He was five when they came, the tired man and the woman who looked like death.
Sis had vanished barely two weeks before. Recent enough that he could still fool himself into think that, if he looked hard enough, he might find her. That, maybe, if he sat on the beach and waited, she'd come back to him. Because she'd always come for him when he sat on the beach. Always.
He'd almost run into the man, tears in his eyes because Seifer was a jerk and Sis would so come back!
"Hello, Squall," the man had said, voice quiet and calming, and Squall had back-pedalled and fallen on his behind.
The man looked down at him, leaning like he was tired. He had a scar between his eyes, Squall would remember later, and a line of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth. He hadn't smiled, not like most adults did when they came to the orphanage, but there had been something calming about him. Something safe.
Someone stumbled behind Squall and he glanced back, only for his eyes to go wide at the sight of the woman standing there, bleeding from all over. There was an air of menace about her, and Squall scurried backwards, towards the man. "She can't hurt you, not here," the man murmured, the words soothing.
"I...kan't...disappear yet," the woman gasped out.
"You don't have a choice!" the man snarled, voice gone hard and cold.
Squall glanced up at the man, and felt a rush of terror at his expression. He pulled away from him, trapped between two people who seemed equally terrifying.
The woman let out a scream, high and horrible, and Squall turned to watch as a black cloud pulled out of her body. It hovered in the air for a moment as the woman faded to nothing, then started towards Squall.
"No!" he thought he heard Matron shouting before the cloud reached him, ugly and terrible.
It was agony, when it touched him, like that time Seifer dared him to stick his hand in the fireplace, but everywhere.
When darkness reached for him, he let it take him, grateful.
Squall didn't remember much about his long illness. Flashes of images: Matron sitting over him and crying; her voice saying, "Take care of him," and Squall being carried away from where she was standing on the beach; waking to an unfamiliar room, a strange man with dark eyes and a worried frown; Sis whispering assurances as she replaced a towel on his forehead.
He actually remembered seeing Sis a few times, but figured, when he could retain such thoughts, that they were illusions. He understood he was sick, that something about that dark cloud had made him ill, and Quisty'd said, once, that sick people saw things that weren't there.
When he finally woke feeling almost normal, it was the dark-eyed man who sat next to the bed he was in. He was looking towards an opened door that Squall couldn't remember seeing before, as familiar as the strange room had become, where a woman with long red hair stood stiffly.
"–meet her at Balamb in two months," the woman was saying. "She needs to arrange for alternate transport for the last of the children to Balamb, or we'd be picking her up sooner."
The man sighed and nodded. "I understand. Send back word with the scout that we'll be there. And, also...th...at..." He trailed off as he looked towards Squall, eyes going wide. "Squall?"
Squall blinked at him. "Who–" he managed before he couldn't get any more words past his dry throat.
"Tell her he's awake," the man called over his shoulder as he picked up a glass from a table next to the bed. He smiled down at Squall as the door closed, his eyes kind. "Hello, Squall. Do you think you can drink some of this if I help you sit up?"
Squall nodded and let himself be helped up just high enough that, when the man held the glass to his mouth and tilted it, the water didn't go everywhere.
"I'm Beau," the man offered. "Matron gave you to me when you fell sick. Do you remember any of that?" He gently pulled the glass away.
Squall nodded. "Yeah," he whispered, licking his lips to catch the last couple of drops there. He was...so unbelievably thirsty. "There was a man, and a woman. And the woman...she let out a black cloud?" He looked up at Beau.
"That's pretty much how Matron explained it," Beau agreed before offering him the glass again. Squall was happy to drink more, bringing heavy hands up to clutch at it. Beau's smile widened. "When you're feeling more like yourself, I'll try to explain what Matron thinks happened. But, for now..." He took the glass away and wiggled it, showing it was empty, then put it back on the table and helped Squall lie back down. "You need to recover your strength so you can be up and walking around when we pick up Matron in two months."
"Matron's coming?" Squall asked, eyelids heavy.
"I promise," Beau replied and covered him with a blanket.
Sis was there the next time Squall woke, a book held open before her. He stared at her in disbelief for a long moment, finally letting himself believe she hadn't been an illusion, then croaked out, "Sis?"
