Her earliest memories of Kefka Palazzo are like torn fragments of a snapshot: startling blue eyes, gentle hands, an easy smile that turns predatory when she faces him on the training field, his teeth bared in a triumphant, combative grin, as if to say, bring it on, young lady. Show me what you've got.
Cid is wary of him. Celes does not quite understand, at least not until she grows older, the intricacies of their relationship. - the brilliant, young, impatient strategist versus the practical scientific mind of the man she regards as a father - understands only that Cid will tell her many times over the course of the next few years, as she grows more sure of herself and her skills, that there are some people in this world who are better kept at a distance, better allies than friends.
Kefka drills her in magic three days a week: lessons in spell-casting, mind control on the battlefield, magitek armor fighting techniques. He pushes her hard, perhaps too hard, says Cid, drilling her over and over again until her mind is exhausted, her arms limp from holding the practice shield over her head to defend from her teacher's counterattacks, her legs quivering under her with fatigue. When she drags herself back to the barracks after especially hard days, she knows that Cid will inevitably knock on her door.
"You'll kill yourself at this rate," he tells her.
"I'll be fine," she says. "I can handle it."
He gives her a critical look, his eyes going to the smears of mud on her cheeks, the red singe marks along her hairline, the bleeding gash on the side of her thigh from one of Kefka's narrowly dodged fire spells, a near miss that exploded among a pile of boulders to her left and sent shards of rock flying like grapeshot and shrapnel into her leg. "Can you?" he says.
She pushes herself to her feet and gives Cid her best twelve-year-old glare, the glare that Kefka gives her when he thinks she is holding back. The only things limiting the strength of your spells, Chere, are the mental barriers erected out of your own fear. You must break down those barriers, push past them. Don't fear the magic. Don't fight it.
"I'm not frightened," she says.
She does not mind defending Kefka, but as time goes on, she realizes that there is something more complicated between Kefka and Cid than mere dislike. Cid is cautious around Kefka, but he does not seem to dislike him, and they are civil enough to each other when she sees them together - banquets, parades, conferences. It is not the same as Kefka and Leo, who despise each other. Even Celes as a child can see that, and sometimes it is funny to her that two grown men can be so childish, and sometimes it is sad, for she respects Kefka and she respects Leo, and she does not see why they cannot just get along.
"The world is a complicated place," Cid replies when she asks him, and she sees that he seems sad, too.
"I don't see why," she says. "We're all on the same side, aren't we?"
Cid does not answer for a moment, and she wonders if he has heard her, but then he says, "I hope so."
"When I become a general," she says, "there won't be any of this infighting with my soldiers. I won't allow it."
Cid laughs. "Perhaps by then we won't have need of soldiers or generals."
She thinks about that when she goes to bed that night, of a world that has no need for soldiers. The notion makes her uneasy; Cid means well, she thinks, and he is right about a lot of things, but if there were truly to be a time when soldiers are not needed, that means that she and Leo and Kefka are destined to become useless in the end.
She is fourteen when they take her teacher from her for the first time. Leo comes to her on the sidelines of the practice field as she is taking off her battered armor, sweating, red-faced, bleeding under her fingernails from a reckless, ill-timed counterattack, a reflexive grasp of the hands for a shield that was not there.
Runic, Chere! Kefka shouts to her. He is angry; she can hear the ugly edge in his voice that manifests itself when he thinks she is not listening to him, not working hard enough, not doing what she is told. If you're so intent on stopping to smell the roses, then get off the damn field and stop wasting my time!
"Palazzo," says Leo to him as Celes wrenches her head out of the stifling helmet and lets it fall to one side, "I'll ask you not to swear at your trainees."
The helmet hits the dirt with a muffled thump. Kefka gives him a disdainful look, a sneer. His armor is still pristine, polished, shining in the golden spotlights that have turned on, one by one, as night falls over Vector and the capital city is lit from within by a glow brighter than the sun. "And I'll ask you to get off my practice field."
"My trainee," Kefka says pointedly. "My practice field. Get off it. Off!"
She remains sitting quietly on the bench as Leo's nostrils flare and he wheels around and strides away through the automatic doors leading back into the armory. Under the hum of the electrical generators and the occasional whine of aircraft overhead, the night is calm, almost idyllic. A trickle of sweat winds its way slowly from her hairline down her cheek, past her ear, and the wind, cool on her hot skin, blows strands of hair into her mouth.
"I give up," says Kefka at last.
She looks up at him, still standing there in his heavy armor with one hand pressed to his forehead. His golden hair, almost as long as hers, is bound up sleekly in its queue at the nape of his neck, falling in long waves down his back.
"I'm disappointing you," she says quietly. "Aren't I?"
He laughs, but the ugly edge in his voice is still there, and his eyes are hard in that smooth, young face. "Not you, Chere," he says. "Other people. Other things. There's so much to do and so little time to do it. Leo doesn't see that - he can't see that, you know, he's not one of us."
