I hadn't expected to make it out. I'd thought I'd dissolve, float up and vanish the way the magicite was doing. I'd spent long sleepless nights before the battle trying to make sense of what I knew, of some other world of the Gods that was the real home to magic, of human stories about rebirth after you die, or paradise, and I'd tried to tell myself that my children would be taken care of if anything happened to me - Edgar had sworn he'd be sure of that - and I'd tried to cling to the faint hope I'd make it. But when the tower started coming down, as we'd known it would, I barely had time to think; I could feel the Espers leaving, and I needed to lead my friends out, and I was worried about my family back at home, and that was all.
And I guess that was enough; I wasn't thinking of death, I wasn't ready to go, and I wasn't like the Espers, the last of me confined to a crystal after I'd given up, after years of worse imprisonment. I had a life I wanted to keep, and people I wanted to return to, and it anchored me. But something left me as I fell.
I wasn't able to tell what it was. I was giddy with surviving, I felt like laughing and crying at once as Celes hugged me and then Locke and Sabin, and if my legs felt unsteady or if something felt strange, well, no one had done anything like this before. We'd all been injured and weak and exhausted and now we were jubilant, and I just assumed it was normal. Edgar danced with me, and Setzer called out when we passed over Mobliz so I could wave to them, and everyone was shouting and talking at once and laughing at everything, and I realized how long it had been since I hadn't been worried or frightened. That alone would explain why everything felt so strange.
At some point someone gave me an elixir - stripped of the magic infusion it'd once had, it burned and buzzed my blood like liquor, and when I giggled and said so Edgar laughed and took a sip of one himself, then passed it around, until Setzer intervened to insist on the champagne he'd been talking about earlier. So there was champagne too, and Edgar started dancing with me again, both of us laughing and tripping a lot, and then it was Setzer, smiling more than I'd ever seen him, and then he got Celes to dance with him and he got her to laugh, too, and Locke clapped and said "that's better than I can usually do," and she got embarrassed and pulled away from Setzer and he poured more champagne for everyone.
We ended up belowdecks somehow, and I remember sitting on the settee while Sabin made some rambling toast to Cyan, and my head falling against Locke's shoulder. I don't know how long it was before he shook my shoulder lightly, saying, "Terra?"
"Maybe you need to get to bed?" he suggested. "You've been asleep for a while."
My head didn't feel any clearer. "I don't want to miss everything," I said.
"I can make you some coffee," Setzer suggested, and I smiled blearily at him. I must have dozed again at the table, but I woke when he handed me a steaming mug - "It should be cool enough to drink," he said, though I didn't remember him even brewing it, so I must have been asleep - and I took a sip and made a face and started added sugar.
Eventually, after it seeped through me, I felt better, more alert, but still strangely lost and hollow and sad in a way I couldn't define. I wandered back out to the main quarters, to find Setzer leaning against a wall by the phonograph, sipping a cup of coffee of his own, and Cyan off in one corner - even he couldn't help smiling, though he hadn't really joined in the festive mood yet - and Relm gleefully drawing away on a sketchpad while Strago dozed in a chair. Locke and Edgar were talking over by the stairs, laughing and interrupting each other. There was music playing, some orchestral victory march or some kind. I touched my face and hair to remind myself I was alive, that we'd won and we had hope again, and then I noticed Celes up above us, leaning on the railing overlooking the main area, a glass of champagne in her hand.
I went over to the stairs, and when Locke and Edgar both asked if I was okay I felt happiness welling up again and I just beamed at them, which must have been reassuring enough because they stepped back to let me past. Up above, I joined Celes by the railing, and she smiled slightly.
"You seem well," she said. "More than before. It must have been exhausting."
"It was," I said. "I guess that might have been it. I thought I just didn't have any head for strong drink."
"That could have something to do with it too," she agreed. "How are you feeling now?"
"I don't know how you put up with having your hair all over your neck," I said. "It feels so strange!"
She chuckled. "That wasn't quite what I meant, but it's an answer of sorts... You don't feel ill or anything? I suppose this isn't the best time to ask, after all that champagne. I doubt you slept enough to really sober up."
I shook my head. "I feel kind of light-headed, and sleepy, so... maybe tomorrow I'll know."
"Terra," she said, suddenly serious, "Thank you."
"Huh? What for?"
"For..." She laughed a little, and looked down at the main area. "I really meant for not asking me what I'll do next. I've been dreading the question all night, but Sabin's the only one who's asked so far. But for all of it. Risking yourself in this, and guiding us out, and all you did in the war against the Empire."
Down below, Relm and Setzer were bickering by the phonograph, Relm with a cylinder in her hands. Finally, Setzer stalked off toward the stairs and Relm put the record on, starting a jaunty dance tune. Setzer nodded to us both as he passed, clearly on his way up to the deck. "Celes, I always wondered. Why did you defect? I mean... I was different. I wasn't serving consciously and I didn't rebel consciously. You were raised there, and your whole life was there - did you just start having doubts? I guess Kefka would cause that for anyone."
"In a way..." she said. "We'd been friends, and I hated what was being done to you, and I hated that no one even seemed to see that Kefka was out of control, but I wasn't yet ready to commit treason. That was... an accident, I think, though it could have been a set-up. My doubts only came in later, when Locke saved me and I had to tell myself the Returners were in the right anyway, that the Empire had to be stopped."
"Oh," I said, not sure how else to reply. Mog and Relm were dancing down below, Mog much better than Relm. Celes took a drink of her wine, and made a face. "It's getting warm. I can't keep things chilled anymore."
"I never did that automatically the way you did," I said.
"It's going to take some adjustment," she said, and finished the drink. "I probably ought to turn in for the night, but I'm almost afraid I'll wake up and things will look worse tomorrow."
"I wish you hadn't said that," I said. "Excuse me for a second?" She nodded, and I made my way to the bathroom. I was in for more than a second; when I'd washed my hands in the basin, I leaned in close to the mirror and stared at myself, trying to see if anything had changed, if my eyes were different now, my hair any less green.
I saw them when I stepped out of the bathroom. They were dancing, one of those faster-moving new dances I can never remember the names for, and they didn't seem to have noticed me; I caught the door before it could shut, not wanting to disturb them. I thought of retreating back into the bathroom, but I didn't want to stay in there forever. Everyone else was down below, except me, and the music was a bit distant up here. Locke took her hand to twirl her, and when the song ended they didn't let go right away. He was still grinning, but I saw her look down at their joined hands, and pull away. "I'm going up on deck for a little bit," she told him, a bit too loudly.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, I just want some air," she called over her shoulder as she clattered up the stairs.
"You sure? Celes!"
"I'm fine, I'm fine, don't worry!" The door banged shut behind her. Looking bemused, he ran a hand through his hair.
"You guys get in a fight?" I asked, stepping away from the wall I'd been leaning against.
"Oh, I don't know. I don't understand her at all. And where'd you come from?"
I indicated the bathroom as I walked over to him. "Wasn't trying to intrude."
"Oh, no problem. Nothing to intrude on."
"Well, at least you're not like Sabin and you aren't saying you don't understand any women," I pointed out, a bit irrelevantly. On the lower level, I could hear Sabin and Gau play-wrestling, and then a waltz started and I heard Relm saying "I believe you promised me a dance, your Majesty." I couldn't make out the words of Edgar's protest, but the intent was clear enough.
"Well, I think that's a bit of a broad statement to make. Some of you have to make sense, right?"
I poked him in the ribs, and he swatted at my hand. "I don't know that all of you make much sense either."
"Fair enough," he agreed. The waltz started over. I glanced over the railing; Relm was, in fact, dancing with Edgar. She came up to his chest, barely. When I looked up, Locke was holding out his hand. "Want to dance?"
"Yeah, it shouldn't be hard. Just follow my lead..." He took one of my hands, put the other on his shoulder, slipped an arm around my waist. When he moved I half stumbled, but he helped right me.
"Where did you learn how to waltz?" I asked.
"I didn't, exactly. We'd do these dances in Kohlingen, but slow-dancing was basically just an excuse to touch a pretty girl for a while."
A pretty girl? Me? Touching? "Shouldn't you chase down Celes, then?" I asked to cover my confusion.
"But you're right here," he said, which I guess isn't really a romantic line, but the way he smiled, you could have fooled me. I suddenly knew exactly why Celes had run off just when they were holding hands, because I sort of wanted to as well. It made no sense at all, but I didn't know what I was supposed to do next. Actually, for me it made sense, but not so much for her. My body dealt with the issue by tripping me again. I cursed, and he steadied me. "Maybe we should leave the dancing alone for a while," he suggested.
"Yeah, maybe so." I moved over to the couch to sit down. I could walk fine now.
He extracted a flask from one of his pockets, then sprawled on the couch next to me. He took a drink, then offered it to me. "I didn't even know you had one of these," I commented, pointlessly, then took a swig and coughed. I couldn't identify the alcohol, but it was strong. I could feel the warmth crawling down my throat and then out along my shoulders.
"I'm full of surprises," he said, as automatic as accepting the flask back from me, but he seemed to be thinking about something else. "Terra..."
"Does Celes... is she interested in me?"
I blinked. It wasn't blindingly obvious? "Um, Locke, that's sort of her business, you know, not..."
"Yeah, I guess so. I just wondered if she'd said anything."
"Not to me." She doesn't talk about her feelings much. She just shows them. How could he have missed it? He didn't say anything else, and while I could still hear music and voices from below, up here it was quiet. "Are you interested in her?"
"Aww, hell. I don't know, Terra! It's been... what, three months since Rachel died? What's the date, the twentieth? Not quite three months. I mean... hell, I don't know. She's beautiful, but so are you, and nobody's making significant statements about me and you, are they?"
"I don't think so." Beautiful?
"I just don't get it..." He took another drink. "You know what I want to do?" I shook my head, but he hadn't waited for my answer. "I want to get back into that castle under the mountains. There's lots in there we could get to, if we could just clear out some of the rubble. The treasure hunter deal wasn't just a joke, you know."
Another drink. "Know what else I want to do?"
"Nope," I replied, and he leaned in and kissed me. I felt his fingers in my hair, felt my arm go around his neck. His teeth caught at my lip, our tongues kept bumping into each other, and then his other arm was around my waist. He pulled back a bit, but his arm was still around me as he leaned his forehead against mine. "That," he whispered. I closed my eyes, trying not to notice anything but the warmth of his skin and the nervous happiness bubbling in my chest. But I could smell the alcohol on his breath, and the phonograph was playing something very like the song he and Celes had been dancing to.
"Locke," I murmured, "you're drunk. I'm sort of drunk. You're..."
"Not that bad," he protested, and kissed me softly. "It's not like I won't remember in the morning."
Someone behind us coughed, and I practically flung myself away from him. Edgar. Just Edgar, but my heart was hammering, and I knew I'd been expecting Celes. "Sorry," he said quietly. I noticed Locke's hand was still on the small of my back, so I hadn't jumped as far as I thought. "I really was just coughing. And heading for the facilities. Sorry."
"I, uh, I... um," I stammered, and stood abruptly. Locke grabbed my arm to stop me.
"Can I at least talk to you later?" he asked, and I think I nodded because he let me go.
I guess they talked for a while, because I'd actually dozed off when I heard the knock on my door. I got up and hastily smoothed my hair before I answered it. Locke, of course, but my heart was beating hard again. Obviously I'd been expecting someone to run up and tell Celes, who had come to confront me. I stepped back to let him in, and he stepped in and pulled the door half shut, then scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "Um... hey, Terra, I'm sorry."
Regretting it already, then. I felt myself deflate, and didn't pause to examine that reaction. "Why?" Because he hadn't wanted to kiss me. Because he really wanted Celes.
He shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I, um... I guess I was kind of rebounding, you know, from Rachel's death. And it's really not fair, what with you and your memory and all. It'd almost be taking advantage of you." I wasn't the child I'd been when I first lost my memory, but I didn't know how to say that, and clearly he still thought I was. Or someone did.
"Locke, is that what Edgar said?"
"Well..." He wouldn't meet my eyes. "Kind of, I guess. But he's sort of right, too."
Maybe about the rebounding, I thought. Hell, maybe even about the other. I had fragments of my memory back, but not enough. I'm still new at all this in a way, probably not really ready for a relationship, and I have the kids to think about. And there's Celes. I don't want to hurt her. Besides, he's my friend, and there's no need to ruin that. All kinds of good reasons to stay away. "I guess so."
"Yeah," he replied, quietly, then paused like he was waiting for me to say something. Finally, he added, "I guess I better go then."
I just nodded, and watched him leave.
I sat in my room for a while, staring at the door. After a while I went out on deck to watch Sabin set off fireworks; we'd landed on the Veldt for that purpose. Celes and Setzer were over at the other end of the ship, and Gau was down on the plain, watching avidly but keeping his distance from the explosions. I didn't see Locke anywhere. I guess he'd gone to bed like a lot of the others. Relm showed up later, though, in her pajamas.
"Old man thought he could make me go to bed!" she reported scornfully, then climbed up to perch on the railing and call out vaguely ribald comments, first at Sabin, then at Setzer and Celes, who she accused of "necking." I'm not sure she knew what that was, since they clearly weren't doing anything of the sort. At Sabin's suggestion, I joined him in lighting a few rockets and moogle candles, but the supply was running low. When he and Setzer went to get more, I slipped back into the living quarters.
And ran straight into Locke. "Hey," he greeted me, with a wan smile. "Enjoy the fireworks?"
"I guess," I said, and edged past him, making for my room.
"Terra?" he said, and I stopped, half-turned. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm probably just tired."
"So something is wrong."
"I guess," I repeated, and turned to start walking again.
"Terra, wait. What is it?"
I halted, still with my back to him. "I don't know," I said, feeling my downcast mood strengthen. "I really don't."
"It's not about... I mean, I didn't upset you, did I?"
I shook my head. I had no right to be upset over that. It was just the reasonable course of action. But I made no move to face him, and then I said, "It's not just that," for no good reason at all.
"What is it? I mean, what else?"
"I don't know. I should be all happy. I mean, I'm alive, Kefka's not, the world's going to be okay. But it's not just you, I was sort of feeling that way to begin with. Like I lost something, missed a chance or... something." I wavered, as if it might come to me, and then repeated, helplessly, "I don't know."
"You seemed happy, when you were doing the fireworks. I was watching from the kitchen."
"That's the first time since I can remember that I've lit a fire with a match," I said, softly, and then my eyes blurred with tears as I realized exactly what I'd lost. Godsdammit, I thought, hating to look weak yet again, and then he turned me to face him and pulled me into his arms.
"Are you gonna be okay?" he asked the top of my head, and I wrapped my arms around his waist.
"I have to be, I have the kids and all," I mumbled against his chest, and I felt his arms tighten. I don't know how long we stood that way, but it was long enough for me to stop crying.
"Listen, if you want to talk about it..." he offered, and pulled back, but his arms were still around me. I watched him as he studied my face. "Terra, you look exhausted," he said.
"I should," I answered dryly, and he half-smiled.
"I guess you don't want to talk, then," he said, and I shook my head.
"It's not that I don't want to, it's just I'm so tired I almost feel sick. Maybe tomorrow?"
"Yeah. You know where to find me..."
"Unless you're planning to hide," I agreed, pulling my face into a smile. He kissed me on the forehead.
"Now get to bed," he ordered, and I half-heartedly teased "Yes, master," before I turned to go.
I didn't sleep very well. I just laid there, trying not to think about anything, but especially not the way he'd held me or the kissing or the look on his face when he asked me to dance. Or about how Celes would feel if she knew. Or about the weird lack I was feeling. I dozed off, eventually, but I kept waking up again. Even so, I did feel better the next morning. Still not as buoyant as I had just after the victory, but better. After all, I was alive, even if I had no magic, and that was better than I'd been expecting a few days ago.
I brushed my hair, dressed, and wandered into the kitchen – Setzer's crew gave up long ago on trying to make us call it the galley – and then stopped dead in the doorway. Locke was lounging against the counter by the coffee percolator, and Celes was sitting at the table, holding a mug in both hands. But then they both smiled at me, so I guessed I hadn't interrupted anything.
"Feeling better?" Locke greeted me, and I nodded.
"It's strange, isn't it?" Celes asked, as I sat in the chair across from hers. "It's like having your thumbs tied to your palms or something. You just deal with the world differently." I guess he'd talked to her about how I was feeling, or maybe it had just hit her as hard.
"It's like I used to have another arm and it's not there anymore. Not like it was cut off!" I added, seeing their horrified looks. "Just like I reach for something that's not there. Which I guess is a better metaphor than a missing limb anyway."
"Like walking down a flight of stairs and missing a step," Celes added, and I nodded agreement.
"It's strange," I mused, leaning back in the chair. "I never thought I'd miss it." I always thought of it as a curse, something that frightened my children and my friends and gave me nothing in return.
"You're not in pain, though?" he asked us both, seeking confirmation. I shook my head, Celes said no, and he poured a cup of coffee for me.
"It just hit me last night, that's all," I continued. "I'm fine, I promise."
"Delayed shock," Celes agreed, as Locke handed me the coffee cup. "It happened to me too. Probably not as bad, magic wasn't as much a part of me as it was for you."
"It still was, though," I said, shovelling sugar into the cup. "I mean... you know what I mean. Is the cream over there on the counter?"
"I don't see how you can drink it like that," Celes said wonderingly, but Locke handed me the small pitcher. "If you're done, could we, um..."
"Oh, if you guys want to talk I'll get out of the way," he offered. I stopped myself from protesting. Surely I'd get another chance to talk to him before I left.
"Well, it's not exactly private... Setzer asked me to marry him."
"Again?" Locke asked, sounding amused, as I gaped. I turned some of the gaping towards him.
"It was while you were gone, Terra," she told me briskly. "He was going to make it a condition of using the airship, but I talked him out of it. Actually, I hustled him. It helped that he was blinded by hormones. At any rate, he asked me again."
"Did you accept?" Locke asked, and I think we both searched his face for traces of jealousy.
"No. He made the offer in case I couldn't find anything else to do."
"I thought he had a higher opinion of himself than that," I said, grasping the only part of this situation that made much sense.
"He was partially joking," she explained. "But I do have something else to do. Edgar's offered me a generalship in the Figaro military, overseeing the Narshe cleanup. Reclamation, we're calling it."
"Oh. Do you want it?" I asked, because I had some vague idea that she didn't, really.
"Actually, I do in a way. It's a nice, clear mission, for a good cause. And it's a volunteer military, so there go most of my concerns right away. I hope the troops will respect me, which would be the last one."
"I bet they're terrified of you, actually," Locke said, and I saw a shadow of irritation cross over her face.
"Probably," she said, practically biting out the word, and stood abruptly. "Terra, I need to discuss some things with Edgar. If you need to talk, you should be able to find me."
I nodded, and took a long drink of my coffee. When I lowered the cup, Locke was staring at me. "You're feeling better, at least, right?"
"Yeah, I am."
"Well, good." He sat down across from me. "You kind of had me worried..."
"I was just really tired, and it all sort of hit me at once. That's all. I'm fine now."
"Well, good." There was a pause. I smiled. He smiled, or maybe 'beamed' would be a better word. "You know what?"
"I'm getting into that castle. Edgar knows some scholars who are interested in that kind of thing, but they don't have much practical experience, because so many of those old sites have just been completely lost. But he's going to fund an expedition and I'll go along as an assistant or something, so I can learn."
"Locke, that's great!" I exclaimed, and he grabbed my hand, still smiling broadly. I sort of blinked at that, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Terra, you should come visit! Or write to me. You could at least write, couldn't you?" Maybe I hesitated, or looked uneasy, because he added, "Just as friends."
"Yeah," I agreed, quietly. "Locke, I'm really happy for you."
"Me too," he said, and we both laughed. I pulled my hand free, got up from the table.
"I'm going to go look for Celes," I said. "I think she might be feeling worse than she realized. I mean, that might be why she, um, sort of snapped at you."
"Yeah, good idea. I doubt she'd want to hear from me," he agreed. I just shrugged. I had a feeling that she would, though she'd probably want to hear different things from him than he'd actually say.
When I found her, she was staring at one of the paintings in the lounge. Setzer had brought in some of his collection, shortly after I'd rejoined them.
"Celes?" I said, and she jumped.
"Terra! You startled me."
"Sorry. Celes, are you okay? You seemed upset earlier."
"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes Locke just really gets on my nerves." It was an odd choice of phrase for her. She didn't use slang much.
"I thought you were in love with him," I blurted, and then braced myself; I'd never actually said that to her before. Which was odd, since goodness knows I'd asked everyone else I'd met about their romantic lives. Something about her always kept me from it.
"That doesn't mean he can't annoy me," she pointed out. "Besides, I think love might be overstating the case a bit. I don't know him that well, really, and we don't even have much in common. And I don't think he's actually interested in me."
"Oh." She was protesting too much. I never know when to shut up, because I added, "You really seemed—"
"I guess I was a bit stupid over him," she interrupted hastily, and then there was an uncomfortable pause. I cast about for a change of subject, any change of subject, and hit the worst one imaginable.
"Um, did Setzer really propose to you?" I'd managed to phrase it as though I doubted her story. This wasn't one of my better days.
"Not exactly. We were talking about what everyone would do now that it's over, and I said I had no idea, so he offered to marry me. Or make me a kept woman." I just stared at her. Of all the people I could not imagine as a rich man's mistress, Celes was at the top of the list. Not that there was much of a list. It's not a question I ponder much. "I declined, of course," she continued. "And then Edgar offered me the command. I'm not sure how well the troops will take it. That was really why I wanted to speak to you privately."
"They'll be fine," I said. "I mean, you'll be fine. You were always an amazing leader before, I don't see how that'd change."
She stared at me for a moment before she spoke. "...before? Terra, is your memory coming back?" she asked me, slowly, as if I were a frightened child. I guess that's the natural reaction to me.
"Some of it. Nothing specific, just bits and pieces. I remember that we knew each other, though I can't remember when we met or any details at all, really. It's all confused. I remember those horrible desks in school, and I remember your maid Elsie. She had red hair, didn't she? And she'd let us actually get messy when we played. We must have known each other since we were pretty young."
Celes just nodded, looking stunned.
"Is it... not good that I'm remembering things?" I asked, choosing my words carefully.
She straightened her shoulders a bit, managing to give the impression of shaking something off. "Well, no one's life is perfect," she replied.
"That's not an answer at all, Celes."
"I can't tell you what's good or not about your memories. Only you can do that."
"I'm glad I'm remembering. Even if it's not all good." I had a definite suspicion that it wasn't. A memory of a room full of glass, of a pale face with eyes like ice. A memory of more recent vintage, at Figaro castle, just after we'd escaped Narshe. I'd heard Kefka laugh, and my blood had run cold, a reaction closer to instinct than to logic.
"I'm glad that's how you feel," she answered, still evasive.
There was a footstep, while I was still trying to think what to say, and we both jumped and looked up, as if guilty. Sabin didn't seem to notice, though, just grinned at both of us. "I've been looking all over for you two! Come on out on deck, Edgar's gotten all royal again."
I think I saw Celes roll her eyes, and Sabin winked at her as she passed him on her way through the door. I hadn't moved. "Come on, Terra. If the speech runs on too long I'm not above loud snoring noises, so it shouldn't be that bad."
"You promise?" I asked, making myself sound deliberately hopeful as he ushered me out the door, and he threw his head back and laughed.
Edgar, as it turned out, wasn't waiting to make a speech. Instead he took me by the arm, pulled me away from the others, and began rattling off the details of some sort of house while trying to show me something he'd sketched on an envelope.
"A room for you, one for the young couple, a nursery and a bedroom or two for the older children. I believe we can get you running water and I've even been considering a plan that would heat the water before it comes out of the tap – would you be willing to try that?" At that I nodded vehemently. "The architects will be at your disposal, so if there's anything you'd like to change—"
"How much is this going to cost?" I asked, dazed. He handed me the envelope, which bore a tiny but precise floor plan.
"For you, my dear, it's free."
I stared at him. He used that opportunity to grab my free hand and kiss it. He really would be charming if he weren't so maddening. "Edgar, I can't accept this," I said.
"Because it's too much! I can't very well build you a house for your next birthday."
"You aren't required to pay me back," he said, but I kept frowning at him until he sighed. "A loan? Would you be more willing to accept that?"
"Yes, I would. Thank you, Edgar." That hadn't been very gracious. I'd have to try again before I disembarked.
"I really don't see the point of being rich if I can't do things for people," he complained. "It's not as though I'm using my annuity to buy expensive ballgowns." He pouted for a moment, then brightened. "I refuse to charge you interest," he said, grinning like he'd scored a point off me.
"Okay," I said agreeably, and watched his smile fade slightly. I hadn't even considered that he might, so it mattered not at all to me. I smiled sweetly at him, and was turning to go when he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
"One more thing," he said, seriously enough to turn me around to face him again. "Are you all right? Regarding Locke?"
"Of course I am!" I snapped, my face flaming. I crossed my arms over my chest, ducked my head so that I could hide behind my hair – one benefit to wearing it loose.
"I can see that," he answered dryly. "Terra, yes, I advised him to tread cautiously. I'm sorry I upset you. He never really faced Rachel's death, and the Phoenix just stirred up memories he hadn't laid to rest. You have to give him time." He glanced up at the others, and I followed his gaze. Locke was talking to Celes. "So does she," he added, under his breath.
"He kissed me, you know. I didn't just jump on him." I thought back, trying to remember if I'd been flirting outrageously or anything. I didn't think so.
"I know that, Terra, and I wasn't trying to imply that he doesn't care about you. I just wanted to suggest..." he trailed off, looking up again. Locke was heading towards us.
"What'd you do to her?" he called out as he neared, half-jokingly. Celes trailed behind him, but stopped at Setzer's side, exchanging looks with him.
"I just offered to build her a house!" Edgar said, defensive.
"Well, obviously that went over well," Locke replied. I tried to paste a smile on my face to reassure him.
"I did accept it after a while," I said, then added, as fervently as I could, "Edgar, thank you." I wanted to apologize for getting angry, but evidently he wanted me to pretend as though nothing was wrong. I suppose we couldn't very well explain to Locke that we'd been fighting over him.
"You're most welcome," he said, and kissed my hand again.
Locke still looked doubtful, but all he said was, "We're nearly to Mobliz. You all packed? Said your goodbyes?"
"Well, I'm packed," I said, and moved off in the general direction of the others. When I looked over my shoulder, I noticed the two of them discussing something quietly. I snapped out of it when Celes called my name.
"Hey," I greeted her. "Sorry, I was just off in my own little world."
She smiled slightly. "I know what you mean. I almost hate to see it end, don't you?"
"Well..." I tried to think how to put it. "I'm glad it's over, but I'm not so happy about leaving everybody."
"I wish you were staying for the festivities," she said. "Boring though parades can be. I feel like I haven't had a chance to get to know you again, outside of fighting Kefka."
I felt terrible. She wanted to be my friend, and I was keeping secrets from her. "Celes, I'm so sorry. You're always welcome at Mobliz, you know— I mean, if you can tolerate all the kids, I'd be happy to—"
"We could write, couldn't we?" she interrupted, cutting off my fluttering.
She smiled, and then seemed a bit taken aback when I threw my arms around her. She patted my back awkwardly, then when I pulled back, said, "We're almost there, so I shouldn't monopolize you forever. Did you want to speak to anyone else?"
I ended up speaking to almost everyone else. Setzer assured me that Edgar fully intended to turn him into a freight company, so he would probably seeing quite a bit of me until my house was completed. Strago threatened to make Relm practice her penmanship on me, though I wasn't sure how much faith to put in that. Cyan actually went so far as to shake my hand, and smiled good-naturedly when Sabin teased him about letter-writing. "At least the lady will have one faithful correspondent," he retorted, and Sabin sputtered a protest and promised to write to me too. I didn't see Gau or Mog. Gogo had vanished at some point the previous night, and I doubted Umaro could write. I could probably hear of Gau through Sabin or Cyan anyway, and knowing Mog, he'd probably drop in somehow if he felt like chatting.
Edgar and Locke had finished their conversation and were headed towards us when the ship pulled into a tight circle, descending rapidly. The wind whipped my hair around – a downside to wearing it loose – and several people yelled in protest at Setzer.
"This is why I always make you go belowdecks when I land!" he shouted back, once the noise and stirred-up dust had begun to settle. "All of you knew we were close. Terra, your luggage?"
"It's still in my cabin," I said, distracted – I could see several of the kids emerging from the house.
Someone's hand was on my shoulder, and I turned, startled, to see Locke. "Why don't you go on?" he said. "We'll go get your things."
I had barely stepped off the ship when Annie barelled into my midsection at high speed, hugging me about the waist and yelling about Katarin's baby. Marjorie and Henry were right behind her, full of complaints that she'd given me the news first. Isabella trailed after them, carrying Charles, the youngest at not quite two years, and leading Cassandra, who was sucking her thumb again. I hugged Margie and Henry and shepherded them over to the other group. Henry, of course, had to challenge the girls to a race back to the house, and Cassie started crying as they loped past.
"Oh, honey," I wailed, dismayed, as I knelt to enfold her in a hug. I also tried to gently disengage her thumb from her mouth, but she resisted. She'd almost broken the habit when I left; she seemed a bit old for it, but I blamed that, and her frequent silence and tears, on the shock of the cataclysm. The effects on her had been strongest and had lasted longest, which worried me, and it didn't look like she'd improved while I was gone.
"The airship scares her," Isabella explained, then added, under her breath, "She's been worse ever since the magic storms."
I mouthed, "Magic storms?" but she just shook her head in reply. "C'mon, let's get inside," I said aloud, but Cassie clung to my neck with her free arm, so I had to pick her up. She's small for her age, four years, but still a bit big to be carried. Once we got inside the former post office, though, she decided she wanted down and went over to the window, standing on tiptoes to look outside. I took Charles off Isabella's hands, and asked, disappointed, "I missed the birth?"
"You didn't miss much," she assured me. "It was disgusting. Kat and Duane seemed to think it was worth it, but they didn't have to wash the sheets. We should have had her have the baby in their little love nest."
I'd deal with that touch of resentment later. "Well, you get off laundry duty for a month or so, I guess," I told her. This was actually why I'd wanted to be here – even on the best of days there was more work than a young man, a pregnant woman, and a twelve-year-old girl could easily handle, and special circumstances just added to that. I wasn't surprised to see that the woodpile was almost gone, and I was sure other supplies were depleted as well. "Have the kids been a lot of trouble? Where are Byram and Theo?"
"They're off getting water or hitting each other with rocks or something. The little kids have been pretty quiet. We had Kat screaming and yelling for hours on end, so I guess that scared them, not to mention the magic..."
"You could see that?" I asked. She just nodded, and I sighed, buried my face in Charlie's hair. He grabbed a fistful of mine, so I was stuck for the moment. I'd never had the courage to explain to them all that even winning the fight might kill me. I'd made it clear to Kat and Duane that I might not come back, but hadn't explained why I was so insistent on the idea. I hadn't even told the kids that much, though they probably suspected. I hadn't guessed they'd be able to follow the fight by watching the sky. I should have realized they'd worry no matter what I said or didn't say.
"He's dead, though, right?" she asked, anxious. "Everything's okay?"
"Yeah," I said. "Everything's fine now."
Margie, Annie, and Henry rejoined us to vie for attention; they had drawings to show me, they had to tattle on each other, and they had to ask what I'd done. I promised to tell them all later, and then the boys saved me by arriving. They submitted to hugs with great shows of reluctance, then talked me into showing off my sword.
That's what I was doing when my friends came in – Sabin was lugging one trunk, and Celes and Locke were at either end of another. They must have been giving me some time, I realized. I sheathed the blade hastily and rushed to help Sabin, who shrugged me off. "It's not that heavy," he said, when I huffed at him and put my hands on my hips. "Just show us where to go."
"Speak for yourself!" Locke panted, still in the doorway.
"Okay, down this way – Come on, guys, out of their way—" I herded the smaller children ahead of me, down the stairs into the basement. Which now contained all the beds from the cave. "Bella?" I questioned, as I scooped toys out of the aisle between the beds.
"We had to move out here. You'll see," she said, grimly.
I did see. Our cave room was half full of laundry. They'd built a firepit at the far end of the room, and apparently dug a chimney up above it. The copper vats were over there, and the linen had been hung up to dry on lines strung across the room. I smelled smoke, soap, and bleach, but everything smelled clean.
"You did a good job," I told her, as I settled Charlie on a flat rock and handed him a toy. He promptly threw it on the floor, but I refused to fetch it for him.
"We didn't want to risk hanging the laundry outside and letting him know we're still alive," she explained.
"Well, we won't have to worry about that anymore," I said, then, at a grunt from Sabin, hurried back to hold the door open – it must have swung shut – and directed them to a corner where my trunks would be out of the way. We stood awkwardly for a moment, not sure how long to prolong the farewells.
"Well, um..." I mumbled, looking at the trunks, my feet, everywhere but at their faces. I wanted to say something, but I wasn't sure what could possibly cover it.
