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The Grace of God Chapter 2

A FAINT WHISPERING was what finally roused Celes to consciousness. Though she was barely aware of it, the sound evoked some elusive and nameless dread in her, some recent memory. She stirred and made a small sound of unease.

"Shh, wait. Did you hear that?" Celes could hear more clearly now. A man's low, patrician-accented voice was speaking. "I think she's coming around."

"Try not to wake her if you can," whispered another voice, this one soft and female. "She should rest as long as possible."

"If we keep making noise she is going to wake up," replied a third. The voice was barely audible, but nevertheless unmistakable. Locke's.

Celes stirred again, feeling the weight of sheets and blankets on her. So she was in a bed somewhere, but she couldn't think why Locke would be here, too. Nor did she know why she felt so strange: battered, and somehow raw.

"Unh," she muttered, with effort. Her lips and tongue were dry. "What's happened?"

"Celes?" She felt a weight on the bed as someone sat beside her. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," Celes whispered. She tried to moisten her lips, without success. "I just need to ..."

Finally she managed to open her eyes. The world was blurry for a time, until she recognized the deep red of the ceiling wallpaper: she was in her guest room in Figaro Castle. Blinking her eyes to help focus them, she glanced to her right. Sitting there, looking anxious, was Locke, his jacket and tie removed and shirtsleeves rolled to his forearms.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

The feast -- the party -- the portraits -- the memory of the evening slowly returned to Celes. She remembered clearly, too, what had happened after. What had she seen in that room? The phantom soldiers couldn't have been real people, not with the way they had passed through her as if they were made of nothing but vapor; and Celes refused to believe they had been ghosts. They could only, then, have been a product of her mind, a fluke of her senses. To cause all this trouble over a hallucination -- Celes felt suddenly embarrassed.

"I'm fine," she said as resolutely as she could manage, and struggled to sit up, ignoring the dizziness. Locke reached over help by adjusting her pillows. "I was just -- overtired, I think."

"Nice try, Celes." Celes looked over to see, for the first time, Edgar standing at the foot of the bed. His arms were crossed over a dark-blue silk waistcoat. "But you can't blame things on yourself this time."

Not fully comprehending, Celes was about to answer when someone handed her a glass of water. It was Terra, still wearing her satin elbow-length gloves. A few curls had come loose from her topknot.

"Here," she said softly. "It should help."

Celes accepted the water -- gratefully, for she suddenly realized she was parched with thirst. She emptied the glass in one long, steady draught, then swallowed and asked, "What do you mean, Edgar, that I can't blame this on myself?"

"I mean that we saw the same things you did."

"The Imperial soldiers," said Terra. "Did you see them? And the flashes of light?"

"We certainly did," Edgar continued. "Caused a fair bit of pandemonium in the Hall, too, I don't mind telling you."

"But ... " Relief that she wasn't, in fact, going mad, had met with new trepidation. "If that's so, why didn't anyone else ..."

"Pass out? Some did. I've got nurses watching over them."

"Did any of them touch you? The ghost things?" Locke asked her.

"Yes," said Celes, and shivered. "A few. It was -- awful."

"That's what did it," said Edgar. "We managed to clear out most of the Hall once the flashes started, but when my guards tried to arrest the, er, visitors, they just collapsed the minute they touched them."

Celes was silent, digesting this new information. Her head was clearer now, and that she hadn't gone through that terrible experience alone was a comfort, but there was still the memory of those soldiers.

"What were they?" she asked.

Edgar and Terra exchanged a glance. Locke shook his head slowly.

"We don't know," he said. "There was all the lightning and shouting and everything, and then it all just -- vanished."

Edgar grimaced. "The party's over, needless to say. Most of the guests decided to go home early --"

"I couldn't imagine why." Locke rolled his eyes at Celes.

"-- and I put everyone else up for the night in South Figaro."

"For the night?" asked Celes. "What time is it?"

"Almost eleven, I think," said Locke, and Edgar took out a gold pocketwatch to confirm.

"Eleven?" It had been nearly five hours she'd been lying unconscious, while everyone else had rushed around, handling things. The notion did not at all please her. She began to push the bedclothes aside.

