And this is what it feels like to fall.
And maybe I'm not falling as hard or as fast or as firm as Vaan but I am falling none the less and falling hurts. It's not so much the wind racing past your ears or the breath being sucked out of your lungs or your eyes burning as though they were ignited by holy fire. It's the resounding crunch when you hit the bottom. When the movement stops and you're left sprawled out on the concrete trying to make sure your teeth are still intact. And even if they're not, it doesn't matter, because you're pretty sure you'll never be smiling again.
And I don't think Vaan has stopped falling yet. I look up at him, and he's standing above me in the threshold of our home, eyes vacant and hallow, the pallor of his skin rivaling that of opals, and I wonder if he has forgotten to breathe. I'd tell him to do so, nag him like I always do, but my throat is closed up and words are not an option.
The Dalmascan officer stands before us, shifting uncomfortably from side to side, unaware of just what he is supposed to do now that his deed is done and we have received his macabre delivery.
Somewhere in my mind, habit kicks it, as it is prone to do when I am otherwise at a loss for words, and I crane my neck up to the gentry as he wavers in the breeze like a misplaced pendulum.
"Do you want some lemonade?"
And that is just like me, isn't it? Offering the man with a death sentence condiments from our kitchen. The voice is not much more lively that Vaan's eyes, which haven't blinked since the dawning of the news, and I can think of nothing better to say except, 'do you want some lemonade?'
"N-no miss," the man fumbles, now clearly uncomfortable in light of the current precedings. "I must get back to my...my post. My condolences for your loss. Both of you."
And then, curt and caustic, the viper like sounds of Vaan could be heard slicing through the air like verbal cyanide. "He was my brother."
And I shivered then. Yes Vaan, he was. But you shared him with me. He wasn't just yours. But when was it good manners to expect logic from the distraught?
I mean, I had just offered the Dalmascan officer lemonade.
I think I'll offer him some again.
"You sure you don't want some l-lemonade?"
My voice quivered. So I must still be alive. I must still be a person.
"…No, miss. But thank you anyway."
And then the man scampers off into the streets, probably traumatized by my incessant pressing for him to hydrate himself with our homemade beverages.
I don't bother to close the door once he is gone. Neither does Vaan.
And I am still on my knees, staring at the hard wood floor, trying to rack my brain vehemently and remember what my last words to Reks were. Were they poignant? Were they memorable? Were they really the last thing I thought I'd ever say to him?
I believe I had settled on something very original, like: "Good bye!"
Vaan said, "Don't die on me or I'll kill you."
And I can't remember what Reks said.
This alarms me. Now I can't remember his voice or his face or his hair or that crazy little smirk he always offered when something amused him. I can't remember the resonance of his chuckle and I can't remember the shade of his eyes. Do we have pictures? Do we have enough pictures? We should have taken more pictures.
Vaan is still saying nothing. I am still on the floor.
Eventually, after what seems like an eternity in its own right, Vaan charges upstairs, now full of energy that was not evident three seconds ago. It was almost as if some hidden spring burst forth inside him, supplying him with enough adrenaline to make the dive from the den to his bedroom, all in a matter of seconds.
And I am alone now.
And I find that I do not want to be. I hate being alone. That is probably why I am always content to follow Vaan around. I don't mind not taking the lead, so long as I know I'll have the company of the leader to comfort me.
So I do something stupid. I follow Vaan upstairs.
My motherly instincts kicked in. I can offer no other plausible explanation as to why I insisted on being with a boy who so obviously wanted to be left alone. Left alone to mourn the loss of his brother. But I wanted to mourn with him. I wanted to be with him. Show him I was there. Hold on to the one sibling I still had left.
I rap gently on the door, surprised to hear a soft whimpering sound, muffled by something or other, float through the cracks in the frame. I don't know why this surprised me. It shouldn't have. But it did. And come to think of it, why wasn't I crying? Why do I always take it upon myself to be the pillar of strength in times of need? Why couldn't I get all snot faced and runny eyed just like the rest of my female brethren?
Why was I detaching when I should have been feeling the most?
I step into the confines of Vaan's quarters. It reeks of cologne, Rek's cologne, which Vaan had stolen a couple months back, claiming it was high time he found himself a girl and made himself a man. I had laughed hysterically. Reks had offered him Old Spice. That was usually how things went. I stand back and giggle, Vaan causes a problem, and Reks fixes it.
Past tense, Penelo. Past tense.
"Um," I begin. And then I stop. It dawns on me with startling clarity that I have never seen Vaan cry before. He did not cry at his parents' funeral. He said that after the plague had transformed their bodies to mere living corpses, it was a relief to watch them go. 'They were dead long before this day,' he had told me. And he was strong. And I was strong. And Reks was strong. And nobody cries for the adults. Nobody cries for the soldiers. Nobody cries for the king.
