He'd drifted up to Kohlingen seven months back, riding a flightless bird he'd purchased without haggling or more than cursory inspection. He'd thought of naming it Wings, by way of bitter irony, but there was no point - he never spoke to it, because he had no desire for even the illusion of company, and it responded only to the reins. There was no one to appreciate the irony or to mock him for wallowing, and he could pity himself enough without the gesture. He took his time, stopping at roadside inns when he could, camping when he couldn't. The chocobo might have been a tired old dray, but it showed no signs of illness or lameness and he almost never pushed it to make any great speed. Wind in his hair might once have pleased him - or maybe he'd just enjoyed Daryl's delight in it, her way of turning anything into a race - but now it only reminded him of all he'd lost. Kohlingen wasn't likely to go anywhere before he arrived, unless it already had.
It hadn't, though from what he learned at the public house Daryl's family home was gone, crumbled into the sea. He remembered the view of waves and rocky shore from the library where she'd led him after the meal. He remembered her father's thin-lipped smile as they bowed to each other for the first time, and the awkward silences her mother labored to fill - no questions about what he did, because in their circle, the men didn't really do things, not for money, and no questions about his family connections, because they were, he suspected, not sure they wanted to know. His family was perfectly respectable, although unlikely to impress people like this, but had they asked he thought he would have blackened his family's name just to see their reactions.
He didn't ask about Daryl's family - was her father even alive at the time of the disaster? The estate might have gone to a cousin - though he wondered about the servants. Was there any time to evacuate? He didn't ask. The mausoleum had been further inland, he remembered. They'd ridden past it on their way to the house. If her spirit rested any easier because they'd entombed some bones with some older bones, then maybe it still would. He hoped her spirit rested easy. He thought he should ask about the tomb, the changes to the coastline, but he never did. He asked for the largest room the inn could spare, sold the bird, and then he settled in. He slept through as much of the murky sunlight as he could, most days, and then he'd play solitaire and drink indifferent wine, never noticing quality for the taste of failure and loss in his mouth. When he stumbled up to his bed at closing time, he went alone. This wasn't one of the dives at the edge of town; there were no prostitutes, and while he saw the occasional solitary woman, or group of women, spinsters or widows looking for company, they didn't seem to be looking for a devastated drunkard. Nor was he looking for them. When he saw a head of long blonde hair, his heart would leap; usually he expected Celes's pale, serious face, though more than once the hair was wavy and honey-blonde and for a moment his heart was in his throat because it had to be Daryl.
It was absurd, he sometimes told himself. He'd known for a long time now that he'd lost Daryl forever. He'd lived through a year without word of her, though he hadn't thought he would at the time - those shocks of mistaken identity and the aching realization that followed were familiar for that reason, though he'd dulled himself with much better wine back then, and he hadn't done it every day, not even close. He'd survived all that followed - the letter from her parents, that horrible, almost wordless flight to the island, all three of them miserable. And the box, far too small, that the fishermen who'd found the wreck had given to her father. They'd explained what they'd found, haltingly, reluctant to share details with the parents and the lover of someone reduced to dried and scattered bones. The flight back had been worse for the certainty, because while he'd longed desperately to believe that there was a mistake, that the bones weren't hers, that she'd lived, he'd known. The wreck was the Falcon. The island was uninhabited, and Daryl was not an outdoorswoman. If she hadn't died in the crash, she'd died in the intervening year, alone, unseen or overlooked by the search parties. Starvation, dehydration, exposure. Trapped in wreckage, or ranging hopelessly over the island, seeing the end slowly coming. He'd stood dry-eyed, feeling numb and sick, in the field outside the tomb, listening to her father speak empty words about the woman he'd loved. But maybe the words weren't empty - maybe the father's daughter was a different person from the impetuous, fearless spitfire he'd known. He thought of flashing brown eyes, hair that might have been a pale brunette like her mother's if she weren't always out in the sun, of her loud laugh and ribald wit, and he wanted to tell them all about her, what she was really like. But her mother was weeping, so he held his tongue and wished for the relief of tears.
