Chapter 2

Even when she came to stand before the door to her new classroom, Rinoa still fumed in barely suppressed anger at that rude man. 'My first interaction with a fellow cadet and it had to be someone like that.' Granted, the Garden Faculty seemed a bit gruff, too, and yet they did not weigh nearly as annoyingly on Rinoa's mind as the impolite brunet who had treated her like a bug. Or worse.

Rinoa slapped her cheeks softly, but with firm decision. 'Forget about him. He's one of, what, thousands? All other cadets I met in the library were nice and supportive. He doesn't matter. Chances are I'll never see that guy again anyway.' She nodded to herself and rounded the door frame, her eyes searching for an empty seat in the full room, with other students standing and chattering about.

"Why, hello there," a voice mused to her right, and a rich scent of wood and lavender wafted over from the man who tipped his hat. "Are you new around here? You must be; I would never miss a beauty like you."

The words made Rinoa blush before her mind could even process them. "Thank you," she said politely. "You're right, I'm new. I transferred from Galbadia."

"Galbadia?" the man echoed and the blue of his eyes glistened. "Now if that doesn't sound of home! I was born and raised in Whalley, three hours by car from-"

"-Deling City," Rinoa finished for him, her heart taking a joyful leap. "I heard of that place before. My father's sister occasionally goes there for vacation. She says it's really rural."

He laughed. "She meant 'boring'. A village in the middle of nowhere. Ah, but where are my manners." The man took off his hat and inclined his head, his auburn ponytail sweeping over his shoulder. "The name's Irvine Kinneas. A humble cadet like the rest of the lot. And you are?"

"Rinoa Heartilly." She mimicked his bow, but froze mid-movement when Irvine's fingers suddenly curled around her right hand and pulled her close to his lips to breathe a kiss upon it. Her eyes widened when a thought she always tried to push away crossed her mind. 'Could he be the one-? '

"Irvie~," a childishly high voice suddenly interjected. Rinoa barely had time to turn her head for a petite brunette to whirl up to them and grab hold of Irvine's arm with a smile like the sun, which then beamed right over at Rinoa. "Who's your friend?"

For some reason, Irvine yelped before he reciprocated the smile. "That, my one and only sweetheart, is Rinoa. She's a transfer student from Galbadia, so we chatted about Galbadian stuff. Rinoa, meet Selphie, my girlfriend."

Rinoa smiled. 'Silly me. I shouldn't worry too much about this. I'll know it when I meet him.'

The woman called Selphie jutted her chin forward. "Tee-hee. Call me Sefie. Welcome to Balamb! I was a transfer student, too, three years ago. But I come from Trabia. Terribly cold place," she added and shuddered at the mere memory. "Here, we got a beach and sun and smiles all-year-long. You'll have a wonderlicious time here, Rin. Come on, let's squeeze you between Zell and me." Suddenly, the sunny woman held on to Rinoa's arm, and with spirited steps maneuvered her to the third row of study panels.

"R-rin?" the raven haired woman echoed, almost stumbling over her own feet.

Irvine shook his head, although not without a smile. "Sweetheart, you are aware that Rinoa needs her own computer? And what did I tell you about nicknaming new friends?"

Selphie saluted – in a manner Rinoa had never seen before, her right palm covering the corresponding side of her face. "Not until the third lunch!" She giggled. "But where's Rin-oa supposed to sit, then? Apart from us?" The brunette shook her head and crossed her forearms. "Nah-uh."

Irvine played with the rim of his hat, his half-gloved fingers dancing over the material. "If we ask Nida to move to the row behind us, Rinoa could sit next to me. O-or," he added when Selphie slanted her head, "we ask Milla to give up the seat next to Zell."

Selphie sighed. "Poor Milla. She likes Zell so~ much, but he's a dense doofus."

"Erm," Rinoa spoke up reluctantly, "I'm really honored you want me to sit with you, but I don't want to disrupt any arrangements." Yet the couple just waved her away and, without allowing Rinoa to intervene, began to bargain with the people around them. Two minutes later, Rinoa found herself next to Selphie, the seat to her left empty and waiting for said Zell. The clock's arms moved inevitably closer to the full hour, and Rinoa leaned over to Selphie. "Is your friend alright? The instructor will come soon."

Irvine, who overheard her comment, chuckled. "I'd be worried if he were here already. Ah, look, Xu comes. Behold the prettiest instructor in the entire Garden, Rinoa." He apparently planned on saying something else, too, but his face suddenly contorted and he merely coughed.

