I like Shades of Shadow by Quintana and Speer. What does that have to do with Final Fantasy VIII? Nothing. Except that I don't own either of them.

Chapter VII

The sound of the rain engulfed her senses and literally drowned out everything else.As she lay there drenched in the mud, the water continued to creep up to her lips and splash in her eyes. The field was shrouded in a mist from the deluge and everything around her appeared deathly gray. Cracks of thunder permeated the storm; the reverb compressing her chest as she strained to breath.

Injured and soaked to the bone, she felt hopeless and ashamed; disgraced. This was not Quistis Trepe. She was stronger than this; but why couldn't she get up?

Her body was going into shock, even as she recognized the symptoms. The shivers from the cold were beginning to slow and her vision blurred with every blink of her eyes. There was blood, but she didn't know where it was coming from. She could no longer feel anything; her nerves had shut down and gone numb.

Perhaps her injuries were more severe than she thought. So did that mean she was... going to die out here?

The former instructor closed her eyes, unwilling to accept her surroundings. She couldn't die in a place like this. She couldn't die under these circumstances.

Soon, the sound of rain hitting the ground became the sound of wind blowing through the trees. The darkness around her turned into light and the gray filled with brilliant hues. No longer hurting, she relaxed and embraced the comfort. Forgetting all traces of that dismal reality, she found herself laying in a field of tall grass and flowers. There were so many colors, so many scents. It was all so... peaceful.

Then someone just had to remind her...

"Can you hear me?! Open your eyes!"

She obeyed the voice that penetrated her delusion. Taking in a deep breath, she was suddenly slammed with all that pain and cold again, all at once. "Seifer!" she screamed. She couldn't see him, not yet. Her eyes weren't focusing properly, no matter how many times she blinked. Was that him? Did he come back for her?

"I've got ten minutes before that damn train leaves," he told her. "Take this, and sit up." He revealed a small blue bottle containing no more than a gram of fluid inside. It was a potion; he'd stolen it from a shop in town. "It won't heal broken bones, but it will stop the bleeding on your head and ease the pain."

Quistis reached up and grabbed it, emptying the contents into her mouth. The liquid was tasteless, but cold like ice. As soon as the contents had emptied, the glass disintegrated in her hand; the shards themselves faded into particles of blue light and smoke.

She was able to think clearly now and promptly sat up. She didn't know what to say, even as she knew what she had to do. She still had to stop him, she was a SeeD with a job to do.

Seifer stood up and stepped back. "Don't take this as an act of kindness. You're the only one who can keep up with me and I didn't want the fun to end so soon."

She stared at the ground for a moment ignoring his comments. "You weren't supposed to come back. You said I wasn't going to see you again."

The cadet smirked. "My dear instructor. I'm sure we'll run into each other again." He grinned and turned towards Balamb. His ride out of here wasn't going to wait for him.

Quistis sat there in the rain and watched him run off again. "Dammit." She slammed her fist down in the mud. This was her last chance. Let him go? Or keep the "fun" going? "Seifer Almasy, freeze!"

The seventh piece...
Strength and Determination - Part II

The three SeeDs climbed onto the roof of the speeding yellow locomotive with Rinoa right behind them. The wind continuously beat them back, but the four pressed forward along the roof until they reached the front of the train.

"The first switch point is right up ahead!" Rinoa shouted. "Zone will activate the switch remotely and we'll speed onto a parallel track! At this point we'll have about ninety seconds to catch up and jump before the gap widens and our base is forced through a track behind some trees! Did everyone get that?!"

Squall shouted back, though he could barely make out what she said. "Got it!" He wasn't expecting the wind to be this intense; he could barely hear himself speak "Zell, Selphie! You two will jump before me! We have to be quick!"

They understood and nodded to their Squad Leader.

The President's train wasn't far ahead; they'd already passed the switch point. Rinoa could see the red car Deling was riding in, and the longer she stared, the more worked up she got. "This is it," she thought to herself. "We're finally doing it. We're finally taking action. Deling, your reign of ignorance and corruption ends today!"

Zone activated the switch and the base sped onto the other tracks. The group on the roof felt the locomotive speed up and before they knew it, they were side by side with Deling's train.