"Hey, wait, wait." Locke stilled her hands. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Locke, I'm fine."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. It wasn't all that serious to begin with."

"It didn't look that way when I found you."

That made Celes pause. She hadn't known it was Locke who'd brought her here. She thought of him discovering her passed out on the floor, and carrying her to her room.

"Believe me, I'm sure it looked worse than it was," she replied, feeling warm.

Locke wasn't convinced. Luckily, just then there came a low knock at the door, and Setzer, looking splendid in full tuxedo and tails, as well as the ubiquitous opera trenchcoat, walked in.

"How's the patient?" he asked quietly, before noticing Celes was awake. "Well! Finally decided to join us, eh?" He was teasing, but the expression on his face was genuinely relieved. "You feeling better?"

"Yes," she replied, pointedly.

"She's still recouperating," Locke told him. "What's the news?"

"It's the same in Thamasa." Setzer paused. "Well. The flashes and voices, anyway, and the ghosts, but no one there said they looked like Imperial soldiers, so that was a nice change. I told them it was probably just an electrical storm, and that you were investigating it, Edgar, and not to worry."

"How'd they respond?" asked Edgar.

"Well -- I suppose the hysteria might have quieted down a little." He thought about it. "Not very much, though."

Edgar dropped into an armchair dejectedly. "Great."

"You mean to say this happened in other towns?" Celes was wide awake now, sitting upright.

"Every town, it looks like so far," Setzer replied. "Every city, too."

"What about Albrook? And Mobliz -- has anyone checked there?"

Lightly, Terra placed a hand on Celes's knee. "Edgar invited everyone from Mobliz, remember? They're all right. Most of them were in Chesme when it happened, and it wasn't as bad there."

"And Albrook is, well ..." Edgar seemed unsure what to say next. "It's okay, Celes, it's as good as can be expected. It's just that --"

"It's just that what?"

"It's just that for some reason things seemed to be worse there, we don't know why." Edgar looked to Setzer.

"People saying they saw things no one else did," said Setzer. He was quiet. "Things like the sky going black. The ground turning to metal."

"But it's okay," Edgar said hastily, seeing the look on Celes's face. "Cyan went there right after and he says things have mostly calmed down, that everyone's shaken, sure, but mostly not hurt. He's going to stay there for tonight."

"That's very kind of him, I'm sure, but it won't be necessary," replied Celes curtly. Deftly, so Locke couldn't react in time to stop her, she pushed the covers away and swung her legs over the side. "I'm returning to Albrook." Abstractedly she noticed, with some relief, that she was still fully clothed, though her bodice had been loosened and her cameo choker removed. So, too, had her shoes, which were lined up neatly beside the bed. She reached over to them.

"Celes, wait a second," Locke began, but she didn't listen to him, only began pulling them on. She had been lying idle for far too long; it was scathing to think that she had burdened someone else with her responsibility.

"My place is there," she went on, not looking up as she tied her laces. "Setzer, will you take me?"

Setzer looked startled. "Well, I --"

"No," said Edgar firmly, "he won't, because we need you here, Celes."

Celes straightened up, looking at him. "Need me here? For what?"

"To help us figure this all out. We still have no idea what hell happened. For all we know, it might happen again."

"That's a possibility." Celes returned to her laces. "But surely you have experts here who know more about such things than I do. I'm hardly an authority on scientific phemomena, Edgar. My duty is to ensure the safety of Albrook's people."

"That's why Cyan's there --" here Celes made a sound of impatience -- "and, well, besides, Celes, Strago says he thinks he's heard about something like this before."

She paused. "Oh?"

"Yes. And --" Edgar, looking uncomfortable, glanced at Locke. "He thinks it might have something to do with magic."

Silence followed his words. After a few moments, Celes drew herself upright. Locke was watching her, his expression serious; Terra, who had said nothing this entire time, was silent, her eyes averted.

"It's not definite in the slightest," Edgar went on. "Not in the slightest. I mean, you know as well as I do that there's actually far more evidence against the idea than for it, but since we have nothing else to go on so far ... well, Strago wanted to talk about it when you woke up."

"I see," said Celes, slowly. Resting her hands on the edge of the bed, she stared at nothing in particular.

