"Because we can’t make up for the time that we’ve lost,
I must let these memories fall by.
Every time we say goodbye,
You’re frozen in my mind as the child that you never will be,
You never will be again…"

Underneath the Smoke Vol. 3
1,000 Gems
Catherine Rain

Rydia’s heart leapt into her throat as she walked across the drawbridge to Baron Castle. In her suitcase were the two precious sealed parcels, and it was too late to change their contents now. It kept her from changing her mind, but it could not keep her from second-guessing her decision.

She stepped into the main hall and let her gaze travel upwards, past the giant marble-bricked walls to the high-arched ceiling with its gold-leafed supports. It pointed towards the moon-- a place where Rydia had been, if not secure, at least happy. Ironic, was it not, that Rosa and Cecil’s home would point to the moon?

You see signs of the moon in everything, she chided herself. Hers was a mind obsessed. But here were the throne room doors, for she had approached them even as she dreamed, her face kept carefully nonchalant all the while. How embarrassing it would be if anyone knew the meaning of her reverie! Yet she had come, in part, to confess just that. And her confessors waited inside those doors.

Her face locked into a carefree, sparkling smile, Rydia pushed them open and sailed through.

* * * * *

"Welcome!" said Cecil, rising from his throne to greet his friend. "Happy Yule!"

"Happy Yule!"

Rosa walked up to Rydia and gave her a big hug. Rydia blinked in confusion, frozen still—she knew Rosa did not like being hugged or having people lay hands on her. Of course, Rosa had hugged her first, so maybe it would be okay to hug her back in this case; but now it was too late; Rosa was letting go.

Embarrassed and trying to downplay it, Rydia inclined her head to her friends politely. "Thank you so much for having me over."

"Not at all. It’s been too long since we saw each other last."

"Since the wedding," Rydia supplied.

"Six months. We should have you visit more."

"Would you like tea?" Rosa put in. A porter arrived to take Rydia’s suitcase.

"Yes, thank you, if you’re not busy holding court…"

"It’s quite all right," Cecil assured her as he guided his friends through a side door and down the garlanded corridor to the tearoom. "It’s a quiet day." Apparently, everyone was too busy with the holidays to bother with petitions and contracts and plans; which was just as well. Perhaps they had friends visiting, too.

"Any elaborate plans for the holidays?" wondered Rydia as they walked down the hall to the tearoom.

"Just the royal banquet," said Cecil. "It's good to have you here."

"It's good to be here-- ooh..." The room was small, and though the ceiling was high like the rest of the palace, it was crisscrossed with light wooden beams, giving the impression of a low cozy room. Light shone in from windows cut into the stone, beams shining through clear rippled glass onto the table below. A crisp white tablecloth adorned the wooden table with its six chairs ringed round; it was furniture for a country home, not like the rest of the large chilly castle. The table was set for tea, including a center spread with little silver jars of things and sticky spoons popping out everywhere. It looked like an actual place to dine, not like the cold monumental courtyard. "I like your room."

"Thanks," said Rosa. "It's just for this sort of thing. You know, when the formal hall seems too impersonal."

Rydia laughed. "Yes... it’s like... we can't be acting like we don't know each other, when we saved each other's lives back then." Back on the moon, a place that no one else understood-- just them.

"Of course not," said Rosa. Cecil was busy pulling out wooden chairs for the ladies, which Rydia felt he ought not to have to do-- he was a king, wasn't he?

Oh, what had happened to them? Rosa and Cecil were queen and king. But they were the same people... weren't they?

"We'd have invited Kain," Cecil said, "but he's still away on his pilgrimage. You understand."

"Oh, of course," said Rydia, putting the smallest touch of regret into her voice.

She hoped it was not too much regret or too little; of course it had to be faked. So many of her reactions had to be faked around Rosa and Cecil. She would much rather be with them alone, because now she'd have time to bond with them; Kain had known them for so long that his presence would make it harder. She would be the newcomer to the group, perhaps the outsider.

And then, if she was alone with them, perhaps they'd create new memories, ones they might treasure...

A maid arrived with a pot of hot water and a basket of bread. The crisp-aproned woman, her white pinafore covering the livery of Baron Castle, poured water for the tea into each waiting cup. Rydia sat back in her chair, allowing the maid to briskly drop in a teabag and fill her little cup to the brim. She stared at the cup, wondering how she could possibly lift it without spilling some.

Cecil took a slice of the bread and spooned onto it some of the jam in the pot. As if sharing some little secret, he winked at Rydia; then tried to offer the jam pot to Rosa.

"No thank you!" She shuddered. "Rydia, I haven't been able to touch jam since seeing those slimy... creature... things up on the moon. Cecil teases me about it all the time."

"You're so funny about it," he said, "I can't resist."

"Well, I remember that time when the living blob fell off the ledge onto Kain. He was covered in it, and his helmet had pierced it, and it was dying onto him and all over him..." She made a face that looked as if she was going to be sick. "I don't ever want to see that again, thank you."

"That was so gross. It's understandable, hating jam after that," said Rydia, still trying to figure out how to add any sugar or cream to her tea without spilling it over the rim. She feared that any move she made with the treacherous cup would create a mess and embarrass her.

"You have problems with the jam?" suggested Cecil. He scooped a spoonful of jam from the jar and advanced it towards Rydia threateningly. "Jam…"

"Eee," she squeaked, moving her chair back. "Don’t tease."

Cecil put the spoon away, and suddenly she was sorry she’d said it. She hadn’t meant in earnest that she didn’t want to be teased; and something was gone from the room now, gone and quiet.

Rosa said softly, "The whole mess with Zemus changed a lot."

Cecil amended, "The whole mess with Zemus changed everything."

Fighting against the surging tide of hope that made her long to burst out with questions and news, Rydia simply nodded, and tried carefully to take a sip of her tea. She managed to lower the liquid level enough to add in some sugar if she liked, maybe even stir it-- but it would look weird if she did so now, after already having drunk some, so she continued to drink it bitter.

She put down the cup, only to see that Rosa was watching her oddly. "You don't put sugar in your tea?"

"No-- yes-- that is to say I-- thought I would spill it," she finished lamely, "if I added anything else to the cup."

"Oh," Rosa laughed, "Dorie is so clumsy about overflowing cups. It's no big deal."

"Really?" said Rydia. Suddenly terrified that Rosa and Cecil would think she was making too much of an issue about not wanting to embarrass herself with some silly thing like spilling tea, she stroked the pure white linens next to her plate. "I didn't want to spill anything that might stain your pure tablecloth. It's so nice and white."

"Don't worry about it," said Rosa. "We hardly ever have time for private tea and cozy linens, anyway."

Because they were royalty now… "That's a shame. Does that mean you'll be busy over the holidays?"

"Pretty busy, yeah," Cecil admitted. "Are you going to be able to stay for a while after the holidays?"

"Oh, I think I can manage to stay."

The door swung open and a servant bustled into the room. "My liege, please forgive the interruption, but there's been a terrible accident with the garland."

"What?" Cecil blinked at him.

"The garland on the walls for Yule. The gardener who was stringing it fell off his ladder, and ended up dangling by it over the garden; and then it snapped, and he fell and broke both his legs."

"Oh my god," said Rosa, "that's awful..."

"He's asking to see you. I think you'd better go to him. We have someone else stringing the garland..."

"Are there safety measures now?" demanded Cecil.

"We're not sure how..."

"Well, go and get Cid, and tell him to look at the plans and find a safer way. Is the gardener in the sick room now?" Cecil stood, crumpling his napkin and dropping it on the table.

"Yes, he's asking for you and her grace to visit. I think he feels that he failed his duty to Baron."

"Well, tell him it isn't so-- no, we'll tell him."

Rosa shot an apologetic look at Rydia. "You see..."

