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Part One: Whispers of the Past
Wrapping her cloak around her tightly, Terra turned away from the sea to scrutinize the man standing behind her, turning over what he had just said. He stood silently, waiting for a reply, his harsh features relaxed now, the wind blowing and tugging at the sleeves of his Imperial uniform. The moon shone above their ship in a clear, cloudless night sky, and all the stars watched this strange exchange between general and girl.
Finally, Terra spoke. "Funny, isn't it. . .I was used by the Empire. . . even had my thoughts ripped from me. . . But here I am, cooperating with the 'enemy' . . ." she murmured, allowing herself a bitter, ironic laugh.
Leo shook his head sadly and shrugged. "People are people. Not all of us are like Kefka," he said, his expression still oddly vacant as he lifted his eyes to stare at the horizon behind her.
Terra narrowed her eyes. There was something more in what he said, something more than what he was admitting. This man, this general- he seemed to be of a different breed altogether. He was just as human as anything, yet it seemed like he knew some secret, some truth that separated him from any normal person.
"What. . . what's with you?" she asked haltingly, unsure of an appropriate response.
He turned away, a brief flicker of shame and guilt crossing his face. "I knew you were being used as a kind of biological weapon. . . " he hesitated here, looking up at the sky as if pleading, but then turned back to stare her in the face.
"And because I didn't do anything to help, I'm no different from Kefka. . ." Leo finished, almost snarling, trailing off with the mention of that insane individual, one who could soon disrupt the world beyond repair.
Terra absorbed this quietly, and decided against contesting that point. Leo knew what he was, and why he did what he did; she had no right to offer him help. She was only a girl, barely beginning her life as it were, although she had lived for a long, lonely eighteen years. Wandering off into her own reverie, she muttered to herself, not even realizing that Leo could hear.
"I'm the product of a human and an Esper. . . will I ever be able to love someone?" she asked quietly of the wind, turning back to stare out at the endless sea. She had heard mentions of this "love," this emotion or whatever it was. She longed to feel it, to be able to care about someone for always and know that they would feel the same way always too.
Leo gave her an odd, puzzled look, which cleared as he remembered how she had spent her eighteen years of life. As a prisoner, always bent to another's will, never able to do anything of her own accord. "Of course!!" he cried vehemently, reaching out to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
She did not look at him, only lowering her head sadly. "But. . . I haven't felt that way yet. . ." Terra replied weakly, a tear starting to slide down her cheek.
Leo gave her a gentle shake in admonishment. "You're just young. . ." but then his eyes wandered off, lost in his own memory. Shaking his head, he continued, "But I understand what you mean. I understand only too well. . ." and tears of his own began to fall.
Must the world be made of tears? Terra did not notice him leaving, too lost in her own well of despair to bother herself about what was going on around her. She peered up at a star with a silent wish, she let out a silent cry.
Looking back down at the waves rolling and rocking the ship, she lost herself in their endless, indiscernible depths. Leaning over the edge despondently, she said aloud, "But. . . I want to know what love is. . . now!" she ended with a heartfelt exclamation, her wish seeming to linger out in space like all the world could hear yet refused to listen.
Terra started and straightened up stiffly as she heard footsteps behind her. "Who is it?" she asked breathlessly, without turning around.
A familiar voice answered. "Thought I'd sleep out under the stars," Shadow replied sardonically, as if he were laughing inwardly.
A tight knot began to form in her stomach. Had he heard? But if he had heard, what would he care? She didn't know him. Shadow was virtually a stranger to her, never admitting a thing, never unmasking and revealing that mysterious face. The man was full of unsolved mysteries, perhaps which made her feel all the more drawn to him.
"Did you hear. . . what we were just talking about?" she had to ask, almost choking on her anxiety, turning to face him.
His expression was completely unreadable; even if it had been day she probably would not have been able to tell by those compelling eyes what he could possibly be thinking. "I didn't mean to overhear anything," was all he said, looking directly at her, she knew, even though she could not see his eyes in such darkness.
Terra could not reply. "Umm. . ." she uttered, unable to form any words with her mouth as she stared at him with desperate eyes.
Shadow reached out to take her hands in his, a completely unexpected and surprising gesture. His hands were cold, colder than hers, well-formed with long, slender fingers that could have gripped hers in an iron grasp if he so chose. What could he want? Terra wondered in confusion, her heart beating rapidly in her chest with fright. She knew he wouldn't kill her, not now, but what would he do?
"I can't help you. You must look within for answers, Terra," he told her softly. Advice? From him? This was doubly unexpected.
He then dropped her hands and turned to face the stars. "In this world are many like me who've killed their emotions. Don't forget that," he said forcefully, some inner grief rendering him unable to look her in the eyes.
Terra clutched one hand to her throat unconsciously, unsure of what he meant. Suddenly she felt fatigued and cast about looking for a bed, forgetting that she was on the ship's deck, not in her cabin. Looking up to stare at Shadow one last time, she finally found her feet and slipped away to her cabin and sleep.
What could he mean? Did he mean that perhaps she had killed her emotions, too? No, Leo had said she would love. Someday, at least. Yet somehow, inexplicably something had happened between her and Shadow. . .
"Terra!!" a voice called out of the darkness. What? was the only thought her sleepy mind could muster. She had just gone to sleep! Were they already at Thamasa? No, they weren't going to Thamasa. That had been a dream. . . more significantly, a dream of the past. Terra wanted to go back to sleep. But the voice persisted.
"Terra? Terra, it's time to get up! How many times must I ask?" the voice asked scoldingly, but gently. Terra blinked her eyes open to stare up at Katarin, who was standing over her with her arms crossed and mouth set in a firm line.
"Ugh. . . come on, Katarin. You know I'm not a morning person," she moaned, pulling the soft, warm covers over her head. They went through this every morning.
"You forget! Today is the day of the peace conference! You've got to get moving!" Katarin shouted, yanking the covers off. She was normally complacent and easy-going, but this business of the peace conference had gotten Katarin all in a tizzy. For a moment she had been able to keep her calm, but knowing that the arrival of the ship that would transport Terra to Narshe was close at hand had burst her bubble of sedition.
Terra would have to be there to represent not only the children of Mobliz, but also the creatures and humans who once used magic. Not that there were many of those. However, currently there were several disputes going on, one of which involved the rebuilding of Mobliz. The recently created nation-state of Tzen claimed the Serpent Road and Mobliz as part of its territory, and so demanded all rights to reconstruction. But the port town of Nikeah also claimed the Serpent Road and Mobliz. It would be up to Terra to decide the fate of their little town.
The other big dispute that would be settled at the upcoming conference was between the rebuilt city of Narshe and the also rebuilt kingdom of Doma, now headed by Cyan himself. It was reported that Doma had some illicit dealings in smuggled ores mined from Narshe, but the Domans claimed not to have known that the goods were stolen. Last but certainly not least was the ongoing dispute between the Thieves' Guild and the Healers' Conclave. Then again, those factions were always fighting.
The young former Magitek Knight had no time to dwell on this, though, for she found herself shivering in her white nightgown. Reluctantly she climbed out of bed and dressed, much to Katarin's relief. This conference was extremely important to her, and she didn't think Terra, even at a very mature twenty-one years by now, took it seriously enough. Poor Terra. Even though her Esper half was gone, she still had trouble coping. Katarin often felt sorry for her, but now was not the time.
Terra quickly pulled on a long red skirt embroidered with flowers, a matching v-necked silk shirt, and wrapped herself in a black cloak. She had to look her best for this conference. Next she jammed her black boots on over white socks, then strode over to the basin and brushed her teeth. A scrub of her face to wipe the sleep out of those violet eyes, a quick brushing of her green hair and she was ready to go. She turned to leave.
"Good luck, Terra," Katarin told her, the worry and hope clear in her eyes as she handed Terra her carry-sack. Terra gave her a quick hug and was gone.
After a relatively uneventful and thoroughly boring journey by land and sea, Terra found herself standing at the entrance to Narshe. Coming back here called up so many memories. . . a tear slid from one eye before she was able to banish those thoughts. Today was the time to plan for the future, not dwell on a past that could not be changed. Even if she was a little afraid. She had missed quite a bit being in far-off Mobliz. . . who knew how much things had changed?
