“They’ve brought a child,” Kefka says. He runs his fingers along the patterns carved into the wall, smooth whorls of onyx inlaid against the metal. “An infant, really.”
He laughs quietly to himself. The stone is cool under his fingers, lifeless; more familiar now than flesh. The thought chills him, but something new and uncanny within him cancels it out.
“What will you do with her, good sir?”
The corner of Kefka’s mouth turns up with the words in a joyless smile before he turns his gaze away from the carvings and towards Cid; Cid, who is staring down at blueprints and formulas scattered across the backlit surface of his work station. The whirr of machinery in the room is almost enough to drown out his response as he looks up.
“What is it they wish me to do?” he asks, already feeling the dread leadening his stomach.
Kefka moves to stand by Cid’s side, looking out over the walkway parapet to the busy factory floor beneath. “They run around like ants,” he says. “All of them running around for you..." Magitek prototypes are scattered across the planked metal floor in pieces; to Kefka they look almost like children’s toys from the height of his vantage point. From where Kefka stands, he can pick out the parts matching the crude sketches Cid’s mapped out with graphite on parchment, masses of propellors and mechanical arms, springs and guns and cannons.
Cid watches him, his posture and poise, somehow regal despite what he’s become— becoming, more like it, because as days go by Kefka seems to degenerate into something else, and Cid knows that it’s all his own doing, a botched application of his own scientific discoveries. At least Kefka had been willing.
“She’s a new plaything for you,” Kefka says. “Perhaps she’ll be of use.”
Cid involuntarily tightens his grip on the edge of the table he hasn’t realized he’s been clutching. His nails dig into the parchment there, the curled edge bunching where it hangs over the edge.
There seems to be no sun in Vector; everything is cold metal and glass, a paneled, grayscale world. Celes doesn’t quite apply the meaning of the word prison, but she's certain of the fact that they won’t let her leave here. Not yet.
Celes’ infusions pass with decidedly more success than Kefka’s; doctors monitor her progress and Cid checks her vitals each and every day. She endures with uncanny bravery; then again, Celes is a product of influence and suggestion, and none of her caretakers have ever told her that she should be afraid.
She is a quiet child, solemn and precocious, though her knowledge remains limited to the mold the Empire wishes her to fit. Cid notes, with fascination, how the child unknowingly (unwittingly is the word he’s loathe to admit is more fitting) takes on the traits of the remnants of the being she plays host to. She enjoys cold temperatures, the feel of ice against her skin. Her very demeanor, it seems, is cold.
The fusions work, Cid thinks, because Celes must be pure of heart; perhaps whatever souls left in those remnants have taken a liking to her.
Celes feels something which she cannot yet place as loneliness, a girl of thirteen with a frustratingly difficult body in the throes of change, surrounded by men who do not quite know how to nurture. The few women here offer her curt advice and simple comforts, but its Cid who she sees the most of. Cid, and the timid young researcher who enters her room three times a day to bring meals when Celes is feeling too sick from infusions to move.
In the winter, she tries to press as much of herself as she possibly can against the chilled glass of her window, watches with fascination as snow piles up outside, turns her black and gray world to white. She feels something stirring, and cannot place it, though her heart quickens at the sight of it of all. Changing seasons, sunlight. The moon, looking so very large and white and comfortingly cold. Snow.
There is another girl.
“This is Terra,” Cid says, as the two girls face one another. “She has the gift of fire.“
The word sends a disturbingly unpleasant chill through Celes, because fire is the opposite of everything she is, and she can't process the dichotomy. The girl named Terra only looks at the ground. They are of the same age, but Celes thinks she seems afraid, younger somehow.
"I'm Celes," Celes says, and when Terra looks at her she feels the shock of something stirring in her blood, something rippling under her skin. It's as if Terra's gaze is calling to her somehow, trying to awaken something within her-- almost as if Terra knows her. It's jarring and invasive. Celes hates it.
