What The Heart Remembers
“As both a soldier and a man of honor I am bound in my duty to my Emperor, and for as long as I live I will hold to the vows I have sworn... and yet... what is this stirring in my heart? I know well the horrors of war, for I have seen my share of the carnage wrought by conflict and thus I cannot ignore this feeling that something is wrong. Allowing the use of the Slave Crown on the girl is simply the latest in a line of actions that I cannot believe the man I respect as a father would allow. I have done what I can to preserve her sanity, but it shames me that I have not put a stop to this madness...
I sense that Kefka's hand is guiding these matters, yet without proof I cannot take action. For now... I must wait and continue to serve.”
-The Diary of General Leo Christophe
A lesson in life and love...
The Scarlet Blade Tavern was alive and thriving in spite of the late hour. Through the heavy doors I could hear the buzz of music, dancing, and general merriment that you would expect from such an establishment. I had never found much desire to visit the place other than for the sake of making an appearance after decisive battles. A former commanding officer had instructed me on the necessity for appearing as 'one of the boys', as he had put it. Though I found no fun in thwarting my fellow officers' advances and usually left early, my visits had gone a long way to boost morale. Tonight, however, I was in search of something I desperately needed and could find nowhere else at so late an hour – a nice hot meal. After checking on my charge and dropping off the mysterious moogle plushie, I decided to pay a visit to the kitchens to recover some stamina and pick up something for Terra. Unfortunately I found them locked up for the night and had no choice but to search elsewhere, which led me here.
'Alright, just get in, order a few meals to go, and get out,' I thought to myself reassuringly.
An angry groan from my stomach reminded me of the urgency of this venture so I took a deep breath and pushed open the doors. A blast of warm air and noise washed over me as I stepped into the large building that housed the place. The same, all too familiar, discomfort I always felt at social gatherings rose up to form a lump in my throat. My eyes traveled first to the stage where a three person band was currently strumming out a jaunty tune and then to the dance floor where various couples swayed and swung their partners around to the rhythm. Being raised into the military had fortunately spared me from the toil of learning such frivolities, and even more so from participating in the endless number of formal balls that the Emperor seemed so fond of. I continued my visual sweep past a group of tables crowded with boasting soldiers and starry eyed admirers and finally found what I was looking for. I made my way as quickly as possible through the mass of bodies to the bar and waited for the server to notice me.
“Come on, sugar, it's only twenty gold and I'm worth every bit of it...” a sultry voice cooed from nearby. I turned to see a scantily dressed woman trying to work her tricks on a heavily intoxicated Sergeant.
“Damn floozies...” I muttered under my breath, turning away from the two and brightening somewhat when I noticed a vase of roses sitting on the bar. They had begun to wilt from the heat but still held a fading beauty that could be admired even in a place like this. I reached out to caress the silken folds, a hint of nostalgia beginning to float through the back of my mind... only to be driven away as a hand groped my bottom. My fingers clenched around the rose as I spun around to bring me face to face with a beautiful young woman with a grin from ear to ear.
“Oops, sorry sweetie, I just couldn't stop my hand from slipping,” she giggled as I gaped at the woman like a fish out of water. I couldn't recall ever being touched in such a way and here she was giggling away like a school girl. “Is that for me?” she asked, snatching the rose I hadn't even realized I was brandishing out of my hands and tucking the stem behind her ear. “If you're trying to charm your way into my good graces...” she said, turning around and wiggling her bottom, “then you're off to a good start!” she finished, turning back to wink and blow a kiss over her shoulder.
Sassy, flirtatious, and possessing a vast knowledge of the world and it's people. With her pretty face and heart of gold, not even the sky is her limit...
“Name's Angela, welcome to the Scarlet Blade!” she shouted merrily, throwing her arms out with a flourish. “So, would you like me to take your order or would prefer me to just... take you.” She leaned forward to let out a throaty purr.
The motion seemed expertly practiced to put the young woman's more than ample cleavage on display and, try as I might, I could not keep my eyes from dipping down. My cheeks filled with color from both the unfamiliar interaction and, I'm embarrassed to admit, from the only partially obstructed view of her breasts that was being offered. Eventually though, my senses returned and I raised my eyes to cast a weak glare at the women.
“I would never consort with a floo...” I managed to stop myself from saying something so uncouth, “with someone of your... profession,” I finished awkwardly. The woman stared at me deadpan for what was quite possibly the longest minute of my life before bursting into tears.
“I can't believe the famed General Celes Chère just called me a whore!” she wailed so loudly that it drew glances from everyone within fifteen paces. “I'm a dancer and a really really good one too! I... I just wanted to show my appreciation for your hard work, and you call me a whore for my troubles!” Fear, shame, and embarrassment mixed in the pit of my stomach and forced me into desperate action.
