Final Fantasy Exchange: Order Up!

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Spaces (FFVI, Locke/Celes, PG-13) for lassarina
Fandom: Hell Bus
first_seventhe wrote in ff_exchange

For lassarina
Fandom: FFVI
Characters/Pairing: Celes/Locke
Rating: PG-13 (mild descriptions of blood/injury; PTSD)

Media: Fic by first_seventhe. Illustrations by safety_caesars.

Prompt: FF6, Locke/Celes. I would prefer a romantic relationship (explicit content utterly optional), although it's up to you whether it's an established relationship or one that is in the process of growing. I'd really love to see something about how they negotiate the rough spots that are part of any relationship, given all his scars and her general lack of ability to deal with emotions and things that cannot be categorized. Meta is always a plus.

Summary: A moment between Locke and Celes, as they try to fit their relationship into and around the holes in their lives.
Spoilers: end-of-game.

Thanks: to justira for the beta, and to safety_caesars again for the gorgeous artwork and the encouragement!

Notes: A backup gift for a deserving Phoenix. I hope it is at least a surprise.

This is a small scene from one of my post-game headcanon worlds. Focuses much more on Celes' issues and the awkwardness of the Celes/Locke relationship than the actual storyline, but there's an entire story where this came from, and I enjoyed starting it.

- - -


- - -

"General," the soldier says, and she snaps to attention before her ears have fully processed the syllables. "There's mail."

Celes frowns, a little, because she doesn't remember seeing any carrier pigeons come through, and she's become quite adept at noticing those little details; she prides herself on them. It's true, what the surgeons say, that the loss of one sense enhances the abilities of the others; she just had never quite realized how sharp of a sense Magitek was, nor how dependent upon it she had become. Now, she can spot the mail birds in the sky as they pass, and she makes a point of it; she always knows when to stop for her letters. This is the first time in weeks that she's missed one, and she feels strangely chastised.

The soldier hands her three letters, and she nods her thanks and continues on to her tent, where she can read them in private as the sun goes down. The first is addressed simply to Celes, in Terra's hand, and she moves it behind the other two – not that Terra's letters are not important; in fact, Celes finds it quite rewarding indeed to watch a fellow wounded soldier grow and heal in peace. It is more that Terra's missives are little treasures she can save until the very end of her busy day, and does, although she often doesn't know how to reply to them afterwards.

The next letter is recognizably from Edgar, but it is official: General Celes Chere, The Imperial Peace Corps, right across the front and Figaro's seal across the edges. Funding, then; not a moment too soon, either, because there is a delegation from Doma requesting a full third of her team for their operations - and while everyone wants to rebuild Doma, her soldiers still need to be kept, and fed, and paid. Behind it is an unofficial letter, also from Figaro, and Celes assumes this is directives to go along with what she sincerely hopes is a credit note.

She steps into her tent, preoccupied with her letters, but even with her fingers on the edges of the wax seal she pauses, all of her senses pricked to awareness: something is not right. It is not magic, and not Magitek, but more the lack of them: her body is used to the magical enhancements, and it continues to collect information even though the connections have been severed. Sometimes she aches, like a phantom limb, like a joint in humidity, and it is then that she has learned to pay even closer attention, although she cannot as easily translate what she senses into what she sees.

But this game is over almost before it begins. There is an extra cloak on the peg beside hers, and the first thing Celes feels is a strange relief, because it means that there weren't any carrier pigeons this morning, and her senses are just as sharp as they were yesterday.

The feeling expands, though, until her heart clenches with something strange and powerful, and Celes stands for a moment, looking at the dirty cloak beside her pristine white one - and feeling overwhelmed. Of course she's glad Locke made it back safely, but she still doesn't know what to do with this powerful sentimentality that makes its claim on her every time he returns to camp. It makes her pause. She realizes the tent is silent, and very carefully puts her letters away in the drawer of her desk before quietly opening the flap into her darkened sleeping quarters.

