Sing me a Song of Thy Names

A/N. First. I got a beta, and she's marvelous and talented and consummately professional. As such: Reading Chick, all credit to you.

Second. This piece is half an experiment. Partially because this utterly crack pairing seems to make inexplicable amounts of actual sense (why Squeenix, why?); and partially because this was originally part of a planned just-to-the-left of canon novelization of 012/013 (add characterization, emotional depth and conflict and an attempt at real dialogue and stir!). I know it's a fighting game, but still. These are the marquis characters of the series, and I still can't believe that we didn't get more depth.

Anyway, that project turned out to be too consuming (especially considering OG&B and other stories that I need to actually finish), but I thought I'd share at least this part of it. I think I've scoured it free of hooks for other unpublished/unfinished chapters, but a few stray bastards may have slipped the scrub.

For those who've asked about the kink fic, it's at the kink meme I don't (and won't) publish stuff like that here. I would actually cross list this to LJ, but I have no idea how that site works, really.

I hope you enjoy, and feedback is welcome and used and adored and makes me write more. Squeenix owns all, and is legally entitled to 100% of the proceeds thereof. I'm a stray squatter in their IP. It's warm here though. I like it. ;p

Lightning Farron doesn't even like fairy tales. Like all sweet enchantments of childhood, they lie, promise things life never has a chance of delivering. Noble princes, honorable princesses. Good and evil without illusions. Forgiving gods that bear no arms. Reunions. Miracles. Happy fucking endings.

Clicking her tongue against the top of her mouth, Lightning sighs. Such beautiful bullshit, she thinks, not for the first time.

In Sanctuary's midnight gardens, the spreading night whispers secrets to itself. Alone in its sheltering silence, Lightning allows herself the admission: maybe her problem with fairy tales is that a part of her still wants to believe. Even now, when she's trapped in a psychotic farce of one.

Homecomings and heroics and unattainable things filled with freedom. She wants them too much. She hates herself a little for that.

Sanctuary's walls are diamond-hard and marble-cold and press blunt patterns into the exposed flesh between Lightning's vest and jeans; but still, she sits straight against them, holds her blade across her knees and wishes she had something to kill. The screech of battle calms her. Partly because the heat, the adrenaline, the screaming metal crescendo of it sings to her and always has. Partly because it silences the cackling wraiths that haunt the deserted corridors of her mind.

Empty headed soldier, they sneer. Slave without a past, without a future….

A cold, sturdy wind from the Cornelia Plains carries the salt smell of the sea. It lifts the chins of wilting flowers; splashes flyway curls of Lightning's rose hair over her finely boned face. Cold and irritated, she pushes them away and drags her gaze skyward, over the impossible, stratospheric arc of Sanctuary itself. She smirks to herself. Maybe Cosmos does have a sense of humor, after all. For a goddess of war, the beauty of her throne is almost comical.

A fairy castle presiding over a dominion of demons. Its light splits the night; banishes the stars to obscurity; paints red roses white.

Tightening her hands around the hilt of her weapon, Lightning releases a soft breath from clenched lips. This crystal spire, this light, it reminds her of something.

Another tower. Another war. Blistering sunlight reflected through another ruined world…She closes her eyes, hunts the memory through the lonely hallways of her mind. For a moment, she thinks she's caught the slippery bastard, but then it twists away from her again, mocking.

"Damn it," she whispers.

"Damn what?" queries a characteristic voice from somewhere beside her. Low and certain and intimate, it is at home in the wind. Kain. "Finding the flowers offensive, are we Lightning?"

"No," she answers, not opening her eyes. She's not surprised he's awake. They both have a hard time sleeping through nightmares. "You, maybe. The flowers, I actually like."

Kain chuckles quietly as he approaches; a low, clandestine roll that warms the space between them. Beneath heavy steps, dry leaves and twigs rustle and snap; and as he leans against Sanctuary beside her, his body shields Lightning's face from the wind. He's an unexpected comfort, Kain; a strange sentry against the chill. It's almost pleasant.

But then he speaks.

"So I'm told," he replies smoothly. The smirk in his voice slides right under her skin. "It appears you and Firion share a peculiar fixation with roses."

Lightning's eyes sail open at his words and she knifes him with a narrow glare. Instinctively, her lips curl around a retort, but are stilled by surprise.

A small pink eyebrow jumps up her forehead.

