The old man is full of stories, but the ones he won't tell are the most important of all...
A Final Fantasy VIII Fanfic
The old man is full of stories.
That is not what first draws Sheri to him, though it is something she discovers to her delight, like finding a shiny ten-gil piece in the gutter playing hopscotch or a lightning bug perching on her windowsill. It is Myra's whispered, scandalous dare that sends her his way: a shrill, ill-considered thing that seems to chase her down the hot boards of the dock to the sun-warmed spot where he sits, staring placidly at the sails of passing ships.
He seems ancient to her, a decrepit thing of twisted parchment skin and scarecrow bones, a skinny dinosaur sunning itself on a rock. His hair is all but gone, only a few wispy white strands like cornsilk clinging stubbornly above his small, red ears, his bald skull gleaming in the sun. An old black tattoo is faded and lost in the wrinkles of his face. He wears an open-necked white shirt and a pair of baggy legged fisherman's trousers and ratty old sandals. He looks like a hundred old men she's seen before on TV and in picturebooks and just walking around (she has even seen tattoos like that before, for all of FH is full of sailors), except for the one thing that had sent Myra to screeching and fed Sheri's curiosity until it grew bigger than her shyness. She stares at it now, mouth popping open like a hungry fish.
Where the old man's left arm should be there is only an empty sleeve, pinned back to the shoulder with the same kind of safety pin Momma uses at home. It reminds her of that creepy old story her neighbor Gina had told about Sorceress Adel, who used to walk through town tearing off everyone's left hand off and stringing them on wires. Gina said that Adel's ghost was still around, tromping up and down the forgotten streets of the world and looking for bad kids, and Sheri hadn't been able to sleep for a week until her mother had assured her that yes, Adel was really dead, Squall and Zell and all the others had killed her. That had helped a little, but she thought that the sound of Gina's mother yelling at Gina from next door -telling her that she was far too old to be filling Sheri's head with this nonsense, that she was old enough to be in Garden now and maybe if she didn't act like a young lady she wouldn't even have to worry about the draft because her mother would sign her up lickety-split - was what had really done the trick.
"You should wear a hat," she says. It is the first thing that comes to mind. "You're supposed to have a hat."
He turns, looking at her with heavy-lidded blue eyes, his face a withered brown raisin in the sun.
"Is that so?" He smiles, a sunny gap-toothed thing that makes him look almost as young as her Momma.
"Yeah," she says, looking briefly down at her feet. Then, before her spurt of courage can leave her. "What happened to your arm?"
He pauses for a moment, turning away from her, his eyes fixed on a spot somewhere past the little fishing ships, the bigger trawlers, even the distant waves.
Around them gulls skim over the waves and stalk the myriad docks that thrust out into the green-blue sea like ragged wooden tentacles, screaming at each other in their harsh voices. Somewhere out at sea a tug blares its brassy horn, cutting through the noises that rise behind their backs: the laughter of children and the gravel-voiced shouts of fishmongers, blaring radios, the hum of open air generators, the whickering of heavy-spoked bicycles and wagons.
This is Fisherman's Horizon. This is their reality: a tired old man and a curious little girl and a quarter of a million others, working and fighting and laughing in the sun. This is a moment indivisible and undeniable, until the old man looks back at her, his eyes suddenly alight, his grin returned.
"That," he says at last, "is some story."
"Tell me," she blurts. One hand darts out like a snake, almost touching the stub of his arm before her half-formed manners kick in and she jerks it back. "Please."
But that is not the story he tells her.
He's not so naive as to think a child wouldn't want to hear the story of how he lost an arm - all children, at heart, have a strange affection for the gruesome and the cruel - but he does not want to tell it. Sometimes he feels that he has forgotten himself.
In truth, he should be reminded in every moment, but his missing arm has been gone so long that its very nonexistence is a part of him. He no more notices it than the recurrent pain in his knuckles and lower back, than the fact his sleep is shallow and poor and interrupted by at least three trips to the bathroom a night. He is an old man, and if his body is no longer a comfortable dwelling, it is at least a familiar one.
His mind is less so. Telling that story would be like reaching into a distant corner and pulling out some old forgotten thing, some tacky piece of cheap art that he has no wish to dust off and display. There are plenty of other nice things there to show instead.
He tells her the story of the Balamb Fish, who was gifted with the power of thought by an absentminded old sorceress (In these stories, sorceresses came in only the absentminded and friendly or vindictively evil varieties, neither of which fit the only one he had ever really known). The fish, reveling in his newfound freedom and intelligence, had shown off extravagantly to his friends and family, becoming braver and braver, darting from the deep, safe waters into the shallows. But that had not been enough for him; he had wanted to see the great dry world above, and when the clever fox that stalked the shore had offered to show him, he had leapt right into its waiting mouth.
It is an old story, and one she has almost certainly heard before. But half of the story is in the telling, and he feels a fresh energy flowing into him as he meets her rapt gaze, almost as if some tiny part of her youth and vitality is seeping into him. The sensation energizes and emboldens him, strengthens the tale as he goes. He pitches his voice high and low as he speaks for the various protagonists, moving his hand to indicate how the Balamb Fish darts imperiously through the water, wagging his index finger as he speaks in the stern voice of the Fish's father, snapping his fingers shut in imitation of the fox's steel-trap mouth.
She giggles shyly at the appropriate moments, little hands slapping together occasionally in clumsy, pleased applause, eyes alight with that hungry gleam only children have, that innocent gaze which demands more, more.
So he tells her the story of the Balamb Fish.
He does not tell her how he lost his arm. How the frigid wind lashed at his face like a handful of knives, whipping his parka against him, tearing away his words like a malicious child. How Xu's military fervor and snapped commands had frozen into sullen silence over the course of one short December week along with the rest of her, her nose gone raw and red, lips purple and frostbitten, eyes hard. How they'd spent a night huddled together in a snowcave, their bodies locked in a desperate, sexless embrace to stave off the deceptively warm breath of the blizzard outside.
