SPIRIT OF THE WIND

BY

RONIN-AI

Disclaimer: This work of fiction is not intended for anything other than entertainment. These characters belong to Squaresoft and they are only being borrowed. Only the story itself is original.

Fujin stood at attention, waiting. Beside her stood Raijin on her "good" side, and on her blind side, the only person she would allow there-Seifer. The three of them, The Posse as they called themselves, stood arrayed before the lift that led to the bridge along with the other cadets that had participated in the field exam that day. In the place where Cid's old office used to be before Balamb Garden became mobile. She stood as solid and impassive as a statue; only the rising and falling of her chest as she breathed gave any indication that she was a living entity. She gave every appearance of being coolly unperturbed, standing silently with her companions, but in reality, she was a mass of nerves. This was their last chance to make SeeD. After this, there would be no more attempts allowed. Waiting for their final evaluations was making Fujin more tense by the moment. She had practiced so long in not letting her feelings show however, it was second nature to her.

They, like the other prospective SeeDs, were waiting to hear their final results for the last SeeD field exam that Seifer would be qualified to take. If he failed this time, he would have to leave Garden for good. He will pass; she thought staunchly, I know he will. He did everything right this time, followed each order to the letter, even when things got sticky. Fujin was confident that all three of them made it, but a niggling doubt still ate away at her, and so she remained silent and still, waiting.

They didn't wait too long. Commander Leonhart, resplendent in his SeeD uniform with all of the medals and commendations he'd earned, left his office, closely followed by Cid and one of the Garden faculty, and strode to where Fujin, Raijin, Seifer and the rest of the students awaited them. Turning to face all three of them, Squall stood at attention as well, hands clasped behind his back as he studied them in silence for a moment. Fujin almost smiled, for Squall's reputation for being cold and somewhat aloof rivaled hers, and she was perversely proud of that fact; this in spite of his ongoing relationship with Rinoa, which had thawed him somewhat, but hadn't really changed him.

Finally he said, "Based upon the results of this field exam, and your exemplary actions during it, it has been decided to allow three candidates to be inducted into SeeD. These three cadets have demonstrated a marked ability to work together as a team and accomplished their objective flawlessly." Turning to Cid, Squall took three scrolls, each tied with a ribbon and sealed with wax bearing the SeeD emblem on it.

Turning to face them once again, Squall continued, "Raijin, Fujin, and Seifer. The three of you have passed the requirements to become SeeDs. Congratulations." Raijin let out a whoop and leaped into the air, while Seifer simply smiled wryly. Fujin watched it all and let a small smile quirk the corner of her mouth, but otherwise remained as she was. Inside however, she was as jubilant as Raijin was, and found it hard to stop herself from permitting the smile to spread wider. Squall watched their reactions with something approaching a smile of his own, then stepped forward and handed the scrolls to each of them in turn, giving them each a salute rather than a handshake.

Returning to his place in front of them, Squall saluted again and said to the room at large, "Dismissed." As the disappointed candidates filed out, Fujin watched them leave solemnly, then turned and studied Squall as he watched the other students leave.

Cold and aloof you may appear Squall, but you and I both know the real reason you assigned Raijin and I to Seifer's squad. You knew that we would work better together as a team than Seifer would with anyone else. You also knew that he would never do anything reckless to endanger us, Fujin thought. That was also, Fujin knew, the reason why they had been assigned the most dangerous job on this mission. Properly challenged, and with his friends at his side, Squall had been counting on Seifer to rise to the occasion and excel. And he did. Rivals they had been, and while not friends precisely, they had at least managed a mutual respect. Nobody besides Fujin and Raijin knew Seifer better than Squall did.

Squall's attention returned to Fujin and caught her gaze. He raised an eyebrow in inquiry, and Fujin simply gave a slow nod in acknowledgement and turned to leave.

"Fujin, wait." Squall requested. Turning to face him, she waited with a curious expression as Squall approached her.

"I have something that belongs to you. I'd like to return it." Fujin frowned as he reached into his pocket and drew his hand out, his fist closed around something. Extending his had toward her, he opened his fist and Fujin stared at the silvery medallion that rested on his palm. It was carved in a fanciful, stylistic representation of wind, and on the other side, Fujin knew, would be the name of the Guardian Force represented by the disk. Pandemona. Stunned, Fujin quickly looked up to see Squall watching her patiently. Slowly, she reached out and picked it up, feeling the tingle of the magic imbued within it. At the same time, she felt a familiar presence touching the edge of her mind.

Pulling his hand back, Squall snapped another salute to her and then, much to Fujin's astonishment, smiled broadly, "Congratulations Fujin." Then he turned and left. Fujin watched him go, grateful that he didn't wait for her to try to say anything in reply. Her voice was too harsh and damaged. She hated using it, so instead she only spoke at need and only in short, barked sentences. Unbidden, her own smile made its appearance. And for a moment, Fujin's cold, remote visage was transformed into ethereal beauty.

Thank you, Squall, she thought.

Seifer and Raijin were waiting for her in the hallway when she left the office, and Raijin immediately asked, "What took ya so long?" Seifer, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, simply looked curiously at her. Fujin debated attempting to tell them, then shrugged and held out her hand, showing them the GF that Squall had returned to her.

"Squall gave you Pandemona back?" Seifer asked. Fujin merely nodded and returned the GF to her pocket. She would junction it the first chance she got, but she could already feel its eagerness to rejoin her mind. It recognizes me? She thought, incredulous. She had been junctioned with Pandemona for nearly as long as Squall had had Shiva. It had become so much a part of her that having it stolen from her by Squall had felt like he'd reached in and torn away a part of her soul. She wanted to hate him for that, because he had been her enemy at that point, and indeed, she had shared Seifer's contempt of his rival. It had been humbling in the extreme to have to put her reliance on Squall in the end as she saw what Seifer had set in motion. Fujin had despaired then of ever having Seifer back as he had been. She had wanted him to again be the young man that she had pledged her loyalty and friendship to; she had wanted him to again be the young man that she loved. Seifer's stint as Sorceress' Knight had been a long trip through hell for her, but in the end the Seifer that came out of it was better, and wiser, than the one who went in.

Seifer pulled her from her distraction by commenting, "Well. That was unexpected."

Fujin shrugged, then glared at Raijin as he said brightly, "Hey, do ya wanna go to Balamb and get some lunch to celebrate? I'm getting hungry ya know?"

Seifer snorted and pushed off from the wall, giving Raijin a wry look.

Then he shrugged, "Sure Raijin. Fuj, you coming?" She paused for a moment, thinking, then shook her head.

"LATER."

"All right." Seifer said, then smiled warmly at her, "Don't forget to come to the Graduation Ball Fujin. I want to see you in your new SeeD uniform and scam a dance or two from you." Fujin nodded as they left. She had other plans for the afternoon.

About an hour later, she stood atop Duel Hill, and felt the breeze as it caressed the hilltop. Slowly reaching into her pocket, she took Pandemona's talisman into her hand and grasped it tightly, closing her eye. She had to be outdoors to junction Pandemona, not because of how it manifested, but because she felt more comfortable that way. The tingle she had felt upon touching the talisman intensified, and she felt the presence of the wind-elemental again. She opened her mind and allowed it to enter, mentally embracing it as it took up residence in her mind once more. It felt as though an open wound had been healed, a hollow space filled, as Pandemona's essence joined with hers. Her spirit sang as she felt the power of the winds once again restored to her.

Opening her eye again, she smiled, then called to it, Pandemona, come to me.

She felt the power gathering, building, and the pressure within and without gaining force with each second. When it had reached the level she needed, Fujin gathered it into her, and then flung her hand outward, releasing it. Reality blurred and faded away as Pandemona opened a portal from its world to Fujin's and manifested itself. Large, pale blue, with bug-like eyes, a feathered crest, and tail-like appendage that was actually a sort of windbag; Pandemona had the most bizarre appearance of any GF. It was also the most difficult, barring Eden, to work with. Its mind was completely alien to human thought, so communication was not always easy. Consequently, it had a reputation for being slow to act and reluctant to appear, but not for Fujin. Fujin and Pandemona had reached an understanding that no one else had managed to do with that particular GF.

Pandemona gave Fujin a feeling of welcome, and she felt that if it had been able to, it would have smiled at her. Then it straightened its tail, and began to draw air in, sucking in with such force that trees were uprooted and swirled around in the vacuum it created. Fujin felt the drawing, but she was anchored by her junction to Pandemona, and stood firm in the midst of the windstorm it created. Once the tail had swelled to its fullest extent, looking like a large blue balloon attached to Pandemona's back, its great muscles flexed and it opened the valves on its chest and compressed its tail, releasing the pent up air and expelling it with the force of a killer tornado. Fujin's silvery hair flew about her head, the short ends whipping her cheeks as she stood in the eye of the storm, arms wide, welcoming the buffeting of the wind. She stood amid the whirlwind, apart from it, yet feeling and in part directing its power. The wind scoured the hilltop, felling trees and even tearing the grass up from the ground. It seemed to go on forever, but in reality it was just a very short burst, not even Pandemona's strongest attack. It was more a welcome than an attack, and Fujin sent her own joy at rejoining with her GF back to it.

She came back to herself with a start as the wind faded and Pandemona retreated back to its own dimension. She gazed around the top of Duel Hill, scoured down to bare rock by the wind and smiled again. Fujin still felt the power and strength that Pandemona had given her, and she felt as though she had been set free. Her heart lightened as she turned and made her way down the hill and back toward Balamb Garden. She had a party to get ready for.

Hours later, Fujin walked gracefully into Balamb Garden's ballroom, feeling ten feet tall in her new SeeD dress uniform. It hugged her slender form and showed far more of her shapely legs than she was used to, which made her more than a little uncomfortable in it. But the looks she got from the other SeeDs there were undeniably appreciative, and that made Fujin feel…odd. She had never thought of herself as attractive. Her scars, both internal and external, had made sure of that. But the unsettling fact that others saw her, scars, eye patch and all, and still appreciated her appearance enough to smile at her and even flirt a little, left her feeling slightly off balance.

In truth, Fujin was beautiful, a fact which she had never really believed, but was nonetheless true. She stood tall and regal in her dark olive uniform; her simply cut silver hair brushing her shoulders, and a pale rose flush on her alabaster cheeks. Her lips too were a pale rose color, and her single red-brown eye glittered with the beginnings of excitement. An aura of both danger and mystery surrounded her, and many found that intriguing. It didn't hurt that her reputation as a warrior was nearly equal to Seifer's, and in the company of mercenaries, that was a powerful attractant in itself.

It was not long before an older SeeD requested she dance with him, and, having nothing better to do, Fujin nodded silently and followed him out to the dance floor. She had never danced before, but her innate grace made it easy to believe that she had been doing it forever, and the young man she partnered was suitably impressed with her. As for Fujin, she was having a great time, and when the song ended, her partner was about to request another go round when he got a tap on his shoulder.

"May I?" Seifer asked, and Fujin blinked in astonishment at seeing him in his dress uniform. He looked amazing, like a fairytale prince…or a Knight. The dark uniform was tailored perfectly to his tall frame, and seemed to make his shoulders appear even wider than they actually were. Candlelight from the chandeliers gave a hazy golden tint to everything, causing his blond hair to gleam with the color of molten gold. His sharp blue eyes were fastened on her, and Fujin's mouth went dry. Her erstwhile dance partner nodded reluctantly and heaved an audible sigh as he left Fujin and Seifer alone. Taking her hand, Seifer gave her a courtly bow and gently kissed it, sapphire eyes gleaming with both amusement and appreciation.

Taking her into his arms, he smiled down at her and asked, "having fun Fuj?" Nodding, she smiled back in answer and they danced in silence, in perfect synchronicity. They were so in tune with each other, Fujin felt as though they were flying, so well did they glide about the dance floor. A subtle shift in Seifer's body language was more than enough to cue Fujin into what he intended, so she was not taken by surprise when he brought her in close then flung her away in a fancy twirl. Upon her return, he brought her closer still and hugged her tightly to him, and Fujin was suddenly aware of her surroundings again, and realized that the song was over. Taking her hand, Seifer walked with her off of the ballroom floor and stopped a passing waiter carrying a tray full of filled champagne glasses. Releasing her hand for a moment, Seifer appropriated a glass for himself and another for her. Taking a sip, he sighed in appreciation and smiled at Fujin.

"We made it," he said. "Can you believe it? I had just about given up hope, especially with Squall as Commander. I didn't think I had a chance in hell of making SeeD then. Just goes to show how people can be misjudged, eh Fuj?"

Fujin nodded, and said, "BOTH MISJUDGED."

Seifer agreed, "Yes, we both did, didn't we? I misjudged Squall, thinking he'd carry a grudge from our mutual history, and here he turns out to be fairer to me than anyone else. Fairer than a lot of people thought I deserved. And he misjudged me, at least at first, by not believing that I'd changed. But it all worked out in the end, right?"

"YES." Fujin answered, and blinked in shock as Seifer went on, "I owe it all to you Fujin. It was your desertion in the Lunatic Pandora that shocked me back to reality."

Fujin's eye filled with tears, and she blinked them away and grated hoarsely, "SORRY,"

"Don't be," he said softly, brushing them away. "I pushed you and Raijin too far, and it took your leaving me to wake me up. Things had gone so far by that point, I didn't think my life was worth a damn. The whole world was going to hell because of Ultimecia and me. Squall had to come in, pick up the pieces and put an end to what I'd inadvertently set into motion. Squall saved everyone, but you… You saved me Fujin." Taking her hand, he led her toward a balcony so that they could continue in private.

Fujin followed him, still reeling internally from his confession. It had torn her heart in two, seeing the once proud warrior he had been reduced to a fawning puppet of the sorceress. As things had gotten worse and worse, Raijin had convinced her that their only hope for survival was to bail out while they still had their hides. But Fujin couldn't leave Seifer without trying to reason with him, and it had taken all she had in her to confront him in the Lunatic Pandora, and in front of Squall, no less. She had seen the look in Squall's eyes when he'd faced them down, and she feared for Seifer's life in that moment; because Squall was far stronger than they had realized, and there was not a shred of mercy to be seen in his icy gaze.

Fujin couldn't help but notice that the hostility that they'd all had to face upon returning to Balamb Garden had died down now that they'd proven themselves worthy to become SeeDs. Fujin suspected that the assignment that they'd been given for the field exam had had full endorsement from everyone involved, with Seifer's enemies hoping he'd fail and lose his life because of it, to his allies hoping that he'd find it challenging enough to succeed. Even Seifer's detractors had to admit now that he had matured into an excellent soldier. It didn't hurt that he no longer bullied people; he had admitted to her his realization of how childish it was and had quit.

Upon reaching the balcony, Seifer leaned against it and stared silently out over the expanse of water they were currently sailing upon. Balamb Garden had been mobilized to the location of the SeeD field exam, and was currently on its way back to Balamb. The cool marine air riffled through Seifer's short hair, and combed through Fujin's longer silvery locks. Moonlight silvered the both of them as they enjoyed the fresh air and the rushing sounds of the sea as the Garden sailed back from its last mission. Reaching a long arm out, he put it around her shoulders and pulled her close and simply held her. Fujin took a long breath and leaned into the embrace, releasing it on a long sigh of contentment as Seifer's arm tightened around her shoulders. Theirs wasn't a relationship that relied much upon words, but they knew each other well enough that words were unnecessary. That suited Fujin just fine, because words could lie, but actions couldn't.

Turning to face her, Seifer let his hand trail around to Fujin's cheek, caressing it beneath the black eye patch she wore. He had never seen what scars lay hidden beneath it, and had never asked to. The faint striations on her pale throat were enough to illustrate the damage she had suffered at some point in her life. He suspected that there were other, less visible scars deep inside of her, but she had not been willing, or able, to speak of them. None of that mattered to him anyway; he loved her as she was. He never truly realized how much she had meant to him, how much he had relied upon her silent strength to bolster his own, until he had been left without it.

"I have to thank you for that, for saving me." Seifer said softly, still caressing her. Fujin swallowed and looked away from him, shaking her head in denial.

Seifer chuckled and tilted her chin up and looked into her single eye and said firmly, "Yes, I do. You put up with way too much crap from me, so the least I could do is thank you for it." He continued gazing at her until Fujin's smile made an appearance, and she nodded in acceptance.

Seifer smiled in answer and murmured, " You have the most beautiful smile."

"YOU TOO." Fujin replied. Any further comment was stifled as their lips found each other and they quickly became lost in the tastes and textures of their kiss.

They parted for a moment for air, and then Seifer simply wrapped his arms around Fujin and held her close, whispering into her hair, "I love you Fujin."

"Love you too," she murmured in reply.

The sound of booted feet approaching directed their attention to the slim, elegantly dressed figure of the Commander. Unruly mop of hair notwithstanding, he was immaculately attired in the standard dress uniform that nearly everyone was wearing, with the addition of gold piping on his cuffs and medals on his chest. Storm colored eyes took in the scene with only a single eyebrow raised and a slight quirk of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Seifer and Fujin watched him approach and Seifer frowned as he realized that Squall was alone.

He was about to ask Squall where Rinoa was when Squall stopped in front of them and said without preamble, "Come with me."

Seifer and Fujin followed Squall through the darkened hallways of Balamb Garden in silence, with Seifer firmly retaining his hold on Fujin's hand. She wondered what he wanted, for it couldn't have had anything to do with the kiss he had undoubtedly witnessed. Squall himself, while certainly circumspect when it came to his relationship with Rinoa, was not above a casual kiss or hug in full view of everyone. So, what is it then, if not that? She thought. The slight smile she had caught when Squall had approached them had held more warmth than she had seen from him before, but his expression had changed abruptly to stony-faced grimness when he'd requested that they follow him. By that she deduced that whatever it was, it had nothing to do with them personally. She puzzled over it as she walked but knew speculation was useless, Squall would inform them of the purpose of his summons when he was ready to.

As they continued through the nearly deserted Garden, Fujin quickly realized that they were headed toward Squall's office. Ok. It's an assignment then. Good. The sooner the better, she thought. She and Seifer had proven themselves worthy to be SeeDs, now they needed to prove themselves to the rest of the Seeds. Upon reaching the door to his office, Squall paused, then opened it. He held the door open and waited for Seifer and Fujin to enter his office.

Fujin, still unconsciously holding Seifer's hand, tightened her grip as she gazed around the room at its other occupants. Raijin stood stolidly in the center of the room with his arms crossed over his brawny chest. He looked darkly imposing in his dress uniform, and his glowering expression was watchful and intimidating. By contrast, Irvine Kinneas leaned casually against Squall's desk, long legs crossed. Despite the fact that Irvine had been made SeeD the previous year and had attended that night's ball, he was not wearing a uniform. Instead, he wore his usual outfit with his cowboy hat pulled down low over his brow as he twirled a handgun and sighted down the barrel before smoothly holstering it. The sound of the door closing and a click as the lock was engaged indicated that Squall wanted no interruptions. Fujin waited.

She didn't wait long. Squall crossed the room to the opposite side of the desk and glanced down at the screen of his computer terminal.

Seifer was getting impatient however, and asked, "What's this all about?"

Squall looked up at them and said shortly, "I'm sorry to interrupt the celebration, but a situation has come up, and we've been called upon to resolve it." Everyone shifted his or her attention to Squall and instead of firing off a sarcastic comment like he used to do, Seifer stayed silent as well and watched Squall as he outlined the problem.

Raking his hand through his hair, Squall began, "about an hour ago I got a confidential message from Kiros, the Prime Minister of Esthar. You may or may not have heard this on the news, but there's a faction in Esthar that strongly opposes President Loire's open door policy with regard to other countries, Galbadia in particular. This faction has gained enough support to become a threat to the country's stability, and there have even been incidents of terrorist activity in connection to them."

Irvine looked up and asked, "Are you talking about that bomb that blew up a section of the causeway?"

Squall nodded, "that was a direct attack on Esthar's new trade agreement with Galbadia. The damage will cut Esthar off from the rest of the world until the causeway and the trains are repaired."

"So where do we come in?" asked Seifer.

"I'm getting to that." Squall answered. "At 0800 Esthar time, President Laguna Loire met with the leader of this faction, Jace Omer, in a neutral area to try to resolve the issue. The neutral territory chosen was Fisherman's Horizon. As of 2200 hours Esthar time, no word has been heard from him." Silence. Fujin, Seifer, Raijin and Irvine stared at Squall as he calmly announced that his father, the President of Esthar, was missing and possibly being held hostage. He must have ice water in his veins, Fujin thought, then hastily revised her opinion when she saw his lips tighten and his jaw flex as he clenched his teeth to keep his emotions in check.

Finally, Irvine spoke up, "I take it we're going to go after him."

"Yes." Squall confirmed. Then he added, "We've already diverted our heading to Centra and should be arriving there within the next couple of hours. We'll be meeting Selphie and the Ragnarok there to fly to Esthar. Upon arrival, acting president Kiros will bring us up to date on the situation and provide us with all the intelligence that he can." Turning back to his computer screen, Squall quickly typed in some commands on the keyboard, narrowed his eyes in concentration for a moment, then typed some more, saying, "We have our own sources for intelligence, as I'm sure you're aware, and they confirm what Kiros has told me." Straightening up, Squall strode to the printer on the other side of the room and plucked off the pages that were being expelled from it.

Seifer watched with a frown, letting his gaze roam the room and study its other occupants. Fujin stood at ease, her attention focused on Squall. Raijin looked confused and uncomfortable, and Irvine, despite his casual pose, seemed tense. Nobody else was there. Seifer's frown deepened. Squall's kinship to President Loire was now common knowledge, and Seifer was surprised that Squall hadn't involved his own "posse" in the rescue attempt.

"Are we the only ones that are going to be involved in this?" Seifer asked.

Squall looked up from the pages he'd been studying and answered, "Yes." Then he added, indicating the pages scattered about his desk, "Schematic maps of the area President Loire was last seen in. Once we get concrete information on his exact location, we'll finalize our extraction plans."

They landed in Centra a few hours later, and transferred immediately to the Ragnarok. Fujin was surprised when Squall boarded the airship with them and gave him a puzzled look. He simply gave her a level look in return and declined comment as he continued to his stateroom with a knapsack full of supplies and the carrying case that contained Lion Heart, his gunblade. Fujin shrugged and sought her own berth, stowing the weapon cases and supplies that she'd brought in the assigned cubby under her bunk.

The ship's powerful engines began to whine, powering up for takeoff when Seifer strolled into the cramped cabin, gazing around with interest.

"Nifty craft. I've always liked Estharian design," He commented. Fujin nodded in agreement.

Leaning against the open doorway, Seifer mused, "Wonder why none of Squall's other cronies are coming along."

Fujin shrugged, "ASK."

"Our Commander doesn't seem much inclined to dispense such intelligence, my dear Fujin. At least not at this point." Seifer replied, then rubbed at his chin thoughtfully, adding, "Still, he should have at least taken Rinoa. A strong Sorceress is always handy to have around." The whine of the engines increased in pitch and volume until it was almost impossible to hear someone shouting right in one's ear. A pneumatic hiss signaled the raising and retraction of the boarding ramp. Over all this noise however, Fujin was able to hear a faint shout, then felt a slight bump and vibration of feet running up the partially raised ramp. The light footsteps got louder as the ramp retracted fully and the outer doors of the airship closed and sealed out the noise of the engines. The running steps got louder as they approached, and Fujin saw Rinoa trotting along the companionway toward the cabin that Squall had taken for his, eyes snapping in anger.

Seifer raised both eyebrows as he noted this, slyly observing, "Well, it looks like somebody's busted."