Sis's head came up and the most wonderful smile bloomed across her face. "You're awake!" She reached out and pressed a hand to his cheek, real and warm.
Squall burst into tears, so utterly relieved. Sis was back!
Sis's book dropped to the floor and she stood in a great rush, eyes wide and panicked. "Squally? Squall, are you okay? What–?"
Squall grabbed her hand when she started to pull away, heavy hands impossibly quick when he needed them, and clung to her. He couldn't seem to find the breath to speak, between his sobs, but that action had apparently been enough, for she settled on the edge of his bed and her other hand came up to comb through his hair, the motion familiar and soothing.
"I'm sorry, Squall," she whispered. "I'm here now."
He curled tighter around her hand, around all of her, and let himself drift back into sleep, exhausted from his upset.
Sis was still there when he woke up next time, back in the chair next to the bed. She'd traded her book for some string and needles, and was humming a familiar melody as she worked.
"Sis?" Squall whispered, reaching out a heavy hand towards her.
Sis put her work down at her feet and quickly got up to sit on the edge of the bed again, soothing one hand through his hair. "Hello again, Squally. I'm sorry I upset you last time."
Squall shook his head and let his hand clutch at the edge of her dress, wanting to keep her from leaving again. "You...left," he rasped before swallowing against his dry throat.
"I know," she agreed, expression sad, even as she leaned over and picked up the glass of water that Beau had last time, full again. "Can you drink some of this?"
"Sitting...up," Squall got out.
Sis nodded and dislodged Squall's hand so she could shift positions, letting him rest back against her so he could drink from the water she was holding in a steady hand. "Matron was worried that someone was looking for me, so I had to leave. I've been travelling with Beau and the others since, keeping out of sight." She held the water away from a moment, fingers combing through Squall's hair again. "It was lonely, a little, but I'm glad I was here when you got sick." She let him sip at the water again. "Everyone needs a familiar face when they're sick."
Even, Squall couldn't help but think, when they think that face is an illusion. Because it had been nice to see Sis, even if he'd thought she wasn't real.
She started humming again, setting aside the empty glass, and Squall let himself close his eyes, comforted by the knowledge that she was there and wasn't going to leave him again.
Squall regained his strength slowly. Sis was there most times he woke up, and she'd read to him from her book while he tried to force himself to stay awake. When he asked, she told him about the ship – called Alexander – they were living on, how the men and women had been picked from all over to help keep Sis safe, and they called themselves SeeDs.
Sometimes, Beau was the one who was sitting in the little chair, papers or a novel held in his hands. He would help Squall drink some water and ask how he was feeling. And, when Squall was strong enough to sit up on his own and eat the bread Beau brought, the man finally explained what had happened.
"What do you know about sorceresses?" Beau asked as Squall nibbled on his bread.
Squall thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. "There was a film about a sorceress and her knight, right?" he asked. Seifer had really liked that film, and Squall had seen it so many times, he could probably quote it, if he cared enough to try.
Beau nodded. "Not a great deal, then," he suggested, and laughed when Squall scrunched up his face at him. "Don't take it the wrong way, kid, that's just not a great source for facts." He rubbed at his chin and relaxed back in the chair. "Right. So, the legend goes that, long, long ago, when man rebelled against Hyne, he hid away half of himself to stay alive. People, now, believe that half shows itself as the innate magic of sorceresses. Hyne thought, that by giving his power to women – to the weaker half of humanity – someone would always be there to protect that half of him, for men always protect women.
"But, something about that magic was unstable, maybe because he split it into so many pieces, maybe because – as the Church of Hyne likes to say – women are unstable. Who knows. But there is madness in that magic, and every sorceress has one person, their knight, who helps keep them stable."
"Like Sir Zefer," Squall whispered, enthralled.
Beau nodded, an odd little smile playing across his lips. "Like Sir Zefer was to Sorceress Rayvn, yes. He kept her safe from people who wanted her dead because she was a sorceress, and helped keep her stable."
Squall frowned. "But, why did they want to kill her?" Because that part had never made sense to him.
Beau sighed. "People tend to be...very scared of sorceresses. Because they can be unstable, and because they can do things normal people can't, even people who use para-magic." He paused, reading Squall's confusion, and explained, "Almost forty years ago, there was a sorceress who let people study her magic. She wanted everyone to be able to use magic, and what they created is called 'para-magic'. It takes a lot of training to use, though, and it's still far weaker that the magic a sorceress can use, but it's the closest non-sorceresses will ever come to wielding magic."
