Phase XV: The Presidential Ball
She examined her figure in the mirror wearing her mother's red and black dress that cascaded over the curves of her hips down to the floor. The neckline hung low, and the beaded black designs added an elegant touch to the straps on her shoulders and collarbone. Standing at her full height, her long black hair fell off her shoulder in loose ringlets. A coy smile lingered, satisfied with her work.
Perfection. Just like her mother had been.
A figure stepped into the room behind her, regarding her silently.
His green eyes traced the contours and elegance of her dress, while she curiously eyed the black galbadian combat uniform he had on along with his Hyperion strapped to his side. Seifer's attire was nowhere near appropriate for an upscale event such as this.
"You're not going dressed like that, are you?"
"I'm not going to the ball."
Rinoa strut over, her heels clicking against marble, "What do you mean!? I need you there, you're my knight!"
"I'm being sent off on a mission."
"Well, I'm gonna talk to my father and-" she rushed past him, but Seifer grabbed her arm before she could get very far.
"Rinoa!" He practically shouted, "It's Zone."
Rinoa braced herself, her breath catching in her lungs and forced herself to look her knight dead in the eye. "What happened?"
Seifer frowned, "He was captured. They got him."
Rinoa didn't say anything. She couldn't. It dawned on her that this wasn't going to work out the way they had planned.
"C'mon, Squall!" Riki cried.
"You're not taking Lionheart."
"Seriously? Pistols?" Angelus cocked a brow at her, "Those things suck!"
Riki furiously turned on him, "Are you complainin', solider!?"
Squall exchanged nervous glances with Angelus before grabbing a gun and handing her the Lionheart key-sheath. "Complaining?"
Angelus chuckled, snatching the other one, "Who's complaining?"
A wide grin suddenly stretched across her face before she gleefully skipped out of their hotel room.
Squall blinked, uncertain as of what to make of her quick change of emotion, "…she's insane."
Angelus patted his shoulder, "You haven't seen anything yet."
Squall shrugged his hand off and followed him out of the room.
Once outside, Squall found her talking to one of the valet boys dressed in a red and black tuxedo. A silver Porsche pulled up, parallel parking into the empty spot in front of them.
"You're chariot to the ball awaits!" Riki proudly announced in a grand gesture.
Squall skeptically narrowed his eyes, scanning the street for any other car. "Wait, what do you mean?"
Riki raised a brow, "Uh…that one?"
Squall looked to Angelus for some kind of help, "Do I even wanna know how you guys got a Porsche 911?"
Angelus snorted, "You complaining?"
"Complaining? Who's complaining?" Squall replied, not hesitating to stalk around the vehicle, trying hard to keep his lips from curling up and hyperventilating like a delirious fan boy. He shoved his emotions down, maintaining a very stoic composure.
"Leonhart, catch!" Riki tossed him the keys, which he effortlessly caught in one hand.
"Hey! Why do you get to drive?" Angelus protested.
Squall rolled his eyes, "Just get in the car."
Underground Association HQ
Cesar strode back and forth eyeing the series of large flat screens mounted to the wall in front of them. Each one served some kind of purpose. The main one displayed a map of the city, with red dots indicating where everyone was in real time. The other had names and waveforms that activated whenever someone spoke, categorized by the channel of their comm. link. Selene had her eyes intently on the digital clock waiting for the show to start.
When it struck 2100, it was go time.
Selene quickly opened all the channels, "Mission starts now. Report back."
"Heard you loud and clear!" Selphie chirped first.
"We're at our post, over!" Zell informed her. Selene tried to hide the grin forming on her lips.
"We've just arrived at our destination." Squall said next.
"What he said." Angelus cut in right after.
"At the mansion!" Riki cheered, "It's go time, boys n' girls!"
Cesar smirked, crossing his arms, "Let's do this."
"Good luck, everyone." She whispered.
Galbadia Presidential Palace
The ballroom's interior was exquisitely styled in a classic Victorian fashion, intricate designs lining the walls, and carved out sculptures in the woodwork on some of the fixtures.
Art dating back centuries of formidable politicians of the past hung on every open space. The red carpet rolled out along white marble floors, and rooms with high ceilings with elaborate skylights allowed the stars to twinkle in the dark sky above them. A band played in the corner, strumming their expensive violins and Chellos with the occasional drum beat.