The lack of clinking steel should have given it away, but Kain is stripped of his traditional armor tonight. And without that baleful, leathery dragon helm glaring at her, Lightning thinks he actually looks human. Dressed in black breeches and loose mail shirt, Gungir is hooked indolently over a steep left shoulder. A mess of ash blond hair half obscures hawkish features fixed in profile, and clear violet eyes are set, as always, on some point in the far distance. They rest on something Lightning can't see.

It's strange, but seeing him like this, barefaced in Sanctuary's opulent light, he seems almost noble. A man on a quest. A seeker of some impossible thing. But then, Lightning remembers who she is looking at and crushes a scoff. Right. Kain Highwind, a hero. Fairy tales are more likely.

"Tongue-tied?" Kain needles into the silence. "Come now, Lightning, I expect better from you."

Lightning turns her face away from him, makes a small sound of disgust. Drumming her fingers on the flat of her Blaze Edge, she wonders if taking out Kain's left kneecap would make him less of an ass. Likely not. "Who told you?"

"Cecil," Kain admits easily, shrugging. "Harvey gossips like a woman."

"Tch." Lightning shakes her head, but eventually turns to look up at him again. "Whatever. Doesn't sound like you plugged your ears. And isn't Cecil a friend of yours?"

"Yes," Kain's reply forecloses argument. "He is." Lightning can feel the walls go up, see his expression harden. Kain's allies trespass this subject at their peril. "But to your point," the granite expression recedes, and he offers her a rakish turn of the left side of his mouth, "in this particular instance, I was interested in what he was saying."

"Because you've got some masochistic need to stick your nose in my business?"

"I do have a high tolerance for pain." The right side of Kain's lips joins his left in the most relaxed smile Lightning has ever seen him give. "I'd hardly subject myself to you so much if I didn't."

"That some kind of compliment, Highwind?" Lightning scowls. "If it was, I'd stick to giving yourself manicures, or being offensive, or whatever else it is you do in your spare time."

Kain's smile blooms into a laugh. "Now where's the sport in that?" he challenges, running restless fingers over Gungir's broad leather strap. For a time, the clamoring wind snaps in the space between them, chases dry leaves around in circles over the earth. "You know Lightning," he drawls eventually, "if I'd known you were a lover of flowers, I'd have fetched you some myself."

Lightning snorts a soft "hmpf," and rests frosted azure eyes on the verdant shadows of Cosmos' gardens. "Don't think I need any 'dragon' flowers or venus flytraps, thanks. I'll pass."

"Hmmm," he exhales softly, "Then shall I keep this?" The insistent baritone, capable of such violence, sounds grace notes of mirth.

Abruptly, against her cheek, Lightning feels the articulated brush of something. Flower petals? What? It's not the comforting softness of a rose but something else; something smaller, sharper... "Kain," she snaps, pulling her face from the contact. "Stop that. What the …"

"An averia," he interrupts, dropping the bloom nonchalantly on the flat of her blade. Its immaculate whiteness shines against battle-cratered steel and is beautiful, in its way. Intricate and defiant with life. Lightning catches her breath.

"They're common enough in Baron," Kain's voice is distant. "When I was a lad, I gathered them for the…white mages. I thought perhaps you might like it."

For a moment, Lightning lets the silence answer him as she picks the averia up and runs her fingers over its clean, thin edges. It isn't as…relevant as Firion's rose, but it's comforting, almost sweet. And watching it cradle Sanctuary's cutting light with a quiet kind of dignity, Lightning feels a little lighter, a little quicker, than before.

It's a new thing, this flower. A token of kindness from the here and now. And when she turns it around in her fingers, she feels no need to try and remember anything.

Bastard, she thinks. She hates how he unbalances her. But nevertheless… Thank you.

Despite herself, a newborn smile pulls at Lightning's lips. She hides it, and the saboteur blush stealing over her face, in the origami shadows of the bloom before asking, "Why?"

"Watching you mope," Kain mutters, shifting his weight and raising his guard, "is less than pleasant."

"Right. 'Cause you're a peach, Highwind." Lightning rejoins easily, but her voice is free of edges. "Well, thanks, anyway."

A charged silence spreads its wings between them. It's brief, but after a second, she feels a calloused hand smooth a flyaway curl gently behind her ear, and long, light fingers trace the aristocratic arc of her cheekbone. The skin beneath them flushes, but before she can lean into his touch, they're gone.

