REDEMPTION SONG


PROLOGUE


One year before the 2nd Sorceress War…..

I'm too young to be a father, he thought. I have my whole career ahead of me. I'm not even old enough to drink, for Hyne's sake.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Very," she said.

"But it was only once, and we were careful!" he bellowed.

"Not careful enough, I guess," she said.

She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at him, looking small and young and helpless and completely unlike the girl he'd fallen for. That girl was spirited, rebellious, and opinionated and always had a plan. He felt like he didn't even know her now.

"What do you want me to do about it?" he asked.

"What do you want to do about it?"

"I don't know!" he cried. "How the hell did this happen?"

The way she looked at him then made him angry. As if he was a disappointment to her. As if he hadn't given her then answer she'd expected, but he didn't know what she wanted him to say. This news was unexpected and unwanted and he needed her to tell him what she wanted. He wasn't the one who would be carrying the kid and he felt like it was her decision, not his. Wasn't that the way it worked?

"I don't need to explain biology to you, do I?" she asked.

"Funny," he said. "Really funny."

They sat there in silence, not wanting to look at each other, and neither with anything to say that could make the situation any better.

"What would you do if you were me?" she asked.

What would he do? A teenager with no future outside of SeeD, no home and no income to provide for a child? What option was there? He'd always assumed he would be a father one day if he didn't die in battle, but he couldn't be one now. They were too young and too unprepared. Maybe in a few years, once he was earning a decent salary and could afford to care for a child, but not now. If she was asking what he wanted, there was only one option for him, so he told her the truth.

"You have to give it up," he said.

Apparently, that wasn't what she wanted to hear. Her choked sob was the only answer he got before she fled the room.


Over the next few months, he thought long and hard about that conversation. He, like many other SeeD cadets was orphan, a child someone had abandoned or discarded. It hadn't been easy growing up knowing that no one had wanted him. He remembered watching other children who had parents with great envy, wanting to know the comfort of a mother's arms and the protection of a father. He thought about the child they'd created together and knew that his flesh and blood would face the same fate if he didn't man up and take responsibility. He'd vowed a long time ago that when he did become a father, he would never allow his children to want for anything. To do anything less was shameful.

It was another month before he found the courage to pick up the phone. He needed to tell her that he'd changed his mind, that they would find a way to make it work, some how, some way, they would make it work.

"It's too late," she said, when he told her he'd had a change of heart.

"What do you mean, too late?"

"I…miscarried. There is no baby."

There was a sob in her voice as she said this, and he was both saddened and relieved by the news. He was glad to be rid of the burden of fatherhood, but surprised to know how deeply rooted the kernel of desire to be a father had become.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Are you okay?"

"I guess," she said. "I'm dealing."

"I'm sorry I acted like an ass," he said. "I don't want things to end with you hating me."

"I don't hate you. You were right. We're too young."

There was something odd in her tone that he couldn't quite place, but he decided that it was because she was trying to hide her pain from him. If she sounded weird, it was because she was grieving.

"But we're over, aren't we?" he asked. "After everything, it wouldn't be the same, would it?"

"Do you see any way that it would work out?"

"No."

"Can we still be friends?"

"Yeah. We can still be friends."

He said it like a promise, but it was a promise he knew he couldn't keep. She was right. They were too far apart and from two very different worlds. Fate would eventually take them in different directions and time would erase whatever affection they'd had for one another. It would be a hard lesson for her, but one he was already accustomed to.


CHAPTER ONE


Sixteen years later...

I'll be the first one to tell you, I'm a fuck up, but then, everything about my life has been fucked up, so what do you expect? It's not an excuse, exactly, but it's kind of hard to give a damn about anything when no one ever gave a damn about me. I'd grown up in an orphanage and the foster care system of Galbadia, which might as well have been called 'Rent a Brat,' because that's pretty much what it was. It was never for keeps, and in most cases, I didn't want it to be. Maybe most of those foster parents started out with good intentions, but you know, there's a reason they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I'm walking proof that sometimes, even the best of intentions turn out to be the absolute worst thing you can do. I mean, the only thing I learned in foster care was to never trust anyone, no matter how kind they may seem. Kindness is a double edged sword sometimes, and sometimes it was that so-called kindness that ended up hurting the worst.

I ended up at Garden at age ten because I was too damaged and too bitter to ever be adopted, and Garden is where they send the unlovable kids with nowhere else to go. Actually, it's a mixed bag here. About half of us are orphans. The other half are those idealistic types that came from decent families and they actually wanted to be here. Their parents actually pay good money for them to train at Garden. Personally, I think they're idiots. I didn't have a choice about being here, but they did.

I had a feeling my stay at Balamb Garden was about to come to an end, though. Part of me was a little sad about that. After all, it was the only place I'd ever lived where I wasn't abused or ignored.

