This probably goes inbetween "Tending Wounds" and "Calm Before the Storm" (depending on how you played the game. <g>)

LOTS of profanity in this one. Irvine's got a mouth on him. Oh, and gore. This is what I get for being the daughter of an ER nurse and doctor. >_< Also, I'm taking lots of artistic liberties with how magic and spells and stuff work - trying to get what happens in game to actually kinda match with the laws of physics, y'know?

Fear, Like Death

By BlackRose

Zell's down.

It's going through my head like some twisted litany, a frantic countdown centered on the body laying crumpled on the floor in a mess of fresh blood and smoking burns and the nauseating smell of charred flesh. It supercedes everything else, from the sharp sickening pains in my own body to the nightmare fear hammering adrenaline through my veins.

Zell is *down*.

Goddamn fucking shit. The next time anyone says "I wonder what's down there?" I'm going to unload a round of shrapnel into the bastard's ass and I don't care if it's Zell who fucking says it!

He'd better say it. He'd better damn well be around to say it.

Bastard. Fuck. Idiot! Get up, get up, *get up*!

But he's not going to. He's fucking not going to and I'm running on automatic, the mantras falling off my lips as fast as I can speak them, one spell after another in rushes of energy that surge through me. It blunts my own pain and it's keeping Squall on his feet but there's blood everywhere and fuck if it's not all ours. Fuck fuck FUCK.

That ugly thing, that whatever it is, some monstrosity from hell or a fucking science experiment gone wrong - goddamn, it just won't go down. Dying in some fucking underwater mad scientist lab, just fuck me... I'm releasing spell on top of spell until it feels like they're burning me, the surge of each one stripping out my veins inside and searing like flashfire through my nerves. It's a new kind of pain but those little measures of life that I'm pouring out are all that's giving us any kind of chance.

And Zell is down, burnt and bleeding. How long until curaga doesn't work any more? How long until every life spell in the world won't put the breath back in his lungs or jumpstart his heart? How long until flesh turns cold and unresponsive and no magic can turn back the hands of time?

How long until death becomes real?

Fuck me. *Fuck* me.

Squall reels back from one of the things vicious slashes, stumbling, and it's automatic - another spell, the same mantra repeatedly, the warmth ripping through my palms until I'm sure they're blistering. It's not the blessed relief it once was. There's a point when the flesh starts protesting as it's put back together, when the cells don't want to knit any more, and Squall's face contorts as I pour it into him and force him back up to his feet. Even magic has a limit and there's only so much blood the body can replace - he's blanched white and my own hands are shaking, my knees buckling, but no fucking way can I go down. I can't. We can't.

Zell can't.


It's cold in the middle of battle and somewhere your brain shuts down and while some paniced little voice is swearing in the background you're standing there doing calm calculations of blood volume to body mass and probabilities. Squall's up, he can probably take another hit. Can I? Do I have the time to cast one spell on myself *before* Squall gets hit and I have to turn my attention to him? In a pinch, which one of us is expendable?

Like that's even a fucking question. He's in the thing's ugly fucking face, gunblade a flashing blur of edged steel and the muted explosion of bullets. It roars, falling back a step before the onslaught, but one talon tipped paw from the beast catches him and throws him back, while the human looking part is raising it's own sword. No fucking question at all. It doesn't matter if I can feel something tear inside as I throw myself forward, and the blood in my mouth only provides some much needed liquid to a bone dry throat as I mouth the mantra once more and Squall, face a grim mask of pinched pain, spins to the side before the thing can catch him again and never mind if his ribs are leaving trails of bright blood strung like paint across the floor.

This can't keep going. This can't keep fucking going. Somewhere, deep in the back of my head, I can hear an echoing roar; enraged, blood thirsty, wanting out, but there's no time. The three heartbeats it would take to let them loose is three heartbeats too many when it's all I can do to wring forth another spell and force myself back to my own feet.

Zell is down, I'm going down, and Squall, if you can take that ugly thing out then you'd better fucking do it *now*.

I don't need to tell him. Nobody knows it better than he does. We're racing against time and somewhere there's a clock ticking down seconds in my mind and each second is another second too long, another nail in a fucking coffin labeled Zell *god-damn fucking* Dincht, and both of us piled right in after him. This can't be real. This can not be fucking real. I want to wake up.

The thing's starting to glow again, something you can see just out of the corner of your eye while the energy waves from it ripple and the hair on the back of my neck is on end. It did it before, when some great blinding beam took out Zell like a pulse cannon at point blank range before any of us could react. He hadn't made a fucking sound; I don't think he had time. And now it's eyeing us, trying to decide which to take out next and it'll be a flood of white light and searing heat and another charred body on the ground. I almost hope it's me. Just let this be over. Please.

But maybe there are gods, and maybe, just this once, they actually are listening.

They say adversity brings out the best in us. I call it desperation being the mother of fucking strength you didn't know you had. Squall hefts his gunblade, taking a breath that flecks blood across his lips. It's now or never. And from somewhere I find the strength to croak one more spell, the flare of it bursting out through my fingertips to sink deep into Squall and dragging a yell from my throat as the pain of it flashes up my arms and I can actually smell the burning of my own palms.

But it strightens Squall's flagging shoulders and jerks his head up. For one moment his eyes meet mine and I can see the strength of the spell burning deep in those cloudy depths, giving him what wounded muscle and flesh alone can't supply any more. It has to be enough, it just has to.

The tip of the gunblade lifts, catching the light down its edge, and Squall, with a roar, surges forward like a bullet.