Locke is sprawled across her cot, face-down into her pillow and his arm caught under him at an awkward and painful-looking angle, one leg dangling off the bed. Celes looks at him, just stands in the doorway looking at him for one long moment, caught up in it, and the swelling feeling in her chest is almost unbearable so she sets it aside and says, "Locke." It comes out a little more sharply than she intended, but it has the desired effect: he twitches, and begins to stir, and she waits in the doorway as he gathers himself awake. She knows Locke is hard to wake, and the process would be endearing were it not so absolutely inefficient.

Locke slowly sits up in her bed, rubbing his eyes – with one hand, she realizes, and his other arm still at that awkward and painful angle. "Are you hurt?" she asks, her stomach suddenly twisting with worry and concern, and she takes one halting step forward, unsure of what she should do. The urge to rush to his side is both unexpected and undignified, and yet she almost cannot resist the instinct – which makes her pause, frozen in inaction.

Locke grins up at her, and he's filthy, and he looks exhausted, and she can't stop her own face from smiling back, relief and an unsettling happiness bubbling upwards before she can get control of it. Celes sighs through it, because Locke does this to her time and time again, and it's frustrating and compelling and bothersome. It is as if she becomes something new when he is around, and she does not relish the wayward freedom of her own expressions.

Locke's grin fades a bit, at her sigh; he sits up the full way this time, and the grin is lost completely as he winces with the movement – and now Celes does cross the room. She sits down on the cot, on the side of his injured arm, and says, "Show me."

"Don't be mad," Locke says, all strained cheerfulness, and he rolls up his sleeve. A multitude of fabrics are wrapped around his upper arm, and Celes recognizes a few of his bandannas and something she suspects might be part of his under-shirt.

"Jacket," she orders, and he obediently rolls the sleeve back down and struggles out of it; she reaches out to help, carefully tugging it over the mass of the rolled bandages. Her fingers start to pick at his knots; Locke ties unprofessional knots which are either awful or excellent depending on their purpose, and she suspects these were done clumsily and in haste. Her suspicions are confirmed when the first kerchief comes off flecked with blood, even though there are two beneath it, and as she continues to pick at his handiwork she cannot help but ask, "What in the world happened?"

"I'll show you on the map," Locke says, breathless, and she realizes just how much pain he must be in, and it makes her heart twist. "But you were right about the third depot. It was still guarded."

She finally gets down to bare skin, and sees the long ragged end of the gash in his arm. There's still a bit of potion glimmering in it, its protective liquid-web thinned to sporadic spotting. It is not the worst wound she's ever seen, but it may as well be by the way her stomach is clenching at the sight of it.

"You're going to need stitching," she says.

Locke closes his eyes, and grins, an awful grin. "Will you do it?" he asks, almost – softly, and there's something in his voice that makes her heart beat faster, if only for a moment.

"Of course." Her voice comes out snappy and irritated, more than she intended, although most of her irritation is directed at Locke's haphazard disorderly knots and only a small portion at herself. Her attentions have turned what she thought was a simple soldier's knot into a conflagration which defies every laws of physicks she is aware of. "Assuming I can get through your protective wall of bandannas."

"Cut them," he says.

Celes forgets, for a second, to not stare and gape up at him in surprise; she closes her mouth with a snap and simply nods. The knife is out of her boot with a twinkle, and she exhales a long slow breath of air as she methodically and efficiently slices through the remaining wraps of fabric one at a time – thinking, despite her concentration, about the stories Locke had about each strip of cloth, the history: the way he obtained each of his bandannas and scarves and then wore them, proudly, like medals—

"It's okay," Locke breathes, "I'll get more," and for a moment it's so ridiculous she wants to laugh, she wants to leave, she wants to hit herself: Locke's bleeding all over her clean canvas sheets and she's sentimentally mourning kerchiefs.

