Chapter 14

Selphie began to stir as the sun shone through the windows, warming her face. An amazing smell had wafted into the room and made its way to her nose. The chefs downstairs must have been working on breakfast, but that wasn't the only smell enticing her. The smell of breakfast was intermingled with a different, familiar smell — the scent of Squall's cologne. As her eyes opened, the first thing she noticed was Squall's bare chest. Surprised, she pulled her head back to look into his face and saw he was still sleeping. The two of them must have moved closer together during the night without realizing it.

Feeling slightly embarrassed, Selphie attempted to pull away from the unconscious commander but quickly realized Squall's arms were wrapped completely around her, preventing her from moving. Squall Leonhart, the valiant and brave SeeD, was a closet sleep snuggler. She needed a way to wake him up, but there was so little room to work. Uneasily she poked a thin finger into his chest and whispered, "Hey Squall, you awake?"

No response. Slightly raising her voice, she jabbed a bit harder into his chest and said, "Pssst, Squall!" Still no response. Perhaps it was the very comfortable bed that Laguna had provided for them, or perhaps it was the fact he had been encouraged to sleep in, but Squall appeared comatose. Selphie gave up trying to be delicate, and although it took awhile, she was finally able to grapple her way out of Squall's clutches. He still didn't stir. Once free, she could see the digital alarm clock on his bedside table, which said it was nearing nine o'clock. Momentarily, Selphie considered waiting for Squall to wake up before leaving the bedroom, but then decided that if he could sleep through her pulling away from him, pushing on him, poking him and even trying to talk to him, he probably was going to sleep for a while.

She rolled out of bed and, without bothering to change out of her pajamas, tiptoed out of the bedroom. Rocks appeared to have already left the bedroom. Selphie followed the smell of breakfast down the familiar halls, her bare feet freezing as they made contact with the cold tile floors.

Ahead, she could make out some familiar voices coming from the dining room. It sounded like Ellone was speaking quietly to someone else. Peeking around the corner, she could see that both Ellone and Laguna were sitting all the way at the end of long table, still wearing their pajamas and sipping coffee. "So much for it being a small and simple wedding," Ellone sighed. Laguna reached across the table to pat her hand comfortingly when the floor creaked beneath Selphie's feet.

Immediately the two looked at her in the doorway, appearing surprised, but both smiled at her nonetheless. Laguna motioned for her to come on in. "We're just drinking some coffee until breakfast is done," he explained, pulling the chair beside him out for her. "You're welcome to have some as well."

"I'd love a cup," she smiled, taking the seat. Laguna nodded and stood to get one for her from the kitchen.

Ellone picked up the newspaper from the table and discreetly tried to tuck it out of view, but not before Selphie caught a glimpse of the front page headline. "Wedding of the Century! Ellone Loire to Marry Soon!" it proclaimed. Beneath the headline was a blown up image of the ring on her hand. Off in the corner there was a smaller headline that said, "Is the president's son headed to the altar next?" with an image of Selphie and Squall getting off the train together. Selphie wondered what else was in the newspaper, but as Ellone was obviously making an effort to hide it from her, she decided not to ask. Laguna returned with a coffee mug and poured some coffee into it from the pot set in the center of the table.

"The cream and sugar are there," he said as he gestured to two porcelain cups by the pot of coffee and sat down again.

"Thanks, Sir Laguna!" she said, adding a bit of both to her coffee. "Have you seen Rocks this morning? He wasn't in the bedroom when I woke up."

"Ah, yes," Laguna beamed, his eyes aglow. "As I walked to the dining room this morning, he saw me pass your bedroom and followed me. I let him out into the back yard. It's fenced, so he should be fine, right?"

"Oh, of course," Selphie said.

"He seems to have taken a liking to me. I wonder why?" Laguna mused aloud.

"Well, it couldn't be because of all the mesmerize you slipped him under the table at dinner, could it?" Selphie chided, sipping her coffee.

Laguna went red in the face. "So you saw, huh?" he laughed nervously.

