Might-Have-Been

CRACK

The Falcon swoops and dives in celebration, Setzer pushing her as hard as he dares. The racing airship, smaller than the Blackjack but many times more agile, darts through the clouds, rising high above puffy white seas before plunging through them into the clear blue sky.

Part of Celes wants to tell Setzer to stop, that he is going to kill them all not an hour after their moment of triumph, but her grip on the rail is secure, and Locke's arm around her waist is firm and comforting, and his laughter and the warmth of his breath on the back of her neck are the most wonderful sensations in recent memory. Locke hasn't laughed since they'd stood together in that tiny room full of flowers and acrid chemical stench and Rachel's body. Listening to him now, it seems she has never really heard him laugh. Locke sounds like a prisoner for life suddenly released from his chains, laughing his pleasure to the open sky.

The others share his good humor. Shadow is gone, but Shadow has fled before; such is his way, and none of them are particularly alarmed about it. Relm wraps her bandy legs around one of the railings and hangs upside-down like a monkey as Strago stands by with a disapproving glare that keeps turning into a smile. Gau and Mog frolic on the deck around the stationary Umaro in a motion that is half-dance, half-chase, Gogo mimicking their movements. Edgar and Sabin stand on the far side of the deck, laughing together over some shared jest. Even Cyan and Terra, always the most melancholy of the group, are not immune to the general sense of euphoria. The samurai leans back against one of the masts, arms crossed, a grin creasing his face as he watches Gau and Mog at their play.

And Terra, the last of her kind, who has just lost her father, her kindred, and half of herself, stands at the bow of the ship, leaning out over the railing. Her eyes are closed, her face tilted up to the racing wind, and the thin, enigmatic smile that rests on her pale face is as delicate and subtle as one of Relm's brushstrokes.

Celes finds herself smiling then, too, and lets herself relax in Locke's embrace for what feels like the first time in her life. Below them, the magic that is leeching from the world is also restoring it - withered yellow grass suddenly rears moist and green, wheat springs from poisoned fields, pushing aside its stunted predecessors, and water the color of tar bubbles and becomes clear. The world is coming to life again, like... like-

"Magic," she says.

"Hm?" Locke asks, his breath warm against her ear.

"It's like magic..."

"Well..." he chuckles a little, holding her close. "It is magic."

She prods him affectionately with her elbow. "I don't just mean this. I mean all of it. I never would have believed a day like this was possible after what happened on the Floating Continent."

"We had a job to finish," Locke says, sounding confused. "We owed it to the world. What else could have happened?"

"Lots of things," she answers. Her fingers find his and squeeze. The motion feels clumsy, awkward, so different from the way she grips a sword or weaves spell-shapings in the air. She wonders how something so simple could be so difficult, but considering the way her life has gone, perhaps she should not be surprised.

Celes cannot truthfully say she loved Locke from the moment she set eyes upon him. She was not a person given to sudden bursts of affection, or indeed much affection at all. Before Locke and the others, she cannot not remember loving anyone. Ice queen, they had called her, raised in Vector's cold steel womb, and they had been right.

She cannot say for sure when she changed. She did not even know she had changed, not truly, until those final desperate moments aboard the airship after they had escaped from the Floating Continent. There had been a searing flash of light, a crack that sounded like the world itself was breaking apart (and it was, oh, it was), and the airship had shattered in half. All of them had gone flying, torn away by the wind, and in that moment she had seen Locke's pale, horrified face and realized that she loved him.

"Lots of things," she says again. For a moment, the glory of the day seems to fade and she feels a horrible hammering in her left temple. "We all survived the crash, for one. What were the odds? We all came back together... we found allies in the strangest places, we found another airship. We challenged a god, and we won."

For a long moment, Locke says nothing, and she is content merely to hold him and be held, and to breathe the clean, fresh air. Then, he asks: "Were you ever afraid?"

"Of course," she answers, leaning back against him and closing her eyes.

