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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.

Chapter Text

Negotiations the next day were more tense than expected. Leo kept a firm gaze on the person across from him and noted, "I had hoped the two of us could come to a more mutually beneficial agreement."

"Not gonna happen," said his opponent. "I have the upper hand here and I have no intention of relinquishing it."

"You only believe you do," Leo countered. "I have yet to show you the extent of what I am holding."

"Yeah, well I don't have any problem showing you mine," the other man retorted. He slapped his cards down on the log between them. "Straight flush, baby. Beat that."

Leo nodded, gazing down at the cards intently. "A strong hand, to be certain, Private Ozzel. But still able to be defeated."

"Okay, seriously, General, just show him your cards," sighed Private Piett, who was reclined against a tree and absently whittling a piece of wood. "Everyone knows you're a terrible liar."

"In a diplomatic situation it is to your best advantage to always negotiate in good faith," Leo defended. "Gain your opponent's trust, and they are more likely to provide you with more advantageous opportunities. Thus, when you have the upper hand, they will often acquiesce to your demands without resistance under the assurance that they will be treated fairly," he said, laying down his cards.

Ozzel looked flatly at the cards and nodded. "Yeah, General... that's a pair of fives."

"And when you are at a disadvantage, they are more likely to be lenient with you," he continued.

Ozzel shook his head with a sly grin and held out his hand in a beckoning motion. "Pay up, General."

Leo sighed. "I had hoped for this to be a teaching moment in the art of diplomacy, but..." With a chuckle he reached into his pocket and then tossed Ozzel a few gil. "Buy your wife something nice, Private."

"Thanks, General," Ozzel replied, pocketing the money. "Her birthday is coming up next month so I was hoping to send a carrier pigeon with some flowers or something."

"Well..." said Leo, standing up and stretching, "If this peace mission with the Espers succeeds, then the war will officially be over and there will be a good chance that you will be able to deliver those flowers in person."

"I hope so..." said Piett, flicking shavings off his knife. "My dad can't get around as well as he used to anymore and has been having trouble taking care of the wood shop by himself. I'd hoped I'd be able to go back and help him before his strength gives out completely."

Leo folded his hands behind his back and looked out over the canopy of trees covering them. "We have to rely on Terra and her companions for this initial stage of making first contact with the Espers. As we are considered a hostile nation by them, if we were to engage them first rather than a neutral mediator, it would likely be interpreted as an act of aggression. Therefore, we are at the mercy of awaiting word from Terra and the others that their contact was successful. Once that happens, I will act as the Empire's ambassador to open full negotiations with them, and if we play our cards right, true peace will finally be achieved."

Ozzel finished reshuffling the deck and returning it to its box. "Well, I hope you play your cards with them better than you did with me, or we're all screwed."

Leo's posture faltered. "That.... that's the second time in as many days that I've made a joke without intending to." He turned to them and wondered, "Am I getting old?"

Piett picked at his teeth with a wood splinter while looking over his work. "Dunno, General, that sounded like a textbook Dad Joke to me. Maybe that's your biological clock telling you to finally find yourself a nice girl, settle down, and have kids."

"Hey, and being a general of the most powerful nation in the world means you've got ladies lined up around the block looking for a chance with you," Ozzel added. "Hell, even my wife sometimes teases me that she would have been better off going after you instead." He looked to the side after a brief pause. "... But don't pick, her. Please. She'd probably drive you nuts, anyway."

Leo shook his head a little wistfully and returned to gazing through the trees. "No worries there, Private. And it is precisely that tendency of people to court the uniform rather than the person that has caused my enforced policy of maintaining a professional distance from everyone I come into contact with. It has become so habitual that I doubt I could manage a romantic relationship with anyone now."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "But... should this mission truly mark the end of the war and the remaining military forces are able to competently manage themselves without my continued presence... then..." He bowed his head. "Over the years I have had to face so many children and tell them that their father or mother is never coming home. Many of them had no one else... and I was not able to do anything for them at the time beyond refer them to a social worker. But if I could... I think I would very much like to take a more active role in taking care of those children whose families have been destroyed by this war..."

Piett and Ozzel held each others' hands and whimpered with trembling lips. "General, you want to take care of orphans after you retire?" They both burst into dramatic tears. "You're such a great man!"

Leo rubbed his face and left the two of them to their theatrical sobbing. He didn't want to do it for praise and attention, and wished that he could operate more anonymously than his position often allowed so that he could avoid it. Helping someone in need was reward enough. And there was one other person who had been in his company during this trip who still seemed to be in need of counsel.

He found General Celes sitting by herself on a boulder, polishing her sword with a cloth and absently humming to herself. She had been agreeable about accompanying him on this mission when it was proposed to her in Vector, but as soon as they'd arrived at the ship and met with Terra and Locke from the Returners' side, she'd suddenly become withdrawn and reclusive. He'd given her her space until now in the hopes that she would be able to work herself through it, but as the critical meeting with the Espers drew near he couldn't afford to have her in such a standoffish state.

He waited until she sheathed her sword before identifying her humming as, " Maria and Draco, Act 1, Aria di Mezzo Carattere."

She jolted upright with a start, then leaned her head back with a groan. "How long have you been standing there?"

"Long enough to make sure you did not cut yourself when I startled you," he replied. He walked around the boulder she was seated on and leaned against the opposite tree. "You have impeccable pitch, by the way."

Her face turned red and she averted her eyes. "It's... just because of those records you always have playing in your office that I even know the song in the first place..." He found it odd that she felt the need to specifically make that excuse as he could fathom no other reason for her to know it, anyway.

"There is no shame in enjoying it..." he began to explain, but she held up a finger and shook her head.

"No. I'm a general, not some opera floozy. I don't sing, I don't wear pretty ribbons, and I don't pine after lost loves."

... All right, if she wanted to do this the hard way, then he was left with no choice. Leo stood to his full stature, squared his shoulders, and bellowed, "That's right, you are a general, Celes, so it is high time you started acting like one." She looked at him in shock, but he continued, "At attention, Soldier, I am still your senior officer."

Celes slid haphazardly off the rock and immediately snapped up straight and saluted him. "Yes, Sir!"

He paced slowly in front of her, speaking with a firm voice. "It is absolutely imperative that this mission succeed and I cannot afford to overlook anything that might put its success in jeopardy. We are here as representatives of our mother country I expect every one of us to put nothing short of our best face forward, is that clear?"

Celes swallowed harshly, but repeated, "Yes, Sir."

"Now..." he said, turning to face her and folding his hands behind his back. "Are you going to tell me what is going on, or am I going to have to pursue disciplinary action?" Please pick the first.

Her eyes wavered and her lips parted slightly before she responded, "I will tell you... but only if you promise me that nothing that I say will cause you to pursue any action against the Returners."

"We have a truce with them now, so there is little action I would take regardless... unless you mean to say your words may implicate one or more of them in espionage or other war crimes..."

"Promise me!" she pleaded again. This request was technically out of line, but... all he could do was trust that she would not make such a request if it was truly a great matter of national security.

"Very well. I promise that anything you tell me here will be off the record. Now... are you ready to talk?"

Celes nodded reluctantly. "Y... yes, Sir."

"At ease, Soldier."

She let out a long breath and sagged back against the rock, slumping down and holding her face in her hands. After a few more shuddering breaths, she finally admitted, "It's... about Locke..."

"The man who is accompanying Terra who has the look of a thief about him?" Leo wondered.

"Treasure hunter," Celes corrected automatically. "We were... close. At least... I thought we were. But when we infiltrated the Magitek Research Facility to liberate the Espers, Kefka... told everyone that I was a spy and had led them into a trap. And they believed him. Locke... believed him... How could I face him again knowing that's how he felt about me?"

"And yet you agreed to come on this mission knowing that the Returners would be a part of it?" Leo wondered.

"I knew Terra was going to be a part of it," she corrected. "She'd been in a coma at the time of the Magitek Research Facility infiltration and thus wasn't there." Wait, she'd what? What was the cause? Is she cured now or is there still...? "So I don't have any complaint with her," Celes continued, oblivious to Leo's internal topic change. "Locke coming along was... heh, I guess I shouldn't consider it unexpected. He trails along after every girl he finds..."

"Like the Figaro King?" Leo asked cautiously, suddenly a little bit apprehensive that he'd left Terra in Locke's care.

"No! No... god, no," Celes quickly amended. Okay, that was good, at least. "Locke... failed to protect a girl who was important to him... and now automatically offers his assistance to every girl he meets as a sort of retribution by proxy. I guess I was just... his latest one and nothing more."

"Oh..." said Leo, a pang of guilt twinging in his chest. That meant that he and Locke were more similar than he'd realized. "Well... if it is any consolation, he did specifically ask after you when he first boarded the ship, but I told him you were not seeing visitors."

Celes rubbed her face with a groan. "I knoooow. He tried to talk to me the night before, too, but I just... still couldn't face him then. And then when I tried to talk to him this morning, he gave me the cold shoulder and left with Terra instead..." She hung her head. "I'm so hopeless..."

"You are only as hopeless as you convince yourself you are," Leo responded. "This is a mission of negotiations, and when you enter into a negotiation, you present yourself in the position you desire to see yourself in. Then it is up to the other party as to whether they agree with your assessment of yourself. If they concur, then the negotiation is already won. If they dissent, you have already placed yourself in your desired position, anyway, and are therefore no worse off."

"So you're saying... I should just talk to him like nothing's wrong?"

"You should talk to him like nothing should be wrong," he corrected slightly. "You cannot change what is, but you can make known what it is you want."

Celes bowed her head. "I want... to see him again," she finally admitted.

"Then allow that desire to drive your actions," Leo confirmed. Celes nodded and sniffed quietly. Leo sighed and relaxed a little, hoping this meant that her emotional troubles would be corrected before negotiations with the Espers began. For someone who had never been in a steady relationship himself, he certainly was giving a lot of relationship advice lately. He may have been bad at lying, but he certainly seemed adept at sounding like he knew what the hell he was talking about.

"And do not worry yourself about his involvement in the Magitek Research Facility infiltration," Leo added. "I am well aware of that incident, however the Esper attack halted any progress it had made through the criminal tribunals, so I currently have nothing to charge him with. The Magitek Research Facility is completely outside of my jurisdiction as it is."

Celes flinched. "Oh, no, I know you knew about that. But Locke is also... he's the one who broke me out of prison... He's the reason I joined the Returners in the first place... and eventually raised my sword against Kefka..."

Leo's eyes widened. "He is the reason you were able to escape?"

"Please, I know he infiltrated our territory, impersonated our soldiers, and interfered in our judicial process, but if it weren't for him..."

"It it were not for him, you would have been unjustly executed," Leo agreed, to her surprise. "In that case, I owe him a debt of gratitude."

"You... you do?" she whispered, wiping her eyes. "But... you're always so... strict with your duties and loyalties. I didn't think you'd be able to overlook something like that."

He sighed and began pacing slowly in front of her again. "General Celes... just because I am loyal to my country does not mean that I am blind to its transgressions. I will not abide by injustices done in our Emperor's name."

"And neither will I, but that's why I was charged with treason and sentenced to death in the first place," Celes countered. "When I heard they were planning on poisoning Doma, I absolutely fought against it."

"'Planning' ?!" Leo repeated, spinning around to stare at her in shock. "That was... premeditated?"

"I... overheard Kefka talking about it a few days prior..." she admitted.

Leo dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He read it over, rubbing his hand over his chin in agitation. "General Celes... you said Locke, a Returner from the Northern Continent, was the one who broke you out of prison. Where were you being held?"

"South Figaro..." she replied hesitantly. "It was in a secret underground dungeon. I honestly don't know why they would choose such a place..."

Leo held his hand over his eyes and leaned his head back, letting out a ragged sigh. "Because... Kefka was using you to bait me... and he succeeded, and thousands of people died because of it..."

"What?! Why would having me arrested for treason have anything to do with you?" she questioned. He handed her the missive that had been in his pocket and she unfolded it to read it over.

 

URGENT AND CONFIDENTIAL

DELIVER TO:
GENERAL LEO CRISTOPHE
IMPERIAL BASE CAMP DOMA

BY ORDER OF EMPEROR GESTAHL
General Celes Chere has been charged with high treason and has been sentenced to death to be carried out at the stroke of noon tomorrow. Any appeals to this sentence must be made in person at Vector High Command no later than 1130 of that day.

"Vector?" Celes wondered in confusion. "But... even if you'd somehow made it there from Doma by 1130 the next day, there's no way word of a stay of execution would have made it to South Figaro by..." She covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh my god... This... didn't actually come from the Emperor, did it?"

"I am now highly suspecting it did not," Leo confirmed, clenching his fists. He turned in frustrated circles, running his hands over the top of his head. "I flinched. I flinched and he took full advantage of it... But the alternative would be standing by and watching you die.... Just like I stood by and watched Terra be tortured for so many years..."

"Then get out," Celes pleaded. "I was disgusted with the Empire's tactics and chose to leave. The Returners would happily accept you among their ranks if you chose to do the same."

"You do not understand. That," he pointed at the falsified letter in her hand, "is precisely why I cannot leave." Pacing in agitation, he explained, "Up until twelve years ago, Magitek infusion was mandatory for all incoming soldiers. I and many others opposed this, and we led a protest that ultimately led to a restructuring of the command, resulting in the separation of the army and the Magitek divisions. Magitek infusion became voluntary, and I was recommended for the rank of General by my peers for my efforts. With my newfound authority, I ordered the public release of the results of the Magitek research that had gone on for the past six years to allow for full transparency in people's decisions."

Celes bowed her head. "I was... infused when I was just a child... I never had a choice. I'm grateful for my powers, but... after seeing what the infusion process did to Kefka I can understand why people would be wary of them."

Leo nodded sadly. "Yes... we only found out about the experiments that were being performed on children after the reorganization. And I was court-martialed for forcing the research release, warned that if I did not want the Magitek division interfering with the army, then I could not interfere with the Magitek division, else I would be removed from my post and executed for treason. If it was only my life that would be threatened then I would not have cared and would have continued to oppose their practices until it killed me, but... they had a second ultimatum: The one who would take my position should I vacate it for any reason... was Kefka."

"And the Doman genocide... is the sort of thing that would happen if you left that post open for Kefka, even for a moment..." Celes realized.

"For twelve years I have held that line," Leo expressed wearily. "Kefka... took sick amusement with this, and would regularly torment me with examples of the horrific experiments being performed in his Magitek division, testing to see what it would take for me to budge. His favorite 'toy' being a certain half-Esper girl they had abducted years before..."

He covered his face with hand and shuddered. "And I could do nothing but avert my eyes and allow it to happen, because any action I took against it would be a breach of duty and cause for dismissal, opening the rest of the country... and likely the world... to that same treatment. The only way to ensure that would not happen was to become a paragon of loyalty... carry out any order no matter how abhorrent, so that I would be the one on the front line rather than Kefka deciding how that order would be executed. I have had to oversee the ruination of so many lives, under the belief that it was necessary to prevent even greater suffering. But Terra... had become the face of that decision to me: The innocent life I deemed necessary to sacrifice in order to save the rest of the world."

Celes was silent for a moment as she took that all in. She eventually gave a self-defeating chuckle as she slowly shook her head. "Here I've been worrying about facing Locke when you have to face Terra with that kind of baggage hanging over you... I just thought you were a good man who was blindly loyal to the wrong cause... I had no idea the kind of anguish you've been going through all this time." Looking up at him, she hesitantly wondered, "Does... Terra know?"

"I... do not know how much of her time in the Facility she remembers," he replied. Turning away, he admitted, "She seemed terrified of me when we first met again in Albrook. I feared that she hated me for being an idle spectator to her suffering. But to my surprise, last night she actually approached me of her own accord... and while at first it seemed like she was there to lay bare my sins, it became apparent that she... did not even recognize me. Her actual anxieties were generalized, internal, and focused on her self-worth and identity. She had no time to worry about who I was when she could not even comprehend who she was. I had been so selfish, worrying about what she thought of me rather than recognizing how poorly she thought of herself. And when she revealed to me that in all her life she had no concept of the emotion of 'love', I..." he looked down at his hands, clenching his fingers. "I had the overwhelming need to hold her, comfort her, and tell her that everything was going to be okay... But what right did I have, to only offer my support to her now that she was already free?"

"Why do you think you can't?" Celes wondered. "You said that you believed the world was more important than her. Is your guilt more important, too?"

"No!" he insisted quickly. Looking down at his hand and clenching his fist, he resolved, "No, it absolutely is not. Our conversation last night may have started tense, but it ended with both of us laughing together, which proves that it is possible for us to help each other heal from what Kefka has done to us. I want to help her find more reasons to smile, and help her to experience all the joys of the world that she had been denied all her life. Not as some selfish penance, but because... I honestly want her to be happy."

Celes allowed herself a small smile and rested her cheek on her hand. "Well... if she wants to feel love from another person, it sounds like you're already up to the task."

"It is a purely fraternal love, General," Leo intervened before she romanticized this too much. "Terra is an amazing person, but she is..." He paused a moment, running through his mental checklist of usual excuses as to why his relationship with someone ought to remain platonic. He just didn't find her particularly engaging? Far from it! She was already in a relationship? Her inability to form one was the entire source of her misery. She was subordinate or superior to him? No. She held a position that was poised to gain politically from his favor? No. She was someone his job would prevent him from seeing regularly? Hopefully not. She was too young? ... Perhaps, though she was still an adult there was a 12-year age gap, so pencil that one in for later in case he couldn't find a better excuse. She was a blood relation? Oh god, we're at the bottom of the list now, back up. "She is... emotionally... still just a child," he finally settled on, hastily scribbling in a mental modification to that line item on his list. That was close.

"Yeah, but isn't the entire point of this to correct that?" Celes wondered, handily blowing a hole through the list he had just fixed.

The "she's too emotionally immature" line still stood... for now... but it wouldn't always. Through his efforts that, too, would be erased, and then what would his excuse be? As Leo watched the shreds of his mental list scatter in front of his face, the scrap containing the absolute, final line item on it fell into view, and it was all he had to fall back on now: Because I'm scared of being in love.

