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The world had gotten very peculiar lately. The last thing he really remembered was that ...horrible moment in that woman's chains. It had hurt like hell on every level. Mental, emotional, physical, you name it and it had been pure hell. He thought he'd remembered screaming...

And then he was here. It was just like the real world except the only thing he could see was himself. Or, more correctly, his body. Not that he could affect it in any way. He'd tried everything he could think of to get back in and it hadn't worked. Overlapping himself, exercises of will, shouting, it didn't matter. The brown-eyed woman had cast him out of his body and locked the door behind her.

It was disturbingly like the time-compressed world in that it was utterly empty. Squall remembered with shame that Rinoa had rescued him once already from that aloneness. It looked like he'd need her to do it again, since he couldn't seem to get back into his body. Some hero he was, to so consistently need rescue.

Logically there must be other people or other somethings around though, because he could see what his body was doing. It was fighting, purely on instinct. Squall had been quite surprised to see himself shooting water jets all over the place. It did not strike him as a terribly intelligent thing for his enemies to have done to him.

But then, if he couldn't get back into his body to control it, it might just be a pretty damn smart thing to have done. There was no way for his friends to know that he wasn't doing this. It was, after all, his body.

Then it occurred to him to wonder why he wanted to get back into his body at all. He remembered what that woman had had done to him, every second of it, crystal clear. He couldn't even think of it without shuddering. At least in his current state he wouldn't have to worry about anyone touching him, ever again. And he was pretty sure that woman couldn't sense him. He hadn't felt the touch of her mind since being split like this. And for that he was incredibly grateful. There was probably not a word big enough for how much gratitude he felt for that. But Rinoa...if he did not go back, would that be failing Rinoa again? Or would he be doing her a kindness, freeing her to find someone who had more to give?

He thought at first to spy on his captors and find out what their plans were. That was when he realized he couldn't see anyone else. Things moved, but he didn't see the movers - or in fact any objects in motion. They'd just be in one place, and when he looked again they'd be somewhere else. The only thing in motion he could see was his own body. Everything else was just...background.

Lacking any other options, he found himself following his body out of the complex and into the world. He noted where it was, cleverly hidden, just on the off chance that the knowledge might come in handy. He had no idea if he'd ever get back into his body, and no real idea whether he wanted to - but if the chance came, and he decided to take it, killing the brown-eyed woman very slowly would be one of the top five reasons why.

It was very strange how his emotions were dulled. He really didn't feel much of anything about anything. He didn't even feel emptiness. It was just...a state of uncaring. Except on two points; he very definitely felt an entire gamut of unpleasant things when he thought of his captivity...and he very definitely felt love for Rinoa. Amazing, that love could survive in a state where almost every other emotion was deadened. It might not have been enough to get him out of time compression, but it had broadened and deepened over the past few months. He doubted his worthiness as Rinoa's friend or companion, and doubted that she could love him when he had so little to offer, but not his love for her. It had to be love, when even distantly thinking about the word made him blush scarlet.

But the two balanced out his life quite perfectly. Love would have driven him to live, but the idea of having to face what had been done to him told him he could quite happily die right now, just so that he could never be touched again. And after days of the brown eyed woman's insinuations, he could no longer be certain Rinoa wanted him.

He and his body spotted the Ragnarok at about the same time. To Squall it was like watching very bad stop motion photography - he couldn't see the great ship move, but every time his eyes blinked or looked at something else and looked back, the ship had moved.

He watched his body take up an assassin's position behind some rocks. He couldn't see anyone, so he couldn't even tell whether a warning might be in order. He saw himself raise his arms, and his hands make fists. This, he knew, presaged a water strike.

Then he saw Rinoa, and shouted 'Duck!' before remembering that he wasn't exactly corporeal.

And she reached out - presumably to whoever was with her - and hit the ground just before his body released the strike near to where she had been standing.

His body hadn't been aiming for her? Well, that was a relief and he wasn't going to quibble about it - not now.

Then it occurred to him that it was a bit odd that he could actually see Rinoa, when he hadn't seen anyone else. She had the glowing eyes and white wings of her Sorceress-self. And, apparently, she had heard him. She had, after all, ducked.

