THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

Original Returners

By Megan Anderson
calindria84@yahoo.com


-1-

The First Base

Alexandra walked from her room to the large cafeteria/conference room in the Returner's Base. Young men sat around the table: Gerald, the leader of the group; Trent, the oldest and the veteran fighter; Gar, the general and tactical officer; and, sitting slightly apart and slouched in his chair, Locke Cole, King Edgar of Figaro's contact. Bypassing the table to the counter where the drinks were kept, the girl listened to snatches of conversation. Gar was telling his tale of how he became a general for probably the hundredth time.

"And so there I was, my sword raised, the Imperial Solders surrounding me, and I thought 'there's no chance of winnin' this one,' when I got an idea. I brought ol' Betsy behind my head and let out a scream that woulda made Banshees shudder, and slashed all thirty of the soldiers dead," the General told them, using hand-motions to animate his words.

"Thirty, Gar?" Trent asked wryly. "Last time you told us this story, it was only twenty-five." Alex finished concocting her drink in time to turn and see Locke crack a rare smile at Gar's embarrassment. She turned back around quickly to make sure no one saw her blush. Sure, Alex knew the Messenger's grin wasn't for her, but she still found it roguishly charming. Gar continued his story and she finally regained her composure enough to finish her drink and leave the room, but not before she could send a flirting smile Locke's way.

Once back in the room she shared with three other people, Alexandra walked to her section and drew the curtain around to close her area of the room off from the other's sections. She stretched and lay down on the bed, folding her arms behind her head. The first thought to come to Alex's mind was Locke. He was cute, with gold colored hair, dark blue eyes, and, as she'd just recently found out, an extraordinarily handsome smile. The girl rolled over on her side so her right hand propped her head up and her left dangled over the side of the mattress. "But why would he ever have reason to smile at me?" Alex whispered aloud to herself. She had long copper-red hair, gray-blue eyes, and a face bathed in freckles. She was the youngest by three years of any of the Returners at fourteen years old, but at least she wasn't the only girl. The person who was closest to her age was a green soldier by the name of Stan, who was almost eighteen and a real jerk. The room Alex shared with the only other female Returners. There was Talla, a twenty-three-year-old blond who flirted with every man in a fifty-mile radius, and Kirre, the most wild of the four of them, and Darra, a pretty, but often melancholy, twenty-one year old. As far as Alex knew, Darra was the only person besides herself who knew Alex's past. About the fire. About the long run from town. About almost being captured by the ImperialsAlex shook her head and let her mind wander onto other things.

Darra had told Alex about her past once. Darra had once had a boyfriend who had a ship that flew in the sky. The two of them together had built a second ship for Darra, and they had a contest with each other. When Darra beat her boyfriend in their race, she got cocky and tried to fly higher then anyone, man or bird, ever had. But the cold and lack of air made her dizzy and she crashed. Darra managed to pull herself from the wreckage with only a broken arm, but grew despaired when she saw her ship. To her, it looked as if the vehicle could never be repaired. She had promised to meet her boyfriend on their hill, but she had no clue where she was or how to fix her ship. Plus, Darra's boyfriend had built most of the ship, and she felt she couldn't go back and tell him she had ruined his gift to her. She found a small house in a cove of mountains where the house's resident helped heal her broken arm. She then wandered into the base and became a Returner. Darra changed her name and, since with the Returners pasts don't matter much as long as you're loyal to the group, she never told anyone about it until she met Alex. In a nutshell, Darra's the closest thing the young girl has to a friend here. Again Alex rolled onto her back and blew out the oil lamp beside her bed. After mentally counting down seven more days until her birthday, the girl thought "Maybe he'll smile again tomorrow," before pulling the quilt up to her chin and falling asleep.