"I saw," she smiled at him, setting her cup down. "Don't worry, I'm not mad," she quickly added, "I just thought it was funny, that's all."

"So, Selphie, do you have any plans today?" Ellone asked over the rim of her mug.

Selphie pondered for a moment and finally said, "Not really, though I admit I do need to go Christmas shopping. I've just had a really hard time figuring out what I should get for Squall."

At this confession, Ellone and Laguna looked at each other and both laughed. "Apparently that's a common problem!" Laguna beamed. "We thought we'd ask you what you'd recommend getting him, but evidently everyone's on the same page."

"I'll tell you what, Selphie," Ellone said excitedly, leaning across the table. "I need to go to the Esthar Mall anyway today to pick up something for Nolan. Would you like to come shopping with me?"

"Would I!" Selphie exclaimed excitedly, but then her smile faltered and she mumbled, "But I, uh, I don't have a lot of money to spend." It was true that she spent most of the money she had on the tickets to come along to Esthar. Squall had offered to buy them for her, but she refused. Even though making A-Rank came with an impressive pay raise, she had had to use most of the money to furnish her new dorm and purchase new clothes to replace the ones she'd lost.

"Not a problem! I know justthe place!" Ellone said with a wink.

Suddenly the kitchen doors swung open and some of the kitchen staff, bringing plates full of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and hash browns. They placed the food on the table and quickly left.

"Should I go wake up the boys?" Selphie asked, starting to stand.

"No, no, no," Laguna, said, motioning her to take her seat again. "Break is for sleeping in. They can eat whenever they wake up. I'm sure the staff will prepare something for them," he said kindly. "Help yourself, though!"

Breakfast was filled with many laughs as Laguna told an eager Selphie many stories of his travels with Kiros and Ward as a young man. Ellone, although she'd heard the stories countless times before, listened with amusement as she ate her food. Once Selphie was full and the plates were cleared, she ran back to the room to get ready. At first she made an attempt to be as quiet as possible, but Squall still appeared to be dead to the world, so she went ahead about her business normally, and he hardly stirred from his sleep.

Two hours later, Ellone and Selphie were walking around the Esthar Mall. Ellone donned a pair of big sunglasses to partially hide her face, as paparazzi had swarmed the two girls immediately from the time they departed the Palace. Ellone did her best to ignore them and encouraged Selphie to do the same, although Selphie did not find this nearly as easy as Ellone appeared to.

The Esthar Mall seemed gigantic. Selphie only barely remembered it from the first time they came to Esthar, and they had been on such a tight schedule then that no one had been allowed to do much exploring of it. There was not only the main center mall building, but three satellite malls that surrounded it. All of the buildings were connected by sky bridges for the mall-goers to walk across. The complex was not just full of stores, but restaurants, clubs, bars and art galleries. Selphie had never before seen so many businesses squeezed into such a small space.

Eagerly, Ellone took Selphie by the hand and led her into a small boutique named "Sophie's Imports." It was filled with designer handbags, exotic perfumes, fancy shoes and the type of art only seen in very ritzy homes and businesses. None of this stuff, Selphie realized quickly, would interest Squall at all. This realization however, did not deter Selphie from browsing around politely as Ell bounced from display to display, gushing over the newest items. "These were all imported from Deling City!" Ell explained excitedly, running her hand longingly along a lengthy silk scarf. "Deling City is the center of the fashion world. All of the big designers live there."

"That is a really pretty scarf," Selphie admitted, looking at it. "Don't think it's Squall's color though."

Ellone turned pink and said, "Oh yeah! We're looking for Squall's gift. Forgive me, I always gravitate to this store. I have another place in mind for him, but, well, do you mind?" Ell asked quietly, looking around.

Selphie could tell that Ell wanted to browse some more, so she quickly said, "Not at all!" and continued to wander. Even if Selphie had been interested in an item, she would have never been able to afford it. At one point, she excitedly picked up a hair ornament, an orange silk flower adorned with rhinestones and green feathers protruding like soft leaves, before she noticed the price tag and exclaimed, "Seventy-five gil! How can you sleep at night?"

