3:00 AM.

It wasn't like he wanted to stay awake. Something just compelled him to keep his eyes open and stare at the ceiling. He'd fallen into the void of unconsciousness easily at the start, but now he couldn't get a full half hour of rest. Squall tried to make his expression as blank as possible to mask the anxiety that roiled within him.

Anxiety wasn't something that the commander of a Special Forces unit was supposed to feel. But here he was, impatient, ready to get back to work. He had to remember that he'd built something of a life. He had friends, an actual girlfriend, a place to stay, things to do besides fight. But the old habit of fighting to forget about issues that truly nagged at him was hard to kill.

The issue that nagged him right now… was Rinoa.

He smiled. Rinoa Heartilly, his soul mate. It was figurative and factual at the same time. He'd bonded to her two years ago, and one would think that'd be enough time to figure everything out. But after all that time, they still knew little about what this whole bond was. How it worked, what it cost, what you could and couldn't do.

He didn't use anything unless he knew how it worked, inside-out. But with this, neither of them had a choice. It'd come at random for all he knew! Squall's smile faded. He needed to work, to do something so he could figure this out. Or block it out. Either way, this had to go away for at least a few more hours so he could sleep.

His PDA buzzed, made him groan. Wonderful. He crawled out of bed, made his way to the desk on instinct alone, groped for the damn thing so he could either respond or make sure it didn't buzz again. When his hand finally reached the device, the buzzing stopped.

Squall sighed as he checked his messages, with only one new one marked as urgent. What he found inside the message made him feel a little bit better.

LionHearts are cleared tactical. Further briefing at 0500.

Squall's smile returned. There, something to get his mind off his problems.

Kanto the Slayer presents

A Final Fantasy VIII Fanfiction

Final Fantasy VIII: LionHearts

Squall took a sip at his coffee mug as the others took their seats. They definitely looked like hell, and he didn't blame a few of them for looking pissed. He'd never seen such a sour expression on Irvine's face. Then he noticed that he was looking toward someone else, and followed his gaze to Quistis… who looked completely unaffected by waking up at three in the morning and preparing for a combat briefing in two hours.

Squall cleared his throat. "Sorry for waking you guys up so early, but we've got a green light." He looked around again and found a few actually trying to pay attention. Good, that's better. "We know where we're headed, but not exactly what's out there. President Caraway's probably been at this for a while now, trying to get the information we're about to hear. So I need you guys to wake up and get your heads in the zone."

Irvine huffed and leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, I know. They didn't have to get us up this early, though. I think they're just trying to be a bunch of assholes."

Squall shrugged. He might have a point. "Well whether that's true or not, we're working for them. Try not to voice your opinions when he comes on, okay?" His PDA buzzed. "Show time, guys. Look alive."

He slid the device into a slot just in front of him until he heard a click, and after a few seconds, the holographic display lit up on its own. Sitting in an armchair with a robe on was Fury Caraway. Or rather, a blue-tinted image of him sitting in a chair.

"Good morning Commander, squad leaders."

Squall nodded. "Good morning, President Caraway. I hear we're been cleared for action."

The president nodded. "We've managed to get enough information out of the CO for the Timber operation to devise a sound plan of action. Unfortunately, I can't do much due to the fact that Dollet is completely locked down. Nothing goes in or out, train lines and sea routes are blocked off. An entry from above is unfeasible due to their missile batteries on the beach and the artillery from the ships."

Rinoa's mouth twisted into a sneer. "Standard siege tactics."

"Correct. And we have no way to force troops or supplies into the city." Fury leaned forward, glowering from beneath his eyebrows. "From what I've gathered, the garrison there was wiped out. I'm not sure how the populace is doing, but I'd bet money that the situation isn't good."

Irvine shrugged. "So we blow the guns, free the train lines, and you guys are set to get in there and bomb the hell out of those ships. Blockade clear, problem solved."

The president chuckled. "If only it were that simple." He cleared his throat. "We have seen before they have means of oppressing the people, and they will not stop at an outright massacre to prove a point. If we had some way of stopping that, that plan would sound a bit more feasible."