It is strange to sit here and listen to Kefka talk about Leo. He has mentioned him to Celes before but only through passing criticisms - Leo would have you believe that this combat stance is less effective, but he's got no subtletly - or - Leo thinks that this formation ought to have Magitek armor on the right flank, but that draws all your spellcasters back, which is what you'd want if you have a penchant for being roasted alive. But she sees now that the difference between Kefka and Leo does not stem merely from their philosophies of war, but something deeper than that, and as Kefka stands there now staring stonily at the door through which Leo has passed and gone, his gloved hands curling and uncurling at his sides, Celes fears for the first time that this is a feud in which only one man will be left standing.
"One of us?" she says.
Kefka grins wolfishly. His teeth sparkle in the spotlights that seem to turn even his pale skin to golden bronze. "We're different from the others, Chere, you and I. We've been born to a higher calling, something that Leo and his minions can't ever understand." He raises one hand, flicks his fingers idly, and there is a whoosh of soft wind, a popping noise, and red-orange flame shudders into being above his cupped palm. "This is our destiny, you see."
She examines her fingernails. The blood under them has mostly congealed now, the pain dulled to a throbbing ache. "Destiny," she says. "Cid mentions that sometimes."
"Does he now?"
She glances up at him again, surprised at his sudden change in tone, the rare approval in his voice. "Cid says that it's destiny that brought me to him, just like it was destiny for the Espers to give up their powers for the greater good."
"Bah," Kefka says. He curls his fingers in on his palm and the flame disappears, as does the approving tone, replaced by the familiar sarcasm, and she breathes a little easier, for she is not sure how to gauge Kefka outside of the usual scorn and mockery that form the comfortable, established boundaries of their interaction. "Greater good, my dead body. You tell that stuffy old man to stay with his tubes and potions, and leave the real training to me."
Celes gets to her feet, stung. "He's not stuffy," she says.
Kefka looks down at her, and she realizes again how tall he is; her head barely comes up to his shoulder, but height is rarely something she thinks about when facing him on the practice field in her heavy armor, ice crystals battering down around her. There is amusement in his face, in his voice when he says, "This is the kind of emotion I wish you'd put into your training, you know."
It is her turn to be angry. "Don't insult Cid," she tells him, craning her neck to look him in the eyes as the field spotlights catch and hold them too, blazingly crystal blue, like deep rivers, and she falters for a moment, losing the stinging words that had gathered on the tip of her tongue.
"I'm not insulting him," Kefka says after a long pause in which he waits for her to speak and she fumbles for something to say. "Cid knows his place, unlike others I could name." He moves his head a little, as if to jerk his gaze away and glare again at the armory door, but his eyes remain fixed on hers, still somewhat amused but perplexed, too, as if he does not quite understand why they are staring at each other like this.
In the end, she is the first to look away, bending to the ground to gather up her armor, stuffing it into her practice bag and turning to shuffle off to the showers, when Kefka calls, "Chere!"
"What?" she says. She has never called him commander, or sir, or any of the titles that people address him by, for are they not equals, knight to knight?
"My regards to Cid," he says, and she turns, startled now, to see him standing there by the bench with his arms crossed, laughing.
Practice the next day is at the same place, same time, but when she trudges over the grass to their usual bench, the man sitting there is not Kefka, but Leo. She falters and the strap of her bag slips down her shoulder to rest in the crook of her elbow as she stares.
"Sir," she says. "Where's-?"
"He's been called away," Leo says, but he doesn't meet her eyes - not like Kefka does - and there is something not quite sincere in his voice. "I'll be your teacher till further notice."
She is suspicious. A man like Leo, a general, one of the Imperial advisors, the emperor's trusted commander, would not simply agree to take an hour out of his busy schedule to devote to the teaching of an apprentice, and even if he were willing, Kefka would never allow it. "Where is Commander Palazzo?" she says.
"He will return in good time," Leo says. She senses a brushing off of her question, and she resents it; Kefka has always given her honest answers, sometimes brutal answers, sometimes answers she does not want to hear, but he is always honest. She does not like to be treated like a child.
But Leo is a general, a good man, someone of whom Cid speaks highly. So she simply dons her gear, and Leo says, "I've heard you've been neglecting your weapons training."
"We've done sword drills," Celes says. "Commander Palazzo is-"
"Palazzo's sword skills are sub-par-" Leo interrupts, then breaks off abruptly as his eyes skim across her face, perhaps reading the disapproval there. "Celes, I am sorry. I wish I could explain. You will doubtless find out in good time. I don't profess to know anything about magic, but at least we can work on your physical combat."
She knows Leo's skill with the sword, and the fact that he is here now offering so humbly is somewhat nerve-wracking. "I'm honored, sir," she says. "I will be happy to receive instruction from you while my teacher is absent."
