It took him two days to scrape himself off the floor and shape the flattened remnants of himself—the remnants of what, exactly? his heart?—into something resembling a man once more. Meanwhile, the airship and its crew had continued the journey toward Narshe. In the end, Locke joined Edgar in the dining hall wearing a smile that was maybe a little frayed at the edges. What else could he do? There was still work to be done.
"I was just trying to figure out what, exactly, we'll be reporting to Banon," Edgar said, after a round of inquiries into Locke's mental state that Locke evaded with practiced ease.
"The Magitek Research Facility has fallen," Locke said. "Possibly taking Kefka with it, if we're lucky. But either way, that's bound to have repercussions for the rest of the Empire, don't you think?"
"And you're confident in that?"
"Even if it didn't physically come apart, which I do think is a likely possibility," and he exerted enough control that his voice barely wavered at this, "we… freed... the last of the Espers they were using."
"But how much do you suppose they were reliant on those Espers?"
"I don't know," Locke said.
"Sabin said they were using some of them as a power source, and the whole facility seemed to shut down once they were gone."
"It did seem that way. I'm no expert." Locke shrugged with a little self-deprecating smile. "But we can dream, right? Maybe the Facility is gone forever and the Empire itself is crippled. Maybe the source of Magitek has dried up for good."
"If that's true," Edgar said, wonder in his voice, "that could turn the tide of this war."
Locke didn't have the stomach for much more of this. Besides, he was sure they'd both be rehashing everything they said in this room soon enough when they arrived at Narshe. Banon would want every detail, and then he'd lock himself in a room with Edgar and whomever else had a sense of military strategy and figure out what the Returners would do next.
So instead he found Terra, who was on one of the uppermost decks. She sat on a plush upholstered couch with her knees to her chest, her face pensive as she gazed out a porthole window. Locke's throat tightened as he thought of what she must be feeling. He had been lost inside himself for two entire days, self-indulgent, as though he were the only one in the whole world who had someone to mourn. But Terra's loss was infinitely more profound, and she had less to carry herself through loss. Locke took a seat on the other end of her couch, and she glanced up at him.
"How are you feeling?" He knew he was echoing the same pointless line of questioning that Edgar had tried on him, but Terra deserved someone to listen to her. And this wasn't just a pleasantry.
"I bet." What could he say to that? Normally he'd ask about the person someone had lost, offering them an outlet for their grief, but Terra had spent so little time around her father that he worried that might only serve to remind her that she had no stories to tell or memories to recount.
"Are you angry?" she asked suddenly.
"It feels like… she traded her freedom for mine. I thought… I mean. I think I could understand if–"
"If there's anyone to be angry with, it's Kefka. It's the Emperor. It's the whole goddamn Empire. But not you." He smiled at her, with as much reassurance as he could project, trying to spread the warmth into his eyes. "Besides, she would be really glad you're safe. You should have seen her when we realized they'd taken you. I thought she was going to march right into Vector by herself and demand they release you at sword point."
"That's pretty much what you did, isn't it?"
"Not quite." He cocked his head at her, grinning. "There was a lot of sneaking around, first. Disguises, secret identities, the whole nine yards."
"But then Sabin started breaking things."
"Oh, yes. Very explosively. Although, come to think of it, there was some threatening-at-sword-point for your freedom…" He swallowed back the guilt that wanted to choke him, remembering how Celes had stood up to the scientist she called Cid, confronting some shadow of her past to free a friend while Locke had spent the whole time doubting everything she was and everything she had done. "And we don't know that they've captured Celes." Or worse. "We've got allies in Vector. For all we know, she and Hassan and his friends are toasting the fall of the Magitek Research Facility at this very moment."
"I really hope so."
Silence fell over them both for several minutes. With Terra, it was nothing like Celes's brooding. The girl's sadness permeated the air around her, but there was nothing seething or churning within her, just a sense of loss and emptiness.