The Snowfields were no place for a sane military operation, but the Dollet Dukedom was anything but sane in those first frenzied years after the last Sorceress War. For decades, they had watched the slow, steady grind of the Galbadian war machine subjugate the better part of a continent, living in fear of the moment when the sword dangling over their heads would finally drop, destroying five hundred years of proud independence. Once that sword was blunted by the disastrous Galbadian defeat, stored tension had recoiled like a spring and Dollet had projected itself outward. Galbadia itself and even the struggling, war-torn Timber Republic were too big for the Dukedom to challenge, but the scattered, loosely organized and technologically backward tribes of Snowfield nomads had been an easy target.
The gods only knew how they had managed to scrape up enough to hire a pair of SeeDs, what sort of strange conversion of ivory bits and pelts to gil the Garden accountants had had to deal with, but it had been enough, and so he and Xu found themselves half-frozen and all but starving, lying prone on a hillock of powdery snow and watching two mottled gray-and-white troop carriers of the Dollet First Army struggle up the slopes toward them.
He does not tell her that the mission was strictly OSP, because she would not know what On-Site Procurement means and he has no wish to explain it to her, to chart just how the Garden's arcane contractual bylaws had left he and Xu scrounging to fashion clumsy explosives out of the meager cache of weapons the nomads had at their disposal.
He does not tell her how the first transport died, how the crude bomb Xu hurled underneath it punched easily through chickenplate armor to detonate the fuel tank, how a line of men desperately hurled themselves from the rear hatch, burning and screaming, awful, high, shrill screams like birds. How their desperate rolls in the snow did no good at all because the Dollet machines were still using cheap and deadly fuels twenty years out of date, a thin brown slurry that no water could quench.
He does not tell her how Xu died, perforated by a streamer of fire from the second troop carrier's machine gun, her body jerking in a series of rapid seizures, her blood spraying across the snow in crude red commas. He does not tell her how he had already cocked his arm back to throw another one of the hastily assembled bombs when the sloppy, cheap thing exploded in his hand, releasing a chunk of shrapnel that cleaved through the knob of his shoulder like a surgeon's scalpel. He does not tell her about that frozen moment where he saw it lying in the snow, gushing blood, the lump of tissue that had been the fingers still trying to twitch.
He does not tell her about his rescue, his recovery, nights of fevered dreams and harsh awakenings and bitter tears. He does not tell her how for years, even seeing the map that marked Dollet's new boundaries made his missing arm throb with acid, phantom pain.
He does not tell her any of these things because doing so would bring them back, give them a kind of life that they cannot have in his head alone, make them real. If he opened his mouth, it would become a story, a thing out of his control. If he leaves it inside, it is only a memory, a fluid, cheap thing worn smooth and painless by time.
For this reason, he tells her the story of the Balamb Fish and nothing more, and that is enough.
Afterwards, Sheri turns suddenly shy, Myra's taunting dare forgotten, her boldness cowed by delight. She had expected something nasty; a shout, a glare, maybe even a quick cuff on the face like she has seen her father give her Momma. Instead, a treasure, all the more wondrous in its unexpectedness.
She mumbles a hurried word of thanks and flees, her shoes rapping machinegun loud against the old planks as she races away. But it is not fear that drives her on, but a strange sort of flowering joy. She sees before her not the same town where she has always lived, but a world of possibilities, stories lying in wait to pounce or be called from the corners or shaped out of thin air.
"Did he get it torn off by a sorceress?" Myra asks, and when Sheri doesn't answer at first, she pulls her hair, and shouts, and they fight, and don't make up for nearly two hours, when Momma gives her money to go to the movies.
The second time she comes to him, he asks her her name, how old she is. She tells him, the kind of thing they say you should never tell a stranger, but she knows somehow that she can trust him. No one who could tell a story like that could hurt her, or anyone else.
She does not ask his name in return. She does not want to know. If he has a name, he is ordinary, nothing but another old man who likes to sit in the sun all day. Without one, he is a thing of magic, a wizard, a minstrel, a talespinner as strong as scary old Hyne himself, who made the mountains and the stars and people too, so they could sing his name and hear his stories. When they grew tired of his tales, he tried to kill them, but the old man will never do that, because he's nice, and anyway she could never get tired of the stories that he tells her.
She races to see him almost every day, insatiable, and he is always there, and he always has a story, a bit of magic conjured just on the spot for her. She takes it with the greedy delight of a child and presses for more.
The stories always start with a question he does not want to answer. Sheri never asks for a story, though he can tell by now that she knows she will get one, that they must be the reason she keeps a lonely old man company. Instead, she always asks him about himself, what he likes or what he does or what he did, and sooner or later she finds something he won't answer, and she gets her story.
He has faced interrogations before, of course. Reporters, shoving recorders and flashbulb cameras in his face, hanging on his words like his every insignificant grunt was part of some holy prophecy. His Ma, demanding to know how he was eating, why he was taking so many risks. His superiors, Xu with her mouth set in a cold hard line querying him on battlefield tactics, Squall more gentle but still insistent. He was once chained in a dank, fungus-ridden basement in Deling City, worked over by rebels looking for the aristocrat that held his contract, the pain-filled seconds crawling by like hours until Irvine and Selphie broke in and rescued him.
Questions are nothing new to him, but the way Sheri asks them is. She does not want to manipulate him, to write a report, to make a splash page, to discover how he ticks. She does not even do it to get the story, for he would give her that anyway. She does it because she cannot help it. She queries him with the random, nonsensical curiosity of a child, and he finds it refreshing.
Within a month, he knows he loves her, and because he loves her, he tells her the stories, even though it hurts. Reaching into his mind for them is like stirring up a murky lakebed. All too often things best left forgotten rise to the surface amid the silt of his memory, and these are the things he does not tell, the stories behind the stories, the ones that cut too close and too deep because they are the ones that have shaped him.
Still, he is lucky to have the pain; some of the Esthar scientists said that the Guardian Forces would render the saviors of the world utterly braindead within twenty years, but they were wrong. Not entirely: his memories of his childhood and his training are all but gone, a tapestry with so many holes punched in it that its patterns can no longer be seen. The last Sorceress War itself is more like wet paint sliding across a canvas, once brightly-colored events blurring together into one dull black lump that is little more than emotion and sensation. He can no longer remember just when he borrowed Squall's ring, or if he was at the Missile Base, or the instrument he played during the Garden Festival. The battle with Ultimecia is missing in its entirety, as if excised from his head with a scalpel.
