The Candle
by Nistelle

It would be better in the morning, she knew. Everything got better in the morning -- or it seemed that way, at least. She only had to make it through the night, and everything would be all right. Cid would wake up, and he'd say, "I'm feeling much better, Celes." Then they would have breakfast and talk about ways to get off the island. It would be all right.

She held the candle tightly with both hands, legs crossed Indian-style, back against the wall, watching the last embers in the fireplace fade away. It was all right. Tomorrow Cid would make more matches, and they would find something to burn. There had to be some furniture left -- there was the table, and maybe a few pieces of the chair. Two matches left for tonight; that was more than enough. And anyway, the candle wouldn't go out, never, not as long as she held it. So it was fine, really.

Cid's breathing was a little quieter -- but that didn't mean anything. He was probably just in a deeper sleep; and that was the best thing for him, anyway. All he needed was a good night's rest, and he'd be back to normal in no time.

She lifted the candle up a little higher so she could look at him. His skin looked waxy white in the dim glow; his mouth and eyes shut tight, his jaw firmly set. She had never seen him with that expression before, as though he was disapproving of her, reprimanding. She mused on it for quite some time before shifting her gaze.

Her eyelids began to drop by degrees. Once in a while, she would jerk her head back up, checking the candle in a panic. But it was still lit, so everything was fine. She would find some way out of this place. There had to be survivors -- there must be. Probability said so. And the people she knew; they were strong, resilient. Terra, and Edgar -- and Locke...

Something was wrong. Her eyes shot open, to see the flame flickering in a sudden draft. Quick as lightning, she cupped one hand around the flame -- but she was too late. The flame bent back until it was almost lying on its side, and snuffed out.

For a second, she could only stare at where the light had been, its after-image rising in front of her eyes. The hand that held the candle shook, but she couldn't see it. The entire room was ink-black, darker than it should be --darker than anything should be.

She felt panic rise into her throat; her forehead flushed with heat. It was no time to get hysterical. She could re-light it.

But there were only two matches left.

It was all right; she didn't have to use the matches. She knew magic. It didn't matter that she'd forgotten the spells. She could light it by instinct, like Terra. Terra had used fire by instinct -- so could she. So it was really all right.

The darkness was pressing at her, thickening the air she breathed. She could feel it heavy against her skin, against her eyes. She held the candle upright in her left hand, and with her right touched one fingertip, lightly, to the still-warm wick. Fire ... it was an easy spell. She just had to relax, clear her mind, and it would come naturally, flowing through her fingertip onto the candle like molten metal.

Of course it would take a few moments to work properly. She clenched her eyes shut, tensing her index finger, seeing the flame in her mind. She just had to think of it, and it would come, warm and bright. Soon she would feel the hot wax drip onto her hand. It would be fine. She just had to relax, and instinct would take over.

Finally, finally, she felt the magic course through her, through her finger, onto the candle. A shuddering, relieved sigh escaped her. She opened her eyes.

"No." Her voice was a command, a plea, a wail. It was still dark, still coal-black. She could still feel the wick against her finger -- stiff. Freezing cold. She had iced it over.

Her breath began to come faster. She couldn't feel it very well -- the air was thick with darkness. Her eyes darted around the room madly, thirsty for light, desperate for it.

No, no. She couldn't panic now, she couldn't. After all, there were two matches left. She could use just one, certainly. Cid would make more tomorrow. It would be all right.

She crawled towards the table, the candle still clutched in her hand, clumsying her movements. She felt dust rise up around her knees, but she refused to cough, as though frightened she would give her location away to the darkness. She groped blindly, her eyes opened wide, until her arm struck one mildewed wooden leg. She kept one hand on its surface, indifferent to splinters as she slid herself up and grabbed the two long, sulfur matches from the tabletop.

At once she crouched down again. Not daring to let go of either the candle or the matches, she rearranged everything awkwardly -- holding one of the matches and the candle in her left hand, and the other match in her right. Her breathing slowed slightly. She had the matches, and the candle. Everything would be fine.

It took one or two strikes against the side of her boot until the match flared into a breathtaking teardrop of flickering orange. It was entrancing, really -- whispering to her of warmth and security. She stared at it for eternal seconds.

