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Born to Better Fates

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I've never been one to believe in something greater than myself, especially something that's supposed to be making my decisions for me. I make my own choices, every day, and they're not anyone else's. But sometimes, things happen that defy all explanation outside of the otherworldly. Sometimes, it's just too perfect; too many choices made by too many people line up into something bigger than we could ever plan.

I don't blame other people for my messes, but sometimes, even I have to admit that there might be something called fate.

**

When Seifer let himself into the third-floor apartment, the air was heavy with the scent of cooking spices, accented by the soft, soothing strains of something classical coming from the outdated music player Quistis refused to replace. It was familiar -- homey, even -- and Seifer felt himself relax as soon as he crossed the threshold.

Through the open living space he could see Quistis at the kitchen counter, making quick work out of a pile of vegetables with a large knife. He waited for a moment, watching her idly sway to the beat of the music as the strings changed tempo, then he dropped his grey coat next to hers across the back of the sofa and headed into the fray.

"I don't even have to guess what's for dinner," he said as he sidled up next to her, sparing at glance at the bubbling pot before he opened the refrigerator in search of a beverage. "You only know how to make three things."

Quistis glared at him once her surprise had faded. "That's three more dishes than you know how to make."

He grinned at her. "That's what I have you for."

She rolled her eyes and reclaimed her knife, once again focused on the task at hand. "I'm really not in the mood for your attitude tonight."

"Why?" he asked, settling into one of the chairs that surrounded the table they'd squeezed into one corner of the kitchen. There wasn't quite enough room for his large frame but he did the best he could, arms and legs spilling into the other chairs' space. "Did the quack give you a hard time today?"

"Dr. Kadowaki isn't a quack so I wish you'd stop implying she was," she told him.

"She's studying magic and sorceresses based on something some Estharian psycho wrote back before you were born," Seifer declared. "I think 'quack' covers it."

It was an old argument between them, one that had started as soon as Quistis had visited him at the group home, bright-eyed over a chance to quit the waitressing job she'd taken to fulfill the requirements of her emancipation documents. It's a real job, she'd said. It's something important. Years later, he still didn't see how working in a secretive lab assisting a woman whose views were universally ignored by everyone else in the country was much better than serving drinks at the Galbadian Hotel.

At least she'd made good tips at the lounge.

"I thought we'd agreed to disagree on this," Quistis sighed.

"Like we agreed to disagree about my job?" Seifer snorted. "Yeah, sure."

That was another old argument between them -- at least, for the last year since Seifer had joined the army. Quistis had vehemently disapproved of him doing anything remotely related to the Galbadian government, even when she herself knew how limited the options were for an orphan with a basic education and a troubled history with the law. Of course, the arguments about it had only intensified since...

"Anyway, work doesn't have anything to do with it," she said. "It's Squall. I haven't heard from him all day."

"What's the big deal? You know he'll be here for dinner tonight, he never misses it," Seifer reminded her. "We don't dare, unless we want you cracking your whip at us."

She ignored the whip jibe, frowning down at the counter as she spoke. "It's just that it's his last day before he reports to duty tomorrow. I want to give him a nice send-off."

"You mean, lock him in a closet so he can't go?" Seifer asked. "Quistis, you need to get over it. You're not his mom or his sister or his girlfriend and you can't stop him from reporting for duty. You're just going to have to accept the fact that he's a G-soldier whether you like it or not."

Even as the words left his mouth -- and even given how true they were -- Seifer knew he'd said the wrong thing. Quistis's spine straightened, and her expression glazed over. "Of course. Excuse me for caring about either of you," she said, pointedly turning her back on him.

She continued to fuss with the stew that didn't need her attention, her squared shoulders tight with tension. He knew he shouldn't have said it but the words had been on the tip of his tongue for months, ever since Squall had quietly announced at one of these dinners his plan to follow Seifer's path and join the Galbadian Army. After he'd left, Seifer had seen Quistis cry for the first time since the social worker had brought her back to the group home after her foster parents' arrest.

Seifer sat in apologetic silence, letting the crackling sound of the player's music fill the room. He knew why it was difficult for Quistis, why Deling City itself was difficult for her, and he knew she only stayed for them. For those reasons, he'd tried to have the patience with her illogical ire on this point the way she'd always had patience with him, but he never quite managed it.

After he watched her stir the pot for what had to be the hundredth time, he stood and leaned against the counter. His hip brushed hers with every fidget she made in front of the stove, though she seemed set on ignoring his presence.

"I'm sorry, okay?" He ran a hand through his short blond hair. "I didn't mean it -- well, I did. But you know what I mean. It's good that you care. I like that you care."

"I have to watch out for you two." Quistis took a deep breath, slowly letting the tension leak from her shoulders. "You're too stupid to do it yourself."

"Hey!"

"If it wasn't for me, you'd have bludgeoned each other to death with those sticks back at the home," she continued. She turned to face him, arms folded over her chest. "Nothing would be a bigger tragedy than for either of you to die over whatever stupid thing Deling decides to do next. You know how I feel about that."

"Yeah, I do," he nodded. "But we're not, so stop your worrying." Seifer nudged her with his elbow. "And they're called gunblades, Trepe. Gunblades."

She waved a hand as if to dismiss his correction. "Dangerous relics you have no business playing around with."

Seifer was about to vehemently defend gunblades and their mastery when the apartment door opened once again, this time to reveal Squall. Quistis pulled away from Seifer, her attention firmly on the young man who'd just entered.

"Squall, you made it," she said with the first real smile of the evening. Seifer had to fight to keep from rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, I did," he said, joining them in the kitchen. "What's up?"

"Quistis was besmirching the honor of gunblades and gunblade specialists like ourselves," Seifer said. Squall looked strange dressed in his civilian clothes instead of his G-Army cadet uniform, which was the only way Seifer had seen him since he went off to training at Martine's academy. Like all the cadets entering the corps, Squall had the weekend to himself in the city before he joined the rank and file. His imminent departure only fed Quistis's usual anxiety over his welfare, like he was only one of them who'd been orphaned by the war and left to fend for himself in the world.

"They're archaic," she told them.

"They're noble," Seifer said. "They're the preferred weapon for generations of knights."

"We don't have knights anymore," Quistis returned. "This isn't the Dark Ages."

"They take a lot of skill to master," Squall added. "I like that."

Seifer smirked when Quistis only glared at Squall before she busied herself with plating up the stew that was miraculously ready now that Squall had arrived. Seifer grabbed two more sodas from the refrigerator for his dinner companions, while Squall sliced the fresh bread and loaded the slices into the bread basket.

Their coordinated attack on dinner was another comfortable familiarity, and Quistis didn't break the fantasy by discussing Squall's upcoming deployment; she danced around the subject with a determination Seifer found admirable, until halfway through the meal when he couldn't stand the pretence any longer.

"Did the Colonel give you any idea what your first assignment would be?" Seifer asked, earning himself a stern look from Quistis.

Squall's expression didn't change and he continued to thoughtfully chew on his bread. "No, but he said to be prepared for it to come soon."

"Other than tours in Timber, and guard duty in the Presidential Palace, there's not a lot going on," Seifer admitted. "I've done both and it's all a piece of cake."

"With that attitude, you wonder why I worry about the both of you?" Quistis asked. "Deling has made his career by throwing this country's military might around, and he's going to do it again."

"Deling hasn't invaded anyone in years," Seifer sighed. "What makes you think it's going to happen tomorrow just because Squall's joining?"

Quistis shook her head. "I don't know." Her eyes roamed to the window above the sink which looked out over the glittering skyline of the capital city. "It's just a bad feeling, I guess."

Seifer and Squall shared a look of understanding over the kitchen table.

**

Rinoa couldn't help but be nervous as she paced in the 'war room' of the Timber Owls headquarters. She had a plan, and it was a good one -- a real one, one that would actually effect change, not just the general kind of petty mischief that she and the Owls had been able to do up until now. This was the first time Watts had gotten such juicy intel, and this plan had to go off without a hitch.

She had to make sure it did; she had to prove to everyone that she was effective as well as passionate about the Timber cause.

"Hey! Move it, Angelo!"

Rinoa's chaotic thoughts were interrupted by the exclamation, followed by her dog's bark as Angelo ungraciously gave up her warm sleeping spot. Selphie had burst in to the compartment, her arms full of small bottles of craft paint.

"What's all that for?" Rinoa asked.

Selphie frowned. "Your model of the heist," she told her. "It sucks."

Rinoa gave a little pout. "It's not that bad."

"No, it's worse," Selphie said, lining them up along the edge of where the model train sat. It was the visual plan of the Owls' next mission: to kidnap President Vinzer Deling.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Rinoa groaned.

"I can't help it that I'm honest," Selphie told her, rummaging around in one of her pockets until she found the tiny paintbrush.

When Rinoa sighed, Selphie stopped in mid-action, looking over at her with concern. "Is something wrong? Watts's info didn't fall through, did it?"

"No, nothing like that." She crossed her arms. "This is going to work, right?"

"Yes!" Selphie assured her. "Of course it is! We've planned it all down to the last detail, and it's going to go off without a hitch."

"But what if it doesn't?"

"Then we'll just blow them up!"

Rinoa shook her head, laughing. "I told you, no explosions. It'll defeat all the secrecy we've put into this."

"Bummer," Selphie said, collapsing onto the worn-out sofa in one corner. "When I joined a resistance group, I thought there'd be more action and less powwows."

Rinoa sometimes wondered why Selphie had decided to join their group, but Selphie had never been one to share much personal information about her past. She was a great asset, though -- not only could she fight with the best of them when they got into trouble, she had a sharp mind that had thought them out of more predicaments than Rinoa had believed possible. She'd asked her once about that, but Selphie's only answer had been she'd played a lot of War when she was a kid.

"Speaking of action, how's that friend of yours coming with fixing the decoy train car?" Rinoa asked, suddenly reminded of another huge piece of her plan that needed to be flawless for them to pull it off. "Are you sure he's going to get everything done?"

"He's a natural at this stuff," Selphie promised her. "Funny story, that's actually how I met up with him again. He was fixing cars at the rental agency in Balamb when I went for the weekend a few months ago."

"But you knew him before?" Rinoa asked.

Selphie nodded, her short brown hair bouncing with the motion. "Yup. We grew up together -- well, we did when we were really little. But he moved to Balamb and I...well, anyway, don't worry about Zell, he's good people."

Rinoa had only a vague recollection of meeting Selphie's friend, Zell -- short, blond, energetic, with a rather intimidating black-ink tattoo emblazoned across half his face. She hoped Selphie was right about him being "good people."

"Actually, he'd been really useful on the mission itself," Selphie continued. "He's got a mean left hook and a roundhouse like you wouldn't believe. His grandpa taught him, I think he said, and he reads all those fight magazines, you know the ones."

"Combat King?" Rinoa suggested. Reading was one of her guilty pleasures, and she acquired magazines whenever and wherever she could. Half of the contribution on their news board came from pieces she collected from various publications as she found them.

Selphie nodded. "He's behind the cause and all, but I think he's worried we're going to get arrested and his mom'll find out. Wuss!"

"I can see where ending up in a Galbadian prison doesn't sound like such a good idea," Rinoa told her, amused despite herself. The thing she appreciated most about Selphie was her unabashed bravery, but she also loved the way she could made even the most grim situation seem better.

"We wouldn't be there long," Selphie reminded her. "They'd torture and execute us pretty quickly."

"And that makes it better," Rinoa said, rolling her eyes. "You need to work on your recruitment speech if we're going to find a few more able bodies for this mission."

"I know!" Selphie gestured with both arms to emphasize her point. "Do these people not care or what? No one wants in, and we can't risk all the Owls on one mission."

Rinoa felt that sinking feeling in her stomach once again. "We can't pull this off by ourselves."

"We do need another body or two," Selphie admitted. "It's too bad there's not some place, I don't know, like a Rent-A-Rebel or something!"

"I can talk to some of the retired resistance groups," Rinoa told her. "Maybe they have some people who are looking to get back in the fight."

"And I'll keep working on Zell." She raised her arm and pumped a fist in the air. "We'll be back on track in no time!"