Chapter Text

"I feel like I must have offended an octopus in a past life and this is my punishment," Locke muttered as he flapped out his jacket over the mountain ledge in an effort to get the slime off. "This is the second time I've run into that thing. How does an octopus even get into a mountain cave ?"

"Oh, you've fought him before, too?" Terra wondered, also trying to unstick her clothes. "We ran into him when escaping the Returner hideout after you left for South Figaro." Making little progress, she called over to the old man from the village of Thamasa who had joined them on their search: "Mister Strago, you know the spell Aqua Breath, don't you? Could we have a little help, please?"

"Much obliged, young lady!" he replied and raised his hands in the air.

"Ah, wait, no, I'm fine!" shouted Locke, waving his arms, but the two of them were doused in a torrent of water, leaving them drenched.

Terra didn't mind, though, and shook out her hair with a pleasant shiver. "Ahh... at least it's better than being slimy. Thank you, Mister Strago."

Locke wrung out his jacket and eyed her a little dejectedly. "So... what's been up with you the past couple days? When we first left Albrook you wouldn't say a word and spent most of the trip curled up in your bunk." Whereas he'd spent most of the trip throwing up over the side of the ship but he wasn't about to bring that up. "But ever since we've gotten here you've been more talkative than normal and in a generally good mood. You even played silly with that octopus in order to distract it, which I never thought I'd see from you. I mean, there's certainly nothing wrong with any of that, it just seemed like such a drastic mood swing."

"Oh... I just had a nice talk with the general while we were on the boat, is all," she replied, her face involuntarily flushing a little. "He helped me get my thoughts in order and I feel a lot better about what I'm doing now."

Locke pulled his jacket back on and brushed a few stray water droplets from his hair. "Well, when it comes to Imperials, I do trust your judgment. If you think we can trust him, then I feel better about this mission, too."

"Of course we can! He wants peace just as much as we do and I know he'll pull through for us." Terra almost felt offended that Locke would ever even consider that General Leo might be untrustworthy just because he was from the Empire, but... she had hypocritically thought the exact same thing when she'd first encountered him. He'd eventually proven his kindness to her, but... he shouldn't have needed to. Their quickness to judge based solely on Leo's country of origin made them no better than the people she'd condemned for banishing the citizens of Thamasa to the edge of civilization simply because of their abilities.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Strago's granddaughter, Relm, peeking up at her and announcing, "Oooh, I think somebody's got a cruuush."

Terra looked down at her and blinked. "Huh? What do you mean?" But Relm just puffed out her cheeks and turned around in disappointment.

"Awhh... if you did, you would have been more embarrassed than that." That still didn't explain what she'd meant by "crush".

Locke stretched his arms out behind his head. "Ahhh, anyway, we've got some Espers to find. Old man, how many more caves are left on this mountain that we haven't searched yet?"

"Just the one up ahead," Strago replied. "If the Espers aren't there, then I honestly don't know where I would point you next."

"Well, no time like the present to find out, then," said Locke, leading them to it. They entered the cave and found that it opened up into an expansive cavern. A few shafts of light penetrated from openings in the cavern ceiling allowing them some visibility. As they made their way in deeper, a figure came into view before them, illuminated from the light from the ceiling. Humanoid, but sprouting multicolored wings from its back akin to a butterfly.

"Oh, it's so pretty!" Relm exclaimed. "Is this... an Esper?" she wondered, approaching the creature.

The creature turned to her with a snarl, causing Relm to jump back and Strago to stand protectively in front of her while Locke moved to shield Terra. From the darkness, other creatures began slowly advancing towards them, bearing strange and varied forms, from dragons to hairy beasts.

Terra moved out from behind Locke and looked at the approaching Espers curiously. "I didn't realize there were so many..."

"Yeah, and they look like they're more interested in a fight than a chat," Locke warned, backing up. "Gramps, take Relm and get out of here!" Strago nodded and herded Relm back towards the cave entrance, but their escape was blocked by two other Espers appearing in front of them. They retreated back to the others where Terra, Locke, and Strago formed a protective circle around Relm as the Espers closed in from all sides.

Terra looked around nervously. This... this was supposed to be a peace talk, and it was her responsibility to open that first conversation. After all the help he'd given her, what would she do if she let Leo down and failed to convince the Espers to talk to him? He'd encouraged her to keep feeling her way through situations because she'd been hitting on the right answers all on her own so far, but...

He'd told her that experience was the key. And her previous experience was that being quick to judge others' intentions without talking to them first led to unnecessary misery.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Strago began to charge up a spell. No, wait! Out of instinct she began charging her own to counter it, but... what would she even cast? General Leo, help me, I'm going to completely screw this up!

 "Wait!" came a voice from the depths of the cave. Both Terra and Strago stopped their charges and observed a tall, bulky humanoid figure with ashen skin and a large mane of white hair emerge from the shadows. The other Espers parted for him and he strode heavily towards the group, where he stopped to survey them cautiously.

Terra darted out from behind the others and approached this new Esper. She couldn't let her uncertainty cause her to hesitate any longer. Too many people on all sides were relying on her. She came to trust Leo because he had left himself vulnerable to her. If she wanted the Espers to trust her, she had to do the same.

She closed her eyes and slowly exhaled, allowing her Esper powers to pool to the surface, laying her inner self bare before them in a show of fellowship. The Esper before her did the same, his magical aura intermingling with hers as if feeling her out, trying to understand who and what she was and what her intentions were. She could hear the others murmuring their concerns from the side, but she refused to allow them to sway her. She had nothing to hide and nothing to fear, and neither should they.

After some time, the glow around them subsided. Terra allowed her powers to relax and looked up at the Esper before her earnestly. He cocked his head and noted, "You are... different from the others... I can sense a power similar to our own coming from you."

"Yes..." Terra replied. "I am Terra, daughter of the Esper Maduin, the Esper World's former gatekeeper."

"Ah, so that is why you were able to open the gate," the Esper replied. "I am called Yura. There is a rule in the Esper World that we are forbidden from coming to this world. However, these young ones had nevertheless gathered near the gate to find some way to help our companions who had been turned into Magicite. That was when you appeared there..."

Terra held her hand to her chest. "I could... feel your thoughts, even through the gate." It had been a sensation similar to when she realized she related to Leo's feelings. Except at the gate it had felt like that sensation had been impressed upon her rather than something she had actively sought out. But it meant that Espers were capable of sharing their feelings with others, though it must take a different form than with humans.

"And when you opened it, that is what allowed us to enter this world," Yura continued. "However... once in this world, we lost control of our powers. We destroyed an entire city, taking many innocent lives..."

"The same thing happened to me..." Terra admitted. "When my Esper side was awakened, I was unable to control that newfound power..." She'd gotten better at controlling it now, but could only manage it in short bursts, like pulling a kettle about to boil over from the flame. But she still took some comfort in the fact that even pure-blooded Espers faced the same problem. Perhaps they could teach her how to better regulate herself.

"It seems that even we Espers are not exempt from losing our senses and causing great harm... I am truly sorry..." Yura admitted.

This apology seemed to prompt Locke to finally have the nerve to come forward and talk to them. "The Empire is seeking to make peace with the Espers as well." Extending his hand, he offered, "What do you think? How about you come with us?"

"They would so readily forgive us?" Yura wondered hesitantly.

Locke nodded. "Let's all head back to Thamasa and join back up with General Leo's group. That way you can see just what kind of people they are."

Terra smiled and nodded excitedly. "Right!"

They'd... they'd done it. She'd done it, and all by herself, just like Leo knew she could. She'd opened herself up to someone and they'd reciprocated in kind. Maybe more experience really was all she needed to be able to more fully understand the feelings that drove people fight for each other. Although, with this peace talk close to being achieved, there would be no reason to fight anymore, but... that was also just as well. It meant more time to talk to people, gain experiences, and one day learn what love really meant.

 


 

"All right, on three, Private. One, two... three!" Leo and Ozzel clutched a large wooden beam and lifted it up to wedge it under the roof awning of a burned-out house in Thamasa. While they held it in place, Piett went to it with a hammer and nails to secure it to the rest of the structure.

Dusting off his hands, Piett announced, "All right, that's not going anywhere. That should keep it from collapsing any further until a more full-scale repair can be done."

"Good work, Private," Leo commended, rotating his shoulder. "I will be sure to recommend you for promotion once we return to Vector."

"Y, yes, Sir!" Piett responded, snapping to attention and saluting. "I just come from a long line of carpenters, Sir, and merely noted that this dwelling was structurally deficient."

The townspeople of Thamasa had been rather wary of the presence of soldiers when they had first arrived. The shops refused to do business with them, the inn had charged an exorbitant price, and most people refused to speak to them. It was only once Piett had noticed that a large house on the eastern edge of town appeared to have burned down recently and was at risk of further collapse that any of the townspeople reluctantly began to offer their assistance.

"Oh, you're such nice boys, thank you," commented an older woman. "And thanks to those nice people who came to town yesterday, no one was hurt in that fire. Are they friends of yours?"

Leo smiled and gave her a single nod of the head. Even without further description he knew who she was talking about. "Yes they are, ma'am. They are currently on an important mission and we came here to await word of the results of their efforts. I hope that our continued presence does not cause you any further discomfort. I assure you we come for peaceful purposes."

"My, and what manners, too," the woman replied, lightly holding her cheeks. "Of course, make yourselves at home. Let me get you boys something to drink, you must be tired from all that work."

"Much appreciated, ma'am," he replied, nodding his head again.

As the old woman toddled off, Celes watched her from a reclined position against the tree in the center of the town square. "... How do you make friends with everyone so easily like that?" she wondered.

Leo strolled over towards her slowly and suggested, "I merely offer my help where it is needed and such things tend to be the natural result."

"I just feel like you're opening yourself up to being taken advantage of," Celes noted. "My question was more out of wondering how you manage to avoid that."

"I would have assumed the incident at Doma was example enough that even I am not immune to falling victim to deception. I simply refuse to allow one bad faith actor to sully my treatment of other people," he explained. "Do you believe these townspeople wish ill of us?"

"No, it's not that, it's just..." Celes chewed on her lip and looked around a little warily. "I've had a foreboding feeling ever since this morning. Like... this mission has gone too well until now and something has got to give. I can't exactly place my finger on it, though."

He gave a light nod of understanding and let out a breath through his nose. "I certainly do not wish to make light of your apprehensions, as it is always wise to keep a healthy skepticism. But viewing the world only in terms of the worst possible outcomes can make it so that that is the only outcome you are ever able to see. And from where we stand here, I am able to see a path to the peace we desire, and with that in view, it is the path I choose to focus on."

Turning his head, he added, "However... if that focus has blinded me to the presence of storm clouds approaching from the rear, I trust you to be my eyes and alert me to them, General."

"Of course, Sir," Celes replied.

The old woman returned with a tray of cups and offered, "All right, I brought you boys some water with mint leaves. I hope this will help refresh you a little."

Leo took one of the cups while Ozzel and Piett rushed up behind him to grab theirs with jumbled murmurings of gratitude. Leo gave a light toast with his cup and stated, "Thank you, ma'am," before taking a sip. The mint added a pleasant chill to the water that offered a calm, cooling sensation that heightened the water's refreshment.

"Oh, and I saw that those nice people from yesterday are on their way back, and they seem to have brought some Espers with them. Haven't seen any of those in a long time," the woman added.

Leo choked on his drink and wiped off his mouth, placing the cup back on the woman's tray. Calling back over his shoulder, he announced, "Look alive, everyone, fall in behind me." Acknowledging the woman again he told her, "My apologies, but duty calls."

They made their way to the town square where Locke came trotting in ahead of the others from the opposite direction. "Heey, General, reporting back in!"

"Locke!" Leo responded, looking over his head to see Terra and a number of Espers following behind him and chatting with each other. "I see you were able to make contact with the Espers. Your efforts are more appreciated than I can express. I hope you did not run into too much trouble."

Locked waved him off, "Nah, just a purple octopus incident." From behind Leo, Celes made a small groan like she knew what that meant. Was that a Returner code for something? "But thanks to Terra, everything else went totally fine," Locke continued.

Locke moved out of the way, allowing Leo and Terra to lock eyes for a moment. She looked... so full of confidence and accomplishment now, a far cry from the timid, uncertain girl he'd talked to only a few days before. Terra gave him an earnest smile, causing his throat to involuntarily catch. She gestured wordlessly to the Esper beside her and moved aside to stand with Locke. Leo followed her with his eyes for only a moment, offering her a wink and mouthing "Well done", which made her hunch her shoulders and blush slightly. He'd have to catch up with her afterwards about how she was feeling now.

The Esper approached him and Leo squared his shoulders and resumed a neutral expression. This was only potentially the most important diplomatic meeting since the peace accords following the War of the Magi. No pressure.

With a curt nod, he opened with, "I am Leo, a general of the Empire. Might I have your name, please?"

"I am Yura," the Esper responded in a deep monotone. "We have done something inexcusable to your people. We are likely in no position to ask for your forgiveness, but..."

Leo nodded. "Your regrets are well understood. We did not seek you out to chastise you for your mistakes. On the contrary, we are the ones who ought to be ashamed for thinking of your people as nothing but a tool of war. We were on the verge of repeating the mistakes of the War of the Magi..."

Yura's stance relaxed. "It brings me great relief to hear you say that."

From the side, Terra couldn't stop grinning. Leo was just... talking with the Espers like they were any other people. Even Locke and the others had initially shown fear towards them, but Leo seemed to see them as fellow people first and Espers as secondary. It was like she was watching her deepest desires made real, and he made it look all so effortless.

Locke glanced over at Celes, then casually strode over to her. "So, I guess this is mission accomplished, huh? Looks like true peace is finally upon us!" Terra wondered if this was his way of announcing a "peace" between himself and Celes as well.

"Let's return to Vector, then," was all Celes responded.

"Celes..." said Locke, hanging his head.

Celes turned from him and shook her head. "Please don't say anything..." When Locke continued to look dejected, she sighed with a small smile and turned to face him again expectantly.

With Leo's conversation with Yura appearing to have concluded successfully, Terra approached him excitedly. He turned to her with a smile and opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by Relm loudly observing from the background, "Those two are hot and heavy, huh, Grandpa?"

Terra and Leo both froze, and Terra could feel her face instantly heat up. The two of them broke their eye contact and looked elsewhere, only then realizing that Relm seemed to have actually been referring to Locke and Celes. After watching them dance through a similar tango of embarrassment, Terra let go of the apprehension she'd felt before with a light laugh. Why had Relm's statement made her apprehensive, though?

Leo laughed it off as well, the weight that had been on his shoulders these past few days slowly ebbing away. The war was... actually over. Over the next few weeks he'd finally be able to start sending everyone home. And after that, with any luck, he might actually be able to utilize some of his leave time to take Terra on some field trips to help her explore more facets of life that could stir more long-suppressed emotions in her. But... that was only if she wanted it. She seemed to be progressing well even without his help now. But for now, hearing her laugh like that warmed his heart. He wanted to hear more of that laugh.

That laugh...

THAT laugh...

They weren't the only ones laughing anymore.

Chapter Text

Leo stiffened, his hair involuntarily bristling. That... that was impossible. How was HE here?! HE was supposed to be in jail for war crimes. HE was supposed to be stripped of his authority and rendered no longer a player in either the Magitek division OR the army. So HOW in the Emperor's name did HE get HERE?!

Everyone turned to face the newcomer who had appeared at the northern edge of town. Face painted ghastly white, dressed in mismatching multicolored robes and a red cape, hair adorned with garish feathered plumes, and laughing maniacally.

Kefka. That could only ever be Kefka: the man who had made Leo and so many others' lives a living hell for over the past decade and a half. He was flanked by three Guardian-class Magitek Armored soldiers whose weighty footsteps actually knocked Kefka over momentarily as they marched into town.

Guardian-class Armor... but... those were so heavy and bulky that a single Magitek transport ship could only carry one at a time. ... Meaning Kefka had to have come with a fleet of at least three ships... meaning he could not have possibly gotten here without support . Not only that, the logistics of getting those Armors to the port and loading them on the ships would have taken days , meaning that he would have needed to have started preparations almost immediately after Leo's team had left. And yet no one had sent word to Thamasa ahead of time warning that Kefka was coming....

The implications of his mere presence here caused Leo's chest to clench without a word even needing to be said. He fixed his jaw and looked at everyone around him. Terra, Locke, Celes, his men, the Espers, the town's civilians... Regardless of what Kefka was doing here, their lives were disposable to him. Leo had to get them to evacuate before--

"Uwee-hee-hee... How'd you all like a taste of the power of my Magitek Armor escort?" Kefka called to them. He raised an arm and one of the armored soldiers fired a blast into the crowd before Leo could react. A blinding flash of light and hot wave of pressure slammed into them, knocking almost everyone back. Higher-ranked soldiers were required to undergo yearly resistance training against crowd control blasts like these to prevent from being disabled by their own weapons, but the strength of the beam felt amplified from the mere debilitator pulse that he had experienced in training. But that meant that after he regained his footing, Leo was the only one left standing besides the Espers.

Locke was the closest person to him and Leo immediately knelt down to check his pulse. Weak, but present. But he knew from experience that Locke would be out for at least a half an hour. He stood again and then felt a chill run down his back. Terra, though...?

He turned and saw her crumpled, unmoving on the ground. He could only stumble towards her and gaze down at her body in anguish. Kefka had hurt her again... and once again he had been right there yet unable to stop it. She... she had only just begun to laugh again, so how... how could you do this to her?

Inhaling sharply in anger, Leo stormed towards Kefka and shouted, "Kefka, what do you think you're doing?!"

Kefka, completely oblivious to the carnage he had just caused, playfully responded, "Hee hee, Emperor's orders! 'Go and bring me the Magicite remains of those Espers,' he said!" Raising his hand, he said, "So, want to see my new extra-special Magicite-ification technique?"

Before Leo could even wonder what that meant, a beam of light shot past his head and struck Yura, who had been standing behind him. By the time Leo could turn around to see what happened, Yura's body had disintegrated, leaving only a small crystal shard behind, which flew through the air back into Kefka's hand.

"Kefka!" Leo shouted in anger, gripping his sword.