"Hey Terra!" a voice called cheerfully. She turned to see Sabin, a muscular martial artist and the brother of the king of Figaro, waving at her.
She smiled faintly and walked over to him, boots crunching their way through the fresh snow. The two friends hugged tightly for a moment before Sabin started to lead her away. Well, it was more like Sabin nearly crushing her in an exuberant embrace rather than a decent hug.
"Where are we going?" she asked, brushing a strand of hair out of her pale face.
"First off, to the inn so you can drop your stuff off and get settled. Then a nice little reunion lunch in the meeting hall, then the peace conference will be held there," he explained, heading toward the inn as he spoke. "Edgar's really excited about seeing you, you know," he added slyly, glancing at her with a grin. He was pleased to note that she blushed a little, but didn't comment.
He chattered on. "Not to mention everyone else, including me. It's been a while since we've seen you. How're the kids at Mobliz?"
"They're all right. I'm just worried about Katarin's kid- she got a fever again," Terra answered, taking comfort in the everyday worries that filled her days. It was nice to be able to fuss over the little things, especially when faced with this peace conference. The worries and problems of the world just gave her a headache, and brought back bad memories of the Empire and Kefka. . . by the three goddesses, she had to stop that. Today she was here to make peace.
The warmth of the inn was a stark contrast to the bitter cold outside as they entered, and the equally warm smile of the innkeeper served to dissipate the chill as well. Cheerfully he took her bag and guided her upstairs to the finest suite in the inn. Heaving a huge sigh of relief, she dropped on the bed, oblivious to the innkeeper nodding and leaving her alone. It felt so good to relax.
Sabin wandered in several minutes later, waking her from a pleasant doze. "Come on," he said, smiling. "Hate to rush you, but lunch is ready in the Elder's house."
Terra hopped up, eager to see her friends again. She was already pounding down the stairs and out the door before Sabin could move a muscle. He stood there and laughed. Sweet little Terra had changed quite a bit.
"I'm telling you, those two lovebirds are probably off messing around, instead of here like they should be," Strago was grumbling, pointing his fork vehemently at Edgar as he sat munching in the meeting hall. Lunch hadn't started yet but he had insisted on getting his salad before his "poor old stomach expired from starvation," as he had so aptly put it.
The young king just chuckled. "You know Locke and Celes would be here if they could. They probably ran into a storm or something."
Strago was about to give him a piece of his mind when Terra came running in, shaking the snow off her dark cloak. So instead he ended up caught in a friendly hug as she rushed around greeting everyone.
"Hey old man, long time no see!" she told him, then turned excitedly to Mog.
"Kupop!" was all the Moogle could shriek as she caught him in a hug too.
"You're looking more beautiful than ever, Terra," Edgar told her, taking her hand gently and turning her to face him. She only laughed. Was it just his imagination or did Terra's face look a little more pink than usual? Edgar wondered.
"And you still haven't learned how to flirt," she retorted, reaching up and giving him a peck on the cheek before he could say anything more.
"Terra! Me got new shoes!" Gau shouted, tugging at her cloak. She looked to see the wild boy sporting a pair of shiny new shoes. She smiled and gave him a hug as well.
"Look! Look! I drew this for you!" Relm was hollering, jumping up and down and waving a picture of a pretty little house.
"Un-gahh!!" Umaro bellowed.
"Hey, hey, hey, it's everybody's favorite green-haired girl," Setzer grinned, casually tossing a set of dice from hand to hand.
Terra found herself surrounded in all directions by friends, happy and exuberant as they greeted her. She barely had time to notice Celes and Locke's absence. A warm glow suffused her, filling her heart in such joy that once more she counted the blessings that had brought her these wonderful friends. At last she managed to break free of the warm embraces and get a good look at all her friends. Only one did not join in this celebrating.
Shadow stood in a corner, arms folded across his chest, gaze averted in the distance. Some things just never changed.
Before Terra had a chance to greet the ninja, the Elder of Narshe bustled in and shouted for the meal to commence. Everyone took their seat as servants rushed in, bearing plates and dishes loaded with a sumptuous repast. Terra found herself sitting between Edgar and Setzer, who good-naturedly competed for her attention as they began eating. But she found her attention drawn to the man sitting across from her- as fate would have it, Shadow.
He sat silently, neither uttering a word nor eating. His eyes seemed to go right through her, yet at the same time seemed able to penetrate to her very soul. If there was one thing she did actually know about this man, it was that he was full of secrets. Once, Locke had admitted to her that he suspected that Shadow was Relm's father; however, it had been a suspicion and nothing more. Somehow, Terra didn't have any doubt that it was true.
A nudge to her side at last distracted her from Shadow. "You seem a bit spaced out. Everything okay?" Setzer whispered.
She nodded, ducking her head and trying to concentrate on eating the soup before her. After all, she was hungry, and the peace conference was definitelyŹ going to be a long one. She'd need her strength.
"I would like to introduce the representatives here today for the peace talks here in Narshe," the Elder announced all of a sudden. Lunch over already? Terra blinked in confusion. She had no time to dwell any further, for the rest of the representatives and officials were filing in to be introduced. The unfamiliar faces took their seats silently, giving Terra no opportunity to study them.
"First we have King Edgar of Figaro, and his brother Sabin," the Elder read off a list, the pair standing and nodding, then sitting back down as he spoke. "Myself, the Elder of Narshe." A courteous nod.
"The lady Jada, leader of the Healers' Conclave." A young woman clad all in white stood and nodded to them. Her blonde hair was combed neatly into a half-ponytail, and her blue eyes were sharp as she surveyed the sea of strangers before her. Recently formed, the Healers' Conclave that she led was devoted to finding other methods of healing than magic, including herbal mixtures, potions, and various other ideas. It was even said that they were talking about cutting open the human body, to see how it worked, how it could be repaired, etcetera. The very idea made Terra sick to the stomach. Perhaps it could save lives, but that didn't make it any more acceptable from her point of view.
"Lord Guire, leader of the nation-state of Tzen. . ." "Portmaster Bentham of Nikeah. . ." She paid close attention to those two. But there was nothing remarkable that set them apart from any other leaders Terra had ever seen. The list went on and on, up to and including the rest of her friends as well as various strangers.
"Mayors Sandar and Kent of Kohlingen and Maranda. . . " "Strago Magus representing Thamasa, and his granddaughter Relm. . ." "Mayor Jonas of Albrook. . . " "King Cyan Garamonde of Doma. . ." "Terra Branford, representative of Mobliz. . . " She stood stiffly for a moment and nodded. "Master Duncan, martial arts expert. . . " "Gau, Setzer Gabbiani, Shadow, Gogo and Umaro of the Returners. . ." "Sir Owser of Jidoor. . . " "Mog and Kurana of the Moogles. . ." Terra sat up straighter upon hearing this. Another Moogle? Since when had that happened? She must have missed more than she had first assumed.
"Mateo of the Thieves' Guild of Zozo. . ." the Elder trailed off and looked up. "Mateo, where is Mateo?" No one responded. He sighed and started to scratch the name off the list.
"I believe you're looking for me," drawled a voice from the doorway. Everyone in the room turned to see a young man casually posed there, arms folded across his chest slightly rebelliously as he looked at the Elder in amusement. His clothes were ragged and threadbare, silent witness to the poverty he dealt with every day. Today being a peace conference, he had taken the care to scrub his face clean, comb his hair and make an overall effort to look respectable. But none of those efforts took away the fact that he was a thief.
His very swagger as he stepped to his seat, the very way he held himself aloof of the others proclaimed him as a thief. There was the way he eyed the valuables around the room, the way his nimble fingers curled into loose fists, the aura of charm and deception. . . all of it marked him for what he was. But the strangest feeling yet was that Terra had seen this all before. Not just the body language and expression, but the face, the disheveled brown hair, those bright, piercing eyes. This man was just like. . . Terra tried to think. . . like Locke!
The Elder glanced at Mateo in annoyance. "Ahem. Now that we are all present, I believe we can begin." The rest of the leaders rumbled an assent. "Arvis, if you please," the Elder turned to his assistant, also a member of the Returners but not important enough, apparently, to warrant an introduction. Other than him and the occasional servant, every important person in the world was present today.