But his memories of the time after the war, when Garden stopped using the GFs for a time, are as clear as ever, and he does not know if that is a blessing or a curse, for it is to them that he returns unwillingly again and again, when Sheri asks for her stories.
She sits beside him on the dock, swinging her legs in midair, and asks him if he has a wife. When he says no, she asks if he ever did.
He tells her the story of the Three Brothers From Centra, who all wanted to inherit their father's money and business. He gave them each a lump of gil and sent them to market, telling them that whoever could fill the largest room in the house with the things they bought would inherit his business. The first son picked bricks and the second straw, but neither even came close to filling up the room until the youngest son, who had bought a candle, lit it and filled the space with light. Delighted, his father granted him his entire estate, but the son had kindly split the money with his brothers anyway.
He does not tell her how he first met Penelope in the library as she sat behind the desk, lost in another world, her nose buried in the same book he had come to check out. He does not tell her about their first kiss in the hallway outside the library, the shyest of pecks on her part (he would never have dared, never even have imagined, his head full of loud punk music and T-boards in those days) which had hooked him forever. He does not tell her about their plans, or stumbling over her rolled-up socks on his floor, or the way she asked him to read to her. He does not tell her about their fight the last time he saw her, a blowup caused by her unwavering decision to join SeeD.
The last time he saw her, the night before her SeeD exam, they had fought, shouted and screamed until she stomped to the door, throwing it open and hissing back melodramatically, Oh, drop dead. But Penny could never take herself too seriously; he remembers the sudden hint of a laugh in her voice, and the shared knowledge that both of them would have forgotten it all anyway by the time she got back.
Close, Penny, he thinks, and tells Sheri how the youngest brother won the day. You were close.
She tells him about her parents arguing as she lay awake in the other room, burrowed under the covers. He listens, and she asks him if he ever had a night like that.
He tells her the story of The Islands Closest to Heaven and Hell. How Hyne, that crafty devil, plotted to win the heart of Mother Sky by giving her a necklace of pearls. But Hyne was nasty and inconsiderate even then, and two of the pearls were flawed. When Mother Sky noticed this, her delight turned to rage, and she smashed the necklace against the heavens. The pearls that stuck there became the stars, but the two flawed ones fell to Earth, and became The Islands Closest to Heaven and Hell.
He does not tell her about the night he spent in the sweltering sub-basement of a Dollet warehouse, stripped bare to the waist, his hands wrapped in barbed wire, a crowd of people roaring around him. He does not tell her about his employer, red faced and screaming, voice raw as he bellowed that he had paid for Zell so he would WIN. He does not tell her of blood spraying on sawdust, the crack of shattered bone, the ecstatic wailing of the crowd, as if they were participating in an orgy instead of watching two people beat each other to a pulp.
He does not tell her about the night ten years later when he met a young woman as he was coming out of the grocery store. She must have recognized him by his tattoo; she had spat in his face like it was a reflex, and the words that came from her mouth were heavy with rancor. SeeD, she had hissed, murder-whore, and then walked past him as if he were vermin. Whenever he thought of that moment, just as he had when he first heard her words, he remembered his night in the illegal arena, the screams and the blood. It was not the worst night of his life (that, he thinks, is reserved for the evening after Penelope's SeeD exam, or perhaps the night he found Ma silent and breathless at the kitchen table), but it was his worst SeeD mission, a pointless effort that felt as cheap and nasty as it was. When they buckled the crude gold belt around him at the end of the night, he wanted to spit in their faces, and that is how he knows how the woman outside the grocery store felt, why he does not blame her.
He tells Sheri of the pearls bobbing in the sea, moving his hand up and down to illustrate, and she laughs.
The months slip by, and in Galbadia and Dollet he knows the people are bundling up tight, but the weather in FH is as balmy and placid as ever, as if even the sea-storms respect the city's pledge to nonviolence and neutrality.
Sheri is not pleased. She has heard of snow, of course, and is in a unique position; young enough that she has never wondered why it has not appeared before, old enough to be disappointed by its failure to arrive and to tell him so. She asks him if he has ever seen snow.
He tells her yes, and then he launches into one of the stories of the Vascaroon Cycle. It is grimmer fare than their usual, but he picks a good tale, the story of how the humans fought Hyne and won in the last great battle. He tells her of the Last Meeting, when the kings of all the nations that had arisen while Hyne slept his strange, dreamless sleep met to settle their differences and muster their armies. He tells her of the Charge of Men, when a hundred thousand horses galloped forward as one, bearing cataphracts and pulling bladed war chariots. Behind them came ranks of massed infantry, in their hundreds of thousands, bearing spear and shield and sword and axe and trident and every other kind of weapon. Behind them the archers of a hundred different nations stood shoulder to shoulder, bending bows of yew and horn. When they fired, their flying arrows filled the sky so thickly that they blotted out the sun.
For six days and six nights the battle raged, smashing the ground flat and soaking it with the blood of the fallen. And then, on the morning of the seventh day, when only one in every hundred men who had come to the battle hale and hearty was still alive, Hyne had surrendered, weeping and tearing himself in half as he fled. A bone like a pillar of crystal had fallen from the God's ruined body, sticking upright in the Earth, and as he fled the blood from his hideous wound had splattered the moon, each drop forming a monster when it struck the dry dust. The area where the battle had been fought was useless ever after, a deep crater in the landscape marred by blood and death. In time, the rains filled the ugly little basin, but the soil was poisoned with the salt of dead men, and nothing would live in its blighted water. Eventually, it would be called the Great Salt Lake.
There is more, of course, of Vascaroon and Hyne's treachery, but he does not tell those stories today, because this one has woken a particularly painful memory. Instead of running away from the snow, he has stumbled right into it.
The Sorceress's Revenge, the weathermen on the television called it, only half jokingly. The thirteenth year since the defeat of Ultimecia brought the worst winter in five hundred, a freak, vicious onslaught that formed in Trabia and extended icy tentacles halfway down the globe. It was almost novel at first, producing surreal images - the waters around FH filled with icebergs, the squat little adobe houses of Balamb buried in snowdrifts. He could remember the neighborhood children struggling to build a proper snowman and thinking Selphie could have shown them if she and Irvine hadn't been five years in the grave. But as the cold deepened and spiked, becoming a sharp thing that cut through as many layers of clothing as you could put on, that stabbed through the chinks of houses like a stiletto, people had turned to religion, to science, and to strange combinations of the two.
