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Same As It Never Was

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Quistis sat back in her seat, settling into the couch as Rinoa curled up across from her and closed her eyes.  The other girl looked exhausted, Quistis noted; she had apparently had a hard couple days, and it was showing in simple strain on her face. She wouldn't begrudge Rinoa a nap at all; whatever had happened with Squall had to be exhausting, because things involving Squall... generally were exhausting.

She thought about a nap, but truth be told she wasn't really all that tired; her past few weeks had been strangely empty, full of routine lessons and staff meetings and particularly boring detentions (not that she minded; if she never saw Seifer Almasy on a detention list again, she might die happily in battle) and not much else. She loved teaching again; liked most of her students, still thrilled every day to wake in Garden.  But life, somehow, hadn't been as full after they'd returned from the... war.  From the future.  The closeness they'd all shared - the hot touch of battle, Selphie's hands barking Protect against her skin while Irvine poured Curaga into a wound, Zell's hands flying beside Squall's blade and before Rinoa's spells, her own Blue Magics summoned from that wild part of her to save and scorch and deliver - it had vanished along with the battlefield.  They still saw each other, still greeted each other, but it wasn't at all the same: the reality of reality had put distance between them, an intangible spacer separating their hearts and minds.

Or maybe Quistis had just felt useless: her students graduating, her friends moving on, her life coming back full-circle.  She was good at feeling useless. 

Squall's frantic call had sounded like a godsend: important work, something she could do, something she could be good at.  Her hands had felt idle; her brain, numb.  And yet here she was, on this important mission, and all Quistis felt was the sour tang of a disappointment she didn't really understand.

That Squall and Rinoa had fought, that maybe they had taken a break - it wasn't hard to put the pieces together. She recognized the difficulty one might face, serving as a bodyguard to an ex. And yet she couldn't really feel anything but used, summoned up from a stack of manila folders like any other highly-ranking SeeD and matched to the mission like a color-coded chess piece.  Squall hadn't even waited to tell her in person; he'd handed her papers off to Rinoa, as if she were an accessory: a portable Protect spell, a White Wind that followed you everywhere.  She'd been assigned, not asked, and the difference stung in a way she wasn't sure she wanted to acknowledge.

It didn't really matter; she'd do the job to the best of her ability, because it was her job - but also because her heart went out to Rinoa. She knew Squall could be difficult, and she'd never even had the dubious honor of dating him; it couldn't be easy for them. Some small part of her wondered whether they'd consider her feelings thus – but Quistis just squared her shoulders and opened her mission assignment again: she'd do it anyway, all of it, to the best of her ability.  It was really all she could do, wasn't it?


_________________________________


Zone and Watts were there, as soon as they got off the train, and their faces lit in mutual relief when they saw her – and Rinoa let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, because it was so much more than one pent-up breath: a tension she'd been nursing since that morning phone call, carried in her shoulders and back, eased slightly at the sight of her two friends.  Watts' face was lined with worry, and Zone looked exhausted – too exhausted to fake stomach pains, she thought suddenly, and was amused to find she could still give the ghost of a smile.

Quistis followed her off the train with cool efficiency, but Rinoa was already running, throwing one arm around Watts and one around what she could reach of Zone, and they squeezed her back and she was so glad she had come: her family, here, everything will be alright, standing beside her, their arms around her, and they kind of fumbled in an awkward heartfelt group hug for a few precious moments. Rinoa's heart swelled with it, and the warmth brought her to tears, and she hid her head in Zone's shoulder for a second until she could gather herself together, because she could not cry, not right now.

They fell apart, all of them smiling a little funny. Quistis stood off to the side, wearing the polite, detached smile she often did in group situations; Rinoa waved her over, and made room for her in their small circle.

"Guys, you remember Quistis, right? Quisty, you know Zone and Watts.  Quistis is here with me for--"  How to explain?  "She's here to help me, for a while."  She really, really did not want to get into it.  "So what's up? Where do we stand?"

Zone ran a hand through his hair and took her elbow, turning her towards the exit. "Rinoa, sssh, come on. You know we shouldn't discuss it here, right."

Rinoa followed meekly; he was right, of course: Galbadia had shown time and time again their ability to sneak behind any defenses they thought they had securely in place.  And yet... it stung, really, because she was the public face of the revolution, a symbol of the resistance, and she'd really done it for them, and having to hide inside their own city because Timber just wouldn't stand up for it–

She sighed, and glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, Quistis said nothing, but her eyes were alert and her posture tense: SeeD on duty.

Zone led her through Timber, and Rinoa felt resentment swelling within her; Timber was her town, too, and she knew the way to the Owls’ headquarters just as well as he: it was stupid, this jealousy, but Zone was the leader of the Owls in name and she hadn’t wanted to take that from him, hadn’t wanted to make it an issue even as she risked her own life and reputation as Sorceress for their cause – maybe it was stupid and childish, to not bring it up; Squall probably would have. He needed these things clarified, organized: a clear chain of command with references, leaders and followers quite concretely defined.  The thought made another wave of resentful anger swamp her, her heart twisted; Squall had never taken the Owls seriously. He thought they were a joke, a disorganized and ridiculous organization, just because they didn’t follow SeeD rules or adhere to military standards...

Zone turned down a street she hadn’t expected, and Rinoa felt irritation surge in her head, a high shrilling note of anger: was he trying to show off, wander the streets of Timber with her on his arm, parading his captive Sorceress for all to see? She’d show them – she’d show them who the leader was, show them what power meant, show everyone that Sorceress belonged to no-one–

A cold chill sank into her stomach, nauseous and shivering, because this anger wasn’t her own. Rinoa swallowed past tight bile and tried to breathe, deep. Timber’s clear air smelled of leaves and road and use, a working city, a people’s city.  She breathed in Timber and tried to breathe out this angry resentment, this feeling of challenge, the magic buzzing in her head; the faint misaligned echo of the Bond rang in her ears.  Breathe in air, sunlight, dried leaves and flowers and freedom: breathe out, Rinoa, just breathe out...

Belatedly, she realized Zone was taking them to the library.  She pitched her voice to sound like casual conversation: “So how bad is it, really?”

“The library?” Zone’s voice was mild, and Rinoa realized he was deliberately misunderstanding her question, and she felt a spike of irritation that was all her own: familiar, hot and shameful and imperfect. “Ruined.  It’s gone.  They knew what they were doing.”

“I meant Timber.”  She smiled at a handful of people standing on a street-corner; some smiled back and some didn’t.  Rinoa could see recognition in their eyes, the strange backwards feeling of being known by someone she didn’t know. “What happened here during? What happened after? Did anyone step up?”

