Of Heaven And Ocean

Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean
Angels of rain and lightning! They are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, ev'n from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height –
The locks of the approaching storm.
- P., Ode to the West Wind

(I) The Approaching Storm

"Sorry," Geraldine said as he slipped in the door, grinning in apology. "I got held up."

Kain sighed and tried not to roll his eyes as Geraldine threw himself into the nearest unoccupied chair; on his other side, Rydia Drake simply shifted a little in annoyance and continued to stare out the window. He wanted to frown a little – his first mission, and he was getting sent out with the show-off and the witch girl? – but it would be highly unprofessional of him to express such things. He cut off the sigh and turned back to Headmaster Baigan Kramer, his face as neutral as he could make it. He was a SeeD now, and part of being an honorable SeeD was learning to work with your assigned team.

"The three of you will be a team for Baron Garden's next mission," the Headmaster said, succinctly, his eyes flicking back and forth between the three of them. "The mission may seem simple, but its execution will be complex. I realize the three of you have just recently passed your SeeD exams, but the committee and I feel that your skills are particularly suited for this contract. We are putting a lot of trust in you."

Kain felt an odd surge of pride; an easy first mission would have been nice, to lay that success right down at his feet, but – a challenging first mission could be more. It could be a badge of honor: proof that he was where he was because he was a SeeD, because he deserved to be – not because of who his father was, not because of who his friends were. Kain narrowed his eyes in determination, and the Headmaster must have noted it, because he gave Kain a pleased little nod before continuing.

"Our intelligence reports a very high probability that some of the disturbances we have been tracking on the Centra continent are due to an untethered Guardian Force." The Headmaster's mouth set in a straight line for a moment. "Your mission is to investigate this area of Centra. You will see the contract attached to this mission directs you to Junction and contain the GF and bring it back to Garden. As long as this can be done without putting your lives at undue risk, your mission is also to complete the contract and return."

The wording made Kain's brain buzz a bit with confusion; usually missions were contracts, and the mission objectives were all set and specific – but GFs were wild things, and perhaps Headmaster Baigan was trying to play it safe.

The Headmaster steepled his fingers beneath his chin and looked between the three of them. "Because of the complex nature of this mission, team leadership will vary as the objectives are completed. Mr. Highwind will be the initial captain, and will be in charge of the mission into Centra up to the point at which the GF is sensed. At that point, Miss Drake will become captain, and the main focus of the mission becomes containing and Junctioning the Guardian. Once she has secured the GF, Mr. Geraldine will act as team leader, and the objective will become safely retreating and transporting the Guardian Force back to Baron Garden."

Interesting. Kain let his gaze rest a little longer on Rydia Drake, this time – until Headmaster Kramer's voice pulled his attention back forward.

"It is imperative that we obtain this Guardian Force. If at any time the mission appears to be slipping out of your control, your orders are to use the red alert button on your wristcomm. This will send an immediate emergency page to Trabia Garden and a team of elite SeeD will be delivered to your position by Ragnarok. Failure is not an option."

The Headmaster stood up and handed a folder to Kain. "Highwind, the command of the team is yours initially, so you will be responsible for preparations. Tickets have been obtained for you: you'll take the train into FH and then a private ship to Centra. You leave tomorrow morning at 0900." Headmaster Baigan's stare was determined, cold and proud at the same time, and Kain felt himself driven to nod, to accept it, to prove himself – he reached out and took the folder, feeling strange.

"I expect good work, Captain Highwind," the Headmaster said, his voice low.

"I will not let you down," Kain replied, with more confidence than he felt.

"Dismissed." The Headmaster returned to his chair. "Miss Drake, will you stay behind for a moment?"

In the hallway, Kain paused for a couple awkward seconds, waiting for Geraldine. He'd never really worked with Edge before – they'd been in a bunch of classes together, but Edge was brash and popular, usually surrounded by people and attracting more with his big mouth and arrogant posturing. Kain did have to admit Geraldine was skilled – he'd been at the top of half of their classes; even Instructor Trepe admitted he had talent. And the rumor was he'd earned some kind of specific certification along with his standard SeeD classification. But he didn't know Geraldine too well, and what he did know, he wasn't sure he liked.

Finally Geraldine slipped out and closed the door behind him. "You'd better not screw this up, Highwind," he said, but his voice was playful. "My first mission and it's with Rydia. It had better be perfect." Kain tried not to roll his eyes; Geraldine's obsession with Rydia Drake was well-known at Baron Garden and might have been more unusual had Geraldine not also been equally obsessed with every other female cadet – and a good number of the males, if the rumors Kain heard were worth anything. He wasn't really big on gossip, but some things you couldn't miss. Rydia was just the only one who never returned Edge's attentions, which made it all the more obvious.

"I'd be happy with a perfect mission too," Kain said, carefully; he didn't really want Geraldine to know how much this meant to him, but he did want Geraldine to be serious about this. "I assume you'll do all the standard weapon and equipment checks, but can I ask you to take charge of item supplies as well?"

"Piece of cake." Geraldine smirked, and winked for good measure. "Need me to take care of anything else?"

The way he said it rankled Kain's pride; "No," he said, a little too quickly. "Just get a good night's sleep. I'll see you tomorrow morning at 0800, at the gate."

Geraldine threw one last longing look over his shoulder at the Headmaster's closed door and then gave Kain a civil nod as he left.

Kain headed back to his room. He wanted to take some time and look over the mission folder – it seemed more complicated than most other missions he heard about, and the thought worried him. His first mission; did it always have to be this hard for him to succeed? It was just his luck. He never got to have things easy. It was always harder for him than for everyone else, and it didn't seem fair – but shouldn't he be used to it at this point? This was how his life worked.

"Hi, Kain."

The soft voice made him stop in his tracks, and Kain ironically thought about life, and luck, and how things never changed, as he turned around to face Rosa Farrell.

"Your first mission?" She smiled at him warmly and gestured towards the folder. "When do you leave?"

"Tomorrow." The words seemed to stick in his throat, which was suddenly tight; she always had this effect on him, so friendly and warm and yet… untouchable.

"Where are you going?"

"Centra."

Rosa frowned, a little, the lines creasing her pretty face. "I hope you're safe. Cecil and I will be worried about you until you return."

The mention of Cecil drove something into his heart, dark and hot and angry. "We'll be fine," Kain said, and it came out twisted; his feelings for Cecil were complicated and heavy, but he could never express these things when Rosa was near. Somehow her very presence both tangled and untangled him; his dark feelings smothered themselves, and feelings of peace surfaced – but it never truly felt genuine, either, as if the growling and angry half of himself were more real than this tongue-tied gentleman Rosa somehow drew forward.

Her mouth curved back into its gentle smile. "Who are you going with?"

"It's just me, Geraldine, and Drake. It's a good team." He couldn't help but add, somewhat desperately, "I'm the captain." It was true at the moment, at least. He felt both pleased and subtly guilty when Rosa's eyes lit up with pleasure and pride.

"I'm happy to hear that, Kain." Her smile was sweet; Kain could have drowned in it. "You'll do a wonderful job, I'm sure. Cecil always says you would make a great leader."

"I just hope there are no surprises," Kain replied, and tried desperately to not let his lips twist.

"I should go, I'm late," she said, but she reached out to touch his arm. "Would you like Cecil and I to come see you off tomorrow morning?"

"I-" Kain swallowed past the thickness in his throat. The thought of Rosa coming to watch him ride off victoriously on his first mission was pleasing, but he wasn't sure he could bear to have his - rival - there when he left. "No, that's alright. I'll let you know when we're back, and we can all celebrate."

"That sounds nice." She looked at him for one long moment – Kain's heart caught in the mess of his throat, tight and fluttering – and then she said, "Good luck!" and headed on her way.

Kain stood in the hallway, one hand suddenly clenched, breathing in and out loudly, as if he were suddenly out of breath. Talking to Rosa took as much endurance as running, these days.

I I I

Edge's patience lasted all of two minutes before he snatched the folder off of Highwind's lap.

"What are you doing?" Highwind asked as Edge flipped it open. He didn't really sound pissed, just …irritated. But Highwind always sounded irritated. He was a little whiny, Edge thought, underneath that gruff rod-up-his-ass exterior. Edge liked Highwind, though; Edge liked most people, and Highwind was competent.

"I would like to read this mysterious mission assignment," Edge declared, flipping past the cover page. "And as we have a couple hours until we get to FH – and since the lovely Lady Rydia doesn't seem to want to get to know me any better – I figured it might be a good idea. Something to pass the time, at least."

Rydia sniffed a little, but Edge saw a tiny smile out of the corner of his eye before she crossed her arms and said flatly, "I would like to read it when you're done."

"We can read it together," Edge suggested, waggling his eyebrows – but when Rydia rolled her eyes and snorted, he continued. "Or I could read it aloud. Storytime with the illustrious, handsome Edge Geraldine! Why don't we do that."

