A Long Cold Winter Chapter 5
Of Times Past
It was the usual chorus of yells and stampeding feet that replied to the call. Within several moments there was a moderately well behaved herd of children sitting at the long dinner table, awaiting feeding.
Katerin entered the room, holding a platter of food in her hands. She frowned at the one empty seat amidst the children. "Where's Joseph?"
"He's still outside."
The aforementioned child abruptly ran in from outside, a frantic look upon his face. "Momma! Katerin! Duane!"
"What is it?" Katerin asked worriedly. "Are you okay?"
"Mr. Sabin and Mr. Cyan are here! And Mr. Cyan is covered in blood!"
From the kitchen, a loud crash heralded the dropping of a cutting board. Moments later, Terra was already running out the front door.
Katerin alternated between looking at the wide open front door and the children. She finally sucked in a breath, smiling sweetly. "That's very nice, Joseph. Now sit down to eat supper. Mr. Sabin and Mr. Cyan will be in to visit shortly. There's _nothing_ to worry about."
Both Sabin and Cyan saw Terra bolt out the front door and sprint towards them. The two were atop chocobos that had originally belonged to the attacking men. It was a safe bet that the men would not be needing them any longer.
"Oh crap," Sabin muttered. "_Now_ we're in for it."
Cyan sighed in agreement. "Methinks it would be preferable to have gone straight to Figaro Castle. Or perhaps been slain by the enemy before..."
"What's going on!?!" Terra demanded, skidding to a halt in front of them.
"Uh... we can explain, Terra..." Sabin ventured, dismounting from his bird.
"You're covered in blood, Cyan! You're _HURT_!!!"
"T'is only flesh wounds," he assured her, also dismounting. "They are of no lasting consequence."
"Well, how did you get a 'flesh wound' out here? And where did all the blood come from?"
"It's okay, Terra. It's all okay now..." Sabin trailed off upon seeing the dangerous look she gave him.
"T'is no danger to this location, Terra," Cyan informed her. "My word upon that."
Terra relaxed slightly upon hearing that. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up."
"I would not abuse your hospitality as such, Terra," Cyan protested.
"You want to sleep here tonight? Then you're taking a bath first!"
"Women," Sabin muttered in disbelief, watching Cyan get dragged into the house. It was beyond him how his older brother could keep chasing after them like he did.
It was a somewhat calmer Terra that faced the two men an hour later.
"You did _WHAT_?!?"
"Terra! The kids," Sabin pointed out.
She shot him a glare before returning to Cyan. "You took on ten soldiers by yourself? I thought you promised to be careful!"
"I only gave my word to avoid heedlessness," the knight protested.
"He got the first seven by himself," Sabin added helpfully.
The look they received carried little grace behind it. "So what was so important that you felt it _wasn't_ heedless to fight ten men by yourself?"
Cyan sighed. "I cannot profess to understand completely, Terra. But I believe it could be extremely dangerous should unsavory people obtain it."
"But why were there ten soldiers there?"
"Twenty," Sabin corrected.
Terra seemed to growing immune to surprise by this point. "Okay, twenty. So what about the other ten?"
"Celes and Shadow got 'em."
"Celes and Shadow were there too? What was this, a reunion?"
"They were there with a third guy," Sabin continued. "He seemed to be paying them for the job. But, I don't recognize him..."
"Saroth," Cyan supplied. "His last name, I believe. Another man by the name of Nicholas Xerxes knew him. A strange individual, I think. Do you know of the name?"
Terra shook her head. "So what were those three doing there?"
Sabin frowned. "I dunno, but those three are the ones I was tailing all this time, Terra. They're the one's who sunk the ship back in Nikeah. And from Duane's description, I guess they're the ones who knocked him out before."
"Celes?! But she would never..."
"That's what I thought too," Sabin agreed. "I mean, she never was much for conversation, but she always seemed like a good guy-I mean, girl. But she's being paid for it, I guess."
"Thou doth think much too highly of the General," was Cyan's opinion. "Once an Imperial general..."
"We already talked about that, Cyan," Terra interrupted. "Are you sure Celes isn't being forced into it? I mean, Shadow was always on the shady side, but Celes was never a lawbreaker. What were they after, anyway?"
"I do not know," Cyan admitted. "But methinks we may all have lost out to yet another party. The man, Saroth, did claim that another arrived beforehand to claim the treasure for his own."
Sabin sighed. "We don't know."
"Well, what's this whole business about?" Terra persisted.
"We don't know that either. We're going to head back to Figaro Castle and talk with my brother. He might know some things about it."
