Sometimes, you just can't let go.
a Final Fantasy VI fanfic
It is almost dark, and he should be home already, and I am washing my hands in a bucket of cloudy water next to the sink when my ring finger comes off.
There is no pain, only a wet crack like the sound of a chicken's neck breaking, and then I am left looking dumbly at the mutilated ruin of my hand. The finger dips out of sight for a moment like a diving eel before bobbing back up, the golden band still snug around it, garish and obscene against milk-pale flesh. It ends in a ragged tuft of meat and knob of bone like something you'd find in a cookpot, and I look at it floating there and fight the urge to vomit, afraid of what might come up if I did.
I look at it, and think, you should have let go.
That's always been the hardest for me.
My father told me as much when I was only a little girl, knees and elbows and flat chest, too young for school, too old to be confined within the thick walls of our house any longer. I remember walking down the sun-shone cobbles of our town after a rainfall, leaping over and into brackish puddles, stomping on worms, singing songs I made up myself, a pastry from home in my hand. I remember the older boy who demanded it, his close-set eyes and pumpkin head and grasping fingers, remember shaking my head no, remember holding on for dear life until my treat was torn away and I was left in the gutter with a fat lip and a torn dress.
You should have let go, father said, swabbing my face. I drummed my heels against the kitchen counter and thought back the words I didn't dare say.
It was MINE.
I was determined, then, to never let anything that was mine slip through my fingers again. I was a foolish stubborn child, and I have become a foolish, stubborn woman, and I should know better.
The wind howls around the house like a living thing, banging loose shutters, tearing off the odd shingle. The storm is a bad one, but not nearly as bad as those in the first year of our marriage, storms out of hell with lightning like shrieks and rain that smelled like sulfur and fell mingled with tacky blood. Sometimes... things would fall with it.
The world was different, then. Different than it had been, different than it is now. It was broken, ruined, but full of power anyway. Some days it wasn't so bad. Some days the blood red sky was full of glittering lines that snapped and fought against the horizon. Some days the cries of the things that roamed the plains were fluted and haunting, strange music. It was a world of horrible destruction, but it was also a world of magic.
Magic is dead. His friends killed it in battle, and its blood seeped through the world, scouring away all traces of its remains. Almost all. Sometimes I want to blame them, but that's too easy. It would have happened anyway. It was my doing. I-
Should have let go.
Bandages in the cupboard. I fish the finger from the bucket as best I can with its stiff fellows, force it into place, wrap it awkwardly with my free hand. It's only after I finish that I realize I've covered up the his ring. I'll tell him I burned myself with the cooking. I'll unwrap it later and move the ring to my other hand, or put it on a chain around my neck. He doesn't have to know about this, he-
Of course he knows. Do you think he can't smell you?
A faint stink something like meat gone off and something like a brothel, overlaid with Nikeah perfume and Narshe musk and wildflowers and baking soda and lilac soap, goddesses know I've tried everything and it never works, never. The smell is deep inside me. Anything I put on top of it only takes on the stain, just like the hankerchiefs between my thighs, finest lace wet with blood and pus.
I turn up the lamps so it will be bright when he comes home, and carry the stew out to the table, line up the plates and cups just so. I always dreamed of keeping house for him like this, a foolish girl's doll-fueled fantasies, but when it came true, I was never more happy. I had no regrets, and I told myself he didn't either, no matter how he looked at her, just that once, when he thought neither of us were paying attention.
Then, I could believe it, when my mother's old wedding dress was still paler than my skin, when my hair hung in something other than straw-tangles, when I could feel the warmth of his hand in mine as he said the words.
He's mine, I thought, and smiled up at him, and he smiled back, and I thought no more then of letting go.
While I wait, I pour myself a glass of the hard cider, drink it down in one gulp. It doesn't taste bad. It doesn't taste like much of anything. I wonder if I even need to drink anymore. I'm afraid to find out the answer. At least I can remember the taste, sweet and fiery and intoxicating. I can remember-
We were young, and drank too much. We rolled in the hay of the barn, and his hand was down my shirt, and he kissed me softly and said love was like wine. The longer it lasted, the better it got. It was the kind of line even a crass Figarian play wouldn't try to pull off seriously, it was the kind of line tailor-made for cheap seduction, but I knew he meant it. I knew it all the way to my bones as we kissed again, a delicious shiver running through us, and I felt him lifting my dress.
Love like wine.
I believed it. As much as I want to call myself a blind fool, it was real then. It was everything I had ever wanted. It was like eating flame and still feeling it burn inside you. It was love, and I never wanted to let go. Not when the bridge snapped beneath me and my fingers slipped from its jagged edges, not when the Imperial soldier's sword went into my left breast, not when death came up to wrap me in numb fingers.
Not even when I knew I should.
