Squall wasn't sure how many days passed while he was in the infirmary. A healing, calm lethargy had settled over him as it had the entire patient wards; which were full. His one big complaint was the lack of privacy. They were all stuffed into the room with him. Zell and Quistis were to his left and right; Irvine and Selphie across the room; and empty space between them. That empty space felt wrong, but he couldn't focus on why. As he drifted in and out of consciousness he expected a sixth person to be there. Sometimes its occupant would be a tall blonde man, his twisted angelic reflection. Other times a small dark haired girl.
She was there often. Never in bed, perched on the edge of one, tending to them. Her actions caused him confusion, but when he tried to ask questions she would look his way and smile, peace filling him. Selphie was the first of his friends to leave her bed. He and Zell had exchanged tired looks as they watched the entire thing. Rinoa had been perched on the edge of her bed, white hands running through light auburn hair. Selphie had sat up and hugged Rinoa tightly before giggling and sliding off the bed.
A frown had crossed Selphie's face as she looked around the room, then at Rinoa. "Will the others be up soon?"
"Yes." At the sound of her voice Quistis and Irvine stirred.
"What should I do?"
"Report to Xu, I think."
"Okay, I'll be back soon." Squall had closed his eyes as he heard Selphie's bare feet skip to the door. He opened them again when he heard her pause after opening it. "Rinoa?"
"Yes?" Her voice came from a different part of the room. He fought against his drowsiness, turning his head to look at her.
"You should get some rest, too."
"I will." He watched as she lifted her arm from Zell's head and waved. The door clicked shut a moment later. Squall tried to keep the surprise off his face as Rinoa met his gaze. "You should go back to sleep, Squall." He struggled against his heavy lids, wanting to respond. She stretched out next to Zell, her legs mingling with the martial artists'. He thought he should feel jealous, but could only feel the warm drowsiness as a new wave swept over him. He stopped fighting it as she laid her head on Zell's chest, Zell's arms rising automatically to wrap protectively over her shoulders. Squall let the sleep wash over him, confident that she was safe and all was okay for now.
* * *
"Rinoa." The voice pulled him from his sleep. "Rinoa?"
"Quistis?" He cringed as his voice rasped out.
"Yes sir." Immediately responded. An awkward pause followed before she continued. "Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"…She's close by."
"I know. I'm hoping she'll let me up. Do you want to hear Selphie's last Garden status report?"
"No. I'll let her tell me later….What do you mean let you up?"
"I can't say for sure, but I think Rinoa is doing this. She was hugging Irvine last I saw and then he ran off. I overheard Dr. Kadowaki earlier talking about how she's never seen this many patients healed so quickly. I think Rinoa's using her powers to heal all of the SeeDs."
Silence settled back over the room and Squall fought to clear his head, to think about what Quistis had just said. The slight pulse in his fingertips seemed to speed up and thrum. He stretched his toes in response. He was surprised to find he was staring at the door, filled with anticipation.
"Why can I feel her?" Quistis whispered just loud enough for Squall to hear and frown.
Rinoa's laugh heralded her arrival as the door opened. He had to fight to keep the frown on his face. Heavy boots accompanied Rinoa's light step and he had a second to wonder who was with her before Irvine's head appeared over his bed.
"Hey Commander." Squall rolled his eyes as Irvine took a seat on the bed Zell had occupied. The girls were whispering quietly, but he tuned them out, eyeballing Irvine's new outfit. Irvine caught his gaze and gave him a cocky grin in reply. Squall had to resist rolling his eyes again. "You like it? Cid pressured me into it. Something about getting Garden back in order." Squall raised an eyebrow doubtfully and Irvine laughed causing both girls to stop their hushed conversation. "Cid will fill you in at the meeting…tomorrow?" Irvine's voice rose in question and his eyes flicked to Rinoa. Squall couldn't see her response, but Irvine nodded and affirmed, "Tomorrow."
Quistis cleared her throat and broke in. "Irvine, would you escort me to my room and fill me in along the way?"
"Certainly. Zell and Selphie are waiting for us anyway." Irvine stood up and Quistis in her bare feet took his arm. "Later Squall, bye honey." A wave over his shoulder and the door narrowly missed trapping his hair, then Squall and Rinoa were alone again.
There was no hesitation in her steps as she approached. She didn't pause as she sank next to him on the bed or as she reached a hand to his face and ran her fingers lightly through his hair. "Hey." She whispered with a smile.
"Hey," He whispered back, but he didn't smile. Her touch on his face was electric; his skin seemed to cry out in response.
"How are you feeling?"
"Irvine?" Her hand slid down his neck as she asked and he shivered in response.
"A little. The uniforms?"
"Not required tonight."
"That's not what I meant."
