Quistis gave no thought at all to the rules and protocols of Garden. She ran from her office on the third floor straight to the Infirmary on the first, breaking the old speed record for a cross-Garden dash by thirty seconds in front of hundreds of witnesses who just happened to be gathering outside the Infirmary's waiting hall for no particular reason.
Just inside the door, every member of the orphanage group was sitting or standing, and every one of them looked unhappy. Xu was there also, managing to look less unhappy but no less concerned. The door to Squall's room was closed. She was just about to ask where Rinoa was when Irvine answered the question unspoken.
"You can't go in," he said heavily. "Kadowaki had 'em lock the door. She's talking to Rinoa in her office. We're hoping Rinoa will feel like sharing the wealth when she comes out, 'cause the Doc ain't tellin' us anything."
"That's what brought me down here so fast," gasped Quistis. "It doesn't matter what they did - if he's alive, Rinoa can bring him back. It's right here." And she waved her copy of 'The Sorceress' Knight'.
That got an immediate response. Every head in the room, medics included, turned to face her. "Okay," said Irvine, trying to sound casual, "Are you willing to tell us about it? 'Cause if you're not, I hafta warn you my patience for close-mouthed women is really low today."
Quistis spared him an I could report you for that look before saying, "It has to do with this whole Knight business, of course. Apparently, if Squall took the post of his own free will, without coercion, there's some sort of bond between them that nothing on this planet can break."
"Er, are you sure that's not a romance novel you've got there, Quisty?" asked Selphie. "That doesn't sound...ah, well real would be my word..."
Quistis shook her head impatiently. "No, this is history, not romance. I checked that. For the Knight to fulfill his duty, guarding the spirit of the Sorceress, he has to be able to reach that spirit. Always. And if he can reach her..."
"She can reach him! Woohoo, one for the bookworms!" cried Zell, leaping up and giving Quistis a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. His enthusiasm broke the tension in the room, making everyone laugh.
"It doesn't say that, but yes - that's what I think," said Quistis. "Anyway, it's something. What's been going on down here?"
She hadn't expected it, but the question pulled the smiles from everyone's faces. "All right...I suppose you'd better tell me."
"Well," began Selphie hesitantly, "This stuff they pumped him with. It's not going to go away. We can't counteract it."
"What is it?" asked Quistis, concerned.
"We're not entirely sure yet. I've only had a little while to study it. It's synthetic, and it bonds to the cell structure when it reaches a certain level of strength in comparison to the system it's placed in. At lesser levels, it bonds temporarily and then disintegrates. Most of the samples we were able to retrieve have disintegrated."
Irvine raised a hand. "Uh, Sef, could we have this in English please?"
Selphie took a deep breath. "At my best guess, someone was trying to synthesize Guardian Forces, and used Squall as a test subject. The blood samples the Doctor took contained substances that - at best guess - are designed to imitate the effects of all sixteen known Guardian Forces. By the time we worked that out, seven had completely disintegrated, and another eight had gone to half strength. I think they'll disappear in time, too."
"That's only fifteen, Selphie," said Quistis slowly.
Selphie nodded unhappily. "The sixteenth bonded. As far as I can tell, he's always going to have that water spray ability. On the plus side, it's not a Guardian Force - his memory won't be affected, and he'll have the benefits of strength and endurance junctioning provides on top of that water shooting ability. On the down side...it's too soon to tell if there's going to be a price for this. If there is, he's going to be stuck with that too. We can't counteract the effect, or break the cellular bonding, without killing him."
"Like maybe an elemental vulnerability?" asked Quistis slowly. "Fire, or something like that?"
Selphie nodded. "I'm going to ask the Doctor for more samples, but yes. It could be anything from an elemental vulnerability, which while inconvenient could be dealt with, to something nastier - like growing gills. It's just too soon to say. I'm hoping we can find a counter-agent so we won't have to worry."
"So...these guys tortured him, and then made him stronger?" asked Zell, puzzled. "'Scuse me for thinking that's pretty weird bad guy behavior."
Selphie shook her head. "They didn't intend for the effect to be permanent, I'm sure," she said. "But as I said - the bonding effect depends on the amount of the substance and on the strength of the system it's placed in. Squall was very weak by the time they used the last one on him - I think they could have used half as much and it would still have bonded. If they were monitoring his strength or endurance to gauge the strength of his system, the residual effects of the other substances they pumped him with would have masked how weak he really was."
"Which still leaves me wondering what they were going to do with this imitation-GF serum," said Irvine, staring fixedly at the ceiling. "Is anyone besides me picturing lots of really crazy people hurling fireballs, waterslides, tornadoes and lightning strikes all over Centra? Or Galbadia?"
