Final Fantasy VIII and all of its characters and locations belong to Square-enix. This work is for entertainment purposes only. No infringement is intended.
Zell pushed open the weathered door and stepped inside of the tattoo parlor, his presence announced by an incongruous tinkling. The source of the sound was a bell, hung over the door and triggered by its opening; a relic from the shop's previous incarnation as a general store.
He looked around, gratified and impressed that Charlie had managed somehow to rebuild the shop so that it looked almost exactly the way it had before the Balamb Hurricane had leveled it…and pretty much everything else on the island. The structure was new. He should know, he' helped frame it; but the exterior and some interior touches hearkened back to the shop as it had been.
Charlie had obviously been very committed to salvaging what he could of his original shop while engaged in the rebuilding process.
A raucous squawk from the large blue, green and gold parrot that sat on its perch next to the cash register alerted the proprietor of the shop to Zell's entrance.
"Zell?" A gravelly voice inquired from deep within the shop. The bird echoed the inquiry with a screech.
"Yeah, it's me Charlie." Zell answered.
"Be right there," Charlie said, appearing moments later. "What can I do you for?" The bird twittered and danced on its perch, obviously happy to see him. He reached out and the bird fluttered from its perch to his shoulder.
The image presented never failed to coax a smile from Zell, no matter what kind of mood he was in. Charlie was a former dock worker and sailor turned tattoo artist, and a more piratical looking man Zell hadn't yet seen. Standing a good six and a half feet tall, broad shouldered and fully as muscular a a professional wrestler, he played up his pirate image with the parrot, a red bandanna over his long grizzled hair, a neatly trimmed but similarly grizzled beard and gold earrings.
To the uninitiated, his sheer size was enough to intimidate. Despite his appearance however, Captain Charles W Thorson was first and foremost, an artist. Only those who knew him personally were acquainted with the sensitive soul that dwelled within his rough exterior. It was a dichotomy that he shared with Zell, who, when he had time, crafted the jewelry that Charlie sold in his shop. It always sold well too; he'd told Zell more than once that if he ever wanted to retire from SeeD, he'd be more than happy to help him sell his custom jewelry creations.
"Time for some new ink," Zell answered.
"Yeah? What did you want to do?" Charlie asked.
"Pretty much the same as this," Zell answered, indicating the tattoo on the side of his face. "Only I want it extended down my arm and onto my upper chest."
Charlie studied him with faded grey eyes, saying, "That's a lotta work. Black ink, like the face?"
"Yeah. How long will it take?" Zell asked him.
"Three, four hours." Charlie answered. "Come on back and we'll work up the design." The parrot protested loudly as he moved it back to its perch.
"Yeah, I know Seacuss," he soothed, scratching the bird gently behind the head and handing it a large nut to keep it occupied. "Need you to mind the store buddy. Can you do that?"
"Fine. Fuck you very much!" the bird squawked in reply. Charlie chuckled and jerked his head toward the back of the shop, and they both left. Screeching avian profanity followed them, and Zell snorted at the bird's creative use of invective. It was obviously a sailor's parrot.
"So how you been Zell? Ain't seen you around much." Charlie asked him.
"I've been busy," Zell answered vaguely.
"Yeah? Anything you can talk about?" Charlie asked him, knowing that sometimes, his SeeD clients couldn't talk about what they had or hadn't done. He knew full well how that went.
"Not really." Zell replied.
Charlie grunted, "Tough job, eh?"
"Yeah. Tough job." Zell said quietly, lapsing into silence.
Charlie nodded, frowning slightly. Zell's reticence was highly unusual for the normally ebullient and energetic young man. It was more than a little reminiscent of his often brooding and occasionally dour commander…But definitely not normal for Zell.
Changing the subject, Charlie requested, "take off your shirt." When Zell complied, the tattoo artist studied his proposed "canvas" with a critical eye as he put on his latex gloves and got his instruments and supplies ready. No new scars, at least not on the side that he'd wanted tattooed. There was a new on the opposite side however; a long slash, pink and freshly healed, over his ribs. Inconvenient, but fortunately, aside from laying open the skin, it didn't appear to have hit anything critical. At least, not from what Charlie had heard from local scuttlebutt. It would have been an ugly injury however, painful and debilitating. Dangerous to someone whose main mode of battle was based on speed and agility rather than weaponry.
Zell took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then nodded at Charlie. The tattoo needle hummed to life and within moments, he felt its familiar, itchy sting as Charlie bent to his work.
"Shop looks good Charlie. Almost like it used to." Zell commented, glancing around the room.
"Yeah well, the old place had character. Kinda wanted to keep some of that." Charlie responded.