He sighed in what he hoped was irritation as her hand glided down his chest to rest on his heart. Squall glared at her, the one person his authority as commander didn't extend to. He frowned as he realized that technically, she still had authority over him. Her hand was warm over his heart; the thin fabric of his hospital clothes unlike anything he owned. Squall debated whether to push for more information, but she ended the argument in his head. Her hand on his chest grew hotter, but not unpleasant. He could feel the tingling warmth spreading out from her palm. He sighed again, this time in pleasure as his body lit up. Curaga. The spell was whispered in his mind as his body was ravaged by the feeling. Even the hairs on his ankles stood up and the world seemed to pause. For just a moment, when the spell topped out and began to dissipate, he smelled their meadow and heard Rinoa's carefree laugh.
It stirred a longing in him and he reached out for her. He wanted to hear her laugh again, like before she became a sorceress. His fingertips glided over her skin, the power dormant there pulsing against his fingertips. Rinoa's legs slid down along his; the rough wool of the infirmary blanket ruffling between them. Her head lay next to her hand over his heart as she settled down beside him. The slight pulsing waves of power increased concentrated in her hand and he sighed again, his arms loosening his hold as he relaxed further. His fingers gently tangled in her hair, caressed her arm, as he let the regen spell wash over him. He dozed lightly, content for the moment just to have her safe and in his arms.
* * *
A slight burning over his eye woke him. He frowned with his eyes still closed and felt the breath of a giggle against his lips. "I was trying to sleep," Squall groaned. Her fingertip brushed over his scar again and again he felt the slight burning.
"I was under the impression that you didn't want to sleep." His frown dropped into a scowl at her response, but he kept his eyes closed.
"I didn't, but I was asleep." She didn't reply, instead touching that scar again. He opened his eyes as the burn tingled over his skin and caught her hand at the wrist. He looked up at her suspiciously. "What is it?"
Rinoa smiled down at him, but he didn't change his expression, waiting for her reply. She dropped her eyes, focusing instead on the hollow of his throat. He felt her hand turn in his and he loosened his grip, letting their fingers twine together. "I just hate having to be the messenger." Her fingers dropped out of his hand and she grasped at the necklace at her throat. He felt her toes at his ankle, tickling warmly as she tried to squirm out of what she had to tell him. Squall fought his exasperation and reached out for her. He tried to be gentle as his fingers wrapped themselves in her hair, cradling her delicate jaw as his thumb forced her face up. Her eyes met his and she shrugged a little. He held her face steady, refusing to let her out of answering.
"Fine. I'll tell you. There's a ball this evening. Everyone thought it'd be better if I told you. Cid expects us all there."
"Is that all?"
"He may have mentioned something about photographs. And there are big meetings coming up. And then…" Her voice dropped to a whisper and Squall narrowed his eyes, "he says there's still me to deal with." He refused to let her face drop and so she closed her eyes instead, shutting him out; what he'd been afraid of.
"Cid didn't mean it that way." Her eyes remained closed and he grit his teeth in frustration. He swallowed hard and tried to make his voice gentle. "Rinoa, look at me." Her eyes were full of tears, but they didn't fall. "You are not a danger. That sorceress is gone. I followed. I made sure. She won't ever invade you again." He let loose of her jaw, but she didn't move. "Trust in me like you taught me to trust in you. Trust in our friends. Just stay close to me." She nodded slightly and a slow smile spread across her face, her fears banished for now.
"Squall is correct, Rinoa." Quistis' voice echoed before her smart footsteps. More boots shuffled behind her.
"Hey man! Glad you're up. We've got news." Zell had a hoverboard under his arm and his cheesy grin nearly split his face in half.
"Good morning sleepyhead!" Selphie sang out as she was twirled into the room by a laughing Irvine. She let go of his fingers and enveloped Rinoa, who was now sitting on the bed, in a hug.
"So, how did he take the news?" Quistis asked laying a hand on Rinoa's shoulder.
"His usual…whatever" Rinoa mocked and all three girls burst out laughing. A flash went off and they jumped. Squall groaned at the startle while Zell and Irvine laughed, Zell slipping the camera back into his pocket.
Squall waited for his heartbeat to return to normal before he cleared his throat to get their attention. The chatter and laughter immediately died down. "So, why are you guys here?" He looked at Quistis first.
"Awaiting your orders, sir." She snapped to attention.
"Okay, I'll come back to you." He looked at Selphie.
"I'm here to issue the Garden status report and brief you on the requested schedule for the week, Commander." She had snapped to attention as well. Rinoa was absently playing with her necklaces, used to the scene.
"You're last then. Irvine?"
The sharpshooter opened his eyes wide for a second, then smiled. "Your clothes have been cleaned, Commander." Irvine held up a garment bag. "Cid's requested that we all wear our casual battle gear for the pictorial and the ball."
Squall eagerly reached for the garment bag, tearing his infirmary shirt off at the same time. Selphie and Rinoa giggled together while Quistis flushed. Irvine just raised an eyebrow while Zell laughed.
"Yeah, man, I felt the same way." Zell said through his laughter.
Squall tugged his white shirt over his head. "Anything else, Irvine?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm just here because…" His voice trailed off and he drew circles on the ground with his toe.
"Because?" Squall prompted.
