FF6, post-game, a Setzer short. For S, whose interpretation made me want to write it.

He flies. The crest of his ship groans above him, breaking the winds with its girth. The hull of his ship creaks beneath his feet and Setzer Gabbiani flies forever, keeping company with all elements of the air and loving each one.

Far below the Falcon, the ground stretches out in full display of its scars, showing swathes of green forests peppered with blasted raw, red soil. Fresh growth twines around the wreckage of cities. Here and there, a few towns have already begun to build outwards again, plowing ragged fields and setting up unpainted barns. Released at last from Kefka's hatred, people can finally think about the future.

Celes is the first.

"We are living a story," Setzer tells her, with much sympathy, but little mercy. They are lingering on the outskirts of the Tower -- what Vector has become, a sad ruin of swirled land and grass and decimated plains. There are enough survivors of that city to form a legacy, and that legacy has already begun to attach itself to Celes, built by whispers and rumors that praise a woman in white. "An improvisational comedy. Eventually, all the acts must end, and even the audience will get up and file out. Be glad that you have someone to stay with you, when all this is done."

"Stay," she tells him, the one weakness that she has shown -- truly shown, for this is not a matter of injury or fear in the face of almost-certain doom, but of wanting. It's unlike her to ask. It undoes him, completely.

But he looks at Locke and he exhales, and he says the truth, if the truth were bloodless. "You have plenty of support for what you need now, Celes. The world doesn't need a gambler, but it does need a former general to help it rebuild. If things fall apart again, find me then. And use a better coin this time," he adds, because just looking at her hurts him, hurts in ways that make him think of arias, of cantatas, of libretto.

"Setzer." Locke's voice catches him at the door. "We're friends. Right?"

It's a recrimination and a question together. Setzer hears it all through the beat of blood in his ears, aching as if he's flown too high and the cold is gripping his brain. He turns back to them with a grin and all the warmth he's never been able to show before these strangers entered his life and tipped it upside down; they play him so well, and he's never loved losing so much before in his life.

"Why do you do these things to me?" he asks Locke, and Celes, and gravity itself, and manages to depart before they can figure out how to answer.

- - - - -

"Are you leaving us, Setzer?" Terra asks him when he drops her off in Mobliz with her kids. She asks the question so mournfully that he wonders if she was eavesdropping on his conversation with Celes and Locke. Then he realizes that it's normal for her to worry about such things. She does, after all, have very little in the way to call her own -- including friends.

"We're all leaving each other, Terra." He's gentler with her, because she's new at so much in the world. So is he, but she doesn't have years of gambling to keep her safe. She can't read a bluff. And she asks things too honestly for her own good.

She looks down, and for an instant -- a terrifying, painful instant -- Setzer wonders how things would have turned out, if they all hadn't left her for a year. They hadn't had a choice about it, but rarely did intentions ever make a difference once the action occurred.

"Do you want to wander with me?" he asks next, before he realizes how cruel that must be of him to her, how effortlessly cruel, because it means he's asking her if she has no ties to keep her in one place. No home to belong to, no one that needs her to stay -- even though Terra has tried so hard to create the family she never had, mother to everyone while having none of her own.

He winces. Unable to erase the past, Setzer unfolds one of his handkerchiefs from out of his coat, shaking it into a wad so that the lace is visible in a line of white froth along the edges. "Here," he tells her, pressing it gently into her hand until her fingers part for it. "Something to remember us by. In case you need it."

He's tempted to stay for longer, to assure Terra that her memory is solid and real and matters, and that what she puts into it will stay around this time, but he can't make those kinds of promises. Even now, he's late getting back into the air. He doesn't know what the future will bring; he can't say if there are crazed madmen who will shatter the world a second time, or who will fit an iron crown around her temples as if it never left. All he can do is lift people up on borrowed wings when they have none of their own.

It's his job, of course. They came to him wanting a ferryman and now at the end of the performance, he's the one responsible to take them home again. He understands this as he boards his ship and watches Mobliz shrink below; Terra does not, because she stands there waiting, one hand lifted to keep her green bangs out of her eyes. He wonders if she misses flying. He wonders if she aches to take to the air again now.

