" Squall! Squall don't…"
"GET BACK! Quistis, get her back to the Ragnarok! I'll cover your escape!"
"No! Squall it'll kill you!"
Rinoa woke with a gasp, and sighed with relief at the steady beep and the harsh, uneven breaths that told her that Squall was still alive. Still fighting the poison that was coursing through his body. The hours? Days? Since he'd rescued her from the Sorceress Memorial and held her so tenderly in his arms afterward that she'd wanted to weep, had blurred together in a nightmare of fatigue.
The Marlboro had attacked them as they'd been racing across the desert to the Ragnarok. Squall had ordered them to run while turning to face the monster to slow its pursuit. As ungainly and hideous as the creature appeared to be, it had moved surprisingly fast.
Squall had moved faster and had cut it down enough to slow it, so that they'd been able to escape… but it had cost him exposure to the creature's deadly toxin.
Rinoa had no idea how lethal the toxin was until she'd seen the devastated look on both Quistis and Zell's faces when Squall had suddenly seemed to go mad and attacked them. Between the two of them they'd managed to subdue their newly minted commander and restrain him in the Ragnarok's infirmary. Not only for their safety, but for his as well. Then they began casting cure and esuna spells in an effort to counteract the effects of the poison.
Squall moaned under his breath and tossed his head from side to side, his fists clenching and unclenching as he struggled against the restraints that held him pinned to the bed. Held his arms immobile so that the intravenous drip of healing elixir that Quistis had started the moment they'd gotten him into the infirmary would not be disturbed.
"Keep him calm Rinoa. I know you can do it. Keep him quiet and let the remedy do its work and we might be able to save him. But the faster his heart beats, the quicker the poison works its way through his body." Quistis had told her, eyes betraying the worry that it would not be enough.
Rinoa swallowed and blinked back tears, then reached into a basin that sat on the bedside table, taking out a wet cloth and wringing it dry. Then she gently sponged the sweat that had gathered on Squall's brow, hoping her touch and the cool, wet cloth would calm him down. She felt a surge of relief when his breathing quieted and he settled back into sleep.
They'd managed to save his sight. The esuna spell had counteracted that effect at least, as well as the berserk spell that had contributed to his delirium. The curaga spell had healed his injuries, but it wasn't effective against poison. There was very little available in the way of curatives that was. Not against Marlboro toxin at least. The remedy that was currently dripping into his veins was the strongest they had available, and all it was doing was slowing the poison down.
In short, the best they could do was support Squall and give him a fighting chance against the toxin that was slowly killing him. Perhaps his own body would prevail, he was strong...
But as Squall's fever spiked and his vitals became increasingly sketchy, Rinoa began to truly fear that he would lose this battle.
Rinoa turned to acknowledge Quistis as she entered, checking Squall's stats and sighing.
"Nothing's changed." She said.
Rinoa shook her head, tears threatening again.
"He…He keeps fighting the restraints. I'm trying to keep him calm, but..." she choked back a sob.
"I know. You're doing a good job Rinoa. He's not improving, but he isn't getting any worse either, and right now I'll take it and call it a win. Truth is, you're our best hope for saving him. With all the toxins running through his blood right now, I don't dare try and sedate him." Quistis said, her voice betraying her worry.
"What did Dr. Kadowaki say?" Rinoa asked her.
"Pretty much the same. An antidote to Marlboro toxin doesn't exist because it's just too dangerous to try and get a sample of it. Nobody's managed to do it and survive. Squall did manage to cut off about four tentacles, and we might be able to get enough venom from them, but it's a slow process creating an antivenin. He doesn't have that much time I'm afraid." Quistis said, her gaze straying back to Squall.
"Why don't you take a break for a little bit; eat, shower, whatever you need to do. I'll stay here with him." Quistis suggested, taking in Rinoa's red-eyed exhaustion.
"But…" Rinoa hesitated.
"Go on. I'll call you if anything changes." Quistis assured her.
"All right. I'll be back as soon as possible." Rinoa said, rising from the seat at Squall's bedside that she'd occupied for far too long.
Sighing, she stretched and grimaced as her back and joints popped and crackled from being immobile for so long. Rotating her neck, and feeling it pop as well; she moved stiffly out of the infirmary and made her way to the galley.
Despite the emptiness in her middle, Rinoa couldn't bring herself to eat however. Instead, she picked at the food on her plate, worry a constant, gnawing ache worse than hunger. Sighing, she got up and discarded the leavings, wandering listlessly through the airship.
