Disclaimer: I've said it before and I say it again: I don't own FFVIII... yet.

Unexpected Destiny

Chapter 71: Sons of War

We are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it.

- Dwight D. Eisenhower -

By Celestial Rage

Thunder roared, cascading silver light over the figures of the SeeD bases gliding graciously through the storm towards Pandora's ominous figure. Inside both facilities, SeeDs, senior cadets and a good number of estharian troops waited for the collision they knew would come.

The Ragnarok's powerful central cannon had finally breached the shield surrounding the huge monolith, giving the SeeDs and their allies the chance they needed to board their enemy's base. Missiles and bullets sizzled and burst into deadly explosions all around the battlefield as the galbadians tried to repel the attack to no avail. SeeD forces leaked like water inside their facility, spreading through their ranks and decimating their numbers under the protection of the several combat airships Laguna had sent to assist the Ragnarok's dangerous endeavor.

ooo ooo

-"We've lost Fox 3," - growled a man, his voice partially muffled by the roar of a nearby explosion. The sound, powerful, clear and terrible, boomed through the wide expanse of the room where the President of Esthar stood, scanning the horizon with eyes full of dread. His body felt stiff and he struggled to keep the beginning of a nervous cramp at bay.

Dark green eyes narrowed, silently wishing he could see the battlefield that stood far out of the reach of his vantage point. Laguna's jaw clenched at the continued hisses of missiles, the booming that followed and the agonizing cries of men and women alike, all of which filtered through the several devices recently installed in his office. The index of his right hand twitched involuntarily, hungering for a trigger to pull and he could almost feel the weight of his old, trusty weapon in his arms. For a second, he imagined himself at the front of the Estharian troops, heavy rifle and grenades prepared for battle as he joined the Commander of SeeD. He would watch the young man's back as they both moved through the Pandora's halls, destroying every obstacle that stood between them and bringing Ellone home safely.

- "I know you wanna be out there," - Kiros' voice almost made the other man jump out of his skin. Laguna turned to look at the seated Minister, who was sporting a gentle, sympathetic smile, - "Fighter instincts never die."

The President frowned, - "It's not that… or just that."

He watched Kiros nod in silent understanding and returned his eyes to the horizon. The sheer number of the galbadian troops was formidable and, although he knew SeeD and his own army were nowhere near helpless, experience had taught him nothing was written in stone on the battlefield.

- "Do you think –?"

- "Don't even dare, Laguna," - snapped the Minister shaking his head. His friend's train of thought was quite obvious and it certainly didn't help matters any, - "Everything's gonna be alright. He's a SeeD and for what I've seen, a very skilled one."

- "Yeah, but…"

- "If you say something bad, it might come true, remember?"

Laguna frowned at his reflection on the glass, thinking on how many scenarios that statement had proven to be true, - "Yeah, I do."

- "Then let's drop the issue and pray for their success."

ooo ooo

The wide chamber filled with smoke and dust as the solid wall exploded and heavy debris fell over several, unsuspecting galbadians. The Ragnarok's 'jaws' opened and the SeeDs on board entered the Pandora under the cover of Diablos' shadows.

The Guardian's shrill shriek made walls and galbadian legs alike tremble. Raising a clawed hand, he summoned the darkness at his service before releasing the gravity spell on the remaining cannons and cyborgs scattered along the chamber, efficiently incapacitating the greatest danger for the reduced SeeD group.

With another unearthly screech, Diablos' form dissolved in a rain of bats.

Quistis whip coiled like a snake around a trooper's weapon, wrenching it out of his grasp before her eyes turned crimson and a powerful blaze left her lips, burning the soldier to a crisp. A bullet hissed past her and her gaze shifted to Irvine, taking in his dark expression as he reloaded Valiant. Summoning her protective magic to envelope them both, she was rewarded with a tip of a hat before they returned their full attention to the battle.

Selphie and Ana fought back to back. While the smaller brunette used her magic reserves to keep their enemies at bay, the Headmistress' blades cut in half whoever dared to step too close to them.

Noah's trident swirled around, covering Zell as the martial artist finished off a soldier before focusing his attention on a heavy armored trooper. The man lifted the massive gatling gun he was carrying, forcing both SeeDs to roll to their sides to avoid the rain of bullets. The martial artist ducked behind a nearby pillar, watching Noah move as swiftly as lightning around the soldier. The attack settled on the White SeeD captain, giving Zell the only chance he needed to strike. He ran behind the soldier, summoning magic as he went, feeling the electric current run down his arms and settle on his fists. Thunder roared as he repeatedly stroke the galbadian's back, making the soldier's body convulse uncontrollably as he collapsed to the floor.

Noah nodded his appreciation and Zell grinned, offering him a 'bro fist'. The Captain lifted an eyebrow, looking down at the sparks still surrounding the martial artist's hands. Zell grinned sheepishly, muttering a 'oops' before shaking his hands to dismiss the current.

Squall's gunblade flashed in the dim light before piercing a galbadian's chest. Blood splashed everywhere as Revolver was pulled out from the now limp body to deflect a Fire spell. His own magic was released and the offender hacked, dropping his weapon in order to clutch his throat with both hands. His skin turned a sickening shade of gray, his veins bloating visibly, engorged with the poison now running through his system.

Pressing a couple of fingers on the small earpiece he wore, the brunet scanned his surroundings, - "Xu, move in now."

- "Wilco."

Stormy eyes narrowed further as Revolver parried another blade before the brunet turned around and sliced through the galbadian's torso. Another soldier approached the Commander, but even before Squall could move, a wide flame tongue enveloped the trooper, burning the man down to the bones.

- "Fifteen!" - exclaimed Thelma with a grin. She saluted the Commander quickly before running past him, making her way towards a certain blond. Squall shook his head as Zell's very loud 'Pff! I'm on twenty already!' remark reached him across the room.

Suddenly, the entire Pandora's frame trembled while a deafening rumble made almost everyone inside the monolith cringe. The humming of the golden rings propelling both Gardens was no longer muffled by the battle inside and now reverberated all along the wide room.

A new wave crashed inside the chamber, though this time, the SeeDs were relieved.

Their reinforcements had just arrived.

ooo ooo

Ellone cringed as the walls shuddered.

The impact, for what she could tell, was not a result of whatever the Sorceress in front of her was doing. It seemed as though something really big had just collided against the Pandora… Could it be that Laguna and Squall had come to her rescue? Were they finally here to stop the witch's plans?

Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of his dear uncle in the midst of battle. Although she'd seen him kill monsters back at Winhill and knew of the man's ability, Ellone couldn't help but be reminded of the amount of time that had passed since then. Laguna was older now, though equally reckless, and that worried her. Especially, since she'd seen first-hand the extent of the galbadian army.

A low hiss interrupted her thoughts, making the dark haired girl look at the figure standing a couple of meters away from her. The Sorceress' wings were still extended as far as they could go, while wave after wave of energy left her body and traveled towards Adel's imprisoned form.

A frown was shown on the girl's face, though Ellone was not sure whether it was due to the knowledge of the SeeDs' arrival or out of concentration.

ooo ooo

The entire Garden shuddered as Nida rammed Pandora's metallic frame once more. The windows lining Cid's office exploded due to the impact, forcing its occupants to seek shelter behind the room's furniture. Rinoa pulled the older man down with her under the mahogany desk, cringing a little as the debris fell loudly around them, managing to injure the Headmaster's hand.

Cid bit down a curse, which made the raven-haired chuckle. She had never imagined he was the kind to growl obscenities when injured, a habit she related more to Seifer.

- Guess now I know where he got it from, – she thought smiling faintly as her healing magic sealed the split flesh.

ooo ooo

-"Activating combat mode," - said a soldier in the control room while tapping the directives into the security system. Seifer's orders to initiate the Pandora's innate security mechanism had just arrived to the bridge, making the soldiers wonder what could be keeping the Knight from taking his usual commanding position at the front of the army. Regardless, the troopers knew better than to disobey the blond's orders.

The last algorithmic sequence was typed into the system and the tech was rewarded by the blinking message confirming the activation of their current base's defenses.

