"She can't remember a time when she felt needed;
If love was red, then she was colorblind.
All her friends would have been tried for treason
And crimes that were never defined.
She's saying: 'Love is like a barren place
And the origin of the human faith
Is like a journey I just don't have a map for...'"

Underneath the Smoke Vol. 2
To the Moon And Back
Catherine Rain

The moon was dazzling white and inky black. And, in intermittent splashes, blue. Ice blue.

Rydia rubbed her eyes. The display of crystal and rock was gorgeous, but she could hardly stand to look at it for another moment. Her vision craved color and the softness of plants. She gave a heavy sigh, wishing to look at some organic life that was not intent on killing her.

"Something wrong?" Edge inquired, adjusting his stride to walk alongside her as they wound their way through the humming crystal caverns.

She glanced at Edge. Some other organic life, she amended mentally. "Nothing major. It's no big deal. I'm just tired of looking at the inside of the moon."

"Aah, gotcha."

Rydia frowned, noting that he kept pace beside her even though he had no excuse to do so. She focused on listening to the faint hum she heard, growing louder as they descended to the core-- the song the living, vibrating crystal made when struck. Somewhere in the distance, monsters rampaged, sounding musical notes as they slammed against the glassy structures that clung to the cavern walls.

Rosa flung out a hand suddenly. "Ssh."

The party halted, ears pricked attentively, as the archer listened. Silently she gestured to a small passage branching off from the interior of the cave.

They turned to face the passage, weapons at the ready. Rydia's ears picked up a faint whirr-click-click in the distance, growing steadily louder. Heavy footsteps pounded.

The five held their ground breathlessly.

A huge, humaniform robot clomped out of the passage, scanning the area with a golden beam. Its red-shellacked, heavily built body towered over Rydia by about four feet. Its gaze locking onto the intruders, it stomped towards them, spitting beams of heat.

They sprang into motion.

As Cecil drove his sword into the robot's jointed shoulder, trying to pry open the cover and reach its inner mechanism, Rydia clamped her eyes shut and focused. She envisioned the magical power building up within her, transforming from imagination to reality by the sheer force of her will.

A shriek rent the air; distracted, Rydia snapped her eyes open to see Rosa snatched up by the robot's great arms. Cecil battered his sword against the robot, which slowed with a tiny whirr, but remained fully functional despite its dents. Helplessly the small woman struggled as the huge machine bent her in two, her back twisting into an impossible position, then dropped her on the ground where she lay as still as a pile of white cloth.

Swinging his sword in a furious arc, Cecil smashed the side of the robot's head, which popped off uselessly. Its lasers disabled, it stomped further forward, ready to snatch up a second victim.

Its opportunity never came. Kain leapt onto the killing machine spear-first, toppling it to its side, where it continued its walking motions, nightmarishly flailing like a headless pile of shining red metal, barely recognizable as humaniform in its unnatural motion. As he drove his lance into the robot repeatedly, punching through the metal to the bolted circuits that lay below, Cecil knelt by Rosa's side, one hand pressed to her forehead.

Rydia felt helpless. She had not even cast a single spell to save her friend.

Cecil shook visibly, muttering under his breath, his face pinched with concentration. Rosa's eyes fluttered feebly open, her stare glazed with pain.

"Rosa." Kain stood over her suddenly. "Are you...?"

"Ssh!" Rydia jabbed at him with her elbow. "She's helping him heal." Rosa and Cecil were enveloped in two identical white glows, the sign of magic flowing from its source to correct the injuries to Rosa's battered body. Kain alone out of the group could not see the glow; having no practice with magic, he had never developed the ability to sense it.

"I'm going to move you now," Cecil warned. The archer whimpered as he carefully straightened out her bent body, laying her flat out on her back. "Can you move your toes?"

"No... I can't... I think my spinal nerve... wrecked," she gasped, laying one hand atop her waist, above the location of the injury. "I can heal it. Not well."

The spell shimmered, and Rosa cried out in pain as the magic laced through her back, rejoining the severed nerve. Lapsing into silence once more, the two white mages completed the spell, and the white glow dissipated.

Kain glanced askance at Rydia. "You can talk to them now," she said. Having little help to offer, she stepped away from the victim.

Cecil looked up into the shadowed face of his friend, anxious beneath his dark visor. "She'll be fine... her body is set to heal, now, but it will take days before she can walk again."

The dragoon gave a short nod. "Then we must make camp."

"Yes... we shall." Cecil scanned the area. "Not here."

"I'll go scout?" offered Edge, peering anxiously at the worried group.

"Yes. Go." Rydia prodded him. Cecil and Kain needed to stay with Rosa.

Quietly the summoner sat down, watching them from a short distance. Perhaps she should have offered to scout as well, but she could not bear to leave the three of them alone, so agonized did they seem. Rosa would be all right, but neither Cecil nor Kain could bear the idea of Rosa being hurt, Rosa feeling pain. I care too, she snapped mentally, in case no one noticed. But she had not, as Cecil had, claimed the "right" to care. Rosa was simply her friend, and friendship didn't count enough.

Rydia stalked once more past the small cavern where Rosa and Cecil huddled over the campfire. Each time she passed the entrance, she cast a longing glance at it, wishing she could go inside and talk to them instead of exploring; she had done nothing but explore on her own all day.

Finally she could contain her boredom no longer. "Hey, aren't you two sick of each other yet?" she called, peeking into the cavern. "By the end of this adventure you'll be like an old married couple who's lived together for too long."

They laughed. "Somehow," said Cecil, "I don't think I mind."

"Don't mind being sick of me?" demanded Rosa in mock injury, lashing out at him limply with her arm.

"Hey-- that's not what I meant!" he protested, warding off the light blow.

"Well," confessed Rydia, "I am getting really, really tired of mapping this cave. If you, o brave paladin, want to take a walk and get some fresh air-- or whatever passes for it in this place-- I would like to sit down and talk to someone for a change."

Rosa nodded at Cecil, her hand on his encouragingly. "Go on ahead. Rydia can stay with me for a while."

He glanced down at the invalid, and gave a reluctant nod. "Okay. ...You be careful, now. If anything happens, call me." As he stood, brushing the dust from his cloak, he took the map and pencil that Rydia proffered, putting it in his own pack.

As he turned to leave the cavern, he fixed the summoner with a firm gaze. "You take care of Rosa, now."

"I will."

Then the two girls were alone in the dark cave, the silence encroaching all around them. Rydia poked at the rock floor with a pebble, digging dust out of the crevices.

"How's it looking out there?" Rosa wanted to know.

"It's... well, you know. Cavelike. Mostly just silent."

"Any closer to finding Zemus?"

"Not really."

Rosa craned her head upwards, staring at the ragged ceiling. "I am so bored in here."

"Really... I'm bored to tears, all alone out there in endless expanses of rock. I thought you had the easy job. Just lie here and sleep, with Cecil to keep you company. And Kain."

"Kain doesn't sit with me."

"Oh." The summoner registered this fact with surprise. "I thought he was... Isn't he your close friend?"

