Disclaimers: I own every single one of these characters. Yeah, that's right. They and the settings are all part of my ingenious creation. I am the queen. Eat that Squaresoft! How do you like them apples?

Author's Notes: Here is the beginning of my much agonized over possible prequel to "Get Off My Cloud". I'm essentially using this as a personal forum for my wild theories, emotional wranglings, and political frustrations. So here it is, the full and final explanation of the FFVIII world as I see it. Its battles and tragedies, loves and friendships, lives and deaths. The story opens approximately five months after the game; I will lead you through any time changes as they occur, hopefully with as little turmoil as possible. Though it may not appear so for a while, it is also a romance. The interludes may appear sporadic and random but I assure you there will be some sort of fluffiness by the end, just not of the variety you may be expecting. Thanks a million!

"For years I have endeavoured to calm an impetuous tide – labouring to make my feelings take an orderly course – it was striving against the stream" ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Riders on the Storm

Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm (The Doors)

Before

So many fears will haunt you
Deny them or regret
Some men will make you want to 
and you will not forget
Coincidence and patience 
will mend this fatal flaw
Though it may seem a long wait 
others have been here before (Pet Shop Boys)

"In conclusion, the matter requires further research. The previous analyses published on Guardian Forces are minimal and insufficient. In order to fully understand the capabilities and consequences, many of which are untapped and unknown, more effort must be devoted to exploration and experimentation. The little information we have does not satisfy demand, nor does it prepare us for the future."

Quistis Trepe finished her presentation with this final point and looked out across the lecture theatre to meet the eyes of the one sympathetic executive member in the room. The corner of her mouth lifted slightly when he tapped his hands together in silent applause. At least she had some support on the committee, miniscule as it may be. The rest was an accumulation of impassivity. She wondered if they had even listened to a word she'd said in the past half-hour. So much for an objective forum.

Her hands rested lightly on the lectern in front of her and she took a deep breath. Here we go, she told herself, the moment of truth has arrived. The work she had dedicated several months of her life to toiling over would now either be accepted or thrown back in her face. It was out of her hands now. Her future depended on their next statement.

When no one spoke, she stepped back from the lectern and flicked off the glaring yellow overhead. Someone near the back of the hall flipped a switch and the room immediately brightened. Quistis blinked, taking a moment for her eyes to adjust to the flooding light. Before she could begin to gather her materials into a sleek briefcase a throat cleared from the middle of the room, breaking through the silence with its harsh quality. She glanced up.

There were only eight current members of Balamb Garden's Executive Council. This was not nearly enough to fill the theatre normally reserved for large conferences and mass lectures by guest instructors. Nevertheless, the sight of rows upon rows of seats in front of her, with the scrutinizing face of Head Instructor Aki front and centre, was daunting. It was a good thing she was finished with being intimidated by her superiors or she never would have made it through the thirty-minute seminar. It was also a good thing she had put on her lucky underwear this morning.

"I have a question for you, Ms. Trepe." Aki's voice glided through the air pleasantly, patronizingly. With determination and fortitude she met his gleaming gaze. "On page twenty-six you mention physical evidence to prove your thesis and conclude on page twenty-eight that further experimentation is required. Does this mean your theory has yet to be proven in real-life scenarios?"

Fortunately, she had anticipated such an enquiry and was prepared with a decisive response. "Testing has only been performed in controlled settings, by myself and several others." She lifted her chin, proud of the clarity in her tone. "Which is why I have brought the matter forward today. I believe, based on my limited results, that Guardian Forces provide transferable abilities within them. With further scientific examination we could better understand how to use these abilities to our advantage without resorting to the dangerous and murky tactics of junctioning. In order to enact my results in real-life scenarios, as you put it, I would need Garden's support."

"Are you questioning the evidence of previously published experiments performed by scientific experts in the field, Ms. Trepe?" Aki inclined his head toward her and raised both slim dark eyebrows. "Dr. Odine's Analysis and Ethics provides conclusive proof that the junctioning of Guardian Forces, as Balamb has fostered for over a decade I might add, is neither as dangerous as you have attested nor is it reckless. Are you doubting the authority of several decades of work, along with the practical experience of Garden itself?"

Quistis observed the flickers of doubt that passed over the expressions of the other council members. She had to stop herself from immediately jumping on the defensive. To do so would only sound weak and incite additional probes from the elder SeeD. It was best to keep it simple, concise. One made more of an impact that way.

Here goes.

"Yes."

Less than twenty minutes later the council members had vacated the hall. She waited until the last echoes of their footsteps died away before putting a hand to her forehead and letting her shoulders droop. She sighed. Long and deep, it eased some of the tension in her lower back. Her head began to pound but her heartbeat slowed. Well, it had not been a complete and total disaster. The Commander of Special Operations had appeared interested for the first five minutes. Or maybe he had just been attracted to the free donuts.