I remember waking from a deep sleep, to find myself surrounded by roses and a deep red glow. I remember my eyes fluttering open to see him and his friends around me. He held a multifaceted stone in his hands, the source of the light that permeated the room. The light seemed like a solid thing, and it was warm, flowing through me and inside me, filling me with its touch, pulling me back from a cold, dark place that I scarcely remembered. Seeing him again filled me with a familiar longing, sweeter and more pure than the one I had felt when I died with his name on my lips. He was alive. He was happy. I had the chance to tell him how I felt-
But something was wrong. There was a flaw in the glowing stone, something felt as much as seen. It was hurt. It tried as hard as it could to bring me back, but it was not strong enough. There were only minutes, but with those I could tell Locke how I felt about him. I could tell him that I forgave him. I could rest, sleep-
I remember thinking how sweet it would be to finally let go, to join myself with the power I felt throbbing in and around me, to heal it, and then-
Then I saw her. She stood behind him, tall and lank and beautiful in her armor, beautiful in a regal, deadly way that I could never hope to match. She showed almost no emotion; her face stony, blue eyes glimmering with tears she would never shed. She showed nothing, but I saw. I knew. Not with the power that the magicite had given me, but with eyes that looked upon him a hundred times with the same expression.
I should have let go.
But I saw her. I saw how she looked at him. I saw how she wanted him, and thought of them rolling in the hay, the sky clear and dark and star-speckled above them, and thought of him telling her that love was like wine, and something hot flared within me, something not of the Phoenix's magic, and all I could think was
I reached into the ragged rent in the Phoenix's surface. I dug in with fingers made of pure will, and I pulled. The magicite gave a betrayed shriek, venting rays of ruby-light, splintering in his grip, falling to the ground in a thousand rainbow shards. I felt its warmth spike in me, breath like brimstone in my dry, rattling lungs. My heart began to beat again, a low, steady thud that I had not realized was gone until I heard it. My cheeks flushed, filled with the sickly fever-warmth, but I didn't notice, because he was racing to the bed, lifting me, embracing me, whispering that he was so sorry, that he loved me, that he would never let me go again.
I looked over his shoulder. In that moment, a spasm contorted the beautiful woman's face, fleeting and guilt wracked, and her entire body gave one convulsive shudder. Then it was gone, and she was smiling, and I knew that she was worthy of him, that she would have taken care of him if I had gone.
I didn't care. I hadn't gone. I was here, and his arms were strong and firm around me, and he smelled like leather and sweat and like himself. The floor was deliciously cool under my bare feet and tears poured from my eyes and my heart, not a minute restarted, raced. Most of all, I felt warm. Like a flame burned in my belly. Like a painless sunburn over my entire body. I was alive. I would be as faithful to him as he had sworn to be to me, and we would be together, forever.
It was almost a week before that warmth began to fade. Within a month I started to feel the chill. Now it lives in me, and I have forgotten anything else. Yesterday I bumped up against the radiator and didn't realized it until I happened to look down. I couldn't feel my flesh burning. Couldn't even smell it. Another bandage.
The door creaks open and he rushes in, slamming it behind him to shut out the storm. He's dripping wet from the rain, shoulders bowed, hair hanging limp and lifeless. I rise from the table and go to him, carefully peel off his coat and hang it up. I ask him how his day was. He doesn't answer. He's looking at my hand.
"Burned myself cooking," I say. I don't look at him. I smell myself, strong and foul in the breath of fresh storm air he's let in. Goddesses, the whole house must-
"I'm sorry," he says, a smile creasing his features. He looks old. I try to tell myself it's the rough day at the mines or the walk home through the storm that's done this to him. "Still clumsy after all these years. Better be careful."
And suddenly it's too much. Suddenly even a comment as banal as that reminds me of what a good man he is, what I'm doing to him. What he's doing to himself. My arms are around him before I know what's happening. My heart gives a sudden, painful lurch, old dead nerves trying to beat. I press my face into his shoulder and I want to cry. I want to tell him to leave, I want to save him from myself and himself.
I want to tell him that our love isn't like wine. It's like milk gone bad. It's poison.
"I love you," he whispers, fingers sliding through my hair. I feel a slight tug, and I know a clump of it has come away in his fingers. I kiss his neck with dry, cold lips that must feel like the touch of a snake. He manages not to shudder. Much.
I can't let go. I could never let go. Neither can he. Part of me only wishes he would leave. Wishes I had the strength to tell him to. I know I never will. I'll go on like this, day by day, breaking, wearing out, until I'm nothing but a shapeless piece of meat lurching in a bed, and he still won't go. He won't go because he'd see me every time he looked into her eyes, and he would hate himself.
I won't let him because I promised. Because he promised. Because he's mine.
"I- I was holding the stewpot," I stammer almost incoherently, pulling away. Tears are flowing down my face, thick and clotted, but still there. I can still cry.
He smooths them away, thumb sliding across the cheek below what's left of my right eye, and makes a strained cluck in the back of his throat.
"Silly. You should have let go."