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Darkness and Starlight

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Up here on the cliffs, the wind howled, roared, as though it gave voice to the agony of the dying world below.

She had run without thinking, blinded by tears, fleeing the dilapidated shack she had only just come to think of as home. Leaving behind her own failure and loss, the last in a long line that started the day she first spoke up against the emperor and that had continued without ceasing in all the months since. Would they have been victorious in the end if her blade had struck true in Kefka's heart? Would the world still live, if only she had been stronger? And even if not, if that defeat had been inevitable, could she at least have saved the one last person in her world?

Cid's eyes had been open in death, not even allowing her the comfort of imagining he was just asleep—eyes unseeing, breath stilled—leaving her entirely alone, with no companions but the dead and the dying.

Oh, she'd seen death before, many times. Sometimes by her own hand. But there was a difference between the numbed awareness of a fallen foe's life slipping away on the battlefield and the loss of a friend succumbing to illness or despair.

Did you really think it would turn out any differently, any of it?

The little voice had been in the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. For what seemed like a very brief period of respite, she had been spared its jabs, but now it spoke louder than ever before. Once, it had told her she would never be good enough, no matter how hard she trained, how far she pushed herself—that she would forever be just another failed experiment, a disappointment to the Empire. Later, it had questioned her actions—just following orders?—accused her of forfeiting her soul, then mocked her for trying to leave, for wanting to set right some of what she had made wrong.

This, around her, this ruined landscape, this choking haze clogging her lungs, as she stood a single solitary figure silhouetted by the setting sun—quite possibly the only soul left alive in the world—this was never meant to be.

That she would survive had never factored into her plans. That she would survive, and the world would perish, was the very inverse of her hopes and expectations. How ironic. Fate had a cruel sense of humor.

The wind howled. The waves, far below, crashed against jagged rocks where the others who gave in to despair had found their release. And here on the cliffside, the air reeking of salt and ash and rotting fish, with a smoky red-hued sky above, she stood overlooking the sea as her hair swirled around her, wild as a madwoman's, and truly she felt mad. Dried tears crusted her cheeks; salt rimmed her eyes.

Something pale and white fluttered among the long, straw-like grass clinging to the rocky cliffside. It drew her attention from the waves, quieted her mind for just a moment with curiosity. And then, because the world was vicious and cruel and unrelenting, she realized that it too was dead, a dove prone in the grass with its neck bent at an impossible angle.

Everything would die soon. The sickly fish who nearly swam into her nets, the gaunt rabbits who found little nourishment from the parched grass, the spiders with their legs curled up beneath webs that had not caught so much as a fly in days. The entire world was winding down, as though Kefka had cracked it open and now the last of its essence was slipping away, leaving nothing but a corpse of a world.

Had anyone else survived? Looking across the sea turned red by the bloody sky above, it was hard to believe any of them had made it. Kefka's light had rent the world asunder, and it tore their ship in half in an explosion of seared, shattered wood and screeching metal. The last memory she had was of familiar voices screaming in terror, and one last glimpse at Locke, at his hand outstretched toward her before he was gone, they all were gone, and then nothing but absolute darkness until Cid nursed her back to health.

And now Cid too was gone, before she had even begun to mourn the rest of them.

It felt as though a thin, thin layer of ice had kept the worst of it from her, chilling her heart so that she would not die from the pain, the crushing utter loneliness and loss. But what was the point of sparing herself pain, of trying to keep herself afloat and whole? What was the point of anything, when the world itself was dying and everyone she had ever known, everyone she had ever—ever loved—was gone forever?

The ice shattered. She doubled over, gasping, choking, sobbing, wailing, and her voice tore at her throat and the tears burned her salt-encrusted eyes and she felt every breath like a wound against her heart and lungs. Damn it, damn it all. They were dead. They were gone. He was gone. He had promised her that hope would be enough, but hope had died, too.

Her body tensed at the edge of the cliff, some final sense of self-preservation, but what was there to preserve?

She pushed off from the cliff into nothingness.

Falling felt much like flying.

Then everything went black.

***

Cold. Pain. Darkness. Thrashing, flailing, coughing. Swallowing water instead of air, coughing again, the world reduced to dark chaotic waves raising her up and then plunging her into frigid water again. Is this hell? Her mind struggled to understand what was happening.

Then she was on her knees on slick wet sand, retching and hacking up water, some part of her keeping her alive when the rest of her would not.

Her head throbbed. Her fingers had gone numb, and her lips, and her toes. She collapsed on the sand and was still for a long, long time. You can't even kill yourself, the voice sneered at her. The sky had dimmed, casting everything in pale grey light. She was on the shore, somehow.

"Did I ask you to save me?" she muttered—to Cid, to the universe that would not let her die by her own hand but had instead condemned her to a slow, drawn-out death. Did it think it could force her to live, when there was nothing to live for?

Time passed. The tide receded, leaving her shivering in the cold. Overhead, a handful of stars shone through the haze, dim and distant.

A sound startled her, and she winced, instinctively covering her face with her hands. The noise came again, a gull's cry so close it hurt her ears. She rolled onto her side and squinted at the creature, which stood only a few feet away. It cocked its head at her. When she didn't move again, it let out another indignant squawk.

"I'm not dead yet," she muttered. "Come back later and you can eat me then."

It paced in a half-circle, then approached her with an almost comedic wiggle in its step. It seemed fearless. Strange behavior from a bird—had Cid been feeding them? Surely she would have noticed that in her time with him. But one way or another, this gull seemed to have learned to trust humans. Someone had cared for it, taught it that humans could be kind as well as cruel, that some might offer food instead of violence. Foolish, foolish creature.

There was something tied around its leg—a scrap of cloth. She scrambled to sit upright, and the bird stepped back with a vocal complaint at her sudden behavior. Cloth meant someone had helped this bird.

"Come here," she called to it in the gentlest voice she could, though it rasped in her raw throat. "I won't hurt you. I promise."

The bird approached her, more warily, eyeing her extended hands as though looking for food in them. To her surprise, it came close enough that she could grab hold of the cloth, which set it squawking and flapping its wings, but it did not pull away.

"Easy," she said. It held still long enough for her to untie the cloth from its leg; then it brought its beak toward her hands as though looking for treats.

The fabric was real and tactile between her numb fingers, pulling her from the fog she had allowed to settle over her mind. The threads were only barely frayed at the edges. If this had been on the bird's leg an entire year, or even months, it likely would have disintegrated in the salty air. Someone had tied it onto the bird's leg recently—which meant someone had been alive, somewhere.

She looked at the cloth again, as the bird continued to protest its lack of food. No. No. This pattern was familiar, distinctive. She could trace its stripes with her eyes closed, could trace the features of the face it belonged to. But this could not be true.

Someone had seen an injured bird and earned its trust through patience, kindness, a gentle touch and a caring heart.

Could it—could it be? Impossible—improbable—and yet…

Through the numbness and the pain, through the ice that seemed to have frozen her veins, the slightest spark lit within her. And maybe that would be enough.

Chapter Text

Darkness and Starlight cover art

 

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I'm the darkness, you're the starlight

shining brightly from afar...

 

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Chapter Text

The soldier wore heavy gloves, and he held nothing back when he struck her across the jaw and then slammed his fist into her stomach. Though she tried to tense in anticipation of the blow, still the air was knocked from her and the corners of her vision reddened. She would have doubled over if not for the chains around her wrists keeping her upright. In vain, she gasped to fill her lungs while the guard laughed and then spat at her bare, blistered feet.

"Traitorous scum," he leered. "The great General Celes, pride of the Empire. Look at you now. You'll be dead at dawn."

Had it been that long already? The only light in here came from a swaying lantern, no sign or scent of the outdoors to give her a clue as to time of day. The cell was some sort of basement storeroom converted hastily for this purpose; there were still crates of goods in the far corner.

Execution by hanging, like a common criminal. She wondered what charge they would bring against her if they made it public. There had been no trial. 

She struggled to speak.

The guard laughed. "Trying to defend your honor? Save your breath."

"Kefka," she gasped. "Is. Gon'. Poison."

It was no use. He silenced her with another blow to the face, and she slumped in her chains. Of course he wouldn't listen—like Kefka hadn't listened, like Emperor Gestahl hadn't listened, all of them too wrapped up in the glory of the Empire to heed a general gone soft, a general turned traitor.

She was born to be a soldier, raised to be a soldier, had known since her earliest memories that she owed her very existence to the Empire. Honor, she had been taught, came from bringing glory to the Empire, bringing the reach of the Empire to the chaotic uncivilized masses. Uniting the city-states of the world under a single banner would put an end to their petty squabbles. If a few had to die to keep the rest from killing each other, it was a fair price. They would fare better under Gestahl's boots than at each other's throats. So she was always told. So she had always believed. Kefka's usual violence was necessary to make them surrender more quickly. An unfortunate reality, but a tolerable one—brief, intense destruction to prevent the ongoing suffering of war.

This belief in the righteousness of the Empire did not allow for genocide.

Oh, she'd had concerns about the war already. Moving from the military classroom to the battlefield had destroyed some of her illusions about glory and honor and the infallibility of the Emperor's decisions. The sullen faces of the men under her command—not resentment of her youth and undeserved authority, as she had initially feared, but resentment from those forcefully conscripted under penalty of death, or those who enlisted in the hopes that it would spare their families from starvation. Slowly at first, and then all at once, her conviction that this war was justified began to crumble. The slaughter of Maranda had pushed her over the edge. Her first action as General Celes, the fearsome Magitek Knight wielding blade and forbidden arts to bring down her foes, at the head of an army of the Empire's finest, putting into practice years of training and study, on and off the battlefield. She and her army rode into Maranda, the shining jewel of its continent, Celes on horseback in glittering armor, her hair streaming like a banner behind her. But Maranda barely resisted.

Celes had been ordered to make an example of the city. 

You don't have the guts to do it, that little voice said. You're supposed to be a military leader, yet here you are, soft and frightened as a little girl. Maybe you should trade your armor for petticoats and play with dolls instead.

Gestahl was her emperor, and she had been raised since birth to fight for him. It was her purpose and her calling. She would be exalted if she did this, praised by her tutors, and all the effort so many people had devoted to shaping her into a weapon would be justified.

The city burned. The men were conscripted into the military, every last one of them save for the children and the elders.

Celes watched as the men marched off, leaving behind wailing, weeping women. Mothers in anguish as their sons were taken from them. Lovers heartbroken at being parted. Celes had turned away, willing her heart to stone. She was meant to be a great general, and generals did not take lovers or build families; they were married to their command, their unshaking obligation to the Empire and nothing else. Loyal unto death. That had been her intended fate, until now.

She couldn't say how long she hung semi-conscious in her chains, her whole body aching, her jaw throbbing, her stomach tight and sore despite her careful shallow breaths. The guards joked to each other, but she did not register their words.

You're going to die here, the voice said, and what will you have accomplished? Slaughtering innocents in Maranda, countless deaths on your hands, and the poisoning of Doma. You haven't saved anyone, not even yourself. Some hero.

One guard left. The other sat watch, but soon enough, he nodded off, leaving her to stew alone. She struggled at the chains—no good.

Nothing to do but wait. If they had planned this as torture for her, they had calculated it well. Writhing in her own powerlessness, unable to free herself, unable to get through to the guards, knowing that she would die for nothing and soon others would die and all she could do was wait. Blessedly, her consciousness was beginning to blur, from pain and hunger and weak blood flow. Maybe she would drift away in the time that remained to her, and it would pass quickly. Might as well get it over with, if there was nothing she could do.

A key turned in the lock, and the door swung open. The guard who shuffled in was unfamiliar, his gait awkward as though the heavy boots were new to him. Some green recruit, she guessed, whose helmet and armor had been swapped out by his fellow soldiers as a form of hazing, judging by how poorly they fit him. If he got close enough, she could probably throw him off-balance, maybe hook her heel around his leg and send him sprawling—what good that would do her, she couldn't say. Another woman might be able to bat her eyelashes, wiggle her hips, whatever people did to be seductive. Celes had never attempted flirting, let alone seduction. Even the leering she had endured from the guards here was new.

The recruit let the door swing shut behind him, but he stayed a few paces away, as if sizing up the situation, taking in first the sleeping guard with a bottle in his fist and then Celes herself. And then she realized he was no green soldier, as she got a better look at his face. Fearless, confident, yet not unkind.

It was his eyes that caught her attention first, watching her with a quiet intensity that seemed to be listening for something she couldn't hear that he, evidently, could. There were laugh lines forming at the corners of his eyes already, though he must be only a few years older than her.

"Who are you?" she asked.

He chuckled. "What gave me away?"

"That isn't your armor, and you don't act like a soldier."

As if conceding defeat, he removed his helmet and wiped the back of one half-gloved hand over his sweaty forehead. He was handsome, she supposed, if a little disheveled. A mop of gray-blond hair barely contained by a patterned bandana, a mouth that looked comfortable smiling, and those sharp eyes.

"My name is Locke Cole. I'm with the Returners."

She stiffened. "Isn't it a little late for an assassination? They're executing me tomorrow anyway. Kill me tonight and you'll just spare me the humiliation."

"See, and that's why I'm here," he said thoughtfully, conversationally. "Why on earth would the Empire be executing one of its own generals, without even a trial?"

"Treason."

"Really?" His eyebrows rose, but his voice was mild. "Are you thinking about defecting, then? We wouldn't say no to some intelligence, if you're so inclined—"

"Kefka is planning genocide," she said flatly, cutting him off. He inhaled sharply through his teeth at her words, but she continued, all of it pouring out in a cold, bitter tumble. "He is going to poison the besieged kingdom of Doma if he is not stopped. Emperor Gestahl would not believe me, and he did not approve when I took action to stop it myself."

"What did you do?"

"I tried to kill Kefka."

There was a moment of silence, and then Locke snorted in dark amusement.

"It's a shame you didn't succeed." His face was grim, as though her confession had meant something to him. She almost wanted to laugh with relief at being believed, at last. At somebody listening and, she hoped, taking action.

"Will you tell your people? Will you make sure they stop him somehow? Please—someone has to—"

"No," he said, and she opened her mouth to protest, to scream at him if she had to, to beg. But he stepped toward her, his expression resolute. "You are going to tell them, and then we are going to stop him, if you're in any shape to fight."

"I'm to be executed at dawn."

"We'll see about that." He pulled a pin from the bandana wrapped around his shaggy hair, then snapped it in half with leverage between his teeth, a fluid, confident motion. "It's a handy trick," he said, with a slight smile. "It's gotten me out of trouble a few times."

"You're freeing an enemy soldier?"

"You were willing to die to try to stop your own people from committing a war crime. I don't think we're enemies."

With practiced ease, he scraped the rust from her chains and then fiddled around with his pin in the locks. She winced as the shackles rubbed over the raw skin of her wrists.

"Sorry," he said. "We'll bandage those up once you're free."

"Why are you doing this?"

"I like rescuing people," he said with a laugh. It sounded self-deprecating, like this was some kind of private joke. "Anyway, Banon will want to hear this, and you'll be able to explain it better yourself than I could."

"What if I'm lying?"

"You have no reason to lie."

"This could be a setup."

"A ridiculously involved one with little chance of success." He wiggled the pin again until the lock gave a satisfying click. He released the shackle around her left wrist, then turned his attention to the second. "For someone about to be executed, you're awfully determined to ruin any rescue attempt."

"I'm your enemy," she protested. "I'm an imperial general."

"You were an imperial general. But you're not my enemy, I told you that." He gave the chain one more pull, freeing her second wrist. Her arms both fell leaden and heavy to her sides, and the world spun. She swayed. He steadied her with hands on her shoulders, and he peered closer at her face, concerned. "Can you stand?"

"I… think so."

"Then let's get you out of here before sleeping beauty over there wakes up."


***


She looked nothing like he would have expected. He had imagined her older, gruffer, coarse and quick to anger. She led the butchery of Maranda, after all, an attack so quick and brutal it had cowed many of the city-states on both continents, who took it to heart as a warning against resistance. He thought he might hate that woman, if he met her, for the suffering she had caused to so many.

He had never imagined this slender young woman, bruised and battered and burned, willingly inviting her own death if it meant she had a chance to save others. To save people who should technically be her enemies, innocent though they may be.

She looked innocent herself, a victim of unwarranted violence. She wore only a thin white shift, stained and torn, that did little to cover her lithe figure, and he couldn't help wondering just how the Empire had punished her. Regardless, her spirit was clearly unbroken, at least. He would coax the rest out of her and then see if someone at headquarters could tend to her.

The guard was out cold, and Locke took the liberty of relieving the man of his pants and boots, which he handed over to Celes. She accepted them without comment, or even the look of disgust he might have expected. He untied the sash at his waist and offered it for her to belt the too-large pants.

Soon enough, she was as dressed as she was going to be, her wounds tended as well as he could manage with a field kit—and wounded she was, with crusted blood and spreading bruises and even the blisters of a burn along one arm. Gritting her teeth, she hissed sharply but made no sound of protest at his quick examination. He dabbed the open wounds with medicine to numb the pain and hasten the healing, then wrapped them with bandages. She looked almost like a Narshean, her arms almost entirely encased in the fabric.

"That's all I can do for now," he said.

She glanced toward the door, and he couldn't help wondering if she were in shock, as pale as she was and as little as she seemed to register her own pain. "The next guard will be coming soon."

"We'll be gone before they have a chance to sound the alarm."

He led her out in the hall. To his right, the hallway bent around toward the cellar staircase and up into the house proper. Wall sconces illuminated that direction brightly. Locke turned instead to his left, where the hallway dead-ended into a set of doors much like the one they had just passed through. He paused in front of them, trying to summon up his mental directions—the room on the left, or straight ahead? Behind him, Celes took slow, careful steps, limping in her stolen boots.

Straight ahead. That had to be the answer, given the layout of the town. "This way," he said, unlocking that door with the same key he'd used to enter her cell. Then, for good measure, he unlocked the surrounding doors. Might as well not raise suspicion about any one particular room, should the guards think to check for them here.

Celes watched him a little suspiciously, but she didn't challenge him, even if she was thinking it. Her unspoken questions followed him through the center door.

Inside, this room was pitch black. He tugged Edgar's mechanical lantern out of his satchel and flicked it on, illuminating dusty stacks of boxes, rolled carpets and wall hangings, forgotten chairs, and other bric-a-brac that filled the room. Celes let out a wordless sound of surprise and confusion, which he found almost irrationally entertaining. It made him feel like a magician pulling things from his bag of tricks.

That feeling only intensified when he snooped around the far wall, which was covered with glossy wood paneling, and found a little latch that sprung a nearly-invisible trapdoor. The passageway beyond was narrow, with a low ceiling, and just as dark as the storeroom had been.

"You've been here before," Celes said.

"Not exactly," he said. "I have an extremely good memory for maps and diagrams. I used to go spelunking, as a hobby. It was useful then. Still is, really."

"You're telling me you have a map of secret passageways under someone's house in the middle of South Figaro." She sounded skeptical, maybe even joking, if she was capable of telling a joke, but if she knew how close to the truth she was...

"You'd be surprised." He couldn't help grinning as he ducked through the doorway and gestured for her to follow him into the narrow brick passage. Damn, but he loved this town. Provided he lived long enough to retire, and the Empire had been sent packing—or better still, eradicated entirely—he might want to retire here.

One of Locke's favorite things about South Figaro was its tenacity. It had started as a temporary waystation for explorers from Figaro proper, a few generations ago. Somehow it had grown into a full-fledged city that politely requested its independence from Figaro Castle, and Figaro, not being run by imperialists or fascists, agreed to let it go. It had a colorful and storied history, most of which Locke only knew at the most basic level, but what he did know was that it had the stubbornness and resourcefulness to survive anything: fire, treachery, illness, invasion. No matter what happened, the people of South Figaro pulled together and rebuilt.

Some slightly paranoid but still brilliant ancestor of Edgar's had decided the town should have a system of underground passages connecting many of the major buildings, so that the citizens could band together in the event of attack or emergency. The residents never bothered removing them, and in fact the full network of passages was not well-known to most citizens. Take, for example, the hidden passage in this rich man's basement. The man himself had bought the home some years before, and Locke doubted he knew about any of this. Rich people, in Locke's experience, were either obsessively prone to studying their investments or couldn't be bothered to put in the effort. This rich man had inherited his wealth and sold his city out to the Empire, which meant that he was greedy and gullible and likely fell in the latter camp.

Locke had known about the passages for years. They had made his life infinitely easier over the past few days, as he snuck through the city taking inventory of the imperial presence, looking for opportunities to disrupt the Empire's supply lines, and making note of where and how to smuggle help to the people of South Figaro if they rose up in rebellion. The passages had their limitations—some had been walled up, or fallen into disrepair—but their usefulness could not be overstated.

The passage's low ceiling gave him only an inch or so of headroom; anyone tall would have had to stoop to fit down here. Fortunately—in this case, anyway—Locke was not an especially tall man, and while Celes was nearly his height, she too cleared the ceiling with relative ease.

Because his electric torch was the only light down here, Celes followed very closely behind him, her breathing somewhat unsteady. He could see her hand beside him tracing the wall. The tactile sensation of it was probably reassuring for her, if she had little experience being underground like this.

He had certainly passed through less hospitable tunnels himself, caves with sloping ceilings and irregular walls that could become impassable without warning, that he had crawled into on hands and knees and had to back out of in the same undignified manner when it seemed he could go no further forward. There was a certain sense of excitement to the danger of those unknown, but he was glad for the relative safety of these man-made paths.

"How're you holding up?" he asked after they'd walked in silence for a considerable amount of time. He looked over his shoulder at her—there wasn't much room for him to turn around.

Her head was down, as though she was looking at her feet, and she still kept a hand splayed on the wall. "I'm fine," she said.

She sounded winded, and more than that, she sounded anxious, her voice tight and closely held. Not fine, but he couldn't blame her for putting forth a facade, given the circumstances. "It shouldn't be much longer," he said, taking his internal monologue and verbalizing it for her sake. "When we get aboveground, we'll have to see where we end up. There might be guards around—there are a lot of guards in town, just generally making a nuisance of themselves, though luckily not much more than a nuisance from what I've seen—so we'll need to avoid them and get through or over the north wall into the forest. With luck, we'll give them the slip and be out camping under the stars as easy as can be."

"Mm."

The light flickered.

Oh, shit, he thought. He fiddled with it a little, keeping his voice calm as he continued describing whatever came to mind. But no matter what he did, the flickering continued, which meant he had just a minute or two before—

The light clicked off with a little hissing sigh. Pitch darkness enclosed them. It was absolute and sudden and claustrophobic. Behind him, Celes swallowed a whimper.

"Easy," he said calmly. "I've done this before, right? I've just told you all about it. This is nothing to worry about, just a straight shot down a hallway that was designed specifically for us to walk safely down it. It's like sneaking out of your bedroom to the kitchen in the middle of the night and not wanting to wake anyone up—just that safe. Nothing's going to happen to us."

"Mm," she said again, her voice sounding taut and tense.

"Here's what you're going to do." He put every bit of reassurance he could into his words, every bit of confidence and warmth. It helped that he genuinely believed they were safe down here, but he had put on false confidence to talk someone through situations when he was much less confident and much more afraid himself. Don't think about that. Don't think about her. Just breathe. "First, put your hands on my shoulders. We're almost the same height, so that shouldn't be too hard. Just lift your hands to touch your own shoulders, and then move them forward. I'm right here."

After a few seconds, he felt her fingertips on his shoulders, a gentle touch that immediately withdrew like the contact had startled her. Then her fingers rested on his shoulders again. They were shaking.

"Don't be afraid to hold tight if you need to," he said. "It'll help me know you're still there, too."

Her fingers gripped his shoulders more firmly. Long, slender, bony fingers, very unlike the soft ones that had held his shoulders like this before, years ago, a lifetime ago. But her hands stopped trembling after a few moments, and he heard her take a deep breath, very close behind him.

"Now close your eyes," he said. "It's all right if you can't see anything, because your eyes are closed. Keep them squeezed tight, and don't worry, I'll get us out of this."

It was frankly painful to be in this moment, with this familiarity. In the dark, she could be anyone. They could be anywhere. He could, if he let himself, imagine for just a few seconds that he had stepped backward in time to a memory—to terror he couldn't let her know, to being the steady one because it had been his fault they were in that situation at all, and then the giddy relief and almost hysterical laughter when they emerged into a wider cave with light filtering from high above, and a magnificent cathedral ceiling dripping with stalactites, and Rachel had clapped her hands with delight and he spun her while she laughed

"Left foot," he said, stepping forward with his left foot. "Right foot." She stumbled at first, but he started humming a melody and shifting his shoulders against her hands in time with the music, and soon enough she fell into the rhythm and they moved together through the lightless hallway. With his left hand, he touched the wall, keeping himself grounded and making sure they were going in a straight line, with no branches.

Eventually, the hallway seemed to be sloping upwards, until at last it ended in another smooth-bricked wall.

He felt along the wall with the flat of his hand until he found the lever handle. He gripped it firmly, tugged it down, and felt a wash of relief as the door mechanism clicked and then the door swung open.

The light, by contrast with so much darkness, hurt his eyes. The air smelled sweet. He almost tumbled out of the hallway into a shaded, covered alcove between buildings. A step along the entire face of the wall made it likely that no one would place anything in front of the secret door out of ignorance or malice—forethought he appreciated. He held a hand toward Celes, to help her down if she needed balance, but she supported herself against the wall. While he closed the secret door as quietly and carefully as he could, she sat down on the step beside it and stared blankly ahead, hands in her lap. It was difficult to tell what her reaction was, but she seemed all right for the moment.

How long had they been down there? Fifteen, twenty minutes at most. But long enough for Celes's absence to be discovered and for word to begin to spread. Best to assume the guards would be suspicious, looking for her.

"I'll be right back," he said.


***


Celes had looked the possibility of death in the face without flinching for years. Yet she was disturbed by just how terrified she had felt, down there in the dark. This must be what hell is like, she had thought, and hated herself for her weakness, as though she were a child scared of shadows in the corner of the room. Maybe it was just the cumulative effect of days of anticipating her own execution, the physical ordeal they had inflicted on her, the horrors she had imagined, the horrors she had witnessed and been culpable in. She felt drained.

There was something almost uncomfortably intimate about the way he had reassured her through the darkness. Not just the physical touch—although she could not remember the last time she had touched someone in any way that was not violent, sparring or deadly combat, so that was certainly unusual. But also the warm, comforting gentleness in his voice. No one had ever spoken like that to her before.

She was a general, disgraced or not. She was a soldier. Yet he had spoken to her like he was soothing a child, and she, damn it all, had been soothed.

When he said he would scope out the situation, she obeyed his command to stay put. She would be recognized and apprehended if they saw her; she did not know the town; she was utterly exhausted, a wet rag wrung out and tossed in the corner, spent.

He returned after what was probably not a very long time, his expression thoughtful, frowning. "There's soldiers up ahead," he said. "Three of them." He unsheathed one of the daggers at his waist and held it out to her. "Do you think you could fight with this?"

She sized it up. "It's not ideal, but yes."

He looked dubious—doubting her skill with the weapon, or doubting her stamina? If the latter, she had to admit she shared his uncertainty. "Can you… do this without killing them, if it's possible?"

She laughed ruefully. Perhaps her reputation had preceded her. "Yes."

It would certainly be more efficient or effective to just kill the guards and leave their bodies cooling in the waning sunlight. No one would notice they were missing for some time, and even then, no one would be able to say with certainty whether Celes had been responsible. And there would be absolutely no indication that anyone had facilitated her escape, no possible accomplice witnessed and reported. It would be the safest decision, and yet she was relieved Locke had made it clear that he wished to avoid bloodshed.

The alcove they found themselves in had two exits, one visibly blocked by junk and the other seemingly clear. Celes followed Locke as he prowled, catlike and confident, down the remaining pathway.

At least it was dusk, and most of the residents had turned in. But the guards Locke had mentioned were stationed in a cluster down the street, and there would be no avoiding them—nor would waiting longer do any good, giving the troops time to mobilize and plan a strategy to flush her out.

Locke seemed to know where he was going, and he walked without any apparent awareness of the guards, like he had nothing to hide. If he hadn't been accompanied by a known criminal, he might have been able to avoid suspicion altogether. But instead, a voice called out behind them.

"Hey! You there!"

Locke kept going, as though he had heard nothing. Celes stayed at his heels, following his lead.

"That's General Celes! I demand you stop!"

Locke sped up, just shy of a run, and Celes followed suit, though her legs screamed a protest. This wasn't going to work. She couldn't keep up with Locke, not in her current condition, and the guards were gaining on them. She spun to face them as they approached, raising Locke's dagger and shifting into a ready stance. It took Locke a moment to realize what was happening and draw his remaining dagger. But he wasn't a soldier, wasn't a warrior—she could see it in how he carried himself, in the muscles of his body built for speed and agility, not power. This was not his fight. She could end it quickly, without involving him.

Fighting three on one would have been more challenging if they had been officers, but these were just a cluster of unfortunate recruits. Even with the handicap of an unfamiliar weapon and a battered, weak body, she still made short work of them. They tried to surround her. She danced easily between them, dodging their pitiful swipes, stomping their legs, slashing at the weak points where armor did not shield them. They were like children and she was a deadly tornado of violence and death. Wielding a dagger meant fighting at closer range than she preferred, but she bared her teeth and struck again, and again, until they backed away and stood out of reach, uncertain, their conviction clearly wavering as they considered what, exactly, was facing them.

Her breaths came quick and shallow and harsh, and she hoped it made her sound like a dangerous animal and not like she might topple at any moment if this continued.

"If you walk away now, I won't chase you," she said in a low voice.

One of the soldiers stepped forward, sword raised, though there was a quaver in his voice. "You're—you're under arrest. For treason to the Empire."

Brave, and foolish, and entirely unnecessary. Celes threw herself at him, ducked away from his too-late attack, and raised the edge of her blade to his throat before he could back away. "This is my final warning. Walk away now and I will let you live. Or—" She pressed the dagger into his flesh. "I will disembowel you," she growled, "and your compatriots, and I will walk out the front gate and none of you will be able to stop me. Do you understand?"

The whites of the man's eyes were visible, his eyes bulging. "Y-yes, general."

"Go," she said, lowering the blade an inch. When he didn't move, she barked out, again, "Go!"

That seemed to break the spell. The man ran, glancing back over his shoulder twice before he had cleared the end of the street and was out of sight. His companions were a few seconds behind him, but they too fled. Celes flipped the dagger around and offered it, hilt out, to Locke, who was staring at her. She couldn't tell if she saw fear, horror, or disgust on his face. Then his expression smoothed out, and he accepted the dagger and resheathed it.

"Even my own men didn't follow me because they were loyal to me," she said. "They followed me because they were told to, and because they believed I could take on anything. They never loved me, but they do fear me."

Locke shrugged noncommittally with a faint smile. "I hope it won't be a disappointment to you that we won't be going through the front gate."

"Yes, I know," she said. "That was the point."

He chuckled, low in his throat. "Ah. Misdirection. Very good."


***


They did not, in fact, go through the front gate.

As effectively as Celes had managed to scare them—and it was an impressive sight; he had expected he would need to defend her, only to find himself rendered utterly useless as she tore through the guards' defenses without hesitation—it would only be a matter of time before the soldiers reported the incident and something more vicious came after them. So Locke led her through a series of side streets, into shops and out back doors, occasionally waving an apologetic greeting to a shopkeep or resident before hurrying onward.

This technique seemed to be quite an effective one for avoiding guards, as they reached the very edge of town without another incident, thank goodness.

His heart lifted. He could see the forest at the edge of town from here, and once they'd slipped into the woods, especially with the falling night, he could get them to safety. Heavily armed soldiers couldn't move effectively through the close-set trees, and Locke knew the woods well enough to get by. And then the caves, and the countryside, and finally the Narshe mountains—he had made this trek so many times that even an injured companion wouldn't be an insurmountable problem. The worst was behind them.

Except that just as he had started to celebrate the inevitability of success, an incontestable harbinger of failure crashed through the alleyway behind them and leveled its guns at Celes's head.

The soldier at the controls didn't even bother with a speech or a demand for surrender. He flipped a series of switches in his Magitek armor, and the guns started to glow, threatening impending fire.

At this point-blank range, there was no chance of dodging, or fleeing, or doing much of anything except saying a prayer. Regret knotted in his stomach—what would become of Rachel now? Would she fade away, after all? That was what he thought of in his final moments, her beautiful lifeless face, all hope extinguished.

Celes swept in front of him, some final gesture of heroism that seemed in keeping with his impression of her so far. As though she could absorb the blast for him and he would live, instead of it obliterating them both.

She raised her hands toward the Magitek armor, palms out, fingers touching. Around her, the air took on a peculiar tingling sensation Locke had experienced exactly once before, when the impossible had been made real by another young woman. The temperature dropped. The skin on Celes's hands turned white, etched with traces of frost. A moment later, ice crusted over the surface of the Magitek armor. And then Celes snapped her fingers, and shards of ice from nowhere beat a jagged percussion as they speared through the armor's metal casing into its technological heart.

The armor sparked and sputtered, and then it began to emit a high-pitched whine.

"That doesn't sound good," Locke observed. He tugged on Celes's sleeve. "Come on. We need to get out of here, now."

Now, finally, they were on their way to safety. There was just enough light from the rising moon to see by as they fled into the forest. With the city growing dim and distant behind them, and the sound of the Magitek armor fading away under the hum of singing insects, he started to breathe more easily. A permanent carpet of leaves softened their footsteps. The air smelled damp and green and wonderful. Locke loved cities, genuinely loved surrounding himself with people, but there was something about stepping inside a forest and away from civilization.
Behind him, he could hear Celes breathing heavily, and he slowed and turned to face her, though it meant walking backwards.

"Are you all right?"

"You took that better than I would have expected."

"I've … seen magic before," he said carefully.

"Magitek, yes, of course, but—" Her eyes narrowed. "Terra? It couldn't—but, no, I suppose it could. I heard she'd escaped. She found her way to the Returners?"

"Something like that. You know her?"

She was silent. Well, clearly she did, though she didn't seem inclined to talk about it. He ran through what he knew about Terra—that she had been enslaved by the Empire, that she had been hurt by Kefka and forced to murder their own soldiers to prove some sick, twisted point—and what he knew about Celes—that she had turned on Kefka, and that she pointedly didn't seem to want to murder civilians. There were clear overlaps. Presumably a shared hatred of Kefka, but who didn't hate that psychopathic clown, really? Magic, though, that was significant, and rare, and an unquestionable connection between the two young women.

They kept walking. He let her have her space, though he couldn't help wondering what was going through her thoughts.

Magic seemed to have taken what was left of her energy, or maybe it was just that she had finally reached the end of her admittedly considerable reserves, as she was even shakier on her feet than before. He wanted to take this at a kinder pace, to give her time to rest, but the guards would follow them. So he pushed them harder than he would have liked. For her part, she made no complaints, even when she stumbled or swayed or was very visibly winded.

"We've got to keep going," he said apologetically. "If they decide to take your jailbreak seriously, they might send dogs after us, and that will be hard to evade if we're still in the woods. We have to press on for as long as it takes to reach the caves."

She nodded, though she was pale—pallid, even—and sweat beaded on her forehead.

Eventually, though, he realized they needed to stop and rest. It would be simply impossible to expect her to keep going like this. She still pressed on without a word; it was only after the third time he had to catch her arm to keep her from falling over branches that he himself could easily avoid that he realized she wasn't going to tell him if she couldn't continue. But she very clearly could go no further.

He glanced behind them, through the thick maze of trees and undergrowth. He could neither see nor hear any sign of pursuit.

"There's a stream just over this hill," he said. "We're going to stop there."

"But you said—"

"In a perfect world, we'd keep marching straight on til midnight," he said with an easy smile, walking beside her so that he could support her if she stumbled again. "Unfortunately, that would probably mean we're automatons—which we're not, for better or for worse. It's almost night. They won't see us."

Climbing that final hill was brutal, even for him, at the end of a long, long day. But there was the stream, glinting in the dim light, burbling in a gentle murmuring voice that soothed his heart. He settled on the far bank, set his pack down, and dropped beside it with a sigh of relief.

"I'd love to be able to offer a tent, or even a bedroll, but I packed light this trip, and we haven't made it to any of my stashes."

She sat down a pace or two away, letting out a breath between her teeth. "Stashes?"

"This is a trip I make often. I keep gear in a few places in case I need it. We'll be glad for it when we get to the caves tomorrow."

"That's clever." She stretched her arms over her head, rolled out her neck, her shoulders. Her joints creaked and popped stiffly. "Don't worry about me. I think I could sleep on wet concrete tonight."

"It won't be good for your injuries."

"I don't care," she said simply. "Push me as hard as you need to and I'll manage. What matters is getting to the Returners as fast as possible, if you think they'll listen about Doma."

"They should." That confirmed a few things—that he would need to be mindful of her physical limitations because she wouldn't, that she was single-mindedly intent on this mission. He respected her tenacity, even if it might mean extra effort to work around it.

"Good."

"I have to ask." He hesitated, considering his words. "About …. Maranda."

She winced, the first time he had ever seen her wince, as though this pained her more than her wounds. "This is why I said I'm your enemy."

"Why Maranda, but not Doma?"

"Maranda was a mistake," she said, looking away. "It wasn't—it didn't need to happen. Not like that. Maybe not at all."

"So you're reconsidering the Empire altogether, then."

"It—I—" She rubbed at her wrist through the bandages, made a face, dropped it. "I was told we were preventing wars by occupying the city-states. Bring them all under one roof, so to speak, and then there would be peace. Before Maranda, I was still trying to believe it. but even if that were true, the treatment was surely worse than the disease. I can't in good conscience support something so … cruel."

"Did you want to be an imperial soldier?"

That made her stare at him, puzzled, maybe perturbed. "I was never really in a position to consider an alternative."

Something about her haunted expression, so out of place on such a young face, made him think of Terra. The green-haired girl had seemed tormented by half-remembered nightmares of violence she had been forced to inflict. Was Celes likewise haunted?

She fell asleep before he did, before she had even had a chance to eat or drink or wash her wounds. Locke sat with his back against a tree, listening to her sleeping murmurs. The Empire had been cruel to the rest of the world, bringing destruction and suffering everywhere it set foot. But had it been any less cruel to its own people? This young woman had been an imperial general, a high-ranking official by any standard, yet the wounds in her seemed much, much older and deeper than what could be seen with the eye.

Every day seemed to introduce new reasons to hate the Empire, new reasons why it must be stopped, before any more lives could be claimed, before any more souls could be so damaged.

Chapter Text

Too early, he woke her, and it felt like swimming against deep water in the dark, hardly aware which way was up, sleep still hanging heavily on her, trying to pull her back down.

"I'm awake," she stammered, although she was not entirely convinced of the truth of it herself. Her eyes shuttered. She forced them open again.

Every muscle in her body ached. Not even the acute pain of her injuries, but a bone-deep weariness so intense that being awake hurt. Sleep had been a blessed void—no nightmares, for once—and she wanted to wrap herself up in it and cease to be once more. The air was cold. Or was that exhaustion stealing her warmth? Her hands shook, her teeth chattered, and she wrapped her arms tightly to force her body to stop quivering. Her eyelids drooped again. She wrenched them apart.

Where the hell was she? Who was this figure seated beside her in the dark? Her mind spun, slowly coming on line, like Magitek armor just sparking up, the systems turning on one after another, out of sync, unable to move until the whole thing achieved equilibrium.

"I'm sorry," he said in a low voice. "I know you need more rest, but we can't wait." He—Locke. Yes. That was his name.

Her own Emperor had ordered her to be executed. A man from the Returners had saved her.

Kefka.

Doma.

Oh, gods, no.

"I'm fine," she said. Ah—her body was listening to her now, and she sat up, knees to her chest. She thunked her arms, her legs, trying to jar them into wakefulness and restart her circulation. Her thumbnail caught the ragged edge of a scabbing gash on her arm and she hissed between gritted teeth.

"I've got the salve for that, here." Locke rummaged in his pack of wonders and then handed her a little glass jar. "Do you need a hand?"

"No, I'm fine, thanks."

"I'll, ah—I'll leave you to it." He flashed a smile at her, barely visible in the dark—was it even morning yet, or still night?—and slipped away, leaving her to slather the slick, sticky substance over her wounds. Whatever it was, it contained some sort of numbing agent. She sighed, gratefully, as the pain that had buzzed unnoticed in the background of her consciousness lifted and she could breathe again.

She had fallen asleep wearing those wretched oversized boots. When she removed them, she found a blistery mess on the soles and heels of both feet. More of Locke's miraculous healing salve and she thought maybe she'd be able to walk again after all. She readjusted the padding within the boots, slipped them back on, and took a few experimental steps. Good enough for now.

A few branches cracked nearby, someone else's clumsy footsteps, and a few moments later Locke reappeared, rolling out his shoulders. He'd walked quietly, carefully, before. This must be intentional clumsiness, then, to warn her of his approach. Something about that felt irritatingly patronizing.

"I must seem like a damsel in distress," she said bitterly.

Laughter spilled from Locke like bright sunshine, unexpected and warm. "Hardly."

"You're having to coddle me."

"On the contrary," he said, and she could hear his grin, "I'm mostly having to keep you from hurtling off a cliff pushing yourself too hard. You're human as the rest of us. There's no shame in needing a little assistance. Besides, it seems like they worked you over pretty badly back there."

"You might be the only person to ever accuse me of being human."

"What else would you be?"

She snorted. "Some say the magic took me over, that there's ice in my blood. Or else I'm an automaton. A Magitek soldier, with gears for a heart." 

"That's very inventive. I'm sure whoever came up with that one must tell great bedtime stories. But, no, I don't think you're either a damsel or an automaton."

She wasn't sure quite what made her ask, "What do you think I am, then?"

He laughed. "Complicated. Beyond that, I don't think I know you well enough to say. Ask me again later." The answer was almost glib, off the cuff, honest. Yet it struck her silent, unsure how to respond or even how to feel about it.

They packed up after that, and she washed her face in the cold stream, the water shocking her fully awake at last. Just as her stomach began to remind her that it, too, had needs, Locke handed her a cloth sack half-full of dried fruit.

And then they were off once again, moving through the dark forest at a slower, steadier pace than their initial escape. Moving warmed her muscles, which was both good and bad—good, in that she felt more alive, awake, and invigorated, and bad, because the salve might have soothed the worst of her wounds but it could do nothing for the soreness or ache she felt with every step.

Their footsteps sounded through the songs of crickets and the rustling of leaves. An owl hooted. Sometimes, when she stepped on a particularly loud twig, the forest around them would hush, and then the sound would slowly, tentatively creep back in.

"The forest is very alive," she said after some time—an hour? More?

Locke was quiet for a moment, listening. "The farther out you get from civilization, the less everything has to hide."

"I've been in forests often enough, but always as part of a military exercise."

"You should try camping someday," he said absently. "Real camping, not this."

It was hard not to scoff openly at that. As though she would ever have a chance for something as mundane and recreational as camping—as though she would want to. Yes, that's it, you can murder the villagers and then go camping in the forest next door. No neighbors to scare off the birds, just a pile of corpses and the smell of ash in the morning. Delightful.

An owl hooted again, loud and close enough that it startled her completely out of her thoughts. She stepped back defensively, automatically, bumping shoulders with Locke.

"Rude bird," he muttered, and she couldn't help snorting in amusement.

The hike had become more of a climb, clambering over stone outcroppings or up grassy hills. Faint grey light peeked between the leaves overhead, just enough that she strained to see the forest around her.

"Once," Locke said, "I knew someone who could tell you what any bird was just from the sound it made. It could be just a speck in the sky, and she'd see something about the way it was flying, or how its wings were angled, and know its name and what it ate and where it roosted. Me, I just know a few of the most common ones."

"There's a falconry in Vector," she said. "I could see them out hunting on clear days."

"I always feel sorry for birds like that."

"Do you feel the same way about messenger pigeons?"

"Hmm." He exhaled loudly. "I hadn't thought about that, no. I guess pigeons have always seemed more like—chocobos, to me. Domesticated. Friendly. But falcons, though, they're wild."

They lapsed into silence after that. All she seemed able to offer was recollections of military life, a fact she was all the more self-conscious about compared to his lighthearted observations about the world around him, his memories of old friends or happier times. Besides, it was only small talk, his attempts at politeness. Better to spare them both the energy.


***

 

Locke had never been entirely clear on the exact designation when a large mass of earth was no longer a hill but rather a mountain. What rose above them was at least mountainous, part of a mountain range, even if it itself was not, technically speaking, a mountain. Or it might be. Who could say?

In the morning light, he could read her expressions a little better—exhaustion, maybe, as she considered the mountain, or hill, or whatever it was.

"It isn't the most treacherous hike," he said, warming a little into the feeling of being a tour guide, "but it would be exhausting in our current condition, not to mention slow. Very slow. A slow hike even in the best circumstances, which these are not. But, fortunately, we are equipped with a shortcut."

Her brow furrowed. "Caves, I assume."

"Did I tell you already?"

"You mentioned spelunking yesterday." She squinted. "It was yesterday, right?"

"We're past dawn, so yes, technically speaking, it is already tomorrow, and that was yesterday. But, yes, caves." He gestured to the land mass ahead of them, then to the actual without-a-doubt mountains that rose past it. "There's an entire system running through there, miles and miles of it. Not all of it has been mapped—at least, it's not all known to me, and I've made a point to learn as much of it as I can—but enough. Southwest and we could cut through toward the desert and Figaro proper. Northwest, though, and we'll come out within reasonable distance of Narshe. There's an inn near there, and stables. Mounted, we'll reach Narshe in no time."

He had, during their trek through the forest, collected a few suitably dry branches to serve as makeshift torches. Now, as they approached the mouth of a cave easily twice his height, he dug them out.

"As much as I'd love not to be reliant on these right now, I'm afraid they're our best option." He collapsed gratefully onto an appropriately tall rock and rummaged through his bag for his tinderbox. With practiced ease, he lit one of the branches, handed it to her, then held the tips of another branch to the crackling fire until it too caught flame. "These aren't very good, but they don't have to last long."

Celes glanced warily from the crackling branch in her hand to the cave and the sweeping mountains, and he guessed she was trying to reconcile his statement and the distance. "Your… device…?"

"No, but I've got a stash of supplies a little deeper inside."

He wasn't quite foolish enough to let himself trust instinct—that was inviting memory slips and a great deal of backtracking, at the very least. Working through a cave system, even a familiar one, required concentration and active memory, noting the correct landmarks, keeping track of twists and turns.

While they walked, he made an observation from time to time about the rock formations around them, but she was not, at least in this condition, much of a talker. Some part of him desperately wanted to ask her more about the Empire, the well-taught hunger to know her story, to understand her better and satisfy his curiosity—oh, that curiosity had gotten him into trouble, until he fell into a career of sorts that depended on curiosity and a certain degree of foolhardiness. But how to begin such a question? She seemed reticent to talk. And no wonder! She was without question at least somewhat traumatized by torture and the threat of her own imminent death, not to mention whatever had preceded it. Curiosity would have to be tempered by compassion, and patience, two virtues he tried his best to cultivate when possible.

After a short time, they came to a smooth-walled chamber with a high ceiling, though which a circular hole let a shaft of sunlight through.

"I could, if necessary, get here in the dark. I've done it before." He shuddered involuntarily at the memory—once, and it had been a singularly unpleasant experience and not one he cared to repeat. "But—here."

He jammed his torch into the jagged space between two rocks and then lifted a leather tarp from a shadowed nook in one wall. Underneath it, his emergency supplies appeared to be untouched, thankfully. He crouched beside it and took careful inventory.

A waterproof sack with a bedroll, a change of clothes and spare boots, a warm coat, a wool blanket, and a number of fabric scraps. A glass jar of fresh water, and another of oil, and two of preserved vegetables.

Celes looked genuinely impressed, which sparked a little satisfaction in him. "This is clever."

"I'd like to think so, but it's honestly the result of trial and error. A great deal of error, in some cases. I've been taking this route for years, and I would like to think I'm at least a little resourceful, if I say so myself."

"Have you been with the Returners for years, then?" She cocked her head. "I don't even know how long they've been active."

"Banon has been fomenting rebellion, or at least laying the groundwork for it, since the Empire first started cannibalizing the Southern Continent, so, twenty years or so? But I'm a more recent recruit. I wasn't quite that precocious."

"What exactly are you?"

"Locke Cole, treasure hunter, at your service." He channeled a little of the King of Figaro and bowed to her. Edgar would have added a flourish, but then, Edgar would have been trying to charm the pants off her, no matter how inappropriate the timing or situation might be. Locke was just trying to make her laugh, if he could.

Instead of laughing, though, she frowned thoughtfully. "What does that even mean?"

"A lot of digging around in caves like this one, looking for buried treasure, bandit caches, artefacts from ancient times."

"Ancient…?"

"Not like that," he said. "The Returners aren't looking to replicate the War of the Magi, even if Gestahl seems hell-bent on doing so himself."

She pressed her lips together, and he thought of the forbidden Esper magic she wielded, and what she had mentioned in the forest, how others accused her of having ice in her veins. Magitek meant the Empire's machinery and weapons of death, but it was a part of her body, too. A careless tangent of conversation.

"You can't tell me the Returners have you digging through caves for lost gold, and that's certainly not what you were doing in South Figaro."

His common sense was warring with itself. He was taking her to Banon, after all; he could tell her something, if not the whole of it, that he was a spy, an informant, a go-between. "I do a lot of things for the Returners. Like meddling in other people's business, pissing off Imperial soldiers, and making a new ally."

She snorted. "Ally?"

"Yes," he said, in what he hoped was a sure enough tone to cut off her argument. "Now, we are good and distant from the soldiers, and I don't know about you, but I am exhausted."

"Didn't you sleep before?"

He smiled and shook his head. "Someone had to keep watch, and you needed it more than I did. But I'm about ready to fall asleep on my feet, and this is a safe place to rest."

He spread out the bedroll and the blanket separately, then settled down on the blanket himself. Though the hard cave floor would do his muscles no favors, he was too tired to care. Celes did seem to care, her mouth open in protest.

"This is your gear—"

"Look," he interrupted, yawning, "I understand that you are a soldier and made of strong stuff, but you're also injured, and I'm not. Neither of us is going to feel great when we wake up, no matter what we do, but we've got another couple of days of travel ahead of us and you will need your strength. Please, believe me, you have nothing you need to prove to me."


***

 

They slept well and long, and for his part, it was healing—he had suffered from nothing but exhaustion. Celes was like a cat, he decided, unwilling to let on how badly she hurt. That posed not just a problem but also a puzzle he found himself drawn to solve. Was she afraid of being perceived as weak or lesser? Had she been punished for weakness? Did she simply distrust him that badly? He was disinclined toward the latter. This seemed too deep-seated to be specific to her current situation. With cats, it kept them safe from predators, but Celes might be one of the deadliest warriors to ever cross his path.

The rest of their travels were, thankfully, uneventful. If Celes seemed a little tense about the caves, she voiced no complaint. Oil-soaked rags made for better torches, and his stores of food filled their bellies. At some point in the future, he would need to replenish what he'd taken here, but that was a worry for another day.

Emerging into sunlight at the end of hours in a cave was always a welcome relief, the air fresh and sweet and lovely, the sight of a green varied landscape like water for a thirsty soul.

"Is that … the end of the caves, or will there be more?" Celes asked.

"We're clear for now," he said. "You're comfortable riding a chocobo, right?"

She gave him a look that seemed moderately offended. Of course, it stood to reason that she must have considerable experience, likely not just riding but fighting as well. He held up his hands apologetically.

"I try not to make assumptions." It felt like a weak excuse.

Soon, they reached the well-worn path, not quite a road, that brought them to a stop for weary travelers. In days past, Locke had sought shelter there from storms or when meeting a contact from Figaro or elsewhere, but he could sense Celes's impatience, and the weather was fine. So he refilled his water jug from a pump out front, then haggled with the chocobo keeper for a pair of birds to take them up to Narshe.