Light rains down on them both, bears silent witness to the seconds they steal.

"My pleasure," he replies, soft and formal. "My lady."

It's Lightning's idea to go and check on Vaan and the Onion Knight at watch. But the farther she and Kain get from Sanctuary, the longer the shadows of discord stretch across the face of familiar things. The wind, twenty minutes ago a cool autumn caress, grows fangs and sinks into exposed flesh. A night that smelled of sea and flowers sheds its fragrance. And with each step, the light of the stronghold itself, so seemingly invincible, surrenders meekly to the steely dark.

Freed from Sanctuary's luminous bondage, though, the stars emerge, and articulate constellations provide enough light to run by.

Perhaps it is a testament to Cosmos' power that decay itself recedes around her. But then again, everything in Dissidia is broken mirrors and distortion. It's just as likely that the calm that spills around Sanctuary is another illusion; something else Lightning shouldn't trust, if she wants to stay alive.

The only thing Lightning is sure about is that now, it's cold. And she admits to herself that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to check on the boys at the perimeter. The rim of Order's Valley is a good five miles from Sanctuary, and even keeping the pace that she's set, it will take them an hour to get there. But no matter what Vaan says (or how much he annoys her) those boys are both just so young. And Lightning feels responsible. If she's awake and alert, she can't just leave them out there alone.

Some Goddess of Harmony, Lightning seethes, retreating to the citadel of her anger. Summoning kids to a warzone. People like herself and Kain and Jecht, she can understand. If she'd had a war to fight in a ruined corner of the universe, those would be the people she'd summon too. Warriors who trained until their hands bled or broke, until they had nothing left; were nothing else but steel and instinct and kill, now, die. But orphans? Children? Fuck off.

Cosmos looks munificent, every inch the goddess of mercy; but she asks for their lives anyway.

Whatever. Damn these gods. Both of them. I'll keep us all safe myself, she promises, and the thought is comforting and fits well, as if she has pulled on an old sweater.

Several steps behind her, Kain is running with Gungir perched readily on his left shoulder. It's an enormous, unbalanced weapon, and Lightning often wonders how he wields it with such stunning precision. They spar often enough, and even though he telegraphs the angle and force of his strikes badly, half the time Lightning still can't get under or through his guard.

Smiling, she thinks of the times she's been able to break past him, press her Blaze Edge to the sweat-lacquered skin at his neck. To his credit, he never flinches, even when she pushes the cutting edge flush against his pulse. Under the weight of her blade, he simply keeps breathing, raises his chin. Dares her to draw blood.

Whether he bears arms or flowers, of all the people she has met here, Kain Highwind fears death the least. He toys with it. In dealing it out. In staring it down. He's ruthless in maintaining camp discipline, but with himself…Honestly, it half terrifies her. Even if, hiding in some grey-swimming memory of despair, she understands.

He uses the fight. To control something; change something; fix something. And even as she chases her memories, his hunt him.

They each have their own ways of dealing with futility, with the things that they hide.

Something tugs at her heart. She wishes he didn't feel that way. He's an ally. Her mind settles on the sterile term, and then remembers the soft brush of calloused fingers against her cheek and argues with itself. But Lightning isn't one for soft touches, or for sweet words. For the sake of her companions, she'll burn and strike and bleed. And she somehow doubts that Kain needs any more of that.

"Keep your guard, Lightning," Kain interrupts her train of thought with a stern, cold voice. He's miffed that she's dragged him out here, insisting that she shouldn't mistake youth for vulnerability. "I still think this unnecessary. But if you must, I'd prefer you be prepared for ambush."

"Who's not prepared?" she calls back into the wind, suddenly racing harder, an idea ghosting through her mind. He gave her something tonight. She wants to return the favor. And if she can't give him a warm white mage's touch, she'll try something different.

Running her fingers over the averia she has laced into her holster, Lightning smirks; this at least, will get them to the rim faster.

"You're the one slowing us up, Highwind." Lightning's voice rises in challenge. "I'd thought the excuse was all that armor. Guess you really can't keep up with me."

"Why you smug…" he starts, but Lightning is already gone, kicking her gear from a steady run to a dead sprint. She's sure he's barking some variant of "slow down," or "mad woman" into the empty space behind her, but she doesn't care. All she wants now is speed.

