When he staggered into Garden alone, he left bloody handprints on the wall where he had held himself up.
They ushered him into the Infirmary, where the doctor pronounced the wounds unnatural. They used magic and bandages to stop the bleeding. He never said a word. He didn't have to; they all understood.
Zell and Squall had gone out on assignment.
Squall had come home.
Quistis was the first to know.
Xu was the first one he told, but by then Quistis had already seen it in his eyes. He said that he should make his report. Xu looked at him with pity, and said it could wait.
He went back to his dorm and didn't say a word to anyone.
He went to the Quad for a while, because it was quiet and he needed to be alone. Quistis found him there, and he didn't want to talk.
...I can't believe it. She said it anyway, and he gave no reply. ...it's really true?
I wouldn't lie. The words were wounded, but the voice seemed not.
I'm sorry, Quistis said, and put a hand on his arm. He didn't move or react, as if he couldn't feel her there.
He had dreams that night, so bad he couldn't sleep. He sat on the edge of his bed, feeling too heavy to stand or pace. For lack of anything else to do or any way else to feel, he pulled off the bandage on his shoulder. The wound reopened, oozing slowly. He waited until the blood ran down his arm and into his palm. He stared at the blood on his hand and thought it strangely fitting.
Quistis met him the next morning, and must have known something of what he had done. It wasn't your fault, Squall, was what she said to comfort him.
was what he said in response, and tried to escape.
She let him, for a moment. But then she felt a pang and had to follow.
He went to the Quad again, and down to the very edge of the balcony. She stood beside him and said It shouldn't have happened.
He didn't look at her, but replied It was going to.
She didn't understand, and asked him what he meant.
And he told her.
It's in the statistics. The life expectancy of a mercenary is about thirty-eight years. For a SeeD, it's less. We take more dangerous assignments.
She stared, dumbfounded.
The odds are projected sixty-two percent that a SeeD will die on a mission. Thirteen percent for suicide, and four percent for an accident or in training. There's only a twenty-one percent chance for a natural death. You should know it's probably going to happen. It shouldn't be a surprise.
How can you say that? she asked. How can you accept that so easily?
Because it's a fact of life!
He snarled the words, eyes ablaze before he hurried away. She thought it was anger. She didn't consider that it might be pain.
In his dorm he locked the door and looked quietly into the mirror. He recounted the numbers again, and told himself exactly how it had happened. He said the words again and again until it became easy. Until he amazed himself with the calm in his voice.
He was called up into the Headmaster's office later that day. Three people were there: Xu, Cid, and the Records Manager. They carefully explained that he wasn't held suspect, that an inquisition was standard procedure any time a SeeD was killed. He said he understood.
They asked him questions. They asked him questions that seemed they would never end. He answered them as best he could and when he was done they told him it wasn't his fault. He said he understood.
They let him go, and marveled at how calm he had been. They thought he was lucky to feel so little.
He went back to his room and took his gunblade out of its case.
He went to the Training Center and began to practice. He went through every exercise he knew, and when he was done he went through them again. His arms hurt, especially the wounded one, but he told himself he didn't care. He told himself, over and over again, that he didn't care.
He took the long way around to the dorms because he didn't want to sleep. He passed the entrance and met Selphie coming back from a mission, unbloodied, unhurt. She asked him why he was up so late. He told her. She couldn't believe it. She said it couldn't be.
He didn't argue because he couldn't make himself. He went back to his dorm and she went back to hers.
Neither really slept that night.
He was very tired the next morning.
Quistis met him and he escaped again. She met Selphie, who still couldn't believe it and said as much.
She could believe it. It wasn't easy, but she knew Squall wouldn't lie. She told Selphie what he had said, and how likely that death seemed. She didn't tell her what had happened, or how afraid she was of that other thirteen percent.
He was called up into the Headmaster's office later that day. The Headmaster told him that he was writing a letter, and that it might mean something if the team leader wrote one, too. Squall told him he had nothing to say.
Cid smiled kindly and said Well, maybe another day as if he understood.
Selphie met him when he came down off the elevator, and was sure it wasn't true. She told him as much--that Zell couldn't be dead, that he was out there somewhere, hurt, maybe, but awaiting rescue. She said that they had to go back to the mission site, and if they did it would all work out somehow.
He stared. He stared in surprise and didn't understand why the words had hurt, or why she seemed like the words had hurt to say.
And then he told her how it had happened, how loud the shots had been. He told her how he had looked until he was almost found and had barely gotten away. He said he wouldn't have left him behind if there was any possibility. He didn't realize how angry he became before he left the area.
She shook, and didn't believe him because she couldn't bear to.
He went to Xu and wanted to amend his report. He stated that as team leader, he should have assessed the team's capabilities better than he had. He wanted to claim full responsibility for the mission's casualty.
Xu frowned, and said his amendment was noted. She dismissed him, and didn't change a thing on the report.
