd and the guards' attention, it should be rather easy to move about.

"The sniper team will head for the roof of the residence. In the corridor by the sorceress' room, there is a hatch that leads to the clock tower. The clock tower houses a carousel clock. You'll find the sniper rifle there. Stand by until exactly 2000 hours.

"The parade will circle once around the city along the outer road and return to this space. At exactly 2000 hours, the parade will pass under the gateway. Here's where the gateway team comes into play. At exactly 2000 hours the gateway team will operate the console to drop the gates. The sorceress will be trapped inside.

"And at the exact same moment, the carousel will rise, taking the sniper team with it. There will be no obstruction between the sniper team and the sorceress. Just take the open shot. That's all," he concluded.

Quistis paused before commenting. "It sounds fine. What I don't understand is why the sorceress has decided to have such an extravagant parade."

"She wants to establish her place in Galbadia Garden, since she has chosen it to serve as her base," he said.

I don't understand how throwing a big parade will get her in with Garden. I guess I really don't care, either. It wouldn't work anyhow, obviously.

"Who's going to be on the teams?" asked Zell.

"The leader of this operation will command the sniper team. The leader's role is vital. If the plan fails for some reason, or should the sniper miss, the leader will carry out a direct assault against the sorceress."

Quistis started. She was the leader. If Irvine missed she'd have to lead the fight against the sorceress. And likely against Squall. She could almost feel the blood draining from her face.

"...our ultimate goal is to eliminate the sorceress, and we must achieve this at all cost," he was saying. She'd missed the first part of what he'd said, and cursed inwardly.

"So," he said. "Who's going to lead the mission?"

Everyone seemed to turn and look at her. She looked back at them for a stunned moment, and finally blurted out, "Seifer is."

Seifer blinked and looked as confused as she had ever seen him. If she hadn't been under such strain, she probably would have laughed.

"Fine," said Caraway, not seeming to notice their surprise.

Seifer quickly regained his composure. "Irvine and I will make up the sniper team, obviously. The rest on the gateway team." He shot Quistis a look that immediately told her that he understood her motives. "Quistis will lead the gateway team."

She resisted the urge to slump. I'll be out of combat. It will all be over and I'll never have to see him. Somehow the thought just made her more depressed.

"That's all, then," said Caraway. "Now we wait. Feel free to check out the city. Just be back at my residence at 1700 hours. And stay out of trouble."

********

Rinoa shut the door to her father's bedroom behind her and gloated silently to herself. Lock me in? Think again!

She restored the bobby pin she held in her right hand to its rightful place in her pocket and raced down the hall, the object in her other pocket jingling quietly.

She threw open the door to her father's study and surprised Quistis, Zell, and Selphie in conversation.

"Finally got out of there! Did that man say anything?"

Zell stared at her blankly. "No, not really."

"Where's Seifer?" she said, suddenly realizing that he was absent.

"He and Irvine are already on standby. I'm sorry, Rinoa, but we really have to get going," said Quistis.

"Hold on a sec," she said excitedly, and drew an elaborate bracelet out of her pocket. "Take a look at this! It's called an Odine Bangle. I found it in that man's room," she crowed.

"Odine?" exclaimed Zell.

"Whatcha gonna do with it?" Selphie asked.

"It's supposed to suppress the sorceress' powers. But, its effects are still unknown. So I don't think they're going to use it for this mission," she explained.

"If it's Odine brand, it should be pretty effective!" Zell said, tapping his chin. "They're number one when it comes to magical goods."

She grinned at him. "Right!"

"It sounds like it might be useful," said Quistis. "But Rinoa, we can't change plans now. This is so last minute there's not even a chance of changing the plan. The operation's already underway. I'm really sorry," she said gently, and left the room without meeting her eyes.

Selphie and Zell gave her commiserating looks and followed their leader.

Rinoa sat on the floor and hugged her knees.

What if they get hurt? This could avoid bloodshed. It's a good idea, I know it is. And it would only take one person.

********

I hate crowds, Seifer thought to himself as he was jostled for the third time by a woman in a large purple hat. He elbowed her back as hard as he deemed appropriate and gave her a sneer. She ignored him completely.

Just like the cowboy next to him was ignoring him.