I saw my expulsion coming, though, and I won't lie and say it wasn't my fault. I'd failed my third SeeD field exam because I went off and found some rebel insurgents to kill instead of sticking to the plan, which involved guarding a group of unarmed citizens who didn't have the good sense to leave the danger zone when they heard bombs going off. A bunch of morons if you ask me, but whatever. Like I was going to sit around baby-sitting while there was action to be had. That's just not my style, and to my credit, I personally took out the second in command without even breaking a sweat. Not that it mattered. I'd disobeyed orders, and orders were all this place cared about.

When Commander Leonhart called me to his office after the final exam, I flopped down into one of the leather chairs near his desk and casually began to inspect my nails, which were painted a shade of purple called Bruise Violet. The color was beginning to flake off a little around the tips and I started to slowly chip away at the remaining paint, already bored and ready to get out of there.

I ignored the disappointed look Leonhart was giving me. I knew I was about to be expelled, and I didn't care. He could have just spared me the lecture I knew was coming, told me to leave and saved himself the bother. I had no friends to speak of at Balamb anyway, and while I enjoyed the training, there wasn't much else about the place I liked. All I did was train and go to class, and Balamb wasn't exactly a bustling mecca of excitement, so being given leave to go to town wasn't what I would have called a privilege.

As I waited for Leonhart to speak, I thought about maybe heading off to Deling City just for the hell of it. I was certain someone there could use my skill with a gunblade or my extensive martial arts training, and if not, I'd find other work. Being on my own sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me, anyway. No curfews, no foster parents, no instructors or Garden staff telling me what I could and couldn't do. Absolute freedom. Maybe once I was free, I could finally find some peace and some kind of purpose, because I sure as hell wasn't going to find it here.

I glanced up at Leonhart when he cleared his throat and gave him a look that said I wasn't in the mood for lectures. I knew what I did wrong and he didn't have to tell me.

"Your actions today were uncalled for, Miri," Leonhart said. "But I suspect you already know that."

"Whatever," I muttered and returned my attention to flaking off the rest of the paint from my thumb nail.

Leonhart was silent for nearly a minute, which was making me a little nervous. Why was he drawing this out? Why not just expel me and get it over with?

"Here's the what bothers me about what you did today," Leonhart said, leaning back in his chair. "I've seen you fight. You're damned good. Probably the best cadet we have right now, and I think you've got a lot of potential. We all know that. You could have breezed through that exam and graduated with honors, but you chose to disobey a direct order and put your entire squad in danger."

"There was no danger," I said, giving him a level stare. "We were just standing there. Doing nothing."

"But that's what you were ordered to do, Miri."

I just shrugged and flaked away more nail polish. Who cared? It was over and done with.

"You've got a lousy attitude," he said.

I looked up at him, brushed the hair out of my eyes and stared at him.

"Your point is?" I asked.

"You know I could expel you for what you did today. Taking off in the middle of an exam, leaving your team in danger, following your own made up objectives? Those aren't qualities we look for in a leader."

"So expel me. See if I care," I said, taking care to keep calm voice calm, but bored. "It's not like I wanted to be a leader anyway. I mean, we all know why I'm here. Not like I had a choice or anything."

Leonhart looked guilty for a split second, which pleased me. He templed his hands together and looked down at the desk.

"I'm not going to expel you."

Well, that was a surprise.

"Why not," I asked, indignant.

I was almost disappointed. I was kind of looking forward to running amok all by myself in the City of Night, among the drunks and the addicts and the criminals. I wanted to make my own way, live my own life, on my terms. I was practically begging him for it, for Hyne's sake.

"Because I have plans for you. Something more suited to your temperament."


The girl was a pain in the ass. Plain and simple. Yet Squall saw something in her that no one else did, and in a way she reminded him of Seifer, back in the days when he'd been a cocky bully. He saw the same fiery, powerful spirit in her emerald eyes that Seifer had back then, and he knew that cutting Miri loose now would only lead to disaster. Her life and her talent would be wasted. He could see her future and it looked grim. Overworked and underpaid service in the G-army, or worse, working with a rogue mercenary force and getting herself in deep trouble. Expelling her would only doom her to a life of more misery, anger and bitterness.

Luckily, there was a place for talented, troublesome pain-in-the-ass brats like Miri Heart.

Three years ago, a secret facility had been constructed in Esthar, built specifically to train kids like Miri and put them to good use. So far, it had been a smashing success. Twenty-two problem children had graduated and had become part of an ultra-secret division known only as Black. Those graduates were the best of the best, as far as Squall was concerned, and they were trusted to carry out complicated, dangerous missions that no one else would touch.

Deep down, Squall knew that Miri was a good kid, but she'd had a lousy life. At age seven, she'd been removed from her first foster home because of suspected sexual abuse. At age eight, she got thrown out of her second foster home for beating up her foster brother. By age ten, she'd been in six different foster homes, and removed from a seventh after her foster father beat her within an inch of her life for mouthing off.

At that point, she'd been sent to Garden because there was nowhere else she could go. No one wanted to foster her, she was too unruly for the orphanage, and too young to try and fend for herself. Garden had been the best possible solution, for everyone's sake.

