Without writing a multi-chapter fic, I really wanted to explore how Rinoa might evolve as a sorceress, and how it would affect her and Squall's relationship, while also delving into the inner workings of Garden and the world's general mythos. I estimate this will be in two long parts. It's almost like a partner piece to my AU. Also I'd give this fic a rating of maybe 16 year+ ? Teetering somewhere between T and M, I guess. Anyway, if you enjoyed it please do leave your thoughts on your way out – I always appreciate it!


'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long enough into an abyss,
the abyss will gaze back into you.'
-Friedrich Nietzsche

- Part 1: Rat -

"Look at zis picture, and tell me what you see."

The doctors back in Timber probably would have held up a card, then. Printed and laminated, something tangible to be studied, acting as a physical bridge between doctor and patient. But this wasn't Timber. This wasn't even the West. It was Esthar, and in Esthar everything was fancy, almost obnoxiously so, demonstrated when the doctor pressed a little button on a device and up popped the picture on a hologram. Impressive, indeed.

A whorl of dark splodges hovered in the air, like ink dropped in water.

"I see a butterfly," Rinoa Heartilly said.

Doctor Odine stared at her for a minute, as was his disconcerting wont, and then he pressed the button again and a different image appeared. "Zis one?"


"Do not think. React."

"A puppy."


"Branches of a tree."

"And zis?"

"A bow on top of a present."

Doctor Odine's face contorted as he tapped notes onto the keypad of his personalog. It had a tinted screen, so she couldn't read what he was typing without looking directly over his shoulder, but she didn't care what it said anyway. Odine was clearly not happy with the results, which was good news for her; it meant she exhibited no imminent signs of doing anything crazy. Like declaring war on all four nations. Or murdering a military dictator on live television. Or causing time compression.

Rinoa harboured the suspicion that Doctor Odine secretly hoped she might do all these things. He was scowling at her over the bridge of his spectacles, which were balanced almost ludicrously at the end of his nose. The lines in his forehead deepened and he tapped a finger aggressively against the screen of his personalog.

Yep. He was definitely disappointed.

Rinoa smiled sweetly at him. "How'd I do?"

"We must talk about the progression of your abilities."

Rinoa sighed. "I don't have any abilities; not really. I mean I can wield all the standard magic if I reach a Limit Break state but… But that's it. Honestly."

"Have you noticed any changes in yourself?"

Nobody had told Rinoa she was a sorceress. She'd just known. She had woken from the coma, and she was Rinoa, but she wasn't. She never would be again. She was Rinoa changed, warped, evolved, improved; Rinoa v 2.0. Her power had never been embryonic, but it grew inside of her regardless, until she couldn't deny it anymore. It was as much a part of her as her DNA, her thoughts, her organs.

Rinoa resented the fact that this change had been thrust onto her. She was so used to having the luxury of choice, having been born into the kind of lifestyle where ample opportunities were a birth right. She was independent and ambitious, so to suddenly attain all this dark power against her will, and to have it irrevocably alter her Life Plans – practically dictate her destiny to her… Well. That sucked. Now all the opportunities she'd taken for granted were walled off and her future was looking more and more like a single road paved by somebody else's design.

"How does it work, anyway?" she asked, entirely forgetting the question he'd asked her.


"The magic. I mean, I know I can do it. Cast, that is. I can probably do a lot of things, right? So… why can't I?"

Odine leaned back, pleased, perhaps, by the academic question. "Well, zat is ze mystery, no? Iz the magic limited to the intellectual and physical capabilities of ze host? Or must ze host first have an understanding of magic and learn to wield it? For example, not all sorceresses were known to be able to compress time. Does zat mean each magick iz unique? Or iz it the same, but reliant on ze host's unique abilities to dissect and wield it? Ultimecia, for example. Ze ability to manipulate time iz quite standard, but to do it with such skill … Was it because her magic was time orientated, or was it because she herself had the capabilities to become an expert time wielder? And if so, vat was it about her genetic makeup zat made it so?"

"Maybe it's like how we only use twenty percent of our brain capacity," Rinoa suggested. "Or like how some people are smarter than others." She blanched. "Does that mean I'm dumb? Because I haven't been able to use my sorceress powers?"

Odine's beady eyes scrutinised her with the kind of unnerving intensity that left Rinoa fearing the possibility of her imminent dissection. Sometimes she wondered what restrained him from doing so at all. Certainly nothing ethical.

Curiosities aren't as curious if they're dead, she thought morbidly.

"Zhey will come, I think. In time. Perhaps zhey are just… settling. Or perhaps you need to seek for zem. I will figure it out, sooner or later."

I bet you will. "Are we done?"

"Not yet," Odine said. "I want to take a hair sample."

"Hair?" Rinoa repeated, raising a hand to her thick, dark locks that she'd meticulously braided that morning. "Why? Are you going to clone me?"

She'd said it with a smile, but Odine speared her with a look that made her wonder if he really was considering it.

"I'm joking," she stated flatly.

Odine waved a hand with a polite, entirely feigned guffaw. "It iz to study your DNA," he explained. "It would be interesting to see if genetics effect the potency of Hyne's magicks, yes? Perhaps there are people in the world who could not inherit the magicks at all. Rather, zhey might die upon receiving them, or the magicks might lay dormant, unable to manipulate the host."

Rinoa frowned. "Shouldn't it be: the host is unable to manipulate the magic?"