"I'm glad you did." Zell said.
"Yeah, me too. I know I looked a little funny, diggin' through all the crap left over after the hurricane, but I wanted as much of my own stuff as I could salvage." Charlie explained.
"Yeah, me too. Ma and I managed to save a bit of our stuff too. We weren't the only ones, either." Zell replied. Charlie grunted in reply, concentrating on outlining the design on Zell's shoulder.
As he worked, he wondered about that new scar on Zell's side, and if it had anything to do with that "tough job" he'd vaguely hinted at. He couldn't and wouldn't ask for details about the job, but he could ask about Zell's injury. Maybe if the young man could be coaxed to talk it out…well in Charlie's experience, it tended to help when things got really rough. Even the toughest of men had to release the emotional poisons that tended to build up over time. No one was immune to them, not even the young martial artist.
"How'd you get the scar Zell?" Charlie asked casually, gently taking the young man's wrist and adjusting the angle slightly, so that he could continue the line of ink down the arm to terminate at the wrist.
"Snowlion. On the Trabian steppes." Zell answered succinctly.
Charlie glanced at the SeeD from beneath the heavy thatch of his eyebrows, then redirected his attention to his work.
"Don't they have four claws? Snowlions? There's only one slash there. Looks like a knife scar to me." He observed.
Zell glared at the man and clamped his lips shut. He'd learned the hard way not to just blurt things out anymore. It was a knife scar and he had in fact gotten it on the Trabian steppes, but obviously, not from a snowlion.
Charlie shifted to face Zell directly, deciding not to push and let the young man work up to saying what he needed to. Instead, he reached out and angled Zell's shoulder back, then wiped the upper chest area down lightly with an alcohol swab.
"How far down on the chest do you want it?" he asked.
"Here," Zell indicated, just above his left nipple.
"All right," Charlie said, returning to his work.
The outline of the design was completed fairly quickly, and Charlie gave Zell a moment to examine it to see if he liked it so far. He did, though he suggested an additional swirl from his left pectoral down onto his ribcage. Charlie did the linework quickly, Zell gritting his teeth against the painful, itchy tickle over his sensitive ribs. It didn't hurt, though it did irritate a little, at least initially. But Zell was used to it. He'd tattooed his face, for Hyne's sake.
It didn't hurt nearly as much as the knife that had sliced his side open. Or the loss resulting from that injury that had ripped his heart out…
Zell clenched his right fist. Charlie was working on filling in the linework on his left forearm, so Zell was being careful not to move it. Unbidden, a name surfaced in his mind, despite his efforts not to think of it. Of her. The ache that had been with him since he returned from Trabia intensified.
Her name was, had been, Lirie. A Trabian SeeD assigned as his partner on that last assignment. And more than that, after hours. Perhaps it wasn't the smartest or safest thing to do, but it wasn't at all unusual. Things happened. Trabian nights, even in summer, were cold, and Trabian women were…beautiful.
Certainly, Lirie had been. Night-dark hair, soft, white skin, and eyes of an unusual amber gold that Zell just couldn't take his eyes off of. If he hadn't loved her, it was because they simply hadn't had time to get to that point. He'd been on the edge of it when….
Perhaps that was why everything had gone down the way it had. He'd been so distracted by her he'd lost focus. That's what he'd told himself, even when Squall's thorough debriefing and analysis of the events had proven otherwise. He'd been sure that Squall would take him to task for his involvement with Lirie when he'd returned from Trabia alone, battered in body and soul, and, while successfully completing his assignment, doing so at the cost of his partner's life.
The only thing Squall had done was to carefully, analytically debrief him, then give him a long, silent look. Not one of pity, or condemnation, or anger…but of understanding. Squall had certainly grown over the years, though compassion, from him, was always unexpected. Mainly because he deliberately fostered a forbidding aura in order to maintain discipline, or so he'd told Zell when asked. He'd studied Zell silently, then gave him two weeks off to heal.
It wasn't just for the physical injuries. By the time he'd returned to Balamb, those were well on the way to being healed already. No, it was for the injuries that didn't show. Zell did do physical therapy of course, he wasn't at 100% physically yet. But the other….he was still having a hard time with.
No matter how many times or how many ways he was reassured that he wasn't at fault, he still blamed himself for Lirie's death.
"What was her name?" Charlie's voice startled Zell out of his reverie.
"The girl you left for Trabia with. The one that didn't come back." Charlie answered gently.
Zell stared at him, "How did you.."
Charlie gave him a level look, "I get SeeDs and cadets in and out of here all the time. They talk. And people pay attention to you Zell. You're hero to a lot of folk, not only at Garden but here in Balamb too."
