The drapes in the sorceress's room billowed in the wafting night air and in the dimness were ghostly waterfalls. Squall stared at the night sky through the open doors that looked over Deling City's main square and decided that dawn would soon arrive. There was no glow to the east yet, but the darkness of the night had faded into a telling gray half-light.
          The Presidential Residence was silent and nearly empty. The residing G-army officers had vacated the premises hours ago with General Caraway, and only sleeping house staff remained. The sorceress seated at his side made no sound, mask drawn over her face, unmoving. Even the chirping of crickets to which he had been accustomed to during his years at rural Balamb Garden was absent. The entire city was asleep, except for the new Commander in Chief of the Galbadia Republic Army.
          He wondered when he had slept last. He knew it had been quite some time, but he wasn't sure how much. It had been a long day, but had it been so long that it had begun at the café in Timber? He tried to think back. This evening had been the parade. He had lost consciousness during the capture of SeeD assassins- his former comrades- but that didn't count as sleep. He had acted as Edea's bodyguard that day as preparations were made for the evening festivities. Had he slept the night before? He didn't know.
          It didn't matter, he supposed. He felt alert as ever, ready for any trouble. At the moment he waited for Caraway to return from his assignment. And, of course, watched over the silent sorceress beside him. He did not know what she did, whether it be sleep or spell, but that didn't really matter either. He would protect her. He would protect the body of the sorceress who had once protected and watched over him, and he would guard the sad, determined woman now inhabiting that body.
          Caraway would be returning at any moment from Galbadia Garden, he knew, unless something had gone wrong. He doubted there would have been any problems. Caraway had a reputation for excellence, even if he was a traitor. His loyalty to Edea might be lacking, but there was no questioning his competence or his course of action. Squall had seen the pain written across his face earlier when he had woken him at his mansion and told him his daughter was being held in D-District.
          Squall had planned to lead the attack on G-Garden, but the shotgun wound in his leg had incapacitated him for just long enough that he was forced to look for other leadership, and Caraway, strangely, had been the most trustworthy General he had under his command, if only because he had him firmly under his thumb.
          He shifted his weight to the injured leg, probing for any pain. Edea had bound it in a slow healing spell, and he had immediately been able to stand on it, but there had been pain. That pain was absent now, and he wondered what the flesh underneath would look like, and whether there would be any sign of the small crater that had once adorned his thigh.
          The room was cold as well as dark and quiet, and Squall's eyes drifted shut. He allowed himself to doze, and to think not of the work ahead of him, but of the results of that work.
          He could see it so clearly in his head. Families not torn apart by war. Children playing in front of houses, mothers and fathers watching over them who would never don armor and die on bloody battlefields. Children who would learn about science and literature and art and life, taught and nurtured by parents who loved them, not learning the arts of war from guardians who only cared that they would later fight or die for them. Children who would never grow up like him.
          Perhaps even his own life would be livable. After things were in place the sorceress would be satisfied and return to live in her own time- if that could be done. He remembered what she had told him; in her time Garden was a rampaging monster, destroying the lives of those who threatened it, and she would destroy it even if it cost her her own existence.
          Whatever path the sorceress's fate took, he would be able to retire afterward. The whole world would be united, and he could turn control over it to someone else and never be forced to grip his gunblade again. He could live in a little house on some deserted shore, and never see a living soul if he didn't choose to.
          Perhaps he would even live in the orphanage in Centra. Surely it still stood. He didn't remember much, even after Edea had told him of his early childhood, but he remembered the lighthouse, and the stone steps leading down to the beach. He could sit on those steps in the evenings and watch the sunset.
          And maybe he could find his sister
          (Sis, where did you go?)
          and she could watch with him. He didn't kid himself about having a family. He wouldn't know what to do with one and he knew it. But it would be nice to see his Sis.
          He could almost taste the sunset, smell the ocean. Clouds painted orange and red and the purple of kings. The salt blowing in the air, the sand between his toes, gritty and real.
          The shuffling of feet alerted him and he opened his eyes to a room glowing golden red with sunrise. The drapery in the room caught the light almost like clouds, and he wanted to sigh. Sunset later, he thought. For now I'll be satisfied with this.
          "What's our status?" he said.
          General Caraway was a military man in every sense of the word. His salute was as crisp as the crease in his pants, his uniform perfect down to the shine on his shoes. Every clasp glowed with all the effort personal servants could provide. Or perhaps he even cared for it himself, although Squall doubted that. The only flaws in the man's presentation were the dark circles under his eyes, but they were certainly understandable. First the failure of the attempt on Edea's life- Squall was nearly certain Caraway was behind it- and then the blow of being told his daughter was a prisoner. And then, of course, the call to perform a major military endeavor with half an army and no notice. It would give anyone puffy eyes. Not that Squall particularly cared how Caraway was feeling. With what he suspected, he deserved every shred of punishment he got.
          "Galbadia Garden is clear, sir." If the man slurred the title in his head, Squall couldn't tell. But then, Caraway was too smart to antagonize him.
          "The students?"
          "Under guard in the dormitories, sir."
          "Casualties?"
          Caraway shook his head. "None. Martine rolled over, just as you predicted. He and the Garden Faculty have already been transported to D-District."
          "Good. Gather the students at 0900 hours in the main assembly hall. I'll speak to them then."
          "Yes, sir. Anything else?"
          "Yes. Get a tech crew in the Headmaster's office at G-Garden. Have them rewire everything. I want video links set up in addition to the usual. Then send them here, and don't bother to bug the President's office- this will be your command when things are settled at G-Garden."
          Caraway didn't even blink. "Yes, sir. Will you require transport?"
          "No. But arrange an escort for General Trepe. She will join us at G-Garden at her convenience." Squall paused to let this sink in. "Any questions?"
          "No, sir."
          Squall saluted. Caraway returned it and left.
          He turned back toward the open doors. He'd sleep tomorrow night, when they were safely ensconced in G-Garden. Now he would watch the day brighten.
          "What is SeeD?" said the sorceress when the morning's red sky had faded to hard blue. He hadn't heard her move; her soft words fell on his ears like thunder.
          "SeeD. Special military forces. Mercenaries."
          "There is more."
          "Then I don't know. I'm not a SeeD."
          At last she moved, a quiet shifting in her seat. "Quistis was. Ask her."
          He nodded. "What are your plans for her?" he asked.
          "She will search for Ellone."
          "Ellone," he echoed.
          "You will help her, but you will have other duties that will require most of your time."
          "I see," he said, and there was silence.
          "Have you ever been to Centra?" said the sorceress.
          Squall shook his head, wondering at the subject change. "I've read about it. There's not much there any more. The Lunar Cry destroyed it- it's supposed to be a desert."
          "It is a wasteland."
          He said nothing. He didn't understand what she was getting at.