Leo is there the next day waiting for her by her bench on the field, and then the next and the next. Her arms are sore at the end of the week from sword drills, combat drills, hand-to-hand fighting. Leo is a patient teacher and she enjoys the lessons, but there is something not quite fulfilling about mere physical attacks, as if the downstroke of her sword and the impact of metal against metal is but the shadow of something more powerful, a buzzing at her fingertips that aches to be set free.
The next week she comes to the practice field with her sword slung in at her side in a new baldric, armor cleaned and ready for another round of fencing, but the man sitting on the bench binding up his long hair is not Leo.
"Oh," she exclaims, almost dropping her bag.
Kefka is wearing his lower body armor, but his chest is bare, his breastplate and gauntlets tossed carelessly on the ground beside him, and when he turns she is shocked to see that his face is even paler than usual, his eyes bloodshot, a long, raised fresh scab running up the length of his right arm. His hands, which are holding up his hair, are trembling.
"Are you all right?" she says.
He smiles, but it is wan, the corners of his mouth moving with a great effort. "Leo seems to have left you intact for me," he says, not answering her question. She takes another two steps toward him, and he gives up on his hair tying, letting it fall in heavy waves over broad shoulders. "Oh damn it all," he mutters. "Curses."
Celes watches him uneasily, wondering if he has been injured on whatever mission he was called off to, wondering why he is here when obviously he is in no shape for a training lesson. There are fresh scars on his shoulders too, she sees now, ugly jagged lines running across the flesh and cutting into the curves of muscle underneath. One of them is oozing something thick and whitish-yellow.
"Kefka," she says, and he stands up, swaying on his feet, and jerks his head out at the practice field.
She looks at him in disbelief. "You look terrible."
He gives a sharp twitch of his head, as if shaking off a fly. "Let's go," he says curtly. "I've got other things to take care of, so don't waste my time."
There is no use arguing with Kefka, so she unzips her bag and is donning her boots when she hears him come up behind her. His gaze is intense; she can feel the heat of it even with her back turned, her magic-infused brain picking up the minute vibrations in the air as he fixes her in his stare. She pauses, turns, one boot in hand, to look into those blue, blue eyes. The air shivers, and for a moment his features relax.
"I'm fine," he says. "Thanks for asking."
She grows used to his disappearances, sometimes for a few days, sometimes weeks on end, the longest for a month, during which even Leo gives up on trying to teach her anything new. She is good with the sword, but she will never be great, and her strength lies in her runic ability and spell casting. He leaves her to practice alone on the fields at her usual practice time, but it is not quite the same without Kefka there to spar with her. When she closes her eyes she can pretend that he is standing there across from her, fire dancing from his outstretched hands, shouting, Runic, Chere! Pay attention! Stop daydreaming and start applying!
But as the days pass by and Kefka does not come, she wonders if something has happened to him. Perhaps he was injured in combat, she thinks, and then shivers at the other, worse possibility, that he has been killed. But there would have been news if that were the case. Kefka is a high-ranking officer, deserving of a military funeral. She trolls the corridors of the barracks and the armory and the lower levels of the palace, but there is no news of him, and the guards she asks stare at her blankly and say, Ma'am, isn't Commander Palazzo your commanding officer? You'd know more than we do.
She is certain that Cid knows something. In the evenings when she sees him, she will mention Kefka's absence casually, bring it up to see a twitch of his eyebrow or a clenching of his teeth before he hurriedly hides it and tells her soothingly that he knows nothing of what's going on. Some secret Imperial mission, most likely, he says. But it is the same with Cid as it was with Leo, a shift of the eyes, that peculiar inflection that creeps into their voices when they are trying to hide what they know. It is in the name of trying to protect her, for Celes Chere at fifteen is still in their eyes a girl, someone who despite her proven prowess in combat is still a fragile soul, a child who may not be able to handle the hard truths of the world.
Kefka, she thinks, is the only one who has never lied to her.
He returns eventually, as he always does, but their sessions are shorter now, more erratic, and sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence, breaking off even in the middle of a word to stare into the space past her head, his eyes swiveling intently from left to right and back again, as if seeing ghosts that are not there. This does not unnerve her as much as it should. It is merely Kefka, and Kefka is eccentric, inexplicable, brilliant.
"Your concern is touching," he says, laughing, at her latest inquiry into his health when she notices that there are bruises around his wrists and at his temples. "I look more in pain than I actually am. We Magitek Knights may take a beating, but we soldier on. Something you should remember, young lady," he adds, giving her a long, knowing look. The blue eyes are tired today, their usual crystalline sheen clouded.
"Of course I do," she says. "But it's not life or death if we miss a training or two."
"It may be for you."
She thinks about that for a moment, and then says, "I would rather have you well."
"As I said, touching." He laughs - and perhaps it is because he is so tired, but it comes out more like a snigger, mocking and high-pitched, and she turns away, insulted.