“I'm so sorry!” I said, reaching out to put my hands on her shoulders. “I-I didn't... I didn't mean it like that, I swear! I don't think you're a floozy!”
“A floozy!” she sobbed, burying her face into my neck.
“No! I said I don't think you're a floozy! Don't!” I shouted, casting nervous glances at the questioning looks we were receiving from the other patrons.
“You... you really mean that?” she whimpered.
“I do! I swear it on my honor!”
“Then,” she sniffled, “will you buy me dinner to apologize?”
“Yes! I would love to buy you dinner! Anything to correct the insult I've shown you!”
“Will... will you let me dance for you?” she asked, her voice so meek that I could barely hear it over the sounds of the tavern.
“It would be a pleasure to have you dance for me...” I said, my voice catching in my throat as I realized what I was agreeing to. I couldn't even begin to wonder how the situation had spiraled so far out of my control. And worst of all...
“Wonderful!” she said happily, giving me a peck on the cheek as she pulled away to arms length. Her cheeks were dry and her eyes weren't even rimmed with tears. Confusion gripped me for the barest of moments before all that had happened set in.
“Oh hell...” I muttered as laughter erupted all around us, Angela even gave a little bow which only added to their mirth. With blushing face downcast, I turned to leave only to be stopped by a pair of arms wrapped around my waist. I felt dizzy and only part of it was from the embarrassment I was feeling.
“Oh come on, sweetheart, I'm just having a bit of fun with you!” she said with a laugh, spinning me around so that I was facing her. The mischievous gleam in her eyes faded as she looked into mine. “Are you okay?” she asked, voice filling with concern. My stomach groaned and the dizziness doubled in intensity. The next thing I knew my face was planted into her cleavage and I was being half-carried, half-dragged for a few steps and then eased down into a chair. “What's wrong, sweetie?” the four phantom images of Angela asked in unison.
“I just... I need to eat... drained all my magic healing Terra... so many injuries... bastard clown...” I slurred, not quite comprehending what I was saying.
“You sit tight, hon, I'll be right back!” her voice floated into my ears, like she was already far away. Through sheer force of will I kept my head from thumping into the table but I couldn't be sure for how long I actually managed before something hard pressed against my lips and the smell of broth filled my nostrils. “Drink this nice and slow,” she instructed.
I could feel the liquid touch my lips and opened my mouth to let the soup, which my ravenously hungry mind decided was the most delightful thing I'd ever tasted, fill my mouth and slide down my throat. The effect was almost instant; I was reborn. My hands came up to take the bowl from her hands and I increased the tilt, draining the entire thing in one long guzzle. I slammed the bowl down on the table and my eyes cleared and focused to take in Angela regarding me with a mixture of worry and awe.
“I apologize for my moment of weakness,” I started somberly, “I worked powerful healing magic earlier and it drained me more than I had realized.” Her eyes lit up at the mention of magic but she restrained herself from asking any questions, something I greatly appreciated.
“No worries, hon, sorry my little performance came at such a bad time. It's rare that I get the chance to tease a major player and I just couldn't resist!”
“No, that's quite alright, you couldn't have known,” I said, taking a bite of bread to try and hide my embarrassment. Something clicked in my mind just then. “How did you know who I was?” I asked. Angela smiled brightly.
“Any entertainer worth their salt knowns the top brass of the place they work.” I nodded at the reasoning, but she wasn't finished. “You're a bit different though, you're like an elusive princess!” I choked on the bit of bread I was eating.
“W-What do you mean?”
“Let's see...” she murmured, tapping a finger to her chin. “You live in the palace. You rarely make appearances, usually only after some big success on the battlefield as a sort of congratulations to the soldiers. There's always ample amounts of gossip and scores of rumors floating around about you. Then there's...”
“Rumors?” I interrupted, my interest suddenly piqued.
“Oh, the usual, that you're the Emperor's illegitimate child, that you're being offered in marriage to a high ranking Returner as a means to end the war, or that there's a secret fling between you and General Leo. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Foolishness,” I scoffed. “My parents died when I was a baby, I have the records to prove it. Such a marriage would have no effect on the war as I have no political standing. And General Christophe is the most noble and honorable man I have ever met and would sooner run himself through then betray his beloved, not to mention my own qualms about the situation.” She seemed to be absorbing this information as hungrily as I had the soup, and too late I realized that she had easily pumped me for information to sate her curiosity. I chided myself for being so slow to discern the situation and vowed to control my tongue better.
