Before your body was in the ground,
I spun an urn for your ashes.
I screamed and pleaded to bury you raw,
I filled the urn with sand.
Before your body was in the ground,
I swore you looked alive.
Though waxy white, though ghastly eyed,
I swore you were alive.
I swore that you'd not died.
I swore, I swore, I swore, I swore.
That you'd not fucking died…
After your body was in the ground,
I wept not a drop.
I shed off flakes and dusty bits.
For my eyes were all dried up.
I tried all needles.
And tubes of dust.
I tried the fungus, and poison pills.
Because I must, I must…
And I swore that forever…
That before I died.
I'd see you another…
I'd see you,
One more time.
Brother, by Black Blood Vessel
The Garden of Stone: Epilogue
This brother dreams.
I must be dreaming, for the last thing I can remember is resting against Joselyn's shoulder. The loss of a limb takes a lot out of you, I've never felt so tired aside from the first time Joselyn and I did it on the floor.
Now my body is complete again, I've wrapped myself up and those bandages stick to me with rot. I mimic the leper. I'm shrouded in a cloak that's older than I am –somehow I know I am in my twenties, and that the years in this world are counted differently anyway.
I feel a book in my hands, heavy, but not so heavy to me. I lift it up in the moonlight, no cover, spine has been worn away. I flip through the pages and mostly see text and strike my finger in the part between pages when I see an illustration.
I'm reading porn, fancy that.
I slap the book closed feeling that I've already read half of it anyway; slip it into a pouch beneath my cloak containing nothing else. Where is this place, and the world it's in?
My mind is trying to pry up names and places but can't articulate anything just -like when you have a word just on the tip of your tongue. I feel like I'm trying to draw up a storm so I let it settle, and feel the swirling information spiral away from my attention span.
I'll settle for the immediate area.
I'm on a wide dirt road parting a forest. The trees are thick and packed tight together the same way curling weeds orgy. It's bizarre that this could grow naturally; I wonder what it would take to decimate that much plant life to make this road.
I see nothing in the direction I was heading, but the road narrows and the trees loom higher. But the road I'm coming from, that's interesting, there's a different source of light down there.
Down the hill I see a town that stretches for at least miles but must be less than half a mile wide from this viewpoint, rectangular. There are no streetlamps or electric lights; this world is too archaic for that. The light is a blaze, spreading like spilt acid, and splattering elsewhere from a creature I can't quite tell apart from the things trying to apprehend it.
Thought the creature down there is spreading the flames, somehow I think this must be my fault.
Can't say I care.
I feel different in this world. I'm still me -couldn't mistake me for somebody else. But I sense that in this place a lot more shit has fallen on my head. A lot more went wrong a lot faster. In this world, I think the kind of life I lived before Time Compression happened, my life in Dollet, such a time didn't happen here. Maybe not for anyone in the world.
The light burns brighter, and brighter, and when I try to shield my eyes I feel the light is searing throughout all reality. The light flickers out like rainfall stopping suddenly, then everything is ink, everything is black.
Then that storm of information rises up from me and tears around the blackness like a dividing typhoon. I see I hear I smell I touch I taste a whole lifetime in just one second -I could never have caught it all-but I don't get to see how it ends, if it ends.
Of course it ends. It's got too.
More than anything else, I hear voices. And I think the words of some anonymous entity –it's just like prose- across the membrane of my eyes.
"So you're my new pet."
When someone dies on you…
…the world seems to change…
…but it's really just you.
"Where's the fucking boy!"
…the glass settles…
And I know that I am Deathbird.
"Grave wake up!"
Deathbird… I must be Deathbird, who else?
"Grave, for fuck's sake we're here."
The dream is gone, I smell Joselyn again and feel alive, feel completely myself.
I sit up from her reluctantly. Joselyn and I are in a whelp on the way to Deling City. Both of our parents are still living according to reports, and both live on different sides of the city. Actually, Joselyn's being dropped off right away, I'm being dropped off near Dollet first, but they'll bring me back to Deling as well within the hour.
I really wish I could go with her, but at first glance her parents will probably not approve of me. She thinks if she tells them about me for a while then it'll be okay for me to show up. I'm fine with that; I don't want to give those people a shock. Joselyn seems to care about them even though she can't remember them too well.
I sympathize completely.
I look up at Joselyn and she's looking down on me. I must be downcast because her smile slacks when we make eye contact.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"I was about to ask you that."