She slices through the last one with fervor, and eyes the gash in Locke's arm, almost the entire way from shoulder to elbow. It is not as deep as she originally thought, although it might be the faint webbing of healing potion still holding it together, so that the blood's only seeping out in long slow trails rather than a gushing swell. Celes pulls a potion from her other boot and applies it, immediately, watching it knit into Locke's skin; some of the tension in his face fades, and she only then realizes how intently she is watching him in the darkness.

She shakes her head, and stands. Candles, first, then; the hiss of the match as she strikes it is loud in the silence between them.

"Did you run out of potions?" Her voice is calm as she gathers her things: needle and stitching sinew, and bandages, and cloth to clean the skin around the wound. She plucks vials from their place in her case, choosing her potion doses carefully; her eyes linger on the lone Megalixer and for a moment something in her longs to break it over Locke's head and watch the powerful chemickal magic knit the wound up itself, better than she ever could – but she cannot spare it. Better to fix by hand the wounds she can, and save the rare treasures for the true emergencies her skills cannot help.

And for a moment she remembers, the rush of Cure, Cura, Curaga, through her palms and into skin, flesh knitting beneath her touch; it was not the power of Ice alone which tempted her choice of Esper. Celes closes her eyes and takes in one sharp breath to clear her head, and then turns around.

Locke's holding the pile of bandannas to his elbow, trying to swab up the blood. "I guess you could say that," he says, and he sounds so sheepish. "They're hard to find, these days."

It's true; even the usual tonics have been harder to come by, and almost no one can still make the more powerful chemicks, without the ambient magic in the air which accelerated the process. Celes has had problems herself, keeping her own supply up-to-date as the Corps expand. But… this is not the first time Locke has suffered from a lack of potions, although it may be the worst; at least in this he is still predictable. "You traded them, didn't you."

Locke sighs, and grins a crooked grin at her. "Wait until I show you what for."

The sigh she releases is one part exasperation and three parts something she doesn't recognize: affection? "I certainly hope it was worth it," she says, with bite, and arranges her things on the bed next to Locke. "This is going to hurt."

"Hurts already," he says, and the smile becomes that – that something else, the thing she can't name, and her heart does a flip in her chest.

She pours the antidote along the wound in one long smooth motion, and it sinks into the wound with a fleshy hiss and a bit of steam, and Locke's face twists up into something grotesquely comedic for a moment – Celes watches, tense, until his face relaxes, slowly, and then Locke exhales, and looks up at her.

He's trying to grin, despite it all, and his eyes are deep and dark in the candlelight, his face white with the pain – and her heart pounds uncontrollably as she realizes he's the most beautiful thing she's seen in days.

She wants to kiss him.

Instead she pops the top on the potion in her hand and begins to dab it, carefully, at the lower tip of the gash – just enough to start the edges knitting together; the tonic isn't powerful enough to close the wound the whole way, but it will hold it in place while she stitches. Celes picks up the needle, ignoring the way her stomach is roiling; it's not as if she's never seen blood before.

She takes a deep breath, and risks one glance up at Locke's face as she sets the needle to his skin; his eyes are closed and his mouth is tight, and Celes actually feels the stab in her heart as she pierces his skin with the tip. She makes the stitch quick, and ties it off neatly, thinking of the mess of knots in Locke's bandannas, keeping her fingerwork deft and her mind off of Locke's long slow hiss of pain.

She dabs it, immediately, with the potion, and is relieved to watch the edges of the wound seal together; she knows from experience that with the help of the stitches even this weaker tonic will be able to heal. She sneaks another look; Locke's face is tight with the tension of pain, and she thinks of his awful knots and the handful of bloody bandannas he's clutching in his fist, and for a long moment she doesn't know what to do.

The tiny needle in her fingers is a cruel reminder of what she lacks, now: her hands are shaking, and she's nervous – nervous? She once helped a field medic amputate a man's leg; another time, remove an eye. Stitches are nothing for an Imperial General; Leo cared for her, more than once, she remembers—

—and his hands shook, too, she remembers.

