He remembers Rinoa asking, Do you think well ever get old?
They were lying on sheets made damp and rumpled from their sweaty exertions, wordlessly relishing the afterglow. The air was thick and muggy. And he remembers how Rinoa, covered in a sheen of perspiration and still breathing a little heavily, had turned on her side and asked, Do you think well ever get old?
He was melting into a blissful unconsciousness and hadnt answered then. A small finger jabbed at his chest.
You even awake?
Hed groaned and shifted his weight. Mattress springs creaked. She scoffed lightly.
Huh, typical guy. Youd rather roll over and
In the end, its the memories that drive him to do it.
Hes standing on one of B-Gardens balconies, looking out at a moonless night and a black ocean hundreds of feet below him. His mouth is drawn in a thin, sallow line and his knuckles are white on the railing.
And the SeeD in him, the voice of calculated decisiveness and cool resolve, tells him not to do it, that he still has a long and distinguished career ahead of him, and that it would be such a pathetic waste. He knows to trust the SeeD in him. His SeeD instincts had saved him when his gunblade had been knocked from his grip and hed killed his attacker with his empty hands. Theyd served him when he was stranded behind enemy lines, and theyd saved him on patrol when hed come across a bend in a forest road that just didnt feel right.
But its the human being in him thats brought him to this. Its the raw, callow conscience that always seems to surface uninvited at the most inconvenient of times: Right before he breaks a mans neck with a muted pop, right after he opens a mans belly and sends his hot entrails cascading to the ground.
Its the warm-blooded human in him that bears the memories.
They burst in his mind like flashbulbs, each one a singular, unmercifully clear picture in his head. He remembers a ridge line coming alive with half a dozen muzzle flashes, and the Timber rebel next to him groaning and sinking to his knees in a slow, dreamy reluctance. He remembers lying prone in a chewed-up Winhill pasture with his cheek pressed hard against the dirt, fighting and clawing to make himself as low to the ground as possible while long white tracer rounds spat unconditional death a scant inch over his head. He remembers the wet pat-pat-pat-pat of blood dripping on a jungle leaf. He remembers a shorn-off lower leg still encased in a neatly-tied combat boot.
He remembers his friends, and their almost childlike innocence in the face of death. He remembers Selphie smiling and giving a thumbs-up, her cute face streaked in grime and sweat and someone elses blood. He remembers Irvine giving a wan smile as he field-stripped his rifle, squinting into the chamber and talking about the perfect headshot, the kind that results in a fine pink mist.
He remembers Rinoa, covered in a sheen of perspiration and still breathing a little heavily, turning on her side and asking, Do you think well ever get old?
And he remembers the day the fragile fantasy world he had carved out for the two of them came crashing down around him.
He remembers the briefing.
Dollet Dukedom was in turmoil. An agrarian revolt, theyd called it. A farmers rebellion. The politics of the situation did not interest him. But, because it was required knowledge, he knew that a farmer named Walgron had organized most of Dollets rural population into a loose faction, giving himself the honorific rank of Colonel. Dollet had called for SeeDs to put down the revolt.
And so that morning had found him sitting in an orange plastic chair, listening to Xu read a mission plan and trying to stay awake. He remembers Rinoa sitting next to him, her head on his shoulder as she slept. He remembers how her hair tickled the shell of his ear, and remembers thinking that he didnt care if Xu was headmaster of Garden because he could spend time with his friends. He could spend time with Rinoa.
He knew the mission plan already. Hed helped write it. He and Rinoa were to be designated Team One. After arriving in the staging area near Dollet, they were to link up with a local escort and drive towards the headquarters of the Dollet Liberation Front, where they would
kill or capture Colonel Walgron. Mr. Leonhart will ensure that the area is secure, while Ms. Heartilly will negotiate for the Colonels surrender. Team two will consist of Mr. Dincht, with support from elements of the Second Dollet Hussars. Zell was asleep. Xu continued anyway.
Team two, your main objective is a battery of one-oh-five millimeter artillery pieces located here. She pointed to an area on the wall map behind her. This battery is within range of Team Ones avenue of approach. Eliminating it will allow Team One to complete their objective. Team Three will consist of Ms. Trepe and Mr. Kinneas. Quistis was yawning and taking notes on a large yellow legal pad. Irvine looked lost without Selphie, who had been out of action with a broken collar bone.
Team Three will spearhead a diversionary attack with the Dollet House Cavalry right .here. She pointed on the map again. This should allow Team One to advance to their target without coming under fire from enemy infantry. Are there any questions?
