Chapter 28: Collateral Damage

"Tell me again how this happened? How a ragtag group of rebels led by a teenager was able to overrun and nearly destroy the Timber Base?" General Caraway demanded of the officer who delivered the message that Zone had sent that afternoon.

"Sir," the officer swallowed, attempting to answer. "The…the details of what happened are…unavailable. Sir."

Caraway growled something very uncomplimentary under his breath concerning the G-Army's current chain of command…or lack thereof. The question to the junior officer had been a rhetorical one, meant more as an expression of his frustration than anything. He already knew the answer.

This happened because the fucking army is in complete disarray, that's why. Because nobody is talking to anybody else and are following their own agendas. Caraway thought grimly as he followed the young man to his office, momentarily abandoning the other disasters that demanded his immediate attention.

For a moment, a brief, fleeting moment, Caraway wondered why the hell he'd taken on the monumentally daunting task of dragging Deling City…and Galbadia…out of the almost total chaos that had reigned a mere month or so ago. He swore he felt his hair turning gray; certainly there appeared to be far more of the telltale silver strands amongst the otherwise inky black than he recalled seeing even the day before.

He had hoped that he'd have had more time before dealing with external matters concerning Galbadia as a whole. He'd only just gotten control of the city, and his hold over the army, despite being part of the senior staff prior to the president's demise, was a tenuous one. Or perhaps, it was because of it, though Caraway hadn't been very high up in the chain of command back then, despite having been a General.

Fully half of the chiefs of staff he couldn't trust. Indeed, just about all of the senior officers were suspect, particularly those who'd enjoyed President Deling's favor, and had benefited most from his regard. In fact, Galbadia's army was still in as much a state of chaos as the entire country had been, and was weak and directionless as a result.

And somehow, information about that weakness had been disseminated to the Timber Resistance, and they had, surprisingly, acted upon it. Or, the general thought, recalling the grim-faced young SeeD that Rinoa had managed to hire, perhaps not so surprising after all. Caraway didn't know whether to be impressed or appalled that Rinoa had somehow managed to pull off such a masterful coup.

No. NOT Rinoa. She was always full of wild ideas and flights of fancy but there is no way she had the skill to pull this off. No, it was the SeeD she hired. SeeDs, Caraway thought, correcting himself. There had been three of them. None older than his daughter and fresh out of the academy; green and untried….and obviously far better trained than he thought.

The sheer audacity of the action, taking full (and impressive) advantage of an obvious weakness and securing the base, hinted at either incredible luck or brilliant strategy. Perhaps a bit of both.

But it was all speculation until he could get a full and complete report, or at least as much of one as was possible, of the battle and the current situation.

It was with a certain grim satisfaction that General Caraway read the varied expressions of consternation and dread that the senior staffers were wearing as he met them in his office and curtly gestured for them all to follow him to a conference room. He made a mental note to pay attention to the incompetents; at his first opportunity, some heads were going to roll….figuratively speaking.

Once everyone was assembled and seated, the General asked the group at large, "Who was in command of the Timber Base?"

"Colonel Nathan Jakes, sir." One of the officers answered.

"And do we know his fate?" Caraway asked.

"We have not been able to ascertain that sir." Came the answer.

"What do we know?" General Caraway demanded.

There was a pause as the gathered officers glanced about uneasily. Finally a junior staffer cleared his throat and answered, "At around 15:00 hours, an incoming message from the Timber Garrison was received and recorded. The individual leaving the message identified himself as the leader of the Timber Resistance and announced that the resistance had taken the base and that they now had control of it. He then went on to declare that Timber was now free of Galbadian rule."

"What was the name of this person? Did he leave it?" Caraway asked.

"He gave his name only as Zone."

Caraway paused thoughtfully. He remembered the name from some recent reports of resistance activity in Timber. Rinoa had frequently been seen in his company. Up until recently, the group that the young man had headed, The Forest Owls, had been as ineffectual as the rest of the resistance factions in Timber. Obviously, things had changed.

"Well," Caraway said coolly. "It's good to know that communications to the outlying areas have been restored."

"We need to respond to this…. blatant challenge!" A senior officer burst out. Pompous and overstuffed, he was one of Deling's cronies, one that had benefited greatly from Timber's subjugation. Caraway suspected the man's rank was earned more by sucking up to the late Vinzer Deling than by any great military prowess. Definitely one for the chopping block, Caraway mused privately, and for a moment wasn't sure he actually meant it figuratively.

"Of course, General Kashain. Anything to protect your stake in Timber's rail and logging industry," another man said snidely. Dry and wry, Major-General Darvin had been one of those who'd sided, cautiously, with Caraway. The wizened, wiry little man reminded the General of an old cavalry officer, and Caraway strongly suspected the man still had an old campaign saddle from ages past, when soldiers rode chocobos instead of driving jeeps and trucks.

"Not just mine! Everyone's!" General Kashain protested, dramatically waving a pudgy hand around to include those present. "You can't tell me that the resources that Timber had didn't help our economy? How access to their rail hub vastly improved shipping and trade?"