-2-

Attack

Alex woke the next morning to silence. She pushed herself up from her bed, and stopped her efforts as a wave of terrible nausea made its way across her consciousness. She lay back down again, and stayed that way for several more minutes. But Alex couldn't shake a nagging feeling that if she stayed here in bed much longer, vomit wouldn't be her only worry. Gently, the girl pushed herself up again, ignoring a second wave of sickness. She tied her belt about her waist and slid her worn brown boots over her feet. Coughing, she moved aside her curtain and saw her three friends lying still on the ground. Alexandra heard a moan from Darra, and hurried over to her as fast as her churning stomach and weak legs would allow. Alex knelt beside her and shook Darra's shoulder. Her friend coughed and moaned, "Who's there? I can't see."

"It's me, Alex," the young girl told her. "What happened?"

Darra moaned again and whispered, "If you ever find a man named Setzer, tell him Da-" Alex's friend was cut off by a thick hack, "tell him Darryl's dead, but she loves him." Darra/Darryl coughed again, before saying in a whisper so soft it was almost inaudible, "I almost did it, Setzer. I almost flew to the stars." And then she was still. Alex closed Darryl's eyes and bowed her head for a moment. Then the only live person in the room stood and walked dizzily past her dead friends to her sleeping section. She took out a small penknife and proceeded to cut the quilt into strips about twenty inches long by fifteen inches wide. When the coverlet was shredded into oblivion, Alex shut the knife and slid it into on of her pockets. Picking up the strips and carrying them to a basin half filled with water, she soaked all the strips thoroughly. When all of the fabric was wet, Alex put one piece over her nose to filter out the smell of death that was already beginning to fill the room. Looking over the pale gray cloth, the girl saw a pinkish-green haze floating around the room. Alex didn't know what it was and didn't want to stick around to find out, but she was glad she had made the extra strips if she found anyone else alive. She draped the dripping strips of quilt around her neck and opened the heavy wooden door. Before she stepped into the hallway, though, Alex bowed her head once more and whispered," Goodbye. And Darryl, if I ever find Setzer, I tell him for you." Then the girl turned and shut the door behind her.

Once in the corridor, Alexandra checked every room on the way to the common room, and in each she found more and more death. She also began to notice that the closer she came to the conference room, the thicker and darker the haze became. She once had to stop and lean against the wall from the sick feeling in her stomach. But Alex continued, trying to find even one live soul besides herself in the still, silent base.

After what seemed like hours to her, the girl finally made it to her destination, the conference hall. But try as she might, she couldn't shut her mind against the horror she found there. Gerald lay sprawled on the floor in a pool of his own blood, his long broadsword nearby. Gar was slumped half on the floor and half on the table, and Trent was across the room, still. A man with badges Alexandra didn't recognize lay near the arch leading to the corridor that faced north was evidently dead. Through the mist that was now a deep magenta, the survivor saw a slouched figure sitting in a chair, it's chest moving up and down. Alex peered through the haze and realized the figure was Locke. Excited, she ran over there and gently shook the man's shoulder.

"Hmm?" Locke asked, and then let loose a string of coughs that startled the girl. Hastily Alex pulled one of the cloth strips off from around her shoulder and held it up to Locke's nose and mouth. After a few moments she asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I-," Locke coughed, his voice muffled by the fabric, "I'm fine." The man pushed himself up in the chair. "What's this haze?"

"I don't know, but we should probably get out of here while we're still alive," Alex replied. She helped Locke up and he grabbed a small sack from beside the chair. When he saw the man in the north entrance to the room, his eyes narrowed. "What's the matter," the girl asked.

"I know a back way outta here," he answered. "Come on." Locke hurried to the south corridor, where Alex had come from. They passed all the rooms until they came to the one the girl and her friends had slept in. Locke faced the wall and began studying it.

"Wait!" Alex said. "This is a dead end! You can't get out of the base from here!" The man didn't reply. After a few more minutes, Locke muttered, "There we go." The wall opened to reveal a cave and the sound of rushing water. It was then Alex got the impression that this man wasn't an ordinary messenger. Locke motioned for the girl to follow, then hurried on. Alexandra followed, perplexed, but knowing they had to get out, she didn't say anything.