Celes dabs the potion farther up the wound, above her first stitch, and takes a long deep breath; there is no reason for this emotional whirlwind to have come upon her now; she's sewn up dozens of her own men, with battle before and behind and around them—

—the icy-cool feeling of Cure, pouring from her fingertips, even across a battle-clearing: wound-healer, blood-stopper, life-giver. Dozens, hundreds, a multitude of times—

—and none of those men were Locke.

The second stitch goes badly, because Locke yelps a little as the needle pierces his skin, and Celes jumps - jumps, truly, and that unsettles her more than the surprise and the shock and the feeling of guilt – and Locke cries out as she jerks the needle, and she ends up upending the entire vial of potion down his arm when she tries to give her mangled stitch another dose for his pain's sake. Celes stares at the drops of it, trickling trails down his arm and off his fingers to the floor, the healing chemick in the solution still gleaming slightly as it fades into the canvas of her floor, and some disconnected part of her brain is already calculating the cost of the wasted bottle even as she realizes how hard her heart is pounding.

She cannot do this, and it pains her, because she does not know why: it is Locke, it is always Locke, breaking through every single thing she holds close to herself. Her well-trained skills and military discipline crumble before him, falling to the ground in ruins, and she is laid bare: all of her concerns and fears and weaknesses, every single one of them; he parades through the fortifications she has set up around her life like a Veldt stampede.

She should tell him to go. He makes her feel like something she is not.

And yet, as she looks up, it becomes inexplicably easier: Locke needs her, and more importantly, he needs her: not the layers of self-imposed rules and regulations she laces herself into, and is now failing to uphold. He needs her help.

Celes takes a long breath, and as she exhales she tries to let it all go: the worry, the fear, her fear of these emotions and her fear of the unknown. She focuses on the simple facts: a man she cares for is injured, and that is a problem she can solve.

"Tell me," she says, as she opens a new potion and begins dabbing the site of the next stitch. "You said the third depot was still – active. Were the first two empty?"

"Abandoned." Locke's voice sounds tight, with his throat clenched against the pain, but he talks through it. "The first one was destroyed, and anything in there worth gil was already gone. The second – the depot was empty, but I found the door to the chamber in the basement. And your code still works. The whole thing still works."


"Yeah, I wasn't expecting much after the first, but something's still in there. It lit up like a Figaro holiday when I walked in there." He coughed. "Smelled like a tomb, though."

Celes breathes, because as Locke talks she can hear his voice loosening, slightly; the effect is calming to her nerves, because normally Locke is always talking. She encourages him: "Did you explore?"

"Of course I did," and she can hear the smile in his voice, even though his face is still pale and stark. "You expect me to not peek into the Empire's secret stash?"

"I expected nothing of the sort." She ties off the sinew, and cleans with the potion; the motions are automatic, and she feels almost light-headed with relief. "What did you take?"

"Celes!" She glances up, and Locke's face is comical; "You wound me," he says dramatically. "I didn't touch a thing. Just like I promised."

A small smirk forms on her lips. "That, I did not expect."

"Hey, you can trust me." Locke grins at her automatically, but then the grin falters a little, as the multiple meanings and memories entwined among those words flicker across both of their faces; that phrase has a particular weight Locke sometimes forgets. He coughs, and glances down at his arm, and then makes an utterly disgusted face which tells her he wishes he hadn't.

"Don't look," she orders, and he turns away obediently. "So the second and third are still intact." She's somehow done two more stitches while they talked; not that conversation has ever been easy for Celes, but there's something about hearing Locke's voice which is – relaxing is not the right word. Enabling, perhaps. "Did you make it to the fourth?"

"I barely made it back here." He laughs, to cover up the wince as her needle pierces for the fifth stitch; the last, she thinks. The potion will take care of it from there. The potions and the conversation seem to be taking care of it already, as Locke seems more relaxed – or perhaps just sufficiently distracted. "I marked them on the map for you. The first isn't worth going through, but at least the second and third – there'll be something in there for your teams."