"Look," Locke said, slowly. "Grief is… hard. I can't imagine what it's like for you, so I won't pretend I do. But whatever you're feeling, it's OK to feel that way. It will come and go. Sometimes it will crash over you and be everything, and sometimes it will recede and you can breathe again."
"It doesn't really feel like that," Terra said. "I think maybe if I'd known him longer, maybe it would? But it's just—it's strange. It feels kind of like a headache, somewhere deep inside me, but it's not everything."
"Ah, I see," he said, and of course he should not have assumed he knew what to say to her, should not have assumed that her grief would be the same as his.
"Mostly it just feels really unfair," she said. "Does that make sense? I think I'm—more angry than sad, maybe. He was there for years and I didn't get to know him. He was there, and I was there, and we never saw each other. I didn't even know he was there. I didn't… didn't even know my father was an Esper. And I have—a piece of him with me, in a way I don't know how to describe, and I know I'm lucky to have that, but the rest of it is just..."
"It is unfair, and it shouldn't have happened. None of it should have, to any of you."
"Do you have a dad?" A moment later, self-consciously, she added, "I mean, of course you have a father. Everybody has a father, at least at some point. But is your..."
"No, he died years ago."
"Passed away when I was young."
"This isn't about me," he said. "It's… been a long time for me. It doesn't go away, exactly, but it's distant. It's like a broken leg that mostly healed, but you still notice it sometimes if you step just wrong. Which is to say, don't worry about me."
"I guess a lot of people lose their parents."
"In war? Yeah, there's probably a lot of that going 'round. But that doesn't mean you don't get to be angry, or sad, or both."
She sniffled. "I think it's both."
"Well, if you need to cry, you can. Or if you want to yell, you can do that, too. I'm here for you, either way."
For the first time, she smiled, that sweet smile full of childlike innocence that broke his heart, knowing how much of her innocence had been stolen from her. It was that smile that won over so many of the Returners, that made their ragtag group so protective of her even though she likely wielded enough magical power to blow any of them away. "Thanks."
For the rest of their trip, he stayed close to Terra. She needed the support, although Locke knew he was rationalizing this to himself, even if it was true. Letting Terra cry on his shoulder gave him a feeling, however fleeting, that he could at least not fail someone.
As they approached Narshe, Edgar expressed surprise that the airship could sail on unaffected by the thinner mountainous air, but the gambler—when had Edgar started calling him by his first name?—just grinned wolfishly and seemed to take that as a challenge. Locke wasn't sure he trusted Gabbiani not to take unnecessary risks, but the thinner air was at least less prone to turbulence, and so Locke and his poor stomach could only complain so much.
They landed in the snowfields north of Narshe. By then, Gabbiani had admitted this wasn't his first visit to the mountain town, and indeed the few townspeople who gathered at the landing site seemed mildly interested but not awed by the mighty vessel.
"They're neutral, I'm neutral," he said with an offhand shrug. "Or we were, until your little rebellion got your hands on us both.
There had not been a chance to send word to Banon of anything that had happened afterJidoor, and even the few missives sent by either Edgar or Locke had been vague and coded by necessity, lest a message with vital information fall into the wrong hands. Arriving in Narshe via airship, with the gambler and his crew in tow, Terra recovered and safe, Celes missing—though Locke was not sure that the Returners would count that as much more than a tactical disappointment—it was all quite unexpected, judging by the look in Banon's eyes when he caught up to them midway through town.
Banon took Terra's hand between both of his. "It is a relief to see you back again."
Back in Narshe? Back in her original form? Locke wasn't sure what Banon meant, or even if the old man understood quite what had befallen Terra, but he squeezed her hand with a grandfatherly fondness that surprised Locke. Banon was too much of an idealist to be described as cold or calculating, but he had never seemed tender or especially prone to sentiment.
"We have much to discuss," Edgar said.