No, the candle -- she had to light the candle. Carefully, so carefully, she placed the flame against the wick, holding her breath again, willing the match to pass its warmth to the frozen black cord. Miniature fireworks spit and razzled as melting ice dripped slowly onto the flame, causing her heart to beat erratically. Muffled pounding filled her ears -- the flame wouldn't go out, she wouldn't let it.

Foolishly, she smashed the flame against the candle in a desperate attempt to light it. Both wick and match broke, the tiny shard of shattered ice falling onto her lap, cold against her thigh.

"No, goddamn it. Goddamn you," she whispered. Frantically, feeling the dark creep up on her again, she fumbled with the candle, searching for a trace of the wick. Her fingers found only numb coldness.

"Please don't please God don't please God." She lit the other match, without hesitating this time, unable to be in the darkness any longer. She struggled to melt some of the candle's wax, begging the black wick to emerge, but in vain. The candle was still frozen, icy liquid dripping down her hand.

The candle finally dropped, forgotten, to the floor, and she was left with nothing but a rapidly burning match, its smoke souring her nostrils. She couldn't stop the panic now -- her breath came fast and furious, and she could feel water overflow in her eyes. Nothing left to burn. No matches, nothing left, and she would be alone in the dark and morning was so far away, and nothing left to burn.

But the floor -- and the table, they were made of wood! And how brilliantly everything would glow: the entire shack, bright and warm and safe, and the darkness fleeing to the edges of the world, to the beach and beyond, past the sickly sea...

Tempting, it was so tempting. Her fingers tingled at the idea, aching to release the drop of light they held, yearning to set free the fire that meant rest, rest and warmth. But there was Cid, lying still like clay in the ragged blankets, defenseless and reproachful, telling her, "Celes, you paid for this, you deserve the dark."

The match was nearing its end. With a trembling hand she turned it upside-down, holding it by the black carbon tip, and stared at it. There must be some way... she need only keep the flame alive for a few extra minutes, a few seconds, and she would find something to burn, something she hadn't thought of.

Maybe... if she just burned her finger. Just for a few seconds. Just until she could find something to burn. It wouldn't hurt that much, and she could heal it in the morning. Cid would help her remember the spell. Certainly he would, and she could bear it. She could bear the pain, of course she could.

She held her finger against the fire. She muffled her cry of pain, forcing herself to stay still, absolutely still as she watched her skin redden, then blacken. She could bear it, she could, the important thing was to think and find some way to keep the flame burning -- quickly, think, quickly!

Her scream pierced the air as she dropped the match, clutching her finger against her lips, eyes screwed shut in agony. She could smell the acrid scent of burning flesh, almost gagged on it as she hugged her arm against her body, not even noticing the dark as she was battered by pain.

It didn't take long until she realized what had happened. A low, steady whine escaped her throat as she opened her eyes to meet blackness. She couldn't move for the terror. Her frozen mind barely registered the agony of her burn.

She clutched her finger then, needing to feel more of the pain, needing to feel anything. Her thoughts were screaming louder and louder, clawing at her brain till she could focus on nothing. So this was what it was like to go insane -- memories would race through your mind until you became trapped in one; or in a dream, in a dark nightmare that you could never escape. Forever like that, alone.

All of a sudden light flashed before her, silver-edged blue that illuminated the match-ridden floor in front of her before fading away. She stared, in awe, still clutching her finger.

The light flashed again, brighter this time. Where could it be coming from? Morning was so many hours away, and Cid had not stirred, and the matches were gone, burned out on the ground. But it was so bright, and beautiful... not warm like the candle, but that was all right. She wouldn't mind being cold, much -- just as long as the dark disappeared, as long as the light returned. But would it return? She waited in breathless anticipation.

Flash. There it was again, so beautiful -- she could cry for the beauty of it. So bright, and it was there for her. It knew she was afraid of being alone in the darkness. She could feel the warm, grateful tears run down her face as it flashed again, and again, not noticing that her burn healed a bit more and a bit more with every illumination.

It would still be a few hours before she slept that night, never realizing that the cure spell being cast was her own.