Actions

Work Header

Out of the Ashes

Work Text:

The pub was more Locke's kind of place than Edgar's, despite the dancing girls, but Locke had chosen it because he thought it was somewhere in between. It had the dancing girls, for one thing. It wasn't fancy, but it was comfortable and well-kept, the kind of place that didn't have a sign telling people to leave their weapons at the door, because why would they expect patrons to carry weapons? Locke's kind of place tended to have a sign like that. Locke's kind of place fed solitary travelers, down-on-their-luck sorts; people who said they weren't thieves, they were bodyguards or treasure hunters or jacks-of-all-trades. He could, when he needed to, handle the kind of dives where everyone was armed and the staff knew exactly how to deal with blood on the floor, and Edgar probably thought he frequented those, but it wasn't his preference. Especially not when he was already somewhat the worse for drink, as he was most days since the world ended.

So he wasn't expecting the rough-looking group, a good half-a-dozen men and two women, who walked in at the height of the dinner hour and shouldered their way through the crowd at the bar, shoving people away from it and off stools to claim the bulk of it for their own. Edgar had ducked his head within seconds of spotting them, and Locke gave himself a moment to survey them for anyone he knew.

"Thieves don't actually turn people to stone with their gaze," Locke assured him. "That's just a legend."

Edgar gave him a faint sneer of derision. "You don't say," he added. "I know those men."

"So do I," Locke said. "Been running with a bad crowd, your Majesty?"

"I've been running with you," Edgar retorted. "No, I put them in prison. They were locked up in Figaro. Do you see what this means?"

"They.... got out?" Locke hazarded. Edgar frowned. "Because they're not there anymore?" he elaborated.

"It means they survived. Whatever happened to Figaro in the cataclysm, they survived, so others must have as well."

Locke wasn't at all certain that followed. It was the same way they'd each taken the other's survival. To Locke, one was more than he'd hoped for, and all he could expect; this was as much luck as there was to be pulled from the wreckage. To Edgar, it was a beacon. If Locke had survived, others must have as well. But if he was right, the world would crush Edgar's hopes soon enough. He didn't need to hurry the process. And if he was wrong, he might as well keep following. That was how he'd found Edgar, after the crash, following footprints for days until he caught up.

"So what do you want to do about it?"

"I can't just go up and ask them. You know them, you said?"

"Some of them." He remembered Tormen, the big, red-faced bald guy with a scar across his nose, and Drake, dark-skinned and light-haired. And the man with the port-wine birthmark over his right eye — Locke didn't remember his name, but he'd seen him with them before, in Zozo. He'd gone there since there was nothing for him in Kohlingen; he'd figured he was a criminal and an outcast and Zozo must be his kind of place. He'd been nineteen, used to swiping apples and trinkets from market stalls or taking laundry from the line, enough to get him a bad reputation in a quiet town; he'd never picked a pocket or drawn a weapon against another person before. Zozo had been an education. "Why? You have something in mind?"

"We need to find out how they got out, so we can get in. The castle's probably submerged, so it's a matter of locating it and whatever tunnels or caves they used to get out — we just need to convince them to lead us there."

"Hah. That'll be a treat. We'll need more of a plan than that, your Majesty."

"You're the one who always says we can't plan without intelligence. Stop calling me majesty, and go gather some. I'll... hide."

"That won't draw any attention," Locke said. "No, just stay where you are for now. I'll circulate a bit — I doubt any of them noticed me when they came in, since we didn't look like bottles of booze. I'll come at them from another angle. You just keep your head down, leave some five or ten minutes after you see me talking to them. I'll meet you back at the room and tell you what I learn."

 

What he'd learned was more or less what Edgar had already guessed, with the added detail that their leader had died, leaving them a bit aimless. They were operating as a loose democracy for now, but Locke suspected they'd split off into smaller groups soon if no one stepped up to keep them unified. "I have an idea," Edgar said at that point. "They need a leader."

"I don't think it's a great tragedy if they split up."