"Or one really really strong person," said Selphie slowly. "Squall had the effects of all the GFs at once for a little while there."
"We've got to stop it," said Quistis, horrified. "I thought we'd have time for Squall to wake up but this is too much of a threat. Even if there turns out to be a big price for having this bonding, by the time it takes effect whoever's doing this could be ruling the planet."
"If you're going after whoever did this," said a voice, "I'm going with you." It was Rinoa, who was standing in the doorway of Kadowaki's office. She looked like she had been crying.
"What?" "What's wrong?" "What did she say?" everyone asked at once.
Rinoa shook her head. "I ... I can't say," sounding like she was fighting back tears. "But they...the Doctor says they ... she says they broke him. Sort of...drove him crazy."
"Drove him crazy?" asked Irvine. "Boy, that's gonna end up all over Garden before sundown."
"Drove him crazy how?" asked Quistis, as though she didn't understand the idea.
"You don't want to know," said Rinoa heavily. "Kadowaki told me and I'm not sure I like knowing myself. Except that whatever we do to those responsible - and I plan on doing a lot - we'll still end up being nicer to them than they were to him."
Quistis looked down and saw the book in her hands, and remembered why she was down here. "You're not going, Rinoa," she said firmly. "You're needed here. Leave this to us - we'll make sure this doesn't happen again, or get out of hand."
To everyone's surprise, Rinoa reacted to this by becoming furious. She walked stiffly up to Quistis, and for a moment it looked like she would attack her.
"You think I'm not good enough, don't you!" flared Rinoa. "Do I have to take one of your tests to prove I can do this? Squall taught me himself, I can do anything you need me to do. He's stuck here - like that," and she flung an arm in the direction of his room, "and by the Hyne I am going to pay back those responsible! He's my Knight, as well as my partner. I let him be taken, I have to make up for it."
The rest of the group, even Xu, backed away from the two women as Quistis held her book up like a weapon or a shield, just as angry. "You aren't going because you're the only one who can bring Squall back!" she snapped. "You can bet your precious dog that if I could save him myself I'd be in there doing so right this minute and not a bit of whining about it. But I can't. You said it yourself - he's your Knight, and it's your job to heal him. On top of that it was your condition that you go with him always when you joined SeeD. Well, he's not going anywhere for a while - so neither are you."
But Rinoa appeared not to have heard. Her eyes began to glow, and the angelwings started to take shape behind her. The group held its breath as they realized that the wings weren't white anymore, but a steely, silvery gray. "Should I tell you what they did to him?" she said in that curious, echoing Sorceress' voice. "Should I tell you that they heaped pain upon pain until his mind couldn't face his own body any more? There will be blood for blood paid and I will be sure to extract every drop!"
But Quistis had not made SeeD by the age of fifteen by backing down or thinking slowly. "And you will become another Ultimecia," she lashed out. "Look at yourself in a mirror, Sorceress, and tell me whether you do Squall a service by taking a vengeance on his behalf that will force him to kill you! You tell me, is that what you want your precious Knight to have to do?"
Rinoa tilted her head, seemingly puzzled for a moment out of her anger. She summoned a Reflect spell and in its flash saw her own once white wings tinted dark silver-gray, still lighter than Ultimecia's raven wings had been but a far cry from their former snow-white sheen. Her jaw dropped open, and she released her magic. Her eyes faded, her wings disappeared...and Rinoa crumpled in a heap on the floor of the Infirmary, crying as though her heart had broken.
To everyone's surprise it was Irvine who dared to approach her then, and give her a gentle hug. "Don't worry, Rinoa," he said. "We'll go down there and skin whoever did this alive, and you can have their hides for a rug. Though I think Zell will fight me for the Seifer-skin," he joked.
"Don't you riddle his hide with bullets," Zell said, trying to lighten the mood. "I want it to be nice and waterproof so I can use it as a bathtub rug."
Quistis knelt beside her, anger forgotten, and gave her the book. "It's the only copy Garden has, so I doubt you've had a chance to read it. But if there's something you can do to help Squall, this should help you find out what it is and how to do it. I never got to finish reading it myself." She stood up and faced Xu. "I think Selphie and Irvine should stay here - to find out more about this artificial-GF substance and its effects. But I'd like to take Zell and go hunting for the people responsible for this mess. With your permission?"
Xu nodded. "Try to bring back more of the artificial-GF material if you can. I'll tell Nida to get away from Centra, and you can take Ragnarok and as many SeeDs as you feel you need." She gave a small smile. "I think I'm going to fill the President of Esthar in on some of what we've learned. It should net us all the forces we need. Consider this first foray an expeditionary force."