Beau shifted, moving his book aside and leaning forward. "The woman you saw was a sorceress. When a sorceress dies, she has to release her magic, because Hyne is eternal, so they find the nearest compatible person and pass on that magic." Beau touched a finger to Squall's chest. "In this case, that person was you."
"But I'm not a girl!" Squall insisted.
Beau shook his head. "You're not," he agreed. "But Matron thinks – and I'm inclined to believe her, because she knows more about this than I do – that all you have to do is to need someone protecting you to qualify for the sorceress powers. It'll go to a girl before a boy, but since you and that man were the only ones there, the magic went to you, because he... Matron said he looked more like someone who would protect others, than someone who needed protecting."
Squall nodded at that, feeling almost...numb. He was...a sorceress?
Beau touched his cheek, and Squall realised there were tears on his face. "Do you want me to get your sister?"
Squall nodded because, yes, he really wanted Sis.
"Okay," Beau whispered before moving away.
Sis didn't take long to arrive, hurrying over to the bed and sitting down at Squall's side. She drew him into a hug, warm and safe, and Squall let himself cling to her, sobbing at the absolute unfairness of it all.
"It'll be okay, Squally," she whispered. "Everything will turn out okay."
Squall tried to believe her, but a part of him, somewhere deep inside, churning with darkness, wouldn't let him.
The day they picked up Matron was the first day Squall was allowed to leave the cabin he'd been staying in.
He'd fallen into something of a funk after Beau told him the truth, and Sis had struggled to pull him out of it. It had been Beau, though, telling him, "You probably don't realise this, Squall, but you've know a sorceress nearly your whole life: Matron is one," that had pulled him out of it.
Matron was nice, Squall knew, nothing like the woman who had passed her powers on to him. If Matron could be a good sorceress, then so could Squall. And then, yes, everything would be okay, just like Sis said. Because if Squall was a good sorceress, then no one would want to hurt him. Sis wouldn't leave him again.
When they docked, Sis came to get him and helped him up to the deck of the ship. It was bright, far brighter than his little cabin, and he squinted against the sun and all the people in white uniforms.
"Ah," Beau said from somewhere in the crowd of white, "here they are."
The crowd moved slightly and someone dressed in black moved forward. Squall looked up at their face and smiled when he realised who it was. "Matron!" He slipped from Sis's gentle helping hand and stumbled forward, towards the only mother he'd ever known.
Matron caught him in a hug and picked him up. "Oh, Squall," she whispered into his hair. "It warms my heart to see you looking so much better." She pressed a wet kiss to his cheek and laughed when he made a face and wiped it off. "Hello, Ellone," she offered to Sis.
"Hi, Matron," Sis replied, her voice closer than Squall had expected. He looked down and found her standing right next to Matron, grinning up at him. "I see who you love the best," she teased.
Squall blinked at her, then reached one hand down, trying to reach her. "No! I love you best! Promise!"
Sis laughed and caught his hand. "I'm joking, Squally."
Beau stepped up to them, a pack slung over one shoulder, and gently touched Matron's shoulder. "If you've got everything, Edea, we need to cast off."
"Oh, yes," Matron agreed, smiling. "Everything is in that bag. Though, if you could... oh, leave it with Ellone, please? I need her to get something out of it for me. And I can carry it down on my own."
Beau chuckled and set the bag down next to Sis, who immediately started tugging on the string tying it shut. "I'll leave you to it, then. I'm sure Elle can show you were to go."
"Yup!" Sis agreed as she got the bag open. "What am I looking for, Matron?"
"A little blue crystal," Matron told her, shifting her arms around Squall as he tried to get down so he could help. "No, stay here, Squall. It looks a little like an icicle."
Squall huffed and leaned over so he could at least see what was going on. He didn't have a good view of the inside of Matron's bag, but he saw the moment Sis pulled out the crystal, calling, "Is this it?"
"It is," Matron agreed, shifting Squall again so she could reach down and take it.
