Carolin observed with interest as Squall watched over Rinoa's bedside. Like Jian, she'd gotten to know the young man pretty well after he'd freed them from the lamp.
One of the things she knew was that he was very careful about his appearance - always neat. But this morning, he wasn't. Rinoa had done something - neither of them were quite sure what, as they'd only popped in when Squall put Griever on again - and now she was lying injured and unconscious in the Infirmary. Squall was tired and rumpled, but his eyes never left her face as he held her hand.
Something about his attitude caught Carolin's attention. He hadn't looked quite like this when Rinoa had been unconscious before. Then, he had seemed confused, desperate. Now he was wounded. She felt a surge of sympathy from Jian, and turned to look at him.
He looked at Squall as one looks at a person going through a hell they've already visited themselves. Not pity - understanding and sympathy. "We should go, my lady," he said softly. "Wait until she recovers - she's a Sorceress, so it shouldn't be too long. He is a private sort and would want to be alone with her."
Carolin agreed, but not for that reason. The tone of the murmuring of Jian's thoughts in her head was telling her that the sight of the unconscious Sorceress bothered him. Once out of the couple's metaphorical sight, she confronted him on it.
"Jian, why do they affect you so? Squall doesn't hold our junction anymore, yet you insisted we keep an eye on him. Will you explain this to me?"
Jian, if anything, seemed hurt by the question. "Milady, he loves her. He is her Knight, and he loves her. And he doesn't know how to tell her, even though he knows she loves him. I suppose, in a way I envy him."
"Why should you envy him, Jian? You make no sense."
Jian's face twisted for a moment, and in that moment Carolin picked up a flash of pure hurt from him - as though she had wounded him. "Always you ask me questions to which you should already know the answers, milady. We've been together for centuries, and never once have you listened to my thoughts unless you had a question you wished me to answer." He turned away from her then. He'd taken to wearing a crimson silk cape in recent months, and it flared a little with the violence of his movement. "I envy him, because while his Sorceress can't know how he feels, at least she has reason for not knowing. He hasn't brought their bond to life. She can't sense his emotions, his thoughts. Lady Carolin, I hear your thoughts just as you hear mine, but unlike you I listen to what I hear. It's not noise to me. I know everything about how you feel. I know how you've felt about everything we've encountered, everything we've done together. And you know next to nothing about me. I walk in your mind, but you don't listen to me. And I've never made you listen to me either. I know how easily you come to feel trapped, how you resent this existence. Yes, I envy Squall. He may not be able to say the words, but at least he loves a Sorceress who loves him back."
Carolin was surprised. "Jian, I was respecting your privacy. I am very surprised to find you don't respect mine. We became Diablos because it was either that or die. Of course I didn't read your thoughts. You helped to save my life; to ask more is an imposition."
Her answer didn't mollify Jian in the least. "Carolin, Lady, it is obvious that you never asked why I wanted to throw away everything I'd ever known to go running after a wild Sorceress in the first place. I can't break our bond, not while we're junctioned to the Garden, but since you wish to be left alone then that is how I will leave you. Perhaps distance will let you have the privacy you so desire." With a rather indignant flare of his cape, he disappeared.
He was right. His thoughts in her mind dimmed to the faintest of whispers, that any noise at all - including her own thoughts - would drown out. She was as alone as she might ever be and yet be sane. She walked back in to the Infirmary and watched a relieved smile flicker across Squall's face as Rinoa awakened, followed them as they returned to her room.
Something about these two had set Jian off. She would watch them and find out what it was.
Over the next few days, Carolin watched Squall and Rinoa constantly. Their relationship was very strange, from her point of view. It was obvious that Rinoa doted on her Knight, but the only evidence he usually gave of returning the affection came in rare, private, unguarded moments when his expression softened as he watched her, or stroked her cheek as she slept. Why did she put up with it? Jian never would have been so rude to her as Squall was to Rinoa - well, before he left anyway. They seemed to have a set quota of arguments a day, though they sounded more like intellectual debates than heated catfights. He was teaching her, it seemed, about his career. After sundown, Rinoa started teaching him about Knights.