Rinoa laughed.

As if summoned by his name, Zell appeared in the doorway to the train car, grease spots smudged across the parts of his face not covered with the tattoo. His hands were similarly grubby, and he was busily wiping at them with a large cloth.

He smiled and offered Rinoa a quick wave, but his gaze zeroed on Selphie. "Hey, I need another hand. Come out and help me, why don't you?"

Selphie gave him a look. "Um, we're not paying you so I can get my hands dirty."

It was Zell's turn to roll his eyes. "You're not paying me, remember? I'm doing this as a favor so come out and help me if you want it done any time soon."

She seemed to think about it for a moment before she sprang to her feet. "Point taken. What do you need?"

"I need someone to hold the light and hand me stuff," he told her. "No biggie."

She paused. "Give me five and I'll be out there, okay?"

Zell nodded and, with another little half-wave toward Rinoa, he headed out again, still wiping his hands on the cloth.

"Like candy from a baby," Selphie boasted. "I'll have him promising to help us in no time."

"Really?" Rinoa asked.

"Really!" Selphie said. She crossed over and grabbed both of Rinoa's hands in her own, suddenly serious. "Don't worry, Rinoa, we'll figure this out and we'll do it and we'll free Timber. Don't lose hope!"

Rinoa squeezed the hands holding hers. "Thanks, Selphie."

Once again alone, Rinoa remained on the floor of the train car, listening to the sounds of Selphie's voice and Zell's tinkering that made it through the thin metal of the car's sides. Since she'd run away to join the Timber fight for freedom, she'd never had a chance like this before, a chance to make a real difference. She wanted it to go right -- for Timber, for Zone, for Watts, for herself. She wanted to help liberate Timber, and she wanted to show her father that he'd been wrong, both about her and about the cause. Rinoa wanted so many things, and they all seemed to come down to this chance, this moment to put actions behind her beliefs and just do it.

Lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice that Angelo had come to sit next to her until she felt her cold, wet nose nudging her hand. She gratefully ran a hand through her dog's shaggy coat and took comfort in the canine's steady presence.

She couldn't quite explain why but Rinoa had a feeling in her gut that this was going to be the thing that changed everything -- not just her life, but the world.

She just hoped she was ready.

**

Seifer winced as he stretched to snatch the hidden spare key from above the door jamb to let himself in to Quistis's apartment. Though the medics had told him that his ribs weren't broken, only bruised, they still hurt like hell, especially when he tried to lift his arm. Then there was the newly pinked scar across his forehead that he didn't even want to think about.

Sucking in a quick breath as he willed the pain to ebb, he turned the key in the lock and quietly eased himself inside.

He knew it was early, but the stillness of the apartment struck him as unusual since Quistis tended to rise with the sun, especially on mornings she worked. He dropped his duffel bag near the door, then cautiously called out. "Hey, Trepe, where are you?"

There was the distinct sound of heavy footsteps, then Quistis was standing in the doorway between the living room and her bedroom, looking at him as if she were seeing a ghost. She'd obviously just woken up, given her snarled hair and night gown. "Seifer?"

"You've got somebody else letting themselves into your place?" he asked.

His reply calmed some of the fear on her face, though it only revealed the anxiety lurking there. "Where have you been?"

Seifer ducked his head. "You know that's classified."

Her mouth hardened into grim line. "I hope you had a few hours at the tables while you were in Dollet."

Seifer winced, this time from the anger in Quistis's voice. "How do you even know about that?"

She let out a brittle bark of a laugh. "Do you think it wouldn't make international headlines that Galbadia had invaded the one neighboring country it wasn't occupying?"

He could sense the fight brewing in Quistis, but he didn't have the energy. His shoulders slumped. "Do I need to find somewhere else to spend my furlough? Because I don't want to spend it fighting with you."

"Why are you on furlough?" she asked. "You just went back."

"It's a medical furlough," he admitted.

Quistis started moving toward him. "You're hurt. Why didn't..." Quistis trailed off, eyes wide. "Your face."

"Actually, my ribs," he said. "Damn Dolletian got in a lucky blow."

"But what happened to your face?" By now, she was standing close, a hand skimming down his side as if she could sense his injuries under his shirt and coat. "I didn't know the Dolletian army used bladed weapons."

"They don't." Seifer grunted when her hand finally grazed his bruised rib. "I got the cut in training." He hoped she'd leave it at that.

Being Quistis, of course, she didn't. "Aren't there safeties in place to prevent this sort of thing? Training so hard before Dollet seems..." He could see the realization as it dawned, and she narrowed her eyes, accusation in the way her brow furrowed. "Your gunblade."

"Well, Squall's," he told her. "I sure as hell didn't cut myself."

"He cut you?" Quistis's voice was sharp. "Why would he do that?"

"I...maybe started it," Seifer admitted. He gestured toward the sofa. "Can I sit down now?"

She held her comments long enough to help Seifer settle comfortably, but as soon as she was sitting next to him, Quistis continued with her questions. "What did you do?"

"We were training, right before I shipped out." He took a deep breath and leaned back as the ache in his side eased a little. "It was early, we were into it, and we got carried away. My blade nicked him and his nicked me. That's it."

"It's quite more than a nick." Quistis took his face in her hands and turned it side to side, eyeing the healing cut. "Is Squall's better or worse?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"On how you feel about scars."

Quistis visibly softened, although Seifer knew her too well to think the conversation was finished. "Squall wasn't with you in Dollet, was he?"

"No, they didn't send the rookies with us," he said. "His team pulled babysitting duty."

"Good." She frowned at him. "What did I tell you last week? I knew something like this was going to happen."

"You've been saying that for two years," Seifer reminded her.

"But I knew it was coming," she said. "Don't you see why I didn't want you to do this? People are going to be trying to kill you, and they won't wrong to want to because you're the invader. It doesn't matter that it's not your idea or that you're only following orders."

Seifer didn't bother opening his eyes as he replied. "I don't want to talk about this again."

"Well, I do." He felt her hand on his shoulder. "Do you know how worried I was when the report came in, that there were Galbadian soldiers storming Dollet? Even after I'd heard most of you had pulled out, I had no idea what was going on. And it's not as if the local news was reporting on it."

"Hell, I didn't know what was going on," Seifer said. "It had something to do with a communications tower or something."

"That's all?"

Seifer opened one eye to glare at her. "Is this going to show up on some dispatch to one of those anti-Deling terrorist message boards?"

"No," Quistis told him. "I'm just curious. A communication tower hardly seems useful because of the airwave interference."

"I agree, but that's what they wanted. The council agreed to let us leave some soldiers there to get it up and running if we pulled out of the rest of the town. So we left."

"How long is your furlough?" she asked.

"Seven days, then I have to go in and get checked out." He straightened up and shot her a look. "Until then, though, I'm all yours."

"Unfortunately, I have to go to work," Quistis announced, pulling away. "So you're on your own until this afternoon."

He groaned. "Come on, Quistis. Take the day off and stay home. I'm injured."

"Exactly. What you need is rest." Her voice was muffled behind her closed bedroom door. A few minutes later she emerged, dressed in a plain black skirt and clingy blouse, still running a hairbrush through her hair. Seifer didn't see why she bothered since no one would see her but Dr. Kadowaki and the other research assistant. "Go in there, lay down, take your pain medicine. Get some rest. I'll be home before you know it."

Seifer wanted to argue because he wasn't getting his way, but he knew she was right. With a last anemic protest, he ambled into small, sun-drenched bedroom, the bed still warm and messy from Quistis's night of rest. After he swallowed a few pain pills the medic had given him, he stripped to his boxers and laid down, careful of jostling his ribs. With his eyes closed and his breaths careful, he listened to the gentle noise of Quistis moving around in the apartment, going through her morning routine. On the soothing sounds he drifted toward slumber, but the edge of pain in his body was enough to keep him from falling asleep.

"When did you get new boots?" Quistis's voice floated to him from somewhere nearby. He imagined she was tidying up the pile of clothes he'd left pooled on her bedroom floor.

"A few weeks ago," he answered. "I showed you."

There was a pause. "I don't remember."

"That's because you're forgetful in your old age, Trepe."

He heard the huff she made in reply, even through the flurry of rustling fabric. After another few minutes, Seifer sensed her presence at his side, then felt her lips touch his forehead, right next to the jagged line of new scar tissue.

"Feel better," she whispered, hand lingering on his bare arm.

Seifer knew he was imagining it, but there seemed to be an unnatural heat coming from Quistis's hand on his skin, followed by a tingling warm that eased through him until it dulled the ache in his side like it had never been there. Figuring the pain meds were finally kicking in, Seifer rode its wave toward unconsciousness, missing the last, hushed sounds of Quistis departure.

**

The air was cool in Timber once the sun had started to set, a fact of life in the spring. Rinoa's arms were chilly where they were exposed, which made her wonder how Selphie felt in her short, yellow dress. Her friend didn't seem to be affected, however, if the way she was talking animatedly with Zell up the street was any indication. Rinoa could just make out Zell's blond hair and Selphie's waving arms.

Somewhere in the opposite direction, she knew Zone and Watts were also out, doing the same thing she was -- checking out any differences in the deployment patterns of the occupying forces. Tomorrow was the big day, and they were taking this chance to do some last-minute reconnaissance.

They knew some soldiers had arrived in Timber the day before, but since then, no one had seen any of them on the street. She knew the Owls weren't the only ones who'd noticed, and tension was high among the citizens who remained sensitive to increased Galbadian presence. The fact that something big was happening in a few days had to be the worst kept secret in town.

Rinoa left Selphie and Zell loitering near the hotel and walked over the bridge toward the old Timber Maniacs building. She was glad that neither Zone nor Watts had attempted to team with her because she needed the time alone. Since Zell had agreed to join them -- still mostly under duress -- the Timber Owls had been spent every waking hour planning, strategizing, doing everything possible to be prepared for the mission. That had meant they'd spent almost every one of those hours together. Given how important the mission was to her, Rinoa needed some space to deal with her own anxiety over what would be happening the next day.

As she drew closer to Timber Maniacs, Rinoa noticed a group of three G-soldiers loitering near the steps that led down to the Aphora Pub. It was obvious by the way their heads were ducked together that they were in some kind of deep discussion. Since it was the first sign of the new soldiers that any of them had seen, Rinoa perked up, keeping her eyes on them as they continued to talk. Staying as much as she could in the shadows cast by the houses, she crept closer, straining her ears to hear what they were talking about.

"Come on," one was whispering as she drew a little closer. "We were only supposed to be gone a few minutes! If we don't get back, the Colonel is going to dock all of our pay for the rest of this mission!"

"It'll be fine," the second one said. "Leonhart'll cover for us."

"Leonhart will feed us to the Colonel alive if he has to cover his own ass," the first declared. "Let's get back."

With a sigh, the second soldier followed the first and third down the stairs. Rinoa gave them a minute before she followed, waiting at the top behind the bench until she saw them disappear into the pub. She hurried down the steps, although she waited a few beats before she inched open Aphora's door and went inside.

As always, it was dim in the pub along the walls, which didn't receive much illumination from the bar's light or the big screen above the card table. Since it was evening, the pub was fairly busy, but everywhere Rinoa looked she only saw regular patrons she knew from around Timber or strangers who were obviously civilians passing through on the trains. She threaded through the tables and customers, snagging a waitress's attention as she walked by.

"The soldiers," she whispered. "Did you see where they went?"

The waitress nodded. "The owner was giving them the evil eye, but they cut out through the alley in the back," she explained. "I don't know where they went after that."

"Thanks!" With a smile and wave, Rinoa headed toward the back door of the pub, pushing through the milling people.

The alley was even cooler than the air had seemed earlier, as the sun had almost completely disappeared behind the tall thrust of the buildings. The sky above as she glanced up was dark with only the faintest hint of indigo at its edges and the dim light from the windows glinted off the yellow-green eyes of the stray cats that made the alley their home, waiting for scraps. She ignored their mewling as she passed, grateful she'd left Angelo back on the Forest Owls' train.