"I'll go first!" Rinoa shouted. She braced her footing at the edge of the roof and held her breath. The ground below was nothing but a blur and it made her dizzy. She closed her eyes a moment. "I can do this..."

Squall watched intently as Rinoa leapt across the gap. He hadn't realized it, but he too had held his breath. Relieved to see her make it, he motioned for Zell and Selphie. "Your turn! Move it, now!"

Zell took less time to prepare his jump but landed safely on the other roof.

Selphie stood at the edge with her eyes closed.

"Come on!" Zell waved. "You can do it Selph, just jump!"

She opened her eyes. "All right, here I go!" She leapt into the air.

Rinoa and Zell both caught her arms as she landed somewhat off balance. "Piece of cake, huh?!"

Selphie immediately crouched down to brace herself. "Hee hee. No problem!"

Now it was Squall's turn. He moved to the edge and turned his head to look ahead of the trains. That gap Rinoa warned of was rapidly approaching. He only had a few seconds before the jump became impossible.

"Squall, you can do it!" Zell shouted.

Selphie backed him up. "It's easier than it looks, really!"

He clenched his teeth. "Here goes nothing..." Just as his feet left the roof, the yellow locomotive began to pull away. He landed safely on the other train and watched the base speed away. "No turning back now!" he told them all. "Let's move!"

Rinoa led them across the first escort, setting the pace for them to follow. She warned them again about the soldiers on board, along with the array of sensors they were carrying. One wrong step and they'd probably be shot.

They continued along the roof, combating the wind and deafening roar, until they crossed the President's car. The junction between the first escort and President's car provided very narrow platforms for standing on. Zell and Selphie remained on the roof while Rinoa and Squall dropped down.

"Zell," Rinoa began. "We need you to keep an eye on the track up ahead. Let us know when the switch point comes into view! You'll see a large post with a blinking red light!" She turned to Squall. "We need to have this uncoupled long before we reach the switch so that our base can move in and link up with the President's car!"

Squall examined the components around him. The locking mechanism consisted of a pin and a magnetic release. The electromagnet was controlled by a circuit inside the first escort. That's what he had to disable.

Rinoa continued. "Selphie, keep your eye on the window into the first escort. Holler if you see any guards heading this way!"


Squall peered over the side of the train. "I see the access panel. Let's get this over with." Gripping the railing tightly, he climbed over the side and hung himself precariously over the edge. He pulled the small latch, but the panel refused to open up. "Dammit!" He slammed his fist into it a few times and it finally popped off. "I'm in!"

Rinoa took out the diagram she had and pressed it flat on the small platform. "Okay, Squall! On the top right, closest to you, there should be a small black box with groups of cables coming out from three sides; east, south and west. See it?!"

"Yeah, I see it!"

"Grab the cable on the east side and pull it gently to expose the wires connecting to the box! There should be a green one, a red one, a yellow one, and two black ones! Cut the green one!"

Squall tried to gently pull the cable loose without ripping all the wires out at once. After he had them exposed, he looped his index finger around the green wire and yanked it free. "Done!" he shouted.

"Okay, next..."

"Hey! There's someone coming!" Selphie quickly laid herself flat beside Zell so she wouldn't be seen.

"Shoot!" Rinoa had nowhere to go, so she pressed herself up against the door staying as low as possible. If the guard opened that door, it would be all over.

Squall grabbed the frame for the window on the side of the train and let go of the railing. He slammed hard against the side and gripped it with all his strength to keep from falling. "Argh!" The pain in his fingers was excruciating, and that wind sure didn't help matters. They were entering a path cut through a small forest of trees, and the branches were whipping passed him at a frightening speed. Some of them smacked him and one tore a hole in his pants, leaving a small cut on his leg. "Ah! Shit!" He tried to take the pain and waited for the all clear.

The soldier inside the escort car walked up to the window in the door and took a look outside. He didn't see anyone. "There's no one out there!" he shouted back to the others. Rinoa could hear them through the door.

"Open it up and take a look! The damn sensor indicated a heat spike!"

"I just got a sound spike! You sure there's nothing out there?!"

"Oh no," Rinoa thought.

"I'm not opening this damn door and letting all that wind rush in here! Forget it!" He took another look outside. "There's nothing out there! There's some steam coming from a vent on the other car, that's it." He headed further back inside, away from the door. "And the sound must've been a damn tree branch or something!"

