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Part I

- - -

It isn't surprising that they end up together and apart at the end of Cecil and Rosa's wedding, a little too drunk and a little too lonely: Edge hiding from his delegation and his title; Rydia, a nervous green flutter at his side (even as she bites back on his smoothest lines with snappy retorts and her usual distancing sarcasm), using his showy glamour to hide the fact that she's alone: friendless, homeless, nation-less, country-less, delegation-less. Edge would feel sorry for her except that he's too busy being jealous of her freedoms; and thus they sit, at a table in the corner of the ballroom, far enough away from the crowd to hide the fact that the King of Eblan is blatantly dodging his royal responsibilities with a girl who has refused to wear ballroom slippers.

Their table's a little shadowed and a lot private, and it's also right next to the bar, and they find it's a little too easy to work as a team: Rydia distracting Baron's finest barkeep while Edge uses his never-rusty ninja skills to pilfer Baron's finest… whatever this is: it's clear, and it's alcoholic, and there sure is a lot of it in this nice bottle. Rydia looks a little uneven and unstable, although Edge realizes (much too late to be a gentleman about it) that her particular upbringing might have negatively affected her ability to deal with, say, shots. Then again, since he's been chasing her two-to-one, it might be his own line of vision that's wavering, rather than her sense of balance.

"Kain's an ass," he says into a really nice silence, because Rydia's looking down at her lap with a glum sort of expression pursing her lips, and he doesn't want her to leave, because if she leaves then he will be spotted and dragged back into everything he's trying to escape from at the bottom of this bottle.

She looks up at him, and frowns. "That isn't really fair, is it?"

He shrugs. "But he is. He could've at least showed up to this thing, you know? He's Cecil's best friend, and Rosa's… other best friend." His logic has stumbled, somewhere, but Edge isn't really sure why or how. "He has no class, the selfish bastard."

"Be nice," Rydia says automatically, although the sentiment is somewhat undone by her next rambly statement: "Kain's an ass who has no class. You should pass that on to Edward, see if he can make a nice little poem out of it."

"Let's go find him." The words are out of his mouth before he thinks – which happens more often than Edge would like to admit – but they feel right, and so he sits back in his chair and smiles smugly at Rydia.

"Who, Edward?" She frowns at him, confused. "Go ahead, if you want. I'm having a perfectly good time right here with my—" She reaches out, and Edge realizes just how drunk she is, because she's graceful: all night Rydia has been a combination of awkward frustration and unacknowledged envy and displaced loneliness, a cocktail made physical by jerky handshakes and unpracticed curtseys; now, relaxed with alcohol and a private table, out of the glittering public eye, she has developed grace and poise. "My new friend, this bottle of spirits." Her lips twitch. "Spirits in a bottle. What would Asura say about that?"

"Not Edward." Now that the idea's in his head, he thinks it's perfect – which, again, happens more often than should be normal (or relevant). "Kain. Let's go find him, bring him back to Baron. He belongs here," he says emphatically, only after the fact realizing he truly believes it. "Cecil thinks he went to Mount Ordeals. No problem, for a team like us. Let's go."

Rydia forgets to look repulsed this time as she looks him dead in the eye. "You're serious," she says, her tone of voice revealing that she is too, and Edge has a moment of panic in which to wonder whether she's one of those people who can go instantly sober. "Now?"

"Tomorrow," he declares.

- - -

Tomorrow their heads hurt, but the next day Cecil and Rosa leave for their honeymoon and Rydia and Edge manage to sneak away in the delightfully distracting mess they leave behind. Rydia wants to know what he told the other royals of Eblan, but Edge dismisses her concerns – not wanting to admit that he gave them no warning whatsoever, or that he doesn't feel bad about it at all, because he's done it a dozen times before.

The Serpent's Road takes them to Mysidia, and Rydia's magic takes them past the pillar of flame sealing the mountain from prying eyes and curious travelers. Edge tries to make a joke about Kain walking through fire, but Rydia hushes him: "Never mock sentient magic," she tells him, and she's serious about it – which surprises him.

The look on his face must be question enough, because she explains. "Any magic that exists without a spell, without a caster, that's sentient magic. It comes from… usually the source is something very powerful, natural or unnatural." She gives Edge a very even look. "And we respect whatever that source is, because usually things like that can squash you like a bug without even waking up."

Edge grins, because he never would have thought Rydia a superstitious woman – but the look in her eyes is serious, and his grin slowly fades.

They find the Mount Ordeals odd, unusual, unlike anything Edge has ever seen or experienced, and that's taking into account the entire moon, too; the monsters are plentiful enough to be a burden, if an easily-defeated one, and Edge is thoroughly glad he asked for Rydia's help (because he did ask, right?) since otherwise he might've turned around and left Kain to his solitude. It weighs on him, and he can feel all kinds of thoughts he doesn't want to think about rattling like bones in the back of his mind. The sun hides behind clouds, and their world is misty and grey like a graveyard.

But Rydia is a cheerful green-bright spark in the gloom. "I've always wanted to see this place," she tells him reverently. "We have legends about it, even in the Feymarch. And knowing Cecil was here…" It glows in her eyes, the healthy respect and near hero-worship she has for Cecil. "I hope there is at least something remaining at the top."

"Hopefully it'll be Kain." Edge grins at her and shifts the blades on his back. "And we can clobber some sense into that thick helmet of his and drag him back to Baron."

"That can be your job, if you're so sure of your own strength," she says, waggling her fingers. "Remember I'm not the one who can cast Float."

Edge agrees with her, at the face of it; his people have no legends about the Mount Ordeals, but he's always loved a good adventure. He felt restless, as a child, because he was always off looking for grand and grander things: dragons to slay, evil to vanquish, maidens to save. Now that he's faced down hatred itself, it's tempered, a little – but not much. And this time he's climbing the mountain with the beautiful maiden at his side, to save someone else. It's a good adventure.

They continue on, into the growing shadows of the stone and the wild.

- - -

The first batch of zombies they face surprises them, but Rydia tears through them with fire and a battle-cry Edge doesn't understand (maybe it is some kind of monster-language, an esper-tongue). Afterwards she looks at him, her face alight with her magic's residual tingling.

"Leave me something to do next time," Edge quips – and so she does, when the next set of misshapen skeletons come towards them. It isn't until Edge has slain the first, dodged the second, and rounded upon the third that he sees the long strands of hair still attached to the spotted, rotting skull – they're dark, like his mother's hair was dark.

Edge thinks of Lugae.

The next thing he knows he's in the middle of a pile of smoking bones, and Rydia's looking at him and rolling her eyes.

"Show-off," she says, and Edge wonders what just happened.

- - -

The trek has turned their mood somewhat somber by night; the creatures they face and the groom of the mountain seem impervious to even Rydia's spark of cheer.

"The mountain is a trial, Cecil said." Rydia's voice is hushed, as they crouch around a small fire; her voice is low, and breathy, and Edge is glad to hear that this creepy place is getting to her as well. "A straightforward trial, testing the darkness and light within you." She shudders. "There's just something about facing the undead…"

Edge clamps his mouth shut, because his first instinct is to yell at her: at least you didn't see your parents turn into this, and that isn't a helpful response (nor is it kind and gentlemanly in the slightest) and he's afraid to give the mountain more fodder for his nightmares. He sees his mother's awful lurch in every misshapen creature, his father's lopsided uneven head and arms reaching for him, and is it any surprise he lets his ninja-fire rage all the darker for it, burning them on the pyre of his adulthood rites until they are nothing but ashes and memories?

But he doesn't want to snap at Rydia – which he finds surprisingly unusual, but they've reached a strange truce on this mountain. It's a sense of camaraderie, almost peace, instead of their usual sarcastic sniping and angry distance. And how would she know what haunts him in his nightmares? It isn't her fault.

"At least we're taking them out of their misery," Edge allows himself to say, and Rydia gives him a strange look, contemplative and dark.

"How generous of you," she says, finally, but she gives him a ghost of a smirk and he realizes she's teasing; at least they're back on familiar ground.

He shrugs. "If that's the trial, we're going to beat this thing in a day. I almost hope there's—"

"Stop it!" She shushes him, her eyes wide. "Honestly, Edge, are you an imbecile? Holy places listen."

Her lips are set, her face flushed and stern: she's serious. Edge remembers who she grew up with: Asura, Queen of the Feymarch, three-faced guardian of life, death, and the in-between. Rydia probably learned about sacred magics at the knee of the All-Holy herself; he should trust her.

- - -

Their battles develop a rhythm, as Edge learns which creatures his swords can strike and which are a waste of his time; Rydia's magic cuts indiscriminately through any and every creature they face, but her magic is limited and cannot be wasted. The fights would be enjoyable, were it not for the nauseating lurch of every creature they face, the rotting hiss of the ground beneath their feet. Edge is realizing they do make a decently good team, if rather unbalanced towards the offensive; but the Mount Ordeals seems to be testing them only, rather than making them defend their very lives.

He finds the faster they work, the less he thinks of Lugae; and thus he spurs Rydia on, making the battles somewhat of a challenge, a competition: not just between he and her, but between them and the beasts, between them and the undead and the mountain with no sun.

It eventually becomes obvious that this Mount Ordeals is not the one Cecil spoke of.

"I – don't – understand," Rydia pants; they're tucked in a small alcove in the stone to catch their breath and gather strength, because without healing spells and potions it's the only way for them to endure the long onslaught of their days. "This can't be right."

"It's a trial." Edge shrugs, because he's bothered by it too; the monsters, the traps, the caverns teeming with poison and beasts — Cecil's stories had monsters and wandering, but not quite as much of either, and he's starting to be concerned.

Rydia frowns, and puts her hands on her hips – it looks unhappy, but Edge knows this means she's thinking, all the odd-shaped and brightly-colored gears of her brain turning. Her face is flushed from the last battle; her skin looks an unnatural red-grey, lit by light reflecting off stone. "Cecil made it to the top of this mountain, as a Dark Knight, with the help of two kids just hitting Fira – they were weaker than us, Edge." The look she throws him is honest: worried, and a little fearful. He doesn't like it; Rydia's careful with her fear, and doubly so around him.

He shrugs, and opens his hands towards her. "What do you want me to do?" Because there's nothing for it; either they continue, or they turn around.

"We'll be fine," he adds. Perhaps it's arrogant, because Edge knows he is arrogant, but he can't think that a mountain will defeat them after the things they've faced down.

- - -

They go without healing. Rydia tries to summon Asura twice, but she has trouble making the connection, and each time it uses more of her magical reserves than she professes comfort with; instead they find it adequate to stop early each night and rest to heal their aches and wounds. The air from the mountain has gotten into their bones, Edge thinks as he looks around: they've become somber, both of them, which is unusual.

Evenings are cool and solemn on Mount Ordeals; there is no sun, but the mountain's light waxes and wanes just like day, the strangely-cast shadows twisting and fading. They tuck themselves into the rocks and stones at night; so far, the mountain has chosen to protect their sleep, and Edge has decided to find that reassuring. Rydia lights a fire, and they sit and stare for a while, lost in their thoughts.

Rydia shivers. "It's cold, here," she says. A flick of her fingers, and the fire grows. "Do you think Kain's alright?"

Edge shrugs. "Who knows. He'd better be, for all the trouble we're going through here."

Rydia smirks, and tosses her hair a little. "This was your idea, hotshot." She extends her hands towards the fire; Edge watches her face twist, a little.

"Then why are you here?" He shifts closer to the fire himself, although he doesn't want to admit to a chill; they're going to be on this mountain for longer than he'd like, but he's still clutching his pride about him like a cloak.

"Because…" Rydia trails off, and Edge looks up abruptly to see an odd, shuttered-like look on her face, and he remembers the stern set to her jaw at Cecil's wedding as she paraded in, by herself, her wild green hair and summoner's robes marking her as a stranger – exotic, to some; awkward, to others; most of the courtly ladies only noticed her bare feet – and something in his stomach drops to think maybe Rydia came because she had nowhere else to go.

Her expression retreats to something he calls her stone-face, a face he can never read, no matter how hard he tries to interpret her body-language and aura; and then the small smirk blossoms across her lips like fire in the darkness. "I'm here to keep your scrawny rear out of trouble. It's not much of a wedding present to Cecil and Rosa if you get yourself skewered in this wilderness." Her lips purse in an overly-obvious thinking-face. "Or maybe it is," she teases. "Replacing you with Kain sounds pretty good right about now."

He sticks his tongue out at her; she tosses her hair again and makes a little uppity noise, and turns back to the flames. Edge watches her for a long moment, her sharply-angled face lit awkwardly by her fire; he hopes she's here for a better reason. For Kain, maybe; or for his own sake, even: he'd like to call Rydia a friend. Maybe he will be able to, after all of this.

- - -

They are buried under cloud and mist, and sometimes Edge feels like he hasn't seen the sun in far too long; all the shadows fall wrong, too, as if Mount Ordeals is lit from within.

"I've always wondered about the undead." Rydia shivers, and she cranes her neck to look upwards, towards the summit they're no closer to. "How they seem to gather around holy places and awful places alike. Death and life: it's like an opposite, like fire and ice, but different. Why doesn't the light keep them away?"

Edge rubs his face with his hands. He doesn't want to think about the undead creatures who roam here, because those thoughts lead to more horrible thoughts, either of his parents or of Kain: defeated, conquered, waiting at the top of the mountain, an undead spectre to swallow them both whole. He doesn't like the ease with which that image inserts itself into his brain; he's already rather frustrated at the discrepancy between Cecil's stories and reality, and he doesn't need zombie-Kain nightmares on top of the fears he already isn't acknowledging.

"Maybe they're drawn to the light," she muses, and Edge glances over. Rydia has rambled to him before about the natures of magic, but he doesn't understand it; his ninja magics are an illusion, a twist of light and a trick of speed, turning one thing into another. The elements she wields are different. "Rosa can heal, and she can cast life… but she can also cast Holy, which kills. And I cannot."

"Maybe you can ask when we reach the top," he offers, finally. "Maybe Cecil's daddy can tell you."

Rydia makes a face, and flaps her sleeves at him. "Show some respect," she says, but it's the most spirit she's shown in a few days, and Edge grins despite the dour sky above them.

"Will he still be there?" she asks Edge a few minutes later, her voice low as they climb. "Cecil's father?"

"I'm not sure." Edge thinks about it; Cecil had seemed convinced that his father was gone, and the absence of Lunarian powers might explain the changes in the mountain: Mount Ordeals could be reverting back to its natural state, like a garden growing more wild with less tending. And yet Kain had fled here, and Cecil was sure of it; and Edge feels the mountain tingle under his feet, a quiet rumbling echo in the very back of his skull. Something's here. But what? Edge isn't sure which he'd rather find at the pinnacle of this monstrosity: a Lunarian-haunted holy shrine, or the hollow shell of an empty building? Neither is enticing. He mentally stomps on his wandering thoughts, which are taking this opportunity to wonder why they're still here; a test of will, he thinks.

A glance at Rydia's face – stern, solemn, pensive – makes Edge think she might be thinking the same thing.

- - -

"This mountain makes me think of the dead," she whispers, later, when she's curled up to him for heat and his arm around her is making him think awful thoughts of the very-much alive variety; Rydia is wary of human touch, and even this very chaste and practical cuddle is akin to victory for him, which makes him all the more likely to ruin it. "I keep seeing my mother, after –after," she says, swallowing whatever too-appropriate word she'd chosen for that sentence.

And then she rolls over, to face him, her small mouth pursed in question and her breath on his face; Edge keeps his arm around her, because it isn't just the chill of the night in his bones. "How much worse is it for you?" she asks, proving to him once again that she can decipher humanity and human emotion very well, for all that she only dabbles in it, her untrained understanding occasionally seeing crystal-clear through his masks. Her voice is a very small whisper in the darkness. "Do you see them?"

"Every time." There's something about the darkness and the night and their closeness that lets him admit it, a fear he wouldn't own in daylight – but it's not just that; it's Mount Ordeals, the trial, the never-ending maze of caverns and traps Cecil gave them no warning for, the endless looping around and behind and into the very heart of this mountain, rich with the scent of earth and stone and rotting. "All the time."