Worldwide, over two dozen major religious and political figures called for prayers of repentance to Rinoa, and at least twice as many called for her immediate death. Scientists postulated a time delayed spell set by Ultimecia-as-Edea, or the volatile mixture of Galbadian warheads and whatever magics the exploding Trabia Garden had contained, or a side effect of the last Lunar Cry, or a hundred other possibilities. Conspiracy theorists filled the newly returned airwaves with their ranting, speaking in manic voices of Estharian superweapons or strange lights in the sky.
In the end, no one had the answer. In the end, there was nothing to do but wait.
He remembers watching the other SeeDs, young men and women he did not know (how fast the turnover was, even then) jamming spades in fast-frozen earth and wishing he could help, feeling useless and miserably cold, his body shivering and shuddering and screaming at him to go back inside, that it would be different if he could do anything, but his accident had been beyond his control and so was this.
He ignored the impulse; Squall had been one of his best friends, even if he hadn't been easy to get along with, and when the others were dead and he could have turned solely to Rinoa, he had remembered Zell, remembered what it meant to be alone, and reached out to him. And so maybe he was an old man at thirty and a washed-out amputee who couldn't go on SeeD missions anymore or even work a shovel, but if he couldn't dig Squall's grave, he could damn well stand there and watch.
The death had been sudden: a violent, fatal stroke that not even Rinoa's magic could have cured. Squall had simply keeled over at his desk, slumping bonelessly across it, scattering his papers across the floor haphazardly. He was already dead when an aide found him ten minutes later. It seemed a particularly cruel joke - the world's most lethal swordsman slain by paperwork, the lion of Balamb dying silently in its sleep. From stress, or some genetic quirk, or the GFs -Squall, after all, had Junctioned Eden, and she was so big and so nasty that even the thought of letting her touch his mind sent a shiver up Zell's spine that had nothing to do with the cold. ( Or maybe, it was whispered on the conspiracy station and roared by drunks in bars, as part of the Sorceress's Revenge.
He did not believe it. For one thing, Ultimecia didn't seem like the type that waited around - she had been so damn eager to get her plans into gear that she had compressed time itself. Secondly, if the Sorceress's Revenge had gotten Squall, it would have gotten him, too. He didn't think curses cared much if you were retired or not.
It was only months later that he revisited that thought. Long after the farce of the funeral, almost fatally cold and filled with people he did not know, after the stricken Rinoa bolted away through the crowd, after the freak winter melted into spring slush. Not until he woke up in the middle of the night and realized as if for the first time that all his friends, his family, everyone he had really cared about since the age of five, were dead. In the back of his head he heard Ultimecia's laughter ringing hollowly off the walls of her castle, that damned old empty place that was a million years old and not even built all at once, and he shivered in the dark even though the heat of old Balamb was back, wondering if she had gotten her revenge after all.
He tells Sheri of the Great Salt Lake, and thinks of old scars, of sorrows smoothed over and buried by time, but still full of bitter poison.
One day she comes to see him, and everything is different.
He is used to the sound of her approach, the reverse of that rapid machinegun pattering she made running away from him the first day, but today is different. Today her steps are slow and uncertain, brief sounds in the dark, and the dock does not bounce excitedly but tremble.
Don't turn around, something in his mind warns him, desperately, and he realizes he is afraid. If you turn around, you'll ruin it all.
But the sound of her rapid breathing and her fidgeting cuts him to the bone. She is upset, and he loves her, and the thought of her in pain is too much to bear. He can't take her away from her parents, or stop the children that torment her at school, or help her with her homework, but he can listen. He can tell her a story that takes it all away, he can take her hurt into himself as he has so many times before.
He turns around.
She wears a pair of neat black shoes that have seen the sun for the first time today. Black woolen socks swallow her legs to the knee, where they meet the hem of her dusky blue skirt. Above that, a long-sleeved buttoned up blouse, a burst of yellow-
No, something in his mind whispers softly. Oh no. For God's sake, she's only six years old...
"Hi," Sheri says. She does not look at him; he is left staring at her untidy mop of brown hair, flaring golden in the bright, merciless sun. He thinks, randomly, that she must be roasting in that outfit. It was never made for FH, for its bright sun and doctrine of peaceful coexistence. "I haveta... I can't... I gotta go away soon, I won't be able to hear any more stories."
"Away?" He asks, as if he were a child himself, but he knows what away means. Away means a magical school in the sky, where she will learn to read and write and tame monsters that will eat her piece by piece. Where her afternoon weapons training will meld into an early evening combat course that will teach her how to kill a man by chopping sharply across his throat-
"Yeah. Garden. Momma says I have to. They sent a letter." Sheri looks up at him. Her face is narrow and pale, her eyes open wide in excitement and terror. When she speaks again, she uses an adult's words, some mantra she doesn't understand but is holding on to desperately.
"Balamb Garden. Momma says it's the most pres-/prestigious./ It's where Squall and Zell and Quistis came from. It won't be like here, there'll be lots of stuff to do, and I'll learn to be tough, and I'll have lots of friends there, not just Myra. Myra doesn't have to go... her number was high... mine was under two hundred, though, so I have to. Momma says fifty higher and maybe not, but..." She trails off, her voice quavering, eyes filling with tears. "B-but I don't wuh-/wanna./"
A single sob shakes her from head to toe, passing through her like a seizure, and then her little arms are around his waist, her face buried in his chest. She cries like she is dying, and it feels that way as she convulses in his arms.
He cannot remember ever crying like she does. He must have, as a child, but the GFs have eaten it along with everything else. If it was anything like this, he thinks, it must have tasted bitter. So bitter.
"I love you," Sheri says against his chest, a muffled shriek that sounds full of pain, as if he had extracted the words from her though torture. "I love you, please, I'm scared."
