Operation: Mariposa

Chapter 01

Squall looked around the office with the feeling like a man who had just fallen overboard into an angry ocean. An office already? He didn't want an office, but nobody wanted to listen when he protested. They'd just smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, not even waiting for his wounds from his battle with Ultimecia to heal. He flopped in the chair behind the desk, already deeply loathing this room. It was so... authoritative. A role he hated, but one that he was already being shoehorned into. He could see it in Cid's eyes when he'd been given the keys to this room. The expectation of great things.

He put his forehead down on the gleaming oak surface, closing his sea blue eyes wearily. His whole body ached, and he was sure the gash healing on his ribcage would leave a permanent scar. It was nice to have a moment to himself. While he cared about everyone else, right now he just wanted to listen to the silence, to the distant sound of the Balamb Ocean, and the seagulls cawing. He wanted to mull over the staggering fact that Laguna Loire was his father, without everyone asking him a million questions about how their meeting in Esthar had gone before they'd all come back to Garden.

Squall... there's no easy way to say this. Uh, well... here goes. I'm... I'm kind of, well... I'm your father.

Squall had pictured what his father might be like a million times through his life, and Laguna wasn't what he had in mind. He'd always pictured someone more... like himself, and less of a goof. A man who didn't get leg cramps when he got nervous. A man who hadn't fallen ass-backwards into every situation in his life.

Why didn't you come to find me?

It was a question that Squall longed to hear the answer to, but he hadn't been able to ask, sitting there across Laguna's desk from this man who was suddenly his father. It had been on the tip of his tongue when Laguna had gingerly pushed a photograph towards him, reading his face intently. Hungrily, like he wanted to memorize everything about Squall's features.

Why did you leave her?

Squall already knew the answer to that one from what Ellone had shown him of the past, but he still had wanted to ask it as he looked at Raine. His mother, with her face exactly like his own, so much so that it burned his throat with hidden emotion.

"An office already? They're really trying to squeeze you into that mould, aren't they?"

Squall snapped up into a sitting position in surprise, wincing because the quick motion wrenched a sore muscle in his neck. Seifer was standing in the doorway, an amused smirk on his handsome face. But, that smirk didn't quite mask the utter exhaustion etched in his features. And, the defeat. He looked as tired as Squall felt.

"I just came to say goodbye."

"You're leaving?" Squall asked, gesturing for Seifer to come into the barely furnished room.

Seifer did so, quietly snapping the door shut behind him. Maybe people thought that Squall would be scared to be in a closed room, alone with Seifer Almasy after all that happened, or that he would be furious with the other man for trying to kill him, and trying to kill his friends. And Rinoa. But, he wasn't. He was briefly surprised that he felt none of those things, looking into Seifer's familiar cat green eyes. Of course, this internal musing didn't register on his finely boned features as he looked at Seifer expectantly.

"You didn't think I'd stay, did you?" Seifer asked, the amusement draining from his voice until he sounded hollow and bitter. "After what I've done?"

"It wasn't your fault."

"I... still... feel like I should... apologize," Seifer ground out, as if each word was causing him great internal pain. Apologies did not come easily to him. "For the whole... torturing you and trying to kill you... thing."

"And, for this?" He asked, touching his index finger to the scar on his forehead, mirrored on Seifer's own.

Seifer just mumbled incoherently.

" ...Whatever. You never needed my forgiveness before, but... I'm not angry."

"I don't know if I believe that, but I appreciate it," Seifer muttered, crossing his arms. "Even though you sound insincere."

"I did?"

Seifer smirked again.

"You're making fun of me." Squall frowned deeply, his scarred forehead creasing.

"And besides, I can't stay. I'm not allowed. I'm not SeeD, remember?"

Squall cocked his head, opening his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. Seifer could see some sort of internal struggle going on in there, and waited patiently to see if anything was going to come out. He was far too used to Squall's inability to socialize properly.

"About that... I guess... thank you," he said abruptly, gloved hands folded on the desk. "We never would have graduated if you hadn't disobeyed orders."

"Oh..." Seifer cocked his head, looking at Squall seriously. "That's very sweet, and yet way to pour salt in my wounds, Squall."

"That wasn't my intention."

"I know, I know." Seifer waved a hand. "I really just came to say goodbye. I don't know... I felt I owed it to you to not sneak off into the night."

"Where will you go?" He asked, slowly rising from the chair and coming to stand in front of the other man.

Seifer shrugged a broad shoulder. "I dunno. I'll figure something out. I always do." He gave his trademark smile, but it was strained around the edges. "Raijin said something about going to Balamb Town, so I guess I'll tag along." Seifer gave a quick, sarcastic bow at the shoulders. "So, I guess this is the end of our so-called rivalry, Sir." He rose to his full, impressive height. "Even though I never really considered it much of a rivalry."

"Me neither."

"Did you just almost smile, Leonhart?" Seifer asked teasingly. "I guess Rinoa really is a drastic influence on you. Well, okay then..." Seifer sounded uncharacteristically awkward as he stuck his hand out.

Squall looked down at the offered hand, gloved in black leather like his own. It was alien to see Seifer stripped of all his bravado. He was one of the few people who'd seen Seifer in moments of vulnerability, but it was still unnerving. It didn't fit with the status quo.

"You do know how to shake hands, right?" Seifer asked, watching as Squall looked at his hand like he'd never seen one before.

Squall stuck his hand out and stiffly completed the handshake. Seifer's fingers closed around his hand firmly, and Squall knew that if Seifer wanted to, he could break every bone in his hand. It took a lot of physical strength to hold a gunblade the way Seifer did.

"Maybe we'll see each other again sometime," Squall said gravely.

"This isn't a funeral, Leonhart. I'm sure Matron will plan some sort of reunion supper that she'll wrangle us all into attending. It's a small world."


They looked into each other's eyes with complete familiarity. They knew each other probably better than anyone else did. Then, it happened. Their gazes held just for a heartbeat too long. If they'd broken the handshake and said their final goodbyes, perhaps they wouldn't have suddenly been all over each other, mouths fused together passionately. Later, in the endless moments both men would spend thinking about how and why it happened, neither would be able to figure out who exactly started the kiss, whose hands exactly had started roaming over the other's body.

Squall's ass hit the edge of the desk as Seifer almost violently caught him up in a tight embrace, tongue delving into Squall's mouth, exploring as thoroughly as Squall's was within Seifer's mouth. Squall's gloved hands cupped the sides of Seifer's face, then moved into his short blonde hair, then stroked his neck and shoulders. He wound his thighs around Seifer's hips, practically eating his mouth His small moans were muffled by the other man's mouth and tongue, and he slowly rocked his hips to create friction, all the blood moving through his veins at lightning speed, mostly towards his genitals. When Seifer's mouth began to pull away from the kiss, Squall chased it down again, only vaguely aware of the utter insanity of this situation. But, that was just a distant buzzing in the back of his mind, pushed into obscurity by the lust that was consuming him. He didn't care about the strangeness of kissing Seifer Almasy of all people, but how right it felt, how he wanted more, wanted it to go further. Seifer's mouth again began to pull away from his own, but Squall caught it again, not so gently tugging on Seifer's lower lip with his teeth.