Fujin snorted.

The ship lifted off moments later with a lurch that had Fujin scrambling for her balance while glaring in the direction of the cockpit and the overly enthusiastic pilot. Seifer echoed her consternation with a mild oath.

"Jeez Selphie, could you get a little rougher on the takeoff next time? I was really looking forward to kissing the deck." Seifer called out sarcastically.

Selphie, out of sight in the pilot's chair, called back, "Bite me!"

"This is gonna be a fun ride," Seifer muttered, and Fujin rolled her eye and nodded in agreement.

A short time later, they were all called to the forward conference room for a mission briefing. Selphie had engaged the autopilot in order to join them, and the ship cruised steadily toward Esthar. She leaned casually into Irvine, who had an arm around her shoulder as they awaited Squall's presentation. Raijin sat at the back of the room in one of the seats arrayed in rows for nearly the entire length of the room, while Rinoa sat in the first row, face rigid and arms crossed.

Seifer and Fujin arrived together and sat down in the middle of one of the rows of chairs, glancing around but otherwise paying little or no attention to the rest of the people there.

God, Seifer thought sardonically, my life as a cliché. Reformed-enemy-off-to-rescue-idiot-in-distress. The only wrinkle in this little situation is the fact that the idiot just happens to be my Commander's father. Which, now that I think of it, is yet another cliché. Like that stupid soap opera, "Deling City Nights." I'd rather be hunting monsters in Dollet.

Seifer sighed audibly and Fujin glanced over and gave him a sympathetic half-smile. At least he was getting the chance to do something, even if it was to rescue a klutz of a president. He could tell already from the cold glare that Irvine had given him when Squall wasn't looking to Selphie's studious avoidance of him, that it was not going to be easy to work with this team. Raijin was oblivious to all of these subtleties, which was just as well, because everyone recognized him as a mere follower, not a leader. Not like Seifer.

Rubbing at the ridged flesh between his eyes, Seifer thought, scars never heal completely, never go away. They just get fainter with time.

The click of boot heels on the metal deck plating brought Seifer's attention to the front of the room where Squall had engaged a holo-vid projector. The information had been transmitted from Esthar, and was as up to date and accurate as they could get. But before they committed themselves irrevocably, Squall would make contact with one of his intelligence sources in FH upon arrival to confirm it. First, however, they would meet with Prime Minister Kiros Seagill and Vice President Ward Zabac.

Seifer had to smile at the notion of a mute politician. One of the few who can't tell any lies, he thought.

In spite of himself however, Seifer paid close attention to Squall's presentation, running the scenario over in his mind as his Commander had outlined it and finding it sound. Of course, one of the things that he'd always both admired and been envious of was Squall's instinctive grasp of strategy. If everyone did the jobs that they'd been assigned on this extraction attempt, then they'd all get out with their hides intact and with no one the wiser.

In and out clean, he thought. What every mercenary aims for on missions like these.

Fujin's thoughts ran along similar lines, and she was glad that Squall had kept her and Raijin as part of Seifer's squad. She knew that the cowboy, Irvine, would like nothing so much as placing a bullet right between Seifer's eyes, with his girlfriend Selphie cheerfully helping him. In truth, she could not blame them, for they both had lost a great deal to Seifer's past actions. Irvine and Selphie had both lost close friends; some of Selphie's friends had been lost in the missile attack on Trabia Garden, where she'd been training until she transferred to Balamb, and Irvine had lost friends at Galbadia Garden in its battle with Balamb Garden. They hadn't even fought with the SeeDs when the battle was joined; they'd simply suffered from collateral damage as magic spells and conventional weapons went off indiscriminately while Balamb's SeeDs and the Galbadian Army regulars that had occupied Galbadia Garden had fought.

Of those that had opposed Seifer's return to Balamb, those two were among the more vocal, though they had gradually toned down their hostility. Still, Fujin didn't think they'd ever truly welcome Seifer, in spite of or even because of their childhood memories of him. It remained to be seen how professional they would be once out in the field. Fujin had decided to keep a wary eye on them just in case.

"Questions, anyone?" Squall's level tone cut through her musings, and Fujin quickly went over everything in her mind, making sure that she hadn't missed anything important when her attention had wandered.

Fujin made eye contact with Seifer as Irvine asked Squall for more clarification of his assignment. He nodded silently and she returned the gesture. They were ready.

Squall dismissed them shortly thereafter and as Fujin left with Seifer, she happened to look back and noticed Rinoa stand and approach Squall stiffly. A quiet exchange followed, their voices indistinct. Before she left the room completely, Fujin saw Squall draw Rinoa into his arms and hug her gently. Fujin heaved a silent sigh of relief, releasing a breath she hadn't even realized that she'd been holding. She'd heard how Rinoa was nothing like Ultimecia, or Adel. But Fujin's personal experience with sorceresses had left her wary of a sorceress's anger. She was glad that Rinoa was still on their side.

They arrived in Esthar mere moments later, with Selphie showing off her piloting skill by landing the Ragnarok at the Esthar Airstation so gently that Seifer wasn't even aware they'd arrived. Not until Squall announced it at any rate.

Grabbing his gear bag and the carrying case that contained his gunblade, Seifer caught up with Fujin and Raijin and they all trooped down the exit ramp to join the group assembled at its base. Vice President Ward Zabac, Prime Minister Kiros Seagill, Squall, Rinoa, Selphie and Irvine all turned and watched Seifer and his posse descend the ramp. Seifer grinned wryly at Kiros and Ward's frowns as they recognized him and his companions.

"This is the team you selected?" Kiros asked, still frowning.

Squall raised an eyebrow and answered, "Yes. Including myself, we're it."

"But what about…?"Kiros began, his gaze straying to Seifer and his companions.

"SeeDs do not dwell on past mistakes. They learn from them and move on. Seifer and his friends have done that and they've earned the right to be here." Squall replied.

"Can you trust them?" Kiros asked, concerned.

"They're SeeDs." Squall answered simply, as though that was all that needed to be said. When Kiros and Ward nodded in acceptance of that statement, Seifer was surprised to find that Squall was right.

Shouldering his bag, Seifer and his posse followed the rest of the group and the two Estharian officials into the waiting car to be taken to the Presidential Palace.

As they seated themselves in the spacious vehicle, Fujin surreptitiously grasped Seifer's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. He glanced over at her and caught her gaze and the half smile she wore, and smiled in return. Looking over at Raijin, he was surprised at the burly man's purposeful expression. It was as though Squall, by publicly supporting them as SeeDs, had given them back their pride. In spite of all that had gone before, Squall had thrown his support behind his erstwhile enemies, and Seifer couldn't help feeling grateful for that. Judging from Raijin's attitude, Seifer was fairly certain that the big man would gladly walk through fire if his Commander ordered it. Seifer wasn't sure he'd go that far, but he would certainly do all in his power to prove that Squall's confidence was not misplaced.

The ride to the Presidential Palace was a silent one, with even chatty Selphie staring reflectively out of a window as they traveled the glittering streets of Esthar City. It had recovered nicely from the Lunar Cry that had brought Adel back to the planet, but some evidence of the damage the city had suffered still remained. The streets were still clean and bright, and people walked along them much as they always had, but here and there could be seen boarded up buildings that had not yet been repaired. Squall and Rinoa sat together cozily, whatever disagreement they'd had earlier apparently resolved. Next to them sat Kiros, while Irvine and Selphie sat in the seat opposite them. The silent hulk, Ward, occupied the front seat next to the driver, and in the very back of the huge vehicle, sat Seifer and his posse. They had chosen that particular arrangement, figuring it would be less troublesome to stay out of the way for the time being. The presidential limo was certainly large enough to accommodate everyone comfortably.

The ride was mercifully short, and they pulled to a smooth halt in front of the huge, ultra-modern looking edifice. As they disembarked from the presidential car, soldiers formed up to provide escort, and Seifer was aware of the curious glances and outright glares his presence generated. He wondered at that, for his presence hadn't been quite as overt here as it had been in Galbadia. Indeed, he'd only flown the Lunatic Pandora over the city, never stopping or meeting any of the citizens there, so it was unlikely that any should be able to connect him to the events that had nearly destroyed the metropolis. Yet, obviously, he was known here.

"I guess my reputation has preceded me," Seifer muttered to Fujin.

"PERHAPS." She agreed.

Shrugging, he shouldered his gear and followed the group into the Palace.

"What can you possibly hope to gain by holding me prisoner?" Laguna demanded. He paced the small room in agitation, raking his long, silvered hair back out of his eyes and glaring at his adversary. Folding his arms, he waited with a grim expression on his face for the answer.

"Attention, for one, my dear Mr. President." Came the answer. The man who'd spoken then rose lithely from the table he'd been leaning against, crossing his arms in an unconscious reflection of the other man's posture. In his mid-thirties, the man stood a few inches taller than Laguna did, and was lean, dark and dangerous looking. He also possessed a charisma that had drawn others to his cause. The disgruntled, the disaffected, those firmly entrenched in their traditional hatred of Galbadia, a hatred that had been fostered and propagated for generations by just such people as this man; all had rallied to his banner, finding in him a focus and a leader for their various causes. Jace Omer's rhetoric was nothing new to Laguna, a man who sadly had been embroiled in politics for nearly half of his life now. He was intelligent enough, shrewd enough, and cunning enough to talk a good game, but Laguna knew, from the moment he'd looked into the man's dark eyes, that Omer didn't believe a word of what he was saying. It was all talk. All of it. Jace Omer had a different agenda, a private one. And he was using this protest against the Trade Agreement with Galbadia and the political weight of his followers, to forward it.

In his years as President of Esthar, Laguna had of a necessity become quite adept in reading people, and often used his "buffoon" act to his advantage. It led people to believe that he was as silly and naïve as he acted, which in turn caused them to underestimate him. Of course, no small credit to the success of this ruse went to Kiros, who was in fact the true brains behind the office of President. Laguna wasn't stupid, not by a long shot. But he also wasn't as quick of wit as his partner and friend, Kiros. Many times he'd thought that Kiros would make a much better president than he did, but he simply could not convince his friend to make a bid for the post. As for himself, after serving the people of Esthar for nearly twenty years, he was more than ready to retire from public service and live out his life in anonymity. The post had cost him all that he'd held dear, and if it was too late to establish a close relationship with his son, he could at least be there for the grandchildren he hoped he'd someday have.

"And the other?" Laguna asked coldly.

"What everyone in Esthar wants, of course," Jace Omer returned smoothly, "A return to the Esthar of old, preeminent in power, wealth and influence. And the complete obliteration of the sorceress-loving Galbadians. They caused a war at the behest of a sorceress and cost thousands of Estharian citizens their lives. Blood for blood, that's what the citizens of Esthar want."

Laguna stared at the man, not quite sure if he should believe what he'd just heard or not. The man was damned hard to read, but his statement had a ring to it that, if it wasn't entirely the truth, certainly skirted close to it.

" 'Complete obliteration'? You're talking about genocide!" Laguna exclaimed, aghast at the implications.

"I prefer to think of it as extermination. Galbadians are no better than vermin, and should be dealt with the same way." Omer replied blandly.

"They're not vermin!" Laguna retorted hotly, "They're people! Just like you and me! Especially me, since I was born in Galbadia! They have families, children, just like us! You can't just…"

"I can't?" Omer said with a dark brow quirked over one eye. "And I suppose you, the great hero and liberator of Esthar, are going to stop me? How do you propose to do that, considering that you are currently my prisoner?"

Laguna opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Damn the man, he was right. He could do nothing. But his son, however, could. If Laguna knew Kiros, Squall would be the first person he'd call. Rocky their relationship may be, but they'd made tremendous strides in the past few years repairing the seventeen-year rift between them. Enough that Laguna felt fairly confident that Squall would do all in his power to help. And with Rinoa backing him up, there was literally nothing that the young man couldn't do.

Laguna glared at Omer, green eyes glittering in frustrated anger as he warned, "my son will come for me."

Jace Omer began to laugh, smiling at Laguna, looking for all the world as if he'd heard a grand joke.

"Mr. President, that is exactly what I'm counting on."

"These are the most current photos we have of Jace Omer," Kiros stated, passing the sheaves of paper around the conference table to everyone present.

"This is the guy we're looking for?" Irvine asked, focusing intensely upon the portrait of the suspected terrorist.

"Yes," Kiros answered, then added, "however, this is not a mission of assassination, but rather a rescue mission. The primary objective is to get Laguna free, not to kill Omer. If Omer dies in the process, well so much the better, but that's not the reason we've involved you." Then he keyed the holo-vid that had been incorporated into the table's glassy black surface, causing a 3-D rendering of Fisherman's Horizon to appear.

"Cool!" exclaimed Selphie, and Kiros gave her an indulgent smile before he continued.

"According to our latest intelligence, Jace Omer is in this area here," Kiros indicated a building that appeared to have once been a tanker ship of some sort. It lit up when Kiros had pointed it out, and remained lit as the Prime Minister continued, "Unfortunately, we don't know exactly where, and this is a large ship, mostly converted over to single dwellings and shops."

"I'll check with my sources in FH to see if they can get something a little more defined than that," Squall put in, adding, "I don't want to waste time on a room-to-room search on a vessel that large. The advantage of a quick strike will be lost, and it'll make the job much more difficult. It'll also give Omer a better chance of escaping us."

Kiros nodded agreement, "Good idea. Now, here," a spot on the ocean midway between Esthar and FH lit up, "here is where you'll rendezvous the Ragnarok with the fishing boat that you all will be using as your cover. The crew has already been informed that they'll be taking on additional personnel, but they don't know the details. All they know is that they're supposed to treat you all like part of the crew. That should put you into FH sometime tomorrow night. The rest is up to you."

Fujin sat beside Seifer, listening to the mission briefing that Kiros had just concluded. The conference room they were in was one of many in the opulent building that housed Esthar's entire political structure. A wall made of glass gave the illusion that they were out in the open air, and the blue sky and brilliant desert sunrise reflected blindingly off of the myriad buildings of glass and polished metal. The room was carpeted in a rich pile of burnt orange-gold, with Esthar's official seal in the center. In the center of the pale gold painted wall behind them was yet another seal, with the national flag of Esthar standing in the corner near it.

Fujin's attention was drawn to Squall as he rose and approached the head of the table and Kiros stepped aside, yielding the floor to him. Despite the fact that they had gone directly from a party to Esthar with no sleep in between, he showed little sign of it beyond slightly reddened eyes and the need for a shave. They'd had barely enough time to change clothes and pack before they shipped out. She herself felt the fatigue pressing down upon her and knew that they'd have to get some rest soon or they'd be useless. As if reading her thoughts, Squall's sharp eyes scanned his team, noting the signs of fatigue that they were all displaying.

"Kiros has given us rooms here in the Palace so we can get some rest. We leave in six hours, so make the most of it." He said. On that note, the impromptu meeting adjourned, and Kiros led them to the rooms that they'd been assigned.

As she entered the room, Fujin noted absently that her gear was already there and she mentally thanked whoever had been so thoughtful. She was dead tired, having gone from field exam, to party, to mission nonstop, but she was also dying for a shower. Knowing she'd sleep better after having one, she opened one of her bags and pulled out some clean clothes, tossing them on the bed, then headed for the bathroom.

Once there, she undressed until the only thing she wore was her eye patch. Touching it gingerly, she studied herself in the mirror for a moment, hesitant to remove it. She knew what was underneath it, she saw it every time she showered or bathed, for there was nothing she hated more than getting her patch wet. The wounds it hid were long healed, and nothing remained but scars. But she still hated seeing them, hated the reminder of what she'd lost, and how she'd lost it. Defiantly, she took it off, and her entire face was revealed.

One eye the color of dried blood glared back from the reflection, the other, an empty socket. Three thin scars bisected her eyebrow over the missing eye, going through the lid and ending just above the cheekbone. When she had the patch on, they were almost completely hidden. She could have gotten a glass eye, had she wanted to. The scars weren't so hideous that nobody could bear to see them. And among the SeeD, scars were considered a badge of honor. Then her eye tracked down involuntarily to the faint scars on her throat. The surgeon who had saved her life had stitched her together with such skill, that the scars left behind were hardly noticeable. But she had been left with a barely functional voice, one that she hated to use. The fact that she even had a voice, however, was a testament to the doctor's skill.

Sighing, she brushed her hair back from her face, then turned on the shower and stepped into it, closing her eye and leaning into the spray. She felt the memories begin to surface, and fought them, not wanting to relive the day that had left her scarred. In the few months after she'd lost Pandemona, they'd begun coming back, and she cursed that time. She could feel her GF stirring in the back of her mind, could feel its concern at her emotional state. Since it had been returned to her, Fujin had felt the GF gradually dimming those memories she hadn't wanted to face again, and unlike some of the other SeeDs, she was actually thankful for it. She knew that the memories couldn't be excised completely, GFs didn't work like that, and neither did the human mind. But at least in Pandemona's case, it sought out the ones that were the most painful and dimmed them, making them less distinct, taking away their power to hurt. The time that they had been separated had been Hell for her, and only Seifer had gotten her through it. This despite her silence on what troubled her. Seifer didn't push for an explanation, for which Fujin was grateful.

She couldn't have articulated her nightmarish past even had she wanted to. But it turned out that she didn't need to. Seifer had seen her torment and had been there for her, no questions asked. I wish I could tell him, she thought. If nothing else just to satisfy his curiosity. I know he wants to know why I am the way I am, why my voice is damaged, my eye gone. Why I shake in the night with nightmares I cannot name. But he's never asked. Pandemona stirred again, sending a wordless surge of comfort to her, and she smiled and sent gratitude back to it. The memories subsided and the pain they brought, dimmed. She quickly finished her shower, shutting off the water and grabbing a towel. She was drying her hair with it when she heard a knock at the door. Wrapping her towel around herself, she went to answer it, having a pretty good idea of who it was.

Opening the door, she smiled at seeing Seifer on the other side; his wet hair indicating that he too, had showered.

Leaning against the doorframe, he smirked, "You know Fujin, you really shouldn't answer the door like that. What if it'd been Squall?"

She shrugged in answer, then said, "SCARRED FOR LIFE?"

Seifer snorted, "Nah, you're tougher than that Fuj." She couldn't help it, she laughed. A harsh, rusty laugh, but still… she laughed. Grabbing his hand, she pulled him into her room, closing the door firmly behind him. Then she kissed him fiercely.

When they came up for air, Seifer said breathlessly, "I love it when you talk dirty to me."

She kissed him again.

Later, Seifer watched her as she slept, blinking sleep from his own eyes as he did. Checking his chronograph, he noticed that only a few minutes remained before they had to get ready to ship out. But he didn't want to wake Fujin, not yet. When she'd opened her door wearing nothing but a towel, Seifer had felt his heart stop for a moment. He noticed right away that she wasn't wearing her patch, but hadn't wanted to say anything about it. He figured she'd simply forgotten to put it on. He was glad. The scars weren't that bad, and neither was the fact that no eye existed in the empty socket. It was easy to get past that and focus on the entire face, which despite the damage was lovely. He'd never seen her without her patch; she usually even slept with it on. It wasn't a huge change, but still, she looked different without it, more vulnerable, delicate. Not quite angelic, nor innocent, there was too much steel in her for that. Seifer suspected that he was the only one who saw her that way. That was fine with him; he didn't really want to share her with anyone anyway.

She shifted sleepily, then opened her eye, stretching and smiling at him.

Giving her a gentle shove, Seifer said, "time to get up and get dressed sleepyhead." Nodding, she got out of bed and quickly dressed, then disappeared into the bathroom for a moment to brush her hair and teeth.

While she was gone, Seifer put on his pants and shoes, unable for the moment to locate his shirt. He had just found it when Fujin emerged from the bathroom, furious, with her eyepatch in hand.

"WHY?" she demanded.

Seifer sighed, "Fujin, it doesn't matter to me. I didn't tell you because I liked seeing you without it." She stared at him a moment, her eye glistening. Then she ducked her head and put the patch back on. When she looked up again, the shine of tears was gone and the armor was back in place. Seifer sighed again and put his shirt on, then turned to leave. He was halfway to the door when Fujin stopped him by grabbing his hand.

Tapping her eyepatch, she said, "ONLY FOR YOU."

Seifer pulled her into his arms and kissed her, saying softly, "Works for me."

A knock at the door signaled that it was time to leave, and Fujin gathered her stuff while Seifer got the door, finding Raijin on the other side with both his gear and Seifer's.

"Time to go, ya know?" Raijin said, handing Seifer his gear bag and gunblade case.

Seifer gave Raijin a sardonic smile and answered, "I know," then added, "thanks Raijin." He shouldered his bag and headed out the door with Fujin on his heels, completely missing Raijin's stunned look. In all their time together as friends, for all the things that Raijin had done for him, Seifer had never once thanked him. Following along behind, Raijin noticed that Fujin and Seifer's hands were still joined and he smiled happily, thinking, boy, he sure has changed. So's Fujin. They're good for each other. Then he thought about the job ahead of them and his heart thudded with excitement. Finally, he mused, a chance to be one of the good guys for a change. He quickened his steps to catch up and walked beside Seifer, on the opposite side from the one Fujin was on. They met up with the rest of their group in the main lobby of the Presidential Palace, and they all trooped out to the Ragnarok after saying their goodbyes to Kiros and Ward.

Selphie immediately took command of the pilot's chair, Irvine stationing himself behind her. Squall stood next to her, giving her the coordinates of the ship they were meeting, his low voice punctuated by Selphie's fingers tapping in the commands. Seifer, Fujin, Raijin and Rinoa watched from the back of the cockpit.

Looking over at her, Seifer met her eyes, and almost sighed as he watched her expression change from curious to wary. I'm sorry Rinoa. The words were right on the tip of his tongue, and he was a heartbeat from uttering them when Squall turned around. A quick intake of breath and a steely flash from his eyes was the only sign that what he'd seen had bothered him at all, and it was gone so fast that Seifer wasn't sure that he even saw it.

In an instant he was back in Command mode, stating, "We will reach the rendezvous point in just a few minutes, so I want you all to change into the clothing provided. This is a working fishing boat, so we all have to look like the rest of its crew to blend in. Selphie will stay with the Ragnarok and be ready to pick us up when signaled to do so."

"How will we get to the boat, jump?" Seifer asked, raising one eyebrow.

Squall answered the somewhat sarcastic question blandly, "You're welcome to try that Seifer, but the landing could be a problem. Selphie will hover the Ragnarok over the boat and we'll rappel down."

Looking around at everyone else, Squall asked, "any other questions?" Seifer couldn't think of any right then, he was still recovering from the shock of hearing Squall's quick comeback to his half-serious question of how to get to the boat. He didn't remember Squall's wits being that sharp before. Of course, in the past, Seifer's opinion of Squall had been colored by their mutual dislike. Thinking back more objectively, Seifer remembered times when Squall had been similarly quick in his own, understated way. When no one else asked any questions, Squall dismissed them and they drifted to their assigned berths to change clothes.

They all assembled in the main cargo hold in their disguises, with Seifer wondering what the hell he was going to do with his gunblade. Sailors didn't carry weapons like that around, and a gunblade would be a dead giveaway that the person carrying it was SeeD. He studied everyone's appearance as he donned the harness that was used for rappelling, smirking at Raijin's outfit of a loose fitting canvas pants, deck shoes and a fisherman's vest, with his staff strapped to his back. Not much of a change from what he normally wore. Seifer and Fujin wore variations on this same outfit, with sweaters and caps rather than vests, with Seifer's sweater a buff color, while Fujin's was light gray.

