Teacher and Student

When Rinoa reached her rooms she was surprised to find Squall waiting for her, leaning against a wall in his usual meditative pose. This time, he was deep enough in his musings that she was almost within arm's reach before he noticed her - even though she was the only other person in the hall.

He was the only person she knew who had a whole set of frowns; when she surprised him by giving him a hug, his frown shifted from Thinking to Annoyed.

"Knock it off, Rinoa," he said, somewhat exasperated. "We've got to get ready."

"For what?" she asked. "You don't mean we're leaving right now, do you?"

Squall nodded. "Garden will dock at FH; we'll get off there, and Garden will continue on to Timber. You've got about three hours."

"FH? What's there?" Three hours, she was thinking. My, they don't waste time when they make up their minds, do they.

"The road to Esthar. Garden can't fly over the Estharian shores so we'll have to hike from FH."

Esthar. That made more sense; Squall was probably going to ask Laguna if Griever had been his, or if not, what he knew about it.

"I'm here to make sure you get the right things packed," Squall continued, all business.

"You don't trust me to be able to pack a travel bag?" Rinoa asked, disappointed. "I was a member of a resistance faction, you know."

"In a city," Squall dismissed. "This is different. And you're a SeeD now, so now your SeeD training begins."

"If I didn't deserve the title, why'd Quistis give it to me?"

"Because she and Selphie knew that you wouldn't be meeting anyone besides me until you could live up to it." Squall shook his head. "I hope you're a fast learner. I'm not good at teaching."

Rinoa gave up. And by the time they'd reached dock at FH, she'd given up at least twelve more times as Squall ruthlessly dismissed most of her packing choices or methods, providing logical reasons each time to forestall argument. She'd thought that she would at least gain some peace when he had to go pack his own bag, but groaned aloud when she found out he always had one ready - "Sometimes you don't get three hours," was all he said about it.

In the end she had one very small, neat pack. It contained basic medical supplies, an all-weather sleeping roll, and two changes of clothing - one of which was her new SeeD uniform (and where they'd found one her size on such short notice was beyond her). A utility knife and flint-and-steel were all Squall would permit her to take for food supplies. She eyed his own pack, which was somewhat larger, and asked what he was hauling that she wasn't.

"A tent," he said with an almost-smile. She got the impression he was enjoying needling her into using her head.

"It's August, and Esthar doesn't get much rain," Rinoa protested. "A tent would be way too hot."

"It's not protection against weather, though it can be," he explained. "It's so you don't wake up in the middle of the night with a monster chewing your leg."

And so it went. When Garden docked at FH, all their friends - and quite a few others - were on hand to wish them well. Rinoa gleefully hugged them all good-bye as Squall waited. They knew better than to touch him, contenting themselves with a good-bye wave. It wasn't like they were leaving on a mission at all; it was as though they were leaving on vacation. As perhaps, in a sense, they were.

When they disembarked, Garden got underway again almost immediately. Rinoa was surprised to find that Squall would not leave the docking point until the Garden was almost out of sight. She would never have thought he would consider Garden home...though on reflection she realized it was probably the only one he'd ever had. He didn't comment on it, or anything else, for some time.

FH was a lively place, even if the residents didn't care much for SeeD. There was always someone around trying to improve something or add something or dismantle something; FH was in a constant state of renovation. An engineer's dream.

"Are we going to walk all the way across the Horizon Bridge?" Rinoa asked.

"Yes," came the reply. "Unless Grease Monkey has something we can use."

Grease Monkey...oh yes. The artisan that had made friends with Artisan in Shumi Village. She felt that counting on him to have a fast mode of transport might be being a bit optimistic. The people of FH seemed to prefer reliability and longevity over speed.

It was near sundown when they entered Grease Monkey's workshop, and he was happily pounding away at something to the point where Squall chose to move himself into the man's line-of-sight rather than attempt verbal communication. When he did so, Grease Monkey stopped what he was doing and greeted them enthusiastically.

"Hey, nice to see you again," he said. "I'd shake hands but they're all over grease and you'd not want to get that on you I'm thinking," he continued. "What brings you here?"

"Heading to Esthar," said Squall. "Do you have anything that might save us the hike?"

Grease Monkey scratched his head with the hand that was only holding a pair of safety goggles, and looked around his workshop. "I might be able to put together a cart overnight...that'd save you two days of hiking if you're willing to wait."

Squall nodded. "We can wait that long, it's getting dark anyway. Anything you'd want in return?"

Grease Monkey eyed Squall levelly. "How 'bout we just call it a favor," he said. "And if I need one later on, I can call on you. Deal?"

Squall frowned. He didn't like being beholden to anyone, and a 'favor' owed was often nebulous at the start and uncomfortable when called in. But Rinoa startled him by replying, "That'll be fine," as if there were no question on the matter. He didn't turn to look at her, nor did he override her. He simply nodded, and Grease Monkey took that as affirmation and got to work.

Once outside, though, Squall said, "Don't do that again," in a tone that brooked no argument.