Lightning's feet pound dry, firm earth. Vaporized dust puffs at her feet. Behind her, the steady beat of Kain's footsteps is receding, but she knows it's only because he's setting himself to jump ahead of her. Transparent as ever. So she runs in angled, erratic patters, shifting direction as often as she can. She stops, too, pivots sharply and gambles that he'll misjudge her trajectory, fall someplace that she isn't.

Wind whips her face, carrying grit from far plains. Blood is rushing in her ears, fluttering in her throat, and if Kain's averia makes her feel better, the chase makes her feel alive.

Heavily, and as anticipated, Kain crashes to earth someplace east of where Lightning's running. His low grunt of frustration cuts between them and she grins. She knows him. She can sense, and his thundering footsteps confirm, that he's given up on cheating. He's going to try and catch her the old fashioned way now. If he can. She doubts it. In a contest of discrete skills, he is much, much stronger than she is. But she is much, much faster.

The only way he wins this game is if she lets him.

Lightning doesn't know what part of her exactly decides to slow down, but she does. Almost imperceptibly, pivots become less sharp, long strides abbreviate. When she should angle narrow shoulders forward and down, she turns them square, lets fingers of resistance push her backwards just slightly. She loses a half step. He gains it. His footsteps crash over impacted earth and into her ears.

And then suddenly, there he is. There they are. Steely arms close around her waist, and even as she tries to accelerate, twist away, he catches her. Prisoners of momentum, they crash forward into one another until her swift legs steady them, and his strong arms pull her back from a fall.

As Kain pins her back into his body, neither of them can catch their breath. Everything that was cold is hot now. And though she struggles, she's not trying to break free.

"Got you," he whispers, his body curled around hers, lips pressed to her ear. She can feel the heave of his chest against her back, the prick of matted hair on her cheeks. Formidable arms tighten and crush in capture or caress. Lightning can't tell which. "Utterly insufferable -"

"Whatever," she cuts him off and tries half-heartedly to pry his hands off of her. "You enjoyed that."

"I did," he confirms into her hair. There's no need to hold her now, but he hasn't let go. He speaks in a warm growl. "But now it's my turn to ask why…"

Lightning looks down at his hands. Even in the darkness, vast networks of scars are visible, traced by distant starlight. Before she can stop herself, she covers them with her own. For some reason, she doesn't want to see. "Because," she says, "I felt like it."

"You felt like letting me catch you?" It's an accusation. He knows she threw this match.

"I figured," her hand over his tightens, like she's holding her blade. "You need a win sometimes, Highwind."

A beat of silence follows. Briefly, Lightning wonders if she's gone too far. Kain will banter to a point, but that's armor too, and beyond it is pure indifference, harder than stone. She waits for a contemptuous reply that never comes.

Instead, he presses thin, warm lips to the crown of her head, and laughs softly, ruefully; as if no one has put it quite that way to him before. "I suspect you're right."

Glad of the dark, Lightning smiles, inhales. He smells of clean things; polished steel and spring wind and new leather. Somewhere inside her, she feels a wall come down. She allows his arms to linger, even though she knows she shouldn't.

Around them, wind twists their hair around its unruly fingers, entwining long strands of ash gold and rose pink. In the cold night, they fly wild and star-soaked and free.

The voice that interrupts them, shatters their fragile, not-quite embrace, is soft and seductive.

"Well, well," it says. "The pawns conspire. How darling."

Lightning has her Blaze Edge in her hand before Kain can turn around. She's firing a spray of bullets past his head before Gungir finds its way to his hand. This bitch, she thinks, dances backwards, pulls the trigger before the recoil subsides. The volleys crack the night.

Carbon lingers on Lightning's fingers as she brings the pistol sight back up to a frozen azure eye. A few steps in front of her, Kain is crouched in a ready position, his lance in a whirling guard.

In the middle sky before them, Ultimecia hovers in her majesty. Although the night cloaks her in blackness, her beauty remains, as it always does: perfect, terrifying, pure. The tattoos that paint her breast and navel seem like vain, meaningless swirls, until Lightning looks closer and sees the truth of the ink they're drawn in, the images they imply.

As her knuckles whiten around the grip, Lightning wonders what magic keeps the blood so liquid beneath her skin; from whom it was drawn; which madman held the needle…

The air quivers with the sick distortion of black magic. Bile rises in Lightning's throat.

"You. What do you want?" Standing immobile, Kain's voice brims with menace. If he is disturbed by the deformed air, the psychotic flesh, he reveals nothing. "I've little patience tonight."