“Oh, you know soldiers, every one of them would give their left arm for a chance to bed you, and failing that they create themselves an unbeatable rival to justify it.” My face darkened over at the mention of my admirers, when Angela saw it her smile widened almost imperceptibly. I wondered if this too had somehow confirmed some suspicion of hers. “Just like an elusive princess...” she said with a little sigh for added drama. I finished the rest of my meal in silence, suddenly feeling uncomfortable under the woman's gaze.
“Thank you for the meal, Angela. It was the most satisfying I've had in a long time. Would it be possible to get another? As well as a large serving of soup in something that I can carry home?” I asked, placing money for three meals onto the table and standing to leave. She regarded me curiously for a moment before collecting the money and weaving through the crowd towards the kitchen.
I could feel eyes on me, bearing down on me from all directions. I cast my own gaze around uncomfortably, a faint trickle of magical energy subconsciously trickling into my hands. This is why I hated visiting places like this, the way I was always regarded as something... abnormal. The painfully familiar desire to feel welcome, or at the very least, normal, settled in the pit of my stomach. My eyes lingered on the face of a waitress and I realized that but for a small change at birth, it could have been me there smiling and laughing amidst the crowd. Maybe Angela was right about me, maybe I was like an elusive princess... only one that was trapped in an icy tower and forever doomed to look down on the world longingly.
I realized how much my mind was drifting into weakness and bit my lip to rid myself of it. My thoughts now clear, I realized I had forgotten something.
“Damn it all, how could I have been so heartless as to not give her a tip!” I mumbled, cursing myself for my carelessness.
“I figured you were merely distracted, princess.” Angela's voice drifted over my shoulder. I spun around to see her smiling at me and holding out a large bag to me. For what felt like the dozenth time since I'd met her I felt my cheeks coloring as I reached out to take the bag from her. As I did so I noticed that she had draped a light jacket over her bare shoulders. She caught my eyes and that mischievous gleam from before returned. “As recompense you can walk me home on this chilly night. Surely a brave knight like yourself wouldn't let a fair damsel travel alone?” she questioned, acting for all the part like a frail maiden. I couldn't help the smile that tugged at my lips as I took the bag from her.
“Very well, I will accompany you to your...” she was already looping her arm through mine and tugging me towards the entranceway.
“You need to loosen up a little, princess,” she said with a laugh as we stepped out into the chill night air. “Life's too short to stand on ceremony, especially with someone of my questionable morals,” she finished with a wink. I actually managed to keep the blood from rushing to my face and offered her a wry smile.
“Easier said then done... fair damsel,” I shot back. I'd intended to say it in a teasing tone, but I wasn't exactly sure how and it came out sounding rather chiding. Angela seemed to understand what I was attempting though and giggled behind her hand.
“That's more like it!” she said happily and gave my arm a little squeeze. I swallowed nervously and turned my face away from hers.
We walked in relative silence for a few minutes. The only sounds that of the clicking of her heels on the stonework. My mind wandered, and I marveled at the nature of my companion. Angela was so open and honest. Devious, yet kind and good natured all at the same time. I wondered, and maybe even hoped, if I could ever be like the woman who held my arm.
We crossed into the Residential District, the small houses and clusters of apartments all tightly packed together. I subconsciously pulled Angela a little closer to me, feeling as if we were being watched from every darkened alleyway.
“You're sweet,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. “That's a little surprising, if you don't mind my saying...” she added a little timidly. The fact that a woman like her possessed any timidity surprised me far more than the question itself.
“How do you mean?”
“The few times I've seen you in person you seemed a little... cold, distant even. Like you felt that you didn't really belong, or something. I'm sorry, that must sound really rude.” A wry smile spread across my face.
“No, you're quite right...” I said, my voice trailing off.
I'd wanted to say more, but the lump forming in my throat was making it difficult. Apart from Cid I'd never really talked to anybody about myself and I wasn't sure of how to go about it. As it turned out, I wouldn't get the chance to find out as a shambling figure emerged from a nearby alleyway and approached us. The man was unshaven, wore ragged clothes, and smelled like it had been a good while since his last scrubbing. I positioned myself between him and Angela and reached for my sword with my free hand only to have it caught by hers and returned to my side.
“Hello, Cliffe, how are you doing this fine evening?” She asked the man, giving me a look that said we were in no danger.
“Oh, about the same, Angela,” he murmured. His timid voice carried the sound of a broken spirit. The tension drained from my limbs and I settled in to watch with great interest.
“You able to get anything to eat today?” The man nodded and mumbled something about leftovers from a bakery. Angela smiled and fished a few gil out of a concealed purse and pressed them into the man's hands. “You head over to the Blade and tell Shirley I said to whip you up an extra special order, okay hon?” A smile creaked through the man's weathered face.
