Only One Choice
"We're gonna die, we're gonna die, we're gonna die..."
I close my eyes at the unhelpful mantra, convincing myself that I shouldn't hurt the idiot human. The man, named either Zone or Watts, may be mentally weak, but he's still someone who can wield a weapon and occasionally cause some damage. If he ultimately gets killed in the coming battle, he has the potential to be an obstacle which can slow down a monster or two. Wounding him now, as satisfying as it may be, won't accomplish anything... or so I have to believe.
"Shut the fuck up, Watts!" yells the other man I've mostly dealt with, apparently 'Zone' if the sniveling one is Watts. "We can't look weak in front of the others."
Watts whimpers at the command, but obediently keeps quiet.
Boots on dirt crunch as Zone steps close to me, but not too close. Never too close. "I think... maybe, Watts has a point. You know better than the rest of us - should we retreat... while we can?"
Opening my eyes, I glance over at the man who is very good at mimicking a soldier's pose with his chest lifted and his eyes to the front, but he doesn't have the heart for this. None of these humans do, and yet here they are, thirty or so able-bodied men and women ready to fight for their land and families... Rather, they were prepared to fight, and then they got a look at the creatures they would have to face. Idiots, several of these creatures have already invaded their capital, and yet somehow, they didn't believe in their own rumors about the 'Moon Beasts' and their vicious blood-thirst.
I mostly blame my father for this, and the rest is undoubtedly the result of my unending bad luck.
In the last five years, I have been coaxed into my father's domain of negotiating between the mainland humans who wish to enlist our services and the Letivian Council that authorizes all contracts. Being a negotiator is nothing I wanted to do, nor do I particularly have the talents for it, but ever since the incident between me and a resurrected sorceress, Councilman Caraway has been waiting for an excuse to see me executed. Given that constant threat, I'm often sent to negotiate militia contracts with the humans, far away from the home that fears my absent dark wings and cursed existence.
Performing those duties, I had arrived in Timber a week ago to 'kindly' remind their president that our people aren't his personal toys to put on display whenever he likes. It was during that meeting when a young farmer barged in and declared that a monster had jumped from the moon and ravaged his family's livestock. President Deling was prepared to laugh it off as the ranting of a simpleminded man, but I decided that, a monster from the moon or not, something had destroyed his animals and it would cost me nothing to assess the situation. More so, I had traveled three days for a meeting that took less than an hour - I was bored and hunting down a large beast sounded like an appealing method to relieve the frustration caused by Deling's idiocy.
Reaching the farm before nightfall, I found the tracks of a creature and reluctantly identified them as belonging to a beast that I've only seen in the texts of my father's library. The books had called the reptilian creatures 'darcadels', but 'Moon Beasts' describes the monsters well enough since only the song of a sorceress, or a 'Lunar Cry', should have been able to summon the creatures from the moon. My scars still burn at the very idea.
Initially it was hard to determine what was the greater threat - the visitation by an unearthly monster or the existence of a sorceress who could dominate the world. And then that night, at least ten more Moon Beasts fell from the sky. Acknowledging that neither issue could be resolved without handling the other, I was forced to contact Seifer through the magic of our bond, which has strengthened to worrisome levels in the last several years. Unfortunately, the idiot was already angered by our rare separation due to his responsibilities in the militia, and my suggestion that I should handle the sorceress was ruthlessly denied given his fears of a sorceress stealing me away from him. With Seifer volunteering his unit to search the region for any sign of a sorceress, I gathered the few Letivians already here and prepared the people in Timber to defend themselves from the Moon Beasts until help could arrive.
Few believed my warnings in those first couple days, least of all the Letivians who despise my existence, but when a handful of the Moon Beasts invaded the streets of Timber, no one could deny their presence or their vicious intentions. Dozens of humans died that day, a regrettable loss that motivated the citizens to take arm against the monsters. Unfortunately, the citizens from Timber are a far cry from soldiers, which is why they hire Letivian guards in the first place. It shouldn't surprise me that they have already lost heart after facing a few beasts, but it irritates me all the same.
"Sir?" the dark-haired human prods, implying that his suggestion to retreat was a serious one.
"Where do you think you can run to escape these beasts?" I ask with a glance at the man, probably the son of merchant or politician.
Dumbfounded, Zone stutters before insisting, "B-but we're not mercenaries like you. Watts is right - we'll die here. You and that other Letivian are the only ones left, and we saw what happened to the one that was pulled out of the sky by that horde--"
"He underestimated the enemy and paid the price," I say coolly at the Letivian's death, knowing that he was a cocky ass who believed in his own immortality.
"They tore him apart, limb by limb," he reminds me with a panicked tone.
"So I saw," is my reply when I spot golden wings on the horizon. Ignoring my thoughts of Seifer and the resulting heartache, I watch Quistis' shaky approach from her scouting mission over the wild lands. While an honor student during her training years, the blue-eyed Letivian had been immediately assigned to guard duties after her graduation and never experienced a true battle before today. Witnessing the harsh death of her teammates has shaken her more than she'll admit, but admirably, she is determined to avenge their murders.
Landing with a rough touch, Quistis eventually stands in front of me, her eyes bright with anger and fear, but without the contempt that would be counterproductive at this point. "There are over seventy of the Moon Beasts beyond the hills... And I think they spotted me."
While Watts makes a squeaking sound, I shrug at the unsurprising information. "Now or later, it was our plan to have you lure them here. We're prepared for their assault."
"Prepared?" Quistis repeats in disbelief. "We were going to wait for other units to arrive before initiating our plans."
"And that luxury no longer exists."
Though golden feathers bristle with insult, Quistis bows her head and admits, "I should have been more careful--"
"Dwell on your mistakes when it doesn't threaten lives," I dismiss before turning to Zone. "Alert the others. The Moon Beasts should be here any moment."