"Of course not, but from the sound of things, they haven't quite reached that point. The time is ripe." Edgar had bailed off his bed and started ransacking his bag, throwing clothes over the one, spindly, straight-backed chair that had come with the room. "I'm not sure any of my clothes are shabby enough. I may need yours."

"I don't think I like any of what's implied here," Locke said, dragging his pack protectively into his lap. "You want to lead a gang of thieves?"

"I want to lead them back into Figaro." Before Locke could even settle on the right mix of outrage, dismay and disbelief, Edgar was defending the idea. "They weren't a gang before they got into the prison, not all of them. There was a group of three, two of them I recognized, and I'd wager the third was their dearly departed leader. They formed this larger group while they were all locked up together. The first trio was trying to steal the crown jewels, so it stands to reason that they were going to take another shot at it with their larger gang. They were willing to band together for a grandiose plan; that gives me a hint about how to get their attention. If I can snooker them into returning to finish the job now that Figaro's buried and on its knees, I can get into the castle, into the inner workings, and get it back above ground."

"You, uh... why do they need to be involved?"

Monsters, of course. Monsters had proliferated since the cataclysm, they all knew that. The larger the group, the safer the passage, and Edgar wanted them to guide him the way they'd come. Edgar thought he might need some assistance getting the castle operational again, and believed he could con the gang into helping him; Locke had grave doubts about that, but Edgar dismissed them cheerfully. "I can do this," he said. "With you on my side, we'll have Figaro up and running in no time."

"We're in Tzen," Locke said. "We don't even know where Figaro is anymore. Not just the castle, the whole desert. Narshe has gone walkabout, the Serpent Trench is above ground — no one knows where anything is unless they can get to it overland. How do you think we're going to pull this off?"

"They got here. We'll find out how. People still need to make a living; sea routes will be re-established, I have no doubt of that. If all else fails, we'll get passage on a scouting ship. Locke, just trust me on this. Introduce me to them. I'll do the rest."

Locke sighed deeply. It wouldn't be the first time Edgar had talked him into something against his better judgment, or vice-versa. "We'll need to do more than get you shabby clothes," he said. "You look way too much like the face on the coins. One of the first things I noticed about you."

"I am the face on the coins."

"That's what I mean!"

Worn clothes, but nice ones. Edgar just looked too damned regal for rags, no matter what Locke tried. Even if he didn't, there was the way he spoke. No point to trying to pass him off as a street rat or a thug. He'd have to be a down-on-his luck gentleman or someone who'd taken to thievery for kicks. A splash of hair dye; he wouldn't look quite right with dark hair, but something to dull the shine a little. Dirty blond, not gold. After some deliberation, Locke added an eyepatch. It was a risk, because someone might get ghoulish and want to see the scar, but it'd help disguise him a bit while he was getting accepted into the gang. "If worse comes to worst, you just put it on to look tough," Locke told him.

"That just makes me look like a fool."

"Better foolish than the king who locked them up, right?"

 

He was both amazed and unsurprised when it worked. He found them in the same pub, which they'd clearly turned into their new hangout. Drake greeted him as a thumb-fucker, Locke pointed out that didn't even make sense, and he introduced them all to Gerad, a buddy of his from... "well, used to be down south. Who the hell knows now, right?" Then he ordered himself a beer and sat back to watch, occasionally putting in his part when Gerad was narrating one of their joint adventures. Most of these were recognizable to him as his solo adventures, and that kept him from relaxing too far; he hadn't briefed Edgar too thoroughly on how he knew these guys. Hell, he hadn't even realized he'd told Edgar so many of these stories. But Gerad, wisely, was usually on the sidelines, the guy moving the goods or making the contacts. Locke could see it as Edgar hooked them all in. First was one of the women, a cranky redhead named Pamora, then Drake — that surprised him, Drake had never had any patience for Locke, or much of anyone else — and then a couple of the men Locke didn't know. It was actually working after all. Edgar might not have had them all eating out of the palm of his hand, but he at least had everyone's attention by the time he started talking about the jewels of Figaro.