There were never any. He remembers how theyd always memorized all the details of a battle plan before an assault, and how these morning briefings were little more than a wasteful formality. He remembers feeling that nervous mental itch he got before every mission, like a racing chocobo rearing to go at the starting gate.
And then Xu said, Good hunting, and they rose in a shuffle of chairs.
He remembers the stench.
He was standing in the staging area, a shoddy encampment of olive-shaded tents that the Dollet Army called a base. The scene before him was one of frenzied disorder. Soldiers in mustard-colored field coats hustled and darted everywhere. Overturned crates and smashed wooden pallets choked the narrow corridors in between tents. Wounded men on canvas stretchers shouted and screamed and cursed and whimpered as they were carried into a makeshift field hospital. The staging area might have been the site of a lush green meadow at one point, but thousands of boot-clad feet had torn away all traces of grass, leaving a vast sea of mud. The brown sludge clung stubbornly to the soles of his shoes, and he felt like he was being sucked into the ground with every step.
Their ride was nowhere to be seen.
He was scanning the crowd with squinted eyes when the breeze picked up and the smell hit him. He nearly gagged. The air was laced with the scent of diesel fuel and burning rubber, stinking mud and feces, and a subtle waft of charred human flesh and cooked fat. He leaned over, hands on his knees as he fought the urge not to spill his breakfast into the mud. He was making a conscious effort to avoid breathing with his nose when he felt a small hand on his back.
He looked up to see Rinoa staring at him intently. She looked woefully out of place among the messy panic, her clothes unsoiled and her hair and skin smelling faintly of lavender.
Lavender. She smells like lavender. He realized that the battlefield scent that had scathed his nostrils was gone.
Ill be fine. We need to find
I found our lift. Cmon.
And he found himself being led by the hand through the throng of scurrying bodies, over to where an open-topped jeep sat idling. A hairy giant of a man was sitting behind the wheel, and in the back a pale, lanky soldier stood next to a swivel-mounted machine gun that made him look insignificant in comparison. Rinoa introduced the driver and gunner as Sergeant Emrey and Private Jacks, respectively. Jacks, leaning on his machine gun, stared down at Rinoa as if she were a hot meal.
You must be our SeeDs! Out-STANDING! Emrey had to shout to make himself audible over the idling jeep, the bustle and clamor of the camp, and, he realized for the first time, the distant sound of gunfire.
He remembers the souvenir stand.
Theyd been driving for twenty minutes or so, using unpaved back roads to avoid the bulk of the fighting. He had his map out, holding onto the vehicles windshield frame with his free hand to keep himself steady against the jeeps rocking. Emrey had one burly hand wrapped around both his pistol and the steering wheel as he worked the gear shifter with the other. Rinoa was crouched in the back, arms around her legs, staring indifferently at the rolling grain fields speeding by. Emrey looked over at him and shouted above the growl of the engine and the rush of the wind.
Dont need that map, sir! I know just where were going! Delvar primary school! Ol rivals! We played them, kicked their motherfuckin asses! He laughed bellicosely into the wind, an open-mouthed, rollicking guffaw that was presently drowned out by the whop-whop-whop sound of approaching rotors. Squall looked overhead as a pair of the Gardens helicopters flew by, low and fast.
Teams two and three, right on time.
Yeah! Fuckin zoomers! Emrey threw a clenched fist in the air. Squalls gaze shifted down, following the helicopters towards
It was a broad clearing on the side of the road ahead of them. There were at least a dozen human corpses lying there in neat rows, spread out like slaughtered animals at a butcher shop. Bloated from the sun and natural decay, they were clad in the pale blue uniforms of the rebel Dollet Liberation Front.
A pair of Dollet Army soldiers was working their way down the rows of dead men, probing inside each corpses mouth with their slender bayonets. He saw one of them withdraw his knife and pull something out of the mouth of a corpse. He realized with a sudden wave of revulsion that they were cutting and collecting each rebels tongue.
Emrey had slowed down the jeep to a crawl as they passed by.
Think of it as a souvenir stand. You guys want a memento or something?
He forcibly tore his gaze away from the macabre spectacle.
Emreys leathery features twisted into an amused grin.
You sure? Maybe an ear, or
I fucking said keep driving. His own words surprised him.
I think we should keep going, Jacks echoed meekly from the back. Emrey sighed.
Whatever. Fuck, nobody can take a joke around here.
He remembers how, as the jeep sped off, an uncomfortable silence descended upon everyone. He remembers glancing back and seeing Rinoa looking off to the side speechlessly, her eyes wide and her skin white as a sheet.