Kefka looked down at Leo's hand with a sneer and a raised eyebrow, tempting, "Oh? Planning on raising your sword against me , General? This is an official mission of the Magitek division." Kefka flicked another beam of light from his finger, and Leo heard another Esper scream and abruptly go silent behind him. "You're not going to interfere with it are you?" Another flick, another scream. "That would be treason ."

Leo's hand faltered, his breath coming in short pants. A decade of conditioning himself to stay his hand... a decade of sitting by idly and doing nothing while people suffered, all for a supposed greater good. Greater than what , though? People were dying here while he did nothing !

Kefka rolled his head at Leo's lack of action and announced, "Boo-ring..." Toddling back to the other two Guardian Armors, he ordered them, "You know what, I don't think I like this town very much. Burn it to the ground."

The Magitek Armored soldiers marched towards the village's buildings and began charging up their fire beams. Leo could only watch in dismay and plead a final time, "Kefka, stop this!"

Kefka groaned and snapped "Shut up!" at him. It was fun making him squirm, but if all he was going to do was whine like usual rather than go on the counterattack, then there was no point. He motioned for one of the Magitek Armors to point its weapon in their direction, and before Leo could get out of the way, it fired a high-energy debilitator blast at him. At this high a setting, and targeting only a single person rather than dispersed through a crowd, even Leo couldn't withstand it and collapsed unconscious on the ground.

Kefka pranced over to him and dug the heel of his boot into Leo's back, posing on top of him like some kind of trophy hunter and laughing hysterically. It was only amusing for a moment, though. In reality, this had all been painfully boring. The Returners put up no fight, the Espers put up no fight, Leo put up no fight... It was all too easy.

For years he had been baiting Leo, trying to force his hand into giving up his role as general and opening the way for Kefka to act without interference. Sure, trolling him led to years of entertainment, but it didn't change the fact that if Leo didn't move, Kefka couldn't get the whole of what he wanted. Always being that stick in the mud, always being the good little boy, always whining about "innocent lives" this and "honor" that. It was sickening.

The only time he'd gotten even a hint of a reaction out of him was when it involved that half-Esper girl. When he'd used the Slave Crown to order her to fry fifty of their own soldiers just for fun, oh... the look of anguish on Leo's face. It was marvelous. He was certain that Leo would overstep himself then, but still, still he held back and only gave another one of his boring morality lectures. The half-Esper girl escaped him soon after that, so he had to pick a new target to try...

General Celes was the same age as her and another plaything of the Magitek Research Facility... baiting her into turning traitor by letting her overhear his plans for Doma had been so easy compared to Leo. Then sending Leo a fake letter to get him to plead for the sake of a traitor to the Emperor himself... ohhh, that would certainly look bad on his record, and it left the Doma camp free to Kefka's command to boot. But then those meddling Returners broke General Celes out of jail before Leo could even arrive in Vector, causing his audience with the Emperor to never happen.

It was all too boring. He could just kill Leo now, get him out of his hair, and be done with this game for good, but that would also be too boring. This man who had been a thorn in his side for so long didn't deserve to just die in his sleep like this with his honor intact. He deserved be broken, and die in humiliation with full knowledge of everything he'd worked for coming to nothing.

Well, if this didn't motivate him, then nothing would. Kefka gripped Leo by his scruff of hair and yanked his head off the ground, leaning down to whisper a little incentive in his ear. The idea being planted, he let Leo's head fall back to the ground again, then wandered off to wait. Let's see if he feels like fighting when he wakes up this time.

 


 

Leo's world was spinning when he regained consciousness. Stumbling to his feet, he took assessment of his surroundings. Everything... still looked the same as it had been when he'd lost consciousness, other than the Guardian Armors had repositioned themselves at the town exits. The town still wasn't burning and everyone else was still incapacitated, though. He must have only been out for a minute or so at most. Kefka was standing behind him, laughing gloatingly as he was wont to do. What was he up to this time? Had he... done something while Leo was unconscious?

He looked uneasily at the bodies strewn all over the square again and took a step towards Terra and the others to check on them when he suddenly heard Kefka's voice ring in his ear: It doesn't even matter anymore. They're all already dead.

Leo whirled around and stared at Kefka in shock. What...? Had he actually...? Why?! Just to get to him?! Just because he could?! He'd already failed to save the Espers, but now the civilians... his men... Terra...

He clenched his fists and shook. But that's how it had always been, hadn't it? Every time Leo had failed to stop Kefka from hurting someone, that was just giving him another opportunity to hurt someone again. All those years of convincing himself he was preventing some greater atrocity by allowing smaller ones, but years of smaller ones still added up. He wouldn't let Kefka destroy an entire country at once, but he would passively stand by and let him pick them off one by one... until there was no one left, anyway...

If there was no one left to protect, then what did it matter anymore? If he turned his sword against Kefka, he would be a traitor, but Kefka would also be stopped for good. Assassination had never even been an option in his mind to correct this problem, but if Kefka was still going to avoid facing any real justice even when jailed for his crimes, then raw vigilantism was the only viable solution left.

With a deep breath, he looked out once again at the bodies of his comrades scattered about the town square. Please forgive me... for not doing this sooner.

He spun around and marched towards Kefka, bellowing, "Kefka! I cannot overlook your conduct any further!"

Kefka grinned at him maliciously. "Finally feel like putting up a fight, General?" Leo wordlessly drew his sword and glared at him. Kefka giggled excitedly and raised his arm, taunting, "Well, then, since I know you prefer 'fair' fights, how about we start by giving you a bit of a handicap? Poison--"

Leo spun his sword at his side and thrust it into the air, summoning a bolt of energy that exploded from the ground and engulfed Kefka before he could cast anything. There's your 'fair fight' right there, you coward. If you're going to drive me to the point of not holding back, then don't you dare go into the actual battle expecting me to hold back.

When the flash cleared, Kefka was gone. That had been immensely satisfying, but also too easy. Kefka wasn't exactly a strong man, but there was no way he would go this far into forcing Leo's hand only to allow himself to be taken out so easily.

Confirming his suspicions, Kefka's voice came sailing through the air, "Ah, Leo... I always knew someday you would put me in this position..."

Leo looked around cautiously, sword still drawn. "Where are you, Kefka? Show yourself!"

Kefka's voice began ominously chanting from all around him: "EM-PER-OR GES-TAHL. I... need... you... here..."

The Emperor...?! Had he... also come here with Kefka? Had he... condoned this senseless brutality? No... the Emperor desired world unification, not slaughter... There was no way...

But out of the corner of his eye, Leo saw Emperor Gestahl appear beside him. Quickly he sheathed his sword and bowed heavily on one knee. "My liege..." he submitted anxiously. So he was here... Was this all set up so that Kefka could broadcast his betrayal to the Emperor in person so there could be absolutely no excuse? But in that case, the Emperor had to have also seen what Kefka had just done...!

"Leo..." the Emperor slowly intoned. "I'm sorry that I had to deceive even you. This was all for the purpose of acquiring Magicite. Surely you will accept that this was my intent from the start."

Leo's skin chilled. Magicite? The crystallized remains of an Esper's powers? The data in the reports released a decade ago indicated that Espers were non-sentient monsters no different from those roaming the countryside, and that the extraction methods employed did not kill them, thus Leo could begrudgingly turn a blind eye to it... The attack on Vector proved otherwise: that Espers were a sentient, feeling race who mourned for their comrades. That was why peace had been called so abruptly, had it not? This was why he had traveled out here: to beg forgiveness for his nation's misguided policies towards another race of people. "But... Emperor, I do not..." he began.

"No need to speak, Leo. I completely understand your feelings," the Emperor interrupted him. Did he, though?

"Uwee-hee-hee, listen to your Emperor! The top priority now is to gather Magicite!" came Kefka's voice again. "You're not going to disobey him, are you?"

Leo broke into a cold sweat, bowing his head. "Gathering Magicite" was nothing more than a euphemism for "genocide". He could accept pressuring neighboring countries for their resources if those resources could be obtained without killing the native populace, but this type of resource gathering... necessitated the slaughter of an entire race. "Emperor... then what would you have me do...?" he questioned, at a loss. He had taken unsavory orders before and executed them in such a way that damage was minimized, but an order like this... there was no way he could even "technically" follow it.

"Leo, I think I would simply like you to take a bit of a rest." Rest? So even the Emperor recognized his unwillingness and was instead suggesting a forced retirement... All the while Kefka assumed his position and led the charge to wipe out the rest of the Espers... "A reeeeallly long one, uwee-hee-hee!"

... That wasn't the Emperor's voice coming from him.

Leo looked up from his submissive position to see Kefka's pallid face mere inches from his, smirking wickedly. Before he could react, Kefka grabbed him by the throat with one hand and pulled his sword from its scabbard with the other. The hand on his throat was charged with the Poison spell from before, and Kefka's nails dug into his skin to ensure a full affliction. Leo stumbled back, holding his throat and choking, "K... Kefka...!"

Kefka strolled towards Leo, spinning Leo's sword awkwardly around his hand. "So, you thought you defeated me before? That was just an illusion. You came at it with an enchanted sword, no less. My my, General," he said, looking it over. "Here you've always been so high-and-mighty about not needing a Magitek infusion, yet you rely on a blade forged of magically-charged crystal. I always knew you were a hypocrite."

Absently tapping the sword against his leg, he continued, "And that gutless Emperor Gestahl you just saw? An illusion, too. Honestly, how did someone who can't even see through that ever become a general?" He clenched his fists and began to shake. "And you're always... ALWAYS..."

Leo could see the murder in his eyes and tried to scramble away, but the poison had seized up his throat and sapped his strength. Kefka stalked up to him and kicked him in the side of the head, then stomped down on his back while leaning down and screaming in his ear, "ALWAYS playing the good little soldier boy!"

"K... Kefka..." Leo gasped. "You're insane..."

"Uwee-hee-hee, and here's the best part. See..." Kefka snapped his fingers and pointed ahead of them across the courtyard. Leo tried to raise his head and squint through the pain of the poison, and could barely make out Terra's figure begin to stir, looking up at him from her crumpled position on the ground.

"Oopsie, guess they weren't quite dead yet after all. Guess that means you had no reason to attack me other than because you really wanted to. I'll be reporting to the Emperor that Leo has wholeheartedly betrayed him."

Leo tried to shakily push himself up. Terra... she was alive... but that meant he had to get her to safety... He had to...

He was stopped by his own sword being driven into his back, the magical energy infused in it burning through his insides. His arms went slack and he collapsed on the ground, no longer able to breathe. Please... please don't make her watch this... As the world faded around him, he thought he heard Terra scream something at him, but it was drowned out by Kefka cackling over him, pulling the sword out and stabbing him repeatedly while chanting, "Die... die... DIE!!"

And it was all he could do. His final order, that he had no choice but to obey.

 


 

Terra groggily blinked back to consciousness, trying to take in her surroundings. Her body felt battered and limp and she could barely even move. What... what had just happened? They had just completed negotiations with the Espers when...

Kefka... had come out of nowhere and attacked them. She panicked, but found she still lacked the strength to get up, and could only weakly turn her head. Locke... Celes... they were still unconscious beside her... The Espers... she couldn't see what happened to them... General Leo...?

Her eyes hazily focused across the courtyard and could see a figure in green pinned to the ground by a cackling, garishly-clothed figure above him. She saw Leo look up at her from the ground... and there was so much pain in his face. What did Kefka do to him...?

She could only watch as Kefka raised a sword over Leo's head, and she felt the pit of her stomach fall away. What... what was he doing? Don't...

When she saw Kefka drive the sword into Leo's back, it was like she could feel the strike in her own chest. He hadn't even struck her, so... what was this pain? Why was she hurting so much?

She didn't understand why it hurt. But she wanted him to stop. Stop hurting both of them. Kefka had ripped the sword out of him and raised it again... He was going to hurt him again... She couldn't move, but she had to... had to do something . Locke, Celes, Espers, someone... please... help him .

Terra shakily reached out a hand and tried to charge a spell. Any spell. She didn't even know what. Something that would stop him from hurting. Something that would stop him from...

With a choke, Terra pleaded, "S... Stop...!", and launched every reserve of strength she had left in his direction. Which hadn't been much. Not enough for Kefka to even notice. But it was something... anything... she'd tried... But she couldn't...

Her power sapped once again, Terra collapsed back into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Terra next awoke to a cool green energy glowing by her face. She inhaled and lifted her head to find Celes crouched over her, tending to her with a Cure spell.

"There... that should be enough to get you back on your feet," Celes said quietly. "That debilitator blast must have done a number on you; you've been out quite a bit longer than everyone else."

Terra slowly pushed herself to a sitting position. "Everyone else... are they okay? Is General Leo...?"

Celes bit her lip and turned her head away. "Terra... I'm sorry. When I woke up, the Espers were all gone, Piett and Ozzel were dead, and General Leo..." Terra tried to look over Celes's shoulder out into the courtyard where she'd last seen Leo, but Celes held her by the shoulders. "No, Terra, don't look..."

But she'd already looked. And she'd... probably should have expected that's what she'd see: General Leo, face down in blood-stained grass, his own sword left protruding from his back. She looked at the scene passively, the pain she had felt before no longer manifesting itself. Now she just felt... nothing. Emptiness. Defeat, maybe. Whatever she had felt before hadn't helped avert this result at all, so maybe feeling it wasn't worth it.

Locke paced in agitation. "That damned Kefka... I knew this whole thing smelled fishy, I just didn't expect a secondary squadron to show up later. Leo... Leo and his men have been on our side this whole time and I feel terrible for having ever doubted them..." Looking over at Celes, he added, "And for ever doubting you. I'm so sorry..."

"I know..." said Celes, slowly standing up. "We... should at least give them a proper burial before we figure out what to do next... It's the least we can do..."

Burial... Terra clenched her hands in her lap. That sounded so... final. It felt like only a few minutes ago she was going to get to talk to him again and tell him all about her recent experiences and... now she couldn't. Ever again... She... she wasn't ready to accept that yet.

Celes and Locke slowly made their way over to where Leo lay. Locke scratched his head and wondered, "So... is there really nothing we can do for him? I've been pursuing legendary life-giving magical artifacts for years... I know they exist. With all the Espers who have sacrificed their Magicite remains to us in order to lend us their powers, there has to be... something... we can do..."

Celes shook her head. "Cure spells recover superficial wounds, Raise spells render mortal wounds superficial. But both require a living body. Even on the brink of death, they can still be saved by magic, but once they cross that brink... I'm sorry, Locke, but nothing we know of magic can bring anyone back from that..."

Locke grumbled in frustration and reached down to check Leo's pulse in the off chance there was something there. He held a pair of fingers to the general's neck and went completely still. Twenty seconds passed and he still didn't move. At this point Celes wondered, "Locke... what are you doing? What do you feel?" No response. "Locke...?" she asked in a bit more worry. Taking his arm and forcibly pulling it away, she again repeated, "Locke!"

Locke blinked and looked at her, sputtering, "Whoa, wait, what? I was just about to check his pulse to make absolute sure he wasn't still alive."

"'About' to? Locke, you've been checking his pulse for the past thirty seconds and that's more than enough time to know whether..." Celes paused on that thought. "Time..." Tentatively, she reached out a hand and hovered it over Leo's head. There was a faint numbing aura that she could feel surrounding him. "This is... time magic..." she whispered. "But... time magic usually wears off within minutes unless there's some kind of anchoring..." She looked up at the sword sticking out of his back. "... Oh my god..."

Celes bolted to her feet and turned to shout, "Terra, get over here right now! It's an emergency! General Leo needs you!"

Terra jerked out of her catatonic state and hazily looked up towards them. General Leo... needed her? But General Leo was already...

And yet she still somehow automatically wobbled to her feet and stumbled her way over to them without ever consciously giving herself the directive to do so, as though the mere suggestion that she could help him was all her body needed. When she reached them and was able to see the kind of state Leo was in up close, though... that pain in her chest started bubbling to the surface again.

Celes snapped her from her thoughts and firmly stated, "Okay, Terra, listen to me, this is an absolute long-shot and I have no idea how this happened but... we might actually be able to save him. But I'm going to need all your help, understand?"

Terra and Locke both perked up at that, with Locke exclaiming, "Wait, are you serious?! You think you know a way to bring him back to life?!"

"No, I can't bring him back to life," Celes stressed in slight annoyance. "But... he might not actually be dead... not yet..." She pulled her own sword from her hip and explained, "It is customary to issue new Imperial generals an enchanted blade. Mine is a Runic Blade that can absorb magical fields. General Leo's is a Crystal Blade that can have a spell affixed to it and maintain it perpetually. I was certain he had a Shock spell affixed to his sword, but right now, for some unfathomable reason, it's been overlaid with a Stop spell." Terra's eyes slowly widened at this revelation. "And that spell has frozen his body to the moment in time when it was cast. So if he was still alive at that time..."

"He... could still be healed..." Terra finished for her, covering her mouth.

Celes nodded. "Yes... but for all I know, he might have had literally seconds left to live at the time he was originally stopped. I can't touch the sword to remove it without getting stopped myself, so I'm going to be occupied with an Esuna. But the absolute moment I do that, Terra, I need you on a Raise spell. Locke, Cure. Understood?"

Locke rubbed his hands together. "I can do you one better. I learned Cura while we were up on the mountain. Let's bring someone back to life!"

Celes shook her head but didn't bother to correct him again. She held her hands out over the sword in his back and began to charge up an Esuna spell while Terra and Locke knelt beside him with their respective tasks. Well, General, you asked me to watch your back. I'm sorry I wasn't able to do that initially, but... hopefully this will still count in a roundabout way. She let out a breath, then chanted, "... Esuna..."

A blue glow enveloped the sword, then traveled down the blade to wash over the rest of Leo's body. As soon as the glow began to fade, Celes gripped the sword and pulled it out, simultaneously commanding, "Both of you, now!"

Terra immediately pressed her hands over the wound, chanting "Raise..." with a shuddering breath while instinctively trying to stop the fresh flow of blood. That pain in her chest at seeing him hurt like this returned in full. But the blood now covering her hands was... warm... In just this one moment, he was still alive, and she was going to do everything in her power to keep it that way.

A golden light flowed from her hands and into the wound, sealing it and the two other stab wounds that had marred his back. Locke took this as his cue and followed it up with "Cura!", supplementing her golden light with a green one, covering the rest of Leo's body in a gentle glowing aura.