"Oh, I was joking," he says behind her. He sounds exasperated. She does not look back, intently stuffing her armor back into her bag, and then she hears him stand up and shuffle slowly over to her. His breathing is rasping, labored in the still air above the sound of the armory's generators. "You're so thin-skinned...Chere, are you upset at me again?"
"Yes," she returns frostily. She will not lie to him, either. "I don't understand why you men have to act so invincible all the time."
He is silent. Now I've offended him for real, she thinks, and straightens and glances behind at him cautiously to see that he is standing there still, but his eyes are far away, looking through her and not at her. He shudders.
"Kefka?" she says quietly.
One of his hands twitches at his side, and then reaches out almost convulsively, as if he cannot quite control the motions, his fingers grasping jerkily at the air as he sways and she realizes with alarm that he might be too weak to stand. She grabs his hand, lacing her fingers with his to brace him upright. His skin is cold and clammy.
"Kefka," Celes repeats, and a slow alarm builds as he continues to stare unblinkingly past her though his fingers are curled around hers and his grip is like forged, frozen steel. She pushes against his chest with her other hand. "Say something. Can you hear me?"
He gasps, a sudden wheezing intake of breath, and stumbles against her, nearly taking both of them down into the sand pit at the edge of the field. But she is braced against his chest now, and they merely totter a few steps before she manages to stop. His heart is beating rapidly beneath her fingers.
"Can you hear me?" she says again, loudly, and he responds, almost inaudibly, "Yes. Yes, I hear you."
She sighs in relief. "You scared me," she says and releases his hand, but he does not release hers, still gripping it with the intensity of a drowning man, pulling her in toward him.
"Celes," he says, and she struggles for a moment before realizing that he is much too strong, that even if she were to resist, he is a full mage and she is only a mage in training, but she does not struggle very hard. The world seems to have gone somewhat cloudy, blurry, with the reality before her only of the grip of his hand, the smell of old leather and musky sweat as his arm holds her in against his shoulder. She presses her ear against his chest and listens to the thudding of his heartbeat even as his fingers relax, but even as her arm falls back to her side, she does not move away.
"You're not frightened?" he whispers. His lips graze her ear.
"I...I was," she says softly. "But only that you were too injured to stand. You don't frighten me."
Cid, if he saw them now, would tell her that she is making a mistake; Leo would most likely forbid her from ever seeing Kefka again. But she does not care about what they think. Kefka is right; they are the same, both of them, in ways that perhaps no one else in the world can know.
In the spring, when she turns sixteen, she is made a full Magitek Knight. They hold a banquet in her honor, and Kefka gives a toast and a short, succinct speech in which he sounds unexpectedly surly, as if almost begrudging her the honor. She does not hold it against him. She has been seeing him less of late, and when she does see him, their meetings are somewhat awkward, conversation stilted, and she has taken to arriving to and leaving the practice field still in full armor. His temper is shorter than ever, his manner more aloof, as if he is trying to push her away from him without her having any choice in the matter.
The highlight of the evening is Emperor Gestahl coming down from his raised dais to present her with the Empire sword. "Use it well, Celes Chere," he says, and touches her on the shoulders once, twice, three times - the cold steel singing from the mere vibration of air across its shimmering blade as it crosses above her head.
She takes the oath of fealty to the emperor, and Cid proposes another toast, to the Magitek Knights! and they are all raising their cups to their lips when there is the sound of shattering glass. Startled, she almost drops her own cup from her hand, her eyes whipping across the table to the Emperor's side where Kefka stands with his hand still outstretched, blood dripping from clenched fingers in thick, red drops onto the white tablecloth. There is the slightest glimmer of light on his hand where small shards and splinters have embedded themselves in the flesh between his forefinger and thumb.
The emperor has taken a step back, stunned. The rest of the room is frozen in horror, too, but Celes finds that she is still breathing quite easily. She places her untouched wineglass back down on the table and pushes back her chair. "Kefka," she says softly.
He shudders, and his hand curls open. The bits of glass fall to the table, tinkling like windchimes.
"Forgive me," he says hoarsely, a deep rasping whisper, and pushes past her, his long cloak whipping around him in layers of dark red silk. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Cid move, too, scuttling after the tall man who has left a trail of blood droplets in his wake on the marble floor, winking ruby-crimson.
She does not see Kefka for another month. Leo is not concerned - this isn't the first time he's done this, he tells her dismissively when she inquires about her teacher cautiously, though Kefka is no longer truly her teacher, for she is now a knight with her own platoon of soldiers, an instructor and commander in her own right. Last year during the Figaro Summit, he ended up ranting and raving at the Figaro delegates for an hour and a half. Tried to go after their king with a metal pike. Breaking a wine glass is relatively tame for Palazzo, I'd say.
