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I'm the Darkness, You're the Starlight

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The toss-up between which aggravating element, which thing, deserved to be ripped to shreds first had yet to be decided. Either the hand-sewn garment or Locke would meet a cruel fate, though not until the curtains fell and the applause died out.

Celes sighed as she placed the script back down onto the table. Her eyes pleaded for rest, unable to read another line on the paper. One day was all she was given. One day to memorize the lines, the blocking, and the cues. The remaining cast—thespians by trade and passion—had weeks to perfect their art, enough time to blunder and improve. Such a luxury didn’t exist for Celes. She was to be Maria and Maria was flawless, forever a step above her supporting ensemble. Memorizing orders and positions came naturally for the once General of the Empire, but she didn’t rise to the position overnight.

Same went for singing. In her younger days, she sang plenty. Cid arranged voice lessons for the child, not only to enrich the hallways with melodies, but to prepare Celes for her future role as a commanding officer. The activity fine-tuned her mind and loosened her vocal cords when her sheathed rune blade rested at her hip.  It was only a matter of reviving her voice for the night’s performance. Mimicking Maria was near impossible, but no wasn’t an option, either. Not now. She had to.

Other options surfaced which didn’t involve her dressing up like an opera floozy to garner a man’s attention. Why they couldn’t attempt to snatch this gambler before the show was beyond Celes. Impresario was by far the most dramatic of the people within the opera house. Gods forbid if the show was ruined by an abduction of his prized soprano.

Yet no one blinked at Locke’s mention of Celes taking Maria’s place, nor questioned Celes’ feelings on the matter. Had they asked, Celes would have been sure to inform the group how absolutely stupid their impromptu plan was. A thief’s wits outweighed a trained officer’s tactics—a backhanded compliment if she ever saw one.

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Celes inched to the mirror on the other side of the room. Her reflection continued to shock her every time she walked by. When exactly did she last wear a dress? Perhaps never. A team of four seamstresses executed last minute alterations. Each one worked like lightning to assure the blasted dress fit Celes. Maria stood several inches shorter with a smaller figure by equal measure. Initially, Celes failed to see how she was to squeeze into the contraption, along with doubting the one woman’s claim to bracing a foot against Celes’ back to tie the corset in proper. After five minutes of a heel jabbed into her spine, breathing evolved into a chore Celes wished to never experience again.

The seamstresses worked magic, though, much like their cosmetician counterparts. The gaudy stage face she wore left Celes appearing like a cheap whore in the back alleys of Vector. She was reassured it was so those sitting in the back of the balcony could discern her features. To that, Celes wrinkled her nose. Even when standing opposite to her reflection, her face continued to contort. This was not her. Lace and ribbons and silk were not meant for Celes Chère. Underneath she wore her civilian attire: a faded yellow one-piece suit that draped off her shoulders and white boots. Somewhere out in the audience, Edgar held onto her sashes and rune blade. The missing weight of her sword left Celes naked and vulnerable, despite the luscious layers she wore for the opera.

The only aesthetic missing was the blue ribbon for her hair. Artists attempted to touch her hair, yet Celes dismissed them with flailing arms, claiming she could finish the deed. In their absence, Celes savored the silence and solitude, yet her hair stayed untouched.

Celes slipped the blue ribbon into her hands as she shuffled towards the mirror, carefully pulling her wavy, pale blonde hair back to tie it up properly. Any other woman would have found the task a simple one. Celes didn’t have the privilege to pinpoint the last time she slaved over a mirror to perfect her looks. She left her hair natural and unstyled, the most effort involving the strands pulled into a tight bun, not a wisp out of place.

Blue eyes fell from her reflection, hands working over the ribbon. It feels silly to be doing this for no one special.

Upon departing Kohlingen, Celes knew better than to deem herself special. The solemn weight in Locke’s voice when they left Rachel’s house continued to ring through Celes’ ears.