"Are you sure?" Terra seemed unusually insistent.
"I swear it, Terra," Sabin protested. "I wish I knew more 'bout all this. But I don't know. I really don't."
The air seemed to deflate from Terra as she nodded. "I'm sorry, Sabin. It's just... I can still remember when I first came here. Everyone was so worried and helpless... some of the children were on the verge of starvation. I showed them how to fend for themselves and I defended them from animals as best I could. I don't think I've ever felt so wanted in my entire life. Or as happy. But if that's what it takes for me to feel so wanted... then I never want to feel so wanted again in my life. Or as happy."
The two men bowed their heads in accord.
Terra bowed her head. "And now I find out that so much fighting and killing happened less than a day from here... I don't want to feel like I did before. Ever. Does that make any sense to you?"
Cyan nodded gravely. "T'was a time when my services were in need only when my kingdom was in danger. T'is then that I did obtain my satisfaction. Yet gladly would I have given it all away for the kingdom's safety."
"Same here," Sabin agreed. "I can remember when you guys first found me and wanted my help. You can't imagine how I felt. My older brother and his entire kingdom needed my help. That really did a lot for my pride, y'know. Especially since I thought Duncan was dead then. But I think I'd rather have just stayed sad then have the world go through everything it did."
"Thou need not worry any longer," Cyan consoled, placing a hand on Terra's shoulder. "The battlefield doth move on to other grounds, and thy young ones are safe."
"I hope so, Cyan," Terra whispered. "I hope so."
"I must admit, I am impressed by you two. Taking down ten soldiers by yourself, and you didn't even suffer a scratch in return. You're even better than I thought."
"The Reaper chose them to die today," Shadow replied.
Lance chuckled. "Perhaps he did. I've always felt that the Reaper was a spoilsport. Always cutting down men in the prime of life. Never letting them live out their lives. One day, future generations are going to find themselves with a distinct lack of history, and it will be because we kept getting killed before we could accomplish anything of note."
"Small loss," Celes replied. "Men like them would never amount to anything in the first place."
Lance shrugged. "You're such a cynic, my dear."
She glared at him. "With the likes of you for company, anyone would be hard pressed to be otherwise. I would hope this trip was worth it for you."
He finally frowned. "So far, it does not seem to be."
Celes mirrored the frown. "You were being honest before? Someone else obtained the treasure? Then what's the bulge in your pocket?"
Lance produced the glowing orb from his pocket. "I obtained it from the vault room. A curious little thing, really. No heat, no wires, no fuel. yet it produces a steady light. I think this will come in handy in the future, if I don't sell it beforehand. But it's not what I was after."
"How do you know something else was taken from the site?"
"Several reasons, actually. What we just finished fighting over is an Imperial base, as you must know by now. There is a vault inside that was supposed to hold the treasure. It was forced open, and recently."
"Our mysterious thief used some type of chemical to eat through the deadbolts. Most interesting, really. I wish I knew of it myself. Have you heard anything of it, either of you?"
They both shook their heads.
"Ah well. Until another day, then."
"Did the thief leave anything behind?" Celes inquired. "There are... very few thieves capable of infiltrating Imperial bases."
"I don't doubt it. I consider myself one of the better, really. It seems that he did leave something behind, actually. Some cloth. I don't know whether it tore off his clothing by accident or whether it was a decoration, but..." He produced the strip of cloth.
The reaction from Celes was immediate. "Damn him..."
"You recognize this?"
The look on her face was death itself. "I do. It belongs to a thief named Locke. Locke Cole."
With a quiet *clink*, several ice cubes were dropped into the glass of spirits. For several moments, three of the cubes swirled around in the glass, as though fighting for position. Then they were all pushed aside by the fourth one as it finally bobbed back up to the surface, taking its place in the center of the glass.
Nestled comfortably in a plush armchair, the holder of the glass gave a lopsided smile, silently congratulating the fourth ice cube on its victory.
"So where to next, my friend?"
Locke shifted his glance from his glass to across the table. "I don't know yet. It's probably going to take me a day or two to decode that stuff. It wasn't called an unbreakable code for nothing, you know. I can't even decipher half of it."
"As you say. And I won't argue with the dealer on this hand. But why not take a gamble? Where do you _think_ the next location is? What's adventure for if not to overcome the odds?"
Locke had to laugh at that. "Spoken like the gambler you are, Setzer. But what if I'm wrong?"
The silver haired man shrugged. "Then we've lost this little gamble. And perhaps a day or two at worst. The Falcon isn't the fastest ship in the world for nothing, my friend. So go ahead and roll the dice."