Squall stood near the outer door, coiling a length of rope, in head to toe black… the cap shading his eyes, his sweater, gloves, jeans and boots, all in black. The only spot of color at all were his ever-present brown leather belts. Rinoa stood nearby rigging her harness, in ordinary jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt, with Irvine doing the same thing in a white sweater and blue jeans, still stubbornly wearing his boots. The cowboy hat, however, had been regretfully laid aside in favor of an ordinary billed cap. No overcoat, and no visible weapons. Seifer frowned. Squall and Rinoa didn't appear to be armed either, and his puzzlement grew.

Sauntering over to Squall, now securing the six ropes he'd been busily coiling to a bar over the outer door, Seifer commented, "Nice outfit, very …austere. What's with all the black anyway? Run out of ideas on what to wear?"

Squall tested each of the ropes by yanking on them, hard, before replying coolly, "I don't recall asking for comments on my fashion sense." Seifer shook his head wryly. He'd actually only intended to ask Squall about his apparent lack of weaponry. That comment about Squall's wardrobe had just slipped out. Sometimes the urge to be a smartass can be overpowering, Seifer thought ruefully.

"Let me try this again," Seifer muttered, then said "I meant to ask where your gunblade was."

Squall looked over at him, eyebrows raised, and asked, "you can't see it?"

Seifer shook his head, wondering if Squall was playing some very un-Squall-like joke, answering with a frown, "No, I can't." Seifer was taken completely off guard by Squall's sudden grin.

"Great! It worked!" then he called over to Rinoa, "Rinoa! That new spell of yours worked!"

She hurried over, eyes bright with excitement, asking Seifer, "You really can't see Squall's gunblade?"

Seifer, getting a little impatient with all of this, flung his hands up and answered sharply, "No! I can't! I can't see any of yours or Irvine's weapons either! Will you tell me what's going on please?"

Clapping her hands happily, Rinoa explained, "Squall and I were trying to figure out a way for him to wear his gunblade without it being so visible. I've learned a sort of invisibility spell, but I wasn't sure how to make it work, and it took practice getting it right. I had to make sure to cast it only on the object itself and not the person carrying it."

Seifer stared at her in awe. She'd come a long way from the scared girl who didn't want to be a sorceress. She had now not only come to terms with her power, she had actually grown more confident and skilled in its use.

"Why can't you just cast the spell on the person carrying the weapon?" Seifer asked.

"Because the spell is modified from a 'blind' spell. It makes it so you can't see the weapon, but if you were to cast it on the person wielding it, they wouldn't be able to see. So it's not a true invisibility spell, not in the sense that anyone could use it on themselves and become invisible." Rinoa explained.

Strapping on his gunblade, Seifer grinned, "Great. Now you can cast it on my posse and me."

"Okay." She replied, then her brown eyes faded to gold as she invoked her power, pointing first at Seifer's gunblade, then at Raijin's staff and Fujin's zan. A small spark of lavender power touched each of their weapons, then the weapons faded from view.

Seifer looked down to where his gunblade rested and saw nothing, but he could still feel its weight hanging at his hip.

"Pretty handy, that is," He commented.

Squall got everyone's attention then by calling out, "Time to go. Everyone make sure you have your communicators with you so we can keep in contact once we get to FH. Everyone get ready now!" Seifer slung his gear bag over his shoulder, pulled on his rappelling gloves and connected the rope to his harness. Fujin, Raijin, Irvine, Squall and Rinoa did the same. When Squall saw that they were all set, he keyed the communicator he was wearing and ordered, "Selphie, open the cargo bay doors!"

A hiss followed, then the roar of the ship's engines deafened them as they kept the Ragnarok hovering over the boat below. A stiff wind blew in through the now open door, ruffling everyone's hair. Squall backed up until he stood on the very edge of the airship, leaning back against the rope he'd secured to the bar. When everyone else had followed suit, he flung his coil of rope out of the Ragnarok, watching as it fell to the deck of the ship some twenty or thirty feet below them.

Seifer did the same, then heard Irvine call out to him, "Hey Seifer! Its not too late to take the quick way down!" Seifer simply flipped Irvine the bird as a reply.

Then Squall yelled, "Let's go!" and leaped backward out of the airship. Rinoa, Raijin, Seifer, Fujin and Irvine all followed, descending smoothly to the deck of the ship where the captain awaited them.

Squall quickly gave a signal to Selphie that they'd landed safely and the dragon-like aircraft heeled off and flew away, cargo bay doors still open and ropes still trailing from it.

"Mr. Leonhart, is it?" The captain asked, drawing Squall's attention away from the direction the Ragnarok had disappeared.

"Yes." Squall answered, forcing himself to shake the man's hand in a semblance of civility. Seifer hid a smile, knowing as he did how little Squall cared for such conventions. Still. It was obvious that Rinoa was the only person he liked getting close to. Anyone else he still kept at arms length.

"Nice of your Estharian friends to bring you out here. Can't tell you how much we appreciate the extra help, even though I know you're just hitching a ride with us." The Captain said, enthusiastically shaking Squall's hand. After the first few pumps, Squall subtly tried to disengage his hand, but the man had a firm grip on it and wouldn't let go. At least, not soon enough to suit Squall.

Eventually however, the man released Squall's hand to his thinly veiled relief, and turned to the group at large, " c'mon, I'll show you where you can stow your gear." Then he turned and led them aft and down a companionway into the boat itself.

As he walked he commented, "So, you all are shipping out from FH to look into reactivating an old oil drilling platform, is that it?"

Having been briefed by Kiros on their cover story, Squall nodded, answering, "Yes."

Giving Squall a curious look the captain asked, "why couldn't they just fly you over and drop you off there?"

Squall shrugged, "the pilot is a personal friend of mine, and your ship just happened to be in his flight path. Unfortunately, he could only take us this far. The Estharian Energy Commission wants this evaluation completed as soon as possible, so it was in our best interests to get out there quickly instead of waiting for another transport ship to become available."

"I see. Well, here we are," the man indicated an unused berth with storage bins under the bunk and on the walls.

"I'll give you all time to stow your gear, then you can meet me on deck, alright?" The captain asked. Squall and the rest nodded in agreement, and began to put their gear bags away.

While everyone else was busy putting their things away, Squall pulled out a cell phone and made a phone call, turning and moving away slightly as he did. The conversation was short and low voiced, with Squall ending it with a terse goodbye and a soft electronic "beep" as he disconnected the call.

Turning back to the group, Squall said, "We'll be meeting our contact when we get to FH and we'll get the latest intelligence from him." Then he turned without another word and went back up to the deck.

Seifer, Fujin, Raijin and Irvine exchanged shrugs and Rinoa rolled her eyes before they all followed him.

They spent the remainder of the day working aboard the ship, helping the crew haul in nets as they trawled back to port. Of them all, only Fujin, Raijin and Seifer were at all comfortable aboard the ship, hauling in fish. Raijin in fact, was actually enjoying it, though he would have been happier with a fishing pole in his hand. When the captain heard this confession, he directed Raijin to the other side of the boat to help out the longliners. For the remainder of the trip, Raijin was happily casting for and hauling in the huge, hard-fighting marine fish that had evaded the nets. Rinoa was assigned to the galley to help out the cook, while Irvine and Squall were on the nets with Seifer and Fujin. While not exactly enjoying the work, Squall bent to it with a will that had the other sailors commenting on the strength that his slender frame belied.

By the end of the day, the sky darkened into evening as the ship was pulling into port. As the rusted jumble of catwalks, wooden pilings and salvaged ships that made up FH hove into view, Irvine observed wryly that nobody would peg them as SeeD now, for they all looked, and smelled, like sailors from a fishing boat.

"The perfect cover," Seifer grumbled, brushing at his dirty sweater.

Fujin raised an eyebrow at that, to which Seifer replied, "yeah, I know. We've done worse."

Squall simply shrugged and led them down the pier to a dingy dockside tavern. The residents scarcely gave them a glance as they entered the dimly lit establishment, redolent with the aromas that its patrons had brought in from their various trades: diesel fumes from the mechanics, fishy smells from the fishermen, the acrid, slightly metallic scent of the welders and metalworkers. They threaded their way through the press of people to find a table toward the back, one that offered a good view of the entire establishment, particularly the door. Once seated, Squall signaled a waitress and quietly ordered everyone chowder and coffee.

Everyone was hungry by this time, so nobody demurred, though Seifer quipped, "what, no beer?"

Squall simply raised his eyebrows and replied, "We're working, remember?"

"Killjoy." Seifer retorted.

"Whatever." Was Squall's trademark response. Quiet snorts and stifled chuckles sounded from around the table in reaction to this exchange.

"So who are we waiting for?" Irvine asked curiously.

"You'll know him when you see him." Squall answered. They lapsed into silence as they ate and scanned the area, Squall sipping at his coffee and studying the entranceway with narrowed eyes. Fujin glanced around the room as well, noticing that they blended in with the locals so well that nobody gave them a second look. Then she turned her attention to Squall, who was still watching the door.

While they had been working the boat with Squall, she'd noticed that he wasn't wearing his Griever pendant. She hadn't given it a second thought then, but now that they were sitting at rest, she noticed that the heavy platinum necklace was back in its accustomed place. In their gloomy surroundings, Squall's dark clothing caused him to fade into the shadows, making him very hard to see. The polished metal of the pendant however, caught the light and drew the eye to it. She wondered why he'd bothered with the disguise when the pendant would proclaim loudly to anyone with a memory who its wearer was. Then the door opened and a nondescript individual entered, shuffling aimlessly through the tavern and stopping as though by coincidence, near their table.

"I heard ye all were lookin' fer a boat." The man stated. Something about his voice and manner seemed familiar, but Fujin couldn't place him. What she could see of him though, indicated that he was fairly young, around their age. With his hat pulled low over his eyes however, it was difficult to be sure.

Squall glanced over and answered, "Yes." Rinoa too, was studying the young man with a frown, then her expression cleared and she smiled when the young man looked up and pushed his hat back, shooting her a quick grin.

"Follow me then, sir." The man said, standing up and starting to walk toward the door. Squall stood, gesturing with his head for the others to follow. They were led in a twisting path through the city, ending up in a small room near a mechanic's shop.

Nobody said anything until they were in the room and a the lights were turned on, then Rinoa smiled, "Watts, how in the world did you end up here?"

The young man grinned and answered with a question of his own, "And how are you doing Princess? Still hanging out with this loser?"

"That's Commander Loser to you," Squall said mildly. Seifer couldn't help it; he burst out laughing, much to Squall's annoyance.

Chuckles from the rest of the group could be heard as Seifer exclaimed, "I can't believe it, he actually has a sense of humor! Amazing!"

"Yeah, he has changed a lot in the last few years, hasn't he?" Watts asked with a grin.

"Blame it on Rinoa," Squall said with an offhand shrug. Rinoa poked him with a mock frown, and he gave her a quick grin in response. Then his expression became more serious as he explained, "Watts gets around. Since Timber's been liberated, and nothing much is happening in Galbadia these days, he got bored. Say what you like about the Forest Owls, Watts does have a talent for being inconspicuous, which makes it easier for him to dig up all kinds of information." Crossing the tiny room, he sat down at a small table, setting his gear down next to him. Seifer followed and leaned against the far wall, arms crossed.

"I remember when I was in Timber with you guys." He began with a half-grin, "You and Rinoa were the brains of the outfit. I never could figure out why Zone was involved, the guy was way too nervous for the kinds of things you got into."

"Yeah," Watts shrugged. "Its just as well that Timber's back to the way it used to be. All that stress gave Zone an ulcer. He never was very good at underground stuff anyway."

"What's Zone up to now?" Rinoa asked him.

Watts shrugged and answered, "he went back to working for his dad. He's happier doing that than he was with the Forest Owls. Keeping those Galbadians from hassling his dad was really the only reason he got involved in the first place."

"Well, we need to concentrate on the reason we're here now." Squall's cut in seriously. Nodding, everyone else arranged themselves around the table to better see and hear what Watts had to say, while Watts pulled out and unrolled a detailed map of FH and spread it out on the table.

"What kind of information do you have?" Squall asked.

"Well first of all sir," Watts began, "if Omer was on that converted tanker ship like you were told, then he's moved. He's in this area over here," Watts indicated a jumbled section of run-down housing units. Close to the waterfront, as was nearly everything in FH, usually tall and narrow to conserve space, each of the dwellings had about three levels, bottom being kitchen, middle being family room and top, bedrooms.

"I've checked it out, and there aren't a lot of people living here now, most of them have moved on to Timber or Esthar for better job opportunities. Especially the mechanics, there's a real demand for them right now in Timber to service the trains. So there isn't a lot of activity there. But this house here," Watts indicated one at the edge of the section, near some warehouses and a boatyard, "This one's had a bit more activity than its condition would warrant, sir."

"Have you seen anyone? Get a good enough look to recognize them?" Squall asked.

Watts frowned thoughtfully before answering, "I got a look at a couple of the people coming and going. I didn't see Laguna though." Squall nodded, then reached down to a case by his feet, picking it up and putting it onto the table. Opening it up revealed a portable computer, which Squall turned on. After tapping at the keys for a few minutes, Squall then turned it so that Watts could see the screen, and the photos displayed upon it.

"Anyone look familiar?" He asked. Watts frowned, studying each picture displayed, manipulating the mini-trackball to move the screen down to view the others.

"This one does," He said, indicating one of the pictures, then he continued looking before adding, "and this guy too." He showed Squall who he was referring to.

"Known associates of Jace Omer's. Looks like it's the right place. Now all we have to do is confirm that Laguna is actually there." Squall turned the computer back around and stared at it pensively, tapping his finger on his lips. Then he looked up and studied Seifer, Fujin and Raijin in assessment.

"Seifer. You remember your assignment for your SeeD exam, don't you? You and your posse?" Squall asked, still studying him.

"What, is this a trick question? Of course I remember it, we just did it two days ago!" Seifer replied sarcastically.

Squall ignored the sarcasm and commented, "You three proved that you're very good at stealth operations. I want you to follow Watts to this building and do whatever you can to confirm if Laguna is being held there and where. Radio back what you discover and wait for further orders."

"And while we're doing this, what will you be doing, Fearless Commander? Just watching cartoons?" Seifer asked, eyebrow cocked and smirk firmly in place.

Squall, completely deadpan, answered, "No Seifer, I will not just be watching cartoons. I will be sitting on my ass, watching cartoons. I'll be sure to tell you how the latest episode of Captain Amazing turns out. We," Squall indicated Rinoa, Irvine and himself, "will be backing you three up. We don't do anything until we're sure that Laguna is actually there and which room he's in, and as soon as we know, we move in. Got it?"

Seifer nodded. He was somewhat disappointed that he'd failed to get a satisfactory reaction out of Squall, though the sarcastic retort was actually kind of funny.

"Wow Squall," He grinned, " you're getting pretty good at the snappy comebacks. Way to go man!"

"You must be rubbing off on me." Squall observed.

Seifer snorted, "took you long enough."

Irvine groaned, "Hyne help us." Rinoa and Watts coughed to disguise their laughs, and even Squall couldn't quite hide a small smile.

All too soon however, it was back to business for him, as he ordered, "you guys get going. We'll be right behind you, and in radio contact. I'll give the signal to move in."

Seifer, Fujin and Raijin gathered all the equipment they thought they'd need, donning vests designed to hold it all. Then they saluted Squall and followed Watts out without any further comment.

Fujin followed their guide, Watts, silently through the darkened city, relying heavily upon her link with Pandemona to warn her of any danger. While the sight in her remaining eye was actually quite good, she still ran into occasional difficulties in the dark, so had learned early on to rely upon her other senses to compensate. Thus, she spent the duration of their walk homing in on their surroundings, getting used to the commonplace sounds of water lapping against pilings and vessels rubbing against the bollards protecting the wharfs. Seabirds protested sleepily, and the ever-present hum of machinery added to the background noise. In addition to her physical senses, Pandemona aided her, giving her the ability to sense the changes in the very vibrations of the air as it moved over the wings of a seabird, around the various buildings and pilings of the area, and as a human form-Watts-moved through it.

Seifer walked next to her, guarding her blind side as always, scanning the area with narrowed eyes as they cautiously followed Watts, slipping noiselessly from shadow to shadow.

Suddenly, Watts' silhouette stopped and flattened itself in the doorway of a nearby building, gesturing for Seifer and his companions to join him.

"That's the building," Watts breathed quietly.

Seifer nodded and thumbed his communicator to inform Squall that they'd arrived.

"Do you see anything?" Came the Commander's disembodied voice.

"No. All quiet." Seifer murmured.

"Stand by." Squall ordered. Seifer sighed, seeing no other option but to do as ordered.

A few minutes later, Squall's voice sounded in Seifer's earpiece, "Satellite infrared scan shows eight individuals inside. Three on the first floor, four on the second, and one on the first." Seifer digested this. It was entirely possible, given the general layout of the buildings, that Laguna was the individual on the top floor, where the bedroom would be located.

"Can you pull up the floor plan?" Seifer asked.

"Yes." Came the answer.

Watts' shadowy form shook its head, and Seifer asked, "What?"

"Don't need the floor plan, there's not much to the buildings here, they're all the same. Only one door, couple of windows on the middle and bottom floors- nothing too complicated," Watts answered.

Seifer nodded at that, then whispered to Fujin and Raijin, "ready to do some skulking guys?"

They both nodded, then Seifer turned to Watts, asking, "You armed?" When Watts nodded in answer, Seifer asked with a devilish grin, "Wanna join the fun?"

Watts flashed a grin and whispered back, "Sure, why not?"

"Are there any windows on the top floor?" Seifer asked.

Watts shook his head, then whispered, "no, but there's an access door on the roof that leads to the attic."

Seifer paused for a moment, studying the building in silence, then keyed the mike and informed Squall, "Watts knows the floor plan, so he's going with us. Still no activity yet, so we're going in for a closer look."

"Stand by." Came Squall's curt order.

"We can't confirm who's in that building unless we go into it and look." Seifer protested.

" I said, stand by." Squall enunciated clearly. Seifer swore quietly and was about to ignore the order and head to the building when Fujin gripped his arm.

"What? Not you too?" He snapped in frustration.

"Silence." She hissed. He glared at her, then noticed her intensely focused, listening attitude.

Fujin closed her eye to better focus her concentration upon what she heard and felt. The air stirred around her and she could almost see the lines it made as it moved over, around and through the buildings and people that were nearby. Carried to her upon the wind was the sound of running, booted feet, the distinctive jingle of the buckles to Squall's twin belts. Other footsteps followed his, one lighter and quicker. Rinoa. The other, heavier- Irvine. The soft clicks of hammers being cocked and weapons being readied could be heard. Fujin could feel them forcing their way through the air as they ran, could feel it entering and leaving their lungs.

Her awareness was completely focused upon what Pandemona could show her, with its unique way of seeing the world. She had a mental vision of the GF's giant, multifaceted violet eyes glittering like jewels, staring through her with ageless knowledge contained within them. Somehow, their contact became deeper and Fujin could actually see through Pandemona's eyes. She saw the molecules trembling in the air, causing dust motes to dance. She saw where they were disturbed as Squall, Irvine and Rinoa took up flanking positions around the building, ready to support them. Following the minute particles in the air, she saw where the body heat that one gave off made them dance faster. She saw the eerie red glow of the heat signatures that each individual person gave off, the electromagnetic patterns that all biological life emitted. Their Auras.

Intrigued, she focused her attention upon the building itself, reading the infrared heat from the occupants inside, seeing clearly their various positions and attitudes. The individual on the top floor seemed to be seated, yet was alone, while everyone else was on the bottom two floors. She switched to auras, and found something familiar about the aura of the person alone on the top floor. She studied it for a moment, then focused upon Squall's aura, and found that it almost matched. Could it be? She wondered. Somehow, she felt that it could indeed be Laguna.

The bombardment of this strange, new information was a little overwhelming to Fujin, and she reeled from it, shaking her head as that intense contact was loosened.

"Squall comes," She whispered hoarsely as in almost that same instant, Squall's voice said, "Ok, we're in position. Seifer, you and your team go in through the roof access. Reconnaissance only. Do not engage anybody. If you run into problems, let me know and we'll keep everyone on the bottom floor occupied."

"Affirmative," Seifer growled, chafing at the restrictions Squall had put on him.

"All right, let's move out. Look for a likely fire escape or something…" He began, only to pause, frowning as Fujin held her hand up to stop them.

"Fujin, what?" Seifer asked impatiently. Instead of answering or attempting to answer, Fujin simply closed her eye and appeared to be steeling herself mentally before she breathed out softly and slowly lifted her hands upward. The wind began to pick up, swirling around them in thick tendrils of dust and fog. It thickened and took on a life of its own, tugging and pulling at them, whipping their hair around and driving grit into their eyes. Clouds from overhead scudded into the vortex as well, adding their cloaking vapor to the haze around them.

Lift, Fujin commanded her GF mentally, and felt as though the air was solid and it was bearing her up, and by the exclamations that she heard, it must literally be happening.

"What are you doing Fujin?" Seifer demanded impatiently, but she ignored him, concentrating upon her link with Pandemona as it lifted them up using one of Fujin's stored float spells, and gently wafted them toward the building. They were deposited gently and the wind died down, taking the dust and vapor with it.

Seifer stared at her for a moment, speechless. It wasn't because she hadn't verbally cast the float spell. For her, that was normal. One didn't need to actually say the name of the spell in order to cast it, it was simply easier to focus one's energy and cast the correct level of magic that way. Fujin hated to use her voice, so she usually cast her spells silently. It was simply that no one had ever used a GF the way that Fujin had just done, at least, not to Seifer's recollection.

Watts recovered first, saying, "Wow. That's a handy trick."

"Sure is," Seifer agreed. Fujin merely shrugged and turned away, looking for the access door. Upon locating it, she led the way over and squatted down to open it, only to notice the large padlock that kept it secure.

Frowning, Fujin reached into a pocket for some tools that she usually kept handy, when Watts gently shouldered her aside with a soft, "allow me". Fujin replied by folding her arms tightly over her chest and growling softly as Watts quickly and silently worked the lock. It opened in the next breath and Fujin's scowl deepened as she realized that he'd beaten her best lock-picking time.

Pulling the hatchway up with a flourish, Watts grinned at her and gestured into the darkness, saying, "after you Fujin." Without acknowledging him, Fujin studied the hatchway, looking for the ladder as well as searching for any traps or sensors that might give them away. Not finding any, she located the ladder inside and climbed down into the dark.

Laguna prowled the small room he'd been locked into for the umpteenth time, casting about for ideas. Omer hadn't given much away, but his last comment confirmed Laguna's suspicion that the man was playing a deeper game than he was letting on.

The fact that he was actively hoping for Squall's involvement was disturbing. It implied that he wanted Squall there for some reason. And Laguna was the bait.

But why? Laguna wondered. Squall isn't someone you can easily take down. Omer has to know that he'd be no match for him. Squall is the most powerful SeeD on the planet, not just because he's the Commander, but also because of his fighting skills. The boy has faced down and defeated entire armies, almost single-handedly. And along with his formidable fighting skills, he has the added bonus of having the single most powerful sorceress in generations on his side, backing him up.

The thought brought him up short, and Laguna felt a chill trace down his spine as he stood frozen, mind racing with the implications of that. Omer's hatred of sorceresses hadn't been faked. Laguna had seen enough phonies during his years in politics that he felt fairly confident of his ability to tell the difference.

It's not Squall he wants, Laguna thought, lungs constricting with fear. It's Rinoa. He knows Squall will bring her with him when he comes to rescue me. They're inseparable. A team. Where he goes, she goes.

