Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VIII is the property of Squaresoft.
Author's Note: This story is going to span about six or seven years, if everything turns out how it should. This chapter is about Squall, the next about Rinoa, and the third will start bringing things together. The chapters will get longer after that, I think, if anyone shows any interest in this story.
AGAINST THE ODDS
The Unknown Soldier
He was just one of many dark shapes barely discernible in the mist. His dirty, torn uniform had nothing to distinguish him from the other soldiers in the skirmish. He was nothing, nobody, just a young man drafted to fight a war he didn't believe in against an enemy he felt no enmity towards because a king he didn't serve had so ordered. None of his superior officers or fellow troops knew or even cared who he was. He'd die here and be buried in a grave for unknown soldiers.
Squall Leonhart. I am Squall Leonhart! It was a mantra that kept him barely sane as bullets whined through the air around him and the ground shook beneath whenever a mine detonated. I am not a nameless soldier. I am the commander of Balamb Garden! I defeated the Sorceress Ultimecia! Not that anyone cared. No one here knew what a Garden was. No one here had even heard of sorceresses. He was that half-mad youth found injured nearly a year ago, a young, fit body that could be pressed into service. You're eighteen? Then you can serve His Majesty. His protests had fallen on deaf ears.
Hot lead tore through his shoulder pad, and Squall ducked to avoid the gunfire. The bullet had grazed his skin, but he barely felt the wound. It was just one more of many. It was nothing to the ten whip lashes he'd taken to his back for trying to run from the cruel boot camp he'd been forced into. Only the military skills he'd demonstrated, trained into him since adolescence at Garden, kept him from being put on trial as a deserter. He was too valuable.
Squall raised his weapon, pointed the muzzle towards where the shots had been fired from and squeezed the trigger. A scream told him he'd hit his target, but Squall felt no victory. This wasn't a war for the defense of the people and country. He was part of the invading army. These people were innocents protecting their homes and families. Balamb would never have taken a contract such as this, no matter the price.
No, Squall felt no victory. Nor did he feel guilt. Instead he felt an emptiness inside, as though all his emotions were gone. He'd never been emotional to begin with, but now he truly was as empty as his peers accused. He had nothing to live for, except the possibility of death. He envied all the soldiers who had fallen in battle before him. Why couldn't he seem to find death for himself?
There was a shout, and Squall proceeded towards the voice, that of the lieutenant who led his squad. He joined the five other ragged troops who were his teammates, only listening with half a mind as they reported that the area was now clear. The lieutenant informed them that they had a clear path to the town itself and that they and the others had orders to sweep in and take it and hold it. There were cheers from the others. Squall did nothing. They hated him, his squad mates. He wasn't one of them. His heart wasn't in the fight. They knew it, and despised him for it. He didn't care.
They set off, blending in with the forest around them. The mist hid what the vegetation did not. The air was pungent with the scent of the sap oozing from bullet-torn trees, and Squall had to carefully pick his way over limbs and wooden shards from the ruined foliage to keep from making a sound. Squall paused by one tree, of a species he'd never seen, torn almost to pieces by a grenade blast. SeeD had always been careful not to harm the environment irreparably. Damage would occur, of course, but not at this scale. And these trees couldn't draw magic from the land around them to heal themselves.
Squall continued on, his gun at the ready, his senses alert despite his determination to die in battle. His finely honed fighting instincts wouldn't rest just because he wanted to commit suicide. He was aware of every sound around him, from the rustling caused by his less-careful team mates, to the distant gunfire and screams from the town somewhere before him.
There was a sound somewhere to his left, and Squall whirled, trying to track the sound. He didn't see anything, couldn't really see much in the mist. Which was why he was unaware of the grenade that had caught in a tree beside him until it went off almost in his face.
* * *
It was supposed to have been an exploratory mission. The ancient maps in Esthar had said that there'd once been a continent off to the east, one they'd never heard of. Squall, bored by the everyday business of running a Garden, had decided to investigate it to escape the monotony of his life. Rinoa, naturally, had been at his side, and Zell had gone to pilot the Ragnarok.
Something had gone seriously wrong. The gauges had started to fluctuate, then gone completely berserk. Things had gone downhill, and Squall couldn't remember what had happened. The only part that had been clear to him was Zell's cry of "We're going down!" and Rinoa's scream of fear.
He'd awoken in a hospital, his body bruised and battered, one arm and a couple ribs broken, but otherwise not too badly injured. When he'd asked the nurse about the others, she'd told him that he'd been the only one they'd found.
