AN: Hello readers! I wanted to apologize for another long delay, and on such a cliff hanger. I never meant to leave this chapter sitting for so long. When I updated last I was still serving in Africa for the Peace Corps. Sadly, just after that last update I became extremely sick and had to be medically evacuated back to the states. I'm mostly recovered now, and am traveling for the summer. Then it's on to trying to find a viable job and living accommodations. It's been a weird year, and it'll probably be a weird rest of the year too. But never fear that I've abandoned this story. This story is my pride and joy.

Please enjoy this next chapter, and if you feel so inclined, let me know what you think of the development so far. :)

Chapter 10

-"What could she have possibly done to you?"-

Irvine stared around at the empty apartment, infuriation almost blinding him, as he waited for Zell to pick up the phone line.

How in Hyne's name had the two known they were coming?

The whole operation, from the time that they'd arrived in Deling to the time Alina Kristatis's sister had called saying she could lead them to the man and child if they let her sister go, had been just a little over an hour. There was no way that word of their approach could have reached the two in time. And yet, despite the impossibility of it, the home was empty.

"Well?" Zell suddenly said in his ear.

"They're not here," he spit out. "Someone or something tipped them off. Have you closed the city exits off?"

"All of the big ones, but we don't have the manpower to cover the smaller back ways. XU's in the process of mobilizing more squads and sending them out on ships."

Deling was a big city, but someone who knew its terrain could get out in a short amount of time. Even if XU's teams got here as soon as feasibly possible, it might be too late. "Get her to close the borders to the adjacent cities and towns as well," he suggested as he walked from the kitchen to the open living space. Zell sounded an agreement and disconnected.

Irvine shoved the phone into his pocket then crouched down by the couch – the same couch from Timber, he noted - and picked up the children's book that had been left there. A few pages were bent from its angle on the floor, as if it had been dropped in a hurry and forgotten. He smoothed them out and closed the book so that he could see the title. Conversations with Angels.

He blinked and held it out a little farther, reading the title again. Angels? What was a sorceress doing reading about angels? He frowned and opened the front of the book. Like he'd hoped there was the usual 'This book belongs to' quote in the front. And scribbled in the space provided was the name Hailey.

Hailey.

The name shocked him for a moment and he didn't understand the reaction, but it came to him a moment later. He'd been expecting the name Ultimecia. A harsh laugh escaped him briefly as he dropped the book on the couch. Had he really expected that anyone would name their child with that poisonous name after what had happened? No. But he hadn't ever given thought to the fact that the face of Ultimecia would have origins in another name.

He didn't like knowing the name of the child.

He turned away from it and moved into the bedroom. If it hadn't been obvious by the food that had been half cooked on the stovetop, it was even clearer in the bedroom that the occupants had left in a rush. Drawers were still pulled open with articles strewn half in and out and the closet doors were thrown wide open.

It was like the condo in Timber – ordinary. Too ordinary. That wasn't what gave him chills however. It was the child accoutrements scattered throughout the place. There was a small toddler bed in the corner of the bedroom with chocobo sheets on it and tiny girl clothes fallen near the dresser. No pictures on the wall, but there was a colored child's drawing of a girl and a dad on the fridge. There were little brightly colored hairbands in the bathroom and small child glassware in the kitchen counters.

This apartment housed a child.

And, like knowing the name of the sorceress, realizing just how small she was made him want to shy away.

He'd been so focused on the idea of Ultimecia, the black winged woman, that he hadn't really considered what it meant, this mission of theirs. He'd known she was a child. Each witness had been specific about how small she was. It hadn't bothered him before, not when he knew that the child could grow up into the woman.

But, now that he was looking at the child's dolls and picture books? It all seemed so… innocent. There were no signs of magic, no signs of malice anywhere in the apartment. Instead there were toys and drawings and playthings.

Did the child even know what she was capable of?

Sensing movement to his right, he turned from his contemplation of the bedroom. The woman, Denna Kristatis, stopped her approach and crossed her arms, frowning at him. "You said you'd take me to my sister if I showed you the place."

He nodded, although he had no intention of leaving just yet. He needed to get a read on this woman first. Someone had tipped the man off about their presence in Deling and it hadn't been the friend Alina. He was beginning to wonder if Alina's sister knew more about the man and child then she was letting on. "We'll go in a minute. I want to ask some questions first." He gestured to the couches. She glowered fiercely at him, but after a moment of resistance, she turned and found a stiff seat on one of the couches. Irvine sat down opposite her.

"My partner commented that you said you knew nothing of the man and child living here when he spoke to you a few days ago. So how did you know where they resided?"

"I tracked him down through my sister, after your partner's visit," she replied.

He waited, but that seemed to be all she was going to say. "Why?" he asked, trying not to sigh at her lack of willingness to help.

"I wanted to see who Alina was going to such lengths for."

Irvine touched the couch he was sitting on. "You're referring to her bringing him the furniture he left in Timber."

Denna nodded. Not very discreet of the man, he thought. How involved was this Alina? She couldn't know much of anything about the situation if she'd been reckless enough to think that taking the stuff wouldn't leave a trail from Timber straight to Deling. And where did that place this man on the scale of foolishness, for having allowed such a person close enough to do something like that, but not close enough to realize what it would mean?

"And what was your impression of him?" he finally queried.

Denna eyed him. "Tired. Guarded. Cynical. A little callous." She put an arm on the couch arm. "I can't say I blame him if he's being hunted by the likes of you."

"Me?" he repeated, trying to decide if that comment had been meant for him personally or for SeeD in general.

"Is it true that he was supposed to kill his daughter when she was born?"

He pondered that. Then man had known, from the very beginning what he should have done. And yet he hadn't done it. Why? Did he think he could control and direct the child's power for his own benefit? Irvine had thought that before, but now, after seeing the apartment and the homely feel it had, he had to wonder. It was clear that the child didn't want for anything and the half cooked meal on the stove showed dedicated effort towards healthy nutrition. From what he could see here, it seemed like the man truly cared about the child.

What if the man wasn't pretending to be the child's father? What if he really was her father?

Could it be true that he'd somehow stumbled upon Rinoa as she lay dying, with his infant daughter? Could the transfer have been an accident, latching onto the child the moment she got near enough? Had the man and child just been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Maybe he was simply acting out of love?

It didn't excuse his actions. Irvine firmed his mind on that. Love didn't matter, couldn't matter, not when they were dealing with Ultimecia.

"You're not even going to try and explain yourself, are you?" Denna accused and he refocused back on her. "You want to kill that child for something she hasn't even done yet, and you won't even attempt to justify yourself?"

