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Same As It Never Was

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The damage to Timber hadn't been bad, Quistis thought; it could have been a lot worse — but then again, it could have been a lot better, and the way her thoughts tracked over the runaway remnants of Rinoa's magic, the portions of the library that had been trampled into smaller particles of dust by the X-ATM386 (when Galbadia had upgraded that model, Quistis didn't really know, and she'd already tasked Xu with finding the hell out in a brief but succinct morning email) gave credence to her theory. Things could have been a lot better in Timber in general.

Sadly, it wasn't really the damage to Timber she was concerned about; it was the damage to Rinoa. What had happened to the girl in the past few weeks to make her magic unravel so? Quistis remembered them in the war, in the future, magic pouring from Rinoa's tranced fingertips over and over again, Junctioned spells cast without cost: she'd had better control in the very beginning, when they were all still learning to merge the concepts of Rinoa Heartilly and Sorceress in their minds. It was really a worry, a testament to the fragile state of the poor girl's mind, an almost audible cry for help. Which was why Quistis was here, knocking on the door of the bedroom in which Rinoa Heartilly, Sorceress, was hiding.

The door opened. Rinoa looked... scared. There were large dark circles under her eyes, which actually held remnants of terror and worry rather than tears; as Quistis stepped in, she noticed Rinoa's hands were still shaking. The door shut softly behind them, a gentle click too quiet to be anything but deliberate. Rinoa stood by the door, her arms wrapped around herself, looking sadly at the floor.

"Rinoa," Quistis began, already kicking herself, because she didn't know how to be comforting — she had tried, for years, and in the end all she'd learned to do was be tactfully direct. "Can we... can we talk?"

Rinoa's laugh was hollow, self-conscious, sad. "I know," she said, her voice soft and dull; it worried Quistis, for Rinoa was usually vibrant: sky-blue cheer, pink-hot anger, golden annoyance. "I know I owe you an explanation, Quisty, because this is my fault — our fault, mine and Squall's, really, and that means I really just —don't know what to do." The last few words came out in a rush and Rinoa sank on to the bed, her arms wrapping about herself more tightly, looking miserable.

"You don't owe me any kind of explanation," Quistis said diplomatically, although her brain was whirling at the thought, trying to piece together Rinoa's sudden lack of control with Squall, with this mission. "But I'm — I'm here to listen, if you need." The words were offered clumsily, because she really didn't know how to extend this kind of peace offering, this kind of lifeline. But Rinoa looked lost, like a first-year cadet who just wasn't getting it; like a young orphan taken into Garden who just wanted her family back.

"I'm just..." Rinoa looked up, then, her face lost and confused. "I'm afraid to say it out loud, because that makes it... real. You know?" She laughed, low and small. "Isn't that stupid?"

"Not at all." Quistis sat down beside her on the bed, because at least this was a role she knew how to play: listener, guidance counselor. She'd done this countless times for new students — and yet it still didn't feel any more genuine; who was she, to think she could help someone like Rinoa? Nevertheless, she gathered it around herself like a costume, focusing on Rinoa and what Rinoa needed to hear. "I promise I won't tell a soul."

Rinoa swallowed, and when she spoke, her voice was no longer small: it was an ocean, a torrent of anguish and disappointment and lonely loss. "Squall and I have been... we've been fight— it's been bad lately." Her hands clenched in her lap, fingers twitching like small white birds. "It's like nothing we do will work. We try." Her voice broke on it, and there was a long ugly moment while Rinoa fought back obvious tears. "We try, but it's like everything we do just makes it worse. We don't agree on anything. And we've both been so busy... too busy, I guess, but neither one of us wants to give up what we're doing, which is of course another issue."

Quistis took a moment to sort through this in her head. "He doesn't like that you're in Timber?"

Rinoa laughed, ruefully. "He doesn't like it at all. He doesn't think it's safe, and he hates that—" Her head turned, as if compelled, to the window, its curtains drawn open as if to let in every last scrap of light the sky could produce. "I don't think he understands," she said, her gaze made suddenly soft, open, vulnerable. "He doesn't get how important this is to me. It's more important to be here, in Timber, helping, than it is to keep myself safe." She swallowed, as if struck with a sudden realization. "I guess it probably feels like Timber is more important than him. Which isn't..." She struggled with the words, visibly; eventually she got up and went to stand in front of the window.

Quistis just watched, Rinoa's slender and sad silhouette framed against Timber's backdrop. Angelo made a short friendly sound and padded over to lean her head against Rinoa's leg, and Rinoa's hand came down idly to rest itself on the furry head. Quistis felt awkward, as if she were intruding on some very intimate, private moment of Rinoa's, this too-public communion with her city, her home. She felt exposed, as if at any point Rinoa would turn and demand equal gaping naked transparency from her, as well. And what would Quistis Trepe fight to defend?

"We decided to take a break." Rinoa's voice was small again, choked and ugly. "You — you were right, I think; what you said that night. We talked, and we just couldn't reconcile anything while we were together, it hurt so much. So he went to Esthar, and I... came home. I think I was hoping — I wanted time to think about all of this, to try and figure out a way we can make this work."

"You still have time," Quistis said, aiming for comfort; the ugly image of fire blooming across the remains of the library skipped across her mind, and she winced a little.

"There's..." Rinoa shifted her weight, her fingers moving in familiar patterns across Angelo's head. "When it happened, when we talked, at the time — I was really just thinking about our relationship. Me and Squall. We could take a break from each other and come back... better. Stronger. Easier. But..." She bowed her head, guilty gaze falling somewhere at Quistis' feet. "It isn't just about us. I was ignoring the whole Sorceress thing. Like an idiot."

"Rinoa." Quistis stood up, made to cross the room, aborted the gesture halfway; what could she offer than Angelo couldn't? "It isn't your fault," she said instead, hoping she was saying the right thing. "No one knows how this magic works."

"Well, but I should, shouldn't I?" Her voice was bitter. "Looking back, I knew that something wasn't right. It all just felt... off. But it was...manageable? And everything felt off, so it was easy to ignore it as just..." She sighed, and Quistis heard tears and rage in it. "And now, I just — I just don't know. I don't know what this break did to the Bond. Maybe it doesn't work anymore."

"What happened with your magic?" She was almost afraid to ask; her mind's-eye again saw Rinoa, tranced and shrieking, her own magic rebounding back and burning her skin and yet casting more, more, that empty look in her eyes as she summoned forth Holy — all in that blink of a moment Quistis had been frozen, before she'd been able to act herself: her mind had recorded it, crystal-clear, and she wondered how long she'd see it in her nightmares. Then she wondered what Rinoa saw in her nightmares. Quistis didn't want to know.