That was Edgar all over. He'd thrown Locke into prison the first time they met and now here they were as friends. No wonder he could talk a gang of thieves into walking right back into prison the way they came, especially since they had no reason to believe Edgar would slam the door after them. For all Locke knew, he wasn't planning to, but Edgar had a bit of a vendetta against thieves.

They didn't have an answer that night, but there were some definite gleams of interest, Locke could see that much. "Makes no sense," he grumbled, back in their room. "What good do gems do anyone with the world like it is?"

"People always need a reason to keep moving," Edgar said. He was standing before the one ragged-edged mirror in their room, fiddling with his newly-dull hair. "Greed, hope, fear... I'm not sure how much difference there is between them, sometimes. You want riches because you fear what happens to you without them. They're hope you can have something better. You focus on the thing that's driving you because you can't face the world staying as it is."

You convince yourself taking revenge on the Empire will redeem you for the way you failed the woman you loved. You throw yourself into a search for magic because maybe, maybe, if you're lucky, the stories will be true, and you can bring her back after all. You follow your friend through the end of the world because you don't have the guts to end it all; maybe there'll be nothing, and maybe there'll be another side, where she'll be waiting, disappointed and angry. They'll all be waiting. Everyone you've ever failed or hurt or wronged or robbed. "Terra was supposed to be our hope," Locke said. Edgar fell silent. The only sound was the creak of the bed as Locke laid back on it. There was a crack in the dingy plaster of the ceiling.

"We'll find her, too," Edgar said. "Once we have the castle, word will get around. Our friends will know where to come to find us. Even if we go out looking for them while they come looking for us, there will be people there to care for them, to pass on messages..."

"Yeah," Locke said quietly. He had a horrible feeling they'd follow the gang into Figaro through some hole or tunnel and find a castle full of people who'd smothered under a desert's worth of sand, drowned on stale air in their own homes. He didn't know how much air the castle could keep in, but it had to be limited.

He didn't voice his doubts, though, then or any other night. The gang had come over on a scouting ship, found Nikeah too dull, and headed south. There were a few speculative voyages risking the unpredictable seas to get to South Figaro. Edgar — Gerad — and the others were already discussing how to pool resources to book passage. They were talking to men on the docks, putting out feelers. A plan was taking shape, and Locke had no heart for it. One of the waitresses was blonde, with long hair. There was a Doman in the gang, and it felt weird to hear that accent speaking casually about theft and shady dealings. I want to go home, he found himself thinking, whatever that even meant. He hadn't had a fixed address since he left Kohlingen. Figaro was probably the closest he'd had to a home since then.

"Even if we pull this off," Locke said, one night, after they'd hauled themselves, drunk and wavering, back to the inn.

"It's not if," Edgar said, sounding affronted.

"If," Locke insisted. "If we pull this off, then what? Say it all works like you want, we get the castle up and running. Say some of the Returners survived, some of our friends, and they all gather there with us. Then what?"

"Then... we gather our strength and do whatever we can to challenge Kefka."

"Edgar." Locke heaved himself upright off of his bed. It took a second for the room to steady; it would have been nice to use that to gather his thoughts, but his thoughts were slippery bastards. "I don't know how far south you got before we met up..."

"I saw the tower," Edgar said. "I know. But we can't just give up and let him win."

"I think you're a little late on that, your Majesty. He won. There's no 'letting' him. It's happened already."

"Listen to you," Edgar said. "For what, five years, six years, you refuse to accept a dead woman is dead, and now you think there's no hope?"

"What?"

"All those years after Rachel died," Edgar said, and Locke flinched. He couldn't remember if Edgar had ever even said her name before. "You think I don't know what you were looking up in the library?"

"So you had your librarians spying on me?" It occurred to him, dimly, that having this discussion drunk might not be the best idea either of them had ever had.