She finally made her way to her room and grabbed some clothes. Maybe a shower would help. Certainly it couldn't hurt. With that thought in mind, Rinoa stripped and got into the shower, adjusting the temperature until it was nicely hot.
She washed herself mechanically, trying hard to ignore the fatigue that dragged at her. Squall had done that more than once during their adventures, and Rinoa had been fascinated with his seemingly inexhaustible energy. That and his strength, and most of all his courage in the face of hideous odds.
Rinoa had seen the fear in his eyes, just before he'd turned away, narrowed them, and charged the monster. It wasn't that he was fearless, she knew that now; his courage came from doing what he had to do even though he was afraid. Fear held no power over him.
Death however, was a completely different story. Nobody had power over that. Not really, at any rate.
Rinoa shook herself out of the morbid, fatalistic trend her thoughts had taken and shut off the water. Grabbing a towel, she stepped out and dried off.
It was while she was getting dressed that she felt…. something. Instinctively, she knew it was Squall, though how she knew that, she couldn't quantify. It was a new sense that she'd acquired, along with her new powers as a sorceress. She could sense what Squall was feeling sometimes if she was close to him. It had helped her, when she felt his distress, to calm and reassure him.
She hurriedly finished dressing and went back to the infirmary, worry eating at her the whole way.
When she walked through the doorway she saw Quistis trying to calm Squall, who was attempting to sit up and looking urgently around the room, asking, "Where's Rinoa? Is she okay, where is she?"
"Squall, she's fine, she's okay. You saved her." Quistis said gently, trying to reassure him.
"N-no… She... I don't see her... They were gonna…" his head fell back onto the pillow, bathed with sweat again, and he closed his eyes, panting heavily.
Quistis looked up as Rinoa approached the bed with undisguised relief on her face. "She's here Squall, see? She's okay."
She stood and whispered to Rinoa, "Thank you for coming back, I was starting to worry. I wish you could have gotten more of a break but I'm glad you decided to come back instead."
Rinoa nodded and took Quistis' place at Squall's side, gripping his hand firmly.
"Squall?" She whispered. His breathing steadied and he opened his eyes, rolling his head over on the pillow to look at her.
"Ri… Rinoa…" he murmured, squeezing her hand. Rinoa wanted to weep at how pale and waxy his skin looked. His eyes were focused on her face, but Rinoa wasn't sure how lucid he was. She couldn't tell just from looking.
"I'm here," she said softly, reaching into the basin with her free hand and squeezing out the cloth. He closed his eyes as she wiped it over his brow and cheeks.
"Hot." He said. "I'm hot." He took a deep breath and shifted uncomfortably.
"You've got a fever." Rinoa said calmly, continuing to sponge him.
"I can't move. Why can't I move?" he asked, looking down at the straps confining his wrists and chest and frowning.
"You have to keep still. We've got an IV drip in one of your arms and we don't want it pulled out. You kept thrashing about so we had to tie you down." Rinoa explained.
"Oh," Squall said, sighing and closing his eyes again. "Tired."
"Sleep then. The rest will help you." Rinoa said, hoping it was true.
"Can't sleep. Too much to do. Have to…" Squall said, frowning, eyes still closed.
"Shh… just rest for now." Rinoa urged him, wiping his brow again.
"N..no. Gotta…Ultimecia. Can't let her take you again. Won't let her. Won't. Can't have you! They can't!" Squall said his voice rising with each disjointed syllable.
Tears gathered in Rinoa's eyes as she placed the washcloth firmly on his forehead and held it there for a moment, gently ceasing his head's restless tossing.
"I know. I'm not going anywhere. Now please settle down and rest." Rinoa whispered. It was so hard maintaining calm in the face of his raving. It scared her to see him so undone. And what she sensed from him did not reassure her. It was a confused jumble of thoughts and emotions that ebbed and surged along with his fever.
He quieted again at her urging, sighing and appearing to sink into the bed. For an awful moment, Rinoa thought that he'd breathed his last, so still he became. But his hand still gripped hers strongly despite the toxin and the fever it had brought on that had weakened him. His heart still kept a steady, reassuring beat.
Rinoa stayed at his bedside and helped him fight. Hours, days, it didn't matter to her. After awhile it all blurred together. She held his hand and comforted him as Quistis tried desperately to bring his fever down, going as far as to cover him in as many ice packs as she could find. She wiped his face and chest with cold water to further that effort, calming him as he gasped and shivered in reaction.
And the whole time, she felt completely helpless as she watched his struggle, watched him grow weaker and weaker. Watched as the toxin began to win. She was a sorceress, with a huge reserve of untapped and untested power, and she had no clue of how to use it to save his life. What good was such power if she couldn't heal the man she loved with it?