Early in her career, she had learned that any warrior who went into battle without feeling a healthy measure of fear was psychotic, suicidal, or both. She had been scared of the lurching, moaning things in Daryl's Tomb, scared of suffocating beneath Figaro's sands, scared that Locke would be hurt, that he would restore Rachel and abandon her, that Kefka would defeat them and torture them horribly before he let them die.

Being scared is an emotion of the moment - it is something that she feels in her muscles, her gut, and her racing mind. Being afraid is something else, something that runs soul-deep. It is the kind of fear that nestles in her heart and makes her awaken in the middle of the night, covered in icy sweat and shivering. During all of their adventures, she had only been afraid, truly afraid, once.

"The worst was when I was on the Solitary Island," she says, and represses a shudder despite the warmth of the day. "Right after I woke up. I thought Cid and I were the only people still alive in the whole world. That Kefka had destroyed himself and everyone else too, and the world was winding down to nothing. Cid had been sick for a long time... and the fish I brought him were full of poison. They just made it worse. When he died, I..."

Celes trails off, thinking of the thin soil shifting under her boots, the chill wind blowing around the tall spur of rock, the chalked list of names, the horrible, bloody sky. She remembers how easy it had been, first one step and then another, and then another, and then the rush and the howl of the wind, the horrible impact.

She has never told him. She will never tell anyone. It is something that might have happened, but hadn't. Against it, all the trials that came after were nothing. She could face death a thousand times, and none of them would ever be worse than the moment when she sought to embrace it.

She senses he's waiting for her, hears his low, steady breathing skip, and so she finishes, lamely: "...I felt like giving up. I felt like I was going to die there alone, sooner or later. But I found Cid's raft and made it to the mainland, and then..." Then she had found Sabin, and news of Kefka and his tower, and begun the quest anew. She was a soldier; give her an enemy to fight, and she was satisfied.

"...well, you know the rest."

"I don't think the rest is over yet," Locke says, squeezing her, and she feels her heart soar with the steeply climbing airship.

Relm's delighted laughter is like the tinkling of bells, and Setzer's triumphant whoop only sets the others off. She hears Edgar's polite chuckle and Sabin's basso roaring, Strago's well-worn cackle, the almost animal sounds that come from Gau and Mog. Terra's laughter is delicate and well-formed, the auditory equivalent of a china teacup, and Cyan's is as strong and elegant as his swordplay, a sound she has never heard before. Even Umaro manages a good-natured bellow, and Gogo imitates them all, its voice changing wildly in pitch from one moment to the next.

Locke's laughter is the sweetest sound she has ever heard, and she is both shocked and not at all surprised to hear her own joining it, brittle and cold, but thawing quickly, rising to mingle with the merriment of the others in the clear blue sky.

She could die now, she thinks, and be happy. But she doesn't have to. None of them have to, and none of them will, not for a long time. She and her friends are alive, and happy, and together.

To her, a killer born and bred, a living weapon, the butcher of Maranda, this is a type of magic more beautiful and more powerful than any the world has lost.

------

She never imagined it would be like this.

She doesn't know what she imagined it would be like. Truthfully, she never really found herself able to imagine it at all, and she never wanted to. Loving Locke had been easy, if confusing. She had come to treasure his stupid jokes, his strong arms, his kisses, but this - this-

"We'll go as slow as you want," Locke soothes. From the look on his face, she can tell he wants to touch her but doesn't dare. His voice is soft, halting. "We don't even have to do this at all, if you-"

Celes shakes her head, cutting him off. She's afraid that if he offers to let her out of this, she'll take him up on it, and if she doesn't do this now, she'll never work up the courage to suggest it to him again.

She stands pale and naked by the bed, her entire body trembling, her head pounding with the tension. Locke waits for her beneath the covers, his face flickering in the lamplight. It had taken her, who had walked the breadth of a shattered world to challenge a mad god, all evening to work up the courage to lean over and whisper into Locke's ear that they should think about going to bed - he has never, would never, not after the first time it had almost happened accidentally and she had frozen up like a wooden effigy. This time would be different, she told herself, and she was able to believe it until she was naked, and then she had frozen, and now it was all going wrong all over again-

"I want to," she says quickly, and pathetic as it sounds, she thinks it is true. What follows is even more true, even more shameful. "I don't know how." She has always hated to admit weakness, and this is somehow the worst of them all.