"I tried," Rinoa said, her voice quiet in defeat.

The silence stretched long. Finally Rinoa came away from the window and sat down heavily on the bed next to Quistis, burying her face in her hands. "It just came out of nowhere. Usually I can — call it, or I choose to call it. I... I allow it in. But this time it just... I was gone before I even knew it." She dropped her hands; her face was bleak. "It wasn't even like when She was in my head," she whispered. "Even then... She was controlling me, but I could still feel it; I could feel someone else. This was just... there was nothing else. Nothing except magic. And me. And I wasn't... in control."

Quistis took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. This complicated — well, everything, really — but some of why Squall had assigned her to Rinoa was becoming clear — although how much of this had Squall anticipated? If he'd expected this, if he'd expected anything like this with their Bond, why hadn't he talked to Rinoa? Or put some kind of note in the mission file to Quistis only, if talking to Rinoa was too hard? Or had all of Squall's alleged concerns about Rinoa's safety been strictly material — Galbadian war-machines on the rampage, for example?

"So what do we do?" Rinoa's voice sounded so lost, and Quistis for a brief moment wanted to laugh, bitter and lost herself: what makes you think I have any idea what to do?

"Forward plan," she said instead, because she was SeeD and even lost and confused she needed a plan: orders, marching orders, something to cling to. "I... I'm sure you'll figure something out. We'll figure something out," she amended hastily, although she still wasn't sure what she had to offer. "I'll think about it. For now... can I ask you a favor?"

Rinoa's head jerked up. "Of course," she breathed, and it almost bowled Quistis over: trust writ on her face, honest in her eyes.

"If there's fighting," Quistis said slowly, "let me do it. Until you know what will happen. I promise, Rinoa," and her voice had suddenly grown hard with it; "I promise I will keep you safe."

"Oh, I know." Rinoa's voice was wistful, sad, resigned. "I know you will, Quisty."


_________________________________


It took a few minutes after Quistis left for Rinoa to gather herself together, pulling into her own core all the little bits of self she felt she'd been shattered into. It took a few minutes longer to look into the mirror, because she kept seeing flickers of something out of the corners of her eyes, and she was afraid it was her own fears, manifest in shadows. She was afraid to look at what she was, afraid she'd be different — afraid she wouldn't be different; afraid the face in the mirror would really just continue to not be enough.

So Rinoa changed her clothes, letting her traitorous body move on automatic — although that wasn't fair. It wasn't her body that had turned on her and refused to listen, but her mind; that great quiet lake now calmly lapped at her consciousness, ebbing and flowing beneath the surface of all her other thoughts and dreams and actions. She brushed her hair, hands moving in slow routine. She brushed her teeth. By the time she'd finished lacing her boots, she felt calm enough to glance into the mirror: the calm was less confidence and more just feeling empty, all emotions dull and limp, left in ragged piles on the floor.

Her face looked back at her: her face, not Sorceress; her skin was pale and her eyes looked tired, but she was there and breathing and somehow the tears caught in her throat again at that simple fact.

If it hadn't been for Quistis, I'd be dead right now. By her own hand, and nothing would have helped Timber less, and Squall would come and claim her body knowing the last things they'd said to each other had been—

Rinoa swallowed. And she squared her shoulders, looking herself dead in the eye in the mirror. It made her blush, a little, but she welcomed the awkward feeling, because the color on her face made her look less like a thing of the night, less pale and ethereal. Let me be real.

"What's done is done," she said aloud; Angelo, in the corner of the room, lifted her head in curious attention. The audience, even the audience of her dog, made it more formal somehow, as if she were delivering a speech no less important than the one she'd tried to give the day before. "No amount of wallowing will change that. So... it's time to just keep going."

She had Quistis, she still had Timber, and she still had herself.

It would have to be enough, for now.


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Quistis slipped into the chair at the end of the table carefully — almost apologetically, because she hadn't realized this Timber Owls meeting was waiting on her. She gathered her hands in her lap and met Rinoa's eyes; Rinoa seemed to be waiting for something, and so Quistis gave her an official nod — what, was she in charge of this now, too?

"Damage control," Rinoa began, and she wrote it clearly across the top of the pad of paper in front of her. "That's our topic for today. I don't want to dwell on what happened, right now — I want to figure out how to move forward." Her voice was flat, almost overconfident, as if daring anyone to contradict her. No one did, of course; Quistis' eyes flicked to Watts and then Zone, but neither one looked eager to interrupt their princess. There was a strange tension in the air, and Quistis didn't really like the feeling of it; something unwinding and unraveling, tangling the ties that connected these three friends into something uglier, darker. She noticed no one was meeting anyone else's eyes. Was this normal? Rinoa didn't seem overly concerned — or, well, she did, but not with the meeting itself; as if she were too preoccupied.

"First," she said, and her voice softened. "Zone, how many people were hurt?"

"About a dozen that I heard about." Zone's eyes were on the table, unwilling to look up. "Based on past responses, maybe two dozen. Nothing the clinic can't handle. And nothing serious... worst I saw was a broken leg."

Rinoa's mouth set; she looked unhappy, to Quistis, but merely said, "Thank god. Alright. Here's what I'm thinking. For the next few days, let's get some Owls volunteering at the clinic, you know, lend a helping hand. Maybe the Foxes and the Sigmas will want to help us out too. I'll go myself, probably tomorrow." Her mouth twisted, and she added in a much smaller voice, "And I'll make a donation, anonymously, to make sure they have the funds."

"Rinoa," Zone said, his voice tight and tense. "You know we talked about you using your pocket money to fund—"

"I said it would be anonymous," Rinoa snapped. "I'm not an idiot, Zone."

Quistis was surprised when Zone shut his mouth and looked away rather than retort — it didn't feel right, didn't sit right with her, and she thought maybe it felt too much like Zone was being nice on purpose, a clearer way to state that he thought there was a problem than anything words could have said.

"I want a lot of our attention on these people," Rinoa said firmly. "They were hurt at one of our rallies, and even though we didn't hurt them directly, I still feel responsible." It lay unsaid, between her words, the ugly bloom of Sorceress fire across marble and stone: who was responsible? "I want the Owls to take care of their own, alright?" Her face softened a little, sorrow and worry leaking through. "Zone," she said, her voice very quiet. "Can I put you on this?"