"Yeah. We'll see you, though," Sabin said, then he pulled me into a fierce, if somewhat sweaty, bear hug. Celes embraced me awkwardly and turned, hurriedly, to go, with a mumbled promise to visit. Locke held onto me for a long moment. When he pulled away he held me by the shoulders, looking as if he were about to say something, but he didn't. He smiled ruefully and walked away, following the others out, then paused at the door, turning back to look at me and say, "Write to me, promise?"
I ignored the "ooh!" from Margie and Annie. I could feel myself smiling, the kind that actually reached my eyes. "I promise," I said.
Of course I faced immediate interrogation by the girls, which I parried rather well, I thought. I had to distribute the gifts – toys, candy, books, and fabric for clothes. I'd also brought some fashion magazines, to Katarin's delight, and cookbooks, which no one seemed much charmed with except myself.
And there was the baby to coo over. She was tiny, red, and wrinkled, and probably the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen.
"We want to name her Terra," Katarin told me.
I gurgled something incoherent in reply, because the baby had just latched onto my finger. Then the meaning of the words penetrated, and without raising my head or changing my honeyed tone, I responded, "Oh no you won't, because I'll kill you soon as you're strong enough to stand."
"We have to pay tribute to you somehow!" she protested.
"No, Kat, you really don't. You two and the kids have done more for me than I've ever done for you. Really." I was trying to sound as serious as I could, but she still didn't seem to quite buy it. And I couldn't manage to find the words to tell her about what my father had said, the fact that I very possibly owed my life to them and the rest of my friends. I wasn't fully sure how that worked, but I was just thankful to be there. "You can build me a statue after I'm dead," I suggested cheerfully.
"You're not much older than me, so that doesn't do me any good. And the baby still doesn't have a name," she huffed. I just went back to beaming at the baby. Eventually, she was named Harriet Rose, after both Duane's and Kat's mothers, so I didn't have to worry about confusion or my effect on a little namesake. They did squabble a bit over whose mother should come first, but I ruled that Rose, Kat's mom's name, was a better middle name.
That night, I had to tell them all about my travels. Despite my resolution to render it in the most unflattering light possible, it still came out sounding like a dime-novel adventure. The kids all seemed fairly delighted with it (except Cassie, who fell asleep on my lap) which was exactly what worried me. I didn't want them to get any ideas about adventure and start risking their necks.
Duane understood. "I wouldn't worry about it," he said, once we got them all tucked in. "They're still too scared. They just like hearing about how you did it. Lets them feel safe, they get the... what's the word? They get to enjoy it through you, without being in danger themselves."
"Vicarious," I answered absently. "You're probably right. I hope so."
"Already started worrying..." he said, gently. "You really are a mother."
"I guess so. It's good to be back, though. Worry and laundry and all."
"Hope you still think so tomorrow," he said with a grin.
I did still think so, despite all the work. We had to move the laundry works outdoors, though there was hope on the horizon there. Edgar had promised me some sort of laundry-related invention. After that was done, Duane and I had to replenish the supply of firewood, and we brought Byram and Theo along to pick up loose sticks and carry some of what we'd cut back home. They would have chopped down trees with reckless abandon if we'd allowed them, but I wouldn't let them so much as touch an ax.
I needed to do some work on the garden, the fences, and the stable, all of which had fallen into disrepair over the winter. But they had taken good care of our work chocobo, Chicken (so named by Charles, who called all birds chickens) and they'd kept the cave and the basement as clean as possible. It took a while to get things back into shape – all of them, even Duane and Kat, had been skittish about going outdoors without me while Kefka was alive. Kat had been the least afraid, but also the least able to do outdoor chores over the last few months.
By the end of a couple of weeks of hard work, with everyone pitching in, we'd managed all the repairs. That left only the usual chores, and I'd slipped easily back into the daily routine. Setzer's visit, not long afterwards, remedied an impending food shortage. He brought massive quantities of supplies, courtesy of Edgar, and news of wagons possibly headed our way. On a second trip, a few days later, he brought lumber, workmen, and all the fittings for the house Edgar had planned for us.
He also brought a note from Locke, and best wishes from Celes and the Figaro brothers, all too busy with preparations to write. The Figaro parliament had refused to confirm Celes for the generalship, so Sabin would have the command and Celes would take part in the Narshe operation as a consultant or something like that. Setzer said the terminology was a bit hazy, or had been at the time he left.
As soon as I could I ran off with my letter. It was written on Edgar's stationery, or so I assumed; it had a watermark of the Figaro royal crest, at any rate, and it was fairly small compared to the big sheets of letter paper I had. His signature took up a good portion of the page, though he might have done that deliberately to mask the length of the note. It read:
Celes and I did our best to entertain ourselves but we agreed that the celebrations were not the same without you. The public fairs are still going on but Edgar has stopped forcing us into parades. Instead I get to prepare for the dig. The scholars insist on calling it that although they know there is no real digging to be done. It's all very exciting for me, though it seems boring whenever I write about it and everyone tells me it's boring when I talk about it. I hope to hear soon that everything is well with you.
I grinned at the closing sentence – he sounded like he'd checked a book to find that one. I scrawled a quick reply. Everyone is fine here, although there is a lot of work to be done. Kat's doing well. The baby is healthy and adorable but she doesn't sleep at all. Isabella says that's normal but I wish it wasn't. Don't worry about boring me – I promise not to tell you no matter how boring it is. I hoped he'd take that as the joke I'd meant it to be. I could think of nothing else to add, so I wrote, much more neatly, a brief note wishing Celes and Sabin luck, and another thanking Edgar profusely for the house, folded and sealed all three and dashed upstairs.
Once I reached Setzer, I realized I hadn't needed to hurry so much. We stood and talked for a time, but the airship had evidently convinced Cassie of the worst, and she sat on my foot, wrapped her arms around my leg, and stared up at me, her face threatening tears. "I'm not leaving, honey," I assured her, but she didn't let go until the airship was safely out of sight.
I didn't leave, but I did disturb her peace with one more visit from Setzer. The settlers he'd spotted had arrived some two weeks on, low on supplies and lacking all but the lightest of belongings. They told me they'd farmed south of Mobliz before the Fall, which Duane quietly confirmed when I looked to him, and that they'd fled as refugees to Tzen. A month before, when we went into Kefka's citadel, they'd sold most of their remaining belongings in order to buy wagons, packed the rest, and turned back toward Mobliz, fleeing the expected battle. I plotted out their land claims on the map, and sold them some food, as much as I could spare, and promised to get more soon.
With that last supply run, Setzer brought me the makings of a general store; not just food, but also tools and farm implements, cloth, seed, feed for the chocobos, and small luxuries like sugar, ribbons and spices. I kept my prices low as long as my customers were in need, but I was still making some money, and I had a source of real income.
Life was busy all that spring and summer. We had to cook epic meals for the entire building crew, though that task was over after about a month, after which we had a lovely, clean new house with actual wooden floors and the miraculous running hot water. It involved a complicated system of pumps, and a heater stored in the basement that I would probably appreciate all the more in winter. I was glad most of the settlers lived well outside of town; if I'd been in their position I'd have wanted to know why only one house got such fancy plumbing for free. And being in my own position, I didn't look forward to explaining.
The kids were less in shock and more rambunctious than they'd been before. I had to regularly break up squabbles between Annie, Margie and Henry, and while I typically let Byram and Theo work out their disagreements amongst themselves, I sometimes had to intervene when they tangled with Isabella. There was baby Harriet, or Rosie, as Kat and I began calling her to Duane's irritation, and her impact on everyone's sleep. I'd tried to help Duane and Kat, but I don't think I did them much good. We just had three sleep-deprived adults instead of two. And there were the settlers, who began arriving two or three families at a time, and the governmental duties I had to take on with regard to them – mainly mapping their claims.
And, of course, I handled the post, the chore that offered the most personal rewards for me. I ran both that and the store out of the building that had been the post office before. As more settlers began to arrive this became a much more involved task. Often I had to ride out to deliver the mail, because I knew all the families now living near us, and I knew they were almost all too busy to come into town for their letters. We got our first shipment on the stage from Nikeah, because we didn't yet have any pigeons trained to fly to Mobliz. It had consisted of one letter for the Muellers, who'd been among our first batch of settlers, and all the rest had been for me.
The letter from Sabin was badly blotted, and somehow both stiffly formal and poorly punctuated. He wasn't much of a letter-writer, it seemed. Celes's letter started out equally stiff, describing the troops in Narshe as though she were filing a report, but towards the end she turned sarcastic on the subject of the victory gala in Figaro and I began to feel that I could write her back. Cyan had written, too, inquiring very nicely after the kids and offering his advice in planning the government of Mobliz, which led me to believe that he'd heard from Setzer about the miniature population boom. Locke, apparently not realizing the state of the post here, had written three, dated over the course of a month and full of excitement over the beginning of the dig. Though I immediately wrote back to let him know, he kept this pace of writing up for a month or two. After that, he settled down to one a month, as did Celes and Cyan. By summer, at least, we had a flock of messenger pigeons, trained to fly to Nikeah. The mail still had to be taken by boat to South Figaro, and parcels still had to be sent by stage, but it speeded up the mail noticeably.
I could hear of Sabin through Celes, which was just as well. I wrote to Edgar with updates as often as I could, but never expected replies. When I did receive them, they were always scrawled and informal, no doubt hurried. I knew he was busy. Figaro was the world's only real power, the only government still commanding anything like the resources it had had before Kefka. The aristocrats of Jidoor were still wealthy, but there was no concentrated center of power there. Any country or small village that needed aid or defense against monsters turned to Figaro.
Doma was rebuilding, and Cyan was thoroughly involved in that, but somehow he always found time to write. While his childrearing advice was as Doman and austere as I'd expected, he was wonderfully reassuring about Cassie, reminding me again and again that only time could help her, and he always welcomed news of the kids, which endeared him greatly to me. Celes continued to be somewhat dry in her reports from Narshe, but she grew more casual when we discussed my sketchy memory. We'd known each other most of our lives, it seemed, and we'd been friends since childhood. It was strange getting to know her again while realizing I'd known her all along. It must have been stranger still for her.
And Locke wrote faithfully, his letters an odd mix of his own voice and phrases he must have picked up from novels or advice books. I thought I could see, through the bravado, that he was actually an apprentice on the excavation, learning the trade and helping out those who really knew what they were doing, but he didn't say so outright. It didn't really matter, anyway; his life was so exciting compared to mine, full of giant scorpions and ancient inscriptions. I had my own experience of giant scorpions, so I didn't envy him that, but the work did sound interesting. Despite the far more eventful nature of his life, he always managed to seem genuinely pleased for me when I wrote him with good news about the general store's finances, Charles cutting a new tooth, or two settlers coming to me when they had a dispute over land.
By the end of summer, we even had some other buildings in town. The Josselins set up a dressmaker's and tailor's shop, and the Eiserts opened an inn to minister to the occasional travelling merchant. They got most of their business through their role as bar, restaurant and meeting place, instead. We had a bakery, and another tavern. A chapel was set up across the street from it, almost accusingly. I didn't attend, except for Duane and Kat's wedding; he insisted on making it official. I thought it was sweet, and Kat agreed but also pointed out that it was a bit irrelevant after nearly two years' living together and a child.
We were nearing the end of the year, effectively, or so it felt. All my customers began speaking about the harvest as they lounged on the store's porch, and eventually they began lounging less and working more. I grew restless, and wrote to Locke wistfully about traveling, perhaps visiting him. I meant to imply a "someday," but from his hopeful and mildly panicky response I realized he thought I meant immediately. When I wrote back, I felt almost as though I were disappointing him, but he recovered with almost insulting promptness, or at least pretended to. From letters, it was impossible to tell.
I recovered, too. The harvest ended and autumn gave way to dreary cold that didn't quite deserve the name of winter. I settled back into contentment with my routine, with my life centered around the kids, the daily business of the store, and the post. Letters were always a highlight, more than I liked to admit to myself. The town's rapid growth, that had seemed so exciting, slowed to a trickle; everyone was settling in for the winter.
At night, once the children were in bed, I'd sometimes talk to Duane and Kat, but not as often as we had during that year in the cave. We were all so busy during the day, and so tired at night. And they were young, and technically newlyweds; they liked some time to themselves as well. Once they disappeared into their room I'd start writing my letters, which were my best outlet for whatever I'd bottled up during the day. I tried not to acknowledge the trend to myself, but I did tend to confide most in Locke.
One bitterly cold November day, after delivering the mail through sleet, I burned my hand on the flatiron and shocked Duane deeply with my ability to curse. I followed that up with a storm of sobs. He really thought I'd lost my mind. I couldn't begin to explain that it was because I'd reflexively tried to heal myself, only to realize all over again that I'd lost that ability forever – it was a realization I kept facing, but that day, it was the last straw. I tried to explain all that, but while he knew, he didn't really understand. They'd noticed the color of my hair, they'd even seen me turn into an Esper, but there was no way to explain to a normal human what it was like to lose that part of yourself.
I mentioned it in my letter to Locke, both my overreaction and the odd loneliness of not being able to talk about it. To my surprise, I received a letter within two weeks, full of concern for my health and mental state. Clearly it was in reply to the letter I'd just sent. It should have taken two to three months for my letter to get from here to Nikeah, Nikeah to Figaro, Figaro to the excavation base camp, and for Locke's reply to retrace all those steps. I didn't understand, but I wrote back to assure him I was fine and demand to know what miraculous evolution had occurred in pigeon speed.
Very little, as it happened, though apparently Edgar's latest project was to breed a bird that could fly long distances over water. Locke was in Figaro, preparing with the rest of the team to address the Royal Society. He apologized for his "hysteria," as he called it, but insisted he couldn't help worrying. You were halfway magic after all, he wrote, a statement I instinctively felt wasn't accurate but couldn't refute with evidence. I'm still here, though. There must be a bit more solidity in me than that, I wrote back, and turned to other subjects. Tell Edgar to get back to work on my laundry invention, I added. He may think he's enough of a hero but he might actually impress some women if he'd work on that.
Three days after I sent my reply, I received another letter from him, this one dated a month and a half previously, somewhat weather-stained, and letting me know that the excavation was drawing to a close and that Locke would be wintering in Figaro. A week and a half after that arrived, I got another reply. I relayed your message, Locke wrote. Edgar has been spending much more time with laundresses lately. Perhaps there's a connection?
Our correspondence speeded up noticeably all through late autumn and winter. I began a letter, nervous, before a town meeting, and concluded jubilantly after it was over; they'd actually listened to me while we were drafting the new constitution, and I'd been nominated for the head of the council. While Martin Collier, one of the more popular of the young farmers, had been put up in opposition to me, he'd laughed and said running against me was a lost cause. When the neighbors had been friendly, before, I'd thought they were just being civil. I hadn't expected this sort of support.
All that winter we worked out the government. We hired Elisabeth Luther, the daughter of one of the few families to live in town, as the schoolteacher. (A decision that nearly led to mutiny in my own home – most of the kids had been old enough to attend school before the Fall and they didn't welcome its return.) We worked out the details of the legal system and taxation, and we drafted the letter to the government of Figaro petitioning for recognition as a sovereign nation. It was strange, and felt somewhat roundabout; it would have been simpler just to ask Edgar directly, after all. And while it was all very official, it somehow felt as though it wasn't. After all, I was just sitting there in the same dress I'd worn minding the store earlier that day, surrounded by people who bought plows and chamberpots from me.
But it was done, and eventually a rider in muddy royal livery delivered the official reply. I opened it that night at the council meeting, feeling nervous even though I knew what it would say. Edgar had sent me another of his scribbled notes to let me know I was now the head of a country, but it didn't really count until the seal had been broken and the letter read publicly. I feel as though I should have been wearing a powdered wig or robes of office for all this, I wrote Locke that night.
It was nearly the Solstice, and while they didn't do much to celebrate the holiday in Mobliz, it was still a holiday, to be marked with candles and a minor feast. And, for the kids, candy. More of a production was the planning for the next year's victory celebration. We'd begun the planning, in casual fashion, shortly after the harvest was finished, but it went into high gear once the solstice was past. We were so busy I almost didn't have time to notice that I wasn't hearing from Locke.
Almost. After a month and a half with no word, in the darkness and boredom of the tail end of winter, I guess the disappointment and irritation began to show on my face; Kat began giving me sympathetic looks when she helped me sort the mail. "Stop that!" I complained one day, half joking.
"I'm sure he has a very good reason not to write," she said.
I blinked. I didn't think she'd paid that much attention to my mail, to notice who it was whose absence from the stacks had upset me. I hadn't read that many snatches from his letters to her. A few, of course, but I didn't think I'd been a bother with them. "I'm sure he does," I replied stiffly. "He's bound to be busy, and he's probably... What?"
She was staring at me. "I was just teasing you," she said. "I mean, I figured something must have changed, since you always look so disappointed in the mail, but I didn't think I'd really drag a confession out of you. Who is it, then?"
"Oh shut up!" I wailed, and stomped off to do inventory in stubborn silence. Not the most mature reaction, or the course of action best calculated to convince her there was nothing wrong with me.
She left me alone for the rest of the day, and though I later apologized for snapping, she didn't start teasing me again. Or, for that matter, speaking to me. I tried groveling, that night, as we were washing the dishes.
"Well. All right," she agreed, grudgingly. "I suppose I understand. I mean, I didn't realize you were waiting for a specific letter, and I certainly didn't think you were in love—"
"I'm not!" I protested, a bit too heatedly to convince her. "He's just my friend, that's all!" She just gave me an infuriatingly knowing grin. It was probably deliberately infuriating, since she wasn't what you'd call quick to forgive.
Another week passed, still with no word from Locke. Kat dispatched the older kids, in rotation, to help me with the mail. They took full advantage of this opportunity to complain to me about school. Isabella, when pressed, grudgingly admitted that she liked being around other people her age, but Byram and Theo already had each other and saw no point to further learning. Both insisted that if they could read and do arithmetic, they were ready for the world. I didn't know if Kat was trying to be sensitive to my feelings by staying away, or trying to punish me with the boys, and when I asked, she just smiled sweetly and changed the subject. I was leaning towards the punishment theory, especially once she added Annie to the mix. Byram and Theo were stubborn, but Annie was relentless.
"I don't see why I'll EVER need to know the eights in multiplication," she was wheedling, when Martin Collier knocked on the window. I put a paperweight on the unsorted letters and came out onto the porch.
"There's a rider – should be stabling his bird at the inn now. Foreign accent, so he's probably business for you one way or the other." We were expecting another round of settlers, trying to move in just in time for spring, or we could have merchants or government messengers from any number of places.
"Figaran, Doman, or—" I broke off, staring at the wiry, bearded figure as it rounded the corner of the inn yard. He had a bandanna wrapped around his head, covering his hair. It wasn't a headband as he'd usually worn them, and the beard was new, but somehow I could tell anyway. It couldn't be anyone else.
"Terra!" he called, dispelling the last doubt – there was no mistaking the voice. I stood frozen for a long moment as he walked toward me, then I half ran down the steps and threw my arms around him. He staggered back a step, and I felt his arms tight around my waist. "Miss me?" he asked, teasing.
He smelled of sweat, woodsmoke, and chocobo. I pulled back, meaning to glare at him, but I couldn't keep myself from beaming. "You could have written," I said, trying to sound accusing but failing miserably.
"I just wanted to surprise you! It worked?"
I nodded. "I have to get really mad at you later," I said, grinning like a fool. "Remind me."
"Okay," he agreed, and pulled me close again.
A few people had gathered to gawk at the first surprise in a while. So, feeling thoroughly foolish, I had to introduce him to all of them, and then chat a bit. Once the minor crowd dispersed, we retreated back into the store. Annie inspected him briefly, then announced she'd forgotten to "do something," and darted out. I let her go, finished sorting the mail on my own while he told me about his trip. He'd heard from Sabin about some old caves in the Serpent Trench that might once have been lived in, and he'd wanted to check them out and spend the victory holiday here.
"Did you find them?" I asked.
"Yeah, in the mountains around that tower. It's almost all torn down now, if you were wondering. Looks good, I think we'll start there next if we can get a grant."
"That's closer to the Nikeah end of the trench, though," I pointed out. "And there are other towns even closer to it. Weren't they working on a railroad?" I added, irrelevantly; I knew full well they had been, but I was hoping he had more recent news on its progress. It wasn't as though he'd stay in Nikeah and commute by train to his archeological site.
"Completed it as far south as Freyborg," he confirmed. "But I want to stay here." He smiled brilliantly at me, and I felt my face heat, so I ducked my head over the letters as I shuffled and then re-sorted them.
Duane had heard about the visitor, evidently, so when he came in I reintroduced them. They'd met before, briefly, when I'd come back for a visit just before we fought Kefka. I thankfully handed the mail off to Duane when he volunteered to make the deliveries, and closed the store a bit early – it was only four – and took him over to show off my house.
I kept the tour brief, but then when I showed him the kitchen sink I had to show off the hot water. He confirmed that the bath had this luxury as well, so he and his pack commandeered the bathroom. With nothing else to do, I started dinner. He joined me after a while, with his beard trimmed and a fresh bandanna as a headband.
"You look a lot less like a pirate," I greeted him, teasing.
"I looked like a pirate?"
"The beard, plus the bandanna..."
He sighed heavily, but not at all seriously, as he seated himself. "At least pirates hunt for treasure," he said.
"No, they steal treasure and bury it. Other people hunt for it later."
"Woman!" he protested, but he grinned and tipped the kitchen chair back. "How's the beard look on me, anyway?"
"You need to give me a bit of time to get used to it." He looked crestfallen and I backpedaled hastily. "It looks good! It's just a change is all! I was just used to thinking of you clean-shaven—"
"It does look weird," he interrupted. "Too dark for my hair."
"That's normal for light-haired men, though. Really, it looks good."
"Wasn't planning to keep it. I just let it grow because I didn't want to shave on the road," he explained, then called out, "Hey there!" The kitchen door had opened. Annie led the way, and Margie and Henry followed her. "Hi," she greeted him, and the other two giggled.
"Hi," he responded. "You're... well, you're not Isabella or Katarin, I'm sure."
"I'm Annie and this is Marjorie and this is Henry. They're both seven and I'm eight. Who are you?"
"I'm Locke. I'm a friend of your mom's."
"Yeah," she agreed, accompanied by more giggles. "We have to go study now."
"Okay," he said, sounding mystified, and they scooted out the door.
Kat dropped in not long afterwards. She looked at him, then at me, and I saw a huge grin spread over her face. "Thanks for starting dinner," she said, sounding far more gleeful than the situation warranted. That boded ill for me, I thought.
"I'll just fix the whole meal, Kat, don't worry," I said. She chirped an affirmative and exited as well, hopefully to mind the kids.
"You're doing great," he said, when the door had shut behind her. He'd timed the statement perfectly, if he'd been trying for irony; the potatoes were trying to boil over.
"I am?" I asked, distracted, as I shifted the potatoes off to the side and knelt to peer at the fire.
"Eight kids and you're in charge of the government? Looks that way to me."
"Well, thanks," I mumbled, embarassed and at a loss. "I have help, you know, I mean..."
"You look good, too. I was afraid you'd be wasting away. I mean, I can't tell for sure, you're wearing corsets and those long skirts—"
Before, I'd always kept to short skirts or trousers, a pair of preferences that, according to Celes, didn't work together at all. "I hardly ever lace the corsets tight at all. I like breathing," I replied, defensively. "Besides, that's what everyone wears," I added. I hadn't wanted to stand out worse than I ever did.
"Not anymore. Would you believe you're a fashion icon?"
"Of course I wouldn't."
"You were an inspiration to some Jidooran designer, at least. That style of dress you liked so much is all over the place. I saw a few girls almost showing knee in South Figaro, and Edgar tells me women aren't wearing corsets anymore."
"They're cutting into my business!" I exclaimed. "They'd better have some new expensive underthings to take up the slack. But you'll have to let Kat know, she'll be in agony till she gets the latest magazines. Why would I have been wasting away?"
He let all four chair legs hit the ground, propped his foot in the seat of the next chair. "I... well, all this past year I figured you were happy. You sounded happy. Then you wrote me that letter about the magic and stuff, and I figure, she's been miserable all along and she just stopped hiding it." He looked up at me, almost anxiously.
"No, no, nothing like that! It just hits me sometimes, that's all." Like mourning a death. You can't help feeling the absence, but you can't let yourself drown in it either. You try to move on and not to think about it, but sometimes it throbs like an old scar. I didn't voice the comparison, at least.
I guess that's what he was thinking of, too, because after a long silence, he just said, "I know how that is." He looked serious, sad, and he was staring at his foot, or at least in the direction of it. "I wish I could help," he added, quietly.
"I... me too," I said, not completely sure how to explain what I meant by that, but he didn't respond, so I busied myself over the stove and left him alone. But I sneaked a glance at him, and again he had perfect timing, choosing that moment to look up with a rueful smile.
"So how are your kids doing?" he asked. I couldn't help growing animated on that subject, and he seemed to cheer up in response. I was surprised, and delighted. I'd figured everyone, except possibly Cyan, just skimmed the bits of my letters with news of the kids, but there he was, clearly not falling asleep and even laughing occasionally. He could always have been humoring me, but I thought I knew him well enough to tell if he was faking it.
Over dinner, he kept everyone entertained with stories from the previous year's dig. I'd already heard many of them in his letters, but he told them well, and besides, I was just happy to have him around. The kids all seemed enthralled, one way or another – Rosie, perched on Locke's lap, was enthralled with a ring he wore, and tried chewing on it while it was still on his finger – so I let them sit up for some time after dinner. When I started to notice yawns, I ushered my brood, sleepy but protesting, off to bed. When I came back downstairs, Locke was holding forth about the process of archeology to Duane and Kat.
"...that's where they come in, translating things and figuring out what it all means about how they lived," I heard, as I came within earshot.
"But why?" Duane asked, sounding as if he'd already asked the question. "I mean, not knocking your job, but why does it matter how all these people lived centuries ago?" I slipped through the door quietly.
"Because it's cool!" Locke answered, meeting my eye with a grin. I grinned back, and began clearing the plates off the table. Locke got up to help.
"Like Mr. Collier says, Duane, if you don't know your history you're doomed to repeat it, so this is just one more part to know," Katarin supplied. She was nursing Rosie under a shawl. That meant she must have really been interested and wasn't just being polite, because she hated to nurse in front of anyone other than myself or Duane.
"Collier? That the guy I met earlier?" Locke asked, as I put the stacks of dishes in the sink.
"Yeah," I said. "He's my second on the council."
"Younger than I expected," he said, into a pocket of silence. I looked over my shoulder, spotted Kat's elevated eyebrows. I didn't know why, but I was sure I'd hear later.
"He's about thirty or so, I guess," I said. "What were you talking about when I came in?"
"Duane was calling his livelihood into question," Kat interjected.
"I was not!"
"He wasn't. It's a perfectly good question. I don't have an answer, but it's a good question." He turned back to me, smiling apologetically. "I was just explaining about archeology in more detail. You told them a lot, huh?"
"I guess I did," I replied, though I hadn't realized I had, and I ran hot water over the dishes in the sink. "What about translating? What's to translate? We could read the queen's diary." Her language had been archaic enough to put Cyan's thoroughly to shame. The grammar was strange, some of the words unfamiliar, the spellings odd, and there were a few letters I didn't recognize either. But we'd been able to puzzle through without a trained scholar.
"That was their common script. They had another they used for inscriptions, official documents, things like that. It's just about impossible... Hey, you still have that diary?"
"Of course! I wasn't about to throw that away. Do you want it?"
"I'd like to transcribe it later, but it's a bit late to start today. I'd better get on to the inn, anyway." He stood, went to get his bag out of the corner.
"I'll walk you out?" I offered, and while he was saying sure, Kat caught my eye and smiled broadly. Yes, I'd definitely hear about whatever it was soon enough. We headed out of the kitchen, through the darkened hallway – Kat liked to call it the foyer, though I wasn't sure that was quite correct – and we emerged into the cool night air. It had been unseasonably warm the past few days, but the nights were always cold. "I'm glad you're here," I said, quietly.
"I am too," he said, equally quietly, and smiled warmly. "I really missed you."
I felt like I had when he kissed me, happy but with a percolating nervousness. "I missed you too," I said, barely above a whisper, and watched my words disappear in little clouds of my breath. I reached out, pointlessly, finally touched his arm – it seemed the safest place. He tucked a lock of hair behind my ear and leaned in; the kiss landed low on my cheek, near the corner of my lips. He straightened up, and there was silence, for a breath or two, until he whispered, "I'd better get going."
"I'll see you tomorrow?" I asked.
"Of course!" he said, his voice climbing to a halfway normal volume, and then he grabbed my hand, squeezed it, and turned to leave. I watched until he was halfway across the square, then turned around and went back inside.
Duane was waiting in the kitchen, sipping his coffee. "Kat's upstairs putting Rosie to bed," he told me. He'd accepted the name, reluctantly at first. "We agreed, we approve of your friend."
"Well... good!" I said, going back over to the sink. "I'm glad." That actually meant a lot, coming from Duane; he always meant well, but he had a temper and he'd clashed immediately with Celes and especially Sabin when they'd asked me to join them.
"I didn't hate any of them," he said. "I was just afraid you'd leave, and then..." he trailed off. I nodded, sympathetically, but I wasn't sure if I could say anything without offending him. I could guess that he'd felt he'd be the head of the household, without me, and that the responsibility had scared him, that he'd feared he couldn't keep the family together, but I wasn't sure he'd admit it.
"I would have always come back," I said. But that wasn't fully true, because when it came to fighting Kefka, I hadn't been sure I could. And I'd gone anyway.
He nodded. "I know you would have tried," he said, and Kat walked into the slightly awkward silence that followed that, smiling brightly at both of us. "Well, I think she's down for the night," she reported. "What's going on?"
"We were just talking," he said. "I'll go check up on the chocobos, then get to bed."
"Be with you in a bit!" she called after him, and I heard him, through the door, acknowledge that. "So," she said, turning to me.
"So?" I repeated, reaching for a rag to scrub the dishes.
"He's a very nice man," she told me. "Locke. Mr. Cole."
"I know. He's my best friend, really. Almost my oldest friend." The oldest friend I fully remembered. I rubbed a stubborn gravy spot away underwater. "I'm glad you guys like him, though."
"And I guess he had about a month or so in there where he couldn't write to you because he was traveling," she continued.
"Kat, please don't start that again," I said hastily, rinsing the plate off under hot water.
"Why not?" she asked, teasingly, and I sighed. She stood, came to join me; I handed her the wet plate and a dry cloth.
"It's... I mean... he's... it's complicated." Pointless trying to pretend it was nothing. She wouldn't believe me. She wouldn't just let this excuse sit, either, and I scrubbed hard at the next plate, not looking up at her though I could feel her eyes on my face. "He had a fiancee, who just died less than a year ago, and one of my other friends was sort of in love with him."
"Sort of?" she repeated gently, and I just nodded, handed her the dish without looking at her. "But they're not together now?" she continued. "Romantically, I mean."
"I don't think so."
"Have they ever been together?"
I felt a stab of something that must have been jealousy. "I don't know. I thought he was interested in her for a while. Looking back, I think he was interested in me for a while. But he got over it. By the time we found him again, after, he didn't really seem interested in either of us." Until he kissed me. But that had been a fluke. And he'd been dancing with her.
"Where's she been?"
"In Narshe," I answered automatically, then paused in my washing, realizing what she was getting at. She bent and twisted her neck, trying to peer into my face. She was smiling as she straightened.
"And he was around Figaro, wasn't he? And that's not really very close to Narshe anymore." I just nodded. "And now he's here," she concluded. "Which is quite a distance from Figaro or Narshe. I think that says something."
"Well, maybe," I said, handing off another plate to her. "Maybe not. People can write. And it doesn't say a thing about how she feels."
"But it's a start!" she insisted. "And you can drop hints, fish for information. Or I can. I'll be all subtle. We'll work something out."
"Why are you being so nice to me about this?" I asked. "I figured you and Duane would both tease me mercilessly."
"Nah. Duane figures it's your business and he'll leave you alone. If you'd been writing love letters secretly all this time, I would have teased you, but not over this. That's why I acted like that earlier. I just didn't know."
"Oh. Um, thank you?"
"If that means you forgive me, sure. And I forgive you, so it all works out. Did he mention to you about short skirts coming into style?"
The next day, he turned up at the store around mid-morning, in the lull between packing the kids off to school and the first of the settlers reaching town. Kat was minding all the young ones while I did inventory, and then I heard the jingle of the bell over the door and looked up. He was grinning, and clean-shaven, with a pale outline on his face where the beard had been. "You didn't even give me a chance to get used to it!" I called out by way of greeting. Kat looked up, grinning. I pretended to ignore her.
"You weren't just being polite?" he asked, and I shook my head.
"It was just a change! You need to give people time to adapt," I said. "It kind of looked good on you."
"Will you make up your mind?"
"Well, you're supposed to choose to suit yourself," I said. "I can see why you'd want to quit shaving. I know I don't enjoy it."