"Why don't you stick the folder down your throat," Rydia suggested blandly.

Highwind snorted at that, and Edge glanced over at him. He was leaning back on the bench, and his posture was both amused and – oddly tense, Edge thought. He didn't really know why Highwind walked around like someone had stuck his spear up his ass all the time. Or, he did know why in a way, everybody knew about Harvey and Highwind and that Farrell girl who worked in the infirmary, but Edge just thought it was dumb. Baron Garden had been catering to Cecil Harvey ever since he'd picked up a gunblade – who knew why the Headmaster wanted a gunblade specialist but it was like the Second Coming of Hyne or something – and any cadet who tried to compare their career to Harvey's was gonna come up short. That was what happened when the Headmaster played favorites. But Highwind had taken it as some kind of personal insult, some kind of blow against his goddam honor or something, even though if you compared him against the rest of SeeD he was head and shoulders above almost all of the class – as if Harvey was the only worthy benchmark that could possibly exist.

And the thing with Farrell – Edge rolled his eyes. Sometimes girls didn't like you back – just look at Rydia. You just had to keep trying or move on. Highwind just always looked like somebody had broken his move on button.

"Ahem." Edge delicately plucked out the first sheet and scanned it over. "Assigned to the team are as follows: yeah, blah blah, I know that. Kain Highwind, supposed badass; Rydia Drake, as fabulous on the field as she is beautiful, and Edge Geraldine, the best two-handed SeeD in the history of Baron Garden, at least they got that right."

"It's surprising he can read at all," Rydia remarked casually to Highwind, "with his head so swollen. It must be painful to have it stuck so far up his own-"

"Hey" Edge said hastily, "look, it's the contract." He shook the sheet in front of them to get their attention – unnecessary, maybe, but fun. "Let's see what our actual objectives are here. Hmm. Highwind gets us to the Abandoned Tower, in the Centra Ruins, past the Yorn Mountains. That's great. Got a plan, Highwind?"

Highwind looked increasingly irritated. "Move fast and don't die," he said.

"Points for simplicity," Edge said, "but no flair. Moving on. Once Drake senses the Guardian Force – hold up. Senses?"

It was a serious question, and it seemed to catch Rydia off-guard a little bit, the flare of offense in her eyes slowly dying down to a confused simmer. "Senses," she repeated in confirmation.

"What do you mean, senses?"

One slender eyebrow lifted. "Are you serious, Geraldine? I thought you collected copies of my Triple Triad card."

Edge pressed his hand to his chest. "You wound me, milady. Don't make fun. This is a very serious question."

The other brow raised until Rydia just looked surprised. She shrugged. "I have unusually high compatibility with Guardian Forces. One of the things that means is that I can sense GFs pretty strongly. If there's a wild Guardian in that tower, I should be able to feel it out. I'll be able to tell where it is, and probably what it's doing."

Edge bit his lip on the thousand questions that came rushing to the surface.

There had always been something strange about Rydia Drake. Baron Garden was a floating orphanage, and most of the cadets there had tragic stories, but something really bad had happened to Drake right before Baron took her in. Everybody talked about it, but nobody really knew what had happened. Edge vaguely remembered that the girl had spent months in the Infirmary with Dr. Farrell before she was allowed to start classes, and that Instructor Trepe had even called in Sorceress Rinoa to proctor some of Rydia's magic finals. But he couldn't remember what the incident had actually been.

He did have her Triple Triad card, in fact – both the Garden version and the unofficial Esthar Presidential Collection version – and he'd asked around about her besides. He knew she'd instantly shot up to the top of all their paramagic classes, training almost exclusively as a caster. He did know her Limit Break tapped into the strength of her Junctioned GFs, although he'd never seen it. Whatever had happened to her as a child, it had brought this stuff forward. But she never talked about it. When people asked, she kind of just smiled, and said she didn't remember and it was all in the past now anyway.

But Edge still wanted to know.

Highwind's eyes had also narrowed in curiosity. "How does that even work? What do you mean you can feel it?"

Rydia smiled, a little bit smugly. She held Highwind's gaze for a long second – Edge watched, amused and a little jealous – and then said calmly, "You've got Quezacotl and Pandemona Junctioned, but Pandemona's not entirely happy about it because your compatability is so low. You've never used her before, you were just given her for this mission, and she and Quezacotl are still arguing over who gets to be primary in your brain."

Kain swallowed, visibly. "Wow," he said.

"Pandemona's a girl?" Edge asked.

Rydia blinked, and then rolled her eyes. "It's a wonder Siren even bothers to work with you."

Edge glanced at Highwind, who still looked simultaneously amused and stunned, and decided to take the chance. "How do you know how to do that?" he asked. "With the Guardians."

Rydia shrugged again, and a funny little smile crossed her face. "I don't know," she said, and she was careful with it; it sounded like the kind of answer she'd given a lot of people before in her life. "It just happens. I can see and hear and feel the Guardians around me."

"Not all SeeDs can do that," Highwind said slowly. "I'm not sure any others can."

The smile twisted. "It's just like any other ability, though, isn't it? You're skilled with a spear, and Edge is …passable, as a ninja." She shrugged. "I just use magic and the Guardians as my weapon instead. Is it so unusual?"

"Where are you from?" Highwind asked with a slight frown.

"I don't remember," Rydia said. "I've been here pretty much my whole life, same as you." Edge watched her face as she said it, and it was only because he was watching so closely that he caught it: an unsure flicker, an old confusion or regret of some kind. Then Rydia smiled again and it vanished, locked away back behind her eyes. She was good at that.

"I'm from Barontown," Highwind said, and it had an edge to it, a hint of bitter bite. He glanced at Edge, but then looked away. Edge frowned a little bit.

Pretty much everybody at Baron Garden was an orphan from the war, and Edge had learned most of their stories in the few years he'd been there. Highwind had been a BG ward his whole life, which meant his parents had gone when he was really, really young. Edge didn't know exactly what had happened to Highwind's parents, but he knew Highwind carried their deaths around somewhere inside him, deep and dark and smoldering: something hidden beneath everything else, tucked away behind whatever layers of Harvey and Farrell Kain had wrapped himself in.

It was hard for Edge to think about because thinking about his own parents still stung – they'd sent him to Galbadia Garden as a student, not a ward, but he'd had to transfer into Baron Garden when they'd died in the accident. He still wore the loss like it was hot and burning, brighter and sharper than Highwind's.

His gaze pulled itself back to Rydia again and he sighed to himself. Rydia was an orphan too, but she seemed to wear her loss with a strange calm grace; she wasn't happy about her past, but she had accepted it somehow, in a way Edge didn't understand. It couldn't be that she really didn't remember, Edge thought, because how could you forget something like that? He still wanted to know what had happened to her. She intrigued him.

Rydia stood up, then, and smoothed the wrinkles from her uniform skirt, carefully not looking at anyone. "I'm going to go take a nap for a bit," she said. "If you can leave me the mission folder when you're done, I'd like to take a look at it."

"No problem, my dear," Edge said, turning his charm back up. "If you have trouble sleeping, you know where to find me."

Rydia just rolled her eyes and left, and Edge caught something sounding distinctly like a snort of laughter from Highwind before the other man leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Edge examined Highwind's face for a moment, and then turned back to the contract.

I I I

The second her foot hit the soil of Centra, she could feel it, a buzz so low and faint it was almost a sound rather than a feeling, a pulse so shallow it could be her imagination – but it wasn't. Rydia knew it wasn't. She had been exposed to enough Guardian Forces through Garden that she could recognize one when she felt it; this one felt almost familiar, as if she'd touched it before. Then again, Shiva had felt familiar to her too. Rydia closed her eyes for a second and breathed deeply, feeling Shiva's cold fingers grip her mind, a chilly squeeze of comfort. Around Shiva, Leviathan spun a slow comforting circle, soothing like the ocean's waves.

"Hey," said Highwind. Rydia opened her eyes. "Are you alright?"

"Yes," she said. "Sorry." She didn't want to tell him she could sense the Guardian – not just yet. Kain had seemed a little perturbed when she'd explained her relationship to the Guardians; and besides, he deserved to be captain longer than a few seconds. She knew – everyone knew – how Kain Highwind had been waiting desperately for his first mission, after Cecil Harvey had passed the SeeD exam so early. She'd heard people gossiping about it. It seemed such a silly thing to her.

So she said nothing, simply gathered her things: item pouch, clipped firmly to her belt; whip, coiled in a neat series of loops at her waist, where she could easily retrieve it. She picked up her pack, bedroll secured at the bottom, and settled it on her back, testing the quick-release strap. All the while she could feel the sense of the Guardian in the soles of her feet: something wild, crashing like a storm, sharp like a sword. It came and went, in no rhythm at all, like flashes of lightning.

Kain was looking at a map, and Edge had finished tying their boat up to the dock they'd landed at. "Alright," Kain said. "We head this way." His eyes landed on her, unsettled and wary and determined. "You let me know when you start to pick up the GF."