Seifer was finally successful in breaking the kiss, even though most of him didn't want to. His whole body ached for more contact, and protested against his judgement. He pushed against Squall's shoulders, looking at his face with shock. His blue eyes were alight with desire, and his hair had become messed up in a way that made Seifer's will falter. Squall again came closer to him, and he took a giant step backwards on wobbling legs. Only their heavy breathing could be heard in the silence of the near empty office. Seifer blinked his pale green eyes and looked at Squall as if he'd never seen him before, and then turned and left the office, his steps jagged and shaky, closing the door behind him.

Squall looked at the closed door, his heart beating loudly in his ribcage. He had to stay leaning against the desk, because he knew his legs couldn't support his weight, his cock so hard it was painful. He pursed his lips together, still able to taste Seifer's saliva. What just happened?! He tried to calm his breathing and will away his erection, but he kept thinking about the feeling of Seifer's hands all over him, and the friction of their bodies, and the greenness of his eyes. He shook his head violently to rid his mind of the images, running a badly shaking hand through his bangs.

Squall was one of the few people (probably the only one outside of Fujin and Raijin) that knew Seifer was a homosexual, and he briefly tried to blame the kiss on that fact. Seifer had forced it. But, Squall knew that was a complete lie. Seifer was the one who stopped, and if he hadn't Squall slammed his eyes shut, guilt starting to gnaw at him. If Seifer hadn't stopped, Squall wouldn't have. He'd wanted to go further. He would have had sex with Seifer right then and there. He knew that, and he despised himself for it. What about Rinoa?! He'd kissed Seifer before he'd even kissed her.

There was the sound of footsteps outside the office door, which startled Squall, and made his already rapidly beating heart slam painfully against his breastbone. He tried to picture unappealing things to make his erection vanish, but it was being stubborn, so he had to stumbled around his desk, and sunk into the chair as the door was swung open.

Xu was standing there, carrying a box in her arms, full of personal belongings. She faltered when she saw Squall sitting behind the desk, and looked at him in surprise. "Oh! Wh... what are you doing in here?" Xu asked, her slanted, almond-shaped eyes full of confusion.

"Cid gave me this office," he answered, hoping that his voice sounded neutral.

"But... I thought he was giving it to me." Xu frowned deeply. "I guess there must have been some mix-up." She laughed. "I guess I better go find out. I think a box of my stuff was already brought in here, though." She looked at the small stack of taped-up boxes. Her own must have gotten mingled with Squall's things.

"I'll check."

"Thanks!" She called over her shoulder, trudging off to find Cid, hitching the box up in her arms. "Hi there, Rinoa!" Squall heard Xu call from the hallway. His face suddenly felt like it was on fire, and when she was standing in the doorway, smiling shyly and beautifully at him, he hated himself.

"An office already?" She commented, making Squall's stomach swoop with guilt and the memory of what happened the last time someone else had said those exact three words. She clasped her hands at the small of her back, and stepped into the room, twirling on the spot so she could get a good look at it. "I hope you won't keep it this barren, though knowing you..." She trailed off with a wink. "Are you okay, Squall?" She asked, suddenly serious. She came to stand beside his chair, and put a small and warm hand on his shoulder. "You look really pale."

He looked at her face for a long time, studying her heart-shaped mouth and her deep, warm brown eyes. He felt the gentle weight of her hand, getting lost in the coffee brown of her irises, even as he started to think of eyes of clear peridot green. He reached up, leather jacket creaking, and covered Rinoa's hand with his own. "Just tired," he lied. How could he tell her that he'd kissed Seifer? He couldn't. It would break her heart, and he wasn't even sure why he'd done it. He couldn't be this close to her, and tell her something like that.

"I can imagine," she murmured sympathetically. "But, you're due for a nice, long vacation, right?" She leaned in, and he smelled the mixture of her perfume and shampoo. It smelled like roses. "Lots of time for rest and... relaxation, huh?" She gave him a saucy wink, and smiled brightly, which he returned only half-heartedly.

"Look... are you sure you're okay? I know... I know that you and Seifer were talking. Did he say anything to upset you?"

Squall opened his mouth to answer, but what could he say? No, he said goodbye, and then he gave me an incredible kiss, and I'm still rock-hard from it and I totally wanted him to fuck me, and still kind of want it. But, other than that, everything's fantastic. "No. He just said goodbye." The lie tasted like ashes on his tongue. He wouldn't tell her and break her angelic heart because there was nothing to tell. It's not like it would ever happen again. He didn't even know if he would see Seifer anymore. "I wasn't angry," he admitted, at least telling the truth about something.

"No..." She folded her hands in her lap, and stared into space thoughtfully. "No, me neither. You figure I should be, and that you have every right to be. But, I guess it's the same as with Edea, right?"

"Right," he echoed stupidly. The sun was coming in the window behind them, and caught the caramel-coloured streaks in Rinoa's raven hair. She smiled when she caught Squall staring at her. He looked away, and she laughed.

"It's okay to check me out if you want to."

He opened his mouth to protest, feeling a flush creeping up his neck, but then closed his lips when he saw Rinoa's eyes dancing with affectionate teasing. Looking at her like this, he forgot about the kiss with Seifer, and just thought of what it felt like to be in Rinoa's company. She put a hand on his shoulder again, then slowly stroked his hair, giving him a meaningful smile that was meant only for him. She suddenly felt somewhat shy in his presence, and moved away from the desk, and from the intensity of his gaze. She cared about Squall deeply, but the thought of kissing him, or doing... other things, made her nervous just now.

"You want me to help you unpack?" She asked, feeling a little breathless as she went over to the stack of boxes. The one on the top of the pile felt heavy. "Oof," she grunted, lifting it.

"Don't..." Squall trailed off. "You could hurt yourself."

"If a time-travelling Sorceress couldn't do me in, I don't think a box of... something, will." She ripped the tape off. "Books! Yeah, I think I'm safe from them." She tucked a lock of highlighted hair behind her ear, and ran her fingers across the spines of the volumes. Atlases and reference books. Nothing for pleasurable reading. What kind of novels would Squall enjoy, she wondered as she looked at him. She pulled the tape off the top seam of the next box, thinking. Actually, she couldn't picture Squall reading for fun. In fact... what did he do for fun?

"Butterflies?" She asked in confusion, taking a display frame out of the second box, and holding it up. Inside were half a dozen dead butterflies, wings pinned out to display them. Each had a small label underneath to show what species they were. "That's what you do for fun?" She asked. Collecting butterflies wasn't what would have been at the top of her list for her new boyfriend. Boyfriend the thought made her smile internally.

"Huh?" Squall looked at the frame that Rinoa was holding up. "Those aren't mine."

"You can admit it," she chided. "It's okay to appreciate butterflies."

"I'm serious."

"When are you not serious?" She grinned at the put-out look on his face, and gently nudged his shoulder with open palms, then leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Despite his icy countenance, Squall's body was very warm, and Rinoa felt a liquid heat move through her limbs.

"Oh... they must be Xu's," Squall realized. "She came in earlier, and said that a box of her stuff might be here." Squall rested his chin on the top of Rinoa's head, breathing in the rosewater scent of her tresses. He then kissed her there, and felt her sigh against him.

