Rinoa had managed to keep her voice calm and steady as she repeated her report over the Ragnarok's radio, and she had answered every question put to her as clearly as she could. Running through her mind was the belief that Squall had been taken because he was her Knight - and if that were the case, she owed it to him to be the perfect subordinate SeeD to effect his rescue. The Sorceress could not command SeeD. But SeeD would defend its own, avenge its own...
But it was only a shell, a mask she put on. Rinoa did not feel like a SeeD. She felt like a bereaved mate. Thankfully, both roles were in agreement on what to do; get Squall back. They just didn't agree on how.
Zell was unusually subdued as he filled SeeD in on what he knew and had observed from the air. When the reports were finished, Xu's voice came over the radio:
"Pursue the large transport vessel first. Since we don't know which vessel Squall is on, we will kill two birds with one stone and find out whether this was an operation of the Galbadian military or an independent action."
"Understood," said Zell and turned the Ragnarok west.
"Identify docking port and report to Garden. Backup will be provided."
"Understood," Zell repeated, and switched the radio off. He turned to Rinoa. "Look, I'm sorry," he said. "Selphie and I got here as fast as we could..."
Selphie nodded in agreement. "Raijin and Fujin planted a bug in Garden - when you guys checked in they knew where to look for you. Xu sent you a warning, but I guess it arrived too late."
Rinoa said nothing. She couldn't trust her voice to be recognizable past the lump in her throat. The warning was probably going to show up tonight. Somehow knowing Squall had been the soldiers' target all along was frightening. She was the sorceress, the traditional enemy of the world. Squall was a SeeD, a hero. Why would they want him, unless it was because of her?
To her surprise, Zell put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "We'll get him back, Rinoa," he said. "I've known Squall for years, it'd take a lot to keep him down."
I must look really upset if Zell is trying to comfort me, thought Rinoa. Usually he's all gung-ho 'let's go kick ass'. But when she looked into his face, she could tell that Zell was just as worried as she was. Squall was his best friend. She swallowed hard, and tried her best to put the SeeD mask back in place.
"Any luck on the transport?" she said, and was pleased to find her voice held steady.
"Got it!" said Selphie. "I'm radioing Garden now, to let 'em know where it is."
"What if Squall's not there?" said Rinoa. "How do we find the plane?"
Selphie looked unconcerned. "You said it flew off to the south," she said. "Well, there's only a few places a plane as small as you described could reach to the south. We can check them, see if it refueled and took off again...don't worry. We can find it." She smiled, the fierce smile that said she was thinking of bringing out the Big Guns. "We'll get him back, too."
We'll get him back, they both said. But it didn't sound convincing. If Squall were not on the boat - and it would take precious days to make sure he wasn't - then the trail of the plane would be cold. With Seifer involved (and how had she missed seeing him in the attack? Had he taken part? Surely Seifer would not have been an observer to such a fight...) there was no way to know which trail was the true one. He, too, had had SeeD training.
"Can we check both paths at once?" she asked. "Just in case?"
"There's only one Ragnarok," said Selphie. "Sure we can leave Garden to search the transport now, if you want. Squall was your assigned partner; you can decide where we go and no one will argue. But the ship might be a bit much for Garden to handle alone."
Zell stood up and started pacing. "No, Rinoa's right," he said. "We gotta try to track them both. If we leave the plane too long we'll never find it. Let's go after the plane ourselves; the Ragnarok can outfly anything with you at the helm, Selphie."
"And you think the three of us can handle whatever's at the other end?" she asked. "We want to rescue Squall, not join him. Tell you what; Garden wanted to give us backup - we'll wait long enough to pick whoever they're sending up, and then we'll go. Okay?" Her face fell. "I'm worried too," she said, "but I want to be sure we can get him out. They sent a transport of soldiers just against him and Rinoa. There's no telling what they have wherever they're taking him to."
...If he doesn't come back, don't even try coming back yourself.
We'll still be here for you, but the rest of SeeD will not.
Either both of us, or neither of us. If he goes down, it's because I'm already dead...
But here she was, alive and well, and Squall taken. And she was going to wait for backup from Garden, when she wanted nothing more than to find Seifer and unleash every ounce of Sorceress' magic upon him. Never before in her life had she felt such a desire to hurt someone.
A hand touched her shoulder, startling her. "Hey, Rinoa?" asked Zell. "You okay?"
No, I'm not, Rinoa wanted to say. Squall was taken and I should have seen which vehicle they took him away in but I didn't and now I don't know if we'll be able to find him. How could I be okay?