Luckily for Selphie, Ell finished her browsing shortly, and the two left the boutique, Selphie empty handed, Ellone with a new hat, which she put on immediately. It was almost comical to Selphie. Sis looked almost like a spy with her long coat, sunglasses and now the hat, though her disguise didn't fool the paparazzi at all. Photographers followed the two girls to the next store despite Ellone's hidden features, snapping photos wildly and asking outrageous questions, presumably to get some sort of a reaction out of the two. Again, Ellone ignored them like a professional, but Selphie would occasionally look behind her to see what was going on, only to have twenty bright lights flash in her face. The next store that Ell led Selphie to was called "Pandora's Box." "You'd be a lunatic not to shop here!" a sign in the window declared. Upon seeing this, Selphie giggled and Ell smiled back at her.

"This is a neat store, although their slogan is pretty cheesy. All of their stuff is made locally!" she explained, leading Selphie through the doors.

The store held a large variety of items, from touristy coffee mugs and shot glasses to handmade jewelry and picture frames. There were also soaps, perfumes, wind chimes, birdhouses and lamps, as well as hand-crafted beads made from local stones and crystals. The store had a very eclectic collection, and although Selphie was sure Squall would like some of the items here more than anything at Sophie's Imports, she knew she was still a long way away from finding the perfect gift for him.

However, Selphie knew Ellone would love many of the hand-crafted items here. Sadly, even this store was a bit too expensive for Selphie's budget. She begrudgingly left a beautiful necklace behind that would have complimented what she'd seen of Ellone's style so far.

After they left Pandora's Box, Selphie again empty handed, Ellone bustled them around several other boutiques and stores. Unfortunately, none of them had anything that Selphie could afford. After a couple hours of shopping, the two girls stopped for some lunch at one of the many restaurants in the area. Ellone had a few shopping bags worth of merchandise. At least she'd had some luck finding her last minute gifts.

Midway through lunch, Ell's phone began to ring. She quietly apologized to Selphie and answered the phone. She had a very brief conversation with someone Selphie assumed was Nolan. She then said a quick goodbye and set her phone down. Again she looked at Selphie apologetically and said, "I'm so sorry Selphie, Nolan and I have an appointment to meet with a potential officiant for the wedding in about an hour. I almost forgot about it! I need to head that way pretty soon," she said glancing at a clock on the wall. "You're welcome to come along if you'd like!"

Selphie pretended to consider it for a moment, but said, "Thank you, but I really should finish Christmas shopping today."

"Are you sure? Do you want me to have Laguna come so you will have a ride back to the Palace?"

"Oh no, don't worry about me. It's not that long of a walk, besides I could always take the bus if I needed to," Selphie smiled reassuringly.

Ellone looked unsure about this idea, but reluctantly gave in. She insisted on paying the bill. Selphie didn't put up a big fight about this, though she at least made it look like she was upset by the idea of someone paying for her meal. The two parted their ways, and most of the paparazzi followed Ellone as she walked out of the restaurant and left the mall.

There were a few shops that had caught Selphie's eye as Ellone had flitted around the mall, so Selphie headed toward them first. She was glad she'd found the Shumi Artifact store. Not only were their products very high quality, but they were also very affordable. She bought some hand-crafted soaps and some chocolates to give to Ellone, Kiros and Ward.

Next on her list was Rinrin's Pet Shop. Of course Rocks wasn't going to be left out on Christmas morning. She quickly picked out a T-Rexaur bone for him and a new toy that resembled the hide of a Torama, though it had no stuffing in it. Selphie knew all too well from the plushie casualties in her own collection that if it had stuffing in it at all, it certainly wouldn't have it for long.

Finally feeling like she was accomplishing something, she left with her bags and decided to try Don Juan's Shop. She remembered visiting this shop briefly while being in Esthar for the first time, it was a junk shop that sold weapons. She knew she wouldn't have even a fraction of the money necessary to buy him a new gunblade, but she crossed her fingers she could find something, even if it was just an idea. Squall was a practical fellow, after all.

