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        She waited.

        There wasn't anything else she could do.  The spell that sealed her powers sealed her body as well, keeping her ever-young, ever-living, but also ever-motionless.

        It had been four thousand, eight hundred, fifty-six years she had last felt the wind in her hair, the sun on her skin.  All she could do was watch and wait and plan, for the day her prison weakened.  She knew it would, she had felt it before, the deaths that strained her bonds and drained even more from her.  It would come.

        It would come again.

***

        She had seen those with less power than hers die as the strain of feeding the spell that kept them sealed drained them utterly.  It was hard to pull against the draw and harder with each blood-death of their guardians, as the draw grew heavier to compensate for the lost energy source, but not entirely impossible.  For those weak enough to give in to despair, death was a false release, leaving them hanging between life and death and unable to pass their gifts on.  For those with the strength to hold on to hope, life was pain and weariness with only a faint chance for escape and only not-death to look forward to.

        Her first chance had come eighty years ago.  One of her fellow prisoners had managed to claw her way free and, in her madness, had called down the Tears of the Moon upon her gaolers.  But she had been unable to take advantage of the momentary crack provided by the blood-death of the guardians before the Seal had closed ever tighter on her.

        Now she waited and watched.  With the massive blood-deaths caused by the Tears of the Moon, the guardians' bloodlines must be dwindling.  Release could be as close as the death of a single person and she hungered for it.

        And, while she waited, she planned.

***

        And then it happened.  One random death, one snapping of a family's bloodline, and she had the chance she had been waiting for.

        In the infinitesimal moment it took for the Seal to recognise the lack of power and move to correct it, she took her chance.  The power she had hoarded surged forth, prying into the opening provided by the blood-death, desperately clawing it wider, trying to overload the Seal before it could heal itself and trap her anew.

        Her freedom hung in the balance for a long moment, her desperation matching the Seal's desperation, and then she heaved and the Seal shattered around her.

        For the first time in nearly five thousand years, she drew a breath.  Flexed her fingers.

        Laughed for the sheer pleasure of being able to.

        She spun in a slow circle.  There, a statue finished crumbling to the ground.  She studied it for a moment, then nodded.

        She folded her hands together and bowed to what was left of a stone deer.

        "For the sacrifice of your bloodline, I thank you," she said, not without a hint of sarcasm.  She looked around again, noting which statues--and bloodlines--still stood and which had crumbled.  The ferret and the fox lay in ruins alongside the deer.  That left ten guardians to find and kill and deliver a proper blood-death to.  Enough to keep her occupied with until long after she grew tired of delivering her vengeance.

        She pulled a wisp of her power out and studied the remaining sealed sorceresses.  All were near death, their lesser power unable to sustain them as hers had.  In fact, most of them would already be long dead if their Seal had not prevented them from passing their powers to a successor.  Kept at the very brink of death by that need, they would be desperate to will their power to the first candidate that encountered them.

        But first, their Seals would need to be broken.  In breaking her own Seal, she had seen both how solid it was once someone was inside and how susceptible to disruption it was from someone on the outside.  It would not take much to break those Seals and she would be able to absorb those lesser powers to tide her over until her own was renewed.

        "Sisters!" she cried.  "Lend me your deaths, lend me your powers, that I may avenge the indignities visited upon us!  Give me your support and I will free you from your pain and avenge you!"

        She split her power into ten razor-sharp tendrils and lashed them against the intact Seals.  Once, twice, and the scored lines she had laid in the magic cracked, then shattered.  A mingled cry from the ten sorceresses newly freed rose, as their power streamed off of them and into their rescuer.

***

        The train sped on its way, clacking over the rails as its occupants dreamed the night away. In one car, a black swan dozed, head under a wing, while a dark-furred lion and a snake shimmering in all the colours of the rainbow stared at each other.

        At the edge of a desert, a chocobo burst out of a jeep and took off for parts unknown, squawking frantically. A hare followed, only to veer off when a white and brown lemur dashed in front of him and started chittering madly.

        A bear slumbered in an empty barrack, curled tightly into herself and still managing to hang of the edge of the bunk she was on.

        A horse raced alongside the remnants of Esther's Great Salt Lake, trumpeting her freedom to all who could hear.

        An eagle backed under a table, wings half-spread and beak snapping at the broom buffeting him.

        And, in the D-District Prison, a wolf backed away from the table of torture implements, gagging as his gorge rose. He turned and started to stumble away, morphing back into a man in a grey trench coat, The man stopped, straightened, and turned back around with a cruel smirk on his face that belied the sick realisation in his eyes.

***

        Bri'anne straightened slowly. The only sound was the wind whispering through the ruins and her own breathing.

        Her power, augmented by those of the sorceresses she had unsealed, would be enough--barely--to get her off the Hyne-forsaken island that was all that was left of the glory of Centra.

        And then she could begin her revenge.

***

        Edea watched the glow of Balamb Garden fade into the pre-dawn light. As much as she enjoyed being with her extended family, it was sometimes nice to enjoy some solitude.

        Thus her escape to visit her old orphanage. She had said she was going to see if it could still become a home, but, truthfully, the freedom of being able to walk about without distrustful eyes on her--not her children, of course, but not even they could shield her from the repercussions of the last war--was the prize that had beckoned her on.

        She sighed and turned to face her task.  Even with the false dawn hiding more than it illuminated, it looked welcoming.

        As she walked closer, though, she began to pick out worrisome details. In fact, once she got off the rocky beach, she had to almost push her way through the overgrown vegetation. It was true this area of Centra was more fertile than the rest, but there should not have been that much growth in the season it had been since she'd last visited.

        She frowned at the vegetation blocking her way and waved a hand vaguely. Obediently, the plants rustled, then leaned away from the path to the house. Once inside, it was apparent that the new growth had not substantially damaged anything. Become an annoyance, yes, but it had really done nothing a little weeding and hard work couldn't fix.

        She glanced outside, at the field where her children used to play, and bit back a sigh. Make that a lot of weeding and hard work.

***

        "Matron," Squall said blankly. They had just left her--at her request, no less--at the orphanage; surely she wasn't ready to come back yet!

        "Squall," she said warmly. "I'm sorry to impose on you again, but I have a request to make of SeeD."

        "SeeD is listening," he replied automatically. Then he shook his head. This was Matron. "I mean, what can we do for you?"

        Matron glanced behind her--from what the camera angle showed of her surroundings, she was clearly look towards the back door--and replied, "There's an unusual amount of new growth this spring. I thought, perhaps, if you had any students in need of large amounts of physical labour, they could come down and weed my garden for a few days or so."

        Involuntarily, Squall's lips quirked up in a small smile at the thought of Garden students pulling weeds in a garden. Matron smiled at him, pleased to have even that small reaction.

        He considered the request for a moment, then said slowly, "No names spring to mind at the moment, but I'm sure I'll be able to find someone if I look hard enough." He snapped off a salute. "SeeD hears and responds. I'll let you know when to expect someone, Matron."

        "Thank you, Squall," she said warmly.  "I look forward to hearing from you."  Her image flickered a little.  "How is Rinoa doing?  Has she been practicing since I left?"  Never mind it hadn't even been a day.

        Squall leaned back in his chair after the small talk was done with and the call terminated.  He contemplated the request Matron had made.  On the one hand, it was definitely a misuse of SeeD resources for personal reasons.  On the other hand, it was Matron, one of the founders of Garden.  If she wanted her garden weeded, then it was the least Garden could do.

        And on the other, other hand . . . .  He leaned forward again and pulled up the records Garden had on Esthar.  Dry, desolate--even the orphanage had only been fertile enough for a good cover of grass and flowers, neither of which Matron would have had much trouble with.  He clicked on the two reports from the current year associated with the broken continent.  Both only mentioned Centra in passing, but those mentions included observations on unusually prolific vegetation.

        He leaned back again thoughtfully.  It wasn't impossible for even such a desolate place as Centra to have a good year, vegetatively speaking . . . .

        He made his decision.

***

        Quistis looked at the information with a frown.

        "Try emphasizing the collection of information for SeeD's use," she suggested.

        Breathing out a beleaguered sigh, Squall did as she said, then cocked his head at her.

        She nodded decisively.  "Yes, that sounds better," she said.  "It sounds less like you're misusing SeeD resources this way."  She caught sight of his barely hidden disgust and smiled.  "I commend you on your honesty, though.  I know quite a few SeeD who would not have trouble falsifying information if it suited them."

        Squall dropped his head into his hand.  First it was misappropriating SeeD resources and then it was falsifying information.  And he'd needed an accomplice to do it properly!  Maybe Cid shouldn't've made him SeeD Commander after all.  He lifted his head and glared at his desk.  And who had been dealing with all the paperwork before that?  He had a frightening thought.  Maybe there hadn't been so much paperwork before he'd gained that Hyne-blasted title.  Maybe it had just . . . phased into existence on its own.

        "Cheer up, Squall," Quistis said, still inappropriately, yes, cheerful.  "It's for a good cause."  She leaned over his shoulder and tapped the sentence he had just typed.  "See?  You said so right there!"

        He switched his glare to the blonde, but all she did was laugh at him and pat his shoulder.  Truly, familiarity did breed contempt.

        "Who will you be taking?" he asked.

        Quistis crossed her arms and tapped her chin thoughtfully.  "We've really only had minor misdemeanors since the War ended," she said.  "Nothing that really requires penance in the form of hard labour.  It's been pretty quiet, really."

        Squall sighed and leaned back.  Garden had, indeed, become as quiet and still as if it were a regular garden, quietly growing herbs and flowers and carnivorous plants.  He didn't exactly want students misbehaving, but obedient and hard-working students were just . . . creepy.  He shuddered.

        "I'll take Raijin and Fujin," Quistis said, breaking into his contemplations regarding creepy cadets.

        He raised his eyebrows at that.  Perhaps the creepily compliant cadets were the result of the two thirds of the Disciplinary Committee that had--he hated to use the word, but there was no other--coerced their way back into Garden.  He brightened.  Maybe, with the two of them--well, he said "two", but, really, Raijin was a lamb--out of the way, the cadets would start livening up the place again.

        "Any particular reason?" he asked, because Quistis was offering to take the only two troublemakers still in Garden--even if they hadn't been making trouble since they got back--and it was the right thing to do, checking her sanity level.

        The blonde considered his question.  "They're strong," she said.  "And they've been at loose ends since Seifer left them.  That's probably why they came back to Garden--I get the impression Fujin needs a purpose and Garden, at the moment, provides that."

        Squall nodded slowly.  Yes, he could see that.  Raijin was content to follow and so was Fujin--but only up to a point.  That point had obviously been reached during the War, when they had defected.  After it, they may have been all right just fishing, but then Seifer had disappeared and, thus, Garden had regained two cadets.

        He further thought Garden's purpose wasn't even what had lured them back.  Seifer had disappeared without a trace--Fujin may have had her eye on using Garden's resources to find him.  not that Garden knew where the former Sorceress' Knight was, but--

        He had a disquieting thought.  "Make sure they know were they're going and who they're going to be with," he ordered abruptly.

        "Who--?"  Then Quistis nodded grimly.  "Yes, they were only there when Ultimecia was controlling Edea, weren't they."  She nodded again.  "I'll clear it with them."  She tapped his monitor again.  "Now, all we have left to deal with is the question of recompense.  How much will we be paid?"

        Squall groaned.  Maybe he should have just funded it as a request for SeeD and paid for it himself instead of trying to convince Garden to.

***

        "--and the Ragnarok will be dropping us off," Quistis said briskly.  "From there, we'll--yes, Fujin?"

        "RAGNAROK, FLYING?"

        "Rag--oh, yes, Selphie Tilmitt will be our pilot."

        The white-haired cadet kicked her dark-skinned companion.  "PILLS, GET," she ordered.

        "Ow!  You didn't hafta kick me, Fu!" Raijin complained.  "An' I didn't need you to remind me, ya know?"

        Quistis hid a smile behind a cough.  "Any other questions?" she asked.

        "NEGATIVE."

        "As I said, the Ragnarok will drop us off on the southernmost part of Centra, on the western point.  From there, we'll make our way overland to Edea Kramer's house.  We've received reports of unusually vigorous plant growth and are being sent to check it out for Gar--yes, Fujin?"

        "EDEA?"

        "Hey, isn't she the one Seifer--Ow, Fujin!"

        "EDEA, POSSESSED," Fujin told him.

        "Yeah, i know she controlled Seifer, ya know?  Hey!"

        "EDEA.  POSSESSED," Fujin repeated slowly.  Quistis couldn't help but note the white-haired woman's foot was perfectly positioned for another kick, if necessary.

        "Just as you said, Fujin," she said, trying to keep her cadets from maiming each other--Fujin's hand was suspiciously close to her Pinwheel.  "Edea was at one point possessed by the sorceress from the future, Ultimecia.  But Ultimecia has been defeated and Edea gave up her sorceress power to Rinoa."

        Fujin nodded while Raijin let out a drawn-out "Ohhhhhhh."

        "So what're we doing, ya know?" Raijin asked.  He scuttled sideways to avoid Fujin's boot.  "It was just a question, ya know!"

        "We'll be investigating reports of unusual vegetative growth," Quistis repeated.  "it may be an indication of a particularly strong monster, or monsters, moving in.  The last thing we need is, say, Malboros moving into Centra."

        Raijin's forehead wrinkled.  "But how could they?" he asked.  "They can't swim, ya know?"

        "TEARS, MOON,"Fujin said, eying the distance the distance between them.  Raijin nervously moved a little further away.

        "Yes, the Lunar Cry brought a lot of strong monsters from the Moon down to Esthar--we've done our best to track them, but it was very chaotic there for a while."  Quistis handed both of them their copies of the mission's parameters.  "You have until 14"00 to read up on this and pack.  Dismissed!"

***

        "INFIRMARY?" was the first thing Fujin said when she showed up at Raijin's door.

        Raijin groaned.  "Yeah, Fu, I got the motion sickness pills," he grumbled.  "And I took mine already, so don't yell at me about that, ya know?"

        Fujin held out a hand and Raijin slapped a blister pack into it.  She neatly popped out two of the pills and swallowed them dry.

        "I still don't get why we're here, ya know?" Raijin complained.  "I mean, Seifer isn't here--ha, I bet he wouldn't be caught dead coming here and begging to be let in again!"

        "NEGATIVE, BEGGING," Fujin pointed out, crossing her arms.  she raised an eyebrow.  "READY?"

        "Well, I didn't say he would be begging," Raijin said, defending himself.  "But you get what I'm sayin'?  I figure the last place Seifer is at a Garden."  He hefted his pack up and--having been taught well--picked Fujin's up, too, when she glared at him.  "I don't see why you can't carry your own pack, ya know.  You pack a hell of a kick--I bet you could lug both our packs and not even break a sweat."

        "BRAIN," Fujin replied, leading the way out of the dorms.  "BRAWN."  Any student they met practically ran to get out of their way.

        "I know you're super dooper smart, Fu, you don't hafta rub it in my face.  An' heavy lifting's not all I'm good for, ya know?"

        "AFFIRMATIVE.  SMELLY FISH, COOK."

        "Hey!  At least I caught a fish, Miss CHALLENGE, FISHING!  An' it was a big one, too."  Raijin sighed contemplatively.  "Woulda tasted wonderful, ya know, if it had been the right fish."

        "SMELLY FISH," Fujin reminded him.  She caught sight of a violation of the Rules.  "DINCHT!  DEMERIT!"

        "Hey!" the blond shouted, outraged, as they passed.  "I'm not a student anymore, you can't give me demerits!"

        Fujin pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and waved it around.  "NAME, LIST."

        "That list means nothing!" Dincht hollered after them.  "You hear me?  Nothing!"

        Raijin winced at the volume.  "So, what's the plan?" he asked.

        "SEIFER, FIND."

        "No, I mean--I mean, yeah, of course that's The Plan," Raijin said patiently.  "I meant, what should we do to Dincht for disrespecting our authority?"

        "TURN, YOURS," Fujin said generously.

        Raijin brightened.  "Really?" he asked, delighted.  "You're not joking?"

        "TURN, YOURS."

        "Awright!"  Raijin pondered the problem of a certain blond's lack of respect.  "Ya know, this might take some time, to think up something really good."

        "MISSION," Fujin reminded him.

        "Right, right, the mission," Raijin said, nodding.  "That'll give me plenty of time to think up something good."  They both turned to the left, where some hasty modifications had turned the parking area into something of a hangar for the Ragnarok.  The few vehicles they now had room for were strapped down in a small area set aside for them.  Rumour had it, Tilmitt had pouted at allowing even that much space to be taken away from her beloved airship.

        Once at the door--and just shy of where the SeeD on duty would have challenged them--Fujin came to a stop and adopted a stance that looked casual, but left her hand near her weapon and her foot ready to kick.

        Raijin, meanwhile, groaned as he shed both packs and stretched.  "What did you pack in there?" he complained.  "I coulda hurt myself, ya know?"

        "BOWLING BALLS," Fujin said, deadpan.

        Raijin made a disbelieving noise.  "Really?  I didn't think there were any bowling alleys in Centra, ya know."

        Fujin slanted her gaze sideways and bit her lip to keep from grinning.  Raijin was rocking back and forth, clearly already bored.

        "Fu, are we early?"

        "CLOCK," she said, pointing at the one on the wall.

        Raijin squinted at it.  "I guess we are," he said.  He heaved a sigh a moment later.  "Fu, why are we early?"

        "FUN."

        "Oh.  Okay."  Raijin rocked back onto his heels and forward a bit more.  "Fu, I'm not having fun."  He, too, was hiding a grin, although rather less successfully than Fujin.

        Just then, Trepe and Tilmitt showed up at the end of the hall.

        "--nd then all we'll have to do is wait," Trepe was saying.  She looked up, saw the two cadets standing there and jumped--just a little.  Clearly, she hadn't thought they would be early.

        Raijin straightened and ripped off a proper SeeD salute at the exact same time as Fujin.  "SeeD cadets Arashi and Arashi, reporting for duty!"

        Trepe blinked at them while Tilmitt looked away, trying to hide a smile.  "Well," the blonde said after a moment, "since we're all here, let's get going.  After you, Selphie."

        Keeping Instructors--former or not--on their toes was one of the many services provided by the Disciplinary Committee.

        "Heeeeeeey, are you two related?" Tilmitt asked curiously.

        Fujin sent her a look implying she had the brains of week-old road kill.  "NEGATIVE."

        "Married?"

        Now the roadkill was six months old and had been run over by a tank.  "NEGATIVE."

***

        She needed allies.

        It was a thought she'd had before, but she'd always dismissed it, telling herself her power would replenish in time.  But time had passed, more than half a year, and she was still no stronger than an ordinary Sorceress.

        It wasn't that she wouldn't eventually recover from her centuries-long imprisonment--she could feel where the power should be.  She was impatient to learn more of the new world she had awakened to, impatient to begin her revenge, although those who had wronged her were long dead and dust on the hot wind.

        She looked at her surroundings and felt her lip curl.  This--this was not Centra, the dried up husk she had found.  Centra was green, Centra was lush, Centra was a paradise far removed from the scrubland time had made it.

        Even its people had abandoned Centra--left its shores for more . . . accommodating ones.  That much she had gleaned from the few inhabitants left in her infrequent incursions out.  That would have to be included in her plans, dealing with the sham civilisations that had grown up on Centra's leavings and pretended to have surpassed their founder.

        The ground rumbled, drawing her attention abruptly back to her purpose for staying amid the dying ruins of the greatest civilisation the world had even known.

        She needed allies, power, something both to protect her and to accomplish her vengeance.  Centra's Guardian would be ideal, or, at least, enough to get her started.

        Bor'lung would be weak, of course, but she was in no condition to fight a strong Guardian and bend it to her will.  It, like the sorceresses it had helped keep imprisoned, had been drained by the spells that had sealed them.  It, like the sorceresses, had been tied to each other within the Seals.

        First, however, she had to find it.

        The ground rumbled again and she turned to follow the dust shaken into the air.  A spattering of rain dotted the dusty ground and she knew she was close.

        "Bor'lung!" she called in the language of the priests of the Guardians.  It had been forbidden for others to learn, but so had the study of the magic of Time--she had learned the one while she had studied the other.  "Bor'lung, I claim common cause with thee!  Lend me your strength that we ma--"

        The ground broke in front of her, fountaining up as something rose in a rush.  She ducked, prudently, and waited until dirt and rocks stopped falling to the ground before cautiously looking up.  Her breath caught in wonderment--knowing something existed and seeing it were two separate things.

        The long form lazily wove its coils around itself as it floated in mid-air.  Dust coated the scaled body, although hints of the vibrant hues hidden underneath caught the sunlight every now and again.  The enormous eyes glared at her, madness shining in them.

        "Who art thou to beg such of me?" it asked, the voice a subterranean rumble.

        "I am Bri'anne, sorceress, and the last true Centran!" she called out.  "If you be a Guardian of Centra, who shall you guard but I?"

        The Guardian roared and the ground shook under her feet and raindrops splashed against her.  "Centran!  Why should I care what befalls a Centran, after what they did visit upon me!"  The head loomed closer, but she stood her ground.  "Why should I not kill thee?" it asked, the rumble of it shaking her bones.  "Thou art Centran--'twould be more fitting to visit my wrath upon thee rather than help thee in thy paltry quest."

        Undeterred, she shouted, "I propose a partnership between us!"

        The great head roared again.  "A partnership is unthinkable!"

        "A partnership to wreak vengeance on those who have wronged us!  To return to them the pain they visited on us!"

        "There is no 'us'!  There can be no partnership with the betrayers!"

        It wasn't what she wanted to hear, but she had come prepared, regardless.  "Then I challenge thee!" she said.  "If I win, you will lend me strength."

        Bor'lung's head came closer.  Its breath surrounded her and moved her hair and clothes.  "Thy challenge is accepted," it said.  "And when I triumph, you will die."

        "Then let the battle begin!" she said, simultaneously throwing a Thundaga.  The attack caught the Guardian unaware and it thrashed in surprise and pain.  A hastily cast Protect minimised the damage dealt by its coiled body.

        A torrent of water rushed over her and she had to cast Shell before it swept her away.  She felt for its magic and drew and cast Holy, then followed it up with another Thundaga.  Her Protect gave at the second hit and she wasn't able to get another one up until she was already in mid-air.  Raw power cushioned her landing and she cast Thundaga and Aero in rapid succession.  Float brought her up and over the thrashing Guardian and she drew and cast Holy again.

        Then, while it was still recovering, she focused her attention on it and drew fiercely.  It threw more Water at her, but it was a futile effort.  She overcame its resistance and drew its very existence into herself.

        And then she was alone on the ravaged plain.  Bor'lung rumbled inside her angrily, but she had a firm hold on it now and worked on threading its strength with hers.  Finally, it's struggles quieted and she finished wrapping it in her bonds.

        She took a moment to revel in the strength she now held, the skills the Guardian had reluctantly shared with her.  And then she turned her back on the ruined city that had held her for so long and made her way into the future.

***

        Quistis stooped and lifted a broad leaf up to look at the plants underneath.  "Interesting," she murmured.

        Selphie crowded closer.  "What?" she asked eagerly.  "What's interesting?"

        Quistis straightened, forcing Selphie to move away or be bumped into.  "The plants," she answered.  "Some of the varieties I've seen here I've only ever seen on the Island Closest to Hell."

        "Ohhhhh," Selphie said, drawing it out.  She shuddered.  "You almost couldn't see the monsters for the tress."  She paused.  "Or maybe the trees for the monsters, we were always being attacked."

        "It was very good training," the blonde pointed out gently.

        "It was," Selphie agreed.  "And it was a wonderful opportunity to learn how to not smell your team mates.  Especially after meeting a Marlboro or three.  Heeey, are there any Marlboro sprouts there?"

        "No," Quistis said warily.  "Why do you ask?"

        "I think it would be awesome-sweet to raise one!"

        "Awesome-sweet?"  Quistis shook her head.  "Never mind.  And it's against regulations to keep a hostile life form as a pet."

        Selphie pouted.  "Awwwww, but a Malboro's a plant!"

        "Or as a garden," Quistis added evenly.  She looked at Selphie pointedly.  "Aren't you supposed to be heading back to Garden?  I thought I heard something about a trip to Esthar."

        Selphie flapped a hand.  "Nah, that's in a few weeks," she said.  "Squall said we were supposed to stop in Deling City, though, and see how General Caraway was--"  She clapped her hands over her mouth.  "Oops."

        Quistis nodded.  "Yes, he and the other generals are still dealing with the repercussions of Ultimecia's little plot there, aren't they?" she murmured.  She raised an eyebrow and Selphie heaved a sigh.

        "That'll be so boring!" the brunette burst out.  She shuddered.  "Ugh.  Politics."

        "Not all of us can have fun making things go boom," Quistis said unfeelingly.  "Why don't you stop off at G-Garden's crash site and pick up Irvine?  I'm sure he'd rather be flying with you than trying to get G-Garden fixed and organised."  She paused for a moment.  "You can even justify the trip by checking out the state of the local vegetation, if you want."

        Selphie thought about it for a moment, then declared, "My orders are clear!"  She snapped off a salute and ran for Matron's house.  "Matron!" she caroled.  "Matron, I'm leaving!"

        Only when she heard the Ragnarok start up did Quistis breathe out a sigh.  She started prowling around the garden again--or, rather, forcing her way through the vegetation.  It was only because she knew it was there that she could see the garden's outlines.

        "Yes," she said slowly.  "That first, and then this."  She turned to her cadets.  "Here are your orders," she said crisply.  "Using Fire only, clear the courtyard.  That will test your command of magic.  Then you'll move into the garden proper--do not burn any of the plants that should be in there.  That will test your accuracy and deductive skills."  Normally, orders given to cadets were not phrased so plainly, but she had taught these two before--if she didn't make it clear what was expected, there was a high likelihood of a deliberate misunderstanding.  when it came to Matron's garden, it was better to be safe than sorry.

        Raijin and Fujin saluted her and turned, with commendable precision, to the courtyard.

        When Quistis entered the house of her childhood, there was already smoke rising and the crackling sounds of burning vegetation.

        "Are you sure that is wise?" Matron asked, glancing at her overgrown garden.  "Surely it can be weeded by hand."

        Quistis smiled and joined her at the table.  "If it was just Raijin, no, it wouldn't necessarily be wise," she answered.  "But, with Fujin there to provide the voice of reason . . . .  Besides, ash is supposed to be a good fertiliser, isn't it?"

        Matron sighed and nodded.  "It is," she agreed, only the faintest hint of resignation in her voice.

        "Fu!  Ya can't burn that, that's a tomato plant!"

        "GARDENER, NOT!"

        Both women looked outside, startled.

        Quistis smiled weakly.  "Maybe it'll be the other way around?"

***

        Quistis bowed.  "Once again, Matron, I apologise for your garden."  She glared at her cadets and they hastily bowed as well.  "SeeD will certainly make reparations for your trouble."  She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder and looked up.

        Matron smiled at her.  "It's all right, Quisty," the woman said gently.  "I can always replant and, as you said, ash is a good fertiliser.  All I truly wanted was to not be strangled as I walked about and your cadets have accomplished that admirably."

        Quistis straightened and nodded, but still privately resolved to send in a request for compensation; Squall would push it through.  After all, if she hadn't made assumptions about her cadets' knowledge, she would have been supervising them properly and the majority of the garden would still be intact.

        "SeeD thanks you for your assistance," she said formally, complete with salute.  Then she stepped forward and embraced the first mother she could remember.

        "Travel safely," Matron said, still smiling.  "The Lunar Cry brought stronger monsters down and it looks like they're using Centra as their primary migration route."

        "Take care, Matron," Quistis echoed.  "Don't hesitate to contact us if you need anything--we'll be in Centra for a while yet."

***

        "--the cost of the plants, the loss of the produce from the garden, the extra time and expense, and, of course, sufficient gil to soothe understandably ruffled feathers."

        |But she said she was okay with it, ya know?" Raijin protested weakly.  He wilted at the look Quistis cut him.

        "This is standard SeeD policy," the blonde continued mercilessly as she paced.  "If the damage is through the fault of the SeeD personnel assigned to the mission and unless the damage directly aids in said mission, reparations are made.  Policies like this are what helps the SeeD program keep its good name."  She stopped and looked at the two cadets.  "Since this has obviously slipped your mind, here's an exercise for you:  Calculate how much Balamb Garden is going to have to pay for your pyrotechnic display."

        Raijin glowered at his fellow cadet for a moment, then dug into his pack for pen and paper.  Fujin was already writing, but she took a moment out of it to repay Raijin's insolence with a carefully thrown rock.

        "Ow!"

        Quistis whirled on them.  "No fighting," she said repressively.  the two cadets blinked at her, looking far too innocent.  She gave them a humourless smile.  "And while you're busy with that, I'll check our perimeter."

***

        The setting sun glinted off of moving scales, its light bringing to life a dark rainbow of colours.  The snake--approximately eight metres long--moved swiftly through the lush vegetation, her tongue flicking out to taste the scents on the air.

        She turned her head sharply and let her body catch up to her.  Coiled loosely, she tasted the air again and inched forward cautiously.

        A Red Bat flew up, startled, and she reared up, reaching for her store of magic automatically.  Just as she touched it, the monster screeched in frustration and lumbered away through the air.

        She paused, bemused, then turned to look at her body.  Very pretty, it was, but nothing likely to scare a Red Bat off.

        She continued on her patrol thoughtfully.  It wasn't the first time a monster had fled at her approach, each time as inexplicable as the past.  it was, however, the first time a monster had startled her.  And she had been able to touch her magic.  For some reason, she had thought her magic would be sealed away in this form.

        That revelation had shone a new light on her form.  It had been useful in the past--ease of movement, a surprisingly sharp sense of taste, the strength to casually crush a moderately sized opponent--but the ability to use magic as well had just catapulted her form right to the top of her list of forms she would like to end up in if her human one wasn't an option.

        She felt someone's footfalls vibrating through the ground and decided she was close enough.

        A few minutes later, she stepped back into the glow of the camp's fire and surveyed her cadets, noting with satisfaction their reflexive grab for their weapons.

        "And how are those estimates coming?" Quistis asked them.

***

        The sand stirred, rising in stately columns and looping about itself.  The individual grains glinted as they caught the light.

        Bri'anne admired it before setting her focus on those tiny reflections.  A twist of her thoughts, a steady stream of power, and those reflections would show her scenes from the past, present, and future.

        For this, she had been imprisoned.  For daring to experiment with the magic of Time, she had been shut away and drained nearly to death.  And for what?  To prevent the Temporal Calamity, the foolish priests had said.  To prevent Time and Space becoming one, to prevent the destruction of all that was, all that had been, and all that would be.

        A smile curled her lips.  Those priests had truly been foolish--their Temporal Calamity had, indeed, come, as they had predicted, but its cause was not from their present, but from their far, far future.  It had come, in fact, from this present's future, as well.  That it had not succeeded was a blessing, allowing her to break free from her prison and giving her the chance to wreak her vengeance.

        But to do so, she still needed more information.  The paltry bits she had picked up so far had sufficed until now, but to move forward required more, and better, information.

        With that, she loosed her mind into the chaos of her scrying spell and began, bit by bit, to build the pictures of her past.

***

        Quistis reined in her chocobo at the top of the hill.  Finally, the Centra ruins were in sight,  She turned and watched her cadets catch up.

        Fujin, of course, managed to look competent in anything she did.  Thankfully, she had more experience with riding chocobos than weeding gardens.

        Raijin looked strange with his knees up to his ears.  The rancher she had bought the chocobos from had assured her the bird was perfectly capable of carrying heavier loads, but she still caught herself wincing whenever she saw the dark-skinned man looming over his mount the way he did.

        She faced forward again resolutely and urged the chocobo forward again.  The Centra ruins--the only remnants of the Centra civilisation worth the name--were in sight, but, as with Matron's house, it was being reclaimed by the new-grown jungle.  She thanked Hyne what they had just crossed had been desert before the inexplicable plant explosion--it was mainly grassland now, not the tangle of trees trying to hide the ruins from view.  What had been a day's ride before was now, she estimated, more like two, or even three--their pace would slow right down once they reached the baby jungle.

        There was a whistle behind her from Raijin.  "That's kinda something, ya know?" he said.  "And we're goin' to it?"

        "AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin said.

        "Real, live Centran ruins . . . .  Ow!  Fu, whatcha do that for, ya know?"

        "REAL, AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin said, settling her foot back in the stirrup.  "RUINS, AFFIRMATIVE.  LIVE?  NEGATIVE."

        Raijin sighed, aggrieved.  "Fine, real, dead ruins," he said.  "Hey, Instructor, can we, ya know, look around when we get there?"

        "IDIOT," Fujin said tartly.

        Quistis intervened before one of her cadets was kicked lame--again.  "One, I'm no longer an Instructor," she said crisply.  "I have two cadets on this mission for back up, not for instruction.  Two, yes, we will be look around--our mission is to find the extent of Centra's recent vegetative increase.  It would be considerably harder to do so without getting up close and personal."

        Raijin digested that for a moment.  "Right," he said finally.  "Only--how are we going to get through to it?  None of us really use edged weapons."

        "PINWHEEL, FACE," Fujin said dangerously, shoving her weapon of choice at Raijin threateningly.

        "Yeah, Fujin, you got blades, but are they really gonna help us get through a jungle?" he asked.  "We don't even have machetes or anything, ya know?"

        "FIRAGA, USE," Fujin said.  She smiled scarily.  "FIRE, BURN.  TREE, PRETTY."

        "Ya can't just go around burning everything," Raijin protested.  "You could start a forest fire, ya know?"

        "True," Quistis said, intervening again.  "Therefore, we won't be using Fire spells.  Also true is I didn't realise the extent of the plant growth--the lack of suitable equipment is, therefore, my fault and I, both as the one at fault and the leader of this team, will deal with it when the time comes."  In fact, she already had some ideas about how to go about it.  She would have to wait and see exactly what they were up against, first.  Flexible plant growth required a different approach than solid tree trunks.

***

        Quistis walked a little further into the jungle.  Mostly trees, still young enough to be flexible, if taller than most saplings she had seen.  Thin vines, tall bushes.  She jerked a hand back and examined the welling blood.  Thorns.  Of course.

        She turned and made her way to where Fujin & Raijin--and their transportation--waited for her.

        "A snap," she said, pulling an opened potion out of her pack and dabbing some of it on the puncture on her fingertip.  "Raijin, your GF is ice and wind, right?"

        Raijin blinked.  "Yeah," he said, nodding.  "Umka deals ice and wind.  But there's nothing to fight, ya know?"

        Fujin leaned over and smacked him.  "IDIOT."

        "I'm not, ya know, I just don't see what use he's gonna be," Raijin protested, injured.  "Except to cool us off, ya know, and that's kinda like using a Firaga to kill an ant."

        "ANT, DEAD," Fujin pointed out.

        "Yeah, and so's everything around it!  Can ya say overkill?"

        "OVERKILL," Fujin repeated with a straight face.

        "Fu!"

