Pruning Roses
by Frodo

Part 1: I Don't Wish to Stain My Hands

Celes shook her head. It was okay to do that here in her private quarters. They weren't observing her actions here, at least she didn't think so. She hadn't found any bugs, and she searched fairly regularly.

Her sword fell from her nerveless hand. She was exhausted and appalled. Throwing herself on her bed, she cast away all the defenses she had created to remain unnoticed, just another officer.

She wept, her tears falling onto her pillow. Her whole body shook. It had been horrible. She had lead another massacre, this time on Tzen. She herself had slain twenty innocents, the total casualties were in the hundreds. None of the Imperial soldiers had died.

It wasn't right, it just wasn't. The Empire was getting too greedy, too obsessed with power. If any of the towns it held in its iron fist resisted, troops were sent to make examples of civilians. Celes hated it. She was a human, not a machine. She couldn't survive in all this carnage, she knew it. But the Empire didn't want her to be human, it wanted her to be a machine, a tool it could use. That's why the Empire was so wrong, a crime against humanity.

Celes regained some composure. She sat up, her eyes red from crying. She tried to straighten her hair, she knew it must be in a mess now. Rising, she walked over to the sink in her bathroom, turning on the cold water. Picking up a bar of soap, she lathered her hands and put them under the water, cleansing them.

"I've got to wash the blood away," she whispered. "I don't want to stain my hands anymore. I don't ever want to bloody them again."

She continued cleansing herself for almost an hour. Finally she turned the water off, and dried her hands on a towel.

"There isn't enough water in the entire world. My hands would make the oceans run red with blood," she whispered.

The next day, Celes visited the Imperial Gardens. She walked through the flowers in contemplation, eventually finding herself at the center, staring at the giant white rose bush. The gardeners pruned it daily, cutting back branches so that the bush would continue to flower.

Celes looked at it. She had never actually seen one of the gardeners. Yet the gardens always showed the signs of their care, so there must be some somewhere. She sighed. There were some things one had to take on faith.

She reached to pick one of the flowers, but pricked her finger on a thorn on accident. She murmured a slight sound of pain, she'd received worse wounds in battles. on her thumb, she gazed in horror at a rose.

Drops of her blood had fallen on it, marring its purity, staining it. She felt like crying. It somehow seemed wrong that she had done something like that to something so beautiful.

"It's like what the Empire has done to me," she breathed, surprised at the sudden revelation the flower had brought. "It's stained me, made me impure. It's doing that to the entire world. That isn't right."

Reaching carefully into the bush, she brushed the blood off the flower's petals. It didn't make any difference. Their white had permanently stained by her blood.

"I'll never be free of what they've done to me," she told herself. "Like this rose, I'll never be pure again."

She felt like running back to her chambers, crying. However, she knew she couldn't do that. It would attract unwanted attention. It would alert them that something was wrong. They would have to recondition her.

Celes couldn't repress a shudder. She'd heard what happened when the Empire reconditioned you. She didn't want to have to go through that pain, that torment, that agony. No one who was ever reconditioned once had to be reconditioned again. The fear of pain kept them in step, kept them from doing anything remotely unorthodox.

That was why she tried to fool them, make them think nothing was wrong with her. They had to think she was the perfect soldier, or else... The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

Part 2: Trusting to Luck

Celes was in the gardens again. She'd been coming there every day for the week. It wasn't quite safe, she knew it. She usually didn't do things like this, and doing unordinary things was unorthodox. She hoped they hadn't noticed.

The rose she had bleed on had withered and died. Celes hoped it wasn't an omen.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She whirled around, hand straying to her sword, hoping it wasn't a guard. It wasn't. It was a gardener.

Celes studied him carefully. He was a head shorter than she was, and was strongly built. His hair was a light, sandy brown and his eyes were green. His skin was dark and tanned, especially at the back of his neck, where the sun beat down as he bent over plants. He was wearing gardening gloves.

"Celes, isn't it?" the gardener paused, and she nodded. He continued, "I can help you."

"What do you mean?" Celes replied, hesitantly.

"You hate the Empire don't you?" the gardener asked. "You want to the join the Returners." His last remark was a statement, not a question.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Celes cried frantically. "I'm an Imperial General. I'm not a traitor."

"Calm down," the gardener hissed. "They'll hear you. We can talk here. I removed the bugs this morning."

Celes stared at him. "How, how do you know my feelings about the Empire?"

"The way you walk, your gestures, even the way you breath. You're so full of defiance of the Empire that any fool could tell."

"Then they know I'm a traitor? They're going to take me away to a Reconditioning Center, aren't they?" Celes asked, her voice full of fear and panic.

"Of course not. They're not looking for insubordination in a high-ranking officer like you. At least not yet, Celes. The Returners need your help."

"I'm not doing anything until I meet Banon."

The gardener laughed. "You'll never do that. The Returners doesn't work that way. You're alone, Celes. All alone. The only other members you'll ever know are me and the others you take orders from. It's the only way we could work. The Empire catches us every day. This way, you don't know anything to betray. You only know what you do, not why you do it. And by the time you confess, I'll have a new face, a new identity. They won't find me."