"Oh! Go on," Rydia said, making a shooing motion with her hand. "Go take care of whatever you have to do. You must be so busy."

"I'm sorry," said Rosa. "Tell you what. We'll meet you in the greenhouse at..." She glanced at Cecil. "Four o'clock?"

"That's fine," said Rydia.

"Ask Alfred-- that's the head porter, who took your things-- to show you where your room is," Rosa suggested as she folded her napkin and stood up.


"We'll see you later. I'm sorry about this," said Cecil. "It happens."

"I understand." Rydia gave them both a bright, winning smile as they disappeared, and the heavy door swung shut from its own weight behind them.

She stood alone in the little room, sunlight falling in on the table. A stripe of white highlighting tiny bits of dust, it showed only that the space before her was profoundly empty.

* * * * *

The greenhouse, warmed against the winter chill, had a huge pane of glass across the ceiling to allow for the bright warmth of sunlight. Now it was twilight, and Rydia could see the twin moons moving across the sky, both full and bright. The pale one shone as always; the reddish one seemed-- a bit duller, just a bit farther away? She couldn't tell.

The astronomers said it was disappearing, or moving out of orbit. Going away from her, it was; the one place she'd ever been, well. Comfortable.

Despite all the hardships, despite the danger, despite the cold; even when she thought she would starve, or die, or be lost forever in the maze of the core, she'd been happy with her company. For once, she had real friends that she'd felt close to, with as much as they shared, day in and day out. It was the first time in her life she'd cared so much for a group of people.

They'd remembered her as the strong Rydia, the bold and confident Rydia, the little girl who refused to cry, the spunky young lady who could laugh through anything. Funny, then, how the day she finally came home to her room in the underworld, she'd cried as if the world had ended. She'd been happy, just once, on the moon...

She looked down at the rosebeds surrounding her, the bushes year-round in bloom, if a little sparse. Roses... Rosa. It really came down to Rosa-- the best friend she'd never had.

Rydia had only vague recollections of her mother, whom she'd thought would never leave, whom she hadn't bothered to memorize because she thought she would never go away. A face that was blurry, that sang ghostly songs through water and fog in her far-distant past. Her mother was just that, a generic woman, who had always seemed like no more and no less than the norm- not a specific person, because she was the default. Rydia was so young then, she never really thought about her mother as someone with an identity, making choices; her mother just existed, the only woman she knew. And then she had gone away one day and left her alone.

Then there was Rosa-- who had seemed so grown-up when Rydia first met her. Another lady, a contrast; if you took little Rydia's impression of "woman" and subtracted "mother," the rest was what Rosa had made. She'd taken Rydia under her wing, made sure she had enough to eat, that she was warm; she'd sung songs to her, and bought her little rag dolls she could carry around. And she'd worn silk slippers and sweet pale perfume, and pinned up her hair with ivory clips. In the brief time that she'd known her, Rydia had decided that Rosa was what it meant to be a grown-up woman; the idea remained all the time that she was growing up: a memory, an ideal, the thing she'd someday become. Asura had been kind, but she wasn't a human and she wasn't a woman, and Rydia had kept Rosa in her mind as the ultimate thing to be.

It had been quite a shock when she'd climbed her way out of the underworld and found that Rosa was the same age as her.

At first she'd treated Rosa with the same deference; but Rosa wasn't, and didn't want to be, her mother. Rydia knew they were equals now, though she found it hard to grasp. Rosa seemed to think of Rydia as a different person from the child she'd known only weeks before; but Rydia was used to thinking of Rosa exactly this way, but with some great unbridgeable gulf of generation. It was hard to see that very same image she'd idolized, and not feel that it was in some way older, wiser, better than she. Not a mother, not a caretaker, not close to her-- but an unreachable, starlike woman whom she thought she’d never meet again, an ideal whose shoes she could only play in facing the mirror.

At least, that was what her intellect told her, the way she used logic to explain it to herself. Maybe it wasn't the whole truth-- it was so simple, too simple; it ought to vanish when she looked at it then. Maybe she looked up to Rosa because her friend was all the things she couldn't be-- socially experienced, where Rydia was naive. Kind, where Rydia acted cold. Gentle, where Rydia was tough. A better person. All the habits Rydia had acquired to protect herself, she didn't really want them; not if she could be more like Rosa instead.

She wanted to be Rosa; and so, probably as a result, she really wanted to be near Rosa. She cared more than she should, more than most people would in her place. She was obsessed. People didn't usually get this obsessed with friends, did they-- how could she explain it without sounding silly?

A shock washed over her as she thought of a terrible idea. What if she was in love with Rosa? That couldn't be, could it? Rydia didn't like girls, or at least, she didn't think she did. But what if she did? It would be awful if it were true. Rosa didn't, either... or at least, Rydia didn't think she did. And anyway, she was taken. And anyway, Rydia couldn't even tell Rosa; it would surely freak her out.

That would be so complicated, if it were true! She remembered one time when she'd thought she had a crush on Cecil, and she'd thought of Rosa as her rival; what if she really had a crush on Rosa and Cecil was her rival? It was confusing, backwards, and it explained why she couldn't make sense out of her feelings for any of them, except to know that they were overwhelmingly strong, and desperate, and full of love.

But then she remembered how she'd realized that she didn't have a crush on Cecil-- she'd thought of kissing him, and no, she didn't want to kiss him. And she really didn't want to kiss Rosa, either. A little relieved, she knew she wasn't in any such situation; she didn't want Rosa that way at all.

But she loved her-- she undeniably did love her, yes, that word was true. You could love someone with all your heart, and not want any sort of romance, couldn't you? You could, yes, apparently so.

Apparently so, because she did.

How strange, she thought, how embarrassing, to love someone without being family, without any kind of official relationship to show for it. She knelt down next to a perfect white rose, wanting to be near it as a reminder of her friend, but not wanting to break it from the bush.

So. She'd admitted it to herself. She loved her friend, and that seemed crazy and awkward, and impossible to say; it was far too much pressure. She could cheerfully mention that she loved all her friends, but how could she ever say, specifically, to the one who mattered more than anyone, Rosa, I love you?

Far too much pressure. Far too embarrassing. A cold dewdrop ran down the rose petals as she bent it toward her, and she thought, Rosa's crying, where I can't, but she could.

It was sad. And-- she tilted her head back-- the red moon, up in the sky, which had gone dark and deep, presided over their times together. And maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn't, be able to stay.

It was late, and Rosa and Cecil weren't coming to meet her tonight, after all. It wasn't their fault, but it hurt.

* * * * *

Rydia spent most of Yuletide Eve hanging around her own room in a bathrobe, too slow and sleepy to tour the castle and too well-rested to nap any longer. She lay crosswise on her bed like a slug, glancing occasionally at her suitcase and mentally running through the list of activities she’d brought along: books to read, postcards to write, a sketchbook to try and capture things the way Rosa would. None of these things seemed appealing, and despite her boredom she continued to refuse to get anything done. All she could concentrate on thinking about was Rosa, and thinking about Rosa was unenlightening and useless.

At last the sky began to dull into twilight, and she sprang up out of bed, thinking it was probably time to get ready for the feast, to see Rosa and Cecil. She had hours to get ready, but she wanted to make a perfect showing. She dressed and arranged her hair, and then sat down on the bed again. It was too early to show up downstairs, and too late to do anything else. She kept wondering whether it was time yet, whether she should be going, and what would happen at the celebration. Would they exchange gems formally? Would Rosa and Cecil hand out packages, little boxes of the tiny symbolic gems that had long ago replaced the giving of useless token holiday gifts, or would that happen in the morning when the first day of Yule actually began? Baronian holiday customs had spread fashionably around the world, but Rydia could barely remember her first holidays when she lived on the surface of the earth, where humans had cause to celebrate holidays about solstices and darkness.

