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At the River's End

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She hadn't slept since the banquet.

Summoned by the Emperor of the Gestahlian Empire, she had been tasked with a diplomatic mission to negotiate a cease-fire with a group of hostile Espers that had recently razed the Imperial capital. Not because she had any experience with diplomacy, mediation, or even basic interpersonal communication skills, but simply because she was half-Esper herself. A half-Esper who had originally been abducted and brainwashed by this very same Empire until she had won her freedom in a fortuitous coincidence.

Her name was Terra Branford, 18 years old. And she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.

She had backup for this, though. Locke, one of her companions, had insisted on accompanying her, which both relieved and heightened her anxieties. Relief because at least now she wasn't being expected to do this all by herself. Anxiety because the primary reason he wanted to go along was because he suspected this entire mission was a trap. She'd spent the entire night at the inn lying awake in bed, tensing at any sound she heard in anticipation that someone was going to come abduct or attack her. Locke had seemed similarly agitated as she'd noticed him up and about most of the night as well.

Now, come morning, the two of them were groggily making their way towards the dock in the port city of Albrook to board the Imperial transport ship they had been directed to. Imperial soldiers, who up until yesterday would have arrested them on sight, were busy bustling about the dock prepping the ship and loading cargo, paying them absolutely no mind.

As they ascended the boarding ramp onto the transport ship, the remainder of their contingent came into view, these being the emissaries assigned by the Imperial side. Leading them was their general, a tall man with a dark complexion who looked to be maybe a few years older than Edgar, sporting a neatly-groomed brush cut of blonde hair and wearing a green officer's long coat. "Leo", she'd recalled him being called at the banquet. In his brief appearance there he'd seemed polite enough, and Sabin of all people had stood up to vouch for his character. Terra had the vague impression that she might have encountered him during her time held captive by the Empire, but her memories of that time were hazy. He appeared to be in the middle of going over an itinerary docket with one of the other soldiers, so she stood awkwardly at the end of the ramp, unsure if they should interrupt him.

Fortunately, the general noticed them board and turned around, folding his hands behind his waist and giving them an acknowledging nod. "Ah, there you are. Excellent timing; we're just about ready to depart. General Celes and Shadow are already on board. Please, make yourselves comfortable."

Terra unconsciously slid behind Locke. Shadow... her only experience with him had been in South Figaro where Edgar had warned them to keep their distance, describing him as an assassin who would kill anyone for the right price. Him being on board only added to her uneasy suspicion. Celes on the other hand... Terra at least remembered her from her time in the Empire, but those memories were of a cold, aloof woman who spared her little thought. Her single conversation with her in Narshe after Celes had joined their team had been similarly chilly. After that, she'd heard that Celes had left the group after accusations of being a spy and hadn't been seen since.

Locke had assured her the day before that Celes and Shadow were probably okay. Probably. Terra had spent weeks in a coma in Zozo while the rest of the team scoured the world first looking for her and then looking for a means to revive her. Locke had attempted to fill her in on how Celes and Shadow had both contributed to that search, but only hearing about it second-hand did little to ease her mind. Her entire life was a series of long memory gaps and she constantly felt like she was playing catch-up while the rest of the world was fifty steps ahead of her.

They all had drive. Grand ideals and passions that motivated their decisions and prompted them to action. And Terra had kind of... missed out on all of that. Instead she was constantly herded from one crisis to the next, merely being informed of how important everything was instead of having any personal feelings on the matter one way or another. This mission was no exception.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. She did legitimately want to talk to the Espers. Her coma in Zozo had ultimately been broken after coming in contact with the crystallized remains of her Esper father, Maduin. Through this contact, she had been able to experience his memories of how he and her mother had met and formed a bond. But these had only been visions. The emotions behind them had not carried through along with them. And that had left Terra wondering if Espers could even experience emotions, or if those emotions manifested differently than they did in humans.