"Do you miss them?"

It's a potent question. "Of course," he says, slowly, thinking about it. "But not in a sad way." Although it hurts more than he can put into words, some days, when the thought of his mother and father stabs him through his empty heart like katana; "I'm angry about it. About them, about Lugae, about everything. So they're not… gone, if I'm angry about it. It's somehow okay to miss them in anger." He closes his eyes, because hers are wide and curious and understanding and not sympathetic (she can't even spell the word, let alone define it) and it's exactly what he wants but it's also too much to have.

"I was angry. For years." Her voice is so matter-of-fact Edge opens his eyes to look at her, because he realizes with a sinking sense of foreboding in his stomach that she's talking about Kain, and – he has a brief moment of panic, as if the holy Mount Ordeals is alive and listening, and it will hear something it cannot condone in the tone of Rydia's words and somehow forbid them passage.

But she's looking at him all alight with it, more alive than this dead mountain of stone and rot and clay, and without even thinking he leans forward to kiss her – his mind catches up with his mouth almost immediately, so it's desperately brief, just a brushing of his lips against hers, more tentative and gentle than he's ever been (or wants to be).

She looks surprised, and lifts a hand to her mouth, touching her fingers to where his lips were and then looking at them in a query he can almost hear – but she says nothing. Eventually she tucks her arm back in where it was, against him, and they both close their eyes for sleep.

- - -

The mountain continues to confound them, and something suspicious in Edge wonders whether there is some secret to this mount they were not privy to; they continue to trek, but it is wearing on them, the time and the distance and the familiar repeated tunnels and caves and the beasts – always the beasts. Edge is thoroughly sick of the undead. He can tell Rydia is just as frustrated as he by the way her higher-level magic flares more frequently; she has always channeled her emotions into her spells, which explains why the white-magics do not come as easily to her, as they require a control (and empathy) she does not bear.

She throws her whip to the ground with a clatter when they stop to camp, and sits next to it in a childish huff. "Why are we still even here? We don't even like Kain."

Edge turns to look at her – slowly, something heavy in his gut twisting, although he doesn't know why, at her words: "Hey, speak for yourself," he says, his voice sounding fake even to his own ears and why is he so suddenly worried?

She blows the air out of her mouth and gives him a very sulky look. "That – that isn't what I meant." Her eyes are smoldering, but then she sighs, and tucks her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and resting her chin on top. "It's just… why are we here, for him? We're not even his close friends; it's not like we share any special kind of bond with the guy. We don't know anything about him other than when we traveled together. We don't have any ties to him at all, other than thinking he's a giant colossal SandWorm for what he did to Cecil and Rosa."

She stops, and Edge knows what she's going to say before she says it. "Is that why we can't get anywhere?" she whispers, and looks up at him, her eyes wide and still smoldering – with fear, now. "Is the mountain – are we failing because of that?"

"We're not failing," Edge says, with venom in his voice, because he's afraid too: and if Rydia loses her nerve, he isn't sure he has enough to keep them going. It's true that nothing really bad has happened to them, so far; they're safe, and sound, and their rests keep them healed enough for the type of battles they face. Their food supplies aren't dwindling, either, and Edge isn't sure (and doesn't want to know) whether it's because the mountain is replacing what they consume or if there's something in the air sustaining them: neither one is anything he wants to seriously consider. "We're not failing. We're not failing anything."

"Edge." Rydia purses her lips and looks at him: contemplative, not argumentative. "It's obvious that this isn't at all like Cecil said it would be."

"No, it's not," he admits. "But that doesn't mean we're screwed. Don't lose faith in us just yet," and because he sounds much too serious, he tosses her a sexy grin and what he considers his most racy wink. "We are just too fantastic to fail."

She returns a very dramatic sigh, and stands up to go gather firewood; Edge starts to arrange the stones around their chosen spot for protection (just in case) and tries very hard not to think about Rydia and Kain. What sort of trial is this?

- - -

They've taken to sleeping together for warmth all the time, now, Rydia's natural aversion to touch fading as her resolve fades; Edge curls himself around her back under their one blanket and holds on.

"Tell me about your mother."

It's the kind of thing he never would have asked otherwise, but at this ungodly hour in their small camp, there's some kind of peace between them, and he wants to know.

"She was… brave." Her voice is so small, so unlike the thundering cry she uses to call down lightning and ice; Rydia is a contrast of power and frailty, and it never fails to fascinate him, the weaknesses and strengths she bears. "The people in Mist talk about how kind and sweet and beautiful she was, but what I remember is how brave she was, how much of a fighter she could have been. She had me, all alone, and she could have married, or at least nannied me, but…" Edge feels her swallow. "And she stood up to the village, too, and she earned Mist in the old-fashioned way. I was so proud of her, even as a kid."

The old-fashioned way: Edge knows this means battle, the oldest of languages. Rydia explained it to him once, haltingly, falteringly, until he told her the old Eblani tales about ninja kings (and, in a few choice cases, queens) who had earned their places through the strength of sword and skill; he still remembers how relieved she was to have found someone who understood. And he still remembers the surprise he felt when he'd realized what that meant: this small slip of a girl had defeated them all, Ifrit and Shiva and Ramuh and Titan, younger and smaller and less experienced; she'd faced them with only her bare hands and her magic and her gritty determination, and she'd won. At that age he'd been chasing girls around the palace and arranging his parents' precious artifacts into compromising positions, for fun.

"Do you miss her?" he asks; it comes out gentle, and soft, and it's fitting for the night and her warmth and the despair they're both starting to feel. Edge feels out-of-character, as if this mountain's replacing him with someone else, and he's not a fan of the feeling.

"It's been more than ten years," Rydia reminds him. She shifts herself, so that she can look over her shoulder at him; her face is as serene and blank as the mountain around them: her stone-face. Edge isn't sure whether he loves or hates when she gets like this: emotionally unreadable; or maybe just untranslatable, as her emotions shift into an eidolon-spectrum he doesn't understand. "I miss her every day," she continues, slowly, "but it isn't that – when I was younger it hurt like an ache, all the time, like something I wanted to Cura away. Now?" She rolls over the rest of the way, but her gaze is on the dark rock above them. "I think I miss what she could have been. What she could have seen and done. What I could have been, growing up with her."

"Were you that unhappy?"

She turns to look at him, and scoffs, her lips twisting into something cute and derisive. "Of course not. And that's the hardest part; would I change anything that's happened to me? Would I give up Asura and Leviathan, or having my powers, just to have her back? What about helping Cecil? What about saving the world?" She bites her lip, and her voice drops to a whisper. "I mean, would you? If having them back meant you – stayed in Eblan? Didn't come with us?"

"You guys would have failed without me. So no." He grins, and a quick look flashes across her face, her usual indignant response to his arrogant boasts, before her features settle back into that serene nothingness. She looks at him, saying nothing, and Edge wonders whether he'll ever understand this strange wild woman.

"I don't know," he tells her eventually. "I can't – They're not coming back, and I know that. And because I can't have it … I haven't really thought about it."

She shrugs, a small movement against him in the night. "I can't stop thinking about it." Her voice is low. "I've been thinking about it for ten years."

- - -

When she kisses him the next night he can almost read the experimentation in her lips: experimentation and distraction, both. Edge can't blame her, because he too feels out-of-body and detached by their trek and he kisses her back a little more eagerly and hungrily than maybe he intended, reveling in the way the rush of blood and heat through his body feels real, human, fallible and excitable. He isn't really sure how much experience Rydia has in any of this sort of thing, but there's a heady-nervous feeling filling his stomach at the thought of that. She has always fascinated and intrigued him and he wonders whether he can make her feel the same way, drawn to him the way he is to her.

Her lips are soft, and she's so warm in the dull gloom of the mountain: she's ended up on her back, her hands tangled in his hair as she pulls him close, and Edge rolls a little on top of her because she's soft and warm and not made of rock and stone. Rydia makes a noise – a small chirp, almost, animal-like – and it inspires Edge to brush his hands against her face again; her eyes flutter closed, and she pulls him back down for another kiss. Her thumbs are on his face, almost exploring, and he leans into it as best he can: for this moment he's all hers, to explore and experiment as she likes.

When he moves, to slide the top of her robes away from her shoulder and place his lips there, she gasps; he continues, his mouth sliding to her neck – she tastes of dust and life beneath it – it catches deeper in her throat, almost a growl. Edge shifts, and she suddenly stops, laughing, as she gasps out: "Sorry, there's a rock – dammit, move, Edge-" The sound is half-laugh and half-throaty as he lifts himself off of her; she removes his cape almost deftly and spreads it across the ground as blanket and barrier.

From there she's as eager as he; they're both clumsy with it, unused to each other. Rydia has a myriad of noises, Edge finds, and all are hers, animalistic noises run through the vibrant-green filter of her personality. Her fingers tangle in his hair and his fabrics and dance across his skin like wild things, a tease and a threat all at once, until Edge feels like he's going to lose his mind. Rydia's green like growing things, like live things, like flowers and beasts and eidolons and he imagines he can taste the magic on her skin, buzzing like life beneath her summoner's beads and the rune-bearing leather she wears.

He lets her take the lead; it isn't that he's pushing, more that she's pulling him in: her hums and hisses and mews are easy enough to read, maybe easier than real words. He isn't sure his brain would want words anyway, in the silence that is this mountain and the imperfect buzz that is Rydia, wrapped around him, her skin warm and reassuring against his. He kisses her like he wants to swallow her; she darts away, then returns with force of her own, learning from his lead and then some: the speed with which she whirls through these myriad changes and emotions makes Edge dizzy, like his hands and body cannot keep up. He should have guessed even this would be a competition between them, if a friendly one; then his brain blurs over until all he knows is bright green and the sound of Rydia's breathing.

- - -

The mountain is defeating them, bit by bit. Rydia's magic never wanes completely, due to their nightly rests, but she is always spent and sluggish at the end of each day. Edge feels bone-weary, a heartache of exhaustion he remembers from the first days of his ninja training, when he thought he was good enough to do what his father did, and failed.

"Why would Kain come here?" Rydia's voice is low. Her eyes are on the fire, and Edge watches the reflection of flickering red flames for a moment.

"I don't know," he answers, honestly, because now that he's seen the mountain, he understands Kain even less. "Maybe he just wanted to get out of Baron, go somewhere he couldn't be found."

Rydia frowns. "But this is Cecil's place. Cecil's father, anyway. Why come here to get away from Cecil?"

"I don't know," Edge says, more frustrated than he wants to let on, because he doesn't know, and this is just like every other time Rydia has asked him incessantly about human behavior except worse because they're stuck on a preternaturally prescient mountain covered with zombies in search of an angsty Dragoon who suffers from an unusual version of head-up-his-ass syndrome. Edge sighs, and swallows it all. "Cecil came for redemption, didn't he?"

"And became a Paladin." Rydia's face grows shadowed, and Edge wonders what memories her seven-year-old self has of Cecil the Dark Knight, and whether they are good or bad. "I can see that Kain would want redemption, I guess." Her face twists. "I wonder whether he can still get it without Cecil's father's blessing."

"We don't know he's gone," Edge points out, hanging on to the last threads of his stubborn-as-hell hope.

"Yeah, well." Rydia throws out a hand, stiffly, a gesture encompassing the entire mountain. "Where's the welcoming committee, then?"

"Oh, you missed the giant hordes of zombies? It's like a never-ending walking undead welcome mat."

Rydia's lips twitch. Silence falls between them, and Edge is reminded again how tired he is – how tired they both are; there are lines on Rydia's face, not just from firelight – and how much his bones ache. How much they will ache tomorrow. How weary he is of this; how close they are to losing hope.

Rydia interrupts his thoughts with some of her own. Her voice is quiet. "I still think there's something wrong here. With the trial. If Kain came for redemption, and he stayed, that means there's something still here with power – and we're not understanding what it is."

Edge tries to think of something to say, but Rydia continues. "Maybe it's us," she says, and her tone is hurt, shadowed. "Are we not… good enough?" She looks at her hands. "I'm not always a good person, and you're not either, no offense. We have – we have flaws." Her voice gains a little confidence. "We're nothing near holy, Edge."

"Isn't that the point of a mountain with a trial?" Edge counters. "Cecil came here as a Dark Knight, with more blood on his hands, and he made it just fine. With, I might add, a black mage in his traveling party." He shrugs. "I mean, isn't that the point? Sinners go up, the forgiven come down?" It's all too close to the kinds of things he doesn't want to think about.

"We're not here for our own redemption," Rydia whispers. "Are we?"

Redemption. Edge looks into the fire, and he sees Rubicante, tall and honorable and stern: Edge hates him, and he hates that hate, because Rubicante deserves to be forgotten, not remembered. He doesn't want to be cleansed of it, either, because the hate and anger remind him of his parents, and what he lost, and what he has. Is that what's stopping them? Has the mountain judged them, found them unworthy of its light?

Rydia has her own demons, too, Edge knows. One of them is Kain.

"We're not looking for the light," he says aloud; Rydia looks at him keenly, and he tries to pretend he's talking to her and not to Mount Ordeals. "We're here for Kain, and in that, I think we're good enough. We're here for his redemption and forgiveness, not our own."

It sounds convincing, and Edge straightens a little, glad of the thought; Rydia just stares into the flames. Her face is troubled, but she offers no more conversation.

- - -

"Can't sleep?"

Her voice is sleepy-soft, and Edge realizes his tossing and turning has woken her. "Sorry," he whispers, wondering whether she'll stay awake or not.

She sighs, eventually, turning herself around and curling up into a ball, her back pressed into his side; he hears her sigh again, and then her breathing becomes deep and even.

Edge thinks about Kain, and Rubicante, and forgiveness. His dreams have been full of it: could he forgive Lugae for what he did? Ever? Could he forgive Rubicante for letting it happen? Sometimes he wants to ask Rydia how she forgave Cecil and Kain for her mother – how she fell in alongside Cecil as a child, how she trained and then returned to his side, how she welcomed Kain into their party after everything and everything: how she kept this great giant ache from swallowing her whole. But he never asks; part of him is afraid of the answer he'll receive, and the other part is just plain afraid to think on the entire thing.

Ten years, Rydia says, as if time heals the wound; he's seen her face, a small pensive child-like frown she really only gets late at night, and he knows she's thinking about her mother. Could he forgive Rubicante in ten years? Could he forgive Lugae – ever? Edge isn't sure his heart could handle it.

He wants to take lessons from this girl sleeping beside him, lessons in forgiveness and redemption, because he's full of doubt. He doubts she could even help him: part of him suspects her surprising reaction to the circumstances of her life could be credited directly to her non-human parents and their non-human way of life and approach to emotions. He's not going to spend ten years in monsterland, even if it is the path to enlightenment.

Maybe it's because Cecil and Kain changed her life: they destroyed it, yes, but they also saved it. Edge thinks about that. Without Cecil, Rydia probably would have died, in whatever offensive strike Baron would have taken against Mist and her people – or worse, she'd be a child-slave to Golbez and Zeromus, a chained summoner. Maybe it is easier to forgive after ten years, Edge thinks, when it's easier to see that good things happen, too. He still can't see anything good coming from his parents' fate; nothing good, except for the new friendships. One of which has dragged him to this mountain, which means it might not necessarily be the good thing he thinks it is. Maybe good will come of that, too – between himself and Rydia, between both and Kain – after ten years. Edge doesn't know.

Worst: Edge is beginning to doubt himself. A small but significant portion of his mind is convinced that their lack of progress is entirely his fault. If this mountain really is a pinnacle of forgiveness and redemption, even without Cecil's father to light the way, he might fail that test automatically: he isn't really full of forgiveness at all. He feels full of hate, and pain, and Rubicante's fire.

Edge isn't sure he's too sorry about that, either.

- - -

The next day they barely speak.

Rydia's magic is sharp, and loud: today she favors Thundaga, which is unusual; most things here are weak to fire-based spells. But her magic does its work; the snap and hiss of the lightning seem to suit the dark look in her eyes. They spin through the creatures like always, not fast enough to let them fly through but not slow enough to present any serious danger. They are running out of words. They are running out of will.