Rinoa followed the cobbled path until it reached a set of winding stairs guarded by a dilapidated gate. In the dark, it was difficult to see what was painted on it, but she thought it said "TV Station." She jogged up the stairs, taking them as fast as she could. On the way, she passed a huge flat screen that must have once featured broadcasts when the TV Station was still operational; as far as she could remember, though, it hadn't had much use since it had become almost impossible to transmit radio waves without them being scrambled. It was why she and everyone else she knew got their media from the internet.

As she neared the top of the staircase, she could hear the faint din of voices. She ducked to hide at the top of the stairs where she wouldn't be seen by the soldiers, who were farther down the long walkway that led to the TV station. Rinoa had never been up so high above Timber, and she took a moment to reflect on how lovely it was, the sky open and endless all around her. Stars were beginning to peak out of the sheet of black, twinkling against the luminous weight of the moon.

After another moment or so, the voices died off, and Rinoa risked a peek around the stairs to see that there was only one solider standing half-way down the walkway, obviously on some kind of guard duty.

Rinoa debated with herself about what she should do. On one hand, she didn't want to jeopardize the next day's mission by getting caught for simple trespassing right then; but on the other, she couldn't help but feel that any information she got about the TV station would come in handy the next day. Finally, she decided to go for it, so she scampered down a few steps so that she could ascend them standing, as if she hadn't just been skulking around on her hands and knees.

There was only the one guard, dressed in the typical G-Soldier uniform. Rinoa hated the way the Galbadian uniforms completely hid the soldiers' faces, further transforming them into identical, interchangeable drones. From where she was she couldn't even guess on his age, so she just decided to be as friendly as possible, hoping that a smile and an innocent air would keep her out of a jail cell when she finally encountered resistance.

Rinoa was meandering down the walkway toward the TV station when an unexpected light streaked across the sky. It was a shooting star and she'd only seen one before in her life, raised as she was under Deling City's light-polluted skies. She couldn't contain her natural reaction, which was to stare up at it, one hand raised to point out its glittery path.

"Did you see that?" she asked aloud, more rhetorical than anything, still gazing up at the sky.

She was surprised once again when the guard actually answered. "Yeah, I did."

His voice was low, almost monotone, but he sounded young. Rinoa moved a little closer and tilted her head to study him. He stood ramrod straight, the hilt of his Galbadian-issue sword just peeking over his shoulder from its sheath. But he didn't seem disturbed by her presence, so she pressed on. "You don't sound too impressed."

He shrugged. "It's the Leonine shower," he explained. "It happens every year."

Rinoa vaguely recalled something she'd heard as a child in primary school about a yearly meteor shower, but it hadn't seemed important at the time. "Will there be more tonight?"

"Maybe."

She watched the sky for a moment in anticipation, half-waiting for the soldier to tell her to clear out. It was obvious he was blocking any chance she had to get closer to the TV station. Rinoa spared him another glance. "Not a big talker, are you?"

"You really shouldn't be up here," he told her, but there wasn't much heat behind it.

"Aren't you lonely up here by yourself?" she asked, leaning against the sturdy wall of the walkway and looking down toward her toes. "I'm glad to keep you company."

He sighed under the shroud of his helmet. "I don't need company."

But for all his protests, Rinoa noted to herself, he still hadn't ordered her to leave. Maybe he was lonely. "What's your name?"

"What?"

Rinoa straightened and turned toward him. "I'm Rinoa!" she said. "And you are...?" There was a long pause as if he debated with himself on whether to answer, which made Rinoa roll her eyes impatiently.

She stepped closer. "Can you only tell your name to girls you like? Well, I can fix that." She waved a hand back and forth in her front of his face. "You're-going-to-like-me, you're-going-to-like-me," she intoned, still waving her hand. Then, she dropped it. "Did it work?"

She thought she saw his mouth twitch in response. "...Squall."

"Huh?"

He sighed again. "My name is Squall."

"Oh!" Rinoa clapped her hands together, delighted that she'd gotten him to answer. "That's a cool name. Do you know how you got it?"

"No." He shifted a little in his immaculate posture. "Seifer said it was because I cried a lot when I was a baby."

"That doesn't sound very nice," Rinoa said.

Squall's mouth twitched again. "That's what Quistis always says."

"Seifer and Quistis, are they your siblings?" It sounded like the kind of ribbing Rinoa had seen between other siblings, somewhere between affection and animosity. It also reminded her of the way she'd recently witnessed between Zell and Selphie.

"No," he said, then shook his head. "I mean, not really. Kind of."

"I thought that was a pretty straightforward question," Rinoa pointed out. She couldn't see any reaction on his face because of his helmet and she crossed her arms in frustration. "You know, this whole conversation thing would be much easier if I could see your face. I'm completely at a disadvantage." She leaned in a little and dropped her voice. "Why don't you take it off?"

"I'm not supposed to," he said.

She shrugged. "So? You're not supposed to be talking to me either. Come on."

He sighed -- Rinoa was beginning to think this was a thing with him -- and then glanced over his shoulder as if to make sure no one was watching. Finally, he lifted the helmet from his head and sat it carefully on the ground between them, then peeled back the black fabric of the cowl until his entire head was visible.

Rinoa had been right; he was young -- probably no older than herself. He was also cute, with unruly auburn hair and eyes that looked gray under the starlight. She smiled. "That's better! So now...tell me about your 'kind of' 'not really' siblings?"

Squall looked up at the sky as if to beg the heavens for the patience to deal with her, but he finally answered. "We're all orphans," he told her. "We were at the same group home in Deling City."

She tried not to let the sadness creep into her voice as she replied. "I know a little about that," she said. "My mom died when I was a little."

Squall gave a little half-nod. "I don't remember my parents at all. Just Matron a little, and...Sis."

"Your real sister?"

"I don't know." He shook his head. "Never mind."

Rinoa hadn't completely forgotten her original reason for being there, but she'd gotten sidetracked, first by the shooting star and then by Squall himself. She needed to bring herself back to the point. "I guess this has to be a boring assignment, right? Guarding the old TV station? What could be happening there?"

Another shrug, no words.

Rinoa was about to ask another not-so-subtle question when the sound of bells chiming rang out through the night. Squall looked confused, but Rinoa knew exactly what it meant. "I've got to go!" she said in a rush, springing up from her relaxed position against the wall.

Squall seemed half-serious as he asked, "Who are you, Cinderella?"

"You must be new," she said. "That's the curfew bell. All good Timberians have to be off the streets within a half-hour, which means I have to go."

"Oh." He seemed very thoughtful.

Rinoa flashed him as a smile as she darted off. "If you see another meteor, think of me!" She paused before she bounded down the steps and looked at him over her shoulder. "See you around, Squall!"

As she hurried down the stairs, she remembered the way he had looked framed by the moonlight and thought she heard his quiet voice on the wind.

"See you, Rinoa."

**

It only took a day of rest before Seifer started to feel better -- so much so, in fact, he was beginning to think the medic had misdiagnosed him entirely. But he wasn't about to complain about another few days of downtime, especially when Quistis was likely ready to be distracted from her all-encompassing worry for poor little orphan Squall.

Seifer tried to understand that Quistis had some kind of maternal instinct that drove her to coddle someone and Squall had always fit the bill perfectly: quiet, withdrawn, sullen. As far back as Seifer could remember, Squall had been a moody kid -- melancholy, Matron had said often in the days after "Sis" had disappeared, but before Matron had done the same.

He only remembered bits and pieces of that first home -- of Matron with her long, dark hair; the lighthouse, bright and stately in the distance -- but he remembered Quistis and Squall strongly, probably because they'd ended up in the state-run orphanage in Deling City just like he had.

He and Squall had seemed doomed to be each other's constant companions, while Quistis had burst back into their young lives like a hurricane, brainy and bossy and broken after her foster parents' arrest and eventual execution. She had carried that wound ever since, a hatred and anger against Galbadia that even surprised him, someone who knew all about anger and frustration. He'd spent much of his youth acting out, both against the world and against them, the only family he really had.

Seifer stepped off the bus near the Presidential Residence and headed toward the park, glaring along the way at any stray mutts that wandered into his path. He was meeting Quistis after her shift at the lab where she worked for Dr. Kadowaki. He wasn't sure exactly what she did for the good doctor, especially since Kadowaki's interest in magic and sorceresses struck Seifer -- and most other people -- as a waste of time. But Kadowaki's research paid Quistis's bills and had allowed her to emancipate herself from the system at fifteen, so Seifer just tried to accept it for what it was.

He didn't take long to find the right building in the line of mostly abandoned offices and warehouses. It was a bad part of town, even worse than the slightly-shady residential area in which Quistis lived. Seifer walked up and banged heavily on the metal door, not relenting until it was finally wrenched open from beneath his fist. A familiar and annoyed face stared back at him.

"It's going to stick like that if you keep making that face at me, Xu," he told her. "Where's Quistis?"

Xu's frown only deepened as she scowled. "She said you were coming." Over her shoulder, she called, "Quistis! There's some weirdo at the door waiting for you." Back to Seifer, she said, "She'll be out in a minute."

Seifer was just fast enough to keep the door from slamming in his face. "I'll just wait in here, if you don't mind."

Xu obviously did mind, but she let him into the sparse front room, which was mostly a desk with a coffee maker, some cups, and a few rickety chairs. She, on the other hand, headed through the open door back toward the mysterious area that served as "the lab." Seifer had never been allowed back there, but he'd caught glimpses through the door over the years. There were tables and books and computer terminals, sometimes microscopes and samples in test tubes -- completely scientific and completely unfathomable to him.

It was Dr. Kadowaki, not Quistis, who appeared a moment later. She greeted Seifer with a nod before she made herself a cup of coffee and sat down. Seifer remained standing, leaning back against the wall while he waited.

"She's just finishing up," the Doctor assured him, blowing on her coffee to cool it.

Seifer just grunted in response, which won him a wry smile.

"I could look at that injury for you," she said. "I know a few tricks that might help it."

"My ribs are fine."

"I meant your face," Kadowaki said. "Surely you don't want a scar."

"Hmm."

Kadowaki actually seemed amused by him, if the quirk of her mouth was any indication. "As always, a pleasure to talk to you, Seifer."

"He's being his usual charming self, then?" Seifer looked up to see Quistis standing in the door, giving him a familiar look -- half-exasperation, half-affection.

"You ready to go?"

Quistis bid farewell to Xu and the good doctor before Seifer finally ushered her through the door. The air outside was cool, the last edge of winter in the spring air, and Quistis huddled close as they kept pace on the pavement, heading toward the closest bus stop. They had plans to share a meal at a tiny little restaurant on the edge of the shopping district, then there was some kind of free concert being held at the park. Seifer wasn't very interested, but he knew Quistis would like it. Since he was picking up the tab for the food, it was the closest thing to a date they ever had.

She was unusually quiet as they walked, which earned her a nudge with Seifer's elbow. "What's up with you, Trepe?"

"Are you sure you should be up and around?"

"I feel fine," he said. "Better than fine, actually."

"You recovered quickly."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But I know that look. What's really bothering you?"

"Squall," she admitted.

"You're going to worry yourself into an early grave over him, you know that?" Seifer made himself take a deep breath. "If you paid me half the attention --"

"Your ego would be as big as the Arc," she broke in. "I pay you plenty of attention."

"Not like with Squall," Seifer argued.

Quistis stopped moving. "It's different. Me and you, we're..." She waved her hand between them, as if it explained things she couldn't say. "But Squall..."

Seifer bit back his frustration. "I get it."

"No, you don't." She shook her head, grabbing his wrist. "I know we're in this together -- I'm stuck with you, just like you're stuck with me. With Squall, though, it's like he's always moving away. Like if I let go for a second, he'd be gone."

He knew what she meant. "Quiet, sullen, withdrawn."

She nodded. "He never really felt like he belonged with us. It's always been about Sis, about finding his real family." Quistis glanced down at where she held Seifer's wrist in her grip. "Even though we are his family."

Sometimes Seifer felt like he never really spent any time alone with Quistis, that Squall was always there, a tangible but invisible presence. Still, he could see that she was upset and he tried to stifle his annoyance when it was obvious Quistis was unsettled. "You can't spend every minute of your life trying to hold onto him," he told her. "It'll just backfire."