She dug into the bottom corner of her suitcase, beneath the clothes and books, where she had carefully packed a pair of small and obvious-sized boxes. Gem cases were all identical, concealing the amount of the present inside. One thousand little slots in each box were designed to hold colored gems, nearly weightless and worthless, stuck into holes so that they would not slide and rattle. Some cases held five gems, barely worth the value of the case; some held hundreds, a testament to the large place held by a loved one in the giver’s life. A precise measure, a number set on someone’s personal worth.

It’s a vicious custom, thought Rydia. So efficient, so much less wasteful than spending extravagant amounts of money on unwanted token gifts. So now people gave literal tokens, and put a price on their friends. The lying and deception, the stress and maneuvering, the expectation and the disappointment of the yearly gem exchange was seen as a small price to pay for the conservation involved. A small price—if you weren’t in a tenuous and embarrassing situation. To lie, or to act with hope—what was a safe course, a safe amount of gems to send?

What would she find when she got her little parcels from Rosa and Cecil?

At last tired of waiting, she judged it late enough to go downstairs and hang around the dining room without looking too stupidly early. She tucked the parcels into the pocket of her layered skirt and wandered out the door, trying to walk slowly as if she hadn’t a care. She kept thinking of Rosa, but she wanted to seem as though she had many other things to interest her, a private inner life of which no one around her really knew. The opposite of desperate, she wanted to seem—content, her life full, at least to observers; and apparently inaccessible, something that it would seem like a privilege to be part of, not a favor to Rydia.

The dining room was still empty except for a few servants swishing in and out to place napkins and attach garlands to the candlesticks. Apparently she’d been early after all. She found her name card up near the head of the table—close to Rosa and Cecil; it gave her hope; she was favored—and sat down, putting her head down on the table. She tried to look bored or tired, so that she wouldn’t look eager instead.

"You okay, ma’am?" questioned a maid as she swept by to place a pot of sugar on the table.

"Oh… sure, I’m fine." Rydia turned her head towards the concerned servant. "Hey—I have gem boxes for the queen and king; what should I do with them?"

The servant gestured towards a side table covered with a cloth and sprinkled with pine needles. "Here, we’re collecting them on this table."

Rydia fumbled in her pocket for the little labeled parcels and held them out, her hands unsteady; she almost dropped them as the maid took them from her. They were of course unbreakable, but it could have been embarrassing.

It felt like hours before the guests started trickling in, and Rydia felt worse with a few people there to observe her than she had alone. Now people knew how obsessively early she had arrived. They were wealthy guests, nobles and military officers, perhaps friends of the kingdom, or perhaps just people who had to be appeased… Did they matter to Rosa and Cecil? Could their opinions of her hold any weight?

At last Rosa and Cecil arrived, stopping to greet almost everyone in their path on their way to their seats. Rydia watched them impatiently while trying not to look like she was watching them.

"Happy Yule," said Cecil as he passed her chair, giving her shoulder a squeeze.

"Happy Yule!" she replied cheerfully, turning around to look at him, and then was not sure whether to look at him or at Rosa. Wasn’t Rosa about to wish her a happy Yule, too? Or had her greeting been implicit in Cecil’s? Rydia gave them each a bright smile before turning around again, feeling awkward.

Soon servants were bringing in little plates of vegetables cut into funny shapes, and nice-smelling soups, and pouring glasses full of sparkling, fruity wine. Rydia smiled and tried to look satisfied, and listened to the conversations around her. Rosa and Cecil were trying to talk to as many people as they could, obviously filling their official role as public figures, and Rydia didn’t want to get in their way. She occupied herself with trying to look occupied, though she wasn’t.

An old man with only a wispy rim of grey hair on his head was sitting next to her on the left. He wore a blue military jacket decorated with many ribbons, which Rydia did not know how to decode; but she knew the red-lacquered wing pin stood for the Red Wings. Ex-Red Wings, perhaps... this man didn't look steady enough to be in the air force anymore.

Just as she was making up her mind to say something to him, he glanced over at her, gesturing at the soup with his spoon. "Good holiday soup," he said. "Do you know why it’s holiday soup?"

Rydia shook her head no.

"Cinnamon," he said conspiratorially, leaning in closer to Rydia than she would have liked. He smelled like musty cologne and mothballs. "It warms you up for the winter, that’s why it’s a real tradition in Baron. All the real important customs come from here. They even have Yule at this time of year up north where it’s summer instead of winter."

"Yes," she agreed with a little mechanical laugh. "Well, Baron’s an important country."

"’Course, it’s all the fashion. You from Baron?"

"Technically… I was born in the provinces."

He chuckled. "Well then, what province?"

She looked down at her soup, embarrassed. He would probably make a display if she told him—everyone did—but what else was there to do? She couldn’t exactly lie, not right here next to Rosa and Cecil who might overhear. "Mist."

"Oh," he said, "I’m sorry. It’s a shame what happened last year. A real shame."

"Don’t worry about it," she muttered, "it wasn’t exactly… Well, I didn’t live there for long."

"Still your hometown?" he said.

Rydia bit her lip. She wasn’t sure what exactly he meant by that question. She didn’t want to be talking about her situation, how she’d lost so many years in the underworld. It stood as a subject tender and terrible, the cause of her confusion and sorrow, but also the reason she was Rosa’s own peer, technically an equal. It was a blessing, the kind of thing most people never got to attain—and yet, she had the terrible burden of trying to attain it. It was a delicate matter that might fall apart if she thought at it too hard—she thought along the edges, trying to handle it gently herself; explaining it to a stranger, she feared, would result in horror and gross mischaracterization, even to explain her past.

"Well, I guess, sort of," she said. "It is a shame, but really, I’m okay about it now." She played with the deep red napkin on her lap, rolling it back and forth under the palms of her hands.

"So you live in the city of Baron now?"

Her throat felt stuck. She rolled the soft crumpled napkin back and forth, narrowing her eyes, her face pointed down towards her own place. She was grateful that she’d worn her hair loose; it fell at her cheeks like wings, shielding her pinched face. How could she answer that question, here in front of everyone?

Mercifully, there was a clinking of spoons and a clamor for attention, and the royal couple stood, directing everyone’s attention to the head of the table.

"Friends and citizens," said Cecil, and the volume level in the room dropped halfway. People started loudly hissing, "Shush!" and, alternately, telling each other not to say "shush" so loud. Rydia stifled a giggle that almost burst out louder and wilder than the humor of the situation really called for; grinning madly, she sat back to listen to Cecil as the room settled down into quiet.

"Friends and citizens. In planning this holiday, Rosa and I found ourselves with the task of gauging our affection. Like most of you, we had to choose the recipients for our Yuletide gem exchange.

"Many of you are dear friends, and worthy of our highest respect. We wanted to commemorate the service you each have rendered, which cannot be expressed in words—or in numbers. But we wanted most of all to affirm our deep commitment to serving the nation of Baron.

"Our affections are no secret; our decision should embarrass no one; so we break custom far enough to reveal our yearly gift of gems. Rosa and I give together: one thousand gems, the whole of our affection, to The Kingdom of Baron."

Everyone around Rydia began applauding, and she started clapping too, automatically, her mind on the presents she had given Rosa and Cecil. She had hoped to gauge their reaction to her present by theirs; but they had nothing for anyone but their kingdom. Of course she had known there would not be much for her; they had advisors and officers and foreign dignitaries to please, and probably all kinds of other friends. But she had hoped at least for something.

Rosa leaned over Rydia’s shoulder and whispered, "We wanted to avoid awkward situations, you understand."