"He... was."

"Not anymore?" Rydia blinked, reassessing the situation, trying to figure out what had come between them. "I mean, I don't really like him, myself, but I thought you did."

Still staring at the ceiling, Rosa's gaze became soft and sad. "He betrayed us... he changed."

"I thought he was being controlled?" Rydia had never been able to like Kain. The best she could bring herself to feel on his behalf was mild tolerance.

"He was. But the feelings were his own genuine feelings... And now, I can still sense them within him." Rosa shivered, and pulled the fleece blanket closer around her. "When he watched me in Zot, he wanted me, and he didn't conceal it. His gaze... his smile. Like a predator. Hungry."

Was there more to the story that she wasn't telling? Rydia wondered what Kain had done to make Rosa feel this strongly. The archer's reaction to the situation seemed too extreme for the cited cause. "He didn't do anything to you, back in Zot... did he? I mean," she added hastily, defensively, "I'm not saying he would normally be that way. I'm saying, under influence... you know. People would do awful things if they had no morals to stop them."

Rosa shifted uncomfortably, wincing a little at the pull on her spine. "If you're asking whether he raped me, then no. He never used physical violence. Never touched me."

Rydia nodded, feeling slightly embarrassed as well as guilty for having accused her companion.

"But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt."

Rydia nodded again. She was out of her league when it came to advice on this subject.

"Every day, every moment I see him... I see that same expression, that still gaze. Watching me. Like a monitor, always on me. Longing. Just like it was, back in Zot... Do you understand?"

Rydia shook her head no. "I'm sorry. I'm really trying to."

"I'm rambling... I'm sorry." The archer sighed, and flailed out an arm towards the backpacks piled in the corner. "Would you get me my pack?"

Retrieving the caramel-colored knapsack, Rydia again knelt next to Rosa, unclasping the bag. "What do you want out of here?"

"Just... The manila envelope, please."

Rydia pulled the folder from the backpack, opened the flap, then hesitated. "May I?"

"Go ahead."

She pulled a thick sheaf of white papers from the envelope, sliding them out in a pile. At first she expected maps, but she saw instead the chalk likeness of Cecil smiling at her warmly.

"Did you draw these?" Rydia paged through the oil pastel drawings slowly, marveling at the lovely curves of the sketches. Even the messier ones had a beauty of their own, grace in the stray lines, adding texture. "These are really good..."

"Thanks..." Rosa smiled weakly.

Page after page the drawings went on. Many of them were portraits of Cecil; some were of landscapes, flowers, even fish. Rydia paused at a sketch of a beautiful willow tree. "This was in Baron, wasn't it?"

Rosa craned her head to see. "Yes... that one isn't finished, actually. Not yet." Implying she would come back to finish it: back to the Earth.

"These pictures are gorgeous. I didn't know you coul-- oh." As she uncovered the next drawing, Rydia froze.

Kain's visage leered back at her from the paper-- but it was not the Kain she usually saw. This was Kain hideous and sinister and hardly short of demonic. The sarcastic twist of his mouth and the penetrating gleam in his eye were intensified, his expression twisted beyond the ordinary vices of humanity into a cruel, lustful, devilish demand. Rydia had never seen a fellow human being look so wicked. She had thought Kain's stare creepy at normal times; now she knew it was mild, compared to this ghastly vision.

Her hand trembling, she glanced at Rosa, who watched pensively, blanket clutched tightly to her chin; then she looked back down at the paper, struck by a second and only slightly weaker wave of aversion as she confirmed that what she had seen was indeed as horrible as she remembered it. Had his expression been smiling in satisfaction, or glaring in anger, the effect would have been far less; this face demanded, hungered, wanted. It wanted to possess.

Rosa whispered, "That's how he looked in Zot. ...And now, every time I see him, I can't see his normal face... I see only the echoes of that. In my mind's eye... that is what I see. Watching me."

A violent shudder crept over Rydia as she replaced the papers in their folder. "I see what you mean. ...I'm not sure I can look at him the same way again, either."

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Rosa in consternation. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"No, it's all right. I... didn't like him much, anyway."

"But... that's just it." The archer shook her head. "I don't want you to get the impression that Kain's really like that. He's not. He's very sweet. He never touched me."

"But if he is, deep inside..."

"He can't be," she insisted. "If he was, he would have actually molested me. He had no self-control in Zot. He did exactly what he wanted, without morality. But he didn't touch me."

Slowly, Rydia nodded. "Well... and the fact that he does, normally, possess self-control... that means he isn't like that, after all."

"Exactly." She plucked a bit of gravel off the grey blanket. "Actually, what I think is so frightening is the fact that he is both a decent human being and a monster at the same time, when he looks like that. ...If he had no conscience, he simply wouldn't know any better. But obviously something does tell him 'no', and the part that rages against that 'no' is all the more terrible, for it defies what he knows is right."

"Like... a child who says something rude because he doesn't know any better isn't as 'bad' as an adult who says the same thing. Is that what you mean?"

"Sort of." Rosa stared upwards at the ceiling, thinking. "In a way. Yes."

"But more complex?"

The blonde girl nodded.

"How so?"

"Well..." She sighed. "It also upsets me because, as you said, Kain is my friend from way back. I also remember the old Kain... and I miss him. I miss the way he used to be, and the way I used to trust him. I know I probably can't ever put things back the way they were... but I wish they would go back to being that."

Rydia listened, though again feeling somewhat lost. She had no childhood friend whom she had cared about for so long; always a stranger even to those she considered her friends in the underworld, she was not sure she could guess what Rosa felt. "And things have to stay the way they are now?"

"Well, I can't make myself trust him or feel better about him, no matter how much I might want to... That trust is gone. Even if he started acting his old self again, forevermore... the way I feel has changed. I can't help that."


"I'm sorry. I'm rambling again."

"No, no, it's all right." Rydia wanted to listen. Whether she understood or not was not as important; if Rosa needed a friend to listen, then that was what Rydia wanted to do. "And anyway, you sound like you really need to talk about this to someone."

"Yes. And I can't talk to Cecil about this."

"There's something you can't talk to Cecil about?" gasped Rydia in sarcastic shock.

Rosa made a face at her. "We aren't that bad, are we?"

"No." The green-clad mage smiled. "But you do tend to coat everything in barrels of sugar when he's around. It doesn't bother me, though. Honestly."

"Well, anyway, I can't ask him to see my viewpoint on this... I don't think he can. He feels the same way about Kain as I felt before Zot... he's been through all of the friendship, and none of the fear. And it really upsets him to hear people talk about Kain negatively."

Rydia shot her a guilty glance. "I'm sorry if I do that sometimes."

"No, no. It's okay. You say what you want... just... I can't let him hear it from me. To his mind, if I don't stand up for Kain, then no one will... he feels alone."

"People will, though," insisted Rydia. "You'll see. When we all get back to Earth and we're heroes... at first people might have problems with him, but after a while, when he doesn't do anything wrong... he'll meet new people that'll trust him. And without Zemus around to influence him, he'll be worthy of their trust... right?"