"What? You shave?" Kat demanded.
"My legs, yeah."
She made a face. "What if you cut yourself? Wouldn't that hurt?"
"Part of the short skirts, huh?" he asked.
"Well, more or less. By the end of the war most women did it." I went into the storeroom to count the bolts of calico. The dresses I remembered came a few inches past the knee, and on the women in the quartermaster's office they'd been olive-drab. Celes had elaborated on that for me – that the fashion had begun with military uniforms and spread to civilian style. The dress I'd been wearing when I was found had been unduly short in comparison to those I remembered, and brighter than a uniform. Red. Kefka's favorite color. "Don't worry, Kat, you could just go a few inches shorter and still look fine with heavier stockings. Or for that matter, who'd care the other way?"
"Well... maybe I should..." She was still fretting over what to do for her new dress for spring. All through the year in the cave, she'd never bothered, but I suppose she felt the need to make up for lost time now.
"I think they're doing that in Jidoor. Silk stockings and shaving their legs, I mean. But in Nikeah they're still wearing longer dresses."
"Oh, you've been investigating, have you?" I called out from the storeroom. "Feeling a lot of legs in Jidoor?"
"Terra!" Kat gasped, acting scandalized, but then I heard her laughing. I came out of the storeroom, with my ledger in hand. My inventory and bookkeeping were scattershot at best and worse that day than usual, because I wanted to be able to talk rather than follow what little system I had. I kept it all straight in my head, which I considered the main thing.
Locke was sputtering a bit. "We had a conference there, it's just, just noticeable, that's all! Jidooran women are dark, so, y'know, I mean..."
"Mmm-hmmm..." I replied, enjoying his discomfort and ticking off jars of molasses on the list.
"It's true! Like— well, look at you, your legs are longer than the rest of you, so I notice your legs." I was already wearing a shorter hemline, and I'd abandoned petticoats. Someone had to lead the charge for fashion, Kat said, and she was more willing to alter one of my dresses; for herself, she wanted a new one. It was oddly liberating to shed all those layers, and it had given her something to do. "Besides, I figured you'd want to hear."
"And hats. They're about going out of style. You see these... little ones, like..." He mimed something close to his head. It didn't mean anything to me, since I'd never worn them, but Kat seemed interested. Then she had to scoop up Rosie, who seemed determined to crawl right into the stove.
"What about beards?" I asked, and he gave me a beleaguered look.
"If you're that determined, I can grow a new one any day now," he said.
"I just think it's funny... You always shaved just about daily, even when we were fighting Kefka, then you grow one after a three-week ride." And shave it off because I said so.
"Well... you wake up and there's Edgar, looking all put-together, maybe he had a valet stashed in his pack or something, and you think 'I have to at least try to groom myself.'"
"Well, Celes was about the same, and I never had that problem," I said. At one point I'd taken to wearing a bandanna like his to hide the state of my hair, after a particularly long sojourn on the Veldt. Nothing had ever seemed to completely phase her; even when she was wounded and drenched she managed, somehow, to look perfectly in charge of the situation. And she never seemed to sweat.
He shrugged. "I'm just a dandy at heart, I guess," he said, and gave me that winning smile again. I tried not to smile back at him for too long. I also tried to pretend Kat's eyes weren't burning holes in the back of my head, but my imagination wasn't quite that powerful. So I said, as if I'd just remembered, "Oh! I'm supposed to get mad at you today."
"Can't it wait? I have to write reams of letters," he said. "I'll pencil you in after lunch."
I kept losing count of the bottles of lamp oil. "You haven't written your letters yet? You must have really slept in."
"I had a very long trip, I'll have you know," he retorted, sounding huffy, though when I glanced at him I saw that he was grinning. I really was trying to keep count, so I didn't look up again. I heard the bell jingle, I heard his footsteps on the porch and going down the steps. I heard a happy squeal from Charles as he managed to pull Kat's knitting off the counter. I darted over to make sure he hadn't poked an eye out. He hadn't, so I picked up Kat's knitting, and then him. When I stood, she was standing there waiting.
"Just kiss him already," she said.
I never did get around to losing my temper with Locke, even though he came by that evening for dinner. As the days passed, he came by most evenings for dinner. "I'm going to really offend the Eiserts," he said cheerfully. I doubted it. Everyone in town knew he was really my guest. I think he only had the room at the inn for the sake of my reputation, because he spent most of his time at the house. He conducted his business by letter in the mornings, then dropped by the store to lounge around until I closed up shop, and followed me home.
Everyone seemed to like him well enough. After all, he'd enter willingly, even enthusiastically, into their interminable discussions about weather. I understood why they cared – the climate had changed, and knowing the weather was vital to farming – but my knowledge of the subject was limited to the basics. I'd plant the vegetables when Duane said so, but I didn't care to get into a detailed discussion of killing frosts. It endeared him to them, though, and he didn't seem to mind at all. When I thanked him for it, he pointed out that Kohlingen had been an agricultural area too, and that he was halfway used to it.
The time seemed to race by. Winter warmed into early spring, and the bulbs began to sprout and flower. Martin Collier brought me a few daffodils, and I arranged them in a vase on the counter. Locke asked, conversationally, where they'd come from, and I told him.
"Oh. Well, that was nice of him," he said, with a slightly fixed-looking smile, then fidgeted with the stove (which, finally, I didn't need to light anymore) suddenly remembered he'd left a letter at the inn, and headed back out. Kat mouthed "Jealous" at me, very clearly. I mouthed "You're crazy" back at her. And Locke popped back in the door, saying, "Was in my pocket all along." We both turned to look at him; he'd stopped in the doorway. "Should I be worried?" he asked. Kat giggled, and that set me off.
"Right..." he said, and deposited the letter on the counter gingerly. I covered my mouth with both hands. "Still have to write another," he added, and beat a hasty retreat. Kat had run off to the storeroom, and when she emerged, I threw a ball of yarn at her.
She caught it neatly. "He is!" she insisted. "He's jealous!" She tossed it back at me, and I fumbled it and had to chase it. "The reflexes that saved the world," she sighed, mock-disgusted, so I threw it at her again.
And I continued to ignore her. I was happy with things as they stood. I got to see him every day, and the kids seemed to adore him. We were still busy working out the plans for the celebration at the ever-more-frequent council meetings; sometimes we'd hold impromptu meetings if a few other members happened into the store at the same time. The plans were already in place – a circus was coming, for the town's children, and we'd arranged a dance in the Ellis's barn "so the young people can spend some time together," as Mr. Collier had described it. I wasn't sure if I officially counted as young. Perhaps not. But despite the lack of anything further to really adjust, we continued to reiterate the plans, to discuss the size of the barn, consider, reconsider, and eventually stick to the original plans.
"You don't have to leave right after the celebration, do you, Locke?" I asked about a week before it was to happen. The circus had been spotted down around the South Bend, aiming for a brief stop at Tailin, the even-tinier village at the south end of the country, before heading to the holiday engagement here. The news had sent the kids into a tizzy of excitement about the approaching holiday.
"I don't know yet," he explained, patiently, and I realized I'd asked before. "I won't know till Hamley writes back to tell me when they're going to get there. I hope not, but I might."
I nodded, covered the bread dough and set it aside to rise. "I wish I could tell you for sure," he said. "I'd like to stay here a while longer." I leaned against the sink, looking at him curiously. The tan where his beard had been had evened out. I didn't see any insincerity about him, but I wasn't sure I'd have recognized it if I'd seen it.
"I thought you liked traveling so much," I said.
"Well... not so much that I like traveling, I just get restless if I stay too long in one place. But I haven't here, yet." He shrugged.
"The constant adventure of waiting for what the kids will do next?" I suggested. Cassie had uncovered a mischievous streak; a few days before, I'd discovered her and Charles rolling large candles back and forth across the storeroom floor, while Rosie banged a taper vigorously against a shelf. Before that, she'd decided, for no apparent reason, to wash the day's eggs in whiskey; I'd found the empty bottle and nearly died of fright, which didn't abate until I'd performed a full head count and interrogation.
"Could be that," he said, grinning. "I tell you what happened yesterday?"
"Well, I was taking advantage of your bath, you don't know how lucky you are—"
"Oh yes I do! You ever tried bathing five young kids in a number three washtub? Not to mention myself..."
"All at once?" he asked, faking astonishment. I stuck my tongue out at him. "Okay, you're right, you do know. Anyway, I left my boots outside, and Henry put a garter snake in one."
"Is it okay?" I asked. I'd have to have a word with Henry about how to treat the local wildlife.
"Yeah. I screamed to high heaven, they thought it was hilarious, but the snake was just slightly freaked out, I think."
The kids buzzed around in high gear for most of the next week. "I'd forgotten how easily excited kids can get," Locke noted. He was helping me sweep up in the store; it had been rainy the previous day, and the floor was covered in dried mud. He wasn't much help, but I wasn't going to pick on him. He was getting better, at least.
"I hadn't forgotten," I said. They'd been the same way over the solstice. "I just don't quite understand. Are they that bored? I mean, not that you'd be able to tell unless they told you..."
"Well... I dunno. When I was that age, it was just... well, we got gifts at a lot of the holidays, too. My grandparents didn't have much, but they were generous with it, you know? So that was part of it for me, but beyond that, I don't know. Just looking forward to the special occasion? It's hard to explain."
"Well, that's good enough, I guess... it is normal for kids, though?"
"Yeah," he said, and leaned his broom against the counter, squeezed my shoulders. "It'll all come back to you," he said.
"Some of it has, but I'm not sure I'll ever remember any more. It's just little things, images, people whose names I can't recall... I don't remember the governess that raised me, or Celes's mother. She says I'm just as lucky about her mother, but I want to remember."
"I didn't even know she had a mother, so we're even there," he said. I smiled, more because he was trying to cheer me up than anything else. "I don't even remember my mother, barely remember my father..." I turned to look at him, curious, then felt bad because he might not want to talk about it. "My mother died when I was little. Dad died when I was six or seven." He shrugged. "He was actually the one who taught me how to steal."
I'd opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn't figure out what words to use. "See, I admitted it," he added, grinning a little. "It was just poaching, or grabbing a few vegetables here and there or swiping some coins. He had me do it because no one would blame a kid. My mother's parents took me in after he died, and they wouldn't let me keep it up. And Grandpa ran a curiosity shop, so I guess I come by all of it honest, huh?"
"I guess so," I said. "Locke, I am so sorry." I meant for all of it – his parents dying, his having to steal when he was young, the way I always used to tease him about being a thief, not knowing it might have been a sore subject – but I left it open for him to choose.
"About what?" he asked. "My parents? Well, it's not your fault. And it's been ages." I might have looked disapproving, because he added, "I just don't remember them, you know? You can't miss someone you never really knew in the first place."
"I can," I said. I missed a lot of things I couldn't even remember. "But I understand."
The circus finally arrived, with a parade of vomamoths, caged tigers and people in sparkly leotards. They set up the tents in the middle of the town square, and I spent most of the afternoon spooked by the relative quiet in the store, because all the kids were out there rather than with me.
About the circus itself, though, I think I was more excited than the kids were. Now that the anticipation was over, the older kids weren't all that interested. But I'd never been to one, or at least I didn't remember if I had. All the kids were fairly impressed with the animals, but Cassie did not like the clowns at all. I had to take her outside, and try in vain to sooth her.
Locke came out to let us know when the clowns were gone. "They were bad!" she informed him, still tearful.
"I know they were! You were very brave," he said, reassuringly, and knelt to hand her a fresh bag of peanuts. "They always scared me too," he added, failing to notice that I was glaring at him. I wanted to convince her things were safe. "You just have to remember, they can't actually hurt you."
She clutched the bag tightly with both hands. "But they were bad!" she insisted.
"They're gone now, anyway," he said, and she smiled tentatively. I beamed – it might not be the method I preferred, but she was happier now, and it had worked better than my attempts at hushing her. He was smiling at her, but then his eyes flicked up to my face and the grin broadened. "Let's get you back inside," he suggested. "The acrobats are about to start."
I took her hand and led her back in, but when she got scared during the tightrope walking, she climbed onto his lap, and she held his hand on the way home. "Sorry about that," he said to me sheepishly, that night, once they were all in bed. "I wasn't trying to steal your kid."
"Oh, Locke, it's okay! I'm glad she's accepting you. Anything that stops her being so scared and shy all the time is okay by me."
"I'm kind of flattered she likes me, really," he said.
"Well, you should be. She doesn't like many people." I paused, then went ahead and asked. "Were you really scared of clowns?" He laughed, but he didn't answer.
We spent the next week or so getting ready for the dance, a set of preparations that bored most of the kids, though they still had the circus and the attendant attractions – the sideshow, a fortuneteller, and a set of carnival games. Isabella, to my surprise, was looking forward to it; she hadn't yet turned boy-crazy, a state Kat was eagerly anticipating in her, and she disdained all things girly, but she wasn't deterred even by my announcement that she'd have to wear a dress. Also to my surprise, it was a lot of fun, though we'd underestimated both the numbers we could expect and how many would fit, and the party had spilled outside in all directions. It was nice, for me at least, to see all the people that I knew lived here. Many I hadn't seen since I registered their claims, but to my delight, I found that I knew all of them at least by surname, and many by first name, though it helped that half the men were named John.
There was really not as much dancing as there was drinking, yelling, and eating, although there was enough to justify putting down the barn doors for a dance floor. I took advantage of it; for some reason, I found it all exhilarating, but especially the dancing. Kat reported to me, gleefully, that Locke hadn't seemed too happy when I danced with Mr. Collier. I elbowed her in the side and made Duane drag her out on the dance floor again, which seemed to make her happy enough to leave me alone on the subject.
The kids had mostly elected to stay outside, but I spotted Isabella standing off by the hay bales with Elisabeth Luther's younger brother Jesse. There was quite a bit of space between them, and they didn't seem to be talking much – mostly, they seemed to be looking at their feet – but it was pretty clear that they were not-talking together. Suspecting I might regret it, I went over and suggested they dance too, as long as they were inside.
The both turned red. "Mom!" Isabella hissed.
"Um," he said, and her head whipped around, some happier expression dawning on her face. Though of course she ducked her head and hid it behind her hair.
"Um," she replied. I hastened away, grinning to myself, and bumped straight into Locke's chest, banging my nose up a little. He steadied me by both shoulders, then touched my face cautiously to check for damage while I did the same. Our fingers kept brushing. I seemed to be unharmed.
"Can we get outside and talk?" he asked, half-shouting over the noise, and I nodded.
He guided me out, steering me around obstacles with a hand on my waist or an arm around my shoulders, and glaring a bit overprotectively at John Harlow when he nearly stepped on me, even as the guy said "Sorry, Miz Branford." Out in the cool night air, I felt my head clear. I'd only had a cup of the applejack, but inside I'd been giddy and halfway dizzy.
Locke was looking around. "Still a lot of people here," he said.
"Well, it's a big dance, you know, we've all got a lot to celebrate... The two of us most of all," I added. He grinned, and impulsively, I hugged him. I heard snickering, and when I looked up over his shoulder I spotted Byram and Theo, crouched, for some reason, behind the empty farm cart. "What are you two doing?" I asked.
"Nothing!" Theo answered, too quickly. My eyes narrowed, and I let go of Locke, advanced on the two of them. They backed away. Theo's hands were behind his back.
"What've you got behind you?" Locke asked, before I could. He sounded amused.
"Uh..." Byram said, and Theo shot him a disgusted look, then shoved something into his hands and took off at a sprint. I got a look at what he was holding – fireworks, mostly firecrackers – before Byram took off too.
"If you two set yourselves on fire don't run crying to me!" I called after them. I would have given chase, but I knew full well I couldn't catch them in the slimmer-fitting skirt Kat had made just for this.
"That would have been better if you'd said something about their feet," Locke said, behind me. "Or legs."
"Oh, sure, you can laugh!"
"They know not to hold them when they're lit, right?" he asked, and I nodded, hoping they wouldn't decide to be brave about it. "Then they'll be okay," he said, and slid an arm around my waist. "Exploding sons aside, you having fun?"
I smiled, half-grudgingly, up at him, watched the answering crinkle of his eyes. "Yeah. It's great, isn't it? Seeing all these people happy, and seeing how well Mobliz is doing... I had no idea. I mean, I had an idea, but it doesn't really hit you till you see all of them in one place, you know?" Almost cautiously, I put my hand on his at my side.
"Yeah. Pretty big, isn't it?" he said, but he was just looking at me, not at the people.
"A lot bigger than it used to be. I'll have to do a census," I said, and he touched my face. My heart was thudding in my chest, and I remember thinking, You idiot, don't close your eyes, you'll look stupid, he might not be thinking that, and then he looked up and glanced around again.
"You don't want to leave, then?" he asked, and I blinked, confused. When had either of us said anything about me moving? Then I realized he just meant the party, realized what that might mean, and blinked several more times. "I just thought we could go back to your house—" he said, and that didn't help any. It wasn't a likely interpretation, but I didn't see what he was getting at. "I just want to sober up a little, talk to you without having the whole town waiting to thank you or dance with you or throw up on your shoes." Which Josiah Coates had almost managed, though I'd dodged at the last second.
"Well, that'd be okay," I said. He just thinks of you as a friend, that's all it is, don't think like that. Don't get wrought up over nothing, I told myself. "I'm going to go in and get something to eat – I don't want to really cook when I get back."
"I'll... Would you mind if I started back now? Walking might clear my head."
I had no problem with that, of course. He looked steady enough on his feet to me, but everyone handles things differently. I caught up with him out of sight of the dance; he'd been waiting by an apple tree. The first buds were beginning to show on the tree, a subject that I vaguely remembered had been cause for some alarm and much discussion among the men. "You okay?" I asked him.
"Oh. Yeah, just waiting. Didn't want to make you walk all the way back alone," he added, and we set off, falling almost into step for a moment or two. The back of his hand brushed mine, but that was probably an accident. The silence stayed companionable until we reached the house, at which point he started making idle small talk about the construction, Edgar, and the whole fight.
"It hardly even seems real now," I said, quietly, meaning the whole struggle, the life-or-death decisions and the fate of the world resting on our scarcely-qualified shoulders.
"This time a year ago I kissed you," he noted. I felt my entire face, neck, and ears heat up. At least he couldn't notice; between the moonlight and the lamplight from the window, I could make out his features, barely, but it was too dim for much more.
"Yeah," I choked out. "You did."
"Terra, I—" He turned to face me, and I found myself staring at my feet. Maybe Isabella could sweep in and tell the two of us to dance. "I have to apologize to you."
"I think you already did, Locke," I mumbled.
"Not about that! About—" He headed for the other end of the porch. "About the way I treated you all along. I shouldn't've— When I met you I'd just about given up hope for Rachel. I just... I started focusing on you so much, and you were really just a kid. I mean, weren't you?"
"I guess I was," I said, more a sigh than speech. I sat down on the porch steps, arms around my knees. A moment later he sat down next to me, the few inches of air between us as solid as a wall.
"And I... caught onto that, sort of, after a while, and then I met Celes and I must have started flirting with her— I know I did afterwards. I was sort of—"
"Locke, you don't have to tell me everything," I said abruptly.
"I know that. I'm just saying... after we got to that lab in Vector, I realized I might be able to bring Rachel back, but I couldn't help wanting to spend time with you both, and I had to patch things up with Celes— I hadn't been fair to her, and that bothered me, and—"
"Locke, I understand, it's okay—" I said, pushing myself up off the step. He grabbed my hand, looked up at me for a moment.
"Listen," he said. "Please? Don't leave yet."
After a long moment, fully aware of his hand on my wrist but not at all aware of how long I'd been looking into his eyes, I nodded, barely perceptible. A moment later I sat down, but I had my arms wrapped tightly around my stomach, my knees drawn up a step, folded in towards myself.
"I didn't think she had any special feelings for me – I figured she still hated me, actually. She had a right. I figured I'd been a complete idiot when I was infatuated with her, and worse when I thought she'd betrayed us. And then, you know, the world ended." He was quiet for a long time. "I went to Kohlingen first thing," he said. "Then I tried Jidoor, heard I could find magicite for sale there, and instead I heard a rumor about the Phoenix. I asked around about everyone, but I went after the Phoenix first, and let me tell you, it's not easy getting through those mountains on foot."
I nodded, a little. "I wanted her back... It was like I started missing her worse than ever when I realized we could have magic and magic might do it. And I owed her," he said. "I kept her here for five, six years, so I owed it to her to bring her back all the way. I should have just let her rest in peace all along," he said, very softly.
"But you loved her!" I protested. What else could he have done?
"That's why. I should have realized I didn't have a hope in hell of bringing her back, so I should have just let go like normal people do. Let her soul rest. I kept her stuck for six years because I was selfish."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I'd heard about souls, but I drew a blank on the concept, other than they were supposed to be immortal. We hadn't had much time for lectures on theology along the way, or maybe no one had wanted to discuss it for some reason. And I welcomed a deferral from whatever purpose he had for this talk. It just felt ominous. I wasn't used to seeing him serious. Even after the Phoenix had failed he'd been trying to make jokes.
"A soul, it's the part of you that's supposed to last after you die. Dunno if I believe in it or not, but she always did."
"What about Espers? Do you think they had them?"
He hesitated, then nodded. "Strago thought so, I know. He thought the magicite was the part of their souls that was attached to their magic. I think that's about what I did with Rachel, got the old man to keep her soul attached here."
"How's that work?" I asked.
"I don't know, Terra. I'm just kinda making this up as I go along, but I like to believe it." I nodded, glum, clenched my arms tighter. My stomach hurt. I tried not to think about what he was going to say, tried to think about Espers, think how I'd managed to survive, how I'd been born in the first place. Anything.
"I was probably kind of a jerk to both of you. You and Celes, I mean. Her more than you, maybe. I'd sort of flirted with her earlier on, then I got all preoccupied, and after I joined back up, she was a lot friendlier, but I was keeping to myself... Couldn't seem to talk to her about Rachel. I just wasn't a very good friend. I mean, I talked to you, but barely. I don't know what you thought of me—"
"Locke—" I began, and stopped. What was I going to say? 'Go fall back in love with her, she likes you and she called dibs'? Or maybe he was still in love with her. Part of me was crying, It's not fair!, a complaint from the depths of childhood. I didn't even know what he was going to say. It sounded like he was leading up to 'I'm sorry, but I'm still not in love with you,' and I felt the stirrings of a preemptive humiliation at the thought that he needed to say so.
"What I'm trying to say is I had a long time with not a lot to do but think," he said. "This year, I mean. I've... I still feel guilty about what happened to Rachel. I'll probably always feel guilty about that, and miss her, and at first it hurt like hell that she was really gone, but it was easier to get used to it— I'd gotten used to not being with her, and... I sort of feel guilty that I did adjust to it so easy, but..." He trailed off, then sort of drew himself up, started over. "I don't know how to say this. I thought about you a lot. I missed you. I..." He cleared his throat. "I think maybe I missed you more than... anyone else."
I was staring at my knees, at the board and a half between my feet. I swallowed hard. I looked over at him. He was staring at his own hands, but when I moved my hair rustled against my blouse or something, and he looked up.
"I know that wasn't— I don't want to make it sound like— I mean—" He kept stopping, and he'd turned half toward me. He seemed to have focused on my shoulder, then his gaze slid up to my eyes, then down to my lips. He was leaning in, and I closed my eyes.
We were a little bit less awkward than we'd been a year ago, despite the same uncomfortable positioning. When we pulled apart, he brushed the hair off my face lightly and smiled hazily at me. "I don't know why you're still here," he said, and kissed me again. "I just admitted I'm a faithless, self-centered..."
"Locke, are you always going to be this weird when we kiss?" I asked, my voice rasping uncomfortably louder than his.
He looked taken aback, then he started laughing. "Gods," he gasped, after a moment. "You're right. I'm sorry. This just... I was just so nervous I couldn't even see straight, and... don't hold it against me?"
"I just think it'll get to be a bit of a production if we spend any time together at all..." I was trying to cover my own reaction with the jokes. My hands were trembling. I felt like all of me was trembling.
He chuckled. "That's—" He cleared his throat. "Actually, that's something else I needed to tell you." I looked at him nervously. "I have to leave tomorrow. I just got the letter from Hamley, he wants me to meet them there by the beginning of April. He's a brilliant man, but no concept of time, so if I'm going to make it within shouting distance of that I'd better get going tomorrow."
"You have to?" I felt like I was trying to keep my footing during turbulence. I'd left the mail to Kat today; she'd wanted a break from the baking for the dance. So it wasn't even as though I'd had any warning.
He nodded. "That's why I had to say this... I mean, do this, whatever, close enough... I wasn't really drunk, I just wanted to talk to you in private. Forgive me?"
I nodded, then rested my head cautiously against his shoulder. After a moment I felt his arm around my back. "This is just like last year," I said, and then I felt my smile fade and a plummeting sensation in my stomach, because I'd remembered him dancing with Celes, remembered the way she'd been almost laughing before the music stopped.
"Terra, what's wrong?" he asked. I'd drawn away unthinkingly, had my arms wrapped around myself again. I shook my head. "Tell me," he coaxed.
"It's nothing!" I sounded like a kid with a guilty secret. One who'd just swiped fireworks. "It's nothing, Locke," I repeated, more quietly.
"It's obviously not nothing."
"It's..." I shook my head. He might have guessed on his own Celes had some feelings for him, but he hadn't sounded like he had, and it wasn't my place to talk about it.
"Terra, don't just shut me out now," he said, pleading. I stayed looking fixedly at my knees while I listened to him stand up. He crouched in front of me, knees on the step below my feet. I gave up, looked him in the face, though my eyes kept sliding away from his.
"Is it about your memories?" he asked gently. "Your time with the Empire?" Both, I thought, but not in the way he meant. I shook my head again.
"Locke, really it's nothing, I'll..." What? I'll just forget this ever happened because I'm afraid it would hurt Celes but I'm too scared to actually ask her if it would?
"Are you... is there someone else?"
I stared at him in blank confusion for a second. "Of course not! Why on earth would..."
"Well, you know, it's been a full year, you're a beautiful woman, you've got a lot of single men here and widowed, and it's hard to run a farm without a wife. Maybe one of 'em started courting you... I mean, I didn't know, it was worth asking."
"They think I'm a freak of nature, Locke," I said, quietly, and was surprised to find a lump in my throat. Of all the ridiculous hurts to start crying over now.
"That is not true," he began, heatedly. This was a topic that'd come up before, several times, starting not long after I met him. It's hard not to notice the way people stare, and I know all they see about me is green. At first he'd tried actually telling me I was beautiful, but then he'd given up on that tack when it hadn't worked, or perhaps when he'd started having hope for Rachel again, and gone for flat denial. "Even if they did, which they don't because it's all in your head, who cares what they think?"
I shook my head again, not wanting to argue it with him. "And besides, the people here like you. Everyone wanted to dance with you. Some of them wanted to dance with you a lot." Okay, maybe Kat was right and he was jealous, I thought, since I'd danced with Martin twice. I couldn't help smiling a little through the layers of guilt, which seemed to give him a second wind. "Okay, so you're not engaged to this Mr. Collier, so what's left? If you just don't like me, you can, you know, you can just go ahead and say it now."
The way he looked at me – just in glances, as if afraid of what he'd see – I realized he really did think I might say that. I swallowed hard. "That's not it," I said, my voice at least strong enough to make that sound convincing, though I still sounded like I wanted to cry. I was supposed to add, "It's Celes," but I couldn't.
"Will you tell me sometime?" he asked, sounding slightly weary.
I nodded, tried to speak but found my voice came out in a squeak. I cleared my throat. "Of course I will," I said. "Just... give me some time." To think. To write to Celes. To try and get my thoughts straight, because right then they really did feel as if they were whirling or tumbling. "I'm sorry, Locke," I said, not sure he could know how much I meant it.
"Well, you've got your reasons, right?" he said, standing and brushing himself off. He held out a hand, then almost looked as though he regretted the gesture. I took it before he could pull it back, and he pulled me to my feet. I was on the step above him, so we were face to face. He looked away. "I'll see you before I leave tomorrow," he said, a bit stiffly. "If you don't mind."
"Locke, please," I said, and hated myself for the pleading tone, but just for a second because then he was kissing me again and that was all I could think about. Somehow my arms had gone around his neck, and he was holding me against him. He buried his face against my neck.
"You're the one who's mad at me, remember?" he said. "Not the other way round."
"That's not it," I protested, hoping he wouldn't take that opportunity to ask what it was, then.
"If you say so, love," he said, joking, and I tried to laugh to hide that that word had been like a bolt spell arcing through me. "As long as you promise to write to me this time, too."
"I promise," I said, trying not to think about anything else for now. It wouldn't do anyone any good yet.
He stayed for a while after that, neither of us talking much, though he did leave before the others came back. I stayed out on the porch for a long time, watching the fireworks, though you couldn't properly call what I was doing "thinking" – it was more like sitting there while thoughts happened to me, or maybe while thoughts ran past and shouted at me. Mostly yelling "He hates you now!" or "you're going to ruin your friendship with Celes!" or, just for variety, "You're going to ruin your friendship with him!" Not that any of it was that coherent; it was like wind in my ears. I couldn't focus on anything. The fireworks were pretty, though. There were some big mortars, which I didn't think the boys had managed to get hold of, thankfully. I didn't hear any screaming.
It was an overwhelming relief when I began to notice shadowy shapes making their way up the path. Company, come to save me from my own mind. They resolved themselves into my family. Annie, Henry, and Margie led the way, running towards the house and in circles around each other and the others. The pack was anchored by Duane and Kat with, judging from the top-heavy shapes, armfuls of sleepy child – I'd guess that Kat had both Rosie and Charles, while Duane was carrying Cassie – and the older kids probably trailed after. I thought we'd picked up an extra, a lanky shape in the rear, but then two of them stopped at the gate and I realized someone had been walked home by someone else.
I'd guessed right about who was carrying who, and I called out a quiet greeting, went inside to put the still-wired middle three to work at lighting the lamps so we could find our way around. Byram and Theo still had all their limbs and full heads of hair, so the fireworks must have gone all right. They also had a full plate of sandwiches, and had retrieved all but one of the dishes we'd supplied for the refreshments. They held these out like peace offerings, which I pretended to accept grudgingly.
Isabella came in last, made a great show of yawning and badly feigning drowsiness. I kissed her on the cheek, told her to go on to bed and finish her chores in the morning. The rapid thudding of her feet on the stairs led me to believe she wasn't at all tired, but I just grinned to myself and put the sandwiches on the table. Then I was hit with a stab of regret over the way things had turned out towards the end with Locke, leaving neither of us to run off giddily to bask in privacy, though I wasn't sure if he'd have done that anyway. I might have. Then there was a surge of delight that things had turned out at all, and then Kat came downstairs from tucking-in duties and asked "What are you smiling about?"
"We have sandwiches!" I told her cheerfully.
"Yes, that is a miracle, isn't it?" she agreed blandly, and I tried to put one in her mouth, laughing to cover the shock of realization – I'd never actually said anything to let Locke know how I felt about him. He had to know, didn't he? Kat had realized it, so surely Locke had too. But I found myself returning to the thought as I bustled about, tidying the kitchen.
The sandwiches were a bit of a miracle, though. I'd already made all the kids still conscious sit down to eat, in hopes that stillness would make them sleepy. It worked, more or less, and once they were all in bed, Kat cornered me in the hall. "So, you and Mr. Cole left the party early..." she began.
"He's leaving tomorrow, we just wanted to say goodbye, that's all," I said, but I was blushing furiously.
"Yes, well, I just hope you two used protection," she said.
"Katarin Annamarie Whitehead!"
"Oh, honestly, my middle name holds no terrors anymore," she said dismissively, grinning. "You realize you just referred to the two of you as 'we,' don't you?"
With a strangled 'arrgh' of frustration I pushed past her and headed for my room, but I let myself smile once I got in there. The teasing had done its part to cheer me up, enough to distract me from wallowing in my own guilt. I'd see Locke in the morning. Maybe I could explain everything then. At least we'd made a start.
Like the first day, he showed up at the store at midmorning. I must have brightened at his entrance, because the slightly worried look on his face cleared once he spotted me – I was off by one of the walls, measuring the windows for new curtains, rather than in my usual post behind the counter.
"Well... this is about it," he said, and I nodded. "You promise to write?" he added.
"Of course I do, Locke. I said that last night. I wasn't going to change my mind..."
"Yeah." He sighed, and held his arms out to me. I walked into them, tried to hold him as tightly as he was holding me.
"Don't go," I said, almost tearfully. "Please. Stay with me."
"It's not for that long," he said. "It's just, right after this... I hate to leave."
"I'll miss you," I said into his shoulder. I kept going hot and cold all over, but he tightened his arms around me and I thought maybe I'd finally said something right. "I wasn't able to say... I mean, last night..."
"I'll miss you too," he said softly, and cupped my face in his hands, kissed me lightly on the lips. "Whatever it was last night, if you need to tell me, I want you to feel like you can, but if you want to keep it to yourself, you know..."