Squall couldn't help but stare at the crystal, feeling oddly drawn to it. He reached for it when it was within reach, and was too distracted to be surprised when Matron let him have it. It remained in his hand for a moment, glinting in the sun, before it melted into his skin.
He closed his eyes, shivering at a sudden chill, but unbothered by it. There was another being inside him, cold but kind, and he reached out towards her, curious.
'I am Shiva,' the presence said, folding around his mental form. 'I have been tasked with keeping you safe, Sorceress.'
Squall opened his eyes and blinked up at Matron. "Shiva's for...me?" he guessed.
"She is," Matron agreed. "She's what's known as a Guardian Force. She'll help you keep your magic in check until we can find you a knight."
Inside him, Squall could feel Shiva's presence settling next to the churning darkness inside him. Ice froze over it, stilling it, and Squall relaxed in Matron's arms, hugging her tight around her neck. "Thank you," he whispered to her.
Matron pressed a kiss to the side of his head. "Have you got that?" she asked someone, and Squall looked over to see Sis picking up Matron's bag.
"Yup!" she declared before starting off towards the passage under deck. "This way!"
The room Sis led them to already had some of her familiar books next to one of the beds, and as she set Matron's bag down on the other bed, she explained, "Beau was going to give you Squally's room, he said, but instead we get to room together! If that's okay...?"
"That sounds fine," Matron agreed pleasantly as she finally let Squall down.
"I can stay with Sis!" Squall complained, walking over to her and letting her hug him.
Matron shook her head. "What's the rule, Squall?"
Squall sighed. "No boys in the girls' room after lights out," he dutifully repeated.
"That's right. So you can't stay with Ellone. But you can visit with her during the day."
Sis tugged on a lock of his hair and grinned when he looked up at her. "Do you wanna have a tour of the ship?"
"That sounds like a lovely idea," Matron agreed, and they left the room together so Sis could show them around.
"The first thing I ever learned about being a sorceress," Matron said the next afternoon, while she and Squall and Sis were sitting on deck, enjoying the sea air, "was that losing my temper was the quickest way for someone to get hurt."
Squall curled around his knees and peered up at her. "You...hurt someone?"
Matron offered him a sad smile. "I wasn't much older that you when I received my powers. I'd never had many friends, you know, and some bullies started picking on me, calling me all sorts of names. My mother told me to ignore them, and I tried, but, sometimes, I would get angry, and then one of them would get hurt." She held out a hand to him and ice frosted over her palm. "It was never too terrible, never much more than frostbite, but, then..." She sighed and shook off the ice before gently brushing her fingers through Squall's hair. "I expect you will find your gift to be far more dangerous."
Squall swallowed and looked away, scared. "I don't wanna be a bad sorceress," he admitted.
Matron sighed and scooted along the deck to get closer to him, then drew him into a hug. "Then you won't be," she promised before kissing the top of his head. "It's up to you to decide who you'll be, Squall, and only you." She tupped a finger under his chin and tilted her head down, smiling when he peered up at her. "Do you understand?"
He gave a cautious nod. "I...think so."
Matron nodded. "Every morning, when you look in the mirror, I want you to tell your reflection that you get to decide who you'll be, okay?"
Squall nodded again, more determined. "Okay."
She smiled and kissed his forehead, then leaned back and looked up at the endless sky above them. "Ah... It's nice to get out on the ocean."
"So it is," Beau agreed as he walked up to them. "Squall, Elle, you two want to see something cool?"
"Yeah!" Sis called, scrambling to her feet..
"Go on," Matron told Squall, giving him a gentle push, so he hurried to his own feet and followed Beau to the ship railing.
"You're going to need a boost, squirt," Beau teased before helping Squall up so he could look over the railing. Below them, keeping pace in the clear blue water, were two long forms. "They're dolphins," Beau told them over Sis's squeal of glee.
"Dolphins come from pirates," Sis told Squall.
Beau laughed. "That's the story, yeah. That, once, years and years ago, some pirates decided to kidnap a sorceress, so she turned them all into fish."
The dolphins swam outwards a little, then one of them jumped out of the water, letting out a cackle of laughter.
Squall jerked back in surprise, against Beau's chest, but Beau and Sis both laughed. When the second dolphin jumped and cackled, Squall laughed too.