The long tense moment stretched just a bit too far, pulling the air thin between them. Then Zone sighed, and glanced up at Rinoa, and the glower on his face softened into exhaustion and remorse. "Of course," he said, and the apology was stiff but there. "I'll take care of it."

"Thank you." Rinoa smiled at him for a second before scribbling something down on her pad, the thin scratching of the pencil etching lines in the air. "Okay, second. Watts, you're intelligence. We need a way we can tie this back to Galbadia. Please tell me you have one."

Watts swallowed, the sound filling the room, and he nervously tried to stack the mess of papers in front of him; they slid everywhere, a few falling into Quistis' lap or past her onto the floor. "Sorry," Watts moaned as they all grabbed for them, piling a haphazard mess in the middle of the table.

"Sorry," Watts repeated once his information had been gathered, and Quistis marked that he wasn't talking about the papers this time. "But without that machine, we have no chance of directly tracing it. Some of the, um, parts were left, sir. I'm trying to trace them instead."

"That contraption was obviously of Galbadian build," Quistis blurted, and then as all three sets of eyes turned to her she belatedly realized what Watts had meant: they didn't have the machine's ruins because of her, because of her Degenerator, and it was her fault that they couldn't trace it back to Galbadia with hard evidence. She swallowed, suddenly sick — and angry; none of them had done anything to try to stop it (except, of course, Rinoa) and yet suddenly it was her fault for saving the day? "Sorry," she said, feeling strangely indignant with it; she'd been hired to keep Rinoa safe, not to tie Galbadia and Timber together. "But Garden has extensive files on Galbadia's X-ATM series of combat weaponry. That thing was pretty obviously the next generation. Nowhere else in the world makes anything quite like it."

"Really," Rinoa breathed. "Can you — is that confidential? Can you get me a report? Can you — would you testify to that?"

Her brain whirling, Quistis stammered, "Well — yes — no, I mean — but..."

"Rinoa." Zone's voice cut across her thoughts, flat and angry. "Just — I'm not saying this is a bad idea, okay, I want to pin Galbadia for this bullshit as much as you do. But just think about it. Somebody from Garden who has obviously been hired to protect you, coming out of the woodwork and saying yeah, sure, it's Galbadian! isn't going to mean a lot to your average Timber resident. I believe you, Quistis, but you're not from Timber." The glower appeared on his face again. "People already disbelieve the shit they see every day, because they want to live in denial. It won't even be hard for them to ignore you."

"Still," Rinoa said, and her voice was hot, lit with something from within, that fire that glowed inside Rinoa and occasionally reared its head with force. "It is worth looking into. Watts, as part of your investigation, I suggest you send a quick note to Garden's Public Relations asking if they could help identify a military object based on civilian descriptions. See if we can get the proof. I'll put Quistis on it later, if we can't."

From there the conversation devolved into a discussion on what to do with the now-even-more-ruined ruins of the library; Quistis listened with only half of her attention. The remainder of her concentration was turned firmly inward, stirring in guilt and an almost resentful pride. What was she even doing here? She had stepped in and saved Rinoa, just like she'd been ordered to — but if she'd taken a second of thought (admittedly, it was hard to think concretely in her Limit Break; the Blue Magic was a wild force, and whisper-growled constantly, demanding much of her attention and control) she might have done something else, disabled the X-ATM386, left some kind of evidence. In saving Rinoa, she had apparently caused more trouble — part of her brain shouted that this was a most unfair analysis, as Rinoa-dead or Rinoa-wounded would certainly be worse than an unidentified machine. But Quistis just couldn't turn off the rest of her brain, the part telling her she wasn't good enough, she hadn't done enough; it echoed, the apologetic accusation in Watts' voice, and she'd screwed it up: she'd done it wrong, again.


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She was afraid to sleep, this fear a dull ebbing terror lodged somewhere below her heart; even when she tried to tell herself (in Quistis' voice, of course) that rest would help keep her strength up, help her get through this, that she needed to sleep, to relax... Rinoa found the platitudes so obviously transparent, the dark-light of her terror shining right through them, tearing their paper-weight to shreds. Her fingers clutched and tangled in the sheets; her legs huddled in the covers, then kicked them off. Her breath filled the room, hesitant echoes stacking up in the corners atop Angelo's soft snoring; the sound of her dog was an anchor in the dim darkness of night. The only anchor she had left, apparently, and it filled her lungs with despair, breath thick with it, and she couldn't help but miss him even as it made her angry. She tugged the top sheet back across herself at an awkward angle, yanking it into place.

All of this made her so angry. She was mad at herself, for being so careless — but when could she and Squall have taken time for training? Who would train them? Cid and Edea seem to know what they're doing. But Rinoa had talked to Edea, one faltering stumbling conversation soon after the war had ended; she'd still been high on the romanticism of it all, Sorceress and Knight, ancient archetypes reborn in their skins: who wouldn't be? It isn't exactly like that, Edea had said, soft and slow. Happily ever after doesn't cover all of it. And Rinoa had been convinced they'd had all the time in the world, because it was supposed to work.

But no, that wasn't all of it: Rinoa had trusted the damn magic. Something this strong, this powerful — something able to pull her entire consciousness underneath the dark roiling surface of so many lives, so many women — something thick enough to connect her to Squall so tightly she could feel his thoughts, feel his heart beat inside her own — shouldn't something that cosmic be strong enough to make itself work? Shouldn't a power that depended on a link between two people be working to keep those people together? She felt strangely, oddly, unexpectedly betrayed by it, by the logic of it all. It just plain wasn't fair.

She rolled over, huffing, bare feet kicking out of the sheets again; the air had a chill to it and Rinoa liked the way it pricked at her toes, thrilling her body with a very real sense of physicality, contact with a world she badly wanted to be in at the moment. Squall would've slept through her tossing and then hissed in bald-faced anger when she tried to tuck her cold feet against him; it had always made him so angry: God, Rinoa, can't you wear socks? I am trying to sleep here. She wiggled her toes in the air and felt towards the Bond, wondering whether her touch would feel like cold feet to Squall now, whether he would angrily roll over and hunch his shoulders against her magic. The thought made her sad, her heart tugging downwards into her stomach.

She didn't think about it too long, because the Bond was still buzzing with static, waving tendrils of it occasionally brushing against her and she felt the threat in it, distant but not at all lightened: merely assuaged, or distracted, a power biding its time.