The problem was, Miri didn't see it that way.

She had a chip on her shoulder the size of the Centra continent, and a smart mouth, and she didn't care about anything, not even herself. Squall had seen it a thousand times over the years. A talented, smart kid who had the potential to go far, if only she had a reason to care.

"Your train leaves at seven," Squall said, without explaining himself. Best that she not know anything yet.

"I thought you weren't going to expel me," Miri said, indifferent.

"I'm not," Squall said. He hit the intercom button on his phone. "Xu, send Fujin in please."

Squall returned his attention to Miri, giving her a critical once over. This was going to be tough on her, not that she'd show it. In the end, if all went well, Miri would shine. At least, Squall hoped so. The program wasn't fail-proof, but it was up to Miri whether she succeeded or not.

"Fujin will accompany you to your room. Pack your things. I'll be by to get you in an hour."


In the vehicle, I sat looking sulkily out the window, my arms crossed as I watched the scenery pass. Leonhart hadn't explained anything, and he wasn't interested talking. I sneaked a glance at him, wondering how a guy like him had managed to save the world. He seemed so calm. Not cocky or proud, not at all like I'd expected after I'd read the best seller about the Ultimecia Incident. The book had made him seem like such a confident, strong leader. A man worthy of being called a hero. The first time I laid eyes on him, I expected trumpets to sound or something, but he was just this quiet, humble guy. Sure, there was a kind of charisma about him, but beyond that, I didn't see where they'd gotten all that fierce, proud leader stuff from.

"You going to tell me where were going?" I finally asked.

"Esthar."

I stared at him, waiting for further explanation. There wasn't one, so I pushed for details.

"What's in Esthar?"

"Your last chance," Squall said. Then he clammed up again.

I knew there would be no more information from him. I was tempted to demand to know exactly what was in store for me, to threaten to jump from the vehicle unless he spelled it out for me, but I had the feeling it wouldn't do any good. He'd probably just stop the vehicle and put me back in and handcuff me to the seat or something. Frustrated, I slumped against the window and closed my eyes.

Esthar, hunh? Well, that sounded even more interesting than becoming a panhandling street urchin in Deling City like I'd planned. I'd never been to Esthar, but I'd heard that it was something to behold. A city unlike any other , with technology that would blow my mind. Maybe things were looking up.

But, what would he do with me once we were there?


It was late afternoon the next day when we finally arrived in Esthar. At the train station, we were met by two young men in black uniforms, who nodded silently at Leonhart. Who the hell were these guys? Prison guards? Members of some weird cult? I wanted to ask, but I kept my mouth shut, knowing that Leonhart wouldn't tell me even if I begged him, which I wouldn't do.

I followed them to an unmarked vehicle, got in and slumped down in my seat. This sucked. Leonhart was probably the most boring person I'd ever met, we were in Esthar, and all I could see was the long tunnel beneath the city ahead of us, and there was absolutely nothing for me to look at. I had hoped I would at least get to see the skyline and maybe some of those weird transport tube things I'd heard about.

When we finally reached the end of the tunnel, we surfaced in the middle of the desert, with nothing around us but sand dunes and cactus. Maybe he was taking me to prison after all. I couldn't imagine much else being out here beyond military munitions depots, research laboratories and prisons.

We headed north, toward a distant mountain range and around sunset, we arrived at a tall, boring structure that looked like an office building. I wondered what this was. Strange to see an office building out in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the desert and the mountains, a hundred miles from civilization. It made no sense, but I figured if I asked, I wouldn't get more than a one word answer, if that.

"Take her things to her room," Squall told the young men once we'd parked inside an underground Garage. They gave him another silent nod and unloaded my meager belongings from the back of the vehicle. I wondered if they were robots. They certainly acted like it.

From the Garage, Squall lead me to an elevator and we went down, instead of up. Things were getting weirder by the minute. Whatever this was, I suspected things were not exactly going to be fun. Maybe this was a secret research facility and I was going to be their newest test subject. Or maybe, it really was a prison. I hadn't a clue, but my mind, ever inventive, came up with a thousand bizarre possibilities, each more grim than the last.

When we stepped off the elevator, I looked around in surprise.

"What the-" I muttered.

"Welcome to Esthar Garden," Squall said.

"It looks just like Balamb," I said, turning around to take in a three sixty view of a nearly exact replica of the main circular corridor at Balamb Garden.

"It is, in some ways," he said cryptically.

So, basically, he was just pawning me off on another Garden. Gee, what a great idea. Get rid of me so that I wasn't his problem child anymore. Exactly how was that supposed to solve the problem? It solved his problems, but not mine. But that was the story of my life. I moved from one hell to the next, survived it and then moved on. How exciting for me.

"I'll give you the tour before we meet the commander."

