by llamajoy

author's note: square owns the world; i'm just a spoony bard. (the title of this song was just too good to pass up.) this one is for tenshi (and a rainy first-day-of-spring two years ago), without whom i wouldn't've met any of these guys. ^_#

icing over a secret pain, you know you don't belong
and your friends have left, you've been dismissed
I never thought it would come to this
and I, I want you to know
everyone's got to face down the demons
--"jumper," third eye blind

Kain felt a draft prickling along the back of his neck, though when he turned there was nothing behind him but the thin mountain path he had walked. He shivered in his armor. Cecil had spoken of trials here, of a battle at the summit of Mount Ordeals. He had not come here for conflict...

But it was too familiar, that current of air leading nowhere, that wind where there should have been no wind.

"Valvalis," he said to the air, not really sure if he expected a reply. It would not have surprised him to find all four Fiends here, sheltering dormant in the wake of the antique mountain. "How goes it?"

The rush of wind through the ragged troughs of rock around him sounded no different than it had a moment ago.

Kain shrugged, well-oiled shoulderplates making no sound. How did one make conversation with an Elemental Fiend? He raised one dragon-blue gauntlet in a formal salute, and bowed to nothing. "I'm alone, Valvalis. I am not here to fight you."

I am not here to lose, said the air, and the tendrils of wind caressing his face became strands of almost-hair, became elegant almost-fingers, shimmering invisible in the late afternoon light.

His left hand tightened on the shaft of his spear, but he did not jump.

A low-throated moan, to any other ears sounding merely like the wind straining through stone hollows, and her face appeared, sloe-eyed and ageless. You never were easy to startle, she said, her voice more like a zephyr's than a woman's, her vowels a yearning wash of air through the rustling brush of her consonants.

Kain swallowed, his throat moving beneath her cool fingertips. Not cold, her touch was transparent somehow, as if the sky itself caressed him. She emerged from nowhere, slow and sensuous, silvery sheen of her skin like the storm-tossed leaves of an aspen grove, and her hair golden like blowing sand. Her beauty was not gentle, nor had it ever been, the windswept curves of her and the firmament of her shining hair, and his eyes were stinging, watching her.

And yet he could not look away. "You certainly always tried," he said, through dry lips.

Valvalis laughed, and it was a scattering of dandelion seeds dancing across a meadow, or the skirl of a seabird caught in a gale, he could not tell which-- though it was not quite as unpleasant, perhaps, as he remembered it. She watched his face as she lifted off his helmet with effortless unseen hands. You have changed, Highwind.

More than her arrival, more than the sudden shock of her wind tossing his freed hair, it was her words that surprised him. "Have I?"

He must have looked surprised indeed, for she laughed again, her lethal feminine hands playing across the rich blue surface of his chestplate. Perhaps not, she teased, barest touch of her golden fingertips ruffling his sun-bright hair. Perhaps I am merely seeing you differently, my former ally.

There was a distinct undertone of reproach in her airy words, unspoken currents of betrayal unforgotten. He stiffened, not quite able to ignore the almost-woman warmth of her, hovering there before him, face to wind-touched face. "Why are you here?"

Why are you here? It was an echo borne on the wind, as if the mountain itself had caught and held his words, and offered them back to him.

"Seeking myself," he faltered, thinking briefly of the dismay on Cecil's face when he had said he could not stay. And Rosa-- he had not been able to say good-bye to her; he had left in the grey pre-dawn, when she was still asleep. He cleared his throat, steadying himself by leaning on his spear. "...Answers. I have hurt many people."

Seeking myself, Valvalis said, her inhuman hands still against his heartbeat, her eyes the color now of the ocean in a hurricane. I have been hurt... only once.

"You knew Golbez was using you," Kain said, realizing it even as he spoke. An answer, at least, though not one he had sought for. His hand was but a breath away from touching the ever-moving spill of her hair, wondering if he, too, would be caught in the perpetual wind that stirred around her. "Why then did you stay?"

She did not reply for a long moment, Mount Ordeals deafening in her breathing silence. Then her smile turned deadly, her empty eyes widening, the spiraling twist of her hair heralding the cyclone to come. Instinctively, he took half a step back, but his dragoon boots could find little purchase at the edge of the winding mountain path. Her voice was careless. Highwind, can you fly?

He raised one eyebrow, ironic, unwilling to be drawn again into her snare. "I can Jump," he began, but she wrapped her hair around him and lifted him off his feet. His trusted spear was a useless clatter on the stones as it fell from his hands, as she buoyed him high into the air, higher by far than any Jump, high again as the peak of Mount Ordeals.

Reflexively he held onto her, real enough beneath his grasp, and the whisper of her wind became a gasp, became a moan. The very sky was hungry for him, drinking him in, and he felt he could lose himself within her, riding the wind, and only to fall--

Kain forced himself to look at her, and saw himself reflected in the eye of her storm. She had asked him a question, and she was waiting for his response. He found his voice, half choked against her smooth collarbone. "No. No, I cannot fly-- not on my own."

At once, his feet were set sturdy on the mountainside, his spear in his hand, and the sky was a heavy benevolence above him. Well-spoken, Dragoon, she said, and there was approval in her voice, sounding the word like wind-chime notes, sounding true against his yearning heart. He shuddered.

Something of pain caught in the updrafts of her tone, and he realized abruptly that she was-- grieving. Perhaps she had always been so, though he had once tried to deny it. Another answer unexpected. "Why?" he heard himself asking, reaching out to her too late, for she was already dissolving.

You think I cannot grieve? Already her voice was the rough susurration of wind through the unreaped fields, her eyes transparent. Beyond her, he could see the windblown fir tree tips of the forest; through her eyes he could see the gathering clouds. I am ancient; I am not invincible.

"Untouchable," he offered, not unkindly, scenting rain on the horizon.

Her wind-colored eyes narrowed, seemed to smile. You, of all people, should know.

And as he raised his fingers to brush away her tear, his hand touched only sky.

A few fat raindrops splattered on the granite at his feet, making warm wet circles on the cool stone. The first rain of spring, noisy and bright, and even the mountain seemed to shrug its rocky shoulders in relief.

He shivered, and thought he might return to Baron, after all.

(but you little son come safely home, riding the tail of the wind)


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