A.N.: Aargh...it's been forever since I updated, for which my greatest apologies. I've been mightily stressed over my finals. Still, that's all out of the way now, so I can get back to writing in between working rather than worrying that I should be doing something, because for the first time in my life there's nothing I'm supposed to do other than find enough money to live on from somewhere. Graduating is a really good feeling, I can tell you.

Phoenix, I'm not dead but I do a really good possum imitation sometimes :) And the Irvine and Rinoa business is about to stop playing dead too. Neil, stop complaining or I'll set Athene Miranda on you! Silth, you really should believe me when I tell you these things...luckily I think I'm over it now. Redrum and Lily, unfortunately there's not much Seifer-Squall in here - but just hang on for a little while... Tatsurou, I love to brighten people's lives - I hope you'll get more frequent nice surprises from me from now on. Gwendolyn-flight and Race, Squall's a little more balanced now (and he's starting to work out that people still like him) but he's hardly back together properly yet. You'll be glad to know the future looks hopeful, though.

Hmm - back to the story, then; there's far too much plot in this chapter... Oh, and some advanced warning - there be lemons ahead. Just in case you were wondering where the yaoiness had gone to.

DISCLAIMER: If FFVIII were mine would I be a penniless jobseeker? I think not. We can safely assume, then, that it still belongs to Squaresoft.

WARNING: This chapter contains not merely offensive but potentially lethal levels of shounen-ai, sap, small children and Selphie. And writing it was (to my great surprise) about as easy as pulling teeth, so its quality is not assured. Read at your peril...

Darkened Sunrise

Chapter Nineteen - Of Old And Young Women

By Persephone

"So what's the deal between your guys and Quistis's Galbadian rebels?" Zell asked, leaning back into the embrace of Selphie's nicest armchair. The Trabian girl tossed him a pile of papers in reply; he flicked through the sheaf. Reports of where the Estharian and Galbadian traitors' attacks had dovetailed. Sure, circumstantial evidence was nice and all, but... "What's to say they've been asked to do all this, rather than just helping out round the edges? What if they're working for someone else after all?"

"Well, there's no other pattern to it that anyone can see," Selphie confessed, nibbling one fingernail as she thought. "That's why we jumped in on the idea. This is too controlled to be random trouble-making. But if these guys are being paid for what they're doing, we can't find any evidence of it, even for the guy we know's in on it. And it doesn't look like any of them would have volunteered - so it's all silly. We're missing something."

"Could they be being paid afterwards?" he hazarded.

Selphie snorted. "Would you trust a resistance group to pay later?"

"Mostly not," Quistis responded. "But the main troublemakers in Galbadia aren't having money troubles, for a miracle. Have you checked for accounts in other countries? Primarily in Galbadia?"

"Only under their real names. We're having problems with running checks for assumed names - specially because in a lot of the Protectorates you can get a citizen's ID just with a character reference from another citizen, because of returning refugees. And the banking laws in Nanchucket Island and Monterosa are so weird, we can't make the banks give out information. Even for a case like this."

"That's familiar," Quistis muttered, taking off her glasses and rubbing at the corners of her eyes. She hadn't looked well all morning, and it had only got worse after lunch when Meiroth had delivered the files Alex Brannard had been working on just before he died, as well as a few that had been found in his safe deposit box. Including Squall's missing debriefing notes from the disaster mission. None of them had wanted to invade Squall's privacy, but when there was a chance that they might turn up half a useful clue in the mass of stuff that didn't matter they'd gone straight into the folder. Zell for one wished they hadn't. Despite the benefits. Because he hated having to look at the medical files and read the psych report and wonder if the whole thing could have gone better, if even one of his friends had ever noticed...

Among other things, Squall had actually told Brannard about the 'hallucinatory' conversation between Lamond and the rebel leader. And the EIC guy had written it down to daydreaming. But when he'd seen other things going wrong, he'd begun to believe Squall had been right. In the last couple of weeks before his death he'd started to look into it, alone, intending to tell Meiroth when he had something to go on. He hadn't known she was starting her own audit. He hadn't known he'd been noticed by the double agents.

Quistis lapsed into instructor mode. "In Galbadia you've got to differentiate between groups that want independence for their corner of the country and groups who want to take over the central government. It's not always possible to tell what kind you're talking about, though, especially when one group acts like it has both objectives. In that case you have to treat them as splinters of the same whole.