After that, he'd thrown himself into the restoration of the Falcon, scarcely sleeping for four months, because there was nothing else he could do, nothing else he could think of. He'd had the chamber for it dug beneath the crypt - with her mother's blessing, the only time he ever saw the woman nod approvingly at him - and had rebuilt it in there, had even tested the balloon before he deflated it and had it folded and placed on the deck. Then he'd sent the workmen off and walked slowly down into the interior, listening to the hollow echo of his footsteps, and wondered if he ought to have it repainted and furnished as it had been when she lived. He'd thought, at first, of having the bones placed in it the Falcon and burning it as a pyre, but her family didn't believe in cremation. Her parents' pain was bad enough without adding what they'd see as a further desecration. The Falcon was her most prized possession, the only thing he could offer her as a final gift. What a gift to bury her wings in a crypt beneath her own and leave them to moulder.
He'd buried Daryl and the Falcon, and it was the loss of the Blackjack that finally broke him. He was certain that she'd never forgive him for at least one of those things - for falling apart, or for doing so over a ship, or for putting her and her own ship underground - but at least he didn't know for a certainty which it would be.
He had nightmares - losing control of the Blackjack, feeling the deck buckle and splinter beneath his feet, falling and falling and bolting upright in bed. Predictable, he thought. No less jarring for all that, but it was more unsettling when it happened while he was awake. And sometimes it did; more than once he tripped over a chair leg or someone's foot and froze, back on the crumbling deck of his ship, helpless. Was that what the crash of the Falcon had been like? She'd been alone when it happened - it was a private craft, built to hold no more than a dozen, for private parties or personal transportation, and she raced it solo. He'd tried for years not to envision the end - not to imagine the crash itself, or the immediate aftermath, whether she'd been killed in the crash or died slowly afterward - but airship crashes were vivid in his mind now, and sometimes his dreams took nasty twists, putting Daryl on the deck of the Blackjack as it splintered, cracking the Falcon in two and letting him watch her fall. Some nights he sat up until daybreak.
Sometimes, if he felt like he really deserved it, he'd go over the events of the Blackjack's crash methodically, piecing together fragments of memory. He remembered struggling with the wheel until it suddenly gave, spinning so fast it tore from his hands - when he'd awakened his hands had been abraded and two fingers were broken, though the doctor had been more worried about his leg and the eight days' unconsciousness - and then turning to see Celes suspended in the air, holding onto Locke's arm. Locke was crouched on the deck, holding onto a splintered board that was about to give. Terra reached for Locke but he fell, and then Celes lost her grip on Locke as well. He remembers seeing her whipped away from them by the wind - or else she just fell, as the half-ship's momentum carried it onward, but he remembers it like seeing a kite pulled away when the string snapped. He instinctively reached for Terra, grabbing her shoulders and shouting at her to get down. They both dove to the deck but it was futile, or too late - was the deck collapsing, or gone vertical, or was it the wind, strong enough to knock them off their feet? He remembered grabbing her hands, and one of the physical memories that came back to him when he was awake was the sensation of her hands slipping out of his, his tightest grip not strong enough. Or perhaps he invented that memory, because he didn't remember pain, but he saw the state of his hands when he woke, and for weeks the fingers that weren't splinted hurt whenever he flexed them, gripped anything, buttoned his shirts. He didn't remember sound, even when he bellowed Terra's name. Maybe they were all screaming, but he only remembered the roar of the wind, and maybe that was the only mercy in the whole situation.
After he rebuilt and buried Daryl's ship, he found himself, for lack of a better destination, back in Vector, immersing himself in the details of running the Blackjack and his work with the Vector air force. He'd neglected his work long enough that he had little leisure time for some months, which was the way he preferred it. There were enough moments that caught him up short; they'd met in Vector, and they'd tried every cafe and restaurant and bar in some districts of the city. They'd made love in the Blackjack, they'd had their first serious fight in the hangar near his office, and even when he confined himself to paperwork, he'd sometimes find her handwriting on old plans and files.