Carolin enjoyed listening to those lessons. It would have been very nice if she could have taught Jian about what she felt Knights should do, rather than have to rely on him to understand the job himself. But Rinoa seemed to be honest, and told Squall nothing that Carolin knew to be untrue about the role. Squall didn't really defend Rinoa, she found. Rather, he did his best to put her in a position to be able to defend herself, not relying on him at all. That approach was one she was sure Jian didn't share.
She was joined before long by another Guardian Force - and she was careful to be respectful, for it was Bahamut.
"Greetings, Diablos-Sorceress," they said. "We have a duty to perform. You would be wise not to interfere."
"Wouldn't dream of it," she replied lightly. "I'm just watching, anyway."
"Indeed," said Bahamut, with a reptilian laugh. "Diablos-Sorceress, you put your hand in the briar patch and do not even notice the thorns that draw your blood. Watch as we prepare the road to the future where we are free." The two reached out with their power then, and touched Squall as he slept. "A millennium hence we cast your dreams, o once and future leader."
Grinning almost maliciously, the oracular Guardian Force gave a nod of acknowledgment to Carolin and left. Squall began to toss and turn, his sleep uneasy until a wakened Rinoa touched him to calm him down.
Carolin frowned. For Squall to be a leader in a thousand years, he would have to become one with Rinoa. A new Guardian Force. And she'd gotten the impression that doing that was rare. She'd seen enough - to watch these two was just to hear yet another justification for this joined state that seemed so confining.
"Why didn't you stop them?" asked a woman's voice. Startled, Carolin turned around to face a shade that bore a strong resemblance to Squall.
She was being addressed by ghosts now? The shade was plainly afraid, but determined. "Why didn't you stop them hurting him like that?" she repeated.
Carolin frowned. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"I'm Raine," said the shade. "I'm Squall's mother. I know about you - you're the Guardian Force my son freed from that lamp. I thought that might mean you'd protect him, but I guess not." She seemed a little upset about that.
"His mother?" asked Carolin, surprised. "Would my own parents be here then?"
"Probably," said Raine. "If you look for them. Why are you watching my son, if you won't protect him?"
Carolin watched the Sorceress and Knight, the one's arms wrapped around the other in sleep. "Jian - my Knight - is affected by them. I was wondering why, so I watch them."
Raine nodded. "I've seen him around. He's a good man, I think. Good heart." She spoke as one who knew this implicitly.
"You think so? He doesn't respect my privacy at all. He admitted to reading my thoughts, constantly!"
Raine took a perch on a handy rock, fairly at ease since the presence of a Guardian Force kept away other spirits. "Diablos...have you ever taken a good look at the men in the world? I mean, in a relationship sense?"
"No," said Carolin firmly. "I lived in a fairly small settlement, and I was only sixteen in any case. I had to stay away from them in case they realized I was a Sorceress."
Raine leaned forward. "Maybe you should take that look, sometime. I've known lots of women who wasted their lives looking for their idea of perfection. There's no such thing as a perfect woman, so why should there be a perfect man?" She nodded down at the tent where her son and his Sorceress slept. "Take these two. Rinoa's flighty, optimistic to the point of being unreal, and has a nasty tendency to get manipulative under pressure. If I had to deal with her every day, she'd probably drive me crazy. But my son loves her - so much so that I think he'd probably die for her. And I love him dearly, but my boy couldn't understand romance if you handed him a manual with colored full-size diagrams. Still, she loves him anyway."
"And your point is?" asked Carolin, a little coldly.
"My point is, O Divine One, that you're looking for something that doesn't exist - and while you're looking you're ignoring something very good that /does/. I've seen your Knight, Diablos. He loves you the way my boy here loves Rinoa - with every fiber in his being. Love's not that common a commodity in this world, that you should throw it away without considering what you're doing. You may not love him in a fireworks-in-the-sky sort of way, but you should at least open yourself to the possibility before you send him away."
She hopped down off her rock. "You can probably banish me if you've a mind to," she finished forthrightly, "but you strike me as a fairly intelligent person. I don't think you'll take out your fury at the message on the messenger."
"You are right," said Carolin, thoughtfully. "But - if I may ask...how do you come to be here? Squall is young yet."