Heartened, he tried again: "Rinoa, it's me."

But this gained no response; whether she could not hear him, or was choosing to ignore him, in his current state of confusion he couldn't say. She was watching his body, which had for some mysterious reason just charged a rock. He was not surprised at the strength of the punch or the distance of the jump; he'd seen his body doing lots of such things over the past few days and concluded it had something to do with Odine's incredibly painful serums. However, he was a tad concerned when he remembered that it was his gunblade hand that had done the punching. Shuriken appeared in his clothes and on his body, from where he had no idea, but they didn't seem to have hit anything vital. At least, it didn't appear to have affected his body any.

This was much stranger than watching his body fight invisible monsters, that he could see only when they died and quit moving.

Then he saw Rinoa spread her wings and fly right for him, picking him up off the ground.

This was a twofold surprise; the first was that it stopped his body cold, which was an immense relief - and the second was that she was able to do it. He'd never thought those wings of hers actually worked in a functional sense. Ultimecia certainly had never flown with hers. Unless you counted floating, but magic could do that.

Rinoa shook her head. "I didn't do anything," she said to the empty air. "I picked him up, but I expected him to attack me just like you guys. He just went all limp. I didn't cast a thing on him. I wasn't thinking...I just didn't want him to get hurt."

Then she nodded and cast a spell on him. Squall couldn't tell what spell it might be, he couldn't feel anything or see any difference in himself. He watched his limp body carried on board the Ragnarok by an invisible person, and saw Rinoa fade from view also.

"Rinoa, come back," he pleaded in the vain hope some part of her might hear. It had been such a comfort to see another human being...or maybe it had just been a great comfort because it had been Rinoa. He certainly would not have been happy to see the brown-eyed woman again.

He ran full tilt to make sure he was on the Ragnarok before his body, just so it couldn't take off without him. Rinoa was on board, he knew, even if he couldn't see her any more.

Disembarking was very strange. His body floated out first, but paused on the ramp. And then whoever had his body started moving quickly. He wondered what was going on in Garden that they would have to run. It was safe in Garden, wasn't it? At least he didn't get tired in his current state, and so had no problem keeping up.

Of course they ran to the Infirmary. He watched as his body was carried into a room and put on a gurney. And lacking anything else to do, he hung around. So he got to see it wake up and proceed to start picking up something and hurl it around - at least, the medical equipment ended up jangled. In the end it looked like it was being held down on the gurney, and ropes started appearing. It was odd to see rage on his features. He didn't feel particularly angry.

Squall wondered how long he'd been thinking of his own body as 'it'. It certainly seemed natural to do so; it wasn't him at all. He was right here.

Then Rinoa appeared again, touching his cheek at the head of the bed. Squall was incredibly relieved that once again his body had not attacked her. The idea of having to sit back and watch something like that was unbearable.

"I'd stay," said Rinoa to someone in the room.

"Yes, stay, please," pleaded Squall. "Don't disappear again!" The utter aloneness of this existence was too close to the time-compressed world. Apart he might want to be, but he'd learned that he couldn't handle complete aloneness.

"Nothing," protested Rinoa. "I don't know why this happens any more than you do. What's wrong with him?"

Squall blinked. Good thing she'd asked, because he certainly didn't know. But then, he wouldn't hear the answer. He sat down on a chair, more out of habit than anything else. "If you can hear me," he said halfheartedly, "Would you repeat the answer to that?"

But of course she didn't hear. She just sat there, stroking his cheek. He saw his hand raised, and assumed she must have company. Given the bloody mess his hand was in, he sincerely hoped it was Kadowaki.

"Yes," said Rinoa. "He punched a rock. He was aiming for Zell."

Zell? Zell had been there? Squall blew out a long breath. His body had tried to kill Zell. Zell could be a noisy pain in the ass, but he didn't deserve to die for it. Maybe held in a fountain for a while, just for the quiet, but not killed. In an odd way, Squall sometimes found Zell's endless chatter soothing. He'd gotten used to it over the years, at any rate.