When the work needing his attention had cleared somewhat, he tried to fill his leisure time the way he had before he'd known her. The opera, parties, sometimes women. He met Maria at a gala in Jidoor, and he'd thought she'd simply be expensive, high-maintenance company - not the first woman like that he'd seen, but the first since Daryl's death - but she had a spark to her that he hadn't expected. She liked dramatic gestures, the more unexpected by her companions the better. He suspected it was more deliberate than she pretended - she'd wade into a fountain at a garden party, but never in a dress she really liked - but she was never boring, and he enjoyed spending time with her. That, he thought, was enough. All he could hope for, after Daryl.
They'd been together four months when she suggested they elope; his heart had thudded painfully in his chest, realizing that he and Daryl had never even spoken of marriage, that she was asking for something he'd never given to Daryl, but Maria was already outlining her idea with a zest Daryl used to show for airship races. Drama, on the stage or off, was Maria's passion as flight had been Daryl's, and he let her enthusiasm sweep him along. They'd hashed the plan out together over meals at his townhouse in Jidoor, laughing and trying to top each other with new embellishments. It came to seem like a game, and when he laid awake next to her at night, realizing they were planning a wedding, a marriage, he reminded himself that divorce was easy in Jidoor. The game continued for several evenings - a public proposal at a ball, he suggested, or a voyage ending with an "impulsive" wedding, married by a ship's captain - until finally she suggested the abduction during the opera. He'd blinked at her, at a loss for words, and she'd smiled broadly, triumphantly.
Two weeks before the date they'd agreed on, they'd staged a quarrel at Valabar's - she'd thrown water in his face and he'd knocked his chair over as he stormed out - and then his solo part in the plan began. Ostentatious letters and flowers to her home and her dressing room, all leading up to the note he sent, addressed to Maria, under care of Owzer, because if the plan didn't get some attention ahead of time there was no point. There was no contact between them, because they didn't want rumors of the real story getting out in advance, so he had no idea that the woman he dipped in a theatrical kiss on the stage and then led through the rafters of the opera house was not the woman he'd planned to carry off to Vector for a wedding.
He'd thought, when he barely knew Celes, that they looked almost identical. Later, after she scrubbed off the stage makeup, after a few days in flight with her - trying to observe her without being noticed and dodge her without it being apparent, because the embarrassment was fresh and raw - he would notice that her jaw was stronger, that she was taller, more lean and athletic, her eyes a touch darker than Maria's ice blue. He'd insisted she marry him because he was sure she'd refuse, and then he could get them off the Blackjack and out of his life, but she'd surprised him. She'd surprised him twice, with a double-headed Figaro gil he hadn't thought to inspect. He knew he was bested, and there wasn't much in the life he had - doing business with the Emperor, for the love of all that was good, planning to marry a woman he merely liked just for the sake of excitement - to make him regret putting it on the line. The others might not think that was what he was doing, but he was effectively shutting down a profitable casino, leaving his aeronautics concern in the lurch for the second time in four years, and rendering himself an outlaw in the eyes of two governments. Jidoor could be the next morsel on the Empire's menu, but until that time, they were allies - both his homes would be risky for him now, but the thought somehow didn't disturb him.
What disturbed him was Celes's absence from the battered group he met two days later on a dark street in Vector's industrial district, and the disjointed story Locke gave him on the way to Zozo. You mean you left her? he'd asked, and the younger man hadn't responded. You didn't even let her explain? He barely knew the woman. He'd kissed her twice, both times before he knew her name. They'd shared a few awkward conversations. That was all. Maybe she really had been a double agent all along, though that shouldn't bother him much; he didn't have much loyalty to the Returners, even though the Empire's expansion had worried him of late. If she had been, he really was a wanted man - she'd name him as a collaborator, and he was recognizable, visible, a huge and easy target - but that thought wasn't new by then. He'd fretted over it for the entire flight to Vector, and all the time he'd spent waiting on the hidden airship while they went about their mission. He rather hoped she'd been a double agent and was safely back in her headquarters, because the other option was that she was an escaped prisoner condemned of treason and that she'd stayed behind to let this band of ingrates escape. But there was no way he could help her now, so he tried to put her out of his mind.