“I failed her,” was what he said, unable to meet Celes’ gaze. She called out to him, each attempt met with silence. The struggle to reach out to Locke vanished, for their path lied south. She couldn’t fret over the events in Kohlingen, not when Terra needed to be tracked down. Locke returned to smiling and cracking his typical, witty jokes as if his recollection of Rachel never took place. Celes refused to forget; how Locke’s features changed when he looked to Rachel said plenty.

The same man freed her from her imprisonment and in turn her death sentence. Celes never owed her life to a damn soul; Locke was the first to receive the honor. She admired how he didn’t think twice before helping her, an Imperial General, albeit a traitor in the eyes of the Empire. He could have expedited the deed: slit her throat and leave her to suffocate on her blood. Instead, he offered a helping hand and a second chance at life. Celes couldn’t admit to possessing his strength. Not recently, if ever. She mentally repeated the promise he made to her; Locke was to protect and stay by her side, despite having just met. When he was with Terra, though, that identical bravery continued to flourish.

And then there was Rachel.

Locke spoke of heartfelt oaths and Celes doubted his sincerity and compassion. Now she questioned if his sentiments were only reserved for the woman he daydreamed of Celes being and not Celes herself. If he ever cared about Celes, genuinely and completely, she had yet to experience it.

Celes finished tying the ribbon, hands falling to her side. The pitiful attempt at the ponytail didn’t bother Celes, but the feminine body standing opposite of her did. Lean muscles comprised her tall form. Celes struggled to hide her pronounced curves under her military uniform and armor, let alone a damn dress. The garment called attention to her waist and flared out with her hips. The court neckline revealed more than Celes was comfortable with, her constricted breasts borderline spilling out. She glared at the woman in the mirror; she did not know this trite image.

The former General turned rebel member turned stage whore. At a time, she had been praised. Back then, Celes garnered plenty of reasons to persevere. With her title and pride stripped away, she was but a lost ship drifting on the stormy sea. Celes planned to aid the Returners and in exchange, she hoped to unearth a new purpose in the failure of a life she lived.

But this?

How could Locke possibly care, Celes shot through her mind as she stomped back to the table,  if he didn’t think twice to throw me at this selfish, rotten, worthless, ignoble bastard?

Beside the script was a folded piece of stationary holding the slightest hint of incense, cinnamon, and cloves. Fingertips pressed into the quality paper before flipping it open to read over the rather remarkable calligraphy.

 

Dearest Maria,

I’ve decided to take you as my wife, so I’ll be coming to kidnap you.

-The Wandering Gambler

 

A man of little morals with the only pair of wings in the entire world. They required passage to Vector under the pretense of saving what Espers they could—and in turn, saving Terra—and an airship did the trick. It was only a matter of convincing Setzer Gabbiani to work with them. Though considering he was planning on kidnapping a woman—without a doubt against her own wishes—it was questionable as to whether or not he’d pause long enough to hear the group out. His antics rang through the opera house, proving he was no stranger to the establishment. Impresario’s remarks on Setzer’s love for the dramatic came to mind.

Swap out for the double, save the real star, and let the show go on. That was the plan. A laughable, disgusting, crapshoot of a plan. The Returners were lucky she could sing, let alone agree to wear a dress.

Celes read over the note to Maria multiple times and each time she restrained herself from ripping it in a blind rage. Picturing who this Setzer was, however, swapped her anger for nausea. Celes pictured an older man—a truly pathetic sight for sore eyes—unable to win any woman over with charisma and chivalry, thus instead relied on desperate tactics. No wonder this Maria didn’t dare to step foot onto the stage.

While Setzer’s name was new to her ears, mentions of his airship, the Blackjack, were but whispers in her memories. Word of a flying casino made its way to Vector. Officers snuck out to visit the airship when it frequented the outskirts of the continent. It never dared to draw close to Vector itself. Emperor Gestahl would have devised a way to monetize the Blackjack. Until then, it was but a myth as far as Celes was concerned.

With an irritated sigh, she readied herself to tear the note up into a million pieces. The creak of the door halted her actions. The note fell to the table and Celes spun on her heels to investigate the intruder. No one else was to bother her before the performance, not even the stagehands. Unless, of course, the wandering gambler himself opted to arrive early.

