Wake Up Call
Slowly, the world came back. Rinoa was not sure at the moment whether this was a good thing, as it appeared to be mostly dark, heavily blurred, and contained a massive headache. She blinked once or twice, in the hope that things might clear up a bit. To her great relief, they did.
"Welcome back," said a voice, and through its calm she could hear happy relief. When her eyes focused, the dark resolved into Squall's face, which was only inches from her own. He moved back quickly as she looked startled. He was holding one of her hands, she realized...and wasn't wearing his gloves. The oddity helped her focus, and she realized the reason he wasn't wearing his gloves was that he'd apparently gotten dressed very quickly. His hair was in disarray, and his clothes rumpled. She sat up on her elbows and took a look around. She was in the Infirmary.
"Do you remember what happened?" Squall asked. "We have the cadets' report, but I want to know how much you remember."
"Cadets?" Rinoa asked, confused. Then she remembered - there had been a couple of them necking in the corner. "Oh," she said. "Your ring...I tried to touch it with my power. I'm not sure what happened after that...something hit me..." she felt the chain on her neck; the ring was not there. "What happened to the ring?" And she moved to get up, but Squall forestalled her. He held up one hand; the ring was back on his finger.
"You're not touching this again," he said firmly. "I'll get Zell to make you a copy."
"But..." Rinoa almost pleaded. "You gave it to me. And it's dangerous."
"To you, maybe," he said. "It's never tried to throw me through three bookcases, and I've had it a lot longer than you. I would never have given it to you if I'd thought it was dangerous. I'm going to hold on to it until we know what's going on."
Rinoa blinked. "Three bookcases?"
Squall nodded. "According to the cadets' report, they were studying when there was a bright light off in the far corner of the library. Which subsequently knocked over three very large bookcases. They went to investigate and found you, clutching the ring, in the wreckage." His voice was dead as he continued, "You were covered in blood...all over your head and back. Something had thrown you into the bookcases...almost threw you through them."
"Those two weren't studying," was Rinoa's first remark. Then she blinked, and looked down at herself; there were no wounds, no blood. "Um, how long have I been here?"
"About eight hours that I know of," he said. "When they found you, they called Dr. Kadowaki. She got you settled and then called me." There was a hint of something in his voice that said he hadn't liked being the last to know.
"Well, I seem to be fine now," she said, and swung herself into a sitting position. Squall stood up also, crossing his hands over his chest.
"You're not going anywhere until the doctor clears you," he said flatly, almost angrily. When she looked at him in surprise, he said quietly, "You don't know what you looked like when I came here."
"But I seem to be fine now," Rinoa protested. And indeed, the headache had gone, as had the fuzzy vision. "Sorceresses heal quickly, Squall."
"I know," he responded, still in that quiet intense voice. "If they didn't, you would be dead."
Rinoa was spared thinking of a reply by the entrance of Dr. Kadowaki. "You're looking pretty good this morning," she said with a smile. "Just let me check on a few things, and you'll probably be free to go."
Rinoa sat obediently through the routine exam, Squall standing guardian by the door. When the doctor finished, she was cleared to leave. "Sorceresses may heal quickly, Rinoa," Dr. Kadowaki finished, "but perhaps next time you'll do your experiments outside, or at least somewhere safer than the Library, ok?"
Rinoa nodded gratefully and almost bolted for the door, but slowed when she realized Squall was going to follow her.
"Squall, really, it's ok," she said. "I don't think the ring will hurt me again."
"No," he said. "It won't. But what did it do? What happened?"
"Just what I told you. I tried to touch it, and something happened."
"What sort of something? Did it attack?"
Rinoa thought about that. "No," she said finally. "I don't think it was an intelligent reaction. I don't think there's a GF in there. Whatever's in your ring...is too unsophisticated for that. It only reacted when magic was used on it."
Squall thought about that for a bit as they walked, then asked, "What sort of magic did you use on it?"
"Scan. Not anything threatening. I was just trying to identify the metal."
"It's platinum," Squall replied. "I checked that a long time ago. I asked a jeweler." There was a hint of laughter in his voice, teasing Rinoa for not trying a simpler approach.
They were almost back to the Dormitory. By the sound of it, the cadets were just waking up. For once she was grateful that there were no others in the Guest wing besides herself. Neither she nor Squall would present a reassuring picture today; her clothes were probably covered in blood down the back, and Squall looked like a man who'd gotten dressed in thirty seconds in total darkness. Which, now she came to think on it, he probably had...
