Close your eyes.
What's the most terrifying sound you can hear? What's the most horrific sound you can imagine?
Is it the unheard pleas on the battlefield - the broken warrior begging for help?
Is it the crackle you hear as the lightning flashes - the roaring thunder that shakes one's very foundation?
Or is it the shrill sound that emanates from the heart monitor – that shattering feeling of hopelessness as doctors hover to save a life?
It's none of those.
Not even close.
It's the sound of nothingness. The absence. The void.
Isn't it the silence we fear most?
It's when the soldier stops begging; when the storm becomes deathly calm, or when the monitor's tone is silenced – it's only then when we hear what terrifies us the most.
It's only then when we come face-to-face with the greatest enemy - the unknown.
Purgatory. Those moments in between life and death.
Where silence hovers. Where fear lives.
And that's what I hear now.
The thing I remembering hearing first - silence. I usually welcome it, prefer it to company, but this felt different. Unfriendly. cold.
It suddenly hit me. After the silence, it's what registered next. I'm numb. Freezing… no, wait. burning? I can't figure out anything, not even the temperature around me; hot and cold have become synonymous with each another.
Numb, silent, in a perpetual state of drunken haziness - that's what I feel. heaviness. Nothing feels right, but I need to move; I need to do something that isn't fighting myself in thoughts.
I hate feeling… tired. weak.
It's disjointed, but it's coming back. I remember feeling weak. déjà vu. It's fragmented, but I've had these thoughts not long ago – was it minutes, hours… days? I seem to recall this almost foreign desire to give in. But I'd remembered there was a reason. I won't; I can't. Failure was a fleeting thought - a side-effect born out of the silence. But no matter how brief it was, it did cross my mind. I let myself allow weakness in; I can't forgive that.
I won't be weak. failure.
Even now it's like I'm internally battling to regain consciousness; at least, this state is what my mind accepts as conscious. But I need to believe in myself, because I also believe in her. She's here. Somewhere… close. We won't die like this - so undignified, so unfitting. I won't allow it and neither will she. If this is an end – an end that I can't remember right now – we'll be together, we'll say our peace…
No, we'll fight. live.
As I tried to move, I wanted to scream but that required strength; strength I'm not willing to waste on frivolous things like my pain. The pain triggered something – something that helped me regain focus. A little. It's enough to note that my hair's matted, a mix of blood and dirt blood; blood and more blood. It's crusted and dried, coating my face like a second skin. As I winced and my facial muscles contracted, I felt the dried substance crack, but it still remained firmly against my skin.
Familiar. This feeling is familiar. I've traveled down this road, many times. This wasn't my first fight. Fight?
No. A fight doesn't seem right.
…Yet, the metallic taste in my mouth also begs to differ. The pungent taste is nauseating, as is its familiar smell; my senses are slowly waking – for now. My mouth is dry, but I managed enough saliva to rinse the pockets of dried blood. I turned my head and every part of my body cried out in agony. Again, won't give the pain the pleasure of acknowledging its existence. I spit, a futile effort, but it's a start.
That hazy sensation returns – broken and defeated – as I did my best to open my eyes.
I see a void. nothing.
I don't know what I was expecting but silence and darkness go hand-in-hand; beautiful and grotesque. It's often what I desire, but now it's what I fear.
Even in the darkness, I bowed my head to look down.
I felt her.
As looked down to what I couldn't see, my eyes started burning – it was different. It wasn't the familiar it was… different.
And then I remembered. everything.
The memories came crashing down on me like the cavern's walls had. Rinoa and I were together, trapped among the rubble and rocks. We'd gone to lunch in Balamb and then I wanted to make a stop… here. She didn't want to. I remember now; it was my responsibly to protect her, but I didn't listen.
Nothing. As everything was starting to come back together it became even more horrifying. In the darkness I found only silence. It didn't last much longer as my ragged breathing seemed to increase, it was difficult to breathe, not from the broken bones or injuries something else. Gas. an explosion.
I coughed; the gas burned my lungs as I inhaled, but had to steady myself. I'd trained for this – I'd trained to protect her. Rinoa and I had become condemned prisoners of the cave; the gas was a poison slowly gnawing away at our existence.
There was a good chance that this lucidness was temporary. I needed to remain positive but, as reality set in, so again did that flash of desperation. Had I woken up before and had these same thoughts? It was déjà vu, but how many cycles, if any, had passed?
It didn't matter, because I'd do everything within my power to make this time different. It would be different; whatever happens, we would face it together. But I needed to wake her; I need to think it still is possible. Being optimistic isn't something that comes naturally to me. I'm not naïve enough to believe it ever can be, but it has become easier and that's more than either of us would've ever imagined.
I'm beginning to wonder if the gas is starting to thin or if I'm too far gone to separate fantasy and reality. I woke from the fog enough to realize that Rinoa's right here. She's been resting against my side the entire time – and if that's fantasy, you can keep your damned reality. But it took me far too long to realize she was here. It doesn't matter if it's pitch black or if I feel like shit, it never should've taken me this long. I won't offer an excuse; excuses are for the weak.
The only consolation to my failure is that she's near, but for once having her near isn't enough. I want to hear her heart beat. I want to hear her breathe. I simply want to hear her.
My voice is barely recognizable, even to myself. It may have been a combination of our surroundings and the fact that I had more dirt in my throat than on the cave's floor. Clearing my throat, I tried again.
I waited and waited before I called louder.
…And there it was, the scariest sound one could ever hear - nothing.
