f i v e
Selphie is dying and knows it.
The world has gone hot and sticky around her, or maybe she has gone hot and sticky. Her kidneys are a mess. Her lungs are even worse. Breathing brings pain like some mighty river, flooding her sides and throat straight through to her fingertips.
Her lungs are deflating, Mother of Hyne, she can feel it. She can feel the throbbing, pulsing mess that is her kidneys and liver.
Zell is a sprawling corpse by a fountain. He must have tried to support himself on the fountain's rim, because he's fallen with one hand in the water. His skin was always pale, but now it's ridiculously so.
His eyes are open. They're crazy blue, Blizzaga blue, blue like Quistis with her crackling Thundara spells.
She stops to close Zell's beautiful eyes. Her fingers leave sticky, oozing blood on his eyelids and she tries not to cry.
She doesn't know where Irvine is. He's nowhere visible on the battlefield.
It's an ache in her chest. She can see his smile, hear his chuckle. His leather-and-gunpowder scent fills her nose, but he isn't here.
Maybe he's alive, some trembling part of her, made all of tremulous smiles and forlorn hopes, whispers.
And Selphie tries so very hard not to cry because she sknows: Irvine isn't alive.
She stumbles along the marble floors of Garden, staring at shadows and carnage and twitching at nothing. The battle is over. All the sounds of fighting have gone. (But maybe she's going deaf, she thinks, because paranoia is healthy in a SeeD.)
Momentarily she slips in a red-brown puddle. She skates along the tile for a moment before managing to regain her balance. Her movements are heavy, uncoordinated. It's a slow, meaningless shamble toward pillowing her head on the floor and giving in.
Squall and Rinoa have fallen together. Rinoa is a mess. For once, it's literal--Rinoa's hands are shreds. Her clothing and skin are tattered and torn, sliced up, sliced into. Red welts and jellied blood have congealed into one beautiful disaster of an ex-princess.
Squall, though, Squall is worse.
He's still alive, even if only just barely.
"We won," he croaks. His voice is dry, cracked. Partly from trauma and grief and partly from dehydration. Hyne only knows how long he's been bleeding to death.
She laughs a little, but it hurts. Blood bubbles into her mouth and she spits it out. That hurts too.
"Yeah," she wheezes.
The battle is over, and they won, and they're still dying.
Selphie staggers away, desperate to get away from Squall and the light leaving his eyes, away from the way he'd collapsed onto Rinoa to save her from their enemies--why couldn't Irvine have done that for her? Is there even a little chance that he wanted to?--away from the fact that they won, they won and they're dying anyway.
The Door is closed. But the Heartless are still coming.
Selphie finds Quistis collapsed against a wall. Flies and gnats swarm around the short golden lance piercing her abdomen. Her head has lolled back.
The half-smile on her lips is too peaceful.
But her eyes are closed, and her hair only hangs in her face a little.
The SeeD can't help but brush some of the hair away from the instructor's face, behind her ears.
"I think I'll nap here a little while, Quisty," she tries to say, but it all comes out in one rolling, burbling cough. She ends up spitting blood into Quistis' lap.
Surely Quistis doesn't mind.
"Until Irvine gets back," she says, and this time it comes out in words and not in blood drops, and then she leans her head against Quistis' shoulder. It is instinct to hold one of Quistis' hands. (Quistis' hands are colder than they've been since they visited Trabia, but Selphie ignores that. Her own hands are warm enough for the both of them. Maybe that's why Quistis' hands feel cold.)
Quistis lies still and quiet and does not breathe, and Selphie falls asleep for the last time.
f o u r
On the fifth day, Wakka finds his blitzball.
It's been at least three days since he'd seen it, and there it suddenly is, floating in a brackish, bloody pool. He doesn't even bend to taste the water or pick up the ball.
He just ploughs out with his foot and kicks it straight for the nearest Heartless. A Shadow takes the ball in the gut and collapses into inky goo.
There's been less and less time to throw or aim things, lately. The Heartless are getting faster, or maybe just more frantic.
He rushes through the thick Besaidian jungle, finds his way to a bright clearing, kicking and spearing Heartless as he runs.
His arms are one massive stinging injury. His torso is nothing but scrapes and bruises and he knows it.
Their venom is seeping into him. He knows that too. Wakka feels the fever-warmth and the creeping chills at night. There is no such thing as sleeping comfortably anymore. Of course, it's not like Wakka sleeps much anymore, anyway.
He's forgetting names, lives, laughter. All he seems to remember are faces and deaths and their Summoner crying.
He remembers their Summoner. Drowned, somehow, he thinks. Maybe. There's something about a dream she wanted to be real, but it always slips away.
His wife. He remembers his doll-loving wife. Practically a doll herself, he thinks, wincing at the sting of pouring filthy water in the newest scratch and thinking of her wicked black nails.
She died fighting. Screaming in rage, surrounded in fire and summoning ice and her eyes were raw fury, bottled and stoppered in a pretty face.
He remembers watching that beautiful dress soak with blood. The belts begin to stick to each other.
The blue furry one--K something--he's already dead. Died with the Summoner. Fought with everything he had, literally tooth and claw and stub of horn, but he died on the ship with the Summoner.
