Vector was never a quiet city, not even at midnight. The air was a bit colder, and the common people had all gone to bed, but it took a long time to learn to ignore the loud whines of steam jets that burst into the air, or the continual clank-clank-clank of the engines. And inside of the castle was even worse - guards constantly stalking the halls, screaming whenever they found intruders. Sometimes, another scream could be heard, a dying scream; other times, the intruders simply gurgled and fell, choking on their own blood.
And yet, somehow, Celes still felt at home there. Maybe it was just because it was the only home she'd ever known; her first memories were of staring up at an iron-gray ceiling and wondering if the sky was like that. She'd been born there, born to be a general and Knight of the Empire.
She was walking calmly through the halls, her sword on her back - after all, she had to practice, and midnight was the best time to do it. The practice rooms were less crowded at midnight. Her purpose in life was simple enough: learn to fight, learn to use the ice magic that she'd possessed since she was a child - a gift from the Empire, and a very lovely one - and learn to lead the Empire's soldiers.
Someday, the Emperor had told her when she was only twelve, she would be a great war hero, would lead her troops into a glorious victory against the enemies of the Empire. She'd worked towards that goal all of her life, not letting anything distract her. The others all thought that she was cold, and she was - cold as ice, and quite justly proud of it. There was nothing that could bother her. She'd received her share of leers and catcalls - after all, she was a woman in a largely male army, and one with long, blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and the strong, toned body of a fighter. But they didn't disturb her at all; indeed, she had become quite skilled at meting out appropriate punishments for them. Criticisms were noted, answered if they were valid and discarded if they were not.
Emotions were nothing to her. She'd never known what love was, had never felt any sort of tender feelings for anyone. They were, she thought, a weakness for a warrior. She'd never shown any sort of compassion... another fact that she was quite proud of. Her teachers were all proud of her, all said that she would make a superior fighter and leader. She was special, and she knew it - and it was all because of the gift that she'd been chosen to recieve, the magic that had come naturally to her as far back as she could remember. The soldiers had mocked her at times, but the ones who had tried to do worse had been punished severely, suffering a very painful case of frostbite; the others had learned to obey her orders and leave her alone. Besides that, she was a general - she commanded her men with cruel efficiency, and they knew it. She might not have the knowledge of tactics that General Leo did, but she could study tactics - and he would never have the power that she had been given. The day was coming that she would surpass him as the greatest general of the Empire.
There was nothing that could take that away from her, she thought, oddly devoid of any satisfaction. She was like one of the icebergs that floated in the northern seas - capable of destroying anything that would dare to strike against her, simply because of what she was. There was nothing that could hurt her, nothing at all.
Her skin suddenly tingled - magic! - and she spun, one hand on the hilt of her sword. "Who's there?" she shouted, the ever-present tone of command strong in her voice. "Show yourself!" If this was just one of the mage-soldiers trying to a play a trick on her, she swore that she would kill him....
But the feminine moan that answered her was decidedly not a soldier's voice, and the shape that suddenly materialized out of nowhere to collapse in front of her didn't look like a trick. Celes's eyes widened; she hadn't been expecting to see her...
The other girl was very, very thin, and more exotic-looking than she'd ever been, with her naturally green hair and her almond-shaped eyes. She would've been quite lovely, except for the expression of quiet desperation that was always on her face, and the madness that lingered just behind her eyes. And then, of course, there were the scars on her body, scars from tubes and needles. They'd told her once that she'd been kept in a tube just like one of those Espers, that a lot of the scars were from sensors and needles that they'd used to make sure that she wasn't wasting away to nothing. They'd told her a lot of things - that she wasn't much more than a monster, that she was too dangerous to be trusted with anything, that Gestahl was a fool to keep her in the city.
Celes had only seen her from afar once or twice, had never spoken directly to her - and she never quite knew what to think about her, anyway. She'd wanted to think that maybe she wasn't a monster; she was the only girl that was even close to her age in the capital, or at least the only one she'd ever had any contact with at all. But seeing her like that made it easy to believe that she wasn't quite human. "Terra," she started, trying to think of something - until the other girl managed to struggle to her feet, and stepped into the light.
The first thing she noticed was a streak of blood, dried to an almost livid black, that ran down her cheek; it was smeared, as though someone had already tried to wash it away. And just below the girl's hairline - probably all around her head - were a series of punctures, as if someone had taken a drill and opened holes for some kind of bolts to go inside.
The sight took her words away. She could only stare as Terra swayed, one hand pressed to her temple, face contorted in pain and something beyond pain.
"...Celes?" Terra barely even knew the other girl; she'd only seen her once or twice, and they'd never even really spoken. She only knew her name because... well, because of who she was, because everyone knew her name. But she could see a spark of something other than cruelty on her face, and that was enough. She needed kindness, sympathy, pity, anything that would help her. Her head was hurting, and her body felt like it had been put on strings and jerked around; she had no memory of what had happened or how, only that something horrible had been done to her. "Is... is that you?"