After supper that night she goes to the laboratory, ringing the buzzer for five minutes without pause before Cid comes to the door and lets her in. He looks tired, worn down, but that doesn't stop her from getting straight to the point. She expects him to try to dodge the question, as he always does, and so she is surprised when he holds up one hand to forestall her.
"Come in," he says.
She has not been to the lab in quite some time, and Cid has cleaned up a bit from the mess in which she saw it last - folders and bottles and boxes once strewn in haphazard fashion on the floor are now stacked neatly against the walls. He sees her look and says, "Palazzo helped. He's helpful at times, you know."
She stiffens at Kefka's name, and Cid sighs again.
"Where is he?" she says.
He does not try to deny anything, not like he has done in the past when she was still a knight in training. It is strange to her to think that the line between child and adult is such a thin one: an official title, a symbolic banquet interrupted.
"He's ill," Cid says.
She frowns. "Ill?"
Cid hesitates, and then says, "He's been...unwell for quite some time."
She remembers vividly that night on the practice field. "Is he in the infirmary?"
"It's not that kind of illness."
"Explain," she says, her voice made harsh now with worry, and he sighs again.
They wind their way down the stairs of the lab, along metal floors that groan in shivering cymbal-like echoes under their footsteps, which in turn melt away and join the echoing clang and thump of piston engines, the whistling of steam, the whine of conveyor belts. The light is bright and glaring, garish fluorescent illumination that washes the walls and rails and machinery in a tepid glaze. They continue down more flights of stairs, more clanging steel flooring, and then the corridor ends abruptly in a locked door. Cid keys in the combination and there is a hiss of hydraulics. She sees him struggle to turn the heavy handle, the door swinging open ponderously with a creak, as if on hinges long unused.
The hallway within is more dimly lit. As the door closes behind them, a hush falls, and she stops to take in the unusual absence of ambient noise that has become a daily part of her comfort zone, the heart and soul of Vector. "What is this place?" she wonders, and Cid says, "This is a safe place."
But he moves to the second door on their right and takes a key from his pocket to unlock it. The handle clicks. It hisses open smoothly as he gestures to her: "Please. Go ahead."
She almost does not see the man lying on the reclining chair in the center of the room, for her attention is first taken by the shelving lining the walls, on which are crammed a staggering number of beakers, jars, opaque glass orbs, bottles holding multicolored, pulsing organisms suspended in thick liquid. But the chair is mostly metal covered by a thin padded layer on which Kefka lies motionless. A blanket drapes over his form and there is a thick silver tube running from a vial of something red and sluggish and viscous that ends in shiny, sharp needles piercing directly into the bleeding, bandaged flesh of his shoulders.
"Cid," she whispers. "What's wrong with him?" Kefka stirs at her voice, but his eyes do not open.
"He is ill," Cid repeats, and she rounds on him, but he does not step back. "I told you, it is not that kind of illness. This is more complicated than a mere battle wound." He moves to the table and she trails behind him, not wanting to look at the figure of the man on the chair, turning her head away and watching Cid instead as he checks controls and dials on a control panel by the wall.
"This is cruel," she says.
"Without this, he would die."
She bites her lip. "Is he very ill, then?"
"The magic takes its toll," Cid says. "As it is, we're barely able to control it, but fresh infusions from time to time seem to help." He gestures to the red vial, and she realizes with a sudden horror that it is full of blood. "Right now, this is all we can do, but I fear that one day, it will not be enough, and the deterioration will run its course."
"It's horrible," she whispers.
"Kefka knew the odds," Cid returns. "And yet he agreed..." His fingers falter on the dial. "He was always very ambitious, ambitious but loyal, you know. Becoming the world's first Magitek Knight was a natural step, in his mind. He was my first choice for the operation. Someone like Leo would be too cautious, I thought, and Leo was already too old. It takes a certain personality to meld with the magic, and Kefka with his brilliance...it was a perfect fit."
"This-" she does not quite know what to call it. "Machine. It...made him? Me? Did you make me too?"
Cid gives her a considering look. "I prefer the term 'infuse'. We...were perhaps too hasty. It didn't turn out as I had hoped...there was a mistake. You were a completely different case - Celes - with you, the process had been refined. You came out of the operation with no complications."
She is trembling, her fingers balled up in fists and nails digging into her palms. It is all beginning to come together now - Kefka's increasingly erratic temper, the longer and longer absences from the practice field, the scars on his arms and shoulders, Cid's talk of mistakes, this silent room filled with bottles and jars of chemicals, reducing humanity to scientific notation, numbers on a page. She has always known that her magic is the product of something not quite natural, but seeing this in its unadulterated form turns her stomach. "That's all I am to you?" she says. "An operation? An experiment?"
Cid drops his hands from the control panel and comes to her, but she moves away. A low noise comes from the chair, like a gurgling laugh. "Celes, even if you could not do one drop of magic, I would still be fond of you."
