The Question

By Margaret Rennie

Edgar tried to stop her. At the last second, as she headed for the door, he grasped her arm, his brow furrowed, his eyes lit with compassion. Or, perhaps, pity. She didn't know which and didn't care. She didn't care what anyone thought of her. She had left her pride back in the Phoenix Cave.

She looked around at her friends. They were friends, now, mostly. They had all fought together, side by side, and they had forged a common bond that could never be broken, brothers and sisters-in-arms. Now, she saw it in their faces, affection for her, fear for her, sympathy for a fallen comrade, even in Cyan's face, Cyan, who despised her. Cyan understood lost love better than most. She swallowed hard and struggled against Edgar's hold on her.

"Don't, Celes," he pleaded. "I just don't want to see you hurt, dear, any more than you already are. This isn't a good idea." With a determined yank, she pulled herself free.

"I don't care! I have to know! Don't you understand?" She looked around at her friends once more. "Don't any of you understand? I have to know!" She turned on her heel and rushed out the door of the airship.

She half walked, half ran down the street toward the herbalist's house. Her heart was pounding. She had never been so terrified. One word from him, and as quickly as she had found it, her heart would be cut in two, forever lost to her again. But she had to know.

She couldn't be mistaken about this; she couldn't. She had seen it in his eyes, even as he tried to hide it. She had seen it that night at the opera, and again in Albrook, and yet again in Thamasa, when they'd believed the war was over.

"I, for one, could use some peace and quiet," he had said, his eyes looking into hers. Come with me, they had said, those gray eyes of his. She had heard them clearly, and she'd been ready to go. But...the war had continued, and went on still.

When she thought she'd lost him, that he was dead, she had wanted to die herself. But she'd been given hope, his bandana carried by a bird to her solitary island. She'd carried that hope with her ever since, folded in a pocket, her dearest keepsake, the token that had made it possible for her to press on and on until she'd found him, finally and at last.

He'd appeared out of the blue. There he was, in the Phoenix Cave, just an arm's reach away. She thought she might burst with longing. It had been her turn to ask, "will you come with us?" Will you come with me, her heart sang. But he wouldn't meet her eyes, this time. He held the phoenix magicite in his hands, and hung his head. Only as far as Kohlingen, he had said, not looking at her, and for the second time, she'd wanted to die.

The airship journey had been torment. He had sat and held that magicite as if it were gold, his face determined. Nobody'd bothered him; they could see he was preoccupied and didn't want to talk. There'd be plenty of time for that later, after he did what he had to do. After he'd restored his love to life.

Celes had stayed in the same room with him, sitting close by. She couldn't bear to see him this way, and wished to be a comfort. Yet she ached with the knowledge that there was no longer any room for her in his heart. She didn't think that he even knew she was there.

When the ship landed, he tore out the door, not saying goodbye, or wait for me, nothing. He never looked at her once. She thought, so this is what heartbreak feels like. It is better to be cold.

It hadn't occurred to her to leave the ship, to go after him, until she felt herself rising from her seat. God, what am I doing? she'd asked herself, but then realized that this was the only thing she could do. She had to know. She had to look into his face, and hear him tell her with his own lips that she'd been mistaken, that he didn't love her. But he does love me, she thought feverishly, I saw it in his eyes, and I know that he loves me.

She reached the herbalist's door, and lightly knocked. There was no answer. She held her breath, and turned the knob.

The door was unlocked, and opened to an empty room. For a second, she thought she had the wrong building, then, she heard his voice. He was downstairs, of course, now she remembered. That was where the herbalist tended to Rachel. That's where Locke was now. Downstairs, with her.

Something was wrong. She had never heard him sound so tormented. She tiptoed to the head of the stairs and listened. It was the magicite shard. There was something wrong with it. It wasn't working. She heard him cry Rachel's name, over and over, and his voice sounded as though it had been ripped out of him. Celes had never felt so torn, so divided, between passionate desire for another's well-being, and abject sadness for herself. She wanted Locke to have his happiness, but if he got it, it would mean her own destruction.

Suddenly, she heard Rachel speak. Had the shard worked after all?

I shouldn't be here, she told herself. I should go. But she couldn't make herself leave. She leaned her head into the stairwell and listened. As she did, her heart caught at the tender words this girl was saying. She was dying, and she was using her last breath to free Locke. To free him from the terrible burden of guilt that he had been carrying around. To free him from his self-loathing. To free his heart to love again. Celes listened to Rachel's supreme act of love and sacrifice, and she burned with shame at the selfishness she had felt not a minute before. She touched her face, and looked with wonder at the alien wetness on her fingertips. She was crying. She had never cried before.