She went to Quistis when she had the chance, and told her what had happened. She carefully noted her concerns. Quistis nodded, and didn't tell her that those were the least of her own worries. She felt Xu didn't need to know.
In his dorm he locked the door and stared at the gunblade in its case. He was quiet because there was nothing to say.
He thought about death.
He thought about the inevitability.
He thought about what he could have done.
He thought about what he couldn't.
He thought about how loud the gunshots had been, echoing through the corridor, how he hadn't heard screams, how he wondered again and again how it had been. If it had hurt. What it was like to die.
He thought about what he could do. And he realized the answer was nothing.
He didn't come out of his room until late after curfew. He was very tired, but he didn't want to dream. He took his gunblade with him, and told himself not to care.
He began to practice. He wondered if it would have been different if he had taken the other route out. He wondered if they both would have made it, or if it would only mean Zell here, practicing instead. And then he tried not to wonder.
He practiced until his shoulder wound reopened. He practiced until he could barely lift the gunblade back into its sheath. And then he went back to his dorm.
He closed his eyes and didn't want to dream.
Everything hurt when he woke up.
He went to the cafeteria to eat because it seemed like what you were supposed to do in the morning. He didn't taste anything. He didn't care.
Quistis came and sat with him for a while while he ate. He didn't say anything. Neither did she.
Eventually, he got up and left. He didn't know where he was going, but he thought the answer might be nowhere.
He ended up in the Quad again.
He passed Selphie on the way, and she shied away from him. He didn't think about it. He didn't think about anything.
He walked quite a bit. He walked from place to place, going nowhere and feeling the hurt. He stayed away from everyone, because he didn't want to talk.
For a while, he considered going to the Infirmary.
He decided against it.
He didn't know where the day had gone, when it was over.
He was very tired.
He headed to his dorm, but when he arrived he didn't want to sleep. He did as he had done the night before, and took to the Training Center.
And as he stepped into the Training Center Proper, he wondered again what it was like to die.
It hurt to raise the blade, and he thought he didn't care. It hurt to adopt the proper stance, to go through the motions he had learned. It hurt to take the deep breaths he needed. It hurt to move. It hurt to live.
And he thought he didn't care.
But he wasn't as certain as he might have been.
It came, it seemed, from nowhere.
He saw it coming, and knew it was useless to run. And so he raised his blade, and told himself it wouldn't hurt.
And the T-Rexaur struck, and so did he.
And it hurt.
And they each struck again.
And again it hurt.
And it hurt so that by the third strike he had dropped his blade, and by the fourth he lay against the Training Center wall, and could only reflect on how tired he had been before he came.
He didn't look up to see the monster approach.
He closed his eyes, and wanted more than anything to sleep.
Selphie came upon him, and she didn't want to believe.
She wanted to scream, so she did. And the monster unbent itself, and charged her.
And she struck, and she struck, and she struck. And she didn't want to stop, even when the monster fell.
And she went to his side, and shook. She didn't know why she was shaking, but she shook. She tried to puzzle it out, and decided it might be anger. She settled on anger, because she didn't want to believe it might be pain.
And she screamed at him.
Until he opened his eyes.
You idiot! She called him. How could you do that? Don't you know how dangerous it is? Don't you know you could be killed?
He looked at her, and didn't understand.
Don't you know how terrible that would be? Don't you know you can't let that happen? Her hands were fists. Don't you know--don't you know that we've already lost Zell, and if we lost you, too....
She didn't speak any more, but still she shook. Somewhere, when she had not been watching, she had begun to believe.
They went out of the Training Center together.
They stood at the spot where the two halls adjoined, and she bowed her head. She took his hand, as if to assure herself that he was still alive.
I don't want to believe it, she said. I wanted to believe that he was out there--that some day, he'll come walking back into Garden. But he won't, will he?
He looked at her hand. He wanted to say no, but it seemed as if it had already been said. Instead he turned to the entrance, looking out at the darkness beyond the entryway.
He watched for a moment, and felt her hand tighten around his. He watched as if he was waiting for someone to come in, to come home.
As if he believed.
This fic almost killed me.
It's an experiment in the ultimate stylistic non sequitur--to make a pathos-bound story with nothing more than simple narrative. He did this. He said this. He went here. She said this. He walked away. No heavy musings or metaphorical analyses on emotion, no imagery, no nothing of which my pathos-bound stories are generally composed.
Personally, I'm not entirely happy with this fic. It has some major flow issues, and I can't help but feel that the emotion (predictably) fell flat in quite a few places. And training myself to resist putting in things like The grief bore upon his soul like the weight of a thousand dying suns was akin to trying to write a dialogue without ever using the letter R. I had to constantly go back and reedit myself, and I left the thing feeling more strangled that I really would have liked to be.
So, what I'm really saying is this: I'm impressed that I wrote the thing. I'm not impressed with what I wrote.
But we'll let history and the reader decide.