He sank helplessly onto the bed as his thoughts ran on. Squall would never let anyone harm Rinoa. He'd die before he let that happen. Omer had to know this, and would be prepared to kill Squall to get to Rinoa. It wouldn't be easy, but it wasn't impossible either, and there was no telling what kind of resources the man had available. And there wasn't a damn thing that Laguna could do about it. He couldn't even warn him. As for what Omer wanted with Rinoa, Laguna could guess.

She was the only living sorceress in the world, and while she hadn't threatened or harmed anyone, there were still those who remembered the evil perpetuated by Adel and others like her. Their evil was still too fresh in the minds of some to afford Rinoa any true peace and safety, which was one reason why she had stayed with Squall and aligned herself firmly with SeeD.

That action could be viewed in two ways. Some might view that as an act of submission, of placing herself "in the lion's den" as it were, so that she might be easily dealt with should she become a threat. Others might view it as a prelude to her attempt to seize power for herself, gradually subjugating the will of the SeeD Commander and taking control of the most highly trained and formidable fighting force in the world. And Rinoa had gained the powers of not one, but two sorceresses, making her perhaps the most powerful sorceress since Hyne herself. To those people, the only choice would be to eliminate the Sorceress Rinoa before that happened.

Laguna had few doubts as to which group Omer belonged to.

He had to get out of there, find a way to warn Squall and Rinoa. Unfortunately, he'd been studying the room for hours and had not as yet found a way out. He was securely locked in, there were no windows in the room, and the only way out that he knew of was down the stairs and out the way he came in. Right past Jace Omer and his men.

Laguna whispered a frustrated curse, and got up to take another tour of his rather bare room, studying it again. Inventory: one bed, one chair and table. In one wall was a doorway leading to a small bathroom. Nothing fancy, just the basics.

At least I have a bathroom here, he thought ruefully, wandering toward the room intending to make use of it.

It was while he was washing his hands, reaching for the towel to dry them, that an idea struck him. Frowning speculatively, he pulled the towel off and studied the towel rack. It was a solid wooden dowel, approximately one inch in diameter and three feet long, held firmly between two wooden brackets screwed into the wall. The drywall had, over the years, begun to deteriorate due to age and the dampness from the building's seaside location and the shower within the bathroom. As a result, the towel rack had begun to sag, the screws starting to pull out of the aged and powdery wall. It was a simple matter for Laguna to pull it out and remove the brackets from the dowel.

Hefting it, he thought it might make a pretty effective close quarters weapon, though it was a little short to be used as a quarterstaff. Still, if one of his guards came in, he might be able to make use of it and gain the man's weapon to aid in his escape. Grinning slightly, Laguna again appreciated the carefully manufactured image he had of being a carefree airhead. Being underestimated was the best weapon he had, and he planned to use it as effectively as he could.

Crossing over to the bed, he carefully hid the dowel under the edge of the mattress, within easy reach. Then he settled down to wait for one of the guards to bring him his dinner.

The attic was pitch black and choked with powdery dust and residue from aging insulation. Fujin was hard pressed not to sneeze and rubbed at her nose when it began to itch. She blinked her eye and let her outer vision fade for a moment, relying upon her link with Pandemona to get a better sense of her surroundings.

The air behind her was disturbed as Raijin, Seifer and Watts followed her into the attic, with Watts stifling a sneeze as his descent from the access ladder stirred up more dust.

When Seifer came up next to her, Fujin silently pointed toward the attic door, walking carefully in that direction. She made sure to step only on the crossbeams, since they were the only timbers in the old house that she could still be sure would bear her weight. From the sound of it, the rest of her compatriots were doing the same, with a whispered curse coming from Watts as his foot slipped and he momentarily fought for balance.

Fujin waited with Seifer at the hatchway leading down into the house proper, and they all studied it as best they could. It was a rectangle about four feet wide and five and a half feet long, with spring hinges on one side. Built into it was a ladder that folded down when the hatchway was opened. The whole affair was designed to be nearly invisible from the interior of the house. Pulling down from below, with gravity causing the ladder to unfold, opened it; making it necessary to be alert and watch one's head as it came down.

Seifer felt around until he found something that felt like a knot of rope at the end opposite the hinges, tugging on it experimentally. When it moved freely, Seifer continued to pull on it until it stopped, leaving him holding a length of rope still attached at one end to the hatchway.

"Well. We know how to close the door behind us," he whispered, then added, "let's just hope it isn't locked from the other side…"

"Hold tight." Fujin whispered harshly, squeezing her hand over the one that Seifer was gripping the rope with. It occurred to him that as dark as it was, she shouldn't have been able to see as well as she apparently did, and he puzzled over it for a moment before whispering his assurance that he would do as she requested.

Satisfied with that, Fujin crept onto the folded ladder of the hatchway until she lay prone upon it, frowning when it didn't budge as she had expected it to. Knitting her brows in concentration, Fujin studied the end that she faced, feeling frustration rise within her when she was unable to see anything clearly. She saw what looked like the rope, and a dark shape that was Seifer holding it, and she saw where it threaded through the doorway and was presumably knotted on the other side, but details eluded her, and details were what she needed most. Even Pandemona had its limits, and it could not help her in the airless dark.

Exhaling in frustration, she put her hand out and felt around for the latch she hoped she would find there. If no such latch existed, then they would have to find another way in, because that would mean that the access was locked from the inside. Schooling herself to patience, she felt around carefully, at length locating what she hoped was a latch.

Grasping it firmly, she opened it, and gasped, as the bottom seemed to drop out from under her until Seifer leaned back on the rope he was holding with a surprised grunt. Teeth gritted, he held fast, preventing her from falling headfirst into the hallway below.

Fujin waited until she was sure he had a firm grip before relaxing the hold she had on the outer sides of the opening and peeking through the slit made by the partially opened hatchway. What little Fujin could see of the hallway was dim, and she signaled to Seifer to lower her a little more so she could get a better look.

The hall ran the length of the house, with one door, closed and presumably locked about midway between the hatchway where Fujin was and the staircase at the far end. Fujin watched, tense, waiting to see if anyone would show up. Several heartbeats passed with nothing and no one arriving. Unwilling to trust that there was no danger, Fujin extended her awareness to her link with Pandemona, using its senses to augment her own.

She was about to give the all clear when she sensed movement at the far end of the house. Someone was ascending the stairs. She signaled Seifer to pull her up a little bit so that she would not be detected, and continued to watch.

The man walked casually and was carrying a tray of food. There was nothing casual however, about the automatic rifle slung over his back. The man stopped at the door and transferred the tray to one hand, fishing a set of keys out of his pocket with the other and unlocking the door.

Laguna heard the key rattle in the lock and sat up with a start, heart pounding. He hadn't intended to fall asleep, but there was nothing else for him to do but lie back on his bed and think. Quite without intending to, his mind had stilled from fatigue and he fell into a doze. Fortunately, he was a light sleeper.

Swinging his legs over, he sat on the side of the bed and waited, staring anxiously at the door as it opened and the man came in, setting the tray on the table without so much as a grunt of acknowledgment.

As the man turned to leave, Laguna acted. Swiftly retrieving his dowel, he rose and lunged toward the guard, swinging his improvised weapon in a graceful arc, connecting it solidly with the back of the man's head. The guard collapsed in a limp heap halfway through the doorway and onto his face with a solid thump.

Laguna stood over him breathing hard and beginning to shake from reaction, still holding the stick in a white knuckled grip. It wasn't over yet. He still had to get outside and the only way he knew of doing so was through the main part of the house. Through a half-dozen men at least, all armed with automatic weapons. Sure. This'll be a fucking cakewalk, he thought sarcastically.

Glancing down at his hand he saw the stick smeared with the guard's blood and flung it aside, then knelt down to remove the man's weapon and ammunition. Standing up, he checked it, noting that it had a chambered round and a full clip. Stooping down again, Laguna gathered all of the extra clips that the man had on him, shoved them into his pockets, set the rifle to auto, thumbed the safety off and cocked the bolt back with an audible click.

"Rock and roll," he whispered. Then he heard a sound behind him and whirled, firing off a round blindly.

Fujin had seen the guard slump to the ground in the doorway and tensed, watching the events unfold. As soon as she saw Laguna kneel down next to the man and remove his weapons, she had hissed, "It's Laguna! Call Squall!"

Seifer had passed the rope to Raijin; then, keying his communicator and whispering, "Squall. Laguna's here. We're going in." he cut the connection without waiting for a response.

On the other end of the communication however, Squall was swearing viciously and snapping, "Seifer's going in. Let's move it! Now!"

Fujin meanwhile had urged Raijin to lower the hatch completely and she extended the ladder, half-sliding and half descending the ladder as quietly as she could. Unfortunately, it wasn't quiet enough and Laguna whirled, snapping off a shot and narrowly missing her before he snatched the barrel of the rifle up with a gasp.

"Fujin? Where's Squall?" He asked. Fujin glared at him, ready to answer when she felt Pandemona give her a warning. Someone was approaching.

"UP! NOW!" She barked, grabbing the front of his shirt, nearly flinging him at the ladder. He needed no further urging and quickly slung the rifle over his shoulder and swarmed upward, with Fujin hard on his heels.

Squall and Rinoa raced for the front door of the house with Irvine trailing, guns out and ready. As he ran, Squall fumed at Seifer's precipitous actions, cursing him silently. He seriously considered confining Seifer to detention for insubordination when they returned to Garden. Why am I even surprised? He asked himself. This is Seifer here. It's just like him to do something like this. If he screws this up and my father dies, he's next. Squall quickly turned his thoughts away from that possibility, knowing that it would impair his efficiency if he dwelled on it. But the fear was very real, and it shocked him with its intensity. His relationship with Laguna was still somewhat distant, yet they had become friends in the time since Ultimecia. But if anyone had asked him directly what his feelings for Laguna were, he wouldn't have been able to answer. Until now. It occurred to him then that the only thing that would hurt more than losing his father would be losing Rinoa, for he loved them both. The realization that he could lose them both this very night was disquieting to say the least. Rinoa however, was right beside him where he could protect her. Laguna wasn't.

That thought lent more urgency to his strides and he drew his gunblade, flicking a quick glance to Rinoa. She nodded and cast dispel, making their weapons visible again.

Upon reaching the door, Irvine flattened himself on one side of it while Rinoa mirrored his action on the other side. Squall faced the door squarely and met both Irvine's and Rinoa's eyes. They both nodded, indicating that they were ready. Without further hesitation, Squall kicked the door in and leaped inside, gunblade singing.

Rinoa quickly cast protection spells on both Irvine and Squall, stopping the hail of bullets that Omer's men were firing at them, then cast Protect upon herself as well. Irvine had jumped into a diving roll, coming up with both guns drawn and finding a target each time he fired. Rinoa followed them inside, spells ready.

She had a quick impression of Squall, his Lionheart flashing and Irvine firing away with his Exeter, and frowned at the number of people they seemed to be fighting. The infrared scan had indicated only about three individuals on the first floor, and four on the second. Seven altogether. But there appeared to be considerably more than that fighting, and more were coming. How? She wondered, then saw the open hatchway at the far end of the room.

She flung her hands up quickly; ready to cast a sleep spell on their opponents, when a movement in her periphery caused her to jerk her head around in time to see the man lunging at her. She redirected her spellcasting, taking a step back to avoid him, but was unable to complete the spell before a pair of strong arms seized her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides while the man in front of her grabbed both wrists. Rinoa twisted, kicking back at the man holding her and trying to tug her hands free. The man holding her wrists stretched her hands outward and she saw another man approaching with what looked like a pair of bracelets in his hands. Odine bangles. Rinoa fought harder, yelling in protest as the bangles were placed upon her wrists. Then she screamed in pain, as the magic inhibiting bracelets went into effect. It burned through her mind, seeming to sear away the magic that was now her life-essence. She fought with all she had in her but as strong as she was, she still could not fight the effects of two Odine bangles. Her consciousness swirled away into blackness.

Rinoa's scream brought Squall's head snapping around in time to see her slump into the arms of one of her attackers while the other still held her wrists. Without a second thought he turned to help her, caring nothing for the men who were still attacking. Unfortunately, that distraction cost him, and he never saw the blow that sent him sprawling forward.

Irvine too had seen Rinoa's plight and also saw Squall moving to help her. Too late, he saw a man that Squall had downed struggle to his feet and grab what looked like an oar. He shouted a warning but was unable to prevent the man from smashing Squall over the head with his weapon. Then he ran out of ammunition.

Swearing, he ducked a hail of bullets as he snatched at a spare clip and realized while he did that the Protect that Rinoa had cast upon him had worn off. Slamming the clip into place, he opened fire and found two more targets. He looked wildly around and saw the two men who were holding Rinoa heading toward the trapdoor in the floor, carrying her between them. They were leaving.

"Rinoa! NO!" he yelled, rushing across the room after them. He didn't feel the first bullet hit. Nor the second. It was the third that brought him down.

Jace Omer took a satisfied drag from his cigarette as he surveyed the damage. The wounded had already been taken below to the launch that awaited them, and a guard was even now ascending to the top floor to bring President Laguna down. Bodies of the men that the SeeDs had slain lay scattered about, and Omer admired the amount of damage that just two had caused before they'd been neutralized. It was fortunate that they hadn't had a chance to call any demons or cast any magic, for he knew that there would have been no way to defeat them then. Not with the resources that Omer currently had at his disposal at any rate.

But that was one reason why he'd insisted on swiftness when training his men. SeeDs and sorceresses both needed a certain amount of time to cast their spells. By not allowing them that time and keeping the pace of the battle fast, he'd negated the advantage they had over him in their magic use.

Glancing over to the middle of the room, he saw his medic working on the two SeeDs and started over to them.

The man looked up at him as he approached and shook his head, commenting, "I'm always amazed at how young these SeeDs are. These guys can't be more than twenty, if that. And yet they're such formidable fighters."

Jace declined to answer that comment and indicated Squall and Irvine, asking, "status?"

"The gunman's dying." The medic answered flatly, then added, "He took three bullets before he went down, and it'll take surgery to save him."

"What about the other one?" Jace asked.

The medic cleared his throat and answered, "I haven't checked him over yet, but it doesn't look too bad. Head injury."

"Check him now." Jace ordered. Nodding, the man rose from his crouched position over Irvine and walked over to where Squall lay, facedown. The medic checked his pulse and the wound on the back of his head, which bled sluggishly. Satisfied from that angle, the man gently turned Squall onto his back to check him for other injuries.

"Nothing too serious…" the medic said, then lapsed into silence as he continued his examination.

Omer's eyes narrowed as he saw the SeeD's face, and he stepped closer, studying the young man with the distinctive scar. He'd seen that face before, but it took him a moment to remember who it was that was lying senseless at his feet. There was no rank insignia upon him, nothing to give away who and what he was. Nothing that is, except the pendant he wore. When Omer saw the platinum lion's head that rested upon Squall's breast, he remembered.

"Commander Leonhart. There you are…" He murmured. Then he slowly began to smile.

Turning to the medic, he ordered, "Take him below with the rest of the wounded."

As the medic moved to carry out his orders, Omer took another drag off his cigarette and frowned, staring at the stairway leading up to the room where Laguna was being held. The guard was taking too long to reappear with Loire, and Omer was getting impatient.

He had just started toward the stairway when the guard he'd sent up returned, white-faced and stammering, "M-Mr. Loire's escaped, sir!"

Laguna followed Fujin, stumbling in her wake as she almost literally dragged him through the close darkness of the attic. He was amazed at her ability to move around in the thick darkness, for he couldn't see a thing. As they stumbled around in the dark, below them, all Hell seemed to break loose. The sharp reports of gunfire lent wings to their feet as they hurried out of the house, with Seifer shouting into his mic, "Squall, we've got him! He's out! Give us a few minutes to get clear and get the Hell out yourself!" Someone grabbed his arm in a firm grip and kept him from falling as they raced through the attic as fast as they dared.

They reached a square in the roof that showed star-studded darkness and allowed the freshness of the sea air in. A hulking shape next to him boosted Fujin up and she clambered out, grabbing hands and helping to pull two others and him out and onto the roof. Two of the forms gave a hand each to the remaining individual and pulled him out of the attic as well.

The tallest of the rescuers, which Laguna immediately recognized as Seifer by his arrogant stance, stood apart and touched something, speaking softly into it. Everyone else paused and watched, and Laguna frowned in confusion, wondering why they weren't hightailing it out of there as fast as they could. Laguna began to approach, intending to remind Seifer that they needed to be scarce, and quickly.

Seifer touched whatever it was again, talking a little louder this time. Then he paused, listening intently. Shaking his head, he swore in frustration, turning just as Laguna approached.

"Look, thanks for helping me get outta there and all, but I really think we should get going…" Laguna began, then he rocked to a halt when he got close enough to get a good look at his rescuer's grim expression.

"Seifer?" He asked, feeling a sudden chill.

Seifer nodded, "that would be me."

"Where's Squall?"

Seifer shook his head, answering, "I'm not getting an answer from him. That ruckus downstairs was his doing. He was creating a diversion so we could get you out clean, but I didn't get a response when I told him we were out."

Laguna stared at Seifer, frozen. Then he noticed that the gunfire had stopped.

"Squall…" He whispered. Then, setting his jaw, he grabbed Seifer's sweater and demanded roughly, "we have to help him!"

Seifer shook his head, his gaze hard and implacable, "Squall would have my hide if I let you go down there into a hail of bullets."

"He could be hurt! Dying! You can't just leave him!" Laguna shouted.

"We aren't leaving him!" Seifer retorted, adding, "but you are." Turning to Watts, Seifer tossed his communicator to him and ordered, "call Selphie for pickup, and make sure that Laguna doesn't follow us. Fujin, Raijin, let's go."

Laguna intercepted him, grabbing his arm again and snarling, "I will NOT leave my son in danger! I'm going down there with you!" Seifer spun and planted a fist firmly into Laguna's jaw, sending him crashing to the gravelly surface of the rooftop.

"The hell you are." Seifer turned and stalked away, leaving Laguna lying flat on the rooftop. Laguna wiped at the blood trickling down from his split lip, and climbed dazedly to his feet. Damn, he thought, that kid's got a hell of a punch.

Laguna watched The Posse go back down into the hatchway they'd just climbed out of, face set and arms crossed over his chest. Hearing Watts calling Selphie, Laguna turned and watched him as he told her where they were.

Once finished with his conversation, Watts met his eyes and said apologetically, "Sorry sir, but we can't allow you to get yourself killed."

Laguna gritted his teeth and growled, "I used to be a soldier. I'm still pretty good in a fight…"

"Beggin' your pardon sir, but you're not a soldier anymore. You're the President of Esthar, and we have to bring you back to Esthar alive." Watts replied, then took packet out of his pocket, opening it and shaking a little bit of its contents out into the palm of his hand.

Laguna frowned in confusion as Watts stepped closer, bringing the hand up to his face.

"I'm sorry to do this to you Mr. President, but I don't think I have much choice." Watts said.

Worried, Laguna asked, "What are you…?" Then he was hit with a cloud of dust as Watts took a deep breath and blew the sleeping powder he held in his hand into Laguna's face.

Fujin followed Seifer back down into the house in grim silence, already suspecting what Seifer had yet to discover. There was no hint of movement from the floors below, no indication that anything still lived. Anyone left on the bottom floors of this building were not moving or breathing…in short they were dead. Based upon what her GF-augmented senses told her, at any rate. Like Seifer, she had to see it herself before she'd believe that Squall, Irvine and Rinoa were all dead.

The top floor of the house was eerily empty and still, the man that Laguna had knocked senseless long gone. Fujin and the rest of her companions nevertheless moved cautiously as they searched the building for any sign of their compatriots, checking the second floor briefly but not expecting to find anyone there. They already knew that most of the fighting had been confined to the first floor.

When they reached it, they all stood in silent shock as they saw the carnage.

Raijin was the first to break the silence as he asked in a barely audible voice, "I thought there were only s'posed to be like, seven or so people here, ya know?"

"WRONG" Fujin croaked.

"Obviously," Seifer said absently. There were easily twice that many bodies littered about, all of them ominously still.

Seifer scanned the room, mind ticking over everything that he saw, and he frowned for a moment as Raijin asked tentatively, "But how? The thermal scans, ya know? They're hard to fool…" His voice trailed off.

"COLD." Said Fujin. Seifer and Raijin traded a grim glance before returning their attention to the room. As they did, Fujin closed her eye as she felt a stirring of air, homing in on it. Opening her eye again, she found herself facing a darkened corner of the room with what looked like an open trapdoor. She slowly threaded her way through the room, avoiding the dead without really seeing them as she approached the trapdoor. After a moment, Seifer and Raijin followed, fanning out in unspoken accord to search for their fallen comrades.

A breath of cold air wafting up through the open door confirmed Fujin's suspicion of how the ambush had defied detection by infrared, but she hunkered down and peered into the opening anyway. The light shining from the opening glittered upon ice crystals that crusted the pilings beneath the house, and a ladder leading down to the water below told Fujin how Omer and his men had escaped. She was just standing up to catch Seifer's eye when Raijin gave an urgent summons.

"Seifer! Fujin! C'mere, quick!" Raijin was kneeling next to a bloodied form that Fujin recognized with a stab of ice as Irvine as she drew closer. Seifer hurried over and they both knelt down next to Raijin, who quickly closed his eyes and cast a Cure spell.

"Raijin," Seifer began, intending to caution him against hope, for at first glance, Irvine appeared all but dead.

Raijin interrupted him, "He's alive. Just barely, and if we'd been slower, he wouldna made it, ya know?"

"Thank Hyne for Cure spells," Seifer murmured.

A moan and cough answered him and Irvine managed faintly, "Thank her for helping my GF learn Auto-Potion while you're at it."

It took several Cure spells before Irvine was Healed enough to tell them what had happened. He sat, stiff and uncomfortable in his blood soaked clothing, and relayed the events as they'd entered the home to be surprised by double the number of highly trained fighters. The ambush was executed swiftly and efficiently, and it was obvious that Rinoa had been the target from the first.

He sighed in relief to learn that Laguna had been transported out safely, asking, "So our next move is finding Squall and Rinoa, right?"

"Right." Seifer confirmed. Then he asked, "I don't suppose that you stayed conscious long enough to learn anything about where Omer was taking them, did you?" Irvine shook his head and Seifer sighed, "Well, it was worth a shot…" Irvine shifted suddenly and surged to his feet, swaying slightly before regaining his balance.

"We gotta find them. Fast. I don't know what this Omer guy wanted Rinoa for, but I got a really bad feeling about it." He bent down and picked up his guns, checking the clips on them before holstering them and searching the room for other weapons and ammo. Raijin and Fujin watched him silently for a moment, then Raijin stood and hitched his quarterstaff on his back, turning to face Seifer in an attitude of readiness.

"He's right, ya know? We gotta find 'em." He said.

Seifer nodded agreement, then asked, "Any ideas of how? It's obvious that they left by sea, which means there's no trail to follow and no way of tracking them. We don't even have a direction, do we Fuj?"

Fujin shook her head. She had tried scanning with Pandemona's help, and had discovered that there was a limit to her range, and Omer had had enough of a lead that he was outside of it.

Irvine meanwhile, had been examining all of the discarded weapons and checking their magazines, keeping the ones that looked to be useful, and filling his pockets with the clips from guns that matched his own. He picked up and examined an Estharian gunblade before grimacing at its bizarre design and tossing it aside. Eventually he worked his way over to the place he'd seen Squall go down, and he paused. He didn't want to look, but at the same time, he needed to. So he did.