Rinoa was still looking at the butterflies, dead and displayed within the frame. The box was full of similar frames, folded in bubble-wrap to protect the glass. "They're pretty," she commented, watching as the light from the window played on the iridescent blue and aqua wings of a butterfly labelled 'Menelaus Blue Morpho'. "But, they'd be prettier if they were still alive, flying around free."

"Mmm," he commented distantly, closing his eyes wearily as he felt her fingers move up and down the small of his back. He tried not to think of Seifer's much stronger hands trailing there, more animalistic and lustful than Rinoa's caring caress.

"So, if you don't collect butterflies, what do you do for fun, Squall Leonhart? I haven't been able to figure that one out yet. I guess I'm not an 'expert Squall reader' yet. Not like Quistis."

"Training's fun," he mumbled into her hair, being completely serious.

"That's not a hobby," she said, moving her head so she could look up at his face.


"I guess it will be up to me to think of fun things we can do."

Squall raised an eyebrow in a way that was very male, and it made her blush deeply. He then leaned in and kissed her cheek, very close to the corner of her lips. Were they as soft as they looked? He could taste the gloss she used, and it tasted fruity, like watermelon. Rinoa became very still in his arms, looking into his pale blue eyes. She didn't push away when his mouth came closer, and landed on top of hers. But, even as he kissed her for the first time, he thought of kissing Seifer. Two first kisses within a half-hour of each other, and yet both so different. And, why was he thinking of some freak blip in time while he was finally kissing the girl he'd risked everything for? But, the more he tried to shut Seifer out of his mind, and the taste of his lips and the feel of his hard body pressed against Squall's, the harder it was for him to forget.

When their lips broke apart, Rinoa smiled shyly and looked up at him. "Our first kiss, huh?" She played with the zipper of his coat, the leather creaking as she held him tighter. "It was okay, I guess." She winked, and then rested her cheek on his shoulder. Squall looked out the window, loving the closeness of Rinoa and the roses smell of her hair. And yet, as he looked at the dimming sunlight, he wondered if Seifer was still thinking about what happened between them, too.

"Jeez, Squall. This isn't a very functional office if all your stuff is in boxes," Quistis commented with a roll of her dazzling sapphire eyes. She crouched beside the pile that hadn't been touched since the afternoon that he and Rinoa had shared their first kiss. "I know you had some atlases on Northern Trabia in here somewhere..."


After a brief two-week vacation, things were starting to get back to normal. Cid had given Xu more control over doling out assignments to the SeeD, alleviating himself of some of his duties so he could have more time with his wife. Xu was sending Quistis and Squall to a small lumber community about an hour's travelling north of Trabia Garden because of some lumber poaching that was affecting legitimate timber sales, and causing a dip in the already endangered population of Trabian Wolves.

Squall was staring off into space as she neatly pulled books out of the boxes, looking for the correct one. "No," she muttered to herself. "Where are you?" She flipped some of her blonde hair over a shoulder and looked at him. "Squall?"

No response.

"Squall?" She asked again, snapping her fingers. "Hey!"

"Huh?" He asked, snapping out of it.

"Do you remember which box the atlas is in?" Quistis asked, pushing her eyeglasses up the bridge of her nose.


"Thanks for the help," she muttered sarcastically, putting the books back lovingly, then opening another box. "I hope you're not this distracted when we're chasing after sneaky poachers who are armed with lots of chainsaws."


"Ah-ha!" She exclaimed when she found the book. "Found it."


"What's wrong?" She asked, sitting down across the desk from him. "You're even more distracted than usual." She cocked her head, and suddenly became serious. "Is it Rinoa?" She asked, voice lowering.


"Rinoa. Your girlfriend. Remember?"


Quistis just shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Never mind. Here." She opened the atlas and put it on the desk. "We never really visited this part of Trabia, so we should familiarize ourselves with the terrain before tonight."


Quistis just stared at Squall for a few minutes more, wondering what had made him so distant. It's not like she ever would have guessed the real reason - that Squall was thinking about Seifer. Again. But, he wasn't thinking about the kiss, or the heat of his body. He was wondering what Seifer was going to do with the rest of his life. Squall just couldn't imagine Seifer getting some kind of regular job. And, he didn't have any family, so where would he live? Squall imagined Deling City or Dollet. Squall got a mental image of Seifer, ever proud and haughty, serving fast food at some junk dive restaurant, wearing a ridiculous striped shirt uniform with a small matching hat. He couldn't help but laugh quietly to himself, and sobered up immediately when he looked across the desk to see Quistis staring at him with narrowed eyes.

"Did you hit your head?"

He frowned at her, pulling the atlas closer to himself. "Stop it," he snapped when he could feel her eyes drilling into him.

"Okay, fine." Her pouty lips turned up into a sly grin. "I'll stop. But, we have a whole trip to Trabia where I can figure out why you're acting like you just got a lobotomy. Aaaannnd, we do have that layover in Dollet while we wait for the ferry."


"I guess I shouldn't tease you," she said, jotting down some notes on a pad. "You're going to be separated from Rinoa for an undetermined amount of time so early in your relationship. That's a lot of sex to miss out on."

"Quistis!" Squall snapped, an embarrassed flush coming to his cheeks.

"All right, all right." She grinned once more at Squall's ever-present deep frown, and then they settled into an industrious silence.

After a while, Quistis looked at her pewter wristwatch. "We should probably get going. The train leaves in a couple of hours." She stood up, collecting her notes, and picking up the atlas. "You did remember to pack, right?"


"Rinoa did it for you, didn't she?"

"... yes," he muttered, standing up.

"Meet you in the garage in twenty minutes?" She asked, briskly walking out of the room, off to collect her luggage.

"Hey, Quisty!" A voice called as she walked down the hall towards the elevator.

Quistis spun around on the spot, looking for the source of her name. Xu was jogging after her, and Quistis smiled when she saw her friend.

"You heading out now?" Xu asked as they got into the elevator together.

"Yeah, just gotta get my luggage."

"You don't feel bad that I stuck you with Squall, do you?" Xu asked, clutching a thick leather ledger in front of her as they descended, papers sticking out from within it. "I figured you two would work best together long-term."

"Oh, no. It's fine, I love Squall."

Xu raised her eyebrows and chuckled.

"Not like that!" Quistis exclaimed. "Well,,, not anymore."

Both women laughed as the elevator stopped, doors sliding open. "I never got to congratulate you, by the way," said the statuesque blonde. "Getting more responsibility, planning missions... I think these static partnerships are a great idea. It works for police officers, right?"

"We'll see." Xu smiled and waved as they came to the circular Garden lobby. She waved as she made her way towards the library, while Quistis continued towards the dorms. "When you come back, I'll kick your butt at Triple Triad!" Xu called after her friend.

"You wish!" Quistis waved over her shoulder. She, of course, had been packed since she'd been given the Trabia assignment, so was very ready, but found that Squall had actually gotten to the garage ahead of her, and was waiting beside the driver who'd be taking them to the train station. And he, of course, wasn't talkative, so the drive to Balamb was a quiet, uneventful one. But, she could see his irritation at being the passenger in a car rather than the driver, and it made her grin.