"No, and I won't try to. But by the same token, anything we'd gained by invading and taking control of Timber was negated by the cost of keeping it. Constant military presence, lives lost on both sides as the result of resistance activity, ill-will and lack of productivity in general in those industries that Timber is best known for….Quite honestly, Timber's invasion was done more for Deling's vanity and as a distraction from what he was doing here. There was very little sound tactical reasoning behind it, from where I stood." General Caraway said.

"With almost twenty years of hindsight, I can't say that you're wrong General Caraway," President Deling's, and now Caraway's, Chief of Staff, Ronald Stagg said.

"What do you propose we do then, Caraway?" General Kashain asked with a sneer, deliberately omitting General Caraway's rank. "Roll over and give up? Us? These rebels are amateurs! They just got lucky. I say we roll out the 52nd Armored Division and crush them!"

Caraway didn't bother hiding his contempt at that suggestion, lips tightening at General Kashain's insult while at the same time, taking note of which among those present nodded or otherwise appeared to agree with him.

"Certainly, General Kashain, since scorched earth tactics worked so well the last time." Major-General Darvin said sarcastically. "We had to rebuild half the damn country before any benefit at all could be realized from taking it! Which by the way wasn't nearly as beneficial as everyone seemed to think it would be going in. Timber's been little more than a very large pain in the ass; what with the constant unrest, vandalism and outright terrorism that just about every resistance member, which by the way is nearly the entire country, engages in."

"They're so busy trying to get rid of us they do very little else," someone commented.

"Exactly." General Caraway said. Scanning the assemblage, Caraway speared them all with his best steely glare, which had set more than one junior officer to quaking in his boots. With the exception of the young SeeD Rinoa had hired, that look had been highly effective in getting his point across. Green and untried he might have been at their first meeting; it was obvious that the boy wasn't a coward.

"As little as I like to agree with General Kashain, this attack is a definite challenge, a show of defiance. They've thrown down the gauntlet and are expecting some kind of response." The Chief of Staff said. "The question is how should we respond? Should we roll in with everything we've got in a show of force and retake the base, and Timber? Should we instead acknowledge that they've accomplished their aim and driven us out? Will it be a ratification of their claim of independence and a peace accord with them or will it be all out war? And…." The Chief of Staff leaned forward, impressing his point upon the assemblage with his stony black gaze and granite gray, short-cropped hair. "Here's something I doubt you old warbirds even considered; can we as a nation, with the precarious situation that we've found ourselves in, even afford an all out war? Can we spare the personnel, the resources, and most of all, the gil, for this? I think not."

"Neither do I," Caraway agreed.

"My 52nd Armored is sitting idle since you ordered them out of Deling City proper. They aren't needed to guard our borders as no one is threatening us there. The riots have stopped and the city is almost back to normal. I seriously doubt that you'll need much more than the 52nd and half a battalion to deal with these rebels and regain control of Timber." General Kashain said contemptuously. "If you won't deal with this the way it should be dealt with, Caraway, then I will!"

Fury Caraway glared at the man, trying hard not to grind his teeth. The fool had outmaneuvered him and knew it. If he wanted to keep the tenuous accord he'd managed to forge between all the gathered men there, each of whom had their own schemes and adherents, and each of whom had nearly plunged Galbadia into a civil war while pursuing those schemes, he could not show any weakness. Backing down from this particular challenge would do him no favors.

The fractured government of Galbadia was still in the process of being put back together, and this was just one more roadblock to slow down or even halt that progress. Through some quirk of fate, Caraway had been the one able to pull everything together and slowly, painfully, begin returning Deling City and Galbadia back to normal. It had not been easy, not with fools like General Kashain fighting him every step of the way. Even with the country literally crumbling around their ears, their only goal was to seize whatever profit could be found in it. Had they possessed lower rank or held less political weight, they might have been called looters. Thieves. But then, they had been high up in President Deling's former government. So calling them thieves was redundant.

Finally Caraway said coldly, "before we commit ourselves to rash, ill-considered action, why don't we try to get more information on the situation first? Since communications outside of Deling City have now been restored, a fact that I would have been very glad to have been apprised of as soon as it came to pass, we can simply call up the base and speak to whomever is now in charge there."

Turning to the young man that had led him to the meeting, Caraway asked, "How long ago was this message received?"

The young officer swallowed and answered, "It was received…at mid-afternoon."

General Caraway's fists clenched, unseen from beneath the conference table, as he fought to keep control of himself. He took a deep breath, then another, following a reminder given him by his aide that morning. Sound advice that had been instrumental in helping keep a handle on things. He never knew his mother's reasoning for naming him Fury, but it had been ironically prophetic, at least with regard to his temperament.

Anger clouds reason, he thought to himself. Only a fool lets emotion dictate action.

The true irony in this was the fact that very few were aware of how dangerous his temper could be. But rather than bury it and simply let it seethe, he used it to fuel his efforts to wrest control of Galbadia from the factional forces tearing it apart and by sheer force of will, begin the work of restoring it.