Zone said nothing for a long minute.  This was a strange thing between them: Zone had kept leadership of the Timber Owls mainly because he lived in Timber; Rinoa could in no conscience take over and still spend half of her weekends in Balamb Garden... and yet her fame lived in the empty spaces around them, an unseen and unfelt force separating them, wearing away at years of friendship like water around a stone.  Finally he took a breath to speak, and Rinoa felt a wave of relief that he wasn’t going to pick this fight today.  “No one has said anything.  People have been staying home – stocking up on water bottles and the like. I think people are just going to sit this one out until it blows over.”  He blew out a long breath of frustration and something else Rinoa couldn’t quite read.  “Like always.”

“No.”  Rinoa clenched her hands into fists. “Zone, this is ridiculous. It has to stop. We can’t fight this without Timber at our back, we just can’t.”

“I know.”  Zone shrugged, though, as they turned the corner towards the library.  “But... what can we do.”

“I’ll think of something,” Rinoa swore. She wished there were a way to spread the fire in her heart, to make this pulsing bleeding force within her something concrete, natural, helpful: yessssssssss, it whispered at her, suddenly dark and tempting and swelling within, ripples spreading along the surface of the magic and reflecting off of angles that weren’t there, the myriad of dark faceless creatures at the bottom of this pool.

Rinoa shuddered, and Zone smiled at her, misreading her fears – and Rinoa made no move to correct his misconception.  Whatever was happening between her and her magic would stay there, for now. She had other things to focus on.


_________________________________


Rinoa sighed, and sank down into the chair, lowering her head into her hands for a moment, hair pooling in a dark liquid cloud over her arms. Quistis watched and tried not to fidget, because this felt very private - a moment of weakness she wasn't sure she was supposed to be privy to (did Rinoa even remember she was here?) – but then Rinoa took a breath, deep and ragged behind the somber curtain of her hair, and when she sat up her face was weary but resigned, determined again.

"You may as well sit," Rinoa said to her. "Frankly, if I'm not safe here, everything's going to hell anyway."

Quistis sat, although she wasn't necessarily sure she agreed with Rinoa's judgment call on this situation: "What is this particular place, anyway?"

"Timber Owls Central."  The ghost of a grin flickered across her face, like a candleflame.  "We've taken this as our headquarters, although we have all our meetings in a building about two blocks down. Watts set up some really high-quality security - you should check it out, something he picked up on the White SeeD Ship, I guess – and this building is password-protected to those of us who are in the inner circle."

Quistis frowned.  "So what's keeping Galbadia from blowing it to smithereens?"

Rinoa opened a hand.  "It's in the middle of Timber.  They want us under their thumb, but not destroyed.  The buildings connect, so there are all kinds of escape routes – if they tried to blow us up here, we'd almost surely get out, and they'd be left with a mess that got them nowhere."

The frown deepened; Quistis was starting to realize the kind of situation she'd been put in: it was feeling more and more like an impulse assignment, as if Squall had thrown her at the problem without really thinking or, you know, enunciating relevant details.  And he was so angry at the original Timber assignment.  She thought, resignedly, that maybe she should feel flattered; being a tool powerful enough in Squall's repertoire to be trusted to turn this mess of a situation into something neat and orderly was probably in Squall-talk a compliment of the highest order - but mainly, Quistis was starting to get a headache.

"So... what, exactly, is the situation here?"  Quistis pursed her lips, and then elaborated: "Meaning between Timber and Galbadia.  Where do things stand?"

Rinoa blinked, as if surprised to have to explain – and Quistis felt suddenly guilty for not following it herself, not being up on the situation her friend so dearly cared about – but then Rinoa closed her hand into a loose fist again and took a deep breath.  "The conflict between Timber and Galbadia has been going on for a long time.  It's been serious for about a generation - Zone and Watts are famous around town because their dads were executed together for being a part of the resistance, right?  But the dynamic has changed, really sharply, in the past couple months or so."

Her fingers drummed on the table, an absent beat.  "It had ramped up pretty seriously about - well, when we all met."  A smile flashed across Rinoa's face, fleeting tribute to everything that had happened.  "Galbadia was just starting to take us seriously, and then - the Sorceress killed Deling.  Suddenly it was the chance we'd been waiting for."  Her voice faltered, a little, and Quistis picked up a complex undercurrent she wasn't sure she could entirely decipher: Edea, Deling, Rinoa's father, strange advantageous regret.  "Except that I was traveling with you all, and things just... spun out of control."

Rinoa's gaze on the table was vague and unfocused for just a moment, and then Quistis watched as she gathered herself together.  "Anyway.  The war with Ultimecia... changed everything. Of course.  When I got back here, though, we realized how big of an opportunity we had.  Galbadia Garden is crippled, Galbadia itself is a mess, and the rest of the world is in a place where they're more willing to accept change than before."

She paused, as if waiting to see whether Quistis understood.  "I'm guessing there's a 'but' coming," Quistis said.

Rinoa snorted.  "Of course.  We're still fighting, right?"  Her fingers splayed across the table, palms pressing into it as she breathed.  "Galbadia right now is a disaster, but they've got years of clever politics to fall back on.  The president-elect they've got right now is toeing a very careful public line: he says that Galbadia will be willing to treat with Timber and possibly negotiate a path to independence as soon as we show that we can secure and control our own city."

"Wait." Quistis frowned.  "But aren't they the ones causing all the conflict?"

"Of course," Rinoa said, "but not directly.  Publicly, they've declared this willingness to work with us as soon as we show we can clean up our own mess like grownups.  But behind everyone else's back, they're funding terrorist attacks on us."  Her voice turned hard.  "Guerrilla warfare. Bombings.  Riots.  They fund it all under the table, in the shadows, giving weapons and information to a handful of fanatics and letting them stir the pot."

"And to the rest of the world," Quistis reasoned, "it looks like you can't even control your own borders."

"Pretty much."  Rinoa drummed her fingers on the table again, idly.

"So," Quistis said, fascinated, because this was a complex side of Rinoa she'd only ever really guessed at: the analytical, but it wasn't just reporting facts: it was understanding, being able to cast motivations on things, deciphering them from the political into the human, a strength she should have realized Rinoa had but had never really put to words.  "What is your strategy?"

Rinoa smiled, grim.  "We're going at them from a couple angles. The first thing we did was go public – most of the resistance in Timber has had to be in secret, because Galbadia was too obviously up in our face.  But. The Timber Owls were already a bit famous because of Watts and Zone, and after the Ultimecia thing..."  She shrugged, as if trying to play it off.  "I had a lot of political capital to use, a lot of... fame.  So I cashed in on it.  The Owls came out. We made ourselves known. Told Galbadia they weren't going to get away with silencing us any more."