The sound of water intensified as the two people hurried. Neither spoke, because of the noise and cloths were starting to dry. The wall/door had shut behind them, but some the pinkish mist had still gotten in. Hundreds of questions ran through Alex's mind, but she kept them to herself for the time being. Locke eventually stopped her and went to look for something. She edged closer to look out over the ledge into the river, and without looking over his shoulder, the man said, "Don't get too close. The last thing I need is to have to dive in after you." Slightly embarrassed, Alex moved back a few yards and leaned against the cavern wall. Locke called her over a few minutes later to help him with a large, black raft. The two of them managed to toss it over the side of the ledge. Locke held on to the rope he'd tied to it, and over the roar of the river he shouted, "Jump in!"

"Are you sure it's safe?" Alexandra called back.

"Just trust me, okay!"

"All right...," the girl replied, and jumped. She hit her leg hard on the landing, but crawled out of the way so that when Locke jumped he wouldn't hit her. Locke tossed his bag down first, and then jumped off himself, carrying the rope.



-3-

On the Lete

Alex and Locke sat facing each other, the river raging around them. Locke was sitting with his back to the river and his face slightly green. Alex, on the other hand, was looking out and was amazed at the speed the river was carrying them. "Locke, you wouldn't believe how fast we're going," the girl cried.

"Actually, I'm trying not to," he answered, the greenish cast on his face becoming deeper. Alex laughed and let loose a war whoop as the raft hit another rapid. Locke lost whatever he'd eaten several times during the rapids. Alex noticed, but the look Locke gave her told her not to tell anyone that he'd gotten seasick ("river-sick?" Alex thought wryly).

Once the water had calmed down somewhat, Alex asked, "What's in the bag?" Locke handed it to her, and she pulled out three loaves of bread, a bag half-filled with dried fruit, and half a wheel of cheese.

"Where'd you get this?" she asked.

"I'm a messenger. I always carry spare food around," the man answered, pulling a small pocketknife and a piece of wood from one of his many pockets and began to carve.

"Are we going to split this?" the girl asked.

"Why?" Locke replied, not looking up.

"Well, there are two of us, aren't there. So we should each get half the food."

"Fine, do with it what you like."

Alex was annoyed by her companion's indifference, but she kept it to herself while she split up the bag's contents. Using her own knife, she split the third loaf and the cheese and wrapped them in the fabric strips, which were now only damp. The girl then reached into the pouch at her waist and removed a charcoal marker and made a brown-black streak on one of the half loaves and cheeses. After stowing the food in the sack Locke had brought, Alex sat back and thought.

A few hours passed, and Alex was finally brought back to the raft by Locke's fumbling with one of the cloth-wrapped packages. "What're you doing?" she asked.

"I'm trying to eat, but this stuff you wrapped dinner in won't budge." The man yanked at the knot again. Alex took it from him and pulled one of the strips and the wrapping fell off. Then she handed the bread back to him. If Locke was surprised, he didn't show it. He broke off a chunk while Alex unwrapped her own food. She was about to ask about what they were going to drink when she saw the man take a pair of compactly folded water skins and dipped both in the river. Then he handed her on of the 'skins.

After the two finished eating, Locke took out the wood he was carving and continued with his work. Bored, Alex asked, "What was the haze in the Base?"

"Poison," the man replied flatly, "a bomb planted by an Imperial who found a way in."

"Oh." The girl was silent for a moment before saying, "How did you get in with the Returners."