"I'm just…looking for someone." She smiles an icy, imperial smile. With a blackened hand, she brushes a silver cascade of hair from her face. "Golbez. You know him, don't you, little dragon?"

"What of it?" Kain snarls. He stills his weapon, points it directly at her face. Indifferent starlight splashes over the steel. Lightning knows he would kill her without a second thought. It's written in the set of his shoulders, in the angles of his arms.

"Do keep baring those teeth of yours," Ultimecia rejoins, flaps heavy wings against a thick, accelerating wind. Magic spills from her, gathers in pools on the earth. Young grass decays and dies. Dead grass blooms with green. "The bit marks he left in your mouth suit you well. Now. Where is he? He has an unnatural interest in Order's slaves…"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Lightning replies on Kain's behalf. Blaze Edge is back in sword form now, and there is nothing Lightning Farron wants more than to cut her own patterns in Ultimecia's flesh. "Now go. Before I make you."

"Oh." The sorceress raises an eyebrow, and her honey-soft voice wraps itself words that sound exquisitely, perfectly bored. "You. Claire, isn't it? Or don't you remember your own name?"

No, actually. She doesn't.

A planned retort lodges in Lightning's throat. Claire. Claire Farron. No. Yes. Damn it. Until this moment, Lightning had no idea that she had another name to go by. And yet. The word is the pushing back of veils, beyond which she sees herself. And a sister, Serah, whom Lightning knows she's always failed or left behind; or is always failing, and leaving behind. In the prison of her ribs, Lightning's heart hammers, but she forces her voice steady. She will not be humiliated.

"So?" Lightning manages. Gliding her weight over her right leg until she's crouched to a deep stance, her blade angles over her face and casts sharp shadows over the softer ones of night. "Try saying it again later. Right after I shove this down your throat."

"This is tiresome," Kain mutters, launching himself towards the witch. He holds Gungir in a javelin grip, and Lightning waits for him to wind up to his throw before she herself bounds skyward, attempting to distract. It doesn't work. Ultimecia merely curls a talon and sends perfect spheres of perfect force barreling into his chest, knocking him back in a riot of sparks.

Shit, Lightning thinks, watching him stagger. It's not serious, but he's out of position now. Vulnerable. She needs to buy him time. Quickly, she changes strategy and holsters her Blaze Edge. Closing her eyes, she opens her palms to the empty night and asks the sky for the storm. Fall, thunder, she demands. And it does, rains around them like rage. The air in her nostrils burns with cold and snaps with electricity.

It's all the power Lightning has, but it's not enough to even phase Ultimecia. All she's done is give Kain time enough to recover; by the time Lightning returns to earth in front of him, he's back on guard.

"You call that magic?" Ultimecia mocks from her perch in the sky. "What a sad little mage you are, Claire. But you shouldn't worry. You'll improve… Anima, Cosmos, Etro…they train you well."

"What are you talking about?" Lightning spits the question.

"All your time is visible to me, child; all your futile fates. You rail and you screech, but you do their bidding all the same." She smiles, fixes ethereal amber eyes on Kain. "In some ways, you're an even better slave than he is. At least he required chains. Even if you did like it, didn't you darling, when Golbez yanked them?"

"You think to goad me?" Kain laughs, and the smile that slides over his face, even in darkness, is pure malice. By this, Lightning knows Ultimecia can call Kain's demons by name. "Prattle on as you wish. If you truly know what I am," his face is shadowed stone, "Then you will know to flee."

"But you are so entertaining, children…" And with that Ultimecia gestures again, and Lightning feels time itself articulate and compress around her, until she can't move, until she is bound in chains by the air itself. Time binding…

"Shut up," Lightning barely manages to croak. Everything is slowing now; air is sludge in her throat; her vision is squalid murk, a wet amalgamation of everything around her, all at once. She is pretty certain that this will kill her, but even as the magic seeks to drive her to her knees, she will not let it. If she must die here, in this foreign world, she will do so on her feet.

Dimly, Lightning is aware of a flash of blue beside her. Of a sin-black lance turning sacred- silver in the starlight. She hears a dull exchange of words, like echoes of underwater, and the sounds don't make sense until there is a silhouette racing through the sky, and a sudden echoing thud of steel against the turgid pillars of Ultimecia's defensive magic.