"I guess so..."

"I'm not making you feel any better, am I?" sighed the summoner.

"Actually, you are." Rosa made a shrugging motion with her hands, though keeping her shoulders still so it would not pull on her back. "I don't think there's anything anyone can do about it except listen, and you've done that... At least now I don't feel like I'm being so irrational."

"Well, I try." She could not fully understand, as she had no special childhood friend of her own. She had known people for that long-- Ashura and Leviathan, the neighbors, people who had watched her grow from a seven-year-old girl into a willowy adolescent-- people who could embarrass her with trivial stories of her youth. Indeed, Rosa herself probably could. But it all seemed so long ago and far away, and so irrelevant. She hadn't really known Rosa and Cecil back then, not as equals-- not as beloved friends.

And now... Rydia glanced down at the blonde girl, the neat and precise way she had tucked the blanket around her, no wrinkles or messy edges, just precision and thoroughness. Rosa was no longer a distant adult, but Rydia's own age. Yet the summoner felt as though Rosa were still older, still some sort of authority figure to look to. Rosa seemed to know more about life, seemed more experienced, whether or not it was actually so. Or was Rydia just imagining it? Was it a leftover fragment of her childhood impressions haunting her, or an actual air of maturity she saw?

Rosa lashed her fingers around Rydia's wrist. "Did you hear that?"


"Gold snake."

Rydia froze, listening for the telltale scrape of gravel that would announce the metallic serpent's approach. She heard nothing.

"There. Hear it?"

"No... Are you sure you heard it?"


The archer's ears and eyes were considerably sharper than Rydia's own. It was a natural talent Rosa had for tracking; the party had learned to rely on her skill. If Rosa gave warning, no one doubted it.

Suddenly a tiny scratching sound, distant and quiet, caught her hearing for a second. "There," Rydia said, "oh wait... it stopped."

"There it is again," hissed Rosa.


"To your right. Near the entrance."

Rydia pulled herself carefully to her feet, then stalked towards the entrance very slowly. A glint of gold metal flashed in the darkness.

Focusing inwards, the black mage plunged straight into the current of power within her.

The magic coursed up and through Rydia, bursting out through the shimmering coat of power enveloping her body. Once leaving its wielder, the power flashed invisibly through the air, striking down upon the creature as a heavy bolt of lightning. The crack was almost immediately audible to the girls in the cave.

The little dragon-snake had stopped moving, the smell of scorched metal and smoke wafting lightly through the cave.

Rydia poked it with the toe of her boot. "It's dead."

"Don't touch it," reminded Rosa. "You can still get poisoned."

"I know." The summoner was almost glad it had happened; she had done an efficient job, proving her capability, and now when Cecil came back she could look at him with pride and think, I'm useful, I can take care of matters too. He would respect her more as an adult, and not view her as just some kid.

Not that Cecil did think of her as a child, she reminded herself. He had not shown any indications of doing so; in fact, the idea was mostly in Rydia's own mind. But it was good to make sure.

"I can do things too, Edge."

"I know." He gave her the look of a hurt puppy dog.

"Then let me climb over the damn rocks myself!"

Rydia hissed like a cat, yanking her hand away from a sharp crag on the rock wall. She had cut herself a few times, but she was actually doing better than Edge himself, she noted with pride. "Why do you have to protect me?" she snarled, though knowing the reason. "Do you want me to act incompetent on purpose so you can show off your manliness? Or do you want to do whatever gets us out of this cavern alive?"

The thin, bony ninja stopped climbing, scratched hands held out in protest. "I want you to act like yourself. I care about you, hon."

Mentally she fumed, He never asked me whether I cared about him in return.

"Thanks. I appreciate that." Her foot slipped and she nearly stumbled, but she caught her balance just in time, adding a neat bounce to her next step in order to make it look like something she was deliberately doing. "I know I'm weaker. I also know everyone sees me that way. But that doesn't mean I'm an eggshell, either."

"I know, hon." He pulled his own small frame over the rubble of a collapsed wall.

"I don't care about being the weakest-- one of us has got to be-- but 'weakest' is not 'weak.' I want to contribute, not... be a liability." She frowned, wishing petulantly that he would not call her 'hon,' but not wanting to drag in an irrelevant issue to weaken her argument.

Then again, perhaps it should be addressed, she thought as she climbed over to join him. "And what is with the 'hon' thing? Do you call all your female friends that?"

"Yeah, it's a habit. Sorry."

"Okay, fine, then you can keep it."

"Glad to know my habits pass your approval."

She sighed, feeling a twinge of guilt at being so snappish, yet if this didn't get cleared up soon she might never be able to bring it up again. "You don't call Rosa that, though."

"Dude. Cecil would kill me."

"Well, if it's just a 'friend' thing, why not?"

He did not answer.

Sighing, she hopped between stones in a zigzagged path, alighting on the rock next to his. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so nasty today. I really don't. I'm just upset."

"It's okay. You can be upset."

"I shouldn't be taking it out on you. I was kind of mean just now... I'm sorry."

"It's okay..." He measured her with a glance. "...hon."

Letting out a long, low sigh as silently as she could, she decided to let it be. There was no use provoking a fight when they had to be together so much. They still had not found the right path leading to the core, though Rosa's health improved every day. Rydia wondered idly whether her friend would be walking by the time they finished the map. Or perhaps she would just go nuts and kill Edge. Whichever came first.

Rydia was yanked from her sleep by a loud scraping sound.

She heard Rosa scream, and sat up with a jolt just in time to see Kain's spear whiz past the blonde girl, missing her by an inch, and land with a thunk in the rock.

Rosa continued to shriek, staring at Kain, who stood over her, his helmet obscuring his face; Cecil leapt to his feet, his sword in hand, brandishing the blade at the intruding dragoon.

Rydia blinked her bleary eyes in astonishment. She glanced at Edge, who seemed just as confused as she. Rosa was still screaming, and Cecil shouted something at Kain angrily; Rydia's tired and fuzzy brain did not bother to parse the words. She watched Kain lift up his spear slowly, working it free of the rock.

Suspended on the edge of the spear was a gold snake.

Rosa took deep breaths, now, hand over her heart, trying to calm down. Kain raised his voice. "No one trusts me. Not even you." He sounded more hurt than angry, though woe betide whatever might cross his path as he stalked out of the cavern.

Cecil's sword clattered to the floor as he watched his best friend slink away. His whispers echoed through the cavern, mingling with Rosa's soft sobs.

"It's all right, it's all right... No one will hurt you. It's all right..."

"You protected her."

It was a question rather than an accusation. Yet Cecil obviously knew what she was talking about. He twisted around to face her. "Yeah."

"Instead of trusting your best friend." Rydia seated herself next to him on the edge of the rock precipice, her feet pointing down towards the sharp floor far below. The height was both frightening and seductive, and for a moment she experienced the insane urge to leap down. Nervously she placed one hand on the crystal pillar on the other side of her, trying to gain stability; then she looked up at Cecil's passive face, reoriented herself with a deep breath, and was fine.