Raine grimaced. "Right to the point," she said. "If it helps you...I was in labor, and they said they could save me - or him," and she waved a hand at the tent, "and I said save him. The medics were as good as their word; they saved him. They couldn't save me too, but it was my choice. I suppose technically that makes me a suicide."
"Then my parents were suicides too," said Carolin firmly. "They died so I could live, when monsters attacked our house." She looked up for a moment, meeting Raine's serene blue-gray eyes. "I think you have helped me, Raine. Thank you."
Raine just waved her hand at the tent. "Anytime you need me, look for him. I'm never far. Thanks for hanging around, by the way. A protective Guardian Force is much more effective than just a protective mother."
Carolin nodded her acceptance of the offer, and took off to look for Jian. There were things she needed to know. Again - but perhaps this time it wouldn't bother him to answer her.
Carolin had no luck finding her Knight for a long time - he had an entire world to make himself scarce in, after all. After a few days of feeling him distance himself whenever she got even remotely close, she simply chose a scenic spot and stayed put.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the spot she chose was Timber. It was a far cry from the mere huddle of log houses she had known before the Joining, but it was still a provincial town and looked it. If she concentrated, she could remember the old placement of buildings and streets - overlaying the old map on the new to see exactly what had changed.
Neither her home nor the Lion's compound survived. Not that it surprised her. Both had been rather significantly distant from the settlement's center, and when the Lion was blinded and the Squires scattered, it was probably taken as a sign of ill fortune. Which it had been, just not for the populace in general.
Her parent's graves were completely overgrown. Only because she knew exactly where they had been was she able to detect the slight bulge where the plant growth had slowly broken down the headstones. She took a seat on that bulge; it was as good, and as private, a spot as any.
Jian's complaint had been that she never listened to his thoughts but only tuned them out. Evidently the reverse was still not true, for he could tell when she grew nearer to him and would distance himself again. But if he could still make out her thoughts in his mind, then she should be able to hear the whispers of his wishes in her mind as well. This place was quiet. Hopefully, quiet enough to hear the whispers.
He was...pained. Not physically. Even listening strongly, he was far enough away that she couldn't make out the words of his thoughts. Something was affecting him, but not affecting him personally.
She grinned. There were only two people that she knew of that he cared about besides herself. One was the old Lion, and she didn't think the old Knight was really able to hurt Jian's feelings any more. He'd gotten all of that out of his system years ago.
That just left the young Lion, as Bahamut had put it. The one who'd indirectly set this all off in the first place. She could locate any mortal she could see - and if Jian could see Squall, then so could she. She was just about to wish herself there when the whole tenor of Jian's mood changed.
There was a brief flash of startlement, then the already quiet surges of emotion quieted even more.
Curiosity got the better of her. It had better be Squall he was reacting to. If it wasn't, Carolin had no idea where to look for him. She wished herself /there/.
Jian was startled to see her, that was certain. She got a dose of startlement herself when he immediately grabbed her arm and she felt his will conceal them. Even spirits wouldn't see them now.
"My lady, you picked a bad time to start listening to me," he said quietly and not very friendly. "There are evil people in this world. Did you feel the junction shift?"
Carolin blinked. "You aren't reading my thoughts?" At his positively venomous glare, she backed up. "Right. Yes, I felt the junction shift. But we haven't been summoned yet, so I doubt it matters. Jian, I realize you're angry with me so I won't assume I have the right to read your thoughts unless you give some sign it's all right. Okay?"
The anger faded from Jian's face somewhat. "All right," he said. "But not here. I'm not setting foot in this little hell-pit again unless I'm summoned to bring the ceiling down on it. How does Timber sound?"
She smiled, though she was still more than a little puzzled at his shift in attitude. "Timber's fine. I was just there myself."
"I know," he said, and wished them there.
"Now, suppose you tell me - since you don't want me to listen more directly - what you want with me. Got another question for me, I suppose?" Jian let her arm go abruptly, standing some distance away from her with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword under his cape.