She's part Esper, or so she says; Cid confirms that Terra's stories are true, and Celes notes that Terra spends more time shut away in laboratories and observation rooms than she does. Celes sees it once-- Terra's magic-- and the sheer elegance and beauty of shimmering flame and gentle heat makes her suddenly ashamed of her own stiff icicles and messy snow flurries.
"I was born with it," Terra tells her, on a night when Celes has once again snuck from her own room in the Subject's quarters (Subject is a kinder word than Experiment, after all) to Terra's, and they lie on the bed together, looking out the rain-blurred window at gray and black, dim lights and shadow.
"I hate it here," Terra says, as she often does. "I want to go home."
Celes can do little but hold her as she cries, quietly, cries for the beauty of sun and grass and joy of swimming and climbing trees and the soothing voice of her father.
Celes cries too, because she's known none of these things. She gets up and opens the window, roughly shoving the plane of glass up so that rain cuts into the room, pattering sharp on the steel floor. She concentrates, and in a moment the hard torrent transmutes to snow.
They both watch as rain continues to enter through the window, the droplets almost bursting into fat, slow, glistening snowflakes somewhere between the open sill and the floor.
It's a strange sort of comfort, to Celes; she loses herself in Terra's memories, mourns the loss of things she can’t quite understand.
The raindrops never cease in Zozo.
“I want to turn them into snowflakes,” Celes says, and the words come out directed to no one in particular, but—as always, it seems— it’s Locke who hears her.
“You can do that?” he asks.
She starts a bit, because his voice breaks through thoughts of chill and white and cold windowpanes, and she looks at him. He makes up a slightly pathetic sight right now; wet clothes clinging to a too-small frame (far too skinny, she’s long-since noted, to ever be a soldier), shivers moving him in barely-noticeable tremors. When she doesn’t immediately answer, he continues. “You can turn all this to snow?”
He shivers, and she shrugs.
"Well maybe that’s not such a good idea, actually,” he murmurs with a shrug, moving to stand under a tattered awning. They’re keeping watch outside the building in which Terra is resting— or rather, what was Terra, because right now she’s not even like like some of the things Celes has seen back into the facility’s labs. Glowing and muttering in tongues that send terrible shudders down Celes’ spine, though she doesn’t mention it to any of her companions. It’s almost as if some part of her is struggling to understand the language, and the feeling is like pushing through molasses.
Celes is still, though she does move to stand besides him, keeping a professional distance.
“You look cold,” she offers.
Locke laughs, and breath comes from his mouth in a translucent puff of steam in the chill-bitten air. “You think? Hey, how can you stand to be out here like that huh?” he tips his chin at her, gesturing at her half-bare arms, her lack of a coat.
“I don’t mind,” she replies, because she doesn’t.
Locke sighs, and the white puff from his mouth is almost petulant.
Celes wants to be inside, wants to stay by Terra’s side, her insides mottled with a confusing blend of both adoration and revulsion.
An ache claws at her heart, and her fists are empty as they tighten, because she’s not quite sure what to hold onto.
"I used to sneak into her room,” Celes says, and Locke visibly starts— Celes can see the intrigue spread across his face, because she hasn't spoken much about her past-- hasn't spoken much about anything. She figures it's not the best topic of discussion, not in the company of living testaments to Figaro's fire and totalitarian occupation, Doma's poisoning. Worse than these, somehow, was the raid for resources on a place she now feels sick for forgetting-- Kohlingen-- civilian casualties she'd once written off as purely insigificant.
“I didn't know you knew her, then," Locke says quietly, and something in his voice tells her that he's curious as to what else she may have left untold.
“I did. She seemed afraid, more afraid than I was, and I didn’t want her to be alone.” Celes continues, and looks up at the sky, at the torrents of rain pouring down, battering the earth. “I’m not sure why, exactly, but I didn’t want her to feel that way…” she trails off, and looks at Locke.
“You care about her,” he says.
“She doesn’t remember those times, from back then,” Celes shrugs, shakes her head. "Kefka made sure of that. Recovery from the slave crown was partial, but it doesn't make much difference— what with the experiments, the exposure, the extra infusions—“ she stops, and thinks about what Cid said. Hold on to what makes you human.. Kefka’s voice: You can’t stop it from changing you.
