They were late this year, and now it was winter up in the mountains around Mysidia, Kain noted with a sigh as he pushed his way out from the cave he'd made his home for near on five years. Perhaps they had finally heeded his words and forgotten him – it was for the best, Kain told himself, and he tried to make himself believe it.
Kain paused in his steady and winding path toward the peak of Mount Ordeals, and he looked up at the darkening sky with a grimace as the wind picked up. It had been another fruitless year of trial and redemption, and still Kain had naught to show for it but new scars on his body and on whatever lingered of his pride. Judging by the skies and the bitterness of the cold, it would be yet another harsh winter for him to endure.
Kain didn't think of Baron, where the air would be warmer and the familiar castle a shield against the bitter cold. He didn't think of Cecil, his oldest friend and the shining symbol of everything Kain sought to find here. He didn't think of how Cecil had asked him to stay just a while longer. He didn't think of Rosa and the constant familiarity that he'd betrayed in his jealousy. He didn't think of how she'd hugged him tightly, how she'd begged him not to go. Both of them, together and separate, had spoken of a forgiveness that Kain believed he hadn't yet earned, that his place was there with them.
Kain had turned his back on them the day he'd left Baron, and he hadn't the stomach to look back to see their fading smiles as he betrayed their friendship one final time.
Both were more than Kain knew he deserved. They were the reason he sought penance in this wretched place. Perhaps, once his task was done... Perhaps he could finally meet Cecil's eyes, and perhaps Rosa's touch would no longer be so hesitant.
Kain reached the peak of Mount Ordeals quickly, stopping just short of where the mountain ended and open air began. The drop no longer made him uneasy, and while the view might have once been awe-inspiring, it had long since lost all meaning to him. Kain looked out across the frozen fields that stretched before him, his breath rising in a mist. He could see the threads of smoke rising from the nearby township of Mysidia, and he felt himself shiver as the wind picked up. Kain wondered, as he always did, if he was truly wasting his time in this place. Nigh on five years, and still the trials were barred to his presence.
Kain was miserable and alone. He was starting to believe that his sin was so great that he would never be able to go back to them, clean of sin and sorrow.
Kain's eyes fluttered closed, and he tormented himself with fleeting and futile thoughts of Cecil's quiet pride and Rosa's joy as they accepted him back into their lives without reservation or doubt. Kain stood in silence atop Mount Ordeals for a while longer, wishing his dreams could be made real and that the trials would accept him, redeem him. The stone doors would remain sealed shut though, mocking him him with dreams of home and victory and how he'd betrayed the two most important people in his life. It filled his sleep, telling him wordlessly that he was not worthy and that he would never be worthy – not until he'd served his penance.
Kain heard the unexpected crunch of snow and rock under foot – two people, and their gaits were unmistakable. It was a sound he'd both longed for and dreaded. They'd finally arrived, in spite of the weather. Then again, he supposed that not even a brewing snowstorm could keep either of them away, stubborn as they were.
He laughed softly in spite of himself, and for a moment he was surprised that his voice still functioned.
"Cecil. Rosa." Kain heard the footsteps hesitate as they neared where he stood at the cliff's edge. He wondered if it was apprehension of the yawning drop before him. "I see that it was too much to hope that you'd both come to your senses."
Cecil didn't need to think twice as he followed Rosa right to the edge of the cliff, to where their friend was couched, unmoving, seeming very much akin to a Toroian stone gargoyle. Cecil had to wonder at the state of Kain's health if he was wearing head-to-toe armour in such freezing weather, and what Kain thought he'd achieve by doing so. He also had to wonder if this was a common occurrence in winter.
Cecil heard Rosa sigh, almost inaudibly, and he knew that she was thinking much the same thing.
Kain was a worry. A stubborn worry, Cecil amended, watching Rosa lay a gentle hand on Kain's shoulder. When Kain had first mentioned that he would attempt the trials, Cecil had known that no matter how hard he'd try to convince Kain otherwise, his oldest friend would not rest until the deed was done. While that steadfastness was one of the things he loved the best about Kain, it had given them all naught but pain over these past five years.
"Late we may be, but we knew where to find you." Rosa's voice was gentle, and it both rebuked Kain's stubborn insistence and apologised for their lateness.
"Just as you knew where to find us," Cecil added, and unlike Rosa he unable to keep the slightly accusatory tone from his voice. He watched Kain carefully, waiting for a fracture in the defensive wall Kain had built around himself.