When the glows subsided, a few tense seconds passed, but Leo's body suddenly shuddered with a violent gasp as he pushed himself up on his hands, taking several deep breaths thanks to the Esuna having also cleared his airways of the poison.

Celes fell to her knees next to Locke in relief, who grabbed her and shook her excitedly, exclaiming, "We did it! We actually did it! We brought him back to life!! Ha haaa!" He hugged her tightly. No, they had just exploited an extremely unlikely highly specific set of circumstances that would probably never come together again, but she wasn't going to dampen his mood just yet. She kind of liked the hug.

Terra leaned down and cautiously wondered, "General Leo...? Are you... okay?"

Leo's head snapped up to look at her, his eyes still glazed over in panic. "Terra... Terra, run!" he choked out. Terra stepped back in surprise as he sprang to his feet and whirled around, keeping her to his back. He instinctively gripped at his empty scabbard, raising his other arm in a defensive posture. He darted his eyes around the town, but saw no sign of Kefka or the Magitek Armors.

Celes slowly stood up, holding her hands out in a peaceful gesture. "Easy, there, General, calm down..." said carefully. That's right... If his body had been stopped at the moment before he would have died, then so had his mind. To him, absolutely no time had passed between now and when Kefka had attacked him, so he was still in that moment. "Kefka's gone... you're okay now..."

"General Celes..." he said warily. What if... this was just another illusion? Celes, Locke, Terra... what if they were all still illusions? He would not put it past Kefka to raise him from the brink of death just to torment him further like this. He pulled away from Terra and kept all three of them in his vision, slowly backing away. "If... if you are all real, then I sincerely apologize for my mistrust, but... Kefka has plagued me with deceptions and I can no longer be certain... I beg that you offer me some manner of proof of your identities, if you are able..."

Locke looked at Celes and shrugged, as he and Leo barely knew each other and therefore wouldn't have any kind of secret shared knowledge that Kefka wasn't privy to. Celes knew him better, but it was mostly through work, and she didn't know much about his personal life besides his music obsession, which anyone who walked into his office could have deduced. He'd revealed the contents of a confidential letter to her the night before... but it was a letter that Kefka wrote , so that was no help. His motives for remaining loyal to the Empire despite its crimes that he'd confessed to her also all revolved around Kefka and were thus likely known to him as well. How was it that bringing him back to life had been the relatively easy part to figure out?

Terra wrung her bloody hands apprehensively, then quietly whispered, "... Orco e Delphina..." Leo's eyes snapped to her while Celes and Locke both cocked their heads in confusion as to what that was supposed to mean. To them, those weren't even words.

But surprisingly, Leo let out a shaky breath of relief and collapsed into a seated position on the ground, pressing his palm to his face and letting out something that sounded like a cross between a chuckle and a whimper. "That will do..." He was still shaking, and took a few forced, slow, deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.

Finally he lifted his head, sliding his hands slowly down his face with a long sniff and requested, "... What is our status, General?"

Celes snapped upright, surprised that he was back to business so quickly. "Yes, Sir. Locke, Terra, and I are all accounted for. Shadow is MIA, but Locke informed me he left before any of this went down. No reported deaths amongst the civilians in town, just minor injuries that have already been tended to. Privates Piett and Ozzel, however... were killed in action. They took the full brunt of that first blast and never awakened..."

Leo's face slowly sunk into his hands again and he let out a shuddering breath. "... Understood, General..."

Celes pursed her lips and continued, "The Espers... are all missing as well... We suspect..."

"They were killed by Kefka..." Leo confirmed with a harsh whisper. "The reason he came here was so he could reduce them to Magicite and steal their power... This entire mission..." He punched the ground and clenched his teeth. "This entire mission was merely to lure those Espers out into the open so that Kefka could pick them off." He looked up to Terra guiltily. "I'm... so sorry... I couldn't save any of them..."

Terra shook her head. "I never blamed you for any of this. You did everything you could."

Leo flinched. But he hadn't. He'd hesitated, weighing the lives of everyone here against the safety of the nation. And in that hesitation, those lives had been lost, anyway. By the time he finally found the nerve to face Kefka, it was too little, too late. And now Kefka was on the loose, unencumbered by Leo's presence, and armed with the powers of dozens of Espers.

"I must return to Vector," he decided solemnly. "If I am able to have an audience with the Emperor... the real Emperor... then perhaps there is still some way that Kefka can be stopped..."

Locke rubbed the back of his head and informed him, "Umm... that's going to be a problem. The transport ship we came in on has been burned. And Thamasa is a secluded village so they don't have any boats of their own that would be able to reach the mainland." His arms fell to his sides. "Sorry, General... we're stuck here."

Leo turned his head and squeezed his eyes shut. "... There were five crew members left on that ship..." Shakily pushing himself to his feet and rubbing his fingers over his brows, he requested, "Then... if there is nothing else that we are able to do at the moment, I ask that you assist me in constructing a memorial to all who have fallen here... We must honor their sacrifices... and pledge to them that their deaths shall not have been in vain..."

 


 

A stone mound was erected in the forest east of the village, a plaque chiseled with the date and the Imperial insignia adorning the front. Leo and Celes stood at attention to one side, Terra and Locke holding armfuls of flowers to the other. Leo broke his salute and clasped his hands behind his back, beginning, "We gather here today to pay our respects to those who have given their lives on behalf of the Gestahlian Empire, and those whose lives were taken far too soon. We come here to mourn them, but also to remember them. Each of them contributed something to the world that the world has now lost. Please join me in a moment of silence for each of the men and women, human and Esper, whose lives were lost on this tragic day." He brought his hand back up in a salute. "Private First Class Ozzel... Corporal Piett, promoted posthumously... Petty Officer Third Class Derlin..."

With each name, Terra silently laid a flower on the memorial. By the time they were finished, there were eighteen flowers total: seven Imperial soldiers and eleven Espers. With no remains to bury except for the two, it was only now that she was able to visualize just how many people Kefka had killed here. And for what? "People only seem to want power... Do they really want to be like me...?" she murmured. "I... I wanted Yura and the others to teach me so much more about what it meant to be an Esper..."

Leo stood beside her and looked passively down at the memorial, holding a pair of swords in one hand, each with a metal tag affixed to their hilts on a small chain bearing Piett and Ozzel's names. "They could confer to you their own experiences... but what your life means is ultimately up to you. There is no pre-defined path you must follow in order to be fully human or Esper. Mourn not what they could have done for you, but what you could have done for them."

What she... could have done for them? She had... she had never really thought about that. She had simply always taken it as a given that the only thing anyone ever wanted from her was her powers. But the Espers... what did they want... and was it anything she could have helped with? She... had never asked. And that realization... made her feel terrible.

"Man... if this is the level of carnage they managed all the way out here, I'm worried about everyone we left behind in Vector," Locke said.

As if to address his concerns, there was a sudden whirling of engines in the sky above Thamasa. A giant shadow passed overhead and Locke jumped up and whooped. "Yes, the Blackjack! They got it fixed! That must mean everyone made it out okay!" He turned to everyone else and gave the thumbs-up. "And that's our ride out of here."

"General Leo, won't you come with us?" Terra asked hopefully.

"I will accompany you as far as Vector," he replied. "As I said before, I must have an audience with the Emperor as quickly as possible in order to potentially intervene in anything Kefka has further planned before he can act on it." Looking down at the pair of swords in his hand, he added, "Also... these need to be returned to Piett and Ozzel's families..."

Terra nodded a little sadly. That sounded like... they would be parting ways after this. But... just because she wanted to spend more time with him didn't mean that she had any right to protest his wishes. These were things he wanted to do... that he needed to do... and she had to let him do them. There might not be anything she felt she could do for him right now, but at least she could simply not selfishly monopolize his time.

Terra and Leo emerged from the forest memorial to find that Locke and Celes had met up with Setzer and the remainder of the team that had been left in Vector. "The Empire has betrayed us. We almost fell right into their trap," Setzer informed them.

"Thanks to intelligence that King Edgar gleaned from the staff, we were able to escape before anything happened," Cyan added.

Celes and Locke looked at each other uneasily. "We... weren't so lucky," Locke admitted. "Kefka showed up here and attacked us. He killed all the Espers and Leo's men, and almost got Leo himself, too."

The others looked behind him at Leo, to which Cyan exclaimed, "Good heavens, Sir Leo, thou art in a positively dreadful state! I am relieved that thou hast managed to survive such wounds."

Leo hadn't even taken stock of his own appearance up until now. But looking down, he finally noticed that his normally green uniform was soaked red with blood front and back. He almost felt faint looking at it, as his mind automatically paired that extent of blood loss with the inability to stand. How... had he survived, then?

Setzer clapped his hands and offered, "The staff on the Blackjack should be able to clean and repair that, no problem."

Leo blinked at the offer of aid from someone he didn't even know and who was... technically the enemy again now that the truce had been breached. Though now that he'd turned his sword on Kefka and had presumably been left for dead and branded a traitor, what status did he even hold anymore? Nevertheless, he bowed his head and thanked, "The assistance is appreciated."

Edgar nodded, then motioned towards the Blackjack. "We should all get back to the airship to rethink our strategy. If Kefka took the Magicite from every Esper that fled the Sealed Gate, we should expect him to flex his newfound muscle soon."

 


 

Once on board the airship, Leo immediately requested, "I regret making demands after being graciously allowed passage on your ship, but I must return to Vector immediately to speak with Emperor Gestahl."

Setzer shook his head. "Sorry, General, we only barely escaped Vector before. We can't go back there now."

"Then you may drop me at Tzen and I can procure a chocobo for the remainder of the distance. Please..."

"If your intention is to speak with the Emperor, going to Vector won't do you any good, anyway," Setzer replied. "When we escaped, the Imperials were headed to the Sealed Gate. Something about having found some statues..."

Terra suddenly held her head and squeezed her eyes shut. Leo approached her in concern, hovering a hand behind her back. "What's wrong, Terra?"

"It's the island..." she whispered. "The earth is... crying out in pain..."

A low rumble began to be heard over the sound of the airship's engines. It slowly escalated into a roar, punctuated by the groaning of rock and the crashing of waves. Soon the very air around the airship itself began to tremble.

Everyone looked over the railing and saw the entire eastern third of the Imperial continent -- the island containing the gate to the Esper world -- lurch itself out of the sea and slowly rise into the air. As the island rose to the elevation of the airship, they could clearly see Emperor Gestahl and Kefka, along with what appeared to be three stone statues, perched atop the summit. The island continued to ascend until it occupied its new domain amidst a sea of clouds.

Leo looked on in horror, gasping, "What... what is that?"

"The beginning of all magic... the Warring Triad..." explained Strago, the old man from Thamasa who had also accompanied them.

"Those statues?" Terra clarified.

"It's said that the three of them turned themselves to stone while facing each other in order to neutralize their powers," he said. "If their mutual gazes are ever broken and their balance disrupted, their power could destroy the world..."

Leo gripped the edge of the railing and bowed his head. Destroy the world...? And now Kefka stood within reach of that kind of power that he could enact at a whim. With the Emperor standing in cooperation at his side, no less. Raising his sword against Kefka had been hard enough, but against his own Emperor, the avatar of his homeland and its people...? There had to be some other explanation than the Emperor having been directing Kefka's actions for quite some time, but... he couldn't currently think of one.

With a shuddering breath, he stated, "I need some time to think... Please excuse me..."

As he made his way below deck, Terra turned to follow him with a worried "General...", but Celes put a hand on her shoulder and shook her head.

"Give him his space, Terra. He's having a rough time right now." But as Terra watched him disappear down the stairs, she knew from experience that when she was having a rough time, being left to wallow in her own thoughts was the last thing she needed.

Chapter Text

Leo still took up Setzer's offer on the uniform repairs due to his physical state proving to be a constant distraction now that he was aware of it. Sabin, the Figaro prince, enthusiastically offered him a spare kenpo gi to wear in the meantime, and seeing as he was the only other person on the airship of comparable height and build, Leo had little choice but to accept. Sabin seemed to want to make further conversation with him, but Leo had to respectfully decline. He wanted to collect his thoughts, and for that he needed solitude.

He found a bay window in the casino area and settled himself in the sill, pensively gazing out at the sky and the shadow of the island floating in the clouds. What... had he even been hoping to accomplish all these years? He'd been practically raised as a soldier his entire life, but he'd seen the army as a means to obtain skills and resources to help people that he wouldn't have had access to otherwise. And over the years he'd convinced himself that remaining in the army was the only way he could remain effective in being of both service and protection.

Would anything have turned out differently if he'd taken Terra and run 12 years ago when he first discovered her amongst the myriad other horrors of the Magitek Research Facility? There had been numerous times over the years where he'd actively considered it after witnessing particularly egregious abuses. And yet he stayed, telling himself that something even worse would happen if he were to leave.

Well, despite all that, Kefka still had world destruction at his fingertips now. All he could say of his accomplishments was maybe he'd delayed it by a year or two. Was the torture he'd forced Terra, Celes, and thousands of other people to endure worth that?

He heard a creak of the floorboards to his side. Not averting his gaze from the window, he requested, "Please leave me be at this time."

"Oh... I'm sorry," said Terra, bowing her head a little and turning to leave. It looked like Celes had been right; he did just need his space. Maybe people with more emotional experience than her were better at handling their thoughts on their own.

Leo flinched when he heard her voice and turned away from the window to face her. Terra? If she needed something, how could he possibly dismiss her in favor of his own brooding? "Wait!" he hurriedly called after her. Terra paused and looked at him hopefully, while he sagged back against the windowsill and apologized, "Forgive me... you are welcome to stay. If you need something I will do what I can but... please understand that you find me at a bad time..."

Terra turned back to face him and clasped her hands together timidly. In his reclined position, clothed in a simple white sleeveless martial arts uniform that hung loosely from his shoulders, he looked so much more... vulnerable than he usually did. The last time they'd spoken at length, she'd accidentally opened the conversation by complaining about her situation and hurting his feelings. She knew she wanted to help him feel better the way he'd helped her, but she didn't even know what to say.

Tentatively she made her way over to him, then softly sat down on the edge of the couch below the window ledge where he was seated. She saw him watching her attentively, albeit a little apprehensively, as though he was waiting for her to ask him a favor. But this wasn't about her this time.

"You... seemed upset, and I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help," she attempted with a bit of uncertainty.

Leo's pulse quickened. She... was worried about him? Swallowing a little hoarsely, he replied, "That is... very kind of you, Terra, but... I am undeserving of your sympathy."

"Why...?" she wondered, confused. "Ever since I've met you, you've been nothing but generous, compassionate, and devoted. I want... to make sure you receive the same in return..."

He shook his head. "Terra... thanks to my inaction you needlessly lost over a decade of your life... You paid the price for my misguided ideals, and now all I can do is offer my assistance in helping you recover from that and move on."

Terra gripped at the hem of her skirt. "I... don't think that's what you've been doing, though." By the pained look on his face, she immediately realized that was probably worded badly and quickly attempted to recover. "I mean, when I said you've been nothing but kind and compassionate, I didn't specifically say to me ." ... Also worded badly. God, she was bad at this. "I mean you've been considerate to everyone , including me, so I think... I think that's just the person you are. I think you would have been kind to me even if you knew nothing of my past. You were kind to the rest of the Returners even though you've only known them as the enemy until now. You were kind to the Espers even when everyone else was afraid of them."

"And yet I still let them all die..." he whispered, bowing his head. "And if Kefka is now in control of that mountain, I suspect that any who were left behind the gate are now also..."

Terra gripped her skirt harder and bit her lip, squeezing her eyes shut. "And all that means is that you failed to save them from the danger I put them in." Maybe she didn't have the skill he did at making people feel better, but at the very least she wasn't going to let him blame himself for something that was her fault .

Leo looked at her in slight bewilderment as she continued, "I... was the one who originally opened the Sealed Gate. Not to make peace or open a conversation, but to beg them to join the Returners in the fight against the Empire. But as soon as I opened the gate, without even asking them to, they went straight for the Empire and razed the capitol. That level of attack hadn't been our intention, which is why we agreed so easily to the Emperor's peace plan. But that just meant I fell for it just as much as you did, and gained those Espers' trust only to lead them straight to Kefka... I..." Her eyes misted as she admitted, "I caused your home to be burned... sent those Espers to their deaths... and left the Gate open for them to invade it now..."

A single tear trailed down her cheek and she touched it in slight surprise. Was she... crying? She had been upset in the past, but never to the point of tears. Even now she still couldn't bring herself to openly weep.

Leo slid off the windowsill onto the couch with her and hunched over to look her in the face. "Terra... you... you were in no way responsible for that. Your intentions were innocent, and you cannot be expected to be able to control or predict the actions of either the Espers or Kefka." He paused and reflected on that. He should have been telling himself this. It was what she likely had been attempting to tell him all this time, just more awkwardly. Why was it so much easier to see how ridiculous and self-defeating this attitude was when seeing it from the outside?

And now here she was on the verge of tears because he wanted to stubbornly beat himself up over this rather than accept that maybe, just maybe, she didn't secretly hate him. And if he was going to turn around and beat himself up over that , then they were just right back where they started. If she wanted to help him and he refused to let her, then he was actively invalidating her feelings that he had been trying so hard to nurture back to the surface.

He held a hand out towards her and hesitated, then with a deep breath finally prompted, "... May I?"

Terra blinked up at him through misty eyes, then over to the hand he was hovering by her shoulder, then back up at him in slight confusion, sniffing a little before asking, "May you what?"

He swallowed, then softly clarified, "... Hold you?"

She felt a slight lump in her throat at that offer. No one... had ever held her before. The fact that he felt the need to request permission first made her wonder if there was something particularly special about it. Still, she trusted him, and silently nodded.

His hand continued to hesitate above her shoulder for a few more seconds before he slowly brought it around behind her to cradle the back of her head. At his touch, she felt a warm tickle in her throat that for some reason prompted more tears to start welling in her eyes. With a gentle tug, he bid her to lean forward and rest her forehead against his chest while he kept his hand on the back of her head, lightly stroking his fingers through her hair.

"Thank you..." he whispered, his voice rumbling directly from his chest into her ear. "Your words... did help me."

