Every night, since that night, she woke at the same time, her muscles tensed in sick panic. She didn’t have to check the position of the moon – visible from her window – or the stars to know what time it was, because her body told her in the way it spasmed, the memory of fear and adrenaline shaking her limbs: it was the hour Kefka had fallen, the moment Sabin’s mighty blitz had broken through his guard and Celes’ Ultima had circled round his skull and the world had been nothing but a scream for one long upended moment. Terra knew, in the same way she knew what came next, every time she awoke to this frozen state: her body continued to tense in fear as it acted out its last moments as a half-Esper, phantom memories spelling their way through that last brief period before its death, her muscles aching sickly for the magic they no longer had.
She could tell the exact minute the magic had left her, its last life-throes, because her body would relax – but there was no release in it; it was the softening of defeat, a dull ache of loss, and Terra would lie in bed with her muscles throbbing an awkward symphony and stare at the ceiling.
Every night her body acted this out, the tiny bedroom in Mobliz her own Opera House and the stars her audience, an un-interruptible performance. By the third night, she was weary enough to ask Katarin for a sleeping tonic, but it didn’t help; she still awoke drowning in sick nausea, with the echo of Kefka’s laugh in her ears, and the tonic simply made her mouth bitter as her body strained for magic beyond its reach. By the sixth day she was so exhausted she saw two hands for every one she reached out, and her eyes wouldn’t focus.
“You’ll nap,” Katarin said, and it was the tone of voice you didn’t argue with, so Terra did, for a few short hours, until Wil snuck in to show her Phun’s newest litter while Kat was out with the laundry. Not even exhaustion can sleep through kittens, but it was fine, because the nap had refreshed a part of her mind that somehow understood what was going on, and she knew what she had to do.
“I need to go back,” she told Setzer, who was leaning against the doorway and watching the youngest kit try to nurse her fingers, in a low voice. Setzer had stayed in Mobliz with her, an unofficial guardian to keep watch, with strict orders from Edgar to bring Terra straight to Figaro if she so much as breathed funny (as if strict orders meant anything to Setzer); they’d all been concerned, because no one knew what happened to a half-Esper who suddenly became a non-Esper, but Setzer had seen the wild-sad look in her eyes and understood. Terra had been grateful to Setzer – and grateful that it had been Setzer: Sabin hovered, worse than Katarin, and Edgar talked. “I need to go back to the tower.”
And it was a measure of Setzer’s understanding that he simply nodded and said, “Alright. When?”
“Tonight,” Terra said. This would be the seventh night, and Kefka’s voice cackled across her memory: seven is a magical number, my dear. She carefully picked up the black kitten and slipped him back into the box with his ma. “Thank you.”
- - -
It was near midnight when she spotted the ruins from the deck of the Falcon, and as her eyes landed on them she felt the response all through her body, as if it were suddenly foreign, not-hers; the memory of the Slave Crown seized her from the soles of her feet upwards, until every nerve was focused on the remains of Kefka’s tower and she couldn’t even blink.
But then behind her, Setzer laughed, low, and she found the strength to breathe in – breathe out – and Setzer said, “I feel like we should bury this place.” He chuckled.
Terra shivered. The night was cold, and clear, so that the light from the moon and stars lay silver and cold across everything, liquid highlights making smooth sigils out of the jagged remains of the tower. They landed just outside and for a long moment she simply looked at it, the broad expanse of it: a wasteland of parts and pieces, iron beams rotting outwards and the smell of something decaying. She remembered Kefka’s mechanical-magic hybrids, the awful menagerie of the tower, the way everything he’d touched had become off-center, unbalanced, Magitek oozing like a poison from his fingertips.
“I have to go in,” she said.
“We’ll have to be careful.” Setzer came to stand beside her, and it would have been funny – he’d become a lean and terrible swordsman, with training, sleek muscles hidden beneath the ornate lining of his coat; and she was still stronger than she looked. But the world had changed, without magic, and there were only two of them in this place of nightmares.
“Yes,” she said.
They began to pick their way across the wreckage and after a few stray glimpses Terra was too careful to not look down, because the moonlight and shadows made faces beneath her feet, awful ones, like Espers writhing in pain. The entire place smelled like rot – like old rot, like mold, and Terra thought of things growing underfoot. Maybe someday the wilderness would retake this place, vines swallowing metal and trees shading this awful graveyard.
She didn’t know what she was looking for, but they made their way across slowly; Setzer stayed a step behind and beside her, the perfect distance, and she wanted to ask him how he’d learned this concept of space; but she swallowed as she remembered how Setzer had earned his gravity, how Daryl had bought him this particular brand of composure.
She looked down, and recognized the bit she was standing on in a terrible flash of memory, muscles seizing with sudden cold as Kefka’s laugh threw open the lid – running across the grates, Sabin barking something at Edgar as he hoisted the metal beam high above his head; Celes slipping, falling, white and gold in the darkness, and Locke’s dirty hand clenched around her arm – and then she gasped, and Setzer’s hands tightened on her forearms as he said, “You okay?”"I’m alright.”
Setzer squeezed her upper arm again and flashed her a grin in the dark, cunning and flirtatious and so completely artificial, not appropriate at all to this death-field, and Terra smiled back at it because this was Setzer, laughing in the face of everything.
Something moved behind him.
Her sword was in her hand before she knew she’d even drawn, the Atma Weapon’s grip still familiar to her fingers, and she heard the soft swish of Setzer’s cloak behind her as he drew one of his darts, poised – but then there was another shift of movement, and one soft low moan. She wouldn’t have moved, except for that sound: so obviously someone in need, someone hurt. She’d heard it in Mobliz, time and again, the instinctive cry for help – and that part of her that had become human, had become mama, it answered. She sheathed her sword; “Stay here,” she said to Setzer, because he could strike anything with a dart even in the dark.
Terra picked her way across the wreckage, her feet finding careful balance on the uptorn grating; she moved slowly, and her eyes traced the harsh lines of moonlight against metal, looking for something softer, more organic, warmer – there. She approached and bent down. It was Shadow.
His left side was caught beneath a beam, and his left leg was pinned in a tangle of grating, and as she moved into his line of sight his eyes closed, slowly, as if even seeing her was too much for him at this moment, too exhausting. His right hand held a water flask, and littered about his head were the remains of two potion bottles.
“Shadow!” she gasped, and her hands came up, instinctively, hovering over his chest, an inch from his skin, and she tugged inside herself – and felt nothing but the fire of exhausted muscles and the strain of her Esperkin nerves reaching for something that wasn’t there, and it was the first time since then she’d forgotten that she could no longer cast magic. She drew her hands back and stared at her palms for a moment in dumb incredulity, because she’d forgotten, and it was like forgetting her name, her friends, her own heart.
Setzer crouched down beside her, fumbling in a pocket, and his thumb struck the seal of the Phoenix Down; it ignited in the air, and he poured the tonic across Shadow’s face, its pale ghostly fire writhing flame-gold in the darkness with sudden blinding light. He didn’t look at her, so she had time to withdraw her hands and reach into her own belt for an Elixir, one of only a few they had left but Shadow looked to terrible; the Elixir caught fire as she peeled off its seal, too, blindingly white, and Setzer lifted Shadow’s head so that she could pour the gleaming liquid down his throat.
Together they struggled the beam off of Shadow’s body, and Terra could see the tiles stained dark beneath him, and she didn’t look again as they untangled the grating from his feet and lifted him between them. He was light, too light, and Terra’s hands twitched against his bloody legs as if they could pour Cure into all of his wounds; her mouth tasted bitter.
They loaded him into the Falcon carefully, tucking him into one of the beds. Setzer met her eyes over the prone body, and said, cautious: “Do you need to stay?”
And Terra couldn’t even really remember why she’d wanted – needed – to come. “No.” One hand reached out to rest on Shadow’s forehead, tentative, and then curled back towards her as if afraid. “We need to take him back.”
- - -
She woke the next morning late, blinking sun from her eyes, and realized that she hadn’t woken in the night, for the anniversary of Kefka’s death.
In the next moment she remembered Shadow, and threw her robe on over her nightclothes hastily. Katarin was already at his side, a bowl of sweet-smelling water in her hands; she was dabbing it on his cuts.
“I’ll do that,” Terra said, softly. “You should sleep. Have you been up all night?”She took the bowl from Katarin’s hands and sat down.
Shadow was thin, but not wasted – it had only been a week, and he’d had the presence of mind to use at least a few potions; his face was gaunt, and stark. Its angles were unfamiliar to Terra without the cover of his mask, but she didn’t think his normal face was so thin – or so etched with pain.
Kat had bound up his hand already; Terra knew she could do no better, although her fingers twitched with the familiar ache of not-casting and her heart hurt at it, too, because once upon a time she could have healed the mangled limb with a soft word. Now it sat wrapped in one of Kat’s poultices, and all they could do was hope. Hope. Terra still didn’t quite understand it.
She took the cloth instead and began to dab at the cuts visible on Shadow’s chest; the mangled grating must have fallen onto him, although only a few of the cuts were deep enough to worry about; Terra spent extra time on those, cleaning them, because Katarin had told her about infections, back when she was too scared to use her magic (how she regretted that now, a poignant memory that burned deep in her chest). There was one deep slice down Shadow’s left arm, above the wrapping, that worried her, so she soaked a length of bandage in Kat’s solution and then bound it, just like Kat had shown her. Whether it would help, she didn’t know, but it felt good to do something, to do a thing that was like healing. Her fingers ached as she tied it off.
Duane shifted at the door, little Tina on his hip. “I’ve put Kat to bed for now,” he said, coming to stand next to her. “I’ll start soup on the fire, if you can hold Teen.”
Terra smiled up at him, and reached for her goddaughter. She’d at least won half of the argument about naming; she’d been embarrassed to have the little girl wearing her name, but Kat had insisted on Terra Nicole, also after her mother. Tina had come about after days of confusion over the two, spawned by Duane’s nickname of Tiny and Wil’s inability to pronounce Terra Nicole in any semblance of order. Tina yawned up at her godmother and grinned, a dumb sleepy baby grin; her eyes closed again.
“That would be nice,” Terra said, her eyes turning back to Shadow. His face was so strange to her. “I bet he could use a good meal.”
- - -
Three nights later she woke to the memory of Kefka’s death, his laughter burning in her blood so fiercely she sat upright with it, her muscles tense with the chill, her fingers twitching with the ache of missing magic.
But it hadn’t happened for three nights running, and Terra felt a strange wave of determination welling up inside her, possibly where her magic had been; she knew what was coming, the jerky spasms of muscle-memory reenacting the battle and the flight, and her Esper self leaving, but three nights of sleep and the new focus of caring for Shadow had honed something inside her, and she wondered whether she had to let the scene play out.
It took her three tries to get out of bed on stiff legs and quivering ankles, and a muscle in her shoulder was spasming, but she made it to the kitchen eventually. A few more quaking steps took her to the kettle, hanging over the banked embers of the fire, and Terra poured tea into one of the mugs Duane left out for children with nightmares and picked it up with both hands.
Her brain was half-caught in the memory this time, fleeing through the tower, the maze of it reaching up with live metal-fingers and snatching their ankles, snagging their cloaks, and she thought of Shadow suddenly: where in the panorama was he? Every fiber of her being had been focused on escape at that point, and she felt suddenly guilty for not having realized he’d been left behind – although she wasn’t the leader; she’d never been the leader, she was the secret weapon but not the leader, the hope but not the leader, she didn’t want to lead – who had been--? Had no one noticed he hadn’t been with them on the ship? Or had he been on the ship, and then left, the way he’d flickered in and out of their party like a shadow himself? Why couldn’t she remember?
Her hands stung, her brain ached, and suddenly she was standing in Narshe, with Locke’s concerned eyes on her, searching through a torn and bruised collection of thoughts and half-memories for the ones she needed.
Sensation came back into her feet, first, and flooded upwards through her body. Her hands were clenched around the mug, knuckles white; the rest of her body sagged into dull release as it surrendered to the last of the memory-wave, celebrating again the anniversary of her Esper-half’s death. Terra lifted the quivering mug to her lips and took a sip. It was one of Duane’s homemade blends, chamomile and peaches and something like lavender.
She headed down the hall slowly and quietly, past Setzer’s room and the storeroom. She was awake, and wouldn’t sleep; maybe she could manage to change a poultice.
But the bed was empty.
Terra blinked, coming to sag against the doorframe in a disbelieving lean. The bed was empty. But it had been made, carefully, blankets tucked in and comforter gently folded at the foot; even the pillows were aligned in perfect angles against the headboard. A light breeze brushed the curtains framing the open window.
Behind her, she heard Setzer sigh, and remembered that he slept like lightning; he would’ve heard her from the very beginning. “He told us to go,” Setzer said, his voice soft, and in one second of shock Terra wondered how much she’d spoken aloud – or was it just on Setzer’s mind as well? “He was holding something back from Relm – yelled at her to go and take the dog. Yelled at us, too.” He chuckled, and the sound lacked any real amusement. “I almost thought he just wanted to get rid of us, you know, slip out of the tower without having to go through any of the mushy stuff. But… there was something else in his eyes.” The chuckle took on a lighter tone this time. “What we could see of them.”
“He made the bed,” Terra said, dumbly, because it still stood out to her above everything, above the sorrow now dripping from her memory-exhausted heart, that someone like Shadow would have folded a blanket.
Setzer chuckled again, and this time it had real warmth in it. “That’s as much of a thank-you as you’re likely to get from him, Terra. He’ll be okay.” He put an arm around her and turned her away from the empty room with its too-perfect bed. “Come on, let’s get you warmed up.”
Shadow flexed his fingers carefully, pulling against the fabric until he could feel the tendons straining: not far enough. Not nearly far enough.
He hadn't meant to be here; he hadn't meant to survive any of this, and he'd been fine with that, his last glance at the girl more than enough to close his eyes to - but the body had rebelled, ducking and cringing and protecting, and then he'd awoken to rain on his face, injured and pinned but still breathing. Shame, that. Didn't remember much from that period, and that was probably a good thing. Nothing until he'd woken up underneath blankets with Terra's voice in his ears.
He flexed his hand again, ignoring the sharp stab of pain as he tried to bend his pinky finger. Good thing he'd trained with both hands. This one was out of commission for now. And he was out of potions. And out of magic, he noted almost belatedly; he'd never been too good with the Magicite but he'd learned like the rest of them, because Shadow never turned down an advantage - but now that channel was empty, like a creekbed run dry. He remembered the tower falling, and wondered whether they'd fucked something up.
The cave he'd found was a little distance away from Terra's village - snug, safe, and far enough away that they wouldn't see a fire if he lit it past the convenient pile of rocks back there. He'd lit it already, sparks still in the pouch at his waist. It crackled at him, one of thousands of fires he'd sat beside, alone, contemplating his next move.
Which was always the same, and that was why he was flexing his fingers as far as they'd go, over and over again.
- - -
In two days he'd managed to pare down a sturdy branch into a makeshift dagger; it wasn't fancy and it wasn't pretty but it was what it needed to be: deadly in his hands. Or hand. He hadn't taken the wrapping off yet because it smelled like the stuff Alia had used for all of his scrapes and scars - not from sentimentality but practicality, because he didn't know a damn thing about ointments except to wear them for as long as possible. But he had one good hand and two good legs and he could make do with that. He needed food.