If you want to, why are you shaking? Why can't you stand to look at him, Celes, this is Locke, you love him, you know you do, why can't you-

She doesn't lack the education - when she closes her eyes, a parade of biological charts flicker before them, and she hears the low but somehow stifling drone of her tutor in Vector. She even has a certain pragmatic understanding that she could hardly have avoided as a general - she has seen soldiers take women before, willingly or unwillingly, though she tried to avoid witnessing either as best she could. But understanding how something is done is different from understanding why. She likes to kiss Locke, and to touch him, to feel his arms around her, but the thought of him touching her while she has no clothes on is so repellant that it borders on utter terror.

There's nothing to be afraid of, she tells herself. Magitek Knights were created to be bred. This thought, like so many others associated with her rearing in the Empire, brings little comfort.

She remembers lying naked on the frigid steel table, strange fingers prodding her like she was an animal, the light overhead searing itself into her eyes. Straps biting into her wrists and her chest, and the cold spreading numbness of the anaesthetic creeping down from her belly. The needle gleamed obscenely in the sterile light, but at least she could not feel it sliding deep inside her, piercing, digging, stealing. When it was done, the doctor had told her what a service she had done for the Empire, how her eggs would be joined with the sperm of suitable Magitek Knights, perpetuating her powers in a new generation. She wonders happened to them in the end, imagines their sterile, frozen vault boiling over and exploding as the Espers attacked Vector.

They never asked for anything, she thinks, and realizes to her horror that her eyes are filling with tears. They had given her something she had never asked for, and then they had taken and taken, leaving nothing but a frigid core of ice, and Locke wouldn't want her any more once he found out-

He sees her tears, and his face contorts in anger - directed not at her, but at himself.

"Listen," he begins, starting to rise, "this can wait-"

"No, Locke," she says, and a sob escapes her, but she forces herself forward. She touches his chest - through the quilt it's all right - easing him back down, then lifts the covers and slides in beside him. Good, now turn toward him, and-

She cannot. Her muscles refuse to respond, and so she stares at the ceiling, lying stiffly, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. She forces herself to speak, the words clawing their way painfully up her throat.

"It's been months, we can't wait forever-" She will not deny him this. She will not be afraid. She will not. "Just try not to hurt me too much, please."

He swears softly, and minutes pass in agonizing silence. She's not afraid of the pain, she tells herself again and again, she's felt far worse before. She's afraid of doing something wrong, of changing the way Locke sees her, of starting something she's incapable of handling.

You've already done that, something inside her whispers in a nasty voice, You should have known better than to try to be with anyone, you're all broken inside and no one wants someone like that, no one-

"Celes," Locke says, and she turns to look at him. Merely moving her neck takes every bit of self-control she possesses. Locke rolls over to face her, frowning in concentration. For a long time, he seems unable to find the words, but at last he says: "You trust me, don't you?"

She nods, trying to ignore her pounding headache. If she didn't trust him, didn't love him, she would never have made it this far. He is the only man to see her this way since those faceless, prodding technicians. And Cid, she supposes, poor dead Cid, who might have been the only other survivor in the world and who is dead now and why is she thinking of this, why-

"Then trust me now," Locke says. His hand rises to cup her cheek, stroking the side of her face, and she flinches... but only for a moment, because he's touched her there plenty of times. Then he touches her neck, and he's touched her there before too, and her shoulders, and he's touched her there before too, and she swallows, her mouth horribly dry.

And-

There is none of the coldness or the pain she somehow expects. Locke isn't taking anything from her, she realizes after those first few breathless moments, his hands gentle on her back and her breasts, he's giving her something. He's giving her himself in a way that is both like all the other times he has done so and yet utterly different. She exhales, a single, shuddering breath, and feels herself beginning to smile.