Locke set aside the wood and knife and said, "Figaro got me into it." When he saw the listener's blank look, he added, "Edgar. Anyway, It had been about three months since I left home and I was walking through the forest south of Narshe when outta nowhere a chocobo with a well-dressed rider on it's back came headin' straight for me." Locke was getting into his storytelling now, using his hands to emphasize the tale. Alex, knowing the signs of a good tale, drew her knees to her chin. "I jumped outta the way and the bird skidded to a halt. I stood and brushed herself off while the rider dismounted and he said, 'What were you doing in the middle of the path?' I said, ' I was walking.' 'Well,' he told me, 'chocobos have the right of way.' 'Which one of you is the chocobo?' I retorted. By now Figaro's face was bright red and he asked angrily, 'Do you know who I am?' 'No. Do you know who I am?' I told him coolly. At the time it was all I could do to keep from laughing. 'All right,' he said, 'you're coming with me.' He took me to Figaro Castle and then I realized that he was the King. We ate dinner, I said I was sorry for ticking him off like that, and he said he was looking for a messenger and/or contact between a group for him, and I took the job. It's been about a year since then. How 'bout you?"

Alex looked up at the stars for a moment before she spoke. "I'd left my hometown and just drifted. About two and a half years later, I wandered into a cave and decided to sleep there the night. The next day I was found by a member of the Returners; it was their base I'd slept in. I had no strings, and you didn't have to let anyone in on your past if you didn't want to, so I joined up." The girl looked up at the stars again. A few minutes later, she said, "I'm tired. You don't mind if I sleep do you?"

"Nope. I have a blanket with me. You wanna use it?" the man asked. Before Alex could answer, Locke removed a heavy wool square and handed it to the girl. She smiled a her thanks before falling asleep.



-4-

Land

The next five days went very much like the first, minus the poisonous haze and the confusion of trying to steer a raft through rapids. Locke carved, though what Alexandra couldn't imagine, Alex made up stories in place of talking about her past, and the both ate and slept at regular intervals, passing the single blanket back and forth. The girl used it first, and at about 2am they switched, Locke letting her borrow his heavy leather jacket. The river was wide and sluggish after the rapids, which she figured the man liked, and without oars the couldn't pole to either side to dock.

The fifth full day on the raft was humid and cloudy, and Alex could smell it in the air; it was going to rain, and soon.

"We'd better find a place to get off, because it's going to get extremely uncomfortable if it rains in the raft," the girl said.

"The food's gonna get wet, too," Locke agreed. "But if I know this river, it'll narrow up in a bit."

"I hope it's a small bit," Alex thought, but remained quiet.

Luckily, the young man was right. There was a small area of rapids, but after that, the width of the river quickly became less. Soon, the girl was able to reach out and touch the edges of the bank. A few minutes later the raft carried them to a small, sheltered grove. Locke hopped out of the black craft and tied the rope to a tree so the current couldn't carry it away. Then the man helped Alex onto shore.

"But even if we are on land, we're still going to get soaked when it rains," the girl protested.

"We'll get a tent," her companion said, leaning against a tree and looking around the grove. Alex was about to ask where they were going to find a tent in the middle of nowhere when she got an idea.

"The raft!" she cried.

"Hmm?" Locke looked at the girl like she'd lost her mind.

"You said yesterday that the raft was covered in the tar-stuff so it would be waterproof. Why don't we cut the raft and drape it over a tree. We can stow our stuff in there, and even some dry fuel," she said excitedly. "the person not on watch could even sleep in there!"

Locke skeptically agreed. He set to making and securing the raft/ tent to a tree while Alex sorted through the supplies and found some dry wood for the fire. When the tent was set up and wood stored, Locke unsheathed a dagger and looked towards the forest beyond the grove and back at the camp. Seeing this, the girl spoke softly.

"You wish I were a man." Her companion looked at her, startled.

"What...?"

"Or," Alex continued, "at least a few years older. Don't worry about me. I'm a wanderer. How else would I have survived all that time alone? You can go hunt if you want, and I'll take care of the camp." Locke looked at the girl thankfully before standing and heading for the woods. When he was gone, Alex turned her head back towards the circle of stones and the sticks piled in the center, and then at the flint and tinder in her hands. She scraped on against another and had a split-second vision of flames. Shaking her head, she scraped them again, and had the same vision. This happened each time, and finally she muttered, "All right. I'll do it the easy way." Alex reached into the pouch at her waist and pulled out a book, pages yellow with age and well thumbed with use. During the escape from the base, she'd forgotten about the book. The girl flipped through it and, after a moment, came to the page she wanted. She then murmured the words and then said them aloud.