Arvis stood up and cleared his throat, spreading out sheets from a sheaf of papers on the table. He picked up the first one and started to speak. "First order of business- dispute between King Cyan of Doma and Elder of Narshe. Charges include knowledgeable purchase of stolen goods from Narshe by Doma and smuggling of ores also mined from Narshe. Your majesty, do you refute or agree to these charges?" He turned to Cyan.
The samurai-turned-king shook his head. "I will admit, I did advocate the purchase of these goods and will repent this error; however, I deny all charges of smuggling," he replied eloquently.
This did not seem to satisfy the Elder. "How dare you! I always thought you were an honorable man, but this! Lying in front of all these respectable people!" He ranted on for quite some time, all of which Terra shut out. She hadn't come here to listen to these fools bicker and whine. She only wished she had Cyan's patience, for he merely withstood the Elder's verbal abuse, sitting quietly and not saying a word in argument. It was that more than anything that won him the dispute.
At long last it was over, settled in Cyan's favor. Everyone in the crowded meeting hall heaved a sigh of relief in unison, at which several of them burst out in laughter. The tension escaped them all with the laughter, and they were able to continue on.
Arvis coughed. "Next, the matter of Mobliz. Portmaster Bentham, do you still wish to pursue your case?" The wiry sailor nodded. "Lord Guire, do you still wish to pursue your case?' The portly, self-important lord nodded as well. Terra banged her head on the table. This was going to be a long day. . .
Bentham and Guire turned to look at her curiously. "M'lady Terra, is there something wrong?" Guire asked, voice oily and repugnant. He only asked so that Terra would be more likely to favor him, not out of any real compassion. It was just too obvious.
She rubbed her head and shook it negatively, not wishing to continue with any small talk. She just wanted to get this stupid thing over with.
"If you please, Lord Guire, explain Tzen's claim on Mobliz and the Serpent Road," Arvis requested neatly, ignoring Terra.
Guire cleared his throat and gathered himself up visibly, not bothering to hide his pomposity or arrogance. "Ahem. The newly formed nation-state of Tzen was a royal city, and all areas surrounding it were considered its possessions, including the Veldt and Mobliz."
"Lord Guire, if I may point out, the Veldt was not included in the case you wished to present at this peace conference," Arvis interrupted. Guire silenced him with a glare, but complied and left the Veldt out of it.
"As a result of Imperial possession, Tzen lost most of its territory. Now that it has reformed as a nation-state, I believe it our right to regain all that territory," he finished, so full of himself that he actually believed that his flimsy little argument would win this for him. And if not that, Tzen's considerable army ought to convince these pansies, as he so believed them to be. Once, the Returners had been a mighty fighting force, but now he saw them as weak and decrepit, softened by peace and politics. For him, this wasn't about politics. It was about power.
"I disagree," Bentham said angrily, standing up and thumping a fist on the table. "The Serpent Road was once the Serpent Trench, leading to Nikeah, and therefore it belongs to Nikeah. As does Mobliz." He gave Guire a hot, heated look, then sat back down. For him, this was a matter of right and wrong, and he believed justice to be on his side.
Terra felt her discomfort growing and growing. Who did these idiots think they were? They were arguing pointlessly over a useless piece of land, completely ignoring the important thing at stake- the children. What would happen to the children if Guire took over? Would they be stuffed in orphanages and left to rot? Or what would happen if Bentham won? Would the children be conscripted to work in ships, slaving away for the rest of their innocent lives? She couldn't allow this. Anger welled up in her heart, boiling and steaming until she was forced to release it.
"Just who do you two think you are?!" she demanded.
The two turned to look at her, surprised. They hadn't expected this. They had expected Terra to be a meek young lady, whom they could win over by being polite and offering simple, convincing arguments. But Terra had changed. It was a surprise to them all. So many surprises.
"You're sitting here, bidding for power and importance, so trapped by your own egoes that you fail to see the real issue," she snarled, standing up. "It's the children, don't you get it, the children!! What are you going to do about the children?!"
"Well. . . I, uh, had given it some thought. . . they could be put in foster care, or-" Guire fumbled, cheeks ruddy and streaked with sweat. He had most certainly not planned for this.
The green-haired girl gave him no chance to continue. "You didn't think! You didn't even care! These children are our future, don't you see? They need more than foster care! Didn't you know, I'm their Mama! When the world was broken, they lost it all!! But I was there. If either of you takes over, I won't be able to be there anymore. You may be able to live with that, but I sure can't. Somebody has to take care of them, and I intend that somebody be me." She stopped, forced to take a breath.
"Oh don't be silly. It's been two years since all that business about Kefka. They should be grown up enough by now. They don't need their 'Mama,'" Bentham interjected, scoffing at the very idea of these children needing this girl, this soft-hearted twit. How wrong he was.
Terra gave him no more opportunity to continue on this bent. "Is that what you think? Tell me, sirs, do either of you have children?" she asked, regaining some control of her temper. Now was not the time to have a tantrum. Her question was answered by negative shakes of their heads. She nodded briskly, having guessed and being right. "Then tell me, what would you know of taking care of children? What do you know about that bond that forms between a child and an adult? Nothing, that's what! Absolutely nothing!"
Abruptly Shadow stood, causing all eyes to turn to him; and after a long, measuring look that panned across to gaze at all the faces in the room, turned on his heel and was gone. Only a breeze as the door slammed shut behind him marked his departure.
The shock of the ninja's exit rippled through the room like an iceberg dropped in molten hot lava, stinging and hissing. They all knew that Shadow came and went as he pleased, for his own reasons and intents, but lately he had been sticking around longer and longer. And then now, at this peace conference, his behavior was taking a turn for the stranger. He wasn't the only one, Terra noted quietly from her vantage point at the end of the table, herself silenced by the apprehensive hush that had come over the room.
Gogo seemed pleased for some reason, rolling a rod around on the table cheerfully. Setzer looked bored, tossing a coin in the air absently as he stared into space. Gau had gone to sleep on the table, thankfully not snoring, but evidently quite content as he was. Terra envied him. It had been a long day for everyone. She knew she looked distraught and worn-out in the faint light of the fire. Guire and Bentham could only stand still in a stunned state of suspension. Cyan looked as stony as always, and ran one hand down the edge of his sword over and over again, the other twirling a dried-up flower.
Relm was hunched over in a corner by herself, frantically working on a drawing. No one could see what it was, for she was hiding it, but she kept looking up and glancing around every so often like she was afraid. Strago was looking at her worriedly, but he didn't do anything. The other mayors and important officials sat around casually, neither bored nor edgy, but thoughtful just the same.
Mog and Umaro had been amusing themselves by taking notes until now; now that Shadow had walked out and the meeting stopped. It had mostly been Mog taking notes and Umaro tipping over the inkwell. So the unlikely pair were both covered with blotches and spatters of half-dried ink. Kurana was tapping her spear on the floor unhappily, practically ignoring everyone. Mateo sat tight-lipped and pale-faced, watching everything without a word. Jada sat quietly as well, her face smooth and calm but her gaze sharp-eyed as a hawk's.
Terra stood a moment after Shadow left, mouth working in silent anger and vexation, and then she sat down with a thump. Something in her plea on behalf of the children of Mobliz had triggered a reaction in Shadow that she wasn't sure she liked. Did he have something against children? Was it so bad to be reminded of their duty to the next generation? Or did he. . . her eyes suddenly widened. Relm!
Edgar looked at her questioningly, as if asking her to speak. But she did not speak. Instead, just as unexpectedly, Terra snatched up her cloak and followed Shadow's route out the door, not even a breeze heralding her own exit.
It was cold outside, a chill wind biting through her thin garments, but she ignored the cold, tugging her cloak tight. The thoughts whirling through her mind were so powerful that everything else seemed to vanish. Shadow's footsteps were clear to see in the new-fallen snow, and she followed them silently, the only sounds being the krrk krrk of her boots in the pure white snow. Surprisingly, it was already sunset.
As she walked, she glanced down at the sleeping town below for a second. Only a few lights shown in the glass-paned windows, and the huge turbines that powered Narshe's geothermal heating system whirred quietly in the background. A few lone stragglers trudged here and there, barely recognizable as human beneath layers and layers of thick clothing. She shivered, pulling her cloak tight around her throat. But she went on following the easily identifiable prints.