He'd known then, deep down, that they were dead. The kindly people who had brought him to the hospital would have brought anyone else they'd found as well. But he refused to believe it at first. He'd tried to get out of bed, screaming that he had to find them, to find Rinoa! When they'd told him he was too injured, he'd tried to Cure himself.
Nothing had happened. No Cure, Cura, or Curaga. No magic of any kind. Squall didn't even feel the Guardian Forces within him any longer. It was as if they'd vanished. He later learned that there was no magic on the lost continent whatsoever.
He'd lain in the hospital for a month before they decided what to do with him. He knew they'd decided he was insane, with his ramblings about a sorceress and magic and saving the world. The threat of Ultimecia hadn't touched them. They thought he'd taken a blow to the head in whatever accident he'd been in, one that had given him amnesia as well as cursing him with delusions. There was no other continent, they'd told him. It had been destroyed centuries before.
They'd asked around, but no town would claim him. So they'd decided that since he was of age, he could serve in King Andor Kielan's army. They'd sent him to a boot camp to teach him the art of war. It had struck him as funny, really; here, they thought eighteen was a good age to begin to learn about fighting, while Garden would rarely accept a student that old.
He fought because they'd forced him to. And because it was the only familiar thing to him in this strange world. And because it was a way out.
But life wasn't going to let him go that easily.
* * *
Much to his astonishment, he awoke. Or he thought he did. The world around him was dark, the sounds muffled. All Squall felt was pain, a burning across his face and chest. He tried to lift a hand that felt like a dead weight, eventually lifting it to his face after several tries. No wonder he couldn't see or hear: His head was completely bandaged, except for narrow slits cut for his nose and mouth. His bare chest was the same way. The grenade didn't kill me? He wanted to scream at the unfairness. Death had been so close! All that came out was a low groan.
It attracted the attention of one of the army medics, whose concerned voice held a hint of excitement. "You're awake? Good, I was afraid you wouldn't make it. Just hold on a little longer," the man continued as he carefully checked Squall's bandages. "The queen herself is coming to visit, and it's said she's got a way with healing."
Squall didn't care. He wanted to die. Perhaps if he lay here unmoving for awhile, his body would finally give up. He hurt too much to be alive. Even the pain of the Ragnarok's crash hadn't been this bad. Then again, that pain hadn't been accompanied by disappointment that he hadn't died…
He was only vaguely aware of the hush that came over the medical tent sometime later, he didn't know how long. It was as if everyone, medics and wounded alike, were holding their breath at some ethereal sight. The queen? Likely, given the reverence that seemed to fill the air around him.
He heard one of the medics speaking to her in a hushed voice, leading her around to those most severely wounded. Squall was vaguely surprised he wasn't first; the casualties must have been bad this time around.
When she came to him, Squall tried to turn his bandaged head away from her, but gentle hands held him. He picked up only some of what the medic said, "…grenade to… face… blindness… third-degree burns on face… chest…"
There was no response from the healer, this queen, as if she didn't care. But the touch he felt even through the thick gauze was tender, careful not to hurt him further. Her hand moved away, and Squall found he missed her touch. It had been too long since anyone had been gentle with him… But then he hear the soft pop of a cork, then a thick liquid was dribbled in his mouth. He spit it out in shock, gasping. His throat ached… he couldn't swallow… he'd choke!
But then, faintly through the thick bandages, he heard a soft, soothing voice. A song. It calmed him, and he began to breathe more easily. The liquid was again given to him, and this time, carefully, he swallowed.
And started in shock. A Potion! It wasn't possible! No one on this accursed continent could make the healing draught that could be either drunk or absorbed magically. He felt a soothing coolness sweep through his body, not healing his wounds completely but making them bearable, survivable. He'd live, damn it.
As his mind cleared, something else sank in, something he'd been in too much pain to notice before. The song the woman had been humming to him was familiar. He'd heard it so many times… Eyes on Me… Who here would know it?
Realization made him gasp, and he struggled to fight back the impossible hope. No, it can't be… she's dead or she would have found me by now… Rinoa… Could it be her? Dare he hope? "R…" he tried, but his tongue felt heavy, and he was tired from the rapid healing his body was doing. "Ri..a..?"
Where was she? Couldn't she hear him? Didn't she know it was him? No, of course not, he told himself. Not when he was bandaged liked this. To her, he was just another injured soldier.
And maybe it wasn't her at all. But he now had hope. He couldn't die, not until he knew for certain that she was Rinoa. Desperately, he tried to say her name again.
But it was too late. She was gone from his side. And he was tired… so tired…
I'll find you when I'm well, Rinoa. We'll be together again. I promise.
To Be Continued…