"Orange-red fire, blaze from the fuel, now warm the caster, and burn not her food! FIRE!" Flames rose from the inside of the circle, spark-less and bright. When she was satisfied with the flames, Alex set to slicing two pieces of bread and some cheese from her and Locke's stores. Placing the cheese between the bread and wrapping the sandwiches in leaves, she set then gently on the rocks circling the blaze. Then she sat back to watch the food cook.

About half an hour later Locke returned, carrying a pair of squirrels and a bag of fresh berries. She had Locke skin and bone them while she filled the water skins with water from the river. When the hunter was done, Alex cooked the meat on the rocks while they contented themselves with the sandwiches. For dessert they ate some of the berries and saved the rest for breakfast.

"That was great!" Locke exclaimed smiling his dashing smile. Alexandra blushed, and the man continued. "Which watch do you want tonight?"

"I'll take first if you want. That way I can clean up and, anyway, I'm not tired yet," the girl replied. Locke shrugged and went inside the tent, then stuck his head out and said,

"Good night." A little while later all that could be heard was the man's soft snoring. Alex smiled and looked up at the sky, wishing that she could see the stars.

After an hour or so, though, her eyes drooped. Finally they fell shut and the pop of the fire made her open them abruptly. But instead of the cozy campfire she'd created with magic, the fire in front of her was a flaming house. The heat made her sweat and her long red hair frizz. Long orange tongues of flame licked the walls and forced their way out the doors and windows, and the roar was giving the girl a headache. Slowly, a figure, silhouetted black against the burning structure, lurched towards Alex. As it came closer, though, she realized the figure wasn't black because it was against the flames, it was that way because of the flames. Burnt flesh hung off the bones and it was croaking the words, "Why didn't you help me? Why didn't you help me?" The girl screamed as the black creature grabbed her arms and kept asking those same five words: "Why didn't you help me?" And then a second voice came, slicing through the nightmare like a cool, fresh rain on a hot day. "It's okay, Alex. Everything's okay now." The blazing house and burnt man vanished, and the girl woke in Locke's arms, a driving rain soaking them both. The girl sobbed and tears poured down her face. The mans words were comforting and sympathetic, as if he'd gone through something similar in his life. "Like he'd lost something important, too," she thought.

"Don't worry, everything's fine. I'm here, and I'll protect you," Locke's soothing voice whispered in her ear. Her crying stopped, and Alexandra decided that, whatever happened tomorrow, she was safe here, and now.



-5-

Imperials

Alex awoke the next day inside the tent wrapped in the woolen blanket Locke had brought. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, then shivered against the chill of the morning. Standing and wrapping the blanket around her like a cape, she stepped out of the tent and found her companion leaning against a tree and carving the little stick of wood. The fire was blazing, and the girl shivered at the memory of her dream the night before. Once it had disappeared from her mind for a moment, she said, " 'Morning, Locke."

The man jumped a few feet in the air and cried, "Ack!" when the blade of the knife sliced through the skin on his thumb. He stuck the end of the hurt appendage into his mouth, and Alex went over and took his hand, saying,

"Let me see." A quick inspection showed that it would merely be an inconvenience for a while. "You'll be fine, as long as it doesn't get infected. It's not that deep," she told him. She removed a cloth strip that had once been her quilt and used Locke's knife to slice a smaller piece off. She went to the river and got the mini-strip wet, then returned and wrapped it about the man's injury. "Is that better?" she asked.

"It still hurts," he grumped.

Taken aback, Alex said, "Fine. Enough with the conventional way." After undoing the bindings, the girl made up a simple couplet, then spoke it, still holding Locke's hand. "Healing spirits cure this wound, and keep it healed and not a boon. Cure!" His hand glowed a bit, and then, when the glow had faded, the knife from the cut was gone. "There. Now ya happy?" the girl asked.