"You were looking up magic for years. Well before anyone had any reason to believe it existed. You were that far in... in denial..." He seemed to be losing his train of thought, but he'd gotten it far enough.

"Yeah, I was looking it up. It was something to do, it was a way to try to live with it — let me feel like maybe, if I struck it lucky, if I found some one-in-a-million artifact... but it wasn't like this. It wasn't a plan. It was..." He hadn't, deep in his heart, expected to find anything. The Phoenix, the waters of life, the resurrection crown, those were all just legends. But they were legends he could read about, legends that people had believed in once. They were mentioned in histories. There might have been a grain of truth to them, a trace of hope.

"Locke, what do you think this is?"

"It's a plan," Locke said. "It's not..."

"Some wild hope, based on a first step that might never even materialize?" Locke opened his mouth to protest, but Edgar wasn't stopping. "How do we know they'll be able to find these tunnels again? How do we know anyone in Figaro has survived? How do we know the machinery isn't damaged beyond repair? How do we know these cutthroats won't turn on us when I start to show more concern for evacuating my people than robbing the throne?"

Locke closed his mouth.

"I'm a king, Locke. I can't just close my eyes and hope for the best. But if I give up, what becomes of Figaro?"

 

There was no real arguing with that, and there wasn't much more staying awake left in either of them. Or so Locke thought, but he kept staring at that hairline crack in the ceiling, watching it try to move off, a curving path away, and then return to its starting point, over and over. A lot like him. At nineteen, he'd sworn he'd never return to Kohlingen, and here he was, thinking he should go back again. See her face. Apologize, again.

The story about the resurrection crown was that it had been used to return someone's beloved queen to life, but she could never take it off, and then one day she did and she fell over dead. It was more about how disobeying direct orders from gods was a stupid idea than anything; it didn't even read like it might have a grain of truth in it. The waters of life sounded like a story about healing springs blown all out of proportion. If they'd ever been that powerful, they certainly weren't anymore.

The Phoenix, though. Even chronicles talked about the Phoenix. The Phoenix had been turned into a stone — which Locke had taken literally, back before he learned about magicite — and set in the crown of the king of Zerrar. Not that Locke knew where Zerrar was, when he first read that, but it sounded pretty concrete, and once he learned about magicite it sounded pretty damn plausible. Taking a trophy of your enemy's greatest warrior (or maybe greatest weapon, depending on how you thought of it) and wearing it around, while creepy, sounded like exactly the kind of thing a triumphant king might do.

Zarren was the old name for Tzen, and Zerrar could be an error for that. It was possible. Maybe unlikely, but possible. And the crown jewels of Tzen had ended up in the Emperor's hands, after the royal family had been executed. If the Phoenix magicite had been a part of that, well, that gave him a place to start hunting; granted, most of Vector seemed to have been reconstituted into that horrific tower of Kefka's, but reliable rumors had it that Gestahl kept a lot of his valuables away from the seat of the Empire. Locke hadn't neglected his contacts with the thieves and treasure hunters of the world just because he was focusing more on the spying and sneaking end of things.

The Empire hadn't known what magicite really was, what could be done with it, until Locke's own group had inadvertently revealed it to them, but Gestahl had been researching everything about magic for years. If the Phoenix magicite, among the other crown jewels of Tzen, had found its way into Gestahl's hands, he would have treated it as a prized relic of the War of the Magi. And what he did with it, where he stored it? Someone had to know.

When Locke finally drifted off, his dreams were uneasy. Rachel was trying to tell him something, but she kept whispering, and her father was talking too loudly for him to hear. They went for a walk on the beach, and he thought he saw Celes, but when he tried to call her over to introduce her to Rachel she turned out to be a statue made out of ice, or maybe she turned into one. They found a set of footprints in the sand, but they made a sharp turn into the ocean, and in the dream, Locke knew Edgar hadn't just gone for a swim.

He rolled over onto his back, and reached to touch his face; in his dream, he'd been sobbing brokenly, completely alone on the sand, no footprints visible at all, but his face was dry.