With fearful hesitation, Zone nods and offers a salute per his human habits before kicking Watts into following him. The pair of humans walk through broken gates to enter the old army base that had once stood proud in front of Timber's enemies, but has since fallen into disarray with a century of relative peace. As they leave, Quistis doesn't try to hide her interest while examining me with her critical blue eyes, and once alone, it's no surprise when she brings up an issue that must be heavy on her mind.
"You aren't what I expected." In further explanation, she describes honestly, "The others told me that losing your wings made you dumb and that negotiating with humans was the only way you could earn your keep with your father."
I smirk at the common misconception that has led to me winning numerous duels, even though the losers would often claim it was a fluke outcome. Only Seifer was smart enough to recognize my tactical mind and practiced skill with a blade, which also makes him the only one who has consistently beaten me. If it weren't for his wings, I would have a greater share of wins, not that Seifer agrees with my assessment.
"Why do you hide what you are?" Quistis asks, needing to correct her own misunderstanding.
"I hide nothing," I contend. "You are the ones who assume the worst about me."
Quistis frowns at the statement, but doesn't try to defend the other 'true' Letivians. Meanwhile, the humans start into a chant of sorts, readying their spirits for a lost battle, while also alerting their god about their noble sacrifice. It's strange how people assume that there is a world beyond this one, a nirvana that will make all of the pain and suffering of this life disappear. If my past experience in death was real, then I know there is little waiting for me. This is my one existence, and with that reality, I will fight with all of my strength to keep my life and stand once again at Seifer's side.
By the time the humans build the courage to stand outside of old walls, the first shadows of the Moon Beasts can be seen cresting the hills. Apparently holding an interest in winged prey, one of the creatures emits a whistling shriek at the first sight of Quistis. It's a disturbing occurrence when several of the large, snake-like heads all turn to spot the woman and her golden wings, and with more taking up the cry, the monsters head in our direction in mass.
Seconds later, the patter of running feet can be heard of several humans escaping with their lives.
Ignoring that desertion, I look to Quistis and nod toward the sky, suggesting that she had better take a safer position during this battle. She doesn't bother arguing, the previous incident of her dismembered partner still fresh in her mind. With the Letivian in flight and out of reach, I find Zone in the crowd behind me and motion that it's time for him and his best men to take their positions. His mouth tightens in fear, but he still draws his weapon and manages to convince his men to follow in kind.
Gods above, if I survive this, I will be pleasantly surprised.
Like a plague of locusts, the Moon Beasts swarm over the hills such that the land becomes obscured by their thick bodies. The first ones that had located their flying prey rushed a fair distance ahead of the group, giving a good view of the reptilian creatures. Though they used all four legs when running, the Moon Beasts can stand on two legs to abuse their seven feet or more of height during a fight. In many ways, the darcadel resembles a snake with its pattern of overlapping scales, a long tail to support itself, and a head with smooth curves. However, monstrous teeth jut from the wide mouth, sometimes in awkward angles, and stubby legs display heavy muscles, not to mention feet with dangerous claws. All around, it's a creature with no other purpose than to kill, and some legends suggest they were created by a skilled sorceress to destroy and dominate the Letivian population... which could explain the beasts' obsession with the previous Letivians who have already fallen, leaving Quistis alone.
The first monster to come close stumbles upon the ditch dug earlier this morning, but it doesn't think twice about the fresh dirt or the swamp-like stench. Quistis attacks from above, electricity being her element of choice. While it doesn't greatly harm the scaled beasts, it does stun them long enough for a person to strike at the softer scales located at the neck and lower at the pelvic region. And with a dazed Moon Beast before me, Lion Heart sings when it slices through the vulnerable scales at its throat, shattering the reptile's attempt to shriek in its last moments of life.
Three more Moon Beasts go down in a similar manner with Quistis' magical strike and a sword finishing the creature off, two more kills to my name and one to Zone's. But in a rapid change of events, three becomes six, and six becomes too many to count as I find myself several paces away from the position I should have held. Dodging teeth and claws as best I can, I endure the torn clothing and sliced skin as I sprint toward the trench. With a fire spell formed in my mind, my innate magic fights against the conflicting element, but a crimson blaze still ignites at my fingertips and obeys my command to fly at the thick liquid within the shallow ditch.
Instantly, a wall of fire spreads from the base of the trench and follows its shape into a wide arch that protects the entrance to the army base. A chorus of screeches sounds when the fueled flames reach a handful of the beasts, quickly followed by several more as they are pressed forward by the ones running blindly behind them. Encouraged by the successful attack against a large group of the monsters, the humans rally with a battle cry of sorts and they drive the Moon Beasts back into the flames.
The unnatural use of magic had disoriented me for a precious moment, so when the sizzle of lightning reaches my ear, it is by instinct and not by design that Lion Heart spears up into the throat of a stunned creature, killing it before it could kill me. My breaths short and shaky, I look up at Quistis and endure her pleased smile at the successful attempt to help me, but then I'm alerted by the odd scrambling of claws on dirt. I turn around just in time to witness a Moon Beast being surprisingly smart and using one of its own as a launch point, though the other one screams at being basically mounted.
My voice barely sounds a warning when, with the extra height, the creature jumps into the air and just manages to dig its claws into Quistis' ankle, and then efficiently jerks her out of the sky and throws her to the ground. I manage to be one step ahead of the other beasts who had witnessed the downfall of their winged prey, and with Lion Heart's hilt braced in two hands, I spin around in fast circle to gain enough momentum to behead the creature drooling over Quistis.
Not allowed a spare second to check on the fallen Letivian, I turn with Lion Heart braced in front of me and a spell on my lips. Magical ice takes shape into ragged spears, cooling my skin in the moment before launching at the Moon Beasts that were only a few steps behind. Three of the creatures fall when the spears pierce soft scales at the neck and belly, but a fourth slips by with its kin taking the brunt of the magical attack. My blade protects my chest from slashing claws, but the height of the beast gives it the advantage and sharp teeth sink into my shoulder.