He frowned. Instinctively, he wanted to defend himself against the revulsion he heard in the woman's voice. They weren't going to kill the child; they were going to seal her. Except he knew, when he allowed himself to think about it, that the sealing would be just another type of death. There was no use denying it. So he didn't say anything.

SeeD had been the ones to see the future and the devastation there. SeeD were the ones who knew what they were walking into, and who would lead them into it. And to prevent it, to save the world, SeeD was going to have to be the villain. He was going to have to be the villain to people like the woman sitting across from him, because they couldn't understand what they were being saved from.

This was his job; his duty. This was what SeeD had been created for. There wasn't going to be any gratitude or admiration when he was done. But if he could prevent Ultimecia, he could live with that.

Denna stood up abruptly. "I'll be outside. Waiting for you to fulfil your end of the bargain." And with that she left, shoving past the two SeeD guarding the door and stalking out of sight. Irvine didn't let her judgement bother him. She couldn't understand.

No sooner had Denna left then another woman appeared, looking at the two SeeD with a kind of startled concern. She stopped and twisted to face the open doorway, straining to see into the apartment, blocked though she was. "What's happened?" she asked. "What's going on?"

Irvine sighed and got up, striding towards the door. "This is an investigation, ma'am. I'll have to ask you to move along."

She startled and met his eyes with her own wide ones. "An investigation? Are Shane and Chayla alright?"

Chayla. Or Hailey?A second name? The name Shane, at least, matched that of the name they'd found on the apartment lease in Timber. He reached the door and touched the shoulder of the SeeDs, motioning them to stand aside. "You're friends of theirs?" he asked.

"Neighbors," the woman corrected, shifting a bag of groceries onto her other hip, and then added "My girls. They play with Chayla on the playground every week." And she shifted a little, glancing down to her right. It was only then that Irvine realized there were two pairs of large eyes staring at him from behind the woman's skirt.

Irvine darted his eyes from the two partially hidden girls to the woman and back again, processing the words furiously. Playground. Played. The sorceress was playing with other girls – these girls? Was she as small as these ones were? They'd barely come up to his thighs, if that.

"Your neighbors have gone missing," he explained, tearing his eyes away from the small girls and meeting the mother's eyes. "Do you have any ideas on where they might have gone?"

"Gone?" one of the girls whined suddenly from behind the woman and she turned sharply to frown down at her. "Hush, Hailey. Don't make a scene here."

Irvine glanced down at the little of the girl he could see and then over his shoulder at the book he'd deposited on the couch. He hurried over to it and brought it back. He handed it to the woman without explanation and waited to see what would happen. She glanced at it, puzzled, but then she seemed to recognize it. "How in the world did this get over here?"

"I gave it to Chayla," one of the girls said from behind her mom, leaning out into full visibility for a brief moment. Chayla. That was the Sorceress's name then; for the time being.

"When was this?" the mother demanded.

"Last week. She said her daddy talks to someone called Rin" Irvine felt his heart seize "but that Rin is invisible. I told her it must be an angel, cuz angels are invisible. So I borrowed the book to her."

Irvine didn't hear whatever the mother said in reply. Rin. There was no mistaking that nickname. Could it be? Could this little girl be talking about Rinoa? He found himself slightly short of breath. An invisible Rinoa? What did that mean? A ghost? A hallucination?

Did it matter? Whoever this man was, this person taking care of the sorceress, he had a connection to Rinoa. Somehow he knew Rinoa. How? How was that possible? Had she been in contact with him before her death? Had she spoken to him when he found her dying in that stream? A connection must have been made for him to be seeing her now, but how?

"-showed up last month, and he was very closed off. That poor boy. Looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders."

He pulled a card out from his jacket and shoved it at her, motioning to the number under the SeeD emblem. "If you hear anything about their whereabouts, please call this number. We're very worried about their safety."

She agreed, gave him a puzzled look and then started ushering her children away across the hall as the two little girls waltzed around their mother in agitated circles, wanting to know if Chayla was alright and where she was and when they could play again.

Irvine didn't even glance back into the apartment. He stepped out and shut the door, motioning the SeeD to follow him off the property. "Get in," he told Denna when he made for the rental car she was leaning against. "We're going to Balamb."

He'd take her to her sister, like he'd promised. And then he was going to do some digging.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Squall stopped the car as soon as he saw the line of cars halted in the road.

Just like the last three cities he'd tried to get near.

Each metropolitan was stopping any travel in or out and questioning those trying to cross the border. He didn't need to see them to know it was SeeD at each city's borders. And he doubted that any other city he tried to reach wouldn't be closed off as well. They were trying to flush him out, trying to block off all his escape routes.

They were succeeding.

He looked into the review mirror at his daughter, sleeping fitfully and clutching her chocobo doll close, still in the same clothes that she'd been in when they'd fled Deling a day and a half ago. Then he glanced back down at the line of cars in front of him, brows tightening, and turned the wheel, navigating the car to the side and around and gassing it when they were facing the direction they'd come in.

He drove blindly for a while, not really seeing the road, until he caught sight of the dirt road going east towards the mountains. He turned down it then continued for another two miles before he found a thatch of trees to park the car behind. Once there, he turned the engine off and sat back listening to the clicking of the car as it began to cool.

He couldn't take much more of this. The anxiety was tightening around him every hour that went by without a resolution, trying to suffocate him. He was starting to think of crazy ideas: living off the land and building a cabin with his bare two hands; taking his weapons and cutting a swath through the SeeD in his way; begging someone, anyone, to hide them…

Eventually the clicking stopped and he rubbed his face with both hands before opening the car door and stepping out. His whole body ached from being behind the wheel for so long but he ignored it and walked back to open the car door behind his seat.

They'd avoided eating out for fear of being spotted and instead had resorted to eating all meals on the road. Furtive runs into stations to use the restrooms and grab some food was all that Squall had allowed. Accordingly, by this point the car was quite a mess. There were food wrappers and garbage and toys scattered everywhere. It made him wince every time he focused his attention away from the road. It was rubbing his nerves the wrong way. Their whole lives were in chaos at the moment; he couldn't deal with his surroundings being messy as well.

He opened the back door and grabbed an empty plastic bag from the car floor that he could pile the food wrappers and garbage into and did what he could to clean the car up a little, assessing the amount of food left while he was at it. There was enough for a few more days only.

He hadn't realized that food might become inaccessible.

He should have taken a few more precious moments before rushing out of Deling to empty his cabinets. Now, with the towns blocked his only options were the stations that were scattered along the main roads. And the last one he'd tried to stop at had had a SeeD loitering around its perimeter. He'd had to convince some passing civilians to bring back portable gas for the car on their way back through.

