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In the Sights

Laguna had been generous indeed. He had sent the fastest ship in the Estharian fleet to retrieve Squall and Rinoa, and packed it to the deck with Estharian soldiers. Xu was more than happy to make the exchange; Selphie had said time could be very short if they wanted to save Squall from the effects of his captivity.

Once the Estharians were offloaded from their transport, and Squall and Rinoa safely away, they organized themselves into squads of twenty. Checking them over, Quistis realized Laguna had sent five hundred soldiers for this mission.

Twenty five squads, on minimal notice, for the sake of his son.

Xu had agreed to give charge of them to Quistis; Xu was going to lead the SeeD, sparing only one for each Estharian squad to keep communication lines open.

A thousand men was not so much, though, when one had such a large area to cover. Classes were suspended as Garden hunkered down on the shores of Centra, the underclassmen undertaking defensive battle positions against the possibility of attack.

Everyone was hoping that the Garden's distant position would protect it; they'd landed it a good way away from where Squall had been found, and there was small chance that a laboratory capable of what had been done to Squall would be located near a beach, given the unpredictable nature of the sea.

Zell was practically hopping, so eager was he to get going. His official role was as Quistis' bodyguard, since the Headmaster wasn't supposed to engage in combat outside the confines of Garden itself. Quistis had informed him in no uncertain terms that if he tried to stop her, she would Degenerate him into nonexistence.

Zell had roared with laughter at the idea he would even try. He knew who the target was, and it wasn't Quistis.

For a while, everything was quiet. No squads encountered anything unusual. No people, no installations. Just a few monsters, quickly eliminated. It occurred to Quistis that by the time they were done, Centra might be fit for re-colonization. There would certainly be a lot fewer monsters.

Then one of the Estharian squads didn't report in on schedule. Immediately all squads, SeeD and Estharian, were alerted and began to move toward the missing squad's last known location.

They found bits of the squad, but no sign of the SeeD that had been with them. At least, not until they found the cause. It was one man, short and thin as a rail, tossing the body of the SeeD up and down like a toy. Each toss threw the body fifteen feet in the air. Immediately Quistis' squad began to encircle the man.

"Don't fire!" ordered Quistis. "He'll just jump and we'd shoot each other."

The man's grin faded; apparently he'd been hoping they'd try just that. He hurled the broken corpse of the SeeD at Quistis, and stomped his foot.

Quistis nimbly dodged the grisly missile, but the foot-stomping caused an earthquake that threw everyone from their feet. The thin man made a prodigious jump out of the encircling squad's reach, and tried to run.

"Now fire!" shouted Quistis. Immediately twenty guns blasted. The thin man fell.

Quistis and Zell approached slowly, ready to lash out with everything they had if the man moved. But the bullets had killed him. She looked at Zell. "Brothers, would be my guess," she said.

Zell frowned, thinking. "How poetic d'you think this girlfriend of Seifer's is?" he asked.

Quistis looked puzzled. "No idea, why do you ask?"

"Only...I've been wondering, why Leviathan on Squall? It's a magic user's Guardian Force, and everyone knows Squall isn't big on relying on magic. But...if you were being poetic..."

"You'd choose Leviathan because a squall is often water borne on a heavy wind," finished Quistis. "I see. So you think that if this one had Brothers..."

"Everybody get down!" roared Zell, just in time for another earthquake.

"Good guess," commented Quistis, as a much larger man came out of hiding, looking very angry. "I don't think we can just shoot this one."

"I don't plan to," said Zell. "I can take him, just watch." He grinned wolfishly, his dark tattoo giving him an almost demonic aspect for a moment.

Quistis was forced to sit back in admiration as Zell bounded toward his foe. Zell had been Squall's partner in acrobatics for years, ever since he'd seen how useful it could be - especially given his preferred style of combat. Each time his foe called up an earth-shake that sent Quistis and the rest of the squad down, Zell simply jumped into the air in a flip - always landing closer to his goal, never toppled by the moving ground.

When he reached the man, he didn't waste any time on fancy combat maneuvers. Instead he launched into a blindingly fast series of kicks and punches that Irvine had once called 'Armageddon Fist'. This proved to be too much even for an enhanced constitution, and his foe's neck broke with an audible snap.

Zell strutted back to Quistis and gave her a hand up. "See?" he said. "No problem."

"At least we now have an idea to work with," she said unruffled. "Though I hope we don't meet any more...brothers."

"Oh, I dunno," said Zell. "Coulda gone much worse, if you ask me."

* * * * * *

Raine had left.