Relegated to the background for most of his military career, he'd still managed to distinguish himself enough to achieve the rank of General, despite his dislike of President Deling and the way he ran Galbadia. He'd walked a fine line, following his orders while never letting his true feelings about the man issuing them show. Never sucking up, never currying favor; simply doing his job and following his orders, however distasteful they might have been.

It had been a surprise to both General Caraway and to General Kashain when Vinzer Deling had dropped the responsibility for taking Timber squarely into Caraway's lap. He had privately thought Deling's reasoning was that Caraway, little known, little liked, and while a General, not one that had a great battle record behind him; would fail in the attempt, thus giving President Deling an excuse to be rid of him. Caraway, deducing this, had refused. Deling then pulled the trump card Caraway had been unaware that he'd held over all of his staff, supporters and opponents alike; do it or your family will suffer.

The threat was more than implied. More than one person who'd opposed Deling had shortly thereafter suffered a personal tragedy… a spouse or child suddenly meeting with an unfortunate, often fatal accident. Deling's hirelings excelled in "making things look like an accident". Like the night he lost Julia…

Rinoa never knew that Caraway's part in the Timber invasion had been entirely unwilling. She only saw him as the monster that'd led the war and started the miseries that the country now suffered.

And he had to do it again. Only this time, his daughter was right in the thick of it. He told himself she'd made her choice when she'd run away to join the resistance. He told himself that even as his heart protested that she was still his little girl, she was only seventeen and he'd very likely end up killing her in the process of retaking Timber. He found himself fervently hoping, deep down, that the SeeD she'd hired had in fact grown into his role and was as good a bodyguard as he'd heard SeeDs could be.

He prayed that the boy could protect Rinoa, before locking it away along with his worries and fears, and resuming his guise of General Fury Caraway. Once that cold, calculating persona was restored, he stood and braced his hands on the conference table, leaning upon it and spearing each person gathered with a dark, stony glare. Putting all the force of his considerable will behind it, impressing upon them all who it was that had managed to end up on top of the melee after President Deling had been killed and chaos had reigned.

He liked that they had all underestimated him.

"The first thing that I'm going to do is to contact the Timber Garrison and speak with whoever is in charge there and see what I can learn. Then we can plan our next course of action," Caraway said. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'm going to do just that."

"Your next order will be to deploy the 52nd. And I will be leading it." General Kashain stated boldly.

"Do you intend to fund them from your own pocket general? Do you really want to get into a discussion of just how badly President Deling damaged our economy? Because right now, I seriously doubt the National Treasury has enough gil in it to pay your tailor, much less your soldiers." General Caraway snapped. "Right now, sir, I have an important call to make. In private. You are all dismissed."

General Caraway turned on his heel and left the room and the resounding silence that echoed behind him.

"You know they'll press the issue," James, his aide, said quietly as he followed Caraway out of the room.

"Then the Treasury Minister is the first of those dolts that has to go if he agrees." Caraway growled under his breath in reply.

"With respect sir, it won't be a matter of money, but a matter of pride. There are many in the general citizenry who would feel insulted by the audacity of the Timber Rebels and feel justified in wiping them out. They won't be thinking about the costs in hard gil." His aide said.

"Fools." Caraway grumbled.

"I agree sir, but so far you're in charge largely because these fools support you." James said.

Caraway glanced over at his aide and nodded. He was aware of that. He had managed to win most of the army to his support, but the most senior of the officers and chiefs of staff were evenly split between him and General Kashain. Rather than spend the blood of his soldiers as profligately as General Kashain seemed willing to do, General Caraway worked out a compromise with the man instead.

It had been a hard-won victory, but Caraway had in the end convinced General Kashain that they'd serve Galbadia better by working together to restore it, rather than engaging in a bloody civil war over what Vinzer Deling had left behind. In part, it was the weight of the general population that had, for some inexplicable reason, come down on Caraway's side of the fence, which had swayed General Kashain. It did not mean however that the man was at all altruistic. It merely meant that Caraway had managed to prove to him that there was more profit in restoring Galbadia rather than destroying it in a grab for power.

They reached the main comm center, led there by the junior officer that had delivered the belated message. Dismissing the young man with a glance, Caraway punched in the code for the Timber Garrison's main commlink. He thought briefly of trying Colonel Jakes' private line but decided against it. Jakes was likely dead, and if not, then definitely not available.

He glanced back at his aide, James, who retired to a discreet distance while Caraway waited for his call to be acknowledged. As he did he wondered if there was ultimately even a point in doing so. He would have to lead the army to Timber regardless; General Kashain had him there. Whether it would be in retaliation for the attack or simply to investigate the occurrence depended entirely upon what he learned from this call.

"Hello?" A male voice answered cautiously.

"This is General Fury Caraway, commander- in –chief of the Galbadian army, and acting leader of Galbadia. Am I speaking with the individual who calls himself 'Zone'?" Caraway formally addressed the speaker.

There was silence for several heartbeats, then the voice answered, "No. I'm…I'm not him. Gimme a sec and I'll get him," the speaker sounded young, and Caraway had detected a slight tremble in his voice; the boy had obviously been caught off guard.