The petroleum problem wouldn't kill them. He'd walk and carry Chayla if he had to. But without food they wouldn't get far. He knew this land; it wasn't hospitable enough to support them on its own. Even if he could find enough food off the land, it would be nowhere near enough nourishment for a growing girl.

No, he needed the food offered by civilization. SeeD knew that. They'd starve him out into the open if he didn't figure out what to do and soon. His fist clenched on the bag he was holding as his anxiety surged higher.

He closed his eyes and walked himself through a few breaths, trying to bring the emotions down under control. Then, very slowly and carefully, he tied up the bag of garbage and disposed of it in the bush surrounding them. He'd been dealing with anxiety for years now and knew the best way to deal with the effects was to focus on what he could fix and not what he couldn't. Right now he could fix the cleanliness of his car. So that was what he was going to do.

Once the garbage was taken care of, he dragged Chayla's bag to the open seat and started putting her toys back into it: a couple of books, a set of wooden blocks, a few cloth dolls and her plastic play phone. While he was at it he pulled out a new outfit for her to wear, one that would be more comfortable and durable. Then he set her bag next to her car seat and stepped up into the car so he could sit and lean his forehead on the leather seat in front of him.

He didn't bother going through his own bag. It didn't matter what he'd grabbed or what he hadn't grabbed. They had Alina. Alina could describe him down to every last visible scar. If she didn't, Denna would do it to get Alina out. He reached up and fingered the scar between his eyes. It was only a matter of time before they figured out what was going on; figured out that it was him.

The thought terrified him. SeeD would vilify him for defecting and hindering their movements, but it wouldn't change their motive or desire. But if - when - Irvine, Quistis, Zell and Selphie found out? It would become personal, and he knew firsthand that when things became personal, the game changed completely. They'd stop at nothing to find him.

But if they found him, they'd find Chayla. And he knew he couldn't let that happen, whatever the cost.

This was going to be a whole different kind of chase, he knew. And he had no one to blame but himself. He should have known that letting Alina in would lead SeeD right to him. A friend was a liability; a connection to a world that could trace and follow people. He had known, and had tried to keep his distance, but Chayla had opened her arms wide to the woman and he hadn't had the heart to take that away from her. And then Alina had sucked him in too. He didn't even know when things had shifted into friendship, but they had. He'd allowed her in and now he was paying for it. No, Chayla was paying for it. He'd done this to his daughter.

He'd made many mistakes with Chayla, he knew. But if they made it out of this, that was a mistake he'd never make again.

He turned his head and watched Chayla sleep.

He should have moved them the moment he realized that Alina had left a trail to Deling by bringing that furniture. It had been dangerous not to. It had been even more dangerous to not act when Denna had told him Zell was in town looking to speak to Alina. But he'd hesitated.

Alina was good for Chayla. He knew it in his gut. She had been able to give Chayla things that he never could. She knew things that he didn't know and had experienced things he'd never experienced, like board games and zoos and casseroles. She was the only female in Chayla's life and it felt important that she have that for as long as was possible.

So he'd hesitated, allowed himself to get distracted by all the past pain that Harren and Rinoa had dredged up. The hesitation and the distraction had cost them. They could have slipped out of Deling with no one the wiser and already be relocated. Now, instead, they were homeless with nowhere to go.

He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. They needed food. They needed a roof over their heads.

If SeeD was doing their job right, there would be no city, town or village overlooked. Squall pulled his hands away from his face and monitored the risings and falling of Chayla's small torso. There was only one city he had any chance of getting into. A city big enough that he might be able to escape into it.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked down at it. It would mean asking for help. It would mean relying on someone else, and giving himself another liability. That had been what had put them in this situation in the first place. His mind screamed danger at him. But he had to face the reality of the situation and the reality was that he needed help.

He glanced over at Chayla one more time and then opened the device. There were no phone numbers programmed into it for safety reasons but he knew the number. He typed it in then hit the dial button before he could second guess himself. It rang for long time, and then cut off, telling him that the person was unavailable. He'd expected that. He ended the call and then sat with the phone in his lap, waiting.

He didn't like it. There was no guarantee that he wouldn't just pull the man down with him when it all crashed down on their heads. But if he could help get them into Esthar, Squall could figure out the rest. If they got into the city, they at least stood a chance of disappearing for a time. Out here, there was no chance at all.

Squall

Squall flinched and fumbled the phone. He'd almost forgotten about the guardian force still junctioned to him. He'd been aware of its presence in the forefront of his mind the whole first day on the road but then he'd begun to tune the sensation out. Now he felt it again, the pressure behind his eyes, like a headache without the pain.

What is it?

There is someone here.

Squall shivered at the déjà vu feeling the words gave him. It was the same words, the same tone, that Harren had used in Centra, before Squall had opened his eyes to the sight of Kiros. He slid a foot out of the car and put his weight on it as he stood and scanned the clearing, heart rate speeding up at the thought that someone might have gotten near without his knowledge.

Someone like me, Harren corrected. He must have followed you.

That made Squall halt his frantic scanning of the area. A Guardian Force?

He is young. Not long born.

He followed us from Centra?

That is where I first noticed him.

Squall had half a mind to tell Harren to leave it be. He had enough to think about as it was. But the other half of his mind was already processing the information and analyzing it, his instincts rising in response to potential danger. Why would a guardian force be following him? And what other guardian force could be free and roaming and here? Gilgamesh? One of those qausi-guardian forces? And why? Harren had only attached himself because his Sorcerer had interacted with Squall. What other sorceress had he interacted with?

After Adel there had only been Edea, Ultimecia and Rinoa. Edea had never killed Cid, thus she'd never created a guardian force. Ultimecia's knight would have been from the future, and thus not created yet. And Rinoa… He skewed away from that direction of thought.

Wait. He couldn't forget Larissa. Was this Larissa's guardian force? Or her successor's? That would mean it was still under its Sorceress's will. Was the other Sorceress watching them? And the other sorceress; the third one? Did she or he have a guardian force?

I sense no ill will coming from him. Harren observed.

If he is working with Larissa or-

I will talk to him. Harren decided, interrupting him. Unless he is too young to know the skill. I will rejunction myself afterwards. Try not to resist my entrance this time. I think your resistance last time is what hurt you.

A moment later Squall's knees gave way as pressure built up under his skin and then burst out. He staggered back against the car, grabbing at it to stay upright and swore as his skin crawled from the sensation.