Entering the room was the last person she expected: Locke Cole himself.

If Celes hadn’t known better, she would have guessed he carefully picked the locks himself; he tiptoed in, checking the hallway outside before closing the door. Clad in his layers of mismatched attire, Locke peered over his shoulder, the beads from his bandana swaying with the movement. A light gasp jutted out while his eyes widened at Celes. Caught in the act, his illusion of stealth shattered.

“What are you doing here?” Celes demanded in an instant. “I thought you were supposed to be with Edgar and Cyan in—”

“Hey hey!” He threw his hands up. “Relax, we got it under control. Everything is taken care of.”

Celes raised an eyebrow, wishing to discuss further what their versions of under control truly entailed. Instead, she allowed him to approach her and speak for himself.

“Show’s already started,” Locke commented. “Wanted to check up on you.”

“There’s nothing to check up on,” Celes insisted and turned away to busy herself with the script. The worn edges of the pages dangled on threads after Celes tirelessly flipped over them. Come morning, the memorized lines and songs would vanish and she’d never have to recall another opera again. “I’m fine.”

Of course, her answer wouldn’t suffice for Locke. She didn’t need to glance behind her to know Locke hovered over her shoulder. “You sure?”

Celes almost slammed her fists on the table, though with what patience she had left, she maintained partial composure. “Yes, I’m rather sure.” She shook her head. “Why are you here again?”

“Like I said, to check up on you.”

I find that hard to believe, Celes withheld.

Releasing the script, she faced Locke again, only to realize what little distance sat between them. A foot away, Locke stood tall before her, arms crossed against his chest. An arrangement of knives peeked out from the folds of his jacket while his prized daggers and boomerang hung from his belt. How Locke—or any of them, for that matter—sauntered into the opera house armed without a single complaint was a mystery.

“Well,” Celes spoke with a shrug, “here I am. I’m okay. Make-up is done, as is the hair, and this dress is going to be burned the moment I—”

“Have you....”

Celes blinked. “What?”

The color in his cheeks turned to a hint of pink. His brown eyes twitched over her. “Have you... always been that pretty?”

A similar blush bubbled to the surface of her face. There they were, alone in the dressing room with no one to interrupt. Not even Edgar or Cyan would barge through the door to check up on her. Maybe they would search for Locke if his absence persisted, but Celes didn’t entertain the possibility. For now they were alone, his words hanging in what space was left between them. Celes swallowed hard and resisted the urge to bite at her lower lip. Somewhere a make-up artist would gut her if she did so much as smudge the red lip stain.

Shock might have gobbled her up, but Celes reined herself back. Before her was the man who recently paid a visit to his dear love, wishing to revive and reunite with her. The glint in his eyes then matched the look that fell upon her back in South Figaro. The same gleam flashed to Terra; Celes took note, whether Locke or Terra paid attention. She outright refused to be played for a fool.

One hand on her hip, Celes did well not to glare at him. “Are you finished?”

He breathed out a laugh. “I’m sorry, I....” Locke rubbed the back of his neck and averted his gaze. “You look great and I know you’ll do better. That’s all.”

Celes inhaled deeply while flicking loose strands of hair out of her face. “This... isn’t exactly the most ideal time, Locke.”

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed. “I’ve never been one for timing. Working on it.” She swore those coy eyes of his flicked over her body. “But I mean it, though.”

High praise of one’s beauty was enough for any lady to blush down to her toes. Instead, it produced more butterflies in Celes’ sunken stomach and replaced whatever hint of stage fright lived there moments ago. Bad timing wasn’t endearing—it was asinine. It didn’t excuse Locke, either, from the verbal beating she wished to submit him to once the show was over. All of it had to wait; she now embodied Maria, about to be swiped away from center stage for an elopement only the gods were privy to.

Yet the image of Locke’s expression when they walked into the basement and laid eyes upon Rachel burned into Celes.

Unladylike hands twitched over one another. “Locke?”

He perked up to his name and waited for Celes to speak. Hesitation on her behalf stirred curiosity within his face, but she suspected his attentiveness would disappear once the words passed her lips. Maybe even Locke himself would disappear.