More silence, this time for several minutes. Eventually, noises on the other end of the commlink led Caraway to believe that the other party was arriving.

Finally, a voice said, "General Caraway?"

"Yes," Caraway acknowledged. "Are you Zone?"

"I am." He answered. He sounded as young as the first speaker, but his voice was steady, and held more assurance.

"Then you know why I'm calling you." Caraway stated.

"Actually, no I don't." Zone responded, surprising Caraway. "I know what I said in the message that I left, and that should have been sufficient to advise you of the current situation. If you wish, I can reiterate: the Timber Resistance has gained control of the base, and are now declaring Timber free and independent of Galbadian rule."

Caraway considered this for a moment, then said conversationally, "What if Galbadia doesn't agree with your declaration?"

"Then we will fight until it does." Zone answered firmly.

"I see." Caraway replied. He did see. Rinoa may have gone to Timber to help them out of some sense of guilt due to his part in the invasion, but she was an outsider, come lately to the conflict. This young man had lived it, had suffered under Galbadian occupation his entire life, and his voice held a conviction that only someone who had endured that would have.

Then he frowned, recalling the intelligence reports he'd read about the adolescent leader of the Forest Owls, trying to reconcile the cowardly weakling they had painted him as with the completely opposite reality.

Deciding to leave discussion of whether or not to fight alone for the moment, Caraway took a different approach and asked, "Would you be willing to tell me the fates of the personnel on that base? How many casualties were there, and what is the status of the survivors?"

There was a pause, and then Zone answered, "I don't know all the numbers yet. I've got people tallying it up right now. We're still figuring out how many graves to dig."

Zone's matter of fact answer was chilling, and Caraway suggested, "it would be helpful if you could at least preserve their ID tags so that I could notify their families." Then he asked, "Are there any survivors?" Surely there must be, Caraway thought. They can't possibly have wiped out an entire garrison of eight hundred plus soldiers…

"Yes. We currently have one hundred and fifty prisoners in the enlisted men's barracks. You want 'em back?" Zone asked.

For a moment General Caraway thought Zone was being cheeky, and his lips tightened as he bit back an angry reply. But the tone hadn't been sarcastic; rather, a simple question asked by someone who was clearly out of his depth.

So he tempered his answer and said in a level voice, "Yes. We would like the prisoners back. We would also like the identification of all of the soldiers who were killed." Taking a deep breath, Caraway added in a hard voice, "we also expect you and your cohorts to vacate the base and cease this silly posturing. It will gain you nothing but your own demise."

There was silence, then the young man replied quietly, "General, I have had a price on my head and have been under threat of execution since I was fourteen. I've already decided that if I'm going to die, I'm going to die for something. Make it count. So, threatening me, or anyone else here, with death isn't going to work. We already knew what it would cost us going in. And by the way, sir, its not just the Forest Owls that you'll be fighting if you decide to make a war of it, but the entire population of Timber. We will not stand down. We will be free, or we will be dead. Simple as that. Now, if you want to arrange a prisoner transfer, we will be happy to accommodate you."

"I would. I do however have some additional questions: Is the base commander, Colonel Nathan Jakes among the prisoners?" General Caraway asked.

"No. He's dead."

"I see. And is your leader, Rinoa Heartilly, available to speak with me?" He asked.

"Rinoa is no longer the leader of the Forest Owls. She turned that over to me in order to work with the SeeDs." Zone answered, then added, "and no, she's not able to speak with you just now. She's been helping out the base doctors here in the infirmary."

Caraway felt a surge of pride and admiration for his spirited daughter. They might not have gotten along…for far too long, to his way of thinking…but he could never fault her courage or compassion.

He cleared his throat and swallowed down the lump that had suddenly lodged there, then said calmly, "I see." He paused a moment to regain control of himself, then added, "Well, then all that's left is the prisoner exchange."

"We will need time to get the ID tags or otherwise identify the dead. The infirmary staff is volunteering to remain here to care for the wounded. Ambulatory wounded and uninjured prisoners will be turned over to you at your convenience at Timber's border." Zone said, then added emphatically, "You may not cross over Timber's border. It will be considered an act of aggression and we will respond with deadly force."

Caraway frowned at this, wanting at first to scoff, then holding off at the calm confidence in the young man's voice. It would not do to take that warning lightly, particularly as there was not one, but three SeeDs involved. And according to some sketchy, wildly improbable reports that were only just starting to filter into Deling City, just one of those SeeDs was a force to be reckoned with.

Still, there were only three…and Caraway had an entire army.

It never does to mock the enemy, particularly when negotiating for prisoners held in their custody, Caraway reminded himself. Though he did wonder how much of the boy's confidence came from sheer hubris. And how much was from desperation. From Caraway's standpoint, going by the little he knew, it appeared that Zone's options to resolve this situation were limited.

"Let us hope that it will not be necessary for you to do so, and that we can bring this action to a peaceful conclusion…to the benefit of all." The General said calmly.

"That is my hope as well, General," Zone replied.

General Caraway felt a cautious surge of hope. Perhaps the young man was beginning to see sense?