Odine shrugged. "One or ze other." He gestured to her hair. "I do not need much."

Reluctantly, Rinoa tugged out a few strands and dropped them into a clear ziplock bag (insultingly labelled 'biohazard') held out by a lab assistant, who was wearing thick disposable gloves, protective goggles and fire resistant padding under his lab coat. Once he'd left the room, Rinoa asked, "Is all that protective gear necessary? I'm not going to hurt anyone."

Odine looked up from whatever he was typing on his personalog. "Vat? Oh. Don't take it personally, Mizz Heartilly. It iz just that your powers have not cultivated, so currently you are classified as an IPT."

"A what?"

"An Indeterminate Potential Threat." He shrugged. "It iz… a necessary precaution."

She crossed one leg over the other, staring at the door the assistant had disappeared through. "So out of curiosity… What would you do if I just, y'know, went haywire?"


"Like, started shooting lazers out of my eyes or something?"

Odine stared at her. "Can you do zat?"

"Uh… No? I don't think so. I was talking hypothetically. Like, if I could. What would you do?"

Odine shrugged again and said in a blasé manner, "We would immediately attempt to annihilate you."

The next day, Rinoa sat at the little table in Squall's apartment, lamenting her jet lag while she half interestedly stirring some microwaved spaghetti. Squall sat opposite her, reclined on a plastic chair, Weapons Monthly magazine propped in the nook of his elbow as he methodically made his way through his own spaghetti.

When they'd first started living together, Squall's tendency to opt for silence bothered her. She worried that she bored him, or that he didn't really want to talk to her, so she'd forced conversation out him, reasoning it was good for him, but he quickly became irritated by her efforts. Instead she maintained a moody silence throughout each meal, trying to elicit some sense of guilt by pointedly ignoring him. But Squall never seemed bothered by the silence, and after a while she realised he was simply appreciating her company; he liked eating dinner with her. That was a big step for him, so she granted him the silence. He probably needed it after having to listen to the Garden Faculty moan at him all day anyway. Did that even count as socialising?

Regardless, Rinoa couldn't resist heckling him from time to time, if only for her own amusement and to remind him that she was still sitting at the table.

Rinoa rested her chin on the palm of her free hand and squinted at him. "Is it true," she started ominously, "that Garden teaches cadets to chew each mouthful of food twenty four times before swallowing?"

Squall stopped chewing and stared at her. He blinked once, undoubtedly gauging whether she was kidding around or asking a serious question about the Garden education system. At length, he answered, "Meals should be eaten with deliberation to prevent digestion and respective distraction during confrontation."

Rinoa poked a meatball. "Sooo… Do you chew twenty four times?"

A small frown formed between Squall's eyes. "No. I don't know. Maybe. I don't count."


She returned to sliding spaghetti into a spaghetti-pile on her plate and Squall continued to stare at her. After a moment, his gaze returned to the magazine spread and he uncomfortably said, "You don't have to go, you know."


"To Esthar. I don't know why you do. It's unnecessary."

Rinoa put down her fork. These offhand statements were Squall's way of expressing himself while delicately alluding to her own feelings; a definite step up in the Squall-Emotion evolutionary ladder, so Rinoa was always very considerate when handling these rare articulations. "Well, I don't know about that. I think it might benefit future generations if there was a better understanding of how sorceresses work. Because no one knows for sure what the power is or where it comes from, and there has never been any sorceresses, er, cooperative enough to describe it. They're either in hiding or… killing people. I'm the first sorceress sane enough to volunteer!" She picked up her fork again and added cheerily, "Plus it'll help me understand myself."

"Is that what Doctor Odine told you?" There was a definite spark of anger in his tone then. Squall had never forgiven Odine for what he'd done to Ellone, nor did he like the man personally. She couldn't blame him, but Odine was an expert in his field. Also…

"What if I become dangerous?" Rinoa said quietly. "Esthar's technological advancements in magic suppression are unrivalled so –"

"That won't happen."

"But – "

"Not while I'm here." He stared at her unblinkingly, burning resolve in his eyes. Not an empty promise; no, not from Squall. He was simply stating a fact; how it was. She felt her heart swell a little to hear it. He always managed to make her feel better, even if he wasn't making the conscious effort to do so.

She leaned forward, grinning slightly. "So, how many times do you chew?"

Against Garden's advice, Rinoa introduced herself publicly in an international broadcast where she was interviewed by recently elected President Willis Mair of Deling City. She declared herself as a neutral figurehead and advocate of peace that acted independently from any government body or military organisation, such as Garden. Yes, she was dating Commander Squall Leonhart. Yes, he was her Knight. No, that didn't sway the loyalty of Garden in her favour. No, that didn't mean she backed Garden. Yes, the purpose of Garden was still the suppression of rogue sorceresses. No, she wasn't going to go on a killing rampage anytime soon.

But after the interview (which really did go alright, all things considering, and the public's response was pretty good, in a fearful we-haven't-even-recovered-from-almost-being -annihilated-by-the-last-sorceress-so-we'll-do-anything-you-want-just-please-don't-kill-us-all kind of way) she wondered where her loyalties really did lie. Obviously with Timber, which she still vowed to liberate, albeit in a slightly more clandestine way because she had to be impartial now. And of course to her friends, because she loved them. Except. They were SeeD, and lived in and worked for Garden, so did that mean she was loyal to Garden? Would she use her powers to defend Garden, or to attack an organisation that opposed Garden?