"Will we leave them there?" Celes asked, inclining her head up at the bird. These were a stocky breed for travel, good for long distances rather than speed, their pale yellow feathers thick and fluffy to keep warm through cold weather. He wondered if she had ever ridden a chocobo like this, or only the sleeker warbirds.

"They're from the stables in Narshe," he said. "In a way, we're doing everyone a favor."

"Aren't they worried you might steal them?" 

He couldn't help bristling. "I'm not a thief."

"Do they know that?"

"Yes, in fact, they do," he retorted, adjusting the bird's saddle with perhaps a little more force than was necessary. "I'm here often, and they know me. And they trust me."

The lift of her eyebrows was like a subtle shrug. That bothered him, for some reason, and he fought to calm himself. She was trusting him with her life, even though trust did not seem to come easily to her. This was a simple question with no deeper intent. They were just both exhausted, worn out, she was in pain, he was strained carrying the responsibility of their shared safety on this trip—he needed to breathe, and let it go.


***


They arrived, at last, in Narshe. Celes had never laid eyes on it before, but it looked like a scene from a painting, a thriving industrial town nestled in among snowy mountains. At a distance, the lit windows seemed like twinkling stars; up close, they were cozy, promising warm fireplaces and steaming mugs of tea against the frigid night air.

And it was frigid, colder than anywhere she had traveled in her life, especially after the sun went down. For all the rumors that her magic gave her some immunity to the cold, that was no more true than whispers that she was a clockwork soldier. Wrapped in Locke's wool blanket, she had tucked herself as close as she could to the downy feathers of her chocobo and tried to steel herself against the wind, tucking her fingers under her arms to keep them warm. She had long ago lost feeling in her nose. At least the extra padding in her boots kept her toes warm.

A wall blocked the front of town, the only apparent entrance a closed gate with a gatehouse alongside.

"I'll take care of this," Locke said, dismounting. He approached the gatehouse and knocked on the door. A man answered, and the two of them had a heated conversation. Several times they pointed to where Celes waited with the two chocobos.

When Locke returned, he was smiling, darkly amused.

"They're not thrilled about visitors, more than usual, and the guard recognized me as a Returner, so he told me to scram. Banon and the rest are shacked up with our contact here, and no one's happy about it. I think we'll have to take the back way in if we want to avoid attention."

"Back way?"

"There's another shortcut, if you don't mind mines."

She stared at him. "Do you know secret ways in and out of every town on the northern continent?"

He snorted wryly. "Figaro Castle is unassailable."

Of course, he would say that to her—Figaro had always been an imperial ally in name, but the Empire long doubted its loyalty, and no one was surprised when its connection to the Returners was revealed. Even if that revelation had been connected to Kefka attempting to torch the place with all its citizens inside.

Celes shook her head, setting that aside. "So what now?"

"I'll give him the birds to bring to the stables, and the last leg of our journey will be colder and longer than I wanted, but we'll be fine. I expected this might happen."


***


Celes had marched through snow before, but she'd been warmly dressed at the time, well-fed and not weak from blood loss. Locke seemed aware of her exhaustion; he fell into the same bright chatter that had propelled her onward in the caves. Only this time, instead of telling her about stalactites and crystal formations and the risks of cave diving, he regaled her with local legends about fairy creatures called moogles.

Some distance from the town, Locke used his bag to brush snow away from a rusty old metal gate set in a stone wall. There was no lock, and the gate turned out to lead into a side passage to a well-lit mine tunnel which was fiercely cold but shielded from the wind. Another few twists and turns and they emerged back into the snowy night, but now they were looking down on the rest of the town from higher up the mountain. Locke took her arm to steady her, and she realized she had started swaying on her feet again—humiliating, you can't even stand on your own without needing a man to carry you—but after crossing a wooden bridge, they came at last, at last, to the back door of a house at the highest part of town.

Locke glanced at her, his ice-encrusted hair nearly obscuring his eyes. "No matter how they react, I'm on your side, all right?"

"What?"

One corner of his mouth quirked. "I mean, I trust you, and I'll convince them that they should trust you, too. Only, please, do not fight them, even if someone else draws a weapon. Please?"

She nodded curtly. "Understood." As if you could take anyone down in this condition. But he's right to be wary. He's seen you in battle before, he knows what a monster you can be.

He knocked on the door, a very specific and clearly coded pattern that she was entirely too tired to be able to replicate herself. He was halfway through repeating the pattern when the door swung open, and a haggard-looking man ushered them in.

"Arvis," Locke greeted him enthusiastically. "Sorry to barge in so late."

Inside, the warmth was almost too much. A fire crackled in a rough rock fireplace, lighting a room that might have been large if not for the impression that too many people were staying in too little space, judging by the bedrolls and baggage scattered around the room and a slightly stale smell of sweat. A stack of boots rested in a tray by the door, and Locke bent over to remove his own snow-encrusted boots as their host closed and locked the door behind them. Celes followed Locke's example, struggling with the laces of her own.

"Locke," someone called out. An older man with a refined voice, who approached with slow, deliberate steps, hands spread in greeting. His wild hair and considerable beard fanned around his face like a lion's mane, but despite that wildness, he had an unmistakable air of authority. "You've brought us a new friend."

Locke hastily left his boots in the stack, brushed his own dripping hair away from his face, and appeared to present himself—to Celes's eye, as a soldier might greet his superior. "Banon, this is—this is a, a defector from the Empire. She has information you need to hear."

"Ah. Yes. Please, come in, get warm, you've traveled a great distance—"

A handful of others appeared in the hallway at the far end of the room, presumably summoned from deeper in the house by the news of Locke's return. One of them she recognized from his portraits and, specifically, from his profile that had been minted on every Figaroan coin during the ten years of his rule—Edgar, King of Figaro, a dashing figure with sunny blond hair and a blinding smile. He glanced down at Celes, then back at Locke, raising an eyebrow. Locke shrugged with what looked like a self-deprecating smile.

Finally free of her boots, she left them next to Locke's, which were already making a puddle of melting snow. Then she stood tall, and took a deep breath.

Banon had nearly reached them by now, his hands still outstretched. He hesitated, as he came close enough to see her face. Her stomach tightened. Get this over with, you coward. All in one motion, she shrugged out of Locke's old wool blanket and folded it between her arms. Banon froze. Celes lifted her chin and met his eyes as his expression hardened into something fierce.

"Locke," Banon said slowly. "I assume you have an explanation for this."
 
"Yes, ah," Locke responded, gesturing a bit vaguely at her. "Banon, this is—this is—"

"I know who she is." Banon's eyes narrowed. "A 'defector from the Empire'?"
 
You have nothing to be proud about, the voice in her heart sneered, so if this is so important to you, get begging. Behind Banon, she saw King Edgar pat at his hip for a weapon. They'd both recognized her, then.

She dropped to her knees before Banon, though her thighs felt like the muscles might tear wide open. Palms together, she raised her hands in entreaty. "Banon. Please, I beg you to listen to me. Kefka is—Doma…"

"We've heard that Doma is under siege." Banon's hands were at his side now, curling into fists.

"Not just under siege," she said. "Kefka intends to poison their water supply. The Domans are—an honorable people. They would never suspect someone would stoop to that. Please, the Returners need to—"

"Didn't you slaughter Maranda?" That from the king, with a sneer. Even expecting the blow, it cut deep, every time. 

Banon ignored the king's comment, his eyes fixed on Celes's. "If you knew Kefka was planning this, and you're so opposed to it, why didn't you just stop him yourself?"

"I tried," Celes said bitterly. Why did you think this was going to go any differently, you foolish girl? All that time wasted. You could have tried getting to Doma yourself instead. At least then you'd be failing in the right direction.

Locke grimaced, ran his hands through his hair, and then stepped physically in front of Celes, facing Banon, arms out as though shielding her. "Stop," he said. "Shut up, all of you, and listen to me. Here's what happened. Celes here—yes, that General Celes—tried to stop Kefka, she fought him, she lost, and Gestahl was going to have her executed because that's treason. I found out she was going to be executed, did a little digging, and broke her out of jail. I promised her that the Returners would at least hear her out." He tilted his head toward Banon. "Don't make a liar out of me."

"Do you believe her?" Banon stepped back and folded his arms.

"Yes," Locke said, "I do."
 
Banon took a deep, slow breath and let it out, his nostrils flaring. "We have always been able to depend on you to be a good judge of people."

"Banon—you can't be serious—" This from someone else in the hallway.

"We'll discuss it," he proclaimed in a tone that forbade objection. "Take a few minutes to warm yourself. Have some tea, rest your feet. Locke, I'd like to speak with you in private."

"I don't need to rest—we can talk now." Celes struggled to stand, but her legs seized, and she cried out, falling backward. Locke was by her side at once, catching her and taking some of her weight off her legs. Slowly, he guided her to her feet, and she bit down hard on her lip to try to keep from making any more sound, though she could not hold back a quiet whimper that she hoped no one else could hear. Now that her legs had given up, the rest of her seemed on the verge of following suit, the pain of all the blisters and bruises and cuts and burns simmering to a boil. Not here, not now, not after all of that, not in front of all of these people…

"What's wrong with her?" Banon leaned forward, his dark expression softening.

"They were going to execute her, but they tortured her first." Locke sounded furious. "And then we walked for three days with nothing but a first-aid kit. She needs medical care."

"That doesn't matter," she said, her stomach roiling. "Please—"
 
"It does matter. And we couldn't act until the morning, anyway," Locke said to her matter-of-factly. "I'll talk to them first."


***


He left her in the care of a young man who had apprenticed with a doctor before joining the Returners. Her cool blue eyes pleaded with him, and he tried to exude confidence and reassurance as he smiled back.

"It will be all right," he told her. "Banon likes to be deliberate about things, but I think he's already made up his mind to help. You'll see."

Locke was fairly sure this was true. If it was not already true, he intended to make it true—not because he had made a promise to Celes, though that added to his conviction, but because he genuinely believed her himself.

Banon appeared to have commandeered Arvis's dining room into an office, judging by the maps and papers covering the table. No wonder poor Arvis looked so haggard, with the handful of Returners who had convened here occupying his home so fully. Banon and Edgar were already seated when Locke entered.

"Really, Locke?" Edgar smirked at him before he could join them. "A pretty girl in need?"

"I'm not the one with a weakness for pretty girls," Locke chided.

"No, apparently they have to be murderers to catch your interest." Edgar's tone was light and joking, but his eyes betrayed his lack of humor.

Locke glared back a challenge. "Would you call Terra a murderer?"

"No, but you can't compare the two." Edgar shook his head. "They used Gestahl's cursed Magitek to take Terra's free will away from her. They used her, and she had no say in it. General Celes led the attack against Maranda."

"Do you see how young she is?" Too tired to care about decorum, Locke turned a chair backwards and dropped into it, resting his arms over the back. "Maranda was two years ago. She must have been a teenager at the time. No, I suspect the Empire used her just as it used Terra, and it was fully ready to destroy her when she wasn't of use anymore."

"Locke—"

"He is exceptionally good at understanding people," Banon cut in. "But even if she's right, what can we do?" 

"Are you honestly considering this?" Edgar sounded surprised, though not entirely dismissive.

"Yes."

"You don't think this could be a trap?" Edgar asked, and Locke couldn't help laughing, thinking of how Celes had made this same argument to try to undermine her own trustworthiness.

"I am honestly not sure what sort of trap it could be," Banon said. "And she seems sincere."

Locke was thrumming, nearly vibrating, with frustration. "I've spent three days in her company. I've put my life in her hands more than once in that time, and I would do it again."

"I've spent the past few days arguing to Narshe the necessity of taking some action, even if the odds seem poor or downright impossible." Banon had his chin in his hand, looking thoughtful.  "We have few enough men here. The governor still won't listen to us. He's asked us not to leave Arvis's, lest it become known that Narshe is harboring enemies of the Empire." 

"Any word from the rest?" Locke cocked his head at Edgar, softening his voice. "Sabin's not back yet?"

"No," Edgar said. That might explain why he was so on edge. His long-lost twin brother, Sabin, who had reappeared after nearly a decade to join the Returners; now he was missing again, after the Imperial raid on their headquarters that scattered them far and wide.

"He's got to be the strongest man I have ever seen," Locke said, a peace offering. "I'm sure he'll show back up soon and we'll find he spent his time taking out an Imperial stronghold single-handedly and the only injury he sustained is an empty stomach."

Edgar smiled back, and Locke relaxed slightly. King or not, Edgar was one of his closest friends, and Locke hated fighting with friends. Besides, they couldn't afford any in-fighting right now, not with the Empire breathing down their necks and no home base and, apparently, the entire Kingdom of Doma at risk.

Banon considered a well-worn map on the table in front of him. "We could try to send a pigeon to Doma, but it's so far from here."

"Send one to Figaro, then," Edgar said. "We have contacts all over the continent. I'll write my Chancellor and have him relay the message down the line until it reaches the King of Doma. We aren't expressly allies, but I think they'll heed a message if it comes signed by my own hand. And I think we can rally some troops to Doma's aid, too, if need be."

Banon nodded. "Very well. Let's write a letter, Edgar, and put your seal on it. Surely Narshe can't begrudge us a single pigeon down to Figaro."


***


The medic had insisted she needed to wash the grime and sweat from her wounds before he could treat her, and with a businesslike clarity of purpose, he ushered her into their host's washroom and drew up a hot bath for her. Now she stood in the tub in the center of a tidy little room, with a clean white towel waiting for her, but she was so filthy that her footprints stood out on the clean tile floor, dirt and pus and blood leaving awful stains where she had stepped.

Someone rapped on the bathroom door. She tensed, looked frantically around her for anything she could use as a weapon, all too aware of her utter vulnerability at this moment. 

"Celes?"

Locke's voice. Relief flooded her, after the sudden spike of adrenaline, and she sank the rest of the way into the tub and hunched until the water reached her chin, with only her head and her scabby knees above the surface.

"Are you all right?" Locke called through the door.

"I'm—fine." The accumulated grime swirled from her skin to form a film along the surface of the water, turning it nearly opaque.

"Good." A pause, then, "I wanted to tell you I just met with Edgar and Banon and they're preparing to send urgent word to Doma, and there's talk of mobilizing troops, too."

"Oh, thank god," she breathed.

"I think it's going to be all right," Locke said through the door. "You did it."

Celes dropped her head forward, hair cascading around her face, and buried her face in her hands. This one good deed, then, to counteract a lifetime of unforgivable crimes—at least this once, she had done something right, and they would be saved.

If she cried, like this, who would ever see?

Her shoulders rocked, the only evidence of her tears.

Chapter Text

Arvis's house was tense and overfull; a space that might have comfortably housed three people struggled to support twelve. The Returners slept on bedrolls and blankets and piles of clothes. They ate the travel food they'd brought with them and tried to take up as little space as possible. But Locke could tell they were restless, cooped up in here, unwelcome in the town yet with nowhere else to go.

"I'm glad you're here," Banon said to him over a late-night pot of herbal tea, after one more discussion with a distracted Edgar about how to come to Doma's aid. "Meetings with the governor of Narshe have not gone well. I'd like your help."

"I don't think the governor has any love for me," Locke said uncertainly.

"Even so, your insight is usually helpful." He sighed. "The man is so terrified of making a decision that he fails to realize his paralysis is itself a decision. The Empire has grown bolder than I expected, advancing on multiple fronts across the continent. Narshe must stand with us against them or we may all fall."

"The people of Narshe are independent to a fault. They don't take kindly to being told what they must do."

Banon smiled wryly under his mane of beard and raised his cup toward Locke. "And this is why we need you. Do you have any advice, then, on how to convince them without provoking their obstinacy?"

"I'll think on it."

He had too many things to think about, and as he joined the others in the main room of the house and staked out a corner for his own nest, those thoughts raced through his mind. Doma, of course, and fears that even a relay race of messenger pigeons might not arrive in time to make a difference. Doubt, wondering whether coming here had been the right decision or if some other idea that did not occur to him at the time might have been better. Fear of the Empire's might, if it could spare to divide its forces as Banon claimed. Strategy in battle was not Locke's element; he was glad to leave that planning to others. But he had seen enough of the Empire's handiwork in ruined lives and haunted eyes that his stomach churned at the thought of exponentially more towns razed by imperial troops.

And then, of course, there was Celes.

He felt responsible for her in a way that he did not for Terra. Without a doubt, Terra was more vulnerable and less self-sufficient, but her innocence coupled with her power meant that the Returners would protect her any way they could. Even Edgar cooled his flirtation when it became clear she would not reciprocate even in jest. But Celes had no such protection; she was unwanted and unwelcome here, distrusted by men more inclined to fight against her than alongside her. And Locke worried about the injuries she had sustained over the past few days. If something inside of her had broken, would she speak up, or would she suffer in silence, undiagnosed, slowly bleeding out in a way none of them could see?

She slept deeply in a corner of the room, having been settled there by the insistent young medic as soon as he had finished treating her—including stitching up the worst of the cuts on her arms, for which she had had numbing salve and a finger of whiskey that shortly afterward lulled her to sleep.

Locke settled his bedroll near hers, though whether that was for her safety or the comfort of the rest of the rebels, he couldn't say. But she was surrounded by erstwhile foes. Might as well be shielded from them by the presence of one friend.


***


In the morning, Banon and Edgar sent out a pigeon to Figaro, and to the port city of Nikeah—Figaro, to gather troops, and Nikeah in case any ships were setting sail to Doma. Locke suspected that Edgar wished to do more than just send a message home. If he knew Edgar, the king must be anxious to return to his people and his castle, but something kept him here, now—a greater anxiety about his brother, perhaps. When their headquarters had been compromised and an attack from the Empire was imminent, they had escaped downriver at night in an assortment of small boats that could not be tracked, and Sabin had been separated from the rest. They had heard no word from him, nor any sign that he survived, but based on even their short time together, Locke had faith in the man's general resilience.

The intent was to meet up at Narshe. Locke had had other orders, to investigate Imperial plans within South Figaro, which was on the way. He didn't complain; that meant more travel time spent on solid ground, which did not typically have a habit of giving way under one's feet or pitching violently at the slightest provocation. And once he arrived at South Figaro, of course, one thing led to another and he'd followed a thread of mysteries down to the basement of the richest man in town seeking rumors of a doomed prisoner.

At least for the time being, Locke was glad for a chance to rest, without embarking on a journey over either land or sea. Soon enough, he imagined, they would all gear up and head down southeast, to Nikeah and eventually to Doma, to provide what support they could.


***


When Celes finally woke, sunlight was streaming in through the windows. Her body felt stiff, like someone had carved her muscles from wood pieces that fit just a little too snugly together. The stitches on her arm twinged when she tried to sit up. The motion set the room spinning, too, and her stomach growled with a hunger so acute it almost felt like pain.

She was the last one awake, she realized; men milled around, repairing their gear, or burning their cooped-up energy through calisthenics. The pair of men closest to her stopped their stretches and looked at her, cautious, calculating. She recognized that look. And she could not blame them for it, for distrusting the enemy who now occupied space within their camp.

Locke was nowhere to be seen. How dependent she had become on him, as though he were her translator through a strange world in which nothing was familiar and none of what she once knew could help her. Every moment of the past several days had happened because he had guided her. It was as though she had been stripped of not just her rank but her identity, when they sentenced her to death, as though they had beaten the strength and skill and self-sufficiency out of her, and now she was wounded and helpless and unsure.

Now, she owned nothing, had no possessions of her own. Not that she had ever been much of a collector, not sentimental or preoccupied with trinkets, or souvenirs, but still she had had her chambers in the military barracks in Vector, her own sword with its familiar heft and balance, clothing that fit well, a shelf of books, a porcelain teapot and matching cups, and even a collection of pins and barrettes for her hair, her one vain indulgence. That was all gone now. She wondered if they would dispose of it and find some other use for her room, or just seal it away, forgotten.

It was strange and unmooring to think about. Though she had never considered herself materialistic, it did feel rather like she was an interloper or a ghost, with nothing tying her to the real world.

But as lost as she felt, and as tempted as she was to settle back into her corner and make herself invisible under a blanket, the hunger gnawed at her.

In her own world, she had moved through the world with a certain confidence and certainty. Now, she was conscious of how rumpled and disheveled she must look, a far cry from the neat and commanding figure she had tried to cut as a general. Someone here had donated a ratty old shirt to her, as her shift had been hopelessly bloodstained; she wore this untucked over the same stolen trousers as before. As she rose unsteadily to her feet, she was aware of eyes on her, and her cheeks burned as she stumbled and fell back against the wall. Pull yourself together. Locke isn't here to protect you from the mean, scary men, so stop being a fucking coward and let them see what you've become. The great General Celes can't even walk. The great General Celes hides behind a slight spy like a babe behind her mother's skirts. But that was unfair to Locke—he was no warrior, but he deserved more respect than that.

"H-hello," she rasped to the men who were still staring at her. Some of them averted their eyes and went back to their exercise, or their repairs, as though she hadn't spoken. One young man's eyes narrowed, and she recognized the hatred that sparked there. She pushed away from the wall and walked slowly, stiffly, and faces turned as she passed them.

In the washroom, she leaned back against the closed door and took a deep breath, relieved to be out of sight. She rinsed her face in the basin and tried not to stare at her reflection in the dull mirror hanging above it. Pale, bruised, with sunken cheeks and blue shadows under her eyes, a rusty scab where her lower lip had split. She combed her fingers through her hair and bound it up in a severe bun.

In the hallway again, she could hear voices from where she'd come—the men resuming whatever conversations she had interrupted. She fled down a staircase, trying to avoid contact with anyone, ducking into empty rooms if she had to. Are you afraid of them? Would you be less afraid if you had a sword in your hand and were trying to run them through?

It was not a large house, and she stumbled into the kitchen eventually, a brightly-lit room with afternoon sunlight framed by checkered curtains. The room wasn't empty—a familiar waif of a girl leaned over the stove, where a small flame heated a dented but serviceable kettle. In Celes's early memories, the girl had been blonde, but whereas other children's fair hair darkened to shades of brown or red with time, Terra's curls had taken on a distinctively emerald hue. Some belated side effect of the magic infusion, Celes assumed.

"Terra?"

The girl flinched, and Celes worried she would jostle the kettle and burn herself. Her eyes were huge as she faced Celes.

"Sorry," Celes said. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She hadn't expected to see the girl again. To be fair, up until Locke's rescue she had not expected to see anyone again, but certainly not Terra. Yet here she was, dressed in someone else's cast-offs just as Celes was. Two defectors from the Empire—no, Terra was no defector. She was a refugee, seeking freedom and shelter. One defector, then, and one victim.

Terra's brow furrowed for a moment, in confusion. Then a flicker of recognition, replaced by fear, in her wide, guileless eyes.

"I know you." Terra sounded so young, looked so young. But of course she could be no younger than Celes herself, a product of the same dubious magical experiment. And they had both lost any claim to innocence early on, shaped by the Empire as weapons of war.

"My name is Celes."

"You're with the Empire." There was no mistaking the fear in her voice now. "A—general. Like Kefka."

That cut deep. "Not anymore," Celes said flatly.

Terra nodded as if that made sense, as if that were sufficient. "My memory is hazy," she said, still visibly tense but no longer resembling a rabbit frozen with fear. "I don't—feel like we've talked much before."

"No."

"You're the girl with magic."

"Yes."

The kettle surprised them both by taking that moment to sing out, shrill and startling. Terra grabbed a mitt from a hook over the stove and moved the kettle off the flame. "Do you… want some tea?"

Celes couldn't tell if this was asked out of mere politeness, but tea sounded lovely. "If there's enough, yes, thank you." She leaned her hip against the countertop, watching as Terra rummaged through cabinets for a second teacup. Her movements as she prepared the tea were precise and careful, almost as though she were afraid of making a mistake, like a child who had only recently learned the steps. And perhaps she had.

"Do you want a cookie with it?" Terra smiled, tentatively. "Arvis keeps a jar of them." At the thought of cookies, Celes' stomach growled again, and Terra smiled more brightly. "No, sandwiches."

Soon, the two of them sat side by side on top of the kitchen counter, the tea steeping between them and a plate with a sandwich of cheese and cured meat on Celes's lap. Terra seemed quietly pleased with herself. This was the first proper meal Celes had eaten in days, and she forced herself to take only one bite at a time.

"Have you joined the Returners?" Terra asked, watching her closely.

"I—no. I don't think they would want me to." She took another bite, swallowed, sipped at her scalding hot tea.

Terra cradled her teacup in her lap. "You might be surprised. They've been very kind to me."

"It's a little different."

"Is it?" A demure sip.

"Yes."

Celes ate the rest of her sandwich in silence. She couldn't say whether it was a companionable silence or not—could not tell if Terra was glad to have her there—could not even say for certain whether she was glad of it. Relieved, maybe, to have found someone who did not seem to hate her. "Thank you. This was—very good."

"Arvis has been teaching me to cook," Terra said proudly, and this time it was obvious she was genuinely happy, as bland as the compliment may have been. "Meals in the mess hall, you know…"

"And camp rations."

"Not much opportunity to learn to make tea, or bake bread," Terra said, and Celes nodded, although she had had her own tea service in her officer's quarters.

"Did you bake this bread?"

"I don't think I can say I baked it," Terra said, shyly. "But I helped."

"I'm impressed."

Celes knew next to nothing about bread, but she listened to Terra's enthusiastic explanation of the process of kneading dough, Arvis's patience, and the involvement of a few of the Returners whose names Celes did not recognize. It was a pleasant enough prattle, here in the sunlit kitchen, but guilt nibbled at her conscience as she remembered Doma for the hundredth time since waking up.

She could not remember ever seeing Terra smile before. Not that she had spent a great deal of time in the girl's presence, and certainly not in recent years. As small children, they had been called to demonstrate their magical capabilities one after another against practice targets, but, for the most part, Gestahl had seen to it that his experimental subjects were kept separate. The two girls, at least.

"Have you joined the Returners?" Celes asked.

"For now." Terra's eyes fell to her teacup. "I don't really want to be part of a war, on either side. But the war is going to happen whether I'm in it or not. If I can help it end faster, and keep the Empire from doing to everyone else what it did to me—" She glanced sideways at Celes.

That glance was clearly loaded, although Celes did not know Terra well enough to be able to guess what exactly it meant. Expecting Celes to disagree with her? Wondering whether to include Celes among the parties wronged by the Empire?

"You could join, too," Terra concluded. "They really are very kind and understanding people. And—if you stayed with us, maybe we could be friends..."

Celes barked out a laugh before she could stop herself. She should have stopped herself, as Terra's face fell immediately. "No, I mean—I'm not laughing at you. It's just—"

From another hallway, a door opened, then shut, and Celes could hear a few quite animated male voices talking. Terra's hands tightened around her teacup, and she looked like she was struggling to maintain her composure. Then her face brightened as she looked past Celes, who turned to follow her gaze and saw Locke standing there, his cheeks and nose red from the cold and his eyes full of laughter. He ran a hand through his wet hair, which was pressed around his face as though he had been wearing a hat; there were still a few white snowflakes on his eyelashes that hadn't yet melted.

"Locke!" Terra exclaimed, all discomfort or sadness apparently forgotten at the sight of him. Something twinged inside Celes, jealousy at the ease of Terra's happiness, at the friendships she had developed here with the Returners.

Locke grinned toothily at Terra and raised his head in greeting, but his expression was more reserved and his voice softer when he turned his attention to Celes. "Hey, how are you feeling?"

He must have practiced sounding cheerful—no matter how outgoing he might be, she could not believe that it came naturally to anyone to summon such a good-natured voice in the middle of dangerous circumstances as he had on their journey here. At least his sunshine temperament, however much an act it might be, did not seem so out of place here as it had in prison cells or caves.

She gave him a thin-lipped smile. "I'm alive, for what good that may do."

"You'll do more good alive than dead. Anyway, I got you something." He held up a heavy armload of fabric wrapped around something long and slender. "A winter coat, some clothes, and a sword. They'll be organizing a contingent to go to Doma's aid, and I figured you'd want to come with."

She blinked. "Of course—but you didn't have to…"

"Practically speaking," he said, "you needed these things, so someone had to get them, and I highly doubt they left you with any money when they locked you up, so I volunteered myself to take care of it for you. Consider it a welcome gift for your new life."

Celes set down her teacup and took the bundle from Locke. Her hands dug through the fabric to the sheathed sword with a mind of their own, and she unsheathed it, examining it carefully. It glinted in the light. The wrap around the pommel told of its age, but the blade glinted in the light, its edge fine and sure.

"I admit I am not an expert on swords, but I trust the man I bought it from," Locke said.

"It's a little heavier than I'm used to, but I can adapt," she said, testing the weight of it in her palm, seeking the balance. "Thank you."

"Oh, how pretty," Terra said.

Celes looked at Terra in surprise—the sword was functional and well-made, but not especially beautiful—but Terra had taken something small and metal from the bundle of fabric and was holding it up, delighted. A brass barrette, with smudged engraving and a slightly tarnished clasp, set with colorful pieces of glass.

"I could put your hair up for you," Terra said tentatively, and this time Celes heard the nervous offer of kindness underneath the words.

She could, of course, fasten her own hair, just as she could choose her own sword and make her own cup of tea and fight her own battles and, she had always thought, rescue herself from any danger—but Locke had said for your new life and perhaps this was, after all, a new life. Maybe there would be room for her to go with the Returners to rescue Doma, and she could start this life doing something nice, for once.

"I'd like that," she said.


***


Banon and Edgar were poring over a map again, while Locke sat at the table with a tablet of paper and a pencil. Doma had become the first priority, of course, but the issue of Narshe's stubbornness remained a concern. Thus he was gathering all the information he could think of about Narshe, its people, its governor, and its relationship with the Empire. His shopping excursion had been fruitful, giving him a sense that the people of Narshe, if not its leadership, were finally ready to stand up against the Empire.

Someone pounded heavily on the front door, startling them all. Locke glanced at Banon, at Edgar. Without a word, they filed out into the hall and toward the house's entrance.

"Is this Arvis's house?" a man's voice boomed through the door, and all at once the concern on Edgar's face morphed into joyful relief. He pushed past both Banon and Locke just as the front door burst open and his enormous brother stepped inside.

"Sabin!"

But Sabin's own usual grin was absent. He, like everyone who had arrived in Narshe before him, looked a little worse for wear. And he was not alone—following him inside was a swarthy older gentleman and a youth who seemed all elbows and knees.

"We need to talk," Sabin said gruffly.

He marched toward Banon without bothering to remove his boots, tracking snow all through Arvis's house. The rest of the house's inhabitants had gathered to see what the commotion was all about; the place was entirely too small and crowded for something like Sabin's outburst to go unnoticed. Locke lagged behind as the entourage followed Sabin in. The older man was strongly built despite his age, a sword sheathed at his side, his black hair streaked with silver. The structure of his face was not immediately familiar, and Locke's mind spun for a few long moments before he made the connection.

A Doman, here in Narshe? Had he been sent to gather allies? How fortunate that they'd had advance notice because of Celes, that they were at this very moment in the middle of gathering a force to help. Maybe it would be enough. If Doma could afford the time it took for this man to come here and request aid… 

"You!" The man's voice rang down the hallway, followed by the shrill sound of a sword being drawn. Locke could guess the target of this sudden rage. He raced toward the great room, his feet pounding, and arrived in time to see the man raising his sword—for a second time, Locke realized, because Celes stood a pace away from him, breathing heavily, and her arm was dripping blood. Had she blocked the blade with her bare arm?

Locke threw himself between them, facing the Doman, arms out and hands up in surrender. "Peace. Peace!"

The Doman snarled. "There can be no peace with an Imperial dog in our midst!"

"She defected. She's one of us now. She came to warn us, to send a message to Doma—"

The man let out a terrible sound that was half wail, half scream. A choking, tearing, all-consuming grief. He flung the sword aside and pushed Locke, reaching toward Celes. Locke circled with him, keeping his body between them.

"Has Doma fallen, then?" Celes's voice was low.

"They are dead! They are all dead!" The man jostled Locke; there was no grace or strategy in his movements, just a single-minded need for violence with Celes as the ready target. "Her people murdered them."

"Stop." Locke rested his hands on the man's arms, not pushing him nor holding him down—there would be no winning an arm-wrestling match with this old warrior, he could tell—but just trying to calm him, to introduce some gentle control to the situation. "I know you're angry. Please. Let us help you."

"My liege," the man growled. "My wife. My … child." His voice softened by the end, hollow and echoing with pain.

Locke made eye contact with Edgar, whose own face was tightly drawn—if Locke had to guess, he was thinking of Kefka's assault on Figaro, how narrowly they had escaped their own destruction. So the king was indisposed, and either Celes or the Doman might snap at any moment, with potentially disastrous results. There was no room for Locke's own shock or horror, not right now.

"Edgar. Go make tea with Terra. Someone get the medic for Celes. Go." As the people around them slowly creaked into action, Locke led the  Doman away from Celes, toward the erstwhile dining room. It was quiet, secluded. He didn't stop to see if they listened to his commands; what mattered was that the tension had broken.

Banon and Sabin lurked in the doorway. Locke ignored them, focusing his attention on the man whose rage was now dissipating, leaving in its wake the cold, familiar ache of grief.

"Sir," Locke said gently. "I'm so sorry. I've lost someone I loved to the Empire, too."

The man was malleable, spent. Locke guided him to a chair and then sat beside him, a hand still on his shoulder. There would be news of Doma, but Banon and Sabin could discuss that. They could handle strategy, or politics, or whatever needed doing. Locke saw someone in pain, and he would do what he could to ease that burden.

"Tell me about your wife," Locke said. "If you'd like."


***


"We thought it was some kind of sickness sweeping over the castle. We isolated those who fell ill. It was only when they started dying, in great numbers, that our fate became clear to us. I had been away with a detachment of scouts observing the Imperial battalion. It is only the timing of my return that kept the same fate from befalling me."

The Doman—he had introduced himself as Cyan Garamonde, retainer to the King of Doma—cupped his hands around a mug of long-cold tea. Several of the others had crammed into the dining room to hear him tell his story, including Banon, both of the Figaros, and the wild-looking boy who shadowed Sabin and said very little. Celes was nowhere to be seen, which was for the best; Terra had come by with tea but otherwise stayed away as well.

"The sickness you describe," Edgar said, and Locke realized how pale he had turned while the Doman spoke. "It sounds very much like the wasting illness that took my father."

Sabin gripped the table's edge, white-knuckled—it was a wonder the wood didn't just snap under that much force. "It wasn't an illness then, either, and you know it as well as I do." His tone had an almost childish sneer in it, and Edgar gave him a mournful but long-suffering look and shook his head.

"Yes, it was poison, and we knew it then, but what could we have done to confront the Imperials? But—regardless—that tragedy happened a long time ago. I apologize; we should be focusing on Doma."

"There is nothing left of Doma," Cyan said.

The enormity of this statement, and the fact that none of them could refute it, was staggering. An entire kingdom, gone, save for one lone survivor who looked haunted equally with grief and guilt. Locke's mind recoiled from even imagining what such a loss might feel like. Even losing a single beloved soul could destroy a man from the inside out—to be suddenly left entirely alone, mourning every single person one had ever loved, was beyond imagining. It was a waking nightmare.

And what could they do for him? Nothing but time could even begin to heal that pain.

"The Empire must be stopped," Banon said gravely, "before this can happen again."

"And yet you harbor their general!" Cyan gestured toward the door. "How, when you have all been struck by their monstrous inhumanity—how can you give shelter to that witch?"

All eyes turned to Locke. He took a breath, steadying himself. Yes, bringing Celes here had meant he would take responsibility for her—he had known that and accepted it. "She's here because she wants to stop them as much as we do. If we face the Empire, she will be on our side. You have my word for it." He had not, technically speaking, asked her if she would stand against an army with his ragtag resistance, but he could not imagine her refusing.


***


Sleep was elusive that night, of course. Each time she closed her eyes, she was back in Maranda, the smell of smoke and blood and terror, death like blood spilling across the once-beautiful city. Sometimes it shifted and it was a castle she didn't know, the illustrations she'd seen of Doma in war room meetings, haunted by pallid people oozing pus and crying out to her for mercy, mercy, for the life that had been taken from them.

At last, she gave up on it. This was not the first sleepless night, nor would it be the last. Leo once told her that the nightmares meant she was still human, that she still cared. Celes doubted Kefka was ever so troubled.

She meant to sit by the window, or take a walk in the silent snowy night and let the freezing air numb the pain in her heart. But from the little alcove near the entrance, where old chairs with sun-faded cushions surrounded a low table covered with books, she heard the sound of someone crying.

Quiet tears, sniffles, a world away from the violent chaos that still edged Celes's consciousness. She followed the sound automatically, too hollow inside to feel true curiosity. Hunched sideways in one of the chairs was a diminutive figure silhouetted against the curtained window, lit by the glowing embers of the fireplace.

"Terra?" Celes leaned against the far wall and wrapped her arms around herself. "Can't sleep?"

Terra shook her head and then swallowed back tears.

"Me neither."

Terra's voice wavered like a child's. "Sometimes I have these dreams—nightmares. There is fire everywhere and men are screaming and I know in this horrible, terrible, pit-in-my-stomach way that I'm why. And when I wake up, I don't even know if they're dreams or memories. If they really happened." She looked at Celes expectantly. 

What could she say in reply? I'm sorry they wielded you like a blade to slaughter their enemies and doused you in the blood of the innocent? 

"I heard they used a device to control you," Celes said. "I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. But Leo was furious when he learned about it."

"The Returners removed it when they rescued me."

Celes had been aware of it, but distantly. Now the horror of it struck her, the unforgivable cruelty. Of course it never bothered you before. You were trying too hard to be the good girl, the merciless general. You had no time for human weaknesses like compassion.

"Do you have nightmares?" Terra continued.

"Yes."

"Did they make you fight, too?"

Celes let out a breath that puffed her cheeks, unsure how to answer. They had handed her the sword, they had trained her to use it, they had filled her with knowledge on how to kill and how to lead others in killing. But ultimately she had gone to the battlefield of her own free will, ready to kill and die for the glory and honor of the Empire.

"I fought for them," she said.

"I—I think I killed people." Terra pressed her palms to her eyes. "I don't want it to be true, but I think it is. People call me a witch. They're afraid of me. I think—I must be a monster."

"They robbed you of your free will," Celes said. "How could it possibly be your fault?"

"I'm still the one who—"

"No," Celes said firmly. "That wasn't you." Not this sweet girl who wanted to bake bread and make friends and lead a normal life. Terra was an innocent whose hand had been forced against her very nature, a crime of such great magnitude that Celes was only just beginning to realize.

They sat in silence for a time, watching the embers, as around them the house slumbered. When she finally left Terra, she heard footsteps going up the staircase ahead of her—careful, quiet, trying not to be heard, but the staircase was old and cold and betrayed their tread.


***


The fate of Doma hung like fog around the crowded halls of Arvis's home. The former flurry of preparation ceased, and for a few days they all mourned. Terra made tea somewhat obsessively. Locke asked her to keep an eye on Celes—the two had some sort of connection, and Terra seemed grateful for the sense of purpose. Cyan lost himself in his grief, and Locke sat with him and listened to stories of his lost wife and child even after the man's misery had worn down his own reserves and felt like sandpaper against his bare heart. Banon was the only one who seemed to weather it well, maybe because he was older and had lived through his own losses, maybe because he clung to the need to take action. He still left Arvis's house every morning to plead his case to the governor of Narshe.

After several days of this, he returned with grave determination in his eyes.

"The governor has finally agreed to meet with us," he said. "King Edgar, Locke, I'd like for you to be present."

Locke scraped himself together, reviewed his notes, and tried to make himself presentable. Edgar, of course, always looked the part of king. Even pale with grief—reliving his own father's death, maybe—he was still regal and elegant, with a commanding presence that even the mask of foppishness he sometimes wore could not conceal. Next to the king and the leonine leader of the Returners, Locke looked completely average, but in many ways that was why he was here.

The three of them bundled up and trudged through the smoggy, snow-covered city streets to a large and imposing house at the center of town. There, a housekeeper took their coats, led them to a sitting room, and prepared tea.

Locke had just about given up on the governor appearing when the man finally joined them several long, long minutes later. His face was lined, his eyes tired.

They got through the pleasantries quickly. Locke leaned back and let the others do the talking at first, getting a sense for the dynamics of the room. The governor was clearly afraid, despite the closed-off front he was presenting. He distrusted the Returners, but Locke suspected he feared the Empire more.

"Narshe has always remained neutral," the governor said.

"Do you really think the Empire will allow you for long?" Banon's voice rose, full of the fiery passion that inspired his own men but would get him nowhere here. "The only reason they're not at your doorstep is because they've been busy crushing the rest of the world, but they'll come for you eventually, I daresay sooner than later. You have resources they could use."

"And an Esper," Locke piped up from the corner of the room.

The mayor turned to him, brow furrowed. "What?"

"You have an Esper that was found in your mines," Locke repeated with a somewhat apologetic smile. "Fully intact, encased in ice, possibly alive even after all these years."

"We don't—"

"You do." He kept the smile on his face, but he pushed harder with his voice. "I don't know where it is, but I know you have it. And so does the Empire. They've already come for it once, and they'll come for it again. They would love nothing more than to harness its power and make a weapon worse than anything we've ever seen."

"How do you know that?" The mayor looked more angry than impressed.

"It's my job to know things."

"What else do you know?"

"I know that your people are stubborn as hell, and there's no way they would live under Imperial rule." Locke pressed his lips together. "Honestly, that's what has me most worried. Narshe isn't like Maranda, or Tzen. The Empire won't be able to break your spirits like theirs."

"I'd like to see them try," the governor said darkly.

"I wouldn't," Locke retorted. "Because if they realize they can't bend you to their will, they'll try to destroy you utterly. They set fire to Figaro Castle, their supposed ally. They poisoned Doma and now every last soul in the castle is dead."

The governor, to his credit, was silent at that last. Locke wondered if word of Doma's destruction had reached him yet. Finally, he spoke again. "They won't attack us if we don't cross them."

"So if they come and ask for the Esper, will you hand it over?"

"No!"

"And if they steal it from you?"

"We have men stationed at the entrance to the mine. No one will get in or out without us knowing."

Locke had to try his best not to scoff openly. "With all due respect," he said as gently as he could muster, "I know of two back entrances to the mine from town, and one that leads outside of town, none of which have ever been guarded by your men. And if I know about these, it's likely the Empire does, too—much as I'd like to think myself uniquely gifted at finding things out, I depend on sources, and if someone will talk to me, they might talk to an imperial."

"No one here would ever betray Narshe."

"They may not even realize it's a betrayal, or that they're talking to an imperial." Locke himself had worn his fair share of false identities to put people at ease and get them comfortable talking—it was amazing what you could get out of someone with a drink or two and a sympathetic ear.

"Locke's right," Edgar said. "There are spies everywhere. You can't tell me no one from Narshe ever kept you informed of what goes on in Figaro Castle. That's politics, and you know it as well as I do."

The governor's voice was dark and bitter. "What do you propose I do, then?"

"I don't think any of us are suggesting you declare war on the Empire and send your men after them," Locke said, looking to Banon and Edgar for confirmation. "But be aware that they are probably coming for you, and be ready to defend yourselves. Right?"

Banon nodded. "We can assist with that. Your men are a well-trained militia, but we've been fighting the imperials for years, and we have some tricks up our sleeves that might give us an advantage over their magitek."

"If they see us fighting alongside you, they'll know—"

Locke snorted. "Frankly, if they're in your mines, trying to steal the Esper and fighting your guards, it's a little late to pretend neutrality."

"They may still not come," the governor said, without conviction. "But I'll take your counsel today. And if we do need your help, if we do find ourselves under attack, I'll send for you."


***


It was clear that most of the Returners, and all of the Narsheans, distrusted her. This was unsurprising. The sacking of Maranda still hung like a shadow over her, and her failure to save Doma felt just as damning. Twice over responsible for the deaths of thousands; how could she possibly expect her crimes to be overlooked?

She was seated in the corner of the common room rewrapping the hilt of her secondhand sword when Locke emerged from one of his locked-door meetings. He looked exhausted, but he still flashed her a smile as he dropped beside her. "That's looking good."

"It's a solid weapon. You chose well."

"I'm glad." He paused. "I hate to impose, but if we find ourselves tangled up fighting imperial troops, would you be willing to join us?"

"You saved my life," she said. For however little that may be worth. "I'm dead to the Empire, and I have no loyalty left to them. I'd rather not kill their conscripts, but if you need my blade, it's yours."

Locke tapped his lip absentmindedly, thoughtfully. "If they're conscripted, do you think we could get them to lay down their weapons and surrender?"

"Unlikely. Their families back home are collateral."

"We could help with that." Locke was frowning as though he were seriously considering this, as though the Returners had not been flushed from their den like rabbits and scattered across the continent, as though he had both the manpower and the reach to protect the civilians living under imperial rule.

She smirked. "What are you thinking? Setting a bodyguard over every person with a family member forcefully conscripted into the imperial military?"

"Something like that," he said, one corner of his mouth sliding up into a lopsided grin. "It might sound outlandish, but you'd be surprised what people can accomplish if you give them a little hope."

"Hope isn't enough to win against the Empire."

"Is it not?" His voice was gentle, still, but there was something in it she had never heard from him before. It drew her eyes to his, and his gaze held hers, as unwavering as his words. She looked into their warm brown depths and felt the world shift in some barely perceptible way. "Hope is the most powerful weapon we have. Someday I hope you'll see that."

Chapter Text

She woke up to a hand on her shoulder. In a moment she was sitting upright, barring the offending arm between both of hers, ready to hyperextend the elbow with continued pressure.

"I yield, I yield," Locke said in a rush through teeth gritted with pain.

The rest of her consciousness caught up with her defensive instinct. She blinked, foggy-headed from sleep. Locke had dropped his flameless lantern on the floor; when she released him, he stooped to right it, then shook out his arm, grimacing.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, no, I should have known better."

The little voice within her laughed at that. You'll wind up killing one of your supposed friends by accident at this rate. They ought to point you at the enemy and stay out of your way, or you'll destroy them along with everything else.

"Anyway," he continued quickly, because of course he couldn't hear the words in her own heart, "the Empire is almost here. The Narshean militia will be sounding an alarm soon, but I doubt it will be soon enough. They won't listen to me, but you will, and the Returners will, so let's get ready to fight."

He was still favoring his left arm as he took the lantern and slipped back out of the room, presumably to raise the rest of them. No sense wasting time berating herself for hurting the only person here who ever seemed glad to see her—especially with a battle ahead of them, injuring a comrade?—an army was marching on Narshe, and she would at least be able to fight to defend this city, even if she'd failed to do so for too many others. Or been the one leading the assault. Don't forget that—you're no better than the enemy here.

The governor of Narshe had agreed to let the Returners take up residence in the local inn, where they'd spent the better part of two weeks training and readying themselves for the anticipated battle. Celes and Terra shared a small room at the end of the hall, ostensibly because they were two of the only women and both newcomers, but Celes knew nobody else would want to share their space with her.

In her bed on the other side of Celes's cot, Terra sat up and rubbed her eyes. She seemed especially small and frail under the inn's substantial quilt. Celes was not used to sharing a room with anyone, but compared to the crowded floor of the man Arvis's home, this relative privacy was a luxury.

Celes suited up for battle: silk undergarments to ward off the Narshean winter, layers of wool over that, and then canvas pants and a leather jacket with padding. Hardly the armor of an imperial general, and none of it fit quite right, but it would keep her warm and offered some protection. She belted the sheath of Locke's scrounged sword to her waist, stepped into her boots—again, too large, filled with extra fabric—and hurried from her room.

A few minutes later, the rest of the Returners emerged into the hallway. Celes shifted uneasily. Ordinarily, she would be the one inspecting her soldiers, issuing commands, ordering them into formation, and then leading them to the field. She did not know how to be a soldier under someone else's command. She did not know who would lead her into battle today.

That was answered quickly as Edgar emerged in a polished breastplate, his chin held high. Banon was at his side, the strategist to his commander. The Returners were used to listening to Banon, and Edgar had summoned a handful of soldiers from Figaro—presumably the rest stayed back to defend their own castle should the Empire choose to attack them instead. So here was their regiment, then: a couple dozen mismatched Returners, a few Figaroan sharpshooters at the rear with crossbows, and the odd ones out, Locke, Terra, the Doman, the king's bear of a brother, and Celes herself. They filed out of the inn into darkness.

Outside, stars still shone in the sky, although the slightest hint of light was just beginning to edge the horizon. The cold air was crisp. Snow crunched under her boots, and her breath came out in translucent puffs. She was grateful for the warmth of her silk underlayer especially, and for the wool in her boots.

Buzzing with nervous energy, they hurried toward the mines where the Esper lay. Four Narshean guards were stationed around the entrance, half-asleep. They jolted awake, their hands moving at once to their weapons, as the contingent of Returners approached.

"Trouble's on its way," Edgar said. "We're your reinforcements."

"We haven't heard word," the most senior of the guards said doubtfully.

"You're the king of Figaro," one of his companions said. "The governor told us about you lot. Where's the rest of our men?"

"On their way soon, I would imagine. I suppose we're early to the party."

The senior guard finally nodded and waved them through. "You know where you're going?"

"We've got it under control, for now. Let your troops know we'll be hunkered down inside to back them up, and send word if there's any news."

Once they had passed through the mouth of the mine, the tunnel quickly narrowed, its curved walls coarse and pockmarked. Lanterns hung at regular intervals from a cord in the ceiling, swaying so that the light and shadow seemed to dance along the floor and walls. Locke led the way inside, unfazed as always by the convoluted series of twists and turns they followed. With his flameless torch, he indicated which passageway to follow.

"There are two paths that lead to where they're keeping the Esper," he said. "We'll wait at the point where they converge to cut the imperials off, whichever way they choose."

In this space, it would be impossible to launch a full-on military attack, even in the more cavernous chamber they eventually reached, where another small contingent of Narshean soldiers were leaning against the wall and shivering. They seemed glad for the company.

Edgar and Banon positioned their men like a plug in the passageway, clustered in nooks and crannies, ready to pick off the opponents that by necessity would also be limited to small groups. Celes had some doubts that this mismatched rebellion could stand up against the might of the Empire, especially if Gestahl was sending his best warriors—or Kefka. The thought of seeing Kefka again felt like the Narshean wind had gotten inside of her and chilled her heart and belly through.

She took a moment to step deeper inside the cavern, where light glinted off a block of ice in which the Esper must be sealed. In the shadowed cavern, she could only barely make out a darker mass within the ice. Was the creature still preserved—even alive, somehow? Could it sense the magic running through her veins, hers and Terra's? Some part of her had hoped that she would feel its presence, but either it was no longer alive or her own magical attunement was too weak. That's foolish, anyway. Stop dreaming about fairy tales. You have a fight to win.

By the time the imperials had arrived, the Returners were ready. Celes tried not to think about whether any of these men had been under her command. It was possible. She doubted that Gestahl would send his conscripts on a mission of such importance. No, these would be sworn to the Empire in heart and soul—as she had been, once.

She unsheathed her sword and readied herself for combat.


***


If she stopped to think about fighting, she would freeze up. She had learned this as a child the first time she faced a living, breathing opponent with weapons heavy enough to hurt. Practicing at half speed, or with padded weaponry, or wearing thick padded clothing—in all of these situations, she had executed with the skill and strategy they taught her. Sparring for points, she defeated her opponents one after another.

But the first time she felt her blade collide with defenseless flesh, hard enough not just to bruise but to really feel the damage she did to another person's body, she dropped the blade and emptied her stomach right there in the practice yard. After that, she held back with every swing, every parry, freezing right before she so much as touched her opponent.