He remembers Delvar primary school.
Emrey and Jacks had been having a colorful, mostly one-sided conversation about some of the gunner's more embarrassing encounters with women. When Emrey finally quieted, he knew they were getting close.
He remembers how the school itself looked fairly new. Red tile roofing complemented its bright concrete construction and wide plate-glass windows. But the war had kissed it in its own ugly way. The roof of the gymnasium had been caved in by an artillery shell, leaving a mess of twisted girders and cotton-white insulation. The charred frame of a truck sat in one of the parking spaces, the pavement around it scorched. A few of the windows had been smashed and boarded up. And there was a machine gun pit made of sandbags near the front doors.
Squall saw him before anyone else: A solitary rebel on the building rooftop, looking confused as he brought his weapon up to bear.
There was a sound like tearing canvas as Jacks opened up with the machine gun. The man on the roof was thrown back in a welter of blood, toppling out of sight.
The acrid smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils and there was a slight ringing in his ears. He had his hand on the doorframe, ready to step out, when Emrey pulled Jackss pant leg and pointed at the corner of the school. Sure enough, Squall heard the frantic beating of running footsteps shortly before two rebel soldiers rounded the corner and charged up the front walkway. Jacks fired again, a long, sustained burst that sent first one and then the other rebel dropping bodily to the pavement. Emrey was shouting something and waving his hand in a sideways motion, but his words were lost amid the weapons roar. Jacks kept hosing them even after they were down, and the new corpses quivered as tracer rounds lanced into them. Emrey grabbed the gunners pant leg again.
EASE FIRE. CEASE FIRE, GODDAMN IT. The roar stopped. The ringing in his ears was now deafening.
The bodies of the two soldiers were tattered and shredded, lying facedown on the walkway. He could see dark blood sliding smoothly out from under each of them, channeling in the cracks of the sidewalk. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and when he turned around he saw that Emrey was trying to tell him something. He could see the big mans lips moving, but was still too blast-deaf to make out what he was saying.
What? He leaned forward and cupped his ear with his hand.
said the rest is your job. Good luck.
He remembers a man named Foldger Walgron.
DROP YOUR FUCKING GUN, NOW! His voice reverberated in the tiny classroom.
Colonel Walgron, a slight, balding man in a powder-blue uniform, had a bewildered look on his face and a blunt double-barreled shotgun in his hands. The business end was aimed absently at Squalls midsection.
Wait a minute, wait a minute! His wild eyes darted from Squall to Rinoa and back again. I just wanna talk!
This isnt open for discussion. He held his gunblade in front of him, slowly edging forward. Walgron looked at the cold steel of the blade, and the color blanched from his face.
L-listen, if you kill me, someone else will take my place.
Please calm down. Were not here to kill you. But you have to come with us. Rinoa had both hands out in front of her, awkwardly trying to comfort the man. She carried no weapon.
Dont you get it? If you hand me over to them, theyll hang me! He was inching backward, brushing clumsily against the rows of tiny desks flanking him. A sudden inspired look crossed his face. What if What if I pay you or something? I my wallets on the
He remembers how it was all a matter of reflexes. He saw Walgrons finger twitch on the trigger. He lunged forward, triggered his gunblade, and swung, a powerful downward slash that laid open Walgrons chest, cleaving through clothes and skin and ribs and vital organs as if the man were made of butter.
Walgron reeled backwards in a tumult of flailing arms and shoved chairs, dropping his gun with a dull metal clatter. He managed to stagger all the way back to the teachers desk before he slumped to the floor with a low grunt. He drew breath in short wheezes. The blood billowed scarlet across the lower half of his uniform, gathering in a gradually spreading pool beneath him. He looked up at Squall with an expression that was half confusion and half disbelief, and then his eyes glazed over and he was dead.
Like any effective SeeD, he remembered his training.
Check the body. Clear the weapon. Move to the next objective.
There was no use checking to see if the colonel was deadhe could see well enough from ten feet awayso he stooped low and picked the dead mans gun up from underneath one of the desks. He flipped the breech open and pulled out both of the waxy shells, and a cursory glance at one of them showed that
Oh, you dumb bastard. You poor dumb bastard.
What is it? Rinoa, having found her voice, was peering at the cartridges and trying to make sense of the stamped markings. He offered one to her.
Its practice shot. For clay targets and stuff. Its non-lethal.
Hes back on the balcony now, sucking in his breath through clenched teeth. On a nearby stone bench lies a long rectangular case, fashioned in old, cracked leather and silver trim, rent and weathered from nine years of training and fighting and loving and killing.