It isn't that they're mad at each other; Edge feels a strange bond with her still, the sense of connection forged by a hopeless trek up a pathless mountain. They are just close to running on empty, and words take an energy they can't spare.

He can't get the thoughts out of his head. To get to the top, must he forgive Rubicante? And Lugae? What does that have to do with finding Kain? He feels guilty and terrible, and he hates himself for it; he feels arrogant too, thinking it's all his doing, which bothers him more because arrogance is a sin he's actively trying to get rid of. His stomach is a churning mess.

Maybe they just don't know enough about sacred mountains. Cecil would know, he does not doubt; even Rosa might be able to enspell and decipher the secret to this mountain's wandering path. Then again, Cecil's path is blessed, and Rosa has always walked in a holy light; they have advantages a ninja and a summoner apparently lack.

That night Rydia wakes crying, from what must be a nightmare; she says nothing, but she curls her head on Edge's shoulder and he wraps his arms around her like they're intimate. Her body shakes until she falls asleep. Edge closes his eyes and holds on, hoping the nightmare doesn't pass to him.

- - -

"What are we doing wrong?"

Rydia stands at the top of the trail, hands on her hips, and Edge shuffles up to stand beside her… to see the trail scoop down, back into the caverns they loathe so much, another long trek of treacherous ground and traps and darkness and enemies. His heart sinks at the sight, and when he looks at Rydia he sees the same feeling writ on her face: she wears her despair as anger, bright and hard, tempered into a weapon like the monsters she learned from.

She throws her hands out and cries upwards: "Why can't we pass?" Her fists are clenched and trembling, and Edge can feel the air begin to waft around her, tingling with the electric-magnetic precursor to her spells. This, they cannot afford: Edge doesn't know much about mystical mountains, but he doubts they like being summoned against (and he also doubts even Bahamut will make more than a tiny dent in this ancient holy place, or else he'd let her try). He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her off the trail, off to the side, and sits her down on an outcropping of rock. She glares at him, all of the potency of her muted magic converting directly into smoldering anger; Rydia has a glare that could melt stone.

"Don't you dare try to handle me." Her voice is sharp, pointed like a dagger and burning with the fury of an uncast Meteo. "I'm not yours to boss around."

"Woah." He holds his hands up in defense, although fingers and flesh will be no guard against the spells she wields if she chooses to use them. "I just don't think it's a good idea."

"You don't get to have all the ideas." She hisses, like a snake, or a dragon; sometimes she seems part dragon, especially when she's mad, as if the blood of the creatures who raised her does in fact flow through her veins. "Why do you always try to put yourself in charge of me? You always think you know what's best, don't you?"

"Not always." Edge is wary and he hates it; he wants to trust Rydia's judgment, but sometimes she thinks too much of the old-fashioned way because it's all she knows. Rydia just stares at him, the power she's raised up flashing from behind her eyes. He's almost relieved; this is the first fight they've had in days, weeks, however long, and maybe it means they're both really still here, not drowning in mystical misery. The sparks of anger and irritation are almost comforting. "You know you can't," he says, finally, simply, shrugging even though he knows it isn't an apology at all.

"Funny," she snaps, "coming from you. The King of restraint."

"Yeah, well." He sits down on the rock next to her and rests his hands on his knees. "I'm just as impatient as you are, but remember what Cecil said. It's a trial where you can't fight back or you lose." He pauses, hoping that she's listening and not summoning. "This isn't a monster who'll respect your strength if you defeat it. It's not what either of us is used to. But that's the point of the trial."

And she's suddenly crumpled, her face buried in her hands, shaking with a strange mix of sobs and rage. "It's my fault." The words choke out of her through tears and the muffling of her fingers. For a few moments, Edge isn't even aware that she's speaking.

Then his brain catches up with him. "No," he says automatically, putting his arm around her. "It's not your fault. You haven't done anything."

"Yes," she says, and her voice quivers with such uncertainty and dread that Edge's heart clenches despite his trust in her – despite the myriad of ways he feels about her (fascination, irritation, regard, respect and protectiveness all tied up in one very messy package he doesn't dare think about). "Yes, it is."

"Can't be," he quips, so lighthearted it feels wrong even to him – and his heart catches at the way she cringes in on herself. "Rydia," he says, and her name on his lips is odd to them both; is it that unusual to call a summoner by name? His hand is on her back now, and he is almost nervous.

"I don't think I ever forgave him." She drops her hands, slowly, to look into them, a mystical woman reading her own palms. "I never forgave either of them, really, not even Cecil. It was okay, when we were fighting, because there was always something bigger, something more important – something carrying us through. Keeping us going." She swallows. "But now it shows. The mountain isn't letting us to the top, and it's my fault."

"Rydia," Edge says again, tasting her name on his lips like a sweet; he wants to protest, because her despair has defeated her, but suddenly she's kissing him: hard, desperate, eager and forlorn all at once, and even as he bends his head to kiss her back Edge is reminded of the lonely-nervous look she wore all through Cecil and Rosa's wedding and he thinks, strangely: This isn't fair. She has no one else to turn to. But he's distracted by kissing her. She kisses like a wild thing, flashing between tentative and teeth in seconds, and it's all he can do to keep up with the whirling feeling in his chest.

And then Rydia takes a step backwards, and whispers: "Good luck. Stay safe." And her arms come up in a whirl, and Edge hurls himself forward but she's already fading, and he tumbles to the dust and dirt with empty arms as the high-pitched sound of her warp spell echoes off the stones around them.

- - -

Edge decides not to sleep.

He can't, now, not without Rydia – not only for warmth but for comfort; he doesn't trust his dreams, alone, on this mountain of light and shadow. He thinks about turning around to go after her, but realizes he would have no idea where to look: she could have gone anywhere. So he decides to simply keep going. He starts off at a slow pace, to save his strength, because he means to go until he finds Kain - or until he has nothing left to give. The path behind them has never been twisted and confusing; it is clear, straightforward, a simple slope back to the beginning. It is obvious Mount Ordeals means only to test – not, necessarily, to kill, although Edge certainly wouldn't doubt the mountain's ability to do so if it were to deem the motion appropriate.

He just… continues. It is the momentum that keeps him going, because he won't think about either one of them, because he doesn't want to choose; so Edge lets the momentum carry him up Mount Ordeals.

His thoughts cycle thus as he moves, slowly: death, life. Kain, Rydia. His parents; Rydia's mother. Alone, Edge makes better use of his ninja training to slip past the monsters rather than confront them, to save his strength: always slow, careful, deliberate. He knows he's always seen as brash and impulsive, but that's because to be ninja is to be made of caution and patience, so Edge saves those traits for when he needs them. It comes in handy now, his heart pounding even as his motions are smooth, quick, deft, working his way through the caverns. Rydia, Kain. Death, life. And the mountain continues to climb with him, solid stone an ever-present echo to his thoughts.

He does not intend to stop.

However, this cavern opens up onto a thin plateau, spotted with weary plants, and Edge recognizes a traveler's-circle. Safety. It is the kind of gift he can't pass up: Edge has been accused of a lot of bad things, but incompetence isn't usually on the list. He arranges his cape on the ground over the sacred seal, and curls up on it to rest. His thoughts are still running in circles, and Edge tries to breathe slowly to calm them, wondering whether Rydia is alright; his cape still smells of her, slightly. Where she is. Whether Kain is alright, alone on this twisted trial of a mountain.

It is worse, alone. He wonders whether the safe-circle will ward off bad dreams.

- - -

Edge wakes up with his hands clutching for a woman who isn't there and the sun on his face. Both confuse him into incoherence, and for a few moments he concentrates mainly on sitting up and blinking: his cloak is beneath him, and he recognizes the faintly pleasant tingle of the traveler's-circle. First issue: Rydia, who isn't here, and his heart clenches at it. He misses her, already, his heart throbbing in a way which terrifies him: they've grown close, in the shadows of this mountain, but he's scared of the level of intimacy it implies, because she isn't here for reassurance anymore. Edge sits up and is reminded of the second issue.

The sunlight is gentle on his face.

Edge looks around. Beyond the safe-circle is a bridge, and past that he can see – clearly, for the mist has burned away with the sunlight – a small building: some kind of shrine.

His heart sinks, even though he's finally at the top, and Kain has to be around here somewhere, and he can finally get off this stupid mountain and back to reality: because it means Rydia was right, and somehow that saddens him, deeply, in a way this victory can never heal. He wishes she were here, by his side, even if she would give him one of those long looks and maybe laugh at him a little.

What in her could be so scarred that Mount Ordeals would not accept her? Rydia is a black mage, yes, but that alone does not make the magic dark; she is still innocent, and she bears one of the purest and biggest hearts Edge has ever found in anyone. It is hard to believe she'd be rejected by any holy light, although he admits he might be biased. Or was it something in him: some realization he'd had in Rydia's absence that opened the way?

Finally Edge registers disappointment: he'd thought he was finally getting to know her, to understand her, to see how her mind worked; this is just proof that Rydia's still as much a mystery to him as before.

He's distracted by movement, over by the shrine. Edge stands up, wraps his cloak back on, and crosses the small rickety bridge.

It's odd to see Kain's face. Even on their journey, he'd rarely been without his helmet; Kain had kept privacy like a wall around him, even in the darkest hours. Now, Edge notes the regal cheekbones, the long blond hair. His eyes are guarded. Kain actually looks unfamiliar; Edge's senses associate the helm with the man, not the face. He is not sure what to make of this handsome, pale-eyed stranger. He can't help staring.

Finally Kain laughs, the bare ghost of a laugh Edge barely recognizes. "I did not expect you," he says, and his voice chokes as if it's rusty.

"No one expects a ninja," Edge quips. The look on Kain's face is one of complete surprise, and Edge feels roiling resentment in his gut: he hauled his way up this mountain and lost Rydia's companionship and all Kain can do is disapprove of his sense of humor? "I'm here to take you back."

Kain shakes his head slowly. Edge notes he isn't wearing his armor, either; plain trousers, and a tunic, and Edge wonders where it all is. "I am not yet ready to go," Kain says.

"Well, I'll wait here while you pack up all your dainty things, then." Edge wants to punch the man in the face. "But you're carrying your own bags."

"You do not understand." Kain shakes his head again, as if Edge is just confused; Kain's gaze falls slightly to Edge's left, as if the man is unwilling to look at him. "I am not… I came here to find something. I am not yet ready to leave."

Edge clenches his fists, and realizes he's actually speechless.

- - -

Edge stays the night with Kain. What else can he do: the man refuses to leave, and if Edge wants to have a chance of knocking the dragoon out and dragging his unconscious carcass back to the Serpent Road, he needs rest. The shrine seems to be its own safe-circle, and Kain seems to have set himself up there; Edge follows, hoping to annoy him into acquiescence if nothing else.

"The least you could do is talk to me," he grumbles around their fire that night.

Kain bows his head; his pale hair falls around his face like a curtain. "What would you know? I cannot explain to you what I cannot explain to myself."

Edge grinds his teeth in frustration. "Why?" he asks. "Why are you here, Kain?"

"I'll answer that if you tell me one thing," Kain says. "Why are you here?"

"Because—" He stops, because he wants to put together a good answer; for a moment he misses the peace he and Rydia shared, alone, that gentle despair which allowed them to empty their hearts without fear or consequence. "I'm here because you were enough of a jackass to miss Cecil and Rosa's wedding, and I think that's ridiculous. They put it off for so long, waiting for you, but Baron couldn't wait any longer. You weren't there, and it hurt them so badly, worse than anything else. And that's pretty unforgivable."

He doesn't miss the way Kain tenses at the mention of Cecil and Rosa; but when the other man speaks, his voice is surprisingly even. "So you are here because you disapprove."

"And more." Edge lets his voice goes cold. He's surprised at his own anger, at the myriad of reasons creeping out of something he had half-thought he'd done on a whim; apparently his subconscious is more motivated (and motivating) than he'd realized. "You broke their hearts. Kain. I told you once that if you betrayed us again, you'd have to answer to me. Did you think I meant only in battle?"

Kain looks up sharply at that, and Edge narrows his eyes. "Betrayal," Kain says slowly, and then he starts to laugh. Edge waits.

"You do not understand the depth of my betrayal, then." Kain's voice is low, and darkly amused.

"Try me."

Kain sighs. His face twists into something Edge eventually recognizes as self-loathing – an emotion he's surprised to be totally unfamiliar with; then again, his life has been more filled with self-centeredness, with which self-loathing does not usually mix. Edge watches, and waits, and Kain eventually just takes a breath and then lets it all out around one single name: "Rosa."

Edge blinks, but even as his ears register an answer so brief he's still waiting for more, his intuition picks up on the more: the way Kain's lips caress the name, the way his body relaxes with it – the way his honor cringes from it, from the look on his face.

"Oh," he says, because there doesn't seem to be anything else left to say – there isn't anything else worth saying. "Oh."

- - -

The next morning is bright and sunny, and Edge finds himself staring at the door to the shrine.

"Can I go in?" He isn't sure why he's asking; it's not like this is Kain's place in any way. But he and Rydia misunderstood the mountain before, which has made him wary.

Kain shrugs. "If you wish." He does not seem concerned; in fact, he does not seem anything at all: concerned, pleased, suggestive, angry, a SandWorm. Kain is a giant blank at the top of a mountain.

Edge frowns. "What's inside?"

A long pause, and then Kain looks away. "I do not know."

"You haven't even gone in there?" Somehow it makes him angry, more angry than anything – he'd forgotten he could be this angry at anyone, anyone other than Rubicante: he's filled with it, the fire of frustrated rage. "You're an idiot."

Edge grabs both handles and wrenches the door open, and he's not too proud to admit he's gratified by the way Kain flinches.

Inside, the shrine is shadowed and cool. It's a small room, roundish but angled, and walled in mirror. Edge watches his reflection as he steps inside. The room's empty. The floor is tiled, a pale intricate design worked in the stone-slabs; his footsteps are quiet, but then again, Edge rarely makes noise unless he wants to. He slowly walks the circle of the shrine, his eyes using the mirrors to watch the door. Kain doesn't even look inside.

There isn't anything he can see, here. No light, no noise, not even a gratifying sense of forgiveness and redemption – not even a cure spell. It's peaceful in here, and he's reminded of the gardens in which some of the Eblani ninja meditate: the air carries a weighted sense of peace, something that settles over the skin and begs for deeper thought.

Edge doesn't really have any deeper thoughts he's willing to offer. Or he does, but they're all hard to get to behind the churning in his heart. He's angry - at Kain, at Rydia, at this stupid mountain, and at himself for thinking this was the kind of noble quest he could go on and have everything turn out alright and maybe impressive. Things don't work that way and Edge has learned that lesson before, but he keeps beating himself over the head with it, apparently. And now he's just mad.

But being mad at Kain is better than being mad at himself, even if it doesn't really feel like a suitable emotion for a holy shrine. Edge stares into the mirror for a long moment. His face is dirty and scratched – his hair could use a wash – but otherwise he looks like he expected. What did he expect? Something different? Some kind of wisdom learned from this quest, lurking behind his eyes? A long beard like the Mage-Elder of Mysidia? Mount Ordeals is taking care of him there; he doesn't even need to shave yet.

Edge blinks. All this room is doing is making his anger ebb into sorrow.

He leaves the shrine and closes the doors behind him. Kain is standing a respectful distance away, as if Edge is going to come out blessed with holy light. For a moment he considers dropping to his knees and making Kain think he's raving with some kind of vision, but the chances of that actually working on the dragoon are slim. Instead, he crosses over to stand right before Kain.

"Why haven't you ever gone in? What in the world are you doing up here?"

Kain's mouth twitches, as if he's amused despite all of it. He opens a palm towards the mountain. "I train. Keep my strength up. Try to keep the paths of the mountain clear of beasts for those who dare to climb."

Edge wonders for a flickering moment where the hell Kain's help was when they were trying to make their way, but he says nothing.

Kain's gaze turns back to the shrine. "I am not worthy of Cecil's father's forgiveness," he says finally. "Or of any forgiveness. I simply offer my penance, so that others might find what I do not deserve."

