I'm lowering my popularity rating again by sticking in yet another chapter before I take us back to Esthar. Hey, it was something that needed to be done for future development of the whole screwed-up situation. Bear with an undersexed Irvine for now, and you'll get an overangsty Squall in the next installment.

WARNING: PG for this chapter. A bit of bad language and one easily confused cowboy lookalike.

DISCLAIMER: Characters and world = Squaresoft's. Story = mine. Nobody's paying me, but if you want to archive the story please ask me and credit me.

Darkened Sunrise

Chapter Nine - Of the Tree on the Mountainside

By Persephone

"Irvine Kinneas, report to Headmaster Cid's office. Irvine Kinneas..."

"OK, OK, I'm coming," Irvine grumbled, rolling out of his solitary bed and stepping into his boots as he stood up. He was almost at the stage of hoping he would get sent on a mission. Selphie had been gone less than a week and already he missed spending time with her. She'd mailed him to say she might be gone for a month or two. He needed something to do in the meantime. She wouldn't be pleased with him if he wound up drinking, smoking and wenching to pass the time.

He glanced into the mirror. The clothes he'd slept in looked kind of presentable. He changed his necker for a clean one and left his dorm for the third floor.

The tannoy sent out two more calls before he arrived, the last one coming just as he put his hand on Cid's office door. He waited for the announcement to finish, then ceremoniously walked into the room. He stopped short, losing his momentum, when he realised Cid wasn't there. Instead, Xu was behind the Headmaster's desk, looking officious. "I'm here to see Cid," Irvine told her, sounding slightly lame even to himself.

"No, you aren't. My office is being redecorated so I'm doing briefings here instead." Xu was tapping a folder that lay on the desk in front of her. "You are to be dispatched to a group of Galbadian rebels who have requested SeeD assistance."

Irvine stared. Zell had told him all about the mix-up over the contracts with the government and the rebel faction, but there was no way he could reveal that without getting both of them a slap on the wrist for talking out of turn. He had a dozen questions; "Just me?" he said in the end.

Xu had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "We are short of SeeDs at present, and we will be until the next field exam at Esthar Garden. We were going to delay this contract as a result, but the clients started to complain, so we agreed to send you now and two more when circumstances permit. I doubt you'll be doing much until your back-up arrives. You'll be using the time to finalise plans and work out logistics. Expect your team to be made up of a close-range fighter and a magic specialist."

That was all fine and dandy. Except that there wasn't such a grave shortage of SeeDs that other missions couldn't go ahead. Xu was giving him an excuse she must have fabricated to give to the rebel group he would be assisting. She couldn't know he already knew the truth, and more importantly she couldn't think he was capable of working it out. It pissed him off when she left out important details and treated SeeDs like idiots. He knew better than to say anything. He just nodded.

Xu took a deep breath. "I have to remind you at the outset that your contract includes the usual clauses forbidding you to attack fellow SeeDs or to make attempts on the life of elected heads of state. You may have to remind your new colleagues of this at times. Do not hesitate to do so, and remember to contact Garden in the event of a clash of views on this matter." She passed him the folder. "Your contract runs for two months, beginning tomorrow. You will take the overnight train to Deling City and transfer to a local service to Wilburn Hill from there. Expect a member of the resistance group to meet you at the station. Dismissed."

Irvine noted the shift from 'rebel group' to 'resistance group'. No chance I'll ever learn whether they are resistance fighters or troublemakers. It's not my place to ask. He stood, saluted and left the room.

There were too many things he didn't know about what was going on. A group that sounded suspiciously like this one had attacked Deling City last night. Quistis had been nastily injured trying to minimise damage. She would be in hospital for days. One member of her team was temporarily incapacitated: another might never fight again. Had they struck when they did because he wouldn't be able to help them attack SeeDs? He shook off the question, and the accompanying desire to find Zell and talk it over with him. Some situation when a guy from Balamb knew more about events in Galbadia than one who'd grown up splitting time between Deling City and Galbadia Garden.

But when he got back to his dorm he found the blond leaning on his door waiting for him. Irvine bit back a curse and marched up to Zell, not bothering to hide his anger. They were both part of the Orphanage Gang, a group that had a bond that went beyond the comradeship of soldiers. Their mutual irritation, while it could not be hidden, never lasted long.

"What do you want?"

Zell didn't bother trying to smooth him over. "What did Cid want? That's more the question I had in mind."

Irvine opened his mouth to tell him to mind his own business, then rethought his earlier decision to keep this from him. Maybe Zell should let Quistis know what was going on. Irvine might get a slap on the knuckles for telling him, but that was nothing to what would happen if he told Quistis himself, and he was getting the feeling she had a right to know what was going on. He opened his door and motioned for Zell to join him inside.

Zell surveyed the room. "Man, this place is a tip."

"Gets like this whenever Selphie's away. Who else cares if it's messy?" Irvine pushed a pile of clothes off a chair so Zell could sit down. He perched among the heap of bedclothes in the centre of his divan and offered, "It was Xu, not Cid. She's assigned me to a rebel faction in Galbadia."

"Not the - Hyne, what're they called - the Wilburn Freedom Fighters' Corps?"

"Yeah, that's them," he answered, checking in the mission folder.

"Fuck," Zell exploded, aiming a punch at an invisible enemy. "They gave Quisty shit just last night. We told Xu to stall them!"

"She said she tried and they didn't buy it."