Her voice may have been light, but the way her face darkened wasn't; Quistis wondered what it had cost Rinoa, to do this – if she'd even considered the costs, or if she'd just gone ahead with it, assuming like always that things would work out the way she wanted them to.

"What we're trying to do now is– well, a couple things.  Timber needs to establish itself internationally – to show that we can stand without Galbadia. But tied to that is this... this state of war.  We need to tie some of these attacks back to Galbadia. If we can prove they're doing it, or even that they're paying for it – or, hell, even if we can show that they're looking the other way while people come into our town and bomb our children, we win." Her voice had gone passionate, all hard and demanding.  "If we can prove to the rest of the world that we're strong enough to take care of ourselves – and part of doing that is getting Galbadia the hell out – they'll have no choice but to start to negotiate with us."

One thing had been bothering Quistis.  "If everyone knows it's Galbadia behind this, how do they still get into Timber to - bomb libraries?"

Rinoa's turned stormy in a desperate sort of anger.  "It's pretty easy.  The Owls are the public face of the resistance, but not everyone wants their face and name associated with us. It wasn't so long ago that people were killed for that kind of thing." Her eyes flared, somber and burning.  "There are a lot of people who don't want to be directly involved, and there are enough people... Timber's broke."  She exhaled.  "So when some nice-looking guy comes in and says he'll give you thousands of gil if you look the other way..."  Her hands clenched into fists again, and Quistis recognized helplessness – a feeling she was too familiar with.  "Part of what we're doing is just plain getting the message out," Rinoa bit out.  "Whoever let the Galbadians in to destroy the library - I'm sure they didn't know what was going to happen.  But it still happened.  People need to know that it's happening."

The door opened, and Watts stuck his head in.  "I have a report, sir. Are you...?" He trailed off, the question obvious, his eyes flicking to Quistis and back as if either shy or reluctant to look at her.

Rinoa stood up, and she shrugged at Quistis, her mouth quirking a little in a sort-of amused smile: we can continue later.

The door had just closed behind Rinoa when Watts grabbed Quistis by the wrist, tugging her towards the small table in the corner covered with pizza boxes and empty take-out containers; Quistis hissed at the surprise of it, jerking her arm back. If this overgrown imbecile thought she was here to clean, she was more than ready to teach him a lesson, no matter what Rinoa said--

"Shh!"  Watts glanced up at the door.  "Look, there's something else you need to know, sir, and I don't wanna bring it up while she's around, okay? Just hear me out, real quick."

Quistis blinked, and then narrowed her eyes, suddenly all business. 

"I know you're here as her bodyguard, right? An' none of us are going to get in your way, trust me. But you should know - it isn't just Galbadia that's watching Rin here."

"What do you mean?" Who else would be following Rinoa's movements? The list was actually quite long. Quistis frowned.

Watts glanced up at the door again, and then leaned in close. "There's a good number of people here who aren't exactly pro-Sorceress, sir.  And since Rin's been fighting with us... the numbers are growing."  He looked down at the ground, and his face was somewhat sad.  "She knows - it's no secret or anything – but she doesn't like to talk about it, because she feels... guilty, I think. Bringing more trouble here."

"I can... see that."  Her frown deepened.  No wonder Rinoa didn't want to confront that hard truth – Quistis suspected she'd admitted to her powers without even realizing that Sorceress sentiment swung both ways, even in places set to benefit.  "I'll certainly keep my eyes open. And if you find out anything--"  She swallowed, because maybe this was the wrong way to go about it, but Rinoa just seemed so tired.  "If something's happening, come to me first. I'll try to take care of it myself, so that Rinoa can stay focused."

The smile Watts gave her was relieved, pleased, and tinted with a level of admiration that would have reminded her of a Trepie if he hadn't been so genuine.  "Thanks," he said. "We all... we all care about her, you know." Quistis kept her eyes from flicking away in memory of her thoughts on the train, her misused and misplaced feeling.

"I know."  Her voice was only slightly wistful.


_________________________________


Rinoa stepped into her room, her home, and breathed in, a long long breath that made her eyes prick. Angelo had followed her; Rinoa shut the door behind them both and walked across to the window, listening to the familiar heavy fall of her boots on the floor, the creak of the boards in all the known places. The curtains hung limply by the casement and on impulse Rinoa flung the window open, turning, duster flying out behind her like wings, to watch the light curtains unfurl in the breeze, to feel the air come sighing through the room; Angelo danced up onto her hind legs and snapped her mouth playfully at the wind and small debris – scraps of leaf and twig from the nearby woods – that came blowing in. Rinoa laughed, and gave Angelo a small scratch on her head; the dog quieted and sat by her side, looking up at her with her serious, attentive dog eyes, letting Rinoa's fingers idle in her fur, around her ears. Rinoa leaned against the windowframe, and turned to look outside.

Timber spread out before her, earnest industry clouding the skyline with steam, trees swaying along every horizon– and her heart caught in her throat, black and choking, as she felt the barest brush of something vast and dark and feral: Our place, Ours... this belongs to Ussss.... the quietest hiss-whisper in her mind and she thought of the words on the TV Station screen, Adel's silent Sorceress shouts in the static, IWILLNEVERLETYOUFORGETABOUTME, a distant and terrible urge to have-own-possess-rule sweeping over a corner of her mind, stirring echoes and echoes and echoes and she shut her eyes, hard, choking down the sting of tears: no no no stop it! The feeling hovered over her like the shadow of vast wings, pressing up her spine with all the moon's gravity and she pushed against it with everything she had, begged, pleaded, no, this isn't yours, this isn't mine, this is home, this is shared, stop it stop it, until at last she turned away, collapsed under the window where she couldn't see the vast view. The feeling hovered – alien but all-too-close, sneaking poisonous into her blood – for a few more moments, and then popped like a soap bubble, evaporating all at once and it left her gasping, holding back sobs of fear, staring at the floor and her feet and unable to move: it had been so sudden, so much worse than any time before, the swift distant sweeps of feelings she didn't want to understand, huge dark urges, endlessness and pain and solitude, and she suddenly missed Squall so much.

Angelo nosed her, then, wet and cold and worried and Rinoa flung her arms around her, soft dog fur and stolid dog patience, Angelo waiting while Rinoa held her and slowly stopped shuddering, nuzzling her ear and hair. Angelo's steady heartbeat thudded gently up through Rinoa's arms, the quiet rises of Angelo's breath and the warm exhalations damp against Rinoa's shoulder, warm and solid and here-and-now. Rinoa breathed in the clean scent of her fur, shivering.