I smile, can't help it. "I just had a dream, I think it was a bad one, but I can't quite tell if it was about me or not."
"Tell me, we've still got a couple of minutes before the gimped hatch opens up."
I laugh at that, they still haven't fixed that little glitch in the Whelps yet, but I guess I should be happy of that right now. "Well: the bare bones of it are this; I was in another world where I suffered a lot more than I did in this one."
Joselyn's eyebrows rise, she probably doesn't want to think about either of us suffering more than we already have. "I'm gonna regret this, but tell me the rest."
"It was really scattered after a while. The place is very medieval, and I have to disguise myself as a leper in order to fit in. I'm reading fantastic pornography with art museum-like illustrations. Then I heard a lot of vague words, and saw similar things being written on the inside of my eyelids."
"Like what?" She doesn't miss a beat, I love that about her.
"Can't really remember, I think I've lost it already." Disappointing. "But I know it was me, and I wasn't in Gaea."
"Hmm. You know what that makes me think of?"
"Black Blood Vessel."
"Oh for Hyne's sake what the fuck doesn't?"
"I mean it!" She smacks me, playfully. "You know how Leo says that some of his songs aren't really his, right? He hears them from other dimensions?"
"He was saying that before he made it big, course I know."
"Well he has that one song, 'Lead Dealer' he said he wrote about a story that was told to him from another dimension. 'Child Roll… something, I think."
"I'm familiar with it, what's your point?"
"Well there's one lyric in that song that stands out to me above everything else, even more than the chorus."
"Really, really. He says, 'There are other worlds than these."
"Think that has any merit?" I ask, feeling skeptical.
"I believe it." She says, the same way she confesses to love me, when nobody else is listening.
"Hmm." Is all I can muster, and we feel the hatch open all the way. Joselyn undoes her seat belts. She touches my hand and kisses my cheek.
"I'll see you later Grave, later today I hope." She winks at me and I wish I could have her right now.
"I won't be long, it's a really quick errand, I promise." I mock the hand sign of the scouts to make her smile, and she struts off the whelp with that confidence she swears I provide. I think it's just her pride honestly -her sexy pride- but if she wants to inflate my ego who am I to stop her?
It takes the hatch about twenty minutes to close. Once it's sealed we're in the air again.
The project of adding rooms to B-Garden is not yet finished, they've already added the things they found most important, now they're struggling for ways to fill the space just for the sake of balancing the vessels weight. It was just a few days ago they finished the last one. It was a fine idea, at Grave's request.
The format here is similar to Juusan Park. It's the same fan shape as every other area, the walkways are similar, but in this room the weeping willows sprout from every dimension of the room –those trees hanging from the ceiling make the place almost too bizarre, but nobody's complained yet.
Every gravestone is the same white half circle marking name, date of birth, date of graduation, date of death. Benches are easily come by on the brick walkways. The benches are seldom used however, since none of them face any one gravestone.
Xu's been spending a lot of time here.
Tucker didn't get a gravestone; he would have needed several after what Xu was allowed to do with him. Grave had the pieces sprinkled with rock salt to take the curse away, then the chunks were thrown in the ocean.
People don't talk about Tucker much.
Unlike the signs in front of the other areas in the Garden Grave decided to take some poetic license. He might have just had them print 'Cemetery' but he had a better idea. It gets Quistis every time she looks at it.
It reads: Balamb Gardens Early Graves.
"Oh Grave," Quistis says, smiling and shaking her head as she goes inside.
There's a lot of natural light in here, as much as the park. It's a beautiful place really, and not completely synthetic. The markers are real stone, the soil and grass are from the planets crust, the trees too. Really, only the walls are synthetic, the only part of this place that was here before there was a room.
Quistis finds Xu right away. She's always in the same place of course; Nida's marker is in the row closest to the entrance. Xu kneels, a position she wouldn't let anybody other than Quistis see her in. Not anymore.
Quistis kneels beside her and sets a polished blue stone on the marker. Gestures like this are few in the cemetery; they stand out like blood in water.
"Why did you bring the cat?"
Marcus opens his eyes and lifts his head up from Quistis's shoulder the way a serpent does. He is very long, slung around her neck like a mink. He blinks at Xu, licks his lips, starts to purr for no reason.
"You're stressed." Quistis states smiley. "Cat's relieve stress."
"Not mine." Says Xu, something in her clenching as she speaks; her voice falters not for her mourning, but because she knows that's wrong. The fact that there is a salve for her suffering seems to demean Nida. Just the fact that she can be horny without him hurts.