          "My entire world is a
          (barren desert dying trees bleached bones)
          wasteland. SeeD has destroyed it." He could see it in his mind. The vision was clear, but not bright. Empty towns, dull orange sky, dry hot wind.
          "And I have destroyed SeeD. Black and white both. It made no difference."
          She moved again, and he could feel her gaze on him like the touch of a hand. "I have seen her
          (GO!)
          in the black, directing the SeeD army, winning." Then her hand did touch him, delicate fingers slid the glove down his own; the sound of it falling was the sound of nothing.
          She held his hand and the wind blew his hair back and he could see her too, screaming into the megaphone, gloved finger pointing furiously, hair askew. SeeD swarmed where she directed, and the blue fell. The hand holding his trembled and dropped away as he joined them in their fall.
          He stared out the open doors and over the waking city, eyes half closed, idle thoughts chasing each other in circles but not seeming to have any impact or direction. The cool wind touched him again, and one thought in particular crystallized, sprang into being from the back of his mind
          (or somewhere else)
          and he pushed it away, frowning. That wasn't his way, how could he even bring himself to do it? He had no interest in that, nor would he use someone in such a way, for any purpose. It wasn't
          (bleached bones SeeD hot desert she must not stray)
          his way, it wasn't, he couldn't do it
          (dying children blood spattering on cracked pavement she must not stray)
          ever, must he use
          (peace and prosperity picnics sunset for you she must not stray)
          someone like that, for
          (she must not)
          that and like that, for this purpose?
          His decision made, his resolve set in stone, he rose from his knees and dusted them with two gloved hands.
          "She will not stray," he whispered.
 

********


 
          Zell clawed his way out of dreams and opened his eyes.
          "Ugh," he said, and promptly closed them. Wake up, he thought. Enough with the prison stuff already.
          "Zell?" Selphie's voice sounded tense.
          Shit. Not dreaming.
          He sat up and looked around. A prison cell. Metal walls, metal floors. One toilet.
          "What's going on?" he asked. He had the headache of the century, and winced as his questing fingers found a tender bump on the back of his head. Don't do that, idiot. He tried to think back and figure out what was happening, but his last memory was of Quistis hitting that switch in the gateway, and it did him little good.
          "This is the D-District prison in Galbadia," said Rinoa in a low voice. She was seated on the floor next to an unconscious Seifer Almasy. He lay with his head pillowed on his coat, pale, breathing shallowly, face wiped clean of all scowls.
          Zell stood up, suddenly alarmed, and hurried over. "Is he okay? What happened?"
          "We're not really sure," said Rinoa. "The last time I saw him, he- he had a foot long spear of ice sticking out of his chest."
          "Jeez!" said Zell. "The sorceress?"
          "Yeah," said Irvine.
          "He looks pretty okay for somebody who just got impaled," Zell remarked, and reached down to check Seifer's pulse.
          "Don't even think about it, Dincht," growled the man on the floor.
          Zell grinned, and there was a soft chorus of exclamations from everyone else. Seifer sat up and twisted around to pick up his coat.
          He shook it out and frowned. "Who bunched up my coat? These wrinkles are never going to come out."
          Rinoa laughed at his joke, weak as it was, but to Zell her laugh sounded forced and shaky. Uncomfortable silence fell.
          "Uh," said Zell, hoping to change the subject. "Where's Quistis?"
          Irvine and Rinoa glanced at each other.
          "She defected," Irvine finally said.
          "Huh?"
          "Zell, she switched sides. Joined the sorceress," Rinoa explained.
          He was flabbergasted. "But, why?"
          Seifer laughed. "She's in love with Leonhart."
          "Oh," said Zell. He suddenly remembered the way she had acted in the gateway, her nervousness, and her reluctance to lead the sniper team. "Oh."
          "Yeah," said Seifer. "But don't worry, it's a small loss. We're better off without her, trust me."
          "So now what?" asked Selphie.
          Seifer shrugged. "We escape."
          "But we don't have any weapons," said Rinoa.
          "Zell doesn't need-" began Seifer, but the door to the cell opened before he could finish what he was going to say.
          Squall Leonhart walked in, frowning, escorted by six guards and a short man with many insignia on his uniform.
          "Have they caused any problems, Warden?" he asked. Zell saw Rinoa clamp a hand on Seifer's arm, who shook his head at her.
          "No, sir," said the short man.
          "Good. I want them split up within the hour. Make sure they're comfortable. No torture," he said, looking at the warden with distaste, "or I'll have your head."
          "Yes, sir," said the Warden, grimacing.
          "And be careful of that one," said Squall, stabbing a gloved finger at Zell. "He doesn't need a gunblade to break your neck."
          "Now," said Squall, turning to the prisoners. "Miss Heartilly. The Sorceress Edea has pardoned you for your attempt on the late President Deling's life. However, your role in last night's debacle has proved you just as criminal as these SeeDs. You will not be executed, only held here until such time as I see fit to release all of you.
          "You will not be mistreated, and with any luck, SeeD will be no more before the day is out. Galbadia Garden is ours, and its students have mostly joined us. I have offered the students of Trabia Garden the same terms I offered those of G-Garden, although the building itself will be destroyed later today. Balamb Garden, however, will get no such warning, as it is the home of SeeD."
          "If all goes well, a year or two of hard work on our part will unite the world in peace under the sorceress, and you will all be released on probation. Miss Heartilly, your father sends his love."
          Squall turned to the Warden. "I will require transport to the Missile Base."
          He nodded to the prisoners and was gone, along with his escorts.
          "Right," said Seifer. "Next time they open that door there's going to be a lot of them. I don't think you can take on twenty guards, Dincht."
          Zell frowned. "No, I guess not." Not on an empty stomach, anyway.
          "We'll have to get them to open the door sooner, that's all," said Selphie. "I bet if one of you tells them there's something wrong with me or Rinoa, they'll open it to check out what's going on."
          "Yeah, that sounds good," said Seifer. "Dincht, when they open the door, show them what you've got. Then we'll at least be armed- an enemy's weapon is yours if you can take it. And then we can find our stuff and get the hell out of here."
          "Let's wait a bit," said Irvine. "I'd rather Squall wasn't around."
          "I'd rather he was," said Seifer. "Because I'm going to kill him."
          He paused. "But yeah, that'll be kind of hard without Hyperion. I can wait."

 

         
          Irvine pounded on the door. "Hey! There's something wrong with Rinoa!" He punched the door again, harder. "Ow," he muttered. Then, at a louder volume, "Is there anyone out there? C'mon, we've got a problem here!"
          The door split and slid aside as hoped and two guards appeared in the doorway.
          Irvine gestured to Rinoa, who lay on the floor with eyes closed, shuddering. "I think she's having a seizure!"
          The guards stepped into the room, and Zell slipped behind them. Heh heh, he thought.