I'll train harder, she vowed to herself. She would control this. She would. She wouldn't become like the others. It didn't have to be that way. It didn't...

She gulped down the last aborted dregs of her sobs and rubbed at her eyes. Angelo stared at her worriedly, so Rinoa scratched her behind the ears, then squished her muzzle a little into a funny-fur-face, making a weird face in return, crossing her eyes. Angelo's tailless rear end wiggled hopefully at this familiar game, like she wanted it to be a good sign, and Rinoa laughed a little and tried not to hear the edge of sadness in it. She gave Angelo one last good scratch and collected herself off the floor, fighting the lingering unsteadiness of her legs. The window seemed to gape open behind her; she stubbornly left it open and went to her closet for a change of clothes.

The space between her shoulderblades itched in an unnerving echo of wings; she shrugged her shoulders and ignored it, reached for shirt and shorts. The mundaneness of it pressed against her skin, like feeling acutely the boundary where she ended and the rest of the world – the normal world, where time didn't drip sideways and nothing endless waited – began. The soft cotton and jersey of her clothes felt unnaturally soft and textured against her fingertips. These hidden moments in her room... And downstairs they were waiting for her, so they could have their strategy meeting, decide what to do about the library, where to go from here. She felt like it was a world away, suddenly, on the other side of a wall: on that side, soldiers and spies and revolutionaries; on this side, Sorceresses and Knights. Or– just Sorceresses. Her heart gave an empty little flutter.

She made a stubborn face – at her empty closet, but Angelo gave a timely wuff to back her up – and grabbed clothes and towel and headed for what promised to be a heavenly shower. She could do this. With or without Squall – she swallowed – she could do this. She forced herself not to fumble for the Bond, not to look for that anchor-pull of reassurance. But she snuck a look both ways down the hall before scuttling for the shower, because she didn't know what stories her face would tell, and the window was still open behind her.


_________________________________


"All right," Rinoa said, "here's our plan.  Tomorrow is the speech at the library.  Before then, we need to make sure we clear out the perimeter – it would be just like Galbadia to add insult to injury and hit us again while we memorialized our loss."  She drummed her fingers on the table again, and this time it was the sharp roll of command Quistis heard.  "Watts, what can you tell us?"

"We've already done an initial scan of the area, sir."  Watts had a stack of unruly notes in front of him, and he shyly focused on those.  "The Forest Foxes have agreed to let us use their headquarters for the day. It's right by the library, and I've already cleared it for us.  We have their support for security during the speech, too."

"Good!"  Rinoa smiled at that.  "The more groups we can unite with this, the better. The more people we can get, the better.  Which brings me to my next point: today, we have to get the word out there that we're going to address this." 

She gestured at Zone, and he stood up and grinned, brandishing a thick stack of paper.  "Flyers," he said.  "We made 'em yesterday, and we need to plaster the town with them. Let people know where they can come to hear the story and hear what we're doing about it."  Then he frowned a little, and glanced at Rinoa.  "Which, um... what are we doing about it?"

Quistis felt irritation spike behind her eyes; sudden sympathy for Squall’s complaints of watching the Forest Owls bicker about tiny details and never get momentum. Did they just not have a clue? And... where was she in all of this mess? She couldn't help but feel – begrudgingly, of course – a little overlooked; she was a mercenary who'd run security missions for years, but no one had asked for even a minute of her time or guidance.  They had a SeeD; weren't they going to use her?

Of course not, she thought.  What do you really have to offer? You don't know Timber like they do. You're just here as Squall's insurance, to keep Rinoa safe. You're not here to actually help.

The thought of Squall made her glance at Rinoa again. Rinoa was flipping through the flyers idly, glancing them over, sorting through the various designs and slogans Zone had printed. Rinoa's leadership was nothing like Squall's; but then again, Quistis thought, her staff wasn't anything like Squall's, either.  She was so used to crisp military command; watching Rinoa stop, think, converse, plan, in a state of complete indecisiveness, felt very strange.

"It depends," Rinoa replied once she'd made her way through the stack of flyers.  "If we can find something – anything - pinning this particular attack to Galbadia, then we have something to negotiate with.  I'd like to get this picked up by the major papers and magazines, too, but I want to wait until after the speech, in case something happens."  She frowned.  "And then I guess we'll just submit our demands to Deling City again and see what they say this time."

Quistis felt another flare of frustrating irritation, pinching her nerves; this didn't seem like a very efficient plan. But who are you to judge that? She was just a hired hand, not an analyst. 

"Okay!" Rinoa pressed her hands into the table.  "Zone, you're in charge of the flyers. Take your team and go!  Watts, meet with the Foxes and keep working on security.  Quistis, I guess you're with me. We're going to start going door-to-door in the neighborhoods around the library and invite them to be heard at tomorrow's meeting."

The task was just as exciting as it sounded: Quistis followed Rinoa from door to door, feeling increasingly awkward with her SeeD uniform and silent demeanor, as Rinoa implored house after house and family after family to come out and be heard the next day.  Her message was the same at every house – “We want to be heard, not just by Timber but by the rest of the world” – but its demeanor changed depending on the reception: a warm greeting brought forth Rinoa’s bright anger, while a more cautious welcome was answered with kind and gentle understanding, a contrast strategy Quistis wasn’t sure she understood.

Instead she spent most of the time trying to learn the neighborhood near the library; they circled it as if on a tether, spiraling out and then in around the crime tape in a pattern she couldn’t distinguish – was Rinoa just bored or was there a method to this madness? She traced their steps in her head, trying to form the picture in her mind: the library as the centre, with potential attack hotspots and escape routes highlighted along the terrain.

She couldn’t help feeling increasingly out of place. Rinoa didn’t pay her much attention; all of her concentration appeared to be channeled inward, composing messages for Timber’s people. She occasionally glanced at Quistis, looking maybe equally unsure, but said nothing.  They just continued to walk in silence, and Rinoa spent all her energetic words and beaming smiles on the neighborhood.

Quistis tried not to wonder about all of it – about Timber, about the Owls’ strategy, about Squall and Rinoa and everything they hadn’t said – and simply continued following Rinoa, a few steps behind, uniformed and alert.


_________________________________


Her dreams carried her through the nights like folded-paper boats afloat on an endless ocean: she could sense that there were depths and depths below this, infinite and roiling, and oh, she was scared, the surface of her mind unsteady beneath her, like any minute she could be swamped by the vastness underneath. She woke up like she was drowning sometimes, small gasping shudders before she realized it was her own tears in her throat. Squall– when Squall had been there he would stroke her skin, tentative touches reminding her that he was there, that she was there; he wouldn't say a thing but she remembered his eyes in the moonlight and his eyes never ended, echoing the infinities inside her and those moments had been needle-sharp and precious-gasping, a terrifying comfort – it had scared her so to know that he understood, if only the edges of it; that he felt any part of what she did, these vast ancient things in their young skin. It frightened her so much, but she would reach for him, and he would hold her and it would be warm and safe and simple and not alone.