Rinoa cautiously stood up and peered through the window. He was moving out of sight again. Selphie peeked her head over the edge and signaled that it was safe.

Suddenly, it hit her. "Squall?!" Rinoa rushed and leaned over the railing to make sure he was still there. "You all right?!"

He shimmied his way back over to the railing and grabbed her hand. "Great!" he shouted. After climbing onto the platform, he flexed his fingers a bit and cracked his knuckles. Damn his hands hurt now. "Let's hurry this up!" He climbed back into position and waited for Rinoa to tell him what to do next.

"Hey guys, I can see the switch point!" Zell yelled. "We only have a few minutes, hurry it up down there!"

"Squall, follow the south cable to the other small box it connects to! There should be five thick wires leading out the other side! Pull out the red and black ones!"

Squall trailed the cable with his eyes and spotted the next wires. He tore them out. "Done!" He climbed back up to the platform as Rinoa pulled the pin before the backup circuit kicked in.

"Wait a minute, what's that?!" Rinoa pointed to a thick cable connecting the cars that wasn't visible beneath the coupling arms. "Crap, it's a power cable!" They quickly climbed onto the roof of the President's car before they separated. The cable stretched and snapped, but the lights in the President's car didn't go out.

Squall reassured everyone. "It was probably just for communications! Even so, we might not have much time before we're discovered now!"

The locomotive and first escort started to speed away as their yellow base sped up along side them. "Let's get to the next junction!" Rinoa didn't want to waste any more time. They cut this one a little too close.

The yellow base gained some distance ahead and made the switch. They coupled directly to the President's car and matched speeds with the first escort. Soon, they'd be making the final switch, and the President's car would be theirs.

"What was that sound?!" the soldier with the sensor yelled.

The patrol guard rolled his eyes and remained in his seat. "Probably more trees..."

"Go take a look!"

"I'm telling you, it was just more branches! You really think someone would be dumb enough to try and hijack this train?! Come on."

The soldier glared at his comrade. "Hmm... Maybe you're right." He picked up a small red phone beside him.

"What are you doing?" the patrol guard asked.

"I want to check with the second escort. Maybe they can confirm the disturbance outside."

"No, don't bother them! It's almost time for the report anyway, just wait till then."

The soldier sighed. "You're a real pain in the ass, you know that?"

Selphie was just about to drop into the next junction when she noticed movement near the door. "Wait! There's someone there, we can't go down yet!"

The soldier stood by the door, his back facing the window. "All right, it's time. Call in the report."

One of the guards in the isle picked up a red phone to call the first escort. "Hey... What the hell?"

"What's wrong?"

"The line is dead. Stupid piece of crap!" He slammed the pone against the post a few times, but it didn't seem to make things any better. "Heh. Looks like you're gonna have to go over there. Sucks to be you!"

The soldier by the door sighed. "Are you serious? Ah, shit. He's gonna yell at me again, I just know it."

The other soldiers started to laugh. "Heh heh heh. Good luck."

The group outside ducked down as the door opened. "Dammit, why me?" The lone soldier hopped the gap and proceeded inside the President's car.

Rinoa lifted her head slightly to speak. "We can't uncouple the cars until he goes back inside the escort car! We have to wait!"

Squall shook his head. "No! We don't have time! We have to do this now!"

Rinoa hesitated. He was right, there wasn't any time. "Okay, let's get down there! Zell, Selphie, you know what to do!"

Squall climbed over the railing again, ready for another exciting experience so perilously close to death. Although, he had to admit, this was what he loved.

The soldier walked slowly as he approached the President. The inside of this car was exquisitely designed and clearly conveyed its royal status. It was also much quieter, as well as darker. Covering all the windows were thick maroon curtains with gold lace trim. The floor was even carpeted and all the seats were fashioned like leather sofas. Damn, it sure is nice to be President.

"Uh, excuse me sir."

President Deling had his head back with his eyes closed trying to catch up on little sleep it seemed. He didn't react to the soldier's words.

"Mr. President?" The soldier bit his lip. "He's going to hate me," he thought. "But I have to tell him, it's my job."

"What do you want?" Deling asked in a low, angry tone.

Rinoa held the diagram steady. "Next, cut the red and black ones! That should be it!"

Squall pulled them loose and quickly climbed back onto the small platform.

