It's amazing what lack of interest from the readers can do to the writer. But I guess that it's the same for the lack of interest from the writer.


The house was a living hell, devoted to tormenting everyone with actual eyes. If the yard outside looked bad, then the manor's inside was a pathetic excuse for a place to live in. Squall and Ellone walked carefully side by side. A sudden, unfamiliar awkwardness, loss of their goals and not knowing exactly what to do disabled both of them. Ellone stifled a gasp as a gaunt man slithered into the room through a dark hallway. He was wearing mandarin robes and kept a long, yellow with nicotine mustache, which hung well below his bony chin. His beady eyes seemed to be devoured by the thin, wrinkled flesh around them, and his smile was something drawn from a perverted, fevered dream. Despite his grand posture and steady walking, the man's dilated eyes and heavy breathing betrayed his situation. Squall's glowing eyes narrowed. The man was intoxicated - probably with opium, if the smell of the mansion had anything to say about it.

"A SeeD?" The man muttered in genuine curiosity. He had spotted Squall's unearthly eyes and responded likely. "Is President Shinra too bored to join us in the hellhole that he has created himself, hmm?" Squall opted not to reply. The inquiries he had to ask would both reveal him as the rogue ex-SeeD that he was and probably compromise Ellone's safety. However, the questions continued to plague his mind and served only to intensify his worry about Rinoa. Was this man Corneo? Did he know where Rinoa was? Was he the only one to greet them?

"Speak, SeeD, and trifle with my patience no longer. Why do you seek to see the Don?" The mandarin's long, slender fingers rose to sweep through his moustache. His other hand, still concealed within his silk sleeve rose to show at the stairwell leading to the mansion's second floor and into a closed door, most likely where the actual Don resided.

One question answered, it seemed. It still did not help in forming an alter ego into which he would hide, but if Squall was good at something, it was showing his prevailed indifference. "I've come to speak with the Don, of course. President Shinra is interested in his report."

The wild chase seemed to be right on track. The man's fingers twitched as they swept through the mustache and his eyes narrowed dangerously. "Very well, SeeD. What about the slut, though? Why have you brought her?"

Squall thought about disemboweling the dirty old man in front of him, but Ellone next to him helped him focus. He was unarmed, his spells were limited and he felt no Draw points anywhere around him, and when time came for the shit to hit the fan Ellone would be caught in the middle of it all. He had to come up with something fast. He opened his mouth to speak, make it seem natural while in truth he planned to stall time, delay him until he could figure something, anything out, when a henchman spawned from where the mandarin had originally crept up from. "Sun Ho, she is bathed and clean, ready for the Don." The muscled man eyed Squall, but said nothing more.

The mandarin, whose name was proven to be two rather simple syllables, grinned widely, revealing his teeth. "Good. Bring her up." Sun Ho seemed to remember his original question, and glared at Squall, annoyed that the man had come up with a delay. "Well?"

Ellone, in a surprising tempo brought up either disgust with the man or anxiety as to 'who' exactly was the one the henchman had talked about, walked up to the man and slapped him soundly. "Know your place!" The man seemed as surprised as Squall, even if he did not notice the ex-SeeD's look of shock. "We're both SeeD, and that's all you need to know, Sun Ho." She looked like she wanted to say something more but decided against it, her brown eyes softening up as she backtracked to where she originally stood next to Squall, who was decent enough to decide to wait for them to be private before commenting on her behavior.

Sun Ho blinked once, then twice. "Very well, SeeD. We have received a new girl today, and the Don seeks to test her before allowing her to join the ranks of the other prostitutes. He does that with every girl that makes his eyes twinkle… Like you," he promised Ellone. "But I guess he can make an exception and wait a bit, no?"

"Yes." Squall took up the initiative and spoke up. "Now lead us to him."

"It is traditional for the girl to be presented to the Don first, even if they do not join. Such a ritual has existed long before the days of the Eastern civilizations; it originates from Wutai, and compared to it, your pitiful Hyne counts to nothing." The elder stood his ground, especially as he taunted the Western deity.