“Is that what love is?” Celes asks, abruptly. “To care for someone… like that?”
Locke seems to soften, and he looks away. “Yes,” he answers, sounding as if he is choosing each word carefully. “It’s something like that… we all love Terra,” he says, steadfastly, straightening his posture. “We all love her. That’s why we’re here.”
“But you barely know her.”
“Sometimes that doesn’t matter,” Locke says, and he wipes a slick of water from his face, absently. “I barely know you,” he pauses, “and I care.”
Celes feels something stir in her chest at the words, but she shakes her head. “None of you trust me,” she says. “None of you want me here. I—“
“Stop,” Locke says, and puts a hand on her arm. She jumps at the touch; he’s warm, warmer than he looks right now, certainly, though not as warm as Terra. Never as warm as Terra. “I trust you. Edgar trusts you. Sabin trusts Edgar, and Cyan… well,” He laughs, but Celes doesn’t get the joke, and he continues, hardening his tone. “We’re all here for her,” he says. “That’s love.”
Celes dreams lucidly and often; Cid used to tell her it was a side-effect of the magic, but nowadays she can't be sure, as sharing rooms with her companions has her constantly witnessing thoughts spoken aloud and movement during slumber.
It will change you, Kefka says. You’ll see. You can feel it already, can’t you?
Celes shakes her head no, even though it's against some balled-up fabric on the ground in a tent, and Kefka is nowhere to be found. His voice, however, seems permanently imprinted on her consciousness, and lately one particular conversation plays itself out, night after night.
She's exhausted, but she can't seem to open her eyes.
The infusions muddle the mind. Soon you'll be less than human. Tell me, my dear, what do you feel?
Celes' fingers scrabble against the dirt.
Or do you not feel anything?
Celes dreams of dead flowers pushing up through snow, of multiple moons rising and falling in a black, starless sky. She dreams of Cid, his sad way of smiling at her. And Kefka. Always Kefka.
Creatures like us aren't born this way, Kefka says, his painted mouth twisted in a hideous smile. We're made. The Empire made us this way. Accept it.
The voice changes, but the words remain the same, and Celes feels fingers against her wrists. The touch is so hot it almost burns, and she whimpers.
Accept it. You're coming with me. Got it?
She dreams of this often, as well. It's Locke, undoing her shackles, again. Yet somehow, they never seem to come completely off.
She tries to move away from where she's chained, but something grabs her hair and wrenches. She's trapped, and she knows it must be Kefka fingers in her hair, turning to claws, pulling and tugging her back...
She fully awakens with a start, a sharp ache in her scalp. Sabin has rolled over in the painfully close quarters of their tent and trapped her hair beneath him. He sleeps like a corpse, and after some embarrassing moments of Celes calling out in the tent to wake her companions, it takes both Locke and Edgar to roll Sabin back off. He finally wakes with a snuffled apology and mutters something about stolen steak before promptly falling back asleep.
"I apologize, " Edgar says, failing to stifle hushed laughter, "for my brother."
“Beastly,” Locke whispers loudly, and Edgar snorts. The two of them laugh now, pressing hands over their mouths, and Celes laughs too. She finds she can't help it; it bubbles up out of her so quickly and unrestrained that it almost startles her.
It feels good, like this, to laugh with other people. It almost feels warm. For a moment Celes forgets everything; forgets who she is and what she was, forgets that Edgar and Cyan are watching her like a hawk for any sign of treachery, forgets that she has killed more people than she can ever count. After the mirth dies down and everyone settles back down to bed, Locke shifts a bit closer to her and gets her attention.
"You were frowning and twitching," he whispers. She can feel his breath on her face, feel his warmth. He's got his bandana off and his hair is messy, fallen in his eyes. "Were you having a bad dream?"
She looks at him, and his eyes plead with her. She can almost hear him say it: tell me. He's always trying to get her to talk, it seems. About herself, about her thoughts, about anything.