It wasn't so much that Squall disliked talking to her; on the contrary, it had been very pleasant. He hadn't had to worry about all the things he normally did when talking to someone, like being polite, or worrying about revealing too much of himself. Raine had watched him his entire life, and had a good idea of how he thought and felt about just about everything.

Which, he supposed, had been the problem. There was little he could tell her that she didn't already know except where his friends were concerned - and their lives were their own. He didn't feel right about telling someone else their secrets, so he didn't. And while Raine could tell him a great deal about her side of his family, and she had filled him in on the useful parts, he had never heard of or met any of them. Since they were dead, and he wasn't planning on staying, he wouldn't meet them for a very long time. And Raine was enough like him to know that he had little interest in learning about people he'd never likely meet.

He had gone back to watching Rinoa, and listening to Rinoa. And sometime when he was doing that, Raine had slipped away. He didn't think she was offended. She knew that he'd be back someday, after all, and she'd made sure he knew what he needed to.

He had become rather worried when Rinoa started casting spells on him. The more time passed, the more distant Squall felt from recent events. So to him, it had seemed that Rinoa was trying to undo what had been done - that if she could erase the marks it would not have happened. He recognized it as a response to victimization, but the parts of him that should have cared seemed to be on holiday. It only struck him as odd that Rinoa should play the part of a victim, when it had been him strung up in that huge, empty room.

Then she had started reading, and Squall paid close attention. He had to admit that part of the reason for this was that there was nothing else to do, and he would latch onto just about anything if it would keep him from falling too far into his own thoughts for a while.

He and Rinoa heard the solution in the text at about the same time. 'For the Knight to fulfill his duty, he must be able to touch the spirit of his Sorceress, to know that all is well with her. In acceptance of the position of Knight a bond is forged, allowing the Knight to sense his Sorceress' wishes and will.'

She had smiled at his still face, and Squall had immediately perked up. So she had heard him, after all. Some part of her could hear him, just as some part of him knew how she felt. He knew, somewhere, just how much she did care. Good thing, too. Some of her more romantic notions would have made absolutely no sense to him otherwise.

They could reach each other; there was a doorway back. It was just a matter of forcing it open.

Raine had said that for him to return he would have to cross two barriers; the one Alicia had cast over him, locking him in one moment. And the one he had cast over himself, to escape the pain he had been in.

He would have to trust Rinoa to break Alicia's part of the barrier. The other was quite literally his own problem. Alicia had locked him in that one moment where the psyche totters on the edge of sanity and just begins to fall; where the falling is inevitable, the abyss is in full view, and you can't bring yourself back.

That book had better have been right. Otherwise he'd be absolutely no use to anyone. He shook his head angrily; the decision had been made, he would do whatever was needed to return, and there was no use in shaking over it.

The treacherous voices in the back of his mind told him there'd be plenty of time for that on the other side, anyway.

Squall took a deep, metaphorical breath and dove into himself, into the abyss.

* * * * * * *

The exchange was accomplished so quickly that the cadets hadn't had time to realize it was taking place before it was done.

Laguna had sent Ward to oversee the process. Rinoa couldn't help liking the giant mute, and got the hang of interpreting his whispers and facial expressions fairly quickly. But it didn't ease the pain of knowing that she couldn't help Squall, and she couldn't help avenge him.

When Kadowaki gave her permission to heal him, she exhausted herself erasing every bruise and cut. Even when his skin had regained its usual pale perfection, Rinoa kept casting until she couldn't even manage a simple cure. Then she wrapped her arms around Squall's neck, and softly read to him from 'The Sorceress' Knight'.

Quistis had been so right. The book was invaluable. Among other things, it hinted that once someone became a Knight, they were always a Knight. And that a Knight could touch the spirit of his Sorceress. Rinoa thought that might well be the case - why else would she be sensing him? But of course she knew what Quistis hoped; that the bond worked in reverse. Rinoa was going to wait until they arrived in Esthar for that. If it worked, great. If it didn't, she could end up in the same state as Squall. From what Selphie had said, the imitation-GF material would continue at the same rate whether Squall was awake or asleep, though Rinoa hoped her magic could slow it down. So far, the only noticeable effect was that his skin was gradually growing cooler to the touch - though all life-signs read normal otherwise.

The trip would take a while, and Rinoa had done her best to exhaust herself. She sat at the head of the bed and nestled her head against Squall's neck and shoulder, and tried to sleep sitting like that.