The thoughts led her to Quistis — but maybe not surprisingly, because she was stealing from Quistis the sense of stability she had wanted from Squall. It probably wasn't fair, because Quistis had been assigned to her side — Quistis Trepe being a full-fledged, card-carrying, rule-following devotee of the SeeD Handbook — but Rinoa was taking snatches of friendship, smiles and glances and touches when she could get them. It was better than thinking about this as just a mission, about Quistis as a bodyguard; she wanted — Hyne, she wanted someone to fill the ragged edges of the hole this break had torn into her, and Quistis was tall and competent and lovely and so fucking fierce, and Rinoa wanted to bask in that light for as long as she could; she wanted to wrap herself around Quistis, sleep herself whole beneath Quisty's watch.

But that wasn't fair, and none of this was fair: that a power so terrible could be so dependent, that a link so strong could dissolve so quickly; that someone like her could lie in bed, exhausted to the ends of her nerves and unable to sleep; that her dreams could merge with her nightmares until it all became one terrifying shade of black.

Rinoa tucked her feet back under the covers and rolled over to her other side, resolved to stare at the wall for as long as it took — and still unsure of what she was so tentatively waiting for.


________________________________


"E-excuse me, sir?" Watts had emerged from the strange cubby-hole he kept under the stairs, a room always hot with electronics and whirring, humming, sounding almost alive in a way that greatly unnerved Quistis (she admired computers, and the things Selphie could do with a control panel filled her with both awe and fear, but she didn't know very much about the intricate system of data gathering and analysis Watts seemed to live and breathe with, as if they were both part of one giant creature). "Do you have a moment?"

Rinoa stopped, and turned, and the welcoming smile slipped from her lips in a way that made Quistis' stomach plummet, the tug of dread too much like gravity. "Watts," Rinoa said. "What is it?"

"I—" His sharp gaze went from Rinoa to Quistis, and then back again. "I have something to report. To both of you."

Rinoa glanced around, and Quistis automatically did too — trying to suppress the sudden shiver that came over her, and the question of whether Rinoa's safe haven was still safe. "Here," Rinoa decided, leading them both down a little-used hallway and opening the door at the end — a supply closet. Quistis breathed. It smelled of paper and cleaning supplies, the odd juxtaposition of organics and chemicals unsettling her stomach more.

Rinoa sat down on a stack of paper boxes and looked up. Her face was drawn. "Watts, you look like you've seen a ghost. What the hell is going on?"

Watts swallowed and shut the door; he sat down himself on an upturned crate. Quistis remained standing, realizing too late to move that she'd placed herself between the door and Rinoa; it had been automatic, a subconscious choice, but she found it sat awkward and stale in the air, as if she were stating for the record she didn't even trust the Owls.

"I found something." Watts was pitching his voice low and Quistis noticed how here, in the plain absurd secrecy of this supply closet, surrounded by lemon-scented sink cleanser and faced only by Rinoa herself (because I don't count), his usual formal nervousness had translated into an almost scorching intensity. "In one of our logs. We should have — we should have seen it sooner, but things just went to shit so fast, I'm sure not everyone was looking to the best of their ability. Our mistake, and you can bet I'll figure out how it happened and why, but for now..." He shook his head. "That attack wasn't just on us, Rin. It was on you."

"On me?" Her echo sounded fake, as if saying, you can't be serious. "But Watts, it... it happened while I was in Garden. Did they not know?"

"That first attack was a dud," Watts began, and Rinoa huffed.

"A fairly effective dud if you ask me," she muttered.

Watts shook his head. "The purpose of the first attack was just to distract us while they planted the X-A...whatever..." with a glance at Quistis that somehow conveyed sarcastic respect; "the thing. They had it in the sewer, and it was designed to be set off when you were around."

Rinoa's face was going white, even as she shook her head in a denial so faint Quistis could almost hear it aloud. "How would they know? It's not like I — emit some kind of — aura, that would set it off—"

"No," Watts said flatly, "you don't."

This silence was ugly, and thick, and Quistis couldn't tear her eyes from the expressions flickering across Rinoa's face: fear, anger, a righteous selfish-selfless disbelief and — back to fear again, constant in the cycle, underlying her every thought.

"Someone here tipped them off," Rinoa breathed.

Watts didn't say anything. It was obvious in the set of his mouth what he thought, the reluctant light in his eyes, and Quistis frowned at it. She felt very underinformed; it all sat wrong with her, Rinoa's brilliantly determined drive ending in this strange dark muddle that had left the Timber Owls alone and lost, with Timber itself turning against them.

And then Rinoa's eyes turned to her — and Watts turned also, his face closing down somewhat, concern partially replaced with reserve. Rinoa looked up at her, and Quistis wanted to laugh, so very very unprepared, because she hadn't known what to read for this, what to study, and this was the kind of test she always failed.

"Quistis," Rinoa said, and Quistis found herself oddly proud to only hear a small waver in Rinoa's voice. "What do you think we should do?"

Quistis found herself struck sullen for a moment, wondering why in the hell she was the one making decisions in Rinoa's city, with Rinoa's people, on Rinoa's mission — but then she thought of the fire again and she swallowed, feeling guilty, her stomach sinking like a stone as she wondered whether Rinoa even trusted her own judgment. I don't know, Quistis wanted to say, but that answer was so blatantly unacceptable for this tangled mess they were all lost in — so think about it like a SeeD.

Quistis sat down on a cardboard box and re-sorted it in her mind: could she frame this like a tactical strike, a leak of intelligence, a military maneuver? Or even like a homework assignment (failed Instructor), some intermediate hold until Rinoa came up with a real solution? "Watts," she said, the words jumping from her throat before her brain was really ready for them. "Look into this some more. Find out all you can. If you were monitoring things that day, if you have some kind of signal record, see if you can trace it to figure out how the X-ATM386 was set off. I'll email Xu again — she might be able to pull the specs on the X-ATM line for me without too much paperwork hassle and red tape."

"Yes, sir!" Watts gave her a single confident nod, and Quistis read shades of something else in it: gratitude? Acknowledgment? "I'll get right on it."

"And me?" Rinoa's voice was so quiet, and it felt all wrong. You're a liability, Quistis almost said, but that was too much a SeeD thing; Rinoa would take that simple fact as a personal criticism, wounding and self-destroying. She couldn't treat all of this like a military operation, because it was still civilian-run — even with his best equipment Watts was still just a guy who liked computers, and Zone was just another guy who worked out some and made good speeches, and Rinoa was just — well. Rinoa wasn't just anything anymore.

