The wind peeled off the top of Mount Ordeals in icy thin sheets that morning, same as it had since the first day Kain Highwind set foot on its jagged spine with his charge. The steel-scented gale bled through the walls of their tent; not even the magically-treated Behemoth hide could keep out the chill.
It was another one of those days that burrowed into your marrow at the first rays of dawn, then rattled you all day until you crawled into your sleeping roll and shivered until you got warm enough to sleep. Then you woke up and did it over again.
The Dragoon looked to his right, where another sleeping roll was situated next to him. The bundle of fur (more Behemoth hide, bless the beasts for donating their fragrant mauve skins, however involuntarily) was hitching with obvious life.
"Cyrus, if you're not already awake, now's the time," Kain called.
The sleeping roll engorged a long-boned boy of 12. His hair, the colour of new honey, reached well past his ears and down to his chin. The ends were stiff and looked chewed, but he'd been keeping it generally clean across the weeks with the aid of the pure water that flowed across and through Mount Ordeals' pristine veins.
The boy allowed himself a second to blink the dreams away from behind his eyes before saying, "Good morning, master."
Kain cast off his wraps and pulled his clothing on before the cold gusts swimming in lazy circles around the tent had a chance to bite. "I'm getting breakfast. If you want your part in it, best get up and outfitted."
Kain's apprentice wore the same clothes as his master: Loose, simple garments that were the colour of the summer sky. They weren't much for keeping warm on the ever-breathing slopes of Ordeals, but that was exactly Kain's intent. The cold kept you sharp and lean, he told Cyrus on his first day of training, when it seemed possible the boy would shake himself to pieces. To his credit, Cyrus nodded firmly in agreement that day, though his chattering teeth sounded like the warning rattle of an Ettin snake.
He was doing far better now. Kain adjusted his own equipment as he watched Cyrus from the corner of his eye. He prepared swiftly, and with barely a shiver. He reached for the simple bronze sword parked in his sleeping area with his right hand, and Kain felt a flutter of doubt in his heart.
"What'll we hunt, sir?"
Kain shook his head slightly and lifted his eyebrows. "Hm? Oh. I've had a craving for cliff eagle lately. I'd like you to get one for me."
Cyrus paled a little when Kain mentioned the aggressive raptors that nested at Ordeals' rockiest, unfriendliest heights. Cliff eagles were distant cousins of the basilisks and cockatrices that roosted on other mountain peaks that jutted out of the world, but all three had the interesting ability to throw paralyzing glances at anything that approached their nests.
"I'd like some eggs, too," Kain said. "Make sure you get some."
Cyrus cleared his throat. "I will, sir."
"I saw a new nest the other day -- south slope, about six meters above the ledge we camped at last week." Kain took up his spear. "I'll show you where it is."
One sunny day twelve years before Cyrus was born, Cid Pollendina stole up near Kain while the warrior practised some basic sojutsu katas by himself in one of Baron Castle's windswept courtyards. The airship engineer kept his distance: He had an aged nick on his shoulder to remind him of the last time he got too close to Kain's training session before the ex-Dragoon cleared his approach.
A few minutes passed. Kain's lance sliced and dipped through the air, seemingly unhindered by friction or gravity, and Cid silently puffed on his pipe.
Kain finally exhaled hard through his nose, planted his lance fork-side down between a dirt vein separating two cobblestones, and said, “Well Cid. What can I do for you?”
Cid uncorked his pipe from his mouth. “Kain. I need your help with one of my airships.”
“Why me? I know nothing about your machines.”
“That doesn't matter,” Cid said. “Your back is still strong, and I'm guessing your knees don't give out whenever you try to use the toilet. That makes you useful to me.”
Kain picked up his lance again and watched himself as he twirled it slowly. “Where's your young apprentice? She seemed energetic last I saw her.”
“Luca's gone back to the Underground for the rest of the month,” Cid said. “Some dwarven ceremony about hugging magma. I don't know, and it doesn't matter. I'm asking you, not Luca.”
Kain let himself smile a little. “I suppose you're going to haunt me until I say 'yes.'”
“Kain, you are one brilliant son of a Dragoon.”
“You said the right thing, old man. I'll help you with your airship.”
The “help” Kain loaned didn't amount to much beyond handing Cid mysterious-looking tools on occasion and listening to him complain about his son-in-law. Kain couldn't even lob any responses because Cid was hip-deep and head-first in the guts of some mythril contraption that was the size of an Adamantoise. So Kain spent the majority of his free afternoon grunting at an unfortunate view of Cid's wide backside.
“That'll do it,” Cid said at last, pulling out of the engine. He groaned as he straightened his back, then looked at Kain expectantly. When Kain shrugged, Cid sighed and wiped his oily hands on his shirt. Then he picked up a screwdriver and started twisting half-heartedly at something.
“How long's it been since all that business with the True Moon and the Maenads, Kain?” Cid asked.
“Six months, I suppose,” Kain said. He tried to pin down the specifics of the event, but failed – and not for the first time. Everything that happened under the glare of that unnatural moon felt as hazy as a dream.
Everything except his struggle against his own dark self. And, as usual, he felt something kick inside him when he thought about the noir Dragoon – as if the personification of his petty desire and rage was gestating, quickening, and preparing to be born again.
“That's great,” Cid said. “I'm going to tell you a story.”
“If it's the one with the punchline about the Chocobo and the pianist, you've already told it to me.”
“No, this is a little less funny.” Cid put down his screwdriver, pulled a pouch from somewhere, and filled his pipe again. He lit it and began puffing away thoughtfully. Kain secretly rather liked the smooth, blue smell of the expensive Agart tobacco Cid favoured.
“There was once a tribe of nomads, Cid began as he leaned against one of the railings circling the airship's deck. “Their life was hard, but they did all right thanks to support from their patron god. But as generations wore on, the nomads met and married into another band that worshipped another god.
“Well, this other god was capable of some hefty miracles, and his rate of delivery was pretty good, too. By contrast, the other nomads – the first ones I mentioned – their god's miracles were piffling and infrequent. So they threw in with the better god.”
“I see where this is going,” Kain said.
Cid continued regardless. “That first god, she was cheesed. She sparked a bloody war between the tribes, and they separated. The nomads, the ones with the 'impotent' god, they were on their own again. And she made her people hurt something fierce for backsliding.”
“And Rosa wonders why I have no patience for the gods and their games.”
“Not done,” Cid said. “At some point, the nomads cried out to their god. 'We were tempted!' they said. 'We got into trouble because of lust! It's an evil emotion; take it away from us!' So she did.”
Kain folded his arms. “Well?”
“What do you think happened, Kain?” Cid tapped the bowl of his pipe against the heel of his boot and dumped the hot tobacco on the deck. The wind quickly picked up the shredded bits and made them skitter like bugs. “Nothing new was born into the tribe – not animals, not people. Even the energy for day-to-day tasks was lacking. Everything stagnated until the god took pity and restored their desire.”
“And that's it. Do you not see what I'm getting at, here?”
“You're a terrible story-weaver, Cid,” Kain said, but as soon as he finished his sentence, a cold realization seized his heart. “Wait – you were there when I ... fought myself, weren't you?”
“Front row centre,” Cid said dryly. “Hell of a show. I've seen war, I've seen plague, and I've seen a dark elf brought to its knees by some piddling tinky-tink harp music, but I've never seen jealousy rancid enough to grow legs and walk through the goddamn door. Thanks for giving my old eyes one last wonder to behold, Kain.”
Kain clenched his fists hard enough to feel his fingernails bite his palms. He breathed deeply and got his shaking under control before he said, “It was not my finest moment. I have no excuse. I am my shadow, and my shadow is me. But I will admit, Cid, I did not agree to help you just so you could remind me of that day.”
“And I didn't ask for your company just to bring you down,” Cid said. He peered hard at Kain through his small, thick lenses. “Weren't you paying attention to my story? There's a lesson in it.”
