I opened my eyes and realized that a bright light glared down at me. There were men wearing white all around me, especially lower towards my table, where I deduced my legs were. Something entered the wound again, and I screamed again, long and loud, as it felt like something was wiggling around in it and the pain shot through me with greater impact than a bus. I could suddenly make out voices in the background that loudly protested. Callan's voice...and Kain's.
"Put him under!" I heard Kain yell. "You're gonna kill him like this."
"We have no anesthetic." the doctor nearest to my face said. "We're a reserve medical unit, we don't have that kind of supplies!"
Once again, a sharp, stabbing pain that originated from my leg made itself known, and I screamed once more. I noticed that I had restraints on me, probably to keep the men who were working on my leg from accidentally causing my leg more damage. If I hadn't been restrained, I would have thrashed, hell, I thrashed against my restraints a bit, even. If I had not been, my leg would have been ripped to shreds by now though.
"You can do it man! You can get through this!" I heard Kain yell.
"Come on, Ted." I heard Callan urge me from somewhere near.
Suddenly, whatever it was seemed to plunge deeper in my leg and it sure hit a nerve, for a stabbing pain worse than the rest overcame me and as I screamed, I blacked out.
When I woke up, the first thing I recalled was a surging pain in my leg, and I cried out a bit from it, and then I felt a needle enter me and the pain became a dull throb. It wasn't until what I assumed was many hours later that I really regained consciousness. I was in a place I recognized, the hospital wing at the very Nebelheim base I had first trained at. I turned my head to the side and caught a glimpse of two people on a bench beside me. Callan and Kain. Kain looked at me then, and his eyes widened and he sat up straight and began shaking Callan, who had dozed off.
"Cal! Cal! Ted's up! He's come to!" Kain was yelling, and Callan woke in a split second.
"Ted!" he cried, flinging himself to my side at once, eyes full of apparent glee. Then, he shot me a reproachful look.
"I thought you said you were going to bed. Where'd you get the foolish idea to wander off by yourself?" he asked. "You could have been killed!"
"I'm sorry Cal." I sighed. "I just saw this smoke, and..."
"Smoke?!" Kain exclaimed loudly then, making Callan and I jump a little. "Don't tell me you're the guy that lit up that Kilmjac camp!"
"Well, yeah...that was me. Why?" I asked.
"Oh, the guys have been talking since two days ago, wondering who wiped them all out. They've been saying it was the 'Fallen Angel of Nebelheim' and calling whoever did it 'Destroyer' and 'Kilmjac Slayer'." Kain explained. "And to think it's you, that it's someone I know...this is wicked!"
"Well I think it was a stupid idea, Ted." Callan said, and I knew he only said this out of concern for me. "You're lucky to be alive."
Just then, what Kain had said registered, and I cut in.
"Wait...two days?!" I cried.
"Well yeah, since the morning we found you by this stream a mile from camp, it's been two days. You had one hell of an operation. I think you came to during part of it, but you went out again. It was mad!" Kain cried.
"Yes, our temporary camp we set up wasn't well-prepared for surgery." Callan explained. "The medics had to transfer you to Nightlock camp by truck. If you'd been shot right before you entered camp, we would have gone straight here, to a Nebelheim base for surgery, but you'd lost too much blood already and needed the operation stat."
"So they had to have it done at Nightlock, with no anesthetic." Kain said. "You got through it like a champ!"
Just then, the door flew open, and in strode Kozen with two escorts. The young, dark-haired captain looked down at me, and I bit my lower lip gently.
"What the hell, Alborn?" Kozen snarled.
"S-sir!" I cried, knowing I was about to get told off.
"Why were you out there on your own?" Kozen demanded. "You could have given us all away, could have been killed!"
"Sorry sir. I just...didn't want anyone else to be injured." I stammered back. He looked at me for a moment, then seemed to remember Ace, for he put a hand on my shoulder that didn't feel particularly warm and friendly, but I know it was intended to be comforting.