"Squall," she said, "were you there...the whole time?"
"Of course," he said simply, as if surprised she would ask. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Rinoa walked quietly for a few steps, then asked, "What...did it look like? When the cadets told you what they saw?"
Squall didn't answer for a while; they'd reached the Dormitory. When they got to her quarters, he waited in the doorway while she looked in the full-length mirrors her suite provided. The medics had cleaned her up well; there was no blood in her hair or on her body. But they weren't tailors; the back of her blue outfit had been torn to ribbons down to the waist, and was dark red with blood.
"You were...pale...what I could see of you," came Squall's voice. "Your breathing was so shallow...I kept my fingers on your wrist to know you were still alive." His voice hardened as he continued, "The cadets tried to feed me some bullshit about how you must have gone crazy and used your power on the bookshelves and made them fall on you."
Rinoa did not need to ask how he had taken that story; the tone in his voice did not bode well for the future of those cadets. "They were having some fun in the back corner, Squall," she said as she got out of her ruined outfit, noting as she did that her back was free of wound or scar. "They probably didn't want to get in trouble for that and being out past curfew." She selected a new outfit and got dressed.
"They've been sent to Quistis for discipline," came Squall's reply from the doorway.
"Hmm..." responded Rinoa. "How's that going to go? Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin are gone, so I don't know who's running the Disciplinary Committee now."
"Quistis will name a new Committee," was Squall's logical reply, "or she'll take care of it herself. I knew I probably shouldn't."
Thinking of Quistis, Rinoa was reminded of the others. "Um, Squall," she began hesitantly. "Do the others know about...last night...yet?"
She emerged from the inner room, and was rewarded with a nod of acknowledgment from Squall on her much more presentable appearance. "No," he said. "Selphie and Quistis were still in the Cafeteria with Irvine, and Zell had gone back to his quarters. I thought they needed their rest...it wasn't as if they could have done anything." Any more than I could have, Rinoa heard in his voice. "But you're going to have to tell them."
Rinoa sighed. "Yes, you're right of course," she said. "But I'm not going to look forward to it." She brightened. "But we do need to get you looking the part of Commander again, don't we?"
Squall scowled; he hated the title. "Not you, Rinoa," he said. "Not from you."
Rinoa put on a wide-eyed, innocent look and said, "You'd rather I call you my Squally-bumpkin in front of the others, then?" At his momentary look of shock, she laughed. "Oh, don't fuss. I wouldn't do that to you. But you really do need to get dressed. Properly dressed, I mean."
"As soon as the cadets have gone," he replied, making Rinoa realize that the reason he'd been so forthcoming was to kill time until the hallways were clear. She shook her head in wonder.
"And here I thought it was just the pleasure of my company keeping you here," she teased.
"Do you know what you're going to say to the others?" Squall said in a change of subject.
"Oh, yes," Rinoa smiled. "I'll tell them I'll join SeeD on two conditions. The first is that I go where you go. Always; no exceptions."
"Rinoa.." Squall tried to interrupt, but Rinoa wouldn't let him.
"The second is that they finish the job they're contracted to do and free Timber."
Squall sighed. "I'll agree if the others will. You're a special case, so we all three have to agree."
"And you wouldn't alone?" Rinoa asked. "Why?"
"There are missions where one alone is better and safer than two," he said.
"Then you just won't get those missions," said Rinoa firmly. "I'm not staying behind when you go on a mission, Squall. Either I go with you as a SeeD, or I go as the Sorceress."
He turned his head. "The halls are clear," he commented. "I'll see you at the Headmaster's office in about an hour." And with that he turned to go.
Rinoa put her hand to her necklace, where only one ring hung now. Just for a moment, she felt very, very alone.
When Rinoa entered the former Headmaster's chambers on the third floor, she found all her friends already there, waiting. Irvine and Zell were playing cards near the door, killing time, and Squall, Quistis and Selphie were having a discussion near the windows.
"Heya," waved Zell. "Something's come up, I guess."
"Any idea what?" asked Rinoa.
"We were hoping you could tell us," drawled Irvine. "Been hearing all sorts of interesting things since I woke up this morning. Rumor has it that you attacked two cadets in the library last night, throwing bookcases at them." When Rinoa looked indignant, he laughed. "Oh, don't get upset. I don't know what happened, but I knew that couldn't be the truth - or at least not all of it."
