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The dragon stumbles, its massive legs crumbling, claws scrabbling across the stone floor as it slowly falls. I let myself breath again, my hands automatically going through the motions of reloading. The dragon's last roar is fading, the dank, heavy silence enclosing us again, and the clatter of my shells hitting the ground echo back mockingly from the shadows.
We knew it was going to be bad. I just didn't think it was going to be this bad.
Zell is winded, his breath puffing harshly in the hushed quiet, but he won't stop moving. I don't think he can. It's his refuge from the dark, the stop gap that keeps the creeping dread from overshadowing him. Crouched at Squall's side, his hands move restlessly, skimming across wounds that are staining a white shirt brilliantly red and dripping in spattered droplets across the floor.
Squall's face is the same color as the collar of his jacket, his lips pinched tightly shut. The dragon's claws had caught his shoulder, the leather sleeve shredded like so much tissue paper and scoring rows of raw, wet slashes from bicep to wrist. He flinches and there's more blood on his lips - he's biting down to keep silent as Zell seperates the ruin of jacket from flesh.
I sink down on my heels beside them. Close up it's even more of a mess and the droplets are becoming a small bloody puddle. It covers Zell's already soaked gloves, bright red blood on shiny red leather. He's whispering beneath his breath, the steady candence of a mantra, hopeless but having to try.
The words are lost in the silence, lost and eaten by the shadows clustered around the twisted stone forms that peer down from the cobweb festooned ceiling. Words without substance, without form, without any spark of life to them. Just words. Nothing but wasted breath.
"Shit." The bitterness hisses through Zell's teeth, harsh and echoing around us. "Fucking *hell*."
SeeD. Soldiers. Trained, hardened fighters. But bullets and fists and blades aren't enough any more. Not for this battle. We're fighting crippled and blinded.
"Outside," I hear myself say as though from a distance, my voice low. "Beyond that fucking seal."
Zell nodds. I almost expect him to rage about it, but there's no rage left. Not here, smothered in our enemy's shadow. But 'outside' is one floor down and corridors away and Squall's eyes are closed, his breathing shallow. I'm already sliding the tie from my hair. Classes in basic first aid seem so long ago and far away. We've been here days, years - there's no telling, no change in the still air or the eternal gloom. Maybe it's been lifetimes.
Zell's hands are on Squall's shoulders, holding him steady as I wrap the leather cord above the highest slash. "Hold still," I warn, and pull the cord tight; as tight as I can, watching it bite into pale flesh and hoping it will be enough. Zell's fingers are there to catch and hold it, keeping the tension as I knot the ends.
We're so used to the instantaneous. Spoiled by it. A few words, a flare of bright energy, and a wound is closed in the blink of an eye as even the scars fade. Instant relief. Clean. Simple. It hurts to watch the blood still trickle down Squall's wrist to pool around his hand. It fucking hurts to know that maybe - maybe! - enough pressure on an artery will slow the bleeding down, but there's not a damn thing we can do to stop it. To heal it. There is no bouncing up and charging right back into the fray, good as new. Not here.
It fucking makes my stomach twist to watch Squall, breath coming in shaken gasps, fumble with his good arm to push himself up as the tremors wrack through him.
Zell's there before I can move, catching Squall around the waist and lifting him in one easy movement, Squall's good arm looped around his shoulders. Their heights make it awkward, but Zell's eyes meet mine and we're in wordless agreement. Zell has strength enough for it, awkward or no, and my thumb is already pulling back the hammer of my shotgun, the trigger primed and ready beneath my fingers.
'Outside' may be a ways away, but we're fucking going to make it.
"...'blade..." Squall's eyes are open but I doubt he's seeing much. His pupils are huge in the dim light.
"Don't worry. I've got it." His gunblade is heavier then my gun, the grip strange in my hand. I check the chamber to be sure it's loaded, then check the sight down the back of the blade. I may not be able to use a sword worth shit, but if it has a trigger then I can damn well shoot it.
It's not fast, not with Squall's steps faltering and my nerves racked so tight I'm ready to shoot the shadows of faded pictures on the walls. But it's motion, and Zell's got it right - motion keeps the darkness at bay. Motion keeps the spark alive.
Down the stairs, into the corridor; I'm mapping it out in my head, retracing our path like rolling up a guide string while the silence dogs our steps. Somewhere in the dimness of the hall Zell's voice behind me breaks the quiet, swearing, and I whip around with both guns ready.
Nothing. No one. Only Zell, lowering a limp Squall to the faded, dusty carpet, fingers checking for a pulse. After a tense moment Zell raises his head, blowing out a puff of a sigh. "Unconsious."
I relax, just a little. "Can you carry him?"
"Hell, yes," Zell hisses, action already suited to thought. A little grunt of effort as he stands, Squall's body draped across one shoulder, is his only concession to fatigue. Blood from limp, dangling fingertips drips down to splash across the back of Zell's calf.
"How much further?" His voice is low, the words quick, and there's worry darkening the electric blue of his eyes.
I think, trying to trace turns and doorways when they all look so much alike. "We'll make it," I tell him firmly.
"I know." It's all he says, the words bitten short, but behind it I can hear the echo of the fear - we'll make it, but Squall's life is draining away in a trail of red droplets behind us.
It isn't concious. I let go the death grip on handle and trigger, passing Squall's gunblade to my other side to tuck it beneath my elbow. For one minute, my own hands hampered, Zell's holding onto Squall, it leaves us defenseless.
Zell's cheek is cool beneath my fingertips, the breath on his lips damp and warm. It's a brief thing, only the ghost of memory; my hand drops to his and beneath our combined touch Squall is still and silent, but solid. Real, and the shadow of breath still moves in him.
"We'll make it," I repeat.
Zell nods, sharply, just once. "Get us the hell out of here, Irvine," he tells me. His voice is tight, tense, but the echo of determination is there once more.
I'm already moving, the guns back in my hands and something maybe just a bit like a smile on my lips. "Come on. We'll make our own fucking luck."
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