There was no time to fully notice the sudden emptiness in his mind or the implications that Harren was leaving and wanted to come back, because energy was gathering in front of him, pulling violently on the air until he could see a ball of energy hovering in the air. And in response, another space of air thirty yards away began to condense into something visible. Squall pushed himself against the car as the energy in front of him spread, forming a shape and hardening instantly into substantial form. Just like that, Odin was between him and the other force, astride his monstrous six legged stallion which stomped at the dirt and snorted.

The other guardian force was in the process of forming its corporal body as well: A black body, exoskeletal bone-like armor, red eyes, a face split in half to reveal another face, long whipping tail that forked at the end. It was nothing Squall had ever seen before. It stared at Odin with its blood red eyes once it finished forming, then flickered them past the guardian force to Squall. No, not towards him, towards the car; towards Chayla inside the car.

Before Squall could even move into a protective stance, Odin shifted more fully in front of him, blocking his sight of the other as surely as it was blocking the other's sight of him and Chayla. That only lasted a moment though. Odin leaped forward suddenly, and Squall could see the clearing again. The other guardian force had bent double and was charging on all fours like some giant cat. Odin met it in the center of the clearing, and used his giant sword to block a swipe to his stallion's belly. In response, the other one surged onto its two feet and began a series of attacks and blocks, transitioning from something beast-like to something human-like in an instant.

Feeling a slight vibration against his back he turned to see Chayla, awake and pressed against the glass of the car window, mouthing words at him. He shoved a hand against the door as it began to open, shutting it against her. "Stay in there," he shouted, putting up his other hand in a non-verbal command to stop as well. He kept his hand on the door and twisted halfway back to keep an eye on the struggle between the two foreign forces, worried about crossfire. It was over though. Odin was off his stallion and had one knee in the other's stomach and his sword at its throat. Even as Squall was finishing twisting towards them, Odin's hand shot forward and closed on the throat and both forms disappeared.

Then Odin was junctioning himself, shoving inside Squall's head and bringing the other one with him. Squall groaned against the sudden scream of pain that wanted to screech out, collapsing onto his knees. Seconds later the car door opened and smacked into the back of his head, sending him forward onto his hands.

"Chayla," he ground out between clenched teeth as she jumped from the car, landing on his calves painfully before rushing around him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He tried to steady himself as he wrapped once hand around her back.

Har-ren? The pressure in his head wasn't lessening. He could feel it shifting, right behind his eyes then away and then back again, sweeping through him in a hot painful rush

He is too young. He doesn't know how to speak yet.

hurts! He gasped out.

He's never junctioned himself to anyone. He doesn't know how or where to contain himself inside you.

Then shove him back out!

His sorceress must have died soon after making him. He doesn't know anything. He doesn't even know what he is. Squall, he needs help.

Squall could only groan as the pain surged higher.

Contain him Squall. Contain him in your mind. Bring your presence inwards to your subconscious, like before. It will draw his essence to you; contract him into one place.

Chayla.

She'll be fine. Just a second of your presence in here should be long enough.

Squall didn't even know how to do it. But the pain showed no indication of stopping or even lessoning. He tightened his arm around Chayla and pictured himself inside the room inside himself.

And just like that, the pain drained away. Unfortunately the feeling of Chayla disappeared as well. He opened his eyes on the blackness that was already forming the shape of his latest apartment. He'd make sure this place was housing the new guest and then he'd be out. This was Harren's mess. He didn't have time to deal with it. Except then his thoughts ground to a stop. There was a new presence there: a man, crumpled on the ground before him. He knew the man.

"Seifer?" he gasped out.

The blonde man was curled up in the fetal position, eyes staring blankly before him, not seeming to see anything in front of him. He looked comatose, except that when Harren knelt down next to him and put a hand on a shoulder, the shoulder hunched inward in response.

"He has no clue what's happened to him." Harren observed sympathetically. "Do you recognize him, then?"

Squall took a step forward then stopped, his brain sluggishly trying to put the pieces together. The new guardian force with the bone armor and red eyes; Odin dragging it into Squall's mind; Seifer's presence here; Seifer…

He felt his knees buckle and - he rolled onto the float and surged to his feet, Gunblade out and up, ready. And found himself meeting the eyes of Seifer Almasy.

His childhood friend smirked. "Well, this is how it turned out, huh?"

The Sorceress was behind Seifer, languishing on her throne, seemeing unconcerned. He focused on the blonde renegade again. It was clear that he'd have to go through Seifer to get to her. He squared his shoulders and straightened. "So you've become the Sorceress' lap dog?"

The smirk vanished to be replaced with a scowl. "I prefer to be called her knight."

"Hyne's blood," Squall breathed out.

"Edea's knight?" Harren asked

No. "… Ultimecia's."

He couldn't… he couldn't deal with this right now. He couldn't think about the implications. He just couldn't. He wrenched away from it, from Harren and from the room and found himself staring at dirt, curled around Chayla.

He let out a choked breath and sat up, hugging Chayla to him tightly, distantly hearing her speak but not comprehending any of it. The thoughts piled in unwanted, shoving him back and forth between each of them. He didn't want the extra thoughts, the extra problem, but his mind didn't stop processing it. His mind was so tuned to analyzing any threat that he couldn't leave it behind, even when he tried.

Seifer hadn't been seen since the war. Squall had always assumed he'd gone into hiding to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. He'd never taken Seifer's claim that he was a knight seriously, especially after he became a knight himself and saw what it took to create that bond. But Harren had said that devotion and blood was enough. And if Seifer was here, now… then his posturing hadn't been an act. He'd been knight to Ultimecia. Did Ultimecia not have a knight in the future? Could she bond with another because she was in the past? Or was it possible to have more than one knight? Had Seifer succumbed to the fate that Squall himself had escaped?

The answer to that was sitting there in his head. No matter how much he wanted to explain it all away with excuses and psychosis, he couldn't refute the presence of Harren in his mind. The man knew too much, was aware of too much to not be real. And if Harren was real, then Seifer's presence was real. And if Sefier's presence was real?

Then Seifer Almasy was now a guardian force. Ultimecia must have killed him before she died.

Alright. He could accept that, maybe. It made sense in this world that didn't make sense. But why had Seifer been following them? Ultimecia was dead. What would-

He looked down at Chayla, who was fiddling with the buttons on his shirt, then jerked his eyes away. No. No, he wasn't going to go down that road. Seifer had been his childhood friend. Perhaps he had just sensed someone familiar and followed that. Yes, that made sense.

There was a migraine creeping in. He could feel it at the edges of his consciousness, pounding in like nail beneath a hammer. He dug his phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. No call back yet.