"Hmm." Celes pulls the knot tight with a quick little jerk and then liberally pours the potion all over the wound – extravagant and wasteful, perhaps, but the bottle's already open, due to her own clumsiness, and she doesn't feel guilty at all spending a little more of the expensive chemick to make sure Locke's alright. "How do you feel?"

Locke slowly extends the arm in an exaggerated motion, and then stretches his back, albeit carefully. "Great," he says, and then his face lights up with a grin; "fantastic. Better than I have in days." He waggles his eyebrows. "Stupendous. Excellent. Mobile."

She can't seem to do anything but watch him when he does this, all alight with a life-joy she doesn't understand and yet wants, badly; and so when he leans in close and whispers, "Hi," all breathless and intense, she leans forward and kisses him. His hand comes up to cup her face, and she leans into it, his calluses on her cheek and his lips moving in nonsense-words against – and with – hers.

When they stop to breathe, her heart is pounding, and Celes wonders again at the power this thing has over her: she stands up, to clear her head, and begins to put away the pieces of her first-aid kit. Locke will need another potion that night, but the stitches should be ready to come out tomorrow, if the tonics do their job. It means Locke will have to stay here, but even as she has the thought she realizes she's already processed that; she's expected it from the moment she spotted his cloak. She feels like that realization should be more disturbing than it actually is; her acceptance of it, her comfort with it: this is surprising.

"So," she says, finally, because she is in fact eager to know – something she picked up from him, no doubt – "why, exactly, did you trade your potions away?"

"Look." Locke fumbles at a pouch on his belt, and then holds out – a familiar-looking crystal. "They were surprised I even wanted the thing."

Celes reaches out and takes the Magicite. They feel like echoes to her – although when she tried to explain it to Locke, he laughed and called her a poet and asked whether it would go into the next Opera. They all feel hollow, with just the echo of a breath – the feeling that something was there, once, and maybe if you wish hard enough –

And Celes can't help herself; she closes her eyes, and even as she prepares herself for disappointment she still clenches her fists, calling with all her strength, willing, wanting, waiting… but she cannot pull this Esper from its crystal home and summon it into being, because it no longer exists.

The realization aches, every time, no matter how often she reminds herself of it.

She opens her eyes. Locke is still talking, his head leaned against the wall of her tent, eyes closed. "…and they just upturned their pockets, saying, take whatever you want, please, anything we have. How could I say no? They were just potions." He laughs, and opens his eyes; his gaze flies right to her face as if it's a magnet, and for a moment Celes feels – exposed, as if Locke knows exactly what she just tried to do, as if she's revealed something secret and private. He just smiles. "Then I saw that crystal, and I thought, well, they're just potions. Do you know which one it is?"

She shakes her head. "Nothing." She has been trying to identify them all as Locke brings them in, one by one, but only a few are strong enough to give her any sense of what magic they had borne. "But if they had one…"

"…there might be others." He finishes her thought. "I didn't spend too much time in the second or third depot, but since they were still sealed, there's a good chance. I mean, that stone shows up in the town right next to that first raided depot?"

"Hmm." Her lips purse as she thinks. "I may not have enough men. They're petitioning for us to send a team to Doma."

"Doma?" There's laughter in Locke's voice, and Celes looks up, alarmed and offended. This again: Locke thinks the Imperial Peace Corps is a front, something she lets people use while she quietly gathers Magicite and deactivates the Empire's weapons in the background. He doesn't yet understand it, nor her role in it. Locke was never a soldier – he is more a loner than she, in some ways – and certainly never in command: he does not understand just what she heard that day in Narshe when six ragged men approached her in the pub. To him, it was a conversation about finding jobs and doing some good in a world gone bad, and since he still has fun and profits, it does not bother him – but neither does it drive him.

She'd heard six lost ex-Imperial soldiers asking: General Chere, what are our orders?