“Bless ya, Angela,” he said with such honest gratitude that it warmed my heart. I started for my own purse to contribute but again found my hand stopped by Angela's, this time having her fingers interlaced through mine.
“You take care now!” she called, waving with her free hand as the man stumbled off. “He lost his family to the war,” she said somberly when he was out of earshot. “I feel bad for the guy, so I like to help him out a little when I can.”
“Then why did you stop me?” I asked. She turned her smiling eyes on me and the combined effect of her gaze and the feeling of her fingers between mine created a peculiar tumbling feeling in my chest.
“That was sweet of you, really, but if you gave him too much, as I suspect you would have, he would probably have spent it on booze to drown away his misery. A few gil and the fresh idea of a meal will usually end with a full belly and hope for a better tomorrow.”
“You're wonderful...” I said, staring at her with sheer wonderment. Never in my life had I known someone so caring and selfless.
“Oh, you're just trying to make me blush!”
“It's true!” I exclaimed, the tumbling feeling building higher and higher in my chest. “I can't even begin to imagine how wonderful it must feel to be a normal woman!” And just like that the warmth in her eyes was replaced by concern and the feeling was gone.
“What do you mean?”
I bit my lip and cursed myself for expressing something so personal and unsettling.
“It's nothing you need worry about...” I murmured, turning my eyes away.
“It's okay,” she said, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “I'm nosy, but I'm not heartless.”
And as simple as that, the matter was dropped. She tugged me along on our way down the street and began humming the tune that had been playing in the tavern as we walked. It was off key and she was improvising the parts she couldn't remember, but for reasons I couldn't understand at the time I found her version far more enjoyable. Eventually though, the tune came to a halt and I realized that we'd come to a stop in front of a rundown building that likely housed a few dozen small apartments.
“Residential Block C-3,” I noted, “I used to patrol this area back when I was a grunt.”
“Back when there were patrols,” she added, failing to mask the bitterness. I frowned apologetically.
“We're at war, some cutbacks are unavoidable,” I said. The words sounded hollow even to my ears.
“And some things shouldn't be ignored; like the lives of your citizens...” I stepped back as if I'd been struck. For seemingly the hundredth time in so few days the Emperor's actions had been called into question and the accusations were starting to gain weight.
“I... I'm sorry...” I whispered, at a loss for words. She regarded me for a moment and her eyes softened.
“Nah, I'm sorry. Times are tough right now for everyone. I didn't mean to take it out on you, sweetheart. Especially when you were kind enough to walk me home after all that teasing I did.” she said with a little laugh, the smile returning to her eyes.
“It was a pleasure, Angela,” I said, offering my hand awkwardly. There was something in her smile that had me flustered. She looked at the hand and laughed.
“Oh you're just adorable!” she said, leaning in to place a kiss on my cheek. I nearly lost my grip on the bag when her warm lips pressed against my skin. When she finished, she didn't pull away but rather leaned in closer to whisper in my ear. “Don't think I've forgotten about the dance you owe me...” If I'd been too stunned to blush when she kissed me it had passed now. “I figure you have someone to get home to, so I'll let you go... for now...”
She pulled away and walked to the doors of the apartment complex, pausing to turn and give me a sultry wink before stepping into the building and leave me alone in the chill night air.
'Is... is that really what a normal woman is like?' I pressed my fingers against the place where her lips had touched my cheek. The smile tugging at my lips wouldn't be denied. 'I think I might enjoy finding out...' With that, I spun on my heel and made for the palace.
I barely remembered the walk back, it felt as if I was floating on a cloud the whole way. The moment I stepped through the doorway, however, I was on high alert. The usual silence I had come to expect wasn't there to greet me. In it's place was a faint murmuring. I stalked silently towards my chambers and nudged the door open to peek inside. What I saw added to the surprising amount of cheer I had built up over the course of the strange night.
Terra had propped herself up with a few pillows and was holding the oddly delivered moogle plushie by its arms to make it dance across her lap. She was humming some unfamiliar tune for the toy to dance to. Her bright green eyes shimmered with simple joy. I watched her for a time, drinking in the absence of fear and pain that she had radiated before. I felt... warm, knowing that I had contributed to the girl's healing. The humming had stopped. I shook myself from my reverie to see those green eyes regarding me curiously.
“Hello,” I said, offering her a warm smile. “I thought you might be hungry when you woke, so brought you some soup.” I indicated the bag in my hand. She sat still as a statue, which made me a little uncomfortable. “Do you think you could eat something?” I asked. When she finally decided to respond, she first looked down at the moogle in her lap, then back up at me to tilt her head curiously.
To be continued...