"Congratulations, Quistis."

The sound of the voice made her jump. She dropped her hand and looked up, eyes wary. "For what? Stuttering like a fool while my carefully-compiled months' worth of labour was torn apart by ravenous blood souls?" With a self-deprecating laugh she turned to pick up her briefcase.

Squall Leonhart lifted a brow and crossed his arms. "It wasn't that bad. You brought up some good points." He shifted to lean a hip against the table where she stood as she began collecting her materials into organized piles. "Gave us something to think about." She snorted at that but didn't look up. He continued to watch her for a few moments. "It was impressive, the way you stood up to Aki.  The guy's a prick."

At that Quistis let out a genuine chuckle. "That he is." She shook her head. "He's always disliked me, ever since I was made an instructor two years ago. I think he was the main power behind my dismissal." She stood in contemplation before glancing over at Squall. Her eyebrows lifted and nose wrinkled. "I guess in a way one could say he is my nemesis."

"Nah," Squall shook his head and stepped aside to allow her to approach the door ahead of him. He spoke without thinking. "Aki may have tenure but you're too strong to let him bring you down."

"Why Squall," Quistis spoke with a hint of amusement. She slanted a look at him from the corner of her eye as they fell into step together in the hallway. Still the same man on the outside, she mused. But the inside was altering little by little. As his former instructor she was grateful to witness the change, as his friend, she was thrilled to be a part of it.

"I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." A teasing grin curved the contours of her face upward. "Maybe I should write it down. Squall Leonhart compliments Quistis Trepe, February eighteenth, year one…" Her words broke off at his murderous glare and she began to laugh instead. She was forced to pick up her pace as she dodged around passing cadets, waving and nodding at familiar faces.

Irritated by her smirk Squall turned away and came to a stop by the button on the wall for the lift. More than anything, he hated to be teased. This is what I get for trying to be nice, he thought. His scowl deepened. "Whatever."

Quistis' amusement only heightened at this last remark but she was able to withhold her laughter. The more things change…

However, it was not her goal to incense him further. Not today anyway. She needed him on her side. When the doors slid open with an almost imperceptible turning of gears she gestured for him to enter ahead. Her smile was brilliant. "Going up?"

The central office was unusually quiet when they departed the lift at the top floor. There were no students waiting in reception to see the Headmaster, no sound of telephones clamouring to be answered. It was eerie. Ever since the end of the war Balamb Garden had been inundated with reporters, military leaders, prospective cadets, former SeeD, and threatening parents. To see it so calm was a welcome sight, to say the least, but an odd one. Perhaps, finally, the matter had been put to rest. Maybe now, after five months, the world could start anew and things could return to normal. Well, as normal as they could be in an academy that trained deadly mercenaries.

With a light frown, Quistis glanced around the front room. No papers left on the desk, computer monitor blank, and terminal silent. Everything was put in its place care of Balamb Garden's super-efficient administrative assistant. A rank-A SeeD that should have been at the desk waiting for her so they could go for lunch. Her stomach rumbled as the thought of food echoed in her head. She hadn't bothered to eat that morning. Figured her nerves would only cause whatever it was to come right back up. But now she was starving.

Squall did not bother to hesitate in the front room. Grateful for the lack of bedlam that typically accompanied his visits to the administrative headquarters he continued to walk past the gleaming desk and through the light wooden door. Straight into the realm of the Headmaster himself.

Despite the recent influx of resources that had flowed into the Garden coffers as of late, providing much needed developments to Balamb's administration, the inner office had changed little from its former design. The desk was just as bulky, the surface just as cluttered with reports and technological devices. There was still the dying fern taking up residence in the corner, as desperate for refreshment as ever. And the overhead light was still missing one bulb.

It was these imperfections that lent the room its humanistic atmosphere. Took away some of the coldness by showing that real people worked there. Though the files bursting out of the metal cabinets contained confidential military intelligence the office itself appeared as if it could be located in any city or home. Upon entering the first time no one would ever suppose it was a court of power.

A court that was currently missing its king. Squall stopped short. It is a good thing Quistis had such well-trained reflexes or she would have crashed right into him.

Where is he? Squall's dark brows lowered as he continued all the way into the room. Mid-day light blazed from the large glass windows behind the desk and highlighted the dust clouds that floated up from thick carpeting. He crossed his arms and swivelled to look at Quistis. She stood in the doorway with one eyebrow lifted in question.

"Where is Cid?" He spoke his thoughts aloud, not without a touch of annoyance.

She shrugged one shoulder and took in the office with one sweep of her eyes. "No idea. I was supposed to meet Xu here as well."