So far Terra had been unable to bond with any of her human companions beyond a cordial camaraderie. When asked to explain their feelings to her, she had been met with confusion, dismissiveness, or a vague explanation that they just "knew in their hearts" like this was something she was supposed to already know.

So if the humans were unable to help her understand her feelings, maybe the Espers could. Otherwise the only remaining explanation was that the joining of the two species had created something that was... fundamentally broken.

She was snapped out of her thoughts by the ship's steam engines roaring to life with a sudden jerk. Soldiers on the dock removed the mooring lines from their bollards and tossed them to the ship's crew while others retracted the boarding ramp, thus severing the ship's connections with solid ground. As the engines increased their power and the ship pulled away from the dock into open water, Terra began to feel more and more trapped. Confined to this small space with no escape, surrounded by Imperial soldiers... it was starting to trigger some deeply-suppressed traumas that she couldn't consciously define.

Once the ship had achieved its desired heading and cruising speed, General Leo broke away from the crew to approach them. "ETA to Crescent Island is 0900 tomorrow morning," he informed them. "I would suggest resting until then."

Terra meekly nodded and averted his gaze. Rest... that was something that she'd still been unable to do this entire time, and an arrival time of the next morning meant a full 24 hours trapped on this ship with her own troubling thoughts. She looked over to Locke in the hopes that he might be able to help her, but...

Locke looked around the deck and noted, "Uh... so, you said Celes was on board, right? Can... I talk to her?"

"General Celes is below deck but has requested she not be disturbed," Leo replied. Locke's shoulders slumped and he nodded dejectedly. Right... Locke had initially offered to come along as a bodyguard, but as soon as he'd learned that Celes would be joining them, he'd been thoroughly distracted by her ever since. With his attentions elsewhere, Terra couldn't help but feel even more isolated.

"One of my men can show you to your quarters in the meantime," Leo's voice came again. "Private?"

The soldier in the standard brown Imperial uniform next to them saluted, then indicated towards the rear of the ship. "Of course, Sir. Please, follow me."

Terra and Locke reluctantly nodded in acknowledgment, trailing after the soldier as he led them below deck. The stifling corridors and cramped amenities... Terra hated it, but she was trapped here now and couldn't back out. All she could do at this point was follow where other people pointed her and hope for the best.

She didn't know how many hours it had been. Lying on the small bunk below deck and watching the swaying of the oil lamp, Terra had drifted off into a catatonic state as a sort of defense mechanism. It was neither restful nor calming, it was merely placing her mind on standby while time drifted by without her. But she couldn't suppress her anxieties forever, and the crawling sensation had slowly crept up her spine to the point where she couldn't ignore it anymore.

Rolling over, she noticed that Locke had once again vanished at some point during her daze. This left her ever more aware of being in a cramped, dimly-lit space and completely alone. And she absolutely couldn't handle it.

She slowly stumbled up the stairs to the main deck of the ship, still unaccustomed to the swaying of the boat. Once she was above deck, she attempted to cast a Float spell on herself for stability. That worked to counter Earthquake spells, after all.

Quickly she realized this was a bad idea, as even though now she was steady, her entire surroundings were swaying around her giving her instant vertigo. She dispelled the Float and clasped at the ship's railing, resigning herself to her precarious footing. There were some things that even magic couldn't fix, it seemed.

It was night time now, meaning she'd at least managed to last half the trip without having a panic attack. But the uncertainty, the anxiety, the loneliness were all becoming unbearable. If she had been confident she could control herself, she would have willed herself to transform into an Esper and fly out of here. ... She was still actively considering it, either way.

As she made her way to the front of the ship, she noticed that she wasn't the only one out and about at this hour. General Leo stood at the bow, facing out to sea, and remaining enviously sturdy on his feet. What sort of dark magic had they infused him with?

He'd been nothing but courtesies and protocol up until now, barely acknowledging her since she arrived. But right now she was afraid she was going to do something stupid and needed someone -- anyone -- to talk her out of it. If she approached him and he simply told her to return to her bunk, she would say "Yes, Sir" and do as she was told like she always had, and her emotional crisis would be averted at least for the next few hours.