Squall brought up an arm and channeled energy from the only place holding magic around him; Ellone's Fire Materia. Holding a materialized ball of flames in his palm and aiming it at Sun Ho, he threatened him. "What good will traditions do you if I choose to blast you across the room, old man?" Shit has just hit the fan. A small voice whispered, but Squall quashed it.

Sun Ho lowered his own arms in a non-threatening way and locked eyes with Squall. "Enough with the bravado, young man. I can read you ever since you walked in the room, and I know that you will not kill me, out of fear. Fear that your pathetic President might reprimand you, I take it? Or is it something deeper? Nonetheless, I will lead you to the Don; but first, he will meet this new girl, Rinoa – then, you will have five minutes to talk, and that's it – you will then wait. How does that sound? Good? Bad? Do not answer. It does not matter, for no matter what you say, it is the only favor you will receive from me."

With the air returning to the place once occupied by fire, Squall extinguished the flames and allowed the energy providing for it to return where it once came from. "Fine."

Sun Ho grinned with his nicotine teeth. "Excellent. Bring the girl forth!" He called to the henchman, who bowed respectfully before leaving the room. The trio waited in silence, Ellone clenching Squall's arm protectively despite knowing that their supposed 'cover' might be ruined by such a meek action, and the two men staring at each other disdainfully.

With the sound of a gong, Rinoa walked into the room. She was wearing a traditional snow-white kimono, decorated with ornamental red roses. Drawn onto the kimono was a Chinese red dragon whose head rested onto her buxom as its fiendish body rose above her left shoulder and fell back down her spine before running around her waist and down her right hip. It was a bit too snobbish, but suited her nonetheless. Her hair was free and cascaded around her face. She lacked makeup, and her eyes were wide upon seeing the scarred ex-SeeD. He gave her the look he preserved for everyone. Meaning, he simply stared at her, expressing nothing with either his face or his body language.

"Now then, shall we rise to meet the Don Corneo?" Sun Ho snapped Rinoa out of her reverie and started walking up the stairs, holding the barwoman's hand by the elbow as he did. Squall and Ellone hurried to follow him, noticing that the henchman had disappeared back into the room from which he came.

Squall briefly wondered if Rinoa would be able to cover Ellone when battle broke in the Don's office, but those thoughts seized as he sensed a powerful presence with his Draw ability. Someone in the room was Junctioned with a Guardian Force! He glanced at Rinoa's back and then at Ellone who walked timidly next to him. Things could go very wrong if he did not win the initiative once they started fighting… The door to the Don opened with another ceremonious gong, and Ellone rolled her eyes – the traditional sound was being played by speakers on the corners of the room.

The Don's office was a testimony to humankind's falling. Bad paintings covered the walls, satin curtains of a deep purple color fell to obscure the back wall of the room, and an expensive looking office stood in the middle, behind which sat a short fat man with a blonde Mohawk. He was dressed with crimson red robes sporting the acronym DC on the left side of the chest, and wore a white shirt and jeans underneath. He sported a short goatee and his eyes gleaned with anticipation, lust and, of course, drug consummation. He was not alone in the room – four others were with him, all dressed with buggy clothes and wielding Katana swords. Tattoos obscured any skin from showing in the henchmen's arms.

"I am Don Corneo. I bid you… welcome." The drug lord said after a moment of thought. His words were slurred and thick with uncertainty. Even if Squall did not kill the obese man right there and then, he would die via self destruction in a matter of years. Corneo's eyes fell on the nervous form of Rinoa. "Ah, Sun Ho… You always look after me, do you not?"

The Mandarin bowed to his boss. "Of course, my Lord. Allow me, however, to offer my sincerest apologies and deep remorse for having to keep such a delicacy away from you for just a moment – these SeeDs seek to speak with you about your imminent report."

"It's coming along the way." Corneo answered. "Now send them off. I seek to be alone with this beautiful rose."

"Squall, are you ready to take them on?" Rinoa suddenly whispered; her voice was unheard with everyone's attention being on the Don's actions and the low beat music sounding over from the speakers.

