“They wish to see you,” Celes tells the girl who sits in the dirt.
Briefly, their gazes meet and then the girl scurries away without saying a word, her eyes downcast, and Celes watches her leave. She is about to depart too, for marksmanship training, when she smells the burning and recoils at the charred press of magic in the air.
(Celes hates fire, hates the warmth, hates the sun even more. Celes hates hates hates until the ice makes shards in her veins and her breath visible with her own chill.)
Celes drops her gaze to where the girl sat and blinks in surprise. She expects the scorch of uncontrolled magic, but instead finds a picture burnt into the ground. It is crude, of course. Everything about the girl is crude - the cut of her hair, her ill-fitting clothes, her blank expression, her burning. Her burning.
But it is a picture of a simple house with people, five or six of them, standing outside it. All of them are smiling. Even the house smiles.
The words burst unbidden to Celes’s mind, and then there’s what feels to be an ice shard stabbing in her chest and she chokes, before the feeling passes.
Later, she brushes the frost from beneath her eyes and on her cheeks away, and wonders why it is there.
Celes marvels and feels - glad? - at the sight of Terra. The crown does not sit there upon her brow, and the girl looks lost as ever, but at least she is lost of her own accord and not by design.
The Returners offer Celes sharp questions and distrust and, occasionally, fear. Terra, however, seems sad and once, as they’re walking, her fingertips brush the inside of Celes’s wrist (some failed attempt at reaching for comfort, perhaps); Celes cannot help but relax at the familiar thrum of magic that passes between them. Magic has ever been a comfort, though the heat of Terra is nigh unbearable.
Doma weighs heavily upon her and she still does not understand why she was spared. But she says nothing, continues moving onward and forward, and watches as Terra walks without the jerky motion of Kefka’s puppet strings.
It surprises her that they do not stop her when she spends that first night by Terra’s bedside.
Sabin and Edgar both look grave; Cyan sits vigilant at the door with a hand on his sword; and Locke - seems to be watching Celes with a sharp gaze every time she looks his way.
But no one attempts to take her place; no one accuses her on being one of Terra’s past tormenters. Celes wonders if it is trust or if they are so shocked by Terra’s bestial appearance that they gladly pass this task to her. Not that it matters. Even if they did object, they could not stop her.
Celes sits there for hours before she reaches out and takes Terra’s hand in her own. The magic - so much stronger than before - rises beneath Terra’s skin and it’s all Celes can do to keep from crying out at the heat. She bites her lip and refuses to make a sound. When she attempts to pull her hand away, Terra holds fast and Celes shuts her eyes as the searing heat seeps through all of her until she is shaking.
Sometime later, Locke approaches. “Celes?” he grins when she glances up at him, though he cannot know that she sees nothing but the glint of his teeth and the shine of his fair hair in the low light, “You all right?”
He squeezes her shoulder and the touch is soothing, despite everything.
Nodding takes more effort than it should and she hears Sabin ask, “Want help getting her to let go?”
Celes shakes her head; Locke releases her shoulder. She assumes he goes to sit down, and she shuts her eyes and leans back in her chair, trying to relax despite all the heat pumping through her veins. Then, something cold and wet being placed on her forehead startles her and when she reaches up, she feels the damp, frayed edges of Locke’s bandana over her eyes and face.
(Reason number 65 she hates this man: he sneaks up on her.)
But the coolness is welcome, so she does not inform him just how much she hates him. She does not hear him move back to his seat, but assumes that he does. Why would he not?
And then she squeezes Terra’s hand and whispers, “Please, wake up.”
But Terra does not.
The following day, when Terra finally releases her, Celes’s hand comes away shiny with burns.
Edgar’s expression softens when he sees and Celes draws herself to full height, to inform him that she is fine, when he pulls out a small round container and unscrews the lid.
“It’s burn ointment,” he tells her, offers a smile that has fooled many women if a quarter of the stories told about him are true, “I get them a lot when I work on my machines.”
For a moment, she can only blink, but then she holds her hand out to him.