          "KAAAAMEEEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAAAAAMEEEEEEEEE!" he screamed.
          Guards and prisoners both turned to stare at him. Rinoa propped herself up on her elbows and eyed him.
          He flexed his muscles.
          "HA!" he yelled.
          There was a moment of silence as he grinned. "I'm sorry, I just get a kick out of that." He took a step forward and punched the first guard in the throat.
          The second guard made the mistake of standing there and watching, and three seconds later joined his comrade in an unconscious heap on the ground.
          Seifer stepped over their prone bodies and bent to pluck an automatic weapon from a limp hand.
          "Dincht, you are such a freak," he said, hefting his gun.
          "Thanks," said Zell.
          "We'll be right back," Seifer said, and they stepped out into the empty corridor.

 

          "Where do we start looking?"
          Zell stopped to think. "Um, there's a storage unit a couple of floors up. There, I bet."
          Seifer frowned. "How do you know that?"
          "Um," said Zell. "I had a dream. You remember the train to Timber? Like that. But Ward was working, well, here. As a janitor."
          "The guy's name was Laguna, right?"
          "Uh, yeah." Zell paused to put two and two together. "Seifer, did you have a dr-"
          "Let's go." His tone was cold, warning against further questions.
          He shrugged and followed the other man up the stairs. I've had the dreams, twice now. Selphie's had them. And now Seifer's had one. I wonder what they mean. There are three, though. Laguna, Kiros, Ward. I wonder who had the third dream.
          Seifer's voice, subdued for once, interrupted his musing. "Look."
          He obeyed, and saw two guards several yards away, backs turned. Seifer gestured and they crept up behind them, unheard.
          "So these are SeeD weapons," the first said. "Nunchaku, shotgun, hey- is this a gunblade?" The soldier picked it up and gave it a few experimental swipes. "I've heard of these, but I've never seen one."
          Zell glanced at Seifer, whose lips had faded into a hard line, and missed the soldier's head exploding in a fountain of gore.
          "That's my gunblade."
          The other soldier turned, but not fast enough; by the time he got halfway around, Seifer had already snatched Hyperion from the dead soldier's grasp. He rose from his stoop slicing, and grabbed the soldier's wrist to prevent him from falling backward from the blow. He gave a yank as he brought the gunblade back around and neatly impaled the man. There was a muffled thud as he pulled the trigger; blood and various bits spattered both of them liberally.
          Zell blinked. Then he looked down.
          "Man, I liked this shirt," he complained.
          "It'll come out," said Seifer. "There's a trick to getting blood out of cloth- cast a curative spell on it."
          "Oh," he said, gathering the rest of the weapons. "Cure," he muttered. There was a green flare, but nothing happened. "Um, it didn't work," he said.
          "Anti-magic field, I'm guessing," said Seifer.
          They ran back down the stairs and entered their cell. Zell tossed Selphie, Irvine, and Rinoa their weapons one by one.
          "Let's get out of here," said Seifer.
          "Do we go up or down?" Selphie asked.
          "Up," said Irvine. "This prison is buried underground."
          "Then let's go," Seifer said.
          They crowded into the corridor, where Seifer pointed the way to the stairs.
          "Yay, we're escaping!" crowed Selphie.
          They ran, and had climbed several levels before the alarms went off.
          "Warning! Escapee alert! Monsters will be set loose on each floor. If escapees refuse to surrender, you have permission to kill. The anti-magic field will be lifted."
          Good, thought Zell. I can fix my shirt.
          When they reached the next landing they came face to face with a formidable number of guards. The two groups stopped and stared at each other for a moment.
          "Hi!" said Selphie, and then Irvine's shotgun blast took the face off the nearest guard.
          Zell rushed forward with the others and soon lost himself in the confusion of battle. He stopped thinking and let his body do the work, looking only for the blue uniforms, his targets. At one point, he fell back as a bullet punched into his arm, and he landed ungracefully on his backside. He looked up at the soldier standing over him, braced himself on his good arm, and delivered a solid kick to the soldier's groin. He fell without making a sound. Then he felt the chill of a healing spell, and the bullet worked itself out his arm and bounced with a clink on the metal floor. He stood up and leaned over the soldier writhing on the ground in front of him.
          "Sorry," he said. "That wasn't very sportsman-like, was it?" He extended a hand to the man, and surprisingly, he accepted it. He pulled him to his feet, panting, and said, "But I really liked this shirt, damn you." He used his momentum to swing his free fist into the man's face and then let him drop.
          He looked around, rubbing his knuckles, and discovered that the mêlée was over. He found the rest of them standing in a circle around Selphie. He joined them just as Seifer offered her a hand and said, "You're fine. C'mon, get up, we need to go." He pulled her up and Zell saw the streaks of tears on her face, and those of blood on her leg.
          They ran again, not encountering much more than a soldier or two on their way, simple fights with five of them, and eventually got to a room with a real ceiling. Another set of stairs waited for them, and they climbed them, ready for trouble.
          But nothing awaited them in the next room except for the light of day through another door.
          "Finally," muttered Zell as he followed the others up the last set of stairs.
          The dry, hot wind hit him with a force he hadn't been expecting. He squinted and nearly stumbled into Irvine before catching his balance.
          "What the heck?" He opened his eyes and nearly fell back through the door. "I thought you said this place was buried underground!"
          They stood on a platform perhaps two hundred feet above the ground, fierce wind plucking at their clothes, seeking to draw them over the edge. From the platform a narrow catwalk extended its reach toward a tower as tall as the one they stood on.
          "I thought so too," murmured Seifer.
          "I think," said Irvine, "that this structure has a burrowing mechanism. Looks like the towers are just big screws, doesn't it?"
          "Yeah, it does," said Seifer. He turned away from the catwalk and scrutinized the area. "That side looks different. Let's cross."
          Zell eyed the ground. I'd really rather not, he thought, even as he followed Rinoa onto the slim metal bridge.
          The wind was even worse without the tower to shield them. Zell held tight to the rails and stared at the back of Rinoa's head. She needs to brush her hair.
          But before he could voice this opinion and get himself thrown off the bridge, he realized that they were only a few steps from the opposite platform. He kept his tongue in his head and stepped up onto the new platform with all body parts intact.
          At that moment there was an earth-shattering squeal and he nearly fell as the platform began to shake. He whipped around and saw two things at once. The tower they had left a few minutes before was spinning slowly, grinding itself into the ground.
          The second thing he noticed was that Seifer was still on the bridge. He heard Rinoa's gasp and took a step forward, but Irvine yanked him back by his collar and pointed at the bridge.
          Zell took a second look and saw that the slats that made up the floor of the bridge had loosened themselves and were sliding toward the platforms. By the time he started to worry for Seifer's well being, their leader had already leapt to the dubious safety of the platform.