“You told it like a simpleton with a concussion. I tuned out.”
Cid snorted. “All right, big man. You're right. I'm not one for flowery language, so I'll get right to the point. You still want to sleep with Rosa.”
Kain pressed his lips together and said nothing.
“You still think constantly about taking her to bed, like you did when you were in your twenties. Hell, I'd put down money that you think about it more than ever. Age doesn't tamp down the inferno much. Believe me, I know.”
“Cid, by the gods--”
“You embraced your dark side. That was the right thing to do. But it's just going to come screaming right out your mouth – or wherever – if you don't do something about it.” Cid pushed his glasses further up his shaggy face. “Luckily, Rosa and Cecil are extremely reasonable people.”
Cid laughed through his nose. “Never heard you make that sound before.”
“Can you blame me?” Kain tried to push tones of shock and outrage into his voice, but his attempt spiraled to the ground, cold.
Am I so predictable? So transparent? Kain kept his head high, but he couldn't meet Cid's eyes.
Cid approached Kain and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Look. Kain. Don't feel too badly. You're not a total jackass. You're just a human. Admitting you like someone, especially when that someone has their eyes set on another person ... well, it's hard. Far easier to swallow your resentment, get out there, and kill fifty monsters. Right?
Kain made a noncommittal noise.
“Rosa, though – she's a talented magician, but she's no seer. It was never her responsibility to tune into your feelings and coax them out of you.”
“Nobody's saying it was,” Kain returned stiffly.
Cid held up a finger. “Here's the thing. I'm no seer myself, but I'm perceptive around people. Don't ask me how that works, since I like machines a lot more. Point is, since you all fought the Creator in your merry moon adventure, I've sensed something different about Cecil and Rosa. They seem ... more serene. As if fighting for the world's very existence against an alien destroyer – twice in two decades, by the way! -- has given them some perspective about life and everything it offers. Which is why--”
Cid stared back. “--which is why I think you all should talk about a few things. A few ideas. Something tells me if you use the right words, they'll be open to those ideas.”
“Why?” Kain almost barked. “Why would Cecil share something so precious? By the gods above, why would Rosa even want me after everything I've put her through?”
“Has it ever occurred to you, Kain, that Cecil is probably going to outlive everyone he loves?” Cid said with surprising softness. “We're all getting older, but Cecil looks untouched. He might even live longer than Ceodore, since the boy's Lunarian blood is a bit watered-down. Do you think Cecil hasn't noticed what's going on? Do you think he sleeps trouble-free every night?”
Kain's heart spasmed painfully at the thought of Cecil alone, listlessly watching generations of Baronians flourish and die under his solitary rule. The cycle of birth and death was remarkable to behold from a mortal standpoint, but Kain supposed it grew less miraculous when time worked on your own body with agonizing leisure.
“Right,” Cid said. “This all fits into what I was saying about Cecil gaining a lot of new perspective on his life. Knowing that you'll inevitably lose everyone you adore probably has a way of loosening up selfish tendencies. By the Hallowed Father's cloaca, Kain, use your common sense.”
Kain looked at him sharply. “Don't ever let Rydia hear you say that.”
“She did, once. She grabbed a wrench from Luca and tried to kill me with it.” Cid ran his fingers through his ridiculous cloud of a beard. “Anyway. I've taken up enough of your day off. Think about what I've said, won't you?”
Kain slowly vented a resigned sigh. “You've given me a lot to chew on, I admit. But--”
“Cecil might be reasonable, but what if – what if Rosa doesn't want me?”
Cid produced his pipe and filled it again. He lit it, drew from it, and released a wisp of smoke from his mouth while looking out at the hazy late-afternoon horizon.
“Then you man up, tell your dark side 'no,' and then move on for good,” he said. “Why are you over-complicating things?”
When Cid finally released him, Kain picked up his lance and retreated to the Red Wings' barracks. The large dormitory was standard military fare: Furnished with spartan bunk beds and small chests for each soldier to keep their personal belongings in. The Red Wings' sleeping quarters differed little from the now-defunct Dragoon quarters, but the former still felt nothing like “home” to Kain.
True, he'd personally disbanded the Dragoons – it was largely a hereditary position, and he sure wasn't fetching up an heir any time soon – but Kain soon discovered he could no more stop thinking of himself as a Dragoon than he could force his heart to stop beating.
I won't dwell on this today.
Most of the Red Wings, Ceodore included, were on a long exercise. Kain had volunteered to stay behind and maintain order at Baron, a decision he was quickly beginning to regret. The barracks were unusually quiet and cool as a consequence, and the few soldiers lingering about scrambled into place. They saluted Kain as he walked by, but their eyes darted nervously at some sot snoring drunkenly on a bunk pushed up against the far-right corner.
Any other day, Kain would have scruffed the soldier, dragged him to the moat, and forced him to swim until he sobered up or drowned. But his mind was on a mission.
Kain entered the sleeping area partitioned off for high-ranking officers. He was alone because of the exercise, which suited him fine. That way he wasn't compelled to throw a look over his shoulder when he opened his own chest of belongings, rummaged through his clothes (all in need of a wash), and fished out what he was looking for: A small bracelet that his mother had worn a lifetime ago.
Kain pressed the bracelet between his fingers, but there was no give. He nodded. His father had crafted the bauble very well; there was no such thing as a half-job whenever Ricard Highwind was involved. Even when that job was as tedious as collecting, layering, and binding molted dragon skins.
Indeed, someone looking at the bracelet for the first time would initially be taken by its hard cobalt shine, but closer inspection revealed a thick crimson streak intertwined within. The blue scales came from Ricard's dragon, Skyrunner, who'd been a sleek, serpentine Mysidian Blue. The fiery scales came from the dragon belonging to Kain's mother, a stout Baronian Red named Foe's Blood.
Kain smiled. The red streak woven into the bracelet was more than a little symbolic. His mother hadn't been a Dragoon, but she'd worked closely with the legion's dragons, and had in fact exhibited enough natural talent with the creatures to be trained up as the next aviary matron. The proposal had caused more than a little friction. Aviary matrons were calm, gentle, orderly, and rational, and Kain's mother had been few of those things.
The old fish who hung around Baron's pub liked to tell Kain about how his parents won one another's hearts (though they had to oil themselves up with a few drinks before they became bold enough to talk to the Dragoon with such familiarity).
It had been quite a show, apparently: Ricard, in grand Dragoon tradition, had coreographed a sky-dance in hopes of garnering the attention of the matron-in-training. With the aid of Skyrunner, Ricard slid and swam through the sky to the cheers and gasps of the people below.
Finally, Kain's mother exited the aviary and looked up at the performance with her face stony and her fists jammed against her hips. After about ten minutes, her hands left her hips and her arms folded across her chest instead.
Then she whistled for Foe's Blood, leapt on the dragon's back, and shot into the sky secured only by handfuls of the Red's bristly black mane. Kain's mother flew around Ricard and Skyrunner in tight circles, but Ricard didnt lose his head. He altered his dance on the fly to include the new movements. The dragons wound around each other again and again, and their riders never seemed to break eye contact.
Then Foe's Blood suddenly shot over the horizon, and Ricard followed. Nobody knew exactly what happened after they disappeared, but Kain could hazard a guess: He'd been born about nine months later.
Kain noticed the short gap between his parents' marriage anniversary and his own birthday as soon as he was old enough to understand what it implied. Back then, he was secretly furious with Ricard about being born on the wrong side of the sheets, though he never actually confronted his father about the matter. Even at the age of 13, Kain would stand before a swarm of monsters to defend the Dragoons' prinicples of tradition and honour, but getting whipped within an inch of his life by Ricard for the same cause was another matter.