"You need to just keep doing what you would normally do," Quistis said, "but safer. If you change things up suddenly, the Galbadians that are watching you—" and we now know they're watching you, Rinoa, "—will know something's up. They'll grow suspicious." And I don't think you can fend off another attack, yet. "But you need to be careful, too. Just — hang in there."

Rinoa nodded, too sad and anxious and relieved to even argue, and Quistis wanted to scream: how had she suddenly been put in charge of this? Why was she suddenly making the decisions?


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Rinoa flickered back into consciousness slowly. Something soft was stroking her hair, and she was surprisingly warm and quiet and comfortable, as if someone had taken all the weight off her shoulders and allowed her to drift into clouds and cotton for a little while. "...mmkay, Quisty," she mumbled, trying to curl up tighter into a ball, tucking this safe feeling of warmth and soft security close to her core, storing it behind her heart: letting it sink into herself, so that the shock wasn't so toxic when she opened her eyes.

"C'mon, Princess." It wasn't Quistis; Zone's voice was amused, and it must have been his fingers in her hair; Rinoa's surprise faded into a soft smile as she tentatively pried her eyes open against her own will. How many times had she woken up like this before, herself curled up on the couch in utter exhaustion, Zone coming in from patrols and waking her? Sitting beside each other on this threadbare couch, wordless, sharing the hopeless despair of an empty late night, the hour at which words took on two or three meanings, such that conversation was slow and heavy with weary weight? Her eyes blinked open and Rinoa sat up. She sheepishly ran a hand through her hair, tucking it behind her ears, sparing a glance at Zone through its curtain.

She and Zone had always had an understanding, with its own limits but certainly deeper than friendship, and Rinoa had occasionally wondered at the what-ifs between them: if only she hadn't — but then her brain walked the time-path backwards: if she hadn't been with Squall, if she hadn't fought Ultimecia, if she hadn't become Sorceress, if she hadn't gotten herself caught up in things; if she hadn't hired SeeD, if she hadn't met Seifer, if she hadn't... eventually the path wound so far back into her memories that it became, if she hadn't been Rinoa Heartilly, and maybe it was the kind of thing Ellone would dwell on with timeweaving, dreamweaving, but Rinoa wasn't sure she could think on it. Rinoa chose to live (mostly) in the present.

Zone shook his head in fond exasperation. He looked tired; he often did late patrols, joking about being the Night Owl, but the truth was he was the best at weaseling details out of rogue bartenders, or helping drunk teenagers find their way home: Zone's love for Timber surfaced itself in connection and service, both, and Rinoa loved him for it even as she feared he'd one day run himself too thin. Look who's talking; she herself had fallen asleep on the couch, the notes for the new speech she was planning strewn about the floor now. Zone seemed to echo her thoughts, a comfortable closeness, as he commented, "You'd think by now you'd have learned to go to bed."

"What time is it?" Her voice was still full of sleep, and she shook her head a little, trying to shed the cobwebs in her eyes.

"Late." Zone flashed a friendly grin; his smiles lit his face, all the more now these days because he hadn't smiled as much since it all happened. His eyes crinkled with fondness. "Or early, I guess. What are you counting from?"

The door opened, and Watts slipped in. The glance he shot Zone was strange, almost apologetic; Rinoa felt her consciousness begin to trickle done her spine, suddenly awake and aware to the undercurrents in the room. Watts smiled at her; "Good morning, princess," and it was a friendly jibe, his usual teasing, and she suddenly missed late nights painting train models and early-morning naps in the corner and oh, when had things become so complicated?

As Watts headed for the armchair his foot caught on one of the scattered pages of her speech; he picked it up, glanced at it, and recognized her handwriting. "Sorry. Is this yours?"

"I—" The words were catching in her throat, suddenly shy and tentative. "I've been working on another speech. I still want to say something about the library; I think there's a lot we need to address, and I think it needs to be said sooner rather than later."

Zone and Watts exchanged a glance that almost prickled in the air, charged with all kinds of potential between them, and Rinoa sat up straighter because she was missing something. Watts tilted his head, just slightly, in obvious deference, and Zone took a long deep breath and turned to her.

"Rinoa." His voice sounded braced, and Rinoa felt her heart skip a beat in sudden tense fear. "Look, we know you're trying to help — we wouldn't be here without you, but — another speech? I — we — we both think," Zone said, with a bit of an edge, and maybe Watts squirmed a little uncomfortably at it or maybe she just imagined it, "that you need to... take a little break."

"A break." The words ghosted out of her mouth and all she could think of was Squall — her and Squall, and their break, and it had worked out so well already: her heart torn into pieces and still bleeding, her magic broken loose itself, free and wild like an animal stalking her in the night; snatches of sleep on the couch and what to show for it. "What, are you kicking me out? Should I go back to Garden?" The words were barbed, and she knew she was lashing out with her own pain, but she couldn't help herself.

"God, no!" Zone rolled his eyes. "You always make things so—" He swallowed it, and this was new for Zone, this ability to check himself, to catch ugly words in his throat. Rinoa wasn't sure whether she liked it; it had been easy to tell what Zone was thinking because he'd always blurted it out of his mouth. This new safety valve, the way he could quench these thoughts behind a screen: it was just different, and she hated that she was gone so much things were changing without her.

"Just give it a little time," Zone said finally. "Rinoa, Princess, things are different here," and it was uncanny the way his words were echoing everything in her head and her heart. "I know you're trying to help. But look at you. You're stressed out about something." His pointed look caught her exhaustion, the way she was nabbing hours on the couch at every given chance. "I don't know what it is," Zone continued, his voice softening. "And I don't really need to know. But whatever's got you strung out isn't helping us."

Rinoa bit her lip and glanced at Watts. He shifted under her scrutiny, but eventually nodded. "The word on the street is that people are worried, Rin, and not just about Galbadia. They—they talk about you, and about the Sorceress, and it just isn't a good time. Not right now."

The remains of Rinoa's heart twisted themselves into knots, and how was she just now still finding out what she could lose? To hear this from Zone was bad enough, but Watts — kind, gentle Watts, who called Quistis sir out of polite habit and spent most of his time with computer screens? "I just thought—"

But here it was, finally laid out in the spaces between the three of them, this strange uneven triangle. They'd talked of her powers exactly once before: when she'd come to the Owls with her decision to announce she was a Sorceress. It had been almost eerily like this, the three of them up late with nothing but sleepless exhaustion, as Rinoa tried to haltingly explain to two men who had never even touched paramagic before what had happened to her, what it meant to be carrying around this magic: a bevy of witches just beneath the surface of her soul, the mantle of Sorceress tied tight around her neck for good or evil. She wasn't sure they had understood and she knew they didn't now; the spectre of her powers had put a space between them, a small but growing chasm they could never cross. Even now, they wouldn't ask her what had happened at the library; Rinoa wasn't even sure they realized things had gone wrong.