Her throat clenched up at that and the tears began to fall more freely. But... she was happy that she'd been able to help him, so why...? There was something about being this close to him... being able to feel the warmth of his body and hear his breath and heartbeat... that made her feel... she wasn't sure what to call it. Like her self-doubts and anxieties were having their power sapped.

Almost automatically, she sagged against him, wrapped her arms around his torso, and squeezed, pressing her face more firmly into his chest and drawing a few shuddering breaths. Leo's back stiffened at the sudden and unexpected increase in contact. But seeing her actively seek him out for comfort made his shoulders relax, and he reclined against the back of the couch while continuing to stroke her head.

For her to be this needy, though, she did still have some emotional childishness about her. And that was to be expected, given her history. He admired how much effort she was putting into growing out of it all by herself, though. He wanted to be there for her whenever she needed guidance or comfort, but also didn't want her to grow dependent on him. He'd have to make sure to set some kind of boundaries, and an embrace like this might actually be pushing them, but...

For now, holding each other like this felt... pretty nice, actually. His mind was clearer now, and he resumed his thoughts over his next course of action while he continued to absently run his fingers over her hair.

Eventually Terra calmed down enough that she slowly sat up and released him with a sniff, wiping her eyes. "I'm sorry..." she said. "I latched onto you like that without even asking..."

Leo gave her a small smile and squeezed her shoulder. "And generally you should ask, but in this case, I think we both needed it."

She nodded and sniffed again. "It did make me cry more, but after a while, getting those tears out made me feel a lot better... What about you, are you feeling better?"

"I am, thanks to you," he confirmed.

She allowed herself a small smile, then rubbed her finger over her forehead and looked at his chest again. From beneath the open collar of the kenpo gi, she saw a glint of metal and reached for it. "Oh, that's what it was. I felt something cold against my head, and it was your necklace."

"Necklace? ... Oh! My dog tags," he corrected, pulling the chain out from under his collar to expose them.

Terra leaned forward and squinted to read the text on them. "'Cristophe... Leo... O-minus... Vector...' ... Huh?" It was like some kind of secret code to her.

Leo chuckled and explained, "Every soldier in the Imperial army wears these as basic identification. I try to learn all the vital information of everyone under my command, but in general practice these are used for quick medical reference or... to identify bodies in order for them to be returned to their families."

"Oh..." she replied, still looking at it. She'd already been faced with his seemingly dead body once before, but the thought hadn't even crossed her mind about having to notify family like he had insisted on doing for his fallen men. She certainly didn't want to be faced with something like that ever again, but if for some reason she was... "So... who is Cristophe?"

He blinked at her, then broke into a bemused grin. "That... that's my last name."

"Huh?" She suddenly felt... really stupid. Up until now she'd just known him as "General Leo" and that was his name in her mind. But he had a "regular person" name just like anyone else, which somehow made him feel more... like a normal human rather than some special being of privileged, unreachable status. "Okay... what's the letter O, then?"

"Blood type," he explained. "Good to know in a pinch if an emergency blood transfusion is needed in the field. O-negative for me: universal donor, need a perfect match as a recipient, though." He extended his arm and indicated several puckered bumps of skin along the crook of his inner elbow. "But, I believe that if you have the power to help someone, you should use it. Each scar is a life my blood has saved."

She nodded, unconsciously reaching out to run her fingertips over his arm. The power to help someone... that power didn't necessarily apply to just magic. Even non-magical beings like him still had so many ways that they could save other people. "And Vector I know is your hometown. You have family there?"

He was quiet a moment before answering, "... No, not anymore. My father was a soldier in the Imperial army but died in combat before I was old enough to know him. My mother never remarried after that so I remained an only child. I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and help support the family, so entered the Academy as soon as I was old enough to apply. But that meant I lived away from home, and once I entered active duty my mother and I were rarely ever able to see each other. She... passed away while I was on assignment a number of years ago... it was weeks before I even found out..."

"I'm... sorry..." she said, still absently rubbing his arm. She had nothing to be sorry for aside from unknowingly bringing up a painful subject, but she couldn't think of anything more constructive to say. It was just that, for as kind and supportive as he was to everyone, it didn't sound like he had anyone back home he could go to for support himself. And that thought tugged at her heart in a new and uncomfortable way.

He inhaled deeply and nodded, then looked contemplative a moment. "Terra... speaking of learning of tragedies long after the fact... I apologize that I was made aware of this second-hand without your knowledge, but... General Celes informed me that you fell into a coma some time ago. Is everything all right?" He spoke calmly, but there was a break in his voice at that question that evidenced his concern.

"Oh!" she said in surprise, then looked away, wringing her hands. "Um..." She really had no reason to hide it from him, though. He was completely cordial with the other Espers after all, and he already knew she was half-Esper herself. "When... we returned to Narshe, I made contact with the frozen Esper in the mountains. There was a... reaction."

"Reaction?" he repeated, the concern deepening.

Terra shook her head and stood up, walking in front of him. "It would be easier if I just showed you." She closed her eyes and slightly raised her arms from her sides, letting out her breath and willing her Esper powers to manifest themselves. A glow covered her body, and her form shimmered and morphed into a pale pink humanoid creature covered in fine fur and a thick mane of pink hair.

She tentatively opened her eyes to gauge his reaction, and to her relief he was looking at her with a mix of fascination and awe. "That's amazing..." he breathed. "You are comfortable in this form, then? It does not cause you any ill effects?"

"I'm better with it now, but I can still only maintain this form for a limited amount of time," she said, looking at her hands. "When that Esper first awakened my dormant powers, I couldn't control them and went flying off in a frenzy. I ended up retreating into my own mind because I was afraid of what I was and what it might mean. But Locke told me about how hard everyone worked to pull me back out of it, and I was eventually able to accept this part of myself, too."

"I'm glad," said Leo, still gazing at her in wonder. "This is another important piece of yourself that the Empire suppressed all your life that you are now able to express. Just like your emotions, which I am sure will also continue to surface in time with the right circumstances."

She nodded and looked away. "It's... still a little intimidating, though. It was almost easier back when I didn't remember anything and didn't know anything about myself. Each time I learn something new, I feel like it's an extra responsibility added, and often a responsibility I don't feel prepared to handle. But... I think I would still prefer the possibility of making the wrong choice than having all my choices made for me."

"That... is true," Leo replied thoughtfully, turning to look back out the window at the island hovering in the sky. "Terra... I think you've helped me make my choice, too."

"Eh?" she wondered, her cheeks turning a little pinker than the rest of her.

He turned back to her and admitted, "All my life, I have hesitated to correct problems right in front of me out of fear of my actions causing greater problems in the future. I called it pragmatism, but I think... it was just fear of making the wrong choice, and remaining content to assume a lack of control in my life by simply following orders. My Emperor may be the keystone that binds my country together, but if he intends to rule the world through the fear of its destruction, then he is in dereliction of his duties. Deposing him could very well have the consequence of throwing the nation into anarchy. But... anarchy is merely gaining newfound freedoms and going through a process of discovery of what to do with them, for better or for worse. Many people will make the wrong choices... but I would rather they do that than be enslaved."

Terra smiled and clasped her hands together. "So you're going to help us fight?"

"Yes," he confirmed, standing up and approaching her. "I must face Kefka and Emperor Gestahl and make them answer for their actions, regardless of the consequences. They have acted unquestioned for far too long."

He took a deep breath, this decision still rather weighty to him. "But... I have a request of you, then."

"Yes?" replied Terra, a little surprised.

He extended his hand to her and looked to her with imploring eyes. "I ask that you accompany me. Not because of your powers or your heritage, though your powers will no doubt be invaluable... but because you inspire me. And because, even though I try to keep a calm face for everyone else's sake... I'm scared. And it would help if I had someone at my side whom I consider a dear friend."

Terra was very pink by this point, but she clasped his hand firmly in hers and nodded in assurance. "Then I promise, if you need me, I'll be there for you."

 


 

The team had gathered around a large world map spread out across one of the roulette tables in the airship's casino, poker chips laid out on it as markers. "Due to its elevation, we don't have any reconnaissance of the layout of this floating continent, so we're going to have to make our assault plans based on its geography from when it was grounded," Edgar explained, indicating the eastern third of the southern continent on the map.

Leo took one of the poker chips and placed it at the central western edge of the continent. "The Emperor and the Warring Triad were here when we caught a glimpse of them. As the Warring Triad cannot be moved without dire consequences, it is safe to assume that this is still their location."

Edgar nodded. "I would agree with that conclusion. The topography was cavernous, mountainous, and prone to shifting when we traversed the cave to the Sealed Gate previously. I would expect the terrain here to be equally treacherous. Avoiding this would be ideal, so I would suggest dropping in on them as close as possible." He laid another poker chip on top of the marker Leo had left.

"Due to the delicate nature of the Warring Triad, I believe a frontal assault would be ill-advised," Leo replied. He set another chip at the southern tip of the continent on the map and suggested, "I propose infiltrating from the peripheral of their view and use the mountains and caverns as natural cover. A smaller team of no more than three people would be preferable to avoid detection and put as few lives as possible at direct risk. Terra and I will be two members of this team; this point alone is not up for debate. I will confront the Emperor and Kefka over what they have done."

Celes stepped forward. "In that case, I would like to request to be the third member. It's only fitting that those of us who escaped the Empire's control be the ones to bring them to justice now. Plus, you asked me to watch your back, and Kefka's already gotten the better of us once. I'm not about to let that happen again."

"I would be honored to have you by my side, General," said Leo, nodding. Turning back to Edgar and the others, he confirmed, "Is this plan agreeable to you?"

Edgar looked over the map and rubbed his chin. "I understand the need to protect the statues, but still feel like you're putting yourselves at too much risk by landing so far away. The cave to the Sealed Gate was crawling with monsters and this Floating Continent is likely to be the same." He shook his head with a slight smile. "But you do seem quite accustomed to formulating strategies that require more effort on your part to minimize overall damage and loss of life."

"I did conquer South Figaro through nothing but a diplomatic agreement with the city's most affluent family," Leo replied, placing another chip at that location on the map. "Aside from a few minor skirmishes with the locals, it was a peaceful takeover."

Edgar's eyebrow twitched. "I don't know if you're expecting me to congratulate you for that, but..."

"It was necessary," said Leo, shaking his head. "The Empire was planning its fourth major campaign, opening with a large-scale naval assault on the port city of South Figaro to capture it as a new base of operations for further expansion into the Northern Continent. I merely headed them off by staging a nonviolent occupation first."

"Hmm... well, if you were planning on wooing me as well in order to have Figaro Castle itself surrender without a fight, I'm afraid you likely wouldn't be nearly as successful," Edgar countered. "Unfortunately, you're not really my type."

"No, I would have sent General Celes for that purpose," Leo replied absently, clearing the chips off the map. "You would have capitulated easily."

Edgar dramatically held his forehead and spun around. "Ahhh, I would have, too! Curse the treacherous Empire for exploiting my weaknesses!"

"And I would have stabbed him in the face if he tried to make a move on me," said Celes from the side.

"I can think of worse ways to die than by the hands of a lovely lady."

Sabin shook his head from beside him. "I would hope even you would be able to choose your country over a pretty face..." Looking over at Leo, he added, "And I certainly wouldn't let Figaro fall into the Empire's hands without a fight. I'm glad it didn't come to that, since I wouldn't want to have to fight you, General."

"Nor I you, Prince," Leo replied. "Your efforts at Doma were greatly appreciated."

"Well, I tried... ... Wait, you knew I was there?!" Sabin suddenly realized.

"You were... not inconspicuous," Leo attempted to describe in the politest manner possible. "However, I suspected Kefka to be plotting something, and despite my orders to the base to stand down in my absence, I did not trust him to not overrule them. So, after noticing a potential... distraction... upon my departure, I hoped it would be enough to keep him from action."

Sabin pounded his fist into his hand. "Oh yeah, I 'distracted' Kefka a few times all right. I'm just mad I still wasn't able to stop him from poisoning Doma."

"Still... I thank you for trying..." he replied softly. Looking down and fingering the collar of the kenpo gi he was wearing, he added, "And for the change of clothes. I apologize for not being more in the mood for conversation previously. I had... much on my mind."

Sabin laughed. "Ah, it's no big deal, General. When I first saw you at Doma, I thought, 'You know what, I like that guy, I hope we get to be friends some day.' And now here we are, sharing clothes and everything."

Leo gave him a dubious squint. "... If you are implying that I should let you wear my uniform, the answer is 'no'." Sabin snapped his fingers in mock disappointment. Leo continued to absently look at his loaner clothing and explained, "My relationship with my leadership may have become... complicated... however, the uniform is a symbol of my dedication and service to the people. It is not something I can treat trivially."

As if his words had summoned him, a member of the airship's staff appeared behind them, holding a neatly pressed and folded pile of green clothing. "The cleaning and mending has been completed, Sir."

"Thank you for your service," Leo said, bowing his head slightly and taking the garments. He looked to Terra and Celes, informing them, "Is there anything further either of you need to take care of before we depart? We cannot leave Kefka in possession of those gods any longer than necessary."

The two of them shook their heads, but Terra hunched her shoulders a little timidly. "I'm... sorry I didn't contribute anything to the planning meeting. I couldn't think of anything to say."

Leo gave her a reassuring smile. "Military tactics are outside your realm of experience, so there is nothing to be ashamed of."

"But... you seem so good at everything... it's intimidating when I'm not..." she confessed.

He leaned down and said softly, "You want to know a little secret? In my position it is imperative that I look like I know what I'm doing at all times. If you want a taste of how good I really am at things, I invite you to try playing cards with me sometime." He gave her a little wink, then walked off to get changed. Terra cocked her head and wondered what that meant, while Celes shook her head in amusement.

Although his specific reference to "cards" still escaped comprehension, Terra at least thought she understood what he was getting at. "General Leo" was a highly accomplished and competent man of many talents, but "Leo Cristophe" was an ordinary person who was quite likely just as uncertain and intimidated as she was. Just a little earlier he had confessed to her how scared he was, though he showed no signs of it in this meeting at all. His continued insistence that she accompany him indicated that this wasn't because he had overcome his fear, he was just hiding it in the face of those who had no need to know he had it. And if insecurities could be hidden, perhaps strengths could as well. Leo constantly seemed to see more in her than she would ever give herself credit for, so it could very well be she was capable of more than she thought she was, she had just convinced everyone, along with herself, that she wasn't.

Chapter Text

Leo, Celes, and Terra stood on the deck of the Blackjack while Setzer manned the helm, watching the triangular shadow of the Floating Continent above the clouds grow larger as they approached. Leo was back in his green uniform, freshly cleaned and mended, his sword at his hip and a compact Aegis Shield on his arm. Celes gave him an uneasy look and wondered, "General, are you sure you don't want to equip some Magicite, too? It's not a Magitek infusion, it's a voluntary gift from fallen Espers who wish to assist us."

Leo nodded. "While I do not wish to make light of those Espers' sacrifices, for a battle such as this I would rather not be experimenting with new abilities. I have nothing against magic in principle, but..." He raised his shield and flipped his sword in his hand. "For now I am content with my usage of it being relegated to enchanted tools."

"Understood, Sir," Celes replied. Though with a slight smirk, she added, "But if you ever wanted to learn, I'm sure Terra would be happy to teach you."

Terra perked up at that suggestion and grinned a little eagerly in Leo's direction. Magic was the one thing she could be absolutely certain she excelled at more than he did, and the prospect of being able to mentor him in something for a change made her feel... a bit giddy. Leo, upon seeing Terra's enthusiastic expression, felt a little stirring in his chest and cleared his throat, turning back to the approaching shadow. "An activity for another time. Let us not get distracted from our mission, General."

Suddenly a swarm of machines descended from above the clouds, the buzz of propellers filling the air. Leo stepped forward and immediately identified them as: "The Imperial Air Force?! The Emperor has them defending the Floating Continent?!"

Setzer turned the airship hard to port while Celes began preparing a spell. "Looks like we're going to have to break through them, then."

"Hold your fire, General, those are manned aircraft!" Leo ordered. "I will not attack my own nation's soldiers if it can at all be helped. Kefka must be utilizing them as defense knowing this."

Actually, Kefka probably thinks you're dead, Celes thought to herself. I certainly did at first, and you would have been had it not been for a freak coincidence. She still had no idea how it happened.

Leo gripped one of the airship's support tethers and pulled himself up onto the ship's railing, facing the oncoming aircraft. "This is General Leo of the Gestahlian Imperial Army ordering you to stand down!" he shouted into the swarm. "I must be allowed passage to speak with the Emperor!"

Several of the Sky Armor craft turned in his direction and fired Magitek lasers at him in response. He barely had time to raise his shield, the force of the impact knocking him back onto the airship deck.

Terra and Celes ran to his side as he pushed himself back to his feet. "General Leo... I don't think we're going to have any choice but to engage them," Celes informed him. Leo bowed his head and clenched his teeth, still not willing to resort to that just yet.

Terra bit her lip apprehensively. There had to be some way to stop them without killing them. ... Wait, that's it! That worked before, so why not now?

She ran to the airship railing and held out her arms, trying to target one of the aerial Magitek Armors between her hands. Once she had one in her sights, she charged her power and chanted, "Stop!"

The aerial Armor froze in mid-air, the airship sailing right past it. Terra beamed in accomplishment while Celes looked at her in shock and stammered, "Wait... before... was that you, too?! Did you...?"

Terra hunched her shoulders a little sheepishly. Celes strode over to her and quietly insisted, "Terra, if that was you who cast that Stop spell back in Thamasa, why didn't you say anything? You saved General Leo's life! Don't you think he deserves to know?"

"I..." Terra began, but before she could explain herself, the Armor that she had stopped before buzzed back to life and spun around to resume its pursuit. With no anchoring artifact like what had happened with Leo, the spell's effect had only a very limited duration.

Celes threw up a Protect spell as the aerial Armors resumed their assault, firing their lasers at the deck. "Well, it was a good idea in theory, but there's no way we're going to be able to stop all of them for long enough to get through!" Celes shouted.

