Grazhir :: Final Fantasy :: Snafu :: 03

03

Squall exchanged a look with Seifer and got up, reflexively strapping his gunblade back into place, then exited. After a quick survey of the composition of seating he choose an unoccupied loveseat and was not surprised when Seifer joined him. “What news?” he asked Quistis.

“During my meeting with Headmaster Martine I delivered some orders from Balamb. Apparently it was documentation on a joint operation between Galbadia and Balamb Gardens and Martine has asked that we take care of it. We’re scheduled to meet with him tomorrow morning out at the entrance, after we’ve eaten.”

Squall frowned faintly. “All six of us?” he muttered. “You know any of the details?”

Quistis shook her head. “Only that it’s in Deling City.”

He spared a second to glance at Rinoa when she sucked in a sharp breath, then focused on Quistis again. “I assume you told him my team already has a client.”

“Yes. He said it wouldn’t matter. It’s a one time thing. I did fib slightly, though,” she said, looking a bit uncomfortable. “He wanted to know what you were doing here. I told him you had only just arrived in Timber when the assassination happened, so you left straight away with your client until the heat died down. I mean, if people realized that SeeDs were wandering around they might assume you had something to do with it, and that’s bad for business.”

“Makes sense.” He didn’t need to look to know that Rinoa was probably staring at Seifer; he could already see that Quistis was eyeing the blond speculatively. “Considering that we were in the planning stage of infiltrating the station it’s just as well. Fine. Then we can do whatever we want until then.” He nudged Seifer and stood up. “Spar?”

“Yeah. I know just the place,” Seifer responded, also standing. “Come on.”

They left without a backward glance after Seifer dropped his trench coat off in their room, and the blond led them to a training room not already in use. The blond readied his blade and smirked. “Let’s skip the unorthodox methods this time, eh?”

Squall returned the smirk and attacked. “You realize that Rinoa might talk,” he said after his blade clashed with Seifer’s.

“I doubt it,” the blond said confidently, a forming spell causing his free hand to glow. “She probably thinks I showed up to help her.” He pushed with his blade and jumped back, throwing fire at Squall a second later.

He rolled to one side and came up on guard, then blocked a swing aimed at his face, sliding his blade down the edge of Seifer’s to then attempt a vertical slice and pierce move which was deflected just in time. “So she’s moronic and delusional.”

“Yeah.” Seifer grinned and pushed the offensive, obviously not in the mood to talk anymore just then.

A half hour later they were both feeling the pleasant burn of exercise and the spar was brought to a graceful tie.

“Let’s hope the girls haven’t commandeered the bathroom,” Seifer said as they made the walk back to the suite, running a hand through his damp hair and plucking at the front of his sweat-soaked shirt. “At least it’s designed to handle two people at a time.”

Squall nodded and pushed open the door to their suite, stopping in their room long enough to drop off his blade, gloves, and boots, and get a fresh set of clothing—never mind that it was stylistically exactly the same as what he already wore. As he headed for the bathroom he noticed that Quistis was busy off at a desk in one corner while the others were talking quietly or watching cable. He didn’t think twice about stripping down in front of Seifer, and hung his discards over the edge of the stall so he could rinse them out after he showered. Seifer took the other stall and did much the same, though Squall did find out that the blond had a tendency to hum while bathing.

He wrung out his rinsed clothing with as much strength as he could manage before setting them aside so he could dry himself off enough to dress in fresh clothing, tossing the used towel into a hamper by the door. ‘I suppose if someone stays here for any length of time they provide laundry service,’ he mused on his way back to the bedroom. There he hung the damp clothing up so it could dry and took a seat on his chosen bed again.

Seifer closed the door after entering and did much the same before saying, “I wonder what they’ve got planned. Seems awfully strange that so many would be needed. And I notice Trepe didn’t say one way or the other if I’d be involved.”

“I assume she implied—or at least didn’t say otherwise—that you were a part of my team. Since Martine already knows about our client I’ll just shove her off to one side while we’re briefed. So her father is in Deling?”