"Yeah, I... did." He studied her carefully, and she kept her expression neutral.

"I'm just trying to understand, I guess." She kicked sharply, childishly, at the rock wall with her heel. "About why. You picked love over friendship."

He cast her a sharp glance. "I did no such thing."

"But that's what you did," she protested. "You sided with Rosa instead of Kain. It was a choice, however subconscious or reflexive."

"I had no choice."

The summoner brushed aside a stray lock of hair. "But you had to make a choice, there, and you made it. Even if that's not what you normally think, that's what happened."

"I did not."

Rydia drew in a sharp breath, staring at him for a moment. She had never heard such a sharp edge in his voice. "I don't mean to upset you. I'm just saying... that's how I see it."

"Look, you just don't understand."

Part of Rydia wanted to retort, There are things about me you don't understand, too. Part of her wanted to curl up and whimper, I want to understand. I really really want to.

What she said was, "No, I don't."

He glanced at her with sudden sympathy. "I'm sorry... it's a sore spot for me. I didn't mean to snarl."

"I'm sorry. I hit the sore spot."

"I'm sorrier," he teased.


"Too. No, seriously." His expression sobered. "You're Rosa's age, aren't you."


"You're so... innocent. You really don't know a whole lot, do you?"

"I guess not..."

"Have you been living in a cave through your teenage years? Oh wait, you have been..." he quipped smoothly.

Rydia raised an eyebrow. "Har har. No, really. The creatures were nice... intelligent and such..."

"I know."

"But I didn't have any close friends."

"I know," he repeated. "I can tell. No offense intended. You're cool."

"None taken." She sighed. "I guess I just don't get the whole thing. How can you not be making a choice, when you leap to defend Rosa instead of trusting Kain?"

He glanced at her sideways. "Do you really want me to explain it to you?"

"Yes, please."

"All--" Abruptly he lunged at her, his hands outstretched, as though ready to push her off the cliff.

She shrieked and flung her arms around the crystal pole, clinging to it for dear life and eyeing the ground below in terror, though he had stopped short a foot from touching her.

Taking a deep breath and trying to calm her racing heart, she slumped against the pole.

"Right." He leaned back to his normal position, watching her. "Did you just mistrust me? Or choose yourself over me?"

"No." She sighed. "You could have just said 'it was a reflex.'"

"And you would have argued that it was an excuse."

"That's true... You're scary today," she whimpered. Between his earlier annoyance and his sudden outburst, she wondered if she had seen a private side of Cecil.

He gave her a smile that was half grimace. "I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment or a reproach."

"Both. But I do trust you," she said again. "I want you to know that."


They sat for a while in silence, watching the faint movements of cave creatures far below.

"I'm still not sure I get it," said Rydia. "The whole love-protection-friendship thing."

"Hm." He looked pensive for a moment, locks of his white-blond hair dripping into his face. "What, exactly, don't you get?"

"Well, just..." She frowned, suddenly unable to describe her confusion. A moment ago her questions and issues had seemed so clear, but now that it came time to explain them to someone else, they no longer formed a logical procession. She realized that the words she might have used were not the ones that conveyed her actual thoughts, and she fumbled for some sort of roundabout explanation. "Everyone else... you, Rosa, Edge, Kain... seems obsessed with romance, and I'm still stuck on friendship."

"What do you mean, 'stuck on' it?"

"Well. I don't know if I can explain." She forced a small laugh. "The fact that I don't have any?"

"That's not true." He gazed at her through piercing blue eyes. "I'm your friend. Edge is definitely your friend. We all are."

"Edge isn't my friend... Not the way you and Rosa are. I mean... I tolerate him. And he's a nice guy, he really is. But I don't... don't... care." She forced the last word out after searching unsuccessfully for an alternative. "I put up with him, but I'd just as soon be away from him as near him. I'm like that with most people."

"I see."

"But you're not like that." Rydia was aware of the rising wave of emotion in her voice, aware that she sounded almost pathetically eager, but she could not curb the insistence she felt. "You and Rosa. You're really my friends. I want to be around you... I miss you at other times." She stopped, embarrassed.

"Thank you," said Cecil.

"Kain... well, I don't know him all that well. So I don't know if he could be a close friend like that or not. You understand."

"Rydia. What is it you're trying to say?"

She hesitated, her cheeks blooming red. "Really the point, you mean?"

He nodded.

"I... well. ...You and Kain have a falling-out over Rosa. Everyone loves Rosa."

"Is that really the important thing?"

"That was my question."

Cecil, eclipsed by thoughtfulness, studied her for a moment. "Rosa... is the most important thing in my life. But it wasn't always that way. Before, it was Kain."

"Did you care for Kain? As a friend, I mean."

"Yeah. In fact, I still do." He closed his eyes.

"But you wouldn't say that to him. Right?" The little summoner crouched by the pole like a green butterfly, ready to flit away at the slightest impulse. "You would be afraid of how he'd take that, if you said it, so you'd never say it. But it's important nonetheless."

"Maybe not..."

"You love him," accused Rydia. "Just as a friend. But still, you can't tell him."

His voice rose a little from its normally even, low tone. "That's easy for you to say. It's not a problem for you. If you love your friends, you can tell them."

"No, I can't!"

Her sudden shriek caught even her by surprise, and she stared at him in fear and embarrassment for a moment.

Surprise registered in his eyes. "Rydia... why not? It should be simple for you. No one would take it wrong."

"I... just can't." She stood up, leaning back and hanging onto the crystal pillar with her arms. "I can't, that's all. Maybe I'm afraid."'

He gazed up at her silently, offering support, but she shrank away.

"I don't want to talk about it any more right now." Because her affection was not desirable in such an extreme degree as she felt it, not to the one person she loved the most. She knew-- beyond question, she knew, looking at Cecil-- that Rosa meant more to her than she could mean to Rosa. Her affection would not be a gift, but a burden. Rosa would feel obligated to treat Rydia as dearer than her feelings inclined her to, and Rydia would never know which of Rosa’s gestures were charity and which were true friendship. Worse yet, Rydia would have to live with knowing that she was an obligation self-imposed on the one person she cared for the most. She didn't want to pester Rosa with too much of her presence: she didn't want to become the way Edge was to her, someone for whom custom and not feeling dictated grudging politeness. Thus it had to be secret.

"No, I can’t talk about this," she said. Because if she admitted it to Cecil, she might as well have told Rosa…

She turned and fled.

Rosa walked, leaning heavily on Cecil for support. The two white mages had their arms entwined about each other as he encouraged her steps.

Rydia peered at the map. "Good news: the crystal sword I told you about is out on that ledge. The bad news is, there's a huge wyvern out there. I'd suggest waiting for it to go away, but... well... you know how dragons hoard stuff, right?"

Edge drew his swords, slashing them idly through the air in practice motions. "So we gotta kill it."

"Have you seen this thing?" She grimaced. "It's really big... it's probably a match for Bahamut."

"Uh, okay, so we set up camp and rest and kill it tomorrow."

"I thought you'd see reason," she replied sweetly.

