Part I: Dreams of Memories | Part II: Waking Life | Part III: The End of All Things
Fandom | Cast: Final Fantasy X. Braska-centric without a doubt. Auron and Jecht, of course, and a bit of young Yuna. Big roles for the aeons/fayth — most especially Bahamut and Shiva, but plenty for Ixion, Ifrit, and Valefor too.
Rating | Warnings: PG, so very gen. Spoilers for the whole game. Canonical character death, death of a bystander with slightly gory detail.
For: darthneko's prompt in ff_exchange 2007 - "FFX: Braska, summoning"
Betas: owlmoose, renay, seventhe, with more thanks than I can say
Total Word Count: 43,500
Summary: Bahamut has a plan. Braska has a purpose. The two don't always coincide, and a pattern slowly grows, drawn in light on stone. A three-part arc detailing Braska's path to becoming a High Summoner.
Chapter Title: Part II - Waking Life
Chapter Word Count: 14,200
Chapter Summary: After his dreaming, there is a waking life. What must Braska bring together in the waking world, that Bahamut would entrust him with his terrible dream?
@ff_press: [FFX] justira: Clarion (2) - Waking Life (Braska, Auron, Jecht, Yuna, Bahamut, Shiva) (PG) (14,200 words)
He had woken once, a memory waking from a dream, and there is a precious eternity of waking to remember before the dreams come again, forever.
Braska's eyes snapped open. He startled awake in his small bed, his heart racing and his hand reaching instinctively out into the blind dark.
She was asleep, safe; breathing soft, small, and calm.
Braska closed his eyes, sitting up and settling the limbs that had splayed in panic; and on the floor where he knelt beside his sleeping daughter, he prayed.
He thought of the whisper of sand across the desert, the cool touch of shadow, the languid passing of hot afternoons. He thought of the towering halls of machina, the comforting electronic buzz permeating the air and the startling soft touch of a hand amidst the hard, cold machinery, the look of laughter soaked in spiraling green...
He opened his eyes, and lay his hand on Yuna's forehead. It felt cool and dry against his clammy hand.
This, he knew they would say, was no kind of prayer.
He had many years of lessons and prayer and meditation behind him. There was, he had found, more comfort now in his fond sacrilege. He had need of comfort. Since she had died... he had been waking nights, hazy recollections of bright, open days and cold, fearful nights.
Tonight was different. He remembered.
Braska sighed, and stood to face what had woken him. His bare back prickled under the touch of moonlight in the open air. He drew breath in, drew the energy in as he remembered doing long ago, as he had done in that first Sending he had not danced. Her Sending, and not even hers but for the other folk on that ship. Summoner no longer, he, not then— anathema, blasphemer-priest, fallen. But he knew the ways, and he had breathed in the energy illicit and precious, calling the pyreflies then, as he did now. And now, with the power came the fear, crawling along his spine, settling there, choking down his throat into his gut.
Braska breathed, and waited. It was only fear.
And as he waited, the fear dissolved into the familiar watchfulness, and from there to simple expectation. Simple, waiting purpose.
The Cloister would be empty this time of night, reverberant with the hymn, with solitude, with expectation.
He could go.
He could go alone.
He touched Yuna's forehead again, brushed away a strand of hair.
Bahamut could wait.
The light of morning spread clear and cool across his bed. The covers lay where Braska had tossed them hours before, and the sun was slow in warming the floor beneath his bare feet. He was sitting up, waiting for Yuna to wake on her pallet across from him.
The light crept delicately across the thin rug, and touched, softly, so softly, on her outstretched hand, landing on a tiny finger like a stray pyrefly. He remembered how she had reached for them during the Sending, and how he hadn't stopped her, had drawn them in himself. He still remembered how...
His elbows were propped on his knees. His feet were planted on the cool floor. The rough sheets lay crumpled and uncomfortable beneath him. The everyday sensations felt alien; he felt empty; and the floor offered no support, his shoulders bending into a sagging bow above his hands.
Oh, Yevon, he did not want to go.
He watched the slow slide of sunshine, watched it pool in Yuna's hand, watched her small chest rise and fall, and his heart lay raw within him. His throat tightened as the light spilled gently across her chest, cresting slowly on her neck.
He wanted to watch her forever. He wanted to watch the sun wake her slowly each day, farther and farther to go each year, wanted to watch her eyes open, blue and green, and watch them find his, instantly. Wanted to welcome that inevitable clutch of grief until it became as familiar as his breath and did no more than make his daughter look all the more beautiful...
What he wanted. What he wanted to give.
Only fear, he had thought. In the dark of night, in the waning moonlight, with Bahamut's breath thrilling down his spine. Only fear. Bahamut offered a purpose, a path.
Yuna. His purpose. His path. He brought his hands up and rested his face in them. He squeezed his eyes shut.
When he wept, it was silently, and Yuna did not wake.
Had he known, always, what he would do? He had used grief to run from decisions before, thinking he had made the harder choice when all he had done was turn his back at the crossroads. Had he learned how to grieve, since then? There were many ways of being what one must be. He had learned that much—in this temple, in the desert. Takla had said it was hate and anger that fogged the path. Zakel had walked his path because he'd believed he had nothing left to lose. Who was Braska to decide that in setting out with a heavy heart, in losing everything, there lay more hope?
Bahamut had not called him. Bahamut had never called him, on those nights Braska would wake panting in fear, in anger yet unnamed. Bahamut's strength lay in the harsh light of day, in the dispassionately cruel light cast into the dark places of mens' hearts, in the sunlight that broke the calm spell of night and crept across the threadbare rug. The light that heralded the end of dreaming. Braska had dreamed, he had remembered the choices he'd made, and he had known what needed protecting most. Bahamut had answered, and along the path Bahamut opened lay a thousand mornings he wouldn't watch the sun frost Yuna's face in gold, and a thousand fathers who could watch their daughters wake, a thousand mothers who would be there with them. And a thousand days Yuna could live without the fear he'd dreamed of, the fear he had woken from on an early autumn evening years ago.
Who was he to walk this path that would not bear the weight of anger...
Along that path...
Oh, Yevon. He did not want to go.
He lifted his head as the sun reached Yuna's face. Through all his wandering vagaries, his indecisions and hesitations, his mistakes... there lay one clear and precious thing. Across from him, waking slowly in the soft light, lay Yuna.
How is one gift to be measured greater than another? He thought of Yuna reaching for the pyreflies, he thought of cold, he thought of Home. He knew that a future without fear was worth the giving.
Yuna opened her eyes, blinking in the sun, and found his own, dry and smiling.
"Come," he said, his throat as dry as his eyes. The familiar hand of grief lay gently on his heart. "We must visit an old friend today."
She nodded solemnly, and took his large hand in hers.
The path to the main temple from their small room was long. Braska had noticed before: Bevelle kept some of her sins closer than others.
His stride was slow. For Yuna. For this morning, first or last or just one of many.
Yuna's hand was small in his. She blinked around in the bright, cool sunshine, quietly taking everything in, as always. He looked around, too, at the vast halls and open spaces that had never quite been his home. He thought of the machina hidden in their core, of the hymn whispering through the buzz of pyreflies and circuitry, a thin veil over the deeper truth. Peace and irony, sin and prayer. Bevelle.
Takla lived close to the temple, respected as he was. Not the head priest, no maester, but too old, too full of strange ideas, and loved by too many to not be kept close. Braska's lip quirked in spite of himself.
The walk was long, but Yuna did not complain, and when they reached Takla's house, she held Braska's hand tight. Braska knocked and waited until the door slid open, much less creaky than its master.
"Father." Braska bowed in prayer. Yuna let go his hand, and bowed quietly, too.
Takla's lined face lit with a smile, and he reached his papery hands to follow Braska's voice. Braska felt the thick, bony fingers slide down his cheek. "My son," rumbling warm and deep and whispery, sounding pleased and weary, and Braska remembered the first time Takla had called him that.
Braska knelt to pick up Yuna, resting his cheek on her soft hair. Takla's cloudy eyes widened, then crinkled with pleasure. "And little Yuna! Hello, young lady."
"Hello." Her voice was small but clear, and Braska's throat went dry again.
"What brings this family to my door before the morning prayer? Come in, come in." He waved them inside, and closed the door. Braska set Yuna down, whispered to her that they wouldn't be long. He touched her nose playfully and she crinkled it at him, shedding for a heart-wrenching moment the recent habit of her seriousness. Braska swallowed, and straightened up, following Takla to the other end of the cramped room.
"Father Takla." His throat had stuck, and he closed his eyes and thought of Home. He did not want to open them again. But he looked up, and spoke, rasping and dry-mouthed. "I think... it is time I walked the summoner's path."