"Partly," she whispers back, and that is all she offers. He stares at her for another moment, and when he realizes she's not going to speak anymore he shifts his eyes to the ground.
"Well, g'nite again then," he says, as he rolls over. "I hope the next one is lovely."
His breathing soon slows, and Celes stares up into the aperture in the tent, at the moon.
She wonders if what Kefka said works in the opposite way. If kindness is also a human trait made and not born. She wonders what's made Locke who he is, what exactly he's lived that makes him good. She wonders what's made all of them.
She has a sudden urge to talk, but Locke is already snoring.
“You ever climb a tree?” Locke asks one day, and part of Celes wants to smack the silly grin off of his face, because whenever he speaks to her she feels things she can’t put a name to, and she doesn’t like that very much— not at all.
“What business would I have with climbing trees?”
“What business did you have with singing opera?” he quips, and before she can retort or push him, he’s already up to the first branch. She doesn’t quite understand how he does it— he’s fast, has a clumsy grace all his own, but he’s not really a fighter. He’s not much of anything, really, except perhaps a kleptomaniac and a hopeless romantic (at least, she thinks he’s the type to fit the term, especially considering Rachel, and that is another concept altogether which she doubts she’ll ever understand).
“You looked good in the dress, though,” he calls down, and now she’s no choice but to grit her teeth and follow him.
It’s easy enough at first; Celes is strong and able-bodied, sure of herself when she puts her mind to physical tasks.
“We’re not going to talk about that,” she calls after him, as he’s already halfway up. “That was… out of necessity—“ her voice catches on a grunt of exertion as she pulls herself up.
“Hey there,” he says, grabbing her arm— and damn him, she can’t exactly pull away, because she’ll fall to her death, most likely. Not death— a broken bone, perhaps. Hell, that opera has made her dramatic—
—but before she knows what she’s doing she’s sitting next to him on a particularly large branch which coils against the trunk of the tree in such a way that it makes for a rather nice view.
“So like I said,” Locke says, leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest. “You ever climb a tree before today? If not, I’m impressed.”
“There were no trees in Vector,” Celes says. She looks out over the fields, at the tops of trees shimmering in the midday sun. It’s beautiful, and she feels something rise in her throat— words— but they don’t come out. They can’t.
The both of them avoid looking in the direction of Maranda, even though it’s not visible from where they are on the continent. Smoke is rising from a town to the south— Empire sympathizers, Celes thinks, or else they wouldn’t still have coal.
“Shame,” Locke shrugs, and leans his head back against the trunk to look up at the leaves, wide and soft and reddish-brown. He reaches a hand up to brush against them— of course, because Celes has learned that Locke is somewhat like a child who can’t resist touching things that fascinate him. Funny, Celes thinks, because he’s never touched me, really—
“There’s a lot of things I’d love to show you,” he says, and his voice stills her oddly unsettling thoughts. “In… the world and stuff.”
“Eloquent,” she deadpans.
Locke waves away her comment with a flourish of his fingers and an eye roll; the both of them know he’s really not the best with words. “Really, though, I mean, it’s just not right, how you were kept there… you know?”
Celes doesn’t answer, but she looks at him.
She runs her fingers gently through the mess of hair that pokes out from under his bandana, and he swallows, his eyes darting rapidly from one of her eyes to her other as if he’s not quite sure at which to look.
“Sometimes love feels like this,” he blurts out, his voice soft and inexplicably breathless.
She stills her hand in his hair; thinks to herself it’s softer than grass— she thinks about it long and hard, stuck on it, almost, as if she were trying to avoid the words he’d spoken. “What do you mean?” she finally says.
“Well, you know… you’ve asked about love, and how it feels. And I mean…” he trails off and looks out over the field. After a moment, he shakes his head. “You know what, forget I said anything.”
“No,” Celes says, abruptly, and he looks at her. She repeats herself, and he takes her hand. Something in her chest unravels itself and threatens to consume her, and it’s all she can do to keep her composure at this unfamiliar invasion of what she knows to be emotion as she wordlessly pulls her hand from his and starts to silently climb down.
