She was sitting on the floor in front of the fire, a book in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, when she heard the door creak open and exhale a cold rush of air. Footsteps stamped against the welcome mat. Smiling, she leaned back against the couch, letting her loose hair spill over the cushions, and set her book glasses on the end table. "I was wondering when you'd get here."
"Is that you, Terra?" The visitor came around the couch and stood before the fire without removing her coat. Her white-blond hair fell to her waist in a braid, which shone like a polished chain in the firelight. "It's been a long time."
"I know." Terra smiled up at her guest from her seat on the floor. "Go ahead and sit down, Celes," she offered, gesturing towards a chair. "It's a long way here from anywhere. Can I get you some tea?"
Celes nodded and took her seat, crossing her legs. Her face was much paler than Terra remembered, and there were branching lines around her eyes, which Terra pondered as she stood. The last time the two women had met, the lines had been little more than vague impressions. So how long had it been since they'd had a conversation over tea? Over anything? Terra made her way into the kitchen and pulled a teacup out of the cupboard, trying to count the seasons in her mind.
Had it really been twenty-five years since she'd arrived in Mobliz? Time had long since settled into a quiet circle for her, but even Katarin's baby had a child of her own now. Twenty-five years. Terra lifted the tea kettle slowly, letting the scented steam warm her face. Twenty-five years.
And at least twelve since the last visit.
There had been letters, of course, occasional notes telling her that Locke had found another map or that Relm had gone away to art school. And there had been so many weddings. So many births. So many funerals. Time passed the same way in Mobliz, but with a different balance. It was a place of blooming and newness, where decay went unnoticed and death was sudden and rare. It had been hard for Terra to understand what Relm felt-- was it fifteen years ago?-- when her grandfather, already quiet and shriveled with age, had at last slipped away. Thamasa lay in the twilight, settling into the dust, a town with few children and many elders. Mobliz still turned its smooth face to the dawn.
Terra carried the steaming teacup back to Celes and resumed her seat on the floor. "Thanks," the blond woman said, wrapping her blue-tipped fingers around the mug. Her eyes were like opaque ice. "I suppose you're wondering where Locke is."
Terra shook her head. "You didn't say he'd come with you. He's all right, isn't he?"
The question elicited a sharp laugh. "Of course," Celes said. "What else would he be?" She snorted and took a sip of her tea, but her face was drawn and gray.
Terra's eyebrows knit in concern. "Are you all right?"
Celes laughed again, harshly, then lowered her face over her teacup. "I feel like such a bitch," she muttered. "Here I haven't written you in years, and then I send this ‘Hey, Terra, I'm coming for a visit' letter. And you act like nothing's wrong." Her eyes darkened. "I don't know. Never mind."
The room was silent save for the crackling of the fire. Drawing her legs to her chest, Terra rested her chin on her knees and waited for Celes to speak again. When she didn't, Terra picked up her book and reading glasses from the end table.
"I didn't know you wore glasses," Celes said, her voice half-amused, half-bitter.
Terra shook her head. "Only for reading. I just got them a few years ago." A slight smile warmed her face. "Madeleine likes to hear stories, and I was having trouble reading them to her. Katarin sent away for these for me by carrier pigeon."
Celes sighed, her gaze focused on her tea. "You're happy, aren't you?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" Terra blinked and pushed her glasses up on her nose. "I have everything here: my home, the library, the children..." She smiled fondly. "They still call me ‘Mama,' even the ones who have children of their own now. Every day they ask me to play with them, read to them, look at the pictures they draw... They're so easy to love."
The lines on Celes's face grew deeper, and her fingers clasped her cup tightly as she said, "You never married, did you? Never had a lover?" When Terra shook her head, Celes looked at the ground and fell silent. Behind her the fire crackled weakly.
"I'll get some more wood," Terra offered. She removed her glasses and picked up her coat on her way to the back door. Buttoning the heavy fleece across her chest, she glanced back at Celes and watched her friend run her white fingers over the fabric of the chair, her lips pursed. Terra pulled the hood of her coat over her face as she opened the door.