This particular argument is weary; they've been over this before, so many times, and Celes feels the ache of it between them. "Yes, Doma," she says, and she hears the snap in her voice – and sees it, as Locke's face freezes in that surprise-alarm he gets when she interprets something incorrectly. "It's a rather large contract, and I believe Edgar has offered to match funding."

She'd heard Leo's voice in her head: A good General does not abandon his troops.

"I'm happy for you," Locke says softly, and she can't read all the things in his voice. She just looks at him, across her tent, and it always seems this way: from close to far in the blinking of an eye, or the instant of a breath, or one word mangled and misheard. Suddenly she is exhausted. It is the end of her day, and sewing up Locke's arm has taken much of her – composure is the best word she can think for it, although it isn't right. Essence, perhaps. Another thing she misses about her magic: she tires, now, and easily – or what she considers easily; her standards are artificial, now, as the magic which made her exceptional has been removed from her system as thoroughly and completely as it was added, and yet she cannot stop comparing herself to what she once was.

Locke must see it in her face, because he smiles, all easy-going, laying it on thick so that she knows exactly what's going on. "Come here," he says, and pats the cot.

She sits down beside him, and he puts an arm around her. She fights her natural tendency to freeze and instead leans into him, into the warmth of his side. Locke rests his chin on top of her head, and sighs into her hair, and Celes closes her eyes and wonders whether or not this will ever feel as natural as she wants it to.

She thinks about tilting her head upwards, for a kiss, but his arm is healing-hot against her side, and she knows there will not be any of that comfort – not tonight, at least, although perhaps tomorrow, if Locke heals quickly.

"Celes," Locke says, and his voice is soft and raw and honest. "I'm dead tired, love."

Her heart skips a beat in warmth even as she leans away and stands up. "Lie down, then." She gestures to the cot. She's surprised he lasted this long, with a wound that deep and that many potions in his system – and traveling all day.

Locke frowns, and she has a moment to wonder what she said wrong. Finally he says with a sigh, "Will you join me?"

She blinks. "Of course," she says, surprised. "I just have a letter from Terra; I thought you might like to see it, too."

Locke's face breaks into a smile, easy and free, and he lies down across her cot, dirty hair on her pillow and dried blood on his arm and he looks like he belongs there, in the shadows of her candles. "Read it to me?" he asks, plaintive.

She puts a hand on her hip. "I'm a General," she says, "not a nanny." The smile creeps out into her voice against her will, and it does not bother her as much as she expects.

"Opera floozy," Locke returns, but he's already drifting off, his eyes half-closed. She watches him from the tent-flap; he falls asleep as easily as he breathes. It is still surprising to her; she always expects a man whose hobbies include thievery to sleep with one eye open, and yet Locke's slumber is sounder than hers. She would like to think it a measure of trust, but she also knows Locke is a simpler creature than that: he sleeps, and that is all.

It is not simple to her; Celes still feels as if she's only scratching the surface in her understanding of everything Locke thinks and does. But every day she takes steps, and if she still aches with the loss of the things behind her, at least she is walking towards something.

Celes gathers her letters, and reads them in bed, while Locke snores faintly at her side.

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... I am so adding this to memories. AMAZING WORK.

Okay, I love you forever. In case that was ever in doubt. ♥

I love the way magic is a lost sense to her (hiiiiii headcanon meta) and how her other senses have sharpened as a result of losing it.

and the process would be endearing were it not so absolutely inefficient. Ahhhhhhh this is so very them OMG.

She'd heard six lost ex-Imperial soldiers asking: General Chere, what are our orders? God, this broke my heart. And it's perfect for her, because she's lost, too, in a world where she cannot fit into the structure she's used to. It gives them as much as it gives her.

I love the echoing of the "I'm a general" line, and the opera references. I also really like how much they circle around each other - you got that part of it down PERFECTLY and it's so fantastic.

Also, the background/texture to the art is fantastic! Thank you so much, safety_caesars!

This is wonderful. Thank you for a great read.

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