"So I thought we could all meet in the the banquet hall to talk about it." Edgar spoke quickly, with an artificial nonchalance. " At the very least, you all can help me get rid of some of the food. How about in a half-hour? That is, of course, if you're feeling up to it, Celes."

"Yes, that sounds fine."

"Good, then. Locke, Setzer, would you help me spread the word?"

Setzer held the door open for Edgar. Before Locke joined them, he placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Hey," he said quietly. "Don't go playing the martyr on me, all right? Tell me if you feel at all strange."

"I will," she said. She let out a breath. "I really will, don't worry."

"We'll talk later, Celes," said Terra. "See you soon." She closed the door.

Celes was alone now. Slowly, she pushed herself back on the bed until she was again lying on it, this time above the comforter, and stared at the ceiling.

There was no denying, true, that there were very few possible explanations for the events of the evening. Memories flashed through her mind: gray-white whisps of force, senseless whispering in her ears, and that feeling, most of all, that feeling of becoming lost in layers upon layers, endless layers, of existence. The entire episode was imbued with a most troubling sense of wrongness.

But at the same time, Celes could not accept it had been magic. It wasn't merely wishful thinking on her part; it was the simple, logical conclusion. Firstly, and most importantly, magic had ceased to exist. Before a irksome voice could remind her that so thought the world after the War of the Magi, Celes also remembered, firmly, that this time the Statues had been destroyed, obliterated, turned to dust -- and, with Kefka dead, their power too.

Secondly -- and this was less empirical, more personal, but far more reassuring --whatever had happened in that ballroom did not feel like magic. And Celes knew what magic felt like. For as long as she could remember, she had felt it, almost seen it, it in the air, in words, in her skin and blood -- the way one feels the potential of power in humming machinery, the possibility of harnessing that power. The events tonight, though alien and inexplicable, true, did not stir that part of her that joined her to magic.

Or had joined her, she thought suddenly. It had joined her four years ago. Could things have changed since then?

Certainly she had changed. Those first few days after Kefka's fall, she had spent most of her time sitting on the beach smelling the air: fresh now, cool. It no longer had the sharp, unnatural tang of magic. And she had been glad to see it go.

It had given her a feeling close to elation, that first time she tried to cast a spell and felt no prickle on her skin, no sense of unearthing something ancient and omnipresent. She could imagine her blood: the old, Magitek-tainted cells dying and new, pure ones being born, natural and clean as water. Later, when she walked through South Figaro, she saw the newly-built buildings and streets as tough and rootlike, organic. These, she had thought, would only be destroyed by the natural chaos of the earth, only by wars or time or clumsy human error, not by some elusive eternal power that, though she had once exploited it, had always been a mystery to her.

So surely if somehow, unthinkably, ridiculously, magic had appeared again in the world, Celes would have felt something -- anything. It had been a part of her too long to think otherwise.

Her gaze fell on the porcelain water-pitcher on the bedside table, and her empty glass upturned next to it.

She sat up and looked at them for a moment, thinking. Where was the harm? There was none. As Edgar had said, the evidence against it was far stronger than the evidence for it. Nevertheless, she hesitated for a long moment before she reached for the pitcher.

She filled the glass up almost halfway and replaced both picher and glass. Briefly, she folded her hands on the night table and rested her chin on them, thinking, then sat up and took a deep breath.

It took a moment to remember, to reorient herself, but then she focused on the contents of the glass in the way she had first been taught as a child: as though she needed to draw its interest, captivate it. She placed one hand next to the glass and raised her first three fingers slightly, as though gesturing to get someone's attention.

"The white in water," she said. The words were as familiar to her as a lullaby.

"The white in water.
The clear in cold.
The bright in breaking.
The sharp of shone."

There. She had addressed her servant; all that remained now was to issue her command.

"Ice," she said softly.

A tense moment, and then -- nothing happened. There was no jump of force from her lips to the glass, no rippling in the fabric of space. The contents of the glass were still motionless -- and still fluid, a fact she double-checked by swirling it around a bit. Her water had remained water.