"I know," he says, patting her back awkwardly as she clings to him. The words are so hard now; they used to stream from him in a bubbling torrent that almost choked him, but that was when he was young, when he scarcely even knew what he was saying until the words were out of his mouth, before solitude made the gears of his mind rusty and his voice halting. As he holds her he thinks: This must be how Squall felt. "I love you."
"Tell me a story," she moans, and it is not a demand but a desperate plea. He feels another sob shake her violently; she trembles in his arms like a baby bird. "Please, tell me a story."
And he thinks of the last time he held someone who asked him for something he could not give, and does not tell her.
He does not tell her of the day, twenty years ago, when he saw his last living friend, the only living sorceress, the one and only Rinoa Heartilly, for the last time. She had been waiting on his doorstep one afternoon, shrunken and small against the side of the house, wearing a sleeveless blue sundress and a large gaudy hat and a pair of sunglasses to hide her face.
He still lived in Balamb in those days, in the house where he had grown up, knocking about rooms that felt far too empty with Ma gone. He did odd jobs around the area, piecemeal housework mostly, but that was just to keep himself busy; he had no wife or children to provide for, and the Garden's pension paid for all his meager physical needs. In those days the flame that had once burned white-hot in him had cooled, but not to the guttering, flickering state it was in now. Then it had still been strong, and he had needed activity, action, accomplishment to fuel it.
Even if she had not been there, he would have remembered that day. That was the day he had stood on the docks, anonymous in the crowd of people that shouted and laughed, craned their necks and put children on their shoulders, gazing out over the water as the old Balamb Garden was pulled out to the center of Balamb Bay and scuttled.
The papers had been talking about it for weeks, their columns full of maudlin, flowery dedications from people he had never heard of, a terrible amateur poetry contest, a slew of retrospective photographs - one of them a duplicate of the one he had framed upstairs, the heroes of the Sorceress War standing in front of the Garden, another of the Quad during a Garden festival a few years back, another of the great Garden Battle, taken by some reclusive Centra resident. There was an official statement from Garden, explaining that a replacement was already near completion at a secret construction site, bemoaning the necessity of downing the old relic but implicitly refusing to do anything else.
It hadn't surprised him that much. B-Garden's antigrav propulsion system had been slightly wonky ever since it had rammed G-Garden back during the war, and it had failed entirely five years ago, leaving the school moored off the Balamb coast. With the number of Garden students increasing every year, the old facility no longer had room to house them comfortably. The technology was Centra-built and Shumi-enhanced, good for a long time, but it was already starting to wear a little when he had been discharged. Repairing it must have finally outweighed the cost of just starting over.
So it hadn't been a surprise. But it hadn't been easy, either, no matter how he might feel about the Garden these days, to watch the old thing go under. He wondered if the others around him felt the same way. They hadn't been SeeDs, but they had grown up around the Garden. Did they resent it or mourn it?
The shaped charges they'd placed in a belt around her lower hatches were timed; they all blew inward at once with a muffled whump and a spume of agitated seawater, and then the Garden had begun to sink, listing slightly from side to side as the water rushed in to drag it down.
He had closed his eyes to spare himself the sight, but the vision would not be denied. The Garden must look different now, of course; he hadn't been inside it and hadn't wanted to in decades. Undoubtedly it had been gutted, stripped bare of anything marginally useful or potentially incriminating. Despite this, the Garden he saw in his mind's eye was the Garden he had known. The Garden he remembered.
He saw the sea foaming up around the oil-slicked subterranean passages, trickling through cracks in the intricate paneling of the room that had been NORG's, bursting from the marble fish's mouth in a destructive geyser that rent the delicate sculpture asunder. He imagined a casual, careless arm of water curling up the hallway outside the library where he had his first kiss, reaching into the room to scatter books heedlessly, swirling them into a whirlpool, their covers tearing, their ink - their stories, so many stories - sloughing off the pages like blood.
Dr. Kadowaki's surgical instruments, always so clean, arranged so precisely on antiseptic white trays, tossed and tumbled about for a moment before sinking into the brine. His own rarely-used dorm room consumed by a tiny tsunami, his bed and knick-knacks pulled out by a savage riptide, the posters on his walls coming away in colorful flakes. The cafeteria was a tidal pool, freezers broken open like sunken pirate ships to release their cargos of frozen food. The creatures in the Training Center screamed, lashing out at the onrushing tide with fronds and fangs and claws before being swept under. His favorite T-Boarding rail in the Quad crumpled as the wave hit it, tearing loose, staining the water around it with rust. Thin tendrils of water slid across the floor of Quistis's classroom, and the desks sparked and smoked angrily.
When Zell opened his eyes again, he saw that only the Garden's spire still jutted above the water, tilting drunkenly to the left. Even as he watched, it slipped beneath the waves, leaving only a brief ripple in its wake. Gone. The crowd clapped, and he wondered what the hell for.
One of the Garden officials standing at the end of the dock, a hard, lean man who Zell did not recognize, began to make some sort of speech. Most of the crowd was already drifting away, their interest killed along with B-Garden. Zell followed them, silent and thoughtful.
And found Rinoa waiting at his door. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for some reason, as if her being there had shaved twenty years off the world, as if all their friends were still alive, as if he might open the door and hear his Ma nagging him about not hanging up his clothes again.
He asked her in, seated her on his creaking sofa, puttered about clumsily and noisily in the kitchen, feeling suddenly old. He asked her if she would like water, or tea, or hot cocoa - old man drinks - he thought suddenly and contemptuously, remembering his nights of caffeine and sticky energy drinks, a sea of bodies leaping and contorting to the beat beneath throbbing colored lights, the SeeD car taking corners in Balamb way too fast, Selphie standing up through the sunroof, screaming in half-elation, half-mortal terror.
You look good, she said when he returned, two mugs balanced precariously on the palm of his remaining hand.
He knew it was a lie. He wasn't forty-five yet and had already lost most of his hair. His tattoo had lost its sheen, swallowed in a nest of wrinkles. He walked with difficulty, his bones and tendons having absorbed more stress in their twenty years of service to SeeD than they had any right to. He was worn out, stretched thin like a piece of cheap Dollet taffy, and it showed.