Then, as soon as Lightning was frozen, she can move again. The air that rushes into her lungs tastes sweet, like rain.

Several feet beside her, Kain's holy armor is fading back into battered mythril and black cloth. He is wounded in a dozen new places. His face is painted in ash. "Are you alright?" he calls out.

Lightning nods, but stays silent. There is nothing in her mind but hate. She will tear this hag apart, she swears. She will cut out her taunting throat. She readies herself for another attack but Kain swivels back in front of her, glares.

"Wait," he commands, makes a small gesture forward with his chin. They have to get in close. The witch is all magic and shadows and things she weaves from the depths. She has nothing to counter clean, simple steel. Lightning mouths "okay", follows wide out to his right as they inch forward.

"Such pointless striving," Ultimecia taunts above the din of her own magic. "Puppet and pawn. I have no idea why Golbez finds you so fascinating…or why you refuse to tell me where he is…"

"I've neither time nor tolerance for your riddles, slag," Kain replies from a low crouch. "Or his."

"You don't?" Ultimecia's voice is sweet and scalpel sharp. "Oh, I suspect you will."

They are close enough now to chance an attack. And as the last of Ultimecia's words evaporate into the wind, Lightning readies herself, coils and releases iron-clad muscles in a straight vertical leap. Her blade is drawn and glints with captive starlight as it brutalizes the magical barriers the sorceress layers over her skin. She loses track of how many blows she lands. It could be ten or fifty or a thousand. It doesn't matter. She will keep on going until the witch is incapable of speaking her lies that sound so much like truth.

Slave, Lightning hears in the corridors of her mind. Pawn. Tool. Doesn't know her own name…

Fine, then. She will fight and die nameless. An army of one. And she will rain destruction on this woman-shaped demon until it chokes on its own blood and dies.

It's only Kain that breaks the rhythm of her frenzied strikes. In the time she has taken to beat Ultimecia into the higher atmosphere, Kain himself has leapt to the skies. And now he is falling. No, not falling, she amends. What Kain is doing now is the farthest thing she has ever seen from simple, wild descent. He tears the sky. It parts before him. And the point of Gungir is radiant and deadly and coming right at them. Lightning smiles. This is over now.

Except no. It isn't. Shit.

Ultimecia is no longer where she should be. In a cruel feint, the creature that should be the sorceress is not, and the form that's shattered by Kain's lance is a hulk of mocking crystal. A trick, a copy, a manikin. And as it breaks to pieces and Kain throttles into the earth with a heavy grunt, Lightning sees Ultimecia, the real Ultimecia, shimmer into existence safely in front of them.

Lies on illusions on deceptions. Kingdom of shadows and tricks. Lightning is so angry she can barely see.

"Thank you for amusing me, children," Ultimecia smiles. "But since you won't tell me where to find my ersatz companion. I think I'll take my leave." Addressing Kain, she purrs, "Be a good servant and tell your lord, the next time you see him, that he is being watched."

And then witch flaps her wings, nightmare black against the wide open sky, and is gone.

They are alone then, in an empty, ruined field.

Lightning is doubled over in exhaustion, and she is sucking in air in long, gulping breaths, desperate to feed oxygen to her burning lungs. Her Blaze Edge, still splayed out in sword form, is flat across her knees, and she's leaning on it; left forearm to gear, right hand to hilt. Grease dries and flakes on her elbows and fingertips. It's sticky, and it itches.

From behind the sweat-drenched veil of her hair, Lightning watches Kain pull Gungir from the earth, strap it back over his shoulder. She can tell that he's hurt. His movements are slow and deliberate, as if anything more, anything hard or sudden or sharp, might disturb the universe, shake another demon free from hell.

Pushing herself off her blade, Lightning straightens. The wind isn't just cold now, it's bitter. It evaporates the lingering heat of battle, populates sweat-sticky skin with a plague of goosebumps. Unwittingly, Lightning's fingers drift down to the averia, or rather, the burnt-out remains of it, and the carbon clinging to her fingers stains the petals a queer shade of grey. When she looks down at it, she smiles bitterly.

What Dissidia doesn't destroy, it pollutes. Nothing beautiful can survive here for long.

Her mind is laughing at her, splashing her with babble. Serah. Anima. Etro. She doesn't know what any of the words mean, not really; but in the frigid night, they burn. Real memories. They are foreign nonsense scrawled on a crumbling wall, but she knows bone-deep that they're true, and that she is fighting fiends that know her better than she knows herself.