Trust me, he asks, and she does, and as the moments creep by, terror becomes acceptance, acceptance becomes enjoyment, and enjoyment becomes frantic need. The frigid core at her center melts, and she can feel its pleasant warm trickles in every finger and toe, and she was a poor scared fool to have been so afraid, because Locke loves her, because he would never do anything to hurt her, because- because oh it feels so good, and there's more, she knows there's more, she's seen-

"Oh," she gasps, breathless, her heart racing so hard it throbs almost painfully in her temple, "Oh, show me, please-"

He does.

-----

"All right," Locke says from behind her, removing his hands from her eyes, "open 'em."

Celes opens her eyes and feels her heart give a painful lurch. The bright sun that glares down on the rooftops and cobblestones of South Figaro is merciless, and she already has the beginnings of a pulsing headache, but in that moment neither seems to matter, because she sees the house. It is a tall, sprawling thing, its blue shingles and white paint gleaming in the sun, its wide, shaded porch extending out past beds of geraniums that never would have grown so large only a year before.

Magic.

"It's..." she gropes for something to say that won't make her sound like a foolish little girl. She has never dreamed of a place like this - growing up in Vector, she was unaware they could even exist. Once she came of age and the sterile, poisoned metropolis spit her out to work its will upon the world, she only saw homes like this if they were occupied or in ruins. By the time she walked among them as a free woman and a rebel, it no longer occurred to her that they should hold anything she might want.

"It's... beautiful," she says, and even though she has never dreamed of such a place, she wants it now with an intensity that threatens to tear her apart. She struggles to find something to say that won't reveal this fact to the entire world, and settles on, "How in the world did you afford this place?"

"Well," Locke says, pride and bashfulness warring in his tone, "We turned up a lot of junk in our travels, after all. All the enchantments had gone off, and none of the others really seemed to want anything... but a lot of collectors did." He shrugs. "I figure, what's the point of hunting treasure if you never do anything with it?"

"I thought treasure hunters despised the greed of merchants?" She needles him gently, walking closer to the house and climbing up to the shade of the porch. He follows. "Why didn't you tell me about this?" The question is a little pointed, and her head hurts again, little spikes of pain traveling inward from her left temple. He must have saved for months, keeping it a secret, hiding it from her, and he had promised that there would be no secrets between them. He had-

"It's a big house," he says, looking down at the fresh planks of the porch floor before raising his eyes to meet her gaze. "I don't want to live in it by myself. And, well, you know I'm not exactly old fashioned, Celes, but-"

The world seems to slow, the moment stretching out, the golden sheen of the sun dancing across his hair, the dust motes in the air between them-

"It wouldn't feel right to me to ask you to move in without-"

Locke is on his knees, her hand is in his, and something cool slides around her finger. Absurdly, she licks her lips. Absurdly, she thinks, My mouth is so dry why am I so thirsty why am I thinking about this NOW-

"-asking you to marry me."

And then her hands are in his hair and she is pulling him to her, embracing him and she says yes, yes, yes, the same way she did the first time he pushed inside her, and gives a laugh at her own reckless eagerness.

----

Terra makes a beautiful bride.

The Grand Hall of Figaro Castle glimmers with light. The crystal chandeliers cast forth a thousand shimmering strands and the mirrors that line the walls catch them, bathing the entire room in a diffuse, ethereal glow. The banners of white silk draped across the arched ceiling seem to gleam with an inner light of their own, the pearls sewn into their surface winking like stars. Flashbulbs flare, and the crowd murmurs appreciatively, and Celes doubts any of them are looking at anything but Terra.

Terra's thick emerald hair is elaborately pinned up beneath her veil, her skin scarcely darker than the delicate white gown she wears. On another woman, it would look almost ridiculously chaste, with its long gloves and high, lacy neckline. On her, it is perfect, highlighting the slope of her ivory shoulders, the shocking coral of her lips, her wide, thick-lashed eyes. Edgar, handsome in his royal finery, has eyes only for her. The babble of the guests, the searing brightness of the hall, and the flashes of the photographers seem to mean nothing to him.

A war could break out and I don't think he'd notice, Celes thinks. She looks across the table to where her husband sits, looking ridiculously uncomfortable in his best clothes, and sees from the sly grin on his face that his thoughts are moving along the same lines.