“I know it was you who brought me back,” Terra says, her eyes on her knees where she’s drawn them to her chest, her arms wrapped around. “Locke told me.”
There is no sound for several moments save for the rhythmic push of water against shoreline ahead of them, the faint sounds of human life in the distance behind them. Mobliz is different now in the wake of Kefka’s defeat; what was once a grim, lonely town is now full of vibrance and hope. Terra’s return has done an alarming good for the children; it has been quite a while since Celes has heard so much laughter and seen so much energy, from anyone— the change is welcome, and alarmingly infectious. The world itself seems strangely alive with new breath, a collective humming on the surface as pieces reassemble, as lost souls find new balance.
Irreversible damage and imminent extinction no longer seem to be threats, though Celes knows the fear still weighs heavy in the back of her companions— her friends’— minds. But it is easy now for all of them to lose one’s self in rebuilding and reconnecting, and it’s enough to keep certain notions at bay.
Celes says nothing as she stares straight ahead at the ocean stretched before them, the horizon a pale line of moonlight on the water as she shifts uncomfortably where she’s sitting on the ground. She’d rather not remember that moment, when Terra had fallen; how heavy and chilled her body had been when Celes pulled her, limp-limbed and spent, into her arms.
It was the first and only time in Celes’ life when she had found herself utterly horrified by the feeling of something cold.
Celes would rather not remember what it felt like when what she now recognized as utter despair had pushed itself out of her, that irreconcilable ache she’d allowed to lie dormant for so long. Despair, and something else— magic. It seemed to be seeping out through her skin, the feeling leaving her covered in gooseflesh and shaking like a leaf, feeling like an empty vessel about to collapse in upon itself, about to disappear.
She had sobbed, for the first time in her life.
Don’t leave me, she had said, in a voice unfamiliar and ragged, tears stinging sloppy down her cheeks, onto Terra’s body— a body so suddenly fragile, so devoid of heat and life— in her arms. Please don’t leave me—
“I didn’t do a thing,” Celes finally says, her voice even, clipped. “I didn’t… bring you back.”
“Something did,” Terra says, and Celes keeps her eyes on the water even as she hears Terra turn to look at her. “Maybe I heard you.”
Celes idly twines her fingers in her own hair, and Terra sighs before continuing, “Papa used to tell me that even the stars can hear us, when we wish for something. So maybe, perhaps some part of me— maybe— the magic…”
She trails off, and Celes tells herself, in her head, that such idle fantasies are merely the stuff of children’s fairy tales. She tells herself it must be false, even as her eyes water and something painful rises in her throat. She hears and feels the movement of Terra’s body as she shifts closer, vibration in the dust, and then Terra’s arms are around her, Terra’s face in her hair.
“Thank you,” is all Terra says, softly, and Celes stiffens for a moment before reaching up to rest a hand on Terra’s arm. She swallows hard and blinks away the sudden, inexplicable sting in her eyes and lets out everything she’s been feeling in the few days since that moment pour out of her in a rush of breath.
“It hurts,” she breathes. “It’s empty and lonely and terrible and I can’t—“ she grips Terra tighter. “I just can’t.”
“Terrible, yes,” Terra says, and holds Celes tighter, “but not lonely.”
Celes closes her eyes, tilts her head back. She thinks about everything they’ve lost, about everything Terra has lost— half of herself, quite literally, and then some. When Celes opens her eyes again, her gaze is focused on the moon.
“It’s lovely,” she says softly, and Terra looks up too, at the waning crescent— it’s mostly dark, eclipsed by shadow— but Celes chooses to focus only on that slight sliver of light, how beautifully it hints at the whole of what is hidden.
Terra pulls away at the sound of footsteps approaching; Celes keeps her eyes fixed at the sky.
Somehow not unexpectedly, Locke’s voice breaks the silence.
“Mind if I join you ladies?” he asks, and before they can answer he plops himself down on the ground besides them, unfolding the cloth bundled in his hands. “I was told to bring cookies,” he continues. “Katarin says sugar is scarce, but I’d agree that it’s a special occasion, no?”
