They start her out with basic spells: Fire, Blizzard, Thunder, some kind of elemental role-call that sounds like it should've been on a Timber children's cartoon. Quistis helpfully puts the spells into her head for her; Squall explains briefly that it will make her faster and stronger. Zell advises her to just not cast for now. Rinoa's not really listening.

She doesn't like the feel of it. It stings. She doesn't think much about it, though; there are more important things going on, and if the SeeDs want to help the Timber Owls out by sharing their weird magical brain-invading things, who is she to argue?

GFs, Selphie corrects her, and Rinoa rolls her eyes when no one is looking. Junctioning is stupid, and she can't wait to get a move on this mission.

- - -

"Rinoa!" Squall snaps. The blow comes out of nowhere, and she lands unceremoniously on her rear, wincing. It takes a lot out of her, and she can't stand up, so Squall dispatches the Caterchipillar with one strict swing of his sword.

"You're supposed to be casting," he says grimly, not looking at her. "That's the point of this training."

Rinoa's wheezing a little – she didn't see it, she was trying so hard…

"Sorry," she gasps, feeling the edges of the Fira fade away from her and coughing weakly. She tries to gather up a Cure, feeling around in her brain to figure out where she's stored those; but in the time it takes her, Quistis has noted her weakness and has efficiently splashed her with a Cura. Rinoa's Cure fizzles out at her fingertips somehow, and she swears under her breath.

"You re-Junctioned," Squall says, and it's not a question, him standing there with a splatter of pale-green blood on his face. "That hit shouldn't have hurt you that badly."

"Maybe," she defends herself, slowly clambering back to her feet. "I'm learning. Isn't that the point?"

Squall pins her with that look that means she's learning wrong. It's like this every time. She's just untrained - she's slow with the spells and the GFs and the Junctioning and she knows she should be Junctioned more towards speed but Squall won't hear of it. "Health, Quistis," he orders, and Quistis peels her glove off: skintouch, Rinoa's discovered, is the most potent of all spells.

Quistis' cool, professional fingers glance against her forehead, and then she can feel Quistis inside her head, guiding the magics around. Quistis does make a good Instructor: she's calm and straight-forward about it, lacing Rinoa's nerves with the added strength of a variety of spells. Shiva cools slightly in her brain and Quistis withdraws, nodding. Rinoa wonders when they'll stop monitoring her – how long she'll have to wait until she can rearrange her Junctions herself, the way she likes them.

She just – it isn't even that she's naturally slow, she can keep up with the SeeDs in a basic skirmish, it's that she fumbles so with the magic. She's never had to use it before, really, and the way it pulls at her and draws from her insides is almost painfully unfamiliar. Rinoa hates feeling like a clumsy child, especially next to Quistis' well-trained efficiency and Selphie's effortless grace. Even Zell can cast better than she can, and Zell never bothers to cast anyway.

- - -

The first time she gets caught in the crossfire of a high-level spell, it's a Thundaga, and it leaves her ears ringing and her body tingling, even long after the Cura.

Magic frightens her, she realizes. She wonders what it feels like to cast that kind of magic. Squall won't let her, yet.

Now that she understands a little more about magic – now that she's actually casting it, Junctioning herself – Rinoa wonders who in the world came up with this system. She wonders how powerful someone could get, with something like Thundaga linked to their strength and speed and well-being. She wonders why Quistis and Squall do it so casually, as if it's nothing to them to have odd elemental energies running through their muscles and tendons.

Maybe it's a SeeD thing, she thinks. She's still clumsy and stupid with casting, anyway. Maybe she's just jealous.

- - -

Rinoa's still trying to catch her breath, panting heavily as Irvine examines the remains of the monster for potential items. "Cast a Cure," he says as he walks past her, not unkindly: Irvine is gentle and suave at the same time, but he feels like a friend to Rinoa. "It helps." He glances at Squall pointedly; Squall's looking over the horizon as Selphie points something out, and Rinoa knows what Irvine means: Squall's not looking, he won't notice if you pump yourself up with another spell, just go for it.

The spells are almost… disposable to the SeeDs. Rinoa waits until Irvine leaves and then fires up a Cura, concentrating as hard as she can so that she can cast it before Squall turns around and catches her. She's still having trouble telling the basic spells apart: Cure, Cura, Curaga, they all sit kind of in the same area of her brain and sometimes she grabs at the wrong one.

She wonders again why the SeeDs seem so obsessed with magic. Even Zell, who's quite possibly the strongest person she's ever met, never goes anywhere without a GF in his head and a full barrage of magic Junctioned to his bones. Quistis packs multiple GFs even in her sleep. Yeah, it makes you stronger, Rinoa thinks; but what's the big deal? Squall's strong enough to take out a Bite Bug on his own.

It feels like a crutch. Rinoa has a great deal of pride, and somehow she feels like she's cheating in this great grand battle every time she tosses magic around. If she's going to free Timber, she should do it with her own bare hands, right?, not by calling on some otherworldly energy that isn't really hers.