He was flailing, a bit, so I said, "I don't want to talk about it just yet. I swear, it's not about you, I just..." and he nodded, kissed me again. I hadn't drawn back this time, at least. Maybe I should have, I thought guiltily.
"I just want you to feel like you can, that's all," he said, and sighed. "I guess I'd better just make myself go. I'll stay all day if I don't."
"What's wrong with that?" I asked, and he grinned, ruffled my hair – "I'm not a kid!" I yelped, only too glad to have a break from nearly crying on him – then shouldered his bag, turned to leave. I followed him out onto the porch, hugged him one last time, awkward around the pack, and watched him go down the steps and mount his chocobo. He winked at me, which made me smile, and waved. I waved back, and stood around on the porch for a while, watching him until he was out of sight, and feeling the thick press of tears at the back of my throat.
I moped the rest of the day, spending most of my time staring into space and forgetting tasks while I was in the middle of them. Kat decided again to be kind to me, taking over my share of the chores and instead letting me listen as the kids recited their lessons. As always, I found it impossible not to cheer up around them, even as they struggled with long division and rote recitation of poetry. But after dinner that night I stared, morose, at the dishes in the sink, until Kat gently took one out of my hands and nudged me aside. Duane took up drying position, and I wandered back over to the table, sat down.
Neither of them pushed me to talk about it over the next few days – not that Duane usually did – and I was mildly hurt by the indifference, until I realized they thought my problem was simply missing him. Oddly, Duane was the first to realize something was wrong. He was helping me to sort the mail, one day, and I got a letter from Celes. I ripped it open on the spot, which normally I didn't do with my mail. Then a wave of queasy guilt washed over me as I scanned it; she was saying that she'd come for a visit in mid-April, which I'd already known but had almost forgotten. I'd been looking forward to this, had been planning it excitedly, and now all I could think was Oh, no. Part of me was convinced I had to tell her and that she'd hate me for it.
"What's wrong?" Duane asked, alarmed. At least the paper wasn't black-bordered. I knew of that tradition, and wondered about it – did people keep a stock around just in case a family member died? That was what I'd concluded, and so, superstitious, I refused even to have any in the store.
"Cole do something?" he asked, almost belligerent. I looked at him.
"No. Why? Did you think he would?" What did you think he'd do?
Duane shrugged. "I don't know. You're all happy when he's here and depressed when he's gone, but he leaves anyway. I don't like men that just run off like that." Even when he and Kat had been fighting about the baby, he'd stayed around. He just hadn't been as happy as she'd have liked, which of course was why they were fighting in the first place. He more than made up for that when Rosie was born. I'd never seen a man so overjoyed. "Thought the letter might have been from him," he added, a bit lamely.
"It's not. He had to leave, he couldn't just dig up the vegetable garden," I said. "It's not that. I knew he couldn't stay too long."
"Well... whatever it is..." he said, and sort of indicated the letter with his chin while trying not to look at it. I folded it up.
"It's... a friend of mine's coming for a visit." I didn't normally confide in Duane, for no real reason – I was just closer to Kat, more than anything – but I was beginning to feel like I'd explode if I didn't say something. "And..." But I couldn't say it.
"Oh, gods. She and Cole have a thing? What is it with that skinny little—" He cut off abruptly at my glare. "Or, uh, not."
"Okay, I'm sorry you don't like Locke, but you don't have to—"
"No, no, I'm sorry, Terra. It's just... well, hell, it's your business, not mine."
"Yeah," I said, shortly, stuck the letter in my apron pocket and went back to sorting. So did he, and the uncomfortable silence persisted until he sneezed. "Bless you," I said, automatically, and I guess he took that as an opportunity to say his piece.
"If you figure he's okay, then I guess he is, but it's hard for me to tell when I don't know any of these people that well. And I don't know what it is with your friend. But I just think he should be treating you right and not giving you any reason to get upset about your friends or get your friends upset or whatever the problem is."
"She... I shouldn't talk about it."
"Well, Kat liked the guy, and I figure you told her everything, so he's probably okay. Just me being me," he said, with a half-angry shrug, and I smiled a little.
"You're getting better," I said. "You at least pretended to be friendly with him."
"I liked him well enough, but I didn't know you were gonna get like this if he left. You ask me, he's got an obligation to make you happy."
"Well, not quite," I said, but I couldn't help smiling.
"You mention this about your friend to her?" he asked. "To Kat, I mean." I nodded. "And she's kinda psychic about people, so I guess it'll be okay."
"Except that I have to look my friend in the face," I pointed out. I wasn't worried that Locke was in love with her, exactly, though it was a thought that crossed my mind – it was dealing with Celes herself. It was knowing that she'd had feelings for him, that I'd known that and acted on mine anyway, that I hadn't had any right to.
That night, I started writing a letter to Locke, but I couldn't seem to get more than a few sentences on paper before I decided that I sounded foolish – too sentimental, too casual, too silly and flirtatious, too distant. I couldn't get it right, and when I tried to get back to normal, write to him as I always had, I came up with something akin to Celes's sections on military matters. And when I had that thought I had another stab of guilt. Finally I just signed it and sealed it, too tired to think about it further and unwilling to waste even more paper. He'd be bound to write to me, and I'd take my cue from that.
Once he finally did, there wasn't much of a cue to take. He sounded like he always had; possibly a bit more formal. My heart sank the first time I read it, and while I tried to tell myself he was just having the same problem I had with letters, it was impossible not to mind it. After having him here, the letters were no substitute at all, and I couldn't help feeling that maybe he'd decided, after my strangeness the night of the dance, that I just wasn't worth the trouble of wooing, or that I wanted him to leave me alone.
I tried not to think about it. I definitely didn't mention any of my doubts or fears in my letter back to him. I did mention that Celes was coming to visit. I thought, as I signed it, that I should have just gone with "Love, Terra" the first time around, simple acknowledgment that something had changed. Too late now.
I don't think Duane mentioned our talk to Kat, because she never asked me about it. Neither of them prodded me on the subject of Locke or the coming visit. I tried not to feel lonely or let down, tried to focus on the kids. It worked, most of the time. The time stopped crawling so badly. And it was heartening to see Isabella spending so much time with Jesse Luther, even if they did still seem awfully shy with each other. She seemed happy, even when Byram and Theo teased her about it.
I tried not to get my hopes up about letters, too. At first I thought that was working, but from the rush of first joy and then disappointment when I got another letter from Locke, I realized that it wasn't. I threw myself into work; paid back the first installment of my personal loan from Edgar, began putting together the plans for the census.
It was spring, here. Spring brought rain, and rain brought memories. Weeding the flower garden, I realized I remembered another time, planting flowers in a windowbox when I was younger. I remembered watching rain on the windows, remembered sitting in a windowseat and reading while I listened to Celes doing her vocal exercises. I couldn't remember a context for that scene, couldn't clearly remember her face at the time – how old had we been?
Rain brought memories, but it also brought mud, and a bunch of kids afflicted with intense cabin fever. I took to lurking out on the porch to get away from the noise and the demands on my time - not the best maternal behavior, but it wouldn't kill Duane to be forced to handle some "she hit me!" arguments for a change. One day, Kat came outside and found me leaning against the wall, thinking about the gray harshness of Vector; rain there had fallen as if it were angry at the buildings, or as if it had some goal in mind. Here, we got meandering showers that pattered on the roof and dripped lazily off the eaves.
"All right, what's wrong?" she asked.
"What? Nothing's wrong." It hadn't been until I'd been startled into thought, and still nothing was immediately going down the tubes. I'd accepted that I'd ruined things with Locke, though I hated myself over it, and hated myself further for minding because I really had no right to him in the first place. At least that minimized the guilt with regard to Celes, or it should have, but it didn't, because I didn't at all want for the two of them to be together, either. "I just wanted some peace and quiet. And to think. About perfectly normal, contented things." She knew of my memory problems, but I didn't keep her up to the second on any developments with them. It's not as though other people's pasts are usually that fascinating, and so far neither was mine.
"Right. Well, if you say so."
"Really! If I were going to brood I'd have found a chair."
She laughed. "All right, then. I just wondered, you didn't seem very happy about this friend of yours that's due next week." I can only imagine that I must have looked horribly guilty. "What is it really?" she asked.
I sank to the porch floor, my back sliding down the wall. "She was the one that was in love with Locke."
"Ohh... and now that you two are together, you have to tell her, and..."
"Well, we're not exactly together I don't think."
"I don't know... I mean, I know why, but..."
"I saw you two kissing in the store," she said.
"I'm sorry, but I did. I wasn't trying to spy or anything, but you were right in front of a window, I caught a glimpse and I walked on." She paused. "So why aren't you together? I mean, aside from the obvious of him being halfway up the Trench right now."
"I... sort of... I screwed up, I didn't know the right way to write to him after all that, and I kind of freaked out the night before he left, and that on top of the not writing love letters..." She looked at me expectantly. "Over Celes and everything. I couldn't tell him, it's her... her secret, I guess, but I started feeling guilty and so..."
"Oh, gods." She sat down next to me, legs folded in front of her. "What, you think if you sabotage things with him, it somehow makes it up to her? It's not like you can just forget about him. Or make him forget about you."
"I think maybe he managed that," I said, miserably. "Forgetting about me."
"Right. I'm sure."
"Well, there's no need to be sarcastic..."
"No, I think there's a need," she said. "Honestly. Tell you what. You let me write all your letters and everything—"
"Well, I'd have to be better at managing your life than you are!"
"I'm the founding mother of our country, thank you," I said, with dignity. "If my personal life is a bit confusing sometimes—"
"Well, you're entitled to a confusing personal life, with your amnesia and all," she said. "I'm just trying to help."
"Maybe you could keep the kids quiet?" I suggested.
"I was thinking we'd just send them outside to play." She stuck a hand out in the rain. "It's warm enough, they should be fine."
"But their clothes," I pointed out.
"Have 'em strip naked. Charles and Rosie still think running around with no clothes on is the greatest thing ever, and Cassie's inclined to agree."
"I remember when I was her age, I thought my clothes were designed to torture me. I couldn't get them to sit right, I was always tugging on them and trying to get them not to wrinkle up..." And I did remember, too. These were the memories I treasured, the ones that came out of nowhere and gave me some idea of who I used to be. Knowing how my education went was nice, but not the same.
"Me too," Kat said. "So I don't think they'd mind at all."
"But the neighbors might," I said, and she grinned, and we turned to gossip. I didn't realize until later how much better I felt for having spent some time dwelling on someone else's life.
This is the chapter that got this "choose not to warn" rather than "no archive warnings apply;" discussion of past sexual abuse occurs in this and several chapters to follow.
I spent the week fretting over Celes's visit or trying not to, but when she stepped off the airship all the nervousness vanished and I managed to push Locke out of my mind. We smiled politely and shook hands like civilized people and public figures, and then she broke into a grin, and I halfway squealed, "You look fantastic!" and she said "Me? What about you?" and then I hugged her, which she returned with somewhat more ease than had been usual for her a year ago.
"She does look stunning, doesn't she?" Setzer said. "But then, so do you," he added, and I ran halfway up the ramp to hug him too. "Easy, easy. I can't stay."
"Well, yes, that's why I have to greet you now," I said. "I haven't seen you since the house was done!"
"I have a business empire to rebuild, you know," he said, and we both scolded him about terminology, and he gave a beleaguered sigh and then we stepped out of the way while one of his porters brought out Celes's trunk and a valise.
"Are you staying for a while?" I asked.
"No more than a month," he said. "I can't do without the sight of her face for much longer than that." She rolled her eyes, but she looked a bit pleased, too, I thought.
"You'll do without me as long as you need to," she said, and they kissed each other goodbye on both cheeks. "And you could always spend time here. If Terra doesn't mind."
"We'd be thrilled to have you," I said.
"I really have been busy with business," he said, regretfully. "I'll stay longer when I come to pick her up," he added, and then he kissed me too, the same way. It was a thoroughly Jidooran gesture that seemed to very much impress all the onlookers – I kept hearing about for almost the entirety of her visit, whenever she wasn't around.
"Is he still trying to marry you?" I asked, quietly, once the airship had lifted off and I was done waving goodbye.
"If this were anyone else, I'd know you were teasing," she said. "No, he's not trying to marry me."
"Oh. I just can't believe no one mentioned that to me until then," I said.
"Well, after they woke you they weren't in much mood to tell entertaining stories about me. And then I suppose it just slipped everyone's minds. It wasn't as though he meant it, I don't think."
"Are you sure?" It had always seemed to me that he liked her. He'd talk about her to me, which wasn't something people seemed to do regarding their casual acquaintances and ordinary friends.
"Well, he said so. I thought I'd take his word on it." She stretched. "I understand you'd want to give me the grand tour of your house, which looks lovely by the way, but can I change into something less official first?" She was wearing Figaro dress whites, and she'd picked up a bit of tan, something I still didn't seem capable of no matter how much time I spent in the sun. She really did look wonderful.
This visit was meant to be halfway official – she was planning to run for the governorship of Narshe when the elections were held in the fall – but it was officially personal, as she put it when we were sharing cups of tea at the kitchen table after the tour. "I'm trying to emphasize that I... well, that I have friends in high places."
"Some high places. We don't have more than a couple thousand people here, I don't think," I said. I'd been trying to estimate from the homestead claims, until the census-takers came back.
"Yes, but this is a country, you know. And you're developing quite a little city here." We had more shops than I'd bothered to mention in letters – a watchmaker's, a bakery, a butcher's shop and a smithy. And further south a few enterprising souls had started factories, textile mills, and the like. Calling Mobliz a city was being charitable, though. "I'd like to set up some sort of favorable trade agreement with you, once I get the chance – spare you the Nikeah tariffs. But I guess you don't really get to vote for me, so I shouldn't get into the campaign talk with you."
"I doubt they'd let me even if I lived there. They don't like me much in Narshe."
She shook her head. "None of that really matters anymore. There were landslides... many of the people who used to live in Narshe are gone now, either because they were killed or because they left. Most of the survivors are the ones who fled when the continent went up. It was absolute panic, from what I hear. If I'd been in charge I'd have tried to discourage it, but it saved their lives. Well, some of them. Others ran right into— well, never mind. "
"Oh..." I said. I hadn't realized people had done that in the first place. But then, I'd tended to stay on the ship, or at least out of towns. I'd become more self-conscious after the fall, had begun to see hostility in the stares. Maybe it had all been in my head, after all, since the people of Mobliz had been so ready to accept me.
"There are a few left from old Narshe, of course, some of them never left their houses at all, but a lot of the settlers are refugees from somewhere else. I swear, most of the big cities are just swapping, we have more Kohlingans... And people from the area flocking to the big city, too, of course. There were so many little towns back in the mountains and on the plains that just couldn't keep going – they made all their money supplying Narshe, and when it was decimated, obviously they couldn't. Farming's gone downhill around there too, climate changes."
"I guess now they get to be miners," I said.
"Well, there are worse lives," she said. "I suppose. I'm already working out labor laws, so it won't be as bad as it could be. And I hope to encourage other types of industry, I... I sound like a politician."
"Well, that's what you are, isn't it? Or what you're going to be?"
"Well, in a way, but I'd rather be a public servant. Like you."
"I'm just someone who happened to start doing paperwork," I corrected her. "I'm not really anything."
She waved that off with her teacup. "You're a leader, Terra, but if you insist. But a politician is like Cabbarus, do you remember him?"
"Oh, uch. Yes." A blandly handsome, oily courtier we'd both met when he toured the academy. I remembered asking him a specific question, though I couldn't remember the subject now, and listening to him talk in circles and generalities around it. Once he'd moved on to the next I'd hissed 'he never answered!' at Celes. I'd been incensed. "I remember him. But they called him a public servant, too." I took a sip of my tea. "It's just a semantic distinction anyway."
"The difference between a treasure hunter and a thief," she said, and we both laughed, though mine was a little more uncomfortable. I stood to rinse my teacup. Celes was still working on hers; she liked her tea a bit cooler. "How's he doing, anyway?" she asked.
The cup slipped out of my wet fingers, clattered against the china pot I'd left in the sink. I picked it up, checked for chips. "He's fine. His dig's going well, I think. In those mountains south of Nikeah."
"That's what I'd heard. I thought he might have written a bit more in detail to you."
"Why do you think that?"
"Well, you two were close, weren't you? He came up for that visit earlier this year." I couldn't remember if I'd mentioned it to her or if someone else had. I didn't know if she knew how long it had been. She couldn't possibly know how it had ended. "And besides, he's close enough geographically that he can send you a longer letter and expect the bird to reach you."
He'd written me long letters all through the previous year with no thought to postage. Since he'd left this time, they'd seldom completely filled a page. I wasn't going to say that. "Not lately. I think he's probably pretty busy." I finally turned to face her. There's only so long you can scrub a teapot. "He'll probably come up to see you, I've mentioned you were coming."
"Oh, you didn't have to do that!"
"Don't you want to see him?"
"Well, it's not that I don't want to see him, but he doesn't have to go out of his way."
"Oh," I said, mystified. "But you went out of your way to see me."
"Yes, well..." She shrugged. "Never mind me, Terra. Travel can be tiring, especially when you're up on deck."
"All right," I said, doubtfully.
"It's just that he and I weren't really close friends, I don't think. Not like Sabin and Cyan and Gau were, or Edgar and Locke. Maybe you and Locke – I don't know, was it just me? It seemed like he got all distant, after—"
I shook my head. "Not just you," I said. "I spent a lot of time with him, but then, I'd missed him, I was probably sort of following him around." No, no, bad answer, I thought. "I thought he spent a lot of time with you, too, and Edgar," I added.
"Maybe so. We'd work together, but we never seemed to get anything said." She drank the rest of her tea, slurped the last.
"Manners, young lady," I said, trying to tease, get back to where we'd been before, just friends, not talking about him. She made a face at me, then turned serious again.
"I don't want him to feel obligated to come up to see me, that's all."
"He still thinks of you as a friend though," I protested, flustered. "He'd want to see you."
"Well, I know, and I think of him the same way, but..."
I didn't really follow, and was about to say so when I realized she wasn't going to finish that sentence. But we were interrupted by Rosie, post-bath, running stark naked and giggling into the room, and she was pursued by a drenched and rather crabby Katarin, so we were off the hook.
The next day brought further complications. Martin Collier knocked at the front door of the house not long after I'd closed up the shop, handed me a bouquet of daisies, and went into the parlor to sit on a settee. Puzzled, I joined him, and we talked about flowers, weather, and plays for fifteen minutes until he rose rather stiffly and made his way out. I relayed the baffling incident to Kat and Celes, who both grinned and shared glances. Finally, Kat, giggling, told me, "You have a gentleman caller."
"He's courting you," Celes explained.
"Oh. My. Gods," I said, sitting down with a thump in a kitchen chair, and I continued to whimper inarticulate protest as they teased me. Most of the teasing was from Katarin, at least until Celes began reciting advice from some etiquette book she'd found gods-knew-where, about proper topics of conversation for young ladies. She couldn't possibly have imagined it would be helpful, so that must have been teasing, too. Eventually, I fled to the store to compile the latest few messages from the census-takers. Celes could help Kat with dinner, guest or not, and it'd serve her right.
There was more of the post to sort already, a handful of pigeons on the roost outside, and two more birds winged in just before dark. I retrieved the messages they carried. The first was from Locke, and it simply read Dear Terra, ignore my previous. Will be there in two week's time, have discovered I can do that. No need to reply, setting out soon. Love, Locke, which was a bit of a new development, and one that sped my heartrate considerably.
I buried my head in my arms on the counter, thinking, Kat's right, there's no point to avoiding it or trying to keep it a secret, and maybe Celes won't mind, when I thought, all at once and almost simultaneously, of his reference to the "previous," and of the fact that he'd be here, soon, and then I could see if she was indifferent to him or not. I hastily unrolled the other letter, and found that it was a halfway recognizable, if extremely messy, variant of Locke's hand.
I don't see why we can't act normal with each other. Maybe I can, but you are acting so strange it's hard to be myself either. But this time I am going to say what I want and not care if you don't like it though I hope you do.
After that beginning it went on like other letters he'd written me before, with stories of rampaging delta bugs and Osborne Hamley's epic absent-mindedness, and almost as an afterthought he mentioned that he'd made a discovery himself of a tablet that might be the key to a lost language. It looks promising which is why I am drunk right now to celebrate. So I'm just going to tell you how I feel even if you don't want to hear it and won't tell me why. I don't see how you can pretend nothing happened, because I can't. If you don't like it just say so and don't leave me wondering. The signature was dark and smudged, and he'd written, in a scrawled postscript, I'm sorry.
It had been threatening rain all day, but when I looked up I realized it was dark, heard the drumming of hard rain on the roof. The flash of light and the clap of thunder that soon followed let me know it was a storm, and close. I put a bucket in the corner where it always leaked, just in case, folded the letters and put them in my pocket, and swept up, calmly, normally, as if everything were perfectly usual. I felt like I was floating, even with the undercurrent of anger in his letter – I couldn't blame him for it, certainly – and even with the word that I should ignore it. I wished I could write to him, but he'd reach me before it could ever have reached him.
I took the letters out and read them again, put them carefully back in the pocket, and ran through the rain from the store's back door to my front porch with a shawl over my head. I brushed water off my skirt and beamed at everyone as I came back in, and endured more teasing – including from Isabella, which seemed very unfair – about Martin, without complaint.
The storm continued as we cleaned and listened to recitations of lessons and put the kids to bed, the rain a steady tattoo against the walls, thunder and lightning just dramatic and beautiful. I made up a guest room for Celes. It was actually Isabella's room, but she was so taken with Celes that she'd actually volunteered, and would sleep in the nursery sitting room. I'd offered to double up with her, but she'd turned that down. I was too buoyant to argue with her about it or caution her about backaches the next day. I chattered at Celes and Isabella, and later at Duane and Katarin, about every trivial thing that crossed my mind, and sat up a bit late, just staring out the window at the storm and hoping Locke didn't have to sleep in it.
That night I dreamt that all the kids were sick and dying, and that somehow I'd allowed Kefka to poison them all. I was hunting through my house, which was labyrinthine and made of stone, almost a castle but somehow still my house, to find him and kill him. But when I did kill him – a single blow and he deflated, withered to dust – I lost my magic and realized I wouldn't be able to heal them. That was when I woke. The thunderstorm was over, and in the eerie quiet I could almost feel the dream had been true.
I stood, pulling on a robe, and padded down the hall to check on them. It had been standard nightmare-stuff, not unlike others I'd had, but unusually vivid, and even though I knew they'd be fine I wanted to confirm it. Everyone was fine in the nursery; Cassie hadn't wet the bed in several months, and tonight was no exception. Isabella was peacefully asleep in a large armchair – I'd made up a pallet for her, but she seemed to like curling up – and in their bedroom, Byram and Theo were normal as well, Theo sprawled on his back and Byram stretched almost crosswise with his covers tangled at his ankles. They were all breathing.
I'd found Kefka in the parlor, so I went downstairs, shielding my candle against drafts, to check that too. I hoped no one woke and asked why I was doing this, because I knew I'd feel foolish. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, something outside of, and unconnected to, the tangle of things I wasn't saying to Locke or Celes.
No Kefka in the parlor, either. After another nightmare, I'd written to confirm with Celes that both the Figaros were still alive. I'd dreamed that one had died, but I hadn't known which, the part which had troubled me most when I woke. This dream was perfectly normal, easy to interpret. But something still felt wrong.
I rubbed at a spot of wax on an end table, and thought of Kefka's face from my dream. It had been different. He hadn't been wearing the clown makeup, though his face was still pale and his lips scarlet. His eyes had been darkly lined with kohl. Yet somehow I was positive it was him. Really him, not just a dream-figure, not just the way that you can be yourself and also be the queen who was turned to stone, in your dreams, or someone can be both your oldest sons at once and look like Gau.
I'd seen him looking like that before, remembered him experimenting with other looks, sitting at the vanity in my room and painting himself. A memory. I remembered his face painted as it was in my dream, but something was wrong with the angle, and I stared at space, trying to let the memory come. Behind him I could see the ceiling, from my chambers when I was in royal custody. He was above me. On top of me. That was what was wrong with the angle.
My hand was shaking, hard. I'd spilled hot wax on myself, and I set the candle down carefully on the end table, pushed my trembling fist against my lips. "Oh, gods," I breathed, a sob catching in my throat.
I hadn't even realized, until I remembered this, that I had ever been in royal custody, but now I knew that I'd gone to the Magitek lab, that something had happened. I wanted to remember that. I didn't want to remember what Kefka had done to me. I didn't want to see his smirk, didn't want to hear his voice saying "You know I'll have you either way," didn't want the exposed shame that was making me clench in on myself as though I'd been stabbed, as though I were favoring a wound.
I thought I heard a child calling, and I was up and on the stairs before I'd even thought. Annie had had a nightmare, too, but rather than wake the others she'd gone to my room to look for me. I brought her back to the nursery, found the matches on a high shelf and lit the lamp to make her feel better. "It was only a dream," I said, to soothe her, and I hugged her until she stopped crying and tucked her back in, stayed for a little while in the circle of lamplight watching her face and telling myself this was reality now.
After I was sure she was asleep, I blew out the lamp and went back downstairs, feeling my way in the dark, to retrieve my candle. I sat in the parlor all night thinking.
I sat in the parlor all that night, watched the sky lighten to gray, and went upstairs to dress. I caught myself glancing nervously at the door, as if Kefka might come in at any moment, and I forced myself not to do that. I went downstairs, calmly, began the epic task of breakfast for thirteen.
Birds were singing, the sun was rising over the trees in pink and gold splendor, and it was hard to believe that anything bad could happen in the world, but I remembered. I hadn't actually burned my hand, at least, and while I was tired, with a profound weariness beyond the lack of sleep, Duane and Katarin would be too busy with their own work to notice.
But Celes wouldn't be. "Terra, what's wrong?" she asked, over coffee, in the relative silence of the morning once most of the kids had been packed off to school. Duane was minding the store, Kat was weeding the garden, Charles and Rosie were playing quietly in one corner and Cassie, seeming very proud of herself for helping, was drying the dishes. I could deal with this, though I'd barely touched my breakfast; too many people, too much noise, even if they were my family, and what if they could see a difference in me? I couldn't face the idea of the store today. I'd told Kat I wanted to spring-clean the house. She'd agreed, happily, to take over in the store for me, since she hated cleaning.
"It's nothing," I said, after a too-long hesitation. I remembered taking Kefka's arm off with one clean strike of the Ragnarok, remembered blood spattering those pristine white wings. Remembered his appraising look, and while I couldn't remember context, I felt naked and afraid all over again.
"You were in a great mood last night. What happened?"
I handed Cassie another plate. She beamed up at me, and I smiled back at her, actually managing to mean it. "Locke's coming for a visit," I said over my shoulder, smile now faded. "He said in two weeks, though I don't see how he could manage that."
"He rides like a madman when he's got no reason not to," she said. "He'll get here before I leave, then. It'll be nice to see him again." I nodded, started to dry the last of the glasses until Cassie tugged at my apron and pouted. I handed it to her, pulled the drain in the sink. Celes watched me in silence as I began scrubbing the griddle.
"So why are you so upset now?" she asked, finally.
I tried to remember Kefka falling, wings shattered, smirk replaced by a look of purest astonishment, then by anger, then terror. I tried to treasure the memory of fear in that face. I tried to get back to the present, to my sunny kitchen and my kids and a life I'd built in spite of him. I smiled faintly as I watched Cassie carefully place the glass in the drying rack.
"I had a bad dream, had a hard time getting back to sleep. I'm just tired." It wasn't even a lie. At least not completely.
"Do you have a lot of bad dreams?" she asked. "You've mentioned them... maybe not that often, but more than I'd expect."
"You have bad dreams too, Mama?" Cassie asked.
"Sure I do, honey. Everybody does. That's all they are though, right? They're not real."
"Right," she said obediently, and grinned in response to my smile. Something looked odd about her smile, and then I realized that she was wiggling a tooth with the tip of her tongue. I remembered doing that.
"Is that your first loose tooth, Cassie?" I asked, and she grinned wider and nodded, so I hugged her and made a fuss over her and sent her out to show Katarin. Charles, of course, picked up and followed her, and Rosie toddled after him until she fell, at which point she began wailing. Celes picked her up, held her uncertainly out to me, and I jounced her a bit and hushed her.
When I looked at Celes again, she was watching me thoughtfully, and I finally answered. "I guess I do, but nowhere near as many as the kids had, especially not that first year." And I used to have more, too, back when I'd first joined Locke and the others, until I'd learned who I was. I'd never been able to remember them. I decided I was glad about that. I let Rosie tug on my braid, held on to her to make sure she didn't climb over my shoulder.
"I don't know much about children, but I think you have an unusually traumatized litter, Terra."
"That's kittens," I retorted, indignant. "Or puppies. My kids aren't a litter." She was right, though. Duane had said that Annie had been trapped in rubble for days with her family, and she'd been the only one they'd found alive. I couldn't imagine what must have happened to Cassie; no one could tell me. "I guess you're right, but—"
"I just mean I don't think you can judge by them," she said. "And I do think you have too many nightmares. You've mentioned them too many times in letters—"
"Well, I won't anymore," I said, seated Rosie on the counter and went back to work on the griddle.
"Terra—" she began.
I interrupted again. "Did you say you were staying till Locke came?"
I ignored her audible sigh behind me. "If he makes it in time. I'm supposed to tour your centers of industry sometime this week," she added.
"What centers of industry?" I asked, distracted from my pointless irritation. "Harris?"
"That sounds right."
"Well, I suppose you could tour him if his wife doesn't object."
I hear a gasping laugh behind me. "I thought it was a town!" She'd let the argument go too.
"I guess it's sort of a town," I said, grabbing Rosie before she could try to climb down from the counter herself. "Harris Toys and the cotton mill – Benjamin Harris owns them both, and I guess some of his workers probably live near there. The mill's a full-time operation, at least. I'll write and let him know you're coming."
Although I hadn't wanted to deal with people, I found it much easier not to brood when I wasn't alone. Keeping busy helped too, so I scoured and polished and swept and scrubbed. I was scared, and that was ridiculous – I hadn't remembered, but this had always been there in the past, and it would stay in the past because he was dead and couldn't hurt me anymore – but then I realized I was afraid of facing the memories.
And I was afraid of anyone knowing or guessing, afraid that my reactions would give something away, and I was no longer half as comfortable with most of the men of the town. Duane was safe enough, but it was minor torture sitting in the parlor with Martin two days later, even though I knew intellectually that he wouldn't try anything, and even though I could hear kids eavesdropping from the hall. I sat almost huddled in my chair, drawn in myself, answering Martin's conversational gambits with monosyllables. I felt vaguely bad for him; it wasn't his fault, but I wanted so badly to be invisible, to shrink away from male eyes.
When I thought of Kefka, whenever I remembered – even when I remembered things that had little or nothing to do with him – I felt a sort of exposed shame in addition to the fear. I'd submitted to him without the Slave Crown, had begged him not to use it, and he hadn't. So I remembered what he'd done to me now. And I was angry. At him, and at my younger self, for not being able to find a better way, for not just accepting oblivion. There must have been another solution, something to get me out from under that icy smirk.
That was the worst. Any pain was long since forgotten, the sense of violation distanced by time and the split between my two lives. In so many ways, it was like hearing about something horrible that happened to someone else, but I could remember triumph in his garish face and I hated that, wanted desperately to forget it.
When the census figures started coming in, I pored over them. Celes was probably bored to tears by my constant chatter about the reports – it was right around that time that she took a room at the inn, though she somehow managed not to run away screaming when I brought up the topic in conversation – but I was both fascinated by the project and thrilled to have something to keep my mind in the present when I wasn't bandaging scraped knees, settling arguments, or hearing the latest gossip. Edgar, supposedly, was courting Celes's lookalike Maria, making a real effort rather than just his usual flattery. There was talk that Cyan might take the Doma throne – I doubted it, though, knowing him – and that he'd met a young woman somewhere. No details.
"Not really the latest," Celes said, apologetically. "I'm only slightly more in touch with the world than you are."
"Oh, yes, dinner dates on the airship, you're moldering away at the ends of the earth, Celes."
"That was only once," she said, embarrassed. "Look, I think some of your children are setting themselves on fire out there."
I looked out the window, then deciding she'd been right, opened it and leaned out to yell at Byram and Theo about wasting matches. They generally didn't do permanent harm to themselves, but I didn't think it would hurt to let her change the subject, anyway.
After all, she'd been very convincing about pretending to be interested when I showed her the new map I'd been working on. I still got all the mail for Mobliz, and there were no signs of other post offices, but almost a dozen small communities had managed to collect the resources to build a schoolhouse, a church, a bar or a meeting hall. The population figures were still questionable – in many cases one person would report on his own household and two or three neighbors as well, and the census reporters had welcomed the excuse not to ride further – but it seemed plausible that we had over ten thousand people. Twice the number I'd estimated from the land claims, which meant many people hadn't filed. I'd have to do something about that, if only to avoid disputes, and I buzzed around talking about town meetings until I'd even managed to stop Martin Collier's visits. I felt bad about being happy about that.