        "Have it freeze here," Quistis cut in.  "The plants here need to be frozen for us to be able to create a path."

        Raijin looked at her, then at the vegetation with new understanding.  "A path, huh?  Guess ol' Umka can't argue with that," he said.  He held his bo out in front of him and concentrated.  A cold wind swirled around him and a dust of snowflakes fell around his shoulders.  "Umka, I lend thee my spirit and call upon thee!" he cried, already fading as he switched places with his GF.

        A polar bear, taller than Raijin, stepped into existence.  It snuffled at the ground for a moment before turning to face the rainforest.  It bent its great head down again and breathed on the ground before it.  White vapour curled out of its mouth and spread over the ground, turning into snow.  It looked up again and suddenly whipped a paw through the newly created snow.  A great cloud of it rose in the air and the white bear opened its mouth again.  What came out this time was no gentle exhalation, but a full-throated roar.  The airborne snow was propelled forward under the force of that sustained roar, coating the vegetation and freezing it.

        Umka huffed a breath, then faded away into Raijin.

        "Whew!" Raijin said, rubbing at his arms.  "That's a good way to cool off, ya know?"

        Quistis inspected the vegetation again and had to move fast to catch a leaf that had broken at her touch.  "Fascinating," she murmured.  "Raijin, does your GF always leave things frozen?"

        Raijin shrugged.  "Maybe?" he guessed.  "I haven't really had him long enough to experiment, ya know?  But, yeah, I guess he usually leaves things frozen after he goes.  Why?"

        "I'll have to put it in our report," Quistis said.  She watched a drop of water fall to the ground.  "Stand back, please."  She set herself and called upon one of her GFs.  "Jumbo Cactaur, I lend thee my spirit and call upon thee!"  It wasn't strictly necessary to say the words of Summoning aloud, but it did provide focus and it wouldn't do to set a bad example in front of cadets--even if those cadets had more battle experience than some SeeDs.

        When the Jumbo Cactaur finished and Quistis resumed her place in this world, she examined the damage the GF's Thousand Needles had done.

        "Perfect," she said, satisfied.  Instead of an impenetrable jungle, there was now a narrow corridor clear of plants, reaching some way into the jungle.  It wouldn't take them all the way to the ruins, of course, but . . . .  "How often can you summon Umka?" she asked as she retrieved the reins for her chocobo from Fujin.

        "Uhhhh, maybe four times in battle?" Raijin hazarded.

        "Good, then we should be able to reach the ruins by the end of the day," Quistis said.  "Mount up!"

***

        Fujin examined the wall gravely, pretending to find it half as interesting as Raijin did.  It wasn't.  It was wood and stone and dead, exposed wiring.  Now, if the wires still carried a current, that would be interesting.  Then there would have been a power source to figure out and the purposed of the wiring and . . . .

        She reached out and flicked a wire.  Dead.  Dead wires were just about as interesting as dirt.  Dirt still had the advantage, but only just.

        "FASCINATING," she repeated obediently.  She pointed to the free-hanging stairs.  "UP?"

        "Yeah, there's sure to be even more interesting stuff upstairs!" Raijin said enthusiastically.  He squinted at the pillar precariously perched in the middle of the fountain.  "Wish I could get up close with that.  Ya know, I can actually read a little Centran!"

        Fujin stared at him and he blushed.

        "Yeah, I guess you'd know," he said, laughing.  "Considering you're the one who taught it to me!"

        "Be careful," Trepe said absently as they skirted the crumbling fountain in the middle of the square.  "It looks like whatever was powering this thing before is played out.  The railings don't seem to be activating.  Oh, and see how far the jungle stretches when you get to the top."

        Fujin looked with new interest at the stairs and waved her hand where, logically, a railing would be.  Nothing, but, if Trepe was to be believed, there had been an active power source until recently.  Newly dead electronics were much more interesting than long dead ones.

        "Fujin, hurry up!" Raijin hollered.  He was already halfway up the next flight, taking the steps with leaps and bounds and a total disregard for the lack of railings.

        Unfortunately, it seemed that was as far as they could go.  She let Raijin explore outside while she wandered about inside.

        "Nope," Raijin said, his voice booming.  "No way up unless we want to scale the walls themselves."  He tilted a hand back and forth.  "Could maybe make it, but I'd feel a lot better for some proper equipment and maybe a Float or two."

        She pointed up.  "HOLE."  There was a square hole in the ceiling that looked like it could fit the block she was standing on, but there was no juice left in it, if that was how Leonhart and his gang of misfits had made it any further up.

        Raijin joined her and squinted up at it.  "Nah," he said.  "I mean, yeah, looks like a better way than scaling the walls, but first you have to get a rope up there, ya know?"  He grabbed her shoulder and she resisted the temptation the kick him down the stairs.  "I gotta show ya something, okay?  It's pretty neat!"

        Which meant it could be anything from a particularly perplexing bit of ancient Centra he hadn't been able to decipher or a particularly pretty butterfly he'd never seen before.  Still, it was undoubtedly more interesting than standing around in a deserted chapel to a force that no longer existed.

***

        It hadn't been an inscription.  It hadn't even been a butterfly.  It turned out to be an entire island.

        In the middle of the Centran crater, where there was no island.  Except, clearly, there was, as Fujin was even now exploring it.

        It was boring.  There wasn't any sign of life, not birds, not animals, not even insects.  Even the rampant plant life on the rest of the continent was strangely absent on this island.

        Raijin was convinced it was the Centran city.  The one that had given the continent, and the civilisation, its name.  She allowed that it might very well be.  She hadn't made a study of it as he had, but it seemed to be in the right place, according to the stories she remembered.

        Trepe had been all for exploring it.  Or, rather, for Fujin and Raijin exploring it while she tried to wheedle Leonhart into letting her stay and study it with trowel and brush--oh, and a few dozen extra SeeD, some expensive recording equipment and, why not, some heavy machinery.  Trepe had learned a lot in her time as both an Instructor and as a SeeD--always, always ask for more than you actually want and be prepared to bargain down.

        At any rate, Raijin was a few streets south of her.  They were supposed to regroup at the city centre and bring Trepe more ammunition with which to bribe Leonhart with, but she was pretty sure the end of her street was the big wall she could see.

        As she got closer, though, she could make out a crack in the wall, widening at the base into something she could slip through.

        On the other side was a wide, paved path, edged by another wall.  She sighed and contemplated returning to the camp Trepe had insisted they set up.  Dead, empty streets surrounded by dead, empty buildings.

        Instead, she walked down the path until she came to a corner and peered around it.

        Now this, this, was more like it.  One of the walls had been blown almost completely away.  In fact, it had been blown into the other wall and knocked most of it down.  She checked the rubble, but it had a thick enough coating of dust that she thought it had happened at least a few months ago, but still more recent than most of the damage she had seen so far, caused mostly by the passage of time.  Less likely, then, for whatever had done such damage, to still be around.

        Which was no reason to not be cautious, anyway.  She checked her Pinwheel--still ready for action--and advanced.

        The space she entered wasn't a garden, nor a courtyard.  She had seen steel beams in the rubble, obviously there as reinforcement.  But reinforcement against what?  There were these things, looking like nothing so much as huge eggs, broken in half.  What was left of them was likely made of glass, with gold ornamentation covering them.

        She moved closer to one and studied it.  The ornamentation was . . . not ornamentation, she thought.  That was an ancient Centran script and the other lines were obviously magical symbols and enclosures.  She moved her finger just above a line of text, lips moving as she struggled to read it.  Seal, feed, destiny, children, guardian, land . . . .  Sorceress.

        She stepped back smartly and was glad she hadn't touched anything.  That was not a good word, in this day and age, to be deciphering, even if she couldn't read the rest of it properly.  She looked through the glass cautiously and made a face.  Old bones, yellowed, with scraps of cloth still covering them.  Yeah, no, that wasn't ominous at all.

        "RAIJIN!" she called.  If she had to explore creepy sorceress things, she wasn't doing it alone.  She looked around again.  In addition to the broken eggshells of whatever, there was a circle of ten columns, irregularly spaced.  There seemed to be some sort of theme going; each column seemed to honour a specific animal and she took another look, just to make sure.

        The ten columns honoured ten of the thirteen months of the Centran year.  But why only ten?  She caught sight of a crumbled heap of stone and looked around for the other two.  Right.  Three of the columns had crumbled, although an inspection couldn't tell her why.  Presumably, they had all been made with the same stone and, yet, the crumbled one--what was left of them--looked weathered and fragile, while the intact ones were surprisingly pristine, given their age.

        The columns for the lion, wolf, eagle, snake, lemur, bear, hare, swan, chocobo, and horse were still standing, which meant the broken ones were for the deer, ferret, and fox.

        Something moved, sending a whisper of sound into the courtyard.  She snapped her head around, looking for what had made the noise.  It couldn't've been Raijin--he would've made a lot more noise--but she couldn't see what it could have been in this city without life.

        It happened again and this time she caught the whisper of movement.  Something was in one of the broken eggshells and it was alive.  The hair on the back of her neck rose and she clenched her jaw.  "AID, RAIJIN!" she shouted, because pride was one thing, but not getting eaten alive was something else entirely.  She approached cautiously, a spell ready to hand and her weapon ready to fly.

        Another small shift, a sound that would be unnoticeable if not for the unnatural stillness of the place.  A small sound, but she already knew it wasn't small.

        ". . . tolenai . . . ."  The word whispered and Fujin gripped her Pinwheel all the harder.  ". . . assion yi . . . ."

        Creepy wasn't the word for it.  She recognised what the words--and they were definitely words--meant, but . . . she thought, if she were to write them, they would end up looking like the books Seifer used to read.  All thee and thou and badly spelled words.

        "FUJIN!"  She whipped her head around to see Raijin crashing through the same opening she had come in through.  Just as quickly, she turned back to whatever was making the sound.

        "COVER," she said.  She heard him beginning the summon sequence for his GF and took a moment to reinforce her defenses against ice and wind damage--there was no guarantee she would be able to get out of Umka's way in time and, if this was what she thought it was, it was better to be hit by the attack than give the sorceress a chance to escape.

        She was close enough to see what was hiding in that particular eggshell.  A heap of cloth, dusty, but whole, covering something that shifted only occasionally.  She paused to take stock of the situation.  Possible sorceress in what looked like a broken sorceress cage on a creepy island that had appeared out of nowhere.

        The heap shifted again and this time she saw bare skin.  An arm, it had to be, only it was so thin.  She examined the sorceress with a more critical eye and saw how little there was.

        ". . . .assion yi tolenai . . . ."  Please help me.

        Fine.  Whatever.  Raijin was covering her and, somehow, she didn't think this sorceress was much of a threat to her anyway.  She moved closer decisively.

        "Ghaet," Fujin said, feeling the once familiar word shape itself in her mouth.

        There was silence for a moment, and then, "Ghaetan ieu." These words were a lot clearer and the sorceress lifted her head to stare at Fujin.

        The stare made her uncomfortable.  Sunken eyes, fleshless cheeks, this sorceress was one step away from dying.  "Sdat'de ieu rerur?"  What do you need?

        "Rearu?  Yi rearu . . . sondirest.  Ieu sondirest?"  The hope in those eyes.

        Regardless, Fujin took a step back and shook her head.  "Nerits," she hissed, unable to stop the flare of hate--and fear.  She had been right.  The sorceress was looking for a successor.

        "Neretiss?"  The sorceress's head fell back as if exhausted.  "Tolenai, assion yi, assion yi, yi talint sralien."  I want death.  She was looking for a successor.

        "Fujin?" Raijin asked hesitantly.  "Fujin, what's happening?"

        "Yi cyn'd uncemtat."  She shook her head sharply and looked at Raijin.  "UNKNOWN," she said.  "TREPE."

        Raijin hesitated and she narrowed her eye at him.  "Are . . . will you be okay?" he asked.

        She leaned down in a fluid motion and picked up a rock to throw at him.  Even that was enough to get him moving and she let the rock drop again.

        " . . . assion yi, rearu sondirest, tolenai, tolenai . . . ."

***

        Quistis thought a moment.  "Think about it this way," she suggested.  "We didn't have baby jungles trying to take over Centra when there wasn't an island in the middle of the crater.  Don't you think we should see if they're connected?"

        Squall made an exasperated noise.  "This was hardly a real mission," he said, bringing a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose.  "For Hyne's sake, all it was supposed to do was give Matron some help with weeding her garden!"

        "Yes, and now we've actually made a significant discovery," Quistis said persuasively.  "Think of what it could mean for Garden!  Remember, they were originally built by the Centrans.  Just think what we could find!"

        Squall sighed explosively.  "Fine, whatever," he muttered.  "But if you can take this as an excuse to have fun, you can damn well bet I'll do the same."

        Quistis grinned.  "Thinking about a hunting trip?" she asked innocently.  "Roughing it, the joy of manly exertion--"

        "No," Squall said, glaring at her.  "I'm just . . . tired, that's all."

        The blonde nodded knowledgeably.  "I know a few others who are, too," she murmured.  "Were you thinking of taking anyone with you?"

        "No, that'll just defeat the purpose of it all.  Look, I'll call Matron, see if she wants to join you," Squall said, returning to business.  "And I'm sending Rinoa to you before I have to find out Selphie contracted her to provide sparkling dust for the next festival.  And--"

        "Why don't you transfer me to Xu?" Quistis suggested, cutting in smoothly.  "She and I can work out what I'll need--don't worry, I won't bankrupt us, I promise!"

        "You do that," Squall said, disgruntled.  "Zell's going to be here if you need anything."

        Quistis' eyebrows rose.  "You're leaving him in charge?"

        "No," Squall snapped.  "If I did, I'd come back to find B-Garden changed into a hotdog factory or something.  Just--if you need something and you can't get it, ask him."  He shrugged irritably.

        She nodded slowly.  Even--or maybe especially--in SeeD, one's best interest did not always lie in going through the proper channels.  "If your hunting trip doesn't take too long, maybe you could join us here," she suggested, changing the subject.

        But Squall shook his head.  "Esthar's been asking for a meeting," he said.  "Whether or not my hunting is successful, I have a time and a place to be."

        Quistis cocked her head.  "Esthar?  They're still miles and away more advanced than practically anyone else; what would they need SeeD for?"

        Squall shrugged uncomfortably.  "Laguna--" the moron, his expression said, "--set it up.  He's been pestering me since a month after the war."  He huffed, as if to say, Didn't I have enough to deal with then?

        Quistis agreed.  For all Laguna was the leader of the most advanced nation, personal interaction with him had convinced her he was still, at heart, the happy-go-lucky guy they had seen in Ellone's visits to the past.  That wasn't always a good thing, in her view.  "Well, if you have time, then," she said.  "Now, Xu?"

        "Take care," Squall muttered as he punched the keys that would transfer her to Garden's quartermaster.

        "Good luck with your hunting," she replied, nearly fast enough.

        "Hunting?" Xu asked, blinking.  "Our commander transfer you?"  She sighed when Quistis nodded.  "I wish Selphie had never shown him the override codes.  I might have been doing something important.  Just for him to ask, that's all I'm asking."

        Quistis laughed.  "This is Squall we're talking about," she offered.  "I consider myself lucky I got a sign-off at all."

        "Right.  Well, tell me what you need and I'll arrange for it to happen.  We're a little thin on personnel, though--and something's going down in Dollet."

        Quistis huffed out a laugh.  "When isn't something going down in Dollet lately?" she asked wryly.

        Xu nodded.  "True.  They should just let themselves be annexed by someone else--then maybe they could afford SeeD assistance."  Xu stretched out her hands.  "Right.  Tell me what you need and I'll tell you what you can have."

***

        It hadn't taken Squall long to find the information he was looking for.  He felt a bit guilty for keeping it to himself, but, in the grander scheme of things, it wasn't really important.  Not that anyone knew what the information meant, but that was why he was SeeD and the people he spoke to weren't--the ability to pull scraps of information together and come out with a telling whole.

        He had to admit, Seifer had covered his tracks very well.  Unfortunately for his once-rival, Squall was in possession of a moderately-sized organisation of espionage specialists, a lot of gil, and several key facts no none else had.  One, he knew Seifer pretty much inside and out.  Two, he'd had exactly the same training as Seifer.  Three, he had had that training honed by Seifer.

        Four, he knew Seifer's alternate form.

        And even with all that, it was had been difficult to piece together enough scraps of information to find a location his once-rival might be.

        He tapped the map of Trabia thoughtfully.  The Vienne mountains had recently gained a reputation for large, golden wolves.  Some thought of it as a protective spirit, guarding them, others thought of it as an evil spirit or not even a spirit at all, but a monster.  Still, when all was said and done, it was the best lead he had.

        A hand ran across his shoulders and a dark head nestled beside his.  "You're going to bring him back?" Rinoa asked, half-hugging him.  He shrugged absently, but she took no notice.  "He's in Trabia?"

        "Yes," he said.  "And maybe."  He turned to look at her.  "Are you ready?"

        She withdrew and smiled at him.  "As ready as I'll ever be," she said.  "It was nice of Ellone to offer to bring me to Centra.  Are you sure you don't mind me monopolising your big sister?"

        He shrugged again.  "She's her own person," was his reply.  "And I'll be seeing her in Esthar in any case."

        "Hmm, yes, Esthar.  What's Laguna up to, do you know?"

        He grunted.  "Conflicting reports.  Some say he's trying to send the Crystal Pillar back to the Moon to prevent another Lunar Cry, some say he's a moron."

        Rinoa laughed.  "How many of those 'some' are sitting in front of me?" she teased.

        "Whatever."

        She reached out and fluffed his hair, ignoring it when he jerked his head back and glared at her.  "Squall . . . just go get your wolf," she said fondly.

        "I have one sorceress kill to my name," he threatened.  "Touch my hair again and I'll double it."

        She laughed and fluffed his head again before dashing to the door.  "I'll see you soon," she said gaily over her shoulder.  "Don't forget to bring him when you come by!"  The door slid shut behind her and he huffed out a breath, scrubbing his hand through his hair to re-settle it.  Women.  What the hell.

***

        "I appreciate you going out of your way for me," Squall muttered as he checked--again; to stop checking would be to trust Selphie wouldn't crash into another forcefield--his restraints.

        Selphie looked back over her shoulder and threw him a wink.  He bravely resisted the urge to tell her to keep her eyes forward.

        "Oh, it's not a problem," she said cheerfully.  "It's on our way, after all!"

        Irvine--who was actually standing beside her, not secured by anything but his hand--said gently, "Sephy, it's not really 'on the way'.  We're on the way to Galbadia; it's more like 'the exact opposite of the way'."

        Selphie waved a hand dismissively.  "Pfft, we're in the Ragnarok!" she exclaimed.  "Everything's on the way!"

        Squall swallowed and clutched at his seat's armrests.  Why had he given control of the Ragnarok to Selphie, anyway?  Sure, she'd threaten to blow him up if she didn't get to be the only pilot allowed to fly her baby, but he was pretty sure he could have survived that.  He was, however, pretty sure there would be a flight he wouldn't survive.  Hopefully, it wouldn't be today's.

        "Are you sure you want us to drop you off at the base of the Vienne mountains?" Selphie asked curiously.  "We could take you all the way to Trabia Garden, if you like.  Or Esthar!"  She let out a breathy squeal and jumped in her chair.  Disconcertingly, the Ragnarok jumped with her.  "We could see Sir Laguna!  Please, Squall, please please can we come with you to Esthar?!"

        "Selphie . . . ," he gritted out.  "Flying . . . ?"

        She turned around completely at that and hugged the back of her chair.  "Whaaat?  It's only a little bit of turbulence!"

        He closed his eyes--somehow, it was less terrifying if he couldn't see how she wasn't looking.  "Please," he managed.

        There was a sigh.  "Party pooper," she accused.  "Fine, fine, you can look now."  He opened one eye, then the other when he saw she was facing forward again.  Irvine was looking at him, faintly amused, but the cowboy was just crazy.  Couldn't shoot the sorceress, noooo, but he could stand when his equally crazy girlfriend was flying.  There was something very wrong with that.  Maybe Selphie was just that good in be--He shut his eyes and shook his head.  He wished he could unthink that thought.  Selphie was like a sister to him.  A little sister.  A little sister.  Hyne, why the hell didn't the GFs take that memory from him?

        "Sooooo, can we come with you to Esthar?" Selphie asked brightly.

        "I have other business to attend to first," he managed to say.  He hit upon a stroke of luck.  "But you can call on Laguna and see if you can borrow Odine for Quistis!"

        Selphie squealed and the Ragnarok jumped again.

***

        Bri'anne stared at the horse in front of her.  Lathered and blowing, it was held down by a veritable web of ropes, ropes with spells that trapped it in this form.  She stepped forward and cupped her hands on the sides of its head.  It threw its head up and, when that didn't budge her grip, it tried to lunge forward and bite her.  Alas, she had taken the proper precautions already.

        "Open to me," she whispered, readying the web of spells she had laboriously created days earlier.  "Open to me."  She reached her magic forward and touched the horse's mind.

        Open to me.

        The horse wouldn't submit and she had to pour in much more power than she had expected to push her spells into the horse's mind.

        Slowly, slowly, the horse quietened under her hands.  When she finished and took away both her hands and the ropes binding it, the horse remained docile.

        Bri'anne laughed, pleased that her spells had worked.  She wove some of her magic into a saddle and bridle, already in place on the horse.

        The horse allowed her to mount, its skin shivering under her touch, but unexpectedly reared when she was in place.  She bit off a curse and tightened her magic's grip on the horse's mind.  The horse fell to all four feet and tossed its head in agony.

        Eyes narrowed, she examined the horse's mind.  It had not been particularly stable when she had forced her spells on it; the strain had snapped what little stability there had been.  No matter.  The horse was still hers, could never be her enemy as long as her magic held, and . . . even for mad horses, there was work that could be done.

        The bear was even easier, for all the fighting experience it had held.  Its mind had bent, unlike the horse's, although it had still put up a struggle.  She sent it back to Dollet with the horse after, laughing to see the horse's response any time someone came within its reach.  Yes, the horse would do wonderfully as her mount, pretty and homicidal.

        All she had left was the eagle and the wolf.  The other guardian bloodlines, her scrying had shown her, possessed enough power to make even her pause, for the moment at least.  She would need to rest and strengthen herself before she went after them, to make her revenge complete.

        The eagle was easy to find--in all the scrying she did, it never strayed far from Winhill, always circling over it every day.  She was more careful with this one--it would be her eyes in the world, bringing her the informaation she couldn't scry for--but, even with her gentleness, she still had to force his mind to accept her magics.

        And then she headed for the Vienne mountains in Trabia.

***

        The lion waited patiently.  His hunt had taken him many days before he had been able to find traces of the prey he sought.  Now, though, he had carefully studied its habits and was confident that it would not get away from him.

        He watched the moon rise steadily higher into the sky, completely motionless except for the small twitching of his tail.  It wouldn't be long now.

        A slight movement caught his attention and he focused on the sight of his prey emerging from its lair.  He pulled from himself an even greater stillness and his tail stilled.  He knew the wolf's habits, had studied them carefully from afar to prevent his presence from being known as more than a distant, hopefully passing, danger.  He may not have been, but the wolf wasn't to know that.

        Not soon enough for muscles that were starting to scream movement, the wolf headed for its morning drink.  The lion resisted the urge to drop on it as it passed under his hiding place.  The goal of the hunt wasn't to kill, not this time.  Instead, he waited until the wolf had passed, dropping his weight to the ground with a deliberately heavy landing.

        The wolf whirled around, startled, and fell into a defensive posture.  The lion wasn't fooled and held himself ready for the attack that would undoubtedly come.  Come it did and the lion countered it with one of his own.  He stared into wild green eyes as he held his ground and watched with satisfaction as realization came to his prey.  Now, there would be a true fight.

        The wolf acted as if it had been cornered, although there had been several opportunities it could have taken advantage of to escape.  Finally, the lion grew tired of the wolf's stubborn refusal to submit.  He supposed he should have expected that, but it still annoyed him.  He crouched slightly, then sprang forward strongly, covering the ground between them much faster than he had before.  The wolf, surprised by the speed so suddenly shown, was unable to evade the rush.  Both of them fell over, snapping and snarling reflexively.  The lion ended up on top and placed a heavy paw on the wolf's neck.  He pressed down warningly when it tried to move.  Defeated, the wolf let his head drop back to the ground.  Satisfied, the lion stepped back.  His body shifted and seemed to stretch upwards.

        "Hello, Seifer," Squall said, staring down at the wolf, who was, in turn, staring up at him.

        The wolf shook his head and pushed himself up, also stretching until Seifer was sitting where the wolf had been.  "Leonhart."  The tone was neutral enough but Squall could still hear the tones of wariness in it.  "Nice lion."

        Squall grunted.  "Where's Hyperion?"

        Seifer's eyes narrowed.  "Who wants to know?"  Squall just stared at him.  It only took a minute before he cracked and looked away.  "Whatever, it's in the cave."

        "You're stealing my lines."

        Seifer whipped his head back around to stare at Squall in disbelief.  "Seriously?" he asked.  "You finally got the stick out of your ass?"

        Squall had already turned and was heading into the cave that Seifer had been using for shelter.  The blond scrambled to his feet and followed.

        "Hey!" he called.  "Hey!  Leonhart, what the hell're you doin'?  Don't touch my blade!"  Too late, of course, because Squall had already picked it up and was inspecting it.  "Fucking--you don't mess with a SeeD's weapons, did you not learn anything, Leonhart?"

        "If you treated it with the respect it deserved, maybe I would," Squall replied.  He scooped the sheath off the ground and slid the black gunblade in before buckling it around his waist.  "Gather up anything you want to keep."  He cast another look around the cave--not much worth keeping, his expression seemed to say.

        Seifer's mouth gaped open.  "What the hell--?  Leonhart, what the hell're you doin'?"

        Squall cut him a sharp look.  "Move it," was all he said.

        Seifer swallowed and then, hating himself, sullenly went through his meagre belongings.

***

        "Where're we going?"  It was the first thing Seifer had said since that morning.

        "Esthar."  Needless to say, it was also the first thing Squall had said since.

        Seifer nodded.  Then he jolted upright.  "Esthar?!" he choked out.  He forced a laugh.  "And here I thought you were gonna let bygones be bygones.  So, when'll the trial be?  Can I place my order for my last meal?"

        Squall shot him a scornful look.  "I'm going to meet with the president."

        Seifer snorted.  "Yeah, kinda figured.  Say, did the reward posters show my good side?"

        "Oh, for--Laguna has some stupid idea about sending the Crystal Pillar back to the Moon," Squall grumbled.  Idiot, his expression said clearly.  "He wants to talk about it."  Nothing to do with the other moron sitting across from him.

        The blond lifted an eyebrow.  "And you thought it would be a good idea to take the Sorceress's Knight into Esthar with you?" he asked sardonically.  "Am I the only one who remembers who called down the Lunar Cry and half-destroyed Esthar?  'Cause I was pretty sure I had a part in it."  He spread his arms.  "But maybe I'm wrong."

        Squall rolled his eyes.  "Then shift if you want." Moron.  "If you think a big wolf will cause less comment."

***

        "SORCERESS," Fujin warned as Quistis entered the courtyard.

        "Ultimecia," the blonde replied shortly.  "And, judging from Raijin's description, I don't think I'm going to have to watch out for a whole lot."

        "SORCERESS, DYING," Fujin insisted.  She raised her eyebrows.  "SEARCH, HEIR."

        "Then it's especially lucky I don't have the sorceress potential," Quistis retorted.  "I'd say you're more likely to have trouble for that than I."

        The white-haired cadet shook her head.  "TRIED," she said.  "REFUSAL."

        Quistis' eyebrows climbed.  "You have to consent?" she asked, interested.  Fujin gave her a Look and she flushed.  "There's not a lot of knowledge to be found about sorceresses anymore," she said, defending herself.

        Fujin eyed her for a moment, then stepped aside.  "CENTRAN," she said.  "OLD."

        Quistis blinked.  "Are you sure?" she asked. "Maybe she's been living here all this time."

        Fujin shook her head decisively.  "OLD."  She rolled her eye upwards.  "LISTEN."

        Quistis took a quick look at the sorceress.  "Will I be able to understand her?" she asked.

        Fujin rocked a hand from side to side.  "TRANSLATE?" she asked.

        "Hmmm, maybe you should."  Quistis hesitated.  "Is she dangerous?"

        Fujin rocked her hand again.

        "How encouraging."  Quistis composed herself, then approached the delicate glass encasing the sorceress.  "I am Quistis Trepe," she announced.  "Who are you?"

        "San ar tanid Quistis Trepe.  Rha ar ieu?" Fujin asked.

        "Yi ara sondirest."

        Fuijin shrugged.  "SORCERESS," she translated.

        "But what should we call you by?" Quistis asked again patiently.

        "Rha ar ieu?"

        "Sondirest."

        Fujin opened her mouth, but the blonde held her hand up.  "I am capable of recognising a single word," she said crisply.  "But thank you.  Hmmm . . . what do you need?"

        "Sdat'de ieu rerur."

        "Wickisson."

        "Yes, I got that one, too," Quistis murmured.  "There are no successors here.  How can we care for you?"

        "Las'n h'ta nweh kene ren ieu?"

        "Wickisson, tolenai, assion yi, yi talint sralien--"

        "SUCCESSOR, AID, DEATH," Fujin said, listing off what the sorceress was saying.  She shrugged.  "BEFORE, SAME."

        Quistis sighed.  "Then there's not a lot we can do for her.  Except to make her final hours more comfortable."

        Fujin shook her head firmly.  "WITH SUCCESSOR, DEATH," she said.  "OR LIVE."

        Quistis looked at her with interest.  "So that's true as well?" she asked.  "A sorceress literally can't die until she finds someone to accept her powers?"

        Fujin nodded.

        "I hope Rinoa gets here soon, then," Quistis murmured.  "As the only sorceress around, she's really the only candidate I feel right about seeing to the sorceress."

        Fujin raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth.  However, it closed with a snap at the sharp look Quistis gave her.

        "Anything you wanted to add?" the blonde asked.  Fujin shook her head slowly.  "Very well.  I'll need the sorceress relocated to something a bit more comfortable than an ages-old confinement spell--it will need to be set apart from where the others' accommodations will be.  There's no point in asking for trouble, after all.  The only people to attend to her will be myself, Raijin, and you--everyone else must be vetted by me and accompanied by at least one of us."

        Fujin snapped a salute and watched the SeeD walk away.  She approved of the precautions--and after two Sorceress Wars in quick succession, there was absolutely no point in taking chances.

***

        "You look busy," Edea's quiet voice said, interrupting Quistis' rapid organisation of what notes had been taken.

        Quistis jumped, dropping the notebooks she had been holding.  "Matron!" she exclaimed, spinning to face the entrance of her tent.

        Edea smiled gently.  "It's good to see you again," she said.  "Even if it hasn't been so long since our last visit."

        "I'm so glad you're here first," Quistis said, sighing.

        Edea's gaze sharpened.  "Has something happened?" she asked.

        Quistis bit her lip and nodded.  "There's a central courtyard that was well protected," she said.  "There were these . . . things . . . ."  She turned back to the table and sorted through the papers until she came across the sketches Fujin had made of the broken glass and gold.  She handed them to Edea, along with the rough translations of what the symbols meant.  "Here.  There were twelve of these in it.  We're not completely sure, yet, what these were used for, but . . . ."  She paused.  "We found old bones in most of them.  We found--we found someone still living in one."  She took a deep breath.  "She's a sorceress."

        Edea looked up sharply at that.  "Are you sure?" she pressed.

        Quistis shrugged helplessly.  "She wants to find a successor," she said.  "She--she should be dead, from everything I can see, but she isn't.  Fujin says she needs to pass her power on before she can die."

        Edea ducked her head down, hiding her eyes from Quistis.  A sorceress.  One so drained she couldn't even go find a successor herself.

        "Would you be able to take a look at her?" Quistis asked gently.  "Maybe you can help her where we can't."

        "You don't know what you're asking," Edea said softly.  "Fujin is right.  She can't die until she passes on the gift and she can't find someone to."  She lifted her head.  "If I go in there," she warned, "you may not be ready for what comes out."

        Quistis nodded, steel she had helped temper showing in her eyes.  "We'll be ready," was all she said.

        Edea took a trembling breath.  "Then I suppose we should go see her," she said.

***

        Edea hesitated outside the tent that housed the forever dying sorceress.  Once she stepped inside, everything would change for her.  But she had never shrunk from what needed to be done and she wasn't going to start now.

        She lifted the flap and slipped inside.  It was dark inside and she paused to let her eyes adjust.  It was uncluttered inside, just the bed containing the sorceress, a table, and a chair for someone to sit in.

        "Ghaetan ieu," she said, taking care to pronounce the ancient words carefully.

        The shape on the bed shifted and a whisper of power reached out to her.  "Ghaetan ieu," the sorceress said faintly.  ". . . sondirest?

        She settled herself in the chair beside the bed.  "Layatuliss," she answered finally.

        She could see the tears of relief seep under the sorceress's eyelids.  They opened again.  "Yi ara taniduh Co'rinne," the sorceress whispered.

        "Yi ara taniduh Edea."

        "Morl ieu assion yi?"

        Would she help this ancient sorceress?  The help she required was something she had only given twice in her life and had sworn she would not again.  But . . . times changed and this sorceress from the past was no danger to her and hers.  Taking the gift into herself again would not leave her open to influence from the future.  But she had lived a very simple life since the end of the War, the third Sorceress War in history, and that would not be possible if she assented.

        Silence filled the tent for long moments.  Then--

        "Layatuliss," Edea said, her voice a bare thread of sound.

        The sorceress sighed out her last breath.  "Tusoboken . . . ."

***

        Quistis was quiet when Edea exited the tent.

        "She's . . . dead," the brown-haired woman murmured, eyes cast down.  "She passed her powers to me as she died."

        Quistis nodded--she could just make out the movement.  "Maybe we should finish this conversation in my tent," the blonde offered.  Edea nodded and fell into step behind her.

        Once they'd entered the tent, however, Quistis sat down and started organising the papers on the table again.  Edea floundered a bit--she had expected Quistis to put an immediate call to Garden and Squall, had expected to be guarded until she was retrieved, not to be . . . ignored.

        "You might as well sit down, you know," Quistis said, frowning at the paper in her hand.  "Even though there were only three people here, we seem to have managed to mess up the paperwork anyway."  She sighed.  "I'd think it was done on purpose, but I know for a fact they're still working on Zell's prank."

        Edea sat down cautiously.  "You don't seem . . . concerned," she probed.

        The blonde shrugged.  "It's only paperwork," she answered.  "And there's still time to get it into order before Xu can send disapproving glares my way."

        "I wasn't talking about the paperwork."

        Quistis turned to face her.  "I know," she said simply.  She smiled at the first mother she had ever known.  "It's all right."

        Edea half-shrugged.  "How can it be all right?" she asked, a note of despair in her voice.  "I'm a sorceress.  Again."

