When they reunite in Kohlingen, Locke and Celes have some issues to talk out.
Locke wasn't far behind her, although he managed the stairs somewhat more gracefully than she. He stared at the floor, frowning, and exercised great care in where he placed his feet, as though he didn't quite trust the floor to support his weight.
He reached the door and paused, one hand resting on the doorknob. "Are you okay?"
"Are you?" she countered.
He half-smiled and nodded. "Let's go."
Celes followed him out of the old man's house, blinking to adjust her eyes to the sunlight. Setzer was waiting for them outside. Celes stood back, tucked into the doorway, and watched as Locke sauntered forward to greet Setzer. Locke's smile seemed easier now, and he held his shoulders straighter. He dropped a pile of weaponry and items on the ground and smirked. "The treasures of the Phoenix Cave," he announced. "Not a bad haul."
Celes knelt to sort out the tangle of treasure, neatly putting items away in the large bag they carried with them. Locke helped himself to a few weapons as she did so.
"So now that's settled, I believe we have some business with Kefka," Setzer drawled. He was propped against one of the fence posts, inspecting the sleeve of his long black coat. The wind off the ocean whipped his silver hair about until he resembled a dandelion gone to seed. Somehow he managed to make the look seem stylish.
Reluctantly Celes stepped out from the doorway and walked down the stairs. She'd hoped maybe she and Locke could find a few minutes alone to speak of what had happened before the world shattered, but she knew they needed to keep going. Kefka was unpredictable on his best day, and who knew when he'd next unleash that magical beam of his ? She schooled her features into the expressionless mask she'd had beaten into her in Gestahl's army and squared her shoulders. Locke moved forward to stand with Setzer, waiting for her to join them. She strode forward, the gravel path crunching beneath her boots.
Setzer caught her gaze and grinned. He straightened, smoothed down his coat, and gave her a conspiratorial wink. "No need to go racing off right this second," he said. "The Falcon can get us anywhere we want to go with plenty of speed, and I'm sure we could all use the rest after traipsing all around the Phoenix Cave. Why not check in at the inn for the night?"
"It would be nice to sleep in a non-moving bed," Celes muttered.
Locke overheard her and snickered. "If that's the case, I'm doing something wrong," he murmured in her ear. Celes started and felt heat rising to her cheeks.
"Celes, are you all right? You look a little flushed." Setzer's expression was all innocence.
"I'm fine. Thank you, Setzer, that sounds like an excellent idea," she said.
Setzer grinned and bowed, gesturing toward the Inn with a flourish. "Well then, right this way!"
Celes strode along the flagstone path toward the Inn, her long white cloak snapping behind her in the stiff breeze. It was cold out this far north, but cold had never bothered her .
Behind her, she could hear the ring of Setzer's boot heels on stone, and the scrape of Locke's boots, moving faster than Setzer's. A moment later, she caught a glimpse of his fair hair out of the corner of her eye. He didn't speak, and neither did she. She wanted to ask him about Albrook and Vector, to apologize, but she didn't know how to begin.
Locke stepped in front of her to open the door to the Inn. The air inside was noticeably warmer and redolent of roast meats and fresh bread, with an underlying scent of stale beer . As it was still late afternoon, there were only a few people scattered about the common room, enjoying a leisurely mug of ale or glass of wine.
"Hey, Locke!" the innkeeper called out, waving a glass in Locke's direction. He was rail-thin, with an abundant crop of bright red curls, pale blue eyes under a prominent forehead, and a broad nose that looked to have been broken a few times in his life. He grinned, displaying a few missing teeth. "How's our favorite thi--ah, treasure hunter?"
"Doing well, Martin!" Locke answered. "Got any rooms free?"
"How many do you need?" Martin looked pointedly at Celes and laughed. She felt the heat of a blush creeping up her neck again. Damn her pale skin anyway.
"Three rooms." Locke sauntered forward, digging into one of the myriad pockets of his black vest for GP. Celes heard the door swing open behind her and the footsteps of two people. Setzer's footfalls paused behind her, while a massive man in a thick wool coat walked forward to grab a seat at the bar.
"Sure you don't need two?" The innkeeper was snickering as he wiped down the glass in his hand.