~* Bodies all around her naked body, touching pinching fondling groping, fingers (please let those be fingers) entering every crack and orifice pushing sliding people laughing languidly sensuously like they're having a really good time but this hurts go away stop touching me trying to move flinch fight flee but there's no way to move nowhere to go no way to fight stop touching me go away leave me alone help me that hurts stop please stop rising panic mustn't scream mustn't give them any satisfaction it'll just get worse can't stop the shaking go away stop touching me *~

Rinoa started awake, shaking. "Is that what they did to you?" she asked Squall's inert body softly, sadly. "I'm so sorry I didn't stop them taking wonder you've fled your body. I probably would have too, faced with that." Kadowaki's description of his probable treatment had been a definite cakewalk by comparison. She thought for a moment. "I think you can hear me," she said. "I can't ask you to come back to me, not if you have to wake up to that." Gently she brushed his bangs away from his face. "But...if you're willing to come back, I'll stay with you and help any way I can. Any way you'll let me. I'll cast a Sleep spell on myself so you can share your nightmares with me...maybe it'll help you get closer to coming back."

She sat very still for a few moments, trying to listen or sense a response. But in the end she had only her own impressions to go on, and she decided that it would probably be a good idea. At the very least she'd get a full night's sleep, which she hadn't had in some time. She made sure she wouldn't cut off her circulation, got comfortable, and cast Sleep on herself.

She was cast into the dream again, but this time as an observer. Squall's face was a mask of pain, twisting as he fought the urge to cry out or scream, trying to deny his captors at least that small satisfaction. The whole world was disjointed in time; people would be there and then they wouldn't. And whenever they weren't, another face took their place - a cheerful, grinning Doctor Odine, always with a glowing syringe in his hands. Rinoa watched, sick to her stomach, as Odine emptied his syringe into Squall's body, and walked back unconcerned as his subject fought the effects. Rinoa could not stand to watch any more, even to know what had been done. She used her Sorceress' gift on Squall's chains and blasted them loose, and used every ounce of her Sorceress' strength to cradle Squall's bruised, naked, convulsing body to her chest, trying to offer whatever comfort she could. She could tell he was fighting it, trying not to injure her as she held him.

"Whatever went before, I am here now," she said to him. "You are not alone." And she repeated that, over and over, a gentle mantra against his fear as his body shook.

"S-s-s," he hissed, trying to unclench his teeth without letting his shaking make his jaw bite his tongue. "S-sorry," he managed to gasp through clenched teeth. "S-s her."

"It's her?" said Rinoa, trying to understand. Squall couldn't move his head without losing control of it to the convulsions, but he tried to cast his eyes in the right direction.

In the frozen dream scene, Rinoa saw a beautiful woman standing at one of the observation windows. A petite woman with long brown hair and brown eyes, dressed like a daughter of a noble house in a simple but elegant gown. She was smiling cheerfully, as though she were watching something beautiful and amusing.

"S-s her," Squall managed to stutter. He tried to force his jaw to say the simple name, but he couldn't force his breath or jaw to obey. When the shaking slowed, Rinoa suddenly found her arms empty. She turned to find Squall chained as before, the horde of people around him again.

Apparently the rules of the dream wouldn't let her free him. So she stared into his eyes, and tried to let him lose himself in hers. But periodically he would suddenly blink, and he'd be right back where he started. Literally; the scene would replay from the beginning.

Rinoa studied the woman Squall had tried to point out. That must be her power, to force him to feel what was being done to him. She looked from the smiling woman to her beloved in chains, and suddenly began to understand what hatred was. This woman thought no more of Squall's life than she did of a rabbit's that she might choose to eat for dinner.

That triggered a new thought; Rinoa studied the woman's style of dress, her features. She knew her. Eldest daughter of a wealthy Galbadian House. Alicia. One of the prime reasons Rinoa had divorced herself from Galbadian high society and joined the Timber Owls.

She turned back to Squall. "I know who she is, Squall," she said. "You don't have to tell me. It's Alicia."

In his chains, Squall could not even nod. He did not even seem aware of her, trying not to wince as things got progressively more brutal. She tried not to cry, when Squall wasn't crying and it was happening to his body.

She couldn't free him, it seemed. And she couldn't hug him, with so many people in the way. So she reassured him as best she could, casting healing spells whenever the rough antics of his captors made blood trickle down his legs, and speaking calmly, reassuringly, of simple good things. Giving him something else to hear besides lascivious laughter, something else to focus on besides the hands and bodies that pressed him from every side. And occasionally, whenever the pain in his eyes was too much for her to bear, she would shatter his chains and hold him for the few seconds the dream would permit before he would be made as before.

By the time the Sleep spell wore off, the only progress Rinoa could claim was being able to free him for perhaps ten seconds instead of five. But she would do this as long as it took.

Chapter 17

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