        Quistis laughed a little.  "It's all right," she repeated.  "We all knew you hadn't really given up all your power before."

        Edea looked shocked.  "You . . . knew?"

        "It was pretty obvious," the blonde said, bending back over her work.  "Your declaration that you'd given up your sorceress powers was a little too convenient to be convincing."

        Edea leaned back in her chair abruptly.  "But--why didn't you say anything?"

        Quistis lifted her head again.  "You're Matron," she said simply.  "That and none of us blame you.  Hyne knows, if I had a choice between lying about being a sorceress or being locked in a living death like Adel was, don't you think I'd pick lying?"

        "But I put the world in danger!" Edea protested.  "Ultimecia would still have been able to control me!"

        Quistis sighed and pushed her work away.  "Matron," she said seriously, "being a sorceress has nothing to do with Ultimecia's ability to control someone.  Rinoa proved that, remember?  I mean, sure, you'd look pretty silly calling a press conference or something while weaving and stumbling about, but the truth of the situation is Ultimecia would have been able to control you anyway."  She shrugged and picked up her work again.  "It just so happens we gave Ultimecia what she wanted after all, so she didn't need to come back in time and control anyone else again."

        It was clear the older woman wasn't completely convinced, but at least the worrying thread of despair had disappeared.

        "Besides," Quistis added, "your Ancient Centran is much better than mine and we're going to need all the help we can get to figure out what those . . . things were used for."

        Edea tapped a finger on her arm thoughtfully.  "I may have a notion," she said thoughtfully.  "Co'rinne--the sorceress--she had been drained almost dry.  That is not usual, even for a sorceress near death.  It was quite literally only the lack of a successor that was keeping her alive.  If I had to rely only on the power she gifted me, I wouldn't be able to light a candle."

        Quistis turned to look at her again.  "So, what are you saying?"

        "She was old," Edea said, looking directly at her.  "Old and drained and her body is just so much dust, now, as if the turn of centuries caught up to her body all at once.  I think she was kept in stasis and the power it drew on to keep here there was her own."

        "Stasis?" Quistis breathed.  "But--even Esthar only just discovered how to seal a sorceress--relatively speaking, that is.  Are you saying the Centrans were able to seal sorceresses away?"

        "I'm saying they might have," was the reply.  "I'll need a closer look at the courtyard and whatever it is in there to be more sure, of course."

        "Tomorrow morning," Quistis said instantly.  "I'll go with you myself--no, the White SeeD ship is supposed to be here tomorrow.  I'll send Raijin with you."  She sighed regretfully.  "And here I thought not being an Instructor would allow me more time to do the things I like."

***

        "I am not marrying you, so take your creepy jewelery and keep it the hell away from me!"

        Quistis looked up, startled, just in time to see Dr Odine roll down the ramp of the White SeeD ship like a colourful pinwheel.  Rinoa marched through the exit like an avenging goddess and swept by the Esthar doctor, giving him only a contemptuous kick in passing.  Angelo followed after, not even giving the doctor a passing sniff.

        "Quisty, it's so good to see you!" Rinoa said, holding out her hands.  Quistis caught them and gripped them tightly.

        "It's good to see you're still kicking the boys down the stairs," she said dryly.  "Tell me, do you do that to all your suitors?"

        Rinoa tossed her head.  "Only the ones that insult me," she said loftily.  "Honestly, Quisty, he tried to get me to wear an Odine Bangle--as if I would fall for that!"  She imitated his accent.  "It'zz for da rezearcheeng!  And marreeage!"

        Quistis laughed.  "He's pretty single-minded," she said.  "But his results are worth it."

        "Only if he has a baby-sitter," Rinoa complained.  "Please tell me you got him a babysitter."  She didn't wait for Quistis' answer before looking around eagerly.  "So, where's everyone?"

        "Edea and Raijin are looking at something we found," Quistis said, tucking Rinoa's hand under her arm and using it steer the sorceress away from the ramp and the off-loading in progress.  "We're pretty sure it has something to do with sorceresses, but it needs a better translation than I can provide.  Fujin, as you saw, is supervising."  They both looked at the white-haired cadet.  She was only using short, sharp gestures that, nevertheless, made the White SeeDs she was supervising run about and get things accomplished.  "Or making everyone dance to her tune, I can never tell."

        Rinoa giggled.  "Oh!  Has Squall come by yet?" she asked.  She waved a hand vaguely northwards.  "He said he was going off to Trabia and that Laguna was looking for him and maybe he'd stop by here or something."

        "I know, I talked with him while I was requesting support," Quistis said, smiling.

        "You mean when you were bullying him!"  They both laughed.

        "I would never bully the SeeD Commander," Quistis tried to say primly.  It failed when she was unable to get her lips to stop curling up.  "Where's Ellone?" she asked, changing the subject.  "I was expecting to see her with you."

        Rinoa tipped a shoulder up in half a shrug.  "She said something about going to see Matron," she offered.  "I guess she must have slipped out when Odine was trying to marry me."  She made a face.  "Do you think hanging around SeeD will make me half as sneaky as she is?"

        "You can hope," Quistis said dubiously, "or you could try signing up for a few classes."

        The brunette made a gesture telegraphing how uncomfortable she was.  "It doesn't seem right," she muttered.  "I'm not SeeD, I'm a sorceress."

        Quistis raised an eyebrow.  "And that stops you from taking classes?" she asked.

        Rinoa shrugged again.  "Anyway, where's Matron again?" she asked, forcing cheer into her voice.  "I know Ellone as dying to catch up with you, too!"

***

        Laguna looked quizzically at Squall.  "I didn't think you had a dog, Squall," he said, scratching his head.  He crouched down and held his hand out.  "Here, girl!"

        Squall unobtrusively knocked Seifer off-balance before he tried to bite Laguna's face off.  "He's not a girl," he pointed out.

        Laguna peered closer and Seifer twitched, obviously fighting the urge to shift his forelegs and block the view.  "Hey, so he isn't!  Sorry, boy, didn't mean to impugn your, er, doghood."  He looked up at Squall.  "Where did you get him, anyway?  I don't recognise the breed and you didn't have a dog before."

        "It's a wolf--"  Seifer accidentally-on-purpose stepped on Squall's foot.  Not that it hurt, but it was the thought that counted.  "--hound," Squall finished.  "He and I kinda . . . fell in with each other.  After the War."

        Laguna stood up and dusted himself off.  "Are you sure you should be taking in strays?" he asked doubtfully.  "I mean, maybe someone's missing this guy!"

        "I'm taking him back to his owners."  An obvious lie, but, sometimes, Laguna couldn't see obvious if it took off its clothes and danced around naked.

        Laguna brightened.  "That's great, Squall!"  He frowned.  "But how did you know?  I don't see a collar on him.  Really, Squall, whether or not he's your pet, you should really put a collar on him or someone will think he's a stray.  I mean, a stray not on his way home.  And you might want to talk to his owners about either neutering him or making sure he can't run away;  the guy's probably sired half a dozen little wolfhound puppies already."

        "The Crystal Pillar," Squall said somewhat desperately.  Anything to change the topic of conversation before Seifer tried to kill the President of Esthar or, worse yet, Squall helped him.  Selphie would never let him hear the end of it.

        Laguna blinked.  "Huh?  Right!  See, I was thinking--"

        Thankfully, that was when Kiros had had enough laughing at Squall and stepped forward.  Ward just stood around looking vastly amused.  "I'm sure the Commander is tired," he murmured.  "Surely there's enough time for him to rest.  Maybe after dinner tonight?"

        "Oh!  Right!  Yes, you must be tired and want to freshen up and Ward can take you to your rooms and we'll eat dinner!"  Laguna clapped his hands together.  "Not all at once, of course."

        "And you still have to finish your job," Kiros added pointedly.

        Laguna's face fell as Ward stepped forward and gestured for Squall to follow him.  As they left the President of Esthar and his aide, Squall visibly relaxed.  At some shift from their guide, Squall said, "I know he means well, but does he always have to put his foot in his mouth?"

        Another obscure motion from Ward.

        "Well, yes, of course he must do a good job, because even hero worship will eventually run dry, but he acts like he's such a moron."

        A half-shrug.

        "Okay, granted, it's a great way to throw people off-balance, but that display back there was less acting and more . . . more . . . ."

        Ward spread his arms out.

        "Yes, exactly, thank you.  And I should hardly be making him nervous.  Yes, I helped defeat Ultimecia, but it really was a team effort and, honestly, Esthar could probably squash SeeD like a bug, so it's not that."

        Another shrug.

        Squall looked at him with new interest.  "Oh, really?  And I suppose you won't say anything," he added morosely.  He sighed.  "Don't get me wrong, loyalty is a wonderful thing, but, really, it sucks so much in the area of intelligence-gathering.  Or, okay, loyalty to other people does.  If everyone was just loyal to me, it wouldn't be an issue.  Not that I want everyone to be loyal to me, understand, because that creates a bond and an expectation and I already have enough on my plate with SeeD and the Gardens; I don't need the whole world's loyalty, as well."

        Wade made another gesture, then stopped in front of a set of doors.

        Squall sighed.  "Yeah, I guess I'll see you at dinner.  And Kiros and Laguna, too, and probably every politician this side of Horizon Bridge."  He pulled one of the doors open and slipped inside.  "I hate political dinners."

        Seifer followed him and shifted as soon as the door was closed.

        "The hell was up with that?" he demanded, gesturing at the door.

        "Well, I do hate political dinners," Squall mumbled.  He headed through another set of doors to find--bliss--the bed and proceeded to fall on it.  He grabbed a pillow and curled around it.

        "Awwww, how cute," Seifer drawled, leaning against the doorway.  Squall responded with a rude gesture.  "Tell me, is Laguna for real?"

        Squall sighed and shifted onto his back.  "Yeah," he said at last.  "He's a moron with incredible luck who managed to defeat Adel and become President of Esthar and is incredibly, unbelievably for real.  Some of the 'I'm a moron' stuff he does is an act, just like Ward said, but what we saw was a lot closer to the real Laguna.  Or at the least the real Laguna of his youth," he muttered.  "You know, I never did figure out why Elle kept sending us back.  Yes, to help Laguna, obviously, but what else did she want to accomplish?"

        Seifer raised an eyebrow.  "Ellone . . . sent you back?" he asked.

        Squall huffed and sat up.  Clearly, there was going to be no sleep until he'd satisfied Seifer's curiosity.  "Yeah," he said.  "What a mindtrip that was."  He paused.  "Literally.  And her powers messed with our junctions, too.  Do you know how annoying it is to have to re-junction everything?  And when you're in the mind of a moron who likes to moon around after lounge singers, too.  Or trying to run from a huge Ruby Dragon."

        Seifer rolled his eyes.  "Fine, fine, I'll let you get your beauty sleep, Pussyheart."  He left the room, presumably to explore the rest of the suite and Squall allowed himself to fall back onto the bed with a moan.  Sleep, that was all he wanted.  In the incredibly soft bed under him.

        He was jarred awake when the blond came storming back.  "What the hell kinda place is this?!" Seifer snarled.  "What the hell, Leonhart, what the hell!"

        "What the hell what?" Squall snapped back.

        Seifer gestured out the door.  "There's only one room!"

        Squall paused, then smirked.  "Laguna has only one guest," he pointed out smugly.  "Guess you'll be sleeping on the couch."

        Seifer fumed.  "Oh, like hell I will."  He began jerking off his coat.  "Move over, Leonhart.  And get your damn boots off my bed."

        Squall actually laughed and that weirded Seifer out enough to make him pause.  "And what if a servant comes in?" he asked, still grinning that disturbing grin.  "However will I explain why I have a certain notorious blond in my bed?"  He shook his head solemnly.  "Just think what the rumour mill will churn out.  Obviously, I don't care, but your reputation . . . ."

        The faces Seifer was making were extremely entertaining.  "I-- You--  Just--"  The blond pointed a threatening finger at Squall, who just smiled lazily.  "Stop smiling, dammit!  It's disturbing and borderline psychotic!"  He shrugged his coat back on fluidly.  "And it's still my bed, dammit, so move over."  He shifted back into his wolf and jumped onto the bed, making extra effort to land on Squall.

        Squall groaned at the weight pressing down on him; unlike his feet, his legs weren't protected by boots.  He shoved Seifer over in retaliation.  The golden-furred wolf fell with a whumph and laughed at him.

        "Whatever," he muttered, kicking off his boots.  "The no-cuddling rule still applies."

***

        It was warm and soft and . . . wet.

        Something was licking his face with way too much enthusiasm.

        Squall whined and flailed a hand around briefly.  "Stoppit, Angelo," he muttered.  "Go bother Rin."  That stopped it for a minute, but no longer.  The licking resumed and wouldn't stop even when he flailed again.  "Stoppit!"

        And then the unthinkable happened.  A long, wet tongue dragged itself across his lips.

        Squall sat up with a yelp, knocking away the dog that was--ew--kissing him.  He rubbed his eyes open and glared at . . . at Seifer, actually.  He growled and shoved the wolf off the other side of the bed.  "Gross, Seifer, that was gross!"  He scrubbed at his mouth.  "Ew, dog cooties.  On my mouth."

        Seifer sat up and just laughed and laughed.  "How is it worse than human cooties?" he wanted to know.

        "It just--it is, okay?  Yech."

        Seifer folded his arms on the bed and laid his chin on them.  "You know, I've kissed a lot of girls," he mused, "but none of them have objected to my technique."

        "I'm a boy," Squall said pointedly.  "And you were a dog."

        Seifer shrugged.  "Same thing, with you.  And I was a wolf."  He sniffed.        "There's a difference."

        "Not when it comes to slipping someone some tongue," Squall muttered.  He fell back into the obscenely decadent pillows and sighed.  "What the hell time's it, anyway?"

        "Time for little princesses to be getting ready for supper.  You should thank me," Seifer said.  "Wasn't that a better way to wake up than to a rude, jangling alarm?"

        Squall scowled and muttered, "I'd've preferred the alarm, thanks."  He threw the covers off and dropped his legs over the side.  "How much time do we have?"

        "'Bout an hour."

        "More like half, then, if we have to navigate the palace."  He scrubbed at his face.  "Shower, no shower, shower, no shower."

        Seifer made a face.  "As if that's a question.  Shower, duh.  A hot one."  he pushed himself back onto the bed.  "I guess Rin really got to you."

        "What're you talking about?" Squall grumbled as he headed for the bathroom.

        Seifer got up and tagged along.  "You know, the talking . . . thing.  I think I've heard you say more since you woke up than for entire weeks at a time."  He kicked Squall's jacket to one side and caught the white--wrinkled--shirt before it hit him in the face.

        Squall grunted as he pulled his belts off.  "Are you going to follow me into the shower?" he asked pointedly.

        Seifer leered.  "Why, do you want me to?"

        "No."  And the door slammed shut in his face and the lock engaged.

        He leaned against the door.  "It's not like the lock's actually going to keep me out!" he called through the door.  "I'm SeeD, there're no locks anywhere that can keep me out!"

        The door opened abruptly and he fell through with a thud.  "Not yet you're not," the brunet said, immensely satisfied.

        "Pfft, a mere technicality," Seifer said, waving it away.  He eyed the towel Squall had wrapped around his waist with interest.  He could almost . . . see . . . .

        Squall raised an eyebrow.  "Waging war against Garden is a 'mere technicality'," he said disbelievingly.  He shoved Seifer's shoulder with his foot.  "Get out."

        Seifer, of course, crossed his arms behind his head and got comfortable.  But Squall was wise to Seifer's ways and he started shutting the door anyway.  Seifer's head was no match for the strength behind the closing door and he had to scoot out of the way.  "Cheater!" he shouted through the door, but there was no reply but the sound of the shower turning on.  He sighed and leaned back against the door again.  He couldn't mess with the gunblades, lest he never get his back, and Squall was known to exact terrible retribution upon those who touched his clothes and, perhaps, dyed them a fetching hot pink.  What could he do to express his displeasure at being ignored?

        He grinned slowly.

***

        Squall shoved the bathroom door open  and headed straight for his bag.  He eyed the clothes he'd been wearing with reluctant.  He was attached to them--like grim death, Seifer had once said, just after his trench coat had turned a rather delicate shade of green--but the thought of putting them on again without washing them was distasteful.  He wasn't exactly on a mission, after all.  He had his SeeD Commander uniform, of course, but that was likely too formal for the dinner.  For all his whining about political dinners, there was a better-than-good chance tonight's would be informal.  He thought it was probably one of the ways his staff kept Laguna president and from making big mistakes and accidentally starting a war.

        Still, he didn't really want to go into even an informal meal without some . . . sort of protec--  He turned his head, trying to find the source of the slurping sound.  He moved forward and checked on the other side of the bed.  Seifer was there, bent almost double, and he was . . . .

        Squall chucked the towel at him without thinking about it.  "Seifer, that's gross!"

        Seifer straightened and turned around to grin at him--quite literally--wolfishly.  The towel slid off his shoulders as he leered at the picture Squall made--naked and still damp from his shower.

        "That's just--  If you're going to do that, just . . . lock yourself in the bathroom, okay?"  Squall pointed an angry finger at him.  "And don't even think about licking me--who knows where else your tongue has been?"  He shook his head and rummaged through his bag.  A shirt sailed out and landed on Seifer's head.  "And stop staring at me!  Hyne, that's so disturbing, I can't even--"

        Seifer just flopped on the ground and silently laughed and laughed and laughed.

***

        Laguna frowned as Squall slid a full plate under the table for Seifer.  "Squall," he said hesitantly, "you know, it's not good to feed pets people food."

        Squall shrugged and Seifer actually growled and hunched over his plate in case anyone decided to try to take it away from him.  "He wasn't eating what you provided," he said indifferently.

        Laguna coughed and cleared his throat.  Squall shot him a sharp look.

        "What."  Because it would not be good for the world's political climate for the President of Esthar to choke on his own food and die

        Laguna waved a hand.  "Nothing," he said in a suspiciously choked voice.  "It's just . . . he's not even your dog and you're taking such good care of him."

        "People food," Squall reminded him cautiously.

        "But you noticed he wasn't eating!"  Laguna waved his hand again.  "Never mind, it's just . . . .  Nothing, that's all it was."  He cleared his throat again and picked up his utensils.  "So!  Crystal Pillar!" he said with a forced cheer.  "How about that?"

        Squall started cutting into his steak.  "It acts as a focus for the Lunar Cry," he said.  "And it was found in Centra."

        Laguna nodded.  "And it came from the Moon," he added triumphantly.  "We've had Lunar Cries before, but the ancients' accounts seemed to be rather . . . less destructive than our own experiences have been.  And a lot more widely spaced out."

        "It was still sorceresses who called them, mostly," Squall pointed out.  "Naturally occurring Lunar Cries didn't carry the widespread damage a deliberately called one does."

        "But even so, the Crystal Pillar seems to amplify it!" Laguna protested.  "The Centran Crater, the Trabia Crater--I guess I should be thankful there isn't an Esthar Crater, huh?" he asked sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.

        "What we're hoping for," Kiros cut in smoothly, sending a reproving look at his president, "is to work out an agreement to borrow the Ragnarok to lift it back into space and send it back to the Moon."

        Squall grunted.  "Still haven't found the other two, then."  It would be a question, except for the certainty it was said with.

        Laguna scowled and answered anyway.  "No, and we have no idea where to find them, either.  None of the beacons are transmitting and--"

        "And space is just a little too big to be able to turn over every stone," Kiros finished.

        Laguna made a face and nodded.  "What do you think?" he asked eagerly.

        Squall, his mouth full, rocked his hand back and forth.  "Possible," he said when he'd swallowed.  "But not likely.  It took three of the Ragnarok-class ships to get Adel's Tomb up and the Pillar's likely to weigh at least twice as much, especially if you want to send the Lunatic Pandora up with it.  I would, in case of magical contamination.  It might be easier to blast it into smaller chunks and ferry it up like that."  He leaned back in his seat.  "As it happens, SeeD has a demolitions expert and a pilot for the Ragnarok.  Luckily for you, they're the same person; it'll cost less than having to get two different SeeDs.  And we'll throw her boyfriend in there for free if you contribute a bit of capital and maybe some technology towards getting Galbadia Garden up to par again--he's not a full SeeD, not yet, but he'll be able to restrain some of Selphie's more . . . enthusiastic ideas."  He shrugged again.  "You'll have to contact Garden directly for details and a more formal agreement, but that's what we're prepared to offer.  If you have ideas or changes you'd like made, again, you'll have to contact Garden about them.  I'm only the guy in charge, I don't actually have the authority to deal with you directly."

        Laguna laughed wryly.  "I know how that feels," he commiserated.  "We're just the pretty faces, you and I, am I right?  Hey, do you want to move this to a more comfortable setting?  There's . . . something else I'd like to discuss and it might be better to be away from uten--I mean, to be more comfortable."

***

        Seifer padded down the halls of the Esthar presidential palace, feeling like nothing more than a long nap in a warm bed as he digested the wonderful meal he had just consumed.  He burped absently.  What a change it was from raw rabbit.  What a welcome change.

        He stared at the door handle.  Handle.  Requiring hands.  He narrowed his eyes.  Maybe.  He lifted himself up and leaned his paws against the door.  He tried biting at the handle, but his teeth just slid around and didn't catch on anything.  He tried his paws next, but it looked like there really was a need for fingers--or at least something that could grip.  He dropped back to the floor and looked up and down the hall.  The coast was clear and he . . . shifted.  A quick move got him back inside and he let himself shift back to wolf with a sigh of relief.  No harm, no foul.

        The next problem was . . . where would it be most inconvenient to Leonhart for him to sleep?  The obvious answer was the bed, of course, but that left the rest of the furniture in the suite as an option.  A quick check, though, reassured him of their overwhelming capacity for being uncomfortable.  Either way, he decided, the pillows at the top of the bed were perfect to stretch out on.

        It was some time later when the sound of the door opening woke him up.  He shifted his head only enough to see where Leonhart was and kept his eyes mostly closed.

        There was a long moment of silence.  Then the purposeful sounds of a gunblade's sheath being buckled on.  Leonhart crossed in front of the bedroom door, Lionheart--and only Lionheart--hanging from his waist.  Seifer shifted up, alarmed now.  There was the sound of the door to the garden outside being opened and closed.

        The golden wolf jumped off the bed and headed for the same door.  He stood up against it and watched Squall.  Even though he had to have heard Seifer landing on the glass door, the brunet didn't turn around.  He looked up at the moon for a long moment and then his outline shifted and the dark lion padded off the patio and into the dark of the garden.

        Seifer dropped down and backed away from the door, confused.  He hesitated for a long moment, but, really, if Squall had taken Lionheart, he may not be coming back.  And if that was the case . . . .

        He shifted abruptly and grabbed Hyperion, buckling it on securely.        He opened the door and shifted back.  No way was Leonhart going to drag him all the way here and then leave him with no explanation.

        He caught up with the lion right after he had jumped the wall enclosing the garden.

        Leonhart turned on him with a snarl when he dropped down beside the lion, but he held his ground.  Grey-blue eyes looked at him, then turned away and the lion moved.

        Seifer followed.  Being ignored was as good as an invitation, as far as he was concerned.

***

        It had been a full and busy day, Quistis reflected as she made her way to her tent.  She sighed happily.  A very satisfying day.  Matron had been able to say decisively the broken . . . things in the hidden courtyard had, in fact, been used as prisons of a sort for sorceresses, Fujin had organised the expanded camp with what was almost scary efficiency, and Ellone had visited for as long as she could before leaving with the White SeeDs to visit Laguna in Esthar.

        Which is why she was, perhaps, not as alert as she could have been.

        "Hey, Instructor," a shadow leaning on a crumbling wall said.

        She grabbed for her whip instinctively and the person snorted and pointed a weapon at her.  A long, dark weapon that still managed to gleam in the thin moonlight.

        "I don't think so, Trepe."

        She relaxed a little and said, "I didn't expect to meet you here.  Squall was able to find you, then?"

        Seifer sighed, aggrieved, and let Hyperion's point drop.  "Why does everything come back to Puberty Boy?" he complained.  "Couldn't I've just decided to come back on my own?"

        Quistis shook her head.  "Not your style," she said with rock-solid certainty.  "Or, at least, not yet."  She glanced around quickly.  "Where's Squall?"

        "Seeing to the chocobos, what did you think?" Seifer snarled mockingly.  "Why does everyone assume Pussyheart had anything to do with me?"

        Because everyone was not as dumb as Seifer obviously wished them to be, but, in the interests of not waking up the camp with a full-out battle in the middle of the night, Quistis didn't say anything about it.

        "You'll have to stay with me tonight," she said, heaving a purely internal sigh.  Squall wasn't that bad of a tentmate, but sleeping--or trying--with Seifer in the same, small enclosed space?  She'd been his Instructor, if only for a year.  She knew why Seifer was generally given either tentmates of his choosing or no tentmates at all.  She motioned the blond out of her way curtly.  "If you'll follow me, I'll show you where it is."

        Seifer, of course, didn't move out of the way and, in fact, sauntered directly to her tent.  Sometimes, it was hard to remember the only reason Seifer wasn't SeeD already was because of his lack of respect for authority--everywhere else, he performed above expectations.

        Something jumped in front of her and she stopped, reaching again for her whip.  She forced her hand away with an aggravated sigh once she got a good look at her "attacker".

        "Squall, I could have hurt you," she scolded.  The dark lion just looked at her blandly.

        Seifer snorted.  "Yeah, he's been doing that ever since we left Esthar," he grumbled.  "Good luck making him stop.  Or talk.  Talking would be a real treat.  He's been giving me the silent treatment all the way here."

        Quistis eyed Squall curiously.  Squall, of course, had nothing to add to the conversation and followed Seifer into her tent.  She shook her head and bent down to go in herself.  Once inside, she glared at the too-innocent look on the face of the golden wolf and the back of the dark lion curled up on her bed.  Clearly, there was only one solution to be had.

        A minute later, the rainbow snake pushed herself up onto her bed and loosely arranged herself over the comfortably warm fur of the lion.  She shut her eyes and tasted the air in satisfaction at the dumbfounded expression on the wolf.

***

        Selphie dug her toe in the dirt outside of Quistis' tent and sighed, a trifle louder than the last time.  Nothing.  She accidentally kicked a rock against one of the tent poles, but no one moved to investigate the sudden thock.  "Quisty?" she said in a loud whisper.  "Quisty, are you up?"

        Nothing.

        She thumped her hands onto her hips.  This "boundaries" thing was for the birds.  What this clear and aggravating case of being ignored called for was direct action.

        She reached for the ties to the tent and stealthily undid them before sliding herself through the smallest gap possible.  Considerately, she tied the flaps closed again so the early morning sunlight wouldn't come in and disturb the occupant.

        Then she turned and flung herself at the shape on the bed.  "Good morning, Quisty!" she caroled.

        The shape on the bed shifted, then flung itself at her.  She squeaked and tried to stop her own headlong movement--Quistis had taken to wrapping her snake body around her until she cried uncle--but was unable to before she was thrown to the ground with a heavy weight on top of her.  Claws pricked at her shoulders and a mane of dark hair tickled her nose.

        "Squall!" she cried out.  "Squall, you're here!"  She moved herself smartly and dumped the lion on his side before throwing herself at him and hugging the hell out of him.  "What are you doing here, you bad boy?" she scolded.  "I was supposed to bring you from Esthar to here, but what do I hear when I get back there?  I hear you'd already left!  Squall, that's not nice!"

        There was a soft thump off in the corner and she turned her head to see a golden wolf spread out on the floor.  The thump had obviously been him laying his head down again.

        "Is that--?" she asked.  "Seifer?!"  She pushed herself to her knees and shuffled as quick as she could to the corner, intent on greeting the wolf as she had the lion.

        Seifer lifted his head up and stared in horror at the apparition coming towards him.  He scrambled to his feet and tried to dodge around her.

        "Seifer!  Don't you dare run away from me!" she called as she quickly shifted directions.  "Sei--Seifer, stoppit!"

        Finally, though, the wolf had nowhere left to run and had to succumb to the same hug the lion had.  He made this kind of groaning noise; it was possibly a sound of defeat, but Selphie chose to believe it was only because the air was being squeezed out of his lungs.

        "Selphie," Quistis sighed, "let Seifer go."

        Selphie shook her head and hugged the wolf tighter.  "Nuh-uh!" she said.  "He has to pay for staying away so long!  This hug will represent all the hugs I never got to give him!"

        "Selphie!"  Quistis' voice cracked like the whip she carried.

        Sullenly, the brunette let the wolf go and Seifer took the chance to scramble to the other side of the tent, where he shifted as he turned back around.

        "What the hell, Messenger Girl?!" he croaked, rubbing at his throat.  "You're SeeD; either choke someone right or don't do it at all!"

        Selphie tossed her head.  "I wasn't choking you," she said loftily.  "I was hugging you."  She eyed him speculatively.  "If you want me to show you the difference . . . ."

        Seifer actually took a step back.

        "Selphie."

        The brunette put on a pout.  "You're no fun, Quisty," she accused.  "No fun at all!"

        The blonde sighed.  "Selphie, why are you here?"

        "I was supposed to bring Squall here . . . ," she said, drawing it out.  She glared at Squall.  "But someone decided to make his own way here, leaving me at loose ends.  So I decided to come and visit my favourite archaeological site while I waited for new orders!"  She reached out and poked Squall in the side.  Annoyed, the lion batted her hand away and she grinned.  "Looks like those orders will be a long time in coming, though, so I guess I'll just hang out here!" she said cheerfully.

        "Where's Irvine, then?" the blonde asked, rubbing at her forehead.

        Selphie shrugged.  "I dropped him back off at Galbadia Garden," she said.  "But I figured that was the most thinking-for-myself I was allowed to do, so I headed back here to await further orders."  She snapped off a salute.  "SeeD Tilmitt, reporting for duty!"

        "Squall . . . ."  Quistis stared pleadingly at the lion, but he ignored it and instead slipped out of the tent.  With an annoyed look, Seifer shifted and followed him, skirting wide around Selphie.

        "Booyaka!" Selphie cried, curling up and giggling.  "Implicit permission to stay has been given!"  She sat up straight.  "Whatcha got for me, Quisty?"

***

        Seifer had followed the lion through the dusty roads of the broken city.  The camp was mostly silent in the pre-dawn stillness and it was even less of a chore to evade the sentries on the way out than it had been on the way in.  Seifer shook his head at that--these were SeeD, in the middle of, as he understood it, a city that had held sealed sorceresses.  To be so complacent was to practically invite mischief and mayhem to teach them a lesson.  Heh, maybe he could lend a hand with that; giant wolves could be pretty scary when they snuck up on someone.

        They finally ended up on an outcrop overlooking one of the bays created by the Lunar Cry.  It was, of course, the one Trepe had begun using as an actual port.  Teams of SeeD were still clearing out the debris so any ships would have an easier time getting close enough to unload.

        He finally shifted back and lounged against a handy boulder, using his rolled up coat as a pillow.  Squall, of course, seemed to take no notice, but the next time the lion stretched out, his head dropped--heavily, because this wasn't a plea for attention or comfort or anything like that--onto Seifer's lap.

        "Am I a pillow for your convenience?" the blond complained.  "Is that why you're dragging me halfway around the world, just so you can have something on which to rest your weary head?"

        Squall yawned, deliberately showing off his big teeth.

        Seifer snorted.  "Ha, that's not scary," he said.  "I have a set, too, remember?"

        That prompted Squall to stretch out his toes and casually show off his retractable claws.

        "Awright, fine," Seifer conceded.  "Claws like yours, I don't have.  Still not that scary, though."

        The lion huffed and shifted his head again, nudging at Seifer's hand.

        "I'm not your personal ear scratcher," Seifer warned, although he lifted his hand and rested it in Squall's mane.  It didn't take more than a few scratches before an almost unnoticeable purr started up and the blond smirked.  "You're pretty easy, Leonhart," Seifer said, chuckling.

        Squall considerately dug a claw into Seifer's leg.

        "Mother--!"  Seifer shoved the lion's head off and glared at him.  "Don't even think about it," he warned.  "I'm not your pillow, ear scratcher, or personal pincushion!"

        The lion stood up smoothly and loomed over the seated blond.

        "Yeah, and don't think you can intimidate me, either," the blond said, reaching up and burying his hands on the mane again.  Squall's eyes slid closed and he sat down with a thump.  It wasn't long until he was collapsed over Seifer's lap again, that barely audible purr vibrating the blond's legs.

        "We ever gonna talk 'bout why you chased me down?" Seifer asked idly.  The lion didn't even move and the blond sighed.  "Fine, then how about why we ran out on the President of Esthar?  Moron or not, that's just not good diplomatic relations."  This time the lion curled up, pulling his mane out of Seifer's hands.  The blond paused for a moment, shocked, then shoved himself to his feet, annoyed.  "Fine!  Then why don't you shift and go back to your usual uncommunicative self!" he shouted, striding down the path they'd taken up.  Halfway down, he shifted and started running.

        "SEIFER?!"

        The shocked exclamation made him stumble and he stopped, whipping his head around.

        Fujin and Raijin--not people he would ever expect to see at a SeeD operation again--stared back at him.

        Fujin's expression turned thunderous and she took a step towards the wolf.  Seifer scrambled to put some distance between himself and her foot.

        "SEIFER, WHERE?" she demanded.

        He whined a bit and may, possibly, have looked to Raijin for help.  Unfortunately, the last third of the Disciplinary Committee was still looking shocked and would clearly be no help.

        "WAITING," the white-haired cadet said.  Then she shook her head and turned sharply.  "HEEL."

        Seifer cringed at the indignity of it, but slunk along after her, trying to keep Raijin between him and the hellhound in disguise ordering him about.

***

        "I blame you, you know," Seifer said conversationally to the lion ignoring him.  "I blame you a lot.  I have bruises because you pissed me off.  I had Fujin scolding me, like I was some kind of naughty kid or something, because of you.  I have dinner plans because of you.  You owe me, Leonhart."

        The lion clearly didn't think that merited any sort of reaction.  He continued to stare at the tent wall, his back to Seifer, as if there was something truly interesting on it.  Seifer lifted a leg and shoved at the lion's lower back.  Squall gave him a dirty look, then rose majestically and slipped out of the tent.  Again.

        "What the hell, Leonhart!" Seifer shouted, scrambling to his feet.  He burst through the tent flaps, intent on giving Squall a piece of his very pissed off mind.  He stopped short, struck by something he didn't even understand.  Something unsettling.  Something familiar.

        He shifted abruptly, not caring who might be around, and scanned his surroundings.  There!  The smell-taste of a sorceress, a scent he could never forget.  He snarled and shrank back.  Only knowing he couldn't be caught in this form kept him from running.

        And then he saw Squall.  Sitting at the sorceress's feet like some fucking pet, her hand in his mane and his cheek brushing against her side.

        "Seifer?  Seifer, is that you?"  The sorceress was coming for him again, reaching a hand out to him.  He snapped at it in warning, just barely missing the fingertips.  The sorceress jumped back, frightened, and he watched it with savage pleasure.