          "Get back," he said. They fled into the cargo bay off the new platform. Zell ran between two army vehicles and pressed himself against the back wall of the bay. He could feel the whole structure shaking with the violence of the transformation, and when he glanced to his right, Selphie met his gaze with wide eyes.
          "C'mon!" Seifer growled, and Zell turned his attention back to the doorway where Seifer was applying his fist to a square control panel. "Close, already!" He gave the wall a good kick with the business end of a steel-toed boot and their ears were assailed by the high-pitched groaning of the cargo bay doors closing.
          "Somebody needs to oil those," Zell muttered, and then the wind died and they were in darkness. He could still feel and hear the prison burying itself in the ground and kept his eyes open, but it did him no good.
          After what seemed like an eternity in darkness, the vibrations stopped and he could suddenly hear his heartbeat pounding in his head.
          "Now, open," said Seifer, sounding irritable.
          Obediently, the squealing sound returned, and with it, dusty air and the light of day.
          Zell saw at once that they were on the same level as the ground, and a small sigh of relief escaped his lips.
          "Yes!" shouted Selphie. "We're out! Let's hotwire these trucks and get out of here!"
          "Or we can use these keys," said Rinoa, smiling and dangling two sets of keys from dirty fingers.
          "Let's just go before someone finds us," said Zell.
          "I wanna ride in the yellow one!" Selphie snatched a set of keys from Rinoa's outstretched hand and made for the truck of her choice.
          Irvine followed her with a wink. Zell snorted. Thinks he's a ladies man, doesn't he? Better go make sure he doesn't annoy her.
          "Have her stop when we're far enough away. We need to make plans," said Seifer. He nodded and followed the others into the yellow car.
 

********


 
          "Hey Selphie," Irvine heard from the back seat. "Are we far enough away? Seifer wants us to stop so we can plan what to do next."
          He glanced at the petite girl in the driver's seat. She had pulled the seat all the way forward so that she could reach the pedals, and still her toes barely touched them. It would have been adorable if she had been wearing her usual sunny smile, but she was not. He felt the twinge in his heart and looked away, aware that he was more concerned for her than the situation probably called for.
          He let a silent sigh slip through his lips and settled back into his seat, chewing the inside of his cheek.
          "Fine," she said. "We'll stop here."
          Her statement was accompanied by the squealing of tires. The seatbelt bit painfully into Irvine's chest, resulting in a nipped tongue. He looked over at Selphie with wide eyes but she was no longer in the car.
          "I think my nose is bleeding," Zell complained.
          "Should have been wearing your seat belt," he muttered and opened the car door.
          He looked around for Selphie and discovered that she had climbed on top of a small hill. He joined her, grimacing at the heat and dust.
          From this vantage point he could see quite a distance across the flat desert. He shaded his eyes and found what Selphie was looking at. Perhaps ten miles away, what he had to assume was the Galbadian Missile Base shimmered through the heat.
          He turned and saw that Rinoa and Seifer had just emerged from their own vehicle. They drew close to the hill Selphie and Irvine stood on, but did not climb it. Instead they shaded their eyes and looked toward the Missile Base.
          Selphie broke the silence. "We have to stop the missile launch."
          "But what about Garden? We need to warn them too!" said Zell.
          "We've got five people," said Rinoa. "One of us can go to Garden- how many people does it really take? The rest of us can go to the Missile Base."
          "Too risky," said Seifer. "One person might not make it."
          "Yes," said Rinoa. "But the Missile Base, I just don't know. Four people probably won't be enough."
          "Listen," said Selphie. "There are Galbadian military uniforms in the back of our truck. Three of them. If we sneak in like that, we won't need many people. I bet we could just do it with two."
          "That works," said Seifer. "Except the Missile Base is going to be a lot more dangerous than just going to Garden. If you guys run into trouble, you might not get out with just two."
          "So three to the base and two to Garden," said Selphie. "Who's-
          "Look," whispered Rinoa.
          Irvine turned.
          From this distance, he could only see three streaks of fire painting their way across the sky, but he knew what it meant.
          "Trabia," cried Selphie. She turned away from the Missile Base, and Irvine saw the rage on her face.
          "I'm going to the Missile Base!" she said. "Who's coming with me?" Her emerald glare touched him and then flickered across the others.
          "I'm going," he said.
          "So am I," said Rinoa and Zell at once.
          "No, you aren't." Seifer said to Rinoa. "You haven't gotten the training they have. You'd be a liability."
          Rinoa looked furious. "That's not-"
          "Yes," Seifer interrupted. "It is. You're coming with me to Garden, and that's final."
          Rinoa opened her mouth.
          "No arguments," snapped Seifer. "Zell, go with Selphie and Irvine. Do what you can to stop the launch against B-Garden. If you get the chance, blow the whole thing up. We'll warn Garden. Good luck, and be careful."
          He took Rinoa's arm. She looked mutinous but allowed him to lead her back to their car.
          "Let's get going," said Selphie.

 

          "Ugh. This uniform is stinky."
          Irvine resisted the temptation to turn around and see what he could see. But he knew if he did Selphie would maim him, perhaps inflicting permanent damage. He didn't want to lose any limbs. So he stayed put in his seat and looked straight ahead until she was done changing.
          "Ugh," she said again, and climbed back into the driver's seat. "I can't believe they wear these!"
          She started the car, stomping madly on the gas pedal, and threw it into gear. Irvine winced.
          "I'm guessing we just drive in," she said when they reached the gates to the base. They drove through the gates and another appeared before them. These, however, were closed.
          A bored-looking guard extracted himself from his booth and walked over to their car. He peered inside, and Irvine felt a flutter of nervousness. The walls around them were concrete, solid, and he had a feeling the gates behind them could crash closed and trap them there.
          "All right," the guard called through the window. "Go on through."
          "Really?" muttered Selphie. "Cool."
          The gates opened and they drove through into a quite ordinary parking lot, full of vehicles that looked identical to the one they rode in. Selphie parked and they got out.
          A voice blared from loudspeakers mounted on the parking lot lights. "Following the launch on Trabia Garden, prepare for the launch on Balamb Garden. All personnel, take your positions."
          "When the hell is launch time?" Zell asked.
          "It doesn't matter," said Selphie. "We have to stop the missiles and that's all there is to it. If there's a door, we go in! If there's something we can break, we break it! And in the end we'll blow this place to smithereens!"
          "I like your attitude, Selphie," laughed Irvine.
          She hopped in place a bit and then they followed her to the entrance. There were no guards in sight. The door slid aside for them and they came to a small room with only two doors.
          "It's locked!" she said once she had examined it. "Insert ID card? But I don't have one!"
          Irvine felt his pockets and drew out a card.
          "Try this, I found it in my uniform."
          She slid the card through the reader and crowed. "Access granted! Woo-hoo!"
          The door slid aside for them and when they went through they found themselves on a walkway. Safety bars edged it and prevented falls to the conveyor belts passing parts below.
