Part V

Seifer lay back on the hard cot in his cell and tried to sleep. He hated confined places, and the windowless room where he currently languished 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 had 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 wondered. 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?" 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 Raijin 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 as he got out of bed 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? How?" Squall demanded as he got up and began to pace the room.

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 wondered, 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..."


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 had been entertaining as well. "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?" he asked.

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

"Good." Squall said. "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 agreed, glancing over at Kiros.

"I'll take care of it," Kiros said, getting up and leaving the room.

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 Loire 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 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. "You know we're…Involved."

The General nodded, his jaw set. "I had heard rumors. True ones, as it turns out."

Squall nodded, "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 at this statement. 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 then, boy. She won't be happy without you." He continued gazing after the young commander, staring blindly at the door with a slight frown on his face. When had his daughter grown up?

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 temporarily commanded. 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.

Attacking under the cover of darkness, 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 a 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, frowning.

"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 airship 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 had 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 at 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, adding, "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 asked, "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 Lion Heart 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 Lion Heart 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." He indicated the right wing of the house.

Squall sighed and tied the man to the banister again and 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.

Taking a deep breath while he prepared himself, he told Irvine, "On three, ready?" Irvine nodded.

"One...two...three!" With that, Squall kicked in the door and rushed in, gunblade ready. 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. Lt. Colonel 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 and whispered breathlessly, "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, "I almost forgot. I have something for you that I hope you'll like."

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. Unfortunately, he seemed to have momentarily lost the power to speak.

"I...they're beautiful..." He finally managed, then 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 where 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 about. 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 his contemplation of 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.

Fighting down the butterflies that suddenly sprang up in his midsection, Laguna approached Squall. 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 Lion Heart." 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'd 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 asked, "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 Lion Heart. 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. It's 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 on 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 protested, 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." Laguna grinned over at him and Squall snorted. Laguna could barely hear his reply over the noise of the crowd.

"It was just gunblade practice..."