"What happened?" Edgar asked hazily.

"Nothing," he said.

"Hn," Edgar agreed, and Locke heard the other bed creak as Edgar resettled himself to sleep. Locke didn't feel like even trying for that again. The room had stopped its rotation, but in the dark the crack in the ceiling somehow looked wider. Maybe it was just his eyes. He laid awake, listening to Edgar's breathing even out. At least one person hadn't vanished on him so far.

It had been four months since Locke had awakened half in the water, soaked and shivering, but somehow intact; no broken bones, no missing parts, no visible damage. He even had his pack with him, though it had been marinating in the same brine as his legs. He'd pushed himself up, uncertain what else he could do, and started walking, because he was too cold to sit still. He'd decided to gather driftwood for a fire, but the debris he found on the shore wasn't a matter of smoothed stones and sun-bleached wood. He was finding bricks, trees still bearing leaves, planks of painted wood. A chocobo corpse. A human hand, pale and bloated, almost unrecognizable until he drew so close he had to pull back in horror. Dead fish, dead birds, dead people. He stopped picking up pieces of wood, but he kept walking. It grew dark, and he couldn't see the worst of the waterline anymore, so he moved up onto dry sand and laid down without a fire, not sure if he cared what would happen without one. He woke the next morning, had a moment's ease before he noticed his physical discomfort, and a moment's more when that was all he remembered, before he recalled the reason for it. He was cold, still damp, and more hopeless than he'd ever been in his life, but there was someone crying out close to him, and he rose on autopilot to investigate.

It wasn't a person, it was a bird, wing dragging, and it tried to run away as Locke drew close. "No, you don't," he'd chided, lonely enough after only twenty-four hours to talk to a sea-bird, and he'd put on speed, ready to pounce. A gull, he thought, or maybe an albatross, if there was even a difference. A big bird, with webbed feet. If he had any sense he'd catch it to eat, but its life probably looked a little brighter, broken wing and all, than his did, so when he managed to get his hands around its wings and trunk, he didn't wring its neck. A bandanna wrapped around its body, holding the wing in place, was all he could do for it.

Not quite all. He could keep it with him, try to feed it, get water for it. What did gulls eat? Fish? Bread? He could catch one, and what he had of the other, in his pack, was probably more appetizing to a bird than it was to him, after the soaking it had taken.

It was feeding the bird, fishing for it, that kept him going at first. He set up a tent and laid his clothes and supplies in it to dry, and set up a bucket to catch rainwater from the perpetual drizzle that darkened the sky. The bird needed something to drink, and he might as well keep himself alive while he was at it. The bird's needs kept him going along the shore, rather than moving inland, even as he wanted to move away from the debris of cities and lives that kept washing up. And then he found footprints in the damp sand.

The gull's wing had healed, and he'd sent the bird on its way the next day, a strip of bandanna tied around its leg like a message in a bottle. If someone else was walking this same beach, he'd thought, then he wasn't the last man alive. Maybe the bird could give that message to someone else. That was all he'd needed, to believe there was someone else alive somewhere; he'd barely expected to catch up to the other person at all, but Edgar had a bad cut on his leg, festering for all his healing magic, and he was moving slowly. Locke remembered finding him, elation and despair all at once; Edgar was alive, but what did that mean? Was there anyone alive who'd been on the ground when Kefka broke the world?

And what were the odds more than two of them had made it out of that crash? What were the odds even one of them would make it? Setzer talked about luck like it was a force of nature, but Locke saw it as more like money, something that could be earned or lost or used up. They'd used up their luck, the whole pool of it. They'd drained it like a mug, emptied it like a wallet. Wrung it out.

 

It was morning, and Edgar was dressing a bit more noisily than he probably needed to. Locke burrowed back into the covers. He must have slept after all, eventually, and they were back in a world where the sun shone, in a feeble, sickly kind of way, and there were still living people who hadn't been on the airship. Except for the two of them, all the living people hadn't been on the airship.