        "Rinoa."  Squall.  But he was human now, he was in danger.

        "Squall, what's wrong with him?  Why's he acting like that?"

        Squall didn't answer the sorceress, only pulled her back and put himself between them.  Seifer growled.  Always on the other fucking side.

        "Seifer."

        Seifer upped his growl warningly when Squall reached out to him.  The brunet sighed and looked back over his shoulder.

        "Rin, do me a favour and block off this area for a bit."

        "Gotcha, Squall.  Squall . . . it is Seifer, isn't it?"

        "Yeah, it is."

        "Ha!  Then I'll leave you two alone."

        Squall waited until the sorceress left before crouching and trying to reach out again.  Seifer eyed his hand warily, but didn't make a move to stop it.  It settled on the back of his neck and his skin crawled at the implications as it gripped for a long moment.  Then the grip loosened and Squall slapped the back of his head sharply.

        Seifer almost fell flat on his face in surprise.  He snarled at the man, but it was different from before.

        "You're an idiot," Squall told him.  "That's Rinoa.  Remember?  The girl you used to date?"

        Seifer huffed and turned his face away.  Yeah, he remembered Rinoa.  And he guess he remembered hearing she'd turned sorceress.  He just . . . hadn't been expecting her.  And 'date' was putting more into what they'd had than there had been; it wasn't like he'd taken her to any romantic dinners or anything.

        Squall shifted so he was sitting instead of crouching.  He patted the ground beside him in invitation and Seifer thought for a moment about rejecting the demeaning gesture--wolves didn't just sit on command!--then huffed again and moved enough so he could flop down next to the other man.  Astonishingly, Squall actually touched him, using his fingers to comb through Seifer's ruff.  The wolf grumbled, but allowed it.

        "I know you have . . . reservations with sorceresses," Squall began and Seifer grumbled a bit more.  Reservations.  That was like say the ocean was damp.  "And I can't tell you to get over it or anything, because I know just how well that will go." As in, 'not at all well'.  "And you should know Matron's here, too, then.  Quistis says there was--well, she picked up another sorceress's powers again."

        Seifer waited for it.  The 'But you hurt Rinoa's feelings' or 'But get over it anyway'.  But Squall stayed silent and Seifer eventually heaved out a lungful of air.  This sort of shit was for the birds.

        He sat up and shifted.  "I'll try to make nice with your girlfriend," he muttered.  "It was just . . . a surprise.  That's why I shifted like that.  And--yeah, I know Matron was controlled by the bitch, too.  I'll make nice with her, too."  He shrugged his shoulders, trying to tell Squall he was over his little breakdown thing, but the other man kept his hand there.  It was soothing in a way he didn't really want to think about when they were talking about girlfriends.

        Squall's hand lifted, then slapped down on his shoulder as the brunet used him as support while he stood up.  "She's not my girlfriend," he said before shifting and trotting away.

        Seifer gritted his teeth and tried to hold onto his temper.  It didn't work.  "Leonhart!" he roared, surging to his feet and taking off after the lion.  "Leonhart, get back here and explain that shit!"

***

        The dinner plans Fujin had forced him into had turned into some kind of fake family reunion.  Fujin had threatened to kick Seifer if he whined about it one more time, so he confined his grumbling to Squall, who was stubbornly clinging to his lion form.

        Yeah, something was bothering him.  He hadn't seen the other guy stay lion so long since they had both discovered their alternate forms.  That had been fun, terrorising cadets in the Training Centre and taking on T-Rexaurs with nothing but their teeth and claws.  Stupid, but fun.

        "Squall, you have to shift if you want to eat with us," Quistis scolded.

        Squall, of course, looked away.  Seifer hid a grin and did for Squall what he had done for him in Esthar.

        "Seifer, you're not helping."  Now Quistis' disapproval was focused on him and he leaned back in his chair with a grin.

        "You can lead a lion to food, but you can't make him shift," he said philosophically.

        Raijin snorted.  "Good one, Seifer."

        "I know you all knew of this . . . ability you have," Matron said tentatively, "but how did you even discover it?"

        Seifer felt his shoulders tighten.  He knew it was Edea and not Ultimecia, he really did, but he hadn't yet managed to tell his reflexes that.  And with the stink of sorceress in the air, he was . . . jumpy.

        "It was during the War," Selphie answered.  She stood up and spread her arms dramatically, making Rinoa duck and getting Raijin slapped in the forehead.  "Oops, sorry!"  She grinned apologetically.  "Anyway, there were we, in the middle of a desert, in this jeep, right?  We were heading to the missile base to head off, y'know, the missiles, and suddenly there was this chocobo in the jeep with us!  And I was way too short to be driving and Irvy was this cute little bunny rabbit!  Zell jumped out and ran for the hills--not that there were a lot of hills around there--and Irvy tried to follow him, but I stopped him!"

        "And it was the same night for you?" Matron asked Quistis.

        The blonde nodded.  "A swan, a lion, and a snake in the SeeD compartment on the train to Balamb."  She chuckled.  "I'm just glad we figured out how to shift back before anyone saw us."

        Seifer's eyebrows rose and he glanced at Squall, who was looking innocently up at him.  So Puberty Boy hadn't told anyone that he and Seifer had figured it out way before then.

        "And you, Seifer?" Matron asked, leaning forward to look at him.

        The blond choked on his bite, surprised at the question.  He looked at Squall again for direction, but the lion was too busy licking his plate clean to give him any hint of what he wanted known.  "Uh, yeah," he said.  "Yeah, I shifted then, too, if it's the same night I'm thinking of.  And then stupidly right back; the bitch couldn't touch me as a wolf, but her spells caught me again when I shifted back."  He caught Quistis' disapproving look and set his jaw.  He wasn't going to apologise for what he'd said.  He kinda thought it said it all that he'd said 'bitch' and not 'you', after all.

        "Hmmm."  And that seemed to be all Edea would say on that.

        "ASK, WHY?" Fujin asked bluntly.

        Matron looked up again.  "I think I've figured out when the seals were all broken," she said.  "And, as far as I can figure out, it was the same day you all . . . shifted for the first time."

        Quistis frowned.  "That sounds significant."

        Rinoa leaned forward eagerly.  "And get this," she said.  "One of the seals had nothing in it!  At all!"

        "SORCERESS, ALIVE," Fujin reminded her.

        "A second one, then," Rinoa amended, flushing a little and drawing back.

        "So you think one of them was still alive?" Quistis asked, aghast.  "That's--that's eighty years she was kept alive!"

        Matron shook her head.  "Much longer than that, I'm afraid," she said.  "The last seal had been put in place at least a thousand years ago."

        Quistis' jaw dropped.  "So that sorceress . . . ?"

        Matron nodded.  "Yes, she was well over a thousand years old."  She sighed.  "You must understand, the sorceress gift--it doesn't come just as the gift itself.  Sometimes, there's . . . transference.  Sometimes, you can see bits of another sorceress's life when she gives her power up.  Co'rinne--the sorceress you found," she said, nodding at Fujin.  "Co'rinne remembered a Centra unlike anything we've seen here.  There were jungles, rivers and lakes and all manner of animals."

        Quistis' eyes narrowed.  "Something like what we're seeing now?" she suggested.

        Matron hesitated, but nodded.  "Yes, in essence.  But, for Co'rinne, it was much . . . more."

        "But why would we be seeing such plant growth--oh, I see, you think it has something to do with the seals breaking?" Quistis asked.

        Rinoa shook her head.  "Not just the seals," she said.  "There was something else there, but . . . ."  She looked an appeal at Matron.

        "It has more to do with the seals than with the vegetation," Matron said.  "Those seals--each one would have taken an enormous amount of energy to keep it stable.  I have tried to re-create the spell on a smaller scale and was simply unable to feed it enough energy to keep it up for more than five minutes or so.  I examined the spells, of course, as much as I could, and--and I think I have the answer."  She fell silent, contemplating whatever the answer was.

        "What?" Selphie broke in, impatient.  "What's the answer?"

        Matron looked up again.  "The seal was powered three-fold," she said.  "One, the sorceress's own energy was tied into it.  Two, energy was pulled from the land, or from something connected to the land.  Three . . . there seemed to be a group of . . . of families, almost, that supplied even more energy."  She considered that.  "Or maybe not energy, precisely, but anchors, something to stabilise the spell."

        "But what does this have to do with them, ya know?" Raijin asked, gesturing at everyone else.

        "There are thirteen columns in that courtyard," Matron said.  "Thirteen and three of them have crumbled.  And, of the rest, the seven of you who can shift--your animal forms match seven of the columns."

        "We think," Rinoa broke in eagerly, "we think there are three others, like us, out there.  And, like us, they had something to do with anchoring the spell."

        "And?" Seifer drawled, raising an eyebrow.  Everyone turned to look at him.  "The point to all this?"

        "Well . . . ."  Rinoa floundered.  "Research!  And . . . maybe we can . . . learn how to seal away sorceresses?"

        "Which sorceresses?" Seifer pressed.  "'Cause, first reactions and all aside, I kinda don't want to seal you--or," his eyes flicked sideways, "Matron--in what is, to all intents and purposes, a living death."  He scowled when Rinoa crinkled her nose at him, apparently delighted to be lumped into the tiny group of sorceresses he didn't want dead; so far, there were only two.  "Don't read too much into it," he muttered.

        "IDEA, GOOD," Fujin said, and Seifer turned to her, feeling faintly betrayed.

        "I didn't leave you alone to let you stop backing me up," he snapped.

        "REGARDLESS, LEFT," the one-eyed woman said, glaring at him.

        "For your own good!" he shouted.  Then he flushed and slumped down in his chair when he realised everyone was staring at him.  "What?" he snapped.

        "Nothing," Quistis said demurely, her lips twitching in what obviously wanted to be a smile.  "So, which animal forms are we to be looking for?" she asked Matron.

        "Eagle, horse, and bear," Rinoa said promptly.  "Those are the three unaccounted for."

        Quistis nodded.  "All right, I'll get something set up," she said.  "Unless Squall has something he wants to add?" she added archly.

        Squall lifted his head above the table's edge and gave her a cool look before turning and laying his head on Seifer's lap.

        "What the hell?" the blond sputtered.  "Leonhart, are ya asking for an ass-kicking?!"

***

        "A word, Seifer, if you please."

        The words floated out of the night and Seifer swore.  "What?" he asked irritably.  "Can't it wait 'til morning, Fu?"

        The white-haired woman stepped out of the shadows, Raijin following behind her.

        "No," the other man said firmly.

        "We promise to return him mostly unharmed," Fujin said to the lion still dogging Seifer's heels.  Squall took a long look at her, then trotted off into the gloom.

        "Yeah, thanks bunches, Pussyheart!" Seifer yelled after him.  "Mostly unhurt, huh?" he asked the other two with a sour look.

        "No promises," Raijin said, grinning.  "Now c'mon, let's get away from here, ya know?"  Seifer followed them, unease creeping up on him.

        Somehow, they ended up where he and Squall had watched the sun rise that morning.

        "You know," Seifer said, faking a yawn, "I've had really a . . . a long and rough day.  Can we pick this up tomorrow?"  Fujin stared at him until he sat down.  "Fine, I guess not," he grumbled.  "Don't blame me if I fall asleep, then, that's all I say."

        "LEAVE, WHY?" Fujin asked, reverting to her customary mode of speech.

        "Look, I wasn't getting better," Seifer snapped.  "I was getting worse and the only time it got better was I shifted, okay?  It wasn't--I couldn't make you deal with it, too."

        Fujin grunted and Raijin held out a hand.  "Pay up!" he crowed.  "I was right!"

        "LOSER," she snapped, slapping a bunch of gil in his hand.

        Seifer watched this with his mouth open.  "You bet on this?" he asked, incredulous.

        "DUH."

        "Yeah, duh, ya know?"

        "You bet on why I left?"

        Raijin tilted a hand back and forth.  "Eh, more like we bet on what prompted it," he said.  "I thought it was for a really dumb reason.  Fu only thought it was for a slightly dumb reason."  He shook his head.  "Man, really dumb.  I shoulda bet double like you wanted, Fu."  Fujin kicked him.  "Ow!"

        "B-but--you bet on this?"

        "DIMWIT."

        "Stop it," the blond said irritably.

        "When you stop acting like an idiot, I will," she returned, before kicking him.  "STUPID."

        "Fu!  What do you want?!"

        Raijin hastily dug out a piece of paper and thrust it forward.  "Here's the list," he said helpfully.

        "ITEMISED."

        Seifer glared at the two of them and grabbed the piece of paper.  "My own people, betraying me," he grumbled.  "My life officially sucks."  He read through the list.  "Grovel--ha, yeah, like that'll ever happen.  Protestations of unbreakable friendship, a hundred thousand gil--do you think I'm made of money?  C'mon, how long have you known me?"

        Raijin snorted a laugh.  "Yeah, we really didn't think that would work," he said.  He sat down beside Seifer and dropped his arm over Seifer's shoulders--and kept it there despite Seifer's attempts to dislodge it.  "Look.  I'm only sayin' this because Fu threatened to kick a lot higher if I didn't.  You're Seifer, ya know?  We'd want you around if you were human or wolf or even a Wendigo, okay?  You're Seifer."

        "DOG BED," Fujin said, sitting on Seifer's other side.

        "Yeah, we woulda bought you a dog bed and everything, ya know?  We're the Disciplinary Committee and we stick together, you told us that."

        Seifer cleared his throat.  "Yeah," he muttered.  "Had to say something, you two were pretty pathetic."

        Raijin tugged him closer.  "Yeah, well, we're a lot better now," he said, satisfied.  "An' it looks like you are, too, or was I imaginin' you sittin' and eatin' with two sorceresses?  As a human."

        "Shut up," the blond muttered to his knees.  "They're--they were special cases.  'Cause I knew them.  And--"

        "And nothing," Fujin said firmly, tugging him closer to her.  She sighed.  "You know we only went back to Garden to find you, right?"

        Seifer kept staring at his knees.  If he moved, he was pretty sure he'd end up doing something a lot more mortifying than anything that day had thrown at him.  He cleared his throat again.  "I kinda figured," he said.  He lifted his head up suddenly and glared at her.  "And you shoulda gone back anyway.  You know Leonhart and his little gang would let you back in."

        A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.  "They did," she agreed.  She shifted a little.  "So, when did it become 'Leonhart' instead of 'Pussyheart'?"

        "That's none of your Hyne-damned business!"

***

        It had taken a few days, but Squall had finally started spending more time as human than as Lion.  An uncommunicative human, but that wasn't so different from how he usually was.  The point was, as a human, he needed to do things like change clothes and put his gunblade away.

        There were a hell of a lot of things Seifer didn't understand about their alternate forms and how they could carry things like clothes and weapons with them.  They could, it was useful, that's all he really needed to know.  Besides, Rinoa was looking into it, although if the explanation made his head hurt, he was going to ignore it.

        At any rate, he'd managed to steal away Squall's gunblade without the guy noticing and it was finally time to put Plan B into action.  Seifer was tired of being dragged place to place without a word of explanation and he was dying to know what had got Squall so upset he would rather spend time as a lion--and the camp was talking about that more than the fact Seifer Almasy, former Sorceress' Knight, was walking around free--than say anything about it.

        "Yo, Leonhart!" he called, tapping the back of Lionheart's glowing blade against one of the tent's poles.  "Get your ass out here!"

        There was silence for a moment, before someone started stumbling around inside.

        "It's four in the morning, Seifer," Quistis' sleep-scratchy voice said behind the tent flap.  "Can't it wait?"

        "Nope, send the moody bastard out!"

        "Squall, you brought him home, it's up to you to feed him and clean up after him!"  With that, Squall was pushed, stumbling, out of the tent.  "And if either of you come back with more facial scars, I'll get Selphie to patch you up.  Now let me sleep!"

        The brunet glared at him.

        "Thought we could spar for a bit," Seifer said, grinning smugly.  He patted Hyperion at his side.  "Since you've been more lion than anything, I thought you might be getting out of practice."  He shook his head gravely.  "Not good for the mighty SeeD Commander to get out of shape and all."

        Squall upped his glare and held out his hand for Lionheart.

        "Nuh-uh, I don't want you changing your mind," Seifer said, lifting the glowing gunblade over his head and out of Squall's reach.  It was childish, of course, but, man, Seifer was glad he was taller than Squall.  "You get Lionheart when we get to a good sparring site."  He turned around and dropped Lionheart to rest on his shoulder.  "You coming?"

        There was silence behind him--not that he expected anything different from Squall--and then he was shoved sideways as the lion brushed--pushed--against him on his way by.

        "That's all right!" Seifer called, grinning as he followed at a saunter.  "I'll take it out of your hide, don't worry!"

***

        "Rules," Squall spat out, running careful hands over his newly reclaimed gunblade.  As if Seifer had a deathwish--he wasn't going to scratch up Squall's gunblade.

        "No GFs, no magics, no shifting, no special ammo, Limit Breaks allowed," Seifer said.  "Just like our last little fight."  He paused, smirking.  "Unless someone's forgotten how to fight without all that extra firepower."

        Squall finished checking over his weapon and spun it in a slow circle before letting it rest on his shoulder in a mirror of Seifer's stance.  "Ready when you are."

        Seifer grinned hungrily and readied himself.  This, this was what he lived for, this brought his blood to life.  "Care to make it interesting?" he asked.

        "There's nothing I want to know," Squall returned, looking far too relaxed.

        The blond scowled.  "Well, there's something I want to know," he snarled, "so pick something."

        Squall shrugged, looking indifferent.  "Whatever.  I win, you take the field exam again."

        Seifer straightened at that.  "C'mon, you don't mean that," he protested.  "What the hell would I do as SeeD, anyway?  I've got authority issues, remember?"

        Squall shrugged.  "If I win, you take the exam," he repeated.  He raised an eyebrow.

        Seifer scowled.  "Fine, whatever.  If you win, I'll take the damn exam again.  When I win, you'll tell me why you've been dragging me all over the world."

        Squall nodded sharply.  "If you win," he agreed and moved into a ready stance.

        Seifer relaxed back into his own and waited for Squall to make the first move.  It couldn't take long; the bastard was all about hitting hard and hitting fast.  And first, of course.  Hit 'em hard enough, fast enough, and they wouldn't be getting up anytime soon.

        And there it was, Squall's foot sliding out just a little and then the brunet was rushing him.  Faster than the last time Seifer had faced Squall--as himself--but nothing Seifer couldn't dodge.  Or block, as the case may be.

        He stepped forward and their blades met with an unmusical clang.  They held for a moment, then he disengaged and spun, trying to get at Squall's side.  He knew it wouldn't hit, but that wasn't the point.  Squall blocked and raised his blade for an overhead strike.  Rather then test his strength against that, Seifer opted to slide to the side, letting the glowing blue blade bite into the ground.  He thrust, but Lionheart blocked faster than he'd thought and he stumbled back.  Squall pressed his opportunity for another few strikes before Seifer regained his footing and diverted the next attack to the ground again.

        It continued on like that, Squall sometimes getting through Seifer's defensive tactics to force his greater strength against the blond and Seifer continually sending what attacks he could to the ground.  He would've thought Squall would remember this particular ploy from their first before the last field exam, but, when he switched for the next attack and Squall's gunblade went up instead, it didn't stop, leaving Squall's hand and clattering to the ground off to the side.

        "Ready to give up?" Seifer taunted.

        Squall's face tightened and he lunged for his gunblade.  Seifer, however, was waiting for just that, and he drew and cast from within himself the first part of his Limit Break--a Fire spell.  While Squall was still disoriented, he swung Hyperion once, twice, three times, gathering the power for the second part.  As the flash of the Fire spell faded, he whipped his gunblade underhand and tossed the accumulated ball of energy at Squall.

        But it didn't hit Squall, because he was already deep within his own Limit Break.  Berserk had a hold on him and he advanced, swinging his gunblade and pulling the trigger each time it connected.

        Seifer gritted his teeth against the jarring vibrations and parried only when he had to, preferring to slide out of the way of Squall's attacks instead of blocking them head on.  He knew there was going to be something else and . . . .  His eyes narrowed at the telltales he was very familiar with showed up.  He spun his gunblade again and, as Squall charged at him with the tip of Lionheart dragging through the ground, held himself ready.  As the glowing gunblade rose, he stepped back and brought Hyperion forward and under.  There was a jolt as the conflicting energies of the two Limit Breaks collided and he heaved, pushing both gunblades high.

        Lionheart flew from Squall's grasp and Seifer scrambled to get to it before the other man did.  He grabbed the handle and pivoted to face Squall, holding both gunblades at the ready.

        Squall halted, frustrated at the lack of options.  No magic, no GFs, no shifting, and his Limit Break was pretty useless without a weapon.  Not that Seifer thought such considerations as that would stop him in a real fight, but, thankfully--and no matter how seriously they both took a fight with the other--this wasn't exactly a real fight.  And Seifer just thanked Hyne he'd been lucky enough to catch Squall off guard and end the fight before he got his ass whupped.

        "Give?" Seifer asked, smirking.  To not smirk would be totally against who he was.

        Squall blew out a breath and looked away before nodding tightly.

        "Fine.  Catch."  Seifer tossed Lionheart to the brunet; Squall didn't even have to look before he grabbed it out of the air and, unlike certain blonds, didn't start the fight back up.  Fighting dirty--Squall still hadn't learned how.

        On the other hand, Seifer supposed it made his life easier that Squall was a man of his word.

        "So," he prompted when the silence had stretched a little too long.

        Squall gave him an unreadable look and shifted, loping away.  Seifer bit off a curse and shifted, stretching into a run to catch up.  Luckily, it seemed Squall was still a man--or a lion--of his word; he let Seifer catch up to him.

        Seifer snapped at a moving forepaw and dodged the strike sent his way in return.  He had won, dammit, and wanted his prize and didn't want to be running until sunrise after Squall and his secrets.  He was contemplating just stopping and bothering Squall about it later--or holding it over his head forever, but that's what happened when someone reneged on a bet with him--when the lion changed course, bounding up what was more like a sheer cliff than a path.

        Seifer, of course, followed.  There was no way a huge-ass lion could go somewhere he, a huge-ass wolf, couldn't.  It was a matter of--ha, ha--pride.

        He heaved himself up over one last overhang and spotted Squall leaning against a boulder, as if he'd been there for hours, just waiting for Seifer to catch up.  So he did his best to saunter over and collapse all over Squall's legs in revenge.

        "You're a heavy bastard," Squall muttered, half-heartedly shoving at him.  Seifer put his head down and his ears back and concentrated on looking as pitiful as possible.  "Oh, for Hyne's--whatever, stay there."

        Silence reigned for so long, Seifer thought he might have to shift back to get the other guy talking.  It had its points, being human--sarcasm, actual conversations, sarcasm--but, for some reason, people didn't always appreciate his sarcasm and, also, the ability to look like an overgrown puppy had unrealised potential in the area of making people talk.  Finally, he just pawed at Squall's side.

        "Ow!  Hyne, Seifer, your claws don't retract, remember!"  Squall lifted up his shirt to check what damage the wolf's paw had done and Seifer nudged forward and licked Squall's side in slobbery apology.  "Seifer!  Fine, get off and I'll talk!"

        Hmmm, not quite what he wanted, but satisfying his curiosity took precedence over lying around on Squall.  He didn't bother to get up, just used his legs to push at Squall's until he was on the ground.

        "I was comfortable before you moved me," Squall complained.  Blah, blah, blah, if it wasn't one thing with him, it was another.  "You asked for it."  And suddenly Squall's legs were draped over his back.

        Hmmm, maybe Squall had a point.  It was pretty uncomfortable.  He eeled his way out from under Squall's legs and stood before nosing insistently at Squall's back, where it rested against a rock.

        "I thought you said you weren't a pillow?" the other man asked, amused, as he let Seifer position him right where the wolf wanted him.  They ended up with Seifer as a backrest-pillow thing and Squall half-reclining against him.

        And then the bloody silence.  Seifer kicked him with a back paw and Squall started.

        "No one else finds out," was how Squall started and, really, did he not know Seifer?  What was the point of having a secret if he was going to tell it?  The whole point, as far as he was concerned, was to flaunt that secret knowledge in other people's faces until they got pissed off.  He figured Squall needed reassurance, so he kicked him again.  "Seifer!  You could've just said!"  Then Squall paused again.

        "Laguna--He said something."  Duh.  From only one meeting with the guy, Seifer was pretty sure he'd said a lot of things.  "He said . . . he said he knew my mother.  Before I was born."

        Oh.  Well, shit.  Orphans tended to not like hearing about their birth parents, unless they've done shit like come to terms with being abandoned and all that; Seifer was still pretty sure his own parents could go to hell and like it as far as he was concerned.

        "He said he . . . knew her.  And that I looked very much like her."

        Seifer drew some conclusions from that and, yeah, they would totally explain why Squall had been in such a pissy mood.

        "He said he was my father," Squall said in a whisper.  "He said--he said he hadn't known she was pregnant.  Not until after she'd, she'd died and then he couldn't find me and he had to run Esthar and he was very happy to have found me and sorry he had to send me to fight Ultimecia and--"

        Seifer shifted, stopping the litany of what-my-dad-said.  He moved only enough that he was leaning against the rock now and Squall leaned against him.  He looped his arms around the other man's waist and held him loosely.  It was all he could do.

        And Squall?  Squall let him.

***

        Bri'anne stepped through her spell, ending up in Esthar.  She looked up at the enormous tower with a sort of awe.  Even though she knew it housed something that had come from the Moon, it was still hard to really believe.  And if what she had heard was correct . . . .

        She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, extending her power out around her.  It touched something hard, otherworldly, the same type of power she had felt when the Lunar Cry had been called on Centra eighty years ago, the one that had given her hope for freedom.

        Now it gave her hope for vengeance.

        She gathered her power to herself again, shaping it for what she needed.  Then she blanketed the entire compound with it, forcing those present into an unnatural sleep.  Then she opened a portal back to Dollet, feeding it as much power as she dared, to make it big enough.  A thought brought her to the top of the floating tower and she immediately sank her power down and around it, grasping it with her magic.

        Then, with a massive effort, she began to inch it forward.

        It was exhausting work and she felt the strain as nothing she had ever felt before.  But it would be worth it and she dwelled instead on the advantage it would give her, distraction and recruiting ground both.  She would destroy her enemies and build an army and the world would be hers.  And when, in the fullness of time she died, she would find a worthy successor for her power and her empire would continue past her death.

        And then she was even with the portal, the tower picking up speed as she pushed at it.  A last thought as she began to close the portal behind lifted the slumber from the so-called guardians.  The portal closed even as cries of consternation rise behind her.

        She laughed, exhausted, but triumphant.

***

        Seifer had been enjoying his day, for once.  He had roamed the empty city of Centra, his posse in his wake and scaring any hardworking SeeD they came across.  He had noted areas where the security lines were weak and had made plans to come back and scare some life into the sentries.  He had even been able to bask in the sun with a lion at his side for an afternoon nap.

        In short, he had been having the time of his life before the call came through on the still-new radio communicators SeeD was testing.

        "Incoming call for Leonhart, Squall, labelled Personal, Private, Override, Emergency, Confidential," whoever manning the communications centre chirped.  Seifer whistled.  Yeah, someone wanted the call kept on a need-to-know, tell-you-and-kill-you basis.  Squall, of course, shifted back and pressed a finger to his own com-unit.

        "Squall Leonhart, authorisation 12-21-81," he said.  "Origin?"

        "Esthar, presidential line."

        He poked Squall's shoulder when the other man didn't respond for too long.  Squall glared at him.

        "Forward to Selphie Tilmitt," he said.

        "Sir, message is labelled Personal, Private, Override, Emergency, Confidential," the com-unit said.  "Please confirm authorisation."

        "12-21-81," Squall said, irritated, before turning off his com-unit and shifting back.  The lion collapsed, his heavy head landing on Seifer's legs.

        "Dammit, you're not a housecat," Seifer complained, shoving at Squall's head.  "And I know why you didn't take the message, so don't give me a Look for that, but shouldn't you have stayed human long enough for Selphie to take the message and get back to you?"

        Squall, of course, said nothing.

        Seifer scowled.  "I am not your secretary," he warned.  "If Selphie calls me because she can't get to you, you're going to have bruises."  Just then, his com-unit chirped and his expression darkened.  "City morgue," he said, activating it.  "You stab 'em, we slab 'em."

        Selphie giggled in his ear and he raised a fist and thumped it solidly on Squall's shoulder.  "You shouldn't hit Squall," she said cheerfully.  "And tell him to turn on his com-unit again--Sir Laguna had important news!"

        "You heard the lady," the blonde said to the lion in his lap.  The lion yawned, showing off his big, stinky teeth.  "Phew, did you brush at all this morning, Pussyheart?  Shift already and stop Messenger Girl from yammering in my ear!"

        Squall shifted his head to look up at him and then licked his bare arm with a rough tongue.

        "Squall!"  He huffed.  "Yeah, fine, be a huge cat with big, bossy teeth, then.  Sorry, Messenger Girl, he's busy threatening my manhood."

        Selphie giggled again, then turned serious.  "No, really, Seifer, he's going to need to hear this," she said.  "If he won't shift, then make him come back to camp to hear it.  Laguna's message is important."

        There was a click in his ear as she ended the call and he shut his own com-unit off with a scowl.  He jiggled his leg.  "You heard her, get up!"

***

        "What do you mean, the Lunatic Pandora's been stolen?" Seifer asked blankly.  He scowled and tried to loom over Selphie.  It didn't really work.  Or, well, he definitely loomed, it was just Selphie took no notice.

        The brunette glared back at him.  "That's all Sir Laguna said," she replied primly.  "Do you think I don't know how to do my jobOf course I asked for clarification, but it just happened and they're still going through everything."  She turned her glare on Squall.  "You need to shift," she told the lion.  "There should be SeeD there to help look at things and whatever problem you have with Sir Laguna does not supersede your responsibilities as SeeD Commander."

        The lion came right up to her and stared in her face and she smacked his nose, making him flinch.  "And none of that!" she admonished.  "It's bad enough with Seifie--"

        Seifer groaned.  "Could we not call me that?" he complained.

        "--trying to intimidate me--like I've not been the short kid since, like, forever--and I'm not going to take it from you, either.  So shift yourself, give some commands, and then you can go roll around in a patch of catnip, for all I care."

        "Strange thing," Seifer interjected, grinning.  "Catnip doesn't affect him."  He'd been pretty disappointed, too--the prospect of Squall high on anything was highly entertaining.

        Selphie sent him a skeptical look.  "Really?" she asked.  "Dammit, now I'll have to get him something else."

        "What sort of something else?" Squall asked warily.  He'd shifted without either or them noticing, having apparently taken Selphie's threa--comments to heart.

        She donned an innocent expression.  "Nooothing," she sang out.  "Hey, you have those commands of yours ready?"

        Squall grunted in reply and she shifted over, letting him use her station.

        "Sooooo," Selphie said, sidling over to Seifer.  "What's up with Squall and Sir Laguna?"

        He looked at her, amused.  "That such a good idea, talking about it while he's right there?" he asked.

        She blew a breath of air up, fluttering her bangs.  "Right, like he's going to be paying attention to anything outside his own head right now."  She elbowed him.  "So?"

        He elbowed her back and stood firm against the shove she retaliated with.  "Cone of silence," he said, grinning.  "Can't tell."

        Selphie clenched her fists and made a frustrated noise.  "Dammit!"  She grabbed at his arm and turned pleading eyes on him.  Too bad green eyes weren't his thing; she packed a powerful wallop with them as it was.  "You gotta tell me!" she pleaded.  "He's been so sad and I wanna fix it!"

        "Messenger Girl, this is one thing you can't fix," he said, shaking her off--or trying to, at least.  She clung with limpet-like tenacity.  "Lemme go!"

        "No!  Tell meeeeeee!"

        "No!  Why don't you go bother Leonhart if you want to know so bad?!"

        "Duh!" she said, reaching up to knock a fist against his head.  He caught her arm and scowled at her.  "Because he won't tell me!"  Abruptly, she let go and huffed.  "Fine.  Maybe I'll just go kick Sir Laguna's butt, then, for making Squall so sad."

        Seifer choked on that--he knew Squall's little team of world saviors was full of people one did not mess with lightly, but kicking the ass of the ruler of the most advanced civilisation in the world?  He hadn't thought any of them were dumb enough to do that.

        Selphie laughed at the look on his face.  "You look like I just asked you to have sex with a Bite Bug!" she crowed.  She pumped her arm.  "Yes!"

        "Stop saying things like that!"  Seifer shuddered at the images her highly unwanted words produced.  "Hyne, you're so disturbing!"

        She clapped her hands over her mouth and giggled.

        "What's with the 'Sir Laguna' thing anyway?" he asked, desperately trying to change the subject.  "That's not part of the presidential titles or anything!"

        "Of course it isn't," she said disdainfully.  "But Sir Laguna is a Knight!"

        Seifer's blood ran cold.  "A sorceress' knight?" he asked carefully.

        "Yeppers!  And he had to fight a Ruby Dragon!  It was a good thing Ellone sent us back in time to help!"

        Okay, now he was confused.  Scratch that; any time spent with Selphie was confusing.  "--what?" he managed.

        "Oh, Seifie, it's okay!" the brunette said brightly, finally catching on to what his face was saying.  "He's not, like, a real knight or anything!  He just played on in that movie!"  She struck a dramatic pose.  "He was Zefer, knight to the sorceress of the people!"  She slashed an imaginary gunblade with one hand.  "She was a sorceress who stood up to evil!  Together, they fought crime!"

        Seifer's jaw dropped.  "Do you mean to tell me," he asked slowly, "that Laguna--the bumbling moronic President of Esthar--was in The Sorceress Knight?"  Selphie nodded brightly at him.  "As in, he played Zefer, loyal and true knight of the sorceress?"  She nodded again.  "As in, the very guy who inspired me to take up the gunblade?"  She clapped her hands over her mouth again, then leapt forward with a squeal.  He staggered back a bit.

        "Seifie, don't tell me you're a fan!" she cried.

        He started grinning.  "It was only my favourite movie ever!" he shouted back.  "Hey, d'you think he'll give me an autograph?"

        Someone slapped the back of his head.  Hard.  "Idiot," Squall said, glaring at him.

        Seifer looked at him, hurt in his eyes.  "You didn't tell me your--Laguna was in The Sorceress Knight," he complained.

        "Because he's a moron," was all Squall said before switching his attention to Selphie.  "Pack up, Selphie; you're going to Esthar."

        Selphie squealed and bounced.  "Really?  Thank you, Squall!"  She flew forward to him, arms open.  He neatly sidestepped her lunge.

        "Pick up Rin and Irvine," he said.  "Don't make me regret putting you in charge."

        "Booyaka!  Leadership!  This is going to be so awesome!"

***

        Bri'anne trailed her fingers over the smooth stone.  To think this had come from the Moon . . . .  Giver of life, giver of death, the Moon had given them both enemies and guardians throughout its long, long life.  And, now, it had gifted the world with something to strengthen the call to the Moon, something to help Hyne's descendants when the world turned on them.