Besides, Kain's resentment over his wild conception had faded with age. He understood the all-encompassing physical and emotional high that kicked your heart when you flew on a dragon: The wind, the clouds, and the dragon itself all become part of your soul and swept aside ground-bound mundanities like codes and rules. The tireless drone of an airship's engine could never match the snap of a dragon's leather wings pushing aside air and feeling for thermals to sate the mutual, wordless desire to go higher, higher, higher--
Suddenly, with the weight and shattering finality of a plate hitting the floor, Kain missed everything innocent in the world. He missed Skyrunner's kind heart and ferocious loyalty, and he missed mischevious nips from the ornery Foe's Blood. He missed struggling for Ricard's approval, and talking to dragons with his mother in the sulphur-scented warmth of the crowded Baron aviary.
He missed boyhood games, taking Cecil's dares to jump down from high branches. He missed the benign conversations he had with Rosa before puberty kindled in his blood and turned him into ... whatever he was now.
You can't bring back the past, Kain thought suddenly, but you can prevent future regrets.
Kain grimaced inwardly and rolled his mother's bracelet in between his fingers. Pretty words, but what he was about to do, the things he was about to say – they could cost him the company of the two people he loved most. If his luck was particularly bad, he could be run out of Baron altogether.
But if his words hit home...
Kain groaned a little as he stood up and arched his back. His resolve planted itself with a weight he could actually feel, like a soldier wearing iron boots thudding to attention somewhere inside him. He was going to see Cecil and Rosa.
It's a beautiful day. I couldn't have picked a better day to die. Or be reborn.
Kain not only picked a good day to die on, he picked a good time as well. Both Cecil and Rosa were in their room, enjoying their ususal scheduled hour of quiet before dinner.
Kain never needed an invitation to drop in, and he didn't employ any formalities this time, either. So neither Cecil nor Rosa gave him more than a kind nod and a passing word before they returned to their respective tasks.
Cecil was sitting at a small table pushed up against the room's northern window, where plenty of spring light flooded onto his papers without any heat or harsh glare. He shuffled through the sheaf piled before him while he thoughtfully puffed at his long pipe (a gift from Cid – Rosa subsequently had words with the engineer about his “generosity”).
Rosa sat at the larger table in the middle of the room, poring over a spellbook while she mended a shapeless white pile of fabric in her lap. She was no longer required to tend to her own robes, of course, but she claimed keeping her hands moving while reading spells helped her memorize the incantations. Kain swallowed while he watched her long fingers perform their task perfectly, effortlessly. His own battle-gnarled fingers tightened around his bracelet.
“The mages are predicting a hard winter next year,” Cecil said idly as he slowly turned over a page. “Hard to even think about that sort of thing when the weather's been so perfect all season. Never hurts to be prepared, I guess.”
“If Julius the Black put together that report, I'd take it with a grain of salt, Cecil,” Rosa said with an unusual edge in her voice. “He's been experimenting with some funny herbs to 'sharpen his foresight.' Last month he ripped off his robes and bolted down to the southern chocobo forest. By the time the others caught up, he was chasing a white chocobo in circles and screaming about gods-know-what.”
“I didn't hear about any of this,” Cecil said.
“The other mages covered it up.” Rosa snapped a thread. “Literally, as far as Julius's shame is concerned; Reese had the sense to grab an extra white robe before going after Julius. Mr High-and-Mighty Black apparently wasn't thrilled about wearing a white robe, however. He kicked up a fuss like he was being asked to wear the skin of his dead mother.”
Cecil smiled darkly at Kain. “Her Majesty Rosa the Fair is a little salty today.”
Rosa glanced up at Kain. “Pay no mind. I'm as soft as the dawn and as pure as new snow. Now sit down. Would you like some tea?”
“Ah--” Kain was going to refuse and get things over with, then he realized they might all feel a little easier with a drink in front of them. “All right. Sure.”
“I'll get it,” Cecil said, standing up. “Had just about enough of weather reports from naked mages that harass chocobos.”
Kain's cloudy head made the act of sitting down a bit more graceless than usual. He hit the chair with too much weight, causing Rosa to glance back up at him just as his hand – and the fingers clutching the bracelet – clicked on the edge of the table.
“What a gorgeous bracelet,” Rosa said. “I don't think I've seen you wear it before. Is it yours?”
“It's yours,” Kain said quickly.
Rosa furrowed her brow and turned her head a little. “It doesn't look familiar.”
“I want you to have it.” Kain's deepest instincts automated his speech while he funneled his conscious energies into reining in his urge to bound off Cecil's table and leap out the window, screaming. “My father made it for my mother a long time ago.”
Rosa's mouth hung open a little. “That's--! It must be unspeakably valuable to you. And you want me to have it? Is that what you said?”
Kain nodded slowly. He pushed it towards her.
“In the name of all the Crystals above and below, Kain! Why?”
Kain's stomach turned at the confusion and discomfort Rosa shed in waves. That's when Cecil joined them at the large table with a silver tray of steaming teacups and unhappy concern in his pale eyes.
I've taken some crazy leaps before, Kain thought suddenly, and I've always landed well. This won't be any different.
The Dragoon looked at them, first one, then the other. He didn't drop his eyes, but his head was pounding and he rested his forehead on his hand.
“I love you both,” he said shakily. “I guess you know that. But Rosa – I've never had the courage to look you in the face and tell you how much I adore you. How I'd die for you a thousand times. How I'd cut the tendons in my legs and stay ground-bound for you. Forever.”
Cecil and Rosa's faces may as well have been stone masks.
Kain finally let himself look down at the table. He had both his hands on his forehead now, and he struggled to keep his voice clear. “All the things I've done ... you already know I did them because I was consumed by you. But I was a child then. You've grown to mean so much to me since we reunited.”
He stopped. He glanced up at Cecil and Rosa. Their stony expressions hadn't changed, but Cecil flipped out his open palm, silently inviting Kain to continue.
Kain shook his head. “I will never hurt you again, Rosa. I'd kill myself first. And I'll never hurt you again, Cecil. I'll never come between you two, ever. But I want--”
Kain heaved a sigh that started from the soles of his feet.
“I think you know what I want.”
Still nothing from the royal couple.
“You are under no obligation to grant me anything,” Kain said so quickly he was nearly wheezing at the end of his sentence. “The gods know I don't deserve it. But I needed to make my feelings clear. Cid's right; you're not a mind-reader, Rosa, and I've not been fair to you.”
“Wait,” Rosa said suddenly, jabbing her finger onto the tabletop. “You talked to Cid about this?”
Kain could feel himself blanching. “He cornered me. He's the one who suggested I ... talk to you two. He's been reading me like a book. I suppose you all have.”
Cecil made a strange, hitching sound. Kain was alarmed until he realized his friend was chuckling.
“Cid, of all people.” Now Cecil put his head in his hands, and his shoulders moved up and down rapidly as his laughter threatened to blossom into an all-out fit. “Oh, you poor bastard.”
Rosa didn't laugh, but she looked thoughtful. Kain's bracelet was still in the middle of the table, glittering like a frozen strip of seawater.
“I have a lot to think about, Kain,” she said quietly. “I think we all do. Could you leave Cecil and I while we talk?”
“Of course.” Kain stood up quickly. “I'll be around if you want to speak with me again. If – if you ever want to speak to me again.”
“I'm sure we'll find you if we need you. Thank you, Kain.”
Kain exited the bedchamber, shutting the doors behind him. The thick, heavy oak wasn't enough to stifle Cecil's cackling.
“Cid. Cid. Can you even imagine?”
Kain hadn't realized that you can pick at time the same way you might fussily pick at a meal. But he never did come up with a more suitable verb for the hours he frittered away while waiting to hear from Cecil and Rosa. He just went from moment to moment, going through the motions of his usual activities without interest or appetite.
Deep into the evening, Kain tried to lose himself in a difficult kata while his stomach twisted tighter and tighter with each passing second. He was never going to hear from them again. Rosa justifiably hated him for putting her on the spot, and Cecil – well, once his mirth over the Cid thing faded, anger would surely digest his good humor and leave raw, red fury behind.