He lets go of the railing and approaches it almost timidly, his steps lacking the confidence of the Squall everybody wants him to be, the deadly swordsman, the tactical prodigy, the born leader always ready with a plan and a way out. He knows that he is really none of these things, that these are just titles heaped on him by others, like when theyd all returned from slaying Ultimecia and the papers had given him a whole slew of tawdry epithets like The Sorceresss Bane. He knows that, at his core, hes just a kid with a sword and an ever-changing hit list.
He opens the box.
And he remembers being hunted.
Theyd come back outside to see Jacks slumped over his machine gun and Emrey shaking him anxiously. They were at the jeep in an instant.
Whats going on? he asked, a little out of breath and already knowing the answer. There was an exit wound in the middle of the gunners back.
I dunno, hes just fooling around. Emreys voice had a desperate edge in it. Cmon, Jacks. This isnt funny, man.
Rinoa shook her head, eyes cast downward.
I dont sense him. Hes gone. Im sorry.
It was just one shot. I dunno where it came from. You sure hes dead, miss? He cant be dead. I mean, he fakes injuries all the time.
Single shot, unknown enemy loca
Get down get down
He dove behind the jeep, pulling Rinoa with him. Emrey looked down at them, dumbfounded.
What? Whats the problem?
There was a sharp crack, and a bullet tore through the big mans shoulder. He jerked back as if hed been punched.
Emrey, get down now! He unwittingly had both of his arms wrapped around Rinoas head. She was squirming against him, trying to free herself from his grip. Emrey looked at his shoulder.
I Somebody shot me. He looked almost embarrassed. Ive never been shot bef
The next round blew out the back of his head in a wet explosion. His body fell to the ground in a cumbersome heap, his face and neck pressed awkwardly against one of the vehicles tires. There was a scream that he recognized as Rinoas.
His first thought was that Irvine had somehow wandered away from his operating area and had accidentally shot two Dollet soldiers.
He remembers the grim reality dawning on him, the sobering realization that it wasnt just a terrible accident and that somebody with a weapon wanted him to die.
His training did not fail him. The bleakness of the situation gave way to a detached calm. The tactical possibilities raced through his head in their dozens, sorting and filtering themselves with a mechanical deftness. The fire was coming from the other side of the jeep. There had been a considerable pause between shots, which likely meant the sniper had a bolt action rifle. If they dashed out at the same time, hed probably only pick off one of them before
No. Not going to happen.
Rinoa looked up at him, scared and trembling but trying to be brave. Her small mouth was set in a firm line.
So now what?
He knew the only real option, and it killed him to say it.
He remembers the escape plan.
The hour theyd spent huddled behind the jeep had crawled by slow and agonizing, hounded as they were by the promise of instant death lingering just beyond the vehicle. Emreys body lay where it had fallen, eyes and mouth still open in surprise. His blood had been spreading in a puddle gradually outward, forcing them to inch ever closed to the edge of their cover to avoid sitting in it. The sun was low in the sky.
Do you think its safe now? Maybe hes moved on. There was a tentative glimmer of hope in Rinoas voice.
This is going nowhere, he thought. Im going to get us out of this. Take charge, take charge.
He might have, but we have to assume hes still there. And we cant wait here forever.
She looked around. So, what do we do?
He knew in his head and in his gut what the best escape plan was. And as much as hed wracked his brain in the past hour, he couldnt think of any alternative.
Were going to run around the jeep and get in. Then Im going to drive us out of here. He remembers how simple he made it sound. You know its going to be dangerous. If you can think of any other way
She looked ashen, but shook her head. Im ready. Lets do this.
Wait for my signal.
Come on. Come on.
His feet were under him in a flash and he was out in the open and vulnerable. And then he was running. He was at the drivers side door in two lunging strides. A shot rang out. He dove behind the wheel, crouched low, and looked over at the passenger side, seeing an empty seat
The door opened and Rinoa jumped in, panting and wheezing and still alive.
Go go go
His hands flew over the ignition and the shifter and they peeled off in a screech of tires. There was another gunshot, and the windshield in front of his face shattered into a dense white spider web. There was a sudden, violent lurch as they ran over a curb, and he had to lean forward and cling to the wheel to avoid being heaved out of his seat. And then they were out of the parking lot, flying down the road fast and smooth and free.
All the tension of the past hour melted away, lifting a burden from his shoulders that had been laid when the first bullet had been fired.
And then there was a harrowing shriek that he briefly recognized as the sound of an incoming artillery shell, and a fountain of dirt erupted off to their left before collapsing. His ears rang.