Irvine nodded. "I figured you'd say that." He stretched out with a yawn. "You're probably talking about snipers covering every rooftop, window, and alleyway just in case." Irvine smirked. "Let me handle that."

The president looked toward Squall. "Do you trust this plan?"

Squall peered toward Irvine. "He seems pretty confident in it. Of course, he's forgetting that they could have explosives rigged to blow, soldiers on patrol, and ten tons of other things he probably hasn't put into the equation."

Irvine sighed. "It's the most feasible situation. If you have any ideas without further information…"

"Actually, we do have added intelligence."

Everyone turned their attention to the president again. "We have an asset in the city that's managed to stay alive during all this and has volunteered his services in exchange for anonymity from the press. You understand I can't say his name here for fear of him shying off. I also can't tell you what he knows."

Rinoa rolled her eyes. "Great. Then what can you do?"

"I can tell him you're coming, and I can tell you how to find him."

She smiled. "There we go."

President Caraway smirked. "I'm glad you're keeping me honest, Rinoa." He turned toward Squall again. "Your first mission is to link up with this asset and get whatever information he has. From there, you have full tactical control over this mission. Do as you see fit, but remember: minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. We don't want them announcing to the world that unarmed citizens died because of something the good guys did."

Squall nodded. "Roger that."

"Then deploy a team at once. I expect good news, LionHearts. Get it done."

"What were you thinking?"

Irvine raised his hands defensively, back against the wall to the right of the doors. "Don't look at me! I thought that was the plan!"

Squall narrowed his eyes at him. "That was without any other information, just a bunch of assumptions. Don't you remember me saying that?"

Irvine glared back at Squall. "Yes, I do. And with the intel just now of the defending force being completely obliterated, it damn sure sounds like a good plan to me!"

Squall turned away from Irvine and ran a hand through his hair, his features pinched. Okay, he had a point. But that didn't justify things. Good thing no one else was here. He turned back toward him. "We don't have time for this crap, okay? Right now, we need to find this guy and find out what he knows. I'll concede the fact that everything you said might be possible, so I'm putting your team on overwatch, just in case."

Irvine raised an eyebrow. "What, you mean I'm right?"

Squall sighed. Did he really have to make this difficult? "No. I mean you could be right. I'm giving you an opportunity to redeem yourself here. Don't press your luck." He began to make his way toward the door. "Get ready to leave with Zell and his squad. You are not to fire unless your team or his are in danger. We clear?"

Irvine tipped his hat as Squall walked past. "Plenty clear, sir."

As they walked down the corridor that led from the board room, Squall noticed Rinoa waiting for them. The smile she wore didn't seem right to him. "Irvine, can I borrow Commander Leonhart for a moment? There's something we need to discuss about the mission plan."

He tipped his hat again and kept on walking. Squall watched him leave, and as soon as he moved out of sight, he looked toward Rinoa with a grimace. "You heard?"

She shook her head. "No, but I might as well have." The heads of her eyebrows rose just enough. "I'm sure he was just trying to help. His comments weren't out of line, at least not that much. It's a workable plan."

"It's workable on paper, Rinoa. There could be two or three backup plans for this whole thing, and we have no idea what they are." Squall ran a hand across his forehead. "Irvine should've let me do the talking. I make the plans; he's supposed to execute them."

Rinoa nodded. "Okay, you have a point there. But please, try not to be too unforgiving." She ran her fingers through his hair. "I'm sure he'll see things your way whether you chew him out for it or not. Things just kinda happen like that."

Squall shook his head. "How can you say that? If I'd said yes to that plan and something happened, that'd be on me. He's lucky I even sent him to look out for Zell and his guys."

Rinoa raised an eyebrow. "You sent his sniper team out for overwatch?" She grinned, and it made him feel a lot better as the smile reached her eyes. "Thanks for saving me the trouble! I was just about to ask you to do that."

Squall chuckled. "Actually, I'm glad you were out here. I have a job for you as well."