"I see. I'm sorry about what occurred with Atkins." he said. I focused intently on a drawer on the bed across from mine, trying to keep my mind on anything but what had occurred at Nightlock. Kozen gave a curt nod, and I watched the young captain stride from the room in a proud and confident manner, but also in a manner that spoke of great importance and urgent matters that needed attending to. There was a pregnant pause.
"Well, Ted, I have a surprise for you." Callan said, and as I looked at him, he reddened a little. I wasn't quite sure why. He stood up then, and hurried out the door to the hospital wing. Kain and I exchanged puzzled looks, and we watched the door, which slowly opened again.
Entering the room first was Hilbert Hinterher. The small boy was wearing his archery academy uniform and he put his bow and quiver down by the front, and I felt a pang of guilt, realizing that Callan must have missed a class so he could stay with me in the hospital wing. Hilbert's brown hair was windblown, and his eyes drifted onto me as he strode over.
"Just got here from archery class. 'Hoy Ted!" he said to me, "And to you too Kain."
"Hey Hilbert." Kain said, and I smiled at him. The small boy came closer to inspect my face, and I was reminded strongly of Damien. His dark, almost black eyes swept across my face, as though trying to detect any negative emotions. Then, deciding there were none, offered me a faint smile.
"Well, you're not dead, thankfully." Hilbert said, and the three of us shared a smile. Hilbert had warmed considerably to us since we'd met him, and was like the little brother of our squad. The dark-haired boy perched himself gingerly on the end of my bed, and handed me a package.
"A gift for our fallen hero." he said, winking and smirking cheekily at me, and I couldn't help but grin back. I could barely open it myself, so Kain ripped it open for me, revealing some packages of candy.
"Wow, thanks Hilbert!" I cried. "Now I can get a cavity while I'm healing up."
Someone else entered the hospital wing as we laughed, and I noticed that Callan was back, and to my surprise, so was Tayler. The two of them carried something, and Hilbert hastened to get one of the tables the hospital wing had on hand and put it down nearby. I tried peering at it, and noticed it was a beautiful chocolate cake and my jaw dropped.
"Tayler made this for you, Ted." Callan said, cheeks reddening just a bit, to my surprise.
"Well...it was Callan's idea, you know." Tayler said. The two seemed to be exchanging glances, and I cocked my head to the side, looking from Callan to Tayler, puzzled before it hit me.
"I see." I said in what I hoped was a sly voice, granting Callan an impish grin that had him averting eye contact with me, a smile on his face. Kain playfully nudged my shoulder and winked, and as Callan turned to thank Tayler, and we both shot each other that "I-see-what's-going-on-here" look. Hilbert's eyes wandered from both parties, and the boy was smiling. Tayler came over and handed me a package, smiling when I looked at her with a curious expression.
"It's from Violet." she said, and I unwrapped it and saw a steel ring with a dragon forged onto it. Where the dragon's eye should have been was a tiny sliver of a blood-red ruby that shone brilliantly.
"Wow!" I cried, amazed.
"It was her grandfather's. He served in the military as well." Tayler explained.
Just then, the door to the hospital wing flew open, and I could hear the clatter of boots as John and Lane appeared first, panting as though they had run here. Behind them tramped King, Jeff, Arlen, Ivan, and Jonathan.
"I told you the first Alborn twin in the hospital would be Ted." John joked, earning some snickers and a smile from me. I felt far better, the pain in my leg forgotten as I was surrounded by friends, each of whom gave me a gift. I had lots of candy, mostly, and we ate my chocolate cake right there. It was wonderful to be with them all again.
That night, my gifts placed on a chair near me, I found it very hard to go to sleep. I had been the only one in the hospital wing that day, but I assumed another attack had been made on Kilmjacs somewhere, for I began to get roommates. Kain, loyal as he was, offered to stay with me until visitor hours were over, and we watched the new entries together.
One was a man older than me, maybe forty years old, and when he came in, I was astonished to see a bloody and bandaged stump where his leg should have been. Then in came a man who had blood caked to his shirt. The man himself was as white as a sheet. Then was a black boy around my age, with blood down one side of his face, shouting something to the nurses. Kain had put a hand on my shoulder and reassured me it was going to be okay before he left.
