justira ([personal profile] justira) wrote2010-03-14 06:03 pm

[Fic] FFX - Clarion Part III: The End of All Things (PG) (18,800 words)


Clarion
Part I: Dreams of Memories | Part II: Waking Life | Part III: The End of All Things
(Notes)



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: [livejournal.com profile] darthneko's prompt in [livejournal.com profile] ff_exchange 2007 - "FFX: Braska, summoning"
Betas: [livejournal.com profile] owlmoose, [personal profile] renay, [personal profile] 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 III - The End of All Things
Chapter Word Count: 18,800
Chapter Summary: As his pilgrimage continues, Braska descends into a world of dreams and memories, conflicting loyalties and united hope. And one burning question that Braska will have answered.

@[livejournal.com profile] ff_press: [FFX] [personal profile] justira: Clarion (3) - The End of All Things (Braska, Auron, Jecht, Yuna, Bahamut, Shiva, Ixion, Ifrit, Valefor) (PG) (18,800 words)








Final Fantasy X - Clarion
Part III

The End of All Things
-=-

At the end of all things, he yearns to wake...


______




Braska's eyes were open.

He lay awake, staring up into the starlit sky, calm and still in the aftermath of nightmare. They came nightly now, or nearly: Shiva's love-whispers, twisted pillow-talk between parents alike. When they came, they brought a sick fear, now so constant a companion of his heart that its absence felt like a yawning void, like an embrace released and empty.

And when the dreams did not come, he yearned for them. A restless yearning, a whisper in his blood, convictions growing in the dark. What he sensed in them... he wished he could be sure...

But it was not Shiva's province to cast light; that was Bahamut's, and Bahamut had refused him. All she had to give was a secondhand resonance, a dream of a memory of a dream, and that— that Shiva gave unending, her love hard-edged and beautiful, as merciless as it was deep.

And they had left her province far behind, where her song swept across snow, where truth cast half-seen reflections in the ice. Left it long ago, now. They had crossed the Moonflow. Jecht had crossed a threshold. And Auron had begun to smile.

A pattern, half-seen, half-formed, growing in the bonds forged between them, in the fall of Braska's footsteps.

He wished he could be sure...

He breathed slow and deep of the moist, rich air, and closed his eyes. Felt a touch of chill wash over him, gentle and familiar and piercing, prickling up his spine. The hand of a friend, a lover, a mother, a light touch upon his back to support, comfort, urge onward.

Onward, onward. Zanarkand.

Ironic, he thought. Only now that he had left all homes behind had he managed to take something of home with him, a bittersweet keepsake. A dream. Many dreams. Nightmares, following him from the day of Shiva's acceptance, showing him visions of...

Still, he had gained in Macalania a dream. All he'd had before were memories. And which was more real, he wondered? Shiva sang her hymn still, a whisper of winter, a chill breeze down his neck.

For all that they'd left Macalania far behind, Braska had taken a piece of the place with him. And Bevelle... they had left Bevelle far behind, too, and taken none of it with them. Not from a temple that had offered no succor to such three. But Braska knew that Bevelle had kept a part of him.

Braska stared up at the sky, feeling star-scattered, shreds of himself left in strange hands: always flotsam, never jetsam. A piece left in the desert. A piece left in the sea. A piece left in a sinning temple. And a shard each, for Auron and Jecht.

He felt he was scattering himself like ashes on the wind, like seeds on a field. Death, and life. He could feel Shiva thrumming in his blood, her cool awareness touching on the thought. Yes. His death, for many lives.

The thought sat like a hollow stone in his chest.

What's the meaning of life? Life, of course. It was not what she would have wanted. But then, he had never been one for the small betrayals.

Love, he thought, with Shiva's breath pouring down his neck, my love. I don't have the strength to find a new way. Only to make a space for another to find it...

The thought, voiced for the first time, seemed to hang before him, and he held his breath.

And he caught it, yes: Shiva's sharpened gaze upon his heart, and a faint cool approval. Braska swallowed, closing his eyes on the answer he had received.

And while Shiva's interest waned as the slow coaxing line of his thoughts stalled...

It was a hall of steel and circuits that he thought of, and spiraling green eyes that hung before him, all the laughter drained out of them.


________




The waking world felt like an echo of his sleepless night: tactile, forcing itself upon his awareness. Djose had seemed strange on the outside, all towering stone, but inside, inside... it picked out his thoughts, plucking unpleasantly at the memories he had bared the night before. He could feel the lightning in the air, the small hairs on his neck rising in anticipation of thunder-strike, his fingers trembling on the spheres as he felt the familiar jangle of live current under his hands.

Memories could cut, he knew, sharp as razors, so that the hurt went unnoticed until one thought the memory gone.

And then... then came the pain.

He was no stranger to pain. But the two had mingled here, in a temple full of machinery: layer upon layer. A boy's faith shattered in what should have been a sanctuary; a man's first bloom of love growing unasked-for in the desert, nurtured in cool dark spaces where electricity whispered in the air, where hands could touch unseen and unsanctioned and undeniably right.

He had asked the question. No one but he to blame if the answer was not to his liking, if in the asking he had summoned the shades that skulked about the shadows of his grief.

His hands ached when they touched the spheres of this place— familiar, too familiar, sharp electric edge to the air. He slid the sphere home with too much care, and watched with mouth-dry fascination as sigils formed in glowing circuits— glyphs, the temple glyphs. He had never considered them overmuch before, but in this place, on the ragged edges of his memories, with Shiva's presence hovering over every thought, with his thoughts lingering on death— her death, his death—

He watched the glyph form, and his hands recoiled in horror.

Is it true? he asked, of she who never spared him the hard answers. And— a slow rush of unwanted understanding, affirming and terrible.

Death, death lay in these glyphs.

They were glyphs of binding, glyphs of the fayths' own making, to harness the inconceivable release of energy that was death, to bind it in blood and tears and wanting, bind it into stone, power bought in suffering. Glyphs, to trap the maker forever between living and dying, dreaming and waking. Sigils, patterns of light on stone, that released the barriers of dreams and death, that called down that power. And the Trials, to call up the glyphs and prime the power for the transfer, that leap across the gulf.

The power that lay in death.

You know now the price, Shiva said, cold whisper through his heart; he shuddered. Do not disdain what we offer.

"My lord?" Auron's voice, gentle in puzzlement, cut through the dizzying welter of his thoughts: clear, present, real. Braska clung to it. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I—" he shook his hands, realizing he had recoiled and frozen there for a second too long. "I shocked myself."

Auron took it literally, which was just as well, and handled the next sphere himself. Braska tried to gather himself in the small respite, to push away the strange over-lucidity. But when he left Auron and Jecht in the Cloister, he was left alone with his memories.

Braska gulped down a sticky swallow, feeling the time slide by, viscous and heavy, as he knelt, listening to the electric crackle, the magnetic hum of the Chamber. Such a familiar sound, edging raw and sharp into his memories. The space was too small, the echoes wrong, but if he closed his eyes—

Home.

Light erupted from the statue of the fayth before him, blood-red behind his closed eyes, and he opened them to see: glittering, crackling; flaring hooves striking sparks, electric showers, from the floor; waving mane and curving horn.

And then the aeon was gone, and a man stood in his place. Clad in clothes from the sea... What are we doing here, Braska thought, so far from home? But he knelt, and kept his silence, waiting for the fayth to address him.

Why did his wife's ghost still linger by him, after he had called on her this past night?

The man—nameless? Braska thought, or merely forgotten, or altogether Ixion—regarded him at length. His presence intensified the jangling crackle of the place, and Braska fought an impulse to shutter his mind against the memory. He'd had a long and thorough lessoning in hiding from his memories, from grief, of waking from a dream into a nightmare. Let it pass, he thought, let it pass, from nightmare to dream, from dream to waking...

And he listened, drinking in the subtle noise, waiting. Opening himself, letting the pyreflies in the Chamber surround him.

The fayth stirred. "Summoner." Braska opened his eyes, looked up, drunk and strangely close to weeping. "Do you shamble away from dreams, or do you run headlong into waking? You disdained my gift of memory, rejected my dream, and I would reject you, in turn." The man tilted his head, tossing it slightly, flinging an absent forelock away from his eyes, and watched Braska, gaze clear and keen. Braska thought dizzily of the uncomfortable press of remembering, how he had hunched away from it and then opened himself to their slow, clean wounding. We only learn to recognize the wrong ways... Ixion's voice buzzed confusingly in his ears. "But you accept me now. You are running, running forward. Running from dream to waking to the end of dreaming."

Braska's mouth twisted as he spoke, and he was almost surprised to find himself smiling. "I apologize for my reaction. This place... reminded me of someone. Of another place."

"Do you run from your memories so, summoner?"

"I try not to. I'm not always successful." Wry and honest. He spread his hands, one holding his staff, the other palm-up. They trembled slightly. "I am... I am trying to look forward, and not back. There is a future I hope to find, somewhere down this path."

The fayth had stilled, listening. Then a sudden smile, full of open spaces, far more space than his stone-caught temple could hold, a vastness found only in the desert, the sea, the sky... A travesty, such a soul bound in stone and death— what stories there, what reasons, what memories? What price paid? But the fayth only smiled, open and unfettered, and said, "Come. We will run together."

And the fayth dissolved, and Braska had a bare electric moment to brace himself before the fayth took him. He shuddered, suppressing a wild laughter— he had touched the inner working of machina with his bare hands once, ungloved, and she had laughed and chided him, but not before the current had burned him, a frying, buzzing sensation like a violent flood of pyreflies streaming along his nerves, a slick-sharp shiver-whisper, cold burn of electricity, and Ixion, Ixion, a stranger full of keen-edged, electric memories—

He slumped to the floor, staff clattering. His shoulders shook in silent laughter. Was his face wet? He couldn't tell, his whole body felt cold and clammy.

Ixion.

Not just Shiva, who welcomed him, son-surrogate, but Ixion, a stranger, a fayth whose song he'd never heard, an aeon whose sigil he had learned once, and that was all.

The presence crackled in his mind, wholly alien, the sensation familiar in too many ways: the soul-deep link and beneath that, the electric awareness, a faint buzz in his mind like the ubiquitous hum of machina, everywhere.

He struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on his staff. He had never appreciated its presence much outside the ceremonial roles, but at the moment it seemed a downright practical device. A simple machine. He laughed weakly again, remembering the Al Bhed practicality he had learned, had donned like comfortable clothes. He missed those clothes, he thought inanely, stumbling over his surplice as he made his way to the door.

Auron and Jecht were waiting on the other side, looking spooked, whites showing around their eyes. Of course, he thought dimly, he'd been laughing— and crying, probably. He still couldn't tell; his face felt stiff, doughy.

"My apologies," he managed. "I think I'm a little— hysterical."

Auron seemed to startle awake at his words and hurried over, solicitous as ever, placing a steadying hand on Braska's chest, holding his arm. Jecht appeared at his other side, flinging Braska's left arm over his shoulder, taking most of Braska's weight onto his bulky frame. Auron followed suit after an uncertain beat, much more hesitant to invade Braska's space so.

Braska tried to suppress a laugh, resulting in a juddering of his shoulders that both his guardians would feel quite plainly. Oh, Auron. Believe me, your invasion is the smallest I have experienced today. And then he remembered Auron at the Lake, hesitating to step within arm's reach of Jecht, the large distance he maintained from people. Ah, Braska thought. I am a touch self-centered, as ever. Perhaps it is your space we invade, my friend. And then, a dizzy tendril spiraling vaguely through his thoughts: You can't save people at arm's reach, Auron...

Braska allowed himself to be supported through much of the Cloister, retracing the painstaking steps of the Trial, feeling his hysteria slowly pass: his limbs relaxed from their paralyzed morbidity, his chest stopped heaving, his heart ceased its thrumming to return a steady, reassuring beat.

