Disclaimer: These aren't my characters; I am borrowing them from squaresoft. No profit but enjoyment is derived from this.

Dawn was just touching the horizon, the beach still glowed from the starlight of the night before, and the waves swished back and forth in their endless rhythm. As if to herald its approach, a slight breeze picked up, carrying back with it the cries of the seabirds and the sounds and smells of the sea. In the gray light, a lone figure strode onto the beach and faced the sea, gazing at the horizon where it was gradually lightening. Squall Leonhart, in his usual fur-trimmed cropped leather jacket, leather pants, and t-shirt, lifted his face to the breeze and closed his eyes, letting it caress his face and blow his hair back off his forehead. He let the peace of the place, the sound of the waves and the birds; invade his being. It was his favorite place to get away, his favorite time of the day, where he could be alone with his thoughts and not bothered by all the demands on his time that he had to deal with these days. Slowly, he slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a white bandanna, and tied it around his forehead to keep the hair out of his eyes. I should probably get a haircut, he thought. I'm getting kinda tired of it flopping into my eyes all the time. He opened his eyes and observed the progress of the dawn, then turned and walked back away from the onrushing tide, onto the sand, and removed his jacket. Squall pulled his gunblade from its holster and stood in a ready position, facing the sea, and the dawn.

Starting slowly at first, to warm up, he made a pass to the left, then to the right, letting the weight of the blade carry through the swing. Then he started first with a beginners pattern, fighting an imaginary opponent...block, parry, thrust, guard, and then back to ready position, going over the same pattern faster and faster until he was warm, sweating in fact. The sun broke over the waves, the colors of the dawn turning from violet, to red, to rose, to peach and then to fiery gold, the colors picking up in the blade Squall held. He thrust it into the sand for a moment to stretch out his arms and shoulders, shaking out some lingering kinks, then, as it was getting warmer, he removed his t-shirt and tossed it over to where his jacket lay. Then he worked through all the different patterns he knew, at full speed, going from beginner to the more advanced maneuvers he knew now. The sun glinted off his heavy platinum chain with the lion head pendant, and flashed on the translucent, sky blue blade of his Lionheart. He shifted to a one handed grip, more difficult with the heavy blade, but the adamantine it was made out of made it lighter than it would have been had it been pure steel, and started making some fancy passes, whirling the blade from one side to the next, keeping his left hand close to his chest to keep it out of the way, then slashed high, slashed low, spun around and slashed out and down. He kept up the dance, letting the weight and balance of the blade choose its own path, ignoring the sweat that trickled down the side of his face and neck, and down his chest. He wasn't dancing to any pre-set pattern now, he was caught up in the joy and challenge, and for a moment, his mind, spirit and body all were focused on the flash of the blade. He used his whole body, shifting forward and back on his legs, diving forward and rolling to his feet to slash at an imaginary attacker. At one point he grew audacious and took a running start, gaining speed, then leaped high into the air, flipping into a forward somersault and landing firmly on his feet, back into his guard position, and laughed with pure joy. Zell's not the only one who can do somersaults! He thought gleefully. He continued the dance, his breath more labored now, but the blood still surging in his veins urged him on, and so he did, ignoring fatigue.

Selphie ran through Balamb Garden's hallways to the girl's dorm. Gasping for breath, she pounded on the door to Rinoa's dorm room.

When she opened it, just barely awake, Selphie, jumping up and down in excitement, said, "Hurry up and get dressed Rinoa, you gotta see this!"

Blinking sleepily, Rinoa asked, "see what?"

To which Selphie only replied,"Hurry up and get dressed!" When Rinoa complied, Selphie grabbed her by the hand and started towing her out of her room.

"Hey! Can I at least brush my hair?" She protested. Selphie stopped and waited impatiently for her, and then they continued on out the door.

"Oh, I hope he isn't finished yet, " Selphie panted as they ran through the hallways.

"Hope who isn't finished?" Rinoa asked.

"Squall. Oh you gotta see this, its sooo coool!" Said Selphie, and she urged Rinoa to greater speed as they ran out of the Garden and toward the beach. As they approached they could see Squall's lone figure doing some exercises with his gunblade. Suddenly Selphie grabbed Rinoa and they both dropped to the ground at the crest of a hill where the land began to slope into the sea.

"Shhhh-shh," panted Selphie. Rinoa was too busy catching her breath from her run to say anything. At Selphie's urging, she turned her eyes to where Squall was still working out with his gunblade. She was amazed. She knew Squall was a top-notch fighter, it took years to master his unique weapon, and he was the only one in Garden who specialized in using it. But she had seen him fighting for his life with it, and that, she found, was not the same as watching him practice it. It became more than a mere exercise, it became art instead. He moved with the lithe grace and balance of the very same creature whose head graced his pendant, and as he moved faster and faster, she could see it was more than a workout to him, it was more like a dance. He danced to his own rhythm, punctuated by the singing of his blade through the air and his own explosive breaths. When he ran forward and did a front somersault, laughing for joy upon landing on his feet and immediately shifting into a parry-thrust, she gasped. Then she immediately clamped her hand over her mouth as Squall, whose hearing was exceptionally keen, quickly looked in their direction.

"Uh-oh," Whispered Selphie. "Busted."

"Shh," Rinoa whispered back, "maybe not."

Squall stood, sweat slicked and panting, and narrowed his eyes, still gazing in their direction. Then a slight smile quirked at the corners of his mouth, and he gave a slight nod, and then continued with his blade dancing. Rinoa was torn between embarrassment at getting caught spying, and amusement at Selphie's attempts to melt into the grass. Rinoa propped her chin on her fist and waited for him, smiling. He is so beautiful, she thought, admiring the way the sun caught in his mahogany hair and sparked on the coppery red highlights. His suntanned skin covered well-defined arm and chest muscles, made so by his incessant training with the huge gunblade. If not for the scar Seifer gave him, he'd be almost too pretty to be a boy, she mused. The scar that was Squall's trademark was a diagonal slash beginning above his right eyebrow, going over the bridge of his aquiline nose and between his eyes to below his left eye. Quistis had told Rinoa that Squall had gotten it in a "training accident" with his archrival and the only other gunblade user in Garden at the time, Seifer Almasy. Seifer bore a similar scar, a mirror image of Squall's own, gained on Squall's return stroke. It was on that same day that Squall had passed the SeeD field exam, the same exam that Seifer had failed yet again. The very same day that I met him, at the Celebratory Ball for the new SeeD inductees. She remembered. Even with the fresh cut on his forehead, he still had looked so handsome in his dress uniform that he had taken her breath away.

"Hello..?" Selphie waved her hand in front of Rinoa's face.

"What?" Said Rinoa, startled out of her (somewhat lustful) thoughts.

"What planet were you on? Were you even watching? " Selphie demanded.

"Yes, of course I was..." Said Rinoa, blushing.

"Well, gotta go!" Selphie said, and bounced to her feet, grinning impishly, green eyes twinkling with humor, then she ran off, laughing.

"Hey! Wait! Selphie!" Rinoa said, starting to get up, then stopped as a shadow fell across her.

Squall stood with his gloved hand outstretched to help Rinoa to her feet. He pulled her to her feet, smiling, and then jumped slightly as she threw her arms around him in a tight hug.

"Uh, Rinoa.."He began; holding his arms away from her, then gently pushed her away.

"What?" She asked, smiling at him

"I..Um, I need a shower.." He said, fanning his face and grimacing.

"Silly," she chided, "I don't care". Then she slid her hands behind his neck and pulled him into a kiss. Hesitating a moment, he thought, what the hell, and tightened his arms around her and kissed her back until they were both flushed and panting. I could really get used to this, he thought when his scattered wits returned.

"Let's go back inside." He said softly, picking up his jacket and shaking out the sand, then doing likewise with his t-shirt and putting it back on. It was too hot to wear the jacket now, so he slung it over his shoulder, holding it with one hand and draping his arm around Rinoa with the other.

As they started walking back, Rinoa asked him, "So why are you training out here now, instead of the Training Center?"

"Too many interruptions." He said, and then continued, "Everyone knew to look for me there and before I knew it, I was rescuing half of the wannabe gunblade masters that have suddenly started to crop up among the underclassmen. I finally had to go to the instructors to have them enforce the buddy rule there so nobody would get hurt." He sighed. He hated giving kids detention; it put him too much in mind of Seifer and his self-appointed disciplinary committee, Fujin and Raijin.

"I bet they told you to set a good example and never go in there alone yourself, right?" Rinoa asked, brown eyes lit with amusement.

Squall gave her a sidewise look and a smirk and said, "yeah...they did. And I could see their point, so I stopped working out in there and started coming out here instead."

Rinoa laughed, "Old habits are hard to change, aren't they?" Squall tightened his arm around her shoulders in a half hug and kissed the top of her head.

"I'm working on it." He said. They continued on into the Garden, with Squall giving a nod to the security guard at the front gate. It was still early yet, so the halls weren't too populated, but some early risers were treated to the sight of Squall strolling casually toward the dormitories with Rinoa snuggled under his arm. Some waved and called out hellos, others smiled. Squall nodded to acknowledge the hellos, then continued on to the dorms.

Kissing Rinoa again at the door to her room, he told her, "I'll meet you in the cafeteria for breakfast." He started to turn away but Rinoa grabbed him again and kissed him silly, again.

Surfacing for air a few moments later, Squall said the first thing that popped into his head, "I really need that shower..." he said, backing off. Preferably a cold one, he thought, trying to regain control over his raging hormones. Rinoa smiled at him sweetly and blew him a kiss, then made a shooing motion with her hands.

"Ok, you can go now. See you at breakfast." She turned and went into her room.

Showered and shaved, dressed in his SeeD uniform since he had laundry to do and didn't much care to do it (he usually prevailed upon Zell's mom in town to do it for him, but he hadn't made it over there yet), he joined Rinoa in the cafeteria. She smiled as he sat down next to her.

"Mmmm..Spiffy. Why so formal? Got an important meeting?" She asked.

"No," He grinned, flashing an elusive dimple in one cheek. "I have to do laundry, and I haven't had a chance to get over to Zell's yet."

"Flash that dimple at her and she'll be begging to adopt you." Rinoa teased, then stopped as his expression cooled and he started on his breakfast.

"I'm sorry Squall, I wasn't thinking." She started, but he looked up and replied, "It's ok, I know you didn't mean anything by it." He took her hand and rubbed the back of her knuckles with his thumb. Then he continued with his breakfast. They were almost finished when they heard Xu's voice over the P.A. system, paging for Squall to come to the bridge.

He stood up and gave her a quick kiss, then said, "Time to go to work. I'll see you later ok?" He traced his finger down her cheek and smiled.

"Ok Squall" she smiled back.

As Squall strode toward the lift, he thought over the changes that had happened to him, both within and without, since he and his friends had defeated the evil Sorceress Ultimecia. It seemed like a lifetime had passed for him, and perhaps in a way it had while he was in the time-compressed world of Ultimecia's making. He only knew that he was no longer the same person who had originally set out, albeit reluctantly, to save the world from the evil Sorceress. He had had no such altruistic motives, in reality. In the end, he had only done it to save Rinoa from the threat of possession. Now just barely 18, the youngest SeeD commander in the history of the Gardens, Squall found himself surprisingly, settling into the role thrust upon him by Headmaster Cid during the battle with Galbadia Garden, which at the time was under Seifer's command, acting under Edea's orders while she had been possessed by Ultimecia. I wonder what became of Seifer after we defeated him in Esthar? Squall thought, He was badly injured, but not dead when we killed the Sorceress Adel. We were so busy with that battle, nobody paid attention to what he was doing. He vaguely remembered someone telling him that they had spotted him fishing in Balamb Harbor with his compatriots, Fujin and Raijin not long after Ultimecia's defeat. Not wanting to waste anymore time thinking about his erstwhile enemy, Squall continued up to the bridge, and gave Xu a salute.

"Well, Squall, I don't know what made you decide to wear your uniform today, but its a lucky thing you did," She said, smiling.

Squall waited, and then realizing she was actually expecting a response, he said, "Oh? Why is that?"

"You have a special visitor in your office, someone who wants to hire you and your team." She said. Then continued, "He just got here, so I told him it would be ok to wait in your office."

"What's the job?" Squall asked, wondering why Xu would put a potential contract in his office instead of just having them wait in the lobby like everyone else.

"Why don't you just talk to him about that?" Xu said, seeming slightly flustered. Squall gave her an odd look and took the lift down to his office.

The minute he walked in, he knew the reason for Xu's odd behavior. Never in a million years would he mistake that long mane of black hair, rumpled turquoise shirt and khaki pants. It was the same outfit the man had worn the first time Squall had met him in Esthar. Even with his back to the door, Squall knew who it was. He had shared minds with this man, during dreamlike states his sis Ellone had put him in, reliving a past that had happened before his birth through this man's eyes. Laguna Loire, President of the great nation of Esthar, stood in all his rumpled glory, gazing out of the window in Squall's office, with his hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched forward.

Laguna Loire, liberator of Esthar from the same Sorceress Adel that Squall, seventeen years later, killed. He was a former Galbadian soldier, then journalist and writer, who left his new wife Raine in her hometown of Winhill to search for Ellone after she had been kidnapped by Estharian soldiers acting on Adel's orders. He was never to return upon hearing of Raine's death. Laguna Loire; his father. Squall closed the door behind him and stood, silent for a moment, gazing at him as he turned around.

"Squall.." Laguna began.

"President Loire." Squall cut him off. "What can I do for you?"

Laguna sighed. I guess I can't really blame him. He thought. For seventeen years, the boy thought he was an orphan. Now, come to find out his father is not only alive, but President of the largest country in the world, is a bit of a shock, to say the least. I just hope that someday he can find it in him to forgive me.... His thoughts trailed off as he studied his son. He's filled out some since I last saw him, looks a little taller too. He was brought up short as Squall, looking impatient, cleared his throat and gave him an icy look that clearly said, "Let's get on with it, shall we?"

"Ah, ok." Said Laguna. "I'm going to Galbadia on a diplomatic mission. We are trying to reestablish trade with the rest of the world, and now that Galbadia's government is stable, The Estharian Council thought it would be a good idea to start there. You know General Caraway, right? Rinoa's father?" Squall nodded.

"Well, right after Edea killed President Deling, Caraway declared martial law and took over. He's gradually gotten the situation settled down but wants to get the economy there jump-started before he steps down and lets the citizens of Galbadia elect a new president." Laguna went on,

"Basically, what I want you and your team to do, Squall, is act as my security escort while I'm in Deling City."

Great, Squall thought. I get to baby-sit this buffoon while he does his P.R. spiel. I thought he used to be a soldier himself. He folded his arms across his chest and studied Laguna, mildly surprised to note that he was now at an even height with him, or even slightly taller now. Then he brought his thoughts back to the matter at hand.

"Have you received any threats?" He asked coolly.

"Any political figure will have enemies, regardless the type of person they are, it goes with the office. It's only a precaution, and I would rather have you and your friends backing up Ward and Kiros, than anyone else. I know I can trust you." Laguna said. Squall narrowed his eyes. Typical politician, takes a whole sentence to say absolutely nothing, he thought.

Then he took a step forward, looking directly into Laguna's eyes, and asked again, distinctly, "Have you received any threats?" Emerald green eyes met cool blue-green as they studied each other. Then Laguna let out a breath and scratched at the back of his neck.

"Yeah, I have." Laguna waited a beat, but Squall's expression never changed as he questioned him about the nature and frequency of the threats. When Squall had gotten as much information from Laguna as he had to give, he turned to leave.

"Squall, wait." Laguna stopped him, and then asked, "Will you take the job?"

"I'll have to think about it. Are you staying in the Balamb Hotel?" He asked. Laguna nodded.

"You'll hear from us within the next day or two." Squall replied, and then left.

Squall had too many mixed feelings about Laguna's visit to sort through immediately, so he did what he usually did in those kinds of situations, shoved them into a little corner of his mind and ignored them. He went through his duties without any sign of his personal feelings on the matter. Sooner or later, he knew, he would have to face them and sort through them, and maybe actually talk to Laguna, to try to make some sense out of what he was feeling. He wasn't all that thrilled about the thought.

After discussing with Xu various mundane details such as current SeeD assignments, new applicants to the academy, the latest group scheduled for a field exam, Squall headed back to his office to review some reports. Paperwork. He thought with exasperation, 90% of the time all leadership is, is paperwork. I may take that job just to get the hell out of here. Squall thought, knowing Xu could keep things running smoothly in his absence. Squall was thankful for Xu's support, the older woman could have easily have been resentful of someone of his youth being given a command that she perhaps would have been better suited for, but instead she supported him and subtly guided him, almost as much his mentor as Headmaster Cid was. He planned this for me from the moment I joined Balamb Garden, he thought, remembering Cid's subtle guidance in his curriculum choices. I didn't understand why he kept stressing subjects like Strategy and Tactics, Diplomacy. At that thought, Squall smirked, probably the only class I ever failed..Leadership Skills..Now I'm using everything I learned, and then some. The only thing I STILL can't figure out is WHY? Realizing that he was brooding again, Squall sighed and stood up, noting the time as he did so. It was already past noon, and Squall realized that he had been so distracted by Laguna's visit he had forgotten to eat lunch. Squall poked his head out of his office door, looking for Xu.

"Xu, is there anything else that needs my immediate attention?" He asked when she came into sight.

"Nothing urgent, but Quistis was wondering if you could give a demonstration to one of her classes on gunblade techniques, sometime next week?" Xu asked. Squall sighed and closed his eyes for a minute. He was sincerely glad that Quistis had gotten her instructor's permit back, and she was an even better teacher now than she had been before, but he really hated that sort of thing, even though Zell and Irvine ate it up when their turns came to demonstrate martial arts or marksmanship. He opened his eyes and looked over at Xu's slightly amused expression.

"All right, tell her I'll do it, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to do it next week or not. I'll talk it over with her." He raked his fingers through his hair and said, "Well, if there isn't anything else going on right now, I'm gonna take off. Call me if anything comes up." With that, he strode to the lift, and headed down to his dorm room, by way of Zell's room. He still had to do laundry. Maybe I'll snag something to eat in town...

"Give him some time Laguna." Kiros, Laguna's friend and the Prime Minister of Esthar, said. "Its a lot for him to get used to." Ward rumbled in agreement. Laguna paced the hotel room restlessly and then flung his arms out in frustration.

"I know! But it's been months since they beat Ultimecia, and no word from him at all!" Laguna sat down on the edge of the bed and put his elbows on his knees, and his face in his hands, looking through his fingers at his friends.

" I want to get to know him, at least be friends with him if nothing else, but he won't even try! How can I make up for the last seventeen years Kiros? How do I even reach him?" Laguna's green eyes shone with anguish. Ah, Raine...If you had only told me...

"From what his friends told me, that's just the way he is." Kiros stated. "He'll never make any overtures Laguna, you have to keep trying."

"He's like that because of me," Laguna said in a low voice. Kiros shook his head, his brown eyes dark with sympathy.

"No, Laguna, its not because of you. He was hurt, very deeply, as a child, but not by you." Kiros said.

"I should have been there for him...I wish I had been there. I probably would have made the worst father in the world, " He gave a mirthless laugh. "But at least I would have had the chance to try and screw it up myself. I missed so much of his life...his babyhood, his first steps..." Laguna wished he had seen Squall as a baby. He wondered if he had been as solemn as an infant as he now was as a young man. Raine wanted me to see him, Laguna thought in anguish. But by the time I made it back to Winhill, it was too late; Raine had died. I felt like a part of myself had died with her.

"Well, if he takes this job you've offered him, you'll at least be able to spend some time with him." Said Kiros.