The atmosphere brought back memories of his SeeD inauguration ball, which ironically was also the first time had met Rinoa. Having not been standing here for more than twenty minutes, Squall wanted to leave just thinking about that night, about her, and the possibility of a 'coincidental' encounter. And yet, here he stood by a marble pillar holding a glass of galbadian red wine from one of the finest wineries the country had to offer. He sipped it, considering taking a page out of Zell's book, hoping a buzz would help him get through the night.
Angelus stood next to him, snagging finger foods off the occasional waitress that strut by with a platter in hand. After flirtatiously winking at a cute one with blonde hair and long lean legs, he shoved the last bit of crab cake into his mouth, and noticed the disgusted glare Squall was currently giving him.
"What?" He asked with his mouth still full, "The only thing I miss about growing up rich was the food, alright?"
"You were rich?" Squall raised a brow. That explained why Angelus didn't have a galbadian drawl like everyone else. The wealthy didn't seem too keen on the national accent, so they taught children how to speak without one, or so he'd been told.
"Hard to believe, right?"
Squall scoffed, "Couldn't tell by the way you stuff your face."
Angelus chuckled, "Asshole."
"Whatever." Squall retorted, examining the crowd of dancers already swaying to the music. He kept his eye out for a pompously dressed general, or rather, newly appointed president. He hadn't seen Rinoa anywhere yet either.
"Okay, this is how it's going down. You distract Rinoa, and I trail Caraway."
"What?" Squall had trouble gulping that last bit of wine down, "Why me?"
"'Cause Caraway would wonder why Squall Leonhart, of all people, is attending his presidential ball. Caraway and I go way back anyway. I can take care of him."
"And what about Rinoa?"
Angelus smirked, patting him on the back. "Just pretend you're still into her and get her to talk. Find out whatever you can." As if on cue, Caraway walked into the room and was flanked by a huge crowd of people greeting him with applause and cheers of congratulations. Angelus stepped around Squall, getting right to work, "That's my cue. Good luck!"
"Whatever." Squall muttered.
Zell and Selphie stood at their post in front of the mansion, approximately ten feet apart fully dressed in blue galbadian uniforms. The excitement eased the restlessness in the pit of Selphie's stomach, finally being out in the field again where she felt like she belonged.
The sound of crushed gravel disrupting the otherwise peaceful night caught their attention as a black Mercedes came driving down the cobblestone pavement towards the gate. It stopped in between them with the driver side facing Zell.
The driver rolled his window down, shoving paperwork his way with two IDs attached. Raijin and… Zell's eyes went wide, and his heart rate increased when he read the second name.
Zell was thankful for the helmet he had on because his initial shock would have blown their cover instantly.
"Where ya headed?" He tried miserably to mask his slight Balamb accent for a galbadian one.
"To the airport, y' know." Raijin replied. Zell observed the navy blue suit and silver Rolex he had on. Somehow Raijin, the staff-wielding dummy, had managed to score quite the salary, and Zell was sure it had to do with the guy in the back.
"Business or pleasure?" He didn't know what else to say to that.
"What's the fuckin' hold up, Raij?" Seifer snapped, his voice bringing back haunting memories that threatened to arise hard feelings in the tattooed blonde.
"Since when does a loser like you care 'bout what we do?" Raijin narrowed his eyes, "Listen, we got places to be, y' know."
Zell shoulders tensed, balling his fists at his sides. Selphie grew increasingly concerned, watching the exchange unfold. The mission was just getting underway, Squall and Angelus hadn't checked in with them yet, and Zell was about to ruin everything before it even got started.
Don't freak out. Please, just don't freak out!
The back passenger door flung open, and a blonde head rose up to stand wearing the same black combat outfit as the men in the Timber Forest. He towered over Zell, right in his face, and looking far from pleased to see him.
"Who the hell do you think you're dealin' with, chicken-shit?" When Zell bite back a reply, Seifer snapped, gruffly grabbing him by the collar of his blue uniform. "I'm talkin' to you!"
"S-sir," Zell made out, seething in anger, "Just precaution. As per our training, sir."