After Rinoa pulled the pin, she watched the second escort fall back as it began to slow. It was just a matter of time before the soldiers on board realized it. Then, as that thick cable under the junction stretched and snapped, she smiled when she realized they had no way of communicating it to the others. "We did it! Everyone back on the roof!"

The soldiers felt their bodies moving forward as if someone hit the brakes. "Are we in Timber already?" They each peeked through the blinds and saw nothing but fast moving pine trees. Although, they were definitely slowing down.

"Check the President!"

The other soldier ran to the front of the car. "Son of a bitch! The President's car! They've hijacked it!" Both soldiers stood in the open doorway as a young woman in blue waved to them from their distancing train. "Argh, god dammit!"

"Sir, it's time for the report. We've seemed to have lost communications with the first escort and locomotive. Other than that, the sensors check out fine with just a few minor spikes."

Deling frowned and sighed. "So get over to the other escort and confirm this. Stop wasting time."

The soldier saluted. "Yes sir!" He bit his lip again. "There goes my paycheck..." he thought. "I'll never be able to propose to her... Why me?"

He didn't even have to open the door, he saw through the window that the paint was the wrong color. Where there should have been blue, there was yellow. "Shit! Sir!" He ran back to the President and readied his gun. "Sir, we've been hijacked!"

Deling sat up and turned around. "What?!"

The soldier checked the other door and saw his car far off in the distance. "I don't believe this! Mr. President, stay down!"

Zone activated the last switch. The base crossed over onto the parallel track and veered north, away from Timber. Rinoa and the SeeDs watched with astonishment and pride as the locomotive tugging the first escort sped away as if nothing had happened. The second escort was still rolling under its own momentum, but it would eventually stop.

Rinoa threw her arms around Squall, ignoring the wind and dangers of being on the roof of a moving train. "We did it!" she exclaimed. "We're heading far away from the city, they'll never catch up to us now! Thank you all so much for this!"

Squall eased her off. "It isn't over just yet. We still need to confront Deling, right?"

She nodded. "Yes! The time has finally come!"

Squall couldn't help the feeling he got though. Something didn't seem quite right. Whether Deling hated the company of soldiers or not, there should have been far more of them on this train. The fact that he and the others managed to hijack it didn't surprise him. Really, it was the fact that they even had the opportunity.

Something wasn't right.

The four took a few minutes to rest after getting back inside their base. Squall had to endure the most out there, but he acted as if it was nothing. Rinoa saw the cut on his leg and offered him a bandage, but he adamantly stated, "I don't need any bandages."

Zone and Watts both came rushing to congratulate their comrades. "Awesome sir, that was perfect!" Watts said to Squall. "That was incredible sir! You're the best sir!"

Squall inwardly thanked him for the praise; no hint of it conveyed in his expressions though. "Just doing what I was hired to do." That's all it was; a job.

Zone picked Rinoa up off the floor forcing her to stand. "Hey!" she shouted at him. "Let me take a break here!"

He pointed to the door in the back. "We've waited too long for this opportunity to confront Deling!"

"'We?'" Rinoa shot back. "So you're coming in there with me?"

He grabbed his stomach. "Oh, uh... I don't think I... should."

Rinoa folded her arms. "Didn't think so. What about you Watts?"

He shook his head and backed up the stairs. "N-not me! Gathering information is my specialty sir! You can handle the interrogations!"

"Fine! Squall, Zell, Selphie? You have to come, this is an order!"

Squall shrugged his shoulders. "Well we weren't going to just sit here. Do you have a plan?"

She looked up at the ceiling for second then started to rub her hands together with a wide smirk on her face. "I've got some serious negotiations planned! Heh heh heh."

"'Serious negotiations?'" he thought. "Are you going to rough him up or something?"

Ignoring his question, she stepped towards the door. "You guys ready?! Let's go!"

"All right!" Selphie threw her arms into the air. "A Presidential Convening! I always thought these things were so boring!" Her constant playfulness was both a blessing and a curse, not just for her, but for everyone around her. It certainly alleviated much of the tension.

As soon as Rinoa stepped inside the President's car, a gun shot rang loud and a bullet struck the wall beside her head. "Ah!" They'd forgotten about the soldier.

Squall pulled her to the floor. "Get down!"