"Princess," Zone said, and it hurt that he was still using her nickname, because it wasn't like before and it never would be and she was really tired of this sinking feeling: if she sank anymore she'd be underground, lost to the sunlight and the stars and the scent of breezes through dried wood. "We need you, Rinoa, and we know that. You know that. But we need you — we need you to be alright. Just... lie low for a bit, okay, and let us do the work for a day or two."

Her breath caught like a sob, and she was not going to cry over this, and she swallowed all of it down. Her notes strewn across the floor looked forlorn now, silly, the tiny meager insignificant efforts of a girl who thought maybe she could turn the Sorceress on and off like a faucet. "Whatever you say," she said, her voice obviously miserable, its tone grating at her own nerves.

Zone rested a hand on her knee. "Hey," he said, and his mouth quirked in an attempt at a smile. "Just a couple days, alright? Give us some time to do some work and we'll give you something to make a real speech about. You're still our best speech-maker, Rin. Watts couldn't give a talk to a paper bag, sir."

"And poor Zone's stomach," Watts shot back, grinning. "He might explode. Better that it's you."

She stood up, because the casual banter was trying to make things right again, trying to make it okay, and at this moment nothing was fitting together: she was a collection of pieces, defined by the breaks in her life more than the things, living only in the spaces in-between what used to matter.

"I'm going to — going to go to bed."

By the time she got there her eyes were dry, her throat clear, her body already dully accepting the loss of one more thing like everything else that drowned in her powers and never got away.


________________________________


The morning light seemed thin and tepid as Quistis stepped into the little alley-yard behind the house; Timber seemed full of these charming security hazards, smaller streets tucked behind houses tucked behind smaller streets, a nested series of cobblestone and ambush points. The sparse pale light gave the little space a soothing washed-out feeling, though, that made Quistis's skin sit a little easier, like a long exhale; she needed something like that right now, to settle the tilted tension that had been buzzing through Timber's air, in her gut.

It felt odd, as she settled into the routine of her morning exercises, that she was picking up on the emotional climate of the place — and that another facet of Timber was soothing the jagged edges that climate produced in her, reciprocal forces she shouldn't have been affected by in the first place. She always noted the political and social climate of a place; it was a standard part of any assessment, right along with military strength and defensibility of the terrain. But it had never slinked under her skin like this, crossed the threshold from things she knew and catalogued to things that changed her. This wasn't her place; Timber didn't belong to her and the thought of her belonging to Timber, even a little, unsettled her. Home was complicated and Quistis preferred hers where everything was clearly defined and documented, where she had a place and purpose that she understood.

But the soft uninsistent sunshine still felt good on her skin, and she focused on that as she slid through her training regime. The routine calmed her thoughts, set them in order; woke her body up and settled the itch for physical activity. The morning was slow and quiet; she'd missed Zone and Watts — which was unusual enough for her to note but not to worry — and Rinoa was still in her room. Sleeping, Quistis hoped; she needed it.

Everything here had been too frantic and confused for her to indulge in longer morning practices. This calmer morning made her fingers itch to unhitch her whip and get a good long session in now that her unarmed combat drills were almost done — but the morning was so thin and quiet, here in this little back street; the faint chirp of birds stitched the air, the low rustle of trees, and only the distant sounds of industry and waking. Quistis thought of the nervy tension of the atmosphere, and the pistol-crack of her whip, and with a purely internal sigh slid through the last few mock-blows of her training and went back inside. The incomplete feeling lingered in her hands — and, deeper and more distant, the rumbling buzz of her Guardians, also restless, echoing her unsteady unease.

She had showered and dressed again in her uniform when she came into the common room to find Watts there, stuffing a sandwich into his mouth with one hand while he shuffled through papers with the other — he saw her and froze, which was ridiculous, chafing against Quistis's general sense of misplaced, misaligned discontent: this is your house, not mine! Stop acting like I've caught you doing something terrible — and then he dropped the papers. Quistis suppressed an uncharitable roll of her eyes; it wouldn't help, not with Watts. Instead she knelt down to help — he had at least managed to not drop the sandwich, which also served to muffle whatever apologetic mumbling he was attempting. He'd chewed and swallowed by the time they had everything back together; he straightened and stood up, too quickly, with an instinctive, "Thank you, sir."

Quistis unbent, level with him again. "It's all right." And then her instincts kicked her, sharp and fast, knitting it together: Watts and Zone up early and already out, Rinoa hiding in her room, the thick tension and Watts' exaggerated awkwardness. Her brows snapped together. She waved a hand at the papers and caught Watts' eye, and asked, her voice going clipped: "Anything I need to know about?"

Watts swallowed — and sighed, and Quistis's small flare of triumph at spotting the connections mixed sourly with — everything else, knowing the news couldn't be good. She felt Timber's unease settling into her, along with the near-constant worry over Rinoa and confusion over her own place here.

"Yeah," Watts said, his shoulders slumping. "Yeah. It is. We talked last night — Zone and me and — and Rin. There's nothing concrete, sir, but we thought... we thought it might be best if she lay low for a bit."

Quistis blew out her breath, like a pressure valve on the thoughts suddenly swarming her brain — a thick clenching of her heart, for Rinoa, the blankness of her closed door suddenly taking on a new light, and wondering just what kind of talk that had been last night as a catalogue of the tensions and small ugly moments and strained looks between her and Zone presented itself to her mind; and a hot sweep of irritation — didn't I say no sudden changes in routine? — except even that was smothered by Timber's atmosphere, by Quistis' admission that she knew less about the place than any of the Owls did, that her advice could have been wrong and that Watts and Zone were most likely right and she was so tired of feeling so out-of-place and out of her depth here.

"All right," she said at last. "Do you know for how long?"

"No, sir. We're keepin' an ear out, both of us." His voice sounded flat — not the uninviting flatness of hostility but the dead featurelessness of exhaustion and strain; what are we all playing at here, anyway? It was no comfort to think that Watts and Zone could be just as overwhelmed by the situation.

