An Uneasy State of Grace
For saltedpin, getting married.
As always, to Distant Glory first, who ensures these are fit for public consumption.
Warning: This fic is exactly as described in the summary and contains mature themes, graphic descriptions of het and slash intercourse, and is an exception to my posting rules that I will make once, in the interests of a known audience. If you are below the age of 18, this is not for you. If you are above the age of 18 and porny angst is not how you like your fic, this is also not for you.
For now, the battle is ended.
From the Cornelia Plains to the Land of Discord, the beaten earth tries to cover her scars. She pulls limp blades of grass to her bleeding breast; she crosses her legs with dying trees. She is pitiful, and although the sky does not weep for her, he groans.
He blankets her with clouds so she will not have to know her own sorrow; with ornate flashes of heat lightning, he averts her eyes.
A weary wind kicks debris across an empty field, but other than this and the distant scratch of insects, everything is silent. Everything is still.
Somewhere amidst this greyness, the Warrior sits alone on a fallen log. His armor is dented, and the broken angles of his horned helm are not so different from the branches of dry shrubs. They both cast anorexic shadows on the ground.
He isn't really sure where he is, and he supposes it doesn't matter. Like everything else in Dissidia, he waits for the war to begin again. Whether he does so at the foot of Order's Throne or here in the ruin makes no difference.
When Cosmos calls, as always she does, he will come. He has no choice in the matter, and does not think he would choose differently, even if the option lay open.
She is the only thing the Warrior knows of peace. There is some reason behind that, and while his mind chases at an answer he cannot find it. It burrows. It hides. And while there is a part of him that wants to capture it, unlike his companions he cannot see the point.
From his comrades he has learned that memories are haunted things, and he is not one for the collection of ghosts.
Lips twitch on the motionless face. Whether he desired them or not, he now has a few to call his own. They have faces and forms and they smell of weapons' oil and dirt…and roses, and grass, and sky…and thoughts of them open a gap in his chest that logic does not fill.
He blinks, but he sees them anyway. Like the spots that form in a man's eyes, when he stares too long at the light.
The Warrior does not move. It seems as if he has not moved in days. Bent over his knees, he is rusted in place, and none could be blamed for mistaking him for just another piece of shattered land.
A pillar perhaps. An icon. Or a stone.
He rummages around in his mind for an analogy but cannot find one. Often, his allies confused him for a knight – and perhaps he has learned to wear the mask – but if he ever had skill for courtly speech he lost it long ago. It was discarded along the path that has led him to this place. Perhaps it lies drifting somewhere alongside his name.
Truth be told, he cannot say that he misses it. They call him the Warrior of Light now, and although it is not correct, for most purposes it is sufficient.
Most. He swallows, waits: swallows again. He aches but does not move.
"Tell me." The memory of Kain's voice is distinct in the featureless land. It is hard and sharp as he – yes – pushes the Warrior face-first against a wall; as he – oh, yes – slides a thick, teasing erection in the cleft of his ass. So slow, up and down but not in. "Curse you." The baritone drops to a graveled bass that is dense with lust. "Tell me your name."
"I don't know, Kain." The Warrior remembers bits and pieces: heavy stones and arching spine; the plump, round head of a cock that lingered just inside his ass. The question has no answer, so the Warrior issues a command. "Stop asking," he spits, his pebbled nipples scratching the hard stone. "Do not ask again."
"Very well then, Sir." The answer rides the back of a deep, bitter laugh; a brutal, beautiful thrust. "Your command."
The Warrior has the same response now as he had then. A dry and wordless exhalation. A dick so hard it hurts. No words. Never words. Although he doubts if even he had them, he would have any inclination of what to say.
That night Kain rode him raw, but he did not meet his gaze.
The Warrior closes his eyes and keeps them closed. He feels – he doesn't know, hollow perhaps – and he would rather not think on this much more.
The flecks of ash that sail the wind find harbor on his face. When he breathes, they tickle parched lips, but still he stays walled in darkness. He does not move.
His cock chafes between his thighs. It's so thick, and it bobs and begs for the cutting mouth of the man he called for. But he is gone, and the world will not return him, and it is this, perhaps that finally quells his erection. That blows the desire away as if it were smoke.
"Kain." The Warrior's lips feel like fossils, peeling and crusted: not fit for use. "Kain."
He opens his eyes slowly and watches silent lightning shower fire upon the plain. Red light gashes the horizon – bright or deadly, or maybe just obscene.
They sky is about to open. The Warrior can smell it on the air. A dull thought presses against his skull: find shelter, but he doesn't.
He is not troubled by some small fall of rain. He is only troubled by what it reminds him of. Other times. More significant storms.
"You're insane." She called herself Lightning, but like him, that was not her name. "We get caught, we just stay put and die here?"
The rain came down in sheets that day, but they ran the drill anyway. Order's Throne, under siege. The command was no retreat.
"Answer me." Her voice is sharper than her blade, and at least as vicious. Face soft with rainfall, she had ice in her eyes.
He did not hesitate in his response. "Yes," he'd replied. It was the only right answer and remains so. Victory is the beginning, the middle, the end.
She backed away, spit. Called the simulation to a halt. "Go to hell," she'd said, and she'd meant it. But when she walked away, others followed her off.
Still, he wonders how far they would have gone for her. What they heard in her words that he did not.
His memory of her is frozen thus. A red cape, limp and wet, draped over a shoulder tense with rage. Raindrops congregated in the dips of the muscle. A hazy shamble of children followed in her wake.
The Warrior recalls Kain again, this time clad in full arms: this time trying to explain. "You ask her to die for no reason." They sat together in an endless night watch, loosely pinned around a dying fire. "What do you expect?"
"Loyalty," he answered without question. "Cosmos is the only reason we fight."
Kain had smirked, his eyes lost in the shadow of his helm. Dark with ash and stain, the lips had a cruel-looking twist. "You're a fair enough general, friend" he'd said, "but an even greater fool."
Perhaps. The Warrior worries the thought over until it's smooth. But what did you fight for, in the end Kain? What reason did you give her to die?
The smile she gave him - that single smile, there at the end - haunts him. Private and quiet, he sees it everywhere.