She raised an eyebrow. "If I love him, let him go?"

"Something like that," he nodded. He gently tugged his hand out of her hold, only to wrap the same arm around her shoulders and pull her along toward the bus stop. "And even if your little Squally bird flies away, well..."

"I'll still have you?" Quistis pretended to sound horrified by the prospect, but she was smiling. "Is that a threat or a promise, Seifer?"

"Both," he grinned, tightening his arm around her.

"Perish the thought," she said, but she sidled closer and didn't shrug away the comfort his arm offered. Seifer considered it progress.

"I'm sure Squall is fine," he told her. "If there's anything I'm sure of in this world, it's that guard duty in Timber is the most boring assignment on the planet."

**

Rinoa held her breath as she, Selphie and Zell waited for a group of soldiers to pass. Her shoulder was aching from the repeated recoil on her blaster edge, and there was a spectacular bruise blossoming on Zell's chin. Selphie looked relatively unscathed from the events of the day, but there was a manic glint in her eyes that came from fighting their way through so many G-soldiers in so little time.

Even more acute than the pain in her shoulder was the crushing sense of failure Rinoa felt. Her perfect plan to kidnap Deling and force him to free Timber had crumbled even before it had really began. All of their hard work had been for nothing since the President had known about it from the beginning. There had been a decoy waiting for them in his train car, one that had morphed into a strange, undead monster that they had barely been able to defeat in order to make their escape. Then, of course, there had been wave upon wave of soldiers to evade, all of them on high alert since news of the attempted kidnapping had circulated. There were even rumors that they planned to close down the trains in order to catch the 'terrorists' responsible.

Zell made as if to move from the group's hiding place between a house and a store building, but Rinoa stopped him, shaking her head emphatically. Zell nodded and slunk back, just in time for two more soldiers to pass, weapons threateningly drawn. A train rumbled down a near-by track, and Rinoa felt its vibration in her teeth as it rattled past.

Rinoa finally released the breath she'd been holding. "I think it's safe."

Selphie snorted. "Nothing is safe right now. This place is crawling with soldiers like I've never seen before."

Zell nodded. "We're screwed."

"No, we're not," Rinoa argued. "We just have to regroup."

"To do what?" Selphie wanted to know. "I think the best plan we have right now is the 'not get caught' one."

"We need to lay low," Zell agreed.

"No!" Rinoa told them. "This is still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Deling never comes to Timber. If we're ever going to do something, it's got to be now."

"Or we can just move the cell's base of operations to Deling City and really blow something up," Selphie said. "I actually agree with Zell on this one."

There was a cold knot in her stomach that refused to budge. "There's got to be something!"

Selphie sighed, creeping toward the open street. "Let's see if we can make it back to the base. Maybe someone else has some info."

Rinoa nodded, as she and Zell followed Selphie's lead. The coast was clear and the three of them slipped out into the sunlight, struggling to keep their movement casual and unhurried. Nothing would draw unwanted attention faster than being in a hurry.

They had managed to make it a few blocks when Watts appeared from his own hiding place in between two other buildings. "Rinoa! I've been looking for you!"

Selphie glared at him. "My nerves are a little raw here. Can you keep it down?"

Watts looked abashed. "Sorry," he told her. Then, he turned back to Rinoa. "I've got some new intel, big news! I found out the real reason why the president's here, he's going to be at the TV station!"

"The TV station?" Rinoa repeated, remembering the soldiers she'd followed the night before. "Really?"

"Really!" Watts said. "Security is super tight over there, too!"

"Which is different from over here, how?" Selphie wanted to know.

"Why go through all of this to get to our TV station?" Rinoa asked aloud. "They can broadcast just as easily from Galbadia."

"Maybe they need old school technology," Zell offered. Before he continued, he grabbed Rinoa and Selphie by the arm and drew them deeper into the alley where Watts had been hiding. "The only TV station that can handle broadcasts over the air is here, in Timber. All the other stations use HD cable, which only supports online broadcasting."

"So, what's that supposed to mean?"

"They must want to transmit using radio waves. This way, they can transmit images to regions without cable," Zell concluded.

"Transmit what?" Selphie asked him.

Zell shrugged. "No idea."

Rinoa felt the cold dread from moments earlier fade away as a plan began to formulate in her head. "Who cares? We're going to crash his party!"

"Whaaaaaaaaat?" Selphie shook her head. "I don't even have any explosives on me."

"We're not going to blow it up," Rinoa explained. "We're going to hijack the broadcast."

"To say what?"

"I'm still working on that," she told Zell, before she focused on Watts. "Anything else?"

He shook his head. "Unless you need directions to the TV station?"

"Nope, I know exactly how to get there," Rinoa assured him. "Watts, head back to the base. You and Zone better get the train out of town before you get caught."

"We're two steps ahead of you on that one," he said. "Zone is ready to high-tail it out of here on my mark."

She nodded. "We'll rendezvous later then! Okay?"

He nodded. "Rinoa, be careful, all right? Zone will never forgive himself if something happens to you."

Rinoa smiled at him. "Don't worry, this'll be easy as can be." She decidedly ignored Zell's snort. "Good luck getting back to the base."

As soon as Watts was gone, Zell stepped up. "Are we really doing this?"

"I'm really doing it," she told him. "With or without you."

"Well, you know I'm going," Selphie said. She jabbed a finger at Zell. From the wince on his face, she hit him in a bruise. "And you might as well man up and come along, too. You've already done enough to get executed anyway. A few more things won't hurt."

Zell sighed. "I hate to admit it, but you're right."

Rinoa was momentarily flushed with affection for her friends, these strange people who had agreed to help her for no other reason than their own conviction. If she'd had the time, she would've hugged them both. Instead, she beckoned for them to follow as she risked stepping back out into the street.

They headed back the way they'd come, slinking in the nooks and crannies of the buildings, taking alley shortcuts where they could to bypass the ever-growing throng of soldiers who filled the streets. They ran where they could from any head-on encounters, but a couple of G-soldiers went down under Zell's heavy fists and Selphie's no-nonsense nunchaku. Rinoa didn't bother trying to find a new way to the TV station; she simply re-traced the steps she'd taken the night she'd met Squall on that narrow bridge.

There was some relief in stepping inside of the Aphora pub, if only because it was the first safe place they'd been all day. Rinoa waved her way past the owner, and the three of them slipped outside once Selphie had not-so-politely booted a drunk drifter from in front of the back door. Once they were in the alley, Rinoa led them toward the stairs that connected the pub to the TV station.

"Are you sure we can just storm the place?" Selphie asked. "If security is as tight as Watts said, we'll never get through."

"We're going in through the back," Rinoa said. "There might be one guard, at most. We should be fine."

"But what are we going to do once we reach where the guards are?" Zell asked. "There's just three of us and a lot of them."

"Still thinking about that," Rinoa admitted. "If nothing else, we can wait until the president clears out and broadcast our own message. It won't have the same effect as forcing Deling to declare Timber's freedom, but it'll still make a statement."

"A dumb one," Selphie told her bluntly as she began to climb the stairs. "We are seriously in need of a better plan."

"Hey!"

Zell held up a hand, stopping Rinoa before she could begin her tirade. "Whoa, an outdoor TV!"

Selphie and Rinoa looked up to see the large monitor. "Creepy," Selphie declared. "Is this where we'll see the broadcast?"

"I'd rather be on the inside when that happens," Rinoa told them. "Come on."

Exchanging a glance, Selphie and Zell sighed but followed her up the stairs.

**

On their way back to Quistis's apartment, clouds had predictably rolled in across the Galbadian sky, so Seifer and Quistis were both dripping wet before they'd even reached her block.

As soon as they were inside, she banished Seifer to the bathroom, as she herself scurried off to the bedroom to find something dry to wear. By the time Seifer emerged from the tiny bathroom, finally dry and clean, Quistis was already in the kitchen running water into her tea kettle, listening to the government-approved online news broadcast.

"...plot was thwarted when an anonymous tip warned the President's entourage of the kidnapping plot. President Deling arrived safely in Timber without further incident. The culprits have not yet been apprehended, but soldiers are on the ground looking for them. Terrorist activity in Timber is not unexpected, says a source close to the President, but Deling is quoted as saying that he would not let it deter him from..."

When Quistis heard Seifer approach, she turned to face him. "And you said nothing ever happens in Timber."

"The so-called liberation front in Timber is usually only good for a few misdemeanors," he told her. "Kidnapping the president is a step up. Sounds like someone new is in on the action."

Quistis turned away to set the kettle on the stove. "The Owls, I wonder?" The words were said quietly, almost as if she spoke only to herself, but Seifer heard them.

"How do you know about the Owls?" he asked. He couldn't help his sharp tone. "Most soldiers who serve in Timber don't even know the name of the different cells."

"But you do."

"Part of my job when I'm there is to listen for pertinent chatter," Seifer said, frowning at her. "The question is, how do you know about them? If you were anyone else, I'd be tempted to report you."

"Oh, really?" Quistis rolled her eyes. "It's not a crime to know about what's happening in the world."

"It is when they're trying to kidnap the President and putting the lives of our soldiers in danger," he replied. "Where did you hear about them?"

"Do you really want me to answer that?" She wasn't intimidated by his attitude; in fact, she looked rather unimpressed with him in general. Sometimes he wondered why he even put up with her. "You were the one who was always saying if I hated Galbadia so much, I should do something about it. Don't you remember?"

"Yeah, I do," he admitted. "But I really just wanted you to shut up."

"I'm aware, but it did get me thinking. So when I found out last year that an old acquaintance of mine was involved with a group there...I looked into it. If you'll recall, I spent that week in Timber?"

Seifer did remember, and he hadn't been happy about how secretive she'd been about the trip. Now, he knew it had nothing to do with what he'd feared then, namely some other guy.

At his tight nod, she continued. "I was ready to go through with it. Move to Timber, dedicate my life to freeing them from Galbadian oppression. "

"Why didn't you?"

The kettle began to whistle, so Quistis went through the motions of making her tea before she answered. "Don't you remember the first thing you said to me when I got off the train?"

Seifer thought back to the day he'd met her at the train station. He'd been surly the whole week she'd been gone, unaccustomedly put off by her absence and his own fears about why she'd went in the first place. It had been the longest time they'd spent apart since Quistis had ended up at the group home when they'd been ten years old. Almost in defiance to her decision to leave him alone, he'd finally...

"I told you I'd joined the G-army."

She nodded, a wry twist to her mouth behind her cup. "I couldn't exactly sign up for it, could I, when it meant the next soldier's life I put in danger might be yours."

"So I'm the only thing standing between you being a fine, upstanding citizen and you being a terrorist?" Seifer shook his head. "That's not exactly a good thing, Quistis."

They stared at each other for a moment, neither certain what to say. In the silence, the broadcast continued. "...heard right, ladies and gentlemen. I'm being told that we are only a few minutes away from President Deling's historic announcement. If you're watching from an area that does not have HD delivery, tune your television to Channel 3 for radio wave communication. I repeat..."

"Radio waves? I thought..." Seifer trailed off, remember their conversation about the communications tower. "Dollet."

Quistis nodded. "I guess we should go see what your fearless leader has to say."

Seifer gave her another unamused look, which she ignored to press a quick kiss against the edge of his mouth. "Turn off the stove once you've made your tea, okay?"

As Quistis took her cup and settled on the sofa in front of the television, Seifer couldn't help but wonder if there was another woman on the planet who was as complicated as Quistis.

Somehow, he found it hard to imagine.

**

The inside of the TV station was dim, the walls painted a cool violet that seemed to leech any light thrown off by the bulbs that lit their way. Rinoa had been right about the bridge being the back way in -- so far, they hadn't encountered one soldier they'd had to fight. Of course, they had ducked into several storage rooms and dust-covered offices to maintain that average, but she knew that stealth, not might, would allow them to reach the inner-most rooms where the transmissions were made.

Their luck didn't hold forever, but Zell quickly subdued the lone guard they met head-on. They dragged his unconscious form into one of those storage rooms. From behind the barely cracked door, Rinoa watched to make sure he didn't have any friends coming.