It was Selphie's turn to interject before the situation got out of hand. "We do this for your own protection- As per our orders from Caraway himself during his absence from the presidential residence. We must question anyone who comes and goes."
Seifer flashed his eyes at Raijin and reluctantly released Zell to straighten his uniform.
"Fuck this." Seifer muttered, "We have more important things to do."
The passenger door slammed shut, and the two drove through the gates and into the street.
Selphie pat her friend on the back, "You okay?"
Zell fell out of posture, slamming a fist into the ground. "I was this close to knockin' his lights out!"
Galbadia Presidential Palace
Angelus situated himself against a pillar, waiting for his chance to approach the newly elected president. Caraway had been preoccupied, making his rounds to other political figures and colleagues.
Disgust and resentment overcame him. Galbadia had been a country fueled by greed and violence since the first Sorceress war against Esthar and Timber approximately twenty years prior. Ten years had passed since Vinzer Deling had been elected, making empty promises to the people, capitalizing on their financial shortcomings, and reducing the quality of living in most of the country. That idiot got what was deserved when the sorceress executed him in front of the eyes the galbadian people two years ago. Edea had taken a temporary hold of the government after that. The damages during the second Sorceress War had still gone unrepaired from her destructive reign as well.
During his travels in recent months, Angelus had a particular interest in Caraway's presidential promises, monitoring and collecting any information he could find on him. Caraway wasn't a saint, having intentions and agendas of his own. He knew better than anyone, first hand in fact, of how ruthless, how manipulative Caraway could be. So much so, that it drove his own daughter away from him to join one of the resistance factions in Timber.
When he claimed that Caraway and himself went 'way back', it derived from a long history that started almost a decade ago, and too long of a story to burden Squall with at the moment. In short, Angelus had his reasons for not liking, nor trusting, the man.
When the crowd around Caraway began to disperse, Angelus simply tapped him on the shoulder, noticing the look of recognition in the older man's dark eyes when they were finally face to face.
"Sir?" He said.
Caraway allowed a tight smirk, shaking his hand firmly, "Skyros Angelus. What a surprise."
Underground Association HQ
"I don't get it, man." Echo complained, walking side by side with his partner Rodney into the cells below the Underground base. "Cesar said the trail wasn't until early next week. Why do we have'ta do this now?"
"'Cause he thinks Zone knows more than what he told Angelus and Leonhart." Rodney explained, swiping his card key through the reader and opening the steel door leading to the damp cells. "'Sides, might as well get what we can. These dudes from Timber think they're some kinda martyrs or some shit. Dyin' for their cause n' all."
They nodded at two guards, strolling past other cells where other traitors awaiting trial watched on. Some taunted, some stayed put in the corners of their confinements. These cells did crazy things to people; enough to drive them desperately mad and go savage.
The end of the walkway held the 'restricted cells', that is, only agents with approval and direct orders by a superior officer could get into. Two other guards holding rifles stood next to Zone's cell, standing pin straight on either side of the steel door. Rodney flashed them their approval forms, signed by Cesar himself, and they promptly stepped aside to allow the two agents entry. The door slide open, designed like an airlock to fully confine the prisoner.
Stepping inside, they found him slumped against the wall next to the sink…blood everywhere.
"Oh hell no!" Echo wailed, the smell of death prominent in the room.
"What the fuck!?" The male guard shouted from behind them, breaking out of his stoic composure completely. Rodney didn't blame him for his obliviousness, as even the guards didn't have privileges to open the restricted cells they were assigned to watch without permission to do so. Ironically enough, they were unknowingly guarding a dead man.
The other one turned on her radio, detailing the situation to one of their superiors.
Rodney finished examining the body, turning to his own radio strapped to his combat vest, "Lamont, we have a problem!"
Galbadia Presidential Palace
He had been hiding out on a balcony that overlooked the city sipping wine when he heard his name through his comm. link.
"What's wrong, Selphie?"
"Seifer, that's what's wrong." She spoke, urgently, "He was leaving the mansion in a flashy Mercedes with Raijin! Zell almost knocked his lights out!"
"Where were they going?"
"To an airport!" Selphie said, "He had on a black uniform just like those goons in the Timber Forest!"
