At first, Kain thought of Rydia as a little girl, even after she returned to them a woman. He thought he saw judgment and condemnation in her eyes, her little mouth set into constant disappointment. Eventually, he realized he had projected his own feelings onto her. She merely watched him, from a distance, small hands folded over her green gown. What she truly thought of him, he could not fathom.
Later, he thought of Rydia as Edge's woman. Anyone with eyes that could see knew how Edge felt about her. Even aside from his constant professions of interest, his gaze burned in her direction. When he spoke to her, he turned his whole body to her. She, however, never fully turned to him. Kain knew the feeling well, of loving a woman who would never fully turn to face him. He kept his distance and hoped Edge would not suffer as he had, that Rydia would change her mind. He did not wish for anyone to feel the pain he had when Rosa turned to Cecil.
After they defeated Zeromus, Kain did not think of Rydia of all. He thought only of Rosa in her bridal gown, her warm smile directed at Cecil, their hands entwined. Eventually, even that faded way, and he thought of nothing as he tried to climb Mount Ordeals.
Perhaps that was why he never finished the climb.
Kain had gone back to Mysidia, shopping for supplies, when Rydia walked into the store. A fine layer of dust clung to her green gown and tresses, lending her the appearance of a moving sculpture. She nodded at Kain as if they saw each other every day, instead of the first time in four years, and ran her fingers over the counter filled with Ethers.
"You're going to Mount Ordeals, aren't you?" she asked, when she reached the end of the counter, and him. Her green eyes were as sharp as they had been the day her village burned.
Kain glanced down at his satchel and shouldered it, carefully, so the spikes on his armor would not cut the strap. "More like back to Mount Ordeals, but yes."
"I haven't finished my climb yet."
"Ah." Rydia smiled. "I can help with that."
"Why did you come?" Kain finally managed to ask, the night they camped outside Mount Ordeals. They sat outside the tent, watching as the wind ruffled Rydia's thick green hair. Or at least Kain watched her hair. Rydia seemed mesmerized by the fire. She glanced up at him, the firelight still dancing in her eyes.
"Because you can only achieve redemption alone, atop the mountain."
"Yes, I know. So why are you here?"
"Because Cecil did not climb this mountain alone."
Kain did not know what to say, so he said nothing. He merely studied Rydia, a woman now, but not Edge's woman. She was her own woman; he understood that now. A woman with wind in her hair and fire in her eyes. He realized this must be her forgiveness, for his crimes in the Village of Mist. Overcome by a sudden flood of emotions, he bowed his head.
Rydia turned her face upwards, towards the mountain whose shadow they sat in. "Never be alone unless you have to."
The cave atop the mountain stood dark and uninviting, but Kain shouldered his lance, girding his loins for the trial awaiting him. He knew he could not have made it to the top without Rydia there, staring at him with those intense green eyes. He could not disappoint her. Not after he had been party to taking so much away from her as a child.
When he glanced back, Rydia stood at the edge of the mountain, staring down at the endless sea of green down below. The forest stretched out as far as the eye could go with only a sliver of ocean blue glimmering at the horizon. The wind had caught her hair again, sending it fluttering about. The curves of her face burned themselves into Kain's mind's eye, and her tight grip around her magic rod implied fortitude greater than even warriors such as himself and Cecil. In that moment, he forgot the memory of other women. She was more beautiful than any of them, filled with wisdom and strength.
"Thank you," he whispered, wondering if his words would be lost on the wind as he entered the cave.
Inside, he found only mirrors. They reflected only darkness at first. He could not see himself in the mirrors, only a shadow wearing his shape. He called out, but nothing answered. He waited in the darkness and the silence, but nothing happened. After a while, he sat down, still holding his lance. It was not until a sudden exhaustion claimed him that he finally set his lance down and wondered if Rydia still waited outside.
The shadow finally stepped forward. The Dragoon armor had been forged in black, and Kain could clearly see his own face, twisted with malice and envy, glaring down at him. The shadow pointed its lance straight at his heart, but before it could strike, he leapt backwards and grabbed his lance. They fought for a few seconds, or minutes, or perhaps even hours. Time had twisted itself into a labyrinth of confusion. All he knew was that he traded blows with his shadow, jumping and landing, speartip first, into each other. Sometimes they missed, and sometimes they struck their targets. Kain knew neither would last much longer, and he was running low on potions. Wounds stinging, blooding dripping from his armor and onto the polished floor, Kain backed up, towards the mirror. He would not win this fight as Cecil had. He could not, for he was not Cecil.
His shadow struck at him, but Kain dropped to the floor, letting the lance pass over him and strike the mirror behind him. Glass exploded, and his shadow screamed. The room suddenly grew brighter, though Kain could see no visible source of light. The shadow had disappeared, leaving behind only shattered glass with no reflection. One mirror wall had completely crumbled to the floor, leaving a hole behind it visible.
Panting, Kain leaned forward to examine the hole. Inside, he found a large egg. It appeared red and orange and blackened at the bottom, as if roasted over a fire whole. Kain took it in his hands, finding it hot, but not so hot he felt compelled to drop it. He looked around the room, but no voice spoke, no benediction was offered, no redemption found. He was alone, with no trace of his foe but his wounds, as if he had truly only fought his shadow. He seemed to have failed his trial somehow.
Kain walked out of the cave, head bowed in shame. The moon had risen high in the sky, and Rydia still stood at the edge, waiting. She looked up when Kain exited, smiling brightly.
"I failed," he told her, wondering if she would leave now. He found that thought more painful than even the realization that Rosa would marry Cecil. He hid his pain behind a scowl, as he always had.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her gaze falling on the egg in his hands.
Kain shrugged. "Did you want it?"
"Yes," she said, her gaze as intent as her Flare spell. Kain handed her the egg without a word, smiling a little at how she gazed at it in wonder, her fingers dancing over it, lips working silently.
"Do you know what this is?" Rydia asked after a long moment.
Rydia laughed. The eggshell began to crack in her hands, and the cracks glowed with fire. "It means you did not fail." She threw the egg up into the air, over the side of the mountain, and the egg burst open. Light flashed so bright that Kain lost his vision for a moment, and when his eyesight cleared, a full-grown Phoenix swooped around him, its feathers leaving behind trails of magical fire. It seemed a beautiful amalgam of various birds and reptiles, of which Kain recognized the head of a golden pheasant, the beak of a rooster, the neck of a snake, the body of a duck, and the tail of a peacock. It was not something so easily categorized. It gave a sharp cry, and Kain felt ten years younger.
"A Phoenix!" he cried, reaching up to touch its trailing tail feathers as it passed over him. Its plumage was dazzling, boasting the colors of black, white, red, blue, and yellow. The feathers felt hot, but they did not hurt, instead bolstering his feeling of youth and vigor.
"Indeed." Rydia took Kain's hand, her smile shy and a blush on her cheeks. "Come with me, Kain Highwind. The Phoenix will take us where we belong. I think that's why you found it in there. It was meant to take both of us places."
Kain studied her for a long moment, wondering how any of this was possible, if perhaps he were dreaming. But it did not matter. He had gone too long without joy to reject its presence now. He took her hand and kissed it. She laughed and kissed him on the lips, gently, but with promise. Kain felt as if the magic heat of the Phoenix suddenly flashed through him and kissed back.
Hand-in-hand, they leapt off the side of the mountain, onto the back of the waiting Phoenix, and raced through the sky, climbing higher and further until they broke the cloud line and basked in the sunlight.