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She knows the answer, but Ashley can't help asking. Reyna has helped her so much -- she doesn't have the words to voice the most important ways -- and she doesn't want to imagine carrying on without such an important friend at her side. "Are you sure you have to leave?"

Reyna smiles. It's a patient, gentle smile, so similar yet so different from Master Leto's, and Ashley thinks...well, before coming to terms with herself, her Persona would have been whispering that Reyna thinks she's a child. It's nice being able to accept Reyna's smile without any doubt.

"Of course you do. You have duties at home," Ashley says.

"Just as you have duties here. My presence will make it more difficult for you to do what you must. Your Church needs a strong Pope now, one whose devotion to Atona your followers will not question." There's no bitterness in Reyna's voice -- there never is -- just quiet acceptance. "In time you can show them those in the Stag Domain are their cousins in faith, but it cannot be your focus now."

Reyna is right. As much as Ashley would like to start right in, the Church must recover from the transgressions of Renart XIV. And she's not Pope yet. The longer Reyna stays at her side, the slimmer her chances become. She makes a face. Patience has never been one of her natural virtues, though it has become a learned one. "I wish it could be."

Reyna laughs. It's warm and rich, like honey stirred into tea. Ashley can't recall hearing Reyna laugh before, but of course it would be as calming as Reyna's voice. Everything about Reyna is soothing.

"So do I." Reyna crosses the room to her and puts warm palms on Ashley's shoulders.

Ashley tries not to startle. The touch is unexpected. In Besek, Glynne had tended her wounds, and...all right, Glynne would have refused Reyna's offer of help, but Reyna had not offered.

"I'm sorry." Reyna draws back. "Have I offended you?"

"No!" Ashley steps forward and draws Reyna into a fierce hug. "You never let us help you in Besek. I thought you didn't want to be touched."

Reyna flinches at first, but then relaxes and returns Ashley's embrace. "I would not allow this with Glynne."

"Glynne wouldn't hug you." She presses her face into Reyna's shoulder. Reyna still smells faintly of Besek, or at least faintly of magic. There's something Ashley can't identify in the scent, something that is almost leather or musk, but it slides away into unknown territory just when Ashley thinks she's identified it.

"No, I suppose he wouldn't." Reyna shifts, and Ashley knows it's a sign to end the hug. So she steps back, surprised that she felt herself blushing.

Reyna's cheeks are faintly pink, too. "Though he will always stand at your side."

The way Reyna says it, it almost seems like a warning, but that's silly. Ashley smiles. "He's always been there for me."

* * *

 

Glynne insists on seeing Reyna off in the morning. "Making sure Reyna actually leaves?" Ashley asks, nudging him playfully with her shoulder.

"Would you be mad if I said yes?"

"Upset." She finds herself starting to frown and forces a smile instead. "Reyna has proven to be a good friend."

"We didn't need his help."

"We needed a lot more than Reyna's help." She nudges him again. "Or have you forgotten all those mercenaries?" Had he sounded this petulant when they were in Besek?

"No." He glances over at her.

Had he looked at her the same way in Besek? Ashley ducks her head to hide her discomfort. Glynne was her closest friend, her most trusted ally, one of the people she could turn to for unconditional support, and she did love him, because what else can she feel for someone she trusts so much? But...

But there are many types of love.

She does not love him the way he loves her. She has to admit that now. It was easy to ignore that look before. She'd been so busy suppressing her Persona that...well, it had been a handy excuse.

Now? Now she doesn't have any excuses, just her fear that she'll drive him away, and she can't bear to lose him, too. Losing Reyna -- even though she's not really losing a friend, just being physically separated from one -- is bad enough. "Reyna was never a threat to you. You're my most trusted friend, Glynne. Nothing's changed that."

"No, I suppose nothing has changed in that respect."

She steps out into the courtyard where Reyna is waiting. The stables had saddled a good horse, one of the ones they used for long-range scouting missions. It has the endurance to see Reyna home and the temperament not to startle at the first sign of trouble.

"Glynne." Reyna sounds a little surprised, and Glynne notices, because he squares his shoulders, and there's a faint flicker of triumph in his eyes. He's...he's competing with Reyna. Or trying to.

"It would be rude not to see you off." Glynne strides forward and offers his hand. He and Reyna clasp each other's wrists, and Glynne's smile looks genuine. "You helped Ashley. I'll thank you for that."

"Thank me by seeing she becomes Pope."

"I'll do that for me." Glynne winces. "For Ashley."

Ashley steps to his side. "How about for all of us? And Valdia."

"Fine." Glynne purses his lips and releases Reyna's wrist.

Reyna smiles. "As surprising as it sounds, I will miss you, Glynne."

Glynne looks away. "I'm sure you promised Ashley you'll return, so it's not like this is good-bye forever."

"True." Reyna turns and mounts the horse. "If you ever need me..."

"We'll summon you," Ashley says, reaching up to squeeze Reyna's gloved hand. "Safe journey."

"The same to you." Reyna's lips twitch. "I hear your Church's politics are brutal."

"Yes, well..." Ashley ducks her head. Master Leto had shielded her from the worst of the politics, but -- she glanced briefly at Glynne -- he hadn't sheltered her. And she had Glynne. He understood politics. Master Leto had made sure of that.

"You'll manage them." Reyna squeezes her hand.

Yes. She had Glynne and Master Leto's supporters. And soon she'd have her own. And when she was Pope, she'd freely associate with all of her friends. As Reyna said, she'd show her Church -- her country -- that the people in the Stag Domain were their cousins.