Terra took the last sip from her second glass of wine. Second? Third. She thought she'd be better at these social events by now. The funny thing about being a heroine was that people got excited when you showed up at all, and they tended to hang on your every word no matter how inane. But she wasn't a socialite, and she didn't have informed opinions about anything other than her kids, and nobody at these parties wanted the real answer to, "How are you doing?"
Oh, I still lie awake most nights worrying that our world is so fragile that one man's nihilism nearly ended all life, and that after a lifetime of being paraded around as a puppet in front of the powerful and elite who did nothing to stop it, I was rescued by people who wanted just as badly to use me for their own goals, and so it's hard to maintain the illusion that I'm raising my children in a world where justice or purpose exists. How are you?
Existential navel gazing just didn't resonate with the opera-going crowd. Her usual plan was to follow her girlfriend around and let her do all the talking. But Celes had already retreated backstage to prepare for the show, which left Terra filling the empty spaces in conversation with slow and deliberate sips of wine. Once the curtain rose, no one would expect anything more from her and she'd be safe. She just had to hold out until then.
Still, it was a lovely reception. The Kingdom of Figaro had sponsored the reconstruction of the opera house, which meant no expense had been spared turning it into Edgar's personal showcase of modern engineering. The lights were his favorite part, and he never missed an opportunity to brag that they required neither fire nor magic. And with the kind of gil he had poured into it ("invested", as he insisted), that meant no shortage of people hoping to be a part of his next project.
An elderly Kohlingen couple had cornered Terra against a pillar, and there was no escaping to refill her glass without appearing rude. The moment she had mentioned having children, the woman cut Terra off with stories about her late son's life and showed no signs of stopping soon. Of course, she didn't mention when he died. Nobody did when they told these stories. Nobody had to. Terra wasn't exactly eager to discuss that day either, so she let them keep talking.
Mercifully, Edgar came to her rescue with a fresh glass which she accepted eagerly, even though she had perhaps had enough. "I'm sorry to interrupt. Would it trouble you if I borrowed her?"
"Not at all, Your Highness. Not at all. Enjoy the show," the old woman said, and excused her husband and herself.
Terra glanced over Edgar's shoulder at a young gentleman in a red, wide-brimmed hat speaking to the Impresario. "You know, when your brother told us you'd found someone new, I don't think any of us expected Daniel."
"With how often you hit on the two of us, can you blame us for thinking you liked women?"
Edgar smiled mischievously, "I like beautiful things, my dear."
Terra indulged him with a coy grin of her own. "Well, he certainly is that."
"Isn't he, though?"
Before Edgar could gush any further, the doors opened and the house lights dimmed.
"I'll see you after the show," he said.
With Celes performing, she had assumed Edgar would at least be seated near her. "You're not sitting in front? How can a king not get front row seats?"
"The front row is for people coming to see the show. I'm a king. I'm here to be seen at the show." He winked and kissed her hand. "Don't worry. You'll have a perfect view of me in the king's box." Terra smirked and rolled her eyes.
The overture to The Three Goddesses opened with more drums than Terra thought could fit in the pit, followed by a fanfare redolent with dire triumph. A cool mist flowed across the stage and crept among the seats, gathering at her ankles. A bolt of lightning struck the stage, followed by another, and a third. Robed women rose from the mist where they struck, wailing four measures of disharmonious and unresolved chords. They repeated the four measures while the cast marched across the stage in a ghostly procession, spirits departing after yet another battle in the War of the Magi.
Riding the cresting waves of wine and orchestral thunder, Terra slipped into a state of gleeful, childlike wonder, a perfectly uncritical enjoyment of the spectacle. The strangers seated on either side of her with their opera-is-serious scowls of polite restraint be damned. This was fun.
The fog cleared at the close of the overture, and Maria, in the role of Andrea d’Nes, took to the stage with a hymn of lamentation for her character's family. A lone viola drew out the end of the melody line and transitioned it to an optimistic leitmotif (Celes would be so proud she remembered that word) that brought Terra to the edge of her seat. She may have even bounced in anticipation, however the house lights were out so she would not stand for anyone accusing her of such a bubbly display.