He stirred, and Auron and Jecht let him rest against a wall, stepping away to let him stand. Braska rubbed his face absently, feeling, yes, the dry tracks of tears and also the beginning of a headache. How long had he knelt in the Chamber?

"Ah..." He tried to explain, the words drifting away from his tongue, groundless. He had not quite gathered his wits, it seemed. He tried again. "Auron, Jecht, I apologize for frightening you." He looked at Jecht. "My wife was Al Bhed; I believe you'd heard. I'm not sure how much you know about them, but they work much with machina."

Jecht grinned, tight and uncomfortable. "Machina, right. Wondered why I felt right at home."

Braska resisted a wince. "Quite. I, ah, had a moment. Ixion brought up more memories than I expected." Though I should have. It was the condition, Braska suspected, of the fayth's acceptance.

And again, a familiar refrain: Bahamut, what do you want of me?


________




There was not much of an audience here at Djose Temple. Braska remembered the snow-blurred sea of faces that had greeted him at Macalania: mostly Guado, a scattering of shorter, blander-haired humans. Not many people made their home here, at the end of the rocky Highroad. The pilgrims and villagers, sparse as they were, regarded him with mixed reactions. Hostility, doubt. Anticipation in a few faces, innocent and young.

Braska sighed, and closed his eyes, calling to the place in his mind, between dreaming and remembering, where a breath of cold and an electric buzz waited, slept.

The spark exploded in his mind, and he called forth the sigil, tearing the air with it, his staff a lightning rod, and he pulled— pulled the energies toward him, pulled his staff like an electric tether, lightning dancing around him in a frenzied storm—

And Ixion burst out of the sky, sparking hooves, strong curve of horn, a slight prance of freedom.

Braska laughed again, breath whuffing out in half-surprised bursts: at the joy, this free unfettered kinship, so much less tense and wild than the strained understanding in the Cloister, and he remembered how the fayth smiled before accepting him. Freedom. Braska's heart wrenched; a smile, brittle and sincere, feeling like it would crack his face. A sailor's soul, a kindred spirit to a race that had found freedom in the harsh, open lands of the desert.

Run, he thought. Run.

Ixion reared, prancing, and Braska thought he heard the ghost of laughter, faint like a voice over a bad transmission, static-filled and tinny-tinged with the metallic taste of electricity. Braska smiled, and Ixion inclined his great horned head, proud neck arching. And Braska let him go.

And, a little, he let her go. It was not she who haunted him, not that free soul, never meant to be chained to the heavy anchor of one man's grief. Never meaning his life to be chained to her death. I will take the wisdom you gave me. A final parting promise.

She was gone, and Ixion vanished with her. Ixion's presence evaporated like a dam breaking, and Braska nearly stumbled—

But a hand was there at his elbow, and Braska met Jecht's eyes: full of a puzzled kind of understanding, as if Jecht got it in spite of himself.

And Auron, a beat behind, at his other side.

Braska gathered himself, and took a deep breath. Took in the small crowd, some dispersing, some muttering in tight, angry knots.

Ah. Back in the waking world. "I think it's time we headed for the next temple," he said delicately.

Jecht took in the scene, an angry, fierce frown settling over his features. But Auron turned his head and— "Jecht," he said tightly.

Jecht shook his head, waving a hand at Auron's face. But he gathered up his ball and sword and said, "Right. Let's get outta here."


________




That was the day of his first Sending.

They were making their way back down the long, lonely Djose Highroad to regain the Mushroom Rock crossing. Braska's strength was flagging, though the sun was barely dusking the sky, a brilliant orange glow outlining the rock formations.

That was when they heard: the woman running, her ragged breaths. She saw them, too, and broke into a more desperate run, loose-legged with fatigue. She tried to yell between breaths, "Lord Summoner!" But Braska had already broken into a run, Auron streaking ahead of him, Jecht's footsteps thudding at his side.

The woman collapsed to her knees before they reached her, breath whistling horribly in her throat as she tried to speak. Braska turned to Auron, but before he could speak Auron was already nodding and reaching for their water flasks, handing one to the woman. She swallowed, choking; swallowed again. Her chest heaved, but she tried again to speak.

"My husband— injured—" she swallowed thickly, grasping at Braska's robe, seeking his eyes, her voice breaking: "dying!"

Her eyes were huge with fear, spilling tears unheeded. Braska's heart was thudding. "Where?"

"Up— Mushroom— Road!" She still panted in heaving, shallow, frantic gulps— but her arm reached back the way she'd come, and she turned her head, as if called, tugged— Braska knew the painful lurch of soul-strings, heart hammering towards where his loved ones suffered.

Braska's exhausted mind flung itself into action. No chocobo here— to have a speeder right now! The woman could clearly run no more, having sprinted herself ragged— but he needed her to show him where. She must have made a desperate dash for the temple, hoping to find some priest or summoner. He needed to hurry.

Run, he thought. Run.

Yesss, came the hiss-crackle, like the sear of sparks on flesh, spiraling from a corner of his mind. Yesssssss.

Braska raised his staff, calling, calling, flinging the sigil into being, lightning dancing around him, and he pulled and felt Ixion tear through the crackling aether. The great unicorn's hooves had hardly clattered onto the rock road, sparking on stone, before Braska flung himself astride, impatient tug at his encumbering robes, hands fisting in rough mane around his staff, Ixion knowing his mind— living his thoughts

"Come on!" He stretched a hand down to the woman. Astride an aeon.

She stared at him, mouth agape.

Run run run run his heart hammered, dream-haze throbbing through him, blood beating with an electric pulse. "Auron! Jecht!"

Jecht snapped out of the startled spell first, grabbing the goggling woman and throwing her bodily aboard. Braska spared a second to settle her, clasping her arms firmly about his waist. He grasped Ixion's mane once more.

"My lord!" Auron called out. Braska turned, and Auron had already taken off their pack and was throwing it to him, Potion bottles and their scant supply of Remedies clinking in flight. Braska snatched the satchel out of the air, slinging it over his head and across his shoulder and then— quick as thought, easy as dreaming—

Ixion ran.

No measured gallop, musical staccato on the rocky road— Ixion ran, heedless, wild, arcing across the road as a spark jumping wires. Braska's heart hammered in a desperate joy, his or his aeon's, memory or dream, he could not tell. But his blood sang, and he called every pyrefly to him on the headlong flight.

Our dreams were never only meant for war...

The woman yelled in his ear, pointing, and Ixion clattered around, turning as Braska thought it, following the woman's trembling, jolting hand. They came upon the small clearing, some mile from the road itself. A man lay bleeding at its edge, propped against a rock. Braska jumped off before Ixion had completely stopped, every vein afire. And he landed, merely human, gasping at the pain shooting up his legs as his feet hit the solid, solid ground.

He stumbled towards the man as the woman slithered off Ixion's back to follow him. He knelt at the man's side, plunging his hands into the bloody wreckage of the man's chest, pouring the energy of every pyrefly they had passed on their desperate run into the stuttering organs.

It wasn't working, the laid-open torso spilling blood and intestines, Braska's gut clenching at the stench— the man wasn't breathing.

Braska's throat was dry, his hands trembling as he ran them desperately across the gaping wound. The satchel swung cumbersome across his chest, useless— no money for Phoenix Down, and Potions could do no more than his desperate pumping of Cure, Cure Cure... Do I have a Lifecast in me? So much more needed— no simple gathering and channeling, but self-splint, lifeblood—

He was so tired. His thoughts still wobbled crazily, dregs of his earlier hysteria sloshing around, spilling into mindless terror, draining his energy. The woman was sobbing softly.

I must try.

He closed his eyes, willing a stillness into himself, reaching, reaching, down and deep into everything that made him up, weaving of his memories a life—snow falling, a lonely hymn across a frozen lake, a temple full of lies, a desert full of hope, a hand on his, laughter, young clear eyes, blue and green—life life life, a gift, a small spark of himself, fragile and thin. And he grasped it and pulled, desperately fast, and with a sickening crack he felt a piece of himself come loose—his heart breaking, he thought dizzily—a flaring little net of dreams and memories and hopes and sorrows. Enough to kindle the guttering life beneath his hands?

He pushed, pouring pyreflies through his hands, bleeding aether-sparks as he drove the splinter of his soul into the man's heart, flinging a net of white across him, a tracery like every vein and nerve, like vast wings of light enveloping him, a simile of life to shock a stuttering heart to wakeful beating.

The man's heart spasmed, sickening under Braska's hands, and he drew a single pained breath, gurgling obscenely down his throat.

And then Braska felt him die, through his skin, through his hands, through the blood, the pyreflies. He felt the man die, and take Braska's desperate little soul-scrap with him.

And where he had broken it from himself, he was bleeding inside.

He could feel it, a hemorrhage of energy, spilling memories, his fears, his dreams, like entrails. His body slumped, boneless, not heeding him, shivering into shock.

Too much, he thought, dizzyingly vague. I put too much of me into the Lifecast.

He could feel himself slipping away, something in him yearning to dissolve and join the slow dance of energy around him. His memories were sliding by, sand and snow, sin and prayer, desert hands and mismatched eyes.

No, he thought. I can't lose this.

But the memories ran like water through his hands, ignoring his piteous scrabblings.

A giant shock hammered through him, setting every nerve on fire, ripping his mind away from its sick fascination with his own destruction.

And then a flash of cold, sudden and absolute, and the soul-flow, moon-flow, froze.

Everything froze.

Braska was so cold.

Cold, but himself, grasping a hand that stretched to help him from across a gulf of dreams.

I will not allow you to waste yourself thus. Shiva's voice echoed through him, sharp edges making his heart bleed exhausted gratitude. Do not make a habit of this, wayward son. Had you dismissed Ixion, I could not have reached you. And he felt it: Ixion's horn touching his head, a dream come to ground, heart-forged chain binding him to Braska, from his heart to an abyss of dreaming— and dancing across that chain, Shiva: lifebringer and deathgiver, misery-mother and engenderer of joy, pouring her strength into him; a secondhand resonance across the precipice.

And lady, my lady, he thought dizzyingly, if I had never sought comfort in the numbing cold, your ice would bring me death, not healing. He felt a distant echo of cold amusement, a smile hovering in the air as her presence faded.

Braska opened his eyes. He had fallen across the dead man. The woman shook his shoulder weakly, hands fluttering between dead husband and half-conscious summoner.

He struggled to his knees. Upright enough to meet the woman's eyes. She was weeping still, sobs hiccoughing, ignored, through her shaky breaths. Braska wanted to close his eyes, to look away from the hopeless hurt he saw.

He held her gaze and whispered, "I'm sorry."

She looked away then, at her husband's face. Closed her eyes. Her shoulders twitched. Repelling his apology, or shouldering a new burden. When she looked at him, there was no resentment in her gaze, only a formless resolve. Spira went on, dying at every step. And the woman's eyes, wet and red but no longer leaking tears, looked a little deader. "I know you tried," she said. "Will you Send him?"

A lance of sorrow speared Braska's battered heart. But he said, "Yes." His whole body ached. His heart ached. His life ached, splint-shattered like a wrong-healed bone. "But I must rest a moment."

She nodded. And then she turned away from him.

Braska slumped against a tree and closed his eyes. He could feel Ixion's presence still. Could he—?

And Ixion was already running again, back the way they had come, to get Auron and Jecht. Braska could feel the pounding of Ixion's hooves on the loamy earth, and then a sharp clatter on rock, faintly drunk on the secondhand freedom, like a remembered revel. How far could an aeon go from its summoner? His exhausted mind picked absently at the question, wondering if anyone had tested these limits. He could feel Ixion still, could feel the great unicorn's strength waning as he ran farther and farther away, could feel the inviting tug of the pyreflies that danced around him, beckoning the aeon to dissolve and be truly free with them. Ironic, that. Ixion reveled in freedom so, in the chance to run, to fight, to rear, to breathe... and yet when a summoner called him, he was chained. He could feel Ixion now, far away, almost too far... fading, phantom-horse now, a nightmare... he could feel the bond stretching, like a limb he hadn't know he owned had been squashed into too small a space, bones creak-cracking. It felt like someone was pulling out his tongue through his soul.