"Over dinner," Sabin piped up. "Or breakfast. I don't even know what time it is, but my stomach tells me it's time to eat something."
"That can be arranged." Banon had released Terra, and his expression returned to his usual concerned practicality. "I trust you've just come from Vector?"
"We come from Vector, leaving—if we're correct—its Magitek Research Facility in ruins, its source of power lost, and—if we are very lucky—possibly the fall of Kefka Palazzo as well." There was a note of triumph in Edgar's voice, though Locke's heart was heavy to hear it. If Celes had truly given her life to win that victory, she would have considered that a fair trade, her true redemption after everything she blamed herself for, and looking at the war as a whole, one life lost to turn the tide was a small price to pay. But oh, he did not have to like it, even if it were true.
Banon's bushy eyebrows disappeared into the mane of hair framing his forehead. "Much to discuss, indeed. It is not my place to tell you how to rule your kingdom, but Edgar, to have taken on such a danger personally–"
"Edgar didn't set foot in Vector." Locke swallowed. "He stayed on the ship. The only ones who went into the city were me and Sabin—and Celes."
"Who is not among you, unless…?"
"No," Locke said, his voice choking. "She… she…"
"She's missing in action," Edgar finished for him. "Something to investigate, and I'm sure Locke can take the lead on that when we're ready. But we needed to return and debrief you as soon as possible. And I'll be returning to Figaro soon, too, even if only temporarily."
By then, they'd reached the inn that had housed the Returners. It seemed to have transformed more fully into a proper headquarters in the weeks since Locke had been here last, perhaps because few visitors would travel with Imperial troops so recently sighted in the vicinity. Come to think of it, the city itself had looked a little different as they walked. It had been readied for war.
Soon enough, the five of them were sharing a table in the dining hall, with a hurried meal between them that Locke suspected had been cobbled together from leftovers but that was satisfying enough, if unremarkable—the ubiquitous Narshe stew, some crusty and slightly stale bread that served to soak up broth, and steaming mugs of cider.
Banon listened intently, peppering them with questions or asking for clarification. Terra, for her part, sat in silence, listening no less intently. The story had to be told at the beginning, following Locke's journey south with Celes following Terra. He summarized it quickly, without the embellishments or jokes he usually relied on to make a telling more palatable to the audience; revisiting these memories felt like handling a piece of broken glass, its smooth planes safe but those sharp edges on all sides ready to slice him to the quick if he slipped at all. Ramuh, the revelation of Terra's birthright, Celes studying magic, the arrival of the Figaro brothers, the assassin—he told of it as though it had happened to someone else, and he was grateful when the others were able to take up some of the telling for him.
When at last they reached the end, their flight back, Banon's eyes were glittering with hope. "This could change everything," he said, on fire with the possibility of it all, as though it had not been bought with a companion's life.
But it was true, and Locke could not deny it, no matter how much it hurt.
They could not know, yet, whether or not this was truly a crippling blow to the Empire.
But they could hope.
He could hope.
"Take that thing off her."
The voice came to her as if underwater. Dimly, she realized she knew that voice. Leo. And he was furious, his anger red-hot, barking out the words, every one a threat.
"And get her out of this cell."
"But sir, Lord Kefka said–"
"I will accept full responsibility for anything that happens, including Kefka's displeasure. But remove that thing, and dispose of it. Destroy it so it can never be used again, if you can. Do you understand me?"
She thought maybe she ought to care about this exchange. The words meant something that seemed important. But she was very tired, and thinking hurt.
There was a blinding flash of light, and a stabbing pain in her temples, until she mercifully lost consciousness again.
When she woke next, the world had a clarity to it, a definition and shape and certainty that it had lacked while she swam self-empty at the edge of oblivion. She knew herself once more, and wished she did not. A wave of loneliness spread through her, and while being alone had once had a numbing effect on her, she had briefly tasted what it was like to not be alone, and losing that fleeting sense of companionship was worse than never having known it.