That was when they drilled her to stop thinking about the person on the other side of her sword. Not bodies, not lives, not individuals to be broken or ended by her blade. Fighting was a dance with obstacles to overcome, a flow of movements, a game like chess, and the bodies that dropped were no more real than chess pieces knocked from the board. What mattered in the end was the pattern on the board, and playing your part to shape that pattern, to win for your side and ignore the pieces that must be scattered in the process.

And once you learned to lose yourself into the flow, you stopped seeing the blood, stopped hearing the screams and the gasping, gurgling breaths. You became clockwork, just one more piece of machinery, unburdened by your own heart.

It had been two months since she was last on the battlefield. Not the longest such period, of course, but something felt different this time. Not just that she stood on the other side of the board now, not just that she was no longer commanding other pieces. She could feel that old, banished hesitation rising up again, closer to the surface than it had been in years. She swallowed it down and threw herself into the fight, into the dance, letting her muscles and the quiet strategizing part of her mind do the work for her. Soldiers fell where she passed, a bloody trail of broken bodies.

There was a commotion from behind the line of imperials. Celes parried a snarling soldier's blade and chanced a look over his shoulder. The Narshean militia had arrived, trapping the imperial soldiers in the mine with no clear exit. The Narsheans likely had even less experience than the Returners, but at least they were more bodies, a distracting force. She could almost sense the unease and shock of the imperials, who had probably expected a quick and easy fight.

Better to press through them quickly, before they realized how strongly they outmatched the forces that surrounded them. If she could get to their commanding officer and force a surrender, she could prevent further bloodshed and bring this to a halt.

She held her sword aloft with both hands, letting the soul-sapping cold of the mine seep into her blood, filling her with the almost itchy sensation of magic. Her fingers felt numb, as did her toes and her lips. The magic within her buzzed louder and louder as she called on it. Then she slashed downward with her sword, and the magic answered her, rushing out from the blade in jagged shards of ice. Some of the soldiers yelped and dove away; others cried out and staggered as the ice pierced through the weak spots in their armor.

There was something different after the magic was spent, almost like an echo. The mine's chill, amplifying the effect of her power? Or something else?

She didn't have time to question, to wonder. This battle needed to be ended, and she wanted minimal casualties. The Narsheans were civilians; the Returners were idealists. They all deserved a chance to live until tomorrow. And Celes herself had more fighting experience than almost any of them, even if she was younger than most of them. She had been training her entire life, her skill and precision honed to a sharp point. She would kill so they did not have to, and kill so they could survive.

The soldiers fell around her as she pushed through the tunnels, seeking their commander. Cut the head off the snake. Soon she was in the thick of it with imperial soldiers on all sides, and they hesitated to rush her as she pressed them.

Then she rounded another bend in the tunnel—and froze.

"General Celes, the traitor. My oh my, this is a delight."

The voice sounded mock-horrified, a dry, high-pitched sound that turned into a laugh that could haunt nightmares. Shit.

Kefka never dressed for the weather. It was as though his mind were detached enough from reality that he simply failed to register what would, in another person, be physical discomfort. Thus he wore his usual garish reds and yellows, his green tunic, his purple sash, the bright dyed feathers woven into his hair. Like so many dangerous creatures that advertised their toxicity with vibrant colors, he stood out on the battlefield, daring foes to approach.

Ice coursed through Celes's blood.


***


Locke preferred to avoid fighting when possible, and usually his work with the Returners kept him far from the battlefield. But this was a war, and bloody battles were a terrible reality of it, however he might wish otherwise. At least this smaller skirmish would by necessity have a lower body count than two full armies. He threw himself into the fray with grim determination.

Not so for Celes. She cut through the enemy line as smoothly and routinely as a farmer threshing wheat. It was a beautiful, terrible horror to behold, far more graceful and controlled than the raw ferocity she had shown in South Figaro. He spared a glance her way and felt more than saw the strange glow and then a chilling burst of ice radiating from her to strike the soldiers that even now hesitated to engage with her.

He wondered if he would ever become accustomed to seeing magic, real magic, not in a story of days long past but here in front of him, undeniably real.

Before long, she and her magic were out of sight, and he had his hands full trying not to die while a Figaroan sharpshooter picked off the foes attacking him. Bless Edgar and his technological wonders, so much more reliable and convenient than a bow and arrow.

Eventually he realized that the soldiers seemed to be withdrawing. Locke's heart lifted—had they turned aside the imperials? Had the battle been won?

No. The Returners were retreating, too, passing Locke as they hurried toward the chamber in which the Esper was kept. The fear on their faces startled him. Everyone was fleeing something, but what?

It was not the first time, he thought as he crept tentatively in the direction of the unseen threat, that curiosity had grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him headlong into danger. He could only hope this would not be the last time, either. The mine's narrow passages seemed strangely deserted now, almost silent except for a low roar that came and went.

His skin prickled. Heat, unexpected heat. Light as bright as a thousand lanterns, casting dramatic shadows, flickering and dying and returning. This was no natural fire, no burning oil.

This was magic, the ferocious power of it enough to send him staggering back.

He held up a hand to block another sudden burst of brightness and squinted through it. A slender figure dashed to one side, a spark glinted, the air cooled again and hissed. Celes, and her shards of ice, but something was driving her back.

Not something—someone, clad in multicolored finery, with a look on his face like a grinning skull.

The man's reputation preceded him. General Kefka Palazzo, product of the same experiment that gifted Celes and Terra with magic, though whether the results had twisted his mind or he had started that way was beyond Locke's knowledge. Regardless, he was singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of Doma, and his soul was stained with more suffering and death than Locke could comprehend. And now he pushed Celes back, burning through her ice like paper. What could Locke do to help? Shout words of encouragement? Throw a dagger over her shoulder?

Behind him, someone whimpered. Terra, the whites of her eyes showing, shock and terror plain on her face.

The fire shot forth toward them. Locke grabbed Terra's arm and pulled her out of the way, but still the heat was terrible, painful. There was nothing to do but retreat deeper, away from this fiery onslaught. The man was laughing now, tossing balls of flame almost carelessly. Celes stood between them and Kefka, backing up, arms raised in front of her, the body language of someone warding off a beating. Even from this distance, Locke could see she was trembling.

Still Kefka pushed forward, and Celes stepped back, back into the chamber where the Esper lay entombed in ice, where Locke and Terra and the other Returners were now cornered.

For the second time since meeting Celes, Locke wondered if he was about to die.

Celes's hands shook. She looked pale, almost white, her lips taking a blue tinge. She turned to Terra, and something passed silently between the two young women. Terra nodded and brought her hands to her chest, to her heart.

The air seemed to crackle, to hum. Locke tasted copper at the roof of his mouth, and the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rose.

A shock of cold surrounded Celes as countless shards crystalized around her, catching the light. A strange light emanated from Terra's skin.

Kefka reached the mouth of the chamber, his laughter on the verge of shrill hysteria, not a man but a monster. Locke knew this moment would forever be seared into his mind.

The women loosed the magic within them, as fire roared from Kefka to fill the room. A wall of ice solidified to block the fire, and the glow from within Terra brightened and brightened and spilled out against the wall, holding it against Kefka's onslaught.

Something crackled around them, an explosion, an entire chain reaction of explosions. A sudden blinding flash of light, followed a moment later by a deafening boom.

Locke's head spun and his ears rang. What happened next seemed like scenes viewed from underwater, warped and strange and silent. The world shook. Locke stumbled, and hands pulled him from behind—the Returners, grabbing him and Celes and Terra and pulling them away as shards of rock crashed down—the roof asunder—rocks the size of boulders falling around them, and a bright and terrible glow. The roaring and crunching of rock on rock ceased, at last. Then a winged, scaled beast ten times the size of a man appeared, its feathers flapping in a sudden breeze—the chamber was open to the sky now, sunshine reflecting off the radiant, gemlike surface of the creature.

And the creature faced them—no, the creature faced the women—no, the creature faced Terra, who rose from the huddle of injured humans and crossed the rubble-strewn floor toward it as if in a trance.

The creature opened its beak and let out a cry that was both birdlike and alien.

Terra clasped her fists to her temples and shook her head, as if in response. Locke stood, to run to her, but before he could move, something about her changed. She shimmered, and her body morphed, elongating, as something soft and pink erupted from her skin—fur? Feathers? In another moment a strange humanoid creature floated where Terra had been, with a face that was and was not Terra's.

She let out a terrible, ear-piercing shriek. And then she was gone, streaking toward the sky like a beam of pink light. The great beast cried again, flapped its wings, and took off after her.

 In its absence was silence. No one moved. No one said anything. The survivors huddled together in awe and fear long after the two flying figures were out of sight.

Chapter Text

The appearance of a living Esper—the destruction of the mines—Terra's apparent transformation—their own salvation from Kefka's surge of fiery power—they had survived it all, even if the impossibility of it lingered.

Narshean miners eventually cleared the wreckage blocking the cavern. Scorch marks blackened the entire tunnel, as though a wildfire had raged through. Still in shock, the Returners followed the miners to freedom. Outside, the city seemed transformed. The wall at the front of town had sustained damage, but repairs were already underway, and the Narshean militia was jubilant, having run off Imperial troops from both the mines and the mountain pass below.

It was too much to hope that Kefka had fallen in the collapsing mine. No, he had retreated with his men.

"If they come back, we'll be ready for them," the lead miner said.

Never mind that Narshe had spent weeks, maybe months, denying the need to fight back against the Empire. They had had their first taste of victory and were feeling bold and powerful. And maybe they had reason to, having turned aside trained imperial soldiers with only a ragtag militia. Or maybe the imperials had fled because of the twin stars streaking across the sky, one bright and pink and the other flapping great and terrible wings to catch it.

Locke found himself glancing at Celes in the aftermath of Terra's transformation, searching for some hint of strangeness in her, some sign that she too would change shape. Her bloodless lips and shadowed eyes worried him, and even when they were all back in the inn, with steaming mugs of tea and blankets over their shoulders to ward off the chill, she shivered.

"Are you all right?" he asked her, sitting beside her on a bench at one of the inn's long, rough tables. It was more of a lodge than an inn, really, accustomed to housing migrant miners rather than ordinary travelers and therefore sturdy, functional, and hardly beautiful.

"Cold," she said.

"Is it because of your magic?"

A shrug. "I'm not sure. It's never happened like this before."

"The Esper, maybe?"

She held the mug below her chin and tilted her face toward it so that the steam rose up around her chin. "I don't think so. I think I might have—called on it too much. Everything I know about magic comes from trial and error. There isn't a primer on how it works. It's never hurt this much before—but I've never had to ask so much of it."

"I wonder, if creating ice freezes your blood, do you suppose Kefka might boil his?" He was rewarded for this observation with a faint but genuine smile from Celes. Encouraged, he continued. "Next thing you know, he'll start whistling like a kettle and then pop."

She laughed, and Locke tried to remember if he'd heard her laugh before. Not like this, with a sudden and unexpected warmth. Some of the color returned to her cheeks.

"Do you understand what happened to Terra?" he asked Celes once she seemed recovered enough.

Celes shook her head. "It seemed like she could understand whatever the Esper was saying. I—I couldn't. She's always had more strength in her magic than I do. It's why they—they didn't really treat her like a person, once we weren't children anymore. She was a tool to be controlled. I didn't question it."

"I don't think we question much about how we were brought up, when we're young. And if you didn't see her that often..."

She frowned thoughtfully. "No, not at that point. They tested our magical aptitude often, and at some point they decided I would be more effective with a sword, around that same time. But, still, I should—should have—I don't know why I never helped her. Never even thought about helping her."

He could see the threads tangled together in this conversation, her guilt as well as her blindness to her own circumstances, but now was not the time to unravel them. "I'm going to follow her south and see if I can find her," he said. "I'm leaving as soon as I can."

She didn't even hesitate. "I'll come with you." 

"Are you sure? You could probably use more rest." But he did not expect her to accept this excuse, and he was not surprised when she shook her head.

"I should have helped her when we were children. The least I can do is help her now. She doesn't even want to be in this fight."

"I would say she doesn't want this fight to be necessary, which isn't quite the same thing," Locke said, but he held up a finger when Celes tried to argue. "We'll just have to ask her when we see her. Pack your things—and hers, too, if you don't mind. I'll see if we can borrow some chocobos."


***
 

When he went to talk to Banon, it was to inform him of the plan, not ask permission. Banon and Edgar had finished with the governor and returned to the inn, Banon looking satisfied, Edgar tired. Locke cornered them before they could retire to their respective rooms.

 "I don't know what happened, and I don't know where she went, but I'm going to find out," Locke concluded. "She's probably scared and alone and she needs our help."

"You're just going to set off and hope you'll run into her?" Edgar asked.

"No, I'm going to ask around. That's what I do. I get information." Locke fought the urge to scowl, aware that impatience was shortening his temper. It made him think of Celes single-mindedly pushing her body past its natural limits in her rush to try to help. At least he had more self-preservation. "Surely people will have noticed her if she passed by, and they can point me in the right direction."

"You should stop by Figaro Castle," Edgar said. "It's on your way south. Someone in one of our lookout towers must have seen her and can give us an update on where she went. Maybe she even stopped there—she's found shelter there before."

"There's a happy thought. I hope you're right."

"You're not going to catch her otherwise," Edgar told him, wagging a finger. "While I respect your dedication to helping her—although really, Locke, two girls is more my style than yours—but judging by her trajectory and speed, not to mention several hours' head start. it would be physically impossible to catch up to her. The best we can do is try to figure out where she ended up and go there."

The little jab mixed so smoothly into the middle of his sentence that it took the rest of his speech for the words to register. "Two—what does that mean, Edgar?"

"I'm only teasing. I meant it to be at my expense, given that I'm all alone and you've been in the company of two beautiful women—no, I'll stop with the jokes. Locke. I know how you are, and—"

His cheeks burned. "How I am?"

"Don't look at me like that." Edgar held his hands up, gesturing for peace. "No, I don't mean you chase women; I know your heart is spoken for. But you just can't resist helping someone who looks like they've been hurt. Even if that someone is an imperial general notorious for merciless slaughter."

Locke crossed his arms over his chest. "Celes has fought alongside us, and she was very nearly killed by Kefka. If not for her and Terra, we'd all have had the skin melted clean off our bones."

Edgar grimaced. "That's unnecessarily graphic."

"My point remains. She's an ally, and she and Terra are friends." That was stretching the truth, as he understood it, but it wasn't wrong, either. He took a deep breath. His impatience really was unreasonable; Edgar was right. But he didn't have to like it. "And she's coming with me to find Terra."

Edgar nodded slowly, his face a mask of kingly serenity that told Locke he didn't like this idea but was hesitant to get into it. "Let me accompany you to Figaro, at least. I'm eager to get back home myself. I've been gone longer than I'd like."

"You're worried about Celes."

Edgar opened his mouth, closed it. "I am… a little concerned about you traipsing off across the continent alone with a former general of the Gestahlian Empire, yes."

"We're following another former soldier of the Empire, if you'll recall, who also happens to be—I think you'll agree—a friend."

"And General Celes is your friend?"

The inclusion of general was surely no accident, a pointed reminder. "I don't know her well enough for that, but I would say we could become friends."

"And what if you do something that angers her?"

"Then we'll talk about it like adults."

"You'll talk about it, of course you will, but what about her? The woman is a killer, Locke."

Why was he pushing so hard? Locke bit back his own frustration. "None of us are wholly innocent. The Empire has seen to that."

"I just worry that you're going to be hurt."

Any argument he could make felt adolescent on his tongue, like a petulant child fighting with a parent, and no matter how sincerely he felt it, he could imagine Edgar dismissing it out of hand. So he set aside his instinct to defend Celes, to defend himself. "Just trust me. That's all I'm asking."


***


The entourage accompanying them as they left Narshe was larger than she expected: the Figaroan sharpshooters and their king and a whole host of desert-bred chocobos in quilted barding against the mountain cold. It made sense that the king and his retinue would want to return home as soon as possible, but she was a little surprised that Locke agreed to delay his own departure to give the party from Figaro time to gear up. Her body was grateful for the extra night's sleep in a solid bed, although it was strange to be alone in the room she had shared with Terra, with her own bag and Terra's packed side-by-side by the door.

What had happened to Terra, and why? What was the magic she had used to strengthen the wall of ice as Kefka approached? What had the Esper said to her, and why had it chosen Terra, and how had it transformed her?

More than that—did this now mean an Esper was loose in the world, for the first time in a thousand years? And what would that mean?

These questions darkened her thoughts all night, and all through breakfast in the morning, and they continued to haunt her as they all set out at dawn. Her borrowed chocobo followed its fellows down the snow-edged mountain path as she stewed in her own worries.

"Are you all right?"

She hadn't realized that she had gotten used to the comfort of Locke's gentle curiosity, or how much it felt like a reassuring touch on the shoulder, until she was startled by someone else addressing her. The king of Figaro spoke lightly, his diction clear and precise, but there was no warmth in his voice. He pulled his chocobo up beside hers, a short distance from the rest of them.

"Yes, thank you," she said, as steadily as she could.

"Something is troubling you." It wasn't a question.

As polite as he sounded, she knew he didn't trust her. Not that she could blame him, though some part of her protested that she had never actually threatened or harmed Figaro. "I was thinking about Terra and the Esper. If Emperor Gestahl goes after them..."

"Do you think he will?"

"I think he'll try," she said. "Kefka will report back, and the Emperor will want their power. I imagine we'll be racing against him to find them, or at least to find Terra, though I'd hate for him to get his hands on either of them."

"What will you do if you get your hands on them?"

The way he said it raised her hackles. "That depends on what Terra wants, doesn't it?"

"And the Esper?" The king leaned closer toward her, watching her closely. "What would you do if you had an Esper's powers at your disposal?"

"You're testing me," she said flatly. "Yes, there is blood on my hands, and I don't know if it will ever wash off. I'm not going to make excuses for what I've done, if that's what you're looking for. Either trust me, or don't."

The aloof look on his face fell away, and his eyes were piercing and cold. "You must understand that Locke is a dear friend of mine."

"Locke? You think I would hurt Locke?" Her voice rose with her incredulity and, yes, a little anger; she couldn't help it. "Why?"

"He's a veritable font of information on the Returners, our allies, our secrets. He would be a tempting prize for the Empire in his own right. I wouldn't want Gestahl to get his hands on him either."

She spluttered. "They would torture him," she said. "How can you even—no! No." Her hands tightened on the reins of her chocobo, the grip so tense it hurt. Her stomach dropped, thinking of what Gestahl might do for the information in Locke's mind—what Kefka might do, and what Gestahl would allow. It made her feel sick, to think of his kindness broken like pottery and thrown away. She glared at Edgar, and to his credit, he met her gaze and did not look away.  "Whatever you may think of me, there are lines I can't and won't cross. What happened to Doma is one of them. And—turning over someone who—no. I won't betray the Returners. And I won't betray Locke."

"I see." Cool, smooth, with a light smile at his lips.

"Do you?"

"Yes. I believe you."

"Good."

Rattled, she pulled her chocobo away from the king, toward the rest of their entourage. Farther down the line, Locke lifted his chin and gave her a little wave, smiling, innocently oblivious to the horrors churning through her mind. Sometimes, that smile reassured her, but at this moment, it just sent chills down her spine.


***


A group this size took longer to set up camp than Locke preferred, staking out ground for several larger tents, each of which fit a few soldiers. As with their time sharing floor space at Arvis's in Narshe, Locke left his bag in the same tent Celes did, guaranteeing her at least one friendly face, even if the Figaroans had seemed largely indifferent to her presence compared to the Returners.

They all settled down to eat around the campfire, though dinner was only dried meat and hard bread and a few winter apples from Narshe. At least they had reached the foot of the mountain and there was no more snow, just a chill in the air and pine needles forming a carpet underfoot.

Celes excused herself early, returning to the tent. Shortly afterward, Edgar took her place beside Locke, almost as though he had been waiting for her to leave.

Locke snorted. "Still convinced she's going to gut me in my sleep?"

"That wasn't really what I had been envisioning—but, no. My fears are assuaged."

"How did that happen?"

Edgar appeared to consider his words for a moment. "We had... a conversation." The way he said it made Locke wonder what, exactly, that conversation had been like—whether Celes herself would describe it as a conversation or possibly an incredibly frustrating argument. "I don't think she's a good enough actress to have been lying to me, and it is true that she's cut her ties with the Empire quite thoroughly."

"I think she'd be rotten at poker. And to be honest, I think she's more likely to fall on her own sword than use it against someone else, even out of anger, unless they had done something to deserve it."

Edgar shrugged. "You may be right."

"I know people, Edgar. I'm usually right." He picked up a twig from the forest floor, poked at the pine needles with it. "I think she's been pretty badly hurt, but I don't think she wants to punish people or lash out at the world because of it. I think, with a little more time to heal, and a little more support, she'll come out of her shell and be kinder to herself, and to others."

Edgar was giving him that look again, that same look that Edgar had given him numerous times in the past.

"Dammit, man, I'm just—"

Edgar hooked an arm around his shoulders, pulling him off balance, and he thought the man might ruffle his hair in a most undignified manner. It was the way an older brother might manhandle his younger brother, and while Locke was a few years younger than the king, they were both too old for this kind of teasing. Maybe Sabin's return had rekindled Edgar's brotherly instincts, and maybe he was directing them at Locke because it was hard to tease a brother who had mastered a martial art and could probably chop someone in half with his fists.

Regardless, Edgar's quick hug tightened a moment before letting go. "It may drive me crazy from time to time," he said, "but I don't actually want you to lose your bleeding heart. I just worry it's going to get you hurt."


***


Figaro Castle looked better than it had the last time Locke saw it, the scorch marks nearly gone, leaving little evidence of Kefka's pyromania. Despite everything, that had been a victorious moment, thumbing their noses at an almost apoplectic Kefka as they rode off into the sunset.

Locke watched as Edgar pulled his chocobo up alongside Sabin's at a gentle trot and then put a hand on Sabin's back, a clear gesture of brotherly reassurance. It was kind of sweet, the king comforting his enormous bear of a brother. They called Sabin the little brother. It was not an apt description, though Sabin resembled Edgar more closely the longer Locke saw them together. Locke had known the king for years, but for all his time in Figaro Castle, other than seeing a painting or two of the boys when they were younger—and my had they both changed since then!—Edgar's twin, the self-banished prince, had never been more than a story. And yet here he was. Visibly nervous, but present and real.

Celes also seemed nervous, and Locke couldn't help but think of Terra's reaction to Figaro. Only days after having that mind-controlling crown removed, she had seemed half-dazed, childlike, overwhelmed and confused by everything around her. Celes, by contrast, had sharp eyes within a stoic face as if she were steeling herself for what she would find inside.

"They won't hate you," Locke said. "You'll get a warmer reception here than in Narshe. Until very recently, they pretended to be allied with the Empire, even though they loathed what the Empire was doing. If anyone understands what it's like to be in a complicated position, it's Figaro."

"It's not the same."

"Maybe not." He cocked his head, smiling at her, then tilted his chin to indicate Edgar. "Regardless, you're with the king, and that will be good enough for them."

She fixed him a disbelieving stare, then softened and ducked her head. "Thank you for… trying to make me feel better." It was a concession, if a small one—maybe not accepting his reassurance, but not rejecting it, at least.

By the time they reached the castle, a welcome party was waiting for them at the gates. Locke recognized the chancellor, whose face lit with joy. "King Edgar," he said with genuine warmth, maybe even love. There was palpable relief, too. Their King had come back to them. Then the chancellor took in the rest of the party, nodding a familiar welcome to Locke, squinting curiously at Celes, and then stopping open-mouthed at Sabin, who appeared to be trying to make himself as small as possible—not an easy feat.

"Young master," the chancellor stammered. "Is it—you've changed."

Sabin let out some sort of sound that was difficult to interpret, maybe a little sadness, a little fear, a little joy. Returning home when you were not expected hurt, even if it were a happy homecoming, as this one was. Seeing what had changed in your absence, seeing how you yourself had changed in your time away, discovering that relationships had changed, everything had changed, without your consent—he did not envy Sabin at this moment, prince or not.

"It's been a long journey and I think we are all exhausted," Edgar proclaimed with a dashing smile, stepping into his element. "Hungry, too, if the kitchen will serve up a late supper. And our guests will need rooms for the night."

He continued with his orders as the great gates of the castle swung open and their party spilled inside, and the soldiers dispersed to their own homes within the castle walls. Figaro shone with artificial lighting, powered by some sort of city-wide generator system Edgar had explained to Locke no fewer than five times, and it would take another five before he had half a chance of understanding. But he didn't have to understand it to appreciate how that same system powered fans to ward off the daytime heat, though the desert nights could be cold once the sun started sinking below the horizon.

Not just the chancellor but the rest of Edgar's advisors and courtiers had appeared, eager to brief their king on whatever had transpired over the past month and a half. They too seemed taken aback by Sabin, who stood quite literally in his brother's shadow.

Before this mass of important kingly business could fully absorb him, Edgar turned to Locke. "I'll ask around about Terra," he said, but there was hesitation in his voice.

"No need," Locke said smoothly. "You've got a lot of catching up to do, and I'm a known quantity in these parts—I can take care of it."


***


She was glad for Locke's reassurance, and gladder still that it turned out to be right. Nobody here seemed to recognize her, or if they did, no one cared enough to mention it. They were too busy fawning over the prodigal prince returning after what Celes gathered had been a very long time—long enough that her study of politics and history only glanced over the lost prince of Figaro—and over their king, resplendent and charming in his own halls.

Figaro Castle itself confused her. The city was entirely contained within the castle, one densely constructed central hub filled with nesting rooms and hallways and staircases, homes and shops and entertainment and greenhouses. She knew all of these because Locke was beside her, pointing out the marketplaces and the residential parts of the city as they passed, following the guidance of someone who was either a servant or a courtier—it was hard to say, as they wore livery the colors of the Figaro flag but did not have the deference she would have expected from an imperial servant in Vector. Locke gestured through a window to a tower visible through the glass, silhouetted against the setting sun.

"We'll go there before dinner, once we've left our things in our rooms, and see if they've seen anything with their telescopes."

It surprised her that he assumed she would be joining him, but what else would she do? Sit in her room and twiddle her thumbs? She hated feeling tethered to him, over her head in yet another unfamiliar location that he seemed to have memorized completely. At least they would only be here overnight.

As it turned out, the room had ample space for thumb-twiddling. The matron, an older woman with a wrinkled face and gray hair, was still readying it when Celes arrived. Celes had known graying generals and courtiers, and even the Emperor himself, but she had rarely found herself in the company of older women, especially not civilians. And there was absolutely nothing military or political about this one, who fussed about, plumping pillows that already looked plump and smoothing sheets that hadn't yet been disturbed.

Celes stood in one corner of the room, awkwardly clutching her travel bag. The matron looked her over appraisingly. "And you and the king are getting on, are you?"

"I'm not sure he likes me very much," Celes admitted, then second-guessed herself. Was it proper to admit something like this to Edgar's staff? Especially as fond of him as they all were? Everyone here seemed to treasure the king on some personal level, not just reverence for his position.

The matron clucked her tongue. "Nonsense. King Edgar is a kind and understanding man. He has been preoccupied with the war and politics lately—he is king, after all, isn't he?—but I'm sure he's glad to have your company."

"I think he is mostly glad to have his brother's company." She still hadn't quite figured them out, the two very dissimilar brothers.

"Ah, Prince Sabin. It's wonderful to have him back, let me tell you."

"He's been gone a long time?"

"Nearly ten years, I'd say. And now he comes back all grown. So strong, so confident, not the wayward lad he was when he ran off." The woman smiled at Celes. "Not like King Edgar. That one was born for the throne. I think there's never been a king more dedicated to his people. And smart, and handsome besides."

"Mm." What could she say to that but meaningless noises of assent?

"You'll have to forgive me for being nosy. Any time we see our king around a pretty young woman, we can't help wondering. He's a terrible flirt, but there's been no sign of a queen on the horizon, and one can't help worrying, eh?"

"A flirt?"

"Surely he's been after you."

"No, I can't say that he has." She wasn't sure whether to be offended or relieved that Edgar had not, apparently, registered her as a woman worthy of bestowing his attentions. Then again, he had somehow thought so poorly of her that he thought she might return to Gestahl with her tail between her legs and Locke in tow—Locke! As if she would ever repay his kindness so cruelly. You give yourself that much credit, do you? He has no reason to think otherwise. You're the butcher of Maranda. Why would he expect anything better from you?


***


There were advantages to being the king's friend. Advantages such as a plush chamber with an enormous bed and a private bathing room. Advantages such as mentioning to the matron that he and Celes would be traveling for some time, and being reassured that she would see to it that they were properly provisioned, and knowing that great care would be taken in the process. 

After he had washed away the worst of the dirt from the road, he knocked on Celes's door. He knocked again, and he was beginning to wonder if she had fallen asleep and if he should leave her in peace when the door finally opened.

She looked a little frazzled, and behind her he could see a trio of women armed with tape measure, a notepad, some cloth.

"Looks like the tailors of Figaro have found you," he said with a smile. "They didn't approve of my fashion choices?"

"It's less the fashion than the fit," one of the women tutted at him. "We'll be after you next, if you're not careful. The two of you don't want to look like vagabonds on the road or you might attract the wrong sort of trouble."

"I am the wrong sort of trouble." He gestured to Celes. "And I wouldn't be afraid of trouble with Celes here at my side. She's fearless."

The thinnest of smiles, then, and she leaned against the door frame with her arms crossed. "Are you saying I'm your bodyguard?"

He wasn't sure if she meant it as a joke, but he let it carry him away anyway. "That's a good angle. I'll be the hapless merchant and you my debonair bodyguard, and woe betide anyone who crosses us."

She blinked. "Did you… did you just say 'woe betide'?"

"I did." He grinned, daring her to challenge him, to play along.

"That sounds more like a scholar than a merchant," she said. "Perhaps you'll be peddling books."

She slipped out the door, away from the tailors and their tools, and followed Locke down the hallway. Navigating the passages of Figaro Castle was vastly easier than caves or mines, and he turned sideways to look at her along the way, only half paying attention to their surroundings.

"Do you like books, then?"

She pressed her lips together. "Would you laugh if I said that my reading was mostly war strategy?"

"No, I wouldn't." He wasn't surprised, either, though he kept that to himself—no reason to make her feel even more self-conscious than she already did. "How did you wind up in the clutches of those tailors?"

"The matron sent for them. They all seem to be hoping I'll make an impression on King Edgar."

Locke couldn't help it—he howled with laughter. "Oh, is that what's going on? That devious matron. She's desperate for Edgar to get married and fill the halls with babies. I think at least half of Figaro is in cahoots with her. Don't take it personally."

"I don't, I just thought it was odd. They don't know me, and I barely know him."

"Royal marriages have been built on less," he said.

Out the windows, as they passed, the setting sun painted the desert sand an even deeper golden hue. The hallway to the tower had ridges spaced at regular intervals along the walls and floor, where the entire space would fold together to retract before the castle submerged in the sand, something Edgar had often pointed out with pride.

"If you asked me, which you didn't—" He glanced at her. "Something about marriage seems to scare him. He certainly loves the company of women well enough, but he's never seriously pursued one, to my knowledge."

"And given that it's your job to know things..." This time her little smile made it clear that this was intended as a joke. Progress.

"Exactly."

Then they were at the observation tower and a series of spiraling staircases up to the observatory itself. In the topmost room, a pair of scholars pored over the telescope, Celes fell behind Locke, standing in his shadow, letting him do the talking.


***


Edgar had not been in his chambers, or any of his usual haunts. Locke carried his news with him, looking for the king to share what he'd learned about Terra's path. In the direction of Jidoor, the scholars had said, eager to share their research and observations with an interested party, confirming their sighting of the pink star overhead, accompanied by what looked more like a dragon than a bird. 

The last place he thought to look, at this late hour, was the throne room. It was unlikely, really—Edgar wasn't the sort to sit in his throne and brood, or gloat. Certainly not when there were beautiful women he could be spending his time with instead, and many of the women here were willing to humor him with a little good-natured flirtation, even if nothing more came of it.

But the grand double-door to the throne room was ajar, and as Locke approached, he could hear voices. Laughter. He peeked his head inside, curious. The brothers reclined in the thrones that had belonged to their parents, their body language looking for all the world like two children having stolen into a room the adults did not permit them, that slight discomfort mixed with gleeful rule-breaking. Except that Edgar was absentmindedly spinning a wine glass, and Sabin had the whole bottle at his feet. Hardly children, in either case.

It was clearly a private moment. Locke had no place here. And the news about Terra could wait—if it had truly been the better part of a decade since Sabin had been home, Locke couldn't begrudge him or Edgar the chance to soak it in.


***


They were up at dawn, and the king rose too to share a quick breakfast and see them off. They sat on a terrace as the sun rose overhead. The sun itself seemed larger here, brighter, but of course that was an illusion, either a trick of the light or, more likely, her own imagination knowing that days in the desert would be hotter than anywhere she had ever been. Having spent most of her life in Vector and along the southern continent, she was still not entirely used to the seasons here in the northern continent, and certainly not what to expect from its different regions.

"Your brother is settling in?" Locke asked the king, as Celes sipped at dark, heavily seasoned tea.

Edgar nodded. "It will take time, but yes, I think so."

"Good. I admit it's a little strange for me to see him here. I can't imagine it's any easier for the rest of you."

Celes kept her eyes on her tea, not sure how to engage with this intimate conversation that carried on as though she weren't there. Joining in, reminding them of her presence, seemed presumptuous. These people had lives and a history she had no place in. You have no place anywhere. Not anymore. Better get used to sitting on the outside of conversations.

As though he could hear her discomfort, Locke turned his calm, disarming smile to Celes, his eyes bright. "And you? Do you have any siblings?"

"N-no." She was caught off guard by the personal question, by how casually he asked it and how he sat listening, actively listening, two words she had never thought to put together before she met him. "Not that I know of, at least."

"That you know of? There's a story there," he said, eyes shining, but he didn't press her for more, though she suspected he wanted to.

"I suppose in a way Terra's the closest thing I have to a sibling," she offered.

"Linked by the gift of magic."

"If you want to put it that way. But I barely knew her before this."

"There will be time enough to remedy that, hopefully soon. Speaking of which," he said, rising from his chair, "I'll head to the stables and see what chocobos they can spare for us. Finish your tea—it'll take me a few minutes anyway." He nodded a farewell to each of them, grinning, and then was off.

She watched him go with a quiet desperation. Part of her wanted to race after him and say she would accompany him to the stables, to spare herself this discomfort of being alone with the king. But that was pathetic, and she needed to wean herself from relying on him to smooth things over with the Returners and the many, many people who needed diplomatic convincing to give her a chance. Soon he was out of sight. There was silence after he left. Celes cupped her hands around her mug and wondered how many awkward conversations she would be doomed to endure over tea.

The king looked like he wanted to say something. Platitudes, maybe. Making conversation. He and Locke both seemed good at that; Celes had never studied the art of talking about nothing and was all too aware that she would not be able to carry her end of it.

But instead of an empty comment on the weather or observation about travel or something equally inane, he finally said, "I wouldn't get your hopes up."

Celes frowned. "I beg your pardon?"

"Locke," Edgar said, glancing toward the closed door as though he needed to clarify who he meant.

"I don't know what you mean," she faltered.

"How can I say this delicately?" Edgar looked up at the sky, pursing his lips. "Locke is a kind and generous man who can't resist helping people, especially women. But I don't think he telegraphs his intent clearly, so there can be mixed signals sometimes. I don't want you getting the wrong idea about his interest in you."

"Interest … in me?"

"Locke is pining away after his one true love," Edgar said, as if he were explaining this to a child.

"That's very sad for him," Celes said, her face burning—did he have to talk down to her? 

"He helps people out of some sort of penance for failing to save her. He's still very much attached to her memory—I wouldn't read anything into his kindness but friendship, or you stand to risk a broken heart."

"A broken—" She sputtered. "What do you think I am? I'm a soldier, not some love-starved twit."

Edgar's patronizing smile made it clear he didn't believe her. "I wouldn't judge you."

"You're mistaken, sir," she said, forcing herself to stay polite and as calm as possible. "Romance is not a concern of mine, and Locke's … romantic history is no business of mine, either."

"So it would seem." He dipped his head to her. "I am mistaken, then."

"Yes."

The conversation left her feeling sour, even after Locke appeared on the sands below, riding a chocobo and leading another. He waved up at the two figures on the terrace, and Celes shouldered her bag and Terra's and left the king and the remains of breakfast behind

Was Locke himself also under the impression that she was swooning over him like a silly girl? Celes had never been one for such sentiments. Admiration, yes—she had admiration in spades for General Leo, who set an example of what it meant to live by one's principles and win the respect of one's men—but love had no place in a soldier's life.

Not that it had ever arisen to be a point of conflict for her. Who could she have been so entangled with? Not Kefka, never Kefka. Leo had been a mentor and inspiration, but he was too old and unreachable to ever be a friend, even after she came into her own as a so-called general. The only other figure in her life had been Dr. Cid during those early days in childhood, running tests, monitoring her growth and how well her body accepted the magic they imbued her with. He had been kind and made her laugh, and so she looked forward to their visits even if the procedures often involved needles and vials of blood. She had a distinct and clear memory of saying something to Cid about not minding the needles because a soldier needed to be comfortable with blades and pain. He grew very quiet, set down the needle, dropped to her level, and said, "Pain is how the body tells you when something is wrong. It's important to listen to what your body tells you, especially if there's danger. It might save your life."

But pain was most often like a voice yelling for change that would never come. Pain shouted a warning about danger too late to avoid it. Pain told you about the blade after it had cut you open. And pain's message was utterly useless when you had no power to get away from the situation, when you were bound and helpless and entirely at someone else's mercy. What purpose did it serve then? Cid understood the medical value of pain, but he was confined to a lab. He knew nothing about what would be helpful or necessary on the battlefield.

Pain had no place in her life. Love had no place in her life.

Chapter Text

The blistering sun hung high above them, baking everything between the sand and the sky. Figaro's matron, bless her, had thought to pack coverings to protect them from some of its heat and to shield Celes's fair skin, which he imagined would burn quickly if left exposed.

She had been brooding all morning, and he could think of so many possible reasons why that he could not guess the actual cause. But she was quiet and seemed distracted, and his few passing efforts at conversation were met with little response. This tendency toward brooding appeared to be part of a pattern that would cycle through eventually. Though it made for a duller ride, he was prepared to wait it out.

At least their chocobos crossed the desert sands with ease, and at their hurried pace, they would be out into scrubby plainsland by the time the sun set and they had to set up camp.

This felt different from their furtive escape from South Figaro. Then, they had both been operating on too little sleep, too little to eat, at as breakneck a pace as they could despite Celes's wounds. He had scarcely had time or opportunity to think about anything but the path they would take, the physical limitations of his traveling companion, the pressing urgency of the threat against Doma. Truthfully, that whole period felt like a fever dream in his memory.

Now, they had nothing but time. Not that they were traveling slowly—he knew how hard he could push these rugged desert chocobos, and their current pace skirted that boundary perhaps slightly beyond what was wise. But the ride itself meant hours with nothing to do but observe the sights around him, or to talk with Celes if she was in the mood for it.

Ordinarily, he might seek other travelers on the road for company and to pick up what news they might offer, but it had been a very long time since he had ridden any great distance with a dedicated traveling companion. Most of his missions for the Returners were solitary assignments. But this was not Returners business. This was his own. And Celes was here for the same reason, because they were both determined to find Terra and help her, whatever it took.

And that made it feel more like companionship than he had expected. When they slowed before nightfall and looked for a place to settle for the night, it felt like being out with a friend on an adventure.

It was not cold enough to need a fire, and he worried about Imperial scouts, so they made camp a distance from the road, among a copse of trees that provided at least some camouflage. They took down their saddlebags, fed the chocobos, and then worked together to set up their tent.

The tent wasn't exactly spacious, but it had room for three people, four if they squeezed, so it was easy enough to bring in the saddlebags and set up their bedrolls.

And that really highlighted what was strange and different here, what twisted his stomach just a little. Usually, he had space to himself when traveling—to set down, however briefly, the awareness of others that he always carried. Even in the company of the other Returners, there were enough people around that it diluted the pressure to be present for all of them, and he could retreat into his own thoughts if he needed to, without anyone asking anything of him, most of the time.

But sharing this small space with just one other person, especially someone he had spent so much time fussing over, become so attuned to her injuries, to the tension between her and everyone around her, to how isolated and hurt and, frankly, damaged she was—he could not so easily turn off his worry and slip into isolated anonymity.

He was aware of her in a way that he was not normally aware of his travel companions.

As quiet and impassive as Celes had been while riding, the effort of placing the tent poles and lashing the ropes to hold the canvas taut softened her from stone to flesh, leaving a slight sheen of sweat on her flushed face. She discarded her jacket and sat across from him inside the tent, lit by the mechanical lantern, and drank deeply from her water flask. Slim as she was, the muscles of her bare arms spoke of power and control. The medic's neat stitches still puckered a healing wound by her elbow; it would almost certainly leave a scar. Some part of him wondered what impression he gave, what details about him stood out like this when all other distractions were gone.

Perhaps because he was so on edge himself, he sensed what he imagined was her own discomfort as the two of them readied for sleep. She would not look at him, and her body seemed to be folding in on itself, trying to be small and unseen. He sat cross-legged on his bedroll and fidgeted with the lantern, only glancing at her peripherally. "Are you uncomfortable about sharing a tent like this?"

"No," she said flatly, but her face reddened a little in the light, and she tilted her head even more away from him, pulling her hair around her face and running her fingers through the tangles. A lie. And she was embarrassed about it. He could take that embarrassment from her. It wouldn't be too much to carry.

"It feels too mundane, doesn't it? Like we're on a camping trip, for the fun of it."

"You wouldn't be pushing our chocobos so hard if it were just for fun."

"No, that's true, but." He gestured at the spacious tent. "It's not much like the last time we traveled together. Now that we're not essentially running for our lives, it feels different."

Her fingers halted, wrapped in strands of her golden hair. "I can sleep outside the tent, if it's more comfortable for you."

He smiled to himself, at how neatly this had fallen from her discomfort to his. "No, it's not a problem, really," he said. "I just had to acknowledge it, but I'll manage."

"Is it because I'm a woman?"

"No," he said. "I'm out of the habit of sharing a tent with anyone, these days." Neither true nor untrue, but it was a fair and plausible explanation. "Sometimes when you travel alone, you get in the habit of talking to yourself without realizing you're doing it, or—god forbid—singing to yourself. And I'm not especially good at carrying a tune." He flashed a grin at her. "I'd hate to subject you to that by accident."

She actually rolled her eyes, which felt like a victory, and the tension he had sensed evaporated. "I will forgive you if I catch you singing."

"That's because you haven't heard me sing."

She laughed, which made him laugh, entirely too delighted with himself for how easily he had disarmed her. For the first few weeks he had known her, he might have doubted she would ever laugh in any way that did not sound as bitter and sharp as glass in her throat. Yet here she was almost relaxed, and it was enough to quiet his worries about Terra. Whatever had happened to her, the two of them would find her, and they could help her. He was sure of it.


***


Celes's mind was on Terra the next morning, as they packed up their tent, hurried through breakfast, and then set off with the rising sun at their left. What had happened to Terra, and where was she now?

Again and again, her thoughts returned to that moment in the mine when Kefka's fire bore down on them, when he would have doomed every last soul in that mine without mercy or kindness. When she had reached out to Terra, and Celes had called forth the life-ending chill of solid ice, as always, but what had Terra called on? That other unfamiliar power reinforcing Celes's own—had that been what caused Terra's transformation, perhaps a gift from the sleeping Esper as it woke?

She was still turning through these thoughts when they stopped for a quick lunch. Locke fed the exhausted birds—he was as patient with animals as he was with people—and she took that time to fill their canteens from a nearby stream.

She cupped her hand around the water flask, thought of the biting winds of Narshe, and wondered if the ice that answered her call could ever be anything but jagged death-edged shards or a creeping chill that smothered the breath in the body and froze the heart til it stopped. Could the magic within her serve any purpose but death? Accounts of the War of the Magi told of warriors with the power to close wounds. How much different could her life have been had she been gifted in such a way instead?

Her blood sang, the skin of her fingers numbing, as frost crept around the sides of the flask.

Beside her, Locke chuckled. "Did you just freeze your canteen?"

"I only meant to chill it." Her fingers tingled, and she set the canteen down and shook out her hand, which had gone white with cold.

He was smiling. "It seems like whatever your magic did to you in the mines has passed."

"I think so," she said.

"I wonder if what happened to Terra will pass, too," he said. "Maybe she used too much magic, like you said happened to you. Maybe she's back to herself already, or will be soon."

"I really have no idea," Celes said.

"I hope she's all right. I'm worried."

"What is she to you?" she blurted, and the words were sharp-edged and dangerous inside her mouth.

"Terra?" Locke's eyebrows rose in surprise. "A friend, I would hope, although she'll have to be the one to say if it's true." He dropped beside her and handed over a sack of pemmican.

"Have you known her long?"

"A few months, maybe." He laughed self-consciously and rubbed the back of his neck. "I, uh, rescued her from a rough situation in Narshe. The Empire's first failed effort to get their hands on that Esper. There was an altercation, and Arvis was afraid his own countrymen would try her as a criminal or outright execute her if they found her. I was nearby, so he called on me."

"Mm." She slouched with her arms over her knees and wondered if there had ever been a point when someone might have gone on a mad journey across the continent to find her. Whether someone like Locke, for example, might someday consider her enough of a friend to set his life aside to help her in a time of crisis. Unlikely—everyone expected her to be able to fend for herself, whereas Terra's childlike newness made even Celes herself feel protective of her.

"What about you?"

Celes stared at him blankly. Had she spoken aloud, or had he picked up on her self-focused, navel-gazing train of thought in some other way?

"Terra," Locke said with a smile. "Is she a friend of yours now that you've had a chance to get to know each other better?"

Celes wrapped her arms tighter around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. "I don't know. " Then, even more hesitantly, she asked, "So, she's not—you aren't—interested in her?"

He snorted in disbelief. "No. She's a friend and nothing more."

"I see."

"Why? Did something make you think that?"

"I—don't know. I just wondered."

He shook his head. "There's nothing to wonder about. Besides, I'm—there's someone else already." His expression darkened. "I hope she doesn't—well. It will be fine, I'm sure."

"Honestly," Celes said, grasping at something to make him feel better, to reassure him that she wasn't accusing him of something Edgar had already told her was impossible, something that so clearly upset him, "I shouldn't even have wondered about it. There's something about her that seems so young."

"Much younger than me, at least."

"You talk like you're an old man."

"I'm twenty-three, but sometimes I feel a lot older." He laughed. "Maybe because I spend so much time with people like Edgar, or Banon, with all their burden of responsibility."

Celes pressed her lips together. "I think being at war ages you."

"I wouldn't say I've been at war, really." He shifted, cocking his head at her appraisingly. "How long have you been fighting? I know they started training you as a child, but..."

"Three years, I think?" She watched a bird—a hawk?—circling overhead and not to think of the memories of combat that sprung unbidden to her mind. Breathe. "Since I was sixteen."

"That's a tragedy," he said.

"Why do you care so much?" She sounded—she felt—sullen.

"I like you." There was a gentle rebuke in his tone. "I may not be making myself clear, since you have so far challenged me at every opportunity, but I'm trying to be your friend."

Her ears felt hot, and her throat tightened. Yes, the voice whispered to her, this poor, misguided soul has been attempting friendship with you, and you're lying to yourself and to him if you say you didn't know. Remember what Edgar said, though. This is out of guilt, in someone else's honor, in someone else's memory, the same as his need to protect Terra. His kindness comes from duty. Why else would someone waste their efforts on a monster like you?

"Penny for your thoughts?" he asked quietly, smiling, his head cocked.

"You don't need to make me your project." Her mouth was dry, her voice flat.

Locke drew back, and the smile dropped from his lips. "Project? What do you mean?"

"You feel like you have to fix me, or take care of me. That's very generous of you, I'm sure, but I don't need it." She pressed her hands together. "I relieve you of that obligation."

"Celes—" He stopped, reconsidered, tried again. "You genuinely don't believe I would want to be your friend for any reason other than obligation."

She opened her mouth to respond and realized she wasn't sure what the words needed to be. "I—yes. No. Maybe obligation isn't the word, but… Look. I have never had a friend. I am not the sort of person who makes friends. I do not have much to offer, as friendship goes." You hardly even know how to have a reasonable conversation about normal things, like normal people do. All you know is how to kill people and how to lead other people to kill. Hardly friendship material.

He was, as ever, undeterred. "We can start with one thing. You want to help people, too, don't you?"

"I want to stop hurting people. It's not the same thing."

"That doesn't seem fair. Or accurate."

"What do you know?" That came out a little more bitter and accusatory than she intended, but it was the truth. How could he understand her, who she was, what she'd done? "You don't know me."

"Not well, no, but I'm trying." He ran a hand through his shaggy hair, leaving it standing upright in awkward chunks. "When I see you, I don't see a 'project,' or a killing machine atoning for her sins, no matter what you may think of yourself. I see someone who has made mistakes she regrets, mistakes that hurt people, mistakes she wants to make good on. I relate to that, more than you know. In different ways, maybe, but I do."

"Are people dead because of your mistakes?"

His eyes widened in surprise and pain. "Yes," he said simply.

She had somehow not expected that answer. He wasn't much of a fighter—his job was to slip behind the enemy, gather information, avoid being found out. Maybe he'd miscalculated how trustworthy a piece of information was. Maybe he'd been fed bad information, and some of the Returners had suffered for his error in judgment.

That little self-deprecating half-smile returned to his face. "We have two things in common, then. Something we want to atone for, and a genuine desire to right the wrongs we see."

"That's not really what you make a friendship out of, is it?" She frowned. "Friends—have parties? Talk about—chocobos? And dogs? And food?"

Locke's laugh was sharp, startled. "Maybe? I can't speak for anyone else. For me, I'd rather build a friendship on the foundation of what matters to us. Seeking justice. Fighting tyranny. Seeing the world."

"I haven't—"

"Just think about it. Or at least trust me that I can decide for myself whether or not I want to be your friend. It's not out of guilt, or out of obligation. I promise you that."


***


You don't need to make me your project. Even though the conversation had ended well enough, he couldn't deny that he felt taken aback by the accusation in those words.

Edgar said something similar to him, occasionally. Not in as many words, but that constant implication that he did what he did because of Rachel. Sometimes Locke wondered if he should ever have confessed his story to Edgar, but they had been under the stars on the roof of Figaro Castle after an extremely long day, with the too-bright stars overhead and the desert air shockingly cold, drunk on wine and regret, and somehow a conversation about Figaro and the Empire and had turned personal—what had been lost, what future hopes survived—and out the story had tumbled.

Regardless of what Edgar might think, though, the situation with Celes had nothing to do with Rachel. Well, maybe not nothing. He had resolved to help others if he could not help Rachel, and that occasionally meant sticking himself into someone else's business if they needed a hand. But he wasn't helping Celes specifically because she reminded him of Rachel; the two could hardly be more different. Rachel had bright eyes and pink cheeks and full lips that were always smiling, raven curls and soft curves and a playful, teasing laugh. Celes was angular and sharp, thin-lipped, with pale skin and narrow, aristocratic features and a tendency toward deep melancholy. She was as beautiful and unreachable as a statue.

And, anyway, he wasn't even prone to helping women in particular, whatever Edgar might say. He'd helped people of all genders. He'd sat with Cyan through his grief, hadn't he? It was just that Celes and Terra needed more, neither of them sure where to go, each of them lacking so much that the Empire had taken from them.

Celes was like a tangled knot of threads, of pain and sorrow and what seemed like compassion, too, even if she didn't see it in herself. She seemed unaware of the knot, or at least unaware that there was any way to live that did not involve tying your feelings in a bundle and throwing them in a drawer. He wanted to help her begin to untangle them, but not because she was a project.