The strength of monstrous jaws does terrible damage to my collar bone, and in that moment of agony, I instinctively pull back in a move that causes fangs to shred through the flesh of my left shoulder. The Moon Beast snaps at me to regain its hold, an expected move as I shove the palm of my hand against its nose and summon a simple ice spell that sends needle-thin icicles into its nostrils and eyes, eventually piercing the brain. Continuing its momentum, the heavy beast falls forward in its moment of death, and unable to maneuver away, I land flat against the ground with the creature on top of me. Sharp panic overwhelms me when I can't pull a breath and my vision threatens to go black, but staring up at the sky, my mind creates a vision of familiar gold before looming monsters block that view and deny me the one sight I desire before death.
Somehow gaining strength that I shouldn't have, I shove aside the corpse of the Moon Beast and roll onto my stomach to avoid the clawed foot of a hissing beast. The arm of my injured shoulder braced at the ground, I strengthen my grip around Lion Heart's hilt with my other hand and position it between the legs of a creature before standing up in a sharp motion. Lion Heart slices into soft scales and upward until halting at the tougher flesh, at which point I pull the blade free and use it to block the thrashing of teeth from a different monster. It's not until I cast an ice spell at the severely wounded Moon Beast that I realize something is terribly wrong - a spell that should have simply pushed the creature backward and out of the fight had, instead, encased the beast in blue ice.
In my stunned state, I don't notice the attack of a third Moon Beast. Its claws sink into the flesh of my back and scaled fingers wrap around the appendage that shouldn't be there, that can't be there... But before I can dwell on that impossible sensation, the creature cries out in sharp agony and stumbles back in retreat, its severed arm left behind.
"What the fuck were you thinking to just stand there like that?" a harsh voice demands as the clawed hand is knocked away from my body. "Did you get bored of the easy way to kill these fuckers that you decided it'd be more fun for them to choke on your bones?"
"Seifer..." I say in a relieved breath, some of my panic fading with his presence.
The larger man snorts in exasperation as he turns his back to mine, warm golden feathers intermingling with my darkness and my curse. "Don't be stupid, Squally-boy. I know what thoughts are dancing around in that head of yours, but we have more pressing matters right now."
At his words, I scan the area in front of me and find several Moon Beasts studying us with disturbingly hungry looks, one of them sporting a chin covered in bloody drool. Recognizing the increased danger of my situation, I lower my stance and prepare for the onslaught of the creatures that have found new winged prey. I feel Seifer move a fraction of a second before I'm forced to dodge the swiping claws of an eager beast, and in the same movement, I drive Lion Heart into the throat of a second monster that had eyes on Seifer's wings. However, in continued bad luck, the creature jerks to the side, and with only one hand holding my blade, I lose Lion Heart.
A pleased growl sounds from the monster I had dodged, and thinking me harmless, it tries an intimidating pose with teeth bared before moving into its attack. Not impressed by the display, I grab a small knife from my side and fling it directly into the beast's open mouth, the blade causing a flood of dark green blood to fill its mouth. While the Moon Beast drops to the ground and tries to breathe around thick blood, I step back a pace until I feel the warmth of Seifer's wings once again.
Before I can say a word, Seifer curses, "Don't even fucking think it, Squall. You know how much I hate that magic of yours."
Impressed that he guessed my intentions, I inform him, "I lost my blade. What else can I do?"
"Ordinary magic that doesn't involve summoning that soul-rotting demon," Seifer snarls as he disembowels a Moon Beast.
"If using that magic means saving everyone here--"
"No... No, damn it. I'm tired of everyone else coming first."
"You know I have to do this," I say with a soft smile, though my eyes stay focused on the monsters that linger out of my reach, perhaps sensing a growing darkness within me.
Seifer growls something under his breath, and then moves closer to me until his wings can be felt against my back. Golden feathers brush against the skin left expose by my torn shirt and I can clearly imagine my blood staining his beautiful wings. Seifer purposefully doesn't say anything, the man refusing to vocally agree with me on this matter, but Seifer has never failed to show me his support, one way or another.
It has been years since I've spoken the words of summoning, but they come to me with a natural ease that makes me wonder if the legends about my kind hold more truth than I want to believe. While not incredibly complex, each word of the summons holds a level of power that tests the limits of my control, and as I get deeper into the spell, my injuries burn from unseen fire. I find the strength to ignore that pain and place all of my focus into the summons, knowing that the Warrior would give anything to be free in this world and dominate it as he rules over his own strange dimension. A cold chuckle sounds in my mind, the Warrior acknowledging that today is not his day to escape the shackles of his summons.
Black mist lifts from the ground already stained with blood, and before the Dark Warrior takes his final form, the closest Moon Beasts howl in a panicked pitch that drowns out the surrounding fight between human and monster. Surprisingly, while several of the creatures come after me for summoning the darkness, more of the beasts jump over the dying flames of the pit and try to flee with their lives. It's ultimately a futile effort, but interesting all the same.
Just before the final words of the summons, a Moon Beast launches at me with its mouth open wide, and I stand defenseless with no weapon and no ability to call upon a different spell. Even so, I don't feel fear in the moment that I can practically count the number of teeth filling its mouth, and justifying that faith, Hyperion flashes between us in a hard swing that connects with the monster's open mouth and slices off the top of its head. Green fluid splashes against my face, something that makes me smirk with the last of the summons leaving my tongue.
The Dark Warrior solidifies in shape with his large, jagged sword already held at his shoulder, and with a cruel smile of decayed yellow within darkness, the summoned demon immediately accepts his contracted duty to destroy my enemies. A strong hand grabs my arm when the first of the Moon Beasts is split down the middle by the Warrior's blade, but I don't dare let my concentration switch to Seifer. While the Warrior is duty bound, I'm his link to this world, and if I glance away, he won't hesitate to take advantage of that sliver of freedom.
Few of the Moon Beasts attempt to lash back at the Warrior, and those that do are given a clean death. The ones that ran were divested of their legs and tails, left helpless on the ground to die the death of cowards. However, the Warrior eventually grows bored at that easy prey and decides to call upon his own magic. Black lightning strikes down at the Moon Beasts that had managed an early escape, and unlike Quistis' use of natural lightning, the demon's dark magic destroys each monster it touches, leaving little more than ash behind.
