Chapter 1: Dreams of Memories
Dreams of Memories
At the end of all things, he remembers a waking life, and at the end of memory, he dreams.
Braska's eyes snapped open. He started awake in a strange bed, alone, his heart racing and his eyes dark-blind. His breath was coming fast.
And in the back of his throat, in the open, sweat-stained space of skin stretched over thin flesh and the protruding bones of his shoulder blades, a formless fear had settled: choking; cloying. Watchful.
Braska closed his eyes, though it made little difference. He had not been long in the Bevelle temple, but they had begun to teach him the rudiments of meditation, of finding peace in prayer to Yevon.
Braska closed his eyes, and prayed.
He thought of the whisper of snow across the woods, the warmth of the fire, the slow passing of winter days. He thought of the temple of Macalania and Shiva's melancholy hymn, the winter winds sweeping mournful echoes across the empty expanses of the frozen lakes, of the hush inside the temple and the peace of Yevon wrapped around it like a cloak. Shiva. Yevon...
His eyes almost snapped open again— the feeling of—awe, watchfulness, weariness, a strange cold burn—crescendoed, a chill touch upon his spine. He squeezed his eyes tight. Emptied his mind. Breathed. Prayed.
His breath came slow and forced, a dry whistle through his throat, then slow and steady, wetter and softer and less gasping. His frantic heartbeat slowed, its thunder fading from his ears to be replaced by the calm, even breathing of the other acolytes. And as he opened his eyes, he found enough time had passed that he could see. The moonlight limned his pale skin, glistening faintly upon his sweaty palms.
Braska exhaled. It was not the first time he had found comfort in the teachings. He had received few lessons yet, but... they were a comfort.
Nor was it the first time he had awoken in a freezing sweat, alone among his fellow acolytes. Nightmares had come often at first: half-formed recollections of Sin, augmented by the fledgling demons of a young mind; and the numb, empty loss of his parents. Those awakenings had grown rarer with the passing weeks.
Tonight had been different.
He could not remember what had woken him. No fading traces of Sin's touch on his mind, no fleeting images of terror and destruction. Strangely, he seemed to remember the summoner who had come and danced for Macalania, and the light touch of a pyrefly on his skin.
He had been taught of the summoner's Sending today, how each dance was unique, how to draw the souls of the slain towards the Farplane. Braska had liked that lesson, the feeling of peace and freedom and the reassuring weight of warm wood in his hand as he practiced. The dance came easily: Bevelle was rich in the music of the pyreflies; her halls echoed with the hymn of the fayth.
A shiver scrabbled up his spine. Braska waited, shoulders tense. Breath studied and even. Nothing came.
Somewhere in the temple, a door opened and closed as a monk went about his rounds, and a whisper of the hymn floated down the dormitory hall, evanescent and clear and full of peace. The moonlight waned, and with it Braska's wakefulness. He lay back down, wondering, and slept.
Bevelle was beautiful in the warm light of morning. Even months after coming here, Braska marvelled at the elegance and majesty, at the vast open spaces, indoors and out. So different from his home: all closed to keep in the warmth, low-ceilinged to draw down the heat. When he had first arrived, it had registered in disconnected drifts through his Sin-sick haze. Each day had brought small revelations: first the clothing, light and free; then the space, open and welcoming. Finally, the deep core of peace, a stillness his soul welcomed.
This... this was a good place to be. He wanted to bring this peace with him, always. Everywhere.
There were many other orphans in the compound. The temple overflowed with them: refugees and acolytes of every ilk, all mixed together in the chaos. Some planned to stay and become priests, monks... summoners. Several were from Macalania, like him, though none were the friends he had known, and none shared his lodgings here. The acolytes had been crammed together, four and five to a room, young summoners and priests and monks, to make space for the common folk to lodge in the monks' quarters at the edges of the temple compound. Braska had a pallet to himself, but four others were jammed close to it on the floor. This would pass, he was told, as Macalania Temple recovered from the influx of refugees and could welcome its displaced folk home. The last attack had been nearly unprecedented in magnitude: Sin was growing stronger. The temple walls groaned with the pressure of too many lost souls, dead and living. Crops lay rotting in the fields for want of harvesting. And Braska was startled to sense in himself a strangely distant horror at the hollow eyes of the children—when had he begun to think of them as children?
He had seen it in the faces of some of the orphans, had been surprised to see his own face set in the same hard lines when he caught his own reflection. This could not continue. There had to be another Calm soon.
The priest's voice broke through Braska's reverie, kind but unwontedly stern. "This will be the most important lesson I will give you," Takla said. The other acolytes, his fellow summoners-in-training, sat up as the day's teachings began, alert and expectant at Takla's grave introduction. Takla gathered himself after that pause, speaking into the students' silence. "We have all experienced loss. Some of us found it through Sin and its spawn. Others have seen ill come from those lost to Yevon's teachings. Many have known loss from the fiends of souls unsent."