The fact that he would not hear Zell again as long as he was in this half-real state could probably be counted a mixed blessing.

"He cracked the rock he hit," said Rinoa. "And he was definitely aiming for Zell. They were roommates?"

All right, that made it certain she was talking to Kadowaki. Any of the medical cadets would have circulated that age-old rumor about him and Zell being lovers. But Kadowaki was honest. He hoped she didn't repeat the rumor for completeness' sake. It had been bad enough the last three times around. Yeesh. Show a little compassion for a hyperactive kid who repeatedly got the shit beaten out of him, and now he must be sleeping with the guy because he wasn't involved with any of the shallow hairspray-high female cadets. And they wondered why he'd developed a cold attitude.

Rinoa smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck. Just then, Squall would have given anything to be within his body and able to feel her arms. She nestled her head on his shoulder as if it were a pillow, lips against his ear and just barely brushing his earring. (Watching his body fight as the earring had been put back in had been pure entertainment, even though he couldn't see who his body was fighting.)

Rinoa looked up and said, "Come in."

What, more visitors? Squall frowned. Of course he'd get more visitors when unable to respond than when he was perfectly fine and in his own room. They didn't have to worry about him telling them to go away.

Rinoa shook her head wearily. "No," she said softly. "Doctor Kadowaki said he might have been drugged - probably - and took some blood for tests. She hasn't come back yet."

Oh, was that the theory? "Thanks for getting around to repeating that," he said absently. Hey, if it worked it worked. Given the multitude of injections he remembered receiving at the hands of Odine, it was as good an explanation as any. They certainly hadn't given him anything else.

She closed her eyes briefly and nodded. "All right," she said. "I was planning on staying here, anyway. Doctor Kadowaki said neither magic nor tranquilizers were helping."

Huh? Rinoa had to stay here? Which, of course, he wasn't going to object to - her voice was the only thing he could hear, and other than his own body she was the only person he could see. But for her to have to stay here for reasons not related to his own well being spoke of very bad things happening in Garden.

Rinoa frowned. "He should be," she said, and moved from her seat at the head of the bed to Squall's left hand, gloved as it always was. Gently she pulled the glove off. Griever was there, shining platinum snug around his finger. Momentarily Squall was relieved that the brown-eyed woman had not decided to keep it. "Should I test it?" she asked. "Can't be a safer place to try than here, I suppose."

Squall realized there was only one thing she could be trying to do - and he had no intention of watching his only companion hurled through a doorway. He jumped for her, and cried, "No!"

But of course this had no effect. Rinoa cast her spell...but Griever did not throw her anywhere. It just flashed and lay still. Rinoa reached out and touched the band, and Squall held his metaphorical breath until he saw she wasn't hurt. "I guess you were right," she said softly. "It won't hurt you."

"Like I care about that right now," he said savagely. "Damnit, Rinoa, that was a stupid thing to do. Please don't give me a heart attack or whatever it is ghosts get, all right?"

Then he noticed his hand being raised, and the ropes around his body were coming undone. Rinoa started working on them, too. Someone was holding him up and Rinoa was removing his jacket! "Hey, knock that off, Rinoa," he tried. Bad enough to have been nude in front of that ...shudder...mob, but for Rinoa to do so in front of his friends - or whoever was in the room...

Rinoa was staring at the bruises now visible on his arms. Squall winced; the reminder of that big room, and the chains...he might have spared a word of comfort for Rinoa having to see that, but at the moment he was having enough trouble coping just on his own.

"His shirt's on inside out," she said in a voice filled with dread. "Go get Doctor Kadowaki...and if she doesn't come right away tell her I am going to fry her."

Oh, great Hyne. That was enough to startle Squall out of his memories. "No,"

If she could hear him - and so far actual requests or orders seemed to get a response - he had to stop her hurting anyone with her power. "Don't hurt anyone over this, please?" he pleaded. Bad enough to have it happen in the first place - and that was a big Bad Enough - but if it made her into another Adel or Ultimecia he was going to quit trying to live. Better to die than to be the one who would have to kill her. That, at least, he was quite sure of.