What was that? She had her head down, the fear in her voice rising over the sound of the explosion and the roar of the engine.
Incoming. Hang on tight. Im going to drive through this.
This cant be right. Zell was supposed
Two more rounds screamed overhead and slammed into the ground. Cold earth showered onto them, slipping into his collar and moving down his neck and back. He squinted and floored the accelerator, driving through the barrage as if it were a hailstorm. He remembered a signals class hed taken when he was fifteen, and how the instructor had told them that the radio was the deadliest weapon on the battlefield. And how hed scoffed inwardly from the back of the room, knowing it couldnt possibly be true. And now, roaring through a hellish bombardment that shook him around like a rag doll and rattled his teeth in his skull, he knew his instructor had been woefully right. The rounds came faster and closer, and the rising columns of earth closed in on them like the jaws of some giant predator.
And in the back of his mind, he realized that the sniper theyd escaped from had probably called in their location, and because Zellthat fucking incompetenthadnt taken out those cannons, he was going to die, and there was no way around it. He was going to be as dead as Jacks and Emrey and Walgron, and it wasnt fair, wasnt remotely fair, because he couldnt even see the enemy and couldnt fight back, and Rinoa
Son of a
He remembers an ear-splitting explosion and a sudden jolt, more forceful than anything hed ever felt, and then he was being lifted bodily into the air like a toy thrown by a spoiled child. He remembers falling back towards the ground, how terrifyingly high in the air he had felt, and how the earth had rushed up to meet him. And he doesnt remember much of anything after that.
He remembers Rinoa.
Dust choked his throat, dry and chalky and mingling with something that tasted like copper. Blood. He propped himself up on his elbows and spat crimson, then ran his tongue along the front of his teeth, feeling for anything missing. His forehead was throbbing, and when he touched it tentatively there was a sharp sting and his fingertips came away red. The jeep was little more than a mangled wreck, twisted and crushed like an aluminum can. If they were going to make the rendezvous, he and Rinoa
He wishes he could forget that single hopeless moment when he turned her body over, forget how her face was a mess of blood and matted black hair and how her skin was covered in soot and dirt and angry red lacerations.
But he remembers that moment, and the next, when Rinoa had drawn a single breath, a shallow wheeze that told him she was still clinging to her life.
He remembered his training. He remembered the four lifesaving steps, drummed into his mind by years of rote memorization. Clear the airway, stop the bleeding, protect and bandage the wound, prevent and treat for shock. Clear the airway. Oh god Rinoa.
He moved with a feverish urgency, ripping clothing into strips and winding them tightly around the worst gashes. And when hed done all he could for her he knew it still might not be enough.
Mercifully, he doesnt remember the hours that followed with any real clarity. There were helicopters and shouting voices, and the grass around him swayed and rippled under the downwash of a landing chopper. He remembers sitting on the ground as they loaded Rinoa into the helicopter. He remembers Irvine, his arm in a white sling, walking towards him. And he remembers somebody, maybe Irvine or ZellZell!looking around in confusion and shouting, Where the hell is Quistis?
And he remembers sitting numbly on the riveted steel floor of the helicopter with his feet dangling over the side, watching the ground recede beneath him. And he doesnt remember ever feeling so lost.
Its an elegantly wicked work of craftsmanship, a masterpiece of the killing arts rendered in cold steel. Lying inert in the red velvet lining of the case, he can almost appreciate the beauty of the thing, the beauty of the sickeningly sharp blade and the finely honed firing chambers and the ornate engravings. Even though his gunblade represents something far, far from grace in his mind, the sight of it still draws a guilty pang of awe from him.
He lifts it gingerly from the velvet, and
And he remembers Dr. Kadowaki.
The dozen or so days since theyd returned from Dollet had blurred into bleary grey mess, two weeks of lost sleep and pacing in the night and aimlessly walking the halls of Balamb Garden. The world around him had moved on, but he regarded it with a dull awareness, as if it were passing landscape beyond the window of a train.
Theyd given up looking for Quistis shortly after the rebellion had died out. She wasnt in any prison camp, alive or dead, and so shed been given the permanently dubious status of Missing In Action. Hed sat through her memorial service as if it were another briefing.
Gardens tiny infirmary had been built and staffed to treat cuts and broken bones, not to provide the kind of care Rinoa needed. So theyd flown in top doctors from places as distant and exotic as Esthar. And they hadnt let him see her. Theyd explained, with that pragmatic tone doctors always took, that seeing her in her current state would scar him for the rest of his life. Theyd convinced him to at least wait until the surgeries were over, and hed abided by that concession with gritted teeth. In the meantime, hed familiarized himself with the terms theyd used to describe her, medical words that were as cold and alien to him as a knife in the gut. Unresponsive. Comatose. Vegetative state.