Kain had gone straight into Cecil and Rosa's bedroom and stated his desire for intimacy. Gods! What had he been thinking? The Dragoon slammed his spear into the ground so hard, the adamantium point effortlessly penetrated an inch of the cobblestones.
He'd done a terrible thing. He was going to suffer the consequences of his stupidity soon, and it was going to be horrific.
And yet Kain didn't run. In fact, he couldn't remember a time when he'd spent so many minutes just standing or sitting perfectly still.
“Sir Kain? Pardon me, but--”
Kain's head snapped upwards. One of his men regarded him from a respectful (and safe) distance.
Kain blinked. “Is that you, Hurwit?”
“I apologize. It's difficult to see in this light. Why are you awake at this hour?”
“Sir, you--” The young soldier fidgeted nervously. “I'm on watch. You scheduled me last week.”
Kain set his teeth together. He was so wound up, he'd forgotten his own men's schedules. “Right. Of course. What can I do for you?”
“I received word that King Cecil and Queen Rosa wish to talk to you in the west tower, as soon as--” Hurwit consulted a piece of parchment he was holding, the dear lad had never been too bright, “--as soon as you can make the time.”
Kain's heart did a magnificent little flip in its cage. This was it. One way or another, the waiting was over. “Thank you, Hurwit. You can return to your post. And--”
Kain had begun walking towards the tower as he spoke, but he stopped. He considered telling Hurwit “Tell nobody of this conversation,” but he realized just in time that doing so would kindle a scandal regardless of what his fate turned out to be. Right here, right now, in the eyes of this lone soldier, he was going to receive some late-night orders. Strictly military business. Nothing more, nothing less. Best keep it that way.
“--keep up the good work, Hurwit.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Kain didn't run. The gods forbid he shed his hard-earned layers of discipline, even at a time like this. But he still took the stairs to Cecil's chamber two at a time.
His heart was beating fast by the time he reached the first landing in the west tower. And when he saw Rosa there – alone – it started hammering.
She was wearing the bracelet.
“Rosa,” Kain said, cursing himself inwardly when his sudden stop pitched him into a small stumble. “I'm so sorry. I'm--”
She drew close to him, the hem of her close-fitting white robes whispering around her ankles. Her hands were folded in front of her, fingers linked. “I need to tell you something,” she said.
“What is it?” Kain asked. There was a crate behind him, and his heels bumped up against it – the landing had several similar crates and other items scattered around, as Cecil never had the time to organize things himself, but he didn't have the heart to put servants on the heavy job.
Kain put the heels of his palms on the rough edge of the crate when Rosa placed her forehead against his. She closed her eyes.
Her lips connected with his in a sudden, hard gesture. She rested there for a second before she pried open his lips with her own and sent her tongue searching for his.
When Kain first exiled himself to Mount Ordeals, he began his reformation by forcing himself to endure a five-day fast. No food. No water. No fighting or training. He lapsed into a prolonged session of meditation that sent him spiraling into the silent borderlands between sleep and death. He hoped to emerge with a clean body and soul.
When the sun rose for the fifth time since his arrival on the peak, he crawled from the abyss – still far from spotless, as he later discovered the hard way – nearly too weak to stand, and certainly too feeble to wield his lance.
He stumbled down-mountain to find an important landmark he'd identified on his way up: A small pool of stream-fed water. His legs, usually so well-tuned and dependable, gave up on him at one point during the trip, spilling him onto some sharp rocks. His unprotected arm was badly gouged, branding him with a long, bolt-shaped scar that looked like a leftover from a nasty fight with a Lunarian red dragon.
But when he finally reached the pool, head spinning, arm spitting blood, the first draught of water that slid past his cracked, cotton lips caused his entire body to shudder with thanksgiving. He was bleeding, he was starving, and the dark stink of his walk through the abyss still clung to him, but in that moment, he wanted for nothing.
It was that hard-won sip of water that spiraled upwards from Kain's memory when he met Rosa's kiss after a beat of surprised hesitation. His tongue slid beside hers, tasting. They remained entwined while Rosa wrapped her arms around Kain's waist. His nose and mouth filled with the scent of roses.
Rosa broke the kiss and watched Kain with an expression he couldn't read. Kain still leaned back onto the box, his arms trembling a little bit. And when Rosa slowly rubbed her belly against him with a very obvious purpose, he was helpless to do anything except roll his head back a little and part his lips to catch his breath.
“You don't have to,” he finally managed, his voice low and jagged as Rosa continued to move against him. “I don't deserve you, Rosa. I don't.”
Rosa stopped and placed her forehead on his again. Her hands left his waist to run up and down his arms, brushing his scar more than once. They were still very close together, and Kain's simple clothes were thin; no doubt Rosa could feel the results of her ministrations below his belt.
“Do you remember,” she said, “what you said to me the first time you broke free of Golbez's spell over you?”
Kain sighed inwardly. The first time.
“You said your actions were at least partially your own – that you wanted to be close to me.” Rosa pulled away and shook her head. “Then you ran away from us and climbed a sacred mountain, all the while denying your heart was filled with a vicious lust. It backfired, didn't it? Ordeals doesn't lie.”
Rosa's eyes pierced his. “I'm not a complacent cow,” she said, “and I'm not a prize for anyone who subconsciously believes I'd love him if only he killed my mate and claimed me, like some kind of animal.”
Now Kain's legs, as well as his arms, trembled. “I don't believe that now, Rosa. I swear it on my life and my father's lance.”
“I was there, remember? I watched you wrestle with your demon, then embrace him.” Rosa smiled a little. “That's when I knew the little boy who pushed around Cecil and broke His Majesty's vases in phantom fights against Behemoths had finally become an adult.”
Kain tried a smile of his own. “It ... took a while, didn't it?”
“Some of the gods' creatures can only learn things the hard way,” Rosa said wryly. She kissed his forehead. “Without lust, nothing new would be born. Without the drive to fight, we'd stand idly by while our loved ones are murdered by the unjust. We do ourselves no favors when we deny our darker desires, but we also must rein them in and put the light in control. Like you did.”
Kain's heart pounded in his ears. Those were Cid's words – but coming from Rosa they sounded far sweeter than anything that ever dropped from the mouth of that old boar.
“I love you, Kain,” Rosa said simply. “So does Cecil. You saved our only child, sheltered him from the worst of the chaos we suffered when the True Moon appeared, then taught him how to fight and survive. Whether your mind was your own when we were together at the Tower of Zot, or whether it wasn't, it doesn't matter to me now. Here, in front of me, you shine like the sun.”
Everything Kain wanted to say got tangled up in his head. He managed an “Ah” before he closed his mouth and swallowed.
Rosa took his hand and rubbed his palm with her thumb. Her skin was soft, so soft, a trait befitting of a white mage; she caught on every callous and snag that pocked Kain's war-hardened hand. She looked thoughtful as she explored each finger.
“Admitting how you feel about me is also an enormous act of courage,” Rosa said, “and far preferable to the alternative of bottling things up until your insides crack and leave you vulnerable.”
“Open to an assault on your mind by a crazy man from the moon,” Kain murmured, feeling half-drunk from her touch.
Rosa nodded sadly. “By all the gods, I wish you'd said something sooner, Kain. We could have avoided so much trouble from the start. Cecil is incapable of jealousy. All he's ever wanted out of life, all he wants now, is to know the people he loves are safe and happy.”
“But what do you want, Rosa?”
She stopped running her thumb over his hand. Instead, she gripped it, sent her eyes tumbling down his body, then back up again.
“I'm a living thing, Kain,” she said. “I'm not above feeling lust, either. Far from it. The closer I get to my change of life, the more readily I notice gestures. Glances. Scents.”