She sat back, feeling relieved, if a bit foolish. Of course it had remained water. The world had been, after all, changed completely, almost as if it were a new place altogether; and whatever might have been true in the past certainly was no longer. No matter what Strago, wise though he was, might think.

Celes rose and re-tied her bodice as best she could, the ruched satin giving her some trouble. Nevertheless, she found herself in remarkably better spirits. To do battle against haunts of the past was grueling -- memory tainted the struggle, clouded sight of the objective. To rise up to some new trial, and overcome it, was far easier.

She took off her bracelets, put them in her valise, and fastened the clasp. Then she flicked the light switch and closed the door.

***

The banquet hall, like the rest of the castle, seemed quite cavernous and lonely now that the revelry of the evening was over. Seated at the great table were Locke, Terra, Setzer, and Edgar, as well as Sabin, Relm, and Strago, all oddly crowded around one corner of the thirty-yard-long table.

At any other time, it would have been an amusing sight: seven partygoers seated around a table meant for a hundred, all of various age, all in formal wear in various stages of dishevelment. While Strago still looked dapper in his dark-green suit coat and trousers, Relm had changed completely, into baggy pink harem pants and a collared pajama top. Interceptor was on the floor at her feet, gnawing thoughtfully at a large hambone held between his forepaws.

Edgar and Sabin had been talking to the group heatedly, but when Celes approached they stopped. Sabin smiled at her.

"Hey, glad to hear you're feeling better," he said. "We were worried about you for a little while there."

"Oh." Celes made a dismissive gesture as she withdrew a chair to take a place at the banquet table. "Please, you shouldn't have been. I'm quite well." She tried to appear as uninterested in her condition as possible. "Forgive me for interrupting. Please, go on."

Edgar looked sheepish. "Oh, Sabin and I were just discussing a shared experience of our past."

"Uh, I did not share that experience, Edgar."

"Certainly you did. You were the one who suggested rotten oranges in the first place."

"What? Please. I'm not gonna be included in your heinous crimes, dear brother." To Celes he said, "Our Aunt Mildred's piano bench never smelled the same."

"That is a gross exaggeration."

"I think it's an understatement, myself. Although 'gross' is the right word. Were you there when she opened it up? I think it took three years off my life."

"Well, there's no use in squabbling over unimportant matters," Edgar said loudly. "What's important is that we're now all here, so we can begin, correct?"

There were murmurs of agreement. Servants, silent but watchful, had begun distributing food, piling plates perhaps a bit too high with leftover olives, roasted red peppers, basil artichokes, cold cooked shrimp, crudités, and various cheeses and breads -- only the appetizers. As they hovered about, Edgar continued, seeming not at all distracted.

"As we're all aware, " he said, "tonight at five-twenty Figaro time, a phenomenon took place that remains quite inexplicable. There were enough witnesses here, obviously, that we have a detailed account of the events. Reports from around the world are similar" -- here he acknowledged Setzer with a nod -- "and relatively mild. It could have been far worse; as it is, there seems to have been no serious or lasting damage. Still, especially with the particulars of the incident being what they are, and the -- past experience we've all had with similar strange occurences, I thought it would be best if we, ah ..."

Edgar's easy stream of diplomacy had hit a bump. He blinked, apparently trying to make his next words sufficiently official.

"Well, if we talked about it," he said at last.

In the short silence that followed, Celes glanced, without meaning to, at Strago. He was steadily spooning pure brie into his mouth, looking very engrossed in the task of eating and not at all interested in what Edgar had just said.

"I think," Setzer spoke up, "that what we really need right now is an explanation. It's all well and good to assess the damage and take precautions and whatnot, but the people -- the people I saw, anyway -- are scared. They don't know what they're recovering from, you know? Let alone what they should be guarding against."

"Same as us," Relm said grimly.

"That's not entirely true," said Edgar. "We know that whatever it was involved Imperial soldiers. I'd say, it being five years since the Empire collapsed, that's worth mentioning. And their uniforms certainly looked genuine to me. What do you think, Celes?"

Celes, who had been distracted, blinked. "No. I mean -- yes, you're right, their uniforms did look genuine. Third-class standards, winter, not designed for battle. But these ones had --" She squinted, trying to remember. "The collars were higher, I think. The belts were narrower. So were the gauntlets."