"Don't come any closer!" The soldier shot off a few more rounds as the group dived into the bathroom compartments. "Die you resistance scum!"

"Squall!" Zell shouted. "How do we get passed him?!"

The Squad Leader didn't answer. He grabbed his gunblade and readied himself for a full on assault. Then he heard the President begin to speak.

"Knock it off," he told the soldier. "You're giving me a headache."

"Huh?! But, sir...!"

Squall peeked around the corner.

"Mr. President, they might try to harm you sir!"

Deling was seated with his back towards Squall and the others. He didn't appear too concerned with the situation. "They will do no such thing." He reached his arm out and grabbed the soldier's wrist.

"Ah! Sir?!" The President twisted and snapped the bone, forcing the soldier to drop his gun. "Arghh!" With a swift pull, Deling yanked him closer then threw him against the wall on the other side, knocking him out cold.

"What the hell...?" Squall thought.

Rinoa tugged on his shoulder. "What's happening?"

Squall turned around. "He took out his own guard."

Rinoa didn't understand. "What do you mean? He killed him?!"

Suddenly, they heard Deling speak again. "Are you four going to hide back there all day, or what? Why don't you come out and discuss what's on your mind?"

Rinoa clenched her teeth as she filled up with rage. She shot to her feet and ran into the isle despite Squall's advising against it.

Holding his gunblade ready, he backed her up along with his two comrades.

"President Deling!" Rinoa yelled. She noticed the fallen soldier, but she was too focused on confronting this tyrant to heed the warning signs. "Vinzer Deling, as long as you don't resist..." His still body and lack of concern had her bewildered. "As long as you don't resist, you won't be harmed! Now get up!"

He rolled his head to the side and very slowly began to open his eyes. What Rinoa saw frightened her, and she suddenly felt herself go weak all over. His eyes had no pigment; no iris or pupil. They were just... white.

She gasped and had to sit on the floor from the shock. "This... This wasn't..."

"What's wrong?" Squall asked. He raised Lionheart at the ready. "Rinoa!"

The President stood up and hunched over her with an evil grin on his unholy face. "Boo hoo! Too bad! I'm not the President!"

She staggered back over to Squall and sat at his feet, wrapping herself around his legs. She looked terrified "Rinoa, what's going on?!"

"He's...! He's...!" She couldn't speak.

The fake president still had his back turned to them. "I'm what you call... a body double." He turned around and revealed to the others his evil grin.

"Eeewww!" Selphie looked away.

Even Squall was shocked. "What the hell are you?!"

The fake president staggered forward, still hunched over, his arms limp in front of him. "All these resistance factions in Timber... You pass on a bit of false information, and they suck it right up! How pathetic... you fell for it! It seems like there are... only... amateurs around here!" His voice was becoming erratic and strained.

Rinoa tightened her grip on Squall's leg, putting a little too much pressure on his cut. "Ah, Rinoa! Get up!"

She didn't move and just shouted back at the fake president. "Amateurs?!"

"Ahhh, my butt hurts from all this sitting... young... lady. Ahoh, so tell me... young lady." Gurgling and fluid-like sounds prevented him from speaking clearly. Something was happening to him. "What... did you have... in store for me... had I resisted? Hmm?" His movements became inhuman as he bent backwards and twisted his arm out of its socket. He started taking steps closer, twisting his legs backwards with sickening cracks from the snapping bones.

Everyone but Squall began to show obvious signs of fear. Squall raised Lionheart and stared coldly back at that thing in front of them. He was apprehensive, but whatever this thing was, he was confident he could bring him down.

"This... has all been quite amusing... though. I must admit... it wasn't... b-b-bad for s-s-s-such... amateurs! Arghh!" He suddenly began to twitch and contort himself, screaming in agony as he did. His voice changed completely, to something much deeper and much more sinister. "How dare you insult the President!"

A bright flash blinded everyone and Squall felt an intense wave of heat envelop his entire body and push him back. It grew hotter by the second, but he couldn't see what was causing it. Despite being enclosed in a train car, a wind was gusting passed them and a roar threatened to deafen them. This creature was wielding some high-level magic.

The sinister voice continued to shout through the blinding light and pulses of heat. "You will all be annihilated for your insubordination to Galbadia!"