She stepped in and eyed the display. It wasn't long before Don Juan himself stepped out to her aid. "Can I help you find something, miss?" he asked politely. He must have thought she was lost. She probably didn't look like his average patron.

"I'm looking for a Christmas gift for someone who uses a gunblade," she said thoughtfully. "He's a practical person, so do you have any gunblade care kits or anything along those lines?"

His eyes brightened and he led her to the back of the store where he showed her exactly what she had asked for. It was perfect! "This is the king of all kits," he said proudly, opening up the aluminum case to show her. "It has refined Funguar oil for the blade, to prevent oxidation. Brass rods and brushes to clean out the barrel, a bore mop —" but his words seemed to fade out when she saw the price tag.

"It's perfect," she muttered, "but I don't know if I can afford it."

His eyes softened, and he asked, "How much do you have?"

"Fifty gil," she answered sadly.

The shopkeeper looked down at her, chewing on his lip thoughtfully. "I'll tell ya what," he started, "It's Christmas, and I'm feeling generous, so I think I'll give the esteemed guest of President Loire a discount. How does twenty five percent sound? That'll bring the price down to about forty-five gil."

Selphie was speechless, and after babbling incoherently for a moment, she managed to squeak out a thank you. She paid the money, and Don Juan was even wrapped the gift for her. She re-emphasized her gratitude many more times as she left the store. Now there was only one person left to get something for: Sir Laguna. With only five gil left, she'd have to be extremely clever to find something worthwhile to give the president of Esthar, but after musing for a moment, she knew she'd found the perfect idea.

The next store she set foot in was a music store. She beelined straight for the customer service desk and asked breathlessly, "Do you have any of Julia's old albums?"

"Julia?" the cashier asked confusedly. He looked side to side as if anyone around him might have the answer. "What kind of music does she play?"

"She's a pianist," Selphie said at the same time as another male voice from behind her. She turned around and saw the manager of the store. He was looking at her, apparently intrigued.

"I haven't had anyone come in here asking for a Julia record in almost fifteen years," he pondered aloud. "You look too young to even know who she is."

"It's, uh, for an older friend," she explained quickly.

"I see. Well, sadly, we don't carry anything that old in this store," he said, rubbing his chin and still looking at Selphie with interest. "But if you really want to find it, I know a good place to look."

"Oh! Do you? Tell me, please!"

The manager beamed and walked behind the customer service counter, where he proceeded to draw out a map. "Are you familiar with Esthar?"

"Not entirely," she admitted.

"Ok, I'll give you directions from the mall," he said, drawing some boxes and labeling them. "It's a thrift store, they tend to have a lot of old albums there. It's not terribly far from here." Moments later, he finished his map and handed it to her, giving her some verbal directions as well.

"If you pass the gas station with a statue of the T-Rexaur out front, then you've gone too far," he called after her.

"Thank you very much!" she said, clutching the map to her chest and bowing slightly as she walked out of the store. The usual train of paparazzi followed her out of the mall, but after she'd walked about a quarter of a mile toward the thrift store they started to decrease in numbers and eventually it was only a few photographers trailing behind her.

It was about an hour walk, but Selphie finally made it to the store the manager told her about. The smell of dust and mildew hung in the air all around her as she entered and walked past all of the stacks of old books, clothes and trinkets. "Can I help you?" a faint woman's voice said from the back of the shop.

"Uh, yes, um, I'm looking for … an old record," Selphie stuttered as she looked around for the source of the voice. Finally she saw a petite elderly woman organizing old lamps on a shelf.

"What sort of record?" she asked, looking away from her work to gaze at the SeeD.

"Well, her name is Julia. I'm not sure of her last name, it might be Caraway. She was a pianist."

The woman smiled broadly. "Ooh, Julia," she said quietly, and her gaze drifted away. Her reminiscing seemed to have taken her mind somewhere else entirely, so finally Selphie cleared her throat politely to bring the woman back to the real world. "Ah yes, the records are over here," she said as she emerged from her reverie. Slowly, she turned and walked with an arthritic limp to a bookshelf full of old vinyl records and dusty cassettes and CDs.