"I'm still iffy on this plan," Selphie whispered, her breath hot against Rinoa's neck where she craned around her to look out into the hallway. "Have you figured out what the heck we're doing?"

"No," she admitted. "I just know we have to do something."

"If we found the control room, I could probably smash it up, stop the broadcast," Zell offered. "It's not exactly your peace and love announcement, but it'll mess up Deling's speech."

"We need to make a better statement than that," Rinoa said. The hall was clear, so she motioned for them to follow. "Come on."

Rinoa knew she was acting rashly, but she was doing it on instinct. Something was drawing her to this moment, refusing to let her give up when she faced obstacle after obstacle. She knew that there was a reason she needed to be there and she wasn't going to stop before she figured out why.

Selphie and Zell followed along, letting Rinoa's intuition lead the way. They took a turn, then another, their path still clear. That was probably why Rinoa felt confident enough to round the next corner a little too quickly -- which brought face-to-face with a Galbadian soldier.

Her eyes widened as her feet stumbled to a stop, causing Selphie and Zell to bump into her back as they made their own speedy halts. Selphie, upon seeing the guard, made the quickest recovery, leaping forward to brandish her nunchaku. Zell was beside her in an instant.

But the guard hadn't pulled his own weapon yet, standing frozen in front of closed, ornate-looking doors. He seemed to be staring at Rinoa, a fact that was verified when he spoke. "Rinoa? What are you doing here?"

She recognized that voice. "Squall!"

Everyone looked to be on the verge of speech -- Selphie, Zell, even Squall behind his Galbadian mask -- but his walkie-talkie clicked and they all fell silent.

"Leonhart? Come in," the voice said.

"Here," he answered.

"Have you seen Elding?"

"No."

"He hear a noise around the corner from you and went to investigate. He never came back." The voice paused. "Have you seen anything out of the ordinary?"

Rinoa held her breath as Squall answered. She could feel his eyes burning into hers, even from behind the visor. "Nothing to report."

"Well, something is definitely up. Be on the lookout." A click announced that the other soldier had cut the communication.

"Thank you," Rinoa whispered.

He shook his head, then made a cutting gesture with one of his hands. "You three need to leave. Now," he told her. "It's not safe for you to be here."

"You're letting us go?" Selphie asked, lowering her weapon a little.

He nodded. "Just get out of here before someone else shows up. I can't stop them if they catch you."

Zell caught her arm. "I think he's right, Rinoa. It's time to abort."

"But...!"

"We can break in later and make your announcement," Selphie said. "But I agree with the guys. Retreat!"

Rinoa felt the fight drain out of her. "Okay, have it your way. We'll go." She glanced at the doors behind Squall. "What's through there?"

"A dressing room," he answered. "Deling has some VIP in there."

She was probably imagining it, but Rinoa felt like there was a presence emanating from behind that door. It made her want to move closer, to....

Zell tugged on her arm again. "Come on!"

She snapped out of it and shot Squall one last look. "Thank you, Squall," she said again. "Until next time."

He just nodded as Zell and Selphie pulled her along, heading back the way they'd come. She tried to concentrate on the conversation Selphie and Zell were having around her, but her thoughts were still back with Squall and the mysterious guest with the magnetic presence.

"She did say Squall, right?" Zell asked.

"She did!"

"Do you think it could be, ya know, Squall Squall?"

"I don't know, but how many Squalls could there be in the world? It's not exactly a common name!"

Rinoa didn't bother to try and make sense of it. Instead she glanced back over her shoulder once more, catching a last glance of Squall standing in the hall, quiet and proud and kind.

As they turned another corner, she could swear she heard the groan of ancient hinges opening.

**

[How noble -- saving the damsel, even from your own brothers in arms.]

(Huh?)

[Would you remain so, I wonder, if even the whole world were against you? That is the true test of knights.]

(What are you talking about?)

[Your loneliness, it called to me. You push everyone away, when you want nothing more than to fill that void inside you.]

(You don't know anything about me!)

[I know it all, my child. And I can make it go away. I can give you purpose, answers to all the questions that haunt you. With me lies freedom from everything that plagues you -- doubt, fear, pain.]

(No!)

[Come with me to a place of no return. Bid farewell to the past, my young knight. All that remains now for you is this duty.]

**

Quistis's hand was clenched tightly around the handle of her cup, so tightly that Seifer feared she would crack it in her hands. Seifer's elbows rested against his knees while he shot increasingly concerned looks between Quistis and the television screen as the monster of her nightmares, Vinzer Deling, stepped up to the podium and began to speak.

"Greetings," he said. "I am Vinzer Deling, lifelong president of Galbadia. Today, I stand before you to make the following proposition: we the people of this world have the power to end all wars."

Quistis made a derisive noise deep in her throat, eyes still glued to the screen.

"Unfortunately, there are some trifling problems standing between Galbadia and other nations, and they must be resolved. I plan to convene with other nations' leaders immediately to resolve these problems. At this time, allow me to introduce the ambassador who will be my representative for the conference."

Seifer didn't know why, but he held his breath, knowing the next sentence was the most important of the entire broadcast.

"The ambassador is the Sorceress."

Quistis's cup slipped from her fingers and shattered as it hit the floor.

**

The problem with fate, though, is that every time something bad happens, you've got to wonder: what wrong decision did I make to end up here, or did I even make one at all? If fate is the one running the show, did I ever have a choice, or was it always going to happen this way, no matter what I did? That doesn't make me a person, it makes me a tool, a puppet for whoever is pulling the strings behind the curtain.

I'm not satisfied with that. I've got to keep fighting to make my life my own, even if what I'm fighting is fate itself.

**

It was night when their train finally reached Deling City, and Rinoa had to elbow first Selphie, then Zell awake. They were both groggy and disoriented; they had barely boarded the train before Rinoa had found herself surrounded by two snoring teenagers.

Zell was wild-eyed as he lurched into consciousness, looking around for a phantom danger. "We're pulling into the station," Rinoa explained. "I was just tying to wake up you."

He groaned, shaking his head like a dazed bull. "Man, I've had some freaky dreams since I started hanging out with you guys."

"They can't be freakier than the ones I had." From the seat on the other side of Rinoa, Selphie spoke, voice rough and scratchy. "I jumped off a cliff. Well, the dream-me did, but I wasn't the dream-me. If that makes any sense?"

"Nope," Rinoa said with the first bit of humor since they'd made their speedy escape from Timber. "But we'll forgive you this time."

The three of them had managed to escape the TV station without incident, only to find out that another group of soldiers had found and destroyed the Owls base. With news circulating that the Galbadians had planned to shut down the train system until they'd caught the group responsible for the kidnapping attempt, Zone had somehow procured tickets out of Timber, on a train heading West. Zell had reluctantly abandoned hopes of heading home and had instead come with the rest of them. At the East Academy Station, the group had split, with Zone and Watts heading to Dollet to lay low with friends they had there. Rinoa had invited Selphie and Zell with her to Deling City.

"Why Deling City?" Selphie had asked.

"Because I know the perfect place for us to hide out," Rinoa had explained. "Plus, if we're going to learn anything that might help us plan out next move, it won't be in Dollet. Deling is where everything is happening."

She did know the perfect place, and it was a risk, but Rinoa also saw the ingenuity in it. No one would look for a group of underage terrorists staying at the home of a respected Galbadian general, especially when one of them was his daughter. And there was always the chance to eavesdrop on his phone conversations and rifle through his paperwork for some inside intel that could help them.

Having Zell and Selphie around also meant he was less likely to find a way to keep her locked up.

Zell had never been to Deling City, and he was demonstrably impressed with its tall, lit monuments and public architecture. Rinoa laughed at his reaction, sharing a grin with Selphie behind his back as they headed down the steps to the road, to the bus stop that would take them across town to the Caraway manor.

As they waited, Rinoa noticed the extra guards all around, the vehicles they were using to block off some of the streets. She turned to an elderly woman who was waiting for the same bus. "What's going on?" she asked her. "We just got to town and it looks like something's happening."

"A parade," the old woman said. "For the Sorceresss. To celebrate her new position."

Selphie wrinkled her nose. "A little over the top, don't you think?"

The old woman laughed. "We Galbadians live for ceremony, dearie."

When the bus finally pulled up in front of Rinoa's house, Selphie let out a low whistle. "Wow, your dad must be loaded," she observed. "Why exactly did you run away from all this to live in a train car in Timber?"

"Money doesn't solve everything," Rinoa told her as she knocked on the door.

A moment later it was opened by the maid, who greeted them somberly before ushering them into the foyer. Both Selphie and Zell seemed uncomfortable in the cold opulence of the mansion, which Rinoa understood. She'd felt uncomfortable there ever since her mother had died.

"Your father is in an important meeting at the moment," the maid said. "I'll let him know you're here, Miss Rinoa."

"No wonder Zone and Watts call you princess," Selphie said as she looked around, free to stare now that the maid had scurried off. "Damn!"

Rinoa glanced down the darkened hall that led to her father's study. "You guys wait here," she said. "I'll be right back."

She crept down the hall, body huddled against the wall the same way she'd done as a child. The door to the study was closed, but she'd learned a long time ago how to slowly turn the knob until the door unlatched. She pushed it open only an inch, leaning forward to listen to the male voices she heard within.

"...we've got a man all lined up," said the voice that didn't belong to her father. It was familiar, but she couldn't place it. "He's the best among my men, and he'll succeed. We don't need a backup plan."

"You have a lot of faith in him, Martine," her father said. "For your sake, I hope it's warranted. It's your livelihood that depends on it. She wants your school as her base of operations."

Rinoa remembered Martine -- he used to be a Colonel in the G-Army, and now he trained new recruits at his academy on the arid plateau on the edge of the Great Plain of Galbadia. "I've trained him since he was a boy. There's not a better shot in Galbadia."

"Then I suppose by tomorrow, the Sorceress will no longer be one of our problems."

Rinoa pulled back quietly, stifling the gasp she felt bubbling up from her throat. Her father and Martine were planning to assassinate the Sorceress? But wasn't she working with the Galbadian government?

Unless...

Unless they were as frightened of her as the rest of the world.

She carefully let the door slide closed, and then she hurried back to the foyer where Selphie and Zell were still waiting for her. Not patiently, of course. Selphie was fidgeting from one foot to the other, frowning at one of the many framed paintings on the wall. Zell was in the corner shadow-boxing, delivering left and right punches to his invisible enemies. When he saw her, he dropped his hands. "Is your dad going to let us stay or what?"

"I didn't get a chance to ask him yet," she hedged, shooting a glance back down the hallway. She needed time to process what she'd just heard and she didn't want her father or Colonel Martine to see her before she had. "He's so discourteous! Making us wait like this!" She gestured toward the elegant, curving staircase that led to the second floor. "How about I give you a tour since we're here?"

Selphie and Zell shared a look, making Rinoa wonder what they were saying to each in that silent way they had. She still wasn't clear on how well they knew each other, but it was obvious they had some kind of bond between them. For some reason, it made Rinoa think of Squall.

She shook away the thought and cheerfully led them to the second floor, showing them a few of the ornately decorated guest rooms the mansion contained. She skipped over her own bedroom, instead guiding them toward the master suite her father occupied, with its cavernous vaulted ceilings and balcony that offered one of the best views of the capital she had ever seen.

As they all three looked around, Selphie was drawn to the windows, looking down at the preparations for the Sorceress's parade. "Wow, this thing is going to be major," she declared. "Look at those balloons! And the flags!"

"Galbadia is trying to scare everybody, using the Sorceress as an ambassador," Zell said. "Nobody will dare go against Deling as long as he's got her on his side. The memory of the last Sorceress War is too fresh in their minds."

"How do you know? You were barely born when it happened!" Selphie asked.

"My grandfather was a soldier, and so were my uncles," he said. "My ma talks about it all the time."

Rinoa swept her eyes over her father's dresser, half-listening as Zell told Selphie about what his uncles had experienced fighting against Esthar in the last war. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for a strange case she'd never seen before. She opened it to reveal what looked like a bracelet made of a dull golden metal, shiny and smooth, with no visible seams or markings. It reminded her of something she'd read, an illustration she'd seen, maybe in one of the Occult Fan magazines...