The wind grows wet and the Warrior grows weary. But before he gives his mind to other matters, he looks off to the anonymous sky. Like an argument retread too many times, the indistinct grey curls into itself and comes to no conclusions.
It is strange that he doesn't notice her coming.
If there is one thing that the Warrior has come to know in this world – more even than the oddly perfect symmetry of her face or the liquid gold that clings to her dress – it is the feeling he gets when she nears him. Calm and undemanding, Cosmos neither asks nor answers, and they stay in an uneasy state of grace.
They are not happy or unhappy. They simply are. And even now as she stands before him and lays a hand on a rain-slick pauldron, there is something in her touch that he recognizes. It is the weight, he thinks. The softness. The chill.
His eyes flit up to her, and in the darkness of a crumbling world, she is as immaculate as she ever was.
"You are very far from Sanctuary, Warrior," she says. There is melancholy in her bearing; distance in her eyes. "Does something trouble you?"
"No." The answer hovers somewhere between a lie and the truth. "I grieve the loss of our allies, but I am ready to fight. Only tell me where I must be."
Inclining her head, Cosmos does not answer right away. Her hand tightens on his shoulder, and she shivers even though he knows she cannot be cold. "Stay your blade a while. It isn't yet time." Lifting his helm from his head, she kneels to set it on some uninspired patch of ground. "I know you cared for them."
"They were warriors of your choosing." The Warrior feels the cool breeze through his hair as needles, disturbing ancient-feeling layers of dirt and sweat. He still has not moved. "I cared for them as such."
Cosmos blinks, and wind pulls golden hair about her face. It makes it seem as though she is avoiding his gaze. "You are exactly as he was." The Warrior focuses his gaze on her throat, and he half expects it to rise and fall with breath until he remembers that she does not breathe. "Is it so hard to admit?" A beat. "I won't be angry."
"Beg pardon?" The Warrior is confused. Not by her odd reference – he has grown accustomed to this man, this third person who occupies an empty space between them – but by the thought that Cosmos could feel such a base thing as anger. Or that he could ever inspire it.
Under the fat shadow of meandering clouds, a small smile forms and then breaks. "I can show you," she offers, "if you want."
"Show me what?"
Cosmos' small hand travels from his shoulder to his face, and for the first time the Warrior moves. He flinches. She blinks. They stare at each other. "Something you need to see."
In the dirt beside him, the Warrior's helm remains discarded. Drops of moisture gather on the horns, a sign of coming rain. He tries to turn his head to examine them more closely, but the small hand has more power by far than he.
"Let me show you," she repeats. Her nails press half-moon indents into the sore skin of his cheek. "Please."
The Warrior cannot recall a time when he has been more startled by a simple word. The Goddess of Harmony does not plead. That she does so now is so viscerally wrong that the Warrior suspects the identity of the creature before him. It does not take more than a thousandth of a second for his eyes to find their way back to hers, and then he is trapped.
She sees in him, through him, past him, to something beyond denomination.
Cold crystalizes in the Warrior's stomach and creeps through him like new frost. Eventually, he inclines his head, agrees.
These are the Bahamut Isles.
The sky is glutted with stars. Lazy and aimless, they gather like children to the rounded belly of the sea. The horizon is blurred; unsure if it is composed of water or air. The only difference between them is the quality of the light. In the vaulted atmosphere, the paths of shooting stars are unimpeachable and precise. In the ocean though, they churn.
The Warrior sees it all clearly. He is watching from a three-quarter angle. Up, and slightly to the left.
Dressed only in the leather breeches he wears under his arms, Kain sits on the beach. He holds Gungir flat across his knees. Intricate patterns of sand splay over his back, following the curve of muscle and scar. Fragile, they shift and break as he breathes.
In (the shape of a sidewinder). Out (a gust of falling snow)…
The Warrior wonders why his throat constricts, why his tongue goes dry.
He feels something sharp and bright and hopeful, but then realizes that Cosmos is showing him the past. Kain's face is gaunt and drawn – he hasn't eaten – so the Warrior reasons this must be some orphan night, some time near the end.
It takes the Warrior some time to notice, but Kain is not alone. Lightning stands somewhere in the scrub brush behind him, staring at the sea. Her hair is knotted and filthy, but the starlight suits her skin.
She is scratched and wounded and caked in dirt, but under the benediction of the Northern Lights, she is close enough to beauty. The frothy blue night settles on her, and it obscures the heavy bruises that mark her upper arms.
They make a strange sight, the two of them, so rigid and still, their eyes cast out to sea. The Warrior could almost believe that they're statues, crumbling sentries announcing the presence of a city of ancients: a secret place, where only believers might go.
They share such perfect silence that by the time Kain speaks, the Warrior is almost surprised.
"Do you have something to say to me, Lightning?" he asks, not turning. His voice punctuates the rhythmic argument of the waves. "Or should I be anticipating an ambush?"
Lightning shrugs, her eyes still fixed on the distance. "Maybe," she replies. "Though I'd say between the two of us, you're the one with the record of backstabbing."
Shaking his head, Kain chuckles. "Ah," he mutters. "More vitriol. Delightful."
"Tch." Lightning seems unbothered. "Whatever you want to think."
Kain rips his gaze from the ocean to study something under the chipped stain of his nails. The Warrior imagines it's oil of some sort, although it could be blood, too. "I think," he says after a few moments, "for one who finds me so despicable, you spend a considerable amount of time following me."
The Warrior watches the muscles of Lightning's jaw clench. "Don't test your luck."
Kain laughs the quick, bitter laugh that the Warrior still hears in his sleep. "I wouldn't dare." He looks up from his dirty hands to nowhere in particular. "Now. What do you want?"
A stiff wind rises from the sea and pushes Lightning's hair back from her face. So unveiled, the Warrior notices for the first time the dark circles that dent the flesh beneath her eyes, the yellowing bruise that winds down her neck. And even though her bearing is straight, there is weariness in the angle of her shoulders and something breakable in the tightness of her lips.
"An explanation," she replies.