She cocked her head to one side. “When I watch you fight, I find myself feeling ... curious. About how your muscles would feel under my hands. About what'd it be like to have you hold me. About how you'd sate yourself if we were together.”
All at once, Kain's desire spiked through the remnants of his awkward doubt. He gripped Rosa's wrist, pulled her close, and held her chin between his thumb and forefinger.
“It'll be my pleasure to show you,” he said softly but steadily.
Rosa's skin flushed. Standing together, Kain could feel her breasts pressing against him through her robes. He rested his lips on her neck, just under her ear. There was the faintest taste of salt there. She was nervous. Excited.
“We should go,” she said in a strained whisper as Kain's mouth began to explore behind her ear. “Cecil's waiting for us.”
Rosa pulled away and Kain felt as if he'd been yanked away from a feast after a long fast. Still, he let Rosa guide him up the stairs to the bedchamber. It was never a good idea to glut yourself after a long bout of starvation, anyhow.
The bedchamber's light was soft, warm, and golden thanks to the well-tended fire on the hearth. Of course, Cecil always seemed to radiate his own light since he shed his dark shell on Mount Ordeals and became a Paladin.
Rosa entered the chamber before Kain, but it was Kain Cecil smiled at first. Then he turned his attention to Rosa, who walked into his waiting arms and kissed him with a love that was so deep, Kain could sense it stretching back behind them like a shadow, reaching into a time long before either was born.
You wanted to kill him. You wanted to end this.
It wasn't a bitter thought; simply an awe-struck one. In fact, as Kain watched Rosa and Cecil, he felt no trace of the viper that normally injected venom into his heart whenever the couple spent time together.
The two separated, and Rosa began working at the latch that hooked her cape around her neck. Cecil approached Kain and took both of the dragoon's hands in his own.
Like Kain, Cecil was dressed simply and unarmored. His hair was tied back, dulling its unwordly silver-white shine and somehow making Kain feel less guarded than he usually felt around his half-Lunarian friend.
“Cecil,” Kain murmured, looking down at their latched hands. “I don't know what to say.”
“There's nothing to say, friend,” Cecil said. His face was lit with a deep peace that Kain never knew could exist in the troubled warrior. “Love her.”
His smile turned wry. “Cid, though. By King Odin's spear.”
Cecil pulled away, and Kain felt like a small ship cut loose from a dock and sent to bob on the ocean, rudderless. Where did he start?
Then Rosa glided through his fog, put her arms around his neck, and resumed the kiss they'd started on the landing. Kain put his hands on her hips, and Rosa responded by kissing him harder, pushing against him until he was forced backwards.
At some point his back pressed up against the cool roughness of the bedroom's stone wall, and he felt a dull surprise that flickered somewhere in his hind-brain. All his other senses were brimming with Rosa: The scent of her skin, the texture of her robes, the taste of her mouth.
It wasn't enough.
Kain swept Rosa up into his arms, causing her to gasp a little. Then they both grinned shyly at each other, as if the gallant move was an inside joke of some kind.
Though Kain feared he might not be pushing himself as hard as he ought to in his training during these days of peace, he had no trouble carrying Rosa back to the bed she shared with Cecil. Doubtlessly the adrenaline singing through every nerve in his body aided him during the trip.
Kain sat her down at the edge of the bed and hesitated for half a beat. His primal heart snarled at him to pin her down, hitch her robes over her thighs, and take her hard, violently.
He shuddered inwardly at the small resurgence of his black side – it was like feeling stomach acid dart up his throat. Rosa loved him, trusted him. So did Cecil, who was seated in a chair not far from the bed, and watching them intently. He would never betray them again.
Rosa's legs hung over the side of the bed, and Kain began to stroke one. His palm moved slowly down her thigh and past her knee before moving up again to rest on her hip.
“Rosa--” Kain started.
“Don't hesitate, Kain,” Rosa said. Something behind her eyes began to smoulder. “You once said you were more than Cecil would ever be. Show me.”
Kain's heart leapt at the memory of his corruption under Golbez's black magic, but Cecil only laughed softly and said,”That sounds like a challenge. We'll see if you can meet it.”
So Kain stopped hesitating.
While Rosa's robes typically flowed down to her ankles, the Troian cotton garment had worked halfway up her shin when Kain placed her on the bed. This made it simpler for Kain to wordlessly state his intentions as he leaned down a little to try and work his hand under the robe's hem.
Rosa, breathing quicker and heavier than Kain had ever seen her do outside of battle, made his journey shorter by pulling at the section of robe draped over her left thigh. She opened her legs a little wider.
Kain's mind blinked rapidly through a cycle of emotions when his fingertips brushed against the body-warm dampness Rosa had produced in anticipation of their coupling. He could hardly identify any of them, let alone cling to one for more than a second before it slipped out of his grasp and thrashed away.
Still, he recognized a few: Excitement. Joy. Elated, inebriated disbelief.
Fear of disappointing her.
He banished that bit of negativity before it had a chance to sink its needle teeth into his heart and start worrying at it. How often had he lain in his quarters and spun fantasies in the wild light of the moons about moving together with Rosa? About having the opportunity to make her cry out and grasp the bedsheets?
Those dreams later took a blacker turn when his shadows began to gnaw at him, but they were tender when the light was in control. And the light was in control now. He'd make her happy. He'd work at it.
Rosa made a low noise of approval when Kain slid his fingers into her, encouraging him to explore the surrounding warmth and closeness. His movements were gentle but firm, supplying friction according to her favourable reactions.
Rosa closed her eyes and leaned against Kain's shoulder, a gesture that was somehow even more familiar and trusting than her allowing him under her robe. Kain kissed her throat as he continued to knead her, hearing her sounds of arousal as well as feeling them with his lips.
Kain was still pressed against Rosa's neck when the mage reached across her chest and worked at something there. Whether they were buttons or clasps, Kain never knew; he'd never noticed their presence on Rosa's attire in the daylight, and the bedchamber's muted orange glow made secret things all the harder to identify.
Whatever Rosa was pulling at, its job was to hold her robes snug to her shoulders and chest. When she was done it let go, causing the garment to sigh and slide past her shoulders, bearing the top half of her breasts.
Kain snapped up the invitation, slipping one hand down her collar to cup the warm swell. He was a little surprised when he realized he had no desire to actually look at Rosa's breasts; she seemed content to have him stationed at his current task, mouthing gently behind her earlobe. So he tasked his fingertips with returning every bit of information he'd ever craved, every small change in texture he'd ever wondered about.
Inevitably, his fingers brushed against her nipple. He pledged to stay there when he noticed Rosa seize up in his arms and rapidly rise to the height of her excitement as he tended to her breasts, her neck, and of course, between her legs, where his fingers still moved, reading the increasing beat of her spasms.
When it happened, when those contractions pulled at their hardest and she threw her head back against him, Kain finally looked at her and imprinted every detail with the finality of a chisel against marble. He forever remembered her bare thighs and the sight of his hand working between them; her breasts, now completely disrobed; her mouth, open, panting, speaking.
“Kain ... My Lord dragoon...!”
Kain's heart soared to a height untouched by dragons. He pressed his cheek against Rosa's own and closed his eyes.
He could sense Rosa wanted to return, so he withdrew from each of her sensitive territories and quietly wrapped his arms around her, watching and listening as her body slowed and her soul eased back down to the mortal plane.
By all the gods there were and ever would be, he wanted her.
Cecil leaned against one of his chair's ornate wooden arms, his chin resting on his palm. Kain thought he saw a flush across his friend's skin, but he couldn't tell for sure in the tricky light.
“You're as hard-working as ever, Kain. You deserve to relax. Rosa, what do you think?”
Still in Kain's arms, Rosa looked back at him and brushed her fingers down his jawline. Her afterglow left all her defenses unfurled and utterly revealed her soul, which pulsed and sang with Kain's own.