Some mornings he awoke and saw a stranger in the mirror, made all the more peculiar because he had no basis for comparison. His friends had not been as lucky as he, a strange thought for a broken old man with one arm, but true. They had not had a chance to grow old. Squall came the closest, but even then he was still fifteen years gone, and thirty was hardly ancient in any profession but their own. He tried not to think about that. Not to question whether he was the lucky one. He felt old and adrift and alone most of the time, but it was a sensation one grew familiar with. Only Rinoa's presence, only the absence of the sensation, once again awakened him to its existence.
So do you, he said, seating himself beside her, letting her take one of the mugs from his hand, and that was not a lie. She had removed her sunglasses and hat, setting them aside on the cluttered coffee table, and her eyes, those delicately tilted chocolate-colored eyes, peered into his own. Pink rosebud lips puckered as she raised the mug to her mouth, sipping daintily. Her flesh was smooth and pale and utterly unblemished.
She is seventeen forever. Seeing her like this, untouched and whole, a crystallized fragment of his youth, made him think of laughter in the sun and his legs sure beneath him on the T-Board, of the days before he was a broken, discarded man, of their friends who had gone, leaving them behind.
She thanked him quietly. He waited for a moment before asking, Were you here to watch the Garden go down?
No, she said at once. I came to say goodbye.
Goodbye? It didn't make any sense. He hadn't seen her since that bitter, empty time after Squall's funeral, when she had moved away, trying to outrun the pain, unable to stand the presence of anyone or anything the two of them had known together. It was preposterous for her to bid him farewell now, when he had never expected to see her again.
They'll be after me soon, Rinoa said. She looked away for a moment, gazing out the narrow little window where the sun slanted across the cobblestone streets. I won't be able to come see you any more. They may have followed me already.
Who? His legs tensed, fingers folding themselves into a fist, and only the sharp pain that danced up to his elbow with the motion stopped him from standing. For a moment, just a moment, he had been ready to leap up and fight, had forgotten his age and infirmity.
Garden, Rinoa said. They sent someone to meet with me a few months ago. Very polite, acted like it was just a visit about Squall's benefits package, but... I can tell they're watching me. Waiting to see if I'll do something.
But you won't, Zell pointed out. They should know you're no threat. You haven't done anything wrong.
But I might. Rinoa's hands fidgeted nervously in her lap. A shiver ran through her; he saw goosebumps trailing up her pale arms to her bare shoulders. That's all they care about. They're getting stronger every year, and they want to be sure. And I might.
They can't do that, he said, knowing as the words came out that they would. That they had to, in their own way. They knew someday Ultimecia would arise, that the sorceresses would not always be represented by the example they knew. That Rinoa would endure forever, and immortality might be enough to drive anyone mad.
It'll be Esthar all over again, she picked up her cup, and he saw that her hands trembled. Only there won't be anyone to come get me. Everyone we know is dead, Zell. We're the last ones, and nobody else trusts me, nobody else knows. I see the way they look at me, like I'm some sort of monster, like they should kill me before I do it to them, and I-
Her cup clattered against his tabletop.
I can't say they're wrong. Long enough and who knows what I might do? I'm going to live forever, Zell. Tears beaded in her eyes, slid across the perfect porcelain swells of her cheeks.
He felt anger rising in him, sudden and sharp, throbbing along all the places in him that hurt, all the bones worn brittle by age and trauma, up his side to the stump of his arm, where it thrashed and fought, flexing phantom fingers. Oh yes, Rinoa, he thought, such a curse, to be young and whole.
But she wasn't whole, and it took only a single look into her eyes, the only part of her that showed her age, to realize that. They were darker now, like burned wood, and they seemed to look over his shoulder at something he could not see. She had her health, and her youth, but what were those things but a curse when everyone she cared about was gone? What was good was an eternity of ostracism and fear?
A gremlin danced up his spine, cold and sure in its mischeviousness. It was the only time in his life, before or since, that he had ever felt such a sensation, and he never wanted to feel it again. For in that moment, he was immensely grateful that he was capable of death, of cold sleep in a grave.
Rinoa... his words were clumsy, slow. He'd never been good at comforting, relying mainly on pure energy and humor and the desperate hope that another one of his friends would show up. But now he was old, and their friends were dead, and his meager words were all he had. It doesn't have to be like that. You'll meet other people-
It won't be like it was with all of you, Rinoa said. She placed her fingertips on her temples, shielding her face as if embarrassed. It won't be like him. He... you all knew me when I was just Rinoa. They'll only know me as a sorceress, a thing. It'll be like I'm dead, but I'll still be alive. I never wanted this. I just wanted- she broke off, collapsing into sobs that shook her entire body: the fierce, helpless crying of a teenage girl, bursting from a woman whose soul was nearly fifty. It was like some perverse illusion, some trick of ventriloquism or puppetry.
Zell awkwardly embraced her with his single arm, holding her close as she wept into his chest. He rocked her slightly, making nonsense, soothing sounds, and thought of how they would look to someone peeping in the window; an old man comforting his daughter instead of two friends comforting each other, a pair of Balamb townies instead of the world's ancient enemy and one of its most recent saviors.
She wrapped her arms around him tightly, shifting position. She wore no perfume, but the scent of her hair and skin was all around him now, a wisp of youth and femininity that seemed out of place in an old bachelor's house. He thought of Penelope, not as he had last seen her, harried and angry, but the way she had looked when he had loved her the most, her knees covered in grass stains from kneeling to place the blanket, her hair, loose and unkempt, fanning out on the ground, and the bright Balamb gleaming like a coin in the sky. He remembered looking at it like some fool, eyes watering, and wishing he could wrap it in his hand, hold that radiance and that moment forever. But those days were gone, and the sun that slanted into the room was a cheap imitation orange, and he suddenly wondered if he was comforting Rinoa or she was comforting him.