She was slurring her words. She knew she couldn't help it, but she felt the shame anyway. She'd been out for a long time, she didn't know how long, and when she'd woken up she'd felt that horrible pain in her head, felt the throbbing in her limbs from the adrenaline that had kept her moving. She could instinctively feel that she was on the verge of exhaustion, and it terrified her.
Celes was finally able to speak. "Yes, it's me." She took a nervous step forward, her eyes wide. "Terra, how did you...?"
The other girl almost tittered. Celes recognized the laugh from an old training lecture; it was the kind of thing that usually preceded a great hysterical outburst. "I ran," she managed. "They couldn't see me, none of them could see me, and they're all too scared to check."
She didn't know whether Celes believed her or not. It was true, though; she'd wanted so badly not to be seen that they hadn't seen her, or at least that's what she thought had happened. She'd walked out right past them and no one had said anything to her - she didn't know how she'd done it, or whether she'd ever be able to do it again, but she'd done it then. She'd done it out of necessity; she would've gone insane if she hadn't gotten away from there. Maybe she already was insane, or had been born insane; she had no way to know.
"Terra," Celes started again. "What... what did they do to you?" It wasn't what she'd intended to ask - she wasn't sure exactly what, but it had been much harder, full of command, because after all Celes was a General and Terra was a mere soldier - if she could even be called a soldier. But the near-whisper that had come out was nothing like a command.
Terra was about to answer her - but he couldn't. the words hurt too much to say. "Kefka, he..." But there were memories, memories that stopped her from speaking. "He..." Memories of pain, of burning, of being forced to kill, of being tortured in the worst possible ways when she refused.
"Oh..." The girl dropped to one knee. Tears ran down her cheeks - and was it Celes's imagination, or was there a trace of blood in them still? "I... it hurts... I..."
"My god..." Celes didn't believe in any god, but couldn't think of anything else to say. She only had to look at Terra to see what she'd been through, to see that whatever it was, she just couldn't even bear to talk about it, lest the nightmare return. And she was shocked.
Strange, how someone who'd commanded Imperial soldiers and destroyed entire towns could be shocked by one girl - but it went far deeper than just who Terra was. Celes had been in the Magitek Project since she was a child, had grown up with magic in her veins - she knew that much of her own power came from the Espers, that she'd been a subject of the experiment. But never had she been treated as horribly as the young woman in front of her. Never had she been tortured, scarred, left in a glass tube isolated and alone for hours on end. She'd always had Cid to take care of her; she'd always had someone to talk to, if not Cid, then a tutor. The only thing that she'd been unhappy about was the lack of company her own age, and even that seemed minor compared to what they'd put Terra through.
Celes didn't have to think about what to do. She forgot all of her training, all of her skills as a General, to do what she thought was the most natural thing in the world.
She took a few quick steps towards the sobbing woman and wrapped her arms around her as tightly as she could. Immediately Terra hugged her back, still sobbing, her head nestled against Celes's shoulder. Her hands pressed tightly against her back, as if holding on to life itself.
Neither of the two girls remembered their parents; both had been taken away from them too early. Celes barely remembered anything but the hot, gray steel of Vector; Terra had awakened one day in a cold, cold glass womb, and had stayed there for so long she'd began to despair of ever coming out of it. But both of them had had mothers and fathers, once. Both of them had memories - subconscious memories, but sometimes they could be the strongest of all - of being loved and accepted with nothing expected in return, of being held when they cried, of being fed when they were hungry. They knew, somewhere deep inside, that they had not been alone forever, that they had once had someone to care about them, before the Empire had swallowed them up and pushed them ahead of its bloody wake.
They remembered - and so they held each other, knowing that maybe a bit of compassion was the only thing that could help them, the only thing that had even a chance of saving them from the emotional wreckage of their new lives. Of course, they could not pretend to replace each other's parents, or anything else; there was really very little they could do for each other, with such gulfs between them. Celes had been trained to command; Terra had been forced to serve, her spirit broken again and again. Celes had always been lucky, as it were, with Cid pulling strings for her and making her life easier in a thousand ways; Terra had been tormented all of her life, either by isolation or by cruel, painful experiments. Even they themselves had been changed by the different magicks that they had received. Terra's hands burned almost painfully into Celes's back, and her tears were agonizingly hot; Celes's arms were cold, like ice, no matter how tightly they squeezed. The magic had molded them, transformed them to a degree; neither of them had known it, or had reason to even suspect it, until they felt the differences that it had caused.
But for that moment, none of it mattered. They had both grown up without the affection they'd been born into, and they both knew that there was nothing else that they could do, no one else that they could turn to for it. So Celes held Terra and let her cry, and Terra held Celes and tried to let herself be comforted.