He knew he really shouldn't be annoyed, but he was bored and hot in his coat and even talking to Irvine was better than just standing there.

As if in response to his wish, the other man spoke.

"So like, is it true that SeeDs aren't supposed to question their mission?"

Seifer gave him a sharp look. No, he can't have heard of me. That's too weird.

"Yeah, that's true," he said, glad to be in conversation. "Because of contract law. But between you and me, sometimes we do anyway."

"Like when?"

"Like when the orders we're given are stupid. When there's a better way to complete the objective."

The cowboy chewed on that for a moment. "But does it make you fight harder if you know your enemy is pure evil?"

"Most of us, no," said Seifer, elbowing the purple-hat lady away again with a scowl.

"But you do?"

"I'm a problem child," he grinned.

"Oh, I bet," said Irvine. He smiled briefly as he turned to cast his gaze once more on the Presidential Residence.

********

Rinoa sat on the floor, still thinking hard when the door opened behind her. Instantly she felt her back stiffen.

"It'll be chaos here soon," said a familiar voice gently. "You'll be safe here."

She didn't answer. Soon she heard the click of the door closing softly, and she relaxed a bit.

Then she bolted to her feet. He's going to lock me in! she thought wildly, and sprinted for the door. It was still unlocked.

Whew, she thought as she stood panting in the hall. That was close. Now, let's see.

Ten minutes later she was in the alley that ran behind the Presidential Residence. She eyed the crates stacked haphazardly there with trepidation. I'm not a SeeD, she thought as she began to climb, but I can do this.

She teetered on the very top crate and managed to grasp the edge of the roof. She pulled herself up slowly and with effort.

This is important.

Rinoa stood with her hands planted on her knees for a few moments to catch her breath. I have to try.

She crossed the roof quickly and realized she would have to climb more crates. Carefully she put her foot on the first one. What if someone gets killed on this operation?

She climbed up on top of another crate and saw that she might just be able to jump across to the flat roof of the next tower. What if Seifer gets killed, trying to fight her?

Taking a deep breath, she jumped. And made it easily. She paused, collecting her thoughts. If I can find a way to stop her without anyone getting hurt, even her, I have to try it. It's my duty.

She walked calmly to the access door and opened it. Her room should be right here.

The hallway she entered was cold and eerily silent. She shivered and reached into her pocket for the bracelet. She clutched it in one fist and walked toward the open door at the end of the corridor.

Stepping inside the room, she saw that the sorceress was indeed present, surrounded by sheer ceiling-to-floor curtains and darkness.

"Um, excuse me," she said hesitantly, and jumped. Her voice sounded too loud in the silence. She shivered.

"I'm the daughter of Galbadian General's, I mean, Galbadian Army's General Caraway. He's my father, that is." She was trembling uncontrollably now, and the beads of the bracelet cut cruelly into her palm.

"I-I've come to pay my respects," she stuttered. "Because of my father and all, you know. So I've brought you a small gift."

Her arm was shaking even harder than the rest of her, and she glanced at it in surprise. To her shock, her hand pitched the bracelet into the gauzy depths of the curtains.

And then she was hanging in the air, hanging onto nothing with her traitor hand. A small sound escaped her, almost a whimper, and she knew she'd been stupid to come here.

That was the last thought she had before whatever had been holding her let go and she tumbled to the floor.

********

"Here she comes," Irvine said quietly, and was instantly drowned out by the roar of the crowd around him.

Both men watched the podium intently. They had a good vantage point, and could see quite clearly the sorceress' face and the extravagant dress she wore.

She's changed, thought Irvine slowly.

All at once he grabbed Seifer's arm in surprise. Behind the sorceress another girl stood, swaying slowly.

"That girl!" he shouted over the noise, and Seifer seemed to twitch under his hand.

The other man's mouth shaped a word he could not hear, but still he knew it was 'Rinoa.'

"We have to help her!" Irvine yelled.

But Seifer shook his head. "We can't yet! We make a move now and it's all over. She'll be alright for a little while."

You hope, thought Irvine, but he understood where Seifer was coming from.

The crowd hushed all at once, and the sorceress began to speak into the waiting silence.

"Lowlifes," she said, her amplified voice somehow still dusky. Irvine stared in surprise. The crowd roared its approval.