She sat up and buried her face in her hands, and her head throbbed, but at least she could move freely, without restraints.
Light slitted through the metal shutters over the window, bright enough to illuminate the furniture in this small space, but she did not need to see it to know it. A narrow rectangular room with just enough space for a narrow bed, a desk and chair, a dresser, and a slim bookshelf. Standard issue for anyone deemed worthy of their own room in the barracks, and her home for as long as she could remember.
If not for the new scars visible on her bare arms, and the gaping hole inside her heart, she might imagine that the past few months had been some sort of fever dream, a fleeting story dreamed up by an unquiet mind, and soon the loudspeaker in the hall would summon her to resume her training.
What was she doing here, in this room, in this bed? Did they think she would join their army again, become their tool again?
The last thing in the world she wanted was to be part of a genocidal, megalomaniacal force that had somehow not relieved Kefka of his duty despite the tragedy of Doma. She would rather die than join them—a choice she might be forced to make. At least she knew where she stood on that front. She could face it with cold certainty. They had sentenced her to death already; if they came to collect at last, she would accept it if the alternative was conscription.
And you're scared of proving Locke right, that you're a turncoat, that you can't be trusted. Admit it, that's the real reason you wouldn't go back. You're so desperate for his approval that you would die trying to gain it.
And you will never earn that, because you will never deserve it.
She had no relevant experience, no basis of comparison, and yet she thought that it was not supposed to hurt this much, realizing you loved someone.
Love, or just infatuation? Maybe she was the love-starved girl Edgar had accused her of being, months ago. Charmed by the first man to show her kindness, latching on to Locke as desperately as a baby bird to a caretaker.
But foolish and as it was, this feeling inside of her had to be some kind of love. That was why, even now, even in these circumstances, the memory of his hands against her, his lips brushing against her ear as he whispered to her, the magnetic pull he had on her, made her cheeks burn in the darkness. And now, as she huddled in a pathetic lump, she felt a dry hollow ache like someone had carved a piece of her out and left her empty, because he was not here and she needed him to be here, in a way that scared and shamed her, and yet she knew two things.
One, that he did not trust her.
Two, that he did not love her.
And whether she would ever see him again or not, she needed to accept these things, accept that she was not and likely never would be the sort of person who could earn his trust. Not even Locke trusted her—Locke, who seemed so stubbornly determined to believe the best in anyone. He had seen her, more clearly than any other person in her life. He had seen her for what she truly was, and he had not found her worthy of trust, because in the end, what was she but a broken blade that had been used to kill innocents? Designed for one purpose, her soul forever tainted by her sins.
This was who and what she was, and what she would always be.
She couldn't say how much time had passed before booted footsteps clopped down the hallway and someone knocked on her door with a firm hand. Not the heavy staccato of a demand, nothing that might precede the door being flung open and someone hauling her bodily from the room to her execution. Just a polite but strong knock, and when she did not answer, that same knock again.
The voice carried clearly through the door, accustomed to projecting across the battlefield to his men. She could imagine him standing on the other side of it, rigid-spined, as precise in his manner as ever.
"I'm not a general anymore," she said, and the walls here were thin enough that he could hear her.
"May I come in?"
She sat up again, looked around the room, pushed her hair out of her face. She was still wearing the clothing she'd arrived in, the borrowed shirt and top that Locke had scrounged up for her disguise, though it smelled now like smoke and blood and dirt. It made her look like a civilian, and for a moment she felt vulnerable because of it—but she was a civilian here, now. And Leo had seen her covered in blood and grime from the battlefield so many times. What dignity did she have to preserve in front of him?
"All right," she said, and he entered.
Leo looked much the same as he always had, with perhaps a few more wrinkles on his weathered face. As always, he wore his uniform, a loosened collar the only concession to being off-duty.