Takla had busied himself pouring them water. At Braska's words he froze, and set the glass in his trembling hand down; for all his care it still clattered against the table before he stilled it. When he turned, the look in his eyes echoed down Braska's memory to another sunlit day when he had contemplated a path to walk. He saw a heavy swallow lodge in Takla's throat, but when he spoke, the priest's voice was steady and tight, the tremula of age painfully controlled. "You are sure?"
Braska glanced aside, across the room, to where Yuna knelt quietly in the corner, tracing tentative fingers over some of Takla's scrolls, mouthing words, her brow furrowed in concentration. He met Takla's eyes again. "There are... some gifts that are hard to give and hard to receive. But they are worth the price. Perhaps in greater sacrifice lies the hope of greater peace."
Takla closed his eyes. "Bevelle will not look favourably on this."
If Braska had laughed, there would have been too much bitterness. He smiled, and his smile was full of irony. "There are many ways to walk one path. They do not need to train me again."
"You will need a guardian."
Braska did not even need a moment's pause to think; his mind slid across a course laid out years ago, down the halls of his memory to a private breathless moonlit moment, to sharp eyes meeting his in a crowd; a face, a fayth, and the story of a fallen monk. He swallowed an acid laugh; oh yes, in the light of day the forming pattern was clear, a path straight and gilded and stormy underneath, like the trail of a sunset at sea. He itched with a faint resistance as the knowledge slid seamlessly into place, like a bitter gift, but he knew the choice a good one. "I think there is someone else Bevelle has little love for who might follow me."
Takla opened his eyes and looked at him. Braska wanted to turn away from the weariness he saw there, from the grief he felt too much kinship with. "Braska." Takla sighed, heavy and rasping. "You did not come here for an old man's stuttering protests."
Braska did close his eyes, then. He turned away before opening them, looked at Yuna as she knelt in the sun, eyes fixed on a scroll, green and blue. "Bevelle... can be cruel..."
He felt Takla's hand touch his cheek again, tremulous with age. "I will watch after her... my son." The emphasis on his last words was slight and soft: a reminder of care, not meant to hurt. Braska did not want to name the things he heard in it. There was only so much irony he could bear.
And for a moment Braska felt both young and old, lost and a little cold, and he could only whisper, "Thank you."
Braska gathered Yuna up and left Takla's house. Her soft little arms clasped around his neck and she hugged him, impulsive and grave, perhaps sensing that he was... a little overwrought. His heart constricted around an urge to keep holding on to her, hold her close for a few more moments, for a minute, forever... He waited until she stopped squeezing, and leaned away from her, a swell of emotion stretching his mouth into a smile. "Tell me, my little lady, have you ever seen the warrior monks?"
Her eyes lit up, but she shook her head with slow dignity. "I know where they are, though!" She turned and pointed unerringly to the training grounds. A soft summer breeze caught her hair and brushed it against Braska's face.
"Well, we need to go see one today." His smile faded slightly, and he set Yuna down. He caught her smooth brow furrowing slightly— she was always quick to sense his moods, if not their causes. So much like her mother...
He knelt down beside her, schooling his face to gravity, meeting her eyes squarely. He spoke with utter solemnity.
Her eyes widened in surprise, then in delight— narrowed in swift mischief and she took off, slippered feet shush-slapping on the walkway. Her laughter trilled across the wide space, and he watched her for a moment, a little girl running across one of the airy bridges of Bevelle, the Macalania forest distant and beautiful behind her.
And then he ran, letting the clenching in his throat bubble up as laughter, edges a little wild and loose-ragged, but ringing true, true and unfettered. The wind rushed through his growing hair—recovering from the Al Bhed-short shearing—and his loose tunic and trousers flapped about him as he made much a production of loudly huffing and puffing after Yuna. He reflected with wry amusement that he would have looked downright silly had he opted for his priest's robes that day—or, Yevon forbid, the summoner's surplice he had earned and never worn—stumbling over the low hem and wallowing in the heavy fabrics. But today he was just a father chasing his delightedly shrieking daughter across Bevelle, spooking the acolytes.
Though, he thought, it would have been quite a show. Perhaps he could race Yuna again sometime soon, properly attired.
He caught up to her as she rounded a corner— and she leapt out at him from behind the curve. His breath wuffed out in a startled bark of laughter, but he caught her up, desert-quick reflexes only a little dulled with time and grief, and spun her around in the air. She spread her arms out wide, laughing with him. "I can fly like Bahamut! Like a speeder!"
Braska's heart skipped a beat, a long wariness and a dull ache, but his laughter continued unabated until he swung Yuna around once more and back down. Her downy hair was mussed, and her eyes, mismatched and lovely, sparkled. He smoothed her hair away, and took her hand again. She was still catching her breath, but she turned willingly to lead on, pulling at their linked hands.
She was a good child.
She was his life and his heart, as her mother had been before her. And she had just begun to recover, the frozen mask of solemnity thawing away from her features—soft, mobile features, too young to be frozen so. They had... both begun to recover, to reclaim memories of deserts and machines as good ones, worth a smile, worth a laugh-laden exclamation of sheer joy. They had just begun to recover... and that was the very reason he was leaving now. He would give anything to see all her days as free and full of laughter as these few moments had been.
By the time they had made their way to the monks' quarters the sun had risen well above the horizon, and the monks were finishing their morning exercises. They stopped at the edge of the court, Yuna's gravity returning as she retreated to an out-of-the-way corner to watch. Braska watched her take them all in, then turned to look himself, searching out a particular face among the many.
There: alone, in the back, movements smooth and fluid. And the eyes, rising to meet his at the end of the exercise, dark amber and sharp below a fierce sweep of brow. No hatred in them now, but a tinge of bitterness and touchy pride in a mobile, earnest face.
Braska knew the name—from Bevelle rumour, a star rising and falling—and the face—from a wakeful night, a healing, a chance encounter years ago. But he had never met the man.
He cast a look back to make sure Yuna had not moved, and went forward to meet Auron, crossing at the edges of the open practice court. No one bowed, but he saw eyes flicker towards him, heard the susurrus of voices rustle up in his wake. His clothes were rumpled from his run, and ill-befitting his station anyway. And he was the blasphemer-priest, the fallen summoner, run away to the desert to wed a heathen Al Bhed, never mind that he had been just as ignominiously rejected there, too. And his daughter with her mismatched eyes stood quietly in the shadow of the courtyard walls behind him. Braska kept his eyes on Auron, but he could still see how the others' gazes flicked furtively to the back wall, and away, back to their practice.
But Auron looked steadily at him as Braska approached, and took a single step to meet him at the court's edge.
Braska stopped a comfortable distance away, though as he took his last step he caught a near-imperceptible tension in the corners of Auron's mouth, in the stiffening of his spine. Braska disguised a half-step back, as if he were only settling his stance into an open friendliness.
"You must be Auron," he said. And again a line of touchy tension, the fierce brow furrowing, mouth tightening, though this time Braska could guess its cause. Auron knew what to expect next: I've heard of you. But Braska continued: "I've heard of your skill with a blade."
Auron still eyed Braska a little warily, but something seemed to ease in him at Braska's choice of words. He inclined his head, a wisp of hair escaping his queue. "Lord Braska." Of course he'd heard of Braska as well, and who hadn't? But at least he had the grace not to say so— and not only with his words, but with his eyes, meeting Braska's own steadily, not looking away, or flitting off to stare at the odd-eyed little girl leaning against the courtyard wall. For all his demonstrated lack of political skill, Auron was not dead to niceties. Braska smiled.
"I have a proposition for you, Auron. I think we know we both have little reputation left to lose. But I have indeed heard of your skills, and I think they show your merit more. I ask you: lend me your blade." Auron's eyes widened, anticipating his next words. Braska still hesitated on them, one last time, willing his eyes to remain on Auron's, not to glance to the shadows of the walls behind him, before committing himself down his path. "I am embarking on a pilgrimage. Please, be my guardian."
He sensed the energy ever-present in the temple thicken slightly, sensed the expectant attention's sharpened focus, the heat of sun-warmed stone beneath his feet.
The nooning sun beat down on them, hard and hot and merciless in the silent moment, their eyes meeting in the clear light and— Braska's throat was dry, and he swallowed, as for an instant he sensed again the edging echoes of a dreamer's restless rage, and Auron's eyes glinting a-sudden with a lighter hue, sun-gold and sharp. The whisper of a vision there, sun-struck, a child who was no child, a child who would never grow into a man, unblinking golden stare layered over eyes of a sullied, mortal umber: a pattern forming in lines of cruel light.
Braska blinked, and the moment passed.
And Auron bowed to him, according him the full respect due a summoner. "I would be honoured, my lord."