Some time passed, how much Squall wasn't sure. He was having a hard time deciding whether he should continue trying to reach Rinoa; he couldn't really say whether she was hearing him or whether her responses to his requests were purely coincidental. Then someone raised his arm and pushed back the sleeve of his jacket, showing the marks of the chains, and Squall flinched.

Rinoa asked, "Why?" then paused, and nodded a few times. Squall wished she would talk so he would know what was going on, but no such luck. This time she tried to look determined, strong...the perfect SeeD. It almost made Squall want to cry; he could tell that she was deeply frightened of something, and she was trying to be brave. And there was nothing he could do, in his current condition, to comfort her. He cast a glance over at his body on the gurney. There probably wasn't anything he could do, anyway.

Squall watched as his jacket was removed, hoping it was just Kadowaki and Rinoa in the room and no one else. But he couldn't tell. "See his shirt?" said Rinoa quietly.

Squall wondered for a moment what she was talking about - then realized it was on inside out. He spared a bitter chuckle; he knew his body had given his captors a good fight to get his clothes back on him at all. Considering the water blasts and punches his body had thrown, it was incredible they'd managed as well as they had. Rinoa then held him upright as best she could while someone removed Squall's shirt.

Squall was unprepared for the sight of himself that was now presented to him. He reached out to his own body and realized he knew exactly how each and every bruise had come to be, burned into his memory so deeply he could probably junction every GF until the end of time and still remember. He barely registered Rinoa stepping back, reaching out her hand. He realized he was shaking. He laughed bitterly at himself. He was a ghost, or some equivalent, and nothing on earth could touch him. And the sight of bruises - not wounds, just bruises - set him shaking in his boots like a frightened child. Some hero he was.

But he couldn't deny that - as deeply as he never wanted to feel another person's touch or nearness ever again for as long as he lived - he wanted Rinoa's arms around him. He supposed it was possible for ghosts to go crazy; it certainly didn't seem sane to want to have Rinoa's arms around him and - at the same time - never want anyone to get within arm's length of his body for the rest of his life. He vaguely noticed Rinoa leaving the room, but he couldn't bring himself to move. He watched, hypnotized, as his clothes were removed and every ugly mark was revealed. Gods, they'd even managed to bruise his fingers and toes. He had suck-marks on his ankles, for Hyne's sake. And he remembered it, he really did. And in his current state, memory was about the same as re-living it. He didn't realize for a few minutes that he was shaking.

He barely noticed the tears streaming down his cheeks. There was no one to see, and in a way it was a relief to be able to cry. The brown-eyed woman had kept him from any expression of pain other than the scream she had wanted. The part of him that always wondered such things wondered what his friends would think of him, to know that something like this would bring him to tears. They touched all the time, after all. No big deal, right? How the brown-eyed woman had loved teasing him about that. How only Squall Leonhart could be tormented by people who weren't quite touching him, or only touching him lightly on places like his hands or feet. Of course, she hadn't stopped there...

His body was lifted off its gurney and put on a proper medical bed, and restrained. And then, to his immense relief, someone put a blanket over his entire body, leaving only one arm outside the covers. Griever glittered in the medical room lights.

The door opened and Rinoa was back, with IV equipment. Squall looked down at himself in surprise, and realized he couldn't remember when he'd last eaten. He would have watched them hooking it up, but realized Rinoa wasn't going to stay. Well and good; he could do without any more reminders just at present. Or ever, come to think of it.

He didn't hear what Rinoa heard, of course. But it was Kadowaki's office, and he knew there wasn't a more knowledgeable medic in Garden. Part of him felt a bit put-upon, that Kadowaki would share confidential medical knowledge with anyone. But mostly he was relieved, because this meant that he would never have to find words to tell Rinoa himself. Let her hear the clinical medical version. It would probably be easier to handle. Just so long as there weren't any others in the room. The idea of looking his friends in the eye, knowing they knew what he'd gone He'd take it to his grave rather than face that.