"Shameless filthy wretches. How you celebrate my ascension with such joy. Hailing the very one whom you have condemned for generations. Have you no shame? What happened to the evil, ruthless sorceress from your fantasies? The cold-blooded tyrant that slaughtered countless men and destroyed many nations? Where is she now? She stands before your very eyes to become your new ruler." A small chuckle followed her speech and wormed its way nastily into Irvine's ear, rendering the ecstatic screaming of the crowd silent.

What's happened to her? he wondered, horror-struck.

"A new era has just begun," the sorceress purred.

"Edea? Edea, are you all right?" Vinzer Deling's voice carried through the microphone, muzzy and confused.

As quickly as a snake, the sorceress turned and flicked her hand at the president. He twitched, and dropped out of site. Purple coils of smoke rose slowly from where he'd been standing.

The sorceress turned back to the microphone. "This is reality. No one can help you. Sit back and enjoy the show."

The crowd screamed and waved flags. Fireworks lit up the night sky. Irvine didn't notice. He just felt cold.

"Rest assured, you fools. Your time will come. This is only the beginning." Is she ever going to stop? he wondered numbly.

"Let us start a new reign of terror. I will let you live a fantasy beyond your imagination."

The crowd roared and whistled its delight. What is she doing to them?

The sorceress turned away from the microphone and took a few steps. She turned her head and said over her shoulder, "Let us end this ceremony with a sacrifice." Her words made Irvine's insides curdle.

And then she was gone. Irvine let go of Seifer and tried not to bolt. You coward, he said to himself.

He glanced at the other man and saw two green flashes out of the corner of his eye. His gaze snapped back to the podium just in time to see two huge lizards leap at Rinoa.

She was knocked down immediately, but a few moments later she was up and backing through the ornate door that led inside.

"Hey, hey, we gotta help her!" he yelled.

"She's strong, she'll be fine for a bit. We have to wait!" Seifer yelled back.

Irvine shook his head. Isn't he her boyfriend? I can't believe this.

********

Quistis leaned against the wall in the small control room of the gateway.

Her fingers strayed to her mouth again, and she realized it only a moment before she began to nibble on a fingernail.

Stop that, Quistis scolded herself, and folded her arms. She wondered exactly how fast her heart was beating. It probably wasn't healthy to be this worked up.

Calm down, she told herself. You're safe up here. He probably won't be with her on the float- why would he be? And you'll never see the sorceress anyway. They'll come and fetch us after it's all over. You might have to wade through riots but that's the extent of the action you'll see tonight.

She kept telling herself that, but as the red numbers on the clock grew closer and closer to the appointed hour, she found herself exerting more and more effort to keep from shaking. Her hands were clammy, and she swallowed convulsively.

She closed her eyes and let her head tip back against the wall.

A trickle of liquid dripped down the center of her back as she moved, chilling her, and for the first time in her life Quistis understood exactly what it meant to be in a cold sweat.

********

The sorceress' float was ornate enough to be almost offensive even to Seifer's nearly nonexistent ideas of modesty.

Neon lights, torches, wings, something that looked suspiciously like a halo near the top, and what could only be called a throne in the center of all the pomp.

Not to mention the sorceress herself and her ridiculous headdress. And the exotically dressed dancers gyrating in front of the whole mess. And her bodygua-

Squall.

Seifer ducked behind Irvine as quickly as he could and slouched. He knew he stood out in any crowd, but he was one of the tallest people there, and in any case Squall knew him. He didn't want to be seen.

"What are you-" Irvine began, half turning.

"Just watch the float," he hissed.

The people around them stamped and hooted, screamed and whistled, and he found himself wanting to whip Hyperion out and shut them up. Should have brought earplugs, he thought sourly.

And then the float was past, on its slow journey around the city.

"Now's our chance," said Irvine.

Seifer nodded, and they trotted directly across the street, which was already swarming with people, and through the gate of the Presidential Residence. They ran directly by a sleepy looking guard who took no notice of them at all. If he were mine I'd have him shot, Seifer thought to himself.

Once inside they paused.

"Which way?" asked Irvine, and Seifer pointed around the side of the residence toward an alley.

"We can get in there." Irvine didn't question him, which was good, and they moved off at a more hurried pace.