When it came to her, she turned to her friends, box still gripped in her hand. "Do you know what this is?" she asked them excitedly.

"No?" Zell said.

"A bracelet?" Selphie offered.

"It's an Odine Bangle," she explained.

"Odine!" Zell looked impressed once again.

"Whatcha gonna do with it?" Selphie asked, staring at the bangle where it sat in its box.

"It's supposed to suppress a sorceress's powers," she explained. "But its effect are still unknown. So I don't think..." She wondered if this was the backup plan her father had been talking about.

"If it's the Odine brand, it should be pretty effective!" Zell said. He ran a finger over its smooth edge. "They're the best when it comes to magical goods, although most people here don't care much about that kind of thing."

"It's neat, though," Selphie said. They all gathered around, looking at the bangle. "It's too bad we can't make the Sorceress put it on so she can't use her powers against anybody!"

"But if we could..." Rinoa thought about it. "Then we'd stopped Deling from forcing the rest of the world into submission!"

Selphie snorted. "Yeah and I'm sure if we ask nicely, she'll just put it on?"

"Never mind," Rinoa said, but her mind was whirling with possibilities. She sat the box back on her father's dresser, but not before she slipped the bangle into her skirt pocket. "My dad's meeting should be over now. Let's go find him."

Zell nodded and headed out the door, but Selphie gave her a measuring look before she followed. Rinoa schooled her expression into the most innocent one she had, even as the daring outlines of a plan formed in her mind.

She just needed to find out one more thing.

**

"I'm not going to the parade, Seifer," Quistis told him for the third time, as they wove through the ever-thickening crowds on the sidewalks. "I'm going home, I'm going to do some reading, and then I'm going to bed."

"Everyone in this damn city is going to be out here for the parade," Seifer said. "I'm not going to be the only idiot sitting at home by myself."

"No one is asking you to be," she sighed. "But I'm not going."

Seifer wondered, not for the first time, if Quistis purposefully worked at being so contrary. "This is important stuff, Trepe. No matter how you feel about it, you ought to witness it for yourself."

"I don't want to see the Sorceress again, thank you." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Something about her was...disturbing, even through the television."

Seifer thought back to the glimpse they'd gotten of the new 'ambassador' near the end of Deling's televised announcement. He knew exactly what Quistis meant when she'd called it disturbing, but that was no reason to skip the parade that every Galbadian in the city would be attending, which he told Quistis in those exact words.

"There was something almost familiar about her." Quistis stopped, narrowly escaping a run-in with a kid about their age hurrying in the other direction. Seifer glared at him. "Did she...did she remind you of Matron?"

He thought about it, trying to search back to the earliest memories he had. "Maybe a little," he admitted. "But it couldn't be her, could it? I mean, Matron was..."

"Beautiful," Quistis finished. "Kind."

"Yeah."

"Maybe that's what unsettled me," she said. "That resemblance, twisted like that."

"Still not a good enough reason."

"I'm also worried about Squall," Quistis said. "His unit should've been reported in when the President came back, yes? But still, I haven't heard anything from him."

"He's fine," Seifer said.

"They didn't say if anyone was hurt during the kidnapping attempt," she continued. "Maybe..."

"Look, I'll make you a deal," Seifer told her. "If you come with me to the parade tonight, I'll head over tomorrow and check it out. I'll make up some excuse and track him down for you."

"Really?"

He nodded.

Quistis smiled a little, taking the arm she'd shrugged off only a few minutes before. "Fine. I'll go to the parade with you."

Seifer sighed. "I swear, one of these days, Hell is going to freeze over and you're going to think about me before you think about Squall."

"There's no need to be so dramatic," she complained. He noticed she said something else in her defense.

Seifer knew that was because she couldn't.

**

Introducing Zell and Selphie to the General was just as awkward as Rinoa had expected, especially when it was obvious he wished they hadn't showed up that particular evening. Her friends could sense the tension in the air, but they didn't know what to make of it, both of them shooting her worried glances. Rinoa ignored them and her father's subtle warnings, pretending to be ignorant of her father's stiffly worded niceties. She was on a mission and she needed one more piece of information; to get it, she needed a few minutes alone with her father's desk.

Her chance came a few minutes after the initial introductions, when Martine came bursting back into the study, his face a mask of hardened worry. He stopped short when he saw the three teenagers in the room with Caraway, bewildered by the sight of them.

Fortunately, her father wasn't as easily rattled. He turned to Rinoa. "I'm sorry, Rinoa, but Martine and I must have a private conversation."

"Do you want us to leave?"

"No, no," he assured her. "We'll just move to the library."

Rinoa hid her smile behind her hand as the door closed behind the two men. As soon as she heard the snick of the tumbler, she raced over to his desk and started to rummage through its drawers.

"Rinoa, what are you doing?" Zell demanded to know.

"Looking for something," she answered. "I think..." It didn't take long to find what she needed. "Yes!"

"What?" Selphie leaned forward, trying to see. "Yes, what?"

Rinoa looked them both in the eye, one after the other. "I have a plan," she told them. "I'm going to stop the Sorceress."

"What? How?" Zell asked.

It was Selphie who answered him, eyes wide. "The Odine bangle."

Rinoa nodded. "I know where she's going to be before the parade. I know a way in. I can do this!"

"It's crazy! Even crazier than kidnapping the President or storming the TV station," Selphie told her. "You can't do this."

"My father and Martine are planning to assassinate her tonight," she explained. "If I don't find some way to stop her before then, they're going to kill her."

"Then just let them," Selphie said. "Isn't that why you became a Timber Owl?"

"Not to murder people," Rinoa argued. "To free Timber. If no one has to die for it to happen, why let them?"

"You're being naive," Selphie said. "You've gotta crack eggs to scramble them."

"But this might work!"

"You might die," Zell pointed out.

She lifted her chin in defiance. "I won't."

"You're right you won't," Selphie told her, taking a hold of her arm. "Because we're not going to let you do this! Zone and Watts will kill us if you get killed on this crazy scheme of yours!"

She shook off her friend's hold. "I'm doing this, you can't stop me!" Rinoa marched toward the door, then turned back, only to find them both on her heels. "I won't ask you to come with me because you're right, it's dangerous. Just wish me luck."

"Rinoa!"

But Selphie's exclamation was too late, because Rinoa slipped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She heard something bang against the door so hard that it rattled the hinges, even as she engaged the lock her father had used against her so many times.

"I'm sorry," she said through the door, wondering if they could hear her over the ruckus they were raising. "I'll come back and let you out when it's over."

The last thing she heard as she left the mansion was Selphie and Zell's mingling shouts of outrage.

It seemed colder as she headed down the streets toward the Presidential Palace, but Rinoa figured it might've been in her head. For once, the Galbadian weather had cooperated and the dark sky was free of silver-gray clouds. She knew that her friends had been right, that her mission was dangerous, but that didn't mean it didn't have merit. Her issue with murder aside, it had sounded like her father hadn't been very convinced by Martine's plan. If she managed to succeed, then their lack of a backup plan wouldn't matter. Martine's man would be her backup.

Before she knew it, Rinoa was slipping past security into the Presidential complex, climbing box upon box to reach the roof that would give her access to the Sorceress. According to her father's notes, the Sorceress would begin her evening with a speech made from there; Rinoa planned to intersect her before she even made it onstage.

When she reached the top of the building, for a moment she wasn't sure where to go. But then she felt that same strange pull she'd noticed in Timber, outside of the doors Squall had been guarding, the same attraction that had made her want to follow it then. She didn't resist this time and she found herself in a sparsely furnished room, full of filmy curtains. There was another oversized set of doors at its end and between them sat the Sorceress in an antique chair, her back to Rinoa.

With the bangle clutched in her hand clasped behind her back, Rinoa took a step forward, clearing her throat. She'd practiced what she'd planned to say in her head the whole way over to the Palace, but now she stumbled over her simple explanation.

"Umm... Excuse me... I'm...the daughter of, um...Galbadian Army's, um...General Caraway. I...thought I'd...come pay my respects... You know...'cause of my father and all... So, I...um...brought you a small gift. Please..."

One step, then another, then one more toward the Sorceress before Rinoa felt her body slam into some invisible force. It stole her breath and threw her across the room, her body as limp as a doll's where it landed in a heap on the floor.

Rinoa almost recovered enough to give voice to the pain radiating from her body, but then there was more pain in her hand, centering in the palm that still held the bangle. She felt that arm yanked above her head as if some giant were tugging on it -- then she was lifted into the air by that same grip, her feet dangling high above the floor.

It wasn't until then that the full force of her fear slammed into her, almost as strong as the Sorceress's magic had been a moment earlier. There was too much inside of her for her racing heart to handle, and her lungs refused to fill with air.

Rinoa's last, stray thought was of watching the shooting star streak through the sky with Squall before the world exploded into light and pain.

**

The last thing Seifer remembered clearly was he and Quistis pushing through the crowds, trying to find a spot along the parade route from which to watch the proceedings. Quistis had clung to his arm out of necessity, worried that if she eased her grip, they would be separated in the crush of people fighting for a chance to see the Sorceress in person.

They'd finally found a spot near the gates of the Presidential Palace, where they'd been able to crane their necks up and see the roof from which the Sorceress was supposed to give her opening speech. Like the thousands of other people, Seifer and Quistis had stood in the cool night air, waiting restlessly as time seemed to crawl toward the ceremony's start.

"I'd still rather be at home," Quistis had told him, just in case he'd forgotten the litany of complaints that had peppered the journey to the square.

Seifer had been about to reply when the crowd had begun to cheer around them, a sign that something was starting. He'd looked up to see the Sorceress, an elegant if fearful figure in her exotic regalia, striding toward the podium. With a look, she'd gained the silence of Galbadia's population, and then she'd began to speak.

As her voice had filled the air, words heavy and strange on his ears, everything had started to fall away from him. He could hear them continue, but they were just sounds, each syllable no more meaningful than the shape of a cloud in the sky. The strange feeling had spread to his chest and limbs, heavy and swaying with the cadence of Sorceress's speech. Like bubbly champagne trapped in his blood, it had turned into a euphoria, making Seifer believe with everything in him that he had to keep feeling that way and only the Sorceress could make it so.

"Seifer? Seifer?"

Suddenly, there was a strange coolness throughout him, fighting off the dark effervescence until all he was left with was a vague feeling of loss and Quistis's death-grip on his arm. When he looked over at her, she was scowling, but more than anger in her expression, he saw fear. "Seifer!"

"What?" he asked.

"What's going on?" she asked in a low, hissing whisper. "Look around -- it's like everyone is in some kind of trance! Even you!"

"What do you mean?" The Sorceress was still talking, but it was background noise now.

"She's been saying horrible things and everyone was cheering and...anyway, I managed to snap you out of it, but..."

Seifer focused his attention back on the podium but the strange feeling didn't return. Instead, he could hear every word, and Quistis was right: nothing the Sorceress said was something to cheer about. But everyone was, all the same.

He took in the faces of the people around him, and they all shared the same expression: blank and glazed, except for the blind adoration they directed toward the Sorceress. Every face upturned, every body moving oh-so-slightly as if keeping tempo with music only they could hear. With every passing second, the crowd became more fawning, more ensnared by the Sorcererss's chilling words, and Seifer couldn't stop the shudder that passed through him when he was realized that they were surrounded by blank-eyed zombies.

Only Quistis seemed immune, her face animated and alive even in her concern. When he heard her gasp, he turned back to see her face upraised like everyone else, but her eyes were wide with alarm.

"What's she doing here?" Quistis's arm tightened on his arm. "Something's not right. I know it!"

"What now?"

"Do you see that girl, that girl with the Sorceress?" She pointed with her free hand, drawing Seifer's attention to a pale, dark-haired girl standing off to the side on the roof, under the same thrall as everyone else. When he nodded, Qusitis continued. "That's Rinoa Caraway. There's no way she'd be here with Deling and the Sorceress of her own volition."