When they arrived in Balamb Town, it was past dusk, so the small town was pretty quiet, the shop fronts all closed up until morning. The sea could be heard lapping at the boardwalks as the porter parked the car and started shuffling Quistis and Squall's bags up towards the luggage checkpoint. Quistis dug around in her bag, and pulled out their tickets. As she handed one to him, the quiet evening was broken by the sound of Squall's cellular phone ringing.

"We just left!" Quistis exclaimed. "You didn't get a chance to say goodbye properly to Rinoa?"

Squall frowned at her and checked the caller ID, insides squirming.

"Must be nice," Quistis muttered with a touch of bitterness. After all, she didn't have anyone to call her just after they'd parted because he'd missed her so much. "You coming?"

Squall held up a finger and flipped open the phone, watching as Quistis walked up the stairs. "Hello," Squall greeted, wrestling to keep his voice neutral.

"How's the hero?" Seifer's voice drawled on the other end. "Mr. Estharian President Junior." The news that Laguna Loire had a long-lost son who just happened to be the SeeD that just saved the world was currently plastered all over every newspaper in the world.

"Don't," Squall warned. All the attention, and the whole subject period, was a sore spot for him.

"You aren't happy that you finally have a parent?"

"Where are you?" Squall deflected in hushed tones, slowly walking up the stairs into the train station.

"Deling City. Why are you whispering? Where are you?"

"Train station."

"A mission already?" Squall could hear some sort of traffic noise in the background. "Look I'm sure you can guess why I'm calling." Seifer's voice broke up a little, the line becoming crackly.

Squall opened his mouth to say something, but... what? "I figured," he finally settled on.

"I was thinking of calling... well, pretty much every day since..."

"You don't have to apologize," Squall blurted out.

"Who said I was going to?" Seifer asked coolly on the other end of the line. Quistis was waiting outside the train, looking at Squall expectantly. "Okay," Seifer added in a mutter. "I'd considered it, and maybe would have if it had been one-sided." Seifer's tone held knowing, because it had been impossible not to notice that Squall had been very aroused. It made his voice sound very masculine and sexual, and Squall turned away from Quistis, his body starting to react. "I'm more confused than apologetic." The line crackled again. Connections were much better since Adel was no longer interfering with communication satellites, but still had a lot to be desired.

"I don't know why," Squall answered truthfully.

"I'd always wondered if you were bi, or at least bi-curious. Maybe it's a little more than curiosity."

"I think..." Squall didn't know how to finish that sentence. He wasn't good at expressing his emotions, even with Seifer, the person he actually found it easiest to talk to. "We have a complex relationship."


In Deling City, Seifer was leaning against a chain-link fence around a parking lot, standing away from a small group of people who were being driven to a construction site on the outskirts of the city, where some new housing units were being built. It was menial day-work, but Seifer was getting pretty desperate for money. Raijin was talking to a few of the other guys, already laughing and making friends with them, gesticulating wildly with his hands as he told a story that made them all laugh. Fujin stood beside him, but her eye kept glancing over to Seifer, as did many other eyes. Ultimecia's Knight doing day work? He could feel the cold stares, but it didn't bother him, especially not while listening to the familiarity of Squall's voice, thinking about how he looked. How he tasted.

"Are you going to tell Rinoa?" Seifer asked.


"Why not?" Seifer asked seriously.

"What would I say?"

"The truth. You care about her, right?"

"I love her."

"Well, good then. You shouldn't lie to someone you love." He kept his voice carefree, but Squall's declaration of love felt like a punch in the stomach. Seifer always felt strangely possessive of Squall, even when they'd fought and argued. And, it was kind of hard not to be attracted to him. Seifer wasn't blind, and Squall was gorgeous. He wished he'd taken off his gloves during their kiss so he could have felt Squall's hair with his bare hands. He looked over, and saw that the caravan would be leaving. "Time to skedaddle. Careful out there, kiddo."

" ...yeah," Squall echoed dully on the other end of the line. Seifer snapped his phone shut, and put it in the pocket of the old pair of jeans he was wearing.

"OKAY?" Fujin asked as he approached them.

Seifer waved away her question, and climbed into one of the vans next to Raijin. "You know me," he said, seeing a couple of men whispering and obviously saying disparaging things about him. He smiled tightly. "I'm always fine."


Squall lowered his cold and sore body onto the supple leather bar stool in a rugged inn in the equally rugged logging community where they were staying during this mission. He and Quistis had spent the past two days traipsing across the unforgiving Trabian landscape, surveying the situation. She sat beside him, shivering in the depths of her parka.

"Squall, this sucks," he heard her disjointed voice mumble from inside her fur-lined hood.

"Hey!" The bartender exclaimed, looking at Squall's face when he lowered his hood. "Aren't you...?"


"You're that SeeD, right? Laguna Loire's son!"


"Squall, right? The one who's dating the new Sorceress!" The bartender exclaimed excitedly, eyes roving over Squall's scar.


"Uh, okay... sure." The bartender looked at Squall in confusion, wondering why he was getting such a cold shoulder.

"Brandy please," came Quistis's voice from inside her coat.

When the drink was put down in front of Squall, he downed it in one shot, and tapped the bar with his finger, indicating he wanted more. The bartender's reaction to him being Laguna's son was one that he'd been getting a lot here. Everyone knew him in Balamb Garden, and was used to him, but not here. Not on the train to Timber. Not on the other train to Dollet. Not on the boat ride here. Everyone pointed at him and whispered, or wanted his autograph or a picture.

Is Laguna as cool in real life as he seems on TV?

What's it like being the son of a President?

Was Ultimecia scary?

What's it like dating a Sorceress?

Are you and Sorceress Rinoa going to get married?

Squall was fucking sick of it. Quistis pushed back her hood and took a sip of her brandy, the alcohol warming her up. Someone up the bar saw her face and quietly asked for an autograph, which Quistis happily obliged with a winning smile. But, she wasn't getting questions nearly as much as Squall was. He'd look at her enviously as she could continue walking while people crowded around him and asked him a bunch of moronic questions.

Quistis looked up from her brandy, and saw with surprise that Squall was already on his third drink. The bartender didn't seem to care that he was a few months shy of the legal drinking age. "I think today was pretty productive," she said, trying to be optimistic. They'd found a couple of abandoned camps being used by the logging poachers. They'd also sadly found a pair of Trabia wolf carcasses, skinned. Their beautiful white pelts were probably already on the black market.

"Whatever," he muttered, pounding back the fourth drink that the bartender put in front of him.

Quistis watched him with her head cocked. "What are you thinking?" She asked, sensing there was something wrong with him.

His body language became colder and angrier.

"Okay." She stood up with a shrug, and put some gil on the bar. "I'm going to get some rest. You coming?" When she got no response, she threw her hands up and trudged up the wooden stairs to the upper level where the rooms were. She and Squall were sharing a double room, something that would have sent Quistis into transports of delight only six months ago, but now didn't bother her in the slightest. It was surreal how fast her feelings of lust for Squall had turned into something completely sisterly.