"Rinoa." Squall's voice, a weak whisper now, woke her from a half doze.
Rinoa raised her head from where she'd laid it on his bed, blinking blearily at him. He gazed steadily at her, and for once there appeared to be sense in his eyes. Had his fever broken? Or was something worse happening?
"Hey Squall," she whispered, running her fingers through his tangled, sweat dampened hair. Brushing her fingers across his forehead and feeling the heat still radiating from it, made her want to cry again.
"Why am I tied to the bed?" he asked her.
Wondering if he was indeed lucid, Rinoa asked him, "Do you remember what happened?"
Squall closed his eyes for a moment and Rinoa thought he'd drifted back into unconsciousness. He'd been in and out for a while now, lingering on the edge of a coma but still fighting it, unwilling to succumb to its pull. Rinoa feared that once he drifted into those waters, he'd never find his way back and she'd lose him forever. It got so bad that she found herself purposefully waking him from time to time to see if he could still respond to her.
"I remember the sorceress memorial. We… rescued you. I remember running." He whispered, his eyes still closed.
"Yes. That's right. You freed me." Rinoa said.
Squall swallowed. "I remember…. A marlboro…."
"Yes." Rinoa confirmed.
He sighed softly and opened his eyes again, blinking at her as though the lids were too heavy for them to stay open long.
"I've been poisoned, haven't I?" he asked her.
Eyes blurring with unshed tears, Rinoa nodded, "Yes."
Squall eyes drifted shut as he whispered, "So I'm dying then."
Rinoa shook her head violently, tears starting to trail down her cheeks.
"No. No you're not." She said in flat denial. "You're not dying!"
"No antidote for Marlboro poison." Squall said with great effort.
Rinoa stifled a sob at that statement. It was true. All of their efforts had only prolonged the inevitable it seemed. More tears wet her cheeks as she gazed at him helplessly.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, holding her gaze with his. Then his eyes drifted shut.
"Squall?" Rinoa asked, voice shaky with tears. When he didn't respond she collapsed into heartbroken sobs. He was still breathing, his heart was still stubbornly beating…but he'd slipped into a coma and Rinoa knew that it was only a matter of time before she lost him completely.
He burned. He froze. He drifted in nothingness and pain seared through him. Through his body, his mind, his heart. His thoughts were fragmented, disjointed, a jumble of memories and nightmares. Dollet. Timber. Deling City. The D-district prison. Rinoa lying comatose in his arms, and then dying in space (but she hadn't died there…).
She was taken from him, time and again, an endless loop of loneliness and pain. He raced to free her from the sorceress memorial and was too late, too late to save her from Adel's living death (but he had).
Gentle voices whispered in his ear and gentle hands cooled his feverish ravings, and he calmed as they drove the nightmares and evil memories away. He could feel it, the sickness in his blood that was stealing his life away. He could feel the heaviness of it as it forced his body to both fight and crave rest at the same time.
And all the while, as his body ached and burned, she was there. Every time he opened his eyes, she was there.
He tried to speak, but his confused mind could only string jumbled, barely coherent words together. Even when he was lucid enough to be able to think clearly, albeit only briefly, he was unable to speak rationally enough to tell Rinoa what he wanted her to know.
And he was so tired…
Dark oblivion beckoned and promised him rest, but he held it off with all his strength. He wasn't done yet. He still had a job to do, a client, a Sorceress, to protect. Yes, a sorceress, but he didn't care. She was his responsibility. She was his… There was another sorceress, Ultimecia, to fight and the world, (Rinoa, his world.) to save. He couldn't sleep yet, not until he'd finished the job he'd been given.
No rest for the wicked, it seemed. What an odd thought. Where had that come from?
But the poison in his veins was creeping, seeping into every cell of his body. In the preternatural sensitivity brought on by the fever, he fancied he could see it, a seeping red tide of death, killing him cell by cell. He saw the remedy that they were administering to him intravenously, the healing elixir a bright counterpoint to the thick red death of the toxin. It was dissipating as it came in contact with the poison, mixing and then dissolving.
Incomplete. And ineffective. It would not save him, only give him time. Time to what? Suffer while the poison did its work?
Time to think and wish that things had turned out differently. That he'd had the time to fully acknowledge what he was just becoming aware of. Walking across the causeway from FH to Esthar, leaping heedlessly into space, challenging Esthar itself to snatch Rinoa away from their judgment…. The reason for this and for everything else that he had done for his client rested in his heart.