“Why did you stand up for me when you did? Back in Narshe.” Her gaze fell heavy. She commanded armies and stood before foes without flinching, but this? A single man shouldn’t have rendered her dumb-stricken. “Or when you found me, why did you—”

“Because I’m tired,” Locke began, catching himself to recompose his thoughts. “Tired of standing by and not doing a damn thing while I lose the ones I care for.”

The mixture of spite and regret coating his tongue stung. She craned her head back to face him, not a stutter in her movements. Whatever excuse for comfort he offered backfired.

“So am I just a replacement then? For her?”

Locke didn’t respond, yet answered her at the same time. A smile crept onto his lips and his eyes softened in her direction.

“That ribbon looks nice on you.”

A slap across the face would have done well to ensure his words were indeed a poor choice. Of all the times to rouse fury within Celes, Locke opted to do so before her grand entrance within the opera. She would be needed soon for her cue. Through the back door and down narrow corridors was the backstage. In the distance, the tech crew hurried about with set pieces and bustling chocobos. Actors interwove with the chaos to prepare for the next scene. Her scene. The most beloved part of any opera. It served as the reason why the show sold out, every seat filled with keen eyes. All would be watching Celes.

Setzer would be watching.

“I have to go on stage soon,” Celes attempted to divert the conversation elsewhere. “This next scene’s an important one.” A finger tapped along her jaw as she recalled the correct blocking and proper flow of lyrics. “Maria starts to worry about Draco’s fate and pours her feelings into song, no different from everyone else.” The question remained if Celes could, in fact, emulate heartbreak and longing for one night. Just one night and never again.

Locke cocked his head. “Uh... shouldn’t you check the score one last time?”

I am going to take this score, crumble it up, and— ”I’ve been slaving over it all day since first thing this morning.” Celes did her best not to throw him a sarcastic glance. “I’ve had to memorize military layouts in shorter time, Locke.”

“Doesn’t hurt to double check is all.” Tense shoulders rolled away from his neck before he leaned in to better inspect the script. “You nervous at all?” This time Celes didn’t hold back the look she skewered him with. “Yeah yeah, I get it. Not helping, right?”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Celes muttered under her breath.

She snatched the script and glossed over it. All the while, Locke circled around to examine the lovely stationary left behind. By the time Celes finished skimming several pages, she caught Locke reading over the note.

He scoffed while narrowing his eyes onto the words. “Can you believe this guy? Who the hell writes this kind of crap?”

“At least he has good penmanship,” Celes noted.

Locke stifled a laugh. “Please, did you not see Jidoor? He could have hired anyone to write that for him.” Locke shook his head before slipping fingers beneath his bandana to rub his temple. “You don’t just... do that. A girl deserves more than that. Gods, kidnapping. It’s ridiculous. How low do you have to stoop before you’re outright forcing yourself onto a victim?”

His daggers were dull in correlation to his words. Celes held her breath longer than needed along with grinding her teeth. The man Locke spoke ill of was their one-way ticket to Vector with Celes as the bait. You’re not helping, Locke.

Discarding the script, Celes silently turned to march to the back door and head to the busy backstage. Echoes of activity bounced along the narrow hallway and grew in intensity. As Celes took a corner, a wall of sound struck her as she wove through stagehands and show extras. An assistant stage manager instructed people for the dance number immediately following her aria, his voice lost to the stable hands containing the chocobos from the previous scenes. Dozens upon dozens of bodies donned vivid masquerade outfits, the fashion suitable for the likes of Jidoor, though too lurid for Vector. Only one person from Vector came to mind when she spied upon the chromatic fabrics. A chill rushed down her spine. The enemy deserved no place in her mind now, for she had another challenge to tackle.

“Good luck, Celes,” Locke whispered from behind. He followed without a word and a quick peek over her shoulder confirmed as much. While he smiled, Celes couldn’t muster one in return. “Not that you need any,” Locke jested, “but... that’s what you say, right?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Saying that is actually bad luck in stage performances.”