"Why?" Rinoa responded, knowing she could do what others would never dare. "A favor's easy enough to handle, and it'll save us days of travel. And tonight we can sleep in a bed."

"That doesn't matter," he growled. "We're supposed to present a united front to non-SeeD. I outrank you ten times over; you're supposed to back me, not the other way around."

Rinoa was not going to back down. "And if we negotiate as Sorceress and Knight?"

"Then I back you. But this was SeeD business."

Rinoa thought a moment. "What is my rank, anyway? What's yours?"

"You're first rank," Squall said. "When you know enough to pass a written exam, that'll change. I'm thirtieth rank until they make me Commander again." A distaste for the job was plain in his voice, as though he'd escaped an unpleasant fate by being relieved. "Are we cleared on this? I don't want to have to pay for something because you got mixed up on what roles we're in."

"Sure," Rinoa shrugged. "But the Sorceress reeeally wants to sleep in a bed tonight. Is the Knight okay with that?"

Squall sighed, defeated. "Yes. I'll go get the rooms."

* * * * * *

FH was not the lap of luxury, nor did the rooms have the elegant flair of the guest quarters of Garden. But the view of the ocean was pleasant, with the moon and stars glittering brightly on the water's ripples. Squall had gotten a room with a balcony, knowing Rinoa's love for stargazing. She noted he'd also gotten two small beds instead of one large one. She shook her head; he had as long a way to go learning how to be a Knight as she did learning how to be a SeeD. The thought sparked an idea.

Squall was checking over the room; for what purpose she could only guess. She waited on the balcony until he joined her.

"I think I'd like to make a deal with you," she said hesitantly. He turned to face her, waiting.

"I have a good idea how Sorceress' Knights are supposed to behave, what they're supposed to do," Rinoa continued. "I'd like to propose a contest."

Well, she had his attention, anyway. Squall was watching her very intently, now. It almost gave her stage fright, but she managed to finish her idea. "I was thinking...from sunup to sundown, you teach me everything I need to know about being a SeeD. From sundown to sunup, I teach you everything you need to know about being a Knight. And we'll see who's the better student, and who the better teacher. We'll negotiate for things the same way unless there's a good reason not to. If it's daylight, you're in charge...if it's night, I am."

The only reaction Squall had at first was to blink, very slowly. After a few minutes of unmoving silence, Rinoa started to worry that somehow she'd managed to really offend him. She didn't know whether to apologize or what.

Then, slowly, as though he were granting a big favor, he nodded. "I'll play it your way, Rinoa," he said slowly. Then he revealed what was bothering him. "If you try to make me your lap-dog, though..."

Rinoa laughed in relief. "I wouldn't do that to you, Squall. Did you think I would order you to do a strip-tease for me?" When his eyes widened in surprise, it only made her laugh harder. "Have a little faith, Squall. I wouldn't ask you to do anything you didn't honestly want to do - or at least need to do. Strictly by the book, honest."

Squall looked much less tense after that, though he tended to give her questioning looks as she gave him a rough introduction to Knightly graces. Rinoa decided that telling Squall she'd learned a lot of this from Seifer would do no good at all. Squall's grace came from years of practice; the decorum required of a Knight sat uneasily on him. She wondered if she looked as out of place in a SeeD uniform. She hadn't had a chance to try it on yet. She kept it simple and to the point to start, knowing that both of them needed their rest.

Squall threw himself into memorizing the requirements as completely as if they were part of his SeeD training. He had no idea when or if it would be useful to know it, but he had taken the position of Rinoa's Knight and he would give it no less effort than he did his SeeD career - even though the two jobs could be seen as antithetical.

He pulled the covers over Rinoa gently as he put her to bed. In the privacy of his own mind, he was almost grateful that this fell under the duties of a Knight. It meant that he could do this and claim it was because of duty, and not his own desires. Orders could be a welcome shield at times.

It felt awkward, stripping down with a female roommate. Or any roommate; he'd had none since becoming a SeeD. But he was damned if he was going to try sleeping in leather pants indoors in August. Rinoa did him the courtesy of keeping her eyes closed, at least. He loved her, but it didn't make certain matters of privacy easier. Perhaps that was why Selphie and Quistis had been so eager to send him out alone with her; to throw them together until that hurdle was crossed.

His last thought before falling asleep was at least Rinoa didn't snore....

* * * * * *

Survival training is never easy. Trying to get the hang of survival training when the terrain is the Salt Flats of Esthar is baptism by fire.

The trip over the Horizon Bridge had gone as quickly as Grease Monkey had promised. The 'cart' he'd cobbled together had been a cart indeed; a bare metal frame with a battery powered engine. But there weren't any monsters on the Bridge, or any obstacles, and there was power enough in the cart to get them all the way across in one day. They'd left the cart there; Grease Monkey had said he would hike out to get it himself.

That had been the easiest and most enjoyable part of the trip.

Throughout the day, every day, Squall would quiz Rinoa on SeeD codes and protocols. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he would tie in the topic with something around them and try to make her draw the connection. Since Squall didn't like talking, his teaching generally consisted of explaining things exactly once and then getting Rinoa to apply it repeatedly until it stuck.