He was too exhausted to care.

He could feel Ixion prowling at the edges of his range. Perhaps if Braska were less tired Ixion could run farther... If Braska were less tired he might have been able to save the man... If he had been less hysterical about Ixion, about all the memories...

The echo of Ixion's awareness jolted him back. He could sense Auron dimly, a spark of life—even this far away, he could feel the delicate electric net of nerves, spark-sparkling, whisper-hissing, dancing scatter-shot as Auron moved, breathed, lived.

But next to Auron's youthful sparking, Jecht blazed like a perpetual bolt of lightning. Like a fire, flickering and wild.

Braska's breath caught, and his awareness nearly broke then and there; he shunted aside his puzzlement and concentrated on staying awake, on keeping Ixion with them. He could feel Ixion returning, gaining strength, substance, the Auron-spark and Jecht-blaze astride him. Braska reeled dizzily, approaching the edge of his meager reserves, burning through the cold strength Shiva had pushed on him.

He stayed conscious long enough to hear Ixion—with his own ears, he had to reassure himself, his own senses—and then passed out, taking Ixion with him, out from under his passengers, leaving Auron and Jecht to tumble into the brush and make their way on foot.

When he awoke, he knew a very short time had passed. Auron and Jecht's voices floated past him out of the black fog.

"Lord Braska, using an aeon to ride on..." Auron muttering, trying for indignation and hitting only... admiration? And tinged with a warm amusement... and something sad....

"So, Not Done around here, huh? No wonder you just stood there staring." Jecht, the usual teasing words, but tone coming tight and heavy...

He opened his eyes, remembering everything a moment before the scene impressed itself upon him anyway.

He had a Sending to perform.

Auron was kneeling by him, and offered him a Potion with a murmured, wide-eyed "My Lord?" Braska nodded wearily, begging the woman's patience until the Potion lent him the strength to stand. And then...

He took up his staff, and closed his eyes.

It was time to begin.

His feet felt leaden.

But from the depths of his dreams, a whisper of song spiraled out. Shiva sang for him, goading him with her cruel love, silently singing him the Hymn.

And he danced to Shiva's song, danced in silence, hearing it in his heart.

I dream of life, he thought.

I dream of life.


________




He should have slept the dreamless sleep of the exhausted that night.

When he woke, his heart was pounding, and his consciousness clawed its way up through shreds of terror, the worst yet, veil-images that parted like a cold morbid mist: Sending, again and again, dancing round and round— but the dancer was not he...

He gasped a ragged breath in, eyes flying open.

Meeting Jecht's across the fire.

His eyes were full of horror, too. A flickering revulsion, aimed not at Braska but at the world Jecht found himself in. Jecht looked away, frowning as he surveyed the night. "You say these Sending things are supposed to help?"

Braska drew up his knees, clasped his hands about them. "They prevent the souls of the slain from turning into fiends."

"Right, right." Jecht didn't look his way again, still turned to face the darkness. But his eyes weren't moving to scan for danger. Braska supposed he might be staring into the middle distance, but he rather suspected Jecht's gaze had turned inward. After a long silence, Jecht told the night, "Right. Well. I don't like 'em."

Braska blew out his breath, resting his head on his knees for a moment, tilting it back to gaze at the star-strewn sky, pyreflies dancing across it like stray satellites. "It is my hope..." He trailed off, tracing the slow flight of a pyrefly as it waltzed with the sparks rising from their fire. Flickers of light and life, lost in the infinite cold void... He jerked his head a little, flicking his eyes away, fixing on the fire itself, warm and bright, and Jecht behind it. "It is my hope that after we... succeed... no one will have to perform Sendings for a long time." No one. He closed his eyes, and tatters of his nightmares floated behind his closed lids.

No one.


________




Jecht's subdued silence didn't last long past the night. Fiends to fight, chocobo to defend, imputations on Braska's reputation to become loudly indignant about. Luca provided a distraction, the biggest yet. And then...

The sea.

Braska stood at the prow, salt-spray coating his face. No snowy sliver of silver running through his veins, Shiva's song quiet and distant. No, this was all his, all him, a love learned in his own time, on a battered ship scudding towards Bikanel Island. This was his.

He hadn't realized how much he had hungered for... for a moment of himself. Pure and self-wrought, a moment inside his own skin... Yes. This was his.

But not his alone... a spark muttered excitedly, dancing along the back of his mind.

And he let Ixion live a little, not calling, not summoning, but sharing for a moment a breath, a heartbeat, feeling the faint dream fill him gently. Fill him, breathe with him of the salt-rich air, and retreat like a softly ebbing tide.

And in the wane of that fierce and gentle presence, that sailor's soul, Braska sifted through the imprint left behind on his heart, his mind, his dreams... searching for answers...

Ixion was a stranger to him. But he knew now the gentler touch of Ixion's hand, and yes, he could find its like, marking his nights... two hands, to make a stronger nightmare... two echoes, to come together the clearer...

The roaring whistle of a blitzball tore by his shoulder. His eyes fixed on it, startled, and followed it as it curved up and up, and back towards the deck as the ship's momentum carried them to it. Braska turned to see Jecht absorb the impact with a hollowing of his chest, letting the ball drop to his feet. Open grin splitting his face. You're of the sea, too, Jecht...

Braska smiled back. "The Kilika Temple is an important place for bitzball players, you know."

Jecht's smile stretched wider. "Huh! Why's that? I sure don't need any praying to win."

Auron called over from his perch on the rail, "It was High Summoner Ohalland. He played for the Kilika Beasts, before bringing his Calm."

"You mean one of those old guys with the big statues in the temples was a blitzer?"

"High Summoner Yocun was a lady," Braska murmured. A whisper hushed over his thoughts: Ixion, still riding on the edge of Braska's enjoyment of the sea, and Braska suddenly knew that Yocun had possessed a sharp and wicked sense of humour. Apparently, Ixion had liked her. Braska smiled to himself, and tucked the knowledge away.

No, our dreams were never meant for only war...

The conversation had continued without him, Jecht gently trying to ruffle Auron's feathers by proclaiming his obvious superiority over "some dried up old stick of a summoner, no offense Braska" and Auron's voice growing rich with humour as he resisted the bait.

The sea was good for them, too, Braska decided. They had come a long way. All of them.

The shore came too soon— a vague regret, layered over with Ixion's faint longing. But it had eased something in all of them, though Jecht seemed strangely intent once ashore. Posturing and joking aside, Jecht grew visibly intrigued as they neared Kilika Temple, trampling impatiently through the jungle and getting them lost in his ill-suppressed haste. But arrive at the temple they did, up the endless stairs and into the open narthex.

Jecht stared around at the unroofed structure, down at the fire flickering below their feet. The air here was open and wet with jungle heat— a good idea, leaving the place open. A closed temple would have been stuffy; this place felt welcoming and warm.

Braska glanced at Jecht to gauge his reaction, and found the man looking... oddly preoccupied. But Jecht said nothing as they entered the Cloister, the temple closing around them at last, with all the pressing heat they had been spared outside.

Jecht's look remained distant as they navigated the Trials. Braska was growing distracted himself, listening for Ifrit's hymn under the crackle of the roaring flames.

He cast a last look back at Jecht waiting in the Cloister before he entered the Chamber, the pulse-pound of heat palpable in the pyreflies' excited murmur. He wondered what challenge he was to meet this time... Nothing pressed upon him but the heat, but he could feel that in his blood, a presence in itself. What was that phrase Jecht had used? Yes, these guys play for keeps.

He knelt, thinking of Jecht's stuttering firelit conversations over the past weeks, at odds with his boisterous daytime manner. He had a baffled air about him these days, painfully sober and awake to the strange world he had stumbled into. Braska had some sympathy for the condition, remembering how it was to wake from comforting numbness to the full horrors of the world.

A blast of heat engulfed him, dry and searing like the desert. Great curving horns, tremendous clawed hands, and flames, flames licking everywhere, flowing a molten river down a muscled, scar-crossed back.

Ifrit faded, and the fayth remained.

He was a man, full-grown and broad-shouldered, alert around the eyes, tension through his back. Braska thought of Jecht's eyes, Jecht's large, tense hands, Jecht's scars, everywhere. But the fayth wore a Crusader's half-armour, and when he spoke, his voice echoed with a soft Kilika accent.

"Summoner. You carry many dreams with you."

Braska's thoughts jumped to Shiva and Ixion sigh-sleeping within, to the nightmares that shadowed his nights; his thoughts flew ash-scattered to the desert, the snows, the sea; to Yuna, to Auron, to Jecht.

"Yes. I have many dreams."

Ifrit's eyes grew far away, staring unseeing through the Chamber door. "So many sad dreams..." His gaze sharpened upon Braska again. "Come, summoner. Perhaps we can ease each other's dreaming."

And Braska had a single moment to think That was too easy before the fayth engulfed him.

A fever blasted through him, sudden and absolute, draining him dry-mouthed in an instant.

And left him panting, kneeling atop the translucent curve cloaking the fayth statue. Faceless, tension in every line of the broad back and shoulders. He stared at it, seeing flame flicker across it, thinking of watching Jecht's stiff back through the fire as Jecht kept watch in the night.

That all happened too easily. Too quickly.

Braska levered himself upright again, leaning heavily on the warm, dry weight of his staff. His steps were shaky. But not nearly as unsteady as they should be.

The Chamber door opened readily, and Braska saw Auron and Jecht startle at Braska returning so soon. Auron took an uncertain step forward, to lend a shoulder, but Braska shook his head with a faint smile. He was all too fine.

He looked at Jecht, and his blood leapt. He thought of Yuna reaching for the pyreflies.

He shook his head to clear it, and they made their way back through the Cloister, and then out into the gentler jungle heat. The rich air felt sharp and hot against Braska's dry, fevered skin. He could feel Ifrit crackling urgently within him, bottled up and wishing hard, waiting to be summoned, called, dreamt anew.

It was like a pressure on his heart. He felt like he would be ground to dust under the weight of Ifrit's imprisoned energy. He closed his eyes, sought for the sigil, to unstopper this fiery force, to ease the numbing pressure on his mind.

And as soon as Ifrit— woke up, got remembered, came alive, was summoned—was there— Braska felt it, dream-deep tug, and he felt like his soul stumbled, like the bottom dropped out of his knees: Ifrit's being, dream-self, a scrap of memory, sharing soul-space with Braska's heart, Ifrit, he, he, they— lurched at Jecht. With hunger, blazing, afire with it, soul-scrap of heart-song livid with it—

Braska's heart had a wild moment to clutch for the brakes. Did aeons go rogue?

And then he felt— something, not so much a response as hey-what-was-that, dim dreamy echo. And Ifrit's need— it grew no less, it burned flare-bright—no, flare was Bahamut's, why did he think of Bahamut— but Braska's mind stuttered as he recognized something that had long ago been human, something deep and aching and familiar— an echo of himself, and his heart sounded to it in turn, and he wondered, he wanted, wanted so hard, to know how Yuna was, how their children were. And— other things, scraps of feelings: dream-brother, a hot envy, a wistful longing, a confused impression like a Lifecast—

A door slammed shut in his face.

Ifrit's boiling feelings were shunted aside with a distant impersonal touch, a dispassionate mental slap. And then there was just the summoning-bond.

Braska's heart squeeze-shuttered itself and he realized that not he, nor Ifrit, nor Jecht had moved in the spare space between one heartbeat and the next.

Braska released Ifrit by sheer reflex, and he was gone, tucked away with the others in the back-behind of his mind, between his cold nightmares and his electric memories.