Locke tripped over his tongue. “W-what?! I-I didn’t mean—”

“You say break a leg.”

He blinked, then grimaced. “Okay, now you’re just making this up.”

Celes chuckled at him while shaking her head. A backstage assistant called out to her—as Maria, nonetheless—and informed her she would be needed on stage in five minutes. “I should be going.”

“Yeah,” Locke agreed. “Shouldn’t hold you up any longer.” His hand settled upon her shoulder, his thumb almost brushing over what exposed skin was there. “You’ll do well. I know you will.”

The hand fell and Locke stepped away. Celes expected him to retrace his path until he returned to his seat by Edgar and Cyan. Instead, Locke hung back with several of the stagehands, asking if it was alright if he stuck around during the aria. He claimed he wanted the best seats in the house and did so with the grin Celes forever admired from afar. Unable to look away, Celes kept her sights on him, but the assistant’s voice demanded otherwise.

Before long she stood in position, ready to take to the stage upon given her cue. Celes sucked in steady breaths, easier said than done with the tight lacing of her dress. The scene replayed infinitely in her head: sing along the edge of the castle set, head up the stairs, perform a dance number, grab the flowers, go to the balcony, toss the bouquet, finish the aria, and dart backstage to prep for the next scene. Her eyes peeked past the curtains and onto the stage and out into the audience. Impresario held true to his word—not a seat in the opera house was unoccupied.

She wondered, only for a moment, where Setzer sat within the sea of people.

The lines of the aria echoed in her mind and she mouthed the lyrics. Celes cleared her throat in hopes to carry the tune well enough to pass as Maria. The assistant signaled a last minute warning. Stage lights died out and thunderous applause boomed at the end of the scene. Actors rushed off as props and settings zoomed around.

Past all of it, sitting on one of the crates and somehow fitting in with the rugged stagehands, was Locke, his eyes fixated on the stage.

“This is it,” the assistant whispered with a massive smile. “Break a leg, Maria!”

This was part of the plan. This was the only way they could meet with Setzer Gabbiani. This was how they would reach Vector. For now, Celes was Maria and she still couldn’t find the proper emotions to pour into the Aria di Mezzo Carattere.

 


 

The floor lights colored the stage a dark blue. The backdrop behind the castle painted a starry night with a full moon. The harp played from the pit and a spotlight shone upon Celes. Her hands braced along the castle wall, waiting for her cue. When the music paused, Celes drew a deep breath and sang.

Heartache and longing filled the aria. At the height of act one, Maria sang of her hopes to be reunited with her Draco. While she was no opera star, Celes refused to accept failure as an option. Reasonably so, a patron in the audience must have noticed the difference in her voice. Impresario could dismiss it as Maria recovering from an illness.

Though she needed to fool only one individual. Within the audience, Setzer paid attention with keen eyes. At a distance, Celes misled everyone, but if one was to sense the subtleties in her voice, it was Setzer. She buried the thoughts of the man’s intentions and ignored the impulse to gag; for now, Celes had to play along.

The spotlight blinded Celes, no more than five feet visible before her. Music swelled up throughout the progression of the song. Celes matched the scene blocking as best she could. The intricate costume was to blame for obstructing her performance with the occasional attempt to trip her, though nothing prevented Celes from singing. During her rehearsal, Impresario had accentuated the need to feel the music, to become one with it. Celes wrote it off as melodramatic crap only Jidoor could cook up. It wasn’t until halfway through the aria she discovered the truth in his wisdom.

Truth be damned, Celes couldn’t pinpoint the confusing sentiment of pure, true love. Any time she sang before was done so out of free will and in private. She had no one to sing to outside of her own stage character. The fuzzy account of Locke’s backstage arrival ebbed and flowed from Celes’ mind; she wished he never showed up to begin with.

With her brief dance routine complete and Maria’s figment gone, Celes scooped up the bouquet of red roses. In a split second, she inhaled the sweet scent of the fresh flowers. They brought her back to Vector and the flower garden Cid kept. With her absence, the roses would wilt away and die without proper attention. She frowned while clinging onto the bouquet, the first authentic emotion she portrayed upon taking to the stage.