His task done, the Warrior turns and faces me, his shadowed gaze studying my stance and injuries with an assessing edge. His yellowed smile returns, and with a flamboyant bow that mocks my control over him, the Warrior disappears into a wisp of black smoke.
"Fucking hate that thing," Seifer grumbles under his breath.
Unable to argue, I turn with the intent to finally view upon my husband, but the simple move makes the world spin and I find myself dropping to the ground. Strong arms reach out and catch me, something that normally would be appreciated, but my injured shoulder streams out with pain as if being torn apart for a second time. To remove that pressure, Seifer kneels to the ground with me and places his large hands at my waist.
"Are you still with me?" Seifer asks in a worried breath.
Not wanting to form a vocal reply, I simply lean forward and rest my forehead against his shoulder.
Seifer huffs with understanding and reaches back to stroke a finger along the top of black feathers, the caress radiating throughout every nerve in my body. "You did well, Squall. No one could ask more of you."
Realizing how I could become addicted to the long forgotten sensation of his touch along new feathers, I pull back from the warmth of Seifer's body and gaze up into his entrancing eyes. Before I have the opportunity to think clearly about the request I need to make, Seifer's expression sours into something angry, and when he removes his hands and stands up without me, I regret that I need Seifer to accept his unwanted responsibility a second time.
"I can't do it, Squall. I can't remove your wings, not when I know what it does to you."
"There's no one else I can trust," I remind him.
"And that's perfectly fine by me," Seifer says within a wave of his arm, the motion drawing my gaze to a crude leather bracelet with a chunk of crystal that I haven't seen before. Noticing my distracted attention, Seifer glances down at his wrist and curses at the crystal glowing a soft blue. "One those fuckers must have escaped. I need to take care of this before the damned thing causes some more damage."
Confused and worried, I ask the blond, "Where did you get that?"
Already lifting into the sky, Seifer evades the question and points a stern finger at me. "Stay there and don't do anything stupid, and I mean anything that I would consider stupid. Understood?"
I don't give him the reply he wants, but the sharp-eyed man must see something assuring in my expression since he leaves without demanding for a vocal promise. Watching his flight, I feel a deep nausea at the knowledge that something isn't right. The bracelet didn't seem to hold dark intent, but in this part of the world, only two possibilities exist for magic users - Letivians and sorceresses - and none of the living Letivians should know the magic necessary to locate a Moon Beast. Furthermore, Seifer had the mission to locate the sorceress responsible for the Lunar Cry, and yet he was here to save me from certain death, notably without the rest of his team.
My blood goes cold at the possibility of Seifer siding with a sorceress, but I can't find the desire to fight against that fate. I gave myself to Seifer to escape the chains of a sorceress, but I never considered that the arrogant blond would surrender us both to a different sorceress tainted with power.
Sore and exhausted, it's too hard to focus on unwanted thoughts, and as I remain kneeling in dirt and blood, I watch as my dark wings slowly fold around my hurting body. The black feathers are ugly to me, pathetic shadows compared to the golden shine of Seifer's wings. More so, I feel betrayed by the damned things which caused my mother's death, almost lead to Seifer's, and will now assuredly lead to my execution. These five years of life with Seifer have been too short and I'm not satisfied to leave it here.
If the gods shun my existence, why did they allow me to breathe... to love... in the first place?
It is with some satisfaction, but mostly with irritation that I watch the fiery demise of an overgrown lizard, the damned thing taking its sweet time to die while I watch from above. Too much time has already been wasted while hunting down the one remaining Moon Beast, and with every passing moment, I can more clearly imagine the things Squall may do to remove his wings by his own power. Unfortunately, I have already been informed of the consequences if even one lizard is left alive, the things able to call down their own kind from the moon and onto living earth. That knowledge alone keeps me here, forcing me to wait as the monster attempts to claw away the magical flames controlled by my will.
After another long minute, the Moon Beast cries out a wheezing screech and, finally, it collapses to the ground. With its death, the crystal at my wrist flickers before the blue light goes dark, and with that signal, I'm free of my promise to remove every Moon Beast from these lands.
Using a burst of wind magic, I hurry back over the hills and use the fading column of black smoke as an obvious point of reference to locate the dilapidated building the local humans call an army base. The direction of my flight takes me over the spots of ash and burnt grass that indicate the points at which large lizards fell to the Dark Warrior's magic, and even though the demon is gone, my instincts still encourage me to not fly directly above the scorched bits of earth. It doesn't hurt to be careful, especially if that thing hates me as much as I hate it.
The smell of smoldering fires and burnt flesh reaches me long before I glide over the massacre that couldn't have lasted more than twenty minutes. Instead of dead bodies, pieces of humans litter the ground within the arc of low flames that continue to feed off the corpses of the Moon Beasts. There was no mercy in this battle, and while I can appreciate Squall's decision to abuse his unique powers to prevent more carnage, I will never voluntarily agree with his choice to summon that embodiment of pure darkness.
Amongst the gore and dying, the huddled form of perfect black draws my eye and makes my chest ache with relief that Squall hadn't done anything to ruin his beautiful wings. Though it has been five years, the memory of his ebony feathers is still fresh in my mind, as well as the subsequent days I mourned over my reckless agreement to remove his lost wings. I was young back then and terrified of losing Squall's fragile love, but now I'm a bit wiser with age and I recognize that there is more at stake than my selfish needs. I know what it meant for Squall to lose his wings, despite his attempts to hide that lingering pain, and I won't wound his soul like that a second time.... Even if it means losing Squall and his love forever.
As I land in front of Squall, I notice that a handful of humans had survived the attack and were doing their best to help the injured. Despite the grisly task, most of the humans were smiling from the mixed emotions of surviving the impossible, while also watching their unlucky friends fall to the same dangers. I then glance at Squall and notice how his hands are tightly fisted and his arms are crossed over his chest. Shit, amongst the rest of my worries, I didn't imagine how difficult it would be for Squall to sit here and not attempt to heal any of those suffering nearby. With his spike in wild magic, his control has been weakened to the point that attempting to heal a powerless human would lead to disaster. A Letivian could handle the extra magic and direct it properly, but a human's body would absorb the magic in unpredictable ways, including the chance of 'healing' every hole in the body, including perfectly healthy veins, intestines, and air passages.
