The story of how Locke met Banon and joined the Returners. Pregame.
But of all the rotten luck - he was just short of being able to afford the even cheapest thing in town. He cursed and put the money back in his pockets and standing to rub his arms, trying to warm himself. He had no coat. He couldn’t afford one.
He didn’t deserve to be warm, anyway.
A mere week ago, everything in his life had changed. He’d gone from living by himself in Kohlingen as the likeable village bastard and Rachel’s fiancé to being forbidden to come back at all. Her accident, he had tried to insist, was not his fault - but his voice had been weak when he said it, because he, too, knew Rachel should have never been allowed in such a dangerous situation to begin with. And as she had told him to do, he left. They had all told him the same thing - from Rachel’s parents to his very best friend.
So Locke had left.
The first town he came to was Narshe, and that was unfortunate. Locke had run out Kohlingen with only a little spare change in his pocket, and so ran out of food money quickly. He’d also left without his coat, or even really very thick clothing. Currently he was only wearing his blue pants, bandana, white shirt, and blue overshirt - the same things he’d been wearing when he went out exploring with Rachel, the same things he’d been wearing when he ran away from his old life forever. He’d brought nothing else with him. He couldn’t seem to find a job in Narshe - the mines were closing down, dying, so the economy here was failing already - and he certainly couldn’t travel all the way to South Figaro half-starved as he was, so for now, he was sticking it out, unsure what to do, unsure why he was even trying to survive, when he deserved to die for letting Rachel get hurt like she had...
But in the end, Locke’s will to live had been stronger than his grief or even his guilt. He just couldn’t see himself sitting down and freezing or starving to death - he would survive, odds with or against him.
The first thing he had done was try the caves for loot. This, at least, was something he was good at, but mines were not like most caves and he found them despairingly empty, save for a cluster of moogles at the very bottom. He wasn’t sure what they had tried to feed him, but his stomach brought it back up ten minutes later, so he forsook the option of freeloading - he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with it anyway - and headed back up into the light and snow.
The moogles hadn’t had a coat for him, either. They had fur coats of their own.
Which left Locke with only one option - stealing.
If his grandmother knew, she’d kill him.
But, well, his grandmother was dead now, and he’d be dead too unless he got food in him, and that probably wouldn’t make her too happy either.
So Locke became the expert on how to pick a man’s pocket. Or a woman’s purse...or anything else that crossed his path and looked valuable. Maybe not the expert - more like he barely got by. Over the last week he hadn’t gotten much accomplished. Once he got caught and had to hide in the caves all night to avoid capture, and still didn’t get any money out of it. But it was something. It kind of worked.
It was the only option, at least for now.
But right now he didn’t have enough to buy a can of vegetables, let alone a dinner at the tavern or a warm coat from the relics-and-weapons shop near the front of town. His brilliant plan had just left him dirty, cold, and hungry, with not quite enough money to feed himself.
His stomach growled impatiently at him, reminding him he hadn’t eaten in two days.
Locke sighed and exited the cave, the wind biting at him, arms folded close to his body. He had to try again or starve, and the second was not an option.
He stayed in the shadows all day, despite the sun being warmer. The smell from the nearby café was killing him; he endured. He nearly got caught when he reached for a woman’s purse, and it made him too hesitant; when the sun set he still hadn’t gotten anything else, and it was snowing heavily - he could hardly see at all.
He crept up a set of wooden stairs to get a better vantage point of the town. This house was the highest point...he found the drainpipe on the side with the wooden deck - there was an overhang, here, and he wouldn’t leave footprints - and made his way to the roof, trying to be quiet; the house was lit, and he didn’t want anyone hearing him. Maybe if he looked from there, he could see something through this haze of white, something that looked easier...someplace to sleep besides the unforgiving cold of the cave...
And that was when he heard them talking.
“...sure you want to do this?” an old man’s voice asked, and Locke heard a screen door slam shut behind him.
“I’m sure,” growled a second voice, also male. There were footsteps across the wooden deck of the porch, and two people sat heavily. Locke felt a pang of jealously a moment later when he heard the clinking of silverware; they were having dinner outside. There was a pause, then: “Maybe I’ve never been more sure of anything.”
The conversation sounded a little interesting, but Locke was more interested with getting off the roof silently before they caught him up there and kicked his ass. That growly guy sounded kind of tough. He crept to the edge of the roof and sat, feet over the edge. There was a snowdrift down there that looked kind of soft, and it was a short house...it was close to the drainpipe, so if he fell or had to jump, maybe he’d stay in one piece...
“But do you know what that means for you? You may not even see the sun for a long time.”
“Then I don’t see the sun,” said the growly voice. “It’s the only way to keep the organization safe. The Empire’s already got a few of their names...they can come with me. You can be in charge of our mail. We’ll train our own carrier bird to take it back and forth. I’m serious about this, Arvis. They can’t be allowed to commit these atrocities forever.”