"Because I thought maybe Rinoa was upset." Zell looked past him to Rinoa and offered a tentative smile. Squall shook his head as she smiled back, then got up and walked over to Zell, wrapping him in a hug.
"Thanks Zell." He heard her whisper, but Squall ignored it.
"Okay, Quistis first, then Selphie. If you want out, now's your chance."
Irvine didn't need to be told twice, nodding and striding quickly to the door. Zell and Rinoa followed with a "later guys" and a wink. As the door was closing he heard Rinoa's voice.
"So, you're going to teach me to ride that thing now, right?"
"Oh Yeah!" Zell yelled in reply and Squall rolled his eyes as the door clicked closed.
Squall stood and the two girls turned around while he dressed. "Quistis start."
Keeping her eyes firmly at the door she spoke softly, ignoring the rustling of clothing behind her. "There isn't much. Cid and Edea are on the Garden. We are currently stationary at a point 180km northwest of the Centra ruins and 226 km southeast of Galbadia. At our current speed we will reach Winhill tomorrow afternoon."
"Winhill?" The rustling had stopped with one final clasp being buckled. Quistis turned around and after a moment of hesitation Selphie did, too.
"Winhill, sir." He gestured for her to continue. "Cid has ordered the retrieval of President Laguna, his advisors and Ellone for a meeting. The festival starts tonight in about…" She paused and glanced at the clock on the wall, "3 hours. Cid has requested we arrive early in our casual battle gear," she waved at his attire, "for official photos. Regulatory SeeD garb is required of everyone else. That is all."
Squall put a hand on his hip. "I thought you were here to receive orders, not relay them."
"I am. Aside from Cid's orders are there any others you'd like to issue now?"
"Has anyone else contacted Garden in the past 72 hours?"
Quistis glanced at Selphie and the shorter girl instantly snapped to attention. "Requests for meetings and official statements have come in from as far away as Shumi village. Galbadia Garden is in chaos and has requested immediate aid. Trabia Garden has requested rebuilding aid. Balamb City seeks an answer about the Garden crater. Deling City is currently under militia control with General Caraway assuming command. He requests a meeting and demands and update on Rinoa's situation. He is also negotiating the succession of Timber from the Galbadian state and requests a Garden mediation. Esthar has requested help with the lunar cry mess and demands restitution for the destruction of Lunar Base and the Ragnarok. They also demand the return of Sorceress Rinoa so that she can be contained and properly documented. Fisherman's Horizon has given sanctuary to all involved with Ultimecia and Headmaster Martine is there as well. Mayor Dobe has requested a meeting to negotiate claims of sanctuary." Selphie broke off as Squall buried his head in his hands and sat back down. Both girls waited patiently while he took a deep breath.
"Where is Galbadia Garden?"
Quistis answered, "Still in the Centra forests where it crashed before. It was mostly evacuated."
"Good. Call Mayor Dobe. Set up a meeting with him first. We'll pick him up after Winhill. Request 2 teams of engineers and ask him if he'd like to get a chance to try peace his way by acting as mediator for Galbadia and Timber. Tell him we recognize his sanctuary and thank him for taking them in. Can you have a report by tomorrow?"
"Yes sir, Commander." Quistis saluted. "Anything else?"
"Nothing for now, you can go." Quistis slipped quietly out the door. Squall waited until it had fully clicked shut before he turned back to Selphie. "The Shumi?"
Selphie grinned. "The Shumi request when we have a moment of spare time that we visit again."
"What's going on in Winhill?"
Selphie shrugged. "Something about family."
Squall sighed again. "Selphie." Her eyes widened at his gentle tone, but a soft smile graced her face. "I know you're busy, but could you help keep him entertained when he gets here? It's not an order."
"Of course. I really admire Sir Laguna." Her grin faltered and she stepped closer, laying a hand on his arm. He didn't jerk away. "What's going to happen to Rinoa?" She asked quietly.
He put his hand on her shoulder, shaking her a little so she'd look up at him. "Nothing is going to happen to Rinoa."
"A lot of people hate her…and Esthar…"
"Selphie, you said she's one of us now." She nodded emphatically. "And we're not going to let anyone take her away again, right?"
"Right!" She breathed a sigh of relief and her smile returned, "Thanks Squall."
He nodded and she snapped a salute before skipping to the door.
He sat back down on the bed, his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, trying to sort through all that was just told. He knew he'd cut Selphie off before she got to the halfway point. The dukedom of Dollet, Winhill itself, the Galbadian prison and missile base…a lot of people were going to want answers from Garden. He hoped Mayor Dobe would cooperate. Rinoa…what was he going to do about her? The one thing he knew for sure was he was going to stay close to her. The rest of the world would just have to deal with a free sorceress. Maybe Garden could even be more peace-oriented if she stayed here. He wouldn't want for her to be a SeeD, but maybe there was something else for her to do with Garden. A mobile base would be easier to defend her in and help keep her out of any countries that would consider her a threat. He sighed, but then again, being with mercenaries could hardly put her at ease. He shuddered as a vision of her trapped in the sorceress memorial floated through his mind. Never, he swore viciously, never again.