Celes gasped. "You're just like the Empire, no better, no worse," she hissed.

The gardener stared back at her. "Are we? We're fighting to overthrow the Empire. Doesn't us make us better than them? Our tactics are suited to the type of war we fight. War is brutal Celes, you should know that."

Celes looked at him, hurt evident in her eyes. "I don't want to stain my hands again."

The gardener laughed. "You're a soldier, Celes. What else would you do?" He paused for a moment, "You can make a choice, though. You can bloody your hands, fighting for them, for the wrong reasons. Or, you could fight for us, the Returners. Which will it be?"

Celes bit her lip, thinking about the rose, the way the Empire was making the very ground beneath her feet impure. He thoughts were conflicting, she didn't believe in what the Empire was doing, but she wasn't truly sure she believed in the Returners, not anymore, not after meeting one of them.

The gardener was impatient however. "Well," he snapped. "Make up your mind. If they catch us, both our lives as we know them will be over. The Reconditioning Centers are awful."

Celes looked up at him. "I've made my choice," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "I'll fight for you."

The gardener looked please. "You will, will you? Are you prepared to lie, to slander high ranking Imperials? Are you prepared to murder, to kill? Not every target will be an Imperial. Some of them will be civilians. Are you prepared to kill them too?"

Celes bit her lip again, this time so fiercely that she broke the skin, and tasted blood on her tongue. "I'll do it," she said, her voice stronger this time. "I'll do whatever you say."

"Good," the gardener said, smiling. "If you're caught, I can't promise you anything. We can't help you escape, that's certain. The best we could do would be to sneak you a razor blade..."

Celes grimaced, thinking of the only escape she would have. She could almost feel herself griping the steel, the edge biting her fingers as she drove it into her neck, cutting veins and arteries. She knew she wouldn't be able to do it. Still, she looked the gardener in the eye.

"That's fine," she said. "I don't plan on getting caught."

"You'll get your orders later," he told her. "For now, you should go. I wouldn't come back here. They'll notice that the bugs are gone. This place won't be safe for several weeks."

Celes nodded, and hurried out of the gardens, to her chambers. The gardener sat down on a bench, and took off his gloves. The hands underneath had no dirt under their fingernails. They weren't the hands of a gardener. They were smooth and neatly manicured with no calluses anywhere.

Part 3: My Dear, You Are Wrong

Celes gazed blankly at her sword, trying to calm herself. She was going into battle for the Empire again. It was her duty to lead the assault on South Figaro.

Since joining the Returners, she'd received only one order, to stay put. They weren't ready for her to move yet. They'd need someone in her position later, but not at the moment. For now, she had a role to play-that of a loyal Imperial soldier.

"Deep breaths," she muttered to herself. "Deep, calming breaths. They know what they're doing. You're only a soldier. You only follow orders, you don't make them or have to understand them. You just do as you're told."

Celes couldn't suppress a shiver. The Returners wanted the same things from her that the Empire did. They wanted a weapon, not a human. And while the principles of the Returners were better, they still waged war on the same level as the Empire. Did that really make them any less evil?

She was startled from her musings by the sounds of soldiers trying to prevent entry to her tent.

"I have an Imperial Warrant!" someone screamed. "It's signed by Gestahl himself!"

The sounds of struggle stopped. Celes tensed. Something was happening, she knew it. Her hand involuntarily gripped the hilt of her sword tightly.

Someone stepped through the flap of her tent. She gazed at him, her eyes cold and impassive. He was wearing clothes in the height of fashion at the Imperial Court, he wasn't a soldier, he was a messenger. In his hand he held a slip of paper with the Imperial Seal.

"In the name of Emperor Gestahl, I command that you surrender your sword to me," he said in a nasal voice. Celes's stomach lurched.

"Why?" she asked, barely able to utter this single word because of the fear that gripped her.

"You have been convicted of High Treason. You will be held in Figaro until it the Empire has the resources to move you to a Reconditioning Center."

Celes let the sword drop from her hand. She fell to her knees, holding her face in her hands. It was over, all over. They'd found her, before she'd had her chance to hurt them. The only hope she now had left was that of the razor blade.

The messenger bent down and retrieved her sword. "Restrain her," he barked at the soldiers. They swiftly complied.

They'd transferred her from the camp to a house in South Figaro. Celes hadn't resisted. Why should she bother? Life was over for her. Death would come soon enough, she hoped.

A day had passed since they'd arrested her, and the razor blade hadn't arrived yet. Celes prayed fervently that it would come soon, before they had time to transfer her again. She didn't want to find out what an Imperial Reconditioning Center was like.

They left her alone mostly. There was a sentry in her cell, but she didn't plan on trying to escape. All she feared was that he would prevent her from trying to take her own life.

The door creaked open, and Celes looked up. Another Imperial was walking in, wearing a coal gray uniform. On his left breast a highly polished Imperial insignia was pinned. He seemed familiar to her somehow. Two other guards walked in behind him, bearing rubber hoses.