"Oh! Yes, of course I understand!" Rydia was startled by Rosa’s sudden proximity, and a little uncomfortable. If she moved to her right, she would bump into Rosa, and the idea of accidentally touching her freaked Rydia out—though she did not know why, or what she feared would happen. It was as though Rosa were a sacred person, a saint made of delicate material that could easily be marked up with fingerprints or the careless browser, a fire that could be dampened or could burn anyone who dared to make the transition from closeness to contact. Rydia held herself as still as she could manage, trembling slightly with the effort.

On the side table, ignored by the cheerful crowd, was a small pile of boxes that visitors had left for the king and queen. They would be opened later, in private; gem gifts were kept mercifully secret. They were a quiet negotiation between the giver and the recipient, a hazard path to walk between what is given and what is gotten, what is known and what cannot be seen, warped and malformed by duty and expectation and nervous fear. Rydia’s boxes contained mostly fear—fear and little bits of glass.

* * * * *


The queen looked up from the white silk divan where she lay stretched out, wrapped in a silk down comforter. She put down her sketchbook and pen on her lap. "Hmm?"

Cecil motioned to the far edge of the divan, and she pulled her knees up so he could sit down. "Did you open Rydia’s present?"

"Oh no."

"I don’t like to say this," he said. "I know it’s supposed to be confidential, but I think you should know."

"Oh no, you too?" Rosa reached over to the adjoining table and closed the lid on her inkwell. Stretching out, she caught up a smudged cloth and used it to wipe her pen. "Cecil, I should tell you. She gave me five hundred gems."

He lifted his eyes to meet hers. "That’s a relief. She… she gave me five hundred too. I was afraid it meant… you know. I was afraid she had some kind of… of little crush, or something."

Rosa replaced the cloth and pen on her table before settling back into position. "I’m not so sure that’s a relief. She gave us all her gems. Everything."

He nodded. "That’s troublesome…"

"I didn’t think she would do all that much," said Rosa. "She’s been so distant since she got here. I thought her mind was somewhere else. Now I wonder if she’s putting up some kind of façade, trying to reassure us that we do mean a lot to her after all, when we don’t."

"It’s a bit extravagant," said Cecil.

"It is." Rosa sighed, shifting uncomfortably. "I don’t know what’s going on. Did you see how she reacted when we first saw her?"

"Yeah, I thought that was kind of cold."

"Maybe we should talk to her. Do you think I ought to have a talk with her?"

"We both can," said Cecil.


"Yeah, tomorrow would probably be best. How about, what if I arrange a private breakfast for us? Just us friends. Supposedly so we can bond over the past, back in the whole mess with Zemus, and we can talk to her then."

"In the tea room," suggested Rosa. "That’s nonthreatening."

"Okay, then," said Cecil. "we’ll talk to her about this in the morning."

* * * * *

Rydia was overjoyed when a maid knocked on her door to wake her up and tell her that the king and queen would like to see her at breakfast in the tea room. She dashed about her room, throwing off her dressing-robe and donning her most holiday-looking dress, a wool knit with a holly pin on the shoulder. She paused by the mirror to fluff up her hair, and clicked on downstairs in her high-heeled boots. Yes, she was cool.

No one else was in the tea room but Rosa and Cecil. "We were going to have a nice quiet holiday by ourselves," said Rosa, "and then we thought, well, ‘Rydia should be here.’ We don’t exactly have much family."

"You aren’t going to your mother’s?" Rydia wondered as she took a seat.

"Well, she’ll be coming here, tonight, for dinner. She’s spending the morning with her sister instead." Rosa gestured at the table. "Help yourself to breakfast. We went and snatched food from the kitchen, because most of the servants have the day off."

"We gave them a free day—on the shortest day of the year," quipped Cecil with a grin.

Rosa shook her head. "The poor cooks, they’re working overtime now. We’ll have to give them a free day when nothing’s happening."

"Then they’ll never get a day off!" moaned Cecil.

"I’m sorry; I do overschedule sometimes, don’t I?" She rubbed her temples tiredly. "It’s just that it always seems like we’re having a busy month. It’s a constant crisis."

Rydia spread butter on a slice of poppy seed roll. "But you guys are going to relax today, aren’t you?"

"Well," said Cecil, "as much as we can."

"Aren’t you used to living with this sort of busy duty," wondered Rosa, "with Ashura and Leviathan?"

"Kind of. But it somehow seems stranger with you. Maybe it's just because they were older and experienced when I knew them. You guys are my own friends..."

Rosa glanced at her sharply. "What do you mean, ‘when you knew them.’"

The summoner ducked her head and preoccupied herself with stirring her tea. "Well, you know. I'm a year older than you now, Rosa. I'm Cecil's age."

There was a short silence.

"Oh..." said Rosa. "Oh..."

Rydia kept stirring her tea, staring at it, her head down. Just don't look at them, she told herself.

"Time flows differently there..." murmured Rosa. "Ashura and Leviathan, what about them..."

"They're all right," said Rydia. "Because, you know. They don't age so much."

"I see," said Rosa, relieved. But when Rydia risked a glance up at her, she was still watching Rydia with concern. "Don't you have some way to control the timeflow?"

"Well, the entry point can be manipulated a little. A little, mind you. But there's this risk. Every time I go back and forth, I just don't know. Things can go wrong... so I..." She smiled brightly. "You know, I thought this visit would be a little different from usual."

"I see," Rosa said again.

Do you? Rydia wondered. And she realized, This is my chance to bring things up, and I’d better do it now while I can. She stared down desperately at her plate, and began picking apart her poppy seed roll. She knew she was going to evade the matter, even so.

Stealing quick, frightened glances at her friends, she saw that Rosa was looking at her with confusion and worry. "Rydia, did you…"

A knock at the door interrupted her; and she leaned back with a tiny sigh. Cecil set down his fork. "Come in."

"My liege, I thought you should know." The sentry’s face was flushed, as if he’d run downstairs from his post at top speed. "There’s a lone dragoon approaching the castle."

"Coming back from watch?" asked Rosa.

"He doesn’t have the banner of the watch. The Phoenix are on watch this morning. This man is carrying the banner of the captain."

Rosa and Cecil both stood up. "Kain!"

* * * * *

Within minutes, the queen and king were in the throne room, Rosa swatting at a slightly dusty vase in an effort to clean it off. Rydia stood nervously by, unsure of what she should say or what she should do while waiting. Of course she wanted to welcome Kain, but even more, she wanted to put on a good show of welcoming Kain to prove her competence in front of Rosa and Cecil. But she’d only been to one ceremonial occasion in Baron, and that had been special; she didn’t know the usual custom.

At last the massive doors swung open, and a fully armored figure marched in, his banner held by a castle herald behind him. The dragoon walked to the dais and knelt, bowing his head. "My liege."

"Kain," said Cecil, grinning. "No need for ceremony, friend."

Kain got to his feet, stiff in his armor, his posture formal and sparse. With both hands, he reached up and pulled off the heavy helmet. Yellow hair tumbled down, bits of it tangling in the helmet’s inner padding; he pulled it free with a gloved hand.

His friends stared.

"Kain," said Rosa, finding her voice. "Blonde suits you."

He smiled, a touch of wary deference still cast over his face. "The Light burned this into me. I doubt I could have gotten it this color with dye."

Rydia tried to mentally reconcile this lighter Kain with the black-haired soldier she remembered. Unlike Cecil’s natural pale-blonde, Kain’s new hair color was a vivid, striking yellow—as bright as if he’d dumped primary-colored paint on it. No one she knew had hair like that.

"It’s unique," said Rosa. "I like it."

As if drawn to the ground by the weight of his plea, Kain knelt again. "Cecil, Rosa—please allow me to re-enter service as a Dragoon of Baron."

"Of course," said Cecil, sounding slightly surprised. "I told you before you left that all was forgiven."

"I had yet to forgive myself." Kain stood, looking up at his friends on the dais. "And all being forgiven doesn’t mean the same as—all being restored."