They had no way of knowing how much time had passed there. At one instance, it seemed like an eternity; in another, as Terra stiffened and pulled herself away, it had felt like only a few seconds.
"Terra...! What's wrong?" Celes didn't know what else to say. Her composure had already been shattered, leaving the emotions that she'd hidden behind them a raw, bloody mess; there was nothing else that she could say.
The older woman was screaming incoherently, her hands clutching her head. The madness was back in her eyes - or had it ever even left? - and there was nothing that anyone could do. The pain was raging through her system - horrible, horrible pain, electricity pulsing through her body, destroying everything -
She forced it down, reached out one last time -
- and their fingers had barely brushed before Terra fell unconscious, slumping to the floor. Her eyes closed; her face almost seemed peaceful, without the distracting madness. But Celes knew enough about medicine to know that she was hurt - the shortness of breath, the pallor, the way her hands had clenched before she'd fallen...
"Why, Terra," a familiar voice almost crooned. "I didn't know you had it in you." The young general didn't have to turn around to know that Kefka was standing directly behind her.
Something about that voice always made Celes break out in goose bumps - something in the timbre of it, something that warned her of the clearest danger that she could imagine. It was almost like spider's silk - smooth, beautiful, but with that edge of malice to it that could kill as quickly as charm. But there was a difference between that encounter and all of the others: her armor was gone, her icy manner melted. Once one emotion had escaped, it seemed, all of them came bubbling up to the surface to be set free, and she knew that her fear and disgust were written very clearly on her face.
Not that Kefka seemed to care. He pushed her aside with one smooth motion - she felt the shock against her skin, painful and sickening - and kneeled down next to Terra's prone form. But there was no compassion, or even concern, in those dancing eyes of his. "My little devil's growing up," he murmured, lifting her chin with one hand, the ruby fingernails almost like claws. "Invisibility, no less! Why, if it hadn't been for that little show of weakness Cid never would've found you! Ah, my dear, what will you be learning next?"
"Leave her alone!" Celes didn't stop to think; if she'd stopped to think, she would've been paralyzed with fear, and then she might not have done something as stupid as try to defy Kefka. "Can't you see she's hurt??"
"Why, yes," the clown smiled, his smile wide and gleeful, as if the very idea of Terra being hurt was the most pleasant thing in the world. "Yes, I can see she's hurt, little girl." One finger traced the line of punctures along her hairline, coming away with a drop of livid red blood as he lifted it to his lips, licking it clean. "It's obvious, isn't it, now?"
Then Celes did the most thoughtless thing she could have done. She drew her sword and launched herself at Kefka in the most devastating attack she could conceive, all of her military training coming to bear -
- and the jester laughed, and with a flick of his fingers sent her reeling as a shock of his own magic tore through her body, not enough to paralyze, but enough to send her into a painful spasm that she thought she might never recover from. She dropped the sword - it was only by an amazing chance that she'd dropped it, that she hadn't sliced herself open upon it - and fell onto the floor, convulsing and wishing that she could pass out...
"Kefka!" Dimly she recognized Cid's voice, noticed something about it that she rarely noticed: he was angry. "That's enough! If you hurt Celes, I swear that I'll - "
"- do absolutely nothing, like every other time you've tried to threaten me," Kefka finished with a sneer. But the pain did stop, leaving the girl limp and exhausted on the stones. She couldn't imagine feeling that kind of pain again, ever...
Is that what she goes through...?
She couldn't see either of them as they spoke to each other, and could only dimly attend to the words. "You kill her, and Goddesses help me I'll have you destroyed any way I can, Kefka. She's not your goddamned plaything!"
"Of course not, Cid. She's yours. I was only warning her - only teaching her not to meddle with things that don't concern her. It's an important lesson to learn, you know - and apparently you haven't been teaching her very well. Or have you even learned it yourself?" Celes rolled over a bit, opened her eyes enough to see Kefka standing with Terra in his arms. "You see, Professor, this girl is my affair. The Emperor gave her to me, remember?" The clown-general cackled with an insane glee. It was easy to forget that this man had been lauded as one of the Empire's great successes. "She's mine. Mine, not yours - you don't have the balls to use her the way she should be used, and he knows it!"
"I... I don't care what you do to her," Cid shot back, although his voice didn't have much conviction to it. "But don't you dare touch my Celes! I don't care what kind of lies you've fed the Emperor, he's not going to take kindly to you attacking your equals - "
"Ha! You call that my equal?" With a jerk of his head he motioned towards Celes, who'd only just managed to lift her head from the ground. "One measly little spark, and she's out! She's as weak as you are!" Kefka's smile only seemed to grow wider, and his eyes turned a poisonous green. It made Celes sick to look at. "You're the one who should be minding me, Cid. I'm the one who has the Emperor's ear at all. And he's quite excited about these tests I've been running with the crown. I'm certain he could always use another, ah, specimen for them..."