"Well... if I had to make a guess at where the base would be..."
Locke's brows furrowed. "It wouldn't be in the Narshe area. It wouldn't be on the Veldt, since we just came from what used to be there. I can't see it being anywhere near Vector. My guess... is that it would either be around the area of Thamasa or up near the Fighting Arena."
"Excellent," Setzer pronounced. "Two choices. And better yet, there's two sides to a coin."
Locke watched as Setzer produced a coin from his pocket. "Heads we try the Coliseum. Tails, Thamasa?"
Setzer looked thoughtful. "Hmm... No, I think heads will be Thamasa."
"And the difference is..."
"My instincts tell me there's a difference."
The coin bounced several times, wobbled, then settled upon the hardwood floor.
"Thamasa it is," Setzer pronounced, pocketing the coin again. "Let us see if Lady Luck is with us on this."
Locke sipped his drink. "She has been so far, hasn't she?"
Setzer nodded, looking down at the table. In the middle of it, a golden rod of metal was resting on a cushion. Etched into it were what could only be described as thousands of lines. It was Locke's professional opinion that the lines served as the key. That being said, whatever lock required the key would no doubt require the exact pattern of lines the golden rod possessed. "Yes, indeed she has, my friend. And she's the type of lady you can't find much to complain about, hmm?"
"Unlike others," Locke agreed, sipping again.
"You never did tell me why you and her split up."
"She's a psychotic bitch."
Setzer raised an eyebrow. "Words spoken in anger are never healthy."
"I'm not angry," Locke said, his tone of voice becoming weary. "I was at first, but not anymore. There's no other way to put it, Setzer. I did everything I could for her. I showed her half the world. I wanted to show her the other half. And then we could have found the rest of the world together. And I know she loved it.
"No more having to feel guilty over once being an Imperial General. She was just one of the people who helped overthrow Kefka, and deserved a vacation for the rest of her life. And I did everything I could to make sure she got it. It was just like I had a second chance with Rachel. Someone I could protect and keep safe..."
Locke's voice trailed off as he took another sip.
"So what went wrong?" Setzer inquired.
"I still don't know. Everything was perfect for awhile. Did you ever see her smile before?"
"Once or twice. Things weren't exactly ideal before. But I saw a few smiles, I think."
Locke's face took on a dreamy appearance. "I thought I had too. But I can still remember the day I was proven wrong."
Across the snowy landscape, the wind howled angrily. Looping and twisting through the terrain, it did its utmost to scour the surface bare of anything living. The few white-coated trees and sparse scrub brush that were present existed only through sheer hardiness and will to survive. At the base of one particular cliff, two somewhat different examples of survival were present, taking advantage of the rut in the land for shelter against the wind.
Both were wrapped up in heavy clothing to the point that it obscured their appearance, but one could be seen to be male, the other female.
The male was talking, sounding a little sheepish. "Alright... _now_ we ask for directions..."
The female laughed. "I would strangle you, except that there never was anyone who knew the way! Perhaps we'll be able to see something once this storm clears."
"It could be awhile before it clears. Storms get really bad up here. We're North of Narshe, you know."
The female took off her hood, revealing a shock of blond tresses. "Well, there's no wind here, so we may as well make ourselves comfortable. Or is this the first time Locke Cole, the legendary thief has ever gotten lost?"
The male took off his hood to revealed a crop of brown hair tied back with a bandana. He grinned in reply. "And what would Celes Chere be doing, following this _thief_ around like this?"
Celes lay back in the snow and closed her eyes. "Having the greatest time of her life, that's what."
Locke shook his head. "Well, you haven't seen anything yet. Once we find this city, you'll be having an even better time!"
"But we don't know if there's even a city. We're here to find out, remember?"
Locke flushed. "There's got to be a city! I don't want to have dragged you out here for nothing!"
"I will find this city! I promise-"
He stopped himself short. "Yes?"
"You worry too much. Maybe there's a city out here waiting for us to find it. And maybe there isn't. But don't let it get to you like this."
"Sorry. It's just... I want to show you... something."
Celes gestured out across the vast landscape. "You already have, Locke. Look at all this. It's completely untouched by people. We're probably the first people in years who have even seen it. Kefka wanted to destroy everything. People, cities, yes. But he also wanted to destroy this. So sit back and enjoy it. You fought for it, didn't you?"
Locke forced himself to relax. He lay down in the snow beside her. "Yeah, I guess we all did, didn't we? Be criminal not to take advantage of it all, right?"