Celes, playing Melindra, descended from a set of stone stairs in dented and bloodied war regalia. She lifted Andrea to her feet while singing the first lines of "In This Broken World" and Andrea replied with her prior song of doubt and dolor. Melindra cut her off, turning the song into a dueling duet of hope and loss. Before long, Melindra’s optimism won over Andrea’s heart, and by the second chorus it was Andrea leading the song while Melindra shouted spoken lines to rally the survivors to her banner.
"I say this is not the mages world to destroy!" Melindra shouted. Terra knew this speech by heart, having helped Celes rehearse, and couldn't resist mouthing it along with her in the precise cadence they had practiced, right down to the emphasized words. "It is ours! We shall cast down these masters! We shall take back our futures!"
By the Goddesses, Celes was truly a general for the ages. Terra had no memory of Celes the General, only Celes the Rebel, so she counted herself blessed to see her love in her element at last, even if it was only on an opera stage. There was an energy in her step that Terra had never seen in rehearsal. Her posture overflowed with righteous authority, and her voice could shake free the rime of fear encrusting even the most craven heart.
"Who will stand with me?"
Terra stood up and shouted, "I shall!" along with the rest of the cast. A mortified Maria glared briefly at Terra but maintained her composure. Celes couldn't keep from cracking a grin, but got back into character just as swiftly as she had dropped it. Terra glanced at Edgar's box, and he flashed a proud thumbs-up. Daniel swatted him for it. Terra spent the remainder of the first act attempting to become one with her seat.
When intermission arrived, Terra kept her head down and searched for Edgar. At least his jokes would be tolerably familiar in nature; she didn't think she could endure it from strangers at that moment. However, Edgar was nowhere to be seen.
The Impresario found Terra while she was contemplating skipping the second act rather than walk all the way back down to the front row. Perhaps someone in the back had left and she could take their seat. "Miss Branford," the Impresario began, and his tone said trouble so Terra cut in.
"I am very sorry," Terra replied. "I got carried away. I take responsibility for that. It wasn't Celes's fault at all."
"Miss Branford, your outburst is not why I am here, nor would I dream of holding someone like Miss Chere responsible. Though, it would be appreciated if you kept your excitement in check in the future."
"I came to find you because Miss Chere has made a most unorthodox request of me. Oh dear." The Impresario rubbed his forehead as though his anxieties could be scrubbed away with enough vigor. "I have a responsibility to put on a good show, you see, and this request, if not properly handled, could jeopardize that. It would be profoundly unfair to put you under such pressure in front of an audience, and likewise it could prove disastrous for audience enjoyment if things do not go just so."
Terra raised an eyebrow. "You still haven't said what the request was."
"Ahem. Yes. Miss Chere has requested that I let her propose to you before the second act begins. Before I agree to let her do so, I need to know what your answer will be. Obviously if you said no, it would be a catastrophe!"
Terra's mind bounced riotously back and forth between being upset that he'd spoiled the surprise, and being overwhelmed by giddiness. They had talked about it, of course, but despite their conversations neither of them had felt any pressing need to seek formal recognition of what was already true. Her mouth moved but no words came out.
"Miss Branford, intermission will be over shortly."
"Yes!" she shouted, drawing all eyes in the foyer. In a quieter voice she repeated, "Yes. Tell Miss Chere she may."
The Impresario bowed. Before he departed, he admonished her to still act surprised for the sake of the audience, but not act like she was anticipating the question. He was a showman to the last.
Terra all but ran back to her seat, heedless of the folk shaming her with their gossip and snickering. They weren't about to be proposed to by one of the stars of the show. She fidgeted as the audience shuffled back in. The last handful returned to their seats at a leisurely pace, and Terra wanted to run to each and push them along. Edgar's box was still empty when the house lights at last went down. He'd never forgive himself for missing this.