"So they could have been fakes," said Locke.

"Maybe," she replied. "But I don't think so."

"Neither do I," said Terra, who hadn't touched her plate.

Edgar, after glancing at Terra, asked Celes, "So what do you think?"

"I think they looked --" she paused, looking for the right word. "Richer. More professional."

The group digested this. Then Setzer, who had been drumming his fingers impatiently, spoke up. "Okay. So the Imperials looked fancy. That's very nice for them, I'm sure, but I think it may be more noteworthy that they were made out of smoke. Might be just me."

Edgar gave him a withering look. "I was getting to that, thank you. Strago ..."

Strago looked up attentively, still eating his brie.

"You said that this might have something to do with magic. Now --" he lifted a hand to the group -- "I know none of us wants to think about that possibility. But so far, as explanations go, we're coming up short. So do you think this signals a new kind of magic? Something residual, what? Because Terra and I went over all the old spells, but we weren't able to think of one that might have been the cause of this."

"Oh, no, no, no," said Strago, sounding rather muffled, as his mouth was full. He swallowed and continued, more clearly, "None of the old spells, no. Those are gone. Disappeared four years ago!"

"We do know that, Grandpa," said Relm, rolling her eyes.

"So how could it be magic?" asked Celes, and folded her arms. She was keen to hear the answer.

"Magic?" Strago looked startled. "Can't be magic. Magic's gone. Disappeared four years ago."

There was a pause. Edgar cleared his throat.

"Ah, yes, but, Strago... I thought you said magic had something to do with this. Maybe I was wrong?"

"Maybe," Strago agreed.

Before anyone could begin grumbling, Strago sat up straight. "Wait! No. I did say that. But not that all those ghosts and lightning and whatnot were magic. That's not possible. Magic's gone."

"Disappeared four years ago," Locke said quickly. "So...?"

"So what happened was I said to Edgar, I said, 'Y'know, Edgar, I think read about something like this in an old book of magic back in Thamasa.'"

"What book?" asked Celes.

"Umm." Strago scrunched up his face, which, given his wrinkles, had a startling effect. "Give me a second, now. Anthology of ... no, that wasn't it. Archival ... Archival, anthology ... hmm. Relm," he said, turning to her, "what was the name of that blue book with the silver lettering, and it was so big I needed your help to carry it?"

"There were a million like that."

"But this one was very old," Strago said impatiently.

"Again, a million."

"This one was so old that every page had been coated in glass and then you dropped it and I lost the first two chapters!"

"Wait -- oh." Relm covered her mouth. "I remember that. That was funny. You were jumping around yelling and your face was all red."

"Yes, yes," said Strago. "What was the name of it?"

Relm was quiet for a minute. "Complete ... Archival ..."

"Ha!" said Strago.

"Jeez, let me finish, old man," said Relm. "Complete Archival Collection of Poly ... Polygeotic, Particularity." She sat back, pleased with herself.

"Oh, yeah, I've read that one." Setzer was dumbfounded.

"Do you still have it?" asked Edgar. "We could go to Thamasa right now and retrieve it."

"Uh," said Strago. "Well, it wasn't actually mine."

"Wasn't that one of Nigel's books?" asked Relm.

"Hmm, yes, yes, it was."

"And who's Nigel?" Locke asked.

"The kid whose house burned down," Relm told him.

There was a general, horrified silence. Locke was the first to find his voice. "And -- with Archival Polykinetic Possibilities in it?"

Relm bit her lip and looked at her grandfather. "Um."

"I'm afraid so," said Strago.

Locke slowly buried his face in his hands. Setzer rubbed at his mouth, his eyes blank. Edgar leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh.

"Do you remember anything from it?" Terra spoke up, at length.

"Well." Strago twirled his moustache between his fingers. "Well, yes, a few things. It was a book, you see, that had been written before the War of the Magi, using mechanical printing. Very rare, you know, so I was very interested in it.

"It was strange, too. It hardly had any spells in it. Mainly it had theories, you know: things that prophets had seen when they went into trances. Secrets about the universe that had been around for so long that no one could remember whether they were true or not. Things like that."