Squall thought of it. It was now or never. "I don't have a weapon," he replied after a second, "but I'm sure I can deal with them."

Rinoa's hand slid into the slit of her Kimono, and suddenly she had produced a handgun. "Squall!" She yelled, as she offered it to the ex-SeeD.

Immediately, unerringly, deadly, the four henchmen in the room sprung into action. "Gun!" The cry was unnecessary as they showed unparalleled skill that one could not see in men supposedly heavy-set with drugs and alcohol, yet here they were, ready to slice through the feeble opposition Squall was prepared to offer. His opposition being feeble only to untrained eyes. The only one who actually knew he could and would take the sword wielders down was Squall. The first one to reach Squall unsheathed his sword and swung it down at his head with unerring speed and accuracy. For a moment, it seemed like the ex-SeeD would meet a pitiful end.

For a moment.

Squall ignored the blade as he grabbed the man by the shoulder and broke his arm in two different pieces with only two subtle moves. His movements flowed into each other as he shot his elbow back without even looking and caught the henchman attacking his back right in the face. The man fell back, unconscious, and even as he fell Squall had moved forward and grabbed the third attacker by the wrist with his free hand. His fist shot forward and helped in collapsing the man's larynx. The fourth seemingly flew through the air with his katana flashing. Squall drew the third man's own blade and used it to decapitate him so cleanly that the man had the chance to take six clumsy steps forward before blood even showed where Squall had cut his throat entirely. Squall then moved to the first henchman, who was still wracked with agony from his broken arm, and drove the 'borrowed' katana through the man's chest.

In real time, neither of the other four alive persons in the room hadn't even realized than no more than two or three mere seconds had just passed. Squall grabbed the berretta Rinoa was still holding up and aimed it in Sun Ho's face before shooting him twice in the forehead. Not even a drop of blood had stained Squall, even though the same could not be said for the rest of the room.

Don Corneo kept staring from where he sat, his mouth hanging open. In swift moves, Squall had dispatched four of his best guards –people that were worth their weight in Gil, handpicked by Don Corneo himself- as well as Sun Ho, and the young teen hadn't even faltered. But Corneo was not easily discouraged from something. Even if this 'Rinoa' girl had managed to set an ambush, a good ambush, if he had to say so, he was still junctioned. With a snarl, Corneo rose from where he sat. "You're good, SeeD. But I'm good as well, and good enough to see that your two sluts aren't that good in combat – their delicious squeals were music to my ears."

"You're in no position to make statements, Corneo."

"Aren't I?" The Don chuckled, and in mere moments, the person that he once was disappeared, leaving behind the birth of flames. It was him who was junctioned after all, Squall chastised himself.

"Rinoa, take Ellone and run. I'll take care of him." Squall said, drawing one of the scattered swords on the ground.

The girl looked torn. "But Squall…"

"He is junctioned! Just run out of here and protect her!" He raised his gun towards the pillar of flames that had covered Corneo – whatever it was that Corneo was summoning, it had something to do with fire. His Draw ability would be useless, but with luck Corneo's GF would carry a different essence of magic that Squall would be able to use against him.

Behind him, Rinoa discarded her kimono, revealing that she was wearing a pair of black khaki shorts and a white tank top underneath. "I'm never going undercover again…" She muttered, grabbing Ellone's hand. "Come on, you heard Squall!" She yelled as she pulled the startled woman towards the stairs. No sooner had they run out of the room and near the mansion's exit that Corneo's office exploded with brimstone. Squall was tossed aside by the force of the blast, but before he could end his short flight, a hellish arm reached for him. Squall managed to unload a few chambers from his gun onto the creature's face, but it was for naught; the only thing the bullets did was bounce of the demon's hide.

The being that Squall recognized as Ifrit caught Squall by the leg and shot him towards the mansion's outer wall with enough force for the wall to crack spider webs. The girls screamed his name, but he waved them off. "Rinoa, I told you to run."