"You know," Locke says, leaning forward, "Of all the people to stop Edgar's endless womanizing, I didn't think it would be Terra."

"No," Celes admits. Watching the pair of them dance, she wonders how she could ever have pictured them apart. "But I think in his way he was as lonely as her. He didn't even know what he was chasing after."

"Seemed pretty obvious to me," Locke replies with a grin, and she gives him a cuff on the arm without the slightest bit of force behind it. When he speaks again, his voice is sober. "I'm just glad they're happy, especially Terra. She- she deserves a happy ending."

Celes nods, thinking of the girl's confused longing, her desperate and ineffectual attempts to understand. For a moment, when she had first met Terra, some part of her had been savagely delighted that she had finally found someone more inexperienced with emotions than herself. She did not need to know Terra long for that delight to become shame, and to begin to feel a growing pity for the strange woman she called friend.

Well, there is no need for pity today. Terra must be the envy of every woman in Figaro - and a few others besides, if the petulant expression on Relm's face is any indication. The teenager has draped herself across a table nearby, her head pillowed on her arms, scowling at the world. Strago dozes obliviously next to her. Relm must have known that her crush on Edgar would never amount to anything, but seeing Terra live out her dream in front of her must still hurt.

"Are you all right, Relm?" Celes asks. It is all too easy to imagine herself in Relm's place, watching Locke and Rachel together. She is infinitely grateful to the woman for her sacrifice, secretly fearful that if she had lived, Locke would have chosen her for duty's sake if nothing else.

The what-ifs or the might-have-beens are not important, Celes tells herself. They are sweet thoughts at times, but they can also be treacherous, and more than one person has been lost in them. She has nearly been so herself, when she thinks of the thin soil beneath her feet, the rocky beach rushing up to greet her.

"M'fine," Relm mumbles, sticking her bottom lip out and blowing a puff of air over her face. "It's just hot in here. And noisy. I've got a headache."

Celes understands - she has a bit of a headache herself, a dull steady throbbing in her temple that seems to pulse with every camera flash. The price of fame, she thinks, and smiles a little.

Sabin and Cyan talk across the room, past the table where Setzer flirts audaciously with Maria, who Celes thinks doesn't really resemble her at all. The young monk has grown another inch and bulked up even more over the past several years. The samurai seems to have shrunk slightly, but stands as ramrod straight as ever, a posture that screams for mockery but finds only dignity when he wears it. At his elbow is the young woman named Lola, who was always such a fan of his silk flowers.

Another strange couple, she thinks. Her head still throbs, and she takes a sip of her wine to slake her thirst. But she and Locke are strange enough, and both Lola and Cyan had suffered great loss. The young woman must know she could never replace Cyan's family, but they could bring comfort to each other, ease each other's suffering. In a world that has seen so much pain, this is enough.

A young man, dressed in a fine suit and breeches that could scarcely be more than a day old and have already begun to fray at the edges, comes racing over from the table where Terra's children alternately eat, throw food, and watch their mother dance. He's bent almost double in his haste, jostling the crowd aside as he moves. He's never been good at running on only two legs, but somehow he avoids breaking anything priceless before he skids to a stop between Celes and Relm's tables, panting.

"What's the good news, Gau?" Locke asks.

The boy smiles, needle fangs flashing alarmingly above his suit's dirty collar. His eyes are green, vital, wild.

"Got some fireworks, Locke," he says, too fast, he always talks too fast, his voice low and gravelly like the grunt of some animal. "From Aaron. Gonna set 'em off, yep, yep."

"Not in here, I hope," Celes says. She thinks he should be old enough to know better, but with Gau one never can be sure. The years have civilized him, but he spent too long on his own, running and hunting and howling across the expanse of the Veldt, and something inside Celes whispers that Gau will never be quite right, not really.

What does that matter? Some other part of her whispers angrily. None of the rest of you are, either. It's enough that he's happy.

Gau shakes his head so fiercely that she fears he'll give himself vertigo. "Nope, nope. Outside." The purpose of his mad dash becomes clear when he turns to Relm, virtually hopping from one foot to the other. "Wanna come?"