She cautiously moved towards him and made a small sound to alert him of her presence. He turned his head to look at her, and even though it was difficult to make out his face in the darkness, he almost looked... surprised to see her? "Are you having trouble sleeping?" he wondered.

There was genuine concern in his voice that Terra hadn't expected. She resigned herself to a silent nod but didn't make eye contact. He turned from her as well, and after a pause, continued, "I apologize if I have come across as distant towards you until now. You have seemed anxious since yesterday and I did not wish to unnecessarily impose..."

Oh... It was true that if someone had noticed her mental state and had started fretting over her -- especially someone she didn't know -- she probably would have retreated even further into her mental shell to avoid the attention. "It's okay..." was all she could say in response.

"Perhaps in the sense that it is better that you are feeling anything at all now," he replied. Turning his head to look at her, he commented, "I am glad to see that your emotions have been returned to your own possession."

Well, if he was going to bring up the Fat Chocobo in the room for her, then let's talk about it. This was exactly what she'd been worried about but had yet to have the opportunity to voice. "It's... strange, then, isn't it?" she responded. "For years I was a pawn of the Empire, my thoughts and actions under their direct control. Now here I am working with people from that same Empire again... After that, how... can I ever believe that their intent for me now could be anything other than subjugation?"

It was only after she finished talking that she realized that she might have come across a tad on the accusatory side there and it might be a bad idea to take shots at an Imperial general. Especially if they were plotting something, she'd just revealed that she was suspicious of them and might have inadvertently put herself and Locke in premature jeopardy.

Thankfully, he seemed to take those blows in stride, replying, "The people of the Empire are as human as anyone else. Not everyone is like Kefka."

Well, no. Kefka was a malicious sadist who reveled in suffering and death. He was the one responsible for her captivity and brainwashing in the first place, forcing her to carry out gruesome tasks for his own amusement. Even Terra could tell that he was an outlier, but the fact still remained that the Empire had at least tolerated him and allowed him to maintain such a powerful position for this long. Even though he had finally been jailed now after all he'd done, it felt like too little too late.

Not everyone in the Empire was as bad as Kefka. But "not as bad as Kefka" was still an incredibly low bar. "Then... what kind of person are you?" she asked. If he was going to offer himself as a target in an Imperial uniform for her to lay her anxieties concerning the Empire's behavior on, then she was all too happy to take him up on that.

He'd been rolling with the punches until now, but that one looked like it actually hit a sore spot. He turned from her again and began slowly pacing in silence as though attempting to formulate a decent answer to that. There was a tinge of guilt to his voice when he finally replied, "I... knew that you were half Esper and that you were being forced to suffer through horrific Magitek experiments. I couldn't stop them... which I suppose makes me just as guilty as Kefka."

The fact that he would even admit to it meant that he most certainly wasn't. He'd known what she was going through, but he... "couldn't" stop it? As in... he'd tried? Or at least wanted to but lacked the power to do so? Was that why he'd been so awkward around her? He was... ashamed of having been unable to help her?

And yet here he was letting her unload her problems on him like it was some kind of penance. That wasn't fair. If she was going to be upset with someone, she'd rather be upset with someone who deserved it. Complaining at him had been cathartic, yes, but in the end it hadn't accomplished anything besides making both of them feel guilty.

"If... you knew about me while I was being held in the Magitek Research Facility, can I ask you something?" she tentatively pressed.

She saw his shoulders stiffen like there were hundreds of uncomfortable places that line of questioning could lead. Nevertheless, he responded, "Please understand that I was in no way involved with that research, therefore my knowledge of the specifics of what transpired there is limited. However, if there is something you need to know, I will do my best to give you an honest answer."