Seifer nodded. “She won’t want to be there, but she’s just going to have to deal. The Timber assignment is long term so it’s not like you have to be back there immediately and it’s possible the one in Deling is connected. I expect she’ll hide in a hotel room the whole time hoping to avoid her daddy.”

“Good,” he said. “One less thing to worry about.” He strapped his watch back on and checked the time. ‘Hn. What to do to pass the time?’ He reached over and grabbed his gunblade, then hunted his tools out of his jacket. A minute later he was lovingly maintaining his weapon. “You ever been to Deling?”

“Hm? Yeah, once. It’s big. Large enough to have bus service running all over the place. Tons of shops, restaurants, bars. Huge hotel, but there are smaller places, too, which is good since not everyone can afford the hotel. At least we get paid more than a small stipend now. I never did agree with the idea that we have to spend our own money for expenses and don’t get reimbursed.”

Squall shrugged. “I guess they think we supplement our income by selling stuff from monsters whenever we stop by a town. I expect it takes a lot of money to run a Garden, so there’s not as much left for the SeeD salaries. In that first vision—on the train—I saw a small part of Deling. Mostly the hotel you mentioned. Laguna was all wibbly over some lady. Made a complete fool of himself.”

“He does seem a bit . .  eh. The other two didn’t seem so bad, though.”

Squall shrugged again. “I want to know why it’s happening. Imagine if we were in the middle of battle.”

“Maller got left out?”

He nodded. “Left out both times. Rinoa the second time.” He looked up, brow furrowed. “I wonder what the common ground is. I don’t recall offhand ever seeing Selphie until recently—she transferred in from Trabia. You’ve always been around, but I can’t really remember much about back then except the occasional piece of memory. A beach pops to mind, but I don’t actually remember going to the coast until they brought us all there to make sure we could swim.” Seifer gave him an extremely peculiar look in Squall’s opinion. “What?”

Seifer raised his brows, then reached for his own gunblade and cleaning supplies. “We’ve always been together, Squall, for as long as I can remember. We were together in an orphanage before being brought to Garden. We had a couple of buildings, a huge field, and a path down to the beach with a lighthouse in the distance.”

He frowned, trying to remember. “Was it just us? Did I hate it so much there that I blocked it out?”

Seifer’s gaze went distant, his hands automatically moving in their task. “Now that you mention it I don’t think it was just us. I’m pretty sure there were other kids, but. . . .” He shook his head. “Can’t really remember clearly who. But maybe that’s the connection. And if so, perhaps Tilmitt was there, too.”

*

The next morning they convened just beyond the main gate and waited. A car soon appeared and Rinoa straightened up. “Just pretend I’m a SeeD, too, okay? It’ll be less complicated that way.”

“No,” Squall said flatly. “The headmaster already knows you’re not. Just wait there until we’re done with the briefing.”

Rinoa pouted and crossed her arms over her chest, settling into a slouchy sulk. “Fine.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose in disgust and moved far enough away that she should not be able to overhear, the rest of his fellow SeeDs moving with him.

When the car pulled to a stop a man got out—who he assumed must be Martine—and approached them, his eyes drifting past each of them, then sliding over to notice Rinoa a fair distance off. He nodded in seeming satisfaction when they saluted and said, “Good morning. At ease. I have official orders from Headmaster Cid addressed to you. Following regulations, I have gone over these orders, and after careful consideration of our options, we have decided to fully assist and cooperate. Actually, we, too, have been planning a mission of this nature for some time now. In order to stress the importance of this mission, I must first brief you on the current situation.

“You all know about the sorceress being appointed as the peace ambassador for the Galbadian government, the death of Deling notwithstanding. However, this ambassador thing is just a cover up. There will be no peace talks, only threats. The sorceress creates fear among people. Therefore, peace talks are impossible. Galbadia is planning to use fear to negotiate favorable conditions for itself. It is clear that Galbadia's ultimate goal is world domination. Our intelligence tells us that the cabinet and military of Deling’s regime was fully supportive of this, so it’s expected that whoever takes over as president will be of the same mind.