“You're a good, patient man, Kain,” Rosa said. “We're not done, no.”
It was the nakedness of Rosa's spirit, not necessarily her body, that drove Kain's lust to its very height. He rolled himself out from behind her, leaving her to fall on her back. Without breaking his motion, he rose up on her hips and hovered above her, grasping her wrists and pushing them against the bed.
Though he felt no drive to hurt her, the surprise in her eyes mixed with Kain's own primitive desire for dominance, and a growl boiled up his throat. He kissed her suddenly, deeply, his whole mouth claiming hers, his tongue pushing and searching.
Rosa yielded at first, seemingly content to let Kain take. Then she pushed back, gradually wrestling harder. She administered a nip on Kain's lower lip when he wouldn't give, and he backed off with a soft yelp.
Cecil chuckled from his seat. “I know that move.”
Rosa slid out from under him, shedding the last of her robe. She never looked away or dropped her eyes, and Kain watched her movements, the faint throb on his lip fueling a new sensation of nervousness.
“You're our guest, Kain,” Rosa said. “When Cecil told you to relax, he meant it. Don't be insulting.”
Now she pushed him against the bed, holding him in place with a palm on his chest, continuing to look down at him while her other hand slid down under the waist of his light garment. He swallowed, suddenly very aware of how full and tight his erection was. He felt like a lyre string twined far past its limit, and he feared he'd snap and go slack if Rosa touched him.
Which, of course, she did. Her small hand felt cool and smooth against his fire – as Kain had long imagined it might.
Though Rosa moved slowly and carefully, Kain had to call upon every ounce of discipline he'd shored up over the decades to keep himself from losing control like some teenager in his first fumble with the milkmaid. Cecil was not the teasing kind, but the Lunarian would never let him live that down.
“Rosa,” Kain whispered through clenched teeth, hoping she couldn't hear the whimper underneath. “Please. Just--”
Rosa stopped stroking him, but didn't remove her hand.
“Show me,” she said again.
She pulled away from his face and moved down his body a bit. Kain thought she intended to take him into her mouth, and he felt a stab of giddy panic at the prospect: The very sight of her tongue and lips between his legs would certainly cause him to unravel, let alone the gentle, warm friction she'd assault him with.
Whether her desire shifted gears or she simply decided to take mercy on him, Rosa pulled herself up again and straddled his thighs. Kain shifted as she rolled down the waist of his garment and freed his member.
Kain inhaled. There it was, all right: Flush, turgid, and straining like a hungry animal. His insides quaked as he waited for Rosa to laugh at the ridiculous-looking culmination of his furious love for her – the physical representation of his feelings laid out naked, so to speak.
But there was no mirth in Rosa's smile. Just serene anticipation. Maybe a touch of impressed appraisal too, though that might have been wishful thinking on Kain's part.
Rosa pulled his length away from where it lay flush with his belly. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss on his lips before she glided onto him.
She didn't move at first, and Kain was thankful; the wet heat sheathed around him was, by itself, enough to make his loins tremble. On top of him, Rosa drew herself up to her full height.
She was entirely bare, and for the first time Kain could see the webs of stretch marks stitched across her hips and stomach, all shining faintly whitish-purple in the firelight. Kain recognized the marks as scars she'd been branded with while carrying, delivering, and nurturing a new life, a battle difficult enough to rival any of his own.
“My fierce, beautiful falcon,” he murmured, closing his eyes and running his hands across the marks on her hips. “I love you more than the skies.”
“Hush,” she said with a small laugh. “You're just feverish. Nothing can tear your heart away from the clouds, and you know it.”
She began moving against him in a circular grinding motion. Kain's fingernails curled against the sheet with a rough whisper. A sheen of sweat welled up from his skin, and in a moment his belly felt a bit cooler than the rest of him when Rosa rolled up his loose-fitting shirt.
She placed her hand on his abdomen, and Kain felt a flash of self-consciousness when he realized there was a thin but noticeable blanket of fat there. Peace-time had a way of breaking down muscle, he thought amusedly, no matter how hard you tried to preserve it.
But Rosa's touch was unconcerned with Kain's softness. Instead, she lingered on a thick, pale scar that ran like a line of knotted rope from under his right breast down to the left side of his groin.
Kain was criss-crossed with innumerable other nicks and gouges of varying age, but his belly scar was a comparatively hefty trophy – and unlike most of his dried-up wounds, Rosa was intimate with its origin.
It had happened in the Lunar underground's dimmest limbo: The icy lair of Bahamut's dark clone, which was miles from the surface but still far away from the bright alien heat of the core. Dark Bahamut himself was little more than a moving shadow in the impotent light, though the glow from the magnificent sword he guarded bounced off patches of scales that were the color of dried blood.
Kain's rapport with dragons became well-known in Baron after he nursed Skyrunner back from the depression that nearly swallowed him following the death of Kain's father, but even Cecil hadn't yet grasped Kain's full skill with the creatures. He could calm a wild specimen empty-handed, he could prick its vitals if it was necessary, and most importantly, he could instantly tell when he could settle things peaceably, or when fighting was the only option.
Kain never doubted the shade of the Hallowed Father had to be put down. He felt no nobility from the beast, no shared love for the boundless heavens, no pride – nothing that granted him flashes of comradery even with evil dragons. There was only chaos, an endless primal scream of pain and hate that echoed throughout a hollow shell.
Kain didn't have time to warn his friends about the monster's toneless rage before it launched into the air and targeted Rosa with a kick from its back talon.
Rosa kept her head and Kain felt a high note sing in the back of his ears as she let fly an arrow. But for the way the projectile pinged off Dark Bahamut's iron hide, she may as well have flicked a pebble.
It was still enough to make the beast spare a second for a grunt of irritation, but Rosa grew so pale, it was like watching the birth of another, smaller moon in that dark place. Still, she didn't run. She dropped her bow and raised her hands, where Kain saw tendrils of magic trickle between her fingers like handfuls of thick emerald water.
The white mage flung the aether at Dark Bahamut, and when it splashed on his scales, Kain's overclocked instincts could feel the creature's empty, stupid fury drop a degree in temperature. Its movements slowed down in turn, but not before it coiled and flung itself at Rosa, fore-talons gleaming in the half-light, each one as deadly as the legendary sword that quietly watched the battle from its pedestal.
Kain had never moved as swiftly as he did when he threw himself in front of Rosa, nor had he ever felt such inhuman, crushing power from a foe as he did that day in purgatory. His hard-won Lunarian Dragon Armour may as well have been cheap tin with how effortlessly Dark Bahamut ripped into it.
One of those blood-coloured claws hooked itself beyond the armour and punched through Kain's skin and muscle, unzipping his belly. The shock was so immediate, so brutal, that Kain dropped his spear. He was instantly certain the icy agony stealing up over him would never recede, and he'd soon meet his father in a realm where his weapon couldn't follow.
But Kain never joined his sire in the Dark, and it was Rosa who forced him to stay.
Kain's friends helped him recall the events of that night once he was lucid again and regaining his strength in one of the Lunarian sanctuaries dotted around the underground. They told the story with creased brows and shaking voices, except for Edge, who moved his fists up and down rapidly as he described Kain's entrails seeping out of his mangled stomach. It had been “like watching a bunch of goddamn snakes trying to fight their way out of a hole,” apparently.
For his part, Kain remembered disjointed events, pieces that were too far apart to make a full picture, but still enough to haunt his dreams from time to time. He remembered moaning – screaming, sometimes – and hearing Rydia's feverish prayers to Eidolons he never knew existed.
He remembered Cecil weeping, a betrayed, bitter sound Kain hadn't heard since the day they'd played too rough as kids and Cecil wound up with a shattered arm. The cry pierced through the pain radiating out of every pore in Kain's broken body, and he tried to apologize to Cecil for that sunny day in Baron's flower garden, for Rosa, for turning on them at the Sealed Cave, for everything.