He followed Locke and Sabin - Sabin Rene Figaro, the long-lost crown prince of Figaro, and even for someone who'd dined with the emperor this was strange - through the narrow, crumbling streets of Zozo, up the rickety stairs of a tall building with faded wallpaper, to a room the thief unlocked. There was... something in there, a creature with pink fur and claws that sprang up from a cot as they entered and crouched on the thin mattress, watching them warily. Locke spoke gently to it, approaching slowly with hands held palms out, slightly away from his sides, from his sides, and the creature - a female, he thought, humanoid - sat on the edge of the cot and let him put her clawed hands around one of crystals they'd brought back from the lab.
He'd taken them to Narshe. He'd met the king of Figaro, the elders of Narshe, he'd stood in the back behind the others and wondered when they'd realize he shouldn't be here and throw him out, but instead they took him to Vector's eastern border for a vital mission he was entirely unsuited to help with. He could throw darts and knives and he could fence. He'd been in three duels, years ago, one over an insult to Daryl, in fact. He'd won two, had lost the other badly - the source of all but one of the scars on his face - but never killed a man. He was no warrior, no revolutionary, and while he wasn't afraid for his life, he felt entirely out of place in their mission, as if he'd stolen a place that should go to someone else. When they made camp in the cave, he explained the suits of cards to Terra, taught her a basic solitaire game and wondered where Celes was, if she was still alive. The next day - as far as one could tell underground, given that his pocketwatch had stopped the first time he touched a magicite - he stood by the others as Terra walked up a sloping stone bridge, or ramp, and out of nowhere came a wind that whirled her hair around her but didn't stir near them, and crackling blue lightning that spiraled up from her feet. Half-masked by the electricity, her form shifted before his eyes, into what he'd first seen in that dingy room in Zozo. Now he was afraid - less of death, still, than of the presence of tremendous power that seemed far from controlled - but no one else even seemed surprised.
When the Blackjack crash-landed - he'd referred to it as a crash at the time, but after having his ship fall apart as he tried to pilot it, the rough but half-controlled landing he'd pulled off in the face of berserk Espers looked good in retrospect - he came with them all to Vector, leaving his crew with strict orders about letting anyone near. He was selected to go with King Edgar of Figaro, the knight Cyan, and Terra to meet with the Emperor. He wasn't sure why - possibly to show Gestahl that his own people were turning against him, even though he wasn't legally a Vector resident, or possibly just because he'd know what to do about the forks. All through the banquet Terra watched his hands, and Edgar's, before she reached for any utensils. History, he kept reminding himself as the interminable meal dragged on. He was witnessing history. He wished he could tell Daryl about it, wished she could be here with him, and he realized with a shock of guilt and pain that he hadn't had a thought like that in ages. Months? Longer? He stared into the glass, trying to remember the last time his heart had ached that she wouldn't see or know of something he'd enjoyed. But when had he last had time to stop and think? And before that, what was the last thing that had happened to him worthy of sharing with her? And then he heard Celes's name spoken and his head snapped up. She was alive, unharmed, and she had not been a spy. He sipped the wine and hoped he wouldn't have two such emotions in such short order again; the lump in his throat made it hard to swallow, but somehow the world still seemed brighter.
Terra and Locke were going elsewhere, or so he thought. The others were staying in Vector, investigating, convinced something was still suspicious. He had a ship to repair, and Cid Marguez wanted a look at it. It troubled him - he had a crew for routine maintenance, but he'd never trusted anyone else except Daryl to do delicate work or extensive repairs. Keeping the scientist from touching anything or trying to help doubled the time the repairs would have taken him alone. And then they were held up further by the call of chocobos outside the ship; Locke had some business in Maranda, and for a breather, before they made their way back, they'd decided to stop in at the ship to check on him, to see if he had any messages to bring back to Vector. He had none, though if he'd realized they would shortly be traveling with Celes he might have found something to say. But none of them knew at the time, so Locke disappeared into the ship's cabins, investigating after turning down the offer of a guided tour, and Terra sat in a corner of the engine room, knees pulled up to her chest, and watched him, asking the occasional question about the ship. You love this ship more than anything, don't you? she finally asked. Normally he would have agreed cheerfully, but he could still feel the jagged edge of the emotion that had overtaken him at the banquet. He found himself instead telling her about Daryl, about that rivalry they had, about the way they used to dream together of reaching the stars, of planning and arguing and sketching on envelopes and shooting down each other's ideas. Terra watched him the whole time with an eager, uncomprehending look, much like the look he used to see on Daryl when he explained an idea before he began the sketches or unrolled the blueprint - like someone looking for a pattern but not finding it, storing away details for the time they'd make sense.