A pair of soldiers clad in uniforms with the GMR insignia barred the entrance to Dollet, iron gates shut tight behind them. The lights on their helmets glowed an eerie shade of red as they peered through the darkness. Night vision was always helpful at this hour, especially when a detachment of guards had to be on standby almost twenty-four seven.

Another pair of guards stood at the mouth of the valley leading to the entrance, and a platoon of soldiers secured the train station. It wasn't like they had anything to do but guard the place. No one had the balls to storm the city head-on anymore.

A guard at the gate yawned, not even bothering to cover his mouth.

"Hey, no time for that. We gotta stay sharp."

The guard looked over to his right. "Are you serious? Stay sharp?" He smirked. "Come on man. No one's gonna be stupid enough to execute a frontal assault on us." He rolled his shoulders, hefted his rifle. "We have air superiority, the sea route's blocked off, supply routes are locked down… What exactly do you think is going to happen?"

The soldier that started the conversation glared over at him. "You must not have heard what happened at Timber. We tightened security here just because of that. Some Special Forces guys that Galbadia pulled out of their asses liberated the place in less than a month. If they break in on our watch, we're dead and replaced in a few days."

"Well they won't be able to pass by us. I mean, how are they gonna get in, climb thirty feet up the cliff side? Seriously, you really should relax." Another yawn. "Damn… when are they gonna change shifts? I need a nap or something…"

The guard's radio buzzed. "There we go!" He plucked it from his belt. "Patrol Charlie-One-Alpha responding, over."

"Charlie-One-Alpha, this is Control. Shift change imminent, ETA five minutes. You four are relieved, over."

He smirked and glanced over to his partner. "Solid copy, control. Permission to speak freely?"

"Granted, go ahead."

"About damn time. We're starting to lose focus out here, over."

"Understood. Get some sleep then. Control, out."

The transmission cut and the guard slid the radio back into its holster. "Come on, let's get the other guys and get some sleep. Unless you wanna stay here and pass out on your feet? I'm sure the boss will be angrier at that than anything else."

"They're leaving."

Zell nodded. "Then it's time to move. Let's get to it."

Irvine took one of his snipers and headed toward the right cliff face, while Zell's team and two other snipers headed to the right. No lines, no rigs, no safety equipment. Gear like that would be too cumbersome. They'd have to climb by hand.

And they'd have to do it fast, because they had ten minutes to infiltrate the city, contact the informant, and leave with him in their custody. Zell checked his watch, grimaced at what he saw. "Shit, we're wasting time. Haul ass!" Quetzalcoatl and Ifrit teams began their climb to the top with eight minutes remaining.

Zell's ear piece beeped. "Status."

His jaw tightened. "Kinda busy here, boss. We're not even halfway up yet. Going as fast as possible, though. We'll be there in… three minutes, give or take." Of course, this conversation had to take place while he was climbing the damn thing.

"Copy that. Do what you can, but remember that once the spell wears, you'll have to find your own concealment. You get found in there, we can't pull you out. Understood?"

"Roger, I got it." As if he hadn't been told that once before already. There was another problem he'd have to fight against, and that was the fact that the spell on them would fizz out if they bumped into anything… or anyone. It could be safely said that it would suck big time if they happened to run into a guard they missed.

And that was why they had Irvine and his team.

From the top of the cliffs, just beyond the city gate, they'd post up and see what they could see. Scopes outfitted with night vision, each sniper capable of at least five hundred yards at minimum. If anyone got into any trouble, it was their job to provide suppressive fire. It was also their job to provide some much needed observation.

Two minutes, halfway there. Everyone clad in black; nothing providing any rank or affiliation. No plan of action, just find the guy and bring him back to the Garden. They weren't here to fight, at least not yet. Within a minute and a half, the first man reached the top and began pulling the others up with him. Once everyone reached the top, Zell checked his watch. Six minutes.

"We don't have much time, so let's get this done. Stay close and quiet. Rendezvous point isn't that far from here. Move!"

His team headed toward the city as Ifrit set up shop. As they leapt from the plateau to the first roof top they saw, Irvine's voice echoed in his ear. "We're set, reading you on GPS. Let me know who I need to put a new breathing hole in." A few seconds later, he spoke again. "I was right, snipers above ground level. Better watch where you tread up there, Zell."