"The most dangerous group out there is one of these, but it's starting to lean towards wanting to take over the whole country and as such we've been treating it as a serious threat to the President's life. They're the most likely group to be backing your double agents; they have the resources to perform high-quality hits, and to apply to hire SeeD."

"That the ones in Wilburn Hill?" Zell checked.

Quistis nodded. "If they really wanted to and were prepared to lose enough people, they'd probably be capable of assassinating President Salvador. As it stands they haven't tried, fortunately enough. Preventing that is the SeeD mission's biggest headache." A shadow of fear crossed her face.

"What's he like?" Selphie asked, leaning in as if she was enjoying girlie gossip.

"Xavier Salvador?" Quistis smiled. But before she could answer, the door slid open. Zell looked up. Two heads, one blond and one dark, popped out of hiding round the doorframe.

"Can we come in?" Seifer asked. Both he and Squall looked way too defensive. Why? Were they really thinking their friends might not want them around?

Selphie frowned at Squall. "You should be resting," she scolded.

"I'm feeling fine," he protested, almost unconsciously leaning into Seifer's side, his actions giving the lie to his words. Seifer glanced down at him with a kind of fondness in his expression Zell hadn't seen from him even a week before. It was like he'd suddenly moved into a comfortably dominant role in a relationship that had been one of equals. Squall looked twitchy enough to enjoy the attention - but it was odds on that he would start resenting it before too long. Zell hoped Seifer had the wisdom to see the day coming.

Seifer turned back to the room and demanded, "How did I know you guys would start saying something like that? Relax, all of you. We wanted to come get a change of scene."

Selphie's eyes stayed narrowed for half a second; then, she grinned. "You're very welcome. We were just asking Quisty about the President of Galbadia. Weren't we?"

Quistis nodded enthusiastically and pondered for a second, half a smile on her face. "He's a nice man. Lots of ideas for improving the country. His father was one of Deling's most open opponents, just about kept in line enough to stay alive, but only barely. He died in the civil war, a couple of months after Edea and Seifer gave up power. Xavier started out as a civil servant but he became his father's special advisor after a few months. He hated the way no-one in Galbadia could do anything to help people from what the President and his friends were doing. After the war settled down, the atmosphere was just right for him and a lot of people like him to take power in the country. He's done so much for civil liberties in only two months."

"That's nice, but it's not what I meant," the diminutive brunette chastised, wagging her finger like Quistis should have known what she was on about. "What's he like as a person? I mean, it's like you like him outside his office as well as inside."

Quistis blushed. Zell marvelled at a sight he'd not seen since he was five, when Seifer and Selphie had tricked the blonde girl into going skinny-dipping and then taken her clothes and left her on the beach for Matron to catch. "Anyone would, unless they really disagreed with his opinions. He's interesting, and he's got good manners -"

"And he's single, and very handsome," Selphie added with a sly smile. "I've seen all the press cuttings."

"Maybe handsome, if you like that sort of thing," Quistis answered, collecting her dignity.

Selphie's smile broadened till it almost split her face. "So did you pull him or are you still planning your attack? And if so I'm sure I don't know why."

"Selphie!" Quistis protested, her blush deepening.

"Oh, come on -"

She held up a hand for silence. "Stop being so frivolous. We're meant to be working."

"Aww, give us a break for a few minutes!" exclaimed Zell. Selphie echoed him.

"There's all the time in the world."

"Not quite," Seifer contradicted him. "Not if these guys have something big planned. Stop picking on Quisty, or I'll have to turn into her Knight and stop you myself." Selphie eeped and pretended to settle down - but she was still acting hyper and she wouldn't stop doing so for a while. Zell just grinned across at the guy who was more his older brother than anything else before turning back to Selphie and her files.

"OK, Sefie, where were we?"

She sniffed slightly and tried to look important. "Well, I was going to suggest we split up the details. I'll stay covering the suspects because I already know what's going on with them. Quisty can look at the Galbadian links and tell us if any rebels over there did anything big at the same time as the double agents, because the EIC doesn't know everything that goes on over there -"

"Neither do I."