Braska's smile, faltering for a moment in the sunlit pause, widened, and a thread of tension in him—around him, underneath him, winding down and down—relaxed, though his heart grew no lighter. "Auron, please stand up. We have no need for formality here." For all that Braska's tone was light, Auron's eyes widened. Braska had layered the meanings carefully, transparent enough on the surface. But underneath, if one knew to look... Auron knew it, too, then: the awkward familiarity, the strange and silent kinship born on a wakeful night, with never a word exchanged. He must feel it, Braska thought, the cord, the chord, that bound them together. Well and so, the link was acknowledged, however obliquely. Braska turned the subject to mundane matters, continuing with barely a pause: "It'll be a long journey. How long will you need to get ready?"
"I have no duties here, sir." Braska caught the barest hint of a wry twist to Auron's lips, and began to suspect that buried underneath the discipline and ruffled sense of honour, there might lurk a sense of humour as well, much put upon. "I can leave immediately."
Braska nodded, and did turn then, to look at Yuna. "Thank you, Auron. But give me a day." He turned back. "I'll meet you outside the main gates at noon."
Braska caught Auron aborting another bow, looking a little lost without a protocol to follow; young, for all his skill, young and full of a fiery conviction. Auron settled on a respectful nod. "Yes, my lord."
They parted ways. And Braska's heart was thudding in his ears, beating through the soles of his feet, much too fast for the song that answered in slow swells from underneath.
Braska sat Yuna down on his bed, and knelt in front of her. He took her hands, and looked her in the eyes, her beautiful eyes. His throat was dry.
He took a deep breath.
"Yuna. I have something very important to tell you." She nodded solemnly. Braska had conceived of no plan but honesty, the pain that cut clean and deep. And still he wished he didn't have to speak. "I have to go on pilgrimage."
Yuna bit her lip and looked down, away. "You're leaving."
Braska chucked her chin gently, prompting her to look at him again. He smiled for her. "I would never leave you for anything that was less important than your safety and happiness. My heart, believe me... I don't want to leave you." His throat was growing thick, his tongue clumsy, as he watched Yuna's eyes fill with tears. They coursed down her cheeks, ignored, as she watched him, shaking her head. Braska stopped himself blowing his breath out in frustration at upsetting her, at getting this wrong. So many reasons, and he scarce understood, himself. How could he explain? He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and took her by the shoulders. She sniffled once, and he looked up to see her swipe a hand across her face, impatient at her own tears.
"Yuna." His voice had a raw edge; it grated on his ears as he tried to gentle it for her.
She shook her head again, stubbornly. "You're leaving. You're leaving like— like mother." She hung her head, and her shoulders shook silently beneath his hands, small and hopeless sobs.
Braska's heart broke, Braska's heart was breaking into a thousand pieces as it had once, twice before. Oh, Yuna! I never meant to hurt you! Yuna's grief, naked with her aching youth, shot like an arrow through his heart, the part of his heart that he had given away, and lost to Sin, twice over. It edged on memories that still lay raw within him, wounds not yet fully healed— but acknowledged, carefully acknowledged, not shut away behind an angry adolescent numbness but accepted, experienced. Living memories, filled with love and laughter and aching grief, filled with hopeless, wanton feeling.
Braska took his daughter's gently shuddering shoulders, so small and fragile in his hands, and enfolded Yuna in his arms. She threw her arms around his neck, the second time that day, seeking comfort rather than giving it, slipping off the bed and falling into him where he knelt. He clasped his arms about her, desperate and gentle, squeezed his eyes shut, and he murmured to her, holding her as she cried, "Yuna, I love you, I will always love you, my heart, my dearest, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Forgive me, I love you, I loved your mother, I want you to be happy, I love you, I love you." He didn't shush her, didn't tell her anything but what poured out of his heart. Cry, cry yourself out Yuna... I'm sorry...
Yuna cried. Yuna cried very quietly, and when her shoulders stopped shaking with it, she simply held him, held onto him, clutching at his tunic. Braska cradled her, one hand buried in her cloud-soft hair, another across her back, inadequate shelter against the vast and pitiless world. He had done his weeping that morning, silently, privately, when Yuna could not know. But he wanted to weep again, kneeling on the hard floor in this little room, holding his daughter in their threadbare clothes.
But there had been enough tears in their lives. More than enough. He opened his eyes, and he knew they were wet and full. He blinked a few times, trying to clear them. "Yuna." She squeezed him harder, burying her face in his shoulder. "Yuna, I will think of you every moment of my journey. You and your mother. I will miss you terribly."
"Come back!" she whispered fiercely into his shoulder, hands fisting his clothes, huddling in his embrace. "Come back come back come back!"
His heart lurched. He wished he could look at her; he wished he could hold her forever and not go anywhere. He wished...
"I promise it. I promise I'll return here, I promise I will see you again." And, lest he break her heart again, and harder: "But you know that afterwards I must leave for Zanarkand."
Her shoulders tensed, and she trembled, a tiny tremor. He could feel her heart, a soft frantic beat like the wings of a caged bird. He clenched his eyes shut again.
"I will see you again, Yuna! I swear it. Yuna, we went to see the warrior monks today. Do you remember, I talked to one of them? His name is Auron, and he's coming with me. He will protect me. He's very strong." He was babbling. But Yuna's trembling eased, and he remembered her watching the monks, sharp little eyes alert. "Auron will be my guardian, and he will make sure I come back here safe and see you again." He eased her back, and but for a brief moment of resistance, clutching at him, she let him. He sought her eyes, mouth running dry as he saw them, red-rimmed and bleary. But he met those eyes squarely, and forced his voice to calm and gentleness. "I love you, Yuna. I promise I will come back."
She nodded, then looked down. He took her face in his hands, and pressed his lips to her forehead. He gave her one last embrace, quick and fierce. Then he sat back on his heels, still clasping her hands in his.
Yuna heaved in one long shuddering breath, corralling the last of her sobs, eyes on the ground. "I'll miss you," she said. Braska's chest felt hollow, chafed raw. She was such a good child... No tantrums, no denials. She cried, just as he had, and then shouldered the burden he placed on her. An aching thread of love and wonder wound around his heart, squeezing his throat, at the thought of this child, this child they had made together, he and she. For her, for Yuna, for both of them... he had to go.
Oh, Yevon, but he did not want to. Yuna was a braver soul than he. Just as her mother had been.
Braska squeezed Yuna's hands lightly. "I'll miss you too, Yuna."
She sighed, very quietly, and looked up at him again. "What will happen to me until you come back?"
Braska smiled at her, aching with pride and regret. "Father Takla will take care of you. Is that all right?"
She nodded, then looked down again. "When are you leaving?"
Braska closed his eyes briefly, swallowed. "Tomorrow. But tonight—" he squeezed her hands, urging her to look up at him again. "Tonight, I will be right here. With you."
She threw herself into his embrace again, and they held each other for a long time before Braska began to make ready for his journey.
Braska's eyes were open, staring into the dark. Yuna was by his side, small and warm against him as they shared his bed, as they had all three used to do.
But it was colder, and he was older, without her warmth beside them.
He closed his eyes, reaching out into the blind black, calling out silently, drawing the pyreflies to him. And they came, and he felt the touch of an alien awareness, vast and implacable. And patient. Waiting. Distant. Bahamut offered him no solace, no companionship, no words. But then, he never had.
He had thought once that Yevon offered such solace, that in Yevon could be found peace, a peace he could carry with him and pass on to others. He had since... come to believe that the peace came from within.
And was that the absence he felt in his life, in his heart? Love... were you my peace, as well as my heart?
He blew out his breath in a slow, lonely sigh, cradling Yuna closer. And he closed his eyes and thought of Home, of hot blazing days, of her. He did not dream that night— he did not sleep, awash in memories, clutching close the present moment, this waking life, this brief spell of time in which he could hold Yuna before he had to let her go.
Braska eyed the layered summoner's surplice with some misgivings. He hadn't worn it since he'd earned it, and he had gotten used to his mismatched mix of Al Bhed and civilian garments. But if he were to play the role he had abandoned... he had responsibilities. Not only to Yuna, to himself... but to all the people of Spira. Do not hate those among whom you will walk... He sighed at the memory of Takla's words, at the overconfident foolishness that had lain behind his puzzlement at them. He knew better, now, what it meant.
He wormed his way into the heavy robe, grown a little tight across the shoulders since he had earned it years ago. He had liked the look of the outfit then: many-layered, deceptively simple. He had found it a fittingly ironic garment. Now it felt heavy, weighing his shoulders down with expectations: the people's... Bahamut's... Yuna's... and his own.
He took his staff, its shaft seeming unfamiliar and delicate in his grip. His hands had grown, broadened, roughened. He smoothed his other hand down the collared vestment, the ornate ceremonial girdle, the long sleeves. They had no mirror here; they couldn't afford it.
