Squall tilted his head to look out through the SUV's side window. The little trickles of water running down the glass gave the red-brick houses a blurry outline, but even the drizzle couldn't hide the shabby, rundown look of the street.
"Grim, isn't it?" Quistis said quietly, from where she was resting her chin and arms on the steering wheel.
Squall nodded sombrely. Deling City was bigger and poorer then he remembered. It had been eye-opening driving through the housing estates surrounding this warren. Everywhere grey concrete blocks had been thrown up to house refugees from the wars of independence. Their walls had been covered with the murals of hooded paramilitary figures and their angry sectarian slogans. Here and there on street corners had been piles of plastic-wrapped flowers.
But the streets around him were old. Perhaps as old as Laguna, he thought. Something different had gone wrong here.
"What is this place?" he asked Quistis. Behind him he heard the others turning from what they were doing to listen. He guessed the surroundings were getting to them as well. Quistis' eyes flickered briefly over to meet his, and then returned to staring out at the rain.
"Condemned housing," she told them, "They were supposed to knock it down for more refugee tenements, but they boarded it up and pocketed the money instead. There's no-one here except squatters and drug addicts now."
No-one in the vehicle asked how she knew. Quistis would read anything. Zell stabbed at his laptop's keyboard viciously;
"Man, I hate this city."
There was muttered agreement. Squall turned his face back to the window and ignored his friend's gripping. The blond man's chatter kept the others' spirits up, but Squall longed for quiet. Thinking about Ellie as it rained... brought back the bad memories.
Zell and Quistis had met them at the airport, and it had been like old times on a mission. The blond man was back from a career break modelling swimwear, and from hosting his reality street-fighting Grid-show. Quistis been called back from the polar regions, from leading a survey team studying the Blue Magic potential of the new species uncovered there.
Zell had been full of bounce; he'd insisted on showing everyone the positions he was going to twist the kidnappers into once they'd caught up with them. Quistis had smiled quietly at Squall, and cooed over the slight swell of Rinoa's stomach. Then she'd grilled them mercilessly over antenatal care. Leaving the happy couple alone at last, she'd sat down with her old roommate Xu and gone over the mission profiles. Quistis was a natural organiser; anyway, most of the listed names were ex-students of her post-grad courses.
Preparations for the snatch had come together quickly enough. In the end, they'd more or less reassembled the local Galbadia Garden team Xu had used during Irvine's Centran mission. Her people had been all over Sasha Bennett before, tailing, bribing and bugging their way through the woman's underworld dealings. They'd had a good idea where to lie in wait. Bennett bought and sold information; naturally she kept her system backed-up.
Her watchers called it the Den. It was a tiny flat over a drug-dealer's synth-factory; a disused NRA safe-house wall-to-wall with obsolete computers. The small cell that Bennett ran paid the gangster a weekly rent to keep the junkies out. No dealer for twenty miles around would sell to a blacklisted addict. It was stronger security then the Den's six-inch steel doors. The little network inside was filled with juicy titbits of data, and kept religiously separate from the Grid. Bennett had to arrive in person each evening to feed the day's details in.
"Scissors," Zell's laptop blared suddenly, making Squall jump, "Scissors, this is Stone."
Zell winced and dialled down the volume. Quistis reached across smartly and plucked the radio-mike from his shirt-clip.
"Scissors? Can you hear me?"
"Yes Stone, we hear you," the blonde woman said dryly.
"Scissors, Paper is in position," the laptop's microphone crackled, "And the eggs are in the basket."
Zell turned his laptop around so the others could see its screen. Rinoa and Selphie leaned in for a closer look. He'd pulled up a window with a satellite map of the area. It was studded with winking red dots, each marking a SeeD's postion. Each mercenary had swallowed a GPS biochip at the start of the mission. The watchers were spread around in a loose net, covering both ends of the street. The snatch team were grouped together in a little blobby cluster- inside the back of the dented white van rented for the mission.
"Scissors, Paper is asking if you need live visual with this?"
Quistis glanced at Squall, who shook his head.
"No Stone," she said, "Tell them to wrap this up and let's get back home."
"Yes ma'am," the laptop chuckled. On the screen, the dots began to move. Quistis turned the key in the ignition. Zell cracked his knuckles impatiently.
"That should be us out there," he groused, "Actually doing things, like we used to."
Irvine rolled his eyes. At the wheel, Quistis sighed.
"Zell sweetie, we're too recognisable for street work these days," Selphie said, "Let's just follow the van and watch no-one's tailing it."
Irvine's hand inched into his jacket pocket. Without looking, Selphie reached across and smacked it away.
"Not in the Hyne-damn car," she said, and everyone laughed. Quistis released the clutch. And everything went wrong, all at once.
White, bright light filled the inside of the SUV, dazzling. The engine screeched then stalled as everyone in the vehicle tried to shield their eyes with their hands. The light crept through the lids anyway. Zell's computer fell from his lap to the floor with a crash. Quistis wrenched the handbrake up, stopping the SUV's slide down the hill. Irvine swore one unbroken string of obscenities as he fumbled blindly for Exeter.
"Everyone out!" Squall shouted. Zell snatched up his machine as Irvine booted the back door open.
"What's happened!" Selphie cried as they spilled out of the SUV. Rinoa pressed one hand to her temple;
"Panic," she said, "I can't feel anything but panic."
Zell opened the computer and held it up to his eyes. On the screen he saw a handful of the red SeeD markers scattering north. The rest had vanished completely. He turned the screen round to show the others again.