He was looking at Rosa. She shook her head anxiously. "Just forget about it… the whole mess with Zemus is over now. Of course it happened. And it will always have happened, so… let’s not make that something that could interfere with us. I want things to be like they were before that."

"I want things to be like they were, too," said Kain.

Rydia wanted to say something, to include herself; but she could think of nothing to say that didn’t sound desperate, a plea to be one of the gang. Me too! Just let me tag along! Something like that. But there they were, the warriors and their white mage, able to take on anything without her. The cool kids. They were all slightly turned away from her, and though she thought it was probably just her imagination, it seemed as though they were excluding her.

No, it wasn’t her imagination, she concluded. She was only being fair, and knew what was going on. They were excluding her without even realizing it, without even thinking of what their behavior was doing to her, because they were so wrapped up in the moment. This meeting of the friends that had always been together and always would be—it simply didn’t take Rydia into account.

"You are always welcome here," said Cecil. "Happy Yule."

"Happy Yule."

* * * * *

Rydia, Rosa, Cecil and Kain were just settling down in the tea room for some breakfast when there was a knock at the door.

"I need a new job," moaned Cecil, slamming down his fork. "Yes? Come in!"

Cid burst through the door, looking frazzled; but then, he always looked that way. "Cecil, I’ve been over at Eb-lan all night and all yesterday. Edge came and got me; there’s something funny going on in the wreckage of the Giant of Bab-il. I want you to come over and see if it reacts at all to you."

"It can’t wait until after Yule?" sighed Cecil.

"If it could," growled Cid, "I’d be at home with my own family."

Rydia pushed her napkin up on the table, wondering if she was going to get to go to Eb-lan with them. She wanted to go along wherever her friends went, but she wasn’t pleased with the idea of seeing Edge.

"Hey," said Rosa, rubbing Cecil’s back soothingly, "it’ll be a big reunion. Just like the whole mess with Zemus."

"I guess."

So they expected Rydia to go. Would they understand if she tried to back out? But then she would have nothing to do but sit around the castle driving herself crazy, hoping that they would come back soon. And if she told them she was going out of her way to avoid Edge, they might think she was too picky, unable to get along with people in general the way they could… She would just have to go. It would be too awkward to try to make excuses to stay.

Well, maybe Edge would be busy. She had a sinking feeling, though, that he would make time for her.

* * * * *

Rydia stepped down the heavy wooden ramp of the Enterprise, trying not to slip on the rubber non-slip mat that Cid had recently installed to replace the slatted boards which had, in Rydia’s opinion, worked better. If only he would get a longer plank instead of quick-fixing the old one, the ramp wouldn’t be such a steep sliding-board, but Cid liked to do things his way.

"Hey, Rydia!" called an unfortunately familiar voice, and she looked up at Edge and his guards, and promptly slipped the rest of the way down the ramp.

Picking herself up, embarrassed, she muttered something about needing to concentrate. Edge dashed over to try to help her stand up, but she was quicker than he was, on her feet and brushing the dry grass from her dress before he could get there. "That ramp is a menace," she excused, flipping her hair out of her eyes.

"Hey, un-der-stood," said Edge with a shrug. "I bet people slip on that damn thing all the time. It’s like a great big banana peel. Hell, I bet I wouldn’t make it two steps without falling. Are you okay? Wouldn’t want you to be hurt or anything…" He laid a hand on her shoulder, holding her in place for inspection.

"I’m fine," she said, turning just a little to the side, then more, insistently, trying to dislodge his hand, while simultaneously trying to act as if it hadn’t happened. She wanted to be impressive for Edge—not to get him to like her, but so he would regard her as someone distant and unreachable. She didn’t want him to sympathize with her or laugh with her human foibles. That would make him think they could be close.

"Hey, you guys better watch out!" Edge called to Rosa and Cecil, who were just stepping onto the treacherous ramp, Rosa adjusting her white woven hat. "That thing’s a menace—" he turned to Rydia, "—like you said, of course."

She shrugged, sorry that she’d come along.

When they had all disembarked, Edge and Cid led them through the grassy field to the huge mound of wreckage that was all that was left of the Giant. It lay there in a crumple, skewed into a position no human body could achieve without breaking most bones. Its twisted head alone was the size of a palace; its fingers were corridors, its arms giant hollow rooms.

"It’s really revived our tourist industry," Edge was saying. "Everyone wants to hike out here and see the machine that almost destroyed civilization."

Rydia could see why people found it interesting. Its eyes, once glowing sensors, were now dim and lifeless like a huge broken doll, staring upside-down because of the sickening angle of the head. Black oil streamed from them like blood, up the forehead and onto the ground. In wide patches around the body, the winter grass was completely shriveled, the ground smelling strange—like the Giant had in life, like the working parts of the airship propeller.

"So what is it doing?" Cecil wanted to know.

"Hasn’t done it since you got here," said Cid.

Edge put in, "It was erratic anyway."

"Yeah." Cid continued to explain, "For the most part, it’s been turned off since you smashed the central processor. But lately it’s been glowing, throwing off sparks—there may still be some electrical life inside somewhere. It’s been rumbling almost as if it’s gonna start up again, though it sure couldn’t stand in that condition."

"But we think it’s the moon," Edge said.

"I’m getting to that, boy," said Cid, giving him a steady glare. "Anyway, you know how Doctor Cory’s been saying that the red moon’s getting further and further away from the earth, as if it’s gonna go out of orbit. With the Crystals. We think maybe that’s what’s causing the Giant to freak out, being that it’s linked with the Crystals and all. And we thought maybe you, Cecil, since you’ve got Lunarian blood and cells… you might have some kind of effect, some gravity, if we brought you close."

"I don’t know," he said, and took one step towards the giant. "It looks fine to me."

"Well, it hasn’t been doing it," said Edge.

Cecil took another step. "I’m not sure this is doing any good after all." But his gaze was fixed on the giant’s eyes with trepidation. His hand was at his belt, though he wore no sword.

Rosa said nervously, "I don’t know if we should—"

ZZZZTTTTT! A shower of white-blue sparks coursed through the Giant’s body with a sudden explosive buzz, leaving everyone’s ears ringing. They all jumped back, Cecil included; someone shrieked, someone shouted—Rydia was screaming herself as if she had been shocked, though physically she felt nothing. The whole Giant glowed, coursing brightly, then dimly, then bright again in a wild spectrum of spastic light before finally fading to its dead dull metal color.

"Everyone okay?"

"What happened?"

Cecil shook his head, taking a breath. "It wasn’t as though I actually got shocked by the thing. Not physically. But I felt something, some buzz resounding through my body as if I had."

"Now that was a reaction to you," said Cid. "I haven’t seen it do anything like that before."

"Do it again," said Edge.

Rydia scowled at him, but Cecil actually was stepping forward. He walked, slowly, without incident, to the Giant, its twisted torso lying on its side. He placed a hand on it. Nothing happened.

"Hey," he called. "There’s a hole. You can see inside."

Edge was not far behind him. "Yeah, man. Hey. Straight to the processor. Woulda been easier if this hole had been here when the thing was alive."

Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, Rydia stalked up to the fallen giant, partly to show Edge that it was no big deal and she could do it without fear. "Yes, well," she groused, "if there were big holes in it, it wouldn’t be much of a threat anyway, now, would it."

"True," he said cheerfully. "True. Gotta give the girl credit for thinking of that. Cecil, this girl’s brilliant," he said, jabbing a thumb in her direction. She found herself wishing for a private word with Edge, so that she could tell him to stop being annoying without looking to Cecil and Rosa like she griped and couldn’t get along.

The hole in the Giant was a big rip in the metal, exposing layers of wires and broken bolts and strange metal pieces that Rydia couldn’t recognize; and deeper within, in darkness, the dented remains of the CPU, its top punctured, its sides smashed in. As the others crowded up behind her, she squinted, leaning further into the rip, trying to see what else might be inside.