Rinoa had thought the occasional - and sometimes frequent - monster attacks would provide a measure of relief, but they did not. Squall was regarding the whole of Nature as an oversized Training Center, and had Rinoa trying to defeat monsters using limited resources. Sometimes she would only be allowed to use her blaster edge, sometimes only magic, and sometimes she had to use the kickboxing techniques Zell had shown her. No matter what method she was directed to use, Squall would try to show her how to fight so that the two of them always worked in tandem.

"You might not always have your weapon," he told her when she complained. "And even a Sorceress can be silenced."

In the end, though, what drove Rinoa to excel was simply the sheer satisfaction of turning the tables at sundown. Frequently Squall would order camp made an hour or two early so that Rinoa could learn the Joys of Tent Pitching and other skills. If he chose to do so, they would begin the Knight's training as soon as camp was made to make up for that, and because during Rinoa's time they had to sleep.

The contest at least made traversing the bleak terrain interesting. Though never chatty, Squall was more easily persuaded to speak when there was something Rinoa actually needed to know. It almost counted as conversation. In the evenings, Rinoa could vent her frustration by playing the Sorceress to the hilt, and Squall would swallow his pride and do whatever was required.

After a few days of that, though, Rinoa stopped. Squall without his pride...just wasn't Squall. By the time Esthar came in sight, she had ceased both teasing and complaining and instead tried to be both the best student and the best teacher possible. She had been given an unparalleled opportunity to get to know him a little better, and she wanted to take advantage of it.

Squall, for his part, was finding the trek a revelation. He knew, somewhere, that Rinoa's initial complaints should have bothered him, but they didn't. It gave him great satisfaction to see how quickly she learned even the most obscure things, and the routine of defending against monster attacks was almost a dance when they fought together. (This was the source of much teasing from Rinoa at first; he fought and made it seem a dance, but when asked to dance he often met with disaster.) His worry that learning about SeeD would take the light from her eyes had so far proven unfounded. The harsher the circumstances, the more brightly she shone. He tried very hard not to let his admiration show; the training was necessary and real, and it would do no good if Rinoa overestimated her ability.

He wondered sometimes if the nightly reversal of fortune had anything to do with her high spirits. Since he spared her no mercy during the day, he couldn't very well complain if she showed him none at night - though courtly graces were tricky to pick up on a deserted salt flat, and trying to learn to dance when there was neither music nor rhythm was near to impossible. He knew, though, that SeeD training could and had broken peoples' spirits; it took him no time at all to decide that the work was worth seeing Rinoa happy.

Besides...it cost him nothing. No one else was out here to see it. And he wasn't going to get caught playing the role in public anytime soon if he could help it.

He wondered if Rinoa had applied what he was showing her to the things she'd been showing him. Knightly graces were all very well, but they weren't there just to keep a Sorceress happy. They were there to keep her alive. He didn't think Seifer had ever thought this whole Knight business out; the more he learned, the more convinced he became that his rival had gone about things in exactly the wrong way.

Seifer had fallen for the romanticism of the Sorceress' Knight. Squall knew his rival had a natural flair for the sweeping bows, the knowing smiles, the velvet-over-steel approach. But while a Knight was supposed to have those things, they weren't - to Squall's view - the purpose of the Knight.

Edea had said that a Knight was supposed to guard the Sorceress' spirit. Most women were quite happy to have a man bowing over them, but unless the Sorceress was a simpleton the social graces were meaningless without real emotion behind them. Having seen what became of Adel and Ultimecia without that emotional support, he would not allow the same to happen to Rinoa.

All the bowing and scraping was just...decoration. It was almost worthy of SeeD. Everything Rinoa had shown him told him what the true intentions were; to stay physically close to the Sorceress in a manner that was unobtrusive and socially acceptable, in a way most likely to allow him to keep her from harm. Among the wealthy elite, even married couples were often separated at social functions; the protocols of the Knight got him around that.

He hated high society. He loathed the false exuberance of the wealthy and idle. He was just going to have to hope that as a Sorceress, Rinoa would choose to lead a reclusive life. He might - if it were necessary - put on the mask for a while, but there was just too much honesty in his soul to handle wearing it all the time.

In the meantime, he fully intended on rewriting the knight's code. After all, there was only one Sorceress in the world right now, and that meant he was the only Knight. Surely this allowed for a little customization. Why drape velvet over steel when naked steel is so much better a deterrent?

When Esthar came into view, though, his high spirits sank. There would - hopefully - be other solo trips with Rinoa, but now it was time to get back to the realities of the assignment. He suppressed a shudder; Laguna was a very exuberant man, and assumed a degree of familiarity that insulted Squall deeply. But he'd have to talk to the man; it was the logical first step in solving the mystery that was his ring. His gloved thumb idly turned Griever around on his finger. If Irvine's hazy memory was right, he'd had this ring all his life. Raine was dead. That only left Laguna.

He wished there were a better option.

Chapter 8