        She gathered her power and let it overflow, flooding into the crystal she stood on.  It soaked up her power, until it was full and glowing.

        She raised her arms in supplication to the Moon and shouted, "Cry, O Moon, cry for the sorrows we have suffered!  Let your tears fall upon this world and wash clean that sorrow!"

        She felt the crystal start to resonate, singing her song to the Moon.  The light grew and grew, until the column she stood on and the light surrounding her were indistinguishable from each other.  She felt it rise, higher and higher, until, with a jolt, it flung itself free of the air of the world and arrowed, straight and true, to the Moon.  It splashed against the Moon, turning it blood-red and infusing the creatures on it with its strength.

        She dropped her arms.

        The crystal stilled and the light flickered and faded.  There was a long moment of tension and she lifted her face to the Moon.  She could see the red clearing, drawing into one point, and then . . . .

        Then the Tears of the Moon fell.

***

        Selphie drummed her fingers against her arm and sighed.  Boooooooring.  She had thought it would be more exciting, seeing where an unknown enemy had stolen away an entire huge monument of evil, but there was nothing to see.  Irvine was cleaning Exeter, having failed to respond to requests to entertain her like the killjoy he was and Rinoa was the only one who actually had something to do and she was doing it and had threatened to change Selphie into a toad if she bothered her one more time.

        That hadn't been very nice.

        Selphie slid her eyes from one side to the other.  No one was watching and she shifted.

        "Sephy--!" Irvine said, startled, as she swarmed up his back to perch on his shoulder.  She took his hat off and perched it jauntily on her own head.  "Sephy, what're you doing?"

        She chittered at him happily.  It was so much more fun to pretend to talk than to actually talk--less frustrating, too, if people couldn't understand her anyway.

        He laughed at her.  "Sephy, if you're going to say something, say it so I can understand," he said, gently chiding.  She tugged at his hair tie and chittered some more.  "Sephy, don't think I don't know you're not really talking."  Ha!  Victory was hers!  She flung the hair tie over her shoulder before digging her fingers into his hair and pulling them through.  "Sephy!  I brushed my hair already this morning!"  She nibbled on his ear in retaliation to the complaint.  "Sephy!"

        Fine, if he didn't want her around, she'd leave.  She jumped off his shoulder and bounced a ways off before turning around and glaring at him.

        He stood up and moved towards her slowly.  "Sephy," he said pleadingly.  "My hat?"

        She grabbed onto the hat with both paws and held it down.

        Irvine winced.  "Sephy?"

        She stood up, still holding the hat to her head, and chattered at him again, enjoying her game.

        "Sephy . . . ."  And then he shifted and leapt at her.  She squeaked and skipped sideways, losing her grip on the hat, and the hare tore past her before changing directions and hitting her square in the back.

        She shifted mid-sprawl and shouted, "Irvy, you cheater!"  The warm weight on her back grew heavier until Irvine's human body was straddling her.

        "Serves you right for stealing my hat and my hair tie," he said smugly, keeping his hands high on her back and pinning her.  A wise decision he then voided by leaning over so he could pick up his hat.  She heaved herself in the same direction, dumping him to the ground, and kept on rolling until she was out of his absurdly long reach.  He squawked.

        She laughed at him.  "Can't keep a little girl pinned, can you?" she taunted.

        He rolled over and showed her his middle finger.  "I can pin a little girl just fine," he said haughtily.  "You, Hyne himself couldn't pin!"

        She giggled.  "True, true.  Heeey, how long do you think Rinny'll be?"

        "Why?" he drawled.  "You have another cowboy to bother?"

        "No, silly!  I'm just bored out of my mind!"  She folded her arms and huffed.  "I'm just about ready to go and molest any and all nearby monsters!"

        "Now, Sephy . . . ."

        "Don't you 'now, Sephy' me!" she flared.  "I'm bored and Sir Laguna is busy and maybe a jerk and I'm not allowed to blow things up and--"  Both their radios crackled, interrupting Selphie's tirade.

        "B-Garden to Ragnarok, B-Garden to Ragnarok."

        "SeeD Tilmitt here," Selphie said crisply.  "Report."

        The radio crackled again.  "Unconfirmed request for SeeD from Galbadia, unconfirmed reports of monster invasion, unconfirmed reports of Lunar Cry.  Orders as relayed by B-Garden to investigate and confirm reports if possible.  Proceed with current team and all haste.  Attempts to communicate further with Galbadia have been unsuccessful."

        "Roger that," Selphie snapped, already spinning and heading for the airship.  "Irvy, fetch Rin.  We've got a flight to catch."

***

        "It's . . . it's completely destroyed," Rinoa whispered, looking at the devastation wreaked on Deling City as Selphie did another slow flyby.  She swayed abruptly.  "Hyne, my father was there!"

        "Easy," Irvine murmured, guiding the sorceress to the nearest seat.  "We'll check it out, you know we will."  He glanced out the window as Selphie banked again.  "Its'--it's not really so bad.  Considering.  And your dad's a general, he knows how to fight."

        She moaned and hid her face behind her hands.  Irvine looked, panicked, towards the front of the Ragnarok, but Selphie seemed disinclined to come back and relieve him of his comforting duties.  He sighed and put his arm around Rinoa's shoulder and hugged her, which prompted her to turn to him and start crying into his shoulder.

        "Shhhh, shhh," he whispered, rubbing at her back.  "We'll find out who did this, you know we will, and then, well, we're SeeD, you an' I, we'll make it right."

        She sniffed and lifted her head from his shoulder..  "We're not SeeD," she muttered, her fingers moving to her lap and pulling at the material of her shorts.

        He grinned at her briefly, eyes worried.  "Not yet," he agreed.  "But I'd bet the two of us against any five other SeeD."  He coughed.  "Aside from our teammates, y'know.  But we'd give even them a run for their money, hey?"

        She gave him a watery smile, so obviously for his benefit.  "We would," she agreed.

        "And what's SeeD anyway?" he asked.  "It's a name, that's all.  And a great rate of pay, but we can get by on selling monster bits!"

        "Stop tempting Rinny to a life of piracy," Selphie said primly over the intercom.  "Remember, SeeD get paid and get to keep all those lovely battle mementos to sell.  You could be much richer if you become SeeD, remember that when the Lonesome Cowboy is tempting you."  There was an inhale.  "I'm going to try to set down in the Gateway Square--I'm pretty sure the Ragnarok will fit and, from there, we can get pretty much anywhere we need to go.  On foot, though--whatever happened, it looks like it took out most of the roads and streets and things.  The square's only really a good choice because there weren't any large buildi--"

        "Gotcha, Sephy," Irvine cut in, his eyes on Rinoa, who had started looking more and more upset with every word.  "Make sure Garden's getting all this, hey?  Rin and I will get what we'll need ready here."

        "Roger," Selphie said meekly.

        Their first steps into Deling City were quiet.  Although they had seen monsters roaming the streets, the square was empty of everything but corpses--both human and monster.

        Rinoa choked a little as she realised what the sad little lumps on the ground on and Selphie crowded closer for reassurance.

        "I'm g--I'm all right," Rinoa said.  She closed her eyes for a moment, then checked that her weapon was ready.  She took a deep breath.  "Ready."

        "Ready," Irvine said, shouldering Exeter casually.

        Selphie nodded and swung Strange Vision to the side.  "Right.  The Presidential Residence first?  It looked pretty battered from the air, but . . . ."

        Rinoa's face tightened, but she nodded.  "If my fa--if anyone's still in command, they'll probably be there."

        "Good enough for me," Irvine drawled.  He bowed elaborately to Selphie.  "After you, miss."

        They traveled in silence through the deserted streets, fighting monsters only where they had to and ghosting past the ones they could.  It was surreal--whatever had killed the city hadn't killed the electricity, so they at least had light and sound, for all the good it did them.

        It felt like the city was completely devoid of human life.  Rinoa stayed quiet, but her face showed how each block lessened her hope to find the only family she had left.  Selphie and Irvine both tried to give her support, but she took no notice of the touches to her shoulder or hand.

        When they started getting closer to the Presidential Residence, there were finally signs of human life.  There was evidence of battles, monster carcasses still warm to the touch, and red blood on the ground and, sometimes, bodies in the uniform of Galbadia's army.

        "There's still hope," Selphie said gently, shaking her friend's shoulder.  "And remember Vinzer Deling?  SeeD files said he had a heck of a lot of protection in place on his place.  And your dad's in charge, right?  He's sure to be there!"

        Rinoa finally took notice and smiled wanly at the brunette.  "Thanks, Selphie," she said.  "I--I just hope he's okay."

        "Your father's a tough old goat," Irvine drawled, heartened by any response from the sorceress.  "He'll be fine and already organising things, you'll see."

        Rinoa sighed, but nodded, trying to keep up her smile.  Selphie and Irvine exchanged a concerned look behind her back.

        "I'm gonna scout ahead!" Selphie said abruptly, dashing forward.  She turned at the corner and waved back to them.  "Don't stray too far or I'll have to rip up the town to find you!" she shouted before running off again, speeding up even more as she activated Cerberus' auto-Haste ability.

        "Is it--safe?" Rinoa asked, taken aback.

        Irvine shrugged, elaborately casual.  "Her?  Yeah, she's safe," he said.  "The monsters?  Yeah, no.  She packs a helluva lot of punch for such a tiny thing."

        "I heard that, you jerk!" Selphie said, re-appearing behind them.  She socked a startled Irvine on the arm.

        "Ow, Sephy, why'd ya do that?" the cowboy protested.

        Selphie sniffed. "Obviously because you're a jerk," she said pointedly.  "As if size ever had anything to do with power."  She turned to Rinoa.  "I found the Residence--there's monsters all around it, but it looks like they've been taught to respect the humans still there.  I didn't want to try to get in without everyone, 'cause that always makes the other guys run around screaming about their privates or something."

        Irvine gets this look on his face, something Rinoa can't quite decipher.  "Sephy, there's a difference between sneaking into the boys' locker room and sneaking onto a military base, we've talked about this."

        Selphie tossed her hair.  "And I think the boys just don't want anyone else to see how their so secret man-rites are really pretty wimpy," she declared.  She blurred off down the street.  "C'mon!" she shouted.  "I'm waaaaaaaaaiting!"

***

        "How's she holding up?" Seifer asked, leaning over Squall's shoulder.  He ignored the brunet's huff of annoyance and push to his head.

        "As well as could be expected," Selphie's said, her voice sounding tinny over the sub-standard equipment Squall had apparently authorised to bring to the ass-end of nowhere.  "I left Irvy there with her, for moral support and also for backup.  The Lunar Cry--confirmed, by the way, there's footage of the Lunatic Pandora doing its eerie drifty thingy--messed with their communications bad.  They're going to be contacting Garden directly as soon as they can, but I wanted to give you a head's up, maybe get the ball rolling."

        "What happened?" Squall asked.

        "Lunar Cry."  Selphie's voice was all static-y.  "Sorry, Squall, but there's not much more I can give you.  I do have all the video of the Lunatic Pandora, so we can analyse that, but you know as well as I what the current situation in Galbadia is.  Or was, whatever.  They made a lot of enemies under Deling and there hasn't really been enough time for Caraway to do all that re-structuring, much less build up good will."

        "Anything on the Lunatic Pandora?"

        "Just that it was here and is now gone.  And the cameras weren't working past the Cry, so there's nothing to show where it went.  Someone might be able to track it or something from where it was, but a thingy that floats like that isn't going to leave a lot of tracks, you know?"

        Squall rubbed his forehead.  "What sort of structure is still in place?"

        "Most of the government, actually, Caraway included.  He'd moved everything into Deling's place and, let me tell you, there's some extreme security going on there.  SeeD's gonna wanna get in there and scope it out, lemme tell you.  Um, most of the army command was either there already when the Cry hit or made it there afterwards.  The army itself, well, it was mostly spread out over all of Galbadia, anyway, so while there were casualties, there wasn't anything like wholesale slaughter of their army going on."  She winced.  "Civilian casualties are high, of course.  They're gonna need a lot of help to get themselves back up and running."

        "Fine.  Leave Irvine and Rin and get back here.  I'll let B-Garden know."

        "Gotcha, Squall.  Did you want me to contact B-Garden for you?  'Cause let me tell you, your equipment's all scratchy and shitty and stuff."

        "Please, tell me how you really feel," Squall said, deadpan.  "Whatever, do it.  Authorisation Leonhart 12-21-81."

        Selphie giggled.  "I think that's so sweet," she said.  "Tell me, does he use your birthday?"

        Squall flushed.  "That's classified," he snapped, reaching forward to cut the connection.

        Seifer leaned on the brunet's shoulders.  "How classified can it be?" he asked, amused.  "You've been giving it out to all and sundry.  Also, I'm touched.  Very, very touched."

        Squall shoved Seifer off of him and stood.  "You're touched in the head."

        "I am," Seifer agreed, following him out of the tent.  He rubbed his hands together.  "So what's the plan?"

        Squall grunted, obviously still thinking it through.  "Need to talk with Garden," he said.  "Need to talk with my team."

        "Shouldn't you be talking to Esthar, too?" Seifer suggested.  "You know, since the Lunatic Pandora came from there and all.  There might be some who think it's the first volley in a battle of empires."

        Squall snorted.  "As if Laguna could conquer anything bigger than a meal," he muttered.

        Seifer rolled his eyes.  "Fine, we'll let public opinion decide what the hell's happening.  Like that never went wrong," he said in an undertone.  "So!  Lunar Cry!  What're your thoughts?"

        Squall lifted a shoulder in half a shrug.  "Monsters from the Moon.  Can occur naturally, but can also be caused or amplified by sorceresses and the Crystal Pillar.  The Crystal Pillar is housed in the Lunatic Pandora, which allows a Lunar Cry to be called without the use of a sorceress."

        "Devastating weapon," Seifer noted.  He clapped his hands together.  "Right!  Plan?"

        Squall reached back to smack him.  "I told you, it needs to be talked about.  We need to see what sort of video Selphie has.  We need to see what SeeD intelligence has to say about this."  His head turned, tracking someone.  "Quistis!  Supper meeting!"

        "Got it!" the blonde called back.  "The usual suspects?"

        Squall limited himself to a nod and Seifer sighed, following him.  It kinda sucked, being forced to follow around an uncommunicative bastard.  On the other hand, the view was great.

        "Stop that."

        Seifer put on an expression of innocence.  "Stop what?"

        "Stop--"

        Squall's com-unit suddenly came to life.  "Incoming call for Leonhart, Squall, labelled Override, Override, Emergency."

        "Squall Leonhart, authorisation 12-21-81," he said.  "Origin?"

        "If Esthar has managed to lose another national monument that can be used as a weapon of terror, I vote we make fun of them," Seifer said lazily.  It was all too reminiscent of the call that had interrupted their idyllic afternoon yesterday.  "I mean, okay, so it's hard to lock up a huge floating tower, but, really, Esthar needs to take better--"

        Squall abruptly reversed direction, heading back to the tent that held the communications equipment.  "Quistis!" he shouted.

        "On my way!"

        Seifer lengthened his stride to keep up with the brunet.  "What's up?" he asked.  He was already scanning their surroundings.  It was unlikely any threat existed here, but the use of radio for long-range communication was still new and old habits died hard.

        Squall waited until they had ducked into the tent again to reply.  He snapped his fingers at the SeeD manning the communications and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  "Attack on Balamb," he said, sliding into the newly vacated seat.  "Get Selphie on the line."

        Seifer sat at the auxiliary station and fired it up.  "Seifer Almasy hailing the Rag, Selphie, come in."

        "What's up, Seifie?" the brunette said, her face flickering onto the screen.  She had been right before, the equipment in Centra did suck; there was the crackle of interference and her image jumped about.

        "Were you able to contact B-Garden?" he asked, keeping half an eye on Squall where he was murmuring into the mic at his station.

        "Yeah, just after I called you guys," Selphie said, looking puzzled.  "Remember?  I said I would, 'cause Deling City got hit."

        "And did they say anything?  How long ago was it?"

        "Xu thanked me and, I dunno, I called them right after I called Squall."  Her eyes narrowed.  "Seifie, what's going on?"

        "Get Selphie to pick up Rin and Irvine," Squall ordered abruptly.  "Then she's to make all speed to Balamb and pick up survivors on the Albatross Archipelago."  He sounded . . . grim.

        Seifer relayed the orders and had to wince at the mechanical protests the Ragnarok was making as Selphie forced it to turn at a speed it probably wasn't supposed to.

        "What sort of survivors?" she asked crisply.

        "Just concentrate on getting there as fast as you can," Seifer said, attention still on Squall.

        Selphie made a rude noise just as Quistis entered.  "Unlike some people, I can fly and talk at the same time.  What's.  Going.  On."

        The blonde took a quick look at what Squall had up, then came to stand behind Seifer.  "It looks like someone attacked Balamb," she said in a hushed voice.  "That's why you're going back for Rinoa and Irvine--Squall's pretty sure the fighting's going to be done by the time you get there, but, if it isn't, you can't fly and fire at the same time."

        Selphie huffed.  "Well, of course I can," she said, irritated.  She grimaced.  "Not well, I guess, so maybe it's a good thing.  Thank Hyne I was only a few minutes out of Deling when I called you guys."  She checked her instrumentation.  "What did Squall mean, survivors?" she asked again in a small voice.

        Quistis looked over her shoulder again at Squall, playing the SeeD Commander for all he was worth.  "I think--I think he's giving orders to abandon B-Garden," she said.  "They came for us, Selphie, they left Balamb alone, but they came for Garden."

***

        Squall leaned back in his chair and pushed both hands through his hair.  What a fucking mess.  What a Hyne-damned fucking mess.

        He'd had to stay with Garden--what was left of it--the entire time.  He'd felt useless, worse than useless, but people appreciated commands in a loud, clear voice of authority and that was all he had, so he'd used it.

        The Ragnarok was full of Garden's survivors.  There weren't many.  He shouldn't have left Quistis have all those SeeDs for Centra, but . . . if he hadn't, they would be even worse off now, no base to fall back on.

        He should have been there.  He should have--if he'd been there, maybe they could have thrown off the attack.  Maybe there would have been no need to give the order to evacuate.

        A large head nudged his side and he let a hand fall to the wolf's head.  There was still so much to do.  Preparations would have to be made for the survivors, to heal them and house them.  Plans would have to be made to find out who had done this and why and what they could do right back because no one fucked with SeeD and lived to tell the tale.

        Seifer shifted and stood behind Squall, resting his hands on the other man's shoulders.  "Time to get up," the blond said quietly.

        Squall shook his head.  No, he had orders to give, he had to get information, he had--

        Seifer gave him a little shake.  "No, now.  There're enough people here to do what needs to be done.  You need to rest.  It'll take the Rag another three hours to get here, with the damage it sustained.  You can at least grab some food, even if you won't sleep."  He coaxed Squall out of his seat and pushed him outside the tent.  Once somewhere even halfway shadowed, Squall shifted and loped off.  Seifer rolled his eyes, but shifted, too, and followed him.

        Squall, to his surprise, didn't leave the camp, just went back to the tent he'd commandeered.  The lion wasn't sleeping, of course, and Seifer didn't think he would be able to.  Hyne knew it had been enough of a shock to him, to know practically the only home he remembered was as good as gone.  It would be much worse for Squall.

        He stuck his head back outside the tent and caught Raijin's eye.  He had taken advantage of the confusion to take charge while Quistis and Squall and just about every other SeeD of notable rank dealt with what was happening in Balamb.  As best he was able, the camp had been transformed into a more permanent base and was as ready as it could be to receive what was left of Balamb Garden.  Part of those arrangements, of course, were where his posse was stationed and what their duties were.  Fujin was having the time of her living scaring SeeD into doing what she wanted, and Raijin, well, Raijin was on Leonhart duty.

        It didn't take long before a tray of food made its way to the tent and he dropped it in front of the pile of pillows and blankets Squall called his bed.

        "Food's up," the blond announced.  He prodded lion with his foot when that didn't do anything.  "Leonhart.  Eat.  Or I'll shove the food down your throat."

        Squall uncurled and let his head fall by the tray.  He eyed the food with disinterest and Seifer heaved a sigh.

        "You've gotta be kidding me," he muttered.  "Look, Leonhart.  Squall.  I get this is bad news--really, seriously, we're-pretty-near-fucked bad news.  I even get why you're acting like this--oh, if I hadn't spent all this time sulking about my asshole of a dad, et cetera, et cetera.  But you've got a lot of people relying on you, like it or not, and that means you have to take care of yourself, got it?  You're the Commander, you're the hero, you are what everyone looks up to.  How do you think they're all gonna feel if they get here, after their home has been destroyed and see you slinking about the place?  Or, worse yet, not see you at all?"

        Squall shifted and glared at him.  "I never asked for this," he snapped.

        "Tough shit," Seifer said, unmoved.  "It fell on you, so deal with it.  That's the sort of shit that happens when you save the world and it's nothing like all the stories."

        Squall looked away, hiding the shame on his face with his hair.  "I went days without food in the War," he muttered, but, since he picked up a bun from the tray, Seifer decided to go easy on him.

        "Yeah, well, we can't be seventeen forever," the blond said, smirking.  "In fact, you're not seventeen anymore, am I right?  Which makes what I just said even more true!"

        "Makes it a 'more true' load of shit, yeah."

        Seifer folded himself to the ground.  "What's your plan?" he asked.  "How will you deal with this?"

        Squall half-shrugged, picking a few choice pieces of meat and dropping them inside the bun.  "We need more information," he said.  "We don't know what the hell's going on here, why Deling City was attacked and then, right after, why Balamb Garden.  Could they be connected?  If they are, then how?"

        Seifer nodded thoughtfully.  "Yeah, we really need more intel.  Trepe is doing a good job getting what she can from the Rag while it's on its way."

        Squall made a noise of protest.  "Do you have to call it the Rag?" he complained.  "Why can't you just say the full name?"

        Seifer grinned.  "And where would the fun be in that?" he asked.  "So we need more information, that's fine.  Where are we going to get it?"

        Squall sighed, sounding annoyed, and sat back.  "Seifer, I know how to do my job.  I'm going to have to send SeeD back there, get them to find out what happened and what's happening.  Then, once we have all the information, we go and kick the asses of whoever decided it was a good idea to try to kick SeeD's collective ass."

        Seifer pointed a finger at him.  "And that's the boy who kicked major sorceress ass," he said proudly.  He slapped his hands on his knees and rose.  "Now, promise to eat every bit of food on the tray and I'll promise to let you brood for, oh, an hour or so before I drag you out of here again."  He caught the drumstick Squall threw at him and bit into it smugly as he exited.  "Better get brooding!" he called back.  "You only have fifty-nine minutes left!"

***

        The arrival of the Ragnarok was a solemn affair.  It didn't take an announcement or an order for people to start drifting to what they'd been using as an air field.

        The Ragnarok was in poor shape--her engines were growling instead of humming and there were dents and scratches all around.

        Seifer shoved his nose into Squall's hand until the brunet started petting him.  It was a calculated move on his part.  One, it got Squall doing something and, two, it made Squall concentrate on something other than the Ragnarok and the cargo she carried.

        Zell was the first one off.  Exhausted, filthy, but whole.  Squall's hand tightened in his fur for a moment before the SeeD Commander stepped forward and saluted.  Zell returned the salute and that, apparently, was the cue for people to start rushing into the airship and start ferrying people out.  They all looked astonishingly healthy, but Seifer figured it was more a matter of a habit of going around ready for a fight that contributed to that than anything else, an assumption that was borne out when Squall entered the Ragnarok once all the survivors were off and being cared for.

        Rinoa was slumped in one of the few passenger chairs, blood splashed on her hands and up her arms.  Angelo, the little sneak, had obviously already snuck on board and was lying at her owner's feet, looking worried.  Selphie had slid down against the wall between the passenger area and the cockpit, looking worn and rumpled.  Irvine was in the cockpit still, checking Selphie's baby over with a manic thoroughness.

        "It's a damn good thing Rin had Leviathan," Zell was saying quietly, his normally manic energy dimmed.  "She was a godsend."

        "How bad was it?" Squall asked, just as quietly.

        Zell made an abortive gesture, suppressed anger contorting his face.  He laughed, a short, ugly laugh.  "It sure as hell wasn't good," he said, his mouth twisting.  "Squall--I swear, we had no warning.  There was nothing and then, suddenly, Alcaud Plains was full of these . . . ranks of high-level monsters.  It was like someone had taken the worst monsters in the world and decided to make an army out of them!  They came straight for us, left Balamb itself alone, but it was like we had a shiny red target pinned to us or something.  We--we did the best we could, but we had to ditch B-Garden.  They'd grounded us already and were trying to trap us in there and I think they were gonna just destroy it with all of us in it or something.  So we ditched it and ran.  We managed to get Cid and most of the students, but--"  The blond shrugged angrily.  "It wasn't easy, but it was easier than being trapped in Garden.  It was mostly over when the Ragnarok got there and that was weird, 'cause we sure as hell didn't kill that many of them."

        The blond lapsed into silence and Squall gripped his shoulder.  Seifer wandered over and pressed up against the duelist's side.  Yeah, the guy could be annoying and he packed a hell of a punch, but--Okay, so he really wanted to see how long it would take Zell to figure out whose ears he was scratching.

        "I didn't know you got a dog," Zell said, rousing himself from thoughts about the disastrous battle.  "Man, he's big, I didn't think you could get dogs that big."  He looked at the brunet.  "So, yeah, there's more, but I kinda only want to go through it once, yeah?"

        Squall nodded.  "Supper?" he suggested.

        Zell brightened.  "Hotdogs?"  And Seifer had to lower his head and huff out a laugh.  The world could change beyond recognition and Zell would still have an unhealthy obsession with hotdogs.

        "You would not believe," Zell said at supper, "what shit they're trying to sell as hotdogs these days.  Man, three different suppliers and they all tasted like Grat shit!"  He took another bite.  "So, where's everyone?"

        "Edea's with Cid, of course," Quistis said.  She looked around.  "I wasn't aware anyone else was missing, though."

        Zell gestured wildly.  "Seifer, man!" he said.  "I heard he was showin' his face again and I wanna see how he's doing!"

        Fujin smothered a laugh and he glared at her.  "SEIFER, HERE," she said.

        Zell whipped his head around.  "Where?"

        Raijin grinned.  "You've been sneaking him bits of hotdog for the last five minutes, ya know."

        Zell looked outraged.  "No way, I was feeding Squall's . . . ."  His jaw dropped.  "You're shitting me!"

        Seifer laid his head on Zell's lap and made the saddest, most pathetic puppy eyes at him.

        The blond shoved him off.  "Gross!  Get off!  Why they hell you'd have to be one of us, anyway?" he complained.  "I mean, we got Rin, couldn't we have just traded her for you?"

        "That's not the way it works, Zell," Selphie said primly.  "You can't decide who's a Fated Child or not just according to your likes."

        "But it's Seifer!" Zell squawked.  "And--wait, why did you say 'Fated Child'?"

        "Surely you remember why we're here in the first place, Zell," Quistis admonished.  "We've learned a lot from these ruins and some of it seems to apply to us.

        "You're sayin' there's a reason we can all . . . y'know . . . ."

        "Yeah, turns out you're really a Chicken Wuss after all, huh?" Seifer said, dropping into a chair.

        "Do not call me that!"

        Seifer threaded his fingers together behind his head.  "So you didn't shift for the first time and freak out?" he asked innocently.

        Zell's mouth opened and closed a few times.  "We . . . .  We do not talk about that night! We agreed, we all agreed it was a drug-induced hallucination!"

        Seifer grinned.  "This 'drug-induced hallucination' just spent half a day tricking you," he pointed out.

        Zell turned to Quistis.  "Why couldn't we've just traded him for Rin?" he pleaded.

        The blonde hid a smile.  "Selphie was right," she said.  "It really doesn't work like that.  From the evidence there were . . . let's say there were thirteen bloodlines.  You, me, just about everyone at this table--including Seifer--are from one of those thirteen bloodlines."  She looked thoughtful.  "At first, we thought it was Centran mythology, like they have thirteen months instead of twelve, but when we got to the courtyard . . . ."

        "What about the courtyard?" Zell prompted, enthralled.  "And . . . wait, you said there were thirteen?"  He started pointing at everyone, obviously counting.  "That means we're still four short!"

        Irvine choked on something and Selphie patted his back vigorously.  "Six, actually," the brunette said, grinning impishly.  "Fu and Rai don't shift.  And three of the columns were all crumbly, so, really, there's only three."  She ticked them off on her fingers.  "The eagle, the horse, and the bear; everyone else is accounted for or crumbly."

        Zell started violently.  "The eagle?" he choked out.

        Selphie looked at him strangely.  "Uh, yeah?"

        Zell slammed his hands on the table and threw himself back in his chair.  "That little--!  There was a man there," he said.  "I tried to get to him, thought he was in charge.  Made it, but he was already gone and there was this damn bird with a fluffy face and huge wingspan where he'd been.  I hesitated, he leapt up and tried to claw my eyes out, and then he was gone."

        "You couldn't know," Rinoa said gently.

        Zell tapped a finger against the table.  "There were reports of a bear, too," he said thoughtfully.  "Not many, but I heard 'em.  I thought they'd gone up against something like a Chimera or something--they were all students and a Chimera would be fucking scary."

        "Bear, eagle . . . ."  Rinoa shivered.  "That's pretty creepy.  And a bit of a coincidence, to find two of the three missing Fated Children and both on the wrong side."

        Irvine stretched his arm across the back of Selphie's chair.  "It's a bit of a coincidence to have six of us in the same orphanage," he pointed out.  "Kinda even more of one to have us all meet again and fighting on the same side when we've grown up."

        Seifer snorted.  "For a given value of 'same'," he muttered.  "Look, I don't believe in that destiny crap.  To call us all the Fated Children?  That's a load of bullshit."

        "BS, NOT," Fujin said.

        Quistis nodded.  "It's an imprecise translation, Seifer," she said.  "You could just as easily say the Lucky Children or the Children of Power or even the Children of Accident."

        "Yeah, we're all accidents here."

        Squall reached out and smacked the back of Seifer's head.  "Shut up," he ordered.

        Seifer leaned back with a grin.  "Yeah, and we all know how well I take orders," he said lazily.  "Are we just here to eat and shoot the breeze or is this supposed to be a strategy session?"

        "You couldn't've waited until after dessert?" Selphie complained, shoving her plate away.  "Reality sucks and I, for one, would find it much more palatable if I could face it with something sweet."

        Squall sighed and pushed his plate away, too.  "Fine.  What're our objectives?"

        "I want to go back to Galbadia," Rinoa said immediately.  "That was the first place attacked and there might still be clues there about who did it and why."

        Zell leaned forward.  "Yeah?  Well, I want to go back to Balamb.  That just happened and, if there are any clues, they'll be a helluva lot fresher and easier to follow.  Plus, there's a lot of stuff still left in B-Garden and it wouldn't be a good idea to just leave it for the first person to come across."

        "And I need the Ragnarok fixed!" Selphie said firmly.  She gave Rinoa and Zell the evil eye.  "Neither of you will be going anywhere without it."

        Quistis shrugged.  "My pet project can wait," she offered.  "The only thing I could contribute is maybe a reason for why we can shift.  Not exactly earth-shattering or world-saving."

        Squall stared at the table, long enough for Seifer to reach over and wave a hand in front of his face.

        "Stop that," Squall snapped.

        "Then stop with the staring!  No one can hear your little internal monologues, remember?"

        "I was thinking."

        "Well, think a little faster, before we all get old and die," the other man grumbled.

        "Whatever.  Selphie, the Ragnarok is already being worked on; as soon as it's air-worthy, you'll be heading out again.  Zell, she'll be taking you and a team of SeeD back to B-Garden.  We'll need whatever video you can get of the attack, plus whatever can be scrounged.  Rinoa, you and Selphie and Irvine are heading back to Deling.  I'll send a team of SeeD with you, too.  We need information.  Quistis, you, Fujin, and Raijin--what information we have, go through it.  We need to know everything."

        "Small tasks," Quistis murmured.

        "What about Seifer?" Zell asked.  "What's his job?"

        Squall smirked.  "Seifer's in charge of me."

        Seifer brightened.  "Ha!  You said it!  I'm the boss of you!"

        Squall rolled his eyes.  "Dumbass.  You're in charge of my time.  It's your job to tell me where I need to be and when."

        Seifer's jaw dropped.  "Did . . . you just make me the secretary?"

        "I believe they're called personal assistants now," Irvine drawled.

        "Regardless, if you need something, go to Seifer," Squall said, mouth twitching.

        "Please, please tell me you're kidding," the blond begged.

        Squall held out a moment, and then,  "Yeah, you're with Quistis and your posse.  Play nice with the other kids."

        Seifer sagged.  "Thank Hyne."

***

        She rested a hand on the neck of her mount and it quieted, its skin shivering under her touch.  She had taught it well to heed her.

        Bri'anne looked over the last remnant of Centra's glorious past and felt her lip curl.  Smooth, gleaming, and soulless, Esthar shone like the star it had fallen from.  Soon, thought, it would shine no more and her revenge would be complete.

        "Go," she said quietly.  "Teach them to fear me."

        The man beside her crouched down and an eagle sprang into the air, beating its wings to gain height before gliding.  It whistled and her army, massed behind her, roared in a single voice, the harmonics vibrating deep inside her.  They rushed past her, avoiding her as she urged her mount forward at a walk.  There was, after all, no running from her.

        As she moved through the streets of burning Esthar, her faithful guardian behind her, she remembered again the triumph in Balamb.  The fools had trusted their Centran shelter, as if she did not know their weaknesses, as if the changes they had made would help them.  They had fled to the east and her army had continued decimating them, although she would have been satisfied with the shelter's destruction.  At least, until she had the leisure to make a more thorough example of them.

        At last, she came to the Presidential Residence.  It had suffered some damage, but its defences were strong and it was still standing, still holding what citizens had headed for its shelter.

        Her horse stopped at her signal and tossed its head, its eyes rolling madly.  She stroked its neck again, feeling the magic that bound the guardian within to her will.  It was a fine piece of work, subverting those natural protections the guardian had enjoyed and threading her own control into its ability to shift, to move, to even think.

        She touched the power within herself and urged it forward.  This last stronghold of Centra would lie in ruin and flames before she was done.

        "I call upon thee, o Rainbow Serpent!" she cried.  "Creator-guardian of Esthar, I call you, Bor'lung!  Raze our enemies to the ground and salt their earth, that they may come against us no more!"

        Water poured out, flooding the area and rising, rising until the terrified civilians were screaming and drowning.  And then the earth trembled.  And then the earth cracked.  The water drained rapidly, pulling its little human foes with it as the earth continued to shudder and jump, breaking the palace itself open like an egg.

        Bri'anne pointed and light started collecting in the broken building, shining out through its cracks and fissures.  Green magic started bubbling, expanding until it enveloped the building before the Ultima spell exploded.

        Fragments of the last symbol of a broken and degraded Centra bounced off her shield.