It hurt so much to dream again and not have him there, right beside her or down the hall or a phone call away, rock-steady, anchoring her in her sea.

She breathed, in the darkness, breathed and shuddered and stared at the spill of starlight from the window until the sharp edges of the night softened in her throat, her breath no longer like ice in her lungs, on her skin.

The momentum of the train – of her headlong trip to Timber, as if she could outrun Squall's anger, Squall's orders, outrun her own fury at them – had seemed to carry her through the night, as if the train sped too fast for her dreams to catch up. She'd curled into an exhausted doze in the narrow train compartment – and Quistis quiet opposite her, a shadow glimpsed between fits of sleep; impossible to tell if Quistis was on alert watch through the night or asleep sitting up. She wouldn't put either one past Quistis. It felt like the forward motion hadn't ended when the train had steamed and groaned to a halt, a flurry of greeting, explaining, planning, carrying her along.

And now she had time to breathe, and the breath stuck in her throat: the night seemed to stretch on flat and forever around her, the deep roil of dreams under its surface and the empty wakefulness above. She was alone in her bed in Timber – and it felt so stupid to be aware of that; she'd been alone here just last week and this– this shouldn't, couldn't feel so different.

When she used to have bad dreams before – which before? so many befores – she would go stand at the window, look out on Timber at night: the soft moonlight mixing cool-warm with the street lamps, the light spilling out of windows and the dark loom of the TV station; the soft sway of trees behind everything. She loved Timber at night – and she remembered the shiver of possessiveness that had swept through her before, and her blood beat colder than the gentle chill of the night. Then her face set, stubborn, and she threw the covers off, padded barefoot over to the window, and leaned against the frame, watching.

The view was oddly stretched by the night, distances eaten by the dark, making the forest seem close and the horizon less vast and more empty; the details of the city were less overwhelming, just a few small things picked out by the lamps: a cat on its meandering patrol, a small party staggering home from a bar with companionable-steadying arms slung around shoulders; a couple walking hand-in-hand. Her dreams rose like an aftertaste in her throat, coming from up her spine, only a faint shadow; she exhaled it like a chill breath (this issss Minnneeeee). It fogged up the glass, and her hand rose to draw in it: the curl of a wing. Freedom.

Her eyes strayed beyond the little doodle, the small outline against the night-warped sweep of Timber, the exhalations of steam indistinguishable from the grey tatters of clouds; she thought of her own little breath against the glass. It left her feeling... insignificant. Loneliness stabbed through her gut, so sharp, and a long echo of it pealed distantly inside her, too deep-vast to just be her, like a far-off keen. She'd been avoiding reaching for the Bond and she knew it; she stood there before her view of Timber and fumbled inside for it, reaching, reaching; she brushed past Carbuncle and felt the small stir of interest, like a curious tilt of the head.

It ran– it ran like a canyon, a hollowed-out space she could feel, carved through the depths inside-behind her, strangely double layered– and a small trickle of sensation-thought-feeling seeped through her fingers: preoccupation, tiredness, the feel of papers under fingers, irritation and such a familiar grumpiness that she almost laughed, half-choking on it. And then it faded wrong-sideways and the little glow of warmth drained out of her, the picture of a wing fading in the sudden clear focus of her eyes as the Bond fluttered with her internal disturbances, the deep-dark currents washing around it and away; she thoughts of a leaf hanging threadily to a branch, rustling in a plucking wind.

Carbuncle's confused query floated through her, and she shook her head, her lip between her teeth. I don't know. She didn't know anything; she understood so little about being a Sorceress. Squall felt so far from her – could she only have one Knight, ever? If– if she and Squall couldn't pull this – couldn't pull themselves – back together would it... feel this way together? Half-drowning, half-warm, half-there...

Rinoa jerked the curtains closed, turned to go back to bed– but the thought of the now-cold blankets against her skin, the waiting depth of her dreams, stirred by her seeking, pressed upon her, dry and cold. She stared at the empty bed for a second.

Then she went to the door, tiptoed quietly through the hallway. Quistis's door was a grey blot in the dark, and she paused outside it for long seconds, her heart loud and lonely in her ears. But her feet started forward again, until she got to the common room couch and flicked on a light, sifted through the papers and magazines for a notepad and pencil. She curled into a corner on the cushions, a blanket over her legs. She was no Quistis, to sleep on demand against the possible need for action and alertness later. But she could use this wakefulness, and her pencil scribbled across the printed lines, filling in the edges of a speech.


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The room was small and simple, a narrow bed in the corner with a dresser (full of towels and linens) and a wood desk, warm and empty, topped with a few miscellaneous pens and an old beer bottle full of limp dried daisies.  It hadn’t taken long for Quistis to set herself up – security sweep of the premises completed in seconds, uniform and battle-gear sorted in her duffle bag, her whip coiled in a fiercely neat circle beside her portable console. From there she did some stretches, trying to empty her mind of the day, but her thoughts continued to circle themselves like the ends of Save the Queen, tucked into each other like a Malboro eating its tail, an endless repeating cycle.

Rinoa isn’t herself. Here, in the privacy of the guest room, Quistis could finally admit it to herself. It complicated things, a deeply worrisome personal thread in the tangled web of their current situation.  All day, Rinoa had been a shadow of herself: something had moved between the girl and the brilliance that glowed within her, eclipsing her usual outgoing self into something focused in on itself, dimmed. It worried Quistis, because Rinoa always shone more in her natural environment; for such a disruption to be rearing its head in Timber of all places was greatly concerning. (Quistis didn't stop to think about her own predilection to people-watching, how she had made a habit and career out of observing those stars so much brighter and better than she: first Squall, now Rinoa, as if she were tracking the distant wheeling of a constellation.)

She had to assume it was related to Squall.  Rinoa’s orbit had changed to fit him; whatever had happened – a break, temporary or permanent – had to have altered her path somewhat.  Quistis didn’t like watching Rinoa this way, though, her intensity waning as her attention fled elsewhere. It made her worry. The situation here in Timber was worse than she’d thought, shallow tensions slicked across the surface of a deeper-rooted conflict like a breeze tickling a sleeping dragon; any one misstep could be fatal in this delicate minefield.