I kneel down in front of my stubborn lover and carefully brush aside the dark feathers coated in dried blood, most of it his own blood. Squall looks up at my touch and my heart stutters at the quiet light in his eyes that hasn't been there since the last time he revealed his wings. It's the perfect light of a completed soul, and it pains me to think that Squall wants me to take that away from him.
"You have to..." Squall says in a hoarse voice as if reading my thoughts.
"Why? It's pointless to continue pretending that you weren't meant to have your wings."
"They'll execute me, and I..." His eyes narrowing to pained slits, Squall says in a bare whisper, "I'll lose you."
"Hey now, you're assuming that I'll let them grab you in the first place," I counter as I place my hand at his cheek, my bonding ring warm against his cold flesh. "You're mine, Squall, and no one gets to touch what's mine."
The brunet says nothing while staring at my face, the man wanting to believe, but not allowing himself that luxury. And it pains me to see him like this, Squall being impossibly strong and stubborn in every way except this. I blame the people who have informed Squall of his 'abnormal existence' every day of his life and suggested that the world would be safer without him. It's all bullshit, but no matter what I tell him, it doesn't seem to help. To Squall, I'm an indulgent lover who doesn't know any better, and it's somewhat insulting that he believes in the words of strangers above his husband.
"Shit, is he all right?"
I look up at the question filled with concern and discover a dark-haired human standing behind me. While worse for wear, the man is standing on his own two feet, but he doesn't seem very arrogant about that fact. Instead, judging by the careful way he eyes my lover, this human understands full well that he and the other survivors are still breathing because Squall was here to save his ass.
"He'll be fine," I say, even as I mentally wince at Squall's habit of using the same phrase when I know he's hurting.
Encouraged by my response, the human prods, "I didn't know that he was one of you guys. I thought he was human, but hey, nobody told me that Letivians could hide their wings like that."
"They can't," is the given answer, but not from me or Squall.
I turn and frown at the sight of Quistis standing a short distance behind Squall, a shaky hand supporting one of her battered wings. When I first arrived in the midst of the battle, it had been quite the surprise to find Squall protecting the fallen Letivian. I knew Quistis from my final year of training, but I didn't realize that she had been assigned to Timber. While a decent fighter, Quistis was always more of a spell-caster than someone who would place herself in the middle of a battle, which means that something nasty must have happened to drag her out of the sky. I imagine she is only standing now because of her expertise with healing spells.
The human laughs at her reply. "Come on, if that's true, then how did he suddenly grow those wings?"
Her eyes focused on me, Quistis comments, "That's a good question, Zone."
Meeting her gaze, I can't think of an answer that could explain everything and save Squall's life at the same time, but unfortunately that option is taken away from me -
"I'm the only one who can regrow my wings," Squall says while allowing his wings to fold, removing his shield from the world. "I'm not normal and I'll be executed for existing."
The human growls out a sharp, "What?" and even grabs for his blade, but the more interesting response is Quistis' unsurprised expression as she eyes the black feathers she has been taught since childhood to fear. In a slow and painful move, she kneels to the ground and picks up a dark feather that had fallen at some point during the battle. Twirling it between her fingers, she eventually huffs in exhaustion and sits back on her heels.
"You should run."
While I'm startled into inaction, Squall turns sharply to face the blond Letivian, but he doesn't seem to have the words to properly refuse her unexpected suggestion.
Resting the feather against her chin, Quistis explains, "You and Seifer don't seem surprised by your wings, so I assume this has happened before. And if I'm right, that means you are no more, and no less, the danger you were before showing your wings. You've been hiding amongst our people, depending on our blindness, and no one has ever seen that you are exactly what the legends have described." After a moment to consider her words, she shakes her head with a soft smile and amends, "No, that's not quite right. Someone did notice, and now it's obvious why Seifer has always been obsessed with you."
When my surprise passes, I grin at the woman who isn't as narrow-minded as I have always assumed. "Well shit, Quisty, I'm impressed. That's a lot to figure out."
Losing her smile, the woman says in a somber tone, "When I was pulled from the sky, I could barely move, let alone use magic. All I could do was wait for death and watch as Squall kept death away. It gives a person a chance for clearer thoughts."
With a deep scowl, the brunet argues, "You know our laws, Quistis. Everyone still living has witnessed my wings, which means word will surely reach the Council."
The hovering human scoffs at the information. "We owe our lives to you, and not to the bastards who want your neck. If it's a matter of holding our tongues, then I promise you, no one will speak of your wings."
"Zone," Squall chides lightly, "it's not that simple."
"And it's not that hard," I counter as I place my hand at Squall's cheek and force him to meet my eyes. "That island is too small for us and you know it. We can travel the world and live as we were meant to. No one can threaten us when we stand together."
Careful blue softens the harshness of storm-colored eyes when Squall begins, "My father..."
"Your father would want you alive and out of his reach, especially if it meant he didn't have to bear witness to your execution," I argue before Squall can place words to his reluctance. While Laguna has been a source of frustration for years, I have always admired the man's strength to love his son despite the whispers of strangers. Unfortunately, it's that same love which keeps Squall tied to the island that has never welcomed his existence.
With a bite to his lower lip, blue-gray eyes shift downward and he lifts a hand to touch the crystal hanging from my wrist. Squall doesn't say anything, but I can practically hear his thoughts in the depth of my mind. Somehow, he knows the origin of the crystal, and while I knew I wouldn't be able to hide it from him, I didn't expect such a resigned expression from the skilled fighter.
"It's not what you think," I try to assure him, but he places silencing fingers at my lips.
"If I'm doomed no matter what happens, then I choose to be with you until the end."
