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This had to be it.

Squall's eyes had been glittering with madness throughout the night's dreaming, lurking just on the edge of expression. Rinoa had watched Alicia's smile get progressively wider as the woman watched intently. They had to be near the point where the lock had been made.

There were no women in the mob now. And it was a mob. It made Rinoa sick to her stomach, the realization that Alicia had had to have freed the entire population of a prison's sex-offender wing to find the men she had turned loose on Squall. And now they were allowed to bring their 'toys' in with them. More than once, blood had trickled from Squall's lips as he bit through them, fighting the scream. Rinoa could sympathize; once or twice she had taken his place, and even ten seconds could be an eternity in those chains, even for her.

And Alicia was smiling like it was an innocent game of spin-the-bottle. If Rinoa hadn't known this wasn't the real world, she would have blasted Alicia into so much slag, and be damned to the consequences. But it wasn't the real world, so she had better uses for her power. She would watch for the signs that would indicate a place where the scene could be forced forward. So far, this night, there had been none.

Then a particularly huge and repulsive man had brought what looked to Rinoa to be a private torturer's collection to bear. When she saw him use a few of them, her mouth twisted in disgust and amended that to 'private sexual sadist's collection'. She felt like she might never be clean again, just seeing them, and her heart ached for Squall on the receiving end. She itched to blast them out of existence, call the lightnings down on the whole lot - but knew that if she did Squall would be forced through the whole scene again. Once was surely enough, and more than enough. Being forced to watch was torture enough. But to be on the receiving end. . .

And Squall screamed. There was nothing of rage in it, only pain and a dreadful acceptance of it as an eternal thing, and the fear of that eternity.

Rinoa reacted automatically, and blasted the chains around him. Blasted, in fact, every other human being in the room, calling Thundaga down on the lot of them. Unnecessary in terms of what was required to free him, but incredibly satisfying nonetheless.

The room faded from view. Everything faded from view.

In the center of a black void, a fully clothed Squall crouched, silently weeping, eyes closed.

Rinoa said nothing but ran to him, wrapped her arms around him and offered what comfort she could.

After a while he said, "Raine was right," in a voice gone hoarse with pain and heavy with weariness. "But it was worth it." He leaned back into Rinoa's embrace, stretched out as though to sleep. Gray eyes still haunted but now clear looked up at Rinoa as he whispered, "Don't leave me."

"I won't," Rinoa said with a smile. "I'll be right here when you wake up. I'll keep the nightmares away, I promise."

Squall's eyes closed, and he drifted into sleep.

* * * * * * * * *

"Hey man, c'mere," called Kiros.

"What's up?" called Laguna from his distant paper-stacked corner of the lab.

"Think we found something."

That was all Laguna needed; he'd lost track of how long he'd been searching. In the farther corners of the lab there was no natural light, and no clocks. Odine seemed to think of Time as a distraction. Once or twice, Laguna had simply fallen asleep where he stood or sat, but the moment something woke him up he'd get back to searching. The idea of actually finding something had faded some while back; there was only searching. Hope flared to life as he practically pole-vaulted across the lab to get to the section Kiros and Ward were searching.

Kiros grinned as he handed Laguna a fat manila folder. "Feast your eyes on that, my man," he said.

Laguna didn't waste any time doing so, flipping through the store of notations. It was indeed what they had been seeking - research into the nature of Guardian Forces, speculations on how to synthesize the effect. He checked the dates. "Hey, this stuff's pretty old," he said, puzzled.

"Ward says that's probably because Balamb Garden managed to acquire all the known Guardian forces last year - no research material. If you check, you can see that there's lots of information about Pandemona and Doomtrain; both of them GFs that Odine could've gotten his hands on fairly easily."

Laguna did that thing, and agreed. "This is good - but we need to know if there's anything more recent. Where'd you find this?"

"Does it matter?" purred a delicate, feminine voice. All three of them jerked their heads to face the speaker.

A small, delicately featured brunette woman of about twenty-four years stood in the doorway, flanked by Professor Odine and a good number of men. She was smiling. "Such...dedication," she smiled. "We've been watching you for...oh, it must be three hours now."