When Locke came to collect her, Setzer escorted them both out of the ship, into dark blue twilight. When he went back into the ship's lamplit living quarters, he found Cid looking at his phonograph records. Made myself scarce, the scientist admitted. Maybe it's the coward's way out, but I didn't want to face Terra, and I didn't know if she'd want to face me. Setzer didn't know which he meant; general guilt over the way the Empire had treated the girl, or something more specific and personal, a closer hand in something done to her. Experiments or tests - that rumored mind-control device might well have links to one of the Empire's chief researchers, and Locke had insisted the mind-control device was real and had been used on the girl. Setzer didn't ask. It was only because the scientist had absented himself that he'd spoken of Daryl for the first time in years, and he felt a sort of painful relief to have mentioned her, even to someone who'd never known her and didn't truly understand.
They were in the air again, on the way back to Vector, by the time it occurred to him that he'd never contacted Maria after the failed abduction. He sat down to write the letter even before they landed, but he couldn't think what to say to her. Dearest Maria, I apologize for throwing you over to join the insurgency, but your beautiful double conned me and destroyed my life and for some reason I'm happier than I've been in years. Happier than he had been since Daryl's disappearance. And he was, though he couldn't have said why. He eventually settled on an apology, a promise to explain to her in person if she'd permit him, and an assurance of his affection, though he wasn't certain about the truthfulness of it anymore. He added a request to direct her reply to his home in Vector, and then remembered that she'd never seen it and that he hadn't stayed more than three days in it since Daryl's death. Unless he found some other place to rent, he'd break that pattern soon enough, and he could always have the mail forwarded. He added the address, and sealed the letter.
He did break the pattern, but not by much. He'd been in the Vector home a week - sleeping in the guest room rather than the suite he and Daryl had once shared - when he had a late-night visit from royalty.
Edgar came to the Gabbiani townhouse one evening with his brother in tow. The young king was smiling and casual and apologized for dropping in, and then when the door was shut, the smile immediately dropped. Setzer dismissed the servant without being asked and led them both to a room where they could speak. The next few days were spent in a fever of subterfuge. Under cover of darkness they readied the airship, loaded the others on board, and lifted off, tensely silent, awaiting the glare of lanterns or a barrage of arrows and magic at any moment. When they were over the water, safely away and headed east, Edgar sighed audibly, then Gau let out a whoop, the first noise above a whisper any of them had made for hours, and as he laughed, Setzer felt like one of them for the first time. If Daryl could see me now... he thought. She might have laughed, he thought, though out of amusement at the idea of him as a revolutionary rather than mockery of the ideals, but then again, she might have pulled him deeper into the Returners. She'd always been more political than he was, more opposed to the Empire's expansion, though she'd disappeared before the invasion of Tzen, let alone Maranda.
When they reached Thamasa, it was clear that their warning had come too late. They passed over the remains of farmhouses - a chimney and traces of a wall standing, charred and soot-blackened - and others, still standing but with broken windows or scorch marks. Silence fell over the ship as he sunk into a landing in a field at the edge of town. While the others gathered their cloaks and weapons and magicite, he picked his way over the damp grass to the farmhouse. At the sixth knock, a harried-looking farmer answered the door with a shovel in one hand; over the man's shoulder he could see disorder and a dark-haired woman stuffing clothing or blankets into a bag. The farmer didn't know what had happened, didn't care if the airship landed in his pasture. He pointed toward the town square when Setzer inquired, and muttered about lunatics.
When they straggled into the square, most of the nearby fires were under control. A few buildings still smoldered, and there was the ozone scent of magic in the air. People in odd, old-fashioned clothes were gathered in tight clusters, the largest one centered around a huge tree that looked at least a century old. As a murmur went up, heads turning to face them, he noticed the blackened scar where an enormous limb must once have been.