          "Look, there's a guard," hissed Zell.
          "Just act normal," muttered Selphie. "We don't want to fight until we have to."
          They did so, and passed the guard without mishap before following the catwalk downstairs. They came to a platform then and halted. To their right was a room guarded by one soldier, another catwalk, also guarded, and a control panel nestled in the corner.
          "This way," said Selphie, and walked behind the stairs, away from the guards. They followed her and nearly ran into two more soldiers scribbling in notebooks.
          "Hey," mumbled the first soldier. "Whatcha want? We're busy right now."
          "Oh!" said the second. "Isn't it about time to inspect the circuit room?"
          "We're not done here yet," responded the first guard, still scribbling.
          "We're doing the real thing today, we'll never find enough time to do it."
          "Gah," muttered the first guard, and turned to them. "Can you guys deliver a message for us?"
          "Sure," said Selphie.
          "Go tell the guys in the Missile Launch room to go ahead and we'll catch up with them later."
          "Okay."
          "Thanks very much," he said. "We appreciate it."
          "No problem!" said Selphie.
          They walked back around the stairs and Selphie stopped. "Let's go back up."
          Irvine wondered what her plan was, but followed her up the stairs.
          She strode up to the guard.
          "The maintenance team asked us to take their place. We're here to inspect the circuit room."
          "Really?" said the guard. "Then I guess my shift is over. I'm gonna go call my relief, go ahead with the inspection."
          He walked off, and Selphie gave them a thumbs up.
          The circuit room was exactly what Irvine expected it to be. Digital monitors showed the status of the power supply to the base, and control panels ringed the room. A glass wall showed the main generator, glowing white as it fed the base with electricity.
          "Well, let's get wrecking." Irvine could hear the grin in her voice.
          They set to smashing the control panels, doing as much damage as they could, and shortly after that the generator went dark and the lights failed.
          Selphie's bubbly laugh echoed in the room.
          "You're scary, you know," said Zell. He sounded grumpy. I bet he's afraid of the dark, Irvine thought.
          Somewhere, a backup generator kicked in and the emergency lights flickered on, red and gloomy.
          "Let's get out of here. It would look bad if we were found," he suggested.
          "All right," said Selphie. "Next!"
          They ran out of the room and skidded into the real maintenance team.
          "Hey! What's going on here?"
          "We were just coming to get you! The power failed! Come on!" Selphie ran back into the room with the maintenance soldiers on her heels. Irvine nodded to Zell and they went after them.
          As soon as the door closed behind them Irvine and Zell gave each of the soldiers a good hard blow to the back of the head. They dropped, and Selphie stepped over the unconscious bodies and squeezed each of their arms before exiting once again through the door.
          This time when they reached the bottom of the stairs a soldier was waiting for them.
          "The power's down and we need help with this last launcher. Can you help?"
          "Yes, sir," said Selphie, and the followed them into the missile room. A launcher was sitting only a few feet away from its spot in the floor, and three soldiers pushed on it with little effect. The three of them joined in, pushing as hard as they could, and finally the soldier overseeing the placement of the missile waved at them to stop.
          They stood back and watched as the enormous launcher clicked into place and sank into the floor.
          "Okay," said the officer. "Good work. All we need to do now is confirm the coordinates on the control panel. The program should be ready to go. You guys get on it."
          "Yes, sir," said Selphie, and they left.
          "Sounds like this is what we want," said Irvine, examining the control panel in the corner.
          "Yeah," said Selphie. "So do we bust it up or just try to mess with the program?"
          "There's a guard right over there," said Zell. "And besides, we don't want to launch the missiles ourselves by mistake. Let's just mess with it."
          Selphie swiped the ID card in the reader.
          "Looks like I don't have access to change the coordinates," she said.
          "But you can change the error ratio here," said Zell, pointing. "This isn't very advanced technology. I bet if you maximize the error ratio the missiles will miss."
          "Okay," she said a few moments later. "Now what?"
          "Looks like you have to upload the coordinates to the main computer," said Irvine.
          "Done. I think that's the best we can do with this. What I want to know is who pushes the launch button, where to find him, and how best to kick his ass."
          "Probably somebody upstairs," said Irvine.
          "And these guys all look like wimps," Zell added.
          Selphie led them over to the guard on the opposite staircase. He saw them coming and waved them away. "This is a restricted area."
          "We need to report on the missile coordinates," Selphie protested.
          "Oh. All right then, go on through." He stepped aside and they climbed the stairs into yet another control room. Two soldiers manned the control panels and an officer in a red uniform watched over them.
          "All systems go!" said one of the soldiers.
          "Everything's all set, sir," said the other.
          The officer joined the first soldier at the control panel, held a button down, and spoke into a microphone. "Attention. This is the control room. We are now entering the final phase of the missile launch. Take your designated positions and prepare for the launch."
          He released the button and finally noticed them. "What are you doing here?"
          They saluted. "We're here to report on the missile coordinates, sir," Selphie informed him.
          The officer stood still for a moment. Then he drew his weapon. "Don't move. I thought you looked suspicious. That salute you did was all wrong."
          "Blind them," whispered Selphie, and Irvine stepped forward with Zell. All three of them shouted the same word at once and the officer and his soldiers winced and started tugging their helmets off.
          Selphie took the opportunity to strip off the uniform she was wearing, revealing her usual yellow jumper underneath.
          "Finally," she said. "These uniforms are itchy and they stink."
          She twirled her nunchaku experimentally and then gave the officer a good hard blow to the head, knocking him out.
          "Sleep," Irvine murmured to the soldiers, and they obediently slumped to the floor.
          Selphie ran to the main control panel and hit a single button.
          "Okay, I just canceled the launch. Now to find the self-destruct mechanism."
          Irvine examined the panel at the back of the room. "Not here," he said.
          "Or here."
          "Or here," said Selphie. "Damn." She gave the soldier nearest her a frustrated kick. He rolled over and began to snore.
          "Maybe in here?" Zell called as he disappeared into the next room. "Yeah! It's in here!"
          Selphie ran to join him and Irvine followed.
          "How long should I give us to get out?" she said.
          Irvine shrugged. "Half an hour?"
          "Sounds good."
          "Self-destruct mechanism operating. Thirty minutes until destruction. All staff evacuate the base immediately. I repeat..."
          "Woo!" said Selphie. "Now let's get out of here!"
          They ran back through the control room, not giving the downed soldiers a second glance, and nearly fell down the metal stairs in their haste to reach the platform below. Soldiers ran for the stairs on the other side, ignoring them, and they reached the outside door with no mishaps.
          Less than five minutes had elapsed. "I guess we didn't really need a half an hour," he said.
          As they walked to their vehicle Irvine noticed movement through the chain link fence to their left. Four launchers unfolded themselves from the ground and pointed at the sky. They fired in quick succession and this time Irvine saw the missiles, sixteen steel lozenges that streaked their way into the distance. Northeast. Toward Balamb.