The rumble of acceleration strokes the Falcon's cabins, the vents automatically working to increase the airship's buoyancy and take her away from the ground. That's one thing Edgar never really understood, despite his engineered castle; an airship glides on the wind, swimming like a fish. It lets itself drift and only uses propulsion to give it a direction in life, letting passing storms buffet it without ever bothering to react.

- - - - -

He does not say goodbye to Gau; the boy's already gone, slipped out the side, most likely when the Falcon spent its last evening near the Veldt. Of all of them, the wild boy's the one that Setzer thinks might understand his situation the most: reaching out with a smile and the intense sincerity of a question he'd never dared ask before on his own. "Friend?"

- - - - -

"Gogo," he says as the Falcon crosses Nikeah. "Where do you want me to drop you off at?"

The mimic seems to hesitate, and then inclines its head towards him. "There's nowhere I'm in a hurry to be. What about you?"

- - - - -

Cyan's case, of course, is not as bleak as the knight had first imagined. Not everyone in Doma drank the water that day; not everyone was near the castle or in the villages unlucky enough to be downstream of Kefka's poison. There are survivors. Cyan, highest rank of Doma's Knights yet living -- only rank, Edgar murmurs wryly as they watch the new recruits scramble to try and keep their salutes from wobbling -- now has the fate of his nation in his hands more literally than he might ever have dreamed.

Setzer doesn't envy him.

Cyan looks helpless, almost pitiful under the questions being flung at him by the dogged survivors, smothered by the raw admiration of the squires who had been green enough to be sent home rather than be kept at the castle. Strange how incompetence lead to their survival -- but fortune likes to reverse itself that quickly, in Setzer's experience. All it takes is flipping the coin over.

"And if calamity returns, and gives us cause to find one another once more?" Cyan asks, not quite reaching out to jerk at Setzer's sleeve; discipline gets in the way. "Should I have need to call upon thee, or any other..."

"You'll be fine!" Sabin promises heartily, inserting himself between them so that he can slap Cyan on the back. "You still got everyone, right? We'll just be further away -- but we'll always be here. Just like you'll be around for us. Yeah?"

Setzer leaves them while Cyan is busy sputtering. He waits on the ship until the Figaros came back, playing jacks by himself with coins, counting up from one to six, heads and tails interchanging.

- - - - -

He flies to South Figaro -- which should be named East Figaro by now, or maybe Southeasterly With Some Landmass Figaro. He could go straight to the Castle, but taking the long way might be revenge on the twins: it's his last chance to give Edgar a hard time. It's all in good fun; they've never had a poor friendship. Edgar can afford to pay him for the necessary repairs that the Falcon will need as part of its maintenance, and he also has the common knowledge of machinery to conduct friendly debates on. Setzer will miss those moments, maybe. The banter over breakfast, firing volleys of cheerful insults over marmalade and toast.

But Edgar is a king, and -- ultimately -- all the things he does will relate back to his kingdom, and Setzer knows, Setzer knows that no matter how innocent Edgar's first request will be, Setzer will eventually let his ship be owned if he accepts. The world's only airship is a precious commodity, and the world's only airship pilot is a fickle beast. Setzer would do anything for Edgar if he asked, but he will not do the same for Figaro, and he will not give up his skills by teaching others what came at such a high cost. The skies are open and beautiful and no single nation has fleets that can crowd out the sun. Not yet. That day will come soon enough.

Until then, Setzer will let his ship fly without obligations, with no country's agenda behind it save his own.

He lets the twins off at South-North-East Figaro. Sabin gives him one of those bone-crushing hugs before letting go, all puppyish confidence that this absence will be temporary at best, and that the Falcon will be back in less than a month with everyone on board again for a reunion. Edgar knows better; Setzer can see it in the king's eyes. He takes longer saying goodbye.

But after a while, there's only so many ways to shake hands and tactfully avoid the subject. Edgar circumvents it masterfully by asking Setzer what the gambler has in store next. Setzer shakes his head.

"Before Kefka, my ship was a symbol of indulgence and happiness, of light hearts and pleasure," he says, leaning back in a long, languid stretch against the Falcon's wheel. "I invited people who loved life to have an opportunity to enjoy themselves. I can still do that, I suppose. There won't be as much profit for it, but we need a reminder of that dream, now more than ever."