Leo ran over to join them, covering them with his shield. "No, I believe we may still be able to utilize this strategy. You are quite ingenious, Terra." Terra blushed bright pink as Leo continued, "General Celes, are you able to cast that spell as well?"

"Y... yes, I know Stop," she replied. "But it takes 10 seconds per charge to cast it and the effects only last less than a minute. Even with both of us hitting them with peak efficiency it won't be enough."

"I understand that, General," said Leo, brandishing his sword. "I am not looking to freeze them indefinitely, just long enough to give me a target I can hit with surgical precision." Turning to Setzer, he confirmed, "Once they are stopped, I trust you will be able to pilot this vessel close enough for me to reach them, correct?"

"Ha, what do you take me for?" Setzer chuckled back. "I think I see your plan, though. You could win this easily with a more direct assault, but you'd rather take a gamble by increasing your risk for a chance at a greater reward." He spun the wheel of the airship, lurching it back in the direction of the fleet of Magitek aircraft. "I love it!"

Terra and Celes took their positions while Leo shielded them from incoming laser blasts. Celes targeted an incoming aerial Armor while Terra took one slightly behind it. Both of them chanted, "Stop!", freezing the two Armors in place. Leo leapt onto the railing while Setzer steered the airship towards the first Armor. When they were close enough, Leo thrust his sword into the Armor's weapon bay and severed the power supply to its laser cannons, then cut the barrels off the cannons as a visual indicator of its disability. In less than two seconds, he was able to move on to the next.

By the time they had disabled five Armors, the first came out from under its Stop spell and turned to resume its attack. But as per their efforts, the Armor was no longer able to fire its weapon and hung uselessly in the air behind them.

"Yes! It's working!" Celes cheered when she saw this. "Come on, Terra, there's still a dozen more to take out!"

Terra nodded and targeted another Armor. By this point, some of the Armor pilots had gotten wise to their strategy and held back from the airship, attempting to fire from a distance. But thanks to Setzer's expert piloting, they were still able to out-maneuver them and snipe them with Stop spells, allowing Leo to close in and disable them.

Leo sliced the cannon off the last Sky Armor, then leapt back onto the deck and wiped his brow with his sleeve. "That's the last of them." He turned to Terra and Celes with a smile and nodded in gratitude. "I commend you both for your efforts in concluding this battle without any life lost."

As he moved to rejoin them, a sudden wet slap was heard at the stern of the ship. "Gyahaha, guess who?" came a burbling voice.

All three of them turned to look what they had to face now, and Terra and Celes's faces instantly cringed. "... How?" Celes monotoned.

Leo, on the other hand, lightly pounded his fist into his palm with realization. "Purple octopus. I get it now." Looking back and forth at the reactions of the other two, he queried, "I take it you have both encountered this creature before?" Both of them nodded with a groan.

"No, I'm serious, this is our LAST fight! Honest!" said the purple octopus that had somehow flopped onto the deck of the airship while thousands of feet in the air. He rubbed his tentacles together and snickered, "Hee hee, and look at these two cuties for me to get my tentacles around. And one ugly one to slap around a bit."

Leo's expression soured to match the other two's, commenting, "And now I believe I understand more than I would like to. Er, Terra?"

He turned his head to see Terra raise her arms to charge a spell, an impassive expression on her face. She chanted in a quiet deadpan: "Firaga," and giant red fireball fell from the sky and engulfed the purple octopus in a blazing inferno.

Celes's lip twitched as she regarded Terra a little dubiously. "Did you just... spontaneously come up with that spell? That isn't one any of our Magicite can grant us..."

Terra blinked out of her wooden expression and looked up at the two of them sincerely. "Oh, sorry... I just... didn't want to have to deal with him again." Her legs wobbled and she collapsed to her knees, panting a little.

"Terra?!" Leo dropped to his knee next to her and helped support her back. "Are you all right?"

Celes sighed and reached into her bag, pulling out a small vial and tossing it to Leo. "After firing off a dozen Stop spells and then a high-level offensive spell like that, she's just out of stamina. Give her that and she should be all right."

He popped the top off the vial with his thumb and then held it to Terra's lips, holding his other arm around her shoulders. She swallowed the Ether and then let out a little breath, relaxing. "Thank you... I feel a lot better."

"You really devised a spell that powerful all by yourself?" he wondered in fascination, helping her to her feet. "I knew your skill with magic was great, but that's still amazing."

Terra looked down bashfully. "New magical abilities just... come to me sometimes..." she admitted.

The flames around the octopus died down and he let out a smoky cough. "Ugh... looks like I lose again... But today I brought along a sturdier friend! Mister Typhon, come on down!"

A large pink creature with yellow stripes and a giant mouth rose above the airship deck behind the octopus, bellowing out, "FUNGAHHH!"

Leo warily raised his sword. "So, I understand the purple octopus now. But this pink creature?"

"No, this one's... new," replied Celes, also holding out her sword. The monster called (Mister?) Typhon opened its gaping mouth, then belched out a gust of hurricane-force wind, knocking all three of them back over the airship's opposite railing.

Leo found himself in a free-fall, the bottom of the airship rapidly receding from his view. What just happened? After everything they'd gone through to get here, after everything that was at stake in this mission, were they really going to get done in by some random pink monster knocking them off a ledge before they could even face Kefka and Gestahl?

He saw Terra and Celes swimming through the air in his direction from the peripheral of his vision. Each one of them grabbed one of his arms and looped it over their shoulders. "Don't worry, General. We've got you," Celes assured him.

Terra nodded, and in unison the two of them chanted, "Float!" Their descent halted, and they were left hanging harmlessly in the air.

Leo looked down at his dangling legs and the open ocean dotted by specks of land below him. "You know... you are starting to make learning magic quite a bit more tempting..." he admitted. "But for now I am honored to be able to rely on the two of you."

Terra grinned, while Celes looked back up towards the airship and shouted, "We're okay, Setzer! Proceed to the rendezvous point and we'll meet back up with you once the mission is complete!"

"Understood, Celes!" Setzer shouted back down from the deck. "Best of fortune to all of you!"

As Float was only a levitation spell, Celes and Terra used small bursts of Fire spells to propel the three of them towards the ledge of the Floating Continent. Once they landed, all three collapsed with a relieved sigh and took a moment to catch their breaths and recover.

"The mission begins now," said Leo. "Kefka, Emperor Gestahl... and the Warring Triad are just ahead. Is everyone ready?"

The others nodded, but then Celes looked up and pointed a short ways away, "Look, someone else is here!" It was a collapsed human figure clad in all black with a face-concealing black mask. "Is that... Shadow?"

Shadow twitched and pushed himself to a sitting position as they approached. "Accursed Imperials... the moment I'm no longer of use to them they try to off me..." He looked up and saw Leo standing over him, then froze. "You...?"

"Don't lump General Leo in with the likes of Kefka, he would never--" Terra began, but Leo held up a hand to request she drop that topic, then extended that hand towards Shadow.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Shadow looked at Leo's hand, then stood of his own power. "I should be asking the same of you. You were quite clearly dead last I saw. I trailed Kefka after he left town, and that's how I ended up here."

"Dead?" Leo repeated, unconsciously holding a hand to his chest. "No, I was... severely wounded, certainly, however General Celes and Terra were able to heal me in time."

Shadow shook his head. "I know a killing blow when I see one. You would have been dead in seconds from a strike like that. It took Kefka much longer than that to leave town once he was done with you and the rest of the Espers, and none of your companions had revived by that point." He looked over at Terra, cold eyes judging her from beneath his mask. "Except for you. You woke up briefly and looked like you cast a spell on him right after Kefka struck him the last time. What did you do?"

Leo looked to Terra in surprise while Celes looked at her expectantly. Terra hunched her shoulders, shying away from all the attention suddenly put upon her. "I... I just didn't want him to die. My body acted all on its own and I didn't even know what I did. Celes was the one who discovered that I'd frozen him in time in the moment before he died, which is what gave us the chance to heal him..."

Shadow nodded. "I see. Something I should perhaps account for in future jobs to ensure they are adequately completed..."

Leo, on the other hand, was still gazing at Terra and Celes in dumbfounded shock, his hand clutching at his uniform breast. "I... I had no idea. I owe both of you my life."

Celes tilted her head towards Terra. "No, you owe Terra your life, and she owes me for figuring that out. Nothing I did would have mattered if it wasn't for her quick action."

Terra continued to look at the ground while Leo regarded her with a sense of... what was he feeling? Gratitude? Certainly he was grateful. Admiration, possibly? Indebtedness? Devotion? It was a mix of so many things that his pulse and breath quickened in response: a pulse and breath that he now knew still only existed because of her. The fact that she had never pressed the matter, and even now shied away from it, indicated she didn't want him feeling obligated to her. Certainly, of all the people he'd assisted in his life, he also expected nothing in return. He just... wasn't accustomed to being on the receiving end of it.

With a bow of his head, he took Terra's hand and said, "... Thank you. Those mere words will never be enough to express the depths of my gratitude, but... truly... thank you."

Terra nodded, squeezing his hand back. "I'm just glad... that I was able to do something for you... when you've done so much for me..."

They continued to hold each other's hands in silence for a moment longer, unable to think of anything else to say, and instead just appreciating the other's presence. Shadow finally interrupted, "As you were my original employer, do you consider my job completed or is there more that you require of me? Additional services will be an additional fee."

Leo cleared his throat and let go of Terra's hand, turning to Shadow and remembering where he was. "I had no intention of dragging you any further into this mission, however even if I were to dismiss you now, I see no way for you to get off this floating island without us. Therefore, I would ask that you accompany us. With hazard pay included."

"Is this going to interfere with our original three-person plan?" Celes wondered.

"If you worry about stealth or mobility when adding an extra team member, I will be but a shadow beneath your feet, a breeze behind your back. My presence shall add no additional weight," Shadow explained, crossing his arms.

Suddenly the rock wall next to them exploded and a hulking purple monster with horns, a black mane, and a spiked tail emerged, roaring threateningly. Shadow immediately leapt in the air and hurled a pair of shuriken at its face, blinding it. Leo swooped in underneath it and managed four strikes with his sword, one on each limb to immobilize it. Once he was clear, Terra and Celes stood on each side of it and fired complimentary Blizzara spells, encasing it in ice. The ice shattered into dust, leaving nothing of the monster behind.

"Good work, everyone," said Leo, sheathing his sword. "I would prefer to keep encounters like these to a minimum to conserve our strength, however. Shadow, would you be able to direct us to the most covert route to traversing this island?"

"As you wish," Shadow replied. "Come, a path is opened beyond that wall the monster broke down."

The four of them made their way towards the center of the floating island, mostly through utilizing natural tunnels that criss-crossed its surface. Just as Edgar had warned, they were faced with numerous shifting pieces of land and caverns that did not go where they thought they would. Despite this, they finally emerged from a cavern onto a path that appeared to lead straight to the summit where Kefka and Gestahl stood with the Warring Triad.

Unfortunately, standing in their path was a hulking, six-legged beast breathing crackling energy from its mouth that even Shadow's skill at stealth could not avoid. " My name is Ultima, " it rumbled. " I am power both ancient and unrivaled... I do not bleed as I am but strength given form... Feeble creatures of flesh... begone! "

Celes and Leo gulped a little apprehensively and drew their weapons. "Ultima Weapon..." Leo breathed. "That is... a fabled weapon of mass destruction created during the War of the Magi. Pure energy was forged into both a fearsome monster and an unrivaled sword, each bearing the name Ultima... As they have both been lost to history for a millennium I had thought them to be mere legends..."

Terra cocked her head. "Ultima? You mean this sword?" she wondered, pulling out a short, glowing blade. "I brought it along because it sounded strong but it doesn't do much for me so I've been using magic this whole time."

Celes and Leo faltered, then Celes turned to her with a shocked, "Wait, Terra, you're telling me you've been carrying around the Ultima Weapon this entire time?! ... How? .... When? Where?!"

Terra shyly receded back, holding the grip of the sword in both hands and attempting to hide behind it. "We found it in the Cave to the Sealed Gate after I woke up... It was just in a box..."

Leo held the side of his head in disbelief. "The Ultima Weapon is an ancient blade said to transform the strength of its wielder into raw attack power that can cut through any defense. We've had a base at that cave for years, and it had just been... sitting in a box inside it?!"

" Feeble creatures! " Ultima the monster bellowed again, growing impatient at being ignored.

"Silence!" Celes shouted at it, throwing the spell in its direction to temporarily shut it up. "Well, if the sword was a the Cave to the Sealed Gate, this monster version must have been sealed away there, too, and was unleashed when the island was wrenched from the earth."

Terra looked up at Leo and then held the sword out to him. "Did... you want to use it?"

"Yes," he said automatically. He then cleared his throat and corrected to a more courteous, "Er, may I?"

Terra grinned and offered it to him. He took it gingerly like she was handing over a prized limited-edition gold-pressed album signed by the composer. As soon as it was transferred to his hand, the blade flared to life and elongated to three times its original size, glowing a bright bluish-white. He spun the blade once to test its balance and it made a slight hum as it moved. He couldn't help but break out into a giddy grin as he gave a few more test swipes, highly satisfied with the results. Turning to Terra, he commented, "You're just full of exciting surprises today."

"Are we going to fight this monster or not?" Shadow wondered blandly.

Leo dropped his Aegis Shield and replaced it with a Genji Glove on his left hand. With that hand, he drew his Crystal Blade, holding it in one hand while maintaining the Ultima Weapon in the other. "Oh, it isn't even a fight anymore," he said with a wry smile.

He spun the Crystal Blade and pointed it at the sky, summoning the Shock spell to blow the Ultima creature into the air, then with its belly exposed, rushed underneath it and slashed with the Ultima Weapon, leaving a glowing blue streak. "Hah! But that's not the end of it!" Before the creature could even fall to the ground, he summoned the Shock again, followed by another slash of Ultima.

From the side, Celes merely stood with drooped shoulders and a twitching eyebrow. "Terra... what have you just unleashed?"

Terra clasped her hands together and beamed happily while watching. "He looks like he's having so much fun!"

Celes regarded her with a disconcerted side-eye. "Between you summoning fiery balls of death from the sky and him dual-wielding enchanted death sticks, you two were practically made for each other."

"Hm?" said Terra, looking up at her with a perplexed expression.

"Nothing."

After juggling the Ultima Weapon between half a dozen alternating Shock blasts and sword strikes, the creature evaporated into nothing without even managing to get a single attack of its own in. Leo came trotting back to the group beaming like a child who had just won a carnival game, a sword over each shoulder. "Ahh, that was a good stress relief. It said itself that it wasn't even a living creature so I had no reason to hold anything back."

"You were amazing, General!" Terra congratulated, grinning up at him.

He swung the Ultima Weapon around a few more times with a satisfied smile, explaining, "Well, I just got to wield a legendary sword against a legendary monster... it was like I finally got to play the hero I always fantasized about being when I was younger."

Terra tilted her head. "Huh. If that was what you wanted to be, why didn't you do that instead of becoming a general?"

That was an unintentionally piercing question that jolted Leo back into reality. He looked at the sword more contemplatively, then lowered it slowly, replying, "Because... I have responsibilities. If people you care about need you to be something, then you need to be that thing for them, even if there is something else you would rather be doing."

He flipped the Ultima Weapon around and held the grip back towards her. "I thank you for the opportunity, however... I cannot keep this. Up those stairs lies something I must face as the person I am, not the person I once imagined myself to be."

Terra tentatively took the sword back from him and nodded, the glowing blade retracting back to the size of a dagger once it left his hand. Just like on the boat, when he'd started talking about things that really interested him he'd dropped all pretense of formality and conversed in casual tones, as though that ordinary person whose name was on his dog tags was coming out of hiding to socialize a bit. But he seemed easily spooked and would retreat back under the much more formal "General" persona the moment he didn't feel completely comfortable. It wasn't that she disliked the General persona or found it to be any less of a "real" representation of himself, it was simply... just one facet of the whole. She wished he didn't feel he had to hide other parts of himself, especially since she liked the bits that she'd gotten glimpses of.

Shadow backed away and bowed slightly. "The confrontation to come is one that I have no right to be a part of. I will take my leave."

"Your services until now have been appreciated, Shadow," said Leo, reaching into the cargo pocket of his coat and tossing Shadow a bag of gil. "Please take care of yourself." Shadow merely took the money and leapt away out of sight without a word.

Celes looked to Terra and Leo and confirmed, "Are we ready?"

Leo took a slow, deep breath, let it out, then nodded. "I will confront them... but I cannot promise that I will not hesitate. A lifetime of conditioned submission cannot be so easily broken in a day. Therefore, if I falter, if I cannot bring myself to do what clearly needs to be done..."

Terra reached over and held his hand. "You're a kind and gentle person... I don't blame you for not being able to raise your sword against another person, even someone like Kefka." Squeezing his hand a little, she added, "But... in a case like this, even if you did strike him down... I wouldn't think any less of you for it."

He lightly squeezed her hand back and quietly replied, "I appreciate it." It was true that he honestly did appreciate her efforts to make him feel better despite her emotional inexperience still occasionally causing her to miss the mark. And in this case, her sentiment was certainly kind on its surface, but... it was also essentially saying that it didn't matter what he did. He would rather be held to some standard so that he could be made aware whether his actions were doing more harm than good. Was Terra legitimately okay with his conduct, past and present, or was it a noncommittal answer to avoid conflict? He wanted her to become emotionally stronger, for her own sake, surely, but also so that she could be strong enough to hold him accountable rather than settle into the same sort of codependent relationship that he was only now beginning to realize that he'd shared with his own leadership. He wished so much to believe that he had ultimately done the right thing, even if it had caused her so much pain in the past, even if it had led to this outcome, but...

She had meant well in her words, and she was sincerely trying to offer support, and thus he couldn't bring himself to be critical of her naivete and press her for a more firm opinion on action versus inaction. So he would just continue to do what he had been doing all along and pretend that he was okay. He was such a hypocrite.

"Right. Let's move," he affirmed.

Chapter Text

The three current and former Imperial soldiers cautiously made their way up the stairs to the summit. As they rose, the tops of three massive stone figures came into view, a shining white field of magic pulsing between them. Below them stood Kefka and Gestahl, basking in the statues' energy.

