Summary: Shadow isn't quite sure to what to do with himself after surviving his suicide attempt, nor is he quite sure what to make of Terra's determination to heal him.
Note: Written for fuckyeahfinalfantasy on Dreamwidth, for prompt "Shadow intended to die after Kefka's Tower fell, but Terra finds him, barely alive, in the wreckage. Hurt/comfort. If Relm is involved, that's even better. "
At first he stays because he cannot leave. Even before he realized that half his left leg was gone, fever stole his thoughts and cracked bones stole his movements. Every breath hurt and reminded him that he was, despite his best intentions, alive.
He remembers standing perfectly still in preparation and practice for death as the tower shook and shattered around him. For the first time in years, his arms were open. "Come get me," he said, without challenge or mockery, to the ghosts who waited. He remembers pain, but only in the instant before the darkness welcomed him.
Here his memories feel like dreams of another man's life. He has lived three lives already; he doesn't want another.
This time the piece of the past that has followed him is Terra, whose answers are clear, simple, and infuriating: "You were missing. I came back to find you."
Apparently the only part of him that died was the part that knew how to vanish without a trace. He hates speaking now, hates the naked clarity of his voice without his mask, so he only stares at the place where his leg should be beneath the blanket.
"It was gangrenous," she says. "We couldn't save it, not without—"
"Magic," she doesn't say, but he hears it in her abrupt silence. Looking at her hands, she picks up after a beat: "I thought you could recover best here in Mobliz. We didn't know where else to bring you. We don't even know your name."
So here he is again in an isolated corner of the world, snatched from death's hands. He knows how this story ends. He'd just as soon skip to the epilogue without destroying someone who thinks he can be saved.
He wonders if Strago suggested Thamasa, but he felt the old man's shrewd eyes on his back from the moment Interceptor took to the girl. Strago must know, and know better.
"Where's Interceptor?" he asks.
"With Relm. We weren't sure you were going to make it."
This is two questions answered for one. The reactions roiling inside him refuse to coalesce into anything simple, so he lets none of them out.
When he doesn't respond, Terra raises her head again. "Edgar said he can make you an artificial leg once the wound heals. It won't be the same, but you'll be able to walk again." She laces her fingers together. "Then you can go wherever you want."
At last his silence drives her away, and he drifts back into fevers that weave his pasts into his present and melt them all together.
He stays; he heals; he waits. Time is sealing him up with scars, but he can still feel everything, even the leg that isn't there. When he begins to hobble on crutches, he stumbles every time he trusts his weight to a ghost.
When he catches his reflection in a window, he finds a stranger; he looks older than he remembers, his face thinner and his cheeks more hollow, and bruises bloom between forgotten scars. He knew every stitch and fold of his mask.
Every time he dies, he comes back different, nameless. He draws the curtains as if hiding the image will turn him back.
For so long he has run with death at his heels; when he stopped, death lost interest. Now he has fallen into a drowning slowness, a rippling reflection of his mayfly life in Thamasa.
"How are you doing?" Terra asks him every morning, and she never takes silence or shrugs for what they are. She holds a one-sided conversation as she changes his bandages and rubs medicine into the places that are slowest to heal. Her hands are still callused from her years with a sword; her palms sometimes still flatten and flex as if she means to push healing light through them.
Today he meets her eyes (the last time he did so, they were shining and golden and wild) and says, "I was trying to die."
He doesn't know what he was expecting, but it wasn't for her to finish tying the bandages around his knee and reply, "I know. I'm trying not to hold it against you."
His arm tenses under the chill of the salve she paints over a deep wound. He wraps words around the bitter taste of absurdity that won't leave his mouth: "You know what I am."
Her fingers still briefly before she removes them and wipes them clean. "I once killed fifty soldiers in three minutes."
He remembers this vaguely, from a time before he cared. "Not of your own will."
"I don't think that mattered to the soldiers." She closes her tin medical kit and smiles thinly at him. "We're not who we used to be."
Not "who," he said, but "what"; his identity may be forever in flux, but he is always a bringer of death. Every time he changes, he becomes less.
When his silence makes it clear that he is finished with the conversation, Terra leaves him to his breakfast. At the threshold she pauses and says, "I don't think you ever killed your emotions, not really."
Perhaps this is true. He has never been able to kill anything that wanted to die.
On his better days he stalks aimlessly in the shadows, Duane's clothing hanging loosely from his atrophied frame, seeking a solitude that lasts more than a few minutes. Once he sent grown men scurrying away with a cold glance; now he can't even divest himself of inquisitive children unless one of Mobliz's adults intervenes. One of the most persistent little girls is brash, flamboyant, heartbreaking.
Learning to ignore his phantom limb lets him make his way beyond the village, where he can sit in silence on the edge of the cliff and watch the churning of the sea far below. He could fall so easily. He has fallen so many times before.
You can go wherever you want,he tells himself, but he doesn't know what he wants. He doesn't want to want.