Terra prided herself on being one of the few people who could track Shadow. Tonight, however, he wasn't very careful about hiding his tracks. Perhaps he wasn't expecting anyone to follow. And perhaps he didn't care.
The tracks continued through the mines, a route more than familiar to her. So many memories, still ever lucid in her mind.
Soon enough she spied Shadow ahead of her, perched on the edge of the snowy cliff jutting out into the majestic mountains behind the town. His eyes were focused on the mountains now, or so she assumed. For once he was without his faithful companion, Interceptor. She shivered again. It was here that she had made her first transformation into her Esper half. . .
"Go away," the ninja said abruptly, not even turning around. His voice and demeanor were cold, colder than ever.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" she asked softly, stepping forward while tugging her cloak even more tightly.
Still not looking at her, "What else means more than being alone?" he replied flatly.
"Friends, family. . . love," she whispered in return, eyes mirroring the sorrow her words conjured. She may have had her friends, but her family was gone, lost in the tides of change. Why did Shadow never fail to stir up sadness and pain whenever she was around him?
"Friends just leave you. Family deserves to be forgotten. And love isn't worth the trouble," he spat, rising slowly as he turned to face her. His face was masked, like always, and his eyes were barely visible under the light of the dying sun.
"You know that's not true," was all Terra said, knowing that an attempt to reason with him would be useless. She just didn't understand him.
Shadow didn't answer. His mask twitched a little, as if he were frowning or maybe even smiling. None were alive who knew what lurked behind that dark, mysterious, and some would say evil facade.
Terra spoke up again, more hesitant this time. "Shadow, we're your friends. Please stop running away. I know you may not care much for the rest of the world, but we need your help just as much as you need ours. Something about this bothers you, and I want to know what."
He looked out over the edge of the cliff, contempt in his eyes. "You're right," he admitted. "But that's something I'd rather leave alone. Even if you came here for more than mere curiosity." She was surprised at this. Never before had he gone this far, to admit that he of all people needed help. Well, she had gotten this far, so maybe she could go farther. No- she had to.
"Why? Why ignore it when the very answers that can help us. . . help the children. . . are destroying you?" Terra asked, not at all demanding, for such was not within the bounds of her gentle nature. And she knew he was right. Simple curiosity had not driven her to come out here, to attempt to probe into the heart of one who might not have a heart.
"Because maybe there are answers you will not like." He spat the words out, angry and venomous. "Truth, Terra, is a double-edged blade," he whispered harshly, drawing his own steel-tipped Striker sword as he spoke. "Do you see this sword? It is stained with the blood of thousands of evil creatures and people. So, too, is truth stained by those it touches." He pointed the tip at her, shining beneath the rust and stains.
"Stains can be washed away. And truth also stains those it touches. Will you dare to admit the truth? Will you dare to admit that you are stained? I think you will. For all things have a reflection, a double nature. Even you," was Terra's bold answer, staring at him with an intensity he had never seen before. They were connected. . . she didn't know how or why, but they were. It was just something she could sense.
"Even I? Is that to say that I somehow have some love, some honor, buried within me? I know no more of honor than you. And what is love? Tell me, what is this love that you think is so wonderful? Or would you even know?" Shadow sneered bitterly, re-sheathing the sword.
Terra turned away to keep him from seeing the hot tears swelling in her eyes. Why was he so difficult? Why did he reject the very love that she knew his hard heart longed for?
"I do not understand what you are trying to say, but all I ask is for your help. You loved once; you can do it again. Just a little, Shadow. A little is all I ask," she said in a low voice, trying to keep her voice from cracking and silently begging that he would listen. She could feel a hot flush spread across her cheeks.
"I will help you. But only if you are prepared to hear the truth." Shadow's sudden change in attitude gave her a jolt. Still, she did not turn to face him.
"What truth could be so terrible? The truth about your daughter?" It was a desperate gamble, one that she would never have dared take if she hadn't been so sure. Shadow's silence goaded her on. "I already know. But she doesn't know. Why don't you tell her? Surely there's enough love in your heart to be the father she needs," Terra pressed, knowing full well that she risked invoking his wrath but somehow now it didn't matter. It was now or never, while Shadow was at his weakest. She would either know the truth or spend the rest of her life wondering.
He laughed; a bittersweet, wicked laugh. "Father? Me?! What other foolish ideas will you come up with?!"
Terra whirled to face him, eyes flashing with unbridled anger. "You're a coward, aren't you!! You're afraid of your own daughter! What will she say, Shadow? Will she blame you? Or will she be forgiving? You claim to know what truth is, but you won't even face up to it yourself! The world may fall into chaos again, assassin, and you just stand there and laugh!!" she raged, face burning as she stood angry before the man who dared defy her.
Shadow did not react by striking back, or attempting to defend himself. He waited. Waited and watched until Terra calmed down, blood draining slowly out of her face as the rage trickled down into unhappiness. Her lips moved, trying to whisper a question. Why. . . ?
"Touching, Terra. Touching," he began, with what might have been sarcasm. "But I am not fit to be a father, so do not try to make me one. I will give you the truth that you seek so desperately, but nothing more. And once I do, you can decide what you will do, and at what price," he finished flatly, sitting back down on a rock. He motioned for her to be seated as well.
Drawing her cloak tightly about her, Terra perched on the edge of a snow-covered boulder. It was growing darker, the last dying rays of the sun glittering on the cotton-white snow, and her cloak seemed all the more dark against that backdrop. Shadow, too, looked all the more dark in his own black garb. Yet not foreboding, nor evil. Just. . . dark.
"Let me tell you a tale. It is but a short one, but it will explain ever so much." Shadow took a deep breath, drinking in the fresh, cool evening air.
Terra watched him curiously, not apprehensively nor carefully in any way, waiting patiently for him to begin. Shadow's tale was not a happy one, that much she could discern, and every part of it was rich with tragedy and sorrow. She would wait till the end of the world to hear this. . .
Back in the meeting hall, things had been called to a temporary halt and everyone had gone to bed. Except Mateo and Jada. The flickering torchlight was hypnotic, and the bored thief would have fallen asleep except for the skritch-scratch of Jada's pen across the pages of a worn notebook. Ironic, wasn't it? Here he was to fight it out with this woman, yet now they sat peacefully together like innocent children. Somewhat like, at any rate.
After a long, sweet and not at all uncomfortable silence, Mateo asked," What are you doing?"
Jada looked up and gave him a measuring look, studying every inch of him with those sapphire eyes, as if trying to peer into his soul. Then she slammed her book shut, stood, and swept her way out.
"Well! That was rude," Mateo muttered to himself, kicking his feet up on the table and reclining. She was supposed to be his enemy anyway, so what did he care? Still, it unnerved him, in spite of the fact that most people treated him in much the same manner.
He was just an outcast; an orphan with no family and no real friends. The thieves he led were no friends, they followed him merely because he had proven himself superior to them all. Sure, he wasn't the strongest, but he was most certainly the quickest, the most cunning, among quite a few other things that were not considered desirable traits among "civilized" folk. Like these idiots running the peace talks. Mateo snorted. He didn't even know why he had bothered coming to this stupid conference- since he was a thief, they would automatically defer in favor of the Healer. And that would cost him his position as Master thief. Not a pleasant situation.
Mateo raked a slim hand through ratty brown hair. This new world order those fools intended to organize would just wreck everything. When Kefka's chaos had ruled, it had been easy to get what he wanted, to live like a king. Then again, Kefka wasn't the kind of person anybody wanted around. There was no reasoning with insanity. He examined his nails absently. Broken and lined with dirt. He sighed. There was just no escaping it, was there?
"Have I missed anything?!" an excited voice shouted. A young man about Mateo's age burst into the room, followed shortly by a tall blonde woman who was perhaps a bit younger.
The sudden outburst broke Mateo out of his reverie, blinking his eyes at them hazily while shivering at the chill draft blowing through the door. Seeing no one he recognized, the young man apologetically closed the door, smiling, then walked over and slid into a seat near Mateo.
"I'll go see if anyone's still around. But I think they've all gone to bed," the beautiful woman said, leaving with a cursory, polite nod to Mateo.
The young man smiled to her with a gaze that was more than familiar, then turned to Mateo. "So, what's your part in the conference?" he asked congenially.
But Mateo wasn't listening. He was staring at the other, staring in a age-old coupling of shock and amazement. He wondered if he was dreaming. . . this just couldn't be. . .