The Guardian's magic buzzed in her ears. "Of course," she said. It wasn't a lie, yet: just because she could feel this Guardian didn't mean she knew where it was. He, Rydia thought. The wild magic rushed past her again, as if in recognition, and she heard a drumming like hooves in the wind.

She followed Kain, and Edge went behind her, and she felt all of their Guardians on the alert, tense and ready: Quezacotl and Pandemona hovered in Kain's mind, a circling stormcloud, while Ifrit and Siren rested back-to-back within Edge, calm and prepared. They all felt her check in and reached back, just a quick mental touch, a brush of wind or lightning or flame or song against her own mind's awareness. She wasn't sure the Guardians did that to anyone else, but she was their special friend, and always had been, ever since she'd opened her eyes in Baron Garden and felt them glowing within Dr. Farrell… no, before that, ever since her mother had…

Shiva nudged her, gently, and Rydia shook her head, her eyes focusing on the ground before her. Shiva was right: now wasn't the time to lose herself in the things she remembered and the things she didn't. Even now, she felt the concern slipping away, Leviathan tucking himself close up against her memories, keening softly as he tucked them out of sight. Levia took care of her, locking away the distracting things so that she could function as a SeeD. All the Guardians felt familiar to her, but Levia had been the most familiar of them all; he'd slipped inside her brain like a best friend, and he was still her closest companion. Dr. Farrell had said their compatibility was off the charts. Instructor Trepe had said she'd clocked the fastest summoning time in the history of Baron Garden. Sorceress Rinoa had just looked through her with uncanny eyes, and plucked at the strings of her Junctions like a harp with magic-fingers.

Before her, Kain paused, and Rydia narrowed her eyes, her brain clearing instantly as she felt it in the air: not the buzzing of the Guardian, but the dim wavering pulse she picked up from the wild monsters born of the earth. Two, she thought, as they buzzed beneath her consciousness. Shiva arched her back and Leviathan reared, and Rydia felt her Junctioned magic pricking at her fingertips. She felt Edge tense behind her, and heard the quick sharp ring of his twin swords as he drew them free.

They were air creatures, Rydia saw, and something about the way they hummed in her head was muted, as if her magic couldn't quite feel them out; they looked familiar, and she racked her brains - Levia, help - trying to place their name. Kain hefted his spear and struck at one, nimbly, a quick fierce slash, and she felt the strike hit even as the name slid into place, Buel, and her magic wouldn't help here. So she planted her feet in the ground and ignored the curious buzz of the distant Guardian, and right after Edge dashed in to slice at the creature with his swords, a spinning pinwheel strike, Rydia closed her eyes and cupped her hands before her breast and Drew.

Levia focused her concentration down to a sliver, thin and tight and sharp, and Shiva guided it to pierce through the creature's magical self, that place from which wild monsters grew magic like flowers in a garden, and Rydia pulled: Firaga, bright and hot to touch, but Shiva's crisp cool grasp was comforting as Rydia yanked them free. They slid through the Buel's slimy form and coursed down into Rydia like electricity on a wire, pooling in her cupped hands for a moment before she and Leviathan drew them into herself, stacking them atop the place Firaga already existed in her mind. She opened her eyes to see Kain strike one down to the ground, and she watched as Edge turned on his heel, slashing at the remaining Buel with grace and force combined. It was to her again and so she breathed and cupped her hands and slipped into the second Buel, this time clutching Thundaga in her fingers and pulling it into herself, great gaping handfuls of its power neatly slotting into her mind under Leviathan's focused concentration.

She heard Kain take the hit; her eyes flew open and he crumpled to the side of her, winded, and Edge howled something and spun like the wind, slicing with both swords across the creature's front. It gurgled and then fell, vanishing into ash as it did, and Edge turned to face them with fire in his eyes.

Rydia was already crouched before Kain; she tugged at Shiva, and Cura fell into her fingertips. She braced her palm against Kain's chest and released it, feeling the burst of warm energy leave her hand as it slipped to Kain.

"Thanks," he said, coughing, and stood up. Behind them, Edge sheathed his swords, grinning.

"Here," she said, once Kain was standing and stable, and Edge had brushed the dust from his hands. "Let me transfer my Draw to one of you, I'm full up."

"Whatcha got?" Edge asked, his fingers fumbling with one of his armguards.

The question took her aback. "Firaga and Thundaga," she said, surprised. "You didn't see?"

"I saw you Draw," Edge said, "but how am I supposed to know – are you serious?" He stopped his fidgeting to look at her with incredulity. "You can tell?"

Rydia shrugged, feeling suddenly awkward. Again. "I thought everybody could." Being able to identify the spells slipping through the air was as easy to her as casting them: Fire, Fira, Firaga, they all felt different and burned differently in her mind; and if something confused her Leviathan was always there to answer. "Your Guardians don't tell you what it is?"

"Well if I'm Drawing, yeah." Edge resumed his struggle with the clasp on his armband, and the absence of his gaze was a relief. "But I don't know how you can tell what someone else is Drawing."

"You were only allotted 50 spells of each third-tier magic," Kain said, quietly.

"I know," Rydia said, irritation flaring within her. She'd been so excited to finally be assigned on a mission, to finally be trusted to operate outside of Garden – finally Headmaster Baigan giving her something to do rather than making her sit around and submit to testing again and again, as if that illness she'd had was ever going to give her memories back, and then… this. She knew what they called her behind her back: witch girl, monster girl, GF – Guardians' Favorite, that was – Sorceress, even, although it had only taken her one meeting with the graceful and remote Sorceress Rinoa to know that one was pretty patently false. It was easy enough to not respond, but it was impossible to ignore.

She'd hoped a team assignment would be more willing to accept her abilities as the gift she felt they were, the advantage they could be, rather than having them set her apart once again. But maybe she'd been wrong.

"Here." It came out brusque, as she stormed over to Edge and tore his flailing fingers from the cuff of his armband, wrapping her bare hand about his wrist. "I can Draw more than an average SeeD because the Guardians help me do it. I know neither of you were allotted as many as I was, and I don't know how much magic you can hold, but I should be able to max out your third-tier spells at least. And that'll give us a pretty good advantage in battle." She wrenched her grip on Edge's wrist maybe a little harder than necessary, but she was still mad – fuming, really, because the anger covered up the shame she always felt when someone questioned what she could do…

A soothing song reached her ears as she closed her eyes, and Rydia realized it was Siren, reaching out past Edge's surprise to calm her. Rydia breathed in, immediately apologetic as Leviathan swam a slow curve, the currents of his presence gently washing over her upset, pulling all the memories of her classmates down below the surface, slowly drowning her feelings. Sorry, she told Siren, shamed, and she and Levia gently slid the spells over into Siren's hands. As they touched, Rydia felt one bright burst of emotion from Siren: compassion, sympathy, pity; a song deeper than even Leviathan's sea, and the warmth of the sun on your face, oh, our broken child - and then something from Edge flared up, a different kind of compassion, curious and fierce and caring and defensive, and Rydia dropped his arm with a breathy, "Oh!"

Her vision was blotchy, and she shook her head; as her eyes focused she saw Edge, rubbing at his wrist where she'd grabbed him and looking at her with an expression she couldn't read. It wasn't anger or offense, she realized belatedly; it might have been concern.

"I'm sorry," she started, her voice caught in her throat.

Edge grinned, and the fierceness of his smile broke the moment. "Don't be," he said. "It's nice to not have to Draw."

She offered him a smile and hoped it wasn't too wobbly. She could feel the weight of Kain Highwind's eyes on her, even as Levia keened calm down her spine, like a potion that didn't quite cover the wound.

I I I

Kain watched the fire burn idly as his mind replayed the day's battles, because even if Rydia took over the team tomorrow when they entered the tower, today he had been captain and the responsibility of analysis was his. He had to admit – more grudgingly than he would have liked, because if he was as good of a leader as he wanted to be, it wouldn't have been grudging at all – the three of them were skilled and efficient, and well-balanced. Geraldine was quick and precise, and he was slower and stronger, and Rydia's magic either buoyed them up or took enemies down. There had been no close calls that day; no one had had to summon a GF or use a Limit Break, even.

Much of their advantage was due to the extra magic buzzing along his nerves; Kain flexed his hand absently and felt Firaga Junctioned beneath his skin, and Ifrit's strength beneath it. He didn't usually carry this much magic; he wasn't much of a caster, and he used his stock mainly for Junctioning, but because he didn't cast much he didn't Draw much either. Kain felt strangely full, his mind thick with it and his GFs more aware than usual. Was it Rydia's doing? She drew his gaze once again.