It was a tricky situation, and it certainly wasn't overlooked by the cadets and faculty members, where her presence drew equal amounts of intrigue and unrest alike. Garden's purpose was to subdue sorceresses, so it made no sense that their target lived, ate and slept under the same roof as the cadets that were being trained to kill her.

In fact, it kind of messed her up to think about. All the training Squall had been through, and Quistis and Zell for that matter, all the techniques and drills and battle skills… They were all developed as a means to destroy sorceresses. All the other missions were just ways to fund Garden and build a positive repertoire. Their main mission was, ultimately, to kill her.

Yet it was wild jabs in the dark because, in all honesty, nobody knew much about sorceresses or their power. They had histories to refer to and knew they were adept magic wielders that varied massively in expertise, but that was it. After all, they'd sent a sniper after Edea and for some reason hadn't considered that she might be able to block bullets with a basic shield. That lack of foresight could have been their undoing, if not for the fact they were trained to smoothly adapt to such situations.

In the end, it was Garden's ignorance that saved Squall's position as commander.

Not a few days after her return from the second of seven agreed sessions with Doctor Odine, Rinoa was lingering outside of Squall's office, eavesdropping. She hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but she reasoned that some of the most crucial intel was gained by loitering in convenient places at convenient times and staying very quiet.

Squall, Xu and Quistis were arguing. About her.

"It's a delicate situation, both politically and emotionally," Quistis was saying in that soothing but firm tone she used when playing the pacifier, which she did a lot. "We're very attached to Rinoa –"

"Not my problem." Xu. Sharp, remorseless, rule-abiding, newly appointed Head Mistress Xu, who didn't really like Rinoa and definitely didn't approve of her being in Garden. "I don't care what you all do in your personal time. But having Rinoa physically residing in Garden is a conflict of interests. She's already gained an irrevocable understanding of the daily running of Garden and the training of our cadets, which in turn lends her an advantage if she ever turns against us."

Rinoa winced. Seemed like everyone and the neighbour's dog was expecting her to 'turn', as they so tactfully phrased. It hurt to hear it, because what it boiled down to, quite simply, was this: everyone was afraid of her. She hated that. She hated being feared. Worse, the fear derived not from her actions but from those of past sorceresses. She could shake that ingrained suspicion no more than she could change her genetics; she had to live with it. But she didn't have to like it.

"She's not going to." Squall. His tone was level but abrupt; a threat simmering unspoken beneath the surface.

"This lack of professionalism is unacceptable," Xu said. "Now the true purpose of SeeD has been revealed and Ultimecia is dead, the world governments rely on us to neutralise any potential sorceress threat, and to them Rinoa is a threat, albeit a dormant one. Worse still, she's been mistaken as a spokesperson for Garden. People are saying that she's manipulating you to control Garden, her greatest threat, and once SeeD is subjugated there'll be no one left to apprehend her if things go south in a hurry. Galbadia, Esthar – even Trabia – are all demanding she be handed into their respective custodies for proper confinement and observation."

"That's not going to happen," Squall said.

"Personal reasons aside," Quistis added, "their alleged reason for apprehending Rinoa, their fear, is a pretence. Whoever holds Rinoa has the potential to use her as weapon, or a shield. Nobody would dare invade a country that has a sorceress; they're quarrelling over a prospective trump card. Plus it's no secret that the military hates Garden. They couldn't bear to see us have any more fire power than we already do."

"Garden is and always will be politically neutral. She's safest here," Squall said with heavy finality. "She's not leaving."

Xu huffed in frustration. "Then what do you suggest? What will you tell the armies when they turn up at our front door trying to take Rinoa by force?"

"It won't come to that," Squall said. "We're going to tell them that she's Garden's responsibility and therefore she's under Garden's indefinite supervision. Keeping our enemy close, so to speak. We have the best facilities to contain her – "

"Except we don't."

"You have me," he said, again with that rumbling finality. "I am the only one who has any influence over what Rinoa does. And I'm speaking independently of Garden, here."

"You can't speak independently from Garden," Xu snapped. "You're Commander. You're the face of Garden."

"So what do you want me to do? Step down from my position?"

"Squall!" Quistis gasped.

There was a pregnant pause, and Rinoa seized the moment to intervene. All eyes guiltily slid to her as she dramatically (perhaps a tad too dramatically, but hey, she was a sorceress) threw aside the doors and barrelled inside.

"I'll let you study me!" she declared breathlessly.

The three stared at her. She shifted her weight and gripped her arm, a little uncertainly. "Um, I mean. That's what Garden is here for, right? To suppress sorceresses? Well. You can't fight a sorceress if you don't know how."

"We have over a hundred cadets trained to expert levels in a multitude of different combat styles," Xu seethed. "We can manage."

"But," Rinoa said, tilting her head thoughtfully. "What if I'm different? Also, I might not be the only sorceress in the world – what if there are others? What if they appear from a different time? This would give SeeD an opportunity to learn how to fight a sorceress first hand. I mean, I'm not very good at fighting and I don't really have any sorceress powers… but I'd be happy to share any information I acquire with SeeD." She looked at Squall. "I don't want to hurt anyone and I can't predict the future. What if something does happen?"