Squall's days were spent learning to be calm, because only while calm could he truly control his magic. (Not that they knew what his magic was, really, with Shiva helping him to keep it out of the way.) Sometimes, Beau would interrupt them with fish-watching, and Matron never seemed to mind, pushing Squall to go with and relax for a bit.
In the evenings, after supper, he and Sis and some of the SeeDs would all gather around Matron in Beau's office and she would read to them, painting fanciful tales of far-off lands and such magic that Squall, at least, could only dream of.
Sometimes, Squall would fall asleep during the story, but he would always wake up in his room. And he'd climb out of bed and walk over to the tiny mirror in his room, and inform himself, "Only you can decide who you're gonna be," in his sternest voice. And his reflection would nod in understanding, then beam when Squall grinned at it, and he'd hurry away to get ready for the day.
It was probably about two months after Matron joined them, when a smaller ship that bore a passing resemblance to Alexander pulled up next to them. Two men in the same white uniforms as the SeeDs stepped forward and saluted Beau when he came to the railing, then called up, "Permission to bring aboard two children, Captain?"
Beau glanced over towards where Matron was standing behind Squall and Sis closer to the front – the bow, Squall reminded himself – of the ship. Squall didn't look up in time to see her response, but it must have been okay, because Beau called back, "Bring them aboard, Lieutenant."
The little ship actually had three SeeDs; one of them had been watching the children out of sight. The younger child was still a baby, and the older one looked to be about Squall's age, with long black hair and a heavy-looking pendant glinting in the sunlight against her chest. "We found them up at Holy Glory Cape," the SeeD with the children told Matron as the other two stepped with Beau towards his cabin. "Their dad was running from someone, Galbadians, he said, and it was clear he wasn't going to make it much further. We offered to take the little ones to safety."
"You made exactly the right choice," Matron promised, holding out her arms for the baby.
The SeeD grinned, his weather-worn face easing, and handed the baby over. "That's Simo, and this little lady is Virgie."
"Simo and Virgie," Matron repeated before tickling the baby's belly and making it squeal happily. She knelt then, so Squall and Sis could see the baby, and offered, "Simo, Virgie–" the girl looked up, a scowl across her face "–this is Squall and Ellone. You four are going to live together from now on."
"I don't want to," Virgie insisted, her voice tight with what sounded like tears. "I want my daddy!" And then she did start crying.
"Oh, dear," the SeeD said, looking stressed. He knelt down before the girl, but she shoved at him and ran for the other side of the boat.
Matron called for one of the other SeeDs, none of them really paying any attention, but Squall was already running after the girl, shaking off Sis's hand. He could see where the girl was going, towards the railing that was a little wobbly and they'd been warned away from, and he didn't really think he liked her, but he didn't want her to get hurt. "Stop!" he shouted, and the darkness inside of him crashed through Shiva's ice.
The girl froze, one foot on the deck, and wobbled for a moment before she fell over, the metal of her necklace thunking against the boards of the deck with a terrible finality.
Squall reached her right after. Her eyes were wide and afraid, jerking from side to side, even though no other part of her was moving, and Squall realised he'd frozen her.
Before he could start to cry himself, uncertain what to do, Shiva brushed forward, chilling his upset. 'You can fix this, Sorceress,' she whispered to him. 'You need only know the cure.'
"I don't even know what I did," he whispered back.
One of the SeeDs, Coy, stepped up and flicked a spell at Virgie. It sparkled against her skin, but didn't do anything. He shot Squall a worried look, then called over his shoulder, "Matron, you never mentioned that para-magic can't affect Sorceress Magic."
Quiet footsteps sounded on the deck and Squall turned to look up at Matron. "I didn't know," she told Coy before kneeling next to Squall and gently cupping his face. "Do you know what you did?"
Squall shook his head. "I-I just told her to, to s-stop," he got out, voice shaking.
Matron smiled. "There's a para-magic spell called Stop," she told him. "It acts a lot like that. Do you think you can cast Esuna?" She waved a hand at someone behind Squall, silently asking them to hold back.
'That, too, is a spell,' Shiva whispered as she trickled forward some of the churning darkness.
Squall swallowed and turned back to the wide, panicked eyes. He held a hand out to her and clutched at the darkness Shiva offered. "Esuna," he ordered.