And then, nearly two weeks after hed held her body in a grassy field near Dollet, theyd called for him. And he remembers Dr. Kadowaki.
He was sitting in the waiting room and flipping through a dog-eared copy of a gardening magazine, looking at articles on tulips and azaleas and potting soil, looking but not reading. Kadowaki, clipboard in hand, had opened the door and beckoned him in. And he remembers following her down a short hallway, remembers the obnoxiously sterile smell of rubbing alcohol, the posters of circulatory and digestive systems lining the walls, and just as an apprehensive lump was rising in his throat, he walked through the door to her room and saw
She was propped up in the hospital bed by several pillows, and from a distance it might have looked as if she was just resting. He got closer. Her head was lolled to one side. And her eyes were open, but they were vacant as a porcelain dolls. And there was a scar on her head, a stitched black line that started just behind her right eye and disappeared into her hairline. And he thought for a second time that she might be dead, but the displays surrounding her were beeping periodically and This cant be Rinoa. It cant be.
He remembers sitting down heavily on a folding chair opposite her bed, remembers staring deliberately at the floor while Dr. Kadowaki told him everything. Rinoa should have been dead, shed explained. It baffled the team of doctors that she was still living, torn up as she was. And it might have been the Sorceresss magic in her that kept her alive, but they were men of science and they were skeptical. Theyd tried to fix her, tried to work their own brand of magic with scalpels and forceps and explorative surgery, but in the end they couldnt do much more than remove some shrapnel and sew her back up.
They couldnt make her Rinoa again.
He took all this with an odd, disconnected acceptance, the weight of it not fully sinking in. That would come later. Sitting in the hospital room then and there, he wanted to absorb all the details of Rinoas condition, as if he could pick up on something the doctors had somehow overlooked.
and so today we started allowing visitors. General Caraways coming, too. He should be here any minute.
More than anything, he didnt want to face Rinoas father. At least, not right away. And so hed made his excuses and retreated from the room, stalking down the hallway and away from Rinoa, his own cowardice stinging at the back of his mind.
He saw Caraway in the hall, anyway, his face lined and weary and his shoulders slumped. The medals on his breast pocket clinked with his steps. The general didnt say anything to him. But as he passed by, he fixed him with a stare, a narrow-eyed look that was as withering as a hail of bullets. And, squirming under the older mans gaze, he knew exactly what he was thinking. You killed her. You killed my baby girl. You knew she would have followed you anywhere, and so you led her into hell. He wanted to disappear, wanted to press against the wall or melt into the shadows and will himself out of sight.
And then his throat was tight and his skin was tingling, his face hot and flushed. He felt a wave of pressure rise from his stomach.
No no not here. Breathe. Breathe. Get to the bathroom.
His tongue was thick in his mouth and his breath came in spasmodic gasps. He knocked open the door to the mens room and staggered over to one of the stalls, and then he was on his knees in front of the toilet and everything came rushing back up.
He remembers teaching.
For weeks, he was little more than a ghost, traipsing around Garden without a purpose. He slept, what little sleep he could manage, but he always dreamt of that day in Dollet. He ate alone in the cafeteria, chewing his food as if it were cardboard. He sat on a couch in the student rec room for hours at a stretch, dully observing the comings and goings of nameless, faceless Garden cadets. And he stayed by Rinoas bedside, as frequently as he could bear, staring at her prone form and listening to the beeping of life-support machines.
He saw Zell on occasion, laughing and joking and flirting with girls in the hallway. And he remembers how the little asshole would always quiet down and avoid eye contact whenever he walked by. He knew.
He had neglected his own hygiene. His jaw line was softened with stubble. His clothes were rumpled, as if hed slept in themHad he?and there were dark circles under his eyes.
Eventually, the Garden staff had gently cajoled him back into working. It had started with Xu making an offhanded suggestion that teaching might give him something to do, might cheer him up. And then Irvine had shown up at his door to given him some prodding. And then, one afternoon, he found himself standing in the quad in front of his first class of cadets.
They were fourth-years, he remembered, most no older than nine or ten. From Gardens perspective, they were old enough to begin learning the trade of killing, but too young to begin training on a particular weapon. From his perspective, they would never be old enough for either. Though theyd been at B-Garden for years, they still looked like kids. Tousle-haired and freckle-faced, they looked up at him with eyes squinted in the sunlight.