All that was left was a congealing puddle of blood and a gunblade. Squall's gunblade. Irvine sucked in a breath and blinked his eyes, shoving aside the emotions that assailed him so that he could think objectively. The blood left behind had to be Squall's but it wasn't a great deal, so Irvine had hope that his injury was relatively minor. He picked up the gunblade and studied it. The glowing, blue-white surface of the blade was dimmed and crusted with blood, but there were still some bullets in the chamber. Fortunately, it used the same caliber of bullet as his Exeter did, and Irvine had a few slugs on hand that would serve nicely. Scanning the area again, he noticed little else of import, so he busied himself with cleaning off Lion Heart, being careful of its razor edge, then shouldered the gunblade, finally tuning into the discussion that was currently going on.

Irvine looked up from his scrounging and suggested, "Tracking codes."

"What?" Seifer frowned, then blinked as he remembered Squall giving each member of the team a code that he had entered into the Ragnarok's main computer.

"Right. Irvine, get Selphie and see if she can track Squall and Rinoa's signals. Raijin, Fujin, let's see if we can find a fast boat."

Seifer headed for the door, but was brought up short when Irvine asked, "Who died and made you boss?"

Seifer turned and studied Irvine's belligerent attitude in silence before answering coolly, "Nobody. Yet." Raijin and Fujin fell in beside him as he strode from the room, Irvine staring after him, trying to shake off the chill that parting shot had left him with.

Irvine had just finished his call to Selphie, who was by turns relieved at learning he was alive and upset at hearing of Squall and Rinoa's abduction, and was getting ready to call Seifer when he heard the sound of a motor. Tracking the sound to its source led him to the still open trapdoor, underneath which he found Seifer and his Posse, apparently waiting for him. He tossed down the extra rifles he'd grabbed, waiting until Raijin had stowed them before shouldering Squall's gunblade, patting his pockets for the extra clips of ammo he'd acquired, and climbing down the ladder into the darkness beyond. He leaped off the final rung without comment, landing solidly into the waiting boat.

He had just enough time to get his balance before Fujin gunned the motor and the boat took off, forcing him to sit down quickly or risk losing his head to the low crossbeams supporting the wharf above. They threaded through the pilings, still gleaming with ice crystals, with Fujin piloting the sleek craft as fast as she dared.

From the seat next to him, Seifer, speaking loudly so as to be heard over the boat's motor, asked Irvine, "Was Selphie able to track Squall and Rinoa?"

"Yeah, she was, luckily." Irvine answered.

"Give Fujin the coordinates." Seifer ordered. Irvine glared at him briefly before leaning forward and passing along the information. Seifer sighed at that brief glimpse of animosity, for it could make things very difficult indeed if Irvine decided to challenge anything Seifer said or did. For now at least, he seemed to have accepted Seifer's leadership, albeit grudgingly; he hoped that Irvine kept in mind their common goal and left his personal issues out of it.

Fujin nodded to show that she'd heard Irvine, and as soon as they reached open water, she called back over her shoulder, "HOLD ON!" Pale, slender fingers flew over the instrument panel as Fujin keyed in the coordinates Irvine had given her. Then she punched the throttle button. The speedboat leaped forward, twin geysers of water rising up in its wake as the sharp prowed craft skimmed over the waves.

Part II

Pain. Darkness and pain. Awareness returned gradually. Sound; a droning engine. Touch; a cold, hard, rough surface. And pain. Always the pain. It seemed to originate in, around, and through his head, throbbing with his heartbeat, pressing on the inner surface of his skull. He tried moving slightly, and couldn't suppress a groan as the pain sharpened to the point that his stomach began to roil. He took a deep breath and concentrated on NOT moving. He didn't bother with trying to open his eyes.

Then he forced his sluggish, pain-wracked mind to do a self-assessment, concluding that the pain was mostly in the cranial region. He tried to think about what had happened, tried to remember...something. Something important. But he was being smothered by a dark, murky fog that was sucking him down. He was so tired. So very, tired. If he could just sleep, the pain would go away... then, voices.

"He's been out a long time"

"Check him." Hands. Touching him.

"Heartbeat's solid. Pressure seems ok."

Light. Blinding him. Then darkness again. He groaned.

"Pupils are reacting."

"Sounds like he's starting to come around."

"Commander Leonhart. You need to wake up now."

Slowly, Squall opened his eyes. Darkness, still. But he could make out details, gradiations of dimness which confirmed that he COULD still see. A hand touched him, and he turned his head to see who it was. He immediately regretted it. He closed his eyes, and waited for the pain to subside.

"Head hurt?" Squall had no idea who the person was who'd spoken, but he appeared to be a medic of some sort. He almost nodded in answer to the man's question, then stopped himself.

"Yes." He answered. The medic nodded.

"Can you try to sit up?" the medic asked. Squall shrugged. He'd rather not. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he might throw up if he did. The man reached a hand out and gently moved Squall's head to the side and proceeded to examine the bloodied wound on the back of his head.

"It looks superficial, no obvious fracture of the skull, but the cut could use a couple of stitches to hold it together. Are you feeling any dizziness, nausea?"

"Yes." Squall answered.

"Concussion. A bad one, it looks like." the medic confirmed. Squall thought as much. How bad, however, remained to be seen. Suddenly, pain stabbed through his head again as the medic began to clean the wound. Squall couldn't suppress a weak curse as his stomach began to rebel in ernest while the fog threatened to smother him. The next few moments were pure torture for him as the wound was cleansed, then stitched, without benefit of any pain relief. Squall stoically bore it, refusing to even ask, while at the same time worrying that he might lose consciousness again or worse, throw up after all.

"Sorry for the lack of medication, I'm sure you'd like something for the pain, but I'm afraid I don't have any local anesthesia on hand, and anything else would be too risky." the medic explained.

Mercifully, the torture stopped and was replaced by a cool, damp cloth. Squall sighed in relief as the pain subsided to a dull, pounding ache.

"I know this will be awful for you, but I need you to sit up now, if you can." the medic said, then gripping his hand, tugged gently upright. Gritting his teeth, Squall used that grip to slowly leverage himself into a sitting position. He swayed, and the medic helped him lean back, careful of his injury, against a hard surface. A wall? He didn't know. It was metal, and it was cold, that much he could tell. His head spun and he swallowed hard against the sudden nausea. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths, and felt a cold sweat starting. He wondered dimly if he was going into shock, and found it hard to care much about it.

"Commander." a voice said. It sounded familiar. Squall opened his eyes.

"Omer." He observed flatly. The man facing him squatted on his heels, nearly face- to- face with him. They studied each other intently, Squall with remote calm, Omer with hard to conceal satisfaction.

"For once, the rumors I've heard about you were accurate. Very impressive. I think you alone accounted for nearly a dozen of my men." He stated. Squall waited, impassive. Eventually, the man would tell him what he wanted or give some kind of hint on what kind of game he was playing. Unfortunately, in his current concussed state, Squall didn't feel very sharp, mentally. So he simply waited.

"No comment? Well, you aren't known to be overly talkative." Omer watched the young SeeD commander closely. He didn't look very impressive, or threatening at the moment. He leaned back against the bulkhead of the boat he was on, pale and glassy-eyed. Blood crusted his hair and the back of his neck where the medic hadn't cleaned him up. A sheen of sweat added to his waxy complexion and as he watched, the young man shivered. Omer looked over at the medic.

"He's going into shock. We need to warm him up." He stated. Omer nodded. The medic left to get a blanket and warming packs. His young prisoner looked confused.

"I need you alive Commander Leonhart. I just lost a large number of men to capture both you and the Sorceress Rinoa. After all that effort, I would hate to lose you to a head injury." Omer continued watching Squall, and at the mention of the Sorceress' name, his focus sharpened.

"The sorceress is alive, and unharmed. For the moment." Omer's careful scrutiny was rewarded when he caught a glimpse of the first real emotion that he'd ever seen on the young man's face. Anger. So, apparently, those rumors were also true.

The medic returned with the blankets and warming packs, along with a small pillow to cushion Squall's head from the hard floor. Omer left the man to his work, satisfied when the medic checked his patient's blood pressure and nodded. Omer left to confer with his navigator. They would be reaching their rendezvous point soon, and he needed to make sure everything was in order.

"Drink this." The medic held a vial of liquid to Squall's lips. He hoped it might be something for the pain that still thundered in his skull. Still, he hesitated until the man assured him it was nothing more than pain medication. Then he gratefully drank it down.

"You need to rest, but we'll have to wake you at one hour intervals, to make sure you don't lapse into a coma. Here," the medic gently eased him back down onto the floor, making sure his head was cushioned and arranging the blankets and warming packs until he was sure Squall was comfortable. Or, at least as comfortable as possible given his current situation.

Squall for his part, lay limply on the floor, trying to think around the dull ache in his head. They had Rinoa. And him. And Jace Omer hated sorceresses. Despite his dulled faculties, it didn't take much to deduce that whatever Omer's intentions toward he and Rinoa were, they weren't good.

He wished he had a cure spell but unfortunately, he'd given them all to Rinoa. She was the strongest magic user among them, so they were more effective when she cast them. For the moment, he had to remain a prisoner. At least until he was physically able to change that.

Number one rule in the event of capture: always attempt escape. If escape is impossible, the next option is suicide. If tortured, only give name and rank, Squall thought, falling back on his training. He'd been tortured before. While not something he wanted a repeat of, ever, he knew how to deal with it. His first action then, as soon as he was able, would be to work on an escape plan. Not just for himself, but Rinoa also. At the moment though, he was very, very tired and his battered body craved sleep. He fought it long enough to make sure the tiny communicator he had hidden under his shirt collar was still on. It was a stroke of luck that the blow to his head had not knocked it to the floor, instead, it had fallen to his shoulder and slipped under his shirt. He hoped that he and Rinoa could be tracked by his companions. His thoughts stilled as fatigue and injury smothered them and he slipped into sleep.

It was a short while later that the boat containing Squall, Rinoa, and Jace Omer and his adherents, arrived at the abandoned drilling platform where it would meet up with a larger, faster vessel.

Jace Omer and his medic shook Squall awake as the boat bumped against the pilings of the platform. The medic pulled him to his feet, and Squall staggered, unable to get his balance. The medic supported him on one side, while another man held him up from the other side. Squall simply concentrated on staying upright and not puking on his shoes. As they walked him from the boat to the dock, he smelled oil and recognized the location as one of the many abandoned drilling platforms that dotted the ocean between Esthar and Centra.

When the Lunar Cry had devastated Centra so many years ago the platforms had been abandoned. They had languished for a century or more, rusting and falling apart, until Estharian and Galbadian salvagers and wildcatters had begun investigating and in some cases, reactivating the ones that appeared to still be useable. That was the reason that Squall had chosen that for his team's cover. It wouldn't have incited comment among the fishermen and mechanics among the residents of Fisherman's Horizon.

Squall stumbled along, trying to avoid moving his head around too much, when he heard a gasp.

"Squall!" He looked up and saw Rinoa, struggling to free herself from the guards that held her. At length, she broke free and launched herself at him, grabbing him around the waist and weeping into his chest. He swayed but managed to keep his feet, then pulled his arms free and wrapped them around her, closing his eyes and resting his head atop hers for a moment. He held her tightly for as long as he was able, but it was not long enough. Her guards pulled her away from him and they were both urged to board a large, dark-painted ship. As they pulled away from the dock, Squall remembered hearing a soft plink as something small and metallic had dropped to the dock before Rinoa was pulled away.

"Selphie, can you read me?" Irvine broadcast. He, Seifer, Fujin and Raijin were still traveling along the trace they'd found, but the launch they were using was not suited for open sea, and they were running low on fuel. So Seifer had had Fujin throttle back and directed Irvine to contact Selphie for a pick-up.

A crackling in his earpiece preceded Selphie's response, "I read you. What's your status?"

"We've tracked the boat into open sea, and we're low on fuel. We need a pickup." Irvine responded.

"What's your coordinates?" Selphie's disembodied voice asked. Irvine looked over at Seifer.

"We need coordinates for our location." Seifer nodded and consulted his compass, then passed the information to Irvine. Irvine in turn gave them to Selphie.

"She should be here in a few minutes."Irvine reported. Seifer nodded. At a glance from him, Fujin cut the throttle on the boat. Instantly, the silence pressed in on them. No one seemed inclined to break it, not even the normally chatty Raijin. They bobbed on the surface of the ocean, the only sound the slap of the water against the hull of their boat, and waited for Selphie and the Ragnarok to arrive.

At length, the distinctive roar of the craft alerted them to its arrival, and it hovered, the downdraft of its engines buffeting them. Four lines with harnesses attached dropped down into the boat and they all strapped in and snugged up their lines. When everyone was securely fastened, Irvine gave Selphie the go ahead to retract the lines.

As they came into view of the cargo hold, Seifer was surprised to see a detachment of Estharian soldiers aboard, helping to bring them into the craft. He thanked them and as Irvine and the others were brought in and divested themselves of their rappelling gear, went forward to where Selphie sat at the controls of the ship.

"What's with the soldiers?" he asked her.

"Laguna's idea," she replied. As Irvine joined them, she added, "He felt we could use the backup." Seifer nodded.

"They might come in handy at that," Irvine drawled. Selphie turned around with a grin to greet him which quickly changed to horror as she saw his bloodstained clothing.

"Irvy!" she leaped to her feet.

Irvine grasped her shoulders, "I'm ok Sef, I got Healed before the damage became permanent."

"You're sure you're ok?" she asked, worried.

"I woudn't be standing here talking to you if I wasn't. Go on, get back to piloting the ship. I'll give you the heading we were following before you picked us up. With the Ragnarok, we should be hot on their heels in no time" Irvine gently steered her back to her original position, and relayed the coordinates and the direction they'd been traveling. Giving her a quick kiss on the top of her head, Irvine turned away to see Seifer watching the exchange. His expression cooled.

"We need to have a talk, cowboy" Seifer said, then turned and made his way aft to one of the conference rooms on the airship, beckoning for Irvine to follow him.

Closing the door, he said, "I know you don't like me, and I know why. You don't have to like me to work with me. I'm on your side this time, believe it or not, and I want to get Squall and Rinoa back as much as you do." Irvine snorted in disbelief. Seifer glared angrily at him.

"Can we at least agree that we don't have time for a pissing contest right at the moment?" He snapped.

Irvine studied him in silence for a moment before saying flatly, "as long as I don't have to watch my back around you, I'll work with you. Just don't go assuming you're the one in charge here."

"Well, then who is?" Seifer demanded, "who's the ranking SeeD here?"

Seifer had been expecting Irvine to name himself, which would have been logical, since he'd been a SeeD for longer than Seifer himself had. The actual answer however, surprised him.

"Selphie is." Irvine replied. Seifer stared.

"Selphie?" he repeated, incredulous.

"Don't underestimate her Seifer." Irvine said, adding, "she made SeeD with the same class that Squall did. They passed the same field exam. She even outranks me, since I didn't make SeeD until about a year ago, and that was by special dispensation. I never had the chance to take a field exam. And besides all of that, she's scary smart." Seifer shook his head.

"So, any rescue mission would be under her command. Including all of those Estharian soldiers." Seifer stated.

"That's right," Irvine confirmed. Seifer was a little nonplussed. He'd never considered Selphie to be any kind of a leader. She just flew the big ship. Then again, he'd never had the chance to really see her in action.

Seifer sighed, "well, then I guess we'd better go ask her what our orders are." Irvine's jaw dropped.

"That's it? No argument?" he asked.

Seifer frowned, "Look, I'm trying here. I can't promise I'll be a perfect robot and follow all orders to the letter, but I'm a full SeeD now, so I'll do my best."

He turned and headed for the door, then paused, asking, "do you think she's up for this?"

Irvine gave him a level look and said firmly, "yes, I do."

As they left the conference room, Irvine headed back toward his room to clean up, while Seifer shrugged and headed forward to where Selphie still piloted the ship. Raijin and Fujin had gone to their respective rooms to also clean up, rest, and prepare themselves in case they managed to find Squall and Rinoa and needed to spring into action at a moment's notice. Seifer too, suddenly felt both grimy and hungry, adrenaline having long since faded from his system. So thinking, he altered his route toward the galley, hunting for something to eat first, deciding that was his most pressing need at the moment.

He was just finishing up a sandwich when Selphie's voice over the intercom said, "Irvine, Seifer, Fujin and Raijin, I need you all in the cockpit please." Shrugging, he headed forward.

Raijin trotted to catch up to him, while Fujin simply gilded along. Irvine joined them just before they made it to the front of the ship. Selphie had the Ragnarok hovering over what looked like a derelict drilling platform, scanning it inch by inch with the ship's spotlight.

"The tracking signal for Rinoa stops here, but Squall's is still moving. I need you guys to go down and check it out." Selphie said absently, scanning the ground intently before coming upon what looked like a helipad. Biting her lip in concentration, she carefully landed the Ragnarok on it. A low creak made everyone gulp nervously.

"You might want to make that a quick look around," she added, then turned the pilot's chair around and ordered, "Irvine, I want you to take a team of the Estharian soldiers with you, same with you Seifer, both of you will cover more ground in separate teams. Radio immediately if you find anything." Irvine grinned flirtatiously at her and gave her a salute and a wink, causing Selphie to giggle. Seifer simply saluted and tried not to feel like he'd fallen down a rabbit hole. Raijin and Fujin simply stared at her like she'd grown a new head.

Seifer and his team, which included Fujin and Raijin, disembarked and immediately started scanning the derelict platform, Seifer hoping that he wouldn't find Rinoa there. The stationary signal could mean that the communicator had simply been dropped and left behind...or its wearer had been.

"So, how does Selphie get ta give the orders? I don't get it," Rajin asked, confused. Fujin simply snorted.

"Well, it turns out she's the ranking SeeD on this trip with Squall and Rinoa out of the picture," Seifer explained.

"Huh," mused Raijin.

"WEIRD." said Fujin.

"Got that right," Seifer mumbled. He kept sweeping the area with the receiver, following the signal as it strengthened. The soldiers around him kept a watchful eye out for anything out of the ordinary, as did Raijin and Fujin.

For her part, Fujin contacted Pandemona, and it showed her that nothing else lived on the abandoned platform. She spared a brief flash of concern that the communicator might still be on Rinoa's person...and that what they'd find would be her body. Fortunately, what they finally found instead was the communicator alone..and a short distance away, a ring.

Seifer studied the ring intently, knowing right away that first of all, it was Rinoa's, as was the commuincator, and that it had likely been deliberately dropped. A loud creak sounded right underneath his feet just as he started to radio what he'd found to Selphie.

"All teams! Back to the Ragnarok NOW! The platform is too unstable for us to be here any longer!" her voice said urgently over their earpieces. They all pelted toward the ship, with another, louder creak, a loud clank and a shudder underfoot illustrating that the century-old platform was beginning to collapse.

Selphie had already lifted the Ragnarok up from the helipad it had been sitting on, and it hovered just a foot or two above the surface. Seifer was honestly impressed with her piloting skills. The access ramp had been left down, so they could still jump up onto it and run into the ship. Once the last person had boarded, the ramp was immediately brought up and the door closed. As the Ragnarok screamed away, Seifer saw the platform tilt, the large supports underneath it falling off to splash into the ocean. It didn't collapse completely, but Seifer knew that it wouldn't be too long before it did.

They traveled in silence for a few moments, with Selphie tapping away intently on the controls of the ship. Apparently satisfied with whatever it was she was doing, she sighed, then turned around.

"Did you guys find anything?" she asked.

"We found the communicator. And a ring." Seifer answered. He handed it out to her. Selphie bit her lip, and took the ring gently from him. It was a tiny replica of Squall's Griever ring, with emerald eyes set in the tiny lionlike face.

"Rinoa's." She said, gulping. "You didn't, um, find anything else?"

Seifer looked over at Irvine, who shook his head.

"No. If she'd been left there, she'd have been dead. There wasn't anything alive on that platform. I don't think she's dead though, I think she's alive, and I think she dropped that ring deliberately." Seifer said.

"Well, no matter how fast a ship they're on, it can't outrun the Ragnarok. We'll be on 'em in no time." Irvine said. Selphie nodded. She was counting on it. When Irvine had told her that she was the ranking SeeD aboard the Ragnarok and was therefore in charge of the rescue mission, she had a moment of pure panic. To find that not only Irvine but Seifer had, albeit grudgingly, accepted and even supported her leadership, helped to bolster her confidence. It also steeled her resolve to find Squall and Rinoa as soon as possible.

Jace Omer stood in the bridge of the big black vessel as it sped toward its destination. The success of his plans depended mainly upon speed. No matter how fast his ship was, the SeeDs had the Ragnarok, the fastest airship in the skies. His one advantage was time. He had a head start on them, and intended to keep it. Once he got to Centra, they'd never find him. The ship's captain steered it unerringly toward its destination, and he estimated that they'd arrive within the next few hours. They just had to stay ahead of the SeeD dragonship.

Once they reached their destination however, that was when he could put his real plans into motion. With the most powerful, indeed, only sorceress alive on the planet under his control, along with her beloved knight, his plan couldn't fail. The Odine bangles would keep her tractable, but Omer planned to use Squall as additional leverage to gain Rinoa's cooperation. He knew he played a dangerous game, and had worried that what he'd heard about their relationship had been exaggeration, Leonhart's coldness being well-known. If Squall's anger at Rinoa's capture hadn't been clue enough however, the embrace he'd witnessed before they boarded his ship dispelled all doubts. In all of Omer's studies of the histories, particularly those of the sorceresses, one telling fact leaped out at him: most of the "good" sorceresses had enjoyed stable relationships with their knights, often marrying them and living long, happy, and peaceful lives. Those who didn't have a knight, or had knights which had died by violence or worse, had weak, selfish natures, those sorceresses had turned into monsters who'd wrought terrible destruction before they had been killed, or at least in one case, committed suicide. That sorceress had been so devoted to her knight, that she'd gone mad at his death, eventually destroying herself, and nearly the entire world as well.

The knight is the key, thought Omer. Control the knight, and you control the sorceress.

Rinoa sat huddled on the bunk in the small room she'd been given, arms wrapped around her legs, chin resting atop her knees, staring forlornly around the tiny space. She had a bathroom at least, and they hadn't tied her up, but with the hated Odine bangles on both of her wrists, they didn't need to. She was completely powerless. She blinked moisure from her already red-rimmed eyes, not wanting to start crying again. It only made her feel worse. After being torn away from Squall however, she'd wept bitterly, not only for herself but for him as well. He'd been pale, unsteady on his feet and partially supported by his captors, and the crusted blood at the back of his head had her frightened for him. She was unable to Heal him, and she didn't know if he was getting any medical attention at all. She knew how dangerous even an apparently minor head injury could be.

Restlessly, she tried the door, confirming for the dozenth time that it was still locked, then studied the bangles on her wrists. They had DNA locks. Only the person whose DNA had been encoded into the lock could open it. The irony of the bangles were their beauty. They were made of gold and platinum, accented with diamonds and rubies. They looked like expensive, if somewhat gaudy, jewelry. Rinoa sighed, and looked over at a tiny table which had her dinner sitting on top of it, getting cold. She wasn't hungry, even though her inability to access or even sense magic had left her feeling curiously empty.

It's the Guardians, she thought. The bangles inhibit all magic, even the Guardian Force magics. It must have driven them away. She sighed, and started picking at her cold dinner. She still had to eat, even with the knots in her stomach. She had to stay strong, and healthy. She needed to find a way out, and had to be at her best since she couldn't use magic to do it.