I was unable to sleep very easily the first night there. There was moaning from the wounded men around me, and some were even crying or praying to get better, praying for their families, and yet some...they prayed for hope. I was laying listless myself, unable to drift off into sleep. The nurses had set up little wheel-in walls so we could have some privacy, and I heard a tap on the one beside me. No, louder than a tap. It was a knock. I knocked back.
"You alive there?" a voice asked. I recognized it as the black boy from earlier.
"Yeah. How are you holding up?" I asked.
"No left eye." he said, and I felt a pang of sympathy for him.
"I'm sorry." I said.
"Ehh, I'm alive at least. My right eye is my sniper's eye anyhow." he said. "What are you in here for?"
"Shot in the leg." I replied. "Took down a Kilmjac camp though."
"Wait," the boy said, suddenly very interested. "Are you the Fallen Angel of Nebelheim?"
"That's what they've been calling me." I replied.
"It's funny." the boy said. "You do something incredible, and it's like you don't have a real name anymore, just a title. That's the art of warfare. It takes over your old identity...makes you someone else."
"What's your name?" I asked him.
"Malik. Malik Hughes." he said. "What's yours, Fallen Angel?"
"Ted Alborn." I replied.
"I'll keep an eye out for that name, but don't you go and forget mine." he said. I laughed.
"I won't." I assured him.
"Godspeed, Ted Alborn." Malik said. "Don't lose your head. Stay intact."
"You too, Malik." I replied. "Godspeed." And with that, I drifted into a somewhat fitful sleep.
A few days had passed before I was allowed to leave the hospital wing for periods. On my third day allowed out of bed, I found myself being helped into my jet-black Nebelheim National Military uniform, which was a lot harder to get into than ever before, what with having limited mobility in one leg. My friends stood around me, wearing their own uniforms. Hilbert's hair was combed more neatly than it had ever been, parted to one side. The small boy looked very serious, more than usual. And I knew why. It was time for Ace's funeral.
We clambered into a Nebelheim truck, where we were taken to the Nebelheim National Military Graveyard. I got the chills, knowing I was walking on the earth that concealed dozens of fallen soldiers. Those of us from the military that would be in attendance were summoned to a small base on-site so we could store our belongings there. We would not be storing guns; in fact, we would be armed for the duration of the funeral.
"Is this right?" Callan asked uncertainly as he held a rifle in his hands. I had strapped my own sniper rifle to me and waited.
"Ace was killed with a knife, not a gun." I said. I pulled my hunting knife out and put it in a storage bin, before turning to Kozen and the other men and loudly saying "No knives." They looked at me, scrutinizing the look in my eyes, before Kozen officially ordered everyone to leave their knives here.
We trooped out. Some of the men took position around the graveyard as watch, but those of us with Ace on the mission that killed him were given golden armbands to put around the sleeves of our jackets, and we hastened to put them on. Mine had the silhouette of an eagle, as I had been the leader on that mission. I stood by the hole in the ground that would soon be Ace's grave, with Callan on one side of me and Kain on the other. I bowed my head. I t was so strange to see normal people, civilians, so close to an armed force. It was like the life I had once known and the world I knew now had collided, had come together for Ace. That was the glue that bound these two worlds together, the loss of Ace.
I held my breath as a force from the Nebelheim military carried Ace's casket over and barely listened to the minister as he spoke, my eyes focused on Ace's casket until it was lowered into the ground. I looked around me. Kain had on a solemn face, but I could tell that the corners of his eyes were wet. Hilbert stood there, holding his gun, an unreadable look in his eyes. Some of the others on the mission were not so reluctant to cry. Little Arlen Terpomo was having a hard time keeping his emotions in, shaking with sobs. Lane and Jeff were bleary-eyed, and I noticed Jonathan had his head down, so no one could see his face. Ivan was barely keeping his composure. Callan was frowning, looking close to tears.