He gripped it and willed Laguna to call back soon.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Alina jerked upright when the cell door creaked open. She twisted around on the thin bed and looked towards the opening, dread surging through her. It was the blonde man with the tattoo on his face. "You're sister is here," he said and opened the door wider.

She swallowed and stood up, self-consciously straightening her shirt. The man made no move to restrain her as she approached him, but then, other than that first time when they'd dragged her from her home no one had handled her roughly. They'd been too busy combing Deling for Shane.

She wanted to ask if they'd caught him. But she didn't. If the answer was a yes, it might cripple her. This was her fault. If they caught Shane, it was on her.

She waited as the man closed the cell back up and then followed when he led her down the hallway past more empty cells, keeping quiet, until they came to a room. When the man opened the door and she saw Denna sitting at one of the chairs, she burst into tears and rushed in. Her sister met her halfway and swept her into her arms.

They let her cry into Denna's neck until she could get herself under control again. When she finally pulled away and swiped a hand under her eyes, Denna put her hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. "It's going to be okay, Lena. Alright? It's going to be okay."

Alina nodded and glanced to the side, at the central table. The blonde man was sitting down behind it, setting a pad of paper down in front of him with a pencil. There was a mirror behind him, one she was sure was actually a window for other people to look in. Fluorescent lighting gave the room a clinical feel.

This was an interrogation room.

Denna motioned for her to sit down in one of the chairs, and Alina did so slowly. She looked at Denna, wondering if… After all, the blonde man had said that her sister had agreed to lead his partner to Shane's residence in return for seeing her. She hadn't realized that Denna knew where it was, but she couldn't say she was all that surprised. Denna had a way of getting what she wanted, when she wanted it. But if Denna had been in Shane's apartment, she might know what had happened there and if Shane had been caught.

Denna seemed to see the question in her eyes, even before she could figure out how to ask it, because she shook her head ever so slightly. Alina sagged in relief.

Turned out the relief was short lived.

"Ms. Kristatis?" the blonde across the table began, his eyes steady on her. "I need to impart to you the seriousness of your cooperation here." He waited until Alina nodded and then continued in a firm tone. "You've been supporting and abetting a felon, something that could give you two to five years in prison."

Alina closed her eyes. Oh god, it was true then? Shane was a criminal?

"We understand that this may have been done under misassumption; that you may not have been aware of the nature of what you were doing. We are prepared to clear you of all charges." Alina snapped her eyes open and stared at the man. "If," he continued "you answer everything asked truthfully."

She blew out a breath and clenched her hand into her palm under the table. That was it then. She would have spill it all, cheat on the friendship she'd worked so hard to get, betray Shane and Chayla. So that she could stay safe while they ran for their lives.

"What kind of criminal is he?" she asked faintly, not looking at either of the other two people in the room.

"National," the man answered. "He has endangered the whole world with his actions."

Alina squeezed her eyes shut. Hyne's mercy, what had she gotten herself into.

She thought back to his secrecy, his defensiveness, the impenetrable wall he'd put between himself and the world. Hadn't she just been wondering if she should get out, before SeeD had shown up? She'd begun to realize it then, that she might not like what she found if she dug deeper. It had started to be clear that, underneath the surface, something had not been right.

Why!? Things had been fine in Timber. Things had been normal. It hadn't been until Shane moved to Deling so suddenly that things had begun to change. Suddenly there was a mystery to be solved. Suddenly things had seemed desperate. Suddenly Shane was letting slip expressions she had never seen on him before.

And Suddenly it became clear that there was something going on that was beyond her ability to deal with. And yet, she still felt protective of him; of him and Chayla.

Chayla. What would happen to Chayla? Where would she go if Shane was taken in? "His daughter," she said, looking up. "He said that if anything happened to him, his father would take Chayla. Will you make sure she's sent there? Will you make sure that she's taken care of?"

The blonde man winced for some reason but he nodded. "We'll make sure she's taken care of."

She bit her lip and looked away again, meeting Denna's eyes next.

Denna put a hand on her shoulder. "You have to take care of yourself, Alina. You can't help him anymore."

She sucked in a shaky breath. No she couldn't. She could only help herself. That was very clear. Shift her thinking. That's what she needed to do. She couldn't do this if she still felt something for the friendship Shane and she had had. She had to block that, or get rid of it.

Denna was right. She had to worry about herself.

Did she… did she want to go to prison for Shane? No. She felt protectiveness for him, but what was that worth? He'd acted like her friend but in reality he'd never truly been her friend, had he? Friends trusted each other. You couldn't keep such a big secret from someone and truly trust them. Had Shane ever truly trusted her? What had she been to him?

Swallowing a suddenly dry throat, she nodded once. The blonde man pushed a tape recorder to the center of the table and clicked it on. He picked up his pencil and looked at her. "State your name, please."

"Alina Kristatis," she whispered, then said it louder when the blonde motioned that she was being too quiet.

"Please name the man and child who were you're neighbors in Timber."

"Shane and…. and Chayla." Her sister's hand found hers under the table and gripped it reassuringly.

"Please describe the child."

"She… she is…" She closed her eyes, feeling tears leaking out despite herself. Hyne this was going to be harder than she realized. "She's four years old, about three and a half feet tall. She has black hair and grey eyes." She opened her eyes and saw the blonde man motion for her to elaborate more. "She… likes potatoes. She likes to play with her dolls." Lose yourself in it, she told herself. Don't think about it. "Her favorite book is 'The Knight's Plight'. She adores anything chocobo. She likes to braid her father's hair. She makes up songs to sing when she's bored. She can count to twenty and recite her ABCs. She's the only one that can get Shane to laugh."

The blonde cut her off with a raised hand. "That's fine. How long have you known the two of them?"

"Two years."

"Have you ever seen the child act out in aggression?"

Alina blinked, derailed from her single focus of not thinking. "What?"

"Have you ever seen the child lash out at anyone in anger?" the SeeD repeated.

Alina shook her head in bewilderment. "Of course not."

"No temper tantrums?"

"Of course she has temper tantrums; she's a child. But… she'd never hurt anyone."

She couldn't tell if he believed her or not. Why in Hyne's name wouldn't he? What could make him think that about a little girl? About Chayla? And that's when she realized that all his questions had been focused solely on Chayla. He had asked nothing about Shane. He didn't even seem to be interested in Shane.

She shrank back in her chair in horror. "Oh… my god!" she whispered, staring at the man.

"Alina?" Denna asked sharply as the man regarded her with a blank face.

'You're…. you're… not after Shane at all, are you? You're after Chayla?" she whispered. He didn't deny it, just looked faintly uneasy. "You said… you said Shane… that his actions…" she gasped, the words getting stuck in her throat.