At length she grew tired from sheer boredom, and lay down upon the bunk, falling asleep within moments.

Squall was awakened again, for the umpteenth time, by the overly concientious medic shining a penlight into his eyes. His head ached fiercely and he wished wholeheartedly for a cure spell, but had to instead content himself with the potion the medic gave him, which while making the pain manageable, did not stop it completely. He had no idea how long he'd been stuck in the tiny room he was in, his headache made it hard to think, much less plan, and he couldn't even hear his Guardians. He suspected his injury was to blame, since he could still sense their presences. The only clear thought he could focus upon was escape. But how to do that when he could barely stand was beyond him at the moment.

"So far Mr. Leonhart, you appear to be stable. Without any scans to be sure, I'd say that with enough rest and time, you'll be back to normal," the medic said.

"Squall." his patient responded.

"What?" asked the medic, confused.

"My name." Squall enunciated clearly.

"You prefer that?" the medic asked.

Squall hesitated, almost nodding silently before he remembered his headache, and instead answered, "yes."

"Well then, Squall, is there anything you need? Are you hungry or thirsty? I'd like to see if you could take some water at least," the medic suggested. At his suggestion, Squall thought he could at least drink some water.

He was thirsty, so he answered laconically, "Ok, water then." The medic nodded, and left to get a cup of water for him, privately wondering if the young man had a speech impairment or if he simply wasn't very talkative. Of course, being injured and held prisoner doesn't tend to make a person very talkative anyway, and being a mercenary commander, albeit a very young one, makes keeping mum a very wise idea, all things considered.

When the medic left, Squall made a concerted effort and sat up, immediately regretting it as his head spun and insides churned. He'd been injured before, but not concussed, and usually a handy cure spell put things right. Being injured for a protracted amount of time was not something Squall cared for. He waited it out, closing his eyes and breathing deeply until the spinning stablized somewhat and his stomach settled. The medic returned a short time later and silently handed Squall a cup of water. Squall drank it down, feeling better despite his queasiness.

The medic watched him intently, asking "is there anything else that you need?"

"No." Squall responded. He was still tired, and being awakened hourly did not make for a restful sleep.

"Well, let me know if you need help or anything. Just press this buzzer here," the medic indicated a button on the wall near the bunk. With that final bit of information, the medic left, hopefully for the final time that night. Squall realized he must be in the ship's sickbay. He sat on the edge of the bunk, momentarily undecided on what to do next. He WANTED sleep, but he also needed to get up, visit the bathroom, and explore the tiny room. He managed his first order of business, swaying and cursing under his breath, and managed the second with relatively little difficulty. The third however, Squall decided to leave that until after he'd had a bit more sleep and was thinking a little more coherently.

He made his way back to the bunk, noticing that his jacket and boots had already been removed, but thankfully nothing else had been. He was content to sleep in his clothing, pausing only to undo his belts and noticing only then that his gunblade and all his other weapons and ammunition were gone. He grimaced at that complication but didn't really think his captors would have been stupid enough to leave him armed, injured or not. Dropping his belts on the floor, he carefully lay back onto the bunk and pulled the blanket over himself.

The dull ache in his head, muted by the medicine he'd been given, distracted him from simply dropping off to sleep, and Squall's mind instinctively reached for a spot in his mind which had been very quiescent of late. The pain seemed to intensify, but he fought past it and touched his Guardian, Shiva.

Master, she chimed, you are hurt. I was so worried when you could not hear me.

I know, he answered. It hurts to talk like this, but I had to try.

But why? This may make your injury worse, will it not? she answered, concerned.

Do you remember the healing spell I taught you? he asked her, hoping. Her eager affirmative sent a flare of pain through his skull, but he ignored it.

Please try it now Shiva. If you can heal me...he began, then stopped. How do you reward an entity that exists in a separate reality? He wondered.

Suddenly, he felt a tingling in the back of his head and had a mental vision of the ice goddess weaving an intricate pattern of cool blue energy and gracefully wafting it toward him. The pain gradually faded away until it was gone entirely. Squall sighed in relief.

Thank you Shiva, I'd almost forgotten I'd taught you that. You're a lifesaver. He said, praising her.

Warmth and happiness pulsed down the link between them, as Shiva responded, I am glad I was able to help. Sleep well master. You must rest.

Squall agreed and immediately dropped into a deep, restorative sleep.

Selphie's fingers flew nimbly over the keyboard in front of her, making minute adjustments in trajectory as she unerringly chased the signal that Squall's communicator still emitted. Her face a mask of concentration, she pushed the throttle lever up to maximum, the engines of the dragonship responding with a roar as it streaked through the night. Keeping a close eye on both the locator signal and the instruments, while simultaneously watching the sea beneath her, looking for anything, was a truly impressive feat, one that Selphie perfomed flawlessly.

In the darkest watch of the night, on the darkest stretch of the ocean, the Ragnarok screamed toward its target, overshooting it as the boat was painted black and difficult to see.

But the locator signal's strength had intensified briefly as they overflew the ship, then weakened as they went past. Immediately Selphie put the dragonship into a high-g roll, ignoring the suprised curses of her passsengers, turning the aircraft back the way they'd come, slowing down to better track the signal. It strengthened again as they drew closer, then suddenly, inexplicably, ceased. Uncharacteristically, Selphie banged on the arm of the pilot's chair, cursing in frustration. She circled the area where she'd seen the boat and detected the signal just seconds before, but both were gone, as if they'd never been. She kept scanning the sea, training the floodlights from the Ragnarok down onto it, but saw nothing. No ship, no signal, nothing. The others looked too, but the only thing anyone saw was what appeared to be a whale swimming just beneath the surface of the ocean.

Discouraged, Selphie tapped in the coordinates for Esthar and turned on the autopilot. They had to refuel and regroup before they could continue the search. She dejectedly relayed her failure to President Loire, fighting tears the whole time. It didn't help that she heard tears in Laguna's voice as well.

It was the last watch of the night and Omer was restless. Unable to sleep, he decided to head for the bridge and check to see if all was well with the ship. As he reached the bridge, he heard a distant scream which rapidly grew louder until he could see the lights of the airship bearing down upon them with close to supersonic speed. A stroke of luck for him however was the fact that the speed at which the aircraft was traveling made fast changes in direction nearly impossible. As the distant scream intensified to a deafening roar, Omer leaped into the bridge and hit the alarm alerting everyone to batten down, get below decks and prepare to dive. Immediately a mad scramble on the decks began as men began preparing the ship. Omer counted the seconds it would take for the Ragnarok to turn around and scream back, ordering his dive officer to put the submarine into a steep, fast dive.

As the ship nosed downward, Squall, unaware until that moment he was actually aboard a submarine, leaped from his bunk. He nearly fell as he fought the lurching ship, heading toward the door. The commuincator, until that moment undetected and unharmed, fell from his shirt and was crushed under his foot as he did. He felt rather than heard the crack as his full weight landed upon it, the dive klaxon nearly deafening him and drowning out virtually everything tried the door, and finding it locked, Squall searched frantically for something to hold onto. The steep angle of descent made it hard for him to keep his feet, despite the fact that his head injury had now been Healed. Squall finally lurched back to his bunk, remembering that it had been bolted to the floor and came equipped with rails. He grabbed the bedrail upon reaching his bunk and held on, heart pounding, while the submarine's precipitous dive leveled out. As it did, Squall let out a breath he didn't remember holding. He'd been in submarines before, but had never liked them, and they never went into a dive as steep as this one unless it was an emergency. He'd been afraid that something had gone horribly wrong with the ship and the dive would be a fatal one.

Squall waited for a few moments, then gradually became aware that he was sitting on the floor next to his bunk, holding onto the lowest bar of his bedrail with a white-knuckled grip. When no further action took place, and everything was more or less back to normal, Squall got up, went to the bathroom and got a drink of water, then went back to bed.

As he lay in the darkness, trying to sleep, his thoughts turned to Rinoa. He'd been trying not to think about what she'd been going through, trying not to worry about her. She was his weakness, he was pretty sure his captors knew it, and Squall was determined not to give them any more ammunition than they already had. But he worried about her, and admitted privately to himself, he missed her.

"We're level now sir," the dive officer said.

Omer nodded, " good, maintain this depth unless ordered otherwise." Before he left, he checked their heading and speed, calculating that they still had several hours to travel before reaching Centra. He walked back to his quarters, deciding to try and sleep a few hours before interviewing the medic that had been treating Leonhart. He wanted a full report on his status and any impressions the medic may have gotten while treating him. That would guide him on the next step in his plan. So thinking, he entered his quarters and went to bed. It would be dawn soon, and he had alot to do before he reached his destination.

Seifer lay in his bunk, Fujin cuddled close. There was barely enough room for the both of them, but they managed. After Selphie's rough treatment in her unfortunately fruitless persuit of Squall and Rinoa's kidnappers, it had taken nearly an hour to regroup and put everything in his room back to where it was. After he'd tidied up his room, he helped Fujin and Raijin with theirs, subtly checking for injuries as he did. No one had been hurt, and while he'd been sorely tempted to take her to task for her rough flying, he backed off when he'd seen what she'd been trying to do. Everyone sighed in resignation when she called Laguna and gave him the news, and the decision was made to return to Esthar to refuel and regroup. They were still a few minutes out from Esthar Airstation, where Laguna and Kiros would be waiting for them. It was ironic, one of the main truisms that Seifer had learned the hard way about any action was that nothing ever went as planned. This latest assignment proved that.

Seifer was still neutral on his feelings about Squall's kidnapping. Everyone else was upset and worried for Squall, and Seifer understood they were all friends and had the right to feel that way. Seifer and Squall however were NOT friends. That did not mean however that Seifer did not respect him. He'd proved himself beyond any doubt to Seifer as a superior soldier and far stronger and more courageous than Seifer had wanted to believe he could be. The face off they had which led to Seifer's being admitted back to Garden and his eventual ascension to SeeD had done a lot to clear the air between them. Squall had been more than willing to forget the past, and Seifer was honestly grateful for it. Seifer still had to convince everyone else though. So, while he wasn't as worried and fearful for Squall's safety as everyone else was, he was worried about Rinoa. For a number of reasons.

Seifer's ruminations were interrupted by Fujin pulling closer to him and kissing him. He sighed, closing his eyes. Rinoa was also in his past. He'd always care for her, but what they'd had in Timber had only been a summertime fling. Fujin was here and now, and he loved her. Seifer stroked her silvery hair and smiled gently to himself as he drifted to sleep.

They arrived at the Esthar Airstation as dawn was painting the city in rainbowed hues of gold and blue. They were met at the main gate by Kiros who had a car waiting to take them to the Presidential Palace. The detachment of soldiers assigned to them would remain with the Ragnarok as a security measure.

As they rode through the city, Fujin and Raijin gazed about with interest. They never seemed to get tired of studying the unusual city and its beauty. This time however, the ride was a more somber one. Selphie gazed pensively out one of the windows, Irvine watching her with concern. Even Raijin, not usually the quickest of Seifer's posse, had caught the mood and remained silent. Not even Kiros seemed inclined to broach the silence.

As they pulled up to the palace, Kiros finally said, "you all look exhausted. Why don't you go to the rooms we assigned you earlier and get some sleep? We can make more progress with search and rescue plans when everyone's rested and thinking clearly."

Seifer sighed, while Raijin and Fujin both nodded in agreement.

Selphie looked ready to protest but Irvine stopped her, "He's right Sef. You've been flying that big bird for hours, you've got to be even more tired than we are." Her green eyes glittered wetly and she looked away, biting her lip.

Finally she gulped and wiped her eyes, sniffling, "Yeah, okay."

Laguna however, had other ideas. As soon as they all entered the palace, he met them and quickly ushered them into his office. His eyes were tired and red-rimmed, silvery stubble roughened his cheeks.

Kiros tried to countermand his high-handedness, saying quietly, "Laguna, they're exhausted, give them some time to rest before you debrief them."

"No." Laguna snapped, "We need to do this now. Every minute we wait they get farther away with my son." Turning on his heel, he strode back behind his desk and turned on the desktop display.

"So, tell me everything that happened after I was knocked out and dragged back here." He growled.

Selphie and Irvine looked at Seifer and his posse, then Selphie nodded at Seifer.

Taking the hint, Seifer started with the part that he and his posse played in helping Laguna to escape, and continued down to the ground floor where they found Irvine dying and Squall and Rinoa gone. Irvine took up the narrative from his point of view, describing how he, Squall and Rinoa charged into the building and quickly found themselves outnumbered.

His voice rough, Irvine continued, "I heard Rinoa scream when she was jumped from behind. Squall was fighting one of their guys when he heard it and he turned to look after knocking the guy down. He turned to go help her when the guy got up and bashed him over the head, knocking him out cold. I tried to get over to them to help but I was too far away and was shot three times. I was pretty much dead until these guys showed up. Luckily, Rajin had a couple of cure spells on him and he...well, he saved my life." Irvine's voice faltered as that realization struck him.

Clearing his throat, he continued,"We figured out pretty quickly how they'd foxed the infrared scan by freezing the pilings under the house, probably using a Blizzaga spell or something. I picked up as much ammo as I could while Seifer, Fujin and Raijin found a boat to go after them with. Unfortunately, it wasn't a real big boat and they'd headed out to open sea. We ran low on fuel, so I called Selphie to come pick us up."

Selphie picked up her thread of the story with the pickup and the search, detailing how they'd used the tracking codes to trace the boat, how she'd flown too fast and overshot it, then when she doubled back, couldn't find the boat again and lost Squall's signal into the bargain. She stood straight at attention as though facing a court-martial while recounting her story, not sparing any detail and not sparing herself any blame.

When they'd all come to the end of the report, Laguna asked, "Selphie, do you remember if the external cameras on the Ragnarok were recording?"

Selphie frowned, "I think so, I remember turning them on just in case we'd need them." Laguna's attention sharpened, then he started tapping wildly at the keyboard on his desktop.

"I need the upload password, Selphie." Laguna requested. She gave it to him and he typed it in and watched while the information the Ragnarok's cameras recorded uploaded by remote to his computer. Once finished, he studied the information. Suddenly, he frowned.

"Selphie, is this the boat you overflew?" He asked, pausing the image. Selphie came around the desk and studied the image.

"Yes, " she answered.

Laguna suddenly straightened up and started pacing, hands in his hair, saying, " That's a Galbadian D-class submarine. The Galbadian navy decommisioned that class about twenty years ago, but you could still buy them for scrap up to about five or so years ago. Heck, some of them were still seaworthy and being converted to private use. One thing about these subs though, they could dive really fast." He turned back to the desktop and tapped at the keyboard, then frowned.

"No ID or call numbers on it. Gonna be hard to track."

Suddenly Selphie said, "I have an idea." She quickly moved to Laguna's position behind the desk and he backed away, watching her with interest. She tapped away furiously at the keyboard, saying, "I plotted out the direction the comm signals were traveling before we lost them, then based on the general heading, extrapolated a probable destination." A map appeared on the desktop with the signal points originating at Fisherman's Horizon and continuing on into the open sea, to the point where it stopped. A shaded cone continued toward another continent. Centra.

"This is the probable area they'd be heading for." Selphie said. Laguna nodded, impressed. Then he studied the map, thinking.

"I'm gonna call up the navy and dispatch them toward Centra." He said, then continued, "You guys go ahead and get some rest, I've kept you long enough."

They all nodded and began to file out.

As they did, Kiros approached Laguna, saying, "You should probably get some rest too Laguna, this has been a rough night for you as well."

Laguna flung his hands up in frustration, "I was asleep the entire flight back here! I'm not tired!"

Kiros snorted, "You look tired. Laguna, the flight only took an hour. Even you can't be rested with just an hour of drugged sleep. Go to bed. I'll call you as soon as I hear anything from the navy."

Laguna scrubbed his hands over his face, saying "God, Kiros. How do I handle this? It was easier when I didn't know he was my son. Now, I live in fear that I'll never see him again."

"Welcome to parenthood, Laguna. Twenty years too late perhaps, but here, nonetheless." Kiros said sagely, patting his shoulder.

Laguna groaned, "I hate it when you get all wise on me and stuff."

"Well, someone has to." Kiros said. He began ushering Laguna out, saying, "Go on now, get some sleep. You're no good to anyone when you're like this." Laguna glared at him, momentarily diverted.

"You are such a mother hen. How do your kids stand it?" He grumbled.

"Well, I have it a little easier than you do Laguna. My kids are just that, kids. They aren't out putting their lives on the line trying to save the world." Kiros answered. Then he leaned against the doorway to the Presidential office, adding, "for what its worth man, you're handling this a lot better than I would if I were in your shoes."

Laguna studied his friend silently for a moment, then sighed, "nice of you to say that." With that, he turned to leave.

"I'm here for you man, even when you don't want me to be." Kiros said.

Laguna turned back for a moment and replied, "I know. And I appreciate it." He started walking down the hall toward his rooms.

As he left, Kiros assured him, "we'll find him." Laguna paused and looked back, then nodded and continued down the hall.

Squall paced his small room restlessly, thinking. The medic hadn't been back to check on him yet, but as conscientious as the man had been thus far, it wouldn't be long before he did. Squall did not want the man to discover that he'd managed to Heal himself. The element of surprise was a huge advantage, and Squall intended to use it. The problem was timing. He couldn't attempt escape from a ship that was currently cruising several meters beneath the ocean. So, he had to wait until they reached their intended destination. He counted himself fortunate that his captors had been occupied with operating the submarine and hadn't given much thought to their prisoners. Yet.

But now, his immediate problem was how to mimic the symptoms of a concussion when in fact one no longer existed. Squall could do undercover work, but it wasn't his strong suit. He wasn't nearly as good an actor as Watts was. So thinking, he went back to his bunk, lay down and closed his eyes.

Shiva, he sent.

Yes, master? she replied.

I need a confusion spell cast on me.

Why? She asked, curiously.

I need to look and feel like I still have a concussion when the medic comes back to check on me. I don't want them to know I've been healed. Squall answered.

Immediately, he felt Shiva cast the spell, and the familiar queasy, head-spinning sensation of a concussion returned.

Squall groaned as the spell took effect,"I hate this spell..." his answer was a chiming giggle from his Guardian. He hoped the spell wouldn't wear off too soon, despite his discomfort. Fortunately, it was just a few moments later when the medic returned to check on him. It was easy to convince him that the concussion was still there, and if Squall looked a little green in the gills, well, there was the rough ride due to the submarine's dive to blame that on. Squall truly did feel sick, and had a somewhat amusing vision of Omer questioning him and Squall suddenly throwing up on the man's shoes. He had to bite the inside of his lip to avoid smiling at the thought.

"Well, the pitching about this old boat's done recently hasn't made anything worse for you, fortunately. Although you do look a bit peaked. Still have the nausea?" The medic asked.

Squall anwered, "Yes."

The medic frowned, "well, you may not feel like it much but you're going to have to eat something at some point. You can't heal if your body has no fuel." Squall made a face. The thought of food did not appeal to him right at the moment. The medic smiled sympathetically and patted him on the arm.

"We'll try you on dry soda crackers and a mild broth and see how it sits with you. How's the headache?"

"Tolerable." Squall answered.

"Well, let me know if you need anything. Try and get some rest, Okay?" The medic smiled and left. Squall watched him go and as soon as he heard the lock click, cast Dispel to cancel the Confuse spell. He immediately felt better, a loud growl from his midsection giving audible evidence of that fact. He flopped back onto the bunk, groaning again, thinking, Great. The guy thinks I'm so sick he's gonna give me broth. And crackers. I'm gonna starve! Shiva giggled.

Quiet, you. I can't hear myself think. He sent.

Well then, don't think so loudly. She retorted.

I need to get outta here. Time to plan an escape. Any ideas guys? Squall thought to his Guardians. Of all of them, Shiva was the most vocal, as well as the smartest. Bahamut, the king of the dragons, was his strongest, and the one Squall used nearly as much as he did Shiva when in battle. Diablos was also strong, but so alien in thought that it was difficult to converse with.

Squall took a deep, meditative breath and closed his eyes, to better connect with his Guardians. As he touched each of their presences, he was surprised to see Rinoa's Guardians crowding in as well. Squall couldn't join with them all, there wasn't enough room in his mind to hold them. At least, he didn't think so. But he did commune with them, and from them learned that they'd been driven from her by the Odine bangles she'd been forced to wear. Squall puzzled over that, wondering how they'd been driven out rather than simply bound like Rinoa's magic had been.

We escaped when the bangles were placed upon her, Siren answered. Cerberus whined in agreement. They waited, wondering if they could join with Squall, wanting to help. He could use them, their abilities could be very helpful. But,how? He could always drop his junction with one of his other Guardians of course, but the ones he currently had were his favorites. They were the easiest to work with and the strongest in battle.

I cannot join with all of you, he began, then Shiva spoke up.

Master, she said, we can all come with you. Rinoa's Guardians are still junctioned to her, they've just been blocked from her mind by the bangles.

But, I can't call upon their power if they aren't junctioned to me. Squall said.

It is not necessary. They will follow you. And you can direct them. Shiva answered. Squall focused upon Siren and Cerberus, and got agreement from them both. Squall was stunned. He'd never known Guardians could act independently. In general, they did not. Gilgamesh was the only exception to this rule. It would not junction to anyone and would appear only when it felt like it. Most of the time, Squall could not even touch Gilgamesh. It was the most capricious of his Guardians, and, when it deigned to appear, the most powerful.

As always, my strength is yours master, Bahamut spoke up. Diablos echoed that sentiment. Squall sent his appreciation back to them, then focused again on Siren and Cerberus.

Will you follow my orders then, even without being joined to me? He asked.

Yes, they both answered. Then Siren continued, these bangles my mistress is wearing, they have what she has called DNA locks. Keyed to the one who captured you both.

Squall thanked her and pondered that information. It meant that in order to free Rinoa's magic from its binding, Jace Omer himself and no one else would have to unlock the bangles. Jace Omer, or more specifically, Jace Omer's DNA. While Squall was thinking that one very satisfying way of getting Jace Omer's DNA was to spill his blood, he felt yet another touch, one he'd only felt once. Gilgamesh. It was brief, just a fleeting brush, but Squall knew then that Gilgamesh was paying close attention and would come when it deemed it was most needed. Thus assured that all of his Guardians, and Rinoa's as well, were ready to act, Squall began planning his escape.

He opened his eyes, got up from the bunk, and began to scan the room he was in. When he'd been brought in he had not been able to pay much attention to details. He was now. He knew he'd been placed in a small, private cabin in what appeared to be an infirmary. The door was locked, but upon further study, Squall found the lock to be old, and was not a very secure one. It could easily be picked, and Squall had gotten pretty good at picking locks. Because he'd been injured, his captors apparently did not think he'd be in good enough shape to attempt escape. Another thing to think about was this; even if he did get out of his room, he was on a submarine. He could not escape the ship if it were underwater. Timing. It all came down to timing. He would have to act when they reached their destination. Until then, he would have to continue his charade and pretend to still be injured.

Rinoa was awakened by the click of the lock to her room. The ship's swift dive had tossed her about a little bit, and she was bruised and scraped, but otherwise unhurt. She wondered if they had finally reached their destination. She also worried about Squall, if he was okay, if he was being taken care of, and why they'd been kidnapped. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and waited. The door opened and Jace Omer entered along with a guard.