Well, he was right about one thing. This Garden was different than Balamb. For one thing, the library was bigger, with a massive section of Battle Strategy materials, a room with twenty or so computers with interlink connections, private study areas suitable for small groups to study or work on projects together and a media room containing newsreels, a couple of microfiche machines and an archive of newspapers from all over the world, dating back at least a hundred years. I didn't say so, but I was impressed. Also, the Quad wasn't outdoors, but fully enclosed and contained various activity rooms, a lounge for off duty SeeDs that somewhat resembled a night club, pool tables, an ice skating rink, what looked like a freaking water park, a weapon and equipment shop, an item shop and a small pharmacy and grocery.

But it was the training center that blew my mind. The first section was similar to the one at Balamb, but larger and with different climate zones-forest, desert, and mountains where an impressive selection of holographic monsters roamed. In addition to that, though, there were several other areas to simulate real world landscapes, such as a bombed out city street, complete with ruined vehicles, rubble and debris. Or the replica of Esthar's business district, and what looked like a tunnel or sewer system. There were a few interior sections as well: an office, a classy looking restaurant, and a large shopping center. There was also a state of the art gym, a swimming pool, a firing range, a jogging track and a basketball court.

This, I could totally get on board with. I could spend my entire day at the training center if they let me.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Leonhart asked.

I nodded slowly and looked around, thinking about how much fun I could have in a place like this.

From the corner of my eye, I saw something moving quickly but stealthily toward us. My first glimpse was nothing more than a hint of something gold and gray, then a flash of steel as it ducked behind some dense foliage. We were being followed.

Suddenly, a man leapt from the bushes onto the path, blade raised as if to attack. Without thinking, I seized Leonhart's blade, which he carried in a sheath on his back, and went on the offensive, striking the attacker before he could strike at us. The man was caught off guard for only a moment, and came at me again, executing a spin slash that I might have stopped to admire if he wasn't the enemy. Had I not spun out of the way in time to avoid it, it would have been a devastating blow. Using the momentum of the spin, I swung the blade around and struck him on the side, then quickly went into a combination spin kick combined with a blade strike that was one of my own special moves. My foot hit him in the midsection at the same time the blade caught him across the chest.

It surprised him, but he recovered faster than I would have liked and he slashed at me, becoming the aggressor. I parried the attack, but he hit Leonhart's blade so hard that it was knocked out of my hand. It spun away from me and landed out of reach. Grinning, the man slashed at me again, and I ducked, just in time to avoid getting my head sliced off. Instead of running or backing down, I stuck with the fight, using what martial arts training I had to avoid his attacks. When he stepped forward to strike at me again, I dropped low and swept out my leg, knocking him to the ground. He fell with a heavy thud and his blade clattered to the floor beside him. I snatched it up and placed my boot on his chest, glaring down at his surprised face.

I was pissed, but triumphant as I looked down at him. Whomever he was, he was older, with sandy blonde hair, vivid green eyes and a ugly scar on his forehead, just like the one Leonhart sported. And he was pretty good, considering he was probably about twenty years older than me.

Hmm. Familiar.

"Who the hell are you?" I asked.

The next thing, I knew, I was face down on the ground. He'd thrown me off him so quickly and so skillfully, I wasn't sure how he'd done it. Seeing red, I scrambled to my feet, just as he and Leonhart shook hands, greeting one another like old friends.

What the hell was going on here?

The man gave me a once over and nodded at Leonhart.

"Definitely got some talent," he told Leonhart. "Sure you don't want to keep her as a body guard? I was gunning for you, man."

Leonhart smirked. "I saw you."

"She beat you to it, hunh?" the man laughed. "You're getting old. And slow."

"Looks like you are too."

The man chuckled and cast a glance my way.

"Maybe I am. Never been bested by a girl. Especially not one half my age."

"Shall we?" Leonhart asked. He retrieved his blade and sheathed it, giving me an odd look out of the corner of his eye.

"No time like the present," the man said and ran his fingers through his hair, fluffing it up a bit, as if the fight had messed it up.

The whole conversation irritated me, mostly because the guy was sexist. And they were talking about me like I wasn't even there. And who was this guy, anyway? I didn't think he could be the guy in charge. He was way too relaxed and casual for that. So if he wasn't the leader of this mysterious Garden, who the hell was he?

I followed them down to an office three floors below the main hall, wondering why all this was underground. It seemed terribly odd to me. I mean, why all the secrecy? I didn't get it. Everyone knew about Garden, and Esthar was a logical choice to build a fourth one. Yet it was hidden away under Hyne knew how many feet of earth in a remote corner of the country, between nowhere and nothing.

The office was similar to Leonhart's, though the art on the walls was far more interesting. Here, there were true works of art, not the dull still lifes Leonhart seemed to favor. I followed the series of paintings, each depicting the GF's. The styles varied, but each was interesting in its own right. In particular, I liked the almost abstract depiction of Diablos bathing in the flames of hell, thousands of minions fighting, fucking, or stabbing one another at the devil's feet. But I was drawn to one of a more realistic style of a nude Siren upon the rocks, coaxing a ship full of handsome sailors to their doom at her feet. The contrast between the sunset washed sky and the ultramarine ocean was startling, but lovely. The Siren's face and hands were so beautifully and realistically rendered, she almost looked like a photograph taken of a real woman in an unreal world. There was something familiar about that face, though I couldn't place it.