He heard a soft shuffle behind him, and turned to see Yuna leaning around the doorframe between the two rooms of their dwelling, watching him. He had missed her waking. He needed no mirror; he saw it in her face, naked with youth: awe, wariness, an edge of fear.
He looked like a summoner. Yuna had never seen him thus.
Braska knelt, and opened his arms to her. She ran into them, unhesitating, and he held her there, dirtying the knees of his pristine robe, his heart aching with fierce joy for every moment of it. "Come back," she whispered once more, voice small and muffled in his heavy surplice.
"I will, Yuna. I will come back to you." Once more, a promise, fierce and gentle.
He held her for a while longer, feeling her minute trembling. She clutched at the wide collar of his vestment. And then her grip eased, if not her shaking, and she stepped back slightly, raising red-rimmed eyes to meet his. His heart stuttered with fierce, mournful pride in her. He put his hands on her cheeks. "I am so proud of you, Yuna. You are brave and strong and beautiful. You just have to be my brave girl a little while longer."
She nodded, silent tears coursing down her cheeks, wetting his hands. He kissed her forehead, and she wiped her face, quickly, and took one of his hands. He stood, and they went to Takla's house, where their goodbyes were brief and unwontedly formal.
Come back. There was nothing more to say.
Braska turned away as Takla rested a tremulous hand on Yuna's head. His steps were steady as he approached the main temple, his robes feeling heavy and hollow.
The Cloister was awash with light and the echoes of Bahamut's hymn. Braska had navigated it once before in the hush of night, alone. He'd had no heart to notice how weirdly beautiful it was, then. He had been too terrified, too angry.
This time he had come in the light of day, with a guardian at his side—one who glared at the priests' dubious looks as they'd ascended the temple steps.
Only the terror had not changed.
But terror was only fact, only the thrum of blood in his veins, the hot-cold rush along his nerves. Braska shook his head, and clicked the first sphere into place. Hands firm, suppressing a tremor of tension.
Auron watched him, hovering, brows furrowing and eyes widening as Braska navigated the complicated puzzle. Braska threw a grin over one shoulder as the second sphere slid home with a satisfying click. "Don't get any grandiose ideas about my acumen, Auron. I've done this before."
"Sir! You have... approached Bahamut?"
"They do call me a fallen summoner, Auron." A wide smile—perhaps a touch hard-edged—at the absurdity of it all. "Yes, I did try, and Bahamut..." Braska had gained the third sphere, and he slid it between his hands, mind far away. "He told me I was not ready. And he was quite right." He slid the sphere home with a confident finality. It was some time, gathering the next spheres, thinking back to that first meeting, the day that had preceded it, before Braska spoke again. "I have a feeling this time..." The sphere felt alive in his hands, vibrating with the energies of the Cloister. Familiar. He knew this feeling, knew this place, knew the familiar touch of foreboding. He smoothed his fingers across the sphere's flawless surface, walking absently to the final pedestal. He paused before it, finishing his thought aloud. "Well. It would be unwise to bet on the whims of the fayth. Let us just say I have had dealings with Bahamut before."
Braska clicked the sphere home, his hands warming as it wakened beneath them. Pushed the pedestal into place, and let the Cloister's path carry him to its end. He glanced once to the side to nod at Auron, who was attempting to mask his perplexed look with a formal stoicism, then opened the door and entered the Chamber once more.
The room still echoed with song and the faint buzz of electricity, and the statue was as he remembered it, mighty and beautiful and strange. Braska knelt before it.
He breathed deep, letting his mind drift in, down, calling out from a place somewhere near his heart, from behind his dreams, from beside his unabated terror. He wondered, was this what calling an aeon would be like? He pled his case—praying, they might call it—silently and briefly, simply laying open his mind to the touch of the pyreflies careening around him, baring it for Bahamut to see: his intent, his tangled feelings. The dark places of his heart, laid out into the light, of his own volition; no other's hand forcing him to it this time, no need for words of a cruel and dispassionate honesty to show him where the flaws lay.
And he waited.
His mind drifted, settling on the thought of the man waiting outside the door. His guardian. And what did Bahamut intend for them? He could feel Bahamut's hand on the both of them, plucking at the chord that bound them... or was it a net, a web...
The vast swell of Bahamut's presence crashed upon his awareness, blotting out all thought.
Braska opened his eyes. The great black dragon was waiting. Bahamut inclined his head— and then the dragon was gone and the boy was there. The boy he had dreamed of, a boy he remembered half-seen in the face of the young monk who now guarded his steps.
Silent, as always.
Braska spoke. "I am leaving on my pilgrimage."
"You believe you are ready?"
"I believe... that I have something of immeasurable value to protect. That is all that matters."
The fayth was silent for a time. "You are still afraid."
Braska replied evenly, "Yes." For Yuna, for himself. Afraid of failing. Afraid of succeeding. This life had been like a dream, lucid and bittersweet. He did not say so aloud. He did not need to, under the fayth's fathomless gaze.
Finally, a shake of the head. "You are not ready. You are angry and afraid, and you are not ready."
Braska nodded, unsurprised. He knelt, still, but he met the fayth's gaze squarely. "I am angry, Bahamut. I am grieving still. And I am afraid."
So easy, to say the words, as if the soul-deep tremor was so easy to compass. And why was he more honest with this not-child than with his own? It was that he didn't wish to burden Yuna with his terror. Yet he laid it on the fayth's shoulders unblinking. Well and well, but Bahamut had ever demanded a ruthless honesty of him.
Or did he demand it from himself?
But the fayth should understand, this wish to live. As well as he had once understood his wish to die. "You said you knew something of dreaming. I have dreamed a sweet dream, Bahamut. I wish I dreamt it still."
Something changed in the boy's face—a flicker—something vast and hot— but Braska couldn't catch it, it was gone. The fayth shook his head once more. "Your dreaming ended long ago, summoner. The waking life can be hard, but do you forget your dreaming so easily?"
Braska closed his eyes, slow and deliberate, his throat dry at the memory. Then he opened them once more to regard the fayth. "No, Bahamut. What will you have of me? My heart is raw, and I wish I could wake from these nightmares. But I live. I live. I have said it: I am angry, afraid, and grieving."
The fayth remained motionless, unyielding. "You are awake, summoner, and you are not ready to dream again. I am not coming with you."
Am not. Not will not. Braska caught the delicate wording, and waited.
"I will watch you for a time."
Braska bowed his head and smiled. "Very well."
Outside the Chamber, a sudden weariness overtook him, and he remembered his first exit, stumbling with exhaustion. But— there was Auron's hand, solicitous and respectful at his elbow. He had a guardian now, someone to share this burden, to guide his steps as they inevitably faltered.
He thanked Auron absently, deep in thought. What did Bahamut want? Something was missing.
You are angry and afraid...
He was angry. At Sin. At Yevon. At... himself. Oh yes, he was angry at himself.
Did he hate himself? Was he making the same mistake, that had caused Bahamut to reject him before?
... No. He did not hate living. It was because he loved this life that he was so angry and afraid. It was an old anger, rooted in discoveries he had made years ago, starting with a man with machina in the depths of a temple; fed on the death that had compassed his life. An old anger... why did it burn more brightly and not less?
Bahamut had come to the angry and terrified before. He thought of Zakel's soulless triumphant smile. You are angry and afraid, and you are not ready. Two of three reasons shown to be... inadequate. True, but inadequate.
What was he missing?
I dreamed of fear, Bahamut, and you showed me a path. Why do you close the way now?
He knew Auron was... supposed to be with him. Bahamut had marked him, as clearly as he had marked Braska, with the cold resonance of his implacable, silent anger. They had both rung with its echoes at his touch, like plucked harp strings. He remembered the tension of it making the air between them tremble. But the time of anger was over. And they had both changed, he knew, the blacksmith's son and the Macalanian acolyte. He had seen it in Auron's eyes, in flashes, stolen seconds as their paths crossed: the massive grieving hatred subsiding into implacable determination.
And Braska had changed... he had lost and hated and grieved, and then... he had loved. And that, too, he had lost—but this time... he had let it come: the vast empty sadness, the anger, huge and hot. He thought of home... he thought of Home. He thought of Zanarkand, the last place he would see...
Braska had a guardian. But no guide, nothing but the compass of his heart, that turned inevitably to a small house near the temple. His heart would lead him back to Bevelle— and there it would bid him stay.
It was all leading to Zanarkand...
He remembered a rumour, a whisper. Zanarkand, and a madman, touched by Sin. He remembered the feel of a vast pattern of light seeping slowly through this soul, closing its net about him, a hand constricting about his heart.
He motioned for Auron to follow him to the holding cells.
Braska lay awake, eyes wide, taking in the vast open heavens above him, star-strewn and spectacular. He had not seen open skies like this since... But it was much colder here, the cold as familiar as the vista above him, but the two—the chill, the open sky—each resonated with a different memory, merging sickeningly like a discordant melody.