Well, she certainly wasn't planning on asking him for the gory details of what was done to her, because frankly, she was fine not knowing. No, this was more along the lines of what that research on her might have uncovered. Kefka had been infused with magic and lost all concept of caring about other people. Celes had undergone a similar procedure and had scoffed at her when Terra inquired how it had affected her ability to feel. Terra had been born with her magic, but she still wondered... "My parents were a human and an Esper and were able to experience love with one another. So do you think... it's possible for a human and I to experience love with one another?"

"Of course it is!" he responded almost in bewilderment that she would think otherwise. But was this an assertion supported by research, or his own personal opinion?

Walking to the opposite railing and gazing out over the horizon, she confessed, "But... I still don't even know what it feels like to love... or be loved..."

If she'd been facing him, she might have seen him visibly flinch with that revelation, begin to approach her, think better of it, and instead slowly move to the side to join her at the railing instead. "Do not ever think that that is because of what you are. We are all products of our experiences, and yours have been..." He shook his head, aborting that line of thought. "No, you are just still young. I am sure in time you will come to know these feelings, too."

"But... how?" she wondered. "I can barely even talk to people, and when other people talk to me I feel like they're usually only trying to get something out of me."

"Ah..." Leo looked out over the water with a solemn expression. "I had only hoped to put you more at ease, but if my continued presence is causing you discomfort..."

"No!" Terra responded quickly, looking up to really look him in the eye for the first time. Their gazes held for a moment before she looked away and continued, "I'm sorry... I feel like I'm the one who's made you uncomfortable, even though you've just been trying to help."

His eyes softened and he folded his hands on the railing, leaning against it. "You know, it takes a certain level of emotional maturity to even recognize how you make other people feel. I think you are more capable than you give yourself credit for."

Terra felt a slight flush in her cheeks at the praise, even though it had been coupled with the implied confirmation that she had indeed hurt his feelings. "So... what can I do to interact with people without leaving one or both of us uncomfortable?" she asked.

The side of his lip twitched into a small smile. "In all honesty, I think you have done a rather respectable job figuring that out on your own. This conversation has already progressed into something much more pleasant than where it started, and you did that all by yourself. Again, I think my biggest piece of advice would simply be 'experience'."

There was that praise again that gave her that tiny bit of happiness in the depths of her chest. True, all he'd been doing was pointing out that she'd already been on the right track all along, but hearing explicit confirmation of that felt... validating, in a way. This felt like the first time that anyone had both taken her worries seriously and given her advice that she felt like she could actually act on. "Okay," she said, nodding. "Then... if I want to understand love, what kind of experiences should I try to have?"

Leo shook his head with a smile. "Love is not something that can be achieved simply by following a set of steps. It differs from person to person and tends to happen unexpectedly without any conscious effort towards that goal. For instance, I love my fellow people, being of service to others, and fine music. I did not come to love these things by trying to love them, but rather by coming to discover that I already did."

"Oh," said Terra, a little disheartened. "But those are all such different things, and yet you seem to be able to apply the feeling of 'love' to all of them. You said you 'discovered' that you loved them... how?"

"Well now you're asking the hard questions," he responded, looking back out over the water and folding his hands. "A question that I will still nevertheless attempt to answer, but give me a moment to think."

She nodded and looked at him intently while he was lost in thought. Anyone else would have just told her something like "I just did" and that would have been the end of it, but he was actually... putting effort into helping her through this, even though not ten minutes ago she'd been using him as an emotional punching bag to relieve her anxiety. But he said he loved being of service to people, so perhaps that meant that... "love" was something that outweighed adversity?

"I think..." Leo finally began, breaking his thoughtful silence, "that the feeling that connects those three things is the joy at seeing them flourish, and the deep sorrow I feel at their suffering or loss. I mourn every soldier who loses their life while under my command and any civilian collateral casualties on either side, but I celebrate their growth and successes. And I think my happiest day would be the day I can send them all home to their families, and not in a casket. But until that day comes, it brings me gratitude when I can help them overcome their struggles and... grief when I cannot." At this he spared Terra a slight glance before clearing his throat. "And as for music, this is a much less weighty subject. But when I have to work long hours at the office in Vector I find that nothing relaxes me more than putting on a record in the background and letting it just..." he made a small conducting motion with his hand, "set the mood."