"Nothing is going –"

"But what if it does," Rinoa insisted. "What if I… What if the powers consume me and I become someone else – or something else? And I become powerful and hurt people? I wouldn't want that. I'd want someone to stop me. Whether that's you or SeeD, I don't care. Just think of the destruction Adel and Ultimecia caused: thousands and thousands of people died, whole nations were uprooted and entire civilisations wiped out before anyone could stop them. So…" She hesitated, then nodded at Xu. "I'd like to continue to live at Garden, to be with Squall, if that's okay. And in return I'll do whatever you want to strengthen SeeD."

Quistis glanced between Squall and Xu, then back to Rinoa. She looked sad. "Rinoa, people will become attached to you. One of the ways Garden teaches students to deal with face-to-face combat is to disassociate oneself. In other words: to stop viewing your enemy as a person. If one day you did turn, SeeD might find it difficult to… contain you." She sighed and brushed her blonde bangs behind her ears. "What I'm saying is, if you stay here, it might be best for you to remain somewhat… isolated. To be considered a test subject."

Squall whirled on her, expression taut with rage. "Like a monster? Like a Grat in the Training Center?"

"It's okay, Squall." Rinoa stepped forward; a brave volunteer. "If that's what it takes to stay in Garnde, then I'll do it."

"As if Squall would let Xu kick you out," Selphie jeered a few hours later. "I literally think he would've murdered her and covered the whole thing up with some crazy conspiracy, like a portal to another dimension just opened up and - ZAP! – totally swallowed her whole."

Rinoa wrinkled her nose. "Don't say that. Squall wouldn't murder her. And also people would just say that I opened the portal to the other dimension, and then I'd be framed as an accessory to murder." She paused. "Squall wouldn't do that though, right? Murder Xu?"

Selphie batted her eyelashes and leaned close to Rinoa's face, because for some reason SeeD had neglected to teach Selphie about spacial awareness. "He'd do anything for you, Rin. He's your knight in shining armour!"

"Fur trimmed leather, more like," she giggled as she batted the overzealous girl into a more reasonable distance. "But anyway, I'm glad I get to be with him."

Selphie leaned back into the excessive pile of cushions Rinoa had drowned Squall's bed with, and snared one of Rinoa's giant cuddly chocobos in a choke hold. She'd let Rinoa style her hair into two braids, but they stuck out almost horizontally from her head and made her look a bit psychotic. Then again, Rinoa thought, when didn't Selphie look psychotic?

"Do you think you'll be happy in Garden?" Selphie asked.

Rinoa blinked, then peered around the room as if considering it for the first time. It had taken some persuading, but Squall had eventually agreed to move into the commander's delegated dorm room, which was military talk for the penthouse suite. Initially he had declined because firstly: he liked being alone and wasn't used to the idea of having a girlfriend, and secondly: because even though the student body loved him, it was still a little weird that their commander was openly dating Number One Enemy Uno Alpha, Sorceress Rinoa. Emphasis on 'sorceress'.

The room had its own kitchenette and dining table, a double bed and two built in wardrobes (one for her shoes and the other for her clothes; Squall resignedly folded his clothes into neat piles under the bed) a balcony, a plasma TV, and a nice walk-in shower. Sure, it wasn't the standard she was used to, and it definitely needed a feminine touch, but it was liveable.

The problem was -

"I have to be extra careful when it comes to aligning myself politically. Like, right now SeeD has been hired to help liberate Timber, so I can't help them anymore." She pouted and snatched up a stray moogle plush for comfort. "I hate that. Squall says Galbadia might see it as Sorceress and SeeD fighting alongside each other to oppose Galbadia. But it's nothing to do with me being a sorceress or whatever! I just want to free Timber. So now I have to be diplomatic about it and attend functions and make anonymous charity donations, which isn't the same as… as…"

"Scaling moving trains to abduct the president of Deling?" Selphie said cheerfully.

Rinoa buried her face into the moogle's pompom and mumbled a lacklustre agreement. "What's the point of being a sorceress if I can't do anything?"

Selphie patted her on the back. "Aw, it's okay, Rin. Y'know I'm all for blowing stuff up, but sometimes the situation requires a more covert approach until an opportunity presents itself."

"Spoken like a SeeD," Rinoa said grudgingly.

"What I'm tryin' to say is: you'll get what you want in the end. You just gotta be patient, okay? Everyone's expecting you to go crazy." She waved a hand. "Crazier, I mean. Like time-compression crazy rather than just standard I-dated-Seifer-Almasy crazy."


"So just… play it cool. As Irvine would say." She cocked her head and threw a glance towards the corner of the room. "I mean, let's get basic life stuff sorted first. Like, you can't even take care of a plant! Poor Mr Stalks is dead already!"

Rinoa followed her gaze to the house plant in the corner of the room, which was indeed turning brown and sagging. She released an agonised wail. "I can't do anything!"

Selphie giggled and threw the chocobo toy at her.

Honestly, Rinoa didn't mind being Garden's guinea pig. Or Esthar's, for that matter. She certainly wasn't someone to be pressured into anything, but with Esthar there hadn't been much of a choice. They were still very sore over the fact that Commander Squall Leonhart – recently revealed son of President Loire which was definitely not a subject up for discussion anytime soon – broke into a high security detainment facility and busted out the sorceress they were trying to cryogenically freeze and launch into outer space. Esthar didn't like her. Esthar didn't trust her. And she couldn't blame them, because it had only been eighteen years since Adel had ravaged the city, and then there had been Ultimecia. So yeah.