He felt like dying for the second time that day when he saw Rinoa crying. Rinoa should never cry, his whole view of the world went crazy when she did that. Rinoa was the bright thing in his life, the first positive thing he could remember happening to him. "Why did you tell her?" he asked the air, knowing Kadowaki had to be in the room. "Why did you make her cry?" And there was nothing he could do to comfort her. He couldn't pretend to be strong - his body was tied to a bed in another room. He couldn't murmur soothing words, either. There weren't any that were both soothing and true, and Squall had never gotten the hang of lying. And there wasn't any guarantee she could hear him in any case. How unbearable it was, to have proof that he mattered to her, and have it be this.

She got up and stumbled to the door, still sniffling a little bit. She opened it and stared, then said, "If you're going after whoever did this, I'm going with you."

"Oh, no," said Squall. "No, that's what they want! No, Rinoa!" The idea of Rinoa in those chains, in that room - no. A coward he might be that it could throw him out of his body, bring him to tears...but that was as nothing to the idea of watching Rinoa endure it.

Rinoa shook her head in response to some remark. "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."

Trust Kadowaki to use the most simple terms. He shuddered, but acknowledged the Doctor was probably right. He certainly seemed to be in pieces, and his body wasn't acting at all sane. He suspected that if he were within his body he'd feel a great deal worse than he did right now. Yes, broken probably was right.

"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."

Bless you, Rinoa. The idea of the whole group and anyone else within earshot finding out what had happened was too much to handle. Thank you, Rinoa, for keeping it to yourself. I owe you one.

Then Rinoa left her spot by the door and charged - there was no other word - to the middle of the room. "You think I'm not good enough, don't you!" she flared. "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."

"Which is exactly what they wanted," said Squall miserably. Her Knight. Yes, if he got back, and she still wanted him after all that trouble, he would be her Knight. "Damnit, Rinoa, you're letting them manipulate you!"

Her eyes began to glow, and the angelwings started to take shape behind her, steely, silvery gray. "Should I tell you what they did to him?" she said in the clearest voice he'd heard yet. "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!"

"I'd rather you didn't," said Squall, but he was trying not to panic. Her wings were gray...oh Hyne, her wings were gray...please calm down, Rinoa, please calm down, don't make me responsible for this..."Look at yourself, Rinoa," he pleaded, putting his whole heart into it. "Don't do this for me, please." Please let her hear me, please let her hear me...

Rinoa tilted her head, seemingly puzzled for a moment out of her anger. She summoned a Reflect spell and Squall took the only chance he had. He concentrated on the idea of being visible as hard as he could, and stood right behind Rinoa so that if the spell could reflect his image, it would. He had no idea if it worked, but 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.

And again, there was no way for him to comfort her. Squall promised himself right then that if he managed to get back into his body, he would make up for not being able to hold her now. Someone drew her up - he saw her being pulled, looking into empty air with an attitude of listening. Then she picked up a book beside her, and went back to the room where his body was resting.

Of course, Squall followed her. She seated herself behind his head again, wrapped her arms around his body's neck, buried her face in his shoulder, and wept. Occasionally he would hear her saying, "I'm sorry," over and over again.

Squall sighed. So far today she'd managed to scare the wits out of him at least twice, but he had no idea whether she should feel sorry about that. It felt strange to know that someone cared enough about him to want to avenge him, even if they couldn't be allowed to carry through on it. He'd always done his own avenging - had even planned on doing so, if and when a time arrived that he could return to his body. Having Rinoa do it seemed wrong.

"But do you want to return to your body, my son?" said a voice behind him.

He spun, surprised to hear a voice that was not Rinoa's.

He completely lost control of his features as he realized it was his mother, Raine.

* * * * * * * *

Raine smiled happily up at him, eyes as gray as his own twinkling with laughter as she took in his shock at seeing her. She was a short woman, coming up only as high as his shoulders, but it didn't seem to bother her.

He was very sure he hadn't been speaking. Could Raine read minds too? Had he no privacy, even here?

"You haven't been alone since the first day you set Griever on your finger," smiled Raine. "You think you've got lips to speak with, Squall? You're not in a physical body any more - and you're a pretty loud thinker. Anyone who's interested has been listening in since you showed up here."