"Who said I'd be treading rooftops?" His team let themselves down from the roof they stood on, with Zell as the last one down. They headed toward the plaza as guards clad in uniforms with GMR insignia on the shoulders patrolled the streets. "Shit… place is crawling with soldiers."

"Okay, so I was wrong about that. My bad."

"Not a good time to admit you're wrong, dude." Zell and his team stopped in an alley and he checked his watch. Three minutes. Well fuck, how far away was this contact point? He felt a tap on his right shoulder from one of his teammates, turned to look, grimaced at what he saw. How did they not see this guy? Almost ran into him!

They made their way out of the alley and down the street, more careful than ever not to run into anyone or anything. Two minutes. Not nearly enough time. The little trick that Rinoa used on them would only last so long…

"You want me to what?"

Squall shrugged. "Well if you don't think you can, I can understand. But if we want them to infiltrate into a city under siege, crawling with enemy soldiers and with the possibility of covering fire from nearly every angle, they're gonna need some kind of concealment."

Rinoa sighed, shook her head. "I know that. Zell's quiet enough, though… I think."

Squall smirked, arms folded in front of his chest. "You think?"

Rinoa glowered at him, hands on her hips. "Well I can't just cast it on him without some kind of test, now can I? We're gonna have to see how long it takes to wear off, what happens if someone bumps into them, how long it takes to actually cast… I don't even have anyone to try…" Her eyes widened as she finally realized what Squall was getting at. "Oh, no way. I am not trying this on you."

Squall stood from the bed in his dorm. "Then who else is willing to vanish into thin air? I mean, people here like you, a lot, but I don't think they're willing to just disappear without any guarantee of coming back again." He shrugged, hands in the pockets of his jeans. "You have a very willing, and very trusting, test subject right here."

Some of the fear drained from her face, but Rinoa's brows still furrowed with worry. "And if you disappear without a trace because of me?"

Squall smirked. "Then that's one less sad, lonely, difficult-to-deal-with lion you have to worry about." He chuckled and closed the gap between them, stroked her cheek with his left hand. "But seriously. It'll be fine."

Rinoa closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. "I'm glad you have such faith in me. Hell if I know where it comes from." She stepped back a few paces and sighed. She took a deep breath in an attempt to calm herself before stretching her arms toward him. "Here goes nothing…"

Seconds passed with her eyes shut as she felt her skin tingle. An unsettling pull from deep within told her something was happening. Her face contracted as she tried to block out the voices. After a while, Rinoa shook her head with a heavy sigh, rubbing at her eyes. "You know, if I knew something this small would be so hard, I'd have paid more attention in–"

She opened her eyes to find that Squall was no longer in front of her. "…Squall?" She looked behind her right shoulder. No sign of him. Did it work? "If you're still here with me, give me a sign." She smirked. That made it sound like she was in a séance or something. She raised her arms, closed her eyes, and began to speak imperiously. "Oh great spirits of the ether, hear me! Reveal to me my beloved!"

"You sure are having fun with this, aren't you?"

Rinoa's eyes snapped open and she turned around, only to find no one behind her. That was definitely Squall. "Okay, you can stop hiding now, meanie. We know it works."

She felt his fingers run through her hair, again from behind. She turned around again, only to bump right into something solid. The spell wore off at once, revealing a very amused Squall. "And now we know what makes it stop working."

Rinoa huffed with feigned frustration. "I really don't know what to do with you sometimes." She looked up at him with a smile. "So what now, mister guinea pig? Wanna disappear for however long it takes?" She poked his chest. "And this time, let me know where you are if you're gonna move. I don't like not knowing where you are."

Squall shrugged. "Can't you just use the bond?"

Rinoa looked away from him, eyes fixed on some interesting spot on the floor. "I'd rather not. We don't know half of how it really works yet. I'd rather get more practice in before I actually start trying to find you with it." Yeah, practice. More like extra training. She looked up at him again. "So just let me know where you are for now, okay?"