A small ripple of nods passed through those assembled. Braska kept still, and watched, and listened. He saw the eyes of some students harden, their jaws set.
Takla walked among them, speaking on. "You have chosen the path of the summoner. This is a noble calling, and a hard one. You may think the difficulty lies in acquiring the fayth, in the long journey ahead, or in the sacrifice you are asked to make." He touched some students on the head or shoulder, those whose frames were set and resolute but whose eyes were still wide with fear. "Or you may think—" he smiled "—that the hardship lies in listening to the droning of old men before you are allowed to walk your chosen path." Braska smiled as well, as did some others, but Takla's tone grew heavy and serious again. "There is indeed hardship in these things. But," he paused, having circled back to the front, "these are not the most dire trials you will face."
The old priest took a deep breath, and looked at his students again. "My children, you must not let yourselves hate."
In the short pause, the silence was complete. And in that silence, Braska was breathless and did not know why.
"In hate, in resentment, in anger—there lies the greatest danger. It is so easy to hate, is it not?" He paused again, and everyone was too still, and in that stillness Braska caught the hesitation in their breath. "As summoners, you will see... more suffering than most. Perhaps more suffering than any." Takla closed his eyes briefly, mouth tight, spidery troughs fanning from the corners— lines of age, memories, grief; all thrown into sharp relief by the bright sun. The day seemed too sunny and clear for Takla's words, and Braska felt an irrational surge of apprehension as Takla continued. "You will be called upon to comfort the mourning and Send their loved ones to the Farplane. You will travel Spira and see Sin's traces as clearly as your own footprints, as clear as the tracks of tears on childrens' faces. And wherever you go, the people will ask great things of you. They will speak their hate and anger to you and expect to walk away at peace. They will feed and lodge you, no matter how hard the times, out of hope that in your journey and your sacrifice lies their salvation. They will point at you to show their children, and the elderly will entrust you with the legacy they cannot live to protect."
Takla lowered his head for a moment, shoulders rising in a slow inhalation. When he looked up again, his eyes were soft and beseeching and weary.
"Oh, my children! Do not hate! Do not hate the fate that led you here, do not carry anger in your heart at the sorrows of the world. Above all, do not hate those among whom you will walk, who will place so heavy a burden on you." Takla took a breath, gaze grave. "Above all... my children... do not hate yourselves."
Takla was silent for a time, watching them. Braska realized he had not taken breath, and his shaky inhale was too loud to his own ears. No one spoke, and a minute passed in silence, full and heavy, not even the restless rustle of robes to break its slow weight.
Takla took another breath, deep and loud in the still air. The sun shone gentle and warm on his face, and Braska was struck in that moment, as he had been many times before, by the priest's stillness, the years weighing down on his papery skin and the deep well of compassion in his voice and quiet eyes. "You have completed the first part of your training. You have been taught the rudiments of the summoners' arts and know as much as those who will become the priests who guide you and the monks who guard you." Takla looked at them all, and Braska's chest tightened at the hint of pride in his eyes, in his small smile. "Here, today, your apprenticeship will truly begin. The lessons now will be long and hard, and few of them will be learned here in these halls of teaching." The dregs of his smile melted away. "When you began your training, you were asked to judge yourselves and decide if this path was meant for you. Look within yourselves once more. Look within your heart. Do you hate? Can you overcome it? Can you find Yevon's peace and carry it with you always?"
Another pause. Some students shifted, some looked down or away.
"Your teachings for today are over. Walk these halls, hear Bahamut's hymn, and consider yourselves. I wish you clarity, my children. I wish you peace." Takla bowed in prayer.
The students rose in a startled shuffle to answer the prayer, then milled about, looking uncertain, exchanging low, uncomfortable whispers, hesitant to leave as Takla walked to a far corner to lean on the railing of a balcony.
Braska was unsure what to think. He did not remember what it was to feel anger. He remembered, in hazy snatches fading between one indistinct moment and the next, weeks spent under the spell of Sin's toxins, weeks of comforting confusion that held at bay the overwhelming sense of loss... but still invited fear. He was not sure if he was still afraid. He was not sure what to think of Takla's words.
And he was unsure of what he wanted to say, but he felt he needed to ask... something. He walked over to stand at a respectful distance. Takla looked up. "Yes, my son?"
"I... I am not sure what I wanted to ask." Braska paused, gaze sliding towards his shifting feet before meeting Takla's eyes once more. "Is this really your last lesson?"