A spotlight followed the Impresario as he strode to center stage. "Before we resume, I have a very special request on the part of one of our star ladies. Is there a Terra Branford in the audience this evening?" A second spotlight scanned the audience, pretending it was not obvious where she was seated until she stood. "Miss Chere has something she would like to ask you, Miss Branford. Celes Chere, everyone!"
The Impresario stepped aside with a flourish, but no one was behind him. Uncertain silence strangled what little applause had begun. Terra smiled, still doing her best to keep up the ignorant facade but genuine nervousness twisted the Impresario's face. He glanced offstage for the absent Celes. "Ahem. Miss Celes?"
An usher trotted across the stage to the Impresario and whispered in his ear. A shocked, "Oh dear," burst from the Impresario. The usher passed him a folded note. "Oh, not him again." The pair exchanged more whispers, though by then the audience had joined them. "He wants me to read this? Do I look like his errand boy?" The usher shrugged helplessly, and a now irate Impresario shooed him off the stage.
"Ahem. Miss Branford, this letter is addressed to you. 'A little bird tells me that a beauty that belongs among the clouds is about to let herself be tied down forever. I couldn't have that. –S'"
Terra had transformed by reflex and only realized it after the audience started screaming. Forget them. If they couldn't look upon the power that it took to save their lives, in all its fiery glory, and know that she was not their enemy, then they did not deserve to feel safe. They were safe, and that was what mattered. But Celes wasn't.
Terra tossed aside the barrier between the audience and the pit and jumped to the stage. "A sword," she demanded of the Impresario.
The gold and pink flicker of her fur and fire reflected off the sweat on his face. The man was the distilled essence of anxiety, and its odor made her nose twitch. The Impresario signaled to the orchestra to play, and they started with Celes's song. Fitting. "Y-you heard her. A sword!"
A stagehand emerged with a prop sword and offered it to her. She wrapped her talon-like fingers around the handle and tested its balance. As a weapon it was disastrous, but she had no time to be picky. With a shriek of rage she smashed through the roof and flew after The Falcon.
It had been so long since she had truly let go like this. She was not just some wild creature; she was feral, a thing that had seen the world of humans and rejected it to lurk in dark places beyond the hedge. She was the light in every shooting star. She was the magic of every wish.
But in this state, the whispering fury that bubbled within was so much closer to the surface, ready to take over, ready to burn the world that stood by and watched her people die. Her human half had forgiven things that her esper half would never forget. Fire poured forth from wounds in her soul where her body had only scars. Outraged as she was by Setzer's insult, that bottomless pool of anger was tantalizingly close to her grasp, even though she knew where it would lead.
Control. She had to keep control. If she couldn't, she was more danger to Celes than Setzer could ever be. Focusing on her love's face bought her a moment of precious clarity.
She soared above the clouds. The Falcon was fast, and Setzer could have taken her any time after her final song in the first act and gained a significant head start. But this was Setzer. In his own way, he was as taken with theatrics as the Impresario. Knowing him, that usher had been given the note just moments prior. He would be close.
A swirling cloud to the west caught her eye. A wake ripple. Terra shot toward it, brandishing her prop sword. Blinded by the mists of the cloud, Terra accelerated. She burst through the other side into the orange glow of sunset again.
The airship brushed against the edges of a towering cloud in the distance. As fast as it was, no airship could match an outraged esper who wanted her fiancée-to-be back.
Setzer glanced behind him. As soon as he made eye contact with her, he locked the wheel and bolted below deck. Terra charged after and kicked the door open, splintering the mahogany trim. She liked Setzer, but that wasn't going to stop her from tearing that man limb from limb for this. He had bet it all on her being too meek to chase him, or too sentimental to toss him off his own ship, and now he was about to learn what happens to gamblers who—
A celebratory cheer erupted, startling Terra. Lights burst on, and she found herself in a cabin crowded wall to wall with familiar faces. Her former companions smiled and laughed, and at the far side of the room her five of her children stood on chairs to see her over the heads of the others. Little Cid sat on Sabin's shoulders even though he had to crouch down to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. Umaro sat with his knees pulled up to his chest, with Mog perched on one knee and Terra's daughter Miranda on the other.