"Watch your mouth, Martin, there's a lady present." Locke's tone was mild, but there was no doubt he meant what he said.
"Two, actually," Setzer remarked as he headed forward to grab a seat at the bar.
"My mistake, Setzer, I forgot to count you. Two ladies present, then." Locke flipped six hundred-weight gold pieces onto the bar, one at a time.
Setzer made a rude gesture in Locke's direction without any real heat or interest and turned toward the innkeeper. "Ale, please."
"Sure." The innkeeper scooped up Locke's coins with one hand and poured Setzer's drink with the other. "Top of the stairs, Locke, last three rooms on the right. And my apologies to your friend ."
"Thanks, Martin. Celes, come sit, will you?" Locke hooked his foot around the leg of a nearby chair and pulled it to him, turning it around to sit astride the chair. Celes seated herself more traditionally at the same table. Setzer paid the innkeeper and joined them. He set his mug of ale on the table and tilted back his chair to prop his feet on a nearby empty seat, looking entirely at home. As he should; it was in this same tavern that Celes had found him after she woke up.
"Locke, how did you find the Phoenix Magicite?" Celes asked curiously.
"Ah, well, that's a long story," Locke began. Celes listened, half-amused and half-appalled, as he described a bizarre series of events starting with the breakup of the Floating Continent. Setzer kept adding sarcastic commentary. . Locke was a skilled storyteller, although she rather doubted the veracity of some of his claims. Why would a band of traveling performers happen to know that the dying Phoenix Esper had sought sanctuary in the star-shaped mountain range, anyway?
They ordered dinner while Setzer regaled them with tales of narrow escapes after bilking the Empire in some spectacular fashion or upsetting someone who wasn't as good at selectively managing his cards as Setzer was. Celes remained silent, for what tales could she tell? She'd spent that year unconscious, and no one wanted to hear about her time in Gestahl's army. So she watched them, and laughed at their stories, and savored the feeling of camaraderie.
Setzer wound up a particularly amusing tale of how he'd had to hightail it out of Tzen after a poor loser threatened specific parts of his body while waving a butcher knife. His imitation of his opponent left them all in fits of laughter. The gambler rose and bowed gracefully. "And on that note, ladies," he said, with a pointed look at Locke, "I bid you good evening. I need my sleep!" He stretched and yawned, then meandered toward the stairs.
"Rest well," Celes said. Setzer saluted casually. Celes watched his booted feet vanish upstairs.
When she looked back at Locke, he wore a brooding expression and was studying his ale intently. She took a slow, deep breath, unsure of how to broach the subject of Albrook and Vector .
"Locke?" she ventured uncertainly. Though her voice was quiet, his gaze snapped up to meet hers.
"We...about Albrook, that night..." She floundered, unsure of what to say.
"Let's talk about this upstairs." Locke dropped GP onto the table for their drinks and meal and rose, turning his chair neatly around to face the table properly again.
She followed him upstairs in silence, struggling to piece together the words for what she wanted to convey. She'd had weeks, while they searched this changed world for their comrades, to prepare what she wanted to say. She had done so several times, but everything she'd rehearsed sounded either painfully formal or like mindless babble. She knew how to push people away and how to issue orders, but a conversation like this was beyond her experience .
He walked straight to the door at the end of the hall and opened it. It was a plain room, featuring a small washstand with a lit candle, a tiny throw rug on the pine floor, and a bed sized for two covered in a lovely, if somewhat faded, patchwork quilt.
Celes hesitated in the doorway. With all of the unspoken words that hovered between them, she'd half-expected him not to speak to her at all.
Locke had bent over to unlace his boots and now kicked them off in the general direction of the washstand, sending his sword belt, shield, and light armor to join it. He walked to the bed and seated himself on the edge of it, fingertips tapping lightly on the quilt.
"You might want to close the door," Locke remarked. "And come over here and sit down. I'm not going to bite."
Celes quickly turned to close the door and then bent to unfasten her boots, setting them neatly beside the door and hanging her long white cloak on the peg provided. She made a little production of unhooking her sword belt and unfastening her armor, laying them in precise order next to her boots. When everything was aligned to her satisfaction--not that she was delaying, of course, a soldier took good care of her gear in all circumstances--she crossed the room and perched on the edge of the bed, on the opposite side from him. She was half facing him, but she couldn't quite look him in the eye yet.