She waved that off like it was irrelevant. "Well, you know who to ask if you want to bypass official channels, don't you? Officials are so slow sometimes, and we can't wait. Anyway; Zell, you can look at the state security plans and see if there's any little holes we've missed that someone could attack through - terrorists or whole armies."

"Is there anything we can help with?" Squall asked, more timidly than usual, gesturing to himself and Seifer.

Selphie looked thoughtful. "I don't know; there's quite a bit of data analysis to run - but you'd find that so boring, wouldn't anyone? - and we need to put together a plan for making onsite investigations of a couple of small towns on opposite sides of the world at exactly the same time. Finicky little things. You OK with that?"

"Sure," Squall quickly agreed.

"For a couple of hours," Seifer amended. Selphie immediately tossed a floppy disk to him; he caught it in the hand that wasn't surgically attached to Squall. "What're these data things anyway?"

"Records from a few monitoring checks on security cameras. We need to do a transverse check through the -"

Selphie broke off at the sound of running footsteps in the corridor outside. Someone started banging on Squall's door, just outside. "What -?"Quistis started.

Seifer dropped Squall and got halfway to the door before his hand, scrabbling at his side for Hyperion, came up empty. He stopped mid-stride looking lost. Zell jumped to his feet and ran over to him, quickly testing the fit of his gloves. Before he could take up a defensive position by the door, the sound of an impatient voice drifted through from the other side; none of the words were audible but Zell could tell the speaker was a woman. I should know her - shouldn't I? A swift reply followed. Then the door flew open.

Rinoa Heartilly stood on the threshold, her head thrown up and her eyes flashing in excitement. Irvine hovered behind her, one wrist held by her demanding little hand in a pose he didn't seem able to abandon. Rinoa's wings were spread in what Zell had used to identify as combat mode - something that didn't feel right at the moment: why would she have fought her way into the Palace? But somewhere out in the corridor he could hear the shouts of Laguna's Presidential guards. What did the two of them think they were doing? What was Irvine doing back from assignment anyway?

"Thank goodness we found you!" Rinoa exclaimed, striding into Selphie's bedroom, her free hand waving around with some overblown sense of dramatics. "We needed to talk to you so desperately!"

"We've got trouble," Irvine qualified almost breathlessly, straightening his hat in a familiar nervous gesture. "This is so bad -"

Squall cut him off with a single lifted finger. Somehow he'd become the Commander again - and Zell couldn't be too happy to see it. "Irvine, I was told you were on a mission that would last the next few weeks. How dare you leave your post?"

"The client's a psycho. My 'mission' was to flatten Esthar."

Selphie squeaked and jumped a foot in the air. "Attack Sir Laguna? They can't!"

"That's why -" Irvine suddenly stopped when he saw the look on Squall's face. "You're telling me you would have stayed? What kind of treacherous toad are you?"

Squall winced. A shadow of the dreadful lost look emerged. Seifer threw a threatening glower at Irvine, who stared him down without blinking. Zell put in, "If you had a problem with the guys you should have stayed and talked it out, Irvine. You'll get demoted at least -"

"Right now I don't give one." He didn't break his stand against Seifer and Squall.

"SeeDs can't take missions against proper presidents," Selphie reminded them both. "Xu must not have thought -"

"She never thinks at all," Squall interrupted, making a last-ditch effort to keep his cool in the face of the kind of attack to his image that he couldn't face anymore. "An attack on the city isn't an attack on its leader, though, unless they've got a mass-destruction system - which they shouldn't have needed your help with anyway."

"Oh, they wanted him to kill himself getting one over here," Rinoa interrupted, kicking the door shut behind her before a guard squad could come in and throw her out, "because they were too cowardly to risk it themselves. You tell them Pytor's plan, Irvy, you were the one who saw it, after all."

Irvine closed his eyes for a second. Maybe Zell only imagined the distrust in the glance that Selphie tossed at him and Rinoa. "That Capanni guy's mad as all hell. He's found a Weapon and he's going to wake it up and set it on Esthar in five days."

Weapon. And he didn't mean a sword or a gun; "Weapon as in Omega and Ultima?" Zell heard himself say from some way away. Irvine nodded.

"Hyne!" Quistis all but shouted. "That's - does he want to kill everyone in the city?"

"Yeah, that was about the idea. Eternity Weapon's bigger than Omega. The local guard wouldn't have a hope."