And then she was leaning in close, kissing him softly on his face and neck, her hands trailing down his back, and suddenly he was shaking, his fingers fumbling, breath rasping, struck not with the frail uncertainty of age but by awkward fierceness of youth. He didn't know how and he didn't want to. It was enough to feel it, like- like-
Magic... the thought clattered around in his head. Time-magic, the fountain of youth, the-
Her fingers, soft but sure, grasping his wrist, guiding his hand to her chest. He cupped her left breast, feeling the warmth of her, her rapid breathing, the delicate fluttering of her heart. Throat dry, he whispered her name, and she his. Her eyes were dry, her mouth open and inviting, and her collarbone was a smooth white plane of flesh that he thought of kissing and-
-just like that day, remember, when she wore that scarf in August, and Squall even blushed. SQUALL.-
-remember that wedding, that cake shaped like a Garden, and Rinoa dancing with her father, and Selphie clapping and watching, Squall and Laguna standing at the side, and then Caraway had let her go and Squall went to her in his SeeD uniform, and they danced the same dance they had the first time, but this time everyone else moved aside, just like the world had-
-Ma could ride a T-Board better than Penelope, and he had berated her, asking her why she'd even bothered to try as he stood over her in the grass, and she had suddenly darted forward to grab his leg and pull him down, and she had said, So I could do this-
And he saw himself through the window again, an old man groping a girl who looked young enough to be his daughter, and it all felt suddenly wrong, obscene. Beyond that, the tickling sensation of betrayal, the insistent voice that insisted that she was Squall's, that he was in love with someone else, as if their illusory return to their old selves had brought those old ties along for the ride.
I can't, he said, releasing her, backing awkwardly away. I'm sorry, Rinoa. I can't.
Zell... she chased his hand with her own, gripping tight. It's all right. Please. I need-
No you don't, he said, his voice firm. He forced himself to look into her eyes as he spoke. You don't. I don't.
He knew how it would be: they would sleep together, and both of them would think of someone else in the dark, clinging to each other not out of desire but desperation. The passion of the familiar, like children clutching treasured possessions that were no longer whole, nor ever would be. They were two shards of a broken mirror, neither capable of reflecting the life they had known, even if clumsily cemented together. For a moment they might be happy, but it wouldn't be enough. He would wake to find her gone, or worse, still there, standing in his Ma's place in the kitchen, cooking breakfast, wanting something from him he could never give, offering something she didn't really want him to take.
She was apologizing to him, her voice coming quick and clumsily, cheeks still flush as arousal became embarrassment. It was as if the nervousness that struck him earlier had been transmitted by their touch. She could not seem to look at him, she was fumbling for her things, and he heard her say Penny's name of all things, oh God and that was all it took for him to start babbling back, about mistakes and the heat of the moment and all those other embarrassing cliches, and he remembers little of it, a bit of deliberately invoked forgetfulness that has nothing to do with a GF.
He only remembers that when she reached the door, his head still buzzing, he had yelped out a quick, clumsy, and ill-thought out farewell.
See ya around, he said, lapsing back into the easy dialogue of their youth, and he didn't even think of what he had said until she stopped, one hand still on the door latch, forehead leaning heavily against the door, and spoke with a thick, sob-choked voice.
No, she said. You won't.
But this is not the story he tells Sheri. He tells her no story at all, and as the silence stretches out she knows with a sudden icy stab of dread that she has ruined it by asking, she has tried to hold the magic too tightly and crushed it in her greed, she has said too much, sucked everything out of him because of her own sorrow, and that makes her want to cry even harder.
But his voice is still gentle when he asks, "Do you want me to tell you my name?"
Part of her still doesn't, but the rest, grief stricken, tells her that the magic is gone anyway, even if he doesn't get mad. They'll send her away, they'll suck her up into the sky like she had been bad and there'll be no more stories no matter what, and she nods.
She pushes herself away from him, looks up at him with tearstained cheeks. "But you're old," she says. "They didn't start naming kids that until after- after-" She stops. "You mean-?"
He nods, and he can see that she believes him instantly, her fear momentarily forgotten, her eyes lighting up with a naivety that makes his heart ache. They'll grind that out of her in a month.
"But," and she grows almost angry. "Why didn't you tell me any stories about yourself? You saved the world, you killed the sorceress, you know all those famous people, why didn't you /tell me-/"
"I couldn't," he says, sighing, closing his eyes and watching his life race across the back of his lids "I was in those stories, and I don't know what they mean, and I don't know how to tell them. It's tough to tell stories when they're a part of you, like that. It's like you have to... tear them right out, you know?"
He knows she can't completely understand, hell, he doesn't understand himself, but the tone of her voice tells him she is trying. "Does that make them bad? Does that mean... that all mine will be too?"
Sheri asks the question with the deep, genuine need of a child, trusting him to tell her the truth.
And he thinks of tossing the electric-blue frisbee up the orphanage beach, watching as Rinoa tripped Squall in her haste to grab it and they rolled on the sand, laughing. Matron standing to one side, eyes crinkling, and Penelope leaning close to whisper in his ear: Your family is kind of retarded sometimes. He had nodded, whispering back: Yeah, hella retarded. You'd fit right in, and she had punched him in the arm.
And he thinks of her hand in his, and her soft lips against his own, and lying beside her sleeping form in the dark and staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, hovering in the afterglow of magic that had nothing to do with monsters in his head, thinking, I had no idea. I really had NO idea.
And he thinks of the beat throbbing through the racing car, Selphie's whooping laughter, Irvine's bleary, drunken protestations that Zell was a friend, man, a totally great friend, the best, I love you, man.
And he thinks of sitting in the audience next to his friends, fidgeting nervously as the Dollet Theater Troupe's staged representation of "The Last Sorceress War" rages and romps and gets everything wrong. He remembers seeing a pamphlet whip onto the stage just as his own temper was breaking, remembers Seifer Almasy, looking older and a little fatter, standing up from the third row and bellowing, Even Leonhart wasn't THAT big of a wuss!
And he thinks of dinner with Rinoa and Squall, excusing himself early, Rinoa's hand pinning his down. No, Zell, stay. Don't go and sit at home alone. We're your friends.
And he thinks of a young girl shyly looking up at him, saying, You should wear a hat.
"No," he says, and opens his eyes in the dazzling sun. "They won't all be bad."
Some will, and she will come to learn that, but she will come to know too that what he has said is true. Like him, like all his friends and all his enemies and all the people who have ever lived, she will come to see that life is nothing but a collection of stories, good and bad, bitter and sweet, forced and chosen. She will see that sooner than she should have, thanks to the Garden, but a bad turn doesn't always end the story.