The woman ran her finger expertly across the spines of the vinyl albums and finally began thumbing through them when she pulled out a very old faded record case. Selphie could recognize Julia's face anywhere. Not only did she look extraordinarily like her daughter, Rinoa, but Selphie remembered seeing Julia in person, or what felt like was in person, in the 'dream world.'

"Is that all for you, dear?" the old woman asked, handing Selphie the record.

"I think so, but, well, how much does it cost?"

"I think ten gil should do it," she said sweetly, limping to the old cash register behind a cluttered counter.

"Well," Selphie said uneasily, "I'm embarrassed to say this, ma'am, but I only have five gil left."

The old woman looked at Selphie, and her sweet grandma look seemed to vanish. "This is a very old and very rare album," she said matter-of-factly. "I can't sell it for any less."

Selphie dug around in her pockets desperately, trying to find something, anything, that she could perhaps sell to this woman to make up the difference in cost. Both pockets were empty, and her purse had very little in it. As a last minute resort, she reached up and pulled the earrings from her ears. "How much can I get for these?" she asked.

The old woman appeared surprised at the idea of bartering, but smiled warmly again and said, "I think those would make it come out about even."

Selphie set them down on the counter where they rolled slightly before they sat motionless. They were some old stud earrings Irvine had gotten for her as a gift for her last birthday. There was nothing special about them, well, nothing anymore. She was happy to get rid of anything given to her by Irvine, and they were going to a good cause. She was sure that this Christmas present was the best idea she'd come up with yet.

She dug through her wallet and pulled out the five gil note and handed it to the shop owner as well. The old woman took the note and swept the earrings into her bony hands, bagged the record and handed it to Selphie. "Have a good day," she said smiling.

"Thank you! Thank you very much. I really appreciate this!" Selphie said, backing out of the door. She was now carrying two bags from the Shumi Artifacts store, one from Rinrin's, one from Don Juan's and, lastly, the small plastic sack from the thrift store. It had been a long day, and she had no money left, but she had finished her shopping! It was going to be a long walk back to the palace now that she no longer had the funds for a bus or a cab.

She was surprised to see that the sun was already setting and the world was tinted blue gray. She quickly checked her watch and saw it was past six. "Of course," she muttered, "The sun sets earlier in the winter." And with that thought she re-situated her shopping bags and walked down the street. As she passed by the buildings, she began to suspect that she wasn't in the best part of town. It hadn't been as evident in the daylight with all the shops open, but now that it was getting dark and the stores around her were closing, she noticed many of them had bars on the windows and iron gates pulled across the doors.

Selphie kept walking. Suddenly, she realized she could hear someone following her steps about twenty feet behind her. Rolling her eyes, she muttered something about the press and continued to walk, deciding to ignore the footsteps. Slowly, all light faded from the sky and left her in darkness. The only lights were the occasional working street lamp and the faraway glow of downtown Esthar.

After walking about twenty minutes, she set her bags down and pulled out the music manager's map map from her pocket. She was sure she was going the right way, but it was almost impossible to make out the details in the dark. With a sigh, she shoved the paper back into her pocket. As she bent down to pick up her shopping bags, she heard a noise in the distance. It sounded like someone's toe coming into contact with a trashcan. Instinctively she looked behind and squinted into the darkness. She couldn't see anyone. If it had been the press following her, surely she would have heard the cameras clicking or seen light from the flashes. But it was completely dark down the street, and aside from the single, sudden noise, very quiet.

Now feeling very vulnerable, Selphie turned on her heel and walked a little faster down the street. Sure enough, she could hear the footsteps behind her also pick up the pace. Another two blocks and she was still being followed. Finally fed up, she turned around and yelled, "Stop following me!" into the darkness, throwing her arms down in emphasis.