"Fond," she says. "Fond." Her voice cracks, and she says, "And are you fond of Kefka too? He is, after all, one of your mistakes."
"Kefka volunteered, Celes."
"You should have stopped him!" she cries, knowing that her argument makes no sense, for she would not be here if not for Kefka, but at that moment, anything is better than seeing that tall, proud form lying there in the grip of needle-shaped blood funnels. She makes a noise in her throat, pain and sorrow and disgust all at once.
"I am sorry," Cid says softly. "We did not think you should know...not until..."
He stops. The man in the chair says, "Celes."
His voice is clear, lucid, and Cid jumps a little bit. She hesitates, and he says again, "Celes."
She goes to him. He is struggling to smile through the pain and exhaustion written on his face, and his blue eyes are open, flicking to hers. "I thought it was you," he says, and another laugh escapes him, high-pitched now, maniacal. She flinches but does not move away. "Isn't it funny, you seeing me like this?"
"I don't think it's funny at all," she says.
"Oh, you have no sense of humor," he returns dryly. "It's all right. It could be worse; I could be in a cage, you know, like those Espers in the other room. Cages, for animals, like the animals they are." He laughs again, and she says sharply, "Kefka!"
The smile disappears from his face. The blue eyes unfocus, then focus again sharply, taking in the glass and metal of the walls, Cid standing behind her. "I didn't think he would bring you here," he says.
"I thought it was time she knew," Cid answers. "She had to know someday."
Kefka's lip twists. "Did she? I'd prefer she not have. Oh, well-" turning back to her. "What's done is done. You have no worries, Chere, you weren't a mistake, so you won't ever have to end up like me. You came out mostly the same way you went in - that is, sane and pretty."
"I'd rather be sane," she says steadily. The monitor behind her beeps, and she hears Cid's footsteps go to the wall, the clicking of the dial. Kefka's eyes flutter closed, and she is not sure why she reaches out one hand to touch his bare arm. His flesh is hot and dry, almost brittle under her fingers, but she lays her palms over the hard, knotted muscle there and feels him shudder a little at her touch.
"I'm not safe," he says. "You shouldn't be here. I might hurt you. Cid says I tried to attack him two days ago when he said something I didn't like...you know though, I don't remember that at all."
"Leo told me about the Figaro delegation."
Kefka snorts, sounding a little more like his old self, the brash and confident man of her childhood memories. "That was different. I remember that. They deserved it, the upstarts, and that little twit of a king...what was his name?" His voice goes dreamy for a moment. "I forget now. It doesn't matter, anyway. He was no match for me." He seems to struggle for a moment, and then he says, "Have they sent you out to the camps yet?"
"I had my first mission a month ago." You missed it, she wanted to say. I did everything you taught me. I wanted you to see it. "It was only a small rebel group, but we burned several of their buildings and drove them off. They had been stockpiling weapons."
"Ah," he says. "Good. They gave you the Maranda mission. I'd thought they might. It was a good fit for you. I was going to-"
He breaks off, and she waits for him to continue, but he twists his head to glance behind her. "That's odd," he remarks. "He was just here. Where did he go?"
She wonders if he is referring to Cid, who she realizes is nowhere to be seen, but the door behind them is open. "He must have gone into the other room," she says, feigning nonchalance, for it does neither of them any good for her to show how disquieted she really is by his lapses in concentration, his erratic dialogue. Perhaps he can sense it anyway, but she will not say it.
"Come closer," Kefka says.
She pauses, wary, but steps near to him so that she is leaning on the edge of the chair, against the armrest. Her palms are still laid lightly on his upper arm and she feels the quiver of muscle as he struggles to move, twitching aside the blanket that covers his hands. His fingers touch her cheek, one thumb tracing the contour of her lower lip. She closes her eyes.
"You shouldn't," she whispers, and he says, "I know," and she reaches up one of her own hands to cover his large one, wondering where they can go from here, for there is no future for either of them like this.
"I'm not safe," he says again when she opens her eyes to look into his - blue eyes, long blond hair, white skin, her own self in mirrored, male form. "It's better that you go on alone."
"I told you, I'm not frightened."
"If only that were the simple part," he murmurs, and his hand falls away. "One of these days, you'll learn to hate me, too."
The vial in its stand beside them gurgles and spits, but she does not let go of his hand, closing her eyes again to lay her head on his chest and press her cheek to his heart as she had done that day long ago on the practice field in the glare of the spotlights, only this time there is no armor between them, only a thin layer of blanket separating his flesh and her own. His heartbeat is so faint that she has to strain to hear it, but the blanket is warm with the warmth of human skin.
"I could never hate you," she says.