"Nonsense," Quistis says, and then she lifts Marcus from her shoulders as though he was a snake and she lays him in Xu's lap. Xu looks down on the purring quadruped; he looks up adoringly at her adoring nothing in particular. She mourns, he purrs, and eventually his charm prevails. Xu picks the cat up and cradles him; Marcus adjusts himself a little bit, nestles his face between her boobs and starts purring louder. His very cold nose feels weird in that spot.
"Does he do this to you?" Xu asks, torn between throwing the sweet little pervert away and trying to enjoy the vibration.
"All the time. Less than he used to though, since he has Seifer to compete with."
Xu laughs a single laugh, but that smile disappears quickly as though she didn't want it.
"I'm considering promoting Grave and Joselyn." Xu says, and Quistis is content to let her change the subject. "I like the changes they've been making, and not just this place." Xu looks at Quistis, strokes Marcus's head. "I think they can make this army unstoppable."
Quistis sees madness there she doesn't quite trust, but she knows it's just because of Nida, nothing too dangerous. "I admit I was really skeptical about it at first myself, but cooperating with the Espers has improved things a great deal. We are a hell of a lot more intimidating if our Guardian Forces are beside us at all times like fellow soldiers."
"The intimidation factor is off the charts. And the Espers are obviously pleased with us. I'm grateful they didn't just destroy us as soon as we let them loose."
"That's why they didn't destroy us. They know they have our respect. Especially from Grave, he understood them before the rest of us did."
"That's right. Anyway, I'd like them to be my advisors. They've made some damn good decisions around here that I wouldn't have made by myself."
"Well you'll have to wait a while. They're meeting up with their folks today, and if all goes well they'll introduce each other back and forth. Plus Grave had his own little errand to run."
"That's fine, as long as I can meet them by the end of this week." Marcus lifts his head out of her boobs and tries to sniff her nose, squints cutely as he sniffs. Xu can't help but smile again, and her smile doesn't let up this time.
Quistis reaches over and pets him too.
Three hands, oh yeah, that's what I'm talking about.
Outside of Balamb Garden, Espers fly around the vessel as graceful as eels. The brighter ones light up the night sky, Salamander standing out brightest among them. Now they're free to form allegiance of their own will.
They might have destroyed the SeeD's out of vengeance but Salamander, like he always has, convinced them to stay their hands –and tails—because, on account of Grave, he understood the humans better than any of them. So he knew they deserved forgiveness, for they never had a clue what they'd been doing.
And now, with that mutual understanding, the humans are better protected than ever they were before. Every Esper was set free.
Now Salamander lights up the night sky
And his tears light up the ocean.
"I still don't believe it. I'm looking right at it and I just can't believe it."
"You better believe it babe." He puts his arm around her waist and she leans into him. She's learned lately to just ignore what he says when he gets arrogant. She tried for ages to get him to stop and now, after all this time, he's still the same. Sometimes, you just have to accept defeat, and tune out the victor's gloating.
"I mean, darling, I love you," She looks up at him and pats his shoulder. "Honest and true," she turns back to the object of interest. "But this is just too much."
He nods his head and grins like a super hero in a toilet cleaner commercial. "Yes sir, a fine likeness."
Since they were teleported to Shumi Village, Raine visited the sculpting room just one other time. They day they arrived she and Laguna were treated like royalty, she was shocked by the Shumi at first, but their hospitality and utter lack of malevolence earned her trust right away. The sculpting room was the first place they were brought to.
The statue shocked her more than the Shumi did.
She couldn't react. Twenty minutes before she'd been cleaning the dishes at the bar in her own time. Next thing she knew she was in the same bar years ahead of time where Laguna was older. She met their son at an age awfully close to her own. She held her son –technically for the first time—and before she could finish taking in his scent she and Laguna were here. Then she was brought to look at a statue of him in his youth.
Her only thought was: Why make a statue of Laguna?
He was a fine man –if a bit bizarre—she'd be the last person to dispute that. But from what the Shumi knew of him at the time he really didn't seem statue worthy to her. Not even as the president of Esthar would she have him erected in stone. Eventually she just chocked it up to whimsy. This is art after all, and the artist creates because they can't help it, right?
And it was an accurate likeness, like Laguna kept saying.
"Yes sir, a fine likeness." Laguna said again, and clutched his blushing bride.
Blushing from embarrassment that is.
This is what love feels like.