Finally Caraway responded, "If we can maintain a peaceful accord Zone, then the prisoner exchange will not be a problem. Likewise with any other negotiations that we may need to engage in."

"We shall see," Zone said coolly. "Hopefully your type of negotiation is a little more civil than your predecessor's was. Galbadia's history in relation to Timber does not inspire confidence in its integrity."

General Caraway felt a sudden, surprising surge of anger at the boy's almost insulting manner, and said, "In any event, expect me and my escorts to arrive at Timber's border in 3 days time. You have that long to get the ID's and prisoners ready."

There was a pause, then Zone, sounding puzzled, asked, "Escorts?"

"The 52nd armored division." General Caraway answered, then added, "you can't possibly be so naïve as to think that I'd come alone."

There was a long pause, long enough that the General began to wonder if he'd scared the kid. Granted, facing the 52nd was a daunting prospect to anyone, so he wouldn't have been surprised if that was the case. Zone's response, when it came however, gave him a mild start of surprise.

"I see," Zone said, voice firm and tone resolute. "We'll be ready."

Three days. They had three days.

Three days to gather together the identification of as many of the deceased as possible. Three days to repair and put back into service as many of the tanks and armored vehicles as they could. Three days to rally the rest of Timber and the resistance, to arm, to prepare to….

To what? To start a war? Zone asked himself, then the answer unbidden, came back: It was ALREADY started. THEY were the ones who'd flung the gauntlet at Galbadia by attacking the garrison. Little wonder that they'd respond with a show of force; that was what Galbadia typically did.

Zone gave himself a moment to breathe and take a step back, away from the edge that the panic skittering under the surface of his mind was pushing him toward. The butterflies settled immediately and he blinked, realizing in a wild flash of clarity, that he'd just done something that he was sure that the SeeDs, Squall in particular, did in highly stressful situations.

He wondered if it was a learned technique or a conditioned reflex. Was there even a difference?

The question stayed in the back of his mind as he called for the SeeDs over the P.A. and advised them of Galbadia's…General Caraway's … response.

The repairs and re-fortification of the garrison of necessity had to be put on hold while messengers were sent to rally the citizens, the remaining resistance holdouts…anyone who was willing and able to fight. Weapons were checked and handed out, as was ammunition. Troop transports, tanks and other vehicles were prepped for use, those that hadn't been damaged enough to be unusable.

At his direction, the entire base became a boiling hive of activity, all in preparation for what Zone hoped would be a peaceful prisoner transfer in return for Galbadia's confirmation of Timber's claim of independence.

Zone had been all for simply transporting the prisoners to the pre-arranged (and carefully examined by Squall with an eye to defensibility) coordinates where they would hand them over to Caraway, with a minimal escort. He'd worried that bringing too many people and too much hardware would actually invite an attack.

"That's only if Caraway sees them," Squall had said flatly.

Then he outlined a battle plan that made Zone very glad that Squall was fighting on the side of the resistance. He had to admit at that point that there was a definite advantage to having the SeeD Commander in your corner.

"Is everything ready?" He asked Squall as the third day dawned.

"As ready as it'll ever be," Squall answered.

Zone nodded and keyed the radio in the armored truck he was riding in, and ordered, "Let's move out everyone!"

The three of them rode together in the cab of the truck, with Zone driving, Rinoa in the center and Squall on the end, ready to leap out at a moment's notice. Zell was manning the .50 cal gun mounted to the top of the vehicle, while Selphie had gone with the twins and their clan to coordinate their end of any possible action that may take place.

The prisoners, under guard, followed in a series of armored troop transport trucks, each mounted with a .50 cal gun on top as well. The tanks, while agile for such large, armored conveyances, were still much slower than the trucks, and so had been sent ahead the previous day to set up at specific coordinates and wait.

Squall at this point knew better than to question the abilities of the resistance members with regard to camouflage, so had no worries that they wouldn't know how to hide the tanks from the advancing army. And he was pleasantly surprised with how easy the things were to operate, which definitely fell in their favor. Few members of the resistance had any military experience with the exception of Lobo, who'd been far more help in that regard than even he thought he'd be.

The base originally had four battlewagons; all destroyed, and eight tanks. Two tanks were burned out and battered hulks, useless. The remainder had been salvageable, and they had put them into use immediately. Squall hoped that Lobo had managed to give their operators instruction on the niceties of aiming the damn things.

Even that didn't actually matter much, so long as the shells were aimed toward Galbadia's probable position, and away from Timber's troops.

As they trundled toward their destination, Squall felt a stirring in the back of his mind. Bahamut was waking up and taking an interest in proceedings. It …he…didn't often, preferring to keep his contact with Squall's mind a light one until needed. He wondered if the Guardian simply slept until summoned. He thought perhaps not, because he'd feel the dragon's mind moving within his own on occasion, peering out at the world through his eyes.

Do you fear us still, now that you're bonded to me? He asked mentally, recalling what Bahamut had said to him prior to the battle that won the dragon to his service.

YES. Came the immediate response.

Why? He asked.