Abruptly changing the subject in the hopes of getting his friend's mind off his problems, he asked, "Anybody hungry? I could do with some lunch, and I'm sure the Incredible Bulk over there is starving too." Kiros grinned at Ward's glare and rude gesture. A giant at 7-plus feet, Ward's huge frame took a lot of fuel to keep going. Mute since a throat injury during their last action while in the Galbadian army, Ward nevertheless managed to make himself understood to his two closest friends. Going over to where Laguna sat, Ward clapped his huge hand onto the smaller man's shoulder to get his attention, and then jerked his head toward the door.

"All right, we'll go," Laguna sighed and stood up, then suggested, "Maybe you two ought to put on some normal clothes or something, you'll stick out like sore thumbs here in those Estharian robes. I still don't see why you guys actually like wearing them, they look kinda silly if you ask me."

Kiros crossed his arms over his chest and said with great dignity, " Esthar IS a desert country, and these robes are very comfortable. It wouldn't hurt you to try wearing them yourself Laguna, after all, you ARE the president." Ward rumbled in agreement. Laguna shook his head.

"Nobody asked ME if I wanted to be president. They just sorta took a vote while I wasn't looking. Besides, they may look ok on you guys, but I'd feel like I was wearing a dress or somethin' " He started for the door, and looked over his shoulder at the two of them, saying,

"c'mon then, let's go."

Squall had finally arrived back at Balamb Garden after getting his clothes cleaned and grabbing a quick lunch at Zell's mom's place. Zell had had to do a bit of laundry himself, and to his, and Squall's, surprise, (and consternation), Mrs. Dincht told them both to do their own laundry and she would fix them lunch instead. At a loss as to how to deal with his leather outfit, he dropped it off at a dry cleaner's and did the rest at a Laundromat. Then watched in veiled amusement as Zell's adoptive mother fussed over him the way all mothers do while they ate lunch. After agreeing with her final admonishment to "Keep Zell out of trouble!" they both headed back to Garden. Upon arriving back, he told Zell to find Quistis, Irvine and the others, and have them meet him in the cafeteria at their usual table. Then he went to his room to change into his favorite black jeans and t-shirt, and headed for the cafeteria. On the way there, he reflected that since there was nothing serious pending and all the SeeD teams currently out on assignment had their jobs well in hand, he would go ahead and accept the job Laguna had offered him. He had had Zell gather his friends together to tell them that they would be going to Deling City as Laguna's escort. Sitting down at the table next to Rinoa, he looked at his friends, who were waiting for him to state the reason he had asked them all to meet.

Glancing over to Quistis, he asked her, "Quistis, is there anyone who can take over your classes for the next few days?"

Quistis shrugged and replied, "I'm sure Xu can help me find someone, why?" Quistis's sky blue eyes were alive with curiosity.

" I had a meeting this morning with the president of Esthar, and he wants to hire us as his security escort on a diplomatic visit he's planning to make to Galbadia." He said, still wondering what his real motivation for deciding to do it was. I think I just need to get out of here and away from all that damn paperwork, he thought, not willing to acknowledge that this would be a perfect opportunity to get a few things sorted out between himself and his father, and something inside him had been nagging at him to take the job. "You didn't have anything to do with this, did you Shiva?" He asked his guardian mentally. Shiva was indignant and her crystalline voice rang in his head as she replied, "no master, it was not I, it was your own heart did the nagging this time."

"Are you sure about that?" He pressed, and had a mental vision of Shiva folding her arms and pouting.

"Ok, maybe I did nudge a little, but you need to do this. Please don't be mad at me?" He shook his head and assured her that he wasn't angry. They never tell you that when you junction with a Guardian Force, you sometimes get the more intelligent ones talking back to you if you aren't careful, he thought ruefully, and then sent a calming thought to Shiva as she reacted to that. Normally, GFs didn't get too involved, just appearing when they were summoned and doing their job of supporting the person junctioned to them, but sometimes, when the bond is long standing, and a very deep one, as his was with Shiva, they got a little proprietary.

Coming back from his momentary distraction, he noticed Zell and Irvine studying him with amusement.

"Shiva put in her two cents?" Zell asked. Squall nodded.

Zell laughed and said,"I just got an earful from Ifrit, he's all for it. Said he was getting bored with whompin on T-rexaurs."

Squall looked at the rest of his friends and they all nodded. He shook his head.

"Now that all our guardians are in agreement, I guess I should finish telling you what the job entails." He said dryly, and then continued, "I take it that everyone is willing to go to Deling City then?"

At their nods, he went on,"President Loire has been receiving threats ever since his announcement to go to Galbadia. His private security forces haven't been able to determine if the threat to him is serious or not, but Galbadia still harbors some factions who aren't in favor of General Caraway's policies, and may wish to cause trouble to keep Esthar and Galbadia from reaching any kind of trade agreement. Because of Vinzer Deling's mismanagement, the economy of Galbadia is currently in a depressed state, and they need this trade agreement."

"So how are we involved?" Quistis asked.

"We're going to be working with the president's security forces as his special escort, with a secondary objective to find out if in fact the threats are serious and eliminate them." Squall said.

"Why us? We have people here specially trained for that sort of thing..." Zell wondered.

"He requested us specifically. He remembers us from when we were in Esthar to fight Sorceress Adel. He said he knows he can trust us. " Squall sighed for a moment, looking pensive, then said

"That's it for now, I'm gonna go clear a few things with Xu and the faculty, then we'll get together with the President and work out the details of the contract."

After deciding that it was better for all concerned for the Garden to remain stationary at Balamb for now, since it was only a small team that the President had requested, Squall got in touch with Laguna and informed him that they had decided to take the job.

"Great!" Laguna had said enthusiastically, "we can leave whenever you're ready, I'm not really due to be there for another few days, so you can take your time getting things set up."

"I do have some questions that I would like to ask you about this, so can we meet and discuss it?" Squall asked, then continued, "I would also like to request some special equipment if possible, to help out with this."

"Sure, whatever you want! If we don't have it, Odine can probably whip it up for you in no time." Laguna replied helpfully.

"I'll get you a list." Squall replied dryly.

It took about two days for the special items Squall had requested to be flown in from Esthar, during which time it was decided that they would travel with Laguna on his new flagship, a dragon-like craft similar to the Ragnarok, but of a more updated design. The sleek atmospheric/orbital craft gleamed a deep metallic blue, and looked lightning fast. Specially commissioned by President Loire, he had intended it to be his base of operations while he was abroad. It was called the Valkyrie. Three days after Laguna had appeared in Squall's office, they took off for Galbadia in the Valkyrie. Along the way they discussed with Ward and Kiros exactly how they were going to get Laguna into Deling City and to the Presidential Palace there with a minimum of risk and fuss. They already had the President's car and escort vehicles in the main hold of the airship, and Kiros had assured Squall that they were all armored and pretty near indestructible.

They went over the route and identified various points that may be risky areas, and then Squall broke out the "special items" he had requested. Communicators of Estharian design, small enough to be nearly invisible, were given to everyone on his team...Rinoa included.

When Laguna asked Squall about her being included, he simply said that she was with him when they fought Ultimecia, so it didn't matter that she wasn't officially a SeeD. In addition to the communicators, he got some special ammo that Irvine hooted ecstatically over, and gave everyone at least one small handgun and an extra clip of ammo as a backup to their primary weapons.

As they landed on outskirts of Deling City, Squall made a final check with everyone to make sure they were all ready and had all their GFs equipped and magics stocked.

Then he addressed the group at large, "We'll be on our way in a few minutes. Since this is an official visit to Galbadia, and we are along as an escort to President Loire, I think we should all wear our SeeD uniforms, those of us who have them, and those who do not, wear the next best thing you have. " Irvine and Rinoa nodded.

Then Squall speared Irvine with a look and said, "We're going incognito, cowboy. Try to find something low-key." Irvine saluted and grinned.

Irvine had not yet had the opportunity to participate in the SeeD field exam, though the action he had seen in the last few months was more than adequate to qualify him as a SeeD. Squall and Quistis were trying to remedy that, but hadn't gotten a response back from the Garden's faculty, either in Balamb, where Irvine was currently based, or Galbadia Garden, where the original headmaster, Martine, had assigned him to them. Rinoa was another matter entirely. She was a sorceress, and not only that, she could hold her own in a fight. Besides, she had refused to stay behind in Balamb when Squall had suggested it.

After everyone had changed, they all assembled in the main hold of the airship by the vehicles. Zell, Selphie, Quistis, and Squall were all in their blue/black SeeD uniforms, and Rinoa had donned a midnight blue pair of dress pants and matching jacket with a royal blue silk top underneath. Under her jacket she had donned a shoulder holster to hold the gun and extra clips that Squall had given her, and her primary weapon, a dart gun, was strapped to her forearm.

Irvine, for his part, had gone all out. Discarding his usual violet vest and buff duster, he instead wore head to toe black. Black jeans, a black pullover shirt and a long black leather trench coat, topped by his usual black cowboy hat. And he was armed to the teeth. In addition to his primary weapon, the Exeter rifle he carried everywhere, he had added a double shoulder holster to hold two 9mm semiautomatic pistols, each with a 15 round clip, a pistol in an ankle holster in each boot, a compact semiautomatic .380 holstered in the small of his back, and in the various specially designed pockets of his trench coat, enough ammo and extra clips for a small army. Following his example, Squall had added a 9mm in a holster opposite his gunblade, and a pistol in an ankle holster.

Seeing this, Laguna shook his head, and said,

"You guys are taking this WAY to seriously. I'm tellin' you, its just folks making noise, nothing to worry about. That trench, by the way, looks like it weighs a ton with all that lead you have stashed in it." Laguna said, indicating Irvine who was now leaning against the presidential car.

Irvine shrugged and drawled, "There are only two things I'm ever serious about, guns and women. I personally don't relish the thought of not having a weapon to hand if a situation should come up."

Selphie gave Irvine a grin and said, "You hot-dog, you're eating this up! Any excuse to put on a show to impress the ladies!"

Irvine gave Selphie his best lady-killer grin and waggled his eyebrows at her, asking her,

"Is it working? Are you impressed yet?"

Selphie snorted, saying, "You look like an assassin in that getup. Not that it doesn't look good, mind you, but you definitely look dangerous tonight Irvy." Irvine grinned triumphantly, deep blue eyes sparkling with excitement.

Squall rolled his eyes at this exchange, and snapped everyone to attention, saying, "Ok, its time. Laguna wants to have Irvine, me and Rinoa to ride in his car, and Zell, Quistis and Selphie in the escort car. Everyone, back each other up, look alive and Irvine, keep an eye on the rooftops, all right?"

When they all nodded, Squall gave them all a salute and said,"Let's go."

As they rode toward Deling City, Laguna thought about and discarded a dozen different things to say, to start a conversation. Squall ignored him completely, his manner alert and watchful. You gotta admit, the kid is good. Laguna thought, but then again, he grew up in a military academy. I don't think he was ever really allowed to be a kid. The thought saddened him.

They sat in the back of the Presidential limo with Irvine on the left, scanning the countryside with his sharpshooter's eyes, and Squall on his right, likewise engaged on that side. Rinoa sat in the middle of the seat opposite him. Studying her deep brown eyes, ivory skin, coal black hair and delicate bone structure, he noticed a similarity to someone whom he'd known in the past.

"You look just like her," Laguna commented.

Rinoa raised her eyebrows and asked, "Who?"

"Your mother." Laguna replied.

"You knew her?" Rinoa asked. Laguna nodded.

"I had a crush on her when she was playing piano in the Galbadian Hotel. I got shipped off before anything could come of it, and later I heard she had married General Caraway." He sighed and continued,"I had been injured during that campaign and was listed M.I.A. I was found outside of a little town called Winhill and nursed back to health. By the time I had heard anything about Julia, she had already married your father. And I was also involved with someone else..." His voice trailed off and he looked over at Squall.

Rinoa, noticing this, looked puzzled, and asked, "Squall..?"

He looked over at her, and then shot an angry glance at Laguna.

"Laguna is my father." He stated in an expressionless voice.

Rinoa gasped, and Irvine looked completely dumbfounded.

"I take that to mean he hasn't told you guys yet." Laguna said.

"No, " Rinoa began. " I mean, we thought it kind of odd that you were talking with him for so long after we beat Adel, but we all figured you were just debriefing him or something."

Rinoa turned to Squall and asked softly, "Why didn't you tell us? You seemed a little strange when you got done talking with Laguna, but we figured it was because we were going to fight Ultimecia next and you were preoccupied with that." She reached over and took his hand. Laguna noticed his expression soften and he gently squeezed it before releasing.

Then he said, "I didn't feel it was anyone's business but mine. Besides, I was...shocked..." His voice trailed off. Then the car slowing down grabbed his attention. He flicked a glance over to Irvine, who nodded and readied his weapons, and Squall and Rinoa did likewise.

"We're here." Came the response from the driver. They had arrived at the Presidential Palace in the heart of Deling City. In a carefully choreographed maneuver, Squall and Irvine got out, scanned the area, with Irvine paying particular attention to rooftops and nearby windows. Meanwhile, Ward and Kiros got Rinoa out of the limo, and then Laguna. When the escort car arrived moments later, Ward and Kiros formed up the escort. Ward and Kiros were in front, Irvine and Squall flanking Laguna on each side, and the rest of the team trailing behind, guarding their backs and watching the crowd as they ascended the steps to the front door of Presidential Palace, where General Caraway and his staff awaited them.

As they were escorted to the rooms assigned to them, the General asked, "You're a bit ahead of schedule, any reason why?"

"None in particular," Laguna commented casually.

Then General Caraway caught sight of his daughter and asked her, "How are you involved in this Rinoa?"

Squall spoke up coolly from Laguna's right, "She was part of the original team that defeated Ultimecia. She's earned the right to be here."

The General narrowed his eyes and gave Squall a stern look, then said,"Keep her safe."

"Of course." Said Squall, then added, "but she can take care of herself."

Squall walked along the corridors of the Palace as they were being shown to their rooms, studying his surroundings. The floors, of expensive marble, gleamed, covered here and there by rich rugs. The walls were covered with rare and expensive paintings and tapestries, interspersed by alcoves holding sculptures or other pieces of art. The overall effect was of extreme luxury and wealth, with even the ceilings sporting murals and framed by moldings in gilt paint.

He was not impressed, remembering how the late President Deling had nearly destroyed his country's economy to build this palace, then invaded the neighboring countries of Dollet and Timber to give the Galbadian citizens something else to focus on besides his iron-handed rule at home. Remembering what Rinoa had told him about the late dictator, and what he had learned while working with her in an attempt to liberate Timber, Squall could not feel sorry about the man's demise. He only hoped that Rinoa's father would make good on his pledge and step down to allow a general election of a new president as soon as possible.

He could care less about the country itself or its citizens, he was, after all, a mercenary. But he didn't want to be caught in the middle of a family feud with a freedom-fighting girlfriend whose father just happened to be the latest Galbadian dictator. Besides that, so much opulence made him rather uncomfortable. It was all so stiff and formal, he felt like he should have worn his dress uniform.

They had been given an entire wing to accommodate the President and his staff. After they had thoroughly checked out each room for listening devices and identified potential security risks (i.e. windows with easily accessible balconies, for example.), they all retired to their assigned rooms to relax before the reception that General Caraway was holding in President Loire's honor.

Squall sighed and closed the door behind him. Time to dig out the formal uniform, he thought wearily. He turned around and was startled to see Rinoa sitting on the edge of the bed, a small smile playing about her lips.

"I thought we had separate rooms," he began in confusion, then Rinoa's smile got bigger and she said,"We do, mine is right through that door." she indicated an open door.

Squall walked through to investigate, and noticed her room had a French door with a balcony overlooking the city. Walking out and leaning against the railing, he took in the view, seeing the lights sparkling against the black velvet of the night like jewels. After a moment, Rinoa joined him, and he slid his arms around her without even thinking about it. A few months ago, this would not have been so easy for me, he thought.

"Its beautiful, isn't it?" She asked.

Squall nodded his agreement, then commented, "Its a risk for you to be here though," He pointed out how easy it would be for someone motivated enough to climb up a nearby drainpipe, then shinny along a ledge to get to the balcony itself. Which, he pronounced, had a less than adequate lock on the French doors. They could easily be broken should the person really want to get in. Rinoa, at first miffed that he was talking about work on what she thought could be a romantic moment between the two of them, suddenly caught on as she saw the wicked glint of humor in his eyes.

"So what you're telling me, " she breathed, a smile twitching the corners of her mouth as she moved closer to him, "is that you don't want me to stay in this room, right?" Squall shook his head, trying to look dead serious and beginning to fail.

"No, I don't think you'll be safe here." He replied softly, pulling her closer still. Their lips were now a mere breath apart.

"Where should I sleep then? Where will I be safe?" she whispered.

"With me." He breathed, and kissed her.

Then he whispered the words to her that always caught her heart, "Stay close to me, Rinoa."

"Always." She whispered back.


"Is everything set?" Asked a shadowy figure. A light flared briefly as his companion lit a cigarette.

"Yes." came the reply after he had taken a drag. "But there's been a sudden change,"

"What?" The first figure said impatiently.

"He's hired SeeD mercenaries as his personal escort."

"That's a complication, but nothing we can't handle." The other figure began.

"Don't be too sure about that," the smoking figure snapped. "He's managed to convince the SeeD Commander himself to lead the team."

"Who? Leonhart?" the figure scoffed. "He's just a boy who got lucky in defeating Ultimecia. We can handle him."

"Don't underestimate this kid." the smoker warned.

"We won't." the other figure said. "We'll take him out first, then get President Loire."

"When are you set to make the attempt?" the smoker asked.

"There's a special concert being put on for him in the Symphony Hall tomorrow night," the figure began. "The set up is perfect. We'll get him when he comes out."

"Whatever you do, make sure it's done before this treaty is put to a vote." The smoker warned.

"Of course. Can't have General Caraway looking like a hero for saving the economy, can we?" the other figure said sarcastically.

"You don't need to know why we're doing this, just do your job." the smoker said in a hard voice.

"No problem. It'll be a real pleasure to kill Leonhart." a light flared as the first figure lit his own cigarette, and for a moment illuminated cold blue eyes and blonde hair. A diagonal scar ran from right to left in the middle of his face. Seifer Almasy took a deep drag and smiled grimly. Then he added, "I owe him one."


"I hate these things," Squall grumbled, as he got ready for the reception.

Rinoa laughed, "Why? You look so dashing in your dress uniform, and you're a much better dancer now than you used to be."

She smiled at his exasperated look, and waggled a finger at him, saying, "I know, you're still Mr. Antisocial, but it won't kill you to go to this, and besides, you do have to stick close to your father."

"Don't call him that." Squall said flatly.

"He is your father Squall." Rinoa stated.

"You have more of a relationship with your father than I do with mine, and you don't call him 'father' either. Whatever problems you have with him, at least he was there for you." Squall crossed his arms over his chest and turned away, not seeing the hurt in Rinoa's eyes.

"No, he wasn't." She said tonelessly. "Only the people he hired to look after me were there for me when my mother died. He was off on some campaign or another. He always was."

Squall turned back to her and seeing shine of tears in her eyes, took her into his arms and held her tightly, whispering,"I'm sorry. I guess we both have issues with our fathers, don't we?"

"Yeah, I guess." She snuggled deeper into his embrace and Squall kissed her on the forehead.

"All right, lets go. Let's get this over with." He took her hand and smiled at her, saying, "Did I mention how beautiful you look tonight?"

"You like it?" She did a slow turnabout, showing off the deep wine-colored silk sheath that skimmed her figure in a very attention-getting manner.