Squall nodded and smiled. "Fine with me. Just a 'sec though..." He walked over to the desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a stop watch. With that, he headed back over to Rinoa again. "Okay, here's the deal. Try keeping your eyes open this time, I need to know when I'm actually gone. Once you make me invisible, I'll start the clock. When you can see me again, I'll stop the watch and we'll go with whatever time's on there. Sound good?"

Rinoa nodded and took another deep breath. Well, if it worked with eyes closed… "Let's do this."

Ten minutes. That was how long it would last, in theory. Now two minutes remained, and they were no longer on schedule. Zell's frustration started to show as he picked up the pace. "Let's get a move on; we can't afford wasting any more time." He and the other three members of his team moved through the streets at a jog, careful not to run into the soldiers on patrol. He couldn't wait to kick their asses. Not now though.

"You guys set up yet?"

Zell grimaced as Irvine's voice buzzed in his ear. Good thing no one else could hear him. "No, and we have one minute left." They were almost there. Zell turned right, headed into another dark alley… and stopped just short of bumping into two guards on their smoke break. Shit!

Thirty seconds. He took a few steps back, prepared to jump the two of them. This was the place, and they were in the way. Before he could do anything though, he saw a flash of something metallic in the moonlight. A split second later, blood covered the walls and the street below. The other soldier had no time to react as a black-gloved hand grabbed him by his left shoulder and yanked him into the shadows. A moment later, they heard the sound of something running through a man's guts… then nothing.

Zell stood stock still, shocked at what he'd just seen. If his team went into that alley, there was a good chance they might not come out! That was, assuming this was their guy and not some nut job. He looked back down the street. No one headed their way… so he decided to let time run out.

As the spell wore and they found themselves very much out in the open, Zell slowly walked forward with his hands in the air. His team followed suit, knowing perfectly well what might happen if they made a wrong move. As soon as he entered the alley, he heard the voice of their mystery man, his tone soft.

"Smart move, that. But you can put your hands down."

Zell lowered his arms. "I'm gonna assume you're the guy." He sure hoped this guy was the right person, or else they were in a world of shit, and without any concealment to boot.

"Depends on what guy you're talking about."

Zell smirked. He already knew what this was about. "We're in the neighborhood to check out the sights. We could use a tour guide."

Silence for a moment, then the voice spoke again. "I could help you out with that. Come with me."

Zell followed the sound of footsteps, uncertain of what exactly would happen next. Not like he cared, he could get out of this, should it turn bad. It's what he did. But the way those two guards were dispatched, he wasn't sure that two extra guys were anything for their mysterious informant to worry about. But never mind. As long as this guy was on their side for however long, he was fine with it.

Somewhere in the alley, they turned right and the mole told them to stop for a few moments. With the sound of sliding, grinding stone, Zell realized what he'd gotten his team into. Okay, now this just turned bad. Escape routes were limited underground, especially when whatever network of tunnels down there was unmapped.

And it was still dark. How the hell could this guy see down here?

He shook his head. Didn't matter, just needed to keep moving.

A thick, heavy silence filled the air, broken only by the echoes of their boots. Half an hour passed without any kind of conversation, and it made Zell sweat. The longer this cold shoulder thing went on, the more certain he was that this was a trap…

"We're here."

Zell almost ran into their guide. "Where exactly is here?"

The whisper of a sliding door split the air as easily as a pin drop. "You'll see soon enough."

They passed through the entrance, and as the lights came on… Zell grimaced. "Well fuck me. Why didn't I see this coming?" Sarcasm dripped from his voice as he stared down the barrels of four assault rifles pointed in his team's direction. His muscles tensed as a bolt of anger shot through him. "Put the guns down and I'll let you live. Doesn't mean I won't kick your ass, but I'll go easy."

A chuckle from the man in front of them, his back still turned. "As if you could beat me, chicken-wuss."

Zell froze. The last insult he'd ever expect to hear, and there it was. The soldiers chuckled as they lowered their weapons, and the man took his beanie off, revealing a shock of unkempt blond hair. He took his black trench coat off, revealing arms far more defined and built than the last time Zell saw them. "There's no fucking way…"

The man turned the coat inside out and put it back on. There it was, the telltale red cross of a Knight Templar.