I frown at his insistence to lead a hopeless life, but with his acceptance in hand, I know better than to give the beauty any opportunity to change his mind. Positioning my arms around his body, I pull him close and lift him from the ground with consideration of his injured shoulder. Before Squall can be healed, the bone needs to be set properly and there simply isn't enough time for it. I hand-trained many of the Letivians in my unit and they'll be alerted by the black pillar of smoke that can be viewed for miles. Though clearly hurting, Squall manages to relax against my chest and tuck his wings in tight against his back.
Looking to the kneeling Letivian, I inform Quistis, "Be certain to tell the others that Squall and I were mauled by those beasts. There are enough body parts lying around to serve as sufficient evidence." Squall stiffens at my suggestion, something Quistis notices judging by her careful smile.
"Don't worry - I will make certain your father knows otherwise," she assures with a show of the dark feather she still holds.
When Squall doesn't seem appeased, I promise quietly, "We will figure out a way for you to meet your father again. This isn't the end of everything... Just a different beginning."
The dark-haired beauty doesn't reply directly, but with trusting blue-gray eyes gazing up at me, Squall eventually nods in acceptance of my vague plan that is little more than 'escape, and live another day'.
With nothing left to keep us here, I push up into the air and call upon the wind to support the extra weight in my flight. Accustomed to trusting my wings, Squall closes his eyes and drifts into something between sleep and unconsciousness as he deals with the pain of his injuries. I indulge in brief glances of his unguarded face during the flight northward, but I mostly keep watch for any of the other Letivians who will threaten Squall's chance for his intended life. Though the distance isn't far, I know that time was against us the moment the fires had been set around the old army base. And flying lower than I prefer, I move slowly across the wild lands and silently remind the gods how it's their fault to give Squall black wings and that they have the duty to keep him alive.
~ > < ~
After an hour of flight, I exhale a deep breath at the sight of an old lighthouse standing on the edge of a cliff. It takes a few more minutes before the shambles of a house comes into view, and as if sensing something beyond my abilities, Squall lifts his head and stares at the stone building. Knowing that it would be pointless to say we have arrived, I squeeze my husband tightly despite his wounds and descend until landing several meters in front of the house.
Before my feet touch the ground, the old wooden door creaks open and reveals a refined woman with long black hair, light brown eyes, and an aura of warmth that surrounds her. It's very possible that her magic has been crafted to coax her enemies into a false sense of safety, but I have faced a sorceress once before, and Edea Kramer doesn't have the same caustic taint to her magic as the whore who tried to steal Squall away from me.
Once settled on the ground, I help Squall into standing, and though he takes a moment to find his balance, he moves with his own power to step directly in front of the woman. His dark wings spread far enough to show their strength, but the brunet surprisingly doesn't take a fighting stance. Instead, after a moment of study, he says, "You weren't the one who made that crystal."
Her eyes brightening with interest, Edea looks to me in silent inquiry.
"He wouldn't let me explain," I explain with more irritation than probably warranted.
Returning her gaze to Squall, she smiles with soothing elegance. "The one you are looking for is at the lighthouse. She's been waiting a long time for you to arrive, though I think she was hoping for better circumstances."
Squall narrows his eyes at the claim, and though he visibly wants to understand the meaning behind the words, he instead moves past Edea and follows a path that leads down to the rocky cliff. I mutter an apology to the sorceress, something she waves off as I quickly take chase after my determined lover. I suppose it should be something of a relief that he hasn't called upon the Dark Warrior, but it bothers me when Squall becomes quiet. Yes, he isn't the greatest fan of words, but ever since our bonding, I have learned that Squall is extremely talkative when it comes to his thoughts. And yet, at this moment, there is only silence across our joining, and that worries me more than I want to admit.
Before reaching the lighthouse, a small figure wrapped in a soft green shawl can be seen squatting at the edge of the cliff. Her quiet sniffles can be heard shortly after that. While Squall frowns at the sound, his pace doesn't falter as he approaches the girl of dark brown hair who can't be older than nine years. Lost in her misery, the kid doesn't notice Squall's presence until he stops several feet behind her.
Turning sharply, she stares up at the stormy-eyed man. Tears still bright in her eyes, her mouth twists in an attempt to speak before she finally sobs out a barely understandable apology.
Squall glares at the girl for a long moment before muttering, "Impossible... It's impossible..."
Deciding to intervene before he causes more tears, I step to his side and place a calming hand at his lower back. "She's just a little girl, Squall. Her name is Ellone, and maybe it's just me, but I don't think she or Edea are like the other sorceresses who want to control you."
"If Edea is the one at the house, then she's too weak to be a threat to me. She only has hints of sorceress blood." With a nod toward Ellone, he continues, "But this one... She's something else. Something more."
While that means nothing to me, Ellone hiccups at the claim. "Y-you can tell?"
"It's difficult to miss."
"But no one else..." Her voice trailing off, she closes her eyes and finds a glimmer of resolve to face the hard brunet. Standing up, she discretely uses her shawl to wipe away tears and bravely meets cold stormy eyes. "I've seen you... Many times in my dreams, I've seen you watching over me and keeping me safe. Those are the good dreams and I've been so afraid that the bad dreams would come true before you could find me..."
Showing no sympathy, Squall accuses, "You used the 'Lunar Cry'."
Wavering just slightly, the young girl bows her head and admits in a rush of words, "I didn't know what I was doing. The moon was so full and beautiful, and I had this urge... Edea told me later what I had done, and I swear, I tried to fix it, but I only helped more monsters to jump from the moon. I was so scared, but then I saw Seifer in the sky and I made the wind bring him to me. He promised me that you and him would kill all of those Moon Beasts together and that I had nothing to worry about."
Squall glares at me for my role in this mess.
"Hey, don't look at me like that. I was ready to spear Hyperion through her chest when she changed my magic, but she convinced me that we had bigger problems with those lizards." When his eyes darken at the information, I promptly reply to his unspoken concerns, "I know, I know, I should've been more careful with the whole mind control stuff, but the last sorceress I dealt with wanted me dead because I had my hands on you. The kid here just gave me that beast-finding crystal and sent me on my way after I gave her my promise to kill every last one of those fuckers."