Fujin and Terra feel sorry for the people who can't admit this. It seems like some people are just hardwired to think that love has something to do with perfection: tedious, meticulous and constant maintenance of orderly symmetry. No, not at all. Love is this sense of unpolluted, undiluted rightness; warm, nourishing, impossible to argue against.
The whole apartment is black but for a single candle gently illuminating their nakedness. Their eyes are closed, their skin molded together with warmth and sweat. Their eyes are closed; all they see is wavering redness behind their eyelids. All they feel is the warmth and one others breath.
We have love.
"You're gonna make me blush!" Rinoa complains when Squall pinches her butt. She gets off on that sort of thing. Since she likes the rough stuff pinching is like the soft kiss before the wild sucking.
"There's always a little rose in your cheeks sweetie, he isn't going to notice." Squall says, watching the numbers on the elevator descend as they go down to the PesticidE level.
"I blush very easily, you know that."
"Rinny, I'll be the only one down there with any emotional stake in your blushing, relax." He snakes his arm around her hip without pinching her, though she shies away at first, uselessly into the corner of the elevator.
"I just don't want Seifer to look at us and think we're on the verge of fucking each other in the middle of his seminar."
"He wouldn't even care about that. Hell, he'd probably encourage it."
Rinoa gives Squall a knowing look then he understands, "oh, so that's why." She nods. She doesn't want to encourage Seifer's perversion.
That's a full time job though.
But…I guess we can't depend on Quistis for that sort of thing anymore.
The opening elevator doors reveal an audience of fully uniformed PesticidE's, all new soldiers. Renovations created more room for bodyguard apartments. There's even a weight room and training quarters –Seifer wanted a bar too but Quistis punched him when he suggested it and he changed his mind, Zell couldn't stop laughing.
The PesticidE's are sitting in great circles on the floor cross legged but Squall and Rinoa choose to stand. They are separate from this after all, just watching.
Seifer stands at the center of attention in the middle of the oldest training circle. Xu gave him a commander uniform but he refuses to wear it and she can't make him anyway –the students protested like crazy when Xu tried to reinstate mandatory uniforms after being appointed Headmistress permanently. He is finishing a twenty four ounce bottle of Faygo, licks his lips, flings the bottle into a recycling bin in the corner leaving pinking orange droplets on the floor.
Seifer doesn't seem to notice they are there when he begins speaking.
"You are the new recruits; this means that we're going to make you do the all the hard work before you get even a lick of respect. Those of you who have worked in kitchens will be able to take this in stride –you will not be let off easy, if you think you can then you must've quit before the real fun began."
Everyone is quiet, Rinoa seems confused by Seifer's mentioning kitchens.
"Did he ever work in a kitchen?" Rinoa whispers and Squall can only shrug.
Whatever, he's getting a roll going.
"A lot of you are lost individuals; some of you are probably even criminals. If there is a bounty on your head, your identity is uncovered, and if you have proved useful to this establishment then we will defend you to the death. We protect our own here.
"That is what you symbolize.
"You aren't just here to protect the children –because we are raising children here, and they stay children no matter what they go through whether they like it or not- you are here to also to encourage them to give each other the treatment that you give them as your job.
"You can't let them do the same thing for you.
"If somebody has to die you need to do your damnedest to make sure it's you. You are the first acceptable casualty. I hope this is the reason you came here for us, because I don't want to have to drill that mentality into any of you…" Seifer raised his voice then, "is anybody here still squeamish about your own lives?
Utter silence, Squall and Rinoa are just as disgusted as they are proud.
Seifer grins behind his blonde veils of hair. Rinoa and Squall hate him for it, love him for it.
"You should know before you get started that you're going to learn a lot from the kids you'll be protecting." Seifer laughs, some of the PesticidE's stir. "It's funny, how you might learn your best lessons about selflessness and impermanence from the very kids you'll be taking the bullets for.
"Just a couple years ago I was out guarding a small group into Balamb. They were on a field trip and there'd been some hostile activity so they insisted on having one of us around. I volunteered since I was exhausted from doing real missions at the time. I still had both my eyes.
"I noticed there was one kid in particular staying away from the group. I didn't scold him, instead I walked next to him and we got to talking.
"His name's Grave. Smart kid, you'll all get to meet him soon I think. He stands out.
"I asked him if he was worried about dying and taking lives and he just said 'No,' just like that. His voice was empty but more alive than any of the other students. I asked him why and his answer was diamond-cold, solid, simple.