"By keeping the girl alive, he has committed treason," the man replied, his face emotionless.

She gaped at him, as her whole world tipped upside down.

They were after Chayla?

No. Chayla had always just been an unwilling victim in her father's past catching up with him. Shane had been the questionable one, the possible criminal in her sister's eyes, the misjudged sufferer in hers. The one with the secrets. To learn that Shane wasn't even the focus of the pursuit he was running from? That he had… had been protecting his daughter this whole time?

And they had tricked her into betraying him.

She stood up in a rush. "You… you monsters!" she screamed, backing away from the table. "You monsters!"

Denna jumped up out of her chair too but didn't seem to know what to do. She glanced from Alina to the man who had risen in response to her screams. "Ms. Kristatis," he started to say, eyes full of something she could identify, but she shook her head furiously and backed even further away. All she could see in her head was the image of Shane's gaunt looking face and haunted eyes, Chayla's sad eyes and neutral expressions. Oh god, Chayla knew. She knew that it was her that was being hunted, didn't she? She knew.

"What could shehave possibly done to you?" She hissed at the man. "She's four years old!"

"She's dangerous," the blonde stated.

"Dangerous?" Alina's voice rose an octave. "Dangerous!" She turned her back on him blindly. She couldn't look at him. She couldn't look into his eyes with the knowledge that he wanted to… wanted to seize a little girl and do…

Oh god, what would they do if they got their hands on Chayla?

This was Bethania and her sister all over again. Would they shoot Chayla down like they had Sarah? Would they kill her? She flinched as the memory of the sounds of bullets and screams engulfed her. Oh Hyne.

She found herself facing a corner. "Ms. Kristatis." She shook her head widely. She didn't want to listen to any excuses, any justification. She covered her ears with her hands and huddled in the corner, refusing to listen, refusing to look away from the wall.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

It had been a while since Selphie had seen Zell; really seen Zell. They'd all been so focused on their mission, on the absolute desperateness of it that she felt like they'd all lost each other in the process. Quistis was off being a scientist somewhere else; Irvine was marking himself out to be the unaffected, ruthless leader, and Zell was shutting himself off the world – pulling away in bewilderment because he couldn't understand why it had hurt him so much.

She could see him doing it, there in that room as the woman baptized him as a monster with her tears. He was pulling away, hurt and confused and wounded.

Zell had never truly been cut out for their line of work, Selphie knew. His soul was too innocent. But his connection to them, to her and Irvine and Squall and Quistis, had drawn him to them, even back when he couldn't remember why. It had drawn him into SeeD where a strong mind and strong coping skills were required.

Quistis coped by relying on her logic. Irvine coped with womanizing and sex. She had her optimism. But Zell… he'd coped by finding a leader he could follow and imitate. That leader had been Squall, and when Squall had died, Zell had lost his footing. And he had yet to find a replacement. She wondered if he ever would. It was so much harder when the leader had been your best friend.

Selphie placed a hand on the locket she wore around her neck as she watched Zell slowly stand up from the table while the woman cried in the corner and her sister stood protectively over her. Zell's shoulder's tightened and then he turned for the door.

She rushed towards him as soon as he stepped into the observation room and closed the door behind himself, and threw her arms around him. "No, Zell. No. You're not a monster," she whispered. When all he did was hug her back gently and sigh, she knew he didn't believe her.

"Give her a few minutes, then go back in," XU said from deeper in the room.

Selphie twisted and threw a dark glance towards the woman. She'd argued against sending Zell in there in the first place. Irvine was much more suited to this kind of thing than Zell was. But Irvine was nowhere to be found and XU had overridden Selphie's objections.

"Commander," Zell acknowledged. "Have any of the border patrols reported in?" he asked, stepping away from Selphie.

"None," XU answered brusquely.

Zell sighed and looked through the observation window at the two women. "What about-" but at that moment the door was pushed open and Irvine strode in. Selphie almost reprimanded him then and there for making his partner deal with the interrogation all on his own, but then she saw the wild look in his eyes.

He looked around the room and caught site of Selphie and Zell near the second door. "Can I speak to you two?" he asked, and she could hear the strained quality in the tone, see the alarm in his eyes as he glanced sideways at XU. XU waved a hand in annoyed dismissal and Irvine beckoned them out into the hallway outside of the room.

Selphie shared a glance with Zell as they followed the man out of the room and down the hall a little ways. "What is it?" she asked when Irvine finally stopped and turned back towards them.

"Zell," he said, instead of answering her. "Where's that drawing. The one you're always looking at."

Zell frowned but pulled a piece of folded paper out of his pocket. Selphie watched, puzzled, as Zell unfolded it carefully, almost reverentially, and handed it over reluctantly. Irvine took it and stared down at the drawing intently.

"Irvine," Selphie said. "What's going on? Why are you acting so spooked?"

He looked up at her, then put a hand to his head. "I… I must be going mad."

'What do you mean?" Zell asked, brows furrowed. He looked from the drawing to Irvine and back again.

"That woman," Irvine interrupted. "Have you spoken with her yet?"

"He has," Selphie replied sharply before Zell could shrug it off. "And you know he shouldn't have had to do that on his own. What were you thinking?"

"She'll be able to describe him," Irvine muttered.

"Irvine!" Selphie shouted, harsher than she intended. She winced and put a hand on his arm in apology. "Irvine," she repeated, softer this time. "You need to tell us what's going on. What's wrong?"

Irvine looked into her eyes and she saw him swallow hard before speaking. "What if Squall isn't dead?" he whispered.

Selphie reared back, recoiling while Zell made a choked sound and whirled away. "No, wait," Irvine pleaded, reaching for the man with his hand but not making contact. "Here me out."

"Have you totally lost it?" Selphie demanded. "Why would you say something like that?"

"There was no body. Zell," he called, casting his eyes passed Selphie towards his blonde partner. "We never found a body."

Zell turned back to look at Irvine over his shoulder. "You know why we didn't," he said roughly.

"What if we were wrong?"

"You saw the memory! You said you saw him being dragged off; that he died before those things could ea…" but Zell couldn't say it. He gagged to a halt.

Irvine pressed both palms to his head and hunched his shoulders a little. "I know," he croaked. "I know. But…"

"But what," Selphie asked when Zell didn't.

"He sees Rinoa. He sees her ghost. Who else could…?" Irvine trailed off, but it sounded like he was saying it to himself more than anything. It certainly didn't make any sense to her or to Zell. Zell turned abruptly and staggered away, likely going off to tend to the wound that Irvine had just ripped the scab off of. Irvine watched him go then turned hopeless eyes on Selphie. "What if it is?" he pleaded.