Light flared as Rosa stepped inside, faintly glowing golden-white with the aura of her magic. The inside of the room appeared in a giant flickering wave, shadows strong, pale metal glimmering with Rosa’s reflection. The semidarkness was yellow-white instead of red and the floor tilted crazily, but the place still looked just as it had when they had last been inside—when they destroyed the CPU.

Cecil glanced at Kain, which made Rydia also glance at Kain, and then she remembered some of the last words they’d exchanged before Kain went away: Kain, it’s okay; you’re forgiven; it’s you, you’re like the brother I never had; and then, No, Cecil, I’m like the brother you did have. Terrible, embarrassing words. Words she shouldn’t have heard, but then, she was in this too, whether they knew it or not.

For a moment they were silent. And then, "You know what this is like?" Rosa said, her voice higher than usual, cheerful but cracking. "You remember the time when we were little, right, and the three of us, Cecil and Kain, remember, we got into Cid’s workshop, and it was all dark and creepy, and we messed with the gears?" She laughed nervously. "Cid, you were fit to kill us, weren’t you! Remember?" She poked Kain, a big smile on her face. "That was so much fun!"

His stony expression dissolved into a faint smile. "Yeah… we did have fun that time, didn’t we?"

"We always had fun together!" Rosa insisted.

Rydia stepped back into the corner. She knew what Rosa was doing, and she wanted to get out of their way. She and Edge shouldn’t intrude on their memories, if that was what they needed to repair the damage in their friendship. She grabbed Edge by his wrist, hissing under her breath, "Come on. They need time alone."

Edge let her drag him out of the metal room without protest. Though it made their exit easier, it annoyed Rydia as yet another verification that he also wanted time alone with her, and not what she wanted with him.

She pulled him in a big loop around the Giant, to the barren grassy area behind it. "They need to go over old memories, and kinda repair the bad stuff, I think."

"Oh, that makes sense." He peered at her. "Are you cold?"

She realized her shoulders were hunched in, her body tense. "No," she lied.

"You’re shivering. Want my cloak?"

"No," she said. "I have this heavy wool dress. Your cloak won’t make a difference."

"Sure it will. Come on."

"Nah, then you’ll be cold."

"No I won’t. I’m warm." He unfastened his cloak and held it out to her.

"I’m not gonna wear it," she said. She didn’t want him sacrificing for her. None of that weak damsel stuff—she couldn’t pull it off, and anyway, she certainly didn’t want to be beholden to Edge.

"Well, I’m not, either," he said, and dropped it on the ground.

She looked down at it. "You should."

"I’m not cold," he said, probably lying.

She looked from him to the cloak. "You’re really not gonna wear it?"


They stood there silently for a minute, while she waited for him to pick it up.

"Well, fine," she said at last, "if you’re really not gonna wear it anyway, I will." She took up the long, heavy grey cloak and wrapped it around her. The lining was soft silk. "No sense letting it go to waste." She hated the idea that she was wearing Edge’s cloak, but a cloak was a cloak on the coldest, shortest day of the year.

Again, no one was saying anything, and she could almost feel him wanting to start up a conversation, but not having anything to work from. She could imagine just what he would be going though, trying to work up the nerve to talk to her, and it was terrible, because he would be fearing more than anything that she’d reject him and not want to talk to him, and that was true—she didn’t want to talk to him. Except perhaps to tell him to stop complimenting her unnecessarily, but she couldn’t bring that up out of nowhere.

She could understand how he felt, and though she didn’t feel the same, she knew how awful it was. He wanted to be important to her, and he wasn’t. It was much like how Rydia wanted to be important to Rosa, but she couldn’t be; or anyway, not as important as Rosa was to her. The whole world seemed full of these unreciprocal twists in people’s hearts, the tragedy not in hatred nor in jealousy nor any strong emotion, but in the commonality, the annoyance, the lack of feeling for others who thought the world of you. She was caught in the middle—caught between one who loved her and one whom she loved—and she couldn’t change either situation just because of knowing, harshly, what it was like to be on the other side.

"Sorry about the hemline," he said at last.

She looked down, and saw that a small section of it was black and torn. "What--?"

"I set myself on fire," he said casually, just as if he were bragging.

"You what?"

"Yeah. I was sort of playing with the firewood and poking at the fire, and I—set myself on fire."

Rydia stared. "I have no comment." For a moment she had almost felt sorry for him, and the anguish he might be going through. For a moment she had felt guilty, had thought that maybe, even if he was an irritating twink, it was a pity that that he had poor luck with her because he didn’t mean to be such a bad guy. But oh no. Now she remembered. This was a guy who did things like set himself on fire and brag about it as if it were cool.

"I’m such a dumbass," he said. "I do exactly that kind of stupid shit."

"I know," she said. "I don’t." She started walking around the Giant again, just to move, to do something besides stay frozen in this uncomfortable tableau. "I wonder if they’re done reminiscing yet."

He stepped up close behind her and put an arm around her. "Well, let’s see…"

"Don’t touch me!" she exploded, whipping around and smacking his arm away from her body. "Don’t touch me, okay? Don’t hit on me, don’t expect of me, don’t offer me things—" She fumbled for the closure of the cloak, wanting it off her body immediately. "Just stop it, stop. I don’t wanna touch you, I don’t wanna listen to you, I don’t even wanna be near you." She pulled the cloak away from herself and threw it at him, shivering in the sudden snap of cold. "I’m not kidding when I call you a dumbass, when I say you’re irritating and when I twist away from you. I mean it. Who do you think you’re impressing? Cause it’s sure not me."

For once he had no rejoinder, merely stared at her. And she put her face in her hands and began to cry, because she must have hurt him, and she didn’t want that. She had tried to get along with him, tried to avoid this, but no matter how many times she expressed loathing for the things he did, he’d never taken her seriously, repeating them and playing them up as if they were some kind of big twisted joke. And she didn’t want to hate anyone. Especially someone who cared about her, because she knew how terrible it must be for him, the dread that one day she would do exactly this, and here she’d done it.

Edge walked away, under the Giant’s up-pointed elbow, and disappeared behind it.

Rydia sat down on the dead grass, wiping at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve, wiping the subsequent strand of dry grass from her face. She’d done the worst thing she could think of to do to someone—right here, she’d done it. She was only glad Rosa couldn’t see her awful behavior—and then she felt ashamed for having such a deceptive wish, for expecting others to like her when she’d really done things like this. Truly, no one should have sympathy; for she’d just done to Edge what she most dreaded being done to her.

She looked up at the dull sky, a wordless plea in her thoughts to please, please fix what was wrong. Fix everything, and have no one hurt. She’d made others suffer, and she dreaded that others would cause her suffering too; and what was there to do but cry about it? It couldn’t be fixed and it couldn’t be saved.

Unless, of course, she could save her friendship with Rosa, and make things turn out better for her; and that was the only thing that she could fix at all right now, so she stood up and pressed a hand to her face, trying to find out if it was still red; and she walked resolutely around to the front of the fallen Giant, feeling like a traitor to feelings, as if all people’s feelings were her own.

* * * * *

A current of lightning flashed through the Giant’s body, leaping and twisting over the limbs, turning the whole thing blue and golden alternately as it sparked off into the air. Startled, Rydia whirled around and stumbled backwards. Was it going to get worse? Would it hit her? No, she was fine. What about her friends?

As she sprinted around towards the hole in the Giant’s chest, its twisted-up foot fell off, clanging ten meters to the ground, behind her, with a metallic crash that reverberated in her ears. She yelped in terror. Reaching the front of the mechanical hazard, she saw her friends flooding out of the chest cavity to safety, just as one of the Giant’s fingers fell off nearby.