I wouldn't say I'd actually managed to forget that Locke was on his way, but I hadn't been thinking about it much, either, so the sight of him dismounting in the innyard hit me with a jolt. I hung back on the porch while Celes walked out to greet him, watched them talk for a bit – her back was to me, but he was grinning – and then hug, and he kept an arm around her shoulders as they walked back towards me, still talking. She slipped away from him, made some sweeping gesture, and I took a few steps away from my porch.
Few things feel more awkward than making an attempt to get somebody's attention and stopping halfway through while they continue not to notice you. But Celes said something and then he turned to look at me. His face was peppered with stubble, and I couldn't really read his expression, not well, but his smile looked as uncertain as mine felt. Then he wrapped his arms around me, almost lifting me off the ground with the sheer force of the hug.
It was late enough in the afternoon that I had to drag them into the kitchen to talk. Locke stirred the stew, while Celes helpfully reported when she thought she saw smoke coming from the oven, and I hurriedly got to work on a cake because I hadn't expected this to be a special occasion. We talked, just like old times, or better, if he'd been as uncommunicative before as Celes said. Actually, they talked, and I occasionally said something, but that was kind of like old times, too.
He told us about the things he'd mentioned in his drunken letter, and elaborated. "Kalmadrian script – that was the complicated stuff in all the old ruins, you remember? We all just thought it was decoration at the time. Aside from a few characters that seem to be pictograms, no one living can read it. Anyway, I found this tablet that had some of that and some of their common script, which is a lot like ours, and this archaic form of Doman, more archaic, I mean. Same basic script, a few other characters, you know what Doman's like now. So I suggested maybe all three languages had the same message, and then we all got very drunk, and the next day once we stopped wanting to die we did some translation between the Doman and the other and they matched, so the smart people are decoding Kalmadrian as we speak."
"They can't be any smarter than you. You made the connection," I retorted loyally, and he grinned and squeezed my arm. I hoped I hadn't stiffened, but I thought the grin flickered, so maybe I had.
"No gift for languages, though. Just reading modern Doman gives me a headache," he said. "They're the ones doing all the hard stuff, even if I get the glory."
"You do the stuff they can't do," I insisted. "What they're doing is easy to them." Celes got up, began putting away the ingredients I'd strewn over half the kitchen. "Don't put anything where I can't find it," I said.
"Don't worry, I saw where it all came from. Locke, be honest, you really are a bigger part of this excavation than you want to admit."
"No, I'm being honest," he said, turning his back on the stew. "I do all the crazy stuff they think is too dangerous, crawling down in these caves to see how deep they got – pretty damn deep, this time, so I do have some use. The last one, I spent a lot of time hauling rocks out of the way."
"That doesn't seem fair," she objected. "You've been doing this for a long time, you shouldn't just be their beast of burden."
"Yeah, I was doing it, but not the way they like. I was never really careful – I could hit myself now for all the stuff I destroyed without realizing it."
"Like what?" she demanded, which would prompt an explanation I'd heard before, so I focused on the cake batter and let their voices wash over me. It was good to have them both here; I felt almost normal again, and safe, all the needless drama about how we both felt for him washed away by everything else I had to face when I couldn't sleep at night.
"Terra," he said, and I blinked and looked up. "You okay? You've been stirring that for the last five minutes. It's not supposed to take that long, is it?"
"Oh. Yeah, I'm fine," I said, shaking my head to clear it, and felt them watching me as I poured batter into a pan. "Really," I added, wrapping a towel around my hand to open the oven.
"If you're sure," Locke said uncertainly. I looked up in time to see them exchange some sort of glance, he shrugged, and began talking again about the importance of potsherds.
Most of dinner was like that – not Locke repeating himself, but me listening while the two of them, or my family, talked. No one commented that I was unusually quiet, and I was just enjoying having them around. I tried not to mind seeing how well Locke and Celes were getting along. They were allowed to. I'd get my chance to talk to Locke later. Things would have been awkward without her there, anyway.
I watched from the porch as they left that night for the inn, still talking and laughing. Halfway across the square, Locke turned, called "Forgot something" to either or both of us, and came back to the house. It turned out to be those fingerless gloves he wore for no good reason, and we rooted through the kitchen together looking for them. "Listen, can I talk to you sometime?" he asked, in a low voice, as if afraid someone would hear.
My heart was thudding. "Sure," I said. "Whenever you want."
"I'll, uh, I'll see you later, then," he said, looking as if he wanted to bolt out the door.
"Yeah," I agreed, stupidly, and he headed for the exit. I felt my arms wrap around myself. "Locke!" I called, just as he reached the door to the hallway, and he stopped and looked over his shoulder. "I missed you," I blurted, and I looked down, but then immediately back up at him.
A slow smile spread over his face. "I missed you too," he said. He looked like he was about to say something else, but I guess he thought better of it. I stood frozen in the kitchen, listening to his footsteps in the hall, listening to the creak of the front door as it opened and closed. I'd have to oil the hinges, I thought. I realized I was smiling, not at anyone in particular, for the first time in a while now.
It was strange, given how awkward I'd expected things to be, but I felt more comfortable, safer, with Locke and Celes than I did with anyone other than the kids. I could just exist, without worrying that they'd notice a change in me – and that was strange too, since they'd known me so well once, but maybe I thought time would have fixed that, or maybe I thought they knew me well enough that they wouldn't mind the change. Maybe I sensed they'd give me space to act strange, but I didn't think of it that way.
I just felt at home with them. It was best when they were both around, when it was all three of us; otherwise I'd talk too much, or be too quiet, and feel strange about it. It was better, in some ways, being with them than with my family, because my oldest were getting restive, or "turning normal" as Kat put it. The boys seldom spoke, to me or anyone else, and Isabella alternated cheerfulness and intense moodiness, bursting into tears or screaming at me about chores. "Normal," Kat insisted, whenever I shot her an accusing look.
Of course, the younger kids didn't have those problems. They acted normal as I recognized it, getting into my things, attempting to get themselves killed in any number of mundane ways, but acting as I expected, and it was comforting. I knew they wouldn't know or care about my past, unconditionally. I was their mother, part of the furniture of their lives – the only stable thing they'd had for a while – and they wouldn't look for cracks in my armor.
I still kept busy, and I felt like I was getting better after the initial shock; I wasn't dwelling on my memories so much, and I was able to get through an entire council meeting. I was drenched with sweat afterwards, but elated as if I'd just run a race. We hadn't actually done much – we'd drafted a few official letters, offering to aid several small communities in starting postal and records offices, and we'd debated a proposal for building a railroad line through to Mobliz without reaching a conclusion – but I'd made it through, even with all those eyes on me, even with Martin beaming proudly at me whenever I did much of anything. Locke and Celes listened patiently as I recapped the entire meeting for them at high speed, with commentary. They'd been there, and they didn't realize why this would be any special accomplishment for me, but they were good enough not to say either of those things out loud.
I took up the new project of transcribing the Queen's diary. It wasn't much – just translating from her handwriting to mine – but I could standardize the spelling, and fill in some blanks. The book was amazingly well preserved for its age, but it was still brittle, and pages had begun to fragment even as we read it in the cave. It was hard to justify copying all of it, I pointed out to them, as I worked on it one afternoon in the kitchen, stew bubbling away on the stove. "I know she's a queen, but she's boring."
"In what way?"
"All this talk about her normal life. I know it's fascinating when it's you, and sometimes she makes these comments about people in the court that are really funny once you think about them, but I don't see why anyone would really be interested."
"You'd be amazed," Celes said.
"What kind of daily life details? Overseeing servants?"
"Hell, she plans the meals sometimes, helps cook. I didn't know queens did that." Edgar had once proposed to me, casually. 'The castle will have room for your brood and you wouldn't have to cook,' he'd suggested, and I'd laughed and suggested he join me in my cave instead. At that time we hadn't really discussed the likelihood of my death. "She talks over royal stuff with her husband. She seems like she'd be a pretty interesting person if she were alive, but lists of fabrics..."
"Oh, Gibson would be in ecstasy. She lives for this kind of thing. Hamley's into the big picture, who was alive when and what they worshipped. Molly's always trying to figure out what grains they grew."
"Molly?" I asked.
"Yeah, thought I mentioned her. Anyway, go on."
"Um, there wasn't much, you just jumped in with that."
"How much progress have you made?" Celes asked helpfully.
"They haven't even declared war," I said. "I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life. How old was she again?"
"Heaven knows. I guess Hale might too, but it'd be a while before he got my letter. Celes? You any better judge? She looked a little like you."
"She was marble, Locke. Should I be offended?"
I turned back to the page, listening to them tease back and forth across the table. The ink was faded, the words going brown on the brown page as she listed the gifts – of grain, wine, cloth, and in only one case a ring – she was giving that winter. Her husband was giving swords, armor, and chargers to his knights. He gave Odin a helmet. She gave things people could use, to— "Locke, what's a villeyn?"
"Uh, simple farmer... a freeman, not a serf, I think, but I'm not sure."
"Okay," I said, and made a query mark on my own page by the word. "I'll worry about it later." I turned another page. "Did you know they had Espers as slaves?" One had been given to her husband as a gift, and he'd given it to her, which suggested war might be coming. Otherwise, what would be the point? A slave like that would be more natural as a bodyguard than as a servant. The slave crown made the queen uneasy. I still didn't know her name. It was understandable that she wouldn't mention it, since she thought of the diary as private and she knew who she was, but I would have liked to know.
I'd just meant it as another of those tidbits of information, but then I realized neither of them was speaking. When I looked up, Locke had stopped drumming his fingers on the table, and Celes held the spoon of sugar suspended over her tea. "I guess it's where the slave crown came from," I added, quietly.
"It's practically traditional, then," Celes said, a touch bitterly, as she stirred the tea. The clinking of spoon on china was the only sound in the room. Outdoors, I heard a bird cry.
"How do you know?" Locke asked.
"She calls it the Esper crown," I said. Celes pushed her chair back with a scrape, took her tea with her to the window. "I think the Phoenix was the one she had," I said. "Wasn't Phoenix a female? I think she might have been related to me. It's hard to know, there was so much my father didn't have time to tell me." I could say that easily, now, so obviously I could eventually adapt to things that consumed my thoughts at first. That was good to know.
"Sounded female," Locke said, barely audible, and I felt a quick crush of guilt, remembering that he'd know, and why he'd know. Maybe I was better off never taking anything lightly.
"I'm sorry," I said, and Celes turned, looking almost angry.
"What is there for you to be sorry for?" she demanded. "You didn't do anything."
"I just meant... I..." The pause stretched long enough to become uncomfortable, and no one interrupted, so I had to find words after all. "You're both upset, and it's because of things I brought up..." She shook her head, looked over her shoulder at the window, as if she wanted to climb through it. I felt like I'd break into pieces if I didn't tell someone, so finally, very quietly, I said, "I'm starting to remember."
When I looked up she was staring at me, and the look on her face reminded me of the sinking sensation I'd had when my father's magicite grew too hot to touch. I glanced away, at Locke, and he just looked confused. I tried watching the table. "I had an affair with Kefka," I said. I wanted to add, 'didn't I?' or turn to Celes, ask her what happened, but I couldn't even lift my head, couldn't bear to know for sure that their eyes were on me.
"What do you mean?" Locke asked, blankly. "You don't... you aren't just confused?" I shook my head, looked up at Celes, saw the confirmation in her face. "Were you in love with him?" he asked.
"No!" I said, and I thought I saw disapproval from him, or disgust. I crossed my arms, pressing them against my stomach.
"It wasn't an affair, Locke," she said. "That sort of implies she had a choice."
"But I did! I agreed, I—" I'd been so stupid. I'd thought maybe I could get some leverage, that maybe he'd try to keep me sweet if I were free. I'd thought I could bargain with him.
"Some agreement! He put the slave crown on you anyway, didn't he?"
"Yes, but not... It wasn't all the time." I was apologizing for him. I crossed my legs, stared at the knobby shape of my kneecap through my skirt. At least no one else was here.
"It was rape," she said, angrily, and I bent almost double in my chair. I was trembling, and when I spoke my throat hurt like I'd been crying for hours.
"Celes, I don't want to... I want to feel like I had that little bit of control, and—"
"I don't see why you want to blame yourself!" she retorted, and when I looked up finally I saw that she'd set her tea on the windowsill, that she had wrapped her arms around herself the way I always did. Her face looked pinched, contained. "I'm going for a walk," she said, angrily. She wasn't exactly stomping, but she did slam the door harder than she needed to. The silence descended on us like a thick blanket.
"You should go after her," I said to Locke, very calmly. My throat still hurt.
There was a very long silence. "Do you want me to leave?" he asked. "I mean, if you want to be alone, I can go."
"I'll be okay," I said. "She's upset right now. She always goes for walks when she doesn't really want to be alone."
"Terra, do you blame yourself?"
"What? That's not... I meant it like I said it. I was stupid, it was stupid, I just... It wasn't like she thought. I never told him no or anything." I was trying not to remember the parts I remembered, trying to go back to what I'd been thinking – if I'd been thinking – when I told him I'd do anything he wanted. "I was so stupid," I said, softly. "I thought he could act normal." Sometimes he did. Not often. Normal had been when he sat at my vanity and tried on my makeup, and when I laughed and said he looked like a clown he just smiled indulgently and didn't hit me.
"You didn't have much choice," he said, almost a question. I guess he was prompting me to talk, but I didn't think about it at the time.
"I guess not. I mean, it was this way or the slave crown." It felt so bizarre, discussing this as if it were a decision about what type of carrots to plant in the garden. At the time, the decision had felt like a weight on my shoulders, noise in my mind, either option meaning the end of the life I knew. That life was already over by the time it came to that, and I just hadn't realized. "I got to go down to the magitek lab, once, and... I guess it was like when I spoke to Tritoch, you remember?" From the corner of my eye I saw him nod. "That's how Ramuh and Stray and Kirin got free," I said. "And I was accused of sabotage. So Kefka got put in charge of my case, and I was just trying to... I think it's what you call making the best of a bad job." A phrase his grandma had used, I remembered once I said it.
"Terra..." he began, and the pain from his voice seemed to collect in the back of my throat.
"I don't know, maybe Celes is right," I said, trying to be as matter-of-fact about it as I had been before, even though I could feel everything pressing down on me. "I probably was just fooling myself. I mean, either way, he got his way. It's not like I was plotting my escape. I wasn't doing anything, just— getting by, I guess." I glanced at him. He looked the way his voice had sounded. "I never even thought of getting away," I said, my own voice quavering, and I watched the world start to blur. "I never even tried to do anything."
I'm not sure when he got up, but he wrapped his arms around my folded figure, held onto me. "Gods, Terra," I heard him say, and it almost sounded like he could cry too.
"It's okay," I said. "I don't remember much anyway, it's just the fact that it happened, and everything—"
"It's not your fault," he said. "None of it's your fault, love." I nodded. I could tell myself that if I wanted to, but somehow it helped to hear it. I let myself untense, a little, rubbed my face against his sleeve to wipe my eyes, and I felt him start to let go, but only so he could kneel in front of me, hold me by the elbows. "Terra, I am so sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry." His face still looked a way I could only describe as painful, and I couldn't look at his eyes for long.
"I never even suspected... I mean, I figured I might be pushing too hard for you, making you uncomfortable, but I never really thought of anything like this. And it's ridiculous, because it should have occurred to me at some point in all this time." He shook his head. "Explains a lot," he said. "I'm sorry."
"You mean when you kissed me and I sort of..." He nodded. "Locke, that's..." I still couldn't bring myself to explain, especially not when Celes was probably within shouting distance. "It wasn't that," I said.
"Are you sure?" I nodded. "All right," he said, but he still didn't look convinced. He might even have been right, but I couldn't remember fear at the time. After a moment he let go of me, sat back on his heels. "Listen, you just tell me if I ever do anything that bothers you, because I know I tend to just grab you whenever I see you."
"Locke, it's called hugging," I reminded him, and at that he cracked a smile, which let me do the same. "It's never bothered me. I don't know why, but I'm glad of it. It's fine. I'm fine. I will be, anyway. People need me, right?"
He nodded, looking serious again, but his voice managed to sound light when he said, "I know for a fact that I do." I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I looked down at my hands, and after a moment he added, "Listen, if you're okay for now— are you?" I nodded. "Okay, I'll go see about finding Celes."
"Good," I said. "And tell her I'm sorry."
"What for?" he asked, and I couldn't say 'because of you,' so I just shrugged, and he smiled and said, "Right. Well, hopefully she'll know what we're sorry for."
"Maybe she'll tell us later," I said, even though I already knew why I was sorry. I wasn't sure she knew, but I did, and I'd have to tell her. I'd have to tell them both. He was grinning at the joke, and I reached forward and hugged him awkwardly. His arms went around my waist.
"You know, I promised to stay with you till you got your memory back," he said, quietly. "I promised to protect Celes. I should have promised to protect you too."
"It was too late by that time, Locke," I said. "From that. And I didn't really need much protecting after, did I?"
"Nope. You kicked some tail," he said, and I smiled into his hair. "Would've made me feel better, though," he continued. "Or it'd make me feel better now. I know it's ass-backwards, but it would." He gave me a squeeze and stood. His eyes were suspiciously bright as he looked down at me. "You think you need any protecting now?"
"From mosquitoes?" I offered, and he gave a cracked bark of a laugh.
"I'll do my damnedest," he said.
Once he was gone, I washed my face in cold water, and I spent most of the evening trying my best not to look puffy. When Locke and Celes came back they were talking, seriously but pleasantly enough, though they both went subdued when they saw me. I cracked some stupid joke to lighten the mood, and they laughed too much at it, and things were normal again for the rest of the evening.
Despite my best efforts, I was puffy, red-eyed, and while the kids didn't comment, I saw Kat and Duane exchange looks. I was determined not to give them a chance to ask, so I kept Locke and Celes around after dinner. Locke had let the kids drag him upstairs, possibly so that Celes and I could talk, or maybe just because he rather liked the kids. Probably the latter.
"Terra, I'm sorry," was the first thing out of Celes's mouth once we were alone.
"It's okay," I said. "I remember how you used to deal with arguments before."
"Yes, and I'm not one bit more mature," she said, and just as I was considering how to respond to that, she added "Obviously," and smiled, which let me guess it was a joke. I smiled back. "I also meant... in general," she added. "Sorry about what happened to you."
"Celes, it wasn't your fault!"
"I know that. I can still be sorry that it happened," she said. "Sorry I wasn't able to do more for you at the time."
"You were posted in Doma," I pointed out.
"Doma, Maranda... and I went, no argument. I just wrote irate letters to Gestahl about you. I never did anything."
"Like what? A jailbreak? I never expected anything like that," I said. "It was our life. I wouldn't have expected you to give it up just because I managed to ruin mine." That might have been part of my reason for not telling her; I hadn't wanted to make her feel guilty or obligated. Or maybe I just wanted to avoid pity, though. It could have been both. "And treason... do you remember ever thinking about it?"
"Not even when I committed it," she said with a sort of half-laugh. "I didn't even realize."
"What did you do?" I asked. "I don't think anyone ever said. You certainly didn't, and you went vague when I asked. I couldn't think up any kind of treason I could actually imagine you doing." When we were much younger, thirteen or fourteen, we used to make fun of the Returners, because what kind of idiots would seriously think they could overthrow the Empire?
"They never knew. It was your pendant."
Automatically, I reached for it, fingers closing around the stone at my neckline, warmed by my body. "What, did you booby-trap it?"
She gave me the strangest look. "You spend too much time with Locke. You're starting to think like him. But I guess I did. I mean, I gave it to you." That didn't make any sense, and it must have showed, because she continued, "I think the pendant was the thing the Espers reacted to when your powers flared up. Or it helped, it amplified your powers, something like that. You were wearing it when you went into the lab, weren't you?"
I nodded, hesitantly. Between the passage of time and Slave Crown, I could't remember. But I always wore the pendant, so I must have been. "I think it was the key to the Esper world," I added. "My father gave it to my mother..."
"I don't think even Cid realized the effect it had on Espers in your hands. He had no reason to. But all of your things were confiscated, and I knew that was the only thing you'd had since you were a baby, so I swiped it and gave it back." She shrugged. "That wasn't the only thing, but they were all little, stupid things like that. I was thinking seditiously, I just wasn't doing anything important about it, I thought. But I'd been in unauthorized contact with you, just before you escaped, and we'd been friends before that, of course, so we must have been conspiring. I pieced it together while I was being held in South Figaro, and Leo confirmed it later when I was recaptured in Vector."
"Gods. Celes, I should be the one apologizing to you."
"Don't be stupid," she said, then tried to soften it with a smile. "Neither of us had any idea, and it's obviously for the best. Can you imagine how things might have been if we'd both stayed on the side that had Kefka?"
I nodded, fidgeted with the flowers in the centerpiece. "Celes, can we, ah..."
"Change subjects, right." There was silence for a moment. "So how are you doing?" she asked.
"Not that one!" I protested.
"I'm sorry, Terra. It's on my mind, that's all."
"Mine too," I said, in a very small voice. "I don't want it to be. I lived and it's over, and... Did you ever see me back then? What did I act like?"
She hesitated. "Strange," she said, finally. "You were trying to act normal, but things were sort of awkward. You never got to leave your room and I was busy all the time, so we didn't have much to talk about. You didn't even have a calendar. You never knew what day it was. I'd tell you, but you'd lose track..." She trailed off, shook her head as if to clear it. "One thing I remember is that I wouldn't talk about Kefka – it seemed like you were trying to convince me it wasn't that bad, and I wouldn't hear it."
"But if it wasn't that bad—"
"The point is I wasn't sure if you were being honest about it. I didn't see how you could be."
"Why would I lie?"
"Why would you try to take responsibility for what he did?" she retorted. "Obviously I don't understand how your mind works. Don't you remember how you felt?"
Only in flashes. I had isolated memories, and I could tell myself I was afraid then, but I couldn't reconstruct the feelings, or even, really, the time of my captivity as a whole. Just parts of it. I shook my head. "Not really."
"So we'll never know for sure how you really felt back then," she said.
I worried a dead leaf off a daisy's stem. "I don't think I'd have pretended if I were really miserable, unless I've changed. I'm not very good at hiding my feelings now, am I?" She shook her head with a faint smile. "So I guess however I acted was how I felt." Unless I was just trying to convince her I was all right, the way I'd been doing these past few weeks.
"About what?" Locke asked, from the doorway, and I jumped.
"Uh, about, about..."
"This guy who's been calling on her lately."
"Celes!" I hissed, feeling my ears grow hot. A line appeared between his eyebrows. "He hasn't been lately anyway," I added.
"This that guy that's been after you most of the year?"
"Well, yeah, I mean, not after me... And not most of the year, either!"
"You ever need to get rid him, just let me know," he said, with that bravado I remembered from when we first met, and he winked. I huffed a little, or tried to at least, but I couldn't help grinning at him and ducking my head as if he'd paid me a compliment.
"Why would she want to get rid of him?" Celes asked. "She might like him."
"She could probably tell you if you asked," I said, but without irritation. "It's getting late, and we need to get these dishes put away. Ready to help?"
Celes looked tired, and like she was about to provide an excuse, but Locke said "Sure," and they both stayed. I kept quiet, subdued; at first we all did, but then Celes fumbled a wet glass and managed to catch it partway down, and then Locke and I applauded, and the two of them made occasional jabs and jokes for the rest of the time. I'd smile, or laugh, but keep quiet. I knew they were both keeping an eye on me, but I figured they'd notice if I were acting false.
I walked them out to the porch when they both headed back to the inn. Celes gave me a sympathetic smile and, after a moment's hesitation, she squeezed my arm and then moved away. Locke took her place in front of me.
"Listen, you need to talk, you know where I am. In the middle of the night, whenever." His hands sort of hovered, as if he wanted to touch me but feared actual contact might shatter me.
"I know," I said. Celes started down the porch steps.
"And if there's anything, I mean, if you get more of your memories back, you can tell me," he said. I just nodded, started to say 'I know' again and stopped myself. "I can't believe you went through remembering all this alone," he said, finally settling on touching my face, lightly. "How did you—"
"I didn't want anyone to know," I said, and there was stillness for a second. I pulled together a reassuring smile, looking into his face, and said, "We all need to get some sleep." He nodded, and I touched his hand before he dropped it. I watched him walk out across the square – Celes had waited, and when he caught up to her they walked back to the inn in step. It occurred to me that maybe we'd looked a little too close there on the porch, but it couldn't have been that bad, could it? She hadn't come back to attack me or anything. And I'd have to tell her sooner or later. Besides, she might figure it was nothing. It probably was nothing.
I worried over the thought like a dog with a bone as I changed for bed, but I was asleep almost instantly, and I slept soundly and all through the night for the first time in what seemed like ages.
The next day was a weekend, and the weather was beautiful. I left the diary on my desk, went outside to desultorily weed the garden. As the sun warmed my back and I smelled fresh earth, listened to the kids laugh and bicker and the dogs bark, Kefka seemed a part of the distant, implausible past. This was my life now. I was quietly happy, and more at peace than I'd been for a long while.
Locke joined me later, once the sun had really settled in and started baking my shoulders, and kept pretending like he didn't know which plants were weeds and which were vegetables. He was trying to make me laugh, and it worked, easily enough that he noticed and seemed to cheer up in return.
It was into the afternoon by the time Celes joined us. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" she asked.
"Mama, she's crazy," Margie called out to me from the shady spot by the shed.
"No, she just hadn't been out in it all day," I replied. "Or running herself ragged," I added, meaningfully. She, Henry and Annie were slouched in the shade, looking uncomfortable. Cassie, as usual, was sticking near me – and Locke. Charles had gone inside, Isabella was minding the store, and the boys had ventured off to go swimming. We were within a short walk of the shore, but I'd initially forbidden them to swim in the ocean, fearing monsters, the buried wreckage of their homes, the ocean turning to poison, anything – and the ban had become habit. They had a place some distance from the house, essentially a wide spot in the stream, but no monsters.
"You told us to play outside," Annie complained, listlessly.
"I actually asked you to help me in the garden," I said, and that quieted them down. I glanced up at Celes. "It is nice today, isn't it?" I said, even though I'd been out in it since the washing-up was done. I was wearing an old dress, full-skirted but without petticoats, and even with it hiked up to my knees I was still sweaty.
"What are you doing?" she asked, crouching down at the garden's edge. She must have just been trying to make conversation.
"Weeding," I said, and looked up to such an odd look on her face that I had to burst out laughing.
"I can see that," she said, mouth quirking into a grin. "Sorry," she added. "Needed a break from packing."
"Packing? You're leaving already?" Locke said, behind me. I watched her face, thought I saw a flicker of reaction, too quick to identify.
"Well, eventually. I have to start a bit in advance. When I travel now I don't just live out of my pack the way we used to," she said.
"Speak for yourself! I wear the same clothes days on end," Locke reported proudly. And inaccurately, but Celes still wrinkled her nose and replied "We'd noticed." We all laughed, went on to talking about other things – mostly news on Sabin and Setzer that Locke hadn't heard before but I had. The kids were playing some kind of game that involved hitting each other. I think it could have been rock-paper-scissors, but maybe they just felt like hitting each other.
"Dinner on the airship?" Locke asked, snapping me out of my reverie, such as it was. "Sounds to me like you two are seeing each other."
"That's what Terra said, too," she said, looking down at her hands for a moment. "I don't know, maybe we are."
"Well, congratulations?" he said. "As long as there's no kidnapping or forced marriage involved, you two have my blessing."
"That's a relief," she retorted, and he grinned at her until he finally made her grin back. Things lapsed into silence just for a moment, and then Annie announced they were going swimming, so I had to brush my hands clean and go over to argue with them, because the younger three could only go swimming if someone older was with them. The boys would do, but the boys dashed Annie's hopes by returning, damp and, for once, not sullen.
"But it's hot," Henry was whining, when I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see Locke.
"I'll take them," he said, so they were off like a shot and I was left to call instructions after him – don't let them dive, don't let them get in the deep parts, watch for the poison ivy and the vampire vines – while he followed them. Cassie followed him, and when I called to him to wait, he turned and saw her, slowed down until she could catch up. They followed at her speed. I hoped my middle three wouldn't drown before he got there.
Celes didn't seem to have budged while the negotiations had been taking place, though Byram and Theo were both talking to her – like Isabella, they thought she was wonderful, though they thought so in a different way than Isabella did. Theo was chattering at her, something about a giant turtle – and I hoped very much that he'd been exaggerating about the size and viciousness of the turtle – while Byram just stared at her. She smiled, said something that sounded like "Very good," and Theo beamed at her. As I approached, Byram started to leave, and Theo followed, reluctantly, calling over his shoulder "I'll show it to you later!"
"I can't wait," she said, vaguely, but I doubt he cared about her tone.
"Boys," I said, meaninglessly, as I started on the tomato rows again. Cassie had not been kind to the marigolds, which meant I should have been watching her more closely.
"Yeah," she agreed.
"When is Setzer coming?" I asked. "When he brought you, he told me he'd stay a while when he came to get you."
"Ah, I'm not sure if he's going to manage that this time or not," she said.
"I'd... really rather get back to Narshe right away."
"Did we keep you too long?"
"Not on purpose," she said. I poked around a dandelion with a trowel. I actually kind of like the flowers, but I also like keeping my garden neat. "Terra, I know you're in love with Locke."
I stopped dead. It might only have been a second. It might just have been my heart not beating, so maybe I seemed normal. "I... How did you know?"
"Terra, you said it yourself. You don't hide your feelings. I sort of suspected, and..." She shrugged, stood up, shook out her shoulders. After a moment she knelt again, balancing so her light-colored pants didn't touch the soil.
"I'm sorry," I said. My hands were trembling, and the trowel tip was dug into the earth by the dandelion.
She just shrugged. I saw it in her shadow. Or maybe she just nearly lost her balance, crouched as she was. "It's... stupid. I was so proud of myself, being able to come here and hear about him and not... react like that. I could see him and just think of him as a friend, and then I start to notice the way you two smile at each other— It's ridiculous."
"Terra, don't— I can handle it. Just be honest with me."
"What do you mean honest?" I asked. "I'm not lying to you, I just didn't..."
"Didn't tell me," she said.
"I didn't even tell him!" I blurted, and that was admitting it. "I'm not even sure he feels the same way," I continued, more quietly. I saw another shrug in her shadow. "Celes, I'm sorry," I said again. "I wasn't trying to—"
"Just stop it, Terra," she said, sounding angry. "I don't want to—" The shadow unfolded, her clothes rustled as she stood. "Listen, I'll see you later."
I finally made myself look up as she walked off. I watched the set of her shoulders and back, stiff and straight, proud, and I felt my stomach eating itself.
I finished weeding methodically, keeping so focused on it that eventually my hands stopped trembling. It let me think, and by the time I went to the outdoor pump to wash up, I'd realized I'd better just leave her alone – if I followed her she'd just get angrier. She probably really did want to be alone. And there was no changing anything. Nothing I could do.
I went into the kitchen, started opening up windows to get a breeze, spent some time just staring out one window blankly, and finally settled down at the table with the diary and my notes. The Queen had been talking about trade negotiations – not in any detail, just that they were preoccupying "my lord housbond." After a few more short entries about trying to marshall the household for the king's return from the negotiations and the welcoming feast, she noted that the negotiations had not gone well, that there would be a war.
And she mentioned Odin. He'd assured her that he and his men – did that mean Esper troops, or did he command humans? – would acquit themselves with honor, which seemed to please her. Then in her next entry, which was just a few days later, he was escorting her to "Carterhaugh," for her own safety. I wondered if that was the castle we'd seen, or another. This time she spoke of him as "a worthy knyght," before going on to fret over the staff here. She didn't seem terribly worried about her husband, though, so either she thought he was invincible or she didn't really love him. She also never called him by name.
The serial mentions of Odin got me thinking, though, and I went back to my transcriptions to see if he'd come up before. He had – twice in lists of knights who'd been present at a ceremony or feast, and once in a short listing of the Espers who were residing in the castle. She liked making lists. I guess he commanded humans, then, because she hadn't named off many Espers.
I realized, with a start, that the sun was hitting my eyes because it was coming in through the west window, so I hauled the diary over to the kitchen counter, and read it as I peeled vegetables. Kat brought in a chicken, already plucked and cleaned, and asked, "Pot pie?" I nodded, and after that we both worked in silence. The queen seemed, so far, not to think of Odin as more than a friend, and her "worthy protector." That seemed to be his assigned role, and I wondered what had become of the enslaved Phoenix. "Give it about half an hour," Kat said, and I nodded again.
The queen was not at all satisfied with the way Carterhaugh had been cared for in her absence. A week's worth of entries concerned getting the castle into shape. I'd read it when I transcribed it; for now I skimmed. I flipped a page over with the handle of a wooden spoon, and heard a "hey!" from the doorway. Locke strode purposefully for my side, trailed by Cassie – the others must have split already – and he scooped up the diary and cradled it protectively.
"Don't lose my place," I said.