If the Warrior believes that Lightning's exhaustion is written on her face, then Kain's is betrayed in his sigh. "I had thought we'd covered this." He inclines his head and closes his eyes, takes a long breath of ocean air. "I'm 'to fight harder than I ever have', no?"
"Yeah, you are," Lightning snaps the retort immediately. "But you're also going to tell me the truth."
"I wasn't aware I'd lied to you." Slowly, Kain sets Gungir on the sand beside him. Crablike, the grains scurry over the blade, and the Warrior is astonished that he could be so careless with so fine a weapon. "If you're confused, I might offer the proper definition of 'truth'. Please, let me know."
"Just tell me." Lightning ignores the jab, and the words of her response are low and deliberately spoken. "Why you told him and not me."
Not for the first time since Cosmos opened this scene in his mind, the Warrior feels a strange sense of discomfort. He does not see a point in observing what he cannot change; to listening to Lightning chastise a brave and valiant man.
They made a decision, Kain and he. For Cosmos.
"I would have thought it obvious. I didn't tell you," – Kain waits to speak until the sound of a swollen wave screaming at the shore finally recedes – "because you wouldn't understand."
"Would you like me to speak more slowly?" With the back of his hand, Kain wipes a white tinged crust of salt from his lips. He spits. He still has not turned to face her. "Or perhaps I might draw you a picture?"
"You know what, Kain," Lightning says, an impatient hitch in her voice. "I'm about done with this. I asked you a question. Cut the fucking bullshit and answer me."
"Tsk, tsk," Kain chides, stretching his arms above his head before reclining on his forearms, indolent. "Language, Lady."
Lightning tenses, and in the riot of light from sea and sky, the Warrior prepares himself for the telltale flash of Blaze Edge as it slides from its sheathe. He has seen them go to war against one another before, over more trivial matters. He expects this to be no different.
It is something of a surprise then, when her weapon stays holstered, that her only response is to cross her arms.
"Nice try." Sand crunches beneath the heel of Lightning's boot as she walks up beside him. "But you think you can goad me, you got another thing coming."
"Do I now?" Brushing sand from his breeches, he rises slowly and turns even slower. The gaze he lays on her, the Warrior thinks, swirls with the strange, spinning light of the sky. He folds his arms. "And what might that be?"
"You stop right there." His eyes are heavy and defensive, but Lightning doesn't flinch. "Tell me or don't, but I'm not playing this game anymore. You apologized. I thought you might just have grown the balls for a straight answer. Guess I was wrong."
Kain shakes his head. "Stubborn, sanctimonious – " he begins.
"Fine." Lightning pivots where she stands and starts walking away. She's a number of paces from where she started by the time Kain catches up to her, pulls her back towards him with a hard, heavy hand.
The clap of flesh on flesh reaches the Warrior in another time and place. It resounds through the succeeding silence.
"Wait," he says.
"Don't touch me," she replies.
A short grunt. "Grow up."
On the wind, the sand is a wild and living thing. Whirling its skirts amongst the dry grass, it is the only thing that moves. It is the only thing that dares.
i. Another Pause
It's the rain that brings the Warrior back to the here and now. With an inchoate rumble, the sky opens his clenched fist, releases a downpour that turns the dry dirt at his feet into squalid dribble: breaks apart the monotone horizon with other shades of grey.
Unwittingly, he shivers. It is not a very great movement, but Cosmos notices nonetheless.
"Does the rain trouble you?" she asks, blinking.
The only dry patch of skin on the Warrior's face is where her hand rests. "No," he answers, and it's the truth. If he is troubled by anything – and he is not sure, at this point, whether what he feels is that – it is certainly not the fault of the rain. "Is there a reason you show me this?"
Cosmos' lips turn, but into something less than a smile. "You hide from yourself." The rain descends without mercy, but it does not touch her. In the invincible drab, her white dress seems only more pristine; the shade of her still-dry hair even closer to gold. "We have been hiding, you and I."
Rain slithers over the Warrior's face, and it carries the spiced-ash scent of burnt cedar. "From what?" For the first time, the Warrior truly thinks he does not understand her, and he finds this more unsettling than he has words to describe.
"From everything," Cosmos answers.
The Warrior feels water infiltrate the joints of his armor; plaster the wool of his doublet uncomfortably to his skin. It's itchy. It sticks. He pays it no mind. "My apologies Cosmos, but I do not know what you mean."
The hand at has cheek flattens, becomes almost a caress. Something obscure passes across her face but cannot read it. "Yes," she says gently, after the rain fills a few moments with the sluicing sound of its fall, "yes, you do."
Expression constricting, the Warrior searches his mind for a memory that might shed light on her words. But since he has never found one there before, he keeps his hopes limited, under control.
They never defined their arrangement. And while Kain occupied the Warrior's bed often, there were just as many nights when he did not. There were no secrets, but then, neither were there confessions.
Even now, the Warrior wonders what he would have done with one, if it had been offered. He suspects he would have folded it in with all of the other things he knew once, but then forgot.
It was best to live in the moment, he'd thought. To feel the brightness of coming in the vice of Kain's fist when the moment arrived, but then to let it go. Like the passing thrill of battle, it was something to occupy the mind fully for a second, and then simply released.
The Warrior grunts under his breath. The conclusion was easy to come to, then. It was more problematic on missions when his erection carved furrows into the impacted earth beneath his bedroll. It is even more so now, when the tongue and cock and fingers that could so expertly unwind him are gone and will not return.
He breathes through a sudden slice of loss, keeps going until there is nothing burdening his chest but the heavy wet of a driving storm.
It was the glances that the Warrior could not help but notice. Kain kept his eyes shaded at nearly all times, but there were moments where his guard dropped and his gaze could be followed, if one wished.
The times the Warrior did so, he was usually led to Lightning. And he could never decide if Kain looked at her the way a man looks at something he wants, or the way a hunter eyes his prey. After a while, he gave up on the debate. They are more or less the same.
What was perhaps more confusing to the Warrior was the way that Lightning looked back. The way she watched him watch her. She didn't welcome it or push it away, but there were times, amongst the three of them, when he felt that the two of them were speaking of something important, something that he'd missed. A dialectic of some sort, with an uncertain pattern.