"And it had something about what happened tonight?" said Terra.

"Ye-es. I'm sure it did. Let me remember. It was in the last chapter. All the last chapters were about different worlds."

"Different worlds?" asked Sabin. "Like different planets?" He was interested in astronomy.

"Not exactly. More like... oh, it was very complicated. Especially for my old brain. About worlds, millions of them, countless really, that are like ours. But we can't see them. Don't ask me why not."

"Maybe they've been vanished," Edgar said, thinking aloud. "But where would these worlds be? In space?"

"The book said they exist right, um, I don't know. On top of ours. Or alongside it, or something like that. It didn't make any sense to me."

Celes thought back to the feeling she'd had when the ghostly creatures had touched her, the sensation like falling through endless strata of space, through infinite grains of sand. What Strago had said did make a little sense to her.

"Anyway," Strago went on, "the reason I remember it is, there was a very old legend mentioned in there that I've never read anywhere else. It was about the Goddesses, and how they came to our world. We all know that they were banished here from somewhere else, but we've never wondered where.

"Well." Now he lowered his voice dramatically. "The legend said that right before the Goddesses appeared in our world, mighty storms of mist and lightning rocked the earth. And gray ghosts of terrible monsters appeared, which would poison anyone they touched."

No one had to mention how familiar this sounded. Strago continued. "And then the Goddesses came screaming out of a gash in the sky, and the storms ended, and the ghosts disappeared."

"We didn't see a gash," Celes pointed out.

"No, but we also didn't have three all-powerful magic beings appear, either."

"No," Setzer said. "Thank God."

Edgar leaned forward. "Okay. And since we're all quite painfully aware that many legends have a basis in fact, you think something similar to this one happened tonight?"

"Well," said Strago, "do you have any other ideas?"

No one replied. There was only the slight clink of dishes as the servants went around clearing the table in preparation for the main course. "So," said Sabin at last, "we possibly maybe know what we have on our hands. Legendary eternal otherworld-storm, right? But we still don't know why it happened. Or worse, if it might happen again."

"My knowledge ends there, I'm afraid," said Strago. "If only I had that book. I'm sure that there was much more left to read in that chapter."

"Unfortunately, we're out of luck in that department," said Edgar, glumly. He rested his chin on his hand.

"Sir, if I may?"

All eight guests turned to see a young servant, several plates balanced in one arm, who had spoken.

"Forgive me for interrupting," he said. "But I couldn't help overhearing about that book you're so interested in, sir."

"That's all right, Conrad," said Edgar. He sat up, possibly to look more kingly. "What's up?"

"Well, I'm sure you're aware of the castle library. And you too, of course, Prince Sabin."

"Uh, yeah, right," Sabin said, looking uncomfortable.

"It's just that it has that enormous section on magical theory," the steward continued, shifting the plates to rest against his hip. "It was your father that insisted on it, I think. If there's any other copy of that magic book in the world, it would be down there."

"Of course," said Edgar.

"They're listed alphabetically, too. If you have the title, I can go look for it right after I put these away."

"Ah." Edgar cleared his throat. "Yes. That would be great. The title is Archival Collection of ... Postmodern ..."

Sabin piped in. "He means Archival Collected Polygamist ... of --"

"Complete Archival Collection of Polygeotic Particularity," Relm told the servant, with a sigh.

"Yes, that's the one," said Edgar, banging the table with a fist.

"Okay. Great." The servant smiled. "I'll be right back."

There was a lengthy silence after the servants left. Locke coughed once.

"I was going to mention that next," Edgar said at last, but everyone had already begun to laugh.

"I haven't been down there in years!" he protested, to no avail. "How was I supposed to know about the magic section? I didn't even know we had one."

"Maybe if you spent a little less time tinkering with your gadgets, bro," said Sabin, wiping at one eye.

"And you should talk. 'Polygamist,' indeed. At least my answer was somewhat half-assed."

"Hey, I was really trying to remember."

"Children," said Locke soothingly, "you may put your worries to rest. Your answers were both half-assed. Now, on to more important matters. We might have this book, which would be very good, but on the other hand, it's past midnight." He pointed across the table, where Relm lay slumped leaning on one elbow, eyes closed.

