Ben Ford

Total consciousness. None. Lights. Mirrors of reflected refractions. Indescribably, incalculably, infinitely incandescent. Faces twisted upon granite, blindingly blurred between brilliant bursts. Faces made of granite. Granite made of skin, flesh, blood. Cascading down walls; slithering up walls; shimmering across wooden, spiraling ceilings below; splashing down upon floors hopelessly spinning above. No light. Suffocating, sinking, screaming, silent.

A solid, unwavering face. Cold, granite walls containing no apparent door. A sturdy, wooden ceiling, hosting a low-burning ceiling lamp in its center. An unmoving floor. A stiff, rough blanket thrown over a rough, stiff bed. "Celes?" A voice.

Celes Chere struggled furiously to retain hold of her newfound reality.

"Celes," drifted down from a man in black above her, his seemingly muffled voice nearly impossible to understand, "are you awake now?" The voice was not inviting; emotionless, perfunctory, it questioned her.

Celes could not respond. Before she had a suitable answer for the mysterious voice above her, she had to know the answer herself. She felt detached from her body, as though her head were the only entity resting upon the bed. The rest of her floated somewhere far off, drifting among rain showers and lighting upon billowing clouds. She had been severed from the neck down.

"Yes," Celes responded, absently, attempting to focus on the face staring down at her. It belonged to Locke Cole. His hooded face was solemn, reserved. His face betrayed nothing.

"I have to do this for you, Celes," Locke's voice rumbled from a thousand miles away, "we both know that. Things are dangerous. You know there is only one way; I can't make the same mistake again." As each word desperately sought Celes' ear, it ricocheted off of the others, scattering, sending each letter soaring into the recesses of consciousness. Celes raced to recapture the rambling letters, but as she pieced them together, the words became more confused than before.

Her only response was a failed attempt at a stifled groan. Barely, she could feel the groan shiver through her body; apparently it was grudgingly returning from its voyage.

"Celes," Locke's voice. Devoid of nuance; mechanical. It hummed softly. "I brought you here for a reason. I know that you know why. You do, don't you?" He failed to mention where "here" happened to be.

Celes maneuvered her head to scan her suddenly reattached body. Dazedly, she lifted her right arm and bent it towards her face. Her index finger stretched itself towards her nose, while the others curled themselves tightly, forming a white-knuckled grip. Eyes focused, determined on the shaking, unsteady hand in front of her, Celes croaked, "I don't know. God, I- I guess so..." She fell silent again. The hand made its way back to its original spot beside her. Wearily, it dropped.

With the slightest hint of disapproval etching itself across his face, Locke started towards the bed. As he took his seat, though, the look vanished, leaving his face expressionless again. It was funny how he sat down, like there was some sort of inaudible rhythm ticking away inside of him, mechanizing his movements. Celes squinted, hoping to see a winding key protruding from the folds on the back of his black robes. Her eyes moistened with the effort, and she could see nothing beyond the distortion. Only a black blur; no winding key.

"Listen Celes, I hope you realize that I'm only going to do this because I want to protect you; I need to protect you," he murmured, with the first sincere tone Celes had heard since awakening, "You need protection. I will protect you."

Celes was disgusted. She knew he was right, though; she needed protection. What else could she do?

A heavy silence fell upon the room, as Celes continued to grasp at consciousness and Locke contemplatively stared into his hands. The only effort towards animation on anyone's part came from the subtle flicker of the oil lamp hanging overhead, which cast vague tones of wavering light across the rough, sharp stone walls. Celes, confusedly, managed to squeak: "Then what are you going to do?" Locke's head slowly turned to face her, and without a word, he studied her disheveled face. It was twisted; full of turmoil, anxious.

Looking regretful yet determined, he calmly unsheathed a knife from beneath the layers of black. Celes' eyes widened, momentarily panic-stricken. Locke paused until she looked to have regained stability; then, with a quick, deliberate swipe, he slashed down the center of her tunic. He brushed the flaps of torn fabric to either side, exposing her quivering, bare chest. Soothingly, he ran the strong fingers of his free hand along her chest. Their touch calmed her, cooled her burning skin, alleviated the tension in her nerves. His hand was a stream flowing out upon her; her uncertainty and anxiety washed off as it slid down her sides. His left eye twitched, indistinctly.

He plunged the knife deep into her, above her left breast. Through the haze of muddled reality, intense, shocking pain shot through her chest. "I am doing this to protect you, I swear. I am doing this to protect you," he reminded her. She moaned, acknowledging him. Her blood pumped up around the steel of the blade, and coursed out over the skin to which his soothing touch had just laid grace. She could feel the tip digging into her heart, and she sighed a ragged, choking sigh. The blood made its way through her throat and to her mouth. She hacked as it flowed over her tongue, spraying it upon him; spattering his face and black robes. As it dripped from his face, he rotated the blade. Blood spurt from the wound and splashed around it. Celes moaned, hoarse and sputtering.

She felt her consciousness once again begin to waver. Looking weakly toward her mutilated chest, she witnessed Locke push the knife down even further; the hilt was meticulously digging itself in behind the blade. Her chest pulsed with crimson, staining everything around it; her tunic, the sheets, Locke's hands. As her chest muscles continued their attempt to contract around the knife, the bursts of staggering pain began to dull. Her senses began to fade, save only her hearing, which, inexplicably, seemed to become more acute as the others lessened. The light faded out, the pain drifted away. Only a soft, steady voice remained, whispering in a monotonous drone: "I am only doing this to protect you. I will protect you. I am only doing this to protect you. I will protect you. I am only doing this to protect you. I will protect you. I am only doing this to protect you. I will protect you..."

Celes Chere again awoke; this time, in her own bed, fully awake, soaking in her own cold sweat. She looked at her chest to find it dribbling with blood; her fingernails were embedded inside her skin.

Across the room of the inn, Locke lay peacefully, quietly sleeping out his night. The air was still, tranquil. The moon, through the window behind her, lazily cast squares of pale illumination across the carpeted floor. The clock beside her read 2:22.

Celes, shaking feverishly, crawled out from her dampened sheets and unsteadily made her way to the bathroom. Without turning on the light, she bent to the sink and washed her face, cleaning the sticky residual tear streaks from it. She dried her face, and glanced in the mirror at Locke, still sleeping behind her, undisturbed. Celes then turned her attention to her own visage. She nearly choked.

For an instant, she mistook her reflection for Rachel's.

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