Oddly enough, he'd been injured worse than this before - except for the hand - and he'd come back; Shadow knew how to recover. He'd really only been out a week or so, and whatever Terra and that young man had fed him had been full of something good, and his body was well-trained enough that it only took another day or two before he felt well enough to start. Other than the hand, of course.
The exercises started out simple, things to build his muscles back and limber up his joints and get his blood rushing again. From there he moved to forms, the training exercises he'd learned so far back, or at least the ones that had stuck. From there to agility, because he wasn't stupid: he had one wrecked hand, and he couldn't afford to make it worse. He trained when he could and slept when he couldn't; day and night hadn't mattered to him for a long time. His eyes worked well in either, and time just passed no matter what you did.
- - -
Tzen had a saloon, and it was kind of a dump, but Shadow slipped in anyway. The stick-knife was in his boot; he'd had to test it out a little on the way and it had worked as well as it needed. It threw a little to the right but that was easy enough to compensate for once you knew. He sat down in the back corner and watched the people for a while.
He needed food. He needed a real weapon, and he needed somebody who could change the filthy dressing on his left hand and replace it with something that didn't smell like a swamp. But he'd been in this place before, and it was always the same, so he just sat and watched and waited.
Eventually someone approached him.
The woman was older, her face aged prematurely by trouble, but she wore the kind of expression that said she'd come out tougher for it; her hair was tied up under a kerchief, and she wore a dagger at her side - nothing fancy, but of good sturdy quality. Shadow looked at her and said nothing. She signaled, and the young, flightly barmaid came over with two mugs of ale; she gave Shadow a very tentative look, and Shadow met her inquisitive glance without blinking, which alarmed her into retreat. The woman slid one mug across the table to him, and then sipped at her own.
"Are you looking for work?" Her voice was low, against the background murmur of the bar.
"Maybe." Shadow didn't touch his glass. "Used to be, people would post marks in a place like this. So that people looking for work could find it a little easier."
The woman took another sip, and said thoughtfully, "There's a highway, between here and Albrook, along the shore, built so nobody had to get too close to The Tower. Worked real well. Except that now, a pair of Black Dragons have set up their nest in the middle of it. Blocks all our trade. Haven't gotten around in weeks."
"That's a shame." Shadow played with the mug on the table, sliding it towards himself and then away. "Are there wages for this particular job?"
Her eyes sharpened. "Three thousand. From my hand. I'm Marg, the owner of this fine establishment -- and if I don't get my wagons soon, the owner of a straight-up riot."
Three thousand wasn't much, but it would be enough to get him a weapon of some sort and transportation to the next town. Shadow's fingers tightened around the mug. "Three thousand plus healing after. And I'll need either an advance or your dagger."
Marg's eyes widened a little, and she scoffed. "Taking on a mark without a weapon? I can find you some other work."
Shadow leaned foward and met her gaze with one of his own, hard as steel. "Do you know who I am? I can kill two Black Dragons with that dagger. One-handed. In my sleep."
Unimpressed, Marg raised an eyebrow, and Shadow waited to see which way it would go.
Eventually, she reached down to her belt and drew the knife. "If you're who I think you are," she said, a dark smile touching her lips for a second, "three thousand is a steal for your services."
- - -
Three thousand probably was a steal, but they were just Black Dragons, and with real steel in his hand he could sharpen his stick-knife into something worth throwing, and make a few others besides. It only took a day, and then three thousand turned into a dagger of his own, real cheap shit but better than a branch, and a meal, and a handful left over. It was too easy to convince the healer he went to see that the injuries to his hand were from the Dragons, too; she changed it, and winced a little at the gristle-and-bone beneath the dressing, but she doused it with an Antidote free of charge.
Marg put him up at the Inn for free, too, and the next day when he walked into the saloon there was a dirty piece of paper stuck to the wall in the corner where he'd sat.
He yanked it from his pin and set it on the bar in front of Marg. She raised a weary eyebrow. "It's what it says on the page, Shadow."
So she did know him. Or of him. Well, lots of people did. "Who posted it?"
"It says," Marg said with some amusement, "on the page. If you don't want to talk to people, I'll go tell Havor that you've accepted his mark while you kill the wolves."
That three thousand got him a second dagger and two potions, and a larger handful left over.
- - -
Word must have traveled faster than he did, because there were two marks waiting for Shadow in Albrook - and a man.
"I want to talk to you." He was an average man: average build, average face, nondescript brown hair. Shadow would have dodged him in a second, except for the strange look in his eyes. So he listened. The jobs men didn't want to post usually paid more.
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of gold. "And I heard money talks." He tossed it in the air and caught it, once, as if he wasn't so nervous his hands were shaking.
Shadow nodded. So this man had done some research as well. "Speak." He'd been better at intimidating people with the dog, but he knew the dog was with the girl, and he was happier about that.
"I'll pay you to teach me." The man dropped the gold on the table and stood up straight - and Shadow noticed more details; muscles hidden under a poorly-fitting shirt, and large capable hands. "I know who you are and what you are, and that's fine." He sighed. "No one around here can even fight except me, and all of our potion-making stuff broke during the Flash of Light, so we're low on potions too. It's just stupid. We're sitting ducks."
"Sad." Shadow kept his voice bland. "Not my problem."
"That's why I'm paying," the man said, and his voice caught on anger. "I know you don't give a shit about the town, but I figure you do give a shit about money, right?" He took a deep breath. "Five thousand for an all-day lesson."
The man winced, but he said sturdily, "seven thousand."
"Eight thousand." The man's gaze dropped to the bag of gold on the table, as if he wished he could take it back.
Shadow tapped a finger on the table for emphasis. "Ten. Thousand."
"I don't have ten thousand!" It burst from him, and he turned around, hands coming up to clench at his hair - and then he turned around, a new light in his eye. "Seven thousand for the lesson," he said slowly, "and then fifty percent of the next three marks I take down."
A good gambit, Shadow thought. It gave him some incentive to actually be a good teacher - and increase the return on his investment. Clever. He was impressed.
- - -
Saim was a better student than he'd expected. By the time the day of training was over, someone had posted a new mark, and Shadow sent Saim after it. It was the easiest two thousand he'd ever made.
With Saim's money, Shadow bought a better set of clothes and light armor to go beneath, and had a new pair of boots fitted specially for himself. He'd learned that lesson early on in life. He suggested that Saim keep training and perhaps head up to Tzen to look for other marks, too.
"Where are you going now?"
"I'll be back for my money." Shadow raised an ironic eyebrow. "Don't think you can get out of it."
"Oh, I know," Saim said hurriedly. "I'm just curious. Where are you going?"
He'd thought about this for the past couple days, money in his pocket and a strange urgency in his chest - the need to just see her, to make sure she was alright. Boats to Thamasa weren't cheap, but thanks to Saim he had enough to make it there without having to take on extra jobs. Besides, he still hadn't figured out what had happened to his magic, and no one in Tzen or Albrook was going to answer that question for him. Terra might have known, but he needed to see the girl first, to know what she was doing.
"Nowhere," he said instead.
Terra found the first bag of money the morning Setzer was due to return. She wasn't sure how long it had been sitting on the sickroom bed (Shadow's bed, her mind whispered at her), a forlorn puddle of burlap placed carefully in the middle of the pillows - which had been aligned, she noted, so that their edges once again made perfect corners with the frame and the edges of the mattress. She picked it up, carefully, and sat down on the bed, looking at it for a long moment.
She didn't have any doubts that it was from Shadow; the pillows would have convinced her, but the solid feeling in her gut didn't need convincing. It was so Shadow-like, just as slipping out the window in secret was Shadow-like. He must have thought he owed her; but she would have done this for anyone, and she couldn't even have helped him the way she used to - she hadn't even been able to help his hand. What did he think he owed her for? Broth and a couple potions? The use of a bed no one slept in? It wasn't like she was going to call in the debt someday. She sighed.
She didn't want to keep Shadow's money... but Setzer would be coming later, with his shop moogles in tow, and the children always needed things - now more than ever; two new families had shown up on the outskirts looking for a new life, so poor their clothes had holes and one baby just wore a blanket. Terra sighed again, and tucked the bag away into her belt. If she only used it on goods for the children and the town, she resolved, it would be alright. It wasn't taking charity, and it wasn't taking advantage of Shadow's... what? Pity? Generosity?
She paused in the doorway, and turned around. The window was closed. For some reason, it made her shiver, and her fingers twitched with a familiar ache.
- - -
Sabin came with Setzer, and the sight of him lifted Terra's heart; strong, trustworthy Sabin, the solid foundation of their team, the first person who'd looked at her and seen her rather than someone or something else. She threw her arms around him and he lifted her and spun her; she recognized the deep rumble of his chest as laughter.
Behind him was Setzer, and he greeted her with a canny wink and a less exuberant embrace. She laughed, and bustled them inside, where she had tea and Duane's stew and freshly-baked bread. Setzer set down a crate by the door - probably her potions; she'd asked him for a case - and Sabin greeted Duane and Katarin with equal fervor.
It wasn't until they were settled around the table, with stew and a bottle of cider from Setzer that Terra suspected was a little alcoholic, that she asked, "Have you seen him?"
Setzer shook his head, and swallowed. "No, but rumour has it that a mercenary has started collecting marks again in Tzen and Albrook." His lips quirked. "So I bet I know where he is."
Collecting marks; the trade of the hunt. That could explain the gold, then; Terra sighed. Shadow, you don't owe me anything.
Beside her, Sabin seemed to pick up the melancholy mood; he turned to her, his face surprisingly serious. "Terra," he said. "There's something going on you should know about."
Terra frowned, and said, "What?"
Sabin looked at Setzer and there was a long moment of silence before Setzer leaned back in his chair and sighed, a long slow exhalation that made her nervous; her hands had found each other in her lap. "There's a bit of a problem. All around the world, potion-makers are suddenly unable to make a single thing. No one has been able to make anything that works since the Flash of Light," which was what the world had taken to calling the moment Kefka had died - the moment she continued to relive at night.
"Why can't they...?" But even as the words slipped from her lips she knew, the memories of her nightly vigil overtaking her, icy chill rushing through her muscles. "Magic," Terra breathed.
Sabin looked dismayed. "I think so, and so do a couple other people. It isn't just one or two towns, either - Setzer and I visited all around the world, and no one has had any luck. People are trying all kinds of things, but... it's not working."
"So there's going to be a huge shortage soon," Setzer said, and his voice was unusually grave. "I brought you a case, but I suggest you hide them somewhere. Somewhere safe. And ration them. We don't know how long this is going to last."
"Yeah," Sabin said, grinning, and lifting up his arm to show her the massive bruise he was sporting. "I'm doing my part, see?"
It did the trick; she felt the smile blooming on her lips, and resolved to think about this issue later. "You massive idiot," she teased. "Kat's salve can fix that. Come on, back to the storeroom."
- - -
She gasped herself awake against the memories, clambering upright in bed against the sheets and blankets (and the black kitten, now old enough to wander, who'd claimed her feet as his territory); her breath was short and ghostly, and for a moment she saw spots behind her eyes, her muscles tensing as she waited in dread -
But the laugh didn't come; there was nothing but silence in the house, cold dark comforting silence.
She'd stopped reliving the moment every night; the attacks now came two or three nights apart, and often in pieces, fragmented such that she could walk to the teapot, check on the kittens, open the window. It was an improvement, except for the first moment of it all: the first dreadful moment, her entire body seizing up, thrown awake by the memory, unable to escape the replay. That hadn't improved at all, even if she had stopped herself from walking through every minute of that awful night.
Tonight Terra took her tea down to Shadow's room. Nothing had stirred; the pillows remained slightly off-kilter, where she'd put them, so that she could tell if he'd come back. The window was closed, and the bed was empty. She sat down and stretched out on her side, head pooled on one arm, her gaze out the window; she could just see the moon, at the edges of the frame, a fat crescent. Nothing moved.
She could feel it coming on, the part she dreaded the most: the echo of her own half-death, her human body still straining for the part it was missing. All the holes in her felt like an ache and this never helped, having to relive this final tension down to her bones. She closed her eyes against it and let it wash over her, the seeking tension feeling like pain - and then fading, not in victory but in loss, the last retreat, everything sobbing from her muscles and leaving her not with relief, but with nothing. Terra lay on her side, unmoving, and it felt like centuries, and it felt like seconds, not nearly taking up enough time in this new strange half-life she lived, robbed of the only thing she'd ever been able to do... The emptiness filled her, and she wondered: how can I be full of nothing? Her heart beat, and she breathed, and nothing happened.
She heard a faint rustle and opened her eyes, surprised at her own eagerness - but it was only the black kitten, with his tawny-and-white sister in tow, curious about this new and exciting place to nap. The pale kitten jumped onto the bed and batted at something near her feet, and Terra sat up, curious.
It was a burlap bag, with a handful of coins inside.
Her tea was cold, as if it had sat on the floor for hours.
- - -
Terra blinked against the steam of the kettle and continued stirring, her eyes smarting. "Too fast? Too slow?"
"You know as much as me," said Katarin, crouched over the faded page, nettleroot in her hand. "It says 'moderate speed.' Is that moderate?"
Terra frowned. She had never cooked before she'd arrived in Mobliz, and it had taken two days of Duane's time to teach her to boil water in the kettle for tea; when would she have learned these things? "Hopefully it won't matter, if she wasn't very specific."
Kat looked up and gave Terra a quick fleeting grin over her mother's book - her mother's herbal book; Kat's mum had been Mobliz's doctor-healer-nurse, and Katarin had been faithfully learning in her wake. The thought had occured to Terra at some point, late at night and aching with no magic and full of familiar worries. She'd thought about a town full of children and new families, injuries and illnesses; she'd thought about a case of potions, half-empty, and the money Mobliz didn't have.
And she'd realized that Katarin and Duane both must have been skilled healers - they'd saved so many of the children, and they'd brought Terra back after months of unconsciousness. And they'd healed Shadow.
The thoughts were swirling about, now, slowly, beneath the surface of her mind, behind her preoccupation with this newest brew.
"Alright," said Katarin, breaking the nettleroot in half. "I drop this in, and you stir 'three times, decisively, counter-clockwise' - whatever that means, mum - and then we quench it." She held up the small silver bowl they kept ice in - Edgar had made them a little contraption to keep it that ran off of a nearby stream, although he'd promised three times to make them something larger. "Ready?"
Terra pushed hair from her forehead. Three times, counter-clockwise, decisively. "Yes."
The nettleroot turned the solution a cheerful purple, and Terra stirred her three rounds, and then Katarin yanked the kettle from the fire and dropped in the ice; it hissed, pleasantly, and Terra thought maybe it was a magic of its own: the simple magic of midwives and greenwitches, of village healers who'd never touched magicite; of families who couldn't afford Antidotes or Elixirs. Maybe Mobliz could make this work; maybe they'd be okay.
"Look!" Kat's cheerful voice broke through her thoughts, and Terra bent over the pot, peering; the solution had become a creamy pale pink, congealed by the ice into something thick that jiggled pleasantly when Katarin shook the kettle. "I think it worked, Terra, I really do!"
"Think what worked?" They looked up to see Sabin in the doorway, wiping sweat from his brow and kicking his boots against the lintel in a heartfelt but ultimately pointless attempt to remove all the dirt. He'd stayed to help the two newest families work on their homes, sealing them up before the rainy season started; they'd been building today. Sabin looked dusty and exhausted and triumphant; there was a long scratch down one cheek and a blossoming bruise on his arm, and he had a thumb wrapped up in a dirty kerchief. Tina gurgled in his direction and Sabin swept her up, easily tucking her into the crook of his elbow; she looked dwarfed.