The man called Arvis sighed heavily. “You’re got guts, I’ll give you that. I’d go crazy trapped in a cave for who knows how long. S’why I can’t be - ”
“ - a miner. That and the bum leg, I know.” Banon’s growl was a quiet one. “But if I’m caught - everybody has a breaking point. And there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to the leader of the Returners...I can’t afford to give them any information, we’re still too small...”
Locke, who had slowly edged his way down to stand on the first bit of drainpipe, had to cover his mouth to silence the sudden intake of breath. The Returner leader! He’d heard of them - a small group of rebels fighting the almighty Vector, who had the world under its thumb from the distant south. He thought it would never have anything to do with him - Kohlingen was very far north, after all, and worthless to any grand Empire -
They were talking again. Now Locke strained to hear.
“ - know you were close to Augustus, Banon, but causing trouble for the Empire won’t bring him back. You have to move on eventually. Edgar and Sabin did...Edgar’s the king, now - ”
“ - and Edgar is just as much their puppet as everyone else is,” Banon’s voice growled, sounding truly angry now. “I wouldn’t be surprised if his dad is rolling in his grave.” A pause. “And news flying around! Saying Sabin killed himself...they were good kids, Arvis, and they don’t deserve - ”
“None of us do,” Arvis said lightly.
Locke slowly, silently, crawled down to get his hold back on the drain. He tested it gingerly; not to sturdy. It rattled a little, and he froze, wondering if they had heard, but they seemed rather absorbed in their conversation.
“ - his own sons. He wouldn’t join them, and - ”
“And look what happened to him,” Arvis pointed out, “and his family. Is that a risk you really want to take? Look, Banon, you’re one of my best friends, and I don’t want anything to happen to you - ”
“I won’t make his mistakes. Not even you know my real name, so I have no family. I don’t have many...personal responsibilities. And they don’t know where I’ll be. The bastards can’t openly attack me...like when they poisoned Gus - ”
Locke’s foot slipped and he bit back a curse. The Empire had poisoned the Figaroan king? He’d heard the man had just gotten sick and died...not that they got a lot of news in Kohlingen, anyway, but he had been trying to keep up with current events. He supposed he had gotten his news unreliably...
“Did you hear something?”
“...no. Did you?”
“Must be that damn drain, again. Kind of windy tonight, and with all this snow...I swear it’s just going to fall off one of these days...” Locke heard the man called Arvis get heavily to his feet and walk across the porch, still grumbling to himself. Panicking, Locke let go and slid down the drain noisily, landing in the snowdrift that surprised him by covering him all the way to his shoulders.
“What the hell...?”
By sheer luck, Arvis had only come to the corner, and was squinting up at the drainpipe instead of down at the snowdrift. Locke, whose head and shoulders were already covered in snow, had ducked down as far as he could into the cold fluff, and would not be immediately visible from where Banon stood. He tried not to shiver. There was a very long silence, and the footsteps drew closer. Locke held his breath and didn’t dare move, but the footsteps went past him. “I don’t see any footprints,” he called back to his friend. “I think it was just the drain.”
His footsteps faded away, around to the other side of the house, and drew closer again, passing by Locke - who was freezing - and going back to the front of the house. He didn’t go back on the porch, Locke saw, poking his head out of the snow, but was standing in the snow watching the city. He was a thin, rather lean man, but he was bundled heavily. Locke couldn’t tell what color his hair was through the white that drifted between them. Gray, maybe? In a few moments, the man named Banon joined him. His hair and beard were rather long, and he was less bundled than his friend, though he himself looked heavier. Locke figured Banon could definitely kick his ass if he was caught spying. The leader of the Returners...! He was probably pretty ruthless about that stuff...
“I won’t be seeing it again for a long time,” Banon rumbled finally, speaking of the city. “I wish it hadn’t snowed. My last night before I move into the cave...”
Locke had stopped paying attention to the conversation, though; his eyes had fallen to Banon’s back pocket. His wallet was just sticking out of it like it was begging to be taken...! It looked heavy, too. Locke could smell Arvis’ and Banon’s dinner from here, when the wind blew right, and his stomach protested pitifully again. Well, why not? He could just...take it and run. He’d always been the fastest runner when they had races back in Kohlingen...he’d starve if he didn’t get something to eat soon...
Later, he would recall that desperation had always made him do stupid things, but at the moment, all he could think about was his next meal.
He crept forward, blocking out their conversation and only concentrating on his footsteps. The cold was numbing; he tried to shiver silently. All he had to do was get up there unnoticed, then yank it and run. They’d never catch him...
“...wish there was another way, Arvis, but...”
“...you know I’ll stand behind you. But it’s not too late to back out...”
“...backing out would be an insult to everything Augustus Figaro stood for. I won’t insult his memory...”
He was closer, now. Almost within arm’s reach, but not quite.
“...come visit you, sometime...”
“...give you directions to it...”