Cecil missed Kain. Rosa missed Kain. As he saw Kain's frozen expression slowly relent – the hint of a smile, barely noticeable but there – he knew that in spite of his stubbornness and bitterness, Kain missed them too. Cecil returned his smile – at least he could be sure that Kain drew something more than frustration from their visits.
"Kain. We have some extra supplies for you, to help you through the winter. A little late, but they are there if you need them." Rosa didn't mention the reason for their lateness this year, and for that Cecil was glad.
Kain placed his hand on Rosa's fleetingly, and he nodded stiffly. "They would be... appreciated," Kain told her, his voice halting and hoarse.
Rosa was gone quickly as the wind began to pick up, and Cecil watched her leave them with a hint of amusement. The cold was getting to her, and even though he wore layer upon layer of wool and furs, he couldn't help but shiver too.
Kain said nothing as Rosa departed, and they stood for a while in a silence that Cecil wished with all his heart was 'companionable' instead of 'awkward'. The views from atop Mount Ordeals were still breathtaking, Cecil noted, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. It was a good place to reflect on one's thoughts – no wonder Kain found such comfort here.
Kain hadn't been shaving, though, and he had lost a great deal of weight. His stance had softened, and to Cecil's trained eye, his centre of balance seemed off. Cecil doubted that Kain would be as able a fighter as he'd once been, considering. Cecil's optimistic mood faded quickly into worry again.
Cecil had believed that Kain had loved training, had loved fighting, had lived for being a dragoon. A small voice in Cecil's mind added that once, he'd believed that Kain had loved Rosa, Baron, him, and still Kain had turned his back on it all for the solitude he found in the mountains. There was little to be gained from dwelling on the past, though, and even less to be gained from harbouring bitterness.
Kain suddenly stood, with a quickness that belied his large frame and the freezing cold.
"Kain?" Cecil asked, frowning. For a moment he wondered if it been something he'd said.
"I don't understand it. How did you do it?" Kain's voice was low and frustrated, carried to Cecil's ears on the wind. "It's been five years, Cecil, and still I cannot rid myself of it all."
He sounded embittered and hollow now, as if he no longer believed that he would ever find his way off the mountain. Cecil placed his hand on Kain's shoulder, wondering if Kain was even meeting his gaze from beneath the shadow of his dragon-like helm.
Kain had suffered enough for ills that he had long since atoned for. Cecil wanted to tell him that it was pointless, that he needed to come home because there was nothing more forgive. That was why he and Rosa kept coming back to Mount Ordeals, to convince Kain to return with them and to make their life at Baron seem whole again. Never mind that Kain had turned his back on them not once but twice, he was the missing piece and Cecil understood that, now.
Cecil wished for the old days with a sudden fierceness that surprised him, for the time back before he'd been a king and Rosa hadn't chosen and Kain hadn't felt alone enough to fall for Zemus' lies. Cecil tried not to think of how close he'd come to giving up and leaving Kain alone this year. Cecil wished for the impossible, he knew that, but he couldn't stand in silence.
"The trials will not absolve you of your past, my friend," Cecil told Kain quietly, squeezing the frozen metal of Kain's shoulder guard. "It will not change anything."
Kain remained silent, his jaw set, miserable. Cecil stayed his tongue, unsure of how to counsel his oldest friend.
"I still have to try," Kain finally said, his voice rough and harsh. He turned on his heel and began the trek back down the side of the mountain, leaving Cecil standing at the cliff's edge alone.
Cecil nodded slowly to himself, knowing that Kain had to reach his own conclusions no matter how long it might take. It reminded Cecil painfully of their childhood, of how Kain had refused to let himself be swayed by the thoughts of others and had instead kept his own counsel.
He and Kain headed down to the cave in silence, and Cecil could not think of a way to ease the sudden tension between them.
Rosa carefully stowed the new supplies in their correct places, knowing intuitively where he would want them and how. She'd known Kain as well as she'd known Cecil, after all, and Kain's sparse and military way of organising his belongings had not changed in the years since Zeromus' defeat.
Rosa paused in her task, noting the near-empty food stores he'd set up in his cave. Between the man's thin face and weary stance up on the mountain's peak, it was clear to Rosa that Kain wasn't looking after himself. Was it despair at his task, or was it another way he strove to prove himself worthy of the trials? Rosa filled his food stores to capacity regardless, and resolved to step up the visits.
It hadn't been long after the battle with Zeromus that Rosa had picked up on it – that Kain had never really come back home with them. No matter how she and Cecil had tried to ease Kain's fears and guilt, there was no denying that in some ways, he simply wasn't there. Kain's own shame and anguish had driven him away from Baron more surely than all the idle castle gossip in the world.