Squall gulped when he saw how low cut it was in the back, and said, frowning, "do you have a shawl or something to wear with that?"

Rinoa laughed and took his arm, saying, "It'll be fine. Let's go now. Remember, we all have to go down in a group."

"Yeah, yeah." Squall said as they left the room, meeting up with Zell and Irvine in the hallway and continuing on to the president's suite. Zell, like Squall, was wearing his dress uniform, and Irvine was elegant in a black tuxedo. As they walked, Squall caught sight of Irvine's appreciative glance in Rinoa's direction. As he raised an eyebrow in inquiry, Irvine grinned and gave him a wink, then stopped dead in his tracks as he caught sight of Selphie and Quistis coming towards them. They had opted out of wearing their dress uniforms, and instead had both donned formal gowns. Where did those come from? Squall wondered, and then saw the smug smile on Rinoa's face. Ah, she must have had these sent over from her father's house. Quistis was wearing a silky halter-top dress that matched her sky-blue eyes, and she had left her hair down for a change, allowing it to cascade down her back in a golden fall. Selphie had opted for a golden yellow velvet strapless dress, short enough to show off her long legs, setting off the golden tint in her skin perfectly. Her hair was in its usual pixyish style and she had done something with her eyes that made them sparkle like emeralds. Irvine doesn't stand a chance, Squall thought with amusement at the deer-in-the-headlights look he was wearing.

Irvine visibly shook himself, recovering his flirtatious manner, gallantly swept into a bow, and said,"Ladies, all this for me? I'm flattered." Quistis snorted and Selphie giggled.

"Silly Irvy! We didn't dress up for you, we dressed up for Sir Laguna!" Selphie teased.

"Sefie, I'm hurt. You know you're the only one for me." Irvine grinned winningly at her.

Zell, meanwhile, watching this exchange, gave Squall a sardonic glance.

Squall decided to put an end to the nonsense by saying simply, "Let's go." Then added sarcastically, "We have to act as "Sir Laguna's" escort." He ignored his friends' puzzled looks at his uncharacteristic asperity and strode toward the door to Laguna's suite.

It's just as well that I'm actually working; Squall thought as he scanned the ballroom for what must have been the hundredth time. Otherwise I'd fall asleep. Accustomed to the ebb and flow of large crowds, he would have immediately noticed if something seemed amiss, or out of place. So far, nothing but a bunch of people waltzing about and drinking champagne. He did notice some sour looks among some of the Galbadian cabinet members, and made a mental note to get together with his team to see about checking them out later. But thus far, he hadn't seen anything to make him suspicious. Speaking softly into the communicator, he asked the rest of the team for their take on things, and so far came up with all negatives. Having to circulate through the crowd with Laguna and Kiros, however, was beginning to become a chore. Not willing to engage in conversation with them, and deprived of Rinoa's presence by her overbearing father, Squall almost wished something would happen, just to relieve the boredom. Catching sight of Irvine dancing with Selphie, Squall sighed.

"Why don't you go and dance with her son," Laguna began and cringed inwardly at Squall's glare, but he continued, "Ward's gonna be down here in a few minutes, so you can take a few minutes for yourself if you want to." Squall weighed his options, and then nodded and stalked off toward the place he last saw Rinoa.

Watching him, Laguna said, "That went well." Kiros chuckled.

"Its not gonna happen overnight Laguna," He replied, and then added. "Although I worry about the kid, he's too controlled. There's gotta be a lot of stuff going on inside him."

Kiros, for once discarding his Estharian robes for a more conventional black formal suit and deep ruby shirt, stood to Laguna's side, watching both him and the crowd around him. He still wore his hair the same way he had always worn it, the tight black curls cut close to his head, and three long, beaded braids hanging down his back to his waist. His deep mocha-colored skin and chiseled features showed little sign of his age, though he was now 40.

Laguna, for his part, still looked handsome, despite his 44 years and the lines of age around his eyes and mouth. His green eyes looked tired and sad now, and his long black hair, caught in a band at his nape, was now threaded with silver, but he still had the energy of a man half his age. Looking the part of the President of Esthar, Laguna wore a deep forest green velvet jacket and snowy white shirt over black trousers.

Ward meanwhile, his sheer size and scarred visage never failing to frighten no matter what he wore, had retained the turquoise and white robes he felt most comfortable in, looking like a priest of a sort. Upon voicing this thought to Kiros when Ward arrived, Laguna earned an outraged look from Ward as Kiros dissolved into laughter. Turning to wipe tears of mirth from his eyes, he caught sight of Squall dancing with Rinoa. Despite a slight awkwardness at first, he acquitted himself well. Then, apparently getting into the swing of things, he spun Rinoa out and back into his arms. As the song ended, Squall surprised Rinoa by sweeping her into a dip, flashing a grin at her startled laugh.

"You know," said Quistis, appearing at Laguna's side as if from nowhere, "she's the only one I know of that can get him to smile like that. I don't even remember hearing him laugh before he met her."

"Really?" asked Laguna.

Quistis nodded and said,"Irvine filled me in. So we all know that you're Squall's father."

Laguna nodded and said, "After the fight with Sorceress Adel we had a talk, and I told him then. I thought for sure he would get angry or something when I did, but he didn't do anything. Just looked right through me like I wasn't there and walked out."

"That sounds like him. Squall isn't known for sharing his feelings with anybody. He's kept this behind his teeth for months now, and probably wouldn't have said anything at all if he hadn't felt more or less pushed into it. If it helps, I've gotten to be pretty good at reading him." Quistis said.

"I'm glad someone is, because I can't peg him at all." Laguna sighed, and then continued, "so tell me something about him."

"Well, for one thing, I know the more remote he acts, the more hurt he is. I also know that he's got a long fuse. It's pretty rare that he'll get angry, or at least, let anyone see him get angry. He's not easy to get to know. We're probably his closest friends, and he still keeps himself a little apart from us." Quistis sighed sadly, and then studied Laguna.

"I don't know the whole story about the two of you, but I do know bits from what Ellone showed us by putting us into your mind during the time that you were looking for her. But I don't know any details. So I can't say anything either for or against you." Then her light blue eyes cooled noticeably.

"I do know this, however. If you want any kind of a relationship with him at all, you need to earn his respect first. If you can do that, you have a chance. BUT," she cautioned, "If you don't follow through, he'll have nothing but contempt for you."

"So what else is new?" Laguna muttered sardonically.

Kiros, not being able to resist a friendly jab at Laguna's expense, interjected, "I knew there was something I liked about that kid."


"God this is boring." Squall complained to Rinoa, "how much longer is this gonna last?"

"No telling. Could be all night." She laughed at Squall's groan, and then smiled as he tugged at the collar of his uniform tunic.

"I feel like I'm strangling in this thing." Then he sighed, looking over to where Quistis and Laguna were standing, grumbling, "I'm still on duty until he decides to go. Unfortunately. I don't suppose you've noticed or heard anything interesting, have you?"

Rinoa thought for a moment, and then said, "Actually, I did hear something."

"What?" Squall asked.

"When I went to the washroom awhile ago, I overheard the serving girls talking. I couldn't make much out, but I'm sure I heard one of them mention "The Sorceress's Knight". I thought they might have meant you, but..." her voice trailed off. Squall frowned, and he tensed as he realized something.

"You're the only one who knows about my promise." Squall said, quietly. "I haven't told anyone else. They can't have been referring to me."

"But that means..." she began. Squall finished the thought.

"Seifer's here." He said in a flat voice. Then he grimly told the rest of the team what he had discovered.

"Keep your eyes open. I don't know if he's actually here, in the palace, or in the city somewhere. Watch for him. He may not be up to anything at all, but knowing Seifer, I think he is."

He paused for a moment, considering, and then turned to Rinoa, asking, "Do you have any resistance contacts in the city? I know you worked mostly with the Forest Owls in Timber."

"Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. They approached me here, originally. I know the usual hangouts for the underground types here anyhow. I can go check things out..." Rinoa began, but Squall stopped her.

"Not alone you're not, I'm sure the places they hang out aren't what you'd call safe. I'm going with you." Squall's tone brooked no argument on that point.

After considering, Rinoa relented, saying, "There shouldn't be any problem with you coming with me, I'm sure word got around by now that I had hired you to help with Timber's resistance. But only we can go, they won't trust anyone else." Squall nodded.

"Ok," he said, "let's check with the others and see how much longer we need to be here, then we'll go." Speaking into his communicator, he told Quistis and the others what he had planned. Quistis assured him that things were well in hand, and they wouldn't have a problem with him and Rinoa pursuing their secondary objective.

"All right then, let's go change into something a little less attention-getting and head out." Squall took Rinoa's hand and they left the ballroom as quickly as they could without attracting too much attention.

A half-hour later they were walking along what had to be one of the darkest streets in Deling City. Given the reasons for their being there in the first place, they were both dressed accordingly in black outfits, so as to attract as little attention as possible. Both wore black jeans, and Squall had on a black sweatshirt, while Rinoa had on a navy blue turtleneck sweater. Angelo, Rinoa's attack-trained collie, panted along behind them. They had their customary weapons, along with the additional weapons that Squall had added earlier.

"Where is this place you're looking for again? It's as dark as Adel's heart out here." Squall commented, scanning the shadows as best he could and watching Angelo's reactions closely. He was glad the dog was along, not only for the extra protection he could provide, but also because his superior senses would alert them to any danger sooner than their own would.

"We're in the right area, we just have to let them find us." Rinoa said softly.

Squall looked warily about, muttering, "Well, I hope the people we're looking for are the ones who actually find us." He froze as he heard Angelo's soft growl. Slowly reaching for his gunblade, he looked all around, but didn't see anything until a shadow detached itself from a doorway in front of them and slowly advanced. He began to draw his gunblade but Rinoa stopped him.

"Don't," She whispered. "Lionheart's blade will light this place up like a beacon. Leave this to me." She shouldered him aside and began to approach the figure.

"Rinoa! Dammit.." He whispered harshly and cursed, hurrying to catch up.

Rinoa spoke softly to the other figure but even though Squall listened carefully, he could barely make out what they were saying.

Then Rinoa turned to him and said softly, "He'll take us to the latest hangout."

"Are you sure you trust this guy? He may just sell us out to the highest bidder." Squall said.

"Yeah. Squall, you know who he is, you've worked with him before." Rinoa indicated the figure in front of them.

He turned and held out his hand, whispering, "Good to see ya again sir, glad to see ya made it through that Sorceress's battle okay."

"Watts?" Squall said, ignoring the outstretched hand.

The figure nodded, "You haven't changed much Squall. Thanks, by the way for the calendar. Miss February was awesome this year."

The young man flashed a grin at Rinoa's raised eyebrows, and asked, "Still working for the princess here?"

"We sort of have an extended contract.." Squall began, when Rinoa interrupted him, saying,

"We're pairing it Watts."

Then she turned to Squall, asking curiously, "Calendar?"

Squall coughed, and muttered, "I owed it to him.."

"Ah." She said, knowing of Watts' interest in girlie magazines. They followed his lead through the twisting maze of Deling City's ghetto, staying alert to any kind of an ambush. At a nondescript door Watts knocked in an intricate pattern, then whispered something when the door opened a crack. Watts motioned for them to follow him inside.


Squall and Rinoa tiredly made their way back to the Presidential Palace some time later after gathering all the information that they could. The individuals that they met had recognized him from his assassination attempt on Sorceress Edea, and had followed his adventures afterwards, keeping up with the events that had happened in Esthar and with the battle with Ultimecia. And their information was surprisingly accurate. The respect it earned him was almost embarrassing.

From what they had told him, they recognized Seifer right away, given that he was at Edea's side as her "knight" when Squall attacked them. He had been in Deling City for about two weeks, during which time he had been seen talking with someone in a dive of a pub known to be the hangout of petty criminals and the like. Fujin and Raijin, as always, were with him. When pressed as to the identity of the person Seifer had been speaking with, no one could be sure save that the man had been well dressed and had the air of privilege about him. Definitely not a regular patron of this particular establishment.

One of the men had mentioned that most of the more subversive elements in the city were actually more or less in favor of General Caraway's policies, and were mostly worried about him making good on his promise to stage a general election to elect a new president.

The fact that someone was actually planning to derail something as important to the economy as a trade treaty with their traditional enemy, Esthar, made one think that perhaps this wasn't an action by an extremist group, rather something planned by someone making a bid for power themselves. Keeping the economy weak made unrest easier to stir up, and the longer General Caraway held the country in martial law, the more he would begin to look like his predecessor, Vinzer Deling. Swaying public opinion away from his favor would make it that much easier to enlist help in deposing him and putting whoever was behind this from the start into power.

The implications of that were troubling to Squall, because it pointed to political infighting, rather than just garden-variety terrorism. He hated that. Given a choice, he preferred terrorism. It was easier to deal with, relatively speaking. Just find out whom, what and why, and eliminate them. Political plots and counterplots were horribly messy to sort out, and the individuals who were at the root of it invariably got away unscathed.

Realizing that he was much too tired to make any more sense out of what he had learned, Squall had asked Watts and his group to keep an ear to the ground and to contact Rinoa via their usual channels if anything else should be discovered or overheard.

Knowing he would have to pass the info along to the rest of the group before he finally got to sleep, the first thing Squall did was grab a coffee pot and make up a brew strong enough to keep his mind clear while he spoke with the others. While he was doing that, he sent Rinoa to wake them, as it was well past midnight at this point and everyone had gone to bed. Rinoa's room had a kitchenette in it, so he waited there as Quistis, Zell, Irvine and Selphie all filed in, blinking in the bright light. When Rinoa joined them, he held up the coffeepot and raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

Receiving negatives from everyone else, he poured himself a cup and let everyone know what he and Rinoa had been up to all night, ignoring Irvine's rather ribald comment on that subject. Once he had made his report, he briefly considered outlining what the next steps to take would be, but truth be told, he was dog tired and his concentration was beginning to fray around the edges, in spite of the industrial strength coffee he had drunk.

Rubbing his burning eyes, he told the others, "Go on back to sleep, we'll pick this up later on. I just needed to let you guys know while it was still fresh in my mind."

"No prob Squall,"Zell said, then yawned and stretched and went back to his room. The others expressed similar views and also left, Irvine with his arm around Selphie. Squall, seeing this, resolved to have a talk with Irvine about it as soon as possible. He didn't want Selphie hurt, and he knew Irvine to be an incessant flirt. Just out of concern for a fellow team member, that's all, he thought, defending the notion. In the back of his mind he thought he heard a derisive snort. "You stay out of this." He thought, and ground his teeth at Shiva's cheeky comeback, "verily O master."

"Smartass." He shot back, and was rewarded with her chiming laugh. He was going to have to give Shiva a vacation or something. This was getting ridiculous.

Sitting at the small table with his forehead supported on his fist, he glanced up to see Rinoa standing in the doorway dividing their two rooms, wearing a white silk nightgown and very little else. Squall blinked, his hand dropped to the table and his mouth went dry.

"Are you coming to bed?" Rinoa asked innocently.

Squall nodded and started for the door, pulling off his shirt as he went. Finally making it to the bed, he hesitated, "Rinoa, I know you're tired, we both are..." he began. He was stopped by her kiss.

"Shhh." she said. Fatigue warred with desire, but desire won. When Squall felt Rinoa's hands caress his naked chest, he was lost. He kissed her back with all his buried passion, and he gave it all to her, just as she did with him. It wasn't until much later that they both fell into an exhausted sleep. Squall's last conscious thought was, I love you Rinoa...

When Squall awoke the next morning, the sun was well up and it was several hours past the time he would normally have been awake. Rolling onto his side, he studied Rinoa as she slept, and reflected that this was the first time the two of them had spent an entire night together. Living in Balamb Garden, he had to abide by the dorm rules there in order to maintain discipline, even though he was the SeeD commander. Especially because he was. Because of that, such times as these were very rare for them. Smiling gently, he debated waking her with a kiss, but was loathe to disturb her. The decision was taken away from him when she opened her chocolate brown eyes and smiled at him. He remembered another such morning when he had thought she would never smile at him again, and pulled her into his arms for an ardent kiss.

"Good morning." He smiled, voice roughened by sleep. Rinoa stretched and snuggled closer.

" 'Morning." She yawned. The feel of her against him was having a predictable effect, and while Squall was sorely tempted, he knew it was past time to be up and about. He was in fact surprised that no one had been sent to get him, though the rest of his friends knew how late he and Rinoa had been out last night.

"Up." He said beginning to slide out of bed. Rinoa shook her head and reached for him.

Laughing, he repeated, "C'mon, up. Time to get to work." Rinoa groaned and got up.

"Share a shower with me?" She asked.

"Uh, not this time, we'll never get out of here if we do that." Squall smiled, then added,

"You go first, I need to work out a little."

"There's a nice spot out in the garden, just follow the path beyond the trees." Rinoa said.

"You know this place pretty well." Squall said.

"My father visited with the President a lot, and sometimes he'd drag me and the nanny along. The only place I was allowed to go was the garden outside." Rinoa said. Then smiled as she watched Squall dress.

"Nice tattoo."

Squall was still grinning when he walked out moments later, heading for the garden with his gunblade slung over his shoulder.

The workout, brief though it had had to be, had served to help him clear his mind and sharpen his focus. After a hurried shower, he went in search of Laguna to see what was on the day's agenda and discuss with him and the team what he had learned. He found them in the main dining room, just starting to eat breakfast.

"This place is a maze, " he mumbled to Rinoa." I got lost twice before I found my way here."

Rinoa laughed as he sat down next to her, then turned to Laguna, sitting toward the end of the huge table.

"So what is the plan for today anyway?" Squall asked. "I know you have that cabinet meeting in a couple of hours with General Caraway, then after that you introduce the treaty to the council for them to review. Is there anything I've missed?"

Laguna shook his head. "No, you got all the important stuff, but there's a performance at the Symphony Hall that we've gotten a special invitation to. Kind of last minute, but it seems like it would be something worth seeing."

Squall shrugged. It didn't matter to him what it was, he couldn't care less about the performance itself. He would likely be watching the crowd anyway.

Addressing Kiros, Squall asked, "Have you checked into the security arrangements?"

Kiros nodded. "They have set aside a private balcony for us. There's only one entrance in or out, shouldn't be too hard to keep secure."

Laguna rolled his eyes at this. He hated the whole pomp and ceremony that went along with being a public figure, but had learned to tolerate it simply because he had to in order to actually accomplish anything worthwhile. Despite his aggravation at the whole process, he felt that he had managed pretty well the last 17 or so years he had been President of Esthar, although convincing the citizens that it really would be a good idea to elect someone else at some point wasn't going to be easy. He really didn't want to be president for the rest of his life...his thoughts were interrupted by Squall asking Kiros about posting people on the rooftops of any surrounding buildings with a line-of-sight and securing them as well. Kiros agreed and said that the Galbadian army had more than enough people to help with that, so he left to make that request of General Caraway.

Then Squall turned to Laguna and said, "We've found out that Seifer Almasy is here in Deling City. We don't know why yet, but I for one don't have a very good feeling about it. Rinoa has some friends in the underground that are keeping an eye on him to see what he's up to."

Laguna frowned. Seifer Almasy was the man responsible, acting under the orders (and possibly control) of Sorceress Ultimecia, who had brought Adel back to Esthar, and triggered the Lunar Cry that had nearly destroyed his city. It had taken months to drive all the monsters out of the city and the loss of life and property had been extensive. Laguna didn't know the young man as well as Squall and his friends did, they had all grown up together in Edea's orphanage, and later, in Balamb Garden, after all. But he too didn't think Seifer was here for the shopping on the strip.