His throat was as dry as an antlion's nest, and his lips were fused together. His brother's face spun into a whorl of silver light.
“Cecil, get out,” Kain heard Rosa say in a voice that was frightened, but steady. “You're upsetting him, and I need space.”
The world swam away from Kain again, and when he next drifted back to the tangible realm, he dazedly noticed the scarlet-and-black feathers scattered around him.
He could feel life pulse back into his body slowly, slowly through his bare skin. He was mostly naked, and Rosa knelt beside him, her face grey with exhaustion, her golden hair hanging in matted, dirty ropes.
The air in the small shelter stank of Kain's secretions and strong magic. Cold nausea slipped around in the dragoon's stomach while Rosa's enchantments mended the meat of his gut back together.
Kain made a guttural sound as the cinder-hot threads of magic pulled through layers of skin and tugged at his bowels like a torturer's tools. He knew he could keep from vomiting – this time – but another scream of pain was spiraling up his throat. He locked it behind his clenched teeth. He'd caused enough trouble, earned himself enough shame.
Without taking her eyes off her work, Rosa groped for Kain's hand. “Scream,” she said. “It hurts because you're alive. Scream so I know you're here again.”
Despite the order, Kain could only manage a tearful moan. He funneled the last of his strength into giving Rosa's hand a squeeze. She returned it.
Then she lifted her hand away, brushed his forehead and said some words of magic that plunged him into a deep, healing sleep.
Kain's thoughts returned to the bedroom. He watched Rosa's eyes refocus as she likewise eased down from their moment of synchronicity.
“I'll never forget that day,” she said, moving her hand across the wound.
Kain nodded. “Nor I. You don't forget getting disemboweled, or the person who saved your life.”
“I should have run. You shouldn't have jumped in front of me.”
“I'd do it again. And again.” Kain ran his hands up her thighs. He felt his pulse quicken to an even greater speed in his throat.
“That day, you told me that to feel pain is to be alive,” he said. “I've long needed this reminder that existence should also be joyful – something more than the constant fight to stay a step ahead of Death.”
Rosa's eyes held his. Tiny flames flickered on a field of blue. She rested her hands on his shoulders, and Kain encircled her wrists with his own hands.
“Thank you for baring your soul to me,” he said. “I hope you accept mine in return.”
Rosa smiled and stroked Kain's hair, burying her fingers in its rich softness and trailing her nails gently across his scalp. Kain closed his eyes and moaned softly with the pleasure in it; he wasn't used to having another person touch his hair, and frankly if anyone other than Rosa ever tried it, bones would break.
“My wounded warrior,” Rosa murmured. She leaned forward and delivered one more kiss. “I want everything you have. Everything you can give me.”
She lifted her hips slightly, then brought them down again. Kain quickly read her intentions and began moving his own hips to match her motions. He drew a sharp breath at the intensifying friction.
Rosa moved faster in response to Kain's reaction. “How long have you waited for this?” she whispered. “How long have you dreamed? Brand me. Claim me.”
Kain's excitement bounded up to its highest tier, and he received a flash of memory: The return of a fantasy he had been fond of when he was young, his blood ran its hottest, his knees never ached, and Rosa hadn't solidified her choice to be with Cecil. In it, he was alone with Rosa in some forest clearing where she'd watched him train with his lance. But the weapon was quickly forgotten against a tree as she stepped into his arms and he slipped his hand into some secret fold of her robe to caress her bare buttocks, then stroke at the nub between her legs until she cried out her rapturous surrender.
It was Rosa's eyes that Kain hung onto whenever he re-visited the fantasy – blue irises brimming with sated appreciation and raw love.
And it was that same gaze from Rosa that finally triggered his climax as they moved as one on Cecil's bed. He threw his head back and opened his throat, but no sound emerged; he could only tremble delightedly. On top of him, Rosa closed her eyes and gasped softly as her deepest muscles undulated to accept the life he shot into her.
“Rosa ... my gods...”
She rocked her hips. “Everything you have, Kain. Everything.”
Kain's body shuddered with giving until the small bubble that encased them both in their own pocket of time dissolved. It was some minutes before all of Kain's senses returned to his corporeal form and he took notice of his surroundings again.
Nothing around them had changed. Not the soft light, or the rough sheets, or the fire that burned on the hearth, indifferent.
Kain, however, had changed.
Never once in his life had he willfully let anything dampen his warrior's instincts for even a minute. But the afterglow he shared with Rosa sedated his ever-tense muscles and nerves and bathed them in a warm peace. It was as if thirty-seven years of frustration and simmering resentment had jumped from his depths with Rosa's aid.
And all that anger, all that low-volume hatred – he knew it wouldn't come back after his euphoria dissipated. Inside him, something vital had whirred, shifted, and clicked into a spot from which it could never be knocked askew.
Kain sleepily reached up for Rosa's hand. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Rosa took it. “My pleasure.”
As Kain drifted, Rosa dismounted, sighed deeply and put her ear against his heartbeat. At some point the mattress caved a little as Cecil stretched out beside them, whispering words of love to Rosa and giving Kain a small kiss that the Dragoon took with him into a blessedly unguarded sleep.
Prince Cyrus' twelfth birthday brought with it the usual air of relaxation and merriment that accompanied any of Baron's holidays, but there was a sombre undercurrent to the festivities, too.
“He isn't a child anymore,” Luca told Rydia, unwittingly giving voice to the kingdom's collective realization. Her spoon went tink-tink against the edges of her cup as she stirred her shot of dwarf spirits into her coffee. “Have you seen him lately? He's going to be taller than Cecil, that's for sure.”
“Mmm.” Rydia sipped at her own cup, which contained hot tea and a much smaller shot of spirits. They were standing on the deck of the Falcon, which was anchored outside of Baron's gates, away from the kingdom's bustle and noise. The late-winter wind still had a few teeth left in it, but it smelled of spring's promise.
Then Luca said, “So when are we all just going to admit that Cyrus is Kain's kid?”
“Back me up on this one, Rydia. Come on. You're not stupid.”
Rydia put her cup down on the Falcon's wide railing. “You've said it every single year since the poor boy's second birthday. Give it a rest.”
“And you know it's true. He's got the blonde hair, the blue eyes--”
Rydia smiled. “Blonde hair and blue eyes aren't exactly uncommon in Baron, Luca.”
“What would I know about Baron's genetics, what with my dark skin and 'piss-coloured eyes,'” Luca said flatly.
“I'm sorry, Luca. I didn't mean to make you upset.” Rydia put her arm around the dwarf's shoulders. “It's supposed to be a fun day, so let's keep it that way. No more of this kind of talk. Cyrus is the son of King Cecil and Queen Rosa. His brother is Prince Ceodore, heir to Baron. All right?”
Luca peeled off Rydia's arm. “Hear me out on one more thing, though.”
“No, seriously.” Luca took an especially long draw from her cup. “Late last fall, I took the Falcon out for a test flight after doing some repairs. I flew pretty close to Baron to see how she'd take the thermals here. I happened to look towards the west tower of the castle, and – have I ever told you that us dwarves have really good long-distance eyesight?”
“Once or twice.”
“Yeah, well, I happened to see Kain, Rosa, and Cecil on the tower's deck,” Luca continued. “They were drinking and talking, nothing special – but then I noticed Rosa was brushing Kain's hair. And you know that doofy look cats get on their faces when you scratch behind their whiskers? That's what Kain looked like.”
Rydia sighed. “Luca, don't spy on the Royal family.”
Luca pumped her little arms up and down. “That's not the point, here! I'm telling you, Kain's been making special visits to Cecil and Rosa for a long time now up there in that tower, and Cyrus is the result.”