Most importantly, she genuinely wanted to learn more about her powers and to help others understand them, so there really was no question involved in volunteering her services to Esthar. Plus she felt mildly responsible for the devastation of the city during the last Lunar Cry, which had been wrought by her hand, albeit her possessed hand. So it was more a gesture of peace and submission, to prove that she really wasn't that bad. Also it created good political ties with Esthar and she wanted to get to know Laguna more. Potential-father-in-law relationship aside, if she wanted to be any kind of figurehead in politics, Esthar was as good a place as any to start. And, somewhat unfortunately, Doctor Odine was perhaps the only expert in sorceresses that lived.

But while Odine was more interested in the source of her magic and how he might manipulate it for his own perverse uses (which she pointedly refused to think about), Garden was more interested in stopping her powers. From what Xu had briefly divulged during her pre-assessment briefing yesterday, Rinoa was expected to demonstrate her magic, while SeeD worked out ways to counter and suppress it using sharp things, blunt things, magic and probably GFs.

Yep. Great. Can't wait for that.

The problem was Rinoa hadn't picked up a weapon since the war. She wasn't a physical fighter, not really. She preferred to fight using dramatic stunts and dynamic proclamations, and the occasional defacing of a propaganda poster with spray paint. In fact, she was pretty sure her first sparring match against SeeD was going to be the briefest and most anticlimactic battle in all of history. Definitely not a defining moment for Team Sorceress.

So she'd dusted off her Shooting Star, called Angelo, and taken off to the Training Centre under the cover of night, when imposed curfew saw that the halls were deserted bar the newly-reformed Disciplinary Committee and faculty members, who patrolled the halls looking for rule breakers.

But Rinoa wasn't part of Garden and the commander was her boyfriend, so they couldn't tell her what to do.

Now, standing inside the entrance of the Training Centre, she was crippled by the sensation of being alone. Angelo looked up at her and whined, tuned to the subtle nuances of her master's emotion. Rinoa reached down and patted her head.

"It's okay, girl. We're just gonna do some training. I've gotten rusty and you're getting podgy."

Angelo sneezed and wagged her tail a few times. Rinoa took that as a sort of agreement.

"Well, c'mon then. Guess we better start before Squall gets back. Whenever that'll be…"

Being commander meant Squall had to take on a huge range of responsibilities that Rinoa bet he hadn't anticipated, or even been aware of, pre-command. In fact, Garden was an administrative nightmare courtesy of Cid, so Squall had to hire two secretaries and work overtime to get it sorted, and it still wasn't up to date. He once said he had no idea how Garden had even functioned running under Cid's administration. Apparently one filing cabinet had racks and racks of old mission reports, which had been filed under their respective headings of: Not Important, Quite Important, Important, Mega Urgent, and Could Cause War. And, Squall hastened to add, most of the files hadn't even been locked away; they'd just sitting in Cid's office where anyone could rifle through them, like a stack of old magazines.

So to summarise: Squall worked a lot and Rinoa didn't get to see him half as much as she would have liked, except to bring him coffee and the odd occasion when she appealed to his carnal needs and lured him to bed for a few hours. And even that took a lot of work, because he had a lot of work.

Anyway, she reckoned she had a good few hours before Squall came home, which was a good few hours to polish up her rusty battle skills. She could've asked him to come along, and she knew he'd be mad that she'd ventured off alone, but…


She needed to test something. Because she'd been feeling strange; something she couldn't explain to anyone because it was Sorceress Stuff, and even she didn't know what it was, but she suspected it was going to be something weird and not easily explainable, and besides, she didn't even know if there was anything to explain yet. Just that her instincts were tingling. Or maybe that was the magic.

Only one way to find out.

Garden had nurtured a miniature jungle in the grounds of the Training Centre, separated from sane society by huge walls rimmed with lights that pulsated softly in the darkness above the treeline. The top was electrified too, in case any of the specially bred and imported T-Rexuars decided to get out and cause havoc in nearby Balamb. The wall made Rinoa feel uneasy, like she was being funnelled in a particular direction; like she was trapped.

At night, the Training Centre was undeniably scary. The monsters were more active at night, and the T-Rexuars could be heard in the distance calling to one another: drawn out wails and bird-like barks that woke the primitive part of her mind and stirred the hairs on the back of her neck. The leaves rustled in a chill breeze and shadows shifted among the branches. Critters snuffled around tree roots and somewhere nearby an owl hooted. It reminded her of the Forest Owls, and she suddenly felt acutely homesick and stupid for wandering around alone in a monster infested cage at night.

Angelo whined and pawed her leg, and Rinoa smiled down at her. "Right, I'm not alone. I have you, don't I, girl?"

They walked further into the Training Centre, into the darkness, that was broken only by a few solar powered lights that were dimming as the night progressed, casting thin sheets of pale light through a patchwork of flora. The sky was obscured by heavy clouds and it began to rain. Soon Rinoa's hair was soaked and water trailed in rivets down her scalp and neck, turning her gym gear into a sticky second skin. But it also teased out the rich scent of wet earth and drummed a simple tune in the darkness, and for the first time since coming to Garden, she felt at peace. More peaceful than she felt with her friends in the cafeteria, maybe even more so than laying in Squall's arms. But why?

