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Rolling with the Punches

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Locke recognized the mood clinging to Celes when she came into the house; hard not to, after seeing it every day for a month. He was frankly surprised it hadn't resulted in a knock-down, drag-out fight. Yet.

She did not slam the door or otherwise show her frustration, but he saw it in the line of her shoulders, in the too-precise way she stripped off her armaments and hung them on the stand in exacting alignment. She was silent when she came into the kitchen, and he put down the spoon he was using to stir dinner. She gave him a nod of greeting, not curt, but quiet, and then left the room. He heard her boot heels against the wooden floors, and the quiet click of the bedroom door closing.

Dinner would wait.

He gave it fifteen minutes, then covered the pan and left it mostly off the fire, where it would be warm but not burn, and followed her to the bedroom. When he tapped on the door, she didn't say anything, so he slipped in quietly.

She was standing by the window with her fists clenched and her arms crossed over her chest, and she glared defensively at him when he closed the door behind him. She had already changed her clothes.

"I am trying," she said, in a voice that grated like rocks clattering down the mountainside, "not to inflict my mood on you. I am given to understand this is a thing that is considered appropriate between lovers."

He'd spent enough time watching her fight that he recognized the lines of her body, the tension she was locking up inside herself and the coiled violence. She had been out hunting monsters today, and from the gash on her arm she was treating with a potion, she had found things to kill. Usually that put her in an easier frame of mind.

"We could try something different," he suggested, and put enough of a bite into his tone to trip her temper. That probably wasn't smart, but he was tired of watching her go out every day and come back like this. "You could talk to me about it."

She might not have magic anymore after the Espers disappeared, but the look on her face sent an icy chill down his spine as surely as a Blizzard spell. He made himself stay open, easy, a smirk on his lips and a casually arrogant set to his shoulders. It would irritate her, he knew.

"I don't want to fight with you," she said after a long moment of frozen silence, and while it was true, it also wasn't true.

"Sure you do." He took a step closer and watched her shift into a brawling stance, easy as breathing. "You don't want to hurt me, but there's more ways to hurt than with a sword."

She flinched, and he gave himself acid mental congratulations on hitting a sore spot.

"Come on," he said, "we could go outside and have a little hand-to-hand. It'd make you feel better."

"I don't—" She turned away, her hands flexing into fists and out again.

"Celes." Since she wasn't ready to throw a punch, he leaned against the bedpost and crossed his arms. "You're not sleeping and you hardly eat enough to keep a bird alive, so something's going on. Tell me." He put the snap of command into the last two words, and saw it strike home; her shoulders pulled taut and her spine stiffened as she fell into parade rest.

Old habits died hard. He'd have felt bad about using them against her, but he was sick of dancing around it.

"I keep thinking of Maranda," she said very quietly, her voice raw, "and all the other things I did when I wore that uniform. I keep thinking of the people I slaughtered. I can't make it right."

He wanted to cross the room, to hold her and tell her it would be okay, but she wouldn't believe him and at this point he wouldn't either. "No, you can't," he agreed, and she flinched like he'd struck her. "I can't make what happened to Rachel right either." It was the thing they always tiptoed around, never mentioning her name, even though her ghost sometimes lay between them in bed and he still dreamt of her falling off that bridge.

Celes's hands clenched into fists. "I could punch you for that," she said.

He almost felt like something clicked into place, as though even speaking it aloud had untwisted something inside him. "Do it," he invited her.

"No." She got even more tense.

"You want to fight?" he goaded her, pushing away from the bedpost to come well within what she considered Minimum Acceptable Personal Space when she was in one of these moods. "Fight me, Celes."

"I don't want to fight," she said, and her jaw clenched on the ends of the words, and he realized what he'd been saying wrong.

"You do," he said, "you just don't want to start it."

She looked away.

"Come outside, Celes." He gestured. "Lots of space to get this out—or run." He hated making little digs like that—he had to find some better way of motivating her, but given that she insulted herself when she wasn't performing to her own standards, that might take a minor miracle.

Her eyes turned cold and hard, and he winced even as he congratulated himself on a barb well-aimed. "I don't run," she said in a clipped and icy tone.

"What, then? Afraid the mighty General Celes can't take a washed-up treasure hunter?" He meant it as a joke; it didn't sound that way.

