Title: Something Like Grace
Warnings: End of game spoilers, a bit of language
Disclaimer: Poor college students do not Final Fantasy and its characters. Squaresoft does.
Notes: First, I want to thank everyone who reviewed It Comes In a Whisper. And, of course, thanks to Caitlin, for beta-reading once again. Hope everyone enjoys this sequel; just as before, R&R is adored.
Part of me knows the war is over.
Part of me knows I'm lying on a thin hospital bed with my arms and legs bound in order to keep me still.
And part of me knows that she's at my side, her hand in mine, calling out to me in a mix of hope and desperation.
But that reality fades, and her words are lost in a cacophony of shrieking. Dark images of those whom I killed at the sorceress' command flicker before my eyes. Their skeletal hands claw towards my throat, and they scream for revenge.
How can the dead scream?
I struggle to focus, to keep myself from being lost in the chaos. But I'm so tired, and it hurts so badly. I try vainly to fall into black oblivion, into nothingness, but I am held away from that edge.
Death is too merciful for a damned thing.
And still, she keeps calling me, anchoring me to life. She begs me to remember, to return. Can't she see how the hand she's holding is stained with blood? I have been bathed in it, and will never come clean.
Leave me, instructor. I've done my duty to you. Just let me fade...
A drop of wetness hits my cheek.
Blood? No. Tears.
With effort, I concentrate on that sound. My fingers brush against the soft skin of her face, and wrap around her silky hair.
For a moment, there is clarity, and I see her gazing at me in surprised awe. I smile weakly; her tears have stopped falling.
"Hello, Seifer," she greets me softly, just before my strength gives out and her face blurs away.
She does not return the next morning, and each moment chips away at my resolve. The screams of the dead turn to harsh, mocking laughter. Was it all a trick, then? Was she ever really here at all? Or were they just torturing me by giving me false hope?
Oh, fuck, there's blood everywhere: seeping from the walls, trickling off the ceiling, dripping from my hands.
I can taste it in my mouth. My stomach twists violently into knots.
Don't think. Don't think. Don't think.
I hear her.
"…girls … me… tty… li… it?"
I won't listen. It can't be real. She's lying, broken, in that endless Hell, and I'm drowning in an ocean of blood. Icy, dead hands push me under. I can't breathe.
"…leaving in the morning…"
"…doctor says…can.. home…"
No. It's just another lie. A way to trap me.
"Will you miss me?"
Blue eyes. Warm, living hands covering mine.
"Will you be all right alone?"
If it's a trick, I'll have nothing, and I'll be sent spiraling down so far that I'll never claw my way back out. But if it's not a trick, I'll lose her forever. Time stops as I am caught between choices. There is no sound, no motion.
Than I feel her slipping away.
"Good night, Seifer."
I can't lose her. I won't lose her. I have to fight for her.
"Don't go, Quisty."
I can hardly gasp out the words, my throat is so dry and raw, but it feels as though a great weight has been lifted from my entire body. The room is silent, clear. She stands, halfway to the door, looking back at me over her shoulder.
Her golden hair cascades down her back, and her eyes are wide and shimmering behind her glasses. Her burgundy lips are parted slightly, as though she's about to speak, and then she does.
"I'll come back in the morning."
And I lie awake in the darkness, waiting for dawn.
She enters the room just after sunrise, turning the lights on slowly so as not to hurt my eyes. Even so, I flinch at the brightness, which, for some reason, makes her smile.
"You never reacted to it before," she explains in response to my questioning look. Her face is full of fear and trepidation, and I can almost hear her yelling, "So help me, Seifer, if you don't answer, I'll-!"
"I'm here now," I whisper, watching her closely, drinking her in, as she sits down at my side. She's wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of a hospital robe, and the shirt is thin enough that I can see the outline of bandages around her torso, but the joy radiating from her assures me that it's all right.
I didn't fail her. And she didn't leave. And that's all that matters.
She reaches out and gently runs her fingers through my hair. The action is unexpected, so atypical of the distant instructor; it's as if the war has softened Quistis, rather than made her cold and hard. She must notice my surprise because she pulls her hand away, and I see the deep bruises in the shape of…
I slowly match my fingers up with the blue-black marks, my mouth dropping open in shock. "What," I stammer, "what did I-"
Ignoring me, she gets up and fetches a cup of water. "Drink this," she orders. "It'll make it easier for you to speak." I gulp it down so quickly that I start coughing, sending fresh waves of pain through my body.