Certainly, the woman who had just entered and now took her place behind the broad front desk was pretty. Her hair shone in a rich brown as it brushed against her jaw, her face was sharp and yet curved, and her body appeared toned and tight beneath the Garden's uniform. For the fifth time that morning, Rinoa tugged at her civilian clothing nervously, but only one or two of her classmates wore the cadet uniform, so she did not particularly stand out.

"Rise, cadets." The voice of her new instructor made Rinoa almost jump. It bore a strictness, a harsh edge that had anyone follow her commands without a second thought. "Welcome back, to a new term of learning and training. I hope you thoroughly relaxed over the break. The curriculum is tight and we have no time to lose. With the threat of the sorceress Edea rising, the world expects even more from us, and I, personally, will make sure that you meet their hopes and our standards." Xu's eyes wandered over the cadets and halted at Rinoa, who first stiffened, but then blinked in surprise.

'Did the instructor just… smile at me?' Selphie pulled at her arm, and only then Rinoa realized that she had missed the command to sit, a shortfall she promptly corrected. With her cheeks flushed, she listened to Xu's preface, the term's focal points and last but not least the current political events the SeeDs were involved in, most of which relating to reactions to or preemptive operations for the mad sorceress' schemes.

"It should go without saying that the capture of Edea has highest priority," Xu concluded. "For four hundred years, the SeeDs fought to protect mankind against the sorceresses, and our oath shall not crumble in the face of this new threat, either. You, the cadets, contribute to this mission by training to the best of your abilities." The instructor saluted, and even Rinoa felt the urge to mirror the gesture, but then, Xu dropped her arm and turned to her computer. "With that out of the way-"

Suddenly, the doors slid open and a short blond rushed in, feet firmly planted onto a hoverboard. "Did I make it?!" he asked breathlessly, the tattoo on the left side of his face trembling with his gasps. He looked at the seated cadets for a few seconds before he stiffened and turned his head to his left. "Oh."

Xu walked up to him. "No. You did not. You're late again, Zell. As every term. And as I promised, I will file for detention. A day or two as support to the Faculty might help rid you of your tardiness. I heard they have creative punishments. And I will confiscate this." Xu stretched out her hand and did not budge when Zell whined about how 'dang useful' the item was before he gave up. "If you wish to legalize the usage of hoverboards within Garden grounds, please fill a formal request and gather signs from your peers. The orderly way."

Some of the students snickered, but when Zell glared at them they silenced. The blond stomped over to his seat – only to find Rinoa sitting on it. He blinked. Let his gaze wander over to Selphie, who grinned sheepishly and pointed to the seat next to Rinoa, mouthing something about "new friend" that made Rinoa blush and Zell roll his eyes. He plonked down on his new seat and offered Rinoa one gloved hand. His fingers gripped her wrist tightly enough that she gasped beneath her breath. "Yo. I'm Zell. Your Selph's new friend?"

Rinoa nodded and wanted to reply something, but she swallowed her tongue when Xu said, "With the class being fully present now, I'd like to jump right into the subject matter. We'll start with the focal point of this term, para-magic." Next to Rinoa, Zell groaned; not the only student, yet definitely the loudest of them, but Xu continued as if she had not heard, "Now, who can tell me what para-magic is?"

It took Rinoa a second to realize that, unlike in Galbadia Garden, the students were not called for the answer, but rather had to raise their hands on their own – and she figured that, if she wanted to maintain her grades, she had to pick up her pace to keep up. But another student was faster.

"Yes, Nida."

The man next to Irvine stood for the answer and said, "Para-magic is a term used to define magic as used by regular humans. It's the, uh," he hesitated shortly, "energy used in the process of extracting, storing, and casting spells."

"That is correct." Xu nodded and the student sat down again. "Regular humans – a category which excludes sorceresses – are, by nature, not able to perform magic. But now, we just defined para-magic as something that is not magic. An unsatisfying definition, no?" A tiny smile spread on Xu's lips. "What, then, is magic? Yes, Quistis."

A young woman rose in the first row, her sleek, blonde hair clipped up except for two strands of fringe framing her face. "Magic refers to both the invisible energy flowing through the world as well as the actions performed by using said energy. It can customarily only be performed by either monsters or sorceresses, both of which ostensibly utilize it in a similar fashion, although sorceresses have access to a grander variety of spells than the standard three to four variants a single monster can use. Magic is present in every living organism, the water, the soil and even the air, and researchers argue that, without magic, the ecosystems would collapse and disable life as we know it, raising the importance of magic from a usable energy to a life force." All those words left her mouth without a breath, or so it seemed, and Rinoa had the feeling that the blonde recited from a book.