Jecht's eyes slid towards him, whites showing all around the edges.

"Buggering blitzers, Braska, do any of these things come without all kinds of crazy strings attached?"

Braska swallowed a dry laugh.


________




Jecht took first watch. He would have trouble finding sleep, Braska knew, if his thoughts were as confused as Braska's. Braska attempted it anyway, letting the crackle of the fire lull him down into a dark warmth.

And as the darkness enveloped him, he dreamed. He dreamed of swimming in the sea, salty and cool and opening forever in every direction, buoyed up on the waters, above the cold dreamy depths. He dreamed that he swam in the sea, that he was teaching Yuna, and the sea became the Moonflow, and the air was filled with pyreflies, and Yuna reached her hands for them...

He woke, blinking. His heart thudded in confused hollow bursts. The fear, the nightly quiet panic, reached for him, and did not quite find purchase.

Jecht stirred at Braska's waking, glancing at him, gaze lingering a mute moment longer before turning back to stare into the night. Braska sat up, slowly, clasping his arms around his knees. The dream still clung to him, spiderweb-tatters woven around his mind, his heart...

He realized he was staring into the fire, at the flames rather than through them, watching them lick gently at the cold air, the glowing warmth reaching for him to soothe the night's chill.

"Hey. Braska." Jecht's voice was rough with the night's disuse.

"Mm?" Braska hummed a low acknowledgement, still watching the fire.

"What the hell happened back there? With that— that aeon."

"Ifrit," Braska supplied. "His name is Ifrit." He looked up, then, to see Jecht beyond the fire, staring out into the night. He tried to summon sense out of the flickering darkness, out of the sleepless confusion of his mind. "I'm... not sure what he did." Braska squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing at his forehead, trying to marshal the flood of impressions. "He... he meant you no harm, I think. In retrospect. I was rather surprised myself, at the time."

"Then what the heck did he want with me?"

The question stirred echoes in Braska's heart— Braska thought of Bahamut, of his own endless wondering, and didn't answer at once. "I don't know, Jecht. Maybe it has something to do with High Summoner Ohalland." He waited a beat, to see if Ifrit offered any impression... but the dim warm crackle's attention seemed sideways to his, tangential.

"When you— when Ifrit did— whatever he did, I— hell, I don't know. I remembered... home. Trainin'. Teachin' the kid to swim— Jecht rubbed his hands imptiently at his head, as if trying to work out the thoughts with his fingers. "It was gone real quick. I just. I remembered."

And Jecht turned to meet Braska's eyes, the firelight reflecting in them, and Braska's blood leapt: an echo of an echo.

In the rush of summoning, in first cold flush of panic, Braska had thought—

Jecht.

Ifrit had leapt for Jecht; if no one had seen it with their eyes still Braska had felt it with his heart: Ifrit had reached out to touch Jecht's mind. It should not have been possible: that gulf should have been as wide as that between the living and the dead, uncrossable, unbridgeable. He had felt the cost of that crossing in his bones, there in the depths of in Ixion's temple: power bought in death, death bound in place. Braska had heard of no fayth, no aeon, touching one who was not a summoner, one who had not knelt in supplication and passed the fayths' strange trials to receive the rushing flood of pyreflies that would link them forever, waking and dreaming.

But Ifrit had not tested Braska. Ifrit had been restless, reaching, wanting out of the temple, into the open heat of the day. Outside, where Jecht had been. Braska had felt it, heart-echo, touch to touch to anchor, Jecht to Ifrit to himself. A glimpse, only the barest moment— Braska marveled at it still, even in memory.

The barest touch of the overwhelming fullness of another's life.

He'd thought of Life. (I dream of life...) But it was more, so much more— where a Lifecast was only the echoes of connections, a small and fragile web, this had been... it had been more than he could compass, a moment's fleeting understanding, and even that moment more than he could make sense of: the breadth of another life, fully experienced, complete and ever unfolding. He thought of the aeons, and wondered what fathoms of their selves must be closed to him, that he could carry them beside his heart and not go mad. Though madness is relative, if anything is... His lips quirked.

We would crush you, Ifrit rumbled.

You would lose yourself in us, Shiva whispered, cool phantom lips against his ear, and Braska's eyes fluttered shut, his breath shaky-shallow— fear, worship, the strange cold and distant lust. Shiva's smile, coolly amused, hovered in his mind, and with a shiver Braska sought blindly after warmth, comfort, something solid and sure.

And it was there, Ifrit's heat, restless grumbling twin to the cruel peals of Shiva's laughter. It should have been painful, should have burned like fire—

Braska blinked, feeling only warmth, only the solid earth on which he sat. Saw only Jecht, through the flames. He is yours, isn't he? Braska watched Jecht through the licking flames: his figure should have wavered in the heat but it held steady and clear. Somehow, he is yours.

Ifrit shifted in mute irritation— not directed at him, Braska sensed. And Braska remembered that it had not been he who had reined Ifrit in: a door, a window, had been slammed shut against them both, and he sensed it now: distant, echoed across an echo, thirdhand. He shivered all the same at the familiar touch of it.

And he remembered, too, the sick lurch of joining when he cast Life on Jecht, discordant and unfamiliar in a spell he'd cast too many times before. He thought of how Jecht had looked through Ixion's eyes, wild and flickering, the flow of energies run ragged and strange around him, pyreflies in a mad dance like flames.

Was he meant to summon? He mused, watching Jecht brood into the night. Or perhaps a priest? Braska grinned, and made no attempt to hide it.

Ifrit spoke no more, but a faint rumble rolled through Braska's heart, the faintest touch of deep laughter. And Jecht looked up, to catch Braska smiling— and smiled himself, too, shoulders easing out of their puzzled hunch.

Braska spoke without thought, catching the smooth edge of a shared smile, a shared ease: "It is not so bad, to remember sometimes. We should not hide," he said softly, "from memory."

"Yeah," Jecht sighed, and stared up into the sky, the firelight flickering across his dark skin. "Everything's so different here. I kinda forget sometimes, how it used to be for me." He met Braska's eyes across the fire. "But I remembered. I thought of home. Good things. My kid. Just... home."

"Home is what we make of it. As are memories, for that matter. I am glad," Braska said, "that you remembered the good things."

Jecht nodded and sank into a companionable silence, eyes alert to the surrounding night, but shoulders easy, the lines of his arms relaxed as he prodded at the fire to make it brighter, sparks dancing up into the sky like tiny pyreflies.

Braska blinked against the echo of his dream: the air filling with pyreflies, rising into the sky, and Yuna reaching...

Memories are what you make of them... He thought of Ixion, who had helped him understand: it was Braska's doing, to transform the warm light of remembrance into pain, twisted by grief into something to hide from.

He thought of Shiva, sending him merciless messages in song. He thought of his own restless nights, and he thoughts of how Jecht smiled at Ifrit's touch.

And the realization washed over him, and he thought he could weep.

Oh.

Oh.

He reached for the dreamy mutters in the back of his mind in a tremulous desperate wonder.

You have been sending me your dreams. It is I who call them nightmares.

They had been sending him their dreams, pure and full of hopeful purpose. And it was he, his mind, his fears, that twisted their earnest visions, those fragile forebodings, to nightmares. Lady! he called. My lady. This was the only gift you could give me... Shiva's fierce unfathomable hope echoed out to him, her cruel love, her cold and distant pride.

He wanted to laugh. Or cry.

"Braska," Jecht's rough voice broke over his awareness. "Hey, Braska?"

Braska raised his head from his hands and saw Jecht's worried eyes. "I'm all right, Jecht. Sorry, I... I just realized something." He smoothed his hands over his face, but a smile crept up and stayed there anyway, a small secret. "I realized Ifrit was just trying to help."

Jecht gave him a blank look, that softened slightly after a moment.

Yes, Jecht. You thought of home.

And he remembered that Jecht had thought of Tidus, too, teaching him to swim. And Braska remembered his dream, teaching Yuna in the Moonflow. And he remembered how Ifrit had been shunted aside, boiling feelings shut behind a distant door.

The smile drained slowly from his face.

Bahamut... And what do you say of my dreams?

Only silence, of course. Braska lay back onto his bedroll, and stared at the sparks flying up into the sky for a long time before sleep came again.


________




The sea journey to Besaid seemed like a gift, gentle echo of the bitter gift of his dreams. Warm air moving on a soft sea breeze, the open ocean stretching around him. And the gentle feeling persisted, like a small stillness found hidden in his heart, as they reached the island and made their way to the village by the temple.

Here, there was a measure of simplicity and peace. His lips curved, remembering a long-ago thought, from his first arrival in Bevelle, full of young wonder at the peace he'd thought he'd found there. He wanted to bring this peace with him always, everywhere.

And if he could not bring it with him...

This would be a good place for Yuna. The thought felt right, rooted down deep into his heart, into the small wellspring of calm. He thought of the dreams that haunted him. He thought of his childhood awakenings in Bevelle, Bahamut's breath thrilling down his back. He thought of those awakenings, and thought of bringing Yuna here, to this far and quiet shore, and he smiled.

But the thought of Bahamut sobered him, too, as they approached the temple; the small breath of hope and calm began to dissipate gently, and he wondered once more what Bahamut reached his hand for, across plains and snows and oceans. He left Jecht and Auron in the Cloister, mounting the steps with a strange small serenity, a sense of purpose that welled up from within, from a place that had come awake again...

He knelt before the statue of the fayth, and waited.

Valefor's Chamber was the least— oppressive, Braska decided. The least oppressive he had seen. Felt. There was something easy and light here, something that tugged at his heart.

Yes, he thought. This would be a good place for Yuna.

And the statue before him erupted in a gentle blaze of light, a great winged form—almost familiar, but more elegant, far less bulky than the great black dragon—

And then the fayth, and Braska nearly dropped his staff.

It was a girl, somber-faced and large-eyed. His heart lurched sideways, and then— settled, as if stepping into an abyss to find solid ground there.

Yes. A good place for Yuna.

His eyes darted involuntarily to the statue, seeing now the grotesquely feminine lines, the youthful insubstantiality to the torso. The fayth regarded him silently as his eyes slid back up to her. Her wordless gaze offered him nothing... nor did it deny anything.

He felt compelled to speak, and he found himself reaching for answers he hadn't known he wanted.

"Valefor. What do you know of Bahamut?"

The silence of the dim chorus behind his dreams rang through his mind like a too-pure note. But Valefor answered him.

"Bahamut dreams of his own destruction. We are all fading echoes, and he the oldest. He is like Sin. They yearn to wake."

Braska closed his eyes, slowly. Oh, Bahamut. We all yearn to wake, and sleep forever...

The fayth said nothing more, and Braska opened his eyes again to watch her young face, its soft and ageless serenity.

"Child, who were you?"

"Nothing, summoner." She answered with a soft and distant air, almost clinical. "There was nothing before I dreamed."

Braska settled himself cross-legged at the foot of her statue, rested an elbow on his knee and propped his chin up on his hand. He smiled. "But you say Bahamut dreamed first. So there was something, before your dreaming." His smile stretched wider, soft and sad. "Child, I think you were a little girl of this island, and you loved it so much that you dreamed a beautiful dream to protect it."

He looked again at her statue. All others had a hand flung out, as if in one final gesture of warding, protection, attack. Even Bahamut— and he could see that stone vivid and unsettling in his mind, one powerful arm outstretched and tense.

Only Valefor showed nothing of herself but her thin, vulnerable back, her bowed head, and the span of two mottled wings.

"You gave all of yourself away, Valefor." He did not know where his next words sprang from; perhaps nothing more than the calm of the place, a soft and lovely peace that he had touched on, small shared hopes of his heart that fit gently into place here. "You were going to be a summoner, weren't you?"

The fayth said nothing, but a small and secret smile played about her lips.