As the travelers unpacked, she noticed Kain doing most of the work-- in fact, he swept in and offered to help with everyone else's share. She noted the way that Rosa and Cecil kept glancing gratefully towards Kain. Yet after the shelter was set up, the dragoon walked out of the cave, off on his own.

Rydia saw him leave and half-climbed to her feet, crouching uncertainly, then changed her mind. Doubtless he wanted to be alone. She rearranged her gossamer cloak underneath her and sat back down, glad she had chosen the much safer course of not pursuing him.

Yet... She looked again at Rosa, who was neatly stocking the arrows in her quiver, her expression distant but her eyes unreadable. The mystery in those eyes was one of fear, a constant dodging of the truth. Rydia's questing observation of those eyes slid neatly past the place where Rosa was into the empty back wall of her mind. Rydia hated knowing that her friend locked herself away. And perhaps, if a talk on her behalf could help in some way, it was worth the risk.

For a moment the summoner was transfixed in place, unable to choose, tensing sporadically as she almost decided to stand up and then changed her mind again. Finally she stood, pulling on the silk collar of her cloak and feeling irrationally like she had to justify herself, though she knew no one would question her taking a walk.

"I’ll be back in a little while. I just need to stretch my legs."

"'Kay, hon," said Edge. No one else so much as glanced at her. She strode down the corridor at what she hoped was a rapid enough pace to overtake the tall dragoon. Any swifter, and she would be running; it would be hard to act casual while gasping for breath.

She was terrified of speaking to Kain, but eager to talk about Rosa. She doubted she would confide her own secret in her silent companion; he was little more than a stranger and not known to be loyal. At the least, though, discussing anything involving Rosa would soothe her turbulent heart.

But was thinking about Rosa really such a good idea? The more she indulged in thoughts of Rosa, the more Rosa would naturally come to mind, and she would never stop harping on her friend that way. If she told herself that "everything would be all right if only Rosa were here," and things did not turn out in the best of all ways, she would only blame Rosa's absence and believe in it more. With such a twisted personal superstition, she would come to rely on an innocent, unsuspecting friend as her sole source of sunlight. What a parasitic demand that would be! No, the best thing was to avoid Rosa entirely-- to try not to think about her when it was not immediately obvious and logical to do so. Rosa would have to be "one of the group" and no more, to be only counted when other friends were counted, and never to be set as first among any others. There could never be any "just Rosa," but only "Rosa shared."

As she grasped the worn smooth rock facets of the passageway wall, taking a tentative step onto the slick stairs, she saw a movement at the foot of the staircase below her. There was her object: one of those with whom she must share, and one with a strong prior claim at that. Kain's friendship might be no longer current, but it was powerful competition for Rosa's already-strained attention. Still, perhaps Rosa thought more about losing it than she would about having it, and clearly its current state caused her pain. Rydia hated to see her in such pain, and here she had a chance to be the one who helped. Restoring that friendship was the least she could do for Rosa-- no, she amended, for the harmony of the group.

"Kain!" she called softly, knowing that her voice would echo down to him. "Hold on for a moment!"

The heavily armored figure stopped still, waiting in an attitude of patience. Rydia sucked in a breath, fearing premature defeat. Kain was solitary for a reason: he probably didn't like people interrupting him when he wanted to be alone, and she was not starting out on the right foot with him.

She tried to look harmless as she hurried down the crystal stairs-- not a difficult task for her, she thought petulantly; she couldn't be too threatening if she tried. Still, she did not want Kain to feel that he had to answer for a crime, and what she was going to say might sound accusatory already.

"Are you busy?" she called. "Or can I talk to you now?" Now, she emphasized, as opposed to later. The word probably did its job, as the helmeted figure turned to face her. He leaned one hand on a flat crystal stalactite, waiting.

"It's just..." She skipped downstairs to catch up with him, leaping down the last few steps. She did not want to shout, the acoustics in this cave being unpredictable; this conversation had to be private. "I wanna talk to you about Rosa."

Kain’s voice revealed surprise. "What about her?"

"Oh... I was just talking to her yesterday, and well... It seems kind of like she misses the old you that was friends with her. Before things became... you know, awkward."

He did not perceptibly move. "I miss those days, too."

"I think she's kind of scared of you."

"Scared of me?" He sounded dumbstruck. "Is that what's wrong?"

"Yeah, I think it's based on how you acted in Zot... she could tell you were... leering at her or something, and acting all creepy, and now she can't get rid of the image of you being kind of, uh, lecherous." Rydia hoped he wouldn't be offended by her description.

He smashed his dark-gloved fist into the wall. "Stupid, stupid, damn stupid..."

"Hey... now... it's okay," she said.

"I thought she was being arrogant... because I betrayed Cecil, or because I wasn't one of the group anymore."

"No, Rosa wouldn't do that."

"And now she thinks I'm a lech? Wonderful."

"No, uh, I don't think she actually thinks that; she just has a bad feeling. It seems like it could wear off in time."

"That's her thing, then. Why tell me? There's nothing I can do."

"Maybe if you talked to her, it'd wear off a lot faster?" Rydia persisted. "She could get used to you as the idea of a normal friend again, like you were before. I just wish you, or she, could do something about this. I don't like seeing her and Cecil unhappy." Of course she was just as much concerned about Cecil as about Rosa-- in fact, she was equally concerned for any of them. Kain, Edge, whatever-- they were all her friends, of course, weren't they? All entitled to equal love.

"I wish something could be done, but it's out of my hands."

"No, it isn't," said Rydia. "If the two of you could just talk, maybe you'd get used to each other. But you don't talk, because she's afraid to start conversation and you aren't willing to begin. If only you'd start when she won't, with reassurances that you mean no harm..."

"They would fall on deaf ears."

"No they wouldn't. She really wants to be friends with you," Rydia said desperately. "And believe me, I'm doing this for her."

"I think you're a little misguided."

"No, I'm not. It would be easier not to do this. Truth be told, I'm afraid of you too." She glared at him, determined not to betray that fear in her face or voice. She might admit her fright, but she would behave as no coward. "You've never given me reason not to be, and you have a history of betrayal. Everything about you smacks of danger. I do not have a long..." she closed her eyes briefly, "wonderful... history of knowing you as a close friend. I have little reason to trust you, but I am doing this because I know how badly Rosa wants it."

He remained motionless, and she took his silent faceless gaze for skepticism. "Look," she said in desperation, "all right, I'm jealous of you. She wants your friendship so badly she'd go out of her way to get it back if she weren't this scared. She's brave, I know, but her fear is really strong. And still, despite that huge distance, she cares. She thinks about patching things together, not writing you off. Do you understand what I'd do to have her friendship that way? Don't you know what you have? You, and Cecil. You've all got each other, and what have I got? Nothing." She stared at him firmly, but inside she trembled at her secret let loose. "I want that, and it's tearing me up inside."

She stopped, waiting, but he barely reacted to what she'd said. It was as though she had told him her preference for apples, rather than unleashing the dark secret of her heart to the full extent to which she understood it herself. Did he see what she was saying? It involved him too closely for him not to care, she thought, but why did he not react? "But do you understand?"