Right?


***


She woke, and she couldn't say what had woken her. As always, the unfamiliarity of the situation passed through her as consciousness returned. In a tent. With the Returners. With Locke. Nothing will harm you here.

Locke slept with his back to her, as usual, trusting and peaceful and—

No, that wasn't right. He was balled up, his face pressed into his pillow, muffling the distinctive sounds of crying, quiet but still audible despite the drone of insects singing in the forest. Of all the sounds that could have woken her in the middle of the night, she would not have expected this.

She sat up. "Locke?"

The crying stopped at once. He was still for a few moments, then rolled over to face her, propping himself up on an elbow, assuming a posture of comfort and self-assurance.

"Sorry," he said, his voice smooth and round and solid, as though he hadn't just been crying, as though she had imagined it. "Is something troubling you? Did you have another nightmare?"

"I should be asking you what's wrong."

"Nothing, just—you know. Stress from the road. Worry about Terra. The usual. Don't worry about me." He sat up. This seeming calmness disturbed her, and despite her surprise and the lingering fog of having so recently asleep, she began to wonder just how much of a disguise he wore at other times, if he could so effortlessly slip on this mask. It was almost convincing, almost enough to make her second-guess what she had heard.

While she was still puzzling through this, he shuffled out of the tent, only stopping at the entrance to slip into his boots. She could hear his footsteps heading a short ways away from the tent. When he returned, she was sitting with her knees to her chest, waiting for him.

"You were crying," she said without preamble.

"I—" His face was unreadable in the dark.

"Please don't lie," she said. "I don't know if you think you're protecting me from something by hiding it, but I'm not fooled. If something's wrong, I would like to know."

He settled back onto his bedroll and folded his arms over his face, then sighed. "It's—nothing to worry about. Just sometimes you wake up from a dream about something, or a situation reminds you of something, and you're crying when you wake up. You know? But it's fine. It's just a dream, or a memory. It passes."

"What kind of memory?"

He gave no reply.

What would he say to her, if their roles were reversed? Would he conclude it was better to let it slide, and would it be, if it were her? Or would he press her further? If he doesn't want to talk about it, let it be. It's not like you know how to navigate someone else's feelings, what to say or do. You don't even know how to navigate your own. You'll just make everything worse.

Perhaps because she was tired, perhaps because she'd been peppered by so many of his questions for so long, or perhaps because she wanted to silence that voice, for once, she said, "You can tell me about it, if you want."

"I don't, honestly. I just want to forget about it and sleep."

The absence of his usual gentleness silenced her nascent curiosity. When he turned away from her, she let it go, but they both tossed and turned in restless, dissatisfied silence for a long time.


***


They spent another few days on the road, and he was grateful that they passed uneventfully—no imperial scouts, no highwaymen, not even weather worse than a light drizzle. Occasionally, they passed a fellow traveler or one of the numerous inns in the villages lining the road, and at these times he stopped to ask after Terra. The travelers were no help, but the innkeepers or their staff could sometimes confirm that a strange pink star had shot overhead like some strange and unsettling omen, traveling south.

He had hoped Celes might make an effort to open up. Painstakingly, he pulled her enough out of her shell that she asked him occasional questions about the landscape, about his time on the road, about how he seemed to know so much about the countryside. It was hard to carry a conversation while being jostled by fast-moving chocobos, but when they turned in again for the night, he was pleased that Celes did not immediately fall silent. He had commented about a nearby cave complex shortly before they dismounted, and the conversation continued as they made camp. In the light of the setting sun, everything was tinted gold, and her hair almost seemed to glow, framing her face as they sat together on a rocky outcropping beside the tent.

"Treasure-hunting runs in the family," he said, and warmth spilled out from the memories. "My father used to take me into caves sometimes when we traveled. You'd hear rumors in town sometimes, or from other travelers, about some great bounty ripe for the taking. I don't think he ever actually expected to find anything, but he loved the promise of it, the adventure of it."

Celes looked thoughtful, her forehead creased. For a moment he wondered what he had said that bothered her. Then she tossed her head and, somewhat hesitantly, offered, "My father was a soldier, but I never really knew him."

Locke held his breath, waiting for her to continue. This was, he thought, the first time she'd ever volunteered information about herself on her own, without prompting or prying on his part. There was something stiff about the way she talked, halting, hesitant, as though she had little experience with this, which was likely true.

"My mother was some sort of maid. She died in childbirth, and my father was away at war and couldn't raise me, so I became a ward of the Empire. They were looking for a baby with some kind of aptitude for magic, and I qualified."

He waited for more, but that seemed to be the end of the story. Greedy of him to want more when even this was clearly a step for her, but his curiosity was too much to resist.

"What does it feel like?" he asked. "The magic." This almost seemed to take her aback. He pressed on. "Is asking that too much?"

"No, I've just never—tried to articulate it for someone before. Let me think." She looked thoughtful, considering this very carefully. "Physically? It's like—ordinarily you aren't aware of the heat of your body, of the blood flowing through it keeping you alive, but it's always there. When I call on my magic—and that's how I think of it, calling on it, as though something inside of me is sleeping and I wake it when I need it—the warmth of being alive dims, just a little, and the cold comes from within me. It doesn't usually hurt, but it almost feels like my body becomes less my own, like it becomes less human."

"Like Terra, in the mine?"

She shook her head. "No. It's more like—that feeling that comes over you sometimes after a battle, when they're counting the dead and bringing in the wounded, when they've designated who to take as prisoner and who to finish, and everything seems far away, like it's happening to someone else. When you're aware of your injuries, but you don't feel them, or any of the—the tension or—the fear of combat." She looked at him as if expecting this to be a shared and universal experience. The words were so matter-of-fact that he could only gape at her, until he realized that he had been silent too long without responding.

"I can't say I've felt that way," he said, trying to keep his own voice light and his face neutral. "But I haven't really fought much myself."

"You shouldn't," she said with conviction. "Not you."

He grinned wryly. "I'll get myself hurt, you mean? Too soft for combat?"

"Softness isn't weakness," she said, serious despite his light tone. "The arm that wields a sword must be strong enough to push the blade through unyielding flesh to bone, to cut a life short." Her blue eyes pierced him through to the quick—not with intensity but with the depths of their sadness. She touched his wrist gently, just the whisper of her fingertips on his skin, a moment of rare trust and intimacy that took his breath away. "It takes a different kind of strength to care even when no one else does. You should keep that. The world needs that at least as much as it needs those who can kill."

He swallowed. "You mean yourself."

She turned away. "This is what I meant when I said I don't make friends. You don't want to hear about this, and you shouldn't have to, but it's all I have to say."

"Is it, though?" He leaned closer to her, put a hand on her forearm, wondering if the warmth of another person could remind her of her own humanity. She drew a breath between her teeth. "I don't believe you."

"That's too bad, because it's true." She tried to break his grip, but he held her steady.

"No, it's not." His fingers tightened on her arm as though he could pull her back from whatever haunted her. She met his eyes again, sadness warring with something darker, and he thought she might strike him. It was the look of a wounded animal, frozen in fear the moment before it lashed out. But still he pressed on, even if he would come to regret it. "There's more to you than violence. Tell me, what's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"

Her eyes widened, searching his face as if looking for some answer there. Her lips parted to speak, but she swallowed the words, whatever they were, and shook her head. "I don't know."

"Then tell me how you came to turn against the Empire." The hand on her arm was too combative, too controlling, holding her against her will. No wonder she felt cornered. He released her, took a deep breath. Quieted himself. "They raised you to fight for them. They indoctrinated you from early childhood. How did you break that control?"

"Because I saw the people I had killed," she said, choking. "Because I saw the people left behind, stricken with grief. Make an example of them, they said, and it would mean less fighting in the future, fewer deaths, less suffering. A cold calculation. But these weren't numbers—these weren't pieces on the board—these were lives ended, not just those we killed but those who were left behind. I saw the fire in their eyes die. I saw the city afterward, not calmed by law and order but broken by it." She made a fist, her entire arm shaking, then slashed downward with an open palm. "The invasion had never been about uniting the continent under one ruler. It was about subjugating people. It was about power, about control, with no regard for the suffering it caused. Because no one who suffered mattered."

"But they mattered to you."

"Yes!" Exasperation, frustration—he had offended her. "Those people loved each other. You want to know the most beautiful thing I've ever seen? It would be that, but I never saw it, because I destroyed it. It was those homes, those families, that I only saw in ruins afterward."

"So now you want to protect them."

"I didn't say that."

"But you do. You care. You gave up everything you knew because you cared so much." He shifted so he was kneeling across from her, so she had no choice but to face him. "Will you join us? Will you help us stop the Empire?"

"I don't—I don't think the Returners want me," she said.

"I do," he said, and he felt his cheeks redden—poor choice of words, that—and hastily added, "to join us, or at least to join me, and put a stop to this. We can keep Gestahl and Kefka from hurting anyone else."

She smiled, but it was a sad smile. "You really believe you can do this."

"I do." He smiled back.

She closed her eyes, drew in a breath, held it a long moment, and then let it out. "Then yes. I'll promise you my sword to protect you on your rash quest to save the world."

"You're more than just a sword, you know."

"Magic, too, then."

He couldn't help laughing. "That's not what I mean, and you know it."

"Maybe." An ironic little smirk—had she been joking? Could she joke? "I don't share your faith or your conviction, even if I want to, but you're right, I do want to help. If you think you and the others can stop the Emperor, I'll try to keep you alive to do it."

"That's all I can ask." 

And it was, for now. He couldn't change her cynicism overnight, only temper it with his own hope, but he would be all too glad to do so, for her sake and for them all. It felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, somehow—and from hers, as she sat a little straighter, smiled a little more easily.

Chapter Text

Zozo was where the hopeless and the destitute landed when they had nowhere else to go. Celes supposed that if she had not fallen in with Locke and the Returners, she might well have found herself here, eventually—this old, rusting city with tenements rising toward the sky, an affront to nature even when viewed from where she and Locke stood, on a hill overlooking the city. The afternoon sun shone bright overhead.

Past Zozo, a broad river sparkled. And on the far shore, distant Jidoor shone mighty and proud, its tree-lined boulevards and spotless facades almost obscene compared to the slums of Zozo. Some pieces of history sifted through Celes's memory—the two sister-cities had both been renowned for their prosperity and comfort, before refugees had come to Zozo—not even refugees from imperial conquest, but from some other petty war—and the wealthy citizens of Zozo fled to Jidoor, leaving their former home to fall into disrepair. She supposed that this recounting of history might have been inaccurate, designed to position the northern continent as barbaric and flawed, needing the firm hand of the Empire to clean up its baser nature. Whatever the historical truth might be, the present reality was that Zozo was as filthy and dangerous as Jidoor was beautiful and pristine.

"If she is here, she could be in either city," Locke mused. "I don't know which would be better or worse. If they don't like you in Jidoor, they'll throw you out if you're lucky, or lock you up if you're not. If you land in trouble in Zozo, you'll probably have to fight your way out of it." He cocked his head at Celes. "Which would you rather start with?"

"I've spent enough time imprisoned already. I'd rather take my chances fighting."

"Fair enough."

The answer to their question revealed itself quite plainly as they drew closer to the slums of Zozo. A short distance from the road, the ground was scorched, the rock flattened and the earth disturbed in a bowl-like shape where an impact had knocked a shallow crater into the earth.

Celes brought her chocobo to the edge of the crater and dismounted. What else, if not the two flying beings, could have caused it? And—yes—there was a strange tingling sensation, the presence of magic, or if not presence then an afterimage, lingering faintly.

"I think I can feel something," she said.

"Good!" Locke clasped his hands together, looking as satisfied as a cat, and swung down from his chocobo with practiced grace. "Truth be told, we were taking a bit of a gamble coming all the way out here, and I was worried. But it's paid off."

"There's no blood," Celes observed, cutting through the crater. "If she were injured, I think we'd see evidence of it."

"If she came all the way here, and landed so close to the city, someone there is sure to know something. She might even be there waiting for us." Locke gave her an appraising look, stroking his chin. "Still up for playing a merchant's bodyguard?"

"If you think I could pull it off."

"You don't really have an intimidating build, but I think we could make you look a little dangerous. Just enough so we don't look like marks." He stood in front of her, sizing her up, arms crossed over his chest and a surprisingly serious expression on his face. It made her think of the tailors in Figaro, an impression that was only strengthened when he reached toward her with both hands. Halfway to touching her shoulders, he stopped, his fingers folding into soft fists. "May I?"

When she nodded, he stepped in closer still, much closer than anyone normally stood to her. She had never realized that she was accustomed to a bubble of space around her at all times until he passed through it, unaware of the barrier he had just breached. No one came within this range unless violence was involved. She tensed, her instincts screaming at her that this was a threat, that she needed to shove him away, knee him in the stomach, strike him in the throat, get away get away get away

Something of her discomfort must have been visible, because he leaned away from her again, and his arms fell to his side, his expression stricken. "I don't—I'm not—"

"I know you're not going to hurt me," she said, trying to smile through gritted teeth.

"If you'd rather I not—"

"Do whatever you're going to do," she said. "It's fine. I promise."

Skepticism clouded his face, but he took a breath and reached for her again. She held herself still as a statue, thinking of Cid praising her for not flinching away from his needles. But that was an unfair comparison. Locke's hands were gentle, as gentle as his voice. He fiddled with her as though she were a mannequin, draping one of his copious scarves around her neck and over her shoulders just so, cuffing the sleeves of her jacket to expose her forearms—"It's good if they can see your scars," he commented absently. "And your arms. You may not be an obvious powerhouse like Edgar's brother, but you're strong enough. Here, keep a hand on your sword when you walk." He put his hands on her waist to adjust her belt and scabbard so that the hilt protruded forward to draw the eye, a warning to onlookers that she was armed and entirely ready to fight back.

Everywhere his fingers touched, her skin grew warmer even through the layers of cloth and leather, and her heart was pounding. This was different from the defensive instinct he had triggered by first approaching her—this was something new, and strange, and it left her feeling a little woozy.

He frowned. "Are you all right?"

"I'm—" She swallowed, trying to make sense of it, of the strange waves of tension running through her. There was an element of panic, but something else, too. The energy coursing through her could be anxiety or giddiness. Yet as the remains of her panic subsided, she felt—lighter in some way than she had for a long time. "I'm not used to being touched unless I'm fighting. I think—my body doesn't know how to interpret this, if it isn't a threat."

"That makes sense, I guess." Locke chewed on his lip. "Celes?"

"Yes?"

"When was the last time somebody hugged you?"

She looked at him blankly. "I... honestly don't remember." Had Cid hugged her when she was a child? Possibly.

"Mm." Now it was Locke's turn to look uncomfortable. She had figured out what that look meant by now—he was feeling sorry for her.

She decided to spare them both the indignity with a change of subject. "So, if you're a merchant, what are you selling?"

He smiled at her, warmth returning to his expression. "Oh, you don't sell in Zozo. There's no money to be made here. No, you buy secondhand from fences and pawn shops for a fraction of what things would cost legitimately, and then you sell it for a profit elsewhere. You can make a fair bit of money that way, as long as you don't sell it in Jidoor."

Again she found herself staring at him blankly. "Why not?"

"Because most of it comes from Jidoor, and the original owners don't take kindly to seeing their belongings for sale."

"But—but—oh. I see."

He smiled wryly. "Anyway, we won't need an elaborate cover story, or anything like that. Don't worry."

Side by side, they rode down the main street into Zozo and the shadows of its great buildings, among the sounds and smells of its busy roads and crowded spaces. The people they passed watched them, but their attention didn't linger. "It's actually quite reassuring to know you're at my back," Locke said brightly. "I could get used to having a bodyguard. Have you thought about a career change?"

"Career?" She snorted. "I don't really think of war as a career."

"A life change, then." He eyed her, his light tone belying the sudden seriousness of his expression. "There's bound to be an end to this war eventually. There's no harm in thinking about what you might do next. And bodyguarding might suit you better than soldiering. You seem more comfortable defending someone than going on the offensive."

"I don't know if I agree with that." He thinks that because that's all he's seen of you.

Maybe that means something.

Maybe this is who I am now.

"Or..." Locke grinned suddenly. "You could do something entirely different. Become a pastry chef, take up pottery, join a circus and train dancing bears. Or just retire to a quiet cabin in the woods and live in peace with the land as a hunter." He ticked off the options one by one on his fingers, then gestured broadly at her. "But first, we track down Terra."

 

***

 

Confirming that something had indeed landed rather explosively next to the city was easy—all he had to do was make a few passing comments about the blatantly obvious crater. People here weren't inclined to gossip about their neighbors to a stranger, even to a seemingly harmless merchant looking to make conversation, but they had no end of opinions they were willing to share about bizarre supernatural phenomena. Some thought it was a lightning strike, or a new weapon from the Empire being tested from all the way across the sea, or the Espers returning as a sign that the world was ending.

Finding out more specific detail proved to be a little more difficult.

Locke rented them a room in a cheap flophouse—only one room, but at least it had two beds—and he tried to put the innkeeper at ease enough to pull information from the woman, with limited success.

He sniffed at a few of the pawn shops along the main drag, ostensibly shopping for trinkets with good resale value while he chatted up the proprietors and their employees. No good. Finally, he found himself at a shop that doubled more directly as a fence, with a proprietor shrewd enough to catch that information was the real bounty he was looking for. The man offered him what he wanted, at a high enough price that he realized with some consternation that he might have to do a little real business to finance this trip, even with just the one room. But at least he had a lead.

What he learned was this: There was a reclusive old man living in one of the many decrepit tenement buildings that had once been reputable flats, and he'd been seen carrying someone wrapped in a blanket through the streets soon after the strange flash of light had torn through the sky. It had earned attention not just because a man carrying an unconscious figure was concerning but also because he had up til that point seemed unlikely to have the strength for such a feat.

Given that it was the only lead Locke had been able to scrounge up, and given that it sounded strange enough that he could believe magic might be involved, and given that Locke had tried very hard not to give any impression that he or Celes would be worth ensnaring in a trap, he pursued it. But he was glad to have Celes accompanying him, not just because the man lived down back roads that made him nervous but because he genuinely wasn't sure what to expect. Celes was nearly unmatched with a blade, and her ice magic offered an excellent trump card for emergencies. And she was just as determined as he was to find Terra, no matter what.

The old man's building had to be at least five stories tall, with boarded-up windows and heaps of discarded belongings and refuse everywhere. His instructions told him the old man's apartment was on the first floor. He approached it with some trepidation.

"Here's hoping," he said to Celes, who stood at the ready, hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

He had to knock three times. Finally, the door cracked open just enough to show an old, wrinkled face, half buried in a massive cloud-white beard. It seemed that all of the hair on his head had run off to join the beard.

"What do you want?" The old man's voice boomed out, surprisingly deep.

Locke stood a little straighter. "I heard you might have taken in a friend of mine who needed shelter."

"There's no one in here but me."

"Maybe you know where she's gone, then. Her name is Terra."

"Who?"

"I—" What should he tell this stranger? Information was currency, and in Zozo, giving information to the wrong person could have unforeseen consequences as it passed from hand to hand, mouth to ear. At the same time, this was his only lead. He had to take a chance. "She's fleeing the Empire. I helped her escape, but I'm—worried they might have pursued her. If you've seen her, or heard anything about her—if she's safe."

The old man opened the door a couple of inches more and poked his head out so that he could see the two of them better. Locke clasped his hands in front of him, trying to look earnest and trustworthy, or at least not suspicious. But the old man peered at Celes and narrowed his sunken eyes. "Who are you?"

Locke spoke up before she could. "My bodyguard. My—friend."

The man's hand shot out with startling speed to grab Celes's wrist. Instinctively, she jerked away. Something arced like lightning between them, and she cried out.

"Shiva," the old man hissed, his face dark with anger. Celes's mouth hung open.

Locke stepped in front of her. "She's not—You've got the wrong—"

"You don't know what you're talking about, boy." He shoved Locke aside, with the strength of a much younger man, and his touch made Locke's hair stand on end. Then the man grabbed Celes by the shoulders. "What did you do with Shiva?"

"I don't know what you mean," Celes whispered, eyes wide.

Magic. The air around the old man shimmered with it, and around Celes, too, whose face had gone white. She was shivering, not with fear but with cold; the breath from her open mouth hung like a visible puff of cloud in the air. The chill of it spread to Locke, too, like a wintry wind. For a moment, he thought she might be transforming, too, as Terra had—taking on some icy form, frosted or crystalline. But her teeth started chattering and she still looked like herself, her face colorless not because she transformed but because the cold looked like it was eating her from the inside out. Frostbite, or worse.

"Stop!" Locke tried to shove his way between them, but an unseen force around the old man pushed him back.

"How do you have Shiva's essence?" the old man demanded of Celes, as though Locke hadn't spoken. "Did you kill her?"

"No!" Celes's voice rasped in her throat, and her eyelids fluttered as though it took a great deal of effort to keep them open. "I—don't know—"

"Stop! Please!"

Locke grabbed her, wrapped his arms around her, and she did not resist. It felt like holding ice in his arms; his own skin ached from the cold. Maybe it would be enough to save her from this. He had to get her away, had to get them both away, before the life ebbed from her.

The old man sobbed, abruptly, and the shimmer of magic fell away at once. "She's gone," he murmured, as if to himself.

Locke pulled Celes further from the man's door. She stumbled and leaned against him, and already he could feel warmth returning to her, the cold no longer leaching from her body into his. He held her, hoping it was not too late to save her from frostbite.

"Shiva was her name?" Celes sounded young, her voice small and tentative. "The—the Esper who…"

"Is this what your Empire has done with them?"

The two of them were talking around each other, tantalizing hints at some greater story that seemed unlikely to take form on its own. Locke's mind raced through possibilities, unable to resist the puzzle even through his worry for his friend. This man had magic and had somehow sensed the magic within Celes—was attributing her magic to the death of someone else, someone he knew, who Celes seemed to think she knew…

"You're an Esper," Locke said to the old man, which was at the same time the most ridiculous sentence he had ever uttered and yet, impossibly, the most likely truth. Though part of him recoiled in disbelief, the other part, the part that stayed calm in emergencies, kept going. "You think Celes has your friend's magic. Another Esper. Celes was part of an Imperial experiment to give her magic when she was a child. These things are probably connected. The girl we're looking for was also part of the same experiments. It wasn't their fault—they were children—"

To Locke's bafflement and some degree of horror, the old man began to laugh. "You think Terra was the product of an experiment?"

"She was," Celes said, her voice a little stronger. She had wrapped her arms around herself, and she did not look up. "There were three of us."

"Oh, no, child. You are quite mistaken."


***


Everything had been dark, and very far away, and Locke's voice sounded so dim and distant. When he grabbed her, she was only aware of pressure against her, no warmth nor softness nor the strange giddiness from before. There was only the cold, so cold it started to feel warm again, and she was so very, very tired and ready to sleep.

Then the singing in her blood stopped, along with the pull on the magic within her that came from without, and her skin tingled and ached and she became aware of Locke holding her, like a warm blanket and a fire banishing the winter night.

And now they were inside, in a small, cramped room poorly lit by a swaying lantern overhead. Celes and Locke sat across from the old man, a chipped tea service on the low table between them, steaming mugs of tea and an old iron kettle.

"I thought you might be someone from your Empire following them here," the old man said. "I am truly sorry to have hurt you. Shiva was a friend of mine and I have wondered about her fate for years. I feared the worst. It would appear my fears were well-founded."

Celes only nodded. She was still chilled to the bone, and that weary darkness that had nearly claimed her lingered at the edges of her thoughts.

On a cot in the back of the room, the pink figure that was Terra lay sleeping, wrapped in an old quilt. Every so often she would thrash in her sleep, murmuring something to herself. Whenever she stirred, the two humans at the table turned to glance at her, hoping she might wake, but she slept deeply.

The old man poured tea for them. "I felt Tritoch wake, and I called to him. I didn't realize he had the child with him until they arrived."

"Tritoch?"

"The other who accompanied her." He gestured to another figure who sat unmoving on a chair near the cot, so still that Celes had taken him for a mannequin or statue, which would not have been out of place among the junk filling the apartment. Celes gasped, and Locke rose from his position on the floor to peer more closely at the figure. The figure appeared to be human.

"But we saw—the Esper. It was…" Locke spread his hands, indicating some considerable size, and the old man laughed.

"We can take a human form if we choose, but it can be exhausting, and Tritoch is old, very old. He is conserving his strength, trying to heal. It is difficult, in this magic-parched world."

"And Terra?" Locke sat down again, but his eyes kept flitting to the back of the room, to the sleeping figure there. "What did he do to her?"

And will it happen to me, too? Despite everything, some part of Celes twisted with jealousy. You've never had a strong enough connection to your magical energy. That's why they gave you a sword, unlike the other two—it's all you were good for.

The old man steepled his hands as if considering how to respond. "Tritoch seems to have awoken Terra's Esper half, and she is struggling to reconcile it."

"What?"

The outburst came from Locke and Celes simultaneously. Esper... half? The shock and confusion was enough to cut through the fog in Celes's mind at last.

"From her father," Ramuh said. It was hard to tell, under the massive beard, but she thought he might be smiling. "Your friend is half-Esper, half-human. The only such creature in all the world."

Suddenly everything clicked into place. Terra's incredible gift of magic, far beyond that of Celes or even Kefka, despite her youth. Gestahl's inhumane treatment of her, as though she were an animal to be worked, not a person with her own mind and her own soul. Not a human being. Celes and Kefka were mere copies of Esper magic; Terra was the real thing.

"But that's impossible," Locke was saying.

"No," Celes said, to him. "It explains a lot."

"But that's absurd."

"There are two Espers in this room right now," Celes said, her voice wavering. "And… Esper magic running through my blood. None of that is supposed to be possible. The Espers were supposed to have been lost a thousand years ago. Magic was supposed to be gone forever. And yet."

"And yet," Locke echoed, running a hand through his hair and looking overwhelmed.


***


The old man—the Esper—Ramuh, he called himself—told them a story. It came in disjointed pieces that Celes struggled to reassemble, even now that her mind had fully thawed. She would need to confer with Locke afterward, to be sure of the parts she might have missed.

The Espers had been part of a war between humans, a thousand years before, and as the war shattered and broke the earth around them, the Espers retreated through a portal into another world and disappeared, seemingly forever. That much Celes knew, from history books and from legend. And she knew that the Empire had somehow found and harnessed magical energy that powered their Magitek armor and weapons, that granted some degree of power to Kefka and to Celes herself.

What Ramuh told, in his convoluted way, was what Celes might have otherwise called the human face of the story, except that none of the players were human. After the war, the Espers had sealed the gate between the worlds and built a society of their own—leaving behind Tritoch and others, unavoidable casualties of the battles they now wished to forget. His descriptions of the Esper world were hard to picture, not reliant on the natural form of the earth but rather harnessing magical energies to construct palaces and cities and remote villages filled with beings whose supernatural abilities bordered on godlike. The seal on the gate waxed and waned with time, and whenever it thinned, the Espers whose duty it was to watch it replenished the magic holding it closed.

Ramuh couldn't say how or why the seal weakened so much that a young human woman passed through. All he knew was that she fell in love with a young and brash Esper man, and the two of them defied all knowledge or expectations and made a baby together. Terra. She had been an oddity among the Espers, the source of much conflict and disagreement.

The human woman feared for her baby's safety—though Ramuh insisted that the Espers would never have harmed her or her child. But Celes, who knew how humans could be, did not blame the woman for her skepticism. Regardless, the girl had tried to flee through the gate, and her lover pursued her, and others tried to stop him, and in so doing they had weakened the seal.

Ramuh had been among these unfortunates, who found themselves in a maelstrom of magic carrying them through to the human world. They became separated, alone in a world quite unlike anything they had known—"magic-parched," as he called it. Without magic permeating the world around them, they had had to find a way to live.

"So you've lived here among humans for years," Celes said.

"I have."

"Why Zozo?" Locke asked. He seemed even more overwhelmed than Celes by this whole thing, and the puzzlement in his voice clearly went deeper than the single question.

"It was nearby. It was different. Here I did not draw attention. I was disoriented after I arrived here, and before I had quite found my footing, I found that I could no longer sense my friends in this world. I did not know if it was distance or if they had perished."

"And now it's come full circle, with Terra returning to you."

"I hope to teach her something of her heritage, once she awakens. But she is at war with herself, hiding from the reality of what she is. It will take time for her to find her peace again."

Celes was not sure that Terra had ever known peace, had ever even had the opportunity to look for it. But, sincerely, she hoped the girl would. If anyone deserved a chance to step away from turmoil and pain, it was this young soul who had somehow held onto her innocence despite the evils the world had beaten her with for so much of her short life.


***


Seeing Terra like that, unreachable yet present, summoned up all-too-vivid memories of hours spent by Rachel's bed, waiting for her to wake. There's too much damage. Her body is still alive, but her mind is gone. You have to let her go, Locke.

But how could he let her go when she still breathed in and breathed out, looking for all the world like a sleeping princess awaiting true love's kiss? But true love could only postpone what he hoped would not be the inevitable, and search for a cure.

More subdued, they returned to their room at the inn. Locke had nothing to say, not even conversation to fill the empty spaces—whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Rachel's face. He could imagine her laughing, her bright eyes and flushed cheeks the most beautiful thing in the world, the feeling of her head resting on his chest as they lay under the stars and thought about the future they would have together. A future abruptly cut short and now caught in stasis, unable to move forward, unable to step back.

It was only after he realized he had been pacing for an indeterminable amount of time that he returned to himself and saw Celes seated on her bed, knees pulled to her chest, looking thoughtful.

"Something's troubling you," he said.

She smiled wryly. She was still paler than usual, her lips faint. "Something is troubling you."

"I'm worried about Terra."

"That's what you said on the road. I don't think I believe you."

"That I'm worried about her?'

"That worry for her is what's making you so–" She hesitated, as if searching for the right word. Broody, he would have said, if it applied to her. Well, he had been broody since they returned from the old man's apartment, but he'd hoped Celes was too preoccupied with her own thoughts to notice. Had she been watching him this whole time?

The thought made him feel a little sheepish, a little flustered. "It's an outrageous story. It's a lot to take in. Espers. Espers!"

Celes pressed her lips together. "I grew up among Magitek power and Esper-bestowed gifts. I thought they were from—fossils, new discoveries of old dead creatures, not—whatever they've done with Ramuh's friends. But Espers have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember."

"But living Espers! Who look like ordinary humans and speak in ordinary human voices!"

Celes cocked her head at him. "What's really troubling you?"

He gestured broadly. "Espers!"

Celes leaned forward, looking at him quite intently—pale, ice-blue eyes that were paradoxically warm at this very moment, warm and serious and worried. "Locke. Sit."

His name on her lips was surprising, demanding his attention. It felt like a quiet voice close to his ear, as though she were seated right beside him instead of on the other side of the room. Almost against his own volition, he complied, taking a seat on his own bed across from hers, near but not too near her.

I should tell her. Why haven't I told her? I tell everyone—I told Edgar—is it because I'm afraid she'll act like Edgar and blame everything I do on this?

"You have repeatedly saved my life," Celes said, resting her chin on her knees. "Including today." Yes, he should ask her about that; it was unsettling how unfazed she seemed by her brush with death today, more knots to be untangled. But she continued before he could interrupt. "That isn't an invitation to change the subject."

"I wasn't–" Shame heated his cheeks.

"I can notice patterns." She smiled thinly. "My point is that you've done a lot for me, and if something is troubling you, I'd like to know about it. And I'd like to help."

"There's nothing anyone can do to help," he blurted before he could stop himself.

"I can listen, at least, right? If you're—if something is hurting you, you don't have to carry it alone. Isn't that what you would tell me?"

He laughed ruefully. "Yes."

"Then tell me what's been on your mind."

"Rachel," he said, and he rubbed his eyes. Where to even begin?  "Her name is Rachel." I won't use the past tense. "I wandered into Kohlingen a few years ago with no idea what I was looking for, but I found it anyway. We did everything together. Her family thought I was bad news and tried to keep us apart, but I'm… I'm really good at finding my way into places I'm not supposed to be."

"That might be why they thought you were bad news," Celes interjected delicately.

"They thought I was a kind of trouble that I'm not," he said, his cheeks flushed because that was a lie. He had been exactly the sort of trouble they feared, irresponsible and prone to bringing their daughter to dangerous places because he had a young person's sense of invulnerability. Accidents happened to other people. Until they happened to her. "Anyway, one night I spirited her away. We were—we planned to elope. To Jidoor, actually, if you'll believe it. A route I'd taken before. We were crossing a bridge I must have crossed a hundred times before, and on the hundred-and-first time, one of the ropes holding it snapped. I tried to catch her—I tried to hold her—but…"

In front of him he saw not Celes's concerned face in this ramshackle flophouse room but that moonlit night, the terrible creak and clatter, the bridge swaying wildly, and Rachel stumbling, and his own hands reaching after her as the bridge turned vertically and only the remaining ropes kept him from sliding down the wooden planks into the abyss below. But Rachel had never had his quick reflexes. She scrambled for something to grab hold of, reached for him, he reached for her, and if he could have just held her, held on—

"She fell?" Celes offered for him, delicately, pulling him back from the memory.

"I got to safety, made a harness with some rope, and went after her. But she'd been terribly injured." So pale, in the moonlight, with blood caking the side of her face. The single worst moment in his life, seeing her like that and fearing she was dead by his own hand. But then she had moaned and he knew she lived, and in that instant he swore to do anything in his power to help her. "I don't even know how I got her back to Kohlingen, to her parents' house. They called the doctor and told me if I ever set foot in their house again, they'd have me killed."

Celes frowned. "I can't imagine she would stand for that."

"She didn't have a choice in the matter. Her injuries healed, but she never woke up," he said. "Yet. She hasn't woken up yet."

"Where is she now?"

"Kohlingen," he said. "It's complicated. I send back money for her medical care, and I keep an eye out for anything that might be able to heal her and bring her back to us. Her family still hates me, but they accept my help, as long as I stay far away."

"I thought…" Celes was quiet again, gathering her thoughts. "You mentioned you'd lost someone to the Empire, and I assumed–"

"What? No." He shook his head. "Rachel's injuries were my fault, not the Empire's. My father's ship was sunk by the Empire when I was sixteen, for having the audacity to try establishing a trade route south." His hands tightened into fists. "He was a merchant, not a combatant, but that didn't matter to them."

"And your mother?"

"Died when I was a kid, after a mercifully brief illness. So I spent my childhood traveling across the continent with my father's caravan. But he didn't want me to come south on the ship with him, just in case."

"Thank goodness for that." She looked away. "Locke?"

"Hmm?" His temples were starting to throb, and there was a cottony feeling around his eyes, threatening either unshed tears or a massive headache.

"You're still in love with her, aren't you?"

His throat was dry. "I am."

Celes nodded slowly.

"If you'll excuse me," he said, "this has been a very long and very difficult day, for both of us, I know. You should get some rest. And I … need to take some time to feel sorry for myself."

And that's what he did, however self-indulgent it felt—lay on the musty quilt covering a sagging mattress, his arms wrapped around his traveling sack, facing the wall. Behind him, Celes tiptoed from the room, and he was grateful that she gave him his privacy.

Chapter Text

When she returned to their room, Locke was sleeping fully clothed on top of his bed, cradling his bag. She wondered if he was dreaming of the girl he loved, of Rachel. She wondered if she ought to wake him so he could settle down properly for the night, or lay a blanket or a coat over his shoulders to tuck him in for the night, unknot the bandana from around his hair, some tender gesture of friendship. Someone else would know what to do, someone whose life experiences did not inspire looks of pity and horror from their companions.

But she was exhausted, and it had been a long day, and she didn't know how to be a friend or how to comfort or care for someone else.

Her own dreams were troubled, a mixture of bloody battlefields and fire-infested mines and—a new one—a cold, chilling darkness. The worst part was that upon waking to light around the threadbare curtain of their room, she felt disappointment. The cold darkness had been paradoxically inviting, so tempting. Just step into nothingness and fall peacefully into slumber without end, without fears, without nightmares, without crimes or atonement or personal failings.


***


They started the day with a quick breakfast, the first hot meal they'd eaten since leaving Figaro Castle, though neither of them seemed inclined to linger and savor it. No point in dwelling on the night before. Terra needed them, and without even really discussing it, they set off for the old man's apartment again to check on her.

The girl slept on. Now that he knew to look for her face in the strange pink creature, he wondered how he had ever not seen it. Yes, there were changes to the structure of the bones, or so it seemed—it was hard to tell beneath the soft feathery fur that covered her entirely. A longer pink plumage flared out from her scalp like hair, quite unlike her usual greenish curls. But despite these differences, even with her eyes closed, she did look like herself.

Celes stood beside her, head bowed, brow furrowed. He watched her for a moment, her silent contemplation.

"If she wakes up, will she take her human form again?" Celes asked. "Which form is her true form?"

"They both are," the old man replied. He seemed ruffled by their presence. Locke suspected he had never had a human in his apartment before the two of them arrived, taking up space and asking questions. Along with the two unconscious Espers—in this unfamiliar form it was hard not to think of Terra as another Esper—it was quite a crowded space.

Celes's frown deepened. "But how can that be? You aren't born with two bodies. You can't be. You're born with just one body."

"Likely she was born human," Ramuh said, looking slightly amused at this. "She had a human mother, after all. And she looked human in her earliest years, or else the others may not have been so displeased by her presence."

Celes's lips pressed together. "The Espers turned against her because she didn't look like them, even knowing full well that her father was one of them?"

"You have to understand that humans had used our kind as weapons for war, and we were therefore wary of allowing them close to us."

The look Celes fixed on him was as razor-sharp as the sword at her side, as was her voice. "I understand that. But Terra was a baby. She couldn't possibly have done anything to you."

Maybe it was because Locke was completely out of his element, surrounded by magical beings on all sides, but the old man frankly scared him. Ramuh's unrelenting assault against Celes the day before was fresh in his mind, as was her body so cold and stiff and pale in his arms, the realization that she was literally freezing to death and that he was utterly powerless to stop it. What could he do, weak and mortal as he was, against creatures with powers like gods? Yet now Celes stared down Ramuh without fear. This was not her self-destructive disregard for her own safety—it was something else, something stronger.

Celes and Ramuh had gotten into some sort of argument. Locke looked between the two of them, trying to pick up on enough context to jump back in.

"And you wish me to believe," Ramuh was saying, "that the love of a human is something we should have trusted, given everything else they had done to us? After seeing the worst of humanity for generations, it is hard to imagine seeing the best of it. It's hard to imagine that she would not turn on us, no matter how she loved him. Are you telling me that is not the case? That human love is enough for humans to overcome their worst nature? Do humans even truly understand love?"

"Humans don't understand love," Locke sputtered, and both Celes and Ramuh turned to him in surprise. "You can't understand something like that; that's the wrong word. But we know love, and we would—do anything to protect the ones we love. It's perhaps the single strongest driving force in human history, in human nature."

Two lovers whose union was opposed by their people—he supposed there was a parallel there, between the forbidden love Terra's parents shared and his own love for Rachel, whose family sought so intently to prevent their union. Had Terra's mother brought ruin to the Esper she loved, as Locke had to Rachel?

"Anyway," he said, more subdued, "I should go send word to Edgar. Let him know we've found her and that she's still unconscious. We'll wait in town until she wakes up."

"If you're staying until she recovers, you may be here longer than you expect," Ramuh advised.

"We're not abandoning her," Celes said flatly. "I'll stay as long as it takes."

"She isn't abandoned. I'll care for her."

He could sense a fight brewing between them and questioned the wisdom of his leaving, but what could he do to stop it? Besides, the heaviness of his grief had begun to creep up on him again, and he could not let it crush him. Not here, not now. Out on the street underneath the open sky, anonymous among a crowd of strangers, he would have the space to let it go. "We're her friends," Locke interjected lightly. "Celes is right. If she needs us, we'll be here for her."

He waited until they simmered down, at least. Ramuh settled onto a pile of cushions, keeping a distrustful eye fixed on Celes, who took a seat beside Terra's bed. Sending off a pigeon to Figaro would not take long. He'd be back before trouble could strike. What happened after that was anyone's guess. But he had to get out of here, before the grief swelling within him burst.


***


"Terra." She couldn't help trying the girl's name again, as though if she were to call to her enough, she might come back. "Terra."

Terra's eyes snapped open and frantically scanned the room. They alone were unchanged, the same guileless hazel, almost shockingly human in that inhuman face. Sitting up, she clawed at the blankets, at her arms, at the feathery tufts along her arms. She wailed, shaking her head.

"Terra?"

The girl thrashed around, continuing to cry, wordless and terrified.

What would Locke do? He would know. He always knew what to do. When she wanted to tear at herself as Terra was doing now, he could pull her from it, challenge her to stop. Terra seemed beyond the reach of words or reassurances. Desperately, Celes reached for her hand, tugging it away from its frantic pull on her own feathery covering.

Ramuh was by her side, too, and the air around him crackled and hummed. "Sleep," he said in a low, gravely voice. He put a hand on Terra's forehead. The fur, or feathers, or hair, around her head stood on end, and her eyes widened, but then they fluttered closed, and she fell back against the blankets once more. This seemed to be a less fitful rest, at least. She remained clutching Celes's hand, and Celes stood awkwardly beside her, uncertain.

She looked down at the strange, unfamiliar form of this girl she could not be sure she considered a friend. Terra's sharp, claw-like nails poked into her skin. "Maybe you should let her stay awake."

"She's distressed. She is warring with herself."

"Maybe she should be allowed to do that," Celes said.

"Human girl," Ramuh said, "this is outside your knowledge."

Celes bristled at his patronizing words and haughty tone. "I may not know what it's like to be an Esper, but I do know a little about Terra. You can't force her back to sleep–"

"She is tearing herself apart while she is conscious."

"Well, maybe she has to tear herself apart a little." Celes couldn't deny that Terra's expression was more peaceful now, or that her waking panic was terrible to witness, but would forcing her to sleep through it really help? Would it be easier on Terra, or just on the onlookers? "Maybe she has to go through this to get to the other side of it. You don't understand—she spent years of her life with her mind and body controlled by someone else. Forcing her back to sleep seems like taking away her control again."

Ramuh's beard flared out, crackling with static. "I am not controlling her. I would never do that—I am not like your kind."

"Aren't you?" Celes glared at him and sat closer to Terra, as if positioning herself between Terra and this lightning-charged figure would be any sort of protection if he gave in to his anger and threatened them.

But Ramuh settled down quickly, with a long, weary sigh, and he looked once again like a tired old man. "Perhaps you are right. She is half-Esper, but that means she is also half-human."

Celes nodded with conviction.


***


The grief dissipated in sunlight, as he hoped it would. Memories receded to the past, where they belonged, leaving him with the task at hand and lingering concern about Celes and the Espers. But he had to have faith in her common sense. And she had not proven herself to be quick to anger, no matter what Edgar had feared.

He rode one of the desert chocobos downriver and across the bridge into Jidoor. Although he clearly came from the direction of Zozo, a quick, friendly conversation with the guards was enough to get them to wave him through.

It wasn't that you had to look like you belonged in Jidoor; it was that you couldn't look like you didn't belong. Adventurers and traveling merchants might find shelter and a warm enough reception here despite their scuffed boots and patched coats as long as they walked with the confidence of someone who had, at some point, had money and could count on having it again. And you absolutely could not speak with the soft consonants and easy slang of the Zozan dialect.

This was easy enough for Locke, who had no great gift for mimicking accents but was at least blessed with a totally nondescript blended accent of his own, inherited from his father and cemented by intermittent months with his father's merchant caravan as a boy. He could pass for an unremarkable, trustworthy merchant because he had spent so much of his early life among exactly that.

Thus, he reached the pigeonry without incident and sent his message off to Edgar, along with a promise to keep him apprised of any change in Terra. The message itself he had composed in his head on his way between the cities, vague enough to avoid raising suspicion were it to be intercepted. She found out some very surprising news about who her parents were, he had phrased it. The shock of it did a number on her but she seems stable, though still not quite herself. Let Edgar make of that what he would.

Though he didn't want to leave Celes alone with Ramuh for long, he couldn't resist a little basic reconnaissance. Jidoor seemed unlikely to ever become a Returners stronghold, but at least the wealthy and powerful who ruled the town had no love for the Imperials, and he might find some useful knowledge here.

In public spaces around town, tawdry posters had been plastered up advertising the latest opera now on at the famed Jidoor Opera House. Locke paid little attention to these at first; he'd never been much of a theater fan. The fourth or fifth time he passed by one, he found himself stock-still on the street staring at it, while disgruntled passersby had to step around him.

"She's a good-looking young thing, isn't she?" An older voice cut into his thoughts, some worn workman going about his business. "The latest prima donna of the great opera house, that Maria. They say her voice is like melted gold, but if I went to the theater, I don't think it's her voice I would be paying attention to, eh?"

The image was idealized, the woman's face and figure too beautiful to be real, but even despite that, he could get a sense of what she must actually look like—a face that was eerily familiar. It was like looking at someone's fanciful imagining of Celes, if she had had a rounder, rosy-cheeked twin who wore frothy lace dresses and waited wistfully on tower balconies.

"Yes," he said, when he realized the man was waiting for some response. Clearly reading something into his too-long silence, the old man guffawed and clapped Locke heartily on the back before disappearing into the crowd.

Celes would not wait around in a tower for someone to rescue her, as the poster seemed to illustrate. She would find her own way out, or—he thought with grim humor—die trying without someone there to remind her of her own mortality. He had a mental image of her flinging herself bodily out the window and then picking herself up off the ground, surviving due to sheer stubbornness, living out of spite for Death or the Goddesses.

But then he remembered her cold body stiffening as the life ebbed from her—was that only yesterday?—and the humor left him entirely. Instead, he found himself rushing back toward Zozo. His mood darkened again, but at least this was a fresh worry rather than the well-worn grooves of his grief.

Despite his misgivings, by the time Locke returned to Ramuh's apartment in late afternoon, the tension in the room had dissipated entirely. Neither Ramuh nor Celes seemed especially inclined to speak, but the silence between them felt, if not companionable, then at least calm.


***


This became a routine, the troubled dreams, the distracted breakfasts, the visits to Ramuh's apartment. He told them stories of the Esper world. He told them about Shiva, and Celes tried to absorb every word, because Shiva had been a person whose life was stolen by the Empire, and she deserved to be remembered.

And Ramuh expounded on theories of magic, what it was and how it worked. For the first time, Celes could learn about magic from someone who truly understood it, not from the conjecture of scientists, not depending on ancient texts translated and re-translated, but from someone for whom magic was perfectly natural, like breathing. There was something exhilarating about having answers to her questions, about having this strange thing that had always marked her as standing apart now becoming how she connected to another. If she could never be quite like an ordinary human, she could at least learn something about what she was. It lit something within her, something Locke might have called hope, small and insignificant though it might be.

"I want to be able to do more than hurt people," she confessed breathlessly to Ramuh. "That's all I've ever done. I don't know if it's possible, but…"

"Even a knife can be much more than a weapon," was Ramuh's response.

He watched her with a certain sadness in his eyes, and she was surprised how easily the emotions of an Esper mapped to those of a human. Or perhaps it was merely the human face he wore. Then again, Terra had been the result of love between a human and an Esper, and surely that was a sign that the two could understand one another on some meaningful level. The thought was oddly reassuring.

Ramuh's sadness seemed especially palpable when she tried, with his guidance, to call on the magic she had been given. To tap into a side of Shiva's power she had never before considered.

"Shiva was not a fighter," he said.

"What was she like?"

"Slow to anger, but strong-willed." Ramuh smiled, looking both sorrowful and amused. "She would not stand for any injustice."

Locke often slipped out the door during these recollections, especially when they turned into lessons. Returners business, maybe. Listening, meeting people, exploring Zozo.

One day she arrived to find Ramuh and an unconscious Terra but no strange statuesque figure in the apartment. When she asked, Ramuh said gravely, "Maintaining his human form took too much effort for him to heal. He has left to find shelter someplace where he can be himself."

"Will he be all right?"

"I assume so. He is far older than I am, and he has spent a very long time asleep, but he is strong, and I'm sure he will find his way."

 

***


"Locke!"

He was not used to hearing such joy in Celes's voice, and when his eyes adjusted to the dimness of Ramuh's apartment, he saw pure, unbridled happiness on her face as she raced toward him. All the usual tension and solemnity were gone, her eyes alight, her cheeks flushed. An urge struck him to take her by the hands and spin her around, though he resisted, afraid to chase off this sunlight and let the shadows return.

"What's happened?" he asked. "Is Terra awake?"

There it was, the cloud dimming some of her light. He'd said the wrong thing, dammit. She shook her head. "Not yet, no."

"Something has happened, though." He grinned at her, trying to summon back her smile. "C'mon. You can't just hint at something and then keep it from me. That's not fair. Tell me." He was careful to keep his voice light and teasing, not commanding—comically pleading, unthreatening.

A moment's hesitation, and then she ducked her head and smiled almost bashfully back. "I'll—show you, if you want."

"Of course." More reserved now, more serious, matching her.

"Your nose is still sunburned from the desert," she said. "Here. If… you don't mind?" She reached slowly toward his face. He nodded, then held perfectly still, reminded again of a stray cat hesitantly approaching.

Her fingers stopped close enough that the proximity nearly made him sneeze. And then, the slight tingling sensation that set his hairs on edge. Magic. Having seen the damage the ice she summoned could cause, he had to fight to keep himself from tensing up, or she might think he feared her. Trust her. But, of course, he did.

Her brow furrowed and her eyes unfocused, and she seemed to be concentrating very hard on something.

Though she never touched him, his skin nearest her fingertips was overcome with a peculiar cooling sensation, and he struggled to keep his face neutral as part of him was screaming that this was unnatural, this was impossible, magic isn't supposed to be real, this is going to hurt, hold still, but then whatever she was doing seemed to stabilize. It felt soothing, like a cool cloth placed on a hot forehead. When she withdrew her hand, the sensation of magic likewise faded, but the relief lingered. He touched his nose and felt none of the heat or soreness of a lingering sunburn, just perfectly ordinary skin. Celes looked as though the exertion of the magic had taken a lot out of her, but she looked pleased, too.

"What did you just do?" he asked.

"Shiva had some power to heal," she said. "I never knew. Burns, fevers—I can help with those."

"Healing?" That alone was a miracle beyond comprehension. But he thought of her joy, her lightness, and the source of the shadows that so often haunted her. Magic had always been a source of pain for her, a curse the Empire had given her so that she could be more lethal on the battlefield. She viewed herself as a weapon, a bringer of death and destruction, a killer. Now she had physical evidence that she could do—could be—something else. "It suits you."

Now she looked darkly amused, almost scornful, challenging him. "Does it? How?"

"Well…" He had spoken with nothing more than good intentions in mind, but he couldn't show her how he was fumbling to formulate an answer. "You've got these tools and skills you think can only be used to hurt people, but then you use them to defend people instead. This reminds me of that."

She accepted this without argument, thank goodness. He kept touching the tip of his nose again and marveling. Magic was known to be a destructive force. Legends told of how it had torn the world apart, a thousand years ago. But he could not deny that he was awed by its potential to heal instead of harm.

He couldn't help wondering, too, just how much she could heal.

She was watching him closely again, and in a quiet and hesitant voice, as though reading his mind, she said, "Maybe we could go to Kohlingen when Terra has recovered. I—don't know that I could do anything, but I could try."

His heart seemed to skip not just one beat but several, hope and hesitation wrestling for control over his heart. "If—you would. That would mean a lot. Please."

She tilted her head, considering him. "I would. I would try my best."

Even the thought of it sent his head reeling, but he managed to grab hold of the reality around him enough to thank her.


***


The next time Terra woke, they were ready for her. As soon as she cried out in terror, Celes was beside her, and Locke followed quickly, crowding around this little bed in the rubbish-strewn room. Ramuh stood at a distance, at the ready but giving Celes space to prove him wrong. Good.