They died on the ship because nowhere is safe.
Nowhere is safe.
There was a girl with green spiral eyes. Carefree and blonde and he remebers white teeth flashing against the desert sun.
She died screaming, too, he remembers. Screaming in a forest of colour and sharp whipping pinwheels, sobbing and scratching and letting the dust drink her blood.
Why was she there, in that boneyard? Why the offerings of blood and wine and tears?
Had she been praying to something?
He doesn't remember, any more than he remembers why they were on a ship or what happened to his son. And there's still a face bothering him, bleached blond and always smiling. Cheerful and rebellious and hard-headed.
A wisp of a dream, he thinks. He was never real, right?
But then he wonders why he even thought that. No such thing as imaginary people.
Only imaginary safety.
Wakka collapses on a stump and wishes he had his blitzball. He's not entirely sure what he did with it, but he knows the Heartless will find him soon. The venom is seeping in.
He closes his eyes and relaxes. Deep breath in. His lungs hitch a little from the fractures in his ribs. Deep breath out. His lungs still hitch.
In, out. In, out.
The changes will come soon, he knows. Already, his heartbeat is slowing. Soon, he'll be one of them.
Maybe it won't be such a bad fate.
His eyes drift closed for the last time as shadows seal them over. And for just a little longer, he pictures the dark-eyed woman who died screaming.
t h r e e
The airship is losing altitude. She can feel it even through the eternal numb chill that's on her skin. She knows it's so not just from the nosebleed, not just from the screaming of the metal, not just what she can see through the windows, but because she knows that they have to be.
An airship can stay afloat so long without people working it. Without being shaped and guided and tended.
Eiko Carol knows all this and still does nothing.
She holds the last few fragments of Garnet's horn in her tiny hand. It's chalky and strange-smelling. The bone dust is beautiful against the remains of the glitter she played with before all of this started.
She almost finds it funny that it only took a matter of hours.
Didn't the last time the world was nearly destroyed only take a few hours, too?
It took weeks of work to get there, she knows. Weeks of travel and figuring everything out. But that final showdown, that was over in just a couple of hours.
So maybe these nasty little shadow-creatures, with their big blinking eyes like Vivi's and their pudgy bodies that make them look her age, have been working for weeks, too. It'd be easy not to see 'em, she thinks. She could almost mistake them for Black Mages, sometimes, but of course she knows that's nonsense, even if they look like they're maybe made out of the same thing that makes up Black Mages.
When they're dead, they dissolve into puddles of something that's a little like the puddles of motor oil on the floor of the airship hangar.
She closes her hand. The last of Garnet's horn doesn't so much crumble to dust as cave in, because all its hard is bone-ness gone, and then almost magically wipe away into powder.
Every airship worth flying has antifreeze, she knows. The captain and crew have probably all found it. That's probably why her bird--because every bird in the sky is her bird, especially this one, because she's on it--is dying.
She tosses the bone dust out the open window and turns to regard the peering, twitching shadow in the corner.
"You aren't Vivi," she says.
It says nothing in reply, only blinks those emotionless, lamplike eyes. It doesn't even move toward her.
They both know it doesn't need to.
Mages and Summoners by air. Knights and soldiers and a glittering, princely thief on the ground.
That's how it should have gone.
But the Eidolons have gone silent, and she can't find Vivi, and the ship is falling.
She looks out a window to check the airship's progress. The ground beneath them is close, too close, and teeming with a moving darkness. Motor oil is swallowing up every patch of land she can see.
Looks like Zidane and the others lost, too.
Eiko Carol doesn't want to die with her eyes closed.
Black Mages can Stop, she thinks, distantly. What about White Mages?
She stands behind the slumping pilot and watches out the windows as the airship plummets toward oblivion.
t w o
The problem with cities like Rabanastre is that they're full of nooks, crannies, hidey-holes. Shadowy places.
The problem with shadowy places is that they provide doors--how did Old Dalan explain it? Entrances? Gateways? Opportunities? Something like that--for the Heartless.
Rabanastre is crawling with the things. Vaan is glad Basch taught him to use the short sword as well as his daggers. Swords and spears are the only way to make the city survivable.
Penelo's hand is cold in his, gripping him tight. The grip hurts, but that's good. Pain tells you you're still alive, pain tells you you're not a Heartless, pain tells you that whatever's hurting you is still alive.
And alive is good, as Balthier--where is Balthier? He misses Balthier--would say in that dry, devonair, too-sophisticated, too-casual voice of his.
"Penelo, you with me?" The words are a rasp in his throat, harsh and jagged and probably unintelligible. Gods know he can barely hear himself over the pounding in his ears.
"Yeah," she says, voice a breezy, breathy whisper.
He squeezes her hand and she squeezes back.
Wait, no, that's not right. The only thing the fingers of his right hand are holding onto is the skin of his palm. He's cutting bloody little moon-cuts into the meat of his hand and that isn't Penelo, because Penelo...
Where is Penelo?
Why are his hands so cold?
They got separated. Penelo is gods know where because she couldn't hold on because he was bleeding and his hand was slick and there were crowds. Crowds of people pushing every way they can, screaming and stomping and running in random directions. Not running for safety, just running to get away.