Seifer Almasy sat at a dingy little table in a dingy little motel room on the dingy side of town and glared at his posse, Fujin and Raijin.

"What the hell do you guys want from me anyway? Its not like we're national heroes or anything, in fact, we're lucky they didn't put a price on our heads for siding with the Sorceress. I was offered a job and I took it!" Seifer got up and paced the tiny room. Fujin watched impassively, while Raijin fidgeted nervously with his staff.

"But, assassinating the president of Esthar..? What did he ever do to you, ya know?" Raijin said, puzzled. Seifer sighed.

"Look, it's just a job, and he's just a politician, just like Deling and the rest of them. No big loss. Besides, the guy who hired me is paying us 100,000.00 gil to do it. We can finally buy you that houseboat you've always wanted and get the hell out to Fisherman's Horizon and lay low for a bit." Raijin brightened at this, and grinned.

Then he frowned again, "You aren't gonna get all crazy like you did with the Sorceress again, are ya, ya know? We don't wanna go through that again, ya know?"

Fujin, who had been mostly silent up to this point, added in her harsh voice, "AGREE." She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Seifer with her good eye. Nobody knew how she had lost the other one, and Seifer speculated that it was at the same time her voice had gotten damaged. Still, she had been a staunch companion until things got out of hand with the whole Sorceress mess. Despite the eye patch (or perhaps even because of it) and her prematurely silver hair, she was still a striking woman.

"No," Seifer sighed, "I am NOT going to get all crazy like I did with the Sorceress...I don't think that was really me anyway. I mean, it was cool to have all that power, cost me too much..." It cost me my friends, he thought, remembering how Fujin and Raijin, his only friends actually, had finally, reluctantly abandoned him to Squall's (nonexistent) mercy rather than let him drag them down with him. It cost me Rinoa. He remembered the summer they had dated. Before all this had started. He had sacrificed her to Adel, nearly killing her. Squall had nearly killed him for that, and he couldn't blame him. It almost cost me my very soul. I will never go through that hell again. My desire to BE somebody has carried too high a price. Better instead to be simply a freelance mercenary, hiring out to whomever paid well enough. He was actually rather ambivalent about facing Squall again, albeit over the barrel of a sniper rifle. He would have been just as happy to let him live, but he was in the way, and Seifer was nothing if not professional, despite having washed out in his attempt to join the elite SeeD organization. He still didn't know why Squall hadn't killed him, but he figured if they met again, he wouldn't be so lucky.

Dismissing that line of thought as counterproductive; he looked at his friends and said, "This job'll keep us flush for awhile, then we can figure out what to do next. Now, are you guys gonna back me up on this or what?" He waited, then as they reluctantly nodded assent, he let out a relieved breath that he didn't realize he had been holding.

"Okay," he said, "This is how its gonna go down...

Walking below the window in that same dingy corner of Deling City, a nondescript man in nondescript clothing raised his head and listened carefully to Seifer briefing his posse on the details of the assassination attempt that they would make later that evening. Committing everything to memory, including the name of Seifer's contact, Watts carefully made his way to the safe house he had been staying in. He had to get a message to Rinoa, and he had to hurry. There wasn't much time left to act before Seifer tried to kill Laguna...and Squall.


After attending the cabinet meeting with Laguna, then sitting through the seemingly endless debates that the council engaged in while negotiating the details of the Esthar/Galbadia trade agreement, Squall had a new respect for Laguna's job as president. Despite the aggravatingly slow process of getting anyone to agree on anything, the obvious ass kissing and backstabbing that invariably went on, all veiled behind polite smiles and limp handshakes, Laguna had never given up and refused to give in to the sometimes spurious and often contradictory demands that the various representatives of different special interest groups lobbied him with.

Squall could see that at times the aggravation wore on Laguna's patience, but to his credit, he kept his focus and managed to make some progress toward the end of the day. That Laguna sincerely believed that the treaty would improve the lives and livelihoods of both his native country of Galbadia and his adopted home of Esthar was plain to see, and Squall could not fault him for caring about his people.

While watching this however, Squall noticed the subtle jockeying for power that the various people in the cabinet and council engaged in, observing who sided with whom, and what kind of esteem certain individual's opinions were held in. One person in particular caught Squall's attention, a wizened prune of a man who looked as though he had swallowed something unpleasant when Laguna had begun detailing the trade concessions he was allowing. Narrowing his eyes, he surreptitiously watched the man throughout the rest of the meeting, noticing that the man seemed to display far more animosity than a mere trade agreement should warrant, though he never said or did anything overt. Taking note of the man's name, Squall asked Kiros about him when they had called a recess at one point during the mind-numbing process.

"I think he used to be the trade minister under Vinzer Deling," Kiros said, then added," I don't know what position he holds now. In fact, I'm surprised he's here at all; most of Deling's adherents were retired when General Caraway took over. Why do you ask?"

"I'm not sure yet, but I sensed some hostility from him. Why would a former trade minister oppose a new trade agreement?" Squall paced thoughtfully for a moment, partially to gather his thoughts, and partially to get some feeling back into his lower extremities. He had been sitting so long on those hard chairs they had in the council hall that his butt had gone numb.

One thing he had learned from observing the Galbadian government officials in action, was that whatever issues they had, it all boiled down to one thing. Power. Who had it, who wanted it, and who had most to gain by taking whatever stance for or against a particular issue. It was never actually about what was on the table. Squall rubbed at his forehead, feeling the now healed scar there, and tried to soothe the headache that was beginning.

He longed for someone to simply point out his target so he could take care of it and get on with his life. God save me from politics, he thought in frustration. How can anybody actually WANT this job? Even Laguna didn't want to be president, which is probably why he does such a good job at it. Invariably, the ones who want power the most are the ones who are least suited to wield it. The sudden insight struck him. Maybe THAT'S why Cid dropped the responsibility of Garden in my lap. I didn't want it, so he knew he could trust me not to let it go to my head. It was an interesting theory, anyway. Diverted from his thoughts by Kiros, who was motioning for him to join them back in the council chamber, Squall suppressed a sigh. It was shaping up to be a long day.

Much later, over a late lunch in the palace, Squall gave his impressions of the meetings he had attended with Laguna and Kiros to the rest of the team. Irvine, Zell, Selphie and Quistis had been watching things from the outside, while Rinoa had been stuck in the palace with her father, at his request. Perhaps he wants to try and straighten things out with her. It was possible, he supposed. At any rate, she joined them at dinner looking ...odd, was the only way Squall could put it.

Momentarily distracted by his concern for her, he missed part of a comment Kiros made about his security team stopping a messenger that had visited. He frowned and was about to ask who the message was for when Kiros went on to say that the young man had claimed to have gotten the wrong address and left when told there was nobody here named Angela. At Rinoa's gasp, Squall gave her a puzzled look. Later, she mouthed.

But there was no time; they had to get ready to attend the performance at the Symphony Hall with Laguna. It wasn't until they were in the car with Laguna on the way to the Symphony Hall that she whispered to him that Angela had been her code name among her underground contacts, and that the young man who had tried to contact them had most likely been either Watts or someone sent by him.

"We'll check it out later," Squall whispered to her. "After we get done with this." Rinoa nodded. It wasn't until it was too late that they would understand the significance of that visit.

Two hours later, Squall stood up to leave the balcony they had occupied during the symphonic performance. The music had been beautifully performed, and Rinoa had snuggled into him during one point, when they had played a selection of her mother's best piano compositions. Knowing what poignant memories they must stir up for Rinoa, Squall had put his arm around her and hugged her close, giving her his support. Her mother had been a wonderful musician, and it was tragic that she had died so young.

Watching them, Laguna had his own painful memories to contend with, mostly concerning Squall's mother and his late wife, Raine. I'm so sorry Raine, he thought. Sorry that I wasn't there for you when you needed me, sorry that I couldn't be there for our son. I know why you didn't tell me you were pregnant, you knew it would keep me with you when you wanted, no, NEEDED me to go out and find Ellone for you. Neither one of us realized how long it would take and what I would have to go through to find her. Laguna sighed sadly. I wish I could take credit for the young man Squall is turning out to be, but I'm afraid that goes to Edea and Cid Kramer, they did well by him despite the challenges he had had to face. Laguna studied his son in the dim light. I see your eyes; every time I look at him Raine...Kiros was right, he does look like you... I'd like to think that he at least gets his strength from me.

Before this was over, Laguna concluded, he was going to beard the lion in his lair, so to speak, and have it out with him once and for all, even if he had to resort to using a gunblade to do it. There were too many unresolved feelings between them, to leave things as they were, and Laguna wanted to try to establish some sort of relationship with his son, before it was too late. Given the nature of Squall's career, that could be anytime. Blinking in sudden confusion as the house lights came up, Laguna realized he'd been woolgathering the entire time, with the possible exception of when they had played Julia Heartilly-Caraway's music.

He shook his head ruefully. I must be getting old, daydreaming like that. Catching sight of Squall, getting everything prepared for them to leave, Laguna felt pride stirring within him. Despite his cold, emotionless exterior, Squall was in fact a very caring young man who kept his distance emotionally to avoid getting hurt. Just watching him with Rinoa had convinced Laguna of that. And he was everything that Laguna had hoped his son would be, strong, intelligent, capable. Even handsome, in spite of the scar on his face. Regardless of what Squall felt about him, Laguna couldn't help but love his son.

Squall surveyed the crowd as they made ready to leave and grimaced. What a security nightmare, he thought. Still, the balcony had a private stairway that lead to the lobby and then to the main entrance, so there was little risk of any problems until they got outside. The surrounding buildings had been cleared by the additional men provided by General Caraway, so Squall was reasonably confident that no problems would be coming from that quarter, and instead watched the crowd of people streaming out of the Symphony Hall's main entrance like a hawk as they made their way to the limo waiting at the curb.

Walking well ahead of the rest of the escort, Squall noticed that whomever had driven the limo had parked too far out into the open and was about to take the driver to task for it when he noticed a flash out of the corner of his eye.

Spinning around to get a better look, Squall had just enough time to shout a warning before the sniper's bullet slammed into his chest and sent him to the ground.

Squall blinked and tried to move, take control of the situation, but he felt as though a thousand pound weight was sitting on his chest. He couldn't breathe. Couldn't move. Dimly, he heard shouts and cries, and from a long distance he felt the burning pain in his chest and the warm wetness of his blood. The weights seemed to have transferred to his eyelids and he couldn't keep them open any longer. I'm sorry Rinoa, I'll miss you. Was his last conscious thought before the darkness claimed him.

Laguna watched in horror as his only son lay bleeding his life out into the street while Ward and Kiros grabbed him by each arm and slammed him against the shelter of the doorway.

"NO!! GODDAM IT WARD, LET ME GO!!" Laguna fought desperately but Ward and Kiros kept him pinned against the wall, the tears in their eyes telling him more than he wanted to know. He watched in anguish as Rinoa knelt by Squall and placed her hand gently on his chest and closed her eyes. Unable to watch any longer, Laguna closed his eyes and let the tears come.

IT'S NOT FAIR, his mind screamed, why did it have to be HIM? It should have been ME there! HE'S JUST A KID!! MY son.. So caught up was he in his guilt and pain, Laguna didn't see the blue light emanating from Rinoa's hands and enveloping Squall's body.

When Irvine saw Squall go down, he felt his heart stop for a moment, and then his training took over. While Quistis and Selphie and Zell sprang into action, scanning the area for other potential hostiles, and Rinoa went to help Squall, Irvine flattened himself against the wall, whipped out his Exeter and fixed the scope on it with quick, efficient movements, and then scanned the direction that the bullet had come from.

Seeing movement on a rooftop, Irvine frowned in confusion. I thought Squall had made sure of the rooftops. He said Galbadian troopers had cleared them...then he caught a glimpse in the dimming twilight of a gray, tattered overcoat, with a red knight's cross emblazoned on the sleeve as the wearer, realizing he had been made, got up to flee.

Snarling a curse, Irvine called out to Quistis, "It's Seifer."

"Do you have a shot?" She asked coldly, blue eyes blazing with anger.

"Not much of one, but I can try.." Irvine tracked his target and snapped off a shot, swearing when it went wide of the mark.

"Shit!" he cursed, then slung his rifle over his shoulder by its strap and said, "I'm going after him."

Then he called to Zell, who was literally dancing in agitation, itching for a fight, "Zell, back me up! Here," he said, handing one of his handguns to him.

Zell shook his head, "You know I don't use weapons man.."

"Well, Seifer has one, and as good as you are, not even you can dodge a speeding bullet. Take it." Frowning, Zell took the pistol and tucked it into the waistband of his pants. Nodding to Irvine to indicate he was ready, they both took off at a run, heading for the building that they had seen Seifer on top of.

Quistis meanwhile, checked on Squall and found him unconscious but breathing. Fortunately, the bullet had gone cleanly through him, so there would be no need to operate and remove it. Quistis was grateful for that. Rinoa, not even caring about her own safety, had rushed in and Healed him in just the nick of time. Had she waited even a second longer, Squall would have died. As it was, he had lost a lot of blood, and nothing but his own body could help that.

Quistis suspected that only Rinoa had had the power needed to heal Squall's wound, because when she got a closer look at where the bullet had gone in, it was so close to Squall's heart, even the stocked magics they used may not have been enough to save him.

Pronouncing the area clear, and enlisting Ward's aid in getting Squall into the car, Quistis caught sight of Laguna's pale, tear streaked face and said quietly, "He's going to be ok. Rinoa got to him in time."

Laguna sighed with relief, sagging against the cushion, saying roughly, "That was too close. Much too close. I almost lost him today."

"We all came close to losing him. If it makes you feel better, Squall's going to be flattened for a while recovering still, so he won't be going anywhere. Rinoa healed his wound, but he still needs to regain his strength. Healing takes a lot out of you, and he's lost quite a bit of blood."

Quistis reached over and covered Laguna's hand with her own, offering comfort, "He'll be fine. Don't worry. I'm more worried about how this happened. I know how thorough Squall is, and I know he wouldn't have missed that building."

Quistis gazed over to the other seat where Squall lay, pillowing his head in Rinoa's lap. His blood-soaked uniform was staining the seat and Rinoa's designer dress, but Rinoa didn't care about that. Just feeling his heartbeat and hearing him breathe was enough for her. For him, she would have faced a hail of bullets just on the off chance of saving him, as he had saved her once, leaping heedlessly out into space to rescue her as she drifted helplessly, abandoned there after Ultimecia had used her to unlock the seals to Adel's orbital prison. It had been sheer luck that they had come upon the Ragnarok when they did, and that it had had enough power for life support left in it, because they had both run out of air in their spacesuits, and were dying together. If you ever dare to die on me Squall, Rinoa thought, I'll have no choice but to follow you...


Irvine and Zell ran as though the demons of hell were after them, swarming up the outside fire escape of the building Irvine had seen Seifer on. Coming over the top edge of the building and rolling to take cover behind an air conditioning unit, Irvine scanned the area and then nodded to Zell, who did likewise when he came over. Panting, Irvine looked over and saw where Seifer had left his sniper rifle. Getting to his feet, Irvine stomped over to the rifle, and gave it a kick, swearing viciously.

"Goddam it! Where the hell did he go!" He scanned the rooftop, but as he had feared, Seifer was long gone. Zell punched the side of the ac unit he was hiding behind angrily. His face was livid, and the black stylistic tattoo on the side of his face stood out in stark contrast, looking almost like black lightening bolts bracketing his left eye.

"That bastard! Just once I would like to get ahold of him without his damn gunblade!" Zell was literally vibrating in anger. He got up and began to search the top of the building for any sign of where Seifer might have gone.

After a moment, Irvine joined him, saying grimly, "You'll have to wait in line behind me Zell, because if this sonofabitch wants to play cowboy, I'm gonna show him how its done." Irvine sneered in contempt at the offending rifle, now laying flat on the roof.

"Fucking amateur. NO professional leaves his weapon behind, and NO professional goes for a center mass shot when he's got a clean kill shot to the head wide open. Gives us real professionals a bad name." Zell whirled on him, white lipped with rage.

"YOU'D BETTER BE GODDAM GLAD HE IS AN AMATEUR!!" Taking his hot temper in hand was hard for Zell to do, but he liked Irvine, and didn't want to hurt him, even as angry as he was.

Punching his fist into his other hand to avoid putting it into Irvine's pretty face, he snarled at him, "I can't believe you Irvine, YOU'RE HIS FRIEND! Just like I am, and YOU'RE SITTING HERE TALKING ABOUT THE MAN WHO MAY HAVE JUST KILLED HIM LIKE THAT??" Shaking with anger and adrenaline, Zell paced to try to calm himself before he did something rash, like forgetting himself and kicking the shit out of Irvine after all.

Irvine shook his head and put his hands on Zell's shoulders to stop his pacing, "Zell, I'm sorry.."

Zell flung his hands off angrily, hissing, "Don't you fucking touch me or so help me I will break your jaw."

Irvine, seeing how wound up Zell was, put his hands up and backed off, saying, "I didn't mean it to sound like that...I'm glad he wasn't a pro Zell, that at least means Squall has a chance of surviving the hit he took. I saw Rinoa by him as we left, so she may have been able to Heal him." He took a deep breath, then added, "I don't think we're gonna catch up with Seifer tonight, and I want to head back, to see how things are going. Besides, neither one of us is thinking clearly right now, and we need to focus on how this happened. I know Squall had the Galbadians sweep this building clean before we arrived, and I know he had someone posted up here, but there's no sign of them." Zell, who had continued roaming the rooftop restlessly, suddenly stopped. Then he motioned Irvine over to where he stood, staring down at the body of one of the Galbadian soldiers who had been posted to guard the rooftop.

Irvine sighed. "Well, that figures. He must have had help though, these guys aren't pushovers."

"Well, where Seifer goes, Raijin and Fujin usually follow." Zell paced back to where the rifle lay, and looked out toward the Symphony Hall, noticing the limo had left, and the patrons had finally dispersed. Unwillingly, his gaze was drawn to the pool of blood left behind where Squall had lain, and he shuddered. Please God, let him be all right.. Zell thought.

Irvine meanwhile, had called in to Quistis and confirmed that Rinoa had managed to save Squall and he was going to be ok. Going back over to where Zell stood, Irvine picked up the discarded rifle and slung it over his other shoulder.

Zell looked askance at this and Irvine explained, "We know who pulled the trigger, but we need to find out if Seifer was acting on his own for some reason or if he was paid to do it. I figure we may be able to find out some of that by checking out the weapon he used. So I'm taking this back with me to get a better look at it. Do you have a problem with that?" He asked Zell pointedly.

Zell shook his head. "You're the firearms expert."

"Well, lets head back then." Irvine started walking back to the ladder they had climbed up.

When he reached it, Zell said,"I'm glad he's ok."

"Yeah, me too." Irvine replied.


He was back there again, back on the cracked, featureless plain he had wandered after defeating Ultimecia. Back in the nowhere place between time and space, where he had struggled to find his way back to Rinoa, to the flower field where he had promised to meet her should they ever be separated. To the place where he had pledged to be her Knight, her champion, should the world turn against her because of the power she held. He was tired, so tired, but he kept on walking, not knowing what else to do. Exhaustion dragged at his footsteps but determination spurred him on, so he kept going, stumbling, staggering, and searching in vain for a way back to the only person who really mattered to him. He finally came to the end of the plain, a sheer drop off that disappeared into roiling gray nothingness, and he collapsed in exhaustion and despair. Would he never see her again? Would he be trapped here, alone, forever? With the last of his strength, he called out her name, again and again, putting his whole heart into it. When he got no answer, he finally gave in to his exhaustion and lay back onto the cracked earth, letting the darkness take him. As he closed his eyes, he felt a tugging sensation, as of something pulling at him. "Squall." a voice said, faintly. "Squall, wake up." It got louder, more insistent. "Squall, come on, I know you're in there, wake up!"