Kiros and Ward moved to stand protectively next to Laguna, weapons at the ready. But Laguna didn't reach for his gun. He cocked his head to one side, and asked, "Why?"

Alicia blinked, scrutinizing Laguna's face carefully. "You're...him," she said slowly. "The one in Squall's mind, the one that didn't matter." Her face bloomed into another happy smile. "How delightful, that he should be connected to you, President Loire. When Rinoa dies, I may take him for my Knight after all - he has the blood, if not the training. And with you gone, why he would be a good candidate to rule Esthar, would he not?"

Laguna didn't let her casual insults bother him; he knew already how little Squall thought of him. "Why were you watching us?" he repeated, waving behind his back for his friends to get under cover. It didn't particularly surprise him when neither one moved.

Alicia sighed, as though Laguna were a bright student asking a foolish question. "Why should I stop you, when you were doing our work for us?" she asked, and waved her companions to action.

Laguna and Kiros each grabbed one of Ward's shoulders and leaped behind a sturdy laboratory table, Laguna clutching the manila folder to his chest as though it contained the secrets of the universe. They were just in time, as lightning and wind filled the room. There were cries from Odine of "No fire! No fire!"

Kiros turned to Laguna and said, "You glad I brought the gun now?"

* * * * * *

Selphie checked in with Irvine at around 5 a.m.. As usual, Rinoa was in her chair behind Squall's head, arms around his neck and her head pillowed on his shoulder.

But there were tears on Squall's cheeks, and on Rinoa's. And when Selphie checked the scans, she realized it wasn't coma. It was, at last, sleep. She whirled around and gave a very startled Irvine a hug so fierce it threatened to cut off his circulation.

"She did it!" Selphie told him. "She got him back! Woohoo, now we're getting somewhere!" Her cheerful grin threatened to take in her ears.

"Hey, great," said Irvine breathlessly, "but couldja let me breathe so's I can join in the celebrating?"

Immediately Selphie loosened her hold. "Sorry 'bout that," she said. "It's just - we've almost got this GF-stuff sussed, and now Rinoa's got Squall back, things are looking better all the time. Too bad Sir Laguna missed this, but we do need Odine's notes."

Selphie practically bounced over to her workstation, and whistled cheerfully as she began her tests. Irvine just shook his head and said, "You don't think they might appreciate a little sleep? Pulling a guy back from the brink of death has gotta take it out of even a Sorceress, you know."

"She'll be asleep for hours yet," Selphie said unconcernedly. "She's had to use magic to keep herself asleep the past few nights anyway."

"Yeah, but-"

"That still leaves me," said a voice gone rough with thirst and disuse. Selphie and Irvine both started guiltily as Squall half-tried to sit up, dislodging Rinoa, keeping the sheets around him. Selphie and Irvine both leaped to assist, but something in Squall's expression stopped them about three feet away.

"You wouldn't happen to know where my gear is, would you?" he asked in a tone that said he would not like to hear the answer 'no'.

"Same old Squall," said Irvine with a rueful shake of his head. "Out for days, the minute he wakes up it's back to work. Just a mo, I'll get your stuff. Nice to see ya, by the way," and he hauled Selphie out with him.

Squall carefully removed the IV and checked himself over. No physical signs remained of his captivity, of course. He remembered Rinoa healing him of that. But he still felt ... unbalanced. Something was out of kilter, and he didn't think simple hunger was the reason. He glanced over at Rinoa, sleeping under her own magic. He didn't trust that pair to knock before entering, so he was pretty much stuck where he was for the present. They could have put my clothes back on before coming here, he thought. It's freezing in here. On second thought, no. Bad enough Kadowaki had undressed him. She'd probably have needed help to get everything back on, and just thinking of that was enough to make him blush.

Then it occurred to him to wonder where 'here' was. He'd lost track of time when he re-entered his body, and that had been on the ship. He looked over the room and its equipment. Pretty advanced stuff.

Which meant Esthar. Wonderful. Half the world away from where he needed to be, if he was going to stop Alicia.

His thoughts were interrupted by Irvine and Selphie's return, arms laden with his clothes and gear. It looked to have been cleaned and mended or replaced. "Get dressed fast," said Selphie, "'cause we have a lot of catching up to do."