"Easy, son," a new voice says. It's an older man in a white jacket, a doctor. He hands me another cup of water. "Drink it slowly this time."
I do as I'm told, letting the cool liquid sooth my stinging throat, and calm my cough. "Thanks," I mumble, setting the cup aside.
"I imagine you're hungry, too," the doctor remarks, and, as if on cue, my stomach grumbles loudly. I can feel the needle in my arm they've been feeding me through, but it's never enough that way.
Now the doctor chuckles. "We'll remedy that shortly. My name is Sims. This is Deling City hospital. And the date is October the fifth. You've been in a state of alternating hysteria and catatonia for nearly two months. And," he adds, "you owe a great deal to this young lady." He motions towards Quistis, who averts her eyes.
"She's stubborn," I say quietly, hoping she understands the gratitude behind the words. Too stubborn to let me go. Too stubborn to die in Time Compression. Too stubborn to leave me in my broken mind.
"So are you," she answers, smiling. Her eyes are beautiful when she smiles; those eyes drive back all the demons in my head.
Doctor Sims looks between us, and I know he's wondering what the ties are that bind Quistis and I, but he'll never understand that. Hell, I don't even understand that, except to know we're not what we were before. But I guess nothing's as it was before.
Before I can dwell long on that, the doctor speaks again, "There are a few simple tests I have to run, in order to ensure your mind and body are working properly. I wonder if you'll answer a few questions? Can you tell me your name and age, and where you're from?"
"Seifer Almasy. Eighteen. Balamb Garden." I push myself into a sitting position, grimacing at how much effort it takes to do so.
The doctor nods. "Good. Now, then, what's the last thing you can clearly remember?"
I motion to Quistis. "Her. Finding her." I don't elaborate, but I can easily remember how terrified I was when I saw her and thought she was dead.
"What about before that?"
"Her," I say again.
Quistis blinks in surprise, her cheeks coloring slightly. "Seifer…"
"It is," I insist. "In Deling, when… when the sorceress came... I remember you trying to stop her…" I trail off, regarding her thoughtfully. Is that why she's been by my side through this? Because she couldn't save me then?
"Is there anything in between those memories?" The doctor asks, looking worried. "Do you know what you-"
"I know enough," I cut him off, hoping he won't ask me to discuss it. "I know what she made me do. It's just… hazy… blank in some places."
He nods, the concern fading out of his expression. "Trauma victims often have difficulties recalling the experience that led to their condition. You may regain full recollection, or you may not."
I hope I don't. I hope I'm given that much mercy. Because what I can remember of that hellish time, bent into submission by the sorceress' magic, is more than enough.
There's so much blood… Screaming… Death...
"Seifer! Seifer, look at me!"
I shake my head rapidly to clear it. "Huh?"
"You… you went away again." Quistis looks frightened. "For almost an hour! After the doctor told you that you might not remember everything… I kept calling and calling, and-"
"After an ordeal like this, it's not surprising that you experience flashbacks," Doctor Sims cuts in, his voice calm and professional. "Right now, they're easily triggered, but with luck time will reduce their frequency and severity, if not end them entirely."
"The bitch likes to linger," I remark caustically, throwing an arm over my eyes. My head is pounding, and my body feels like lead. "How can I be so damned weak if all I've done is lie in bed for two months?" I demand.
"Your body is unused to the stress you're putting on it," Doctor Sims says. "You'll begin physical therapy to retrain your muscles when you are ready to. I was just telling the young lady that perhaps you ought to see the resident psychologist as well."
"Why?" I ask, well aware of the bitterness in my tone. "So he can tell me I'm crazy? I noticed that already, doc."
"Seifer-" Quistis begins, but I turn away and bury my face in the pillows. I wait until I hear their footsteps headed for the door, and then pound my fist against the mattress in helpless frustration.
For days, I keep slipping back into the madness that claimed me for so long. A group of children playing in the hospital courtyard turn into the bloodied corpses of the children who died at the sorceress' command. The clatter of a food tray dropped in the hall becomes the explosion of missiles hitting Trabia Garden. And, sometimes, the brutal memories come for no reason at all.
I find myself on my knees in the sorceress' castle, drenched in sweat and blood, breathless from exertion. The sorceress cups my face in her hands, her long, lacquered fingernails digging into my skin.
"Well done, my knight," she purrs. Waves of elation roll over my natural emotions, replacing the revulsion with joy. I have pleased my lady. That is my purpose.