"Why not? What, you think I just went and died somewhere?" The blond turned and folded his arms in front of his chest. "You got another thing coming if you think I'm just gonna sit a war out."

Zell's eyes narrowed. "You're still an asshole."

Seifer smirked. "And you my friend are still easy to piss off. Which is why I like you." He raised an eyebrow. "What's with the suits? You guys headed for a costume party or some shit?"

Zell did his best not to react. No use trying to deal with him the usual way. "We're the guys that'll save this town from the GMR. And since I'm going to assume you're the informant that Caraway was talking about, that means we have to work with you."

"Yeah, it does. You got a problem?"

Zell chuckled. "Just that you're responsible for so many war crimes, I'm surprised the president actually let you participate in this." He glowered at Seifer. "You have a lot to answer for. I have half a mind to make you answer for it right now."

Seifer nodded. "Then go for it. I won't stop you."

Zell took a step forward to do just that… and then stopped, an eyebrow raised. Wait, did he hear that right? "Come again? It almost sounded like…"

"…I said I wouldn't stop you. And I did."

The squad leader took a good look at Siefer's face, for once. His features showed no hint of amusement. Brows curled upward, yet drooping… eyes turned down just enough to show remorse… posture relaxed, accepting. The black gloves didn't reach for Hyperion even once, though Zell knew the man could draw it in a flash and kill him and his team on the spot.

He was telling the truth. Zell had a free shot, just this once.

His fists unclenched, shoulders relaxed. "I'm not the one you need to answer to. You know perfectly well who that is."

Seifer raised an eyebrow. "You mean he's here?"

Zell shrugged. "Not with us right now. But he's here." He shook his head. "That's not what we're here for, though. You're going to tell me everything you know about this siege. When it started, what they're planning, where the guards hang out, everything." He pointed to the soldiers behind the former Garden student. "Start with who these guys are."

"Part of what remains of Dollet's military." Seifer glanced behind his right shoulder. "Don't worry, they don't answer to me. I just organized them into a tighter unit." He turned to face Zell again. "As for the siege, I was here when it got started. On vacation, so to speak."

Zell nodded. "So that means Fujin and Raijin are…"

"Yeah, they're here too. Back at base, but they're here." Seifer turned toward the guards again. "Head back home. I'll get these four there in a bit."

The soldiers snapped off a salute before they headed further into the building. Zell didn't see where they went. Too focused on the arrogant prick, just standing there giving orders as if he was hot shit. Seifer turned back to him again. "You gonna arrest me?"

Zell smirked. "While I'd love to, I can't. You're an intelligence asset, and we need you as free to move as possible. And since there's at least some resistance effort, your value just went through the roof." He scratched the back of his head. "If I was sent to bring you in specifically, I'd have used every trick in the book to kill those soldiers and knock you sideways. But I'm recon, and that's what I'm sticking to."

Seifer stood there for a few seconds before he gave the SeeD a calculating once-over. "You… have gone up a few levels in smarts."

"I don't take that as a compliment, since it comes from you." Zell leaned against the wall to the right of the entrance, his team moving to take it easy as well. "Now, start over, from the beginning. I got all night, so gimme the gory details."

Seifer stood at ease. "Okay, fine. Here's the deal about this whole shit storm that Dollet's gotten into…"

Chapter 23: Dollet 1 – Shed Some Light

I have no excuses, guys.

I've been working on other stories while trying to get my life together, and this has been put by the wayside. But now this chapter is done, and life can resume as usual for our heroes. Thus, the Siege of Dollet is underway! As per usual, ten chapters of insanity and madness are about to follow, as well as non-stop, off-the-rails action!

Now I know we haven't talked in a while about this story, but I want to thank you guys for reading this. I mean, seriously. It's been down for a while, but you seem to have gone back and relived several chapters, and for that, you have my thanks. If you're just starting on this chapter, back up now and read it from chapter one. Things will make a lot more sense that way.

Well anyways, I'm going to sleep now… then again, I can't sleep. This is a problem that must be remedied.

Ja ne.