"Here," Kat said, business-like, and Sabin stooped obediently to let her rub some of the cream into the welt on his cheek. "The book said this would numb and disinfect. I know you can't feel disinfecting, but how does it feel otherwise?"
Sabin raised his free hand and almost touched his cheek. "Funny," he said, and then shook his head. "But... good. It feels cool, and a little tingly."
"Does it hurt less?" Kat demanded, inquisitive eyes on Sabin.
He pursed his lips, as if thinking, and his hand did come up to touch his face then, surprisingly gently. "I think it does. It's tingly, but not as painful. Here," he said, almost as an afterthought, and held out the free hand with the wrapped thumb. "If you want to try some pain that's a little more obvious. I got myself with a hammer, twice."
Katarin turned to Terra and raised a questioning eyebrow, her grin triumphant. "Can we?"
- - -
She couldn't sleep at all that night because her thoughts were turning over each other, swimming in the dark: new families, new homes, wounds and no potions. Kat's mum's book, full of remedies and secrets and diagrams of the body, hands and fingers and sketches of each case she'd looked at: an encyclopedia of injury and illness from birth to death. She was out of bed and wandering softly long before usual, before the memory of Kefka's death would surface, and that was probably why she ran into Shadow in the hallway on the way to check the storeroom.
Terra stopped, her hand on the doorframe, startled for a moment into still silence.
Shadow didn't look surprised or discomfited - although it was hard to tell; he was wearing his mask again, and a dark helm very reminiscent of his old one. He just looked at her and the silence between them stretched and settled onto the floor, into the walls around them, a private moment of nothing. She was glad to see him and alarmed to find him walking her house like a ghost; she was angry that he'd sneak in here without speaking to her, and touched that he still cared enough to come back.
"Hi," Terra whispered, and she felt so stupid.
Shadow looked at her for another long minute, and then he reached up, slowly, and unfastened his mask. It crumpled in his palm to a pool of dark fabric, whisked away to his belt. His face was still gaunt, all sharp angles and cheekbones, and he looked achingly familiar to her - familiar and different, and she wondered whether it was just that the lines of pain on his face weren't as stark as the last time she'd seen them. His eyes were bright blue; it had been disconcerting under the mask but now, in a regular rugged human face, they were almost alarmingly alert; she felt tracked, like prey.
"This is for you," he said. His voice - she hadn't heard him speak at all, without the mask, and his voice sounded different coming from a face, a real human face, even though she knew it was the same voice. He held out a bag of coins.
"Shadow," she said, her voice soft. "You don't owe us. I don't want to continue taking your money."
"I owe you for my life," he said, and that face was so unreadable to her; Terra looked for signs of warmth, signs of anything, but who was she to understand human expression? Human emotion? There are some of us who have killed our emotions, Terra, said the different voice. Kefka laughed in her ears and she abruptly felt her knees buckle, the shock going through her as she clutched at the wall suddenly, spasming with recall.
Shadow didn't move; he just watched her with unnervingly bright blue eyes. She regained her feet, and shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"You relive it every night," Shadow said.
"Not every night," she felt compelled to point out, low and almost sulky. "It's gotten better." Then, belatedly: "How do you know?"
And now he smiled, just a little, dry lips quirking up in subtle amusement. "The same way I know you need this," he said, and he held out the bag of money in his palm.
Her eyes fell, instead, to his left hand - still bandaged, less skillfully than before, and now she saw his stance had changed, slightly, as if to hide it from view. "Your hand," she said, and because it was late and dark she took a step forward and reached out to take it. "How is it?"
Shadow looked away. "Fine."
Terra carefully unwrapped the bandage and saw the lie for herself. The hand was still mangled, fingers alternately swollen and bare to the muscle; it was red and black and pale and flushed and she could almost feel the pain wafting off of it, and again she had to check herself as she found her mind straining, reaching into her core for something it would never find again.
"Let's make a deal," she said, almost unexpectedly. "If you let me treat your hand and wrap it up properly, I'll keep your money. But only," she added pointedly, "for the children."
That strange smile crossed Shadow's face again, and her heart beat loudly in her ears when she caught it. "Deal," he said.
- - -
Setzer landed to pick Sabin up and she got them both to sit down for a meal - Duane's cooking being an excellent bargaining chip - and she was so nervous about this, her first real human idea, her first actual plan for anything; she was so afraid they'd tell her she was doing it wrong, she was missing something obvious.
"I want to start a clinic," she blurted out, and they froze to look at her; Sabin's mouth full and unchewing, Setzer's spoon inches from his lips.
"I," Terra said, and her eyes fell to the table, her fingers tracing patterns on the uneven surface, snagging on faint splinters. "If it's - if it's true, and people can't make potions anymore - any potions - I know most people never get to the point in their life where they need an Elixir. That's fine. But there are still monsters, and people can still get hurt, or injured, or just plain sick... they need somewhere to go for things that are serious, if they can't just buy an Antidote." She traced a lopsided circle and thought of Shadow's hand. "Kat's mum... she has a lot of notes in there about treating war injuries, too. Kat and Duane and I can study, and then... maybe we can help people."
Sabin chewed and looked pensive. Setzer nodded at her. "It's a good idea," he said. "I just did another fly-by, and the only place that has had any luck is Thamasa - and all they can make are little Tonics, and Relm said they used more ingredients than a Hi-Potion to do so. There may be a solution out there, but it isn't coming soon enough. People all over the world are going to need something else, and soon." He glanced at Sabin, and then back to Terra. "The trade routes are still going mainly because it hasn't sunk in yet - what, no more potions? You lie. People are still just using them, and soon they'll realize nobody's replacing them."
Sabin nodded, understanding. "And then people are going to stop traveling. And trading. And buying, other than saving up for more. You can't travel unarmed, not yet. There are still monsters everywhere."
"We could teach, too," she added, because the idea had just occured to her - "We could have a school, for people who wanted to learn, and Kat could teach them what she knows. Oh," she said, and something in her heart broke with a strange eager sadness she couldn't put a name to. "Would it help?"
The looks Sabin and Setzer gave her this time were curious, and she was suddenly reading things in their faces: pity, sorrow, genuine worry; hope. She couldn't be sure whether they were real or not, because she didn't know how to read faces. She just watched, and looked, and tried to store it all away for later.
"It might," Sabin said, eventually. "I'll talk to Edgar about it and see if he has any ideas."
- - -
Shadow came back three days later, just as she'd asked him to; he was waiting for her when she got home from Katarin's, sitting at her table like a guest. He looked both comfortable and awkward, and Terra realized there was an alertness in his posture she was unused to - a constant vigilance. She wondered where he'd earned it. He wasn't wearing the mask, and his face looked more lined than before - Terra saw exhaustion, and strain.
She smiled at him and set the basket of food down on the table. "Are you hungry?" she asked. "There's bread, and a crock of soup. I brought it for you just in case." She took it from the bag and set it in front of him, offering but not pushing.
Shadow reached in his pocket and pulled out a gold piece, which he set carefully beside the bowl before reaching for it and opening it. His face was perfectly neutral as he picked up the spoon and started to eat.
"You don't have to pay." She deliberately ignored the coin and emptied the rest of the basket: freshly laundered wrappings, and an ointment she and Katarin had made. "I'm not an inn. It's a free meal."
"No such thing." Shadow looked up at her, his bright eyes serious. And then, as she looked at him longer, unsure of what to say: "I prefer to have no debts," he added, and then turned back to the soup.
"It isn't a debt when you're friends," Terra said, and she immediately felt awful, because - were they friends? Did someone like Shadow have friends? She'd spent so much of their last few months distracted and exhausted, and yet... she'd call Setzer a friend, and Sabin, and Edgar. What was Shadow? A companion? "Friends don't count," she added sternly, as if she'd made her argument out loud.
Shadow said nothing; he finished the soup as she set out her wares. She sat down to his left and began to pick at the wrapping. "Kat told me that you shouldn't let wounds sit covered in that treatment for more than three days, because they need to breathe," she said, to fill the silence. "She and I made an ointment for the next step. How does it feel?"
"Fine." Shadow's face was downturned, and the lines of his cheekbones looked sharper than usual. "Better," he added, slowly, as if not used to descriptions.
"Do you think the treatment helped at all?"
He shrugged, but his eyes flickered to hers for a second, bright and piercing. "A little. Still hard to move it."
"Hmm." She didn't know much about anatomy, but she'd been reading Kat's mum's journal at night, poring over the diagrams she had of hands and fingers (including one gory amputation, sketched with a little more detail than the others). "The treatment might take a few days to sink in completely, and anyway, a lot of those wounds are still open. Shadow..." A thought occured to her, and she looked up at him. "Are you using your hand?"
"How?" His face was bland, and there was some kind of twinkle in his eye she could have sworn was humor - set in anything other than this cold stone face.
"To fight! To... I don't know, do things. You need to let it rest." She narrowed her eyes. "You're fighting with it, aren't you."
His expression flickered, but then shut itself up, face neutral again. "How?" He lifted the hand, made a clenching gesture; his raw fingers went crooked. "Doesn't work."
"Oh, Shadow," Terra said, and she reached out for the hand and set it in her lap, gently; it looked crumpled, like an injured animal, and this time when the urge came she let it, called it, deliberately - if there was even a speck of magic - but no, she was scraping dry against her bones, straining her muscles in futility; poised to hear a sound she'd never make again. She shut her eyes against sudden tears she didn't understand; she knew that magic was gone, she knew it, she knew it every night while Kefka danced a mad round in her nightmares - and those were the nights she didn't wake up with her body seized in the memory of his death and her half-death, a strange consummation that somehow meant Kefka had won by dying because he'd killed her too - she realized she was murmuring, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I wish I could but I can't," every word catching on a half-sob in her throat, and she was clutching at Shadow's forearm in something almost like desperation - what was this? She felt so empty, and yet suffocated; "I don't know what I am," she said, and she didn't know what it meant.
She leaned forward, to rest her forehead against Shadow's forearm, his wounded hand in her lap and tears stubbed in her eyes, and it was all so unfair.
"Terra." His voice was grave, and strange in her ears, with her forehead pressing into his shirt: close and yet far, because this was a man she didn't know at all - friend, stranger, companion, a little of all three. She sat up, because she was sure he was going to chide her for this, all the inappropriate and awkward things she continued to do - she'd crossed a line, and she didn't know where any of the lines were, because everything was new for her.
But instead Shadow met her eyes - blue and piercing; and he sighed. "It isn't your fault." It wasn't comforting and it wasn't meant to be and some small part of her appreciated that, not being treated like the child she felt like. "You want to cure everything. It is an unreasonable expectation, but it won't stop you from wanting it. Remember that."
She didn't know what he meant, and she was tired of feeling so small. "Here," she said instead. "Let me bind your hand."
He hadn't gone to Thamasa. In the end he'd stood and stared at the boat, and felt something he hadn't felt in a long time: conflict. He wanted to see the girl - to see the dog, even - to make sure she was alright. But he wasn't ready. In the end he'd flexed his fingers as far as they could go, and turned around.
- - -
The next morning it hadn't been just Saim waiting for him. Two others, a scraggly man and a thickly-built woman. Shadow wondered whether this was some kind of set-up. He said nothing. Even with his hand, he could still take all three of them. He waited, instead.
"We have a proposition for you," said Saim, and Shadow twitched his good fingers closer to his dagger, waiting for whatever laughable threat Saim had come up with.
"We want to join up," said the woman.
Shadow paused, and looked more closely. Neither of the newcomers were poised for attack, although Saim looked alert - but maybe he was just remembering the lessons Shadow had taught him. "Join what?"
"Here's the thing." Saim relaxed, slightly, and his hand came off of his waist to gesture in the air. "Ever since I took out that mark there have been - alright. Tzen and Albrook are connected by a bunch of paths, but the Tower's - was - right in-between, so the monster problem here is brutal. And it's been a real problem. Most merchants have their own paths they take, you know, secret routes and shortcuts, etc, but everybody's having issues now. And even the ships - monsters from the sea are even worse." He glanced at the two strangers and then back to Shadow. "I took out that mark, and the next day two merchants asked me if I'd accompany their wagons through the wilderness - for huge amounts of cash. So far I've been propositioned by six people, and each offer is wilder than the next."
"Then why are you here?" Shadow hadn't taken his eye off of the two strangers.
"This is Tobb," Saim said instead, gesturing at the wiry man, "and this is Kaseth. They're from Tzen. They heard what was going on and heard my offers, and they're both as good at fighting as me, and we've got a plan."
"A mercenary guild," said the woman Kaseth. "There's a lot of money to be made guiding wagons and ships through these waters. And from what I hear, not just here, either. Over by Zozo they've got it pretty bad, too."
Shadow frowned. The idea made some sense. "What do I have to do with any of this?"
"You're famous." Tobb grinned, and it faltered when he didn't grin back. "You're the famous Shadow. You're skilled, and you're legitimate, the real deal. As long as we can say we're working with you, people will believe we can do what we say."
He didn't smile. "And what do I get out of it?"
Now Saim grinned. "Money. A percentage of everything we make escorting parties, plus fees for lessons. And I'll bet you once we start, other people are going to want to join too. A percentage of all of that... It makes you a rich man."
Shadow thought about it. He and Baram had tried to pull a scam like this once. But this was the real thing - and much more likely to succeed. Assuming they knew how to fight. Assuming they could learn.
"I'll think about it," he said.
- - -
"Not a bad idea," said Marg, taking away his mug and replacing it with a fresh one. "Plenty of people 'round here who'd pay good money to be able to go see kin in the other cities. Travel's about shriveled up here, you know."
Shadow said nothing. He hadn't needed to say more than a few words; Marg had heard the idea, apparently from Tobb. She seemed one of those people who just knew everything. Shadow knew her kind; a good type to know, as much as anyone could be. "You know about the potions?"
Marg frowned, and glanced around her, and then leaned in a little close. Her brow wrinkled. "I know somethin's up," she said, hushed. "But I don't know what. Just yesterday, some swaggering fool from the north came through with a bag full of potions, trying to charge three-thou apiece. We haven't been able to make any since the Flash of Light, our one potion-maker died, so some fools actually bought 'em, but..." She frowned, and stood up. "Something's going on," she said. "Nobody'd charge that much otherwise. Have you heard about the Corps?"
Shadow shook his head.
"The Imperial Peace Corps." Marg glanced over to the corner of the saloon and then back at Shadow. "Seems like one of their old generals had the bright idea to start the whole thing up again. She's launched an initiative for all the old soldiers to come to her and serve. Got 'em digging ditches and rebuilding homes, for now."
He thought about it. Of course it had to be Celes - he'd seen the army in her, born and bred; it wasn't hard to tell at all looking at her. Standing straight, orders in her eyes even when she asked questions. An interesting gambit. None of his concern, really. "It's not an army?"
"Not yet. They're trying to rebuild." She spat on the ground. "Burn 'em down, then build 'em up. And then burn 'em down again, I'd guess."
"Isn't this an Empire town?"
Marg looked up, and her mouth moved into a wry smile. "Tzen was an Empire town, sure. But the Empire's dead, honey. Let it lie buried."