"I won't!" I scream, clawing her hands away, heedless of the pain she inflicts through her magic. "Let me go, you bitch!"
"Seifer! Seifer!" Quistis is shaking my shoulder. "Seifer, you're dreaming, wake up!" But the voice changes, and the face morphs back to the sorceress' leer. "Seifer, my knight… Seifer…"
"No!" I clench my right hand and strike her solidly across the jaw.
There is a startled cry, and the sound of glass breaking, and I jerk upright in bed, my pulse racing and my breath coming in short gasps. I see Quistis huddled against the wall, her small hand not able to cover the bruise darkening on her cheek. Oh, shit, no. Tell me I didn't… I feel nauseous.
She slowly gets to her feet, clutching her broken glasses in one hand. "S-Seifer?" Her voice is shaking.
I can't speak. I can't breathe. All I can do is stare in horror at her injured face.
I hit her.
The doctor rushes in and looks from me to Quistis, taking in her condition. "I'll have a nurse see to that," he says grimly, "and then I think you should go."
Go. He's telling her to leave me. She looks at me, and I can tell that even now she'll stay if I ask her to, but I can't ask. I've failed her again. I hide my face so she won't see the hot tears stinging at my eyes. Damned if I'll let anyone- let alone her- see me cry.
She comes back just after midnight. I'm awake despite my fatigue, painfully aware of what's waiting in my dreams, but I pretend to be sleeping in hopes that she'll go away. I'm still sickened by what I did.
How could I have lost control?
How could I have hurt her, of all people?
I feel her draw the blankets closer around me, and then her hand lingers on my shoulder. I force myself to remain still, to breathe evenly, praying she'll leave before this gets any harder. Looking up through my eyelashes, I see her standing indecisively beside my bed. She leans forward, her lips hovering above my skin, and then she sighs and pulls away. "Good night, Seifer."
And I let her go.
I wake up screaming every night after Quistis leaves, and most of the time I can't even remember why. But I never reply to the letters she sends, because if I did, I would ask her back. And I don't deserve to have her here.
The doctor must know I'm not as all right as I pretend to be each day, but he does very little about it. Isn't he supposed to help me somehow? Drink this, do this, take two of these, and the problem is solved?
If only it could be so easy.
I'm surprised when he announces that I'm to be taken out of the hospital for an afternoon. He says the change of atmosphere often helps patients "in my condition," and it's time I "took in some fresh air and sunlight." I can't argue with that, but I also know he's testing me.
I've just finished dressing in some old clothes Quistis sent from my room at Balamb when I hear a loud knock on the door. Before I can respond, Fujin and Rajin burst into my room, shouting exuberant greetings. The doctor mentioned that they'd been at the hospital before, but I know how much they hate places like this, so it didn't surprise me to learn they had left.
"Damn, it's good to see you two!" I tell them happily. "What're you doing here?"
"We were here before you, uh, woke up, ya know," Rajin says. "The doctor told us to come back today 'cause we're taking you out for some fun!" He pulls me into a backslapping hug. "We missed ya, ya know!"
Fujin jerks him away and grabs my arms, staring intently with her good eye. "SEIFER. OKAY?"
"'Course I'm okay," I answer, adopting the confident grin that used to come so naturally. Because what else can I tell them? That I've been broken and a few of the cracks didn't get filled in just yet? They can't accept that, and I can't steal their joy by saying it. Instead I ask, "So where are we going?"
"FISHING." Fujin says, wrinkling her nose, and I gather that must have been Rajin's idea; he and I used to go fishing all the time in Balamb. I'm surprised how eager I am to leave the hospital now that the prospect a sit before me.
A nurse comes with us as a precaution, but she stays at a discreet distance, and after a while I hardly even notice her. We drive out to the ocean and find a long, narrow dock at the edge of the point. Balamb's a better place for fishing, but this will have to do.
I walk out to the end of the dock, inhaling the fresh salty air. The sun's light on the waves makes them look like sapphires and diamonds. I had forgotten how wonderful a view like that could be.
I look down and catch my reflection in the water. Shadowed eyes stare back at me from within a gaunt, pale face. And then image blurs as the ocean is tinted red with blood. It's dripping from my hands, my clothes. Oh, shit, make it stop!
"Seifer? Yo, man, you're shaking, ya know!" Rajin waves his hand before my eyes.
I blink and hope I don't look as sick as I feel. "Just, uh, just cold," I stammer.