Metallic rumbling filled the air, driving up her panic. She knew that she was running, and so were her friends, away from the Giant; and bits of its body were creaking apart and dropping away, without and within. Electricity coursed through it again, and with a grinding screech, the chest cavity collapsed as the screws and bolts holding it together shifted and gave in.

"Cecil!" she panted, dashing towards her friends, where they stood in presumable safety far from the mechanical menace. "What did you do to it?"

"I touched it. Where’s Edge?"

"I don’t know!" she said. "He wasn’t with me when it started!" What if he wasn’t safe? Would the others blame her? Would they be right to blame her? It wouldn’t have been her fault; it wasn’t like she had known; but if they had been together, it might have been safer…

"You two left together," pointed out Rosa. "Where did he go?"

"I don’t know!" She wanted to tell what had happened between her and Edge, but not now, so long as he was missing; they might blame her, or if not, might think it even worse than it had been, that if Edge were hurt, his last moments would have been so awful. And that was her fault.

In the distance, the Giant continued its collapse, its bolted and twisted pieces tumbling to the ground. At last it was still, and silent. Rydia did not like its silence, or the silence of her friends. They were not acting accusatory; but she herself felt unsettled in the quiet. It felt as though something even worse threatened to happen—and what she had already done was bad enough.

One of the Eb-lan guards who had remained near the airship hurried towards them; seeing that all five were safe, he slowed to a walk.

"Where’s Edge?" Rydia asked the guard.

"He went off that way, towards the castle. We wanted to send him with an escort pair, but he said no, he’d go alone, and ordered us to stay here and watch you." The soldier glanced grimly at the now-more-crumpled remains of the remains. "Guess he missed the big show."

The others didn’t seem to be relaxing, physically, as much as Rydia would have expected. Somehow that made it worse. It was as if they knew what she’d done and were judging her as terrible. Or perhaps something bad had happened between them while they were reminiscing. Or perhaps not—perhaps they simply shared her awful sense of the moment, cold and cut-off, a day gone sharp and empty and bad. People had unpleasant feelings for no reason sometimes, didn’t they? It wasn’t necessarily her fault, was it? Was it about her?

A shrill crackling sound drew their attention—away from the coast and the castle, towards the Giant—beyond the fallen Giant—to the tower on the horizon. Now its great metal walls were flashing and shimmering, blue and golden and pink and green, as electric sparks ran up and down its pillared column.

"Great mother of Earth," whispered Cecil.

Above the low mountain ridges on the horizon, the looming tower creaked, and began to collapse. Bit by bit, the tower of Bab-il fell apart—crumbling, bits dropping past vision, down, towards its deep underground base. The roar, dark and low and distant, punctuated with pulsing electric screams, filled the air.

"Well," said Rosa in a low voice, "I guess we’ll be dropping you off by airship when you go home, Rydia. You won’t be coming through that way anymore, that’s for sure."

I’m not going home! she wanted to shout, desperate, wanting to smash also the walls of all her secrets; but she couldn’t say that; now was not the time.

They watched in silence, their thoughts unformed into coherent explanations, unable to voice what they felt at the unglorious crumbling of this tower on a cold and dim winter noon. Perhaps, like Rydia, the others felt that this was all wrong—unfair—that something so beautiful and historical and intricate, something created by a fantastic civilization from the sky, should not fall to pieces so mundanely on an unspecial winter afternoon, framed by no sunset, watched by no crowd, provoked by no grand occasion. Or perhaps they simply had nothing to say to each other: The tower was falling down. Right now, today. This was the day that the tower fell. There goes the last of it.

Oh, well.

"Damn," said Cid. He rubbed his thick, calloused hands together. "Well. Guess I’ll fire up the airship."

As he hobbled away, and the Eb-lan guards headed off towards the castle and their home, Rydia lowered her head, trying not to watch the others too conspicuously even as she desperately wondered what to do. She had to tell them about Edge before they found out. She had to talk to them, to explain to them many things. She had to tell them everything she’d been holding back—that she wanted to stay, that she loved them so much, that she had nothing else in her life. She had to reveal herself a desperate girl. And here, on the cold winter plain, with the bitter breeze pulling on their hair and a pile of wreckage to show for their pains, she had lost all courage and hope. She wished herself away, wished herself out of this situation; if only she’d never come, or never given them so many gems; if she hadn’t said her goodbyes…

But here she was now. Perhaps she would feel better back in Baron, in the cozy tea-room with a crackling fire. At the moment, though, it seemed impossible that she would ever feel better, that they would ever return warmth for her pain.

A chill wind picked up, blowing dust and tiny bits of debris from the fallen tower out across the plain. Rosa clutched at her hat. "Yes," she said, "let’s go."

It was the fault of the grim moment, Rydia knew; but the cold looks her friends wore were still cold looks; and everything still felt wrong. She wanted to speak, to tell them what she’d done, why it caused such pain; but no words came loose. They walked, silent in the loud wind, back to the airship.

* * * * *

The four of them sat around the tea-table under the golden shafts of sunlight, beams that lit and transfigured the colored glassware, and haloed pale-colored hair. The warmth of the fire spread into them, and their faces were subdued, neutral, mild. Cecil lifted his cup. "To a happy Yule," he offered. They touched their cups, quietly, careful and still.

She did feel better. The welcome change of the gradual warmth, both in temperature and feeling, was a great comfort in this tiny little room, where ancient civilization was no longer literally crumbling before their eyes. In this human place built of mortar and bricks, it seemed again that happiness could possibly be within a person’s grasp. Rydia settled into her chair, wanting to stay here always, and hoping that she could, and deeply regretting that she might be told no. She didn’t want to bring up the subject now—for now she hated to think of hearing "no."

And yet, at the very least, she had to tell them about Edge.

"I—I think I upset Edge," she volunteered, quietly.

Kain spread butter on a roll, methodically. Nothing else moved. The tableau was frozen, not suddenly, not by her statement; but not prodded into action by her statement, either.

Rydia toyed with a tassel on the silken tablecloth, and continued: "I sort of… yelled at him a little. He was being his usual self, you know, hitting on me, and I was kind of uncomfortable, and well—I told him not to bother me. And, you know, he seemed upset after that."

No one looked especially outraged, and she had sounded good so far, and so she went on: "And… I really wish I hadn’t upset him. He doesn’t deserve to be yelled at, just because I don’t happen to want to date him." And that was very true, she reflected. No one deserved to be rejected, least of all in the snippy way she’d done it. "I feel so bad for him… he really is a nice guy," she added to ameliorate her criticism, "and I think he means well. He just… just doesn’t understand how I, in particular, want to be treated. Probably some other girls wouldn’t mind it… I bet a lot of other girls would like that kind of thing. It’s just that, well, I don’t, and the more I let him go on, the more I just think… it’s terrible… he’s making me like him less; he’s going to all this effort to just… dig himself into a hole. And I feel bad, you know? It… none of it is right."

And as she spoke, she realized how true all of it was. Edge really did mean well; he would doubtless treat her better than most men would treat most women. He would, in every sense, make her a queen. He was such a good catch—why was she throwing that away? Why did she so stubbornly refuse to even consider a man who was courtly, who could and would treat her in the highest style, and who was clearly hers for the asking—no, she corrected herself, had been hers, until she’d gone off and torn from him so harshly that she’d never have him now. Would she ever find someone like that again? Had she made a mistake?

But no, she recalled. No mistake; Edge annoyed her. She would never be able to deal with him long-term; and he didn’t attract her, either. It didn’t matter what kind of "chance of a lifetime" she was throwing away on paper; in physical reality, when confronted with him, she just didn’t want him around. "And, well… he does annoy me. But that’s really not his fault. It’s just how it is… I can’t help that, and I feel so bad for him. I didn’t mean to upset him," she added desperately.