Something shot passed Squall's head and nearly clipped his ear. He dropped to floor in instinctive response and heard Rinoa shouting to him. "Squall! He's an un-dead monster!"

"He's using flare magic to blind and deafen us!" Squall shouted back at her. "You have to let go of me now!" Finally, she released her grip and he stood up. "Zell?! Selphie?!"

"We're still here!" Zell shouted back.

"What's going on?!" The fright in Selphie's voice was unnerving.

"Stay down!" Squall ordered them to stay back as he rose Lionheart and charged at the source of the light and roar. The heat was rapidly reaching searing temperatures, and he could smell the smoke as his leather jacket singed. Still, he charged, shouting as he went. "Ahgghhh!"

Something stabbed him in the shoulder, but he didn't stop. He lost his footing though, and started to trip. As he went down, he swung the gunblade at whatever was sticking into him. "Ah!" It sliced through something hard, like bone, then after he hit the floor he tore the damn thing out of his shoulder and tossed it.

Suddenly, the light faded and the roar silenced. In front of Squall stood a huge mutated creature, resembling a vaguely human form. Its head was barely a scull with only a few layers of dead white and blue skin stretched over it. Those all white eyes were sunken in and bloodshot. He had fat elongated arms with massive bloody claws in place of fingers. Squall had severed one of those arms; that's what stabbed him. Its body was studded with other smaller spines and was covered in blood and some kind of strange steaming white ooze.

The whole thing smelled horrific.

The creature screamed in pain as putrid black blood gushed from the wound. It swung its deadly appendages wildly trying to hit anything it could.

"Attack!" Squall shouted.

Zell hesitated before engaging in hand to hand combat with that thing. Selphie swung her nunchaku at the creature and tangled the chain around its claws. It dragged her closer and she was forced to let go of her weapon. "Ah!" She thought quickly though, and used the strength provided by the Guardian Force within her. "Siren, cure!"

"What the hell're you doin'?! Don't cure it!" Zell shouted at her.

Squall knew exactly what she was thinking. "Yes! Use healing magic!"

A soft blue light circled around its feet and formed ribbons that snaked around its deformed body. The lights converged near its chest and shot into its torso. The creature hollered in pain, like a demon cast in holy light.

Squall stood up and used the moment to decapitate the monster with his gunblade. The body continued to twitch for a few moments after it fell, even as the head rolled down the isle.

Selphie knelt down next to Rinoa as she looked up at Squall. "Is it dead?"

Squall sheathed his gunblade and nodded. "Technically, it already was. But yeah Selphie, its dead." He kicked at the lifeless, blood and ooze covered body just to make sure. The skin of the creature appeared to melt and soon the entire body liquified into a puddle of decaying flesh where it slowly evaporated.

Rinoa stood up while holding onto Selphie's hand. "Wow. I guess you guys really are trained professionals."

"Are you ok?" Squall asked. It was directed to all three of them.

They nodded and Selphie walked over to pick her nunchaku up off the floor. She pointed to the stain in the carpet. "That's what you get for taking on SeeD!"

They headed back to Timber after ditching the President's car and Watts departed to gather more intelligence. They stripped the unconscious soldier and gave the uniform to Watts so that he could solicit info more easily.

A long period of silence passed as the rest of the group stood in the strategy room reflecting on the events of the last hour. Tied in the corner was that soldier, still unconscious.

Rinoa seemed to be taking things pretty hard. She and Zone were leaning against the table with the model trains, both of them with very serious expressions on their faces. Squall was only eager to know what they would do next.

Zone was the first one to speak. "Man. I can't believe that the President was a fake!"

Rinoa laughed. "I can't believe we fell for it! We should have known. Kidnaping the President?! Were we insane to think it would actually work?!"

Watts came rushing into the room very excited. "New info sir! It's big news!"

"What did you find out?" Zone asked.

"The real president is on his way to the TV station sir! Security in the city is super tight now! There are soldiers everywhere!"

Rinoa was confused. "The TV station? Why in Timber? They can broadcast from the capital just as easily, can't they? That doesn't make any sense."

Selphie suddenly remembered something. "Heeey, Squall. Do you think this might have something to do with the Dollet Communication Tower?"

"What's that?" both Zone and Rinoa asked together.