Oh, great. Not just one madwoman, but anyone? "Who's anyone?" he asked.

"Welcome to the world of the dead, Squall," said his mother. "Also known as eternity."

But I'm not-

"Dead?" Raine finished his thought. "No, you're not. Not yet, anyway. But you can feel yourself getting more distant from your body, can't you? Caring just a little bit less with each hour?"

Squall frowned, trying to work out what 'thinking quietly' might be and how to do it.

"So, if I'm not dead, what am I doing here?" he asked. "And where's every other dead person?" Not that I mind not seeing them, he thought. Good grief, there must be so many you couldn't see the physical world at all for all the people.

"It's not as bad as all that," Raine said, seating herself on the edge of his bed. "Really, the only people you see are the ones you're willing to see, and who are willing to see you. Well, except for you. Everyone's been watching you and Rinoa."

"Are we some sort of dead cinema or something?" said Squall, nettled.

"It's just that we can see you. You aren't seeing your body because it's yours, Squall. You're seeing it because Griever is on your finger. And Rinoa is a Sorceress, and Sorceresses don't exactly obey the usual laws of time and space."

"And you could read my thoughts then too?"

"No. Just since you came here. You're not the first person Alicia has sent here, this way."

This caught Squall's interest. "Alicia - the brown-eyed woman?"

"We don't know what she looks like," said Raine sadly. "We can't see her. But we have had a few people show up here who are obviously not dead yet. They couldn't find their bodies, but their. . . images?. . .reflected their body starving to death. You're lucky that your friends found you. When Alicia locked you into a moment of pain, you wanted nothing more than to not be there. So you both got your wish; to exist in one moment is to exist outside of time, and you got that existence outside of your body. You threw yourself out, and she locked the door behind you."

Squall leaned against the wall of his room. "So you wouldn't know if I can get back, then," he said.

His mother shook her head, thick falls of fine brown hair spilling over her shoulders. "None of the others managed it," she said, "But then none of the others had the love of a Sorceress, or a ring like Griever. But still - do you want to go back?"

"Rinoa's crying over me," Squall said simply, nodding to where she sat at the head of his bed.

Raine nodded as though this were an answer. "I should warn you, then," she said. "If you manage to get back, you're going to have to deal with whatever was done to you in the underground place. You've got a twofold barrier; your own pain threw you out of your body, and Alicia's power is what keeps you out. You'll have to deal with both."

Squall stared at her. "You were . . .watching?"

"Well, I couldn't see what hurt you, but of course I stayed. You were so afraid. Where else would I be?" Raine sounded mildly surprised that he would think she might be elsewhere.

Squall was not so happy now that he'd been left his ring in that chamber. Who else had been watching? It was deeply embarrassing to think that, while all that was going on, his mother had been watching him.

"I suppose you'd better tell me about Griever," he said to change the subject. "Laguna said it was yours."

"Yes," said Raine. "Actually, it's more accurate to say it is the property of the Leonhart line."

"Back how far? And why am I Leonhart when you married Laguna?"

Raine wrinkled her nose at him. It seemed that there was nothing that could dampen her cheerful spirits. "Full of questions, aren't you," she said. "I'll tell you what I know, which is probably more than you'd be able to get out of the people of Winhill."

She held on to one knee and leaned back against the medical cabinets. "You're a Leonhart because the people of Winhill resented Laguna," she began. "I had discussed names with the midwife, but it never occurred to me that you would not be a Loire so I didn't specify that you had to be one. I was married to Laguna, I had taken the name Loire. . .it seemed so obvious I didn't talk about it. When I died, I suppose they gave you my family name because they felt Laguna had forfeited his right to call you his by not being there. The fact that you were taken to an orphanage rather than to Laguna was probably their idea also. We all knew he was in Esthar, after all."

"Did. . .Laguna know about me?" asked Squall. He couldn't trust Laguna's answer. He had to trust Raine's.