Zell snorted, then pulled himself up short. "I guess she could have. But I bet she didn't try too hard..."

"Hey, I'm the one in the shit over it." He tried to think objectively. "It might not be as bad as it seems. We don't know what they're going to ask me to do."

"Just you?"

"For the first part of the mission."

"At least you haven't got anyone else to worry about." Zell was still frowning, thinking too hard about something, the tattoo on his face seeming to writhe along with the muscles underneath it. "Good luck."

Irvine flashed him a grin. "I don't need it. Maybe these guys aren't the psychos everyone thinks they are."

"Yeah, and maybe Ultimecia was misunderstood." Zell stood up and straightened his jacket. "See you in a couple of months."

"Yeah. Take care."

Irvine rubbed the gunge out of his eyes as he felt the train start to slow underneath him. If there was one thing he hated - aside from the obvious, such as staring down crazy sorceresses with the power of Hyne himself at their fingertips - it was trying to sleep on trains. It was hard to ignore the rolling and the squeaking when Selphie was with him, and completely impossible when she wasn't, when his subconscious kept wondering why her lithe body wasn't pressed up to his. He'd had maybe an hour and a half in total since leaving Balamb, and he was exhausted. He never thought he'd be grateful for the four a.m. combat drills Galbadia Garden had put its cadets through on a regular basis. They'd left him able to act alert when he desperately wanted to sleep.

He pulled his duffel from the overhead rack and swung the door open as the train ground to a halt. Jumping onto the platform, he tried to remember the code phrase. Something about eternity? He'd get it in the end. He always did.

He made his way through the dusty station, noting the scrapes on the paintwork and the bedraggled state of the borders. Just before he reached the exit he passed a bench where a man was sitting reading the Deling Record. As Irvine approached the man folded up his paper and stood up, falling into step with him without seeming to do so on purpose. Neat, Irvine thought. The man looked like a perfect contact for an underground group: dull brown hair, weathered skin, not too handsome and not too ugly, no extravagances of dress or manner. He was as nondescript as Nida Nomura, albeit in a different way. Nida exuded humility, whereas this man radiated normality.

The guy moved a little way ahead of him and opened the door for him. "You new to the town?" he asked, checking Irvine out like he thought he maybe recognised him.

"Yeah. Just here for a little while."

"Enjoy yourself, if you can. This place lost its fight for life years back."

"But a strong spirit can win victory in eternity."

The man smiled just a touch, an expression that didn't reach his eyes. "Maybe you'd like to come with me. I know a place you could stay."

"That'd be great," Irvine replied, doubting his own words. He hoped he could pull off the assignment without showing these guys how much he didn't want to be here.

Then again, they just might have a reason to be fighting against Galbadia. From what he could see the town was a dump. It hadn't been shelled or anything, just neglected. The shops looked impoverished and all the houses were as decrepit as the station. The place needed a cash injection, fast. And Galbadia probably couldn't afford to help out every small town that needed it, however much it charged these people in taxes. No wonder the citizens were getting desperate enough to support a rebel faction.

A rich rebel faction, with the success they were having. There was more going on here than met the eye. Wilburn's benefactors should be supporting the town, not supplying its rebels.

Unless the leader of the WFFC had private means. Irvine knew then that he couldn't act the impartial mercenary in this situation. He was already questioning everything about the whole set-up. Maybe it was some skewed combat instinct telling him that something was very wrong. Whatever the truth of it, he had an itch between his shoulderblades and an urge to inch his hand towards Exeter. He got into the battered saloon car counting his misgivings.

"We going far?" he asked his chauffeur.

"Nah. Just to a little bunker a mile or so out of town. Not five-star accommodation, or anything."

"Sounds familiar."

The rebel contact didn't say anything throughout the rest of the drive, which suited Irvine fine. He stared at the scenery - idyllic, rolling hills with farms dotted around them for the most part - and wondered what 'assistance' he would be providing these people with. They were capable enough without SeeD. So they had something special planned. So long as it didn't conflict with his duty to Garden, that was fine.

The car slowed down. It turned along a track; the gate across the road lowered when the car approached. High-tech equipment. I'm looking more and more redundant. They drove past a barn and a thick stand of pine trees -

Irvine gasped. Beyond the copse was a deep valley, a groove in the earth that most aeroplanes on fly-pasts would not have noticed. And in the valley was a complex of military buildings, instantly recognisable as such by anyone who had had anything to do with any army. Barracks, armoury, storehouses, firing range, and a very strongly-constructed building that might be a testing area for small quantities of high explosive.

The WFFC was no ordinary bunch of disorganised rebels.

"How long have you guys been here?" he asked.

"A while," the man said disinterestedly. "We built the place up a bit when we got a new boss. I'm to take you to him."

But when the car drew up outside the small bunker that clearly served as the command centre, there was a man waiting at the door. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar but Irvine knew without trying that he would never remember where he'd seen the rebel leader before. The memory strand was far too faint and far too old, like he'd seen the guy in a crowd once a year ago.

As Irvine climbed out of the car, the man approached him, looking him up and down. "You're a little different from the last SeeD I met," he said in a neutral tone, and Irvine knew he'd never heard the man speak before. He would have remembered the hint of power behind the tone. Not the kind of power that Ultimecia had flaunted, but the type that Laguna and Squall both displayed in their more imperious moments. "Welcome to our headquarters. I am Pytor Capanni."


(to be continued...)

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