She was startled from her thoughts when a swarm of Bite Bugs exploded from the undergrowth and launched at her, no doubt alarmed by her presence. Their buzzing worked in harmony with the rain, almost deafening. She spread her legs and raised her weapon in a defensive stance, but the Bite Bugs just flew past her, completely unbothered.

After an uncertain moment, Rinoa lowered her weapon. "Huh."

She carried on walking. Sometimes she heard the clacking of the Bugs' carapaces. Other times she heard the chittering of Grats. She passed a small pod of them, in fact. They were eating the damp moss off the base of a tree. One turned its leafy tentacles towards her and shook them, as if trying to figure out what she was, but none showed signs of aggression. Rinoa stood nearby, baffled, then carried on walking. At one point a baby Bite Bug hovered alongside her for a while, dancing in and out of the brush almost playfully, before disappearing into the canopy. Amongst the vines and tree trunks, a giant Malboro, one of the new imports, shuffled in the darkness. Its green tentacles were slick with rain and several of its bulbous eyes swivelled to stare at Rinoa, but it remained where it was, more concerned with rooting around in the wet soil for Bug grubs. It made odd little noises as it did so, alien to Rinoa, who had only ever encountered them when they were in the throes of territorial rage. Now it seemed like any another animal, minding its business.

The trees thinned and Rinoa entered a small clearing, rimmed on one side by a babbling brook. Without the cover of the canopy the rain pummelled her skin and hammered the brook's surface, creating a thousand ripples and a thunderous melody. Rinoa stared at her warped reflection. Then she looked at her hands. She felt like she wanted to cry, but she wasn't sure why.

I feel… different.

She heard it before she saw it, snorting indelicately in the undergrowth, snapping branches as it barrelled heedlessly through the trees. The ground shook and a low, rumbling growl cut through the chorus of rainfall.

Slowly, Rinoa turned and looked at the T-Rexaur. It towered over her, a huge female specimen, its great barrel of a chest heaving in and out as it breathed. It lowered its torso and turned its head to get a good look at her with an impossibly huge amber eye. Its nostrils flared and it grunted, expelling thick plumes of vapour that whirled in the ethereal light of the solar lamps.

She'd faced these beasts many times during the war, fighting alongside her friends, and back then a confrontation filled her with sickly dread. They could easily kill in a single bite; their heads the size of small cars and their tails as long a classroom from base to tip. Truly a frightful foe; Rinoa had hardly believed Garden kept them confined for training purposes.

But now? She felt nothing. Something had changed. She looked at it not with fear but with understanding. She saw them not as foe but as… As what?

She stared up at the T-Rexuar and lifted her hand. Behind her, Angelo whimpered but did not run. The T-Rexuar took a thunderous step forward, clawed toes sinking into the mud with an unappetising slurp. It sniffed loudly, head growing so close she could discern the scars crisscrossed over its snout, and the ice-burns along its flank, and the cloudy cataract forming over one of its eyes; old wounds from battles it had managed to escape from, or been spared from, because T-Rexuars didn't come cheap.

Trapped here, she thought. Forced to fight. Walking round and round this little centre, fighting little men, until it dies.

The rain splattered against its muzzle and she felt its hot breath unfurl along her arm, smelt the rancid stink of rotten meat, saw yellow scale on teeth as thick as her fist. Her hand looked so frail by comparison, trembling as she reached out, her fingers almost brushing its hide –

It straightened abruptly and its head swivelled to one side, distracted by the call of another T-Rexuar somewhere in the brush. It barked once, twice, and then it stalked away into the undergrowth, almost whipping Rinoa with its tail, earth trembling beneath it great bulk, until it disappeared into shadow.

Rinoa was left alone in its wake, like a pale wraith in the night. After a moment, the other monsters came out from where they'd been hiding from the great predator, and returned to the drinking hole, paying no mind to the wet girl and her wet dog.

Rinoa stared after the T-Rexaur, then looked down at her hands. What have I become?

Squall was roused from his own hellish version of time compression (a perpetual state of signing his name onto endless wads of paper) by a rather flustered looking Quistis. She needlessly saluted (as an afterthought because she'd barrelled into his office without knocking anyway), then wrapped her arms around herself to regain her composure.

"What is it?" Squall asked.

"It's Rinoa," she said simply. "She's sick."

Squall frowned and tried to repress an upsurge of emotion. Repressing emotion was a force of habit, and if he was honest it was still unsettling how just the mention of Rinoa caused such an intense flare of furious passion inside of him. He wasn't used to it at all.

Squall stared at Quistis, and knowing him as well as she did (or thought she did), she continued without verbal prompting.

"Zell found her wandering the halls in the early hours of this morning with Angelo, not far from the Training Centre." She paused. "She was out of it, seemed disorientated, and soaked to the skin. Freezing. She'd obviously… been out all night."

"Concussion?" Squall asked, then what she said sank in. "Wait, she was in the Training Centre by herself?"

"She was armed," Quistis confirmed. "No signs of external injury."

Squall abandoned his paperwork and stood up. "Any residual magic?"

"Well, it's hard to tell what with her being a sorceress. Are you going?"

Squall didn't answer; he was already halfway out the office before she finished the question anyway. Quistis trailed in his wake. He hit the button on the elevator then waited with his arms crossed. His concerns hatched uneasy thoughts across his mind. "Did any of the Garden Faculty see her? Where is she now?"