Every once in a while, he'd strain toward it. But in the line connecting stratospheric blue and keen shadow, he found himself locked out.
The first and only time the Warrior mentioned it they were otherwise occupied. "Do you care for her?"
The Warrior remembers Kain stilling inside him: the friction of a ribbed stomach against his cock as he leaned forward; the weight of callused fingers as he tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. "Would it matter," – the voice was soft, like the touch – "if I did?"
The Warrior remembers considering and deciding. He remembers the answer: "No."
"Then why ask?" Kain had replied.
What stands out to the Warrior as he remembers was that Kain did not move his hand. Hard but tender, it stayed where it was until the Warrior felt a quiet, formal kiss at the nape of his neck.
More often that not, the Warrior would call the match when they sparred.
Standing at the edge of the yard, he would watch them dance. The results were never predicable. There were as many times it ended with Kain flat on his back as it did with Lightning's gunblade knocked clear across the field.
They were more or less an even match, tactically. The rest was opportunistic. A low parry or an ill-timed block: a blow that had too much force behind the heft. Winner and loser were separated by whose weapon fell on the right side of a split second and no more than that.
It is a specific round that comes to mind. Near dawn, dry season, the day that he and Kain had made up their minds.
The Warrior is unaccustomed to memory, so it's possible he is remembering it wrong. But what he recalls most vividly about the fight was that he found her stunning, even though he usually does not. Her cape slithered through the morning, traced her wake like a shadow made of silk. Blaze Edge raked the air – wide parry, ballestra, coup-double – and took hostage every glint of perfect light.
Kain backed up beneath her assault. In a simple test of strength, he can best any man the Warrior has known, but out of rhythm, he can never hope to win. And that day, he was distracted. Whether by their choice or something else, the Warrior still cannot decide.
He looked in Lightning's eyes when he should have focused on her blade, and it was over from that moment on. Or close enough. There were still the three motions he remembers explicitly. Those three quick movements of hers the logic of the moment did not explain.
Stormwater seals the Warrior's pinched lips as he recalls it. Despite the smell, it tastes clean and sweet and fresh.
Lightning wheeled broadside when she didn't have to; she knocked the helm clear off his head. Snapping Blaze Edge from sword to gun, she held the muzzle square beneath his chin. Intently, she pushed it up. She waited. She watched. She glared.
The gun left a circle of carbon beneath Kain's jaw that stayed there for quite some time, burned into his skin.
"Give it up," she'd demanded. "Now."
Blood seeped from Kain's nostrils, and while he answered Lightning's question, it was the Warrior's eyes he held. "No." He paused, thought about it, cocked his head. "No, I don't think so."
"The hell are you on about, Highwind?"
Kain smirked and spit blood. "What do you think?"
It was clear that neither of them was going to move until the Warrior called it. And even though it only took him a second to render his verdict, it felt longer than that. "Draw," he'd declared. "Do it again."
"Screw that," she'd answered, pulling the gun away. Lightning's eyes were unfettered, incandescent as her blade. "I won. I don't want to."
The Warrior remembers his throat going dry. "It doesn't matter," he'd said, not really sure what he was telling her. "Do it again."
The way that Kain has grabbed her, Lightning is still facing forward. Her back isn't quite flush to his chest, but at that distance the Warrior knows she should be able to feel him breathe. Her flesh plumps and mottles between his fingers. Strands of hair escape the messy knot he's tied them in, and they lash across his eyes.
The seas churn beside them, and above them the Northern lights roll, and they stand like that for what seems like a long, long time.
One of them is a captive here, but for the life of him, the Warrior cannot tell who it is.
In a different time, he waits with them for a resolution. He watches as if they were not dead, as if this were not a scene already played.
"You don't take your hand off of me right now" – what Lightning says is less a threat than a pure statement of fact – "I will break it off, I promise."
"You can dispense with the dramatics." Kain is haughty, but he releases her anyway. "You wanted an explanation. Wait while I give it to you."
Stepping back, Lightning inhales her anger and nods her head. The Warrior notices she does not move to sooth her upper arms, even though Kain had pressed down on her bruises hard enough to leave marks.
"Alright," she says, after her composure returns. "Go ahead."
The quiet is dense and seamless. Somewhere on the beach Gungir remains abandoned and near forgotten. An artifact in the sand.
"It was not so far from the truth," he says, turning to watch the ocean draw corkscrew patterns on the sand, "what I said before. If I'd told you, I doubt you'd have believed me. I'm certain you'd not have consented to the strategy."
"No kidding." No time passes between Kain's last words and Lightning's retort. "I make a point of not agreeing with stupid shit."
Kain crosses his arms, tightly. "Do you want your answer or do you not?"
The Warrior watches Lightning swallow the harshest of her words. "Keep talking."
"I told him because I knew he would listen," he says, softer than the Warrior ever remembers him speaking. "Because he would stop at nothing to give the victory to Cosmos." He pauses, takes the time required to select his words. "Because he trusted me implicitly and would not stand in my way."
Lightning makes a quick, disgusted sound. "She's really got her teeth sunk in the both of you, doesn't she?"
Smirking, Kain turns from the waves, but when the Warrior expects him to set his eyes on Lightning, he stops short, bows his head as if it were still weighted by his helm. He doesn't bother pushing away the ash gold hair that splays across his face.
As ever, he stands in profile, eyes shadowed, expression obscured.
Several waves thrust over the shore before he speaks again. "What makes you think I did it for her?"
In Dissidia, the Warrior freezes, does not credit the evidence of his ears. For a second, he thinks he must have made a mistake. He tries to open his mouth, but Cosmos' will does not waver, and whatever words he's trying to summon sit stillborn on his tongue. Her small hand holds him in place. It forces him to hear: to see.
Her voice is low and sweet and absolute. "Look," she commands. "Look at what we did."
The Warrior has no choice but to obey.
"So what was it for, then?" Wind carries Lightning's questions to faraway places. Kain isn't looking at her, so he cannot see the sharp light snake in her eyes.
"For him." Kain's voice twists on itself when he continues, but he doesn't move from where he stands. "For Cecil." He stops, laughs. "For you."