“Garden is no exception, either. We are aware that the sorceress is planning to use this Garden as her base. We have . . . very few options available to us. We entrust world peace and the future to you. Details of the mission are enclosed in these official orders.” Martine handed over a set of papers to Squall. “Any questions?”

He read through the paperwork as quickly as possible, doubling back at one section to clarify a point, then looked up and said, “These orders say by means of a sniper. We have no one with that skill. Is one to be provided us?”

Martine nodded. “Kinneas!”

A rustle not far away had Squall turning his head in time to see a tall young man with honey-coloured hair push up from a grassy knoll. He wore a long coat, a cowboy hat—probably to keep the sun out of his eyes, but maybe just to go with his coat and chaps—and carried a rifle. Kinneas sauntered over lazily and drifted to a stop nearby.

“This is Irvine Kinneas. He will be your sharpshooter,” Martine informed them. “Leave whenever you’re ready. Failure is not an option.” He returned to his vehicle and drove out of sight, causing Squall to shake his head over the sheer laziness of it.

“Howdy, folks,” Irvine drawled.

Squall eyed him for a moment, feeling a strange sense of familiarity, then looked away when Quistis stepped right in front of him and demanded to know about the mission details. He shook his head, spying Rinoa approaching. “Not here. We’ll discuss it on the way.”

Quistis frowned at him and he could see that she was barely holding herself back from trying to take control, but she eventually backed down and nodded. “There’s a station not far from here. We can talk in the SeeD car on the train? That should be private enough.”

Rinoa huffed in the background.

Squall took care of introductions and then they were off. The station was indeed not far away, and quite a few students were scattered around, some returning from visits home judging from snippets of overheard conversation, and others off to find some entertainment. Once they’d embarked the next available train he turned to Rinoa. “You have a choice. Either you wait outside the SeeD cabin until we’re done, or we can keep you under a sleep spell so there’s no chance of you hearing anything.”

She looked outraged at both suggestions and flounced off to stare out a window.

Squall shrugged and used his ticket to gain access to the corridor, then swiped his ID through the scanner for the SeeD compartment. Inside was just as well appointed as the last one and they arrayed themselves on the available seating. “We have a direct order from both Balamb and Galbadia Gardens to assassinate the sorceress. Kinneas will snipe her from afar and we’re to support him to our fullest. Should Kinneas fail we’re to attack head on. General Caraway will be our contact there and give us the full details of the operation.”

Seifer laughed, startling everyone but Squall. “We won’t have to worry about Rinoa, then,” he said gleefully. “She’ll stay as far away as possible from her daddy. Probably afraid he’ll lock her in her room and try to talk some sense into her.”

Squall shot his partner an amused look and nodded, then noticed Quistis was giving them a disapproving look. ‘She really needs to get that stick out of her ass.’ “Now, something important. Twice now Selphie and I have been dragged into some kind of vision. Once on the train to Timber, and again on the edge of the forest near Galbadia Garden. Seifer got dragged in that time, as well. Nida was unaffected. Quistis, Zell, you need to be alert in case it happens again, and either guard us or get us to a safe place, whichever is relevant. Someone or something is interfering with us and we have no details yet as to how it’s being accomplished.”

Quistis nodded, her expression going thoughtful. “Maybe,” she said slowly, “I should take over as leader for this mission just in case.”

Squall arched a brow at her. “I sent a cable to Headmaster Cid about it yesterday afternoon and got a reply. He said not to worry for now. He also left me in charge of my team. If I, Selphie, and Seifer become incapacitated again, then you’re temporarily in charge as most senior SeeD, with Nida as your second.”

“Understood,” she replied stiffly, obviously annoyed with him, and probably with Cid.

“Anything else we should go over before we open the compartment to Rinoa?” He paused. “No? All right.”

Selphie got up and exited, presumably to go tell Rinoa, but did not return. Quistis left with her, presumably in a snit, and Zell and Nida struck up an alternately loud and quiet conversation, leaving Squall again in the company of Seifer. Irvine shifted seats so he could sit near them and tipped his hat in silent greeting.

“Either you’re not a SeeD,” Squall commented, “or one who took the test and returned to Galbadia Garden. I don’t care which, I’d just like to know.”