Once in the alley they found the same stack of crates Rinoa had earlier, although they were traversed with much greater ease.

Seifer made the final leap onto the roof whose tower housed the podium from which the sorceress had given her speech, and yanked open the access door.

He stopped suddenly, and Irvine plowed into him. They steadied themselves and he listened for sounds of battle.

There. He made a sharp right turn and sprinted down the hallway toward the battle he'd heard. He skidded around a corner, Irvine almost on his heels, and found himself face to face with a large, ugly green lizard.

He blinked, and its head exploded.

"Bang," said Irvine gleefully behind him.

The other lizard bounded at him and he took its head off with one clean sweeping blow from Hyperion.

"Hey, not bad," Irvine commented, in a tone that sounded far too much like surprise to Seifer's liking.

Rinoa sat, dazed, on the other side of the bodies. He stepped over them and knelt by her.

"Rin? Are you okay?" he asked.

She stared at the ground, but that didn't stop him from realizing, uncomfortably, that she was crying.

"I was scared," she whispered.

He didn't know what to say. The lizards had been easily dispatched. He knew he had no chance of saying that it was understandable and sounding sincere at the same time. So he didn't say anything.

"I couldn't do it. I just couldn't fight alone," she said in a small, ashamed voice.

Seifer found himself pitying her, and hated it.

"It's all right," he said. "We're here."

She looked up at him and he could see the tears standing in her eyes.

"Do you think I'm a coward?" she asked, in the same tiny voice.

He didn't know what he thought, so he didn't answer. "What were you doing up here?" he said instead, and was surprised to hear real curiosity flavor his voice.

Rinoa looked down again. "I had an Odine bangle. I tried to stop her. Instead she stopped me."

Finally, he knew the right answer. "You're not a coward, Rinoa. Trust me. We can talk about it later, if you want," hating the suggestion even as he made it, "but we have to get into position immediately." He held out his hand to help her up, and she looked at him.

"Just stay close," he urged, realizing with an inner wince the double meaning of the phrase.

She took his hand.

From inside the carousel, the noise of the crowd below was much reduced. Seifer was glad.

Rinoa sat quietly on a ledge away from the front of the carousel, examining her toes. He and Irvine knelt at the front of the carousel, Seifer watching the crowd, Irvine panning the scope of the sniper rifle back and forth across Deling City.

After a while, the cowboy turned around and sat on the floor, back against the ledge he had recently been balancing the rifle on.

Seifer glanced at him, surprised at the other man's quietness.

The look on his face alarmed him immediately.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.

Irvine refused to meet his eyes; instead he watched his fingers play along the barrel of the rifle.

"I can't do it," he said in a low voice, too quiet for anyone but Seifer to hear.

********

"Quistis!"

Zell's shout made her gasp. Her eyes flew open and she stared wildly at him.

"What?" she managed to croak.

"It's time! Hit the switch! She's gotta be right under us by now!" He bounced in place, excited out of all proportion.

Of course, I'm nervous out of all proportion, so it hardly matters.

She walked over to the control panel and paused. If I wait for just another minute...

"C'mon! What're you doing?"

I have to do it! She shook her head, gritted her teeth, and slammed her hand down on the switch.

********

"What do you mean, you can't do it?" hissed the man next to him.

Irvine shook his head. You have no idea, Seifer. You don't even know who she is. If you knew, could you still do it?

"I always freeze like this," he lied, hoping that the words tumbling out of his mouth sounded the way he meant them to- cowardly, juvenile. He was no rookie, but by God he hoped he sounded like one. "I try to act cool, joke around, but I just can't handle the pressure."

He could feel Seifer staring at him.

"You're lying," the other man accused.

Irvine looked up at him with a calculated expression of surprise.

"I've never shot a living human being." He looked back down at the rifle.

Seifer just laughed.

"Just shoot," he said.

"I can't," Irvine said, knowing it was true.

"Just shoot. You don't even have to aim at her."

Irvine looked up with real surprise. Seifer grinned at him.

"I practically want you to miss," he said, and Irvine suddenly wondered if Seifer remembered more than he let on.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because Squall is down there with her. Your miss is all the excuse I need to go down there and kill him. I've been dying to do it for years." Seifer's grin was disturbingly cheerful.