Somehow, Quistis found that she was disappointed.  And when she thought about that, she realized she’d expected Rinoa to… deal with this more appropriately? Whatever break she and Squall had agreed on had to be mutual – neither Squall nor Rinoa was the type to cave to pressure, especially of the romantic sort, if for very different reasons – and she’d expected Rinoa to dive headfirst into Timber’s problems, channeling herself into productivity.  And she was... but she seemed distracted, almost hollow, as if the gesture were predictable, hiding something else. Something deeper.

Quistis frowned, because so much of this sounded like sour grapes – no one’s paying attention to me! – and she was a professional, a (discardable) mercenary assigned to a very simple mission. How much of her read on this situation was prompted by her own feelings of inadequacy, the barren wasteland inside of her that made her thought-processes feel dry and parched from lack of use? How much of this was mere jealousy – Rinoa had so many things to live for, causes to drive her forward and friends to help her on her way, and she was squandering these precious chances over a man too bull-headed to string together sentences? While Quistis waited patiently on the sidelines, honing her own (meager) talents and grasping at the thinnest of ropes? Watching constellations, hoping one day to be able to string together a thread of brightly-gleaming gems of her own?

The light on her console blinked, and Quistis sat up, the motion automatic and trained – and then she deliberately lay back down in the bed, reaching out to turn off the light.  No one from Garden could need her so urgently; whatever email message awaited her could certainly wait until morning.  She clenched her fists and then let the tension go, trying to force relaxation.


_________________________________


Rinoa's hands clutched at each other as she looked out at the assembling crowd from her vantage point, high upon a stable platform built from the library rubble: makeshift stage and podium, her own message pulled full-force from the ruins. It wasn't public speaking she minded - she'd always been good at that - it was the strange sense of foreboding, the awful feeling that sank in her stomach every time she looked out where the library had once been. It was the feeling of something off, something not-right inside and around her, whispers of an imbalance for which one bombed building was really only the beginning.  Timber made her heart ache; she did not think it would ever stop doing so.

"Thank you for coming," she said, pitching her voice to carry over the crowd gathered here, drawing their attention upwards to her, to her ruin-stage, to the issue at hand.  As she waited for them to quiet she glanced about, seeking simple confirmation that her friends were still close: Watts and Zone stood in front of her, a bit off to the right, watching the crowd. Quistis stood at her back, tall and solemn in her uniform, hands ready at her sides; she gave Rinoa a nod and a very small smile. At her side, Angelo offered a much bigger and more reassuring smile.

Rinoa clenched her hands into fists, and began speaking.  "This isn't a big day for us," she began, and she watched as one by one gazes flicked upwards to her in surprise. "To make this a big day, a monumental event, is to give Galbadia exactly what they want. So it isn't a big day. It isn't a turning point. This is a sad day for us."

Her hands unfurled.  "But it's one sad day out of a thousand sad days, here in Timber.  It's one awful day when things we love are taken from us – one day in a week, a month, in years that Galbadia has tried to take everything we have."  She looked out at the people who had gathered to hear her: fighters, all, even those who would never carry a weapon, because they were here to share it with her.  "This isn't the turning point," Rinoa said, "because we have already been turned around. We are already fighting.  This is simply one more sad reason among a thousand sad reasons we have to keep going."

She took a step forward, out to the edge of her salvaged stage, and she was sure her eyes were shining as she looked out at the crowd – her crowd, a crowd of people who needed her here.  "If they think," she said, drawing in one deep breath in preparation – and that's when the crumbled wall next to her exploded, pieces propelled into mid-air by the force of the thick jet of water suddenly gushing upwards.

For one long, silent, blank moment all Rinoa could do was stare at it, her eyes wide and her mouth falling open in utter confusion; it was as if her brain couldn't even put the pieces together.  What the...?

And then the shockwave slammed into her, one bright shining loud loud loud pulse of energy-force sweeping over her, onto her, through her.  She fell to her knees, onto the slab of stone beneath her, pain instantly jarring up her nerves as she hit off-kilter, one wrist awkwardly catching her weight in a way she knew instantly was bad news; a familiar bark, and Angelo was already there, nudging at her face. Sounds caught up to her then, instantly, an eerie fast-forward of noises too thick and jumbled to decipher: rushing water, explosives, something sparking darkly; hissing, clanking.  And screaming. Rinoa fumbled her way to her knees using Angelo as a graceless prop; she saw Zone and Watts trying to rush the crowd - stumbling, panicking, frozen in place - to safety, as if in slow motion.

She turned.  Quistis was already there and she wasn't surprised at all to see her, crouching as she spat Curaga over the Rinoa-and-Angelo tangle.  And behind Quistis rose a mechanical monstrosity: all dark metal and darker glass, red lights gleaming like eerie eyes, licks of gleaming blue lighting circuits of veinwork along its – appendages, and all Rinoa could think of was a giant scorpion, as if they'd plated one with iron and steel and hot electric pulses; dripping, as if it had just climbed out of the sewer, which of course it did; they must have planted it when they hit the library–

But then it lurched, reaching out one long appendage-leg-claw, and Rinoa shrieked: "Quistis!"  The machine batted Quistis aside; she tumbled off the stone, managing to fall into somewhat of a roll, climbing unsteadily to her feet almost instantly, whip unfurled automatically in her hand even as her eyes attempted to focus - "Angelo," Rinoa ordered, and the dog leapt towards Quistis at the command; Angelo could help, would give Quistis a few valuable seconds of recovery and support. Rinoa turned and stood, unsteadily, the ache of her bruised knees and jolted wrist fading in the face of her terror-anger at this thing, this metal contraption Galbadia had hidden in the sewers to wait for her; the thought chilled her, even as she braced herself against it, slowly raising the arm that bore her weapon – no, she wasn't stupid, despite Squall's apparently low opinion of her self-preservation skills she did not wander around Timber unarmed. She checked her balance, gathering her strength, aiming her blaster at the thing, waiting for it to make a move, waiting for Quistis, waiting for the citizens of Timber to clear out, waiting–

—and she felt it trickling-prickling in the back of her head: her magic, slowly starting to flow, like water filling up a vessel.  No, Rinoa thought, a wild spike of panic paralyzing her momentarily; no, no, please, no, just stay where you are–

—the creature hissed, and some sort of gas suddenly hit her like a physical blow: toxic, black and oily, and sticky on her limbs. Rinoa turned her head, coughing, hacking this slimy-choking feeling up through her throat; her eyes stung, and she wept into it, the trails of water burning down her face as they bubbled and steamed in the acid. She took one shallow breath, already wheezing, and Quistis's Esuna crashed into her face - for a second she couldn't breathe because of that, cool-fire magic scrubbing her lungs empty, stripping her veins clean, and she wondered, usually Quistis is more precise; but of course, it would have hit her too, this machine didn't seem at all stupid. The second Esuna split the air, the gas clearing from Rinoa’s eyes, and she saw the giant creature swat Angelo from her defensive perch–

no!