"Miss Heartilly, I would like to speak with you. Come with me." He said. Rinoa knew, even though it was framed like a request, it was actually an order, so she got up, seeing no other option, and followed him out of the room. The guard fell in behind her. Omer led her down a narrow passageway, punctuated at intervals with oval doors, all of which currently stood open. Their footsteps clinked and echoed off the metal bulkheads, and as they walked, Rinoa looked around, wondering where Squall was. All she could see was the chipped, gray-white paint on the bulkheads, and her captor and the guard escorting her.

Suddenly, Omer turned to the right and entered a small room. Rinoa followed him in and he directed her to sit down in one of the chairs that were there. The room looked like either an extraordinarily bare office or an interrogation room, complete with small, hard, uncomfortable chairs, a plain table, and grey, featureless walls. Omer sat down on the chair opposite hers, on the other side of the table, and clasped his hands, resting them on the surface of the table. The guard stood behind him and slightly off to the side. Rinoa waited.

"I imagine you're wondering why I've taken the trouble to capture you and your knight, and what you're doing here now. Is that right?" He asked. Rinoa nodded.

Jace Omer leaned forward, studying her intently, saying, "I had to capture both of you. In order to accomplish my aims, I need you, and in order to ensure your cooperation, I need your knight."

"You need me? For what?" She asked.

Omer shook his head, "all in good time, Miss Heartilly. For the time being, consider yourself and your knight my guests. Or prisoners, whichever you prefer."

"Can I ask you a question?" Rinoa said.

"You may. You might even get an answer." Omer replied with a slight smirk.

"Can I see Squall? Please?" Rinoa gulped and blinked tears away. "I just want to see if he's okay." Omer watched her carefully, considering.

"Your powers are bound, and Leonhart doesn't seem to be much of a threat at the moment." He mused. "I don't see why not." Rinoa sighed with relief.

"Thank you," she breathed.

"It'll have to be a short visit however, and much as you would like to have your knight with you at all times, I'm afraid that's not possible." Omer said, adding, "I understand that you need to see him alive and relatively healthy, otherwise his value as leverage against you would be diminished. However, know this: If you do not cooperate with me completely, he will pay the price for it."

"You'll kill him." Rinoa said, tonelessly.

Omer shook his head, saying, "No, not unless I see no other choice. But I will hurt him. Permanently, if necessary."

Rinoa remained silent. He would hurt Squall. Permanently. She tried to imagine what that would mean, and horrible visions of Squall being maimed or crippled for life tormented her. She would love him regardless, but what would that do to him? He wouldn't want to live if he were less than whole. He would hate her, for causing his suffering. Rinoa shuddered. It would be worse than simply killing him, it would destroy his very soul.

"Miss Heartilly?" Omer's voice pulled Rinoa's attention from her grim thoughts. She looked up.

"Do we have an understanding?" He asked. Rinoa swallowed, finding her mouth suddenly dry and cottony. Not trusting her voice, she nodded.

"Good," He said in satisfaction. "You can go now. If you'll follow the guard, he'll take you to your knight."

Someone comes, Shiva warned.

Cast confusion. Squall said. As the spell took effect, he warily watched the doorway. He could not let anyone see him healed and healthy, they'd move him from the infirmary. He lay back on his bunk, closing his eyes and grimacing at the dizziness the spell caused. He tried checking his chronograph, wondering how long before they reached their destination, but the effects of the spell made it hard for him to focus and he gave it up in frustration. Then the door to the infirmary creaked open.

Rinoa stepped through the doorway, and her eyes lit with joy at seeing him. She quickly turned back and quietly said something to the guard, who shrugged and stepped back, closing the door behind her. Squall's guarded expression lightened and he dispelled the confuse spell, standing up just in time for Rinoa to launch herself into his arms. His arms automatically came around her and he hugged her fiercely, crushing her to his chest. Closing his eyes, he laid his cheek against her hair, breathing in its scent. For the next few moments, he simply held her in silence, stroking her silken hair, until a snuffling at his chest caused him to pull back, looking down into Rinoa's dampened eyes.

Taking her face into his hands, he gently wiped away the tears with his thumbs, whispering, "I've missed you, Angel."

"Oh, Squall.." she began, then started sobbing uncontrollably. Squall simply held her, stroking her back until the sobs calmed. When they did, Squall located some tissue for Rinoa to wipe her eyes and blow her nose, chuckling at the fierce honk she emitted when she did. He frowned when he noticed his eyes blurring, then blinked and wiped away the moisture.

He looked up and saw the most beautiful smile on Rinoa's face as she saw it, that it left him stunned.

"You, you were.." she began.

Squall cleared his throat, "yeah." Rinoa reached up and pulled his face down and kissed him. Then, silence again as he kissed her back, then leaned his forehead against hers, closing his eyes and tangling his fingers through her hair at the nape of her neck.

"You're okay," she whispered, "I saw the blood on your head and I was so afraid for you."

"Shh.." Squall breathed. "I was hurt. A bad concussion. It took me awhile to think through the pain, but I managed to contact Shiva and she Healed me. I've been trying to convince everyone here that I'm still injured." Then he kissed her again and led her to his bunk. Sitting down, he pulled her down beside him and pulled her close to his side.

"What about you? Are you okay? They haven't hurt you have they?" He asked, studying her closely.

Rinoa shook her head, "no, nobody's touched me." Squall sighed with relief.

"We've got to get out of here, as soon as they reach land. I don't know what they want us for, but it can't be good." Squall said grimly.

"Well," Rinoa said in a low voice, "I don't know what they want me for, exactly, but I do know why you're here." She took a deep breath and continued, "this man, Jace Omer, wants to use you to control me."

Squall frowned, "I can't control you.." Rinoa laughed slightly at that, then became serious again.

"No, not directly. If I don't do whatever Omer wants me to do, he'll... he'll hurt you, Squall." Rinoa swallowed, tears welling in her eyes again. Squall frowned, understanding her meaning and not liking it. It wasn't as though he'd never endured pain before, but it was obviously something he'd rather avoid if possible.

"I've been tortured before Rinoa. I can take it." Squall assured her.

Rinoa shook her head, "No, Squall, not like this. He wouldn't be doing it to get information from you. He'd be doing it simply to cause you as much pain as possible. He said.." her voice trailed off into a sob, " he hinted that he'd cripple you, maim you. Hurt you permanently." A chill went up Squall's spine at hearing this.

"All the more reason for us to get out of here." He said firmly.

Rinoa sat huddled into herself next to him, staring blankly into space as she whispered, "he wants to use me as a weapon. He wants me to be the Sorceress, and he wants to be able to unleash me at will." She buried her face in her hands, "He'll force me to be the Monster everyone fears. And if I don't, He'll destroy you, piece by piece. Body and soul."

"No, he won't." Squall said.

"But," she began. Squall grabbed her shoulders, and he held her gaze with a steely glint in his sea-blue eyes.

"He won't. Trust me." Then his gaze softened and he stroked her cheek gently.

"I won't let him use you, Rinoa." He kissed her gently, then again passionately, pulling her down onto the bunk with him.

"I can't stay," she said.

"How long do we have?" he asked, eyes hungry.

"Long enough." she answered with a wicked smile. He kissed her fiercely again, and they said nothing more for several minutes.

It turned out, it was long enough, but just barely. Rinoa had just finished dressing when the handle of the door moved, signaling the guard's entrance. Squall still lay in his bunk, chest bare, the rest covered by the sheet. Rinoa stroked her hand down his chest, brushing against his silver griever pendant, and Squall reached up and pulled her down for one last, breath-stealing kiss.

"I love you," She whispered, gasping.

"I love you too, Angel." He stroked her hair, and added,"trust me."

Then guard entered and cleared his throat, when he had their attention he said, "Miss Heartilly. We need to go now." As Rinoa left, the guard followed her out, glancing back at the young man watching them leave. The soft expression on Squall's face as he watched Rinoa walking away was quickly shut down when the guard met his eyes.

Seventy-two hours. Laguna paced his office and the numbers rang like a litany in his head. Seventy-two hours. The length of time that had passed since Squall and Rinoa had been captured. Selphie and the rest of the SeeD team radioed back periodically with status updates which said pretty much the same thing that the Estharian Navy was telling him. No sign of an old Galbadian submarine trolling in Centran waters. There had not been any demand for ransom, which from that Laguna took that either Omer was not looking for money or was unaware of Squall's relationship to him. Kiros, ever the logical, pragmatic thinker, observed that Squall and Rinoa working together were a devastating team. One that a person like Omer would do anything to have on his side. The only question was how, if that was Omer's plan, would he get them to cooperate? That was a question that they couldn't answer.

Xu from Balamb Garden had contacted Laguna to inform him that they were heading toward Esthar and would be there within a day. Laguna welcomed the support. Any aid at all at this point would be helpful. They had a general direction, but that still left alot of area to search, and submarines weren't easy to find. Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking, toward what end, Laguna didn't know and didn't want to speculate on. The only thing he could do is keep a close watch on a particular stretch of Centra's coastline for anything that looked unusual.

Laguna looked at the clock again. Seventy-three hours. He had to do something, the waiting was driving him crazy.

Jace Omer's conn sonar officer informed him that they were approaching Centra's coastline seventy-two hours after the action that had resulted in Sorceress Rinoa and Commander Leonhart's capture. He ordered the ship slowed and they remained submerged as they skirted the rocky cliffs until they found the entrance to the sea-cave that led to Omer's base. Once inside the cave, the submarine surfaced and pulled alongside a natural rock outcropping that served as a quay. Omer was kept busy for the next few minutes as he directed the docking of the submarine. Once all was secure, he gave the order to disembark. Then he accompanied the team that would escort Rinoa off the submarine while ordering another to bring Squall out.

The cessation of movement was what first got Squall's attention. Then he heard a flurry of activity going on overhead and around him, and from that he deduced that they had reached their destination. He knew then that they'd be coming to move him and Rinoa out of the sub to wherever Omer wanted to hold them prisoner, and he knew he had to be ready to act. He'd done a pretty good job, he'd thought, of convincing the medic and everyone else that he was no threat, so he felt pretty confident that he had the element of surprise on his side.

That, and several very powerful Guardians.

Be ready, He thought to them all. One thing that Omer was not aware of was this: Rinoa was not the only wielder of powerful magic. Squall took a deep breath, centering himself, and cast protect and cover spells to guard against both physical and magical attacks. When they came to get him, they would be in for a surprise.

The first hint that the medic had that things might not go as planned was apparent as soon as the door to the infirmary was opened. Squall stood straight and still in the center of the room, watching the door intently, putting the medic uncomfortably in mind of a caged lion with murder on his mind. The medic was taken off guard yet again however when the half-expected attack never came and instead the young SeeD followed them out without a word. The medic's disquiet continued however, for the young man's eyes were ice cold and sharp as razors. Even unarmed, he began to worry that the four burly guards that were with them would not be enough to stop Squall if he chose to act.

As it turned out, they weren't. As they left the infirmary, with two guards in front of Squall, and two behind, the medic brought up the rear and had a good vantage of the action, but when asked later, could scarcely believe what he'd seen. When they entered the narrow confines of the passageway, Squall whirled with incredible speed and attacked the guard closest to him, sending him into the bulkhead with a loud thud, where he slid limply to the floor. Two lightning fast punches took down the second guard. The two guards in front, hearing the attack, turned around and drew their weapons, aiming at Squall, but he already had the guns from the two guards he'd downed, one in each hand, cocked and ready. Both guns fired simulatneously, killing the two remaining guards. Then Squall whirled, aiming both guns at the stunned medic.

He raised his hands, "wait! I'm not armed!" Without a word, Squall stuck both guns into his belts and roughly shoved the medic back into the infirmary and locked the door. Then he took off at a sprint down the passageway. As he ran, he kept a sharp watch out for any of Omer's men, dispatching them as quietly as possible when he ran across them. A knife he'd taken off of one of his guards helped with that.

Siren, he thought, where are they? He followed at a run as the Guardian guided him toward where Omer and his men were escorting Rinoa topside. He slowed when he felt the warning that he was getting close and ducked around an open doorway, waiting for them to go past. Like him, Rinoa was surrounded by guards. Two in front, and two behind. Beside her was Jace Omer. The setup frustrated Squall, the quarters were too close for him to act without hurting Rinoa in the process. He could easily see the guards at least, were armed. Omer was too close to Rinoa for Squall to tell if he too had a weapon, but he didn't want to chance it. Instead, he followed them, staying just out of sight.

When Omer and Rinoa were both safely on the quay, Squall carefully crept out of the sub and hid near the conning tower, staying out of , he readied his next attack. Silently summoning Cerberus, he ordered it to cast protection and shield spells on Rinoa to keep her safe. Then he told Siren to silence everyone. If anyone HAD any battle-magics to use, they wouldn't be able to use them now. As yet, everyone on the quay appeared unaware that anything had happened. Suddenly, a recoil of magic came back at Squall, making him stagger. He frowned, and tried casting a sleep spell on Rinoa. It too, was deflected. Squall growled to himself. The Odine bangles. They had to be the cause. He knew that they prevented Rinoa from using magic, but apparently, they also prevented magic from being used on her. He couldn't follow through with his next course of action, not without a great deal of risk to Rinoa's life. Summoning any of his Guardians now would be too indiscriminate and might injure Rinoa along with everyone else. He had no other choice, he had to wait. So, he stayed in hiding, and watched.

Jace Omer waited for the detail that had been assigned to escort the Commander to the quay impatiently. They should have exited the submarine by now, and there was no sign of them.

He frowned, then turned to Rinoa, saying "There appears to be some kind of delay in fetching your knight, Sorceress Rinoa. It would be very unfortunate if he attempted something foolish."

Rinoa remained silent, watching the submarine intently. She thought she saw movement by the conning tower, but it was in shadow, and she couldn't be sure. But she remembered Squall's final words to her, mere hours ago. Trust me, he'd said.

Finally, Omer summoned two of his men and told them, "Go see what the delay is. Make sure Mr. Leonhart understands how inconvenient this is. And try not to kill him." The men nodded and headed back to the submarine. As they did, Squall watched, realizing he was far too exposed on the outside of the sub. Once it was discovered that he'd escaped, Omer would send all his men searching for him. He had only a few moments to make himself scarce until his next opportunity. In order to free Rinoa and prevent Omer from using her the way he was planning, Squall had to remain at large and free to act. He looked around the cavern, discarding the notion of exiting the vessel quayside as far too risky. His only option was the water.

The sound of running footsteps ringing on the rungs of the metal ladder leading topside warned him that his time was up. Silently, he slipped over the side of the sub and into the water with a barely audible splash. Taking a deep breath, he dove deep, fighting both the tide and the chill of the water, and kicked strongly toward the opposite side of the cavern, toward a rough outcropping of rock in deep shadow. A perfect place to hide until the search ended.

"Sir! Commander Leonhart's escaped!"One of the guards reported as they came running off the submarine.

Omer glared at Rinoa, snarling "your lover has just made a serious mistake."

"How do you know the mistake wasn't yours?" Rinoa retorted. Omer backhanded her across the face. Rinoa staggered but managed not to fall, glaring at Omer.

"Don't try my patience bitch! You're only alive because I have a use for you!" Mentally dismissing her, Omer turned to her guards and ordered, "Take her to her accomodations."

As Rinoa was led away, she kept looking around the cavern, hoping that Squall, wherever he was, was well hidden.

"He can't have gone far," Omer said. "The only outlet to the surface is either by sea or through the cave's tunnels."

Pointing toward various areas of the cavern, he ordered his men, "search every inch of this cavern. Bring him back! I don't care what condition!" For the next several moments, the cavern was a hive of activity as Omer's men did as ordered. Some of them came very close to seeing Squall, but the black clothing he'd been wearing when captured helped him blend into the shadows. That and the fact that his vantage point was accessible only by swimming to it. He'd have to swim back to the other side of the cavern when he was ready to get Rinoa. Meanwhile, shivering and wet, he did his best to endure the wait.

Fujin stood at the bow of the Estharian naval vessel, face to the wind. Seifer stood a little behind her, watching. They'd been searching for any sign of the ship that had picked up Squall and Rinoa, for three days. Seventy-two hours. It was at Fujin's suggestion that they were placed aboard the battleship that was currently cruising the rocky coastline of Centra, looking for anything at all that would lead them to their quarry. Seifer had already seen what Fujin could do with Pandemona, so was not surprised when she'd finally told him that she needed to be outside in order to use her unique abilities. So he'd suggested to Selphie that they'd be more helpful attached to a naval ship close to the coastline rather than soaring above it. Raijin, as always, was along as well, his powerful build and sharp eyes an asset to aid in their search.

Fujin closed her eye again and communed with her Guardian, her senses expanding again as it followed the wind that swirled around the ship they were on. She saw, with the multifaceted senses that Pandemona had given her, the ship, the water, and the cliffs they were sailing near. Riding on the wind, her mind followed it as it eddied and flowed among the rocks, along the rough coastline until it whistled into a cavern, much like the many others that dotted the broken coast. This cavern however, was different. Wider, deeper, a true sea-cave. It expanded to test the dimensions of the cavern, and as Fujin followed it, she saw the submarine. Flowing along the smooth surface of the vessel, around the cavern, the wind tugged at the drying hair and chilled form of Squall as he crouched, hidden in the rocks of the cavern. Fujin's eye snapped open.

Raising her arm, Fujin pointed the way like a compass, saying "THERE". At first, Seifer didn't see it, the tide was high and the sudden gust of wind had whipped up the waves enough to make the cavern's entrance difficult to discern at a distance.

Shouting back at the Captain of the ship, Seifer yelled, "bring it a little closer to the cliff!"

"We can't! Too much chop and the rocks are treacherous!" The Captain called back. Seifer frowned, then grabbed for a pair of binoculars that Raijin had been using moments before.

"Do you see that big cave?" He called to the Captain. The Captain nodded and steered his boat toward it. Then they throttled back. The cave's entrance was plain to see now. Seifer left the Captain to relay the information to the rest of the fleet while he radioed Selphie.

For the next few minutes both he and the Captain were in constant communication with the rest of their teams as they worked out a battle plan. Thanks to Fujin's sight, they had a pretty good idea that Squall at least, was there.

Half an hour later, they were ready for their assault.

With a patience that was almost feline, Squall watched from his vantage point as the search died down. He shuddered suddenly as a swirl of wind eddied around him from the cave entrance. He watched closely as Omer and his guards led Rinoa out of the cavern, and he paid close attention to which tunnel they entered. The remaining men still searching about the cavern would not be too difficult to deal with. So thinking, he readied himself by first, removing his boots. He hadn't had time before and didn't want to leave any clue behind that would hint at where he'd gone, but swimming with them on had been difficult and fighting the tide with them dragging at him had sapped his strength as much as the cold had. He didn't relish the thought of running about on the rocks barefoot but he didn't see any solution to that dilemma. He certainly couldn't bring his boots with him, he needed both arms to swim with. Shrugging, he wedged them into the rocks next to him and steeled himself against the cold water as he slid back in, swimming back toward the submarine, planning to use it as cover. Upon reaching the sub, Squall swam alongside until he found a good point to exit the water and crawl up onto the stone shelf that served as a dock unseen. Ahead of him, was his first target.

Silent upon his bare feet, Squall stalked up behind the sentry walking along the dock next to the sub, grabbing him from behind and swiftly breaking his neck. As the man's body dropped, Squall crouched next to him looking warily about for any other potential hostiles while he rid the man of his weapons. He took the man's assault rifle, sidearm and a wicked-looking knife, stashing the pistol in the small of his back and slinging the rifle over his shoulder. Then, gritting his teeth against the pain, he sprinted across the open space toward the wall where the entrance of the tunnel he'd seen Omer take Rinoa was. A shout told him he'd been seen, and Squall ducked as a shot rang out and dust kicked up from the ground as the bullet ricocheted up and away. More gunshots followed, with more ricochets. Squall increased his speed, hoping that the shooter's aim did not improve.

Suddenly, reality blurred and four sharp swords speared down from nowhere. Squall felt the unmistakable energy of Gilgamesh as the Guardian suddenly manifested from his dimension to wreak havoc among Omer's men that were still searching the cavern, decimating their ranks and scattering the rest. Satisfied that there'd be no pursuit, Squall entered the tunnel.

Once inside, he flattened himself against the rock wall and checked the magazine of the rifle he'd appropriated. Doing likewise with the semi-automatic pistol, he found them both full. He set the safeties on both of them for the time being and returned the pistol to the small of his back under the waistband of his sodden jeans, and slung the rifle bandolier style across his back. He needed stealth, and his gunblade would have been a perfect weapon for that. Unfortunately, all he had was the stolen knife. And his Guardians. It would have to do.

The passageway was lit at intervals with weak electric lights, so he could see where he was going. The downside of course was that anyone else in the passageway could see him as well. A sense of urgency infected him, urging him into a light-footed trot. Before he'd started his attack, he'd been chilled by the cold water and nearly hypothermic. The exertions of the last few moments had warmed him up however, and with Bahamut and his other Guardians supporting him, Squall's strength and endurance were considerable. The tunnel seemed to go on forever, but a few paces ahead it bent slightly to the left. A sound up ahead and around the bend alerted Squall, and he looked wildly about, finding an opening in the rough rock wall. Peeking in cautiously, he found it led to an empty room and he ducked inside, peering out toward the voices he'd heard. Two guards ran past, in the direction Squall had come from. That puzzled him, for as far as he knew, his engagement in the docking cavern was long over. He left his vantage and continued along the tunnel, pausing at the bend to check for any more men. Finding none, he cautiously continued, readying the rifle he'd taken.

"Fan out, check for hostiles," Seifer ordered. Selphie had given him the command of the team that would engage Jace Omer's base from the sea. Convenient, since he and his posse were already in a position to attack. Meanwhile, Selphie and a detachment of Estharian soldiers were searching the surface above the cavern complex for an alternative entrance. Seifer had asked Fujin if she could use Pandemona to find the exit, and even though she could, they didn't have a map or any way to place coordinates to relay to Selphie. So, Seifer, Fujin, Raijin and about a dozen Estharian Marines had entered the cavern aboard the smallest of the escort ships as soon as the tide had gone out enough for it to clear the cavern entrance. They had all stood on deck, weapons ready to find...nothing. The submarine was there, right enough. But the only men that anyone could see in the cavern were dead. Seifer was impressed, but not surprised. He knew his Commander's capabilities. He paused, shaking his head at that. He'd never before thought of Squall as his Commander.

I wasn't a SeeD before. Now I am, and Squall is the SeeD Commander. He still felt a bit odd about it, but had accepted that reality as part of what it meant to be a SeeD.

He gazed around, gunblade ready. On his back, was Squall's Lion Heart blade. Seifer brought it with the intention of handing it back to its owner. The cavern was vast, and had several tunnels opening off the wall facing where the submarine and the assault boat Seifer had arrived on were docked. Seifer split his team into smaller groups, ordering them to explore each of the tunnels. Before they could enter them however, several of Omer's men came out and attacked. Seifer quickly cast protect and shield spells on everyone that he could and dove for cover, calling up his strongest Guardian. Raijin and Fujin did the same. The firefight was short and intense, but two very strong attacks by Seifer and his posse's Guardians brought it to a swift end.

Continuing on, Seifer looked down and saw a pair of wet, bare footprints drying on the quay, leading toward the leftmost of the tunnel entrances. Motioning to his posse to follow, he headed for the entrance, following the tracks. Suddenly, Fujin surged ahead as though pulled.

"Fujin!" Seifer hissed urgently. She waved back and signaled silence and readied her weapon. Seifer glanced down and saw that the bare footprints continued. Knowing by this point that Fujin's instincts were flawless, he followed her.