He felt her absence like a stone in his heart, directionless twin to the pull that was Yuna's; Yuna, his lodestone, pointing him ever homeward.
And he felt, too, the absence of the hymn, of the pyreflies threaded with it. The press of energies, heavy and expectant. Gone.
Open. It was so open here. So cold.
Jecht's snoring really was quite spectacular. The man was a strange addition to their party, boisterous and wildly inappropriate. Strange and... welcome. Braska smiled, remembering the scandalized looks as their party exited Bevelle. A delightful irony, indeed.
And... he had a son. Jecht had gone strangely silent when he learned that Braska had a daughter. It was an awkward, silent kinship between them, though Jecht began to make light of it almost immediately, gathering souvenirs to bring home to their respective progeny. But what an ironic coincidence it was.
Bahamut... what do you want of me?
Jecht snored again, a stuttering snort-honk that stretched Braska's lips into a grin. He turned to look at Jecht, and saw Auron across from him, glaring at the huddle of blankets. Auron caught his eyes, vastly irritated, and Braska's throat stuck on an almost-familiar moment as Auron turned pointedly away— from Jecht, and not from Braska. Braska could see that his shoulders remained tense, the same hard line that echoed down his memory, frame stiff and breathing unnecessarily loud.
Braska chuckled softly to himself. It would be an interesting journey.
And the first stop... Macalania.
He hadn't been back there since he'd left it as a boy, lost and dazed and dreaming.
They ran into their first fiends on the high-paths of Macalania Wood, a flock of Evil Eyes. The clutch flapped out of the thick of the woods, eerily silent, and Braska did not hear them until they were almost upon them.
He didn't close his eyes in time.
His blood ran cold when one caught him with its gaze—pupils huge and blank, a twisted hole of infinite black, fascinating and repellent, sickeningly dizzying, his stomach congealing in a greasy knot as the edges of his vision darkened.
A strange and lumbering form, orange flashing searingly across his vision, charged the flapping confusion of wings and eyes, giant eyes, strangely sharp where all else had gone languid, fluid, forms and colour incomprehensibly beautiful. Another shape, red like a river of blood, huge white eyes, moved as if through thick liquid, hurling something at him, something that sparked and glowed— he was fascinated by it, arcing beautifully towards him, twinkling prettily at him right until it smashed into his head.
The shock of impact alone would have startled him half-sane again, but the pearlescent liquid seeping into his skin—a Remedy, one of so few they had, Auron had thrown it at him from across the path—gave him a sharp-edged clarity. Certainly enough to appreciate the throbbing pain from where it had hit him.
And enough to see Jecht: Jecht, over his initial confusion and fighting hard, grinning; Jecht shooting the fiends down with his blitzball, expert ricochets taking them out in twos and threes; Jecht darting and kicking and flipping.
It was over before Braska had even recovered enough to participate.
Braska thought very hard about that Remedy, about Jecht's quicksilver feet and hands, as he healed a bite on Auron's arm. Auron, precise and graceful, but not as fast, bitten by one of the fiends as it darted away, flapping slither-quick. Jecht bragged, strident and good-natured, as Braska concentrated.
Braska sat still a few moment longer after he finished his healing, replaying the brief battle in his mind. Gauging his strength after the healing. And tallying his money and the supplies the temple had grudgingly provided them.
"Jecht," he called softly.
"And you shoulda seen your face when it bit— huh?" Jecht's head swiveled belatedly, body following a beat later to face Braska. Auron shot Braska a look behind Jecht's back, conveying his annoyance with a tense crackle in his rust-amber eyes. Braska shook his head fractionally, turning his attention back to Jecht.
"I'm glad to have you as a guardian, Jecht. You're very fast."
"Damn straight," Jecht agreed, cheerful, palming his ball absently.
Braska regarded him, resting a hand under his chin in contemplation. Jecht shifted his weight, waiting hip-cocked. Braska watched him, gauging his balance—excellent, even though he knew Jecht was not really quite sober...
As Braska's silence stretched, Jecht began to shuffle his ball from hand to hand, passing it in a slide across his forearm to pop it with an elbow and catch it again. A difficult maneuver; Jecht executed it with mindless grace, a nervous habit in the guise of showing off.
If only the man's mind were as easy to read as his body... Would he be able to do what Braska had in mind?
No way to see but trying.
He'd gotten absorbed in his ball while Braska pondered. Jecht turned to face him again. "Yeah?"
"I want you to start stealing from fiends."
Jecht dropped his ball with a "What! How?" at the same moment as Auron erupted to his feet, sputtering in protest. Braska held up a hand to forestall Auron, but he burst out anyway, "My lord!"
Braska answered Auron first. "It's perfectly safe, Auron. There is no fiend-taint, and no difference between something stolen from a fiend and something bought in a store." He had learned such simple truths, among the Al Bhed.
"Yeah, but it's not like the things have pockets!" Jecht bid for his answer again. "What d'you want me to do, pick a hole and stick my hand in?"
Braska's mouth twitched. "No. I will explain. My wife taught me." The twitch developed into a full smile, sad-sweet and strange on his face, when Auron's eyes widened. "But I'm not very good at it. Not fast enough." Braska looked pointedly at Jecht again.
"Huh." Jecht grunted. "So, sure, I'm fast, but what the hell do I do?"
Braska closed his eyes, trying to remember exactly: a smiling voice whispering in his ear, hands guiding his over the day-torpid body of a desert fiend, seeking the soul-scraps, the splinters of memory, that it still clung to, that gave it shape, that it remembered muzzily through a haze of blood and hatred.... His fellow priests might say it took a certain faithlessness to steal from friends. The Al Bhed... they would say it took a lot of faith. Faith that the fiend had been human. That something human remained in them. That this world wasn't all full of pain and dying, that even fiends clutched some sweet precious secrets to themselves.
Of course, if you thought nothing good would come of it, then nothing good would. You had to believe.
And you had to be really, really fast.
"Fiends are made from pyreflies, mostly from unsent souls, that are angry or frightened or envious in death," he began.
"Uh-huh," Jecht nodded. "I got that much."
"Yes. Have you ever wondered what gives a fiend its shape? Why some are alike, some different?" Braska included Auron in his question, turning to take him in as well.
Auron frowned, but said nothing. Jecht scratched his head, voice slow with thought. "Now that ya mention it, never did, I guess."
"Pyreflies need something to hold onto to give them shape. A memory, a feeling." Braska cupped his hands, as if holding together something small. "In the simplest terms... fiends are given shape by the memories of the people they were once part of. They remember pieces of themselves. If you give the pyreflies a reason to, they can give shape to those pieces, too. These can be mementos from their lives, the last thing they saw before dying, or something they dreamt once... Not always useful. But often such things can contribute to our funds or supplies."
"Huh," Jecht grunted again. "Okay... so what do I do?"
"Touch them. The pyreflies are bound strongly in a fiend. They need a strong connection like touch to become anything else." Braska paused, wondering how much to tell Jecht. "Then, when you touch them... open your mind. Let the pyreflies feel your need and find something in the fiend that will meet it."
Jecht gave him a dubious look. "Open my mind. Right." Auron's own look, from over Jecht's shoulder, was nearly as doubtful. "I'll give it a shot, sure."
Jecht tried it several times that day.
It did not go well.
But after a week and a lot of swearing, Jecht crowed fit to wake the dead as he scrabbled away clutching a vial of gossamer-strands, white blizzard in a bottle, an Artic Wind, and Jecht was laughing even as the cold of it burnt his fingers raw.
Braska explained to him later as he expended a Cure to heal the near-frostbite that he had rather hoped for this plan to conserve his magical resources as well as their material supplies.
Next time, Jecht stole a Soft and three powerful Potions.
He still wasn't a very good fiend-thief, not like most of the Al Bhed Braska had known. One had to believe very hard, every time... in the memories of the fiends, in one's own ability, in the fairness and grace of the world... Braska suspected Jecht suffered from a niggling disbelief, an unwillingness to empathize... But he made an effort of it, and supplemented their supplies on an irregular but welcome basis.
And Auron looked at him with a little less disdain in his eyes, and Braska smiled to himself.
Braska stared once more at the open, empty night. It was strange, not having Bahamut looking over his shoulder, not feeling the erratic resonance of Bahamut's approval or frustration in his bones. He felt hollow. Who was he, to speak of faith to Jecht...?
Perhaps that was why he slept so poorly.
Braska sat up. Auron was facing away from the fire, not letting it blind him to the darkness, staring out into the fiend-filled night. Their encounters had proven that they'd left the safer reaches of Bevelle far behind, and Braska slept with but one guardian at his hand. The other stood watch.