Blue and magenta light glowed over Virgie and she sat up, staring at him. "What–?" she got out on a gasp.
Squall pointed a shaky hand towards the wobbly railing and said, "It's dangerous," then turned and hid against Matron, terror choking him, because what if he'd hurt her? He hadn't even meant to use magic, but it had come, and she'd looked so scared frozen there and–
"Hush, Squall," Matron soothed, hugging him close and running one hand through his hair. "No harm, child. You did no harm."
Strangely, Virgie attached herself to Squall after the incident, following him around and throwing an absolute fit when she found out she couldn't sleep in his room. (Which he managed to keep to himself, even with the baby, because Simo needed constant care and Squall was too little to give it.) Squall had no idea what her deal was, but he learned to like it when she fell asleep on him while he he was being calm with Matron in the afternoons, and the way she would whisper the words of the spells the SeeDs taught him, using para-magic to show him what they looked like and what they'd do before he tried them himself.
Within a month, they'd determined that his abilities lay in the realm of time and space magic. He could cast some other few spells too – Dispel and Esuna, most noticeably, but he also cast a particularly nasty Bio, which he'd been quick to heal when his opponent hit his knees – and somehow knew they hadn't tested him on every spell, because his magic itched to flex its fingers properly.
"It aches," he told Matron one afternoon, clutching at his chest. Shiva was trying, but his magic had got a taste of freedom, and it wanted more. Matron had hugged him and looked towards where Beau was standing not far from them.
Two days later, they were docking at the beach where they'd picked up Matron. "Stay on the ship," she ordered Sis and Squall and Virgie as she and Beau started down the ramp to the beach. "I mean it."
"We'll be good," Sis promised, and Squall gave a quick nod. Virgie nodded right after him, ever quick to follow his lead, and took a hold of his hand. Squall squeezed her hand back, as uncertain as she was about why they were here.
Some of the SeeDs sat them down to play a card game, distracting them from the admittedly tempting beach, while a few others stood along the railing and shot para-magic at any monsters thinking getting close might be fun.
Matron and Beau came back with a man who seemed vaguely familiar to Squall, but it wasn't until Sis jumped to her feet and shouted "Uncle Cid!" that he remembered who he was.
"Hello again, Elle," Uncle Cid said as he caught her running form in a hug. Squall followed much slower, Virgie just behind him, and he offered a shaky smile when Uncle Cid grinned at him. "And hello to you, too, Squall. You're looking much better than the last time I saw you."
Squall shrugged; he had no memory of seeing Uncle Cid while he was sick, but the entire time was fuzzy.
Uncle Cid knelt in front of him and pulled out two crystals very like the one Squall had got Shiva from, one yellow-green, the other deep red. "Edea seems to think you might need these."
Squall reached out for them, but stopped when Shiva let out a snarl at the red crystal. "What?" he asked her, keeping his voice quiet from everyone around him.
'That is Ifrit. He and I are not well-suited to co-habitat.'
Squall chewed on his tongue for a moment, considering the state of his magic. "We need his help, Shiva," he pointed out, because he knew she couldn't do this alone, and he didn't know how much the yellow-green crystal could help. He couldn't turn down help, not now. Neither of them could.
'Fine,' she muttered, clearly sulking. 'But I don't like him and he doesn't like me.'
Squall looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and found Matron smiling down at him. "Trouble?"
"Shiva doesn't like Ifrit," Squall explained, reaching for the crystals again.
"Oh dear," Matron murmured before Squall took the crystals.
The yellow-green crystal crackled against his skin before vanishing, while the red one went up in flames, which drew a horrified sound from Virgie. Squall ignored her to close his eyes and seek out his two new friends.
The red being was hot in his mind, burning with rage and superiority in a way that Squall was trying to learn to avoid; he could see why Shiva didn't like him. The yellow-green being tickled along his senses, an ancient feeling to him. He had curled close to Squall's mental self, away from where Shiva and Ifrit were staring at each other. 'This will not end well,' he said, voice an odd sort of old/young that Squall was too distracted by the brewing storm in his head to think about.
Squall became aware, slowly, of Shiva and Ifrit hissing words at each other that Matron would have been horrified to hear, and he made a face. "Stop it," he told them.