I'll light a hundred candles in a hundred shrines to whatever god protects fools like us if we get out of here, I swear it.

The gunblade flares, bright and blinding, as black gloved hands swing it in a beautiful, deadly arc.

And with a deafening shriek, the thing goes *down*.

It's a minor miracle just to see. The bulk of it crashes to the floor, the impact vibrating through the rock and bouncing off the walls in distorted echoes. Squall, lips twisted in a snarl, wrenches his blade free from bone and raises it again, thick black blood flying from the sword edge as he reverses it, plunging it back down. The huge bulk shudders, paws scrabbling and gouging furrows across the floor but it's down and with one more blow Squall makes fucking sure it stays there, cut damn near in two.

It's down. It's dead. And we're... we're still standing. Still alive. Fucking shit, we're *alive*. Miracles really do happen.

And then my eyes fall on the crumpled heap in it's blast circle of scorched rock and I'm pushing myself to my feet, the floor scraping across the blisters on my palms as I scramble forward with the spell already on my lips.

He looks so damn small, laying there. There's blood everywhere, wet and slick. He had the time to throw up one arm in automatic defense before the beam struck him - the flesh is damn near melted, blistered and blackened, cooked and burst open to expose the raw muscle beneath. The smell of it is thick and heavy, burned cloth and hair and flesh, cloying in my lungs with the gorge rising in my throat.

I put my hands on the ruin of his chest, still and silent beneath my palms, and let the words surge from my lips.

It's a softer spell at first, warm and cradling before it swells, cresting like a wave, and jolts out in a rush through my hands to his body. Flesh jerks beneath my palms, spasming as the current rushes through it, but when the spell clears there's no reassuring pulse there, no rise and fall of lungs collapsed within a crushed rib cage.

He's cooling beneath my fingertips, the blood turning sticky as it congeals.

Oh, fuck no. Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK NO!

I'm choking on the words, the spells flashing through me like rapid fire shots, ripping pain through my exhausted bones as they sear into the body before me. Please, please gods... oh fucking *please*. I've never prayed for anything so hard before, the tears welling hot and raw in my aching eyes. Please. PLEASE. One heartbeat, one breath... anything. Fucking god damn hell, anything!

Nothing. Nothing, and it's a horrible mockery to see him so still and ruined, to see that body that's never quiet now limp and heavy and cooling in a pool of its own blood. This can't be happening. I'm on my knees, my hands sunk hard into a mass of flesh and fabric, desperately willing there to be one responding pulse beat beneath my palms.

Then there are other hands on my own, covering mine, hard and calloused and alive, gripping my wrists in a bruising clench. Squall, on his knees across from me, one leather glove still dangling from between his teeth where he ripped it off, his gunblade clattering to the floor beside him. Fresh spells pour into me like a tidalwave, bright and strong with the taint of his cool flavor on them. It gives me back my breath, a hard strength I can lean on, and my voice is steady once more as I breathe the words and send another jolt pouring forth.

A spasm, rocking bone and muscle, and in its wake, faint and thready, I catch the fluttering throb of an abused organ trying to beat once more.

Squall is there, curaga already on his lips, streaming from his hands in hot washes across burned flesh. I find another and add it to his, our voices in tandem, the words slipping away into the waves of energy swelling beneath our palms.

And there, beneath our combined hands, a gasping breath is pulled in. And then another. And another. I've never heard anything as glorious as those thin, blood choked wheezes of air.

He's alive, he's fucking alive. Burned flesh sloughs away, bright pink and tenderly new beneath, bone and muscle knitting together back into a living whole. He's *alive*.

My hands are blood soaked and shaking, leaving a streak of red across his cheek as I touch him. Eyelids shiver, slitting open for one moment, blood shot blue beneath but they *open* and that's enough for me. He's alive.

I don't know I'm crying until I hear my own sobs, gasped and ragged and shaking with relief, bordering somewhere on the high sharp note of hysteria. Squall's hands shift, sliding up my arms beneath the sleeves of my coat to grip, warm and solid, just below my elbows. The warmth floods me, soothing away the harsh jangle of my aching nerves and shivering muscles and letting me get a grip on myself, enough to meet his eyes.

He's quiet, almost composed, face pale and wane. It isn't until he glances down, his eyes on Zell, that his composure breaks. There's pain there, something bitter and private and deep, flaring in his eyes and twisting his lips. He swallows and then jerks his hands away from me, as though only just remembering that they are there.

But one hand creeps out, slender fingers pale without their leather casing, and one fingertip just brushes the dark lines of the tattoo curling up the curve of Zell's cheek. He pulls it back quickly, angrily jerking his gloves back on. When he glances at me, the mask is in place again, firm and unshakeable.

Except for the storm sweeping through his eyes, and in another moment that too is gone. "Thank you," he says quietly. Just that and nothing more, a simple congratulation of a job well done, as though it were nothing to him personally. The buckles of his belts jangle as he pushes himself to his feet, the gunblade ringing off the stone as he scoops it up.

Zell, with a little mewling sound, takes a deeper breath, wonderfully clear, and the taut lines of pain in his body slowly relax. My hand is still on his chest, the flesh whole beneath my fingers, his heartbeat strong and steady.

"Thank *you*," I whisper, almost soundlessly, to Squall's retreating back. Thank fate, thank the gods, thank a hard headed taciturn bastard who doesn't believe in giving up and the natural resiliance of an endless coil of blonde energy.

We're alive. All of us.

We're fucking *alive*.


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