Experimentally, Squall opened his eyes. He had trouble focusing at first, and then looked around. Rinoa sat at the side of his bed, staring anxiously at him.

"How do you feel? Do you remember what happened?" She reached over and smoothed the hair away from his eyes.

He blinked and frowned, "I remember seeing a flash, then I turned and felt the bullet hit my chest..." He felt his chest, but there was no wound.

He closed his eyes and relaxed back into the bed. "You Healed me. But I still feel weak as water.." he murmured. He opened his eyes and studied Rinoa's face as she told him.

"You lost a lot of blood. The Healing saved your life, but you still need to rest."

Squall tried to lift himself up and stopped when he felt a wave of dizziness hit him. Cursing weakly, he lay back to let the disorientation pass. Rolling his head over toward the other side of his bed, he was startled to see Laguna sitting in a chair next to it, looking as though he'd aged 10 years.

"What are you doing here?" He asked weakly. He hated that he sounded so weak, but he couldn't help it, and it was getting harder for him to stay awake.

Laguna smiled slightly and rose, seeing Squall's exhaustion."I just needed to see that you were ok. We'll talk later, all right?" With that, Laguna reluctantly left.

I remember the last time he said something like that to me, just before we faced Adel..."talk to me when all this is over, ok?" he'd said. Squall remembered his confusion at the apprehensive look on Laguna's face at the time. It didn't become clear to him why until he came back to talk and Laguna told him that he was his father. Squall gave up thinking about it for now, he was too tired. His strength was beginning to fade, and he closed his eyes, letting Rinoa's fingers stroking his forehead and temples soothe him into sleep again. Before he dropped off, he realized something, and reached up, taking her hand in his. He opened his eyes again, and studied her.

"You went in there under fire to save me." She nodded. Then shrugged.

"It was only one shot, besides, you would have done the same for me." She said. He closed his eyes again.

"I'm glad you did. I would have never gotten the chance to tell you I love you."

"Squall," she whispered. " I know you love me, you don't have to tell me, I can feel it."

"But..." He said, his voice getting fainter, "but I needed to learn how to say it."


Because of the assassination attempt, the negotiations for the treaty had been delayed until the investigation into who was behind it could be completed. Laguna had assured the General that this would not cause him to withdraw the treaty altogether, although it did make him wonder exactly how stable the Galbadian Government was. The General assured him that there was a full investigation underway, privately confiding to Laguna that it could have just as easily been his own daughter, Rinoa, which had caught the sniper's bullet instead of Squall.

Laguna, stunned for a moment, forgot himself and snapped, "Better my son than your daughter, is that it?" The General stared at him.

"Leonhart is your son?" He asked.

Laguna nodded and sighed, "Its not common knowledge. I apologize. In fact, I owe you thanks. It was your daughter, Rinoa, that saved his life." The General nodded, satisfied.

Then he said with a slight smile, "You're welcome, but you should probably thank her yourself."

"I already have." Laguna said.

Then he commented, "It looks to me like we are in a similar fix with our children, aren't we General?"

The General replied gruffly,"What do you mean?"

"We both seem to have difficult relationships with them."

The General smiled slightly and nodded his agreement. "That we do."

"Well, I'm off to try and mend some fences with my son. He's still recovering, so he's more or less a captive audience at the moment." Laguna sighed and stood up. Then held his hand out to the General.

The General shook it, saying, "Good luck. Let me know how things turn out."

Laguna nodded, and suggested, "You may want to try the same thing with Rinoa..."

The General held his hand up and stopped him. "I have, and I still am. We have different problems, Rinoa and I, than you and Squall have. But I..We..Are working on it." Laguna nodded and left.

After a night and a day in bed, Squall was beginning to feel better. He was feeling strong enough in fact to be restless. Rolling over, he placed his feet on the floor and stood up gingerly, then swayed and sat back down on the bed, cursing. Holding his spinning head in his hands with his elbows on his knees, he was gathering his strength for another try when he heard a knock on the door.

He looked up and sighed,"Come in."

"Squall..." Laguna stopped and frowned, "What are you doing? You still need to be resting!"

"I feel much better, thanks." Squall tried to get to his feet again and swayed, but stayed upright. Emboldened by his success, Squall took a step and suddenly felt his knees give out on him. Laguna was at his elbow before he fell and guided him back to the bed. Squall growled in frustration.

"I need to get up."

"Squall.." Laguna began,

"I need to get up." Squall repeated. Suddenly Laguna understood.

"Ah. Let me help you." Squall hesitated. Then he sighed. It wasn't as if Rinoa was strong enough to support his weight, even as far as the bathroom, and the fact was, he was getting desperate.

"All right." Laguna helped Squall to the bathroom and stopped at the door.

"Can you handle the rest by yourself?" He asked, concerned.

"Yes." Squall closed the door, and Laguna leaned against the wall, listening in case he ran into trouble or needed some help. After taking care of what he needed to, he allowed Laguna to help him back to bed. Just that short trip had worn him out and he silently cursed his weakness.

Lying back on the bed, he closed his eyes and asked weakly, "How much longer will I be flattened like this?"

Laguna shrugged, "I don't know, another day or so I guess. Just make sure you eat well and get plenty of rest." Squall nodded.

Then he opened his eyes and grumbled, "This really sucks. That bastard could be planning another attack, and I'm stuck in bed."

Laguna hid a smile. He was rather enjoying the interaction. With Squall too weak to keep his guard up, he got to see a little more of his true personality. Not to mention the fact that it felt pretty good to actually be able to help, even with something as mundane as a trip to the bathroom. Laguna watched as Squall fidgeted with the bedding, then took a deep breath and thought, its now or never.

"Squall," he began hesitantly, and then he continued when Squall looked up, curious. He was still pale, but Laguna could see his color was improving.

"I can't change the past. I can't go back and prevent Raine from dying, or Ellone from being kidnapped. I don't think we'll ever know exactly how we lost each other, and I can't claim to be perfect. I can't.. Erase past mistakes. " He paused, watching Squall, who was as usual, silent. But he at least wasn't hostile.

Laguna continued, "I do want to start from here, now, though. If you can't think of me as your father, I would at least like you to think of me as a friend. Whatever you feel most comfortable with. I have to tell you this though, and you can take it however you want. Watching you do your job these last few days has really impressed me. You are everything I had wanted my son to be, and I wish I could claim credit for that, but unfortunately I can't." Laguna took a deep breath and blinked his stinging eyes. Squall frowned, seeing the emotion in his father's eyes.

Then Laguna continued, "I have to tell you this Squall, because of yesterday. When I saw you lying there, bleeding...."

His voice faltered, and he swiped at a stray tear. "I thought you were dead. I thought I had lost you, just as I was beginning to know you...." He took a shaky breath. "I have to let you know, now, in case something else happens to either you or to me, that.... I am proud of you Squall, proud of whom you have become. And I love you, son." Squall blinked and looked away. Has anyone ever said that to me? Told me they were proud of me? He didn't remember.

He swallowed and said, "I..Don't know what to say..."

Laguna replied with a slight smile, "I know. The words will come when they are ready."

Squall nodded. Then said, "I... am still sorting out exactly what I feel..."

Laguna patted his shoulder."I understand. I'll be around if you feel like talking to me about it."

"Thank you." Squall hesitated a moment, then held out his hand. Warmed by this small gesture, Laguna clasped it in both of his and squeezed gently.

"Get some rest, you're starting to look tired again." Squall nodded and closed his eyes as Laguna left.


Seifer waited in the usual spot for his contact, fuming. I can't believe I screwed that up! I should have waited until they were both close enough to get... I'm pretty sure Leonhart's out of the picture now though. The scuff of a shoe on the pavement alerted him and he turned to face the man who had hired him.

"What brings you out to this garden spot, Mr. Valente? Taking in the sights of this fair city?" Seifer drawled sarcastically.

"You failed in your attempt . Your patron is not pleased. You have two extra days to complete your objective. I trust you will act accordingly." The man known as Valente said coldly.

"I took care of Leonhart, it shouldn't be too hard to take care of President Loire" Seifer said confidently.

The other man snapped angrily back at him,"You had a perfect set up and you blew it! Leonhart has survived the attack, and they will be on their guard now. I suggest you figure out a way to rectify the situation as soon as possible!"

"I already told you I wasn't a sniper! I use a gunblade. I hit the target. It looked like a fatal shot to me." Seifer said in his defense. He had to think of a way to get the job finished so that he and his posse could get out. It was getting a little too hot in Deling City for Seifer's comfort.

"Well, unfortunately for you, Leonhart's tougher than he looks." Said Valente.

"Have they made your plant yet?" Seifer asked.

"No, they haven't. He's still in place." Valente eyed Seifer, and then asked him, "What have you got planned?"

"Before I plan anything, I want half of the fee now, up front. If this attempt fails, I'll either be dead or I'll need to get outta town in a hurry. " Seifer narrowed his pale eyes at the other man. Then he added,

"If I don't get what I ask for I walk. If you try to stop me, or threaten my posse, or me we'll add you to the list. I'm sure my patron will not miss his errand boy; it'll be just one less connection between him and us. He might even think we're doing him a favor." The other man swallowed audibly.

Then he recovered his composure and stated. "You give me a solid plan, I'll give you your money."

Seifer nodded."Agreed. We'll have something for you tomorrow night. Be ready with the money then." Seifer strolled away, leaving the man called Valente glaring after him. This time, we're gonna do this MY way, Seifer thought.


While Squall was recovering, the rest of his team threw themselves into investigating who was behind the shooting. They already knew, due to Irvine's eagle eye, that Seifer had been the triggerman, but after examining the sniper rifle that had been left behind, Irvine concluded that Seifer had not acted alone. Or at least, not on his own initiative. When asked, he explained that the type of rifle that Seifer had used was only available to specially trained forces in the Galbadian army or the local police. There was no place in the city where someone could just walk in and buy that type of weapon.

Selphie, using a laptop computer that Squall had requested for her use, hacked into the G-army database and researched the serial numbers and codes on the rifle, finding the armory it had come from, and from there who was responsible for the weapons in that armory. While Selphie tracked down the connections, and worked on getting something more concrete before going to the General with it; Rinoa snuck out to meet with her contacts in the underground to find out who had tried to contact her and what it was regarding, although she now had a pretty good idea as to what it was.

She didn't feel the need for an escort, and really, Squall was the only one besides her that her friends trusted. So she made sure she had her shooting star strapped to her forearm, and with Angelo at her heels, set out to meet with Watts. She didn't plan to be gone long, so she didn't feel the need to inform anyone of her intentions.

Walking along the dark streets, keeping to the shadows to avoid attracting attention, straining her senses and trusting the collie at her heels for a warning, Rinoa crept along cautiously to the usual spot where she'd met with Watts.

At a sound she whirled, straining to see in the inky blackness, then she heard a name whispered, "Angela."

"Yes. Its me." Rinoa answered.

"I'm sorry I couldn't get a warning out to you guys earlier. Is Squall ok?" Watts took her arm and ushered her through a twisting route to his safe house.

As they walked, Rinoa answered, "Yes, he's fine. Weak, but fine. It was close though, if I hadn't been a sorceress..." her voice trailed off. If I hadn't been a sorceress, I wouldn't have been able to save him, She thought. Then she focused her mind back on to the reason she was there.

"Was there anything else besides the assassination plan that you managed to hear or find out?" She asked. Watts nodded. Then knocked at the doorway and escorted her in when it was opened. She greeted the others there, and thanked them for their concern about Squall. He really is a kind of hero to them. She thought, smiling inwardly while remembering how discomfited he had been at the respect they gave him. Then she sat down with Watts and the rest and got the name he had overheard Seifer referring to as the man he'd been hired by.

"So do you know who this Valente is?" Rinoa asked, curiously.

"Not really, but we have found out that he works in the palace. He's probably the go-between for the person who's actually behind this." Watts said. Rinoa studied him thoughtfully.

Then she said, "Well, that sort of bears out a little bit what we've managed to find out. Irvine said that the sniper rifle that Seifer used is only available to G-army Special Forces or special police units in the city, and isn't available to the general public. Whoever got that weapon to him has to have connections to the military or access to the armories..." She paused for a moment, and a thought struck her.

"It almost looks like Caraway is behind this. But I know that that isn't possible. He has more to gain by getting the treaty signed and ratified. " She said, frowning.

Watts replied, "I know there's no love lost between the two of you, but I agree with you on that one, I don't think he would deliberately put you at risk, regardless of whatever his political plans are. Someone is trying to set him up so that he looks bad to Esthar when they investigate the assassination attempt. Whether or not the assassination is successful, it may well derail the process, and cause President Loire to withdraw the treaty."

Rinoa shook her head. "I already know that won't happen, Laguna had a meeting with Caraway and assured him of that."

Watts nodded, saying, "Well that's a relief anyway. President Loire seems like a nice guy. Be a shame for him to get killed." Rinoa agreed. She briefly considered letting Watts know about Laguna's connection to Squall, but she figured that really was up to Squall to tell anyone who didn't already know. Thanking Watts and everyone else for their time, Rinoa got ready to leave.

Watts stopped her, saying, "I'll walk you back."

"You don't have to, I'll be fine.." Rinoa protested. Watts shook his head.

"Squall will kill me if anything happens to you. I'm not blind, I could see that much the last time." Rinoa sighed and relented.

"You're right, he would too. How about this, you walk me as far as the main drag, and I'll make it the rest of the way on my own. Its pretty well lighted on the strip, so I should be fine from there on." Watts reluctantly agreed.


Squall, meanwhile, was more than ready to get out of bed. I am SO bored. He thought. He already felt much stronger than he did the day before, and really didn't think another day in bed was necessary. Getting out of bed, and sighing with relief when his legs held steady, and no dizziness hit him, Squall decided to start with a shower, and then go in search of something to eat, as it was about dinnertime. Also, he needed to speak with Quistis, and the rest of his friends to see what had been going on while he was incapacitated.

The fact that nobody had bothered to tell him anything frustrated the hell out of him. Much refreshed by the shower and feeling actually famished for a change (his momentary bout with anemia seemed to have temporarily affected his appetite, he'd had to force himself to eat) he wandered downstairs in the hopes that he hadn't missed dinner. He did not want to eat another meal in his room.

So thinking, he finally caught up with the others, and shrugged off their queries as to how he was feeling, and ignored Laguna's amused expression, and Quistis' dry comment, "He's back to normal all right."

"What's been going on while I was out of commission?" Squall asked.

"Irvine brought back the sniper rifle, and he caught a glimpse of the shooter as he took off." Quistis answered. Squall raised his eyebrows in query at Irvine.

Irvine's normally friendly blue eyes sparked with anger as he replied to Squall's silent question, "It was Seifer. I saw him as he was starting to flee." Irvine's expression turned serious. He went on, "I brought the rifle back to get a better look at it. It's a Mark 34 Starhawk .308, equipped with a light sensitive scope for twilight or night conditions. It's designed especially for G-army or police special units. And only for police or military Special Forces. Selphie did a bit of hacking and traced the serial numbers to the armory outside of Deling City. This particular weapon was on the maintenance list there." Squall frowned, not liking the implications of that at all.

"Who's in charge of the armory's maintenance department?" Squall asked.

"We haven't found that out yet, but the guy in charge of the armory is a Sergeant-Major James Nichols. We haven't managed to find any information on him, but we'll keep investigating."

"Have you told any of this to General Caraway?" Squall asked as he finally turned to his dinner and began to eat.

Irvine shook his head, "Not yet, we wanted to get a little more information before we told him anything."

"You might want to share some of that info with the General," Laguna said, "It can't hurt and may even help." Irvine shot a glance over in Squall's direction.

Squall shook his head in a negative gesture, saying, "Its too thin yet. Keep checking. What about you guys?" He asked, addressing Zell and Quistis.

Zell said, "We've mostly been helping Selphie and Irvine with researching and stuff. The G-army chain of command is a real snarl to untangle."

Quistis nodded in agreement. "Beaurocracy at its best. Just figuring out the pay grades is a nightmare, not to mention which of the half-dozen commanding officers this Sergeant actually reports to." She grimaced at the memory of poring over literally stacks of military records in the main library, trying to figure out exactly how this army ever managed to get anything accomplished, much less be such a power that only Esthar was a threat to it.

"Well, that's definitely the General's arena. I'll see if he can help with that." Squall said, and then looked curiously around, with a puzzled expression on his face.

"Where's Rinoa? I haven't seen her all day.."


Watts escorted Rinoa through the more treacherous parts of Deling City's ghetto, and, reluctantly parted company with her when they reached the strip. It glittered with neon lights and bustled with people coming in and going out of the various shops and pubs, and was dominated by the Galbadian Hotel, where Rinoa's mother Julia had played piano. She walked along with Angelo and slowed her pace a bit, to study some of the shops speculatively. I wonder if I should get some more potions, or maybe something for Squall.. She thought. As she studied the various shops, she considered and then discarded several ideas. I wonder if he'd like a new earring or something? He's only got that one platinum stud that I know of...Rinoa thought it kind of ironic to note that Squall and Laguna both had their left ears pierced. I wonder if he's noticed that? She thought.

As she walked along, her attention was caught by a jewelry store display. In the window, she saw a pair of earrings that she thought would be just perfect. They were very simple in design, just a pair of round-cut jewels mounted on posts, but the stones themselves were a beautiful, clear blue-green color, and they seemed to glow with their own fire. Perfect, she thought. Just like his eyes. I hope he doesn't get mad at me for getting them. After considering for a moment, she shrugged and went into the shop, after having Angelo stay outside. A few moments and several thousand gil later, Rinoa emerged with the precious earrings safely tucked into her pants pocket. She smiled to herself, thinking, Squall will be appalled at how much these things cost, IF he finds out, but I think they're worth it. Absorbed in her shopping and feeling safe in the city she grew up in; Rinoa didn't notice the shadow that had been watching her every move since she had entered the strip.

As she left the lighted strip to enter the darker residential area, the shadow behind her quickened his steps and as she stepped into a pool of blackness left by a decorative tree, he pounced. Rinoa heard Angelo's warning growl an instant too late and her attacker clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her scream as she tried to turn and use her shooting star. She struggled with him for a moment, stomping on his foot and biting his hand, while Angelo tore at his other leg, which caused her attacker to loosen his grip on her long enough for her to get a breath and scream,

"Angelo! Find Squall! SEEK!" She commanded. The dog whined and reluctantly turned and fled as Rinoa's attacker, angered at this, roughly backhanded her across the face, knocking her senseless.


Squall was getting worried. After asking everyone at dinner if they'd seen Rinoa, nobody could say when it was they had last seen her, as busy as they had all been. Zell and Quistis had assumed she had gone to check on Squall, and Selphie and Irvine had thought that she had taken Angelo out for a walk. Pacing his room restlessly, he tried to recall something that had been nagging at him since he noticed Rinoa missing. Allowing his mind to wander, he suddenly remembered that Rinoa had indicated someone had tried to contact her on the way to the symphonic performance. In the confusion of the assassination attempt, and his subsequent recovery, Squall had forgotten about it. She must have gone out to meet with Watts and his friends, alone...

Squall's heart began to pound. Rinoa could hold her own in a fight, sure, but even the best fighter is vulnerable without someone watching his back in an area like that, and one person is very easily outnumbered. Especially if that person is only 5'3" and weighs little more than a sparrow soaking wet. I keep forgetting how tiny she actually is; Squall thought his blood beginning to freeze. Its her sorceress powers, they give her a..A presence.. Before he finished the thought, he was buckling on his gunblade and heading for the door. He ran into Quistis and asked her if she had heard anything about where Rinoa may have gone.