Edgar didn't seem to feel like rehashing or finishing their disagreement from the night before. He was moving around briskly, showing no signs of hangover, for which Locke privately damned him, and talking about ships. Locke listened, resentfully, through his pillow. Tzen didn't really have much of a seaport, Edgar was saying. "We'll probably have to shepherd them up north to Nikeah. There hasn't been any word about it going back under water?"

"Nn," Locke mumbled. "Seems safe enough." We, he thought, but he didn't feel like arguing. He laid low until Edgar was gone, then heaved himself out of bed and splashed water on his face.

He had his usual circuit to do. He'd visit the mapmakers' shop to see if there were any new reports from fishermen or explorers, then the docks for the same reason, and then the bars, which would also give him a chance to buy a meal. He'd visit the wall of the missing where people posted descriptions or sketches or, in a few lucky cases, photographs of the people they hadn't yet accounted for, and check his and Edgar's posted descriptions to see if anyone had spotted any of their friends. He didn't hold out much hope, and not just because he was pessimistic. Half of them didn't even stand out in descriptions. A middle-aged Doman with a mustache. A tall, blond man, very muscular. A tall, blonde woman, long-haired. A little girl with curly hair and a foul mouth.

Some of them were recognizable, sure. Setzer: pale, scarred, not to mention flashy and, in some circles, famous; his description should have netted some info, if anything could, but they'd had no luck. Gau: A very strange boy with pointy teeth and kind of greenish hair. Locke had never been able to decide if that had something to do with Gau's vehement opinions on bathing, or if it was just his hair color, a bit like Terra's. Terra stood out too, though he worried for her; when he wasn't convinced they'd all died he half-expected to hear that an angry mob had done for her. The same went for Celes. They didn't dare identify her by name, but she at least stood a decent chance of going unrecognized in some places, particularly if she changed her appearance somehow, maybe cut her hair or braided it. Safe but anonymous, or recognizable and at risk.

Most days he'd hit the bars again, after that, and he might or might not get anything else done the rest of the afternoon. This time, though, he thought he'd pick his bars a little more carefully, aiming for his kind of place, the ones frequented by the jacks-of-all-trades and the hired, or at least hire-able, muscle, and all the assorted others right on the law's waterline, and he'd have some inquiries that weren't about ships or explorations or people he'd once known. He might not drink so deeply, this time.

Edgar might not be happy with him taking off on a mission of his own, but that was Edgar's problem. Gerad had a pretty solid footing now. He didn't need Locke to get Figaro working again. He might run into some things he didn't much care for, as Gerad. Might find his men freelancing if they got bored or short of disposable income, might find them indulging in some light banditry on their way up to Nikeah, if there were any other travelers to be had. But having Locke with him wouldn't help with that. If anything, Gerad had more leverage over them already than Locke had ever accumulated, because Gerad had one thing going for him that Locke didn't; he was used to people listening to him and obeying him.

And Locke just wasn't the same kind of outlaw they were. People who knew him laughed at his claims that he wasn't a thief, but by the lights of Gerad's new gang, he wasn't. They saw him as a loser, a coward, lacking ambition, while he saw some of them — the worst of them — as greedy, stupid, and reckless. Locke had always been more interested in old things than in valuable things. Sure, he could be light-fingered under certain circumstances, but the things he most wanted to lift belonged to people long dead. He got more thrill from unearthing something than from picking a pocket. The real difference was the fact that Gerad's thieves were a gang. Locke, and the others like him, were independent operators. People who might have heard rumors about treasures, big scores, ambitious schemes, but always had a reason not to go in on it. People who sometimes daydeamed about stealing crown jewels but weren't going to throw in with anyone they didn't like just to get it done. People who played it safe and small and told themselves they were above that kind of grasping crime, that they only dabbled in theft when times were tough.

People, he had to admit, who were never going to be rich, but rich had never been Locke's goal. He was more about the finding than the having or spending, and as for right now? What he wanted to find he wasn't about to sell, not for anything.