"I didn't do anything all that special," Zell said. "I mean, it was Squall that rounded everyone up and got them to safety when the hurricane hit…"
"But it was you who rallied everyone afterward and got the entire town rebuilt. Yeah, Commander Leonhart might have assigned that task to you, but that doesn't take away from the fact that you performed that task with your entire heart and soul. You were there, with us, helping us clean up, rebuild, paint…. Little Zell Dincht, now grown into an admirable young man. And there is a lot to admire." Charlie told him firmly.
Zell snorted softly and looked away, "Not if you're standing next to me."
"Size's got nothing to do with it, and you know it." Charlie retorted, calling Zell out on that statement.
"Yeah," Zell sighed. Then he answered softly, "Her name was Lirie. Lirie Teska. She was my partner for this last assignment in Trabia. Without getting too specific, we completed our objective, but we were ambushed, I was injured and Lirie…"
"I see." Charlie said. He concentrated for a moment on the flow of ink in his tattoo needle, and the graceful curves of the art he was applying to his living canvas.
"You blame yourself, don't you?" Charlie asked him. The tattoo needle hummed away in the silence, and Charlie let it be, continuing his work.
"Yes, I do. I shouldn't, I know. That's what everyone says anyway. But…"
"But you still feel responsible."
"I was the ranking SeeD. I should have been… I don't know…more alert. I should have dodged quicker…I shouldn't have gotten hurt. That bastard shouldn't have even gotten close enough to run his sword through my ribs… Lirie died because I wasn't able to cover her." Zell took a shaking breath and clamped his lips shut, swallowing down the pain that threatened to drown him again.
"Through your ribs?" Charlie asked, realizing that the cut that had left that scar behind on Zell's side had gone deeper than he'd originally thought.
"Yeah. Nearly killed me. Lacerated liver, punctured lung. I was down for the count. Lirie… she… she called for help and gave me her last potion. She saved my life. But…by the time Trabia Garden's guys got to us, it was too late for her. It was almost too late for me. The potion stabilized me but…" Zell lapsed into silence again, rubbing his right hand over his face and looking away.
Lirie's potion had been a low level, weak one, serving only to stop him from bleeding to death. He'd still needed a week in Trabia Garden's infirmary before he'd been released to come home to Balamb. It had been a long fight though, and by that point they both had been running low on resources. Lirie had given everything that she'd had left to defend him and complete their assignment. That particular cell of the White Faction was no more, thanks largely to her.
The buzzing of the tattoo needle stopped and Zell returned his attention to Charlie, who had completed the design and was wiping the last traces of ink from Zell's skin. After getting his approval of the freshly inked results, Charlie applied a topical salve to help the skin to heal and the tattoo to set.
"You were in the hospital for a bit, weren't you?" Charlie asked him while applying the dressing.
"A week, before I was sent home." Zell answered.
"You never made it to your friend's memorial, did you?" Charlie asked.
Zell shook his head, "it was long over by the time I got back."
"So you never got the chance to mourn her." Charlie said, adding quietly. "You need to mourn her son. So you can move on."
Zell took a deep breath and looked away, saying harshly, "I mourned her plenty."
"Did you? Then why did your commander give you two weeks off? He's smart, that one. He knows what you don't want to admit. You gotta go through it and get to the other side or you'll be stuck. SeeDs that get stuck like that…sometimes they don't come back from their next mission. There's a lot of folk here would hate to see that happen." Charlie said, adding, "there's plenty of people you can talk to; Friends, family, hell I'm sure Commander Leonhart's put you in touch with a professional who'd be more than willing to help you with this. You're not alone."
Zell swallowed, suddenly touched by the man's concern. It shouldn't have surprised him; he'd known him since he was a kid. Charlie'd watched him grow up and become a SeeD. He had tattooed his face for him when he was sixteen, despite the fact that Zell was underage and hadn't gotten his mother's permission. Charlie did it anyway, reasoning that if Zell was old enough to become a SeeD mercenary and kill for a living, he was old enough for a tattoo. Somehow, during the intervening years, Charlie had become a friend.
Clearing his throat, Zell nodded. "I know."
Charlie nodded, satisfied, and said, "Well, look. If you need anything, or just wanna talk, gimme a call. Hell, we'll tip a pint at the pub if you like. "He patted Zell's shoulder, gently, and double checked the dressing he'd put on the freshly inked skin. "You know the drill for this, right? Leave it covered for the rest of today, and then you can take the dressing off and just keep the salve on it for the next few days. Keep sunscreen on it, though it won't fade much since its just black ink."