He spoke softly now, half-private whispers. "You were ready to die... you did die, and made yourself live forever..." He sat quietly for a time, oddly at peace with the lull in conversation, with Valefor's noncommittal quiet. His eyes drifted again to the statue, to the delicate stretch of wings.

Do all children dream of flying?

"You spoke truly, didn't you? You really were nothing... a summoner, a vessel for the hopes of others." He felt vast, inside. Filled with memories, with love, with sadness. He looked up at her, and spoke very softly. "Then what did you make your dream from?"

Her expression did not change; only her eyes sparkled softly. Wide eyes, sad, that would look young if he could not sense that they had seen as many years as they held secrets.

He bowed his head to her. "Will you come with me?"

Her smile faded a little, like the soft darkening of moonset, and she answered, "Yes."

Braska stood, slowly, the strange serenity fading a little. She would be the last, and then to Bevelle, to face Bahamut once more. The fayth watched him, waiting. Her gaze was level and serene— almost like Bahamut's, the youth in it... but with a gentle softness that Bahamut—implacable and expressionless as stone—lacked. Mirror-images, balanced at either end of a long journey. Counter-balanced...?

Braska swallowed, stilling himself. He eased his mind to the gentle teeming of dream-flickers, feeling for certainty. Shiva, of nightmares. Ixion, of memories. Ifrit, of dreams. Valefor... of promises? A counter-move, small and desperate, against the net he felt closing in around himself... But he felt it, a sliver of cold stiffening his resolve, warmth climbing from his gut in a swell of assurance, electricity dancing along his nerves. Fault-lines, fault-lines... and if he probed too deep, would he be refused in the end? Would Bahamut reject...

No. He would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Now, he had a chance. And he played his piece.

"I would ask of you," he said, stepping back before the fayth could dissolve into the maddening rush of pyreflies. She paused, gravely attentive. He swallowed. "I would ask of you," he began again, "in case my daughter... I asked that Yuna be taken here after I—" the barest hesitation, and then the bare word: "—die." The fayth regarded him impassively. "If she were to come here, to you," and he swallowed thickly, sure and terrified, pushing trust in the face of both, "that you would... treat her gently. Be her... friend. Protect my daughter, Valefor."

A smile blossomed, slow and small, on the child's face.

She said nothing, but suffused him, dissolved into him—like the gentle breeze of a summer night, warm and light and tugging soul-deep, taking his heart with her into the moon-soft light of the open air.

A warm languor trickled slowly out of his limbs, as he became aware that he had sunk to the floor. He struggled up, exhausted and smiling.

He stumbled only a little on the steps leading down from the chamber, Auron and Jecht a flicker of movement in the warm torchlit glow as they each reached for him, support and succor.

The faces of the villagers wafted across his vision. Many hostile, some hopeful... one, striking dark hair and bright-hard eyes, met Braska's gaze with a level and unbiased skepticism. He smiled at her. And he summoned Valefor.


________




Valefor brought a measure of stillness to the dreams that still suffused his sleep. He still could not quiet the frantic beating of his heart when he woke; his soul still cringed away. Later, he would ask Bahamut. Later. When they got back to Bevelle. Where Yuna waited for him. His steps felt lighter, quicker, lodestone leading him forward, time flowing by in a quick, uncertain river.

Except for one day, and one night, when it stood still for them all.

The night after Jecht found out about the pilgrimage's end, he took first watch, brooding silently over the fire. For all the apologies and halting explanations... it could not be enough.

Auron made to sleep, an awkward tension hovering in the air. Preparing for his own turn at watch. Braska considered his own strange, haunted nights... He went to sit by Jecht, faced the opposite direction, towards the fire's warmth. In its flickering glow, he could see Auron was not asleep, the lines of his neck and arms tense and stiff.

The silence stretched, dripping by with a sick viscous slowness. The moon had moved inches across the sky before Jecht spoke.

"Why're you doing it, Braska?"

Braska saw Auron's shoulders tense. He closed his eyes; let his head hang down between his shoulders. "I will die to end death," he murmured. "I dream of life..."

"What?" Jecht turned towards him, unable to hear.

Braska shook his head slowly. "It's the only way we have, Jecht."

He could hear the crack of Jecht's knuckles popping as he clenched his fists. "Can't you find a better way?"

Braska was dizzy with a memory: Auron asking near the same question, so many nights ago. And then the dizziness enveloped him, stretching sick slimy fingers for him as the back corner of his mind filled with a muted chorus of whispers. How much did he know? How much could he tell Jecht? How much... how much did he barely dare suspect, barely dare dance around the edges of, barely dare think? "I am hoping..." he began slowly. "I am hoping that I can buy enough time for someone to find another way." The buzzing in his head was growing into a headache.

Jecht shifted beside him. "That's so stupid, Braska. Go back to Yuna. Go be her dad."

"Being her father is why I do this," he breathed. Forgive me... How much dare he think?

"Dammit, Braska!" Jecht surged to his feet, and Braska's eyes snapped open to follow him. "Why are you doing this! Really!"

Braska stared up at him from his seat by the fire. Jecht looked angry, shoulders hunched and tense, mouth tight and unhappy. We never learn the right way to grieve... Don't grieve for me in advance, Jecht. And again, the answer floated up for him, the answer he knew to be true without knowing why.

"I seek a measure of grace."

Jecht jerked to face away, missing the light stir of Auron's blankets. Jecht stood there, back rigid, fists clenched at his sides. "Is this more of that Yevonite crap? Dammit Braska, I thought you didn't buy into that!"

"No," said Braska lowly. "I don't reject all the teachings." He groped for words, words to make sense of it for himself, to shape the meanings he couldn't quite grasp. "A priest... might say I seek atonement. Auron might say... that I want to act honourably. My wife," his lips quirked against his will, in something that bore a small sad relation to a smile, "that I was looking for a way to be happy. Also that I was being stupid about it." What's the meaning of life? Life, of course, she'd answered. He shook his head again. "Jecht, I don't have the strength to find another way. I barely have the strength for this one."

If there were a kinder god to watch over Spira, he might have followed that deity, to seek peace in his heart, to find a congruence between action and spirit. To hope for... a measure of grace.

In another life, in another world... Jecht's world..? He was going to the wrong Zanarkand.

No. He did not reject all the teachings.

Whose grace did he seek? Shiva's was not the province of mercy. Valefor would understand, had grace in abundance, but had no place to grant him his. His wife's forgiveness was out of reach. He could ask no forgiveness of Yuna.

Forgive me...

Oh.

Forgive me.

My own. I seek my own forgiveness.

The hard choices could hypnotize, he knew. Oh, he knew too well, what it was to damn himself, to think he made the harder choice when all it was was a paralysis, a failure to grow.

Green eyes smiled sadly at him from his memory, and Ixion's faint laughter echoed in his ears. Oh, love. It is not you I betray. Forgive me, for thinking you would not understand, that it was your disapproval that haunted me. But if he had transgressed against himself...

Peace comes from within. What could he find inside himself, where faith had once dwelt? Himself. The things he had wrought. Yuna. Jecht. Auron.

He had faith.

Oh, he had faith, oceans of faith, a groundswell, a deep and secret spring; water: ice melted by fire, coolness in the desert. Oceans, oceans, endless within him.

I was nothing before I dreamed.

You were a summoner, weren't you? I give all of myself away, because I am without end...

And a whisper of Valefor's hymn spiraled softly through his heart.

He laughed.

Oh, he laughed. In a strange sudden delight, in a fond mockery of his own confusion.

How could he think that he had lost himself, when he had instead cast himself upon the sea, left pieces of himself floating in safe harbours? He opened his eyes.

Jecht was staring. Auron had given up all pretense of sleep and had sat up, staring, too.

Braska shook his head, silent apology, until he could speak again. "You're right, Jecht. It is a poor way. But I am right, too. A Calm is needed, for a better way to be found." He tried to measure his tone, but he smiled helplessly, even as his voice softened, as he looked his guardians in the eyes. "I do not propose to die, and throw my death away. I... have faith." Endless faith, rich soil for others' souls to grow in. An endless, eternal calm within him. "I have faith that I will leave something endless behind. In you. In Yuna. You will find a way. I know it."

He smiled at them, helplessly laughing inside.

Auron looked stricken. Braska met his eyes. "An imperfect solution, for an imperfect man," Braska said softly around his smile.

Jecht was shaking his head again. "Braska don't... don't do this. Go back to Yuna."

Oh, Jecht. I cannot play out your fatherhood for you. Let us both be imperfect parents. Aloud he replied, "I want to, Jecht." You would understand exactly how much. "But what kind of father would I be if Sin took her when I could have prevented it? What kind of man, if I let someone else take my place? What," his voice lowered to a whisper, hands clasped beneath his lips, "would I be if I died, or was killed, with no fruit to come of it?" A chill whisper serrated across his heart: Shiva's proud gaze sweeping across him, pride in her son...

He looked up, met Jecht's eyes. Looked aside to meet Auron's too, before addressing them both. "I entrust you with my death. Bring Yuna to Besaid. Find a better way. Live your dreams."

Jecht held his gaze, defiant and oddly defeated. Auron glanced aside at Jecht before turning back to Braska, gaze steadying.

An impasse, uncertain and desperate.

Finally, Jecht shook his head again. "I gotta think about this, Braska. I ain't saying you're right, though."

A smile played at the edges of Braska's lips. "I can't tell you what to believe, Jecht."

Jecht snorted, remembering, too. He sat down facing the night, again. After an uncertain beat, Auron lay back down, though he made no pretense of sleeping again.

And Braska lay down, too, and stared at the wide open sky.

It was a long way still to Bevelle.


________




He had feared, as his pilgrimage wore on, as he accepted life, and then death, that... something had diminished in him. Something had faded, to be replaced by the subconscious thrill-thrum of the aeons, a vague and certain sense of purpose, a terrifying hunch he would face only when Bahamut forced him to it.

But when he saw Yuna, running, stumbling—big, she had gotten so big—laughing and crying and reaching for him across the long bridge into Bevelle— He felt his heart swell within him, impossibly light, chokingly vast, and he laughed and took her into his arms as she flung herself at him.

"You came back," she whispered, fierce, taut through laughter and suppressed sobs. His heart, a boundless fragile bubble within him, contracted painfully, and yet felt no heavier: only a great, fathomless sadness, accepted and set aside in favour of the joy, the joy, tarnished and perfect, of having his daughter in his arms once more. It overcame him in a rush, an overwhelming aching awareness of here-and-now—he had lived so long inside his mind, his dreams, his memories, he had started to lose what it was to live in his own skin. But with Yuna held fast in his arms, he felt his heart pounding out a frenetic dirge, anchoring the wandering of his spirit, grounding him back to the compass of his heart, pulling him back into his fingertips, his arms, his eyes, his ears.

There was a cause, after everything, before everything: something real, real, real, not dream nor memory but the sharp ache of his heart as Yuna clutched him and laughed through her tears.

They lingered in Bevelle too long, not nearly long enough. Braska felt suspended, caught in a small bubble of time that grew pearlescent and transparent as it senesced around him.

Takla greeted him like a son, and Braska returned his embrace unhesitating, feeling the frailty under his hands, the constant tremula of age, seeing a quiet death approaching in Takla's eyes, now milk-white and blind. This time, this small space of time, precious in its unutterable worth, in its fragility.

Auron did not return to the monks' quarters, and seeing his face after a morning visit to train with old comrades, Braska did not ask why. They had all changed too much while Bevelle held still, eternal and unchanging. Balance, or stasis? Change brings growth, and change brings chaos...

They all stayed together in Takla's house, Braska's own having been seized long ago in contemptuous anticipation of their failure, and Jecht made room for Auron's pallet on the floor without protest or even much teasing comment.