Carolin wondered if he knew it was a pose he'd picked up from watching Squall so much, but decided not to ask. By the sound of it, she would only be allowed one question. And really, she only had one. Its answer would probably give her the answers to all the others in her head. She nerved herself, and asked it.
"Jian, do you love me?"
She wasn't sure what she had expected him to do, or say, but crying hadn't been on the list. But that was what he was doing - he wasn't even trying to blink them away, but let them flow from beneath closed lids.
His voice was unsteady as he said, "You may be the only person on this world who has to ask that." He leaned back against an old building as if willing it to keep him upright. "I stood up to the Lion for you - a leader I loved. I even fought the bastard for you. I ran away from the only friends I had - the only family I had, the Lion my father and the Squires my brothers - all for you. I joined you in that damn lamp for Hyne only knows how long rather than let you die. I have listened to your thoughts and dreams and done my best to give you as happy a life as I can, even if it meant dropping everything I was doing because you chose to go somewhere too close to me, where my thoughts might otherwise intrude on your peace."
"And you - you - ask whether I love you." He opened his eyes then, dark earth-brown brimming with tears yet unshed. "Since you must want a simple answer, it's yes. Practically from that first day at the stream. Not that I've ever been more to you than a tool to use, but at least you're alive to do the using. I'll take what I can get."
Carolin really couldn't think of an answer to all of that, and wasn't actually sure she should try. Instead, she decided to use the bond between them - the bond that Jian had kept strong more or less on his own, preventing Diablos from weakening. Jian heard her more easily than she heard him, simply because he was more open to doing so. To get you had to give, and he had always worn his heart on his sleeve. She simply had never bothered to notice. If she opened her mind to listen, really listen to his thoughts, she would hear more in his words than mere vocal cords could express.
It wasn't the easiest step in the world for her to take, but she didn't want Raine to be right. She didn't want to have thrown love away without even knowing it was there.
So she would know it first, and then decide. Touch made the bond stronger; she took Jian's hands in hers. She opened her mind to him, and let herself drown for the first time in soft brown eyes.
Jian's colors were crimson and gold, sunshine and the bright blood of the heart. Or the colors of flame, if you wanted to look at it that way. They were eminently appropriate either way, as Carolin was overwhelmed by Jian's thoughts and emotions. He'd never hidden them from her - he'd never needed to. In her own version of independence, she'd refused to look or listen - until now. There was no darkness in Jian at all. Wounds did not scar him any more than a blade could scar a candle flame. They were transient things, and did nothing to dim the golden brightness. The scarlet of bright heart's blood was love, deep and passionate and soft as feathers. Most of Jian's world was Carolin - how to protect her, and to keep her happy. And a small, guiltily selfish joy that he was Joined with her.
Had she done this sooner, the darkness of the lamp-prison would have been nothing at all. To those with eyes to see, Jian's spirit practically glowed like a small sun.
It was enough to break a heart, for Carolin knew she did not love Jian. There had been no time for courtship in the jungles of Timber, no time for her to learn to reach out as anything other than a comrade, a friend. Their mental states were almost locked at the time of their Joining - Jian had managed to fall in love with Carolin in the space of a few days or weeks, but that had been when they were human. For Carolin to grow into love, now that they were a Guardian Force, would take centuries. And Jian had known this would be the case all along, simply accepting her lack of love as the price for her life.
So you decide at last to open your eyes, my Sorceress? he asked.
Doesn't it hurt to love when it isn't returned?
A ripple of wry laughter. It might have, if we were merely human and could easily change, my lady. You can't help that you're slower to love than I am. I console myself with the hope that, now your eyes are open, you'll grow to love me. We can't help what we are, my lady. Why cry over it? It isn't as though I'm uncompensated for my efforts. I hear your thoughts and dreams in my mind every second of every day. That's more than many lovers ever get to share.
You just did, though. Cry, I mean. Don't do that again, all right?
As long as you quit asking me questions to which you should already know the answers, certainly. Lady, I can accept that you don't love me. What hurts is thinking you might not like me, even enough to listen to my thoughts in your mind. That what I endured to save you might have given you a fate worse than death. He wrapped his arms around her then, an affectionate but loose embrace. Always, he was careful not to cage her.