Zell stood up and stretched; he'd gotten stiff having to sit so still while Charlie had been tattooing him. A sharp twinge on his scarred side made him grunt in pain and wince, clapping his hand over the scar; he'd needed emergency surgery to repair his punctured lung, and the injury was still tender despite two doses of a high-level healing potion. Dr. Kadowaki had told him that the healing potions had accelerated his healing process but he still needed rest to help his body catch up. Hence the "slow and steady" philosophy of his physical therapist.
"Still sore?" Charlie asked him, noticing Zell's wince.
"Yeah. It's getting better but I can't even run a mile yet. I get winded before I get even halfway." Zell answered, shaking his head with a sigh and adding, "When I was training for the SeeD games I ran fifteen miles a day."
"You'll get it back, just give it time." Charlie assured him.
"I know. And I also know that patience isn't one of my strongest qualities." Zell admitted ruefully.
"Well, that only happens over time. You know that." Charlie said.
"Yeah, I know." Zell said, putting his shirt on, then following Charlie out to the cash register to pay for the work.
As he rang Zell up, Charlie repeated, "you need anything Zell, you call me. Anything. Right?"
"Will do Charlie. And thanks. Great work as always." Zell nodded, reaching for the door.
"You're welcome son. Anytime." Charlie said. The bell tinkled again as Zell opened the door and left.
He wasn't quite up to jogging back to Garden, but he could manage a brisk walk. It was a lovely day; redolent with more than a few hints of spring. It had still felt like winter in Trabia. Of course, Trabia always felt like winter to someone used to the warmer climate of Balamb. The first time they'd made love, Lirie had primly said that they'd needed to in order to prevent Zell succumbing to hypothermia. As an excuse it was pretty damn transparent, but Zell wasn't about to call her on it… their mutual attraction was glaringly obvious by that point. And contrary to what some thought, resolving the sexual tension that had existed between them only served to make them a more effective team.
Of course, the drawback to the long walk home was that it gave him far too much time to think. Too much time to examine the empty ache that Lirie's death had left behind. Charlie was right; Zell hadn't mourned her. Not properly. He'd been too busy healing his body to pay much attention to his mind or his heart. At the very least, he figured he should go and see her memorial. He'd heard that they'd added her name to the pillar on the quad now. Maybe he'd take her some flowers...
He shook his head, angry at himself. She was dead. What did it matter if he brought her flowers or not? Because this isn't about HER, idiot. She's dead. Her problems are over. It's about you dealing with her loss. It's about you moving on and healing, REALLY healing, and not getting lost in the pain….
So, yes dammit, he'd get flowers. He needed some kind of gesture to acknowledge her, and this was as good a one as any.
Of course, he'd come to this decision at about the halfway point between Balamb and Garden, with nothing about but the Alcauld Plains. Brilliant, genius, he kicked himself mentally. The lingering fatigue that he'd been dealing with while his body healed wouldn't let him even consider turning around and walking back to Balamb to buy flowers there. He had just enough energy to make it back to Garden, and he'd need to rest a bit once he got there.
He sighed, disappointed. It would have been nice to have something to bring.
He looked around at the greening plains as he walked, noticing the wildflowers that had come up seemingly overnight. They carpeted the verdant plains in splashes of sunny yellow, sprinkles of crimson, patches of snowy white, startling dashes of violet and blue. They were beautiful. Why had he never noticed them before? Because you were always too busy running along this road to pay attention. Always at full speed, never slowing down to really LOOK…
Without any further thought, he was off the road and onto the plain itself, selecting a handful of the most beautiful of the flowers that he could find. He was back to the road and continuing his journey in moments.
He arrived back at Garden a few minutes later, tired but feeling as though he'd accomplished something significant. He nodded to the guard at the gate as he entered, and made his way toward the quad. The flowers he had in his hand were already starting to wilt; he wanted to get to the quad before they were completely useless.
The quad was empty at this time of day, something that Zell was thankful for. He wanted to be alone for this.
As Zell entered the parklike space, he took a deep breath, appreciating anew the beautifully landscaped grounds, the serene splashing of the central fountain, and the quiet whispering of the breeze through the trees. Birds sang and flitted among the ornamental trees, and the afternoon sunlight had taken on an almost sacred quality. As though Hyne herself was pouring a benediction down upon the young man who was walking with slow, measured steps toward an obelisk that stood alone at the far end of the park.
It wasn't as grand as the Garden Memorial; that one was reserved for those who'd fallen fighting for Garden. This memorial was a simpler one; a three-meter tall pillar of silver veined black basalt, with a brazen plaque covering each of the six sides. Each plaque held the names of SeeDs lost in the field. Perhaps not as glamorous as fighting and dying for Garden itself; these were SeeDs who'd died while on missions for paying clients.
