lassarina: (Celes)
[personal profile] lassarina posting in [community profile] rose_in_winter
Characters: Celes, Locke, Setzer (threesome)
Rating: G
Contains: Endgame spoilers
Wordcount: 1009
Notes: Written for the prompt Orphaned punchline: "and then the bartender says, that's not a duck!" and of course I somehow managed to make something angst-ridden of that, because me.
Beta: [personal profile] seventhe
Summary: Celes doesn't know how to live outside the strictures of army life.

"And the bartender says, 'that's not a duck!'" Locke slams his tankard down on the table, and sends himself and Setzer into gales of laughter.

Celes watches them over her beer, brows knit. "I do not understand," she says. "Why is the species of waterfowl important?"

The laughter fades in awkward hiccups, and they look at her with at least as much confusion on their faces as she feels. She knows this is one of those times where her training broke the lines between the ideas of person and soldier, and she should not have asked, but she wants to understand.

Setzer tries first. "There's a children's story, about an ugly duckling that is raised by a mother duck, and it is the ugliest of her brood, but it grows up into a beautiful swan. The man brought a swan into the bar claiming it was a duck."

She knows the story, or at least has heard the phrase "ugly duckling," but this does not make the joke funny. Her expression must convey this, because Locke sighs. "Never mind," he says. "It's not important."

She swallows hard. "I did not mean to interrupt your…" She gestures. The words aren't right; she can't call it leave. "Your humor."

"It's okay," Locke says. "It's not as funny if you can't enjoy it too."

No doubt he thinks he has made a gallant statement, but she knows how hard they laughed, and how little she understood. "I am tired," she says, and it is too abrupt. She sees the flickers of their expressions before they smooth into gentle concern. "Enjoy yourselves." She leaves enough gil to cover their drinks for several more hours, and leaves the bar.

It seems she's always in Albrook when she comes up against the distance between her and the rest of the world. Is it something about the city, or herself? She leans on the railing where once, a few years and also a lifetime ago, she walked away from Locke when he tried to explain himself to her. Now she's walking away again, and one day he won't come after her.

She wonders when that started to matter.

Locke is not as quiet as he thinks he is when he approaches, and Setzer doesn't even try. She keeps her gaze fixed on the harbor as they come to her, one on either side, and says nothing.

To her surprise, it is Setzer who breaks the silence. "How can we help?"

She looks sidelong at him beneath her lashes, and finds that he is not looking at her; instead, he stares out at the sea. It makes it easier to speak. "I do not know how to be a person," she says slowly. "War, command, diplomacy—those are all things I know. But I don't know how to not be a soldier." She has to stop, to breathe, because the next words are more frightening even than the moment Gestahl's soldiers caught her trying to warn Doma of Kefka's attack, when she realized that her privileged status as the White General would only make her punishment harsher. "I don't know if I can learn."

"Of course you can," Locke says. "You learned magic, and tactics. War, command, diplomacy—" His cadence and delivery mirror hers precisely. "Those are all things you learned. Why is this different?"

"Because the rules don't work the same!" The wind blows her hair into her mouth, and she shoves it back roughly. "There is a logic to war. There is no logic to—to jokes about ducks!"

Locke starts to speak again, then falls silent; she thinks Setzer must have made a gesture she didn't see, to warn him off. Once, the thought that she had missed that kind of communication would have driven her to train for hours to alleviate the failure; now, it just makes her tired.

"I'm sorry we excluded you," Setzer says instead, and his hand eases nearer hers on the railing, almost close enough to touch. "I forgot that you wouldn't be familiar."

She nods, not knowing what to say.

"I've got a rule for you," Locke says. "He who hurts your feelings has to make it up in a way you choose." He grins, clearly very proud of himself, but all she can think is no one should give another free rein like that. What if she asked him to do something dangerous? With no magic, the world is a harsher place than it used to be. What if she accidentally asked for something and offended him?

The silence stretches out as she grapples with these questions.

His smile fades. "I was hoping you'd ask for a kiss," he says, looking at the ground, abashed.

This is something she understands. She tips his chin up with her fingertips and presses her lips to his, and his hands slide into her hair, tugging in a way that sends inexplicable shivers down her spine—shivers that don't exist when she brushes her own hair.

Setzer clears his throat. "Perhaps we might move this indoors, away from prying eyes," he says. Locke steps back, reluctantly, but turns for the inn door.

Celes hesitates. "I don't want to be your punch line," she says. "I might not know how to be a person but I'm not your joke."

"My dear," Setzer says, "anyone who could trick me into thinking she was Maria—and then convince me to join a rebellion against an Empire that had lined my pockets perfectly well until then—is no joke."

Locke's expression is surprisingly somber when he meets her eyes. "You came for me in the Phoenix Cave," he says simply.

It isn't the answer to the question she didn't quite ask, but it's enough. She lets them take her hands, and they go back to their inn room, where Locke insists on making up foolish rules until Setzer silences him with a kiss. She doesn't understand why they bend so easily around her, but she is grateful for it.
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