Terra nodded and unconsciously mimicked his conducting motion herself as though this was imperative to understanding how the music made him feel. When that seemed to be the end of his explanation, she noted, "You said that the feelings that connect those three things are joy and loss, but you didn't mention any loss regarding music."

Even though it was dark, she could swear she saw him blush in embarrassment. "Well... my example of that is nowhere near as extreme as innocent lives being lost or failing to protect someone from suffering... it's rather frivolous, really, so I didn't think it merited mention..."

"Oh..." said Terra. "It's just... I appreciate your explanation, but even emotions like joy... sorrow... grief... are things that I don't think I've ever experienced, either. I've been happy and I've been sad... but the degree of those emotions feels so much lesser than what I've seen expressed by others. So a lesser example of a feeling might actually be more helpful..."

He sighed with a small smile and relented. "All right. Just... keep this story between you and me, okay?" Terra nodded firmly, not realizing this would be such a private matter but nevertheless feeling special that he still decided to share.

Looking out over the ocean, he began, "About eight years ago, I helped the Empire take control of the Western Continent. Among the spoils we uncovered was a one-of-a-kind four-album full recording of the opera Orco e Delphina: an opera that, even given my extensive collection at the time, I had never heard. So, even though I normally pass any spoils of monetary value on to various charities, that one I... decided to keep for myself." He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced down at Terra, who passed absolutely no judgment on that.

"Anyway, after conquering the Western Continent, despite the Empire having an alliance with the Kingdom of Figaro, pockets of unrest had started cropping up in South Figaro, so I was assigned there immediately thereafter, meaning I still had that record set with me. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I set up a record player in my field office tent so that I could play it while going over my reports. But when doing so, I quickly found myself so engrossed in the music and story that I was paying more attention to it than my work.

"So, the story is basically... um, do you care about spoilers?" Terra looked at him blankly and shook her head, not even understanding what he meant by that. He chuckled and continued, "Anyway, the main character of the story is a man named Orcus who comes from nothing, but is in love with a girl called Delphina. He decides that he is going to become a soldier and travel the world to find riches and gain new skills, so that one day he can return home and be worthy of Delphina's hand. The story follows him through his years in the military and the adventures he has, but when he finally returns home... Delphina isn't there. She's left and married another man in the meantime."

"That's terrible!" Terra gasped. "Why would she betray him like that when he was working so hard for her?"

"Mm, I have my suspicions, but I've only ever heard it as an audio recording; I've never seen it in person so I can't be sure if my theory is correct." Leo replied. "Anyway, Orcus is, needless to say, devastated, and in the final song, Alla Fine del Fiume , he climbs to the top of a waterfall overlooking the ocean and sings about how his life's efforts have come to nothing, and like the river, has reached a cliff with nowhere to go but fall into the sea."

Terra gulped. "And then what happens?"

"Then..." Leo emphasized, "Someone firebombed my tent. I'd been so distracted by the music that I hadn't even heard them coming. One of the reports in my stack might have even warned me that an attack was suspected, but I'd paused in reading them. Thankfully I escaped the tent unscathed and there were otherwise no human casualties, although the culprit was never apprehended. When the fire was put out and I returned to my tent, to my relief the first three records had been spared, but the final one that had been left out on the record player... had been damaged beyond repair. It would only play up to the third verse of the final song, at which point it would endlessly skip... ironically on the word 'Eternally', over and over."

He shook his head. "I was... angry. I was surprised at how angry I was, actually, over a mere broken record. Not quite 'finding out about what Kefka did at Doma' levels of angry, but... still pretty mad. I think I had subconsciously internalized Orcus's struggles, so it felt like more of a personal loss. To this day I still have no idea how his story ends. I still regularly replay the surviving parts of the album, but for me, Orcus's story concludes on that cliff overlooking a black abyss unsure of what to do."