The face staring back at him was the mirror image of his own.
Part Two: Reunion of Souls
"It was on the night that I was to begin formal training to become a ninja. Knowing that the mountain our village guarded was actually a gateway to the Esper world and not simply a magic place, the Imperial forces attacked.
"They tore the village apart. They set fire to all the buildings- the homes we had built with our own bare hands. I stood and watched my hopes and dreams for the future go up in smoke. I was nine, damnit all!! Nine!!!" Shadow broke off here, letting a out a sound that seemed half strangled sob and half stifled cry at the same time.
Terra said nothing, thinking over what he had said. Nine. . . nine years old and virtually a ninja, but still only a boy. It was no great wonder that Shadow had turned out the way he did. Yet Terra's own fiery trauma had been just as great, if not greater, and she had not turned out like this. But her own memory had been lost to her up until recently. Still, there was more to hear.
Turning her attention back to Shadow, she stared intently at his eyes, invisible in the twilight. The sky behind them was a beautiful blue-violet hue, and the moon had risen, a white scythe blade slicing balefully into the mountaintops. Shadow took a deep breath, trying to relax as he recalled the evocative memories of his childhood trauma.
"My father tried to stop them. He was a ninja master- one of the best. But there were too many soldiers. They didn't even fight him to the death, the dishonorable bastards. They fought him all at once like the cowards they were, then shoved him into the inferno. And they made my mother and I watch." His voice waxed bitter and more bitter, twin flames of fury flickering in his eyes.
Terra gaped. Shadow's early years were more tragic than she had ever imagined. . . True, she had seen her own mother die, but had only been two and not realized the entire significance of it. Nor did she realize its significance now, especially not pertaining to the man who stood before her. And she had forgotten, because of Kefka, because of the Slave Crown. But she didn't want to think about any of that right now. This was Shadow's moment, not to shine, but to. . . do whatever it was he did, to be whoever it was he was. There was simply no word for it.
Poor Shadow. Yet he wouldn't have turned simply because of that. Her mind switched to a logical nature. For one thing, Shadow had taken jobs for the Empire, so a vendetta of revenge would not be his sole reason for such a profound change. What she didn't know of, and what Shadow was never going to admit, was the story of his friend Baram. . . a friend he had let suffer because of his own craven actions. He was coming face to face with his past now, at least the part he could share, and he had already come to face with that secret part of it on his own.
He sighed, continuing. "Although young, I was no fool, and trained, too. I was not a ninja apprentice for nothing," he whispered. "I escaped with my mother to the mountain, hoping to find sanctuary at the very place we guarded. The flash of lightning lit our way that night, but soon we became lost in the woods.
"It was dark, so dark that neither the light of the moon nor the streaks of lightning could hope to illuminate the murky green sea ebbing and flowing around us. All I could hear was the crunch of the ground beneath my aching feet, and shadowy creatures flitting about me. Soon enough the inevitable occurred and I was separated from my mother. I never knew when it happened, but when I realized it I stopped and screamed. The rest of the world was drowned out in my panic. It was just like she was there one moment and gone the next. I can think of no other way to describe it, nor do I care to. You will either understand or you won't."
There one moment and gone the next. Terra understood all too well. In spite of this last comment, Shadow seemed more minstrel than assassin, weaving a tale not his own yet one he was utterly intimate with. His voice did not drone, it held a unique quality and flavor that kept her listening. The scene easily popped up ever so vividly in her open mind- the boy screaming out in desperation for his mother. . . the writhing forest. . . the subdued sounds of night life. . . the scent of pine. . .
Shadow continued, the images in Terra's mind slowly changing to match. "I called for her, calling all through the night, but to no avail. I never found her." He paused and sighed. "Once, I saw a flash of light, and the winds kicked up, enough to toss me into a tree. I never found out why. But I kept on searching. Finally I had to give up when the skies opened up and wept. . . my skills were not honed enough to track in this kind of weather. Not to mention being frightened by what I had seen, so frightened that I could only paralyze myself with thoughts of what unseen terrors had taken my mother."
His face tightened up. It was not like Shadow to admit being afraid. . . not for someone else. "I wanted to keep looking, wanted to so badly, but I knew I had no chance. Whatever had gotten her was long gone by this time. So I left. And. . ." he trailed off and stared right at her.
His mother, lost in the mountain. . . the Esper gate. . . No! It couldn't be! Yet it what if it was? What did that mean? She had to ask.
"Wh-what was you-your mother's. . . name?" she stammered out fearfully, half-afraid that she was wrong and being played for a fool, but also hoping that she was right. She didn't know what she really wanted. Considering the magnitude of change that this would bring about if she guessed right- no, she couldn't think about that until she knew. But, in all honesty, she already knew.
"She was the lady of the morning," Shadow whispered reverently. "So great was her beauty and grace that only one name fit- Madonna."
"My lady," Terra whispered, face sliding into a ivory-white sculpture of pure emotion, captured eternally for one instant. That was the meaning of the name, more of a title, really, yet as fitting a name as possible for a woman of such stature. So it was true. And this made Shadow her half-brother. If Madonna could see her children now: one light, one dark. Or was it the other way around. . .?
Somehow she had already known. Hadn't she? In her heart, nothing had changed, though her mind was already reeling with thoughts of what this all meant. She still loved him- as friend and now as brother. She wanted to reach out and embrace him, to let him know he was no longer alone, to- she couldn't.
He gazed at her solemnly, steadily, breaking the silence with a snap of cracked tension. "Do you understand now, Terra? Do you see the truth, or do you just see the truth as you want it to be?" She could not reply. "It doesn't matter anymore. . . I've told you the truth. So leave me be. Go save your children." He turned away abruptly.
"No, I will not go. I have a brother," she said finally, rising to meet him on his own ground. As she gathered herself physically, she gathered herself in her mind as well. Shadow did not need a sobbing, selfish girl who only cared that she had now a brother to lean on. He needed a strong sister whom he could lean on.
The ninja actually seemed rather resigned about it, for he did not argue. "You will have to tell them, you know," was all he said. There was no need to explain which "them." Perhaps he knew her better than he pretended to; knew all of them for that matter. He did not say much because he listened; listened to the truth. The others might blind themselves from it, and much as he wanted to he couldn't let himself do so as well. Not now, and not ever again. But this was not a matter of truth.
"Yes," she agreed, " and if I do, they must know the whole truth. About mother. About Relm. Everything."
Still not arguing, he agreed, if a little reluctantly. "There is only one thing left to do," he said, steeling his resolve as he reached for his mask. It was too late to back out.
"No, you don't need to do that. I got what I asked for. Shadow. . . " Terra protested, trailing off as she realized in mid-sentence that her brother would not be argued with. She did not know him well, but she was learning.
Slowly the dark mask came off, peeling away more than just the mask itself, taking off layers of deceit and cowardice, baring a soul beyond saving. This face, so like Terra's own, with their mother's smooth, distinct, elegant features evident in both her children. On him, those features were paired with an impassive set of violet eyes, unlike Terra's own burning ones, and an indistinct temperance barely recognizable behind a firm expression of a darkness that was yet wasn't, for it was light as well. It was the other side of the light shining through. . .
Then he reached back, pulling off the hood that concealed his head. Short, thick, midnight black hair spilled out, marred by a contrasting white streak running down the left side. It was a young face, one marked by tragedy yet unscarred by life's fiercer brutalities. She had seen that face before, minus a few years or so, on a wanted poster in the Empire-
"Shako!" she cried, recognizing him as the very same. Why, Shadow must have changed identities thousands of times since that chance encounter when he was hired on to escort the young Magitek Knight. That had been an eternity ago, a lifetime away for both of them.
He frowned momentarily, then nodded agreement. "Yes, Shako. I must admit, I did enjoy that role. But Shako is gone now. There is only Shadow."
"Even . . .?" Terra attempted, but as Shadow nodded, she saw no reason to finish the question. Though she knew had never known those other aspects; Shako was gone, Clyde was gone, Arin was gone, yet somehow they were still there in him. They would never truly be gone.
"What about Relm?" she asked presently, mostly from curiosity. She herself could tell Relm if need be, but still she wished to know Shadow's opinion. For a man of no honor, he commanded a large measure of respect from her.