"It isn't," said Squall, joining them. "Put away the cards, we've got things to do."
Zell obediently gathered up the cards while Irvine walked over to Selphie and gave her a hug. "And now my wonderful Garden Master is going to say what's going on, right? I can't handle the suspense!" And he put on an air of anxious anticipation. Selphie giggled and gave him a playful swat.
"Knock it off, you clown," she laughed. "Squall's right, we have things to do."
"We decided it would be best to work this out as a group," began Quistis, "even though Squall, Selphie and I could make the necessary decisions on our own. Here's what's going on." She pulled out a sheaf of paper, and laid it on the table where the cards had been.
"First - the rumors of Rinoa going crazy last night are unfounded. You knew that already, but we need to quash this one before the other SeeDs get too nervous around her. As best we can ascertain, there is a ... force, a something, inside Squall's ring that doesn't want to be tampered with. When Rinoa tried to touch it with her Sorceress' magic, it reacted violently, throwing her into several bookcases. This is not something we want circulated any more than rumors of Rinoa's insanity."
Rinoa looked relieved; she'd been spared having to say it herself.
"I'd say not," said Irvine. "I knew the kid had to be wrong, but...where's the ring now?"
Squall held up one gloved hand; the outline of a ring was just visible underneath it. "I've got it. It's never bothered me. Zell, if I lend it to you, can you make Rinoa a copy like you said?"
Zell grinned. "Oh, sure. Been dying to put that metalwork class the disciplinary committee forced me to take to some use. Sure it won't bite me?"
Squall shook his head. "Just don't use any magic on it."
Quistis said, "How will we dispel the rumors?"
Irvine again spoke up, this time saying, "Oh, leave that to me. I know how these things go, I'm friends with half the girls in Garden and I know how they gossip. I can kill this by nightfall, and change it to whatever you like."
Rinoa smiled. "The two cadets were necking in the library," she said with an evil grin. The others, excepting Squall, chuckled.
Quistis said, "I guess that falls to me to take care of. Second thing; we've gotten a message from Galbadia requesting SeeD's assistance in quelling an uprising in Timber."
Rinoa looked shocked. "You can't take that contract." The others nodded in agreement, their faces grim. But Quistis didn't falter.
"That wasn't the interesting part of the request," she said. "Look at the photos they've taken of the rebellion's leader." She pulled out some photos and laid them on the table. Every one of the group understood what she meant when they saw them.
Zell smacked his fist into his palm, an eager grin on his face. "He's up to trouble," he said. "Send me; I owe him a few good ones."
"But he's working to free Timber," Rinoa told Zell. "We shouldn't stop him. SeeD was hired to free Timber."
Selphie held out a sheet, saying, "The contract specifies three SeeD and no more will be sent. I'd say Seifer's doing our job for us; he's not SeeD."
Squall said nothing, resting his chin on his folded hands as he studied the pictures. Seifer had been taking out Galbadian forces with admirable ease, if the snapshots were anything to go by. Fujin and Raijin looked happy to be at his side. But even so...they were only three...even with the backing of the many resistance factions in Timber. They would eventually be captured, and probably killed, through sheer force of numbers if nothing else. He raised his head and looked to Quistis. "How many cadets are qualified for the field exam this year?" he asked.
Catching his drift, Quistis smiled. "About a hundred, I think," she said. "Yes, that would work very well. The contract only mentions SeeD - cadets wouldn't count, would they?"
"Nope!" cried Selphie with a wide grin. "And, we can claim reparations in foodstuffs instead of cash which would solve both our problems and Timber's. Right, Rinoa?"
"Um," quavered Rinoa, "Timber doesn't have a whole lot besides trees."
"Furniture, then," replied Selphie with a wave. "Wood furniture would be very welcome."
"Do we have to increase the payment?"
Selphie calmed down, giving Rinoa a serious look. "Yes, you would. Garden isn't what you'd call self-sufficient. Hiring out SeeDs and cadets is the only source of income Garden has. I can give you a good rate, but if we don't get paid that affects the cadets badly - not to mention setting a bad example to other nations. We can't really play favorites. The survival of the Gardens is dependent on their neutrality. At least financially. The prices we set are the same for everyone - IF we take the mission."
Rinoa sighed. They were her friends and she loved them, but sometimes the fact that they were mercenaries hit her hard. Of course Selphie was right; she would hate to think of Galbadia hiring SeeD at cut rates. She had hired SeeD. She could keep the contract as-is, or increase the commitment and pay more.