Braska rolled off his sleeping mat and went to join Auron. Auron glanced towards him at the noise, then resumed his stern perusal.
They sat in silence for a time. Braska, sleepless, let his mind wander. Perhaps it would settle on what was keeping him awake.
The night was cool; soon they would leave the Wood and the nights would become glacial and empty. But now the faint music of the Wood sprites trickled among the crystalline trees. A soothing, melancholy place.
So why could it not lull him...
Auron stirred beside them. "My lord," he murmured in an undertone, "look." Braska focused on the edge of the clearing, and saw two eyes reflecting the firelight back at him. "It's not a fiend," Auron said curiously. "It's not attacking us."
"There must not be many fiends around here tonight, for a wood creature to come out."
Auron hummed a low agreement, continuing to scan the area anyway. He stopped his round again, and Braska turned to see what it was this time.
Auron was looking at Jecht: burrowed under his blankets, liquor jug clasped close to his chest, as if it offered him some sort of protection. Braska said nothing, watching as Auron's eyes lingered for a few seconds more, as his brows drew together. And as he shook his gaze away and took up a methodic scan of the wood's edge once more.
The silence stretched. Braska's thoughts felt vague and scattered. He should sleep, truly...
"My lord." Auron's interruption this time was in a tone not unlike his last, as if noting a strange and distant possibility of danger. Braska turned to face him. "My lord, why do you tolerate his drinking?"
Braska closed his eyes, trying to marshal the fluid matter of his mind. Do I tolerate or forgive? And then, floating up in a bubble of disorienting lucidity, Forgive me... Braska blinked his eyes open, shaking his head slightly. An answer, the right answer, reflected in the night-open mirror of his mind, came to him as if summoned by his vague disjointed thoughts. "Jecht is in pain, Auron. He's grieving." And what pain am I in..?
Auron's jaw muscles moved, as if chewing over this answer. Auron had little patience for excuses, Braska knew. Only reasons. Braska let him think over the answer and see it for the latter.
After a long silence, Auron spoke again. "Can he not... find a better way?" His voice was soft, still with an edge of tightness. Seeking sympathy inside himself, Braska judged. Finding only a measure.
"Do you think we know all about grieving, you and I?" Braska's tone went wry. He paused, letting his mouth relax, his next words spoken low and serious. "We never learn the right way to grieve, Auron. We can only learn to recognize the wrong ways."
Auron stared at him.
"I'm not perfect, Auron." He had meant a wry, admonishing amusement. It came out too sharp— did he strike too close to his own center? Forgive me...
Auron started and glanced away, as though shamed.
Braska cringed. "Auron, I'm sorry."
"No, my lord, I... I must apologize. For— I don't understand him. I— I will try."
Braska looked once more towards the form huddled by the fire. I don't understand either. We never learn the right way...
"Thank you, Auron." Braska sat beside him for some time still before retiring back to his mat, reaching for sleep that would not come.
It was after they were attacked by a horde of Murrussu that Auron made a first grudging overture. Being Auron, it was in the form of sword training. But it was a start.
It had been a hard battle. Jecht had begun it with what was becoming his usual fierce cheer at fiend-fighting. It had drained quickly away as his ball bounced uselessly off the tough crystalline hides, drained away to be replaced with consternation and a strange lost look that Braska couldn't place at the time, being up to his elbows in a desperate barrage of protective spells to ward against the fiends' vicious tackles. And then— Auron had been everywhere, graceful, fluid motions growing jerky as he tired. And Jecht, recovered from his dismay, stealing for all he was worth—which would not have been much, to an Al Bhed, but Braska was infinitely grateful as powerful Potions materialized in Jecht's hands, as Jecht threw them at Auron, as Auron's coat was soaked, as Jecht cut his hands on the brutal, beautiful, crystalline horrors, reaching again and again to pluck out the dreams of desperate need.
And then they had stood panting, shimmering still with the wane of Braska's spells. It had been a near thing, uncomfortably near.
And Jecht had collapsed. An alarming, boneless lack of grace, a puppet with cut strings.
Braska ran to him, ignored the bleeding hands, and felt for the true hurt, felt it, felt it inside: blood. Jecht was bleeding inside, must have been bleeding inside for most of the battle, must have been tackled early on and had persisted by sheer doggedness. Blood inside, blood that no longer pumped but dribbled. Because Jecht's heart had stopped.
It was beyond a Cure.
But not beyond a Lifecast.
Braska took a deep breath, willing himself to calm. Closed his eyes. He could sense the mass of pyreflies around them, from the slain Murrussu. And he called on every one of them, drew them to him, reached inside himself for a spark of life, reached for every memory of Jecht he could find—every memory: smiling, laughing, joking, drinking, hollering, snoring, staring into the campfire and thinking of Tidus—all across the too-short time—too few, too few shared moments, and Braska pulled out strands of himself, strands of their strange and silent kinship: how much he missed Yuna, how lost he felt, how he was afraid, and angry— dangerous, to throw so much of himself into the spell, but it was all he had, and he wrenched it all together, wove of it a net, a shelter, a splint, a splinter of light to drive into Jecht's stalled heart.
And he threw it over Jecht, a mesh of memories, a lacework of light tracing every nerve, and he drove the node, the life-spark, into Jecht's heart. And felt it shudder to life under his hands.
In that moment, they shared a shard of life.
And Braska felt beneath him a yawning gulf open as their hearts beat together, pounding out a horrible discordant resonance.
And then the Lifecast passed, and Jecht breathed his own breath, and Braska's heartbeat thudded hollowly in his chest, alone. It had not been like any Lifecast he had done before. The expected strange, intimate moment of shared-life— something had been different.
But Jecht was alive. And moaning prodigiously.
"Please don't do that again," Braska said mildly.
Jecht shook his head, waving a hand in acknowledgement, concentrating instead on enjoying his revival hangover. Auron gave him a sour look, but tossed him a Potion of his own. Jecht knocked it back in one swallow with a hand-flop of thanks.
At the very next town—a painfully small clutch of shacks on the border of the Wood—Auron lingered at the market, eyeing the paltry selection of weaponry with his swordsman's sharp eye. In the end he chose a broadsword, heavy and sturdy. Jecht's attention had wandered, ignoring the apparently routine task of a swordsman upgrading his arms. But Braska had seen Auron's blades: slim, long-hilted, one-edged. He saw Auron's eyes flicking towards Jecht, too, taking his measure. And when Auron made his choice, Braska touched him on the shoulder and reached into his own purse, their pilgrimage funds, to pay.
Auron carried the new sword himself until they passed out of the village.
Then he cleared his throat uncomfortably and jerked around to face Jecht. "We need another swordsman."
Jecht blinked at him. "What, you getting jealous?" Braska was learning to read him better: at a loss, Jecht had reverted to leaning on his blitzball career.
Braska settled down to watch the exchange, brows furrowed over intent eyes.
Auron jerked his head in a tense, exasperated denial. "Lord Braska had to revive you. We can't afford your carelessness."
Jecht quirked a brow at him, leaning his ball against a hip. "Anyone ever told you you got a gift for persuading people?"
Auron's hands tensed dangerously at his side. His face went stiff, and his expression slowly acquired a rather stuffed quality. Braska decided to come to Auron's rescue. It had been enough, for now, that Auron had tried.
"Jecht," he said softly. "It would be an asset to have another swordsman. Many fiends are hard to kill with anything but a sword. And we are going to Macalania Lake, where there are many Mafdet, and they are even worse than the Murussu."
Jecht's eyes met his. And Braska understood, in a small flash, what Jecht's lost expression had meant then, when his hard-won skills had proven useless. It was the only thing he knew, the only way Jecht related to the world around him. And for a moment, it had been worth nothing.
An echo of that same frightened, lost man stared out of Jecht's eyes at Braska now.
And then the echo was gone. Or— not gone. Accepted. Shouldered. By the time Jecht had turned to face Auron once more, the easy grin was back in place.
"Hell, all right."
Braska sat patiently and watched as Auron handed him the sword, hovering an edgy arms-reach away as he instructed Jecht on how to hold it, how to position it diagonally across his body in defense, how to strike.
It was a short first lesson. But it was a start.
Braska lay awake again, staring at the sky, sleepless.
He felt... like he had done a long healing, over the last few weeks. Auron and Jecht. It felt right, this slow growth of understanding.
Bahamut, what do you want of me..?
Had it been easier in Bevelle? Where he could look around and say, Whatever I believe, it is not this. No patterns of sun-hard light on sun-warm stone, no guidance but what came from his own heart, out here. He had learned to trust it, once, among the empty sands of the desert.
So what was this strange tug, this little hollow in his heart that felt like it could swallow him whole?