But what actually came out of her mouth was, "I'll be all right, Zell. Who are they sending as backup?"
Selphie answered from the cockpit, saying, "Zell's girlfriend - her name's Bella - and some guy Quistis says Squall thought highly of. She has to stay in Garden since there's a chance of a fight, or she'd come herself." She rolled her eyes. "We're to provide really really detailed reports so Quistis doesn't get upset. And Irvine's got to calm the SeeDs down in case we have to take you back inside Garden."
"Has it gotten that bad?" Rinoa asked, surprised. "I thought that was one reason we were hiking all over the planet in the first place."
"It was, but we didn't know just how much they resented your being there, Rinoa," said Selphie. "Xu got flooded with requests to join 'the mission against the Sorceress' almost as soon as she took the job of Commander. They didn't ask Squall because they thought you'd enchanted him, see." Selphie shrugged, as though she couldn't understand why people would think such silly things.
So Quistis had been speaking a literal truth, thought Rinoa. I may be a SeeD, but SeeD really doesn't want me. Should I really be trying to fit that mold then?
But it's for Squall. What would it do to him, if I let a fight start where he had to choose between me and the training that's been his life? I can't do that. And SeeD really does have the best interests of the world at heart, it's just they don't know me yet that's all, I mean I thought I was a danger at first too...
"Well, if Bella and this other guy can help, I guess we can use all we can get," said Rinoa sadly. But how badly she wanted to use her sorceress' gift to spread her wings and fly...
In the end, they lost one day waiting for Garden to arrive in position. There was a brief meeting with a very worried Quistis as she assured them that everything about the transport would be checked, down to how many mice were hiding in the hold. For safety's sake, Rinoa did not leave the Ragnarok. Irvine reported that those SeeDs who were most against the Sorceress were of the mind that she had done something to Squall herself, and were spreading a new level of fear around Garden. Xu was doing what she could to calm the situation, but no one wanted to push matters. Their two new team-mates were ushered on board as quickly as possible while the Ragnarok topped off its fuel supply, then they took off.
Rinoa found herself wishing Irvine and Quistis could have come; she knew them and trusted them, but these two SeeDs she had only ever seen in the distance and she had no idea how to feel about them. But surely Xu would not have chosen them if they had expressed distrust of her?
"Um, hi," she said, with a creditable SeeD salute. "I'm Rinoa."
"Bella," said that one, and "Georg" turned out to be the name of the other. Rinoa recognized him as another of Zell's circle - the one who had taken the challenge the day Squall showed her the chutes. Apparently he'd made SeeD. Zell gave him a hearty thumping on the back in hello, and a much gentler hug for Bella.
"Boy, aren't you the lucky one," said Selphie. "You get your friend and your girlfriend, but I gotta leave Irvine behind." She pouted. "You owe me one for this, Zell."
"What?" deadpanned Zell. "I didn't pick them, Xu did. I didn't even make any recommendations, I don't have the rank. I just happen to know lots of really good people!" and he grinned happily. Bella blushed fiercely and pretended she hadn't heard, but Georg beamed; Zell was his Instructor.
"The only place a small plane has a chance of refueling south of FH is Winhill," said Selphie, getting back on track. "And that's way out of the way, to the west. Rinoa are you sure the plane flew south?"
Rinoa nodded. "Positive. I've always had a good sense of direction," she said. "The plane flew straight south."
Selphie shook her head in disbelief. "The only place that plane could hope to land is Centra, on a straight south course," she said. "And there's nothing there. No cities, no stations, nothing."
"It may be a decoy, then," said Zell. "If it flew straight it could be autopiloted and empty, they could let it run out of fuel and crash."
"It would also be a perfect place to hide," said Rinoa. "We really can't tell for sure which it is until we find the plane, or its wreckage."
"Or Quistis gives us a definite report on the transport," offered Selphie. "We'll just have to start combing Centra for signs of wreckage or an installation."
Much as she wanted to be the one to find Squall, Rinoa had to hope that he had been taken on board the transport. The transport was slower, and easier to track and keep track of.
Quistis carefully set her pen down. She'd noted everything useful Rinoa had had to say, but she still wanted to strangle the girl.
She couldn't help but think that if Squall had fallen in love with a SeeD this would be much, much easier. How could Rinoa have not noticed them hauling away her partner?
Quistis got a grip on herself. Just because she couldn't have Squall, that was no reason to take it out on Rinoa. It had always been Squall's choice; Rinoa would not have had a chance if Squall had not wanted her. And she couldn't help having had a family, any more than she, Quistis, could have helped being an orphan. And it was plain the girl was trying, at least. But now there were two options to explore, possibly more, in determining which way the abductors had gone.