Xu nodded contently. "An excellent reply. Indeed, magic is present everywhere and in everything. So while only sorceresses and monsters appear to be able to use it naturally, our organisms, too, must have some way of utilizing this energy. Unfortunately, analyzing magic in its pure form – that is to say, without it being cast – proves more than challenging to modern researchers. Now that we re-established what magic is, who can tell me in which way para-magic differs from magic itself?"

'That's an easy one.' Rinoa prepared to raise her hand despite her first-day-nervousness, but Zell was faster.

"Magic is used by sorceresses and is more powerful. Para-magic is used by regular humans." The blond grinned, obviously pleased that even he knew the answer, and Rinoa low-key pouted at him for beating her to it.

Yet Xu shook her head and motioned for Zell to sit. "Not quite, I am afraid. It seems to be an easy answer to an easy question, but your reply was merely the lexical distinction between the two forms, saying nothing about the quality or nature. Does someone know what I am aiming at?"

Rinoa blinked. She had believed the difference to be so easy, but now that Xu commented upon it, she almost felt ashamed for never considering another, more complex discrepancy. She peeked left and right, but no student moved, all of them wearing the same puzzled expression, and even the blonde prodigy who apparently swallowed books whole did not raise her hand.

Xu wore that little smile in the corners of her lips. "No one? Admittedly, I cannot blame you if the answer appears to be so obvious. Take this as a lesson in always questioning facts, no matter how hard and fast they seem to be. Squall, can you answer this question?"

Rinoa followed the stares of her fellow classmates to the back row. A rush of cold washed over her. 'Him?!' It was the man whom she had bumped into earlier, and his face was just as friendly as it had been back then. The scar slashed across his forehead and nose scrunched when he frowned at the instructor, and his mouth was a grim line as he refused to reply.

But then, the man sighed and stood, hands buried in his pockets. His gaze was directed above Xu's head as he, with a monotonous voice, answered, "In order to grasp the fundamental difference between magic and para-magic, one has to first understand the process of extraction and molding employed by sorceresses. Sorceresses can extract magic from other subjects and their direct surroundings without being restricted to the magic's purpose in their previous storage. For example, a sorceress can extract magic from the sea to mold a fire spell – an impossible feat for a regular human, who is bound to the magic's storage qualities and can thus use energy from the sea only to fuel water-affiliated spells. Doctor Odine of Esthar, the inventor of the "junction machine" which enables regular humans to access magic via neural and nervous transmitters, dubbed this Creative Usage. Due to the fact that the Hyne lobe, located in the cerebral cortex of the brain and responsible for magic related processes, is much less pronounced in the human species, regular humans are not able to shape magic so profoundly as to alter its intended usage. Even simple molding processes, such as merging the energy of several fire spells into one fira spell, require rigorous training and much concentration. For the same reason, sorceresses and monsters carry a pool of pre-molded energy within them to enable quick usage in dire situations, although they are able to instantaneously alter the energetic properties of the magic around them. The main difference between magic and para-magic, then, is the lack of Creative Usage in the latter."

Rinoa gaped. 'Forget the blonde, he's reciting from a book! How could he spout out all that information without stopping to think for even a second?' She was not the only one staring, she realized, but definitely the only one with such an abundance of awe and surprise on her face, and Rinoa hurriedly faced front again before she could embarrass herself even further on her first day.

Xu nodded her head not once, but several times. "Yes, a perfect reply. In the core, cast magic and para-magic are the same: Molded energy released into a spell. But para-magic is foreign molded energy – second hand, if you will," the instructor added with a twitching of the corners of her lips. "While it seems to be a facilitated power, researchers speculate that the casting of para-magic puts more strain on the human mind and body than casting magic does on a sorceresses', due to the fact that we, for one, lack the ability to fully comprehend the power which we wield, and two… Who knows the second reason due to which casting previously molded energy is more difficult?"

'I know this one,' Rinoa thought and raised her arm. Magic related subjects were her specialty, and shyness yields no points – and after Mr. Grumpy had presented such a perfect reply, she did not feel like losing. She rose as soon as Xu called her name. "That is because, when molding a spell the caster infuses a part of their own energy into it. Different people harness different waves of energy." She made a vague gesture with her hand. "When two people's energy waves collide, they crash and disrupt one another. Like the ripples of two stones being thrown into the water. Controlling one's own energy is difficult enough for regular humans, but when dealing with para-magic, the user has to manage someone else's energy. Depending on the compatibility between the two people, this is more or less difficult." She had spoken a bit too fast, she realized with warm cheeks, but with thirty unfamiliar pairs of eyes staring at her it could not be helped.