In the deepest bowels of the Pandora, a gigantic robot moved, the sound of metal scrapping against metal echoing in the chamber where the weapon was currently stored. The red orb in the machine's 'forehead' flickered and lit, emitting a crimson hue that pierced the darkness surrounding it. The floating devices turned on with a quiet hum, sending the robot into a straightened position. Data was loaded into its system at neck-breaking speed and the orb's hue increased as the directives attached to its hard drive.

With a final shudder as the info finished downloading, Mobile Type 8 stirred back to life.

ooo ooo

- "Over here!" - yelled Zell, motioning his friends to the stairway leading to the elevators. The three shafts rose above ground as far as the eye could see. Crimson crystal surrounded the distant top of the chamber, bathing the entire room with an eerie glow. The SeeDs were astonished by the sheer beauty of the construction, despite its original purpose. Only Esthar's engineers could create weapons that were as beautiful as they were deadly.

- "The Pandora's core is over there," - said the blond nodding towards the rightmost lift.

Quistis looked at the opposite one, - "Okay, we'll take number 1."

Squall nodded, - "Be careful."

Irvine adjusted his hat and smirked, trying to ease the situation at hand, - "Hey, no prob! You just focus on your part of the mission. We'll handle ours, right ladies?" - Thelma, Quistis and Selphie nodded, readying their respective weapons with a confident smile.

Zell approached the girl with glasses. Scratching the back of his head in a nervous fashion, he blurted -"I'm not good at this, but... well, uhm..." - his face turned a deep shade of crimson as he lowered his voice to a whisper, - "Just try to return in one piece, okay?"

Thelma blushed and nodded, before patting her flamethrower, - "Don't worry. My baby will take care of them all."

The martial artist smiled in return before the sound of the lifts' doors opening shifted his attention. Both of their teams were already waiting for them and his face became as red as a tomato when he registered the girls' knowing smiles... but definitely, Irvine's wink was the worst.

Zell groaned in embarrassment and dragged his feet to the elevator, thanking Hyne he was in Squall's team for the time being. Neither the Trabian Headmistress nor the White SeeD captain seemed to share Irvine's mocking tendencies and he was absolutely positive Squall wouldn't say a word about the issue, saving him momentarily from his predicament.

He knew Irvine and Selphie wouldn't let him hear the end of this.

ooo ooo

Ward's mouth felt dry and he had to force himself not to throttle the confident-looking son of a bitch.

Hardin's smirk grew wider as he dared another step closer to the restrained man. Out the corner of his eyes, he could see the Minister's staff being forced to submit or die and so far, not a single one had chosen the latter. His gaze wandered around the now quieter War Room, the only sounds were those of the battle transmitted live to the several monitors and devices of the chamber.

His attention returned to Ward's enraged face and the Counselor had to repress a gleeful chuckle. Instead, he turned to look at the captain of his small but powerful and, most importantly, entirely loyal squad, - "Please, take the Minister to the cells in sector 5."

- "And on what charge are you doing this atrocity?"- demanded Ward, struggling until the cold, hard press of a rifle's barrel against the back of his head reminded him it wouldn't be wise to lose his temper at the moment.

- "Charges, you ask?" - exclaimed Hardin disdainfully, - "How about treason, Minister?"

- "The only traitor I see here is you."

- "Is that so?" - the Counselor folded his arms over his chest and smirked, - "Then please enlighten me as to how releasing Adel is not treason to the fair and free people of this country?"

Ward's eyes narrowed further, - "You know it was all Galbadia's doing."

- "What I know is that the President allowed a Sorceress inside the Lunar Station and that she was the one to free Adel from her Tomb. Furthermore, she destroyed General Mitchell and his troops when they tried to stop her and now she has allied with the invaders! For all I know, or care, she is the one leading Galbadia's hand; spreading chaos and death in our country!" - Hardin tilted his head to the side and sent a malicious grin in Ward's direction, - "None of it would have happened if Laguna hadn't let those SeeDs inside Esthar," - his smile grew darker, - "But I guess it's hard to say no to relatives, uh?"

Ward's eyes widened in surprise, eliciting a chuckle from the Counselor, - "You really thought I wouldn't notice that young man's last name? C'mon, my friend! You should give me more credit," - he then motioned to the guards to force the bulky Minister back on his feet, while he turned around and started his way to the door, - "Now, let's go see the President."

ooo ooo

Footsteps boomed through the walls as the SeeDs ran down one of the round, narrow corridors of the Pandora. Thelma had been mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the glimmering crystal walls when she first caught glance of them as the lift's doors opened, but as soon as their first obstacle appeared, the brunette found the scorched look on the walls more to her liking.

- "According to Ward's info, we're close to the position," - Irvine said as they turned a corner. They came to an abrupt halt as a huge, metallic form cut their path.

- "I'd say that we're already there," - chirped Selphie before the teens spread in order to avoid several shimmering laser beams. Quistis and Thelma snuck behind a crystal wall, while Irvine pulled Selphie against a nearby metallic structure and shielded her with his body.

The cowboy untangled himself from the brunette and turned his attention to their attacker. Mobile Type 8 floated in the middle of the slightly wider hall, whose crystal walls reflected the menacing form reminding Irvine of a house of mirrors. Readying Valiant with a snap, he muttered something that Selphie thought was a 'Let's dance.'

Quistis stiffened, noticing out the corner of her eyes Thelma's hand extending, followed by a thunderous roar and a bolt of light. Selphie followed the other girl's example while Irvine raised Valiant and aimed at the robot's body.

The magic thunders dissolved before even touching the machine, while the cowboy's destructive ammo was deflected by the same energy field that had prevented the SeeDs from doing any real damage to the estharian weapon before.

Just like in their first encounter, Mobile Type 8 scanned its enemies, calculating the amount of psychic energy necessary to lift them off their feet and throw them out of the nearest exit. The red orb on its 'forehead' lit and the humans started to float. However, before the machine was able to send the fragile bodies away from the spot it kept, a low hiss was heard, followed by movement out the corner of the machine's range of vision.

The weapon's sensors detected a large, serpentine form that soon evaporated, making the two small pods on each side of the machine's core untangle and spread through the room to locate and dispose of the newest threat.

This was the chance the SeeDs were waiting for.

A gunshot, followed by three thunderous roars and lightning made Mobile Type 8's attention refocus on the humans, but whatever it was about to do was cut short by the abrupt malfunction of its psychic energy device.

Irvine's piercing round, enveloped in the girls' magical enhancements had destroyed the red orb on the machine's forehead, the point where Odine had informed them the dangerous energy was contained. Unfortunately for the SeeDs, this particular weapon was practically invulnerable as long as the pods kept warding the core.

The SeeDs floated for a couple of seconds more as the machine suffered a momentary breakdown before the psychic grip gave in and they landed with differed amounts of grace.

Immediately after, Thelma's ice magic was summoned just the very moment Leviathan's tail wrapped around a pod, becoming liquid and then a frozen cage for the small machine.

Without losing a second Mobile Type 8's center vibrated and the pods returned to its body, the ice surrounding the left one, immediately shattering in a pristine rain. The pods shimmered for a second before another round of lasers fell over the SeeDs. Selphie's arms shot upwards, bringing with them the magical earth wall to protect themselves from the robot's attack.

ooo ooo

The battle sounds approached their position quickly.

Her crimson eye scanned the hallway they'd been assigned to guard and Fujin couldn't help her frown. For what she could hear, the SeeDs were bare minutes away from them and it was most likely that Squall was leading the attack.

- "This is it…" - she muttered, gaining Raijin's attention.

He knew she only favored her 'normal' voice when there was something important she wanted to say or a point she wanted to get through. Like she had tried to do with Seifer, though he had refused to listen to any reasoning that antagonized what he considered his duties as a Knight… whatever that was. Raijin couldn't grasp this whole 'Knight' bullshit and kept wondering why his friend was blindly following the Sorceress.

It was just so unlike Seifer!

But what definitely ranked higher in his list of confusing notions was the fact Seifer now addressed the chick he'd seen with Squall numerous times as 'Ultimecia' and 'His Sorceress'. Raijin didn't remember what the girl's name was, but he was sure it was nowhere near Ultimecia, otherwise it would have ringed a bell when they met that mature woman they'd been protecting since the parade in Deling City. Wasn't that supposed to be Ultimecia?