Rosa had spoken to him about her, just once, when they'd been younger and she'd just come fresh from school into her internship – she'd said Rydia was a fighter, and had looked at him oddly, with the compassion she wore which made her look a decade older. She'd seemed stressed, and exhausted – and for good reason; Rydia had been really banged up, and Rosa had only been a white mage intern. At the time Kain had wild dreams of confessing his feelings to Rosa, but then he'd realized she was only coming to him for comfort because Cecil was away on a school trip he hadn't been able to attend. It had been a bitter burn, because even with the realization, he'd still been grateful for Rosa's attention: Kain hated it as much as he loved it. When had that been? No, Rosa hadn't been an intern yet – Rydia had been so young…

He shook his head; mission leaders shouldn't get stuck in their own thoughts. How unprofessional. Any honorable SeeD leader would be alert, aware, making sure his team was comfortable and safe.

Kain spotted Geraldine, returning with his arms full of wood and brush from the wilderness; Edge dropped to his knees beside the fire and started to feed it piece by piece. "Alright, finally, we can get this hot enough to cook our fabulous gourmet foil meals."

Kain saw Rydia shake herself back into awareness, startled by Edge's movements. She blinked, and then sighed, and reached down into her pack to pull out one of Garden's travel meals. She glanced at the label on the top, and her lips curled in a pretty little grimace that made Kain chuckle.

"I'll take that," Edge said, with a gallant gesture. "A gentleman cooks for his lady. Ah," he said, reading the label himself, "Chicken Parmesan. An excellent choice. Gourmet tastes, my dear. I am positive you will enjoy it."

Rydia's mouth twisted in amusement. "Geraldine, if you can make it taste like real chicken parmesan, I'll marry you on the spot. Those things taste like Bite Bug Delight."

Edge's hand came up to his heart in a dramatic gesture. "Rydia, why do you do this to me? I will get on that boat right now to deliver the world's greatest cuisine, for the pleasure of a single date. What a bargain!"

"Tempting," Rydia replied, deadpan. "Not entirely sure the entry fee is worth the ride, though."

Kain wasn't sure whether to laugh or scold them; it was dark, and they didn't know what creatures roamed the Centran continent at night, but… it had been a long day, and they could afford to lighten some of the tension before sleeping. What would Cecil do? he thought, and then growled at himself for it: he was done comparing himself to Cecil, modeling himself after Cecil, thinking of himself as Cecil… What would Rosa admire?

"Ride?" Edge was looking mortally offended, now pressing his hand to his chest in outrage. "My dear Rydia, this is no mere ride. This is my heart, laid open before you, the great ninja Edge bowing at your feet! With…" He looked down at the foil meal still in his hand, and to Kain's surprise, started laughing. The dramatic gestures fell into a deep, hearty chuckle. "With the worst prepackaged meals known to mankind. My god. I'd refuse me too."

Kain smiled. He knew he'd been right to let the jokes continue. Rydia was smiling now, hiding a smattering of giggles behind her fingers as Edge maneuvered her foil meal into the fire. He bent to his own pack and withdrew a similar foil package. "Mac and cheese," he read aloud, and then tossed the package towards Geraldine.

"Excuse me," Edge said primly, although he carefully placed Kain's foil meal in the fire beside Rydia's. "I am pretty sure it doesn't say 'primo master chef' in the mission statement next to my name, and I'm not trying to woo you, Highwind. Yet. Somebody grab my pack, please, so that the fabulous chef himself doesn't starve."

Rydia leaned backwards, reaching until she could reach the strap of Edge's pack with scrabbling fingertips, and pulled it towards herself. She opened the top – "Hey! My private undergarments are in there!" – and delicately pulled out a foil pack. "Oh, how delicious," she said, tossing it to Edge, who caught it deftly in one hand. "Hot dogs."

"You know it travels the best out of all the meals they offer," Edge pointed out, smug. "It's the grossest going in the pack, but the least gross coming out."

"Your logic is repulsive." Rydia leaned forward onto her knees, reaching towards the fire; Edge swatted at her hand, and wrapped his jacket around his own hand to retrieve her foil pack.

"My lady," he murmured, and Rydia flushed for a second before rolling her eyes and snatching it away. Kain noticed she took it with an unprotected hand, and seemed to suffer no pain at all.

The scene was bittersweet, because despite his own thoughts and the surprising pleasure and pride he felt for his team, Kain couldn't stop his own thoughts from spinning. Cecil and Rosa had gone on their mission together, just the two of them climbing Mount Ordeals to rescue some injured hikers from a rabid Coeurl: Rosa had been the medic-on-duty, and Cecil had been asked to take his SeeD qualifying exam early, acting as her guard. They'd climbed the mountain together, and Cecil came down a SeeD… with Rosa on his arm. Kain saw them now in his mind's-eye, chatting together over the fire, flirting over their foil trays: If only I'd been ready for my SeeD exam too, if I'd specialized in the gunblade like the Headmaster wanted instead of taking extra time on my Dragoon thesis, I could have been there. It might have been me. It might not have been Cecil, at least. It might not have happened. It might have…

"Look at him." Edge's voice broke through Kain's thoughts, and he reddened involuntarily. "He's daydreaming. How cute."

"He's probably tuning you out." Rydia's mouth was half-full of her meal, and judging by the dubious expression on her face, she had mixed feelings about it. "I sure wish I could."

Kain took a sharp breath and reached out to take his foil pack from Edge's outstretched hand. The heat stung his fingertips, but he didn't let it show, slowly and deliberately lowering the meal to his lap. "Thank you."

"So, fearless leadress, what's the plan for tomorrow?" Edge retrieved his own foil pack, and opened it amidst much dramatic finger-waving and flexing and air-blowing.

Rydia calmly swallowed, and then glanced over her shoulder, at the strange tower that loomed behind them. "I need tonight," she said, her eyes unfocused and vague. "I need to listen to him. And talk to the Guardians. Once I know what he is, I'll have a better plan. Tomorrow morning."

Edge shrugged. "Whatever you need, my lady."

"I thought the battles today went really well," Kain offered slowly, and it sounded so arrogant to his ears – but wasn't he the party leader, still? "If we use the same tactics tomorrow I see no reason why we won't succeed."

"Battles aren't the answer," Rydia murmured, her eyes watching the pieces of the tower rotate slowly about each other. "It is not about fighting."

"Then what will we be doing?" Edge asked, swallowing one last bite of his food. "We have to get the GF somehow."

"I-" Rydia turned back to the fire, and her forehead creased. "I don't know."

Kain tried not to frown; this was so frustrating, sitting around at the whim of a cadet who didn't understand her own powers and couldn't back up anything she said with reasonable proof! His first mission, and he'd been leader for less than a day, and now he was stuck following the witch girl and the weird voices in her head. He'd seen Rydia Drake tranced out in the Training Center; he knew what could happen.

Rosa would trust her. But Rosa trusted everyone; Rosa was a doctor, and she didn't have to follow orders, and she didn't have to deal with what it was like to put her honor on the line, to put her truest self under someone else's command. It was a different kind of trust. Kain did frown, because now he was imagining Cecil here, as the party leader – Cecil would know what to say, know how to ask Rydia about her plan rather than sitting in sullen silence and questioning her talents. Cecil had that blind faith in people around him, one that made most people want to stand up and deserve it – but what about that one time someone faltered? His frown deepened; maybe Cecil didn't know what it was like to be less-than-perfect, but Kain did. He understood the realities of being a SeeD.

But orders were orders, and he'd follow them and keep his honor, even if it meant the mission went to hell. What would Rosa think? Would she rush to save us, as she'd rushed to save Cecil? Would she come for me?

I I I

Edge was up bright and early the next morning. The closeness of that eerie tower made him apprehensive – he could have sworn he saw it flashing in the dark – and his GFs were more aware than usual, filling his Junctions with a certain tension. It could have been a bad omen, but Edge liked the feeling, as if his muscles and bones were all brimming with powerful energy, ready to strike. Coiled like a snake. He shrugged off his blanket and rolled it up, and then tugged his jacket back on.

He refastened the pin for his ninja certification on the collar – his good-luck charm, the last thing he'd told his parents about before the accident. His fingers lingered on it for a long second: his parents had been so proud that he'd earned a secondary certification in addition to passing his SeeD exam. It wasn't really a ninja badge – he just like to call it that, fancying he was one of the old Geraldine family warriors. But it always made him think of his parents.

Rydia was awake, her eyes wide and her face tense. It was enough to give him pause, and he crouched down beside her for a second, looking her in the face: "You alright?"

She looked at him for a long second, and then looked up behind him, where Kain had appeared. "There are two Guardians," she said, simply. "But one is much too powerful for us. We're going to go after the one at the top of the tower, and then retreat. If Garden wants the second one, they can send us back."

Edge's mind filled with questions, but Kain sat down calmly and said, "What's the plan?"

"This Guardian is erratic," Rydia said, and her eyes were on the embers of their fire – Edge noticed she'd collected a little pile of the embers and ash to warm a coffee mug. "His power builds for a time, and then… dissipates. I believe if we enter the tower right after it dissipates, we'll have a certain amount of time to battle the Guardian before its power starts to build again."