- - -
Kaseth's first mark was successful, and Saim and Tobb together escorted a merchant ship to Nikeah and back. Shadow took down a particularly messy mark close to the ruins of the Tower, and at the end of the week, he was a rich man. He purchased a cloak and a travel bag, and then went back to Mobliz. She was still up, and for a minute or two he watched her make a mug of tea. She added honey, which was new, and then a few drops of something else. He slipped in the door, and her eyes came up to met his. For a second, in the firelight, she looked like Alia - all fey features, delicate and wild, and he thought maybe it was the touch of magic. But then she smiled at him, her eyes crinkling, and it was just Terra.
He set the money down on the table. He'd given her more this week, since he'd charged a ridiculous amount for his lessons, but he'd tried to tuck it cleverly into a similarly-sized bag so that she wouldn't notice until he was gone. She shook her head at the bag. "Shadow, stop. We're all paid up. Really, you don't have to."
"For future services, then." His fingers fidgeted as her eyes fell to his hand.
To his surprise, she smiled. "I don't like having debts." He felt his mouth twitch in response, and her smile opened up, turning kind. "And friends don't have to pay for help."
He never knew what to say. Friends didn't exist. There were co-workers, team members, comrades in arms... and there was Alia. Nothing else ever really existed in cold hard reality. Instead, he lifted the injured hand towards her, not mentioning the coin. She bent over it dutifully, unwrapping it. "It looks like it's healing," she mused, turning it over gently. "Does it feel better?"
"Less pain." He still didn't have much mobility with it, but she didn't need to know that yet. If it would heal, he could eventually train his fingers back into place. Everything could be trained, if you gave it enough time.
"I've got another ointment for you, but Kat said we should only leave it on for a day at first until we see how your skin takes to it. Can you come back tomorrow?"
"Going to Thamasa." The words came out of nowhere. He'd been considering it, with the gold in his pocket - maybe the girl would take some coin, for the dog if nothing else. Or maybe the old man would. And maybe he'd decided and just not thought about it. It would help expand his business, too.
"Oh!" Terra glanced up at him, surprised. "That's ...convenient, actually." She laughed, a little. "If I let you keep some of that money, would you do me a favor? I'm interested in looking at some of the potions they've been making. Setzer said he had heard they'd been able to do it. I know they'll be expensive, but I'd like to see a few."
He nodded once. "No problem." It was a better reason to go to Thamasa than the one he had right now.
"In that case..." Terra stood up, went to the corner cabinet, and dug around behind some dried flowers for a small vial. "I'm just going to use this."
"No," Shadow said, because it wasn't worth wasting one of the rarer potions on his hand. Not now, when they knew how expensive they'd soon be. Not in Mobliz, with all the children. "Not worth it."
"It's worth that," Terra said, with a pointed look at the bag of money. "If you're going to pay for something, Shadow, let me at least help you!"
Something broke in her voice, and Shadow paused, reminded of the night she'd wept into his shoulder, the way he'd stared at the top of her head and felt nothing except a vague pity. What else was there in this world? Help was an illusion. Everything was a trade. The point was to stay free. He shook his head again. He'd refused her potions before, too. It was easier to do the less his hand throbbed.
"Fine." She huffed a little, but put the vial back in the cabinet and brought out the jar she'd used previously. "I'll just put a fresh layer of this on it for your trip. What are you going to Thamasa for?"
He thought about saying it. Thought about not saying it. But she looked up at him, just a flash - she flinched, sometimes, when she met his eyes, as if unused to it. "Relm's my daughter," he said, and the words were empty because there wasn't anything else that mattered.
"Oh." Terra's hands stilled on his. Her look this time was deliberate, searching, and he knew she wouldn't find anything in his face, because there wasn't anything to find.
Why had he said it? It wasn't like he cared, one way or the other, whether she knew or didn't know - but he thought that maybe this was somehow repaying this debt between them, this odd space he could feel but couldn't see. Shadow didn't like when there weren't any lines drawn.
"She doesn't know." He swallowed. "Not sure anyone does."
"I..." Terra swallowed, and her gaze went back to his hand. "I didn't know. But Edgar and Sabin had half-guessed, I think - they'd both heard you speak in your sleep, once each, and of course they tell each other everything... and me, I guess. People always talked around me because they knew I wouldn't understand; I was lost in my own head most of the time, and I didn't understand the kind of things people didn't say, either. I still don't." She glanced up at him, knife-sharp, and then back down. "They wondered. Why doesn't she know?"
"Because." Reasons he couldn't even remember. The old Shadow had had too many enemies to have a family, and so he hadn't - he'd just had Alia, for a little while, in-between being Shadow. Did it matter now? "Doesn't matter."
"But you're going to check on her." Terra's voice was approving. Yes; this conversational debt, being repaid. "That's nice."
- - -
The trip to Thamasa was uneventful. He'd had enough to pay for a private berth and nothing had attacked the ship during the short voyage. Part of him had almost been hoping for some such delay, but he recognized that as cowardice. Better to just go, run Terra's errand, see the girl. And then leave.
They'd all disembarked and he had followed more slowly. Thamasa was a grey town like the rest of them. It hadn't been hit as badly as other parts, but he guessed the economics had been bad from the number of closed-up shop windows he passed. His walk was idle; it could have been towards the house or it could have been across town, down to the beach...
He caught sight of someone moving around in the kitchen. Down to the beach it was, then. When had the Shadow become such a coward? He'd fought beside the girl so many times; he'd watched her sleep in this house. Wait - someone was at the beach.
Shadow froze, and ducked into the thin treeline at the edge of the sand. But it was her. Relm. She'd never see him if he didn't move, so he didn't move for a moment, watching her. She was boiling something over a campfire, a notebook full of scribbles at her knee. She looked focused. She stirred, and then reached into a bag beside her, pulling out a small silver scale and some sort of plant. Shadow watched her carefully weigh something out. He wondered whether she was working on potions, and why she was working at the beach.
He'd forgotten about the dog.
Interceptor came bounding around the corner, and stopped - he must have smelled his master instantly; but he'd been spending too much time with the girl, because instead of being quiet and keeping master's cover he let out one loud woof of welcome and started to pant, his eyes intently on the trees.
Relm's eyes snapped up, and she called out, "Shadow?"
Startled, Shadow made his way out from behind the tree and stepped onto the beach. He'd never liked Thamasa's sand; it was thick enough for trees to grow, which made it uncomfortable, and much too open. "How did you know I was there?"
Relm's face lit up in a spontaneously shameless grin. "You just told me," she said, all sass and pomp. "Besides, who else would he bark at? He whines at Gramps and ignores everyone else."
Shadow shot a look at the traitorous dog, and then deemed him worthy of a small scratch on the head.
"What are you doing here?" Relm babbled on. "I assume you're here to see puppyface over there - thanks a lot, by the way - but I hope you're not taking him back just yet. Gramps and I need him right now. They've tried to break into our house twice - figure we're hiding the goods - but Interceptor woke us up both times and we kicked their scrawny rears." She beamed at him and held up her spoon, like evidence. "That's why I'm hiding down here."
"Who is breaking into your house?"
"Jerks," Relm said matter-of-factly. "We're all trying to make potions work, and they want to steal our goods." She brandished the notebook at him; Shadow caught a quick glimpse of something written in a multicolored rainbow of inks. "Everybody found out that this town had magic," she said, her voice lowered to a secretive hush. "I think they think we still have it."
"Relm." Even saying her name was odd, as if it were more personal than he wanted. "What happened to the magic?"
She frowned, forehead creasing beneath her cap. "Right, you weren't there," she said finally, as if remembering. "When we got out of the tower... Terra flew us out, but then when the Espers left, all the magic went away. I could feel it," and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms once, as if shivering. Then she looked at him and said in a solemn voice, "Terra almost died."
It struck Shadow, somehow, the poignancy of it all; he tucked it away to consider later. "So magic really is gone."
"Yeah," said Relm, and she kicked a rock. "Sucks."
- - -
Shadow and Strago eyed each other across the table in silence.
He'd let the girl take him back to the house for dinner - she'd seemed overjoyed to be able to do so, and he hadn't felt like arguing, and the boat didn't leave until the morning anyway. Strago had played surprise to Relm's face, but Shadow had caught the looks the old man had thrown over his shoulder. The girl had spent the evening babbling about her potions, filling Shadow in on the things they'd tried that worked and those that didn't. Strago had sent her upstairs for a bath, eventually. The room had filled with silence, as if the girl had sucked all of the noise out with her.
"Hmph." Strago finally bent forward, giving in. He rested his bearded chin in his hand, his eyes squinty. "So you're here."
"I had to get potions for Terra," Shadow repeated, for the third time. He was extra-glad for the excuse by now. "Wanted to see the dog."
"Sure." Strago nodded, his eyes rolling like an extravagant toad. "I'm sure that's it."
Shadow sipped his water and said nothing. He'd never had anything to say to the old man. They'd always had too much to disagree with: Strago with Shadow's chosen lifestyle; he with Strago's way of dealing with Alia's weaknesses. Hunting down Blue Magic hadn't done her much good in the end, had it? Although neither had his money.
When they'd met up later, he'd never known whether Strago had seen behind the mask - whether he'd chosen to see or not. The old man could be quite blind when he wanted to, and Shadow had found it easy to simply sidle away from anything involving either of them in such a large, loud, distracting group. Hadn't been difficult. He'd just been the token dangerous assassin, and the old man had spent most of his time trying to keep the girl away from such undesireables.
"I'm done. Can I come back downstairs, or are you guys still talking about stupid grownup things?" Relm's voice sounded precariously close, as if she'd snuck downstairs already, and Shadow heard the soft squelching of bare, wet feet. "Can we finally talk about something cool? I want to hear about Mobliz. Doesn't Terra have cats?"
Strago looked up at Shadow and there was the barest, faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes, one that Shadow quashed easily by folding his arms and sitting back in his chair.
"Fine." Strago lifted himself out of the chair and made for the stairs. "Our guest is being a boring old fuddy-duddy, Relm. I'll come read you a book and then you can go to bed."
- - -
Strago had offered him the couch, and Shadow had accepted, mainly to save money: the money he intended to leave for them, hidden in a nook in the corner of the kitchen where they'd find it soon - but not too soon - after his departure. He felt the need to pay for the dog's upkeep, of course. And some extra for the future, in case he didn't make it back soon enough to pay the next installment.
"Well," Strago said, the reluctant growl evident in his voice. "I guess the old people in the house should get some sleep."
Shadow tilted his chair back, and sipped his water, and said nothing.
"Shadow." Strago stood up from the table, and Shadow had braced himself to ignore another lecture of vitriol - but the old man just looked tired. "Take your mask off. I have to know."
Shadow slowly let his chair come back to the ground.
The old man opened his hands, palms-up. "I'm not asking you for anything," he grumbled. "We get along just fine; we don't need your help. I just need to know." He threw a glance at the stairs and added, "For her sake."
He thought about it, actually thought, for a long minute. If the old man knew, he could tell the girl. Shadow wouldn't be in control any more. Things could change. It was stupid, very risky - like telling Terra. Debts. Didn't he owe the man, though, for taking care of the girl? Didn't he owe Alia?
"Shadow," Strago said, and he was laughing, a grim old chuckle that rattled in his lungs. "I'm old, and I'm lonely and selfish too. I don't want to lose her any more than you want to have her. I'm not a damn idiot. I just need to know."
Shadow was surprised to understand this: not wanting anything to change, but just wanting to know. He'd come to Thamasa, hadn't he? Slowly he reached up, and unfastened one side of the mask. Then the other. It fell into his hand but he didn't tuck it into his belt; he just held it in his hand, clutched tightly, as he turned.
Strago looked at him for a long, long moment.
"Thank you... Shadow." There was something weary and tired in his voice that Shadow didn't expect.
"Now may I ask you for a favor, Strago?" Shadow pitched his voice low. "Since I've done one for you?"
Strago's face wizened up in wrinkles as he squinted. "Depends on what it is."
"Allow me," he said softly, "to be the one to decide when she will know."
"So you do mean to tell her." Strago eased himself back into his chair at the table and rested his chin in his hand again, looking upward. "I wasn't sure. Very well, then. If you do intend on telling her, I'll let you do so. I'll keep your secret until then. As long as you agree to not wait too long."
Too long? Bad bargaining for an old man. Shadow fastened the mask across his face and held out a hand. "Agreed."
"Agreed," Strago mused. He looked at their clasped hands and laughed again, once, without irony. "Making a deal with the Shadow." His voice was soft, and reminiscent. "Alianna would have been pleased."
- - -
"So when are you coming back?" Relm asked as she hopped along beside him, her feet playing some version of hopscotch to which Shadow's quick eyes could decipher no coherent rules. "Soon? Are you sure it's okay we still have Interceptor? I'm sure he'd rather be with you - way more exciting - but Gramps is really nervous with so many visitors coming to town. Hey, why don't you bring me a puppy next time, and then you can have him back?" This was delivered with a beaming grin that would have been much more effective had it not looked so calculating.
In some ways she was her father's child.
Shadow adjusted the pack on his back and said, "I don't know anything about dogs."
"Well, how about one of Terra's kittens, then? She doesn't need six. And I could train it to be a guard cat. If Gau can fight like a cat and take down Magitek, I could totally train a guard cat. She'd be terrifying." Relm turned a circle in her excitement. "Shadow, please bring me a ferocious catbeast with terrible claws! It would be so awesome."
"I don't know anything about cats."
He glanced down at her, once. Only once. With the sunlight on her face he could see small freckles blooming across her cheeks, and the frizzy crown of her hair looked like a halo. She seemed happy here, and with the dog and the old man, she'd be safe. They were at the ship, and he stopped to pet Interceptor: one good long scratch beneath the chin, and a pat on the head. Good dog.
"Don't tell me to be good." Her face wrinkled up in playful disgust. "That's stupid. I'm not going to, anyway, so you might as well tell me something different to do. Something useful, maybe. Nobody ever tells me anything good." Her face tipped up at him, expectant.
He crouched down until he was eye-level with her; she paled just a little bit, but it wasn't fear - good girl - it was more the unexpected reaction to an adult who had suddenly taken you seriously. She met his eyes, hers bright-blue and twinkling and achingly familiar.
"Be smart. People need potions."
He stood up, and watched the blinking incredulity on her face - she hadn't really expected him to say anything to her, and nothing serious especially - and walked away feeling something that could only count as satisfaction.
"Look here," Katarin said. She pushed the book across the table towards Terra, who set down her mug of tea and aligned it properly. "This is what I wanted you to read, earlier."
Homeopathic Potions spanned the top of the page in careful print. Recommended for every new mother. Terra frowned. "New mothers?"
Kat sighed. "She meant it as a preventative measure - because babies get sick a lot, right? It's a way to make a potion that's guaranteed to work. Or she says." Kat's frown echoed Terra's, and her forehead creased with it, the one long worry-line that made Kat look so much older. "I don't remember her ever making one, but she probably wouldn't have brought me along because of the blood."
"The blood?" Terra's gaze turned back to the page as if pulled there, and she read slowly down the list of ingredients: the usual herbs and distilled water and some chemical names she'd slowly started to learn with help.. and then five drops of the child's blood, freshly pulled, written right underneath dog's-blossom as if usual. It sent a chill down her back, for some reason, although she'd seen plenty of blood even just in the years she could remember. "Why is there blood in it? The baby's blood?"
"There's an essay on the next page all about it, if you're bored." Kat grimaced. "But Mum's theory - well, it came from Gratzia, the greenwitch before her, and we think she did have a little magic, so who knows - the theory is that that little bit of healthy blood in the potion reminds your body of what it's like to be well. And then when you take the potion, it sort of... jump-starts your body like that."