But an eighteen year old boy? Someone still wavering on the threshold of manhood? Someone who had yet to even open the door?
Is that when it is okay to cry?
I sit at the foot of his bed and wait for I don't know what. I think about offering him some lemonade. Or perhaps dancing for him. My mind is reeling and I don't even know if either of those two things are appropriate right now.
Brothers don't die. They just don't. Soldiers die. Grandparents die. Old people die.
Not brothers. Not kids. Even if they were trying to play soldier.
I sit at the foot of the bed, watching Vaan wipe his nose on the pillow, the sheets, the back of his hand. Anything that offers solace in his time of need.
And I'm trying to offer solace. I just don't happen to be very good at it.
"Brothers don't die," he states firmly, abruptly. The quiver in his tone is gone and replaced with solid steel.
This resolution lasts for about three seconds.
And then he crumbles again, right in front of me, after delivering what he presumed to be something nonnegotiable, but the universe deemed it as such anyway.
"We'll see him again, right?" I ask, watching Vaan return to his pillow, of which is covered in mucus and snot and tears.
There is nothing dignified about mourning.
"How…how am I supposed to know?" Vaan snarls, anger now replacing the sorrow long enough for him to pose the counter argument. He then seeps back into his previous deposition, and I look hard at my boots.
"In heaven. Right? In heaven. We'll see him again. He'll be waiting for us. And…and he'll be all smiles and jokes and laughter, just like he used to be. He'll be grinning and sparkling, and maybe he'll even have angel wings. Wouldn't that be cool, Vaan? If Reks got angel wings?"
"No. That would be gay."
He spits this response out, and it falls flat on the floor.
I can't tell if he's trying to be funny or if he's simply being Vaan.
Somehow, I think humor is the farthest thing from his mind.
"And a halo, too," I continue, regardless of Vaan's less than favorable reception. "A sparkly one. Ya know, like his eyes."
"…No," comes the clarification. "No. Stop it. Just stop it."
I swallow. Twice.
"Stop doing whatever it is you think you're doing!"
The quip sends me hurtling backwards from its verbal whiplash.
I wasn't trying to do anything. I was trying to breathe. I was trying to cope. I was trying to swallow.
"He's…happy now, right?"
"Yeah – death would put me in a good mood too."
Vaan refuses to come out of his trap of self making and be comforted. Fury is slowly etching itself into his features, and the tears are now drying to his cheeks.
I have yet to shed any.
"He knew what he was signing up for," I press on, trying to soothe myself more than my surrogate sibling. "He knew this may happen. So…so I guess in a sense…it's alright?"
"How can this ever be alright?"
"It's what he wanted. To die for his country."
"Nobody wants to die for their country, Penelo. It just happens. I'm pretty sure, given the option, they'd rather live."
The pillow is now hurtled across the room and speeds rivaling that of a sonic explosion. I watch dimly as the cotton casing slaps against the far wall and slides soundlessly to the floor.
"Did that help?" I question dryly.
Now I am getting angry, too.
"No. No it didn't."
We each fester in silence for a while longer, and then a fresh well of sobs bubbles up from inside of Vaan as he silently resigns to the clutches of distress once more.
I'm sniffing now. It's not much. But it's an improvement.
I'm trying to approach this logically. But I should have known better. There is nothing logical in death.
I am at a loss of what to do with myself. I am certain that the world is ending, yet I know tomorrow will still come. The sun will still rise, the world will still turn, the battle for Dalmasca's freedom with still rage on. One causality doesn't change that. Not for more than a handful of people, anyway.
But for that handful, it does make the apocalypse seem nigh.
And I am telling myself it's not, that life will continue on and that's how Rek's would have wanted it anyway, but something inside me knows better than to try and convince Vaan of this candy coated condolence. I can't even fully convince myself, me who prides herself on her clear head and level thinking, how am I supposed to relay such a unsteady philosophy – so riddled with faults and cracks in the foundation – to someone who can't even accept reality when it is half way decent?
Yesterday the most important thing was becoming a sky pirate.
Today it is simply staying alive.
And I know in the back of my mind my heart will not cease to beat, nor my lungs be depleted of oxygen, yet knowing this does not quell my fears of madness and consequential insanity. You can not reason with emotions. You can not reason with death, or life, or anything in between. You are powerless, and this very fact annoys me more than anything else has ever annoyed me before.
You want to take a two by four to it, and yet there is nothing tangible to hit.
Unless we lash out at each other. Which seemed to be the response Vaan was favoring at this particular moment.
And I let him, because that's what I'm here for. I could have retreated to my room a long time ago. But I chose to stay. Deep down he knows this, and is probably grateful for it.