Squall meanwhile, still running along the tunnel, had twice had to duck for cover when he encountered some more of Omer's men. The rough walls offered only minimal cover and while the light was dim and uncertain, he could still easily be seen. He was a sitting duck. So, while he ran along, he kept his eyes, ears and senses open. A mental warning from Shiva came just in time for him to flatten himself against the wall and aim his rifle at whatever was coming his way. Far down the corridor he could see movement and hear voices, but didn't know if they could see him yet. He kept very still until he could clearly see the approaching squad of men. As soon as he had a good shot, he opened fire. Despite the fact that Squall felt he'd been in plain sight, the guardsmen still seemed to have been taken by surprise. He managed to drop several of them before they returned fire. Bullets whizzed around wildly, ricocheting off the rock wall in the enclosed space and Squall crouched down to make himself a smaller target. He'd have been killed a dozen times already if it hadn't been for his Shield spell deflecting the projectiles. Finally, he called Shiva to take care of the rest with her Diamond Dust attack. Once he was sure all enemies had been taken care of, Squall stood up and continued on, following the inner nudging of his Guardians.

"Sir, we're under attack." a guardsman reported back to Omer. The man had been one of the survivors of Squall's first attack, and he'd been astounded by how powerful the young SeeD was. By himself, he'd decimated an entire squad of men, wielding a power the man had never seen before. Feeling himself fortunate to have survived, the man had hurried back to report the attack to Omer and get reinforcements.

"By Leonhart?" Omer snapped to the guardsman, dark eyes boring into him. The man nodded.

"One man. Alone, and you can't defeat him?" Omer asked, quietly. The guardsman swallowed.

"Sir, he's.. SeeD. The most powerful one on the planet. You yourself said he wasn't easy to take down." The guard stumbled over his explaination. What he'd encountered in the cavern had been nothing less than terrifying. He'd never faced a SeeD mercenary before, and now had a healthy respect for their abilities.

Omer remained silent for a moment. He began to wonder if he'd held the wrong person hostage. He knew Rinoa was a powerful sorceress, and he, and many others, had feared that her power would subjugate the SeeD commander and make him her puppet. It was beginning to appear that the Commander was an equal match for her in strength. It was what had made them such a fearsome team.

But it also presented a problem. Squall was coming for Rinoa. And him. Without Squall as a barganing chip, he had no hold over Rinoa, no leverage to force her to his will. And if he took off the bangles without any assurance of her cooperation, she could easily turn on him. He could almost guarantee that she would. He found himself in the unenviable position of holding a tiger by the tail with a pork chop tied around his neck. There was only one solution to this problem. Kill the tiger before it attacked. The sorceress had to die.

Omer regretted that necessity, it was too soon for his liking. He'd wanted her to wreak some havoc, do some damage in Galbadia and Esthar, kill a few key people who had to die for Omer's scheme to work. Essentially, start another Sorceress war, only this time, on his he could publicly "capture" her and execute her, becoming a hero to all. From there, he could parlay his "heroism" into taking over and restoring Esthar to what it once had been before the last Sorceress War had ruined it. Unfortunately, his plans were unraveling before his eyes and in order to get out of his current situation with his hide intact, he had to abandon his original goal.

Turning to the guardsman he ordered "Start evacuation protocols. This base is compromised. Even if Leonhart is acting alone, eventually the rest of SeeD will get here, along with Esthar's military." The guardsman nodded and left. Immediately Omer grabbed his weapons, ordered a couple of guards to come with him and strode quickly to the cell where Rinoa was imprisoned.

Opening the door, he grabbed her roughly by the wrist and pulled her into the corridor. Her resistance was expected, but he was far stronger and simply dragged her along behind him.

"Where are you taking me?" She protested.

"My dear, it's been grand having you as my guest but unfortunately, this little interlude has to end." Omer said, tugging her along behind him as he half ran toward the exit, guards watching behind them intently.

"What are you talking about?" Rinoa asked, a chill of fear beginning to form in the pit of her stomach.

Stopping suddenly and whirling around, grabbing her by the throat, Omer grated, "Your boyfriend has forced my hand. Without him as my prisoner, I have no hold over you, no guarantee you'll cooperate. I can't use you, and I can't let you go." Rinoa gulped, fighting for air as he began to squeeze, then he suddenly released her and as she staggered, fighting for breath, he grabbed her wrist again, towing her toward an irregular opening. Daylight speared through it, and Rinoa smelled fresh air.

"One thing that I can do though, before your knight gets here, is to make sure you're no longer a threat to anyone. Ideally, Leonhart should witness this, but I regret that I won't be able to give him the chance to say goodbye to you." As he spoke, Omer's pace increased as he headed toward the opening. Gunshots and shouts rang out behind them, growing louder by the second.

Squall was close, he could feel it. More of Omer's men attacked him and slowed his progress, and the constant need to call upon his Guardians began to wear him down. He'd long since run out of bullets to the rifle he'd stolen and had picked up and used up several more. His shield spells still held, fortunately, or he'd have been long since dead. Every inch of ground was a hard fought battle and Squall was running out of time.

Suddenly, he heard footsteps running toward him from behind. He was flattened against the irregular surface of the tunnel, making the most of the minimal cover as bullets whizzed and pinged against the rocks, ducking what the shield didn't deflect completely. That worried him, for it meant that the spell was wearing off. Feeling desperate, he aimed one pistol toward the guards that were still firing at him, snapping off his last four shots, and took a second pistol he'd appropriated into his other hand, aiming it back toward whoever was approaching.

Out of nowhere, a windstorm buffeted him, driving grit into his eyes and forcing him to duck and cover his face. He recognized the entity creating the near tornado force wind, and realized that somehow, reinforcements had arrived. The wind increased, and screamed down the tunnel with the force of a freight train, pulverizing everything in its path. As the wind died down as quickly as it came up, Squall stood up, blinking grit from his eyes, and waited.

It wasn't long before Fujin, followed by Seifer, and trailed by Raijin and about a dozen or so Estharian marines, arrived.

"Thought that might have been you creating all that ruckus." Seifer drawled. Squall declined to respond, busying himself with shaking dust out of his hair and looking for another gun that had enough bullets to be worth taking. Seifer rolled his eyes at Fujin, who snorted.

"By the way, I figured you might want this." Seifer added. Squall looked up and saw Siefer extending the hilt of his Lion Heart gunblade toward him.

"Thanks," Squall said, taking it and checking the chamber. Finding it fully loaded, he nodded in satisfaction.

Then he said, "thanks for showing up. We need to hurry. Come on." Turning on his heel, he took off again, running with a long, loping stride toward where he hoped he would find Rinoa. Seifer shrugged and followed, as did Fujin and everyone else.

Squall's breath was coming short now, he'd been running and fighting for days it seemed. He grimly pushed on; sweat soaking him and pain burning in his bare feet with every step. He rounded a bend in the tunnel, Fujin close behind him, and saw the fissure, the sunlight, and silhouetted against the light, several forms, one of which appeared to be struggling.

He pushed harder, but his quarry up ahead disappeared into the light. He cursed breathlessly and forged on.

"Let me go! I haven't done anything!" Rinoa screamed, fighting Omer's grip. When she realized what he intended, she began to fight in earnest, but he was far stronger and dragged her inexorably toward the opening. She didn't know why he hadn't killed her yet, unless it was because he wanted to use her as a hostage still.

Then they were outside, in the open air, and the desert heat of Centra pressed down on her after the chill of the caves they'd just exited. A military-style vehicle waited, covered by a camouflage net off to one side, with desert scrub and boulders surrounding them. A dirt track led from the vehicle past them and out of sight.

"Not yet, you haven't. But given time, you will, and you know it." Omer jerked her to a halt and ordered the guards with him, "get the truck ready." Then he pulled out his pistol, cocked it and aimed it at Rinoa's head.

"It's the nature of the beast." He explained, "Power calls to power. You won't be able to help yourself. Eventually, you'll be compelled to take over and rule everything, just like every other sorceress that has ever existed since the dawn of time. Good, bad or indifferent, eventually, they all take over. But I'm not going to give you that chance. Since I'm not able to use you like I'd planned to, I'm just going to have to kill you."

"Not if you want to live you won't" said a voice from the rocks behind him. Omer glanced back and saw the lanky Galbadian SeeD that he'd thought he'd killed, sighting down the barrel of a very large sniper rifle. He'd have sworn that nobody was there when he'd come out of the cave complex.

"Great Gods, you SeeDs are damned hard to kill." Jace Omer remarked. Then he extended his arm until the muzzle of his pistol rested against Rinoa's right temple. She squeezed her eyes shut, steeling herself against what was to come and refusing to let the man see her cry.

"Let's see if your trigger finger is faster than mine, sniper." He challenged.

Right at that moment, Squall, Seifer, Fujin, Raijin and the rest charged out of the caves, weapons ready.

The tableau before them however drew them all to a halt.

"And here comes your knight to the rescue, Sorceress. I'm afraid you're too late Commander. Unless you've got exceptionally fast reflexes, and a more appropriate weapon than a gunblade, you're not going to be able to save her." Omer smirked at Squall, continuing, "A close contact, melee weapon like that isn't really going to do much good in this situation, is it?"

Squall studied the situation silently, cursing himself for not getting to Rinoa sooner.

Rinoa opened her tear washed eyes with a gasp, "Squall.."

Squall watched Omer's eyes, held his gaze with an icy calm he didn't actually feel, and said to Rinoa, "Remember what I said to you." It was a statement, not a question, but Rinoa nodded. Trust me, he'd said.

Then she said, "I love you," on a strangled sob. Squall glanced at Fujin, standing right beside him. She had her Zan out and ready, and he knew how fast, and how accurate she was with it. She met his eyes and nodded slightly. Then he met Irvine's eyes. The sniper nodded in answer to his silent question. Squall returned his gaze to Omer, whose finger seemed to tighten on the trigger. They locked eyes for a breathless moment.

Suddenly, Squall dropped his gunblade and put his hands out, palms upward, saying, "Take me. I'll surrender to you if you let her go." Slowly, he walked forward, holding Omer's gaze. Holding his attention. At all costs, he had to keep that attention focused on him.

"That's a very tempting offer, Commander. I might be able to salvage this mission yet." Omer said, considering. Squall watched closely as the hand holding the gun to Rinoa's head seemed to relax and started to lower. One step, two steps. Closer. The space between the gun Omer held and Rinoa's head gradually widened as she edged away from him while his attention was fixed on Squall's slow advance.

Then several things happened at once. Squall dropped to his knees, ducked, and yelled,"Fujin! Irvine! NOW!" Rinoa dove to the side, away from Omer while Fujin's razor-sharp Zan flicked through the air above Squall so fast it was hard to see, connecting solidly with Omer's gun hand, slicing it off neatly at the wrist. Omer had only a split second to register his surprise before the bullet fired by Irvine tore through his head and scattered all of his thoughts, and his brains, to the winds. As Omer fell, Squall leaped to his feet and ran the remaining distance to Rinoa, catching her up in his arms and holding her tightly, burying his face in her hair. She clung to him, sobbing wetly.

"Oh, Hyne," he whispered in her ear shakily, "if that hadn't worked…" He pulled back and held her face in his hands, kissing her urgently, not caring that he had a wider audience than he liked. Then he simply held her, stroking her hair.

"I couldn't lose you, Angel. I just couldn't. Life would be meaningless without you." He murmured. Gradually he became aware of everyone else watching, and smiling. Irvine stood on the rocks with his Exeter rifle slung back over both shoulders, held loosely there by one hand. He smiled and tipped his hat at Squall and Rinoa.

"Nice shooting cowboy," Squall said, and then he turned to Fujin, adding, "You too. Good work. All of you."

Reaching down to take Rinoa's hand, Squall examined the Odine bangle that decorated the wrist carefully, then limped over to Omer's body. He bent down and dabbed a fingertip into the rapidly congealing blood, limped back to Rinoa and smeared a bit on the bangle. Then he worked at the hidden catch, opening the bangle. Doing the same thing to the other bangle got Rinoa's hands free and she smiled in relief as the magic flowed back into her and with it her Guardians.

"Irvine," Squall called to the sharpshooter, "get Selphie to fly the Ragnarok over here to pick us all up." Looking down at Rinoa, he added softly, "Let's go home."

It was a very short time later that they were all picked up. Seeing the condition of Squall's still bare feet made Rinoa cringe as he limped toward the Ragnarok, leaving bloodied footprints. Immediately she cast a cure spell, which took care of his injuries. While they boarded the airship, Squall sent the Estharian Marines back through the caves to their boat, asking them if, as a favor to him, they could locate and retrieve his boots.

Seifer snorted upon hearing his request, and Squall glared at him, "I like those boots. Those are my favorite boots. I'd like to get them back." Seifer shook his head, chuckling, and slung his arm over Fujin's shoulder and entered the Ragnarok with her and Raijin.

Before the marines left, Squall added, "radio the ships and get everyone else in to clean this place out. I'm pretty sure that we haven't gotten everybody. We need all the evidence we can get." The squad sergeant nodded and immediately carried out his orders as he led the rest of the marines back to the caves.

Squall continued onto the Ragnarok with Rinoa.

As they entered, Selphie said, "We're headed for Esthar. Laguna's orders."

Squall sighed, "Okay, fine. I'm gonna shower and sleep for about a hundred years. Wake me when we get there." Now that everything was over and the adrenaline had faded from his system, Squall was left feeling shaky and exhausted. But he really, really wanted a shower.

Once he'd made it to his quarters on board the airship, he immediately went to the small bathroom and began to strip down, catching sight of his reflection in the mirror and grimacing. He looked as exhausted and haggard as he felt, complete with several days worth of stubble growing into a somewhat patchy beard. Ugh, he thought. He needed a shave.

He turned on the water, adjusting the fine spray until it was nicely hot, and stepped in, sighing as the water sluiced down his face and body. He closed his eyes and stuck his face into the water, and nearly jumped out of his skin when a pair of hands came around from behind and stroked up his chest. Sputtering, he turned around to see Rinoa grinning impishly up at him.

"I needed a shower too, and figured we'd save water this way." She said, eyes sparkling.

"You nearly gave me a heart attack just now, you know that?" Squall said. Rinoa giggled, then got her hands nice and soapy, and began applying the suds to Squall's chest. He gasped, then with a growl attacked her with a soapy sponge. They spent the next few minutes soaping and rinsing off, before Squall couldn't stand it anymore and pulled Rinoa to him, kissing her breathless. His fatigue was forgotten as his passion took over, and the water ran cold while they were occupied with each other. It didn't cool their ardor however; it simply drove them out of the shower and into the bed where they continued what they'd started.

Finally, relaxed and sated, Squall pulled Rinoa close and kissed her yet again. His eyes were growing heavy, fatigue finally taking over. Rinoa's eyes too were closing, and Squall smiled gently at her as she finally succumbed to sleep.

"I love you Rinoa," he whispered, before he too, fell asleep.

He was awakened by a knock on the door to his quarters, and a voice saying, "We're in Esthar Squall, and we should be landing in a few minutes. You might want to get ready." Squall groaned and began looking for some clothes. Clean clothes. He shook Rinoa awake while he was dressing and gave her a quick kiss before heading into the bathroom and finally shaving. Once he judged himself presentable, if not exactly immaculate, he and Rinoa (who had actually taken less time to dress and get ready than he did, oddly), exited his room and headed toward the front of the Ragnarok as the ship made its final approach and landed.

The limo sent by Laguna met them all at the gate and whisked them away to the Presidential palace. It was with an odd sense of deja vu that Squall rode alongside Rinoa, arm comfortably about her shoulders while he gazed pensively out the window. Selphie and Irvine sat side by side and traded a glance, but remained silent. Siefer, Fujin and Raijin were likewise silent. The letdown after the earlier events had left everyone tired, too tired to be talkative. Fortunately, the ride was a short one.

They pulled up to the palace and stopped smoothly, the doors were opened, and they were escorted into the palace. They were surprised to see a crowd gathered, and they were cheered as they passed all the onlookers.

"Huh," said Seifer, "I guess news travels fast."

"The President's rescue and return by a SeeD team was all over the news outlets here for days." Kiros said.

"We're famous. Again." Irvine drawled. Squall simply snorted and followed Kiros inside the Palace, arm around Rinoa's shoulders.

They were ushered into the presidential office where an anxious Laguna stopped his pacing and took a deep breath before slowly approaching Squall, eyes glittering. He looked exhausted, lines of fatigue etched heavily into his face, and silvery stubble still roughening his cheeks. The white streaks in his hair appeared to be broader as well.

Squall, standing at attention, began "We're ready to debrief when you're ready," But he was cut short when Laguna pulled him into a rough embrace and hugged him hard.

"Thank God you're okay." He whispered. Squall, taken by surprise, hesitated a moment, then his arms came up of their own volition and he hugged Laguna back. It was a new sensation for him, and he leaned into it. He'd never been hugged by his father before.

"I.. I'm fine," Squall murmured, at a loss of what else to say. Laguna pulled back, gripping Squall's shoulders, eyes still shining with unshed tears.

"It kills me, every time you go out on an assignment son. I nearly lost you again." Laguna said, voice rough with emotion.

Squall frowned in confusion, "I saved your life, dad." Laguna laughed softly, wiping at his eyes, which threatened to overflow when Squall unconsciously called him dad.

"I know son, you've done it more than once. And I know its your job, and you're very good at it. Its just that I've just gotten to know you, and the thought of losing you so soon.." His voice failed him.

Squall swallowed a sudden lump in his throat, and said, "I...I feel the same way, dad." Laguna smiled and patted him on the shoulder.

"Why don't you and your friends take some time off, hang out here for awhile? I'll debrief you all tomorrow morning. You've got to be as exhausted as I am." Laguna suggested.

Squall looked around at Rinoa and the rest of his team, appearing to notice them for the first and Selphie were smiling, Raijin grinning while Fujin wore a slight smile. Even Seifer seemed to be smiling, although it appeared to be more of a smirk than anything else. Squall gave him an icy look and Seifer raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"We're okay with staying here for a while," Irvine said, with Selphie adding "Yeah, It'll be fun! Besides, we've all had a rough few days." Everyone nodded in agreement.

"Alright, I guess we'll stay here." Squall said.

"Good!" Laguna said, satisfied, then added, "Kiros will show you to your rooms. Stay as long as you like." They all filed out, Selphie and Rinoa chattering happliy about the shopping, while Irvine talked, civilly for a change, to Seifer about the weapons shops that he preferred. Squall watched them leave with a bemused expression on his face, then followed along behind. He was still very tired, the sleep he'd had on the flight over wasn't nearly enough. Rinoa might be up for a shopping trip, but all Squall wanted to do at the moment was sleep.

But as he walked, his mind kept turning over the mundane concerns of commanding Balamb Garden and he knew he'd have to check in with Xu and Cid soon, if nothing else, to let them know he'd given himself and his team some time off for R and R.

They'd been given the same suite of rooms that they'd had when they first arrived in Esthar, which made it easier on everyone as they were familiar with them. Squall entered his rooms and immediately began stripping down, wanting nothing more than several hours worth of uninterrupted sleep. Until he saw Rinoa, already fast asleep in his bed.Then, he wanted nothing more than her. His heart turned over and he smiled gently, as he watched her sleep for a moment. He finished undressing carefully, quietly, so as not to wake her, and slid into the bed with her. Despite the fact that the sun still shone brightly outside, Squall's fatigue caught up with him and he yawned before he reached an arm over Rinoa, pulling himself close and kissing the back of her neck.

Softly, he whispered, "I'm home, Angel." Home was where his heart was, and his heart was with Rinoa.

Fujin walked down the hallway to her assigned room, wanting some time to herself. Things had somehow turned around for her, Raijin and especially Seifer, in the minds of the other SeeDs. Irvine at least had mitigated his hostility enough to be cautiously civil to Seifer, and Selphie appeared to have followed suit. The three SeeDs, Seifer, Raijin and Irvine, did in fact take off to visit one of Irvine's favorite weapons shops, which Fujin found decidedly odd. When invited she respectfully declined, citing other plans. Seifer, fortunately, was understanding and gave her a warm smile and quick kiss before leaving.

Upon reaching her room, Fujin had a moment of deja vu, remembering that Laguna had put them all in the same rooms they'd used previously. It hadn't even been a week since she left it to help with Laguna's and then Squall and Rinoa's rescues. She wandered through the room, paying scant attention to its opulent details, and found the glass doors leading to a beautiful balcony overlooking the jeweled city of Esthar. She found it puzzling that the citizens hadn't come up with a more imaginative name for their capitol city, but then again, the few Estharians that Fujin had met were rather strange anyway.

She opened the doors and stepped out onto the balcony, basking in the desert warmth and appreciating the vibrant sunset that dusted the entire city with gold. She took in a deep breath of the dry air, and found it smelled, and tasted, strange to her. It was acrid and metallic, not the soft tang of salt and water that she was used to in Balamb. Lovely though the city was, Fujin could not live there. It was not and never would be her home.

The events of the previous few days had put a great deal of stress upon Fujin, despite her stoic front. She needed time to process it all and come to terms with it. Having worked with Squall and the rest of her erstwhile adversaries had been an educational experience for her. She respected Squall's leadership and skills, and while she didn't precisely like Selphie, she had come to respect her surprising skills as well. Mostly however, she was glad that she had Pandemona back.

After the sunset had faded to a violet smudge in a black velvet field, Fujin returned to her room and took a shower. Fatigue dogged her as she did, and she decided forego dinner in favor of sleep. She had just exited the shower and was toweling off when she heard a knock at the door, and, just as she had done before, opened the door to find Seifer on the other side, grinning broadly.

"Now, this looks familiar," He commented, sauntering in at Fujin's wordless invite. She nodded and laughed quietly, then yawned. Seifer did as well, stretching until his joints popped.

"TIRED?" Fujin asked. Seifer nodded.

"I'm beat. Must have walked all over Esthar with Irvine." He said. Fujin raised her eyebrows.

"NO FIGHT?" She asked, curious.

Seifer chuckled, "Not this time. Maybe some other time we'll have to duke it out, but we seem to be on a truce right now. We actually saw some really nifty weapons shops, like the one where Irvine and Squall both got their weapons." He walked over to Fujin, sliding his hands over her creamy white shoulders and drawing her close, kissing her on the cheek.

"But now, I think its time for us to go to bed, " He said softly, drawing her closer. He began with kissing her lips, lingering there before pulling back and kissing first one cheek, then the other cheek, below the scar that trailed up to her missing eye. Greatly daring, he softly kissed the scar and smiled at Fujin's sharp intake of breath.

Fujin kissed him back with fire and passion, and dropped the towel. Siefer snatched her up into his arms, carried her to the bed, still kissing her, and playfully tossed her onto it. Then he tossed himself onto the bed as well, bouncing Fujin up into the air a little and causing them both to laugh. As one, they moved toward each other and continued kissing, caressing, touching, making love until they were both exhaused.

They were drifting off to sleep when Seifer kissed her one final time, whispering, "I love you Fujin." Starlight, shining through an open window, sparkled on her silvery hair and was caught in her eye as she smiled at him.

"LOVE YOU TOO." Silence.

Fujin laughed softly to herself as Seifer began to snore.

*FIN*


Author's Note: I had every intention of this being my very LAST FF8 fanfic. I mean, come on! The game is over 10 years old now, and I don't even have the frickin' thing anymore!

BUT.....This tall Galbadian cowboy keeps bugging me about a story I promised to write for him.. and well, he just won't leave me alone. So, Squall and Rinoa are going to step back and let Irvine take center stage for awhile.