Raijin's head hurt. Everything seemed so complicated right now!

Fujin seemed to get the whole deal, but he'd been afraid to ask her in case she wanted to punish his ignorance with one of her famed kicks to his shins. That was a painful experience he didn't want to repeat any time soon.

The white-haired girl in front of him moved to place herself a few feet in front of him as a nearby wall exploded and gave way to the small SeeD squad that emerged from the smoke and debris.

As expected, Seifer's rival was heading the attack.

Raijin's eyes settled on Fujin and he could almost feel her resolve as her body tensed, readying for battle. He was tired, confused and wanted nothing more than return to Garden, to the old, simple days when the three of them were the Disciplinary Committee. But Fujin and Seifer had made a choice and, although he might not understand the motives, he would stay at their side whatever the outcome might be.

- "We've been waiting for ya, ya know?" - said Raijin as he untangled himself nonchalantly from the wall he'd been resting on.

The SeeDs came slowly to a halt with Squall at the front of the small group. His hand reached down to the hilt of Revolver, cold unforgiving eyes seizing his opponents, - "Let us through."

Raijin's goofy laughter boomed through the hallway, followed by the albino's predictable answer, - "RAGE," - Fujin smirked and raised her weapon, - "FIGHT FIRST".

- "My pleasure," - exclaimed Zell striking a fighting pose beside the Commander, - "I haven't forgotten what you did in Balamb and now it's payback time, baby!"

Raijin shrugged and swung his bo expertly, - "I'm ready to roll, ya know?" - his eyes settled on his friend's unreadable face. Fujin nodded, focusing her attention on the Commander, before her gaze wandered to the two unknown faces in the squad. Her eye narrowed as she detected the twin katanas sheathed at the woman's sides and the golden trident resting on the other man's back. She certainly didn't know who these people were, but hanging around Seifer, she was able to recognize skill and power in a fighter as soon as she laid eyes on them. And Squall's small squad was a regular army.

But she was ready.

Fujin moved first. Without warning, without more unnecessary words, her silver chakram flew across the room until Ana's blades cut off its path. Unforgiving metal collided against each other making sparks fly everywhere. The albino's weapon returned to its owner and her crimson eye narrowed as she examined the damage. Cracks marred the once sleek surface, an unfortunate announcement of the weapon's inability to fly steadily anymore. However, it was far from being useless. Forcefully, Fujin pulled the edges of the chakram, splitting her weapon in two, wielding each half as the deadly arc blades they had become.

Zell flew past Ana, his whole attention focused on the smirking Raijin. The brute's body casually stepped out of the powerful kick's way, before his bo rose to parry Noah's attack.

Fujin charged, striking Revolver with the twin blades she held. A wind spell tossed her off her feet while Ana placed herself in front of Squall. Exchanging a quick glance and a nod, he ran pass the duo. Raijin tried to cut off his path, but a quick attack from Zell prevented him from doing so.

- "I thought you were fighting me," - said the blond with a grin as he listened to Squall's quick footsteps growing farther.

Raijin was not intimidated, - "It's your funeral, ya know?" - his powerful body charged Zell, while his mind called upon magical aid to increase his agility.

Fujin parried a katana, quickly whirling around to slice the brunette's throat. Ana ducked, barely avoiding the chakram's sharp edge while sending a low kick to the albino girl's legs. With lightning-fast reflexes, Fujin did a backflip, connecting the Headmistress' jaw in the process.

Bo and trident collided with such a force, the impact resonated in both men's bodies. Zell had barely finished healing a nasty gash, when a rumbling noise caught his attention. A metallic roar was heard, followed by what soon the martial artist recognized as approaching footsteps. Baby blue eyes narrowed as one of Galbadia's dragon-like robots along with several soldiers appeared from the wall the SeeDs had destroyed to get to the hallway.

ooo ooo

- "And then, this huuuuuge dragon appeared out of nowhere and I was in BIG trouble! So I ran and ran…" - said Laguna running in place, gaining the awed expressions from the children currently occupying his office's floor, a welcomed distraction for both the President and his Prime Minister.

- "Is he always this energetic?" asked Edea to the man seated next to her on the couch.

- "Worse," - replied Kiros with a smile that then saddened, - "Though he hasn't told any stories like this for a long time," - brown eyes left the President, who was now firing an imaginary machine gun at his equally imaginary adversary, and settled on the former Sorceress' face, - "Not since Ellone was little."

Edea's gaze shifted from the Minister to Laguna as she recalled the first time she'd laid eyes on the dark-haired man. Heavy rain announced summer in the region was nigh. The stone house was warm, full of light, childish laughter and the sweet smell of recently baked pastries. Edea had been happy back then, even though the world was in chaos thanks to one of kin, she'd been surrounded by love.

A knock on the door and the stranger standing outside reminded her of the reason her house had been blessed with the innocence of children.

He was looking for his little girl.

Adel's reign of terror had left many parents without children and many children without parents. Laguna and Ellone were just two names in a long list that extended through years of cruel, senseless war.

Back then, she hadn't heard about Ellone and her heart broke when his face reflected the sadness and despair he felt. The dark-haired man had bid her farewell and continued his journey to find the lost child. Edea only knew he'd succeeded in finding her against all odds when Ellone told her the story. Ironic she'd ended up in the orphanage a few months after Laguna's hope had lead him there to no avail.

After learning of the child's extraordinary ability, Edea had vowed to do whatever it took to keep the precious girl safe. She often wondered if Ellone's life had been a happy one so far… she'd been torn apart from everyone she loved and everything she knew, her whereabouts were of the utmost secrecy, her friends were limited to those on board the White SeeD ship and her power was taboo. Present but unspoken, her ability to witness people's past had cursed her from the second she was born, ambition and cruelty had scarred her for life.

Yet, whenever Edea visited the mobile shelter turned orphanage, Ellone smiled and claimed she was happy.

- "She is a strong child," - said the former Sorceress watching the bright smiles of the kids around the President. When Kiros turned to look at her, Edea added, - "She has faced adversity and won thanks to those who hold her dear in their hearts. Now is no different."

ooo ooo

Ellone blinked twice to clear her vision, a frown forming on her face as what she'd just discarded as a figment of her imagination didn't vanish.

The Sorceress' wings had lost part of their glow and were no longer pristine. Instead, a grayish hue had covered most of the feathers, gradually diminishing the brightness enveloping the magical wings.

A harsh breath made Ellone's frown deepen. The Sorceress trembled visibly and the captive girl could see it was taking her a big effort to even keep standing, her knees nearly buckling a couple of times as she watched. The waves of energy leaving the white-clad body were no longer as big and bright as they'd been in the beginning and now travelled slower towards Adel, whose crimson eyes were now completely open, though she remained frozen in the same position.

Ellone's eyes widened in horror.

What was this girl trying to do?! Sacrifice herself so Adel could be freed from her prison?

- The question is why? – thought Ellone, silently glancing at the exhausted Sorceress. Her eyes narrowed in thought and then widened once more as she caught the flickering change of color in the raven-haired's eyes. Words she'd heard not so long ago made sudden sense and a chill ran down her spine as the unspeakable meaning was revealed.

"I've searched for you all over the world, my child. First as your beloved Matron and now in this form."

The other girl's body was not the Sorceress' original one. No wonder she wouldn't mind killing her in order to recharge Adel's energy. But… who was this witch then? And what about the poor soul she had in her clutches?

What would happen to them both after the process was finished?

- "Squall…" - pleaded Ellone, shaking in her bonds, - "… please, hurry."

ooo ooo

Loud footsteps betrayed his presence in the deepest bowels of the gigantic monolith and, although Squall was partial to more stealthy approaches, the current circumstances gave him little choice. So far he'd encountered no resistance and assumed it was due to Fujin and Raijin's presence far down that section of the Pandora. They were magnificent fighters and he knew Seifer held absolute trust on his friends' abilities.

Thinking about the blond, Squall's mood darkened further, knowing their pending business would come to an end today. They had never gotten along, but at least Seifer had the skill to back up his arrogant tongue, something Squall reluctantly respected. However, that had quickly vanished once his rival had attacked innocent people, endangered his friend's lives and almost destroyed their home. The punch line had been when he had dared to offer Rosie as a sacrifice to the Sorceress.