        She laughed.

***

        Something was beeping.  It was very annoying and it was threatening to pull Seifer out of sleep and that just wasn't right.

        Of course, when he realised he was thinking that, he knew he was awake and sleep was a lost cause anyway.  On the bright side, the sound was on Leonhart's side of the tent.

        "Y'r phone's callin' you," he mumbled in slurred voice.  There was no response.  "Leonhart, it's ass o'clock and your com-unit's beeping and it's annoying as ass!"

        "What do you have against asses?" Squall said in the darkness.  For a long moment, there was nothing else, but then Seifer heard the other man fumbling around in the dark.  Leonhart, of course, didn't even sound sleepy, which was highly unfair since Seifer had been woken up first.

        Seifer turned over and stared at the ceiling.  "Nothing at all," he said flippantly.  "As a matter of fact, I have a particularly fine ass myself.  But it's three in the morning and three is a sideways ass, so it's ass o'clock."

        He could hear Leonhart moving around.  "Whatever.  Is ass o'clock too early for you to get up or does your ass need more beauty sleep?"

        Seifer groaned and rolled himself out of his cot.  "Whatever your ass," he groused.  "And my ass is the epitome of perfection, thank you very much."  He yawned.  "What're we up for?"

        "Priority alert from a SeeD in Esthar.  I want to take it with some proper equipment."

        Seifer yawned again and shoved his feet into his boots.  "What, are you still sore about what Selphie said?" he asked.  "She was right, you know.  The equipment you have here is shit."

        Squall made a frustrated noise.  "Excuse me for not knowing this would turn into a full-fledged SeeD base," he snapped, pulling open the tent flap viciously.  "Are you coming or are you just going to stand there and bitch?"

        "Stand and bitch," Seifer said promptly.  Squall made another frustrated noise and shifted before disappearing from sight.

        Seifer snorted and shook his head before shifting himself and following the dark lion.  One day, his smart mouth was going to get him into trouble.  Thankfully, that day was not yet.

        It was strange, ghosting through the tent city set up in the ruins of an ancient city in the middle of the night.  Not that he believed the ghost stories that came out of Raijin's mouth, but it was still strange to see a place he mostly knew as bustling so still and quiet.  Not creepy, though, because there was no such thing as ghosts and he was going to smack Raijin the next time he saw the dark-skinned man for putting stupid thoughts like that in his brain.

        At least security had been tightened, probably by Fujin with her scary-ass take-no-prisoners approach to organising.  Or, really, to anything.  The best thing he'd ever done was recruit her into his posse.  If he hadn't, chances were he would've had another rival, except she would have kicked his ass.  And Leonhart's.  Together.  That was a discouraging thought; he might've had to team up with Leonhart to get the upper hand with Fujin.

        He shook his head and increased his pace.  Interrupted sleep clearly did a number on his brain.

        Even with his upped speed, he got to the com tent after Squall had.  The blond shifted and ducked inside, grumbling to himself about prissy brunets and the misleading speed they displayed.

        "Replay it," Squall commanded.  Seifer gave him a sharp look; he'd sounded almost shaken.  Come to think of it, it didn't look like it was just the crappy lighting in the tent that made him looked all washed out and pale, either.

        "Esthar has fallen," a gravelly voice said amid bursts of static.  "It---unexpected, there were monsters.  Possi---orceress.  Presidential Residence destro---pletely, no survivors.  City overrun.  Will atte---make my way---"  And the message cut off there.

        "Again," Squall demanded.

        "Whoa, whoa," Seifer said, stepping forward.  He held a hand out to the SeeD on the com equipment, but stayed facing Squall.  "Look, whoever you are, why don't you take a break, okay?  I've worked this equipment before, I'll take care of anything that comes in.  Just . . . take a break."

        Apparently, the guy was pretty freaked out, because he was up and out of the tent like a shot.  That let Seifer take the time to really look at Squall to think about what he'd heard.  Esthar, attacked and its capital city most likely destroyed.  Its president most likely dead.

        Squall's father most likely dead.

        "Get out of here," the blond said at last.  "Go to where we sparred; I'll find you there after I take care of this."

        Squall, of course, glared at him for the insult of giving him orders, but it was half-hearted at best and negated by the way the other man did what he'd said.

        Seifer blew out a lungful of air and tapped a finger on the comm equipment, thinking.  Then he sighed and started the system up again.  He signalled Quistis' com-unit and hoped like hell she would hear it and then did Fu ander Rai's too for good measure.  Then he shook his head and started hitting all the uber-team's com-units.  This wasn't something that could wait until morning, at least not for the important people, and how he'd gotten himself mixed up with them, he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

***

        Quistis had sat down in shock when the message started playing and, even now, she looked too shaken to stand.  "Esthar?" she asked in disbelief.  "But--but it's Esthar!  How could they sneak up on the most technologically advanced country in the world?"

        Selphie was staring at the map, walking her fingers all over it.  "We already know whoever it was was able to circumvent Esthar's security once before," she said, frowning.  "When they stole the Lunatic Pandora.  Or maybe it was someone else--why would they steal such a huge weapon from Esthar, move it halfway across the world, and then attack Esthar with just an army?"

        Fujin slapped a bunch of printouts on the table.  "PROOF," she said.  "ONE."

        Irvine tilted his head to the side, but stayed leaning against the comm equipment.  "So it was one person," he said.

        "Yeah, and we're pretty sure we found the last Fated Child, too, ya know," Raijin added.  "And we maybe found her base of operations."

        Zell stopped jigging his leg.  "She?" he asked.  He narrowed his eyes.  "Sorceress?"

        Seifer rolled his eyes.  "You and Fu sound like a match made in heaven," he said disparagingly.  He ducked, but not fast enough to avoid Fujin's smack to the back of his head.  "Hey!"

        "SORCERESS, POSSIBLE," Fujin said, tapping the printouts again.  "PROBABLE."

        "Motivation?" Rinoa asked.  Fujin shrugged and the brunette bit her lip.  "All right, then where is she?"

        "Dollet," Raijin said with relish.  "It looks like she slipped into town sometime in the summer and took over.  She probably mind-whammied the people there, which is why the SeeD stationed there never told us.  I mean, sorceress, pretty big news, right?  Almost have to be a mind-whammy to keep that secret, ya know."

        Seifer rolled his hand, telling Raijin to get on with it.  When that didn't work, he prompted, "And the Fated--dammit, and the horse?  Is it the horse?"

        Fujin nodded and slipped one of the printouts out of the stack she had slammed down.  She handed it to Seifer, who took a look at it and raised his eyebrows.  "Yeah, looks like the sorceress got herself a mount, all right," he said.  "She must have something the horse wants really bad."  And he hadn't previously considered just what shifting looked like to an observer--pretty alien and kinda disturbing.

        "Couldn't it be a mind-whammy?" Zell asked curiously.

        "No," Seifer said shortly and sent a glare Zell's way to back it up.

        Zell, of course, having survived the most recent apocalypse, had the survival instincts of a lemming.  "Why not?" he persisted. "What's to stop the sorceress from mind-whammying the horse?"

        Seifer ran his hands through his hair and grimaced, looking off to one side.  "Because," he said reluctantly.

        "Because Ultimecia couldn't control him as a wolf," Irvine said, unexpectedly coming to Seifer's rescue.  He tipped his hat to the startled blond.  "Sephy said something about that; did I get it right?"

        "Yeah, pretty much," Seifer said, his voice only a little fainter than usual.  He snapped his gaze back to Zell.  "And that's why there has to be a deal of some kind between the sorceress and the other shifters--if Ultimecia couldn't control one, there's no way in hell whoever this bitch is could control three."

        "Wait a minute . . . ."  Rinoa was looking around, looking for something.  Or, Seifer thought with a sinking heart, someone.  "Where's Squall?  Shouldn't he be here?"

        "Squall's busy," Seifer said brusquely.

        "Too busy for a war meeting?" Quistis asked, honestly taken aback.

        "He's busy," Seifer repeated, irritated.  "So if you have any questions for him, let me know and I'll pass them on like a good little secretary.  Now, are we going to do this or what?"

        "Wait, what do you mean, he's busy?" Zell asked.  "How can he be busy, it's the middle of the night!"

        "Just what I said, Chicken Wuss," Seifer snapped.  "He has things to do and he left me in charge."  A little white lie, but Squall probably would have thought of that, if he'd had the wherewithal to be doing any thinking.

        "Ooo!" Selphie burst out.  "I knew I should've kicked Sir Laguna when I had the chance!"

        "Selphie, isn't he kind of your hero?" Rinoa asked gently.

        Selphie crossed her arms and turned her nose up in the air.  "He's a jerk and deserves a good kicking!" she said hotly.  Then her face fell.  "Or he did, anyway."

        "Kicking Laguna and all aside," Seifer interjected, eying Selphie, "Squall's still busy.  He'll be unbusy soon, but, until then and as I've said, anything you want to get to him goes through me.  Selphie, go and bother the mechanics working on the Ragnarok until its fixed.  We need information and, to get information, we need transport.  Rinoa, Zell, your teams and missions are still a go.  I'm also going to need someone to check out Dollet . . . ."

        Fujin shifted.  "VOLUNTEER," she announced before kicking Raijin.

        "Ow, Fu!  I was just gonna, ya know?" he said, glaring at her.

        "You'll be going into a sorceress' home base," Seifer warned.  "And you'll be going in without protection against her."

        The white-haired woman shrugged.  "EDEA."

        "Do you really think she'll want tog o with you?" Seifer asked skeptically.

        Fujin shrugged again.  "HOME, GONE.  HUSBAND, HURT.  REVENGE?  LIKELY."

        Seifer blew out a breath.  "Right," he said.  "I'll ask her later this morning."

        Zell yawned.  "Yeah, why'd you wake us up at ass o'clock, anyway?" he complained.

        "Zell, it's pretty important to know Esthar was attacked," Selphie protested.  She tossed her head.  "But if you want to go back to bed, then, fine.  I'll just go and molest the mechanics by myself."  She flounced out of the tent, Irvine, of course, following.

        Zell started after her.  "Selphie, I'm one of the mechanics!  Please don't molest--"  And the tent flap closed, cutting off the rest.

        Quistis stared at the tent flap, then shook her head.  She stood up and gathered the printouts on the table and slipped out silently, crooking a finger at Fujin and Raijin to follow here.

        And that left Rinoa and Seifer.

        He leaned back.  "Careful, princess," he drawled.  "You're alone in the tent with the notorious Sorceress Knight.  Your reputation might take a hit it can't handle."

        Rinoa just smiled at him and made a flame dance over her fingertips.  "Are you sure it isn't the other way around?" she asked sweetly.

        He snorted and shook his head.  "You've done all right for yourself," he said grudgingly.  He made some shooing gestures.  "Now, why don't you go back to bed and catch up on your beauty sleep?"

        She laughed.  "As if," she said fondly, getting up.  "I think I'll go and bother Quisty instead."  She hesitated.  "Seifer . . . he'll be all right, won't he?"

        He made a rude noise.  "What're you talking about, of course he'll be," he said disparagingly.  "He's saved the world once already, he'll be fine to do it again."  He watched her leave and sat still for a long moment, figuring out what else needed to be done.  Then, in the middle of standing up so he could vacate this place and go find himself a traumatised lion, he remembered.

        Fuck.  There was always something else, wasn't there?  He started up the comm system again and started trying to figure out how he could tell Ellone that her father figure had died.

***

        Seifer made a show of trying to scent Leonhart's trail, but he already knew where the lion was hiding.  He padded around the concealing boulders and, yep, there was a lion, all curled up.  He nosed at Squall, but all the he did was shiver and curl tighter.

        Seifer shifted and sighed.  "You know, if you're that cold, you coulda hidden in our tent," he told the (big) ball of fur.  There was, of course, no response.  He started pushing and pulling on the lion, forcing Squall to make room for him.  Squall let him, which said a lot about the whole situation.

        They ended up with Squall curled around Seifer, his head in the blond's lap, and Seifer's trench coat spread over the lion's back.

        "I'm guessing you don't want to talk about it, then," Seifer said, burying his fingers in Squall's mane.  He chuckled.  "Yeah, when do you ever want to talk about it, right?"  He ran a finger over one thick ear, grinning when Squall tried to twitch it out of his reach.

        There was the sound of stones scattering and the body behind him tensed.

        "Who's there?" Seifer called sharply.  There was a guilty silence before a dark face peeked around the rocks.  Seifer hit his forehead.  "Selphie," he muttered.  "Of course."

        The sifaka crept forward a little and, when he didn't say anything, suddenly rose and bounded forward, chittering unhappily.  One last jump brought her beside them and she looked up at Seifer before laying a gentle hand on Squall's nose.  Squall opened his eyes and just looked at her and she let out a wail and hugged his face.  That, at least, made the lion move, even if it was only so he could breath.

        Selphie took that as an invitation and climbed on top of Squall's head, curling herself up to fit.  She dug her fingers into his mane and buried her face there; only the shaking of her shoulders betrayed her emotional state.

        Another rattle of stones heralded Irvine's appearance.  The hare hopped forward, stopping frequently to test the scents on the air.

        "He's not gonna eat you," Seifer told Irvine.  "Hyne, you shoulda seen him on the trip from Esthar to here--nothing would do for him but that I made a fire each night and cooked what he'd killed.  Prissy little princess here does not like the taste of raw meat."

        That seemed to reassure Irvine and he came closer still.  He touched his nose to Squall's, which made the lion rear back and Selphie squeak as her perch was disturbed.  She spied Irvine and jumped down so she could haul him with her onto Seifer's lap.

        "I'm not some sort of wildlife pillow," Seifer complained, but that didn't faze Selphie any as she manhandled--lemur-handled--Irvine under Squall's head and curled around him there.  Squall groaned out a sigh and only laid his head down enough to cover the two interlopers and not squash them.

        "Yeah, if I get any gouges or bruises or anything from certain bunnies startling," Seifer said, resigned, "there's going to be trouble."  Selphie chattered reassuringly at him--or at least it sounded reassuring, as muffled as it was.

        "Kweh?"

        The blond looked up to see a ridiculously fluffy chocobo looking hopefully at him.

        "You're far too big to fit in my lap, Dincht," he warned, "so don't even think about it."

        Zell gave him a disdainful look and stepped the rest of the way forward, bringing into view the dark snake coiled up and around his body.  He settled on the ground near Squall's head, close enough to be able to fluff his wings out and at least partially cover Squall's head.  The lion, with an annoyed look, jerked his head out from underneath and gave the chocobo a glare.  Zell clucked at him, sounding pleased with himself, as Quistis slithered off him to coil around Seifer and Squall, stealing their heat.

        "Hyne, am I a portable heater or something?" Seifer complained.  He started violently when Quistis tongue-tasted the back of his neck.  "You guys are so disturbing."  He grumbled a bit more as the snake draped herself across his shoulders.

        There was a honk and Seifer turned to see Rinoa, obviously laughing at him.

        "Yeah, yeah," he muttered, "come join the big love-in we have going here.  This touchy-feely shit is for the birds."  He ducked as Rinoa reached forward to preen his hair.  "Ew, bird spit, Rin, really!"

        He started shoving animals off of him until there was enough room for him to shift.  Then, with a bound, he trotted for the edge of the plateau.  He looked back and barked once before facing out over the water and lifting his head.  A mournful howl lifted into the pre-dawn light.

        Squall rose, shaking Quistis off, and joined the wolf.  He lifted his head and roared, the heart-breaking pain in it echoing across the stillness of the water.

        Zell clambered to his feet and joined them on the edge of the cliff.  He extended his neck and flapped his wings, sounding off a great warbling 'wark'.  Quistis climbed up him, wrapping herself loosely around his body and under his wings before stretching out along the back of his neck and laying her head down on his.  Selphie bounced along the ground until she was beside them, then screeched, shaking her tiny fists at the emptiness.  Irvine hopped forward to nuzzle at her.  Rinoa raised herself up and beat her wings as Zell had, ending with a long, mournful cry, before dipping her head down to preen Irvine's ears.

        Squall stepped forward again and roared again.  Seifer joined in, his howl carrying their loss up into the dawn, telling the world of the sorrows that had come.  Three disasters impacting all of them, if not directly, then through each other.  But there was strength in numbers and sorrows shared were halved.

***

        Seifer stared up at the ceiling of the tent, highly uncomfortable.  These cots were made for exactly one person to sleep uncomfortably and, yet, there he was with Squall sleeping beside.

        "Beside" was a bit of a bad word choice.  "On top of" or "wrapped around" would possibly be better..  He had to admit, either way, it was kinda . . . nice, even if it made the cot so much more uncomfortable to sleep on.

        He wasn't really sure how it had happened.  They had all done the mourning thing and sat around watching the sunrise.  Then Squall--of course--had turned around and headed back to the camp.  Seifer had followed him, of course, so he wasn't sure when the rest of them had decided to come back or even if they were all still out there while he and Squall took a nap.

        What he did know was he'd been all ready for bed and, somehow, Squall had insinuated himself into his, Seifer's, arms.  Despite the inadvisability of sleeping with a SeeD Commander in one's arms, Seifer had still managed to drift off.

        But now he was awake and he kinda wanted answers, even if the only ones he'd get would be the ones he thought up himself.

        "You think too much."  The mumbled voice came from his shoulder.

        Seifer snorted.  "That's rich, coming from you."

        Squall sighed and moved a little, obviously trying to get comfortable on the hell-cot.  "that just means I know what I'm talking about," he said firmly.  There was a moment of silence and then Squall heaved another sigh.  "Fine.  What."

        "You're so gracious," Seifer muttered.

        "Yeah, the chicks dig my charm," Squall said, deadpan.

        "That's kinda it," Seifer said pointedly.  "What chicks dig."

        "Are you saying chicks don't dig you as much as they dig me?"

        Seifer growled a little and shook the other man's shoulder.  "Leonhart."

        Squall pushed Seifer's hand off.  "Hyne, do we have to actually talk about it?"

        Seifer narrowed his eyes.  "I didn't think there was much of anything to talk about."

        Squall rolled his eyes.  "Whatever.  You couldn't catch a clue from the way I dragged you back and made you stay?"

        Seifer paused with his mouth hanging open.  "Wait--that was supposed to be a clueI thought you were just dragging me back to be tried and executed!"

        Squall rolled his eyes again.  "Yeah, because I always torture my death row prisoners with Lagu--"  His breath caught and he stopped.

        Seifer tightened his arm reflexively around Squall.  "Fine," he grumbled.  "That was a clue.  So why the hell didn't you say anything after?"

        "I didn't know you couldn't catch a clue with both hands and a butterfly net," Squall retorted.  "For all I knew, your witty repartee was all you could do!  I thought you were taking it slow!"

        "Slow!" Seifer said, outraged.  "Why the hell would I take it slow?!  I've only been lusting after you since you were jailbait!  And did you just imply I was impotent?!"

        Squall opened his mouth, then shut it with a sound suspiciously like a snicker.

        "You did, you little rat, I'll show you how impotent I'm not!"  Seifer grabbed Squall's chin and held it firmly while he slanted his mouth over the other man's.

        "That's more like it," Squall said dazedly when the kiss broke.  His eyes cleared and he grabbed the back of Seifer's neck and pulled him into another kiss.

        A squeal and excited chatter interrupted the kiss and something jumped onto the cot with them.

        "What the hell?!" Seifer shouted, floundering as he tried to get a look at what was--apparently--attacking them.  "Selphie," he roared, "what the hell are you doing in here?!"

        The weight on them suddenly increased as Selphie shifted; the cot gave a warning groan.  "You guys are so cute!" she squealed before diving down and trying to hug both of them.  It would have been easier if Seifer hadn't been flailing every which way.  "I was just coming to tell you the Rag was ready and we were going to go and we wanted to say good-bye, but we couldn't find you and--"

        "Breathe, Selphie," Squall advised.

        She squealed again and hugged them harder.  "And then I came here and you two were kissing!  Finally!  Ha, Zell owes me a hundred thousand gil, he totally thought you two were already sleeping together!"

        Humiliated at being pinned by a girl, even if that girl was Selphie, Seifer held still.  "Did everyone know?" he asked plaintively.

        Selphie rolled her eyes.  "Of course not," she said disdainfully.  "You just had to know Squall, and we're the only ones who do, so, yeah, your little 'secret' is safe."  She started bouncing.  The cot started creaking.  "So, are you gonna get up now and come see us off?  Or do I have to break the bed?  I vote for breaking the bed 'cause then I can make naughty jokes all day long!"

        "Get off!" Squall said, heaving until, giggling, she fell off the side of the bed.  "And get out of here!  We'll be there in ten," he added as she ran for the tent flap.

        "You'd better!" she shouted back.  "Or I'll tell everyone how your bed got broke!"

        Seifer slapped a hand to his face.  "What the hell did I do to deserve this?"

***

        It had taken half a week before everyone had gathered at SeeD's new base again.  The reports they brought were, for the most part, pretty boring.  Deling City was still destroyed, although there were now concerted efforts to push the monsters back out of the city so the people left could start fixing it.  Balamb Garden was probably fixable, but only with a lot of work; on the positive side, they'd managed to salvage most of SeeD's technological resources, so that was a definite jump up in comfort for the camp.

        The really interesting news had come from Edea, Fujin, and Raijin and their little trip to Dollet.  Seifer had thought it was just going to be a routine trip, just to confirm it was, indeed, the sorceress's base, but the trio had brought back so much more than that.

        "Whad'ya mean she's controlling the other shifters?!" Zell squawked--really, it should've been obvious a long, long time ago what his animal form was.

        Edea looked at him steadily and he flushed and sat down.  "Exactly what I said.  I couldn't get close enough to see exactly how she was doing it, but I could see enough to know it took her a lot of time and effort," she said, her calm voice at odds with the distress showing in her eyes.  "I'm fairly sure the horse, at least, is no longer . . . mentally stable; she's being controlled utterly by the sorceress."

        "What about the townspeople?" Squall asked.

        Edea shrugged.  "Terrified," she said, "but not controlled.  There's less and less each day; there may be some sort of escape route in place for those able to avail themselves of it.  Anyone caught leaving, however . . . ."  She shrugged.  "Their fate is not necessarily . . . pretty.  The monsters in the city make up a great deal of civilian casualties, as well."

        "The monsters?" Quistis repeated.  "So its true, then?  She's using the monsters from the Lunar Cry as her army?"

        "As her army, yes," Edea answered.  She tilted her head to one side and frowned.  "As to whether they're from the most recent Lunar Cry, there was no way for me to know."

        "Did the shield work?" Rinoa asked eagerly, leaning forward.  "Was she able to sense you?"

        Edea bowed her head respectfully to the younger sorceress.  "She did not sense me," she said.  "The modification you suggested worked perfectly."

        "Was she there?" Squall asked.

        "She was; I couldn't find out one way or another what her plans for the future were.  She did make a speech," Edea added, "but it was mostly disorganised ranting about her triumph over the failed remnants of Centra."

        "Centra . . . ," Quistis murmured.  "Okay, I can sort of see that.  The Holy Dollet Empire was started by Centrans and so were Balamb and Esthar.  But Galbadia . . . ."

        "Maybe she just needed a place to destroy to get her army?" Irvine suggested.  "All reports indicate she takes a personal interest in her mayhem and the Lunar Cry is kinda . . . random and impersonal."

        "Maybe she needed a distraction," Selphie piped up.  "We were all still looking at Esthar, weren't we, because the Lunatic Pandora was stolen and everything."

        Quistis sighed.  "And I'd give a lot to know how she managed to do that unseen.  And how she got it to move so fast--there's no way she should have been able to get all the way across the world in the amount of time she had."

        "There are ways," Edea said.  "I would not want to use the majority of them for something so big, but they do exist."

        "And that's probably how she's moving her army about, too," Seifer said, tapping a finger on the table.  "She's been popping up in all sorts of places and there's not been enough time for her to get there."

        Edea nodded slowly.  "Yes . . . .  That would, indeed, explain her speedy travel.  It also gives a better idea of how powerful she is.  Ultimecia would have been able to move an army as this sorceress seems to have.  I, although I have the knowledge of such a spell, would not have the power to do so."

        Irvine whistled.  "Well, that's cheery," he said.  "More powerful than Matron, but less so than Ultimecia."  He flicked the brim of his hat.  "Piece of cake."

        "Except that she can control a shifter even in their animal form," Rinoa pointed out.  She flicked a glance at Seifer.  "Ultimecia couldn't do that."

        Quistis leaned forward.  "Ultimecia may not have known Seifer was a Fated Child," she said.  "Why would she try to control something that wasn't even there?"

        "Great, now I have more reason to be paranoid," Seifer complained.

        "As I said," Edea interrupted firmly, "she was using a lot of power and some quite intricate spellwork to control her Fated Children.  This would not be something she could do at the spur of the moment."

        "Basically, if we hit her hard and hit her fast, we'll win," Selphie said.  "Awesome!  So when are we going to kick sorceress butt?  Evil sorceress butt," she clarified quickly.

        Squall leaned back.  "I have nothing planned for the rest of this week," he said and lifted an eyebrow.

        Selphie jumped up.  "Awright!  Time to get ready to kick--"  A beeping interrupted her and she stopped mid-happy dance.  "Oh, who could be calling now?"  She fumbled for her com-unit and slipped it on.

        Except that didn't stop the beeping.  One by one, everyone's com-units were being raised.

        "There's--I really think you should see this, sir," the SeeD on the other end of Squall's com-unit said, sounding nervous.

        "Give me an idea," Squall said, shoving his chair back and making for the tent's entrance.  He noticed Seifer following him in his peripheral, shoving his own com-unit in his trench coat's pocket.

        "I--I swear it's B-Garden, sir, but that can't be right," the SeeD babbled.  "But others have confirmed it as a Garden and its profile is distinctive."

        Squall felt cold.  "Selphie!" he barked.  "Get the Ragnarok in the air!  I want to see what's happening!"

        "Gotcha!" she caroled out, before snapping her fingers at Zell.  "You're the fastest one, so shift."

        Zell made a face, but shifted obediently and Selphie vaulted onto his back.  He let out a wark and raced off, a hare--Irvine--beside him.

        "Why is it," Seifer said as he joined Squall in running, "that every time we have a meeting, something happens to interrupt it?"

        "Shut up and run," Squall growled.  Seifer laughed and then the wolf passed him, bounding up the rocky incline bordering the path to take a shortcut.  Squall snarled and shifted as well, catching up--and passing--Seifer.

        He shifted back just as he got to the comm tent, going from lion to human just as he hit the tent flaps.  Apparently, not soon enough, judging from the stunned look on Laguna's--Laguna--face.

        "Well," the President of Esthar said, looking bruised, battered, and completely unbowed.  "Not that I had any doubt, but you are definitely Raine's son."

***

        "You know, your mother showed me her lion--"

        "Lioness"

        "--ess, I was just about to say it, Kiros, once."  Laguna grinned foolishly. "She was a pretty good hot water bottle, too, and could she purr!"

        Squall traded glances with Seifer.  Gross, they agreed.  Parents.  Why couldn't he be an orphan after all?

        "Yes," Squall said patiently, "but how did you survive?"

        Laguna blinked at him, one eye covered rakishly by the bandage wrapped around his head.  "Huh.  Didn't I tell you?"

        Seifer sighed.  "Leave him be, Leonhart.  Even I can see he's got a concussion.  I think you're lucky to be getting memories at all."  The blond turned his attention to Kiros, but the dark-skinned man was definitely feeling no pain.  "Look, it's obvious they made it out by the skin of their teeth and you're not going to get anything out of them until Rin can come by with her magical Recover thing and that's not going to happen for a while, because President Moron here ordered her to heal everyone else first."

        Squall glared, first at Seifer, then at Laguna--who was currently making his hands 'talk' to each other.  Ellone, who was sitting beside Laguna, smothered a chuckle and gently took hold of Laguna's hands.

        "Go on, Squall," she said.  "I'll let you know when he's less . . . confused."

        "Whatever," Squall muttered, turning and heading for the door.  Seifer rolled his eyes and followed the other man.  "We don't have time for this," Squall said, frustrated.  "We need to be out there, we need to be making plans to take that bitch down."

        Seifer shrugged.  "You're not going to hear any complaints from me," he said easily.  "You'll have to drag Rin away from her little quest to nurse as many people back to health as she can, but not even she can heal everyone that came in on B-Garden."  He cracked his knuckles absently.  "Besides, we have perfectly good medical staff to take care of your idiot father--ow--and his people.  I vote wasting the bitch and then paying you back for that punch."

        "Nice to see where your priorities lie," Squall said snidely.

        "That's me, all-around nice guy," Seifer said, dusting off a dust-less sleeve.  "I put saving the world ahead of personal revenge alllllll the time."  He waited a beat.  "Plan?"

        "Waste the sorceress, save the world," Squall said finally.  "Get someone to find Rin and drag her away from whoever's trying to fall in love with her nurse routine.  Meet me in the Ragnarok."

        Seifer saluted lazily.  "Yes, sir, Commander, sir!"  He rubbed his hands together gleefully.  "Right.  If I was a Rinoa, where would I be?"

***

        "You'd better have a good reason for making Seifer pull me away," Rinoa said, practically vibrating.  "There were still people hurt."

        Squall raised an eyebrow.  "Life-threatening?" he asked.

        "No, I waited until she finished those," Seifer said, sauntering in behind Rinoa.

        "Good."  Squall turned his attention back to Rinoa.  "I thought I'd steal you--and everyone else--away so we could deal with this sorceress once and for all."

        Rinoa threw herself down in a chair and abruptly relaxed.  "Thank Hyne," she breathed out.  "After this, Squall, I want you to give Leviathan to someone else, I don't care who, I just want to not be healing people all the time.  Is that all I'm good for?  I don't think so!"

        "I'll say," Seifer muttered.  "You have a mean punch, too."

        Rinoa turned her head to look at him.  "And you only know that because you were being a  jerk and a meanie."

        "Sorceress," Squall said firmly.  "We need a plan."

        "We need everyone here," Seifer countered, "so hold your horses."

        "I found her!" Selphie caroled as she dashed into the passenger area.  "Heeey, are we still going to go after that sorceress?" she asked.

        Seifer looked behind her.  "So where is she?" he asked.

        "Some of us travel faster than others," Selphie said primly.  She grinned.  "Especially when there's a chance at a good, old-fashioned ass-whupping."

        "Language, Selphie," Edea chided as she entered, with the rest of the team following her.  She looked around.  "What do you need?"

        "We need a plan," Seifer said.  "we need to get to the sorceress and wa--take care of her, preferably fast enough that she can't try to take care of us right back."

        Edea tilted her head.  "Then you need to know where she is."

        "Wait."  Zell frowned.  "Isn't she in Dollet?  I thought she was in Dollet."

        Edea shrugged gracefully.  "She was, but she has since left," she said.  "unfortunately, I've been unable to scry her new location.  Her Fated Children, on the other hand . . . .  The horse is in Balamb right now, so that's most likely where she is right now.  I believe she is in the Albatross Archipelagos; the sorceress is probably looking for Balamb Garden."

        Seifer snorted.  "yeah, if we didn't even have a clue it was coming out way, I don't think she would have, either," he muttered.

        Edea inclined her head.  "Exactly.  The bear is near the horse--I believe she acts as a personal guard to the sorceress.  The eagle moves about the world, but always seems to come to rest in Yaulny Canyon."  She took a breath.  "I would suggest you find the eagle, instead of the sorceress--I believe he acts as her spy and, thus, would have more useful knowledge, including where she plans to be, so she may accept his reports."

        "Selphie, set a course for Yaulny Canyon," Squall said after a long moment.

        The brunette snapped a salute.  "Aye, aye, Commander!"

        "Matron, I need you to stay here," Squall continued.  "This is the last and closest place we have to a home, now, and I need to know it will be safe."

        Edea bowed her head.

        "Fujin, Raijin, I need you to keep Edea safe," he continued, looking to Seifer's posse.

        "Sure, take my buddies," Seifer complained.  "Hyne, do I steal your friends?  I don't think so, Leonhart!"

        "Shut up, Seifer."

        "ACKNOWLEDGE," Fujin said, stepping forward and saluting.

        "Yeah, ya know?  We're good for it," Raijin said, adding his own salute.

        "All those not ready for this crazy ride should get off now," Selphie's voice came over the intercom.  Hastily, Edea, Fujin, and Raijin exited the Ragnarok.  Just as hastily, everyone else found themselves a seat and strapped themselves in.  "Everyone ready?  Yes?  Let's go!"

        "If anyone wakes me up," Rinoa warned, making herself comfortable as the Ragnarok rose into the air, "you are going to regret it for the rest of your life."

***

        They'd split up again upon reaching the Canyon--Seifer, Squall, Selphie, and Rinoa to trap the eagle and get some answers, Quistis and Irvine to watch over the Ragnarok, and Zell back to Balamb, as fast as his talons could carry him and back.

        "She's in Balamb," he said, jigging nervously.  "My mom's in Balamb.  I need to know she's safe.  And this way, maybe I can--"

        "No confronting the sorceress," Squall said sternly.  "I don't want anyone facing her alone."

        Zell brightened.  "That mean I can go?" he asked.

        "Just as soon as you tell me how you plan on getting across Raha Sea."

        Zell shrugged.  "Easy; Garden keeps--kept--a two-person stealth boat on the sea-end of the canyon," he said.  "They're pretty speedy, so I'll be able to make good time there and back."  He raised his eyebrows hopefully at Squall.  "Soooooo, can I go?"

        Squall sighed and shook his head.  "Whatever.  Just make sure you're at the rendezvous place on time.  If you're late, we'll start the ass-whupping without you."

        "Yes!"  Zell clenched his fists over his head in victory.  "Don't start the ass-whupping without me!" he shouted before he shifted.  An exuberant wark and he was off and running.

        "Are you sure it's a good idea to let him go alone?" Seifer asked dubiously.

        Squall half-shrugged.  "Do you think it would have been a good idea to leave him here with Quistis and Irvine while we tried to trap the eagle?" he countered.

        "Yeah, you have a point," the blond acknowledged.  "Messenger Girl, stop molesting your cowboy and let's get going!"

        "I have a great idea," Squall said.  "Let's make you be in charge of everything."

        "Nah," Seifer said freely, "authority's not a good look on me."

***

        She reveled in the feel of the wind over her wings and had to resist the temptation to cry out her joy in the flight.  It would not do to alert her prey to her presence.

        She could see him now, gliding in the twilight for a landing at his camp.  SeeDs' resources had told them exactly where it was and, moreover, the location of the eagle and when it was probable he'd make his way back to it.

        An excited hissing brought her attention back to her passenger and she quelled the impulse to turn her head back and give Selphie a good staring.  Pulling on her feathers was not acceptable and neither was distracting her.

        She gauged the distance and speed carefully.  She would have to hit him hard, yet be able to disengage before--hopefully--he could turn on her.