"Exactly," Xu nodded and relieved Rinoa from her standing position. "Excellent simile. Although the matter has not been fully disclosed by science yet, we can assume that each person has their very own set of energetic properties. In order to correctly utilize para-magic, the understanding of said properties is vital – and will be one of the core trainings in this term's para-magical lessons. For now, let us move to the subject of monsters, which differ from humans and sorceresses in the aspects of…"

In such a manner, class progressed, and Rinoa found it easier within the minute to participate freely. Occasionally, Selphie giggled something to her right towards Irvine or herself, and Zell gave off this certain facial expression which begged for mercy, but Rinoa was not disturbed by either of that. They spent the ten minute breaks with the four of them chatting and laughing, during which she learned much about her new friends: Zell hated para-magic with a passion and his muscles were not just for show. Irvine knew every girl in the Garden by name and wrote the tidiest notes Rinoa had ever seen. Selphie could hack into another student's study panel within three minutes – she proved it by invading Zell's privacy and inspired both laughter and embarrassment – and wore her grin like other people their glasses.

When Xu ended the final antemeridian class and all students rose in a unified bow, Rinoa felt a smile tug at the corners of her lips. 'I will have a wonderful time here.' Her brown eyes wandered over the other cadets and a shadow befell them, but she flung it away before anyone could notice, and instead smiled towards Selphie. "Say, could you show me the way to the cafeteria? I know I got a sheet with a layout somewhere; but maybe-"

"Oh yay!" Selphie chimed. She drew forth Irvine with a twist of her wrist and practically sung, "Irvie~, Rin-oa wants to lunch with us. We gotta score a big table today, and the best food."

"That means hot dogs!" Zell roared, ecstasy glistening in his eyes. "Hell yeah! I'll go ahead, slowpokes!" And with that, he was out of sight, even before Xu could yell after him about improper walking speed and the detention sheet he still had to pick up. Selphie snickered and hooked her free arm under Rinoa's to drag her towards the door as she gabbled about something called the 'Garden Festival', leaving the raven-haired woman little time to actually pack her belongings and shoulder her bag. Irvine politely advised the ladies to hurry so Zell's efforts would not be in vain; the cafeteria was, so he said, a nasty battlefield, and only the bravest souls could hope to hold on to empty seats for too long.

But before they could reach the door and close in on their destination, the instructor's voice called, "Rinoa, could you come here for a bit?" Xu waved with her right hand, the left holding on to a document which she, to Rinoa's absolute annoyance, offered to none other than Squall.

With a knot in her gut – for what could she possibly have done wrong in the first three classes that warranted attention from her instructor? - Rinoa disentangled her arm from Selphie's. "Sorry," she mouthed before she walked over to the front desk, pointedly ignoring that Squall's presence all together. "Yes, instructor?"

"I hope you enjoyed your first classes?"

"Huh?" Rinoa made before she could slap a hand over her mouth. She stiffened instantaneously and stuttered, "I mean, er, yes, of course. It was very informative."

Xu chuckled. Up close, Rinoa saw that her instructor's eyes were deep green and a lot softer than the strong voice anchored in her throat. "Please, relax. I just wanted to make sure you can follow up. I once switched Gardens, too, and I know the G-Garden has a rather different way of teaching its students. You participated actively, though, so I wanted to praise you for that."

Rinoa blushed. "Thank you, instructor. Everyone here is really kind, so I'm sure I'll get accustomed to it all quickly." She wanted to say something else, maybe compliment her instructor for the interesting topics and interactive lesson, but a sudden shift in Xu's face had her halt.

Her instructor smiled no longer. She smirked. With a casual gesture of the hand still holding on to the sheet she said, "By the way, have you met Squall already? He is one of my top students – if not the best student I ever had."

'Just great.' Unwillingly, Rinoa turned her head, if only to be polite. Squall, however, still stood averse, one hand in the pocket of his trousers, and only a subtle shift from his eyes' focus indicated that he had heard Xu. The smile on Rinoa's face was stiff at best. "I don't think we were ever properly introduced to one another, no."

"No?" Xu echoed. "In that case, let me handle the formalities; Squall, meet our newest transfer student, Rinoa Heartilly. Rinoa, this is Squall Leonhart. Your personal guide for this term."



Squall stared. He repeated Xu's words in his mind once, twice, thrice, but they still made no sense to him. His left hand, on the verge of receiving the paper Xu had called him to the front for, froze. Once again, his eyes ran over the female to his right, and he barely suppressed the urge to groan.