Squall answered them. "There's a communication tower in Dollet that can handle radio waves on a broadcast scale for both receiving and transmitting. It had been abandoned for over a decade, but the Galbadian military got it up and running yesterday."

Zone nudged Rinoa's arm. "Oh, I get it! The only TV station that can handle broadcasts over the air is here, in Timber! Other stations all use HD cable now, which only supports online broadcasting."

Rinoa shrugged her shoulders. "So, what's that supposed to mean?"

"They're planning on using radio waves. This way, they can transmit to regions that don't have cable."

Rinoa hit him. "I know that! What I want to know is, what the hell is President Deling going to broadcast?! It must be something they want to say to the whole world."

Selphie grinned and ostentatiously put her arms up. "Everybody! Love and... peace!"

"I don't think so," Rinoa told her.

"Hey, if I remember correctly..." Zone scratched his head. "Radio waves haven't been in use on that scale in like... seventeen years. Since I was just a toddler."

Rinoa folded her arms. "I was just a newborn then." An idea suddenly came to her. "Hey! Wouldn't it be great if the first live, over-the-air broadcast could be the declaration of Timber's independence?!"

"You know what? That might actually be possible! If we can get to the TV station before they begin their broadcast, we might be able make one of our own!" Zone threw his arm around Rinoa. "Great idea!"

"Let's come up with a plan then!"

Squall was getting impatient. Zell and Selphie both looked very tired and frustrated.

"Can you give us a minute?" Rinoa asked Squall. "We're working on our next plan!" She, Zone and Watts all squatted on the floor and started whispering to each other.

"Hey," Zell said. "Squall, over here."

Squall walked over to the exhausted martial artist.

"Are they for real? They call that a strategy meeting? I can't believe Cid agreed to draw up a contract with these people!"

Selphie agreed. "Can't we go home now? We helped carry out their mission. Squall, shouldn't you take a look at the contract?"

She had a point. Squall never did ask to see it, and he was also curious of what it entailed. He walked over to Rinoa and tapped her on the shoulder.

"Oh! Good timing, we've come up with a plan!"

Squall didn't want to hear it. "Before we get into that, can I see your contract with our Garden?"

"Hm? Oh, sure!" She opened a small file cabinet directly in front of her and pulled out a single sheet of paper. "Here you go!"

Squall ripped it out of her hand.

"What's it say, man?"

He started to read it out loud. "'This deployment contract issued to the resistance faction, Forest Owls, hereafter referred to as party A, officially grants the services of SeeD special forces, hereafter referred to as party B...'"

"What the hell?!"

"Oops!" Rinoa reached into the cabinet again. "Sorry, that one's a little confusing. When I told Cid I didn't understand it, he made me a new one. Here you go!"

Squall tore the new one from her hand even more forcefully than before.

"Cid is such a nice man," she added.

Selphie leaned over Squall's shoulder. "What's it say this time?"

"'To the Forest Owls. This SeeD deployment contract will remain valid until Timber fully achieves its independence. Please make good use of each SeeD member and listen to their concerns. I wish you the best of luck with your objective. Also, please understand that this contract is an exception to all others, and that no replacement of any SeeD member can be made. Signed, Balamb Garden Headmaster, Cid Kramer.'"

Zell wanted to rip all his hair out. "Until Timber achieves independence?!"

"That's sooo vague!"

Squall rubbed the scar on his forehead and knelt down on the floor. "This is ridiculous. Just how much money are you paying Garden? Wait, don't tell me, because I know it's nowhere near enough to pay for a contract like this." He sighed. He was tired, and his behavior was slipping. "Why would the Headmaster do this to us?"

"Hey," Rinoa said. "You're paid professionals! No complaining!"

Yes, perhaps. It was a job. As professionals, they had to carry out the contract, no matter how ridiculous it seemed. Still, this sucked. They could end up spending the rest of their lives trying to fulfill it. The Headmaster must be out of his mind. Then again, maybe he knew something they didn't...

"All right," Squall said. "Sorry Zell, Selphie, but it looks we're going to be stuck in Timber for a while." He stood up and handed the contract back to Rinoa. "What have you three decided to do next?"

Rinoa grinned. "We're going to storm the TV station!"

Quistis got on her feet and ran after him. She was right on his heels, and had she her weapon, he'd be down by now. "Seifer! You won't get away from me!"