And he noticed the small group standing apart, silent - an old man, not much taller than the child next to him, and behind them, Terra, who looked over her shoulder. At Celes and Locke, who were standing close together, and who only belatedly looked up. His heart thudded painfully, and he wasn't sure which he felt first - relief at seeing her at last, still alive and apparently well, or anger that the lout who'd abandoned her in Vector was the one at her side now. He knew he felt both. He watched her, only half-attentive as introductions were made and explanations shared. He face was streaked with mud and soot, her hair a bird's nest, and she kept looking at Locke, who now seemed entirely focused on angrily recounting events here. He knew the outlines from what Edgar had uncovered. She cleans up nicely, he thought, a phrase of Daryl's, but that's all. She's not cleaned up now. Stop staring. No matter how stern his own instructions, he couldn't.
He only really spoke to her once - when they'd retrieved some of the Returner forces, had made their stand against the IAF, and had sent Locke and Sabin and Terra to infiltrate the floating landmass. It struck him as a suicide mission, but everyone seemed quite confident that the island should be uninhabited, or nearly so, and that the group of three should be equal to whatever they'd encounter. When the rest of the ship's current occupants had retreated belowdecks, she was the only one remaining above, standing at the prow in nearly full armor and with admirably military posture as he trailed the drifting landmass.
He tried to charm her, to win a smile from her, and she rebuffed his every effort. She blurted out that none of them trusted her, and he winced inwardly, because he'd sometimes let the way that she was left in Vector slip from his mind - she was unhurt, he'd thought, but now he saw that it had preyed on her mind too. He tried to reassure her, and was dismayed to hear her voice quaver, a crack in the armor she'd clearly cultivated for years. All he could do was assure her of Edgar's faith, and Sabin's. He knew those two weren't her highest concern, but what could he say? He'd barely been able to speak of her to Locke, and the rogue had offered nothing. She was confiding in him now, and all he could offer her was a handkerchief and averted eyes, and sympathy he wasn't sure she wanted. And a chance to leap to her probable death just as the others had. He kissed her hand and maneuvered the airship into position, and then he stared at the clouds and the continent and tried not to think at all. Certainly not about her. It was a futile effort, but it gave him something to do. You'd like her, Daryl. She didn't remind him of Daryl, except in the sense that when he thought about a woman for any length of time he thought about Daryl. But he wished they could have met.
His ship had broken in two beneath him, and they were all gone - most likely killed, at least most of them. He'd lived, so possibly others had, but how would he ever know? Two children, far too young to be there. Celes. Terra's hand torn from his, and all the others, people he'd barely known - but he had known them a bit, he'd liked them all, even Locke, and the grievous injustice of it was that he was the one who'd least deserved to survive. The children were innocent, the others were fighting for a belief, for a cause, and he was just along for the ride. Following a whim and a pretty face and a half-held conviction - not really a conviction, a thought - that freedom was better than tyranny and the emperor was a tyrant. He'd taken more than his share of luck, and doomed the others. He sat motionless in bed most days, staring at his bandaged hands, anger sometimes breaking through the numbness. The world had ended and he'd lived to see the ruins of it.
The hospital was in Maranda. When he was well enough to travel, he headed north to Jidoor - he could make the trip overland now, though the land was a narrow spit, salt marsh that would be barren for generations if it stayed above water - to survey the damage, retrieve some of his belongings from what was left of his house there, and check in with his lawyers and accountants, to find out if any of the banks were still sound. He made arrangements to pay his employees, those who'd survived. He spoke with a few friends and acquaintances and learned of a few others who'd died. He began to wonder when he'd finally crack, but there was an air of unreality to the whole experience; to Jidoor itself, he thought.