He had recognized her the second she set foot into the room, and that alone unnerved him all too much. Luckily, Irvine had taken care of her – naturally – and thus seated her fairly close to the front, sparing Squall the pain of crossing eyes with her. To his dismay, she proved to be a rather active participant in class and thus stood and answered several times, which merely served to drop his mood furthermore. His disposition towards her had only worsened since their first encounter; her mere existence annoyed him. And as her brown eyes – so incredibly round and brown and sickening – blinked at him repeatedly, that impression strengthened.

Thus, his first words were directed at his instructor, another woman who seemed to have taken it upon herself to gall him on this intolerable day. A part of him wished he was still caught in his nightmares. "Excuse me, instructor, but such treatment is not prevalent within the Garden structure. New cadets have been proven to find their way just fine by themselves."

"I know." Xu placed one hand at her cheek and nodded. "Ah, this must be the nostalgia; I know it's not my place as an instructor, but with our shared origin from the Galbadia Garden, I would feel horrible if I did not ease Rinoa's start in her new home at least somewhat." She shook her head, and Squall could see the pretentiousness seep from her pores. "But if there is someone I can ask to do this without fearing for their grades, it's you, Squall."

A vein on his right temple began to throb. "Instructor," he started as calmly as he could, "if it is her acclimatization you are concerned about, I would like to point out that Heartilly appears to have made friends within the student body already." He raised his finger to direct his instructor's gaze towards Irvine and Selphie, who both still waited for that woman with curious expressions, to say the least. He wanted to smash their faces in before that look could settle.

The pest to his right nodded. "Yes, instructor, Irvine and Selphie already offered to take me for a tour and-"

"No," Xu shook her head firmly, "that will not do. If it's not Squall who guides you in this difficult time, I will find no peace." She paused and focused her gaze on Squall, her eyes burning with a sudden intensity and the tone of her voice changing as she 'casually' added, "Besides, you two could prepare for the SeeD exam next term together."

Squall frowned. 'The SeeD exam? What is she going on about – ah,' he finally understood with a brief side glance to the nuisance and his features hardened. 'So that's how it is. They made their decision.' He knew that he ought to be happy, or at least pleasantly surprised, but all he felt was anger boiling in his stomach, a feeling he suppressed by crossing his arms. It would not get him far, and if Xu's expression was any indication, objection was pointless. 'Fine. I'll take the test.' Out loud, he merely said, "Please specify my duties within the framework of this post, instructor." His voice dropped into monotony and he felt how his facial muscles hardened.

Another subtle change in Xu's features which definitely eluded that woman. Accusation. Or disappointment. "I am glad to see you understand, Squall. As for your responsibilities-"

"Uhm," the pest interjected but was outright ignored, rightly so. This was not about her.

"- you will act both as a guide and a tutor to Rinoa. You are to help her in accommodating herself within the premises of Balamb Island-"

His eyebrow twitched. 'Not just the Garden, huh, but the entire continent. Great.'

"- and provide aid whenever she needs it."

He could not help but growl, "Whenever she needs it?"

But Xu just nodded and turned away from him like he was some unimportant bug. "There, Rinoa. I hope you are aware of the extraordinary chance you are presented with. Do not hesitate to make proper use of it." The way she stressed those words made his blood boil all the more. "Hopefully it facilitates your stay." And with that, the forsaken instructor left the classroom and Squall with the black-haired bother. At least she looked just as unhappy about the arrangement as he did.

Before he had to deal with her expression any further, Squall turned away and looked at the sheet of paper Xu had given him. He groaned mentally. 'Sure. Her course schedule. Fantastic.' It was even more fantastic when he realized they shared almost every class, aside from 'Galbadian Civil Law' on Tuesday and 'Advanced Bestiary' on Thursday. 'Why me…'

But he knew exactly why he, and lest he wanted to get into serious trouble again, Squall had no choice but to swallow his pride and aggravation. Without looking back, he set his feet in motion. "Follow me, Heartilly." A part of him wished she would just ignore his words and follow Irvine and Selphie to the furthest table in the cafeteria, but a quick sequence of steps informed him otherwise and warned him to school his flaming gaze into an indifferent look before she walked beside him.

She took a breath. "So… we meet again." A pause, during which she most likely peeked at his face, but Squall kept his eyes focused ahead. "How about we try a fresh start instead, then?" She leaned forward, her obnoxious face disrupting his view, and sported what she probably believed to be a friendly smile. "I'm Rinoa. And, apparently, in your care, Squall. So, let's get along, mh?" She stretched out her hand towards his gloved ones.

He did not even pretend to care. His eyes shifted from her as soon as he redirected the course of his feet to accommodate for the blockage.