Jecht told Yuna stories about Zanarkand, and she listened with wide-eyed wonder. Braska watched her with the bittersweet joy choking his throat, and listened to Jecht's stories, too, closing his eyes and wishing that his pilgrimage would end there, in that Zanarkand.

And he watched Jecht, too, saw the faint and fearful hope, the uncertain dread, tightening the smiling lines of his mouth.

Balance, or stasis?

Braska would not go to Bahamut until the hour of his departure, he knew. Bahamut's song echoed outside this small and precious space he had made for himself, himself and Yuna. He could feel its pull. He could hear his aeons' dreams still, reaching for him in the night, urging him on and on. A ruthless cruelty, he might think it, did he not agree that every day without Sin would be a gift, hard-won and bitterly received.

He raced Yuna across Bevelle on his third day back, leaving Auron and Jecht waiting on a balcony that faced the sea and not the Wood. Her laughter rang high and clear, and he laughed, too, tripping over his robes and scandalizing passers-by. But he could hear her laughter die too quickly, and her smile was small and nervous.

When had she learned to hide herself behind her smile? She was too young...

He would have raced to Besaid and back if he had known it would have spared her learning that dire skill. She knew he was leaving. She'd had the length of his pilgrimage to prepare for it. It wasn't her sadness that broke his heart anew.

It was the near-perfect armour she had wrought herself. She was barely seven years old.

Balance, or stasis...

He held her hand as they walked back, a sedate and proper little family. And he reached inside himself, reached a hand for Shiva, laying bare to her the depth of his grief.

You ask me, wayward son?

She had no answers for him.

He could see Jecht and Auron waiting for them. Jecht was staring out at the sea, but when he heard them approaching, he turned. Braska met his eyes, Jecht's gaze still half far-away and borne upon the waters.

Braska stopped walking, closed his eyes. Took a deep breath.

Yuna stopped beside him, and he knelt before her, placed his hands on her shoulders.

He watched her eyes widen slightly, then watched her face shutter itself. His chest tightened, watching her close herself so. Barely a tremble felt under his hands. "Yuna. I have to go on to Zanarkand and finish my pilgrimage."

It was the way her face barely moved, the way she held too still, that told him he had waited too long. "I know," she said.

It hung unspoken between them, and when had she grown so old, to leave a thing unsaid? Come back. He raised his eyes and looked at Jecht. All the laughter was gone from his face, and behind him Auron looked tired and small.

Come back.

Yuna crawled into his bed that night and clung to him quietly, less guarded in the lonely silence of the night.

The next day, he went to face Bahamut.


________




Jecht and Auron stayed in the Cloister, steady and grave, and Braska went on alone.

Once more, he entered Bahamut's Chamber.

This time, Bahamut was waiting for him. No fleeting vision of the great dragon, now. Only the boy, waiting for him above the statue. Braska knelt anyway, knelt before him and looked up into the child's face.

"I have been on pilgrimage, Bahamut. I am near to finishing it." Still on his knees, he opened his arms, palm-up. "It has been a long road, to come seeking you again."

The fayth was impassive as ever. "What else do you seek, summoner?"

Braska matched him for blandness, secretly fighting a strange smile. "How about some answers, Bahamut?"

The temperature in the deeply underground room seemed to drop even further. Oh yes, Bahamut. You control all elements. You control everything. I know. "You want to stop dreaming. Am I correct?"

Bahamut was silent for a long time. Braska said nothing more, but waited for the fayth to speak. He watched a faint wistful flicker pass behind those wrenchingly young eyes before Bahamut's expression went smooth as stone again. "We have dreamed a long time. It is a long way to look into eternity."

"But there is no such thing as eternity if you end it, is there, Bahamut?"

The fayth's face remained impassive, but Braska thought he could see a faint trace of fear behind his eyes.

Oh yes, Bahamut. I know exactly how long eternity looks from here.

A child's face. Young and intense, and no wonder he had seen some strange kinship with Auron in it. He remembered Valefor's uncannily ageless eyes. Serenity, or stasis? No such paralysis in these eyes: they yearned to change. Child, what dreams did you dream? He looked at the fayth statue once more. Our dreams were never meant only for war... Yes, what dreams had this child dreamt, in some Bevelle of long ago?

I will scatter myself everywhere.... Pieces in safe harbours, and pieces thrown upon stormy seas. For others may be drowning in them.

Braska closed his eyes, settled his staff across his lap and his hands upon it. He looked up once more. "I will help you, Bahamut. But I will not stop asking."

The fayth's chin moved minutely, as if in a smothered jerk of defiance.

Something stretched between them, something vast and precious, some similar restless spark, something calling down across the ages—

And then the fayth dissolved, and Braska was glad he had knelt. It was more terrible than he could have imagined.

When he could stand once more, he put his hands upon the floor and levered himself up, leaning on his staff against the buckling of his knees. He remembered Zakel's bleak smile. He had judged his old teacher too harshly, perhaps. But when he left the chamber and saw Jecht and Auron waiting, he found himself laughing, quietly.

Auron, who had waited in this Cloister once before, furrowed his brow. "Lord Braska... did... did you obtain the fayth?"

"Oh, yes, Auron. It will be a most interesting journey now."

Auron, not sure how to interpret this, subsided. He fell in beside Jecht as Braska retraced their steps to the exit, and thence to one of the great balconies at the temple gates, overlooking the sea.

And he called Bahamut.

Bahamut's summoning slammed through him like the heat of a thousand suns, the force of a thousand thunders. He was vast, implacable, age-old and naked-young.

And Braska felt him, felt the awareness of him flare up in his mind, felt their thoughts, their dreams touch like a faint flutter of fragile wings, and he grasped at it, he reached for it, the dim flicker of understanding

And he felt Bahamut recoil against him, a titanic avalanche of—surprise, fear, an anger that drowned him even as it swept past him to its true target—

Bahamut wrenched himself away, a near-sickening crack like a dislocating joint, Braska's heart thudding like waking from a nightmare, and a last flicker of regret trickled away from his awareness as Bahamut faded from flesh to dream.

Bahamut had unsummoned himself.

Braska's wife had an expression for people like that. Jecht probably did too, for that matter. Sneaky bastard.

But Braska lowered his staff slowly, every outward appearance of calm, as if the greatest of the aeons hadn't just bucked his control and unstrung the cord that bound them. Braska turned and smiled at the audience as they cheered him. Let the noise wash over him as he clung to a desperate knowledge.

Bahamut was hiding something.

And Braska had guessed too well what it was. And Bahamut had been angry about that. Angry... and not at him. But what had he gathered, after all, flickers between sleep and waking, leaking from an inhabited corner of his mind across the permeable membrane between his dreams and theirs... Fragments only. But well-chosen, yes...

Bahamut was a clumsy manipulator, Braska reflected. Effective, but clumsy; defiant and shame-faced when caught at it. Like the child he had been, long ago. An imperious, spoiled, child. And yet...

Braska thought back to the flickers of understanding that had passed between them. They had both known hate, and fear, and sympathy. And when Braska had summoned him... he felt Bahamut's presence towering over him, ancient and weary, majestic as a mountain, and as unreachable to Braska's mortal mind.

He closed his eyes.

There was time yet.

Oh. There was time yet.


________




They crossed the Calm Lands. Braska paused at the bluff overlooking the vast scarred plain.

He would die here.

It was a strange feeling. He could sense Auron looking at him, something sad and thick and uncertain in his gaze, and he remembered Noru wishing her summoner would delay, just a little longer. But Auron hesitated, and whatever words he might have spoken dissolved unsaid into the endless empty plains.

Braska closed his eyes against the sight of the place, and Bahamut stirred, uneasy flex of vast wings.

They went on. After the plains came the mountains, Gagazet towering above them all. And with the mountains came the snow, and the cold. Braska felt oddly comforted. My life began in the snows....

And Bahamut hunched still and silent in his mind.

They came upon the little grave on the Gagazet trails. Braska stood before it for some minutes, thinking, wondering if Zakel and Noru had perished here. He felt little threat from this harsh land. And then he asked Jecht for a sphere. Jecht gave him one from his small stash, rummaging for a usable one in the tattered little bag, and Braska stepped off the path, and spoke to his absent daughter. He entrusted the sphere to Jecht, to keep with the rest of the spheres for their children.

And Braska felt Bahamut's stirring, his unease at Braska's words: When you are grown, you will have to find your own path. Do what you must do, the way you want to do it.

Your future is yours to make.

He felt Bahamut stirring, the vast and distant wash of his anger. Answer me, Bahamut. What future do you make for her?

And suddenly the dream-mutters in his mind ceased, and he was very cold.


________




The cold numbed him to his bones. But his heart blazed in a desperate show of life. And... in anger. His legs moved automatically, shuffling, plodding on through the snows, arms straining on his staff to pull himself along. But his heart burned.

Awareness of his body receded, lost to the cold, to Braska's furious search of his mind. He was after Bahamut. Bahamut had a plan, and Braska had been dancing along the edges of it, half-knowing, half-believing. And Bahamut's silence was as absolute as his presence: overpowering, commanding. Do not tread here.

But Braska ignored the wall of silence, ignored the sense of Bahamut's anger, ignored the cold and the freezing of his fingertips to his staff, ignored everything and chased Bahamut through the back-beyond of his heart, stumbling over memories, over fears, over his nightmares and—most painfully—his dreams. Yuna, safe and happy in Besaid—a hope that burned in him, white moon-flame, dangerously pure.

And Bahamut threw it in his face. Do not seek me if you wish your dream to come to pass. Let my dream pass, summoner. Do not presume to understand my dreaming.

Braska knew what his wife would have said: Oh yeah? She always did say he would have made a good Al Bhed. He dreamed big, she'd said. He dreamed of life.

I am not afraid of dreams, Bahamut. Not yours, not Shiva's, not Ifrit's, not even Ixion's. Let alone my own. We are put on this world to dream our hardest.

A fathomless scorn spilled over his mind like burning oil, a vial of poison tipped by a negligent hand. And the silence was again absolute and unfathomable, the dream-gulf, breath-gulf, life-gulf stretching on into infinity, and no hand reached out to clasp his own across it. Not Shiva's. Not Ifrit's. Not Ixion's. And not Valefor's.

Bahamut crouched in the back of his mind, the low solemn swell of his presence overpowering all others. And as they approached Zanarkand, Braska felt Bahamut distancing himself more and more, blanketing the dream-remembered corner of his mind in a white noise of silence. As he picked his way across the ruins, he felt himself becoming lost in his own mind, trying to follow the thread of Bahamut's presence, losing it, stumbling along in the recesses between dreaming and remembering and forgetting.

It was coming upon the wall of fayth that brought him back.

Jecht stared. Auron stared, and Braska's eyes widened as the cluster of dim souls, dream-tatters, that cluttered his mind howled, silently, with an infinite sadness, echoing in his skull.

Braska collapsed at the same moment Jecht did.


________




Braska awoke, eyes snapping open.

He was very cold.

And then Auron was there, eyes wide, staring down into his. Braska had a dizzy recollection of young amber eyes layered over, double-vision. He blinked, and it was only Auron, offering a hand up. Braska took it, struggling to a sitting position. His head felt hollow, a channelling tool with the stuffing out.

There was a fire. Braska scooted closer, and looked around. Jecht lay opposite him, on the other side of the meager snow-whipped flame. Auron settled back down between them, evidently at his post.

And behind him, perhaps half a mile away, a faint glow. The fayth.

"Auron, what happened?"

Auron's head jerked around to face him a little too fast. "You collapsed, my lord." His eyes slid back over to Jecht. "Both of you. At the wall."

Braska craned his neck to eye the distant glow again. "Auron, did you carry us this far?"

Auron's eyes returned to Jecht's prone form, brows drawn together in an expression that had become habitual: a puzzled kind of irritated fondness. Braska looked at Jecht, too, taking in his muscled bulk, tallying it in his head against Auron's leaner frame and coming up short.