"Let me get this straight." If there is an admission of something in what Kain has just offered, Lightning barrels past it, and the Warrior wonders through the unnamable tightness in his chest whether her anger really does free her. "You told him because you knew he'd let you get away with it? Of all the manipulative – "
"Manipulative what?" Kain interrupts her smoothly. "How? It's not I leading our allies to their deaths. Not I who offers lives that are not mine to give. Do not play at righteousness, Lightning. It looks poor on a hypocrite."
"This isn't about me and it's not about them." Lightning's tone is cold and level. "It's about you groveling for permission to off yourself when no one asked you to. None of us wanted a damn hero, Highwind. None of us needed one."
Kain's mouth turns in a vicious line, as if pulled by some invisible string. "I begged nothing –"
"That's really okay by you?" Whirling back to face him, Lightning continues speaking as if Kain had said nothing at all. "With options on the table, you just throw your life away?"
Raising his head, Kain finally turns to look at her. "It seemed fine by him, in the end," he observes, and there is acid in his tone. "I can't imagine you'd feel differently."
Until the Warrior hears it, he doesn't realize he's been anticipating the blow. Lightning throws it with all the strength she has, and even though Kain has ample time to block it, he simply lets it land.
His head snaps back under the force of the hit, and somewhere in a different world, the Warrior clenches his fist. It's no use though. This battle is ended. He'd surrendered a long time ago.
"Prick." She breathes hard. He can hear it over the waves. There is blood on the dry knuckles of her right hand, and it fords down slender fingers to disappear in the sand. The Warrior does not know whose it is. "Don't you lump me in with him."
"And why not?" Kain straightens and rubs the impact from his chin. "My well-being doesn't seem to trouble you any more than it did him." Sliding his jaw side to side, he sucks blood from his split lip. "Case in point."
Lightning stands motionless and does not reply. Between them, the air thickens as if swollen, and for a time, it pushes all their words away. It admits only sparkling blue light and whirling sand: whitecapped waves that surge up into the night.
Eventually she looks up at him. "Go to hell," she finally whispers. "The pair of you…just…fuck. Go to hell."
"Later, perhaps," Kain replies, stepping forward to close the gap between them. She raises her hand to strike him again, but this time he smacks it away without thought. His eyes do not leave her face. "But you hesitate. Is there something else you wish to say?"
"No," she says, quick and violent. But despite the speed of her response, she still stands there, and when a stiff wind from the sea pushes a fist of sand to her eyes she just blinks. Acts as if the scour causes her no pain at all. "Die for all I care."
A number of different thing pass over Kain's demeanor at once. The Warrior notes the clenching of a jaw and the balling of a fist. He notes a sneer that warps his mouth. But just as he is about to spit some reply within inches of her face he halts, sees what the Warrior has noticed already.
It's hurting her, the grit. Her blinking does not make it stop.
"Shit," she mutters, turning away. And with that single motion, the façade breaks, just like that. They are just two people on a beach now, and one of them has sand in her eyes.
Kain blinks. "Are you – "
The Warrior has rarely seen the fight leave Kain Highwind so quickly. Of the men he has met in his life, this one is the one most willing to fight: past endurance, judgment, thought. But for some reason in this second, it just slips away. Soft as the wake of a wave returning to sea.
Sighing, he walks up to her and quietly shakes his head. And with tenderness the Warrior has seen only a few times before, he brushes the grains from the rims of her eyes.
The movements are slow and deliberate, and although Lightning flinches under his thumbs, she stills, lets him finish. Cold light slides over them – sterile and distant – and bleaches the dead dwarf trees that rise from the sand.
They look like the gnarled knuckles of some ancient beast, the Warrior thinks. Some lost creature that exists out of time, a thing that can never belong to the world of men.
It ends with Lightning's head bowed slightly, with Kain's hands still at her face. With a stone, sinking in the Warrior's gut, more than a universe away.
This is grief, he remembers. And now that he has named it, it splits him open: wide.
"Fool," Kain whispers, his lips near the crown of her head. "This charade, rather than tell me?""
She laughs a short, soft laugh that nearly vanishes into the night. "Look who's talking," she replies.
i. A Final Pause
The Warrior is dizzy, and even as the word trips out of his mouth, he doesn't know who he says it to, nor what he thinks it will do. He stares at a bleary, storm-infested sky, but behind his eyes lies the starlight from a night that's already long gone.
He inhales, but the air is viscous and heavy. He can't breathe it. He doesn't know how.
Right choices and wrong reasons. The Warrior had forgotten – somehow – how tangled they could become. Kain and Lightning died wound into a knot of them. A knot he knows he tied, if he is honest with himself.
"It was justified," he says to no one in particular, maybe himself. "It had to be done."
Still kneeling in front of him, Cosmos shakes her head. "Did it really?"
The Warrior blinks at her reply. Nothing has really changed from twenty-four hours ago. They are still at war, and sacrifices must be made. There is no loss more ordinary than that of friends and lovers. They take leave of everyone, after a time. At least Kain and Lightning sacrificed themselves to a worthy cause.
They – and he – could have asked for little better.
He turns the reasoning over in his mind, interrogates it; finds no flaw but the tightening of his throat. "Yes."
Perhaps it is the time that Cosmos has spent inside the light, but as the Warrior waits for her answer, he notices that her power is slightly frayed. She is still gold and white amongst the grey-space, but at the edges, he can see the mud creep up her dress, he notes a strand of hair defiled by the rain.
She blinks and watches him notice. "I think," she says by way of answer, "we have forgotten how to imagine other ways."
The Warrior cocks his head, feels the filth that melts out of his hair gather on his face and form a sick-sweet film on his lips. He knots his soaking brows. "Other ways to what?"
"To be human," Cosmos answers, diminuendo. "To say goodbye."
ii. A Parting By Night
When they first began calling him the Warrior of Light, he admits he did not quite understand. It is true that he has a marked preference for the cleansing qualities of light – the way it scours, lets no imperfection creep past unseen – but it was strange to have the obvious so labeled.