Now he didn't know - and frankly, didn't care - whether or not Seifer was acting under Ultimecia's puppetry. If he stepped on his way, Squall was not holding back.

ooo ooo

Rounding a corner, his body tensed up in pure reflex as he felt, rather than saw, a figure out the corner of his eyes, - "Finally," - the deep baritone made stormy eyes narrow in pure hate.

And speaking of the devil...

Turning to the right, Squall's body tensed further as he followed the movements of the taller man. Hyperion already unsheathed and resting on his shoulder, Seifer stepped out of the shadows provided by a large catwalk and stopped a couple of meters across the brunet.

- "You took your sweet time, Puberty Boy," - said the Knight smirking, - "For a second there, I thought you wouldn't make it," - the gesture grew wider as he stole a glance at Revolver, - "Glad I was wrong."

The Commander's frown deepened, - "Where is the Sorceress?"

- "'The Sorceress'?" - asked Seifer amused, tilting his head to the side, - "So she isn't 'Rosie' anymore?"

Squall clenched his jaw, gaining a low chuckle from the Knight. His hand moved to the tilt of his gunblade as Hyperion's deadly blade glinted under the sunlight filtering through the Pandora's ceiling. Seifer took a step closer to his rival, his smirk widening as he nonchalantly gestured to the ornate double doors behind him, - "My Sorceress is currently busy," - a wicked grin spread through his features as the brunet's expression darkened further, - "That's why I insisted on being the welcoming party."

Wordlessly, Revolver was raised in front of its master.

A low chuckle filled the chamber, - "That's what I'm talking about, Squally-boy!" - readying his stance for the battle, Seifer's hand waved his rival forward, - "Let's dance one more time before Hell comes to earth."

He didn't have to ask twice.

Revolver thrust, rose and fell with such strength it caught the blond by surprise. His usual smirk showed as he felt the powerful adrenaline rush filling his veins. It had been a long time since they'd battled all out and it was refreshing.

Squall felt the impact of both swords reverberating through his whole being. Hyperion pushed his blade back, forcing the brunet to shift his grip, his feet planted firmly on the crystalline floor in order to resist Seifer's attack.

Squall's eyes narrowed as the blond's right shoulder lowered slightly, the Commander immediately reading his next move. However and despite having anticipated it, he was barely able to sidestep Seifer's powerful lunge, which was soon followed by a couple of thrusts that forced Squall into a defensive position.

The blond sent him a small smile, making a chill run down Squall's spine as the maddening darkness behind jade eyes was suddenly evident. He couldn't help but wonder whether this insanity was a result of Ultimecia's dominion over Seifer or just his true nature finally revealing itself.

Whatever the reason, Squall had to admit it was disturbing.

ooo ooo

Leviathan hissed again, coiling around Mobile Type 8's body and squeezing hard before his body melted into his liquid form, serving as a giant conductor for the SeeDs' thunder spells. The estharian robot convulsed uncontrollably and the pods exploded.

Mobile Type 8's head turned slightly and the lights on its face flickered as it considered its next attack now that his primary assault weapons had been disabled. The base of its pointed tail opened up and a very long energy whip slid out, dangling beneath it. The robot moved and the weapon surged into life, flicking in all directions as a separate limb. Sparks radiated from it with each movement, emitting a high-pitched buzzing sound.

- "Damn thing doesn't know when to go down!" - exclaimed Irvine, reloading Valiant as Selphie and Quistis pounded it with more magic.

The whip flicked at them. The girls managed to jump out of the way, but the cowboy, who was closest to it, was unable to get out of its reach in time. He dropped to the floor and barely missed the tip of the whip as it passed over his head.

A loud whistle, followed by a 'Over here!' caught the robot's attention and it turned towards the sound's source. Locking on the girl with glasses, its chest opened and a small, but sturdy cannon emerged. The cogs around it started to whirl noisily, gathering the energy it needed to wipe Thelma out with a single shot.

The brunette smirked and released the spell she'd been preparing. Loud, cracking noises filled the room as darkness enveloped Mobile Type 8's body, crushing the armor with the power of gravity. The robot jerked madly, trying to set itself free as the energy in its chest became too much to contain. Its hovering system suffered a short circuit and the machine hit the floor hard before a huge explosion sent it against the farthest wall.

With a quick motion of her arms, Thelma's spell tore the robot apart.

Debris and flames blew everywhere and the SeeDs had to summon strong shields to protect themselves. Quistis sighed in relief, - "That was wonderful. I'd give you an A."

Thelma adjusted her glasses and grinned with pride while Irvine took Selphie's hand and nodded at the other women, - "That was fun. How about we join Squall and the others on the main event?"

ooo ooo

Noah's trident spun, summoning an electric storm that rained down the last robot standing. Several galbadians laid scattered around the room, along with the charred remains of three other dragon-like machines. Having disposed of the last of the enemy's reinforcements, he returned his attention to the ongoing battle.

Zell parried the powerful blow and turned to his right, crouching low and sending a kick that sent Raijin back on his rear. The bulky man scrambled to his feet as Zell came in again, thrusting at the martial artist with the bo. The blond knocked it forcefully to the side with the outside of his forearm, the sound of breaking wood ringing in his ears a second before he planted a swift kick to Raijin's broad chest.

He felt the air being knocked out of his lungs and finally his legs gave in. Coughing, Raijin landed tiredly on his hands and knees; crimson droplets fell on his chest and the crystal floor just next to his broken weapon. Dark eyes closed in weariness and shame at his failure as cold, hard metal pressed against his neck.

- "Stop!"

Zell's eyes immediately shifted to the voice he had known for years, but had never heard without its trademark commanding inflection. Twin sounds of metal collapsing against the floor reverberated through the room as both parts of the chakram escaped Fujin's hands. Raising them in a sign of surrender, the girl turned to look at Noah, - "Please, I can't lose him too."

The golden trident was lifted from Raijin's flesh and she sighed in defeat. Although she was more than ready to sacrifice herself for Seifer, she couldn't bear to see Raijin suffer. He was loyal as one could be and it was precisely because of that trait that he was bleeding on the ground.

She had had enough.

- "You better hurry," - said Fujin looking at the SeeDs, - "Whatever she is planning will be over soon."

- "So you don't know what her plans are?" - asked Ana, surprised. She'd been under the impression these 2 were high ranking officials, but apparently the Sorceress was very secretive about her motives.

- "Seifer is the only one she ever speaks to."

Zell looked at the albino girl, finding terrible grief in the normally unreadable face, - "You do know that we might end up killing him, right?"

Fujin smiled sadly, - "I rather you killed her instead," - she shook her head and walked slowly towards Raijin. Placing a hand on his back, she summoned a healing spell while debating whether to speak her worries to the SeeDs. They had been part of Garden once, had seen each other as comrades at one time and she desperately wanted to cling to the hope that if someone could help her other friend, it was these people. Finally making up her mind, she turned to look at Zell and began her long explanation.

- "I know I have no right to ask anything of you-"

- "Damn right!" - interrupted Zell, gaining a stern look from Ana. He huffed and kept his mouth shut, though deep inside he wanted nothing to do with whatever Fujin wanted to say. He had heard it once before when they were going to face Seifer and Edea in Galbadia Garden; the possibility of breaking whatever influence the Sorceress had over the young Knight. However, Zell was not sure he wanted to help Seifer. After all that had happened, he was beyond caring.

ooo ooo

Hardin paid no heed to the confused and frightened gazes of the several workers he encountered in the long hallways of the Presidential Palace. All it took was a growled order or the display of one of his squad's weapons to scare the curious away.

- "Seal the entire floor," - ordered the Counselor, - "This operation must be carried out quickly."

The soldier saluted, - "Yes, sir!"

Hardin glanced at the far end of the wide hallway where a pair of beautifully decorated doors stood. Just behind them, the President office and his future as ruler of Esthar awaited.

ooo ooo

Seifer took a step backwards, his hand covering his injured side. Blood flowed gently from the opened flesh, sipping through his fingers and dripping to the ground next to his boots.

He didn't have much time to stop and ponder about the gravity of his injury, as Hyperion rose to contain Squall's attack. The brunet hacked and stroke twice, thrice, trying to shatter his opponent's defense. Seifer summoned a wind blast, striking the Commander in the torso, the massive power of the concentrated attack forming a gash in Squall's abdomen.