She rewarded him with a smile. "There was a time when I couldn't imagine myself ever doing something like this. I didn't even know it possible to go somewhere like this, simply to explore."
"Well, I guess I can't argue with that. But mark my words, I'm going to show you a city if I have to build it myself!"
"I wonder if you're not stubborn enough to do it too."
"What?!" Locke sat up with an indignant expression. "You mean to say that you've never hard of Locke, the Master Builder and Architect?"
Her expression was a strange mix of amusement and disbelief. "I don't believe that I have."
Locke lay back down again. "Whew. It's a good thing, because neither have I. Out here, the only thing I could ever build are snow angels."
Locke raised an eyebrow. "Never made a snow angel before? Then it's time for a quick lesson!"
Standing up, he leapt several feet away to a patch of undisturbed snow. Before his partner's eyes, he went rigid, and fell over backwards. "You have to fall right for the best ones," he explained.
"I see..." she agreed.
A brief display of snow calisthenics ensued, then Locke carefully got his feet again. He pointed at the engraving upon the snow. "See? Instant angel! That's the gown and those are the wings..."
Following suit, Celes leapt onto another undisturbed patch of snow. Falling backwards, she mimicked his motions. Standing again, she turned her head to survey the results.
"_Very_ good for your first one," Locke critically judged. He gave her an expression of disbelief. "Why, you must an angel yourself!"
Celes burst out laughing, falling back down on her angel.
Locke hopped over next to her head. Kneeling down, he spread her hair out around her. He grinned down at her. "See? You even have a golden halo around your head! Just keep smiling and no one will ever know the difference."
She shook her head. "Somehow, I don't think it's as easy as that..."
Locke flopped down in the snow beside her, making his own snow angel. "Well, _I_ sure can't tell the difference."
"Out here, I wonder if I can even tell the difference. Out here, there really isn't anything around. Nothing to fight, nothing to escape, and nothing to remind me of anything..."
Celes' face took on a dreamy expression. "But I like that."
Locke shook his head. "Yeah?"
"You spaced out there for a moment."
Locke sipped from his drink. "Sorry. Just... remembering. There were times... when she had a smile like you wouldn't believe. It was just... heavenly. I don't think even Rachel ever matched it..."
Setzer's voice was quiet. "So where did things go wrong?"
Another sip. "I told you. I don't know. For a few months, things were just like that. Then she began to change a little at a time. A few sleepless nights. A few nightmares."
"She wouldn't tell me. She just told me not to worry, because they were nothing important."
"Did you ever find out?"
"You know that sword she's always used? That rune blade of hers? Nasty sword if I ever saw one."
"She _attacked_ you?"
Locke smiled ruefully. "Whenever we were in town, we'd usually stay at an inn. We always slept in separate beds, see?"
Setzer had to chuckle. "My goodness. Such restraint, Locke."
"Well, I guess we both too responsible for anything like that before marriage. But that saved my life, because one morning, I woke up early. And her entire bed had been chopped in half with one slice. She'd done it in her sleep."
An incredulous stare was all Setzer could manage.
"Like I said, it was a good thing we were in separate beds. Anyway, she still wouldn't talk about it. Just another nightmare. Nevermind what she'd just done. We left the village and kept going."
"Just like that?"
"Well, yeah. I was worried, but she swore that she was okay. Anyway, this whole time, she's was becoming more and more temperamental. I guess the breaking point came while we were grabbing something to eat in a bar. Some drunken fool came up her and tried to show off, and wound up barfing all over her food. So I slugged the guy in the face."
"I can see that happening," Setzer agreed. "So what happened next?"
"Well, the guy was about a foot taller than me, so it didn't hurt him much. His five buddies come and back him up. They all had swords out and ready to fight. But Celes just pushes me back in my seat and tells me to ignore them. I got back up again and told her that if she thought I wasn't going to protect her, she had another thing coming..."
"Did you fight?"
Locke sighed. "Me and the first guy fought for a few minutes. Then he hit me so hard I lost my sword. Before I blacked out completely, I heard Celes telling the men... something about the first guy stepping forward being the first one to loose his life."
Setzer raised an eyebrow. "And then..."
"I don't really know. I blacked out then. When I woke up, I was in bed with a few bandages on me. There was a note on the table, and she was nowhere to be seen."
"What did the note say?"
"Not much. It was from her. She told me that we were through for good. She told me not to look for her, and that if I knew what was good for me, I'd find another girl like Rachel."