When they reached the top, Gestahl turned to them and commented, "Well well... look who's here. The two traitor generals and the test subject."

Leo visibly flinched at being categorized under "traitor general" by his own Emperor. After all his years of service, would Gestahl really so flippantly dismiss him solely on Kefka's word?

"'Two'?" Kefka repeated, turning his attention away from the statues to look at who had come to bother them. Upon seeing Leo, he stumbled backwards, almost falling over. His surprise quickly turned to anger as he balled his fists and shouted, "Why can't you ever just quit?! No matter what I do to you, you always, ALWAYS keep coming back to get in my way!"

Gestahl actually laughed at his outburst. "Fwa-ha-ha, it doesn't matter. It just means they've all come here to die together. Behold, my Warring Triad!" He stepped into the field of the statues, drawing their energy into his body and cackling. "Ohh, such magnificent power!"

He... he had lost his mind. Had the infusion of this level of magic destroyed his sensibilities like it had Kefka? Or had he always...?

Leo shook off his nerves and forced himself to step forward and demand, "Emperor Gestahl, I bid you cease this madness! Please understand that I have in no way betrayed you. I have always served what I believed were the best interests of our nation. However, I cannot see how controlling these gods of magic would benefit our people."

Gestahl raised a wispy eyebrow and smirked under his mustache. "Yes, my boy, you have certainly been a great asset to the Empire. Your leadership and combat skills are peerless and have earned you the trust and respect of the entire military."

Leo dropped to one knee and bowed out of habit. "I am grateful for your praise, my liege. I achieved this through fairness, honesty, and compassion for my fellow people, and I would hope for the same of you. So please, heed my counsel that relying on the power of these statues is--"

"You have seen how eager they are to fight under your command," Gestahl interrupted. "Green young men plucked from occupied towns transformed by your hand into loyal soldiers ready to die for the Empire. Thanks to your efforts we had an endless supply of willing sacrifices."

Leo's body jolted like he had been physically struck, a burning pain just as intense as Kefka stabbing him filling his chest. He had been fighting to protect those soldiers... to make them feel cared for while away from their homes and families... not to manipulate them!  But had the end result... made them comfortable with war? Made them admire him to the point that they were blinded to the carnage he was leading them into?

And the Emperor... approved of this. Soldiers rushing headlong into battle and sacrificing their lives for the glory of the Empire wasn't a tragic necessity to be minimized, but a desired outcome. Leo had... essentially killed them all with kindness.

He held his hand to his mouth and tensed, the pain in his heart making it hurt to even breathe. This meant that just as how Doma had been a microcosm of his relationship with Kefka, the mission to Thamasa was potentially a microcosm of the Emperor's relationship with him: He was put in command to genuinely gain the trust of those around him, which the Emperor would then exploit. And it hadn't even taken a Slave Crown to get him to lead all those people to their deaths... he had done so blindly and willingly.

He was vaguely aware of a rustle of fabric in front of him. Raising his head slightly, he was greeted by a pale pink cape gently swaying before him. Recognizing who it belonged to, he hoarsely choked out, "Terra...?"

Terra squared her shoulders and swallowed, standing between Leo and the Emperor. "Please... stop this. You're hurting him..." she demanded meekly.

Kefka blinked, then began laughing hysterically. Emperor Gestahl joined him, mocking, "Fwa-ha-ha, how can you be worried about someone else's feelings being hurt when you're just a mistake of nature not even capable of feeling emotions yourself?"

She flinched, and closed her eyes, her reflexes telling her to run away from the mockery and insults. But... she couldn't. Some other feeling was telling her to stand her ground. Taking a deep breath through her nose, she softly countered, "That was... because of you."

Gestahl stopped laughing just long enough to wonder, "Hm?"

"You're the reason I've been unable to feel things, not my lineage. You stole those emotions from me. General Leo has been helping me to find them again, and they may not yet be fully formed or functional, but they're there . Thanks to him I've learned to laugh when I'm happy... and to cry when I'm sad..." Raising her chin, she glared down at Kefka and Gestahl and observed, "But when I see the sorts of things that make you laugh, I start to wonder which of us really doesn't understand emotions."

Gestahl scowled and raised his arm. "Hold your tongue, girl. Need I remind you that now that the Warring Triad is in my possession, you have been rendered obsolete."

A spark of light erupted from the center of the statues and struck Terra, pushing her back and freezing her in place. Leo jumped to his feet and shouted, "Terra!", but when he reached out to touch her shoulder, he was shocked away by the force field's energy.

"She was never anything but a tool to help my Empire reach its true power. There was never any way she would ever be anything more," Gestahl said from behind him. "You, however, have so much more potential, Leo. A warrior of your caliber could lead the Empire to even further greatness." He extended his hand. "All you have to do is undergo a Magitek infusion and you, too, will become worthy of inheriting the new Gestahlian Magitek Empire."

Leo slowly turned to glare at the Emperor, his fists shaking at his sides. "I want no part of such an Empire..." he growled.

Gestahl let out a disappointed sigh. "Then, unfortunately, your services are no longer required." A second beam shot out from between the statues, forcing Leo to his knees in stasis beside Terra.

The Emperor turned to Celes, who had been silent through this entire exchange thus far, and extended his hand. "Celes, my child, come to me. You alone are special. You successfully endured the Magitek infusion and paved the way for the future to come. Why don't I give you and Kefka the task of creating progeny to build my new Magitek Empire?"

Kefka smirked and slid over to her. "Just so you know, all it takes to woo me is a little bit of death and destruction. How about you kill those two and offer me their heads, and I'll overlook any treachery you may have committed until now." He was initially infuriated that Leo had somehow survived Thamasa, but getting the chance to see his soul completely shattered here had made up for it. And what better way to top it off than by having him killed by someone he cared about? Oh, he knew just the thing, actually!

With a giddy laugh, Kefka turned to Gestahl and took the ceremonial Imperial saber from him. Holding out the golden Imperial regalia to Celes, he offered, "Now, take this sword! Kill them both!"

Celes held out her hands and took the sword from him, looking at it passively. Kill General Leo and Terra...? What good would that do? Despite Gestahl's insistence that she was "special", the Empire had already considered her disposable once before. Even if she did follow their orders, it was inevitable that such a time would come again.

Gestahl approached the statues again and spread his arms. "Think of it, Celes. Together, we shall rule the world."

Rule the world? She'd never wanted anything so grand. Then again, Leo had remained loyal to the Empire in order to maintain the position of power that he had felt was best equipped to protecting everyone else from Kefka. Even if it meant making sacrifices along the way. And here, right behind her, were the Warring Triad, the ultimate source of magical power, hers for the taking if she so chose. With that kind of power, she could easily stop Kefka and Gestahl, and then reforge the Empire into something more suitable.

She approached Leo and Terra's frozen forms and held out the sword hesitantly. But in order to gain the power to stop them, she'd have to kill her friends. Not just friends, though. Leo especially was more like... family. Like an esteemed older brother who was always better than her at everything whom she simultaneously admired and resented for it. An older brother whom she'd promised she'd have his back. Not stab him in it. If this was the price of the power she'd need to stop Kefka...

"Power only breeds strife..." she whispered. "It would be better if it didn't exist at all!"

She spun around and rushed at Kefka, driving the sword into his belly instead. She froze there momentarily, both of them locking eyes in a shocked expression at what she'd just done. Celes let go of the sword and backed away slowly while Kefka fell to his knees, hand twitching over the blade protruding from his abdomen as though he was still trying to process what just happened to him.

"Owww!!" Kefka finally moaned. He ripped the sword out and flailed, pacing in frantic circles while staring at the blood covering his hands. "I... I'm bleeding! I'm bleeding!" Beginning to feel a little light-headed, he slowly sank to his knees again and clutched at his wound. "No... no..." Doubling over and pounding his fist repeatedly on the ground, he continued to incoherently shout, "I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate HATE YOU!!"

He lifted his head and glared venomously at Celes, his eyes shining with murder. The sheer hatred in his heart was enough to give him the strength to push himself back to his feet, then spin around and implore the three statues, "Gods, you were born only to fight! Now is the time to show me that power of yours!"

He rushed into the glowing field generated by the statues but was blown back by its pressure. Unfazed but angered even further, he shook his head and threw himself against the field again. "Let me in here, dammit!" When the statues again failed to respond, he shouted, "Don't you dare ignore me! I command you to show me your power!"

At this point even Gestahl was troubled by Kefka's behavior and stepped up to intervene. "Kefka, stop this! If you revive the Warring Triad, they'll destroy the very world we're trying to rule! There's no meaning in that!"

"Shut up!" Kefka retorted, not even caring anymore. "Everything eventually comes to nothing, anyway, so what does it matter if it's now or later?"

"Kefka! Have you gone mad?!" Gestahl gasped.

"Mad?" wondered Kefka, blinking dramatically. "Why, Emperor, whatever could you mean by that? This is the perfect time to show them all the power of the Warring Triad!"

With a sigh, Gestahl raised his hand and said, "Then you leave me no choice, Kefka. If, like Leo and Celes before you, you refuse to serve your purpose, then I'm afraid this is as far as you go. But don't feel too bad. As a final consolation, I'll just put you to sleep with the very magic you unleashed."

Kefka cocked his head and gaped in mock surprise, then began laughing hysterically. Gestahl paused, his arm still raised, and wondered, "What's so funny?" When Kefka merely continued to laugh, he resigned himself with, "Hmph, very well... I suppose it's only fitting that you go out laughing." Spreading his palm in the air, he shouted, "Firaga!"

But unlike the ball of fire that was summoned from the sky when Terra spontaneously generated that spell, nothing happened. Kefka held his cheek melodramatically, then tilted his head at the Emperor with a coy raised eyebrow. Frustrated, Gestahl attempted again, "Flare!" Still nothing. "I... Impossible! Why isn't my magic working?" Becoming more desperate, he attempted, "Meltdown!" Still no response.

Kefka pranced side to side like a squirrel taunting a dog from a tree. Completely flummoxed, Gestahl sputtered, "K... Kefka! How... How are you doing this?"

Kefka stopped his prancing and approached the Emperor, looking him in the eye with a mad grin. "You wanna know how?" He kicked Gestahl in the gut, sending him sprawling backwards. "Cuz I'm standing in the middle of the Warring Triad, duh. They absorb any magic sent their way. Why, did you perhaps not notice?"

Gestahl coughed in shock and pushed himself to his feet. Kefka merely shook his head and clicked his tongue in mock disappointment, then turned around and addressed the statues, "Warring Triad, it looks like your first victim has volunteered himself! Let's show this worthless excuse for an Emperor your true power!"

"No! Kefka, stop playing around!" Gestahl demanded frantically.

"DO IT!" Kefka commanded.

Suddenly a huge bolt of energy shot down from the heavens, blowing both Kefka and Gestahl off their feet. Kefka immediately leapt back up and giddily exclaimed, "Sweet!" Further bolts began raining haphazardly from the sky, blowing both of them to the ground again. Kefka jumped up and shouted, "No, no, where are you aiming?! He's over THERE!"

Gestahl staggered back to his feet but was blown back by another bolt dropping right beside him. Kefka jumped up and down excitedly, shouting, "So close! A little more to the right!" Gestahl attempted to limp away while Kefka mocked from behind him, "Run, run, or you'll be well-done!"

He didn't make it. The next bolt struck Gestahl with a direct hit, causing the aged Emperor to teeter and fall limply to the ground. "Bulls-eye!" Kefka cheered. He stalked up to the fallen Emperor and looked over his body passively. "Well, I guess I take back calling you 'worthless' before. Now you're less than worthless." He kicked the Emperor's body disdainfully towards the edge of the floating landmass.

Gestahl still apparently had a little bit of breath in him, and wheezed out, "Terror... is about to engulf the world..." Kefka responded only with a disgruntled huff and gave his former Emperor one final push, sending his broken body falling off the edge of the continent and into the abyss below.

With an exaggerated hand-wiping motion, Kefka spun around and returned to the statues, spreading his arms and bidding them to unleash their power again. Steeling herself, Celes ran up behind him and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Stop this, Kefka!" she demanded. But Kefka only spun around nonchalantly, swinging his arm and striking Celes hard in the side of the head, knocking her to the edge of the cliff where she only just barely managed to hang on.

Kefka then returned his attention to the statues and wordlessly placed his hands on one of them, leaning against it until it began to scuff across the ground with an unnerving screech. As he pushed, the field between the three statues began to howl and waver.

Celes struggled in her attempt to pull herself back up from the edge of the cliff, watching Kefka helplessly. "Kefka... don't... if you disturb their balance, their power will run out of control!"

But that was the entire point to him. He grabbed the second statue and similarly moved it out of alignment, the field weakening even further. If he had to sacrifice the entire world to serve himself, then so be it. That's why he hated Leo so much. The man was constantly sacrificing his own well-being for the supposed sake of the world, but none of it ever mattered . Look at how easily it had all come crashing down. Look at what state he's in now. And for what? Not only had Leo constantly gotten in his way for over a decade, his obstruction had been ultimately meaningless , which made it even more infuriating.

The third statue was now moved, and the field between them collapsed completely. Now everyone was going to find out just how ultimately meaningless their attempts at opposing him had been.

Suddenly a whistle was heard from the side and Kefka turned in surprise. "Who's there?"

A man in dark clothes and a face-concealing mask jumped from an adjoining cliff and pulled Celes to safety. She staggered to her feet and gasped, "Shadow?!"

Shadow launched himself at the statue closest to Kefka and pushed it into him, pinning him between it and the statue behind him. "Go! It's up to you to protect the world!" he shouted while holding Kefka in place.

The collapse of the field between the statues also eliminated the force fields that were pinning Terra and Leo. They both stumbled and breathed heavily, as though they had been slowly suffocating the entire time. It wasn't just the stasis fields that disappeared though. The power that maintained the very structural integrity of the Floating Continent had been severely disrupted.

Leo held the side of his head, panting. He had been aware of what was going on while frozen, however he had been unable to react. Now that the stasis had been lifted, everything that had transpired flashed through his head at once. Celes stabbing Kefka... Kefka... murdering the Emperor... the pillar of his nation so thoughtlessly discarded... the Warring Triad... the world...

Celes knelt beside the two of them and urged, "Come on, if we work together we can put the statues back in position."

Terra shook her head. "No... the magical field has already been broken. Even if we were to put them back, it's already too late. The only thing we can do is get out of here before they destroy us."

Leo slowly bowed his head and covered his eyes with his hand. "I am... so sorry that I have put the two of you... and everyone else... in this position. I should have dealt with Kefka years ago..."

"Regrets won't do us any good now! We need to move, General!" Celes shouted, pulling on his arm.

Terra looped his other arm around her shoulders and helped him stand. She swallowed and said, "General... I know you have a lot of regrets... And someday I hope I'll be strong enough that you're comfortable talking to me about them. But no matter what might have come of it, one thing I don't ever want you to regret... is being kind."

He lifted his head and stared ahead, the slightest spark of life returning to his eyes. She had made a specific request. A standard she wanted him held to. With no Emperor left, it was the only order he had at the moment to be held accountable to. "Understood..." he murmured.

The rock face they were standing on shuddered and began to break apart. Celes turned to where Shadow held Kefka at bay and shouted, "Shadow, let's go!" But before he could do anything, the continent lurched and threw Celes, Leo, and Terra to the side, tumbling down a cliff to another portion of the floating island.

"Don't worry about me! Just run!" Shadow called after them. "There's no stopping these things now! I'll come back, don't you worry!"

"Shadow!" Terra shouted back up the cliff.

"There's no time, we have to get out of here!" Celes insisted. The ground beneath their feet began to give way and they had no choice but to run.

Leo's mind was still in a fog and he was only partially aware of his surroundings. The sky was growing ever darker and the world was falling apart around him. He ran because he was told to run, but he had no idea where he was going anymore. Where could he even go from here?

The three of them reached the far edge of the continent, the silhouette of the airship hovering in the murky black sky below them. Terra pulled Celes back and shook her head, insisting, "We need to wait for Shadow!"

As the continent continued to shudder and fall apart, Leo stood atop the cliff and looked passively down into the gaping void below them. This... this was exactly how Orco e Delphina ended... at least for him. Orcus, after having devoted his life's work to a relationship that was not reciprocated and losing everything because of it, found himself at the top of a cliff gazing into the churning waters below.

Orcus... how did your story end? Where did you go from here? Looking forward I see no other path...

There was sudden movement to his side, and he vaguely heard Celes shout, "We've got him, let's get out of here!"

Terra took Leo's hand and pulled, commanding him, "Jump!"

And so he did. As the crumbling continent fell away from view and he plunged into the abyss below, Leo closed his eyes, desperately wishing that it hadn't come to this, but nevertheless resigning himself to the fact that this really was the only possible outcome. Orcus's story ended here... and so did his.

But the river falls from the mountain
And the river ends at the sea
Now a desolate, black expansion
Is all I see
Eternally...

Eternally...

Eternally...

Chapter Text

On that day, the world was changed forever.

Terra slowly began to regain consciousness, the sensation of dry soil and weedy brush beneath her body. She weakly raised her head and squinted her eyes back into focus, trying to take in her surroundings. A howling wind blew arid sand across a barren wasteland. The entire landscape was bathed in a murky reddish hue by a sky in perpetual sunset tones. Through the sound of the wind, Terra could also hear a cacophony of distant wails and growls of unknown creatures.

She pushed herself to her knees and looked all around her, clasping her arms around herself. It was... empty. There was nothing. No one. Just an endless expanse of wasteland in all directions. "General Leo? Celes? Shadow?" she attempted to call, but the only response was the howl of monsters in the distance.

She looked down at her hand, shaking. She'd had Leo's hand when they jumped from the collapsing Floating Continent onto the airship, but he'd been in a nearly catatonic state by that point. A state that she'd recognized from her own experience as being a defense mechanism when she was just too emotionally overwhelmed. She'd wanted to take him somewhere safe to try to help him calm down, but as soon as they'd reached the airship, it was as if the air itself had been rent apart and the ship snapped in two, sending everyone falling overboard.

She hadn't been able to hold on. To anybody. Leo, Celes, Setzer, Locke, Edgar, Sabin... they'd all slipped through her fingers and vanished into the tempest.