She got the transport ship. It had not docked at any port; it had beached along an uninhabited stretch of Galbadian coastline. Her mission was to make sure Squall was either recovered from it or conclusively proven to have never been on it.
Her mission. Yes. That made it easier. Just think of it as a standard mission, and everything will be fine. She'd be no use to Squall if she couldn't think straight.
There was no sign of exit from the ship; no soldiers had left. This was probably because they'd seen Garden bearing down on them. Word of Timber might have spread among the Galbadian troops by now. Or they could just be waiting for a good moment to attack.
Thinking of that, Quistis turned to Xu. "Think we should send the cadets in again?" she asked.
Xu shook her head. "The SeeDs are chafing; we're not under contract here, we're on a rescue mission. And I for one want to make sure this is done right the first time."
Quistis smiled. "I was hoping you'd see it that way," she said. "Proving a negative is so hard if you miss the first opportunity. And we have to face the possibility that he might not be here."
Xu checked the scans of the ship. "They haven't left, but we see no signs of weapons. It's just a carrier, they usually rely on other ships for protection. What are they waiting for?"
Quistis increased the magnification of the scans. Seeing a dust cloud rising in the distance, she said, "Probably that."
"We're on green fields here," said Xu worriedly. "To kick up a cloud like that it's big. We'd better move in now, to have control of the transport by the time they arrive."
"Selphie's on the Ragnarok," said Quistis, "But I'm not such a bad shot myself. I'll back you up from here."
Xu nodded and left the bridge, off to grab some SeeDs and get them out there. It took about fifteen minutes, and then Quistis saw Xu leading a contingent of about two score SeeDs to the transport. In a matter of moments they'd managed to break the steel doors open. There was no resistance.
The dust cloud resolved into tanks. Where did Galbadia get the money for so many tanks? It didn't matter. Quistis powered up the weapons array, leveled the guns in the direction of the tanks. Just a little closer....
"Galbadian military to Balamb Garden. Galbadian military to Balamb Garden. Do you copy Balamb?"
Quistis blinked. They wanted to talk? Quickly she flicked the transmitter to life. "Balamb Garden here, this is Headmaster Quistis."
"Colonel Shrowid here, for General Caraway," came the reply. "We'd like to know how you found our defectors and what you're planning to do with them."
Well. That answered one question.
"Colonel Shrowid, these soldiers were involved in the abduction of our previous Commander not long ago. We are attempting to ascertain his whereabouts."
There was a scuffle at the other end of the line, then a new voice said, "Quistis - they took Squall? Is Rinoa all right? This is Caraway."
"General Caraway, Rinoa is fine. She is assisting in the search elsewhere. What can you tell us about these soldiers and why aren't they fighting?"
"About a week ago a bunch of soldiers who'd served directly under Seifer took off without warning. We've been searching for them, or word of them, ever since. We got word from FH yesterday that Galbadian soldiers were seen in FH," and the tone of his voice implied FH had been quite vocal about it, "so we started searching around here. When we saw Garden we were sure they were involved. And it looks like we were right."
Quistis watched as the SeeDs methodically brought the soldiers out, hands tied behind their backs. Very few looked to have put up any kind of a fight. This made no sense at all. "Why aren't they resisting capture, General?" she asked.
"Because if they resist they will be executed for treason. This way, some will be discharged, and some will probably end up in therapy. I won't believe a word of it, but regulations say if they're coerced by magic they can't be discharged. It's a difficult claim to disprove." Caraway sounded like he would personally make any soldier using that tactic regret the decision.
Another comlink flashed, and Quistis opened it to hear "We've got all the soldiers," from Xu. "Little resistance, no sign of Squall as yet. I'll check the logbooks. What news on the military?"
"Seems they're on our side," said Quistis. "These guys are defectors."
There was a pause, then Xu said, "Think they'd mind if we roughed them up a bit? They're showing no signs of enchantment, and I think we can pry a few useful answers out of them."
"Be my guest, so long as you're done before the military arrives. About ten minutes is what you've got."
The sun was setting.
Garden and General Caraway had tried everything that was legally possible to find out what the soldiers knew. This was not a lot. The logbooks clearly showed where Squall had been taken - the coordinates matched those provided by Selphie and Zell as the scene of a large fight - but after that was accomplished, the ship had simply returned to Galbadia. The soldiers' original plan had been to land in the middle of nowhere and disperse. When Garden found them too soon, they had decided to sit tight rather than fight their own, or draw Galbadia into a war with Garden.