He stood in one spot, processing the information slowly. Along with being teased Squall also hated to be kept waiting. Definitely near the top of his long list of pet peeves. It is not that he was impatient. He considered fortitude to be one of his best traits. As long as it was one his own terms.

Fortunately, he wasn't forced to wait long. The ring of the lift halting just outside the door followed by the resonance of heated voices alerted them to the presence of their chief. Intrigued, Quistis turned from the office to face the approaching executives. Squall was only one step behind her.

Xu's normally composed features were marred with a frown. Her hands gesticulated violently as she spoke to the older man next to her in excited tones. "What a total waste of time." Her words came out harsh, tinged with scorn. "One doesn't compromise with that man, she ordains. Complete irrational bastard." Her face contorted with disgust.

Since he was inclined to agree Cid Kramer nodded and sighed. He lifted a hand to adjust his solid-framed glasses before nodding again at his associate's frustrated cursing. The emergency meeting with Galbadia Garden's new headmaster had been essentially fruitless. As Xu had bluntly stated, the man's demands were irrational and irreversibly unfeasible. The one item that had been decided on during the past four hours was the one thing he knew would get most people's backs up. Xu at the top of the list.

"So does this mean I'm eating alone today?" Quistis' bemused voice rose over the other woman's vehement ranting like a concerto piano over a discordant orchestra.

Bid and Xu automatically pivoted their heads in unison. Quistis barely managed to hide a smile.

With a sheepish shrug, Cid tucked his hands into the pockets of his brown trousers. He glanced over to address the commander. "Squall! Just the fellow I've been looking for. I, ah, apologize for keeping you waiting." Clearing his throat he eyed the woman next to him wearily. "Would you care to fill him in?"

All at once Xu's grin was broad. Her dark eyes gleamed with mischief as an idea took shape in her head. "Actually, I have a better idea."

In a few brusque strides she was at her immaculate desk. The others stood in silent observation has she opened the bottom drawer and flipped through the various files neatly organized inside. Coming across the appropriate one she pulled it out with a satisfying yank then spun around to wave it in front of Quistis' face.

"Here, Quistis, look what the mission fairy brought you!" Nimble fingers released the folder giving the startled woman no choice but to catch it before it fell to the floor. Revenge, Xu thought, was better than sweet. It was bliss.

Quistis recovered from her momentary surprise and looked down at the unmarked black folder, then back up at Xu. Suspicious, she raised both eyebrows, shooting a glance toward Cid. She had known the other woman long enough not to trust her in this mood. Bad things tended to happen otherwise.

"I don't think so. I've got enough on my mind right now. Remember my dissertation? I can't do anything before I hear back from the Committee."

"It'll just be a short one," Xu promised. The satisfied smirk on her lips poke different. "Two, three hours tops. You don't even need to junction." She tucked back an errant strand of hair and pressed her tongue to the inside of her cheek. "You'll need something to keep you occupied while you wait, anyway. And I can guarantee you, this one is very distracting."

Not about to believe her without a second opinion Quistis once again turned to Cid for aid. Unfortunately the uneasy man simply rocked back on his heels and did his best to avoid her eyes. She could feel Squall's gaze at the back of her neck, awaiting her next decision. Pensive, she tapped the folder with one finger.

"What is it about?" She was nowhere near resigned.

"Oh, you will love it!" Xu folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the edge of the desk. "Just the kind of cause you're interested in."

"Which is?"

"Weeell," she made sure to draw out every syllable to prolong her own personal enjoyment. This is what you get, she told Quistis with her thoughts, for setting me up on a blind date with that conceited oaf who thinks a lecture on SeeD regulation changes makes for a thrilling evening. "It entails taking a Garden rig out to the D-District Prison and collecting an inmate. Normally we'd just fly Garden out there but we're stuck making deliberations in Timber for another week and this has to be taken care of right away."

"That's it?" Quistis had a terrible feeling about this. It was too simple. And the headmaster still refused to look at her. She pursed her lips. "Who is the inmate?"

If possible, Xu's grin widened ever more with the question. "Someone you know quite well, actually. So you shouldn't have any problems in that respect. You will have to read over the documents for a more recent report but I doubt there will be anything too surprising."

"Xu."

She straightened her slim frame and squared her shoulders. She was going to relish every word of her next statement. "At ten hundred tomorrow morning you will be picking up Seifer Almasy."

Over the next few seconds Quistis' expression went through a variety of emotions. The central one being disbelief. No way. There was absolutely no way Galbadia would release him so soon. Was this some kind of joke?

The look on Cid's face when he finally made eye contact, however, confirmed Xu's words. Damn, damn, damn. So much for her lucky underwear.