"Squall wouldn't like Laguna getting involved," Quistis warned.
"Squall is not Commander of Garden," replied Xu. "And if I can use a SeeD's family ties to save my SeeD's hides, I'm definitely going to do it. Besides - I think Esthar is the safest place for Rinoa to work whatever magic she needs to to get Squall on his feet. Irvine can't stop the rumor mill while he's helping Selphie. Esthar's got the best medical technology on the planet - the four of them can do their research there in perfect safety. I don't want whoever did this to get their hands on the Sorceress or her Knight again. They've been after one or the other this whole time."
Quistis nodded. "It's your prerogative, Xu," she said. "C'mon Zell. Time to go do some kicking."
"Damn straight," nodded Zell firmly, and followed her out.
Xu turned to Selphie and Irvine. "Help Rinoa get whatever is needed to move Squall safely and prepare whatever you need for a stay in Esthar."
Lastly, gently, she drew Rinoa up from her tearful crumple. "And you...do whatever you have to do to get Squall back for us," she said softly. "The resources of Balamb Garden are at your disposal, if there is need." Then she turned on her heel and left.
The three friends shared a long moment of silence, and got to work on their assigned tasks.
Alicia surveyed her 'volunteers'. Seifer knelt before her as though she were already a Sorceress, and there was nothing in his mind that was not worship of her. She'd seen to that. Fujin and Raijin stood flanking him, their faces expressionless as though they were facing a commander. They could not hide their fear of Alicia, though. Their minds rang with it, though both also felt fear for Seifer.
But they had nowhere else to go. Garden had not believed their story, and after planting the spying device Garden would probably not accept them within its walls again. Their bridges were burned behind them. As Alicia had intended.
Alicia would not have chosen to gift them with any of the GF-power, but she knew that if she refused them her hold on Seifer would weaken. He regarded his posse as important as himself, and relied on them to keep him from falling too far into his pursuit of his dreams.
Alicia smiled at that. His posse had tried to save him, and failed. Now they were trapped with him, under her power. She leaned back in her mahogany 'throne', regal as a queen granting favors.
"Doctor Odine tells me that the test subject suffered no visible ill effects from high exposure to the GF-injections," she said. "Therefore, we think it is safe to try it on someone who actually matters. Are you willing to take the risk, to gain this power?"
Seifer didn't even hesitate before saying, "If my Sorceress wills it I will do it."
It was all Alicia could do to keep her cheerful smile from erupting into laughter as she saw Fujin and Raijin exchange glances. Seifer had been kept away from the area Odine had made into a laboratory; unlike them, he did not know who the 'test subject' had been. He thought Squall was a prisoner somewhere in the complex, and the posse were afraid to tell him. They had seen what she did to Squall, and they both knew they'd be no good to Seifer if something just as bad happened to them. They had heard, too, of Seifer's punishment.
It was forcing friends to keep little secrets like that which made Alicia's days worthwhile.
When the two nodded agreement, she merely inclined her head in a regal nod and rose to her feet. Slowly she walked over to them, and made a great show of considering what power to grant them. She looked first at Fujin.
"Pandemona for you, my silver-haired friend," she said with a smile. "The wind always whispers, but never speaks unless it howls, is that not so?" It was delightful the way Fujin's mind shivered. They both knew Fujin often thought of herself as a wind or spirit.
She walked next to Raijin. "Quezacoatl for you, I think," she said. "Quick to strike, with the voice of thunder." Ah, Raijin too was so easily intimidated. Amazing, how such little secrets held such weight.
Which left Seifer, her burning sun. She looked deeply into his cat-green eyes as he knelt reverently before her, wondering how he would feel to know he, too, was a test subject. Even if the test was one known only to Odine and herself. He, too, was fascinated by the mirror images that were Squall and Seifer, and the transmitter they had placed on Squall had revealed much before it was discovered and destroyed. "The heart aflame," she said quietly. "The burning sun, the ravaging forest fire. I give you Ifrit, Seifer." She noted that Seifer accepted her judgment of him unquestioningly. She would be his Sorceress, his goddess. Knights weren't supposed to question, so he didn't.
Some time she would have to explore more deeply into his mind, to find out why he felt that way. She was quite certain that his counterpart did not.
Alicia walked back to her 'throne' and seated herself, regarding the trio. "The process will be painful, but do not lose courage. You can survive it, we know this for certain. And when you have, you three will be able to bring me the Sorceress even if you must hunt her to the ends of the earth."