While Rosa loved Cecil dearly, as the months had gone on, she'd begun to feel Kain's absence all the more keenly. It hadn't been long after Ceodore's birth that Rosa had first broached the topic with Cecil. Or, rather, Rosa had informed Cecil that she'd be visiting Kain soon, and that he'd be welcome to join her if he so pleased.
The radiant smile that had broken out on Cecil's face was worth all the worry she'd endured leading up to her admittedly odd decision, and thus had begun their yearly tradition.
Things had been rocky at first, and Kain had harshly rebuffed their efforts to convince him to break his penance and return from his self-imposed exile. They'd kept the visits to a yearly schedule as they'd tried to give Kain the space he needed. After the first couple of visits, Kain slowly began to accept that yes, Rosa and Cecil were going to be just as stubborn on the topic as he was being, and that no, they were not going to give up on him that easily.
Rosa frowned. Something, seeming dreadfully disorganised and starkly out of place with the rest of Kain's strict order, caught her her eye. Atop the rough and unpolished chest that stood in the far corner of Kain's cave, a pile of opened correspondence was sat. Even from here, Rosa could recognise her own flowing hand, and pages filled with Cecil's blunt and practiced letters. She thought she could make out Cid's scrawl, delicate paper from Eblan, a scroll from Fabul – correspondence from their friends.
Rosa smiled, and it felt like the first time she'd done so since she had left Baron yesterday. It was those little things that Kain allowed himself that made her hope that this time, maybe, things would be different and that they could all go home together. Rosa clasped her hands, looking away and busying herself again. It gave her hope that one day they'd all get their happily ever after, naïve as it all was.
A few minutes passed, and Rosa looked up as Kain pushed his way back through the furs he'd hung over the cave's entrance in an attempt to ward off the cold. Cecil quickly followed, and Rosa had to wonder what it was they had discussed that had made Cecil look so weary and Kain look so grim.
They exchanged pleasantries, despite that they all knew each other well enough to dispense with it. Rosa looked well, Cecil was handling the perils of Baron politics like an Eblan ninja in the shadows, and my wasn't the weather cold up here?
The whole thing felt so formal and forced and distant that Rosa finally sighed. Left to their own devices, she was certain that Cecil and Kain would continue dancing around their conflict with small talk – did they ever learn? This sort of avoidance was precisely what had landed them on this mountain, and as much as she loved the two of them, another round of standoffishness and angst was something she wasn't sure she could live through.
The awkward conversation halted as Rosa reached down and into her bags, and drew out her gift for Kain. It was a red and white scarf, finely woven but warm. The colour – which Cecil could be blamed for, the man might have gorgeous hair but colour co-ordinated he was not – clashed horribly with Kain's grim expression and his dark armour, but nonetheless Rosa wrapped it around his neck without a further word.
Kain remained stock still until Rosa finished her handy-work, and Rosa could tell Cecil was only barely biting back a warm laugh. The lingering tension in the air was suddenly gone, and when her task was done, Rosa let her fingers trace lightly over the scaled patterning of his armour. She felt Kain's breath catch, and it brought to mind memories of foolish times gone by.
"Kain," Rosa said to him, softly. She laid her hand on his cheek, and smiled when he didn't flinch away from her touch or deny how much he'd missed it. "Please. Come home."
He was the missing piece in their lives, and his rightful place had remained empty, would remain empty until he came back to them.
Kain said nothing, and Rosa let her hand fall, suddenly uncertain. He reached out though, and hesitantly caught Rosa's fingers before her hand dropped back to her side. His hands were frozen, and Rosa absently rubbed the back of them to begin to warm them up. Out of the corner of her eye, Rosa saw Cecil approach and put his arm around Kain's shoulders, hugging close.
Rosa heard Kain swallow, wondering how hard it must be for him to have herself and Cecil so close and yet deny them all the same.
"You both know that I cannot," Kain said, finally. He sounded hollow and regretful but there was an undercurrent in his voice that told Rosa he would not be swayed. His expression relented slowly, and suddenly his voice was almost painfully wistful. "Not yet."
The next morning came far too quickly, and Cecil and Rosa departed for Baron once more. They departed for their lives and duties, but as always, they left something vital behind in the cave. Kain was wearing the scarf they'd given them as he waved the, goodbye, and Cecil could see that the man was smiling.
One day, Kain would be ready to face the future with them, and it hung like an unspoken promise in the air.