He raised his eyebrow, silently reiterating the question.

Auron responded by snorting, stopping his eyes mid-roll with visible effort. Braska hid a smile.

Auron fell silent again, and Braska sobered, listening to the distant whistle of the wind. They were alone here, near the roof of the world; it felt close and lonely and uneasy. Braska wondered how long he'd been alseep, how long Auron had sat there with only the wind and the fayth for company...

"My lord..." Auron's voice, low and uwnontedly hesitant from across the fire. Braska glanced up, and saw the look that Auron had worn when they had faced the Calm Lands: sorrowful, fierce, desperate. Uncertain. Here, where the solitude pressed close, not the vast impersonal emptiness of the plains... Braska blinked, trying to listen. "My lord, can't we... can't we try something else?" Emotion lay naked on Auron's face; Braska's heart caught at the rare sight. Oh, Auron. You speak your doubts too soon, and too late....

Braska blew out his breath, a small lonely gust against the wind. Closed his eyes for a moment. Yevon, but he was tired. He opened his eyes to see Auron watching him still, a dark red figure in the snow. He seemed diminished without Jecht beside him, and Braska wondered again how long Auron had been alone here, alone with his doubts. "Auron... I'm sorry. I spoke truly, before. I've done what I can. I can only trust in you to make legacy of it." It felt inadequate, but there was no eloquence to be found in this isolation and exhaustion. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "It is a bitter gift."

Auron looked away. Braska watched his profile: pain in the lines of his face, doubt furrowing his brow, the new lines etching away the creases of too few smiles. Braska's chest felt tight.

The conversation lay unfinished before them, but Braska did not know what more to say. He misliked the feeling of things left unsaid, of the inadequacy of his words. But Auron said no more, and Braska wondered if he might simply be too tired to talk; it made Braska ache to think what must have pushed Auron beyond that exhaustion. The loneliness of his vigil; the accumulated doubts of their pilgrimage, of Braska's sleepless musings. The bonds that tied the three of them together. Watching Braska recede into himself in his absoprtion with the aeons. Or maybe only the wall of fayth, grotesque and eerie behind them.

Auron's gaze had settled on Jecht. Braska watched him too, frowning, watched the steady, too-slow rise and fall of his chest. He wasn't even snoring. The realization made Braska suddenly aware: the crackle of the fire, the muted whistle of the snow-laden mountain wind, Auron's occasional shuffle.

And beyond that, silence.

Braska's frown deepened; he honed his inner ear, listening to the dream-touched corner of his mind. Silence. His hands tightened on his staff for a moment in a reflex of panic—

But no. Not an empty silence.

A silence like the one he had awoken to over a decade ago, the silent answer to a silent call, heavy and cold in his gut, a hot thrill on his frozen spine.

Questions, questions, he had always asked too many questions.

Is this what you want, Bahamut? That I stop asking, and go on faith?

Ah. Right. Another question.

His eyes had closed, though he had grown unaware enough of his surroundings not to notice. He opened them now, to see Auron waiting, tense, eyes flicking between Braska and Jecht.

Too close, whispered a mid-layer of his mind, behind his waking thoughts but layers above the ceaseless ruminations of his dream-mind, his memory-mind, the layer that took puzzles apart and put them together as he slept and presented the horrific answers upon his waking.

Too close to the truth. He had been stumbling around in the dark, faith-blind, reaching for reason. I stumbled over my own corpse in there, he thought wryly. I guess after that I'm not supposed to wonder. The silent waiting chorus shifted, like Jecht stepping into his personal space, some spare two inches too close for comfort.

Listening. Waiting for an answer to their answer.

Braska closed his eyes again, smoothing his mind into a flat, featureless plane, a road leading everywhere in all directions to a horizon. A road, a path, and at the end, what was expected of him. Nothing had changed; his answer was the same as it had been a decade and more ago.

Only the reasons had changed.

Only the reasons. Home is not a place, he thought. Bevelle was never home, and yet I left my heart there. No. He opened his eyes, the tableau unchanged, Auron guarding Jecht's prone form. Others carry pieces of it for me still.

He blew out his breath, offering a cease-fire, assurance of cooperation, of plans unchanged on the surface.

And Jecht woke up.

Blinked around, sat up before Auron could scramble over to lend his hand once more, and muttered, "What the hell happened?" before looking around, taking in his surroundings and the distant play of light, and settling his regard on Auron. "Didn't think you had it in ya."


________




They spent the night there, in the little pocket out of the blinding wind, the fire guttering between them. They did not sleep for a long time, but sat silently around the fire.

Braska could still feel the wall of fayth behind them, cascading through his mind, skitter-whisper of a far-off crowd just below the threshold of hearing. But he felt it, a deep low twang in his gut, a resonance in his heart... He felt awash in a dream-babble, if he could be awash when the waves only lapped gently at his feet, barely within reach.

But he listened, he listened, trying to make meaning out of the white-hot blade laid up his spine. He had it, he knew, he had come so close...

This has to do with Yuna, damn you, Bahamut!

Oh, he knew. He had known since before Besaid, and maybe before that... had sensed the stir of Bahamut's plans ever since the aeon had settled inside him. But as he stretched for it, laying his hand out with a demand for understanding, he found the gulf widening, the shiver-hum of dream chatter retreating beyond his ability to sense it.

"Braska. Hey." Braska blinked, finding himself staring at Jecht. "You are making the weirdest face right now." He heard an odd sound and turned to see Auron with a hand over his mouth, but he could tell: it was that expression Auron got when he was trying his monastic best not to laugh. Braska's own lips twitched, glad to see Auron looking more himself now that Jecht had woken. The small smile stilled as his thoughts returned.

"I'm sorry Jecht, I'm just... talking to my aeons. I'm trying to ask Bahamut something."

"What, that overgrown old bat?" At this, Auron's face grew suffused, flushed, and he made enough sputtering noises that Jecht noticed. "What? He looks like a bat that got berserked one too many times! And then got caught in an airship engine and came out with half the thing still attached."

Auron vented a most unmonkly snort. Braska's eyes flicked towards him, his smile widening. "Be that as it may, Jecht. I still want to talk to him. But I don't think he wants to talk to me just now."

"What, you manage to offend him?"

"Hmm. He might think so. I offer him no insult. I merely want the truth."

A pointed silence echoed behind his heart. Braska sighed. "Let us attempt sleep. There is a long road ahead yet."

Jecht shrugged acknowledgement, and offered up first watch. Auron, looking drained after his long labours that day, accepted, and his breathing went even and deep soon after he lay down. Braska lay back, too, and closed his eyes, listening to the faint whistle of the wind and snow.

Shiva, he thought. I am hers. Mother of the barren snows. Death-mother. Life-father? In dying we bring life... in bringing life into the world, we engender also another death... He could feel her hand around his heart, her cool dispassionate love, cruel and holy. Lady, I was born to you... Born of her barren snows, and though he wandered far, far to the desert places, under the sea, over verdant green hills... it was to her snows he had returned, her fayth his first, her dream he carried like a child.

And Jecht, Jecht, he was Ifrit's... Somehow, some tie Braska could not fathom, will as fierce and free and defiant as Ifrit's. Free will... Be careful what you wish for. Beware what you dream of....

And he could sense Jecht's son in Bahamut's net, could feel the keen blade of Bahamut's interest in him. He could feel Bahamut stirring, an angry rustle of vast wings, as Braska's thoughts picked at the edges of his web. Your web of lies, Bahmut? But no... Bahamut had never lied to him, only shut the door to truth in Braska's face. But all the same Bahamut, I am not blind. You reach your hand for Tidus.

A blank wall of silence met him, implacable.

Braska felt like pounding on it. Damn you, Bahamut! Yuna, damn you, what do you want with my Yuna?

Whose was Yuna?

Mine, Braska wanted to think, ours, hers and mine. But no. Yuna was her own. And he would fight and die to keep it that way.

Whose was Auron?

He thought fleetingly of fierce amber eyes, layered over and doubled, unnatural-bright and mortal-dark. The wall of fayth buzzed behind him, the resonances striking all wrong, distracting, out of tune. It itched at his awareness, not only the dischordant melody but the power that emanated from it, constant reminder of the nearness of things dead and bound.

He slept eventually, fitfully. The wall of fayth pulled at his awareness, buzzing through his dreams. Interference. Static. He thought he dreamed of Jecht, or of something terrible and vast that was like Jecht. And then he dreamed he was sick, sick with snow-fever, a young boy again tossing in his bed, and someone laid a cool hand across his forehead, delicate fingers as if tipped with frost sliding over his eyes, and he dreamed no more, waking at last to see his friends' eyes heavy with ill rest and strange dreams that touched too close to truth.


________




They came upon Zanarkand.

Braska's gaze swept the vast ruins, feeling the morass of energy, seeing the glint of pyreflies, pyreflies everywhere. One vast Chamber.

Vast, and dead, littered with memories.

He turned to Jecht, and saw Auron across from him do the same. Jecht, between them, stared at the forlorn vista, lips tight. Braska saw Auron's face tense with worry and sympathy, and saw him reach a hand out to his friend.

But Jecht stepped back, turning away from the dead city, and Auron's hand landed on air.

"It's okay," Jecht said. "I already knew."

Braska remembered Jecht's eyes the morning after the wall of fayth. What had Jecht dreamed of?

Braska watched his stiff back. Jecht stood some distance from them, arms crossed, facing resolutely away. Braska glanced aside to meet Auron's eyes. Full of worry, frown lines creasing the corners of his mouth, eyebrows drawn together, looking lost for words. Braska felt it in his own heart, too, an ache of sympathy-sorrow. Whatever they had known, they had still hoped. They had dreamed...

"Hey guys. Let's rest here tonight." Jecht had turned back to them, face tight, teeth bared in something that was trying to be a smile. "Can't make it from here to the center today." And he would know... Who is the pilgrim here...

Braska turned again to look at the ruins, feeling the welter of pyreflies within, reeking of death, death, death. "Yes," he said. "Let's."

They made a modest campsite there, near the vista that spilled over the ruined city. Auron had made a small diplomatic effort to retrace their steps a little, but Jecht pointedly cleared a space for a fire right there by the edge, and drawled, without even looking behind him, "Good idea, Auron, I saw some wood back there."

Auron stopped and turned to look at Jecht. Who continued setting up the campsite, back to them both. Auron looked at Braska then, and Braska nodded. Auron's jaw firmed— determination, not anger. He turned again to gather the firewood. He returned some minutes later, dumping a small load of sticks at Jecht's feet, and began to shuffle through the packs. Auron was pulling out a tent, Braska realized. One of their last, hoarded. But watching Jecht's stiff movements, athlete's unconscious grace turned jerky as he lay the kindling, Braska did not object, and Auron set to raising the small structure. Auron drove the stakes into the ground with short, vicious stabs, and Braska remembered the banked deperation in Aurons face atop Gagazet. The tent heaved slowly upright; Braska could feel the white magics woven into its cloth awaking, could feel the tent pulling energy out of the air, singing soft pyrefly come-hithers, fueling the low, quiet spells some white mage had fed into it with fingers, with hands on the shuttle.

As Auron yanked at the tent, Jecht worked at their little fire. No black mages, they, and calling Ifrit to start a cook-fire seemed a little out of proportion. Especially when Jecht worked the flint so well, striking a spark and blowing the fire to life. Jecht, city-bred as he was, had turned out to be remarkably good at starting fires.

Auron had finished setting up the tent. He stood and walked to the cliff's edge again, staring out at the hazy vista.

And then he drew his sword, swung it high, and planted it in the ground. The red sun glinted off it, bright flares, and Auron stood so straight-backed, fists clenched at his sides, as stiff and defiant as the sword that pierced the ground at his side.

I dream of life, Braska thought.