All three were locked in separate cells, thoughtfully padded against any effects the injections might have. One by one, Odine would fill the syringe and inject its contents into the required subject. All three were wearing monitoring devices, so that if something were to go wrong it would be quickly detected.
Alicia watched from the control board. Seifer, of course, had gone first. It was the duty of a leader. By the time Fujin and Raijin were injected, Seifer had already entered the shaking convulsions Squall had undergone. However, Seifer was neither bound nor broken. Alicia watched dispassionately as proof of the pain was laid out before her.
He had begun trembling only a minute after Odine had left the room. The violence of the trembling increased gradually, until he was forced to try curling into a fetal position to keep any sort of control at all.
After two minutes, he was roaring with pain, and his skin was flushed. Alicia wished she had thought to take Seifer's overcoat; he was getting tangled in it, and anyway it was hiding some of his reactions. She flicked her eyes over the screens where Fujin and Raijin were convulsing. Raijin was howling even more loudly than Seifer...but Fujin was screaming in silence, her silver hair gleaming as she shook.
Rather to her surprise, Seifer burst into flame. She checked the monitoring devices, relieved that they appeared to be unaffected. Seifer was a walking fireball, but the readings indicated that things were progressing normally. Though he'd probably need some new clothes. She snapped a finger at a waiting underling, and indicated he should attend that matter.
Raijin's hair was standing on end, but Fujin...Fujin was floating in the center of her own private whirlwind. All readings were similar to those Squall had exhibited. Alicia's smile threatened to take in her ears.
Seifer had apparently gotten control of his new gift; though his skin still looked flushed, his body no longer flamed, and he was grinning. "All better," he said to the camera.
Alicia depressed the communication tab on her console. "Then by all means, leave," she said to all of them, interested in seeing how they would open the doors.
Seifer aimed his hands at the door (in a manner not unlike Squall's fist, Alicia noted with interest) and sent a fountain of fire into it, melting it in seconds. On the other side was a very startled underling with a change of clothes...but modesty had never been one of Seifer's failings. He grabbed the clothes with a smirk and dressed while the man ran off.
Raijin threw bolts of lightning at the hinges of his own door, and Fujin simply used her whirlwind to blow the doorway into the hall.
Which was all well and good, and proved they could control their powers, but Alicia felt the need to respond to their enthusiasm with, "The doors were unlocked, you know."
"Greetings, Balamb Garden," came the voice over the com-line. "President Loire speaking. What can I do for you?"
"This is Commander Xu of Balamb Garden, sir," said Xu. "I have matters of some importance to discuss with you."
A light flashed on the console, indicating Laguna had opened a video channel if Xu wished to use it. She did, and was soon greeted with an image of Laguna in his office, flanked by Kiros and Ward. "Something wrong, Xu?" he asked, looking concerned. "Squall's not hurt, is he?"
Xu kept her face neutral as she said, "Got it in one, sir. But there's much worse afoot."
Laguna leaned forward. "Everything, all right? You gotta tell me everything."
So quickly he has abandoned his official pose, Xu noted, though his friends are still sticking to their roles. "As much as I know, sir," she said respectfully, and stood up. The video lines would follow her as long as she stayed in the Headmaster's office.
"About a week ago, Squall was abducted by parties unknown as he and Rinoa were crossing the Horizon Bridge," she began. "This morning we were able to find him. He has been injured, but what is worse is that his abductors used him as a sort of biological test subject. At the moment his condition varies from comatose to...ah...frenzy."
Laguna's jaw had dropped, and he blinked several times as he tried to come to terms with this. Finally he managed, "Where was Rinoa when this was going on?"
"Squall's abductors sent a few hundred Galbadian soldiers - who had defected from Galbadia for the duration - to take him. Rinoa could not defeat so many; they were separated, and Squall was taken. Rinoa was instrumental in his rescue."
"A few hundred?" Laguna asked, eyes wide. Then he appeared to force himself to get back to the problem at hand. "No, never mind - I can probably get the story from Caraway later. Go on."
"President Loire, we believe the purpose of the tests was to create people with the powers of Guardian Forces. At the time we recovered Squall, traces of substances replicating the abilities of all known GFs were found in his system. We believe that someone is attempting to create an army even SeeD would not be able to defeat. We do not know the origins of this GF-replicating substance, or how difficult it may be to manufacture. We must assume the worst."
"Traces of...in Squall?" asked Laguna, dumbstruck. Kiros stepped forward and laid a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"What are you asking of Esthar, Commander Xu?" asked Kiros in a formal tone.