Bahamut's answer was a long time in coming, but finally the dragon replied, because your lives are so short, you live intensely. Your passions burn higher and hotter than any other creature I've ever encountered, and they inflame my own to a frightening degree. And your capacity for violence far exceeds even my own. Your only limitation is your insignificant size and strength. Wielding my power as a weapon, you are a truly frightening creature, Master.

Squall frowned at this. Bahamut feared him?

I know your mind Master. I do NOT fear YOU. Nor do I fear what YOU will do with my power, for I already know you possess wisdom beyond your years. But I am occasionally passed to another of your kind, and some of them lack the intelligence and wisdom that you have. These, I fear. Bahamut clarified.

You will tell me then, which of those you are unwilling to work with. Squall said.

I will. The dragon said, and fell silent. Despite the creature's concerns, Squall could feel its eagerness for the prospect of battle. THAT was what the Guardian feared, the resurrection of its elemental instincts, replacing its sentience with violence.

Squall couldn't blame it.

A hand gripped his tightly and he glanced over a Rinoa. She smiled up at him, a slight tremor in her lips giving her nervousness away. He could feel the warmth in her grip even through his leather glove and he gently squeezed her hand back.

"Rinoa?" He asked her quietly.

"I'm fine," she assured him.

He gazed at her searchingly for a moment, and then nodded slightly, lapsing into silence again. Rinoa continued to hold his hand, drawing courage from his unwavering presence beside her.

"We're nearly there," Zone said unnecessarily. He had to say something. The silence in the cab of the truck was becoming oppressive to him, though both Squall and Rinoa seemed comfortable enough just holding hands. It appeared as though despite the relatively short duration of their relationship, they'd already passed beyond the need for words to fill in the silences.

Zone wondered if he'd ever find anything even remotely close to that.

They arrived at the prearranged coordinates moments later, and Zone turned off the truck and unbuckled his seat belt, getting ready to exit the vehicle.

"Wait." Squall's voice stopped him as he reached for the door latch.

"What?" Zone asked.

"Just wait a minute. Rinoa and I are going to scout the area first. Radio in to the tanks and touch base with them, make sure they're ready for action, just in case we need them." Squall answered, opening his door and preparing to exit the transport truck.

"Let's hope we don't," Zone replied.

Squall nodded and jumped out of the vehicle. Rinoa scooted across the front seat of the truck and followed suit, taking Squall's proffered hand and leaning heavily upon his support as she leaped out of the truck.

"So now what?" Rinoa asked as Squall stalked a few paces away from the truck, scanning the area intently.

"Watch. And wait for them. Are you junctioned?" He asked her.

She hadn't really needed to junction a GF since gaining her sorceress powers, but as a fail-safe, she'd chosen to do so this time, so she answered, "Yes. I have Siren."

"Good choice. Best defensive GF there is." Squall replied.

Rinoa followed as he walked the area, satisfying himself that they'd gotten there before the Galbadians and that there were no hidden surprises waiting for them.

Zone joined them, reporting, "Everyone's ready. The Raptors say that the convoy's on its way with an entire armored division."

Squall nodded slightly at this news. He'd figured as much, judging by what was said during Zone's conversation with General Caraway.

"Do you think they'll attack?" Rinoa asked, chewing on her bottom lip.

"Depends," Squall answered succinctly. Rinoa glanced at him, trying to read his expression, which betrayed very little of the tension she could sense within him. His only outward indication of it was the fact that he tended to get terse.

"On what?" Zone asked him.

"How badly we pissed them off." Squall answered.

Zone considered that, and then replied, "Well, hopefully they'll at least wait until they get their POW's back."

Rinoa nodded, and said softly, "They will."

Both young men studied her in silence, Zone with a slight frown, Squall with a typically blank expression, though his eyes were wary. A warning from Bahamut had him whipping around at the same time that Zell hailed them.

"Yo!" Zell shouted from his perch atop the transport truck. "I'm seein' dust! A LOT of it! Looks like they're comin' with some heavy hardware!"

"Go back to the truck and man the radio." Squall said, his attention focused on the only just apparent cloud of dust. Rinoa and Zone shared a puzzled look, unsure as to whom he'd been addressing.

"I'm not leaving you here…" Rinoa began. "I wasn't talking to you." Squall interrupted her. Rinoa snapped her mouth shut and frowned fiercely at him…or rather his back, as he was turned away from her at the moment.

"Wait, you want me to go back to the truck?" Zone protested. "I'm not as useless as you seem to think I am! I can hold my own in a fight! I'm not some kind of…"

"Zell is covering our position with the 50 cal, on top of the truck. Rinoa is my backup. I need her with me. I need you to handle communications, not only with our people but also with Caraway's. Do you understand me or shall I use smaller words?" Squall snapped, turning the full force of his icy glare onto Zone, obviously not in the mood to deal with anyone's ego. Especially not Zone's.

Zone's blood boiled, and he matched Squall's glare for a moment but had to concede to the mercenary's logic. Damn him. It was always logic with that bastard.

"Fine." He bit out, then turned on his heel and stalked back to the truck. He promised himself that when the war was over and Timber free, he was going to do his level best to take that damn SeeD apart.