"Well," said Rosa, "if you don’t like him, you don’t like him. You can’t help that; you’re right."

"But I just feel so bad for him," persisted Rydia. She did.

"He’ll get over it," said Cecil. "He flirts with so many girls, and it’s not as if he’ll be overlooked. Eventually he’ll click with someone else, and it won’t be such a big deal if he can’t have you."

"I guess," she said, idly dividing the cloth tassel in her lap into even parts. She didn’t want to date anyone. Why was that so hard?

Rosa shook her head. "Don’t worry about it too much. It’ll be fine. Trust me."

"I still feel like I hurt him more than I should have. But I didn’t know how else to make it clear…"

"Trust me," said Rosa again. "I know he’s been serious about at least two other girls lately. He’ll be fine."


Suddenly things looked dimmer, deader. She could never again count on being able to date him. He would have other girls, fresh starts, whom he could love unreservedly; and she would seem like a shaky and untenable option he wouldn’t trust. Not that she wanted to date him, she remembered. It was just that—well, she was alone, and she probably didn’t want to be alone; it seemed as if she shouldn’t want to be alone.

People always told her she should find someone, expected her to find someone; expected her to have a life all set up for herself, and always expected that life to be independent of their own. People expected, always, that she would join herself to someone—but "someone" always meant "someone else."

But, when it came down to it, who did she have? –Who mattered? –Only the people in this room.

"You can always tell him," suggested Rosa, "that you have someone at home."

Home. Rydia stared at the space between her friends. "I’m not going home."

Cold washed over her. She’d said it. She seemed to have said the wrong thing, but she’d said it and now she had to finish. The only sound was the fire crackling, as she waited for questions. How was she going to explain this one?

"I mean," she continued, as if it would somehow make it better, "this is my home now. If that’s okay."

At last Cecil said, "Rydia…" And it was not better to hear his voice like that, but at least he acknowledged that she’d made her statement.

She swallowed the tea flavor in the back of her mouth. "I know it seems really random. And I don’t mean to throw myself on your hospitality, if that’s what you think… I’ll work. I’ll be your kitchen girl. I just don’t want to go back to the underworld.

"If I go back, time will pass. Just for me to live out my life, time will pass. And by the time you’re ready for me to come visit again, I’ll be older—much older. There’s no way to control the timestream. Who knows how much older I’ll be? I could live and die before you’re ready to see me again.

"And all that time, I’ll miss you…"

Cecil nodded slowly. "Those gems… you really meant it."

"Yes, I did." She blushed, and felt embarrassed that she was blushing. "There aren’t special people for me down in the underworld, so there was no one I could give gems to… There’s nothing for me down there. I don’t want to go back."

Rosa folded her napkin and gave Rydia a thoughtful look, eyebrows arched. "Are you sure this is reasonable? You don’t have to go here just because you don’t want to go back there. You’re not bad with people, you know. You’re inexperienced, but that’s all."

Was that true? She felt flattered. But it seemed, now, to stand in her way. "No, there’s nowhere else I want to go."

"What about Mist? There’s such a desperate project for reconstruction. If you taught as a caller, you could do very well."

"I don’t want to go to Mist. It isn’t really my home. Or, it is, but it’s not. Even though I’m ‘the girl from Mist,’ the survivor, walking around with my birthplace attached to me like a nametag. I’m always explained as this caller from Mist. Like that’s the biggest deal. But no, the biggest deal was the fact that I left." She breathed heavily with her need to convey the gravity that no one realized. "You keep referring to ‘the whole mess with Zemus’ as if it’s just some… some incident that interrupted your lives last year. But it wasn’t that for me. It was my whole lifetime."

Eons passed. Rosa said, "Rydia…" Her voice sounded concerned; was that better or worse for Rydia’s pride than sounding bothered? "Would you take a walk with me out in the rose garden?"

"Of course." Talking to Rosa privately might be better, anyhow. Cecil didn’t seem to object, though he kept quiet; and Kain gave her a kind, sympathetic smile—Kain, giving a smile!—as she got up from her chair. If she could talk to Rosa privately, convince her it was a good plan—if.

* * * * *

They walked along the brick path, the weeds trimmed from between the bricks, the growth neatly shaped as the queen would have it. On each side, roses sprouted in a wild profusion of warm color, tendrils reaching out towards the friends as they walked between the rose-wall lines. Rydia studied them, and tried to be nonchalant, as if she weren’t constantly waiting for Rosa’s reaction. Should she say something? Or should she just be quiet and wait?

"You’re scared," said Rosa softly.


"You don’t have to be our kitchen girl, of course."

What did that mean? Was she thus encouraged to stay, or was that too much to hope for?

The roses curled inward on them, closing the path. But it turned at the last moment, ending at a little wooden door in the castle wall. Rosa opened it, and they continued the path before them, into the building and past the huge pipe heaters that kept the roses green, up a little spiraled staircase, and into the open air. They were on part of the castle roof, with its winter shrubs and little trees strung with garlands and ornaments. The outdoor garden, dressed for Yule.

Rosa stood looking at a cluster of decorated pine trees, as if to read answers in the branches. "You know, when you came here, you were so distant. I didn’t even know if you cared much about us."

"Oh," said Rydia, "oh, no, no! I just… I didn’t want to seem…"

After a moment, Rosa turned away from the tree she was looking at and continued down the walkway; and Rydia went along. The stone path swept in a winding shape across the garden, as if to cover every inch of available space with a different tree-lined place to stand. They walked down ramps, and up little sets of stairs; and all the while Rydia kept watching Rosa for a sign of some kind, an indication of the acceptance or rejection of what she’d said. Where were they going? What was even up here? Did it matter?

At last the path widened out, suddenly, into a little clearing with a wooden bench, looking over the parapet to the blue water far below. In the center of the clearing was a tall willow tree, its long tendril branches swooping in the wind.

The tree. Rydia recognized the scene instantly. The tree Rosa had drawn, that she had shown Rydia back on the moon. The drawing had been like a shrine. A secret vision of what could have been a public place, golden and sacred. Someplace personal, a thing of Rosa’s alone.

Rosa walked to the edge of the parapet, a white flourish against the dull afternoon. She looked upwards, and Rydia followed her gaze to a break in the clouds where the red moon was faintly visible in the pale day sky.

Something tugged, something moved; and Rosa’s white hat was torn from her head in a sudden gust of violent wind. She snatched at it, but missed. The hat was in danger. Rydia grabbed for it in the air as it sailed forward off the balcony; she reached way out, grasping, and caught it in her hand.

She flailed, leaning too far out, and windmilled her arms, still clutching Rosa’s hat, not even thinking of letting go. Suddenly frightened, she let out a shriek. The water was far below and she would fall, and it would be cold and horrible and dark.

And at once she stopped falling; she was stable; Rosa had caught her by the waist. She felt herself being pulled back to solid ground, back to safety. Rydia sat down on the bench, heart racing in panic; she found she was still screaming, was still ready to scream. The sky spun. One thing blended with another.

"I love you," she told Rosa, holding out the hat.

Rosa took the hat. "Thank you," she said softly, clutching it with both hands. "I’m touched."

"I’m coming to live with you and Cecil and Kain."

"I’m glad, Rydia. I missed you. Had you thought otherwise?"

She shrugged, as if to say: she hadn’t known; how could she have known?

From the fading red moon, underneath the wide pale sky, they walked together back through the winter trees, downstairs to join their friends.

~ end ~

[This is a work of fanfiction by Catherine Rain. It may be freely distributed so long as it REMAINS INTACT, including italics, punctuation, this disclaimer, et cetera, and CREDIT IS GIVEN to Catherine Rain. Final Fantasy IV and its characters are copyright Square; song lyrics are copyright 10,000 Maniacs.]