Cursing under his breath, the brunet retracted and slashed in and Seifer raised his blade to parry a second time. The gunblades met again, singing in metal tones as either rival refused to give in. Squall stepped forward, anticipating Seifer's next move and smashed the weight of his body against the blond's chest before the Fire spell left the Knight's hand.

Seifer followed the attack's momentum and rolled along the crystal floor, managing to regain his footing in time to parry another massive cleave with the flat of Hyperion. Summoning his junctioned strength, the Knight forced his opponent back and spun away.

- "You've improved, Puberty Boy," - said Seifer grinning, - "But there's no way I'm going down that easy."

Dark, poisonous magic gradually formed a large ball of energy above the blond's hands, rays of green and yellow twisting and reflecting on the crystal walls. Squall tensed, recognizing the dangerous magic. With a smirk, Seifer released the Ultima, the flash of golden-green light was followed by a deafening rumble far worse than the mere crash of thunder that came with each lightning spell.

Bright, loud and chaotic, the enormous ball of raw energy broke around the lone figure clad in black leather. Eyes of stone and ice narrowed in concentration as he directed all of his Guardians' energy to the shield he'd summoned.

Just as the last rumble died down, Hyperion charged again. However, Revolver met Seifer's blade before the blond had thought. Flinching at first in surprise at his rival's speed, the Knight's stumbling blocks quickly gained a stronger edge, but once Squall managed to connect a solid kick to Seifer's supporting leg, the blond knew he was in deep shit.

The first strike was blocked, the second barely contained by pure luck, but the third landed home against Seifer's chest, piercing his shoulder and driving the young Knight back a step before Squall's index finger pulled Revolver's trigger.

With a growl, Seifer landed hard on his injured side, Hyperion crashing a fair distance from his master. Squall walked over, knocking the dark gunblade out of reach from his grounded rival. Resting the smoking Revolver on the Knight's heaving chest, cold eyes glared down at the cocky man.

Hate and the urge to kill filled Squall, freezing him in place momentarily as he debated whether he should end his rival's life there and then. They were both mercenaries, raised and trained to kill at a very young age. They killed to survive, they lived with the consequences of their acts. He could think of a hundred good reasons to finish the Knight off, but in the end, wouldn't that lower him to Seifer's level?

After a minute, Squall finally pulled his blade away, - "You're not worth another bullet."

Seifer smirked, a fine trail of blood leaking down the corner of his mouth, - "You crush my heart, Leonhart," - his body shivered in pain and jade eyes glazed over, - "You won this one too… nice… job," - he trailed off before his head tiredly fell to the side. Darkness enveloped Seifer and he knew no more.

ooo ooo

She felt renewed. The magic coursing through her veins sang powerfully once more, filling her entire body with the energy she'd lacked for far too long. The crystal walls surrounding her prison acted as mirrors of different heights and widths, each of them greeting her with her own reflection. She had always been an impressively frightening woman, but the eerie crimson glow of her eyes had never appeared as beautifully demonic as it was now. With a smile, large, powerful limbs stretched slowly, testing their mobility after 17 years of captivity.

The waves of energy reaching her from the other Sorceress had grown weaker through the past minutes, but Adel didn't care anymore about the kneeling girl in white now that she had enough power to finally leave her confinement.

She was not the one she wanted, for she did not hold the true power.

It was the Voice she craved. The raucous and equally malicious voice that ringed in her ears, promising revenge and life as eternal as time itself.

Pondering about the possibilities this tempting offering presented, she almost failed to perceive the door opening, but the powerfully dangerous aura of the young man entering the room caught her attention immediately. Crimson eyes settled on him, seizing his strength as he defiantly walked inside with a long, confident stride.

She didn't fail to notice the gunblade.

ooo ooo

- "Squall!" - Ellone called from her place against the wall, her voice faltering a little at the huge relief she felt at the sight of him. Blue-grey eyes turned to her in surprise, as though he hadn't noticed her presence in the first place.

Recovering quickly, Squall's gaze shifted between her and the girl in white. He seemed to debate with himself for a second, but whatever the argument was, ended as soon as the Sorceress' wings vanished in weak rays of light and the raven-haired girl fell hard to the side. Squall turned and ran towards the lying form, much to Ellone's surprise.

The room's temperature dropped several degrees and she shivered in her bonds, letting out a startled cry as a huge icicle suddenly materialized a couple of meters at her right. A woman of otherworldly beauty broke free from the ice and settled eyes as deep as an ocean on her.

It was the first time Ellone had ever seen a Guardian Force and she couldn't help but watch in silent awe and reverence at the ethereal creature who was worshiped as a Goddess in the childhood of humankind. Shiva frowned at the bonds that kept her fastened to the metallic surface and, noticing Ellone's gaze, smiled reassuringly for a fraction of a second before the icicle's shards gathered around her form and down her extended hand towards the magical bindings.

With barely a touch, Shiva broke the frozen bonds, setting Ellone free. The girl vowed her head slightly, gesture that was returned by the Ice Goddess before she transformed into fine mist.

- "Rosie!"

Ellone's eyes widened in horror as she turned to look at Squall. He was on his knees, reaching out to hold the girl in white. So that was the 'Rosie' Squall had been talking about in the Lunar Base? She didn't know. She hadn't laid eyes on the girl back then, not even when she broke into the control room. Irvine had shielded Ellone with his body, keeping her out of the Sorceress' path of destruction and obstructing her view of the massacre that followed.

Her heart ached as she watched the prone girl raise a shaking hand to Squall's face and the way his eyes seemed to lit up by the simple gesture.

ooo ooo

Ana sighed in relief at the sight of her sister and her small squad as they reached the rendezvous point. The small brunette called her name cheerfully and they shared a quick, but tight, hug.

- "How did it go?" - asked Zell smiling at Thelma.

- "No prob! I just blew that thing to smithereens old school style!"

Baby blue eyes widened in surprise, - "Wait, you blew that big ass robot?" - she nodded proudly and he was mute for a couple of seconds before adding in all seriousness, - "It still only counts as one."

- "Wait, what?! It should count at least as five!"

- "No, it shouldn't. It was just one. "

Irvine grinned and put in his two cents, - "No, actually it should count as three. It had 2 armored pods, remember?"

- "Hey, guys," - called Quistis sternly, - "I hate to interrupt, but we still have work to do,"- the other SeeDs fell silent and nodded, following the already retreating blonde who then turned around and said, - "And Irvine is right, it counts as three."

ooo ooo

- "You came…" - she whispered as his hand closed around hers. He nodded and she couldn't help her smile. Her eyelids felt heavier than ever and she had to fight the drowsiness that threatened to snatch her from Squall's hold.

He muttered something Rosie couldn't understand, but the aura of magic around him shifted, announcing her he was summoning a powerful healing spell. Slowly, she felt the magic coursing through her tired body, trying to repair whatever damage Ultimecia had done.

- "Isn't that lovely?" - a cruel, mocking voice boomed through the chamber, making Squall's eyes narrow. Adel's huge frame stepped through the prison's now liquid surface, taking a deep breath once she was completely out, - "I had never savored the taste of freedom before, but I must say I find it intoxicating."

The Sorceress stood tall over the kneeling SeeD, like a tower of power time had failed to weather. She smiled, revealing sharp fangs that suited the malicious gesture. Eyes made of the darkest blood settled on Squall and the fallen girl; a thought that was not her own entered her mind.

Adel frowned at the invasive presence, annoyed at the impatience of the Voice. She'd spent a seeming eternity within that golden cage, surrounded by the absolute silence and darkness of the endless vacuum, trying in vain to have her existence known. Her messages seldom reached an unsuspecting witness, but more often than not, her words were dismissed as mere white noise.

Well, she was free once more and just as she'd promised in several of her messages, she would never let the world forget about Adel The Great. She would rise just as the Phoenix of legend, consuming her enemies in the implacable fires of hell.

The Voice's demands about taking the life of the young man could wait; she would have her fun first.

Crimson eyes glowed in the dim chamber's light and a clawed hand rose above her head as Adel summoned a spell meant to cause cruel, unfathomable pain to the target. It had been far too long since the last time she'd seen a worthless worm squirm for her amusement.