When he received a negative answer, he told her, "I think I know where she went. I have to go find her." Quistis eyed him worriedly.

"Squall, you can't possibly be strong enough for that yet, you've only just gotten out of bed this evening!"

Squall gave her a stony look and said firmly, "I'm going. Nobody else knows where she went, and nobody else will be trusted there."

Squall turned and headed in the direction of the doorway. Before he made it there, a commotion there drew his attention. He hurried his steps and heard Quistis' and a few other footsteps running up behind him. As he reached the door and flung it open, he saw the sentries guarding the gate of the presidential palace trying to catch a large dog that was barking menacingly at them. It was Angelo.

"Let him in!" He shouted to the guards. They reluctantly did so, and Angelo raced up the walkway and leaped at Squall, nearly knocking him down. Squall calmed the agitated animal down somewhat, but Angelo was obviously in some distress, and kept running a few steps away and whining, then coming back to bark loudly at Squall.

"Well, that's a pretty obvious clue that Rinoa's in trouble." Irvine commented.

Squall glared at him and said sarcastically, "Really? You think?" Then he turned to the rest of the team and addressed them all, saying. "I'm going after her. Quistis, you're in charge here until I get back. Keep chasing down those leads, you're getting close, and I can feel it. Selphie, Zell, you guys help her out. Irvine, you're coming with me. Grab all the hardware you can get your hands on." With that he began checking his weapons and realized he had only grabbed his gunblade. Then he remembered the gun he had stuck in his left boot out of habit when he had gotten dressed.

He paced, waiting impatiently for Irvine to grab his gear and meet up with him where he waited outside by the gate. He didn't feel one hundred percent recovered, but he was on his feet, and he was damned if he was going to sit a minute longer with Rinoa missing. Closing his eyes, he concentrated for a moment and then sent a thought out to one of his strongest GFs. "Bahamut, I need your strength. Junction to me." Squall felt a sudden influx of strength and energy as the king of dragons, Bahamut, joined him. He had a mental vision of great, scarlet and blue leathern pinions stretched wide as the majestic creature bowed his graceful neck and replied, ruby eyes flashing,

"My strength to thine master. Let us fight together, lion-heart." Squall opened his eyes to see Irvine watching him and waiting patiently.

He raised an eyebrow and Irvine said, "I have Quezacoatl and the brothers."

Squall nodded. "Let's go." They both turned and followed Angelo at a run as the dog took off like a shot.


"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING!" Seifer shouted at the man called Valente, who glared back and replied, "You hadn't come up with anything better, and the opportunity presented itself. I thought the girl might serve as bait." Seifer paced the small storage room that Valente had brought him to and eyed the man with disgust. This is what I'm reduced to, he thought angrily. ME, a former knight, for crying out loud, turned into nothing but a petty hit-man for creeps like this guy and his boss. Squall is definitely going to take this personally. Raijin's idea of becoming a fisherman is starting to sound better and better.

"Bait?! Bait for what? It's LOIRE we're trying to kill, and forgive me for observing this, but, SHE DOESN'T HAVE ANY CONNECTION TO LIORE!" Seifer yelled at the other man.

"No, she doesn't," said the other man coolly. "But she is General Caraway's daughter, and it's also pretty well known that she and Leonhart are, shall we say, close. We can use her to lure Leonhart here to get him out of the way and then we can take care of Loire without any further interference. If that fails, we can use her as leverage against Caraway himself. Either way, we win." Right, thought Seifer sarcastically. If Squall doesn't kill us both first.

Seifer didn't give a rat's ass what Squall thought of him, but he felt badly enough about hurting Rinoa the first time when he gave her to Adel. He didn't relish the thought of being involved in something-again- that would do her injury. Seifer looked over to where she lay unconscious on an old mattress and saw the dark smudge of a bruise on her cheek.

Turning and glaring at Valente, Seifer snarled, "Haven't you ever heard of sleep spells for crying out loud?"

"I didn't have time to cast one. Besides, she's a sorceress, I don't even think sleep spells work on her." Valente said, then studied Seifer, saying, "You need to focus on what you were hired for, Almasy. What is your plan on taking out President Loire?" Seifer rubbed at his scarred forehead and paced, deep in thought for a moment. Then asked, "What is next on his public agenda? Is he still engaged in negotiations with the Council?"

"Not at the moment, they've been postponed for the time being." Valente replied.

Seifer frowned. "Then activate your 'plant'. Give him a gun and have him do it if he's as close as you say he is."

"He's our link inside. We can't compromise him." Valente said flatly. Seifer glared at him.

"Then have your 'link' invent some pretext to get the President away from his escort and where we can get to him, and we'll take care of the rest."

"Do you really think President Loire is that big of an idiot? You've got to do better than that Almasy."

"Fine!" Seifer snapped. " Get me a blueprint of the palace. I wasn't there long enough with Edea to get very familiar with it." Maybe I can get an ambush set up.. Seifer thought. Then sighed. I really don't care for this assassin crap, I'd much rather just attack and fight a real battle, not sneak in and murder him in his sleep...just not my style.. Seifer kept watch on Rinoa while Valente got the blueprints he needed and frowned in concern as he noticed she seemed to be out for quite some time. As he laid the blueprints on a small table and turned to study them with Valente, Rinoa slowly opened her eyes. Noting that they thought her down for the count, she smiled grimly to herself, as her normally brown eyes began to glow with a golden sheen.


Squall and Irvine both loped after the speeding dog, following his lead. Squall had thought to go to where Rinoa's revolutionaries hid out, but Angelo blew right past the turnoff without stopping. Trusting the dog to find his mistress, Squall followed him, stopping to catch his breath with Irvine as the dog paused from time to time to scent the air and cast about for a trail, then off they went again. Eventually they found themselves in an area comprised mostly of warehouses and storage units. Angelo, nose glued to the ground, made a beeline for a garage-sized storage unit at the far end of a long row of similar such units.

Squall, stumbling now from fatigue, even with Bahamut's strength bolstering his own flagging endurance, grit his teeth and held on, as did Irvine, who while tired, hadn't been weakened to the extent Squall had. Squall and Irvine were both just about to reach the unit when Angelo suddenly yelped and ran away from it.

Winded and confused, they both stopped and exchanged puzzled looks that turned to alarm when the outer door to the unit exploded outward in a flare of bright white light. Thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion of.... magic, was what it had to be, Rinoa's magic.. Irvine and Squall both leaped to their feet and charged into the small unit, to see Rinoa floating in midair, wide, white spectral angel's wings extending from her shoulders. Lying in a heap against what was left of one wall was a man that Squall vaguely recognized as a page to the sour-faced minister he had seen the other day in the council hall. Braced against another wall, with his gunblade up at guard and barely standing, with a look of both resignation and shock on his face, stood Seifer Almasy.

"Rinoa!" He was saying, almost desperately, "It wasn't my idea to grab you! None of this was.." He choked as Rinoa made a graceful gesture and he was suddenly flattened against the wall, dropping his gunblade.

Squall watched, appalled, as Seifer struggled to breathe. He didn't care for Seifer, would have preferred him dead to seeing him again, but if Seifer was to die, he wanted it to be at his hands, not Rinoa's. Not his Angel wing. He would not allow her to become what everyone had feared when she took on the mantle of the Sorceress' power. So thinking, he ordered a stunned Irvine to check on the other man and leaped in front of Rinoa, between her and Seifer, whose eyes were beginning to glaze.

"Rinoa, stop!" He called to her.

She turned glowing golden eyes upon him and said in a remote voice, "Why should this man be allowed to live? He has caused immeasurable pain to me and to you. Why do you defend him?"

"This isn't you. You would never do this. Let him go." Squall said quietly, urgently. "I don't care for Seifer, but the past is over, what's done is done and cannot be undone. If he is to die, I would rather it be by my hand in fair combat." Squall watched her hoping his less than perfect verbal skills had gotten through to her. She slowly relaxed her grip on Seifer, and he gasped for air, but she didn't release him.

"Please Rinoa." He pleaded. "I'm not asking this for him, but for us. I love you, and I won't let you be feared and hated for your power. You cannot do this or you will become what you most fear." Slowly, the light faded and Rinoa's angel wings did as well, and she sank to the floor, sobbing. Squall fell to his knees in front of her and gathered her close, whispering comfortingly.

Seifer, meanwhile, had also sunk to the ground and was still gasping, willing his trembling limbs to obey him. They didn't. Did he really mean that? Seifer thought. We're more alike than either of us thought we were.. He doubted Squall would appreciate that observation. As he was trying to gather his scattered wits, he heard a click and looked up to see the business end of a huge rifle, and Irvine, his face set in a grim mask, staring at him coldly.

"Ever see the inside of a Galbadian prison, asshole?" He said calmly. Seifer leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. He thought wearily.


Suppressing the urge to kill Seifer outright, never mind what he had just told Rinoa, was the toughest thing Squall had ever had to do, especially after he saw the bruise marring Rinoa's soft cheek. In the end, however, Seifer had surprisingly been quite helpful in answering their questions. Then again, perhaps not so much of a surprise as one might think, he thought, noting Seifer's weary disgust as he gazed at the man he had called Valente and identified as the man who had approached him, seeking to hire him. When Seifer quietly told Squall he had had nothing to do with Rinoa's kidnapping or injury (minor though it was), Squall reluctantly believed him.

The grim smile that Squall wore, a marked departure from his normally controlled expression, made even Seifer's blood run cold as he eyed the still unconscious Valente, and said, his lips stretching from a dangerous smile to an equally dangerous snarl, "Let's get this baggage back. We'll turn them over to the General. And make sure the General knows that I get the first crack at interrogating that piece of garbage." Squall indicated Valente with a jerk of his head. Seifer did not envy the man. Not at all.

After calling Quistis on the communicator and requesting that she send a car and inform General Caraway of what had occurred, Squall leaned wearily against the wall and fought the urge to collapse right there. There was no way he was going to zonk out again, not until he had gotten as much info from as he could. And for once, Squall was really looking forward to the interrogation, though he suspected he would have to do it as soon as possible, because when the General got wind of what the bastard had tried to do with Rinoa, Squall suspected the man wouldn't last the night. Rinoa can't see how much her father loves her, even if he doesn't show it very well.. Squall thought. He may think I'm beneath his precious daughter, but we're both soldiers, and we understand each other in a way.

He had caught a glimmer of respect in the General's eyes at their last meeting, so was reasonably sure that the man didn't hate him at least. He hoped that General Caraway, once told of how Rinoa had saved herself, would finally realize that his daughter was no longer a child who needed to be protected.

Squall, feeling better for the momentary rest, got up and blinked as his vision fogged for a moment. He hoped he could keep it together until they got to the jail, or stockade, or wherever the General decided to incarcerate Seifer and Valente. Noting that Irvine had the two prisoners well covered, Squall approached Rinoa. She had called Angelo back and was calming him down and giving him some treats that she had had in one of her pockets. Squall crouched down in front of them, hoping Rinoa didn't notice how close he came to falling over just then, and reached over to scratch the collie's ears.

"I almost..." Rinoa whispered. Squall looked up at her pale face, marred by the purpling bruise and tracked by tears.

"But you didn't." He said softly.

"I lost control. For a minute, I wasn't me anymore..." Her voice trailed off and she shuddered, hugging herself.

"You regained your control. You didn't forget completely who you were. And no harm was done. " Squall studied her with a serious expression on his face.

"Ultimecia's dead. She can't take control of you anymore. So is Adel. You are the only sorceress now. Their evil can't infect you."

"But.." She began.

"No." Said Squall firmly. "I promised I would be your knight, your protector. That means I protect you from anything. Even yourself if I need to." Squall hesitated, searching for the words he needed to convince her.

"What you need to keep you safe from evil is here." He said, softly touching her above her heart. Looking into his eyes, she smiled wanly and nodded. He heard a car drive up and slowly stood up, then helped Rinoa to her feet.

"Are you ok?"He asked, touching her bruised cheek. He didn't want to think what might have happened had she not manifested Angelwing. She nodded.

"Let's go then."


Some time later, in the military stockade that General Caraway had had their captives taken to, Squall strode to the interview room that they were holding Valente in. He was going on sheer will alone, and Irvine was quite frankly amazed that he hadn't collapsed a long time before. Even with Bahamut supporting him, Squall had to be at the end of his at the moment rather limited endurance, and yet he kept going. He watched Squall closely as they walked and noted that the brisk step was an illusion, a show put on to convince Caraway that he was capable of doing his job. He didn't miss the slight stagger in his step or the grim set to his jaw that gave his exhaustion away. He also knew better than to say anything about it. And, per Caraway's orders, Valente was not to be interrogated by Squall alone.

Irvine hadn't missed Squall's jaw tightening in anger at that pronouncement, but given Rinoa's rather visible reminder of the man's rough treatment, Irvine couldn't blame the General for wanting to make sure that Valente lived long enough to give them some useful information. Though the General himself had looked ready to kill when he had been told what had occurred that night. So Irvine went with Squall to the interrogation room. Reaching the doorway, Squall identified himself and Irvine to the sentries posted there, and was allowed to enter.

Their prisoner sat on the other side of a large, featureless metal table, handcuffed to the metal chair he sat in. He watched them enter with a set expression on his face. He was an unremarkable man, medium height, medium build, medium dark hair and eyes. Probably about mid-twenties. Squall was surprised he recognized the man from the council meeting because there was absolutely nothing about him to attract attention. They studied each other in silence for a moment, and then Squall reached over and turned on a tape recorder and asked the man his full name.

"Serge Alan Valente." He answered. Squall eyed him coldly. Valente studied him back, and a flicker of a sneer appeared on his lip. Squall continued, with Irvine watching silently.

"Who do you work for?" Squall asked. The prisoner remained silent. Squall clenched his jaw and repeated the question.

"Who do you work for?" Silence.

Squall said, "I saw you in the council hall during the debates, you were a page for one of Deling's former ministers. I believe his name was Thorne. Is he the one you're running errands for?"

Valente snorted. "Why should I tell you anything? It's not going to change my situation any."

Squall narrowed his eyes and said, "If you cooperate, you will live to see a trial." Valente paled at the look in Squall's eyes, and then gulped audibly as Squall slowly pulled out his gunblade. He strolled casually over to the table and took one of the other chairs there, turned it around and straddled it, facing the prisoner. Irvine began to look a little alarmed.

"Squall," He began, but Squall silenced him with a look. He brought Lionheart's glowing blue-white blade up and began to study the edge of it, tested it with his thumb and smiled with satisfaction.

"Have you ever seen one of these weapons up close?" He asked in a conversational tone. He continued to examine the blade, and went on, "Its edge is razor sharp. I could probably shave you with it." He slowly brought the tip of the gunblade up to Valente's face. The man closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively. Holding the blade steady took all of Squall's remaining strength, and he could feel his arm trembling from the strain, but he braced it on the back of the chair he was straddling and it steadied, then he took the blade and angled it so that it faced the man horizontally.

"I'm pretty tired you know." Squall continued in a deceptively mild tone, "And this blade is pretty heavy. I would really hate to slip." Valente felt a trickle of sweat run down the side of his face, and opened his eyes to stare right into the barrel of the gunblade, affixed to the top edge of the blade. Squall brought the tip of the blade up under Valente's chin and tilted his face up with it. He met the man's now frightened eyes and gave him a bland look.

Then he cocked the hammer of the revolver part of his weapon.

His blue-green eyes burned with frightening intensity as he asked Valente with barely leashed anger apparent in his voice, "Are you going to answer my questions now?"

About half an hour later, Irvine and Squall left the interview room with the tape recording of Valente's confession. He had been engaged by Councilman Thorne to arrange the assassination of Laguna, and he in turn had hired Seifer to do it. They found out that the limo driver had been on their payroll as well, and Squall found he wasn't surprised at this, remembering he was about to talk to the man about parking too far out into the street when he had gotten shot. It had been deliberately done, as it turned out, to set up the shot for Seifer. Of how Seifer had gotten ahold of the rifle he used and what, or who, their connection the Galbadian military was, he couldn't say. Given Squall's extremely effective interview techniques, Irvine suspected that the man simply didn't know.

They both headed tiredly back to the palace, Irvine watching with concern as Squall tried and failed to hide his fatigue. Irvine was in a little better shape, and he was dog-tired. Squall looked like he was about to collapse at any moment. Squall walked alongside Irvine fighting a losing battle against the fog that was beginning to obscure his vision. Fortunately, they made it to the car and he managed to keep it together for a while longer. It wasn't until he and Irvine, who had been watching him like a hawk at that point, were walking down the hallway to their rooms that the last of his reserves gave out.

The green-gray fog at the edges of Squall's vision rose up and smothered him and he stopped, shaking his head and fighting desperately to avoid what he knew would happen next.

He tried bracing himself against the wall, and heard himself saying in a distant voice, "Ah, crap.." Then the green fog turned to black and he slid into unconsciousness.

Irvine caught him and slung Squall's arm over his shoulder to support him before he hit the floor, and half carried, half dragged him the rest of the way to his room.

"Damn," Irvine said to himself as he tapped on the door, hoping Rinoa was in there. "You're a lot heavier than you look buddy."

Rinoa opened the door and gasped, "Squall.."

Irvine grunted and answered her, hefting Squall up as he had gone completely limp and was beginning to slide to the floor again, "He finally ran outta juice. Help me get him into bed, he's out of it." Rinoa took Squall's other arm and Irvine was surprised to note that her frail appearance disguised surprising strength. Between the two of them they got him into bed and Rinoa assured Irvine she could handle the rest as she began removing Squall's boots. Irvine wished her goodnight and went in search of Selphie.


Seifer lay back on the hard cot in his cell and tried to sleep. He hated confined places, and the windowless room they had him in pressed in on him like a tomb. He wondered if they would send him to the D-district prison, where Squall and the rest of his friends had been held after their unsuccessful assassination attempt on Sorceress Edea. He uncomfortably remembered the interrogation room there, where he had tortured Squall for information on the SeeDs. Squall hadn't told him anything, and Seifer grudgingly admired him for his toughness.

Startled out of his thoughts by a soft sound outside his door, he sat up and tried to peer through the darkness at the door of his cell. Come to finish this with me, Squall? He thought. I hope you brought Hyperion with you, so it'll at least be a fair fight... He conveniently ignored the fact that he had given Squall his scar by cheating. Magic was forbidden on the practice ground, and Seifer had knocked Squall to the ground with a fira spell, and then attacked while he was still getting to his feet. Squall hadn't used any magic at all, and still had marked him as well. Seifer tensed as the door slowly swung open. Then his face split into a grin as he saw the hulking silhouette of Raijin, with Fujin's slim form behind him.

"What are you guys doing here?" He whispered, "How did you get in?"

"Silence" Fujin whispered. Seifer blinked. He didn't even know she could whisper.

Raijin added, "Let's go, ya know? We'll explain later, ya know?" Seifer nodded and they made their way out of the cell and the stockade. Given the security of the place, Seifer was surprised to encounter no resistance, and sighed with relief when Fujin handed him his Hyperion and its belts. Once out, he asked his friends how they had managed to get in there and out without any resistance.

"DARKNESS" Fujin said.

Raijin nodded, and added, "Yeah, and sleep too, we sleep spelled the lot of them. It was easy..ya know?" Seifer did know, and he would have thought the sentries of that place would be shielded against sleep spells.

He didn't like the implications of that, and said to his friends, "Too easy, way too easy. Let's get out of here." They managed to "borrow" a car, and headed for the coast. Once there, Fujin led him to the dock where an old but well maintained and still seaworthy houseboat was tied and got aboard. Seifer stopped.