Physical contact had seemed to soothe Terra before, so Celes touched the girl's wrist. Locke looked from Terra's wide-eyed face to Celes's hand and then followed suit. Terra gripped them both as if for dear life, and once again the sharpness of her clawed fingers threatened to break the skin on Celes's arm.

"We're here," Celes said. "You're safe." It felt strange to be the one giving the reassurance, after what felt like several months of being on the receiving end of it.

"We've got you," Locke echoed, sounding more at ease with comforting someone, of course. His voice was gentle as he put a hand on Terra's shoulder. The girl started sobbing, and he wrapped an arm around her as she bawled.

Waves of magical energy radiated from her like heat, and Celes's skin tingled with it. The chill within her seemed to resonate with it, cooling her throughout, making her think of her first encounter with Ramuh and how he had drawn out her stolen magic and very nearly killed her in the process. But this time she was ready. Terra meant her no harm. Would Shiva be able to calm her with a cool, reassuring touch?

It was hard not to let Terra's panic influence her. Helplessness tightened her throat. Terra sounded like she was in physical pain, her terrible heaving sobs gasping and painful and almost like a scream.

"Shh," Locke soothed her, impossibly calm in the face of this. Celes hated herself for her jealousy at how well and easily he seemed to know what to do and say, unfazed by the strange pink creature sobbing all over his chest. "It's okay, Terra. We're here. You have friends here. It's going to be all right."

"Where am I?" Terra asked, her voice distorted but still recognizable, and it was a relief to hear her speak, if only because it meant the sobbing had quieted. "Who am I? What's going on? What happened?"

"Terra," Locke said as patiently as if he were talking to a child. "You're my friend Terra. You had a shock." He glanced over at Celes. Did he expect her to do or say something now? She didn't know what came next in this script.

"I had a nightmare." Terra sounded young.

"The fire?" Celes asked. Nightmares were something she could talk about, something she understood.

Terra nodded. "Fire, and–" She broke her hands free and pulled away from both of them, beginning to wail again.

"Listen to me," Celes said, and when both Terra and Locke stared at her in startled silence, she realized she had used the same tone that had served her on the battlefield. Well, that was what she knew—how to command, not how to help. It was all any of them had right now, so it would have to do. "You don't recognize yourself right now, do you?"

"No." A quiet whisper.

"That's because you met an Esper, and he woke something inside of you." Celes tried again to think of what to say, how to explain this without sending Terra spiraling down into her panic again. Locke would know how to approach it. He was careful like that. But he was watching Celes, having clearly yielded the floor to her as though she had any idea what to say, and they were stuck with her fumbling. "This is your—your Esper body. That's why you've always had such an affinity for magic, because you aren't–" Aren't human? Don't say that. Even you know better than to say that. "Because you're Esper, too."

"Is it real? Is this real?"

Celes nodded.

Terra stared at her own hands. The palms were bare, without the furry texture that covered so much of the rest of her body, and the skin there was similar to her human skin tone, at least. "Will I... be like this forever?"

"You'll always be who you are," Celes said uncertainly. "But you've always been half Esper, whether you knew it or not, which means that the only thing that has changed is that… now you have an answer."

"An answer?"

"To who you are and where you come from." And goddesses above, at least it was a good answer, so much better than being an unwanted castoff, a vessel to receive someone else's stolen life force. "You know you had two parents who fell in love, no matter how different they were, and they made you—the human part of you, and this Esper part of you."

Terra swallowed. The feathery texture of her cheeks was matted and slick with tears, but she seemed to have stopped crying, at least. "I don't want to be—like this."

"Half-Esper, or… pink?"

That was a terrible way of saying it, but it made Terra giggle. "Pink."

"I think you can change back," Celes said, relieved at this small sign of normalcy. "You'll just have to figure out how. Ramuh—the old man here—maybe he can teach you."

"If it helps," Locke added at last, "it's a very nice shade of pink."

The worst seemed to have passed. They told her what had happened, what she had missed, complete with comical embellishments from Locke. The alliance forged between Banon and Narshe, and Arvis's part in that—because of course Terra cared about the man who had taught her to bake bread, and Locke happily gave news about this mutual friend Celes barely knew. The trek across the desert. Their terrible run-down inn. A glossed-over version of the misunderstanding with Ramuh.

Celes glanced at Ramuh, who had watched this entire exchange in patient silence. He caught her eye, then nodded, slowly, approvingly. Conceding, but glad to do so. She smiled.


***


When they reached the inn, he was in a good mood, and even Celes seemed more cheerful. Helping Terra had proved something to her—made her feel less powerless, if he were to hazard a guess. She seemed to take their setbacks as personal failings, even when what happened was entirely out of her control. It was something Locke hoped she would overcome in time.

Two figures waited in the hallway by their inn room, playing cards, quite obviously expecting them, and Locke's stomach dropped. But one of the figures was broad and burly, and the other had a familiar way of carrying himself–

"Edgar, your disguise is terrible," Locke said, and the king's dazzling smile looked ever so slightly sheepish. Even in plain travel clothes and with his flowing golden tresses bound in a bun at the top of his head, Edgar did not look ordinary.

It was a terrible disguise, but at least the man had had the good sense to try. And Edgar's brother would discourage trouble. Sabin was dressed like a monk, as usual, and seemed more likely to attract attention for his rippling muscles than for any apparent resemblance to royalty.

"It was enough to get us here," Edgar said, standing to greet him with a quick embrace. His brother shook hands formally with both Locke and Celes, then broke into a grin. Ah, there was the similarity—the smile was similarly charming, a shared twinkle in the eye, though Sabin's jaw was squarer, or maybe that was the effect of his well-trimmed beard. "You look well."

"Terra's awake," Locke reported. "I take it you missed the pigeon I sent yesterday."

"Alas, I have not yet achieved nigh-instantaneous travel," Edgar said. "We left Figaro a few days ago. Do you mind if we take this to your–" He glanced at Celes with a little smile. "Your room?"

Locke's jaw clenched. "Sure." He unlocked the door and gestured the assembled party inside, to the room with its two small but neatly made beds, though of course it was otherwise empty; they carried their belongings with them whenever they left, just in case. "How did you find us, anyway?"

"The innkeeper was very helpful when we explained we were meeting friends. A security hazard, that."

"You bribed her," Sabin piped in, leaning against the inside of the door with his arms crossed.

"Still. Not every innkeeper would be so forthcoming."

"This is Zozo," Sabin retorted. "I'm surprised nobody tried to mug us on the way in. Maybe even a little disappointed."

"It's not quite as rough as its reputation would have you believe," Locke said.

The room felt so crowded with four of them that Locke began to imagine what it must be like for Ramuh to find his flat overrun with visitors. Celes sat on her bed with her knees up, all traces of her earlier levity vanished. Locke slouched at one end of his own bed, and after a moment, Edgar perched gracefully at the foot of it. Ah, he would be an asset walking through Jidoor, but here he would certainly be a liability. Even if nobody actually recognized him, they would plainly see that he was a person of some wealth and power.

There was little to report from Figaro, or from Narshe—Banon was still rallying his forces, and Edgar had taken time to oversee kingly business back home. When it came to updating the twins on what all had transpired in Ramuh's apartment, or the revelations that he had only been able to hint at in his messages, Locke was at something of a loss to begin.

"Spit it out," Edgar said to Locke's indecision. "What's happening with Terra? Her 'parentage'?"

"She's, ah." He took a breath. "The long and short of it is that she's part Esper."

Edgar's eyebrows were rapidly approaching the ceiling. "Part… Esper? Is that even possible?" 

"Apparently, yes."

Edgar had questions, of course. And Locke needed Celes to field them, with as much time as she had spent peppering Ramuh with her own. But she seemed reticent, as though the past several weeks of her own transformation had simply evaporated, leaving her quiet and withdrawn. Getting the brothers up to speed took a long, drawn-out back-and-forth, but at last they seemed satisfied.

Edgar wanted to go see Terra at once, but traveling the streets at this late hour would be an unnecessary risk. No, they'd go to see her in the morning. The brothers returned to their own room on another floor, and after trying—and failing—to get Celes to smile again, Locke eventually gave up and turned in for the night himself.


***


In her semi-conscious state, she was aware of someone standing by her bed, leaning over her. She held her breath steady, tensing her arm muscles to keep herself from snapping upright and grabbing hold of him, jerking his arms away, knocking him to the floor—if you attack him again, he's really going to be afraid of you—but it was just Locke. She had shared space with him long enough. She needed to let go of her urge to fight back. Here, she was safe, she was among friends.

When she was sure she had herself under control, she squinted her bleary eyes open. It was so dark in here. Only the faintest hint of dawn light edged the flimsy, flapping curtain over the open window, through which she could hear a downpour and the distant crackle of thunder.

The curtain? Did we open the—

Before she could finish processing the thought, the figure moved quick as a whisper. A hand pressed something soft and pungent over her nose and mouth. She clawed at the gloved hand, but it didn't budge.

Don't breathe don't breathe don't breathe—

She tried to sit up and another hand pressed into her shoulder, pushing her back down against the bed.

No oh no oh no—

She bucked her hips, knocking her attacker off balance. In the moment it took for him to recover, she jerked her head to the side, away from his hand and the drugged cloth. Her head was already spinning, her eyes watering, as she gasped for clean air. The dark figure grabbed for her, faster than she could react—how was he so fast? Was the drug working on her already?—and the cloth was over her nose again.

Outside, lightning blasted bright as day, followed almost immediately by a deafening crack.

This time, he was ready for her, pinning her down as she tried to throw her weight from one side to the other. The bed creaked and clattered against the cold wooden floor. With a furious cry, she thrust her own hands up the figure's chest, finding the collarbone and beyond it, the hollow in the throat—

Jam two fingers in there, twist it in deep, cut his windpipe in half—

She was rewarded by a startled gurgle from her assailant, who snapped his head away at once. But it was his turn to gag and choke for breath, and again she used his lowered guard to buck and twist, knocking him off her. She seized this opportunity and slid to the edge of the bed so she was standing by the time he spun to face her.

They grappled briefly. In the dim light, he was nearly invisible, and nearly silent, and she felt as though she was a moment too late to respond every time he moved on her. Had the drug dulled her senses so much? But she was stronger than he was, and she knew how to fight, and adrenaline was a stronger drug than whatever he had tried to use against her. He reached for her, and she grabbed his wrist, only to find that he had drawn a jet-black knife that made no sound.

Do not let it cut you, do not let it touch you…

A chill ran through her bloodstream. Not fear, not poison. Magic. Shiva, if you're with me, lend me your strength. Ice crackled along the skin of her arms, along her fingers, along the black-clad wrist of her assailant. The air around them was so cold she could see her breath, could see his breath, twin clouds in the dawning light.

He gave a low, guttural growl that sounded like a frightened beast, as the ice spread across his body. She could see the whites around his wide, frightened eyes, all that was visible of his masked face.

His free hand moved, once again so quickly she could barely react. But this time he wasn't reaching for her. Something sparked in his hand, a loud burst and a bright blinding flash. She stumbled backwards, releasing him to cover her eyes. And when her vision cleared, he was gone, and the curtain was half pushed aside. She shook her head, reeling, startled.

The room was quiet again, still, almost peaceful. She staggered to the open window, but her assailant seemed to have vanished into the rain-streaked morning. Other than the low rumble of thunder outside, everything was silent.

She slid the window closed, wondering how it had been opened from the outside. She'd never tried slipping in or out of a room, but given how proficiently he picked ordinary locks, that seemed like something that—

Locke? Oh, goddesses, no.

Celes's desperate struggle with the masked intruder had been neither quiet nor subtle. Even in a deep sleep, Locke should still have been woken by the sounds, by the violent jostling of the furniture in the small room. But his form lay still and unmoving in the other bed. Had the stranger gotten to him first, slit his throat in the night? A chill that had nothing to do with Shiva's magic settled in her stomach.

But he was still warm, still breathing. Bending closer to his face, she could smell the lingering stench of that drugged cloth. Her heart flickered to life, and she expelled a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. Drugged. Sleeping. Alive.

With shaking hands, she rooted through his bag, which seemed to hold more than its volume full of cloths and boxes and tools, until she retrieved the fireless lantern. It took her three tries to click it on. In its warm and familiar glow, she dressed, then packed, and then stood with both bags over one shoulder, considering the unconscious figure before her.

He was slight, not much taller than her. She doubted she could scoop him into her arms, but she could—with some effort—heave him over her other shoulder.

Thus burdened, with her sword sheathed at her waist, she left their room.

The king and his brother were on the next floor up, and she didn't enjoy trudging up a creaking staircase with someone nearly her same size flung over her shoulder, but she refused to leave Locke alone and defenseless. She was quite out of breath when she finally reached the door. Better hope you're remembering the right number, with your mind as addled as it is. But if she woke the wrong person and they took issue with her, she was ready to clobber anyone who challenged her.

Fortunately, when she pounded gracelessly on the door with her scraped knuckles, it was opened soon enough by a familiar tow-headed man. Even half-asleep, the king's enormous brother managed to look intimidating, but he froze mid-yawn when he saw her.

"Holy shit," he said.

"Pack your things. We need to get out of here." Celes pushed past the man—Sabin, his name was Sabin—and gently lowered Locke to the floor. Sabin was there at once to help, supporting Locke's limp body as easily as if he were a doll.

The king was already out of bed, rumpled with a ridiculous nightcap on his head but a businesslike air. "What happened?"

"Someone came in through the window while we were sleeping. He drugged Locke and then tried to drug me. I fought him and he got away."

"Imperial, you think?" The king knelt before Locke, touching his temple, then his throat, gently. "What kind of drug?"

Celes waved a hand, dismissing his question. She closed her eyes, sat back on her heels, tried to clear her mind.

"If it's a drug, and not a poison–"

"Hush," she hissed, and the king fell silent. And both brothers remained quiet, and the room was still and calm, other than the sounds of packing around her. She tried to tune that out, let ice still her own panic, and thought of—not a touch of death, as she had tried on the assassin, but a cool breath across feverish skin. A kindness, not her own but Shiva's, this person she had never met but whose gift she would not waste. Could she heal Locke? A drug was not an injury, but…

She found herself leaning over him, cupping her hands around his cheeks. How are you planning to wake Sleeping Beauty? Are you thinking of fairy tales, you useless girl? 

She brought her right hand over his nose and mouth, gently. His lips were soft, his breath warm and faint against her palm. Breathe. Breathe this in, breathe the poison out. Her hand grew cold, the fingertips pale and pink-edged, and the temperature of the air around them dropped. The king said something, but Celes concentrated on Locke, on the cool clean air around him, and inside him, expelling the drug from his body.

A long moment later, he gasped, sputtered, and turned his face to the side, coughing.

"Oh, thank god," the king said.

"Was that—did she...?" his brother asked.

Locke screwed up his face and brought his hands to his temples, groaning. Celes sat back, rubbing warmth back into her numb right hand.

The king was armed and ready to go now, miniature crossbow at his hip. "If they came for you, do you think..."

"Terra," Celes said. "We need to get to her. Now."

Beside her, Locke slowly sat up, groaned again, and pushed the hair out of his eyes. "Someone, please, explain."


***


It felt like a hangover, except that his throat was raw and sore as though he'd been running in the cold—which made sense, once he understood what Celes had done. The others hovered worriedly around him, and for once he wished he had Celes's ability to push on no matter how much pain she was in, because he felt awful, and they absolutely could not slow to accommodate how awful he felt. But at least he could walk, and he was uninjured.

Outside, it was dark as midnight and the pouring rain soaked them in moments. The broken cobbles of the street quickly gave way to mud. Thunder rumbled, but at least there was no more lightning—Locke wasn't sure his head could take either the light or the sound of it.

"Something's not right," Celes said, looking at the sky. "Do you feel that?"

Come to think of it, there was that strange feeling of magic buzzing like static along his skin. "Ramuh?"

"It must be."

They tore through the city streets, the four of them, and Locke tried his best to keep up with the rest. An assassin, Celes had said. Likely Imperial, yes. And if the Empire knew where Celes was staying, had dispatched someone lethal and highly skilled to take her out—no, to take her alive, and him too, or he'd have been dead where he lay—this had clearly been a calculated and well-planned attack. Which meant they'd have come with whatever they needed to apprehend a rogue Esper or two.

A couple of streets away, they could hear the clamour of voices over the rain, which was slowing to a drizzle. A great many people shouting and arguing, someone sobbing, a child wailing. Not good.

Ramuh's street was devastated. The entire front wall of his apartment had been torn out and reduced to rubble. Shattered glass from the windows of buildings on all sides now lay in the street, and there were holes where rounds from Magitek weapons had pierced the stone. Blackened char marks arced along the ground and up a wall, and it looked as though one of the buildings across the street had caught fire, though the downpour had doused it. 

Locke didn't need to question the people huddling in miserable clusters around the ruin of their homes to guess what had happened. Soldiers in Magitek suits must have come through here, and they'd made no effort to spare Zozo or its residents. He supposed he ought to be grateful that the soldiers had not caused more damage, that the army itself had not simply marched through the rest of the city and made an example of it.

But they had clearly had their orders. The contents of Ramuh's flat were obliterated. There was no sign of Terra, nor Ramuh himself—just scorch marks and rubble and fragments of what had been his collected scraps of human life.

"We need to go after them," Locke said.

"And do what? Take on a battalion of Imperial soldiers in Magitek armor?" Celes stood in the corner of the apartment by what had been a bed but was now a pile of splintered matchsticks and burned fabric. "We can't just take them on. Not just the four of us, not when they're so well-armed."

Locke looked entreatingly at Edgar. "We could summon help from Figaro."

"By the time they got here, the empire would have too much of a head start. We'd never catch up, and if we did, it would be war—it would be bloody and brutal." Edgar shook his head. "I'm sorry."

Celes's expression was dark. "I wouldn't be surprised if they'd brought another of those crowns with them. They might very well control Terra to fight against us if we pursue them."

"Dammit!" His hands tightened into fists.

Celes strode back to the ruined wall and looked out, down the street, as though she could see the Imperials despite the rusting, crumbling, rain-streaked city that rose up high in all directions. "We're not giving up. I know where they're going. Vector. The Magitek Research Facility."

"Vector? The Imperial capital?" Edgar frowned. "Are you sure?"

She fixed him with a flat stare. "If there is anything I know well, it's where and how the Empire uses the Espers it imprisons."

Locke nodded. "I trust her on that."

Sabin, who had been pacing around the building, looking dubiously at its exposed beams, waved for their attention. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, where some of the crowd had started to close in. "Hey, guys. Whatever we decide to do, I think we ought to get out of here before someone shows us out."

"Let's go to Jidoor," Edgar said. "We'll get medical treatment for these two, if they need it, and make a plan. I have no idea how to get to Vector from here."

"We'll find a way," Locke said, feeling heartened. Celes had said We're not giving up with such conviction. And if she, the one who had openly scoffed at the power of hope, could believe that they would find and rescue their friend, how could he possibly doubt?

Chapter Text

In the best of circumstances, entering Jidoor after spending time in Zozo was jarring. Under these circumstances, the tidy, orderly streets of Jidoor seemed almost obscene—manicured foliage surrounding elegant gated homes, quaint shops, well-dressed people, and absolutely no recognition of the wreckage that had been left behind in Zozo. Even the streets were dry, untouched by Ramuh's unnatural rainstorm.

At least they'd gotten their chocobos from the stable in Zozo. Locke did not have the stamina for such a long trip on foot. His headache faded eventually, but the fuzzy feeling in his brain lingered. Not that he ought to complain. Celes had fought desperately for her life, and though she showed no sign of injury, he had learned not to put much stock in that. At the very least, she still seemed shaken, and he could only imagine what that implied about an attack that could spook even her.

They went straight to another inn, with Edgar in the lead, his head held high. Despite their general dishevelment, Edgar had enough regal bearing that no one questioned whether they belonged here. His profile was on the coins minted in Figaro, after all, and if there was one thing the people of Jidoor knew, it was money.

Edgar paid for a suite, two rooms with a small sitting chamber between them. He tended to be conscientious about his spending, since the coffers that supported him came from his people—not what Locke would have expected from royalty, but there were reasons why the people of Figaro had never revolted, and the love affair between Edgar and his nation was definitely two-sided—but, regardless, there were certain perks to being king. And Locke couldn't argue with the luxury of a clean bed, a private bathing chamber, or a hot meal brought up by the innkeeper's wife herself.

Celes claimed the settee in the sitting room instead of a space in one of the bedrooms. When Locke raised an eyebrow at her questioningly, she looked slightly discomforted, or maybe embarrassed. "There aren't windows in here," she said quietly. "I may be… less effective as a bodyguard this way, but…"

"I think you've been plenty effective already," he said. "That assassin might have killed me if you hadn't valiantly fought him off." He had meant it to come out like a joke, but even his attempt at absurd exaggeration could not bring humor to the statement. More somberly, he added, "I'm on edge, too. I think anyone would be. If staying out here makes you feel more comfortable, then that's what you should do."

She pressed her lips together, and he thought she might argue, but she was clearly exhausted. He left her alone, retiring to one of the rooms so she could have the space to forget about his presence, or his judgment, or whatever was troubling her.

They reconvened after a brief break, in the sitting room, to eat together and make a plan—the brothers seated in chairs at a little table, Celes perched at the edge of her settee, and Locke on the floor somewhat between them, his back against the wall. They had fruit, and boiled eggs, and sausage, and porridge with cream, all of a much finer quality than Zozo could offer, but the richness of it turned Locke's stomach.

"So, Vector, eh?" Edgar asked, while his brother consumed breakfast at a rate Locke could only describe as 'scarfing.' "I can't say I've ever been there before. The southern continent is notoriously hard to reach, given the imperial blockade." He glanced at Celes, as though inviting her to weigh in; she quietly stirred her bowl of porridge around and around. "We might be able to find a ship captain we could bribe to take us on, but we'd have to be smuggled in, we'll have to trust that we won't be turned over, it will take weeks, it will be terribly expensive, and we would be quite vulnerable at sea if something is amiss—"

Celes did look up when he said that, but she didn't look at Edgar—her eyes found Locke's, meaningfully. Right. She knows about Dad. Her awareness of it made him more aware of it, of the perfect parallel, not just any old ship and not just any old route but this journey, this route. Yet, as unhelpful as the reminder was, there was still something oddly nice about someone else knowing, someone else caring. "There's really no way to avoid having to travel by sea," he said with a pained smile. "It's practical."

"Aren't you worried?" she asked him.

He laughed. If only you knew. "I'm always worried. And, yes, I hate ships. But this wouldn't be the first time." He smiled at her, shrugged his shoulders just a little, to reassure her that he was all right, that there was no need for one more worry troubling her. Keeping his voice light, to Edgar, he said, "Well, you can't very well just ride a chocobo across."

"There are flying chocobos, you know," Sabin offered helpfully, taking a brief rest from eating not just his portion but also what Locke left untouched.

"Even a flying chocobo couldn't cross that distance."

"There are airships," Edgar said. "Not many. They're dastardly hard machines to engineer—they practically want to fall from the sky and you have to work so hard to fight their nature to keep them up there—but they're some of the fastest things in the world."

Locke raised his eyebrows. "I don't suppose you have one in the castle somewhere, ready for a test drive."

"Alas, no." Edgar sighed wistfully, dramatically.

"So, what? We write letters to someone who owns an airship and see if anyone is willing to give us a ride?"

"Possibly," Edgar said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "We'll have to figure something out. It's time to call on our contacts—friends of the Returners, friends of Figaro—and see if we can beg a favor."

 

***


Celes had no contacts to speak of, other than present company; the short list of people on the northern continent who would not wish death or destruction on her could all be found in this very room—or out on the street below, since Locke had set out alone on some mission of his own. With little else to offer, she sat at the table, sharpening her sword.

"No one will harm him in Jidoor," the king assured her. "Locke has managed to survive for some time on his own, despite his tendency to leap wholeheartedly into danger and trust luck and goodwill to get him through."

"You mean, like trusting an imperial general."

"That's on the list, yes. Though, as he has pointed out on multiple occasions, you are a former imperial general, which does seem like a fair distinction. Besides, that one seems to have worked out well for him, in the end."

This concession caught her off guard. It did not seem so long ago that he had thought she might betray Locke. Yet he had just seen her heal Locke after fighting off an intruder. That was likely what he meant—even if the assassin might have been coming for her in the first place. "I try," she said, unsure what else to say.

"Do you think there will be trouble for you if we do get to Vector?"

"Probably. They want me dead."

"Didn't you say your assailant tried drugging you both?" The king cocked his head, looking thoughtful. "If they simply wanted you dead, it seems less risky not to bother with any of that."

"I don't know," she said, and her shoulders tightened, rising up toward her ears. "My knowledge of strategy is limited to warfare, not whatever machinations the people behind it all have in mind."

"Well, you're a powerful ally for us, and a piece on the board they would much rather have on their side than ours."

"An ally?" She blinked at him. "Do you consider me an ally?"

"What else would you be?" He waggled a finger. "Locke calls you a friend, though he does tend to claim friends readily."

"I didn't ask him to."

"And yet he has done so all the same." The king shook his head, smiling. "I'm afraid that I must be rather more cautious myself. My friendships carry with them the weight of my responsibility to Figaro—I can't simply decide I like somebody and let that form a connection, or it could be too easily used as leverage against my people. I can't afford to be so cavalier with my attachments. Something Locke has never seemed to fully grasp is that even he has obligations to something larger than himself, and I honestly don't know what would happen to him if that and his loyalty to a friend were at odds with one another."

"I think Locke's loyalty is to humanity, not just the Returners. I think he would choose to be a man doing what he thought was right, even if it meant opposing his friends or his allies."

"You may be right. If so, that's something you two seem to have in common." He allowed himself to smile at her, and it seemed sincere rather than ironic, surprising her. "I do respect that, you know. I'm sorry I judged you so harshly at first."

His acceptance of her had been grudging, and she knew it, so this direct apology and what sounded like a statement of trust surprised her. "It seems like being a king must be exhausting," she said, though she couldn't say what moved her to say it. "At least as a general, I wasn't responsible for my men off the battlefield. I wasn't responsible for what happened in Vector, or what happened to Vector. I could put the responsibility down sometimes." Of course, when she had been responsible for them, the situation was literally life or death, making it a heavy burden. But a king must carry his people at all times.

"It is a heavy weight," he said somberly. "And there are times when I wonder if I can carry it, after all."

"For what it's worth–" She hesitated, unsure whether to proceed, second-guessing herself. What was it worth, coming from her? But he had been unusually open with her, and so she pressed on. "You seem to do well at it. You're dedicated to your people, and they are clearly dedicated to you. I've never seen anything like it."

"It's not much like how Gestahl runs his empire, is it, then?" This with a wry, mocking tone that contrasted with the melodic qualities of his voice.

"No." She looked at the tired, lined face of the man in front of her, whose face was shadowed by the weight of carrying his kingdom on his shoulders, and she thought of the fool, the harmless fop, that she had always been told ruled Figaro. "I think the empire underestimates you. Terribly."

"And well they should. I've worked hard to make it so."

Edgar retreated to his room then, armed with a quill and a sheaf of paper. The king's brother was still out, as was Locke, and so Celes waited alone in the sitting room, crippled by indecision. Should she go find Locke, to reassure herself that he was safe? She thought of the dead weight of him over her shoulder, and the panic of wondering whether he was not drugged but poisoned. The assassin's blades had been poisoned, she was sure of it. What if he struck again?

She was no bodyguard, not really. She could not follow him everywhere to keep him safe, and as she recognized just how badly she wanted to do exactly that, her stomach dropped. This was dangerous for both of them. No sense in getting too attached to another person—that made you vulnerable, and it made them vulnerable, if your enemies caught wind of it. And it meant she might be stupid, making poor decisions or, almost as bad, becoming too dependent on his presence in her life.

He won't die without your protection, she told herself. Trust him to live his own life, and learn to stand on your own. You're not really his bodyguard. You need to—to not need to protect him.

But if something happened to him–

Then what? Bad luck. Too bad. Things happen, you both have powerful enemies, he's been in danger for years, because of his own decisions and his own affiliations, and if something goes wrong because of that–

But if he's hurt, what then?

If he's … killed?

She couldn't say how long she stewed in her own toxic pessimism, furious with herself for being preoccupied with Locke's safety and—despite that—unable to cease thinking about it. She was equally terrified of the thought of losing him and of how upset she was by it.

When the door burst open, she jumped out of her seat. Her sword was drawn and ready before she realized what she was doing. Locke stood in the doorway, his grin evaporating and leaving momentary panic in its place.

"You should knock before you come in," she blurted out. "We should have some sort of code, so we know it's someone we can trust."

"That is a very good idea," he said, slowly. Mortified, angry with him for coming in unannounced and angry with herself for coming so close to attacking a friend—again—she felt her face burning with shame, bristling at his patronizing tone.

"I don't want to hurt you by accident," she said. "Be more careful next time. Please."

"I will."

Belatedly, she sheathed her sword again and then dropped back onto the settee, venting a sigh of frustration. He watched her carefully, maybe cautious but no longer obviously afraid. She thought maybe he would tease her—she could almost see a joke flit across his face—but instead he just smiled, composed, reassuring.

"I've got something, at least," he said, gesturing with one hand, in which he clutched a thin sheet of paper, folded and wrinkled but apparently intact. "Hey, Edgar. Get in here."

The king emerged from his chamber, his back perfectly straight, posture flawless. "What is it?"

"An airship."

"An airship?" The king nearly choked on his surprise. He grabbed for the paper, and Locke relinquished it, chuckling to himself. Edgar's eyes scanned the page. "What is this?"

"Some crackpot gambler who happens to own an airship and is, if this notice is to be believed, on his way to Jidoor soon with that very airship. I already checked it out, and he's the real deal. He has a reputation in these parts." Locke laughed. "Some urchin got paid handsomely to stick these notices on every poster for the opera house in town."

"And what does this mean for us?"

Still burning with shame and irritation and the same mess of exhaustion and lingering anxiety from the assassin's attack, Celes could not bring herself to demand that they fill her in. She was in no position to demand anything. Besides, she was here to be the muscle—the inventor-king and the calculating spy were both better suited to make plans.

"He's coming to Jidoor anyway. If we could somehow get our hands on his ship, we could commandeer it and take it across the sea."

"But how?"

"This might not be the single most outlandish idea I've ever had," Locke conceded, with a bit of pride, "but it's certainly up there."

"Locke," the king said, exasperated. "Don't draw it out."

"All right. But I warned you." Locke clapped his hands together, grinning hugely. "So this Gabbiani fellow is coming to kidnap the prima donna Maria, right? He'll have to fly his airship right over the opera house for the grand entrance—I'm told he has a flair for the dramatic, and the way this note is written, I'll believe it—but while he's distracted with the opera, we get to the roof and get to the airship."

"How?"

"That's where you come in." Locke pointed at the king. "You'll figure out something we can use to get up there, a hook shot with a rope attached or something, I don't know. I don't have to have the answer; I can see the wheels in your head turning already, don't try to tell me they're not."

"No, I can think of something that might work," Edgar said, bemused.

"And here's the kicker. Maria, the opera star—she's on the posters plastered all over town, and she's the spitting image of Celes. I did a double-take the first time I saw it, when I came here last week."

Celes, who had let this madhouse idea wash over her until now, looked up sharply at the mention of her name.

"So what I'm proposing is that we offer for Celes to swap places with Maria as bait, so some poor actress doesn't wind up caught up in any of this and so that, worst case scenario, if she winds up on the airship with him and we don't, she can find some way to commandeer things and force him to land. And then we can catch him."

The idea poured out of him in such a rush that Celes could only stare at him, aghast, without time to react until he had finished. Obviously pleased with himself, Locke dropped into the chair across from Edgar, signaling the end of his plan.

"That's... utterly absurd," she sputtered.

"It is," he said cheerfully. "And I have no idea if it would work. But we're pulling at straws here, and we can't afford to dismiss even our stupidest ideas without at least considering them."

The king, who had listened to most of this monologue without interrupting, spoke up in a voice that was equal parts awed and appalled. "The worst part is that it is absolutely batshit insane, and yet I think it might just have a chance at working."

"You've got to be kidding me," Celes said.

"What have we got to lose?" Locke shrugged. "If the opera house says no, we move on to the next plan. If Gabbiani doesn't show up, we're no worse off than we were. If Gabbiani sees through the disguise and isn't fooled by Celes's performance on stage–"

"Performance?"

"I don't think he'll actually be in the audience, so that honestly shouldn't matter. I'm more worried about if you actually make it onto his airship without us–"

"You want me to do what?" Celes drew herself to her full height, nearly even with Locke, who ducked his head with an apologetic smile.

"I don't mean to volunteer you for a dangerous situation, since we don't know what his defenses will be like on his ship, but–"

"I don't care about that," Celes said. "I doubt he could do anything to seriously harm me that he wouldn't immediately regret. But you want me to sing." She paused for emphasis. "Opera."

"I warned you it's a bit of a wild hare," he said. "And I certainly can't make you do something you aren't comfortable with. We don't even know whether the opera house will work with us on this, even if you're willing to go through with it."

This was absolutely ridiculous. And yet he seemed earnest, and she could imagine why. The alternative was following the route that had led to his father's death. Normal people carry trauma from loss like that. People with families hurt when something happens to those families. If participating in this absurd charade could have even a chance at sparing him that pain, she had to be willing to try it. And if it did, by some miracle, turn out the way Locke hoped—then they could reach Vector, and Terra, and Ramuh, far sooner than she could have dreamed. And those extra weeks could make all the difference in the world for Terra. Celes could not bear the thought of what might happen to Terra in the clutches of Gestahl's barbaric scientists.

"Fine," she said. "We can at least try it."


***


The impresario of the Royal Jidoor Opera House—a ridiculous name, as it had been generations since a royal family had presided over Jidoor, it had passed from monarchy to oligarchy long before—clearly considered himself a most impressive person, judging by the way he dressed, the way he carried himself, and the excessively broad gestures of his hands as he spoke.

"Truly, it is an honor to meet the king of Figaro," he simpered. "And his companions, of course, all of you. You simply must attend this weekend's performance. A matinee, perhaps? A box seat?"

They knelt on cushions at a table inlaid with exquisite detail work. The impresario's house servant had served them tea and then quickly disappeared, barely even registering the smile Locke threw her way. The impresario himself hardly seemed to notice the girl, as one might not pay attention to a door that opened smoothly or a chair that supported one's weight, or a mat that one trod upon.

"I have heard that The Royal Jidoor Opera House is without peer, and I wish that I could accept your generous offer," Edgar said smoothly, making the full title sound exquisite and dignified rather than the dreadful mouthful it was, damn him. His charm and elegance seemed effortless, although Locke supposed that might happen if one had trained in it since birth, just as Celes's skill with a sword was unparalleled. Locke had had no such focus of his own and would just have to do his best to keep up.

"Perhaps you are looking to make a patronage, to support the arts?" the impresario asked hopefully.

"I would like to discuss that, but at a later date," Edgar said. "I am afraid that I must beg a favor of you instead, one that I hope will help solve a problem for you as well."

And with that, he began to explain a simplified version of the plan: that they wished to apprehend this gambler, that they saw his notices around town, that they intended to install Celes as a decoy to save the real Maria and allow a skilled bodyguard to take down Gabbiani and any of his men. Locke had helped develop this half-truth, and he was gratified to see the impresario accept it with appropriate gasps and gestures and clasping his hands to his heart.

Accepted all of it, that is, but the suggestion that Celes could fill Maria's role, even temporarily, even for the purpose of saving the real Maria and, by extension, her future performances. Locke bit back the temptation to point this out to the man—Edgar spoke his language, and Edgar was to manage the conversation. Locke was only here because he liked being at the table when things happened, and because this ridiculous scheme had been his idea and one way or another he meant to take responsibility for it.

"I must admit the resemblance is uncanny, but…" The impresario stared at Celes, sizing her up with haughty disapproval writ larger than life on his overly preened face. "I mean no offense, of course, but do you know anything about opera?"

She swallowed. "I—do, actually." Well, that was news she might have mentioned at any point while they planned this, unless she was bluffing, which did not seem like her style.

"Do you?" The impresario's eyes narrowed.

"I'm from Vector," she said, and Locke inwardly winced, but at least she didn't mention who she had been in Vector, and it wasn't unheard of for imperial citizens to flee the southern continent. "The emperor loves opera. He played recordings over the loudspeakers regularly. It's hard not to become familiar with it, given that."

Locke looked at her in surprise. "Really?"

Celes kept her eyes on the impresario. "Yes."

"Are you familiar with Maria and Draco?"

"Yes."

"You're aware that there is an aria in the middle of the first act? It's not easy to sing…"

"I can't promise professionalism, or a beautiful voice, but I know how it goes."

The impresario rose without a word and went to a keyboard instrument in the corner, which Locke had thought must be only ornamental. But to his surprise, the man began to play—more skillfully than Locke would have expected. He had assumed the impresario, too, was only ornamental. Let that be a lesson not to make such assumptions.

To his even greater surprise, when the impresario held out a note and looked meaningfully at Celes, she was staring at him, wide-eyed. It was plain that the music had communicated something between the two of them.

"Well?" The impresario nodded at her. "Go on."

This was clearly a test. And she seemed to have passed the first part of it, presumably recognizing the music. Her face turned red, and redder still, and she glanced at Locke with panic in her eyes.

What was she trying to convey? Did she want him to rescue her from this, to make up some excuse to get her out of this room? But her eyes flitted nervously to Edgar, to Locke, to the impresario. Nerves. Of course.

"She's auditioning," Locke said. "We should leave her to it, King Edgar."

"She'll have to sing in front of a larger audience than this if she performs," the impresario said coolly. "If she's too afraid to sing in front of her own companions–"

"It's easier to perform in front of strangers than around people you know well, isn't it, though?" Edgar offered this with an ironic smile, and Locke suspected he was not talking about music. That was something they both had in common—the frequency with which they performed what others needed them to be. Sometimes Locke wondered if Edgar was even aware they shared this tendency, or if Locke had him fooled as he often did the rest.

"Very well." The impresario nodded at the two men, dismissing them. "Annie will show you to the gallery."

The servant from before appeared once more to spirit them away across the impresario's ostentatious house. She kept her expression absolutely neutral—no, not neutral. Guarded.

"Do you like opera?" he asked her, as they settled in amongst walls of paintings. Quite a gallery, but he couldn't help wondering if the impresario even looked at them or if he kept them here for show. But that was unfair. The man was clearly passionate about the arts. Even a rich man could appreciate the value of beauty and creativity, even if he failed to value the humanity of the people around him.

"Yes, sir," the maid said mildly, not quite meekly.

And before he could ask her questions, or at least disarm her and put her at ease, she was gone. Edgar shrugged at Locke's frustrated sigh, and they passed the rest of the time in silence.

It was not long before Celes and the impresario joined them.

"She'll do," the impresario said. "She's agreed to come to rehearsal for the next two days. In the meantime, please do not hesitate if you need my help with the rest of your plans."

"Thank you," Edgar said formally. "We'll get to work at once. I appreciate your gracious willingness to assist us."

"It may save my opera house, and my star soprano. And, of course, I am grateful to be of assistance to the king of Figaro."

Edgar's smile took on a bit of an edge, although his eyes were laughing. "Indeed, my good man. I am the one who will be grateful to you, of course. We can discuss my gratitude another time, if you wish."


***


 "I feel ridiculous," she said, the same dismissive voice she had used earlier. But then her tone softened, and she added, anxiously, "Do I look it? Is it… all right?"

All right?! He had somehow not considered, even having seen the costume in the posters, that Celes would be wearing it, or what that might look like. The dress had been made for a bustier woman, so the corset was laced tighter to try to make up for it, with an oversized necklace drawing attention to the cleavage he had never quite noticed before. The voluminous skirt accentuated her slender waist. Her hair was swept back from her face and bound up in some complicated way with a sky-blue ribbon, though delicate golden curls had escaped the binding and framed her face beautifully. He chose to focus on this ribbon. It was the easiest thing to focus on, really.

For the first time, he saw her not as a fellow-soldier and a peer but as a woman—no, he realized with some embarrassment and a little horror, this was not the first time he saw her that way but rather the first time he had no choice but to acknowledge even to himself that he did. And that acknowledgment must be spreading to her, as well, as he felt heat rush to his face, which must be bright red by now. He turned away quickly.

"That ribbon suits you," he said stupidly.

He found himself in the hallway outside the dressing room without being entirely clear how he had gotten there. There had only been an urge to put as much distance between himself and Celes's ribbon as he could, the look on her face as she turned to him for comfort and reassurance, a moment of rare vulnerability—and he had let her down, because seeing a pretty girl apparently made him lose his mind.

A door inside of him had cracked open, and though he desperately tried with all his might to seal it up again, still the doorknob rattled like it might burst open again and this time he would be unable to close it. Like a box sealed tight and banished to the forgotten attics of his mind, only to crack open just a hair, threatening to burst open again. That couldn't happen.

She was a pretty girl, though. And her steely exterior protected a heart that was willing to risk death to save others, a soul desperate to repent for any hurt it had caused others, a walking contradiction of violence and compassion, beauty and darkness, pain and love and—

"Shut up," he told himself, out loud.

The others were waiting on the roof for Gabbiani's airship to come close enough for Edgar to hook it with a grappling hook and climb aboard. Locke had volunteered to stay down here in case Celes needed backup for some reason. Which included pep talks in the dressing room, which, again, he had failed at.

He had just about made up his mind to go back and offer her some real words of encouragement when another man in the hallway caught his eye. Although the man wore the clothing of an opera house employee, something about him didn't seem right. A certain furtiveness in his movements, the unchecked instinct to look over his shoulder, even the man's disheveled look.

Locke had been the suspicious figure enough times to recognize one when he saw one. He pulled the performance program out again and held it up as though he were reading it, tracking the man's movement in his peripheral vision. When the man disappeared down a hallway, Locke shadowed him—down a side path, through a backstage door, up a ladder to the catwalk. Some part of him wondered if this were a legitimate stagehand and he had just turned paranoid after too many years spent as a spy, but he had gotten this far in life partly on instinct, and he trusted his gut.

His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light of the theater. Music had started at some point while he trailed the man, and now someone far below on stage was singing. Locke had never been one for opera—this was much more Edgar's field, and apparently Celes's as well—but the power of the baritone voice carried it even up here. Impressive.

By the time he could make out his surroundings in the darkness, the man was out of sight. He'd had a head start, since Locke had been trailing him to begin with, and those extra few seconds added up. Maybe he was legitimately part of the crew, up here on some necessary errand, and Locke would feel like a fool for getting entangled. That was a risk Locke was willing to take.


***


Locke's response had been less than helpful. She had expected—well, some variation of his usual reassurance, a smile, a note of kindness. Instead he had stammered out some nonsense and been unable to meet her eyes.

This did little to curb her nervousness about the entire fiasco. How had she let him talk her into this—why had she let him talk her into this? Everything about it was preposterous. That she was impersonating someone else, that she was expected to sing on stage in front of an audience, that this mad gambler would really show up to whisk her away under a case of mistaken identity. It was like the plot of a tawdry dime novel, or a middling opera, and yet here she was, living it.

The quick exit of her one friend in this mess left her feeling somewhat unmoored. But ultimately it didn't matter whether her performance was terrible or not. What mattered was that she served as bait to lure the gambler in so they could hijack his airship. She could sound like a wounded cat on stage and it would make no difference. If this Gabbiani appeared, she would certainly be able to take him in a fight, and any armsmen he might have on his ship. And that, at least, she was confident in.

But it would have been nice, at least, to have had a few kind words to help her get through everything up to that point.

The show must go on, though. Through the open door she could hear that the overture had ended, the narrator's introduction, and Draco's soliloquy. Soon enough she would need to make her entrance and sing the aria, that damn aria that Gestahl had played over and over again and that Celes had, despite herself, hummed and finally sang along with.

She left the dressing room alone and walked past chorus girls and dancers who belonged here. It was a long, lonely journey through the bustling crowds backstage, and she walked it in a strange, dreamy trance, lost in the surrealism of the moment.


***


He was creeping carefully along a thin catwalk over the stage when the music all but dropped away. Just a few delicate notes plucked on a solitary harp, alone while all the orchestra stayed silent. It demanded attention. Locke glanced down almost involuntarily.

A spotlight had been lit, aiming at a figure onstage. Celes. Locke could barely see her expression from this height, but she looked even paler than usual, perhaps because of the rouge they'd put on her lips. The set around her looked like a fairy-tale castle, and everything had a blueish cast, as though it were set at dusk. The backdrop was blue, too, with painted stars. None of it looked remotely convincing, and yet it didn't need to—the colors were more intense, the sets exaggerated, and instead of looking real, it was more real than real, telling the story with its design in a way that pure realism never could.

Celes clasped her hands in front of her. Locke found himself holding his breath, his purpose up here forgotten.

"Oh my hero, my beloved," she began, and somehow her words were clear where the other singers had not been. She did not have the resonance of the deep-voiced man, yet there was something immediately engaging about her performance. She sounded hesitant, and yet she sounded as though she should sound hesitant. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but it was captivating. Locke could only stare. The lyrics were nothing special, a cliché love poem, a woman conflicted about lost love, but there was something

Movement at the edge of his field of vision brought him back to what was happening around him. There, across the catwalk—the man he had been following. The supposed stagehand, all nerves forgotten, the glint of metal in his hand as he pulled on a rope. Locke watched him closely, crouching close to the platform, creeping along it like a cat stalking his prey, edging closer.

Locke had very little experience in the theater, and absolutely none at all with the backstage mechanics of running a stage. But even with all that in mind, he could piece together what was happening. So many ropes criss-crossed up here, presumably pulling the enormous velvet curtains and whatever other devices might need to descend to the stage. The man had his hands around one of the ropes, tugging it gently as though testing it. He glanced down at the stage with a look of such revulsion and rage that it could have boiled whatever it splashed on. Then he drew a knife from under his jacket, unsheathed it, and began to saw away at the rope with the blade.

"Oh no you don't," Locke hissed through gritted teeth, before throwing himself bodily at the man.


***


She was used to the battlefield, to sights and sounds assaulting her senses all at once. In the thick of battle, she could act on instinct, reacting to what was taking place around her even before her conscious mind could interpret the sensory overload around her.

None of that had prepared her for this particular absurd scenario, or the rush of feelings and activity that broke up reality like a surreal kaleidoscope.

First, the sound of fighting far above her—that was familiar, the cry of shock and then anger in the silence after her song. A crash, the clang of metal on metal. Her senses picked up on that immediately, heightened as they already were by the tension of performing something as unfamiliar as music and choreography. Days of intense practice and yet she had been woefully underprepared even so. Her nerves were raw and fraying. And then the scuffle overhead, distant enough that she at first thought it might be backstage, even though this was not the time for sword-fighting according to any of the rehearsals.

And then an enormous sound of wood splintering, and fragments of roof showering her and the stage. A weighted rope, and gallantly descending upon it, a pale figure with flowing silver hair and a billowing black coat. She had just enough time to think, He certainly knows how to make an entrance, before the man reached her. He flashed her a smile, which neither charmed nor reassured her in any way. Before she could respond, he had his arms around her and pulled her to him. With another flourish, he wrapped loose yards of rope around them both and then gave a mighty tug. The rope rose almost at once. Within seconds, the ground was far below. Too far for her to leap and survive even if she'd been able to reach the long knife sheathed within her dress.

As they whizzed up, passing the rafters, she caught a quick glimpse of Locke's startled face. It was hard to say which of them was more surprised at the momentary presence of the other. Isn't he supposed to be up with Edgar? And then she was above the roof, in open air, wrapped in coils of rope with this stranger holding her. An enormous shadow loomed overhead. An airship, hovering in place over the opera house.

Edgar was crouched on a corner of the roof, the device he had spent the past two days laboring over glinting in the sunlight. At least that part of the plan seemed to be on schedule. Celes could only hope that her kidnapper didn't notice him.

The wind whizzed past, so loud she could hear nothing else. It tangled her hair and the blue ribbon and chilled her despite the heavy brocade of her dress. She was flying—flying!—so far above the ground that looking down was dizzying. The urge to close her eyes was strong, but she fought it. tried to turn her iron will against fear.

Her kidnapper, this gambler and airship pilot they were trying to ensnare, had his arms around her. Possessive more than protective, but was that surprising from someone who meant to kidnap a defenseless artist simply because he thought she was beautiful? But there was no particular strength in his arms. No, he seemed slim, angular, perhaps even moreso than Locke. Not a physical force to be reckoned with, at least, which would make the next part of this plan easier.

Because soon they were at the airship, rising up through a hatch in the base, and soon she would have to be prepared to fight him, if necessary.

He laughed with unbridled delight as they rose through the hatch, which sealed up beneath them. Compared to the brightness of the day outside, the darkness in here made it very hard to see at first, and she was caught off guard when he leaned in to kiss her. She managed to shove him away in time to stop him, and she pushed herself directly out of his arms and a good pace and a half away.

"Don't," she said.

"Ah, where are my manners?" He bowed to her, neither as earnest and simple as Locke's movements nor with the king's incessant flourish, but instead with a sort of languid self-satisfaction. "Setzer Gabbiani, at your service, milady."

"I would hardly consider a kidnapping at anyone's service but your own."

He laughed again. "You're a headstrong one. I can't say I expected that. Maybe I should have. Sopranos are meant to be divas, aren't they?"

"I wouldn't know."

He peered at her. "You wouldn't?"

Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to register that they stood in a plush hallway with black-and-white tiled floor, intricate paintings on the walls, and plush overstuffed couches placed around low tables.

"You aren't very observant, are you?" Celes could not resist jabbing at him with her words, though she would rather use her sword—but she was supposed to at least attempt diplomacy. What would Locke say here? Certainly not insult the man they hoped to convince to work with them. But Celes, unlike Locke and his seemingly boundless kindness and self-control, did not have the patience for this man. "I'm not Maria."

"No, I suppose you're not." He sized her up—no, he looked her up and down, his eyes taking note of what this ridiculous dress did to her body, and the experience made her feel dirty. But where she expected him to smile lasciviously, he did not, just chuckled and shook his head. "That's quite a disguise. You had me fooled. What a story—try to run off with the prima donna, and instead you end up with a decoy."

"Run off with?" She stared at him. "You were going to steal her away and make her yours."

He regarded her with some confusion. "I thought it was romantic."

"Romantic! Where could you possibly have gotten such a notion?" She advanced on him, furious, and drew the long knife she had sheathed under the stiff bodice of the dress. His eyes widened tremendously. It seemed that having a weapon drawn on him was not a common occurrence. 

"You're very not Maria," he said. "This is quite a turn."

"Would Maria have been all right with being kidnapped like this? Did you ask her?"

"She's an opera singer," the scarred man said with a shrug, as though this explained anything.

What do you even know about romance? that unwelcome voice whispered to her. Maybe an ordinary girl would have enjoyed being swept off her feet. It does sound like something from a dime novel. But go off, if you're going to. Give in to that anger. That is what you know.

"And you're a gambler, a pirate, and a thief," Celes retorted. "A kidnapper and a criminal.  Maybe she'd have been just as inclined to stab you, only she might have been less equipped to do so than I am."

"So you've come to make me pay for my crimes?" He grinned, looking delighted by this, and held his arms out, wrists up. "Very well. Tie me up, then. This might be fun."

Something about his tone of voice and the way he looked at her made her fingers tighten on the knife. "Knock that off or I'll knock you out. No, I'm here because I need an airship."

"Aren't there simpler ways to get your hands on one?"

"If there had been, we certainly would have taken it."

"'We'?"

As if on cue, a voice piped down through a tube emerging from one wall. "Uh, Setzer," it said tinnily, "we might have a problem."


***


Locke and the younger man had grappled for several minutes—neither of them, he had to admit, especially strong or skilled—until the commotion onstage proved such a distraction that the young man stopped fighting and Locke was at last able to subdue him.