Takla smiled. "It is, though I am sorry for it. I am no summoner, to teach you the ways of power. All I can do is guide you down your path."
Braska hesitated before continuing. "How can you tell which path is right? Is... is there only one way of following it?"
Takla's look sharpened, but his voice remained kind and gentle. "Are you asking whether the summoner's path is right for you? Or do you ask if one can choose this path and know it to be right... and yet doubt he can walk it the way I instruct? The way anyone instructs..." Takla's eyes were searching. "You are not afraid of the Final Summoning?"
Braska hesitated again. "I don't know. I know what the Pilgrimage leads to, but I... I do not think dwelling on it would help."
Takla nodded, then smiled a little, sadly. "Are you asking if it is possible to be a good summoner and still carry anger with you?"
"It is one of the things I wonder about." He had no better answer, and yet he felt like he was hedging— he couldn't catch hold of a feeling to put words to; it made him uneasy and his words stilted.
Takla nodded again, looking distant. "I believe that there is danger in hate, that it is impossible to hate and not infect others with it. Hate, envy: these are the sources of fiends, and grief. A summoner sees much grief, and it is their calling to comfort, heal, and protect. To do any of these thing truly, my son... I believe one cannot hate."
Braska thought for a few moments. "I... do not think I am angry. I don't know."
Takla's look was full of sympathy. "I think you are still grieving, my son. You are all..." his eyes wandered over the thinning knot of acolytes behind Braska, "so very young. There are many who start down this road in their youth, full of fire and vengeance. I think we spend our youth too quickly these days." Takla met Braska's eyes, and he looked old, and sad, and unimaginably weary. "We do not have much of it to spare."
"But even those who follow a different path do good things, don't they?"
Takla looked startled for a second, then another smile spread on his lips, warm and unexpected. "They do at that."
Braska bowed in prayer and left, thinking of how many ways there were to be a summoner. He did not think of how many ways there were to grieve.
Braska thought of hate. He thought of fear. He thought of wakefulness and grief. He thought of Sin. He thought of dying, of Sending, of dreaming...
Or he did not dream, for he did not wake so much as stop breathing, stop thinking—stop hating—under the pressure on his chest, the noiseless thunder in his ears, the blinding black flare, the weight of weariness—
His opened his eyes. He was being watched.
He could breathe. He breathed. He was not dreaming, he did not hate, and when he turned his head, he met the sharp amber eyes of another acolyte. Wide, frightened—young—there was hate there. He— something knew this. It ran taut as a cord between them, vibrating—the air trembled there, between him and the boy, between the two of them and—
The acolyte stared across the breathless gap between their pallets, and Braska could see his bare chest rise and fall rapidly—the boy was panting.
Their eyes locked, and held. The boy said nothing. Braska could think of no comfort to speak. He breathed, and each breath held the beginning of a question left unsaid.
He said nothing, and the boy's breathing slowed to match his own. The boy closed his eyes, deliberate and firm, and turned from Braska. Braska watched the rigid spine that didn't relax, the small shadows that never grew and never shrank.
The boy was gone the next morning, his bed empty.
Takla did not return to teach them the next day. A summoner stood in his place, his robes elaborate and heavy and his staff tall and intricately carved. He was smiling as the students shuffled in. His smile, Braska decided, was not like Takla's.
"Well!" The summoner spoke before the students had finished settling. "I guess you're the ones Takla hasn't managed to scare away." His tone was light and easy, his voice strident in the open air. "My name is Zakel. I'm stopping here on my pilgrimage, and I've been roped into teaching you." His smile never faded, and some of the students smiled back.
Braska listened as Zakel breezed through the lessons he was to teach them: the healing white magics, drawing pyreflies for the Sending, navigating the Cloisters, the rituals in the Chamber of the Fayth, summoning the aeons. He didn't walk among them but leaned easily on the balcony railing behind him, his staff loose in one hand.
"We'll start with the basics. No Sending or summoning today, just meditation." Zakel grinned at the palpable disappointment and the scattering of suppressed groans. "You were all excited, weren't you? You've heard it before. You walk before you run, and you meditate before you Send or summon. Come on, everyone. Sit down, get comfortable. Close your eyes. Listen to the hymn, listen to the pyreflies, breathe in.... breathe out, slowly... don't think, just listen..." His voice dropped, no longer strident, but calm and steady, cadence slow. Braska was unused to this—Takla had always meditated with them in silence, but Zakel spoke, instructions coming in small swells of words and tone followed by long, slow sentences: breathe in, breathe out. Braska felt himself breathing together with the others, with the rise and fall of Zakel's voice, with the silent buzzing whisper of the pyreflies, the swell and hush of the hymn. It was unfamiliar. It was peace, it was listening...