As the final act of the aria, Celes tossed the roses off the balcony, forsaking both them and her character’s heart to the night. She completed the aria and waited for the chancellor to step in from behind to utter his lines. The music diminished to an end while Celes exited stage left. Silence followed the orchestra and the lights flickered off. Before Celes drifted offstage, the overwhelming applause exploded from the audience, complete with a few whistles.

Extras filed in line to emerge onto the stage for the next scene as Celes made her descent from the makeshift staircase. A set of artists rushed to her; they examined her dress for any snags and tears while touching up her hair and make-up. One of them made a face over Celes’ pitiful effort at styling her own hair, but Celes waved them away before anyone could correct it.

She peered past the entourage of artists and to the crates by the entrance to the stage. Locke vanished from his perch, nowhere to be seen. Celes almost asked about him—a bandana-wearing rogue couldn’t be a tall order to find—but thought better of it. Maybe he rejoined Edgar and Cyan.

Music gushed to life again from the orchestra pit and lights spilled in from outside. Celes took a breath, running nervous hands over one another. She recalled the proper dance steps for the upcoming scene, her feet moving on their own. At least her lines were limited in this portion of the opera.

“What is this? Maria? Nervous?”

Coming face to face with Celes was the man playing as Prince Ralse and in turn her dance partner for the upcoming scene. Celes jerked her hands to her side. “I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Don’t worry.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to,” he tittered, “though if someone here were to be nervous, it’d be you.” His eyes flicked from side to side before he eased in and murmured. “Come now, you think none of us heard about that note lover boy sent to you?”

Beneath the layers of make-up, Celes managed to blush. “Everyone knows about that?”

“Word of that not getting around? That would be a first. You know what they say about the opera house—how it rivals with the gossip of Jidoor’s nobility. Not to worry, though.” He extended a hand to pat her arm. “Impresario claims it’s all taken care of and we are not to worry.” As he flashed a grin, Celes questioned whether or not Impresario informed the cast of the leading lady’s swap. “I did tell you not to get involved with Gabbiani. A man like him is bad news for any well-established lady.”

You’re not exactly helping in the endeavor to subdue my anxiety and nausea, Celes managed to swallow back, though the waver in her eyes said plenty; the more she discovered about Setzer, the more she wished she hadn’t agreed to this plan.

Prince Ralse looped an arm around hers, rapidly guiding Celes towards the stage. “Come. We mustn’t be late for our cue.”

For now, Setzer temporarily vanished from her mind the moment she and Prince Ralse emerged from stage left. The production quality of the performance mimicked a Jidoorian masquerade, sparing no difference in the two. Upon reaching their position, Celes and Prince Ralse faced one another, bowed, and danced.

Elaborate balls didn’t exist within the Imperial military. Celes and her fellow officers prioritized battle strategies and tactics over silly outfits and dance partners for festivities. As for Vectorian nobles, they found little reason to host such involved events. It was a blessing and surprise for Celes when she executed the dance sequence without sinking a heel into Price Ralse’s toes.

“Maria,” he whispered to her at one point. “Smile.”

Plunging into inconvenient thoughts hardened Celes’ features, thus her blue eyes met his and she flashed a soft smile. Far from genuine, but it fit within a crowd of thespians. Unlike them, she played more than one role that evening and Celes hid her ulterior motives beneath the layers she wore like armor.

Celes breathed a sigh of relief when the dancing ended. In time with the sudden change of music, Draco appeared for the plot twist within act one. Celes stumbled to the side, uttered what few lines she had, and allowed Ralse and Draco to unsheathe blades. They declared a duel to the death for Maria’s heart. Like any sequence in an opera, the fight alone was to take a solid five minutes.

One of the directors reminded her to always be alive and in character whenever she set foot on stage despite the spotlight being elsewhere. Now was the ultimate test of the advice, though Celes struggled; Maria was witnessing her lover fighting with her fiancé. No real life comparison inspired Celes to muster the true emotions of conflicted desire and distress. While Celes preferred to step in and fight for her own heart, she wondered if Locke would ever stand up for her as Draco was.