“That’s right, I’m not,” Irvine drawled. “Not sure I want to take the test. But the education we get is first rate and costs nothing.”

“True,” Seifer said. “You look familiar.”

Irvine tilted his head to one side, a slow smile blossoming. “I expect that’s because I am. We just didn’t go to the same place, obviously.”

Squall leaned forward in interest. “You were at the orphanage?” he asked quietly.

“Yep. We all were except that Nida fellow. Never laid eyes on him before, or that client of yours.”

“Huh,” Seifer said. “Maybe that’s why Trepe is such a pain in the ass. She remembers on some level.”

Irvine chuckled and pushed his hat back a bit. “She always was a bossy thing. The only person who isn’t here is Sis. She went away one day and never came back. Maybe she was adopted. I know Quistis and Zell were.”

Squall sat back, his mouth gaping slightly. “Sis. . . .” He swallowed heavily. “I remember now,” he whispered.

Seifer dropped a hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. “Hey. What is it?”

“Just that I know why I forgot, that’s all. I’ll tell you some other time, maybe.”

“Okay,” Seifer said slowly, removing his hand. “What do you want to bet that if it happens again, Irvine, Trepe, or Dincht could be pulled in?”

Squall considered. It was the only common ground so far, not that it made much sense as a piece of the mystery’s puzzle. “Perhaps.” He looked at Irvine again. “Do you have any Guardian Forces junctioned?”

Irvine shook his head. “We don’t use them, but we’re taught about them.”

“Personally, I think summoning them is a complete waste of time,” Squall said disdainfully, “but they are extremely handy otherwise. The protection alone from negative effects is worth it, not to mention a few other things. Do you want copies?”

“Uh, sure,” Irvine said after a moment. “In Galbadia they teach us that GFs corrupt your memories, though.”

Squall snorted and shook his head, concentrating to produce several small spheres in his hand. “Hysteria in my opinion. Just a way to frighten students and make them rely more on technology, technology which can fail in battle at the worst possible time. I expect it has something to do with how your Garden has such a close relationship with Galbadia and its military. Here,” he said, handing them over, then produced an extra of Diablos to hand to Seifer.

“Thanks,” Seifer said, then produced a few of his own to share around.

‘Huh, I wonder where he got these from,’ Squall thought after he assimilated the unfamiliar spheres and obtained Siren, Pandemona, and Leviathan. ‘I guess we got assigned GFs in groups or something.’ “You’ll just have to start drawing magic as soon as you can,” he said absently.

*

They arrived in Deling City at a grand station and rode the escalator up, walking out into the city itself to see the area featured in the vision Squall had been forced into. “Let’s go get rooms and something to eat, then we can see Caraway.”

As he expected Rinoa grimaced, but it was Irvine who nodded and said, “Follow me. Students from my Garden visit here a lot, so I know my way around.” He led them to one of the smaller places in the city and they soon all had rooms. After that Irvine led them to a nearby café for an early lunch.

Desultory talk fit in between eating and soon enough Rinoa stood up. “I’m going back to my room. You’ve made it clear this is none of my business.”

Squall just nodded and turned back to his meal, the corner of his mouth twitching when he heard her huff in indignation. Shortly thereafter Irvine directed them onto a bus which would take them to Caraway, and when they disembarked led them over to a gated walkway leading to a mansion. Outside the gate stood a guard of some kind, who said, “This is General Caraway’s mansion. I can’t let just anyone walk in. What business do you have?”

“I believe he’s been informed of our arrival,” Squall replied quietly. “We’re here at the behest of Garden for a briefing.”

“Well, yes,” the guard said slowly, “but I was ordered not to let you through until your skills have been tested.”

Zell waved his hands around wildly. “What the hell’s he talkin’ about!? We came all the way out here for some stupid test? Who does he think we are!?”

Squall arched a brow as Seifer snorted. “And why is this necessary?” he directed to the guard.

The guard took a half step back. “There are many students like yourself who wish to call on General Caraway. Just two days ago there were some students from Galbadia Garden, but they have yet to return from the test.”