She stalked past him and out the back door. It slammed behind her.

Celes never slammed doors.

He strolled outside, taking his time, and found her standing in their backyard with the wind whipping her hair and the sun setting behind her.

For someone who claimed to be a general, and not an opera floozy, she had an exceptional sense of setting.

She lifted her hands, and met his eyes.

He grinned, and stepped close enough to start the fight.

He wasn't anywhere near her level and he knew it, but he was a veteran of a few too many bar fights, and he knew how to throw a punch and how to take one. He feinted a few times, trying to get a sense for her reaction and style, since he wasn't actually out to hurt her. She blocked badly—too badly, really—and he did a mental tally of how many potions they had left.

Enough, he decided, and threw a punch for real, straight to the abdomen.

He was pretty sure she didn't intend to hit back quite so hard, but instinct must have kicked in, because he saw stars when her fist connected. That tense place that had eased when he suggested a fight unwound further with the dazzling burst of pain, and he gave himself over to it, let himself strike and take her hits in return. She was stronger, but he was faster, and he scored more than a few hits by using dirty tricks that were downright shameful in a fair fight, but he could see her relaxing more with every punch.

He was really starting to feel the impact; she had given herself totally over to the fight, and his ribs ached fiercely with her last kick. She looked almost happy, though, moving easily and without the impression that broken glass was grating against her bones from the inside out. He ducked under another kick—the fact that she could get her leg up that far just was not fair—and dove to take out her legs. She landed hard on her back, and grunted with the impact, but didn't move to get up right away.

"Better?" he asked, and wiped blood away from the corner of his mouth.

"Better," she agreed, and it wasn't a lie.

He got to his feet with a groan—even when she pulled her punches, she landed solid hits—and held out his hand to help her up. She surprised him by accepting. He let her lead the way back inside, and she went straight for the cabinet where they kept potions. He caught the one she tossed at him and knocked it back straight; the bitter astringent taste would require at least two glasses of water to wash out of his mouth before dinner, but it healed all the bruises and bumps he'd acquired.

"Why do that?" she asked him, abrupt as usual.

He shrugged, though from the sharp expression on her face he didn't do a very good job of pretending to be casual. "After Rachel fell," and there's that word that he uses instead of the more accurate died and spent ten years doing it, "I spent a lot of time getting into fights, because at least if someone was hitting me I felt like there were some consequences to my carelessness." He grins a little and it doesn't even reopen his split lip, thanks to the potion. "Feels nice to get in a few good punches myself, too. Thought maybe you'd feel the same."

She set aside the glass bottle from her potion on the counter and flexed her hands to stretch them. She had a look on her face that he recognized as the one she wore when she was working up to asking a question about interaction that military life never explained. "Is it common," she began, and then hesitated, "to experience other physical reactions after such a fight?"

It took him a little bit to parse what she was trying to ask, and when realization hit, he had to work hard to keep from grinning, which he was sure she'd misinterpret. "I've heard that happens, yeah," he said. Then he did let the grin surface. "You want to do something about it?"

In lieu of an answer, she crossed the kitchen in three long strides and shoved him back against the wall. He laughed even as she leaned in to kiss him; she hadn't been nearly this riled up in a while.

They left the path to the bedroom littered with bits of clothing and stray shoes, and when they tumbled onto the bed, it was less of a lovemaking and more of a wrestling match. She had an inch of height on him and better training, but he was quick and agile. He slid out from underneath her and she surprised him by grabbing his wrists and flipping them both so that he was on top of her.

"Please," she said, and then her grip on his wrists went lax. "Touch me."

He thought about taking it slow, using time and patience to drive her up and keep her there as long as he could, but she wasn't in a patient mood and to be honest neither was he. So it was fast, and more than a little rough, but from the way her nails dug into his shoulders, she didn't seem to mind. Celes wasn't usually very vocal in bed, but this time, she was actually making some noise.

Obviously he should start sex with fistfights more often.

She leaned up to bite at his ear, not as gently as usual, and sarcastic internal commentary was lost along with most other brain functions, leaving only her.

When sense returned, he summoned the will to roll off her, but kept curled up close. She rested a hand on his head, apparently as worn out as he.

"Thank you," she said. "I...feel better."

"Good," he mumbled, and kissed her shoulder.

Maybe the occasional fight wasn't so bad.