"This ain't freaking happening!" Zell yelled. He felt himself flying out of control. He couldn't believe it. How in the world could anyone think of doing something like this? "He's mad! That thing gets here, and it'll be goodbye Esthar Army, goodbye Esthar!"

"Well, I guess he's thought of that. He wouldn't want to bring out his own little slice of Armageddon and get nothing out of it, after all."

"Prophesying an eternal end to civilisation..." whispered Quistis.

Eternity bringing victory. Suddenly he understood the WFFC's very distinctive code phrase. Zell tried to get a grip on himself, managed it and tried to think what they could do other than kill themselves trying to take it head-on. It didn't look like the others would be much help to him. Seifer had a bewildered expression on his face; but he wouldn't have a clue what they were talking about, because somehow they'd never got round to sharing the nasty stories about the war and the Weapons. Selphie, in contrast, had gone as pale as almond blossom and was wrapping her hand round Irvine's unclaimed wrist. Squall -

There was a kind of sick overtone in his eyes that told of something far more upsetting than the expectation of a terrible battle to come. "Capanni. Pytor Capanni." Irvine nodded again. "The job for the Wilburn Freedom Fighters' Corps." Nobody needed to acknowledge Squall this time. They all knew something about that mission. Squall opened his mouth to add something, but slammed it shut with a suffocated squeak and fled from the room. Seifer's eyes widened and he ran after him.

Irvine turned his head to follow their passage, looking perplexed. Rinoa snorted. "That's got rid of him, though why, I can't understand. Still, let's enjoy ourselves while he's not here to spoil things."

"Rinoa!" Selphie exclaimed.

"Oh, come on. Squall's such a wet blanket sometimes. I'm just glad he knows to keep himself to himself when he's like this."

"Really?" And Selphie's voice dropped half an octave. "Well, maybe you never looked hard enough, but Squall's very upset and I don't think you should be so mean when you don't know what's going on."

She laughed, a light tinkle that should have sounded like bells on a summer morning. "Does it matter? You know how he always makes a fuss over nothing when he gets rubbed up the wrong way. He's so touchy sometimes."

"Now I know why he dumped you!"

"Excuse me, Miss Smart-Arse, I dumped him!" the sorceress fired back. "And I don't know who wouldn't have been fed up with him and the selfish way he's been acting for however long! I suppose I can't expect you to understand -"

"You're the one who doesn't understand! Squall's a darling -"

"Now I've heard everything!"

"- and he deserves lots of patience and kindness, and you wouldn't know those if they bit you on the bottom, so why don't you just go away and stop being nasty about him!"

"Fine, I will go away, and the Weapon can eat you all!" Rinoa shouted, stamping her feet. Irvine caught her arm before she could turn.

"Selphie, what's going on with Squall?" he asked. And Zell heard not only the edge of suspicion in his voice but the unspoken and you that went along with it. Hyne, if you didn't know how we've all been smothering Squall in sibling love you might think that, wouldn't you? Well, I wouldn't - but Irvine might.

Before Selphie could speak Zell cut in, "He's been halfway to a nervous breakdown since just before Rinoa left. He snapped yesterday." Irvine looked suitably apologetic for questioning Selphie. "We've all been trying to tell him we still need him around," Zell continued, "except someone just spoilt it all," and he glared at Rinoa, hoping she would get the message. Whether she did or not he couldn't tell. Why did she look like she was beyond things like remorse? He didn't get it.

"Sounds bad. But what's up with him now?" Irvine asked, looking at the door Squall and Seifer had vanished through.

Quistis suddenly gasped. "Capanni." She put a hand over her mouth. "He ran a group of - oh, sweet Hyne," and she covered her face and sat down on the edge of Selphie's bed.

Zell stared at her for a second or two before the meaning of her words hit him. Capanni had been the leader of a disbanded Protectorates terror group. Squall had been captured by a terror group in Shenandia that had later been wiped out. He'd freaked out over the WFFC business for more reasons than he'd ever voiced; if he'd known it was the same guy back again... "This ain't real," he muttered.

"What isn't?" Rinoa demanded.

Irvine nudged her. "It's about your friend Pytor. I think."