"They are going to die no matter where they run to, mortal. My master commands it." The Guardian Force was huge, twice Squall's height and, if it were flesh and bone as opposed to magic and fire, would have weighed at least ten times as he did. The demon stood on thick, dog-like, heavily muscled legs. Ifrit's chest was muscular and massive, at least six feet wide. Its fingers and toes were tipped with black claws, and its hide was a dark brown, as if singed by the flames from which the demon had spawned from. Its growling visage looked like that of a hell-spawned lion, and a pair of huge, slender black horns rose from the top of its head and curved back, extending out for nearly two feet each. The Guardian Force had a long red mane that ran down its back and a short red beard around its jaw line. Ifrit's eyes glowed yellow, like molten gold, and had no irises or pupils. Its voice was booming and echoing, and it seemed to block out any conscious thought out of their minds.

"No." Squall seethed, and suddenly he was on the move, crossing the distance between himself and the GF in mere seconds. The katana he carried stabbed at the beast's chest, but the maneuver served in nothing more than angering the beast. A simple swat of Ifrit's left hand sent Squall crashing away onto an expensive vase and the wall behind it, but his junctioned vitality and stamina drew much of the force; he was merely winded from the hit. He shakily stood up, and then looked back at the demon just in time to receive a powerful blow to the jaw from Ifrit's left hand – the beast was not as powerful as one would have expected, despite its stocky frame. Squall could survive Ifrit's onslaught, but with his consciousness focused on Rinoa and Ellone's wellbeing he was being drawn into a corner; literally.

The hit knocked him up into the air, and before he could register the change of gravity around him, Ifrit struck him again with a powerful punch right in the solar plexus, shooting him onto the wall hard enough to spread cracks through it where he crashed. The katana fell from Squall's hand with the force of the strike, and as he prepared to gracelessly drop down from where Ifrit had had embedded him into the wall, he realized that Ifrit was still holding him up in the air with his muscular arm.

Ifrit's chest rose and fell with laughter. "Goodbye, mortal." Where the GF was holding Squall there now was unreleased flames. With a forward jolt of his arm, Ifrit unleashed those directly into an unsuspecting Squall, finally leaving him to fall down. With a snort, Corneo's Guardian Force turned its attention to the two girls, its amber eyes gleaming with predatory anticipation of the kill.

With a grunt, Squall grabbed the fallen sword and stabbed Ifrit in the ankle with it. The beast rose at its full height and screamed more in protest than in pain, but it gave Squall an opportunity that he was going to exploit. From where he still lay still on the floor, the magical energies he commanded were unleashed in a display of bright white lights, before they surrounded him fully. Seeing the look on Squall's face, Ellone squeezed Rinoa's arm and started running out of the mansion, pulling the barwoman with her.

Next to the entrance of the mansion, a thermometer's marking dropped to the lowest degree.

Right in front of the opposing GF, a shard of ice broke the wooden floor and rose up to the ceiling. Ifrit's amber eyes widened in recognition of the new foe. "You?!" Inside the shard slept a woman of pure white. With a sharp crack the icicle shattered, the parts forming it falling everywhere in the room, revealing the naked woman's shape. Her hair seemed to flow like water, and her eyes seemed frozen. Shiva reached for the stunned Ifrit with her hand and placed it on the beast's chest. A mere second later, a wave of absolute frost struck Ifrit in such volumes that his flames were extinguished; even the air around him seemed to freeze. Shiva paused for a second, seemingly enjoying her work, and with a smile she snapped her fingers. The result was explosive as the ice all around Ifrit shattered, taking chunks of the GF's 'flesh' with it.

"He could summon you all along?" Ifrit mumbled tiredly as he breathed heavily.

Shiva smiled timidly as she levitated midair.

"Then why did he not?" Shiva's arm extended to the two women observing the fight in the middle of Don Corneo's yard. She said nothing. "The women…" With a roar, Ifrit's flames awoke and covered him whole, burning him completely until he disappeared. He was defeated.