"Zell took her straight to the Medi Centre. He was questioned by the on duty faculty on the way because he practically had to carry Rinoa, and he told them she'd stumbled on a tree root and hit her head while they'd been jogging in the Training Centre. Luckily he was in his training gear too, but they'll probably put two and two together because Rinoa was wet from the rain and he wasn't."

"Any of the students see her?"

"No. But… you know how word spreads in Garden."

Squall tapped a finger against his bicep. "Tell people they were sparring, not jogging. And when Rinoa tried to cast a status ailment on Zell he retaliated with a Reflect. Rinoa was affected, but neither of them had Remedies. Zell lied because he was embarrassed by his lack of prep. Took her straight to the Medi Centre to fix her up in hopes I wouldn't notice."

Quistis nodded. "Understood."

The best way to deal with these things was to spread a false rumour. Zell wouldn't mind; he'd take a bullet for Rinoa, Squall knew that. So Quistis would tell someone in the Library, and they would tell a Card Club member, and they would tell the guy that ran laps in the hallways, and so on and so forth. It would undoubtedly become twisted along the way, but Squall suspected it would remain mundane in light of whatever the truth was, because the truth, Squall feared, had something to do with Rinoa's powers.

Squall went straight to the Medical Centre, unfortunately under the curious eyes of the student body who had amassed in the hallways and corridors on their way to morning class. But that didn't matter. If Rinoa had been injured it was expected that he would visit her.

She was sitting on a bed in a private room in Doctor Kadowaki's surgery when Squall arrived, currently under the administrations of said doctor. Angelo sat patiently beside the bed, ever watchful. Rinoa was wrapped in a thick blanket and showed signs of recently being dried off. There was a glint of apprehension and guilt in her eyes when Squall entered the room, and she offered him a cautious smile. "Are you mad at me?"

Squall felt a dizzying rush of relief. But he still frowned at her stonily, because he was kind of mad too.

"What were you doing alone in the Training Centre after hours?"

She winced. "Um… training?"

"Alone. In the dark."

"I had Angelo!" Rinoa defended primly. "Also I can look after myself."

He gave her a once over. There were dark rings under her eyes and she looked pasty. "Can you?"

Rinoa frowned, but before she could argue Doctor Kadowaki intervened.

"Well, she's shown no signs of physical or magic induced trauma. Completely unscathed. No signs of hypothermia either; all vitals normal. My clinical diagnosis would be that she's wet and tired."

Squall frowned at her. This isn't a joke. "What happened then?"

"I was just tired," Rinoa said, waving a hand dismissively. "I was training for hours…" She frowned as if realising something, then jabbed a finger at him accusingly . "Hey, did that mean you didn't come home at all last night? So you can't criticise me, mister!"

Squall was mortified by the pang of guilt her accusation elicited. If he had come home he would have noticed she was missing. That was his job, right? To take care of his sorceress – no, his girlfriend. But he'd chosen to finish paperwork instead and just assumed she was fine. SeeDs should never assume. Assuming could lead to death.

He placed a hand on his hip and looked at the floor. "Sorry."

Rinoa's expression softened. "It's okay. I'm fine. I guess I… overexerted myself."

For a moment he was floundering in those unfamiliar emotions she so deftly provoked, and that familiar spectre returned to agitate his deepest fears: what if she disappears? What if she leaves me? What if she dies and I'm alone again?

You have to be more careful, Rinoa. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you. I love you.

But the words stuck inside him like thorny burrs, because old habits die hard. Instead, he just looked at her and said, "Whatever."

Weeks passed, and Rinoa began to feel more detached from reality. Her powers resonated just under her skin, growing exponentially, consuming her. She was frightened, but the more she tried to suppress them the more she became aware of them, and with the awareness came innate knowledge and, most alarmingly, involuntary manipulation.

Everything was tangible to a sorceress; nothing was private. One day, while speaking to Zell about arranging a surprise dinner for Ma Dinct's fifty-sixth birthday, she inexplicably saw into his mind. She could rifle through his memories and emotions like sorting through fruit at a grocers, picking them up one by one, turning them over and over, identifying the bruises and the rotten and the fresh. It was such a shock that she'd physically reeled backwards and would have fallen if not for Zell's uncanny reflexes.

Seeing into people's minds was not the worst part. With that knowledge came another: not only could she view emotions and memories, but she could manipulate them too; twist them and mould them into something else entirely, so she could break down everything that made them who they were and remake them anew to her own blueprints.

She could brainwash people.

Rinoa had always prided herself on being insightful and intuitive, with natural-born instincts that allowed her to see past the masks people wore and understand what made them tick. But this? It was too much. It was the defilement of something sacred; the worst kind of incursion. So she kept well out of people's heads, and was left feeling slightly hollow, because it made her realise that people – everyone –only showed what was on the very exterior. The distorted surface of a sea that contained a million colourful fish, and shipwrecks, and treasures long buried and forgotten. She was always tempted to undercover it, but she wouldn't. It would be more rewarding to patiently fish for tidbits and allow people to reveal their inner workings gradually, through trust and love and friendship.

She was so frightened by the rapid acceleration of her powers that she hadn't told anybody; not Garden, not Odine, not even Squall. But the lattermost, well… he was difficult to hide things from; he was dangerously perceptive when it came to pretty much everything, but particularly her.