Rinoa gazed after him with a frown, and sighed. Knowing what she did about Zone's feelings toward her, and by extension, Squall, Rinoa was fairly certain that they'd never get along. Still, thus far they'd managed to maintain a civil working relationship, though there was always a tense undercurrent between the two.

She returned her attention to Squall, who'd walked off a few meters, then stopped, gazing toward the increasing cloud of dust. He'd planted his feet shoulder width apart and had drawn Lion Heart, setting it point downwards in front of him with his hands resting on its handle. His entire attitude said "you shall not pass", and offered a blatant challenge to anyone who'd try.

It seemed laughable at first. One slender young man armed with a gunblade and backed up by a girl. Standing right in the path of a rumbling company of tanks.

Rinoa didn't understand at first why Squall had chosen that particular location or stance, though it was obviously done deliberately. Then she noticed the landmarks as she came up to stand beside him. He was standing on the border between Timber and Galbadia.

And as she stood shoulder to shoulder with him, she saw what she knew that the approaching soldiers would not see until it was too late: an unearthly blue glow lighting his eyes, and a boiling bank of clouds dimming the afternoon sun overhead. He had not yet summoned Bahamut, but he was ready to, should it be necessary.

Glancing over at her then, Squall said in a cool, remote voice, "Invoke Angelwing now, before they get close enough to see her."

Rinoa swallowed, suddenly aware of how dry her mouth had become, and nodded, eyes flaring golden as she summoned her inner sorceress and donned the mantle of her power in a spreading flare of pure, white light. The light resolved itself into her angel's wings, which gradually faded into transparency. In short order, they had faded enough that they were virtually invisible unless one were standing very close and looking directly at them.

"Now what?" she asked him.

"We wait." He answered.

She felt them long before she saw them. A thrumming vibration shivered up from the ground through the soles of her feet, a distant rumbling and clanking accompanying it and growing louder by the moment. The vibration intensified to the point that it felt as though someone had cast Quake, and Rinoa was hard put to stand fast in the face of what was approaching them.

They would stop. They would have to stop. It still took every ounce of Rinoa's will not to turn and run as the rumbling machinery drew closer until the sound deafened her. She felt her power building in response to her anxiety and tried to master it, lest the emotion wrest her control away from her.

Squall didn't turn a hair. He simply watched, cool and remote as a statue as the company of tanks stopped ten meters from the border. All save one.

It continued forward as though bent upon running them both down and crossing into Timber, offering a challenge of its own. Squall stood still and resolute, but his eyes narrowed at the tank's approach, and Rinoa saw his grip tighten upon his gunblade, saw his body tense in anticipation of quick action.

The tank stopped. A mere meter from them. Less in fact, but it did stop.

Rinoa let out a breath that she didn't realize that she was holding, and glanced over at Squall to see if he too had relaxed. But he hadn't.

He watched warily, the inner tension that Rinoa could sense without any difficulty still thrumming within him like a plucked string, though he appeared outwardly calm. She knew if he should choose to act, he could do so with lightning speed.

Distant thunder rumbled from the boiling clouds, but Bahamut had not yet been summoned; it was hard to tell if the threatening sky was due to the GF's pending approach or if it was a true, if freak, summer storm building up instead. Dust still drifted, hanging in the still air; these clouds were not riding on the wind.

The army had come through the defile that separated Galbadia from Timber. Either a foolish move on Caraway's part, one showing his good faith by putting himself at the mercy of Timber's defenders and deliberately walking into a potential ambush, or one that flaunted Galbadia's military strength, showing that it feared nothing and would go where it wished. Until Caraway himself showed up, it was impossible to tell from the ranks of armored vehicles that faced them, which of those possibilities it was.

Squall had in fact set up an ambush, with Timber's forces cunningly hidden in the thick forest that butted up against the defile and the sheer cliffs to either side of it. Their orders were simply to stand fast unless attacked.

The tank facing them was still idling, its rattling diesel engine virtually drowning out the approach of another vehicle, this one a jeep. At the same time, the door to the transport truck behind them, where Zone had presumably been utilizing the radio to communicate with General Caraway, opened and slammed shut. Zone appeared beside Rinoa just a few short minutes later, slightly winded from his haste.

Glancing up nervously at the tank, Zone commented, "He didn't look like he was going to stop."

"We'd have stopped him if he hadn't." Rinoa said firmly, surprising both young men.

The approaching jeep drew closer, its engine noise interrupting them before anything further could be said, pulling up and parking near the tank.

Zone started forward as the doors opened but Squall stopped him, eyes narrowed.

"Wait," He said. Zone glared at him but stood fast, belatedly realizing that putting himself within easy reach of the enemy before the prisoner exchange was accomplished was an unwise move.

So he folded his arms over his chest and planted his feet, watching as several uniformed men exited the jeep. As military types usually did, the heavily armed, brawny bodyguards got out first, eyes wary and guns cocked and ready. Once satisfied that their charges weren't in immediate danger of being attacked, they nodded and the other occupants of the vehicle got out.