"Look," he panted, knife at the young man's throat, "whatever you were trying to do, you can be quite sure the opera is well and fully disrupted. Drop your weapon."

"Even if you turn me in, more will come," the young man said defiantly. "This is just one operation. There are more of us. So many more. And we're not going to stop until we've made things right."

Zozo. A thick Zozo drawl. "So you're a revolutionary," Locke said, sitting back.

"What's it to you?"

"I'm with the Returners. You could say I've got a soft spot for rebellions." This isn't your fight, he reminded himself. This young fool would have hurt Celes, and the rest of the performers, if he'd had a chance.

"You? The Returners? The hell are you doing here, then?" The boy narrowed his eyes. "You siding with those… those pigs?"

"I'm not siding with anyone," Locke said mildly. 

"Then what, huh?" The angrier the boy got, the thicker his drawl seemed. It was a marvel he'd managed to fool anybody enough to get in here in the first place.

"Gathering information," Locke said, sheathing his daggers. "Which is something I'd recommend you do a little more of before you act. If you'd paid attention to either news or gossip, you would have known that this afternoon's show was likely to be interrupted by someone else, spoiling any example you might try to make."

"We have been following the news." The boy sounded sullen.

"Recently? Yesterday, the day before? Have you been around Jidoor, seen the posters, heard what people have been whispering about?"

"And how should we do that, do you think? You think they let us waltz in?"

Locke pinched the bridge of his nose. "Surely there's someone in your group who won't raise suspicion. A—pretty girl, or a younger boy, they tend to come across as trustworthy. Give them a solid reason to be wandering around, get them to work on practicing the accent—no offense, but it probably shouldn't be you—or maybe find allies in Jidoor. I don't think the servants there are much happier than you are. You might find a sympathetic ear." He thought of the girl who blended in with the furniture and wondered if, perhaps, the servants in Jidoor had subversive plans of their own and might be willing to join forces.

"Why should I trust anything you say?"

Locke shrugged. "I don't know. It's just a little free advice, and you can take it or leave it." Below, the din from the crowd had swelled louder than the orchestra had played. Locke glanced down at the chaos. "Regardless, if you were planning to slip out undetected, now's the time."

"I wasn't really planning to leave at all."

"Well, that's a terrible idea. Do you have anything but that usher's uniform with you?" When the boy shook his head, Locke sighed. "Some more advice—if you're going to disguise yourself, try to keep something else neutral on you in case you have to get away. They'll stop an usher who looks like he's shirking his job, but they won't notice someone from the audience." He rooted around in his bag, pulled out a shirt, and tossed it at the young man, who caught it with a stupefied expression on his face. "Good luck. But be smart about it, all right? You've got some goal in mind, I presume. Hold onto that, not an opportunity to martyr yourself in a blaze of glory."

With that, he shouldered his bag, rose to a crouch, and started the slow, painstaking journey back across the rafters and catwalks. Some part of him was screaming that he ought to go back to guide the boy, make sure he made it safely out of the opera house and back to the side of town where he wouldn't be arrested for being out of place.

This isn't your fight, he told himself again. The foolish kid had to learn to take care of himself, and Locke had other responsibilities than getting involved in local politics, no matter how distasteful he might find the Jidoori upper class and no matter how disgusted he might be at how they treated those they considered beneath them. Maybe once they'd gotten Terra back, and they all regrouped with the Returners, he could return to Zozo and Jidoor—just to check in.

But first he had to figure out how to get to the damn airship now, if the plan had in fact succeeded. And he had, at the moment, no idea how to do so.


***


The gambler's airship was staffed by what seemed like a skeleton crew, none of whom had any real fighting skill, so soon enough the king and his brother made their way below deck with what looked like a butler, a cook, and a barmaid trailing behind them. Celes felt a degree of relief that someone with actual skill in diplomacy was here to take over, although she would rather it had been both the king and Locke, who was—perhaps unsurprisingly—absent.

King Edgar took in the scene below, Celes with her knife out and the gambler reclining along one of his plush couches, his coat and hair rakish and disheveled. Self-consciously, Celes sheathed the weapon, wondering what he made of finding her armed against an opponent who seemed uninterested in defending himself.

"So you're Setzer Gabbiani," the king said.

"I am." The gambler squinted up at him, then burst out laughing. "The goddamn king of Figaro himself? I can't say I saw that coming. Is this devilishly handsome swordswoman yours?"

Celes bristled. "I'm not his or anyone's."

"Of course not, milady," the man said with a grin she wanted to smear off his face. "More's the pity. I think I like you better than the real Maria—you seem like you'd be a lot more fun to have around. I like a woman who won't take shit from anybody."

The king stepped forward, angling himself somewhat between Celes and Gabbiani before she had a chance to respond. "We need your airship. We'd prefer that you be willing to take us, of course."

Gabbiani angled his head toward the king, considering. "What's in it for me?"

"We can pay you."

"Do I look like I need the money?" The gambler gestured to the opulent deck around them.

King Edgar chuckled. "No, you seem to be doing well for yourself."

"Lady Luck failed me once, quite spectacularly, and I think she's been trying to make it up to me ever since." Gabbiani pursed his thin lips, and Celes couldn't help wondering how he had gotten so scarred when it seemed unlikely he'd ever been in a fight. Silvery lines split his brow and his lip and marred his gaunt cheeks. "What can you offer me that I'll accept?" His eyes flicked toward Celes, who tensed. Surely the king would not attempt to broker some kind of deal that involved her—or she would run them both through.

"I wouldn't get any ideas about her," she heard King Edgar say. "She'll likely kill you if you try anything."

"The danger isn't a deterrent."

On the other hand, they needed this airship to rescue Terra, and it might go more smoothly if the gambler was willing to play along. The thought of bartering herself as if she were just a chip on the table turned her stomach. But what was she willing to do to save someone? And what could she do, really?

"We can make this ship run, with or without your help," the king said, smiling thinly.

"Oh, I doubt that. You may be a king, my friend, but you can't just command an airship to listen. Airships are like women—you have to know how to talk to them."

"Then I'm doubly qualified."

"Is that so?"

"Stop," she said, her heart pounding in her ears. And they did, all of them, even the king's enormous brother and the airship's hand-wringing crew. Are you going to do this? Are you really going to whore yourself out to save your friend?

No, but I'm going to take a gamble.

"Do you have something to offer me?" Gabbiani asked, looking at her with heavily lidded eyes that she supposed were meant to be seductive.

"No," she spat, "but I don't think you actually want us to offer you something. What are you going to do with it, stick it on display with everything else here? I don't think you'd have known what to do with Maria even if you got hold of her." She gestured to the rest of the hall, to the untouched gambling tables and empty couches, then to the man himself, who had sat up and was looking at her with an expression she couldn't identify. "Were you looking for adventure when you decided to kidnap Maria? Well, you've found adventure. We're going against the Empire. We might all die. Does that sound exciting enough for you? Is that dangerous enough?"

Edgar stared at her in horror, and she could imagine him covering his face with his hands as she shredded any hope he might have had of negotiating.

But then the gambler threw his head back and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. And when at long last he finally stopped, he had to wipe away tears. "Touché. Milady, you've read me like an open book. I have to admit defeat."

She stopped herself from stammering out Really? because he seemed to respond better when she confronted him without flinching. "Good," she said instead, sending him into laughter again. 

"You mean it?" The king, at least, voiced her surprise. "You'll help us?"

"I'll follow where she leads," the gambler said, and then he looked the king over and added, "and you, too. You're really taking on Gestahl and his genocidal cronies?"

"We already have, and we won't stop until we've crushed them," Celes said with a confidence she did not feel. "What, are you going to tell me you actually care about what they do to the world down there?"

"War is bad for business," the gambler said flippantly.

"What is wrong with you?"

"Quite a lot, I'm sure," he replied. "No, I'm no friend of the Empire. Even I can see the world would be better off without them. But it's never really seemed like anyone could stop them, so what's the point of worrying about it?"

Celes took a deep breath to calm herself. "Some things are worth trying even if there's not much chance of success."

"Apparently so." He stood and extended a hand, and there was a fire in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "Setzer Gabbiani, then. At your service—truly, this time, at your service. My life's a chip in your pile now. Ante up."

She shook on it when he offered, and his grip was firmer than she expected, though she worried she might crush his bony, soft-skinned hand.

To her surprise—and maybe a little irritation—the king and the gambler quickly fell into an eager conversation about the inner workings of the ship. They made as if to go to the control room, talking about controls and winds and trajectories to Vector.

"We can't just head off right this moment," Celes interrupted them, scowling. "Locke is still at the opera house. We can't leave him behind."

"He's resourceful," King Edgar said. "He'll manage until we get back."

"No." She narrowed her eyes at him. "How do you think we'll get through Vector without him? The King of Figaro, the disgraced former General Celes, and a notorious rogue—"

"Oh, I will be staying with the ship," Gabbiani piped up.

Celes crossed her arms. "The two of us, then, and your brother, storming into the heart of the empire. You think they won't recognize us on sight? Your face is on every coin minted in Figaro. I am wanted for treason under penalty of death. We are hardly incognito."

"You raise a fair point."

"Land this ship. We'll reconvene with Locke, resupply as needed, and set off when we're properly prepared." The orders slipped out without thinking. Both men were staring at her, and she felt her face flush. Maybe there was something about the thought of returning to Vector that set her into old patterns, old ways of thinking.

She had to admit the thought scared her.

Chapter Text

Gabbiani made quite a fuss about landing his craft in a nearby field, but she thought he delighted in showing off its technical capabilities to the king, who was full of questions and admiration. Celes had little patience for either of them. As soon as the ship had docked, she hurried down the gangplank and went alone to Jidoor. 

Oh, she hated having to do anything more in this ridiculous dress, but between confronting the gambler and commanding him to land, there had been no time to contend with its complicated laces. She could feel the eyes on her even as she approached the gate, and townspeople murmured and pointed. Her face burned and she kept her eyes fixed ahead. Did they know she was an impostor, or did they think she was actually Maria, the opera star? And what expectations would they have of her in either case?

She was spared further scrutiny and her own churning stomach by the sight of a familiar smile in the crowd, and then Locke was by her side, grinning.

"I thought maybe you'd flown off into the sunset without me." He seemed cheerful, but she wondered if there was genuine worry underneath his flippant tone. Even if they'd left him alone, he would probably have managed to land on his feet like a damn cat and found a safe harbor somewhere. Here, or maybe Figaro, if the imperials didn't pick him up on the way.

"What kind of a bodyguard would I be if I abandoned my charge?" she said.

"I'm relieved you're so committed to your work." He was still smiling, and his eyes lingered on her long enough that she suspected he was waiting for some particular response, but nothing came to mind.

"Were you just waiting here in case we came back?" she asked instead.

"I saw the shadow of the airship overhead, and I thought I saw it landing, so I hoped for the best. And, lucky for me, you came to pick me up before too long." He gestured to her, indicating the dress. "You're easy to pick out in that." 

She smoothed the front of it, resisted the urge to cover the bodice's efforts to give her cleavage, because she did not want to draw attention to it or to her sudden self-consciousness about it. "I do look ridiculous–"

"No," he blurted out quickly. "No, you do not look ridiculous. I should have said so when you asked earlier. I was—nervous—about the plan—but, no, you look..." He paused, as though trying to think of something complimentary to say, but he floundered, because even he in his infinite kindness could not lie. Finally seeming to accept the lack of anything gentler to say, he swallowed, and then said, "Not ridiculous." Somehow, foolishly, even though it was the least important thing to have happened all day, she was disappointed.

"There are ruffles." She looked down at the dress, lifted the overskirt to illustrate her point. "Layers of ruffles."

"The dress is ridiculous, maybe." He cleared his throat. "You, though–"

Again there was that hesitation, as the moment dragged on too long and she wondered what she was supposed to have done or said to fill it.

"Thanks," she said, too late, and it felt like a question.

He was staring at the ribbon in her hair, and she had a sudden fear that there was something wrong with it. The ribbon had been the one part in the whole ensemble that felt like her. But Locke's eyes lingered on it, and her hands rose to pull it loose.

"Don't," he said.

That ribbon suits you, he had said earlier, in the dressing room, before he disappeared into the hallway and left her alone. And ran off to—where, exactly? Which brought her thoughts from focusing on clothes—a stupid thing to be thinking about—to something more relevant to what actually mattered.

"What kept you? You weren't with Edgar."

For a moment he stared at her blankly, but then he seemed to come back to himself. Laughing ruefully, he rubbed the back of his neck, then grinned at her wryly. "Oh, ah—I got a little tangled up in local politics."

"You what?"

He waved a dismissive hand. "It's a long story. I'll tell you later."


***


It was normal to notice a beautiful woman. It meant nothing more than a passing moment of awkwardness.

Anyway, he had more important concerns. Like this damn contraption that defied Edgar's science, this floating nightmare that should not be skybound and yet would be. Being at the mercy of unknown forces and the whims of a total stranger was even worse than sailing, where one could, in theory, hang onto a piece of driftwood in the worst-case scenario and pray. On an airship, if anything went wrong, they would plummet to the earth with no control and no chance at survival.

But he had to remind himself that this was his idea, his madcap plan, and it had actually worked. And if such a cockamamie plan could work, so could an airship. In theory. He sat in a chair that had been bolted to the floor as the crew prepared for liftoff, and he could not make up his mind whether it would be better to look out the window or hide from it.

The ship roared into motion. Everything from his toes to his teeth was vibrating. And then he felt a terrible lurch in his stomach, and a terrible popping sensation in his ears, and for a brief terrible moment he felt that the whole ship was about to come apart at the seams. Just when he thought he couldn't take any more of it and he was about to run screaming to throw himself out a window, the roar leveled out and was replaced by a low buzz.

'You're awfully white-knuckled over there," the gambler observed, with just a hint of a sneer. "Never flown, have you?"

"It's not part of my usual routine, no," Locke said with what he was sure was an unconvincing smile, his stomach too knotted to give him full access to his mental facilities. "Not sure I'll make a habit of it, either."

He distracted himself—or tried to—by taking inventory of the people who either sat in similarly firm-bolted chairs near him or who bustled around the wood-paneled deck while the rattling purr of an engine rose in his ears.

Edgar and Sabin seemed none the worse for wear, Edgar seemed to be having the time of his life with a new contraption at hand, and Sabin lurked around menacingly at the gambler's crew, as if daring them to revolt against the commandeering of their ship. Of course, other than his size, he was almost comically nonthreatening. Locke wondered if the crew members could tell how much it was a charade.

And the crew: an attendant who made Locke think of the butlers he had known in fine houses, who was never far from his employer—a handful of beautiful young women in impractical dresses, laughing and singing and who seemed to be having the time of their lives—an ornery old cook, a gruff engineer and his young apprentice, and a few others who filled roles that all translated to "sailor" in Locke's limited understanding of ships. If he stayed on this infernal device for long enough, he would come to know them all. But right now he was focused on not being sick, on not thinking about what Edgar had said about airships trying to fall from the sky, and so he was only able to devote so much of his mind to cataloging the people who kept the gambler's ship afloat.

As for the gambler himself, he was a pompous dandy in a ridiculously ornate coat—ostentatious, stitched with gilt edging—which he flung around with no consideration for the time that had gone into its detailing or the incredible amount it must have cost. The son of a nobleman, maybe. Likely an embarrassment to his family, legitimate but not the heir, maybe the youngest child given wealth and nothing else—spoiled, heedless of the lives around him, with no purpose in life but the pursuit of his own pleasure. These broad strokes were, of course, just a guess; at some point Locke would corner the butler to confirm his theories or fill in the details.

Gabbiani seemed chummy enough with Edgar—surprisingly so, given that Edgar had had a hand in taking over his ship. He seemed darkly amused by Sabin. He clearly did not like or trust Locke, a feeling that went both ways. And then there was how he regarded Celes.

Once the airship was steadily aloft, the passengers split up. Edgar went to see the engines, Sabin to the galley for a bite to eat, Celes to the open deck to view the clouds, a sight Locke wanted to avoid at all costs. She strode off toward the ladder above, finally in her own clothes, with her hair up off her neck in a loose practical bun, and he was relieved to see that she, at least, seemed comfortable here.

"That's a nice sight, isn't it?"

The gambler was against the far wall, arms crossed over his chest, and he tracked Celes's walk with his eyes and then met Locke's with a thin-lipped grin.

Locke fixed him with a flat stare. "What is?"

"Celes. She's almost wasted as a soldier, don't you think? Slim, but she's got nice hips, and she looks like she could break your neck if you crossed her." He sounded like he meant this last part as a compliment.

Locke had encountered men like this before, who sought after dangerous women and seemed to enjoy the thrill of it. He wanted to tell this man that he shouldn't cross her, because she would almost certainly put him in his place if he tried anything, but Celes was much more than that, and she deserved better. Instead, he said, "She's a person, not a piece of meat. Have some respect."

"You were looking, too."

Locke sighed. This was going to be a long, long trip. "Shouldn't you be driving this ship?"


***


Once the airship was comfortably skybound, the Returners gathered in a below-deck chamber that seemed intended as a dining hall, with plush chairs and wall tapestries and a number of portholes that Locke carefully kept to his back. Aloft, heading generally southward, they had time to plan their rescue of Terra. They had missed any opportunity to intercept the imperial force that had taken her; even an airship would take at least three days to reach Vector.

"I'm positive they'll bring her to the Research Facility," Celes said, with the same unrelenting surety as outside Ramuh's ruined apartment—had it been a week?—earlier. She stood with her hands folded behind her back, as though she were reporting to a commanding officer. But despite the presence of the others, she had not yet transmuted back to stone, nor had she retreated into herself.

"We should probably confirm that," Locke said. "Not that I doubt you, but we don't know what they're up to. It seems like some reconnaissance would be in order before we commit to anything."

 "I'm shocked to hear you of all people say that." Just the faintest hint of a curve on Celes's lips betrayed her straight-faced sarcasm.

That made him laugh. "Alas, I have exactly zero contacts in Vector. I've never even been in the area before, let alone inside the walls." He smiled wryly. "As much as I would love to pull something out of my hat here, I'm afraid I am out of tricks."

She cocked her head at him. "I don't have 'contacts' that would help, but you realize I spent nearly my entire life in Vector, don't you? I'll come with you. I know my way around."

"With all due respect, Celes, they tried to execute you the last time you were there."

"You can't go in there alone," she said. "Vector is heavily armed and patrolled by skilled troopers specifically watching out for dissidents. They will kill you if they think you're a threat, or they will bring you in for questioning, which would be worse."

"I'm quite good at not being killed."

"You're good at not being caught," she said. "But if you are caught, you need a fighting chance of escaping, and you will have to forgive me when I say you're not equipped to defend yourself against what you'll find in Vector. You need someone to protect you." She turned to Edgar. "Tell him he needs someone to come with him."

Edgar's eyes were dancing. "You should bring her with you," he said to Locke. "You should bring all of us."

"You're the king of Figaro," Locke said, and beside him Celes smirked, making him suspect that she had brought up a similar point before his arrival. "You have a very distinctive profile."

"Then I suppose Sabin is out, too?"

Locke squinted between the two brothers. "To be honest, I know you're twins, but I have to look closely to see it. Besides, no one will be looking for a rogue martial artist, whereas you have a—a kingly air everywhere you go."

Edgar scoffed. "A kingly air?"

"I know you've worn different personas before," he said carefully, "but they are all versions of yourself, the king. The only time I've seen you try to be a commoner, you were not very convincing."

"And she can be convincing?"

"It's worth the risk. She knows her way around the city, and she's probably one of the best swordswomen in the world, if it comes to that. If you all insist that I bring someone with me–"

"We do," Celes said flatly. Edgar snickered. Something had happened in his absence to unite her with the king, and he would have been glad of it except that it meant he was outnumbered, surrounded by well-meaning friends—friends? friends—who wanted to insist that he be babysat, as though he hadn't walked alone into danger plenty of times before.

"They know her as well as she knows the city," Edgar added after a thoughtful moment. "You truly think you can disguise her so well they won't recognize her?"

"You saw her in that dress. Would you have thought that was General Celes?"

"I'm not wearing that dress into Vector," she interjected.

"That's not what I mean," he said. "Just—I think we can make you unrecognizable if we present you as something they'd never expect." He flashed her an apologetic smile. "Which means no bodyguard this time, but we'll come up with something."

"But I'm bringing my sword," she said. "That's essential."

"We'll think of something." He stood up, meaning to pace through his thoughts, then immediately regretted it as the airship tilted and his stomach jumped into his throat. He swallowed that back. "What else do we need to know?"

"We need papers, for one thing," Celes said. "Every civilian under imperial rule has papers that state who they are and where they live. The empire doesn't want people moving freely around."

"Of course not," Edgar scoffed. "Freedom, how dreadful."

"Do I get to wear a disguise, too?" Sabin leaned back in his chair, his feet up on the table, looking as though the rocking of the ship and the hum of its machinery did not even register for him. Lucky dog.

"If you want," Locke said.

"They'll want to know why you're not enlisted." Celes gestured at Sabin. "A fighting-fit man who hasn't dedicated himself in service to the Empire…"

"I have an injury," Sabin responded at once. "If I'm on the battlefield, I go berserk and attack everyone, friend or foe alike. It's not safe. So I teach self-defense instead."

"That's actually pretty good," Locke had to admit.

"It's not true, is it?" Celes was looking at Sabin with slight suspicion.

"What? No." Sabin inclined his head toward her. "But I knew someone once who would lose control like that. It's a terrible thing to see. I've got more self-control than that, don't worry."

Edgar held up a hand to interrupt them. "What do these papers look like?"

"Mine were... confiscated." Again just the faintest hint of a momentary pause, and Locke honestly couldn't tell if her understatement was meant as humor.

"If we need papers, then we need a forger," Edgar said thoughtfully, and then he turned toward Locke. No, they all turned toward Locke expectantly.

He laughed, spreading his hands. "Not a skill I have myself," he said, "but if you're looking at me that way because you think I might know someone who could, you're in luck. I know a lot of shady characters. There's someone in Nikeah who would be perfect. Imperial soldiers go through the Nikeah port all the time, so If imperial citizens all have these papers, I can almost guarantee that Reven has gotten her hands on some and can replicate them."


***


Celes had been through Nikeah before, landing with her troops to move into the northern continent. The bustling port town had technically maintained its independence, but the presence of the imperial military was unmistakable. She expected Locke to be scornful of the city's collaboration and therefore complicity in the invasion of its neighbors, but he merely smiled sadly.

"The empire could throttle the port and starve them out," he said. "I think it's less a business decision and more a matter of survival."

They left the gambler and the king on the ship with the crew—Edgar risked drawing attention here as anywhere, and the airship would be a much safer means of travel if the Empire did not yet know it was under control of the Returners. Once again, Locke led them confidently through the streets, around the docks, toward the shipping and receiving office where his contact's thoroughly legitimate business could be found.

Celes had expected to find the forger down a back alley, some sort of shifty-eyed, thin-lipped man hiding in a dark, smoky shop. But Locke's contact worked in a second-floor office overlooking the sea, and she was a softly feminine woman with long hair and a gentle smile that seemed to indicate that she had nothing to hide. Money exchanged hands, and she suggested they spend a few hours at a seaside cafe while she completed her work. As eager as she was to set off after Terra, Celes understood the necessity of proper planning for something as dangerous as infiltrating Vector, so she quieted her impatience and followed Locke's lead toward the cafe.

"I guess we'd better get used to the three of us being together," Sabin observed as they settled down with a pot of tea on a little terrace. The king's brother had a deep voice, though it was not as booming as one might expect from such a powerful-looking man. "I'll be perfectly honest, I don't do any of this politicking or subterfuge. I'm used to a more, ah, direct approach to problem-solving."

"Locke tends to find more roundabout solutions," Celes said with a little smile, "and I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle."

"Roundabout?" Locke raised an eyebrow at her.

"I would call disguises and false personas and questioning townspeople a more roundabout solution than punching someone in the face, yes," she said.

"And what's your way?" Sabin asked her.

"Well, you see, I accompany Locke as he tries to do things indirectly. Disguises, false personas, and so on. But I'm ready to—well, an equivalent of punching them in the face, but with a sword." There was something about the martial artist that put her at ease, perhaps because he was, as he said, a step removed from the calculations of people like his brother, and Locke, and Banon, and even Celes herself. There was something refreshingly simple about him, though not stupid.

"If all goes well," Locke said, "neither one of you will have much call for a direct solution like that. But I'm going to need you to work with me on this."

They picked up their papers at the appointed time, and Celes flipped through them with surprise and admiration—they were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, even to her, and she'd spent her life with papers like this at hand. Her stomach still turned over at the thought of returning to Vector, of what she might find there, but at least she could put some faith in this step of the process, even if the worst of it was still yet to be solved.


***

Locke spent the three days between Nikeah and Vector perfecting the trio's identities and disguises, raiding closets on the airship and filling out a pack for each of them that would have all the necessities to survive every contingency he could imagine.

For Locke himself, the well-worn and mended clothing of a common laborer. For Sabin, looser clothes that disguised some of his bulk so that he looked stocky more than sculpted. For Celes, the everyday clothes of an unremarkable young woman, with skirts and braided hair and a little makeup courtesy of Gabbiani's companions; her sword would be carried by Sabin, at least as long as they were together and trying to pass themselves off as ordinary civilians. If Reven's papers were close enough that Celes found them convincing, they might actually be able to pull this part of the plan off. What they would do once they were inside Vector was another thing altogether, but this one thing he could control.

Still, he went over the plan again and again, trying to work through every angle, anticipate every challenge. It was late the night before their arrival, with the southern continent a dark blur below them, when Edgar found him hunched over a desk in the guest chambers, scrawling notes to himself.

"Putting the finishing touches on everything?"

"Trying," Locke said, sitting up and closing the notebook. His neck was stiff and sore, and his upper back ached.

"I wish I could go there with you. Don't be so stubborn."

"It's not stubbornness," Locke said. He brushed his palms over his knees, took a breath and held it. Then he looked at this man who had been his friend for so long, fully aware that he was about to tread on what seemed to be the man's greatest sore spot. "Tell me, Edgar, what would happen to Figaro if you were caught or killed by the Empire in Vector?"

"I could have fallen in Narshe, or in that damned rat's nest in Zozo–"

Locke raised his eyebrows. "This is different, and you know it."

"And yet the rest of you can take this risk? You're hardly expendable!"

"I certainly hope not, but—frankly—if any of the rest of us ended up in front of an imperial firing squad, life would go on for everyone else around us, except for a few people who might care." Locke pinched the bridge of his nose and tried not to think about who would notice, who would care. This was not about him, what he was putting at risk. "In your case, an entire nation depends on you. You know that."

Edgar sighed. If Locke knew the man less well, he might have thought that the king was looking dramatically off into the distance for effect. But this was what weighed heaviest on Edgar's mind, and Locke suspected there was some regret there, although he'd only caught glimpses of it on rare occasions. Most likely he kept his face turned away so he could hold onto his composure. Locke permitted him his dignity.

"Take care of my brother, at least. I'd hate to lose him so soon after finding him again."

"I'll do my best. I promise."

Chapter Text

They landed out of sight of the city, so that their small party would not draw attention before even arriving at Vector's gates. While this meant it would be harder to flee in a hurry if something went wrong, just having such an escape route less than a day's journey away seemed like a luxury to Locke. Years of infiltrating occupied cities or among people who might have killed him if they knew who he really was gave him a healthy appreciation for the relative safety an airship represented. So he was almost cheerful as they crossed the southern countryside. Unlike the northern continent, it was autumn here, and the entire hilly countryside seemed ablaze in hues of red and orange like the feathers of a phoenix. Even that did not startle him; he'd made the trip between the snow-covered mountain paths of Narshe and the heat of the Figaroan desert often enough. The world was a colorful and varied place ripe for exploring, and this new continent was merely uncharted territory to add to the atlas in his mind.

Unsurprisingly, Celes seemed on edge the closer they drew to her erstwhile home. He was ready to offer words of support or encouragement if she needed them, an outlet for the feelings that must even at this moment be churning through her mind, judging by the set of her jaw. At least she had accepted her disguise with little complaint, despite the petticoats and the floppy, wide-brimmed hat that had been a last-minute addition.

The presence of Sabin alleviated some of the pressure that sometimes built up between them, because Sabin was not just resistant to brooding himself but also somehow able to nullify it even in Celes. During their visit to Nikeah, she had joked easily with the man. Locke had to admit to a little jealousy. Months, now, of trying to draw her out of her shell, and all it took was an afternoon with Edgar's brother to set her at ease.

But jealous or not, he was glad of Sabin's calming effect today as they approached the imposing fortress that was the imperial capital, with its sheer, impenetrable metal walls and the untold danger waiting within.


***


"Reason for leaving Vector?" The guard's eyes were on their papers, not on them. It had taken an hour in line to reach this checkpoint, and the handful of armed guards who checked everyone entering or leaving the city must see hundreds of people each day.

"Camping," Locke said, shifting the pack across his shoulders and letting the gear jostle audibly, just a little. Keep your answers short and simple—that was a good fundamental when lying. 

"Reason for returning to Vector?" 

"Done with camping?" he said, and laughed a little, nervously. The others in line ahead of them had seemed nervous, so he allowed himself to show some of his anxiety.

The guard regarded the three of them with only passing interest, and Locke was once again grateful that Edgar had agreed to stay on the ship. Sabin was staring off at something in the distance, looking hopelessly bored and impatient; Celes was slouching, her eyes downcast, her hands fidgeting with the rim of her hat. Neither of them seemed particularly remarkable or suspicious. Sabin was bigger than the average person; Celes was prettier than the average person; but both of them were within the realm of normalcy.

He thought maybe they would make it through this smoothly, but then the gate guard did a double-take at Celes and narrowed his eyes. "Do I know you?"

"Don't tell her dad." The words slipped out of Locke without any conscious plan, but his mind was already kicking into overdrive, slotting pieces into something plausible.

"What?"

"If you know her," Locke said, his voice raising a little, pleading, "don't tell her dad she's been out with me, please?"

Celes looked at him sharply.

Well, at least this facade was something he knew well, something he could sell convincingly because it was close to his own truth. His throat suddenly felt dry and closed-in. He bounced on his heels, crossed his arms over his chest, and tried very hard to remember what it was like to be eighteen and stupid and in love.

The guard looked between the two of them, shook his head, and stamped all three documents. When he spoke, his gruff voice was less distant, more present, as though instead of a player reading from a script, he was once again his own human self. "You should respect her parents' wishes. Trust me. It'll come out eventually, and things will be worse for both of you if they find out you've been going behind their backs."

Locke winced. "We'll... keep that in mind."

"Lying to them definitely won't earn you their trust. Prove to them you're not whatever they think you are." As if picking up on Locke's discomfort, the guard added, more kindly, "Just some friendly advice from someone who's been there."

"Th-thanks." From someone who's also been there.

Mercifully, the guard waved them through after that, and Locke gathered the feelings that were already threatening to surface and banished them back to the darkness where they belonged.

"What was that all about?" Sabin asked when they were safely through the gate.

"A distraction. Now he's going to be thinking about some poor girl sneaking out under her dad's nose, and he'll have forgotten all about whoever he thought she might be."

Celes was watching him with a worried frown. "Locke…"

"You're more believable when you build on something you know," he said brightly, and he flashed her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm fine, Celes. I promise."

Sabin, oblivious to what was happening under the surface—and why shouldn't he be?—looked impressed. "That's clever."

Locke shrugged. "I do my best."

"I'm surprised it worked," Celes added. "I was sure he'd recognize me and that would be the end of it."

"You think I couldn't even get you through the front door?" Locke placed a hand over his heart and recoiled with feigned surprise and hurt, his tone mock-serious. "You wound me."

Sabin laughed. "You've been spending too much time with my brother."

Locke gratefully seized this opportunity to push the dark clouds from his mind and grinning back. "I have, haven't I? That sounds exactly like him. Well, that won't do. No more kingly speak; you have my word."


***


His first impression of Vector was that it was very clean. Not like Jidoor with its polished, ivy-covered facades, impeccable signage, elaborate streetlamps, and perfectly sculpted shrubbery—Vector was simpler in design, without ostentation. But the cobbles and sidewalks were free from trash or stains; the public benches and fountains looked well-maintained and without blemish. Even the walls of the fairly plain buildings were unmarked by graffiti or even evidence of grime, smoke, soot.

There was something about it that raised Locke's hackles. Human settlements were not meant to be this clean. It ought to look a little lived-in, a little worn around the edges. Maybe not everywhere needed to be as filthy as Zozo, but even Jidoor 's pretentious excess reflected the human fallibility of those who designed it.

Everyone on the streets of Vector had a certain look about them, though Locke could not immediately define it. They didn't cast their eyes down as did residents of occupied cities, but there was something of a hunch in their shoulders, a tendency to look straight ahead, a lack of the usual hubbub he might expect from a city of this size. People did not congregate on street corners. Children did not loiter on the steps of shops. Nobody called out to friends or neighbors. And on every street, there were soldiers, periodically, making the rounds like clockwork. No one paid them any heed; they were the background to everyday life.

There were also posters plastered on the sides of buildings, with prideful slogans about the Empire, showing wholesome blond families, handsome soldiers sitting atop Magitek armor, and of course the face of the Emperor himself, sometimes looking like a stern but loving grandfather, sometimes with a look of fearless intensity.

Towering above everything, at the center of the city, was the imperial compound itself. It looked like a castle, except that every castle Locke had seen had some human character to it—Figaro was especially strange-looking and distinctive with Edgar's inventions projecting from the walls—and this was almost brutal in the unrelenting precision of its lines. It was thoroughly imposing and unwelcoming. The city was built on a slope, and the compound was at the top of the hill. Celes had explained the layout, going so far as to draw out a map on paper with as much detail as she could remember, prompted by all the questions Locke could think of. He'd committed this to memory, and as they walked through the city streets, he tried to overlay her map on what he saw, making mental adjustments to reflect any inaccuracies.

Ordinarily, the first thing he did upon entering a new town would be to track down a room for rent, whether at an inn or a boarding house or even a private home. But they were meant to be imperial citizens with their own homes to return to, and the longer they stayed here, the closer the noose of the empire would tighten around their throats—hopefully not literally. There was no time for a slow stakeout. They needed information, and they needed it now.

"Well, we've made it through the first test," Locke said cheerfully. "Now it's time to improvise. Should we split up? You scope out the Research Facility itself, and I try to gather local gossip?"

"I'm really not sure that's a good idea," Celes said.

"We can't all skulk around their high-security facility, any more than we could attack it headlong, can we? Let me drop into a bar, or a restaurant, or a shop, or—"

"No."

"I'll make small talk. They won't even know they've been grilled."

"Locke—"

He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to project confidence. "I know you're nervous here. I understand. And I'm not exactly a master of self-defense. I get that. But this is what I do. I talk to people."

She shook her head. "You talk to people. But we—here—people here don't. If you just waltz into somewhere and start chatting to someone there like you know them, they're going to think something is very wrong with you."

"I'll take your warning to heart, but don't worry. I can blend in."

"You can't. Not here."

"Stop bickering," Sabin interjected. "We're taking a risk just being here. Let's all just try to do what we do best and make a plan. Worst case scenario, we'll bash some heads in and just keep bashing them until we've got Terra."

"I think we can all agree that a direct attack on the facility won't get us anywhere. Or are you going to argue with that, Celes?"

Thin-lipped, she only shook her head.

"Then let's look into alternatives, gather what we can, and meet back up in two hours."


***


Vector had changed.

That was her first thought, walking the streets at Locke's elbow, with Sabin an imposing and curious shadow behind them.

This was not the city she remembered, neat and predictable and orderly, full of people who followed Gestahl's rules to the letter. Everything seemed a little wrong, a little out of place, as though a young artist had tried to capture the city and gotten it close enough to recognize without actually looking right.

Had things somehow gotten worse here? Was that fear she saw in the eyes of the citizens around them, suspicion written across their faces?

Or was it just that she had spent long enough away that she was no longer used to the way people walked here, to the feeling of being watched at all times, to the guards posted on the street corners who used to snap to attention and salute her when she passed through as General Celes Chere but who now regarded her with scornful, distrusting eyes?

People in Vector did not congregate in the street, or stop and chat with neighbors. They kept their eyes straight ahead or on the ground. They walked fast, their expressions neutral, maybe smiling faintly and lifting a hand in greeting if they passed a friend, but still quiet and reserved. The people of the northern continent were often boisterous, outgoing, wearing their feelings loudly on their faces; not so here in Vector.

She could see this slowly registering for Locke, who adapted as best he could. But there was still a brightness about him that stood out, and even averting his eyes and slowing his pace could not disguise that. Not his clothing; even with his usual scarves and jacket, he wouldn't have been the most remarkable person here based on how he dressed, and in the more mundane clothes he wore now, he might have blended in completely, except that even standing still, he was more animated than anyone else in the entire city. It was like his heart beat a little faster, a little louder. He was too curious, drinking up the world around him instead of keeping a wall around himself. Before, no matter where they traveled, he had always seemed at home, at ease. It was disconcerting to see him so at odds with the world around him.

The whole point of coming here as a group was to prevent him from getting in over his head in the heart of enemy territory, because breaking Terra out of a highly secured military facility would be nothing like his impromptu rescue of Celes herself. In South Figaro, the guards had been sloppy, unsupervised, cruel but clearly not the best the imperial army had to offer. And—perhaps more importantly—Locke knew South Figaro intimately. Even under imperial occupation, it was still a relatively safe place for him. Vector, by contrast, was more dangerous than he seemed willing to accept.

He was being foolish. That cocky grin, that untested self-assurance that he would fare as well in Vector as he had on the continent he'd spent a lifetime traveling across—she couldn't set aside her worry. Not to mention the story he'd chosen at the gate. It felt strange to have had that story placed around her. It felt as though she were wearing someone else's life as a costume. She would not have expected him to pull that memory, of all things. It had to be a sign that he was out of sorts; why else would he choose to make himself so vulnerable, when he had tried so hard to avoid even telling her about Rachel in the first place?

If Sabin shared any of her worry, he made no sign. At least he followed her lead once the two of them had left Locke behind, walking purposefully, without gawking at anything around them. There were a great many people in the streets, as always, and with luck, the two of them would be able avoid drawing any attention. Whenever she spotted a patrol, Celes took deep breaths and willed herself to relax.

The Magitek Research Facility was not, strictly speaking, within the military complex itself. It was adjacent, and of the four entrances Celes knew of, two could be accessed directly from the gated military compound—these were the entrances she had used as a child, a ward of the army who lived in the barracks and who seldom set foot outside the compound. But civilians worked at the Facility, and thus the main entryway opened onto a major city street.

As they rounded the corner and the plain rectangular building came into view, Sabin observed, "I thought it would be bigger."

"Most of it is below ground," Celes said.

That made Sabin grimace. "So much for blowing a hole in the wall and making a grab-and-go of it. If she's being kept in some creepy basement…"

The cell where Celes awaited her own execution had been a proper basement, but she would never think to apply that word to the underground laboratories with their indecipherable devices and bustling personnel. She wasn't sure she agreed with the simplification. "She's likely being held in one of the lower levels, yes. But how would you blow a hole in the wall, anyway?"

"There's Magitek armor around here, isn't there?" Sabin shrugged as if this ought to be all the explanation she needed. She stared at him, puzzled, and he continued. "It turns out you can take out a wall with one of their cannons."

"How do you know that?"

"Doma. We had to break through the Imperial encampment there, and there was some armor laying around, and—" He grinned suddenly. "If you're not trying to be graceful with it, it's pretty easy to drive it around where you want it to go. Then just hit the big red button that says 'shoot' on it…"

"There isn't a 'shoot' button on any armor I've ever seen."

"Well, no, not exactly," he said, undeterred. "But it might as well. It's really not that complicated. I guess they have to keep it simple enough that your average soldier can figure it out."

"Average soldiers don't pilot Magitek." She cocked her head at him, regarding him in a new light. He appeared to be all brawn, and so she had not really stopped to consider his brain. There was something straightforward about the way he spoke that continued that impression. And yet… "The soldiers who do so have to train for years, and you just jumped into a machine and operated it?"

"I mean, you've seen Figaro Castle," he said. "You've met my brother."

"I didn't realize—" She cut herself off from insulting his intelligence, her face heating with the shame of it. "Didn't realize the technology in Figaro Castle was similar enough to Magitek," she finished instead.

"They're both invented by people, and people have similar ways of solving problems," he said. "I could take some guesses, based on that, and it worked."

"That's good to know."

She couldn't help trying to mentally run through what an outright assault on the facility would be like. It was an unembellished gray building, two stories tall, with metal grates on the windows and guards posted at the main entrance. Unless things had changed since her last visit, there were no guards actively roaming the halls or labs, and she doubted most of the researchers could hold their own in a fight. The most significant danger would be if the military sent someone in after them and they had to contend with assailants either as they tried to find Terra or as they fought back toward the surface. They would be trapped underground, at the mercy of an unmerciful army, unless they could fight their way free.

There was no time to hesitate in front of the facility without drawing suspicion, though she slowed their pace as much as was reasonable. All too soon, they had left it behind, and the side of the street instead overlooked the training grounds, the barracks, and above it all, the imperial headquarters.

Through the metal fence surrounding the military compound, the base was teeming with activity. Soldiers reporting to duty, or training, the distant sound of voices repeating commands in unison. Celes had spent many, many hours of her life at the training grounds, performing calisthenics, running across the compound to build stamina and strength, honing her swordfighting in endless practice matches. This had been her entire life, and yet months ago she had left with doubt in her heart and never returned. Coming back now was disconcerting.

"You grew up here, didn't you?" Sabin was watching her watch soldiers sparring in the distance. "It's weird to return when you've been away a while. Everything's different. It seems smaller than you remember it. Yeah?"

There's a difference between leaving home to find yourself, and betraying everything and everyone you ever knew. A prodigal prince can return home to open arms, but traitors are executed. Get caught here, and they'll be all too glad to finish what they started in South Figaro.

Her halfhearted, murmured "Yeah" felt unnatural on her tongue. She was at risk of being killed by the very people who had raised her, overseen her education, made her what she was now. And what is that, exactly? A woman broken and reforged into a weapon? A soldier with nothing but violence in her heart?

But the next time the little voice inside her spoke up, it was with a note of laughter. You can't even make up your mind whether to hate yourself for betraying the Empire or for having been part of it. Can you admit that you're just looking for an excuse to hate yourself?

And you're doing it, still. Stop.

But this time the voice was not unkind or cruel. There was no bite to the words. She thought of Locke, gently challenging her, countering her whenever she gave voice to her fears or self-loathing.

He wasn't here with her now, yet something of him, the gift of his compassion, lingered.

And this was why she couldn't let anything happen to him in Vector. He had so much to give the world, and people like him were so rare. For all that he had chosen to walk a dangerous path, she could not, would not, allow danger to snuff out his light.


***


Things, he had to admit, were not going as well as he'd hoped.

His usual methods met with limited success. Usually, he could make small talk, sprinkled with just a hint of flattery. Talk about the weather, talk about the region. Air some sort of universal grievance about work, or taxes, or neighbors, or whomever the local scapegoat was.

Except that Locke himself was the local scapegoat, and he knew very little about the weather or the culture, other than what Celes had tried to convey to him on the three-day trip over. He kept reaching into his memories for a relevant tidbit and coming back empty, or realizing at the last moment that what he was about to say would give him away as being an outsider.

And what Celes had said about the people here not making conversation in the way he was used to—he had attributed that to her own reticent nature, but there was more truth to it than he wanted to admit.

He visited a shop, then a cafe, before finally finding himself in a bar. It was getting midafternoon, yet a few locals were gathered at a table in one corner of the dingy little room, drinking. Locke ordered what he heard one of them order, paid in local coin provided by the gambler, and tried to listen in. 

They noticed him despite his efforts to seem nonchalant, and he offered them a bright but hesitant smile, lifting a few fingers in greeting. Not too much, he reminded himself. No loud hellos, no inviting himself to their table. He tried to imagine what Celes might do in this situation, how she might act. She would have avoided drawing attention to herself in the first place. Well, too late for that now.

The woman he'd pegged as their ringleader leered at him. She was swaying slightly, but that didn't prevent her or her friends from being imposing. They all had broad, well-muscled shoulders and beefy forearms. Soldiers, or day laborers? He wasn't sure.

"Out-of-towner, huh?" she slurred at him.

He hadn't said a word, but something about him had clearly marked him as an outsider. If he spoke, would he give himself away? There was something distinctive in the accent here that he couldn't identify, something that had seemed like a peculiarity of Celes's until he found himself surrounded by it. A better actor might have been able to emulate it, but Locke had no such talent.

"Leave him alone." That from the bartender, a mild-seeming man with the kind of smile that might have put Locke at ease if he weren't increasingly aware every moment just how alone he was in wholly enemy territory.

The big woman turned back to her friends, and Locke nursed his drink slowly. It took no self-control; the beverage was bitter and strong, not the sort he would normally choose for himself. Other than the belligerent cluster in their corner, the bar was essentially deserted. Normally, Locke might say something to the bartender about it, an offhand "Slow day?" that invited conversation, but he was hesitant to open his mouth and expose himself further. So he sat, and he listened, but he learned nothing but a handful of slurs against foreigners and what sounded like a oft-repeated toast to the emperor.

When it became apparent that information would not be forthcoming, he dropped an extra coin at the bar for a tip, nodded his thanks to the bartender, and slipped out. The sky was a deep shade of blue already darkening to night, though the lights of the city kept him from seeing the stars. Not that he'd recognize the constellations down here. And that thought only reinforced his feelings of alienation. A cold pit dropped in his stomach as he thrust his hands into his pockets and started down the street.

They caught up to him quickly. He should have expected this, in hindsight—the hazards of a city in which everyone was slavishly devoted to the empire were not limited to the military presence itself.

The woman struck him across the face before he'd really been able to register what was happening.

"We don't like foreigners here," she hissed.

One of the others grabbed Locke from behind, pulling his arms back and holding him still. He tried to twist out of their grip, but they were stronger than him, and his struggles did nothing more than pull his clothes so that the neckline of his shirt was uncomfortably tight around his throat.

When one of them slugged him in the stomach, he at least had the reflexes to exhale first. Not that that saved him from the pain or the dizzying blackness of being completely without oxygen. But it would have been worse, somehow, if he hadn't. He remembered that much.

They were laughing. Locke's mind was foggy as he gasped to fill his lungs once more.

"S'not… what you think…"

They laughed at his mumbled protests.

What a way to go. Dragged into a back alley and beaten to death by a few drunken imperial loyalists. He'd talked his way out of confrontations with armed militiamen, angry deputies, the occasional territorial and belligerent father or husband who objected to innocent conversation. He'd fled troops and attack dogs. More recently, he had survived staring down the cannon of Magitek armor; he had survived an onslaught of Kefka's uncontrolled fire; he had survived the poison of an assassin—because Celes had been there to save him, every time.

As knuckles skimmed his jaw and pain exploded along the side of his face, he imagined her sweeping in to rescue him once more. But luck seemed to have abandoned him this time.

There was nothing especially cruel about the beating—a garden-variety assault by angry drunks, no broken bones, no permanent damage, as far as he could tell. Which meant they wouldn't be what did him in at last. No, that would be whatever awaited him when they turned him in. He'd seen the haunted look on Celes's face when she considered this fate for him, and though he'd tried to bravely sweep it aside, now that he was confronted with its imminent appearance in his life, he found that he did not like the thought at all.

"That's enough of that."

A warm, golden voice—the bartender. He walked with a cane, but there was an air of quiet dignity that made the other three hesitate. "Does this look like order to you? If you're suspicious of him, by all means report to the authorities. But don't sully your hands like this. We are better than this."

Inwardly, Locke scoffed; this was exactly who the empire was, hateful and xenophobic. But outwardly, he tried to look contrite, afraid, confused. It was not hard to paint a pathetic picture in his current state.

"Off with you," the bartender said, shaking his walking stick at Locke's assailants. "Picking a fight in the street, really. You should be ashamed of yourselves."

The three of them hesitated, but then, with one final round of jeers, they dispersed. Locke staggered to his feet, rubbing at his sore jaw. Something was dripping down his nose—blood, he saw, when he touched it.

"Let's get you cleaned up," the bartender said, before Locke could slink away with the rest. 

"I'm fine."

"So he does speak," the man observed, amusement tingling his voice, and Locke almost wanted to laugh that he had given the impression of being silent, when ordinarily he filled the air with words. Almost. But he was still perilously close to being handed over to the authorities for the crime of not belonging. 

"Thanks," he said. "But I'm fine. Really."

"At least come back inside to get something to stop the bleeding."

Truthfully, Locke wanted nothing more than to slip back into the gathering night, catch back up with his friends and the protection of Celes's sword and Sabin's fists, and maybe see if a touch of Shiva's magic could help him. But then he thought of Celes's face if she saw him like this. And to return with absolutely nothing to show for his efforts but bruises and blood—his pride wouldn't take it.

Besides, the bartender had a hand around his arm now, helping him up. Extricating himself would be harder than going along, for now.

"Where did you say you were from?" the bartender asked conversationally as they walked. Of course Locke had said nothing of the sort, but the man's affable manner put him at ease despite himself.

He couldn't say what made him say "Maranda," but the word slipped from his lips unbidden. A moment later, as he realized what he had said, he cursed himself and the momentary lapse. Maybe they'd hit his head harder than he realized. His paperwork said Vector; Maranda itself was a very loaded choice he would never have requested from Reven, especially not with Celes as a traveling companion.

The man held his arm tighter and looked at him through narrowed eyes. Clearly, the name had registered and made too much of an impact to be taken back. "Conscripted?"

Locke laughed uncomfortably. "N-no, thankfully."

"Did you pay your way out of it?" A tense, taut voice. There was very clearly a right answer and a wrong answer to this question.

"No," Locke said. "I'm a—a merchant. I wasn't in town when… Well. I was lucky."

"As lucky as anyone from Maranda is."

"Aren't you worried about talking like that in front of me?"

By this point, they had reached the bar, and the man unlocked it and pulled a stumbling Locke inside. Locke half expected another ambush, but there was no one else but the two of them.

"Really, I'm fine," he said, keeping a hand on the door handle, hesitant to go inside further but not quite sure he trusted his legs to hold him without someone or something supporting him. Once again he wished for a rescue from his knight in shining armor, or avenging angel, or whatever she was. But he'd ignored her warning, and now here he was.

"Sit," the bartender said, gesturing to a stool. "I'll get you a cloth and some alcohol to clean that off."

"Nothing top-shelf, I assume," Locke said.

"No, but the cheap stuff works just as well to ward off infection." The bartender slipped behind the bar. Locke gratefully dropped onto a stool—was the world spinning, just a little?—and tried to scrape together what was left of his brain.

"Thanks," he said, as the bartender passed him a clean but potent-smelling cloth. He was already wiping blood from his face, wincing from the sting as well as the pungency, when it occurred to him that the cloth might be drugged or poisoned. He froze.

"You're not from Maranda," the bartender said confidently, and Locke's stomach dropped. "If I were a betting man, I'd say you weren't from this continent."

Locke pressed his lips together, then tried to interject. "My father–"

"Which forces me to wonder, what are you doing here? What's a northerner doing in Vector, doing a piss-poor job of pretending to be a local?" The man peered at him. "Please don't tell me you're a spy."

Ruefully, Locke laughed. "No," he lied. "I'm just trying to find a friend."

"There's a lot of people in Vector. Does your friend know you're here?"

"No." He squinted at the man. "You're not going to turn me in?"

"For what? Have you done something that deserves imprisonment?"

"No."

"Pity," the man said, with a small smile, and Locke cursed his mental state as well as the strangeness of this damn city, because something was happening here and he couldn't keep up with it.

"I promise I'm not doing anything suspicious," he said. "I realize... that's exactly what someone suspicious would say, but I'm not."