"You wouldn't dare - "
But Kefka didn't answer. One second he was there, gloating with the sick, exhausted Terra in his arms; the next, they were just... gone.
Celes let her head fall back to the floor, her body shivering from the aftermath. She felt drained herself, sick from the outpouring of emotions that had nearly killed her. She could still feel the marks that Terra's hands had burned into her back, although she was sure that there weren't any real burns there; it didn't matter, it felt just as real.
She felt Cid trying to pull her up, faintly heard him encouraging her to stand, telling her that he would take her somewhere safe. But she didn't feel like she should be safe; instead, she was starting to wonder if maybe she didn't deserve the same fate that the fiery half-Esper was suffering.
Why... why should I be... protected when... when she has to...
"Celes, please... you need rest..."
She managed to struggle up again, away from the floor, long enough to utter a single word before passing out again.
It had only been a few hours ago. Cid had carried her back to the lab, had let her lie on a healing bed - something that her trainers rarely allowed her to do, because she was supposed to learn to take care of her own wounds, or else live and die with them - and had been apologizing profusely all the while. He was so sorry, he'd said, that Kefka had done that to her. He'd come barging into his lab, demanding that Cid help him find Terra, when he'd seen Celes's surveillance screen and had seen Terra with her too, and then he'd nearly hit the ceiling, cackling about what spirit his subject had and what he'd have to do to break it. Cid had tried to tell him not to go, that there wasn't any real harm in letting the two of them talk for a while, but he couldn't control that madman. He'd do anything to protect Celes, anything at all, and if that meant he would have to find a way to destroy Kefka - or at least his position in the Empire - he'd do it for her.
Celes had heard him, although she hadn't been able to respond; her body had still been too tired and weak, and her mind was still trembling, in a sense, with its own reaction. The emotions had drained away, leaving an empty space.
Terra... they found you because of me...? They were watching me...?
The older girl's face still floated in her mind - too thin, too sharp-featured, with that horrible, horrible pain in her eyes as she cried, begging for something to help her survive to see another day.
I wanted to help you, Terra... don't you believe me? But if I hadn't tried, maybe they wouldn't have found you.... Maybe I'm the one that should've been hurt, not you....
Cid was still apologizing, more to himself, it seemed, than to her. Leo was right all along, he said. He should've never let the Emperor talk him into extending the Project to humans, he never should've taken that cursed grant, he shouldn't have given in to him yet again and built him that technology for the crown, or else he should've destroyed it when he'd realized what he was going to do with it. It was all his fault, and there wasn't ever anything that he could do to stop it, not once he'd set it all in motion, or else he'd been too cowardly to do it.
Celes didn't understand all of it, but she didn't really care. I'm a prisoner too... I thought all along that I was a General, that I was strong, but really I'm as much a prisoner as she is... I'm sorry... I'm so sorry I couldn't...
For some interminable time she stayed there on the healing bed, with Cid still droning on about how everything that had happened was his fault and how he wasn't worthy of anyone's forgiveness, let alone hers.
For her part, she still had thoughts that wanted to be thought, but her mind was too burnt out. She finally fell into a fitful, dreamless sleep. But even that couldn't take it off of her mind for long; it seemed that every time she woke up, she would feel the burning, and it would take her mind back to what had happened - back to feeling so helpless, so afraid, so concerned for her. Back to feeling - and there was the heart of the matter. She'd been very happy as the cold-hearted bitch that most of her soldiers had derided - well, maybe not very happy, or maybe not happy at all... but she hadn't been unhappy, dammit. She'd had everything trapped behind that sheet of ice, and she'd functioned just fine. And now...
...now... well, now what? What was she feeling, anyway? Worry? She'd worried about how her campaigns would come out, back before she'd won enough to gain some confidence in her abilities, and it hadn't felt like this. Fear? Why should she be afraid?
Or did she want to be afraid? She was feeling... an odd sort of compassion, that feeling that maybe she should be suffering too, because someone who was a bit like her was suffering. Why would she feel that way, though? It didn't make sense, she told herself; it didn't make sense to be upset about someone else who was in pain when she wasn't. She should feel fortunate about it, shouldn't be so... so... weak as to want to put herself in their place.
But as logical as her thoughts were, they were still inadequate, compared to that haunted face that she saw when she closed her eyes, that near-skeletal shape that she'd first glimpsed in the shadows. She was... desperate. She trusted me - me, someone she had to know was an enemy - enough to make herself visible to me...
Celes dropped her head into her hands, not sure whether to cry or curse. Nothing was making sense, her emotions were all jumbled up inside.