"Hmm." Terra frowned, tilting the page one way and then the other, as if these concepts would make more sense at angles. "But doesn't that mean there would have to be a different potion for every person?"
"Well, yeah," said Kat, and she sighed. "But if magic doesn't work anymore, maybe chemistry will."
- - -
That night the dreams were especially bad: blood-strewn, and Kefka's laugh was raw and younger, and her body's seized memory of his death was mixed and mulled together with strange memories from her childhood, brief stricken moments she'd been allowed to remove the crown and look around. Her magic's death shook her awake, gasping, and she sat up in bed with a thudding heart and unseeing eyes.
It was Shadow's voice; she hadn't seen him, hadn't even known he was back, but he put a steaming mug of tea in front of her and she breathed in the steam, and the chamomile, and slowly through her sense of smell the rest of her body came back to her. It felt so unfamiliar, sometimes, this weak and jolting human form: she missed her Esper side more than she knew, some days, for all she'd never truly felt at home with it either.
She clutched both hands on the mug. "You're back," she said.
He nodded. He wasn't wearing the mask; his face looked different to her every time she saw it, and Terra wondered whether she was really that used to the mask; the stark-angled man seemed a stranger every time. "I left your potions on the table."
It didn't explain why he'd come to her room, or why - or how - he'd made her a mug of tea, but her brain was still buzzing with the memory-shock and Terra simply clutched the mug gratefully and tried to catch her breath. "Thank you." He had sat on the edge of the bed to give her tea and she was suddenly aware of how close he was, with the realization that this was in fact Shadow, the mercenary they'd traveled with who had made a point to sleep outside their camp-circle as if shunning every kind of bond. He'd made her tea, and the correct kind too, with the special sugar Kat had seasoned just for her. She didn't understand. These layers of behaviour - they were untouchable to her, as unreachable as her magic, a language she'd never spoken. "How was it?"
He didn't speak for a long time, and she watched the moonlight on the sleek point of his nose before he said finally, "She's doing well."
It sounded final. "How is the town?" Terra asked. "Were they hit badly after... everything? Are there a lot of repairs to do?"
Shadow shrugged. "Town's alright." He watched her take a sip, as if he were the doctor and the tea her prescribed medicine. "Strange though. She said there'd been some ...unrest. Potion-making's competitive."
"Oh, no." Terra frowned as she thought of Relm and Strago, whose strengths had always been magic - "Will they be alright?"
Shadow's face creased as he grinned at her; it was quick, but the shock of it ran through her like a flash of light. "Left the dog," he said, as if it explained everything - and in a way it did; Interceptor was Shadow's most trusted companion, Terra thought. For him, was there any better way to protect his family? She smiled, and something on his face lightened; the smile faded, but he looked more relaxed this way.
"Well, thank you for bringing me back some samples. And thank you for the tea." She smiled again, and he bowed his head, almost formally; was this some kind of ceremony? Was he waiting for something? Oh. "Do you need to stay tonight? Both rooms are open."
"Have to get back to work." Shadow stood up, and reached into a pouch on his belt, pulling out his mask. But he turned to her and met her eyes just once with that unsettlingly-bright blue gaze. "But thank you."
- - -
Edgar was the first person out of the airship, which surprised Terra enough; even more surprising was the legion that followed: at least a dozen men, all wearing Figaro uniforms. She blinked as crates'-worth of supplies were hefted out the door by men and moogles alike; what would follow, a traveling circus? No, just Setzer, who gave her a flourish of his cape in greeting.
Edgar bowed to her, and Terra managed to stammer, "Edgar, what is all of this?"
He held up a very official-looking roll of paper. "Figaro, as one of Mobliz's esteemed allies, has decided to gift upon the city an aid package - which we're doing for most cities, so just hush up and take it - and in this case, I have decided - on the King's whim - to follow the advice of my esteemed brother." She had forgotten how he liked to make these little speeches; his eyes were twinkling. Oh, he was pleased about something; excitement grew inside her, even as she wondered how she'd ever pay him back. "Sabin has told me you thought about founding a clinic here, in Mobliz," Edgar continued, and he waved the paper in her direction like a wand. "Figaro finds this an excellent idea, one that would benefit Mobliz and Figaro together as well as the rest of the world, and as such we bring you goods and men to help make it so."
It struck her, finally, that this wasn't a joke; the lower hatch of the airship dropped open and Figaro's men began to unload: pallets of wood, crates full of what looked to be stone. Where had they gotten all of this? How could they afford it? And yet her heart lifted, just looking at it; she hadn't realized until this moment how much it meant to her, this silly idea of hers, Kat's book of notes and her fumbling potions. "Edgar," she said, and something was caught in her throat, a kind of grateful awe she couldn't quite speak around.
Edgar came closer, and he gave her a smile - a real smile, not the grandeur of the King, and he said, "it's good to see you."
She threw her arms around him, and he laughed at this, pulling her close to return the hug. "Edgar," she said finally, into his shoulder, because she didn't really know what else to say. "We can't keep all of this."
"Yes, you can." He left one arm around her, and brandished the roll of paper at her. "I told you. Figaro's giving aid to a few cities right now. It's political expediency - we need a lot of things. We need the economy back up and running; we need this potion thing to be fixed." His mouth turned downward at that, but then he glanced back up at her and smiled again. "This paper is a writ of international law, and it says - you don't care what it says. Basically, if you say you're a representative of Mobliz and you sign this, we're all good."
Terra looked at the piles of things brought here - brought here just for her, for her clinic - and then glanced at Katarin and Duane, who had come out and were looking at the scene with amazement and gratitude and want on their faces. "Oh, Edgar," she said. "Thank you."
- - -
Edgar stayed the night, which was unheard of for a King - or so he told her, quite cheerfully indeed, after a rousing dinner and a few bottles of Duane's homebrewed beer. "They hate when I sleep somewhere that isn't the castle," he said, and the quirky smile he gave her was almost wistful. "But I need to keep them on their toes, you know. Distract them from Doma and the Corps, the serious stuff. They need something light to worry about for a while."
Terra looked at him, and spotted the frown-lines around his eyes, and the tired wrinkle in his brow - Edgar was her longest friend, other than Locke, and she'd somewhat learned to read them both: it helped that they both had expressive faces (had Shadow saved her back in Narshe, she might never have learned about laugh-lines or worried brows) and a good, ego-centric sense of melodrama besides. Edgar especially played all of his emotions like cards, and the deliberate charm he'd laid forth had helped her start to figure out human expression and emotion, so long ago. Now, she saw exhaustion in his eyes, and heard real concern in his words. "What's going on?"
"Oh," Edgar said, and grew silent for a long moment, rubbing at his shoulder. "Well." He took a deep breath. "Doma's still suffering from the poison Kefka used. It seeped into the groundwater, apparently, and they have no way to treat it anymore. So they're without crops or goods of any kind." His forehead creased even deeper, in the way she knew meant he was truly concerned - he'd used that look on her so often, in their first days. He took a swig of his beer. "We're - Figaro, that is, we're trying to help. Sending goods and money. But it isn't easy to find merchants willing to brave the land and the sea these days."
"Shadow has a team of mercenaries," Terra blurted. "They've helped Mobliz pick up trade again with Tzen and Albrook. He even ran a convoy to Nikeah for us. You should talk to him." She swallowed; the words had burst from her, in her eagerness to help, but she wondered how much Shadow wanted the others to know-
Edgar sat up. "Shadow is alive?" His face broke out in a grin. "I'd been afraid - I'd been sure - well, that's excellent." And then the grin quirked. "And he's here? You've seen him? Is he staying with you?"
"Oh, no." Terra smoothed out her skirt, and tried to identify the roil of feelings she felt: Shadow seemed to want so much silence, so much solitude. "I don't see him - much. But the Shadow Guild - the team of mercenaries that runs things for us, for Mobliz - they're based out of Albrook. I don't know if they'd want to do business so far - but I can't see why not."
"Most interesting," Edgar said, and he leaned back in his chair and took a long swig of his homebrew. "This is fantastic, by the way. Your Duane should export this, he'd make millions. Figaro's wine is dry and their beers are drier. I know housewives who would cry rivers to get their hands on this."
"I'll tell him," Terra said diplomatically. She couldn't have told a good beer from a bad one, and she'd never liked anything that made her lose control. "If there's a good harvest, maybe we can send some to you."
"Clinic first, brewery second," Edgar teased, with the flash of a grin. "A good breakthrough will help us just as much as a good beer. Or," he added as an afterthought, "a team of mercenaries."
"Some are easier to find than others," Terra said, and Edgar raised his bottle in a mock toast.
"Hear," he said, and while his eyes were amused, his face was weary.
- - -
She couldn't sleep that night. Part of it was excitement - the Figaro team had laid the foundations that day for her building - her clinic - and it was hard to lie in bed at all with that still rushing through her; she'd brought that into being, a thing meant to help people, to heal people. It mattered less that night that her magic had died, that her abilities to heal everything had vanished with so much else; she'd created something good, something real. Her blood was buzzing with it, and sleep felt so far.
Maybe it was that extra awareness that made her so aware of Shadow; she'd never heard anything before - although she'd been sleeping - but this time she heard the door slip open, heard the shadow-light steps making their way down the hallway and to her room. He was surprised, she saw, to see her sitting in her window-seat gazing out into a darkness she couldn't read: but, she noticed as if it were important, he'd already taken his mask off.
"Hi," she said.
He reached into his belt and brought out another bag of gold. It was substantially larger than the others he'd brought her, and she stood up in an automatic protest as he dropped it onto her bed. "Shadow," she said softly. "I can't take that."
"This is an advance." He turned to look at her, and his face was so impassive after Edgar's easy smiles: all stark curves and sharp angles, things she wanted to run her fingers over. "Saim - one of the men - was injured last night. If it isn't better by tomorrow morning, he'll be coming here."
"Oh," Terra said, "oh," and something bloomed in her heart: worry, yes, for the poor wounded gentleman, but some kind of honor was blossoming inside her. Shadow trusted her. To heal his men. Shadow thought she could do it. They could do it, she amended; her skills were all Katarin's skills, and Katarin's mum's: but her hands worked it, still. She picked up the bag of gold, and managed not to shiver as she set it on her night stand. "This is quite an advance," she said instead.
"Yes," Shadow said, and she picked up a particular note in his voice: he was pleased that she'd noticed. "I was hoping to set up an account. It would be easier if the Guild had a standing here, already."
"Well, of course." Terra turned to face him, tried to smile into his bright eyes. "Send them any time, Shadow. We can work payment out later - I'll never turn away one of your friends."
"Teammates," Shadow corrected her, but the ghost of a smile passed through his lips as he said it, and she felt better. Until a shadow passed over the moon, or maybe just her heart, and she started to shiver uncontrollably. She took an awkward, jilted step towards her bed, sitting down on it awkwardly.
"What's wrong?" Shadow was at her side immediately, sitting beside her, and she was reminded again of the way he'd always kept his distance from them.
"Nothing," she said, but the chill passed over her again. "Or, the same old thing," she amended, remembering that Shadow knew. "It hasn't ...stopped."
He looked at her and for the first time - pieces fell into place; it was like figuring out that Locke's eyes sparkled when he was teasing, or Edgar's eyes creased when he was happy: that looks was concern, the way those sea-bright eyes dug into her like sharp stones. "What can I do?"
Nothing, she went to say, but something gripped at her heart and maybe it was because he respected her enough to bring her his men, or maybe it was the way she'd been able to cry on his shoulder all those weeks ago: "Will you stay?" she asked, and her voice sounded like a very small thing in the room.
Shadow froze. Some small part of Terra made a point to note, this is how he looks when surprised, as seconds ticked by. But then he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. When he opened them - piercing her with that blue-bright gaze - he said, "If it will help."
"I - I don't know if it will." She stumbled over the words, now, making some kind of excuse, even as Shadow bent and began unlacing his boots. "I... I won't make you stay if it doesn't help, I promise."
He climbed into the bed and she climbed in afterward, and only now did she realize how odd it was: she'd slept curled against Locke, and many times against Edgar, when her nightmares were the worst. But she had no memories of sleeping near Shadow, because he'd made so much of this distance. Maybe that, she thought, as she tucked against him awkwardly - maybe that was why he felt safe; he was a wall, impermeable to any concern, strong against all of the things that made her weak. He was, she thought wildly, at least warm.
There was a pause as her body pressed up against his and she stiffened, thinking, how will I ever sleep? And then Shadow brought his arm over her - it was stiff itself, and awkward, but she found she could sink into it better that way - if he was too hard and angled, then she was perhaps too soft and undefined, and together it worked out. Somehow that wall at her back - sharp and unyielding, the alertness of an assassin - made her feel safe, and even though she was shivering she closed her eyes, and sank into uneasy sleep.
- - -
"Why are you humming?" Katarin asked her, her eyes suspicious.
"I'm not," Terra protested; she hadn't meant to do anything. But she'd slept so well last night, and in the morning she'd woken to the scent of pine trees and the foundations of her clinic, walls going up today - everything seemed good. "Not on purpose."
"Hmm," Kat said, but she added nothing. "Are you ready to test today?"
"Yes." She had a good feeling about the test, for some reason: it was already a good day. "I think they've aged enough, don't you? They've stopped bubbling."
She and Katarin had prepared five variations of the homeopathic potion, the one with blood: some of the notations had been unclear, so they'd made their best guesses at amounts and had brewed backups just in case. And Terra had five potions from Thamasa to test: she'd found them in a neat, perfect line across her table that morning, each one labeled with an obsessive amount of information, including the brewer's name, location, age, gender, and the kind of kettle they'd used. She and Katarin had decided that it woudl make a great study, five new options combined with the five that contained Terra's blood.
Kat eyed her sidelong, but the look was more amused than anything. "Alright," she said. Her grin was sudden, and fierce. "Let's go."
They set up in the storeroom, the one Terra had slowly been working over for her experiments - a decision that proved more than worthy, now that they would have a brand-new clinic - and Katarin spread towels over the desk while Terra sat down and, slowly, wrote the ten potions into the book in careful order. "There," she said, underlining the last one carefully. "All set up."
Katarin fidgeted with the pile of cotton wads before her. "Are you sure you're - okay with this?"
Terra picked up the knife. It gleamed bright-silver at her; she hadn't forgotten how to sharpen steel any more than she'd forgotten how to strike with it. "Of course," she said, striving for cheer; how to explain? Her disjointed, fractured memories contained so much worse than this. She'd endured much worse, in the lab; this was nothing, and it was for a good reason...
She set the knife at the tip of her thumb and then twisted, sharp, one long slit; the blood welled, but she'd already moved on to her index finger, press-twisting just until the skin broke. Each fingertip in succession, then, and then the next hand - made more difficult not only by the use of her off-hand, but by the blood already dripping down her fingers. By the time she'd pricked open her last pinky, the towel before her was spattered.
Katarin made a face, but it was for show; Terra had seen her set bones much worse than this, and as she expected, the grimace faded into clinical scrutiny after only a few seconds. She dabbed a length of cotton into the first potion, and then lay it across the bleeding wound in Terra's thumb. It tingled, gently: not the usual heat-rush of potions, no, but there was something there. Katarin soaked another piece in the second potion, and lay it across the next finger; and so on. The cuts were starting to throb, and some of the potions felt strange as applied: rushes of heat, or a soft cooling; for one, an irritating itch. Terra sat obediently until all ten had been applied, a series of cotton wads in a wild variety of colors across her hands, above the blood-spattered towel: the image sat in her head, bleak.