Instinctively, she wanted to stand and salute him. For all that they had ostensibly held the same title for a year or so, his role as her mentor carried through, and she had never fully adjusted to speaking to him as an equal. But she was weak, hungry, exhausted, and heartbroken, so she stayed seated.
"Celes, I'm so sorry." Leo sounded sincere, as always. "We've treated you like a prisoner."
"Isn't that what I am?"
He visibly considered arguing, then hesitated. "Your situation here is complicated," he said at last. "But there's no reason for us to treat you like an enemy."
There it was again—how many times had she argued with Locke about this very thing, when he had insisted that she was not his enemy despite all evidence to the contrary? How strange to be approaching it from the other side. But had she ever really been anyone's ally? She had abandoned her home and her own people, gone so far as to raise arms against them. "Leo, I joined the Returners. I've been fighting your army for months." She paused before adding, "I've probably killed some of your men."
"I trust you were fighting for what you believed was right." Leo crossed his arms in front of his chest. "We all put our lives on the line for that reason, knowing that's a risk. We accept it."
"The conscripted Marandans didn't. It was forced on them, and you know it—join, or die. That's what this Empire does."
Leo sighed. "It's not so simple."
"Isn't it? If you won't take part in its bloody expansion, it will destroy you for daring to say no, and it won't be gentle." She stared levelly at him until he looked away. "Gestahl sentenced me to death for that crime, and his soldiers stripped me naked and beat me bloody and left me in chains to die at dawn."
"I… I didn't know."
"If you think I'm exaggerating, I promise you I am not." She held out her arms, showing the gash that had healed crookedly despite the efforts of the Returners' field medic, the burn marks and the silvery scars from lacerations, and she thought of the wounds that had healed completely and yet left damage she could still feel. "When someone fights you on the battlefield, they want to stop you, but their intent isn't to make you hurt. It's different when the point is to cause pain."
He grimaced. "You shouldn't have been sentenced in the first place."
"He wasn't wrong to judge me a traitor." She stared at the window, at the tiny puckered flaws in the curtain that made such a familiar pattern, and wondered how a place could feel so known and yet so alien. "I tried to kill Kefka. I wish I'd succeeded then; it might have saved Doma. But my crimes are worse than Kefka's, I suppose. It's worse to try to kill a genocidal maniac than to be a genocidal maniac, if the perpetrator is on your side and the victims are not."
"What happened to Doma was—a crime beyond forgiveness."
"Then why is Kefka forgiven? Why is he free?"
"Gestahl wants to end this war conclusively. He's using the weapons at his disposal to do so."
"You know better than that. Leo, you're too good a person to blind yourself to what the Emperor is doing, has been doing. What we were—are—guilty of."
They had never come out and said any of this before. A younger Celes had skirted around asking about it when her doubts were still new, but she had feared disappointing Leo, feared being labeled as what she later unquestionably became, a traitor. Now that the subject was broached, she felt—relief, and anger, in equal measure.
He sat down at the foot of her bed and let the air out between his teeth, and she realized that he did look different—older than she'd ever realized, and tired, as if he'd been carrying something heavy and his legs would give out soon. War crimes tend to age a person, she could imagine Locke saying. And of course Leo had not been personally responsible for much of that, but surely it weighed on his conscience at least as heavily as it had on hers.
"I admit I came up here hoping I might be able to talk you into joining me," Leo said. "The loss of the Magitek Research Facility might mean we stop our expansion and focus inward, and I—would like to have someone I can trust to help keep order in our territories."
By someone I can trust, she knew he meant not Kefka, that he wanted someone else who wasn't a sociopath to help enforce the Emperor's rules in less overtly destructive ways.
"Before you start arguing with me, let me finish," he went on, with the faintest hint of a smile. "I don't really expect you'll actually say yes. And… maybe you're right."
"Then let me out of here." She gestured to the window, with its locking shutters that gave the impression of bars. "Tell Gestahl you executed me for being a traitor—that's probably what he's going to order anyway. Or tell him I found a weapon and killed myself before he could finish the job, and let me get away."