Once in the room, Quistis shed her outdoor gear, and sat in a chair beside the small, and only, window in their room. She opened it only slightly, so she could hear what was going on outside. She could hear two men laughing raucously below, but other than that, it was silent. She'd drawn up maps with locations where the poachers had shown up, and used a pair of binoculars to check out the dense forests. Quistis had to squint because there wasn't much light, making it difficult to see. She put her mittens back on when the cool air coming from the open window started to chill her hands, but other than that, things were highly uneventful.

A few hours later, Squall came into the room, stumbling. He collapsed on the bed, and even from across the room, Quistis could smell booze. She could hear him quietly snoring as soon as his head hit the mattress. She went back to the binoculars, watching as two deer frolicked around amongst the trees, their white spots under their tails glowing in the moonlight. The deer suddenly went very still as if they sensed something Quistis couldn't. Then, they scattered, and a blue dragon came stomping out of the thicket, and then disappeared again, trying to chase after its much faster prey. She could hear the distant echo of its roar.

"Ah!" She exclaimed, the binoculars clanking against the lenses of her glasses as she jerked in surprise. Her quiet watch was interrupted by the shrill ringing of Squall's phone. He was out for the count, and didn't even move at the noise. The blonde sighed and went over to his bed, searching around in Squall's pockets for the phone as it continued to ring. She found it in his jacket, and saw the caller ID said 'Rinoa'. "Hello Miss Heartilly."

"Quistis?" Rinoa asked, voice full of confusion. Surprisingly, the phone connection was better out here in the wild, because of the lack of city interference. "Where's Squall?"

Quistis looked down at his prone form. "Sleeping," she replied with a touch of disapproval.

"Oh, no! I didn't call too late, did I?"

"Nah. We're just taking shifts watching the woods."

"I told myself that I wouldn't call him so soon after he was leaving, but I just wanted to hear his voice."

Quistis narrowed her cobalt eyes and looked over to Squall, the cogs of her mind turning. "I can tell him to call you back when he wakes up."

"No, no. That's okay. Besides, I'm about to go get some food, anyway. I'm starving. Mrs. Kramer's a bit of a slave-driver," she said laughingly. "She came by Garden yesterday to see the Headmaster, and she offered to help me out!"

"Well, that's good. Although, they'd probably cringe at being called the Headmaster and Mrs. Kramer. Sounds like some kind of accounting firm. She'll probably have you calling her Matron by the end of the week."

"I'm a little nervous," Rinoa admitted. "About... losing control of my magic."

"Matron will help you. I can wake Squall up if you really want to talk to him," offered Quistis, hearing the worry in the Rinoa's voice.

"No, it's okay. He's really cranky when he first wakes up, anyway."

"Oh-ho! I see..."

Though Quistis couldn't see Rinoa, she was quite sure the dark-haired girl was blushing fiercely. "You know what I meant..."

"I do now." Quistis started laughing while Rinoa made embarrassed shushing noises. "I guess I'll find out when I have to wake him up for his turn to watch."

"Just... can you tell him I called?" Rinoa asked.

"Of course."

"And, we'll have a knitting night when you get back, right? You promised you'd teach me how to bind off."

"I promise," Quistis said solemnly. "Though, Matron was the one who taught me, so she could show you." One of Quistis's hobbies was knitting, one she got teased for sometimes, mostly by Selphie.

"She's already teaching me enough stuff. Besides, it's a good way for us to hang out and get to know each other better."

"I... uh... thanks, Rinoa." Quistis was flattered by the declaration, since in the back of her mind, she'd wondered if Rinoa was jealous that she was off in the wilderness alone with her boyfriend and all. It's not like it was a huge secret that Quistis used to have a huge crush on him.

"Be careful. And, tell Squall I miss him already."

"I will. Good night."

"Goodnight," echoed Rinoa as she hung up.

Quistis closed Squall's phone and tossed it onto the bed behind her. She went back to her vigil, and when her watch alarm beeped, she got up from the chair, stretching her weary body. "Squall," she called, going over and shaking him. "Squall!" She started shaking him hard and constantly until he groaned and slapped her hands away. He rolled over and started to go back to sleep.

"SQUALL!" She shouted in his ear, loud enough that he bolted upright.

"Whaaa...?" He looked around blearily, glaring at Quistis when he saw her standing over him, hands on her hips.

"Your turn to keep watch."

He groaned and started to crawl off the bed, swaying when he stood upright. He rubbed his face, but the room was still spinning. He hadn't been asleep long enough to get hung over. He was still drunk.

Quistis lay on her own bed after putting Squall's phone on the nightstand. "I know you'll say no, but... do you want to talk about it?"

"About what?" Squall asked, putting the binoculars to his eyes. It briefly turned the whole world on its axis as his drunken brain tried to process the different vision.

"That's what I thought. Rinoa called. She said that she misses you already." Quistis cocked her head. "She said she'd been trying to resist calling you. So then, who were you talking to in Balamb?"

"Huh?" Squall looked away from the binoculars.

"I thought you were talking to Rinoa before we got on the train, but you weren't. It looked pretty private. Was it Laguna?"

Squall didn't answer.

"How's that going, anyway? I guess the fact you're drunk on a mission answers my question." She took off her glasses and put them beside the phone.

"Does it... does it bother you when people come up to you for autographs, or to ask about Ultimecia?" Squall asked after he'd watched the trees blow in the cold arctic wind for a while.

Quistis shrugged and yawned. "I dunno, not really. It will blow over. Although, being asked for an autograph while you're trying to use a public bathroom is a little irritating." She frowned. "But, I'm also not dating the newest Sorceress who also happens to be Timber's rebel princess sweetheart, and my father isn't the really popular, well-loved President of Esthar. Oh... and the whole former movie-star bit, too."

"Yeah, that." He looked through the binoculars for a while. "I wasn't talking to Laguna."

"Hmm?" Quistis murmured sleepily, pulling off her socks and mittens (both hand-knitted by herself).

"It was Seifer." Maybe it was the alcohol that lowered Squall's defences, or maybe he just needed to let it out. He was thinking about what happened between Seifer and him all the time, and it was eating at him.

"Seifer?" She echoed, definitely sounding more awake. "Where was he?"

"Deling City." He looked over his shoulder, and even in his inebriated state, heard the concern for Seifer in Quistis's voice.

"I didn't think we'd hear from him again, or at least for a really long time. He's too proud to ever admit it, but he's ashamed of what he did." She slipped under the blankets, still feeling chilled from their long period of time outside. "But, it's not surprising that he called you. Everyone thinks you hate each other, but I know better." She turned off the light, leaving the room only illuminated by the moon.

"I kissed him," Squall murmured into the darkness., lowering the binoculars into his lap.

"You wha...?" Quistis opened her eyes, and saw his silhouette sitting very still in front of the window, not looking at her. "Like, on the cheek, or a kiss kiss?"

"The latter." Squall's voice sounded dull under the layer of booze, but inside he was starting to burn up with remembered desire upon thinking about it.

Quistis fully sat up, making a few small noises of disbelief, trying to wrap her head around the idea. "When?" She finally asked.

"The day he left Garden. He came to my office to say goodbye, and it just... happened."

Quistis just stared at his immobile silhouette, a million questions running through her mind. So many that it was hard for her to decide which one to ask. "Are you... gay?"


"It's a valid question," Quistis replied defensively.

"Seifer is, but I'm not."