"How did you get through the gate? Forged documents?" The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully, leaning against his bar. "What's worth risking your life coming here? Is your friend in trouble somehow? Another northerner, needing your help? Or are you lying about the friend, and you really are just here for reconnaissance, but you got in over your head?"

Locke's face burned. How many times had he been on the other end of an interrogation like this, holding the pieces and turning them this way and that until they slotted together to reveal the truth? He found being on the receiving end of it deeply unpleasant, and not just because this man held Locke's life in his hands.

"Whatever your story is, you're no friend of the Empire," the bartender said at last, with satisfaction, and Locke stumbled off the stool and to his feet. He was taking a step backward when the man continued, "Fortunately for you, neither am I."


***


The bartender's name was Hassan, and he was part of a cell of locals who opposed the empire's violent expansion abroad and its tyrannical rule at home. It made Locke think of the clueless young saboteur in Jidoor, or the stories Banon had told about the early days of the Returners — pockets of dissidents without power, direction, or experience, yet stubbornly trying to enact change in their corners of the world anyway. Hearing him speak rekindled the hope in Locke's heart. This was how they would save the world: by giving people the tools and support they needed to rise up and save themselves.

"Why are you trusting me with this?" Locke asked, after the man had finished his explanation. They sat side by side at the bar, each with a mug of that awful bitter drink that seemed so popular with the locals here. "Aren't you afraid I might turn you in?

"Nobody here would trust your word over mine, and you'd be in more trouble than I would be if you tried to take this to the authorities."

"Practical," Locke conceded, and he took a long gulp of beer. It was weak, clearly watered-down, but he was grateful for that. "What gave me away?" he said at last. "The accent?"

"The accent. The way you sit. And we don't leave tips down here."

"Shit." Locke leaned back in his chair. "It's been a long time since I've been so out of my element. I feel like—like an octopus in the middle of a desert, and I'm not used to it."

"I hope for your sake you don't have to stay long enough to get used to it," Hassan said. "Tell me about your friend, if that part of your story's true. Maybe I've seen them around. It may not look it at this time of day, but a lot of people come through her."

Locke considered the mug in front of him, considered the stranger seated beside him. At least the fuzziness in his head had finally cleared. "She's being held captive."

"In the imperial prisons? Not an easy jailbreak."

"Oh, it's worse than that, my friend. I need to get into the Magitek Research Facility."

"Oh, is that all?"

Locke grinned, delighted by the man's dry humor if not by the situation. "I told you it was worse."

"What do you think you're going to do when you get there?"

"Rescue my friend. Hopefully fuck the place up in the process."

"Really? You're not here by yourself, are you?" Hassan sized Locke up. "Unless you're hiding something better than you hid your identity, I'm not sure I believe this is anything but a suicide mission."

Locke laughed at the man's frank and not inaccurate assessment of his strength. "It's not just me. I've got friends with me who are much better at providing the, well, brawn and firepower. And they're more familiar with the area, too."

"From Vector? Ex-military? A deserter."

That rapidfire deduction—a man after Locke's own heart, a mind he would love to have on his side. Again, he found himself grinning. "Something like that."

"How mysterious."

Outside, a bell tolled loudly, and a muffled voice crackled over some sort of loudspeaker. Locke set his mug down with a bang, sloshing some of the awful liquid over the rim. "Shit. What time is it? I'm late."

"Wait." Hassan held out a hand to catch his attention. "Before you go. Bring your friends to the warehouses near the Facility before curfew tonight. Split up, if you can, so you don't draw attention."

Locke's eyebrows shot up. "You think you can get us inside?"

"We can try."


***


Between sundown and curfew, the city streets came alive, and so did the tree-edged parks that provided an escape from the otherwise endless concrete and metal of the city. Families strolled past, some of them dragged along by dogs on leashes. Young couples courted walking arm in arm, speaking quietly, laughing and stealing glances at each other. Off-duty soldiers left the military compound to visit family, to dine with parents or siblings and enjoy a few hours of normalcy.

Sitting on a bench under the watchful eyes of Gestahl's larger-than-life face on a building across the way, Celes was made aware once again that there truly was no place in all the world she belonged. Had she ever really been at home here, as a girl and as a young woman? Yes—at some point she had. Her room in the barracks was her domain, the center of her world to which she could always return, no matter how far afield she traveled. Yet Celes had forever closed the door to what had been her home, and now she wandered adrift.

Locke seemed at home nearly everywhere he visited; Celes did not feel at home even here in Vector. Terra, that poor girl, had been denied any home, even ownership of her own mind—but she had friends in the Returners now, and once she had been rescued, she would have a home with them. Celes had no such optimism for herself. She had no family, found or otherwise. No roots bound her to any place, any group, any person. 

The bell tolled the hour, and the loudspeaker crackled to life with a recorded message from the Emperor himself. Sabin sat beside her, staring up at the speaker mounted high above them. No one else even looked at it, though they all fell into respectful silence, so that the Emperor's voice could be heard clearly, unchallenged.

Where was Locke? She shouldn't have let him go off alone, no matter how insistent he was. He was late, and while she was willing to go door to door visiting every store or bar on the main drag looking for him, that seemed unlikely to end well for anyone.

But then, as she was worrying the brim of her hat into frayed edges, he appeared at the entrance to the park. He did not see the two of them at first, so she rose and raised a tentative hand, and then she called out, "Locke!" His head lifted in recognition, and he started toward them. Was he limping? What kind of trouble had he gotten himself into? Her feet closed the distance between them before she'd realized she was moving.

The park's lamp illuminated his face, showing a splash of angry red darkening to purple along his jaw and cheek up toward his ear. He was grinning, despite the bruise; his eyes were dancing.

"Someone hit you," she said.

"It's nothing. Just some drunks. I'm fine."

She brought her fingertips to his cheek, and he flinched at her touch. But instead of removing her hand, she prodded the swelling, making sure nothing had been broken. No, thank goodness. Her own blood sang, and she gave into Shiva's healing magic gratefully, feeling the familiar chill pour through her fingers and wash over Locke's too-warm skin.

His hand closed around hers. "What are you doing?"

"It needs to be iced."

"Not like that!" He pulled her hand away, surrounded it with both of his as though that might quell the magic. She swallowed; his touch felt like fire against her palm. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but what if someone notices?"

"You got hit in the head," she said. "Are you concussed? What happened?"

"I met a few grumps and made a new friend." His smile was a little too wide, a little forced, which meant he was most likely downplaying the truth. "Really, I'm fine. The important thing is that I've connected with the local rebels—I told you there's always someone ready to fight back—and we've got a plan for them to sneak us in. Tonight."

"Can we trust them?"

"Yes."

"What's this about a plan?" Sabin asked from behind Celes, and both she and Locke jumped, startled. Locke released her hand at once, and she pressed both palms to her hips, as though the soft linen of her skirt could somehow calm the burning sensation where he had touched her.

"F-friends," Locke stammered, wide-eyed, and she wondered if he did have a concussion, after all. "Allies. A plan. Before curfew. Tonight."

The big man grinned toothily, and he clapped Locke on the back. "Great!"

Locke seemed to come back to himself as he recounted a no doubt sanitized version of his afternoon's adventure. But he did not look at Celes once, even as the three of them huddled together beneath the park's artificial lights. Did he feel guilty for having ignored her warnings? Angry, reasonably so, that she had used Shiva's gift openly? Something about the imperial capital had made them both a little stupid today. At least they'd made it through unscathed so far—she could only hope for this luck to hold.

Chapter Text

The sun had disappeared entirely by the time they set off for the warehouses, but the artificial lights gave the streets the appearance of a false daytime, as unnatural as Vector's impossibly perfect neatness. Dusk or dawn, perhaps, rather than noon—but still far brighter than Jidoor and South Figaro's streetlights.

"And I thought it was strange being back home after so long in the mountains," Sabin commented as the three of them joined the thinning crowds on the street. "Out there, you can see every single star in the sky. At least the lights in Figaro have the decency to be dim. This is ridiculous."

"They can't control what they can't see," Locke observed. "It wouldn't do for nighttime to give the people of Vector cover and anonymity. Just think of the trouble people might get up to if you can't watch their every move."

Celes had withdrawn again, brooding over their present danger or angry that he'd gotten himself hurt, he couldn't tell. It wasn't like her to be so careless as to call on her magic publicly like that. Maybe she was angry with herself for such a rash decision, or angry with both of them.

His stinging jaw appreciated the relief her icy touch had granted him; the swelling had gone down, and the bruise felt less spectacular than he might have otherwise expected. With the luxury of privacy and time, he would have asked her to take a look at his shin where one of the drunks had stomped him; the leg still twinged with every step he took. But instead he tried to disguise his gritted teeth as a smile, and he was grateful that Celes's intervention and Shiva's gift had at least lessened his pain.

"Well?" he asked. "Ready to become the kind of trouble these lights are supposed to prevent?"

But they weren't on the street long before Celes murmured, in an anxious voice, "We're too suspicious. We don't look like we're heading back home, or off to work, with three of us walking together."

"Then we should split up," Locke said. "If we all know where we're going..."

"I'll be fine," Sabin said. "I'm not bad at directions, and everything here is very straightforward. Some cities, you think maybe they were designed by someone drunk out of his mind, with dead ends everywhere. But here, everything is nice and neat on a grid."

"I'm the one with the directions, so I'll be fine. And Celes knows the city better than either of us."

Celes shook her head. "I don't want you to go alone. Look at what happened last time."

Locke grinned. "I got us the help we were looking for, didn't I?"

"And now half your face is swollen, you might be concussed, and you're limping."

Sabin was smirking, an expression that Locke had seen entirely too many times on Edgar's face, reinforcing the similarity between the brothers. "All right, so you two are together, and I think I can manage by myself." He clapped them both on the back. "See you on the other side, then."

"If there's an announcement on the speakers, stop and listen to them," Celes said. "Don't just keep walking."

Sabin waved a dismissive hand. "Got it, got it. Just follow what everyone else does."

Locke wasn't sure why Celes seemed less worried about Sabin traveling on his own. He had no more experience on the southern continent than Locke did. He was no better at mimicking the mannerisms or accent of people here. True, if he got jumped by a pile of drunks, he would be more likely to leave them in a heap on the cobblestone and emerge unscathed himself, but if it came down to that, the jig was up anyway.

"But–" he said.

"If the guards seem suspicious of just the two of us, we can split up further," she said. "Unless that happens, I'm not leaving you."


***


To keep up the charade, he should have taken her hand. Instead, he just walked close beside her, focusing on not looking everyone around him in the face. It was a habit he had not known he had until coming here, and it was a hard one to break.

Still, they made it all the way to the edge of the warehouse district before he noticed a trio of guards tailing them.

"Don't look back, but they're on our tail," he said to Celes, though he kept a smile on his face. "Follow my lead." They turned at the nearest intersection, and as soon as he figured they were out of sight, he grabbed her hand and sprinted towards an alley between two large, boxy buildings.

 The booted feet hurried louder across the cobblestones after them. Shit. This had been a miscalculation. Having already drawn suspicion, to continue with suspicious behavior, in a town already under high alert at all times? You know better than that. But what else could he have done? Confronted the soldiers in the middle of the street? Disappeared into thin air? Their options were limited, and the footsteps came closer, running now.

Soon the soldiers would be upon them with questions Locke was not entirely prepared to answer, and likely one of them would recognize Celes up close, and that would be the end of this little misadventure. There had to be a way out of this, a way to protect her, to keep both of them safe.

Locke did the first thing that popped into his head. He slipped one arm around Celes's waist, cupped his other hand around her neck, and pressed her back against the wall of the nearest building.

She stammered out his name, shocked and confused, and instinct told him to muffle her cry with his own lips. Don't. You can't. Instead, he brought his mouth to her ear.

"Play along," he whispered.

She nodded, though her body remained tense against his. He dropped his lips to her jaw and gently tilted her face away from the street, and at his touch, she drew in a sharp breath. The last thing he wanted to do was scare her, to put her in a position like this without her consent. More than trembling—she was shaking. But she slid her hands over his shoulders and wrapped her arms around his neck, closing the distance between them. He could feel the warmth of her breath on his neck, the tension in her arms as she clung to him, the taut muscle and soft curves of her against him, and–

The boots echoed on the cobblestone, close, closer, and then the soldiers were at the entrance to the alley. One of them sniggered, and against Locke, Celes stiffened. Was she afraid of him, too, or just of them? Her arms tensed, pulling him closer—and despite himself, he tightened his arm around her waist, trying to reassure her that she was not alone.

"I've got you," he murmured.

"Stupid kids," the man muttered, but there was a note of amusement in his voice. "An alley's no place to bring a nice girl," he called. "Get a proper room."

Locke laughed nervously—the nerves were real, even if the laugh wasn't. He wondered how young he must look with his hair covering his face, how stiff and awkward this stolen moment must seem, like two teenagers caught bumbling together in the dark.

The soldier laughed, too, and waved a hand. Then he rejoined his companions on the street, and there was more laughter, and the voices and boots carried on, drifting away.

Locke stayed against the wall with Celes, in case the men returned. She did not push him away, nor did she quiver with anger or terror. She was still tense, yes, but that was to be expected. His own nerves were jangling, too. His breaths sounded loud in this quiet place. Hers were louder still.

He dared to look down at her in the dim lighting of the alleyway, her face less than an inch from his. The moment hung between them. Her eyes met his, wide and intent and such a pale blue, the color of the sky in winter, and he could not look away, even as he was aware of her parted lips, her flushed cheeks, the catch in her breath, the feeling of inevitability like gravity pulling him toward her—

The look in her eyes was not fear, it was—

"We should—we should go," he stammered. "It's probably safe by now."

He stepped back from the warmth of her, his stomach tying itself into knots.


***


Play along, he had whispered, the closeness of his voice tickling her ear.

There were other things to worry about, things like the soldiers everywhere and how close they'd come to being caught and whether Locke's contacts might turn them in, not to mention the inherent dangers of the Magitek Research Facility, their lack of certainty of how to rescue Terra, the likelihood that being recognized by the guards would lead to her own execution. Life and death things. Real and present danger. And yet she could not let go of those words, and of that moment, and of how it had felt to be so close, so intimate, with someone—not just someone, but with him.

Every inch of her was on edge, and it had nothing to do with Vector.

Play along.

It felt like someone had scraped a blade across her skin. Where his lips had touched her neck burned and radiated out a warmth, and she found her own fingers tracing the gentle path of his breath against her skin. Her own touch seemed to deactivate whatever he had done to her, quelling the heat but not the strange shaky sensation that was not quite fear, not quite pain.

Play along meant that this was an act, a performance.

What had that look in his eyes meant? It had seemed like he was about to speak to her in that moment, before something had changed and he pulled away, and at least she could recognize that as fear. But it was just… pretend intimacy. What was there to be afraid of?

Even pretending probably feels wrong to somebody who's already in love with someone else.

It was like an ache that had been at the back of her mind for months now screamed for attention.

You stupid, stupid girl. The first man who shows you real kindness and you're swooning because you've gotten a glimpse of how he thinks about his dead girlfriend?

And now they were going back through the streets of the city, her hand holding the loop of his bag, neither of them saying a word, and yet that one strange moment was louder than anything else, louder than the voices on the street or the marching of boots on cobblestones or the occasional crackle and blare of an announcement.

Locke did not look at her. She could feel it, whatever it was, like a cord drawn taut between them. There was something about how he ignored it that only made it louder. Had she offended him somehow? But it had been his action, his idea, and…

They reached the designated warehouse soon afterward. It was anticlimactic, just a large squat building. Locke rapped on the door, then poked his head inside.

"I should be going first," she said. "In case it's an ambush."

"It won't be an ambush."

He strode in with confidence toward a group of people—more than Celes expected, five or six of them, plus Sabin, who stood easily a head taller than the rest of them.

Locke spread his arms, hands up, a gesture of greeting that looked patently unthreatening, as if greeting a friend and demonstrating that he was unarmed, all in one smooth, natural gesture that gave no impression of being as calculated as it must have been. And how much in his life did he calculate? How much was an act, a pretense, really?

"I see my rather large friend has made it here already," he called out cheerfully, as two of the cluster of strangers approached with Sabin.

"We didn't set up any sort of password or anything," Sabin said. "And I didn't know how much of anything you'd told them. It's been kind of awkward."

"My mistake," Locke said. "I'm sorry."

"When it felt like it was going to be more than just a few minutes here, I got worried."

"No, no, it's fine," Locke said breezily. "We, ah, attracted the attention of a few guards and had to duck out of sight for a while. But don't worry, we made sure no one was tailing us before we came here."

Such a smooth oversimplification. She almost expected him to crack a joke about the whole thing—we had to fool those damn idiots into thinking there was something between us; can you imagine, convincing them of something like that?—but he said nothing at all of it, as though it hadn't happened.

"I didn't tell them about her," Sabin piped up as the groups converged. "I felt like that might be something you hadn't told them."

"Yes, he pointedly told us he wasn't going to tell us about her." The man she assumed to be their leader smiled wryly, his eyes flicking to her face. "A military deserter, you said. Well. That's one way of putting it. I admit this isn't who I had in mind."

"It's not technically incorrect, though." She knew Locke well enough to read the slight hesitation in his voice, the caution. He wasn't sure how they were going to take it, since they—or at least this man—had recognized her.

"You're taking this rather well," she said. "You don't seem like you're thinking about cutting my head off."

"On the contrary," the man said, "it takes a lot to stand up to the emperor. You have my respect."

"Despite everything I may have done prior?"

"We live in Vector. We are all complicit, in one way or another, in the evils the empire commits. Until we decide to stand against it. Which you, and we, are now doing."

This unexpected support, after months of encountering hatred and distrust—not that it's undeserved—triggered a surge of relief so strong her knees almost buckled from it. She chanced a smile at the man, who returned it.

"As much as we'd love to stay here and talk philosophy," Locke cut in, "we have a government facility to infiltrate and a friend to rescue, and time is short."


***


He was impressed with how quickly they pulled together a plan, and with the connections they had that allowed them to do so. There were clearly a not-inconsiderable number of them throughout Vector, far more than just Hassan himself and his scant handful of companions present in the warehouse.

"We do small things," he said. "Interrupting violence, like when you were attacked by those drunkards. Helping people get in or out of the city. Supporting soldiers who aren't supposed to admit how deeply the war has scarred them. But we've wanted to do something more direct, and you're giving us an excuse to do it."

"Happy to help," Locke replied.

Celes was looking at Hassan very seriously, frowning. "I had no idea any of this existed."

"Of course not. You were a general. We do our best to keep the brass from having any idea we exist. The last thing we want is their attention."

"No, that's not what I mean." She pressed her lips together, deliberating. "I just—I wish I could have helped. I felt like there was nothing I could do to stop what was happening around me. I felt powerless, and alone, like it was just me. And when I did try to do something about it, I just came face to face with how powerless I really was. I wish I could have helped you then."

Locke stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked away from the pain in her eyes.

Hassan shook his head, with that kind but slightly distant smile. "Well, you're helping us now. Your friend here says you intend to 'fuck the place up.' I think those were his exact words." Then he gestured across the street. "That's our signal. Ready?"

"Yes."

"If I don't see you again, thank you, and good luck. But I do hope I see you all again." His handshake was firm.

It was smooth, much smoother than anything Locke could have arranged. Hassan's acting as he crossed the street and approached the guards, his exaggerated limp, his pleading for help—Locke might possibly have been able to pull it off himself, though not as convincingly, and certainly not here in Vector. But what impressed him the most was the rest of them, the silent girl at the side entrance who ushered them through the door, the young scientist who led them with hasty confidence right past another pair of guards indoors, the loudly bickering couple whose voices on the street disappeared as the heavy doors swung shut. Locke would never have trusted his colleagues to be part of something like this. He always worked alone. If there was anything to be taken from this time with Hassan's crew, it was the importance of working together, of trusting your teammates to do what you needed them to do and to have your back.

Getting inside the facility was almost comically easy, compared to what he had feared they would need to do. He knew full well how much you could accomplish if you just projected confidence and acted as though you belonged, and the young man in what appeared to be some kind of regulation lab coat, unmistakable bright yellow, did actually belong here, lending additional credibility to their party.

He brought them to a service shaft, a crawl space between rooms where carts of tools and vials and other mysterious contraptions lay forgotten in the hallway. "Here's where I leave you," he said. "There are stairs down, and half the labs connect to one of these halls. Just try not to be seen. Good luck."

In the relative privacy of this hallway, the three Returners made a hasty plan.

"There's no way they are keeping her anywhere near the surface," Celes said. "I'm sure she's down where the most secret labs are, the ones I never went to."

"Then we go down."

The narrow behind-the-scenes hallway eventually led to a stairwell, equally narrow, and clearly not intended for many people walking together. Celes counted the floors as they descended, but she shook her head when they reached the bottom.

"This isn't low enough. There has to be another staircase somewhere."

That meant emerging back into a hallway much like the one they had started in, with harsh gray walls and sickly overhead lighting. There was only one way to go. The first pair of swinging double doors they passed let the sound of scraping metal and raised voices through. Locke peeked through the crack and saw many figures in yellow coats at Magitek terminals, and beyond them, what looked like an assembly line for Magitek armor.

"Not this one," he said.

They kept going, past different doors into labs with nasty-looking Magitek weaponry in different stages of completion. Locke wished for some sort of firepower of his own to destroy the place—with this many weapons at their disposal, it would be child's play for the Empire to crush every city on the northern continent as thoroughly as they had the south.

This hallway fed into another, and another, and Locke filed it all away in a mental map. It was a maze, but he'd been in worse—as mazes go, at least.

Voices echoed down the hallway. Locke pointed at a nearby door, so close between two others that it had to be some sort of closet. He was gratified to be proven right, and the three of them crammed into the space with whatever spare equipment the mad scientists behind an evil empire kept lying around.

"We're going to wind up being seen eventually," Celes said in a low voice. "What will we do then?"

"I doubt they're used to fighting," Sabin said. "It shouldn't take much to intimidate them into letting us pass."

"The moment we're out of sight, they'll sound an alarm."

"Setting off an alarm isn't a bad idea, actually." Locke tapped his chin thoughtfully. "If we can get them to clear out of here…"

"How? Setting fire to the lab?"

"Or we could cut the power somehow," Sabin piped up.

"Is that possible?"

"I can't promise it, but like I told you earlier, Magitek isn't all that different from the steam power we use in Figaro." Sabin spoke with confidence, though Locke couldn't help a prick of frustration that he'd missed out on some earlier conversion between the other two. "The source is different, sure, but there still has to be a source somehow. We find that, we cut it off, we get them to clear out without endangering Terra or anyone else trapped down here like setting things on fire might."


***


With two goals in mind, and no clear direction how to achieve either, they did their best to scope out the size and shape of the building and make a plan. Celes was grateful for Locke's memory, which seemed to retain locations in perfect detail, and for his intuition, which let him speculate—with surprising accuracy—where hallways might lead and what doors might open into.

Returning to Vector itself had been uncomfortable, surreal, but finding herself once again in this place was something else entirely. It was hard not to think about a childhood spent undergoing tests here, about Cid's treatments, about being a little girl facing off against Kefka, a grown man who was not remotely tempted to go easy on her.

But however terrible her memories of this place might be, they were nothing compared to what Terra must have gone through—and what Terra might, at this very moment, be suffering.

Once more they heard footsteps coming down the hallway, and for the third time this day, they had to find a place to hide. She wondered how much of Locke's spy work involved sneaking around like this, with how easily he took to finding them nooks and hideaways. Once more he signaled to a door, a few paces back the way they'd come, with a few carts of supplies outside it.

Celes reached it first and dove into the darkened room. Sabin was close behind, moving surprisingly fast for someone who looked built more for strength than speed. But instead of Locke dashing in to join them, she heard something clatter outside, followed by a muttered curse.

She cracked the door open to see him on the floor, clutching his leg, face screwed up in pain. Ignoring the look on his face, she hooked her arms under his and tugged. It wasn't graceful, but with Sabin's help, she dragged Locke from the hallway into the room just in time.

The three of them huddled in the corner of the room nearest the door's hinges, to buy them time if the door opened. Inside, the room was nearly fully dark, with only a thin line of light from below the door.

"I thought I heard something," a voice in the hallway said.

"Looks like the cart fell over."

"It's not like there's a breeze down here, though." The doorknob turned, and the three of them huddled behind the opened door. Celes's hand moved to the hilt of her sword; her other arm tightened protectively around Locke, whose back was pressed against her. When did you become so comfortable touching another person? An idle and irrelevant thought. She held her breath. But the person at the door, whoever it was, only gave a cursory glance around the dark room before ducking back out again and letting the door slam shut. The sigh of relief was matched by all three of them. A moment later, Locke had pulled away from her and bounced nimbly to his feet. Celes and Sabin stood up more cautiously, afraid to make a sound.

Then laughter in the hallway that made her skin crawl. A laugh she would recognize anywhere, hysterical at the edge of madness. She froze.

"Kefka," Celes said, her heart racing.

"You think he's checking on Terra?"

"Probably."

"Then we should follow him," Locke said, and he crept toward the door.

"Don't be stupid," Celes hissed. "If we run into him here, it's over. You can't—follow someone on the roof, or wear a disguise, or whatever it is you might do to spy on someone. If you follow him in these narrow hallways, he will see you, and he'll kill you."

"Then what do you propose we do?"

"We stick to the plan. And we pray we don't face Kefka. Anyway," she continued, "you're not in any condition to be tracking after anyone, are you?"

"I'll be fine." The tone of his voice dripped with so much reassurance that she could guess just how badly he must be hurting underneath the pretense.

"Let me see your leg."

After a moment's hesitation, followed by a resigned sigh, he sat beside her and cuffed up the hem of his pants leg. In the darkness, she couldn't see the condition of his leg, but she could feel the excessive warmth of it, the tender swollen bruising along the shin. He sucked in a breath at her touch, but at least he didn't pull away from her.

"If you're going to try to heal it, I really don't–"

"It's either that or let your injury be a liability we really can't afford, and it's only going to get worse the longer you walk on it." She pressed her palms against his shin and, thinking of Shiva's calming touch, tried to summon up what Ramuh had taught her. A chill pooled like liquid at the center of her palms and flowed out from her fingers, pouring over and around the angry heat underneath his skin. Swelling, yes—broken blood vessels, damaged muscle, a bruise that went deep. She had a basic knowledge of anatomy, but this went beyond her understanding; she had to rely on her senses, on the feeling of cooling, to reduce the swelling, reduce the inflammation, calm the injury and dull the pain.

Locke sighed again, relief, as the pain unknotted itself beneath her hands. "That hurt more than I realized."

"You still haven't told us what happened."

"Good old xenophobia," Locke said, as though that were any answer at all. His voice had a cold, dry humor in it.

"Any other injuries?" She reached for his cheek, for the bruise she had only started to heal in the park, but he abruptly shifted out of her reach.

And there it was again—the silence, the sudden intense awareness of him, the sound of his breath in the darkness, the faintest play of the light on his jaw and reflecting in his eyes. She was frozen, reaching for him, and he was frozen out of her reach, both of them staring at the other, and she wondered if he felt this too. It was hard to breathe.

"So," Sabin said, and his voice startled her—startled both of them, as Locke almost jumped out of his skin. The big man chuckled quietly. "Do we wait and see if they come back, or do we charge on ahead?"

"Hmm." She put a hand to her temple. Now that the moment had passed, her senses came rushing back to her. Now's not the time to lose your head. Better start acting like a soldier, or you're going to get everyone hurt or killed. But there was something else there, something she hadn't noticed, so focused had she been on Locke, and on– "That's strange."

"What is?"

"There's—I mean, I can feel something." It was as though she had rung a bell and now the echo of the sound came back toward her, but instead of being something she heard with her ears, she felt it, almost like an itch. Magic. There was magic here, close enough that she could feel it, like nothing she had ever sensed before.

"Feel…?"

"I think I know where the magic is coming from," she said slowly. "Maybe it will lead us to the Espers. To Terra."


***


He was doubly glad for her healing magic. First, because his leg no longer burned with every step—he couldn't imagine how she ever managed to push through worse injuries, when he could barely hold it together with just this. Successfully pretending not to be in pain was clearly not his destiny. But it also seemed like she could sniff out magic in the air around them now, like a hunting dog sensing something the rest of them could not detect.

"And you're sure he can't sense you?" he asked for the third or fourth time.

"I can't sense him, and I doubt he can do anything I can't."

"It's too late to worry about that now, anyway," Sabin said. "It happened. No sense in stressing out over something that can't be changed. If he comes for us because of that, we'll deal with it."

Locke didn't want to point out what had happened the last time Kefka came for them with his magic in the Narshe mines—Celes's panic, the cave-in, the likelihood that the only thing that saved their lives was Tritoch waking. But maybe Celes's study with Ramuh had made a difference. Maybe understanding Shiva's magic would allow her to put out Kefka's fire.

He had a healthy fear of the madman. Celes's fear seemed much less healthy, but Locke hadn't probed just how deep that went, and now certainly wasn't the time.

The door she eventually led them to, down a series of hallways that all looked the same to him, was locked.  "Figures our luck was too good," Sabin muttered. "Are you sure it's through here?"

"Something is," Celes said with a frown. "I don't know if it's Terra or not, but a lot of the magic leads to here." 

"Your turn, then." Sabin looked meaningfully at Locke, who frowned at him.

"What?"

"I figure you can do something about the door."

"I really think you're better equipped to be a battering ram than I am."

"Can't you pick a lock?"

"What makes you assume that?"

"But you can," Celes interrupted with some exasperation. "You freed me in South Figaro."

"I have some proficiency," he grumbled. "It's a useful skill in my line of work. Which, I have to point out, is not burglary, before you get any ideas, nor has it ever been. I'm a treasure hunter, a spy, and a saboteur. I have scruples."

Celes was smiling. "No one said you didn't."

With a sigh, Locke rummaged in his pack and pulled out a few tools, and then he crouched beside the door and got to work.

Sabin laughed, out of the blue, and then he said, "Don't you think it's a little on the nose? You're here, picking a lock, and your name is Locke…"

Locke sighed again and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I have to be able to hear the mechanism. If you'll let me concentrate…"

They did, falling into blessed silence, and soon he'd lost himself to the work. This was a complicated lock, vastly more elaborate than the simple device that had bound Celes all those months ago, and it took all his concentration to note the subtle change in the feel and the sound as he worked the mechanism with his tool.

"This is taking too long," Sabin said.

"It was your idea," Locke reminded him. "Unless you want to try pummeling the thing down with your fists? But it's made of metal and I'm not sure it'll budge."

With a grunt, Sabin turned away, his attention shifting down the hall. Locke resumed his work. Celes hovered over his shoulder, watching him, and his fingers seemed to slow and lose their nimbleness under her gaze.

"May I try?" Her voice was cool and patient, and the corner of her mouth quirked as she smiled. She looked almost sad, despite that smile. 

"Of course," he said, though if lock picking was in her skill set, this would be the first he'd heard of it. He held the tools steady so she could pick up where he'd left off, and her hands wrapped around his. They were calloused, more calloused than he had ever realized, coarse against the back of his knuckles. One of her long braids fell across his arm, smooth as silk. That contrast, the battle-hardened toughness she thought defined her, at odds with how delicate the rest of her looked—and he had a sudden memory of Rachel's hands, her soft palms, her giggles as she traced his own callouses, how his heart had soared and he had fancied himself worldly enough to protect her, to show her wonders and delight in impressing her with his skill and daring–

Meanwhile Celes took the tools from him, and he released them at once, pulling his hands away from hers to let her work. But instead she withdrew the tools and dropped them into his empty Palm, and then she cupped her hand around the lock. The hair on the back of his arms lifted with the strange teeth-tingling sensation he was beginning to understand as the presence of magic, and a moment later, frost crept along the surface of the door and the doorknob.

"Sabin, you're strong. Can you break this off?"

He did, and the whole lever came off with a terrible sound of metal creaking. Then he set the handle down, reached into the hole where it had attached, and pulled out the sliver of metal that had latched the door, which now slid open toward him.

"I wasn't sure if that would work." Celes sounded relieved.

"Seems like you could have staged this rescue mission all by yourself," Sabin said.

"No," she said. "We needed help to get inside, and there's no way I could have done that. Locke is infinitely better with people than I could ever be." She smiled at him—again that sad, almost shy smile.

"Teamwork, then." He gestured to the door. "Whoever's inside will certainly have heard us, so we shouldn't take too long congratulating ourselves."

But the whoever's inside was in no condition to respond to them, as it turned out. The door opened into a chamber lit by slender tubes that pulsed with the same sickly yellow light that lined the halls down here. The lights and wires converged around a contraption at the far wall. Stepping inside, his teeth buzzed—the air was so thick with magic here that even he could feel it, and a quick glance at Celes showed that she looked stricken.

And no wonder, because held prone against the wall by a complicated series of metal restraints were a number of humanoid figures.

Humanoid, but not human. Even in the sickly lighting, even at this distance, even with the empire's technological torture devices winding around their bodies, they were clearly somehow other, their shapes recognizable but strange. He rushed in, scanning the figures for someone familiar, for Terra.

"Holy shit," Sabin said.

"They're Espers," Locke choked out.

Celes approached them with horror written plainly across her face. "Can you hear us? We're here to help."

"How, though?" Locke could not even begin to imagine what to do, where to begin with deconstructing this machine, even if the figures bound to the wall were still alive. One of them, with horns curling on either side of his face, suddenly opened his eyes. So, then, they were alive.

Sabin, meanwhile, was sizing the situation up with more confidence than Locke felt. Then he reached toward Celes. "Your sword."

"Do you—is it safe?"

Even as she asked the question, though, she handed over her sheathed blade. Quickly, wasting no time, Sabin used the pommel of the sword to bash in a part of the contraption with knobs set into it, crumpling metal and tearing wires. Sabin smashed it again and again, and a spectacular—and terrifying—shower of sparks rained down. Then the lights in the room flickered, and everything went dark.

Completely dark. Eerily dark. And quiet, too, as an ever-present hum Locke had not noticed before went silent.

"Locke," Celes started, but he was already reaching into his bag, feeling for the loop where Edgar's fire less lantern was hooked to the side, ready and waiting for emergencies just like this. He clicked it on, and a blessed radius of light splashed across the walls and brightened the floor around him.

Sabin touched the wall by the figures experimentally. Then he wrapped his hands around the tubes and wires and tore them from the wall with great heaving motions. Finally he wrenched the restraints apart, helping first one figure and then the others from the wall. They stumbled weakly. The reddish man opened his mouth, and a flame burst from it, small and yellow but still hot enough that Sabin stepped back. The other figure, a pale and slender woman, leaned against the man, and her trembling blue hands whitened, banishing the heat from the air.

"Shiva," Celes breathed. Then she stepped forward, palms pressed together. "Shiva, please. We mean you no harm."

Maybe she recognized the magic, maybe she took an educated guess. It made sense that this would be Shiva, and Locke wondered who the other figure might be. But the Espers were so pale, so hollow, a far cry from the nearly godlike power Ramuh had displayed, or even the power that Kefka wielded. Seeing them so reduced made him shiver at the overwhelming wrongness of this place.

"I did not expect… that humans… would ever release us," the woman said huskily.

"We aren't associated with the people who have kept you here," Locke said.

Sabin snorted. "No, we're here to kick their asses and free their prisoners."

"Do you have any more friends here?" Sabin asked.

"Others like us?" Shiva asked, cocking her head to one side. She was beautiful, less frightening than Locke might have expected. "There were others captured with us. Whether they remain here or not, I can't say. We have been here a long time."

"We'll break every last Esper out of here," Locke said. "We'll get you out of here, all of you, and then we'll destroy this place so they can't hurt anyone like they hurt you ever again."

"They are treacherous."

"We'll find a way."

"They gave me your power," Celes said. She took Shiva's hands, and the Esper allowed it. "When they drained it from you, they implanted it into me. I was a child. I'm sorry—I didn't understand—and I'll give it back to you, if you only tell me how."

Shiva laughed, like the faint tinkle of bells. "It's too late for that, I think. Maybe years ago, but I think not even that could save me now, even if I knew how it could be done."

"I'm sorry."

"Was it your sin? No. You were a child. You are a child. Just promise me you'll do good with it."

Celes nodded solemnly. "The Empire wished to make me into a weapon--"

Shiva laughed again. "They only see weapons and tools for control. Magic is so much more."

"I know. Ramuh was beginning to teach me. He–" Celes's expression suddenly grew hopeful. "Surely I could heal you?"

"No," Shiva said gently. "There is not much left to be healed. These forms will not last long."

"Your human forms? Then set them aside, and be yourselves–"

"She doesn't understand." This was the first thing the man had said to them, and he appeared to be laboring to breathe. "There is no time to explain."

"They thought they could wield the power of our bodies. But the true power is that of the spirit, freely given." Shiva took Celes's cheeks in her hands. "Find our friends and yours. Stop this Empire from the harm it causes. Do good with my gift." Then in a moment she was gone, nothing but glittering dust motes sparkling through the air like snowflakes. A sound like shattering ice. Celes gasped.

Before any of the humans could react, the horned man held out an arm to Sabin. "You. Come here." Sabin approached him warily. "You are direct. I like that. Take my strength. I have little left to give, but you will use it well." He roared like an inferno at Sabin's chest, and the martial artist cried out as Ifrit dissipated like smoke.

Locke could only watch as his companions staggered under whatever had been done to them in the Espers' last moments. "Are you all right?" he asked, feeling utterly useless.

"Yes," Celes said, which was not, he concluded, an indication that he should not worry.

Sabin winced. "I honestly don't know. But I'll live. At least, I think I will."

"You'd better, or your brother will have me strung up from the highest point in Figaro Castle," Locke said mildly, though his heart was racing as he considered just what might have happened to his friends. Would they be transformed? Would they survive the Espers' interventions?

"We need to keep going," Celes said. "They'll be coming to investigate the power outage soon, but for now, there must be chaos going on outside. Let's see if we can find the rest of them."


***


It took the chaos a little while to catch up with them. Outside, the halls were entirely dark except for Locke's lantern. It reminded him of endless hours spent in unlit caves, except that these circumstances were slightly different. Short of the Emperor's own bedchambers, it was hard to imagine anywhere on the planet that was more central to the Empire than several floors beneath the surface in this Magitek stronghold. It was not a comforting thought.

Still, at least the three of them had not been caught unawares by the power outage, and the other two seemed fearless, Celes ruthlessly determined and Sabin cheerfully undaunted. There was something heartening about having such strength on either side of him, though he worried about what, exactly, Shiva and the other Esper had done to them.

That answer came soon enough, when they happened upon a duo of imperial soldiers rounding a bend ahead. Lanternlight illuminated the two men's shocked faces moments before Sabin went in swinging. Locke was just thinking about suggesting they plan first and act second when he realized that Sabin's fist was glowing.

Sabin seemed to realize it belatedly, just before his fist hit the man's jaw. With a yelp of pain, the soldier crashed to the floor, and his startled companion took a step back, wide-eyed.

"What–"

"Where are they keeping the Espers?" Sabin demanded, his eyes wild and his chin lifted as he loomed over the man. "Show us or I will set you on fire with my fists."

Well, that didn't take long to sink in. Locke was not surprised when the soldier gulped and nodded—if Sabin had been threatening him, he would have seriously considered going along, at least until he'd had time to think of a way out. He wondered if the fiery Esper had rubbed off on Sabin somehow, but no, this seemed in line with what he'd come to expect from the Figaroan prince: a strong and determined friend, a formidable foe.

Sabin didn't seem inclined to give this soldier a chance to find a way out. He hefted the man up by the collar of his shirt, turned him down the hall, and gave him a shove. "Lead. If you try anything, you'll be sorry."

This was decidedly more efficient than the trial and error that had been their earlier effort to find their way through the facility. Locke's lantern glinted off Celes's drawn sword, and he glanced at her, at her resolute expression, and wondered how anyone had ever believed that she was just an ordinary girl. Even in someone else's borrowed clothes, with her face painted up and her hair in beribboned plaits, she was extraordinary. She shone, fearless—no, she was afraid, without question, returning to this place that held great danger and so many memories of unspoken pain, and yet she was still here, unflinching, to save her friend.

They met no other resistance before arriving at a laboratory door that looked the same as all the other doors around it.

"This is the one," the soldier said in a shaking voice. "They're in there."

"He's right." Celes took a deep breath, as if to steady herself. Then, without waiting for the others, she shouldered the door open and pushed through, sword at the ready.

Sabin looked down at Locke and gestured to the soldier. "Do we bring this guy with us?"

"I, uh." He spun through possibilities—turning the man loose risked alerting more guards, keeping him could mean having a hostage that could be handy in a tight spot, binding him and leaving him down here meant he might have no chance of escape if they did manage to wreck the lab on their own way out. It seemed unlikely to the point of impossible that the imperials would actually negotiate for the return of any common soldier, but… "You'd better come with us. There's more of us out there on the other floors, and I'd hate for you to run into them. They're not as reasonable as we are."

The soldier eyed Sabin nervously, then nodded. "Sure. Yeah."

With that settled, Locke followed Celes, the other two close behind. The lantern would have been insufficient to light this chamber, but a faint glow emitted from two rows of massive glass tubes, each tube easily large enough to hold two or three bodies. An apt measurement, as he realized that was exactly what each tube contained—a body, suspended in clear liquid. Locke walked between the rows of tubes, mouth agape. Some of the forms were more human, others less so—one that resembled a unicorn, another almost feline with a long tail and huge ears. They turned to watch him as he passed them. At least they were more conscious than Shiva and Ifrit had been. He could only hope that meant they would recover from the empire's torturous treatment.

Celes was already at the far end of the row, her sword sheathed, her hand pressed to the tube there. Locke recognized the form within: Ramuh, the old man's beard swirling around him. Slowly, as if the liquid surrounding him made movement difficult, he pointed at a door set in the wall. Celes nodded and moved toward the door.

"Do you have any idea how to get them out of these things?" Locke asked, trailing behind her.

Celes paused just long enough to turn back and call out, "Sabin?"

"On it." The big man stopped at the console at the base of one of the tubes, whether to coax the technology into obeying him or bludgeon it into pieces with his fists, Locke couldn't say.

He had to hurry to catch up with Celes as she turned the door handle, sword out again. Part of him expected this door, too, to be locked, but instead it swung right open without so much as a creaky hinge.

Inside was an unwelcoming cot made of metal, on which a familiar green-haired figure lay. Beside her was an array of machinery and what looked like medical devices, and a stool on which an older man in a yellow laboratory coat was just beginning to stand at their arrival. If not for the setting, he might have seemed affable, with a bushy mustache and shiny red nose.

"General Celes," the man said, clearly caught off guard. Locke eyed Celes, gauging her reaction. She hesitated, but he guessed it was more out of surprise than fear. Nothing like Kefka, then. Locke relaxed, just a hair.

"Doctor Cid." Celes pressed her lips together, and her sword dipped a little.

"It's been a while," he said, squinting at her, seemingly unfazed by the naked blade in her hand. "They told me you joined up with the Returners. They've been treating you well?"

"What?" She frowned. "Yes, I suppose. Cid, I–"

He pushed on, sounding for all the world as if he were catching up with an old friend, or maybe like a teacher who had unexpectedly encountered a student outside of the classroom. "A secret mission, right? Infiltrating the rebellion for Gestahl?" Celes only shook her head, and Cid turned a benign, even patronizing smile to Locke. Something in that smile tied his stomach in knots. "Ah, of course, of course. I didn't see you there. Pay me no mind." As if he thought Celes was only answering this way because Locke was here with her.

That's impossible. I've spent too much time with her—I would know if she was lying.

"I'm here to rescue Terra," Celes said through gritted teeth. "With the Returners, yes."

She can't be that good an actress. Nobody could.

"If you'll excuse me," Locke added, "I'm one of those Returners, and I'm going to do some of that rescuing, if you don't mind." He slipped past Celes to Terra, who lay unconscious and unmoving on the cot. At least she was breathing, and she did not have the hollow look of the doomed Espers.

"Help us," Celes said to Cid, behind him, and she certainly sounded like she meant it. "Please. You have to let her go—you have to let all of them go. You can't torture them any longer."

"It isn't-"

"You shouldn't have done any of this—not to them, not to her, not to me."

This confrontation, too, sounded genuine, as though she were speaking words straight from her heart, words that had gone too long unsaid. A touch melodramatic, perhaps, but still real. Locke considered the machinery beside Terra; fortunately, none of it seemed connected to her directly. He touched her cheek gently, and she stirred. Restraints bound her arms, and he ran a finger over their surface, looking for the catch.

Cid and Celes were still at an impasse, neither of them paying Locke much mind. "I regret letting them send you to the battlefield, I do," Cid said. "You were too young, and we never gave you a choice about any of this."

"Then help us now. You can make it right."

The infiltration had gone so smoothly. Almost too smoothly, and much of that because of Celes herself. And before that… when they found Terra in Zozo, had Celes been the one to send word to the Empire? No—they tried to drug her, when they drugged him—except the Returners had only her word on what had happened in that room. She could have drugged him herself, gotten some sort of information out of him, then played it off as an attack to avoid raising suspicion—and then she brought them out to Ramuh's apartment just in time–

That's ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous.

They couldn't have known he would be the one to rescue her in South Figaro. He doubted they even knew who he was. Yet they could hardly have planned it better if they had tried, setting him up to cross paths with a defenseless young woman in dire circumstances who could still, through his actions, be saved. If it were an act, he had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

Not to mention that she was one of the most beautiful people he'd ever seen.

Shut up.

It couldn't be possible.

"Let her go," Celes said, leveling her sword at Cid. "Please. You can do that, at least."

Locke wanted to set loose his anger at this man, to seize the opportunity to hold someone accountable, after months of seeing the trauma that had accumulated in Celes from a lifetime of being used—but had that, too, been an act? Was it even possible to pretend something like that? No, it couldn't be. Not that, not Celes. Yet still he said nothing, turning his attention instead to the mechanism of the restraint on Terra's arm.

The scientist's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Very well." He took a loop of small keys from his pocket and used one of them to unlock Terra. While he was doing so, he gave Locke a measured look, as if sizing him up.

Soon, Terra was freed and groggily awake. She leaned heavily against Locke's shoulder for support—Celes was doubtlessly stronger, but Terra was slender and light as a bird, and Celes had other things to be doing, like wielding a sword against any trouble that showed up. So he helped walk Terra from the smaller room into the chamber with the massive tubes, where Sabin was still fiddling with the controls. Celes backed out of the lab behind him, sword still facing Cid.

"No luck," Sabin said, as Locke approached with Terra. "There's got to be some sort of a release somewhere, but either there's not enough power to make it work or I just haven't found it."

From the tube beside Ramuh's, there came a muffled tapping. The figure inside, who looked more like a man than most, was pounding his fist against the glass. He had pressed his face to it and was looking straight at Locke—no, at Terra. Is that…?

"I can try to freeze it, but I'd be afraid of hurting them inside," Celes said.

Cid was observing them from the door to his lab. "The glass is impervious to magic," he called out. "Otherwise they'd have broken out themselves, long ago."

"Impervious to magic, huh." Sabin stood and pressed his fingers against the glass, looking thoughtful. "Celes, if I break my hand, will you fix it?"

Locke barked a laugh. "Are you going to try to punch your way through it? You don't think you'll need both your hands on our way out?"

 "I might be able to heal it." Celes sounded uncertain. "I haven't really tested my limits. But–"

"I can fight with just one," Sabin said, undeterred. "It wouldn't be my first time."

One hand still on the glass, he shook out his other wrist, then rolled out his shoulders. But Ramuh shook his head, his massive beard floating wildly with the motion. With both hands, he gestured to the other Esper who was still pounding on the glass as though he could break it down by sheer force of will.

"Sure thing, old man," Sabin said, focusing on that tube instead. And then, forever cementing himself in Locke's mind as someone utterly unafraid of pain or danger, he hooked a punch at the glass, his entire body twisting with the motion in one perfect arc.

But it was more than just a punch, and more than just a fist. To Locke, it seemed that his vision had blurred and he was seeing double, every movement Sabin made preceded by a glowing red form that looked like a copy of the man. The force of his fist colliding with the glass sent a shockwave that staggered the Returners and reverberated off the surrounding tubes. And then the glass shattered with a tremendous and deafening sound.

Gooey liquid surged out from the fragments of glass that fell around the tube's base in every direction. For a moment, nobody moved, staring in shock. The man inside the tube fell to his knees and dragged himself to the edge of the tube.

"Terra," the man croaked out. "Terra. That's Terra. That's my Terra."

Sabin helped the man down. Outside of the light of the tube, his face was more gaunt than Locke had realized, though he looked like less of a shell of himself than Shiva or Ifrit had.

"You know her?" Sabin asked, though an idea of the answer had already formed in Locke's mind.

"My daughter," the man—the Esper—said, confirming it. The resolve of his spirit warred with the weakness of his body as he hobbled toward Terra, who stared at him, transfixed.

"Father…?" She sounded like a little girl. "D-daddy?"

Locke let her go, and the man folded her into his arms. They clung to each other with a hungry desperation that was so personal and spoke of so many years of suffering that Locke had to look away, to give them the privacy of this moment together.

Instead, he joined Sabin, who was breathing heavily as if from exertion, and Celes, who was looking over his bloody knuckles. The air crackled with magic and with the strange intensity of emotion—Celes confronting Cid, Terra reunited with her father, the horrors of the lab, the fear of an elaborate betrayal

"I think I can take out the rest of them," Sabin said cheerfully. "Just… give me a moment."

"That might be one of the craziest things I've ever seen," Locke said, and Sabin laughed.

"Just you wait. I'd suplex a—a train—if it got in my way."

"I'll believe it."

"Nothing's broken." Celes passed her hand over his knuckles, closing the wounds.

Sabin opened and closed his fist a few times, testing her handiwork. "This is amazing. Thank you." He grinned. "Wish me luck, then."

Locke stood holding the lantern, feeling a sense of inexplicable dread. Terra and her father sat together, sharing a lifetime's worth of stories, words pouring out from both of them like the tears that streamed from their eyes. Sabin hopped lightly on his feet, steeling himself up, and then threw himself at the next tube as his body blurred and doubled again. Only Celes hung back with him. She sidled closer to stand beside him, close enough that he could wrap his arm around her shoulder, if he wanted to. Could pull her to him, and—

She inclined her head at him, smiling shyly. "I think... maybe we've done it?"

Part of him rejoiced to hear this optimism, this happiness, from her. He'd been fighting for months to bring this out of her, hadn't he? It ought to be cause for celebration. And she waited, for his response, for his validation. When he hesitated, her smile faltered.

"I'm just… I'm a little nervous," he said.

Sabin took down one tube, then another. Each time left him panting and bloody, needing to be mended with Shiva's lingering magic, and it was clear the effort took a toll on him. The Espers, too, seemed much worse off than Locke had realized. Though they had appeared healthier within the tubes, once they emerged into the chamber, some of the life in them seemed to drain away as he watched.

Leaving the lantern propped up on a desk, Locke and Celes helped the Espers away from the shards of glass that littered the tile floor, flecked with Sabin's blood. There were six of them in total: Terra's father; a glowing, golden-hued unicorn; a wispy translucent being like the shadow of a man surrounded by a floating veil; a porcine shape; a fishlike beast so massive it had barely fit within its tube; and that strange little blue creature, which did not touch the ground but rather levitated, looking over each of them with an indiscernible expression on its sweet face. It would have been like something from a wondrous storybook, except that they seemed faded, as though the illustrations had been sun-bleached.

"Celes, can you heal them?" Locke asked her. "We need to get out of here. I feel like we're on borrowed time…"

"They won't last long outside of their containment devices."

Locke had almost forgotten about Cid until the man's voice cut into their conversation. The doctor had come closer, though he still stood a distance from them all. There was a notebook in his hands now and a pen, though they were still.