Why go to an airport dressed…is he skipping town?
"Is Galbadia planning another attack?"
"I hope not, but I have a reeally bad feeling about this. "
"Stay at your post. Report anything else you find." Squall ordered.
"Kay." Selphie replied, "And Squall? Be careful."
"You, too." The channel cut out, and Squall let out a frustrated sigh.
Seifer, what the hell are you up to now!?
"Squall?" He heard his name again, but this time it came from behind him.
Rinoa stood just five feet away in the balcony doorway. She had on that same black and red-strapped dress her mother wore the night Julia met with Laguna. Rinoa had her normally black highlighted hair in loose ringlets down her back. She cleaned up well, and Squall swore he'd never seen her look so good. He desperately pushed away the memories and the old feelings that threatened to arise, bubbling in the pit of his stomach.
"Rinoa." He greeted her, but the silence quickly and awkwardly took over.
Her brown eyes cast up and down in his figure, taking in his attire. Predictably, he chose to wear almost all black, save for a white skinny tie that hung from his neck. His hair was slightly combed back, and the thick scruff he accumulated from the trip here had been groomed into a clean-shaven jaw line.
Rinoa laughed, suddenly, "What are you doing here?"
Squall quickly racked his brain for an excuse, "I wanted to see you."
It wasn't entirely a lie. He wanted to see her, but not for the reasons she assumed.
Squall forced himself to swallow his pride. Not only was this difficult, but incredibly embarrassing. "How have you been?" He sounded awkward, awkward like a guy seeing his ex-girlfriend for the first time after a bad breakup, which was a convincing reason enough he supposed.
Another pregnant silence.
I need to distract her. Get whatever I can from her now before it's too late.
Squall, who despite wanting to get as far away from Rinoa as possible, closed in on her. Surprisingly, she didn't pull away, falling for his sudden change of behavior. He noted the waltz playing rhythmically in the background and their convenient proximity to the dance floor.
"Dance with me." He didn't make it sound like a suggestion or request. It was an order.
She raised a coy brow at him, willingly sliding her hand into his. "Sure."
That was easy.
Squall led the way, keeping tabs on Angelus' current position. The resistance leader was engaging in a conversation with Caraway; everything was going as planned.
Recognizing the tune as "Waltz for the Moon", a song that was favorable amongst the elitists of Galbadia, and ironically the song they danced to the night they met. Despite his hatred for dancing, Squall knew every step by heart, drilled into him from the endless classes he took as a cadet. Unlike before, where he let her lead as he pretended to not know how to dance, Squall held her firmly, one hand on the small of her back, the other intertwined between her soft fingers. Their bodies started to sway, matching every step, every movement.
And soon, their steps were wider, their bodies more engaged while moving around each other. Whenever they twirled, his grip held firm, whenever they weren't facing one another, he kept his eyes on her intently to ensure that she wouldn't disappear or run off. A smirk lingered on her lips, and she seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself.
As the song concluded, their bodies pressed together. The tempo slowed to a steady plucking full of strings, horns, and a piano ballad. Rinoa's body grew tense in his arms, like she was preparing herself to leave, just like she did the first time.
Squall wasn't going to let her go so easily.
"Well," she smiled, patting his shoulder. "That was fun. We should do this again sometime. I have other men waiting to dance with me."
As much as that was purposely intended to pluck a jealous cord, Squall's expression hid any amusement or anger whatsoever. "Why not stay for another song?"
"Squall," Rinoa spoke affectionately, "As much as this reunion has stirred up feelings that I wish I didn't have, I don't think Seifer would approve."
"Where is he?" He asked with piqued interest. His intention was to test the waters with her, to see if she'd admit that he was out of town. "I don't see him."
"He'll be here." She assured Squall. He wasn't so sure. Rinoa couldn't lie out of a paper bag.
Unlike other targets, Squall had an advantage, knowing all of her physical weaknesses- what set her off, what turned her on. He lowered his lips to her ear until they almost brushed against her earlobe. He knew his attempts were working when she refrained from pulling away. "Why are you at a ball in honor of your father? I thought you hated him."
She scoffed, "Sometimes people make amends. Unlike someone and his father."