Terra could definitely relate to the frustration of not knowing something. From his description it sounded like the story had been headed towards a tragic ending, but... not knowing that for sure was almost worse than knowing it was a tragedy. "Have you checked with the Jidoor Opera House?" she wondered. "Maybe they can help you."

He shook his head. "Oh, believe me, I have asked. The Impresario informed me that they won't perform it on account of it being obscure and unpopular and wouldn't sell enough seats to make it worth their time. I know I could simply ask him how it ends, or even just read the score, which I know is available in the Vector library. I've been tempted, but..." he pursed his lips and clenched his fingers. "It's not the same. Merely being told how something is rather than experiencing it is so... unfulfilling, and you're left with nothing but empty knowledge of something that should have been more meaningful to you."

Terra felt her chest and throat swell a little. Eyes widening, with a slow and surprised whisper, she realized, "I... know how that feels.... I know how that feels!" she repeated more excitedly. She balled her fists under her chin and gave a happy little bounce while Leo watched on in amusement. So it was possible for her to understand the feelings of other people. True, that feeling was "frustration", but it was still a feeling that drove him to act and she could understand why . Watch out, world, she just figured out how to relate to other people tonight. She'd know what love was by the end of the week for sure.

"Oh, speaking of love and relating to other people, you said that you felt so upset about losing that record because you internalized what Orcus was going through. So... does that mean you have a girl you love back home you're worried won't be there when you get back?" He hadn't mentioned one in his list of "loves", but...

Leo actually laughed at that. "No, not quite that literal of a parallel. I'm deployed 50 weeks out of the year and on call the other two, which effectively means no leave time for any kind of outside relationship. That length of absence wouldn't be fair to the other person, anyway. As for people I come into contact with due to my work, while I did attempt to court a few people while I was a teenager at the Academy, I quickly discovered that pursuing a romantic relationship within an organization rife with power struggles led to... unhealthy results, to say the least. So when I achieved the rank of General at 18, I swore off romance with anyone who might pose a conflict of interest with that position. Which... was essentially everyone."

With a shrug and defeated smile, he noted, "So, if you're worried that there's something wrong with you because you haven't yet experienced the type of 'love' involving a committed romantic relationship like your parents had... then I'm 30 years old now and still in the same boat as you."

Terra blinked and looked back and forth at their surroundings. "We... are in the same boat..." she noted sheepishly.

He gave her a silent blank look for a few seconds, then slowly brought his hand to his forehead and shook his head with a bemused grin. "I... hadn't even been attempting to make a joke there. Wow. Okay. I think that's probably a sign that I should be getting some sleep as well."

Terra made a slight giggle at that, which caused him to perk up a little. She gave him a small bow and said, "Thank you... for talking to me tonight. I think... I think I'll be able to do better from now on. But... do you think we could talk more again soon?"

He smiled and gave a single nod. "Absolutely." Falling back into the more formal speech that he had progressively lost over the course of their conversation, he squared his shoulders and folded his hands behind his back, reminding her, "But be aware that our mission takes priority over any personal desires. Locating those Espers and negotiating peace with them is of most vital importance and we cannot allow anything to distract us from that, understood?"

Terra was a little shocked at the change in tone and quickly nodded. His expression softened again and he added, "But once it is complete, I anticipate the return voyage on this ship to be of similar duration and idleness, during which time I look forward to speaking with you again."

She grinned. "Okay! ... I mean, yes, Sir."

With a smile and an informal salute, he turned from her and bid her, "Good night, Terra."

"Good night, General." As she made her way back to the cabin, she noticed that at some point during the night she'd developed her sea legs and wasn't stumbling about the deck anymore. And once she returned to her bunk she was, at long last, able to get to sleep.