"Yeah," Relm says, a smile blooming across her face. She scoots her chair back, hopping up. "Let's go see if we can knock some stones loose from the castle."

---

It is the most difficult battle Celes has ever faced.

Before, that dubious honor surely belonged to the final confrontation with Kefka. She and the others had hacked their way up a screaming mountain of cables and corpses, already wounded and winded, and then Kefka had fallen upon them, his form warped and twisted into that of a dark god. She has never been able to remember how they defeated him, only that they succeeded, that they all lived, and that was the important thing. As they all limped away, she and Terra using their already-fading magic to cure everyone's wounds, she knew that she would never face another challenge as physically taxing. She had been wrong.

Her other friends are not with her now - though Locke's presence at her bedside means the world - and there is no sword in her hand, no enemy to strike down. The only foe she faces now is death itself, and it wants both her and the child that is trying to be born. She will not let it have either.

She is soaked in sweat, tangled in the bedsheets, her left temple pulsing with agony at every contraction. Her mouth is dry and chalky, as if she hasn't had anything to drink in days. She has been in labor for twelve hours, and it feels a hundred years. But she is still alive, her child is still alive, and they will both make it through this-

"Not much longer now," says Elza, her wizened face looking up from her position at the end of the bed. "I can see the head. Push."

Celes pushes, biting back a groan of pain. She has never been one to scream, and she won't start now. The room shifts and swims before her, and she holds on against a sudden bout of vertigo. Locke's hand seeks her own, and she clenches it fiercely, forcing a watery smile. He looks almost as pale and exhausted as she, and in some way this must be worse for him than for her. They are both fighters by nature, and he is forced to stand by while she battles alone.

Can't treasure hunt this baby out of me, Locke, she thinks, even if you put it there in the first place. Her laughter is weak, manic, but she lets it come anyway; it's better than suffering in silence, with everyone so close and so far at the same time. Locke and the midwife share a concerned glance, but neither speaks to her.

Celes keeps pushing though now she feels like she is falling; she thinks of thin soil sliding away beneath the soles of her boots, and the hollow scream of the wind, the rocky ground rushing up at her, and for a moment, the afternoon light that blazes through the window seems to turn a deep, poisoned red. She feels the cold, tarry sea lapping at her, creeping inside her, poisoning her womb, hears the meaningless, triumphant scream of a gull. The hammering in her head is unbearable. She might have died there - she realizes, her mind awash in terror, she might die right here, right in front of Locke, and her child with her - she might-

"I've got her," Elza says. There is a moment of silence, a sharp slap, and then the room fills with her daughter's cries, a sound as sweet in its own way as the laughter of that summer day five years ago, when they soared through the skies of a healing world with nothing to hold them down. The world goes blurry again, but this time it is welcome, because the pain is fading - even the pounding in her head is less severe - and Locke is moving to hand a wrapped bundle to her, and she is looking down into the face of her daughter, purple and squashed and the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.

Tears prickle at her eyes, and she lets them come - this baby is not the first thing she and Locke have made together, but it is the most wonderful. She has killed many people, she knows, and not all of them deserved it, and for that she may never be truly forgiven. But the bundle in her arms suggests a start. She thinks of the cold fertilization vaults in Vector, the sterile tubing, the needle stabbing deep, and knows now that not only were they wrong, they were fools. One can't create by taking something away. One can only create by giving of oneself.

Just like all of us gave to each other when we battled Kefka... like Locke gave himself to me- The tears overflow, and she lets them, because she has cried so rarely, and never before for joy.

"I told you the rest wasn't over yet," Locke says, leaning over their child to kiss her brow. "One of these days you'll learn to trust me."

"No one trusts a thief," she replies, smiling, and he's too busy looking down at his daughter to correct her. A bird is screaming outside the window, but she ignores it. It doesn't matter now. Nothing matters but the man at her side, the life in her arms. Anything else is only a might-have-been, a fading possibility, as meaningless as it is harmless.

Magic, she thinks, looking down at her child, and wonders how one gives a name to such a thing.