We lined up. It was time for everyone to drop a handful of soil onto Ace's grave, starting with those of us that went on the mission with him. I stepped up first, taking a large handful of soil, and staring down at Ace's casket. As I did, a single tear, the only one I would shed that day, rolled off of my cheek, and I watched it fall onto his casket. An upsurge of memories overwhelmed me, of when I had first met him in Nebelheim's blue showers, or when I'd found him after our first battle. Then more memories came, of wandering around town with him, learning things about gambling and women from him during our short hiatus from war. The last memory, clear in my mind, was of Ace. He lay in my arms, dying, and his last words had been to me, not to someone else, but to me. Some hidden knowledge he had kept in and chosen to put into play at the last moment.
"My comrade, my friend, my brother." I said, looking down onto Ace's casket. Then, before I could lose composure, I released my handful of soil, watching each speck of it fall through the air, tugged by gravity down onto a hard wooden surface that concealed my fallen friend.
That night in the hospital wing, I lay in bed, miserable. I heard a knock to my left and grew excited. It was strange how Malik and I never seemed to meet face-to-face. He was always in therapy or corrective surgery or in a private ward being visited by family when he was not separated from me by a wall at night. There was something comforting in his presence though, and I was content to lay there and listen to one of his spiels about the military. He and I were both fond of reading, and I often had my favorite Nurse, Ms. Horvath, lend him one of the many books that Callan gracefully brought me each day. We would work our way through novels and texts together, quoting bits we found interesting and sharing our thoughts and opinions on the contents. Kain often playfully told me I belonged at a university instead of on the battlefield.
The following morning, after a long discussion on various things, Callan and I were both sitting there, contentedly reading together, when Kain entered. He grinned broadly at us.
"Well look at the little uni professors." he laughed. "I swear, you two are mentally linked. If Callan's not here, he's reading, and I know you are too, Ted."
"You know it." I said, looking up over the top of Nebelheim's Crusaders, which was propped up on my lap. I slid a bookmark in and put the book down on my bedside table, grinning at Kain.
"Well, good news." Kain said. "Today's your last day in the hospital wing."
Callan and I both shared a significant look at one another, and I grinned.
"Well, we could always take you out for dinner and ice cream." Callan said, and I grinned even more broadly, pleased.
"Yeah, you can invite Tayler and everything." I said, and Kain and I laughed as his cheeks suddenly reddened. I slid my ring that Violet had given me onto the middle finger of my left hand.
Just then, Lane ran into the room.
"Ted, Callan, Kain, you're going to want to come with me right away!" he cried.
"What is it?" I asked, but I was already shucking my pajamas off and clambering into my uniform, the only other set of clothes I had with me that weren't pajamas. I hurried along behind the others, almost running until I reached the Nebelheim military truck. I leaped down into a seat beside Callan.
"Your presence was requested at a hospital." Lane said.
"Hospital?" I asked. "Why?"
"Ace's fiancee." Lane said, and I had a feeling I knew why I was going there.
By the time we reached the room, John and Arlen had already been there for a while. It was Ace's fiancee who lay in bed, but not injured as I had expected. No...she was...holding a baby, swaddled in a blue blanket. I looked curiously at her.
"Last night, he was born." she said. Tayler slipped into the room, and I thought I noticed her grip Callan's arm a bit.
"She doesn't know what to name him." John said. "And was hoping you'd do the honors. She wants Ace as his middle name though."
I racked my brains, finding myself wandering back into Nebelheim's Crusaders as the perfect name hit me at once, the name of a Nebelheim general who was valued greatly and an asset in battle, a true hero to the core like Ace was.
"Tanner?" I suggested weakly, hoping it sounded good to her. She looked at me then and nodded, smiling, tears in her eyes, and she allowed me to approach. As I did, I noticed the startling similarities between the baby and Ace, and I filled with both despair that Tanner would never know his father and joy that here was a lasting tribute to Ace. I looked fondly at the infant who regarded me with wide, curious eyes. I then turned, seeking Callan and hugged him, feeling my face against his warm shoulder, and Tayler and Callan both patted my back consolingly.
And for the first time in a long time, I cried.