"Don't get food on it!" he retorted.
"It's fine," I insisted, but I didn't argue while he took it over to the table. As soon as he sat down, Cassie came over and clambered up onto the bench next to him.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the volume.
"It's a very, very old book. Very fragile. Don't touch." At that she withdrew her hands, clasping them in her lap. "Your mama was being very bad, keeping it over by the food," he said. She shot me a look of accusation and doubt. I glared at him, and mouthed "You're undermining my authority."
"But she's a grownup, so I guess it's okay," he added. I turned back to the chicken.
"So you can touch it, Uncle Locke?" she asked. He mouthed "Uncle?" at me over her head, and I shrugged. I hadn't come up with it.
"Yeah, I can," he said, and then I guess he noticed my notes stuck in the front cover, because he flipped back to them.
"Don't lose my place!" I repeated.
"How old is it?" she asked.
"Ancient," he said absently, scanning the pages. "A thousand years." He laid the pages back on the table. "You know, it really shouldn't be in such good condition."
"I think there was a preservation spell on the palace," I said. "You must have noticed, none of the furniture was falling apart either."
"I thought I remembered that, but then when we went back in, it was," he said. "Not as badly as you'd think..."
"Well, once the magic went away, the spell wore off, and things started aging," I said, as if I knew for sure. "But they aren't really making up for lost time too badly. We have books that can't be more than twenty years old that are in no better shape than the diary."
"You aren't supposed to read people's diaries," Cassie informed us. Isabella and the boys had waged a pitched battle over hers last winter, and I suppose it made an impression on the younger kids.
"Yes, but this lady's been dead a long time," Locke said. Cassie's eyes widened. I remembered Bella yelling something about 'over her dead body,' and hastened to explain, "She died of old age." Which wasn't, strictly speaking, true, but it was a bit too late for these kids to be too sheltered – I figured sheltering them from now on couldn't hurt and might help.
"Okay," she agreed peaceably, and climbed back down off the bench.
"Where you going, sweetie?" I asked, and she giggled and ran out of the room. "Okay, so it's a secret," I answered myself, and looked over my shoulder. Locke was paging through the diary. At least he did have a bookmark in there. I started on the dough for crust.
"Looks like you've been keeping pretty good notes," he said. "Going to do an index?"
"Well, you'll publish this, right?"
"I hadn't really thought about it..."
"You should," he said. "I'm not really aiming for a university position myself, not like Hamley or Gibson. Already got Edgar as a backer, what's the point, right? So I don't publish things or present them quite as frantically as they do. But what's the point of discovering something if you don't share it? This is a really important find you've got here."
"What about the rest of the books from the queen's room?" I asked.
"Those all went to the Figaro royal library. Edgar's got scholars working on them. I honestly thought one or two of them were going to die of ecstasy when we brought them up – almost all the writing from that time is lost."
"Maybe they should have the diary, too."
He didn't reply for a moment, and I turned to look at him. He studied my face, must have seen that I meant it. "Why'd you want to throw away all that work?" he asked.
"I just don't have the time to... to see it through publication, to do those presentations you're always talking about. I guess I'll have time to finish the diary, but no time soon, and... There's just so much to do here." I slid the carrots and onions into the sauce, wiped my hands on my apron.
He sighed. "Terra, there's no deadline on this diary thing, you know? And it looks to me like Mobliz is doing just fine as it is. You have plenty of time to do this."
"Yes, but we need to improve the land records, and see about drafting a formal constitution, because Edgar wanted that ratified months ago, and we need to look at chartering some of these other towns and getting birds out to them for the post—"
"All at once?" he said. "Jidoor wasn't built in a day, Terra. You've got time." I shrugged, and he sighed again. "Whatever you want," he said, sounding a bit weary. I carried the stack of plates over to the table, and he stood up, took them from me. I went back to the stove. "Isn't Celes coming?" he asked.
"She said she had a lot of packing to do," I said, bending down to tap the bread crust.
"Has she been buying souvenirs? She always used to travel light," he said. I could hear the scrape of plates as he set them down.
"I guess she's changed," I said, knowing full well that wasn't it. "She's probably wanting to get back as soon as possible."
"Elections are coming up," he agreed. "Terra, I'm sorry if I upset you talking about publishing this. It just seems like a good idea, but hell, why should you trust my version of a good idea?"
"It's just... I have so much to handle right now," I said.
He looked like something had just hit him. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"I didn't mean the memories... I mean, I did, but not—" I broke off, shook my head and started over. On some level it was the memories keeping me overwhelmed and unwilling to deal with things, but I hadn't been thinking about them right then, and hadn't meant to remind him. I kept my gaze fixed on the edge of the table. "As much as I hate it, it's... it's good to have some memories of my own, not just my father's. Making new ones is fine, but... I feel like I'm getting something back to make up for what I've lost. Even if what I'm getting back is—"
"A handful of shit," he interrupted, angrily. "I swear you'd be better off not knowing."
"That wasn't the only thing that happened to me, Locke! I remember... I remember going to the ballet when I was ten years old, I remember I used to take lessons. I sort of remember books I've read, and the other day Kat was playing something on the phonograph and I realized I'd heard it before. I remember a whole life. Just because bad things happened in it..." When I looked up at him, he was looking down at his hands. "I'm trying to get past it," I said. "If I couldn't remember, I couldn't do that."
He nodded, hesitated before he spoke. "I just hate that it happened to you," he said.
I didn't know what to say to that. "I'll be okay eventually," I began, and then Henry poked his head through the door to ask if dinner was ready. Which, of course, it wasn't yet, so I sent him off to find the others while it baked. That didn't take long. They were already with him, so they just came in to join us. I fell silent amid all the other chatter, busied myself over serving dinner and stayed quiet through the meal.
After dinner, as we were clearing the dishes, I asked, "Why did it matter to you whether or not I published the diary?"
He looked a little embarrassed. "It's kind of stupid... I was hoping you'd get involved in this with me. Maybe... I mean, I know you can't just drop everything and do field work, but that was kind of what I had in mind. You used to be one hell of a treasure hunter."
"What, because I could see shiny things in the dirt?" I joked. It had actually been a sense for items with a whiff of magic on them. I wouldn't have that anymore, and it wouldn't have been terribly valuable in this kind of archeology anyway.
"Hey, don't knock it," he said. "I just figured, y'know, we were a good team. Like I said, kind of stupid." I laughed a little, awkwardly, and shook my head. "I'm sorry, Terra," he said, quietly. "I didn't mean to push you."
"Oh, Locke, it's not— I'm not upset or anything. I probably will try to publish it eventually, but I'm not even done with it yet."
"You seem upset. You were awfully quiet during dinner."
"I'm just tired," I said, my blanket excuse for anything, and started the water running in the sink. He caught my wet wrist as I reached for a cloth, and I jerked away automatically, spun to face him. We stood staring at each other for a moment.
"I'm sorry," he said again, beating me to the words by a fraction of a second.
"I'll finish up here," he said, and I hesitated, nodded, wiped my hands on my apron and went shakily upstairs. In my room I just stared out the window for a long time. I hadn't even taken off the apron.
Over the next few days, I threw myself into chores once more – I hadn't ever really stopped doing that, actually. It was even easier since both Locke and Celes were giving me plenty of space, which meant I had even more time for weeding, and more guilt to work off. Not spending time with Locke should have made me feel less guilty, since I'd concluded, not fully consciously, that the only way to atone towards Celes was to stay away from him, but it didn't seem to work that way.
I did still see him occasionally. He'd come over to see the kids or talk to everyone, but we weren't alone together much. He might have meant it as a kindness. He might have decided I was just too strange to deal with right now. Whatever else he'd intended, he was keeping the kids out of trouble, and that was a blessing.
Celes's motives for avoiding me were much easier to figure out, and she was avoiding me completely. She didn't come over for dinner even when I sent the kids over with an invitation. If she'd had any weakness for kids this might have seemed manipulative, but she didn't; I was pretty sure she'd see it as me being cowardly, though. I didn't especially care. It was true, after all.
I didn't know what to say to her, and wouldn't have known how to explain to Locke if he'd asked. He didn't ask. He just gave me nearly a week of relative peace, and by the end of it I was cautiously circling the idea of going to speak to Celes. I still wasn't sure what good it would do, or what I could possibly say, but I had to do something. I felt horrible, and I missed her.
Around the fourth or fifth day after I'd fought with her, he stuck around after dinner, helped me with the dishes – the same pattern we'd established when things were going well. I felt peaceful, comfortable, like things being normal on the surface could somehow cause normality to seep through and fix the rest of my life.
"Hope you don't mind me taking the kids out," he said. That day they'd gone "treasure hunting," and had unearthed some things they thought were ancient stone arrowheads but were probably really just natural chips of shale or whatever type of rock they were.
"Not at all," I said. "They love it, and I know they're safe with you. No getting eaten by monsters or nearly drowning."
"You really worry about that drowning thing, don't you?" he said. "Any reason?"
"None that I know of," I said. "There's a lot of water around here? They're likelier to drown than fall off a cliff."
"True," he agreed absently. He pulled two mugs out of the cabinet; I was filling the kettle for tea. "I'm just trying to keep them out of your hair, really. And keep me out of your hair, too. You have enough to deal with."
"I'm just a wimp, that's all," I said.
"I talked to Celes," he said.
I stopped dead at her name. "Oh," I managed, after a moment. "What did she say?"
"Not much. She admitted you two had a fight." I nodded, wordlessly. I was lucky; after a moment, he continued. "Basically told me to back off. She also said she'd talk to you. Might've just been trying to make me leave, though."
"What did I ever do to you to make you hate me?" I asked mournfully. "You should have just left it alone. She's going to think I put you up to it."
"You spend too much time with your kids, Terra. Whatever happened to just walking up to somebody and having a conversation? She just thinks I'm a born snoop, not a double agent."
At least I was right. The next day, she walked in the store, gave the bell over the door a look that could easily have tarnished the brass, and then asked "Did you send him?"
"Good," she said, and without any visible change in her I could tell she'd calmed down a notch.
"Did you think I would?"
"It seemed like you. You wouldn't want to risk dealing with me in case I was still angry." I must have looked about to protest, because she added, "You sent the children, for heaven's sake."
"I just wanted you to know you were welcome to... I mean, I have some sense. I know you're mad at me and I knew that wouldn't... do any good. I just wanted you to know..." I felt all the words I'd prepared wilting away, and I nervously smoothed a piece of ledger paper into a sharper crease. "It's... I don't blame you. For being mad."
She stationed herself at the window, hands clasped behind her back, feet shoulder-width apart. At ease, I thought. "It's ridiculous," she said. "I don't especially care. I don't want to be angry. I'm not really angry with you. I'm just... angry."
It took me a moment, but I finally managed, "I'm sorry." The words came out sounding choked.
"For what?" she asked, neutrally.
"Everything?" I said, and I saw her shake her head.
"Did you know how I felt about him?" she asked.
I couldn't answer for a second, just stare at the beam of sunlight coming through the window. She turned around to watch me search the dust motes for words. "I sort of knew," I said finally. "I guessed. I wasn't sure." It was why I'd never told him how I felt.
"Did he ever know?" she asked, quietly.
I shook my head. "I don't think so," I added.
"Good," she said, almost a sigh. I ran my finger along the folded edge of the paper – it had ended up folded in quarters somehow, worried around the edges – and wished I could sink through the floor, resurface somewhere else where I didn't have to face the rest of this conversation. "Terra, I'll... I'll write to you, I suppose. I do need to return to Narshe; I wasn't just fleeing your presence."
"I... well... good," I said, floundering. Then I found my breath to repeat, "Celes, I'm so sorry."
"Just leave it, Terra," she said, quietly. "I'll see you again before I leave. Setzer should be here tomorrow or the next day." I nodded wordlessly, and she walked out, closed the door so gently it barely jingled.
Setzer arrived the next day, late in the afternoon. The sound of propellers drew me out of the store. I watched several of the men waving and shouting at him, trying to steer him into a decent landing spot. He still clipped a few shingles off the roof of my porch, but that could be repaired. I was there to greet him as he came down the ramp. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his erstwhile aides gathering around to gawk at the ship. I hugged him quickly, and he held on.
"She reached this decision to leave in a hurry. Is anything wrong?" he asked quietly.
"Uh..." I thanked the heavens for the hug, since he couldn't see the confusion on my face. "I, um, she'd tell you if—" he pulled back then to look at me, but kept his hands on my shoulders as if I might run away.
"Bless you and your lack of a poker face, Terra. I know she won't tell me anything."
"I didn't tell you anything either," I said. "Whatever you're thinking, you didn't get it from me."
He searched my face again. "What about you? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine!" I insisted, my voice climbing dangerously close to a yelp. "Oh, hi, Martin!" I added enthusiastically. I had to introduce them, and then Martin said "She's a beauty," and Setzer's head came up, and they immediately became absorbed in talk about the airship. I half-listened, because sooner or later the conversation was bound to turn to acquiring a few for Mobliz and I'd need to do my part then, but first they had to discuss items of engineering, the load it could carry, fuel, time to construct one. More questions about labor. I caught the drift of what Martin intended then. Why buy the ship when you can build one? I beamed at him over Setzer's shoulder, saw his acknowledgment with a flicker of his eyes, and when I heard "one-of-a-kind" in a slightly defensive tone from Setzer I jumped in.
"I know you've sold a few to merchants in Figaro," I said, and he turned to me with an exasperated look.
"I sold ready-made ships, not plans," he said.
"They couldn't work backwards from a completed ship?" My command of economics mostly worked at a limited, practical, and very local level, but I knew Setzer well enough to guess that his proprietarial attitude about the airships had little to do with money. I'd seen him in the guts of the ship when it was out of commission and Cid was feeling helpful.
"That is not the point," he began heatedly, then cut himself off. "We can discuss this by letter."
"I'd rather negotiate with you in person," I replied, thinking how long it could take to get anything done through mail. "You could come back after you get Celes home," I added, since she wouldn't want to be kept here, and I should probably discuss the whole business with Martin, among others.
"And speaking of Celes, there she is now," he announced, and made his escape. Martin and I grinned triumphantly at each other.
"Council meeting tonight?" he asked.
"Of course. Spread the word for me, will you? I'm not likely to get out too far south today."
"You can count on me," he said, and then someone touched my shoulder.
I turned. Celes. "Hi!" I said, brightly. Her mouth tightened, slightly, and I felt the smile freeze on my face. "Celes," I began, and she shook her head.
"Terra, I'll write to you. Let's leave it at that, all right?"
I nodded, mutely, and she moved past me; because I was watching her face, I saw as she brightened into a smile to greet Setzer.
The departure took longer than that, of course; Setzer's crew had to retrieve all of her luggage, and she had to say goodbye to everyone she'd gotten to know while she was here - a surprising number, really. Celes wasn't friendly in the same sense that, for example, Sabin was, and I didn't think she'd been deliberately getting to know people for political reasons, but she'd ended up acquainted with most of our businessmen, all of the council, and several other prominent citizens. And all of my kids; Isabella and the two oldest boys led the way. She hadn't dealt much with the younger ones, though they showed up for the departure as well, just because something was happening. I didn't want to leave, but several people realized, while they were near the store, that they needed to buy things, and I had to keep running back inside to take care of that.
It must have been while I was inside that I missed seeing Locke show up, because when I came out on the porch, I saw him talking to Celes. He seemed to be trying to coax a smile out of her, and when he succeeded, he hugged her quickly; she stood awkward in his arms, but smiled at him again, maybe a bit ruefully, and hoisted her satchel over her shoulder as she turned toward the ship.
She wasn't much for dramatic departures, as I recalled - which would seem to suggest she needed a mode of transport other than Setzer - but she did look over the railing of the ship once the propellers started turning, and waved goodbye until it was well off the ground. We all stood outside, watching the ship until it was tiny against the clouds and the dust had settled, and then I watched as everyone started going back to their normal business. I just stood on the store's porch, leaning against the doorjamb, until someone called my name.
Locke. "Hey," I said, smiling faintly.
"Feels so strange, doesn't it?" he said. "I'm not used to the airship taking off without me."
"I hadn't even thought of it like that. I guess you're right... I was just thinking it felt strange because here we all are. The airship had nothing to do with anyone in this town other than the three of us, but everyone pretty much dropped what they were doing because it was here." I searched for the words for what I meant. "It all feels so distant from my real life."
"But, see, you've got a real life."
"And you don't?"
"It feels that way sometimes," he said, as he came up the porch steps. "Like I'm just playing treasure hunter, and any second now someone's going to realize they've been giving me money for something I'd have done for free, and they'll stop."
"Wouldn't 'someone' be Edgar?" I asked, amused. "Locke, you're getting paid to do something you love. That's still a real life."
"But it doesn't feel much different from what we were doing before. If it weren't for the fact the world's better now, I'd almost feel like the fight was still going on."
I held the door open for him as I went back inside the store. "Many, many fewer monsters, no giant citadel of evil in the sky, no—"
"I did say the world's better now," he pointed out.
"I know. I guess I see what you mean... feels like you're still adventuring?"
"Exactly." He flopped down in one of the prize seats in the store, an actual chair with a back on it, near the potbellied stove. We didn't use it during the summer, except as a footrest, which was what he was doing now.
"Sometimes I kind of miss it," I said, straightening the racks of sundries at the counter. "Not that I'm unhappy, just that... I mean, I was happy then, too. Life seemed so much simpler somehow." Because it was, at least for me. I knew how I felt, knew what we needed to do, knew where I stood in the world.
"You still could. Do some adventuring, I mean." He kicked the chair back, balancing it on two legs.
"Just drop everything, abandon my kids, set off into the wilderness with my sword and the pack on my back?"
"You make it sound like it's a bad idea," he said, grinning.
"You know I couldn't do that."
"Not like that. You could join me at the dig for a little while, though. Everyone needs a vacation sometimes, and you've got people here who could take up the slack while you're gone."
"Maybe... I guess so." I looked up from all the packets of sewing supplies. "What brought this up? Are you planning to leave soon?"
"Yeah," he said, looking down at his feet. "I have to get back. I probably shouldn't have stayed as long as I did, but I couldn't just leave you like... Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll be fine, Locke." I smiled reassuringly, and I guess this time it worked, since he smiled back. "It'll be a little lonely with both of you gone, but I'm doing okay."
"Good," he said, and set the chair down. "I should have asked you first, but I wasn't sure I'd get the chance before they left. I'd hate to drag Setzer back out here and then tell him to come back later."
"What? Oh, you mean—"
"While he was picking up Celes, I asked him to swing back by and get me."
"Oh." He'd be leaving soon, then. But— "Locke, you are an angel from on high," I said, grinning. "I'd wanted to get him back here some way or other. We need to buy airship plans from him and I know I won't be able to talk him into it by letter."
"I... uh, good?" I beamed at him. "You're welcome," he added, uncertainly.
"Now I better get busy. It's, what, three days to Narshe by airship? Four? We have about a week to work out how we're doing this. We have a council meeting tonight anyway but I'd better have something solid planned just to speed things up."
He endured my brainstorming for most of an hour, until I closed the store and bustled off to the Eisert's for some advice. If I'd ever known much about the usual running of a government, how contracts and business worked, it was all lost to me now. Fortunately not everyone was so lucky. I got government contracts half explained to me, passed news of the meeting further, and was back home in time to start dinner. I watched through the window as he roughhoused with Byram and Theo in the afternoon light, watched Isabella and her young man watching from the gate. I smiled to myself, reached down almost without thinking to scoop up Rosie as she made for the stove, bounced her on my hip as I stirred the batter for biscuits with one hand. In spite of all the problems I'd made for myself, in spite of my guilt and confusion, I was happy.
The meeting that night mostly let people know we were looking for investors; the government definitely didn't have enough money to start construction on an airship. Someone pointed out that it could be borrowed, but we still didn't have a full, permanent constitution - Figaro had recognized this as a provisional government, nothing more - and that wasn't scheduled to be done until the coming winter. Edgar had warned me the parliament might withhold an aid package until we'd completed the constitution.
It made sense. Everyone needed to rebuild. Doma and the southern cities all had more to rebuild from; we were just a glorified farming village at this point. What amazed me was that everyone seemed to agree we needed to work on being something more than that. Staying independent had hardly been a plan, when I latched onto the idea; I'd just wanted to raise my kids myself, keep the way of life we were used to, or something like it. I suppose other people must have had similar reasons. Maybe that was why the discussion at the meeting kept turning from joint-stock companies to the subject of the constitution. It occurred to me that one of us ought to look into parliamentary procedure, too, just to add some order to these meetings.
I was at the meeting late, and even as we left I could hear people calling out ideas over the shuffle of departure, the calls of chocobos and the distance as some of them took off. Martin walked me across the square in near silence, both of us listening to distant snatches of conversation about direct democracy and caucuses. "Maybe we ought to have that constitutional convention sooner than we'd planned," he said.
"Mm. Too many of the likely delegates would be farmers, though," I said. "Winter's the only time."
"Those that have families could afford to be away some," he said. "I think it could be done."
"That still lets you out, though. Trying to avoid it?" I teased, but he looked serious when I met his eyes.
"Terra, there's something I'd been meaning to— to ask you, I guess."
"Ask me?" My heart was beating wildly and I was about ready to flee. I didn't want to deal with this.
"It's... have you considered marrying?"
I blinked. He asked it like it was an opinion poll. Like the way I'd asked Celes if she'd ever loved, when I met her in Narshe. "Marrying?"
He looked at his feet, rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Marrying me." He looked up. "I'm sorry, Terra. I'm not a romantic. It came down to the very obvious— it's easier to run a farm or a household with two, and then you and I seemed to make good friends, and you're a lovely woman with a good head on your shoulders - it's not hard to be practical when the choice looks like that."
I thought about marrying him then, in a hypothetical sense. I thought of the wedding night, tried to imagine the two of us going to bed. It didn't work. Then I thought of Kefka and forced my mind back to the present, tried to make out his expression in the moonlight. "Martin, you're not in love with me, are you?"
He laughed a little. "I don't think so. Not like that. I'd be a good husband, though. I think."
"I think you'd be a wonderful husband," I said.
"But you're not in love with me," he said.
"I'm sorry," I said, automatically.
He smiled, maybe a bit tightly. "Nothing either of us could do about it."
"I'm sorry," I said again, "I just — I don't think I could get married to be practical."
"I guess it works out fairly well, then, if neither of us is in love. Don't be sorry, Terra. I was the one that brought it up."
"I know," I said, unhappily. "I didn't want things to be... weird."
"They don't have to be. I'll be fine."
"I tried not to encourage you— I wish you'd said. I was afraid you were in love with me."
"I think if you'd... if you ever had encouraged me, I might feel differently, but as it is..." He shrugged. "I just wanted to get it out in the open, I guess. See what you said."
"You'd be a great husband," I said. "If I—" If I weren't in love with somebody else. But I was, and I knew it. "It'd be a shame to muck up council politics with arguments over darning socks, though."
"You have a point there," he said. "Listen, I shouldn't keep you."
"I'll see you later, then," I said, stepping onto the porch, and he waved and walked off, though I stayed in the shadows by the door, watching him go for a little while. I wasn't looking forward to the next few times I'd see him. But at least the air had been cleared. It was something.
When I went inside, I noticed a light from the crack under the sitting-room door. I pushed the door open, smiled as Locke's head tipped back over the settee to see who'd come in. "Waiting up for me?" I asked.
"I meant to head back to my rooms after dinner. I just got wrapped up in this," he said. As I came closer I could see he had the diary open on his lap, my notes spread out over the pages. "I don't think I got anything out of order," he said.
"It's okay if you did. I'm used to it. Nine kids, remember?"
"True enough," he said, smiling up at me. "Have a seat," he added, shifting some papers onto his lap to make room. I settled next to him, managed to catch the notes before they could cascade to the floor.
"How far did you get?" I asked him, squaring the pages off against my knees.
"Through most of your transcriptions, comparing them against the manuscript," he said. "How was the meeting?"
"Not bad. I don't think we got much accomplished, but things like this always seem to brew over time. We really need to work on governing like a real government."
"Who's to say you don't?" he asked.
I smiled at that. "There was some headway on the constitutional convention, though. Interest in it, I mean."
"That's good, right?"
"Good. Yeah. A lot of work when we get to them, but it's important that we do this right, you know?" I squared the notes off against my knees, flipped through the pages. "I think these are better organized than I left them."
"Could be. They're going to teach me scientific rigor if it kills us all," he said. "Organizing my notes actually took."
"Maybe they could give me lessons."
"Oh, you're doing all right. The notes are good, they were just out of chronological order."
"I need to do more. Outlines of what she mentions where, not just lists of words I don't know and things I couldn't quite make out." I turned to him. "What'd you think of the diary itself?" I asked. "Do you think any of your people would be interested?"
"Definitely. Daily life, politics – if you come at it with an idea what's going on at the time, it's fascinating. If you want I could get you some of Hamley's manuscripts or his published papers, just so you'll have an idea what she's on about. He's the historian. Gibson's the archeologist."
"That'd help," I said. "I'm not even sure I'm getting names right. She doesn't spell them the same way every time."
"I'll send some once I'm back at the dig," he said, turning a page. "Gibson would have conniptions over some of the details, too. Would you send any of the notes?"
"I'll try to write out good copies," I said. "I don't see how these versions could help anybody."
"Compared to reading inscriptions in old Kalmadrian or inspecting ruins for signs of baths? I'd think anything would be a help." He repositioned the bookmark – he'd gotten to the last page I'd worked on. "Why are you doing it, Terra?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
"Esper history. Love between an Esper and a human, more to the point." I nodded, and he squeezed my shoulder lightly. "I knew why you kept it, why you read it," he said. "I meant the transcription. Why bother with that and the notes? You know what you're after."
"I don't want to miss anything," I said. "Toward the end, it was all... obvious. She was in love with him, she knew it, he knew it, they just had to deal with it. But does that— where did it start? Did she just decide one day, or does it — how did it happen? That's what I want to know."
"Do you think you'll find that in there?" he asked. "From what I've read, she keeps herself to herself. Can you even tell what she thinks of her husband?"
"Not to speak of, no... I keep hoping, if I read between the lines, maybe I'll catch something." I sighed, sat back, letting the papers drop in my lap. "It's hopeless. Even if there are nuances, I'll never catch them. Even if not for the dialect problems, I mean— I'm just so clueless."
"People. Love. All of it. Martin proposed to me."
"He proposed to me."
"Marriage?" he sputtered.
"No, he proposed living in sin."
He just looked at me for a moment, then started laughing. "You are—" He apparently couldn't decide what I was. "Marriage. Did he think you were in love with him?"
"I don't know." He'd seemed calm enough about it, and I'd been happy enough to accept that he'd proposing a marriage half of convenience, but I was having second thoughts now. He might have just been pretending, shielding his pride, avoiding a scene. Or maybe I was really vain, thinking that he must have had deeper feelings.
"You aren't in love with him, are you?"
"No. I don't think he was in love with me. Lots of people get married for reasons other than that," I said. "Just not me."
He was smiling at me, a bit musingly. "If I thought I had anything to do with how you turned out, I'd be proud of you," he said.
"Because I'm not marrying a man I don't love? It's not much of an accomplishment."
"Not just that," he said. "It's... never mind. How'd we get onto this, though?"
"I was saying I didn't understand people."
"Still don't think I follow."
"I mean— Martin. I had some idea he was interested, but I didn't— I had no idea what to say, how to deal with it, anything. He's a good friend and he's probably mad at me now."
"Mad at himself, maybe. There's not much you can do about it, Terra. Don't worry. He's bound to know you didn't set out to break his heart."
"I hope. I just wish— I hate it. I just want everyone to be happy, I want things to work out, go smoothly, and I seem to cause the exact opposite with everyone I know."
"You know that's not true. Anyone can see those kids upstairs are happy, and there's one person we can blame for that," he said. I smiled a little. "And if it's any comfort, Terra, you've hardly been a source of misery and strife for me either."
"Of course not!"
"Not even back when—"
"During the fighting? None of that was your fault. You haven't exactly contributed to my peace of mind lately, I'll grant you, but I wouldn't give up knowing you for anything." I turned, surprised and grateful, to smile at him. He smiled back, squeezed my knee. I opened my mouth to speak, but he added, "It's about time I went to disturb my landlords."
"I guess it is late," I said, covering his hand with mine unthinkingly.
"That's not the way to make me leave," he said softly, taking my hand and holding it for a moment.
"Maybe I don't want you to," I said, without thinking, just as quietly and too serious to sound flirtatious. He didn't reply for a moment, long enough that I thought about what I'd said. "I meant..." Our eyes met, and I looked down, saying all in a rush, "I mean, I guess it's late, and you're tired, and I need to sleep too, and all that."
There was a moment's silence. "Yeah," he sighed, squeezed my hand and stood without letting go of it. "I must anon, my lady," he added, cheerfully, and kissed my hand.
"It sounded good."
"You need Edgar lessons," I said as I stood. "You're getting rusty."
"Rusty at being Edgar?" He didn't really turn loose of my hand even as we walked out into the hall.
"I should practice, then," he said. "It's always important to be Edgar."
"Maybe not that important," I said. "His pickup lines are pretty... cheesy." He laughed at that, stifling himself after a moment. "You'll wake the whole house!" I chided in a whisper, grinning.
"And it's all your fault!" he whispered back, as he slipped out the door. I popped out the door after him, ready to argue, but he was already down the porch steps. He waved as he left, and I waved back, leaning against the doorjamb and wondering what would have come next if he'd spoken sooner after I almost asked him to stay the night. If he'd spoken sooner and said he didn't want to leave.
That morning he showed up at the store just as I was opening for business. I was getting deliveries that day, so I put him to work in the stockroom while I sorted the mail and balanced the ledger. After that, things got quiet. We had two people in to shop and one land claim, but other than that, we might as well have been in my parlor. I sat on the counter, doing some sewing, and we talked about the War of the Magi, archeology, Figaroan politics and my own half-formed plans for Mobliz. Around midday Kat brought over my lunch and left Charles and Rosie with us, and I put aside my sewing to join them all on the floor.
The day had flown past; it took me by surprise when Margie, Annie and Henry banged into the store, chattering about some horrible thing Matthew Stewart had done. I got up, dusting myself off, to hear about their days, retrieve Cassie, walk with them back to the house, and check if Kat needed help with dinner. She didn't, so I went back to the store, keeping an eye out for the rest of the kids. I managed to spot Byram and Theo – loitering by the school grounds, and were those girls they were talking to? – and Isabella, who was heading home now.
They'd all gone outside, the older kids claiming they were going to study, they youngest making no pretense of it. I'd give them a while before I checked in to see if any studying was taking place. "Like a whirlwind," he said, as I came in.
"It is, isn't it? You're a natural with them, though."
"Well, good," he said. "My lifelong immaturity finally stands me in good stead."
"If that's how you want to look at it..." I said, and he laughed, and I hauled a chair out of the storeroom so I wouldn't have to sit on the counter. We stayed there until Annie came to call us to dinner, and it was only then that I realized I'd done nothing to make anyone study.
Things like that got to be a habit over the next few days. We spent almost all our time together, talking about everything and nothing much. I finally got around to asking him something I'd always wondered, about the unusual color of his hair. I'd been close enough to him often enough to see that it was a mixture of dark and very light, but I'd never known before that it wasn't the way he was born, so that meant I got to tease him about going prematurely gray. He gave me a crash course in the history of the War of the Magi – all I'd learned had been in snatches I'd picked up from the Espers or talks with Strago – so that gave me some helpful background for work on the diary, though he still said his colleagues would be better sources. We went through the Queen's diary together, though I was beginning to lose hope that the woman would ever fall in love. Looking at it with him, though, even the trivial information about supplies, holidays and clothes turned out to be interesting or relevant somehow, and things I couldn't make sense of fell into place.
Despite all the time we were spending together, he didn't make another move, and neither did I. We were perfectly natural, perfectly friendly, and we were never more physically affectionate than a quick shoulder-rub or leaning companionably against each other as we read. I was comfortable with it, though it occurred to me more than once to wonder about it as well. And I always shut myself down when I got that line of thought. I was being selfish – I knew how he'd felt about me once, and if I wasn't going to tell him how I felt I could hardly get upset if his feelings changed. I was being selfish, but I couldn't seem to help it.
I needed to tell him. I wanted to tell him. Celes knew, everyone knew, there was no more damage left to be done. I had no reason not to tell him I loved him, but I kept waiting for the right moment, and that never seemed to happen. We were back to being friends, and at the moment I wasn't sure we could be anything else.
"Please," Katarin said to me, over the dishes, when I told her about it. We'd had a bird from Setzer, saying he was on his way, so this was Locke's last night in Mobliz. We'd prepared a going-away feast, and he'd gone back to the inn to pack. I was probably moping; I felt like he was already gone. "You can't just wait. Just... blurt it out. It gets to be the right moment once you've said a thing like that."
"How'd it go with you and Duane?" I asked.
"That was..." She looked around for any lurking children – Duane was putting them to bed – and finding none, she grinned impishly at me. "Sure you want to hear?"