However, if Adel thought Squall had forgotten about her, she was severely mistaken.

Before the spell could descend upon the seemingly helpless victims, the SeeD called magic of his own. The powerful energy condensed and then was released in a bright, immeasurable wave of flame that enveloped Adel's towering form.

Flashes of red and gold brightened the room, while the echo of the raw power of the explosion reverberated through the walls. Squall gathered Rosie in his arms, summoning one of his Guardians as he stepped back, keeping a watchful eye on Adel. There was no way the Flare would cause any real, lasting damage on an aged and powerful Sorceress like her and he needed to buy some time to call in reinforcements.

A disturbing laugh muffled every other sound in the room as Adel rose both heavily muscled arms, gathering the Flare's energy and redirecting it above her head. Her previous spell seemed to seep into the new fireball, poisonous darkness tinting the flames black.

- "Imagine a worm using the power of wyrms! I'm impressed, lad," said the Sorceress with a smile that soon transformed into a threatening snarl, - "Alas, that stunt will only prolong the agonies of your demise."

Her preternatural senses detected the aura of powerful magic around him shift and she had to wonder how this low human managed to control spells way beyond the reach of regular soldiers. Her answer came a second later as a screech pierced her ears and she was suddenly surrounded by the cold, fluttering, dark forms of hundreds of bats.

The Voice within her mind grew in volume and she felt a sudden pull around her soul. Adel frowned as she fought the invasion, cursing under her breath Ultimecia's name. The pull became stronger and she lost her breath for a second, caught between the assault on her mind and the assault on her body. Diablos' claws and talons hungered for her flesh, drawing blood before the gashes closed on their own. She hadn't released the spell yet, her whole magical power focused on repelling the invisible attack on the core of herself.

The presence that revealed itself as 'Ultimecia' doubled her efforts and, for a horrifying second, Adel lost her grip. The venomous soul of the other Sorceress entered her body, spreading like a disease through her veins. Ultimecia's power mingled with her own and she had a taste of the incredible energy that awakened the overwhelming thirst for more.

All of a sudden, Adel's mad laughter increased in pitch as a bright crimson light seemingly out of nowhere enveloped her. Dark, bone-like, intricate wings spread from her back and she arched backwards in mirth as Diablos' sudden cries boomed through the chamber; the Guardian's body contorted in the agony of Adel's poisonous incantation.

Squall's eyes widened. He recognized the light enveloping Adel. He had seen it before, a lifetime ago in Galbadia Garden's auditorium when Ultimecia had passed her powers to Rosie.

A bright flash blinded him and Squall set his jaw, clutching Rosie tightly to his chest as he summoned the strongest protective shield he had available around them both. Ultimecia was transferring her powers unto Adel, which only meant that the countdown had finally come to an end and he had failed. Now there was no hope left, only whatever horrors Time Compression would bring.

ooo ooo

- "SEIFER!" - Fujin's voice broke as she covered the last meters towards the lying figure. A pool of blood had formed around the upper part of his body, smearing his golden, short hair with a sickening scarlet hue. Her heart skipped a beat at the sight and she immediately pressed a couple of fingers to his throat. Blessed relief flowed into her when the weak beating of his heart greeted back.

- "Holy shit! Is he dead?" - asked Thelma approaching her from behind.

- "NO," - barked back the albino, her tone making the normally fearless girl take a step back in surprise. Without further words, she started working on mending the Knight's multiple injuries. To her surprise, Selphie kneeled opposite of her and with a sympathetic smile at the blond's face, summoned her own healing spells to aid Fujin.

- "Squall sure did a number on him," - muttered Zell, looking at the hole Revolver's bullet had left in Seifer's shoulder. Very few times had the martial artist actually witnessed someone or something receiving that kind of injury and live to tell about it. He had to admit, the bastard was resistant.

A sudden flash of scarlet light out the corner of his eyes caught his attention and he turned to look at the doubled door down the hallway. His heart pounded fast and his gaze returned to Seifer. If Squall had fought the Knight here, then Adel wasn't far and if his hunch was correct, their friend was in trouble.

The hemorrhage contained, Zell wasted no more time and bent down to grab the trench coat's collar; paying no heed to Fujin's glare or Selphie's protests, he tossed Seifer on his shoulder, - "The hell, man! You gotta go on a diet!"- muttered the martial artist before turning to his friends and motioning with his chin at the door, "I think Squall is over there, let's hurry."

ooo ooo

Ultimecia gasped for breath, the glow of her golden eyes flickering as she fought to free herself from the union of souls. The Sorceress pried herself from the machine that allowed her to project her consciousness through time and fell ungraciously to the dark brick floor of the chamber. A clawed hand clutched her chest, drawing blood as long, sharp nails broke her pale skin. The pain helped her focus, grounding her mind and soul to the fragile body that was her own.

Finding the strength to stand from the undignified position on the floor, she let out an enraged scream as a golden energy lance left her palm, turning a nearby bookshelf to ashes.

She had been so close and Adel had to ruin it all!

The cursed witch even had the audacity of drawing her power! Had Ultimecia not been able to separate her soul from Adel's when she did, she could have been destroyed.

Another mistake, another miscalculation that almost lead to failure.

She had greatly underestimated Adel's hunger for power and Ultimecia hoped the other Sorceress' arrogance lead to her demise in those SeeDs' hands.

Her wishful thinking, however, would lead her nowhere at the moment. She turned to look at the machine, assessing the damage she might have caused in her desperate escape. Glowing tubes and crystal were scattered but nothing her scientists and engineers couldn't fix. Their lives depended on it and so far, very few had dared to let her down.

Alas, it would take a day, maybe two, before she could attempt to connect with whichever Sorceress ended up alive after the imminent battle. The SeeDs would certainly weaken Adel even if she ultimately turned out to be the victor and Ultimecia was certain she would be able to take over the other Sorceress this time. If Adel fell and the child Sorceress were to receive her powers, the pact that sealed them together would aid her endeavor greatly. And in the likely scenario of both, Adel and the child perishing, their power would simply reach another receptacle.

The last thought made her smile.

ooo ooo

If there was a word to describe Squall's thoughts at the moment the brightness enveloping Adel dimmed and faded, it would have been 'confused'. There was no pain, no darkness, no cold. He'd expected them all, but they were still inside the Pandora and no apparent changes had been brought by Ultimecia's spell.

Crimson eyes settled on the SeeD as Adel cracked her neck loudly; the wings on her back stretched as far as they could go, casting irregular shadows over the smaller humans.

The fanged smile returned, - "Now that I've taken care of that intrusive witch, allow me to thank you for the charming welcoming," - The Sorceress didn't waste time in flamboyant gestures, she simply pointed and Squall was knocked off his feet by a blast of energy. The shield he had cast shimmered around him and Rosie and popped like a bubble. The raw power of magic burnt his skin and he called a healing spell to relieve the pain.

He got on his feet, assessed the situation quickly and whispering a 'sorry' to the girl in his arms, drew the Guardian still junctioned to her. A howl boomed through the room while blue light enveloped Diablos' form, efficiently dispelling Adel's magic. The Lord of Darkness snarled and stretched his blood-colored wings, ready to retaliate. The Sorceress didn't move, only turned her head to watch as Cerberus materialized from the shadows next to her.

Squall didn't waste more time. He dashed towards Ellone, placing a barrier around her as he ran just in case Adel managed to slip a spell towards them. Kicking open the door, he guided her down the corridor and was relieved to hear the several footsteps approaching.

- "Squall what-?

- "No time to explain," - he practically growled, interrupting Quistis' querry, - "Go!"

The SeeDs complied and were just boarding the elevator when Squall felt Diablos' battered presence forcefully return to his mind. They were reaching the wide hall where estharian and galbadian forces were still engaged in combat when the other Guardian joined in.

Suddenly, reverberant laughter echoed inside the hall. The crystal walls glowed with crimson light and cracked loudly, startling every single soul in the room. The northern wall exploded and to the horror of SeeDs, estharians and galbadians alike, Adel's muscular form glided into the chamber.

From then on, chaos ensued.