"I think...I might have the required cash...I haven't spent much..."
Squall looked over at Selphie. "Take it out of my wages, Selphie. As long as the numbers add up it doesn't matter. I don't go shopping much, or live large. There should be enough there."
"I can help too," said Zell. "Anything, just tell me I get to bust Seifer one."
Irvine tapped Zell gently on the shoulder. "Um, if we do this, we're on the same side as Seifer, Zell. Just thought I'd clue you in on that."
Selphie nodded to the group. "Yeah, I know how much you guys have squirreled away. It'll cover the books. You've got your field exam, Quistis. But what are we going to do about the three SeeDs we're contracted for? And Seifer, Fujin and Raijin?"
Squall leaned back, arms crossed over his chest, staring at the ceiling as he thought. "SeeD are mine to dispatch," he commented. "Zell, you're in charge. Pick two SeeDs you can count on - and don't get in Seifer's way. The three of you will use the cadets to free Timber. While you're at it see if you can find out what Seifer's up to."
"Alll RIIIIGHT!" shouted Zell, jumping up and starting a shadowboxing routine. "A chance to get outta here and do some damage in a good cause! I've been going stir crazy around here it's been so quiet."
Squall put one hand to his ear in an attitude of pain at Zell's noise. "I could tell," he said. The others laughed.
"That's one of your conditions met, Rinoa," said Quistis. "The last thing on today's agenda is what to do about Squall's ring, now it seems to be more than just jewelry." She turned to Squall. "You don't remember anything of where it came from?" When Squall shook his head, she continued, "and the rest of us don't know for sure either. But we need to know. Should we contact Ellone?"
Squall shook his head. "She doesn't like to send people into the past without a good reason. It's very draining on her. And since we don't know where it came from, we wouldn't know whose past to visit - or when, or even whether Ellone would know them."
"We could just visit your past, Squall, until we see where you got it," commented Quistis.
"No," Squall said, annoyed at having to repeat himself. "If I've had it all my life, it could take days for her to find that out. And she'd wear herself out with that many trips to the past."
Quistis shrugged. "Then that leaves only one course open to us," she said as though she had known perfectly well it would come to this. "Squall, you are temporarily relieved of command until this mystery is solved. Further, until it is, you are to junction no GFs; if it's something you can remember, it is in everyone's interest that you do so. Xu will hold your position until you are ready to return."
Everyone else, except Selphie, was shocked. Squall, relieved of command? But they could do that. That was why there were three people in charge of Garden; there would always be a decisive vote. Squall's expression was unreadable; Rinoa couldn't tell whether he'd even guessed this would happen. He sat as though carved from marble; unchanging, emotionless.
Quistis turned to Rinoa. "Your second requirement is hereby met; you're going with him. Without GFs, Squall will need your magical skills. Welcome to SeeD, Rinoa."
Rinoa was rocked. She was a SeeD, just like that. Under Xu, and not Squall. And while all of the friends were surprised, none moved to object; they knew as well as she did that whatever was in Griever needed to be identified and understood - and that if the answers lay in Squall's memory, it was best if he didn't use GFs. But it still felt as though the world had been turned upside down.
As they all filed out, meeting concluded, Quistis laid a hand on Rinoa's shoulders. "A moment, if you please," she said.
Rinoa followed her back into the room, closing the door. "Did it have to be this way, Quistis?" she asked. "Couldn't he have solved it while still serving as Commander?"
Quistis shook her head. "That thing is dangerous until it's understood, Rinoa," she said with a voice tinged with regret. "Squall isn't the sort of person who does well if kept indoors too long, any more than Zell is. He gets lost in his own thoughts too easily. He needed to get out - Selphie and I agreed on that. And he needs to spend some time with you, also. He's your Knight, even if he's not sure what that entails. And you...you need to get away from Garden for a while too. At least until the bookcase incident dies down."
Quistis squeezed Rinoa's shoulder. "But that wasn't what I wanted to tell you," she said.
"Then what is?" asked Rinoa.
"I wanted to tell you...if he doesn't come back, don't even try coming back yourself," she said. "We'll still be here for you...but the rest of SeeD will not."
Rinoa nodded sadly. She knew just how true that was. "Either both of us, or neither of us," she said to Quistis. "If he goes down, it's because I'm already dead."
And without another word, Rinoa left the office, closing the door behind her.