The silence bordered on deafening… it took everything inside not to assume the worst. It's easier to believe in the bad than hope for the good. Yet, as I push past those fears, I begin to feel her on more than just a physical level. The bond we share is weak, but it's there. Barely.
The single word was all I could choke out. Softer, more desperate than anything before. I hated being helpless, but the choice was not mine. With my upper torso, I did my best to nudge her awake. It was harder than I intended but I no longer could mask my desperation. Pain surged through my body and I let out an involuntary gasp in response. I knew even before moving my arm was broken… and that was only the beginning.
Bones will mend, losing her won't.
Maybe she heard me or maybe she was just reacting to being touched, but she finally began to stir. She moaned softly and then proceeded to string a few cryptic syllables together. I don't know if they were supposed to be words but, to me, it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever said.
She was alive. Maybe I knew that, but I wouldn't accept it without confirmation.
I believed she regained her bearings enough to speak, yet her voice was ragged. Again, it was something that didn't sound her own. Ironic, sometimes I wish she'd talk less, now I wish she could speak more. But she could still speak, that's all that mattered.
"Shhh, stay calm."
Her first instinct was to move, it usually is, but that doesn't mean your body is capable. It's like waking up from the deepest sleep; your brain trying to process long before the rest your body can. Senses return - one by one - voices often sound acute, and everything around you feels hollow. And in the dark, it's far worse. I need her to know that she wasn't alone; I was there. I had no idea how extensive her injuries were but I couldn't think about that – yet.
She sounded desperate and I could feel her body tense in fear. I knew that feeling, that feeling of finally coming to and opening your eyes only to face darkness… and silence.
You never completely forget that feeling of desperation – searching to find the familiar. I wanted to be that familiar.
"Rinoa, I'm here."
There was nothing more I wanted to do than put my arm around her, comfort her, whisper to her that it would be all right. I couldn't do the first part for more than one reason, but I could do the second.
Even if the words were a lie, it was a lie that needed to be told. "I'm here. It's going to be all right. Promise."
Another piece of irony. Promises and words were easily said, but harder to keep. I told her once to 'stay close.' Maybe if she hadn't stayed close she wouldn't be here now. I'll never forgive myself for this. I'm supposed to be the one to protect her, but she was the one who risked her life to protect me… I'd forgotten that until this moment. I hope she forgets it too.
Her body relaxed, at least I'd been able to offer some comfort.
"…I don't… where… I?"
"It's okay, you need to keep calm. Do you remember where we are?"
"…No. Yes. Fragments? …Maybe?"
"It's okay." With my good arm, as in the one that might've only been fractured in a half-dozen places, I reached out to her. My eyelids closed and I found myself squeezing them tightly together as an outlet. They watered from the pain as I hoped this would soon reach its crescendo, but to acknowledge it existence would give it control over me.
The second I could touch her with my own hand, I believed it would've all been worth it. But as my fingers brushed against her stomach, she gasped before letting out a guttural cry. That wasn't good. I knew it. I'd caused this by touching her, and if that hadn't cut me enough, she started coughing, desperate sobs relayed what I understood all-too-well.
"Something in the air, it may be thinning." And that's all I said.
For all the anguish I'd caused her, for the pain my touch had caused; for leaving lunch early and saying to get the damn pumpkin pie back at Garden - because Ithought dessert wasn't a productive use of time. I prioritized gathering materials over spending time with her and the only apology I could offer was about the air thinning.
She'd stopped coughing, but her breathing was still forced.
"…Great," she mumbled, although I wasn't sure why. I could tell she seemed hesitant; I couldn't see her, but there was something inside me that could see it as plain as day.
"Squall… I don't remember. I'm-" she didn't make it any further before she started to cry.
Part of me was glad she didn't remember. I didn't want her to know the truth.
"That's all right, it's normal under these circumstances."
"Normal," she scoffed in between quiet sobs. "What about us in normal?"
Either the gas wasn't thinning or my body was going to shut down, protecting itself from the pain. It was becoming all I could do to keep my eyes open - it wasn't as if the view would change. I couldn't close them and with the realization opened them with a start.
"We're normal," I said, trying to do 'lighthearted' to the best of my ability. "Defeating a time-compressing sorceress, saving the world, making a pot of coffee and completing the Timber Maniacs' crossword before the crack of dawn… that is a routine as old as time. Although, the fact you'd be up before the crack-of-dawn, or anyway in its general vicinity, is slightly abnormal."
"It's bad if you're trying to be funny."
"I resent that – trying"
I didn't often do humor. It usually came off as curt and my sarcastic replies tended to offend most people, although I sure as hell thought them, but Rinoa saw through that. It's the small things you think of at times like this.
She managed a small laugh – forget her random syllables earlier - that was easily the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard.
"Thank you," she whispered. Again, she didn't explain, but I understood.
I found myself sighing, I doubted she'd let go of asking why we were here, I sure wouldn't.
"Rin, we were in here to look for some Caterchipillars, remember for the changing seasons how they sometimes go into caves… Anything coming back… at all?"
I honestly hoped it wasn't but I had to ask.
"No… well, a little."
"We were going to gather some Spider Webs Quistis needed for a class. I volunteered to get them."
"Commander Squall Leonhart and community service liaison, extraordinaire"
"Hardly," I scoffed. "Unless community service entails casting a Petrify spell on the junior cadets until they're at least thirteen and not recklessly running laps around the hallways. If so, then yeah, sign me up."
"You really are a meanie."
She was right, I was a 'meanie' because I actually would've petrified the cadets until they were sixteen, tossing in Zell and Irving for good measure, but I was being generous for her sake.