There were some who considered the honor in that to be questionable at best. Still, an acknowledgment of those who'd paid the ultimate price for their choice in careers was needed for those who'd known them and cared for them. With very few exceptions, the only family these fallen warriors had ever had was their fellow SeeDs.
The inscription on the column echoed exactly Zell's philosophy toward SeeD in general and his place in it in particular: "We exist to fight for those who are unable to. We spend our lives to honor the Mercenary's Code. It is our prayer that we fall serving a cause that is just."
Zell knew that before Cid took over as Garden Master, that last statement wasn't always a given. He'd been more selective in the clients he'd agreed to work for since.
Approaching the monument, Zell read through the names listed, recognizing far too many of them. Finally he found the one that he was looking for: Lirie Teska. Stooping down, he laid his little bundle of wildflowers at the base of the monument beneath her name.
Tears stung his eyes as he straightened up and gently ran his fingers over the raised letters. Swallowing them back, he bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut. The tears broke free and tracked down his cheeks. I'm sorry Lirie, he thought to her spirit. I failed you. I should be the one whose name is on this plaque, not you. I miss you, and wish that I'd had the courage to tell you that I loved you, before it was too late…
But time had not been their friend, and Zell had learned too late what she had meant to him.
The sound of someone approaching caught Zell's attention and he quickly wiped his wet cheeks, surprised and a little embarrassed at being caught out.
"Zell?" a soft voice, one he recognized but hadn't heard for far too long.
Clearing his throat and averting his eyes until he could regain his composure, Zell eventually answered her, "Lilly?"
"How are you doing?" she asked him, coming closer. "You're looking better."
Taking a deep breath, and feeling a bit more composed as a result, Zell finally faced her.
"I'm…getting there." He answered.
Lilly looked at him with her head tilted to one side. She'd outgrown the pigtails and now had her glossy brown hair cut at her shoulders in a sleek bob. She wore her SeeD uniform; she'd apparently just gotten off work. He wondered when she'd finally graduated to SeeD and if she still worked at the library. He wondered if she still had that crush on him. And he wondered why he'd never managed to ask her out.
She glanced down at his arm and took his hand, gently rotating it to examine the wrapped dressing, asking, "What happened? Did you hurt yourself?"
"Oh!" Zell looked down and smiled slightly. "No. I just…I got a new tattoo."
Her gaze followed the dressing all the way up his to where it disappeared beneath the sleeve of his shirt, saying, "Wow. It's a big one too. What is it?"
"Same as this," Zell gestured to the tattoo on his face. "Only down my arm and over my chest a bit."
"I'd like to see it sometime," she said, then bit her lip and flushed pink. "I mean, you know because…um… "She faltered and stopped, then realizing that she still held his hand, released it.
Zell, charmed at her sudden, flustered response, smiled gently at her and asked, "are you busy for dinner tonight? I could use some company."
"Yeah, sure." She answered, smiling that same shy smile that Zell remembered from long nights studying for his SeeD exams.
"Meet me in the cafeteria at 7:30 then?" he asked. That was good for a start. No pressure.
"Okay. I'll…I'll see you then." She said, awkwardly backing away.
"I'll be waiting. It was good seeing you again Lilly." Zell said, returning her wave as she turned to leave.
He lingered a moment after she'd left, staring at the monument, wondering if Lirie had sent him some sort of sign to move on with his life, or if it was simple serendipity. There was no real way of knowing which it was, and it really didn't matter. What mattered was what he did from this point on. He'd always miss Lirie; that would never go away. But Lilly offered Zell possibilities that he'd be foolish to pass up a second time.
Reaching out toward Lirie's name on the plaque, Zell caressed it one more time, whispering, "Thank you, Lirie. Thank you for my life. I promise I won't waste it. I love you. Good bye, baby."
Zell turned and walked away from the monument, headed for his room.
Everyone we encounter touches us in some way and leaves something behind; some good, and some bad always results from it. Not even Squall could go through life unaffected by those around him. No matter what it is, it will always be with you. Like a tattoo made with indelible ink, it's there forever. The only thing you can do, is to pick the best design possible and make sure that it's something that you can live with. Lirie had told him that, when he'd worried about whether or not their relationship was a good idea.
The more he thought about his dinner with Lilly, the more he realized that she'd already made her mark. He'd just been too obtuse, too dense to see it. Not this time.
This time, he was going to examine and embellish that mark until it was the most beautiful thing in existence. And every day, for the rest of his life, he would send a silent prayer of thanks to Lirie for her sacrifice.
Author's Note: In Memory of those who gave their lives so we could live ours. Thank you.