"I don't understand. What's happening to them?" 

"The fluid in the tubes sustained them," Cid said. "With so much of their magic gone, they can't live without support. Look, they're fading already."

Terra clutched at her father. "Daddy?"

"So, you see–" Cid started, but Celes whirled to face him.

"You did this," she choked out. "Their magic is gone because you drained it, because you've used it to power this terrible Empire, and to turn Kefka and I into—into monsters!"

"Listen to me, Terra," her father said. "You must understand that we are never entirely gone. We join the lifestream, but a part of us lingers in those we love. The last gift we can give."

"You can't leave me!" Terra howled. "I only just found you!"

"Shh, shh," her father said, cradling her in his arms. "I'm not leaving you. I will never leave you. A part of me will be with you, always." He kissed Terra's forehead. "I wish I could do more for you. I wish I could have spared you this, and I wish I could spare you the pain to come. But I will give you this, my heart."

And it was just as it had been with Shiva—one moment the man held Terra close, and then he was gone. Light shimmered around Terra and pulsed within her, even as she cried out, "No!"

Ramuh, who seemed stronger than the rest, nevertheless took Celes's hands. "I am very old and tired," he said. "Take my power and use it well, as I have taught you. I believe in you." Then he, too, vanished.

A wordless conversation seemed to pass between the other Espers, and one by one, they too touched Terra or Celes before disappearing. Locke felt tears welling up in his own eyes. This was so wrong. Yes, they had come here to rescue Terra, and that part of the mission promised to be a success, if they made it out of here alive. But to find the Espers, too, only to have them pass away almost immediately after being freed—it was a tragedy, yet another reason to hate the Empire.

Terra and Celes both looked dazed. Sabin was still ragged from expending so much energy—physical and magical energy, as far as Locke could tell. Despite their condition, though, every moment that passed put them all at greater risk and they could not afford to wait longer.

He had just opened his mouth to suggest they leave when an all-too-familiar voice spoke from behind them.

"So that's how it's supposed to be done. Those damn Espers have been holding out on us all this time."

Of course it was Kefka. Of course it was Kefka. The crazed clown stepped through the door—had he been eavesdropping, watching this play out from afar?—followed by at least ten soldiers who crowded the entrance, making any hope of slipping past them moot.

Sabin swore and shifted into a battle stance. Belatedly, Celes stepped up beside him and did the same. The two of them stood before Locke and Terra, shielding them.

Kefka spread his arms out, a grin splitting his face from ear to ear. "General Celes! The game's over. You can come back home to us now."

"What?" Her face had gone pale.

"You don't have to pretend to be one of them any longer," Kefka said. "I'm sure the Emperor is just itching to hear what you've learned."

Was it true, after all? Had she been a double-agent all this time, planted in the Returners until the precise opportune moment, when she could press at their weakness and they would fall? Had he placed his trust falsely, fooled by a pretty girl in need—his own weakness, it would seem? Was she not friend but foe, after all?

He wanted to believe in her, but was that founded in reality or was his pride—or his heart—leading him astray?

"Celes?" His voice wavered, exposing his doubt.

She turned to face him, and there was such pain in her eyes, searching his, looking for something she did not seem to find. "I swear to you, he's lying," she said bitterly. "Have a little faith…"

"Come now," Kefka's words were edged in laughter. "Drop this charade."

"I never lied to you!" Celes looked at Locke without flinching, without even considering the rest of them, her words for him and him alone. "Please—I—"

The tips of Kefka's fingers glowed, and an unseen wind ruffled the feathers on his ridiculous cap. Locke's mouth hung open. He clamped it shut, his mind churning. No, she wouldn't—there was no way—it was preposterous, it would have been such a long con with such limited chance of success—she had put her life on the line for others too many times to be anything but sincere—

Celes shook her head. "You don't... have to believe me. But let me protect you, for once."

He meant to protest, to tell her that wasn't why he hesitated—why are you hesitating, then?—but there was no time, and the words caught in his throat.

There was something of a farewell in her voice and the sad way she looked at him. He stepped toward her, but it was too late. She charged at Kefka, whose hands and arms were almost incandescent, as though he would soon burn the whole facility down. Though he flinched from it, Locke had an image suddenly of that incandescence targeting Celes and incinerating her, taking her from him in an instant of unimaginable pain.

There was a blinding flash and what he now recognized as the scent of magic in the air. His vision seemed to blur—no, that was an illusion—and then a blinding flash of light he squinted away from. Then a strange, terrible sensation of the entire world whirling around him, and there was no sense of up or down, just light everywhere and a nauseating pit in his stomach.

When the world finally stabilized, she was gone.

Gone entirely—not burned up, but absent. And Kefka gone, and the guards as well, and the entire facility, leaving just the afterimage of Kefka's incomplete spell burned onto his retinas, and the lingering feeling of magic.

No, it was more than that. They were in an open field, with the moon overhead and crickets singing. The stillness of it after the cacophony of magic was almost horrifying. 

In the silence, Locke stared at the emptiness where she had been.


***


The small blue creature had whispered to her, thoughts as quick as wind, offering her a chance. She had never used magic like this before—and she was afraid. But more than her fear of this strange and unfamiliar power, she feared what Kefka would do to them all, trapped here so many floors below the surface, with no chance at a quick escape but what the creature offered.

You can only send others, it said to her in something less and more than a voice. You cannot send yourself.

Do it. Not a moment's hesitation.

So the wind shimmered within this isolated space where no wind should have been, and Celes gave herself to the creature's power, let it course through her and pull from her breath. Her lungs compressed and could not draw air, but despite that, she dashed toward Kefka, distracting him from the Returners, buying them just a little time for the creature's magic to carry them away. She ran toward the unbearable heat, using what little she could spare of herself to form a shield of ice over her skin.

I'm sorry, Locke.

There was too much magic here. Kefka's fire, brighter and hotter than ever before. Her own pathetic shadow of Shiva's power. The small but powerful Carbuncle's winds of movement. And fragments of all the poor Espers twisted and tortured here, remnants of the Empire's mad experiments echoing across every surface like memories of agonized screams–

When Kefka released his flames, the magic resonating throughout the facility burst. The force fields containing the Espers crackled. Glass screens and glass canisters shattered. Metal buckled and tore like paper. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, began to shake.

Kefka was laughing, that terrible mad laugh that haunted her darkest nightmares.

"I'll bring you down with me," she screamed over the roar of destruction around them.

"Like hell you will." Kefka gestured to one of his guards. "Take her. And get us out of here. I don't care how, but do it now."

For all her bluster and bravado, she had spent every last ounce of strength she had. Fenrir had taken most of it to whisk Locke and the others to safety—at least, she hoped they were safe now—and the inferno that consumed the chamber in which they stood sapped at the ice in her blood and weakened her still.

She drew her sword to fight them, but they overpowered her quickly. Someone yanked at her hair, and something cold pressed against her temples, and she had only a dim impression of chaos and howling and destruction around her before everything went dark.

Chapter Text

In the distance, something was burning.

He could see the plume of smoke rising even through the trees, and a muffled crackle like thunder boomed once, twice, three times. It was too far away to see, but even stunned as he was, Locke's racing mind connected the dots. The Magitek Research Facility was coming apart. Which meant–

"We have to go back," he said.

"No, we really don't," Sabin said. The prince had stooped beside him to shoulder Terra's weight. She must have gone unconscious sometime between the disappearance of her father and the appearance of Kefka and–

"We can't just leave her," Locke said.

"We can," Sabin said. "We have to."

"You can, maybe," Locke said bitterly. "Fine. Take Terra back to the airship. I'll—we'll make our way up to Tzen and stow away to Nikeah. Or send you a letter. Or you can come back for us. Just–"

"Don't be stupid."

Locke recoiled, stood unsteadily, backed away. "If—if—there will be chaos in Vector. I can slip in—I can assess the situation—I'll find her and—and we can meet up with Hassan, he's got—we can lay low…"

"What are you going to do, throw your life away? She just bought it for you, Locke. "

"And that's why I can't leave her." A dark thought whispered in his ear, an impression of Celes crushed beneath metal and falling rock, or perishing in flames, her last moments excruciating and alone, and all because of him.

"She'd want you to."

"Well, yes, but that doesn't mean I should," Locke said, and even he was dimly aware of the hysteria rising in his voice, the madness of the grin that pulled the corners of his mouth painfully upwards, the laughter bubbling up in him that was not humor. "She's been trying to martyr herself dramatically since I met her. You learn not to listen to it after a while."

This was pointless. Every moment he spent arguing with Sabin was another moment longer for Celes to be in Kefka's clutches, at the mercy of the merciless Empire, or under the rubble waiting for a rescue that might never come, if the whole facility had come down around her. She'd sent her companions closer to the airship than to Vector, but if he ran as much of the way as he could–

He slipped into the shadows, away from the burdened Sabin, fully prepared to take off through the forest as fast as his legs would carry him.

But something grabbed at the collar of his shirt and held him still. The man's reflexes must be better than Locke imagined from someone of his size. For one long, frustrating, humiliating moment, Locke flailed his limbs and tried to squirm away, pushing hard into the ground with the balls of his feet, trying to break Sabin's hold on him and get away.

The fabric dug into his throat, making him cough and sputter, as Sabin spun him around so they were facing each other. For the first time, Locke got a sense for just how powerful the man was, not just the hulking mass of him but the strength, the force, in that mass. Some small animal part of Locke's brain recognized danger, and he froze, limbs locking, the jittery panic stilling.

"I will carry both of you if I have to," Sabin said through his teeth, "but I would really, really rather not."

"Then let me go."

"Will you run off if I do?"

"No," Locke said. "I promise. I'll stick to you like glue."

Sabin sighed. "You're full of shit. All right, let's get moving."

He did not release Locke's collar as they marched away from Vector. After the fourth time Locke tried to break away, he made good on his threat, hefting Locke over his shoulder like a sack of grain, despite much protesting and kicking of limbs.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence as Sabin trudged on through the forest with both of his companions draped over his massive shoulders. This method of transportation was bumpy and not conducive to conversation, and Locke really doubted either of them was having a good time, but Sabin was nothing if not stubborn, and Locke had to admit that he had not made a very good case for his own trustworthiness at the moment. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes and tried to crush the panic squeezing at his heart.

"I get it," Sabin said. "I really do, all right? If I thought we could get her back without all four of us probably dying, I'd do it. But Terra is out cold, I just beat up giant glass tubes with my fists for an hour, and you are not in your right mind right now. Even if Celes is somehow in one piece and away from that psycho clown, we'd still be screwed."

"She's in one piece," Locke choked out.

"Yeah. Of course she is. She's a tough girl. She's been through worse."

Had she? Torture, war, fire, imprisonment and an impending execution—which would almost certainly await her now that she was in the Empire's clutches again—and up til now, she had somehow stayed alive despite the odds. He was torn between reassuring himself that she was a survivor and screaming inside that even if she did not perish in the ruins of the facility, the Empire did not take kindly to deserters or traitors.

Because of course she hadn't been a spy, or a plant, and he had been an utter fool to doubt her even for a moment.

Something he would regret for the rest of his life.

Another regret to take to the grave. Another life lost because of him.


***


When the airship was at last in sight, a hulking shape silhouetted against the night sky, Sabin finally put Locke down and allowed him to walk the rest of the way himself, with some small shred of his dignity intact. Sabin did keep a hand on his shoulder, discouraging any effort to run away again. But at this point that would be futile. He couldn't just run back to Vector, not from here.

"Hey," Sabin called out to the waiting vessel. "Hey! We're back."

His voice was loud in the nighttime forest, and someone must have been waiting up for them, because a little window opened, letting out a square of yellowy light, and then the entrance ramp unfurled from the side of the ship.

By the time they'd reached the top of the ramp, Edgar was waiting for them in the doorway. He breathed a sigh of relief and gestured them in, his face lighting up at the sight of Sabin and then Terra, before his forehead knitted thoughtfully at Locke.

"They've got Celes," Locke said before anyone could interject. "Drop me off in Vector and I'll bring her back."

Edgar glanced questioningly at Sabin. "You're wounded," he said. "Come inside and we'll get Setzer's doctor to take a look at you, and you can fill us in on what happened along the way."

Sleepy-eyed attendants in their nightclothes stumbled into the hallway as Edgar led the trio of Returners farther into the airship. The gambler himself arrived shortly afterward, hair in disarray, eyes red-rimmed, his breath smelling of cheap alcohol.

Soon enough they were all crowded into the doctor's chamber. Locke leaned against the door, arms crossed, as the doctor examined first Terra and then Sabin, who began to explain what had happened to them when it became apparent that Locke himself would not be providing the recap this time.

Once again he felt the moments ticking by as though they were drops of blood dripping from a wound, and when it all ran out Celes would be–

"Please," Locke said, interrupting Sabin mid-sentence. "If you can't bring me closer to Vector, then let me off here. I'll—restock my provisions, make sure I've got everything I need—we have allies in the city who could help me–"

The king exchanged a glance with Sabin, whose responding grimace and shrug carried a message, which Edgar acknowledged with a faint nod.. Then Edgar put a hand on Locke's arm, cutting off the rush of words spilling out of him. "Here, walk with me."

Locke let himself be led from the room and down the hallway, away from the gambler's curious entourage and the crowded room that smelled of cleaning solvents and medicinal herbs and blood. Edgar's presence at his elbow was comforting, the silence as they walked companionable and familiar.

"So," Edgar started in a gentle voice, and he paused to breathe as though about to launch into something much longer.

But at that moment, the engine stirred and came to life, and the airship thrummed beneath their feet. Locke's stomach lurched as the vessel heaved, the unmistakable motion of liftoff.

"No," Locke cried. Pushing Edgar aside, he dashed down the hall, toward the narrow winding staircase that led to the upper decks.

Edgar raced after him. "Locke, stop."

But Locke did not stop. He flung open the door to the staircase and then threw himself upward, taking the stairs two at a time and clinging to the railing as the ship was tossed around by the rushing air currents. Edgar followed close behind, his stockinged feet silent compared to Locke's clattering boots.

The king caught up to Locke as he was struggling to throw open the door leading out to the top deck. The ship rocked again, sending him careening backwards, and only Edgar kept him from toppling down the winding stairs.

"What are you going to do, throw yourself off the ship?"

"We can't leave her," Locke said again.

"So you want to put everyone in danger on the slim chance that you can find her and bring her out of Vector, in the middle of all of this?"

"Not everyone," Locke said. "Just me."

"I can't let you do that," Edgar said. "As your friend, and as one of the Returners—no." He put his hands on Locke's shoulders, looked him full in the face. "Practically speaking, we can't afford to lose you, neither your skills nor your knowledge. If we're to free everyone from the tyranny of the Empire, we need you. There's too much at stake for me to let you throw your life away."

Locke hunched guiltily. Edgar was right, and he knew it—they were fighting for something much larger than any of them, larger than him or Edgar or Celes, and he owed the rest of them—and the world—that much. But his mind kept reliving Celes's stricken face, her despair, and how she had walked into death without hesitation to save them.

She was gone. For them. For him.

"Besides," Edgar said, smirking darkly, "Celes was half out of her mind at the thought of you going to Vector alone last time. She wouldn't stand for it now."

"This is different."

Edgar pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I know how you feel about her, but..."

"What is that supposed to mean?" His voice buzzed low and harsh in his throat.

A level, disbelieving stare as Edgar scoffed. "Are you serious, Locke? I've seen you two together. If you're pretending there's nothing there... I'm not going to humor you."

Her blue eyes on his, her lips parting, a breath away—"Celes is my friend." His hands formed into fists of their own accord, and he could feel heat rising in his cheeks, one part anger, one part embarrassment. "I may be her only friend, too, and I've let her down so profoundly that I may never be able to make it up to her. But I can start by saving her now."

"She may be beyond your reach," Edgar said.

"Maybe! But I still have to try." His shouting voice echoed through the enclosed space of the staircase. In a more level tone, he went on. "I can't let them execute her. If she—even if she–"

"I understand this is hard," Edgar said. "Probably harder for you than for most. You care deeply about other people, and there are... parallels."

"Parallels?"

"With–" Edgar hesitated, took a breath. "With Rachel."

"I'm not doing this because of Rachel!"

"Not because of her, no. But I know you, Locke. You think you should have saved her, and now the same thing is happening with Celes. "

Is that what Edgar was thinking? Another girl presumed dead, with only Locke fighting for her to be saved, insisting that there was something left to save? "This is nothing like what happened with Rachel. This is—Celes is—we're fighting this war together, dammit, and if you think I wouldn't charge in there to save you if it were you instead–"

"You're allowed to be in love with her," Edgar said.

Locke whirled and swung, a wild and uncontrolled haymaker, at Edgar's face. It was probably only the king's surprise that let his fist find his mark. Edgar stumbled backwards, clutching his nose with one hand, steadying himself against the wall with his other.

"I am not," Locke said, shaking with fury, "in love with her."

"Locke," the king said, his voice nasal and muffled.

"I know you've never committed to someone before, but not all of us can just flirt and move on. To some of us, it actually means something." That was cruel, and he regretted saying it a moment later, almost as much as he regretted punching a friend. 

"I know more about commitment than you could possibly imagine," Edgar hissed. "You are not the only person who knows what grief is. But some of us don't have the privilege of losing ourselves to it."

Locke dropped heavily onto a cold metal step and buried his face in his hands. The anger in him was burning out, leaving him cold and aching, walking a tightrope over a bottomless pit of sorrow that threatened to consume him if he made a single wrong move.

Edgar took a deep breath and steadied himself, and he was the poised, unruffled king once more. "I'm going to give you space. You're not in your right mind at the moment, so I will forgive you. But please do what you must to come to terms with this. We need your help as soon as you're able."

Locke stayed alone on the staircase as the rushing wind howled just overhead, freezing and miserable and sick to his stomach, for hours.


***


Her head ached, and her mind was hazy, every thought bubbling up slowly through the depths as though there were some resistance interfering with her awareness. As though something was strangling her mind, whispering words that tangled with her own thoughts, ideas that did not belong and yet disguised themselves as hers. She pushed it away, pushed all of it away.

Something held her body down, too. She struggled against restraints that did not budge even as she struggled. Every movement hurt, but she had hurt before, and she was not broken. Around her, familiar voices were arguing—she thought she heard Kefka and Cid, but this must be a nightmare, the worst of her memories returning to haunt her and nothing more.

When she opened her eyes, she expected to see Locke seated beside her, slipping a mask of reassurance over his own worry when he realized she was awake. But no, Locke was not here. He was away, safe, with the rest. A brief moment of relief.

And then she remembered, and her heart split in two. Locke's doubt, his hesitation, his distrust. A traitor. He thinks you betrayed him.

It's what you deserve.

This time, when the darkness reached for her, she did not fight back.

Chapter Text

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.

"Sad."

"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.

"Angry? Why?"

"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."

"Me too."

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."

"Your mother?"

"Passed away when I was young."

"I'm sorry."

"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.

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.

"Yes, sir."

"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?"

"Yes, sir."

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.

"General Celes?"

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.

Chapter Text

If there were consequences following the fall of the Magitek Research Facility, the ripple effects of it did not reach the northern continent immediately. While Edgar set off for Figaro, Locke paced grooves into the floor of the Narshean inn, waiting for something to do.

"You don't take well to sitting still, do you?" Sabin said to him. The prince had remained in Narshe rather than following his brother. Locke suspected that he, too, hoped to act on what had happened in Vector. The two of them had been there; they had seen the facility lose its power and fall dark and silent, had heard the distant rumble from outside that must have meant it was damaged in some meaningful way.

"I can sit still when I need to," Locke replied, which wasn't completely a lie. "I'm just not convinced this is the time for it."

"Me neither. We should be out there busting some imperial skulls."

Locke made a face. "I'm not really a skull-buster."

"Right, but, you know. Something like busting skulls. Something."

Strategizing was Banon's job, Edgar's job, not Locke's. But again and again he kept going back to what had happened in Vector, that it had to mean something, it had to have been worth it. And if that were true, operating as though nothing had changed would be a wasted opportunity.

So he barged into Banon's makeshift office in one of the smaller inn rooms, pulled a chair out, and dropped himself heavily into it.

"We hit them hard, Banon. We should seize this chance."

At Locke's interruption, Banon looked up from a notebook in which he'd been writing. Likely tracking enemy troops, or maybe taking inventory of the Returners' resources. The lines on his face seemed deeply etched, and he sighed. "The Empire is still occupying South Figaro, and they've made camp near Zozo and Jidoor, to say nothing of their troops near Doma."

"But doesn't that mean they're spread out thin?"

"With their firepower, being spread out isn't much of a handicap."

"We destroyed their firepower."

"We can't make that assumption," Banon said. "You know that you took out the power source. But we don't know those were the only Espers in their grasp, and we don't know whether the Magitek Research Facility was truly destroyed, or whether they have the capacity to rebuild it."

"Then shouldn't we strike now, before they have a chance to recover? Press them hard, right? Get them to turn tail and head back to the southern continent."

"We simply don't have the numbers for a battle on that many fronts."

"We don't," Locke said, "but…" He made a sweeping gesture with one arm. "People are rising up all over the continent. All over the world, even. If not for the resistance den in Vector, we would never have made it through." His open palm slammed on the table. "The world is a powder keg ready to shake off the shackles of the Empire once and for all."

Banon was smiling at him, and he supposed there was fondness in it, but it was a patronizing smile, too, that made him bristle. "You're talking about people who have likely never held a weapon in their lives, facing the most powerful military might in the world. These are civilians, Locke."

Locke thrust a finger at the map on the table, at the cluster of pebbles representing their allies. "So were many of the Returners, before they found their way to us. Give the people a chance to choose to fight for their homes, for their freedom. None of them can fight the Empire alone, but none of us can, either. It's only together that we're strong. We've already accepted that we might die fighting, but our freedom is worth that risk. Others are already making the same choice—shouldn't we invite them to join us and add our strength to theirs?"

Banon was silent, and Locke bit his tongue, wondering if the older man was deliberating or simply thinking of the gentlest way to turn Locke down. But his brow knitted, a sure sign that something Locke said had stirred the cogs in his mind and he was even now working through the logistics. "Coordinating multiple fronts would be difficult, even with trained soldiers, but it could be done. I know who to contact in South Figaro. We can count on Edgar's troops. Nikeah is full of allies who are choked by the Imperial presence there, but if we can get them to retreat, the Nikeans will be all too happy to tighten the noose with us. If you think we can rally the people in Zozo and Jidoor, maybe even Kohlingen..."

That Locke kept his expression pleasantly neutral at the mention of Kohlingen was evidence that he had put the emotional struggles of the past few days behind him. With as much conviction as he could muster, he said, "We can."

"We could strike together…" Banon was already moving pieces on his map, his face lighting up as the possibilities began to churn in his mind. "Thank you, Locke. I think I am so used to being outmatched by the Empire that I recoil from going on the offensive. I fear losing innocent lives in an all-out attack, but we must push back eventually, and this is the best shot we've ever had." With a wry smile, he added, "Age can make you wiser, but experience can make a person too cautious. I'm glad to have fiery young men like you and Edgar to keep me moving forward even when I hesitate."

"So you're going to do it?"

"If I can put together a plan." Banon chuckled. "Now might have been a good time to have the tactical genius of a well-trained general at our disposal."

Locke sucked in a breath through his teeth. Was this the first time Banon had referred to Celes as an outright ally? He thought perhaps it might be so. "Do you think we could get a letter through to Vector somehow? If we could reach Hassan, we could… confirm the situation there."

"It's worth trying. I would like to know the magnitude of the damage the Empire has sustained, before we ask civilians to put their lives on the line. And… maybe your friend there will know what has befallen Celes."

Once more Locke held his face and his voice steady. "I can—I can write a letter."

"Good. I'll get in touch with Edgar and some of the others and see if we can formulate a strategy together. I'll send word to the allies I know in South Figaro and Nikeah. As for the rest of the continent…"

Locke stood up, grinning. "I'll pack my bags."


***


In times past, Locke might have saddled a chocobo and ridden off solo into the sunset, camping alone under the stars and riding hard during the days, and then gone alone into the cities as nondescript as you please to disseminate information or make connections by himself. But he had seen how much more effective Hassan's group was because of their coordination, and the weight of abandoning Celes had driven home to him the importance of trusting your companions.

So he rallied the troops, so to speak. Which meant, in his case, asking Sabin to escort him in case of trouble, as he remembered the look on Celes's face whenever he talked about going somewhere dangerous alone. And he recruited the Doman and, by extension, the wild child who had first come with the Doman and Sabin to Narshe what felt like half a lifetime ago.

The Doman's fervor to stop the Empire might inspire others to take up arms, and he knew how to train others to fight. The child came because he did not seem comfortable among the Narsheans, a feeling that appeared to be mutual. Locke would have doubted that the boy could actually speak a human language, except that he communicated in very simple sentences to Sabin and Cyan and no one else. Even his name, Gau, sounded more like the call of a wild animal than any name Locke had heard before. He could only hope the boy would stay on the airship as much as possible.

That was the last part of his plan, the only way that visiting so much of the continent in a short amount of time would be possible. He had to admit a little anxiety about asking Gabbiani to ferry him around from city to city, especially since the gambler had joined them with the expectation of being ordered around by Celes—strange man—and she was not here, at least for the foreseeable future.

But the gambler only laughed when Locke asked him. "What else am I going to do, sit up here on this godforsaken mountain and listen to old miners complain about gout all day? I'll take you where you need to go. I like a change of pace."

Locke did not suggest that he had expected the gambler to give up on them altogether and set off on a freewheeling adventure across the globe. Better not to give the man ideas that had not yet filled his head.

Thus equipped with a proper traveling party, Locke set off to fulfill his part of the plan. Banon and the others would figure out the rest.

Truth be told, he was a little sorry that Banon could take care of South Figaro without his help; he loved the city, occupied though it may be. But, then again, he would not be able to return there without remembering his escape with the woman who had once been an utter stranger and yet now was a very dear friend—or would be, if she still lived, if she ever forgave him for losing faith in her. Forgiveness had to not just be earned but also deserved, and he could not say he did.

Taking to the skies in the airship did not improve his mood, especially not the terrible rumbling of liftoff when it was all he could do to keep his stomach and its contents intact. He gasped deep breaths, gripping the arms of his chair, and tried to reassure himself that the airship had not self-destructed during any of its previous lift-offs and seemed unlikely, from a rational perspective, to do so this time. The nausea lessened after long enough in the air, though it still struck him at unpredictable and inconvenient moments.

First, they went to the sister cities of Zozo and Jidoor. The trip that had taken him and Celes weeks to cross the desert and work their way southward passed in a little over a day. The derelict old tenement buildings reaching toward the sky looked like children's toys from up here, and the gleaming streets of Jidoor seemed even more unreal.

They left the airship on the Jidoor side, in a field that Gabbiani said he'd used before many times. It was not surprising that the man had visited here before.

"So how do we want to tackle this?" Locke asked, once they'd landed and his legs and his stomach were both fully under his control again. "Edgar gave us a few letters of introduction, but I don't know how much the wealthy Jidoorians will listen to me, even so..."

"You're the one who suggested we come here," Sabin said, and Locke winced. "Don't look like that. I meant that you must have had something in mind before coming here, so let's do whatever you had planned. Let's talk to the people you do know, and who cares if we don't talk to the rich people? Nothing lost there. We don't need wealthy benefactors, we need people who are actually willing to step up and fight."

Sabin's confidence in him gave him the boost he needed to take charge again. Unlike either Edgar or Locke himself, Sabin spoke his mind plainly rather than with the intent to sway someone's feelings, so any words of support from him were genuine or would not have been offered at all. Grateful that he was not here alone, Locke led Sabin, the Doman, and their unruly child, who had been stuffed into something approximating real clothes so that he would not draw too much attention on the pristine streets of Jidoor.

"Don't tug on your boots," Cyan said to the boy, who had been doing exactly that.

"Boots hurt feet."

"I don't like boots, either," Sabin proclaimed, and Cyan gave him a clear you're-not-helping look that made him laugh. "We'll get you some proper slippers when we get the chance. They're a lot lighter. Easier to run in, or fight in."

"Gau fight!" the child exclaimed gleefully, in a loud enough voice that the people around them stared and gave them a wide berth. For what he hoped might be the last time this visit, Locke regretted bringing company with him—or at least this company. He could only hope that they proved to be helpful when the time came to speak with the people of Jidoor, or Zozo, or both.

Truthfully, he was taking a chance here, with little solid connection to build from. But what he did know was that there were people in both cities who were tired of the status quo, who sought change even if it put them at risk. 

First, he wanted to talk to the servant girl, Annie, who had been present for that meeting with the opera house impresario. For all that Locke had failed to connect with her that day, his gut told him that her attitude toward the impresario and his guests was more than just run-of-the-mill dissatisfaction with an employer. He suspected she might be part of something larger, some sort of revolutionary movement within the sister cities—and if he could get through to her now, she might lead him to new allies and a chance to make his case.

As luck would have it, when Locke and his companions knocked at the impresario's door and asked after her, she was available to be summoned from within. She met them just outside the house, giving Locke a disgruntled look without any sign of recognition.

He'd had the airship ride to think of how best to approach this and concluded that simple honesty would work. No wheedling or flattery, no circumlocution. So he explained himself, his ties to the Returners, and his mission.

She regarded him flatly, a raised eyebrow the only indication of her emotions. "What makes you think I can help you?"

"A hunch." He shrugged. "I know there are people trying to rise up against the wealthy citizens of Jidoor. I encountered one of them trying to sabotage the opera. Not the tactic I would have chosen, but he was dedicated enough. But I wonder how he managed to get hired at the opera house, given how clearly he was from Zozo. His accent was a dead giveaway. I thought he might have friends connected to the opera house somehow, and you seemed a likely candidate."

"Really."

"Working as a servant for people like this, they treat you like you're part of the furniture. You can learn all sorts of things just by quietly doing your job in the background. If I wanted to find out what the gentry of Jidoor were up to, I'd plant someone in a house like this."

She narrowed her eyes, and he was not surprised when she said, in a wary tone, "And if that were true, what then?"

"Then I'm asking you to hear me out," he said. "Introduce me to your people, let them hear what I have to say, and let me learn what it is that you need. I want to free people everywhere—from the Empire's control, but also from injustices closer to home. And I don't think I'm the only one in the Returners who feels that way. Maybe we can help you, if we form an alliance."


***


The next day, in an open square in Zozo, Locke stood staring into a sea of hopeful young faces and weary, wary elders and everything in between. It was more people than he'd expected, which meant that the conflict here was likely more of a crisis than he'd realized. Or maybe some of those in attendance were not affiliated with the half-baked uprising that had tried to target the opera house; if word had gotten out that the Returners were here recruiting, more people might have been interested in learning more..

He could have put out a general notice in the city, stood on a street corner proclaiming that everyone should band together to rise against the empire. But that might attract the wrong sort of attention from imperial sympathizers—those were everywhere, even in South Figaro—or get him written off as a madman.

The Returners themselves had primarily recruited in secret, young idealists hearing about this resistance and finding their way to the group's headquarters or flocking to those around whom rumors swirled about rebellions and Returners connections. When Banon had first founded the Returners—so called because they were meant to be the people returning power and peace with their own hands instead of expecting someone else to save them—he had been labeled a fool, reading dangers where none existed. Surely it would not happen here, people said. The Empire had been so far away, keeping its attention focused on its own people. Their problem, not ours. And by the time the Imperials established a presence on the northern continent, the objections to the Returners had shifted but were not weakened: Fears that they would draw retaliation from the Imperials who wanted to root out opposition before it had time to set down roots. Worries that the Returners would attract idealistic young people to throw their lives away for a cause that was either pointless or hopeless.

But this fight, here and now, was neither pointless nor hopeless. Locke could speak confidently not just of his faith in the Returners but also the blow that had already been struck against the Empire, what he had seen with his own eyes, and the opportunity that had been won to push back once and for all and expect to win.

The people here had questions, of course. So many questions, not all of which he could answer. Demands for promises he couldn't yet make. The people of Zozo lacked infrastructure, resources. A portion of Jidoor's wealth and resources should have been theirs, and without it, they could not address the myriad ways in which their city was coming apart at the seams. No jobs, no education, no repairs for housing, nor even totally reliable sources of food. These needed to be addressed. The people here were not unwilling to fight the Imperials, but they feared being used as cannon fodder, abandoned and left to die as they felt they had been when those who now lived in Jidoor had taken everything with them and fled the city years ago.

He carried these worries with him the next day when he used Edgar's letters of introduction to call on some of the wealthier citizens of Jidoor. He'd spoken with lower-class Jidoorians who mingled with residents of Zozo and shared some of their concerns, but these people might as well operate on a different planet. He had much less luck speaking with them; some of them could not be reached by calling on their general humanity, and he found himself speaking in terms of business and costs and consequences in a way that made his skin crawl. As the son of a merchant, he had some familiarity with how people like this operated, but it ran so counter to who he was that it hurt to use these ideas and these tactics about human lives instead of just trade.

This required the development of a new mask, one he didn't especially enjoy wearing, but he calibrated it as quickly as he could within the first few minutes of his meeting in Jidoor, and eventually he had the Jidoorians at least listening to him.

Whereas the people of Zozo had worried about being asked to lay their lives down without regard for their inherent worth as living people, and without the resources to give them a fighting chance, the people of Jidoor—or at least these people, who he hoped were not entirely representative of the city at large—feared that the people of Zozo would rise up against them instead of the Imperials.

He rubbed his face with one hand, swallowed back his grimace, and did his best to take the worries and needs of both cities seriously.

The message he wanted them to take away was something he repeated again and again to both sides: "Divided, we'll all fall. But if we work together, we can do this. We can take back our land, push the Imperials back where they came from, and make a better future for ourselves. For all of us."


***


In the end, after several harried days going back and forth between the two groups, he had worked out a tenuous agreement. Whether it would stand longer-term was beyond the scope of his judgment, but he believed both cities would stand by the Returners and take part in whatever assault Banon developed. Jidoor would provide funding and resources, both to arm the people of Zozo and to invest in the city afterward. He'd managed to speak with more of the general populace in Jidoor, as well, and many of the merchants and common people there were willing to take up arms against the Empire directly, even if it meant fighting alongside their less savory neighbors. And the people of Zozo were fighters, if cynical and not prone to hopefulness, and they were ready and willing to throw themselves at the Imperial camp so long as they had the equipment to stand a chance of surviving.

Negotiation like this was new to him, and it gave him a splitting headache. Not that he'd deluded himself into thinking local politics was for him, but this brief taste of it cured him of ever wanting to go near it again. Yet he feared he'd volunteered himself for the role here in the future. Someone had to make sure Jidoor didn't go back on its promises, and Zozo needed connections to the outside world through someone they could trust.

That was a problem for his future self to deal with. For now, he had to report back to Banon. Back on the airship at last, he gave the order to return to Narshe, all too ready to let someone else do the thinking for a little while. But the gambler, leaning casually against the wall in his control room, only laughed.

"We're supposed to go to Kohlingen," Gabbiani said, and he clucked his tongue. "Or are you going to shirk that part of the assignment? Not that I'd tattle."

"I don't think it'll be necessary."

"I mean, you are asking all of these other people to put their lives on the line, aren't you? Rich people, poor people. Seems like everyone would be more likely to survive with a few extra allies." He grinned wickedly. "Did you run out on a debt in Kohlingen? Trying to avoid some girl you knocked up?"

Locke grabbed the collar of Gabbiani's jacket and shoved him, surprising both of them. He generally did his best not to rise to the gambler's bait. He'd been doing well, up til this point, but the insufferable man's mocking cruelty was more than he could comfortably bear, and this cut right through him to the quick. Ordinarily, Locke would not have chosen to spend much time in the company of someone with such a barbed sense of humor, but he needed the man's airship.

Of course, he had to admit to himself, he was trying to blame this on the gambler because it was easier to think the man deserved it than to accept that Locke himself had now struck two people in anger in a short period of time. He'd never been a violent person, nor quick to lose his temper. This was unprecedented, and it couldn't keep happening. Why was he losing control now, when he'd never before even felt enough anger that control was a concern? It felt like something in him had broken, or maybe shifted so that wounds he had once thought healed were now raw and exposed at the surface of his soul.

Gabbiani's eyes were wide with shock and fear that quickly faded into dark amusement. "So there is a reason you're avoiding that place. Funny, Kohlingen never struck me as anywhere particularly interesting. It's a sleepy little town. But now I'm dying of curiosity."

"There's nothing to worry about. We can go there next." Locke wrestled with neutrality on his face—wearing anything resembling a smile would be impossible at this point, be nothing more than a grimace, just as he had to fight to keep his voice from coming out like a growl. He couldn't say how successful he was. "Go ahead and chart a course to Kohlingen."


***


Was there even a point in trying to disguise himself here? He desperately wanted to put on someone else's face, come here as an unknown representative of the Returners calling on the people of Kohlingen to join their neighbors in an uprising against the Empire. Put aside being Locke Cole, put aside everything about who he was and pretend to be another person altogether. A fresh start, and no memories, and no recognition from the people of this town. But the only thing worse than walking into Kohlingen as Locke Cole would be pretending to be someone else and then being revealed to be everything they already thought he was: a no-good liar, a thief and a scoundrel, the useless ne'er-do-well who had ruined the life of a beloved young woman and devastated her family.

Her family, who had threatened to have him forcibly removed if he ever returned. And yet here he was returning, not with the cure he had searched so long for—the only cure you've found might be dead beneath a pile of rubble in Vector—but to ask the town to give up even more of its promising young people for his reckless and destructive ways.

A disguise would make things worse. Pretending to the other Returners that he had no history in this town would not help, either. Feigning illness and asking Sabin or Cyan to take point on this visit without any context risked stirring up that history without his even being around to mitigate it.

There was no way around it. He was going to have to tell them the truth, or some part of it.

"Before we land, I have to tell you all something," he said to them as they sat together in the steering room in an assortment of chairs cobbled from different parts of the airship. Gabbiani was at the wheel, for once, something that would have made Locke nervous except that Edgar seemed quite confident that the man truly knew what he was doing, and Locke trusted Edgar, even if he had no faith in the gambler himself.

All eyes were on Locke, expectantly. Even Gabbiani glanced at him. If he could have talked to the rest of them privately without making things even more awkward than they were, he would have done so. The idea of that superficial alcoholic cracking jokes at his expense while he bared his soul about the greatest pain and greatest mistake of his life turned his stomach, but he would just have to weather it. Still, he couldn't help cursing the man as a spoiled, sour, cynical asshole who had probably never actually cared about anything or anyone but himself in his life.

But Cyan would understand—he'd known love and loss. And Sabin would care, even if he'd never been in love before, because Sabin was a fundamentally good person who was just as worthy of Locke's trust as his brother was, and somewhere between their initial trek to Vector and now, he had come to think of the younger Figaro brother as a friend of his own accord. If Gabbiani got out of line, the two of them would shut him down. Locke was fairly sure of that.

"I can't be part of recruiting the people of Kohlingen," he said, to start with, and then he gestured emptily with his hands a few times, waiting for the words to come to him. "It would be, ah, counterproductive. They don't like or trust me. There's… there's a girl here I was involved with, and, ah… It didn't end well."

At the wheel, Gabbiani snickered.

"Oh, shut up," Locke snapped. "We were out together one day and there was an… an accident, and she… And she…"

It was impossible to continue. He hadn't meant to say even this much. The room was suddenly too small, too full of questions that his companions had every right to ask but that he would not be able to answer, not now, maybe not ever. His stomach turned, and he rushed outside onto the deck.

The wind whipping past his ears didn't help him feel any better, nor did emptying the contents of his stomach over the railing of the airship. The world spun dizzyingly far below, and he closed his eyes and willed everything to stop.

"Hey." A familiar and very unwelcome voice behind him, close enough to be heard despite the wind. Ah, fuck. The gambler had followed him, leaving this nightmare monstrosity unpiloted as it hurtled through the sky into hell.

"Go away," Locke said, and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and swallowed more bile.

"If I'd known, I wouldn't have pushed you back there."

Locke grimaced. "What do you know about it?"

"More than you might think," Gabbiani said, and there was no trace of humor, not even of a dark sort, in his voice or on his face. He leaned in closer, his expression astonishingly sincere. "Here's a suggestion. Let those two take care of this for you. Worst case scenario, they'll still do better than if you went down there yourself. Stay up here with me. You might hate me, but try to trust me, for once."

"I don't hate you," Locke said, realizing it was true.

"I don't really mind if you do." There was his dark humor, his wolfish smile, and it suddenly occurred to Locke that he could read between the lines of that sentence and see what was underneath it: You can't possibly hate me as much as I hate myself. And that nuance, which Locke had previously been blind to, threw everything he'd thought about the man into question.


***


He had to have faith in his teammates. He had to trust that they would be able to handle this on their own—they were competent and capable adults, Sabin had at least some of the royal training that made Edgar such an effective king, Cyan had served as a leader and been a family man, and it wasn't as though Locke himself had any special gift or even experience with recruiting people to their cause. Up til this moment, he had never realized how hard it was for him to let other people handle work that he thought was meant to be his. Had never had to confront it before, maybe. Banon and Edgar were generally all too happy to let Locke do his thing and leave him to it, and he'd enjoyed a great deal of independence. It had led to a certain degree of overconfidence that Vector had demolished, as he came face to face with his own limitations. And seeing Hassan's team in action had certainly made an impression on him, another better way to do things, another example of an area he had to work on.

So he tried to swallow his discomfort when Sabin and Cyan set off across the hills to Kohlingen, the town itself visible on the horizon but far enough away that the airship would not make its citizens feel uncomfortable. He tried to remind himself that it would be all right. The Empire had attacked Kohlingen once but not occupied the region, so there was nothing to fear. No one but he had anything to fear here.

There was more to the heaviness he felt, though. Even at this distance from the town, his heart twinged. He remembered the joy that lightened his step whenever he saw it on the horizon, knowing that Rachel waited for his return every time he left. And when he closed his eyes, he could see her face, her vivacity as he remembered her and then the knowledge that she now lay perfectly still and unmoving. He could step off the airship, follow his comrades into the city, let his feet guide him to her house along a path he had walked so many times it was etched into his soul—he could see her, today, now, and imagine it was nothing more than ordinary sleep.

He could, and he couldn't. Her parents had made it abundantly clear that there would be consequences for him if he returned. What would he do if they cut him off completely and he never knew what became of her? What if she woke and no one let him know, and they lived the rest of their lives apart when they could have been together?

What if, in visiting Kohlingen, he drew the town's ire and ruined their opinion of the Returners, and they refused to offer their support, and the people of the northern continent fell against the Empire? More was at stake here than Locke's own feelings.

So he waited in one of the abandoned chairs in the navigation chamber, staring out the window—a classic brooding pose, he thought self-reproachfully—while the gambler poured two glasses of red wine from a bottle that was possibly worth more money than Locke had ever held in his life. Or it could be cheap swill, closer to vinegar than anything worth drinking. Locke could imagine it going either way.

"You don't strike me as someone who drinks hard liquor," Gabbiani said, as the claret liquid sloshed into a fluted wine glass that seemed entirely too delicate to have any business on a moving vehicle. He lifted the stems of both glasses in one hand and held them out to Locke, who belatedly and begrudgingly accepted the one closest to him.

"I don't really make a habit of it, no."

"Do you ever wonder why I drink so much?"

"Not really."

The gambler took a seat in the plushest of the chairs on the deck and slouched into the cushions, the very picture of an aristocratic degenerate, with his frilly shirt and rumpled hair and wrinkled trousers. "So the preternaturally nosy spy has never once taken an interest in sussing out my secrets? I'm offended."

"I've had other things on my mind," Locke said, bristling not just at the insult but at its accuracy. And he should have investigated the gambler, as he would any other potential ally with questionable motives.

Gabbiani twirled the wine in his glass with practiced ease, reclining as though he expected someone to paint his portrait at any moment. He did not drink. Neither did Locke. "I upset you when we first met, because of Celes."

How to respond to this when he could not deny it? "You were, and are, disrespectful to her."

"I'm not going to hurt her. I couldn't, even if I wanted to, which I don't." The man sipped from his glass, managing not to spill a single drop on his frothy white shirt, although Locke suspected he'd already started drinking before this conversation. "I can appreciate a beautiful woman. I saw you appreciating her too and thought I recognized a kindred spirit."

"But—I wasn't–" Locke sputtered.

"It doesn't have to mean anything," Gabbiani continued. "I think we can agree that, objectively, Celes is an exquisite creature who is a delight to look at, who could certainly break us both in half if she so chose, and maybe it's a nice distraction to think of what that might be like."

"I... can't say I've thought about that sort of thing."

"I'm not asking you to divulge your fantasies. You seem like the sort of man who keeps that to himself." Gabbiani grinned and gestured with his glass at Locke. "Don't deny it, the color in your cheeks is exposing you. But I won't judge you for it. Thinking about another girl is natural. It doesn't mean your heart doesn't belong to this one—what's her name?"

He used the present tense, Locke noticed, and despite himself and everything else the man had just said, he was grateful for that detail. "Rachel," he said, and swallowed back what saying that name aloud did to him.

"To Rachel." There was no mockery in Gabbiani's voice, for once. He raised his glass as though this were a toast, then took a long drink of it. When he finished, he slouched backward in his seat and twirled his glass, watching it with a melancholy expression. In a quieter voice, he said, "Her name was Daryl."


***


Emperor Gestahl looked both old and ageless, with a gravitas befitting his station. Once, he had inspired awe in her, outright devotion, though recalling that now made her feel sick. His garments were perfectly tailored, grand robes of red and black with golden embroidery, and a purely ornamental gilt-edged breastplate, a reminder that he was not merely a figurehead but a bringer of death sitting at the head of unparalleled military power. The folds of his clothing obscured his limbs, making him seem much larger and more physically imposing than she suspected he was in truth. Long white hair and a grandfatherly mustache did little to soften his imposing presence.

She stood before him in his state room, surrounded by cold steel walls, the only break in the severity of metal a splash of aggressively red velvet cushions on his throne and blood-red tapestries bearing the insignia of the Empire reaching from floor to ceiling at regular intervals on either side of the chamber.

She would not grovel, or plead. Not this time. It had not saved Doma, and it would not save her now.

He sat, as though she were not worth even the effort of getting to his feet. "Celes." No title, no surname. His voice boomed, so shockingly deep it seemed it might shake the earth.

She would not use an honorific. He did not deserve to be so honored by her. He was no longer her Emperor. She said nothing.

"I didn't expect you to return like this, or to cause us so much trouble. I knew you had joined the Returners—Kefka reported fighting you in Narshe..."

"Kefka murdered the entire nation of Doma in cold blood," she said. Fitting, really, to say this now—the last words she had said to him were screaming to save Doma, for all the good that had done anyone.

Gestahl stood at this. He wasn't used to being interrupted; peons did not interrupt an Emperor, and even his generals knew their place and waited their turn.

"I did not order Kefka to poison Doma," Gestahl said.

"It was done in your name," Celes retorted.

"Am I to blame for everything my soldiers choose to do of their own volition?" Gestahl's mustache exaggerated the movement as he spoke. It might have been comical, on someone else.

"You knew he was planning it," Celes said. "I warned you. Yet you didn't stop him. You let it happen. Did their lives not matter? Were they not even human in your eyes?" Like Terra, like the Espers, to be controlled and used or discarded, whatever served him best, as though none of them were people as deserving of love and life as anyone else.

"So you've returned to punish us all, to murder our scientists and soldiers and destroy your own childhood home."

"I wanted to put a stop to the evil you do here."

"We all come up with justifications for our own violence," Gestahl said. "Good and evil—it's all relative. I'm sure the families of the scientists who perished when the Facility fell would have something to say about your sense of good and evil."

"They were making weapons of war!"

"And the people of Doma would have killed many of our soldiers if they had the chance," Gestahl continued gravely. "Even Kefka rationalizes his actions. He does what he believes is best for his countrymen."

"I very much doubt that."

"What would you have me do, then?"

"You could start by withdrawing your troops from the places you're occupying," she said. "You can't undo the damage you've done, you can't bring back the people who have died because of you. But you can at least stop doing more harm."

Gestahl's tone was gently chiding. "You propose that we not only cease our activity but that we actively relinquish territories that have already fallen under Imperial jurisdiction."

Such fancy phrasing obscuring the meaning of his words. "Yes. Yes, I think you should stop killing people. And you should give your territories back to the people they belong to. But even if you don't, it's only a matter of time before they take care of it for you."

"The Returners are planning something?"

"Not that I know of," she said, "but they don't need to." She lifted her head to meet his eyes and held them, without flinching, without blinking, willing him to feel the intensity of her anger toward him and everything he stood for. "People hate you, Gestahl, and they're tired of your senseless killing. You may have fooled your own people into believing that you're doing this for some greater reason, but the rest of the world sees through you, and they've had enough. Sooner or later, they're going to stand against you, and you're going to fall."

Gestahl stepped down from the dais, approached her, and she tensed, wondering if he would strike her or command the guards to kill her where she stood. He circled her, his arms folded in front of him, and she turned to keep her eyes on him. "Someone must have helped you get into Vector. Who?"

Every word he spoke sounded like a command, but she would not obey. Celes scoffed. "What makes you think I would tell you anything?"

"I thought you might feel some sense of lingering loyalty."

"Loyalty goes two ways," she said, and she thought of Locke, of the betrayal on his face. She had done nothing to earn his distrust, except being herself, and if that mere fact had made her untrustworthy—after everything she'd tried to do for the Returners, after everything he'd said to her for months about her own worth—were those nothing more than pretty words spoken by someone who wore countless masks and wove elaborate charades to keep other people happy and get what he needed from them?

Gestahl paused, considered her scornfully. "You expect me to have been loyal to you, when you committed treason by turning your blade against a countryman? And now you've joined the Returners, and tried to strike directly at the heart of the land that birthed and raised you."

"And tried to have me executed. Yes."

"So you want to punish us. You're still taking part in war, Celes. You're still killing civilians, behaving as terrorists, in an impotent attempt to destroy us with your little so-called rebellion."

"They're not—I–"

"Why the Returners?" His voice was milder now, curious. "Is it that young man you were with?

Celes turned her face away from him as heat rushed to her cheeks, her ears buzzing. "No! I—I joined the Returners because they are trying to stop you from doing any more harm."

"By doing their own harm?"

"It's not the same!"

"Isn't it?" He shook his head. "That, I'm afraid, is a matter of perspective. You're young, Celes, and you have been following your heart instead of your head. An understandable path, but an unfortunate one, and it has led you astray."

"No, I–"

"They're using you, you know," Gestahl said. "A former general from the enemy camp, delivered into their hands with knowledge they can use to strike against us? They would be fools not to take advantage of a windfall like that. I assume you led them through their assault on Vector and the Facility yourself."
 
"They're not–"

"Kefka tells me they turned on you, in the end," Gestahl said sadly. "And I'm sure they have their own justifications for that, as well. Perhaps they tell themselves you deserve it because of Maranda."

"I–"

"But you were just following orders then," Gestahl continued. "If you wish me to take responsibility for what my soldiers do—very well. I accept that responsibility, even when mistakes are made, even when, as you say, evil is committed. I am Emperor, am I not? That is the burden I must carry, as a father takes responsibility for the actions of his children. We are all merely trying to protect what we care about, aren't we? The Returners, our own soldiers, even you and I."

But that—that wasn't right. Right? They wouldn't—the Returners wouldn't—Locke wouldn't—and it was different, anyway, but–

The anger had left her, replaced with something she couldn't name. Or maybe it was still there, lost in the swirling clouds of darkness that wrapped around her and chilled her heart. She wanted to argue somehow, but her words had been cut off, and they crashed against each other inside of her and could not escape her lips, her mind dulled by pain and frustration and confusion.

"Why don't you go back to your chambers?" Gestahl said kindly. "You've been through so much. Rest, and try not to worry. You'll be safe here, and we can talk more about this another time."