Shiva turned to look at Rinoa and Ellone. She smiled at them as her form seemed to freeze entirely, until she was clearly ice. Ice which, in a violation of physics, transformed into water and splashed onto Corneo's ruined carpet, releasing the magical energies that held her summoned in this plane of existence. Reappearing where Shiva formerly stood, Squall groaned and tiredly got up.

The two girls rushed to help him. "That was awesome! How did you do it?" Rinoa asked.

"Same way I survived a five hundred feet fall." Squall deadpanned, as he drew the handgun she had given him. "Let's go and tackle Corneo before he can have another chance to summon Ifrit."

The trio run into Corneo's office right as the man drew a shotgun from the safe that used to hide behind the painting of a naked woman. "So you wanna play rough?" He screamed. "Well say hello to my little unf!" Right as the Don turned to shoot at them, his face met Squall's gloved fist. His head crashed back at the wall, and in the confusion Squall grabbed the shotgun from his hands and turned it on its owner.

"Now then… Rinoa, what did you want with this sad excuse of a man?"

"Well, after you fell we found a spy hounding me and Irvine. With our unique Avalanche ways, we got him to squeal that Corneo had sent him." She paused for a second, making sure that Squall was still with her, and then went on. "Irvine wanted to go ballistic on that piece of trash, but with his type of money buying him guns and goons, I asked to take the subtle approach. And here I am, clearly out of my league." She finished, pointing at the dead hitmen on the ground.

"You're all out of your league!" Corneo screamed. "Do you know who I am? I'll-" The shotgun's handle hit Corneo onto his nose, cracking it. He started wailing in agony.

Squall grabbed him by the shoulder and aimed the shotgun he was holding at the part of the male anatomy that Corneo thought most important. "Shut up, we're asking the questions. You get two options, 'Don'. Either you talk, or I shoot them off."

"No! Don't! I'm quite, uh, attached to them!" He placed his hands over his crotch protectively. "It was because I was ordered to find the cowboy or the one with the gunblade!"

"By whom?" Ellone asked with curiosity etched in her voice.

"If I tell you, I'll be killed!" Corneo nodded negatively.

"Well, if you don't talk," Rinoa threatened as she picked up one of the fallen swords and carefully swinging it around, "I'll chop them off."

"Aaah! It was Heidegger! Heidegger of the Public Safety Maintenance department! He wanted to know where you guys hid at!" Corneo wailed.

Squall shook the Don and renewed his aim between the man's legs. "Why? What are they planning?"

Corneo shook his head. "If I talk, I'm a dead man! My word will count for nothing, my bank deposits will have no value, and if the Turks get their hands on me…"

Ellone channeled the magic in her Fire material, holding a burning hot sphere in her palm. "Why worry about the Turks when we lunatics here can do bad things to you now? Speak, Don, or I'll burn them."

Bluff or not –Ellone had made clear her distaste for the sad excuse of a man- it worked. Tears ran down the Don's cheeks as he squealed. "They're gonna crush the entire Sector! They're blowing up the pillar holding the Sector 7 plate up and high! They'll wipe the entire slums!"

"What?" The two women exclaimed. "Shinra wouldn't dare!"

"Oh yes he would! You guys have been a tremendous pain in his ass in just four days, so he wants to crush you! And crush he will!" Corneo yelled. "Now please don't kill me! Please!"

Rinoa discarded the sword and moved to the exit. "We need to warn everybody!"

Squall nodded and pressed the shotgun's trigger. Blood splattered on the wall, and it was by chance that the Don had removed his hands from over his crotch, or he would have lost them as well. "Piece of trash." The ex-SeeD spat, before pushing the screaming Corneo to the ground.

"Let's go!" Rinoa yelled. "We have to hurry!" She and Ellone prepared to run, but Squall waited, his attention fixed to the desk. "Squall?"

A proud smile crossed Squall's face as he reached for a set of keys on the desk. "We don't have to run, at least." He replied to their unasked question. "Keys to a car." He made a move to toss them at Rinoa, but his vision suddenly doubled. A heavy load obscured his thoughts, and his knees buckled.

"Ellone…"

His eyes closed.


His eyes opened.

