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How the times do change, Ledah thought as he watched Ein frown and peer carefully into the darkness ahead, absently shaking his Diviner clean of demon blood. Had it truly been only a few months since they had been separated at Heaven’s Gate? At that time, Ein had been no more than a bare beginner with a painful lack of knowledge about nearly everything. It was true that he had fair combat instincts and might make a decent warrior someday, but Ledah had been utterly sure that that day was long in coming.

 

It simply couldn’t be helped that they’d been assigned together; only three angels had been able to pass the rigorous demands of the Grim Angel trials, and as Hector had kept Malice behind to prepare her for her own mission, Ein had been decreed Ledah’s support. There hadn’t been time to train the boy properly, and so he’d been given his Familiar in the hope that she would be enough to teach him the basics on the fly, as it were.

 

Ein hadn’t known how to do anything other than point, stare, ask hundreds of questions, and swing his sword around. He’d have driven any other angel mad with irritation in a trice, and only the fact that Ledah had known him for years and his blunted emotions kept him from getting fed up. Even so, he’d certainly found the boy’s inexperience to be quite tiring.

 

So who was this quietly confident youth who danced circles around demons with skill near to Ledah’s own? Where did that self-assurance come from, and how had Ein attained the strength to strike blows with a force that the old Ledah would have envied?

 

Ledah had known that Ein and the Sprites who followed him had done battle with the Accursed, but it wasn’t until he’d actually witnessed Ein do battle that he realized what it meant. The Accursed were the most powerful of demons released into Riviera; of course Ein would have to grow in strength to combat them properly.

 

But to have come so far in so short a time…

 

“I think the path goes on for a little more past here,” Ein concluded at last. “Ledah, Rose—are you two ready? Do you need to stop and rest, or should we go on?”

 

“(We’re good, so any day now would be nice,)” the Familiar remarked dryly.

 

Ledah was silent for a moment longer, giving Ein a measuring stare.

 

“…What is it?” Ein asked, giving Ledah a bewildered look.

 

“It’s nothing—let’s go,” Ledah said at last.

 

I suppose he’s simply growing up, the blond angel decided. …Why is it that it pains me to understand that fact…?

 

-               -               -

 

I never thought things would have changed this much in only a couple of months, Ein thought to himself, peeking discreetly at Ledah as they continued down the blue-violet tiles of the labyrinth.

 

For as long as Ein could remember, Ledah had always been like an unshakable pillar of strength—always there, and always standing firmly between the young angel and whatever threatened him. Ledah had been his mentor, his protector, his—everything for so long. In Ein’s eyes, Ledah had had no faults, no failings, and no weaknesses.

 

But now…

 

Gods, Ein had never really realized. He’d been aware in a vague way that he’d gotten stronger since he’d come to Riviera, though it was more that he knew he was more competent now. But now that he was fighting alongside Ledah again…

 

Only a few months ago, Ein had trailed along in utter awe of Ledah’s prowess in battle, watching as his companion dealt death to countless demons and escaped almost all the harm they tried to inflict on him. Whatever injuries he’d taken had been minor, and nothing—nothing—had been able to stand against him for long. If it hadn’t been Ledah, it would’ve been incredibly daunting.

 

But now… now, Ein was fighting as hard as he’d ever fought and it seemed like he and Ledah were on the same level, or like—like—

 

He felt guilty even thinking it, but he couldn’t help it. The veneer of Ledah’s strength had worn away under the hard barrage of battle, and—

 

Ledah was so much more fragile, so much more breakable than Ein remembered him being. There were battles they’d had in this godsforsaken place where Ledah had clearly been struggling, and when Ein had easily struck the finishing blows… It was a strange and helpless feeling. Ein had never wanted to surpass Ledah—he’d been happy the way things were—but it seemed as though that was precisely what was happening.

 

And when Ein saw Ledah running short of breath, when he saw Ledah bleeding… he didn’t know what he was supposed to do anymore.

 

-               -               -

 

“…can hear me, then… Ledah, please, just… just look at me, okay?”

 

Ledah couldn’t quite prevent the pained moan that escaped him as he opened his eyes and tried to clear his blurry vision, turning towards the source of the voice as he raised an arm to his aching head. When his fingers brushed his forehead, he touched something wet and sticky—something that felt suspiciously close to the texture of blood.

 

Blinking, Ledah focused past his hand to Ein’s worried face above him.

 

“Ein… what…?”

 

Ein’s eyes widened, and he heaved a shaky sigh. “Ledah—thank the gods, I’ve been so worried about you… That demon hit you pretty hard—well, it did seem to be one of the Accursed, but… Ledah, you scared me for a minute there.”