Which actually spoke well of them. Quistis was surprised that these men would have considered the implications of their actions so far ahead.
All that they had been able to learn was that Seifer had called in personal favors from these men. He had wanted them to fight the Sorceress - but not kill her. They were only to keep her busy, and separate her from Squall. Seifer had said he would take care of the rest. A small handful of soldiers admitted to seeing Squall and Seifer duel, and to having shot Squall with darts provided by Seifer while the duel was going on. They had then loaded Squall onto a plane, and called the order to retreat.
That was all they knew. They did not know why he had been taken, or where he had been taken to. Or even what strength the darts had been, what had been in them, or for certain how many had hit Squall.
Caraway found out that none of them had managed to injure Rinoa, and for that he was grateful. He asked to speak to Rinoa, but Xu replied that Rinoa was a SeeD now, and on assignment, so that would not be possible. Quistis held back a chuckle at that; she was sure Rinoa would be very happy to learn that SeeD discouraged parental visits for those few who actually had parents in the first place.
Every inch of the transport was investigated for hidden logbooks or other compartments by Quistis, personally. There was nothing untoward; not even a few pieces of smuggled contraband.
Squall had not been on board.
Quistis gave Caraway permission to herd his defectors away to the trials that awaited them, and Xu herded the SeeD back into Garden.
They had lost three days searching a dead end.
Rinoa felt like she was going crazy.
Word had come from Quistis two days ago that Squall could not have been on the transport. While this meant that they were on the right track in hunting the plane...the downside was that there was no sign of it.
The first order of business had been to investigate every city south of FH where a small plane might refuel. They needed to make sure that it had indeed flown to Centra before beginning a hunt of that continent. All landing strips were required to record the ID bars of any plane making use of the facilities, noting where they came from, how long they stayed, and where they went.
This had proven fruitless, and they'd lost two days doing it. If the Ragnarok hadn't been the fastest ship currently functioning on the face of the earth, it would have taken much longer. It was hard to consider this as the positive thing it was. Then Quistis had proven the transport ship was in the clear, and they'd all headed for Centra. Garden would search the coastlines, and Ragnarok would overfly the continent in a search pattern.
There had been no signs of any habitation. Centra was a monster-ridden wasteland, only just beginning to recover from the Lunar Cry that had devastated it so long ago. However, there did seem to be signs of life. At least, there was rather more greenery around than on their last visit, even if it was in patches.
"Hey, Selphie, bank right for a minute willya?" said Zell, staring out the window. "I think I saw something move down there."
Selphie obediently entered a downward clockwise spiral, straightening out again lower to the ground. She saw what Zell was looking at; one of the ever-present monsters. "Just another monster, Zell," she said sadly. "Did you want me to blast it?"
"Nonono, LOOK at it willya?" he said, starting to sound excited. When he noticed Selphie was paying more attention to her flying he left her alone and grabbed Rinoa. "Do YOU see it?" he demanded.
Rinoa blinked. She did. The creature - one of the floating types, but she'd forgotten its name just then - was badly injured. There were no signs of claw marks or other monster attacks, but the creature was clearly injured and was flying erratically.
"Any of you guys know how long one of those whatevers can fly while injured?" she asked.
"Not a clue," said Zell. Selphie didn't answer, she was busy getting the Ragnarok back up to search height. But Georg spoke up.
"About a day, I think," he said. At that moment, something hit the hull hard and Selphie pulled up and turned.
"We're under attack!" she said. "Hang on, I'll sort it out. It's probably whatever injured your monster."
Another strike, this time against one wing. Selphie yelled "Hang on!" and sent Ragnarok into a barrel roll to keep control. "That's it, this monster is toast," she growled. "Shooting at my ship!"
But she lost her bluster as she saw her attacker, stumbling out of the rocks, aiming blasts of water at the ship.
It was Squall.
Selphie frantically radioed Garden. "Quistis, this is Selphie. We found him! Stay away, you hear me? Keep Garden fifty kliks from this location until we say otherwise, you got it? Squall is attacking Ragnarok. Repeat, Squall is attacking Rag-"
She got interrupted as another water strike pushed the front of Ragnarok upward. "All right, any ideas? I'll keep us up as long as possible, but he's a damn good shot and I don't dare fire back or lose him."
"The hell's he think he's doing?" said Zell. "And where did he get a GF to use magic?"
"They've had him long enough that maybe they enchanted him or something, maybe?" offered Rinoa, grasping at straws. "Squall wouldn't attack his friends."