She heard Locke's boots on the steps, and quickly wiped her face. He came upstairs and moved to the table. She thought he hadn't seen her.

"Locke..." she began. He didn't turn around, but began to speak, of freedom, and lightness of being. Even his voice sounded strong, the voice of a man finally at peace with himself. For the first time, Celes realized that much of what had driven Locke, in his search for the Phoenix artifact, and in his journey back here to Kohlingen, had not been love but guilt. Guilt, and obligation. Rachel had known, and had helped him to lift that burden. And with the guilt gone, so was his tie to this place. Celes now saw that this was how she herself had ever been able to find her way into his heart, and she saw that, perhaps, now, there could be a place for her beside this man whom she loved more than her own heartbeat.

"From now on, I'll be okay," he said. "Thanks." Then, he turned to look at her. For the first time since the Floating Continent, she saw his eyes. And there it was, as clear as a cloudless sky. He did still love her.

She stepped toward him, and he toward her, but they stopped short of the embrace they felt. This wasn't the place. But it would come. She knew that now, and she could feel her heart swell with joy.

They walked together out of the house, and she looked up at him to speak, only to stop short as he turned and rushed back inside. thought, fear beginning to clutch at her. But then he was back, smiling, as he happily showed her the treasures of the Phoenix Cave. He hoisted his pack up onto his shoulder and flashed a crooked grin at her, and its charm made her grin back.

As they walked side by side, she felt his fingers brush hers, then he took her hand.

This is happiness, she said to herself. This is what happiness feels like. And she thought she might cry again.

Suddenly, she slowed her gait, and began to lag behind, her head down. Locke felt her hand tug at his and turned.

"What is it? What's the matter, Celes?" She looked at the ground. Worry creased her forehead.

She didn't need to ask this question that had sprung to her mind. She didn't need to know this. His answer might ruin it all. Her soul felt complete, now, with him beside her. Why couldn't she just be content with that?

Never ask a question unless you are quite prepared to hear the answer, Cid had once told her. She didn't need to know this. She wasn't prepared to hear what his answer might be.

"Celes?" She looked up into Locke's concerned face. "Come on," he said quietly. "Tell me."

What if I don't, she thought to herself. What if I never ask; what if I just leave this alone? But she knew what would happen. It would haunt her all of her days. Could she ever be happy with Locke, with this unanswered question hanging in the air? She took a deep breath.

"I...want to ask you...something," she said haltingly. He stepped closer to her, and bent his head.

"Yes?" he asked. She looked into his clear gray eyes, trying to divine the answer, trying to know what he would say without going through this painful business of having to ask him. But the answer wasn't there. At least, she couldn't see it. She took another breath.

"Locke, I have to know. Please don't lie to me, even if you think it's kind. If...if the phoenix magicite had worked, if you had been able to get Rachel back..." Her voice trailed off. Her courage was deserting her. She put her hand to her face for a moment, then looked him in the eye. "Would you have stayed, Locke? Would you have stayed with her?" There. She said it. It was out. Locke held her eyes, his own dark with emotion. He shook his head.

"Oh, Celes, honey, I think you know the answer to that one." She watched his face another moment, then felt her own crumble as she grimaced, her tears coming in earnest, flowing copiously, flooding her mind, washing away the light of joy that she had felt so briefly just a moment before. Her shoulders shuddered as she wept, and her hands flew up to cover her face. Locke dropped his pack and put his arms around her, pressing his lips against her hair.

"Celes, I need you to hear me now. This is important. Yes, I would have stayed with Rachel, because that is what I'd said I would do. I'm nothing if not a man of my word. And, until Rachel let me off the hook the way she did, I hadn't realized that my youthful love for her had long since been choked to death by the guilt I felt. If she had lived, it would have taken some time for me to realize that. Celes, listen to me. You asked me for the truth, and here it is. I would have stayed with Rachel, but I would have been in love with you the whole time. Your memory would have stood between Rachel and me like a ghost, and I don't know how long I'd have been able to stay, before I would have had to leave to find you." Locke held her tightly and kissed her hair. Celes looked up at him, her face wet, her blue eyes swollen and red.

"Locke, I..." She again began to weep. He smiled, and squeezed her.

"I know, angel," he said in a tender voice. "I love you, too." He pressed his lips to her ear. "When this is over," he whispered fervently, "it'll be you and me. Just you and me, forever." He bent to pick up his pack, keeping an arm around Celes' shoulders. They began to walk again, back to the airship, back to their friends, and the war that still loomed ahead, their minds eased of their burdens, and their hearts free to embrace their new love.

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