Irvine goggled at him. "You don't even want me to aim?"

At that point the lights came on and he felt the carousel begin to rise. Eerie carnival music began to blare out of invisible speakers.

"I don't care if you aim or not, Kinneas. Just shoot the goddamned gun right now before I decide to kill you and do it myself."

Irvine stared at him for a few more moments. Then he turned, balanced the rifle once more on the ledge, looked through the scope, and fired.

Oh my God! he realized a moment later. He tricked me!

Frantically he watched the target. He knew that he did some of his best shooting when he wasn't thinking about it. He could feel in his bones that his aim had been dead center.

He watched Edea, certain that she would crumple any second.

Instead, he nearly fainted with consternation and relief when she held out her hand and the bullet became visible, hanging in the air before her like a tame hummingbird.

Then she looked up over the city and directly into the scope.

Irvine dropped the rifle.

********

Seifer smiled and clapped a hand on Irvine's shoulder. "Thanks," he chirped.

Irvine looked up at him. Seifer laughed out loud at the expression on his face.

"I'm going now. Take care of her," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

And then he was over the side, Hyperion in his hands, yelling at the top of his lungs.

He landed right in the middle of a riot. God, I love this, he exulted, slashing left and right.

Seifer saw just what he needed- a car with the keys in the ignition, just sitting there waiting to be taken. He bounded to it and hopped inside, tossing his gunblade on the passenger seat.

Quickly he turned on the ignition and flipped the lights. Gotta be a safe driver, he thought, and promptly hit the gas.

The tires squealed madly and he took off down the main throughway toward the gateway, not even bothering to watch for people in the road.

At the last possible second he hit the brakes and yanked the steering wheel around. The car slammed into the gates sideways at a somewhat reduced speed, and he got out, not even scratched.

Seifer pushed his hair back quickly and stepped quietly through the bars, Hyperion at the ready.

The sorceress was no longer seated, but he hardly noticed. Squall interested him much more, and there he was standing right in front of him with his gunblade out, ready to be attacked.

"Well, this is how it turned out," he began tauntingly. "Lapdog to an evil sorceress. How prestigious."

Squall didn't reply. He just held out his hand and beckoned.

"Not talkative today, I see." He assumed a sarcastic pout, but obligingly rushed the smaller man.

The impact of metal on metal had always thrilled Seifer. But there was something so much more exciting about facing an opponent who was nearly his equal. He couldn't remember ever having been so ready for battle.

We'll see who's better, he thought confidently as he tested the other's strokes.

They'd fought each other so many times before that he almost felt comfortable. But of course, this wasn't training. It was real. Life or death, he thought vaguely as he parried an overhand stroke.

He made his own attack, which was quickly parried.

They settled into the dance, and the parrying and thrusting seemed to go on forever. As it went on, Seifer felt a battle-grin spread itself more and more tightly across his face. Dodge and spin, arm this way, foot here-

He stumbled a bit as Squall's gunblade failed to appear where he expected it. By instinct, he jumped back, and realized that Squall was on the ground.

What? he thought, confused, and then saw Irvine step up beside him, double-barreled shotgun smoking just the tiniest bit.

Seifer let his sword arm drop, and took a closer look at Squall.

"You shot him in the leg?" he said incredulously.

Irvine looked sheepish.

"And I cast sleep on him," announced Rinoa, appearing on his other side.

"Hmph," he said. "You guys are no fun."

The sorceress interrupted their conversation. Seifer had almost forgotten she was there.

"SeeDs. Planted in a run down Garden." Her voice flowed like honey over them, and they turned toward her.

"Impudent SeeDs," she crooned, and the first thunder spell broke over them.

It turned out to be a very different sort of battle- much more unnerving. For one thing, her expression was so utterly blank, even when she was hit, that Seifer felt like they were fighting a mannequin. For another, the sorceress never came near them, just threw spell after spell at them. Any physical attack they made hit because she didn't bother to avoid them, although Seifer suspected there was a spell protecting her physically, as his gunblade seemed to twist in his hand and hit with the flat of the blade, which of course, was not his intent, almost every time he attacked.

At one point an ice spell she cast rebounded into her face, and Seifer glanced over to see Rinoa's exultant grin. Smart girl, he mouthed at her.