 

“…………” Memory returned quickly at that. He and Ein had been confronting the demon that resembled a skeleton in death rags, and he’d been careless for a moment—he remembered the pain of a severe blow, and nothing after that. Ein must have won the battle on his own after that.

 

That realization, and what it meant, settled uncomfortably in Ledah’s mind. He didn’t want to consider it any longer, and so he tried to push himself up. “We should continue on, or—” Pain—sudden, crippling pain—silenced him and put an end to his attempt to stand. Dizzy with agony, Ledah slumped back down into a protective pair of arms, and only then realized that he’d been resting on Ein’s lap.

 

“Careful,” Ein murmured, his eyes dark with concern. “Your wounds were… well, it’ll be a little bit before the healing potion we gave you takes full effect. Rose is keeping watch in case more demons show up, so we can stay here until then.”

 

“I see.” Sighing, Ledah closed his eyes.

 

There was a long silence, and then Ledah felt Ein shift a little. “…Hey… I was thinking, Ledah… after we get out of here, would you consider—coming with me?”

 

Ledah nearly sat up again, but settled for staring intensely up at Ein. The younger angel’s expression was perfectly earnest, even if his eyes were still worried. “Preposterous.”

 

“Why?” Ein countered. “Why is it so preposterous? I’m trying to get rid of the demons, just like you are. At the heart of it, we want the same thing—to protect Asgard. Don’t we? I mean—just look at this, how far we’ve come together… despite the time we spent apart. If there’s a better way to stop the demons than the Retribution, shouldn’t we take it? Everyone would be so happy to have you along with us—my friends, and the people of Elendia, too.”

 

At least this hadn’t changed—Ein was still adept at painting beautiful pictures of his naïve dreams. In that moment, Ledah could almost see it—he could almost see himself fighting side by side with Sprites to be with Ein, defending Asgard the way Ein chose to do so. But the understanding Ledah had of the bigger picture banished the images as soon as they formed, and he knew what Ein was really asking underneath it all.

 

“We can’t go back to the way things were,” he said simply.

 

“Why not?” Ein asked stubbornly. “What’s stopping us? We haven’t changed so much—we’ve come this far, and it’s been enough like it was! Please come with me—I won’t let anybody say anything against you, I swear—”

 

Ah, but I have changed more than you can understand. “It can’t be,” Ledah said again, making an effort to soften the words for Ein’s sake. “You and I have changed enough that we can no longer return. You made that clear enough yourself when you told me your promise to Ursula was more important to you than the orders you’ve been given by the Magi.” By Hector, their proctor—by a man who held near to the authority of a god.

 

Ein scowled, his eyes damp. “You can say that all you want, but no matter how much you or I have changed, I still—”

 

“Stop.” But it was too late; Ledah knew what Ein would have said, and it made his chest tighten with an alien sensation akin to pain—a sensation Ledah no longer had the proper words to describe. “The man you made that promise to does not exist any longer. Those are dangerous words to bandy about in a place like this.”

 

“He doesn’t exist?” Ein repeated softly. “I see him right here, Ledah.” So softly, so gently, he touched Ledah’s cheek, running his fingertips over the pale skin with the utmost tenderness. “He’s right here in front of me. He’s still got my ring.”

 

Ledah’s fingers went compulsively to his cravat, closing over the gold band on its thin chain beneath the white cloth.

 

“If the promises we made didn’t mean anything to you, you’d have gotten rid of that,” Ein pointed out. “But you still have it, don’t you?”

 

Ledah did not reply.

 

“You haven’t changed as much as all that. And no matter how I’ve changed, I’ll always feel the same about this,” Ein whispered, and leaned down.

 

Ledah closed his eyes as he felt warm lips close over his own, as his body matched the demand in the kiss as if by reflex. He had not quite forgotten the power of touch, although his desire for it had been subsumed along with his other emotional wants and needs when he had been transformed. If he’d still had the capacity for shock, then the immediate response of mouth and tongue and blood and pounding heart would have quite shocked him indeed.

 

As things were, in place of desire, Ledah felt empty and confused.

 

“Just think about it,” Ein told him when at last they drew apart. “We’ve still got a ways to go before you’ll have to decide.”

 

There is no decision, Ledah thought. It does not matter that at the heart of things, you have not changed. I no longer feel the way you do, because I no longer feel. Your pleas, your naïve desires matter nothing to me. I have my orders, and as long as the Retribution is the will of the gods, then it is my duty to see it done.

 

But for whatever reason, Ledah couldn’t voice those thoughts, couldn’t deliberately crush Ein’s childish expectations.

 

Maybe some things would never change.