Sometimes his secluded spot has been claimed by Terra, who stares south over the water as the wind tangles her hair. He never announces himself, only hobbles back to his room to lock the door and muffle the noise of children growing up.
When he hears the baby cry, he knows he will have nightmares.
On his worst days he stays in his room, eating and reading what Terra brings him. He isn't strong enough to steal away often to the shore. He isn't strong; he's an echo trapped in a seashell, flesh bound reluctantly to dusty bones. Terra left him a journal to record his thoughts, but he has already given up trying to improve on the flat white of the paper.
"Setzer's bringing supplies tomorrow," Terra tells him after shooing away a little boy with persistent questions and little respect for closed doors. She sits beside him and offers soup. "You can leave with him on the airship if you want. I know you're not happy here."
She might have stopped before "here." With a grunt that she can interpret as thanks if she likes, he accepts the bowl and eats mechanically. He hasn't been hungry since he woke.
"Or," she says, with something fragile fluttering under her voice, "you can stay."
From outside comes a child's scream of "Mama!" Terra is up and out the door in an instant, leaving him to remember a burning house and a former life he didn't want to acknowledge. This time he has no dog to force his hand and provide an excuse.
Why should he still need excuses? He leaves his soup, picks up his crutches, and follows.
The children are crowded around the front of the house, herded by Duane. In the center of the village, Terra brandishes a sword at a growling devoahan. It digs its hooves into the dirt and lowers its horns.
This village and its children mean nothing to him, but he has never felt more useless.
When the beast charges, Terra leaps aside and catches it with her blade as it passes. It roars and shakes its head, spattering blood from the cut over its eyes. Terra plants herself between it and the village, right hand white around her sword, left hand twitching around an absence of magic.
With a low growl, the devoahan turns and runs back into the wilderness. Children flow past him to Terra's side as she sags with relief. After giving them a moment to cling, she asks sternly, "Who left food out?"
"Paolo," reply several of the assembled.
Terra fixes one of the older boys with a look of weary disappointment. "You know better."
She takes care of things. For now she takes care of him, but if he left tomorrow and never returned, she wouldn't lack for damaged things to look after. The thought is oddly reassuring.
When Terra comes back inside to hang her sword high out of the children's reach, he waits in a shadowed corner, trusting his balance to the wall. The children bustle blithely past him, unaware that someone he used to be would have dropped the devoahan in an instant with a shuriken through the eye. He wonders if they know that Terra could have ended it as easily but chose not to.
The world is a cleaner place without mercy.
"You should have killed it," he says as Terra drops back on her heels.
"I'm tired of killing things." She picks dried blood from the back of her hand, then locks eyes with him. Her voice has the edge of a challenge: "Aren't you?"
"I'm just tired." This is too stark, too honest; he traces her disappointment in the lines around her mouth. "I shouldn't be here."
"Then leave." She doesn't look at him. "There's nothing keeping you."
Her words crowd his head like struggling butterflies when he tries to sleep. The future forks inescapably before him, and he has no curtains to pull around it.
In the dark he slips outside as quietly as he can, easing his crutches over the wooden floor, and stands alone in the chill of the stars. The wind tugs at the empty leg of his trousers. This has long been his preferred way of leaving—home, partners, family, bodies. He doesn't know how to negotiate an exit.
The sea chops up the moonlight like a perpetually breaking mirror. He stands on the edge of the cliff, closes his eyes, and sees Terra disappointed again.
His bed is cold when he returns to it.
Setzer comes and goes while he stays inside. In the afternoon Terra visits him, bearing books, bread, and balm. "You reopened a wound," she chides as she rolls up his sleeve, disrupting a thin crust of blood. The medicine stings.
A patch under his knee is still almost raw. As she applies a poultice, she adds, "I'm glad you're here."
He flexes his hand to watch the interplay of scars, veins, and fine bones. "Why?"
"I'm your friend." Her hand rests on his thigh, above the edge of the wound. "I don't understand why that has to be so hard."
His throat tightens. We're not friends, he should say, but "friends" was his word, spoken in a reckless moment when the beginning of his end liberated him. And what else is she? Even when he traveled with her only for money, she sought his unprofessional advice; it was her voice that cried out for him when he suffered a dangerous moment of heroism. She doesn't act now on anything as cold as obligation.
When the silence stretches so long that it threatens to snap inside him, he says, "Thank you."
The smile that spreads over her face is warm, almost relaxed. "Besides," she adds, returning to her work, "it's nice to have another adult to talk to."
She can't be much older than Duane and Katarin, but he suspects that Terra was never truly young. "I admire your patience with them," he says dryly.
She shakes her head. "It's not patience. When I watch them play outside, I know that the world's recovering. No matter how broken it is, we can rebuild it." Softer, she adds, "They made my heart whole before I even understood how it was broken."
He has a child who isn't broken and doesn't need him. Of all the regrets whispering inside him now, this is the quietest. Few other of his evils can claim to be the lesser.