"I am unmasked. Now that there is no reason to hide from the world, there is no reason to hide from anyone else. So we return, and the truth will be unveiled," was his nonspecific, nearly nonchalant answer.
". . . All right. I suppose it is too late to tell them right this moment, though." She found herself with yet another question. "But why now? What made you choose to set the truth free?"
He shrugged, still noncommittal. "I have discovered that keeping the truth secret is useless. This is a time for truth, and the truth will find me no matter how far I run away. So why complicate things? Telling it like this is easier on you, though- no." He broke off that line of thought, not wishing to divulge any further. "Now it is up to you to decide what to do."
Terra didn't have to decide. She did what she had been wanting to do- she stepped up to him and hugged him. This was her brother, he who had been lost and now was found. She doubted she could ever bring him to see the light, but it didn't matter. She had a brother.
"W-who the hell are you?" Locke sputtered, straightening up and backing away from Mateo.
Mateo sniffed. "I think that's what I should be asking of you. After all, you've got my face."
Though disdainful on the outside, inwardly Mateo was in turmoil. This was the one that he had been warned about, the thief who wasn't a thief. He knew that Locke had once been the best, good enough to lead the Thieves' Guild, but had turned on them to join the Returners. Disgusting. Yet he had never expected that thief to look like him.
"I think you've got it wrong. You're the one who's got MY face," Locke retorted, reflexively flicking his wrist to bring a dirk into his hand. He didn't know who this person was or what he was doing here, but he wasn't about to trust someone who just happened to be in the meeting hall at midnight, of all hours, and looked like his clone. He had seen some pretty weird things during his adventuring days, but this damn well topped it all.
"Well, one of us has to have some manners. I'm Mateo Cole, leader of the Thieves' Guild," Mateo snapped, wary of the knife. Of course he could pull the same trick, but he felt it safer to keep his own cards up his sleeves and hidden for now. One could never afford to lose the element of surprise. But in this case, it proved that it didn't matter.
The knife dropped from Locke's hand, clattering noisily on the floor. "Mateo. . . Cole?" he gasped.
"The one and only," came the magnanimous response.
"That can't be. Because I'm Locke Cole."
"Well then, your parents must have made a mistake naming you. 'Cause I'm the only Cole in this world." Mateo narrowed his eyes, unsure of what to think. Same last name, same face? Too many coincidences.
"Never mind that. Where were you born, Mateo?" Locke asked, trying to take this from a logical bent. It was utterly obvious that they must be related, but utterly impossible as well. Locke knew he was an orphan with no surviving family. . . wasn't he?
"K-kohlingen." It was Mateo's turn to stutter. "At least, that's what I've been told. I was abandoned in Zozo after thieves murdered my parents. . ."
"OUR parents," Locke amended.
"What do you mean?" Mateo didn't quite catch on.
"Don't you get it? We're twins." He may have sounded confident, but Locke himself wasn't sure he believed in his own words. It seemed too good to be true, too fake, too simple. There wasn't something wrong about 'simple,' was there?
"T. . . no. No! You. . . " Mateo gaped.
Mog stared blankly at the wall. Boring.
The little Moogle sat in his room at the inn of Narshe, warm and cozy by the fireplace, but absolutely bored to the bone. This peace conference business went way above his head, not because he wasn't bright enough to understand but because he really didn't care. Oh, he could have figured it all out if he wanted to, but what did Moogles care about politics and trade? Nothing. What he wanted to know about was Kurana.
Before arriving at Narshe, back from a sojourn in Figaro, he had assumed he was the last Moogle in the world. All the others had died during the collapse, or Ruination as some referred to it as. Whatever you wanted to call it, it all meant the same thing- no more Moogles. Yet here, appearing out of nowhere, was another Moogle. A female Moogle at that. He couldn't remember ever seeing her before, which was odd considering that he was the leader of the Moogles. Former leader, even.
He decided sitting here being bored wasn't going to change anything. If anything was going to happen, he'd have to instigate it himself. Hopping up off the armchair, he went to the door.
"Where Moogle go?" Umaro, the lumbering sasquatch, grunted from his position sprawled on the floor. His human talk had improved slightly since joining up with the Returners.
"Out," was all Mog said before disappearing out the door. More specifically, out to find Kurana.
It wasn't very hard to find her, for all he had to do was check the guest list at the front desk. He memorized the room number and went upstairs to find it.
Bang bang bangwent his small fist against the door. He had no trouble strengthening his resolve to do so since the worst that could happen was nobody answering the door. He accepted that it was entirely possible that she could be asleep. It was nearly midnight, after all.
The door opened a crack. "Kupo?" asked a soft voice from inside.
"Itās me, Mog," he answered, glimpsing the shadowy form of the other Moogle behind the door. She looked much like any other Moogle, fuzzy white fur and pointy ears, pink wings and big nose, with slanted eyes that were nearly slits. And so pretty. . .
The door opened slightly wider. "Oh, hi. What do you want?" Kurana asked, sticking her head out to get a good look at him. Evidently she was pleased with what she saw, for a tiny smile formed on her equally tiny mouth.
"I just wanted to talk, kupo," Mog replied shyly, shuffling his paws nervously.
Kurana nodded and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her. "I know why you came, kupoppo. But we are not the last," she began. "That's why I came. The Moogles are still around here, kupo, but you have to save them."
"How?" Mog asked simply, hoping against hope that she was right.
"Ku. . . po. . . po. . ." Kurana stuttered, somehow unsure of herself. "You have to save them," she repeated.
Mog furrowed his fuzzy brow, not understanding. "Yes, but how, kupo?"
Kurana's eyes widened and she looked at him fearfully. "Traitor," she whispered, then slid back into the room and slammed the door.
"Hunh?" Mog thumped on the door frantically, completely flabbergasted. He felt like someone had cast Muddle on him and all his senses were skewed. "Please come out, Kurana!" he begged. "Kupoppo!!"
The confused Moogle flopped down outside the door and started to squeak softly to himself in dismay. What had happened? What did he do wrong? Why was Kurana so weird? Questions, questions, questions!! He hated questions. Wasn't there someone who could explain? Why was he a traitor? How could he bring the Moogles back? He couldn't think, couldn't comprehend. All he could do was ask questions, over and over again, neither here nor there, no answers ever occurring to him. Tears blurred his eyes, fuzzy face red and flushed.
"Mog?" a small voice asked. It was Kurana again. "I. . . oh, kupo, I'm so sorry!!" she wailed, opening the door and dropping down next to him. "Don't be sad. The Moogle leader should be strong."
Mog sniffled. "How can a leader be strong if there is nothing to lead?" he wanted to know, still using human talk out of habit. He rubbed the tears out of his eyes with clenched paws, wings crunched up against the wall uncomfortably. He stood up and shook himself out, trying to get a hold on his sanity. Or whatever it was that he had left.
"You have plenty to lead. . . but you have to find it," Kurana reassured him. "But first, you should know something, kupo," she added, looking down at the floor mournfully. Her whiskers drooped uncustomarily, like she was ashamed. What could she possibly be ashamed of?
"Please tell, kupo. I don't understand," Mog sniffed.
"I. . . I'm. . . I'm a Dark Moogle," she mumbled, turning away.
"What? Whatās a Dark Moogle?"
"Kupo. . . when the world was first made, the goddesses were not there." Mog listened intently, trying to digest all this. "There was light and dark, dark and light. Thatās all, kupo. Youāre a Light Moogle. All Light Moogles are gone but you. Iām a Dark Moogle. Dark Moogles. . . bad." She looked at her feet again.
"Dark Moogles arenāt bad. . . youāre not bad, youāre a Dark Moogle, so Dark Moogles are not bad," Mog reasoned, taking her paw in his and patting it.
"No! Dark bad. Dark Moogles are bad. We. . . kupoppo. . . weāre evil. Some say youāre a. . . youāre a traitor, 'cause you didnāt come back," Kurana whispered, drawing her paw away shame-facedly.
"Then Mog will make you good! I'm a Light Moogle, then Iāll help! And Iāll come back. Mog always comes back," Mog declared self-righteously. He was good, therefore he could spread the good. He was also the leader of the Moogles, which meant he lead all Moogles, including these Dark Moogles. And his friends were good, too, so they could help. Very simple and clear-cut, as Moogle logic always was. If only the rest of the world could be that simple.