Most nights, Celes does not dream. However, when she does, her dreams are of a palace made entirely of ice with blue-clear walls; her dreams are of tattooed, naked attendants who wear jewelry of ice and smile at her.
They speak a name, often, that she never hears, but she knows that it is not her name because the shape of the word on their lips is longer and fuller than hers. She feels happy; she dances with them under the full-bright moon.
Then the armored men come with sword and shield and spear, the Empire’s sigil vibrant upon them. Red like the spread of blood. Her attendants die and all the ice melts. She melts and they trap her in a small glass prison. There are others trapped near her. At nights, they cry together. But no one comes to rescue them or even cares.
Celes always wakes when they bring forth the blonde infant with the bright blue eyes. Frost-sweat glistens on her skin, in her hair and eyelashes, and she looks up at the sky, shuddering.
Her magic was bought at the expense of one of Terra’s kin. They are dead inside her now.
Celes shifts to move closer to the warmth of the fire, clasping and un-clasping her hands. The heat is unpleasant, but she does not dwell on that fact.
Only when her left forearm begins to bleed, red staining the fingertips and nails of the other hand, does she realize that she’s picked the scabs again from where the sand and rocks rubbed away her skin. Celes uses her thumb to smear the blood - surely such a wound does not require healing? When it is so old and nearly gone?
Sabin presses his palm to her shoulder and grins when she glances up at him. “You didn’t fidget before.”
His words are soft and far from accusatory, but she winces with them, anyway. He doesn’t know her shame or weakness. Celes reaches into her pocket to feel the stained bandana there and lets herself bleed.
“I also used to hate the fire,” she tells him and, to prove a point, she moves close enough to the fire that she sweats into her leathers.
His hand sticks to the frost her sweat becomes and his laughter surprises them both.
(Reason 384 she hates this broken world: Sabin doesn’t laugh, often.)
(Reason 301, 302, and 303 she hates this broken world: it has taken the pieces of Terra and shattered them to dust.)
“You miss her, huh?” Sabin asks her a moment later, the flame and darkness shadowing his eyes; he seems older than she remembers, “Fire’s a bad substitute.”
Celes says nothing for a time, but clasps her hands together, then releases them and looks down at her bleeding forearm. “Truly, when I betrayed the Empire, I thought I had nothing left to lose.”
“I was mistaken.”
It is not the explanation he is looking for, perhaps, but it is the one she has. Better than anyone, Celes understands how it feels when there is no reason left to fight. That Terra cannot fight is - understandable. And it is illogical to feel she has lost Terra again after Celes has found her, even if Terra wishes to remain in Mobliz.
She does not reach for the bandana again, but she thinks about it and curses (again and again and again) her dependency on dead men.
Sabin sits beside her and they stare into the fire; Celes clasps her hands together so tightly her knuckles turn white.
When was it that all these people began mattering to her? When was it she began to care?
The fire is, indeed, a poor substitute.
Celes does not know how to behave around children when she is not killing them.
The children of Mobliz gather around her. Of course they recognize her. How could they not? She was here before, trying to take away their mama. Something in her throat constricts and she shifts to stand prouder, to be steadier.
“Will you take me to Terra?” Celes asks, her voice stilted to her own ears.
One of them looks at her with a piercing gaze and Celes cannot help but wonder if such is usual for children and the child smiles brightly, teeth gleaming in the lackluster light of the blighted sun.
“You miss mama,” says the child and it turns to lead her to Terra. “This way.”
And the children all smile at her, though they know she comes here a thief. They must know. But they take her to Terra anyway.
Celes highly doubts she will ever understand children.
That last night before they enter the Tower is tense; all of them attempting to rest in the air ship. Celes does not expect the knock on her door, nor does she expect it to be Terra.
Terra is silent; Celes steps aside to let her in, and then shuts the door behind her. Neither says anything for a time and Terra is shuttered from her, green and white and red, her eyes intense and sharp like sea glass just before the last edges are worn away by the relentless surf.