The pest huffed. How childish. Her action cost her several seconds as she stood rather dumbfoundedly to stare after him. Then, she picked up her feet until she caught up. "Your answer during the first class was really something. Do you like studying?" He chose silence as an answer once again and her strained smile wavered. "But honestly, this Garden is really different from home. Ah, of course, this is my home now," she corrected herself with a shake of her head. "In G-Garden, we had to wear our uniforms at all times, can you imagine? Definitely a win here. But the Faculty here seems a lot more strict; this morning, before I went to the library, I-"

"Do you always talk this much?" It had been supposed to be a thought, but Squall found that his grinding teeth could not contain his annoyance any further. At least his facial expression did not change, although he felt like scowling at her. But the memory of Xu's words – and more importantly, her implication – helped him regain his cool. He pointed towards the elevator and the black-haired bother entered.

Beneath her furrowed brows, her brown eyes narrowed at him. Such an ugly color. "Do you always treat people like that?"

'No,' he wanted to answer, 'usually, I don't treat people at all. I ignore them.' But there was no way a simpleton like her would understand, so he just shrugged and pressed the button to the first floor. While they descended, he rattled down, "As you without doubt noticed, the second floor harbors the classrooms. The third floor contains the headmaster's office as well as the ballroom, used for special occasions. You may not enter the third floor without the headmaster's permission or invitation. Doing otherwise will lead to troublesome consequences. Expulsion, in the worst case."

"Question!" Her voice was so sudden that Squall winced. He glared down on her, at least ten centimeters smaller than him. But she did not seem to recognize the antipathy. "What's the headmaster's name?"

"Cid Kramer."

She squinted at him and mumbled something about 'short-spoken'.

Ping. The doors opened and he stepped out, the pest on his heels, and pointed at the computer below a short flight of stairs. "The first floor. I'll illustrate the corridors by the directory there."

"Eh?" the black-haired bother made and threw him a glance as they walked up to the device. "You won't show me around?"

'I can show you the way out, if you like.' He sighed, but kept his eyes on the computer. "That would be time-consuming and inefficient. You will most likely refer back to the directory during your first weeks, so acquainting you with this device is the best choice."

'That, and it will spare me the pain of dealing with you more than necessary.'

The pest placed one arm behind herself and held on to her elbow. "If you say so. You're the guide." She took a step closer and leaned over the illuminated screen. "Go ahead. I'm all ears."

"All paths within Balamb Garden are color coded. Try and remember the colors and their respective facility as soon as possible; even without memorizing the layout, you can track your desired trail that way." He waited until she hummed a reply before he continued, "There are four blocks within the Garden, each named after a cardinal direction. West and East are furthermore divided into three sub-parts."

Why did he even bother? That woman just had to take one look at the directory in front of her eyes to understand the layout; the font was gigantic and the colors all included. And yet, Squall explained one corridor after the next – and regretted it. For the black-haired bother (the name started to grow on him) had a question for every facility. Either that or a completely unnecessary comment.

Library? "What kind of books are there, except for study related ones?"

"Can't say. Ask the staff."

Training center? "Where do you get the monsters from, being on a secluded island and all?"

"We breed them in the cellar laboratories. Some compartments contain specific breeds with added vigor and vitality. You need a special pass to enter those."

"And where-"

"Moving on…"

Dorms? "Oh, yes, I rented a room as well."

'You don't say.'

Cafeteria? "Anything you would recommend?"

"Stay away from the hot dogs."

"Are they bad?"

"Not particularly." 'You just might be beaten into a pulp, and Xu won't forgive me for that.'

Infirmary? "Who's the head of the department?"

"Dr. Kadowaki. Also leading para-magician of the RMO forces of all Gardens."

The only time he asked a question was related to the parking lot, for she had been awfully quiet after its explanation. And even then, he made it sound more like a statement. "You can drive a car?"

She fidgeted. "Seeing as SeeDs need to drive from time to time, I took lessons."

'That is to say, she can't. Great. Here's to hoping I don't end up on a mission with her.' But with Xu and her rather unorthodox – and annoying – method of teaching, he somehow doubted his luck.

He felt like applauding himself for his endurance when he finally took a step back and sighed, "That's about it. Any questions?"

The pest weighed her head. "I… don't think so. My sense of direction is not the best, but with the directory, I should be fine. Thanks, Squall. You explained it all very thoroughly." She sent a smile after those words.

'Don't thank me. I'm not doing this because I want to.' To underline the point of his thoughts, Squall turned away from her. "Is that everything you need for now?"

He felt her eyes burn holes into the back of his head. Those deep brown eyes which maddened him. "Well, technically yes, but it's time for lunch, so- hey!"

"After my explanations, you should be able to find your way to the cafeteria on your own, Heartilly." Squall did not look back at her and let her voice be drowned out by the noise in his head. His stomach grumbled, but he knew that for today, light snacks from the dormitory had to make do.