"Emotions are a weakness on the battlefield." One of her old trainers, one of the first ones that she'd ever had, in fact, had told her that a long time ago. It was one of the earliest lessons she'd ever learned. "Compassion is the most critical weakness of them all, because if you start feeling compassion for the enemy army, you begin to see them as people, not as the enemy. And in war, the most important thing is to defeat the enemy. Killing a person is much more difficult than killing an enemy; it can cause an entire army to fall, for if the commander begins to doubt her purpose, the rest of the army will as well."
It had been so easy to generalize that to the rest of her life, so easy to consider compassion as a weakness, to be locked away and kept behind a wall of ice. She couldn't afford to feel compassion for anyone, she'd told herself, especially not soldiers. She had to be able to command them - to order them to their deaths, if she had to, and compassion would prevent her. So she'd pushed it away, as deep and as far away from her conscious as she could...
...only to have her defenses shattered by a girl with unnatural powers and crazed eyes. Only to be struck dumb by them at the worst time, to the point of actually attacking someone that she knew was much, much more powerful than she was. Only to be overcome by senseless guilt when she was met with the inevitable failure.
Her fingernails bit into her palms as she clenched her fists. Damn her!
But the though lacked conviction, and she knew it - knew it very well. A part of her - a traitorous part, she thought grimly - actually wanted to feel this. It wanted to feel compassion, to know what it felt like to care enough about someone that it wanted to share that person's fate. It wanted love, affection, all those things that a battle-hardened general weren't supposed to need. All those things that she'd been taught not to feel.
It was as if seeing Terra like that had melted her heart, at least a little bit. Maybe hearts weren't meant to be frozen.
No. No, no, I'm not some love-hungry idiot. I'm not. I'm a general. I'm a Mage Warrior. I'm one of the most powerful people in the world!
But she wasn't ready to let herself feel. She still believed that it was a weakness, that if she felt for one person, she would begin to feel for everyone. She believed that she would be weakened, that she would no longer be a good General.
I've... I can't let this happen. I can't let it happen ever again. I've got to be strong.
She just wasn't ready.
"What a bad, bad girl you've been, Terra...!"
The half-Esper girl desperately, desperately wished she could've stayed unconscious. But that was impossible; Kefka had his own special ways of making her wake up exactly when he wanted her to. Magic did have its advantages.
She was trapped - trapped in the chair again, her arms and legs strapped down securely. Her head throbbed painfully, and she didn't have to try to move her head; the crown was there again, the wires snaking from the little circlet into her mind. But it wasn't turned on; she could still think for herself, thank goodness.
"It's almost amusing, isn't it, my dear?" Kefka was standing over her, his long, tapered fingers caressing the Crown's control panel. Now and again one of his crazed laughs would interrupt his words, making them seem even more sinister. "Almost ironic, really. Why, if you'd stayed invisible, you would've made it much harder to find you. You might have even escaped me for a short while. But that weakness of yours made you throw it away!"
She wanted to speak; she wanted to tell him that he was wrong, that she wasn't weak. But she couldn't; those hypnotic orange eyes stared into hers, and she knew that he had her. She was in his power, and there was nothing she could do.
Besides, he'd caught her again. Maybe that did mean that she was weak...
"What were you expecting, my little demon? Were you expecting compassion from her?" He leaned in a bit closer, his face locked in a terrifying leer, and when he whispered to her again his voice was harder than a sword-blade. "Were you expecting love?"
Stop it, please...! His whispers always foretold a punishment. She'd learned to be terrified of them above all else - even his laughter. But why? She hadn't done anything wrong, had only tried to find someone, anyone who wouldn't hate her. She hadn't even known what she was expecting....
"You poor little fool! You really think that anyone is capable of loving you? Don't you know what you are?" Kefka's laughter was growing unbearable. "You were born to destroy, Terra. You were born to burn everything you touched. You were born to hate, don't you see? You're unworthy of any kind of love!"
It... it's not true! I... I...
But maybe it was true. She was an orphan, had never known a mother or a father. Maybe she hadn't even been born like a person; maybe she'd been created... or maybe her parents had hated her and given her to the Empire because of her magic. Maybe she didn't deserve to be loved.
Maybe she deserved this life - hated, hurt, always lonely - because of what she was, because of the power that she'd been given...
NO! It can't be.... She still remembered the kindness on Celes's face - she couldn't have mistaken it! She'd hugged her, and Terra had felt the sympathy in it, even though the girl's skin had felt like ice against her arms. I can't be... unworthy of it... if even one person...
"Ah, hope..." Kefka had seen the look on her face before she'd even known it was there. He sighed - a mocking, overdone sigh, like a lovesick child would've sighed, and through it all that same mad giggle. "It's so beautiful. So sweet, so true. And so easy to destroy!"