He started to laugh as they both charged through the rain. Damn, she was persistent. "I've never seen you so driven, Instructor! If I didn't know any better, I'd say you had a crush on me!"

She ground her teeth at his sarcasm. "If you're going to Timber, then so am I!"

They soon entered the train yard where the tracks were filled with cars and broken down locomotives. Further up ahead, Seifer spotted his train. Aiming his gunblade, he shot the lock off the gate before reaching it then kicked it open. "Shit, it's already moving!"

Quistis was right behind him, though the loose gravel in the tracks was slowing her down.

"This is it!" He reached out and grabbed the handle at the rear of one of the cars. Pulling himself up, he swung himself into the junction and stood on the platform waving. "I promise I won't forget to write, Instructor!"

"Argh!" Quistis growled as she ran along side the train. "For the millionth time, I'm not an instructor anymore! I'm just..." She jumped into the air and grabbed hold of the railing one car behind. "I'm just a normal SeeD now!" she shouted to him.

Seifer leaned his back against the door and folded his arms with a large grin on his face. Admitting only to himself, he was happy she made it. He turned around and stepped inside the train, not looking back at his former instructor.

What was she doing? Sure, she'd caught up to him, but for what? There was no getting off this train once they entered the tunnel. Garden likely didn't know where he was headed, so she couldn't expect backup to follow. What was she going to do once they reached Timber? Seifer already made it painfully clear he was not going to stop. The only thing that wasn't clear... She still didn't know what he was after.

She opened the door and proceeded inside, holding her ribs as she walked. Seifer wasn't going anywhere now, so her first priority turned to drying off and getting cleaned up. And of course, there was her broken rib to attend to. There had to be a med kit on board this train with something more than a potion inside. That's what she needed to look for right now.

As for Seifer... She'd have to wait until they reached Timber. There were likely no authorities on this train, and no way to restrain him. Maybe she could use this time to find out what he was after. It was a four hour ride into Timber. Being one time zone behind, that meant they'd arrive at twelve o'clock, Timber time; one hour behind Squall.

She wondered for a moment. What kind of mission were Squall and the others going to face when they got there? She might need his help and have to pull him off of it. On second thought, there was no question about it.

"Do we know where they're headed?"

"Witnesses spotted them on a train bound for East Academy, sir. Our best guess is that Seifer plans to jump just outside of Timber."

The Headmaster took a seat at his desk. "What about our situation here?"

The SeeD standing before him took a deep breath. "We've got the students in the dormitories for now until the Garden can be cleaned up. Casualties range from minor cuts and abrasions, to one critical chest wound. Total number of reported injuries is eight. That does not include Ms. Trepe, however."

"Quistis..." Cid said softly. "Do we know what her condition is?"

The SeeD shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Last sighting of her, Seifer was forcing her into his vehicle. The truck was hit with gunfire, but there was no indication that either occupant was harmed. We suspect she will be taken to Timber as a hostage." He made another note on that subject. "We found her weapon outside the garage tunnel. Their vehicle was discovered not far outside Balamb Harbor, wrecked. There was blood on the scene, but we don't know who's yet. We don't believe she is armed, and therefore must assume that she is under Seifer's captive and completely at his mercy."

The Headmaster closed his eyes after hearing that. "Your assumptions are valid."

"Sir. Should we mobilize SeeD? Send backup to rendevous at Timber?"

"No," Cid quickly replied.


He folded his hands on his desk and sighed deeply. "There is a team already in Timber. I'm sure they will be able to resolve this." There was another reason, but this was not something he could tell anyone else. He was playing this according to Fate's design.

"Um... Your orders then, sir?"

Cid looked the SeeD in the eyes. "Our priority is to restore order in this Garden. Classes should resume as soon as possible. And let's keep the authorities out of this affair, shall we?"

"Yes sir." The SeeD saluted and exited the Headmaster's office.

Cid rose from his chair and paced over to the window. The storm was finally passing, but in its wake it left so much chaos. There were so many conflicting emotions running through him at the moment. He doubted himself and his orders. He could only pray that he was doing the right thing. If any of his "children" were killed, well... He didn't know what he'd do. He had to have faith that everything was going to work out. Seifer's rampage this morning was perhaps part of the larger design, and might prove beneficial.

But only time would tell.