As if being summoned, a man appeared out of the dark, running full speed at her. She didn't have time to do anything but drop all of the shopping bags on the ground. His arms came out in front of him and pinned her against the brick wall behind her, slamming the back of her head into it as he did so. Her eyes closed instinctively, and when she reopened them she looked into the eyes of her attacker, so dark brown they almost appeared black.

"You're gonna come quietly and be a good girl," the man said nastily. She heard a click and could feel cold metal against her neck, "My knife doesn't have to get dirty if you just keep it down."

She could hear Seth's voice in her dazed head. "Don't call for help, never call for help!" he would have said. "People don't listen to cries of help. Cry fire instead — People willcome to see what's happening if they think something is on fire."

"Fire! FIRE! FIRE!" Selphie shouted, getting louder each time. The man appeared so shocked to hear Selphie scream that he dropped his knife in surprise. Before he could stoop to pick it back up, they heard a window open up overhead. A woman was peering outside to, trying to find the source of the commotion. She looked directly at Selphie and her attacker, then slammed her window shut and closed her blinds.

Enraged that there might now be a witness, the man grabbed Selphie by the neck and threw her head into the brick wall a second time. Tears sprang to her eyes and she could feel warm blood leaking down her neck. The man's grip on her neck began to tighten. She brought her hands up to his, trying to pry his fingers off of her, and then she could hear Seth's voice again.

"Come on, Selphie! I know you can get out of this one! Lift your arm over your head and drop your opposite shoulder!" The class where she'd learned to get out of the choke hold was floating back into her aching head. Without giving it a second thought, Selphie threw her left arm up into the air and dropped her right shoulder. Immediately, she felt the man's grip on her neck loosen. "Bring your elbow down onto his arms." With all of her might she smashed her left elbow down onto his forearm. His hold on her neck was broken. She could breathe again, but she knew she couldn't stop yet. Twice, she hit him square in the nose with her left elbow.

Next she grabbed onto the man's shoulder. "Remember to grab onto the meat, not the shirt. Shirts rip," she could hear Seth intoning. Selphie kneed her attacker in the stomach twice, both times using the shoulder she was gripping to pull him into her. "You need to get on his left side, the dead-side. Here you can easier predict his next move, and he'll have a hard time predicting yours," Seth's voice continued. Selphie continued kneeing him in the gut, all the while working her way over to his left side.

The man was obviously not used to his victims fighting back because he was not doing a very good job defending himself. Unfortunately, the earlier blows to her head that she had received were making her feel very lightheaded and dizzy, and she paused for a second to steady herself. It was just long enough for the man to land a punch to Selphie's face, knocking her off guard and giving him the chance to land a second blow to her stomach. Eyes screwed up in pain, Selphie brought her leg up and heeled him in the groin. This caused the man to drop to his knees, holding himself and swearing loudly.

Desperately, she started scrambling to pick up her belongings and run away when she heard the approaching wail of police sirens. The red and blue lights danced along the buildings in the darkness, and quickly realizing he wasn't going to get away with whatever he was attempting, Selphie's attacker fled. For a crazy split second, she wanted to run after him. But her thoughts were interrupted by a flashbulb going off. Within seconds of the man running off, a photographer had managed to crawl out of nowhere and take several photographs of the bloodied and bruised Selphie.

Her eyes welled up with fury and she threw her fists down. "You were there the whole time?" she yelled hysterically, "And you just let him attack me like that? Why didn't you help me?" She ran at the photographer, sobbing and continuing to scream. He just backed up, taking photos of her all the while. Selphie briefly considered using her self-defense techniques on the photographer as well, but then the police car and an ambulance pulled up next to her.

The cops quickly left their car and came to her aid. "What happened?" they asked frantically, one reaching out to touch her shoulder. The sudden pressure caused her to wince. "Who did this to you?"

"He went that way," she said, desperately trying to get her tears under control as she pointed down the dark street. One of the cops nodded and got into the squad car again, turned on the spotlight and continued to drive down the road.