"He shrugged, then he said, 'We're soldiers, we die young.'
"Damn fucking right."
Squall doesn't realize that Rinoa has been squeezing his hand until Seifer is finished. He squeezes back to let her know he's back in reality with her. She looks into his eyes then and he looks back. She's desperate looking, like she doesn't know if she's okay with Seifer's orientation. It doesn't occur to either of them that he might mostly be lifting from Xu's version. Pinching her butt is the last thing on his mind.
Squall wishes he could go back to that childlike ignorance of natural violent impulses that Rinoa seems to have maintained. There's something just wonderful about not knowing, being able to pretend you don't know the things you've experienced firsthand.
But he can't, he really can't, because he believes that himself, it's ingrained into his own brain. Squall wonders if Grave got that sentiment from him.
…we die young.
I hesitate to leave the whelp after it lands. I'm expecting somebody; and I'm torn between wanting to see him again and meeting my family, or just turning around and going back to the one that I'm familiar with. This is not to say that I'm going to leave B-Garden, the academy is my home and I'm not leaving it.
It is going to change things though, when you know you're parents and they're still alive that changes the way you feel about being a soldier. It changes everything, the world changes.
Or maybe it's just me.
"Fuck it." I'll go; I suppose it's best to just go through with it.
I exit the whelp and I'm greeted with dry weather. The pilot doesn't bother to close the hatch. I told him I wouldn't be long.
There's the spot, and the kid I haven't spoken to for three years. He looks like he wants to run to me but he doesn't move. I told him I'd come to him after all.
My old jacket was ruined so Joselyn got another one for me. The hem goes down to my knees, the collar as high as my lips. The right sleeve flaps in the wind which annoys me. I wish I could get it tailored to have just one sleeve.
The healed knob at my shoulder still aches. Mrs. Heartily told me that probably won't stop. I could get medication for it but I don't think I should be putting chemicals in my body regularly as a soldier. I'm already pumping myself with magic all the time, and that's enough to cause an imbalance in your nervous system.
I'll just have to get used it.
I always do.
I stop one foot in front of my brother who stares at me with that big, single eye. He hasn't stopped smiling since the whelp landed. Neither have I.
Before I can hug him Leo throws himself at me and squeezes my ribs so hard I'd swear he was an assassin if I didn't know him. I just loop my arm around his shoulders. This is a pressure I can bear I think, as long as he doesn't put too much pressure on my arm socket.
"You think mom and dad'll be happy to see me?" It's probably a stupid question but I feel stupid not asking.
"Bro,'" Leo says, "If you'd been turned into a quadriplegic duck they'd still want to see you, and take care of you."
I smile; Leo always did have bizarre ways to put things. I guess that's why he's in the entertainment business now. "Well they won't be taking care of me. They shed that responsibility a long time ago."
"They're our parent's bro,' they'll want to take care of us forever." He lets go of me finally, stares up at me adoringly again. Hyne, this kid's sweet, he's not appalled by me at all, he isn't even angry that I didn't come right home out of crawling out of this spot those years ago.
Well, he does know what it's like to be a freak. I guess that's why.
"Let's get this done." I say reaching beneath my jacket. "I'm eager to meet the folks."
I produce both of my crowbars, I hand one to Leo who takes it and holds it like a club. That's fine, I didn't come here to give the kid lessons.
"Ready?" I ask, he nods.
We raise the crowbars above our heads, our skin and lungs drying up in this hot air, and we bring them down on the gravestone. The stone breaks and crumbles with each strike; it gives off dust the color of chalk. The stone feels so soft beneath the weight of the tools, like bashing in a big calcium tablet.
When there's nothing but a pile of rocks and dust we stop. The talons of my black tools are powdered white; our black clothes are dusted the same way. We must look like a couple of salt miners, or misbehaving children making the best of detention with the chalk erasers.
I blow the dust off my crowbar, Leo imitates me then hands his back. I hook them at my belt beneath my coat again. Joselyn wondered why I'm still carrying both of them with only one arm now. I wanted to say 'It's a crowbar woman, I'll find a use for it.' but I think she was being sarcastic. She knows I have sentimental attachment to these things. I'd keep them if I lost both of my arms.
"Let's go bro.'" I sling my arm around Leo's shoulder and we walk to the whelp, through the cockpit window I think I see Zell Dintch's hair. I'll just pretend it's not him.
So, there are other worlds than these huh? Well, as long as I get to see Joselyn there I don't care what happens.
I really don't care.