Halfway through the fight, a rumbling spurred from the rafters. She ignored the movements, eyes glued on the drawn out duel. A stagehand earlier stated a rat infestation had been dealt with a month ago, though now Celes doubted the authenticity of that claim. Rats were the least of her worries when she was well aware of what followed after act one. The plan involved her to be kidnapped and from there? Celes hadn’t thought that far ahead. A portion of her wished to steal a sword on set to brandish before Setzer. Surely he wouldn’t be prepared for the notion of his precious Maria fighting back.

The passing consideration faded away when distant yells blared from above. Familiar voices. Determination to stay in character shattered the moment the rafters snapped and collapsed; Celes evoked her reflexes obtained from her military days to clear the falling mess. Other actors followed her lead to avoid the disaster, though despite their on-stage dexterity, neither Prince Ralse nor Draco could avoid the massive, purple octopus plummeting on top of them.

The orchestra ceased playing. The audience drew in terrified breaths. Three bodies also descended and crashed into the squishy creature occupying the stage, breaking their fall before colliding into the wooden floor. Celes flicked her blinking eyes over the three, only to glare and ball up her hands into tight fists. As the audience murmured, Celes settled her sights onto Locke, who rolled over and smiled in contempt of his nervousness.

“That… didn’t go as planned,” Locke muttered.

“What are you doing?” Celes mouthed to him, enunciating each word.

Impresario’s sudden entrance wasn’t a part of the plan either. His eyes held the raw wrath of a Firaga, though when he turned to the audience to express his distraught, his voice stuttered. Without question, Draco and Prince Ralse were not walking anytime soon. It would be a miracle if they could stand now. What would prove to be an even greater miracle was that the abrupt appearance of Locke, Cyan, Edgar, and… whatever the hell that thing was didn’t deter Setzer. If even an ounce of logic swam in his head, the nuances in the performance were plenty to tip Setzer off. While Celes didn’t blame him, she also was in no mood to chase after the airship pilot.

Locke forced himself onto his feet, brushing off cobwebs and sawdust from his attire. After realigning the bandana on his head, he took to Celes’ side and spun to meet the audience. “Neither Draco nor Ralse will win Maria’s hand!”

Whatever plan he hatched now on the fly wasn’t a ploy she wished to be a part of. After his exclamation, Locke hooked an arm through Celes’. Considering the rafters disintegrated and unveiled an octopus and three men, none of whom were a part of the performance, any chances of saving the opera point was rendered as a lost cause.

“It is I, Locke!” He grinned, the least of his worries with the ridiculous overacting. “The world’s premier adventurer, who shall take her as my wife!”

Murmurs turned into exclamations from the audience while Locke eyed Celes. His smile persisted despite her death glare.

“What do you think?” Locke whispered to Celes. “New and improved version of Maria and Draco?”

“I think you’re an absolute ass,” Celes growled.

“Oh, don’t be rude.”

“This was your idea.”

He blinked, then motioned to the octopus. “I can assure you that none of this was my—”

“Silence, knave!” Ultros cried out. Both faced the purple octopus, who had one tentacle lurched up to shake violently. “You stand in the presence of octopus royalty! A lowborn thief like you could never defeat me!”

Locke twitched against Celes. “What did you call me?”

Though she was too preoccupied with other implications. “Octopus royalty? And it talks?”

“Edgar can explain it—”

“I challenge you to a duel!” Ultros pointed a tentacle at Locke, not caring if he interrupted.

Meanwhile, Impresario balanced between a breakdown or hysterical laughter. Shaking his head with a sigh, he faced the audience once more. “Hmm... might as well make the most of this.” He tossed his hands to the ceiling. “Music!”

A different tune played from the orchestra. By then, Edgar and Cyan stumbled to standing, armed with weapons. Locke grinned as they established a formation. He squeezed Celes tight before releasing her.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, my dear lady, I must—”

“Shut up and go kill it,” Celes snapped while stepping back, arms folded and eyes wide.