"Ok, miss, I know you're upset," the remaining officer said, trying to sound as calm as possible, "But I'm going to need you to tell me exactly what happened. First though, lets get you some medical attention," he said, leading her to the ambulance. A paramedic opened the door for her and the cop followed her inside. As the paramedic busied himself with treating her wounds, the cop sat down on a small chair. "Ok, I need you to start at the beginning. Tell me everything," he said, as the ambulance sped away into the night.

Squall sat on the couch at the Presidential Palace. It was as far away as he could get from Laguna without leaving the room. Selphie had left while he was sleeping, and she'd been gone all day, leaving Squall to spend time with Laguna. Alone. This was not something that the SeeD Commander excelled at — the whole father-son bonding thing was something that he had very little experience with at all.

Laguna occassionally tried to start a conversation with his son, mostly in between commercials of the documentary he was watching on television. Squall was not a very willing participant in these conversations. Although he allowed Laguna to speak and attempted to look vaguely interested in what he had to say, he did not very often talk back.

Luckily, Rocks started getting unruly about five minutes before the show took another commercial break. The dog kept coming over to Squall and pressing his wet nose against Squall's hand. As Laguna opened his mouth to make another attempt at conversation, Squall stood up and said quietly, "I think the dog needs to be let out. I'll take him out." He reached for the leash sitting beside the back door, clipped it onto Rocks' collar and unenthusiastically followed the dog as he tore out the door.

Upon reaching the middle of the yard, Rocks suddenly stopped pulling and began looking wildly around, alternating between sniffing the air and the ground.

"Go potty," Squall said, hoping this behavior indicated that the dog was finding a spot to relieve himself. Rocks however had other things on his mind. He continued to pull on the leash trying to get Squall to follow him. Squall, however, stayed put, thinking to himself that Selphie needed to really work on Rocks' leash manners. "Don't pull," he instructed, his voice authoritative. "Go potty."

The dog continued to ignore Squall's commands and instead began sniffing frantically in circles, entangling Squall in the leash. No matter how many times Squall instructed Rocks to "go potty," all the dog succeeded in doing was making Squall feel emasculated. Finally, the Commander concluded that the dog didn't really have to relieve himself, so he began to focus his energy on trying to get the dog back inside the palace. It proved difficult because Rocks seemed intent on going any direction other than toward the palace. After expending much more time and energy than Squall had initially anticipated, he was eventually able to drag Rocks back inside.

After putting the leash back where he found it, Squall sat back down on the couch, again opposite of Laguna and continued pretending to be genuinely interested in not only Laguna's ramblings, but also the incredibly dull documentary he was watching. Rocks ran back up to him and started nudging him again.

Squall ignored this behavior for another hour or so, when he heard footsteps outside. Both he and Rocks looked down the entry way to see a very tired-looking Ellone and Nolan walk inside. Rocks looked disappointed, and walked away.

"Where's Selphie?" Squall asked, looking at Ellone.

"She's not home yet?" she asked, confused. When this response was met with Squall's immediate look of concern she quickly added, "We split up around noon. Nolan and I had an appointment with an officiant for our wedding. She wanted to continue shopping. I'm sure she'll be here soon, the mall closes early on Sundays."

Although this didn't completely rid Squall of his concern, he sat back in his seat and looked at the clock. It was nearing seven. Surely she'd be home soon, he told himself, looking despairingly back to the television. Ellone and Nolan joined Laguna and Squall in the living room. This took a tremendous amount of pressure off of Squall as quiet conversation slowly filled the room.

Just as Laguna's documentary appeared to be wrapping up, it was suddenly replaced by a frazzled-looking anchorman who appeared just as surprised as everyone in the living room that he was interrupting their program. He straightened up, looked at the camera, and said, "We apologise for interrupting your normal programming to bring you this breaking news. There was an attack on a young foreign girl approximately an hour ago near the intersection of 161st Street and Broadway. Officials say she is the romantic interest of President Loire's son, the SeeD Commander of Balamb Garden…" At this, the living room was suddenly silent, and everyone looked from the television to Squall. "…No word yet on if this was a crime intended to extort ransom money from the first family or just a random act of violence. The victim, 16-year-old Selphie Tilmitt, was released from the hospital just moments ago with minor injuries. She declined to release an official statement to the press. Police officials say she was able to identify her attacker in a lineup, and he has been arrested and is being held in prison. Bail is set for two thousand gil. Some photographs of Ms. Tilmitt after the assault have been released to the press, but as a warning, you may find the following images disturbing…"

Several images of a battered and crying Selphie flashed across the screen.