"Hey!" Rinoa withstood the urge to stomp with her foot. Her guide just left her standing there, by the directory, like unwanted weight. She pursed her lips and glowered after his disappearing figure. Idiot. 'Well, just means I won't have to spend time with him.' She liked that idea.

At least the stoic brunet had been right – she did find her way to the cafeteria, by that point filled to the brim with cadets of all ages. The youngest were twelve, still children whom even she towered above, and the oldest in their late twenties. By the age of thirty, a cadet must have passed all exams and thus turned into a fully fledged SeeD who retained permission to stay indefinitely; elsewise, they had to leave the Garden. Rinoa could tell by the look on their faces whether one of the older students was close to that line. They sported furrowed brows, glowering eyes, thin lips and this physical uneasiness vibrating off them.

'Just like Squall.' Rinoa stopped in her tracks and placed one finger on her chin. 'Is that why he's so obnoxious? He does not look that old to me, though.' Then again, the messy hair covering most of his eyes made it hard to tell, and the scar in his face hindered any deductions only further. Rinoa frowned. 'I wonder where he got that scar from.'

"Ri~n!" Selphie grabbed her arm before the noirette could even look up. "There you are! Come on now, quick, quick, we gotta score you some food before Irvie can't protect your seat any longer." She maneuvered Rinoa over to the counters and rushed her through the different sections. Rinoa actually had to put effort into preventing Selphie from just filling her tray with random – and sometimes outright suspicious – food combinations, until she left with an acceptable mixture of a sandwich and a strawberry shortcake. The latter one cost her a couple of extra gil, for anything aside from the daily menu was not covered in Garden tuition.

'Completely different from Galbadia Garden,' Rinoa judged as she let Selphie guide her to the table. 'The tuition fees are outrageous and still do not include meals. Just underlines how the Garden is deeply connected to the state.' She was disrupted from her thoughts by cold metal pressing against the bare hollows of her knees.

"There~!" Selphie chimed and plonked down to her right. "Now we can begin the feast! As a celebration for Rin becoming our friend!"

"Rinoa," Irvine corrected before he chuckled. "And you may say that, but someone" - he disentangled his fork from the spaghetti and gestured towards a drowsy Zell - "finished up already."

"Oh, Zellie," Selphie giggled and planted her spoon into woodruff jelly, beneath which Rinoa imagined to spot codfish, but that was impossible. "I told you to wait."

Zell opened his mouth to retort, possibly, but only a hearty belch left his lips and he coughed in the direction of his plate, generously sprinkled with leftover sauce.

"How deplorable." The voice belonged to the blonde book-swallower from their class, sitting directly opposite to Rinoa at the round table. As their eyes met, the woman nodded at her. "I believe we have not yet been introduced? My name is Quistis Trepe, student number 41492. Your knowledge in the para-magical field was quite remarkable in the first classes, I shall congratulate you."

"Thanks," Rinoa replied, a bit taken off-guard. She had not intended on leaving a lasting impression, but that being said, it was not a bad thing to be remembered for. "I guess you can say para-magic is my forte. I'm Rinoa Heartilly, but I don't know my number by heart just yet," she admitted sheepishly.

Quistis raised a fine eyebrow. "I see." She averted her attention from Rinoa back to Zell and chided, "Seriously, what kind of impression do you intend to give the transfer student? She must believe Balamb students are lacking in discipline."

Zell leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, and replied something which got lost in another burp. Quistis' mouth tightened into a line, but the other students laughed, Zell the loudest amongst them, and Rinoa was pulled along, her food getting caught in her throat and resulting in a series of hasty coughs, remedied by a quick glass of water Irvine handed her for which she thanked him hoarsely.

The man smirked. "Don't overdo it. If you suffocated, Xu might blame poor Squall, and we can't have our honor student deal with that."

"What does Squall have to do with this?" Quistis inquired, dutifully arranging the mixed salad on her fork before ingesting it.

"Oh, you missed that because you left first, right? Our Rinoa here has the honor of calling Squall her guide and tutor."

Quistis' hand and fork stopped midway. Her eyes jumped from Irvine's smug face to Rinoa's, stuffed with sandwich bites and some rebellious mayonnaise in the corners of her mouth. The blonde set her cutlery down, wiped her lips with a napkin and turned her body towards the noirette before she asked, "Would you care to explain this to me, Rinoa?"

"There's not really much to explain," Rinoa replied with a shrug, trying to swallow her food as discreetly as possible without incurring Quistis' disapproval. "Instructor Xu said she was worried about me managing in the new surroundings, so she appointed Squall as my guide."