"He is? Well, I'm at least glad I'm laying down. So, if you're not gay...?"

"Can't I like both?" Squall asked rhetorically, his voice still a little slurred from the alcohol.

"Sure..." She trailed off. "Just surprised, that's all. Though, maybe I shouldn't be. You keep a lot of things about yourself secret. So, uh... what are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know. Nothing."

"Did you tell Rinoa?"

"You sound like Seifer."

"So, you haven't?"

"No. I don't want to hurt her," he slurred. "It was such a freak occurrence, and it's not like it will happen again."

Quistis pursed her full mouth. "Squall, I appreciate your candour, but why did you tell me?"

Squall finally turned his head and looked at her, the moon casting highlights on his nose and cheekbones. "Sometimes even I have to let things out. It's not like I haven't learned something from recent events. And, you do inspire confidence. Like Sis."

Quistis smiled, and she saw a ghostly smile echo on his face. "To be compared to Ellone is a big honour. And, I appreciate that you feel like you can talk to me, but I really think you should tell Rinoa."

Squall didn't reply. He'd done all his talking, and was a silent wall once more. Quistis looked at him for a while, thinking that when she finally thought she was really getting to know Squall Leonhart, something always altered that perception of him. He said that the kiss between him and Seifer had been a freak occurrence, but he wouldn't have seemed so conflicted about it if it hadn't meant something to him, if a more than tiny part hadn't wanted it.

Being ever practical, Quistis decided that there wasn't much else she could do about the situation. If Squall didn't want to tell Rinoa, there was nothing she could say to change his mind, so the mission would have to come first. She lay on her back, the cool air filtering through the window lulling her into sleep.

The next night, she was in the same position at the window that she'd been the night before, looking out over the forest. Thankfully, Squall didn't repeat his drinking binge from the night before, and was napping before taking his shift on lookout. They hadn't discussed Squall's confession, and he acted as if he hadn't dropped a major bombshell. She looked through the binoculars, boredom making her head start to droop. She'd snap it upright, and chastise herself for almost falling asleep. She looked over her shoulder when she heard Squall mutter something illegible in his sleep. She looked out to the snowfields again, and blinked her sapphire eyes when something came across her vision. She blinked a few more times, thinking that she was seeing things because she was tired. But, no. She was watching a person in a thick parka leading a much smaller person by the hand towards the woods. The person in the parka looked male because they were big, but Quistis couldn't be positive because the jacket was so bulky. But, the second person was obviously a child. A girl who couldn't have been more than thirteen, and she looked to be struggling in vain.

It could have been a parent leading a tired, impudent child back home, but Quistis's instincts told her something wasn't right. She got up, and shook Squall's hip hard to wake him up.

He looked up and saw her face looking down at him, pale in the moonlight. Squall knew her well enough that he knew something was wrong without her having to utter a word. He nodded and got out of bed, rubbing his eyes as he pulled on his boots.

"I saw something strange," Quistis explained as they quickly went down the stairs to the main level of the inn, zipping up her parka as she spoke. She and Squall tore on their mittens as they dashed into the cold night. "A man dragging a girl into the woods."

"Was she hurt?" Squall asked as they ran, their footsteps crunching through the snow.

"No. It could have been a parent and child from a nearby settlement, but I don't know... something just felt wrong about it."

"Maybe he took her from her house," Squall murmured, his gunblade out in front of him as they reached the tree line.

"That's what I was thinking," Quistis pointed out. "A lot of solitary people out here. Urges come out..." she trailed off ominously.

They fell into silence as they found a trail of footsteps weaving through the old, thick trunks of the evergreens. Squall and Quistis made sure to step in the footprints so nobody could follow their own trail Quistis went first, keeping her eye out for the man and girl, while Squall guarded the rear, in case of the illegal loggers, or the possibility of an ambush - either human or animal.

Quistis held up a hand to stop Squall, then pointed down to the snow, where there were a few droplets of blood. The footprints continued over a crest, where the pair of SeeD lay low on their stomachs. In the valley below, it was very dark, save for a twinkling light that looked like a bonfire. They slowly made their way to the light, making no sound. Huddled closely among the trees were three or four tents.

"Logging camp?" Quistis mouthed to Squall.

His pale eyes took in the settlement, and saw some chainsaws and other logging equipment hanging around. He gave a slow nod, but something still seemed strange. He could see from the way that Quistis was cocking her head, and the tenseness of her shoulders, that she felt the same. Cut within the thicket was a road wide enough for the truck that was parked there.

Quistis jerked her head to the left when she heard a noise from the farthest tent. Squall nodded, and they moved with complete stealth. As they got closer, the noise was obviously a girl crying. Quistis stopped dead and gripped Squall's arm when she distinctly heard more than one voice crying. She looked at Squall in the darkness and gave him an incredulous, confused look. She held up four fingers questioningly.

"Shut up!" They heard a man yell from within the tent. The crying stopped with frightened yelps and loud gasps to quell sobs. "Or I'll fucking shoot you. You aren't that valuable."

Quistis and Squall crept closer to the tent, seeing the faint silhouettes of figures within. "These two for sure," they heard someone say when they got closer. "The blonde looks too stringy."

"Why not that one?" Another voice asked.

"Not pretty enough."

"You don't read the mail when you're poking the fire," one voice joked crassly. "Let's get them on the truck. Can it be ready in an hour?"

"Yeah, sure. Just gotta gas it up." They saw one of the adult silhouettes stand and start moving around. Squall motioned for Quistis to go around the back of the tent, and gave a hand signal for an ambush magic assault. He went to the front of the tent, and burst in, casting a fire spell, more as a blinding distraction than a direct attack. There were children in here, and he didn't want to hurt them. There was a cacophony of swearing, surprised shouts, gunfire, and terrified screams. As Squall cut through them, he could hear Quistis's magic exploding behind him, her whip cracking loudly, and the sound of pained shouts and curses. Squall suddenly felt a burning against his cheek that was so painful it caused his vision to go black, then he was being knocked over.

"Quisty!" Squall shouted through the pain. He clawed at the side of his face, but it seemed to just make the pain worse. "Stop them!"

He heard magical explosions, more gunfire, and the sound of a girl crying out over the revving truck engine, then everything was shockingly silent, except for Squall's heavy breathing, and crying.

"They got away," Quistis replied bitterly as she cast magic on Squall. The pain in his cheek lessened a little. "Looks like they threw Malboro poison in your face." She stood up, and looked to the back of the tent. There were three girls cuddled together, arms wrapped around each other. Their faces were full of fear. "Don't worry," Quistis assured, coming a little closer and crouching down so she could look at them eye-level. "We won't hurt you. We'll take you back to your parents." Squall crouched beside her, lowering his weapon so he wouldn't look threatening.

The girls still cowered together, but looked relieved. One started crying, and ran into Quistis's arms, feeling safer with her because she was a woman. Quistis held the girl, who was thinner and smaller than the others.

"There were four," Squall murmured, his face still throbbing. The Malboro poison made his tongue feel thick.

"They must have gotten away with her," Quistis replied sadly, stroking the girl's dark hair. "Are you from the Birch Township?"

The girl nodded into Quistis's chest without looking up.