'I don't listen to unproven children,' Ifrit snarled, turning his ire on Squall.
'You leave the Sorceress alone!' Shiva raged, getting between Squall and Ifrit.
'I don't join with unproven children!' Ifrit returned. 'Especially not unproven children with your icy claws in their head!' He motioned towards the churning magic, covered liberally with ice in the back of Squall's mind, and fire flickered along the edges.
Squall winced at the way his magic pushed greedily forward against the weakened barrier. "Stop it," he ordered, firmer.
'I will not!' Ifrit snarled back.
"I said enough!" Squall shouted, and his magic surged forward, grabbing for the fire GF with violent intent.
Squall stumbled backward and heard crystal hit the deck, then shatter. He stared down at where the red crystal was strewn across the wood at his feet for a moment before looking up at where the adults and Sis were staring at him, Virgie held fast in Beau's arms.
He'd killed a GF with his magic.
Squall felt sick, magic churning too close to the surface, and then he realised the ramp down to the beach was unblocked. He knew he needed to get away, keep from hurting anyone else, so he ran for it, magic boosting his speed so they had no hope of stopping him.
He stumbled against the sand, voices shouting for him from behind. He didn't stop for them, just kept going as the sand gave way to grass, and then forest.
He stopped when he couldn't go any further, bare feet in agony and breath coming in great gasps. There was no one nearby, no one who might get hurt, so he curled around himself and stopped holding back, let his magic have its moment so Shiva and the yellow-green GF could get it back under control.
Around him, the forest lit with an unearthly light, symbols glowing on the ground around him in varying colours. Everything was still for a moment, then light shot up from the symbols, gathering high above him, past the tops of the trees.
And then the light slammed down to Gaia only a few metres away, exploding outward and ripping into the trees around him with a most terrible sound, like the world dying.
Squall curled his head down against his chest, covering it with his arms, and waited out the aftermath with fear climbing his throat. When he finally felt it was safe to look up, he found a wide clearing around him, the ground dented beneath the impact site.
He swallowed against the fear, but it came back with horror mixed in; what if he did that on Alexander?
"Oh no," he gasped out on a sob. "Oh no. I'm going to hurt everyone. I'm going... I'm–"
He could never be a good sorceress. Not with this power.
Gentle blue light appeared next to him and a tall woman with blue skin and blonde hair streaked with blue formed. She knelt next to him and pulled him into her arms, her skin cold, and Squall knew who she was: "Shiva..."
"What is your mantra," she ordered, her voice sharp and unforgiving, even as her grip on him was gentle.
"My...what?" he got out through his tears.
"Your mantra, Sorceress. What do you tell yourself every morning?"
Squall shuddered and looked up into the icy eyes, so familiar, for all that he'd never seen them before. "I...I decide who I will be." He swallowed and glanced towards the destruction around them. "But this–"
"You decide," Shiva insisted, voice cracking with ice, "not your magic. You decide what it will be for. You control it."
"I can't," Squall breathed, because hadn't he just lost control?
Lightning flared next to them, and Shiva and Squall looked up as a creature formed next to them, wings flaring out and tail shifting in an unfelt breeze. "But you have control, Sorceress," it said in that same young/old voice the new GF had. "Or did you not hold your magic back until there was no one to hurt?"
Squall jerked his head and looked back in the direction he thought he'd come from. There were trees at a distance all around him, damaged and ruined, but no sign of the plains he'd remember running over, or of the beach with the ship docked.
"There are many kinds of control," the new GF told him, settling gently on the ground in front of him. "You seek the control to hold your magic in check forever, never to be used, but it is too strong for such, and ever growing besides. You must, instead, learn to use it, to let it free when it wishes, so it cannot demand. You must learn to fight with it, not against it, or it will break free and destroy everything in its path."
Squall shivered and pushed closer to Shiva, staring, again, at the horror around him.
"We will help where we can," Shiva promised, icy fingers threading through his hair. "But Quezacotl is right, you cannot keep bottling it up without release. Small things, like spelling the fish as they swim by, will help."
"Trust in yourself, Sorceress," the yellow and green GF – Quezacotl, Shiva had called him – said. "You haven't hurt anyone yet."
"Okay," Squall whispered, and tried to believe it would be okay.