Angelo rolled into the crowd, and Rinoa screamed, even as her dog stumbled to her feet again; a girl, little more then twelve, threw her arms around Angelo's neck. Rinoa saw, as if through a haze, Watts yelling something she couldn't make out, wading through the crowd towards Angelo and the young girl; Quistis was at Rinoa's side, also yelling something, but she couldn't hear Quistis for some reason – why is she yelling at me? - the words slowed by the sudden nimbus of her magic into long drawn-out groaning sounds, incantations of nothing – she looks worried – Angelo, turning her head to look back at her mistress carefully, her bark lost in the hissing haze – Rinoa's world had shrunk to the massive pinpoint of the machine before her, and all she could hear were its steam-hisses, its vein-crackles, its gas-thumping, processed lifeblood controlling its movements: how miniscule, how small, how easy to crush...  It wasn't until the wings sprouted from her back - beautiful release, exquisite pain, ivory-white glory unfurling to the reaches of the sky - that some small part of her realized what was happening–

no, Rinoa-inside-Rinoa thought, screamed, cried;

while another part of her braced its feet and said, no, yes: we can do this–

The trance descended upon her like rain, the rush of magic soaking through her entirely to her bones, familiar cold chill stiffening her arms: but it wasn't the same. Something in it had loosened, overflowed, broken free, and in every motion there was a hint of fire, hot like friction, temptingly and damningly close enough to grab and too close to push away and Rinoa didn't want it, didn't want this, because it wasn't like before; she didn't know this, couldn't do this. Her brain felt soaked in liquid, short-circuiting and slow, churning through thick black water.

The scorpion-machine before her was alight in her magic-sight, electric traces carrying Junctioned magic through its metal-joints, its brace-bones highlighted to the Sorceress as strong points, weak points, places to bend and break and pinpoint.  It lashed out at her, and she dodged it like blinking, her wings beating with a sound like unholy laughter; something flickered, and an electric pulse flashed through her, one bright moment until it fizzled out, unable to carry a charge in her magic-soaked body.

Sorceress cast, fire leaping from her fingertips: Fira, Firaga, Firaga again, lashing through the metallic construct before her, searing its gears and heating its fluids; it cried, but a defiant cry, and it skittered away to the side, leaving fire and ash in its wake, across the ruins of stone.  But the fire did not die there; the power in it grew, blossomed, flame-petaled flowers blooming across the stone–

no, that small part of Rinoa cried out, terrified; no, Timber, it's burning, you're doing more damage than good;

and a voice in her head sounding like Quistis, or Squall, was telling her sternly: Thundaga against mechanical enemies, Rinoa, come on–

—she tried to wrench control away, tried to siphon off some of the power the way she could, sometimes, but there was just too much here, the magic drowning even that small bit of control she had once had, a teeming flood of power swirling about her consciousness so fast she couldn't get a grip on it, something come dangerously loose. Rinoa struggled, grasped for a moment, and there was a second of stability, of stone-cold support, of control, the power aligned properly through the conduit of her body, spells automatically Drawing from the great reservoir and slotting into her Junctions - and then the line snapped, and her own Junctions began to overflow; she clutched at it even as the cyclone of magic pulled her under again, and her fingers spat ice this time, Blizzaga like a thunder-clap, coalescing round one great leg and snapping as it splintered-broke.

The scorpion-machine reared up on its hind legs, squeal-groaning, and her sight flickered strangely with it: twelve parts technicolor magic-fueled senses and one part muted, terrified human, watching as the front legs slammed into the ground – the ground rumbled, buckled, leapt, and she wanted to dig her fingers into it and claim it – and then something blossomed from its back: dull grey, strangely solid in the whirling-flood of Sorceress' magic-sight, unfurling like a cloak from a point above the machine and trickling downward, completely matte, completely lifeless–

The Sorceress reared up and screamed in challenge, wings beating a steady dance, and Rinoa-inside-Rinoa tried desperately, frantically, hopelessly to regain control as the Reflect spell struck the ground, solid and true and terrifying.  But it was too late; she cast, her fingers stretching out of their own accord, and ice tore into her own body: painfully and acutely familiar, magic pouring back into magic, the feedback loop ringing loud with agony as Rinoa fought – Squall, she thought once, desperately, Squall, please – but nothing changed, nothing surfaced, and Sorceress cast again: fire splashed off the shield, backlash pouring into the ground and the air and Timber: tearing into her arms, splashing her eyes with white-hot pain. Her wings faltered, the pain of her own magic utterly unbearable on her skin.  Fire and Ice hadn't worked, and Rinoa felt it building in her, like chanting, like runes and rhythm, accelerating; she fought desperately against this current, but she was drowning, drowned, an unintelligible speck in the hundreds of centuries of women that had built this undeniable force. 

The Sorceress let loose with Holy: white screams, so pure; the shimmer of Reflect, and an unhuman cry from her own throat, pearl-white tearing her own wings apart...

And then suddenly Rinoa felt a hand on her ankle - her ankle, twisted and charred – and Quistis was there: three Quistises, flickering in and out of focus, identical mouths spitting out Stop-Silence-Stop!  The first spell sank in: blissful-sweet arrest, her traitorous limbs finally frozen in place, as a crouched Quistis guided her faltering-winged form back onto the stone beneath her. Between Quistis' steadying touch and the force of the Stop spell there was a long silent pause, like the soft peal of a bell – rapturous silence, no overflow; nothing but peace.  The sudden lack of magic was like a breath of air, pure and bittersweet, and it would have scared her - should have scared her – except that she'd spent all her fear already, and her nerves were empty.

Quistis held her there, one hand on her shoulder, a sudden and strange stability – but there was a loud air-rending squeal; Quistis turned her head, too slow to do anything more than throw up one arm in sudden defense against the oncoming barrage of lightning.  Rinoa couldn't move, couldn't even twitch, her body frozen sullen and painful in its own magical defiance and the cage Stop had driven into her – and she watched Quistis take the brunt of the electric shock, bright thick tendrils of lightning splaying over her arm, outlining her nerves in stark contrast even through her uniform. She felt Quistis' fingers tighten into her shoulder, involuntarily, as her friend's body spasmed with the shock of it, and Rinoa could feel, could think, because she wanted to weep–

The crash of the Sorceress finally leaving her body suddenly overtook her, taking the Stop spell with it, one final and wicked annulment – all the magic crumbling away from her form and falling in visible pieces to the ground like shards of ice-glass.  Rinoa crumpled to the stone with it, the last of her strength sapped from her, too weary to do anything more than watch as one long leg-claw came out and struck Quistis in the upper arm, the thud not magical at all but real, fleshy, mortal, terrifying–

--and she'd somehow closed her eyes, because when she opened them, Quistis' head snapped up, and it suddenly was more-than-Quistis in her place. 