He was in a restaurant, along with the gargantuan Ward and the elfin Kiros. They were equipped with their army uniforms. Mass quantities of food dominated Ward's side of the table, while two glasses of whiskey graced Kiros and Squall's. Only this is not my hand bringing the drink to my lips. I'm dreaming of being that moron again. "Laguna, man, are you alright?" Ward asked with a small pause for chewing.

'Squall' lowered the glass back on the table and pushed a lock of black hair out of his left eye. "I'm fine. I just feel like someone's watching me, you know?"

Kiros waved his concerns off. "You're tripping on survivor's guilt, my friend. Drink some more whiskey and relax; life is beautiful, after all."

Ward laughed. "And so is Julia, right Laguna?"

Kiros chuckled in response and Squall saw his host giving Ward the finger. "Fuck off, Ward! It was supposed to be a secret you'd take to the grave, remember? I only told you because I thought we were gonna die!"

Kiros slapped Laguna on the arm with the back of his palm. "Oh grow up will you? With your pace, you aregoing to be the one taking the supposed secret to the grave. And trust me when I say no pretty Julia will be crying over your grave!" This procured another fit of laughter from Laguna's teammates as the goofy soldier started knocking on wood.

After Laguna's seething stopped, Ward pointed at him with his fork and spoke up. "Speaking of Julia, there she comes." A quick glance over his shoulder showed Laguna that Ward was actually pointing behind him, over to the bar-restaurant's piano. Julia was indeed pretty; she was tall and elegant, and her womanly curves were covered with a fitting, dark red dress that showed off her back, over which ran her black hair. As she sat behind the piano, she nodded at some of the people she probably recognized, who had started clapping and whooping.

"So, Laguna; after that close meeting with Death, do you plan on going for it tonight?" Kiros asked, which drew Laguna's gaze (and Squall's, respectively) back to the trio's table.

"No man, I can't! She's working after all."

"Oh come on. She's bound to have noticed us, being regular and such. At least go wave at her."

"Give me a break," Laguna moaned, "I'm too embarrassed to even try."

Ward chuckled and nodded to the waitress for a refill of his drink. "So you say now, but you know that you will go up to her."

"You two are going to keep at it, right?" Both Kiros and Ward nodded. "Fine, fine." Laguna responded, faking defeat. "I'm going." He got up from the booth, took a deep breath and, turning on his heel, moved towards Julia, whose music seemed to cheer the entire room. Laguna gulped heavily; he had just noticed that many of the room's occupants were watching at him. Some of the waiters who knew of his little crush gathered up and started trading wads of gil between each other, obviously betting on something he'd do.

Focus, Laguna. Squall heard the soldier repeat those words in his head. All there was to him now was Julia, beautiful Julia, and her piano. All he heard was her music. He took in her every feature, from the way her fingers tapped the piano's keys, to the way her chest rose at every breath, to how her brown eyes were closed in concentration.

Wow, Laguna thought, she sure is pretty. Ah, to be this close to Julia…

If Squall had a palm, he'd hit his forehead with it. He needed to get to Sector Seven, not watch this moron stalk this Julia person.

As if Squall's frustration had pulsated through his every being, Laguna's pace faltered. A sudden pain rushed through his leg, wracking it up with agony. Oh no! I got nervous! My leg cramped… He wanted to hold his knee and do the exercises a doctor he had once visited had taught him, but the sheer idea of even trying that in front of all those men and women watching him was even worse than the pain he felt. He stumbled up to the piano and looked at her, startled with the sudden thought that she was looking right at him. He tried to focus on her eyes, as opposed to a bit lower, right behind her neck, and drove all the ideas of her cleavage out of his mind.

He gulped heavily once more, and then blurted out. "Hi. Nice performance."

Julia beamed at him, making his heart skip a beat. "Thank you." She did a double take as she saw Laguna turn his back at her and limp away hurriedly, back to the two comrades of his.

I'm an idiot. Laguna wanted to kill himself, especially as he saw the smiles and heard the snickers coming from the tables around him. He slid back into his booth, where he faced his friends.