Then Katarin applied a second dose, more carefully, taking time to press the solution into her wounds and bind the cotton. They sat for five minutes, as Kat wrote down how each potion felt, recording Terra's unscientific opinions. Then, one by one, Kat peeled off the cotton bandages and marked, in great detail, the results.
There were three clear winners, the wounds almost closed over. Two were varietals of the blood-potion, and one had been made by Relm and Strago.
- - -
Shadow came early that night, and Terra was oddly touched by it - and by the way he traced the bandages on her hands with his fingers, that same strange sharp concern flashing over his face.
"We tested potions today," Terra told him. "It's nothing, just a little wound. We tracked the way they healed and took notes. It turns out, one of the potions Relm and Strago made worked really, really well." She lifted her left hand, and showed him the un-bandaged ring finger. "I would really like to talk to them, sometime soon. I think if we combined what Kat and I found-" she waggled her right hand and its two successes at him "-with their recipe, we might actually be onto something. For flesh wounds, anyway."
Shadow ran his thumb over the healed pad of her ring finger, and it made Terra shiver, oddly - with pleasure; it felt nice, tingly like healing. "You shouldn't have to cut yourself up."
"Oh, please," Terra said, although she didn't take her hand back; didn't want to. "I've been through much worse, for much worse reasons. I'm happy to bleed a little bit, for the clinic."
Shadow laughed, which surprised her, and he didn't drop her hand either. "I understand." And it sounded like he did.
"Will you-" The words came more slowly, more hesitantly, with her hand in Shadows and her body trapped, willingly, so close. "Are you going back any time soon? I was wondering - would you bring Relm our recipe, the next time you go? Maybe she can come up with something new. She's such a bright girl..." She trailed off, because it felt awkward; strange things were written across Shadow's face, strange and regretful things. Terra swallowed, and continued. "She really is."
Shadow's mouth twitched. "Too bright," he said. "I worry."
"Worry?" Terra grinned; so he did care. She didn't really know much about how family worked, but she'd seen Kat and Duane and Tina altogether, and what she'd seen the most of was love, concern and care and a wry wort of sentimentality. Maybe it was normal for people like Shadow to not live with their children; but she didn't quite think it was normal for them to not care. "She'll be alright."
Shadow looked down at her, and Terra read his face - actually read it: amusement, albeit dark, and a very dry concern. "You think I don't care," he said, and something in his voice was careful and distanced, even as it was laughing at her.
Terra laughed, and she took a step closer to him. "No," she said softly, because she could finally trace the lines of emotion in his face and it was like being given a guidebook, the way he was suddenly open. "No, I don't, at all." Because it was evident: she didn't need to read his face to be able to count the money he'd put into Mobliz, the number of nights he'd come to see her. The way he stalled when talking about Relm. Maybe she was slow at this - maybe she wasn't the fastest reader in the world, but she could solve puzzles as well as anyone.
He looked down at her and she looked up at him: his eyes were so bright, she thought, chill-blue, ice-blue, as sharp as Shiva had been, sharp like Blizzaga. "Well, I don't," Shadow said, but before she could even laugh at him he'd bent down to kiss her lips, quick and sharp like his gaze: it left them burning, like ice melting, the chill-burn of frostbite. She had to catch herself to keep from falling into him; even so, her mouth smiled, and she didn't know why she felt like laughing now, or why she felt like pulling him closer.
"I'll be back in three days," Shadow said, and then he was gone. Terra brought her fingers up to her lips, feeling the rough edges of bandages and the smoothly-healed skin of her ring finger against the still-tingling skin, where he'd just kissed her.
Shadow sat his hand down on the table, palm-up, and began to flex his fingers, one by one. The pinky moved, but the other three fingers were stiff; they'd healed at angles, crooked like twigs on the table. His thumb stuck out sideways. At least the open wounds had begun to heal, slowly, even if the new skin was still rash-red. Terra had given him a new treatment, but it hadn't done much. He suspected he'd torn tendons.
He thought of the smooth skin on Terra's ring finger as he bent his own, watching it twitch. It didn't quite respond correctly. Would be useless in a fight if he couldn't hold a knife. Didn't really matter. He was deadly enough with one hand. He'd have to learn to block with this one.
He turned his hand over and tried tapping the fingers on the table, one at a time and then one after the other, in order. The pattern was uneven. His index finger was notably slow, seconds slow. Seconds got a man killed. Well, then. It wouldn't necessarily kill him if he knew. If he could compensate.
He glanced down the hallway to where Terra was sleeping. It was well past the time she usually awoke, if she was having one of the dreams, and he'd heard nothing: she'd sleep soundly that night. He didn't need to do anything additional.
He stood up silently from the table, and left.
- - -
Turned out Saim's fever had gone down, so he didn't need the money - but two days later Kaseth was mauled by a particularly vicious mark. She'd been sent to Mobliz, and Shadow and Tobb had gone after the mark and split the winnings. Saim's two new recruits hired out to a Figaro cargo ship, and Tobb spent two days testing interested folks in Zozo. He only came back with two more, but they paid up-front for their lessons. Membership, Kaseth called it. Membership fees for the Shadow Guild.
He hadn't meant for this to build, but he couldn't deny the bags of gold piling up - he'd opened dummy bank accounts in a few villages, and he had more stashed around Mobliz than Terra knew. Shadow had learned in the past how to manage money, and the power was in dividing it. Then if somebody screwed you, you weren't entirely screwed. You still had enough to retaliate.
There was news, something about a large dragon spotted over near Doma. Marg handed him the mark - it had been posted by carrier pigeon, a copy of the paper flown to towns around the world. "Real shame, Doma." Her voice was flat and hard, the way she addressed everything about the Old World. "Last thing they need is a dragon."
Shadow flexed his broken hand, under the table. "Not enough." The fee posted was large, and he guessed Saim would probably try for it, or Tobb. Tobb would fail. Saim had a chance. Maybe. Depended on how true the rumors were. Used to be, you could take the most outrageous story and double the damages, for safety. But the people in this world had seen some awful things. He wasn't so sure of the exchange rates on the gossip mill anymore, not after the Flash of Light.
Marg laughed, and rolled her eyes. She grabbed the plate from the window - stew and dumplings - and set it down in front of him, swiping the piece of gold he'd left. "How much of a discount do you give for the blood of innocent Domans who get eaten?"
"I don't give discounts," Shadow said.
- - -
He watched through the window as she made tea; this time, she added more of that root the nurse had given her to help her sleep, and she frowned as she did it. Almost, Shadow felt like slipping in the door, sitting beside her on the bed to help her sleep. Almost.
But it wouldn't help. Someone like him couldn't really help. All he did was even things out. He'd owed Terra, for a few nights of comfort. They were even now.
What did he owe her for the kiss...?
She walked to the window and looked out. He knew she couldn't see him in the darkness, but it made him twitch anyway, and he remembered how Alia had been able to spot him in the forest - something about her magic, her healing magic, the way it pointed out warm bodies. But Terra didn't have magic anymore. She had tea, and sympathy, and dreams. But no magic.
He watched her sigh. He waited until she'd finished the cup of tea, and then slipped away in the darkness.
- - -
He'd made it up to Nikeah, this time, and he'd taken out one mark himself. Carefully. It had been a tricky job, and he was becoming more aware of the limitations of his hand; but he'd slain the thing anyway, and carried its eggs back to the woman who'd posted the bill. By the time he'd been paid, there was a new posting, asking for an escort on a ship to Thamasa.
It was easy work. The seas were more dangerous than they'd been before, but they weren't nearly as bad as the land - and the farther away you got from Kefka's Tower, the better. He only had to beat off one over-eager dragon and what looked like a flock of vicious seagulls. The sum in his pocket would make a good installment for the girl. He wished he'd stopped to get Terra's recipe.
Thamasa looked dirtier, somehow, and shiftier. Buildings were more closed-off, curtains drawn over barred windows. Shadow noticed few people walking around. They were all armed. Some were trying to hide it - poorly, in his opinion. It had been a long time since anyone had slipped a dagger past him.
He made his way to the old man's house and knocked on the door. The curtains twitched, and then Strago's old grizzled arm tugged him inside.
"Thank the goddesses," the old man said. "I was hoping you'd be back soon."
Shadow leant back against the closed door and eyed Strago. He looked frazzled, rough around the edges: too little sleep, Shadow guessed. He looked twitchy. "Where is she?"
"Working in the basement," Strago said. He closed his eyes for a second, wizened hand rubbing over his face. "It's gotten bad, Shadow. Three times in the last week we've been robbed. Well... almost robbed." He opened his eyes and there was a hard light in them, and Shadow remembered that the mage was from sturdy old stock. "But the back window's broken now, and the locks on the back door have been changed twice."
The old man sighed, and glanced over his shoulder. Probably checking for the girl. "Some bad characters came off the last boat," he said, and yes, that was a glint of irony in his eyes: he was fully aware of who he was talking to. "They've been causing trouble. Stealing potions and shipping them out overnight. Probably selling them on the black market." The look in his eyes turned proud. "Relm's potions are the best. But the town knows it. And they keep trying to steal our stash. A stash, I would add, that we don't have. Everything we make is new." He added, with a bit of regret, "we used up everything we had before we'd realized the problem was ...permanent."
"I'll take care of it." He checked his belt for his knives - he still carried two, even if one was less useful than the other. "Where are they?"
"Clyde," Strago said, and he sounded appalled and amused at once, "as much as I'd like to look the other way, no. That isn't the right solution."
He frowned. "What do you want?"
"I want you to take Relm somewhere," Strago said, and Shadow heard the reluctance in his voice. "Trust me, I don't want to do it either, but it isn't safe for her here right now. She needs to go somewhere else until these folks realize we're not hiding what they think we are and move on. Just a couple weeks. A month."
"You'll be alone," Shadow said. He didn't really care much about the old man - even without magic, he could certainly put up a fight - but it didn't necessarily seem fair to take both the girl and the dog, and leave him with an empty house and some thieves. Even leaving money with the man would be a dangerous move.
Strago grinned. "They think I'm old and senile. I haven't done anything to correct that view. Once Relm's gone, they won't bother me."
Shadow frowned. Even as strong as the girl was, she wouldn't be able to follow him on marks. Much too dangerous, until she learned how to use a dagger and a sword. "I'll take her to Terra," he said, before his brain had really processed the idea.
Strago's relief was palpable and Shadow wondered whether or not he should be offended.
- - -
"I love boats," Relm said, and she tugged at the rope eagerly -- "Stop that," the captain said, and snatched it from her hands. "Can't you do anything," he said to Shadow, very very plaintively.
"No," Shadow said.
Relm grinned up at him, eagerly, and skipped up to the bow to lean over and look into the water. "Look," she called, "the fish are jumping. I didn't know they jumped. I want a pet fish, too. Maybe Terra will help me dig a pond. I'd feed them every day and keep my cat away from him. Can I swim?"
"The water is freezing."
Relm made a face and came back to stand beside him. "Then can I climb up to the top and watch as we come in?" She'd already climbed up, once, to the chorus of much yelling from the captain. Shadow had watched and critiqued her climbing skills instead. "I told you, I could totally see Mobliz before."
Shadow didn't doubt it; it wasn't a long sail from Thamasa to Mobliz. He noticed the captain had slunk away, and told the girl, "Stay here."
She stuck her tongue out at him and frowned, a stubborn little moue. "You are no fun," she said, but she stayed by his side anyway.
- - -
He knocked on the door, and Terra answered almost instantly. Her face lit up as she saw him, a surprising rush of warmth coloring her cheeks. Then she looked down, and her mouth formed a pretty 'o'.
Relm grinned, and brushed past her into the house. "Hi, Terra! I'm here to fix your potions. Where are the cats?"
"She seems to think she was promised one," Shadow said, by way of an apology.
Terra blinked, and looked up at him - a smile touched her lips, just a little, and then she turned to follow Relm into the house. "I admit, I'm happy to see you, Relm, but what are you doing here?" Shadow watched one hand sneak down onto Interceptor's head; to his surprise, the dog permitted the affectionate gesture. Must be going soft.
"Gramps wanted to collaborate with you." Relm stumbled over the long word as she dropped her pack on a chair. "Our potions are the best, and Shadow said yours had some stuff working for them, and he sent me here to see what I could learn from you." Her smile grew. "And I'll show you how we make ours, too."
Terra glanced at him, and he moved his head just a fraction to the side - no, not now, later. She seemed to understand, because she gave him that smile again and went to put on the kettle. "That sounds excellent. Katarin and I have two recipes right now that we've seen some really good progress with, and I'll explain to you how we've been working - but how about tomorrow? I bet you're starving."
"I'm so hungry I could eat Sabin," Relm announced. "That sounds great. I can help!"
"Here, let's put you in the guest bedroom." Terra picked up her pack and glanced at Shadow again, her lips curving.
"I have to get back to work," he said, and she nodded; he held her gaze for a second too long, unable to look away.
"Ohmygosh," Relm squealed from down the hall, "Hello you! Does he always sleep on this bed? I claim this room for infinity."
- - -
He returned, later, slipping into Terra's room silently. She was waiting for him, curled up in the corner of her bed and looking lovely and exhausted. The black kitten was at her feet, and it padded away as he sat on the edge of the mattress. For a while they sat in silence, and it was almost pleasant.
"Strago asked me to take her for a while," Shadow said. "Thamasa's dangerous. He wanted her out." And then: "I'll pay."
"Would you please stop paying," Terra said firmly, but with a heavy note of amusement in her voice. "I plan to work the girl rotten, I'll have you know. You don't need to keep giving us money for everything."
"Yes, I do."
"Shadow," Terra said, and she reached out to turn his face to hers. In the dark she just looked tired. "Is it so hard to believe that sometimes people do things for you out of the kindness of their hearts?" Her fingers brushed down his cheek, slow and soft, and he noted that all the wounds on her fingertips had been healed: some recently, rougher than others. "Sometimes people just do things because they're nice."
"No, they don't," he said, but he was already caught in her eyes: he knew it was a lie for her, only for her, because Terra didn't know people: she didn't know how they could cut, ruthlessly, how they could turn, how they could use...
But all of that wasn't true, Shadow realized suddenly. She knew exactly what evil could do. What people could do. Had Kefka been someone she'd trusted? Maybe that was why she relived it, every night.
Terra knew loss. And she still gave.
Some bargains came out evener than others. But he wasn't one of the great Judges; all he could do was make sure his own personal debts were paid. Debts were connections. He didn't want any. And yet he kept coming here, carving out more things to owe. Her eyes grew deep, and she smiled, and he had to kiss her again although he didn't know why - didn't know why he'd done it in the first place. Connections were dangerous. And yet he kept returning to Mobliz.
He leaned into it, suddenly feeling strangely hard, desperate: the kind of feeling he'd quashed so long ago, splintered underneath his own will, with his own hands - but now one hand was broken and these things were bubbling out of the cracks. He pressed into her; her mouth moved under his. She gasped, just a little; breathed into him, and it was like balm, healing things he didn't know he'd had. She kissed him back with an intensity that surprised him: need, he thought, and a dangerous quaking curiosity. His tongue brushed her lip, brushed her tongue. He'd forgotten what it felt like, this closeness; he'd made such a rule of distance.
She broke away and took a long breath, shuddering slightly, and he reached out, put a hand on her shoulder. Terra leaned into it and they sat like that for a long moment.
"Will you stay?" she asked, not looking at him.
"Of course," he said.