"Right. Well. Thank you," she said, "for telling me. And let know if you hear anything — anything —" her voice hardened, steeled by her frustration and by the bright hard spark of determination to at least do the job she knew well— "that could be substantial enough that I need to know it."

"Yes, sir," he replied — and then, less automatically and sounding almost hurt: "Of course."

Dammit. Quistis kicked herself. "I'm— I'm sorry," she managed. "I know we all care about her. I know you'll try, for her," and she winced inside, because didn't that sound nice and patronizing, I know you're trying, the kind of ‘encouragement' that had always made Quistis wither inside with discouraged failure — but Watts seemed to straighten a little from his hunch, a shy smile flickering across his face, startling Quistis a little at how it changed his face. It brought into stark contrast how strained he was, because she'd seen him like this before, long ago when the Owls dealt in mundane Presidential kidnappings, not the fallout of ancient magics.

"Thank you, sir. And— I'm glad," he blurted, "that you're here for her. Sir."

Quistis blinked. There had been something like admiration in his voice — and something else, something almost sly, an upward edge to his tone and lips — what? But he was already bobbing in some kind of abbreviated bow-salute and scurrying out of the house, clutching his papers, leaving her alone in the middle of the common room.

That was — interesting. She ran through what she'd learned — more vague rumblings about Rinoa, Timber growing even tenser. Nothing new on the attack. Nothing concrete, dammit. And Rinoa, her charge — the unsettling news about her magic and the even less definable but no less worrying way she was retreating into herself, the bruised smudges of exhaustion under her eyes, the way her brightness was dimmed and shut behind a door.

Should I call Squall? She imagined trying to report this: client is feeling depressed, sir; recommended course of action? She almost laughed, imagining Squall on the other end of that conversation, an entirely dark humour that did nothing to lighten her mood. I hate this.

She had nothing to report, if plenty to say; the useless feeling chafed at her and the resounding silence from Rinoa's room seemed to press down against her through the ceiling. Her duty had come to a standstill: remain alert and await further information and instructions. But she was more than that (right?); she was a friend, if a hopelessly incompetent one. She didn't know what to do about that, either — should she try and draw Rinoa out of her room? Give her space? Quistis knew what option she would have preferred, but that didn't help her frozen inaction here, hesitant to move because doing anything might make it worse. She felt almost — underwater, pressure everywhere on her skin, and her blue magic prodded her, hissing under her surface, responding to her stress.

This is ridiculous.

She would find something to do with this. She didn't know the political landscape of Timber well enough to try and navigate it on her own; that path to protecting Rinoa was closed to her — for now; she made a mental note to follow up with Xu on the Galbadian machine. And while Rinoa — Rinoa's magic, Rinoa's problems, Rinoa's feelings — was at least as terrifying a terrain, that territory was at least not barred to her. Quistis marched upstairs, to email Xu from the console and to think: to plan her path forward.


________________________________


The hours seemed hollow, torpid and heavy with emptiness, dragging by at the precise speed of the sunshine creeping across her floor and retreating again. This awareness of time reminded Rinoa unnervingly of Ellone; made her throat-dry aware of the disturbed depths inside her and scared to even think that she might want the time to pass by faster because what if she could make it happen by accident? It infuriated and terrified her, that she was afraid to live inside her own skin, both feelings settling inside her like stones in the still silence of inaction.

The lost feeling that had fogged around her the past week had solidified into something near tangible, occupying all the spaces of her room; she had never felt so bound to a place and so disoriented at once, so firmly anchored into immobility. It reminded her too much of being a kid, of all her empty little rebellions and the overwhelming suffocation of Caraway, feeling so useless.

It didn't help to think that Zone was right; she knew he probably was. She was too aware, now, of all the advice she hadn't followed — Squall, telling her to stay away, to be safe, warning her — and it made her angry and helpless at once; it was like every feeling came with a counter-feeling attached and none of them balanced out, just tipped her more sharply in different directions. Her earlier resolve to keep moving forward seemed childish, now — and yet she couldn't think of anything else to do. She had slept late that morning, and woken slow and sticky, feeling drained rather than rested. The day limped by; she had tried to work on more speeches — maybe she could give them to Zone, or maybe for herself, once she could give them again — but the words got stuck and muddled in her brain, her fingers feeling clumsy against the pencil, the exercise seeming so pointless; the empty pages had stared at her almost mockingly and what words she'd managed to scribble down looked so infantile and meaningless.

She scratched out another such attempt and slumped on the bed. Angelo came to snuffle at her hand, hanging limply off the edge of the mattress.

Rinoa rolled over, to look at Angelo; her fur was lit by the warm tones of approaching afternoon. "You need a walk, girl," she sighed — then bit her lip: should she go out?

The thought froze her: she was afraid to walk her dog. It was ridiculous and true and terrifying and it shot at something inside her, a bedrock she could never have imagined shifting beneath her: Timber was her home. Anger flared inside her, again — I can walk my damn dog in my own city; this couldn't be what Zone and Watts meant me to do — and then uncertainty tipped her the other way, thoughts a-tumble — was she just being stubborn? She hated being so aware of herself, thinking over everything before she could move; it made her feel trapped in her own mind and it was not a place she wanted to be, not with the company she'd be keeping in there, dark roils and curls and ancient things that went on forever, down and down.

And she remembered Quistis, telling her to keep doing what she normally did, to not change things up. Rinoa worried at the lip still caught between her teeth, then hopped up off the bed and signaled Angelo to follow her.

Quistis' door was partially open; Rinoa hesitated, and knocked on the frame. She heard Quistis get up from the console. "Yes," she asked, coming to the door; her face seemed abstracted, and then snapped into sharp focus on Rinoa. Rinoa swallowed the breath that almost gasped out of her. "Um. I— Angelo needs a walk," she blurted. "I'm not sure if I should..." She stumbled to a halt, not sure how much Quistis already knew and hating the thought of having to explain; hating the way the words tripped her — wasn't she supposed to be the public speaker here?

Quistis' face softened, and Rinoa realized she looked worried; it made a small warmth flare in her — and bitterness, too. "I heard," Quistis said, softly. "Watts told me." Quistis looked down at Angelo; Angelo returned her regard with solemn dog eyes and a goofy dog grin. "I think we'll be okay with a short walk. Everyone knows you walk her, right? It would look strange if you suddenly stopped, or had someone else do it for you." Her voice was gentle and low, like she was talking to an anxious student.