"Good job, Laguna! Mission successful!" The moment Ward uttered those wards, Kiros started laughing, bringing his hands in front of his mouth in a futile attempt to stop. Ward merely smiled as he patted Laguna's shoulder. "A shame you didn't have the balls to stay there a little more, though…" Ward whispered in playful banter.

"Screw you." Laguna said. "I was so close, it was painful! She's illegally pretty, you know."

"Yeah, I'm sure she is. Speaking of which, Kiros should also move! He should go see his pretty, uh, cello lady. Right Kiros?" Ward said, poking his friend at the ribs. Kiros looked at Ward, and then followed the gigantic man's gaze, and he too gasped.

"Yeah, yeah I should. Laguna, we're taking off."

"Hey, what's the rush? What happened, guys?" Laguna asked, curious.

"Whatever you take is on us, Laguna. Enjoy yourself, mate." Kiros said, giving him a smile and a wink before he approached a waitress, Ward following with a fast pace.

"What the…?" Laguna asked rhetorically. He turned to look over the booth, to find Julia standing right next to him, smiling.

"Hi!" She meekly offered, waving with her hand.

"Aaaaa!" Was the first thing to come out of Laguna's mouth, startled as he was. Then, realizing what a fool he was making of himself, he shut his mouth and casually waved back. He cleared his throat and pointed where Kiros was sitting moments ago. "Um, want to take a seat?"

"Thank you." Julia replied, taking a seat right next to him. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

Laguna gulped heavily. "N-not at all." He stammered. It's her! It's really HER! What do I do? What do I say? Help me, guys! Ah, damn, I'm cramping up! No! It can't happen now! Julia's with me! Real and beautiful, she's right next to me!

"How's your leg? I saw you limping away." Julia asked.

"My l-leg? Oh, my leg!" Laguna yelped. "I-it's fine. It cramps up when I get nervous, you know."

"You were nervous?" Julia asked, surprised.

"Yeah. I, uh, still am, to tell you the truth."

"Relax then," Julia said, reaching for his shoulder, and causing the exact opposite effect of her request. "You don't have to get nervous around me, you know. I don't bite."

Laguna had the decency to blush at the mental image. "Sorry, I-I can't help it."

"That's okay. Say, this place is getting crowded. Feel like coming upstairs to my room?"

"Your room?!" Laguna exclaimed tactlessly, before turning around to see the eavesdroppers around them.

Julia's laughter rang next to him. "Yes, my room. It's too difficult to listen here, you know? Everyone and everyone's mum is listening in." Laguna's quick glance around the restaurant proved exactly that. "Well, do you want to come by? I've wanted to talk to you."

"Uh, sure?" Julia laughed again as she saw the look at Laguna's eyes.

"No hanky-panky, by the way, despite the fact that I'm not going to correct what the others believe. I just want to talk to you. Is that okay?"

"Of course!" Laguna nodded with fervor.

Julia smiled. "Okay, go to the reception and ask for my room. I'll tell them to let you up." As she walked away, her dress shifting to accommodate her thighs, she called back. "Don't leave me hanging!"

The moment she disappeared from sight, Laguna let out a big "whoop!" and pumped his fist in the air. Although, he thought, I'll have to be careful. When I drop my guard I tend to talk about myself too much. "Not tonight! I'll be all ears for Julia."

--

"Thanks for coming." Julia greeted. "Please, come in."

Laguna did so, proving to Squall that he was in a five-star hotel. Julia's suite was absolutely great. A gigantic bed, an actual bar, sofas and armchairs adorned the room. From a window that took over more than half the wall, one could enjoy the lights of Midgar, as well as the occasional star. "Thanks," Laguna offered as he waited awkwardly in the middle of the suite, "uh, for inviting me."

She waved him off. "Please, take a seat." Julia offered to the anxious man, who rushed to comply. Under her amused gaze, Laguna sat at the bed, then immediately rose and moved to sit on the couch, from where he rushed to take his place on the armchair formally. "You're really nervous. I wonder why's that?" the piano player asked.