Setzer stood against the far wall, and beside him was Celes wearing the white dress she had when they left for the opera house. Far from looking like his captive, she seemed calm, relieved even. When their eyes met, joyful tears burst from her eyes.
Confused, Terra's fiery manifestation winked out. Her chest heaved, exhausted from rage. She dropped her sword and ran to embrace a sobbing Celes.
"What, what is all this?" Terra asked. She clutched desperately at Celes's golden curls, needing to feel their insistent, undeniable reality in her fingers.
Celes wiped her tears and laughed. "Isn't it obvious?"
Terra joined in her laughter and pressed her forehead to Celes's. "When the Impresario asked, I didn't think you meant today."
"It was their idea, actually." Celes nodded toward the kids. "They heard our stories and thought it would be fun."
"I still think we should have gotten the octopus, too," Cid said, petulantly.
"Oh Goddesses, he's not here, is he?" Terra asked.
"Edgar and Locke were in favor, but I managed to convince them that it would be a bad idea," Sabin said. Terra sighed with relief and Celes gave her a reassuring squeeze on the arm.
"So, ladies," Setzer said. "Are we doing this?"
Terra's head was still spinning, but when Celes looked into her eyes she realized there was no impulsive, foolish risk she wouldn't take for—no, with—that woman. Terra nodded, smiling. She took Celes's hand and marched with her to where Setzer stood.
Setzer cleared his throat and the group waited with electrified silence. "As a ship's captain, it's my honor and pleasure to perform this ceremony today. The more so because after the last time we were all together, I made a bet that the next time we'd gather like this would be to say goodbye to one of us. I have never been so happy to lose a wager." Setzer tossed a coin to Locke.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Strago shouted indignantly from the back.
"Because you're old!" Relm shouted back.
"Friends, doth not ye wish to hear this?" Cyan intervened.
Celes glanced at Terra, smirking. Terra snorted back a laugh, which made Celes burst out laughing. Terra couldn't help but follow suit. Once they settled down, the pair exchanged embarrassed, elated grins.
Setzer continued, "Now, would you two like to say anything to one another?"
Terra was about to speak, but Celes squeezed her hand. Terra smiled and nodded to her. "Terra, once, you asked me if people like us could ever be loved. You didn't mean people who had once served the Empire. You didn't mean women who had killed people. You meant people who could use magic. People who the world was taught to fear, not love. But today, I tell you with all my heart that answer is yes."
Terra's jaw trembled, but Celes reached up to rest a hand on her cheek. Terra clutched it and kissed her palm. "Celes, I was once afraid of what I am. We were both free for the first time in our lives, lives we never expected to be our own, but I was still trapped by the pain of that fear. My children taught me what love is. But your confidence and determination in the face of our past is what showed me what it means to accept that love without fear. I would not be here without you."
Tears gathered in the creases of their smiles. Setzer continued, "I'm not keen on forevers, and I refuse to clip either of your wings to be caged and owned by the other. So this isn't going to be one of those ceremonies. I'm here to ask only whether you are willing to bet on each other when the chips are up, and when the chips are down, for as long as your paths lead you to the same horizon."
He produced a familiar coin from Figaro and tossed it, looking at Celes.
Catching it, he revealed Edgar's smiling likeness. Celes grinned excitedly as he declared she'd lost.
He tossed it again, this time looking to Terra.
It was surely Edgar's two-headed coin. So when she said, "Tails," she didn't need Setzer to tell her she'd lost her heart to the woman before her. Setzer caught it and revealed Sabin's smiling likeness.
"Then by obligation of your gambling debts, I declare you two partners owe each other a kiss."
Celes rushed into Terra's arms and pressed her lips to Terra's. Terra grabbed a fistful of Celes's hair and took in her scent. Surely, there was cheering, but Terra only cared about the warmth of her wife's lips.
"They're so cute!" Relm declared. "I want to paint their picture."
"No!" the entire ship shouted in unison.