Squall's glare doesn't soften in the least, at which point Ellone tries to rescue me. "He's right about the bond between you. As long as Seifer lives, no one can make another chain to your soul and control your power." Her eyes widen when she realizes what her words could imply and she quickly adds, "Not that I would ever, ever want to bind you in magic like that. It looks like it would really hurt you."
It's hard to tell why, either because of her expression or her tone or a mixture of both, but Squall breathes out a deep sigh and his body relaxes to the extent that he sways a little on his feet. Even so, stormy eyes remain guarded when he comments, "You're too young to be this powerful."
Finally showing a wary smile, Ellone agrees, "Matron says that all of the time, but she helps me control it. She told me how power can corrupt, but she won't let me go down that path, and I haven't seen a dream in a long time with my shadow taking over my body."
"Your shadow, huh...?" Squall mutters almost sleepily, and with no more warning than that, his knees give out and he falls for the ground.
Unprepared for his collapse, I'm startled when a burst of wind magic from the kid surrounds the brunet and knocks Squall against my body, prompting me to hold onto him and prevent his drop to the rocky earth. With my arms around his waist, the sickening warmth of blood can be felt through his ruined shirt. Damn it, walking around on his own like that must have opened up a wound that didn't seem so dangerous only minutes ago. And to think, he was prepared to face a sorceress in a state like this, and yet I can only imagine him winning in any battle against a sorceress, child or not.
"We should take him to Matron," Ellone says with frightened urgency in her voice. "She knows healing magic and potions."
"I'm fine," Squall grumbles against my chest, though there is little strengthen in the claim.
"While it's good to know that you're still with us, Squally-boy, I think the kid has a point. We could both use some stitches to put us back together."
He blinks while looking up at my face. "You're hurt...?"
"I'm not invincible and you damn well know it," I reply with a chuckle at his expression. "I was in the same fight you were in and those lizards are pretty damn fast when they want to be."
Though his face continues to show disbelief, Squall doesn't fight me when I guide him back to the stone house on the hill. The idiot has probably convinced himself that he needs to do this for me, which is pretty much the only way I can lure the brunet into arm's reach of a healer. I may have gotten plenty of experience with healing arts ever since I attached myself to this masochist, but I'm under no illusion about my skill compared to true healers. Unfortunately, Squall still has a strong aversion to others touching his body and I doubt that today will be any different.
Ellone runs ahead and holds open the door for us, and once inside, it's apparent that we must look quite the mess as Edea has already prepared a full table of healing supplies. The woman smiles gently at our appearance, but Squall comes to a sudden halt when seeing the arrangement of potions and salves.
"No... only Seifer..."
"Squall, damn it, you know that I'm not the best at this. If they want to help--"
"Only you," Squall insists, even as he nearly loses his balance once again and grabs hard onto my supporting arm.
Before I can continue the argument, Edea nods at the request. "It's perfectly reasonable for you to be wary of us, especially when you are most vulnerable. There will be time in the future for understanding and trust." With a hand placed at Ellone's small shoulder, Edea says, "Hot water is on the fire. Take your time and use whatever you need, including my bed if necessary. It should take us a few hours to visit the town and purchase some extra food for your stay."
And with Ellone waving a worried goodbye, the pair of magic-users leave their home to our unlimited use.
Squall pulls away and carefully moves to the bench in front of the table. Managing to straddle the bench, he looks over to me with a silent admission that he's hurting more than he wanted to acknowledge when first deciding to face the sorceress.
"You're such a pain in the ass," I comment when stepping up to the seated brunet. I pull out a small knife from my belt and begin to cut away at his ruined shirt, slowly revealing the deeply tanned skin beneath. Almost every inch bears a white mark cause by old injuries, and while a true healer could heal without leaving a mark, I don't have the same skill. My fingers itch to touch those scars like I've done many times before, but I have some sense of priorities when it comes to taking away the pain of my lover.
The shredded shirt slips from his body and black wings lift slightly at the first taste of freedom. The same movement, however, reveals the broken skin around the base of new wings and thick blood seeps from the ragged cuts. Gazing at the downy feathers soaked in blood, I make the silent pledge that these wings are Squall's last and I will cherish them as much as he treasures my pathetically ordinary wings.
After dipping clean rags into hot water, I carefully wipe away the dirt, sweat, and mixed blood from his body. It takes several minutes before Squall chuckles under his breath and forces my hand to his worst wound, a nasty injury that I was purposefully avoiding. He hisses at the touch of heat and cloth against his shoulder, but doesn't shy away when I reluctantly move behind him on the bench and place my hand over his slightly exposed collar bone. I whisper my apology before I force the bone to snap back together, and though dark wings nearly knock me backward at the pain, Squall doesn't utter a sound.
I grab a hi-potion from the table and carefully pour the expensive liquid over the open wound, wanting it to reach his broken bone before mending the flesh around it. Squall eventually hums in relief when pale skin slowly replaces the skin that had been darkened by his sword practice under the sun. I frown at the mess of scars caused by the shredding teeth of the Moon Beast and my inability to manage the delicate work to bring torn flesh back together in a seamless manner. Squall, however, smiles at the crisscrossing scars and leans back against me, then lifting a hand to stroke the side of my neck.
"Manipulative bastard," I grumble before stealing his hand and kissing his callused palm. "Did it heal right?"
Squall nods with a drowsy look, but then winces when he tries sit up. "My side... When I had to set the pit on fire, one of those darcadels must have done something..."
Not seeing a wound, I move my hand to his body and glide my fingers down his left side. It's not until I reach his pants that I notice a worrisome wetness to the dark material and the sight of threads. Cursing, I take my knife back in hand and help Squall into standing such that I can slice down the length of his pant legs and more easily remove the dark leather. The beauty shivers at being fully naked in an unfamiliar setting, but it's necessary given the surprising depth to the wound at his waist, his left leg covered in dark blood. It's no wonder that the idiot hasn't been able to stand on a firm foot. Luckily, it appears that the lizard only got a single claw on Squall, not a full set of talons, and the cut is clean enough for a strong cure spell. It takes longer to clean the mess of blood from scarred skin.