He looked at both Raijin and Fujin, puzzled and asked, "We never got paid by that jerk Valente, so how..?"

"FOUND" Said Fujin.

Raijin clarified, "We went to that storage place, ya know, and we found the gil there. The place was wrecked, ya know? What happened there?" Seifer nodded, and hopped aboard.

Then he said, "I'll explain later what happened," adding, "Let's cast off. So, does either of you guys know how to sail this thing?" Raijin and Fujin both looked at each other and shrugged. Seifer shrugged too.

"We'll figure it out. Its not like we really have anyplace to go. I'm pretty sure we're outlaws in just about every civilized country on the planet right now. We're probably wanted in Balamb and Esthar as well as Galbadia, so we may as well just head for the high seas and see where that takes us."

As the boat pulled out of the dock, and Seifer took the wheel to guide it out of the harbor, he looked over at his friends and said, "Outlaws on the high seas. What does that make us then?" Raijin grinned and Fujin displayed one of her rare smiles.

Raijin answered, "Pirates, ya know?"

"Yeah.." then Seifer grinned over at Fujin and added, "And she's already got the eye patch too! Now all you need is a parrot Fujin." Fujin snorted and aimed a halfhearted kick at Seifer's shin, which he avoided easily. From a knight to a pirate, I can live with that. Its how a lot of pirates started out anyway. As they headed into the brightening dawn, he saw Rajin readying his fishing equipment and smiled again. At some point they would make their way to Fisherman's Horizon. But there were plenty of supplies on board to see them through a few weeks at sea, and by then, he hoped, they would have figured out how to navigate. If not, well then, they would just follow the tides.


Squall awoke feeling a little stiff but otherwise well rested for a change and too comfortable to get out of bed. So instead, he rolled over and reached for Rinoa, cuddling her close and savoring the moment. Waking slightly, she snuggled closer and sighed. Stroking her hair softly, he mused that everything seemed right with the world when he held Rinoa in his arms. He knew she brought out the best in him, just as he did with her. Together they were a stronger whole than either of them was separately. Together we both can hold the darkness at bay...

"Good morning." She said softly, running her hand up his chest and playing with his pendant.

" 'Morning," He said huskily, and pulled her closer to kiss her. As their lips touched, he heard a knock on the door. He groaned and Rinoa giggled.

"Dammit." He decided to ignore the knock. Maybe they'll go away. He kissed Rinoa again, and the knock sounded again, but louder this time, more insistent.

"I guess its time to get up." Rinoa said, smiling. Squall shot a sour look at the door and searched for his pants. As the knock got louder, Squall cursed and said,

"Just a minute!" once he got his pants on he strode out of the bedroom and headed for the door, grabbing it open and startling Irvine, who simply stared for a moment. Shirtless, barefoot, and unshaven, he knew he must look, well, like he had just gotten out of bed. Which he had, of course.

"What?" He demanded.

Irvine gave him a sly grin and said, "Sorry, I hope I didn't interrupt.."

"Almost." Squall grumbled, then gestured with his head toward the couch in the sitting room. Irvine smothered a laugh and went in to sit down and Squall closed the door and padded after him. Once he sat down, Irvine's face grew serious.

"Seifer's escaped. And they've found Valente dead in his cell."

"WHAT?!" Squall got up and began to pace the room.

"How!" He demanded.

Irvine shrugged."They said that someone had sleep spelled and blinded everyone there."

Squall snorted scornfully. "I would have thought they would be shielded from something like that. This is a military stockade. What about the anti-magic field?"

"Turned off." Irvine stated.

"Of course." Said Squall flatly. Then he sighed.

"Give me a few minutes to get ready. Get everyone else together and meet me downstairs. We'll discuss this over breakfast."

He scratched at his tangled hair and asked, "What time is it anyway?" How long was I out this time? He thought, vaguely remembering his collapse in the hall.

Irvine snorted, "Its almost lunchtime. When you went, you really went." Then he shrugged, adding, "We all knew you needed the rest, so nobody wanted to wake you up, but I knew you'd want to hear this as soon as possible." Irvine stood and stretched his lanky frame for a moment, then winked at Squall.

"I can give you some extra time if..."

"Get out." Squall pointed to the door.

Irvine held his hands up, chuckling."Okay, okay, just thought I'd.."

"OUT." Irvine was still laughing as he left. He'd seen the spark of interest in Squall's eyes at his suggestion, no matter how hard he'd tried to disguise it. I'll tell everyone were gonna have a lunch meeting instead. A LATE lunch. He thought smugly.

Squall really did intend to just take a quick shower and head downstairs, but he didn't figure on Rinoa's intentions. It was just as well that Irvine had let the others know the meeting would be at lunchtime, because that was exactly when he and Rinoa finally made it downstairs.

Walking hand in hand with her toward the dining room, he briefly considered playing it cool, but decided that if nobody had figured out he and Rinoa were lovers by now, they were both blind and stupid. At any rate, there was no sense in hiding that fact, since anyone who mattered already knew anyway. With the possible exception of her father, he thought with a slight wince.

As he and Rinoa arrived and got seated, Squall deliberately ignored the speculative glances in their direction and noted Irvine's too-innocent expression. As usual, Laguna, Ward and Kiros were there, at one end of the table, with Quistis, Irvine and Selphie along one side, and Zell on the other side with Rinoa and himself.

Addressing the group, he said, "Irvine told me about what happened at the stockade last night." He looked over at Selphie and Quistis, and asked them, "Have you made any progress on tracing down who's in charge at the armory? This is definitely beginning to show signs of a military connection as well as a council connection." Quistis and Selphie exchanged glances. They had been working on that exact thing since they had gotten up that morning, and finally had started to see some progress.

Selphie nodded and Quistis said, "We've managed to find out that Sergeant Nichols' commanding officer is Lt. Colonel James Tavers, and it was his signature on the order to send that sniper rifle to maintenance. We did a little more background checking, and we discovered that Lt. Colonel Tavers had actually at one time been a Brigadier General, but he had been demoted after President Deling was killed and General Caraway took over. He was firmly loyal to Deling, and apparently Caraway decided it would be easier to put him in charge of something fairly out of the way rather than forcing him to retire."

At this, Squall frowned, and Zell voiced the thought that he himself had been entertaining. "Looks like the General needs to do a little housecleaning."

"Apparently." Squall said. Then he looked over at Laguna, who had been following all this with an interested, if slightly bemused expression.

"Do you have a meeting with him today?" Squall asked Laguna.

Laguna frowned and said, "Not really, but I can arrange one."

"Good. We need to get his take on this, and figure out exactly how far this goes, and what to do about it. Whatever is going on, it certainly isn't helping General Caraway at all."

"All right." Laguna said.

Then Squall asked, "Does anyone know where the limo driver is? You know, the one who took us to the Symphony Hall?"

At their negative responses, Squall said, "Well, we need to find him. Seifer's contact said he had someone on the inside here, feeding him information. He said the limo driver had helped set up the assassination attempt. We need to find and question him."

It turned out that they didn't need to. The man was found dead on the outskirts of Deling City, but by that time it was too late for those who had been trying to cover their tracks. Squall and Laguna, along with Irvine, Quistis, and the rest, had finally gotten together with General Caraway and told him all that they had found out.

He in turn shared the results of his investigations. The way things looked it was the councilman, Thorne that was at the head of the conspiracy, with his good friend and cousin, Lt. Col. Tavers as his connection to the military. It wasn't too hard to check into the escape at the stockade and question the hapless commander there, who confirmed that the Colonel had ordered him to turn off the anti-magic field, telling him the order in turn came from General Caraway himself.

Apparently, their two suspects had been gathering the support of like-minded individuals within the military and the council, but influencing policy in the political arena is notoriously slow, and it appeared that they had decided to take some more direct action by hiring an assassin to kill President Laguna and hopefully both derail the treaty negotiations and possibly even start a war with Esthar.

With General Caraway embroiled in the middle of a war, the country of Galbadia could be destabilized even further until Caraway in turn was overthrown and Thorne took over. Given the evidence that they had managed to get together in their investigations, the General took no small satisfaction in issuing warrants for the arrest of as many people involved as they had managed to get hard information on.

Thorne and his cronies were relatively easy to round up, and the General's investigators were interrogating them by sundown. Tavers, however, was a bit more difficult. He had apparently fled to his home, which was situated in the hills north of Deling City, and it was a veritable fortress, surrounded by high walls and in a remote, wild area of the country known to harbor some rather nasty monsters. He also had what amounted to a private army guarding the compound.

When that information came in, General Caraway looked directly at Squall and said, "Looks like it's your turn Commander. You and your team, and whatever kind of support from the army that you request, can go in and get him. Alive, if possible." Squall nodded and told him they would be ready to go within an hour. As he turned to follow his team out and start his preparations, General Caraway stopped him.

"Rinoa needs to stay here." He stated flatly.

Squall's expression cooled and he told the General, "Rinoa is part of our team, and a powerful sorceress. We need her." Squall folded his arms over his chest and studied the General, his face unreadable.

Then he stated, "You know we're..Involved." The General nodded, his jaw set.

Then he said, "I had heard rumors. True ones, as it turns out."

Squall nodded and then said, "I won't let anything happen to her. The fact is, she's a lot stronger than she looks. She'll probably come out of this better than the rest of us will."

The General nodded, and replied, "I'm beginning to see that. Still, she is my daughter, and I love her. " Squall smiled slightly. The General was amazed at even this slight change to the boy's usually stony expression, and could see why Rinoa loved him.

Squall turned to leave, but as he reached the door, he turned back and admitted, " So do I." Then he walked out.

The General, left alone now in his office, said quietly to the closed door, "Take care of yourself boy. She won't be happy without you."


Finally. Squall thought as he readied himself for the assault. And that's what it would be. An all out assault on the Colonel's compound. At least on the part of the Galbadian troops that he was temporarily in command of. They would attack and divert the forces inside, while Squall and his team of specialists would infiltrate by whatever means necessary to find their target inside.

Attacking under the cover of darkness, and aided by the moonless night, they would use stealth and cunning while the army made enough noise to shield their passage. We finally have a target. It's about damn time. Squall, for all his youth, was still a warrior, and all of the political maneuvering he had witnessed with his father Laguna had driven that home.

He was actually anticipating the coming action, and he readied himself accordingly, putting on his dark SeeD uniform and making sure his gunblade, the gun in his boot and the sidearm he had strapped on were all fully loaded and ready to go.

He grabbed up several extra clips and ammo, and put on the communicator and tested it by checking in with the rest of the team while they got ready. They were going to use the Valkyrie to transport themselves and the troops to the area, and then they would simply blow a hole in the wall at the same time the troops attacked, to cover the noise. Once inside, the tricky part began. They had to find their target while avoiding detection themselves.

Going over the battle plan mentally as he got ready kept Squall somewhat distracted. Rinoa watched him as she got ready herself, putting on a pair of black jeans and sweater, and strapping her shooting star to her forearm. The boomerang-like weapon was the only one she would use, most of the time she would be casting magic or summoning GFs to support the rest of the team. Finished with her preparations, she went up to him and touched him on the arm. He focused on her for a minute, and gave her a quick hug and kiss.

"Ready?" He asked. She nodded.

"Lets go."

The Valkyrie screamed through the sky like a bird of prey, carrying her deadly cargo toward the residence of a renegade and traitor to Galbadia. Laguna, Kiros and Ward were on board as well, though Squall had tried to dissuade them from coming.

"You can't take part in this, you're too important to risk." He'd said.

"I won't, I just want to be here. I'll be safe enough on the Valkyrie. Besides, someone's gotta know when to fire up the engines to get us outta here." Laguna had replied. Squall gave him an exasperated look and shook his head.

"Whatever." Then he turned away to gather his team together and make sure everything was ready for them to depart upon landing.

Before he left, Laguna told him, "Take care son." Squall nodded and walked away. Laguna sighed. He's always walking away from me..He gazed in the direction Squall had gone and tried to squelch his anxiety and his fear. We still have a long way to go, but I think we're making some progress. Maybe when we're done with this... Laguna didn't let himself finish the thought. It all depended on what happened next.

The Valkyrie landed and her cargo of soldiers and SeeD specialists streamed out. As the Valkyrie screamed off, (Squall had ordered the pilot to take the craft out of range of any anti-aircraft weapons, he didn't want anyone on the ground to see the Estharian craft and her distinctive markings) the troops fanned out to take their places, awaiting Squall's order to begin their frontal assault on the compound, and Squall and his team hurried around to the lee side of the wall. The compound itself was backed against craggy peaks, and only three sides of the compound had a wall, but it was about 12 feet high and topped with razor wire.

Selphie, in addition to her computer and piloting skills, also had another skill, one she had acquired when she and Irvine had infiltrated a Galbadian missile base in an attempt to stop the launch of missiles aimed at Balamb Garden. It was demolitions. She found that she liked blowing things up, and applied herself to studying this new skill with relish.

As the rest of the team spread out to watch for possible discovery by either monsters or sentries, Selphie set to work, placing charges strategically and setting the timer to the required length. Once finished, she nodded to Squall and they all took cover as he gave the order over the communicator for the Galbadians to begin their attack.

The wall exploded and a section of it crumbled at the same time that troops began attacking the gate, using portable rockets and grenades to cover the explosion from the side of the wall. After the dust had settled, Squall and the rest immediately got to their feet and ran through the resulting hole. They encountered little resistance, anyone in the immediate vicinity of the wall at the time of the explosion had either been killed immediately or injured and weren't much of a problem. They kept low as they ran across the open ground between the wall and the house, and utilized what cover they could find until they got to the house itself. Squall and the rest flattened themselves against the side of the house and studied it, looking for any way they could gain entrance.

"You guys go around the back and look for a way in." He whispered, indicating Zell, Selphie and Irvine. Then he scanned the side of the house. The edifice itself was a manor house, with a lot of windows and balconies, and at first glance looked relatively easy to get into. The side of the house that they crouched against, however, was a different story. It was basically a blank wall up to the roofline. There was a drainpipe at the front corner, but Squall knew better than to expect the frail-looking thing to hold his weight.

Edging to the corner, he peered around and noticed the front of the house was brightly lit and buzzing with activity, as defenders rushed into and out of the house, carrying instructions and ordnance to those battling at the gate. Checking on the progress of that battle, he ordered the troops to keep fighting but hold position otherwise. Then he checked with Selphie and Irvine's team, and they reported some better possibilities out back for gaining entrance, but there was definitely more risk of discovery, though not as much as the front of the house.

After discussing it with them quietly, they decided on the rear corner of the house closest to the crag that more or less formed the rear of the perimeter wall. It was dark enough and far enough removed from the activity in front that they had a reasonable chance of getting in through a second floor window that opened up onto a small balcony.

After meeting Irvine's team there, Squall gave Irvine a nod and Irvine fired a grapnel gun at the balcony. The hooks caught on the railing, and Irvine tested the cord, then Selphie, the smallest of their group, swarmed up and made sure it was stable enough for the rest of them. Zell came up next and set to work on opening the window. He and Selphie went in and checked the darkened room while the rest of the team followed them up the cord. Squall went last, guarding their backs from below, and once on the balcony, removed the grapnel and cord, handing it back to Irvine. Then they went to the doorway of the room and Squall cautiously peeked out into the hallway beyond.

"This is the interesting part." He whispered, peering out into the hallway again and noting the minimal activity. The top floor most likely was all bedrooms, so not too many would be up there, at least, not too many potential hostiles. But there was some coming and going, farther down the hall, and the first floor would be full of potential encounters. Pulling back into the darkened room Squall told the rest of his observations.

"We have to find this guy, and my guess is he's downstairs somewhere, directing his defense. I doubt we'll see too much trouble up here." He whispered, then, glancing around at them, he said,

"Mostly non combatants up here so just sleep spell and silence everyone. Once we get downstairs, its gonna get hairy, so be sure you have all your GFs ready to go. Rinoa, I want you to summon Cerberus, then start casting regen and protect spells. Quistis, summon Siren to silence everyone."

Turning back to Rinoa, he said, "I have a lot of Aura spells stocked, do you need any?" Rinoa thought for a moment and nodded. Taking her hand after removing his glove, he closed his eyes and let the power flow down his arm and into her as he transferred half of his valued Aura spells to her. Her sorceress powers gave her spell casting much more punch than his would, and she would be the magic user on this mission, so his spells would be more useful with her wielding them. Aura was a hard spell to stock, but it was very useful to have. When used, the magic would unlock the inner power of the user and allow them to use their limit breaks without having to be injured or low on energy. It was a very rare and powerful spell, and one of SeeD's best kept secrets. It was also how Squall and his friends had defeated Ultimecia.

When he had finished he put his glove back on and told her, "Don't use it unless you have to." He didn't think she would, but wanted her to have the spells available, just in case. Looking at the rest of the team, he told Quistis, Zell and Selphie to go first, and take care of anyone upstairs with sleep and silence spells, and then meet them at the top of the central staircase. He, Irvine and Rinoa hurried silently in their wake, and flattened themselves against the wall.

Squall looked out and sighed. The wall ended at the second floor of then main entrance hall, and from where they stood to the top of the staircase, there was absolutely no cover, just a balcony railing that flowed gracefully down the staircase. Same with the other side. They would be in plain sight of anyone coming or going through the front door.

"Okay," Squall spoke softly to his and Quistis' teams. Quistis waited on the other side of that great gap, having made it across in a quick rush during a lull in the activity below.

"We're going to have to do this in a quick charge, so everyone be ready, on my mark." He peeked around the corner again and waited for the perfect moment.

When the activity seemed highest, and the potential for confusion grew, Squall gave a nod to his team and then said, "Go!"

They charged out in a rush, Squall and Irvine with their weapons ready, Quistis and Rinoa both pausing to summon their GFs. Siren came first, and reality blurred for a moment as she manifested on a golden beach, extending her green and gold wings and playing her golden harp to sing her Silent Melody, rendering anyone within range mute and unable to cast magic. As the soldiers below saw this manifestation, a panicked cry went up before Siren's spell went into effect,


Cerberus came next, and his manifestation was a three-headed hound of hell, bursting through the gates of the underworld. He raised all three of his heads and gave a great cry, casting Counter Rockets on everyone in Squall's party and giving them the ability to triple-cast all their spells. While Quistis and Rinoa were busy summoning, Squall and Irvine charged down the stairway, with Zell and Selphie behind them. Squall took the far side of the stair, and Irvine, giving a wild hoot, hopped on the banister and slid down, firing his Exeter rifle and picking off a target with each shot. When he reached the end of the slide, he kicked his left leg up and over the banister, and using his momentum, caught an attacking soldier across the face with it, landing on both feet and smashing another soldier with the butt of his rifle.

Squall meanwhile, muttering "Show off", raced down his side of the stairway with Lionheart at the ready. Zell charged down in Irvine's wake and backed him up, while Selphie flanked Squall, with her nunchakus blurring in deadly motion.

When Squall got a little more than halfway down, he leaped over the banister and used the force from his decent to take out the unfortunate soldier who raised his weapon too late, and then spun with Lionheart singing in a deadly arc to neatly behead the man standing next to him. For the next few minutes, Squall was hard beset, with two gunbladers attacking simultaneously. Blocking and parrying with uncanny speed, Squall ducked a high swipe from one man and shot his leg out and swept the feet out from under the other one.

With the other man down and trying to get to his feet, Squall quickly blocked the first man's return blow and smashed his face in with his fist, then as the man reeled back, stunned, Squall quickly slashed him across the throat and followed through, spinning around to catch the second man's approaching blow. The glowing blue-white blade struck sparks off the other man's gunblade, and the man seemed to hesitate for a moment, eyes wide with fear and awe. Using that hesitation, Squall struck the man's gunblade with force enough to cleave the blade in two.