It had a name. Something he'd never thought himself capable of. It was love.
It bloomed through his heart, mind and soul like a virus. More insidious than the poison that was killing him. Sweeter and more intoxicating than honeyed wine. It made him strong and courageous. It made him weak and powerless. It made him want to give her the world, but the only thing he had to give to her was his heart.
And it was failing. He could feel the strength leaving him, and much as he wanted to win through to see her face again, hear her voice, the pull of oblivion was becoming too strong to fight any more. He was losing.
He was just starting to succumb to the darkness, its pull dragging at him too strongly to resist any longer, when something grabbed him and held him back.
Don't go. Please don't leave me.
Yes. Please Squall, hold on.
I'm so tired.
I know. But you can't sleep. I'm afraid you won't wake if you do.
I can't let you do that. I'm a sorceress; I can save you I… just need to figure out how.
Because…because I love you.
You love me?
Surprise. Confusion. And something warm…something he'd just discovered the name of, but had yet to speak or fully acknowledge.
Then…light flooded his being. It chased away the darkness, burned away the toxin in his blood. It provided the missing ingredient that the healing elixir that was already in his bloodstream needed and became a catalyst. The elixir was enhanced by the catalyst and a warm tingle suffused his being, spreading throughout his body, quenching the fire, soothing his pain.
And Rinoa was there, somehow a part of him, in a way that he didn't understand and couldn't quite comprehend.
I think… I think I did it. How do you feel?
I don't see the poison any longer. I don't… feel it. But I'm still tired.
Your body needs rest. It's okay to give in to it now. I'll be here with you.
Sleep took him then. Real sleep. Healing sleep, untroubled by fever-borne nightmares, undisturbed by pain. Rinoa withdrew her mind from his, and left him to it.
A hand lightly, hesitantly touching her hair awakened Rinoa from formless, exhausted dreams. Or perhaps nightmares. She wasn't sure any more that there was actually that much of a difference. She jerked awake, startled at the touch, and met Squall's puzzled gaze as he hurriedly withdrew his hand. She cursed inwardly as she watched his barriers come back up and the wariness return to his eyes.
Feeling defeated somehow, she sat up and arched her back, then slumped back against the chair she was sitting in.
"Rinoa? What are you doing here?" he asked, studying her in the keen manner that he always had.
Rinoa's mouth went dry and tears threatened as she took in his normal, healthy coloring, his alert, sharp, aquamarine gaze. Someone, possibly Quistis, had removed the IV and the restraints as they both had slept.
Cheeks burning, she looked away and mumbled, "I…I must have fallen asleep…"
"I got hurt, didn't I? That's usually the reason I end up here," Squall said. Rinoa heard a rustle of bedclothes as he shifted around and she turned back to see him stretching and moving his arms and legs and checking his body for new scars... and frowning when he didn't see them.
"You don't remember what happened?" Rinoa asked him curiously.
Squall shook his head, "Not really. Just bits and pieces. I must have really been hurt if I'm in here. Usually a curaga spell or healing elixir takes care of things without any problems."
"What do you remember?" she asked.
Squall frowned. "I remember the sorceress memorial. I remember freeing you and running across the desert. I remember seeing a Marlboro…. The rest gets all jumbled and confused after that."
Rinoa bit her lip. He didn't remember his fever. His delirium. He didn't remember her invading his mind in a desperate, but successful, attempt to heal him.
Squall shifted again and Rinoa hid a smile as he tried to run his fingers through his hair and stopped with a grimace at the tangles.
"Ugh. How long was I in here anyway? I really need a shower," he complained.
"I don't know. Hours? Days? I know I could use a shower myself." Rinoa replied.
Squall frowned at that, studying her in silence for a moment before asking softly, "were you here the whole time I was out?"
Not trusting her voice, Rinoa simply nodded. Something changed in his expression then, softening it. His hand reached out to her, seemingly at its own volition, and the backs of his fingertips lightly brushed against her cheek and then her hair. Then he swallowed and licked his lips, red staining his cheeks, as he looked away, his errant hand drifting back to his bed.
"Thank you." He said softly.
They sat in awkward silence for a moment; neither sure of what to say to each other next, yet not wanting to be quit of each other's company either. Not yet, at any rate.
Finally Rinoa asked, "What do we do now?"
"I dunno about you but I'm gonna take a shower and get something to eat." Squall answered.
"No, I mean about…about me? About the fact that I'm a sorceress." Rinoa clarified. She stiffened in surprise as Squall's warm hand closed gently around hers.
"I don't know," He answered softly. "But we'll figure it out."