Not that she would be able to run back to the Returners and expect them to trust her, when Locke had been the only reason they trusted her in the first place and even he had changed his mind. But surely she could do something if she got away from here. Sabotage the Empire somehow. Serve as the muscle for Hassan's group, or find her way to Maranda or one of the other occupied cities and harry the soldiers there, or–
You sound like Locke. Who do you think you are? No one's going to listen to you, and it's not like you could make any difference doing that anyway. You want to try to martyr yourself, like that will redeem you in any way?
"You'll join up with the Returners," Leo said, "and I would rather not face you on the battlefield."
"So you'll keep me here to be executed instead?"
"I didn't say that." Leo looked down at his hands folded in his lap. "I don't think Gestahl would order your execution, but I'll talk with him to make sure he won't."
"And you'll keep right on serving him as he orders you to move into yet another city-state, or tighten his noose around one of his 'territories,' and you'll both look the other way when Kefka murders innocents?"
Leo inhaled sharply at that accusation, but she didn't make any effort to soften the blow. He could not make a good case in his defense, and they both knew it.
Celes pushed harder. "I've been to the cities on the northern continent, the places he tried to subjugate, the places they tell you are uncivilized, riddled with crime and poverty. And that's all a lie. They don't need his so-called 'order,' his control. This war is unnecessary, and Gestahl is a tyrant. And they will rise up, everywhere, to stop him."
She couldn't say what she expected—of him, of this conversation. But he rose, abruptly, to leave.
"There could be peace," she said. "We could stop this war. We could bring peace."
"You've grown to be a strong woman," he said. "Such strong convictions. Gestahl... is my Emperor. He's not a gentle man, but he's trying to do what is best for his people. As I do. As we all do. I'll talk with him."
Days passed, and she remained under house arrest, pacing the floor of her room, rereading books she had read countless times before, practicing the calisthenics she had space to do. Confronted by the contents of her bookcase, she could hear Locke's gentle teasing—not a single work of fiction, and only one slim volume of poetry. History and geography, which she read now in growing horror as she compared the version presented in these texts to what she had seen with her own eyes in her travels. Had Leo ever been to a foreign city-state as a civilian, as a visitor, and not as a conqueror considering the fallen? Did he still hold in his mind that the rest of the world needed the influence of the Gestahlian Empire?
They let her out to bathe, though armed guards escorted her there and back. She half expected, the first time, that someone might go in to supervise her, but she was at least afforded that much privacy. Her scant possessions remained just where she had left them all those months ago, and so she wore clothing that had been tailored to the body of the general she had been. They almost fit, but not quite as they had before, just like everything else here.
When the emperor summoned her, she was laying in her bed again, staring at the ceiling, feeling the smallness of the space, how cell-like it was and always had been. Narrow bed, narrow window, narrow outlook, all perfect to keep her walking the narrow path of obedience that Gestahl required. These walls had begun to close in when she had first started to question everything about this war, when the world she had known crumbled to dust and she realized she had been raised as a bringer of death without justice. They closed in on her now.
Was he summoning her to make another proclamation, another judgment against her treason, despite Leo's efforts? But the soldiers who escorted her down the hall kept a respectful distance beside her, and no one clapped irons on her wrists. She could probably take them both down before they could respond—one of them wore a sword at his hip, standard issue, and it would help her cut her way out.
Not that she had a chance of escaping before they stopped her. Not her against the entire defense squadron in the castle. But she could take as many of them with her as–
No. She couldn't. None of the emperor's personal guard were conscripts; they were born loyal, following what they'd been told all their lives, as she had. They were not victims of Gestahl's cruelty—they had perpetuated it—but they were still human. She could not slaughter them. She didn't have the heart for it.
But she would go to Gestahl with her head held high, and if he sentenced her to death once more, she would go to it without conceding an inch of her soul, or of her humanity.