"What did you two do?" I asked.
She laughed. "You are so easy. Nothing really. We'd known each other for ages, you know, small town, one school. Even back then Mobliz was small. Went through the usual childhood things, cooties, teasing, all of that. When we were about twelve, one of his friends told one of my friends he liked me, and I didn't believe it, because I liked him, and it got back to him that I didn't believe it and that I liked him. And it was all very dramatic until one time we were stuck at the store – the old armory, it used to be out south – it was raining so we couldn't leave. He asked me if I hated him, and I said no, I didn't hate him at all, and we ended up kissing."
"It must be easier when you're young."
"Yes, with your rheumatism, kissing must be near impossible," she said. "You aged bat. Honestly. What part of that sounded like it wasn't needless drama? If you build it up like that, it's just as embarrassing and difficult and scary no matter what age you are. You just need to decide he's worth it." I looked at the dishwater. "And you need to be ready, too, I suppose," she said.
"Do you think I could just miss my chance entirely?" I asked, softly. "I know he's worth it, but..."
"You could. But I don't think it's likely. If it weren't for the fact that I know how you've been about this, I'd think you two were already an item, the way you act sometimes."
She nodded. "But that doesn't change the fact you're not. I mean it, Terra, you need to just tell him."
"I know," I said, much more calmly than I felt it. I knew. I went to bed thinking about it, and I woke up thinking about it, and when I heard the airship coming in, my heart sped up as I thought I have to tell him, it's my last chance. I kept thinking it as he said his goodbyes to everyone else, as we walked back into the store – allegedly so he could make some last-minute purchases, really so we could talk, because the airship had drawn a crowd as usual.
"Write to me, okay?" he said.
"I will, I promise."
"And don't let those kids run you ragged."
"Can you come back to visit?"
"That's not even up for debate," he said. "You need to come see me, too."
"Locke, I—" I felt like I was choking on the words. "I— I'll miss you." He enfolded me in a hug then, and I held on for dear life. "I'll miss you so much," I said.
"I know," he said. "You know I'll miss you too."
"Are we ready?" Setzer asked then, and I loosened my hold, grudgingly. Locke's arms lingered around me for a moment. He smiled, not unkindly, and turned back towards the door, his silk finery looking out of place in my dusty little store.
"I—" I swallowed hard, started over. I really didn't feel up for this, but I wouldn't get another chance. "Setzer, I need to talk to you about airships." Locke squeezed my arm, and when I looked up into his face I saw he was grinning.
"We can do that later," Setzer said.
"Oh no you don't!"
"Yes, we can, because I'll be back to pick you up so you can visit our treasure hunter here."
"You have one request to be granted at any time."
I felt like a cloud was lifting off of me. "Setzer, thank you!" Locke was still smiling, broader than ever. "Did you do this?" I asked.
"Didn't want to leave you an out," he said. "Or drag you away from home too long. But see, you have to do it, now."
"I will, it's not that I've been trying to avoid it, I—"
"Leave her be," Setzer said, smiling as well. "We need to move on, it's not good to leave it idling too long."
"Yes, captain..." he said drearily, hoisting his bag over his shoulder and starting up the ramp.
"For you, Terra," Setzer said, handing me an envelope. "Send word to Narshe or Jidoor if you need me, and I should get it within a week."
"Within a week at either place?" He nodded, and I took the envelope, barely glancing at it. I wrapped my arms around myself, watching their shapes moving around on deck. I smiled sadly and waved when I saw Locke's face over the railing, stood in the square until the Falcon was out of sight. I was being obvious. I was making a spectacle of myself, more than likely. I'm not sure when I'd given up caring.
Once the airship was out of sight, I finally went back into the store, which felt huge, drab and empty. I sat down in the chair by the stove that Locke liked, looked at the letter, and finally registered that the handwriting was Celes's. My hands were shaking as I ripped open the envelope, and I dropped the sheets – two pages, was that a good sign? – in my lap, taking a moment to calm down. Then I started reading, skipping over words, barely able to follow the sense of them.
I have several reasons why I should be angry at you. You must have been aware of the feelings I once had for Locke, else why be so secretive about your own? If you tried to hide your feelings for him from me, you must have felt it was wrong to pursue them at all.
But that line of thought leads to the expectation that you play matchmaker for us. I wouldn't have wanted that a year ago, let alone now. I've changed, and while I may find your behavior in the matter irritating as a matter of principle, I should be able to set it aside before too much time has passed. And I am grateful that you never told him how I felt – I'd prefer he never know. It would be helpful if you'd let the matter drop.
I reread those two paragraphs a second time, then a third, dropped the sheets in my lap and covered my face, letting out a long sigh of relief. She still sounded distant, and she was obviously still unhappy with me, but there were two things she did when she was angry – she'd either cut you out of her life entirely, or she'd let it drop, whether or not she was satisfied, and move on until she'd forgotten or forgiven privately. I'd feared the former.
There was more to the letter – Sabin had apparently asked about the weather in Mobliz and its population, which sounded to her and to me like he wanted a place to set up a dojo of his own – and while she still sounded a bit short, she was holding to her word about letting it go. I sighed again, relieved and sad at once, and reread it. I was about to start it over once more, but the bell jingled and I tucked the letter into my pocket – a group of kids from the school, come in to buy penny candy and look longingly at the few toys I had on display. Margie marched in just behind them, tried to help herself to the penny candy, a tendency I'd tried to nip in the bud months ago. She was trying to lord it over her classmates, another tendency I needed to work on.
I helped with dinner that night, and with their studies, and tried to keep myself busy. Several times I caught myself staring out the window, wondering about Locke's dig, the weather in the caves or in Narshe. Several other times I didn't catch myself, and I was dragged back to reality by a poke or a piping and thoroughly annoyed "Mama!" I read the bedtime story for the first time in quite a while, and felt guilty for the hiatus when I saw how happy everyone seemed to be. Even the boys, who professed to be too old for such things, stayed around, and so did Isabella, hanging at the door of the nursery until I was done.
"I'm a horrible mother," I said mournfully to Katarin after they were all tucked in, as I nursed a cup of chamomile tea and watched her sweep the kitchen.
"No you're not," she said. "You're just distracted."
"There's a difference?"
"In intent," Duane offered.
"That's not comforting," she chided. "She's a fine mother. The kids are fine. They just appreciate you a little more now."
"They should be able to take me for granted," I said. "Because I'm supposed to be around all the time. Isn't that what mothers are for?"
"Something was wrong, wasn't it? Other than Cole." I looked up at the concern in Duane's tone, and found him looking at me intently. I looked down again, hastily, feeling my eyes prickling.
"Sort of," I said. "Was it obvious?"
"We live with you, Terra," he said. "We notice."
"It was little things here and there," she said. "You wanted to keep it under cover?"
"Are you all right now?" he asked.
"I'm getting there," I said. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you what was going on. I just didn't want to worry you, or..."
"You still haven't told us," he pointed out.
"She doesn't have to," Kat put in before I could speak. "You can if you need to, you know," she added.
"I know," I said. "It's just... complicated. My memories are starting to come back, and some of them are— they're... bad." I looked up at them, finally. "It's just hard to deal with."
"If you need me to take over the bedtime stories again, I'm available," Duane said, and I smiled and squeezed his arm.
"I'm doing better, Duane. But thanks. And thanks so much for being there for the kids when I just wasn't. Both of you."
"You were there," Kat said, stubbornly. "You just needed the backup. That's why we're here."
"No arguments," she said firmly.
"And there's no need to thank us," he added. "You did the same for us. It's just part of being a family."
"But can't I feel guilty?" I asked, smiling a little.
"Absolutely not!" Kat insisted. Duane wrapped an arm around me, grinning, and Kat came over to hug me from behind.
"We really are a family, right?" I asked.
"Hell yeah," Duane said. Kat squeezed my arm, leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, and I leaned back into both of them.
The next morning was when I really started missing him. I woke up, made the bed, and realized with a pang that he wouldn't be around as I was buttoning my blouse. I didn't have time to mope until all the kids were off to school, and then I threw myself into the morning tasks at the store – inventory, sorting the mail, going over my books backward and forward in case I'd been lax there as well. I hadn't. Nothing too severe, anyway. So around mid-morning I found myself with nothing to do except feel lonely. The store was at its least busy, since anyone who had to work outside tried to get everything done as early in the day as they could and saved errands for later. The youngest kids were with Katarin. I couldn't concentrate on the Queen's diary, though I'd brought it with me, fearing something like this would happen.
So I paced around the store a bit, and went back to the counter, and fidgeted, and finally pulled out a piece of paper and hunted down a pen from the back room where I'd been working with the ledgers, and I wrote the date, and Dear Locke, and then I wrote I miss you already. I lifted my pen to cross that out, and I hesitated, and then I just added As you can tell from the date, you've only been gone one day, so there's no news. Not that it stopped me from filling half a page in small writing with my news of nothing much.
I finally made myself stop around midday as people started trickling in, and Katarin came by to deliver a sandwich and leave Charles and Rosie with me. I kept myself busy all afternoon – playing with them, tending the store, talking with the family at dinner and after. Once we got the kids tucked in I worked on the diary for a bit.
That's how all my days went. The queen's days were as uneventful as mine, and she wasn't seeing much of Odin. She did mention that she wasn't seeing much of him, which I took as progress – I was starting to wonder when she'd ever fall in love with him. She must have had time on her hands, because she documented everything – skirmishes amongst the servants, Odin's troops apprehending some bandits, their problems baking bread at high altitudes. I could see why, because I was the same. If something happened – and I defined "something happening" so loosely it could include rain, or one of the kids asking when Locke would be back – it went in my letter.
After about a week and a half I got my first letter from him, and I went on to bake the biscuits to a rock-like crustiness because I had to read it four times and start adding my reply to it into my letter. He'd signed it Love, Locke and I was all but racing to the end on mine so I could do the same before I lost my nerve. It wasn't much, but it was something – or it would have been if I hadn't noticed the smell and had to spring into action. Fortunately I'd more or less salvaged the situation before Duane came in.
"Having problems?" he said, smirking a bit.
"It's under control," I replied, too distracted to get annoyed with him.
"You got a letter, didn't you?"
"Ow!" I'd cracked open one of the biscuits, planning to try it and see if they were edible, only to find that they were far, far too hot to sample. I'd driven my thumb and forefinger into the middle of it, and I stuck them in my mouth as I turned to face him.
"Terra, why don't you let me take care of it?"
I needed cold water. I decided to sacrifice the glass I'd been drinking from. "No, it's okay," I said. "I can leave a reply for a bit."
"I just want to make sure the meal's edible," he said. I gave him a sour look, and he sat down. "Everything all right?" he asked.
"You didn't throw anything at me."
"I don't normally, do I?"
"You looked like you were ready to."
"Don't worry, I was." I cocked my head at the door, where Henry was watching. "I have to set a good example. Come on in, honey."
He came over to my side and reached up for one of the rolls. I batted his hand away, then wiped my wet hand on my apron. "Bad idea. Trust me."
"Can I have some candy from the store, then?"
"You'll spoil your appetite!"
"It must be something you're born with," Duane said.
"Sounding like a mother."
"Must be, since I never knew mine."
"Mama, what's a love letter?" Henry asked.
I could feel my face flush. "Well, it's, um, it's..."
"Because Margie said that's what you were writing. Can I read it?"
"No!" I shot a helpless look at Duane, who was grinning broadly.
"It's— it's private, that's all! It's not a love letter."
"Well, see, there's your problem," Duane offered helpfully. I tried to shoot him a withering glare, and he heaved himself off the bench, not trying hard enough to stifle a chuckle.
"And where do you think you're going?" I demanded.
"I think Katarin needs to hear all this too."
"Oh no she doesn't!"
"Is that it?" Henry asked, and I snagged him around the waist as he headed for the unfinished letter, swung him around and steered him towards Duane. Once I could have just carted him off.
"You're going to go bring in the kindling Duane's about to split," I informed him.
"Whoa there," Duane retorted. "You have heaps of kindling. Explain love letters to the boy."
"Is that like when Duane and Katarin used to sneak off to the old shop together?"
Duane sort of made a choking noise. "You weren't supposed to follow us!"
"Kindling," I reminded him over Henry's head, then turned my son around, my hands on his shoulders. "Love letters are not at all like Duane and Katarin sneaking off to the shop together when they were supposed to be minding the lot of you."
"They're a bit like it."
"No they're not," I said. "Now go. Get me some more kindling."
The summer passed surprisingly quickly; long muggy days spent with every window in the store open, punctuated by decisions that it was too hot to stay indoors and so I ought to close the store and take the kids to swim. Most of the other businesses in town were the same; it wouldn't have worked in Figaro, but then, Figaro was near mountains, and cooler for it. At least we got the breeze off the water, but it wasn't enough. More than once I'd strip down to my underthings and shift and fling myself into the water with the kids, splash around and get my feet muddy.
Locke's letters arrived like clockwork, around every week and a half, and the effect on me was such that if my family noticed I was in an unusually good mood or at all energetic, they'd assume I'd received a letter. Even if I hadn't. I tried not to mind this too terribly much. I was hearing from Celes again, and she was behaving normally; I didn't mention Locke to her at all, though, and it occurred to me that if he came for another visit I'd feel guilty not being able to tell her about it, and I'd feel guilty telling her about it. And it'd be worse if I really could tell him how I felt.
I hadn't done that in letters. I'd thought of it, but it seemed impersonal and awkward. Things hadn't gotten awkward in the letters yet, and I didn't want to risk any changes.
So I wrote my letters, and worked on the queen's diary. She took to calling him "Odin," not just "Sir Odin" the "the knight Odin," and once she gave him a favor to carry into battle. "Simple play at gentilesse," she called it, "as if the courte were at peace," but of course she was protesting too much. I was hoping, reading the diary, to see how it happened, how you fell in love. I didn't understand it, still, even with the fierce protective joy I took in my kids, even with the way I felt about Katarin and Duane, about Edgar and Celes and Sabin. About Locke. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know where it began or when.
I wanted to make sense of it, but I wasn't sure you could, because the queen just wrote one entry about a battle – "too close to our keepe," she said – and the next, "I realize now that I am in love with Odin." She was going to tell him how she felt about him after the fighting was over. Their enemy was approaching them, from what she wrote, and he'd have to fight to defend them. And she'd been turned to stone, and until we came, he never knew.
I looked out the window at golden sunlight, harvest weather, and tried to imagine that while trying not to; trapped in stone or ice, the way Odin had been, and Tritoch, waiting forever. Thinking of someone you loved – he had loved her, I was sure of that, I'd felt it when the statue crumbled and turned to magicite, even before I'd found her diary – and knowing you hadn't protected her.
I wrote something like that to Locke, and then the final line, about knowing you hadn't protected her, I scribbled out so vigorously that no one could have made sense of what was once there. And then I thought it over and rewrote the letter, except for that line, on a fresh sheet. That was her last entry, I added. I suppose that means I'm done. But I was thinking more of their story.
I'd been hoping to make sense of it, to see how it started. But she didn't say what made her realize she loved Odin, she didn't say that he'd smiled at her in a certain way, or that she realized when he looked at her as he handed her down from some elegant royal carriage, or that they'd talked or argued or that he'd comforted her after her husband died – she'd stopped even mentioning the king and I had no idea what had become of him. Maybe she hadn't known, either.
And what had it been for me? Was it when Locke danced with Celes and then kissed me, both of us half drunk and reeling with both relief and loss in different ways? Was it earlier than that, something I hadn't even recognized because I couldn't attach love to its name until I realized I needed to fight for the children? I couldn't remember rightly now if I'd missed him more, worried over him more than the others during that year in the cave with no sign of them all. I remembered worrying about him, though, and I remembered the shock of happiness when I saw that familiar back in the cave where he'd found Phoenix, and I remembered talking to him that night on the deck as he told me something different than he'd been able to say to Celes. I remembered his smile at me before he told the others he'd go with me to Crescent Island. I remembered our shoulders touching as we crouched over the diary in the ruins.
I need to see you, I wrote. I'm going to call in that favor from Setzer, so I should be visiting within a month or so, but I'll wait to hear from you in case it's a bad time. And I waited, with absurd nervousness, for his reply. Come as soon as you can, he wrote. It's an unusually mild autumn, so we're staying as long as we can, but we'll be leaving with the first storms.
I sent the notes to Setzer – to all the destinations he'd given, just in case – that same day. We saw the airship in the sky on the first day of the Harvest festival.
Setzer's landing was as much of a production as it had always been. We had to guide him away from the town square, where we had the preparations set up for the banquet and for music, and over to the landing spot Martin had volunteered, his grazing meadow - we ended up frightening his sheep, and his sheepdog, pretty badly.
"I suppose I should have foreseen that," Setzer said, after he'd greeted me.
"I should have warned you," I said, glancing out over the field. The sheep were all concentrated in one corner of the fence, compressed more tightly than seemed altogether healthy.
"In at least one of those letters, yes."
"Oh, you got a couple of them?"
"I got all of them. I do check, you know. I'm fairly mobile. I know it doesn't show."
"There's no need to be snide," I said, and then I blinked at the blond head emerging from belowdecks. "Edgar?"
"Ssh," he said, finger to his lips and his tone no lower than usual. "I'm incognito."
"I needed to escape," he said. "They've doubled my guard." He stood, dusting and straightening his clothes.
"Because of your escape attempts."
"No, because— you don't have a telegraph office, do you?"
"The news wouldn't have reached you. You see, they're trying to kill me."
"They... what? Who?" He sounded like he was joking.
"He's paranoid," Setzer said. "Though there was an assassination attempt."
"Who was it?" I had a notion of Kefka's followers, holed up in the mountains where their tower had once been. Recognizing Locke. Then I dismissed the thought - the tower had started to fall when magic was eliminated, when Kefka was killed, and we'd thought then that almost all of them must have been killed in the collapse. Besides, any murderous-minded survivors would have had quite a ways to travel if they wanted to target Edgar, and he hardly seemed like the most obvious choice for them. If anything, I would have been. I was recognizable.
"A man named Lee - no ties to the Empire, no criminal record, nothing. He was out of work and angry about the amount we spend on foreign aid, as far as our investigation could determine."
"He wouldn't tell you?" This was bizarre. He didn't seem frightened or angry or even especially shaken.
"One of the guard killed him," Edgar said. "Maddening. I wanted to question him. Assasination attempts are a very definite form of negative feedback, but I need to know more about what I'm doing wrong."
"Edgar, can't you even take that seriously? Someone tried to kill you!"
"Isn't it surreal? He acts like they tried to kill someone else he doesn't much like."
"It is surreal," Edgar agreed. "That's why I'm acting like this. It feels like something in a play I watched when I was slightly drunk, not at all like something that happened to me. But now I'm stifled by guards, hedged about by advisors, I can't breathe without inhaling someone's epaulet."
"So you escaped. And they'll be perfectly fine with that."
"Oh, they'll reprimand me endlessly, but it's worth it for a few precious days' relief."
"Where's your luggage?" Setzer asked me abruptly.
"Back, um, at the house." In chests of drawers and wardrobes, not in my trunk and valise that I'd only dragged out to air on the porch yesterday. "We'll need to borrow a cart and a chocobo team - Duane was working on that when I left. We should be able to leave by sundown."
"You don't want to stay for this festival you're readying?" Edgar asked.
"Oh, you could see it from the air? It's all right. I didn't actually do any harvesting."
"Carrots," Martin said.
"Carrots and potatoes. Some apples. Not much of a harvest. It'll be a hard winter," I added with a dramatic sigh.
"Oh, that tree of yours finally gave fruit?" Martin asked.
"It's not that this isn't riveting, but is that a cart off that way?" Setzer interjected.
I glanced where he was pointing. "Mirage," I decided. "Besides, the town is due north, and you're looking west-northwest."
"It was worth a try," he said. "Shall we go with you?"
"I only brought Chicken," I said. "Do you want to ride behind me?"
"Only if you'll buy me a replacement for my lost dignity," Setzer retorted.
"My lady, I on the other hand should be delighted," Edgar announced, sweeping his cape aside as he bowed low.
"I didn't mean you," I said.
In the end, I left them both there while I rode home. It was just as well. Setzer would have been disagreeable about it if he'd had to wait while I threw clothes in a trunk. While I knew Edgar would have liked to see the town, and while he could almost certainly, despite my jokes, have been trusted to keep his hands to himself, the tour would have just delayed our departure, something Setzer seemed keen to avoid. I didn't ask why; he didn't seem to be in a very good mood in the first place. Kat helped me pack while I fretted and dashed around looking for things - a sewing kit, a pair of gloves, a dressing gown - and accomplished very little. Eventually she ordered me to sit still and mind Rosie while she finished up, so I sat on my bed with the baby and worried out loud about how the older children would react when I hadn't broken my departure to them gently. It was really no wonder she wanted me ready to leave.
That afternoon, when the kids came home from school,they found the store closed, made for the house, and then Cassie was the first one to race upstairs and find us packing up my clothes. She didn't take it very well, though better than she would have a year ago.
"You're leaving?" she demanded, chin quivering, loudly enough to draw Charles from the hall where he'd been playing, and Henry came in next, followed by Margie, and I was finding it hard to keep up a soothing tone when I was having to raise my voice to talk over them. Finally I convinced them to come downstairs and out to the store, where I gave them some of the candy in a shameless bribe. It at least distracted them, long enough that I could explain I wasn't going anywhere to fight, that I knew when I'd be back, that everything was fine and we'd all be safe. They didn't seem to be convinced, but my tone and my persistence let them know I wouldn't be persuaded, and I took the calendar down off the wall and showed them when I might be back, and tried to avoid making solid promises about the exact day I'd return - after all, my travel plans were at Setzer's mercy.
Finally Kat was done with packing - she waved aside my attempts to apologize for not helping - and I shooed everyone out of the room so I could change into my travel clothes. Kat and I had been working on a pair of outfits off and on through the summer, from patterns in the latest batch, though it was probably already out of style in Jidoor. The skirt came down to my mid-calf, and was slimmer and more fitted than the old skirt I'd been wearing earlier. The blouse had a high neck that made me look like one of the ladies from the catalogs - of course, that was the point - and supposedly it was very becoming though I couldn't get used to the way I looked in it. When I emerged Isabella and Kat clapped and everyone else looked either bored or mutinous. Then Duane and I carried the trunk out to the cart in the gathering twilight while Cassie followed with my valise. She was bravely keeping herself from tears, and I hugged her and looked up at Kat and said "Maybe I should—"
"Take a shawl? Yes, you should."
"She'll think you're trying to be rid of her," Duane said.
"Nonsense," she retorted, and she ran inside for the shawl while I hugged everyone, repeatedly, and gave them directions on chores and schoolwork and minding Isabella and Duane and Katarin and maybe even Byram and Theo under certain circumstances, but certainly no circumstances involving frogs, snakes, animals of any kind for that matter, or jumping off of things. Or fire. "Absolutely not fire," I said.
"Aw, Ma!" Byram complained.
"Or alcohol!" I added. "Or money."
"Might as well just lock us up," Theo said, but he was grinning, and he hugged me around the waist, quickly and a bit sheepishly. I snagged Byram for a quick hug as well and ruffled his hair as he escaped. Isabella sort of sidled up to me and I hugged her from the side, because even though I didn't remember it, Kat had explained that nothing was more embarrassing at that age than having feelings, unless it was everything else in the world.
And then Kat enveloped me in a hug and whispered "You have to tell him this time!" in my ear, and I laughed as I pulled away and grabbed Duane's hand to climb up into the cart. Kat handed the shawl up to me, and then as Duane clucked to the birds, Isabella exclaimed, "That book you were working on!"
Duane pulled the birds to a halt. "The diary?" I said.
"Did you want to take it with you?"
I hesitated. "I... well... Yes! Do you know where it is?"
"Up on your writing desk," she said. Byram started into the house and she tore off after him, grabbing his flapping shirt tail and yelling something like "oh no you don't!"
"Hope it comes back in one piece," Duane said. I grinned, a bit uneasily now that he'd suggested that, and settled the shawl around my shoulders. They were back in remarkable time, with the diary in Bella's hands. She handed it up to me, bristling with my notes and transcriptions, and Byram handed me another messy sheaf of papers.
"Thanks, both of you," I said, beaming at them as I settled the papers in my lap. Duane flicked the reins again, and I twisted in my seat to look back and wave goodbye until darkness and distance took them completely out of sight.
After they'd faded out into dim shapes I was probably imagining, the glow from the porch light was entirely lost to me, I busied myself with wrapping the papers in my shawl. I was worried and excited at once and I didn't want to bore Duane senseless with my babbling - I'd done enough of that back at the house. So I fidgeted with the fringe of the shawl until he broke the silence.
"They'll be fine," he said at last. "It gets quiet with you gone, but they'll be okay. And it's going to be a lot easier than when you were fighting Kefka."
"I hope so."
"Think of it as a trade if you want," he added after a moment. "Katie and me... we never really got to take a honeymoon, so I was thinking I'd take some of the money I've saved and take her on a trip. Maybe go to Jidoor, let her get a look at that opera house and all the rest, those statues and galleries in that book she likes so much."
"Some of that got destroyed," I said, reluctantly. "I never had the heart to tell her."
He shrugged. "It can't be as great as she's built it up to be," he said. "It's just a place, after all. There'll be pigeon c— there'll be pigeons on all the statues. But I'd still like to take her there, show her the opera house and get her some godsawfully expensive dress to wear to it."
"Duane, that's so sweet! She'd love it." At least the dress and the glamor. I had no idea what she'd make of the opera.
"Hope so," he said, obviously a bit embarrassed. The silence stretched for a bit, broken only by the creaking of the wagon and the thud of the bird's feet. I considered gushing a bit more - it really was awfully sweet of him - but he forestalled me, blurting, "Look at the Northern Dragon up there."
He pointed out the constellation, waiting patiently until I could see it, and we let the talk turn to other topics until we got to the airship.
Once we got there, we unloaded my luggage and I hugged Duane goodbye, and with no further delay we took off, ponderously and loudly. I leaned on the rail and watched and waved as he shrank and dwindled out of sight, and I felt that strange mix of elation and sadness again as I watched the houses and fields I knew become tiny, dim toys beneath us. There was the faint glow of lamplight from some windows, a small burst of lights from the direction of town, but it was rapidly growing fully dark, and the windows weren't bright enough to light much of anything around them. Finally, chilled, I pulled away from the railing.
When I came belowdecks, Edgar greeted me by kissing my hand – "because I forgot to earlier" – and then slinging an arm around my shoulder and walking me to the parlor area where Setzer was pouring out wine. I let him because he was warm and he was wearing a cape, but the wine and the warmth soon made me sleepy and I nodded off leaning against him.
Edgar nudged me awake. "You're not supposed to let me near you, remember? Let alone sleep with me," he said, and I blinked at him. "Locke's instructions," he added.
Finally I remembered. "Edgar, that was years ago. You're so strange." A moment later another thing he'd said sunk in. "I wasn't sleeping with you."
"Edgar!" I complained, whiny with weariness.
"I can show you to your cabin, Terra," Setzer interrupted. "Your things are already in it."
"Cabin's nice," I agreed, yawning, but not stirring, so Edgar stood and tugged me up from the settee then gave me a gentle shove in Setzer's direction. I managed to get my shoes off but fell asleep in my clothes at first; I woke some time in the middle of the night to undress and climb under the covers in my shift.
The next morning, I woke slowly, until I noticed how much light was in the room, which sent me bolt upright in bed, convinced I'd overslept. Then I noticed the surroundings – tiny cabin, a shelf in the wall for a writing desk, my trunk under it for a seat, and nothing else besides the bed. The light had that weird quality you get above the clouds, brighter than I'd have expected, but it was probably still early. A small oil painting of flowers hung over the writing desk – Relm had painted enough to decorate all our homes twice over, back in the days when we were fighting Kefka. We'd all tried to shield the kids somewhat, keep her and Gau safe on the airship as much as we could, and she'd been terribly bored much of the time.
If this cabin was the same as the one I'd stayed in back then, there'd be a hidden wardrobe – and there was, though all it contained was one of Setzer's robes. That was fine by me, because his dressing gown was silk and felt lovely. I was swimming in it, but I didn't mind that. I went looking for the head, drank from a dipper full of water, then poured more into the basin and splashed my face with it, and set off in search of tea. Then I remembered something else, and ran up the stairs to the deck. Edgar was there, leaning over the railing. He waved, and I came over to join him.
I'd always loved sunrises and sunsets on the airship, from above the clouds – the way the colors seem to rise up from a floor of clouds beneath you, more delicate and less bright than they are below, and the feeling that it's something private, shared only among the others on the ship, sometimes kept all to yourself.
"I never get tired of this," he said. "Setzer's jaded – he came out, set a course, then went below muttering about coffee."
"He must have gone back to bed. I didn't smell any."
"Perhaps so," he said.
"Are we descending?" I asked.
"He thought you might like a look at the rest of the country from above," Edgar said.
"I guess so," I said, but I just looked out over the clouds again, while we were still above them. Then we began sinking through them, the part I could never get used to, because no matter how many times I was on deck for it I still thought my vision ought to be blocked somehow. Then we came out on the other side, and I looked down below us at the brown stripe of land. I could just see the ocean off to the west, still a bit dim in the early morning. There were a few scattered houses, looking like children's blocks at this distance, and then I felt the ship level out.
Below, the land was brownish-gold, tawny and russet, with patches of darker brown that seemed to be bare earth, and occasional dots of evergreen, though most of the trees were brown or bare with occasional patches of brilliant gold or red. It looked like a harvest, something we'd seen rarely enough from the air, before, back when the plants weren't growing right, and the crops rotted in the field or never ripened. I thought that was what he meant, but I began seeing more of a lighter, dustier brown; no sign of stubbled fields or grass dead for the winter, just... dust. I knew how that looked, because I'd seen land like that around Figaro.
"It looks like desert," I said.
"Most of the Serpent was under the ocean," Edgar said. "It's not really a trench anymore, I suppose... do you remember anything you might have read in school? The Treviad, maybe?" I shook my head. "Sowing salt into the earth was a punitive measure – if you wanted to ensure your defeated enemies could never make use of their land again, you plowed salt into the ground."
I thought of the land registries back at home, the pins in the map, but I couldn't remember how many there'd been beyond the first bend of the Serpent. I saw a house or two, but only one showed any sign of life – a woodpile outside, a few chickens in the yard. The others looked abandoned, one with its roof falling in. What had happened to those people, and how were the ones who'd stayed doing? "Did you see a lot of those abandoned houses?" I asked.
"Here and there," he said. "Have you had any stragglers coming in?"
"No... maybe they all starved."
"They'd be likelier to give up before that," he said. "From here they might have gone to Nikeah or Tzen. Don't borrow trouble, Terra. We had enough. We still have. It's not just here – Nikeah lost almost all of its agricultural land, something like ninety percent of it. It's almost a blessing so many died in the cataclysm, or the food shortages would have been far worse than they were."
"Are you sure you want to run a country?" he said. "It's never easy, and the consequences are almost unbearable sometimes. At least, they are if you're... Gestahl never seemed to think in those terms."
"I... didn't plan to. It just happened. I can't back down now, can I?" Many of our settlers came from around here, and most of those who didn't had some background in farming; surely they'd have known, better than I had, where they could afford to plant. Maybe they were all clustered in the arm of land just south of the town. I couldn't remember how many pins had gone on the map outside that area. "Will the land ever be usable?" I asked.
"That I don't know. My knowledge of it is all through poetry. No one ever needed to salt the land around our capital, and the southern part of the kingdom has largely been safe, except on my watch." He looked as though he'd tasted something unpleasant as he spoke, but then he shook his head. "I'll see if I can find some agronomists who know more, Terra. We have a few; I have a project underway. I want to see if we can grow food even in the central part of Figaro."
I nodded. "Maybe the rains will wash the salty land away after a while, leave us with something we can use."
"That may not be quite how it works... I'll find some scientists for you, my dear." I nodded, and he sighed. "Makes me wonder if that man was in the right when he aimed the crossbow, though."
"What do you mean?"
He didn't look up from the ground sliding by down below us. "Look at how I spend our money," he said. "Trying to irrigate the desert? We need more agricultural land, desperately, but we've no proof this will work. We're paying and provisioning troops in the Narshe cleanup, we've given generous loans to Doma and earmarked more for Mobliz and Narshe when their governments are fully functional. It's important the rest of the world rebuild as well, but people are still homeless, going hungry. I funded Locke's expedition out of my own stipend, which is altogether too generous. The cost of the dig was tiny compared to the cost of the Narshe operation, or the amounts I'm forgiving in taxes and the defaulted loans I'm taking over to get my people back on their feet, but it could have gone somewhere else."
"Is that why that expedition stopped after a year?" I asked, suspecting even as I spoke that I was missing the point.
He nodded. "And maybe I'll regret that rather than the money spent, on my deathbed. Locke thinks the War of the Magi could never be more relevant than it is today, that we need to do our studies of it now, because people will be paying attention."
"It's kind of a moot point, isn't it?" I said. "Magic's gone. Really gone, this time, not just sealed. No one will be reviving it."