"Now you're sounding like Celes," Edgar says, but he's grinning. "Talking about people's dreams without taking care of yourself. I hate it when people do that."

Setzer grins back. "Now you sound like Locke."

- - - - -

Relm and Strago have their village to return to, with a changed burden between them. Now they have the task not to hide the past, but to prevent it from happening again. Too many people fear power, and there's reason to: they have known the touch of the Espers, of the Goddesses, of the god of a tower and a ruined world. It's all the same to those who have long lost hope of understanding the nature of what was causing the latest storm, and can only wait for the troubles to end. All those threats may be dead now -- Espers, Goddesses, gods of burning cities -- but their history remains in the blood of the Magi. As time goes on and people have the luxury of curiosity, there will be questions. There will be opportunities to rebuild and for history in some form to repeat. Someone, someday, will want another Kefka. Someone will want another Terra.

He lets them off in Thamasa. Relm draws seagulls on the hull of the Falcon, flocks that peel themselves off the wood and take to the sky with inky cries. When Setzer asks if she or her grandfather need anything more, she paints a smile in his palm, and folds his fingers closed over it.

- - - - -

Umaro and Mog go together, and this only back to Narshe. Mog tries to tell Setzer at length about the pride of the moogles and the need to be recognized as equals among the rest of the world's people, maybe the chance now to have the Moogle Nation stand beside the Kingdoms of Doma and Figaro. Setzer just laughs. He spends the leg of the trip to Narshe with his head tilted back, watching the clouds, listening to the shuffle of moogle feet on his deck as Mog tries to create a new dance for a new world, and teach it to Umaro.

- - - - -

"Do you want to keep traveling with me?" he asks Gogo aimlessly after Narshe, envisioning vague ideas of perfect games of cards played in synchronization, parlor tricks to amuse the crowd.

There's a rough, sultry chuckle.

"I thought I was the one who could only react to others," the mimic whispers. "It's surprising no one's seen past your bluffs before, Gabbiani. However do you manage to win at cards?"

- - - - -

Only when the Colosseum is three stops back does Setzer realize that he hasn't seen Gogo since.

- - - - -

When he comes to the end, it's so sudden that Setzer's already in the air before he notices he's alone.

He took the Falcon into the sky automatically, expecting to find his next destination by wherever his remaining passengers wanted to go next. But his ship is quiet. Empty. The rooms are all open, and barren of people's gear. In some of them, the sheets are pulled back and mussed, but the air has the musty, dry smell of absence.

It used to be that, once, Setzer liked knowing he was the only person for miles around, soaring through the air untied and free. It was comforting; he'd felt secure. Now it just feels like something's wrong. He keeps expecting someone -- anyone -- to come around the corner right when he lets his guard down. When they don't, he still feels a tug to keep looking. Something's pulling at him, hard.

Twelve names. Thirteen, including his own. Celes, Locke. Terra, Gau. Cyan and Sabin and Edgar, Relm and Strago and Mog and Umaro. Gogo -- and Shadow was the fourteenth, but his dog had survived, getting off with Relm and Strago at Thamasa. Even Interceptor had his own future to follow. They're all supposed to have stories of their own to keep writing as they go their separate ways. Destiny and fate, fighting against the fickle caress of chance; destiny and ties of friendship and obligations, all the bets being called, all the chips being cashed in now that the house was shutting down for the night.

Setzer's not unfamiliar with the closing of things. He shouldn't be trying to hold on. In a way, he's been prepared ever since losing the very first and greatest bet of his life: since falling in love with someone who loved the skies more than they could ever love him.

And he can't blame her for that. Not when everything's said and done and the open air is rushing across his face, licking at his throat and tangling its fingers in his hair. He can't ever blame her for that.

He cuts power over the ocean. Effortlessly, the Falcon drifts. The night is clear. He's in a universe of stars. He counts them and recounts; he counts his newfound friends on his fingers and realizes they're just as out of reach now as the constellations themselves. He can keep reaching. It doesn't mean they'll come to his hand.

If Setzer were a cloud, he would be free to flirt eternally with the sky. If he were a fish, he could stay forever content with the ocean, swimming among the reflections of the heavens. But he is neither, he is only himself, and Setzer sets course for the infinite horizon line that promises no end, and gives nothing but the yearning for more.