It felt like it had roots somewhere near where he reached for his white magics. Close to where he had prayed from, long ago. A thirst he had used to address with atonement, when he had been a boy, an acolyte-priest...
Was he a healer? A priest?
Merely a man, fumbling for something he didn't understand.
Where had he lost his faith? It had begun with machina in the temple, with learning he was raw and unready, with reaching beyond the teachings to find the truths below the lies. Had her death been the final blow?
No. Her life had been.
Life... I dream of life...
Braska shook his head, to clear it. Perhaps the answers really were out here, beyond the reaches of Bevelle. If he only knew what question he was asking.
He smothered a snort. A summoner on pilgrimage, having a crisis of faith. Oh, if the maesters only knew.
He turned to sleep, and dreamed of nothing at all.
Braska had been mulling subconsciously over the problem for some time before the realization hit him with a slight jolt as he watched Jecht making inappropriate remarks in return for the woman's thanks, Auron standing a distance between Braska and the other guardian, looking impatient and exasperated.
Jecht was a man used to being admired, Braska knew. The small likenesses in mannerism, translating haltingly across cultures, had long coalesced into a deduction. He had seen some few men like that.
He thought involuntarily of Zakel.
He watched Jecht, the easy way he treated with the woman; the woman clutching her half-grown son to her side, gratitude bright and sharp in her face.
Jecht ambled towards Braska, kicking his blitzball lightly before him, hefting his sword effortlessly over both shoulders, earning a frown from Auron. He grinned wide. "Too easy! That fiend was nothing. Bet if that woman had stopped screaming long enough she coulda taken it herself." But Braska watched Jecht glow a little, lit by the woman's effusive praise and thanks, a little surer of his place in the world.
"Was that why you insisted on showing off?" Auron's shoulders were as tense as his voice.
Jecht kicked his ball around deftly in a fit of enthusiasm, Auron's biting tone sliding off his shoulders. His grin widened as he shot back. "Jealous."
Auron emitted a strangled hmph! of indignation and marched stiffly to stand by Braska where he was resting against an outcropping of rock. Braska's role in the battle had been largely auxiliary: a few hasty protection spells, nothing even worth healing. Auron still glittered faintly with protective magics, seeming to reflect his prickly interior. The fading iridescent radius fell short of the usual distance he kept around himself, Braska noted. Can't Protect you from yourself, Auron.
He waited to see if Auron would voice the habitual irritated complaint. The man seethed in silence for some time, holding his temper in check longer than Braska had expected. Braska was considering taking the initiative when Auron finally spoke. "He delays us, stopping to show off every chance he gets." His lips were tight, voice stiff.
Do you wish our journey's end come sooner, Auron? But Braska smiled slightly, watching Jecht juggling the ball expertly with his knees, his toes, his head. In his element, almost; no water here, and an admiring crowd of two. Aloud, he said, "Auron, Jecht is not from here. He comes from a place free from Sin. He's as lost here as we once were." And Braska looked Auron in the eyes, direct and open, calling forth the silent kinship of their bond. Auron shifted uncomfortably, but held Braska's gaze in a misery of unwanted understanding. Braska closed his eyes at length, turning away, and his smile grew. "And he does what he believes is right, Auron. He likes helping people, have you noticed?" After that exchange, Braska felt he need not remind Auron that he should feel a certain sympathy for doing the right, if unpopular, thing. Instead he watched Jecht gather up his weapons with careless ease. Yes, Jecht liked helping people. He liked the reaction it got.
But Braska had realized, had a hunch, that there was something new and pleasant to Jecht in the reactions of the folk of Spira: naked gratitude, honest and complicated. Jecht had talked of hordes of screaming fans. Fans, Braska thought. No fans, here. Lives saved, hearts spared.
Braska imagined that Jecht rather liked being a real hero.
They had crossed the Lake.
Only the canyon left, too treacherous to attempt at night. Past the icy gulch lay the Temple, and Braska woke in fits during the night. When he woke once more as Jecht and Auron changed watch, he gave up, sitting up and huddling closer to the fire. Jecht had taken first watch, and Braska remembered the muted, mulish respect in Auron's eyes. Little trace of that now as Auron took his place facing the night, shaking himself from sleep to alertness.
Braska faced the night, too, turning to where the Temple lay, knowing the direction in his heart, in the memory of his bones. Another lodestone, hanging beside Yuna's. He had roots here...
This had been the place of his faith, once. He had known peace here, a spring of stillness in his soul. His mouth twisted in a wry smile. It would be an irony indeed if he found it here again. And yet... he knew that the answer didn't lie there.
Still, childhood habits... were hard to break. He still reached for that core sometimes, amused at his own surprise when his reaching hands came back cold-burnt. He still prayed by reflex, though what he prayed to he could not say. The fairness and grace of the world...
Love... my love, it was easier, with you... What's the meaning of life? Life, she'd answered. As simple and fraught as that.
We never learn the right way to grieve...
Did he reach for her? Or was he reaching simply for a part of himself, lost along the way...
What can replace a faith that grounded your world? It had seemed almost easy, all those years ago. He had looked at the heart of Yevon and found lies, so turning away must be truth. Oh, simple, yes. But what to turn to, then? A search for truth...
He was going around in circles. Braska's lips quirked.
Auron, scanning their surroundings, noticed. "My lord?"
Braska let the quirk stretch into a full smile. "Auron, did you know I had trained to be a priest here, before I came to Bevelle?"
"You were a priest?"
Braska laughed softly. "An acolyte only. You don't sound very surprised."
Auron pressed his lips together, apparently taking the matter seriously. Of course, it was a matter of faith... Auron, I'm not the only one who doubts here, am I? But Auron answered only to what Braska had said aloud. "You... remind me of some of the priests I've known."
"Aw, come on!" Jecht's voice, muffled by the blankets, whipped out in indignant defense of Braska's... something. Apparently Jecht was having trouble sleeping, too. "Braska's got a sense of humour, no way he's like those stiff jerks."
Braska caught Auron's mouth twitching before he suppressed it into a stern frown. Braska smiled, too, and spoke before Auron took the chance to ruin the night's good record for the sake of principle. "It's true, Jecht. I trained to be a priest before deciding to become a summoner."
"Huh. You don't lecture much, for a priest."
"I'm a summoner, Jecht, not a priest. I don't see it as my place to."
"Right, right." Jecht sat up, throwing the blankets off his shoulders, to meet Braska's eye. "And you don't buy it, either, do you?"
Auron, facing out into the night, sucked in a breath. But said nothing.
Braska looked Jecht in the face. Yevon says your home is a place of ruins, a holy place. Not the home you knew, not the place you grew up in, not the place where you played. Not the place where your son lives. "I can't tell you what to believe, Jecht," he said softly. Jecht's eyes slid away, staring at his knees for a moment before meeting Braska's again. His eyes looked blurred, with tears or drink, it meant the same thing in the end: a hint of that lost man Braska had glimpsed before. But once Braska held the man's gaze again, he continued, voice still soft. "All I can tell you is that I believe you."
Jecht looked away again, not returning to meet Braska's eyes this time. But Braska could hear the husk-edged sincerity when he said, "Thanks."
Jecht pulled his blankets over his head again. Braska sat some time longer, wondering if Auron would ask the question that still hovered in the air.
What do I believe..?
I believe I must sleep, Braska told himself firmly. He touched Auron on the shoulder, and went to join Jecht on his own mat. He lay a long time listening to the dull crackle of the fire, reaching for the whispers of the hymn that flickered out from the temple on the snow-laden wind, as if it held some echo of an answer for him.
Braska left Jecht and Auron giving each other dirty looks in the Cloister. He shook his head at them, smiling slightly. But as the door to the Chamber opened, he sobered and took a deep breath, relishing the cool air, rich with magic. His breath misted before him.
Shiva's statue lay, serene and lovely and disturbing, in the center of the room. Braska knelt before it, and prayed. He opened his mind, waiting but expecting nothing, thinking only of what set him on this path. Of the morning sun on Yuna's hand...
He did not know how long he had knelt when he felt the fayth's cool presence fill the room. Braska looked up to see Shiva, her cold, proud gaze meeting his. His heart clutched strangely.
"You walk a strange path, son of these cold woods." Her voice was piercing. A chill ran down his spine at the brittle elegance of it, the power held within.
He bowed low. "There are many ways to walk a path. And many reasons." When he looked up again, Shiva was gone— he blinked back startled recognition, for the fayth wore the robes of a priestess of Macalania. His hand made an abortive dart at his own garments before he stilled it, reminding himself that he no longer wore that garb, nor the burden of faith that came with it. That his garments carried a heavier burden now. And yet, the fayth stood before him, a woman in familiar wear... like and unlike...