Rydia said nothing, and Luca took one of the summoner's hands in both of hers. “Listen. I'm not judging them. Those three? They can do whatever they want. They looked so happy up there on that deck, and by the Tower, they deserve it. And I don't care if Cyrus is Cecil's kid, or Kain's, or Dark Bahamut's. Dwarves have had non-traditional family units for ages, and it's about time Baron got its act together.” Luca smiled up at Rydia. “I mean, you and Edge aren't officially hitched, but you're doing an all right job raising Cuore.”
Rydia smiled again. “Thank you, Luca. But listen. I've suspected Kain is Cyrus' father for a long time now. As you kindly said yourself, I'm not stupid.”
Rydia pulled away from her friend. “Here's what it comes down to. If Rosa, Cecil, and Kain want to come forward about their relationship and about Cyrus' parentage, they will. They haven't yet, so they have their reasons – and I suspect most of them are political. Since they're my dearest friends, I respect their unspoken wishes by keeping my mouth shut instead of potentially fueling any pub gossip. Do you understand?”
“Oh,” Luca said slowly. She hid her face under the rim of her cup as she drained its contents. “You're one-hundred percent right. Rydia. I'm so sorry. I'm an idiot.”
“No, my heart. You simply have a gob as big as the Mysidian sea. And I love you for it, but you need to learn when to bolt it and let the world take its course.”
“I'll work on it, you green-haired freak show.” Luca leaned on the railing, crossed her arms under her, and looked towards Baron while the wind tousled her vivid red hair. “Can you imagine if Rosa gave Kain an heir, though? It's the only thing I can think of that'd make that moody bastard crack a real smile, and you'll notice he's been strutting around like a lion with a cub since Cyrus arrived.”
“There's no point in talking about it, Luca. Only Cecil, Rosa, and Kain have any idea of who Cyrus' actual father is.”
Cecil, Rosa, and Kain had no idea who actually fathered Cyrus.
Kain's first “special visit” to Cecil and Rosa's tower certainly wasn't his last. He popped in regularly, and when the mood escalated, the trio let passion take its course.
Sometimes Cecil was content to watch, but not always. Sometimes it was Rosa who spectated while Kain brought her husband to a gasping, quivering climax. And sometimes Kain dropped in on Rosa when Cecil was away on business (silent rooftop travel made discretion easy).
Kain particularly cherished those visits and the uniquely uninhibited, sweat-drenched lovemaking that invariably followed. He'd pound into Rosa, his lips on every inch on her neck, his tongue on every inch of her breasts, while Rosa branded his arms with a small galaxy of half-moons, begging him to go deeper and faster, crying his name again and again as his seed jerked from him in thick, hot ropes.
And sometimes Cecil and Rosa kindly requested to be left alone for a little while.
When Rosa became pregnant, the celebrating kingdom was unaware of the serious conversations the three lovers had with each other at night, long after the last servant's lantern had been dimmed. They hoped – and slightly dreaded – that the baby would be born with some telltale features.
But Cyrus arrived with blonde hair like his mother's, blue eyes like his mother's, and a strong affinity for white magic – like his mother's. The answer didn't become any clearer when his talent with weapons began to surface, as either of his potential sires could speak for that contribution.
“It doesn't matter,” Cecil and Kain assured each other several times over. Meanwhile, Cecil watched for an awakening of the Cyrus' Lunarian blood, while Kain wondered if the boy could talk to dragons.
But Kain understood Cyrus' parentage was largely irrelevant. He, Cecil, and Rosa all shared the same soul now. Cyrus belonged to all three of them.
Nevertheless, Kain never forgot the rush of paternal love that left trails of fire in his blood when he first held Cyrus. He loved Cecil and Rosa, of course, but that drive was a cocktail of lust, desire, deep friendship, and possessiveness. When Cyrus first squinted up at Kain, his pink brow already furrowed with questions he couldn't ask, Kain tapped into a vein of love so pure, so white, it scalded his heart and threatened to move him to tears.
“He's fine and healthy,” Kain had said quickly as he handed the bundle back to Cecil.
Kain thought back to that moment when he approached Cecil and Rosa days before the boy's twelfth birthday and asked for permission to train him on Mount Ordeals.
The day Kain asked his question was very much like the fateful day he'd asked Rosa to lay with him: Cecil smoked his pipe by the window and pored over political papers, while Rosa performed some light mending and read from a spellbook. The atmosphere was far less tense this time around, though there was certainly a strong beat of hesitation from Cecil and Rosa when Kain suggested he take Cyrus away for a time.
“It's about time for him to learn something about survival and battle,” Kain said, “and I don't think that's something either of you have the resources for.”
“True enough,” Cecil said slowly. He was endlessly busy with politics and diplomacy, and Rosa was always being called upon to snuff out disagreements and drama between the mage castes. Even Ceodore was falling deeper into the command of the Red Wings, while Kain felt himself edging further and further towards its borders as he got older.
Cyrus was naturally cheerful and even-tempered (a trait that instantly disqualified Kain as his father, Cecil once pointed out dryly in a spurt of uncharacteristic meanness), but he was at a vital age where he could easily start slacking if he wasn't reined in.
“All right,” Rosa said, closing her spellbook. “One year, Kain. Then we'll see how he's doing. But I have two requests.”
Kain inclined his head. “Anything, Rosa.”
“One, don't kill him.”
“I will do my best.”
“Two: If things work out and Cyrus proves worthy, I want you to re-instate Baron's Dragoons.”
Kain's throat closed. His eyes watered threateningly. He dipped his head again quickly. “Thank you, Rosa.”
Rosa sighed slowly, but she smiled. “Just bring me back a live son, Kain. I only have two, and I think I'm beyond cooking up another.”
Cecil laughed softly. The warm, deeply comforting smell of his pipe coiled around the room. Rosa opened her book again and resumed her studies. She didn't return to her mending, but instead subconsciously toyed with the sapphire bracelet on her wrist.
Just bring me back a live son, Kain.
It was the memory of Rosa's order that sent Kain hunting for Cyrus when he disappeared for too long. He'd gone climbing for cliff eagles as instructed, but neglected to re-appear after he hauled himself over the lip of the plateau nearest to the raptors' nests.
Kain allowed himself an hour. He gazed up steadily, waiting for signs of movement. When nothing stirred, he leaped easily up the cliff face, a heavy, green sense of dread rattling around in his stomach with every jump.
My boy, if you're in trouble, I pray that you're Cecil's son so that your Lunarian blood will awaken and protect you from harm.
But when Kain found Cyrus on the small plateau, he was more or less umarked. Also, his flesh was still pink and soft (if not wind- and- sunburned) and not cold grey stone, Kain noticed with great relief.
Cyrus stood at the very edge of a sheer drop. One wrong move would provide him a swift but deadly trip back down to sea level, but he was clearly unafraid. The relentless wind whipped his unkempt hair in every direction, and it stirred the bronze feathers of the two dead cliff eagles stacked beside his ankles.
“Cyrus,” Kain said slowly and carefully.
Cyrus turned to look at him, and Kain drank in the look of serenity and contentment on the boy's face.
“I'm sorry I didn't return right away, sir. The view is beautiful. I got lost in it.”
Kain walked up next to Cyrus. The Mysidian forests and plains rolled out under them, and the sea sprawled out to the north and the west, deceptively dead-calm at this altitude.
“It's certainly beautiful,” Kain said. “But it's not just the view that drew you here, is it?”
Cyrus looked up at him in surprise, but quickly dropped his head and shook it. “It's not, no.”
“It's the wind, isn't it?”
“It talks up here,” Cyrus said in hushed tones, clearly still listening. “It talks, and I understand it. It says so much...”
Kain put his hand on Cyrus' shoulder while they continued to bask in the mountain's voice. Memories rippled through him like pages flipping in a book.
Endless pain. Hurt. Jealousy. Death. Betrayal. Nightmares and blackness.
Friendship. Confession. Love. Healing. Healing. Healing.
It was all worth it, by the gods. Cid, you old goat – you were right. It was all worth it.