Then again, perhaps not.
"Why?" I ask, voice fragile and practically inaudible. "I…I don't want to be alone right now."
"Well guess what? I do."
A sniff, a hiccup, another unbecoming snort, and Vaan is back seeking refuge in the pillow again.
He can't maintain his façade of faux aggression for long. It all comes bleeding out of him, like a deflating balloon.
"Out, Penelo," he repeats, with more conviction this time. "I said get out."
And then I made one of the worst mistakes of my life.
But then again, I suppose I always had a penchant for saying the exact things that should be refrained from being said.
"I know how you feel."
The bomb goes off.
I should not have attempted to relate. I should not have claimed to understand. Even though I do – I lost my brothers too, after all. Granted, I was five at the time, but I knew they were never coming back.
It doesn't matter if I can back up my reasoning or not – it's not what Vaan wants, or needs, to hear.
Snarls. Anger. Glaring.
I want to curl up into the fetal position and die.
"I…I know what you're going through," I try again, when in reality I should have feigned innocence and blamed the wind. Though the wind doesn't make the mistake of forming sentences that were better off being left unsaid.
"How could you possibly – " Vaan inadvertently chokes on a part of himself, possibly his tongue, before continuing " – claim to know anything of what I am going through?"
I shiver. I can sense what is coming, and I am powerless to stop it.
"He wasn't your brother! He was mine! Mine! You think just because you let him live in your parents' house that that makes him yours? You were borrowing him, Penelo! But he was still my brother! No. No, you don't know what I'm feeling. You will never know what I am feeling. Now get out."
I squeak something incoherent in response, and dive bomb for the door.
Vaan's words echo inside my skull as I tear down the stairs and lunge myself into the kitchen.
I subconsciously start to furiously pour myself a glass of lemonade. Because that's what my mother used to do when any of us got upset over something. I know now that lemonade possesses no magical healing powers, nor can it bring the dead back to life, but I am yearning for citrus like never before – possibly just to be close to her.
I swallow the drink in three gulps of burning acid, letting the residue drip down my lips and off my chin. I don't bother to clean it up.
And then I cry.
And it's not as dramatic or as loud or as long winded as Vaan's, but I cry, none the less.
I swore I would never cry again after all my brothers had died.
But I didn't know I would be blessed with another one.
To this day, I still do not know if it is better to have loved and to have lost then to have not loved at all. It seems like an obvious answer, but people should be forced to try it before spouting the refrain out like a fountain.
Once I tried to imagine what it would like to lose Vaan. It was impossible.
I then tried to imagine what it would be like to have never known him at all.
And that didn't even compute.
So I suppose, in the end, you learn to cherish the time you are given. It's not as easy as it sounds, especially at times like this, when your best friend has just finished screaming at you until his face turned blue. But deep down, I know I still love him. And I figure I always will. For better or worse.
Though I don't foresee it getting much worse than this.
I continue to sniffle and gulp and choke my way through my next glass of lemonade. I cry into the pitcher and watch my tears mingle with the yellow liquid – though I seriously doubt it could taste anymore bitter.
I'm not really tasting anything, anyway.
I drink it because it's there, and for nothing more.
After I polish off the entire supply, I let my head fall down into my arms and fold in on myself, trying to ignore the pain that I fear will follow me around for the rest of my life.
It's hard to imagine things ever returning to the way they were. And maybe they won't. Things will be different – they have to be – but you can't prevent change anymore than you can single handedly prevent war. I'm not qualified to do either.
And then I feel a hand on my shoulder, and an arm loop around my waist.
I don't bother to look up. I can smell Old Spice, and I already know who it is.
We sit there for a long time, crying into one another's shoulder and drying each other's tears.
We don't issue apologies, and we don't really need to.
I think we realized we couldn't tackle this alone, and even though solitary confinement seems so appealing at first, in reality, we just needed each other.
We continue to sit like this for the next two hours.
Sometimes there just aren't any words.
This has been sitting on my computer for a while, begging for release, but I don't think I was in the right frame of mind to complete it until today. I composed this with three different people in mind, which is ironic, because when I started it, I hardly knew any of them. But now I felt compelled to finish it. So I did.
There's not really much left to say.
Well, except that this took place when Penelo's parents were still alive – after they had adopted Vaan and Reks thanks to the plague – hence why this entire episode took place in an actual house as opposed to the Rabanstre gutter.
I hope it was somewhat presentable and coherent. I'd also say enjoyable but that would make me sound slightly sadomasochistic, what with reveling in Rek's death and all.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Hopefully it was executed somewhat decently.
…I feel the dire urge to update To Fight Beside You now, if only to get the image of a snotty faced Vaan out of my head. Hm.
Until then, I bid thee all ado.