"I…" Laguna's throat was sore, so he coughed into his hand. "I am a big fan of yours, so…"

"Ah. So that's why you come to listen to me so often?" Julia asked with a playful glint in her eyes.

Laguna felt like he had sank into the comfortable armchair. "You saw me?" He asked incredulously.

"You were always smiling when listening. I remember because of your eyes. They're beautiful eyes, no matter how nervous they seem now." Julia said, smiling. In response to Laguna paling a little bit, she let out a guffaw. "Don't worry! I don't plan to eat them! I just want to talk to you while I look into your eyes…" Perhaps using her feminine wit, Julia headed to the bar. "I'll make you a drink first, though. I don't think I'll enjoy your stuttering."

Laguna brought his hands to his face. "I must be dreaming…" He whispered.


A few hours passed. Laguna had not stopped talking to the ever-listening Julia.

"Yeah, I don't like fighting too much, but I get to travel a lot, you know? See new places. And it's quite fun, because Ward and Kiros are always with me." A small pause, where he filled his and Julia's glass with wine, and then his face brightened up. "You, me and the lads should all go out drinking sometime! What do you say?"

She shrugged with a tired smile etched on her lips. "I guess we could."

"That's great!" Another pause. "Where was I? Oh yeah, as I was saying, I want to quit the Shinra and become a journalist, so I can tell to the people about all the places I've been on during my travels. Going around with no care in the world is so much more than all the fighting!" Laguna chuckled and downed his just-refilled glass. "So, the other day, one of my articles made the reader's column! Pretty cool, huh?"

"I'm happy for you." Julia replied, sounding honest.

Laguna grinned. "Oh yeah, and then…" This time Laguna's pause was longer, and Julia picked up.

"What is it?"

"Sorry." Laguna offered meekly. "I talk too much, don't I?"

"It's okay." Julia replied with a renewed smile, so much more intoxicating than wine. "I can tell that you are a good man. You are different."

"I am?"

"Yes. So many men in Midgar are fools, but you, you aren't like them at all. You speak from your heart, and that, if you ask me, is the greatest thing one can have."

"So," Laguna said after a moment, "tell me about you. Like, I don't know, your dreams for the future?"

She looked out of the window, thought obscuring her joyous expression from moments ago. "I," she began, then trailed off for an instant before resuming. "I want to sing. Not just to play the piano, but to sing."

"Really?" Laguna asked. "I'd love to hear it."

"But, I can't," Julia responded, looking back at Laguna. "I'm no good at writing lyrics. But, thanks to you, I think I can come up with something."

Laguna gasped and almost let the glass in his hand drop. "Thanks to me?"

"Yes," Julia replied, smiling as she crossed the distance to him. "The many faces you've shown me, times when you were hurt, worried… or felt pain deep inside you." She stopped in front of Laguna. "Your smile, your face, your eyes… You've shown me something special. I think I can come up with a song now."

"Wow," Laguna whispered at what Julia had said. He shook his head in denial. "This must be a dream." Julia took one of his hands in hers, and then squeezed it.

"Its not a dream is it?" she asked. Laguna looked at Julia, looked deep into her brown eyes. He opened his mouth to thank her for the honor and tell her how much he appreciated being the inspiration she so needed, when a sudden, sharp rap on the door got their attention.

"Laguna!" Kiros shouted from the other side of the door. "Hey, man, we got new orders! Meet by the Presidential Palace on the double!"

"Can we meet again?" Julia asked after Kiros stepped away from the door, to Laguna's emphatic nodding.

"Of course!" he said. "I have to come hear you sing!"


Squall awoke with a startle right as Watts crashed on the windshield of the car he, Rinoa and Ellone were driving. In the background, shooting and screaming echoed over Sector Seven. He was laid on the back seat of the car, and it was Rinoa's short scream of terror that had snapped him awake. His mind cleared at the task at hand, his purpose was obsolete.

The pillar was about to fall and crash hundreds of people, all thanks to a sole man's megalomania.

The ex-SeeD was going to remedy that.