Terra screamed as he jabbed at a control, as she felt the familiar noise filling her head, the horrible buzzing of the slave crown that had drowned out her own thoughts and made her feel like she was falling into nothing. It hurt terribly, like it always did, but she knew that it would stop, that if nothing else she would pass out. But she didn't - the buzzing stopped short of being unbearable, allowing her room to think, but not to command her body or voice.
"Do you like this setting, Terra?" She could still hear his voice over the noise, as if it were coming from a great distance. "It's brand new, I just had the engineers install it for me. I thought that you'd appreciate a bit of self-discipline, and you know," he laughed even harder than before, "you know I only have your best interests at heart, my dear."
Terra's thoughts were lost in a chaotic maze of pain and confusion; her body was limp, waiting only for a command from her master. She tried to recapture her hope, her defiance, but it was gone - lost somewhere in her mind, somewhere in that horrible tangled mass. For a moment, she was sure that she was about to die.
"Now," the clown-general cackled with glee, "let's get started, shall we, Terra?"
He pressed a button - and Terra felt herself convulse, straining against her bonds, her body suddenly and agonizingly rigid. Her mouth moved in familiar words, the focuses that she didn't recognize until her body was suddenly awash in a wave of heat, the fire that had sprang from her own magic.
"Yes, Terra, yes! You feel it, don't you? That's what you belong in!"
She had grown up with the magic, but that didn't mean that it couldn't burn her. Yellow-hot flames danced over her body, sticking like cement to her skin, burning it away - all of it away.
"You were born in fire, my dear! And fire's only purpose is to burn!"
It burned away the kindness in Celes' eyes; it burned away the feeling left on her body from her cold, sympathetic hug. It left her screaming until she could no longer scream, made her forget everything but the pain, the fear of her own powers and the hatred for what she was...
"And that's what you'll do, Terra!" the mage screamed triumphantly. "You'll destroy everything! You'll burn everything you see until there's nothing left to destroy! And then what will you do, you demon? Then what will you do?"
The fire stopped; she knew dimly that he must have made her stop, and hardly cared. Her flesh throbbed, her body ached... she could feel blisters forming on the few patches of her skin that hadn't been burned black. Her tangled green hair had been burned almost completely away, and her eyes were almost destroyed from the light.
Help... me... someone...
But there was no one there, when she needed them the most. Did that mean that Kefka was right? That thought hurt her soul as much as the fire had hurt her body. How could he be right? How could he?
"Terra." She heard his whisper in her ear, felt him touch her skin and tried hard to recoil from the pain - but her body wouldn't let her, because he hadn't ordered her to. "Do you understand now, Terra?"
It took all of her willpower to force out two simple words. "...hate...you..."
He replied with a sinister chuckle. "Ahhh, just what I wanted to hear, Terra. That's my good girl..."
I wish I could die... I wish I could... maybe... maybe this time I will....
"Don't worry, Terra, you'll be perfectly healthy in no time," he said quickly, as if hearing her thoughts. And maybe he did. "I can't let my best weapon die, now can I?"
Her only reply was a small moan, as she felt herself finally, blessedly lose
"My dear citizens of the Empire! Bear witness with us as we enter a brave, glorious new age..."
Celes didn't fidget like an ordinary teenager as the Empire made his long, boring address to the people. She would've been severely punished for it, and had been as a child. A MagiTek Knight wasn't supposed to act that way, and a General definitely wasn't.
She was standing beside Leo and Kefka, naturally. The generals of the Imperial Army had to be there for the Emperor's speeches. She'd even had to make speeches herself, once or twice; mercifully, though, she'd been spared that this time.
She was eighteen, then - finally a woman, in almost every sense of the world. She'd thrown herself into her studies over the past year and a half, or so - that one display of weakness had hurt her, had made her feel unworthy to be a General. She had to overcome it somehow, and so she'd trained.
And killed. Her vaunted attack on Maranda hadn't been too long ago. It had made her feel... oddly relieved, to know that she was still capable of it.
Capable of slaughter, her mind whispered, capable of murdering innocent people....
But whispers were easy to drown out, and the cheering crowd beneath them did the trick very well. She had overcome a weakness, she thought triumphantly as the Emperor went on and on with his inane speech. She'd proven herself. She'd done it.
"...and to this end," the Emperor continued, "we have found the perfect weapon... not one made of metal, but of flesh and blood -"
Celes blinked. Surely he was talking about her, she thought. Or about Kefka. He couldn't mean...
"...one that will never be taken from us, thanks to the brilliant Professor Cid's new technology!"
Suddenly her blood was very, very hot in her veins - almost scorching hot.
She could hear the footfalls behind her, the heavy steps of one of the armors.
No... Celes hadn't seen Terra again since that day; she'd made sure of that. She was so afraid that all of those old feelings would come back if she saw her again, saw that mad agony in her eyes. I can't turn around...