"His guardians will be worried," Quezacotl pointed out before fading away.
Shiva nodded and easily picked Squall up. He grabbed for her, feeling unsteady, and she tightened her grip. "You are safe, Sorceress," she promised.
"I don't know the way," Squall whispered.
"I do. Have faith."
"Okay." He closed his eyes and rested against her cold skin. He felt the change in light quality as they stepped into the left over trees, then again as they stepped out the other side.
Shiva stopped. "What do you want?"
Squall opened his eyes and felt his heart jump into his throat at the sight of the massive dragon sitting calmly in front of them, scales so dark a blue, they were almost black. Far behind it, standing ready, a line of SeeD were watching, Matron's dark head just visible behind them.
The dragon cocked its head, seeming strangely innocent. "Was it you who cast that powerful magic?" he asked, voice deep, echoing in Squall's head like other GFs' voices did.
"It was not I," Shiva returned. "The Sorceress did."
The dragon leaned forward slightly, and Squall shrank back against Shiva. "That spell does not exist," he said before pulling back. "And yet it does. It called to me, of worthy strength." He considered Squall for a moment. "You do not look worthy."
"W-worthy for what?" Squall got out around his fear.
"To wield my strength."
"The Sorceress has no need for strength," Shiva snapped. "He is strong enough. And you are keeping him from his guardians, besides. Move." She reached up with one hand and flicked an icicle at the dragon.
The dragon blocked it with a shift of his wing, then leaned forward again, closer than before, and Squall swallowed a terrified noise. "You fear me," he realised after a moment, sounding almost...intrigued. "I can sense that magic from you, great magic, terrible magic, and yet..." He pulled back again, head cocked in curiosity. "Have you no interest in protecting yourself, Sorcerer?"
"I–" Squall blinked. "Sorcer...er?"
"You are male, so you are a Sorcerer," the dragon agreed. "Is this not the way of the human tongue?"
"I...guess..." Squall decided. Then he shook his head and looked back up at the dragon, only for his attention to be caught by the approaching line of SeeDs. "Oh no! Shiva, they're going to get hurt!"
"My charge is to you, Sorceress," Shiva insisted. "As is theirs, I believe; they would not accept my protection if it were to take away from you."
The dragon glanced back at the SeeDs and they froze, almost scared. He looked back at Squall, then. "Your magic rises, not for yourself, but for these pathetic others?" he asked, and Squall realised that, yes, his the darkest part of his magic was churning against his skin, begging to lash out at that which threatened those he cared about.
"They're my family," Squall managed. "I have to keep them safe."
The dragon let out a laugh, terrifying and booming across the plain. "You are new, little Sorcerer. You hide strength behind weakness, yet step forward when those meant to protect you are themselves in need of protection. I would see the true measure of you." He shimmered and faded away to almost nothing.
A crystal floated down to Squall and Shiva, dark blue marked with the same dark red as the insides of the dragon's wings. Squall stared at it uncertainly for a moment before reaching out and taking hold. It sank easily into his skin, and the dragon formed in his mind, oppressing, but safe.
"I am Bahamut, Sorcerer," he said. "For so long as you do not demand more than I will offer, I shall remain with you."
Squall breathed out in relief. "Thank you, Bahamut," he whispered.
"Squall!" Matron shouted, hurrying past the SeeDs who were stepping forward carefully. A couple of them tried to stop her, but she dodged them.
"He is unharmed," Shiva promised before her face contorted with a grimace. "Though, I believe, you will find him over-cold. My apologies."
"Hyne," Matron gasped as Shiva gently transferred Squall to her hold. "You're freezing."
"Edea, that was foolish," Beau said as he stopped next to them, expression one of the deepest disapproval.
Matron shook her head. "That was Shiva. Give me your coat."
Squall curled against Matron, only then realising how utterly cold he was. He felt fabric cover him, body-warm, and let his eyes shut.
"We need to know what happened," Beau murmured, quiet enough that it would keep from waking Squall, had he already fallen asleep.
"Later," Matron replied, just as quiet. "He's safe, and clearly exhausted. Let's get back out to sea before someone from town or Garden gets curious, now that the dragon is gone."
Squall finally drifted off into sleep, his magic, for once, calmed under the watchful gazes of three GFs.