Rinoa breathed out sour relief. "Okay. Can we go now?" She sounded like a kid to her own ears, all her restlessness channeled into words, bursting out of her, so little control again.

"Sure," Quistis said, with a small smile — more sad than anything else, but it still made Rinoa's mouth twitch up in return, just to see how it softened Quistis' face.

Rinoa nodded and started down the hall; Quistis closed her door and fell in behind her.

Stepping out of the house felt painfully different, an action she'd done so thoughtlessly so many times before suddenly sticky with awareness; she felt the air close around her like suffocating, like a target between her shoulderblades and she felt the power stir inside her, distant and dangerous and she swallowed down sharp-edged panic, breathed and breathed, no. Breathed for calm, and thought of Quistis at her back — I'm safe, I'm safe, go away — and a spill of steadiness seemed to trickle towards her (the Bond? but...)

"Are you all right?" and Quistis' touch, light on her arm. Rinoa blinked back to herself to see Quistis' concerned face, both of them standing by the threshold and Angelo anxious beside them.

Quistis' fingers were warm against her skin, and her eyes were pale and clear in the afternoon light and something inside Rinoa settled and, "Yeah," she said, so grateful that it was true, for just that moment.

Quistis held her eyes for a second, then nodded and dropped her hand; something distant and deep stirred at this loss of contact and Rinoa was unsteady again. It brought — everything, everything, too forcefully to mind, like a punch to her gut: why she couldn't step out into Timber without feeling it on her skin anymore, why she took the back way as she numbly started Angelo's quick walk, where she was less likely to run into people. I can't do this, she thought. And, even more miserably, I can't do this to everyone — she couldn't keep being a burden, couldn't afford to be so out-of-control right now.

She wanted to talk to Quistis, to someone, but what could she say? She didn't understand any of this, and Quistis seemed distracted and thoughtful under the habitual alertness of an on-duty SeeD. Rinoa finished Angelo's walk quickly, guilty all around for taking Quistis away from whatever she'd been working on and feeling bad for not giving Angelo more time. When they got back to the house, the thought of going back up to her room was agonizing; she hesitated by the couch. "I'll — I'll be down here, okay?"

Quistis gave her an unreadable look — it reminded her of Squall and that hurt — then nodded, tilted her head to the side. "All right." A pause bubbled up between them, stretching out unevenly — did Quistis want to say something? A confused mass of thoughts and wants popped to the surface of Rinoa's mind — please don't go; I just want to be alone; some deeper and darker want — but then Quistis turned around, the motion oddly lacking her usual grace, and went back upstairs.

Rinoa sank onto the couch, feeling empty— feeling emptied. Everything seemed to be leaking out of her all over the place, or falling through her fingers — she couldn't help with Timber; she couldn't control herself; she felt the magic murmuring inside her at odd moments, latching onto her thoughts. It seemed to breathe through her sometimes and it scared her and she hated it; it felt dangerous and desperate and her thoughts spiraled in on themselves again, retreading: she couldn't afford this right now, Timber couldn't afford this right now.

Angelo leaned her head against Rinoa's knee, and Rinoa buried her fingers behind Angelo's ears, looked into her anxious brown eyes.

"I don't know what to do," she whispered.

Angelo gave a little whine, and butted her head up into Rinoa's hands; it was comfort and it wasn't enough.


________________________________


She found Rinoa sitting on the roof of the building, watching the sun approach the horizon. The clouds were spotted with gold, tinted rose, and Quistis stopped for a moment at the sight of it — and the peaceful look on Rinoa's face, the first she'd seen on her friend in what seemed to be a terribly long time. Careful to not be too loud, afraid of disturbing Rinoa's delicate reverence, Quistis walked across the roof and sat down beside her. There was silence. Quistis looked out over the buildings of Timber — the train station, there, soft billows of smoke rising to meet their cousin-clouds in the sky.

"I don't know why anyone would want to destroy this," Rinoa said finally, and in her voice was a wistful sadness.

"Rinoa, look," Quistis said, before she could let the quiet peace of the moment steal her nerves. "I've had an idea."

Rinoa turned to look at her, warm eyes immediately crinkling in interest. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her cheek upon her own hand. "An idea?"

"About your magic." Quistis swallowed her expectation of awkwardness, and waited, but Rinoa just blinked a little, and gave her a sad smile.

"I..." Quistis looked back out over Timber, noting the way the shadows fell warm-black into the alleyways; unable to look at Rinoa's tentative face, her almost hopeless mien. "I've been thinking about your magic, about the way you use your Limit Break. And I've been thinking... about my own magic." The words fell like bell-chimes, deep and dark and warm, things Quistis rarely spoke of. "When I was training to use my Blue Magic, I had to learn to use it completely differently from the para-magic I'd trained with. And it was hard, but in the end it was the only way I could control the Blue spells enough for them to be useful."

She threw Rinoa a sideways glance. "I had a couple mishaps with it while I was learning, too."

Rinoa sat up, slowly, a strangely intense look growing on her face. "Do you think my magic works like yours?"

"I don't know," Quistis admitted. "But... I don't think it works like para-magic, either." She took a long deep breath, hissed it out slowly. "You, me, Squall — all of us. We've been coming at it the wrong way — treating it like Junctioned magic works to a point, but I think you need to try something different in the long run."

Rinoa sighed, too, a long slow exhale. "What does that mean?"

"I don't know a lot about your magic, Rinoa." And here it was, laying this all on the table, and why was she suddenly nervous, her palms sweating with it, like she was back to a cadet, handing in a report? "But I do know a lot about teaching, and I know a bit about helping students develop unusual gifts." A deep breath. "That is... if you're willing to work with me a little." There were plenty of reasons Rinoa wouldn't want to — privacy, embarrassment, Squall; the fact that in many ways Quistis was a failed Instructor anyway...

But Rinoa's face lit up, fiery with hope and gratitude, and her smile was small and triumphant and expectant and Quistis felt something change between them as she reached over to take Quistis' hand; "Yes," Rinoa breathed, and she squeezed Quistis' hand in an odd parody of support. Trust, Quistis thought, suddenly and painfully thankful for Rinoa's trust in her, Rinoa's outreaching of friendship and connection, the way she could never keep anything close to her, the way she shared all of herself with the world. She gave Rinoa's fingers an answering squeeze, trying to say: I'll do what I can. I'll help you. To the best of my ability.

"If you think it will help," Rinoa said, uncannily reading close to Quistis' thoughts, "I am sure it will, Quisty."