"You are an idiot," Edge says firmly. "Rydia was right. You're a giant colossal SandWorm."

Kain blinks. "Rydia?"

Edge is so angry at this – so unreasonably angry, because he's reminded of the despair, the loss, her sharp laughter, the soft words of their nights together and her brief kiss – that he stomps away, past the traveler's-circle, and back down to the mountain path where he can kill some things instead.

- - -

"Rydia came with me," Edge says as he approaches Kain's fire and throws himself on the ground in a sweaty heap. His voice stabs like a dagger, and he's glad of it.

Kain looks up. His face is still unreadable: unfamiliar, Edge realizes. "Where is she now?"

"Not here." His choppy gesture covers the mountain, the fire, the space by his side. "She came with me, together, but—" His voice catches; not with tears, but with a desperate anger. He wonders how much of Rydia's story is his to tell; he wonders whether she'll forgive him for telling it, because he wants to strike Kain with it, like a weapon.

"Mount Ordeals rejected her." Edge keeps his voice flat and hard.

"What?" Kain sits up, and it's the first sign of – life, emotion, feeling, actual non-Worm human-ness Edge has seen in his face since he spoke Rosa's name. "I watch the paths from here, to guard them; I did not see either of you–?"

"We've been on this mountain for weeks," Edge spits. "She came here, and climbed with me. She offered her strength and her magic, her time and her – and her company—" He stumbles over those words, because how can he tell Kain what she was to him when he himself doesn't know the language? "All for you. And this stupid mountain, the one you stand on doing penance, would not let us pass. Rydia. Rydia Drake, Rydia of Mist, Rydia of the Eidolons and the Feymarch, that Rydia you and Cecil took everything from, she left as if she didn't deserve to be here." He laughs, once. "And you still look for forgiveness from this giant hunk of stone as if you're going to get it."

Kain's mouth opens, and then closes, shut tight. The look in his eyes is dark, but Edge can't bring himself to feel bad for it.

"If you want forgiveness, Dragoon, I'd start with people."

- - -

The next day Kain greets him dressed in his armor, with his pack on his back.

"We descend."

Edge blinks up at him and rubs his eyes. "Great," he says, without feeling. His sleep-slow brain is raging for a cup of black tea, the darker the better – but then his thoughts catch up to him. "So you're coming with me. It's about time you came to your senses."

Kain's lips twitch in that almost-smile again. "Yes. And no, and yes."

Why is talking to Kain the most irritating thing in the world, Edge wonders. "It is too early for me to play the puzzle-game, Kain. What?"

Kain couches down beside him, stirring the ashes of the fire with the butt of his spear. "I will leave the mountain with you, if you still wish it. But I cannot do what you want me to do." He stops, and takes a breath. "I cannot face Cecil and Rosa. Not yet." Kain looks up at Edge, and his lips produce a more recognizable smile this time. "Maybe some day I will be able to explain it to you."

Edge groans, and sighs, and rubs the heels of his palms into his eye sockets as he thinks. It occurs to him that Kain has his own demons to forgive even as he looks for his own redemption: Golbez, Caignazzo, even Valvalis. It occurs to him next that maybe Kain is still healing, himself, healing from the kind of heart-wounds Edge has developed new sympathy for, after this mountain. It occurs to him last that without Baron, Kain has nowhere else to go – just like Rydia, Edge thinks, and hates the thought.

"Alright," he drawls lazily. "You can come to Eblan, then. It is a fantastic place. You'll love it."

Kain blinks. "I would not dare impose—"

Edge stands up, and shrugs. "Where else will you go? If you don't want to go to Baron? Wandering the world alone is just as martyr-ish as staying on top of a holy mountain, although maybe with less zombies." He stretches, feeling his back pop, feeling better than he has in days. When he straightens, Kain is standing before him.

Edge looks at him: really looks at him. Kain's a beautiful man, really, for all he hides it behind that dark Dragoon helm. His face is no longer blank. Kain carries everything in his eyes: his shame, and his acceptance of it. But his mouth – he is smiling, tentative and not entirely true; it doesn't reach his eyes, but it's at least a smile.

"I hope you will help me make it up to her," Kain says, and Edge doesn't need to ask to know he's talking about Rydia. "As a first step."

Edge thinks, for a moment – but Rydia's forgiveness is hers to give, and not his to talk about; he doubts he could explain anyway. Instead, he gives Kain a very playful frown. "I guarantee nothing. It is not my fault if she still thinks you're a giant SandWorm."

He's relieved, relieved beyond anything, when Kain laughs in response.

- - -

Part II

- - -

The trip down the mountain takes less than a day.

Edge is so ridiculously upset at this that he's flabbergasted, and Kain laughs at him as he passes through the flames at the bottom – flames that don't burn, Kain explains, for those who have spent a day on the mountain. Edge doesn't think this is really all that fair, somehow.

It takes longer to get back to Eblan than it did to leave Mount Ordeals. Edge doesn't think this is fair, either, but he ignores it, storing it in the back of his head. Instead he whirls his cape and reclaims himself as King of Eblan, commissioning a ship from Mysidia on his name's credit and the token of royalty he wears around his neck.

It's harder than he wants it to be. It isn't that he doesn't want to be King; he just doesn't want to be King now, and he has chafed with it since the day he abandoned his Chancellor to follow Cecil to the moon. It's a constant reminder of his parents, and what he's lost, and having gained the throne of Eblan in the process is no kind of compensation.

But Edge finds he can put it on and off like a piece of clothing, so he wears it now, glittering smile and glowing eyes and a braggart's sway as he walks the deck of the boat taking him home.

He's surprised to find Kain is no seaman.

"What," Kain says to him, his face dreadfully pale as he sits huddled in a small nook by the side of the ship. "You expect Dragoons, born to the air, to love the sea?"

"Well, you know." Edge wiggles his hand in the air. "Wind, waves, they're kind of the same thing, right?"

Kain's eyes widen at the motions of his hand, and Edge makes a hasty retreat.

Their return to Eblan is uneventful, other than Kain's barely-hidden joy at being back on firm ground. Edge apologizes to his chancellors, agrees to a long debriefing tomorrow, and introduces Kain as a royal guest.

They dine in his chambers, alone, just a simple meal, although it's the greatest thing Edge has tasted in weeks and Kain's so quiet Edge assumes his mouth must be full. It's – relaxing, in a way.

Finally Kain looks up. "What would you have me do, while I am here?"

Edge sets down his goblet and shrugs. "What do you mean?"

"I cannot—" Kain gestures, palm-open, at the room around him. "I cannot accept this hospitality just as a gift. Surely there is something I can do to earn my place."

"You're a guest, Kain," Edge says pointedly. "Usually we don't make the guests work, here, in Eblan."

A faint smile flickers across Kain's face. "Even so," he says. "I will feel better if there is something I can offer."

Edge thinks about it. There are plenty of jobs he could give Kain, things to do to keep him busy or get him off everyone's back; some of them are even things Kain might enjoy, or do well, or both.

"You could go find Rydia," he says instead.

Kain's face shutters closed, like the doors of the shrine slamming over his expression. "I cannot." He shakes his head, slowly, as if he's actually sad about it. "Not yet. If she comes to me, then…" His voice softens. "But I will not seek her out. Yet."

"Fine," Edge says, although it isn't; he's worried about Rydia, and while part of him wants to clutch his arms around her and drag her back to Eblan, he'd be fine with knowing that she was somewhere else and safe. "Kain," he says suddenly, turning his sharp gaze on the man, "You can stay here as long as you like, and I won't make you work for it, either. But eventually you're going to have to face this."

"You say that as if it is an easy thing." Kain's voice is low. "What do you see in the night, King of Eblan?"

"Don't you dare pretend it's worse." Edge is on his feet; he doesn't remember standing, but he's clutching his goblet in his hand like a shuriken. "Don't you dare. Lots of other people lost something in that war, something they're missing and mourning right now. And all you can do is sit there and mourn for yourself."

Kain's eyes spark, and Edge feels dreadful excitement at the challenge: he meets Kain's gaze dead-on, his own stare hard. Something crackles in Kain's eyes, a sharp pain, and Edge is ready, more than ready, to serve him a lesson with his own hand – but then Kain sighs, and all the strength goes out of him. His eyes close, and his shoulders sag. "Perhaps you are right," Kain says, and now his voice is even, and as flat as stone.

- - -

Edge ends up assigning Kain to a training squad, for lack of a better idea. He tells Kain to start out teaching his fledgling ninjas to spar Baron's way; it isn't even a full week before Kain storms into his study-chamber, fuming.

"You ask me to betray my country." Kain's brow is furrowed, his face set.

Edge blinks, fully confused and still half-absorbed in this report in front of him (which keeps using big terms like compression ratio and efficiency parameter and gil and his brain is fried). "Huh?"

"You set me to a squad of your men and ask me to teach them Baron's secrets," Kain snaps. "Do you think I will help you train an army of ninja who know every Dragoon's weakness?"

Edge almost stammers, still unsure how to reply, so his brain spits something out: "I didn't know Dragoons had weaknesses." Other than lovely, unattainable white mages, he wants to add, but doesn't.

"Edge, I am not joking." Kain's face is set and grim. "This thing I will not do."

"Kain," Edge begins, as his brain starts to pull together the story; he resists the urge to roll his eyes. "I am not asking you to train them in one thousand ways to kill the Baronese. I'm asking you to spar with them the way your knights do, that's all. Our palace guards don't train the same way as Baron's, and I thought it would be fun for all of you." He rubs a hand over his face. "Fun. Do you even – never mind. I meant absolutely no insult."

Kain's face freezes as some odd realization breaks through.

"What?" Edge says, because he doesn't like the edge to the look: Kain's face is white, deadly white, and his eyes for a moment are hard as the stones of the mountain – but then Kain sags, again, and turns away.

"It is just your men, then," he says softly. "Having a little fun at the traitor's expense. Never mind."

"Excuse me?" Edge stands up, slow, and he's surprised at how fast his voice has gone cold. "What happened?" It comes out an order, and Edge is suddenly reminded that he is royalty, and Kain's instinctively used to following a King's voice, no matter how many layers of other things it might be buried under: Kain's head snaps to attention.

They share a startled gaze, surprise from both sides making the air between them spark.

"They were jesting," Kain says finally, looking away first. "One man made a joke about fighting Baron's elite. I asked what he meant, and another said I'd already betrayed my homeland over and over again, what was once more? Then they said they were glad to have me on their side." He glances back at Edge, and his lips twitch in a small wry smile. "That was after our battle. I'm afraid I was… angry."

Edge does not smile. "They deserve whatever you laid on them, Highwind. As they'll deserve the punishment they're going to have to serve."

He's only taken two steps towards the door when Kain's voice, still deadly-soft, stops him. "Edge. I do not need your protection."

Edge turns around to meet Kain's eyes. "It has nothing to do with protection," he says, sternly, "and everything to do with the way we treat our guests and friends in Eblan." His chin comes up. "You forget that I am King."

Kain just holds his gaze, grave, saying nothing. Edge watches him, and thinks of the ways he could phrase it: it isn't about protection, really, but it's about his men rubbing salt in a wound that's still bleeding, and how he doesn't exactly like or approve of such things. It's also about propriety: Kain's been declared a Friend of the Throne, which should mean something down to the smallest serving-woman in the castle.

Kain's eyes are unreadable. Edge hates that Kain has a face like Rydia, one he can't read no matter what, although he'd guess Kain's comes less from being monster-raised and more from being a sporadic jackass. He wants to break through that stone, though, and bring out Kain's anger: it can't be healthy to continually swallow the fight, like Kain has been doing for the past few days. Edge watches his face, passive, waiting.

Finally Edge shrugs, because he doesn't feel like being regal and stern at Kain of all people. "It's okay. Sometimes I forget that I'm King, too."

Kain's mouth twitches, a little. "Not an easy thing to forget."

"Eh." Edge shrugs again: it's a sham, he wants to say, a glittering cloak and crown that disguises your true heart from the people you rule; a ninja trick. "Easy enough, until you really need it." He takes a step forward. "Kain. This time it actually isn't about you."

Kain raises his eyebrows; now Edge can read his expression, because his entire face is saying oh, really.

"Don't be arrogant," Edge says flippantly, because he wants to save his anger for his men. "That's my job."

"Yes, my liege," Kain murmurs as he leaves the room.

- - -

Edge stays still long enough to ensure there is no one behind him – although it doesn't really matter; he's sure the entire kingdom would be proud, if they knew. But he doesn't yet want anyone to see this place: the giant gaping hole in his heart, on display. He slips his hand into the hidden nook and presses the lever which opens the secret passageway. The door slides shut behind him, and he breathes in the darkness, giving himself a couple seconds to adjust; cloaked in ninja magic, his eyes will have no trouble seeing through the dark as long as he does not rush. He continues forward.

The passageway opens up into a small room, and Edge catches the switch beside the door with his hand, causing the single small oil-lamp to flare to life. He stops, again, to let his ninja-cloaked eyes adjust to the new light, and then looks around.

It is a shrine, to his parents.

Edge isn't very good at anything serious or sentimental or even remotely close to the formality his position seems to occasionally require, and he also isn't a big honking fan of the residual edges of the old religion, creeping through the outskirts of Eblan's caverns and mountains, shrines and meditation and worship of ancestors: but this is different. Shrine isn't even the best word – if he were explaining it to Kain he'd call it a memorial, right before he punched the man in the face for following him down here – but it feels right. The entire room feels right to Edge.

The single oil-lamp on the wall rests directly above an old cupboard from the Royal Bedroom. And this is the part where he'd punch Kain in the face, because the main reason he took it was that it smelled like his parents, full of old linens and blankets and it had been right next to his mother's vanity so some of it smelled like her scent, all sandalwood and violets.

Edge kneels in front of it. Usually he's so conscious of his own grace but this room always makes him feel like the awkward twelve-year-old he hates to remember more than anything; his knees crack as he goes down, which makes him feel forty and twelve at the same time. To his left is a weapon stand, which bears his father's ninja swords; it is anathema in Eblan's ninja ranks to touch your father's sword, a betrayal of the highest kind, but Edge wrapped these in blankets and took them away as soon as he could and blamed their absence on – he doesn't even remember; a thief? He will give them to his son, assuming he has one. Or his daughter; he isn't picky, and while the shelves to his right hold his mother's treasures and vases and jewels, they also hold her own set of throwing-stars and deadly slender knives.

Edge bows his head in the middle of the room and breathes. It smells of sandalwood and violets and musty dust and the leather he has wrapped the swords in.

How does he still miss them so much?

He thinks of Rydia, oddly, the quiet tone she'd used on the mountain so different than the sharp words and optimistic jabs he had expected. Ten years, and her heart's still throbbing with it, enough that she couldn't even climb Mount Ordeals: too much, to bring one of her mother's murderers back to the other. Can he blame her? Can he blame himself? Edge wants to blame the mountain, but he doesn't like thinking of it as a live thing, shadowy and bemisted and conscious of everything they'd thought and done while walking its paths.

What if Rubicante had, somehow, aided them? Would it be easier or harder to forgive? Will Rydia be mad, knowing he is sheltering Kain here? Will she be pleased?

He glances to the right, to the bookshelves holding his mother's collection of poetry and the gemstones plumbed from Eblan's depths and the set of ornamental hairpins that could carry poison.

"What now, mumsie?" he says, and then laughs at himself; he hasn't used that name for her since his twelve-year-old self became so self-conscious. "What do I do with Kain now? What does he think I can do? I want to help, but… it's his own business, and if he wants to brood about it, I'm not sure I really care to get involved. I don't know what I can do." It's the kind of thing he'd admit only to them, the ghosts on the wall and the scents in the air. "I asked him here and now I don't know what to do with him."

There isn't any answer, obviously, but Edge is still full of that feeling from the mountain, teeming with the potential of an air thick with things that are listening.

- - -

In the end, Edge decides to push, like he always does. He is deliberately unfamiliar with patience as both concept and practice, and he's never been good at sitting on things and waiting.