And Jecht stood, too, to join Auron, to stare over his dead home. He turned to face Auron, and stretched out his hand. And Auron clasped it, hard, and the sound of their hands coming together echoed in Braska's mind like a thunderclap, like the boom of a firestorm starting. Auron took the jug from his belt, and offered it to Jecht. Jecht slung it back and drank deep, and he turned and plunged his sword in the ground, too, and set his ball beside it. The weapons quivered there, crooked and used, like a grave marker.

We dream of life.

Braska stood to join them, and he struck his staff into the ground.

And he stood at the edge, at the beginning of the end of all things. He stood with his guardians, his guides, his friends. They stood at his side, upright and defiant in the face of all the death and ruin below them.

And if Braska's smile was sad, it was wide, and it was sincere, and his heart was filled with gratitude.


________




Braska lay awake in the tent, eyes open, staring at the tight weave of the fabric.

Jecht lay beside him, truly asleep now and no longer feigning it as he had been for some hours. And Auron... Auron lay on Jecht's other side, and not Braska's. Where Braska's guardians slept at his left and right hand when no watch was set, to protect him in the night... Not tonight.

Braska stared at the tent again, feeling its soothing spell-breath on his skin. Esuna, that cures all ills... And protection, and a shell of spell-safety, binding tight, shielding him from the death-mutter outside.

He got up slowly, careful not to wake the others, and slipped outside the tent.

The presence of millions of pyreflies far below hit him again, their memory-murmur settling over him in a sick echo of the tent's protective spells. The night beside the wall of the fayth had given him an idea. He settled himself in the open, a safe distance from the edge. And he closed his eyes.

And he breathed in.

And he breathed out.

It was cold here still, but he ignored the gooseflesh prickling his skin, and he breathed...

And then, quiet, unobtrusive, a sliver of heat spiraled out from within him, and he was no longer cold. And, soft and comforting as the whisper of falling snow, a song, a hymn, welled from behind his heart, lulling him to sleep...

He took their proffered gifts, he breathed, he breathed, he breathed...

And he listened, listened to the babble of memories, pyreflies dancing below him, around him, and he breathed in all their knowing, and he breathed out all their forgetting, and he took their memories and went to a place far inside himself, where his own dreams waited, where his death lay...

He was close enough to his own death; he could feel it in the sick sideways murmur of the pyreflies below, how they knew what came next for him and whispered it among themselves, how they welcome his presence, reaching...

He remembered the temple glyphs, the binding down of death. He remembered the wall of fayth, the resonance.

He was close enough to his own death, and he took what that nearness granted: he breathed in the death that hovered over Zanarkand, life into breath, life into death; he breathed in death and he reached for all the energies of a dead city, all the memories, all the grief and terror, all the loves that had proven too small to guard against the world; he breathed them in and wove them together, a melody, a call, powerful as it resonated with his own mortality.

Let the fayth use the power of their own deaths to trap themselves forever between dreaming and dying. He would use his own, that hovered so near, to call on theirs.

Between memory and dreaming, between life and breath, he waited. He waited until the world stilled around him. He waited until the world waited, too.

And Bahamut came to him.

They all came.

He stood, facing them, facing them as they had each faced him: as fayth, not aeons, memories, not dreams.

And now. Now. Bahamut spoke first.

"You dare to walk the dream-paths, summoner. You dare come seeking us thus." The words spoken in a child's voice, clear and high: dischordant, unsettling.

And before Braska could speak, a deep voice rumbled from beside him, "Yes, he dares!" Free as fire, and who could control the roaring flame?

And another voice, cold with a mother's pride. "Yes. He dares."

Bahamut's features darkened, and for a moment Braska had a dizzy-sick double-vision: the great dragon rustling his wings.

Braska stepped forward. "Bahamut. Why did you answer my call, why did you guide my path, why did you ask me to prove myself, again and again? Was it so that I could play as a mere tool? You were the one who showed me the folly of denying the things we know and do not wish to believe."

"You show little faith, summoner."

Braska's fists clenched, and he stepped forward unthinking, though Bahamut remained far away from him, the distance unchanging.

"My faith is in my friends! In my abilities, in theirs! My faith is in my love, in my dreams! My faith is in the future, in there being a future, a future we can shape with our own hands!" His breath hissed between his teeth, and the forms around him blurred, fading. He shut his mouth, lips thin and tight, willing himself to calm, clutching at the meditative openness of mind, at the deep-trance, the dream-trance. "My faith is in my daughter, Bahamut. What," he said, deliberate and demanding, "are you planning to do with her?"

Valefor stirred. Bahamut glanced aside, quelling her. Turned back to Braska.

Said nothing.

Braska stared the fayth in the eyes. There had to be— something, something he could say. He knew it, in his broken bones, in his broken heart, knew that there was a piece, a thread, a resonating chord that stretched taught between them, echoing a clarion call, something that had bound them together, ringing clear and true somewhere under Braska's frustration and fear. Years ago they had rung the same note at the dull hammer-strike of hate; months ago they had echoed alike at the call of terror; and weeks ago, weeks ago, they had sung the same song, clarion call, clarion, pure and high, soaring between them. Braska thought back to that Chamber and Bahamut's eyes meeting his own.

And he met the fayth's eyes now, and whispered:

"I dream of life."

Bahamut's eyes closed, and for a moment he looked a child, lost and tired.

"I dream of life, Bahamut. This world is full of death, and I dream of life, waking life, feeling everything with every aching marrow of my being, Bahamut, and fighting it, and living. I do not ask for the unfeeling, dreaming respite of death, Bahamut. I dream of life. And I dream of life for my daughter. I will die for her to have a few spare years where she can truly live, but I will not die your tool, I will not die if all you plan is to call Yuna down this path."

Bahamut's eyes opened, and he stared at Braska, wide child's eyes in a serious face full of sorrow, amber eyes so tired and afraid. "Dreaming is hard," he whispered. And, so quiet Braska could barely hear him: "I dream of waking..."

Braska's heart lurched at the sound of Bahamut's voice, broken and small. Come back.

"I am willing to die to end your dreaming, Bahamut. For all that I dream of life, I would die for you. I would die for you," he repeated, and he stared around at the gathered fayth. Valefor, I would die for your promise; Ixion, for your freedom; Ifrit, for your defiance. Lady, his eyes said, meeting Shiva's, my lady, I would die for your cruel love. "I would die for you," he said again, "but I will not die blind, and I will not die only to have my daughter die after me."

And Bahamut met his eyes squarely and said, "She will not die. She will bring life. She will bring waking. She will take with her a dream and she will slay the ever-dreamer and we will bring her guidance so that all may live their dreams, forever into the future."

And Ixion stirred and spoke from the shadows. "We will give her freedom."

And Valefor stepped forward. "We will give her wings."

Braska blew out a long breath, the tension of weeks, months, years, draining out of him. But he was not done asking questions.

"And Tidus? What of him?"

Bahamut stirred uneasily, and Braska frowned. "Will you accept our word that Jecht knows his son's fate, and has accepted it?"

Braska shook his head, movements jerky. "Yevon's mercy, Bahamut, don't you understand? I'm trying to give them a life of choice, a life where they aren't slaves to Sin or Spira or you." And, more softly, "I let you lead me. I came with my eyes open. I followed you because I chose to."

Bahamut recoiled, and Braska realized it was the first time he had seen the boy, and not the fayth, react. "Choice..." the boy murmured. His amber eyes looked lost, swallowed in memory.

Child, what choices were you given?

Bahamut bowed his head, and looked away.

"That is my price, Bahamut. I do not die so that others may become your puppets. Guide all you want, protect with all the strength of your word, but I dream of life, a real life of choice and meaning. Promise me that Yuna, that Tidus, that everyone you touch will always be free to choose. And I will die for all of us."

Bahamut met his eyes again, face blank. "And what assurance do we have that they will choose well? How do you know they will accept this path?"

"Because I have faith, Bahamut." May every power in Spira help him, but he had to believe he had been a good father. He had come to that crossroads long ago, and found himself within it. "I have faith that my daughter is good and kind and strong, and that she will choose the path that leads to the most good. And I know Jecht, and I know his son is strong and will choose well. I have faith, Bahamut. Do you?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shiva crack a smile. "He is worthy of a little faith, I would think," she said.

Bahamut threw her an annoyed look before turning back to Braska. "And what faith do you have in our promise, summoner? That we are aeons, that we are holy?"

"No." And Braska smiled. "That you were human."

Ixion threw his head back and laughed. And Valefor's sad eyes danced.

Bahamut's eyes lingered on Braska's, and he bowed his head without breaking the lock of his gaze. "Very well. We so swear."

And Braska awoke, stiff-legged and shivering, sitting facing the dead city of Zanarkand. The pyreflies were dancing their dreams in a parody of life, retracing the steps of those long dead, remembering but not reliving.

And the sun rose over Zanarkand as Braska stood to face it.


________




They walked through Zanarkand.

And the pyreflies swarmed around them, plucking out memories like parasites, dancing for them the steps of those long dead.

And the long-dead came, too.

Braska had thought he was a healer, once.

And when they came upon the broken statue and Yunalesca revealed the truth behind the Final Aeon, Braska looked at Jecht, and saw a man more fully dead and more brightly alive than any he had ever seen. And he wished he were a healer still, to mend that breaking.

And then Yunalesca ripped Jecht's soul from him and bound it down, and Jecht's spirit suffused him, and there was no more room for thought.

Jecht, Jecht, Jecht. It beat in him, through him, soul-sick, blood-thrum in his veins.

He had a vague awareness of Auron weeping, moving them along, and then cold.

And then it is the plains.

And he calls down his last and most terrible dreaming.

It is the end of all things, and he remembers that day, the longest day, when he woke from dreaming, when he woke heavy with memory and he knew that his dreaming had ended, that time was up, and that it was the beginning of the end. The waking world is slipping through his fingers like grains of sand, running down his hands like snow fallen and melted and flowed away. He tries to cling to them, to the memories, precious and real—Yuna, Yuna, Yuna—but they are fading, less real now than the power surging through him, the flood of memories, and he can't tell which are his own, but they are fading, all fading. The steps of his pilgrimage, the work of years, the people, the places, fade as all he remembers is dreaming, dreaming—fayths, aeons, summoning, Sending, and one more dream, one terrible dream—

Jecht.

Jecht the dreamer, Jecht the dream, born of dreams, dreamt by fire, a dream made real, and Braska knew too late.

He was lost in it, lost in the terror, the terrible summoning, lost to the binding of minds, bonds forged of blood and iron, screams and circuits, pyreflies and dreams, and, and and— the center

Yuna. Tidus.

Oh, Bahamut. The plans you weave.

And—

Oh, Auron. The legacy we leave you.

And then Yu Yevon came, and in a tearing instant—

Braska's body crumpled to the ground, and Auron's howl was lost to the whipping winds.


________





Bahamut did not look away.

And then there was more waiting.

The young monk was dead because Braska had forced Bahamut's hand, had insisted on the right to choose. And the monk had chosen foolishly, and died. This had not been in Bahamut's plan. And yet... The monk was in Zanarkand now, the dream-city, guiding the young dream there. Bahamut's dream. And that had been choice, too, promises freely given between waking men.

Bahamut thought a long time about the dead summoner. He had thought himself beyond...

You were human.

Bahamut looked curiously within himself, for the touch the summoner had left behind. A strange and simple immortality. Braska had made him feel... Bahamut shrugged his shoulders, the vast shoulders of his dreams, straining against this fierce and gentle binding.

And he broke the spirit of his promise with a careless, graceless ease. Tidus would come to Spira. Of that Bahamut would make sure.

Then... What Tidus did in the waking world, with the life, the true life he would then be granted... Bahamut would keep that half of his promise.

He would see where the choices of Braska's daughter and Jecht's son led.

He settled down to wait, once more.




____





End.







( Read the Notes? )
 
 

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