The Imperial gazed at her. "My dear, you are sadly mistaken if you thought that we would not catch you," he said, almost sorrowfully.

Celes recognized his voice. "I thought I could trust you," she whispered back to him.

"You can't trust anyone, Celes," he replied, his eyes hard. "I would have thought that you would have seen through my disguise. But you placed too much hope in the Returners. They don't exist."

Celes couldn't reply, her voice was choked with sorrow and grief at her foolishness.

"The Empire is perfect Celes," he replied. "There is no opposition to anything that is perfect. The Empire is never wrong. It is destined rule the world. The Empire never does anything that is not for the good of the world."

Celes glared at him, her anger at betrayal winning over grief. "The Empire is not perfect. It is evil."

A rubber hose slammed on the back of her neck.

"The Empire is never wrong."

The Imperial held up four fingers. "How many fingers do you see?" he asked.


The hose slammed on the back of her neck again, causing Celes to cry out in pain.

"I say there are five. How many do you see?"


Again and again the hose slammed down on her. Celes began to scream, her pain overcoming her.

"I will ask you one more time. How many fingers do you see?"

"I don't know," Celes sobbed. "I can't focus the pain..."

The soldier slammed the hose down again.

"That is not an acceptable answer, Celes. You're smarter than this. How many fingers do you see?"

"Four... five... six. I don't know. Five! Five! Five!"

"Are you just saying five so the pain will stop or are you trying to see five fingers?"

"I'm trying to see five. I'm trying. I'm trying! Make it stop!"

Her torturer motioned to the guard. He lowered the hose.

"Now you see," he said, "that wasn't so hard, was it? The Empire is always right. You are flawed. You are the one that is wrong. The Empire is never wrong."

"I'm wrong, I'm flawed!" Celes screamed, writhing on the floor in pain. "The Empire is right, I'm not. The Empire is always right!"

The Imperial smiled. "That's right, Celes. We are always right. If anyone is wrong, it is you." He turned to the soldiers. "That's enough for today, we've exhausted her."

The left her, and Celes slumped against the wall, sobbing.

Later, Celes didn't know how much time had actually passed, he returned, bringing his guards with him.

"How are you feeling now, Celes?" he asked.

"I have a headache," Celes moaned.

"Of course you do," he replied. "You were out of your mind yesterday, beating yourself and denouncing the Empire. We had to restrain you."

"You did?" Celes asked, distrust evident in her voice.

"Yes, we did," the Imperial replied in a voice that left no room for questioning.

"I don't remember that..." Celes muttered weakly.

"Of course not. You are flawed, remember?"

"I am flawed."

"That's right, Celes. You are flawed. The Empire is perfect and supreme. Are you ready for your next lesson?"

Celes cringed, shaking her head, memories of pain lurking at the back of her head.

"Now Celes, you're smart. As long as you cooperate, force won't be necessary."

Celes relaxed.

"You know you've done a bad, bad thing Celes. The Empire doesn't like it. The Empire wants you to be punished. And the Empire is always right."

Celes whimpered.

Turning to one of his guards the Imperial smiled. "Punish her. I have pressing business to attend to."

As one guard advanced, Celes's tormentor and his other guard left the cell. The remaining guard began to beat her brutally with his fists. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she was thrown back against the wall and left there.

The guard chuckled. "So, the mighty CELES has fallen!" Celes stared at him as he chained her to the wall, some last spark of resistance ignited inside her soul.

"How can you serve those cowards?" Celes hissed.

The guard raised his fist in warring. "Hold your tongue!"

"Isn't it true that Kefka's going to the people of Doma, to the east?" Celes asked, her eyes filled with hatred once again.

The guard stuck her again, knocking her once more to the floor. "Shut up," he hissed. "They're transporting you to a Reconditioning Center tomorrow. I'd hate to be in your shoes."

The guard glanced at the sentry. "Keep a close watch on her."

The sentry saluted. "Yessir! I can go for days without sleep."

The guard nodded, and left the cell. The sentry sat back down in his chair, muttering curses. He promptly fell asleep, sure the prisoner wasn't going anywhere.

The door creaked open once more. Celes looked up, horrified to see another soldier. "So you've come to take me away?" she asked. "Aren't you a little short?"

The soldier stared at her strangely through his helmet. Then he pulled it off, revealing a head of mussed sandy yellow hair. "I forgot I was wearing this," he said simply.

"Who are you?" Celes asked.

"Name's Locke, I'm with the Returners. I'm here to rescue you."

Celes blinked. That was impossible. The Returners never rescued their prisoners. They best they could do was provide a razor blade. She shook her head. That was an Imperial lie. She had know idea what the real Returners were like. She looked up at Locke, pain evident in her eyes.

"Thanks, but no thanks," she said sadly. "I can barely walk." Rising to her feet weakly, she tried to take a few steps and then fell back down. "I'm grateful, but... Even if you got me out, you'd never be able to protect me."

Locke looked at her, a gaze full of hope. "I'll protect you! Trust me! You'll be fine!" he said, extending a hand.

As Celes took it, she could only hope that he spoke the truth. fin