          "What happened?" Selphie yelled.
          "Someone must have reactivated the launch sequence!" he yelled back as Zell was caught in a cloud of smoke from the launchers and went into a fit of coughing.
          "That's right!" called a voice behind them. "And now we're going to take care of you!"
          Irvine turned and they faced an immense gleaming tank, twice the size of the tanks the regular Galbadian Army used. Probably twice as dangerous, too, thought Irvine, noting that it lacked a cannon.
          "That's quite a piece of machinery," said Zell, and then light exploded from where the cannon normally would have been and knocked him over.
          "Not very nice," said Selphie and gave the front face of the tank a whack from her nunchaku. "Wish I had a rocket launcher."
          Irvine briefly considered just letting Zell stay knocked out for the remainder of the fight, but then decided that the tank's beam cannon was probably a little too dangerous. He waved a hand toward Zell and clean white light showered over him. Zell sneezed and pulled himself to his feet just as Selphie sprang forward with a flick of her wrist and a grin on her face. A lightning bolt came from nowhere and struck the hatch on top of the tank. He recoiled at the crack of thunder. That's not just a regular thunder spell! he thought. She must have picked up some Thundara somewhere.
          His ears had only just stopped ringing when the hatch flew open and the officer from the control room and his soldiers scrambled to get out and slide to the ground.
          "Hot, hot, hot!" one of them yelled.
          "That piece of crap!" snarled their captain.
          "What do we do now?" said the second soldier. "The MRV needs repairs."
          "Fix it later," said the captain. "We need to take care of them first. They can't be allowed to seize this vehicle. Even if it's a piece of crap!"
          "Good luck with that," he heard to his right. Zell stepped forward and Irvine's world dissolved into the sound of far-off thunder.
          I'll never get used to that, he thought when the thunder faded and the world reformed before his eyes. He had never had contact with Guardian Forces before accepting the assignment to assassinate the sorceress, and he found that he had trouble both controlling them and recovering from the shock of losing his body, even for just a few moments. Zell, however, seemed to revel in it. Even as Irvine looked he bounced on the balls of his feet, hair standing even more on end than it normally did.
          As for the soldiers, no trace remained of them. He didn't know whether they had fled before Quezacotl's attack or were simply demolished, but he found he didn't really care either way.
          He looked around and noticed the sudden quietness. Before, soldiers had fled the base, on foot or gunning the ugly yellow trucks. Now, there were no more trucks and no more soldiers, and he turned, only to discover that the heavy metal gates leading to the outside world were closed.
          "We're locked in." Selphie's horrified whisper seemed to float on the still air.
 

********


 
          The sunset streamed though the glass windows, transforming everything it touched into scarlet splendor. The room in which the Galbadia Republic Army's newest general slept was magnificent even in ordinary light, but this sunset polished the mahogany furniture and the curious walls of Galbadia Garden into spectacular lustre.
          Quistis Trepe opened her eyes. Her rise from sleep had been perfect and painless, not brought about by any jarring alarm or telephone, but simply because she was fully rested, the first time this had happened in months.
          I fell asleep again, she thought. She looked at the mottled ceiling for a moment, fingers still comfortably laced on her stomach. Then she sat up and picked up the heavy book she had been skimming, a tome of Galbadian law, and set it on the nightstand next to the bed. No wonder.
          She got to her feet and padded to the window, wanting to watch the rest of the sunset. She stood there, one hand running the smooth material of the drapes through her fingers, thinking of nothing much, until the sun's light had descended into twilight. Then she turned and tied the terrycloth bathrobe she was still wearing from her earlier shower more firmly around her, and wondered what to do next.
          She surveyed the room that had once been Headmaster Martine's. Someone had been in to clean while she was sleeping, and had been so quiet that she had not been awakened.
          The clothes she remembered throwing on the bathroom floor earlier were now clean and folded neatly on the immense dresser. Someone had coiled her whip- it rested on top of her skirt. She crossed the immense rug covering most of the floor and saw that there were more clothes than those she had brought with her. She touched the new clothing, starkly black next to her more colorful attire, and realized it was a uniform. She picked it up then, and the folded sleeves fell away and showed her five silver bars on left shoulder, and one solitary golden medallion, stitched carefully underneath to tell whoever saw it that she had won- the Golden Heart?
          It's not like I saved his life. I wonder what it means.
          She folded the uniform again, and gave it a final pat.
          Her pack was where she had left it on the nightstand. All my earthly possessions, she thought, amused. She opened it, not expecting to find more than the usual jumble of potions and Gil, and saw a brass gleam. She pulled out an old fashioned lamp, and stared at it. Where did this come from?
          She thought back over the last two days and eventually remembered wanting to ask Cid a question after he gave them the briefing on the Timber mission. Instead of giving her an answer- she had not even gotten the opportunity to ask her question- he had given her this.
          It's an antique, obviously. But why give me a lamp?
          She polished it with a corner of her bathrobe, remembering some old tale, but nothing happened. I guess it's worthless after all.
          She set it on the nightstand and stood, intending to get dressed. She frowned, and looked back at the lamp. It looked exactly as she had left it. She turned away and heard a leathery rustle behind her. She whirled, suddenly alarmed.
          The lamp was still in its place on the nightstand, but as she watched black smoke began to seep out of it. She took a step back, and the smoke drifted toward her, lazy, and utterly dark.
          Maybe rubbing that lamp was a bad idea.
          She backed up some more, until her back was pressed against the wall, and watched as an inky tendril reached for her. She had nowhere else to go, and as it touched her hand she felt a silent thunderclap in her mind and fell to her knees, eyes shut tight.
          But nothing happened.
          She opened her eyes and found herself in another place entirely. Where, she could not decide. She stood on featureless earth, underneath a roiling violet nighttime sky.
          What is this? she wondered.
          She heard that leathery sound again, and looked for the source. All at once the sky was full of bats. They were countless, and flew every which way in utter silence except for the sound of their wings.
          Then they began to circle her, spiraling closer and closer to her until she was forced to duck. She threw her arm over her face, expecting to be attacked, but suddenly the sound of wings beating vanished.
          She stood up again and looked around, feeling foolish. Several yards away a winged creature hovered. Its wings were enormous and black, and as they beat she felt cool air wash over her. Its flesh was red, and its eyes yellow. It's a demon, she thought, realizing that her whip was still back in her room.
          "Who dares disturb my rest?" it growled, and looked at her.
          No, she thought. It's a Guardian Force. A wild one. If I can defeat it-
          Her thought was cut short as the creature rushed her. She stepped to the side just in time, and felt the wind of its passage. She turned to face it and it hung in the air as before, apparently not in too much of a hurry to destroy her.