"I'll call the sheriff." Squall stood and went over to a makeshift desk as he called the sheriff's office for the township, which was really a man's house, since it was only him as far as law enforcement went in this part of Trabia.

"Did you know the other girl?" Quistis asked, trying to sound kindly, even though she was getting quite nervous. What if they used the girl as a hostage, or just killed her? Or... worse? Quistis didn't even want to think about it.

The girl shook her head, still not looking up.

"The sheriff is going to bring a truck out here," Squall informed, slumping into a chair as his face throbbed painfully. He really needed the ampoule of Malboro anti-venom the sheriff said he would bring. He started rifling through some papers left behind, but the pain in his face made the words swim.

"What's your name?" Quistis asked, tilting the girl's face up after she finally got her to pull away just enough.

"Mary," she sniffled.

"I'm Quistis. Mary, do you know who these people were?"

Mary shook her head violently. Her brown hair was plastered to her wet cheeks.

"Quistis..." Squall said lowly when he was finally able to concentrate enough on the papers. He beckoned her over grimly.

"I'll be right back, Mary." Quistis stroked her hair and stood up. She immediately went and huddled with the other two girls. "What?" She asked under her breath.

Squall pointed to the sheet he was reading, which was actually an inventory. There were emails and price-lists scattered on the tabletop, as well. Quistis's eyes scanned the sheets, and a sick feeling swooped into her stomach, her worst possible fears confirmed. "Slave trading?" She whispered into Squall's pierced ear.

He nodded slowly. "We have to find that other girl. You go on ahead. I'm too affected by the poison, so I'll wait with the girls until the sheriff gets here, and catch up with you once he's got things secure and gets me that anti-venom."

Quistis slowly nodded. It had snowed during the day, so when she dashed out of the tent, it wasn't hard to pick up the truck's tire treads. There was a second truck abandoned in the camp, so she got behind the wheel. The engine took some cajoling to turn over, and Quistis cursed under her breath as she kept turning the key, acutely aware that each passing second was putting that girl into more and more danger. As the truck finally sprung to life, Quistis tore away from the camp, keeping her eyes peeled for the tracks. Luckily, the snow was very white and luminous under the moonlight, so even when driving among trees, she could see the tracks easily.

In the darkness, she eventually found the small red tail lights of the other truck, and slammed her foot down on the accelerator. She couldn't see the little girl at first, and then saw a flurry of movement through the truck cab's windows. As she sped up and got close enough to see what was going on, her stomach plummeted. The girl was being pressed against the window, the men crouched low behind her, using her as a shield.

Quistis cast magic on the tires to puncture them. Without the proper traction, the truck went skidding off course, and the driver swerved hard as Quistis's truck came up along the side of it, trying to box it against a cluster of trees with thick trunks. The other driver suddenly turned the wheel hard, and Quistis was jarred by the sharp collision. She wound up hitting her forehead against the steering wheel, and it made the world briefly turn black. She shook the cobwebs out, grunting as her head throbbed violently.

She slithered out of the truck with her hand tightly around the handle of her whip, stumbling on unsteady feet.

"Stop right there!" A male voice shouted when she started to move towards the other trunk, which was crumpled against an especially large tree.

Quistis blinked, and saw the two men standing about forty yards away from her, one holding a gun to the girl's head. She was looking down at the snow, and was very quiet, but Quistis could see her tiny shoulders shaking in silent sobs.

"Let her go!" Quistis shouted, her voice being taken away by a gust of very cold wind. She sounded a lot steadier than she felt. She unfurled her whip, watching both men carefully.

"You think I care about killing her?" One of the men asked, pressing the gun into her temple. Quistis could tell that he meant business. His hand was jumpy around the pistol, his finger twitching around the trigger. She shot out some very precise magic, hitting the gunman full in the face. The pistol went flying out of his hand, and he stumbled backwards. She fired another, more powerful blast of magic at him now that he was out of the way of the girl. It sent him flying through the air like a doll, and he slammed into a tree, bones cracking loudly. Quistis's whip cracked loudly and furled towards him like a snake, winding around his neck. With an expert flick of her wrist, the thick whip snapped his neck.

She looked across the snow to the second man, whose eyes were rapidly flicking between Quistis's livid face, and the gun that lay in the snow between them. She moved to dive for it, but he was faster, and got the gun. With the girl being used as a shield, Quistis's options were limited for attack. She didn't dare do anything that would hurt the child.

She could see that he was hurt, and that meant he would be desperate. She kept a tight grip on her whip, trying to keep as still as possible so she wouldn't spook him. Quistis gasped as the sudden crack of a bullet cut through the tense silence, blood spraying garishly red against the snow. "NO!" Quistis screamed, running towards their spot. But, she slowed when she saw the girl was still standing, and the man had fallen to his side, blood pouring out from a gunshot wound in the back of his head. Quistis fell to her knees in the snow, looking into the girl's face. She looked very wan and sweaty, droplets of her kidnapper's blood sprayed across her cheeks.

"Are you okay?" Quistis asked. But, the girl didn't reply. She seemed to be in shock. Quistis looked around warily, and saw Squall come out of the thick trees, a rifle in his hands.

"You hurt?"

She shook her head. "Did the sheriff come?"

He nodded. "I followed your tracks."

"I think she's in shock."

"The sheriff followed behind me. We can get her back to the settlement quickly."

"Squall..." She trailed off, rising to her feet. "Thanks." She put a hand on his shoulder.

He just kind of shrugged, his way of saying 'you're welcome'. "I found some paperwork with an address in Deling City. It's probably their base, or at least another outlet for..." He trailed off, all business again.

"I think we should get back to the settlement first." Quistis crouched beside the corpses, and started searching his pockets. She then got up and searched the cab of the truck as the sheriff's car crunched across the snow towards them. "I can't find a phone or anything," she said. "So, I don't think they would have contacted any of their bosses. How's your face?" She asked as they walked towards the sheriff's car, where he was wrapping the shocked girl in a blanket.


"They must have been pretending to be illegal loggers to cover what they were really doing," she murmured, more to herself than to Squall. She felt a thrill go through her. She and Squall had just uncovered an alleged slavery ring that nobody had even known about. His face was stony and remote as usual, so she wondered if he was as excited as she was. After all, a slavery ring wasn't as exciting as saving the entire world from a time-travelling Sorceress.

"I think we should get to Deling as soon as possible," Squall muttered, rifling through some paperwork he'd taken from the camp. "We can ambush them."

"I'll call ahead to Galbadia Garden and get some backup. Maybe they have some information that we don't."

Squall just nodded. Once back at the settlement, Quistis got on the phone with Trabia Garden, and arranged for a boat to take them to Galbadia, where someone from that Garden would meet them. After making sure the girls were okay, Quistis and Squall left the small cluster of houses and made their way to the shore, where the boat would be waiting for them. Squall drove because Quistis hit her head, and she was concerned about a concussion. The anti-venom was starting to do its work, so his face was starting to feel better. As he drove, he couldn't help but think about Seifer. They were going to Deling City, and Seifer was in Deling City. Would Seifer tease him for falling accidentally into a really big mission, even though his eyes would give away his deep-rooted respect?

You should be thinking about Rinoa. Your girlfriend, remember?