"What? How can they show those?" Ellone cried, holding a hand up to her mouth.

Outraged, Squall stood up, said quickly, "Come on, Rocks," and, without a goodbye, ran out of the door. He didn't even bother to leash the dog. If he wanted to find Selphie quickly, he would need Rocks' help. Sure enough, the dog took off full speed down the road, and Squall followed behind at a sprint. He hoped that she wasn't too far away.

One block went by, then two blocks. There was no sign of Selphie, and Rocks was still running as fast as he could down the road. Squall was running out of breath. He was having a hard time keeping up with the dog, and by the time he rounded the corner on the fourth block, he'd lost sight of him completely. "Damn!" Squall yelled, kicking his foot at a garbage can. Then, ignoring the pain in his chest, took off running again.

"Rocks!" he called, hoping to hear some kind of a response to give him an idea of what direction he should be going.

But instead of hearing Rocks' bark, he heard a very faint cry of "Squall?" in the distance. Heart pounding madly, Squall ran even faster in the direction the voice came from. It was yet another block before he saw the dark outlines of a small girl and her dog off in the distance in the neighborhood park. Relieved, he jogged to find Selphie sitting on a swing, stroking Rocks' head and pushing herself back and forth ever so slightly. Her head was wrapped in bandages.

"I was on my way," she said so quietly it was almost inaudible. "I was just stopping to take a rest because my legs hurt."

Squall looked at her bare legs and saw they were covered in bruises and scrapes. He opened his mouth to say something, but was momentarily speechless. "Oh Selphie..." he finally managed to say, his voice heavy with pity and relief. She didn't look up. Her face was completely obscured by shadow and she appeared transfixed by something on the ground. In the grass behind the swingset lay her shopping bags. He bent down so that he was kneeling in front of her, and immediately she pulled her hands up to her face to hide it from him.

"Selphie," he said quietly again, "Selphie, look at me. Please." When she didn't remove her hands, he reached up and gently pulled them away himself. Her left eye was completely covered by a bandage, and her swollen lip began to tremble as tears began to fall from the eye that was not covered up. She still avoided eye contact with him.

Shaking his head slowly, he leaned forward and pulled her into a hug. It was more of a comforting gesture than an actual embrace. He was afraid to hold her too tightly since he wasn't sure where she was injured. "I'm just glad you're alright," he said softly.

The two sat there, silent except for Selphie's quiet sobs. Squall made to stroke the back of her head but stopped himself when he remembered the bandages. Instead, he began rubbing her back until her breathing calmed and her tears slowed.

"It was all for nothing," she sniffled.

"What?" he asked, pulling away to look at her.

"The reason I was down there," she started, but her breathing became ragged as fresh tears started up again, "was to get Laguna's gift." Sniffling, she turned around and picked up the smallest of all the shopping bags and handed it to Squall. He looked inside to see shattered pieces of an old vinyl record peeking out of an old faded slip cover.

With a sigh and a weak smile, he set the bag down. "You know, Selph, you didn't need to get anyone anything."

"Everyone always says that," she said exasperatedly, wiping her nose on the back of her hand, "but they don't really mean it."

"Well," Squall said slowly, proceeding with caution, "Laguna is thrilled just to have you as company. He's said it at least a dozen times today."

Selphie looked into his eyes for the first time during this encounter and, although it was obviously somewhat forced, smiled back at him. He stooped down to pick up her shopping bags, but she grabbed the one from Don Juan's before he got a chance to. The sudden movement surprised Squall, but as it was a bag from Don Juan's, he realized whatever was inside was most likely for him and didn't question her.

"Let's get you home," he said, putting an arm behind her and leading her out of the park.