"I sent men today, and letters," he says to Kain. They sit across from each other, on cushions before the low table in Edge's rooms. Dinner has been cleared, empty plates replaced with sweet cookies and dry wine. "Looking for Rydia."

He's watching Kain's face close enough that he can see the doors being slammed over it. "I see," Kain says, and for a moment that's all.

But then Kain looks back up at him, the reserve in his eyes cracking, a little, with pain and hurt bleeding out around the look of resigned shame Kain usually wears. "Do you somehow believe this thing my fault?"

"Ha," Edge says. "It isn't your fault directly, but it's related to you, isn't it?"

Kain opens a palm towards him. "What would you have me do? I wronged her, and then did it again, and again. Is it any wonder she could not bear to see me?"

"I'm just worried," Edge says, more frustrated by the entire thing than he cares to admit – yet his voice, tight and tense, admits it for him. "I want to know she's safe, is that so bad?"

Kain closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he pins Edge with a soft look; Kain's pity is even worse than his anger. "You care for her," he says, "but do not obsess over her."

It's like a punch to his gut. "Obsess?" His voice is more insulted than he'd like, and Edge tries to take breaths, tries to calm himself down. "How is wanting to make sure that she ended up somewhere not covered in zombies obsessing? I dream about her, Kain, alone on that godforsaken mountain because she can't go up or down. But being concerned over a friend is not obsessive. It's what friends do."

Kain's face goes all passive and stone-like, and Edge is fed up with it, the way he keeps swallowing everything angry and hurt as if he deserves to burn with acid, internally, forever. "Were you ever even Rosa's friend?" he snaps, unwary with glorious anger. "Or just some obsessive man trying to keep her safe?" Kain looks away. Edge continues. "Did you ever think about what she would want? Would she call you a friend, still?"

Kain looks back. His eyes are glowering with shame, smoldering with guilt, and Edge feels something warm and sick-making strike him in the belly. "You talk about friendship with a girl you simultaneously chase and scorn," Kain says; his voice is low and Edge rumbles with it. "Do you not trust Rydia to take care of herself? I made that mistake."

"I know better than you do how well she can take care of herself. What I don't trust is stupid holy mountains that let people like – like me and you to the top, but make amazing selfless exceptional people like her so worried sick with their own guilt that they leave." They're both standing, now, staring daggers and fire across the low table. "She did nothing to you except not forgive you," Edge hisses, low. "Which she has every right to do, or – or not do, in my opinion."

Kain spreads his hands. "What can I do about it?" His voice is actually rough with the anguish, and Edge thinks: now we have come to it. "I am not the Mount Ordeals." The indrawn breath is rough across Kain's teeth. "I ask no one's forgiveness, because I do not deserve it."

"You won't get it," Edge says, "unless you ask for it."

They stare at each other, tension keeping the air tight; Edge's vision is a tunnel, and all he can see is the strained expression on Kain's face, too far away, across the table where he cannot reach it. He thinks for a moment that maybe he has broken this wall down—

But then Kain turns away. Again.

- - -

The next day Edge asks him to spar. It isn't a smart move, because he's still angry and Kain is coiled with his own tension-fury like a spring, but the urge to try to smack some sense into Kain by any means necessary has become overwhelming. It's all Edge can think about during his council meeting; he ends up leaving half an hour early to go throw punches at a sandbag.

They meet in his private training room, something Edge hasn't used since he was a teenager practicing moves he hoped would look impressive in the mirrored walls. It reminds him of the shrine-chamber of Mount Ordeals, in a way: although the air is light with incense, not thick with gravity. Kain's eyes flicker as they walk in, and Edge wonders whether he picked up on the same resemblance; then again, if Kain never went into the shrine, maybe it's lost on him.

"Mirrors," Kain says, glancing around. "Why mirrors? Are you that vain?"

"Are you that shy?" Edge grins at him. "I thought we'd fight with shirts off so that I can have an advantage blinding you with my muscles from all angles."

"Go ahead and take your advantage." Kain snorts. "I have no problem with the mirrors. It's just… surprisingly impractical."

Edge smirks, because surprisingly impractical means on some level Kain expects practicality from him; this will be a much more interesting fight than he'd originally thought. "Perhaps you're thinking of traditional sparring, Kain. A messy business indeed." He flings a careless gesture around the room. "Walls made of mirror guarantee the match stays between a man and his partner. There's no slamming into walls or dragging across floors, here." He grins, and reminds Kain: "Ninjas are made of grace."

"Ninjas are made of ridiculous pomposity," Kain says, but he glances around the room again with one eyebrow slightly raised, and Edge detects a faint air of approval.

On a whim, he hands Kain one of the old kimonos he used to train in – so he didn't ruin his nice clothing, his mother always used to say, although Edge would have rather fought naked than ruined the gorgeous ornamental shirts she'd made with her own hands, even as a child. Kain takes the strange silk and eyes it, tentative but not yet disapproving.

"Look," Edge says. He takes off his shirt and slips the kimono on, tying it at his waist. The sleeves are long but not irrational, and the fabric's cool: a good thing to fight in. Kain looks so oddly exotic, long blond hair and those Baronian cheekbones atop the deep blue silk. It's jarring, but Edge notes that it isn't a bad look on him. Maybe for the next ceremonial service they have he'll try to dress Kain up in some other kind of traditional garb.

For now, he moves to the center of the room, to stretch and collect his energy.

Kain follows him. He looks unsure, but not unsteady with it: Edge can sense the military training in Kain, discipline bone-deep. It is different in Eblan, where guards do not stand vigils and ninjas must be quicksilver-sharp and cunning-fast; Baron is an old country. Knights are trained to stand and endure things a ninja would dodge, and while Kain's Dragoon heritage is certainly different than a knight's, Edge suspects they are all rooted in the same thing: a kind of honor and integrity, a loyalty to something indefinable inherent in the position itself.

It is much unlike his ninja training, and Edge cannot wait to match his wits to it.

"So what are the rules?" Kain's voice is very even. "This seems a very particular type of sparring chamber. I assume there are specific rules?"

Edge stretches. "Nothing too complicated. The mirrors serve a few purposes. First, obviously, don't break them. It's dangerous and it makes the staff very angry when they have to replace one. So heavy physical domination is right out." The words make the air between them shiver with something; Edge is feeling heady, and reckless.

"They also serve to show our weaknesses," he continues, softly, and now there is definitely a shiver as they both think of Mount Ordeals. "I can see you from every angle. Chances are I can catch an opening if I watch – but you can do the same to me."

Something in Kain's eyes darkens, and Edge wonders whether they're talking about the sparring match any more.

"Other than that," he says very slowly, "I do not think there are any more rules."

They're moving, already; Kain's eyes haven't left his yet but they're somehow suddenly circling round each other. Edge can barely hear their quiet footfalls; his are near-silent, and Kain's aren't too bad either. All he can hear is the rush of his breath in his ears and a collective hush, as if the room is holding its own breath as it watches.

Kain lunges. Edge dodges. Is this a fight? Are they wrestling? Boxing? Dancing? He doesn't know, and as he spins away from Kain's grasp again, he decides to push. Again.

"Loser goes after Rydia," he breathes across the room. It fills with her presence: soft words and sharp laughter, and that green-bright spark of life she carries with her.

"You'll deliberately lose," Kain shoots back into the space between them.

"Ah," Edge says, and he spins away. "I never give a match." He lunges, and catches Kain; they grapple for an odd moment, as if the physical fight is secondary. The tension in the air has almost all of Edge's attention: a sharp feeling, with a metallic tang to it.

Then Kain breaks through his grasp, and they tumble to the floor, Edge beneath in a giant tangle of silk and limbs; the floor doesn't feel so padded from this angle. Kain's surprisingly solid for a man who spent the last few months on a magical mountain subsisting on nothing but air and holiness, and his grasp is absolute: Edge can't move his legs.

Edge is so momentarily stunned that he freezes for a moment at the unexpected sly triumphant smile across Kain's face, lighting up all the hollows and shadows that doubt and grief and shame had carved: and then he grabs Kain and kisses him. It's more than a counterattack: Edge will say, later, that it was sheer physicality summed up in one movement, because Kain's face was alight with victory and joy and he looked like any other handsome battle-worn Baronian wearing an Eblanian fighting kimono rather than a man driven to madness by his own internal torment.

When they break apart, both are panting, and Edge isn't sure who really won, because Kain won't meet his eyes.

- - -

The next day Kain avoids him.

Edge is left to stew in a council meeting, replaying the scene and the mirrors and the kissing over in his head while a delegation of dwarves drone on about the fabulous things they could do with the Eblan Caverns. He approves almost everything they suggest just on a whim, and snaps at the Chancellors about the funding. Somewhere, some automatic and automated portion of his brain knows that Eblan needs any kind of trade they can get, right now, to get the people working and currency flowing back and forth, because his mouth is spewing justifications and a few of the council members look disturbingly impressed.

The rest of his mind is reproducing – in stunning clarity – the smile on Kain's face, that small crooked smirk; it's the first real smile of Kain's that Edge has ever had, probably in the entire time they've known each other. Edge's brain is on overload, producing a million fantasies about that smile. Not all of them are erotic, either; he finds himself hooked, fascinated, by the proof that there's something underneath the stone and the guilt.

Edge finds it oddly, hilariously, desperately ironic that he got along passably well with Rydia on Mount Ordeals, and fights so vehemently with Kain. It is the opposite of the way it should be.

After the meeting, he sends word to one of the palace guard, on a whim, that Kain is to meet him for dinner tonight.

Edge has never been good with restraint.

- - -

Dinner is basically as awkward as it could possibly be.

Edge is, unfortunately, sore: he's surprised, because he and Rydia just did the Mount Ordeals Zombie-Killing Triathlon and he didn't think he was that out of shape. But he is, somehow; stiff, he and Kain sit across the table from each other, and do not speak.

Edge stares at his plate and tries not to sigh: will he never, ever, ever stop being a failure at his own life; time and again, he has let impulses step in-between, because he does not think. He risks a glance at Kain's face, and the stone mask is back on, and Edge thinks: very well, then.

"This just won't do," he says aloud.

Kain jumps, a little, and a small part of Edge is gratified at that: Kain might have won their first fight, but he can still startle the man. They stare at each other, and then Kain closes his eyes and says, "I most humbly beg your pardon."

"You beg my pardon." Edge keeps his voice even, amused, because he remembers exactly who made the first move.

"I-" Kain's mouth opens, and closes, and Edge chuckles to see him at a loss of words even as he resists the urge to punch the man in the face. Why is it that Kain draws out this slow simmering anger from beneath his bones? How does this one man get so under his skin?

"You cannot be at fault for everything, Kain," he quips, taking another sip of wine – one he chokes on as Kain throws his goblet to the floor, his stone-face broken open, a sad and furious rage flushing his cheeks.

"Do you think this is the answer to everything, Edge?" Kain's voice is thick with something; Edge tries to peel the layers off one by one – grief, shame, self-loathing – even as he struggles to swallow his wine. "A few pithy statements, some wise quotations, and a pity-screw in the training room, and I'll be all better? That's all I need, right, the famous playboy King of Eblan's healing touch." His eyes narrow, and Edge knows now he's playing dirty; the stone mask is gone, and the rulebook has been discarded. Here is Kain at his core, wounded and lashing with it. "Did you try that with Rydia, too? Is that why she left?"

Edge barks a laugh, even as his vision darkens to red rage. It's like coming home; fire is his element, fire and anger and unrestrained emotion, and he has hated for months the way Rubicante's legacy has tarnished this very important part of him. "Pity? I don't pity you, Highwind." He's crossed the room, somehow, although coming closer to Kain seems to be a mistake; his blood is boiling. "I don't have an ounce of pity left for you."

"Oh, more platitudes." Kain spreads his hands towards the ceiling. "Tell me, oh Oracle of Eblan, how I may atone for the things I've done." His eyes meet Edge's and they're burning; Kain, normally full of wind and stone, has lit from Edge's own fire, and it's a beautiful flame Edge sees writhing in Kain's face.

"Get over yourself." Edge hisses the words like a mantra. "Get the hell over yourself. Get outside your own head for a single second and realize that there are other people in this world, other things more important than your own guilt and shame, and that all kinds of bad things happened during the war. To everyone, not just to you - or because of you." He takes a deep rattling breath, and it's as if he can taste smoke on it.

He opens his hands, as if offering Kain his empty palm; he expects them to be blazing. "You may never get your forgiveness. You might never find a way to atone. You can either dwell on that forever – or you can start thinking about something other than yourself."

Kain's face is still dark, and broken, and Edge feels it boiling up inside him. He takes a step forward, because this time he really is going to punch the bastard, right in the face. He jabs Kain in the chest with a finger, and says, "Because—"

And then Kain grabs him, quicker than lightning, rough lips on his and Kain's hands fisted in his shirt, Edge's arms crushed between them as Kain clutches him close, his forceful kiss overwhelming Edge's senses; it's a whirlwind of fire and storm, the heat rushing from his brain into his feet until all he wants to do is touch and be lost.

So he does; his hands recover and slip free – not ninja for nothing – and he grabs Kain's face, thumbs running over the chiseled cheekbones and scars and wounded shadows as he kisses Kain back, hard, nipping at Kain's lip with his teeth. The noise Kain produces, all throaty and mad, is well worth it, so Edge does it again.

It is a whirlwind flurry of hands and tongues, then: Kain's hands under his shirt, surprisingly cool on his skin, such that as they dip into the waistband of his pants Edge hisses through his teeth into Kain's neck; this only seems to encourage Kain. Edge is not exactly sure how his hands started undoing the buttons to Kain's shirt, but they have, and once his brain catches up with this it approves, desperately. He runs his hands over Kain's chest once the shirt is open, cool skin on his fingers and silk brushing the backs of his hands. Kain's mouth has found his neck, lips and teeth marking a path up to his ear and down again. Edge tugs off Kain's shirt, and Kain laughs once, harshly, and pulls Edge's own shirt overtop his head.

The contact of skin on skin blurs everything into red: dark, and neither of them yielding. Kain's hands are tugging at the ties of his pants, now, and Edge's mind is filled with the brush of Kain's fingers on the skin of his belly and the demanding urge pooling into a hot puddle somewhere in his chest. He has just the presence of mind to blow out the nearest candle – not for darkness, but because he fears they'll knock it over – as they sink to the floor.

- - -

Edge has never been able to say no. He doesn't see the point, really; life offers you things, lessons, and why turn them down? Every experience, good or bad, is a lesson. What's the point in holding back, in limiting yourself? It only makes one less than one could be.

This is an attitude that gets him into trouble with propriety-conscious chancellors. They say it is not suited to a King and ruler. Edge disagrees on principle: he is a King, and he is adventurous, and therefore it suits. He sees no reason to complicate his life with the expectations of others.

Often it isn't even him saying no: Edge has turned into the kind of person who takes chances, who makes life say no instead. It's the risk he loves, the dalliance-dance; it has taught him that most things in life are there for the taking, if one is willing to reach.

It occurs to him that this is not a good philosophy for use on Kain – but it does not stop him from pointing out the corridor to his room in a low voice, or from leaving his door unlocked.
Kain has too much to give; he carries too much within, and these small cracks Edge can get into – he rubs them, exploits them, with ninja-quick fingers and glances and looks.

But Kain at night is different; everything's open, somehow, as Edge's mouth finds cheekbone and shoulder-blade in the darkness. Kain's fingers brush against his skin; Kain likes to make him jump, to coax noises, and Edge can't say any differently; he sucks at Kain's neck and listens for the faint indrawn breath.

Part of him continues to wait for Kain to – to stop, to say no, to leave; you're not Cecil, he might say (or worse: you're not Rosa). He realizes there is baggage here, and that his own impulsive nature might not be helpful. The rest of him is caught up in Kain's hands, unlacing his belt, touching and tracing in places that make the thinking-parts of his brain want to go on holiday. And always that smile: the small, sly smile of triumph, as if this is something Kain is winning: as if the win is the most important part of all.

Edge doesn't throw matches, but he sees no harm in letting Kain think this a win.