Mog nodded fiercely, a burning determination lighting in his eyes. He would save his kind, no matter what it took. The world may have fallen apart but the Moogles wouldn't. Not now, not ever.
The two Cole brothers sat in an uncomfortable silence, both unsure of what to say next. Just what did one do when confronted with a twin you never believed to exist? Certainly there was no prescribed action, yet there must have been something they were supposed to do, some kind of procedure or formality that they could fall back on. Were they supposed to hug? Or were they supposed to keep still, staring at each other like a pair of idiots.
Both of them were, to put it bluntly, clueless. A moment ago they had been strangers; now they were brothers. Was there really a difference, or were they just imagining things? Would they now be forced to love and respect each other as siblings did, or would they be able to keep up the facade of indifference? And. . . did they even want to?
There was a part of Mateo that still didn't believe it. It was just too much coincidence. He glanced at the grandfather clock, noting it was well past midnight. Maybe he was just dreaming this. It was a futile attempt at rationalization, but he made it anyway. It had to be some fever dream inspired by all the strange events happening here tonight. Moogles, a mimic, an assassin, an abominable snowman and what-not all in one room was enough to drive anyone's imagination beyond ordinary limits. Right?
But looking at the other man, seeing the uncanny similarity again, Mateo could not honestly say he believed this was merely a dream. No, Locke Cole was very real, and so was this room, and this town, and everything that had gone on. He could not deny it.
"Well," he began, attempting to make some kind of conversation. "Well, well," he repeated, unable to think of anything more.
"āWellā what?" Locke asked, raising an eyebrow.
Mateo shrugged. "Well. . . we're brothers. Isn't that odd? I suppose thieving runs in the family. Maybe that's why our parents were killed. I mean, what with all these people giving thieves a bad name. It's just so unfair. I've been trying to help, improving relations with the Thieves' Guild and all. . . " Mateo slowed his words gradually into a gentle brake. He was babbling. Babbling like an open-mouthed fool. Which is what I am, anyway, he admitted reluctantly.
Locke's eyes flashed with indignation at Mateo's reference to thieving. He was about to retort like he always did when called a thief, but this time the retort died right on the brink of his tongue. Why argue? He knew he wasn't a thief, and even if he really was, there was nothing wrong with it. After all, his newfound brother was a thief. Brother. He couldn't get used to that word. In all his life, Locke had never expected or dreamed of anything like this. Even as a child, he had never harbored any hopes that there might be somebody out there, like a brother, waiting for him. He thrived on independence- the whole concept of a real family was alien to him.
"I understand," he whispered. No other words were necessary. Just because this was all so sudden and unexpected did not mean he could not accept it.
"Hunh?" Mateo looked up at him, brown eyes meeting brown eyes.
"You. . . and me. . . I understand. I can see now, what I should have seen all along," the treasure hunter whispered bitterly.
It was what he had dreaded all along. For so many years, he had denied it, pretending to be something other than what his fellows labeled him as. And now he knew that they were right. Sure, he had fought with the good guys against Kefka. Sure, he had tried so hard to bring Rachel back to life. He had done a lot of things in the name of good. . . and all of them were worthless. All his good intentions and wonderful ideas had come to naught. His heart was still dark.
"I'm not following," his brother said, mouth turned down in a slight frown.
Locke shook his head slowly. "You. . . you're a thief, and you admit it. But, I guess you're what they'd call a 'thief with a heart of gold.' Because what you do is for other people. You're so unselfish, so caring." Mateo started to protest, but Locke cut him off. "I know you don't believe that you are that way, but it's true. I've seen the work you've done, though I've never met you until today. And now that I know you're my brother, I'm just. . . just awed. You're the kind of person I'll never be," he finished in a broken whisper.
"That's not true. I know it isn't. Look, if anyone's a bad apple around here, it's me. I steal for a living. But you? You helped saved the world. If that's bad, then I'm a Moogle's uncle," Mateo argued. His gaze turned to one of fierce determination.
Even his looks betray him, Locke realized sorrowfully. We've just met, and he already cares so much. Aloud, he said, "I'm afraid you'll have to adopt, brother," he began with a hint of sarcasm. "I know I'm right, and there's nothing anyone can do to change that." His own face was expressionless, eyes hard and cold like the darkness he knew he kept locked within his heart. . .
"Hail, Moogles!" Kurana cried, exultant and radiant as she stood on the rocky ledge overhanging the huge cavern, where nearly one hundred Dark Moogles gathered.
Mog gazed around in awe, shocked by the fact that so many Moogles could have existed and he had never even guessed at it. They looked much like regular Moogles- but some had darker fur, different colors, and a strange radiance that made his little heart quiver in fear. Yet in spite of all this, there was really not much difference between them and the Moogles he had once lead.
They cavorted around the room, singing and dancing like the light-hearted creatures that they were. The craggy walls of the cavern shimmered and sparkled with bright colors and patterns of light as they worked their special Moogle powers. But even their power, so strange and new, was still that of a Moogle. For, as Mog watched, he picked up the dances quickly, committing them to memory right alongside the ones he already knew.
It was sometime between midnight and dawn. Right after Kurana had revealed the truth to Mog, she had dragged him out into the mines; into tunnels and passageways that previously had been known to only the Dark Moogles. It was here that they lived, finding solace in the comforting darkness, living a subverted life not even dreamed of by surface-dwellers. They were truly Dark Moogles- most of them had never even seen the light of the moon, much less the sun. Only when Kurana had dared to explore beyond the deep, dark caves they called home did they themselves even realize that Light Moogles, and humans as well, had survived the destruction of the world.
The Dark Moogles, unlike most races, did not forget the creation of the world, nor did they forget the three goddesses whose warring had led to the creation of magic. Living deep beneath the earth as they did, it was easy to preserve the customs of long-dead cultures, including the many dances Mog saw now. Theirs was an outdated, yet still ever-lasting way.
It was clear that there was a definite power structure to this otherwise anarchy-ridden bunch, as they immediately quieted down and stood still as soon as Kurana raised her voice. They trilled and kupo-ed among themselves, wondering who was this strange Moogle who stood before their highly respected heroine. But they dared not speak against him, for Kurana had steadfastly braved the outside world to bring him here; therefore he must be of some importance.
"Kupo!" the crowd rumbled in response, many of them kneeling down before her. Angrily Kurana gestured for them to get on their feet, not considering herself worthy of such attention.
"You come to meet your new leader, kupo!" she announced, raising her paws in the air. The Dark Moogles promptly began to shriek and whoop, jumping up and down and dancing with much enthusiasm, assuming that Kurana meant herself. But their jubilation died down as she stepped away, pushing an embarrassed Mog forward.
"Who is that, kuppopo?!?" one of the bolder ones demanded. Mog shrank back in fear. He had known this would happen; it was inevitable that at least one among the Dark Moogles would not accept this change. But this one did not demand out of suspicion. Merely curiosity.
In spite of that, whispers of doubt rippled throughout the group. Murmurs of "Light Moogle" and "traitor" could be distinguished above the rest. Kurana silenced them by stamping her feet and shouting angrily. "This is the Light Moogle leader!!" she roared, answering their doubts. "It time for Dark Moogles to leave this place!! We move forward now, kupo! The world needs Moogles, and we will be there!!"
Her little speech was met by shouts and kupos of approval, some more energetic than others. But there were those who would still suspect. They hung in the back, clearly separating themselves from the others. It was they who would constitute the biggest problem, Kurana knew. She did not bother to share any more thoughts with the group, what she had done already was quite enough. Moogles were hardly stupid, foolish creatures who blindly followed anyone with authority, but the ideas of right and wrong were firmly embedded within their psyches. And in this turning point, they knew Kurana was right.
The caves were cramped and crowded, the air grew colder and colder. They knew they needed help, and could no longer remain secluded in the bowels of the mines. That was why they had wanted to send someone out to the surface. No one had volunteered, and these last dissenters had argued against it then as they did now. But intrepid young Kurana had stood up, venturing out and returning successfully. Even so, these few would need more convincing, and for that, Mog would have to help her.
Striding out into the midst of the celebrating Moogles, Kurana made a beeline to the group gathered in the rear. Mog was right behind her.