Too quickly, the exhaustion and stress from the battle catches up to me. Only my worry for Squall had kept me on my feet, and with him treated and clean, I feel the lure from the bed offered by Edea. I strip free of filthy clothes, and though my intention was to prevent staining borrowed sheets, Squall grabs a wet cloth still stained with his blood and he motions me to sit in front of him. I glance down at the set of gashes along my right side and decide that it would be easiest to let Squall treat the minor wounds. It's nice to imagine luring him into bed, but that has only worked when the brunet was unconscious and unable to fight back.
I sit in front of the barely conscious man and try not to wince when a luke-warm cloth is pressed against my side.
"Liar..." Squall accuses while cleaning the wound.
"I don't remember lying to you," I say between clenched teeth.
"These aren't bad. You could've healed them yourself."
"Hey, I just mentioned that I was hurt. I didn't say how nasty the injuries were."
With a scoff, Squall removes the cloth and brushes his fingers across the ugly claw marks. In a purposeful decision, he uses a minor cure spell that doesn't completely heal the deepest parts of the wounds, which means that they are going to be hurting like a bitch for a few days after this. I scowl at the undeserved punishment, but Squall ignores my anger and places a deceivingly gentle hand at the side of my neck.
"Next time, don't lie."
"Right, only if you promise to stop stepping into the path of things that want to kill you."
A snort of laughter escapes him at the idea. "You first."
"Hey now, the only time my life has been in danger is because I keep trying to stand between you and the people or monsters you like to piss off. I'd live a peaceful life without you around."
His expression otherwise neutral, his eyes brighten with humor. "Sounds boring."
"I don't mind boring," I insist as I place my hands at his bare waist and pull him closer.
"Nice try, but you can't have me and a 'peaceful life' at the same time."
"Damn, I hate it when you make me choose," I complain with a careful kiss to his recently healed shoulder. "It's especially annoying when you know that I can't choose anything except you."
Squall hums in something like a purr, but he still pushes me back with his limited strength. "I'm sorry... I don't think I could last..."
"Don't apologize. Your head must be spinning after that blood loss."
While Squall mutters something about blood loss not being the issue, I climb off of the wooden bench and help the shorter man into standing. It's pretty shaky getting to the offered bedroom, my exhaustion returning two-fold and Squall having trouble finding his feet, but we make it in one piece. I happily slump onto the narrow mattress while Squall takes a seat on the edge of the bed. He fingers the tip of his left wing and shows a befuddled expression as if uncertain that we both could fit on the bed with two sets of wings.
I grab his wrist and pull his arm to my chest. "Lie down, Squall. I want to feel your wings around me."
A faint blush colors his cheeks, but it disappears before he positions his body in front of mine and awkwardly rests a black wing over my body. Though I can smell the blood and smoke in his feathers, their warmth quickly seeps into my body and I once again mourn the loss of the wings I stupidly removed by his command all of those years ago. There may have been no other choice on that day, but I won't ever make the same mistake again.
The quiet voice barely reaches my ears as sleep tries to steal me away. "Yeah?"
"What did that girl say to convince you that she wasn't like the sorceress of our legends?"
"You're asking that now?"
Squall shrugs and comments, "You've always cursed the existence of sorceresses before today."
"Hmm, so I have," I agree while trying to sort my thoughts. "It wasn't anything she said, actually. I wanted to ignore her, but Edea suggested that I should look at the drawings the kid keeps in her room. I didn't understand most of them, but then I saw this one picture above her bed... It was us, or rather stick-figures that had yellow and black wings, and the one with black wings held a ring in each hand."
Squall stiffens at the description, but doesn't interrupt.
"It was kind of cheesy since she put a rainbow over us and flowers everywhere, but it was definitely when we bonded. I got a look at some of the other pictures, and while there were a couple more I recognized as past events, she has piles more of things that haven't happened yet in my memory. The only thing I noticed is that you're in many of those pictures, and I'm right there next to you," I add with a smug smile.
"... You decided to trust her because she'll let us be together?"
"We looked pretty happy about it - she gave us really big smiles in the pictures. Literally ear to ear."
Squall huffs at my logic. "I want to see these drawings."
"Of course," I agree within a yawn, "but that can wait. I've been waiting years for this moment and I deserve the chance to savor it."
Squall wastes several seconds considering the validity of my claim, but eventually adjusts his wing to better rest against my side. I lift my wing in response and let it settle on top of the smaller wing, our feathers intermingling with darkness and light over our bare bodies. A shaky inhale of air sounds, but I say nothing of the reaction from the man who has never before experienced the embrace of wings. And there is so much more to experience, from the simple caress of cleaning oils to the wonderment of his first flight, but everything can wait until he truly believes that his wings should be allowed to touch the air.
In the meantime, I'll go over every inch of the drawings hidden in Ellone's room, hopefully with her help. While I can't stop Squall from being the person he is, I won't refuse the luxury of being prepared for the next time he tries to get himself killed. And if I'm lucky, maybe I can steer him away from those disasters before he gets involved. It's not likely since trouble tends to find him first, but it's a nice thought as I hold onto Squall, finally complete in both soul and body, and drift into sleep and into dreams of dancing in the sky with my impossible lover.
Author's Whining -- After hearing back from my betas, I realize that I was quite mean with this side fic request. Aera pointed out that this feels more like a beginning to a sequel than a oneshot, but alas, that's all this is. When I wrote 'Wingless' (can't believe I'm saying this) eight years ago, I didn't really leave many loose threads to play with here. For that reason, I feel like I kind of started with nothing and ended with everything here.
Anyway, I hope this is close to what you wanted, Kamikyo! I wish I could've done a better job with this one, but it was hard to tap into those old muses after all of these years. ^^;