- - -

The night is cool; his window is open. Kain sleeps like a stone, which surprises him: a man so fretful by day should toss and turn at night, Edge thinks. Then again, they've expended enough energy already, earlier; if Kain finds peace in sleep, Edge will not interrupt.

He, on the other hand, is restless even as his body still tingles with languid aftermath; restless is too harsh a word. He is sleepless, on the verge of a thought he can't seem to find or place. The anger Kain channels, even in passion, is a dangerous tool; Edge feels like a bloodletter, bleeding some of that emotion through skin and tongue – but it isn't his job, and it shouldn't be his responsibility. Edge hates responsibility. He loves how much he enjoys it, though, watching Kain's face alight with a lack of shadow as his walls break down. It is an odd surrender.

He thinks about forgiveness, again, lying in his bed with an unforgiven man. He thinks of Rubicante, and Kain, both of them tied up and choking on their own honor: honorable men, dishonorable deeds. Edge never thinks of honor in terms of himself – he knows right from wrong, sure, but ninja live in the thin line between light and dark and many boundaries are thus blurred – and so maybe he can't really understand how Kain so faithfully betrayed things, including his own self. Maybe lines more firmly drawn are less obvious? Or maybe it's the kind of thing that can't ever be put into words.

But they haven't needed words to tread this thin slow line. It's about Kain owning, or perhaps re-owning, himself; his walls break down for sex, in a way Edge never would have predicted but finds both fascinating and addicting. In the back of his mind he wonders whether it was ever only Rosa, or whether she and Cecil are part of the same shadow Kain dwells within: this he will never voice aloud. His curiosity is getting him into trouble again.

Tomorrow, Edge thinks, he will ask Kain to spar again.

- - -

But tomorrow Edge is interrupted at breakfast by an urgent request from his seneschal, some kind of disturbance in the castle guard, some sort of fight; Edge isn't even two steps out of the palace before he recognizes the bright green hair and lets out – he doesn't even know what he yells, some kind of expectant relieved bellow or something, and Rydia breaks free in the distraction and makes a run for him.

For one frozen moment Edge can only think, how ironic if one of the guards took her down right now, but apparently the look of welcome is obvious enough on his face that no one stops her. She throws her arms around him, shaking; for a moment, he's dreadfully worried until he realizes she's shaking with laughter.

"You idiot!" Rydia looks up at him, and her face is alight with one of her heartwarming smiles. "My gods and eidolons, you certainly got Cecil worked up! I told you, I'd be fine, but no, you had to send letters--"

He's so relieved to see her he's barely listening. "What happened?"

"Oh, nothing." She gives him a teasing smile, sidelong, as they walk into the castle. "Save Rosa herself coming down into the Feymarch to check on me."

"Holy angels," Edge says, stopping in his tracks. "Is she alright?"

Rydia blows the air from her mouth in an exasperated – if amused – gesture. "She's the only one who can make it there herself, you moron. Float, plus Shell and Protect and Reflect? She has nothing to worry about." She bumps her shoulder against his, lightly. "Again you underestimate the power of mages."

She's teasing, gently poking fun, and she's here, light and life and vibrance, and Edge puts his arm around her and squeezes her. "I was worried about you," he admits, and it's different to say it in Eblan, where the stone reflects rather than absorbs: it sounds like something it is not, but Rydia looks up with an odd small smile on her face – and then stops. The smile twists itself into another smile, and Edge looks up.

Kain is standing in the hallway. He is not wearing armor, and for a fleeting moment Edge wonders whether Rydia will recognize him – but she takes a step forward, out of the shelter of Edge's arm, and the twisted thing grows into a very tentative but welcoming smile of its own: all for Kain.

"I ought to hit you," Rydia says, conversationally. "You've got Cecil and Rosa worried sick, you know."

Kain bows his head, as if he's unsure of what to say; Edge guesses he is, by the way his mouth twitches.

Rydia takes another couple steps forward, and puts her arms around Kain – tentative, completely unlike the way she'd thrown herself at Edge, he can't help but notice. Kain stiffens, a little, but his arms do come up to return the hug.

"I'm glad to see you here," Rydia says, quietly and warmly. Edge watches it all, wishing his ninja-skills let him read the shadows in-between words.

- - -

Edge has never hated being a King more than that day, when all he wants is to hear Rydia's story; there's a peace in her face he wants to know about. But he has councils and work to do, and a big dinner to attend, so it isn't afterward until he truly gets time to sit with her. Rydia's at least a more gracious guest than Kain; she accepts the castle tour with a fascinated look on her face, and promises to meet him after dinner in the library.

"Of course I went to the Feymarch," she says, in answer to his question, as if it were obvious. "It's home, Edge. More home than—" She swallows. "More home than anywhere else," she says briskly and firmly, as if confidence makes it true.

"I still don't believe you abandoned me to the zombies." Edge grins at her, because teasing is his way of letting her know it's okay. "What a heartless black mage you are."

Rydia lifts a shoulder smugly. "Were you making up those stories about your amazing ninja skills? Or did you need my assistance after all?"

"Well." Edge gestures with a hand. "I'm here and unharmed, aren't I? And I brought back the damsel in distress."

Rydia's mouth twitches despite herself. "Where is Kain?"

"Eating in the barracks, I believe." Edge purses his lips. "I did invite him – I'm not really trying to keep you all to myself – but apparently he has turned us down." He grins. "Which means I get you all to myself anyway; no complaints here."

She sighs, and sits back in her chair. Her hands play in her lap, a little, fingers twisting and picking at each other. Edge watches her, intently; this is a strange cross between their playful bickering and intimacy, and he isn't sure how it's going to go – especially now, with Kain like a shadow at both of their backs.

"He knows, doesn't he."

Edge swallows. "A little," he says, evasively – and then continues, because Rydia deserves more, after the nights they shared. "He didn't want to leave the mountain, and I got so angry – it was one of the few things that actually got through to him."

She smiles, down at her hands, a very sad smile. "I came to terms with it," she says, her voice soft, "in the Feymarch."

Edge says nothing, just sips his wine and watches as her expression moves into her own stone-face; now he thinks it must be related to her time with the espers, because it's more otherworldly than the walls Kain wears.

"Asura said that every Summon must face the fact, one day, that they must always follow the Call." Rydia's voice is low, and her gaze is unfocused as she looks up. "It's a kind of giving up of your will, realizing that sometimes the Call will take you to places you don't want to go. It – it doesn't translate well to human words," she says, sheepishly, her hands forming shapes he can't decipher. "But it's kind of like fate, in a way. I think."

Edge nods; he is following the gist of her story, although he wants to remember to ask her what tongues monsters speak in, and what tongue she herself speaks when alone with her Eidolons.

"Asura said there are some powers out there stronger than will or intention. And she reminded me that I carry one of those powers myself, which was a little …alarming to realize." Rydia looks at her hands, which have stilled in her lap. "The Call can overcome any esper's will if delivered strongly enough. That doesn't make either the Call or the monster necessarily evil, though – they're just a tool in the hands of something they can't resist."

She looks at him wryly. "If humans have used monsters to do their own will, good and evil, since before the dawn of time – well, monsters can use humans too, I guess."

Edge thinks about this. "I'm not sure Kain would agree with you," he says slowly. "He seems to think that everything he did was his own doing and is his own fault."

"Even so." Rydia folds her hands in her lap and looks oddly inscrutable, a farsighted expression on her face, looking much like Rosa before casting a blessing only more enigmatic. "My problem wasn't with Kain's interpretation, but my own."

Edge looks at her – really looks, seriously, into her eyes.

She smiles at him.

- - -

Edge wonders whether Kain will come to his rooms that night. He has left it that way: Kain's choice, to come or to go. There are no expectations between them, really, nor hard feelings; they haven't spoken of any of it, other than the small words and phrases they might use during.

He thinks about Rydia. She didn't say much, after, and he wonders how much of her new resolution will last when faced with the traitor himself. He thinks about forgiveness, again, as always, Rubicante's form flickering through his mind. She'd spoken of the Call, of powerful forces and magical bonds, of fate and of yielding. But did that excuse Rubicante? Had he been no more than a minion of Golbez or of Zemus? It certainly did not excuse Lugae, who had acted of his own twisted accord.

But for Rydia: maybe forgiveness for her was another archaic esper-thing, not understandable to Edge's human-raised brain. Maybe that was all that had mattered. Edge is angry, again, at Mount Ordeals, at Kain for going there and at the mountain itself for making Rydia think she is less than perfect.

The door opens, and Edge is glad for it, because he's burning with confused anger and ready to forget about it; Kain's barely inside before Edge is upon him, burying his fingers in Kain's hair and kissing him. Kain backs up against the wall, and Edge pushes him into it, hips grinding a little as Kain's mouth answers his. Kain's tentative tonight and this does not suit Edge at all. He lets his hands trail down Kain's chest and then hooks them into the waistband of Kain's pants; the thin hiss of air in his ear is reward enough as one hand undoes the lacing. His ninja-fingers slip through fabric onto flesh and Kain's entire body tenses, between Edge and the wall. Kain's breath is fast and Edge wants it faster. His hand continues to work as he tugs Kain's face back to his with the other, his mouth hot and demanding.

Kain kisses back with a slowly-building intensity, low like coals simmering in his mouth, his tongue against Edge's slow and deliberate even as Edge's hand works its fast rhythm between them. Edge is vaguely aware, through the haze of his own fire, as Kain's hands slowly work their way through fabric; then long fingers wrap themselves around him and Edge cries out, a little, into Kain's mouth. The response is only that small sly smile, and Edge knows as he desperately grinds his hips into Kain's grasp that maybe Kain has won this one again.

From there it's a rush of fabric and lacing and fingers as they tumble into bed. Edge has no time to wonder at Kain's former hesitance, now gone as they shed their clothes; this time maybe it's catharsis for both of them, and who is he to complain.

- - -

The next morning is an awkward truce over breakfast, the three of them crossing gazes over the bakery's finest. Finally Edge clears his throat, because he needs to say something, but as he opens his mouth Rydia catches his eye and smiles, sheepishly.

"I don't mean to impose on you, Edge," she says. "I just came because Cecil was so worried, and I wanted to let you know I was alright – you don't have to put me up, here, I can—"

"Stay." It's one word from both of their throats, and Edge and Kain trade wary and surprised glances; when Edge glances back at Rydia, her face is inscrutable.

"I'm already feeding Kain," Edge says flippantly; "I would bet you eat less, at least."

"I would feel wrong accepting Eblan's hospitality if you were denied it," Kain says, which sombers the moment somewhat – until he adds, "Although I will place no wagers on how much food you can consume."

"That sounds like a challenge, Kain," Rydia says, her eyes sparkling with laughter as she reaches for another slice of bread. "You two are going to give me a complex about my eating habits."

"I wonder—" Edge says, half to himself, because the idea is really just poking its tiny head out of the confused jumble that is his early-morning brain; but of course he's going to grab it and run with it, because that's what he does. "Kain, I wonder if you'd take Rydia today while I'm busy – there's no training scheduled, but you could maybe poke around the library or something?" It's a gamble, with Kain still all honor-awkward and Rydia gleaming with new forgiveness, but they both nod at him and Edge feels a little better.

"Kain's been helping out with some training and discipline," Edge continues to cover what might have been an awkward silence. "I'm not sure whether you really want to see the barracks, but he can at least show you around so that you don't get lost."

Rydia grins. "I'd love that. I haven't seen the castle since the restorations." She turns to Kain, and gives him a tentative smile, one he returns. Edge watches the byplay, hungrily, and has an idea that's both excellent and awful.

- - -

In the end he can't resist, and so he sneaks out of his royal fitting (the last cape they made him is really just fine, so what if it's a little short and a little scorched from that last incident with the fireplace) and slips through the hallways until he finds one that's abandoned. Edge rests his hands against the stone, wondering – no, yes, yes, it's still here, calling to him.

Eblan Castle is old. It was built long ago from special stone, pulled from the Eblan Caverns and from the mountain ranges surrounding the Tower of Bab-Il, and over the ages its proximity to the old royal ninja blood and its own inherent natural earth-magic have made it somewhat… convincible. Edge found this out as a curious and independent only child, a little too arrogant with his own strength and power; he hasn't used it in years. But Eblan's stone is still calling to him, and Edge cloaks himself in the ninja magic he's familiar with, slipping into the well-worn shadows of the rock and stone in the walls. He's nothing more than a shadow himself, now, moving in and out of other existing shadows, faster than a candle dies in the darkness, quieter than a breath of air on your neck, sneakier than that shiver up and down your spine; Edge feels them all and more as he leaps between walls and through rooms, unseen and unheard.

He finds them walking one of the turrets, the slow casual walk of friends conversing; they're not really looking, or seeing, and Edge slides his shadow-self into the natural shadows of the stone wall and listens.

"—had to tell them it isn't at all like that!" Rydia is saying, laughing, as she tries to tuck her wild curls behind her ears; the wind out here isn't strong but it's annoying. "And the dwarves were so confused, because Leviathan is this water spirit to them, but of course there's not much water in the Underground, you know?"

"Never thought of that." Kain's voice is low and calm and emotionless, but somehow still conversational. "But you're right. Their oceans and seas are – fire?"

"Molten rock." Rydia stops and rests her arms on the wall, looking out over the side, her eyes on the misty remains of the Tower of Bab-Il. "Molten and steaming rock, over which Leviathan has no domain." Her voice has gone mystic, to Edge's ears, although he's glad to hear it isn't just his ears she wears out with her magical musings.

Kain comes to stand beside her. For a moment it is a pretty picture: Rydia looking out over the battlements at the Tower, and Kain looking down at her, both faces inscrutable; nothing moves but their hair in the wind, green and gold. Edge wraps himself in shadows and waits.

"Rydia," Kain says, and his voice is different. "I – I cannot–"

Edge really does want to hear how Kain would finish that sentence, but Rydia turns to him then, and her face is – blank, but not empty. Calm, maybe; reserved, resigned, contented. "Kain," she says. "It's alright."

"It is not alright," he says, and bows his head, his eyes upon his feet. "It will never be alright."

"That depends." Rydia reaches out, gently, to turn his face upwards, towards hers. Her eyes are bright. "Some things won't ever be alright, Kain. Some things can't be fixed. But – aren't things pretty close to alright, now, anyway? No matter what we might think in the secret places inside our heads?"

Kain looks down at her. The look in his eyes is hungry and painful. "I do not understand."

Rydia drops her hand from his face, and looks him dead in the eye. "Kain, I don't forgive you," she says slowly – and Edge sees the words strike Kain across the face like knives; but she continues: "and yet I do. I accept you. I have… accepted everything, in a way I couldn't before. It's not forgive and forget, but it's more like… moving on." She swallows. "I am your friend…" Her voice drops, low and tentative, and her eyes look sad. "If you'll have me."

Kain looks upon her like a ghost. "I would atone," he whispers. "For you. Anything you ask. But I must do – something." His eyes are pleading. "Please."

She closes her eyes. For a moment there is only wind, and mist, and shadows. Then Rydia opens her eyes, and she sighs, a little. "There is a way that might work for you," she says, and to Edge's surprise her mouth twists in a wry little smile. "The old-fashioned way."

- - -

It isn't hard to be surprised when Rydia asks him: the thought of it, a duel between Summoner and Dragoon, is something Edge's brain is having trouble processing, and the surprise and alarm are both genuine. And yet he is an accomplice, arranging a place that this Summoner and this Dragoon can fight out their differences in the oldest dance known to man.

Showing her the sparring room with its mirrors is a mistake; she purses her lips, and frowns at it. "No, I don't think this will work," Rydia says, taking a slow lap around it despite herself. She then adds, "I'm sorry, Edge," with that uncanny perception of hers; "I can see this is important to you, but… it's all wrong. Callers… we fight out under the sky, like the beasts we fight with."

So Edge – all the while not-thinking of the duel; he's approaching the entire concept sidelong, like a ninja from the shadows – arranges for a space to be cleared outside. There's an old sparring ring, and it's a little overgrown with stubborn Eblanian weeds; Rydia loves it immediately, and wants to use it right away, but Edge orders that it be cleaned (or at least, trimmed down).