I'll bet. Squall nodded, and waited for them to leave. He wasn't going to worry about Rinoa. She had seen the worst of him there was to see, and she was still in the land of the Sleep spell anyway. He dressed quickly and efficiently, silently relieved at the comfortable weight of the leather. Once dressed, he carefully scooped up Rinoa and laid her on the bed where he had been. There was no telling how long it had been since the ship, and she could use some proper rest. He was just getting her settled when the Sunshine Duo entered the room again.

"Good to see you looking yourself again," said Selphie with a small smile. "But I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you."

Squall said nothing, only watched her and waited. He didn't look particularly surprised that there would be bad news, that would be bad enough for them to tell him right off.

"See, ah," Selphie began, and Irvine moved to stand supportively behind her, "D'you remember what Odine used on you?"

Squall's eyes narrowed. "Vividly," he said.

"He wouldn't have given it a name or anything, would he?" Selphie asked uncomfortably. "Said anything to you about it?"

"No," said Squall, in a tone that said he'd like them to drop the subject.

But Selphie persisted. "Well, um...the thing is, we think he was trying to give people the powers of the Guardian Forces without the junctioning, you see..."

If it would help her get to the point, Squall was willing to help her along. "I know it's made me stronger," he said, "and I can use a water attack. What else?"

"Well," began Selphie, "the thing is, Odine used too much on you. The other stuff he tested on you masked the strength of your system, and he gave you a lot more than he should have. At least, we're hoping he didn't intend this result."

Squall merely stared at her and waited, using silence like a hole between them. And obligingly, Selphie filled it. "Squall...this stuff's going to kill you if we can't stop it," she said wretchedly. "We think we might be close to finding a counteragent, or at least a slowing agent, but there's no guarantees. I'm gonna need your help."

Squall looked down at Rinoa, sleeping on the bed. "How long?" he asked.

"Maybe a few weeks," said Selphie sadly.

Squall's expression didn't change, but he reached down with one gloved hand and touched Rinoa's cheek. "What do you need me to do?" he asked. Unspoken was the question, Does Rinoa know?

"Rinoa knows," Selphie said. "You don't have to tell her. We just need you to be willing to help us with whatever we need. Samples, anything you can remember, stuff like that."

"Odine never told me anything," Squall said flatly. "But I'll be here if you need me." At least for a while. A few weeks wasn't long, and Alicia had to be stopped. She could have made a small army by now. He blinked, and turned to Irvine. "I know where they are."

"Latitude Longitude, or area description?" asked Irvine. "Quistis and Xu are down there looking, and they've had run-ins with Seifer and his posse and a whole buncha people hyped up like you. But no luck finding the base."

"I don't know the coordinates, but it's built into a hillside covered in people-sized boulders. It's maybe a day to a day and a half southwest of a chocobo forest, and two or three days' hike from where you guys picked me up."

"I'll let 'em know," said Irvine, and didn't bother asking how Squall knew where he had been picked up. Quickly he strode out, heading for the com center. With Selphie busy at her workstation and her tests, Squall was left alone with a sleeping Rinoa.

He knew beyond question that Rinoa had wanted him to come back. That surety had sustained him throughout the ordeal, the knowing that even though she wouldn't ask, she wanted him to come back. Even though it seemed that he was returning to life for a mere visit rather than the permanent stay he'd had in mind, she'd still wanted him around for that little while. And even though in a few weeks all his efforts might well prove to have been useless, he couldn't say he regretted the choice to come back.

Slowly he drew off his right glove, and stroked Rinoa's cheek - much as she had done when it had been him on that bed, he realized with an inner smile. No, he did not regret the choice, however brief the stay might be. Things were so much more ... vivid ... while one was alive.

He wondered whether Rinoa knew what Raine had told him about Griever. He drew his glove back on and picked up Rinoa's book, riffling through the pages, passing the parts that Rinoa had already read aloud and using one finger to bookmark the place she'd left off. What he was looking for was probably near the end.