"Oh," said Terra, with a smile.

"So I propose that we finish this meeting in the morning. All of us have had a rough night, some rougher than others, and we're gonna be no good against otherworldly rifts if we don't get our beauty sleep. Especially Setzer."

"Hey!"

"Sound good?" Locke went on. "All agree?"

"I suppose so," said Edgar, stretching. "Although I think I should stay here for when Conrad gets back. Sometimes I hate being a king. If you'll excuse me," he added to Terra and Celes.

"I'll stay with you," Celes said. "I would like to see this book for myself, if it exists."

"If it does, it will probably still exist in the morning," said Locke.

"Mm. I'd rather not wait."

Locke slid his chair closer to her, and grimaced. "Yeah, but you were one of the ones with the rougher nights," he said. "Don't you think it would be a good idea to take it easy?"

"Locke, I'm fine."

"I know that, but -- please. As a personal favor."

Celes looked at him, even though she knew direct eye contact might prove hazardous. His expression, while not quite pleading, was serious; it made her think about what she had promised before, about not playing the martyr. As much as she hated to admit it, she did feel a little weary: her limbs ached dully, as though she were recovering from a flu.

She sighed. "All right."

"Hurrah," said Setzer, rising. "Although I don't know why I'm so eager to go to sleep. It'll just be that much sooner I have a hangover."

"You weren't driving that maniacal machine while drunk, were you?" Locke looked suspicious as he stood up with the others.

"Of course not. I was flying it. And I wasn't drunk. At least I don't think I was." Setzer looked thoughtful. "I'll know for sure tomorrow."

"That, my friend, means you were," said Edgar, from his place at the head of the table. "Have as good a night as you can, everyone. I shall keep a watchful eye for the Polygamist."

"Ha, ha," Sabin, who had been recruited to carry Relm to her room, called back sarcastically. "Don't fall asleep reading."

Edgar had given the all of the guests of honor rooms near one another, presumably for socializing purposes, so it was a motley crew that made its way towards the East Wing. Celes was secretly grateful for the company: her last solo walk down this corridor was a memory a little too vivid for her liking.

They said good-night to Strago and Relm first. The latter, fast asleep, was slow to respond as Sabin tried to coax her off his shoulder and onto her bed. She finally awoke to find her arms wrapped around his neck, and let go so hastily that she had to scramble to land on the bed instead of the floor. It was the first time Celes had ever seen Relm blush. (Sabin, of course, had his own bedroom, and parted ways after dropping Relm off -- blushing a little himself.)

Terra left early. "I'm going to check in with Katerin and see if everything's okay." She looked bone-tired already, but Celes knew she would end up staying half the night with her children, all of whom were bunked up in the observatory after Edgar had promised, the previous year, that they could sleep under the stars. "See you in the morning."

Next was Setzer, who rifled through the pockets of his coat before finding what he wanted: a deck of gilt-edged playing cards. "A little solitaire before bed is good for the soul," he informed them solemnly, before bidding them good-night.

And then it was, as it had been earlier, just Locke and Celes. They had been given rooms across the hall from each other -- Celes reminded herself to frown at Edgar in the morning -- and neither seemed willing to be the one to leave first.

"What a night," said Locke finally.

"Yes." She felt like she wanted to say more, but about what, she had no idea.

"You're feeling all right?" He squinted at her.

"For the last time, yes."

He shuffled his feet a bit in the silence that followed.

"Well, I suppose --" Celes began, but Locke spoke before she could finish.

"Listen, Celes, I know you say you're okay, but I saw everything, too, and, well, hell, I'm not okay. I don't want to bug you, but if you want to -- if you want to talk, or ... I just mean, I'm here." He pointed at his door. "Right across the way. I don't get bothered. So ..."

For one split-second, Celes had the crazy desire to take him up on it, to tell him everything: how she hadn't really had a headache in the portrait hall, how she had tried to turn her water into ice, how frightened she felt, not just about what had happened that night, but about so many things she couldn't pin down, couldn't name.

But the feeling passed. Instead, she gave him a small smile.

"I know," she said. "Good night."


Chapter 3

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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