"Zell... I'll miss hearing your stories," she says. And he knows he doesn't mean the stories themselves, cheap things you could pick up from the TV or the 1 Gil Store or even the library, but the same thing he will miss. The telling, the act that bound them together. "They were fun."
"I'll miss telling them to you." He ruffles her hair, a thoughtlessly affectionate gesture he must have learned from his mother.
Part of him wants it to be goodbye, and part of him never wants to let her go. Part of him is filled with fantasies of escape, life in a far-off land, but the rest of him knows they wouldn't get ten miles before SeeD caught them.
"Don't forget me." She backs away from him a step, wiping her still streaming eyes. "Everyone's going to forget me, I won't be back for a long time. Please."
"I won't forget you," he says, and thinks: I can't stop them, I can't fight them anymore. I'm old, Sheri, and they're meaner than I ever was, but they can't take all of you away from me. "When you go away, you'll be one of my stories, and you know I never forget those."
"Will I hurt you like the rest of them?"
Yes, he thinks, but he doesn't need to say it. She doesn't need to hear it, because she feels the same way. She'll remember him and hurt for it. But she will remember. She will be different for having met him, and he her, and maybe that's enough.
"I won't forget you either, Zell. Ever." Sheri bolts forward to embrace him once more, and he thinks she will start to cry again, but she is soon pulling away. "Goodbye."
Machinegun steps firing one last salute, the dock trembling with sobs. His eyes are wet. Hers are overflowing again; he can see the teardrops that stain the boards behind her.
"See you around," he calls after her retreating form. He fights the tears that want to come, telling himself that this time it's different, that it really might be true.
It might not. He thinks of Irvine and Selphie, killed in Dollet. Xu bleeding out in the snow. Squall slumping over his desk. Rinoa, somewhere, gone, transformed from a person to a monster by nothing more than the passage of time. Graves in frozen earth, piled high with the dead, what was left of Penelope's ashen face.
Not knowing is better than cold certainty. Not knowing is possibility, hope. Not knowing is ten years later, her hands over his eyes, her voice saying Guess Who? Not knowing is sitting in the pews on her wedding day. Not knowing is telling her the story, someday, of a little girl who made an old man feel alive again, and this story he will tell her, because this story belongs to both of them. This story is something they have made together in the hot noon sun, and it is a thing of magic.
Sheri races away from him before she breaks down again. She knows she should feel ashamed, because she's a big girl, but Zell doesn't care if she cries. Zell loves her, and he won't forget, no matter what. Her SeeD uniform is wrinkled from where he hugged her, and it will have to be ironed before they come tomorrow, and Momma will yell, but she doesn't care anymore. There are big things and little things in this world, and anger over a mussed up uniform is one of the smaller ones.
They're taking her away, and she can't bring her toys, or her friends, or her Momma or Zell or anyone. And she doesn't know what they'll do to her but it sounds scary, why else would Myra's parents be so happy she didn't have to go? And she doesn't know how long they'll keep her there, or what they'll try to make her do, or if she'll do it or tell them no.
All she knows is that she will have her own stories next time they meet, and she will tell them to him, because they are a part of him too, the part of himself he gave to her. The story they have made is not over yet. It can't be over yet, because the stories she likes don't end this way.
He will not forget. Not if he lives to be a hundred, and he will, if he has to. He will sit on this dock every damn day he has left, and wait for her. That is his choice.
She will not forget. She will come back to him, if she can. She will be changed, shaped by the world just as he has been, but she will come back. That is her choice.
That is the lesson he has taught her. That is the story behind the stories, the truth he never dared to speak until he knew he was losing her. The truth she never realized until she was torn from him.
There are many stories in the world, but the most important ones are those you choose to make yourself.
B-Garden arrives the next day, flying high in the sky above the city on its improved gravlifts, an oblong, steel-gray slab, a monolith almost a mile long. It comes out of the west as the sun kisses the horizon, and its shadow goes before it, bringing unnaturally early twilight to the tiny, tangled streets of Fisherman's Horizon. The wind of its passing flaps the few clothes still strung out on their alley-lines, sets yard-dogs to barking, draws the children to the windows, some watching with fascination, excitement, others with quiet dread.
Silence falls over the town. Thousands of eyes watch from windows or doorways, but there are no words, no laughter in the streets or rattling bicycles. Even the dogs are hurriedly hushed, cuffed or muzzled or drawn inside where they can make no ruckus.
The Garden hovers over the great dish in the center of town as if it is preparing to lay a clutch of eggs. Then, it does, as dozens of circular pods detach themselves from its underside, dropping lazily through the sky on spider-silk cables. Inside the Garden, pulleys scream and shriek, and the pods gently brush against the ground, opening to disgorge their SeeDs. There are many more pods than SeeDs, at least for now.
The SeeDs fan out across the town, organized and alert, armed with lists and a hundred different exotic weapons. There are a few shouts, one high, piercing scream. Most parents do not struggle. From what he has heard, Sheri's are not likely to.
When he sees the SeeDs return to the dish with the young ones in tow, he forces himself to close his eyes. From this distance, he doubts he could pick her from the crowd, but if he did, it would tear his heart out. He only dares to open them when he hears the pulleys kick in once more.
Like an old trapdoor spider drawing in its catch, the Garden tugs, and the now-full pods retract, pulled up through the air, gleaming like scattered pearls in the last rays of the sun. There is the hiss of hydraulics as they fasten themselves to the larger structure, becoming seamless parts of its dull gray surface. The Garden turns, antigrav engines roaring, shadow wheeling across the city, and then it is gone, a fading dot in the distance.
As Zell turns away from the window, his first thought is only how improbable it seems. How, after everything he has seen, the Garden's coming is still strange, alien. A floating castle in the sky, a hundred mouths that swallow children, a city that wordlessly accepts its fate.
It's like something from a fairy tale.
Like something from a story.
Thank you very much for reading.
As a general disclaimer, bits and pieces of Zell's stories are taken from famous fables. The Balamb Fish is obviously the Gingerbread Man, for example. I do, however, take full credit for that monstrously bloody bit from the Vascaroon Cycle.
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To Zachere, for beta reading. And telling me it was okay to name the library girl Penelope. Oh, and if you hate the title, blame her, since she thought it would be more "fun" than "Memory."
To #icybrian for "hella."