Claire Farron. Her own name. And Lightning only knows it because the wicked witch of the west told her. Her fairy godmother, on the other hand, has stayed silent, draped in the glittering indifference of harmony. It's a vicious, glorious irony that would make Lightning burst out laughing, if she didn't want so much to scream.

Lightning breathes in, breathes out, counts backwards from ten. She's left bits of her composure scattered all over the earth, and it's not easy for her to pick them back up again.

Somewhere against the horizon, Kain remains rigid and still; arms crossed, eyes fixed on some distant thing. Wind lifts his hair from his shoulders and she notices, with new eyes, the tic-tac-toe scars that lace his flesh, steal under the mythril to the unknown places underneath.

"At least he required chains…" Lightning shudders, and not from the cold. What the hell, Kain?

Her fingers twitch on the hilt of her weapon. She's struck by a sudden urge to push the heavy locks away, press curing spells into the scarred flesh until his past and her future can't hurt either of them anymore. But what would be the point? This is war. And it is filled with broken flowers and black magic and oil and grease and steel and nothing else. Certainly not small white averias…or stolen embraces…or anything else she might have foolishly thought possible tonight.

And so Lightning's hand rests where it lies, where it belongs, on the hard edge of her blade.

Bitterness and resentment scream at her from the back of her mind, but she fights them back. Staring at her navel will only get them killed. If both Golbez and Ultimecia are here, they must move quickly. Even pawns should value their lives.

"Kain," she says finally, dropping a stone in the silence. She's all business now. "We need to split up. One of us goes to the rim to check the watch, the other back to Sanctuary to warn everyone else."

"Agreed," Kain answers automatically, turning to look at her. His face is stained with ash and blood; his clear violet eyes, with something else. "I'll head to the rim. We'd best not leave the watch to children and woolgathering pirates tonight."

Despite herself, Lightning smirks. "What happened to 'don't mistake youth for vulnerability'?"

Kain shrugs. "Ultimecia."

"Right," Lightning nods, says nothing else. The heavy night locks them in long, thoughtful quiet. Several times, she thinks she sees Kain's jaw tense, as if he's about to say something, but no words are spoken. Lightning wonders if there's anything, at this point, that either of them can say.

Despite the chilling cut of the wind, the air stays dense and unwieldy between them. It throbs, with blistering cold and argosies of ash and the lingering distortion of magic, with her name and his secrets and whatever unspoken, palpable thing that is always just there between them…

"Watch your back out there, Highwind," Lightning says because she can't say anything else. She's already turned to go when she feels a hard hand close around her upper arm, holding her in place.

"Lightning," Kain says, voice hoarse. He's smart enough not to call her by the name Ultimecia mocked her with. "Wait."

"What, Kain?" She tries to jerk away, but he holds his position, and his grip.

"I know it's no comfort, coming from me. But to have your memories revealed like that." He pauses, pulls her closer; close enough that her bare arm rests on cold chain mail, that when he leans down to continue, strands of hair brush her skin. "It's unjust."

"Yeah, well," she mutters. She can feel the warmer wind of his breath through the cold night air. "This whole thing is bullshit. I'm no worse off than anyone else. She didn't exactly pull her punches with you, either."

"Hmph," he snorts; a sharp, bitter sound. "I'm well aware of what I am already."

"You think I'm not?" Lightning retorts, cold and calm and furious at the implications. She will deal with the emptiness in the far corners of her mind, tolerate everything she needs to do to piece herself together, but she will not bear condescension. Wrenching her arm away, she dances back, seething and ready to cut. "I'm not anybody's puppet, Highwind. My memories don't define me. And neither does some crazy witch -"

"Did I say any such thing?" The darkness doesn't hide the sudden sharpening of his glare. "I suffer a great many flaws, Lightning, but I am not a fool. I merely meant that I know what it's like to be toyed with."

Lightning takes a quick breath of sharp air. She's raw at the edges, not quite ready to lay down her arms. Because despite what she says, she is afraid. That no matter what else she is here, she'll always be just half of what she should be. "Save the pity, Kain," she whispers, crossing her arms and looking away.

"I've no need to save it," he replies calmly, stepping forward. "Since I don't offer it. To you, or anyone else. My only point is that your name, if what that whore says is true, is safe with me."