“I want to thank you,” Terra says, “For helping me find my way when I had lost it.”
Celes cannot help but wonder if she is truly worthy of such thanks, but decides it does not matter: if Terra wishes to thank her, Celes will not stop her.
“You are welcome... Taking a leap of faith is easiest when it is into the arms of a dear friend,” Celes says and holds a hand out to Terra.
Without hesitation, Terra takes it and the familiar magic hums beneath their skin, almost uncomfortable, but, then, their relationship has never been about comfort.
But perhaps it could be.
When the world ends again, they lose pieces of themselves. Celes sees her loss echoed in Terra’s eyes, but is too far away to reach out.
For the first time she can remember, her tears do not become ice as they fall.
Mostly, it happens at night. Dying magic pools to build and build, trapped beneath her skin as a need she cannot satisfy, and she sweats and it does not freeze. More and more, it fades away, but not fast enough.
Locke assumes she has nightmares and tries to hold her closer, kiss it away, but he does not truly understand and she does not know how to explain. So she permits him to hold her and his fingers dig into her flesh like he would squeeze away all pain, his lips find the hollow of her neck and he is warm, almost uncomfortably so.
She shakes - not from his attention.
One morning, after a particularly long night, he asks her, voice quiet, “Can you talk about it?”
Celes does not know how to answer him, merely looks down. She clenches her hands to fists, then slowly releases them, blows out a sigh. “I know not how to explain,” she tells him, glances up to meet his light eyes, “Truly - the ghosts of my past are... Physical. I do not often dream.”
His expression does not change and Celes thinks about it, about herself and what it all means.
“The magic is dying... But not quite dead, yet. It is a piece of me disappearing by inches, not matter how hard it fights to remain. To have release. But it has not the strength to manifest as anything but a chill beneath my skin. That is all.”
To his credit, he acts like he understands, but she knows he does not. Locke traces the scars on her hands, the ones that she has had since childhood, the ones she got the only time she had frostbite.
(She’d thought her fingers were falling off, the skin beneath her nails black. Cid had soothed her, she thinks, but does not remember for sure.)
“I should go see Terra,” she tells him and he does not object, kisses her fingertips.
“Have you felt it?” Celes asks her, without preamble as Terra sets the tea down in front of her, “The need?”
Terra’s home in Mobliz is tidier than it was last she was here, though that is hardly a surprise. Two months is far too long to go between visits, she decides and offers Terra a smile. Celes takes a sip of the lukewarm tea, enjoying the temperature as much as the taste.
“Uhm... I don’t think I know what you mean?” Terra says, sitting down across from her.
Celes cannot help but sigh; she takes another sip of tea, mulling her words, because she cannot explain the same way she explained it to Locke. “The dying magic fighting to be free? The pressure? Like being cut off from a piece of yourself?”
Pursing her lips, Terra looks down into her steaming cup. The silence drags for so long that Celes fidgets with it, a habit she still finds herself unable to break. And then Terra looks up at her again, green eyes gleaming and she says, “Yes. Sometimes, I try to - “ she falters, stares down at her cup again, “I try to call it to me. I can feel it wasting away inside me, the fire, but I can’t... It’s trapped there, just wasting away. I miss it. I never knew a life without it.”
With a sigh, Celes nods. Truly, she can relate. After all, she’s had her magic as long as she can remember as well, though it was injected in her.
Terra reaches for her, then, and Celes nearly jumps at the contact, not because it is unusual, but because the familiar thrum of magic rises between them and Celes almost aches with it. She misses it, misses it because it was such a defining aspect of her from before and knowing herself now is so much harder than she thought it would be; Terra sucks a breath in through her teeth, looking as surprised as Celes is, but they tighten their grip on each other.
And perhaps the thrum is far weaker than before, but that hardly matters. It is familiar and comfortable and right, and for a long time, neither of them moves.
Rocky though the path has been, Celes cannot imagine anywhere she would rather be than here, like this. Such is love, she supposes, something she can finally feel.