“Plan on it!” He twirled his daggers about his fingers before he formed a solid grip and dashed off.

Celes wanted to help, wanted to rip the dress off and wield her rune blade and magic. Her place was at the front of the battlefield, not downstage in front of an audience. I’m a former General, not some opera floozy was what she had yelled at Locke the other day. She meant every word of it. However, if the odds weren’t in their favor, being kidnapped by an octopus suddenly sounded better than being swept away by some creepy, lecherous old man who wished to make her his bride. Celes shivered at the speculation.

Movement creaked from above. Disregarding all stage presence etiquette—not like they hadn’t already—Celes broke her eyes away from the fight to investigate above. The lights blinded her, leaving outlines of the broken rafters. When she brought her sights back to the battle, the grind of metal and wood returned. Once more, she spotted nothing.

The pincer ambush upon Ultros overwhelmed the octopus. Edgar left the creature crying out upon delivering the final blow. Tentacles flailed everywhere in the wake of Ultros’ retreat, scurrying offstage. Not dead, but close enough. The three men stood as victorious and sheathed their weapons. The crowd cheered as the orchestra ended the bout of battle music, but once the applause died down, a single instance of clapping rang through the opera house.

Just as Celes suspected, it came from above.

“My compliments on a most impressive performance!”

A body stepped before a light, nothing but a lithe silhouette. Before long, the figure grabbed hold of a spare rope and rode it down for a safe descent. Landing beside her was a man dressed in the finest fabrics Jidoor had to offer; an impressive black jacket covered most of his body, highlighted by shades of purple, white, and gold. Standing upright, the heels of his white boots added enough height to stand several inches, if that, taller than Celes. The sharp angles of his long face were only overwhelmed by the arresting scars carved into his skin. Without the spotlights, his skin still would have been paler than Celes’, though nowhere near the same complexion of his silvery-white, windblown hair.

His eyes went to no one else but Celes, lips twitching up into a half smirk. Such a stare was meant for a predator closing in on its prey, yet marked with fascination. No one, not a damn soul, had ever dared to look upon her the way he was now.

Once again, the audience whispered concern. From stage right, Impresario stumbled back into sight, nearly tripping over the fallen Prince Ralse and Draco.

“Setzer!” he cried out to the man near Celes.

She almost echoed those words herself, instead choking on her shock. Her eyes darted between Impresario and the man he was calling Setzer. The Setzer. The man who she had painted in her head to be a disgusting low-life with absolutely no tact at all.

A slight chuckle came from his closed lips as he stepped towards Celes. “I’m a man of my word, Impresario.”

His voice matched the elegance found in the calligraphy within the note, laced with a faded Jidoorian accent. Celes’ astonishment froze her, enabling Setzer to sneak up. A rough hand slipped into hers to twirl Celes in place. He chuckled again before releasing her, only to clutch onto her waist and snap her into him. Celes squeaked into his chest.

“I’m taking Maria!” Setzer announced, lifting a free hand up to say his farewells.

“Oh, like hell you are!”

The disapproval boomed from Locke. One dagger in hand, Locke rushed towards them. Celes’ eyes widened. This isn’t part of the plan. I’m supposed to go with him. Why are you—

Setzer clicked a tongue against her ear. “You have quite the admirers this season,” he said. Keeping Celes close, Setzer guided her not too far to the side and took hold onto another length of rope. With a firm tug, he eyed the ceiling. “Hang on.”

Breaking character on stage was one instance, though Celes couldn’t afford to break it for Setzer. She was his Maria, regardless where the stage was set. For now, she clung onto Setzer, who kicked at the latches along the floor. In a flash, the rope snapped upward, taking both Setzer and Celes with it. Shrieks bellowed from the audience while the iron safety curtain plunged towards the stage at an alarming rate. Stagehands bolted out to pull fallen actors to safety. Celes spotted Edgar grabbing Locke by the back of his jacket and jerking him away. The curtain crashed into the wooden panels with a tremendous boom, separating Celes from the rest of the party and leaving her with Setzer.