Locke's mouth dropped and his eyes widened so far Alex thought the were going to fall out. When he'd recovered, he asked, "Where did you learn that?"

The girl stood up and pulled out her book and a lead marker and scribbled down the couplet she'd just made up. After it was down, she spoke. "My dad taught me. Every night before I went to bed he'd tell me a verse and write it down for me in this book. When I was able to recite it from memory, he'd tell me another one. When I could write, and when I was bored or couldn't sleep I'd make one up myself. His father taught Papa, and Granddad's father taught him. I don't know why I can use this power, I just can."

"May I see the book?" the man asked.

Alex shook her head. "It's very important to me. I don't think you'll hurt it, but I don't want it to hurt you."

Locke looked at her for a moment, and his eyes lit up with inspiration. "This is great! We can rebuild the Returners, or even take on the Empire ourselves! Your power's the key. With it, we'll be able to win!"

The girl's eyes widened for a moment, and she said, "I couldn't- kill somebody! My power's not that strong, and doesn't Gestahl have magic, too?"

"What if the person was in danger?"

"Ummm..."

Locke sighed. "Look at it this way, Alex. Everyone in the world is in danger now. If Gestahl gets hold of any more magic, we're all done for. We have to stop them. That's what the Returners were for, and," he looked up at the girl, "still are for. At the base when the poison was used, you could've saved every one of those people who were dying. You owe it to them who were killed to destroy those the who sought to and did destroy them.

Alex swallowed hard against the lump that had risen in her throat. Her eyes watered, and she sniffed back a sob before bursting into tears and running.

"Alex! Wait! I'm sorry! Alex!" Locke cried after her, but the girl just ran on. Tears streamed down her face, mixing with dust and dirt. Her book was clutched to her chest. Finally she reached a small clearing, where she dropped to her knees and cried. Sobs racked her body and the visions of the burning house and charred man filled her mind. But this time Locke wasn't there to banish them from her mind this time.

A while later Elisabeth's crying had subsided, and she heard a rustling in the bushes and faint voices coming towards her. She stiffened and listened hard after sliding her book into the front of her tunic.

"...and we're roast their guts on sticks! Hey, you hear somethin'?" A rough sandpaper voice said.

"I dunno. Maybe it's one of da slime!" a younger, but higher pitched voice exclaimed.

"Shhh! You don't want it runnin' off to warn da other one!" the first voice said.

The men came through brush and seemed somewhat surprised to find a huddled, tear-streaked girl instead of the crouched cat-like creature that was slavering and covered with mud and slime that they expected. Alex's eyes widened for a moment, then jumped up as an idea popped into her head. "Man, am I glad to see you!" she cried. The men looked at her quizzically. "I mean, I've been waitin' nearly a week for someone from the Imperium to come, but you just had to take your time!"

"Who're you?" the sandpaper man asked.

"You mean to say you've never heard of Darra Cole?" the girl pieced together to of her friend's names, and noticed a pair of blue eyes appear in between the leaves in one of the bushes. She knew these immediately to be Locke's. "I'm one of you guys!"

"We've never heard of you! You're lying!" the younger man squawked.

Thinking quickly, Alex blurted, "Who do ya get your orders from?"

"Kefka," both men said.

"I feel so sorry for you," the girl shook her head in mock sympathy. "I get mine from the Emperor himself. He sent me as a spy to infiltrate the scum's," Alex spat the word, "base. When the poison bomb went off, the other spy was killed, but I charmed a survivor into helping me. He knew where a raft was, and threw it into the Lete. I jumped in, and, like the fools those rebels are, threw the rope in after me and jumped himself. I managed to pole the boat out of the way and strangle the man. He drowned. So I floated here, and have been waitin' for someone to show."