- - -

Hearing Quistis rattle off statistics of magical variants is probably the most boring thing Rinoa has ever had to put up with. She doesn't care; she doesn't, really.

"I promise I'll get better," Rinoa says, interrupting the statistical tirade and trying very hard not to roll her eyes. "I will never, ever, ever confuse a Blizzard spell with a Blizzaga again."

Seriously, she thinks, Quistis is obsessed. It's probably why Quistis makes such a better caster than she does. Rinoa kind of sucks at it, and she doesn't care.

- - -

The first time Rinoa sees the Sorceress, she understands.

Edea's back is to her; the Lady is resting in a chair, waiting. Rinoa's behind her, clutching the Odine Bangle tightly like a talisman, but she can feel the waves of magic wafting off the woman even from the doorway. And this is no para-magic: this is Source Magic, Sorceress Magic, raw and unrefined. No monster has ever channeled this; no earth or rock has held this in a Draw Point. It's real, it's strong and it burns her eyes like fire, or acid, if she looks too closely.

Rinoa knows suddenly, a feeling deep in her gut as if she's swallowed lead: she knows how weak and inconsequential and powerless she is at that particular moment, stripped of GF and bearing only Odine's handiwork and her stupid arm-launcher as if that would be enough. She's terrified. All she has are things, things made by humans, silly weapons.

She is an idiot. She came here to prove something to the SeeDs: mostly to prove that she's not useless, that she can still do something that will help them, that she doesn't need their GF-boosters and their Cura-Junctions to be helpful, to be herself. She doesn't need their crutch.

Except, suddenly, there's more to it.

Yes, says the Sorceress, inside her. This is why. Power is drawn to the greater power. Rinoa quakes, panics, flails, wishes for a moment she hadn't given Shiva back to Quistis in the first place: but then again, she knows that even her GF-boosted magic wouldn't make a dent in this lovely monstrosity. She is a cheap imitation of the real thing. The real thing is frightening. The real thing is all-powerful. She is awe-struck. The magical aura is almost like a scent and she's almost stumbling for it; the room has been wafted in that perfume, and the scent is power.

She knows that Sorceress Edea is aware of her. Quaking, she steps forward.

- - -

She tries harder.

Now that she's realized what magic is about, she tries harder. Magic is about power, she knows, and not just that puff-of-smoke power in a GF: magic is really, in the end, about Source Magic, about coming as close as possible to that awesome and terrifying strength. She understands why SeeD would want it. She understands why Squall would want it, why Selphie and Zell would want it: it makes you stronger. Closer to that perfection. Closer to the real thing.

Rinoa concentrates more in battle now. She casts spells more carefully, imagining in her head that she is a Sorceress. It's an absurd little fantasy-world, and she knows she's too old for make-believe – but in the end, it helps her focus, and she's noticing an improvement. She makes regal gestures with her hands and fingers as she casts, pretending to be channeling that all-awesome power. She imagines herself coming close to that ideal, to that wonderful and terrible grace.

Selphie compliments her after battle one day, when Rinoa has been raining Thundaga spells upon hapless creatures – to think, Rinoa laughs, that she was once scared to cast that spell! But she can't ignore it anymore: her magic is improving. She catches Quistis eyeing her sidelong during another battle, and soon afterward Squall begins calling her to the front line once again.

Rinoa feels important; she feels valued. She can get the hang of this magic-thing after all. All it'll take is a little concentration. She can be as good as any SeeD – they'll see that you don't need fancy training to cast magic. She can do it.

- - -

One night she dreams she is a Sorceress, long hair and a dark sweeping cape lined with fur trailing behind her as she walks. Her feet are silent. Her eyes pierce the darkness strangely, as if she is no longer human.

Rinoa awakens, and breathes deeply. She's too old for this fantasy-world stuff. Perhaps her imagination has gone a bit too far, she thinks. Pretending she's a Sorceress.

Rinoa has always wanted to be more than she is. Savior of Timber, leader of resistances, warrior, wielder of freedom. Princess. Ordinary girl, befriended by SeeDs.

She tries to put herself to sleep by rifling through her Junctions once again. She wants so badly to impress Quistis with her mental arrangements, and she wants Squall to put her in the front line again. Ordinary girl, respected by SeeD.

She does not dream.

- - -

Sometimes she feels it's getting better: the spells come to her fingertips quickly enough, and she hasn't confused Cura with Curaga in quite some time.

Sometimes, however, she watches them in battle and is overcome with a strong sense of something that can only be jealousy. They were born to this; she still has to think and concentrate and sometimes it's a struggle after all.

It's still them and they in her mind, after all. She's not a SeeD; not yet.

She watches Selphie, enraptured in her Limit, firing off Firaga spells from her fingertips as she whirls like a dervish, and –

Rinoa wishes she could do that.