He hands them the dessert, and they eat in silence. Sweet explodes on Celes’ tongue for the first time since she can remember; it’s not unpleasant. They eat, and the act is both impersonal and intimate. Celes figures they are all thinking about their own scars, personal and shared and otherwise, and finally the silence is broken.
“That was delicious,” Terra says, as she stands, brushes dust and ash and brown, dried blades of dead grass from her clothing. “Thank you, Locke. I’ll have to compliment Katarin.” She stretches, sighs in a whoosh of breath. She tells them she’s heading to bed and there’s a chorus of goodnights and sweet dreams and thank you’s and you too’s and clever, knowing smiles, and Celes thinks that right now is probably a good time to leave at exactly the same time she knows it’s a good time to stay.
Her heart pounds loud enough that she can swear Locke must be able to hear it in the darkness.
“Want to split the last one?” Locke asks, and holds out the solitary cookie, after Terra is out of earshot.
“Why’d you tell her about that?” Celes retorts, looking him in the eye.
“Everyone saw,” he says, flustered, waving a hand in wild gesticulation. “She asked me what happened. I told her. What’s wrong with that?”
Celes shakes her head, clenches her hands into frustrated fists as she finds herself at a loss for words.
“It’s not as if she thinks you’re weak,” Locke shrugs. “You’re strong. Stronger than most of us.”
“You’ve seen me cry,” Locke says, staring down at the last cookie as he breaks it neatly in half. “We’ve all cried in front of each other at some point or another. You going to eat this or what?”
“You’re… you’re soft—“
“And you’re an opera floozy,” Locke interrupts. Celes expects her blood to boil at the epithet, but nothing of the sort happens. In fact, she’s speechless.
“Here,” he says, and scoots closer to her, close enough so that their shoulders nearly touch. He holds out half of the cookie to her, but she doesn’t take it. Instead, she stares at him— him. This man who leaves her speechless, this man she’ll never quite be able to figure out. Then again, she figures it’s somewhat of a give-and-take; she doubts he really understands her, either.
He kisses her bare shoulder and the soft heat of his lips sends shivers through her.
Technically, it's her first kiss.
For the first time in her life, Celes wants nothing to do with technicalities.
Celes kisses him on the mouth— she tells herself it’s because she only wants to shut him up, stop whatever he’s about to say about opera or cookies or life or anything. It’s clumsy and it’s slow and it’s somehow genuine when Celes realizes it’s because of none of these things, and when she opens her mouth he tastes like sugar and cinnamon and warmth.
When they pull apart he looks shocked, as if something monumental has happened. Celes tries to catch her breath and calm the sudden shake in her fingers, the heat stll traveling up in a shiver along her spine.
“You,” —Celes says, as she tries to find her bearings, reminding herself that they have a very busy day tomorrow— now that they've decided to travel together, pick off wayward monsters as a service to civilians and scavenge materials for reconstruction efforts and trade-- “are supposed to be mapping out our route to the trading post at Figaro. You shouldn’t be… passing out cookies—“ and Locke’s cheeks begin to flush as he stares at her, open-mouthed and wide eyed and incredulous— “or interrupting ladies in conversation. You should be... making a treasure-hunting plot, or something.”
They stare at one another for a moment in which Celes feels, all at once, the things she cannot tell him; the feelings she can’t express and the emptiness she shares with Terra, the faith she placed in a piece of fabric, the intoxicating fear that comes with the feeling of falling.
How somehow he seems to understand her anyway, has been doing so all along.
She stands, and stares back up at the sky again, the hundreds of pinpricks of light there. She knows the stars are listening; knows that beauty lies in life in unexpected places beyond the pale honesty of the moon.
“Come on,” she says, and holds a hand out to him where he's still sitting, looking up at here and grinning. “We’ve much to do.”
He takes her hand, wordlessly, and allows her to help pull him up, holds tight the entire walk back to the warmth and light of Mobliz.