Locke finished his drink. "The end. Of the note, anyway. The first thing I did was go back to the bar to find her. I guess I should have guessed something was wrong when I went in. Everybody suddenly got _really_ scared when they saw me. I asked the bartender if he'd seen Celes. He relaxed when he realized that she wasn't there. I asked what had happened."
Locke shook his head. "From what the guy told me, it sounds like all six guys took a _big_ step towards her."
"She _killed_ them?!" Setzer blurted out in disbelief.
"Yeah, she killed them. And apparently they never laid a finger on her in the process. Just six cuts, and none of them had heads anymore. I still don't believe it. I mean, she's just a woman, and she's not exactly very butch either. The guys must have all been drunk out of their mind to loose like that. But that was it, I guess."
"Did you ever see her again?"
"Once, a month later, when I was in Jidoor selling a few artifacts I'd found. I tried to talk with her. I won't repeat the language she used, but she basically told me what she's written in her letter. Then she just stared into my eyes for a few moments before leaving. I spent the next half hour wanting to throw up my guts."
"And that was it?"
"Yeah. I barely recognized her. I mean, she looked the same as she always did. But her eyes..." Locke shuddered. "I don't know how she did it, but looking into her eyes was like looking into death itself. An angel, my foot. She's an angel of death or something."
Setzer sighed. "A tragic end if I ever saw one."
Locke pushed his empty glass across the table. "You see why I think she's psychotic? Make me another one of these, will you?"
Setzer got up, taking the glass. "You sure, Locke? Considering how often you drink, the first one is going to be making itself known in the morning."
"Then I'll be in the perfect mood to greet a second one too," Locke replied. "Serve it up."
"Your hangover, not mine."
After several moments of silence, Setzer brought back a full glass. "So do you think she was right, Locke?"
Locke accepted the glass. "Excuse me?"
"What kind of question is that? I'm over her, if that's what you mean. I'll never forget her, but she's at peace, and so am I. She's moved on, and I had too."
"You think Celes was just imagining things?"
Locke took a long drink before replying. "I don't know. I really don't. She's was the most levelheaded person I've ever seen in my life, really. She never would have made the cut for an Imperial general otherwise, right? Her and I talked about everything. It wasn't as though we tried to pretend Rachel had never existed. But she was in the past, and we both knew it."
"What about her? She ever have a past boyfriend or lover?"
Locke gave Setzer a weird look. "Her? Do you have _any_ idea what you're asking?"
"I know what I'm asking. I know how unlikely it is. But funny things can happen behind the scenes at the military, you know. Especially up in the lonely higher ranks. Seeing as you two always had separate beds, I guess you never heard her scream someone else's name, but..."
"I can't believe you've even saying that!"
Setzer's expression was unrepentant. "Then you don't know me too well, my friend. But I'm dead serious. You of all people have to understand the idea of carrying baggage around. How do you know she didn't have a load of it herself?"
Locke appeared to give the matter some serious thought. "No, I don't think so. I mean, things were a little awkward between us at first. But eventually we just pushed through and talked about everything. She had a lousy past, I know. Being an Imperial general was never a walk in the park. Especially if you had to work beside someone like Kefka. She did a lot of terrible things she wishes she'd never done. But that was in the past too. What else could there be? As far as I can see, she just went crazy."
Setzer sighed, lightly sipping his own drink. "I'm sorry, my friend. I don't know what to say to that. I consider myself lucky that Daryl left me in love. Not everybody has that, but I did. There were a lot of things we never got a chance to do, but the two of us always knew life was a gamble. She played Lady Luck to the end, and so will I."
Locke nodded. "Yeah. Maybe I'll just stick with Lady Luck too."
"She's not the most dependable," Setzer admitted. "She'll seem a little crazy sometimes. But there's seldom a dull moment."
"Suits me just fine," Locke decided, setting down the empty glass. "I'll stick to adventure and treasure hunting. I'd love to have Ms. Luck along for the trip."
Hmm... for some reason, I feel like I'm getting sappy. What do you think of that flashback? Isn't it just sweet? It ended up a little longer than I intended, but I liked it. Poor, poor Locke... Alright, enough sentimental BS. Don't waste all your sympathy on Locke, alright? And don't hold too much against Celes.
How do you like Setzer? It never really struck me until I was writing this chapter, but he and Locke could find a lot of common ground in each other. Let me stress that I have yet to consider _any_ event in this story far-fetched or unlikely. That's what makes it so fun for me to write.
This chapter is about to give me cavities, so I'll sign off now. The next chapter is going to have more events happening.
Impressions, indignations or intelligent ideas? firstname.lastname@example.org
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