The other day, he'd come home from work early, hunting her out in a driven way that meant he'd missed her. She'd been sitting on the couch reading about the origins of Magic Stones, with a mug of coffee on the side table. She'd recently discovered that she was telekinetic, and had been trying master the art of subtle movements (whereas before she had been wantonly flinging large objects across the apartment that had led to a number of complaints from the neighbours). When he walked in the spoon in her coffee cup was going round and round, gently stirring its contents, and she'd entirely forgotten. Squall cut off mid-conversation when he noticed, and by the time Rinoa clapped a hand over the top of the mug to make it stop it was too late. But Squall was so confused by what he'd seen he didn't really question it, probably just rationalised it in his mind, because he didn't think Rinoa could even do something like that.

It was time to tell him. Although she didn't want to. There was no going back from it, once she did. She would have to admit what she'd become, and he'd realise she wasn't… wasn't…

She couldn't say it.

They went together to Grandidi Forest to hunt for Precious Stones. This was actually what Squall liked to do in his spare time, because the monsters in the Training Centre couldn't stand up to him anymore, and he could leave under the pretence of benefiting Garden by acquiring supplies. Usually they would go in teams of three or six, because Grandidi Forest was a terrifying place full of old magicks and old monsters. And it was easy to get lost. But no one questioned the abandonment of protocol when they left alone together. Quistis unhelpfully classed it as 'sorceress and knight bonding'. Well, she wasn't exactly wrong.

Grandidi Forest was an gigantic ecosystem encased in a bubble of suffocating humidity and heat; it lay across the skin with palpable invasiveness; Rinoa felt like she couldn't breathe. After just fifteen minutes of trekking she was sticky with sweat that itched her scalp and made her shorts and tank rub murderously.

The trees here were old, soaring above them and blocking the daylight with impenetrable canopies of wide, rubbery leaves. It was raining, but that was no relief from the heat. The moisture summoned frogs and insects and monsters, and they sang and hooted unseen from the undergrowth, utterly deafening. Rinoa watched a gargantuan python uncurl from around the trunk of a tree. Its head was larger than hers, its body almost as thick as the tree's trunk, but it showed no signs of being hostile as it flicked its tongue indifferently before slithering into the thicket of leaves above.

They trekked in silence through the undergrowth, too weighed down by the climate and exercise to speak. Squall hacked away at overhanging branches and vines with his gunblade, always alert, always attentive to her needs as he offered a hand to help her over a small stream or pull her up a ragged incline.

For Rinoa's part, she was buzzing. Grandidi was an ancient place and the sorceress part of her resonated with the pockets of old magic that lingered in the twisted branches and fertile earth. She felt strange here, almost at home, and she felt a distinct feeling of despair and defeat as she stopped at the foot of a thousand year old tree.

This place was for people like her. Creatures like her. She was humbled and frightened beneath the history and weight of her powers; of what she was. What she'd become.


Unbidden, her powers began to leak out of her and into the earth. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The ancient forest responded, unfurling tendrils of its own magic, and she let them wash over her. The feeling almost bringing her to her knees. The world seemed to hush around her, and from the brush monsters came to watch, shifting just outside the clearing, drawn by her magic.

Great, old Malboros lazily blinked their eyes at her, wheezing out clouds of noxious fumes. Small flocks of cockatrices chittered amongst themselves and ruffled their bright plumage. And the bones of undead men clacked from the shadows; cursed ones, hollow things animated by dark magicks.

Rinoa turned away from the tree and looked at Squall. He had raised his gunblade in anticipation of an attack, but it was lowered now, the tip touching the forest floor as he stared around at the quiet, watchful monsters. His expression was wrought with confusion.

Rinoa raised her arms and, unbidden, tears rolled down her cheeks. "See? This is what I am now. This is who I am." She let her arms fall limply by her sides. "I'm a monster."

Squall's attention was wholly on her now. The monsters shifted around them, dispersing slowly back into the undergrowth. The rain filtered through the leaves and pattered against the floor. The insects droned on, oblivious.

Then Squall cast aside his gunblade and crossed the clearing in long, powerful strides. His eyes were fixed on hers with such intensity that she almost recoiled from him in fear, if not for the single thought that rocketed between them and smashed into the walls limiting their bond with such force that they shattered completely.

(I don't care.)

He kissed her so hard that her knees buckled. He lowered her onto the forest floor between the roots of the giant tree, where the ground wore a coat of moss and mushrooms and wet leaves.

(Do you understand?)

He undressed her with such single-minded intensity that she could only let him, stunned as she was beneath the physical and mental rush of his emotion crashing into her mind, strong and pounding and certain. He tugged his shirt over his head and tossed it negligently aside.

(I don't care about any of that.)

He spread her legs and took her on the forest floor. She clasped a root with one hand and his sweat-slick back with the other, as the remains of the walls limiting their link were demolished.

(I love you.)

The magic and the rain and the trees whispered around them. She thought she could hear the voices of Old, the remnants of Hyne, speaking in languages long dead and sacred. Her magic began to resonate, and the leaves shifted in an unseen breeze, and the rain stopped falling mid-air, and green shoots poked through the earth and unfurled delicate ferns and petals, and cocoons erupted from branches and burst apart into bright butterflies. She clung to Squall helplessly as he kissed her again, and distinctly felt the magic thatch a bridge between the gap in their minds as they moved in unison and she felt his end drawing near.

(I am your knight.)

And in that moment, it really was that simple.