They stood like that for an undefinable while, in a state not unlike the dream they'd shared when sleeping in the Lamp. This time, though, the balance was different. Before, Jian had dominated the dream since he heard both Carolin's thoughts and his own. Now it was equal, as each explored the other's thoughts, emotions, and memories. The first great Ripple only barely intruded on their consciousness.
The second Ripple was unignorable, though. The power of it sent a psychic wind through the eternal realm that blew wildly through their hair, tugging heavily at Jian's crimson cape.
It had come from the northeast. Esthar. Working as one, Diablos wished itself /there/.
Seen from this side of life, the shift from mortal to Guardian Force was a little bit different. Squall and Rinoa were becoming real to Diablos' eyes. More present, and their eyes glowed whitely as they shifted from human to the glowing amber-gold cat's-eyes of Griever. They were visibly stronger now, radiating power that greatly surprised Diablos. For a moment or two, a translucent image of their Guardian shape hovered in the air around them, then it took Zell's hand and disappeared.
The Guardian Forces had a new leader, Diablos knew. The psychic wave that radiated outward from this pair's entry to the ranks of Guardian Forces was far stronger than any they had ever felt. Even Bahamut could not hope to stand against this power. Briefly, Diablos amused itself in wondering whether the oracular Guardian Force would even try, and whether it would be able to watch.
Jian, for his part, was delighted. Having spent many months in Squall's company, he trusted this new Force far more than Bahamut. Even Carolin agreed that this shift in power was probably to their benefit. So the two of them inclined their heads to Griever, and Jian said, "Welcome to our ranks, Griever. We are glad you chose to join us."
Squall and Rinoa shared a look. "Who are you, and how do you know us?" they asked together - and seemed almost surprised that they had. Jian and Carolin both smiled; this new Force had a lot to learn. At least they'd have an easier time of it. "We are known to you as Diablos, Griever," said Jian - as Carolin still didn't feel like talking much. "As to how we know your name, we remember you. We fought you, at the other end of time. And we know your Token of old."
Mentioning the future put both Squall and Rinoa on the defensive. She raised her hands, as if preparing a spell, and Squall put his hand to the hilt of his gunblade. "We want to change the future, Diablos. Are you here to judge us?"
"Would we have welcomed you here, if that were our purpose?" asked Jian/Diablos. "How do you plan on changing the future we both have seen?"
"By serving SeeD," said Griever. "If we serve them from now until Ultimecia's rising, perhaps we will be strong enough to resist her and save SeeD from destruction." They paused, sharing a look. "Diablos, would you be willing to work with us to that end?"
Carolin frowned; Jian understood her reluctance as being one of commitment to this state rather than working toward freedom. Thoughts flashed, then Jian returned his gaze to Griever.
"If we assist you, will you use your influence with your comrades to set us free?" asked Jian. "Truly free - no more junctions, either to humankind or the Garden?"
Rinoa looked at Squall; evidently this was his decision. His expression was positively forbidding as he mulled it over. "A compromise," he said at last. "We will work to set you free, but at a time when the world needs a Sorceress and her Knight. You will do what needs to be done, then separate or re-join as an independent creature when you've fulfilled that duty. Agreed? Garden needs all the power it can get - losing a Guardian Force would weaken it badly."
Carolin was agreeable to that, it seemed. She had a healthy respect for the power these two commanded, and like Jian she had faith that Squall would keep his word to them. It might be a long time before they were freed, but Squall would see to it that eventually they were. That was enough. Both of them nodded acceptance. Bahamut had spoken truly; all that the old Lion had caged, the young Lion would free. Jian grinned, and even Carolin managed a smile.
"Well, then, O Scarfaced One," said Jian cheerfully, "We'd better get you up to speed on the Guardian Forces. You've got a lot to learn, and the sooner the better."
Rinoa clapped a hand over her mouth to stop laughing, and Squall glared. Jian paused momentarily - but only momentarily. He knew Squall better than to think he would be attacked. He hadn't been kidding when he'd said Squall had a lot to learn, and Squall was wise enough to know it.
"That reminds us," he said companionably. "There's some people you probably ought to meet..."
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