He catches her alone, after dinner, pulling her into some side room in a hallway: he feels consumed by some sudden urgency, as if his brain has just now realized what this means.

"Why?"

His voice sounds incredulous. She's looking up at him with that unreadable stone-face, and he wants to shake her – his hands are even on her shoulders – because he's just not sure he understands, or wants to, or wants to watch this.

"Edge." Rydia's voice is calm, solemn. "Do you think it was with words alone that I found forgiveness in the Feymarch?"

His stomach does a sinking-flip at that. "What do you mean?" he asks, because he doesn't have the skill (or the attention span) to decipher Rydia's cryptic eidolon-messages at this particular moment. He can't decide whose brain-puzzles are worse, Rydia's or Kain's.

She smiles at him. "Cecil found forgiveness and redemption in his father, on Mount Ordeals. I went to the closest thing I had." The smile quirks into something else: snake-like, dragon-like. "Asura gave me words and advice. Leviathan gave me battle."

"You fought Leviathan?" By all the holy angels of Eblan, Edge swears to himself, he will never understand this girl; "You fought Leviathan. Are you okay? Are you stupid?"

"Excuse me?" Rydia draws herself up, almost regal in her anger. "Don't you dare pretend concern," she hisses. "I knew exactly what I was doing, Edge, and it helped."

He clutches her shoulders, rubbing her skin absently with his thumbs. "Please don't get mad. I just don't understand." Another thing he never thought he'd admit, out loud; Rydia seems to be the catalyst for that. "I'm trying to. You could give me that much."

Her face softens. It's amazing to watch, all of this esper-sternness fading away into genuine concern beneath. "I forget," she says, sadly, "that not everyone understands."

She steps away from him, then, her face pensive as she thinks. Edge watches her, thinking, those gears in her brain turning to put out the words she needs. "Cecil's took battle, too," she says finally. "A battle in which you can't fight back or you lose, right?" Her eyes twinkle a bit at the memory of the words. "It's different for the Eidolons. They don't – there's never any malice, really, between Summons; those who harm are removed from the Feymarch – it's part of the code they live by. But sometimes one monster will cause harm to another, unintentionally. And tradition dictates they battle it out."

Edge remembers long ago when she told him about the old-fashioned way of earning her summons: battling is a thing of pride, of valor, and even losing can be a badge of honor. The ability to fight, alone, is a kind of currency between her monsters, a thing that has a worth he isn't sure human-raised humans can ever really grasp. Save, he thinks suddenly, for someone like Kain: someone steeped in his own brand of honor, a brand tied to his spear and his skills and his word.

"The one who was wronged fights to repay the wrong," Rydia says softly. "The one who wronged fights for penance and forgiveness. In the end, both win. The fight cancels everything out." The look she throws him is tentative, as if she doubts her own ability to explain. "In the end, all the bad feelings are – expended, gone, consumed. The fight is punishment and vengeance and – and everything it needs to be."

Edge frowns, a little, although he can understand it on the surface: it means nothing conceptually, but he can at least process the idea of battling for forgiveness. "But there was nothing between you and Leviathan."

Rydia's smile now is cryptic. "No," she says softly. "But the Feymarch King is a symbol, a stand-in for the things I have wronged. He always has been, Leviathan." Her smile twists, as if hiding fangs, and Edge is suddenly chilled: she does not, at this moment, look entirely human. "I asked for penance, and I earned it – and he granted it."

She kisses his cheek as she leaves the room – hesitantly, as if thinking of kissing him for real, but Edge's mind is still full of esper-Rydia and before he can wake himself from the vision she is gone.

- - -

That night Edge lies alone, which is fine; he expected as much. Kain's face all day has been solemn and empty, and Edge is fairly sure Kain will not sleep at all: his men had spoken of a vigil, some knightly tradition lost over the ages.

He's not exactly worried about tomorrow. He knows both of them have faced foes worse than the other: he remembers the endless battles at the core of the moon, creatures rending flesh faster than Rosa could seal it closed, Rydia's skin torn open by fire and Kain's body lashed by claws. He will have healers, because he's also sure it's not going to be pretty – both are too fierce to yield – but he doesn't fear for their safety. He trusts them both to be wise, if maybe not benign.

It's that thick pensive feeling in the air, though: the weighted solemnity of his parents' shrine, of the empty room in Mount Ordeals, the feeling of tangible stillness surrounding and watching as he lies in his bed and thinks.

Edge thinks of forgiveness. He thinks of Rydia's face on Mount Ordeals, anguished and forlorn, and of the smiles she's given him now: warm and cryptic, as if she's found some kind of inner peace he cannot be privy to. Well, and she did; Asura's wisdom and Leviathan's lash have granted her something. Edge isn't sure he understands.

But he thinks, suddenly, of arguing with Kain: fighting, vehemently, violently, and then of falling into bed with Kain just as eagerly. Did they not do the same thing – turn to the physical as release, as catharsis, as a pathway to things inexpressible by words? Rydia's forgiveness is cloaked in the same thing: giving these emotions, these words, a physical outlet. Through that lens, Edge can understand it a little better; they all have turned to a different form of the same expression.

He thinks, then, of Rubicante, as he always does. Had it felt any better to strike the Fiend down? To watch Rubicante expire? To defeat him? Edge still feels hollow, so he knows the answer is no. Would he be able to channel this empty frustration to an avatar? Would Leviathan stand-in for Rubicante's guilt, while Edge swung swords like a maniac and screamed his war-cry?

Or would he feel better with his head bowed, letting Leviathan punish him with tooth and claw until his body hurt as much as his heart?

Edge sighs, and rolls over, because there aren't any answers in the middle of this night.

- - -

In the very early morning, Kain opens his door. Edge has barely wrenched his eyes open by the time Kain has crossed the room to stand beside his bed.

"Good thing I am not an assassin." Kain's voice is amused. "Some days I doubt the existence of your renowned ninja skills entirely."

"Kill me now," Edge groans as he sits up. "It's much too early to be mocked by an uppity Dragoon."

Kain bends down and grabs his shirt; the kiss is fast, and fleeting, and powerful. Edge falls backwards, embarrassingly, as Kain lets go and stands to leave. There's a twist to Kain's lips, as if the Dragoon wants to smile.

"I will see you there," Kain says, and he leaves as quickly as he came.

It brings a strange sense of finality with it. Edge is too nerve-wracked to sleep, so he gets dressed, trying not to think about the stone circle outside.

- - -

In the end, Edge knows, this is the kind of duel Eblan will speak of for years: the memory and the stories obviously greater than the sum of its parts. All he remembers of it is the chill of the day and the sick feeling like acid in his stomach as he stood.

He'd thought of not watching.

But how was that fair? He had somehow become the link tying them together, almost in a physical sense; he was their friend; he was lord of the castle at which they would be fighting this cathartic duel. No matter how much he tried (and he'd tried), Edge couldn't come up with a single reason to not watch that even he could find legitimate.

So he stands at the edge of the stone circle, wondering when the hell he grew up.

Rydia and Kain nod at each other. Rydia's grinning, still, as if this is all some kind of game to her; Edge has a moment of panic as he realizes maybe it is the kind of thing the Whyt do for fun. Kain looks somber and solemn, made of stone. They position themselves in the sparring circle and Edge tries to not count the number of his men who have snuck from the castle to watch this duel; Kain has made a name for himself in his time here, and Rydia's energetic spark has never been subtle.

They strike their battle stances, and then – they freeze.

Rydia strikes first, one long lash of her whip – meant to annoy, or to draw Kain out. Kain doesn't move, and Rydia frowns, and Edge has the first inkling of something awful.

"You have to fight, Kain," she says, and her voice is a low snarl. The whip snaps again. "Fight me."

Kain bows his head. "On Mount Ordeals," he says, slowly but firmly, "you cannot strike back in the battle for redemption."

"This is not Mount Ordeals," Rydia snaps, and her hands rise to her chest as her eyes spark fire. "Fight me."

Kain doesn't move, even as Rydia's arms extend, her fingers flashing; lightning sears across Kain's face, lighting up the hollow shadows of his eyes, illuminating the shine of his armor. He stumbles a bit at the blow, but it isn't her most highly-powered magic, and they both know it.

"No." Rydia's voice is dark and her face is darker than Edge had ever seen it: this is her fury, dragon's-tongue and fire. "No." Her hands whip out again, and this time it's flame, red-orange pillars surrounding Kain, searing Edge's eyes so badly he blinks. "This isn't that kind of battle. Get up and fight me, Kain Highwind."

She's already chanting again, and Edge watches with his breath in his throat as she and Kain exchange a very long look; the air is poignant with her rage and the muted tingle of the magic she's barely holding back. They stare. The challenge is writ in fire across Rydia's face.

Kain shakes his head, and this time he actually sets his spear down onto the ground.

Rydia's eyes narrow and Edge has only a moment to step backwards before she unleashes it: Meteo, primed to her palms and ready at her calling; the sky round them darkens, and the fiery stones fall. The sound of the spell is like screaming, as the missiles plummet through the force of Rydia's fire; it's so potent, light and heat and power, that Edge has to close his eyes and look away.

When he opens his eyes again, Kain is on his knees, but he still does not move to block or parry or even dodge.

Rydia is staring at him, her eyes smoldering with the same smoke now coming from the ground, from the stone circle, from Kain himself – but to Edge's surprise she closes her eyes, and breathes one long sharp shuddering breath, and then she extends her arms in one smooth, practiced, graceful and deadly motion.

"Do you think you win this way?" Her voice is breathy as she moves into the spinning dance Edge recognizes. "Does not fighting back make you feel better? Because it shouldn't, Kain. It shouldn't, and it won't." She drops to her knees, hands folding, and her body fades to golden light; behind her, Edge recognizes Asura's three-fold form, spinning and twisting to fit the will of her adopted daughter. White light suffuses the battlefield, and when it fades, Kain is on his feet again.

Rydia stands. She's clenching her fists, and shaking a bit, as she fades from otherworldly rage into just plain mad. Not dragon-mad, or esper-mad: this is a human emotion, and her entire body's tense with it.

"Don't you understand?" Rydia spits. "I will stand here, and cast at you, and heal you, for as long as it takes for you to listen to me." Her voice breaks, ragged-red, on those last words.

Kain's head slowly rises. He looks at her.

"Do you want my forgiveness?" she yells at him, snapping the whip at her side. "Then show me you deserve it. Earn it, Kain."

And Edge watches as something snaps in Kain's face; the walls shatter as he understands, somehow, finally, that this isn't all about him anymore: this isn't his price or his gift, it's Rydia's – and then in one smooth graceful moment (Edge had forgotten how deadly-fast dragoons could be) he snaps the spear up from the ground and vanishes into the sky.

Rydia stands her ground, smug, fingers to her lips as she chants, holding on to her magical energy and waiting for the strike—

—it comes in a flash, Kain tumbling down, and there's a mess of somersaults and bodies and then Kain rolls away and Rydia's stumbling and limping and yet she lashes out, the sick-making sound and smell of Bio wrapping around Kain. Some distant part of Edge's brain recognizes this as good tactics even as he winces at the blood dripping into the earth beneath Rydia, but she's already chanting again as Kain throws himself to the clouds once more.

This time their attacks almost coincide; Rydia is sinking to her knees as Kain falls from the sky. His blow strikes first, and Rydia coughs death-blood even as she summons the Sylphs forth; their feelers wrap about Kain, draining his energy, and Edge watches him stumble a bit, dizzied and stricken with Bio's response to his attacks. Neither of them seem to have any items; perhaps it is some kind of unspoken rule. Rydia is back on her feet, energy-gifted by her summon, and she manages to cast once more: a powerful hit, her most potent magic coming to bear, and as the ice shatters and splinters around Kain she cries out in triumph.

Edge looks at her; her face is jubilant, jagged with battle-exhaustion, gleaming with a fiercer sense of herself than Edge has ever seen before. It's nothing like her quiet glow on Mount Ordeals, and Edge wonders yet again: who – and what – is Rydia, truly?

But then Kain recovers, and leaps into the sky once more. Rydia chants with quiet resolve, even though Edge can see she's still favoring her right side and she can barely stand, fingers curled to her mouth in waiting. There's a whistling noise, and Rydia lets the spell loose even as Kain plummets into her; they are both wrapped in the lash of the lightning, blindingly powerful, but then through the smell of smoke and char Kain rolls lose and the spell dies down.

Rydia lies on her side, unconscious, one arm tucked under her head and the other thrown outward, and Edge can see the blood seeping into the ground from somewhere in her side. He steps forward, unable to take it any more, signaling for the healers he'd summoned –

–but then Kain stumbles, and cries out, a gurgling and twisted sound against the wretched pulsating light that flares from his form as Bio strikes, once again, his own terrifying attack sapping the last of his strength – and Kain crumples to the ground, a too-still pile of armor and limbs. For a moment there is an odd silence: full of the final crackling song of the lightning and the lingering rot-scent of Bio, and nothing else.

Edge's eyes fall upon the sickly purple pallor of Kain's face, and then return to Rydia's bent body - and the cry stilled on his lips comes forth as a commanding bellow.

"Healers!"

He watches as they gather up the fallen forms of his friends, dosing with Phoenix Down and as many potions as they can. Edge watches, and wonders what he just saw.

- - -

He skulks in the door of the Infirmary until the nurses start throwing towels at him, at which point Edge simply cloaks himself in ninja magic and continues to skulk.

He knows they will be okay; they've all survived worse. They may not have Rosa's gentle words and powerful spells to knit their wounds, but Eblan's healers are no slouches. He isn't worried for their safety. He's worried for them, for Kain and Rydia both, the souls beneath their battered bodies.

Edge thinks of catharsis. He thinks of healing. He thinks of battle, and then he thinks of passion: Kain and Rydia, different, but perhaps speaking the same language.

Eventually he gets frustrated and bored and insolent, and it isn't hard to sneak away, cloaked in shadow and Eblan's stone. Edge finds himself at the door of his parents' shrine-room. He stares at the doorknob for a long, long minute.

Inside the room still smells of dust and violets.

Edge lets the ninja magic fade, and as it dissipates it saps the tension high-strung in his body, singing along his veins since the duel: he sinks to his knees on the floor, and to his surprise there are tears in his eyes. The surprise doesn't help, and he takes one deep breath, and chokes on it. The next thing he knows, he is sobbing on the floor, sobbing into his empty hands in front of an empty cupboard, because Rydia and Kain can find resolution in battle and fire but for him it's all empty and vain, and he has nothing, nothing except a kingdom he doesn't want and two empty thrones where his parents should be.

It's not forgive and forget, Rydia's voice whispers in the room. It's more like moving on. But Edge can't move on; he's stilled, like Kain, full stop, no momentum: he cannot climb this mountain by himself.

He misses them. He always misses them.

- - -

That night Edge slips back to the infirmary, wanting to see them – but they're awake, and whispering, and because he is an idiot Edge slips into the shadows and stone again and listens to their words.

"It isn't bad," Rydia whispers. "I do wish Rosa were here, though." And she sees Kain's face fall, because she corrects herself: "Or that I could still heal, drat everything."

"It is alright." Kain's voice is less a whisper and more a low rumble. They're sitting next to each other on a bed, shoulders barely touching. Rydia's arm is in a sling, and Kain's head is bandaged. The air is full of the scent of potions, working their chemickal magics in tandem with the natural rhythms of their bodies. "I can at least get out of sparring tomorrow, I think."

Rydia's giggle is bright in the darkness. "Sparring? What, with Edge?" Her voice grows sly. "I'd love to see that," she says, and Edge realizes she is curious.

Kain barks a laugh, one loud noise in the darkness, and as he says "I bet you would," Edge realizes exactly what he means. He feels his face growing bright in the darkness at the thought, even now, and the magic around him starts to waver slightly as his emotions waft out of control. Edge breathes, slowly, and regains himself, trying not to think of Kain in his bed – or, for that matter, Rydia.

When did he become so entangled?

Silence drifts down from the rafters as they sit side-by-side and Edge watches. "Is it better?" Rydia asks, finally.