She was met by scathing glares and mixed expressions. So not all of them were against it, just unsure. Well, that evened things out a bit. Kurana came to a stop right in front of them, careful not to step too close or else she might intimidate the doubtful ones.
"We don't trust him, kupo," one with blue wings said blatantly, looking directly at Mog as he said so. But neither Mog's stance nor his confidence faltered. He stood tall and firm, head held high.
"But heās a Light Moogle. . . they can be trusted," a Dark Moogle with grayish fur offered timidly.
The blue-winged one turned on her irritably. "No they can't," he disputed arrogantly, as if the fact that he was saying it would explain it all.
The gray Moogle's wings drooped noticeably, and she stepped away, lowering her head meekly. This might take time, Kurana realized. These Moogles were not going to be easily swayed. But Kurana was very determined, very very very determined.
The one with the blue wings sighed, not having intended to cow the poor gray one. "Look, kupo, Light Moogles are traitors. They left us," and his eyes flashed indignantly, "to go make friends with humans."
"Thatās not so bad," a third added, scoffing at what he considered a silly argument. "I join you," he said then, turning to grip Mog's paw firmly. The newly appointed Moogle leader smiled, glad that he had won another firm follower. He must thank Kurana for all of it.
"Stupid," blue wings snorted. "Don't you see theyāre gonna get us killed, kupo?"
"Better than dying down here in the dark," yet another argued, moving to stand by Mog. Blue wings looked at them in consternation, furious at their betrayal yet able to understand their logic.
"Please join us, kupo. Humans are not bad," Mog told the remaining dissenters. "If you do not come with me, then you will die down here, and what happens next? No more Moogles!"
The rest of them exchanged horrified glances. No more Moogles? Unthinkable!
"Yes, you are right. We cannot risk all Moogles just because we are too dumb to get out of the dark, kupoppo." One more joined the ranks. Slowly, steadily, the rest defected. Mog's heart swelled with pride until he thought it would burst. But there were still two left- the timid grey one and blue wings. Without raising her eyes from the floor, the grey one walked over to Mog.
One left. He looked at them all in desperation, silently begging them to reconsider. No such luck. He gazed at Mog then, slitted eyes filled with a kind of awe and respect. "I join you, Light Moogle. But not 'cause I like you. I join for the futures' sake," he whispered, kupo-ing softly as he finished. He stepped over to stand beside his new leader.
And, at that moment, Mog's heart did burst with pride.
The Moogles lived!
"Oh, Locke. . . !"
Locke whirled to see who called his name, and his jaw dropped in utter astonishment to see Celes standing in the doorway. Where, apparently, she had been standing for quite some time. Before he could say a word, though, she rushed over to him and held him in a warm embrace. As he gasped, he breathed in the delicate scent of her glossy hair, an intoxicating breath of frost and roses, though none could tell whether it was just that or basically her in general that caused him to reel backwards with his head spinning. He had forgotten about her.
Reacting slowly and instinctively, he gently put his arms around her in return. "Love, I'm sorry," he murmured in her ear, her radiance drowning out everything else in his pitiful existence. If there was anything he could ever do to make up for his selfishness, it could only be one thing- set Celes free.
"But. . . !" he continued, pushing her away. "I am no longer worthy of you." Celes' sparkling green eyes widened in confusion. "I don't expect you to understand, I don't think anyone could. So just let me redeem myself by doing you this one last favor. I'm letting you go."
She shook her head, about to push herself into his arms once more then standing still as she realized that now was not a time for action. "Locke, I understand, I truly do. But you won't redeem yourself by giving me up." Mateo nodded in silent agreement. Locke doesn't know what he's got, he thought. And it was true, to some extent. Locke never fully appreciated Celes. As he didn't now.
"Yes, I will. I've been selfish all my life, and I'm not going to keep it up for the rest of it. So please just forget about me, forget about us, okay?" he pleaded, tears starting to form in the milky brown eyes Celes so loved.
"I could never forget you," was her quiet reply. Then a smile spread across her face, and she reached up, slipping her arms around his neck. "I know a better way to redeem you," she offered, emerald eyes dancing like tiny snowflakes set adrift on the wind.
She nodded, then leaned forward, brushing her lips softly against his. "Say you'll marry me," Celes whispered. As Locke started to back away, she hurried on to explain. "I know that in some ways, you're right about yourself. But if you give me up, you'll be hurting me. Do you really want to do that?" He shook his head. "Good. I'm glad we understand each other."
Locke closed his eyes, not wanting to draw away but unable to bear looking at her beautiful face. "No. No, no, no, no. . ." was all he could say.
"Locke, darling, I'll say it again and again- it will hurt me beyond anything you'll ever know if you leave me. You'll just hurt yourself, and, though I really don't like saying it, most importantly you'll be hurting me. If you turn you back on love, you'll be surrendering yourself to the darkness." Locke gave a start, amazed that she had figured all this out. "Don't say anything, because I already know," she smiled.
Locke appeared to remain serious and doubting. "Can I just say one thing?" he asked softly. Celes tilted her head back to gaze at him more clearly, and finding no hint of whatever it was that he had to say, she nodded. "I'll marry you," he whispered with a smile, and bent to kiss her.
Mateo shyly averted his eyes, though inwardly he thought he would explode like a snowball of joy. Tonight- or was it today?- had been a tumult of events, none clear or refined, but most certainly, without a doubt, a blissful occasion. He was reunited with his brother, and his brother was going to marry the girl of his dreams. Now if only he had a girl. . . ah well, there was plenty of time for that later. For on this night, the stage of the world was lit up in the glow of soulful rejoicing.
Suddenly Mateo sensed a presence at his side. He looked, and was shocked to see Jada smiling up at him.
"I heard all of it," she said softly, touching her fingers to his lips to silence him as he tried to speak. "Celes asked me to wait. And I understand- most importantly, I understand about you. I think tomorrow the Conclave will be withdrawing all its charges against the Thieves' Guild." A mischievous smile played at the corners of her mouth, struggling to be acknowledged.
Mateo stood, still shocked, as the Healer held out her hand. Maybe she isn't so rude after all, he decided with a grin, and clasped her hand in his warmly.
Just then, while Locke and Celes were wrapped up with one another, both the back door and the front door of the meeting hall flew open. In came Mog, Kurana, and a dozen or so other Moogles tumbling through one, and through the other entered Shadow and Terra. The kissing couple were forced to break apart as they stared at their friends in surprise. They could did little more than stare, though, because the air was filled with shouts of Moogles and excited chatter swirling all about.
A third door slammed open to reveal a groggy Edgar, who had gone to sleep in his now rumpled clothes. "What's going on?" he mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Several shouts greeted him. "I have a brother!" "I have a twin!" "The Moogles are back, kupo!!" they all went at once. The young king blinked at them unsteadily for a moment, then ordered, "One at a time. . ." He paused and reconsidered. "Please!" he added, bleary eyes begging for explanation.
"I found the Moogles! The Moogles are back!!" Mog yelled first, grabbing Kurana's paws and dancing around in circles. Edgar grinned at them. So lovable, yet so deadly.
"This is my twin brother, Mateo," Locke announced proudly. "And. . . Celes and I are getting married!" Celes squeezed his arm fondly, the two of them wearing matching grins themselves.
Terra went last, smiling gently. "I have a brother, too. I think you do not recognize him now" -all eyes strayed to the mysterious man standing behind her- "but, once more, meet Shadow." As if all the other news hadn't been strange enough, this just flat out toppled the cake.
Locke's jaw dropped in astonishment. Then, he shut his mouth, with an audible snap of his teeth. "I don't want to hear it," he said, looking from Mateo to Jada to Kurana to Shadow and to Edgar, Terra, and Celes. "I don't even want to hear it!" he declared, then sank back in a chair.
"I agree," Edgar seconded, shaking his head with disbelief. In a gesture completely out of character, Terra went up to him and took his hand in hers reassuringly.
"It will wait," she murmured, to him and him alone. "But," she amended, "there is one thing that will not wait."
"What's that?" Terra only smiled coyly and hugged him, then turned to hug the others. Edgar shook his head yet again. That girl. . . !
Explanations could wait until they got some rest, but nothing would change what had transpired on this night of all nights. For it was this night that a bridge, fragile and thin, but powerfully bonded by love despite its frailties, had been spanned to the other side of the light. And for that, anything could wait.
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