Kain lifted his visor and looked down at her. "Yes. I do."

She sighed, and sagged back against the crystal wall in relief. "I thought you might. It's... you see, it's..." Not the most important issue, she wanted to say, but, "one of the most important issues in my life right now." She hoped Kain would infer that she had many other things to worry about. It was humiliating to admit that the only thing of importance in her life was a friend of recent acquaintance who loved her no more than she loved any other friend.

"Oh, believe me," said Kain, his dark blue eyes fixed on her solidly, "I know what you are saying. My feelings run in that vein, but they are... shall we say... more overpowering."

She was about to demand how he knew that, but bit back her retort. He was in Love with Rosa. Of course that must be stronger than anything Friendship could conjure; everyone thought so. She could not deny it, having no knowledge of Love, and very little of Friendship.

But Kain could be her ally, couldn't he? She need not confide that Rosa was her strongest attachment. She need not even think of it to herself. Why couldn't they help each other? She would not advance his wishes against Rosa's, but so long as he did nothing wrong, Kain could be Rydia's ally in understanding. Rosa could have as many friends as she pleased; there ought to be no reason for competition, not even for attention, as Rydia and Kain would fill different roles. One friend stood for girl talk and the other for old memories. If only Rosa cared for the value of either one!

"It's Cecil that takes up most of her attention, I know," said Rydia. "But I don't really blame her. He's the one really worth paying attention to around here, besides Rosa, of course. No offense to you," she added hastily, "or anyone. It's not that there's anything wrong with us; it's that there's something right about him."

Rage and frustration danced in Kain's eyes, but he nodded with reluctance. "I don't hate him. I do resent him. But it isn't fair of me to do so, which hurts even more."

"Jealousy makes you resent him?" Rydia peered at him curiously. "I guess I don't really get it. I think I'm jealous of Rosa, but I don't resent her. I just want to be exactly like her. But at the same time, of course, I'd have to be me and not her, or I wouldn't appreciate being her."

"I do resent him. I feel like it's not fair that Cecil has what I want so badly. Of course, it is fair, and he needs it... I will not say he needs it more, but just as much."

"I don't know what he was like before Rosa... I wouldn't be able to gauge that."

"Hm. Cecil used to be blind... but now he can see better than any of us."

"Oh, he can. He knows so much about everything. Behind everything, what's really wrong. He's brilliant. Actually... okay, another confession. I used to be obsessed with Cecil, rather than Rosa. But I didn't love him in 'that way,' not romantically or anything; I just wanted his friendship and attention. So I started trying to be like him, seeing things through his eyes, caring for what he cared for... I tried to befriend Rosa on purpose, in order to better understand Cecil... and then something shifted, and now I'm obsessed with Rosa even more than Cecil.

"I think I'd been taking her for granted, but now she seems like even more of an ultimate ideal, but in ways I'd never noticed before I started paying attention and looking for them. Now I'm trying to be like her, and that's really hard. She wouldn't even want that. She'd want me to be Rydia, and for each of us to be unique. But I have nothing else to model myself after. She was the last human lady I knew as a child, and I grew up thinking of her as a standard adult woman, and she's really the idea I had about grownups that I always unconsciously assumed I'd emulate, even long before I cared so much.

"But... Cecil and Rosa are self-complete as a couple. They're kind and all, but they don't seem to have such deep aching personal concern for anyone else in the world."

"That's what love does to anyone," said Kain.

"Really?" she mused. "It's like... like Rosa doesn't always have room for a friend in her life, or at least, not a dear one."

"No dear friends have come close," said Kain, "except me, and I've betrayed her."

"Oh, that wasn't betrayal. Don't say that. I feel like we're plotting against Rosa when you say that, even though this is innocent. It was loss of control, that's all."

"Convenient. A crime you can't be tempted to," he scoffed.

"No! Nonono, I don't mean it like that at all." She took a deep breath, afraid she had offended him, but those dark eyes kept watching her steadily as though she'd said nothing unusual. "All you did was betray your feelings to her, and in fact, I could be tempted to that too-- to tell her how I feel. To gush at her about how much she means to me. She'd hate that. I don't think she'd want to know."

"That wouldn't be as bad."

"Still, it'd be a problem... for one thing, it'd embarrass her. Cecil's allowed to gush at her because that's romantic. No one else can gush at her, because it'd be praise she doesn't feel herself worthy of... And... she would feel obligated, after that, to be kind and charitable to me. And somehow, amidst all that, I might risk losing her affection... and that is the one thing I could never lose. I'd just die, not knowing that somewhere out there, Rosa was my friend."

Kain was silent for a moment. "You really know her, don't you."

"Well, I think so, sort of. I may not have known her very well for very long, but I've studied her. Not on purpose. I've just noticed things, because I am paying attention, because I want to be like her, or to be her best friend, or... something. Something like what I'm not, and what you and Cecil are."


"Were. Whichever. I just want harmony... all four of us, we could all be happy."

"And Edge?"

"Oh, we can push him off the nearest cliff."

Kain smirked. "So you do find him annoying."

"Perpetually!" She grinned. It was the first time she'd seen Kain crack a smile, and she felt proud of accomplishing it. Perhaps he still did not trust her-- and she did not fully trust him-- but at least he must not completely loathe her company. Or did he crack jokes about her own faults to Edge when she was not around?

"As long as you don't tell Rosa what I said about her, either," warned Kain.

"Oh, I wouldn't! I'm very careful. I don't praise her unless I'm praising everyone else. I don't tell her how much I care. I... pretend I don't care, sometimes, I think."

"I act cold to her on purpose now," said Kain. "It's better than acting too warm."

"Oh yes! I think so. Well, especially in your case, no offense meant," she blushed, "but even in mine... it's better." Better that Rosa go on with her life unembarrassed by Rydia's foolish wish to cling than that she deal with a perceived need to be extra kind to her. Kain nodded.

"Well, do you agree, then... to talk to her about it?"

"I can't promise that. But I will do something."

"Okay. That's really all I meant."

"I will do something."

"'Bye, then." She scampered up the stairs, leaving Kain with an expression less pinched and more relieved than she'd ever seen him wear. She may not have solved things, but she had made some sort of change. Perhaps that was all she could ever accomplish.

"You did?"

"Yeah. Actually, I had a really good talk with him. Wonders will never cease." Rydia picked at the hem of Rosa's tent.

"You sat down and had a long talk with Kain?"

"Well, technically we didn't sit down. But yeah. I always thought he was really creepy... even before you told me about Zot... but you know, he really isn't. He's like any other guy, just quiet."

"He's harsh sometimes." Rosa stirred her spoon through her tea, and made a face. "Ew, this is getting cold."

"But he's basically a nice person. I hadn't known that."

"I see."

"Anyway, I know you've got a problem with him. I'm not suggesting you just forget about that... but, he said he'd be willing to talk to you... at least, I think he said that. He wants to be friends again with you, and by that, he does mean just friends."

"I'd like that," said Rosa. "If it can be done."