When Terra leaves to manage her brood, he picks up books and rejects them within a page. He itches beneath his skin.
Moving as silently as he can on his crutches, he leaves his room and lurks in the shadow of the hall. The children are inside for the evening, clustered around Katarin and Terra in front of the hearth. The baby nurses. Terra's knitting needles clack together with the regularity of heartbeats.
She and Katarin chat about the changing of the seasons, the children's vegetable garden, a novel Edgar sent from Figaro. Terra's face is so bright and animated that it scarcely seems to belong to the same woman who stares listlessly at the sea when she thinks she is alone. When a toddler tugs her sleeve and holds up a torn toy, she picks up a needle and thread and puts it right.
In the kitchen, Duane explains to the brash girl that he's baking a "Mommy Made the Monster Run Away" cake and that she can't lick the spoon until he's finished.
In the shadows, he doesn't want to want.
The next day he approaches Terra when she escapes to the edge of the cliff. She nods and waits until he is settled before saying, in a voice that trembles under the wind, "I feel like I've been torn in half."
For the first time he wonders if he should be surprised that she survived. Magic boiled away from the face of the world and must have boiled out of her, as well. He isn't the only one to have outlived himself.
He can't remember how many pieces have been ripped from him, so he says only, "I understand."
Terra nods, sagging slightly as some of the tension drains from her shoulders. "I thought you might."
Her fingers are long and pale and callused against a bare patch of earth. When he sets his hand over hers, she closes her eyes and leans against him. The sea is dark and restless, shattering itself over and over against the rocks.
"I still have trouble dealing with my emotions," she says. "I don't always understand where they come from or what to do when they hurt me. Sometimes they hit me so hard that I forget how to breathe." Her lips quirk upward. "I still wouldn't give them up for anything."
She was a slave and a weapon, he remembers, a machine of blood and bone. She has fought to gain the things he fought to throw away.
With the quietness of a confession, he tells her, "You're braver than I am."
The denial he is braced for never comes. Instead she trusts more of her weight to him and says, "I'm still glad you're here."
This story never ends well, but he's never played it out with another walking shadow, and one determined to claw her way back to solid warmth. Where she presses against him, he can feel her seams, her frayed edges, her stubborn heartbeat.
He can feel the living skin between his scars, the insistent ache of his healing wounds. He wants regardless of whether he wants to. His voice is unsteady as he reaches back through the restless ghosts of past lives: "My name used to be Clyde."
She tilts her head to smile up at him. "Can I call you that?"
The future forks before him, and he is tired of running in circles. He nods.
"Nice to meet you, Clyde," she says, still smiling, but underneath she trembles with emotions she doesn't understand but wishes to, emotions he understands but wishes he didn't. Somewhere in the middle they're set to collide.
Terra shifts until her face is level with his, her hand braced against the ground for balance. Her breaths quicken and her voice tightens: "I'm probably doing this all wrong, but it's hard enough just figuring out what I feel. Will you stay?"
He is tired of running in circles, tired of shedding skins, tired of staying static inside. "As long as you'll have me."
When she kisses him, he forgets how to breathe.
If he is Clyde again, he has a daughter who might want him after all. He also has an itch at the base of his finger where a ring isn't, a tremor in the hand that could not raise his knife, and a restless guilt when he wakes and is not alone.
Perhaps he should be someone entirely new, but kicking away his past has never stopped it from clinging to his heels. Reducing himself to one heel hasn't fazed it.
In the stillness before dawn, he makes his way alone one last time to the cliff, where he addresses the sea and the sky and the broken light: "Baram, I've stopped running. Don't wait for me anymore. I'll find you." He hopes this is enough.
When he returns, Terra is sitting on the edge of the bed, brushing the night's tangles from her hair. A smile warms her face as she says, "I was worried, but just for a moment. I trust you."
He doesn't deserve this. All he has to offer in return is, "I thought I'd try keeping a promise for a change."
"Good. If you run away now, I'm coming after you." She extends her hand, and he takes it, even though his skin is still chilled from the morning air. Her voice is low as she adds, "I've lost too much."
Their fingers lace together as she pulls him down beside her. Kissing is still clumsy—she's learning, he's remembering—but they take their mistakes in languid stride. Her hand has just slipped under his shirt when a child's voice bellows from the kitchen, "Mama, I'm making pancakes!"
"Wait, Gina!" Terra scrambles off the bed, into a robe, and out the door, pausing only to whisper in his ear, "After bedtime?"
This is what it feels like to be part of something; this is the world outside his head, crowded with people, not ghosts. The sun is rising and the shadows are diminishing. Today he should stay in the open and talk to the children. Tomorrow he should ask for his dog and tell the truth about Relm, if Terra hasn't already guessed it. If he is alive, there are so many things he should do.
Clyde straightens his clothes, picks up his crutches, and goes to see if he can help put out any fires.