Squall stepped forward and stared. “You have just admitted he’s expecting my team specifically,” he said coldly. “We are not some random students who hope for words of wisdom from a decorated military figure. Are you sure this isn’t simply your way of exercising what meager power you have over others, as a way to feel important? Do you—I don’t know—make a little money on the side selling hints about this ‘test’ to supplement your income? I really wonder how the general would react if informed of your actions.”

The guard went pale and stepped back again, mouth opening and closing soundlessly. He shoved a hand in his pocket and brought out a small package, thrust it at Squall, and once it had been taken scampered over to the gate and opened it for them.

Squall strode through, tucking the package away in a pocket, only smirking once he was on the other side and the guard could not see his face. “Must have hit a nerve,” he murmured when Seifer appeared in his peripheral vision.

Seifer chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nicely done. I’m impressed. I’d have just gotten in his face and swung Hyperion around.”

Squall glanced over and smiled. “Sometimes words have a keener edge than steel. It’s all in how you use them.” Up ahead was the entrance, with no one guarding it, and no one responding to his knock. With a shrug he opened the door and headed inside, seeing several doors, hallways, and staircases off the entrance hall.

Irvine stepped up beside him and pointed to a door to their right, saying, “That’s where he usually meets people. I expect the guard outside let him know we were coming.”

They took seats and settled in to wait, and Squall idly examined the room. It positively reeked of wealth and was probably intended to intimidate those received there. Caraway finally showed up a good half hour later. ‘Another technique, one that I’m not fazed by,’ he thought as he stood up to greet the man and introduce his team.

Caraway nodded vaguely and said, “Let me explain the plan, then.” He walked over to his desk and behind it, then pulled out a thin drawer. Inside was a large sheet of paper which he placed atop the desk. “Gather ’round. Good. This is a map of the city. I have smaller versions for you as well, after the briefing. Now, I’m sure you’re already aware that the Galbadian government has reached an agreement with Sorceress Edea. This is still the case despite the death of Vinzer Deling. Tomorrow evening there will be a ceremony to commemorate the event.

“This is where you would have arrived, at the station,” he said, tapping a spot on the map, then sliding his finger northward. “Here is the gateway arch, and beyond that is the presidential residence, where the ceremony will begin. This mission has been designed in mind for two teams, one to be stationed at the gateway and the sniper team to stand ready to enter the presidential residence so as to be in position at a specific time. Once the ceremony is over a parade for the sorceress will begin—that’s when the gate will open. Until then lay low, as the parade may be canceled if there’s any commotion, and we must avoid that at all cost.

“The parade itself will draw the attention of the guards and the crowd, so getting inside at that point should be easy enough to manage. The sniper team will head for the roof of the residence, to a balcony where the ceremony will have taken place. From there they can proceed inside and locate the access hatch for the clock tower. This team should have more than enough time to get in place while the parade is going on. The sniper rifle will be up there, ready for use. The sniper team will then be on standby until exactly 20.00.

“The parade itself starts at the residence and the sorceress will be riding on the parade vehicle. After it clears the gates it will turn left and take a route which circles the city along the outer road and return over here.” Caraway tapped the road on the opposite side. “It will then turn right and head toward the gateway arch. This is where the gateway team comes into play. At exactly 20.00 the parade will pass under the gateway. The gateway team will operate the console in the maintenance room to drop the gates, trapping the sorceress inside.

“Also at 20.00 the carousel clock will rise from the roof of the presidential residence giving the sniper a clear shot at the sorceress. Take the shot, leave the rifle, and get out without being seen. If for any reason it is not possible to take the shot or the shot misses, the sniper team will get to the gateway as quickly as possible and carry out a direct assault.” Caraway opened another drawer and pulled out a handful of smaller maps, passing them to Squall. “For now you’re free to check out the city, and if necessary, return here if there are any questions about the plan. Just stay out of trouble and try not to draw too much attention to yourselves in the meantime. Report back here at 17.00 tomorrow for the final meeting, after which we’ll proceed with the operation.”

Squall blinked slowly, gave the general a sharp nod, and quit the room, not saying a word until they were back outside and beyond the gate. “Irvine, lead us out of the city for the moment.”