"At least you can try."

Rosa stretched. "Not tonight, though. I'm tired, and I still don't feel great. I don't know about you, but I need to get some sleep if we're going to fight that wyvern for the sword tomorrow."

"Good point... I guess I better go to bed, too." Rydia backed out of the tent. "Good night, Rosa. Sweet dreams."

"Good night."

It's like that old riddle, Rydia thought as she stared up at the glowing, backlit fabric of her tent ceiling. Out of the strong comes forth sweetness. Or was it, out of the sweetness comes forth strength? Whichever way it went, perhaps that thought explained Kain. She lay awake, wondering which held the pleasant thrill that had awakened her from the fast-fading dream.

Rosa's voice, excited, reached her through the tent walls. Something must have happened. Throwing aside the sleeping bag and the last remnants of her dream, Rydia crawled out the tent flap, hoping not to be the last to hear.

Rosa clutched a square slab of soft black rock, its back side encrusted with white crystal. Her fingers were looped with a bit of twine that threaded over the corner of the roughly hewn rock slab, and she clutched the crystal square close, as though terrified she might drop it otherwise. She stopped talking to Cecil as Edge approached them from the other side.

"What's going on?" Rydia wanted to know.

"It's this-- well, I should explain." Rosa glanced at her knight. "Or do you want to?"

"No," said Cecil, "go ahead."

"Well, when we were little, Cecil and Kain would go out hunting squirrels or rabbits and make their prey a sort of sacrifice. They used to write the names of important people and things on their slates and put them under a tree, or by a doorway or something. Those were the people they dedicated it to... if they caught their quarry, they'd put something by the sign to show they achieved it. I started doing it too, when I learned to shoot... we dedicated a lot to the King, and to justice and to whatever struck our fancy. But... we haven't done it in years... except now." She held out the twine with a metallic clink, and Rydia saw that a double handful of gold and silver scales were threaded on the loop. Of varying shapes and sizes, they had been punctured by a sharp point and threaded into a crude collection.

"Gold and silver snakes," said Edge.

"Yes," said Rosa, "and twelve. He had to have been busy last night. 'He' being Kain, because Cecil didn't do it."

"Uh-oh," said Rydia. "It sounds like he's trying to impress you. I hope it doesn't mean he thinks... well, you know..." She glanced at Cecil, not wanting to suggest out loud what she feared. Though she had placed herself obviously on Cecil's side, she did not know whether the very statement would embarrass him. "He should know better... he didn't sound, last night, like--"

"Oh!" interrupted Rosa, "oh, nononono. It's definitely not that... it's definitely..." She smiled, but unshed tears glimmered in her eyes as she held out the tablet.

Scratched into the black rock crust, in block letters that shone with the white crystal underneath, was the name: ROSA FARRELL HARVEY.

Rydia blinked at it. "Wow. Just... wow. It looks like he's acknowledging it."

"Yes." Rosa clutched it to herself as though afraid to look at the words any longer than necessary. "He didn't dedicate it to someone he wanted to claim. He dedicated it to his friend's fiancee." She fingered the string of scales nervously, as though afraid they would contaminate her with some unknown ether, or that she would misunderstand everything yet again. All they had assumed, thought Rydia, was turned back on itself now-- unless that in itself was an assumption which might turn on them again. No wonder Rosa seemed afraid of the cryptic message Kain had sent.

"Where is he now?" wondered Cecil.

"I don't know. I don't think he thought we'd be up this early. I wonder how many snakes he thought he would sacrifice to me? You know, I realize we have to kill the snakes before they kill us, but how many of those creatures are going to die so that Kain can prove his loyalty to me?" She sighed. "I know he has good intentions... but sometimes he seems to misunderstand... Or maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just unfair to criticize something he worked so hard at for my sake."

Cecil reached out and ruffled her curls, miraculously managing not to disarrange them in the process. "No, you're not being unfair. You have different ideas than Kain, that's all. It's okay."

"Oh... All right..." She sighed, and leaned her head on his shoulder tiredly.

"So where, uh, is Kain?" Rydia wanted to know.

A horrendous screech reverberated through the cavern, the cry of a wounded beast in pain. Rydia froze, horrified. "Wyvern..." she whispered.

Cecil looked at Rosa. Rosa looked at Cecil. Rydia looked at Rosa. Edge looked at Rydia.

As a single unit, they took off sprinting down the corridor toward the dragon's hoard.

"I don't get it..." gasped Edge, breathing hard as they ran.

"Kain's after the wyvern," hissed Rydia, and would have added a "duh" had it not seemed a waste of breath.

"Yes, but... why not a snake...?"

"It is a big snake. Or I mean... the gold and silver snakes... they're dragons... relatives..." They reached the widening cavern entrance a few paces behind Cecil and Rosa, and the summoner leaned one hand on the wall as she nodded into the room with the other. "They aren't really snakes... just look like them... And the wyvern... it's just a big one of those things we've been calling 'silver snakes' since we got here..." She gulped for breath, her throat dry, and pushed a tendril of green hair out of her eyes. She hadn't realized Edge hadn't known. Had Rosa realized? Had it occurred to her-- or anyone else-- that Kain was slaying dragons for the maiden he undeniably loved?

Rosa stood against the wall, her head leaning towards the cavern, trying to see what was going on without calling the dragon's attention to the new intruders. She held her arms wrapped about herself-- she no longer had the tablet with her-- and squinted past the corner with such anxiety that Rydia felt sick in sympathy. They could not see a thing, could only hear the screeching of the angered beast and the jangle of metal scraping metal, a cacophony of chimes.

"What's going on?" whispered Edge.

"Ssh." Rydia edged closer to the passage. If the wyvern could not see her, she could not see it either-- and that would get them nowhere. She slowly leaned out into the widened opening, willing the creature not to look in their direction-- not, at least, until they assessed their danger.

The pale, silvery creature writhed in pain from a bloodied wound on its sinuous neck. Kain stood on a mound of crystal-and-concrete rubble, the remains of a collapsed pillar whose twin flanked the dragon's gleaming hoard. Kain's pointed helmet faced the wyvern intently, like a small echo of the huge spearhead he aimed towards the roiling beast. He tensed to leap towards the silvery dragon.

Rydia's breath caught as she recalled Rosa's words: How many innocent creatures have to die for me? Now that she thought about it, it was a terrible shame. These guardians set to protect the ancient treasures were fiercely intelligent, as she well knew from her childhood-- she had been educated by a serpent mage. Surely this wyvern had his reasons to attack; after all, they were the intruders in his home. How could he be anything but an innocent stranger defending his home? Was that what Rosa was saying? Or would she make the exception of necessity, knowing they needed to take those treasures sealed and guarded by the bearers of Light?

She did not have long to wonder. Rosa sprinted straight across the plateau, speeding towards the pile of coins and jewelry faster than Rydia would have guessed she could run in her injured state. Wrapped in her white cloak, the mage was a bright beacon against the black rock wall.

"Kain!" she called, enhanced with an echo. "Don't hurt him! We don't need to!"