Her advantage was the knowledge of his own weaknesses, his strained relationship with his biological father being one. Dismissing the comment, Squall pressed on, pulling her firmly towards him,"Where were you when Timber was attacked?"
Rinoa's brown eyes went wide, and her heart beat quickly in her chest, clearly caught off guard by this question. Her thoughts went straight to Zone. "I was here with my father."
Another lie. "When was the last time you were in Timber, Rinoa?"
Rinoa narrowed her eyes, "Where's Zone?"
His turn to lie, "I don't know."
"You know where he is."
"I don't keep tabs on your stupid friends." He replied. Rinoa swiftly broke from his grasp, insulted by Squall's discourteous remark.
"Rinoa." She turned to find Watts dressed in a tuxedo standing there waiting for his turn to dance.
"Watts, I'm a little busy." She snapped, "Cant this wait? I'm talking to-" She turned to find herself alone on the dance floor, as if Squall had vanished in thin air. With concern, her eyes darted around the room, only spotting other guests socializing and going about their evening.
"Rinoa," Watts exclaimed, "This is important!"
"What is it?"
"It's Zone." His tone went low. "He's dead. It was SeeD. They killed him!"
"How many years has it been?" Caraway asked Angelus, "Going on a decade now, is it?"
He chuckled, "Yeah. Time flies, huh?"
"You were only ten when I last saw you. At your father's funeral, I believe. My, was he a good man. How have you been since? What do you do now?"
A man you sent hit men to kill, you asshole.
Angelus kept his composure civil, "I study at Deling University. Communications and such."
"Interesting. I'm glad you're putting yourself to good use. Not like other youth these days. Wasting their time with protests and scheming." Caraway replied.
"Pardon me, sir?"
"I am not deaf or dim witted." He pointedly stared at him, "I hear of these resistance groups growing larger, stronger even. Makes running a country more difficult."
"I can imagine, sir." Angelus said evenly.
A high-ranking officer came up to Caraway dressed in a military pea coat to interrupt their brief exchange. "Sir, we must discuss the preparations. Some of our men are waiting to speak with you."
"I must take my leave to attend to some important matters. You stay out of trouble now, son. It was good to see you." He quickly excused himself from their conversation, striding into another direction, followed by the officer.
Angelus felt his nerves rattle in his chest, taking steady breaths. It donned on him that Caraway might have seen through his bullshit alibi and knew what exactly he did for a living. His eyes then caught sight of a familiar female figure in the middle of the dance floor speaking with Watts. Rinoa.
This is not good.
Before more trouble could arise, he bolted towards the exit before Rinoa could see him, tuning into Squall's channel.
"Leonhart, where the hell are you?"
Riki entered his main study from the eastern wall through a fourth story window. She searched the room, beaming a flashlight around in the darkness. It hit the walls, scanning the old pictures of past political figures, military generals and interesting antiques. One of the large paintings had a woman dressed in the most extravagant red gown, her face remarkably resembling Rinoa's.
A dining room set with red and gold upholstered chairs were smack dab in the middle of the room, and just behind it sat President Caraway's desk.
She carefully inspected the mundane everyday objects that sat atop its surface, finding nothing out of the ordinary. Sighing, Riki concluded that this was a pointless attempt on getting information, and she wasn't going to find anything of importance to help their cause here. Just as she was about to give up, she caught sight of a locked desk drawer.
A Cheshire grin widened across her face and sunk her knees to the floor in front of it. Taking out an odd looking utility tool from her backpack, Riki slid a steel pick into the lock and jiggled it around until she heard it disengage. Excitedly, she yanked the wooden drawer open finding a few pens, a couple of military badges, and a stack of papers.
Curiously, Riki grabbed the stack and sat on her butt with her back pressing against the desk. Her flashlight cast directly on the opened manila folder in her lap, revealing large bodies of script. It looked to be written in another language, half typed and half in a messy cursive scrawl. She tried to comprehend the words, but couldn't translate any of it. It wasn't in old Galbadian or Shumi.
As peculiar as this was, she wasn't going to put it back. Riki had come all this way and gone through all the trouble, so she might as well stop asking questions and take the damn papers back to base.
Finder's keepers, right?