Screams, retreating footsteps and gunfire filled the room. The galbadians and some estharians had simply turned tail, too terrified by the Sorceress' impressive presence and legendary reputation to stay and hold their ground as the SeeDs and the rest of their allies' army did. Adel erected a shield around herself, sending huge blasts of energy as retaliation while laughing.

- "This is truly a charming welcoming!" - said the Sorceress with a chuckle, - "No better way than maiming and killing to get the blood flowing again."

ooo ooo

The com buzzed and the terrible sounds of battle filled the now empty War Room. The terrorized voice of a man rose above the gunfire, - "Adel! Adel is free! Inform President Laguna! She-"

Static replaced every other sound.

ooo ooo

Adel's eyes blazed with fury as her mind registered what the now dead man had practically shrieked into his transmitter. Her voice rose, deep and powerful as it was demanding, - "LAGUNA? That babbling clown who dared to imprison me is now the ruler of MY country?!" - all the estharians present cringed as the Sorceress' body started to glow and the walls shook with her wrath, - "I, a Sorceress whose very nature places her far above regular human beings, have been replaced by a worthless, bubbling, nincompoop?! The paragon of foolishness?!"

It was simply outrageous.

Adel's expression darkened, - "I will tolerate this insult no further," - her hand shot forward and a huge blast of white energy obliterated everything in her path, creating a hole in the heavy armor of the Pandora. With inhuman speed, she flew through the chamber and vanished as soon as her body left the monolith's structure.

- "She's going after Sir Laguna!" - cried Selphie recovering from the shock of the events. Everything had happened so quickly, none of them had even moved after their initial blasts of magic and ammo were deflected or absorbed by the Sorceress' protective spell.

- "Matron and the junior classmen are in the Palace too!" - said Quistis in horror, her statement springing the SeeDs into action. Without a second thought, the initial assault group returned to the Ragnarok; Selphie vaulted over the pilot seat, igniting the motors and communication devices as quickly as she could. Squall started issuing orders through the radio, placing Xu once more in charge of the evacuation. Since most of the galbadians had either fled or were dead thanks to Adel's undiscriminating attacks, she would organize the SeeDs and estharians back into Garden and the war airships.

- "We have to regroup and assess the situation," - said the Commander frowning in thought. He hadn't been prepared for Adel's power level, even after fighting Ultimecia inside Edea's body twice already and couldn't help but wonder where the difference resided.

- "What should we do?" - asked Noah, helping the pale Ellone to one of the lateral seats in the cockpit, - "You saw her! She's unbelievably powerful."

- "First, we get Matron and the others out of there," - replied Squall, blue-grey eyes narrowing as he finally took a good glance at Zell's cargo. He noticed Fujin and Raijin standing behind his peers, the bronze man seemed injured and leaned heavily on the albino. His voice became colder, - "Zell, lock Seifer inside the hangar under the stairs; the least I need is for him to wake up and break havoc again."

Irvine and Thelma offered to accompany the martial artist and the three left the cockpit, silently followed by Fujin and Raijin. Squall had expected as much.

- "What happened?" - asked Ana, motioning towards the Pandora's retreating frame.

- "I think Adel repelled Ultimecia somehow," - Squall frowned in thought and remained silent for almost a minute, trying to make sense of the events, - "She said she'd taken care of the 'intrusive witch'. I can only guess Ultimecia was trying to control her as she did with Matron and Rosie… but she couldn't."

- "Odine warned us this could happen," - reminded Quistis, - "He must know why, after all, he knows Adel better than anyone else in the planet."

- "Another reason to get his ass out of there before she arrives,"- said Noah, leaning against the wall behind the Trabian Headmistress. His normally calm face betrayed his worry and he shifted his attention between the SeeDs and Ellone, - "What about the plan?"

Squall frowned, - "Ultimecia is not inside Adel. She can't cast Time Compression yet."

- "I know that. What I want to know is what the next step is," - the White SeeD Captain folded his arms, - "Do we face Adel right now and have your friend receive her powers or do we wait?"

- "We can't really wait," - interjected Ana shaking her head, - "Who knows what will happen if Ultimecia tries to possess Adel again?"

The SeeDs remained silent, allowing their Commander to take everything in. His eyes settled on Rosie's face, watching her steady breathing and fluttering eyes as she tried her best to remain awake. She hadn't uttered a single word since he found her on that damned chamber, but at least his magic seemed to have worked since she didn't look as pale as she was then. She was slowly recovering and he wanted to keep her that way for as long as possible.

- "Selphie, how long until Esthar?" asked Squall, shifting the weight in his arms.

- "Twenty minutes tops."

- "Radio me when we're five minutes away," - said the Commander to Quistis, who smiled back and nodded. He turned around and walked towards the small lift, - "Prepare your junctions and Guardians, we'll need all the power we have available to get our people out of there."

ooo ooo

The hissing sound of the door as it closed was music to his ears.

The sounds coming from the hallway were lost inside the room and Squall sighed inaudibly, finally able to catch a breath after all the previous events. Rosie moved ever so slightly in his arms, making his thoughts leave the rest of the crew on board the Ragnarok and settle solely on her.

Moving slowly towards the bed, the Commander couldn't help the brief memory of the last time he was in this room and the magical dagger that had stalked him in the dark. Setting his cargo gently on the mattress, Squall was stunned when the arms around his shoulders didn't release their grip and he was forced to sit on the bed to avoid falling over the girl, - "Rosie?"

The arms around him tightened a little more, making him silently worry about her strange actions. Placing a hand on her back, Squall watched as she finally untangled from his body, sliding her hands to rest them on his shoulders. Given the previous events, he'd believed her unconscious or ever too tired to even move, let alone clutch the white fur of his jacket's collar with such force that her knuckles turned white. Confused, blue-grey eyes focused on her face.

- "Squall... please..." - Rosie's tired voice cracked and tears slowly coursed down her cheeks, - "please ... forgive me."

When the brunet didn't move nor speak, she closed her eyes and continued her whispered plea, - "I'm so sorry... I just made matters worse. I swear I didn't mean to get in trouble."

- "Yet, trouble always seems to find you."

Despite the lack of resentment in his voice, the bitter truth of his words made her cringe. She simply seemed unable to do something without ending on the wrong side of the sword; surely Squall had finally realized he had better things to do with his time than playing the proverbial 'knight in shining armor'. After all, who in their right mind would want to save a Sorceress? Especially once that was inexperienced and therefore, dangerous as herself?

Her powers were so frightening, so overwhelming, she trembled just to think about it. She'd been so wrong on so many things regarding this world! Nothing was as simple as she had once thought, time and experience had taught her that much. Once she'd believed battles were easy, but only because she was sitting behind a controller where no harm would come to her; now she knew that messing around with a Bite Bug without being prepared could be lethal.

Most importantly, she'd once thought that Sorcery was cool. Who didn't want to have the power to shape time itself the way they wanted it to be? Rosie had to admit that still now she found herself a little thrilled about the idea of holding such strength, but just thinking about the price she had to pay quickly made it lose the appeal.

She didn't want Ultimecia to control her body anymore. When she junctioned a GF for the first time, she had trouble getting used to the invasive presence within her mind. However, the seldom lack of mental privacy was nothing compared to what the elder Sorceress had done to her. Rosie shuddered at the onslaught of images the very name evoked, most of them featuring a tortured and bloodied Squall, dismembered in gory detail for her eyes to 'enjoy'. His comforting words meant nothing when she could hear his flesh being torn apart in the background. Her fists closed around the Commander's furred collar as she resisted the enraged tears that threatened to fall. Aside from the deep love she held for Squall, Rosie had never felt anything as powerful as the hate that consumed her whole being at that moment.

She loathed Ultimecia for harming what she considered untouchable.

Her train of thought was abruptly interrupted by warm leather pressing softly against her skin. Opening eyes she hadn't even noticed were closed, all the murderous thoughts fell to the back of her mind when she realized Squall's gloved hands were cradling her face. The simple contact sent shivers down her spine, firing up the flame burning in her heart, melting away all her worries, her sorrow and fear. Rosie couldn't help but smile at the fact that only Squall was capable of producing this effect on her with barely a look, a single touch or a silent smile.