Her gaze snapped up, first to him, then Kain. "We'll enter once I feel his power flash, and we climb as fast as we can. Once we encounter him, we're going to have to hit him hard and fast, as much damage as possible as quickly as possible." She reached into her pack and drew out three shining gems. "Everyone take an Aura Stone. It's our best chance of weakening him fast enough that I can… that I can Junction him."

Edge looked down at the golden piece of amber in his hand. "And if not?"

"What happens when his power builds?" Kain asked. "What happens when it dissipates?"

Rydia's eyes went vague again. "Sometimes, nothing. And sometimes… things die."

"Oh," Edge said, "good," but she was already digging into another corner of her pack. She drew out a metal bangle, wrought with intricate designwork.

"This will make us less visible to the monsters in the tower," she said, slipping it on her wrist. "I don't think it's foolproof, so be careful. But we're going to want to move as fast as we possibly can. Dodge everything, and punch through any ones we can't avoid with a focus on speed. Time is of the essence here."

"Right." Kain stood, and his spear was already in his hand. "Avoid the battles, get to the top, use the Aura Stones, fight the GF. What happens next?"

Edge realized Kain's gaze was on him – oh, right, he became leader once the GF had been nabbed – but it was Rydia who answered. "I'll either be able to Junction the Guardian in time or I won't. If I feel him starting to build his power again before we've got him, I want the two of you to retreat. I'll keep trying to Junction him alone. Once you see the lightning strike, it will be safe to come back for me – his power will be gone, and you can start over."

"What if he kills you?" Edge blurted out. He hadn't meant to say it – at least, not like that, so tactlessly; but it seemed like an obvious hole in her plan.

Rydia glanced up at him, and to his surprise her eyes were serious, and honest. "Leviathan doesn't think he will," she said, her voice quiet. She swallowed. "But he will kill the two of you, which is why when I give the order, you have to go."

Edge felt his brow furrow and he opened his mouth to complain, but Rydia stood up and said tartly, "I'm the leader until the Guardian is contained, just remember that. Trust me." She rolled her shoulders as if she weren't asking anything out of the ordinary, and then said, almost an afterthought: "Edge. Is it true you got a stealth cert on your SeeD exam?"

Edge's fingers came up to brush against the pin on his collar. "Yeah," he said, surprised.

"Good," Rydia said. "You lead, then, and cloak us as best you can. Between that and the bangle, we should be able to avoid most of the fights and the other Guardian."

Edge glanced at Kain, who was frowning. Kain looked unhappy; he looked distrustful, maybe even scornful, and Edge wondered for a flickering moment whether Kain would follow the order to retreat. Kain took a breath, opened his mouth – and Rydia put her hand up in the air, sharply, her eyes flickering, almost-closed.

"It's building," she said, her voice breathy. Her eyes snapped open. "Can you be ready in a few minutes? We can leave the packs and supplies here, we'll be back in less than an hour whether we have the Guardian or not."

"I'm ready now," Kain said, and his voice was dark and tense; he was gripping his spear, and Edge noted with approval that Kain looked ready to fight.

They packed their things quickly, rolling the sleeping bags tightly and tucking stray belongings into the packs; Rydia set their supplies in a tight circle and then, to Edge's surprise, closed her eyes and bowed her head, cupping her hands before her as he'd seen her do when Drawing. She flung out one hand, and then the other, and spat a word, and a golden curtain fell down around their things.

"Protect," Rydia said to Kain's wary glance. She sounded tense, worried, and as she glanced at him, Edge made sure to give her a wide grin. She answered it with the ghost of a smile.

"Hold up," he said. She stopped, her brow drawing down in concern, and behind her, Kain turned his wary glower in Edge's direction. "Here," Edge said, "stand still for a second," and he closed his own eyes and – slipped down inside himself. Down, far down, into that shadowy sneaky stealthy part of him, the bit he'd felt calling his name the second he had enrolled at Garden, that portion of himself Baron Garden had certified Stealth Ops but he simply called ninja. He pulled it up – secrets in the daylight – and called it forth with a (probably extravagant) flourish. He could feel when it had taken root, wrapping around Rydia and Kain's bodies and enveloping them in shadow, in shade, in secrets and nightfall. He opened his eyes.

"Wow," Rydia said, and for once she sounded genuinely impressed. Edge made a mental note to wow her in the future with his ninjitsu skills when they weren't in actual danger of dying.

Then she jerked and winced, shaking her head to clear – "That was it," she said. "Let's move."

Edge led them into the tower, cloaked with his skill and fueled by Rydia's Haste magic – and a strange sense of hurry, building slowly from their footsteps upward; Edge's shoulders were tense with it, and the swings of his swords were sharp and clumsy. He pulled them into an alcove on instinct, pulling Rydia against him and tugging at Highwind with his other arm, and he heard the sharp intake of Rydia's breath as she raised her bangle slowly. The Tonberry continued on, and Edge felt her sigh with relief, sagging against his body for a long second before jerking herself upright and moving onward.

They seemed to drift through the castle, spinning in and out of shadows and flickering around corners, the sense of tension building: a few battles caught them, but Edge learned how to dodge better with a team of three, leading them against walls and through doorways with brittle speed. Rydia's eyes were strangely focused, as if she were looking or listening elsewhere, and it wasn't until she stopped them on a staircase that Edge realized she hadn't cast any magic at all.

Rydia breathed, "He is here."

Kain's eyes flicked upwards and then back at her. "Up there?"

She nodded. "He hasn't started to gather his power yet, so we should be safe. Take the Aura Stones as soon as you can and hold nothing back." Her voice was a tight whisper.

"I'll go first," Highwind said, his voice low and tense, and Rydia's mouth opened slightly but she said nothing, simply watched him climb the stairs. For a sturdily-built Dragoon-type he was actually pretty quiet. Edge would have been more impressed had he not been so distracted at the look on Rydia's face, the way she was taking slow deliberate breaths as she watched Kain ascend.

"Rydia," Edge said, and she turned to him and he couldn't do anything about it, about the way she looked terrified and determined or the way his own pulse was beating drums in his chest so he stupidly did the first thing he could think of, which was grabbing her by the arm and kissing her, quick and rough and clumsy all tied up in the tension singing in the air and the sense of battle-readiness wrapping itself around him. She looked so surprised when he stepped back, and he wanted to grin at her but it came out crooked so instead he whispered, "I'll go ahead, you take the rear."

She nodded, no words, her lips still slightly parted, so Edge just turned around and headed up the stairs behind Kain. They emerged from the top at almost the same time, coming out onto an open balcony, or a roof of some kind. The sky was a storm, clouds thundering overhead, and parts of the building were snapping in the wind: old wires, worn and aging, or detached bits of the machinery that littered the edges of the tower.

Edge turned around to see Rydia framed in the doorway, her face pale but determined beneath the whipping cloud of her green hair, bright in the darkness of the staircase. She took one step, put her foot down on the balcony.

Something howled.

Edge turned around and it was there – the Guardian Force, and even though he carried two in his own head he always forgot just how terrifying these things were: this one was a man, or man-shaped, because it was larger than any human and the eyes glowing underneath its helmet certainly weren't human either, and it rode a giant horse with six legs – no, eight – it was shifting, somehow, and Edge couldn't count and frankly didn't care, it had too many legs and way too many teeth and he scrambled in his pocket for the Aura Stone.

"You," the Guardian Force cried, and its voice was the low rumble of thunder and the crash of metal on metal, sharp as a sword.

"You," Rydia gasped, "so it is you," and it wasn't her voice and Edge froze.

They stared at each other, fearsome Guardian and tiny green-haired mage, and finally the Guardian Force spoke.

"You shielded her from the puzzles and the traps of my castle with your bauble, Lord of All Waters, just as you've shielded her from the truth. But your ways do not apply here, in the wilds of Centra. By denying them the key to this tower, you have forfeited their battle."

"You forget your place, Odin." It was Rydia's mouth moving, her voice, but not hers somehow, an intonation wild and fierce echoing behind it, as deep as the ocean. "You run wild here, in this place, the ruins time forgot. But I do not forget, and you are bound to the Code of the Eidolons as much as any of our kind."

"Ha!" The Guardian – Odin – threw back its head and laughed, and its steed pranced, hooves sparking black on the balcony stone. "You lecture me as you ride within one cloaked in lies? As you drown her memories in your seas, in the name of protection? Very well, my King. Let us do battle. We will see whose victory is more important."

The horse reared, and screamed, a shrill high note no pony from Edge's stables had ever made, a terrible awful cry of anger and righteous rage and justice – and then Rydia fell, forward, catching herself hard with her hands on the stone floor.

Her head jerked up. "Go!" she yelled, and although her eyes were panicked, her voice was her own again.