Selphie shook her head. "Go lie down, Irvine," she said as gently as she could, before heading back towards the integration room. It was beyond clear to her that the pressure of the mission was getting to Irvine and Zell. And she knew where most of that pressure was coming from.

She and XU were going to have a chat.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Laguna hurriedly closed the door to his bedroom suites, already pushing the redial button on his phone. He held it up to his ear and turned his back to the door, facing the room but not entering it.

The line rang for an awfully long time and Laguna was starting to sweat when it clicked on and a breath of air ghosted across it to his ear. "Laguna?" Squall asked uncertainly, and Laguna's heart wrenched at the frightened tone.

"I'm here," he answered in a rush, relieved and heartbroken all at once. "I'm here." Oh, Squall.

He'd known as soon as SeeD showed up at his borders this morning that something had happened. He'd abandoned his work and instead fruitlessly searched the news stations and webpages for any mention of what had occurred; for anything. There had been nothing. There was no clue as to what had happened; only that something had happened.

He'd kept his mobile phone clutched in his hand all day long, wanting to call the one number programmed into it but worrying about the safety of the action. What if the phone had fallen into the custody of other hands? What if the ringing of a call gave away a hidden location at the wrong time? No, it had been too risky. But he hadn't been willing to let go of the death grip he had on the device. So even though he'd had meetings that he couldn't reschedule, the moment the phone received the call, he knew.

He hadn't called the meeting to a close immediately. What if it wasn't Squall on the other end, calling? Even though that was the purpose of the two phones - to be a link between the two of them - Squall had never used it to call Laguna. He'd answered Laguna's calls readily enough and had sent that one picture, but he'd made it plain early on that he wouldn't be using the device to initiate anything from his end.

So, either Squall was desperate enough to go back on his word, which implied disaster, or – even more frightening – Squall no longer had sole possession of the phone, which implied complete catastrophe. Either way, Laguna had felt frozen in his presidential chair as emotions and implications he couldn't name coursed through him.

Did he call back with the possibility that it was a trap? How much would he give away by calling, if the caller was SeeD looking for clues? It didn't seem likely that they had Squall in custody, not if they were manning every border between here and Deling. But to justify that much manpower, they had to have come close. Just how close?

In the end the possibility that it might be Squall on the other line, alone and hurt, had decided him. He'd call and stay silent, see who was on the other line first. And if the call was traced back to him he'd come up with some excuse, something to explain it away.

All those fears washed away the second Squall spoke.

Only to be replaced by new fears. "Squall," he whispered, knowing he shouldn't say the name but not being able to stop himself. "Squall, what happened?"

It took a moment, but when the response came it was full of self-recrimination. "They took Alina."

Alina. That was the name of the woman who had wormed her way into his son's and granddaughter's lives. Squall's friend. Kiros had described her to him, as well as his observations about her interactions with his family. Laguna recognized friendship when he saw it. Despite Squall's reclusiveness and secrets, he'd found a friend in that woman.

And now she'd been taken from him.

Laguna closed his eyes and made his way to the large bed in the back of the room so that he could sit on the edge of the mattress. He'd been wrong. This was worse than just a disaster.

The implications of the woman being in SeeD's hands and what that entailed for them all – that was a disaster. The fact that Squall and Chayla were homeless and on the run once again – that was a disaster. The fact that Squall had allowed himself to open up a little and accept someone into his life, after all that he'd been through and then to have it burn him, have it rebound and put him and Chayla right into the path of danger – that was going to be worse than a disaster.

Squall was never going to open up again after this.

"Where are you?" he asked softly. "Did you get out?"

"Yes," Squall said, his voice tight. "But…" he stopped and Laguna could practically hear the panic seeping through the phone line. "They've blocked off all the cities." His son strangled the words out, each syllable obviously a struggle for him. "I… I don't know what to do."

That was all the permission Laguna needed to lead into the proposal he'd formulated as soon as he'd realized that Squall and Chayla had been run out of their home for a third time. "Come here."

"I was hoping you might be able to help me get into Esthar," Squall started but Laguna interrupted him.

"No. Come here. To me."

There was silence on the other line, as if Squall couldn't believe what he was hearing. Laguna waited for the answer with bated breath. What he was proposing was dangerous, yes. He knew that. It was one thing for Squall to get into Esthar. It was a completely different thing for him to get into the Presidential Palace.

"No," Squall breathed.

"Squall, let me protect you. Please."

"No, Laguna," Squall repeated. "Did you hear me? They have Alina. She'll describe me. They'll figure out it's me. I'd lead them straight to you."

"How? The Squall Leonhart they knew never had a father." Laguna countered, despite how the words wounded him.

"But Shane Guile did. Alina knows that. And if SeeD figure out that I'm Shane, they'll put the pieces together."

"It would be my word against theirs. No one else knows."

"Ellone knows."

Laguna felt his stomach plummet. Hyne's tears, Ellone.

Of course Ellone knew. Hell, she'd been the one to key Laguna onto it in the first place. He'd almost forgotten. She'd never said anything after that one phrase to him five years ago, not to him, not to Squall, and not to Squall's friends after she thought they'd all lost him. Why?

More importantly, would she say anything now, if asked? If she found out that Squall was alive? Would she disclose the information to SeeD if she thought it would help them find her adoptive brother? Who was he kidding. Of course she would.

Laguna gripped the bedpost next to him, letting the design imprint itself on his palm. "Let me worry about Ellone," he said. "Right now, all I'm concerned about is getting you and Chayla to a safe place. And the safest place, right now, is here where no one will expect you to be. By the time anyone comes asking, I'll already have you placed somewhere safe."

"I can't let you do this," Squall argued.

"You can, and you will," Laguna ordered firmly. "I am not going to stand here and allow these people to hunt you both down like the criminals you're not. You are going to come here and let me use my resources to help you."

And having said what he'd been waiting to say for years, Laguna sat back and waited.

"Okay," Squall whispered after an eternity. "Alright."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Alina didn't know how long she and Denna sat in the corner of that room. She'd lost track of time early on, drifting in a haze of hurt and confusion. Hurt that Shane had never said anything to her. And hurt by the cruelty of the world they all lived in. It must have been a while however, because when the door opened again there was someone new at the door; a petite brunette woman in a yellow sweater and slacks and two cups of something in her hands. She extended those slightly towards them. "Tea?"

Alina stared at the woman in distrust. Was this the bad cop, good cop strategy? Did they think she would help them if they plied her with smiles and comforting beverages?