The silence spun out, broken only by the occasional creak of the hallway floorboards, as she stared at the pattern of the quilt and he watched her. Finally he spoke.
"You wanted to talk about Albrook."
"Yes." Celes clasped her hands in her lap and tried, again, to arrange the words the way she wanted them. It wasn't working, so she decided to go with simple and direct. "I'm sorry I ignored you. I didn't know what to do. You thought I had betrayed you to Kefka, and so I did the only thing I could, which was to take him away and allow you and Edgar and Sabin to escape."
He didn't say anything, and she tried to explain further. "You helped me when I was in South Figaro. I could not let Kefka kill you."
"Celes?" She looked up and saw Locke watching her with a very odd expression on his face, almost as though he feared her. He took a long time to put together his next question. "What happened, after you took Kefka out of there ?"
"They applied appropriate punishment for my treason." Formal phrasing, she decided, did not make unpleasant statements any easier to speak. Nor could she quite bring herself to meet his eyes. She realized she was fiddling with the edge of her sleeve and forced herself to be still . "I'm not entirely sure why they didn't just kill me."
Locke sat up, leaning forward to lay a hand on her shoulder. She flinched and saw his expression tighten. Restlessly she got to her feet and prowled around the room a few times, finally stopping to take her cloak from its peg. The chill she felt had nothing to do with the temperature of the room, but she felt comforted by having the cloak wrapped tight around her.
She walked slowly back to the bed and sat next to him, not quite close enough to be touching, but close enough to feel his warmth. His hand brushed her shoulder and she flinched again before she could control it. He did not try to pull her closer, and his voice, when he spoke, was strained. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have doubted you, but I did. I'm sorry."
"I don't blame you." Still, she could not look him in the eye. "I never blamed you. I chose to betray the Empire. I chose to draw Kefka away in Vector." She paused. "I never blamed you," she repeated.
Locke made an odd sound. "You don't have to."
He hunched forward a little, his hand falling away from her shoulder as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I told you I'd protect you. And I failed."
He turned away from her, and whispered, "I failed again."
Silence descended again, while Locke studied the hole in the toe of his sock and she clutched her cloak tightly around her. She cleared her throat twice, then thought better of what she was about to say. Finally she turned to face him. "You promised to protect me until we got out of South Figaro. No more than that." She rested her fingertips on his arm, light and hesitant.
After a long moment he looked up at her, his expression still tight.
"Are you...did they..." Now it was Locke who floundered, groping for the words he wanted.
"I'm all right." She said it automatically, curtly, and he drew back, looking hurt.
She immediately said, "I'm sorry," and reached for his hand, only to find him reaching for hers. His long, slender fingers curled around her calloused, scarred hand as lightly as if he held a baby bird.
"I'll live," she said after a moment, tossing him a faint smile.
"Okay." He shifted to lean back against the pillows. "You need to sleep," he remarked .
"I know." She slid off the edge of the bed. "Well...goodnight." She walked over to pick up her weapons and transfer them to the next room
Locke looked up at her. "You could stay. Here, I mean. I won't...I mean, just to sleep."
Celes hesitated; it was different, somehow, to share a bed with him than to share a tent as they had many times before. After a moment, she walked around the bed and curled up on the other side, burrowing under the quilt. It was strange to be in a bed with someone else's weight pressing down the mattress, but the trip through the Phoenix Cave had tired her, and she fell asleep quickly.
She woke up when he shook her shoulder gently. He smiled at her. "Good morning."
A loud knock sounded at the door. "Locke? Have you seen Celes?" Setzer called.
"I'll be out in a minute," Locke answered.
"Well, hurry up, she's not answering when I knock on her door."
Celes got up and retrieved her cloak and her armaments. Locke scrambled into his armor and laced his boots while she fastened her armor and her sword belt. He opened the door for her and ushered her through with an extravagant gesture. "Let's go!"
Setzer raised an eyebrow at her as she entered the hallway, but for once, the gambler held his tongue. "Well? Shall we?"
"Let's." She followed him and Locke down the hall. Locke looked back and winked at her, and she smiled back at him. It no longer felt like Vector was hanging between them . Granted, they still had a long way to go, but it was at least a start.