....but she had to. Leo and Kefka had already turned - Leo with his customary stoicism, Kefka with a look of the most unnatural glee. She had to look as well.... so she looked.
It was a different Terra from the one she'd seen before - clean, dressed neatly in a red dress, her hair pulled back severely and tied in a tail. The wounds that had hurt Celes so much before were hidden by a tight, black metallic band that seemed close to snapping the girl's head apart. And her eyes...
She couldn't stop herself from gasping, although she suppressed the look of pain almost at once. Her eyes were... dead. There was no madness in them, no comprehension or recognition, no life in them whatsoever. The pleas, the desperation, they were all gone. She was dead, in almost every sense of the word.
Is... is that what I'm like to everyone..?
She could feel the shield inside starting to crack, to melt again - she'd never forgotten her encounter with the older girl, had only been able to block it away and hope to forget it someday in the future. But every time her mind even attempted to broach the subject, she could feel the heat against her back, the press of her arms against her, as hot and urgent as it had been then. She'd been lying to herself; she would never forget it.
Suppressing a shiver, she turned away with the others, ignoring Leo's concerned glance. The Emperor was still talking, but she wasn't listening; she had to concentrate. Keeping her outward look of composure was an immense struggle, but she managed it somehow; she couldn't break down in front of the people of Vector. She just couldn't.
After what felt like an eternity, it was over - the march played, the people cheered, and the Generals made their salutes to the people and the Emperor before turning and marching out themselves. Terra was already gone; she'd been led away by one of the soldiers, most likely.
Terra... I will not break down. I will not... there wasn't anything I could do...
"Quite a speech, wasn't it, Celes?"
She blinked and looked towards the sarcastic voice, straight into Kefka's eyes. "I, ah - yes," she corrected herself quickly, not giving any outward sign of her own disequilibrium. "It was that, indeed."
But Kefka could see her distress. He had an almost-supernatural ability to sense when someone was in any sort of pain, physical or mental, even if no one else could see it. "Very... inspiring," he said slowly, as if searching for just the right word. "But then, the people are going to need inspiration before the war is over, are they not? Ah, wars are so long, so bloody..."
His voice wouldn't have bothered her a few minutes ago, but now... now the eagerness for bloody combat was enough to make her feel sick. "Yes, they are. We should be prepared for a long battle..."
"Oh, I am prepared. It won't be long before I'm to be in Doma, will it? Quite a strong castle - Leo's 'prepared' to sit it out for months and months." His voice sank into an insinuating whisper. "But I don't like this business of long sieges and such. Why bother with sieges, when a bit of the right poison in the right river will win the battle for us?"
She went numb with shock. Why?? And why is he telling me this...!? "I don't -"
But he'd already teleported away, like he always did when he didn't want to hear any objections to his ideas. And his words were gnawing away at her, breaking her down from the inside. Maybe if she'd heard them before seeing Terra again, she might've been able to force herself not to care - war had its costs, after all, and maybe that really was the best way to fight a formidable army like Doma's. But it just wouldn't let her go. It would be some time before her armor cracked again, but crack it would.
Kefka watched her, his body invisible; surely she'd thought he was gone, but he wasn't going to miss something like that, now was he? The feeling of pain... so delicious. So wonderful. It was building up inside her, and soon the pressure would be too great to deny it anymore. One little crack - Terra had made that flaw, had injured that perfect coldness that she'd used to defend herself from compassion. Kefka had known that once she'd began to felt it, she wouldn't be able to stop herself; she'd seen the look on her face after seeing Terra again, and after two years, no less!
And when she finally did crack... oh, wouldn't that be a show, if only he could be there to see it happen! She'd be dishonoured, of course, branded as a traitor for daring to question the Empire - he'd see to that. He knew who Gestahl would listen to. And she'd be executed -
- ah, but wouldn't Cid just love seeing his precious little child killed for treason? He hadn't forgotten what he'd said to him, or the way that Celes had struck out against him when he'd only tried to reclaim his own - the stupid wench, trying to interfere with how he treated his Terra! And he hadn't forgotten the way that the old man had promised to destroy him for touching his little fool....
Who's destroyed who, Cid? Kefka smiled as he turned to walk away. Delicious. It really was delicious. He would have to laugh about it, once he'd gotten away from her - but not with her standing behind him, trying her best to look like she didn't care. Who's destroyed who?
"Mostly I want them to live above ground, not in that damp old cave. They're children; they should be able to play in the sun whenever they want to."
Mobliz was busier that day than it had been in years. There weren't a great number of workmen, mostly volunteers from Figaro, Doma, or anywhere else that had been willing to come back and help with the town. But what they lacked in numbers they made up in sheer will and enthusiasm; a few skeletal frameworks that would soon be small houses were already up, and the men and women were clustered around a blueprint for a larger home, a playhouse of sorts.