In extremity, and at the Sorceress' discretion, she may call upon her Knight to perform a Joining. The Sorceress must be in physical contact with her Knight at the time, and there must be compatibility between the mind of the Sorceress and the mind of the Knight. [Note: mutual love increases compatibility.] The shape this joining takes is reached by mutual consensus, but is always more powerful than either Sorceress or Knight alone. The Joining may be temporary or permanent, depending on the will and the might of both the Sorceress and the Knight. A Sorceress' Token will increase the duration and/or power of the Joining, if the Sorceress so desires.

Which was, basically, what Raine had told him, but it was reassuring to know it was right. And it explained, at long last, why Seifer really wanted to become a Sorceress' Knight. Seifer was not the sort to take orders gladly - it was the main reason he had never made SeeD - and most of a Knight's role was service to a Sorceress. But if Seifer could gain the trust of a Sorceress, possibly even her love, he could Join with her into a new being more powerful than he could ever become on his own. And with his rather dominating personality, he would be in control of the new being. And if Squall's guess was right, and the being in question was actually a Guardian Force...that would mean being in control of near godlike power. Trust Seifer to dream a really big romantic dream, Squall thought to himself.

He wondered how Seifer had felt when Rinoa had become a Sorceress. The girlfriend he had abandoned to become Ultimecia's Knight had taken Ultimecia's power, and Adel's, and Edea's. The only Sorceress in the world, and Seifer had inadvertently made sure he was the one person she would never call on to be her Knight, or call on to Join with her. That she might be willing to do so for Squall, his rival for years, had to add an extra sting to it.

Squall blinked. That had to be why Seifer was after Rinoa - and Squall himself. He would want them separate so that Rinoa's powers weren't lost to a new GF, and he would want Rinoa to die so that someone more agreeable to choosing Seifer as a Knight would be Sorceress when Rinoa passed on her powers. If Rinoa did Join with Squall, Seifer would have to hope that a new Sorceress was both born very soon, and agreeable to much older men. In other words, his chances would be pretty much shot.

The answers were all right here, in this dog-eared book Seifer had probably memorized. But this part was near the end, and Rinoa hadn't gotten that far yet. Should he tell her about it, or wait until she reached it on her own? As far as Squall could tell, it wouldn't affect what he and Rinoa would do either way. It just cleared up Seifer's motives some. Enough that Squall didn't worry about being in Esthar; if they stayed put, eventually Seifer would come to them.

What would Odine's experiments on him do to the joined being, anyway? Would it cure him? Would it kill Rinoa? Would it do nothing at all? Squall riffled through the pages, but there was nothing in the book to cover such an eventuality. That was always the problem with book learning. And Raine had told him all she knew.

Yet the fact that they had fought Griever in the future indicated that at some point, it was likely to be an experiment they would try. Only as a last resort, he told himself. The risk to Rinoa is too great otherwise, thanks to Odine. It was always possible that Ultimecia had arisen from a future where Odine had never gotten his hands on either of them. The danger posed by his own condition decided him; he would not mention this to Rinoa unless her life was in danger. He knew, now, how much she cared for him. If he told her, she would risk her own life trying to save his, and that wouldn't do at all. One of us living is better than both of us dying, he thought. And if it comes to dying, well...the life expectancy of a SeeD isn't that long anyway.

He pulled his right glove off to touch Rinoa's face. At least I will have had this, he thought. But this time his gentle caress woke Rinoa, and she smiled with such happiness he found his own face relaxing from its grim expression.

"Glad to see you up and about," she said happily, sitting up and tossing her legs over the side of the bed. "I don't suppose you might be hungry?"

Squall blinked. He'd had so much on his mind that he'd completely forgotten it had been days since he'd eaten anything. Hell, by now it might be weeks, but the IV had taken care of nutrition. Before he could finish considering the question, Rinoa grabbed his hand and said, "If you can't remember when you last ate - and the look on your face says you can't - then trust me, you're hungry. C'mon." She looked over her shoulder to where Selphie was working. "You going to need us today?" she asked.

Selphie looked up from her microscope and checked her notes. "Not 'till this evening at the earliest, I think," she said with a smile. "I'll send Irvine to get you if something comes up, but you two deserve a celebration. Just save some champagne for me, okay?"

"Gotcha," Rinoa grinned, and dragged a suddenly apprehensive Squall out of the room.

Chapter 20

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