"How do we know you're not lyin' to us?" the sandpaper-voiced man asked gruffly.

"Yeah...," his squeaky-voiced companion echoed.

"Would a member of the Empire lie to you?" Alex replied, smiling inwardly at the hidden joke.

The two soldiers looked at each other and were about to answer when a loud crashing noise came from the bushes. The girl winced and she shouted at Locke when he came into view, "Run! Locke, don't let them catch you! Long live the Returners!" The girl managed to see that the man had gotten away before she felt a sharp stab of pain in her lower neck and gave into the cool, enveloping blackness.



-6-

Enemy Base

Alexandra awoke to a small cell under a light coverlet. A girl about her age sat by the cot where she lay. The unfamiliar girl had long blond hair, pretty greenish-gray eyes, and a well defined, but pale face. In her hands, she held a tray containing a bowl and mug. Alex pushed herself up into a sitting position and asked, "Where am I?"

"In an imperial outpost," the tray-holder answered in an accent Alex didn't recognize. Seeing Alex's confusion, the girl added, "I'm Celes. You are?"

"Alex. Wait a sec! You're Celes? Celes Chere!?"

"You've heard of me?" Celes replied, looking just as surprised as Alex.

"Yeah. You're the first girl to make it into the Empire's Military. We, well the Returners heard the news when a messenger returned from his rounds," Alex said, not mentioning that the messenger had been Locke. Alex looked at her hands and wondered if the man she'd become friends with had gotten away safely. After a moment, Celes spoke.

"Leo gave me this for you when you woke," the blond said, nodding towards the tray. "I'm afraid it may be a little cold, but it should be edible, if you can call soldier rations edible."

Alex giggled as she took the tray and began to eat. The soup was lukewarm and thick, almost gravy-like in texture. The water wasn't much better, but at least it was clean. The only reason the girl ate all the food was because she was extremely hungry. "How long have I been here?"

"Two days, I think. Leo and the others are meeting to see what your fate will be. You lied to the two soldiers who found you and technically as a Returner, you're the enemy, but you're too young to do any real damage. At least that's what Leo thinks."

"Leo...?" the eating girl asked.

"He's the head honcho here. Leo's also one of my best friends. I fought my first few battles under him, and, if he's anything, Leo's always very fair. So you don't have to worry about and unjust punishment or trial," Celes told Alex.

The girls talked for a long time, joking and talking about typical teenage girl subjects: guys, favorite subjects, guys, fighting, guys, life, and guys. Alex learned that she and Celes were almost the same age; the blond soldier was turning fifteen in two weeks, and she was going to be let off duty on her birthday. Alex told Celes about Darryl and Setzer, and about how she'd found the Returner's Base.

"We should have our soldiers try that. Then maybe we'd find them easier!" Celes joked.

But all too soon, it was time for the blond to go off duty. She went out of the room and a tall, sturdy man walked into the cell. The new guard leaned against the stone wall and crossed his arms and assumed a look that said, "I am King here, and you are a lowly traitor. Make one move, and you shall fry."

Now alone, Alex gave into the worries about whether Locke had gotten away or not, and whether he was going to come save her. Alex could easily see why the man wouldn't come. After all, he'd heard the lied she'd so freely said with such conviction whether he believed or not was up to him. Finally sick of worry running her around in circles, she stretched and lay down to sleep.

Alex awoke refreshed, and sitting next to her again was her new friend, holding another tray, only this one containing a bowl of steaming soup, a large slice of bread, and a mug of water. The redhead took it, and Celes told her, "I got here about five minutes ago."

Alex smiled around her bite of bread. After swallowing, she asked, "Well, have the decided yet?"

"Yes. Your trial is going to be tomorrow, and if you're found innocent, or at least ignorant about what was going on, you'll be given the chance to join the Empire as a soldier like me, and become the second female to join the ranks. We'd probably share a dorm then. If you're found guilty, then...," Celes swallowed before continuing, "...then you'll be executed as an political enemy of the Empire."