"Rin, get back to the airport," Squall said instantly, "Irvine, Selphie, you go with her. Get out of here. We'll meet up there at the arranged time. Zell, Quistis, come with me. Let's take a look."
Rinoa's eyes narrowed. Squall was trying to take control of everything, when he didn't have any more of a clue then the rest of them about what was going on. He was sending her out of the way, and Irvine and Selphie too, the only other couple. Bad memories of leading the Forest Owls flashed through her mind.
The SeeDs split smoothly apart, heading in opposite directions down the street. Squall glanced back, and saw Rinoa hadn't moved anywhere. His wife stood stock still, her arms folded across her blue and white blouse. He stopped moving.
Hyne, why did Rin have to choose the worst possible times to be difficult, he thought. The times he needed to protect her the most seemed to be the moments she wanted it the least. But then she snuggled up to him when she got nightmares! He reached out across their private bond.
- What are you doing?
- Waiting for you to tell me where the hell you think you're going.
- We're in a combat situation. I gave you an order. Get out of here. It's not safe.
- I'm your wife. And a Sorceress. In case you'd forgotten, I can bring down these buildings just by thinking about it!
Squall broke off the exchange and pinched the bridge of his nose hard. It crossed his mind that Rinoa had been a freedom fighter, not a solider. Fighters didn't cope well with orders. They followed a person, not a rank.
Selphie and Irvine had stopped moving down the street. Irvine, looking edgily about him, loped back to pull Rinoa away by the arm. She slapped angrily at him, and he jumped back like a startled cat.
"Get your hands off me Kinneas!"
Squall took a step up the street. Zell and Quistis stood waiting for him, the blond man jiggling impatiently on the balls of his feet.
"I. I can't do this right now," he said to her, "People might still be alive."
"Then send someone else," she said.
"No," he shook his head and took a second step away, "I'm the senior officer present."
Selphie drew up next to Rinoa and plucked gently at her sleeve.
"Come on hon, let's get you and the little one out of here."
Rinoa sagged. She let Selphie draw her slowly away, but pointed after Squall.
"If you do this…" she called after him, "You! You come back in one piece! You hear?"
He glanced back as the triad took off up the street, saw her still watching, and gave a crisp salute.
The van was crumpled as an empty can. Squall couldn't see any bodies, but there must be some in that twisted and blackened wreckage. The billowing plume of smoke from the stricken vehicle cut off his view. His eyes tracked right, passed the disaster. Trith, the lead watcher, was crumpled in the doorway of the squat. His hands were pressed against his stomach, across which a red stain was spreading. A figure stood by him, keeping its back to the alleyway running between two crumbling brick buildings. It wore a crumpled grey trenchcoat, and thick military boots. A gunblade was cocked in one clenched fist.
Squall blinked, and in that moment his mind mapped Bennett's picture across her face. Somehow no one ever wore the right expression. The inky eyes were wider on a tensed face, but they still watched the SeeDs' approach alertly. The sight of them didn't seem to break her poise.
She kicked Trith's weapon away, and stepped after it fluidly, deep into the mouth of the alley. She shifted the gunblade into a two-handed pistol grip, tracking them along the length of her sword. Squall, in the lead, slowed to a walk, lowering his weapon. Seeing the sword-point levelled at them, Zell started a headlong rush at the woman, but Squall's arm shot out and checked him. It was a stand-off.
"Can I get my man?" he called to Bennett, "He'll bleed to death otherwise."
Bennett shrugged nonchalantly; "Knock yourself out."
"Quistis, help Trith," Squall said.
"You be careful now honey," the woman in the alley-mouth drawled.
Quistis stiffened. She gave the Galbadian a distasteful look, but said nothing in return. Somehow she managed to look graceful picking her way through the wreckage of the van. She bent over the lead watcher's unconscious body and peeled back his shirt. She began to touch Trith's wounds with shimmering fingers. Zell and Squall watched Sasha Bennett. She gazed back with a flat, patient stare. She made no attempt to escape down the empty alley behind her.
The watcher coughed weakly. Quistis heaved Trith to his feet and pushed him away; "Get out of here," she told him curtly. He staggered away without a backward look. Quistis and Squall glanced at each other. What had Bennett used on them?
As soon as Trith had gone, the SeeDs took up a wide fighting triangle around the alley mouth. Squall took the point, with Lionheart facing Bennett's sword. Everyone paused, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Quistis made a last effort to salvage the situation.
"Sasha," she said, "Enough now. You're dangerous, but we're better."
"You have something we need. Don't force us to make you come to Garden."
The Galbadian shook her head smiling, and her eyes flickered to Squall's face.
"Hey Leonhart?" she called.
"What?" Squall called back grimly. She'd recognised them then.
"Hurts, doesn't it? Loosing your people? You should have tried grabbing me yourself!"
Squall didn't know what to think. Her eyes seemed to be devouring his face, savouring his expression.
"I will," he said finally, "Don't make it hard on yourself."
Her lip curled;
"Rafale said you'd come running after he sent the time-dream."
This time it was Zell's arm that shot out across Squall's chest.
"Where's my sister? What have you done to her!"
"Easy man," Zell said, "She's winding you up."
Squall shook his head to shake off the rage, and glared at Sasha; "Give her back," he said flintily.
Sasha Bennett took a defensive step back into the alley. She turned her head slightly, and reached up a gloved hand to pull the skin tight, so they could all see the clean sword-scar running down the side of her neck.
"No," she said.
"You want to fight… us?" Squall said slowly. Quistis and Zell began closing in on either of her flanks.
She looked at him, "You don't remember at all, do you?"
"No," Squall said, bewildered.
"Funny," she said softly. And leapt at them.