          I have no weapon, she thought, irritated. And I'm wearing a bathrobe.
          Quistis cast her mind toward it, hoping it carried some magic she might steal and turn against it. She had just sensed that the creature carried some very dark magic indeed when it decided to rush her again. This time she was forced to roll out of the way. She rolled to her feet and closed her eyes, hoping she would have time to finish what she was starting before it attacked her again.
          She found the magic she had sensed before and pulled with her mind as she had been trained. The spell came to her easily, and she opened her mouth, not knowing what was going to come out.
          "Demi," she said, and a massive black orb appeared over the Guardian Force and fell, slowly enveloping the creature in blackness. Then the orb was gone and the creature flinched.
          She pulled again. "Demi."
          And again. "Demi." This time the creature roared.
          She pulled one more time, hard, and saw that it was rushing her once again. "Demi!" she yelled, and tried to dodge.
          She wasn't fast enough. A dark wing came at her and hit her on the side of the head, making her ear ring, and she fell. She looked up and saw a huge taloned hand reaching for her. She pulled her leg up and kicked it in the stomach with one bare foot, and to her surprise the Guardian Force exploded into bats. They flew up into the sky and were gone.
          She blinked and suddenly she was back on the floor in her room. She crawled to the bed and pulled herself up. She grimaced. Her head hurt where the creature's wing had landed. She raised her hand to assess the damage.
          I am Diablos, a voice said in her mind. And I am yours.
          Her hand fell back into her lap. It spoke to me. I've never heard of a Guardian Force talking.
          She opened her mouth to ask a question, any question, to see if it would answer her but she was interrupted by a knock at the door.
          "Come in," she said, irritated.
          The door opened and Squall Leonhart stepped inside. At the sight of him, she forgot all about Diablos. He was covered in blood- his white shirt was red with it, it was smeared across his face, and she thought she saw it gleaming blackly in his hair.
          She flew to her feet. "What happened to you? Are you all right?"
          He looked at her, puzzled. Then he followed her gaze and looked down at himself.
          "Oh," he said. "It's not mine."
          Whose is it? she wondered.
          "Well," he said. "There are some things I need to talk to you about, but I think I need to take a shower first."
          "All right."
          But he just stood there. "Squall?" she said.
          "I just remembered," he said. "I don't have quarters here yet." He looked at her and his expression was that of faint embarrassment. "It's been a really long day."
          She smiled at him. "I can see that. You want to use mine?"
          "Thanks," he said, walked over to her nightstand, and picked up the telephone. "This is Commander Leonhart," he said after a moment. "I'm in General Trepe's quarters. We need some food. Yes. I'm also going to need some quarters. Bring me the key when you come up." He paused, listening. "Yes, tell him just to leave them with General Trepe. Thank you." He hung up.
          Then he went to her dresser. "Did they move Martine's things out?" he asked over his shoulder.
          "I don't think so," she said, bemused.
          He opened a drawer, rummaged through it for a moment, and came up with a pair of red flannel pajama bottoms and an old green t-shirt. He seemed to find these satisfactory, for he nodded to her and disappeared into the bathroom with them. Soon after that she heard the sound of running water.
          Quistis flopped onto her back. Squall is taking a shower in my bathroom. This is so weird.
          A few minutes later there was a tap at the door.
          She turned her head and called, "Come in."
          A fresh-faced young officer entered, pushing a cart of food before him. He closed the door behind him and saluted.
          "I'm not in uniform," she reminded him.
          He glanced at her attire and blushed. "Sorry, sir. I brought you some food." He glanced toward the bathroom.
          Quistis smiled and sat up. The officer was the same one who had escorted her here from Deling City. A nice, slightly nervous young man.
          "Are you Squall's aide?" she asked him.
          "Yes, sir. I'm Evans, sir."
          Before she could say anything else, Squall emerged from the bathroom. He wore the pajama bottoms and was vigorously towelling his hair. Quistis caught herself looking at his bare torso and glanced away, hoping Evans hadn't noticed.
          But the aide was standing at attention, looking in Squall's direction.
          Squall waved a hand at him and tossed the towel back into the bathroom. "Key?"
          "Yes, sir." Evans handed him a plastic card and removed a large envelope from the cart. "Your room is two doors down, sir. And here are the reports you asked for."
          "Thank you, Evans," Squall said, and opened the envelope.
          "Sir, General Hoskins wants to know how soon you want him in Deling City."
          "Tell him he can go tomorrow. The situation will hold until then- Caraway's men know what to do. He can get settled in- I won't have any orders for him for a couple of days, at least. You can go now."
          "Yes, sir." Evans saluted and was gone.
          Squall scanned the papers he held in his hands for a few moments, and shook his head. He tossed them onto the bureau and padded barefoot to the cart. He lifted a silver lid off a silver plate and inclined his head toward her.
          She nodded, realizing just then that she hadn't eaten since the day before. He handed her the plate and a bundle of silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin, then took his own plate and retreated to the desk.
          Galbadia Garden's cook was talented, Quistis decided after just a few bites of mutton. The only times she'd had food this good were when Garden had hosted catered events. Or perhaps hunger made the food taste better.
          They ate in silence. After cleaning her plate, she went to pour water from a silver carafe and discovered that it was not water but wine. Don't drink much of this, she told herself. You don't know what you might tell him if you do.
          She held the glass cupped in her hands and watched him eat. His back was to her and she looked her fill, knowing that he wouldn't know. Probably even if he had known he wouldn't care, she decided. He certainly hadn't bothered to put on the shirt he had picked out.
          I don't understand the change, she thought, looking at the long muscles of his back. Before he wouldn't even talk to me. Now he's eating at my desk, half naked.
          There was a quiet click as he put his fork down, and then he stood and put his plate back on the cart. He poured some wine and disappeared into the bathroom.
          "So what's the situation in Deling City?" she called over her shoulder.
          "General Caraway was murdered two hours ago," he said as he emerged from the bathroom, tugging the green shirt over his head. "It's causing problems and solving others, I suppose. I'm sending Hoskins in to replace him. But he's not well-liked, and he's not as competent as Caraway was. I'd send you but I need you for something else."
          "You know Caraway was a traitor, right? He orchestrated the whole assassination attempt against Edea."
          "Yeah, I know. That's the problem it solved." He stood on the other side of her bed and took a sip of wine. "Do you mind? I've been on my feet for three days."
          "Go right ahead," she said, marvelling as he set his wine glass on the nightstand, stretched out on the other side of the bed, laced his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes.
          "He was under control as far as I was concerned. I had his daughter in D-District. But the SeeDs who were with you escaped along with her."
          "They escaped?"
          Squall grimaced. "Yeah. And they took out the Missile Base. There's nothing there now except a crater. The launch against Trabia Garden was a success, and the people who survived the explosion at the base confirmed that there was a second launch. I won't know until tomorrow whether B-Garden was destroyed or not."