The signature on both works read S. Acosta.

I studied the entire series, twelve of them, all done by the same artist. I couldn't help but be intrigued.

"You're interested in art?" the man asked, taking a seat behind the large walnut desk.

"Not in particular," I said. "These are interesting, though."

"One of our current cadets paints them. Never enjoyed art myself, until I saw these and now I have to have them all," he said. "Which do you like best?"

I thought about that, wondering why he cared.

"The Siren."

He smiled at me then. "Mine too," he said. "Why?"

"The detail, I guess. The colors."

He smiled at me as if I was his best friend. He sat back, silent for a moment, just looking at me. I gave him my patented level, but bored stare as I finally took a seat in front of his desk.

"So," the blonde man said. "You're Miri Heart."

"Yeah. What of it?"

The man's eyes narrowed. He was no longer smiling. Without that charming, boyish smile of his, he looked downright menacing. I might have been afraid of him if I could have brought myself to care.

"I can see we've got some work to do. Starting with your attitude."

I raised an eyebrow at him, challenging him to do something about it. There wasn't much he could do to me that hadn't already been done. I was pretty much numb to pain, suffering or any other punishment he could think of. I'd already been starved, beaten within an inch of my life, molested, abused and neglected. Whatever he planned to dish out, I could take.

"Miri, this is Commander Seifer Almasy," Leonhart said, made anxious by our silent stare down.

Almasy. So that was why he looked familiar. The Knight. The murderer.

"They let you have a Garden?" I asked, purposely trying to sound as disrespectful as possible. Then I turned my eyes toward Leonhart. "Are you trying to open the floodgates to hell, or have you lost your mind?"

I could tell it pissed Almasy off, but the idea of the man who started the second Sorceress War being left in charge of training a bunch of kids to be mercenaries in what was apparently a secret Garden was absolutely insane. I was willing to bet that no one knew about this, or the public outcry would have been so loud, this place would have been swallowed up by the very earth that protected it.

"You're here as a last resort and you should consider yourself lucky that Commander Leonhart didn't throw you out on your ass after that stunt you pulled," Almasy said.

"Bully for me," I said, leaning back in my chair. I was prepared to show him exactly how bad my attitude was.

"Get smart with me and you'll wish you hadn't," Almasy snarled. "This isn't the kind of place where we let things slide. You either cooperate or you suffer the consequences. Simple as that."

"In my experience, whether or not I cooperate, I still end up suffering," I said coolly. "So go ahead and do your worst."

Almasy's expression softened a little. He sent a glance at Leonhart, who nodded and got up, leaving the two of us alone.

"I understand that your life has been pretty fucked up," Almasy said. "Six foster homes in four years. That's a tough break."

I was so shocked by the fact that he'd cursed in front of me that I didn't have a comeback. I grudgingly had to give him a little more respect due to the fact that he wasn't trying to be an administrative asshole like the rest of them. Except, I didn't like him talking about my past as if it was an open book. He had no idea what I'd been through and he had no right to bring it up.

"Seven," I finally said, trying to keep myself under control. No way would I let him know how much it bothered me that he knew all this. "Seven foster homes in four years."

"I bet what you've been through makes it hard to give a damn about anything. Am I right?"

"What the hell would you know about it?" I asked, bitter and suspicious.

"I know because I've been there. Except I was that kid that no one even wanted to foster. And I was a fuck up with a lousy attitude, and a whole lot of potential, just like you are."

"Let me guess, this is some kind of intervention, right? To save me from myself? To keep me from screwing up as bad as you did?"

"No. Only you can keep you from screwing up."

"Then why am I here?"

"That all depends on you, kid."

"So then, I have a choice."

"I can't let you walk out of here, no. You're here for life, whether you like it or not," Almasy said. "And this place can either be your prison or it can be your salvation. But that's up to you."

I wasn't sure what he meant by, here for life. So I pushed for some clarification.

"So, say I screw up really bad, like epically bad. You're not going to kick me out?"

"No. You'll spend a lot of time in the brig, but you won't be leaving. Ever."

So this was a prison after all. They didn't seriously expect me to live underground for the rest of my life, did they? That was just nuts, and they were nuts for thinking it would work. Or that they could keep me here if didn't want to be here.

"You can't make me stay forever."

"Yeah, I can," Almasy said confidently. "And if you try to escape, you'll be shot on sight."

I laughed out loud. He was so full of crap. He wouldn't seriously shoot a cadet for trying to escape. However, when I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was dead serious.

"You're not kidding, are you?"

"No," he said. "This place is top secret. No one knows it exists except Squall and his wife, President Loire and those of us who live and work here. Now that youknow about it, I can't let you leave. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is."