"There will be other forces just as destructive," he said. "Or more so. You know of guns?" I nodded; I'd ordered a handful at the request of one of the wealthier farmers, and when they came in, they drew quite a crowd of spectators. Several people, not just the purchasers, had fired a few shots at some targets for the curious. The guns made an obscene noise, but supposedly they were more powerful than a bow and more efficient for hunting. "They can kill a man, and I know there are people working every day to improve them. Or imagine a bomb more explosive than the powder the guns use."
"What would they make it of?" I asked. My mind just went to magic again. "Do they have something already?"
"I don't know, Terra..." He turned his back on the rail, leaning against it and rubbing his face. "It's just one of the multitude of possibilities that plagues me. I thought I'd use this as a vacation, but instead I just find new dangers I haven't heeded because I'm too occupied with the immediate problems."
"That's... awful," I said. I hadn't given much thought to his situation; I knew he was busy, had even sort of realized he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but I'd had no idea what that entailed.
I reached out to touch his arm, and he caught my hand and kissed it. "Don't let me worry you, Terra," he said, and didn't let go of my hand. I entertained a brief suspicion that he'd just been seeking sympathy, but then he said "I don't find myself sleepless most nights. I just can't seem to get away from a low roar of problems needing my attention, no matter where I am or what I'm doing," which sounded more like playing it down. And then he added, stroking my hand, "It's too late for me to make an impression on you, isn't it? It was too late long before."
"It's just automatic with you, isn't it?" I couldn't help being amused, but I extricated my hand.
"Automatic but only about half-serious. If I thought you were likely to give up on Locke I'd be keeping my distance – lecherous young king or no." I laughed, but his grin faded as he continued. "I wasn't trying to separate you, Locke, and Celes permanently, just to give things some time to settle."
"Meddling must be automatic, too."
"A bit," he conceded.
"Why'd you do it? I thought you were arranging it that way deliberately, but I didn't..." I trailed off, unsure how to say it. I'd been too confused by my own feelings to sort out anyone else's except in terms of mine – if Locke cared about me, if Celes hated me because of him, if Edgar thought we should be apart.
"It's ironic," he said. "For all my efforts women give me a wide berth, but Locke, without even trying, gets more entangled than he even knows. I don't think he had any intention of stealing Celes's heart, or even realized he'd done it, but there was some attraction there, on both sides. Things were very awkward on the airship just after that opera interlude." I'd heard about that, but not this part of it. My chest felt strangely tight. He took my hand again, but I just kept looking out over the dust below us, and the dimly-glimpsed seashore to the west. He continued. "And I could tell early on that he had some manner of feelings for you; I'm not sure he could, though, and you were too lost to respond in kind. And then the world broke. We each found our own reason to go on as best we could, but I almost got the impression Locke was Celes's reason. While we were looking for everyone else she'd keep mentioning him, he was the first one she'd ask about when we made inquiries..."
I nodded, feeling miserable, almost like I was about to cry, and he squeezed my hand. When I looked back at him, I saw he was watching me. "He wasn't ready for that," Edgar said. "Even if he'd thought he was, and he didn't. He told me how, after he tried to revive Rachel, Celes was waiting for him, and he felt for her sake he couldn't let her see how it had hurt him." I pulled my hand away, wrapped my arms around myself. "Didn't he confide in you, Terra?" Edgar asked. "I know the two of you spent time together after he rejoined us."
"Edgar, what— what are you trying to say? He liked Celes but she scared him off so he settled on me?"
"Of course not!"
"Are you sure?"
"I can't read his mind, but that sounds nothing like the man I know."
"So what makes you think it— why do you think he's in love with me and not her?"
"Terra, don't you pay any attention at all? The letters, the visits, surely you remember those?"
"Don't take that tone with me!" I flared at him. "You're the one who got in the middle of this right from the start!"
He buried his face in his hands. "And I regret it profoundly just now, but will you hear me out?"
"Perhaps he's loved you from the very start. I suspected he might early on. It certainly seems obvious he cares for you now, at any rate. But I don't know why he'd fall in love with you rather than with Celes. You're both charming young ladies, when you're not loudly berating me as you both delight in doing, but why we love one person more than another is one of mankind's great mysteries. You used to ask us about love and you were never going to get a satisfactory answer, because it can't be explained. All I know is what I saw— Locke seeking you out, enjoying your company, seeming happiest when he was with you. And looking like he'd been punched in the gut when Strago raised the possibility that you might not survive a victory against Kefka."
I nodded slowly, trying to make sense of Edgar's view of it. Trying to remind myself of the most hopeful way I could ever see Locke's feelings. "You don't think Locke ever knew Celes was—" In love with him, I thought— "interested in him?"
"I think he tried not to know. Puzzling as I might find that course of action, I think he was choosing not to think much about Celes's behavior, rather than be forced to deal with it." That sounded about right, at least. Not that it made me feel much better. "Don't look so glum," Edgar said. "The last time I saw Celes, she didn't appear to be pining away for his love. Last month," he added, before I had a chance to ask. "Granted, it was an official visit, but she seemed in good spirits when I had a moment to speak with her privately."
"That's good," I said.
"And you'll be seeing him in a matter of days to sort out all of this," he said. "Cheer up. If you want to worry about something, I can tell you about the economy. Or the population figures we're compiling."
Later, over my cup of tea and his of coffee, Edgar tried to explain about both the population and the economy. "Under Kefka, strangely enough, it wasn't so bad. In Jidoor and Nikeah those who could afford it were spending money like drunken sailors. Now, everyone's saving because they know they might live long enough to spend it later."
"We want them to spend money," he said. "By 'we' I mean government, in this case."
"Edgar, you're on a whole different level from Mobliz. We're volunteers. We don't really have taxes, even."
He stared at me for a moment, then abruptly started talking about the population. "I hope I'm wrong. I hope Jidoor and Albrook will have better news for us, but it looks like half to two-thirds of the world's population is gone now."
"At least ours don't sound so bad," I said. "Maybe a lot of people ended up with us. I'll get you the results for the official report once I'm back home."
"But what size was Mobliz before?" he asked. "And what about the population of the Veldt proper, not just around the city? Some may still be living there, but it shifted, what, forty degrees of latitude, sixty?"
"Two-thirds of the world's population?" I asked, still stuck on the math. It was too unfathomably huge to be more than numbers. Numbers, and the memory of dust motes in the sunlight slanting into Doma's empty halls, the nearly-deserted streets and locked doors of Narshe and the way people darted inside when they saw us, and all the graves I'd helped dig in Mobliz. Duane and I worked for days, and by the end of it we were burying whole families together because we didn't have enough room or time for individual graves.
"Maybe I'm wrong," he said. "But the numbers are devastating, whatever the specific figures are."
"What are you doing to her?" Setzer asked from the doorway - I was facing it, and him, and Edgar, who had his back to the door - and flicked a card at the back of Edgar's head. "Stop depressing her. She's on her way to a tryst."
"She's been buried in the wilderness!" Edgar protested, hand to the back of his head. "I'm bringing her up to date."
"She's right here," I pointed out, though my face still felt hot. "It's not a tryst, it's a visit, and anyway, I want to hear what's going on. Of course I knew things were bad, but I hadn't realized... and this just brings back what it was like when we were traveling."
"It's been coming out gradually," Setzer said. "That's why I meant he shouldn't inflict the whole flood of bad news on you at once."
"When else will we have the chance?" Edgar asked.
"You could write me letters," I pointed out, and he made a face at me. "I know you don't have time," I added. "I wish we had a telegraph line."
"You may be hearing from investors soon on that front, actually," Setzer said. "Just a rumor I've heard, but I'm looking into it for my own reasons."
"That's... good? Oh!" I said, suddenly remembering. "Setzer, we need airship plans. Sell us some."
"Us? Who else? Are you using the royal 'we'?"
"I never use that!" Edgar said, but he was grinning. "Unless I'm including my brother in it. Or Parliament. She's a terror, Setzer. It's your turn."
"I am not a terror. Though I can work on it if it gets us the plans."
I tried terrorizing Setzer for a bit after that, but I wasn't really sure what to do. I decided on following him around, first through the living areas and down into the guts of the ship, to tell him, at length and in somewhat rambling fashion, about all the wonderful things the airship plans would bring us - factories, higher employment, money for our rudimentary government through taxing the ship builders and the trade that a fleet of ships would bring, something to do with all that dead land no one could farm, money for all kinds of people, nice things from far away for people to buy, and so on - until finally Edgar took pity on him and led me away. "You'll have the return trip to harass him further," he said. "You've done enough damage for now."
"No, I haven't," I said, but I let myself be led. I'd been talking for a while to no obvious effect and I was thirsty, and besides, I had a goal on the diary again. It was still going to be around a day and a half before we got to Locke's dig, so I had more free time than I was used to; more than I really knew what to do with. I threw myself into the diary work so I wouldn't have to think about the long strip of sand and dust below, about graves or empty cities or the tents outside South Figaro and Nikeah, or about this opera thing that everyone but me knew all about.
Sometime in the late afternoon, Setzer, unwisely, made a comment about ruining my eyes - even long practice couldn't make the handwriting easy to decipher, and I was leaning close over the page in lamplight - so I turned on him, my mind full again of relationships, to ask about tension after "that opera thing."
"What?" he asked, looking mystified.
"Edgar said– Locke and Celes– Didn't you–" I gave up for a moment, but he clearly wasn't about to take up any of my false starts. "Wasn't that when you proposed to her?" I finally asked.
"Well, yes, and Locke objected– why in heaven's name was he telling you about that? I thought he was supposed to be the gifted politician." I looked at my hands. I was probably pouting like a child; I certainly felt like I could. "Terra, think of it this way. If someone... say, if Sabin were about to sacrifice himself by marrying an utter stranger for the good of the mission, how would you feel?"
"Is she hypothetically pretty? I mean, does he like her? I guess if she's awful I'd try to stop him."
"...that's not the point... If anything seemed tense, it was because none of them had flown before and Sabin had just learned Edgar had cheated him of the throne. But that's just my guess."
"Wait, what?" So I made him tell me everything, and when poor Edgar blundered into the kitchen I turned to him to say "You stole the throne from Sabin?"
"It was the last thing he wanted!" Edgar said, then took to his heels, but I grabbed a fistful of cape and hauled him back into the kitchen for the full story.
"I missed so much!" I said a bit mournfully when he was done. "Why did everything happen while I was unconscious?"
"I never knew all of this either," Setzer said. "Just the bones of it. We need some sort of chronicle or some such. Terra, you're showing a literary bent."
"No I'm not," I said. "I'm transcribing. Not writing a history."
"It's personal," Edgar said. "It doesn't need to be in a chronicle."
"It's the throne of Figaro," Setzer retorted. "I think a few other people might be interested."
I spent a lot of time working on the Queen's diary over the next two days. I reworked my early notes, I reread my fair copy and compared it against the original, and I pored over a map Setzer had found for me in a copy of some epic set around that time, to try to determine where they might have been. I'd check with some of Locke's colleagues later to find out more about that.
The queen's language, once so strange, made sense to me now, most of the time. I paged through my notes for the oddities I'd marked, wanting to see if I could make sense of them from context now. A few, I could, but then I found myself getting distracted by reading the entries as I landed on them. I found one where she was speaking of several Espers and knights, early in the volume, and noticed a mention of a couple of Espers among the knights. "The best is like unto a man but he goes horned," she said, and how had I managed to miss the reference to Odin? Actually, I knew why – I hadn't been reading the first parts as closely, and hadn't really organized my approach to it until later. She went on about him for a bit – "he says for this reason he coulde never take to him a wyf, and his men make merrye of it, but he cares not" – which Locke had told me was a reference to men whose wives cheated having horns, though he couldn't explain it beyond that. But that made me think of something else.
I knew exactly where this was, close to the end of the book. It still took some searching, but finally I found it – an illustration of his antlers and hair, though the face was stiff and a bit awkward. She wasn't a very good artist. "I had thought to illumine this record of my dayes but there is too little," she said – she'd gotten tag ends of colored ink or paint from the scribes, if I remembered her earlier entry about it right. So she'd tried to draw Odin instead because apparently the antlers fascinated her, or because they were "straunge," and she mentioned he'd told her he shed them yearly "like the yonge hart in sprynge." She'd drawn his hair as curly; when I'd seen him frozen in the castle, he'd been wearing a helmet. I did wonder what antlers would look like up close on an Esper, so no wonder she'd made the attempt.
I remembered what Locke's eyes looked like up close, and his eyelashes, dark but sparse. I remembered his hands, the long callused fingers and the nails he kept short, the way he looked tilting his chair back from a table, but I had a hard time calling up an image of him at any distance, not in detail. Was it normal to only remember someone in pieces like that?
"What do you have there?" Setzer asked me.
"Setzer, what's illumined? Illumination? She said she didn't have enough paint for it."
"You have an illuminated manuscript?" Edgar asked, surprising me - I hadn't known he was in the room.
"Well, no, she didn't have much paint. Is it like illustrating?"
"More or less. Ask Edgar to get you a pass to the Royal Archives in South Figaro. Or have Locke take you there next time he attends one of those gatherings," Setzer said. "Maybe you can present your work on that diary. Or was that for your own satisfaction?"
"No, I... I think I'm going to get it presentable and try to publish it, or... whatever people do," I said, surprised to realize I meant it. But I didn't like the incomplete notes from the early parts of the diary, and I wanted, if nothing else, to have a clear version I could read without having to guess from context if the tall loopy thing was an h or an l.
"There you go, then," he said. "If you're a member they'll give you the run of the place."
"Not the old manuscripts!" Edgar protested. "They don't guard the crown jewels that carefully!"
"I used to read it while I was cooking," I said.
"Please tell some archivist that," Edgar said. "While I'm in the room."
It was amazing how little work I got done considering the way the time dragged. I stared out the portholes and fiddled with my notes and worked on a letter to Katarin, and made very little headway on any of them. I also tried a letter to Celes, but I made even less progress there. What could I possibly say to her?
But eventually we started descending, and I threw clothes and belongings into my trunk and began, with rather more care, wrapping up the diary and my notes. "Excited?" Edgar asked, when I emerged from my room with my gloves on and the bundle of the diary under my arm.
"I... well..." I floundered, embarrassed. "I'll be glad to get off the ship."
He smiled a little. "It was nice seeing you again, though."
"Oh, Edgar, that's not what I meant!" I hugged him, one-armed, and he held on for a moment.
"I do miss all of you," he said. "I know you don't like leaving the family, but if work brings you to Figaro, you're always welcome."
"I know," I said. "I miss everyone, too. It's tough being so out of the way."
"Untrue," he said. "I've seen how many children you have. You don't have time to miss anyone, except possibly Locke."
"A couple of seconds a day!" I protested, and we bickered our way up to the deck, where the wind whipped the words from our mouths. I found myself wishing I'd pulled my hair back, as it immediately covered my face and half-blinded me, but at this point the damage was done, so I tucked the diary into my valise and ran over to join Edgar at the railing, holding my hair back from my eyes and looking over at the camp, the dun-colored tents almost blending into the sandy stone of the slopes, several sturdy, drab mountain chocobos nibbling on scrubby grass at some distance away. And then, not far from the edge of the ship's enlarging shadow, I spotted Locke, almost at the same time he seemed to see me.
He yanked off the blue bandanna he was wearing and waved it, and I waved back, moving my whole arm from the shoulder so he wouldn't miss it. I was beaming; the word fit, because I felt like my face might actually be alight. The ship was settling down, gasping and creaking and quieting. I turned to Edgar, still smiling, and he grinned back. "Happy?" he asked then.
"Yes," I said, surprised to realize my voice was thick with tears even though I hadn't stopped smiling. My heart was beating fast. A couple of Setzer's deckhands were securing the ramp, and I hastily raked my fingers through my hair.
Edgar caught my hand, and squeezed it. "You look beautiful," he said. "Don't worry. Just go." I smiled at him, nervous - I'm sure I was trembling - and then half-ran, as fast as I dared, down the ramp. Locke caught my shoulder to steady me when I stepped down onto the ground, and then I threw my arms around him and held on tightly. So did he.
"It's so good to see you," was the first thing he said when he pulled back a bit, his hands still on my elbows, holding me close.
"I have so much to tell you," I said. "I've really missed you."
"I missed you too," he said, and then at a footstep behind us, we both looked up. Fortunately, I got to see Locke's face when he spotted Edgar. "What's he doing here?" he demanded.
"It's good to see you too, old friend," Edgar said, sounding amused. I grinned.
"He's in danger of his life back home," I said.
"I know," Locke said. "We just got that batch of papers. Where are your guards, Edgar? Be sensible!"
"Papers?" I asked, but they were ignoring me.
"Oh, I have a plentitude of guards," Edgar said. "All they do is slow my movement. Stop worrying. I'm safer on the airship than almost anywhere on land."
"Unless it crashes, or someone gets to one of Setzer's crew. Do you think he screened them? Did you just skip all your king lessons when you were young? Or was the part about fathering an heir the only one you remembered?"
"He hasn't yet," I said. "Has he?"
"Believe me, I'd love to, but Terra turned me down," Edgar said, and Locke and I both sort of choked, for different reasons, I think. I know I started giggling after that and he didn't. "Stand down, Locke," Edgar continued, mildly. "I have advisors for the tirades. And I'll have plenty of tirades when I get home. I just got spoiled during our unorthodox Returner interlude and all that followed, and I needed another taste of freedom, that's all."
"I'm just glad I'm not in your bodyguard," Locke said.
"I'm just glad I don't have you to mother-hen me all the time," Edgar retorted, and before Locke could respond, I repeated "You have newspapers?"
"Mostly from Nikeah, and two weeks old, but yeah," Locke said.
"That's months newer than anything we get," I said.
Setzer kept trying to get Edgar back onto the ship - "I'd prefer not to be tried for the royal abduction," he said - but Locke made an offhand comment about a tour of the dig and I saw Edgar's eyebrow quirk. They stayed for the tour. We had a slow, dusty ride back to the camp proper. Edgar and Setzer each took a chocobo, and I rode with a leg hooked over the pommel of Locke's saddle and his arms around me. Thankfully, Edgar didn't comment, though he did smile, or maybe smirk. I couldn't really relax and enjoy it, because it wasn't a terribly steady ride, or a comfortable one, but I got to wholeheartedly enjoy the part where Locke helped me down at the end.
Molly turned out to be a round-faced, dark-haired woman, maybe in her thirties. When I first met her, she was squinting and dusty, but Edgar quickly began charming her; pink-faced and smiling, she looked younger and much prettier, but she and Locke tended to smack each other in the shoulders like Gau and Sabin always had, and I laughed - I couldn't seem to stop smiling, either - and wondered why I'd worried. Osmond Hale was a skinny man with close-cropped, faded blond hair and premature wrinkles; the kind of wrinkles you could tell were premature, I mean. There were a few younger assistants, but no one else that we were introduced to by name at that time. They both called Locke "kid" occasionally, which I found a bit odd, but funny. He didn't seem to mind, which surprised me a bit. Normally he could get so touchy about that kind of thing.
The dig didn't look quite like I'd expected - I'm not sure what I'd expected, but I'd thought it had to be more complicated than a bunch of holes in the ground. Some of the holes had scaffolding around them, or canvas tarpaulins draped over them. Locke seemed very proud, though, and I liked seeing the way he showed off some of their proudest pits - "we found a bracelet here," he said over one of them, "with some of the string still intact," and "they seem to have used this cave for religious rites, or magical - not sure if there's a difference," and, very happily, "this was their midden!"
"A scholar's life for me," Setzer said at that, and I just grinned. I'd been grinning all through the afternoon, because around the caves, Locke had taken my hand to pull me on to the next sight, and he hadn't let go. Our fingers were intertwined now and I wasn't about to do anything to make him stop. I'd been so worried, and now I just felt giddy and relieved. A little nervous still, but happy, and it was hard to be too uneasy while he was holding my hand.
Eventually he had to let it go, though, to hug Edgar goodbye, and shake hands with Setzer, and wave as the airship took off. I squinted against the dusty wind and waved too, watching as they vanished above the clouds. "You want to ride one of their birds back?" he asked. "Pillion can't be too comfortable."
"Okay," I said, and he laced his hands together to make a step into the saddle for me. Once I was up, he straightened, smiling up at me. "It's so good to see you again," he said.
I lowered my eyes, suddenly, frustratingly, shy again. "It's good to see you too," I said. I wished he hadn't boosted me into the saddle so soon. "I missed getting to talk to you, and letters every few weeks aren't the same..."
"I know," he said. We were both silent for a moment. "Let's get back to camp," he said. "It's getting late - are you hungry?"
"Starting to be," I said.
"We'll have time to talk after we eat," he said, as he busied himself about the other chocobo - Edgar's, I think - tying its reins to his bird's saddle. I didn't see exactly what he did in the sunset glare, especially because I mostly wanted to stare at my hands again. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I said. "Just a bit... tired, I guess. Windblown."
He nodded. "There's a tent set up for you already. You'll have a chance to freshen up before the meal."
We talked a bit on the ride back to the camp, just catching up, because Edgar and to a lesser extent Setzer had claimed quite a bit of his attention on the earlier rides there and back. I told him what the kids were up to, he told me what he knew of the attempt on Edgar, what he'd heard from Celes about the situation in Narshe, things like that. We had to raise our voices a bit to be heard because of the wind and the distance - our birds weren't about to ride wing to wing like I'd seen military mounts do - and it was so dusty that our throats were dry before we were halfway there. We lapsed into silence well before we saw the tents again.
When we finally did pull into the camp, he dismounted in a rush to help me down. I leaned against him, my head against his chest, and he put his arms around me. "You're sure you're all right?" he asked softly.
I nodded, and looked up at him. He raised one hand to brush some hair from my face - it was a windblown mess, despite my attempt to tie it back halfway through the afternoon. "I've really missed you," I said. "I've been... I came here to see you." Stupid. Of course I had. "I wanted to tell you how I felt. About you."
"Is this..." He stopped, and I looked up at him. He looked worried. Upset. I'd been sort of hoping he'd kiss me or something, and I wouldn't have to figure out how to get to the end of that sentence I'd been attempting. "Terra, I..."
Oh no. I couldn't keep looking at him. He didn't want me to say it. I'd thought surely, with the way he'd been acting all afternoon... but hadn't he always acted like that? My stomach felt like ice. I looked at my hands, which were clenched together. His hands were still on my shoulders. At least there was that. "I know I made you wait a long time, and I was... acting strange, for no reason. And I wouldn't blame you if you gave up on me but I still want to tell you, even if it's too late." I could feel my heart thumping. "I was in love with you all along and I'm sorry I didn't say it right from the start."
"All this time?" I looked up, and he had the strangest expression on his face, like he couldn't believe he was smiling. He was, though. I wasn't sure I could believe it either. "Why... never mind, I guess I know why." He didn't, I thought. I hoped. It had been more about Celes than about my memories for so long, and I didn't think he knew. But I couldn't exactly ask, because it wasn't my secret to tell. "I should have... Should I have realized?"
"I don't know how you could," I said. "I wasn't- is it too late?"
"Are you crazy? I waited too long to give up on you halfway through," he said, and this time the grin took over. I threw my arms around his waist and he wrapped his arms around me.
"Halfway?" I asked, muffled by his chest. "What was the end going to be?"
"When you married someone else, I guess," he said, and I laughed. I'd tell him about Martin later, but not right now. I reached up to touch his face, and this time I was the one to kiss him - tentative and a little askew, but he didn't seem to mind.
Back at my tent, I combed my hair and washed my face, trying not to be disconcerted by the way he watched me the whole time from his seat on my cot. Every time I looked at him he was smiling. Which made me smile, every time. So we proceeded to ruin all my good work on my hair by spending much of the afternoon together, all newspapers and tours and any duties he might have had forgotten.
We talked, too. We eventually emerged from the tent for the meal that evening. During the days, we held hands as he showed me around the dig. When he went back to work, I sat within sight of him and read old newspapers, the pages weighted down with rocks. When it got dark he took my by lantern-light to the tent where the artifacts were kept, and when Molly came to find us we were kissing in a corner, ancient beads and pottery forgotten.
We must have been irritating to be around, and I remember there were times I'd realize that and get embarrassed, but mostly we were off in a world of our own. I didn't think to send a note home until the fourth day; I was surprised when I realized two weeks had passed, and I'd finished all the newspapers. It's hard to write about that time. I remember bits and pieces vividly to this day - Locke telling me "Your eyelbrows are this dark, dark green," smiling like it was a wonderful secret we shared; the time we walked out in the hills, holding hands and talking about the reasons monsters were so much more scarce now; the time one of the assistants asked "so when are you buying her a ring?" to tease Locke, and Locke just grinned and said "sometime soon" - but I can't make a story out of this part. How do you describe love? Or happiness? I already knew what it was, but I'd still never been able to describe the feeling. And the way I felt about Locke was so different from how I felt about the children, but I couldn't describe it either. Maybe no one could, since no one could tell me what it was like all the times I'd asked. I was happy. We were happy. Maybe that was all you could say.
We're still happy. It's been three years, now. Katarin always used to complain about "happily ever after" at the end of stories we read to the kids - she called it dishonest. I don't think it is, exactly. Of course the time comes when you learn that he likes to kick the sheets off of both of you, or that your kids will ask him for permission instead of you because he lets them get away with more. Of course we have disagreements. But that doesn't mean being unhappy. I don't think Kat thinks it does either. Maybe it's something I don't understand, one of those things missing from my memory. Maybe everyone thinks happy ever after means never having any problems.
And there can be problems that aren't just between the two of you. My memories - what happened with Kefka, which I still have trouble talking about - gnawed at us both, in different ways. I had Katarin's reassurance that "making love" - her term, and she surprised me by blushing when she said it - wasn't terrible at all if things were right, but I still froze up when I could have made the first move with Locke, every time. And Locke clearly didn't want to traumatize me all over again. It took much longer than that first visit to sort all of that out. We did, eventually. I told Katarin "You were right," the next morning, and she That's all I can write about that.
And there was Celes. When Setzer came to retrieve me, at the end of the third week at the dig, we went out to meet him, and I saw Celes at the rail, in almost the same spot I'd been. I must have tensed up; Locke looked at me quizzically, but didn't say anything. Maybe he just thought I didn't want to leave, which wasn't wrong. I didn't want to leave, either. But I also didn't want to greet Celes while holding Locke's hand, any more than I wanted to let go of his hand and have him wonder.
She greeted us both with smiles, which seemed genuine enough. She helped see my luggage belowdecks, so I could say goodbye to him. And on the flight back home, she was... polite. It didn't feel like we were friends, and I hated it. But I didn't know how to talk to her right then, any more than she seemed to know how to talk to me. I couldn't tell her about how wonderful everything was, and we couldn't avoid talking about him; we both knew him, he was a friend to us both, he was a natural topic, except that everything about him was awkward to discuss.
On the second night, when I couldn't sleep, I got up, thinking to go out on the deck. Cold air wouldn't make me sleepy, but if I was going to be awake and thinking, I preferred clouds to my cabin's ceiling. In the passageway - the catwalk, we used to call it, the partial floor that looked out over the lounge - I found Celes, looking out one of the portholes.
"Couldn't sleep either?" she asked me.
I shook my head, then realized she'd already looked back to the porthole. "No," I half-whispered, then cleared my throat.
"I'm not letting it bother me," she said. I thought she meant sleeplessness for a moment. The words filtered in as she spoke again - not letting it, it could bother her if she'd let it. "I gave up on him ages ago."
"On-" I stopped myself. Who else could she mean?
"I remember dancing with him, the night of the victory. While we were all celebrating. We were dancing, and there was this moment when our eyes met and I thought, I should tell him now." She smiled a little. Ruefully, maybe. "And I turned tail and ran, instead, and I was telling myself, I'll tell him before we get off the ship in Figaro, or wherever we're going." He kissed me that night, I thought of saying, but I couldn't even open my mouth. She didn't look away from the glass. "And then the next morning, Edgar pulled me aside and told me what he hoped to do in Narshe, and offered me the post. And I was thinking, I wonder what Locke will say if I tell him. I was hoping he'd say I should say, or ask if he could go with me, but he just told me about the ancient castle, the excavation. So I thought, we'll both be in Figaro for the festivities, I'll tell him then. If I don't tell him before we all leave, that's my last chance. And I never told him."
I realized my own hands were knotted together, fingers intertwined like his and mine had been so many times. "I..." I didn't even know how I felt. I didn't have anything to tell him. But he kissed me that night even though I didn't say anything.
"When I saw him again in Mobliz, it was - we were friends. I remember thinking how much better it was this way. But I still wonder what would have happened," she said. I felt my heart pounding, flailing, like it wanted out. I felt like I'd burst if I said anything, but I couldn't open my mouth. "If I ever had a chance it's gone now," she continued. "You have yours." And suddenly I was furious, because she said it like I only had him because she'd given him up, or let him slip through her fingers.
"I kissed him," I blurted out. "The night after we killed Kefka. We kissed that night."
"Terra, I didn't mean... I meant you didn't take him from me. Whatever it is that I'm feeling, disappointment or... whatever it is, it's irrational. There was never any reason for me to be angry."
It didn't matter. I was angry. "I know I didn't take him from you!"
"Then we have nothing to talk about, do we?" she said, coldly, and I turned and stomped back to my cabin. So much for sleep, or clearing my head. The next morning she was polite again; we talked about food, and weather, and Setzer played solitaire and looked like he wanted to tip us both off the deck. It was a relief when we finally landed. She hugged me goodbye, then, and seemed like she was going to say more, but she didn't. Neither did I. "Don't forget to write to me," she finally said, and I nodded, then added "I won't." I just spent the next month chewing over what she'd said in quiet moments. What if she'd said something to him, back then, before we all scattered to the corners of the earth? What would he have done? Who would he love now, if it had been different? It took me far longer than it should to hear what she'd really said; that she didn't blame me or hate me for it. And by then, I was too embarrassed to bring it up, and she would never rehash an emotional subject if she could help it.
The doubt all went away when his dig closed for the winter and he came to join me. When we were together, the thought that one sentence could have changed all three of our lives was just speculation, meaningless. She didn't ever tell him how she felt; maybe she hadn't really wanted to, deep down. I didn't want her to be unhappy about him, but the times I'd tried to pull away from him on her account had only made for more unhappiness. I did write to her. It was difficult, because I didn't feel like I could write to her about Locke. But I was so happy, and after the dig closed it was hard to talk about my days without mentioning him. So I'd describe something he did, and then feel guilty, and then put the letter aside. And then I'd finally gather up my courage and write a letter like I didn't have any reason to believe she'd feel anything if I mentioned Locke, and I'd sign and send it. It was the only way, but each letter took a while. Then when she started mentioning Setzer in her letters, I started to find it easier. She never said how she felt about him, but I knew how he felt about her - it was even obvious to me, even years ago - and I thought the fact that she mentioned him, that he was part of her life, was a good sign. They came to the wedding together, and this time when she smiled and hugged me and said she was happy for me, I felt like she meant it.
Locke and I got married during the spring of the second year - last year - not long after the victory anniversary. It could have been sooner; by the middle of that first winter, we were talking about when we got married, not if. But we were both busy, and so were all the people we'd want at the wedding, so it took time. In that time I presented my work on the diary at the Figaro Royal Society. I published an annotated text last year, and donated the original to the archives. It's good that we're so remote out here; I always get swarmed by Esper scholars when I'm at gatherings in Figaro, former Imperials and others who took up the study after the world broke, trying to make sense of what happened. What they have in common is that they're more interested in my parentage and what I learned about it than in my own work. But some of them read my writings out of curiosity, and it helps me get published. I'm not above taking advantage.
We never did start an airship freight company; there was too much else to do, and not enough money. After spending some time at Setzer's office - we went to Jidoor for my wedding gown - I realized exactly how much work it would all be. There's a railroad working its way toward us now, and that will be enough for now. Edgar thinks he has a means to keep food cold so it won't spoil, though he hasn't tested it for long-term storage yet. The world is moving on; this winter there are no reports of food shortages, not in any of the news I can find.
We ratified the Mobliz constitution, and I decided not to run in the elections that followed. Locke thought I should, and so did Martin, but I just wanted to have my family, and work on my book, and live my life. No more children yet; Duane and Katarin had a new little one, a son they named Edgar, born a month before our wedding, but Locke and I haven't. We've both wondered if I'm even capable of bearing children. Espers and humans could, obviously, but the loss of magic might have made a difference, or something else. Some hybrid animals are sterile, I've read, though Locke doesn't like for me to mention that; I think he doesn't want me to think that I'm the reason, or maybe he doesn't like me likening myself to pack animals. I don't think he believes me when I say the thought doesn't bother me. But it's also possible we just haven't had any luck that way. It hasn't been that long.
There's not much more to write. It's winter, and Locke's here again. I sent letters to Celes and Edgar this morning, and the little Edgar - Eddie - has his first tooth. The older kids all decided to grow like weeds at the same time, this fall; everyone has new winter clothes. Things are going well, and we're happy.