They would all be killers in a few years. Little killers. Like hed been. He saw himself in their faces, and the dull self-hatred that had been lingering in his mind for a month turned into contempt for them. And he resigned himself to the monster inside of him.
Teach them. Teach them to be killers, he told himself with a wicked relish.
Good afternoon, class. Who can tell me the easiest way to break someones neck?
He remembered their confusion, remembered that the class was supposed to be about land navigation, remembered not giving a shit. Eventually, one cadet raised her hand.
Twisting the head, sir?
Close, but not quite. There was a hint of mocking encouragement in his voice. Just twisting the head sideways wont always work. You have to twist and pull upwards at the same time. Now, who can tell me the quietest way to kill someone?
Again, a pause. Another cadet, this one wearing glasses, raised his hand.
By doing what you just By breaking the neck, sir?
Not really, but almost. He spat the words as if they were venom. The most effective way is to stab your target in the kidney. It creates what we call a Neurological Overriding Injury. Meaning, the target is in too much pain to even scream, much less fight back. He knew it worked. Hed done it twice, once in Timber and once in Deling City. Two lives, like that.
They were staring at him now with an awed sort of fear. The kind of look Rinoa had given him more than once
Enough. He had the sudden urge to get out of the quad, to escape from the awkward situation hed just created.
You have fifteen minutes to change into your PT gear. Meet me by the main gate. Were going for a run.
He didnt really care if they showed up, but they did. Dressed in gym shorts and microfiber shirts bearing Gardens crest, they looked like kids at an athletic summer camp. He formed them up and led them out, starting at a slow pace that soon quickened.
The trail he led them down was hot and dusty, cutting through fields of dead yellow tallgrass. There was no cadence, save for the rhythmic breathing of a dozen cadets. Sweat stained the neck of his shirt with a dark triangle, and it dripped from his forehead and stung his eyes. He picked up the pace again. His lungs burned and his mind screamed at the torture he was putting his legs through.
And, suddenly, he was back in Dollet, trying to run from the artillery shells, with Rinoa still whole and at his side
Wrapped up in himself, hed forgotten the cadets. Theyd all kept up with him, but the pace had taken its toll. Though they stoically stood in place, their breathing was loud and ragged, punctuated by an occasional tortured cough. One of them leaned over to the side and retched.
Their run had taken them in a circular route, so that they were nearly where they had started. It was close enough. He found his voice.
Thats enough for today. Good run, good good effort. Stretch and recover on your own. Dismissed.
And he left the beaten gaggle of Garden kids and walked back towards the gate.
He remembers how none of the staff had dared to reprimand him. But he was never asked to teach again.
He remembers a place called the Flaming Dove.
No, he thinks, standing on the balcony at night with his gunblade in his hands. Forget that ever happened.
The Guardian Forces taking up residence in his head have not been kind. Theyve erased memories at random, knocking them out of his head as they settled in his mind like a rude houseguest. Trying to remember the story of his life in its entirety is like trying to read a book with every other page missing. He remembers seeing Rinoa for the first time, remembers her looking at him coyly and pointing up at a shooting star, and remembers something about a dance. Then he remembers having lunch with her in the cafeteria a month or a year later, and he remembers how shed wrinkled her nose at him and told him shed hated the taste of hotdogs. And then he remembers crouching behind the jeep with her, remembers the look of fear on her face
He remembers little of his adult life and nothing of his childhood thanks to the GFs. But they dont have the decency to erase his memories of that horrible, horrible night at the Flaming Dove.
And suddenly the memory of that night is there in his mind, looming and terrible as a mushroom cloud. And he remembers.
He remembers Irvine saying, You need a drink.
So, one night, when Garden had been floating near Deling City, theyd caught a taxi downtown and visited what Irvine called The best damned hole-in-the-wall bar on the continent. And he had sat in the smoky half-light of the bar, losing himself in the energy of the crowd and drinking. Irvine had bought him round after round of the local specialty brew, a cheap lager that he swallowed by the pint. The stuff made him wince after every gulp, but eventually his senses dulled and the world around him became fuzzy.
He remembers the loud thumping of bass music. He remembers looking down and seeing a pile of pistachio shells on the bar top in front of him. He remembers talking with Irvine about cars, about girls, about Gardens hockey team. He remembers downing a shot of whiskey the bartender had given him, remembers the wonderfully harsh taste of it, like sweet poison. He remembers absently peeling the label from a bottle of beer. He remembers Irvine saying, should talk about Rinoa.
What? He had to shout over the music.