The following pause weighed so heavily, even Selphie peered up from the codfish which had been, after all, covered and drenched in jelly. Rinoa tried to withstand the urge to squirm beneath the scrutinizing gaze of Quistis' bright blue eyes, and for some reason her guts tied into a knot as the blonde's expression changed ever so subtly before she replied, "How very… unusual. It is not like instructor Xu to dissipate her student's time."

Rinoa frowned. "I did not ask for it, if that's what you're thinking." She felt judged by the woman sitting across from her, and was suddenly quite grateful for the barrier created by the others.

Quistis raised her eyebrows. "I never indicated such a statement. Instructor Xu would not agree to something like that if a random student requested it, and neither would Squall." She paused, albeit briefly, and folded her arms in front of her chest, clad in the Garden uniform which, among all the civil-wearing students, made her stand out despite the location. "You must be quite an important persona to receive such treatment from the Garden. But the name 'Heartilly' does not ring any bells on my end." Quistis slanted her head and closed her eyes as if to remember.

Rinoa drew her eyebrows together. 'What is her point? Why is it even important? The instructor seems like a nice person, she was probably just genuinely concerned about me. Is that such a weird thing to happen?'

"Oh well." Quistis finally rose from her seat and rearranged the items on her tray before lifting it up. "I shall place confidence in instructor Xu's judgment. Please be considerate in your utilization of this special arrangement. Squall's time and talent is exceptionally precious and must not be wasted." She nodded at Rinoa and the others as a means of farewell and departed, either not knowing of or not caring for Rinoa's indignation.

The raven-haired woman glared after Quistis. She blew a rebellious strand of hair from her vision and growled, "Honestly?! Me, wasting that guy's time? It's not like I wanted him as a guide, he's – urgh," she interrupted herself with a shake of her head and an angry assault to her cake. "Who does she think she is?"

"Now, now," Irvine intervened and raised his hands in an appeasing fashion, "calm down, Rinoa. Let me apologize on Quistis' behalf, it's just-"

"That's just how she is," Zell interrupted, finally all burps and belches cleared from his system. Still, he rubbed his stomach for good measure, giving Rinoa and her appalled expression a shrug. "She's hard to deal with at first, but she is dependable. A genius. She might become the youngest SeeD ever."

Rinoa's ears perked up at that, and curiosity replaced her ire. "Youngest SeeD? What, is she not our age?"

Zell shook his head. "Quistis will turn eighteen in October. She got a special recommendation from an instructor. If she passes the SeeD exam in spring, she'll be a legend."

"A special recommendation to take the exam at eighteen?!" Rinoa echoed and forgot about her dessert.

She had heard of such cases, in the way that one heard of angels falling from the heavens to deliver babes to their mother's breasts. Everyone knew someone who knew of someone who heard of a cadet that once had a friend who got a recommendation, but you did not actually know one, did not share the same class with someone who had the talent, the guts and an instructor's abysmal trust to take on this life or death mission called an exam that early. There was a reason the age qualification was nineteen. And even then, the percentage of students who actually underwent the exam at that earliest stage was low.

When the others simply nodded and Selphie hummed a victory tune, Rinoa's mouth fell slightly open and she looked after the blonde now exiting the cafeteria with a mixture of awe and disbelief. "… Do you think she can make it?"

The shadow crossing her friend's eyes was proof enough that she had asked a question better not asked. Selphie's spoon hovered midair a second before continuing on its way, Zell ceased the whipping on his chair and Irvine inspected his fingernails without seeing anything. Finally, he looked up with a start and smiled a false smile. "Of course. Zell just said it, Quistis is a genius. Her abilities are on par with Squall's."

"Exactly," Zell endorsed with a nod just a tad too fast.

Selphie triumphantly swung her cutlery in the air and sprayed codfish and jelly on all bystanders. "The best!"

Rinoa mimicked their smiles and confidence, banning her thoughts from her face until the others stood to put away their trays. In that instance, the corners of her lips dropped and she mumbled to herself, "But even that Squall is not a SeeD yet."

A/N: Hey! I am not dead, yay. I can't even begin to apologize for this late update. University and real life are a thing, sadly enough. But hey, let's not whine but rejoice that I actually found the time to write and proofread. Finally some Squall and Rinoa interaction, right? There will be more in the following chapters, but good things come for those who wait. The first chapters will be a bit slow in pace to built up the characters' relationships and plotlines, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless. Thank you to everyone who reads this. You are inspiring and I feast upon your feedback.

As always, I thank my beloved NagareboshiStar for betareading and brainstorming. She is my muse.

Until the next update~