Seifer's attention had already left the girl, instead watching as the Sorceress turned to Deling, lifting him from the ground with one inhuman hand. When the President's writhing body was engulfed in flaming magic and she threw him down like a lifeless puppet, even Quistis gasped in shock.

Around them, the other Galbadians were noisy with delight.

"Rest assured, you fools. Your time will come," continued the Sorceress in her soft purr. Seifer shuddered again. "This is only the beginning. Let us start a new reign of terror. I will let you live a fantasy beyond your imagination."

The crowds were still cheering around them, like demons braying for blood. Everywhere he turned, they seemed surrounded by restless strangers, darkness shining out of their eyes and barely contained violence in every movement they made.

Quistis pressed closer, her voice strained as she spoke. "I don't know what's happening, but it's like they've all gone mad. What should we do?"

"Get the hell out of here," he said. "You're right -- something weird is going on and I don't want any part of it."

"Out of the streets or out of the city?"

"The streets for now, but out of the city might not be a bad idea," he told her. "We just watched someone murder the President and no one seems to care."

Quistis opened her mouth to respond but her words turned into another gasp of horror, eyes focused on something behind him. Seifer turned in time to see two massive monsters sprinting toward him. He moved to grab for his gunblade but they leapt over his head, to land on the roof the Sorceress had just vacated. Dimly over the roar of the crowds, Seifer thought he heard a cry.

Quistis did, too, because she tugged on Seifer's arm. "Those monsters! They're after Rinoa, we have to help her."

Helping some girl he didn't even know wasn't part of the escape plans he'd been thinking up, but he knew Quistis would brook no argument about a rescue. "We can't even get over there until that gate opens," he told her grimly. "Who is she anyway?"

The gates lurched opened and began to spill out a troupe of dancers. "We went to school together. We weren't friends but..." She lowered her voice. "She's my acquaintance from Timber. She's an Owl."

"That's how you know she wouldn't be here without duress."

She nodded. "This is our chance."

As the masses moved toward the glittering float that carried the Sorceress, Quistis and Seifer slipped through the persons lining the street, intent on the gates that were already starting to creep closed. They kept low, trying to avoid drawing any attention to themselves. They'd almost made it past the float when Seifer caught a glimpse of someone familiar out of the corner of his eye, standing on its gilded edge. Quistis must've seen it too because her feet stopped moving abruptly, her head whipping around to keep her eyes trained on the float.

Seifer blinked but it didn't clear away the image: Squall, dressed in his civilian attire, gunblade in hand, standing beside the Sorceress. He looked calm and haughty, watching the crowds suspiciously from beneath his long bangs, eyes glittering in the red glow of the torches.

"Was that...I mean...what's...Squall?"

Seifer gave her a quick push as the float -- and Squall -- turned out of their direct line of sight. "If we're going to save your friend, we need to do it now."

A quick nod of her head and Quistis turned away, sliding through the Palace gates just before they closed. It took them a moment, but they found a way to climb up to the Palace roof, where they passed the empty podium and Deling's lifeless corpse. Quistis didn't even spare a glance as they passed, too focused on finding her friend.

"Come on," she urged, pushing ahead. Seifer followed.

They passed through a corridor and through a set of ornate doors before they found the girl, a quivering huddle of dark hair and blue cloth where she lay on the floor. The monsters were snapping and snarling at her, as if they were trying to decide the best way to start her dismemberment.

"Hey!" Seifer called out, drawing his gunblade. Beside him, Quistis unfurled her whip, cracking it in the air with a snap of her wrist. Then she snapped it at the tail of one of the monsters, the sting finally drawing their attention away from the other girl.

Once the monsters were snarling at them, Seifer recognized them. They were Iguions, mythical creatures that figured heavily in Deling's architectural motifs. Fire-breathers, if he remembered his stories correctly. He'd never thought that they were real or that they'd still be around if they'd once been alive.

Quistis landed the first hit with her whip, but it only seemed to make the creature angry. Seifer slashed at them with his blade, but their hides were tough, like striking at stone. If one of them had had a rifle with some armor-piercing shot, they might've stood a better chance in the fight, but he was beginning to doubt they had one at all. As if to reinforce his thoughts, one of the Iguions' claws glanced him, leaving fire and blood and pain in its wake.

"Stand back, Seifer!" Quistis shouted. She looked unnaturally pale, but determined. The innocent sparring matches they'd had together throughout their teenaged years were hardly a match for what they were facing now, but Quistis didn't hesitate once. She wasn't trained for battle, but she was holding up well, and Seifer was unaccustomedly proud of her for it.

Instead of the attack he'd expected to follow her words, Quistis seemed to pause, waiting for something to happen. He was about to shout at her to move when she lifted her arms in the air, a wake of light trailing behind. It was Seifer's turn to gasp as her body seemed to fade away behind a curtain of gold and green sparkles.

Magic, his disbelieving mind supplied from somewhere.

In Quistis's place, the floor was split with an icy spike that rose to a dangerous peak, reaching taller than he stood. Inside of it was encased a being that looked like nothing more than a snow fairy from a child's tale come to life, blue and white and feminine in shape. Its eyes opened and it burst out its icy prison, floating above the floor. It reached out elegant hands, drawing energy from the air into a ball of blue magic that danced between its fingertips before it slung the magic at the Iguions, freezing everything in its path.

Artwork by cumuluscastle

Before the being disappeared, the Iguions fell where they stood, dead.

As quickly as she'd gone, Quistis was back at his side, standing close enough to him that she reached out a supportive arm toward his injured shoulder.

In the sudden lull, Seifer only had one question on his mind.

"What in the hell was that?"

**

Rinoa had never been so afraid in her life.

She'd been scared in the past, but before that night, it had never taken her over like that. Fear immobilized her, choked her, trapped her beneath it until she thought that she would never recover. Rinoa was sure that even if the Sorceress or her fire-breathing monsters did not kill her, the fear beating in her chest would still spell the end.

Even as she became aware that there were people with her, fighting off those creatures, Rinoa was still struggling to regain herself from the terror that had besieged her. Even when she heard the death screams of the monsters who'd been intent on ripping her apart, the world remained hazy, made of nothing more than her racing pulse and gasping breaths, the trembling in her limbs and the panic still lodged firmly in her throat.

Then , there were voices -- normal, one male and one female -- and Rinoa felt gentle hands patting her shoulders.

"Rinoa? Are you all right?" the female voice asked, and it was familiar. She lifted her head to see Quistis Trepe kneeling at her side.

"Quistis?" she asked, still a little stunned. "What are you...?" She glanced over at the man who stood behind her, arms crossed over his chest.

Quistis released a breath, a sigh of relief. "We saw those monsters attack you from the square," she explained. "What were you doing here?"

"I tried to stop the Sorceress," she admitted. Her limbs were still watery with shock, so she didn't try to stand, using all of her strength to simply pull herself into a sitting position. Quistis's gloved hand on her arm was reassuring and she leaned into it.

"By yourself?" the man asked. At Rinoa's nod, he made a dismissive sound. "Not exactly a winning strategy."

Quistis gave a huff of annoyance and a matching glare over her shoulder at him. "Don't pay Seifer any attention," she said. "I'm glad you're all right."

"If you can call being too terrified to move 'all right,' that is," Rinoa told her. She shot her old school mate a weak smile. "Just give me a minute."

"Take what you need," Seifer said, taking a step forward to grab Quistis by the arm and pull her to feet. He didn't spare Rinoa another glance as he yanked Quistis a few steps away, too busy staring at her with some expression Rinoa couldn't decipher.

"You still owe me an explanation." His voice was low and grumbling, demanding obedience. "What the hell was that thing? And how did you summon it?"

Rinoa had only the faintest impression of the minutes before, but his words sparked a recollection of something beautiful and cold sparking on the air around her. She let her curiosity distract her from more frightening memories.

Quistis did shoot a glance Rinoa's way before she answered, leaning close to Seifer as she answered. "It's something called a Guardian Force. It's what we've been studying, Dr. Kadowaki, Xu and I. It lets humans, normal humans, use magic."

"How?"

Quistis seemed to flinch on the sharp question. "It interfaces with a user's brain chemistry through a process we called junctioning. It ---"

"And you're testing it on yourself?" Seifer sounded horrified. When Quistis seemed unswayed by his outburst, he caught by her arms and shook her. "Goddamn it, Quistis. Magic drives sorceresses crazy. What do you think it's going to do to you?"

"This isn't really the time for this argument," she told him, shaking off his hold. "Guards could be along any minute, and we still have to find out about Squall."

Hearing that name galvanized Rinoa into action. She finally scrambled to her feet and joined them. "What about Squall?"

Quistis looked at her. "You know him?"

Rinoa nodded. "If it's the same one. About our age, dark hair...sorta quiet? He's a G-Soldier. I met him in Timber during the..." she trailed off, shooting Seifer an apprehensive look. "...a few days ago. He was there with the President for his visit."

"Do you know of any reason he'd be with the Sorceress?" Quistis asked.

"What? No!" Quieter, Rinoa added, "He saved me and my friends."

Seifer suddenly cocked his head, then made a cutting motion with his hand, calling for silence. "Did you hear that?" When they both shook their heads, he drew his gunblade and headed back toward the roof where the Sorceress had given her speech. They followed, catching up in time to see him in the empty corridor, looking around suspiciously.

"What?" Quistis asked.

"I thought I heard something," he said, as he knelt, yanking open a hatch in the floor. He stared down into it for a moment before he slammed it shut and rose to his feet. "Just some crazy machinery," he said by way of explanation. "Let's go."

It was slower climbing down from the Palace than it had been climbing up, and not only because Rinoa was doing it as part of a group. On her way to face the Sorceress, Rinoa had been driven by adrenaline, by her belief in her actions. Now, she was still shaky and unsettled from her near-death experiences, and worry was churning in her gut -- worry for Selphie and Zell, for the world, and for Squall. She still wasn't clear what was wrong, but Quistis was visibly anxious and even Seifer's face looked grim. Given her own experience when it came to the Sorceress, she was sure that Squall wasn't with her because he wanted to be.

Seifer gave Rinoa a hand as she stepped down off the last box while Quistis nervously tried to peer through the gates, presumably to track the parade. Rinoa tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. "So what do we do now?

"We?" Seifer asked.

Rinoa straightened to her full height and gave Seifer a withering look for his attitude. "Yes, we. You're going after the Sorceress, right?"

"We're going after Squall," Quistis told her. "This isn't about the Sorceress."

"Fine, I'm still going."

"Rinoa, you've just been through a terrible ordeal." Quistis was being kind, but Rinoa detected a vein of condescension in her words. "We can handle this ourselves."

"No," Rinoa said. "I told you, he saved us back in Timber. If he's in trouble, I want to help."

Quistis watched her for a moment before she nodded her agreement. "Very well."

Seifer snorted his disbelief. "Made that much of an impression on you, huh?" When a faint wash of color hit Rinoa's face, he shook his head. "Didn't know Puberty Boy had it in him."

When Quistis made a move to step away, Seifer stopped her with a hand on her arm. "We could always lay low and wait here," he told them. "The float's coming back this way eventually."

"And what if she feeds him to another pair of Iguions before then?" Quistis shook her head. "We should go now."

"Do you really think those soldiers out there are going to let you anywhere near that float?" asked Seifer. "Not to mention every psycho she's got brainwashed on the street."

"I agree with Quistis," Rinoa said, remembering that she hadn't been the only other person with a plan regarding the Sorceress. "There's going to be an assassination attempt on the Sorceress sometime tonight -- what if Squall gets caught in the crossfire?"

"You mean one besides yours?"

Rinoa frowned. "I wasn't trying to kill her! I was trying to contain her powers."

"Anyway ---"

Seifer's next objection was drown out because the clock tower of the Presidential Palace struck 20:00 and the carousel clock's cacophony filled the air. Rinoa resisted the urge to cover her ears, although Quistis was still too intent on watching the parade to even react to the noise. She did, however, react to something she could see down the street.

"The gates, in the Arc," she said. "It just closed on the Sorceress's float!"