"About the other groups he used to run? Oh, I know about that. But they were freedom fighters. He worked with the Timber groups sometimes. He was so much help you wouldn't believe. Why's Squall got a problem with him?" Zell ignored her. If he concentrated hard enough the sickened feeling might decide to up and leave him.

Selphie had that determined don't-mess-with-me look back on her face again. "We've got to tell Sir Laguna now!" she exclaimed. "So the army's got time to catch it before it gets here. They can all go over to Galbadia and kill it there, while they're all still getting it ready. And, Quistis, you can call the Galbadian government and tell their army to come and join in too. Then everything'll be OK because no-one'll die, and we might kill all those rebels too, and we might find out who the real double agents are."

Rinoa laughed. "Don't be so na´ve. I swear it's actually painful."

"Well, it'll probably work, and it'll definitely do more good than sitting here!" Selphie grabbed Irvine's hand again and started tugging him towards the door. Unfortunately Rinoa still had hold of his other hand.

Irvine shook the pair of them off. "Will you two stop pulling me about at last?" he almost shouted. "Rinoa, been nice travelling with you, but I'm off to talk to Laguna and see how many battalions he can get on the job. Selphie, you can come too if you're still stuck on the guy, but don't get in the way."

"I'm meant to be in charge here!"

"What about our bargain?"

The two women started talking so fast it was almost impossible to hear what they were saying. Quistis's breath hissed across her teeth as she inhaled. She clenched her fists and stormed over to the door, pushing past the younger girls. "I'm going to get Laguna to phone Xavier," she announced over her shoulder. "And if any of you children want to listen in on the conversation, you're more than welcome to accompany me. Providing you mend your manners in the meantime."

She sounded so unbearably stuck-up that she startled both Selphie and Rinoa out of their tirades. Before they could start yelling at her she opened the door as violently as she could - and stopped mid-stride just before she walked into Laguna. "Is something the matter?" the President of Esthar asked, a mild look of sheep-like surprise on his face. "Seifer called me and told me something was up - do you know -"

The edge of a hysterical laugh slipped out of Quistis's mouth. She covered her face with her hands; when Laguna touched her awkwardly she seemed to pull herself together, and said in an almost toneless voice, "We might know what the double agents have been working towards. A rebel group in Galbadia - it looks like they might have been working together to destabilise the country - they're going to attack Esthar very soon. Have you heard of Weapon?"

Laguna's eyes widened and a look of wholehearted shock washed across his face. "What? In my city? It'll kill us all! Squall told me they can - oh, shit, why...?" But then he closed his eyes for a moment. Zell almost saw the most panicky edge of the fear drain away from him. "This thing - where is it and how did you find out about it?"

Rinoa, still sullen from Quistis's reprimand, raised her head. "It's in a breakaway Galbadian region about two hours' drive from Deling City," she reported. Laguna hardly looked startled to see her at all. "Irvine found it while he was on call."

Laguna turned to the sniper. "I'll send five battalions - no, ten - oh, hell, I'm going to send half the army over there at once to get rid of it. You'll go along to guide them, won't you?" Before Irvine could agree - but what else could he ever do? - Laguna added, "I'll have the rest of the army stay here in case of another kind of attack. I need you guys to split. Three stay here to cover things, and the others go along to hit the Weapon."

"There's a problem with that, Sir Laguna," Selphie put in before Rinoa could say anything else to her long-time idol. "Quistis is still recovering from injury, Squall - well, we can't take him to Galbadia, and we probably shouldn't have him on guard here either, and Rinoa's -"

"Not a SeeD," the sorceress supplied when Selphie hesitated. "But I will join in. Irvine knows my price." She threw the man a meaningful glance. Zell gasped. That better not mean what I think it does! What the hell's got into him?

"We can talk about that later," Irvine said hastily. "Look, Squall'll be OK fighting here, I'm sure. Specially if Seifer's with him." Rinoa chortled; Irvine pretended he hadn't heard. "Seven less Quisty is six; that's three and three. Seifer and Squall here, me in Galbadia; where do you want to go?"

He aimed the question at Selphie. It sounded like an attempt to appease her. If so it backfired: "With you, of course!" the girl exclaimed like he was an idiot for asking.

Rinoa smiled, a naughty and amused glint in her eyes. "I think I'll go with you. I might be able to talk Pytor out of being so silly. If that's all right with you, Zell," she added as an afterthought.