Edge felt like his body had been released from some spell – maybe it had – and he crushed the Aura Stone in his hand, feeling a flash of heat as it seeped into his palm. Golden fire ran up his arm, ignited in his brain, the extra energy boost it always gave him. He turned back to face the Guardian Force, and watched as Highwind crouched down low to the ground and then – took off.

He'd heard about Highwind's Limit Break, about the way he'd wanted to train like the Dragon Knights of old, but he'd never really seen it in action, and he watched as Highwind vanished from sight – how did he do that? What if there was a roof? – and then drew his own swords and stared down the Guardian.

Magic buzzed in his head – not paramagic, not the spells Rydia had stuffed his brain with, but his magic: ninja magic, illusion magic, the bit of light and energy he could twist into different bits and pieces. Edge reached for it and flicked his hand out, calling up the light and the shadows, both sides of the magic, and whispering for flame: and flame came, flickering into being around the Guardian, not-there and then suddenly surrounding, crashing into it with force as it materialized. The Guardian Force – Odin – roared through the rush of heat, but it didn't attack. It hadn't even drawn its sword, Edge noticed.

And then Highwind dropped from the sky. Edge's breath actually caught in his throat at it, the power and grace and control, Highwind's goddamn self-control and precision as he struck with the landing, curled up and flipped somehow and struck again, the spear an extension of his body rather than a tool. It was a perfect strike and the Guardian Force faltered beneath it, howling, the horse stumbling on its six-eight-six legs – and yet it didn't draw its sword.

"What sort of game is this?" Highwind asked, his voice loud enough to be heard but low enough not to carry. He didn't even seem winded dammit. "And what is she waiting for?"

Edge spun on his heel and looked backwards. Rydia had regained her feet, but she was waiting in the rear, her hands clutching at each other, her eyes following every move of the Guardian Force – and as if Kain's quiet words had been the cue she was waiting for, she started to walk forward, her steps deliberate and measured. Her arms snapped outward, fingers spread wide, her eyes still glued to the GF; she then brought her hands in, cupping them before her chest like she did when Drawing, when Casting. Rydia sank to her knees, and bowed her head over her cupped hands, and the room filled with a deathly silence.

But she wasn't Drawing the Guardian Force yet. A light began to flicker around her – the light of her Aura Stone, Edge realized – and then Quezacotl appeared over her head, coalescing into being above her, flickering with lightning and storm, growing stronger. Quezacotl threw back its sleek golden head and screamed, and lightning filled the room – and Edge blinked, because this wasn't a normal Summon; he was still there, he could still see Rydia, and this wasn't Quezacotl's normal Thunder Storm attack, the first one SeeDs learned - and isn't Quezo in Kain's head anyway - ?

Something fell from the sky, and pierced the Guardian Force Odin's arm – a staff, old and wooden and crooked, and Odin howled at it – there were words in the howl, but Edge couldn't hear them. Rydia gestured, opening her cupped hands before her, palms up, as if in offering, and Quezacotl flapped its wings and opened its mouth. Lightning streaked the clouded sky, drawn to the staff like a beacon, and the force of the bolts lit up Odin's armor and its teeth and its bones, flickering, as the electricity ran through it.

Then Rydia fisted her hands, and Quezacotl bowed its head and vanished.

"What the hell," Kain gasped, his own hand coming up to his head – although he didn't look any worse for wear.

Rydia looked up, still kneeling, her hands in fists before her. "Grand Summon," she said, gasping, as if the words would make sense to them. "I needed lightning. Lightning, Edge!"

Kain shrugged, and then leapt again, vanishing into the dark above them, and Edge strode out and clapped his hands before him, summoning a blitz of shadow energy, crackling blue-and-gold around the GF's form – and hoped Rydia knew what she was doing.

I I I

Her head was a disaster, it hurt, and Leviathan wasn't talking to her at the moment – it felt like he was distracted, but she was too, because this Guardian - Odin, the name thundering up from her memories somewhere – made her head throb with eye-splitting pain. Shiva was trying, trying desperately, ice and cure magic snowing down from her spread fingertips but Shiva couldn't do it all. Rydia had become too dependent on Leviathan, on Levia's cool deep reservoir of calm, and now her brain felt like it was splintering apart; was she crazy? Was this what going mad felt like?

She watched Edge clap his hands together, watched his fingers wrench – and watched the shadows around Odin writhe themselves into electricity, wrapping around Odin like snakes. His magic reflected oddly in her eyes, as if it were just a trick, and if her head hadn't been so close to splitting apart she might have been more curious.

She'd have to apologize to Kain, after – assuming they got out - Levia, talk to me - she'd wanted to Grand Summon Leviathan but her memories were all confused about this Guardian - Eidolon - versionsof Odin flickered in and out of her sight, and something had told her thunder, now; Odin fears the lightning striking his sword and she'd listened to it even though her Scan the night before had told her nothing of the sort. So she'd pulled Quezacoatl from Kain's head, because she could do that, even though she didn't like to, because no SeeD should be able to. No normal SeeD. But the Guardians came to her aid, especially when she was afraid, because they were hers and she was theirs and they loved her. Leviathan she thought, but there was no answer, and Shiva puffed an angry cloud of ice as she tried to soothe Rydia's thoughts like balm.

And she couldn't quiet the second voice in her head, low and intense, murmuring to her he looks like the Headmaster of Baron Garden which made no sense but the memories were there somehow, Odin's kind face – Odin's fierce face, his glowing eyes, his dark helmet – Odin's sword

Why was she so afraid?

Rydia gritted her teeth and knelt again, folding her hands across her breast, on top of her heart, and she called: Shiva, please, come help me - she couldn't feel Quezacotl when Kain was up in the air like that; he was out of her reach, beyond her call, and Shiva was close and ready. Rydia opened her hands towards where she could feel Odin, and felt Shiva hovering above her.

Something in her mind splintered, and she felt Odin beginning to draw his power to him – that terrible power, the long slow ring of a sword being drawn.

Shiva, strike! Slow him down, if you can! Rydia opened her eyes as Shiva leapt upwards, her arms upraised; she summoned a large block of ice into being and hurled it through the air at Odin. The block struck, cold slowing down time, and Rydia felt the power falter for a moment – not stopped, but delayed, perhaps. Oh, gods, Shiva, again; she couldn't call a retreat with Kain in the air like this.

Shiva spun, and another block of ice hurled towards Odin, and his power faltered again – it did not dissipate, but it had slowed, and Rydia called out over the din in her mind: "Edge!" Her voice sounded ragged.

Edge was at her side instantly, so quick, and his eyes were on Shiva as the Guardian summoned forth another block of ice. "How are you – never mind," he said, shaking his head, "What should I do?"

And for a moment she was so full of gratitude, so grateful that he wasn't asking questions or scared of her, that she just looked at him for a second, her heart in her throat.

Then Kain came crashing down, and Shiva spun with the ice in her hands to avoid striking Kain with it as well – Kain howled, and wrenched the spear from Odin messily, and Shiva followed it up, hurling the block of ice directly after Kain; it splintered over Odin and Rydia felt that terrible power waver and wane, frozen for a few valuable seconds in Shiva's cold grasp.

"Thunder," she begged; it came out a hiss, but even as she closed her fingers over her palms and released Shiva, Edge stepped before her, blocking her with his cape as he clapped his hands before himself. The sound echoed like a thunderclap and she watched the shadows morph into lightning again as Shiva slipped back into her head.

Rydia stumbled to her feet. "Kain," she said, "Edge," and they both turned to her, and she willed herself to focus through the careening noise in her mind and the growing intensity of Odin's power. "His power is building. I'm going to try to Draw, but if I can't Junction him, you have to go" and her voice broke on the last word as she turned to face Odin.

She brought her hands up – they were shaking – and cupped them in front of herself.

Odin spoke. "You, child," and his voice was both rough and kind, the bright flash of lightning and the rumble of the storm beneath. "You would try to Junction me, try to bind me to your Summon."

Rydia closed her eyes. Her eyelids trembled. She pressed the heels of her hands together, palm-up, to try to stop their shuddering.

"Do you even know who you are?" Odin's voice was terrible, and his power was growing in her, shaking the soles of her feet. "You would Draw me into yourself, and you do not even know what you bear. You battle me with my own kind, and think nothing of the way they listen to you."

It isn't true! Rydia cried, even as she began wrapping her shaking fingers around the pulsing force of Odin's power. They're my friends, the Guardians. They help me. And then, faintly, so much of her resolve lost in the shuddering fear: I love them.

"The Lord of All Waters would have me bow to you," Odin said, and his voice was suddenly dark, and thick with centuries. "He would have me acknowledge your heritage, and submit to you, and play his waiting game as I lend you my power." It became a growl, and Rydia hung on, digging her mental fingers into the brightness at Odin's core – she'd never had a Guardian fight her, not like this; they loved her – she felt tears running down her face - I am so scared, Levia - and Odin snarled, "But I am no longer bound by your King of Summons."

The connection broke. Her eyes flew open, and she gasped into the sudden silence, "Run, Edge – Kain – go!"