He recognized General Caraway immediately. In full uniform and impeccably turned out, in spite of the dry, dusty conditions, he had obviously dressed to impress. And impress he did, his straight posture, steel gray hair and eyes, and mind-boggling array of medals cutting quite a figure. His gazed traveled over all of them, lingering on Rinoa just long enough to leave Zone wondering before it finally rested upon him.

"You would be Zone?" He asked. The other man with him, an aide of some sort it appeared, studied him as keenly as the general did. Zone didn't much care for the thought that he was being weighed and measured by the two men. And doubtless, coming up short of expectation.

"I am." Zone nodded.

"The prisoners?" Caraway asked him.

"They're coming now." Zone answered. He glanced briefly at Squall and Rinoa, wondering at their silence. They stood as still as statues, watchful and unnervingly quiet sentries. He almost felt abandoned by their nearly total withdrawal, but knew why they stood so apart from his meeting with the General. Or at least, thought he did.

He hadn't missed the glow of power in Rinoa's eyes, or the ghostly shape of wings springing from her shoulders, barely visible in the bright afternoon light. Nor had he missed the look in Squall's eyes that portended mayhem of apocalyptic proportions, should such action be required.

Zone raised his hand in a prearranged signal to release the prisoners. Sounds from behind him indicated that they were being escorted from their transport trucks to the border where they would be repatriated with their comrades.

As they started crossing into Galbadian hands, Zone said firmly, "You asked, and I released these men to you. I didn't want to use them as a bargaining tool, though I was advised against doing this. What I DO want, is for you to take these men and all of your tanks and go back to Deling City. I want a non-aggression treaty between the Timber and Galbadia, and I want Timber's independence from Galbadian rule recognized and ratified."

"That's a tall order son," General Caraway began, glancing over at Squall and freezing suddenly at the icy glitter in the young SeeD's eyes. Surely they weren't glowing…. were they?

"Can you honestly tell me that this isn't your call to make? Because I know for a fact that you're the one that ended up at the top of that heap of chaos that Vinzer Deling's death left behind. Do you really think that escalating this into an all out war with Timber is the best use of your resources?" Zone asked him.

"It's not that simple. Yes, I am in charge, but I'm trying to reestablish the representative government that Galbadia had before Deling somehow managed to get himself elected president for life. That means I have to try, as best I can, to get all of those representatives of other interests to agree with me. I'm NOT a dictator, nor do I want to be one. My word is not law." General Caraway answered.

"Then concentrate on that and leave us the hell alone!" Zone shot back, frustrated.

"Zone, we need to discus this in a more formal venue, and maybe we can come to an agreement that will be beneficial to us both. I'm not interested in wasting resources in a war that could be better used on the home front either." Caraway said.

Zone stared at him, frowning, and asked, "Are you telling me that you intend to withdraw?"

"For the time being, yes. Until a time and a place can be arranged for you and your representatives to meet with us to work on this in a more diplomatic manner." Caraway answered.

"I thought we were being diplomatic…" Zone commented.

Caraway almost smiled at the boy's naiveté, saying, "well, on one level maybe, but what you're asking would require a bit more work than just a handshake, don't you agree?"

"Fine then," Zone said. He was about to add to it, noting as he did that the prisoners had all finally been returned to Galbadia, but a sudden explosion of chaos interrupted his train of thought.

Squall, suddenly screaming, "INCOMING! TAKE COVER!" followed almost immediately by a series of deafening explosions as the convoy of trucks that Zone had used to bring the prisoners in exploded, one by one.

Zone dove to the ground and covered his head, while Caraway's aide grabbed him and dragged him back to the jeep. The man was screaming something, but the ringing in his ears made it difficult to make out. It had almost sounded as though the man was calling Rinoa's name.

Then it was all confusion and fear, and the litany Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! Looping through Zone's mind as his ears rang and the ground trembled under him. He closed his eyes and waited, trying not to think of Zell, who'd been atop the truck that he'd just seen blown to smithereens, the other people with the other trucks, friends of his, who'd likely met the same fate- blown to bits or burnt to cinders. And he was helpless against the onslaught. All he could do was duck and cover and hope to hell he made it through in one piece.

Sound and sense eventually began to penetrate the cotton wool that the close range explosion had stuffed into Zone's ears, and he peeked cautiously upward, noting that the boiling clouds overhead had turned pitch black and webbed with lightning. The dragon was coming. That prospect filled Zone with more dread than exhilaration.

A strong hand gripping his shoulder made him cry out and nearly jump out of his skin, and he threw a panicked glance upward to stare uncomprehendingly at Zell's filthy, soot-smudged but otherwise very much alive, unburned and annoyed-looking visage.

"C'mon! We gotta get to cover! Into the trees man!" he yelled. Zone nodded and started to get up, slowly, still gathering his scattered wits. Zell however was in no mood to wait for that, and grabbed Zone's hand and hauled him to his feet, then shoved him toward the trees. When he didn't put on enough speed to satisfy the SeeD, Zell simply grabbed his arm and dragged him along behind him as he sprinted toward the forest.