"Fine by me." More than. He wanted to watch over Squall no less than Seifer did but for a fractionally different reason. Squall meant so much to him, to all of them, that there was nothing else he could do but want to stay.

"Then that's OK." Laguna exhaled slowly, turned to address Zell. "I'll go see those generals right this second. I'll tell the home guard they've got you three to call on if they need you for battle or evacuation duty - and you might need to clear the city, if the Galbadia team doesn't make it."

"Irvine says there's five days before anything happens. It'll be cool; I trust you all."

"But just in case." Laguna thought for a second. "Will you get Squall and Seifer up to speed on what's happening for me? Irvine, I'd like you to be ready to come answer questions for the generals. Selphie, keep everything running for now, but you'll need to hand some operations over to Seifer and Kasha before you leave - I'd guess that'd be late tomorrow. Quistis - in an hour, I'd guess, I'm going to call the President of Galbadia. I understand you two are acquainted..."

"We are, and if any help is needed to convince President Salvador of the urgency of this operation, I'll provide it."

Too earnest, Quistis. You'll confuse him if you aren't sincere, because he expects it of you. Laguna did indeed look bemused for a moment or two before tossing the puzzle aside and smiling broadly. "Then we've got nothing to worry about. We'll have it all sorted out in just a few days, specially if we catch the Weapon when it isn't expecting us." He sauntered off looking as pleased as a Torama with a newly filled stomach.

"Have it all sorted out, indeed," Rinoa muttered. "We don't know that the army'll be able to get rid of it, even still asleep. We don't know why Pytor's being so ridiculous and irresponsible."

"Because he's a headcase," Zell answered absently, thinking about Squall's flight again. If by some Hyne-awful cock-up Capanni turned up at the front gates of the Palace with a warhead in his pocket, Squall would be too afraid to fight. "There's another problem. What do we do about Garden?"

"Given that SeeD are supposed to be helping to get Eternity Weapon into strike range?" Quistis added. "That's something we'll have to think about later. We can't afford to be distracted now." She hurried off in the direction of Laguna's office - probably looking for his famous personal phone line that went right under the sea to Deling City.

"She's acting obsessed," Rinoa scowled, looking disapproving. "How anyone could be so besotted with a man like Xavier Salvador I don't know. I suppose it isn't my business, after all. Now, maybe someone in this building will be able to direct me to some suitable accommodation..."

"Try Ellone," Irvine suggested. Rinoa brightened and ran off immediately.

"How can you set her on Sis?" Selphie demanded almost before the door had closed.

Irvine shrugged. "Elle's adaptable. And I'll bet on her not to let Rinoa pull any nonsense, far better than anyone else here."

Selphie humphed, but seemed to accept Irvine's words as fact. She sighed and dragged herself over to the table covered in papers. She's faking tired. She wants his attention. Why do I have to land in the middle of these scenes? "Sometime soon, you'll have to tell me what she meant by 'her price'," Selphie said over her shoulder to Irvine. Too lightly. Maybe he heard the hint in her voice, for he answered her at once.

"She wants a favour from the six of us. It's a bit out of line but I think we'd be way too happy to indulge her. We'll need to discuss it together when we can."

"I don't get any hints?"

He smiled suddenly. She caught his eye, and the stress almost bounced off her face as her pixie grin returned. "I thought you liked guessing games, Sefie?" he teased lightly, pulling off his hat at last and tossing it onto her bed. She dropped the file she'd picked up and leapt into his arms, whispering words Zell couldn't catch into his chest. Irvine's smile broadened. "Missed you too, love." He set Selphie down and caught Zell's eye. "Yeah, it's a mess, but we'll sort it out somehow. Even Garden."

"I don't know. You might have to go AWOL for a few weeks while we make your case."

"Sounds good to me," and he smiled down at Selphie. "Now, I don't suppose you could find something to eat for a starving soldier? Rin didn't think much of our comfort when she was dragging us over here, and I don't think I could have eaten much in her company anyway." Selphie laughed, and reached for the intercom. Zell frowned, cutting them out. Something about being stuck in this whole crazy mess was getting to him. Esthar and Galbadia on the left, the rebels on the right, Garden in the middle - why did everything have to happen to them?

(to be continued...)

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