The wind over Order's Valley has taunted them both tonight. It has been by turns nourishing and cruel; obdurate and free. Right now, it is merely cold, and it has chilled the metal of Lightning's bolt necklace so much that when she clasps it in her hand, it stings to the touch. She has no idea why this token means so much to her, but she likes to hold it, when words fail her. It helps her find what she's really trying to say.

"Thanks," Lightning answers; finally, simply. She still isn't looking at him, but she can feel his presence at her side, waiting. "And for the record, since you keep on bringing it up, I know what you are too."

"Really?" she can't see his face, but she can hear the edge in his voice. He is daring her. "Pray tell."

"An arrogant prick," Lightning turns to face him, traps his eyes with hers. Somewhere in the clear violet, a flicker of hurt registers, but she continues, voice softening, warming. She is surprised at just how much she means the next thing she says; how badly she needs him to hear it, as much for her sake as for his. "And a good man. I don't know one damn thing about your past and I don't care. Here, you and me, we're on the same side. And you're a good man, Kain."

It's a long time before Kain answers her. In fact, he doesn't answer her with words at all. He merely turns her around, pushes her chin up with a battered left hand, and stares at her as if he's looking at her for the first time. His eyes are heavy, intent, and filled with something Lightning is pretty sure she has never seen before. Either in this world, or her own.

She flushes deeply under his gaze, tries to turn her face away. They don't have time for this nonsense…"Stop staring at me," she whispers. "Stop."

"No," Kain replies softly, but firmly, rubbing a thumb against her jaw. "I like looking at you."

Lightning is so unused to the warmth coursing though her she mistakes it for anger, defends accordingly. "There's nothing to see, Kain."



"Wrong. You are an...exceptional woman, Lightning." Kain replies, almost a whisper. Then slowly, as if wary of misstep, he leans his head in more closely before continuing. "And what you said..was kind..."

"It's true."

"Only partially."

"You're insane."

"Only partially," Kain repeats quietly. His moist breath races over her sensitive lips and Lightning breathes it in. This is dangerous for both of them, and Lightning can't tell if the hand at her jaw is trembling, or if she is.

For a while, they are just shadows, folded into the secret parts of night, neither moving forward nor backing away.

Kain makes the initial riposte, slides a careful hand over her hip. Running his fingers over the holster on her right thigh, he chances over the burnt remains of the averia before he takes her hand in his. "It appears my little favor didn't last the night."

She laughs softly, curls her fingers awkwardly into his. "Hmpf. Guess flowers aren't my thing."

"Perhaps," he muses, bringing her wrist to his lips and pressing a first, warm kiss to the racing pulse. He seems almost nervous, and it's clear he's looking for something to say to her. Something good and honorable and worthy. "Steel suits you far better. Though in another world Lightning … you'd have your choice of spoils…I'd make certain…I…you'd want for noth…"

Lightning doesn't let him finish; she simply turns her wrist around and places her fingers over his lips. Ages old gestures of romance are pretty, but they have no place between them. They're…inappropriate.

"Shut up, Kain," she cuts him off. "The last thing I need is a knight in shining armor."

Kain chuckles, folds her chiding finger into his hand. His smirk cuts the dark. "Good." he replies, relieved. "Since the last thing I need is another maid."

There is no one more surprised than Lightning that she's the one to capitulate first, to step into the crease of his arms and lay her head in the valley between the cold mythril of his shirt and the warm skin of his neck. Beneath her cheek, she feels, more than hears, the depth of his exhalation; the soft way he breathes her name against the filthy tangles of her hair; the roll of his deep, quiet laughter as he responds to something sharp she mutters into his chest. It's a nice laugh, she thinks. A nonsense thought, soothing noise against the screeching accusations she can't stop hurling at herself.

Battle hardened hands close around Lightning's back and smooth gooseflesh from her exposed skin until she's warm again. The touch renders her liquid, and she pools into the hollow parts of his body, traces with a quivering hand the evil lattice of scars at the nape of his neck. Like any frightened creature, he stiffens at the danger, unsure of whether to fight, flee or freeze. But then she flattens her hand against the pain, and suddenly he's breathing again.

Between them is a space so slender not even words can pass.

This is not a fairy tale. Kain's a broken knight in a broken world, and the insubstantial moment they are sharing will fade like it never existed soon enough. But for now, something about him feels suspiciously like homecoming, or heroism, or some unattainable thing filled with freedom. And for now, Lighting Farron believes.