Disarmed, the man put his hands up and stammered, "You're him, aren't you? The SeeD who attacked Edea?" Squall nodded wordlessly and bound the man to the banister for the time being.

With no one able to surprise them with blizzaga or fira spells, the front hall was relatively easy to deal with, though a few men managed to fire off their weapons. The speed and efficiency of their attack however, made it hard for their foes to shoot accurately, and with regen cast on everyone, any injuries, save immediately fatal ones, would automatically heal. Just to finish things off, Zell summoned Ifrit, and the fire elemental took care of the remaining defenders.

After regrouping at the bottom of the staircase, Squall brought the prisoner to the rest of the group and asked the man where they would be able to find the Colonel. Loyal to the Colonel, the man refused to say.

Squall, not willing to engage in a long interrogation, looked over at the rest of the group and commented, "I don't feel like taking any prisoners." With that, Squall brought his gunblade back in preparation for a killing stroke, and the man gulped and said, "Wait! His study is back that way. That's most likely where he'll be." Then man indicated the right wing of the house. Squall sighed and tied the man to the banister again, then cast a sleep spell on him for good measure. Then they all ran down the hall toward what they thought would be the Colonel's study, swiftly taking care of anyone in their way.

As they ran, Irvine remarked to Squall, "Nice bluff back there."

Squall looked at him then kept his eyes focused ahead, and replied coolly, "I wasn't bluffing."

Irvine shuddered and said, "You are a very scary person Squall." Squall shrugged and kept running. They encountered a few soldiers, coming back from a room at the end of the hall, but they were dealt with easily enough. Periodically they checked any closed doors they ran across, but most of the rooms they opened into were either empty or full of secretarial type staff. They were sleep spelled to keep them out of trouble and out of the way. Reaching the last door in the hallway, Squall had Irvine go to the other side. Listening carefully at the door, Squall heard voices. He nodded to Irvine who had taken the momentary pause as an opportunity to reload his rifle.

Readying himself, he told Irvine, "On three, ready?" Irvine nodded.

"One...two...three!" With that, Squall kicked in the door and rushed in, gunblade ready and Irvine was right beside him with his rifle leveled directly at the unassuming middle-aged man standing behind a large desk dominating the room. Squall recognized him from a photo that General Caraway had shown them, so they would know their target.

Rinoa quickly came in and cast sleep on everyone else in the room, and Squall said to the man, who was staring in shock and fear, "Lt. Colonel Tavers, you are under arrest for treason."

The rest was easy. The Galbadian troops mopped up what was left, which wasn't much after the SeeDs had attacked. Tavers and anyone who had been with him were taken aboard the Valkyrie and held in one of the cargo bays, under guard. When they returned to Deling City, they were all turned over to General Caraway who in turn had them shipped off to the stockade.

The commander of that facility had been replaced and the individual in charge was given explicit orders to disregard anything that came through unless it came from General Caraway's own lips. And the anti-magic field was NOT to be turned off under any circumstance. Thus assured that their prisoners were safely incarcerated, they returned to the palace for a well-earned rest.

As the adrenaline faded from Squall's system, fatigue took its place. That was nothing new to him. He walked along to his room with Rinoa by his side, his arm around her, and all he could feel at that moment was relief that it was finally over. Laguna could continue with the trade negotiations with little fear of further attack, though Squall and his team would remain as his escort until they were concluded. They wouldn't relax their vigilance; after all, there were still crazies out there who may think it was a good idea to kill a public figure just for the attention it would give them. But from this moment on it would almost be routine, and at this point, Squall was glad to be able to expect no surprises.

Conscious of feeling somewhat grimy, Squall decided the first order of business would be a shower, then maybe dinner. In the rush to get ready for the attack, Squall had forgotten to eat. Entering the room, Squall took his uniform tunic off and was heading in the direction of the bathroom, saying,

"I'm gonna get a shower." Then he sighed. "Are you hungry? I missed dinner..."

He stopped when he felt Rinoa's hands sliding around his waist.

Turning around and taking her into his arms, he smiled, "What's going on in that wicked little mind of yours?"

Rinoa grinned back at him and said, "You have to ask?"

He laughed softly and replied, "No, I guess not. I think I've created a monster..." Rinoa silenced him with a kiss.

Then she smiled at him again and said, "Care to share that shower with me?" Squall expression became intense as he pulled her tightly to him and kissed her passionately.

Caressing both sides of her face, he pulled back, breathing hard and whispered, "Hell yes. Dinner can wait."

Later they lay cuddled together in bed having never made it downstairs for dinner at all. They had been busy satisfying other hungers instead. Rinoa was snuggled into his side and Squall was beginning to fall asleep when he noticed her toying with his earring.

Blinking sleepily, he gave her a questioning glance, and she smiled and said, "I almost forgot. I have something for you that I hope you might like.." Then she got out of bed and rummaged through a pile of clothes that had been left on the floor. Finding what it was she was looking for, she climbed back into bed and snuggled against Squall again. Then she showed him what it was.

"I saw these on my way home the other night, the night I got grabbed. I remembered seeing you wear only that platinum stud and I just thought you might like these as a change of pace once in a while." So saying she opened the velvet case and showed the contents to him. Inside were the earrings she had bought. Squall blinked, feeling slightly foolish. They were beautiful, perfectly cut and flawless stones, and he knew they must have cost a fortune. Rinoa was watching him anxiously, and he knew he had to say something.

"I...they're beautiful.." He frowned. That came out sounding lame. Rinoa's face fell.

"You don't like them." She said sadly and shut the case, then turned to put it away. Squall stopped her and took it from her. Then he removed the stud from his ear and replaced it with one of the glorious earrings Rinoa had gotten for him.

He looked over at her and asked, "Does it look okay?"

The blue-green fire that sparked at his left ear was echoed in his eyes and Rinoa said, "It looks wonderful." She smiled and he kissed her.

"Thank you. I feel kind of weird though...I mean, a girl buying me jewelry?" He would have to check with Irvine on that, but he was pretty sure that that wasn't one of the rules...he suspected it was supposed to be the other way around.

Rinoa laughed softly and said, "You can return the favor later. Besides, this was an impulse buy. I didn't intend it as a hint or anything."

Squall tightened his arms around her and said, "Pretty expensive impulse. What am I gonna do with the other one?"

Rinoa yawned and said sleepily, "Keep it as a spare or something." Squall looked thoughtful for a moment, then he settled himself against Rinoa and gradually dropped off to sleep.

The next few days passed without incident, and Laguna managed to get a treaty ratified that satisfied as many parties involved as humanly possible. In fact, it satisfied more people than Squall ever thought it would. Working in agreement with representatives from Timber, which General Caraway had returned to independent status when he took over the Galbadian government, Galbadia and Esthar would begin work on repairing the railway running from Esthar, through Fisherman's Horizon and Timber into Galbadia.

The causeway, the longest railway bridge in the world, running across the ocean from Esthar to Fisherman's Horizon, through that to Timber, hadn't been used for decades, even before Laguna had been elected president of Esthar, and so it would have to be gone over mile by mile and repaired. Timber would meanwhile be getting its trains reconditioned and repaired as well, with some assistance from Estharian technicians. It wouldn't be ready for awhile yet, but work was already underway to restore the Trans-Ocean railway, and the fact that it created a lot of work for everyone involved was all to the good for Galbadia's ailing economy.

Finally concluding their business, they all made ready to leave for Balamb Garden in the Valkyrie. Laguna sadly noted as they headed for the airship, that while Squall's attitude towards him had thawed somewhat, the boy was still aloof. By all accounts that was inherent in his nature, but Laguna couldn't help but wish for a way to pierce that reserve somehow. He knew it was possible; Rinoa had managed it, through sheer persistence he had found out when he had asked her. Squall at least would talk to him on occasion, though again, it wasn't part of his nature to be talkative. Not having to be back in Esthar immediately, Laguna resolved to stay in Balamb for a few days and see what developed.

Squall, meanwhile, had told Quistis that he would do a gunblade demonstration for her class they day after they got back, so as to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Quistis readily agreed, knowing how little he liked that sort of thing anyway. Then she hit upon an idea. Remembering the times that Ellone had put them into Laguna, Kiros, and Ward's minds, Quistis recalled that at one point, Laguna had used a gunblade to fight a ruby dragon. And despite the fact that he had mentioned not having used it for a while, still managed to hold his own and eventually killed the dragon when Kiros caught up with him and gave assistance. When she mentioned her idea to Laguna, he grinned eagerly and agreed fully, ignoring Kiros and Ward's dubious expressions.

Then he sobered and said to Quistis, "It may work, but I don't think its fair to just spring this on Squall. I'll ask him to see if he's okay with it."

Quistis sighed and said, "You're right." Laguna searched for Squall when they got back, but he had gone back to the Garden and was kept busy for the rest of the day. Laguna sighed and decided to try and catch up with Squall in the morning.

The gray light of predawn illuminated the beach in Balamb and Squall simply stood on the sand, listening to the waves and the seabirds, watching the sky lighten in the east. He was slowly sorting out his own conflicting feelings about suddenly having a father who, by all appearances, actually wanted a relationship with him. Examining himself however wasn't something Squall liked to do, and so he habitually left his feelings alone and focused on things he could control. The hell of it is, he thought, he isn't quite the idiot I thought he was. Sure, he's kind of a klutz still, but watching him work those politicians over in Galbadia..I couldn't have done that. I wouldn't have the patience for it. Squall suspected that he never would either, despite the leadership position he currently held. Being a military commander wasn't the same as being a president however. There was little of politics involved in it, which Squall was very glad of.

He was beginning to actually like his father, which wasn't hard because Laguna was much more open and honest a man than any politician had a right to be. And despite being something of a klutz, and having a tendency to be a little over enthusiastic at times, Laguna was a likeable guy. That was probably how he managed to get elected president in the first place, Squall reflected.

He had set out to help the people of Esthar to free themselves from Adel's rule in return for their help in his quest to find Ellone. He never did it for himself or for the promise of power, but in return for the aid they had given him. There was something very noble in that.

Something was still bothering him though, something only Laguna could tell him, and something Squall was actually afraid to ask. How long did he know about me? Did he ever try to find me? Even asking those questions of himself mentally opened up too many painful possibilities for Squall, and he shied away from contemplating it further. Instead, he concentrated on watching the sunrise, letting the peace of a new dawn soothe his roiling emotions. He never tired of watching the shifting colors as the day began, though few who knew him would realize his appreciation for its beauty. There was in fact, only one person who knew this about him.

Absorbed in watching the scarlet and golden glory of the dawn, he was unaware of being watched until he heard his name.

"Squall." He turned around and there stood Laguna, with Rinoa by his side, watching him apprehensively. He met her eyes calmly and gave her a nod, and her expression changed to one of relief. Then she silently left. Laguna, watching this, was amazed at how attuned to each other they were, that they could have a whole conversation without even speaking a word.

Turning to watch the dawn by his son's side, Laguna was quiet for a moment, and then he commented, "Its beautiful. Rinoa tells me this is something of a habit with you." Squall shrugged. Laguna ran his fingers through his thick black hair, pushing the long forelock out of his eyes, and sighed.

"I have a question to ask you Squall." At Squall's inquiring look, Laguna continued,

"Quistis told me you're going to do a gunblade demonstration for one of her classes later today. She mentioned it might be easier for you if you had a sparring partner. I'm kind of rusty, but I would like to volunteer, if that's okay with you."

Squall turned back to watching the sunrise silently for a moment, then asked, "Do you have a gunblade?"

Laguna shook his head and said, "No.."

" I have a spare you can use. It was the one I used before I got Lionheart." Squinting, as the day got brighter, Squall turned back to Laguna and paused. Should I ask him? Do I dare..?

Hesitantly, Squall began, "Father," Then he froze, realizing the slip. Have I been thinking of him as my father all along? Laguna felt his eyes sting and blinked.

He said quietly, "You can call me father if you want to Squall. You have that right." Squall watched him, his sea-colored eyes troubled, then looked away.

"How long.." He swallowed, unable to finish the question. Laguna knew then what Squall had been holding back. The only thing he could tell Squall was the truth, and hope it would be enough.

His heart felt as heavy as a stone as he told him, "Not long. When I got elected President of Esthar, I sent Ellone back to Winhill to be with Raine. I had intended to bring them back to Esthar with me when things settled down, but by the time I got back to Winhill, it was already too late. Raine was dead, and Ellone gone. Nobody there in Winhill liked me much, and the only thing that they would tell me was that Raine had died in childbirth, and where she was buried. They wouldn't tell me where Ellone had gone, or if my child had survived. It wasn't until Ellone came back to me on that Esthar ship that she had jumped onto from Edea's white SeeD ship, that I knew about you. I hadn't seen her for years, and she was all grown up. She told me about Raine's baby. You." Laguna left out the guilt that Ellone herself felt at having had to leave her adoptive baby brother behind at Edea's direction, in order to ensure her safety, and her grief at being unable to prevent Raine's death. Nothing could have been done to prevent that, no matter what Ellone could do, and she tried, putting Squall into his father's mind at crucial points in the past, hoping to change things. But to no avail. The past cannot be changed. We can only learn from it. Laguna thought.

"So you didn't really know until just before we came to Esthar." Squall stated. Laguna nodded.

Squall took a deep breath, and asked, "Would..Would you have.."

"Yes. I would have searched the ends of the earth to find you, had I known." Laguna watched Squall carefully as he continued, "Ellone is the daughter of my heart. I love her like she was my own, and I searched the world to find her, when she was lost to me. I wouldn't do any less for my own son." Squall tipped his face into the freshening breeze, closing his eyes against the sudden sting of tears, and felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He still barely knew Laguna, but he now felt comfortable with the fact that he had a father. He wasn't opposed to getting to know him better either. As he turned back to his father, Laguna noticed a flash of fire at his son's left earlobe as Squall's new earring caught the sun.

"Nice earring. Rinoa get it for you?" He asked conversationally, then stifled a laugh as Squall's ears turned pink in a blush.

"Uh, yeah, she gave it to me in Deling City." Squall tilted his head, wearing a slight smile. The first, Laguna reflected, that had been directed at him.

Then he said, "I have a spare. Want it?" Laguna grinned and slung his arm easily over his son's shoulders, and was encouraged when Squall, startled, flinched slightly but didn't pull away.

"Sure. Are you hungry? Let's go get some breakfast." Squall nodded and they turned to go back to the Garden. Rinoa watched as they approached from the beach, noting their similarities, both walking with a long legged, graceful stride, and she smiled happily as she saw Laguna's arm companionably around Squall's shoulders.

Later that day, Balamb Garden was abuzz with news about the identity of their Commander's visitor, and about Squall's scheduled exhibition for Quistis's class. By the time that Squall and Laguna arrived to do their sparring bout, the demonstration had been moved to the Quad because most of the instructors and nearly all the students wanted to see it. Squall had handed Laguna his original gunblade, a cutting trigger model, with a winged lion etched on the blade, and he had his Lionheart. Laguna, swinging it experimentally, was satisfied that even though nearly twenty years had passed, he hadn't quite forgotten all of his training.

Squall, casually dressed in black jeans and white t-shirt, as usual, wearing his trademark necklace and the new earring Rinoa had gotten him, drew quite a few sighs from his female fan club. Laguna, waiting off to the side with Rinoa, had chosen to wear a loose-fitting white shirt and black pants, and the spare earring Squall had given him. He had pulled his long hair back into a band as best he could but a few of the silver-streaked strands had still escaped to fall over his eyes. Squall had snorted when he got a look at Laguna's outfit, telling him that it looked like he had stolen the wardrobe from one of the old movies that Laguna had made. Laguna had mildly remarked that the movie Squall was thinking of had him in full knight's armor, not the swashbuckling outfit Squall was referring to.

"Different movie." Laguna had said, tongue firmly in cheek, to which Squall replied with a sardonic smile,"Whatever." Rinoa had laughed, watching this exchange. Seeing Squall tease anybody, much less his father was a new experience for Rinoa. She was enjoying every minute of it. Then Squall left them to go to the area set aside for them to spar in and was surprised at the size of the crowd.

Catching sight of Quistis, he motioned her over and asked her, "I thought you said it was just for your class? Looks like half the population of Balamb is here."

Quistis coughed and replied, "Well, word got around that you were actually going to spar with a partner this time, and few people here have actually seen that before, not since Seifer left. Besides, its not every day that they get to see the SeeD Commander sparring with the President of Esthar."

Squall sighed and shook his head, then said, " Well, let's get this show on the road then."

Walking to the center of the Quad, Squall addressed the crowd, saying, "Well, this was a bit more of a crowd than I expected to see. All we're going to be doing is demonstrating different gunblade techniques and sparring. I would like to introduce my sparring partner now," Squall motioned Laguna over. As Laguna joined him, he shook his head at the number of people there. Squall really has no idea how popular he is... he thought.

Squall continued, "This is my father, President Laguna Loire of Esthar. He is going to be working with me today." When Squall mentioned that Laguna was his father, the entire Quad fell silent, and every eye was riveted to them. He didn't have to tell them I was his father, but he did anyhow.

Laguna smiled at his son as they took their places and said, "Thank you."

Squall nodded and brought his gunblade up to guard position, and called to Rinoa, "We're ready."

Rinoa cast protect and regen spells on both of them to prevent serious injuries, and then Squall said, "We'll start slow, until you're warmed up. You're sure you're up to this?"

Laguna snorted, "I ain't that old. Let's go."

What followed was the most amazing display of gunblade expertise that anyone could remember. Laguna, despite not having actually used a gunblade for far longer than Squall had been alive, actually held his own quite well.

Squall did pull his blows, but only a little, just enough to prevent inadvertently killing his father. After exchanging a few blows to warm up, they both got into the spirit of things and the blocks and parry-thrusts came fast and furious. It began to look like an old-time fencing match, with both opponents having an equally good time, if the grins on both of their faces could be believed. Those lucky enough to be in the front row swore that at one point, they had actually heard Squall laughing as he ducked a blow and danced around to bring his gunblade up to guard again. Selphie, smiling slyly, sat in the front row with Irvine, unobtrusively filming the whole thing with her video camera.

"Think he'll want a copy?" She asked Irvine who shrugged and replied, eyeing the young ladies whose eyes were riveted to the sparring pair.

"If he doesn't I can think of a half-dozen young ladies who would pay serious money for one."

"Irvine!" Selphie said with exasperation

"Hey! Its not me they're drooling over, its Squall!"

He said, then added under his breath, "Unfortunately.." Selphie's reply was wordless, but painful.

"Oww..Sefie, take it easy willya? You might do me permanent damage!"

"Can't have that, you're much more fun when all your parts are working." Selphie said with an arch smile. Irvine choked and his ears turned red. He was about to say something in reply to that but Selphie shushed him and focused her attention on the sparring ground. Squall and Laguna had finished their sparring match with an impossibly showy maneuver that earned them a standing ovation from the watching crowd.

They looked at each other, oblivious to the noisy crowd, and Squall asked Laguna, "Do you think they learned anything?"

"Probably more than you think." Laguna said, and added, "Take a bow son, your public is waiting."

Squall shook his head with a half-smile, and stepped forward and executed perfect bow, with his gunblade down and to the side, saying, "Thank you." Then he indicated Laguna, saying loudly enough to be heard over the noise, "My father, Laguna Loire!"

As Laguna stepped forward and took a bow, the applause swelled to a deafening level.

"Quite a show son." Squall snorted. Laguna could barely hear his reply over the noise of the crowd.

"It was just gunblade practice..."