Her eyes were glowing, blue-white and vicious; her glasses missing, knocked aside by the blow.  There was a ragged cut on her cheekbone, blood smeared down her face, and her sleeve was dark and damp. Quistis crouched there, between Rinoa and the machine: her legs were coiled with taut energy, her fingers flexed and ready; her lips peeled back, teeth in a strange feral grin.

It was simultaneously similar-and-not, because this was no more Quistis than Angel Wing was Rinoa – but this was no Sorceress, either, no creature of ethereal magic and delicate wings.

In the one second of silence, Rinoa heard a low snarl: no, felt it, through the soles of her shoes, up the base of her spine, a dark defensive growl.

Quistis stood up.  Her eyes flashed – literally flashed, golden lightning streaking from them to the sky – and she threw her head back, arms splaying wide; bolts of lightning bounced from her head to her fingertips, through her legs, off the ground, all coalescing into the machine before them, metal claws suddenly become lightning rods. The warm light around Quistis was golden, like sunlight on her hair, and Rinoa felt it, through the faint raw shadow of her magic: she was beyond terror, and the echo of Quistis' spell inside her skull rang fearlessly, awe and admiration bubbling up through those surfaces of her mind as her magic recognized kindred.

The scorpion-machine stumbled backwards, and Quistis pivoted. Her glowing gaze, golden-bright, landed on Rinoa, and she threw her hand up, palm outwards in an obviously forbidding message: stay right the hell where you are.

Quistis' gaze snapped back to the machine, her palm still held out towards Rinoa. Her first spell had short-circuited something internal, because sparks were flying from the side of the contraption. Her face, no longer feral, carried a dangerous concentrated intensity Rinoa actually found more terrifying. Quistis threw her hand up into the air, and Rinoa felt a warm breeze against her cool skin: the slow-knotting healing of Regen, the soft buffer of Shell.  Quistis gestured, broadly, forcefully, eyes closing in sudden fierce concentration: and Rinoa watched as translucent violet walls cropped up around the machine, a strange box between it and the rest of Timber, the only opening from the cell facing Quistis herself.

She's protecting Timber, Rinoa realized, as Mighty Guard settled in, rose-white sections sparking from the wall as the mechanical scorpion shifted its bearings, trying to hide its injured side from view. Oil dripped to the ground, hissing where it landed. I didn't know that was – but Quistis' magic was so unfamiliar to her, so unlike hers. Why can't I...? The question cast forth on silent surfaces, all answers locked away from her now.

A loud hiss echoed oddly off of the transparent walls as pieces began to fall from the machine; Rinoa's heart leapt in eager joy – and then sunk in terror, because it was just a shield, a false construct exoskeleton falling away to reveal the heart of the thing; and the heart of the thing was somehow a cannon: black, night-black, soul-black, lines of red tracing circuitry up its spine as it shifted around like a living, breathing thing, high-pitched whine slowly increasing in intensity as a glow at its tip became brighter and brighter, eye-piercingly bright.

Quistis' arm jerked out, unnaturally straight, her fingers wrapping around the air as if she were clutching the thing itself, digging her fingernails into it–

--the air around the cannon began to warp, strangely, weaving inwards on itself; the contraption struggled, something shorting out into a shower of pale sparks which fizzed harmlessly against Mighty Guard's wall. Quistis' other arm shot out, palms facing each other, fingers digging into the air between her hands; they looked like claws, so fiercely tense Rinoa thought she was truly squeezing the life from the thing.  Deep blue-violet light grew, lines twining over the form of the machine; Quistis braced herself, her eyes glowing violet and red, her face stark with tense effort; Rinoa thought she was growling again, because she felt something rumbling deep within her spine, a fierce echo of Quistis' controlled battle fury.  The air flashed, and there was a strange mechanical cry, the shrieking of metal-on-metal–

--and then there was a pop, and the faint pinging of a few screws and pieces falling lightly to the ground where the black hole had been.

Rinoa's eyes were wide.  Quistis' arms fell to her sides, and she turned back to look at Rinoa; her expression was unreadable: the skin stretched tight across her bones, her eyes still glowing with dark-light, Blue Magic writ in every line of her face. Quistis gave her a nod, and Rinoa realized she was unable to read her friend's face through this magic, behind the gleam of her eyes – and yet Something inside Rinoa recognized it, answered it, even locked down and distant as her magic was: because she knew what it was like to have a power living inside.  She remembered that low growl and shivered. 

If Quistis hadn't been here, I would be dead right now.

And then in a much smaller voice: Squall was right.

It took Rinoa-in-Rinoa a few shaking minutes to begin the climb back into her dangerous, magic-wracked, uncontrollable body, still, and the first mental touch almost undid her with terror– but the terror was hers, real and human and bleeding. Not Sorceress.  Quistis crossed her arms before her face, fingers extended, and bowed; she breathed, and the wind became soothing, healing, warm numb peace licking up from the stone into Rinoa's aches.  She felt the Sorceress stir, and clutched her hands in panic, but the Silence held: the magic simply rolled over, basking in the cool-warm touch of White Wind, soaking it up like a plant, balm to a wound.

Strange, Rinoa thought - shakily, and without much emphasis, afraid of what the thought might conjure.

Quistis' eyes focused on Rinoa, and suddenly, she felt the Limit Break dissipate: it was like she could see Quistis' Blue Magic soaking into the ground, streaming back into the wild parts of the earth. It shone in her eyes, clear sky-blue. Then Quistis was standing there again, looking at her with that complex combination of concerned-relief she'd had occasion to perfect as an Instructor, a look she'd used on Rinoa plenty of times – and Rinoa felt it pulsing from her, like an undercurrent.

Quistis took a step towards her and held out her arm again - palm-up, this time: an invitation.

Rinoa reached out and clasped Quistis' hand. The grasp was strong, and sure, and it wasn't Squall but at that moment it was as close as Rinoa knew she'd get to that feeling of security and she clutched at it, so close to tears she could taste them in the back of her throat. Quistis pulled her upright; her fingers were shaking, and Quistis squeezed her hand once for reassurance. It made Rinoa laugh, except that the laugh came out as a sob, and Quistis squeezed her hand again and gave her a brisk confident nod as she let go.

The magic whispered in her head, low and quiet, like wind suddenly whispering through branches – and it was calm, calmer than ever. 

Rinoa thought for a moment of worrying... but she was too grateful for the silence to pay it much attention.