"You've got to be friggin' kidding me," I muttered to myself.

Just when I thought maybe things were looking up, I'd gone from cast off problem child to a hostage for life. I wanted to get up and walk out of there, to make him live up to his threat, but something in his face told me that he'd do it and wouldn't think twice. For some reason, death didn't sound like the best option.

Almasy eyed me for a few long, uncomfortable seconds. I waited for him to speak.

"So what is this place?" I finally asked when he didn't say anything. "Why all the secrecy?"

An enigmatic smile played across Almasy's face. In spite of everything so far, there was something about him that made me want to like him. But I had to remember all the things he'd been accused of during the war and knew that he was a miserable human being. He was to be my jailor and I his hostage and I couldn't like him.

"This place is a last resort. A place for kids like you, kids with emotional problems, damaged kids. Talented kids with nowhere else to go."

"Oh, how special! I'm at Camp Fuck-up," I said with false enthusiasm. "And you think you can change me? Teach me a little discipline and everything will be just peachy?"

"Again that's up to you. You make whatever you want of this place. You can take advantage of the lessons you learn here or you can be miserable."

"And what kind of lesson am I supposed to learn?" I asked, wondering if there was a way to tunnel out of here. "How to take over the world in thirty days? How to be a sociopathic megalomaniac with no conscience? 101 ways to please a Sorceress?"

He ignored my comments, though I could tell he wasn't pleased by them.

"Things you wouldn't learn at any other Garden, or any other military organization in the world."

"You can drop the mysterious act, Commander. Just spill it."

Almasy sat back in his chair, as if thinking it over.

"All right," he finally agreed. "This is a Garden, but not officially. Officially, we don't exist. On the books we are a data storage facility, specializing in personnel record storage and archival."

Despite myself, I found this interesting. Record storage was boring enough to guarantee that no one would be interested in investigating the place, that was for sure. But, once again, I wondered what exactly went on here that was so secret that they'd built the Garden underground and had to hide its existence from the world.

"You've heard of the White SeeDs?" he asked.

"Yeah. Pretty tough group," I said. "Robotic, but tough."

I'd had a few encounters with the ones that guarded Leonhart's wife, and they were a pretty solid group of fighters, though they were also a bunch of mindless drones. I wondered if that's what this place did.

"Well, we're tougher. A lot tougher. I like to use the term hardcore, because that's what we are. There isn't a military force in the world better trained than we are."

I made a mental note never to use the word hardcore again.

"And what exactly are you, if this isn't really a Garden?" I asked, wishing he'd get to the point.

"We're Black. We are the baddest of the bad, and the best of the best. We handle the dirtiest, most dangerous work there is. Around here, our motto is, if it ain't dangerous, it ain't worth doing."

Almasy added a hearty baritone chuckle to this statement and looked pleased with himself.

Well, that got my imagination going, let me tell you. That was the most interesting thing anyone had said to me all day, and the prospect of doing dirty, dangerous work intrigued me.

"What kind of stuff are we talking about?" I asked, wishing I could keep the note of curiosity out of my voice. I didn't want him to know that I might actually be interested in all this cloak and dagger stuff.

"We do the stuff no one else will do. Assassination, espionage, hacking, undercover work, sabotage, kidnapping, theft. You name it, we do it."

"That sounds like terrorism."

"Well, depends on which side of the fence you're on," Almasy said. "I can't give any details, but let's just say a lot of bad shit has been avoided because of us. Around the world, there are pockets of dissenters, insurgents and outright lunatics. People who would use any means to get what they want. A lot going on beneath the surface that no one ever hears about, and that's mostly because we have managed to contain it."

"Huh."

If this was all true, then what went on here was much more intensive than anything I'd learned at Balamb Garden. Despite my implied disinterest and my reluctance to go along with all this at first, I was now intrigued enough to play ball.

Seifer was silent for a minute, staring down at what I assumed was my file. Finally, he looked up at me and leaned forward, propping his arms against the desk.

"You're here because of your talent, not just because you screwed up," he said, sounding sincere. "Squall tells me you're one of the best fighters he's ever had, and after fighting you earlier, I know for a fact that's true. Thing is, around here, that's not enough. About twenty teams of six students compete each semester for a slot within the Black ranks. Only one team makes it, and the whole team has to pass the exam or no one makes it. There are a lot of talented kids here and this is a whole different game than what you're used to. Everything you do from here on out will factor into whether or not you make it. You'll be graded from the minute you walk out that door. And assuming you pass the final exam and you and your team earn yourselves that coveted spot, you will spend six months training in a specialty area. Computers, espionage, undercover, sharpshooting, Intel, and the like."

I didn't like the whole team work angle. I wasn't a team player. I didn't play well with others. I was an individual, and I kept to myself. However, all this deep cover, espionage spy crap sucked me in. It was how I imagined SeeD would be when I first arrived at Garden when I was ten.