Locke put his hand on the wallet. They were so preoccupied! They didn’t even notice him...
“Need me to go inside and get some paper?”
“No, I’ve got a receipt in my wallet. I’ll write it down - then I have to go.”
Locke heard these last two sentences quite clearly, but they didn’t click in time; he was still rather surprised when a strong, meaty hand touched his, then closed around his wrist. He jerked it away at once, causing Banon to let out a rather alarmed curse, but the man’s grip held tight, and all Locke accomplished was succeeding in making his arm hurt.
Scared and not wanting to show it, he clenched his jaw as he started defiantly up at Banon, this bear of a man who looked like he could snap the underfed Locke in half. What did Returners do to thieves? To spies?
There was a long silence. The snow fell. Locke refused to speak, afraid his voice would shake and give him away.
“A spy?” wondered Arvis finally, staring at him. He was speaking to Banon.
“I don’t know,” Banon growled. “I was going for my wallet, boy,” Banon added, unhappy.
The stress of Rachel’s accident, getting kicked out, and going the entire week cold and hungry and just barely living finally caught up to Locke. He finally snapped, “Well, you found a hand instead.”
To his surprise, Arvis laughed. But Banon still looked gravely serious.
“How much did you hear?”
Locke didn’t say anything. His jaw clenched again.
“...where are you from?” he tried. Still no response. “Figaro? Narshe? Kohlingen?”
Locke didn’t flinch once, not even at the last name.
“Well, at least he can keep a secret.” Banon sighed; it made his beard move. “Fine. Here’s an easier one: why were you after my wallet?”
“Duh,” Locke said. “I’m hungry. Food’s not free, so I need money. Wallets usually have money in them.”
For the first time, Banon seemed to take in his appearance. He was poorly dressed, skinny as he had ever been, and covered in snow. “You look hungry,” he growled. “You’re no spy?”
“I don’t care about spying, I care about eating.” Locke was suddenly very, very tired. He sat right down in the snow, though Banon’s tight grip on his arm forced him to keep it in the air. “...you know what? Never mind. I don’t care anymore. Throw me in Returner jail or whatever. At least it’ll be warmer than this. At least they’ll feed me.”
Banon’s beard twitched again. Locke didn’t know what that meant, concerning facial expressions.
“...where’s your coat?”
“Don’t have one.”
“...and...where do you make your lodgings?”
“I’m not telling you where I’m fr - ”
“No, boy, I mean where do you sleep at night?”
“The caves,” Locke huffed, looking up at him without fear now. He could do what he liked; Locke was too tired to stop him. “Keeps out the wind.”
“I know you!” Arvis said suddenly. “You’ve been here about a week, right? You’re that thief who came out of nowhere and started pickpocketing people on the streets.”
Locke didn’t say anything, not confirming or denying it.
“If I let you go,” Banon said finally, “are you going to run?”
Locke thought about it. “Probably not,” he decided. “Too tired. I don’t care anymore.”
Banon let go of Locke’s wrist. His arm fell limply to his body and he flopped backwards into the snow, staring up at the sky. He was used to the cold, but it still burned. They seemed amazed that he didn’t run - that he stayed true to his word.
“If I invited you inside, would you come?” Arvis asked finally.
“Yes,” Locke said weakly. “Especially if it’s warm.” He’d forgotten what it felt like to be warm.
“Well then for God’s sake, get up and come inside.”
Locke looked up at the sky for another moment. Snow fell on his face. Then he hauled himself to his feet. “Sure, thanks.”
“What’s your name, boy?” Banon asked him, as they walked inside. The warmth of the indoors seemed to burn Locke’s skin; he stayed near the door.
“Locke...?” Banon prompted.
“Well, then. Tell me, Locke, are you looking for work?”
“Banon!” Arvis looked over at him, frowning. “He’s a kid.”
Banon didn’t take his eyes off Locke. “He has no one to go to - no house, no money, no food no job - he doesn’t even have a coat. I ask you, Locke, are you looking for work?”
Locke straightened up. “I am.”
Banon’s beard twitched. “And you can keep a secret?”
“Are you fast? Can you be quiet?”
“Are you loyal?”
Locke swallowed, thinking of Rachel. “I am. To the end.”
“What would I have to do,” Banon said softly, “to convince you to join a very worthwhile cause? It may be a little dangerous, but it’s for the good of the people.”
Locke looked at him hard. “Feed me, give me a damn coat, and a bed to sleep in. I’ll join any cause you want.”
Banon looked back at him and held out his hand. “Welcome to the Returners, Locke. I’m Banon.”
Locke shook Banon’s large hand with his own thin one. “I’m Locke - Locke Cole.”
Rachel or no Rachel, he would survive. Kohlingen or not, he was going to make it. He couldn’t live in the snow and steal forever. He’d forget being the likeable village bastard and Rachel’s fiancé - he was somebody else now.
He was the Returner.