She spoke again, tilting her head slightly. "You are like and unlike the others." She looked away, not seeing Braska's suppressed twitch as she echoed his thoughts. Braska did not assume she hadn't sensed it anyway. "You were promised to me once before, and left, dreaming. You ask me now to pledge myself to you. It has been a long time, but even we were once human. We remember what it is to feel the heat of anger." She met his eyes again. "Your heart is heavy, yet you do not weep, nor rise in anger."
Braska stayed silent for a time. "Lady... you know that I am angry yet. That I have wept. That I am full of fear." He shook his head. "I do not come here to you to seek surcease from my sorrows." He remembered the cold numbness that had stolen across his heart, stolen his heart, a decade and more gone by. A frostbite of feeling... He met her eyes once more. "You have a dangerous appeal, lady of the snows. I led myself astray once, seeking comfort in your gifts. I sought to run from my pain, to numb it away. I abused the gift of my birthright, calling on your power to shield me from myself. You are a dangerous dream, my lady. I do not ask for your power lightly."
"So, and so," she said. Her eyes glinted with an arch amusement, ice on knife blades. "You know yourself better than most."
Braska ached to look away from the bleeding cut of her gaze. But he whispered: "I know less than I should." Oh, he did not know nearly enough.
The fayth bowed her head. "You speak well, summoner. I will lend my power to you."
And then there was ecstasy. A terrible ecstasy.
The flash of light as the fayth swept through him was blinding, and Braska's frame was wracked with— unbearable cold, and unbearable power, with a pressure like a million pyreflies had drawn themselves to him, and his mind echoed with memories, or dreams, of times long gone and a dreaming city. And cresting the rushing tide came unbearable weariness.
Braska staggered, choking on it, and he could bear no more—
His eyes cleared, and his mind. Shiva was gone, and with her the cold and the power and the memories. But the weariness remained, and Braska collapsed against the Chamber door. He shouldered it open and staggered out.
"My Lord Braska!" Auron hurried to him, reaching for his arms, his shoulders, to steady him. Jecht jerked into an urgent amble, wrapping his arm around Braska, slinging one of Braska's own over his shoulder entirely without ceremony. Auron hovered for a second's indecision, then grabbed their gear, and together they waited on Braska's shaky steps to make their way out of the Cloister.
They negotiated the stairs into the temple. The air felt stiflingly hot after the icy Cloister, after the soul-deep chill of Shiva's power. He heaved in one hot breath after another, and closed his eyes, and willed the white magic to restore his failing legs.
It took a few minutes, but he could stand. "Thank you, Auron, Jecht." He nodded at them both. Auron stepped back a respectful distance. Jecht hovered at his elbow.
"What the hell was that?"
Auron stirred, eyes flashing. Braska waved a tired hand to still him. "That was the fayth. I'll be fine, just give me a moment." He staggered a little away from the others, and rested his head against a pillar.
The cold. Yevon, the cold.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the cold air, and shivered and let the cold come.
It was time.
He stood up straight and walked to the temple entrance. He heard Auron fall into step a decorous distance behind, and Jecht follow a little later.
The faces of the people outside were a blur, only their eyes standing out in sharp, clear bursts. Braska blinked in the light, the sun, the snow, the cold. He bowed in prayer. He closed his eyes. And he remembered.
The sigil came easily, hanging before his mind's eye, Shiva's presence full and cold and pressing in his mind. He drew in the energy, drew it in, breathed it out, and through his closed lids he saw the burst of light, and he summoned his first aeon, the guardian of his home, whose song had lulled him to sleep at night years before, and, later, woken him in dread sweat.
She came, and she was beautiful.
She was majestic and cold and regal.
And she was merciless as the awareness of her broke upon him, greater and more terrible than her acceptance in the Chamber, worse even than Bahamut's pitiless observation: waves of cold, waves of time and waiting, memories and dreams and scorned hope, and under and above and around it all: a terrible love, unconditional and unforgiving.
And Braska, buffetted by the blizzard, cold beyond his memory, dreamed or remembered: warmth by the firelight and a mother's soft voice singing a lonesome hymn.
Shiva was summoned, and she stood before him in her shimmering shawl.
Shiva stood before him, and his mind swelled with her presence, gravid with it. He breathed, and felt the power flex within her; his heart beat in his ears and he felt his life tied to hers as a dream to its dreamer, as a babe's in womb to its mother's, and he could not have said in that moment—her diamond-sharp eyes piercing his—who breathed, whose heart beat, who dreamed and who lived. But in that moment of unbearable cold and unfathomable power, he knew, he knew—
He loved her.
He had always loved her.
His heart swelled with it; his blood—born and bred of her snows, nurtured among her frigid fallow drifts—sang with it, with a thousand nights lulled to sleep by her hymn and the whisper of her snow fluttering through the trees. And mingled with his own memories— hers, hazy and distant and full of sorrow.
He knew her, and he loved her.
She held his gaze, and Braska bowed in prayer before her. She dipped her head in answer.
He closed his eyes and released her.
When he opened his eyes, Shiva and her spell were gone and the snow was blowing in flurries around them, and Jecht was staring.
"Whoa," Jecht said.
Auron rolled his eyes.
Braska lay awake that night.
He'd had a splitting headache for hours afterwards, Shiva's presence howling through his mind with all her fierce, silent, pitiless joy. They stayed that night in the temple, that welcomed home its wayward son and his ignominious companions. The hymn was everywhere, radiating out from the heart of the temple in clear, high song, stinging at his consciousness with Shiva's piercing love.
He had no secrets from her. And she sang for him still.
You are not Yevon's, lady of the snow... or you would not have come to me.
He had not expected to find his peace again here. And yet the knowledge offered him a measure.
He had not expected to find a home here again.
It was not the same. The people he had known were dead, or gone, or different. He could not read their eyes anymore, where once had been the simple conviction of a child: that man means ill, this one means well. They welcomed him here with reverence, and uneasy awe; bitterness, in some. Do not hate those among whom you will walk...
But Shiva sang for him, unchanged and unchanging: lullabies for a son lost and returned, mourning for a priest once sworn and once forsworn, come home to her again.
He carried her in his heart now— or she carried him in hers; it was dizzying and uncertain, and he stared wide-eyed at the ceiling, feeling his blood pulse in slow wonder. Shiva covered the warm room with her insulating cold, the soft tick of falling snow on his roof like a heartbeat, and he swam in memories that were not memories, or maybe he dreamed: a mother's heartbeat from inside the warmth of a womb, ticking away the time until the parting, and for no reason he could understand, he felt his eyes fill, watery and tight.
Shiva whispered to him through the snows, shushing him to sleep with the soft snow-tick of her heart, the pulse of a barren mother's kingdom.
And he dreamed.
He dreamed of snow, cold and smothering, his breath going slow and languid with heart-death, until the sun melted the snow away and he could see that it was a shawl he clutched at, wrapping it around himself, shimmering and blue, and frost curled upon his fingers where he grasped it, beautiful and painful. Shiva stretched out her arm, like a feather of frost unfurling, so graceful that his heart hurt, and snapped her fingers, once: the first crack of ice to herald spring, the first fault in a stone that will shatter along a flaw. And the shawl was gone, floating up into the air, into the sun: Braska's eyes were blinded by the hard light. He blinked, and he saw the shawl falling like a bird alighting, falling to settle about Yuna's shoulders like a surplice.
He dreamed of the sun rising, crawling across the floor, creeping hard and bright towards the bed where Yuna lay.
He dreamed of the first touch of sunlight on Yuna's fingers. He dreamed of Yuna reaching for the pyreflies, again and again and again.
Braska's eyes snapped open into the blind night, and he woke clutching his heart, a formless terror crashing cold through his veins.
And he felt it there, in Shiva's song, the resonance across a dream: sun on stone, patterns of light. Bahamut's vast presence echoed in Shiva's, the dream that bound the dreamers together.
He breathed, hard and fast, his own blood beating in his ears.
And Shiva sang still, whisper-soft behind his heart: a mother's deep abiding care, a lover's cruel honesty. The shadow of a smile in her song, and a merciless sympathy. From a mother that never was to a father that had left: a message, whispered in a dream, the only way his heart could speak to hers, when they were dreamers alike, where the void between life and death was thinnest.
Braska shivered, a bone-deep shudder, and forced his breaths to slow, to come deep and even.
He had loved this land, this aeon whose song had sung him to sleep long before Bahamut's would wake him. The peace he had wrought in himself here. He had loved it all, long ago.
But he felt his heart aching still, yearning back the way they had come: Yuna, his lodestone, compass of his soul. And he felt again the echo of a pattern he had drawn once, years ago: a tracery of light, and he standing at its center.
And he had heard it in Shiva's dream-song, weaving the two melodies together into truths he could not yet name.
Unnamed, but for one:
Bahamut was waiting.
End of Part II.
Continue to Part III: The End of All Things