Over time, it became less so. Over time, the light became less a brand he suffered under and more a symbol that he made his own. He does not know who he was before, and it does not matter. The light burns away everything but the truth: the essential qualities of a man.
By comparison, who has need of a name?
But to every rule there is an exception. And for all the critical things he finds in the light, there is no question that Kain Highwind was best suited to darkness. In private, it relieves the lines of his naked body in the art of angle and shadow; in public, it shades eyes that reveal secrets he doubts any – ally, enemy; lover, friend – really care to know.
The Warrior remembers the night he left there was sufficient darkness for the necessary actions, the necessary lies.
Even sitting here with Cosmos before him, the Warrior cannot keep the taste of Kain's skin from ghosting over his lips. Salt, leather, steel. He remembers the shape of the man's cock molding the curve of his tongue that night, the way it twitched in the back of his throat as he came.
It was not all that often that the Warrior would kneel between Kain's legs that way. Not often that he would look past the part of his own hair to see the man's head thrown back – eyes closed, mouth parted – in a show of vulnerability that the Warrior always found very out of character, very disconcerting, very strange.
But that night was different. That night the Warrior distinctly recalls enjoying how Kain's muscled thighs tensed at release, how – at that moment (or just the split second before) – heavy hands pushed his head so far down on the dick in his mouth that it slid inches down his throat, slick with saliva and come.
Thick and intense, it widened his jaw. As it came, he could feel it pulse against his cheeks, taste the scented, masculine salt of the small hairs that brushed his lips.
The Warrior couldn't see anything then. Just the immediate flex of Kain's abdominal column, the meanest shadow of his lips as they parted to exhale a groan.
"Thank you," Kain had said when they were finished. He'd belted his armor already, and was clasping his vambraces to get ready to leave. They were sitting back to back on the bedroll at that point, Kain's eyes at tent flap, the Warrior's at a glowing point on the tarp.
Sanctuary, Sanctuary, burning bright. Then and now, there was no place its luminescence could not reach him; no hour so small he could find a place to hide.
"Of course," the Warrior responded eventually, confused. "My pleasure."
What filled the space between them for a time after that was only the periodic clink of armor, the bony rustle of dry leaves as the wind herded them round.
"I fear it's a cowardly thing I do." Kain admitted eventually, risking himself in the silence. "I fear I may be a coward."
The Warrior remembers turning immediately and setting a hand on Kain's neck. "Of course not," he'd said. "Cosmos would never have called you, if you were."
Unless the Warrior perishes in this cycle, he doubts he will ever forget the feel of Kain's muscles as they tensed then turned to water then tensed again. Nor the rumble of quiet laugher as he eventually settled the ceremonial helm back on his head.
It's only now, holding the memory up to different light, that the Warrior realizes how long it took Kain to turn around. "You're right," he'd said, picking the hand up off his neck and holding it softly to his lips. "As ever."
The gaze the Warrior met rose from the cold, glass eyes of the dragon. The breath on his hand was warm though, and it tickled the incidental down on his skin.
"Goodbye, my friend."
Nimble, the touch slipped away. The Warrior cannot get it back.
iii. A Parting by Day
Lightning and the others planned to leave at dawn. Rising with her, the Warrior escorted her around Sanctuary, made sure she took what was needed to walk the road ahead.
There was little point in speaking, so they didn't. He just accompanied her to the provisionary and helped her select supplies.
Potions. Tents. Elixirs. Phoenix Downs. Each was folded neatly in a rucksack. Each was reviewed for its necessity, and if found to be wanting, left behind.
He remembers that the light of Order's Throne clung to her, and that her movements were neat and quick. She reminded him of nothing less than the glint of a sword: economy of motion, intent to cut.
She gleamed that morning. Between the sharpened blades of sunshine that knifed through the narrow windows, she shined.
That said, as the Warrior studied her, he couldn't help but notice the fractures. The dawn was not particularly merciful in what it showed. She had tired eyes, he'd thought, stealing glances. And her expression was pulled so tight that even an out-of-time blink might cause it to fall apart.
If forced to make a comparison, he would speak of cracking porcelain, although that wouldn't be quite right. She was not that fragile, even when broken.
Either way, it didn't matter. They worked in silent complicity, and he kept his observations to himself. The single question he could not stop asking himself was: why?
Lightning hated all of it. Him, Dissidia, this war. And yet there she was, packing kits for one last journey; there she was, getting ready to go.
"You ask her to die for no reason." Kain's observation rang somewhere in his mind. "What do you expect?"
The riddle stays in his mind, unsolvable as her smile.
The rain on the Warrior's face is cold and indistinct. He cannot tell one drop from the next. And as he tries to figure out exactly why he is still sitting here, still picking scabs that will not heal, he considers the point a person can choose to mistake confusion for resolve, and if that was not the secret to Lightning Farron, after all.
It's a possibility. But he has insufficient evidence for the conclusion.
She only said one thing as she shouldered past him. "You get them home." By this time, the cracks in her expression had opened space in her eyes. "This is your fight now."
It was a curious statement to make, given the company. For a little while, the Warrior had thought he'd misheard. After all, they both knew to whom this battle really belonged.
"Of course, Lightning," he agreed in a voice that was hoarse to his own ears. "It always was. Victory will be ours."
Some unreadable expression fluttered on her face before she walked away. Her eyes flared, and her lips began to curve in something that could have been a word, could have been a sneer. The Warrior never knew. She was gone before he'd decided to ask.
Trailing her, her footsteps echoed: sharp and brittle and exact.
"Good speed," he'd bid silently, although it seemed incomplete. Eventually, unseen behind her, he bowed.
When Cosmos returns the Warrior to the Bahamut Isles, he is disoriented. Things seem both louder than they were before, and softer: brighter, and yet more obscure.
Drunken constellations stagger through the sky. Surf booms against the shore. And while Kain and Lightning still stand much as he had left them, the Warrior cannot shake the feeling that everything has changed.
He is staring at a painting, he thinks. A scene he has studied a hundred times before and is now only beginning to understand.