It was a hume stampede, but of course it wasn't just the humes. Viera were leaping off carts and walls and people to get to whatever safety they could find. And of course all the other non-humes were racing away, too. Of course.
The city is practically empty, now. Except for the Heartless.
Vaan leans against a wall and listens to the quiet. No more screaming. No more crying. Word amongst survivors--and he wonders how many of those there will be come tomorrow, come an hour from now--is that the undercity was a meat grinder. But what's happening now, nobody knows.
Except this: the water's running out, there's no new food, and they're cut off from everything. Not like there's much of an "everything" left, anyway, though, or at least that's what Vaan figures.
So he figures one of two things will happen to him: he'll die from Heartless, or he'll die of deyhdration. In the desert, especially with all the bloodshed, dehydration comes fast.
His hands are cold because they aren't his hands.
Are they? Aren't they?
He doesn't remember anymore. Where did Penelo go? Didn't she take his sword before she left their safehouse?
Why is he in this alley?
"Penelo?" He calls. For once, his voice is loud. It echoes off the silent stones surrounding him.
But there's no answer. The shadows don't even twitch. Penelo says nothing. Maybe he's looking in the wrong place.
Vaan sets his hand down. (Or is that his dagger?)
His arm drags against the stone walls, leaving little blood smears, as he pulls himself to his feet. His body feels stiff as he moves toward the alley's entrance.
A group of Large Bodies shuffles by, hogging up the street. Amongst them are the Soldiers, of course, and the thin, clockwork ones with the lance arms. How could something so deadly be so comical, so pathetic, so shiny?
As one, the Heartless turn to face him.
Vaan reaches for a sword that isn't there with a hand he's pretty sure he set down in an alley.
o n e
He's sitting next to Cid. (That's m' girl, thief 'n a liar.) Sitting right next to Cid.
Reeve's shirt is dark, wet with blood. His eyes have drifted closed. (Pain or sorrow?) He twitches his fingers a little, weak whimpers escaping his throat.
Yuffie bends down, grasps his shoulder. "You're not dying, Reeve, it just hurts like a bitch."
He rolls his eyes open to look at her. His breathy gasp of pain is all she needs to hear.
Her lungs hurt. They're a mess, she knows, a wet, pulsing, bloody mess. She can feel a rib working its way into one of her lungs. Knifing through her, wriggling like some stiff bone worm.
"Reeve, come on, stay with me."
He says nothing.
She's crying. Raking hot tears burning her eyes, salty in her mouth. They water down the blood from the cuts on her cheeks.
"Reeve, Commissioner, stay with me. If you die, I'll--" But there's no Restore materia in the world powerful enough for what she says she'll do.
Yuffie sobs, a bloody, choking burble.
(The dying hold a vigil for the dead who are still hanging on.)
Vincent is behind her. She can hear his breathing. She can feel his hand on her waist throught her blood-sticky shirt.
Reeve goes perfectly quiet. The twitches ease.
In her pouch, she keeps her trophy from that time she broke into Reeve's office. The time where she went through every drawer in his desk just for the hell of it. To prove she could.
It's an old, battered moogle hat, earts torn and nose faded. The spring connecting the pom-pom is limp and lifeless.
Reeve is silent and still and his skin is going cold.
To keep his (dead, dead, dead) head warm, she settles the moogle hat onto his hair. Tugs it down until it covers his ears. Makes sure he's snug as a bug in a rug.
And then she cries into Vincent's shoulder. His fingers trace the deep gashes in her side as he rocks her and tries to soothe it all away.
But nothing will make this not be happening.
He wraps both arms around her, cradles her as he sinks to his knees.
"I don't wanna die." The words are accidental. They just burble and bleed from her mouth.
The lung is collapsing. She knows it.
(That's m' girl. Thief 'n a liar.) (Come on, Barrett, stay with us.) (Red, get up!)
"Then don't die." Vincent's voice is gentle. Beautiful. There's pain in his tiny, tiny smile. (It's a smile just for her and she knows it just like she knows she's dying even though she pretends she isn't.)
"D-don't force it, you bastard," she says.
The smile drops instantly.
"I'm dying." She coughs blood and it hurts and she makes herself laugh and that hurts too and so does the huge fake grin on her face. "Can I have your headband?"
He unwraps that ridiculous bandage from his forehead. His gaze never strays from her. He works slowly and stares straight into her eyes. The bandage is soft and warm when he pushes it into her hands.
"Didn't mean it," she mumbles (because she's not dying, damnit, she's not dying. That's m' girl, thief 'n a liar.) as her vision goes blurry. "Take a joke, Vince."
Is she still crying? Her face has gone numb.
"I don't want to die." It's the most honest thing she can say. She refuses to ask if he ever loved her a little.
The coughing starts in earnest, now. She retches blood all over him but he doesn't so much as grimace. She can't catch her breath, she can't say a word, she can't even cry anymore.
"Then don't," he tells her.
The last thing she sees is his fingers--his human fingers--closing her eyes.
(You should never have trusted me because I'm a thief and liar.)