The woman made her way around the table towards them until she was standing in front of them and then she folded her legs and sat down right there on the floor. Denna took the proffered cup, but Alina shook her head. The woman shrugged and set it aside. "My name is Selphie," she said gently.

Alina eyed her. "Are you SeeD as well?"

The woman nodded and supported a hand on one of her knees. "Yes."

Alina looked her in the eyes. "So you're involved in hunting down this little girl?"

The woman nodded, and Alina felt sickened by the nonchalance in those eyes. She looked away.

"Alina, right?" the woman asked, but didn't seem to need confirmation because she continued without pause. "Do you know what SeeD does, Alina? What the organization was built for?"

Immediately an intercom blared to life. "Ms. Tilmitt," a female voice crackled, a clear warning in the voice.

Alina jerked her eyes back around, startled, in time to see the woman wave a hand indifferently at the mirror behind them without looking. She stared at Alina intently. "Do you know why SeeD was created?" she repeated. Alina didn't care. They were all monsters. She crossed her arms. The woman spoke, voice soft and confidential. "SeeD was created to protect the world from Sorceresses."

Alina's arms tightened around herself as a chill ran down her spine.

"Do you remember the last war against Sorceress Edea and Sorceress Ultimecia?" Alina curled her fingers and nodded. Of course she knew. Who could have not known when it looked like the world had been about to end, with monsters falling from the sky and every army in the world mobilizing. All because of one woman. One Sorceress.

The female SeeD stared at her hard, her. "This child - this Chayla; she's a sorceress."

It didn't process at first. She heard Denna's breath catch next to her, heard the words echoing in her head a second and a third time. But they didn't make sense. She stared at the woman, trying to figure out what the words meant, trying to figure out why they had made her stomach drop into her pelvis. And then the meaning crashed down on her.

"No," she denied, shaking her head.

The woman seemed to expect that. Her features softened and she gazed at Alina carefully. "We caught wind of her first in Esthar, about two years ago when a witness said they saw her wings. That was right before they moved to Timber. Then, about a month ago, someone else in Timber saw her with wings."

"No," Alina rejected again. "No. No."

The woman talked over her protests. "The witness we talked to in Timber said the girl had black hair and grey eyes and that the man had black hair, brown eyes and a scar down his cheek. She saw the girl sprout wings. She gave us a feather that was left behind."

Alina just kept shaking her head, back and forth. No. No, it couldn't be. This was just another trick of theirs.

Except…

Except Shane never let Chayla out of his sight. He never took her to daycare; never allowed her to play with friends without his presence; never let Alina babysit her except that once just recently, and then only for an hour; never took a job that would tie him down anywhere or cause him to be away from her for more than a short time.

And except that Chayla sometimes seemed much older than the four year old that she was. She was calm when she shouldn't be, and angry when she had no need to be; she didn't like stories about princesses in distress, only stories about heroines saving themselves or others; she knew she was being hunted.

The blonde man's words from earlier echoed in her head. She's dangerous.

Alina stared down at her hands. "I… I didn't… I…" She pressed her hands against her eyes, applying pressure. "Chayla," she sobbed out. 'Oh god, Chayla." It was like a puzzle piece, fitted in, and suddenly everything made sense - the secrets, the running, the hiding.

"She's never hurt anyone," she whimpered, as if that changed anything.

"She will," came the reply.

"But not all Sorceresses are evil, right? There's no guarantee-"

"We can't risk it."

Alina wiped at her eyes and looked up. "What are you going to do to her? You're not going to kill her are you?"

The woman shook her head vehemently. "Of course not. Just a sealing. It won't even hurt."

Alina glanced aside, trying to blink through her tears. "What about Shane…" she asked. "She's his daughter. You can't blame him for… for wanting to protect her."

"There's a possibility that that man isn't Chayla's real father," the woman stated. "He knows what she is. He could have alternative motives to raising her."

That put Alina's hackles up. She frowned. "No. You're wrong there," she disagreed.

"Sometimes our judgement can be-"

"You haven't seen them together," Alina interrupted. "He's devoted to her. And they have the same mannerisms. She has his eyes, for Hyne's sake."

The woman put a hand up in a placating motion. "Okay," she said. "It's possible that they are indeed father and daughter."

Oh god, Alina thought. This wasn't real was it? "You don't have to seal her," she blurted out abruptly. "Just let Shane raise her for now. She hasn't done anything yet, right? Can't you just let her be until… until you can't? Why does it have to be now!? Shane can protect her. Shane can keep her safe."

"What makes you think he can?"

"She listens to him. And he knows how to fight. He's been in battles before."

"Which battles?"

"I don't know which ones," Alina replied, throwing her hands up in the air. "But he has all these scars to prove it - one on his right cheek; a few on his arms; a bunch of little ones on his hands; one between his eyes. That has to mean something, right?"

The woman blinked at her owlishly. "I'm… I'm sorry? What was that last one?"

"A scar between his eyes. It slants downward from right to left."

The woman's hand went to the locket around her neck and she gripped it tightly. She exhaled a slow shaky breath and locked wide eyes on Alina's. "Are you… certain?"

"Yes," Alina replied slowly. "Of course I'm sure. Why?"

"I… used to know a man with a scar just like that," was the distant reply as eyes went unfocused.

Denna shifted and spoke up for the first time. "Shane knows the blonde man."

Those eyes shot towards Alina's sister in an instant. "What makes you say that?"

"I went it see him after the blonde knocked on my door looking for Alina the first time. When I described the man to Shane, he reacted. Looked like he'd seen a ghost."

"It couldn't be," the woman whispered to herself. "It… couldn't."

"Ms... Tilmitt?' Alina asked, hesitantly, remembering the name vaguely from the beginning of their conversation.

"No body," she muttered, staring at Alina. "No… body." All of the sudden, she twisted towards the wall length mirror. "Find Zell and Irvine," she barked, before twisting back to stare at Alina. "I'm going to show you a picture," she said slowly. "I want you to tell me if you recognize him."

Alina nodded and watched in uneasiness as the woman pried her fingers away from the locket around her neck and opened it very carefully. She looked down at what was inside it and swallowed then took it off her neck and turned it to face Alina. There were two pictures, one on each side of the open locket interior, one of a woman and one of a man. She tapped the picture of the man briefly. "Have you seen this man?"

Alina leaned forward and looked at the picture. It was an old photo, in black and white, but the face was unmistakable. "That's Shane," she answered.

"No." And the voice was breathless, missing something vital. "That is Squall Leonhart."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Until the End Playlist, Song 11: RED – Run and Escape