“No problem,” Irvine drawled and headed off down the street.

They were soon enough a short distance from Deling and Squall handed out the maps, keeping an eye on the surrounding territory. “First thing. Irvine, with me. Seifer, with Selphie. I want you two to concentrate most on what you can find out about the presidential residence. Quistis, with Zell and Nida. You three concentrate most on the gateway arch. We’re going to play tourists and go over this city.” He glanced at his watch. “Look for anything that can potentially be a problem, especially since it’ll be even darker when the operation is due to start. I’m giving you three hours, then meet up at the car rental station we passed. Any questions? Quistis, you three head back in first. Irvine, show us a different place where Seifer and Selphie can go back in, then we’ll choose another.”

Twenty minutes later he and Irvine were roaming around, pausing at various small shops and even buying a few trinkets, but their eyes were intent on the actual places of importance. They did cross paths with the others several times, but his instructions to Irvine specifically were to look for alternate sniper locations and keep quiet about it at their meeting until he gave the word. Squall’s first reaction to the plan had been full-blown disbelief, but was waiting on the results of their scouting to be shared before voicing his concerns. They eventually ended up at the rental place, where Squall hired a car, and the others trickled in to join them. He drove at least a half dozen miles south from the city before he stopped and got out, then spread his map on the hood of the car. “All right. Impressions?”

“There’s a barely visible door on the interior wall of the arch leading to a maintenance room,” Quistis said, tapping a spot on the map. “The ground floor has an access hatch leading down into the sewers and the console is on the first floor. Slit windows up there give a view of the presidential residence, most of the road, and the area directly under the archway. I think it’s going to be a bit tricky getting inside since I doubt anyone will be there to hide us from view, but it can be managed if the team goes early enough.”

Squall nodded. “Did you spend any time down in the sewers?”

“We did check it out partially. It counts as an escape route. Unfortunately, it’s a maze down there and it would have taken too much time to properly map it. We’d have been late meeting up.”

He glanced at Seifer and Selphie.

“The presidential residence almost looks like it was designed with thieves in mind,” Selphie said with a laugh.

Seifer nodded. “There are a number of places we were able to spot where someone could climb up, and with all eyes on the parade I expect it won’t be difficult. We also spotted what looked like a manhole off to the side in the courtyard. Tilmitt bought a camera and took pictures of me posing at the gates as part of our cover, but I’m not sure how much she managed to capture, and we don’t exactly have a way to easily view them right now. Also, the gates look like they open outward—which makes sense.” He paused and glanced at Selphie, who nodded, then said, “There’s a potential problem, though.”

“Oh?”

“We spotted the parade vehicle. The chair on it for the sorceress has a metal scroll-work back which could interfere with the shot. And from what we could see it’s covered in a black curtain of fabric. If you take into account what Caraway said Irvine will be shooting at the back, not the front, so he won’t have a clear view of anything, even with a scope. The gate itself has bars wide enough apart to not be an issue, though. Next is that the team has no quick escape route visible. They might not be able to tell where the shot came from, and you can probably get down faster than up, but it looks like the sewer is the only quick way out, if indeed that is a sewer access and not some kind of underground storage tank. I have to assume that the gates will be closed once the vehicle is far enough out and it won’t be an easy exit.”

Squall sighed and ran a hand through his hair, then nodded at Irvine.

“I found plenty of alternate locations with quick enough escape routes. The problem is the sniper rifle. I don’t see any way to get to it before the appointed time and it’s not like I’m hiding one under my chaps. Exeter isn’t meant for that kind of thing. I also have a problem with where Caraway indicated the sniper team should wait. We’d have to pass by dozens of people to get to the gate. It makes a hell of a lot more sense to be tucked in right up here”—he tapped a spot on the map—“so we’d be at the extreme north edge of the crowd and only have to run a short distance.”

“All right. Any other comments? Something you want to get off your chests about this?” He gazed at each of them in turn, and while some of them looked indecisive or doubtful none of them spoke. “This is bullshit,” Squall muttered, then said at a normal volume, “I need to think about this for a bit.”