"That said, let's talk about what's expected of you," Almasy continued, focusing his green eyes on me. "Here, you won't be able to get away with the shit you pulled back in Balamb. What you considered a right there is a privilege here. You have to earn your free time and those little luxuries you are used to."

"Like what?" I asked, wondering what exactly he thought of as a privilege.

He flashed me a smile that was almost cruel. It made me want to curl up into a ball and protect my head.

"Well, since you got smart with me, more than once, the minute you walk out of this office, you will not be allowed to speak to anyone, not even your instructors, no matter what they say to you for a week. You break your silence, you spend a week in solitary. Behave yourself, and you earn the right to speak again."

"I'm not doing that," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. Sarcasm was the only defense I had besides my blade.

"You'll do it or you'll spend two weeks in solitary, in the dark. Your choice."

I glared at him, now defiant and angry that he thought he could control me.

"You think that'll break me?" I scoffed.

"I know it will. You'll go nuts after a day," he said confidently. He leaned forward and stared directly into my eyes, which, I have to admit, was a little unnerving. I could totally see how this guy had manipulated people back in the day and got them to obey his commands. He was intimidating. Even to me.

"Trust me on that," he said. "You're not all that tough, kid. You act like you are, but I see right through it. Deep down, you're scared to death that someone will figure out that you really just want someone to give a shit. You don't know what you did to deserve the lousy hand life dealt you and it hurts like hell to think about the things you had to live through, doesn't it?"

"You don't know shit about me," I hissed, feeling like I might just have to kill him if he said any more.

He'd touched a nerve, and he was right, no matter how much I wanted to deny it. Deep down, I had always wondered why some kids got parents that loved and protected them, while others, like me got nothing but heartbreak.

"Behind all that bravado is a scared little girl with a lot of baggage and wounds that won't heal," he continued giving me a knowing look, "and after a couple hours of sitting in the dark, all alone, you're going to start thinking about those things. About all the horrible shit you've been through. You're going to think about the guy that molested you when you were too young to fight back, maybe even remember in detail what he did to you. You'll think about the foster father that beat the shit out of you so badly you almost died. You'll wonder about your parents and if they just decided to give you up, or if something awful happened to them. Every wrong, every mistake, every letdown and disappointment, every single wound you ever received will open up and start to bleed, and it willbreak you. Sooner than you think."

Hot angry tears sprang to my eyes and I got to my feet. I absolutely hated that he knew these things about me. I hated Leonhart for passing it along. I never wanted anyone to know about my past or about the terrible things that had happened during my childhood. I was trying desperately to get over it, and here he was digging it back up again. There was a good reason I didn't talk about it or even let myself think about it.

I felt the tantrum coming, but I couldn't stop it. In the past, I'd been forced to meet with counselors about what I'd been through, and I'd always had the same reaction. I would fly into a rage, scream, rant and then shut down before I imploded. It was the only defense I had against facing it, and I didn't wantto face it. It hurt too much. For me, facing up to it meant reliving it, and I wasn't prepared to do that. I just wanted to forget about it and move on with my life. It was easier that way.

"Fuck you," I cried and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. "You don't know! You don't know anything!"


Seifer felt bad about having to bring up the kid's past, but she had to be broken down before they could build her back up. It was the only way to help her get over it and be able to live again. To make her face it head on, deal with it and accept that she was a survivor, not a victim.

The girl was damaged goods, that much was obvious. Just like all the other kids here. All she had was her sharp tongue and her physical strength. On the inside, Seifer knew she was deeply, tragically wounded. Miri's story was not the worst he'd heard since he'd taken the post of Commander at a Garden created for damaged kids, but it was certainly one of the saddest. Her history was full of physical and sexual abuse, and nothing about her childhood had been stable or easy. It was a wonder she hadn't cracked under the weight of her past. At the moment, though, she was a ticking time bomb and without a little help, she would eventually crack and Seifer could tell, if that happened, she might not recover.

A crappy life had taken away her ability to care or see her own worth. She had a lot of negative energy building up inside, and Seifer knew from personal experience what happened to kids like that.

While the damage couldn't be undone, it could be repaired. He'd seen it before. All she needed was a reason to care. A sense of worth and purpose. Fortunately, this program had worked for many of the others, and while they still bore the scars of their past, they'd come full circle and the really were some of the best fighters in the world, as well as some of the brightest he'd ever met. Even those that hadn't become SeeDs had worked through their own pain and frustrations and now served as support staff within the Garden.

But not all of the kids he'd inherited were success stories. Most of the failures were either unwilling to make the effort to help themselves or had psychological problems stemming from bad childhoods. The most recent failure had been diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. It was sad, but it couldn't be helped.

This one could be saved, and she was worth saving, but he was going to have to get tough to crack her, as much as it killed him to do it. She had a lot going for her, even if she didn't realize it.