After a while, her spells came slower and slower. They attacked her at an even more frenzied pace, and eventually she stopped casting entirely.

Or so they thought.

After a particularly vicious smack from the flat of Seifer's gunblade, she raised one hand above her head, palm up, and her eyes began to glow golden.

He could hear Rinoa casting something next to him, but he was more interested in the icicles growing in the air above the sorceress' hand. He'd never seen any similar magic, and he was fairly sure he didn't want to be on the receiving end.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a choice. The sorceress gestured, and suddenly the ice spears were no longer hanging in the air above her.

Seifer frowned, wondering where they'd gone to, when suddenly he heard his gunblade clatter to the floor.

He looked down, and was surprised to see nearly a foot of ice extending from his chest.

Then the world grew dim. The last thing he heard as his knees gave way was Rinoa's scream.

********

"There really wasn't need for three of us on an easy mission like this," Selphie said.

Easy for you, maybe, thought Quistis.

She stood by the ladder, too worked up to even lean against the wall, and tried to wipe the sweat off her forehead. It didn't help. If anything, her nervousness had increased after the gates had fallen. They couldn't hear what was going on below and it was driving her absolutely insane.

She thought if she had to stay up here in this small room with these unconcerned, eager SeeDs burbling at each other for much longer, she would go right out of her mind.

What the hell is happening down there? she wondered for perhaps the thousandth time since the gates had dropped fifteen minutes before.

"Hey Quistis, are you okay?" Zell began. "You look kinda-"

A bloodcurdling scream ripped through the air and silenced him.

Quistis stood trembling in the aftershock of the chilling sound.

"Was that the sorceress?" Selphie asked hesitantly.

"No," Quistis said, far more calmly than she ever would have thought possible. "That was Rinoa."

She grabbed the sides of the ladder and slid down without hesitation. Her hands were so wet that she went a lot faster than she'd expected- although not as fast as she would have liked- and she hit the concrete below with a yelp.

Once her feet recovered, she flew to the door and threw it open.

She slipped through the bars quickly and tried to take in the whole scene before her in an instant.

The first thing she saw was Seifer, Rinoa, and Irvine. Seifer was laid out flat on the ground, a spear of what looked like ice protruding from his chest. The others knelt by him, glowing a magenta color she remembered very well from the TV station in Timber.

Frozen, she thought wildly, and looked around for the source.

She saw the sorceress immediately, simply standing there and watching Quistis with her strange golden eyes.

But her attention was instantly caught by the person who lay as if dead at the sorceress' feet.

Her hand flew to her mouth. He lay in a slowly growing pool of blood.

"Squall," she tried to say, but her lips would only form the shape of his name, and not the sound.

She knew she had made no sound.

But whether or not she had somehow caused it, he sat up slowly, grimacing in pain.

All she could do was watch. She knew she should be trying to help Seifer and the others, she knew that. But she was completely transfixed by Squall's white face.

He looked around briefly, and then saw her.

"Quisty?" he said, sounding surprised to see her.

Her heart stopped.

What did he call me?

"What are you doing here?" he asked, still sounding like she was the last person he would have expected.

She had no idea what might come out of her mouth, but she tried anyway.

"I..." It was no use.

Squall tried to get up, not seeming to realize that there was a fairly large hole in his leg until he attempted to put weight on it.

"Damn," he muttered as his face became a shade whiter.

The paralysis that had seemed to hold her finally broke. Instead of being unable to move, she was now unable to stop herself. She rushed to his side and slung his arm over her shoulder.

"Careful. You've got a shotgun wound in your thigh," she warned softly, while wondering exactly what the hell she was doing.

"Oh," he said mildly, and she realized he was only half conscious. Quistis quickly muttered the first curative spell she happened to remember, and he straightened a bit.

Squall turned his head a bit to look at her, and his gaze was uncomfortably sharp. Obviously, the spell had worked.

She flushed and looked away. For so long she'd wanted to be this close to him, their faces only inches away.

"Squall, do you remember what you said to me in the Training Center?"

"Yes," he said evenly.

"I think you were right." Quistis closed her eyes. Tears slipped hotly down her cheeks as she thought of the career she had just thrown away.

Tears of relief. Tears of hope.