"And it would be in my best interests to just tell you the truth or what I told you," Alex said. "Will I be assigned a lawyer or something? Or at least a few witnesses?"

"I don't know. I'd speak for your side, but I'm not sure that it will help any. I'll ask Leo next time I'm off duty, okay?" Celes promised, and Alex nodded.

The young prisoner finished eating and set the tray aside. After brushing off a stray bread crumb, she said, "But let's forget that all for now. What's the latest gossip 'round camp?" Celes laughed and the commenced gabbing.

Around an hour later, there was a heavy pounding on the wooden door. The girls looked up and suddenly it burst open, a young man coming into the cell with a bloody dagger in his hand.

"Locke?" Alex asked as Celes shouted, "What the...?" Locke looked equally surprised at the sight of two girls from different sides chatting.

"What are you doing, Locke, bashing into the door like that?" Alex said in confusion.

Instead of answering, the intruder replied, "Come on. I'm taking you out of here, Alex."

"Huh?" Celes said. "Who is this guy? He's kinda cute."

"This is a rescue mission. Alex, come on! More guards are gonna come, and I don't feel like killin' any more than I have to."

Alex turned to Celes, and the blond girl nodded. The captive turned around towards the door and Locke left the room to lead Alex out of the base. The girl headed for the door, when suddenly she heard a groan and felt a pain unlike any other in her chest. Alex fell to the ground and let out a single scream before losing all senses and dying.

-Epilogue-

The New Returners

After hearing Alex's scream, Locke ran back and looked in the small cell. Inside, he saw the blond Celes holding her long sword and the girl he set out to rescue lying on the floor in a pool of her own life blood, dead. He blinded himself to his own emotions for the moment and ran, slashing all who got in his way. Once outside and back at the campsite by the Lete, he collapsed and all he could do was think of his guilt and how he'd failed another friend. "First Rachel, then the Returners," he cried to the world, "and now Alexandra! Who next? Edgar?"

Again the man wandered for a few months to work of his grief before making his way to the Kingdom of Figaro. He talked with Edgar about the possibility of a second group of Returners. "Because," the man explained to the King, "I owe 'em one for... some friends." Edgar agreed and made up a list of potential leaders and sympathizers. Banon from South Figaro agreed to search out the people on the list while Locke looked for a second base site and found one in a cave in the Kolts Valley north of South Figaro. It was a small series of caves, and had a nice back exit ledge that looked out over the Lete River. Viewing the surrounding area and caves, the treasure hunter felt a pang of sadness over the loss of his friends of the Returners, Alexandra, and Rachel. Before he left, he made a vow to avenge his friends and do everything in his power to destroy the Empire. Then he left to report to Edgar.

The rest of the story you know already.

-Author's Note-

The idea for this story came from Locke's line to Terra, "I had a friend who was jailed by the Empire." I was practicing tennis when I wondered, "Who could that friend be?" It was then I came up with this story.

"Original Returners" takes place four years before the game and about a year and a half after Rachel's death. The main character, Alex is a girl who wandered into the first Returner's base and joined the group. She makes some friends, and has a crush on Locke. But she hides this love well, even after she and the man are stranded together in a little tar-covered raft on the Lete. On the day of her capture by the Empire, she turns fifteen

As the reader already knows, Darryl, Setzer's girlfriend, is mentioned in this story. I know that in FF3 Darryl's ship went down and "...was found in a distant land..." but the game never mentioned her body being found with her ship. I took this and added it to the story for no real reason except to add another interesting point. And, as the reader also knows, Setzer was never told his girlfriend survived the airship wreck.

Celes appears in the story because she is my favorite character to work with next to Locke. As I stated above, this story takes place four years before the game, rendering the blond ex-general fourteen years old. I thought it would be interesting to answer the line of Locke's that, "I've seen her somewhere before." So for that I took her and had Celes become Alex's friend and eventual murderer.

I hope that whoever reads this enjoys it.

-The End-

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