Terra and Celes were standing a bit away from them; they'd already seen the plans anyway. Both were dressed rather modestly, in clothing that was meant to ward off the chill of the autumn wind; Mobliz had been warm in the past, but the Shift and the passage of time had changed everything.
Time had treated Terra well. Celes could see that she'd lost that thinness, the near emaciation that had added that unpleasant sharpness to her features. Her skin was rosier, and smile lines were starting to form around her eyes, softening her face pleasantly. What was more, she actually laughed once in a while; she'd actually started to look like she enjoyed life.
The scars were still there, somewhere, but she was leaving them behind. She was finally starting to live her life like a human being, not a half-Esper who'd been forced into being a living weapon for any group that wanted her. Her green hair - the thing that had marked her as being not-quite-normal - had faded to almost-white, and that glow of power in her eyes had faded.
Celes nodded. She understood why Terra wanted those children to have everything she could give them. They had been the ones to show Terra the meaning of love, at least for her - just as Locke had done for Celes. He'd taught her that love and compassion didn't always mean weakness, that sometimes it could even be a source of strength. And she wanted to give him everything that she could.
She missed him, although she knew very well that she'd be with him soon. He'd gone ahead of her to help with an excavation project for the ruined castle that rested near Figaro; she'd been too busy to leave with him, but now she had no obligations, and there was nowhere else for her to be but with him. But she had also wanted to see Terra again.... "How are you feeling now, Terra?"
Terra smiled a bit, in what she hoped was a reassuring way. "Better. I'm... much stronger, now." She knew what Celes was referring to; after she'd collapsed on the Falcon, they'd all been scared for her, scared that the shock of losing half of what she was would end up killing her. But Terra had known that she would be all right, that her father would never promise that she would be able to live on as a human being if he'd had any doubt that she would be able. She'd still been in and out of consciousness for days, almost weeks; for a while she'd been afraid, despite her father's words, that she'd never be able to stand again. But now... "It's all right."
Celes believed her. She noted the hesitation in her voice, though, although she didn't say anything about it. Terra was still worried; of course, she had every right to be. It really was astonishing, the way that she'd managed to adapt to her new life, to her lack of magic. Celes herself still found herself trying to cast her old spells when she was in trouble, even when she was up to managing the situation without magic. She was beginning to realize how much she had relied on magic, and how hard it would be to learn to live without it. And she hadn't even been born with it.
But she didn't want to worry her with her misgivings. "I'm glad," she said quietly. "I'm very glad." I want her to be happy. She deserves to live a normal life, more than anyone else on this planet. She deserves to be happy, to be loved, to... She let the thoughts trail off.
Terra, for her part, was lost in thought. Almost anything that reminded her of magic reminded her of her past, or at least as much of it as she could remember. I've lost so much, she thought. So much. I might never be able to make up for the memories I've lost...
"Terra? Are you ok?"
"Huh?" She blinked. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine. I was just thinking." She looked away - towards the south, towards the pile of rubble that was still visible in the far distance. The ruined tower, the resting place of most of her childhood. "I was just thinking about... memories. I was wondering if I'd ever get any of them back...."
Celes didn't answer; she didn't think Terra expected one. She had caught a glimpse of one of those circular scars that were mostly hidden by her long white hair, and was suddenly aware of those patterns that the heat had traced against her back, so many years ago, and the burning tears of fear that the other girl had cried on her shoulder.
We were so young...
She wondered if she would feel the same fire if she were to reach out and touch the woman's shoulder. Doubtful, to say the least; Terra's fire and Celes's ice had both been destroyed, leaving behind the human warmth that the rest of the race shared.
I would've helped you if I could, Terra. But I was trapped too, a prisoner in the same prison. I had to block it out - I couldn't do anything, I swear. I wish I could have...
"Yes, Celes?" Terra's eyes were full of the kindness that seemed to come naturally to her, now that she was happy with her children. It was far better than the madness that Celes had seen before.
She'd changed so much. She'd healed so much.
"It's nothing," Celes replied quickly. "I was just thinking about the past, too... but it's gone now." You... made me feel compassion... and now I know how important that is, now that I've learned what love really is. I'm grateful for that. I always will be.
"Ah... I see." Terra nodded her understanding. There was certainly enough about the past that she wanted to forget, too. That was why she was trying to keep her mind full of visions of the future. "Have I shown you the work they've done on the new Town Square yet, Celes? They're erecting a statue... it's supposed to be a secret, but they gave it away one night. I don't know what it's a statue of yet - they're keeping it hidden - but we can take a peek at the rest of it..."
Celes smiled, relieved in a small way. "I'd like that."
It was just as well, she told herself. Maybe some things were best kept forgotten.