Celes was not expecting the knock. The night was wearing thin, and she rarely had visitors. But three solid thuds rang out on her new bronze knocker nonetheless. She rose slowly from her reading, finding her limbs more tired than she had known. The door opened with a small shudder, and the night cold was bright against her face.
He was waiting for her, hands stuffed in his pockets, the black leather of his boots half-buried in snow. His left cheek was an uncomfortable shade of purple.
"Locke." The name felt dry; it scratched the back of her throat.
"Hi, Celes. I know it's late, but--"
She didn't hesitate. "No, it's alright. Come in."
The carpet muffled his footsteps as he followed her to the living room. Otherwise, she knew, the heels of his boots sounded loudly. Celes stopped in her small white kitchen and fumbled in a cupboard for something unseen. After a few unpleasant clinks, she produced a green glass bottle and two crystal goblets.
"Care for some wine?"
"No thanks." He shook his head. "I think I've had enough for the night."
Celes made the barest of shrugs and poured herself a generous glass. Seeing the full red of the wine shining in the pale of her hand, Locke changed his mind.
"On second though I think I will have some after all."
It was strange, thought Celes, but the room seemed larger with the two of them in it. She did not know what to say to him, so she said the first thing that came to mind.
"Locke, what are you doing here?"
"I can't just drop by? I thought we were friends."
"The last time I saw you, you were at some function of Cyan's trying to start an argument about whether Edgar or Setzer would look better in a dress."
"Hey!" Locke protested, "It's a perfectly good question. Don't tell me it never crossed your mind before."
She chose not to dignify that with a response.
"I mean, Setzer has the more girlish figure, but there's really no telling just how far those scars go. And Edgar does have all that long blond hair--"
"Aren't you forgetting someone?"
"Huh?" Locke was genuinely perplexed. "I don't think so."
"To put it another way, is that eyeliner you're wearing, Mr. Cole? Not to mention you clearly spend a good part of your days thinking of males in dresses." Celes kept her voice low and level, but the ends of her lips were curved in a smile.
The drink he took was so long she worried he'd forgotten to breathe.
"Alright," he mouthed, his voice wet with wine, left hand raised in a gesture of surrender. "I admit it. I'm the prettiest." He took another long gulp and leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head.
Silence hung between them for a few inept moments. They spent most of this time trying hard not to look at each other.
"Locke. What are you doing here?" Celes was no longer smiling.
"I got in a fight. A few hours ago. Three men." He paused. "They had a girl. They were gonna, well, you know."
"Kill them? Nah. I wanted to, for a minute. But I just whacked them on the head with the blunt end of the dagger." His knife already lay on the table. "I know there's no magic left in the world, but, damn, sometimes with I wonder... But that's neither here nor there. I went to the pub for a few hours, but it didn't do anything for me. I had to see you."
"Was she pretty?"
"Who? The girl?" Locke shook his head. "She was alright, I guess. Her parts were in all the right places, but she was so small. Pale and trembling, which, given the circumstances, is understandable. But still, not my type."
"I'll bet you were still every bit her knight in shining armor." She sighed and took a small sip of her wine.
"Now, what do you mean by that? Honestly, Celes, if it's about Vector, I'm sorry. I was wrong. But I'm trying not to live in the past." He leaned forward, elbows on the table, his chair sounding a soulless thud as all four legs met the floorboards. "I know I'm not very good at it, but I'm trying."
"No," she replied, her eyes downcast. "No, that's not it at all."
"Is it about her? Because if it is, we can talk about it." She didn't say anything. "It's about her, isn't it? Well then, here goes." Locke made an exaggerated gasping noise, spitting out the next words in one long breath. "I admit, Celes, that I was still in love with Rachel when I met you. That all of my actions for a good five years of my life were colored with the half-mad goal of bringing her back." Wincing as the wine rushed over the still fresh cut on the inside of his cheek, he took another long sip from his goblet. The mixture of reds was a familiar taste in his mouth. Confession was not. "I can't say I'm over her. I can't say that I ever will be. But that last time, in Kefka's tower when the whole damn thing came crashing down and you went diving for that trinket of yours—that time I was saving you."
He chuckled. "But what does it matter? You never let me save you anyway."
"No, you're wrong." Her eyes were still pressed to the table, and her words were muffled by the wood.
She raised her gaze. "You're wrong. You did save me, before that." She stood up, running her fingers thoughtlessly along the tabletop. This was not a story she wanted to tell sitting down.
"You know I spent a year stranded on an island with Cid? After the floating continent?" He nodded. She had told him that once, as one part of a rushed jumble of where-have-you-been. Sometimes he wondered why she had never asked him how he had found the cave. But then again, he had never thought to ask her the same question.
"The western side of the island was dominated by a jutting outcrop. It must have been fifty times my height, at least. Originally, there were other survivors on the island, not just Cid and I. Of course, I was in a coma, so I can't be sure how many, but Cid told me that one by one they all made that jump off the bluff. He called it a leap of faith." Her words fell in a steady rhythm, her hands pale and still against the polished wood. "When he died, I took the jump myself. I called it a leap of faith, but, well, there was no one left on the island, was there?"
Locke made some muffled grunts of protest, but she ignored him.
"I don't remember falling, or the press of the sea against my skin, or how I came to be washed up on the shore. But there on top of the sand was a white bird with a dirty piece of cloth in clutched its beak." Her words came slowly. "It was your bandana, Locke, or at least a part of it. The mixture of wet earth and sweat and the acid scent of your particular brand of cheap cologne-- I knew it was yours."
She glanced in his direction. Locke was staring straight ahead and not sure what to make of the situation.
"Knowing that you were still alive, somewhere, gave me a kind of borrowed courage. I used to think it was because you had faith in me that I could go on. But when we found you there, in that horrible cavern, still burning with more fires than I could ever light, well. I knew that wasn't true."
Celes paused, the words still weighing heavy on her tongue. He was standing now, palms open in defense, but he said nothing.
"That's not to say you didn't give me faith. It was just a different sort, that's all." He walked towards her, but she was turning herself around and fumbling with the laces on her sleeve-- or something like that, he couldn't tell, exactly. For a moment he was content to just watch her flaxen hair run down her back. Then she turned back round again, the remainder of his old bandana in hand. She pressed it to his chest, her fingers wide against the rough weave of his shirt.
"I think you lost this." They were looking at each other, and he could feel the slow moisture of her breath when she spoke.
"That's alright. You can keep it."
There were still so many awkward silences hanging between them, but she wanted to do this now, because Celes was not sure she would ever get another chance. She did not need to stand on tiptoe to kiss him. They were already the same height.