          Quistis probed her feelings, wondering how she felt about her childhood home being demolished, and found she felt nothing much. She had done her best, and Squall had been right. No one there had ever cared for her. They had brought her up to be a killer, and when they found that she was not as good at teaching other children to be killers, they had scorned her. If anything, she felt that justice had been served.
          "What's my assignment?" she asked.
          "First I have to ask you a question," he said. "And then I have to give you some answers," he stopped. "That will probably just raise more questions." He opened his eyes to look at her, and a ghost of a smile played around his mouth.
          She stared at him. I've never seen him smile.
          "You were a SeeD, and I never was. So I don't know. What is the purpose of SeeD?"
          "SeeDs are special military forces," she said, confused. "Elite troops. When a SeeD turns nineteen, Garden helps them find work suitable to their skills. I'm not really sure what you're asking," she confessed.
          "Neither am I. Edea says SeeD has special meaning, and she told me to ask you."
          "I wish I knew something."
          "When I severed my contract with Garden, Cid said something about the destiny of Garden," he said. "I didn't ask him about it. Too angry."
          She shrugged. "So there is something. But we don't know what, and they aren't telling the SeeDs either. What did you do with Martine? Maybe he knows something."
          Squall shook his head. "He's in D-District. One of those reports was his interrogation record. He knows nothing."
          "I've heard bad things about D-District," she said. "Even if he did confess something I wouldn't count it as reliable."
          He looked at her, frowning.
          "Martine wasn't tortured. The Warden responsible for that is dead- some of that blood on my shirt is his." He grimaced. "He had Torture Room painted on the floor in front of a chamber that was used for just that."
          "Are you cleaning up the military?"
          "I'm trying. It will be slow work, though. I have to root out who's trustworthy and who isn't. And after that decide who's competent enough to do the things we have to do to make Edea's vision reality."
          "Her vision?"
          "Peace."
          She nodded. With this man in charge, there's no way we can fail.
          "Sorry I couldn't help," she said.
          "Don't worry. I didn't expect you to be able to. At least now I understand the question." He looked at her. "So. What do you remember about your childhood?"
          She frowned, confused at the sudden change in topic. "Not a lot," she said. "Guardian Forces have wiped most of those memories away. The little I remember makes me glad."
          "I was orphaned by the Sorceress War, and was adopted by the Trepes. There were- problems. I wasn't happy, and they weren't happy with me either. So to Garden I went. And then I moved up, and yesterday I moved out."
          "There is," and here he exhaled deeply, "a lot more. And you need to know it if you're going to accomplish the task I'm going to assign you."
          He took a breath and began telling her the story of her childhood.

 

          When Squall stopped speaking, she couldn't think of anything to say for a moment.
          "All of them?" she finally asked. "You're sure?"
          "Yes. I'm sure. I remember."
          "What does it mean?" Her flesh broke out in goosebumps as she suddenly got the feeling that something huge was setting them up like pieces on a chessboard.
          "I don't know, but I think the sorceress does. She wants you to search for Ellone. And," he said, "so do I."
          She looked at him, and still felt the power of that massive coincidence, and a memory came back, that of a boy standing in the rain, and she felt her eyes fill with tears as she understood more clearly why she felt the way about Squall that she did.
          "Yes," she said. "I will." She wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her robe and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Do you have any idea where I should start looking?"
          But Squall didn't answer her. "Are you aware that you're bleeding?"
          "Bleeding?" She stared at him, confused.
          He sat up, reached across the bed, and touched a spot right underneath her ear, the place where her jaw met her neck. Then he turned the finger that had touched her so she could see. There was blood, sticky and dark.
          "What happened?"
          She remembered her encounter with Diablos. "Oh. See that lamp?" She pointed to the nightstand. "I rubbed it and a demon came out."
          The expression on his face made her laugh. "I'm kidding. There was a Guardian Force inside. It got me over the head with a wing."
          "Did you defeat it?"
          "Yeah. And this is strange- it spoke to me after. It told me its name, and said it was mine."
          "I've never head of one doing that."
          "Me either. But I'm not about to argue with it."
          "I wouldn't if I were you," he said. "Let me see that." He leaned forward and lifted her hair up. Now that she was paying attention, she realized that it did hurt a bit. She tried not to cringe.
          "Why didn't you say something?"
          "I was distracted." By you.
          He brought his other hand around and steadied her jaw. "Try to relax. I'm going to heal it."
          His murmur was quiet, and she saw the green sparks fall just as the chill raced down the left side of her body. She forced herself to relax, trying not to jump as her entire body tingled.
          "One more," he said, and there were more sparks. This one left her trembling, and the fingers touching her were all she could think of. Hand to hand healing was a lot stronger than that given halfway across a battlefield. And more personal. She swallowed, closed her eyes, and tried to ignore the side effects.
          He removed his hands from her and she was suddenly so self-conscious that she couldn't bring herself to open her eyes. If something were to happen, it would happen now. All those para-soldier romance novels say so. So what do I do if nothing happens?
          And suddenly she tasted fear. Fear and desire and a bleak hopelessness. She knew what she would do. She would follow him around the world forever, a faithful dog, ignored and unloved, and be grateful that she could even be near him.
          She lifted her chin, marveling at her own cowardice and bravery, and opened her eyes.
          "I bet you're tired," she smiled at him. "We can talk about where to look for Ellone tomorrow." She hoped that her voice was smooth enough to mask the misery she felt. I don't know why it matters if he sees, she thought. He's not stupid enough to not realize why I left.
          "Yes, I'm tired," he said, and the vague quality his voice caused her to take a second look at him.
          His expression was completely unlike any she had seen him wear before. She was used to looks of irritation, contempt, and boredom, but she had never seen this intent look before, and did not know how to classify it.
          "I never realized," he said in that same vague voice, looking at her with that same odd expression and she felt her heartbeat begin to race.
          He reached over and picked up her hand. She stared at him in surprise, and then she understood. Is this what desire looks like on you, Squall? She shivered at the thought, and then he leaned in and kissed her.
          She closed her eyes and felt a tear slip down her cheek as the realization that she was getting her heart's fondest, most desperate wish hit home. So many times she had thought of this moment, how it would feel to be so close to him, to taste his breath.
          He pulled away from her and gave her a look so speculative that she felt a thrill run through her entire body. Then he lay back, still holding her hand, and drew her down with him. She pillowed her head on his shoulder and let her arm rest across his chest. He curled his arm around her and they stayed like this, in silence, until he murmured a word and the light bulb in the lamp on the nightstand flared blue and exploded.
          Quistis listened to the sound of glass shards striking the wood of the nightstand, and the sound of Squall's breath coming slower and deeper, and thought she would never fall asleep.
          But eventually she did. And somewhere in time, a sorceress looked up from her empty lap and smiled.