"Actually, no," said Raine. "I didn't know I was pregnant myself until after he'd gone. And I spent most of my pregnancy wishing he'd come back in time. However," and here Raine reached out and gave Squall's bangs a gentle tug, "I can see how Laguna would know you were his son. You're the right age, his height, and without a doubt my son."

Squall would not have seen what she meant if his own body had not been laid out before him. Looking from his own face to the face of his mother, there was an almost uncanny resemblance. Though his own face was cast in a much more serious expression than Raine's smiling visage.

"But to get back to your question," Raine said, "Griever has been in the Leonhart line since its beginning. The story I was told - and I did verify this with the person in question later on - was that the founder of our line was a Knight to a ruling Sorceress of Centra, before the Lunar Cry destroyed it. He performed what he swears was a 'routine act of bravery'," and here Raine laughed, "and the Sorceress made the ring for him and gave it to him as a token. Sorceresses can have more than one Knight, by the way. It seems this Sorceress had somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen or so, which was why she felt the need to present our ancestor with the token of favor. She made the ring in the likeness of a lion to represent his courage and bravery, and the Knight took the name Leonhart to honor the gift."

Raine smiled at Squall. "I understand you think of the ring the same way, don't you? To me it was always just jewelry, an heirloom with a pretty story. Anyway. . .much later on, the Sorceress died in some sort of attack. Leonhart had been too far away to reach her in time. That was when the ring got the name Griever; he had loved the Sorceress and grieved for her death."

Raine paused. "That might be when it started doing this," she said, indicating Squall's body on the bed. "After Leonhart died, the Sorceress told him that she'd been able to see him and hear him even though she was here, in eternity. She'd made the ring using her magic, and a Sorceress' magic isn't bound by the usual constraints. The ring picked up a touch of eternity."

"So why does it react to Sorceress' magic?" asked Squall.

"Because a Sorceress made it for her Knight. You saw yourself; when Rinoa cast a spell on the ring while you were wearing it, it only flashed. When she tried casting it on the ring while you weren't wearing it, it repelled her."

Raine looked thoughtful for a moment, and Squall noticed his arm being lifted, and a little container for drawing blood appeared. "Hey, I've had enough of needles," he said to Rinoa. Then he turned to Raine. "Does she hear me?" he asked.

"Yes and no," said Raine. "She can sense your desires if she listens, but she can't hear you speak, at least as far as any of us have been able to tell. I suppose there's something else I'd better tell you."

Squall eyed his mother warily. "You've been very free with your information," he said. "Is there a catch for this?"

Raine's thoughtful expression relaxed into another of her gentle smiles. "I suppose I should have expected that from you," she said. "After all, you don't know me half as well as I know you. No, there's no catch. I tell you these things because you are my son, and you aren't dead yet. I may never have the chance to speak with you alive again, and I hope if you do return that it's years before you see me again."

She paused, and then continued. "There's something that happens sometimes between a Sorceress and her Knight," she said. "Maybe once in a thousand years, maybe not even that often. But if both the Sorceress and her Knight are especially gifted, and if they're in love, and if they're together at the time, they can - join. Become one being. It makes them both much stronger than they would be apart. Griever was given to Leonhart not just as a token of favor, but as a sort of - willpower battery, I suppose. The Sorceress had intended to join with Leonhart, and Griever would make that joining both easier and more powerful. Leonhart was very surprised to find this out, that his Sorceress had thought so much of him. But of course they never got to test it; the Sorceress died far away from Leonhart. And Griever's been passed down in our line ever since. You're the first Knight in our line since Leonhart, Squall. Griever has been charged by the wills of every member of our family in a direct line for Hyne knows how long. If you join with Rinoa, the power between you would be unbelievable."

Squall was dumbstruck. Rinoa had never said anything about this. He wondered if she even knew about it, and what she'd think of it if he told her. Never to be apart from Rinoa again. . .never to be alone again. . .then something in his mind clicked.

Raine lightly hopped off the counter where she had been sitting. "But of course, that's hypothetical. You're not exactly able to do things like that in your current situation."

Squall took a deep breath, and asked the question. "Raine. . .mother. . .this joined being. Are you talking about a Guardian Force?"