- - -
He could tell something was wrong by the way Marg looked at him, sidelong, and didn't say hello. The town seemed quiet; seemed to be avoiding him. He checked the marks, chose one, and headed off towards the small campsite where the Guild usually stayed.
Saim was dead.
"He went after the dragon," Kaseth said, wobbling and fierce on her crutches. "I guess it was worse than he had thought."
"He should have prepared," Shadow said. He felt oddly distant, as if convincing himself to not be concerned; Saim had been the first, yes. But he had little sympathy for over-achievers. It felt more like a hole in his chest, something missing, where maybe there should be some kind of reaction.
Tobb threw his bow on the ground and jumped to his feet. "Don't you care?"
"Should I?" Shadow asked, evenly. "He didn't care enough to do his job right."
"Well, and that's another thing," Tobb spat. "Since it happened, nobody's been willing to hire us. Apparently he's hurt our reputation. Nobody wants to do business with the Guild at Guild prices."
Reputation. Something Shadow could focus on. Reputation was important. So was teamwork, he knew, but getting mad at Saim wouldn't help. Feeling anything towards Saim wouldn't help, now. Too late. Too little.
"I'll take care of it," he said, and mentally he began to prepare a checklist: he'd need to upgrade his daggers. These could be used for throwing. New armor, maybe. He'd have to take out some gold.
"How?" Kaseth narrowed her eyes. "You going to go threaten everybody in every town unless they agree to pay?"
"No," Shadow said. "I'm going to kill the dragon."
He flexed his broken hand once, slow, hiding it behind himself so no one could see the crooked fingers and the way they didn't respond.
Having a laboratory was a strange feeling. It echoed off of spaces in her, reflecting from memories of needles and blood and Kefka and metal, winding and prickling and binding - even though this room was newly-built and warm with it, welcoming and bright. Edgar had left her a plant, on the windowsill, and her shelves were full of mismatched jars and parcels: her own apothecary, a rainbow of ingredients. But the shadows still stank of her years in the Empire's labs, and Terra threw the window wide, to get rid of the sensation that haunted her.
Relm helped. The girl had commandeered the stool in the corner instantly and was now sorting through all of the things Edgar had brought: new glassware, an assortment of kettles and cauldrons made from a variety of materials, spoons and scales and knives. She'd started a pile of carefully-selected materials, and Terra watched as a metal spoon and a pair of tongs were added. "This is nice shit," Relm said, with that sidelong look to see whether she'd be scolded for the language. Terra had already decided: she wasn't Relm's mother. Better to not react.
"Edgar brought only the best," she said instead, coming to sit across the table from Relm. "You should have seen the look on his face when he had to leave it here. I think he would have liked a couple days in the lab himself, to play with all of the new toys."
"I bet Edgar's lab is fantastic," Relm said, with real want in her voice. "I bet he has pressure vessels and everything. But you've got more plants, I bet. He lives in a desert."
"We're thinking of building a greenhouse." Terra lifted the spoon Relm had chosen, looked at it idly: it shone at her, clean and new, no memories attached. "But we'd like to know what we need before we design it."
"Well, I wanna show you what I've been doing, first." Relm selected her final bowl and then spread the things out on the table in front of her, in very particular order. "So. When Gramps and I started playing around with this, we had the thought: if it had been magic that made potions work in the first place, how could we imitate that? So we spent a long time thinking about magic." She looked at Terra, and the sidelong look turned curious. "I thought, magic had always felt like something powerful inside me. Really hot, like. So we thought, what if maybe we could make the potions do the same things with a lot of energy?"
"So you heat them up?" Terra asked. It wasn't unusual; many of Kat's high-potency potions required long boils or prolonged steeping.
"We tried." Relm shrugged, and wiped out her bowl with a stray bit of cloth. "It works better on some than others, and Thamasa doesn't have, like, a lab or anything. The school there is crap. But we also found that there were, like hot spots - like, when I started having to go down to the beach. The beach works better for making antidotes. Not healing potions, but antidotes. For some reason. And there's a spot out by a waterfall that worked great for healing-types. Gramps thought maybe there was some residual something in the air, in those places, that was helping."
"Residual... power?" Terra shivered; but it wasn't dangerous, not in Thamasa: they'd had magic for centuries, and no one had known, not even the Empire. Had something remained, there; were there shadows of what had been? If she went there, would she feel it in her skin again; would those nerves, now dormant and unused and disconnected, suddenly awaken and begin to translate into magic once again? Did she... want that? Yes. And: no.
Relm shrugged again. "I dunno. Might just have been the air, who knows? But that plus a super hot temperature plus the fact that it's me making them - no, seriously, I'm not bragging, mine are better than Gramps', for real! - whatever it is, it works." Her grin flashed again, bright in the sterile cheer of the lab. "I'm excited to see what happens here, in Mobliz."
"Well," Terra said. "Let's get to work, then!"
- - -
"I can't believe you let her do that," said Kat.
"Do what?" They'd had dinner, and Duane had just brought out the largest cake Terra had ever seen, in Relm's honor - the girl's eyes were glowing, although a lot of that was probably due to hunger and a sugar high - and she and Kat had curled up by the fire to watch the children stuff themselves silly on chocolate raspberry nonsense. "Eat the cake? She can eat whatever she wants."
"No." Kat's eyes were on her mug, but there was a set to her brow Terra found strange. "Make the potions. Taking her blood? That's a ten-year-old little girl."
"But the original recipe takes blood from a baby," Terra said, frowning. "At least Relm's old enough to know what's going on. I don't understand."
"She's-" Kat swallowed. "She's just a child, Terra. I know she fought with you all, but... I don't know. I think we're supposed to protect children, aren't we? Keep them safe?"
"But isn't that what we're doing?" Her frown deepened, as she thought about it. "Making a potion with Relm's blood will help keep Relm safe."
"She's ten years old," Katarin said, and her eyes traced the other children in the room: Wil, holding the white kitten, and Sadie trying to feed the tan one her table scraps. "Ten. She shouldn't know that potions are going to need blood to work - she shouldn't even know that there's a problem. She shouldn't have to give her blood for this kind of thing. She should be playing with her friends. It's about... innocence."
"Innocence." The word didn't mean much to Terra; had she ever had any? Poor Relm, growing up in a town of magic-users, touched by a power that let her artwork come to life; had she? What was it, anyway? "Relm's already involved, Kat. She faced Kefka. After that, I don't think... I don't think you have to worry about her like that."
"Okay," said Katarin, but she didn't sound convinced, and Terra wondered. There was so much about family she didn't get. Was she supposed to keep Relm away from everything?
- - -
"Do you mind," she asked Shadow late that night, curled up in bed with his hard angles struck in place around her spine, "that she's involved?"
"Don't care," Shadow said, but Terra decided it was that tone of voice he used when he didn't really know what the question was asking.
"Do you mind that she's working on these potions instead of - instead of, I don't know, doing what other kids do." She pressed into him harder, as if all of his rigid awareness could help align her uncertainties. "I let her make some today that used her blood, and we spent the day brainstorming ways to use Duane's brewing equipment as a pressure cooker. She cut her hand and mixed it herself." Her sigh was long, and she wondered how to put into words these strange mixed feelings: Katarin knew how to be a mother and she did not; she did know what it was like to be a child in a laboratory, when the experiments and reactions took place in one's own flesh and blood. She didn't know how to do family and it had never been strange to her that Shadow hadn't acknowledged Relm, because that was just the way it was.
"One time when I visited her," Shadow said, "she told me to not bother telling her to be safe. So I didn't." He shifted behind her, solid, a comfortable uncomfortableness. "I told her to be smart instead. It was more useful."
It wasn't really an answer, but somehow it was what she needed to hear: a child like Relm, she was and wasn't a child, now. She'd stood beside the girl inside a storm of magic and anger, and they'd both come out bruised and bleeding. How much of a difference was there, still?
"I want it to be a better world," Terra said, into the darkness, and she heard something in her voice: tears? Anger? She was so bad at this. "I want it to be better for her, for Tina, for all of them. I don't want people to have to be in pain because there aren't potions any more. I want to find something else."
She felt Shadow twitch his hand, currently resting on her hip; she felt him tense the broken fingers. "Why won't you let me treat it," she whispered. "This is the kind of thing we're saving the old potions for."
"Not for me."
But she felt the tension in him, a long line of it singing along her back, and wondered.
- - -
Edgar and Sabin both came, this time, but only for a day; they had crates full of goods, food supplies and cloth and new roofing for the three newest families Terra had written to them about. Sabin left to show the women and men the best way to put the roofing together, and Edgar walked with Terra through the clinic and around what was becoming known as Terra's garden, the long wild patch of land where she'd planted her first attempt at crossbreeding seeds.
"I don't know if it will work," she confessed. "But so many of Katarin's recipes use a tincture of chamomile and dragon's-root... I thought, maybe, if they do something together, if I could get them to combine... I don't know. Duane knew a little, about growing herbs - he's the one that suggested it - but I'm not... I'm not smart, I don't even know if it's possible, but I thought it was worth a try."
Edgar stopped, and he reached out, put a hand on her arm. "Terra," he said, and his voice was so unsure; she heard emotion in it, but didn't know which he was trying to express. He swallowed, eventually. "Don't ever stop trying, Terra, and don't feel like you're not smart. This-" His hand took in the garden, the clinic, the three new frames that would soon become new homes. "You did this," he said. "You built this."
"With your help," she pointed out. She wasn't a King; she wasn't rich, or strong, and she'd lost the thing that had made her unique. Now she was just another human, her Esperkin-self just another casualty for the Empire to claim.
Edgar's face set itself into a stubborn line. "I wish I could do more," he said, and for a second she waited because it sounded like he would continue - but then Relm came around the corner and her face lit up in delight when she saw them.
"Ooh, Edgar," she said, impish grin set perfectly below her riot of curls. "I'm sorry, were you guys out for a romantic walk among the flowers?"
Edgar blinked only once, and Terra saw him tuck his surprise away behind a charming smile. "And what if we were?" His teasing was fond, and familiar. "Have you brought your own beau, to join us?"
"Why would I bring one?" Relm's smile turned wicked for a minute, and she reached up to tuck her hand into Edgar's arm. "He's already here."
"So forward." Edgar laughed, and he didn't do anything like bend down to hug her, or pick her up and swing her around, Terra noted - instead, he put his hand on top of hers and gave it a playful squeeze. "I do not pity your grandfather, girl."
"I do," said Relm. "He's old and he has horrible taste in shoes. Come on, Edgar, let's go look at the roses."
Edgar glanced at Terra once, bemused query in his eyes, and she shrugged, letting the grin bloom across her face as he let Relm tug him away, farther down the path, to the tune of friendly chatter about Phun's litter. Edgar, she marked, hadn't necessarily treated Relm like a child, either.
"You can only have her for an hour," she called after them. "I need help bottling this morning's brew."
"Terra is a terrible schoolmarm," Relm said, but she threw a wink over her shoulder as she paraded Edgar away through the trellises. Terra laughed, and watched them meander, and decided to go watch Sabin put up roofing.
- - -
That night she stayed up until Shadow came. He was late, but she busied herself with tea and cleaning, resorting the things on and in her dresser: small possessions, all of them; things the kids had given her, trinkets from their journey. She read and re-read the notes from their experiments that afternoon, and then re-read Katarin's mother's proposition on homeopathic potions, and then the shivers started. She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and stayed in her window-seat, determinedly.
But a full attack didn't come; she shivered, and looked blankly into the darkness, but her muscles didn't seize up and there was no laughter in her ears and she really only lost track of time once, when she sat up from her slump to find the black kitten purring in her lap. The shivers passed, and then she just sat, curled in the blanket, petting the little sleeping kit.
He slipped into her room so late it could have been early; the sky was beginning to lighten, and she must have dozed, because she didn't feel tired.
"I heard about your friend," she said to him. "Edgar told me."
He was silent for so long, and she spotted the mask still crumpled in his hand - his good hand; the other hand stayed hidden in his sleeve. "The man from the guild," she said, finally, because he hadn't said a word and he had to care about it. "The one who died. Edgar told me about the dragon. He said another one's been spotted, too."
"I'm going to kill it," Shadow said. His voice was dark, no longer void of emotion: he sounded angry, and blunt like a weapon.
"Then let me heal your hand." Terra stood up from the windowsill, and her eyes went to the one small bottle sitting on her dresser. She'd carefully tucked away all of the Elixirs and X-Potions, weeks before, and it had actually taken her an amusing amount of time that day to remember where she'd hidden them. "Here. I brought this out for you."
"No." He turned, and finally tucked his mask away in his belt. "You need those."
"You need a working hand," Terra said, trying to be stern - and it leaked out of her: the fear that she'd been sitting on all day. "Shadow, what are we going to do?" It came out a whisper. "You know how strong the things we faced were. What if these dragons are - what if they're like the others? How will we fight them, without magic or potions?"
"Did it before," Shadow said. He turned to look at her, and tension was written in the lines of his face. "Do it again."
"How are you going to fight a dragon without magic, potions, or two working hands?" She was surprisingly angry now in her fear: the fear of losing a friend, the fear of the creatures that had crawled out of every abyss Kefka had opened, the fear she faced every night with half of herself dead and gone. And it was fear for herself, too: could the remaining pieces of her fight? Could she still defend the children she loved, the town she'd claimed? "Shadow, I know you're strong, and I know you're probably the toughest fighter left. I know the Coliseum would pay you riches to come back. But..." She reached out, and took up his left hand. It sat in hers, otherworldly-still, no sign of life. "Either you let me fix this, or you take me with you."
The hand curled up in hers - or tried to; crooked fingers creaked almost audibly and folded at messy angles. "No," he said, "and no."
She turned her back on him, knowing he wouldn't leave, and they watched the sunrise in silence.
- - -
"This is amazing," Relm said, "this is so cool." She picked up the poison-oak and, before Terra could protest, pressed it into her forearm again. "I have an instant rash. Man, this stuff is awesome."
"Relm, it isn't a toy," Katarin said. She'd come around to letting the girl help, but warily, and she'd mostly left Relm alone with her cauldron. From beneath Relm's stool, Interceptor looked up, and his tail wagged once, slapping the ground with a heavy thud.
"It's way better than a toy." Relm turned her arm so that the blossoming rash could better catch the light. "I wish I had some of this stuff when Gramps was being a jerk. Let's race the best two on my arm again and see which one wins. I'll give it a gold star. C'mon, Terra."
Amused, despite Kat's disapproving glower, Terra carefully selected two clean stretches of linen and soaked them with the two concoction she'd set aside - first-round combinations of Kat's and Relm's recipes and knowhow, adjusted appropriately using Terra's first blood-trial and Relm's blood. "One, two, three," she counted diligently, and set them side-by-side on the swath of angry red.
"The one on the left," Relm said instantly. "My left. I can tell. It's tinglier. Man, it almost tickles, this is crazy."
Terra left them there for a good count of fifty, and then peeled them off slowly. "Looks like you're right," she said, "although the other one looks like it did a good job too."
"Does that mean we did it?" Relm was almost bouncing in her chair, and her grin was wide. "Do we have an antidote?"
"We have the beginnings of one," said Kat, and even she looked pleased at the results. "We can't give you every kind of sting and infection a child can come down with - no, Relm, we absolutely cannot, do not look at me that way."
"It would be so cool," Relm said dreamily. "Sacrificing my arms for science."
"Alright," Terra said. "We have a base, then, and two modifications - poison-oak and a bee-sting. That's not bad for a day's work."