There was one long terrible moment as Odin turned his glowing eyes upon her, and Rydia felt her stomach sink into the floor and terror crawl up her spine and the only sound in her ears was the awful, terrible ringing of metal on scabbard as Odin drew his sword. The blade was dark, darker than night, darker than the shadows Edge played with, and the aura around it was dark and stank like blood and power and the faint aftermath of a lightning-clap. She couldn't watch, but she couldn't close her eyes, she couldn't turn, she couldn't run – she couldn't do anything.

The horse reared, and Odin drew back his arm, holding the sword high.

It hurt-

pain exploded behind her eyes, centered at her forehead, and Rydia fell her breath in her throat and she didn't want to let it go because it was her last – but then her hands caught her awkwardly just before her face hit the floor and she breathed in despite herself, in surprise – she was still alive. Edge, Kain she thought, and then she looked up.

Leviathan was there, before her, and he was somehow both snake and man, and he was holding back Odin's sword with a blade that looked like water, with water itself, the darkness of Odin's strike against Leviathan's Tidal Wave – her memories flickered, and she thought, yes, Leviathan can be both man and beast but that didn't make any sense.

"You, the Lord of All Waters," Odin said, and his voice was dark but not angry – Rydia heard surprise. "You would take Zantetsuken, so that the girl could have me? If I kill you, does she not also fall?"

"She did not summon me." Leviathan rumbled like the sea, and Rydia heard worlds beneath his words, and she thought, strangely, if an Eidolon falls its Summoner does too – and then thought, no, not at all; if a Guardian Force falls we can just bring it back; she was so confused. "Besides," Leviathan growled, "those rules do not bind the Summoned here."

"Rules," Odin said, and it was a laugh, and dark sparks fell from his sword and singed the ground. "You speak of rules, my King, but you forget I am not one of your Whytkin children."

"I do not forget," Leviathan hissed. "King Odin of Baron."

Rydia brought her hands to her head, pressing them against her ears, because the whine of power around her was too much to bear – she felt the pressure of Leviathan's ocean, her ears about to explode; she felt the growing potential of Odin's energy rumbling the ground about her, her hands shaking with it, it hurt, it hurt so bad why couldn't she remember? King Odin of Baron, her mind repeated, he looks like the Headmaster and her fingers clutched at her scalp.

Leviathan said, in a voice so low and even it terrified Rydia to the core, "Perhaps you have forgotten what the Hallowed Father bound you to, when he took your human form and made you Eidolon."

Covering her ears wasn't working; Leviathan's voice lashed her down to her bones, and Odin's laugh was raw like acid, stricken with lightning. Rydia pressed the heels of her hands into her closed eyes and felt tears.

"I have not forgotten," Odin said, still laughing, ringing metal in Rydia's skull. "Lord of All Waters, if it be your wish that I go to this girl, I certainly shall no longer refuse you. But…" And his gaze turned to her, and if his laughter had hurt his eyes were worse, glowing and familiar and terrifying; she felt the lash of them through her closed eyelids. "Oh, child, remember this. I am on your side."

There was a flash of light. Rydia saw it through her palms and her closed eyelids, she felt it through her body, and as she wrenched her hands away from her face and opened her eyes she saw Leviathan fall to Odin's blade, there-and-gone, shades of his body fluttering to the ground even as they vanished. She felt the empty place in her head, where he slept now, waiting to be revived. She felt light, somehow, detached from her body, from her self.

She cupped her hands before her, and Drew in the Guardian Odin.

He came willingly this time, bright and dark both: she felt the darkness of his blade and the bright sparks of his horse's hooves, and she was so far gone she forgot to be afraid when he smiled. I welcome you, Odin, she thought, formally, dazed, almost hysterically.

I welcome you, Lady Rydia, Odin said to her. Remember I am on your side. What I do, I do not do to be cruel. I want to show you the truth.

What truth?She bent her head to her cupped hands, her eyes open, blindly staring into them as if they held a pool of water.

Leviathan only meant to protect you, but I believe he was wrong to do so. With him gone now, I can show you who you truly are. And then, louder, and she spun wildly to see Kain and Edge at the door to the room – her breath caught in her throat: I can show you all what they have done to you.

In her mind, she heard the metallic ring of Odin's dark sword, and there was a flash of light – and then nothing.

I I I

Kain froze as Rydia's eyes met his for a fraction of a second, and widened – and then she crumpled to the ground. "Hey!" Edge snapped, but Kain was frozen in place at the sight of it, because he thought he'd heard a voice – and no human voice either – and it sounded familiar, echoing in his ears, it sounded like—

My father?

No, said the voice, and it chuckled kindly. Close, though. Your father served me well all those years ago.

Lord Baron, Kain thought, and then – what? I mean Headmaster. I mean…?

Look, said the voice.

And Kain was four years old again, running through a field full of flowers. He was holding Rosa's hand and she was holding Cecil's with her other hand, and they were trying to skip in time, which was hard because Kain's legs were so long. Baron Garden soared overhead and Kain dropped Rosa's hand to wave, because his daddy was up there, called back into action from the reserves for Baron's War. Rosa and Cecil waved too, even though Cecil was an orphan and Rosa still had her mum, because Kain's daddy was up there in the sky.

No, I didn't know Cecil and Rosa when we were children; I met Cecil at Garden when we were young, yes, but it wasn't until after my father-

And then he was in Baron Garden, visiting his daddy, galloping through the Training Center with his beginner's spear, and his daddy was showing him the basics of how to Jump while Headmaster Odin Kramer watched, and laughed.

But – Who is Headmaster Odin Kramer? Headmaster Baigan has been in charge for the past twenty-five years. And I never went to Garden, not until my father-

And then they were up in Baron Garden, himself and Cecil and Kain, and he was watching out of his window as his father and Headmaster Baigan spoke, and then his daddy came over and picked him up and hugged him, tight, and said, "I'm doing this for you, Kain. Remember."

Remember? Remember what? This isn't real!

And then he and Cecil were skipping into the town, and the foreign soldiers let their spears sag and the strange women in their ceremonial robes let their hands drop, because they were just children, and nobody would question children, and so he and Cecil skipped to the center of the town and dropped the red red stone into the fountain, just like Headmaster Baigan had asked them to, a really special gift for the people of Mist.

Mist? What's Mist? Cecil and I didn't meet until we were seven years old, we never did anything for the Headmaster-

And then Baron Garden landed at the edge of a massacre, and from the window all high-up Kain could see nothing but fire, fire and ashes and nothing familiar, and he turned away, scared; Cecil's face was pale and solemn, and Rosa's was white with sympathy, her fists clenched.

I don't understand! What is this?

And then he was waiting, waiting at the entrance to Garden, waiting for his daddy to come back; he heard footsteps, and he jumped to his feet, but it was just a SeeD, nameless-faceless, carrying a body. No, not a body – it squirmed, and Kain saw bright-green hair for a split second before the soldier saw him and turned away. "I'm sorry, Highwind," the SeeD said, and that's how Kain knew, because the SeeD had used his father's name. He turned away, and let the soldier take the girl, because if his daddy wasn't Highwind anymore then he had to be.

This isn't – that isn't Rydia, that isn't how my father died! That isn't what happened at all! These aren't memories, they're just – they're just-

Kain opened his eyes.

He'd fallen over at some point, and he was lying on his side; his arm was asleep. He sat up, shakily, and as he did the memories poured into him like water filling up a vessel – incomplete, the waterfall hitting rocks here and there, evaporating into a strange mist that left holes. But no, there was a childhood there that hadn't been there before.

Cecil. Rosa.

"What the fuck," said Edge Geraldine, and Kain looked up sharply; Edge was sitting crosslegged, cradling his head in his hands, and looking absolutely miserable. Behind him was a puddle of SeeD uniform and bright-green hair, and Kain's breath choked.

"It isn't true," Geraldine said into his palms. "It isn't."

"Edge," Kain said, and then more sharply: "Geraldine." He tried to stand, couldn't, felt another smattering of memories raining down, and he crawled over towards Edge and grasped the other man's wrist. "Edge, we have to get out of here."

"They died in an accident," Edge told him, and it didn't make any sense.

"Geraldine, you are the party leader," Kain snapped. "Come on. Exit plan!" And it wasn't just – Kain could have taken charge – should have taken charge – but it wasn't just the rules; he needed a nice good straightforward order to follow right now, because that man had asked him and Cecil to take the burning red stone into Mist, and it hadn't tainted his honor, he was just following orders–

"Grab her," Edge said, which did make sense, and Kain picked up Rydia's prone body - a SeeD carrying a green-haired child – no – and turned back. Geraldine grabbed his elbow and tossed something in the air with his other hand, and a cloud of smoke erupted at their feet. Kain breathed, and coughed, and tightened his grip on Rydia; the smoke cleared, and they were outside.