Raine shrugged. "I just told you everything I know. I don't know about Guardian Forces."

But Ultimecia's Guardian Force had been called Griever, and it had looked like the carving on his ring. And it had indeed been incredibly powerful. Had that Guardian Force. . .been him and Rinoa? Had they killed their own future selves?

Should he return to his body, knowing that if he did he would eventually end up siding with Ultimecia?

"You're thinking in linear terms," his mother said. "You stand in eternity; all times are one time. Ultimecia came from one of a multitude of possible futures; the only thing you know for certain is that there is a possibility she will arise in a future."

Time had stumped greater minds than Squall's. His head was spinning as he tried to sort it out. He noted his body was being loaded on a ship, and Rinoa was with him. He followed automatically, but wasn't paying a great deal of attention. "You're saying Ultimecia might arise as a result of choices not yet made?" he hazarded.

"Exactly," beamed his mother. "Glad you inherited more than just my looks," she said impishly. "You can set things in motion now that would change the future that you saw. One of which is absurdly simple; you can stay here. If Rinoa finds a way to bring you back to yourself, you can simply not go. Without both of you living, there can be no joining."

"Which is the solution you prefer, isn't it," observed Squall. He had to admit it was both guaranteed to work and the easiest to effect.

"Squall, you have no idea what it was like to watch you grow up so sad and lonely, and not be able to offer one word of comfort that you could hear," said Raine sadly.

I think I might, Squall thought, looking at Rinoa's sorrowful face. But he said nothing, and Raine appeared not to hear.

"Yes, I would like you to stay here," she continued honestly. "I'd like to tell you all about your family, that you never got a chance to know. I'd like it if you didn't have to worry about becoming a creature you would have to kill."

Raine stopped and laid a hand on Squall's chest; instinctively, he recoiled. She withdrew her hand and smiled sadly. "But I won't ask you to for that," she said. "You reacted to me the way you do everyone - everyone but Rinoa. I argue for you to stay here because I don't care for anyone but you. If you go back to your body, you will have to deal with the emotions that are so muted in you now. You'll remember what it was to be Alicia's captive and it will hurt you. It might hurt you so much you'll be unable to face it. And you'll be alive, and unable to feel me near you, trying to comfort you. I'll have to watch you suffer through that. Squall, I would do anything rather than watch you suffer."

Squall said nothing, and thought nothing. He watched Rinoa, her cheeks puffy from crying, her arms loosely circling his neck as she had done in the Infirmary. He wondered where they were taking him, and why, but he didn't really care.

Raine had said she would do anything rather than watch him suffer. Looking at Rinoa's face as she gently guarded his body, Squall realized that he would do anything to never see Rinoa looking like that again.

It was an old mercenaries' saying, much older than SeeD, that everyone had their price. The price that, if paid, a person would do anything for. It was said to be a bitter thing to know -- people didn't like knowing that there was a lever in them that could be pulled at someone else's whim.

Watching Rinoa, Squall realized that she was his price. For her sake, for her happiness, there was nothing he would not do, nothing he would not give, nothing he would not suffer. And it was indeed an uncomfortable thing to know - that he had gotten into this whole mess because he had felt Rinoa was threatened. That he would risk becoming a servant of Ultimecia just to be with Rinoa. That he would relive three days of mind-breaking torture for the sake of having her arms around him.

Looked at logically, it made no sense whatsoever. But his heart told him it was true; Rinoa was his price. If she opened a way for him to return to his body, come hell or high water he would take it. And it did seem likely that she would eventually find a way. Otherwise there could never have been a Griever, in any future.

Raine seemed to sense that he'd made his decision, and didn't mention the idea of him staying in eternity again. She wasn't as cheerful as she had been, but like Squall realized this would be the only chance they would have to talk this side of death, and that time might be short. He listened while Raine talked of Winhill, of Laguna, Ellone, and of her family. And Squall's life and memories. Raine knew every word he had spoken, but had never seen his friends. Squall filled her in on what he knew, and she helped him fill some of the holes in his childhood memories. All in all, not a bad way to spend a slice of eternity.

Chapter 16

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