Kain takes a deep breath, and in the dim light of the room his face is thick with shadows – but not with guilt; just with the shadows every man carries in a life so torn and dark and bright. "Somewhat," Kain says finally. He turns, and looks down into Rydia's face. "It is not about me, though." His hand comes up, to gently trace a scratch across her cheek. "Is it well for you?"

"Yes," she breathes, leaning into Kain's hand, and oh, the look on Kain's face is something Edge recognizes now. Rydia reaches up: her hand to Kain's face, her fingers in his hair. "Do you still not understand?"

Kain smiles, a bit, and it almost looks like he's close to tears. "Somewhat." His voice carries irony. "It is not my way, but it is perhaps closer to my way than I had thought." Edge thinks of Kain and his honor, tied up in what he is, his very spine and core; it isn't exactly like Rydia's eidolon-code, but it isn't unlike it either. Kain's thumb continues to caress Rydia's cheek.

"Do you understand?" Kain asks her, and his voice catches. "I would do anything you asked, to make it right."

"There is no need." Her voice is soft, and gentle. "Right and wrong aren't there any more. It's just… us. All we need to do now is heal."

"Heal." Now Kain looks away, except that Rydia's hand turns his face back to her. "I wish I could," he tells her, an admission in the darkness and the night. Edge watches hungrily, knowing this is Kain behind the wall, behind the stone, finally and utterly and completely.

"I know no one understands," she whispers. "But there are many kinds of healing, Kain."

She pulls his face down to hers, and kisses him. It is a long slow kiss, solemn and almost formal, except for the look in their eyes when they pull apart: that is not formal at all.

"Let us take the ones we can manage," Rydia murmurs, and Kain bends his head to kiss her again.

Edge watches as they kiss, long and slow, Kain's hands gentle in her riotous hair. For a moment he wonders whether he should feel – what? Slighted? That they have found this release and safety in each other? He does not. It's somehow right, as they learn each other, mouths and hands in the night. They're both in those silly infirmary robes, and bandaged and bruised from the wounds inflicted upon each other: and those are only the wounds he can see, Edge realizes.

Once he would have thought it odd for two people so violently connected, two people who had just fought – tooth and nail, lash and spear, spell and leap – to suddenly be like this, drawn in this way to another. But he does not. Edge wonders whether this is another side of the old-fashioned way, or if he is just growing wiser. Kain and Rydia both have brought him wisdom, even if he doesn't really know how to use it yet.

He leaves as Rydia begins to undo Kain's robe; it is, of course, nothing he hasn't seen himself, but Edge still thinks certain things should be private and sacred. This is one of them.

- - -

The next morning Edge waits and waits at breakfast, and snaps at the serving-boys wanting to clear his table, and re-orders hot coffee, and waits – until, finally, Kain and Rydia appear. They've both been sufficiently dosed with potions to be mobile, if stiff and still a little grotesque-looking, but as they walk into the room Edge can't help it: he hugs them both, and so what if life has turned him into a big sappy ninny-face. He has always been impulsive. He'd hug them harder if he didn't fear for Rydia's ribs and Kain's bruises.

Breakfast is peaceful. No one speaks of the battle; instead, Rydia talks about the Feymarch, and how she plans to try to bridge the gap between the Underworld and Mist. Kain listens, and makes some suggestions: Baron could help here, he says, and there are no shadows on his face as he speaks.

Edge is so happy to see it between them that he pledges over half his treasury before Rydia laughs and Kain makes a sardonic comment about rationing.

Eventually Kain stands to leave, claiming the sanctuary of his bed, but before he leaves the room he crosses to stand before Edge, looking down at him. The look on Kain's face is strange, but amused, and Edge smiles indolently up at him. To his surprise, Kain leans down to kiss him on the lips, briefly, the brush of a light wind. There is a distinct air of smug satisfaction about the dragoon as he leaves.

When Edge glances back at Rydia, she's watching him with her chin in her hand, eyes wide and sparkling. "I quite thought so," is all she says, and her smile's almost as smug as Kain's.

- - -

The day turns by in a slow circle; Edge's brains feel dry. The men have requested a celebratory dinner tonight, for Rydia and Kain and their duel; Edge is distracted throughout the day by these issues, placed before him on his plate as the lord of the castle at which they fought their best. It is the last thing he wants to be doing, and yet it feels right, as if he should honor them with some kind of ceremony now that their issues have settled to the ground like dust.

Edge thinks of betrayal. He thinks of Kain, all of his jealousy and self-loathing and brittle honor consumed by Zeromus, through Golbez, and twisted into hatred and evil. He thinks of Rubicante, who called Lugae's experiments betrayal; Rubicante, who would have killed them all anyway, but would have claimed to do it with an honor of his own. He wonders whether it matters, in the end. Rubicante was evil, and Lugae was evil; does it matter who is more or less?

For Kain is good, and Rydia is good, and he himself is good even with all of his flaws and temper and anger and arrogance: they are on the side of good, no matter what Mount Ordeals might judge. Maybe none of them are as shining-pure as Cecil, but they're still on his side and at his back. Is that what matters, in the end? Choosing light over darkness?

- - -

Edge brings Rydia jewels and silks for the night's banquet: his mother's things, left to rest in a special chest-of-drawers in the armory under lock and key (which Edge has known how to pick since he was seven). He means to lay them on her bed while she's in the bathhouse, but she comes back sooner than he expected, wrapped in towels and robes and with her hair dripping-wet.

"Choose for me," she says with a smile, and so Edge selects a gown his mother loved, silk and lace in a deep red, the color of good wine. Her face lights up at it. Next to it he sets his mother's rubies – the chunky, raw, unpolished necklace from Agart, the one he secretly liked best as a child, so impressive against the perfectly-fashioned glamour of her worked jewels. Rydia looks at it in awe, her fingers trailing over it; he can tell from her face that she immediately knows whose it was.

"Edge." Rydia comes over to stand before him. He looks at her, still rosy-pink from the bath, her wild hair damped smooth over her shoulders. She grins, a mischievous grin, and stands on her tip-toes to kiss him.

"Thank you," she says once they've separated. "Thank you for everything. Thank you for being my friend, and for giving me a place here." It comes out quickly and urgently, as if she's been thinking on it for days. Her hands have grabbed his, now, and she's looking at him, her eyes fervent and dark. "And thank you for everything you did for Kain." She pauses, and then blurts out all in a rush: "I'm sorry I left you."

"Hush." He bends in, because he still cannot resist her after all of this; this kiss is slow, and wild, and full of surprising passion. "Hush," he says again, against her lips. It's all he can think to say, even if after all of this he still sounds like an arrogant SandWorm to his own ears.

"I'm so glad you could help him," Rydia says softly, and they both know who she's talking about. "I'm so proud, Edge, because I couldn't do it, and you did. I'm proud of you, although that doesn't mean I doubted you – I'm – I'm just…" She smiles, weakly. "I'm glad to be your friend."

And she kisses him with it, full and lush and vibrant; he kisses her back, weeks of longing and missing her and worrying, all of it washing away like rain on stone. Her mouth opens beneath his, her tongue glancing against his tongue, the fleeting touch shooting sparks of fire through his veins. Her mouth is still full of electricity. Edge has never been able to choose an element for Rydia because she tastes like them all: storm and ice and flame. Her hand cups his face, and he shivers. Maybe it is because of the magic she wields; she is all elements before him. He kisses her like he never wants to let her go, because he doesn't, and he's over being embarrassed about it: this is Rydia.

She pulls away, and now her eyes are sparkling. "Don't let it go to your head," she teases.

"I'll see you tonight," Edge says instead, and he gives her an awful gaudy wink and leaves to let her dress.

- - -

The dinner is simple and raucous and excellent. His men have outdone themselves; if he had once worried about Kain's place in their eyes, he does not have to worry now, for they've given him every Eblanian honor Edge can think of (and some he has to have explained to him, hastily, by the oldest Chancellor). And they love Rydia, dressed in Eblanian formality and dancing with anyone who can claim her from Kain's arm: Eblan has always loved a warrior-woman dressed in silks and sparkling stones, and Rydia reminds them all of their last Queen, who was beloved. Edge thinks it a proper tribute; his mother would have loved Rydia.

For now, Edge sits at the head of the table, and watches, and drinks more wine than is probably proper.

At some point Rydia claims him for a dance, and there are murmurs of every kind in the hall; his dress black and her deep red make a striking contrast, he can imagine. As he turns her, he sees Kain's eyes, watching with deeply amused approval – or at least, Edge thinks so; he hopes it isn't the wine.

He sits, again, after the dance; Rydia is back with Kain, laughing, her vibrant green hair bright against the navy blue Kain wears.

It is a strange contrast against Cecil and Rosa's wedding, Edge thinks suddenly. He'd spent their wedding and reception ignoring and dreading his place in Eblan; here, he is lord of the castle. Rydia had been alone, in Baron, and heart-sick with it; here, she is a gleaming star in Eblan's midst, and she does not have to pretend to be any more human than what she is: they have seen her in the duel, blood-strewn and hissing, and they love her. And Kain, who hadn't even been in attendance: Kain is smiling in public, something Edge wouldn't have thought possible.

Edge drinks more wine, and accepts an invitation to perform a very improper dance (it had actually been outlawed in his grandmother's generation) with one of his Chancellors, which makes Kain guffaw and Rydia's eyes shine with amused shock.

When he sits down, Kain is at his side.

"I thought you should know first," Kain says, his low voice cutting across the din. "Tomorrow I will return to Baron."

Edge blinks. Kain's face is passive, but not locked away: Edge sees resolution.

"I'm glad," he says finally, when he's sure he means it. And as he says the words he finds that he does: Kain has become a friend (and more than a friend), but Kain's first and most potent ties are to Cecil and Rosa, and they deserve as much of him as Edge has had. (Well, his brain corrects somewhat naughtily, maybe not as much.)

"I will make my apologies." Kain smiles, faintly. "Hopefully they will forgive me."

"Please don't fight them for it," Edge says hastily, and Kain bursts out laughing: his laughter is deep, and free, and unfettered.

"I shall try not to," he says when he catches his breath. "Although I doubt it will be necessary, with them."

Edge grins. He reaches out to clasp Kain's shoulder; he is so glad, now, that he opened Eblan's doors to Kain. Maybe it's his arrogance and pride, again, but Kain has found healing here, and Edge can't be ashamed of his own part in that. "Come back any time," he says, low and heartfelt, beneath the noise and the bustle. "You are always welcome here."

"I had thought I might," Kain says, a slow sly smile teasing his mouth. "Will the door be unlocked?"

"Always," Edge breathes, and he means that too.

- - -

He leaves the door unlocked that night.

They both come.

Kain is first, slipping through the door as silently as a trained knight can be; but then he does not close it, and Edge sees another form bright in the shadows. When Rydia steps forward into the candlelight, and kisses him, Edge is really only confused for a moment.

This is what there is between them: anger, frustration, loneliness, fears. But there is also love, and companionship, and acceptance of all the faults and flaws they bear. They are certainly not a trio of perfection, but Edge is pretty sure no one perfect would be able to put up with him for very long, anyway; they are not perfect, but they are good, and they are enough.

Edge feels arms around him, from behind, and then suddenly Kain is kissing Rydia, over or around his shoulder – he can barely tell; she wraps her arms around him, and kisses Kain back. Edge takes the opportunity to kiss Rydia's neck; she murmurs, and Kain twitches behind him at the sound.

Edge shuts the door.

They tumble into bed. This is less healing, less catharsis, and more an affirmation: Rydia's laugh becomes a gasp as Kain undoes her night-robe; Kain's murmur becomes a gasp in return as Edge steals his, making quick work of knots Kain must have thought worthy. Soon there is nothing but skin and sheets. Edge sinks into them, willingly; he finds his brain is not so far gone that he can't tell Kain's rough callused hands from Rydia's smaller ones, and if his own hands are confused by the skin they find, it maybe doesn't matter.

"Do I need to ask if you're alright with this?" Kain murmurs into his ear, and Edge chuckles, deep in his belly.

"Do I need to ask if you think you can handle it?" he retorts, and Kain's slow smile and the harsh kiss he gives Edge after are answer enough.

"Why is no one asking me?" Rydia says, her voice coy, and so Kain breaks away to kiss her, hard and demanding: Edge could almost just watch them, the whirlwind in Kain meeting Rydia's vibrance; the way she moans lights up Kain's face, and he kisses her harder, his hands coming to grip her face until she breaks free. She's fiercely radiant, her cheeks flushed and her eyes as determined and bright as in battle.

"Because this was your idea," Kain whispers, and Rydia catches Edge's eye with amusement and arousal and love and passion, all at once; she smiles, and pulls him to her, and he goes willingly.

Rydia is before him, and Kain behind him; it is Kain's hand, slow and deliberate around him, moving, while his other arm keeps Edge from writhing; Rydia kisses him with fire, sucking at his lip, her own fingers everywhere: mingling with Kain's at times. Edge's hands are upon her, fingers running all over smooth skin; he coaxes a cry from her which makes Kain stop – momentarily – to watch her eyelids flutter on her face as Edge's fingers slowly work against her, into her.

"Yes," she breathes, and looks up – at both of them.

Rydia lies back, and pulls Edge on top of her; he looks down at her for a moment, lying between his braced arms; behind him Kain's breath catches in his throat, and Edge's body runs hot with it. Kain's hands on him are warm as he moves closer, and Rydia is so beautiful. Edge closes his eyes, as he sinks into her, as Kain's warmth settles atop him, as the entire world both stops and spins and his body alights between two flames, as his breath catches, as his head drops to Rydia's shoulder, as his awareness fades into nothing but fire and wind and vibrant, vibrant life.

- - -

Edge stands in front of the door to his parents' shrine for a long moment before he opens it and slips in. His hand catches the small switch almost automatically, and the lamp flares to life, a small glowing pinpoint in the darkness. He waits, as always, for his eyes to adjust.

When they do, the room looks like it always has: dark, secret, solemn. Maybe it is just Edge's heart that feels lighter, this time. He sets the ruby necklace down atop the cabinet; his fingers linger on its surface, and he can smell violets and sandalwood and dust.

"It's going to be okay, mumsie," he says, and for the very first time he feels it might be true.

He crosses the room to stand in front of his father's swords. They are both ornamental and functional, because there's no reason a sword has to give up one in favor of the other. Edge will not touch them – tradition too firmly ingrained in him – but he does use the scrap of cloth he brought to polish the blades, a little, being very careful with his fingers.

He thinks about forgiveness. Maybe it isn't so much about saying, yes, everything is okay. It isn't really healing, and it isn't forgive-and-forget, either. It's more… moving on. Continuing to move, maybe; letting life's momentum carry you over the rocky bits and the jagged bits when you didn't have the energy to spare.

It's also that he doesn't feel alone anymore. His parents might be gone, but Edge has found peace in the fact that there are still things he has: a throne and a country to keep and care for. Friends and memories to keep at his side. And the ability to keep going: for the first time in a long while Edge finds he's content with himself, quieter and simpler than the excessive pride he usually swims in and also a thousand times more rewarding.

He has learned from his friends. Kain has taught him about standing still; Rydia has taught him about moving on; he has taught himself about dodging responsibilities. And Edge has learned – maybe most importantly of all – that sometimes there isn't one right way to do things; sometimes you have to fumble through your mistakes because you stood too long or ran away too quickly, and trust that you have the skills (and the friends) to make it through. Life's about being ninja, in a way, and this pleases him.

Edge stands in the middle of the room. For once the weight upon him isn't oppressive, and the thought of the throne isn't a burden, and his stomach isn't full of butterflies and SandWorms; he isn't healed, and he isn't fixed, but something within him has started moving again.

"I meant it," Edge says to the quiet and the ghosts and to himself. "It's going to be alright, mom and dad." He doesn't think about Rubicante, really, no more than the bare wisp of a thought: and if he can begin to forget, well, then, that's something like healing, right?

Edge closes the door behind him, carefully, making sure it seals. Then he heads up the stairs, to Rydia, to bid Kain farewell with the sunlight on their faces.