She'd surprised the hell out of him in the Training Center. He'd expected to sneak up on Squall and go a few rounds, but it was the girl who'd drawn a blade against him, and launched an offensive strike before he'd even realized that it was her and not Squall. And then she'd pulled some crazy moves he'd never seen before, like that kick-slash combo, which told him that she was inventive and not afraid of the unconventional. She was, hands down the best fighter he'd seen in a long while, and with some training, she'd be unstoppable.

The look on her face now was a cross between intense rage and deep, soul crushing grief, and she was trying desperately not to cry. After a moment, Seifer got up from the desk and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Don't touch me!" she cried and wrenched herself away from him.

She began to pace, driven by anxiety and a need to stay guarded. Seifer had seen it a hundred times since his tenure as commander. Every one of these kids came to him with the same kind of rage and anger flowing through their veins.

"It's okay," he said softly. "What happened to you should never happen to anyone, and I understand that it hurts way down inside and it doesn't go away. It's there with you all the time, and it never goes away. But it doesn't have to be like that. I won't lie and say that one day it will all go away, but you can make it hurt less. But you have to want to try."

Miri was shaking, trying in vain to control herself. He saw her eyes go to the door, the window with the false backdrop, to make it look like there was actually something outside. She was thinking on her feet, calculating an escape.

Seifer had never been a man who was moved by the emotions of others, which was what made him perfect for this job. Not everyone would be able to handle the horror stories that made up the majority of these kid's lives without getting their hearts broken on a daily basis. While he empathized, and he did become emotionally attached to the kids in his care, he did his best not to let the tragedy of their lives get to him. To do that would tear him apart.

However, he was surprised to find that this one affected him more than any of the others had. In spite of her attitude and the animosity he saw in her eyes, he'd felt an immediate bond with the kid. It didn't happen often that one of them got to him, but Miri Heart did. Maybe it was that half crazed, feral terror in her face that reminded him of his own wounds. Maybe he saw something of himself in her.

So he told her the truth.

"You want someone to give a damn," he continued as he perched himself on the edge of the desk. "Well, you should know that I do. I want you to succeed. I want you to be proud of yourself. But you have to want it, too. Nothing will change for you until you decide that you want better for yourself and that you deserve better."

She wiped angrily at her eyes and slumped back into the chair, her eyes on the portrait of Siren.

When she'd calmed down a little, Seifer continued. "Are you willing to at least try, Miri?"

She heaved a sigh and looked everywhere but at him.

"I'll try. No promises, but I'll try."

There was no emotion or energy in her voice, but he knew that he'd planted the seeds of change in her. He sensed that she did want better for herself, she just didn't know how to go about making that change.

"Okay," he said and passed her schedule.

He explained it in detail. Breakfast at six, classes from 7 am till noon. Group therapy or counseling from one till one forty five, followed by training until three. Then she'd work in the kitchen from five pm till seven, then have two hours to study and then it was lights out at nine thirty. On weekends, she would train from eight am till noon, attend her group therapy from one till three and then work from four till six. Weekend study time was from six until seven thirty, and following that, she was allowed free time until ten, but she was currently restricted to the library, her dorm and the training center. Any deviation would result in detention time in the brig.

"Everyone here is part of a team," Seifer explained. "Like you, most of the kids here don't work well with others, so we force them to. You've been assigned to India team. You will share living quarters, classes, meals, work, study, training and group time with them but your free time is your own. You will be supervised by your team captain Mick Lindsay. You will think of him as your mentor, and you will obey his rules. He's a cool, laid back guy and you can go to him if you have any concerns or questions. But make no mistake, you screw around and he will tell me. Is this clear?"

"Yes," Miri said, sounding defeated.

"One other thing," Seifer said. "You will address all staff and all SeeDs as Sir or Ma'am. That includes Mick. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," she said, putting bitter emphasis on the word Sir.

"Good," he said. "I'll have Mick show you to your room."


A/N: While I had months of downtime and no reliable internet connection, I started working on other projects and ideas to stay busy. This was one of the more viable projects and one that I rather like. It could be considered a 2nd gen fic in some ways, but some of the original cast, like Seifer, have a big part in the story. I always liked the idea of Seifer as a role model and a leader and started exploring that avenue.

I will say someone put the idea for this in my head about a year ago and I've been intrigued by it ever since. We were talking about this ultra intensive behavior modification-slash-rehab center for troubled teens and how the methods they used were, on one hand, controversial, and on the other, rather ingenious. The program, unlike traditional rehab, was difficult, if not impossible to escape from and it forced kids to face their problems and own up to their mistakes. It was part military, part prep school, part therapy, part child labor and no bullshit or propaganda like a lot of modification programs. To get out, they had to earn it. Obviously, I applied that concept to Garden and viola. Story.

I know that 2ndgen stories aren't terribly popular, but I assure you Seifer will make regular appearances as will another original cast member who has yet to be named. Others might make cameos later. It's sort of experimental at this point, to see if it gains any followers. If people are reading, I'll post more.

So. Please leave a review.

Like it or hate it, I'd love to hear what you think.