Squall, Irvine, and Selphie in a fireside interlude in front of the Tomb of the Unknown King. Would it be better to simply be forgotten?
If he opened his eyes, he knew, he’d be able to see both of them through the open flap of the tent, but even without looking he knew that Irvine was standing right next to the opening, blocking out the shifting glow of their little campfire. So he didn’t open his eyes. Instead, he lay still in his bedroll, feigning sleep. Moving hurt, anyhow; healing magic and potions had re-knitted the broken bones, but as always it left behind the deep-rooted, gnawing ache that was the result of forcing the body through a process that should have taken weeks in a matter of minutes.
“He’ll be fine,” he heard Selphie say from a little farther away, over by the campfire itself. They’d set up camp in a sheltered spot between two old, moss-covered pillars, with the fire built on the cracked and crumbling stones of the ruins in front of the old tomb. They could have made the drive back to Deling City, but night had already fallen by the time they’d made it back out into the open air, and when Irvine had suggested that it’d be better to rest and wait for morning, Squall had been too tired and achy to disagree.
“I don’t know,” said Irvine, doubt stretching out the drawl in his voice even further than usual. “He took a lot of punishment today. Those brothers hit really hard; getting your bones broken like that is no joke.”
“Squall’s really tough,” Selphie’s voice said. “Don’t worry. We had enough cures to heal him up. He’ll be good as new once he’s done sleeping.”
He heard the quiet scraping of Irvine’s boots on stone as the tall sniper shifted his weight uneasily, standing there by the front of the tent. Eventually he moved away, and the shadow that he cast moved with him to let the firelight glow dimly through Squall’s eyelids again. “Nobody’s that tough,” he said from farther away, and Squall heard him drop to a seat by the fire. “He was in front taking most of the hits the whole time. I don’t think I even heard him make a sound. Not once.”
“That’s just Squall. He’s like that.” Selphie sounded unconcerned. “You get used to it.”
“It’s just weird,” Irvine said. “I mean, I’ve had broken ribs before. It hurts like a bitch. How do you not make a noise when someone smashes your ribs with a big damn mace? How do you get like that?”
“I dunno,” Selphie said, though she didn’t sound like she was thinking about it very hard. “We’re SeeDs, we fight a lot. We’re kind of bound to get hurt eventually, right? Maybe he’s just used to it.”
An interval passed, saved from silence by night sounds and the soft, hissing crackle of the fire.
“Tell me something,” said Irvine. “How long have you been training at Garden?”
“Gosh,” she said, after a brief pause. “I’ve kind of lost track. It all kind of runs together, you know? I guess about five or six years... maybe seven? Something like that.”
“Do you ever miss your friends from before you went to Garden?”
“I...” Her voice hesitated a little. “I don’t really remember that far back any more.”
Irvine was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, for all that his voice stayed casual, there was an odd quality to it that Squall couldn’t quite place, as though he were having to work to keep up that casual drawl. “You don’t remember anything about them?”
“Mmm,” she said, an inarticulate little noise of vague confirmation that was probably accompanied by a shrug. “It’s been a long time, and I was really young. Who can remember stuff from when they were little?”
“That’s kinda sad.” Irvine’s voice was so low and quiet that it hardly sounded like him.
“...I guess,” Selphie said. “Really though, when you think about it, after all this time we probably wouldn’t even recognize each other any more, even if we did remember. Don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” said Irvine, in that low voice. “It’d still make me sad to know I was forgotten.”
“I’ve made a lot of new friends since then,” Selphie said brightly. “I’m sure they have too.”
“Maybe,” Irvine said again.
For a moment, it occurred to Squall to think back. He wasn’t really sure how long he’d been enrolled at Garden; he couldn't remember a time he hadn’t lived in the dorms there as a SeeD cadet. How long had it been? The days and the years all blurred together in his memory, one the same as another.
It didn't matter anyhow, he told himself. What mattered was the mission that lay ahead of them, things that hadn’t happened yet and could still go wrong if they weren’t careful.
“How about your parents?” Irvine asked abruptly, the forced nonchalance of his voice jarring after the interval of quiet. “Do you miss them?” Selphie didn’t reply, and after a moment he said, “Don’t tell me you don’t remember your parents either.”
“It’s not that,” she said quickly. “It’s just - nobody ever talks about their parents.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little weird?” Irvine asked.
“Not really,” she said. “I mean...”
Hard to talk about what you don’t have, Squall thought cynically. Most SeeD cadets were orphans.
“I missed them at first,” Selphie said, although she didn’t sound altogether sure about it. “But after I got used to living at Garden, I was having so much fun...”
If Irvine pushed any further, Squall thought, he’d get up, put a stop to it. Then, irritably, he wondered why he should have to. Because he was the leader? He’d never asked to be leader of anything. Selphie could take care of herself.
All the same, he lay still and listened intently, waiting for Irvine to press the subject further.
He didn’t. Instead, both of them lapsed into a silence that lasted for a while, filled only by the noises of the fire, and it was Selphie, not Irvine, who finally broke it again.
“You’re from around here, right? Do you know why it’s called the Tomb of the Unknown King? I mean, if there’s a king buried here, shouldn’t somebody remember what his name was?”
“It’s ‘cause the tomb was built back when everything around here was part of the Centra civilization,” Irvine said. “Back then there was this kind of a superstition about it. They thought that remembering the names of the dead was unlucky, or something. So nobody ever kept a record of his name, even though he was a king.”
“Weird,” said Selphie.
“Yeah, well,” said Irvine carelessly, “superstitions are like that. After this long, it’s not like it makes a difference anyhow, right?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
The conversation subsided after that, but it stayed with Squall, and he mulled the idea over as he lay there and listened to the fire’s soft crackling. What would it be like, he wondered, to just be forgotten after you died... as though nothing you’d done in your life had ever mattered. Until, before long, it was as though you’d never existed at all.
He found himself thinking of Seifer again, with an uneasy sensation uncurling in his gut. Seifer would have hated the idea of being forgotten, he thought. It would have offended his sense of self-importance. He’d have wanted everyone to remember him and the things he’d done, to have the stories told and retold until they became legends that everyone knew, and if things got exaggerated in the telling, then so much the better.
Neither option seemed like a very good deal to Squall.
Were those the only choices once you were dead?, he wondered. To have your memory skewed past recognition until people could say whatever they wanted about you and no one would know the difference, or to be forgotten entirely?
He’d accepted his own death a long time ago. It wasn’t as though there were many retired SeeDs; life as a mercenary meant knowing that he probably wouldn’t live past thirty. The idea of dying didn’t really scare him... it was wondering what people would say about him afterwards that left him with a cold feeling deep inside him, one much harder to stand than the ache the healing magic had left behind.
As always, he couldn’t come to any good conclusions. In the end there was nothing he could do but roll over in a fruitless effort at getting comfortable, and do his best to go to sleep.
They had a lot to do tomorrow.