"No, of course not," said Zell automatically. "He's just shooting at us because he likes us so much. Of course he wouldn't attack us if he's himself. But how do we rescue him if he's shooting at us?"
The whole ship - excepting Selphie, who was busy with her aerial acrobatics - turned as Bella spoke up. "We could make him sleep," she said.
"You got a handy sleep grenade?" tossed back Selphie.
"We're gonna have to land the Ragnarok and take our chances on the ground," said Zell.
"Maybe you oughta take a look at the dents that little water shot has put in our hull before you say that," said Selphie. "The force in that strike is incredible."
"You said it yourself, we can't stay up forever," replied Zell. "We don't have a chance of bringing him down without killing him if we use Ragnarok. I've got every GF Garden could spare. I'll hand 'em out, and we can try to knock him cold or something."
"Junction water to elemental defense if you can," said Rinoa. "He hasn't used any other attack but that water strike."
"Yes, mother," teased Zell, but he grinned. He clasped arms with the others in the ship, transferring the Guardian Forces he held. When he came to Rinoa, she demurred. She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them her eyes glowed. The faintest outline of wings became visible behind her.
"I'm set, Zell. You guys take care of yourselves." Her voice held odd harmonics when she gave herself over to her power. Almost as though she were two people.
"Found a spot we can land," said Selphie. "Hang on, this will be rough. We haven't got a lot of time before he can find us, and I don't dare land farther away and risk losing him." Immediately, the Ragnarok took a steep dive.
The landing was indeed rough. The only one to manage without a bruise was Selphie herself. Quickly they opened the hatch and ran out. A few quick glances behind them proved Selphie's point. Where the ship had been hit, the hull had been almost punched through.
The rocks were silent. The five companions tried to listen for any sign of Squall and heard none. Selphie pointed in the direction she'd last seen him. The rest nodded and set out along that line. They didn't want to split up; there was no telling what would happen if only one of them, alone, came upon Squall in his current state.
Rinoa wasn't sure how she knew, but all of a sudden she grabbed the two SeeDs nearest her - who happened to be Georg and Bella - and dropped to the ground. Immediately a water strike hit the rocks where they had been. Selphie and Zell took the opening and leaped in the direction the strike had come from.
Squall showed no signs of recognizing any of them, even Rinoa. He was carrying LionHeart, but hadn't drawn it. Instead, he leaped at Zell in one incredible jump, apparently intent on flattening him. Zell simply stepped aside and let Squall punch a rock. They all heard the crack as his fist hit the stone. Given that the rock now also had a crack, they could not tell whether the blood on his gloves meant his hand had also broken. He didn't seem to notice it. Bella threw shuriken at him, trying to incapacitate him.
They sliced through his clothes and stuck, but again Squall seemed oblivious to the fact.
Selphie tried casting Sleep on him, but it had no discernible effect.
Zell and Georg nodded to each other, and ganged up on him - one to each side so that Squall could not hope to dodge both.
Rinoa could not bear the idea of seeing Squall beaten bloody - and by his own friends yet. She gave herself over to the Sorceress within, and white wings spread from her back. With the speed only a Sorceress had, she flew right at Squall and picked him up before Zell and Georg's blows could land.
She had expected that Squall would try to fight her the way he had the others. But at Rinoa's touch, his eyes closed and he went as limp as a rag doll. Rinoa circled back and landed with her friends, her wings disappearing and her eyes reverting to normal as she did so. Her breath came in gasps. She had not exerted so much of her power at once in some time.
The silence was deafening.
Selphie peeled away the glove that was slick with blood. Underneath it was unquestioned that Squall had broken the bones in his hand with the punch meant for Zell. Carefully she removed the shuriken and returned them to Bella. Pulling bandages and splints from her medical kit, she did what she could for his injuries. When they were bound as well as she could, she raised her eyes calmly to Rinoa.
"I hope you can tell me what you did," she said.
Rinoa shook her head. "I didn't do anything," she said. "I picked him up, but I expected him to attack me just like you guys. He just went all limp. I didn't cast a thing on him. I wasn't thinking...I just didn't want him to get hurt."
"Uh, maybe you might want to cast something on him?" said Zell. "Unless you want to carry him to the Ragnarok..."
In her current state Rinoa wasn't sure she could get herself back to the Ragnarok, never mind carry Squall there. She nodded, and called a Sleep spell down on Squall's inert body. To her surprise, Zell took him from her.
"I'm strong enough to carry him," said Zell quietly. "And I don't think he'd mind me." Rinoa could only nod, at a loss for words.
It was a very solemn group that made its way back to the Ragnarok.