Lost within the depths of his entrancing eyes, she debated whether to finally voice her feelings out loud. Though it was no secret – at least, among their group of friends – she wondered if Squall had any notion of just how much she really loved him.

However, the chance to find out was snatched away when the brunet leaned down slowly and gently rested his forehead against hers. The contrast of his warm skin against hers made Rosie realize she had to be freezing to the touch. She didn't feel cold though, in fact, her face had a healthy scarlet blush at the moment thanks to his actions. She wondered if he was able to hear the furious beat of her heart but such thoughts were silenced by Squall's sigh of relief.

Rosie had never dreamt that the sound of a single breath could take hers away.

Was he relievedthat she was alive or that they were together again? In the end, she decided it didn't matter… whatever the reason was, her soul was already flying high.

Looking directly into his eyes once more, she couldn't help but wonder how she had ever become worthy of something as beautiful as he was. Squall was everything she had wished for and more and Rosie was afraid this was just too good to be true. She had never been the type one would call lucky and was terrified that the only strike of good fortune she'd ever had in her entire life was no more than a vivid dream she would have to wake up from eventually.

Slowly, tears trailed down her cheeks at the mere thought of leaving Squall again. In the brief months they had been together, the scenario of him ending up with Rinoa or dead due to the stupid things she had done to change some events, had crossed her mind several times and she always ended up chilled and nauseated for hours.

And just a couple of days ago, she had almost lost him for good.

Her stomach clenched further when she thought about the terrible plague she'd unleashed upon the world in order to keep Squall safe. Not only was Ultimecia still alive but, as far as she knew, the witch had her desired vessel now. And it was all her fault.

Tears threatened to fall again, this time not in rage, but guilt. An absolute, soul-consuming feeling that was further fueled when Squall moved away so he could look at her face. Truth be told, she had thought she made quite a good decision when choosing to aid Ultimecia reach Adel. At the time, it seemed the best option. But now, confronted by Squall's gaze, she realized that he could have come up with something else. If only she had bought enough time to let him regain consciousness, none of this would have happened.

He would have found a way. He always did.

Alas, she had been all alone, trembling in fear at the possibility of Ultimecia harming her beloved Commander. It was that fear that had clouded whatever rationale she had left. Rosie would be the first to admit thinking before acting had never been her forte and the love she felt for Squall only led her to make stupid choices.

- "I-I'm so sorry. I'm really so–"

A gloved thumb pressed against her lips, silencing her apology. For a second, she thought Squall was too disgusted with her words to let her finish, but that idea vanished quickly as a very small but fond smile lit his otherwise solemn features, - "Silly."

She breathed a laugh at the annoyed tone, feeling a huge weight lift off of her heart at his actions. He wasn't mad at her and she could find some peace within that knowledge. Right now, it was enough.

- "You did what you had to. Don't apologize."

He knew how she was feeling right now and considered himself as guilty as she could be regarding Adel's escape. After all, he had chosen Rosie's life over the sake of the world. His other hand took hers and his eyes narrowed when he detected the dark brand on her skin. Rosie bit her lip nervously; she felt an explanation was in order, but right now she didn't feel like providing it. She would not taint this moment by bringing up Ultimecia.

Sliding her hand off his grasp and cradling it against her chest with the other, she shook her head and pleaded a low 'Later, I promise.' Squall's dark expression didn't falter, but he decided to humor her. They both knew it would be too hypocritical of him to ask Rosie if she wanted to talk about it.

Her stiff pose relaxed as their shared silence continued and very soon her breaths deepened as the exhaustion returned, making her eyelids flutter close. However, instead of losing herself into merciful slumber, she was greeted by Ultimecia's image at the very moment darkness replaced Squall's face.

Startled, Rosie jolted awake.

Remembering the previous events and figuring she was keeping herself from needed sleep due to his presence, the brunet frowned and pulled away, - "You need to rest."

Recognizing the cue for his departure and afraid of being left alone with the demons in her mind, Rosie reached out, taking his hands in a tight grip, - "Squall, please, don't leave me." - Stunned by her plea, he could only gaze at her as she fumbled around for an explanation, - "I… I just don't want to sleep…" - Rosie bit her lip and lowered her eyes as the blush on her face intensified, - "It's dark and I… I-I'm scared..."

She wanted to kick herself. God! She sounded like a 5 year-old!

It was so ridiculous and embarrassing to be afraid of the dark!

But that was how she felt. Unlike other people, she had seen the monster dwelling within, had heard the raucous voice that would haunt the minds of generations to come and, most likely, her dreams for the rest of her life. Furthermore, she'd felt the pull of the other Sorceress' dark soul; the way it tore at her own, trying to destroy the very core of her existence. Certainly the worst had been when the last portions of her energy had been passed onto Adel. At that moment, Rosie had sworn for a second that her soul would escape her body as well, leaving only an empty shell behind. The memory made her tremble.

Squall's frown deepened as he searched Rosie's face, finally focusing on her downcast eyes. The haunted look he found in the brown depths told him what she had just admitted was quite the understatement. She was not only scared, she was terrified.

He knew being afraid of the dark was silly and childish, but he couldn't bring himself to belittle Rosie's fears like that. Especially since he didn't know what kind of tortures she'd suffered under Ultimecia's hand. Edea had said the witch was a master of illusions and, given the raven-haired girl's frame of mind, he could think of several possible punishments that would elicit such a reaction.

Returning the nearly bruising hold, Squall offered the only support he could give her until his gunblade made certain Ultimecia breathed no more, - "I'll be here."

The familiar words spoken in a low voice made Rosie's gaze lift and lock with his. Finding no mockery within his expression, the death grip she kept on his hands softened a little. Squall's eyes lit with unnamed emotions as he looked down at the young Sorceress' face, - "I'll be here when you wake up."

Her heartbeats grew louder at the familiar, yet entirely different, oath. Though he'd used almost the same wording as in the original plot, the lowly spoken promise was meant for no one else but her to hear. Smiling faintly at the last thought, she was struck suddenly by guilt. He surely had more important things to do than playing babysitter, especially now that Adel was free of her Tomb. Still, she couldn't find the strength to reject the offer.

When it came down to Squall, Rosie had to admit she was very selfish. And the prospect of spending time with him, alone and with a bed involved was way too tempting to refuse.

- "Promise?"

He nodded and squeezed her hands in a reassuring manner, - "Lay down."

Rosie complied, raising an eyebrow in questioning as he stood from his position on the bed and nodded at the other side of the mattress. Confusion turned to joy and embarrassment as Squall sighed in mock exasperation and grumbled a low, - "Move over, you're taking more than half of the bed." - Blushing and smiling widely, she shifted her body so that the Commander had enough room to settle down beside her. Pulling the sheets so that they covered her body, Squall then set his gunblade aside and laid on top of the blankets.

Deciding to push her luck a little, Rosie moved closer to him and was surprised when his arms wrapped around her in a testing maneuver. When she didn't object, Squall tightened his hold slightly and rested his chin on top of her head.

Smiling like a fool, she breathed in his characteristic scent: a mix of gunpowder, mint and hot leather, now tainted with the addition of the disturbing smell of dried blood. Resting against his chest, Rosie wondered how her mind had already decided that this was how angels ought to smell. And right now, basking in the warmth of his arms, with his heart singing into her ear the most beautiful lullaby Rosie had ever heard, she couldn't help but feel like she was finally in Heaven.

- "Close your eyes, Rosie."

Her smile widened briefly and her eyelids descended, though this time she didn't fight the darkness. Instead, the raven-haired girl surrendered to the pull of unconsciousness, confident that Squall would be there to guard her dreams.

ooo ooo ooo ooo O ooo ooo ooo ooo

Author's Note:

I know it's been a while… what an understatement, uh? But the Muse of Inspiration decided to finally knock on my door. I guess she also read all the most amazing and encouraging reviews that have been submitted since I last updated and was ashamed of not having graced me for at least two years. As I have stated before, my day-to-day life has this way of getting on my nerves by spoiling whatever plans I have regarding my works of fiction. I'm already starting the next chapter and I really want to have this fic done by the end of the year.

I want to thank all of you who keep track of this story, even though I don't update it as often as I wished. I love you all and I'm deeply grateful for your devotion and for taking the time to read and comment on my ramblings :)

This story and my heart is for you.