When she turns seventeen, they make her a general. Kefka is not at this ceremony; she learns later that Leo never invited him, learns much later from one of her own guards that Commander Palazzo had worked himself into a towering rage and threatened slaughter on Leo, Leo's guards, and his entire platoon. "General Leo just laughed at him," the guard says, chuckling at the mental picture he no doubt has painted of the confrontation in his spare time. "I'll say, Kefka Palazzo has no chance against a real soldier like General Leo."
"You've never met Commander Palazzo," she says, "Have you?"
The guard gives her a quizzical look - why does it matter? "Well no, ma'am," he says, "but everyone knows the man is as crazy as all loose hell."
Celes keeps her thoughts to herself. She sees Kefka sometimes at court functions still, but he makes no move to approach her, and she does not know what she would do if he did. He no longer wears his military uniform or his old armor, dressing now in bright silks that are much too garish for the polished black boots that are the only part of the military-issue clothing he has kept. She wonders why, but it is not for her to ask, and when she approaches Cid about Kefka, he only shakes his head.
"He can't help himself," he says. "Try not to judge him too harshly. He's still the same man under all of it."
"I want to believe that," she says.
Cid places one hand on her shoulder. He is trying to be calming, she thinks, and yet his fingers feel like iron, the vise of a system that has nurtured her and brought her up and now slowly crushing everyone she has known and loved in its grip. "Don't worry, Celes. What happened to Kefka won't happen to you...I've made sure of it."
"I'm not worried," she says. "Not for me."
She is called off to Maranda twice more, for the rebels have stepped up their activity and she is forced this last time to set fire to the entire village. She does not think much of it, for it is war, and Kefka has always told her that in war, there is no good and no evil, only the victor and the loser, and if she wants to survive, she must be the victor. That makes sense to Celes Chere the soldier, though part of her still wonders which Kefka it was that drilled that into her: the trusted teacher of her childhood, or the unpredictable, manic man she no longer knows?
In the spring, when the weather turns warmer, she is called into Leo's office, where he hands her orders for extended patrol duty to the western continent, Figaro and Narshe and the surrounding villages in between. "I'm proud of you, Celes," he says. "You've grown into an excellent commander."
She takes the orders with a bow and a crisp salute, a murmured thank you, but later as she surveys her quarters and begins methodically packing, she wonders at the hollowness of the compliment. Leo was sincere; that much she knows, because Leo is always sincere with his compliments, and yet the compliment itself is nothing special, for she has been praised for her combat and command skill her entire life and somehow now it is not enough.
"You're not getting cold feet, are you?" says Cid when she goes to him later with her misgivings.
"No. Well, I don't think so. What qualifies as cold feet, anyway? Running away from battle? Deserting?"
Cid laughs. "From the stories I hear told by your admiring troops, I don't think you could do that even if you tried. You'd go mad."
That last phrase falls flat, and she sees that Cid realizes too late, even as the words come from his mouth, what he is saying. "I didn't mean-" he starts to say, and she shakes her head at him, smiling sadly.
"I know what you meant."
"Kefka was asking about you the other day."
Her heart pounds a little harder in her chest. "He was?"
Cid looks apologetic. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't even have brought it up. It's not what you're thinking."
Her hopes wilt away, and she berates herself for even having hoped at all. She is no longer sixteen years old, and Kefka is no longer Kefka, and she has moved on. "Oh," she says, making her voice even, expressionless. "It's worse, isn't it? He...didn't recognize me, did he?"
"Barely," Cid says softly. "He knew your name. Forgive me, again. I should know better than to speak before I think."
She gives him a cheerful, false smile. That she has learned from Kefka also, how to smile through her misery. "It's all right. I only feel sorry for him, that's all."
Cid moves in and gives her a hug. His bearded faces scratches her cheek a little, and she laughs, turning her head and patting him on the back awkwardly. She is not used to being touched like this. "Good luck," he says. "I'll be thinking of you."
When she leaves the lab, it is late, the clock reading a quarter to eleven, and she still has to finish packing. The armory is deserted at this hour. She is turning down the hallway that leads into the officers' quarters when she sees someone leaning against the wall, blocking the doorway, red silk cape pooled into shimmering lines of fabric on the dusty floor. She stops.
"Good evening," says Kefka.
He looks like he has not slept in weeks, his eyes so red and bloodshot that she hardly can stand to look at him, but when he stands, his movements are fluid, graceful, without a hint of fatigue. "Good evening," she says cautiously. "What brings you here, sir?"
"I live here," he retorts. He sounds slightly offended. She is not sure how to take that, for while Kefka does have rooms in the officers' wing of the barracks, three doors down from Leo's, he hardly uses them.
"Forgive me," she says, wondering if it's worth it to try to edge past him. The Kefka of old had excellent reflexes, but she does not know this Kefka. "I am leaving tomorrow, and I still have to pack."
He smiles at her, though it is more like a baring of teeth. "Ah, so I heard. Figaro, isn't that right?"