- - -

For a moment she isn't just surrounded by ice, she is the ice: it's singing with power, the echo ringing as it claps around her. It's as if a million tiny needles are stinging her all over, but it's more than that: Rinoa is ice, she's an ice maiden herself, and she's shattering into a thousand pieces. The sensation is unreal – cold, and the prick of needle-sting, and pain like a punch in the gut –

And then the ice breaks, and Rinoa's on her knees on the ground, coughing blood. Irvine snaps to attention beside her, shattering some sort of potion over her head because there's not enough time for a spell. He whirls in the same movement, popping off a couple quick shots, and Rinoa can see that Squall's taking risks this time: Irvine's still in Limit Break, dangerously low on both health and his normal reserve as he spits Scattershot at their enemy.

Seifer's lying on the ground, unconscious – she'd think worse, but she's seen what the SeeD spells can do; Source Magic won't even flinch.

She can't believe they're actually fighting the Sorceress. Edea is standing before them, still tall and unbelievably thin and regal. She makes a gesture with her hand, a queenly flip of the fingers, and ice is congealing and shattering around Squall; he breaks through it, slices at her with his gunblade. Rinoa hears the ricochet of the shot and knows it's her turn. She's in the front lines, she's the caster - she's only in this battle to gain some experience against the Sorceress herself.

Rinoa's not sure if she can fight Edea.

She tries anyway: concentrates, feeling the fire of the spell come to her fingertips. It certainly isn't time for make-believe anymore, but she can't help it: her gesture almost mimics that of Edea, the gesture of a Lady. The Firaga rips from her and spins through the air, a halo of flame appearing around the Sorceress.

It's not enough. It never is. Rinoa readies herself to cast again, but Squall's already gesturing at Irvine, who looks as unconscious as – as Seifer. Rinoa knows she'll never call up the Raise spell in time, so she digs into her pocket for Phoenix Down and wishes, fervently, that she were more powerful.

- - -

And now –

Now she doesn't really know what's happening, because the room has gone pasty-white as if full of mist and no one is moving. The Sorceress' body lies on the floor, along with Seifer, and Squall is frozen mid-gesture and Quistis's mouth is open as if she's trying to speak.

Only Rinoa can move, in this world.

She tries casting – Esuna, she thinks, schooled well, and reaches for the spell. Her arm extends, and she reaches into her brain and tries –

Yes?

The word itself is thick enough with magic to give her pause. Thick with that real magic: Source Magic, Sorceress Magic, the reality of that raw and unbridled power. The room is suddenly full of it; it must be what's causing the mist, Rinoa thinks.

She's basking in this power, and the spell comes easily to her fingertips; too easily, she thinks, as the Esuna crashes off of Squall's face and fizzles out on the floor.

Help me, she says to the power, not even thinking. Source magic. My friends are – it's gotta be some kind of Stop spell, or something, and they can't move.

There is a pause, a long and pregnant pause, and Rinoa has somehow moved over until she is next to the Sorceress. In Sleep, Edea looks peaceful: more like a mother than a warrior, more matron than goddess. Rinoa remembers Julia, and sighs. She reaches down to touch the Sorceress, wanting just once to be that close to perfection –

- the touch is like a shock, Thundaga and more, Quezacoatl itself running through her veins, electrical impulse, didn't her father tell her not to stand in puddles?, she's ringing, she's singing, she's strung out and tranced under and blown over and –

- Yes, I can help you, the magic says, and Rinoa does not for one moment doubt that the Source Magic itself is speaking to her. All power transfers. All energy flows. You and I are one.

The world has blossomed behind her eyes. Her fingertips rest on Edea's pale shoulder as her mental sky erupts into blossom-petals and wind-fragrance and glowing, floating feathers. She's Queen, she's Goddess, she's carrying a wand and howling in the face of the sky with laughter and outright defiance.

All things are possible, it says, pricking at her fingertips like needles. All. It's boiling, almost, under her hand, as if it's willing to jump: to evaporate, to condense inside her instead. There could be two Sorceresses, Rinoa thinks: she could be the Good Witch.

Give permission. Source magic: the source of all power and grace and everything in the world. Simply ask.

She could finally be useful.

Rinoa thinks.

She thinks of herself in battle, always two steps behind as Quistis fires spells with precision and Selphie whirls through them in bulk without even blinking. She thinks of Squall, who calls her forward to fight and then sends her away because she's not good enough. She thinks of her stupid arm blaster and how dumb she feels with that second-rate weapon when Zell's up in some monster's face with his fists. She thinks of Irvine, lying on the ground, and whether she could cast quickly enough to save his life.

Yes, it says, wind and earth and air and Fire-Blizzard-Thunder all in one. There is a chance. She has always been reckless.

I - Yes, Rinoa says. Yes.

The world turns black.

- - -

Later, when she comes back into herself, propped carefully on Squall's lap and contemplating the millions of stars before her while the magic-power hums and sings in the back of her skull, she realizes what she has done.

She realizes what she has agreed to – to be a conduit for the heavens and the earth – and the weight of that; what it really means, how strong it truly is, how frail her meager body is in comparison.

She thought she could manage it – that it would be a tool, for her to wield.

Source Magic wields its user, she realizes.

- - -

And even later, when they all crowd around, and she can see the apologies in their eyes – the ones they will not say, because they are SeeD – she begins to realize that they do not think she had a choice.

- - -