They headed back to the camp wordlessly, and Edge said, "To the boat," so Kain set Rydia down carefully in the grass as they finished repacking all of their supplies. Geraldine picked her up afterward so Kain grabbed her pack instead, and they loaded the boat and started the motor and were half a mile away from the shoreline before either of them spoke again.

"I have no idea what happened," Edge said, his voice low and shaking with what could be either rage or fear or both, "but I would like to maybe wake her up now and see if she knows."

"Yes," Kain said. He fumbled in his pocket for a Phoenix Down, took the thin feather out of its plastic and broke it over Rydia's forehead, letting the sparks settle in her hair and eyelashes. She took two slow breaths, and then opened her eyes – and then sat up, sharply, gasping, "Leviathan!"

"Here," Edge said, and he handed her a G-Returner; Kain watched as she popped the pill into her mouth and shuddered as she swallowed. He had to resist the urge to shake her, to demand answers, as memories skittered around his brain, familiar-unfamiliar. Her eyes closed.

As they waited, Edge said to Kain, low, "What did you see?"

He clenched one fist, slowly, and then unclenched it. It didn't feel like his own. "My childhood, I think," he said softly. "But I'm not sure." Both hands fisted the air. "You?"

"I thought my parents died in a car accident." Edge's voice was hot. "But now I remember them dying in a lab. Which is real?"

"The Guardians," said Rydia's voice, and they both looked up; her eyes were clenched as shut as they could be, and her hands were gripping each other fiercely. "They eat our memories in exchange for their power."

Kain noticed the tears tracking down her face, and something cold and hard lumped in his throat, unforgiving. He and Cecil skipped to the center of the town and dropped the red red stone into the water. Edge, suddenly more perceptive, scooted around and gathered Rydia into a nearby chair; he sat next to her, one hand rubbing her back, although his face was still tight and tense. Kain stayed where he was, too unsettled to settle.

Rydia opened her eyes and leaned forward, her eyes on the bottom of the boat. "Baron Garden gave us the GFs to make us forget. Headmaster Baigan gave them to us, so that we wouldn't remember our traumas, because Guardians consume the things that are the most powerful. You aren't supposed to Junction them to kids, but he did to us, so that we wouldn't remember what happened." She paused, and Kain saw more tears fall, coursing down her cheeks, even though her voice was soft and steady.

"Leviathan says they didn't have a choice – they don't have a choice," she continued, her hands wringing shapes from the air in front of her. "For Guardians to work with somebody who isn't a Summoner, they have to have something to anchor to, some source of – of strength. And once a Guardian is inside you, they see what hurts you, and so they – they swallow it. He says he was only trying to protect me. That they all were only trying to help."

"Wait," Edge said, holding up a hand. "If they took our memories away, then wouldn't we wonder why there were holes? I mean, I thought – I remember the accident – I remember hearing about it."

Rydia swallowed. "They consume the memories and leave holes," she said softly. "And then, someone can suggest things to you, to make you think you know what happened. It's pretty easy to fill in the holes," and then she looked up at Kain. "Isn't it?"

Kain looked back at her, because he refused to feel guilty about something he hadn't done – hadn't known he'd done – the Headmaster had asked him to, and they'd owed the Headmaster, because he had kept Kain's daddy safe. "You're that girl," he said.

"You're the boy," Rydia countered, her voice even. "You're the boy who brought the stone."

"We didn't know," Kain pointed out, and he felt himself growing angry – he'd been a child, and an adult had asked him to do a thing. "How would we have known?"

"They told me I was ill, as a child," Rydia whispered. "They said I had just been very very sick. But I almost died in a fire, is what it was. Isn't it? Garden almost killed me, and then Garden kept me alive."

"You didn't come to Garden when I did." Kain's own voice was quiet, choked, as he tried to sort through the holes in his own memories: he'd talked to Rosa – when? – about the new girl in the infirmary; he'd tried to hold Rosa's hand. He and Cecil had watched security come to retrieve the new girl, tranced out in the Training Center. "You didn't, I don't think you did."

"I don't remember!" Rydia burst out. "Levia says I was in a coma for years, years and years, and Garden kept me alive so that they could use me but I don't remember and I can't trust anything, dammit, Leviathan, I am so angry at you," and she buried her face in her hands, and laughed, and sobbed.

"Why would they," Edge began, and then he swallowed and glanced sharply up at Kain for a second. "Why did Headmaster Baigan want us to forget it all?"

"He isn't the real Headmaster," Rydia began, and then Kain felt the pieces of his own memories sliding into place: smoothly, gently, and he had never been good with his Guardians but he felt Pandemona's hand in it, guiding them into order, and it felt like an apology.

"There was another Headmaster," Kain said, "when I was – young. Headmaster Odin Kramer. He'd been the head of Barontown when we were young and he was elected to lead Baron Garden when it first took off. He's – he's the noble my father joined for, the lord my father served under. But at some point…"

He glanced up, and chanced to meet Rydia's eyes; they both flinched, but Rydia said, "Yes. At some point Odin Kramer disappeared and Baigan Kramer became Headmaster."

"I think," Kain ventured carefully, "that it was before Mist."

Rydia swallowed, but she only said, "Leviathan thinks so."

"Odin Kramer," Edge said slowly, "and we just got a Guardian Force called Odin. Are they…?"

"I don't know." Rydia shook her head, hair hiding her eyes. "I can't tell. Odin isn't like the other Guardians – he doesn't Junction like they do. So I can't talk to him like I talk to Levia, and Leviathan isn't telling me. But there's something going on, there's some kind of connection." She looked at Kain, tentative, as if his very presence were painful to her. "Do you remember anything else about him?"

He could have said yes. He could have said no. "I'm not sure." It wasn't enough, so he added, "Give me some time. It is hard to sort through what's a real memory and what – isn't."

Rydia nodded, but her face closed, tight and wary.

Kain felt empty, as if the new memories were lighter than the old – false – ones; as if he were weightless, as if he didn't really exist. He watched Edge watch Rydia. He watched Edge's face. He watched Edge come to a decision.

"I'm not going back," Geraldine said.

He glanced over at Kain, looking for something in Kain's face, and then glanced to Rydia.

"I'll take you both back, but I'm not going back to Garden." Geraldine's face was stony, and angry, and possibly this was the most serious Kain had ever seen him, silly Edge Geraldine who flirted with pretty people and bragged about his scores and left naughty pictures on Instructor Trepe's chalkboard. "I'm not going to go back to take orders from someone who lied to me, someone who put monsters in my head so that I would forget what they did to my parents. I'm not going back to an organization that thinks that's okay – I can't work with a place that takes my parents and – I – uses accident victims as experimental fodder, I can't stay at a place that eats away children's memories so that they forget their own lives…" His voice trailed off.

"I can't go back now." Rydia's voice was tight. "Not with what I remember. Not until I remember."

They both looked at Kain. He stood up, and in one motion cut the power from the engine down to a low dull drone.

"We need to think this over," he said. "We carry Garden's GFs in our heads – if we don't come back with those, we're in breach of contract, and Garden sends SeeDs hunting after us to get them back by any means necessary."

"Let 'em," Edge said, fire in his eyes, "I'm more than ready to—"

"What if it's Edward Von Muir?" Kain asked quietly. "Cid Pollendina? Any of our classmates, any of your friends? Look, I'm not any more eager to go back than you, but if we don't return at all, we're going to have more problems on our hands. Besides," and he tried to keep the stupid emotion from his voice as he said it, "Cecil and Rosa are my friends, and I'm not leaving them behind either."

"Then we'll resign," Edge shot back, hot and angry. "Just walk back in there and stuff our GFs up their-"

"I'm not walking back in there," Rydia retorted, her eyes flashing, face tight with panic and a fierce determination. "I am not going back in there and giving them the chance to – to – to keep me. Us," and her fingers brushed at her temple, and he didn't know whether her phrasing included the humans or the Guardians, or all of them.

"Geraldine," Kain said slowly, because he had – it wasn't even an idea, no, it was the edges of an idea, a vague and indeterminate boundary, and if he thought about it too long or too hard or if he said too much it wouldn't work at all, but: "Geraldine, you are the party leader. What are your orders?"

Edge looked at Kain as if he'd grown three heads and a tail – and then he got it instantly, one crisp nod. "Right. Rydia is … reacting to an unknown Junction. We need a day or two to rest and monitor. Take us back to Centra, just – stay the hell away from that tower. We'll set up a base, monitor the situation, and …think."

"Good," Kain said, because he could follow orders and there probably wasn't a time limit on that contract; Garden probably wouldn't start worrying about them for a week or so and a quick comm message could buy them another week if it came from the party leader. The key was to just follow Garden's rules and regulations as long as they had to, and Kain was good at orders, he could do that.

He glanced at Rydia – eyes fraught with panic, fear, determination – and then looked at Edge, whose face was set and stony. Then Kain flipped the engine back to full speed and turned the boat around, towards Centra.