Quistis and Seifer exchanged a look, then hurried toward the street with Rinoa on their heels. Just as Quistis had said, the gate was closed on either side, the float trapped between them. The crowd had descended into chaos all along the street as everyone scrambled to figure out what was going on.

"I'm not waiting," Quistis said, already moving forward. "There's something wrong."

Rinoa didn't need to be told twice. She followed the path Quistis had begun to cut through of the crowd, intent on reaching the Sorceress's float. Seifer brought up the rear, gunblade still clutched in his hand.

It was slow-going, thanks to the crush of bodies around them, which was why they were only half-way down the street when the sound of a shot echoed through the night.

**

My bullet, the Sorceress...I'll go down in history. I'll change the course of Galbadia, of the world. I...

...I'm sorry, Matron.

**

Seifer froze at the cracking sound of a single rifle shot and watched as the Sorceress, standing on the float, raised her hand to stop the bullet's trajectory. It bounced harmlessly off the bluish energy shield her magic had created, and the Sorceress stared out into the night, eyes narrowing as if she could see through the distance straight to the phantom shooter. For all Seifer knew, she could.

"Squall!"

The crowds, already restless from the parade's abrupt halt, had flown into pandemonium. The riot guards were brawling in the streets with the civilians, everyone angry and violent and dangerous. Quistis was still charging through them, however, fighting through any human stupid enough to get in her way. A riot guard tasted the sting of her whip when he tried to block her, then Seifer watched in astonishment as she pushed through a tangle of bystanders engaged in a fistfight with a magical whirlwind that lifted them from her path. Seifer gritted his teeth at the display, but continued to make his own way, catching up with her as she reached the gate that held the float vehicle in place.

"What's your plan?" Seifer asked her.

She didn't say a word, but she shot him a look over her shoulder, then began to haul herself up over the edge of the float. Seifer had no choice but to follow.

There waited Squall, as dark and still and silent as a gargoyle standing sentry at the edge of an old cathedral. The Sorceress stood before her throne, even more terrible and beautiful in person than she'd been through the TV. Her eyes glowed gold in the light, gaze locking with Seifer's until he forced himself to look away.

"Squall," Quistis said. She remained near the edge, as if hesitant to be any closer to the Sorceress than she needed to be. "What's going on?"

Squall's eyes flicked to Seifer for a moment before they steadied on Quistis. "I serve the Sorceress now."

"You can't be serious!"

While he'd always been aloof, his face was an even more perfect mask, his eyes cold and flat. Not a glimmer of warmth shone there, no sign of the affection he usually showed for Quistis. "I am."

Quistis shot Seifer a stricken look, clearly hurt by this stranger who wore Squall's face.

"So you're blowing us off for a new gig as her lackey?" Seifer asked, trying to gall him into some kind of reaction.

He was marginally successful; Squall's lip curled in disdain. "I'm her knight, not that you'd know much about that."

Every wrecked and violent emotion she felt was plain to see as Quistis directed her ire toward the Sorceress who watched the three of them with growing interest. "What have done to him?" she demanded to know.

When the Sorceress only smiled a thin, evil smile, Quistis growled in her throat and stepped forward.

Squall held out a hand, lifting his gunblade arm. "Don't come any closer." he warned.

As if daring him to move against her, Quistis took another step, even as Squall raised his weapon to strike. But then Seifer was there between them, and he lifted the Hyperion to intercept Squall's Revolver, blade clanging against blade.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Quistis's face, ravaged by betrayal.

He sneered into Squall's blank visage as he used his blade to push Squall back. "You know I'd never let you do that."

Squall steadied himself, taking a ready stance. "I'm prepared to defeat you again."

"Again?"

Squall jerked his head a little, revealing the scar on his forehead from beneath a fringe of bangs. "Yeah, again."

During their last duel, Seifer had been reckless, earning a scar of his own for his foolishness. He'd been pissed, mostly at Quistis because everything with her always came down to Squall, but also with Squall himself, who never seemed to understand how lucky he was that someone always put him first. As much as he cared about Quistis and she him, Seifer never felt like he'd ever be the first person on her mind. It would always be Squall.

But now, on the Sorceress's float, Seifer matched him for blow for blow, knowing that this was different. Squall was cold, calculating, brutal with every strike, trying to bring him down. Seifer channeled the same anger that had made reckless before and pushed at him again and again. The brief glance he'd had of Quistis's heartbroken expression honed that fury into something more constructive and deadly, until Squall's gunblade clattered to the ground out of his hand. Squall glared, kneeling to recover it, while Seifer moved in close enough to hold the edge of the Hyperion against his throat.

"Squall, please," Quistis said quietly, standing just behind Seifer. Squall turned his glare on her. "Don't do this, not against us. We're your family."

Squall jerked away from Seifer's blade, recovering his weapon as he smoothly rose to his feet. "You aren't my family," he told her, retaking his battle stance. "You never were."

**

"Open it up!" Selphie demanded.

Zell's hand was wrapped around the door's handle, and he shouldered against it, tendons jumping in his neck at the effort he was using to push at the heavy metal door. "It's no use," he grunted, still pushing. "It won't move."

Selphie growled and stamped her foot in frustration. "I didn't figure out how to break out of Caraway's house and then make my way through miles of sewers just to be stuck wherever we are now." She looked around. "There's got to be a way out."

"It's not through here," Zell told her, resting his back against the unmovable door. "It's like there's something blocking it on the other side."

"We need out!" Selphie declared.

Zell sighed, eyeing the cold metal ladder they'd climb up from the sewer system. "Do we go back down?"

Selphie shook her head, eyeing the same ladder. But instead of looking down, she was looking up. "Might as well see where else it goes," she said. "Anything's got to be better than down."

Zell nodded and headed up the ladder, Selphie right behind him. The ladder ended in another small room, but this one held a large lever and a rectangular opening in the wall that gave them a window out into the world.

"Great," he said as he saw the open slot, hurrying toward it. "Maybe I can figure out where we are."

"We're probably up high," Selphie offered, studying the lever for a moment. "That was at least a story's climb."

Zell looked out of the opening and saw central Deling: the dark sky, the balloons, the edge of the Presidential Palace. He also saw bars that obstructed the view in either direction. "I think we're inside that Arc thing," he said.

"Neat," Selphie said, coming to stand at his side. Instead of taking in the panoramic view, she peered straight down below their position and what she saw made her squeak in surprise. "The Sorceress!" she exclaimed, grabbing his arm to get his attention. "Her float is what was blocking the door!"

Zell followed her gaze to see that Selphie was right: the massive float was wedged against one side of the Arc, trapped between the lowered gates. He could see the Sorceress were she stood facing off against two others near the end of the float. It was a woman and a man, both blond, and there was something familiar about them. Zell's eyes traveled to the other person standing on the float -- another man with dark hair. He looked familiar, too.

He was about to ask Selphie what she thought when she leaned forward even more. "Look!" she said, pointing at something a little farther away. "Is it just me, or is that...Rinoa?"

Zell caught sight of a flash of pale blue, and his eyes widened. "I think you're right!"

 

**

"You've brainwashed him!" Quistis stared down the Sorceress, her entire frame vibrating with anger.

"I've given him purpose," the Sorceress said in contradiction, her tone smug and satisfied.

"I won't let you get away with this."

The Sorceress laughed, a sound that sent chills down Seifer's spine. "You dare defy me? You, a worthless, pitiful child? What alone could you hope to accomplish?"

"She's not alone," Seifer reminded her.

The Sorceress scoffed. "Two children, then?"

"Three!" Rinoa was breathless, pulling herself up over the side of the float. She offered Quistis a wan smile as she fell in beside them. "I owe you guys one," she said. "Squall, too."

"It does not matter how many of you there are," the Sorceress informed them. "You'll all perish just the same!"

The Sorceress's magic flared around her, sizzling on the air like ozone. She raised her arms and brought down with them a strike of magical lightning that drew a wounded yelp from Rinoa when it found its mark. Rinoa staggered under the assault, but righted herself. Eyes narrowed, she countered with a shot from her Blaster Edge.

The Sorceress wasn't the only one in the battle with magic, and Quistis cast a spell of her own, one that enveloped Rinoa in a cool blue light that resembled the magic shield that had saved the Sorceress from the mystery gunman. The next time the Sorceress threw a spell toward Rinoa, it sparked against Quistis's magic and reflected back onto the Sorceress, who cried out in disbelief when her fiery spell backfired on her.

"Do you think your little spells are a match for me?" she asked, turning her ire on Quistis. "You are nothing!"

Seifer used the distraction to his advantage, landing his own blow on the Sorceress. Like the Iguions, she did not feel like real flesh under the edge of his blade, but she recoiled from it, glaring daggers at him. His insolence won him her next spell, and the lightning, when it hit him, left him breathless with pain, but it didn't stop him from trying to hit her again.

Then Quistis's Guardian Force was among them, still coldly regal and unfazed by the dark force of the Sorceress as its opponent. It used the same attack Seifer had seen against the Iguions, an icy blast of magic that filled the air with a sound like a thousand frozen chimes. The Sorceress faltered again, and Seifer actually had hope that the three of them would live to see the end of the battle.

It was another shot from Rinoa's weapon tipped the scales in their favor, and the Sorceress let out a ragged sound of defeat when it hits its mark. She reached back to steady herself with a hand on the arm of her throne, turning away from them as one only did in defeat.

Seifer lowered his blade as Rinoa slumped forward, no longer standing ready to return the next blow. The length of Quistis's whip pooled around her boots, and she swung her head from side to side, searching for something. Squall, Seifer supposed.

Beside him, Rinoa cocked her head, listening for something. "Did you hear someone call my name?" she asked aloud, looking up into the dark sky.

Seifer didn't reply because he realized that Quistis wasn't looking at Squall, she was looking at him, eyes soft and bright. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Your shoulder?"

"I'll live," he said. "Quistis ---"

Turned as she was toward him, Quistis couldn't see what Seifer could -- the Sorceress straightening from her defeated position, glaring at them all. Magic poured off of her once again, sparkling and blue, as she lifted a hand high above her head. There, suspended just above her fingertips, appeared dangerous-looking shards of ice, as long and substantial as his gunblade. Those fingers twitched in the air and the ice spikes shot forward.

"Quistis! Watch out!"

Time seemed to slow, and the air was suddenly thick, which might have explained why Seifer couldn't force his body to cooperate. He watched as Quistis noticed the magic heading toward her thanks to his warning. She reacted almost an instant too late, but managed to twist herself out of the icicles' path, miraculously left unharmed as they passed around her body.

Seifer had only a second to be grateful before one slammed into his already injured shoulder. The pain of it screamed across his mind, although he didn't think a sound passed his lips. He staggered from the impact, from the strange weight of it stabbing through his flesh, and the world reeled around him.

Somehow, he found Quistis with his eyes. She seemed to be shouting, but he couldn't hear her voice over the sound of his own heart beating in his ears. Her lips formed words -- "No!" and maybe "Seifer!" -- and he found it strangely fascinating as he felt himself slipping over the edge of float -- down, down, down.

Quistis remained in his sight even as he fell, her mouth still forming words he could not hear, arm outstretched toward him. He kept his eyes there, on her face -- blood-stained and dirty, tears running down her cheeks, eyes dark and fragile with anguish. Her lips, still moving silently: Seifer, Seifer.

Seifer knew he was dying; he could feel the Sorceress's magic leeching into every part of him, turning his blood to ice in his veins. But there was Quistis, screaming his name, reaching for him, and Seifer thought he'd at least die in peace if that was the last thing he saw.

He wanted to reach back to her, but his arms were like lead, and he could hear his heart stuttering toward a stop. Seifer watched another tear track down her face, shining in the golden light of the flickering torches.

Then, there was only darkness.

**

Maybe all my fightin' is just another part of Fate's plan, because look where it all lead me: we're here, all of us, somehow drawn to the same time, same place, same mess. Squall, Quistis, Seifer; Selphie, Zell and me, even Matron. The years pulled us apart, but then we've been brought together. We didn't plan it, we maybe didn't even want it, but here we are, all playing our parts in the grand scheme of things.

I may not want to admit it, but I can't think of any other word for it. So I guess --

Fate, it is.

 

**

The End.