Rinoa. He thought of her with affection and guilt. The sweet sound of her voice, the way her hair smelled. How her body had looked in the moonlight the night before he'd left for Trabia, highlighting her soft, naked flesh. The swell of her breasts and the curve of her hips. The intimate, wet warmth of her all around him.

Maybe you should be concentrating on driving, Leonhart.

Squall blinked and shook his fantasies, about both Rinoa and Seifer, out of his mind, the car having started to drift off course. When they arrived at the coast, Quistis's forehead was a brilliant shade of blackish purple, and the ferry was waiting for them.

"Commander Leonhart! Commander Trepe!" The ferry pilot greeted, saluting them. Quistis was leaning on Squall because her concussion was making her woozy. "I'm Captain Allard. Ready to leave?"

Squall nodded. "You have a medic?"

"Yes, Sir."

After the on-board medic took care of them, Squall and Quistis both collapsed on their cots, and slept pretty much the entire duration of the long trip to Galbadia. Squall woke up periodically because of his throbbing cheek, and felt much better by the time they docked near the Tomb of the Unknown King.

"We've compiled what information we could on the human trafficking ring," Allard told then when they'd docked. Quistis's head was killing her, but her thoughts were clear. "They've been working under the radar, so unfortunately it isn't much."

"We'll take what we can get," Quistis muttered, opening the back passenger-side door of a van disguised as a flower delivery truck.

As they drove, she and Squall read over all the information. There was no way to tell how long this had been going on, or how many people had been sold like property because of them. Once in the city, Squall couldn't help but look out the window, as if out of the millions of people in Deling, he'd actually just happen to see Seifer walking down the sidewalk, or be standing at a bus stop. The logging had been a cover in order to steal children in a remote setting, whereas in Deling, their cover was a local chain of dry cleaners.

"We've put surveillance on them since we got your information last night, and had a few operatives pose as customers. They have their trucks come to the back and park against an opening bay, so we can't see what they're loading and unloading, though they did report a few suspect noises from the area."

"You haven't seen any children or teenagers?"

Allard shrugged. "The dry cleaners are sometimes busy, and people bring their own children with them to pick up orders, so it's hard to judge which are there with parents, and which are there illegally. But, the paperwork doesn't lie."

Quistis nodded. "To think, people have been using these dry cleaners for years without knowing what they really are."

"The one thing we don't know is which is exactly their headquarters. It could be their offices downtown, but we're thinking it's actually one of the shops. We have SeeD set up at each location, and we'll be bringing you two to the shop we believe it is."

Squall and Quistis looked out the tinted back window of the truck as they stopped. Quistis was given a uniform jumpsuit and a baseball cap with a logo Belladonna Flowers emblazoned on them. She slipped the jumper on over her clothes, and tucked her hair up under the cap, putting on a larger pair of glasses than her own with much thicker, darker frames. The jumper was ill-fitting, and made her look heavier than she actually was, and even these minor changes made her look much different.

"Deliver these to the travel agent next door. They've been informed what's happening, and are cooperating. They have a back entrance that you'll use with three agents already inside the agency, while we come through the front. When Squall and I cross the street to the dry cleaner, you'll move to the back."

"Got it." She watched as Squall put on a baseball cap, at least to kind of hide his now rather famous face. He didn't need to be completely disguised. Just enough that he could cross the street in peace. "Good luck."

Squall nodded in silent echo as she picked up the chrysanthemum arrangement and a clipboard and got out of the van. They saw Quistis go into the travel agency, and waited until the van had parked in a nearby alley before they got out and melded into the crowded sidewalks. Allard was checking his watch, Squall watching anyone who came in and out of the dry cleaner.

"Okay, let's go. I'm going to pick up an order that we gave them right after you called. Keep your eyes peeled. And, take off the baseball cap."

"Why?" Squall demanded.

"Because, they'll recognize you, and if they freak out, the jig is up."

Squall reluctantly took off the cap, already feeling like there was a spotlight shining right on him. Even just crossing the street, he could hear a couple of people gasp in passing, immediately recognizing him. It made him want to throw up.

As soon as they entered the cleaners, Squall knew why Allard had wanted him to remove his cap. It was like the clerk behind the counter had immediately thrown up an 'I'M GUILTY!!!' sign. His eyes went very, very wide, and he forgot to pay attention to the customer before him, a woman holding out a dry cleaning ticket.

"Sir?" The woman asked, lowering her hand. Maybe she wouldn't have had such concern in her voice if she'd known the truth. "Are you okay?"

Suddenly, the shop was filled with the loud snap of a gunshot, and Allard went down in a wet cloud of blood and bits of brain and skull. The female customer started screaming, and Squall lunged for her, tackling her to the ground as another gunshot rang out.

"Stay down," he commanded to her as he pulled his gunblade out from underneath his long coat, and vaulted over the counter. He lay flat against the ground, covering his head, as his ears rang from yet another gunshot. The buckshot tore through dry cleaning bags and clothing, and Squall's shoulder stung from some errant pellets. Squall fired a round from his gunblade in retaliation, and heard retreating footsteps. He crept among the clothing bags, hearing the customer's screams getting quieter as he moved deeper into the shop. He ducked to the floor to avoid another shotgun blast, and returned fire. Because of all the dry cleaning bags, it was nearly impossible to see where he was going.

He heard another shot from the gun, and heard the crack of a whip over it, and the sound of magic exploding against something. He could feel the coolness of an ice spell not too far away. He heard more gunshots, and the sound of new voice shouting. Doors were being slammed and thrown open, and someone let out a scream that could only be from a fatal wound. One that sounded female

Squall moved quickly through the bags, and when he pushed away a garment bag with a long wool coat inside, he came face to face with a man wearing a shirt with the dry cleaning company's logo on it, his expression as surprised as Squall's was. They both drew their weapons at the same time, but Squall was quicker. Rather than dealing a mortal blow, he knocked the man across the side of his face with the flat of the blade, and then held him in a firm grip, using him as a shield. "You better hope she's not dead," he murmured coldly into his prisoner's ear.

Squall followed the sounds of battle, moving slowly because of his prisoner, who was struggling and shuffling his feet. When he saw Quistis at the base of a set of stairs, her whip wrapped around a man's throat and choking the air of him, the relief must have shown on his face, because when Quistis looked at him, she gave an amused smile. When her opponent collapsed from lack of oxygen, Quistis loosened her whip, and the surviving SeeD with her tied him up, then came and tied up the man Squall had been holding.

"Worried about me, were you?" She asked teasingly. Her face became serious. "You're bleeding."

"I'm fine. Allard's dead."

"Commander Trepe!" The female SeeD called from the staircase. It looked like it had been hidden behind a stack of boxes that had been toppled over in the struggle. Some were caked with ice from Quistis's magic.

Quistis went up the stairs with Squall watching the rear. "Oh, Hyne..." she trailed off sadly.

Squall kept his eyes on the stairs, but quickly glanced over his shoulder to see Quistis crouching in front of a half a dozen girls, chained up around the neck, cowering in fear.

"It's okay," Quistis soothed, gingerly reaching out to touch the nearest girl, who must have been only ten. The child scuttled away, terrified. "It's okay," she whispered again. "We're SeeD. We're here to help you."