He sent a messenger to Maria and she agreed to meet him at Valabar's. He hadn't known what to expect of the establishment - if the normal clientele would dine out because they might not have another chance, because they could all die the next day, or huddle at home, grieving or frightened. It seemed to be an even split, the restaurant half as full as he was accustomed to seeing. It seemed to be enough of an audience for Maria, or perhaps she didn't care who saw for once. This time when she threw a drink - expensive wine, not water - in his face, the look of fury was real. He'd meant to tell her that he was genuinely sorry, that he still loved her, but all he said was I suppose I deserved that, and she'd replied You deserve worse. No chairs were overturned. She didn't storm out. She glided, and all eyes were on her, exactly as she liked. A waiter handed him a linen napkin, and he dried himself, paid for the wine, and left, annoyed that she'd made her scene before the meal. But perhaps he deserved that too. If she'd genuinely cared for him, he deserved it all and more, just as she'd said, but he doubted he'd ever know the truth of that. It was hardly the time to ask her. He might as well assume that she had - she'd never eloped with anyone else before - and that he'd treated her very badly, but he'd lost his chance to apologize. It was too late, now, even for a note. As things stood, he suspected she'd burn it unread. He went home and packed a bag and paid too much for the chocobo he didn't bother to name - his own stable had been decimated, some killed and some stolen - and began his slow journey north. The first of the nightmares hit him in a roadside inn three days' travel north of Jidoor. He woke up soaked in sweat, got out of bed just to feel that the floor was solid, that it wasn't moving, and had told himself that there was no question that he deserved this.
The journey probably took him two months. He didn't keep track of the time. Sometimes he stayed at an inn for several days. Sometimes he kicked the chocobo to a gallop and tried to feel the old exhilaration of speed and motion, but it never accomplished anything except tiring the bird out. When he finally reached Kohlingen, he was ready to crawl into a bottle, but he did remember talking about hometowns over a meal, and asked after Locke. One person had known him, but hadn't seen him since Before. That was all anyone said, "Before." Everyone knew what "Before" and "After" meant. He tried describing the others, just in case someone had passed through, but no one recognized any descriptions. It occurred to him that he might be asking the wrong people, but he had no way of identifying the right ones, and little enough hope to keep him trying. A week brought no answers to his inquiries. He began drinking earlier and earlier in the evenings, and by the end of the month he never spoke of them anymore.
But then one day the blonde hair in the lamplight belonged to a familiar face, and she had the Figaro twins behind her, alive and well. He wanted to weep, or throw his arms around them all, but he'd only started on the first bottle and was still far too sober for that. He smiled half-heartedly at them all as they approached his table, and wondered how it could be that they'd all survived an airship crash and Daryl had not. But Celes wanted him to come with them. He'd never had anything except the Blackjack to offer these people - they had conviction and strength and courage and power and he'd had transportation and a deck of cards. Now all he had was a deck of cards, worn, stained, and smelling of wine and smoke. He had no wings, he said. No airship. No dreams. He'd buried his dreams years before, in a dusty crypt southwest of this town.
"Then how about a new dream?" Celes asked. "Like taking back our world."
He felt as though the room had gone silent, though it hadn't. He felt as though the brothers were miles away, and nothing mattered except the look on her face. She genuinely believed they could do it. She wanted him to help, even though she knew he had nothing to offer except himself. "Will you chase it with me?" he asked. "My new dream?"
She nodded, and then the smile spread over her face, sudden, unexpected, like sunlight breaking through clouds. He wasn't sure if he'd ever seen that before, or if he'd ever seen anyone as beautiful. Her eyes were like the sky, a clearer blue than Maria's, and he wondered how he'd ever confused the two. If she was with him, he thought, he could do anything. He'd follow her anywhere. And he thought, with a wrench, of Daryl - if she'd lived, if she'd been in his place, she wouldn't have drowned herself in self-pity. She'd be building a new airship already, collecting scrap metal and learning how to forge and mill the engine parts if she needed to, despite the broken supply lines, despite everything. He wondered if Edgar could help with that, or if he had any devices at the castle they could cannibalize, and then it struck him where else they could find what they needed. It likely wouldn't work, anymore, but it was a model, a template, it would have parts they could use as a guide or salvage. And maybe it would work after all. There was only one way to find out.
She'd forgive him for robbing her grave, he was certain. If there was one thing she wouldn't want, it was a world without flight.