"JACKET," Fujin says, pointing at my gray trench coat.
"I'm not used to being outside is all. It's fine," I assure her, busying myself with baiting my line. I hesitantly glance towards the water and cannot suppress a sigh of relief when all I see is the sandy bottom, dotted with shells.
I go for almost an hour without catching anything. Fujin's gotten two fish, but they were just little ones, so she tossed them back and is now casting out in a different direction. I am peering into the water, half-entranced by the motion of the waves, when Rajin suddenly lets out a loud cheer.
I whirl around to see him performing a victory dance with a fish clutched in his hand. I glare at him and throw my rod down in mock anger as Fujin shoots me a mischievous smile. Without making a sound, she raises one foot, and kicks Rajin in the back. He tumbles into the water and comes up sputtering, shaking his fist in Fujin's direction.
I laugh so hard it almost doubles me over. I can't remember the last time I laughed this way.
A shadow passes overhead, and I look up to see Balamb Garden soaring through the sky. Something like grace washes over me as I watch it disappear over the horizon. I will go back there someday, I'm sure of that, to do right by the place that was my home. And I hope Quistis will smile for me when I do.
"MISS IT," Fujin says to me pointedly.
Miss her, more like. I let out a long breath and think I'll have to tell my friends the story.
I sleep late the next day, but when the sunlight through the windows finally pulls me out of my slumber, Quistis is occupying the chair at my bedside as though she'd never left it. I stare at her for a long while, trying to convince myself that she's not just some fading dream. "Y-you came back," I stammer.
"Yeah," she agrees. And then her arms are around me, holding me in a tight embrace. "Damnit, Seifer, don't you ever do that to me again!" She yells, pounding her fist into my shoulder. "I wrote you everyday and you didn't reply! I thought- I thought you were-!"
"I'm sorry," I whisper, running my fingers through her hair. "I'm so sorry." I rest my hand against her face, where I struck her; the bruise has long since faded, but that means little to me.
She takes my hand in her own and pulls it away, her eyes telling me she doesn't need my apology. "Fujin left me a message," she says. "She said you wanted me to come back, but you were too big an idiot to ask."
"Guess I was," I reply softly, making a mental note to thank Fujin for knowing me so well.
"I was wondering when you'd wake up," Quistis goes on. "It's past noon, you know." Her voice has the slightly admonishing note she's perfected from being an instructor, and I have to smile back when I hear it.
She reaches into her bag and produces a videotape with the words "victory celebration" written on one side in neon yellow highlighter. "Selphie asked me to bring this. It's footage from the party we had. We all wished you could have been there."
"Did you?" The words slip out before I can stop them.
She sighs. "Seifer, we all know that it wasn't really you doing those things in the war. And, besides, you saved my life, and I-"
I shake my head. She's going to offer me gratitude that I don't deserve. "It isn't that simple," I tell her. "Everything doesn't just… end up all right."
She gets up without responding to that and puts Selphie's tape in the VCR. At first, there's only static, but then the images come into focus. I hardly recognize the Garden with all the decorations, and I don't pay much attention to the faces on screen till the camera is turned on Quistis. She's ignoring it, of course, but Irvine goes up to her and wraps his arms around her. She protests at first, then gives a quick wave towards the camera.
Selphie comes on screen, eagerly motioning towards the balcony where I can see the blurry forms of Squall and Rinoa. The camera zooms in and focuses just as he leans in to kiss her- and then it goes black.
"Rinoa has a theory about what happened to us in Time Compression," Quistis remarks, glancing over at me. "Fate seems too cliché, and it didn't feel like magic… So she said it must have been love that got us all out of there."
Love. Of course Rinoa, the consummate idealist, would think of something romantic and utterly illogical like that.
But even as a sarcastic rejection of the idea rests on my tongue, I know she's right. So I pull Quistis into my arms, and roughly press my lips to hers- damn all the consequences. When we break for air, she slowly opens her eyes and smiles.
The train pulls into the station in Balamb, and I see a crowd has gathered to meet us: some are cheering; most shout insults and demands I be imprisoned. They've heard, I'm sure, what the sorceress did to me, but they want someone to blame. That's all right with me; I can bear their anger.
Squall and Rinoa are waiting by the car that will take us to Garden, and it's them- more than any tearstained or hate-filled face in the crowd- that remind me of the war, and the debts I have to pay.
I don't really know where to begin.
But I am home, and Quistis is beside me.
And that's all that matters.