The wind hit her with a scattering of white. Although the snowfall had ended hours ago, the wind still whipped the fallen flakes through the air, and the cold bit her cheeks. Terra huddled inside of her coat and sprinted the few yards to the woodpile.
Stacking the logs in her arms, she thought about the letter that had preceded Celes's arrival. It had been too brief: just the date, her signature, and "Terra-- I'll be coming by in a week or so. Please wait for me."
Even though Celes had never been an effusive writer, she was always precise. Hearing "about" or "around" irked Celes terribly; for her to use "or so" came across as an act of personal treason. But more importantly, Celes had never been the type to entreat someone to wait-- or to do anything, for that matter. The former general hated to be indebted. And the more Terra thought about it now, the more piteous the words became, the more at odds they were with the Celes she'd last seen. Terra should have been more concerned, should have mulled things over as she waited...
But she hadn't. Terra frowned as she started back to the house, hugging the wood to her body. Was she that removed from the world? Did time spin so differently here? Mobliz was different, to be sure, from the adult world she'd known, but how wide was the gap? How strange was a world that had yet to see a natural sunset? When she felt a child growing in her arms, continuing to rise with no peak in sight, Terra could almost forget that the way of the world was circular...
She pushed open the door and stamped the snow from her boots. Celes was standing at the window with her back to the room, her arms folded and resting on the still. She still hadn't taken off her coat, and now she looked too small for it-- like a glass figurine wrapped up for protection.
"Terra," she said as the green-haired woman set about rebuilding the fire, "are you... I mean, is this what you want?"
It took Terra a moment to puzzle that out. "Yes," she replied at length, using the poker to adjust a log. "It isn't much, perhaps, but it's--"
"Right." An edge crept into Celes's voice. Terra looked up to see that she had leaned her forehead against the icy windowpane, and her breath left crystals of fog on the glass as she spoke. "From mystic hero to glorified baby-sitter. Not a very effective use of talents."
Twenty years ago the words might have hurt. But Terra had spent more than half her life being strong for people who had no defense, and now she rose from the hearth to face Celes. "You could say that," she retorted, "but I wouldn't. When I was a ‘hero,' when I was ‘important', all I did was destroy. I killed for the Empire, then for the Returners, then for-- for what? Myself? These children?" Her voice was rising. "Even when we saved the world, we were destroying at every step. We killed, we burned, we tore apart--"
Celes had turned her face away, and Terra continued, emboldened, "But it's different now. I can't wipe out an army with a wave of my hand, but I don't wake up crying at night, either. And I'm not afraid of myself. Even if I had my powers, I wouldn't be afraid. I don't have to wake up every morning and wonder if I'm being loved or used." There were tears streaming down her face now, and Terra paused to compose herself. The sting in her eyes blurred the room.
At the window, Celes's shoulders drooped. She drew in a breath to speak, but Terra noticed and calmly beat her to it. "And maybe that's not even what matters. Maybe what matters is that I wake up every morning and want to be alive."
"Damn you," Celes whispered. "I was-- I was supposed to be the one..." Touching the glass with her fingertips, she narrowed her eyes and said, "They used you. We used you. From the beginning you were so desperate, and I always thought you'd end up clinging to the first man who touched your cheek..." She sighed, and her fingers left a trail of dark lines as they slid down to the sill. "I don't think we ever married. It doesn't matter. I followed him for years and only now realized that he doesn't know where he's going."
"But he loves you." Terra bit her lip as she waited for a response. "Please, Celes, you know that you love each other..."
Celes clenched her fists. "Things change, Terra," she said, too loudly. "Everything does. It never goddamn stops-- everything spins and spins until it falls apart." She closed her eyes until she got control of her breathing. When she spoke again, her voice was soft and vacant, as it had been on the ship to Thamasa. "Besides, I don't think I ever learned how to stand. I always had one crutch or another."
"But I thought..."
Shaking her head, Celes added, "He would have made it, too, but he was always reaching back for me. And I couldn't let go. I tried and ended up holding on more tightly." She opened her eyes. "And after so many years of trying, he ended up like me. His own victim."