The visored face swung towards her; the lancer's body tensed. "I'll do this! Stay where it's safe!" She was a loud, waving, bright target, scented like a piece of dragon candy, and she had to stand directly on the wyvern's bed. How could Rydia ever have doubted her bravery?

"No," she called, "just distract it so it doesn't know who to strike! I'll look for the crystal sword and we'll get out!"

The dragon's long neck coiled, its head swinging around to stare at her. Did it understand her language, or merely realize the threat of this new target? Rydia turned cold as she realized Rosa was unarmed, having left her bow in the camp.

With a shout, Cecil charged out into the clearing, drawing his shining sword. "Work together!"

Rydia frowned. This wasn’t helpful. Now everyone was in danger and they had no plan not to get in each other’s way… She threw a hand back towards Edge to illustrate that she wanted him to stay. Could she cast a spell? But what spell? Lightning-- no good; that might electrocute the others. Nuclear flares-- but that took so long to cast!

Cecil and Kain stood on the broken pillar, back-to-back; the dragon snapped its head towards the shining new target, its crystal-plated prey. With a roar, it reared its head back, stretching its long neck away.

It’s going to strike…

It snapped down towards Cecil like lightning, but Kain intercepted, shoving the paladin backwards off the broken rocky mound. Its jaws snapped closed on Kain’s shoulder. He struggled, pulling its head down; but it held on, unable to lift the armored knight from the pile and unwilling to let go. Rosa's voice wailed; Kain and the dragon thrashed and twitched in agonizing struggle as Cecil picked himself up from the floor where he’d rolled. He leapt up the broken stones; but the raging wyvern snapped and undulated its body rapidly like a ribbon snapping through the air, leaving Cecil no chance to strike.

All motion stopped as a knife hit with a thunk between the dragon’s eyes, red pooling around the hilt. The creature went slack-jawed and sunk its head, releasing Kain.

Rydia turned around to glance at Edge, assuming the ninja had thrown the blade; but he watched the scene as if in a trance, unmoved. Rousing himself, he let out a low whistle. "Pretty good!"

Rosa darted across the ridgetop of the coin mound. "Kain! Are you okay? How bad is it..." she babbled.

The dragoon, pulling himself backward with his healthy left arm, leaned against the fallen dragon's back for support. He pulled on his wounded shoulder tentatively, and winced. "Well, it isn't good..."

"I'm sorry, man," said Cecil. "It just kept flopping around-- Did Edge throw that knife?"

"I did," admitted Rosa, looking at some unimportant spot on the cave wall. She glanced around, finally settling to look at Edge and Rydia, who had reached the base of the giant coin mound. Rydia had never seen her so awkward, so visibly at a loss for the proper way to react; she normally knew how to handle every situation smoothly. If even Rosa was confused, this tangle had gotten quite out of hand.

"That was awesome! You totally ruled that fight!" said Edge. "Oww!" he added, as Rydia stepped on his foot.

Kain frowned. "You shouldn't be running around throwing knives, Rosa. You're still injured."

"And you are too." The healer knelt beside him. "Close your eyes."

"Nah, I'm fine--"

"No you're not, so shush. Relax."

The shimmering white glow of magic haloed the kneeling Rosa as she passed her hands over the punctured, blood-smeared jaw marks rimming the armhole of Kain's breastplate. She made an angelic figure in the darkness, her pale curls gleaming, her white cloak almost pure against the black walls of the cave. Kain reopened his eyes, squinting up at her.

"That light," he murmured, "your magic?"

"Yes," whispered Rosa, "my magic. Ssh, now, go to sleep."

Rydia came back to the campsite area after mapping more of the territory along the endless-seeming path to the core. Cecil and Edge were out, apparently still hauling weapons and useful things back from the wyvern's huge cache. There was a light inside the tent, and a quiet buzz of voices; Rosa and Kain spoke low. Their job of guarding the campsite-- stuck waiting around in what the party now jokingly referred to as the "invalids' tent"-- had kept them together most of the day. Everyone knew it was awkward, except possibly for Edge; but no one wanted to suggest delays to the mission just so someone could stay with them.

Besides, thought Rydia, they really do have things they should talk about.

"I just don't like this silence," Kain was saying from within. Rydia crept close to the tent and seated herself, silently, to listen. She wasn't eavesdropping. She was trying to help, of course. That was totally different.

"I don't like it either," said Rosa. "When we go to fight Zemus, I don't want people to be awkward. I don't want strangers by my side. I want trusted friends."

"I've always been your friend," said Kain.

"Yes, but sometimes it was different..."

There was a silence. Rydia fought the urge to lean closer and try to see through the thick tent fabric. What were their expressions like? Were they closed-off or friendly?

"I know I'm your barrier," Kain pointed out. "I know you don't trust me. But I don't know how to change that. I've tried to do things for you, tried to show that you can rely on me. I tried... and in the end, it's up to you."

"Maybe you tried too hard," said Rosa. "But I'm trying too. I really am. It's just hard. It takes time... time to forget, and time to remember you as someone else. As who you are now, not who you were then or before. Ssh-- here come Cecil and Edge."

Rydia scrambled to her feet and tiptoed hastily back towards the exit so that no one would catch her listening. Rosa hadn't heard her too, had she? Cecil and Edge were making considerable noise coming down the hallway, dragging some metal thing against the ground by the sound of it; but Rosa was a ranger extraordinaire. Well-- if Rosa had heard her, she'd heard her; perhaps she'd just let her listen. What did Rosa intend? Did she know?

Was it really so bad? After all, she was one of the non-awkward party members. Rosa's trusted friend. "Hi!" she called out to Rosa and Kain within the tent, as if she'd just come back.

Edge and Cecil appeared at the other entrance to the room, dragging behind them a huge net full of weapons, armor and jewelled tableware. "We weren't sure what you guys would have wanted," said Edge, "so we brought anything we thought you might be interested in." He jabbed a thumb back at the net.

"Thanks," said Rydia dryly, "that's completely saved us the work of sorting through it."

"It's not for you," retorted Edge. "It's for the people who killed the dragon."

For once he seemed to acknowledge her sarcasm. With a big enough mallet, she thought, you can hit any nerve. "I can't use that stuff anyway," she reminded him sweetly. "I see you've got a new sword, though. I don't remember your doing much to kill the dragon..."

"This?" He pulled the katana out of his sheath. "Well, no one else uses these..."

"Ah, and I see you engraved it too." That must have taken hours! she thought, dismayed. But there, in his own handwriting, was the engraving.

"Oh yeah, baby," he said, striking a pose. "This sword is now dedicated to my royal family line."

"I see..." she mused, and nodded slowly. "Well, apparently your royal family tutor never let you know that 'dedicate' is spelled with an I."

She crawled back into the tent, smirking triumphantly at Rosa, who was visibly trying to hold in a giggle. Just a few more days she'd have to put up with Edge, she thought, just until they stopped Zemus, and mouthed it to Rosa: "Just a few more days." She could last that long, until they returned to the earth.

And they'd be free at last!

~ 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 Savage Garden.]