Everything about them is too close. Her head on his chin, his hand braided in the salted mess of her hair, they way they seem to breathe in time. It is a single silhouette they form. And while the Warrior cannot name the emotion that flashes through his gut, it is hot and sharp wants something to break.
"Why did you follow me?" Kain presses his question against the yielding quiet, his lips against her brow. "It was not to seek answers you already know."
Lightning's voice throbs over a reply. "Leave it alone, Kain."
Shaking his head, Kain exhales a sigh. "I grow tired of this." His voice is raw, but the hand that lingers in her hair slides down to cup her face. A rough thumb brushes her cheekbone, but he doesn't look at her. The Warrior thinks that maybe he can't. "Don't you? Every second a fight, everyone an enemy?"
"Not everyone." Lightning closes her eyes so they don't betray her, and her voice is brittle and thin. "Just you."
The fingers at her face turn from gentle to coarse, and all Kain's muscles tense. There's a pause in which the Warrior cannot tell if he intends to strike her, but he simply steps back, turns her jaw so she's forced to look up.
He gives her eyes that are filled with accusation: naked exhaustion; a wide, defiant solitude that reminds the Warrior whose hands were bloodied doing what needed to be done, and whose were permitted to stay clean. In Dissidia and in this abandoned night, the Warrior and Lightning lower their gaze as one.
"Is that so?" he scoffs. "Then go." He drops his hands but doesn't look away. "Return to the others. I've no patience for your cowardice tonight."
Kain turns before Lightning has time to formulate a response, and for a second, she's left alone, her skinned knees lashed by low-blowing whips of sand.
Because Kain can't watch her, the Warrior does. He sees the closed eyes and the slow inhalation. The bit lower lip, and the way her hand goes to her necklace and squeezes, tight. Wind strings her hair in unpredictable directions, and she hides behind it, not well.
Behind her, dry scrub grass bends. They nod their heads together and chatter – the Warrior can't help but imagine – of the difference between weakness and strength.
By the time she catches up to him, Kain's already walked several paces away to where Gungir is gnawed up by the beach. She places a hand between his shoulder blades. He stops, stiffens, says: "What?"
"I…" Her fingers curl and scratch his back. It appears hard for her, but she swallows audibly and finally admits. "I just…I…I don't want to be alone now." If Lightning has lowered her defenses, they are down for the space of only a second. "Satisfied?"
The Warrior watches Kain's face flicker, pale and illegible in the blue light. The answer seems to be a foregone conclusion, but he struggles with it anyway.
"No." Kain moves so quickly, it is hard to tell exactly how his mouth ends up crushing hers. All the Warrior sees is the unrestrained need as their lips part only fractionally and only for breath; all he hears are the small, wet sounds they make down one another's throats.
It's a different type of kiss than the Warrior is used to. With him, Kain's body is solid but equal; the wanting push of their hips match each other in hardness, speed and height. Lightning, as strong as she is, is very much smaller, and when he leans into her, she arches, molds into him like water or clay.
His arms form a cross over her back as he pulls her in closer. The kiss goes open-mouthed and messy, starts trailing, wet with saliva, to jaw to neck. When he returns to her lips, Lightning darts a small, pink tongue into his mouth, and Kain lets out a gruff, longing groan.
Somewhere else, the Warrior is so hard he chafes in his armor. He has no words to describe what he wants.
Between lingering chews of Lightning's lower lip, Kain is muttering nonsense. "Who said I did? Tell me," he growls, pausing to flick her tongue with his own, to blister her flesh with the strength in his hands, "who said I did?"
When Lightning pulls away, her lips are red and swollen, and her hands come to rest on the sides of his face. "Everyone knows you were in bed together." With soft fingertips, she holds him still without even trying. "I don't…" Her eyes brighten, defensive. "The last thing I need is a pity fuck from you, Highwind."
The look Kain levels her with implies he thinks she is insane. "Are you so insecure," he says slowly, "to think that's what this is?"
At a different angle, his hands drift from her lower back to dip beneath her skirt. And whether he teases or thrusts or merely slides a knowing finger back and forth over the sharp-scented wetness, Lightning jerks, and groans and snarls, "No."
Kain removes the pulls his fingers from wherever they were and draws them, glistening, over her lips. As she sucks them in her mouth, he chuckles. "Good."
Dry-mouthed and rain-drenched, the Warrior aches in confusion and lust. His entire being cries out to be left alone in his profanity, to unbuckle his codpiece and come by himself in the cold, hard rain. But he exerts discipline. He is with Cosmos, and there is something she wants him to see here, even though he is lost to what it might be.
"I'm sorry," he sends the thought out her.
"It's alright." Her voice ripples in the back of his mind: sad perhaps, or perhaps weary, the Warrior cannot tell. "I understand."
When he finally looks back at them, Kain's already out of his breeches. He's lying on his back, and Lightning's overcoat is pushed down to her waist. She straddles him – small hands clawing the swells of his chest – and slides herself up and down on the underside of his cock. Teasing. Slow. In control.
Kain makes grunting sounds of approval. He lets her take the lead.
Every once in a while, she leans forward to kiss him, or to bite the shell of his ear. Her nails scratch over the dips and swells of musculature the Warrior knows so well, leaving thin red lines over skin that stretches tightly over hardened sinew. But it's when she leans back that he can see them most clearly: her breasts overflow in his hands; blue light cuts his body to sculpture; the sea sprays refugee stars on her back.
Again, it is one of those moments where she is stunning. Her face unguarded and her body marked by bruises and scratches and the red indentations of Kain's fingers, she is violent and resplendent. And the Warrior imagines what she might feel like, if he were touching her with the dragoon's imperfect hands.
Kain's lips are screwed with half-sneering desire, and – ineffectually – he grabs at her hips. "Do I have to do this myself?"
"Not a chance," Lightning answers, smacking his hands away. And with a clenched jaw, the Warrior watches her turn her hips, watches the lips of her cunt open just barely as she hovers over the head. She does not let him inside.
He reaches up to her face and draws a line over her lips with his thumb. She sucks it, bites it, waits. "Ask," she says, pushing down a lewd half inch.