        She turned her head back and exchanged a look with the lemur on her back.  In response, Selphie hunkered even closer and even reached back to hold her own tail still to prevent it from interfering--a little--with Rinoa's flying.  A moment's thought cast Float and Shell on Selphie and Protect on herself

        A swan against an eagle, she thought as she curved her neck to protect it and folded her wings.  I must have been insane to agree to this, much less suggest it.  She narrowed her focus to the eagle lazily circling below her, getting closer, closer.  The wind rushed past and she had to concentrate completely on controlling her flight.  A slight miscalculation would send her swinging far wide of her target and she was under no illusions about what would happen then.  The only advantage she had was the half-light--it should be harder for the eagle to see than it would be for her.

        Okay, so it wasn't the only advantage.  Just before she hit the eagle, she flared her wings slightly.

        Even with the spell, glowing blue-green as it was activated, the collision was a shock.  Her wings snapped down, forcing the eagle's to do the same and they dropped in the air.  She felt Selphie moving over her shoulder and waited precious seconds for the lemur to get off her before she heaved herself off the eagle's body and clawed desperately at the air.

        She felt the eagle turn just as she pushed and felt his talons raking at her side.  She cried out, a harsh, unmusical squawk; the spell could only lessen the damage, not prevent it completely.  She turned her head to aim and had to slip sideways to keep the eagle away.  She fired off a Tornado, but it only hit the edges of the eagle's left wing and didn't do much more than cause an instant's interference with his flight.

        Faintly, she heard a furious sh'fak and turned her head again to see Selphie grasp the same left wing and heave it upwards.  He slipped to the left and Rinoa went right, widening the distance between them before she rolled over and fired off another Tornado.  This one hit true and the eagle tumbled down.  He righted himself just before he hit and she saw Selphie tumble off of him, bouncing in mid-air as Float cushioned her from a hard impact against the ground.

        The eagle turned his head and locked onto her.  Even as she froze and he began climbing, a dark shadow streaked across the sandy ground.  A moment later and it was in the air, reaching--and just catching--the eagle and dashing it to the ground.

        The eagle, silent until now, let out a high-pitched whistle and tried to beat its way free, but the weight of the lion was too much of a hindrance.  He tried to snap at the lion itself, but Squall had placed his paws carefully, one just under the eagle's head, pushing it into the sand, and the other in the middle of the eagle's back.  His back right paw stepped heavily on the eagle's lower back, immobilizing the deadly talons.

        Rinoa landed heavily and shifted so she could press a hand against her side and thread a Cura over the wound.  She looked down when soft fur brushed her and saw Selphie standing there, glaring at the eagle as if it was her threatening gaze that kept it pinned.  Her fur looked a little ruffled, but any real damage from the Tornado or the landing had already been healed.

        The black-haired sorceress approached.  "Do you have him?" she asked.  The lion huffed and she almost thought he rolled his eyes.

        "Of course he does," Seifer said sardonically, rising up from the shadows his wolf form had hid in.  "What do you take him for, a common soldier?"

        She grinned.  "Forgive me for wanting to make sure," she said, before starting to circle the downed eagle.  He was panting and tried to keep her in his sight; when Squall increased the pressure on his head, though, he stopped.  "Hmmm.  Yes.  I must remember to thank Quistis for letting me study her," she said absently.

        Seifer leered.  "Yeah, I bet you are."

        She flashed him an annoyed look.  "Oh, for--Not like that, Seifer!"  She gestured at the eagle.  "If I hadn't been able to study one of us in both our forms, I would have no clue how to untangle this poor creature from the magic surrounding him!"

        "'Poor creature', my ass," Seifer muttered.  He raised an eyebrow.  "Did you forget he tried to rip your intestines out?" he asked.  "Or that he's been spying on us?"

        "You should be nicer," she scolded him, her eyes on the eagle again.  "It's not like he wanted to be some Sorceress's puppet."  She crouched down and reached towards the eagle's head.

        Seifer's cautionary "Rin" coincided with Squall's warning growl.

        "I know what I'm doing, guys," she snapped back.  The eagle lunged for her, but fell short.  "Thank you," she said, darting her hand after him and snagging a feathered tuft from the eagle's "mane".

        After a long moment, Seifer asked, "Sooooo, we're, what, plucking him or something?  How will that make him shift back?"

        "It won't," Rinoa answered absently.  She moved enough to be able to sit cross-legged and laid the small feathers in the palm of her left hand.  "I need something to focus on and--oh, why am I telling you this anyway?" she said, glaring at him.  "You're just going to make off-colour jokes about it!"  She pointed an imperious finger at him.  "Be silent and be out of my sight!  I need to concentrate."

        He shut his mouth obediently, although he didn't loose his smirk.

        His facial expressions, however, Rinoa could tune out.  She examined the feathers again and poked at them with a finger.  Yes, there was the shifter magic at the core of it.  Laid over top it, however, was a shimmering rainbow mist.  "Very ingenious," she breathed.  "Okay, let's try this.  Hold him, Squall."  The lion pressed down a bit harder as she leaned forward and blew a spell out to the eagle.

        The eagle's feathers rippled and melted.  Squall had to keep shifting his weight as the body beneath him slowly shifted from bird to human until, finally, there was only a man under him.

        "You can probably get off him now, Squall," Rinoa said, grinning up at the lion.

        "Not a good idea, babe," Seifer interjected.  Squall, of course, didn't move.  "Whatever you've done to get him to shift probably won't guarantee either his cooperation or his willingness to, say, not shift back and fly away."

        Rinoa closed her mouth sulkily.  "Fine, then, Mister Strategist," she said, pushing herself up.  "You talk to him."

        "Oh, so I'm allowed to talk now?" the blond asked, sauntering forward.  He lowered himself into a crouch in front of the man and took a few moments to study him.

        Nondescript brown hair, brown eyes.  Skin a shade or two darker than Raijin's.  Definitely a little eagle-like about the nose, but that was probably coincidence--Selphie didn't really look like a lemur and neither did Quistis look like a snake.  Torn, dusty clothing, although he wasn't sure if it was the rough landing or the forced shifting of his form that had done it, or if that had been the condition of his clothing the last time he shifted.

        "You should kill me," the man rasped, choked off into the sand as Squall inadvertently pressed down again.  Seifer lifted a hand and the lion eased off a bit.

        "Nah," the blond said easily, "that's way too easy.  Let's start with some introductions.  My name's Seifer and I'll be your host for this evening.  The guy on top of you is Squall and he'll be the monkey--or, in his case, the lion--on your back.  The chick petting the lemur is Rinoa and the lemur is Selphie.  I'm thinking you've already heard of us, though, so, really, that was just a courtesy."  He waited a beat, then sighed when there was no response.  "Fine, fine, I get it.  We're not really all that threatening are we?  I mean, sure, we control ungodly amounts of power, but we're all pretty moral.  For, you know, mercenaries."

        He leaned closer.  "Thing is," he said.  "The thing, you see, is, they are part of SeeD.  They have very specific codes of conduct.  But me?  Me, I was the Sorceress' Knight."  He smiled humorlessly at the abortive jerk the man made.  "Yeah, I see you've heard of me.  I'm someone who believes the end justifies the means and I have ever since that bitch of a Sorceress reached inside me and shut me down and made me her puppet."  He sat down, made himself comfortable.  "So, let me tell you, I both know exactly what has been done to you and exactly what I will do to get the information I need from you.  You can save us all a lot of trouble and maybe even some vomiting from the more squeamish members of our audience if you just speak up."

        "And then . . . you'll kill me?" the man asked.

        Seifer opened his mouth, then hesitated.  He took another long look at the man on the ground.  "If you still want me to," he said, nodding slowly, "then, yeah.  But you're gonna have to convince me first."  He ignored the shocked gasp behind him.  "So.  Let's start with your name."

***

        Seifer sighed and stood up.  "Selphie, You're in charge of the prisoner," he said.  "I need to talk to Leonhart.  Don't let him shift or talk or even move, y'hear me?"  He jerked his head to one side with a glare when Squall didn't move for a long moment.  He sighed, aggravated.  "Oh, mighty Commander of SeeD, may I drop a word in your god-like ear?"

        He swore the lion was laughing at him.  Body language between species, as he was finding out, wasn't really that different from what he already knew.  But Squall finally stepped off the poor guy and Selphie stepped up smartly, keeping far enough away she couldn't be grabbed, but close enough to be able to deal some serious hurt if he so much as twitched.

        Seifer followed the lion some distance away and waited, complete with sardonic expression, until the lion huffed and stretched up into the Squall he knew and--and found sexy.

        "What."

        Seifer shifted a little.  He wasn't nervous, precisely, but he did have some unwelcome news to pass on.  "He wants to die," he said abruptly.  "And I gotta say I don't blame him."

        Rinoa, who had trailed after them like the annoying Sorceress she was, gasped.  "You can't mean that!" she protested.

        He turned on her, a snarl twisting his face.  "I damn well do, princess!  I've been where he's been, exactly where he's been.  I can see how he'd think this is a kindness, so, yeah, I'm damn sure I know what I'm talking about!"

        He quieted only at a touch from Squall--hidden, of course, because Squall was even more restrained with physical affection than he was with words and that was saying something.

        Seifer turned away with a hissed out sigh and ran his hand over his hair.  Yeah, that was too much to say, and all of it true, dammit.

        A small hand touched his arm.  "Seifer, I--"

        He blew out another breath and turned back around.  "It's all right, princess," he said.  He cracked a grin at her dubious look.  "Fine, it isn't exactly, but it's a lot more all right than that poor guy is."  Her expression slid back into guilt and he huffed, shaking his head.  "No," he said firmly.  "I won't take that from you.  You didn't know and you wouldn't've had a clue how to fix it if you had.  Besides, you killed the bitch that did it--I kinda consider that a huge gesture, you know?"

        "If we're done baring our hearts . . . ."  Squall eyeballed both of them and Seifer grinned, pretending he didn't see Rinoa surreptitiously wipe at her eyes.  "Fine.  Can we get back tot eh job?"

        Seifer snorted.  "Hyne forbid we forget this is a job," the blond mocked.  "Fine.  Apparently, the bitch's holed up in the middle of Dollet again.  She's savouring her victory or something like that before she comes after us."  His lip curled.  If there was anything Garden had taught him before, during, and after the War, it was you didn't let your enemy regroup.  You hit them, you hit them fast, and you hit them hard enough to make sure they stayed down.  "Dollet's mostly empty by now, like Edea said, just her monster army and some of her best troops.  Piece of cake.  'Specially since she's kicked the Communications Tower off its hillside and made it her base."

        "And you said the field exams were all useless," Squall said, one side of his mouth curling up a little.

        "They are," Seifer insisted.  "Trust me, I took enough of 'em.  It's just coincidence that particular one is proving useful."  He paused.  "Well after the fact, you'll notice."

        "Whatever."  Squall waited a beat, then added, "Captain."

        Seifer rolled his eyes and reached out and smacked the back of Squall's head.  Squall, of course, caught his arm with little effort, but that left him unprepared for the hit to the side.  He grunted and kicked out at Seifer's legs.

        "Uh, boys?" Rinoa said, eyeing the scuffling in front of her with a grin.  "Don't we have a real enemy to fight?"

        Squall glared Seifer into stopping and tugged at his jacket until it hung correctly again.  "The plan?" he asked.

        Seifer frowned. "We still have to decide what to do about the guy," he said.

        Squall grunted.  "Thought you wanted to kill him."

        "No, he wants me to kill him," Seifer replied, annoyed.  "Hyne, do I have to explain everything around here?  Look, I'm living proof this shit can happen to you and you can live through it, but we don't really have the time to convince him the world still has cute puppies and fluffy kittens in it."

        "Oh, Seifer," Rinoa said, eyes glimmering as she reached out to him.

        "What," he snapped, shaking free of her grasp.  "So I don't want to kill him.  Big deal."  He pointed at her.  "Which makes it your job to figure out a way to keep him out of trouble."

        She tossed her head and opened her mouth to reply, but the harsh whistle made further conversation moot.  Everyone's head snapped around to see the eagle snapping at the lemur climbing over his wings and body.  He evidently gave it up as a lost cause and, even as they sprinted towards them, he sprang into the air and beat his wings strongly, gaining height quickly.

        "Selphie!" Rinoa shouted.

        The lemur was still visible on the eagle and feathers started falling to the sound of Selphie's battle cry.  The eagle whistled angrily and began moving erratically, obviously hoping to throw off his unwanted passenger.  Selphie gave it a good shot, but she was unable to both keep her grip and still tear out feathers.  As they watched, she fell sideways and off the eagle, who took one last strike at her before speeding off to the northeast.

        "Selphie!" Rinoa cried again, extending her hands up, as if she had a hope of catching the falling lemur.  A blast of Aero left her hands, impossibly buoying Selphie's limp body up and slowing her descent enough for Seifer to be able to catch her gently.  Squall was right there with a Curaga and a hi-potion to heal the damage caused by the eagle and the spell that had saved her life.

        "You're lucky her Float hadn't dissipated," Squall said as the wounds healed and Selphie began to stir.

        Rinoa breathed out a sigh of relief.  "And that Shell was still in effect," she added.  She squinted into the northeast.  "What about him?"

        Seifer snorted, uncharacteristically letting Selphie climb onto his shoulder.  "Can you catch up to him?" he asked.

        The brunette bit her lip and shook her head.  "I'm surprised I managed to ground him in the first place," she admitted.

        "Well, then.  We'll just have to keep that in mind."  Seifer took a moment to think it through.  "Chances are, though, it won't really make much of a difference.  We know there are only three other Fated Children and she has all of them.  This just means we have to deal with all three of them instead of just two."  Selphie chattered over his head and he reached back to ruffle her fur, sharing the annoyance.  "Look, Messenger Girl, if you have something to say, you know you have to shift!"

        She jumped off his shoulder and shifted mid-air.  "I said," putting her hands on her hips, "how did he manage to shift, anyway?  Also, hurrah, three dangerous animals who can think like humans and use magic that we have to fight; who wouldn't like it?"

        Rinoa half-shrugged.  "I think I just took away the Sorceress' control of him and his shifting," she admitted.  "I didn't even think to block his own control of it and I don't even know how I could've accomplished that.  From what I've seen, it's kinda amazing she was able to do it in the first place."

        "Yeah, even Ultimecia couldn't block that part," Seifer said.  "She could control me if I was human, but she couldn't control the wolf."

        "Like I said, I don't know how she managed it.  I guess it might have something to do with her own greater familiarity with the shifter bloodlines."

        Selphie clapped her hands together.  "Right!  So what's the plan?"

        Squall thought for a minute.  "Regroup with Irvine, Zell, and Quistis at the Ragnarok," he said.  "Fly to Dollet.  Waste the bitch."

        Seifer laughed.  "Nice and simple," he said.  "The best plans always are."

***

        There was a problem.  Zell hadn't made it to the meeting place.

        "He did have further to go," Quistis offered.  "And nothing really beats the Ragnarok for speed.  He may have mis-judged how much time he had for traveling and stayed longer."

        "We can't wait," Squall said.  He at least looked regretful.  "The longer we give her, the more likely she'll beef up her security anyway."  No one contradicted him and he lifted a hand to massage his forehead.  "Right.  An hour more and we'll go.  Last chance to get those last-chance things done."

        "Last-chance things?  Creative, Leonhart," Seifer said, grinning.

        That broke up the group and they started drifting away, leaving only Seifer and Squall together.

        "Any last-chance things you need?" Squall asked.

        Seifer shrugged casually.  "Not alone," he said.  "You?"

        Squall shrugged.  "A message, maybe," he muttered.

        "To Ellone?" Seifer guessed.  His eyes narrowed.  "No.  Or at least not only."  He grinned.  "It does my heart good to see you and your dad making up," he announced.

        Squall glared at him.  "You just say that because you're an even bigger fan than Selphie," he accused.

        Seifer threw an arm around Squall's shoulders and began unsubtly herding him to the living quarters.  "What can I say?  Your dad has wonderful stage presence!"

        "Laguna," Squall said, stressing the name, "is a moron."

        "I guess it's a good thing you take after your mom then, huh?"

***

        The hour passed too quickly, but everyone managed to get back to the passenger area of the Ragnarok mostly on time.  Seifer made a mental note to never touch anything in the cockpit when he saw Selphie and Irvine sneaking out of there and looking a little more rumpled than they had before.

        "Right," Squall said.  "This is it.  We're heading to Dollet.  Selphie's going to try to land us close to the Communications Tower on the mountain side.  If that doesn't work, we're going have to go through Dollet itself.  Most of us have been there before, so keep your eyes open; you know what you're looking for.  We'll split into two teams and meet at the base of the tower.  If the other team hasn't shown up by three hundred hours, proceed to engage the sorceress.  Quistis?"

        Quistis stood up then.  "The Sorceress has an abundance of monsters from the Lunar Cry over Deling; evidence has shown she uses them as part of her army.  She also has three shifters under her control--the eagle, the horse, and the bear.  The eagle is her spy and was formerly a soldier in the Galbadian Army--he may have received training at Galbadia Garden.  The horse is her mount; she or he is known to be hostile to any and all creatures near it, save the Sorceress.  Unfortunately, that's the extent of our information.  The bear is her personal guard; she, also, was a Galbadian soldier, rising to the rank of sergeant.  She received training at Galbadia Garden with an eye towards SeeD; the Third Sorceress War interrupted that and she remained a sergeant afterward."

        Squall stepped forward again.  "We'll be fighting at night," he said.  "Our stock of medicinal items will be portioned out--try to conserve them for the fight with the Sorceress.  She knows we're coming; hopefully, she won't think we'll come at night.  Try not to enter fights if you can avoid it; they'll bring attention and kill what little surprise we have."  He took a breath.  "Quistis, Rin, you're with me.  Seifer, you'll have Selphie and Irvine on your squad."

        Seifer waved a hand lazily.  "Pass," he said.

        Squall blinked.  "What."

        Seifer shrugged.  "I'll pass on leadership," he repeated.  "Evidence suggests I'm pretty bad at it."

        Squall massaged his forehead.  "Whatever," he muttered.  "Also, too bad.  You're squad leader."  He grinned sharply.  "Consider this a field exam," he offered.  "If you live, you're SeeD."

        Seifer jolted forward, all the breath whooshing out of him.  "What?!" he croaked.

        Selphie giggled and clapped her hands over her mouth when everyone looked at her.

        Squall smirked.  "Cat got your tongue?" he asked innocently.

        The blond scowled.  "Funny," he muttered.  "Fine, whatever, I'll do it."  He stabbed a finger down.  "Under protest and I expect some pretty damn athletic sex out of it!"

        Quistis looked ill.  "Seifer, there are things I don't want to hear," she began.

        "So stop listening!  If I'm gonna be in charge, I want some damn compensation!"

        Squall rolled his eyes.  "Selphie, if you'd do the honours?"

        The tiny brunette squealed and glomped onto Squall for a far-too-long moment--as far as Seifer was concerned, anyway, and maybe even as far as Irvine was concerned, from the look on the cowboy's face--before dashing off to the cockpit.  "Irvy, get your butt in here!" her voice floated back.  "I need my co-pilot of DOOM with me!"  Irvine, of course, sauntered slowly up front.

        Quistis shuddered, pulling Seifer's attention to her.  "I really hope that's not some kind of code," she muttered.

        Rinoa was still looking towards the cockpit.  "I'm going to need something to sanitise whatever I touch if I go up there," was what she said.  "They seemed to have made the most of their hour."

        There was a crackle of static before Selphie's voice came through the intercom.  "Get ready for the end of the world, people, 'cause the Ragnarok's about to fly!  Get it?  End of the world, Ragnarok?"

        Irvine's came faintly over the speakers, saying, "I'm sure they got it, Sephy.  Why don't we get her up in the air?"

        Selphie raspberried him.  "Party pooper!  Fine!  Everyone, hang onto your seats, 'cause here we go!"

        The airship jolted immediately after that and Seifer, even as he grabbed for something to keep him steady, was glad he was already sitting down.  Squall and Quistis had still been standing and both had almost fallen.

        "Fancy meeting you here," Seifer said blandly to the brunet he had grabb--ah, helped keep from falling.  Rinoa giggled.

        Squall shoved himself off of the blond's lap with a glare.  "Haven't you had enough yet?" he asked acidly.

        Seifer pretended to consider it.  "No," he said.  "No, I really don't think so.  And you owe me something for making me squad leader.  Consider this . . . the start of your repayment."

***

        It isn't that long of a flight, really, Seifer reflected, but the fact that we're flying pretty much blind is definitely creepy as fuck.  He closed his eyes for a moment, but, really, there was no difference and he'd rather be able to see--not, of course, that he would.

        "Boooooooring," he muttered.  "Hey, Leonhart, when're we gonna get some action?" he asked, raising his voice.

        Squall, disturbed from whatever pre-battle thoughts he was thinking--hopefully, ways to make it all up to Seifer--lifted his head and made a curt gesture.  "How should I know?" he snapped.  "Why don't you go ask the pilot?"

        Seifer faked a shudder.  "Because I left my latex gloves in my other trench coat," he said.  "Why don't you go up and ask, o glorious SeeD Commander?"

        "Because I just delegated it to you."

        Rinoa stood up with an exasperated huff.  "Both of you are acting like children," she said, pointing at each of them in turn.  "I will go up to the big, scary cockpit and see what's happening."  She tossed her head.  "Scaredy cats and dogs need not come if they're too scared."

        Seifer just grinned at her.  "You get right on with that," he said genially.  He laughed at the glare she graced him with.  "And don't forget some booze on your way back, the service here sucks!" he shouted after her.

        "You're taking your life in your hands," Quistis said mildly, not even looking up from the screen she was reading.

        "Why?  Because Princess Magic will turn me into a toad?" the blond asked lazily.

        "Because she has a painful kick and always seems to utilise it near a convenient flight of stairs," was the reply.  "Unless you like tumbling down stairs, I'd be careful how far I pushed her."

        Seifer snorted and looked away.  He eyed the distance between him and Squall.  Too far to even poke him with a foot, he decided.

        "I'm bored!" he announced.

        "No shit," Squall muttered, once again deep in thought.  Or sleeping, it was sometimes hard to tell.

        "Why don't you check your junctions?" Quistis jumped in, before Squall could decide if shutting Seifer up was worth the trouble of killing him.

        Seifer turned his head to her sharply.  "I don't junction," he said shortly.

        Squall rolled his eyes and got up.  "Oh, for the love of--!  Here!  Take her back before I change my mind!"        He grabbed at Seifer's hair and let a GF sink through.

        Seifer jerked back, but Squall's grip was commendably strong.  "What the hell, Leonhart?!" he snapped.  "Did I ask you for one?  I don't think so!"

        "Just shut up and get your junctions in place!"  He gestured at a console.  "There's some spells there, but you're going to have to draw the rest of what you need in fights."  The brunet threw himself back in his chair and crossed his arms again.

        Seifer glared at him before taking a second to check which of the GFs had been forced on him.  He touched the power within him gently and sucked in a breath at the ice-cold touch he received in turn.  "Shiva?!" he asked, dumbfounded.  "Leonhart, what the hell?"

        "'What the hell' this, 'what the hell' that," Squall mimicked.  "Can't you think of anything else to say, Almasy?  And she's yours.  Hyne, she's been all but shouting in my ear to get back to you, the frigid little bitch.  Don't know why she even likes you and your Fires, anyway."

        "Fire and ice, Squall, fire and ice," Seifer replied, only half his attention on the conversation.  Shiva's amusement rang through him like a chime.  She touched the stores of magic that had lain in him, unused for so long, and thought a query at him.  He gave hesitant permission and felt her shifting them around to suit her.

        No, he growled.  Fire stays.  She sent a frisson of irritation at him, but left the spell unjunctioned.  It was always the same--she wanted to steal his Fires for defense and he wanted them kept free so he could use his Limit Break without fear.  Sure, he could do what Leonhart did and draw and cast it from himself, but that was a risky business and not something he wanted to do unless he absolutely had to.

        It's good to have you back, he sent her reluctantly.  She laughed at him again, raising goosebumps on his arms, and sent back her own pleasure at being reunited.

        "We're just circling Dollet," Rinoa said and he opened his eyes hurriedly.  The Ragnarok banked and she swayed.  "Selphie thinks she sees someplace she can set us down."

        "About freaking time," Seifer grumbled, closing his eyes and slouching down a bit more.  "Was there some sort of speed limit she had to--"

        "Incoming!"  That was Irvine's voice and, hard on the heels of it, the Ragnarok shuddered and banked, hard.

        Seifer slid off his seat and hit the floor and his head on the edge of his seat at the same time.  He swore.  Quistis ended up squished against the window.  Squall, of course, had managed to brace himself with a foot before he ended up on the floor like Seifer.  Hell, even Rinoa had managed to cling to the doorway and keep her feet.  These people were enough to give anyone delusions of inadequacy.

        "Report!" Squall shouted, pulling himself to his feet and keeping a good grip on the back of his chair.  It was a good decision, that, because the airship listed sharply and Seifer ended up with Quistis tumbled into his lap.

        "Fancy meeting you here," she said breathlessly.  He scowled at her and thought about pushing her off.  Before he could come to a decision, though, the airship jerked again and only his iron grip on the chair and hers on his arm kept them both from flying.

        "We've got at least one Ruby Dragon," Irvine said over the intercom.  "I've ID'd three separate Elnoyle and there's a whole platoon of Imps risin' to meet us."

        "Selphie, can you get us out of here?"

        "Squall?"  That was Selphie, sounding surprised.  "Dammit.  Yes, I can get us out.  Plan B?"

        "Plan B," Squall agreed, pulling himself into a chair and strapping himself in.

        "Plan B?" Seifer grunted as he let Quistis pull him up.  A quick flash of blue-green light and his pounding head eased.  He threw himself back into the seat and strapped in just in time.  The Ragnarok did something impossible--he was pretty sure they were flying upside down for a good five minutes--and suddenly, they weren't being buffeted by high-level attacks.

        "Plan B," Squall agreed.  "We're going in through Dollet."

        "I thought we didn't want to do that," Quistis asked.  She looked calm, as long as you didn't notice she hadn't relaxed her white-knuckled grip on her seat's arms.  Seifer couldn't blame her; with Selphie at the helm, being attacked was the least of their problems.  He wouldn't put it past the brown-haired pilot to do random loop-de-loops, just for the hell of it.

        "We didn't," Squall said.  "But we can't land in the mountains while being attacked."

        "And where can we land to get into the city?" Rinoa asked, frowning.  "They're a port town, there's not a lot of landing strips available."

        Quistis saw it first and let out an incredulous laugh.  "Squall," she began.  "Squall, this isn't an assault boat!"

        That clued Seifer in and his eyes widened for a moment before narrowing shrewdly.  It could work.

        "Why mess with something that works?" was all Squall said.

        "Squall, you're so going to owe me if the Ragnarok sinks," Selphie said.  "Also, prepare for a water landing!  Keep you hands, arms, feet, weapons, and other appendages--that means you, Seifer--inside the vehicle until we have come to a full and complete--"  The Ragnarok bounced.  "--eep, stop."  Bounce.  Unwillingly, Seifer found his eyes drawn to the windows.  Moonlit water was splashing up and around them in terrifying ways.  "Please do not leave your seat until--"  Bounce, roar of water and a sharp deceleration.  "--crap, until the captain--that's me--says so.  Why did I let you talk me into this, Squall!"

        There's a long, long moment of silence, lasting right up until the Ragnarok bumped up against something and stopped all the going up and down and forward.

        "Squall's no longer allowed to choose the flight plan!" Rinoa announced. She let go of her seat's arms with a convulsive movement.

        "Seconded," Quistis said quickly, unstrapping herself in her haste to get away from the airship and all the terror it brought.

        "Why doesn't anyone bitch about Selphie's piloting?" Squall complained.

        Seifer laughed.  "Perks of leadership, Squally-boy," he said, smirking.  "The leader is always at fault."

        "Hyne, is that why you didn't want to be leader?"

***

        Seifer darted his head around the corner quickly, checking their route.  It was clear and he motioned his squad--Squall was going to be paying him back forever for that stunt--out of the alley.  At least they weren't raw recruits.

        Quit it, he thought at the two GFs sharing his head with him.  Rinoa had caught him before they'd split up and slipped him another GF and half her stock of magic.  Which was good and great, Shiva was just asserting her ownership of his, Seifer's, mind.  Apparently, Leviathan didn't care one way or another, which was pissing the ice goddess off.  Seifer didn't know if he'd learned that from her or her from him; either way, it was annoying as fuck when he was the one in the middle.

        The three of them melted into handy shadows when a Blue Dragon appeared at a crossroad.  Seifer eyed it speculatively and exchanged glances with his squad.  Irvine nodded grimly and checked his ammo while Selphie closed her eyes and started mouthing the words of summoning.

        Even though he was expecting it, the appearance of the spectral train took him by surprise.  It definitely took the Blue Dragon by surprise.  He eyed it critically as it whirled after the attack.  No damage, but Blue Dragons had the freaky poison-absorb thing going for them.  Blind, check, silence, check, and it looked like its vitality was way down.

        Perfect.

        He reached out and grabbed a bunch of magic and drew it.  Death.  Awesome.  Selphie did the same, stocking some Bio.  Irvine went for Death, too; it was a damn useful spell, especially if you could junction it to your weapon.  There was nothing more heartening than watching a powerful monster drop dead after a single scratch.

        The three of them worked in silence, drawing as much magic as they could.  Seifer felt a bit of pity for the monster thrashing about blindly.

        "Right," Seifer said at last.  "Everyone full up?"  At the nods, he smirked and called on Shiva.  She answered his summons in a rush, blowing up an arctic gale and freezing the Blue Dragon.  The ice contracted around it, cracking and giving a staggering amount of damage.

        Irvine whistled lowly.  "Not bad," he said.  He crouched a little.  "But now it's my turn."  He leapt forward and--

        "Yeah," Seifer said, staring at where the crunching and gnawing sounds were coming from, "that's some disturbing shit right there."

        Irvine backed away from the remains of the Blue Dragon and covered his mouth to burp.  "Ahhhh," he said, "that hit the spot."  He stretched.  "Took care of all those little aches and pains, too."

        That brought Selphie forward.  She yanked at the cowboy's collar, exposing his unmarked neck.  "Little aches and pains?" she asked, dangerously quiet.  "Little?!  Is that what my hickies are to you?!"

        Irvine looked startled and just a little scared.  "Now, kitten," he tried.  "It--I wasn't--I love your hickies, I do!  It's not my fault they're gone!"

        "You're the one who devoured that thing!" she cried, stabbing him with a finger.  She turned and jogged down the street, her back straight.

        "Sephy, come on, it's not like I meant to heal those things!" he called after her.

        She spun back around.  "They're things now?!" she half-shrieked.

        "Sephy!"

        Seifer laughed and clapped the cowboy on the shoulder.  "Keep your mouth shut and grab her a bunch of flowers," he advised.  "Or you'll be looking at some nunchaku in painful places."  He kicked at a scrap of dragon skin.  "Hey, I think you missed a bit here."

        The rest of the trip to the bottom of the cliff holding the Communications Tower was relatively uneventful.  Irvine refrained from eating any more of their enemies--freaky GF abilities--and Selphie refrained from killing one third of the squad in her pique.  They picked up some Blizzagas--which made Shiva freaking ecstatic--from a trio of Chimeras and some Quake and Demi from a Malboro--that had been a fight Seifer could have done without, but he couldn't deny the satisfaction he got from squishing a monster with Demi and then shattering it with Shiva's help.  The T-Rexaur had been a blast from the past, but he'd picked up some Thundagas and Firagas from it, so at least it was a worthwhile blast.

        "What took you so long?" Rinoa whispered loudly from her vantage point.

        Seifer grunted.  "Went shopping, princess," he said.  He tossed her a Hypno Crown from the Malboro and smirked.  "Thinking of you."  He tossed the Star Fragments to Squall.  "Don't worry, Squally-boy, you're still my favourite.  I'd've gotten you some dragon hide pants, but someone was greedy and didn't leave enough."  He leered.  "Unless you wanted a dragon hide thong, that is."

        Squall sighed loudly and let the Star Fragments drop.  They chimed when they hit the ground.

        "Does that mean you don't love me anymore?" Seifer asked, making his eyes big and sad.

        "Hyne, d'ya hafta put images like that in my head?"

        Seifer controlled his expression and looked in the direction the voice had come from.  "Chicken Wuss, good to see you finally joined us," he said.  That netted him a glare and a clenched jaw and he grinned.  "How'd you manage to catch up to us, anyway?"

        Zell rolled his eyes.  "Balamb's closer to Dollet than the meeting point, dumbass," he said.  His face looked strange in the shadows, his tattoo making it look like he was missing half his face.  "I wasn't really watching the time and I figured it'd be faster to come straight here. An' then I saw the Rag on the beach and I knew I was right on target."

        Seifer frowned and looked around.  "Whatever," he said finally, shrugging.  "Are we ready to kick some Sorceress ass?"

        Squall smacked the back of his head again.  "Stop stealing my lines," he said.  He appraised the path up to the tower.  "Rin, you have some Float handy?"

        "Yeah," the brunette said slowly.  "Why?"

        "Just thinking."  Squall continued to stare upwards.  "What would you rather do, be floated up the side of the cliff or be ambushed on the path?"

        Rinoa frowned.  "Float doesn't really lift you up that high," she objected.

        "No," Quistis said slowly, "but Tornado does.  That and Float would get us most of the way up, at the very least."

        "I guess so . . . .  And I suppose I'll be the one getting everyone up?" Rinoa asked.

        "You're the one with wings," Squall said shortly.

        Rinoa sighed.  "You have no romance in your soul," she accused.  "Or, or chivalry or anything nice like that!"

        One side of Squall's mouth tugged upwards.  "Isn't that why we broke up in the first place?" he asked.

        Rinoa shook out her hands.  "Shut up and get ready," she said, pointing to where she wanted them.  "Right.  Don't move or the spell won't catch and that will annoy me."

        "And you don't want to see her annoyed," Seifer said in a stage-whisper.  A rock hit his back and he smirked.  "Now, now, princess, what've I told you about starting rock fights?"  Another rock hit his back.

        "To finish them," Rinoa hissed at him.  "Now stop moving."  She brought her right hand up in front of her face.  Sparks of white light collected in the palm of her hand and flew towards the group at the foot of the cliff.

        "Whee!"  Selphie, of course, was jumping up and down, trying to see if she could reach the ground if she just jumped hard enough.

        Seifer rolled his eyes.  And she was trusted to fly the Ragnarok.  And carry explosives.  And set them off.  And carry around beings of mass destruction in her head.  There was something wrong with the world that something like that could be allowed.

        "Awwww, come on, Zell!"  Selphie was tugging at the duelist's arm.  "You always jump with me!"

        Zell sighed, sounding aggravated, and started jumping half-heartedly.  "Fine, okay, we done now?  Can we get to whole Sorceress thing?" he asked plaintively.

        "One Tornado, coming up!" Rinoa announced.  "If you need healing after your trip up the cliff, please remember to apply to Seifer, he has Leviathan junctioned!"