"When do we get to test the healing ones?" Relm's eyes were drawn to the shelf where four vials sat - their latest concoctions, aging. "I've been practicing pricking my fingers, I can do it really quick now." She pointedly ignored Katarin's wince. "Can we try it? Can we?"
"We can try it today," Terra said, "if you want. I let mine age for two days - it might be interesting to see how yours compare at two days, with the new recipe."
Kat took a long look at the girl, and said, "I'm going to go check on Tina." She left. Terra shrugged, and retrieved the four potions from the shelf. By the time she'd returned Relm had pulled a long, slender hatpin out of the riot of hats she was wearing today - it had a brightly-colored flower on the end - and was sanitizing the end of the pin in a nearby candle. "Kat thinks I'm annoying," she said, matter-of-factly."
"No she doesn't." Terra set the potions down and lined them up in order - she'd added varying amounts of Relm's blood to each potion, and she wanted to make sure they didn't mix up what was what. "Kat thinks you're too young to be doing this."
"Huh." Relm turned the hatpin in the flame. "I bet I could kick her ass."
"That... isn't the point," Terra said carefully, although she agreed; she'd been trying to teach Katarin self-defense for a while now, but they never seemed to have the time. "She just doesn't think... you know you don't have to do this if you don't want to, right?"
"You're kidding, right?" Relm rolled her eyes. "I have been practicing pricking my thumb for days, Terra, there is no way I am going to back out now. I don't think you understand, this is the second coolest thing I have ever been involved in. The first coolest was when Sabin and I played that prank on Edgar that made his hair all blue. But this is awesome, it's fun, it's hard and it's something that I can do, you know, since..."
She stopped talking, and Terra froze, her hand poised over the linen basket. "Since...?"
Relm sighed, and rolled her eyes again, and hunched her shoulders. "I just... drawing isn't any fun anymore, and I can't do it as good, and ...I like having another project, okay?"
"I'm happy to have you," Terra said, honestly, and she counted out four swatches of cloth. "You've been an enormous help, and I'm really excited about some of the ideas you had. Katarin..." She took a breath. "She wasn't with us. She was here. Kat has a different list of things that are important. Please don't be too hard on her."
Relm nodded, strangely solemn, and her eyes said she understood, and Terra stopped feeling bad about it: maybe it wasn't Katarin's way, but it was their way. She smiled, and Relm held up the hatpin in her hand like a tiny flashing sword. "Alright, you ready? Let's do this."
- - -
She knew Shadow was out training, somewhere, in the dark of the night: training his old reflexes into new sharpness, trying to compensate his old body for new weaknesses. She'd been watching his hand for days, trying to think of a way she could help - maybe he would try one of the new concoctions, if he wouldn't take an older potion. She thought about slipping it to him, hiding it under her pillow and dosing him while he slept... but the idea only flickered for a fraction of a second before it fell to pieces at her feet. It wasn't... it wasn't right; it broke this strange fragile bond of trust between them, the odd thing they'd been building, and Terra knew that even if she did succeed - her, a mere half of a human, against an assassin - it meant Shadow would never speak to her again.
She... understood, in a strange way. The rarer potions could heal a child, he'd said, or a severe wound; time would heal his. She understood it, his priorities and his needs both. And maybe someone else - maybe a better person would have been able to do it, to fight him. But Terra wasn't that person. She knew, somehow, that people had to decide their own lines for themselves. It was what made everyone... themself.
She would honor Shadow's decision in the way she hoped he'd honor hers. But it was more than that: it was trust, too, and this delicate care that had cropped up between them, the way she knew she couldn't hurt him without hurting herself. What was this? I want to know what love is, she'd said, once; this seemed too complicated and broken, though. Could half a person have these feelings? Could a half-human, half-nothing love a man with no emotions? Did it matter? They were what they were, caught in this this careful, fragile dance, a thing she didn't dare bog down with clumsy words.
All she wanted was to help. Once, she'd had the power, and she'd taken it for granted; she'd used it, used her relatives and ancestors in magicite, and she hadn't given any thought to what came next. She'd been stripped of so much... she just wanted to be able to fix the things that were broken, the people that were hurting. She trusted Shadow to know himself, yes, but it didn't stop this urge inside of her.
She worried, there, in the dark, waiting.
- - -
"I read your notes," Katarin said. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked weary; Tina had been sick, and Duane was too busy helping the new families finish their homes to do much, and Kat had been pulling double duties even though Terra had told her to stay at home, to not come to the clinic. "Relm's results."
"Yes." Terra waited; she and Kat had reached a tentative truce on this issue, and she was afraid that leaving the note for her would unbalance things.
"It looks great," Kat said, and she smiled - a weary smile, but a happier one than Terra had seen in days. "Especially her knee."
"Look," Terra said hastily, "I didn't ask her to trip and fall. But I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass us by once she skinned it."
Katarin grinned at this. "I figured. Although I wouldn't put it past her to give herself a broken arm before the week's out, for testing purposes."
"Please be quiet," Terra breathed, "because I think you're right."
"I saw that you made two more batches," Kat said. "The two winners?"
"We set them in bottles yesterday," Terra said. "Large batches, both of them, just to see whether anything changes when we make a gallon rather than a tiny drop. And Relm will be good for cuts and bruises for a long time."
Kat nodded, tired, and they stood together and looked out at the town for a long moment. "Sometime next week," Kat said, her voice low, "I would - I would like to make some for Tina. I think... I think I'd rather have it on hand, for her."
"Sounds good," Terra said, "but why don't you get some sleep, now. Bring me Tina, I'll watch her for you."
- - -
"I'm leaving tomorrow," Shadow said.
Terra sat on the edge of the bed, her shoulders hunched in a way that made her think of Relm - and wasn't that awful, that such a complicated feeling really only made her feel like a child, now, lost inside herself with no further ammunition. "I wish you wouldn't go."
"I'll be fine." His voice was flat, and while she appreciated his confidence she would have appreciated honesty more: some expression of worry, of concern, something other than this bleak nothing. It was like he was already wearing the mask, the way his face was set.
"Why do you have to go now?" Her voice had risen unintentionally, and she felt her heart wrench. "Can't you wait a week or two, see if we can come up with something better? We can make one, tailored to you, you know that."
"I'll be fine," he ground out between gritted teeth. "It works... well enough."
"What if it gets you killed?" Terra stood up, suddenly, pacing over to the window, something inside her feeling increasingly torn and threatened: this sudden rain of emotions, leaving her feeling useless and cold. "Give it time, or wait for me, or if you can't stand me, ask somebody else - Sabin would help, or your other mercenaries, or someone-"
"It has to be me," Shadow said. "I will be fine."
"But-" She closed her eyes and bowed her head, trying to come up with the words she needed to say.
"Oh my God," said Relm's voice from the door. "You are both a pair of colossal idiots."
Terra whirled, and froze: Relm threw the door open, marched in, grabbed Shadow's arm near the elbow, and upended the bottle of potion onto his hand. "Here," she said, annoyance and satisfaction in her voice, as she turned his arm over and liberally coated the other side. She shook the bottle to get the last few drops out, and then tossed it to the floor.
"You are so dumb," she said, craning her head up to look at Shadow. "So there, I fixed it for you. I know it has my blood and not yours, so it won't work as fast, but if Terra binds it up for you I bet it will help some. And then you can stop arguing and I can go back to sleep, like I..."
Her voice trailed off as she looked down at Shadow's hand.
The wounds were healing over, visibly, shiny-scarred patches and red welts slowly closing over, as the remains of the potion dripped from Shadow's fingertips; Relm turned his hand over again, to look at his palm, and his fingers curled with the move: gently, gracefully, the way they should have been able to curl all along.
"What the hell," said Relm.
Terra watched, her hand coming up to her open mouth, eyes wide, fingers just resting on her lips; she could feel her hand shaking as she looked at Shadow, and all she could think was, oh, no; he wasn't wearing his mask, and both pairs of brilliant-blue eyes turned to her with questions in them, and she didn't know what to do - she didn't know how to handle this...
"I thought you said they didn't work on anyone else," Relm said, and her voice sounded so young and almost scared with the question.
"They, um," Terra began, but then Shadow closed his eyes - and turned to look down at Relm. Her hand was still on his, and he gently turned the newly-healed fingers over and wrapped them around hers.
"There's a reason," he said.
In the end he just told her, right there, in the darkness, once Terra had left to get a towel for the puddle of potion on the floor.
"Oh," said Relm.
They stood in silence. She'd taken her hands back, and picked up the empty bottle, and she was looking at it as if it held all of the answers inside of it.
"That's pretty cool," she said. "In fact, it might be cooler than Edgar with blue hair." Her lips pursed as she looked at him, and he watched her face; watched her recognize things she'd never seen: watched her trace his face with those bright blue eyes.
"But," she added finally. "Only if you buy me a puppy. Maybe two." And, with relish: "Dad."
"No," Shadow said.
- - -
The hand wasn't healed completely, and he wasn't surprised. But it was better; his fingers lay straight, and he could grasp and heft and throw a knife almost as well as he could with his right. It was a significant change, and one he'd have to retrain for. So he made his way down to Albrook and worked his way through two marks. They didn't give him much trouble.
He gave the bags of gold to Tobb. "For Saim's family."
Tobb looked surprised, and for a vague moment insulted. "So you care now? Now that you have gold to pay for it?"
"Tobb," Kaseth warned.
Shadow shrugged. "Reputation," he offered finally. "We take care of our own."
Tobb frowned, but he looked chastised. In the end he took the money, which was good, because Shadow hadn't wanted to do it.
He looked around, at the Guild; a room of deadly mercenaries. They'd turned out tougher than he'd expected, which was good with what they were up against - what they were all up against. And yet... even these rough people, even this room of bloody heathens had a code and a framework and a sense of honor.
"From now on," he said, and it wasn't an announcement but he was Shadow and everyone looked at him when he spoke. "You go out in at least pairs for any mark that isn't around here. I don't care what you have to charge to do it. Make it work."
- - -
He stood in the doorway, watching them together: heads bent together, Terra's shimmering-green and Relm's fluffy-blonde catching the light of the fire. They were weighing out something, and laughing at it, the way the sounds of the seeds on the scale made Interceptor wuffle in his sleep.
Terra glanced up, and her mouth curled into a smile as she saw him standing there. Relm glanced over her shoulder, said, "Oh, you," and then went back to counting up seeds into the tiny weighglass.
"Another investment in the insurance fund." He dropped the bag onto the table next to the door. Terra's mouth opened in protest, but she glanced at Relm, and stopped.
"Thank you," she said.
"Do you..." It was hard, to say these things, to know what should and shouldn't be said. He hadn't even bothered to imagine the conversation and thus had no idea how it should go. "Relm. Do you want to... talk about anything?" He didn't even know what to say to the girl; he wasn't sorry, not in any way she could understand. Terra's face melted into something sweet and sympathetic, and he thought maybe he was doing the right thing. Debts. Would he owe the girl an explanation? What sort of payment covered ten years?
"Excuse me," Relm said, drawing herself up proudly - but giving him a wink nonetheless. "But I am very busy right now and unless I'm going to turn into a pair of Kefka's socks on my next birthday or something, I don't really think this is the time."
Terra stifled a giggle into her wrist, and Shadow tried very hard not to blink. "Oh," he said, gravely. "Well, then."
- - -
He spent two days by himself, working on his hand and his training. He found his instincts had realigned themselves over the past few months, compensating for the crippled hand. Now that he had more use of it, he went back to the basic forms, training himself to open to that side again. In-between, he rested, and worked the muscles of the hand over and over again.
It hadn't been... He hadn't wanted to take something from Terra, something more than he could repay; he already owed her his life. He owed her his life twice, and here, staring at the fingers which now curled skillfully and individually to press into his palm, he could admit that. Once, saving him from Kefka's Tower; and twice, for giving him a reason to live. It had been in owing her that he'd thought about marks, and from there had come the Guild, and from there a reason to work, to give money back to Mobliz. But it had been Terra who had done it. Terra, the strongest person he'd ever known, so caught up in her own worries and fears, things she thought were weaknesses. It was Terra who had shown him that emotions weren't always weak. She'd shown him that caring about something was a strength.
He turned the hand over, and worked on tapping each finger - first individually, and then in patterns. They were still slow, and the motion pained him, but they were moving. He thought of Relm, with the potion in her hand; thought of Relm's calm eyes tracing his face. Thought of the way she'd squealed to see Interceptor with three kittens cuddled around him; the way she'd asked him, straight-up, whether he would teach her to pick locks and punch people.
And - he started to chuckle, the sound fading quickly into the woods around him. He closed his hand, and brought it up to put his mask back on. The damn girl made him laugh. Who would have thought?
- - -
Marg let him have the meeting in the back room of her pub. It wasn't a formal meeting, but there were more than a dozen who showed up. Shadow recognized them all - it was poor form to not know your own men - but he hadn't quite realized how many there were.
"I'm going to go kill that dragon," he said, without preamble.
The room erupted in cheers, which took him aback. He wasn't doing it for glory, or even for Saim. It was a mark, a difficult one, and it would hurt others unless someone stopped it. Besides, it was bad for business.
"New rules apply," he continued once the noise had died down. "Kaseth."
She nodded to him from her crutches.
"While you're out of the field, you're in charge of contracts. Make sure everyone goes out in teams. Don't be afraid to take three. Anyone who doesn't loses their membership."
Eyes widened, but he didn't really care. "No one else goes alone and unprepared," said Shadow. "That's an order."
Murmurs filled the room, and he turned to the door to leave - and then turned around. "Nobody else die while I'm gone."
- - -
He came to Mobliz early that morning; mist still hung in pockets on the ground, and he could see the stakes of Terra's garden poking up from it like haphazard trees. He hadn't been to Mobliz much in the daytime. The town had grown, while he hadn't been looking; new families, come to work with the clinic.
He slipped in the door of Terra's house. He expected her to be in bed, restless-turning the way she did in the mornings. He didn't expect her to be sitting by the fire, wearing the red armored dress she'd fought in and a long, wicked-looking sword across her back.
He stopped. She stood up. For a long second they looked at each other. Her eyes looked... whole, somehow, and he realized that she'd claimed her arms for a reason. She was reclaiming what she'd been. What was left of it. What she wanted to make of it. He nodded, and she smiled, flushing a little. Then she took two steps forward and reached a hand up to his face, pulling him down into a kiss.
He still didn't know how all of it had happened. But her lips were soft and warm and he pulled her close to him.
"Oh, god," Relm said. "Ew. Really? Please stop that."
Terra laughed, soft. He looked up, and Relm had her traveling pack on her back and one sturdy-looking dagger at her waist.
"Wait," Shadow said, turning back to Terra - but Relm stamped her way up and slammed her foot down on the ground.
"What, you think that suddenly 'cause you're my dad you get to tell me what to do?" She poked him with the hilt of her dagger. "No frigging way. Besides, I have all the potions, and I'm not giving them to you unless you let me come along."
Shadow looked down at her face - all screwed up and fierce, torn between deadly-serious and amused - and then glanced at Terra again, lovely but no less fierce, and trying not to smile.
He let his own lips curve up in a smile. "Fine. Let's go kick some ass."
Terra locked the door behind them as they left, and Relm skipped ahead, announcing to Interceptor, "You know, this might be the coolest thing I've ever done. But don't tell them I said that."
Shadow glanced at Terra, who simply smiled and nodded, and they left town together.