"Minister Kiros, firstly we are requesting that you send a transport vehicle for Squall and the SeeDs I am sending with him. We need to know the full extent of what was done, and we need to keep Squall out of these people's reach. Esthar is distant and advanced; he will be safe there and we can perform research into these...GF-replicating substances. Secondly, we are asking for as many soldiers as you can spare to help us locate the facility where Squall was held. We must recover the replicating materials, and any persons on whom those materials might have been used."
"Done," said Laguna before Kiros could reply. He turned to his friend and said, "Yeah I know we've got a lot for the soldiers to do here with the monsters from the Lunar Cry and all, but we'll have whatever SeeDs Xu is sending to help with that. This is important, we've got to help."
Kiros gave Laguna a look that clearly said he knew which factors Laguna was using to determine importance, but only shrugged, and stepped back again.
"Thank you, President Loire," said Xu. "I am forwarding coordinates where your transports may rendezvous with Garden. Xu out."
As the screen went blank, Xu allowed herself a small smile. Estharian soldiers were almost the match of SeeD, and there were a lot more of them. And Squall and Rinoa would be out of reach. It was a good thing Laguna was so soft-hearted; the whole mission would have been much more difficult otherwise.
Irvine entered the room gingerly. Kadowaki had ordered that the only people who were to see Squall were the ones who could prove they had a reason to, and now he had a reason. Selphie'd gotten permission for more blood samples, and it had fallen to Irvine to collect them.
The things we do for love, he thought to himself ruefully.
Rinoa was sitting at the head of the bed, arms loosely wrapped around Squall's neck, her head nestled against his shoulder as Irvine came in. She looked up, but didn't smile. She hadn't smiled since she came out of the Doctor's office.
Irvine waved the little plastic bottles as explanation. "Sefie needs to compare notes, or something," he said by way of apology. "I'll be careful, I promise."
"It's okay, Irvine," Rinoa said sadly. "I know it's got to be done."
Irvine noted she was reading the book Quistis had given her. "Anything interesting in there?" he asked as he set to work.
"Lots of things," said Rinoa. "Seifer didn't tell me half as much as I thought he did."
"Seifer?" asked Irvine. "When did you talk to Seifer?"
"I forgot we hadn't met you when I mentioned that to the others," Rinoa said softly. "I dated Seifer for one summer, before I met Squall or the rest of you. At the time it seemed like love, but he was always going on about his dream of being a Sorceress' Knight. And then Edea - well, Ultimecia - showed up, and you know what happened."
"Yeah," said Irvine distractedly. One bottle full. "Can't believe you ever saw anything in the guy. Thought you had better taste than that."
He'd hoped to get a rise out of her, but she just rested her head against Squall's shoulder again. "I was a different person then," she said sadly.
"Wasn't everyone?" Irvine said, then, "That's it, that should be enough for Selphie's mad experiments. I'll leave you two alone now." And he stepped out of the room as quietly as he came in, which was quite a feat given his penchant for cowboy boots.
Rinoa hardly noticed. Quistis had been right, the answers appeared to be in the book - it was practically an instruction manual for a Knight. Except that she was a Sorceress, not a Knight, and there were no instruction manuals for that because the gifts of every Sorceress were different.
All she knew was that she was beginning to get glimmers of Squall's presence again. He might not be 'home' as far as being where he should be - in his body and moving around - but he wasn't far off. He couldn't be. Not when she somehow knew he hadn't wanted Irvine to take any blood samples (the impression she got was no needles) and she also knew he would be relieved that Kadowaki had ordered the room locked.
She could just be imagining it, of course. But the possibility that she wasn't was what kept her reading the book.
Selphie was having a hard time with the blood samples. Irvine was willing to help her in any way he could, but he didn't have a sciences background. Mostly he just kept her company, and that was fine by her. Having Irvine around was like having a big flannel blanket on a cold winter night.
Hm. That's interesting.
"Hey Irv?" she asked. "Couldja get Kadowaki in here a mo? I'm ok on chemistry but I think this is more her area of expertise."
"No prob, Sef," he said with a cheery grin and a tip of his hat as he turned to go.
Selphie turned back to her microscope. She was pretty sure this wasn't going to herald anything good. The blue spheres that were the 'whatever' substance weren't just bonding with Squall's cells. They were starting - slowly, but undeniably - to merge with them.
Making something new.
Turning Squall into ... something else.
She really, really had to find out what that blue whatever was. The trouble was finding some of it that wasn't already bonded to or merging with Squall. She couldn't even tell if it had been altered by the other whatevers that had not bonded. Not that she had any samples of them; they'd broken down completely, untraceable.
There were really far too many unknowns.