I said you should talk about Rinoa, man. I think I think you shouldnt keep this stuff bottled up.
I mean, the way youve been acting around Zell and all, I just
Zell fucked up. He did. If hed taken out that battery, they wouldnt have shelled us.
Irvine shrugged. Maybe, I dunno. But he was just one guy. You cant really expect one guy to knock out an artillery battery with just his fists, is all Im saying. He hesitated for a moment. And maybe you need to get over Rinoa.
Whatever. He pushed his stool back and stood up. There was a rush to his head and he suddenly felt dizzy.
Hey, man, dont go. Forget I said anything.
Its not you, he said, even though it was. I just need to get some air.
And so he made his way towards the door, pushing and easing through throngs of drunken bodies until he spilled out into the night. Irvine didnt follow.
He doesnt remember why, but he decided to go for a walk. He lurched and careened down sidewalks and alleys, knocking over trash cans and smashing bottles. A stray dog barked at him, and he shouted something back. He passed rows of closed shops, fast-food restaurants, a few seedy convenience stores, and then
And then he was standing in the doorway of a brothel. Fake palm trees framed the entranceway, and above the door was a flickering neon sign that read The Flaming Dove.
And maybe you need to get over Rinoa.
No. No, no, no.
What the hell.
He pushed open the door and staggered inside. And he remembers digging out his wallet and handing over a thick wad of gil, and he remembers being led down a hallway, and he remembers suddenly finding himself in a room with a bed and a girl.
She looked older than she claimed to be, a little worn from practicing her trade, but still pretty. Without waiting, she stood up and pulled off his belt, tossing it aside like a wrapper. She was far more forceful and straightforward than Rinoa had ever been.
And he remembers thinking, I cant do this, but he also remembers the intoxicating scent of musk and desire and the feeling of her fingertips on his chest as she unbuttoned his shirt. And then he was on the bed and hovering over her, his hand on her thigh. And he stopped.
Are you waiting for something? Her voice carried a hint of impatience.
I Im sorry. I cant. He got off the bed, stumbling over the pile of his clothes as he backpedaled towards the door. She looked up at him and sighed.
Look, this doesnt mean anything. Its just physical.
Its just physical. It means nothing.
And he remembers how fake it was, her moans and cries of pleasure as gaudy and phony as the palm trees outside. And as she rutted on top of him he tried to indulge himself in the pleasure of the moment.
But he remembered Rinoa.
I want a big wedding, shed said.
Unn, there it is.
Shed wrinkled her nose at him and
Right there right there
Shed turned on her side and said, Do you think well ever get old?
Omigawd, oh my
And then he spent himself in a shameful climax.
He remembers Rinoa. She never woke up.
In the end, its the memories that drive him to do it.
Hes standing on one of B-Gardens balconies, looking out at a moonless night and a black ocean hundreds of feet below him. His mouth is drawn in a thin, sallow line and his knuckles are white on the grip of his gunblade.
And the SeeD in him, the voice of calculated decisiveness and cool resolve, tells him not to do it, that he still has a long and distinguished career ahead of him, and that it would be such a pathetic waste. He knows to trust the SeeD in him. His SeeD instincts
hadnt saved Rinoa. Hed stayed a SeeD because it was all he knew how to do. And shed followed him, because she wanted to make him happy. And she did, at least for a while, at least until Dollet. She was gone, she was a vegetable, because of who he was and what he did.
He remembers the last time hed tried to get rid of his gunblade, how hed thrown it off the docks in Balamb. And he remembers how the harbormasters kid had found it washed up on the beach, and how hed put it in a box and mailed it back to Garden, still smelling of seaweed. Not this time. Garden is floating over an ocean hundreds of feet deep and he knows this will be the final goodbye. He looks it over one last time, and theres a certain fondness in his gaze. Theres a fondness, but theres also a kind of regret.
He holds it over the railing and lets it go without ceremony. A few seconds later, he hears a faint splash and knows its gone.
Its starting to get cold. He turns around and walks back inside. In the morning, when the sun rises orange and blurry on the horizon, hell spend time by Rinoas bedside, listening to electronic beeps and hoping against hope. And maybe hell remember some of the good that they shared. Maybe hell remember her giggling as Angelo licked his face, wagging a finger and saying Down, boy. Maybe hell remember her trying to play basketball, and how shed tried to tackle him as he made a shot. Maybe hell remember her pouring over a book, lips pursed in thought as she absently played with a strand of her hair. Maybe hell remember her in her white dress, looking at him coyly and pointing up at the night sky.
Maybe hell remember.
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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