Staggering to her feet, she took a few uneasy steps in an arbitrary direction. She had to find someone... anyone... if only to reassure herself that she wasn't completely alone in this harsh, unfamiliar world.

Suddenly a blinding beam of light shot through the air overhead, striking somewhere beyond the horizon to the east. Terra looked back and forth, west to east. That beam of light had to have been shot by someone . But at the same time, it was also likely shot at someone. If she headed west towards the source, she might find someone dangerous. If she headed east towards the target, she might find someone in danger.

Her decision didn't even require any debate. Squaring her shoulders, Terra turned and headed east.

 


 

Terra walked all day and into the night. The stretch of land she found herself on was narrow and winding like some kind of serpent and was populated by a fearsome array of monsters she had never encountered in her travels before. It got to the point where she had to relent and find shelter under a rock for the night because the monster presence was far greater than she was used to and she was running dangerously low on both stamina and recovery items.

Once the rust-colored dawn came, though, she was back on her feet and headed in the direction of the sunrise. It had been a full day now and still she had not run into a single other person. Over the hours she had slowly begun to dread that she may indeed be the only person left in this inhospitable world.

But near the end of the second day, she heard something intermingled with the distant howls of monsters. It was a different sort of cry. A human cry. A child.

Despite her legs being on the verge of giving out from the day and a half of constant travel with no food, water, or sleep, she quickened her pace towards the sound of the crying. Passing through some trees, she came upon what appeared to be a large sinkhole that had filled in with debris-laden water. Beyond the sinkhole appeared to be a village, or at least what was left of one. Houses were half-collapsed and falling into the water, and the ones still standing were in significant disrepair.

She followed the edge of the sinkhole until she came across a narrow strip of land that could connect her with the rest of the village. As she followed the source of the crying, she was finally able to see what appeared to be a young boy no more than four years old crouched by the edge of the sinkhole, sobbing loudly.

She cautiously made her way over to him and leaned down, softly wondering, "Hey... what's the matter?"

The child continued to sob through uneven breaths before wailing out, "Mamaaaa!!"

"Mama?" said Terra looking around. Aside from the single child, the village looked to be otherwise abandoned. In a gentle tone, she wondered, "Where's your Mama?"

He sniffed and choked a few times before raising a stubby finger and pointing out into the flooded sinkhole. "Mamaaa!!" he wailed again.

There was a sinking feeling in Terra's chest as she gazed out to where he was pointing. "Oh no..." she whispered. Hearing him continue to cry only deepened that cavernous feeling in her gut. She had the overwhelming need to do... something... but she didn't know what. She knew very well that magic couldn't bring back the dead. But she didn't know what else would help him to stop crying.

She suddenly heard a few snarls and looked out across the water. Several monsters had emerged from the trees and were eyeing the two of them hungrily. Without thinking, Terra knelt down and picked up the boy, insisting, "It isn't safe out here, we need to get inside!" Normally monsters didn't enter towns, but she had no way to be sure of the behavior of these new breeds of monsters.

The child screamed and flailed in her arms, continuing to shout, "MAMAA!" as she rushed towards one of the houses with him. She entered the closest one and slammed the door behind her, moving to the back to hopefully wait out the prowling creatures. Here she found a stairway leading underground and hoped to find some kind of sturdy shelter there.

It wasn't just shelter she found down there. The basement was piled high with boxes, but she could see movement behind them as other children unsuccessfully tried to hide from her. Terra froze and tentatively called, "... Hello?"

A little girl, slightly older than the boy in her arms, poked her head over the top of one of the boxes and gasped, "She found Felix!" Terra looked at the boy in her arms. Was that his name?

The boy sniffed and turned to the little girl who had spoken. He reached out his arms and whimpered, "Sis..." At this prompting, Terra set him down and he ran behind the box to clutch at the little girl who had spoken before.

Surveying the basement, Terra could count five children in total whose hide-and-seek skills were poor enough that she could spot them right away, but there could easily be more. "Umm... are you all... alone in this village? Where are your parents?"

The children all looked at each other but said nothing. The boy previously identified as "Felix" broke away from his sister and went running back towards the stairs, wailing, "Mamaaa!"

His sister rushed after him and grabbed him, scolding, "No, Felix, Duane said to stay hiding down here until him and Katarin came back! You can't go running outside!" Duane and Katarin? Were they some of these children's parents? Or at least adults?

As if to answer her question, she heard the upstairs door slam and a clatter of feet come down the stairs. "Is everyone okay? I saw some monsters out by the edge of... who are you?!" The new arrival was a teenage boy who was certainly older than the other children that Terra had seen, but still looked to be a few years younger than Terra herself. He held an arm to the side to halt the descent down the stairs of another teenager, a girl of about the same age as him. These two must be the Duane and Katarin the little girl spoke of.

"Hello... I'm sorry, I just heard this little boy crying and I wanted to see if I could help..." Terra explained.

"Where did you come from?" wondered Katarin from behind him. "Reaching Mobliz requires crossing the Veldt, so it's rare to see outsiders here."

Mobliz? That was where she was? But she hadn't crossed the Veldt at all, and instead had followed the snake-like stretch of land. Had the Warring Triad's unleashed power... completely rearranged the face of the planet?

"I... I fell from an airship. When I came to, I saw a beam of light shoot in this direction and followed it." Terra wrung her hands uneasily. "Did... something happen here?"

Duane clenched his fists and shook. "Two days ago, there was a giant earthquake and the sky and water turned red. We all survived, but a few hours later, a face appeared in the sky and started laughing. It said, 'I am your new god, Kefka. You all should be honored to be the first to experience my judgment.' We didn't know what that meant, but then this pillar of light came racing towards us. Our parents all pushed us to safety, but that pillar of light... cut this town in half... us on one side, all our parents on the other..."

Terra brought her hands to her mouth. "Kefka did this...?"

"You know the guy?" he wondered.

Terra nodded. "When I last faced him, he'd disrupted the balance of the power that sustains the world and took it for himself... I had no idea he'd become so powerful so quickly..." It was suddenly... all so daunting. Kefka had nearly god-like status now and could wipe entire towns off the map on a whim. Whereas she could barely stand and was completely alone and out of energy.

Swallowing, Terra wondered, "There were others with me when I fell. Have... you seen anyone else from the outside besides me?"

Katarin shook her head. "No, the only other outsider here is that wounded Imperial soldier, but..."

"Imperial soldier?!" Terra repeated, suddenly perking up. Could that be Leo? Was he hurt? "Where is he?"

"He's in the house next door, but like I was trying to say..." Katarin attempted, but Terra was already rushing up the stairs and out the door. Monsters be damned, if he was here she was going to get to him and she was going to help him. She'd nearly lost him once before due to Kefka and she wasn't about to let it happen again.

When she threw open the door of the neighboring house, she saw a figure lying prone in bed. Moving quickly to the bedside, she looked down at the person occupying it and saw...

It wasn't Leo. She didn't even know who this was. And moreover, upon closer examination... he didn't even appear to be alive anymore.

Terra stumbled back and sank into the chair next to the bed, slowly lowering her face into her hands. A few moments later, Duane, Katarin, and some of the other children appeared. Katarin approached her and wondered, "I'm sorry... Did... you know him?" With a gasp, she exclaimed, "You're not Lola, are you?"

Terra shook her head. "No... my name is Terra. I have a friend who's an Imperial soldier who I'm worried might be in trouble, though..."

Katarin nodded sadly. "I see... Up until the end he was always asking people to help him write letters to his girlfriend, Lola. It was the only thing that maintained his will to live. But when that beam of light destroyed the town, the postman died along with the rest of the adults and the carrier pigeons all flew away... No more letters could come... I think he died of a broken heart." She shook her head. "And with no more contact with the outside world, Lola will never know..."

Terra raised her head and remembered something. "Wait... he's an Imperial soldier, right?" She reached out and tentatively pulled back the dead soldier's collar. His skin was unnervingly cool to the touch, but under his collar she saw the thin chain with a pair of metal tags that she was looking for. Detaching one of them, she pulled it back and read it.

JANSON
WES
A-
MARANDA

This was... his identity. The little piece of a soldier's soul that was stamped forever into a small piece of metal that would be returned to their families in the event of their death. He'd lost his only means of support and he simply couldn't go on living anymore without it. If only she'd gotten here sooner, maybe there was something she could have done. But the way things stood, the only thing she could do now was return this tag to Lola. Maranda, though... if the rending of the world had separated Mobliz from the Veldt, who knew where Maranda even was anymore, or if it was even still standing?

She looked over at Duane and the other children, who were milling about restlessly. She desperately wanted to go... go find Leo or any of her other friends and make sure they were okay. But... when she made the attempt to get out of the chair and head for the door, some unknown feeling in her gut was screaming at her that it was the wrong thing to do. ... Why? She was worried about them, so why was it so wrong to leave to go find them? What... what was this feeling supposed to mean?

One of the children tugged at Duane's pant leg. "Duane, I'm thirsty."

"I'm cold," said another.

"My tummy hurts."

"I know, I know," Duane replied a little impatiently. "We've been trying to find supplies, but haven't been able to find a flint yet to start a fire. We need that to prepare water and medicine, too."

A fire? Terra didn't need flint for that. She looked at the tag in her hand again and slowly ran her thumb over it. Wes Janson. That wasn't someone she knew, but he was still someone . He'd had a life, loved ones, and dreams. Duane, Katarin, the children... she didn't know any of them, but she did know they were in need of help. Help that she knew that she was able to provide.

Leo's voice echoed in the back of her mind: If you have the power to help someone, you should use it.

With a slow breath, Terra rose from the chair and offered, "... I can make a fire."

"You have a flint?" Duane wondered.

Terra shook her head. "No... But I do have the power to help people."

 


 

A simple Fire spell was all Terra had the energy for at the moment, but thankfully that was all they needed. Upon returning to the first house, she opened the door to the stove and stuck in her hand, lighting it effortlessly.

Duane stood over her and watched, wondering in confusion, "Whoa, how did you do that?"

"Magic," Terra replied.

"No, I mean seriously, how did you do that?"

Terra removed her hand from the stove and turned up her palm, producing a tiny flame in her hand. "Like I said. Magic."

Duane stood dumbfounded while the other children suddenly crowded around her. "Whooaa, that's so cool! You can do magic?!"

"Can you make things fly?"

"Y... yes, though I don't think I have the energy to right now."

"Can you shoot lightning out of your fingers?"

"N... no, just summon it from the sky..."

"Can you pull a rabbit out of a hat?"

"I... what?" That was more along the lines of something Setzer sometimes did, though she wouldn't call it "magic".

But the children's sudden keen interest in her took her by surprise. Normally when strangers saw her use magic they were either wary of her, quick to ask her for favors, or both at the same time. And though the children were highly inquiring about her, it didn't feel like it was because they wanted to ascertain what they could get out of her. They were just genuinely curious. And it made her feel that happy little tingle in her stomach that she'd felt when Leo praised her just for being herself.

"Well... once I'm more rested up, I can show you some more, if you'd like," she offered.

"Yeeeah!" came the chorus of children around her. She couldn't help but smile at their excitement. Up until now, the children had either appeared frightened or listless, but all it had taken was a little Fire spell to warm their spirits up. Making them happy was so... gratifying.

Katarin got a kettle of water heating on the stove and said, "Thank you for your help, Terra. If you're planning on staying a while, we've been trying to open up the old underground storehouse connected to the basement, but there's piles of boxes blocking the door. There may be bedding and other supplies in there, and it would be much safer from the monsters than up here."

Terra nodded and followed Duane down the stairs. She helped him clear out the boxes and just as Katarin said, there had been a door hidden behind them. Duane gripped the handle and pushed at it with his shoulder a few times before the old rusty hinges finally moved and opened up into a dark cavern. Terra lit another small fireball in her hand for light, then saw an old oil lamp hanging on the opposite wall and went to light it.

The cavern illuminated and they found that there were indeed beds down here along with numerous other boxes of supplies. A second door led into an adjoining room with more bedding and furniture and a fireplace, which Terra also lit.

Duane put his hands on his hips and nodded. "Right, this'll do perfectly. Mobliz was originally founded by trappers who came to the Veldt in search of rare monsters to poach. They'd store their kills underground to keep other monsters from following the scents back into town. Eventually these caverns got converted into shelters for years when the monster migrations were particularly bad, but we haven't needed them for a long time."

He motioned to the bed in the back room and said, "Now that you've gotten some fires going, Katarin and I can handle things for a bit. You seemed pretty tired, so if you wanted to rest for a while, by all means..."

Terra nodded and went to lay on the bed, trying to get comfortable. She watched the dancing of the firelight on the opposite cave wall in an attempt to lull herself to sleep, but there was still too much anxiety bubbling around in her body to fully relax. If any of her friends were still alive, she felt terrible about not immediately going out to look for them. But at the same time, she felt even more terrible at the prospect of leaving than she did before. It tore her up inside. She desperately wanted to know why she felt this way, but it didn't make any sense.

General Leo... have you ever been in the position where you had to choose between helping someone you personally cared about, or protecting vulnerable people that you might not have any prior attachment to? If so... what did you do?

 


 

Terra must have been able to drift off to sleep eventually, as she was awakened some time later by the ground shaking followed by a clattering of footsteps down the stairs. Duane threw open the door and fretted, "This is bad. There is one seriously nasty monster that's shown up."

Terra pushed herself out of bed, a little disconcerted that she still didn't feel particularly re-energized. "I have experience fighting monsters," she informed him. "Let me see what I can do."

"Are you sure...?" he wondered dubiously. The children had all run down into the cavern behind him and were hiding under the beds while Katarin unsuccessfully tried to calm them down. Terra swallowed and clenched her fists to her sides. Whether she was sure or not, she had to do something .

She exited the house and walked to the edge of the sinkhole, glaring across it at the monster whose beady gaze was fixated on the town from the other side. It was a huge, stout, green-scaled creature with horns and long claws.

The monster suddenly gaped open its mouth and howled, summoning bolts of lightning from the sky that fell around Terra. She tried to scramble out of the way but was blown back by one of them, hitting the outer wall of the house. She struggled back to her feet and panted. There weren't any spells that she could use at this range aside from her own Thunder spell, but if the creature had summoned lightning at her, it likely had an affinity for it.

She held out her hands and took a deep breath, then chanted, "Fira!" The ground under the monster's feet rumbled, but instead of a blast of fire, only a small puff of smoke shot out. The creature looked down and let out a hissing chuckle through a fanged grin. It then brought its gaze back up to meet hers and pointed in her direction menacingly, before slowly receding back into the forest with a threatening sneer.

Terra lowered her arms and stumbled backwards. Why... why hadn't she recovered any of her power yet? Was it because of her emotional turmoil? That monster definitely looked like it was planning on coming back, and she had to be prepared.

Duane peeked out the door behind her. "Oh, wow, did you actually beat it?"

Terra sank to her knees and shook her head. "No... it's just biding its time. I don't know if I have the power to defeat it."

"Oh..." said Duane, swallowing uneasily. "Well, if it's gone for now, maybe we should check for what books we can find around town. There's all sorts of records of monsters and maybe we can figure out what that thing is and how to defeat it."

And so the search was on to collect all the surviving books in Mobliz. The children were initially still too scared to come out, but once Terra suggested turning it into a game, they were eager to snoop around town to bring back any book they could find. In their search, one of the children even discovered there was a second underground shelter behind the bookshelf in the wounded soldier's house that contained some stockpiles of dried meat, as well as some dogs that had gone missing who had already discovered said trove of meat.

It was here that Terra remembered what Leo had done and insisted that they suspend their search momentarily in order to give the soldier a proper burial, as well as erect a memorial to everyone else in town who lost their lives to Kefka. She didn't have any flowers to offer this time as all the flowers in town had wilted shortly after the attack, but she thought that the village needed some kind of closure for what had happened to it before they could move on with preparing for what was to come.

"This is my dad's favorite hat," said one of the little girls, placing a hat upon the grave stone. "Now he can have it here, too."

"And this is my mom's favorite teacup," said another child, adding it to the offering pile. One by one, the children offered items to the memorial that they thought their parents would appreciate in place of flowers. Terra felt her eyes water a little. Some of them were still too young to even comprehend what death meant, and she didn't know if that made it better or worse.

Looking down at the metal tag in her hand, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Lola... I don't think I'm going to be able to get this to you anytime soon..."

Once they returned inside, it was back to the books. After several days of searching, finally Terra hit upon an illustration and description that seemed to match what she'd faced. "Here, I think this is it. An ancient monster with the paws of a lion, hide covered in scales, talons of a vulture, and horns of a wild bull... Its breath is lightning and it sleeps within the earth... its name is Humbaba."

"Any info on how to beat it?" Duane wondered.

Terra read further down the page and froze. She then closed the book and replied, "No, there's nothing."

One of the children tugged on her sleeve and held another book up to her. "I found a book my Mama used to read to me about a Chocobo and a Moogle. Can we read this instead?"

Terra took the book and said, "Yes... yes I think I would really rather read this instead." She had just spent days poring over the gory details of what the world's monsters could do to people, so fluffy animals sounded like a much-needed diversion.

She sat in the chair by the fireplace and the rest of the children sat on the floor around her. She read them a story of a Moogle who loved Kupo Nuts and the plans he and his Chocobo friend would devise to get the ones that grew in hard-to-reach places. It was a harmless story that was also mindless, and after all the physical and emotional strain she'd been under lately, mindless was nice. Plus, she liked Moogles and Chocobos.

After she finished, the little girl who had given her the book bounced in her seat and said, "Hee, thank you, Mama." Terra tensed a little, and the little girl corrected, "Oh, I mean... you're like my Mama, cuz she always read that book to me, too."

"Oh, I want Terra to be like my Mama, too!" said another one of the children.

They needed her so much... Even in all of her uncertainties and failures, and despite the trauma all those children had gone through, she was still able to make them happy. They were looking to her for guidance, for protection, for support... and she in turn felt the ever-growing need to be there to provide it.

She looked at the book in her hands, then back at the book of monsters she'd left closed on the table. There actually had been a method of defeating Humbaba mentioned at the bottom of the page. But that method was "Can be appeased by offering a child sacrifice."

Terra was going to stay here as long as it took to ensure that never happened.