"You never used to call me sir," he says, and his tone is petulant now, like a child's. She wonders if what Cid told her was true, that Kefka barely recognized her earlier, because it seems from the turn this conversation has taken that he still has an excellent memory.
"Yes," she says simply, and he nods in approval.
"May I pass?" she says finally when he shows no signs of moving.
"Pass? Pass?" He rubs his chin, as if thinking about it. "Ha! You might, if you'd like."
He moves aside for her without a word and she goes cautiously past him, wondering if he is waiting for an opportune moment to reach out and grab her arm or shoulder, but he does not move and she takes two steps past him and pauses.
"Have a good night," she says, and continues on.
"Is this how it'll be from now on?" he calls after her. She stops in mid-step. "I thought we were better friends than this, General Celes."
His tone is only slightly mocking. She doesn't turn around. "Are we friends?" she says quietly. "I've often wondered..."
"At least don't leave me without saying goodbye," he says. "It's a long voyage to Figaro." His voice is softer now, without a hint of the scornful, maniacal edge, and he sounds so much like the Kefka of old that she half-turns despite herself.
"Kefka?" she whispers.
He takes a step toward her, stops. The silk cloak sighs against the flagstones, and when she looks up into his face, the blue eyes are tired but steady, familiar, bright and burning like blue fire. "I'm still here," he says, and even the words from his mouth seem like a struggle, coming thickly and with effort. "Somewhere. Celes-"
But Celes thinks about what Cid has said, and how too much time has passed now for them both, how for all their sameness she and Kefka have diverged in their paths after all, and how the path she walks now is one on which he cannot follow. She reaches out a hand to him, feeling almost blind, fumbling in the dark for something familiar: the touch of a hand, a voice, a heartbeat.
"Goodbye," she says.
A long time afterwards, she wonders if their destinies could have been changed. It was Kefka, after all, who has molded her into who she has become, and although he is gone now - although they are all gone: Cid, Leo, the Empire, Espers, even magic - she cannot help but think that perhaps Kefka too could have been saved.
Locke does not know. None of them know, not Edgar, of whom she'd first heard from Kefka as he lay restrained and half-conscious on a chair in Cid's laboratory, not Terra, whom Celes remembers only dimly from those childhood days in the old city. They are all like that, the memories: dim, hazy, faint flashes of bygone glory that were all false in the end.
To the Returners - her friends, her family - this broken world is Kefka's legacy. But to Celes Chere, who is no longer a Magitek Knight nor an Imperial general, Kefka's legacy is in the miracle of waking every morning and falling asleep at night, in the miracle that she is still here at all, that she has survived when so many others have not.
One of these days, she thinks, she will make a trip back to Vector and its ruins, almost indistinguishable now in this new world of strangely twisted mountain ranges and wild rivers. She will walk through the rubble of the armory, skirt the edge of the practice fields, wander along the troop walkways that no longer exist. She will wait then until night falls over the city, and though the spotlights are long gone, the fields will be dark with the pure light of the moon and stars, and perhaps she will be able to remember his voice and the strength in those brilliant blue eyes, so long forgotten.
It won't be for some time; she is not ready yet to face that part of her past, and the scars of the war are still too deep and vivid. But somewhere in the ruins of the great city, she thinks there must be some legacy, some proof that she and Cid and Leo and Kefka did not live and die in vain, even now as magic fades from the world and soldiers are no longer needed.
10 April 2008
Somehow in my own little confused universe, I have come to see this fic as a "companion" piece to my Final Fantasy VIII fic The Salt Flats (Seifer/Quistis). Besides the obvious physical similarities, such as the very similar writing style I used, I think that there are similar themes explored by both stories: destiny, childhood memories versus adult reality, atonement, and the consequences of amibition. The FFVIII fic does have a slightly happier conclusion; I guess you could argue that Heart Funnel is happy enough in its own right, as it deals mostly with Celes and how she overcomes her obstacles in the end, but to me, it's more of a bittersweet ending as she reflects on what she's lost, while Quistis at the end of Salt Flats reflects on what she has gained.
Kefka was a challenging character to write, not only because the FFVI canon gives him little to no backstory, but also because I was striving to portray him not as he was in the game, but as the person who Celes and Cid and the others must have known before he became that way. Obviously, he was not always stark raving mad; from the short history we are given, I infer that Kefka was a very smart, very forward-thinking man who simply got caught up in his own ambition. (Qualifier: Although of course I do very much enjoy stark raving mad Kefka, for it is refreshing to have a villain who is villainous simply for its own sake, without a terrible and angsty past. AND HE IS NOT A WAITER)
I suppose you could think of this fic as a love story, much as The Salt Flats is at its core a kind-of-love-story, but more of a love story dealing with memories and places and nostalgia and loss than the (more obvious) romantic overtones.
Anyway, that's my two-cent ramble. Hope you enjoyed, and please leave a comment and let me know what you thought. Thanks!