She stopped abruptly and pursed her lips. Terra waited a moment before sitting down on the couch, folding her legs under her and shivering. Through the window, she could see a soft flurry of snowflakes.
"You used to be stronger," Terra said quietly, pressing her palms to her knees. "I remember. When the world fell apart, you were the one who wouldn't quit. You were the one who brought us back together and gave us hope. You were--"
"I tried to kill myself," Celes interrupted.
The fire roared. Wrapping her arms around herself, Terra shook and tried to respond, only to find that she didn't know what to say. "I never knew that," she admitted at last. "I never even suspected."
Celes's lips curled slightly. "You weren't supposed to. I never even told him." The silver and gold of her braid glinted as she shook her head. "It wouldn't have made sense to you, anyway," she said. "You were-- you were always so strong--" She bit off the word and dug her fingers into the sill.
"I could kill a man without flinching," she continued, "but you never could. You always felt it when the blood splashed your hand. You actually shivered when the snow fell." Celes turned suddenly to face Terra, her eyes sharp. "Is it courage to bleed when you feel nothing?"
"You feel," Terra countered, getting to her feet. "You're hurting now. Your eyes are red."
Celes looked ready to protest, but instead she closed her eyes as a mocking, empty smile turned her lips. When she opened her eyes again, the look of pain had faded to one of dullness. "Sometimes I've wondered, Terra," she murmured, her voice vacant: "what would it be like to be part of the ice? Would I shine as I froze the rivers? Would I melt to nothing in the spring?"
"Stop it." Terra had begun to cross the room to reach her friend's side, her boots leaving wet tracks on the wooden floor. Her chest and eyes ached. "The ice dies," she said, "when everything that was dead all winter starts to live. Since it never hurt, it can never be happy." She reached Celes and put her hand on the blond woman's shoulder. "Living means you have to suffer sometimes."
A sudden slap knocked Terra's hand away. "What the hell would you know about that?" Celes snapped, her pale cheeks flushing. "There's no winter here yet! You came at the beginning of spring, and you won't be around when everything starts to die!" She pushed away and backed into the wall, breathing heavily. "Don't lecture me about escaping," she said venomously. "You've already escaped."
"It's not like that!" Terra was surprised at how furious her own voice sounded. "The children... they... I..." She groped for the right phrase; not finding it, she fumbled for an explanation. "A few of the children have died."
Celes's glare remained. "But you don't see anyone grow old. There's never a sense of decay."
Terra shook her head. "I'm growing old. We are all." She pushed back the gray-green waves of her hair, which had begun to stick to the sweat on her neck. "This isn't an escape--"
"The hell it isn't," Celes spat. "You hate destruction; you always have. You wanted a world that broke the circle, and you found it. Why wouldn't you fight for us again at first? Don't you realize you were selfish?"
"I was..." Terra stopped when she realized the words had run out. Her neck and hands felt clammy. "I'm sorry," she said at length, turning to look out the window. "I don't know why I try. I always want to help people, and it kills me when there's nothing..." That she could say? That she could do? The words died, and she felt tears on her cheeks.
Celes's shoulders were shaking now. "Stop it," she said. "Stop apologizing. You don't lie to yourself any more than I do." She was making a clear effort to calm down, but her voice was still too loud and sharp.
The room was colder near the window. Wrapping her arms around herself, Terra took a deep breath and found the courage to sound annoyed. "What do you want me to do, then?"
For an instant, surprise colored Celes's face. In the next instant it was gone. "I don't know," she said, sounding equally annoyed. "Maybe I wanted to hear you rattle off advice about things you pretend to understand. Or maybe I just wanted to see you make an ass of yourself trying to fix me."
"I managed that pretty well, didn't I?" Terra replied crisply, going back to sit on the couch. Celes caught her wrist mid-way.
"I shouldn't have said that." The blond woman's voice was soft. "Look, Terra, you're a good person-- so good that I hate you for it sometimes. But you're a fool."