--

They live happily ever after.

Days become months become seasons become years and the house isn't as big as it once seemed once they have five children stomping about underfoot. There are stories, a hundred, a thousand, each a little different but the same in the end. Relm and Gau winding up together, Edgar and Terra adopting dozens of children, including every one from Mobliz, Setzer and Maria's whirlwind courtship, Shadow's return, silent and unexplained, at Strago's centennial birthday celebration. There is the tale of Cyan's rebuilding of Doma, and of Sabin beginning a dojo, and of Edgar's campaign to clean up Zozo. Then there are Celes and Locke's children, and all their lives, their triumphs and their losses, their own children, their own stories. A thousand stories, a million, but all the same in the end.

They live happily ever after.

The world is not so fortunate; but then, it never was.

-

Gulls wheel against a red sky, screaming in pain.

The world bleeds. The world bleeds magic from a thousand thousand wounds, torn open during that awful day by a dead madman's folly.

The blood stains the sky and trickles from it into the sea, turning blue to tarry, foul black. The blood falls from the sky as rain, blackening the leaves of the struggling plants, scorching the flesh of the dying animals. The blood seeps into the soil and stays, eating away at the roots of the plants, creeping up the stems to poison their fruits and the things that eat them.

The blood devours most things. It fills the bodies of the fish and the animals and the birds and eats them from the inside out. Other things it makes grow, and they are misshapen and seeping. Tumors form like blooming flowers within; lesions dot the skin without.

Blood flows from the spot where a jagged spur of rock, gritty with sand and slime, pierced the woman's left temple. It is crusted across her forehead and in long runnels down her face like the dried handprint of some strange many-fingered creature. The impact has drilled a perfect hole in her skull, a little bone-framed window behind which her feverish, exposed brain seethes.

She lies on her back in the sand, her blind eyes staring up into the bloody void. Her mouth is open, her lips parched and dry, her skin shrunken back against the bones of her face. Her neck is cocked to the side at an unnatural angle, and her misshapen collarbone juts alarmingly from the ruin of her pale shoulder. Her hands are thrown out to her sides - the right clutching the gritty sand, the left kissed by the surf.

She might have been beautiful once - now she is one more piece of meat. But she goes uneaten - the land-scavengers are too sickly to reach her, the gulls too addled and stupid, little more than flying masses of tumors. Every now and then, one falls to earth to join her. Their lie around her in little feathered clumps, screaming feebly, until death or the foul surf takes them.

She lives yet, her breath rattling in her wasted lungs, her heart pumping poisoned blood through her rapidly collapsing system. She lives, and dreams.

They all might have lived through the airship crash. The cities of the old world might have survived, damaged though they were. She might have survived her fall unharmed, and found something to give her courage, and then found a raft Cid had made. She might have taken it and found the world shattered, but different. Kefka wouldn't be gone - even in her wildest dreams she was too pragmatic to believe that - but he could be fought, and fighting was better than dying. She might have met her old friends, all miraculously unharmed, and new ones even more strange. They might have found another airship. Locke might have let go of Rachel and loved her. Terra might have learned what love meant. They might have won. They might have lived happily ever after.

The planet lurches on its shattered axis, and shadow and searing sun alternately cover the last scrap of surviving land, the Solitary Island. Reality winds down like a broken pocket watch, and the days and nights themselves begin to lose cohesion, lengthening, disappearing. She sits on the porch with Locke and comments on the strangeness of the season.

On the dawning of the last day, strange patterns of poisonous color form in the sky, twisting and shifting around each other. If anyone were alive to see them, they would surely go mad. The sun bubbles and expands, stretching tendrils of searing light across a backdrop of madness. Everything in the sea dies when it begins to boil. As the scalding surf blackens her fingers to the bone, Celes flexes her hand as she tends her children and wonders if she is getting arthritis early.

By noon, the last of the gulls falls directly on her face, wriggling. It somehow finds the strength to peck at her eye before it dies, and she thinks about having Dr. Muir check it out.

The last woman in the world lies in the sick, feverish heat of the boiling sun, dying, and dreams about what might have been.

-End