        Seifer whipped his head around and glared at her.  "I'm no one's nurse!" he barked, only for it to be lost in the roar of wind Rinoa called up under them.

        It was a dizzying sensation, watching the ground fall away so fast beneath his feet.  Hyne, if Rinoa didn't have excellent control of her magic, this was definitely the quickest way to end up in interesting splatters on the ground.

        Fortunately for everyone, Rinoa's spell deposited them gently at the top of the cliff, just where the path ended.  Squall occupied himself casting Dispel on everyone--keeping Float would make it easier to sneak up on things, but too many of the monsters they'd seen in the Sorceress's army had Wind magic to make it a wise choice.

        Seifer stood at the edge of the cliff, looking out over Dollet.  The moon's light made it look even more deserted, somehow, despite the monsters he could see patrolling the streets and sky.

        There was a tug at his sleeve and he turned his head just enough to see Selphie standing there.

        "Healing, please!" she asked smartly, snapping off a salute.

        He rolled his eyes.  "Oh, for--  You didn't get hurt on the way up," he pointed out.

        "Nope!  But, if certain people," she said, turning around and whispering that loudly, "want to heal my marks of love off their bodies, they'd better not make a fuss when I do the same!"

        Seifer heaved a sigh and reached for Leviathan; blue sparkles danced around Selphie for a moment.

        She grinned and bounced a bit.  "Thank you!" she said, reaching up to pull his head down.  Taken by surprise and off-balance, he thought he was going to get a kiss on the forehead--humiliating when he towered over the girl doing it.  Instead, she breathed in his ear, "Zell never jumps with me."  Then she gave him a loud smack on the cheek and let him go, giggling.

        He flailed, both at the move and the words she'd whispered to him.  "Get out of here," he grumbled, "or Puberty Boy's gonna think you're horning in on his territory."  He caught her eye and slid one of his own closed briefly.  She nodded a little and danced back to the others.

        "C'mon, you can't tell me you'll let Squall fight your battles for you, huh?" Zell complained.

        Seifer followed the brunette back.  "What's the matter, Chicken Wuss?" he asked as he passed the other blond.  "No flies to swat?"

        "Huh?"

        He rolled his eyes.  "Never mind.  Yo, Pussyheart, you done primping?"

        "I said you were the leader of the squad," Squall said, checking over his ammo.  "Not that you were in charge of everything."

        Seifer shrugged and grinned.  "Whatever, you like it."

        "You're also not in charge of saying my lines for me."

        "Awww, is the little kitty sad he doesn't get more lines?"

        "The 'little kitty' has claws."  Squall looked up.  "Did you want me to use them again?"

        Seifer sputtered.  "That's--that's cheating!" he accused, recovering.  "Sexual innuendo has no place on a battlefield, you said!"

        Squall shrugged and shoved Lionheart back in its sheath.  "I don't see us on a battlefield, do you?" he asked, all innocence.

        "You might want to keep it down," Irvine said.  The cowboy was already scouting their way to the monstrosity that had replaced the Communications Tower.  "There's a Ruby Dragon on guard and she's got a Behemoth and an iron Giant keeping her company.  You want to be a crispy smear on the ground, you keep right on talking."

        There was the rustle of wings and Seifer turned in time to see Rinoa shoot over the edge of the cliff and then circle leisurely down before shifting.

        Squall hesitated.

        "Don't worry, Squally-boy," Seifer said lazily.  He laid his arm across the brunet's shoulders and unobtrusively rubbed just behind his ear.  Squall's eyes closed and he breathed out a sigh so faint, it almost couldn't be heard.  "So there's seven of us, so what?  So SeeD likes fighting in groups of three, so what?  The six of you have all fought before and I fought against you.  Trust me when I say we all know how each one of us moves.  We're not going to hit each other."  He removed his arm and Squall opened his eyes and glared at him for a moment.  Seifer grinned; it wasn't like it was his fault his pet lion had a ear-scratching fetish.

        After a long moment, Squall said, "Check your junctions.  Ruby Dragons are weak to Ice and Holy and absorb Fire and Wind.  Behemoths have no specific weaknesses.  Iron Giants are weak to Thunder and immune to Poison.  Selphie, I think a hit with Doomtrain to start off the festivities would be appropriate."

        Selphie shook her fists over her head.  "Got it, bossman!"

        Squall winced.  "Whatever.  Seifer, hit the Ruby Dragon with Shiva as often as you can.  I'll take care of the Iron Giant with Quezacotl.  Everyone else, keep in mind their strengths and weaknesses and pile it on.  Oh, and don't hit the Behemoth with a physical attack--that'll make it use Meteor for some dumb reason."

        Seifer blinked at that, but, well, these were the guys with all the battle experience with the high-level monsters.  He made a note to Shiva the thing as much as possible.  Shiva, of course, was delighted.

        Selphie danced from one foot to the other.  "Can I do it now?" she begged.  "Now?  Can I, can I, nownownow?"

        "Yes!  For the love of Hyne, didn't I just say yes?!"

        "Woohoo!  Booyaka!  Collect call from Trabia, direct to you!" she carolled, dashing around the corner.  "Hey, big and ugly, catch this!"  Doomtrain roared through the space she had occupied and knocked the three monsters in the air.  There was no damage to the Iron Giant, of course, but it was silenced and blinded.  The Ruby Dragon was moving slowly and silenced.  The Behemoth, of course, had missed everything but the loss of vitality--fat lot of good that did if they couldn't hit it.

        Seifer stepped up and summoned Shiva.  When the ice dust had settled, he heard Quistis shout, "Irvine, hit me!"  He winced reflexively, even as a gold glow settled over the blonde.  He saw her turn her head away for a moment, before whipping it back around and exhaling on the Ruby Dragon.  "Now, Seifer!" she shouted again.  "Hit it with Recover!"

        He blinked, then had to dodge the slow--but powerful enough he didn't want to be in its way--swipe of the claw and then dodge again as the Iron Giant decided he was the perfect target.

        "Now, Seifer," Quistis was shouting and maybe he'd made a mistake about Zell after all, maybe it wasn't him, but the other blonde--  "Seifer, it's zombieRecover!"

        His eyes narrowed as he thought it through furiously.  Healing magic caused damage to those with zombie status.  Enough to kill?  No time like the present to find out, he thought, reaching for Leviathan's power again.

        He was vaguely aware of lightning interrupting the Iron Giant's next blow at him and was grateful Squall finally seemed to be getting with the program.  He watched as the Ruby Dragon got progressively weaker and slower until it crashed to the ground.

        Unfortunately, that was when the Behemoth cast Meteor.  Seifer tried to duck and dodge the huge space rocks--where did they even come from, anyway?  You'd think the planet would have an asteroid belt the size of the universe, judging from how often the spell was used--but was still pummeled with shards and spikes of shattering rock.  He used Recover on himself, then glanced around at the battle, seeing who else needed it.

        Rinoa was flagging in her fight with the Iron Giant and she was about to get hit again.  He sent a Recover her way immediately and then another one right after the Grand Slice for good measure.  He  sent another Recover Squall's way, then hit Selphie with it, too, for good measure.

        Irvine disappeared in a flash of fire as Seifer found him and Ifrit sent flaming rock hurtling at the Behemoth.  He flicked his attention to Zell, instead, but passed him by when he saw the little shit was looking disgustingly unharmed.  Quistis, taking advantage of her Aura, was bringing forth another Limit Break--Shockwave Pulsar, if he was any judge.  She collapsed when she was done and he sent her a Recover to get her back into the fight and one to Irvine, just before the cowboy summoned again and the largest fucking GF he had ever seen appeared in his place.

        And that took care of the Behemoth.  Hyne, but these people had serious firepower to back them up.  He totally could've stayed behind and not been missed.

        Everyone converged on the Iron Giant.  Selphie was a flickering motion almost too fast to see under the influence of Haste and she was pounding the thing with every Thundaga spell she had.  Rinoa, creepily, had ghostly white wings and was throwing around powerful shit like Ultima and Flare and Meteor without a pause.  The magic was breaking against the Iron Giant's Shell, but ti was still no match for seven fighters.

        Seifer was pretty sure he could sit this one out and contented himself with healing anyone when the monster managed to actually get an attack in--and didn't have it blocked by Squall.  Blocking an Iron Giant--he'd have to take Squall aside sometime and rip him a new one for going easy on him.

        And then the Iron Giant wavered and fell, making the ground shudder.  Selphie had to race out of its way, but, since she was still under the effect of Haste, it wasn't as if she didn't have plenty of time to do so.

        "Right," Irvine said, his voice loud int he sudden stillness.  He shouldered his rifle.  "Scavenger hunt?"

        Selphie jumped up and shouted, "Dibs on everything I find!"  She raced around the battlefield, gathering up everything the monsters had dropped.

        "That's not fair, you have auto-Haste still activated!" Rinoa shouted, stamping a foot.  "Selphie!"

        Only to have Selphie stop in front of her.  "Fury fragments for Aura," she said, winking, before speeding off to Seifer, who blinked at her, bemused.  "Star fragments for Meteor, and don't even try to deny it, it's an awesome spell and you want it."  She turned away and cast glowing blue things to Irvine.  "Don't say I don't love you!" she shouted.  "Energy crystals for your ridiculous pulse ammo!"

        "You're a peach!" Irvine called back, snatching the crystals out of the air.

        Seifer took a moment while everyone did whatever they had to do to really look at the building they were about to enter.  It was definitely Centran in style, all glowing white columns and random statues.  He squinted a little.  Yeah, random statues of the thirteen bloodlines, which could be thought of as a little creepy for someone who had been imprisoned by them to have decorating the place.  Huge courtyard paved with black stone, now full of craters and and rubble and dead monster bodies; the moonlight didn't do much to illuminate any of the obstacles and Seifer was honestly surprised no one had broken an arm or a leg tripping into them.  No greenery, which was odd, but a fountain on either side of the building; one looked like this dragon thing and the other was--given this was the house of a Sorceress--the Sorceress herself.  Oddly pristine, too--neither of them had been damaged by the fight.

        "Where do you think she'll be?" Rinoa was asking when he started paying attention again.  She brushed at some dirt on the wings of her Shooting Star with a frown.

        Quistis was coiling her whip up methodically.  "Deep inside, probably," she replied.  "Judging from the sample pool of one, I'm already surprised this thing doesn't have more chains."

        Rinoa giggled.  "Or wings on a tower," she agreed.  "You know, it looks almost . . . normal."

        The blonde SeeD put her whip away and sighed.  "It does," she agreed.  "It looks . . . .  It looks like--"

        "Home," Selphie said softly.  "Like Matron's place."

        Quistis shook herself.  "Exactly," she said crisply.  "Don't let your guard down because of it.  This isn't Matron, this isn't even anyone we know.  We just have to do the job and then we can go home."

        "Uh, guys?"  That was Zell and he was looking at the building, too.  Seifer mouthed a few choice curses; instead of taking in the scenery, he should've been talking to Squall.  "Guys, is it just me or is that statue moving?!"

        Cue the distraction.  Honestly, Seifer was surprised the sorceress hadn't tried to take any of them out with the last battle.  On the other hand . . . someone had to have hit the Behemoth with a physical attack and physical attacks were what Zell was known for.  There probably would've been a few more Meteors used if Quistis and Irvine hadn't taken the thing down so fast.

        While everyone was gasping at the sight of the statue moving and colour bleeding into it, he tried to inch his way closer to Zell, or at least to get between the blond and everyone else.

        "Welcome to my humble home, Fated Children," the sorceress said in a clear voice.  Seifer risked a glance at her and watched her walk across the rippling water of the fountain like it was solid ground.  Freaky sorceress and their freaky sorceress tricks.  "I am Bri'anne and I will be your host--or at least I will be until you're all dead."

        Blah, blah, blah, how the hell had he ended up on the opposite side of the courtyard from Zell, anyway?  The bitch was saying something about meeting her pets or something and there it was, what he'd been waiting for.  While the sorceress was holding everyone's attention, Zell was already moving.

        Seifer shifted instantly and bolted.  He rammed into Zell just before his kick would have snapped Irvine's neck.  He snarled and snapped his teeth in the blond's face.  From the complete lack of reaction, yeah, his suspicions were verified--somehow, the sorceress had got to Zell.

        A foot in his stomach forced him up and over the martial artist and the breath whooshed out of him.  He twisted mid-air and, miraculously, landed on his feet.  He dashed back in, only to have to swerve out of a punch that came out of nowhere.  Shit, fighting hand to claw with a duelist, not the smartest idea.  He shifted back and cut at the air with his gunblade.  He didn't really want to hurt Zell, or at least no more than normal, but Zell didn't have the same restrictions he did.

        A blast of water knocked him sideways and he took in the rest of the battlefield.  Yeah, the sorceress had been talking about her pets, after all.

        The eagle was back, facing off against Selphie and shifting from man to bird and back again so fast, it was a blur.  The horse, now conclusively proved to be a girl horse, had a glaive in her hands and was keeping both Quistis and Irvine at bay with her quick jabs and swipes.  The bear was blocking Squall and Rinoa from the sorceress, making Rinoa, at least, fall back.  That, of course, left the sorceress free to support her pets as needed and, of course, laugh like the crazy bitch she was.

        A punch to his face brought his attention back to his opponent and he growled and swiped his gunblade to make Zell fall back.  Sorcerous mind control, dammit, what could break it?  The shift to animal, yes, but this particular sorceress had already shown she could subvert that.  Dispel?  Hell, it was worth a try.

        He grabbed the first spell he had stocked and threw it at Zell as a distraction.  While Meteor kept the other man occupied, Seifer sorted through the spells he had stocked, only to find no Dispel.  Dammit, that would teach him to leave the stocking of his spells to someone else.

        "Dispel!" he bellowed.  Dammit, someone had better have the spell and the time to help him.  He cast Fire at the duelist and spun his blade a few times.  He didn't really want to hurt Zell, but he had Recover and there were Phoenix Downs in his inventory, so it wasn't really like his wants came into it.

        Then blue light flared around the other blond and morphed in pink as it encircled him.  Seifer let the energy of his Limit Break fade away.  And then he tried to kick Seifer in the head.

        Dammit.

        "What the hell?!"

        Okay, maybe not.  He still had to dodge the fighter's moves, but they were looking a lot more wooden then they had before.  For some reason, the Dispel had worked--if not completely.

***

        Selphie hissed as she circled her opponent.  Something was wrong with him--he could shift, but he couldn't fly more than twenty or so feet off the ground. Probably something the sorceress had cooked up.  Or . . . .  Could eagles see in the dark?

        She shifted and scurried for a hiding spot, wrapping her tail around her to avoid--ha-its tell-tale clue to her position.  As she'd hoped, the eagle hopped forward, wings half-spread.

        A little closer, she thought.  Just a little, c'mon!  Booyaka!  With a shrieked sh'fak, she leaped for his back and landed.  Startled, the eagle screamed and beat his wings heavily, lifting them both off the ground.  Twenty feet should do it, she thought, digging her paws into the feathers and holding on tight.  Is it twenty feet?  And how much do I care if it isn't?  She shifted again and wrapped her arms and legs around the eagle's body, interfering with his wings--not that flapping them would have helped him stay in the air with a human on his back.  She held him as tight as she could, ignoring the white-fire of talons savaging her arms and legs.

        "Booyakaaaaaa!" she shrieked as they fell to the ground. 

***

        "What kind of hellhorse is this?!" Irvine shouted as the naked woman shifted again and the horse reared, kicking out at them and screaming her challenge.  They had already killed her once and there she was, brought back to life by the sorceress.

        "I think," Quistis said, snapping at the sensitive withers with her whip, "that is exactly the point!  Irvine, you're faster than I am, get in close!"

        The cowboy gulped.  Get in close.  With the hellhorse who wouldn't die.  "I'm long-range!" he shouted back.

        Quistis snarled at him and shifted as the horse tried to stomp on her.  She slithered through the hooves and raised herself high in front of the horse, hissing at it & making it shy away instinctively.  "Just do it!" she screamed as she shifted back and followed up her advantage with her Limit Break--choosing Electrocute.  It sparked at the horse's feet and she danced backwards.

        Irvine gulped again and shifted.  He raced around the horse, praying he was too small as a hare for the horse to notice.  She shifted again and he swerved away, before doubling back.  He leapt and, as she shifted back to horse, he shifted to human and landed full on her back.

        "Bad idea!" he shrieked, grabbing whatever he could to stay on as the horse went mad beneath him.  It reminded him far too much of the ranch he'd been forced to stay at one summer for survival training at Galbadia Garden.  Sure, cowboys had all the cool outfits, but that was offset by having to deal with the insane livestock.

        "Now, Irvine!" Quistis called and he let the horse buck him off, shifting as he did so.  A burst of speed later and he watched as the horse tossed her head and slowly lost colour, turning to stone as he watched.  Quistis, not one to let a job remain half-done, used Gatling Gun on the newly made statue, the bullets cracking and chipping at it until it fell over and smashed.

        The blonde bent over, panting.  "I'd like to see her resurrect that," she said venomously.

        A shriek pulled their attention to the left and they both saw the eagle and the girl on its back plummet to the earth.

        "Sephy!"

***

        Rinoa and Squall exchanged a glance.  Although definitely not as fluent in Squall-speak as Seifer, Rinoa knew she could hold her own, especially when it came to fighting.  She let the bear edge her back, watching as Squall shifted and leapt with a roar at the bear.  The bear roared back, fully occupied with its feline opponent and Rinoa smiled and shifted.

        She took to the skies and circled the battlefield.  When Seifer called for it, she cast the Dispel, but her focus was on the sorceress.  Most humans, herself included, never really thought about watching the skies and she was hoping the sorceress wouldn't, either.

        Meteor, she decided, was the best choice.  She cast it, directing it, as best she could, at the sorceress.  But her opponent was too close to the building--the meteors were hitting it half the time and making it crumble.  What was hitting her was bouncing off a shield.  It wasn't Protect and she wished she'd had more than a few months' worth of study with Edea.  She just didn't know enough.

        Some instinct had her tuck in her wings and roll.  A lightning bolt flashed by, missing her by the barest of margins and making her feathers tingle.  She looked down to see the sorceress smiling up at her.

        Crap.

***

        "Dincht!  You have to shift!" Seifer said, ducking a punch and blocking the other with his gunblade.  "She can't control your animal form, remember?"

        Zell sent a terrified look at the other combatants.  "Tell that to them!" he hissed back desperately.

        "She's had a lot longer to work on them!  Now shift, because we can't win like this."

        "I--I can't!"  Zell looked around again, panicked.  "She's blocked it somehow!  I can't control it!"

        "You can talk, can't you?!" Seifer roared.  He sent a frustrated strike at the duelist, only to have him block it with his hands.  Shit.  Was eighteen too young to be too old for this?  "That's not control of any type!" Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  "Force.  The.  Shift!"  And, although Zell was still moving, still punching, he dropped his gunblade and moved in suicidally close, sacrificing his greater reach to grab the duelist around the throat and start squeezing.  "Shift.  Or I'll take you out of the fight, one way or another!"

        Zell's hand dug into his arm, strength pulsing through it.  A kick connected with his leg and he buckled, dragging Zell down with him.  A fist hit his stomach, one, twice, three times.

        "Shift," he mouthed, winded.  He tightened his grip against the fingers that were trying to pry it open.

        "I can't," Zell's voice whispered.  "I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't I can't Icanticanticanticant--"  But Seifer could feel the energy trembling beneath his skin, pulled forth by desperation.

        "Do it!" he roared.

        Zell threw his head back and gasped, pulling his hands free of Seifer and shifted, golden feathers shining over the black of Seifer's glove.  Flightless wings buffeted him and he let go hastily, scrambling well out of range of the wicked claws on those strong feet.  He could maybe take Zell on as a human; he had no chance of doing so with a bird that was both taller than him and had, yeah, claws like knives.  Discretion was not so much the better part of valour but a rejection of suicide.

        The chocobo warked at him angrily and he wheezed.  "No need to thank me," he rasped.  "Just doing my--Hyne, you kick like a mule--job."  He waved a hand.  "Go help the others, okay?"

        But Zell got right in his face, beak snapping inches from his own nose.  he tried to shove the bird away, but he had to face it--when a chocobo didn't want to move, there was no moving it.

        "What?" he snapped, finally together enough to cast Recover on himself.  "No, you don't get to be healed because you're the dumbass who wounded me."  But Zell nudged at him again and he flinched when the beak came too close to his face again.  "Get your bird breath away from me!"

        Finally, Zell just grabbed the collar of his coat and started dragging him.

        "Hyne dammit, not the coat!  You coulda just asked!"  Except when Zell let go, there was a mass of feathers at his feet and Selphie sprawled over it.  And blood, so much blood.

        He knelt down, stripped off a glove, and reached for her pulse.  "Keep the cowboy away," he snapped.  he didn't know how Irvine would react and he only had a small slice of time if she was already dead.  But--no, there was a fluttering beat against his fingertips and he grabbed for Leviathan again, pushing the healing energy through her, willing it to keep her alive.  Phoenix Downs were chancy with this much damage and he wasn't about to let her die.

        "Sephy!  Let me past, you stupid--!"

        "Hold your horses!" Seifer barked, watching as bones were pulled together and flesh knit.  She shifted and he put his hand on her back, holding her as she continued to heal.

        "Wha--?" she groaned.  Then she seemed to register the hand on her and he backed away hastily, breaking the connection with Leviathan in the process.

        "Stay still, Messenger Girl," he snapped.  "I can't finish healing you if you keep moving!"

        "Seifie?" she muttered, pulling open her eyes.  "'Kay."

        He knelt at her side again and placed his hand on her shoulder.  Her eyes fluttered closed again as he pushed the Recover through her again and she sighed.

        Then he was shoved aside as the cowboy slammed to his knees beside them.  Irvine made a broken noise at the evidence around them of her close call.

        "Sephy," he breathed, pulling her into his arms.

        "Mmmm, I think I killed the eagle," she said in a muffled voice.  He let out a breath of laughter at that.  She tucked her head into his neck and let him cradle her for a moment before pushing gently away.

        "This is all so precious, I might puke," Seifer drawled.  He used Irvine's shoulder to push himself up and used another Recover on the man.

        Green eyes smiled up at him.  "Thanks, Seifie!"

        He rolled his eyes and pointedly looked away.  "Battle's not over yet," he said, his eyes on the bear and the lion.  And the sorceress seemed to be fighting something in the sky--Rinoa, right.  Smart girl.  "Are we done with the emotional content now?  Can we get back to fighting?"  He didn't wait for an answer, but shifted and headed straight for the bear.

        It saw him, of course--there was nothing subtle about his approach--but it gave Squall the chance to hamstring it.  It turned back on him with a roar, but he was quicker.  And that left the perfect opportunity for Seifer to slam into it and bowl it over.  he scrambled to get away, but wasn't fast enough to avoid a heavy strike to his back.  His legs buckled, but Squall was already there, grabbing the scruff of his neck and dragging him away.

        Seifer shifted and groaned his way upright.  "You get off on that, don't you? he asked, panting.  Squall whispered his whiskers over his face and licked the side of it with a rough tongue.  "Gross!" the blond sputtered, shoving the lion away.  "And shouldn't you, y'know, be fighting?"

        Except the bear was already dead--Quistis had apparently shattered her like she had the horse, which was weird to think about and, yet, surprisingly effective--and everyone was gathering to face the sorceress.  he limped over to join the ragged line, Squall leaning against his leg in silent support.

        The sorceress seemed to find them more amusing than threatening.  "There are only seven of you," she said.  Her smile broadened.  "And you have neither the knowledge nor the power to seal me away again."

        "We don't need to seal you away," Selphie said steadily.

        The sorceress cocked her head to one side.  "Oh?  And why not?"

        Seifer bared his teeth.  "That would be because we're going to kill you," he said.

        Rinoa landed beside him in a rustle of feathers and shifted.  "You're not the first sorceress we've taken out."

        The sorceress laughed.  "'Taken out'?" she repeated, amused.  There was a hint of an accent still there, a softening of the vowels that reminded Seifer of when Fujin spoke, when she really spoke.  "And how do you think you'll manage that?  I've fought you to a standstill without even trying!"

        "You fought us to a standstill?" Quistis repeated, eyebrow raised.  "Funny, we were just thinking the same about you."

        The sorceress' expression darkened.  "You insolent little--"

        Whatever she was going to say, however, was cut off by the sound of a gunshot.  The sorceress waved a hand languidly and they could all see the bullet hit the shield.  But there was another bullet right after and it punched through, impacting on the sorceress's shoulder and making her gasp.

        "We've learned a thing or two you'd never imagine!" Irvine called, calmly reloading.  He grinned wolfishly.  "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

        She straightened and made an angry gesture.  The wound in her shoulder healed.  "I will enjoy killing you," she said, her face twisting.  "Bor'lung!  Join with me!  Give me your strength, that I may wreak our vengeance on those who fight against us!"

        There was the awful sound of stone on stone.  The statue in the other fountain--Of course, Seifer thought.  If it was worth doing once, it was worth doing more than once-- began uncoiling itself.  Even the rim of the fountain disappeared as the GF raised its length into the air.  Colour flooded into it and the great dragon shook its head and roared before taking to the sky in a long, undulating line.

        "The Rainbow Serpent," Quistis breathed.  "I thought it was a legend!"

        "A legend?" the sorceress echoed.  "Of course!  A lie, never!  Bor'lung, our enemies are here!"  She cast Flare, hitting all of them with it.

        The great dragon roared its anger and water poured out of its mouth, flooding the area between them.  It kept coming, a torrent hitting them with all the force of a raging river and all but sweeping them away.  Then the ground shook beneath them, wide cracks opening, and the water drained away through them, trying to pull them with it.

        "Scatter!" Squall tried to shout, coughing and choking on the water he'd inadvertently swallowed.  As much as they could, the group did so.

        Seifer found himself jumping over a widening crack with Quistis.

        "We've got to get the GF out of the way!" the blonde shouted.  "Before she junctions it!"

        Seifer nodded and pivoted, facing the GF.  Shiva answered his call again, just as the flying dragon spat out another river of water.  The water grew cold about his legs, making them ache to the bone, but he felt ice rising beneath them as the ice goddess poured her power into stopping its advance.  But when she retreated back into Seifer's mind, the dragon roared again and set the ground--and the ice one top of it--to shaking and cracking.

        He heard the distinctive sound of a gunblade going off and risked a glance.  Rinoa, Selphie, and Squall were keeping the sorceress occupied, leaving Seifer, Quistis, Irvine, and Zell to concentrate on the GF.

        He snarled and shifted.  With all the shaking going on, it was better to be on four legs than two.  Meteor was the first spell that came to mind and he cast it, watching as each meteor that hit brought the body of the GF against the ground.  And then there was a flash of yellow on top of it--Zell, the stupid chocobo, had jumped up onto it and was trying to along its back to its head.

        Quistis darted in front of it, spraying it with a round of Bad Breath to distract it and the GF roared again.  One of its coils swung forward, slamming into Quistis.  There was a flare of aqua light as a Protect shielded her from part of the blow.  She shifted as soon as it struck and wrapped her long body around it.

        Seifer ran forward and called on Leviathan,  It took forever for the GF to respond, but he had used Shiva almost to exhaustion and there wasn't time to heal her.

        When the water GF appeared, it flooded itself towards the dragon.  The dragon wavered in the air--someone was trying to draw it--but solidified and used its own body to break the strength of the torrent.

        "Bor'lung, I call upon thee and bind thee to me!" the sorceress shrieked.  The dragon wavered again, then disappeared., dropping Quistis and a soaking wet Zell on the ground.

        "Did you get it?" Seifer asked breathlessly as he leaned down to help Quistis up.  The blonde, her lips pressed tightly together, shook her head wordlessly and Seifer sighed.  "Worth a try, anyway."

        "I almost had it," she said as he healed her.  "Thanks.  But then she junctioned him after all. Still, now I know how he feels; it'll be a lot easier next time."  She turned her head.  "Zell, can you get me over there?"

        Zell warked and nibbled on her hair gently before kneeling down for her.

        "Why," Seifer asked as he pushed himself to run to the other side of the courtyard, "do I get the menacing beak and the ripped coat and she gets the gestures of affection and the ride?"

        "Because he doesn't want to have Squall beat him to a pulp?" Irvine asked, having caught up to him.  he raised an eyebrow and grinned.  "No?  Well, catch ya later!"  And the hare was racing across the ground.

        Seifer groaned and healed himself before shifting again and running.  Fighting all night--had it really been so easy not even a year ago?

        "Glad you could join us!" Selphie shouted saucily, absorbing the Thundaga sent to her.  She sighed and shivered, grinning.  "Ooo, that tingles!"  She retaliated with Flare.  "How'd ya like them apples!"

        Seifer almost couldn't see the sorceress for the attacks surrounding her.  The only time the blur of magic cleared was when Squall went in with his freaky berserker Limit Break or Quistis needed a clear shot.

        "'Ware Eden!" Rinoa called out and everyone stepped back smartly as the huge GF manifested where Irvine had been.  The sorceress screamed at the damage being done to her, but attacking Eden was like an ant biting an elephant.

        "'Ware Bahamut!" Selphie caroled when Irvine reappeared.  The huge dragon flapped its wings and fried the ground in front of the sorceress to get the distance before blasting her with a Mega Flare.

        "'Ware Alexander!" Irvine called out as Rinoa called upon one of her GFs.  The brilliant white light hurt the eyes and left strange afterimages.

        "'Ware Diablos!"  That was Quistis, although how the hell she knew what Zell was summoning was a question Seifer wouldn't mind having answered.

        Shiva stole into his mind and showed him how to look, where he could feel whose power was breaching the walls of the world.  He found himself shouting, "'Ware Cactaur!" as Quistis took her turn.

        "'Ware Lionheart!"  But that was Squall calling it out and there was no GF called Lionheart.  Seifer blinked and saw the dark-haired SeeD start his familiar Limit Break.  And then he started it again--but, no, that was his finishing move, that was Lionheart.  Hyne.  No wonder he warned everyone.

        And while the sorceress was distracted, Rinoa shouted, "Now, Quistis!"

        To his surprise, Seifer felt the draw, felt the reluctance of the great GF to be pulled out of one human and into another.  It and the sorceress screamed together as it was drawn.

        And then it was only the GF screaming.

        And then it was silent.

***

        "I can't believe it's over," Seifer muttered, kicking his legs against the side of the cliff.

        "You're going to hurt your heels if you keep that up," Squall said, leaning against him with a sigh.

        Seifer snorted.  "Combat boots," he said, doing a little leaning of his own.  "I could have a Grendel chomping on my heels and never feel it."

        "I know what you mean," Squall said.  Seifer blinked, confused for a moment.  "It seems like it was too easy.

        Seifer huffed.  "If that's easy . . . ."

        Someone sat down beside him.  He saw bare legs, heavy boots, and a flash of yellow.  "But it was easy, Seifie," Selphie said quietly.  She leaned on his other shoulder.  "Maybe we're just comparing her to Ultimecia," she said thoughtfully.  "But, really, she wasn't nearly as hard to defeat as she could have been."  She pointed to the west.  "See?  We finished her off with time to spare to see the sunrise!"

        "Speak for yourself darlin'," Irvine said, settling beside her.  "There wasn't anything easy about her; our teamwork just excelled."

        Selphie pretended to think it over.  "I guess I could go for that explanation," she said, shifting so she was leaning against Irvine instead.  "Say, when do we have to go?" she asked.

        Rinoa dropped down to Squall's other side with a groan.  "When we don't feel like our limbs are going to fall off," she announced.  "Recovers and Curagas and potions only do so much and I am beat."

        "So, five minute's rest good for everyone?" Squall asked, straightfaced.  He tried to use Seifer for protection against the shower of dirt and rocks thrown at him, but the blond shoved him onto his back with a laugh.

***

        "So, how does it feel to be a SeeD?"

        Seifer turned away from the view offered by the balcony and smiled at the brunet who had snuck up on him.  "Surprisingly . . . pretty good," he answered.  "Although I still don't get why we had to wait until midwinter to graduate me when we killed the bitch in the fall."

        Squall shook his head, a small smile concealed in the corner of his mouth.  He stepped forward and adjusted the collar of Seifer's uniform.  "I told you," he said.  "We wouldn't the Commander's boyfriend to be seen as getting preferential treatment, would we?"

        Seifer shook his head and grinned.  "The Commander's boyfriend already gets plenty of preferential treatment," he pointed out.  "Besides, I'd bet most SeeD thought I was SeeD already--why else would they take my orders?"

        "Because you're scary?"

        Seifer snorted.  "Yeah, no, not that scary."  He threw his arms out to the side.  "Anyway!  Here I am, in all my SeeDling glory.  Didn't someone make a promise about that?  About me, a SeeD uniform, and a night of hot sex?"

        "Might've been Zell," Squall offered innocently and Seifer huffed out a laugh.

        "You've definitely been hanging around me too long," the blond said admiringly.  "No, it was you and you have a promise to keep, sir."

        Squall shrugged and stepped past Seifer so he could lean against the railing of the balcony.  "And I'll keep it," he answered.  He reached a hand back and snagged Seifer's sleeve.  "Just come here and stand with me," he said, pulling Seifer beside him.

        The other man regarded him knowingly.  "Yeah, you just want an excuse to do nothing but think," he said.  "Are you going to tell me to talk to a wall next?"

        "If you don't shut up," Squall said peaceably.  Seifer laughed again and leaned on the railing beside the brunet.

        Squall suddenly chuckled, breaking the contemplative mood Seifer had managed to drag over himself.

        "What?"

        "Did I ever tell you what Laguna said when we got back?" Squall asked.

        "Ha.  Let me guess: 'your mom was pretty hot.  For a lion. Lioness.'"

        "No.  Actually, he wanted Esthar to hire SeeD," Squall said, tipping his head up to look at the band of light Garden projected.

        "Sorry," Seifer said, not sounding very sorry at all, "we don't do construction."

        "No, he wanted to hire us to go kill the sorceress."

        Seifer paused.  And blinked.  And, finally laughed.  "Did we forget to tell him what was going on?" he asked.

        "No, we told him.  He was still confused by his concussion," Squall said.  "I asked him about it later and he said something about talking to me in my own language."

        Seifer shook his head and chuckled.  He nudged Squall's arm.  "Your dad's a bit of a moron," he confided.

        "Only a bit?"

        "Okay," Seifer conceded, "a lot of a moron.  Still . . . .  You know, it wasn't that bad of an attempt.  You are the leader of a mercenary group, after all--it's logical to think you would best be spoken to in terms of wealth."

        Squall rolled his eyes.  "Stop standing up for him," he said.  "I know he's your role model and everything, but I'm your boyfriend."

        "Childhood role model," Seifer corrected mildly.  "And does that mean we can get in out of the cold now?"

        "In a minute."

        Seifer sighed heavily.  "Squall, in a minute, important bits of me, bits you have shown a great deal of liking for, will freeze and fall--mph!"

        Squall released his hold on the back of Seifer's neck with a slow grin before he turned away and sauntered back into the ballroom.  "You coming?" he asked over his shoulder.

owari