Terra brushed her hand away and sat on the couch, tilting her head back to look at the ceiling. The cushion depressed as Celes sat beside her. "All right," Terra said when the silence became uncomfortable, "I'm a fool. I live in my own little universe and don't have any idea what goes on in the real world. Never mind that I was orphaned, abused, and controlled. Never mind that I was a tool for whichever group happened to have me. I was scared, Celes. I knew the Returners were using me in their own way, but I let them. At least they were nicer about it than the Empire was." She smirked. "And speaking of the Empire, do I have to tell you what Kefka did to me? Without these kids, I don't think I could be a mother. Don't tell me I don't understand pain." She closed her eyes and felt almost triumphant.
A laugh came from beside her, carrying less venom than she'd expected. "I see you've developed a spine."
She paused a moment to wonder if she'd been complimented. "I'm not saying," Terra continued, "that I suffered more than anyone else. I'm saying that I'm not happy just because I don't know any better."
"No, you're happy because you fell into your own little paradise."
"No." Terra opened her eyes and turned to face Celes. "I'm happy because I want to be. I got tired of depending on other people's decisions." She noticed that Celes's eyelids flickered. "And I won't ever let anyone break me again. I'm happy. I'm not going to lose that."
Celes smiled faintly and sank farther into the couch, muttering, "You're the first chapter."
That wasn't one of the responses Terra had expected. "Of what?"
"That self-help book. The one Kefka was babbling about." Hollow laughter punctuated the words. "Not all of us made the final cut."
"Celes..." Terra watched the subtle twitchings of her eyes and tried to find the right words, only to end up sighing in defeat. "I'm sorry. I just don't know what to say any--."
The thin shields over Celes's eyes shattered. Tears suddenly burst over her cheeks as a harsh, rattling noise came from her throat, and she hugged herself as she doubled over. Her chest and shoulders spasmed. "I miss him," she gasped, the words cracking like sheets of ice. "I miss who we used to think we were. I just..." Her voice broke, robbing itself of sound. Still shaking, Celes huddled on the couch, as if she were trying to spiral in on herself.
Terra watched her, stunned. She had to blink several times to assure herself that her vision was clear.
Celes had never cried in front of her before. Whether Celes even knew how to cry had been a matter of speculation for her some years ago, and now she regretted having ever wondered.
"I'm sorry," Terra said, rather lamely. "You deserved to be happier."
A long silence descended. "Thanks," Celes rasped, her head still tucked down on her chest. "I hadn't thought of that yet." Slowly she looked up at Terra, her eyes shot with red. A smirk crossed her face. "Any other bits of wisdom you'd care to impart?"
Terra ignored the barb, putting her hand on Celes' shoulder. The latter began to weep without moving or making a sound, like a statue with eyes of ice. Her gaze was fixed on the window.
Even the petty, useless words had run out now. Terra wrapped her arms around Celes, letting warm tears wet her sweater and skin. Her ears became attuned to the soft roar of the fire. Slowly at first, then with increasing power, Celes returned the hug, and her hands clutched Terra's shoulders until her tears no longer flowed.
Smiling, Terra got up to retrieve a handkerchief from her bedroom, which she gave to Celes. She then resumed her seat on the couch, crossing her legs and watching the other woman.
Celes wiped her eyes and nose without looking up.
Time passed slowly, ignoring the ticking of the clock. Terra handed Celes her forgotten teacup, then picked up her own from the end table that held her book and glasses. Sipping the now-lukewarm liquid, Terra stood and walked for a moment in front of the fire, watching the flames burst to life, rise and fall like waves, and finally go out as others took their place. For a moment, the flaws in the system almost made sense, and pain seemed a little less arbitrary.
The moment passed, and Terra returned to the couch, asking, "So how do you feel now?"
Celes looked up wryly from examining her teacup. "How do you think I feel?"
"I don't know." Eyes closed, Terra brushed her hair back and took another sip of her tea. "But I think," she added, "that you feel the same way I do."
Terra opened her eyes to watch the snow fall on the other side of the window. "Like things never really change, but you still have to keep adjusting to them."
Silence. When Terra turned to glance at her friend, she saw that Celes had removed the clasp from her braid and now sat watching the fire, a faint smile on her lips. She met Terra's gaze and nodded.