Kain's eyes are lidded with lust the Warrior recalls in immaculate detail. The words, however, are new. Idly, he lets his hand drift down between her thighs. A long finger beckons wetness from back to front, gliding en route around his own cock, to draw a circle on the hood of her clit. Lightning tenses, arches, lets out a muffled cry.
"Fuck me." He's smirking, tipping a brow, but his voice is torn with lust. "Is that what you want to hear?"
Her small hand travels from his chest to his throat and squeezes. She smirks back. "Yes."
The phrase freezes the Warrior in place – Kain never, never swears – and for a while he just goes blank. Helpless, he sees Lightning impale herself on him, inch by inch. Tear-drop shaped breasts jostle, beaded by sweat, and the Warrior thinks he has never been so hard in his life.
She watches his eyes when she's split all the way open, when there's no space between them at all. And when she's sitting in the cradle of his hips, completely filled, he's breathing hard and so is she.
The Warrior watches as Lightning sets a driven tempo. All the way and all the way out, the smack of flesh rings through the night. It's not enough though, for either her or him. She makes small, wheedling noises of dissatisfaction. She cannot get there by herself.
Sensing her frustration, Kain makes a low, soothing sound and holds her still. Shifting the angle, he thrusts up into her and smooths the pace. He presses her down until her clit grazes his pelvis, and rocks them in a motion that's not unlike the sea.
The base of his cock is only slightly visible. The rest spreads her open, disappears deep inside.
"Oh fuck," she groans. Her hips move in a jerky motion and she collapses, her breasts flat to his chest. And when he pushes her up hard, raking her roughly over the muscles of his groin, she utters a sharp moan in the shape of his name.
Kain's reaction is intense and immediate. He sits them both up, and there is no place on her body he doesn't lay claim to. If his mouth is not biting her neck, it is pulling swollen nipples with teeth. If his fingers are not pressing welts in her flesh, they are collecting wetness from where their bodies join and then screwing – deep, hard and unforgiving – into her ass.
The Warrior can tell they are getting close. There is a wildness to the way their hips move, a roughness to the periodic grunts. Lightning's hands slide from his broad, scarred back to cup his face. "Look at me," she whispers, "I want you to look at me."
Kain doesn't answer, but pressing his brow against hers, he complies.
Need swirls in the Warrior's stomach as he watches them come. He has thus far refused to move, to grant himself any relief, but when Lightning lets out a sharp cry, and Kain utters a dark, familiar groan, he can't help but reach out to them, grasping for what, he doesn't know.
His hand comes back filled with rain.
When they are done, the Warrior isn't. But even though he's hard enough to carve stone, he can see that Lightning's doing battle with herself. She flexes the muscles of her thighs to rise but Kain's arms come around her, restraining.
With him still inside her, she goes rigid, defenses ready. "What?"
"Stay." He pauses, bites her neck and then whispers into the half-circle dents in her flesh. "Please."
There is a brief quiver of tension in Lightning's back – it looks for a second like she's going to just get up and walk away – but as Kain's hand travels to the back of her head she lets out a soft sigh and gives up the fight. Her spine relaxes. He rolls them to the sand. Her head finds the secret space between jaw and collar and stays there, as if thinking.
She poises her left hand over his parted lips; her right, she curls in his hair. She lays an indeterminate trail of open kisses over his neck, lingering and almost kind. The Warrior imagines that her breath is warm on Kain's chest, but he's not there, so he can't be sure.
"I hate you," she says, closing her eyes.
A chaste kiss is pressed to the fingers at his lips; a broad hand moves to cover the width of her lower back, just above the bunch of her clothes. "I know," he replies.
They are quiet after that, and the Warrior watches shadows that are separate, fuse. Unsatisfied, he grunts, has no idea if what he just witnessed is some kind of punishment Cosmos has meted out for his failure.
The fat hardness locked between his thighs still throbs. It is an aching contrast to the hollow in his chest.
In the sky, the broken starlight wheels. Like him, it's a spy. It watches what it can.
iii. The End of The Beginning
It is difficult for the Warrior to speak. He tries, but there are no words in his throat. Eventually, he breathes and manages a soft, scratched-out: "Why?"
Cosmos has brought another hand to the Warrior's face, and her eyes are clear and wet and near colorless, with the quality of melted snow. "You wanted to be with them, didn't you?"
The Warrior shakes his head, feels the lash of storm-soaked hair on sore skin. "No, Cosmos." He wants to will his desire away, but he can't so the words creak from his lips. "I…My place is here. With you."
"Perhaps I will never be able to convince you otherwise," she replies, brushing the soaking lock of hair from his brow. "But you'll see soon enough it's time to move on. We have been here long enough, you and I."
Her words are cryptic and the Warrior, still wracked with want, can think of nothing much to say to her, so he states the obvious. "There is no place I will not follow you."
The statement is obscured by the murmuring of rainfall, but he thinks he can see her smile. "There is," – she finally rises – "and you will thank me for it. I promise you, you will. "
Unspoken words jockey for position in the Warrior's mouth in no particular order. But by the time he has sorted them into a semblance of sense – a group of scrambling noises that quells the pure terror of what she says – she's gone. And the dry patch on his face where her hand once was is infiltrated by rain.
The Warrior closes his eyes, tries to evaluate what he's just seen. Weighing possible explanations, he arrives at the possibility that perhaps he has imagined it. But then he feels the sharp edges of his need, he sees the upturned helmet, and decides he cannot trust any conclusion.
He does not know where this urge to test everything comes from. All he wants is to free himself of it, but he can't. He waits for the world to make sense and he thinks perhaps he will be waiting forever.
In the cold, his hands tremble and he cannot stop them. In a vain attempt, he bends down to collect his helm and then, at last, gets up to stares at the sky. Rain pelts his eyes, and the borders of the world fade away.
It is completely without thinking that he draws his sword. He unsheathes it on a wave of sharp, sweet rage, and then slams it – heedless and quick and as hard as he can – deep into the yielding muck. He sucks in a deep breath and holds it. He doesn't let it go for some time.
Off in the intermediate distance, Sanctuary's silent light cleaves the indifferent storm.
Exhaling, the Warrior stands stock-still and watches. He remains alone in the world.