Time did not pass so much as wait for every breath to slide down his throat and fill him up and hiss quietly by, and the sounds of the late morning faded, Zakel's voice blending with each inhalation, like the words soaked in with every breath, into the slow rush of his blood, the sun on his skin...
And he breathed in ages.
And he breathed out eons of waiting.
There was music, the music of the Sending, the song of the aeons, the lilt of the pyreflies, and Braska felt more than still. He felt... full. He felt... not as if he was listening but being listened to; he felt some thick and quiet intent weighing the air, he felt attention... he felt something waiting. He waited, too, caught on the edge of expectation.
Was he afraid?
"Open your eyes."
Braska's eyes snapped open. He blinked; it was past noon and his legs were very, very sore. The sense of... intent, of scrutiny, was gone.
"We will be meditating every day until you can hear the world waiting for you. I can guarantee you'll like it when you get there." The grin again, and an easy wink. "Now get up while you can still remember how to walk."
Everyone staggered to their feet, weaving as their legs steadied. The blood was rushing in vengeful bursts of needling pain past Braska's knees again, and he rubbed his aching calves with careful hands, wanting to shake his head at himself, an ironic quirk stealing across his lips. He was definitely going to lie down next time, even if Zakel threw a knowing smile at him for it. The students grumbled good-naturedly, about their stiff legs, about the length of this session, and whatever the world-waiting thing was. Braska accepted some friendly pats on his back and nodded from near his knees at the jokes and questions as to the well-being of his circulation.
One of the older students, Dappul, came up and waited while Braska ministered to his legs, shifting on his own, his eyes darting around the crowd. "So, did you feel anything? Was the world waiting?" Dappul grinned his own tight grin — tense but open, and again different from Zakel's.
Braska smiled wryly in return. "I felt... something waiting. I wouldn't say it was the whole world."
Dappul laughed. "I'm sure you'd have noticed, yeah? I just felt sleep waiting."
"You'll learn," Zakel's voice floated over. The summoner drifted by on his way out and widened his smile at them, though Braska felt Zakel held his eyes a second too long.
Dappul laughed, and turned to Braska again, talking of temple affairs, glad that the acolyte monks and priests had been moved to their own quarters again now that the refugees were returning to their villages. "They're rebuilding everywhere, you know? And they're all coming back to help. I wish I could go back too, sometimes, but I'm learning to help more here, yeah?" He chattered on, and Braska nodded.
He was glad, too. But his thoughts lingered on the moment time had stood still, and on Zakel's wide smile. He put himself to work the rest of the afternoon helping set the temple to rights as the Macalanian refugees began to trickle out and the monks and priests reclaimed their quarters. He worked in the temple, though he saw some of his fellow acolytes on the outskirts of the temple grounds, helping the refugees carry their meager belongings. He might have gone to see them off, too, but... he felt distant, disconcerted. He watched them for a time, the setting sun's heavy warmth sliding over his skin, leaving cool twilit shadows in its wake. He shivered, and returned to his room to drag the extra pallets out and hand them to a harried-looking temple servant, retreating into the warm, airy rooms of the temple.
Braska waited, alone, the room feeling large and hollow. He stared into the open dark, the space feeling vast and expectant all around him. Braska closed his eyes, and breathed, and waited. He breathed as the moonlight crawled across the bed, sliding sinuous and pale across his face and fingers, until it covered him and until it was gone. He breathed, and he listened to its inaudible slither, listened to the pyreflies whisper of its passing, listened to his own heartbeat slow.
He listened until the pyreflies stilled and began to listen, too. He listened, and he was very cold.
He listened until it crept along him as the moonlight had, until it slid slick and cloying down his throat with his heavy breath, until it congealed cold in his gut, until his spine, sweating against the mattress, thrilled with it. Until the fear choked him, and he could breathe no more.
Until he drew a shuddering gasp and his eyes flew open and the pyreflies sang their murmuring song again and there was nothing waiting at all.
The next night, and the next, and for many nights thereafter he did not meditate, he did not pray, and he did not wait.
Zakel's easygoing lessons continued. They meditated until there was a sober silence after every session before the jokes would begin again. Zakel pushed along, smiling and making them smile, though the tasks were growing hard. He taught them the white magics, how to gather strength from the waiting pyreflies and let it out like life-giving breath, to heal and protect. Braska liked these lessons: the healing was like a release of pressure, warm and gentle. They practiced on their own sore legs first (Zakel's grin was knowing), then on injured animals from the city and the countryside.
And finally, Zakel began taking them on excursions: to the warrior monks' quarters, to the Crusader outposts and smaller temples around Bevelle, where grim-faced warriors—many scarce older than Braska himself, too many even younger—battled against Sin's ravages. Braska saw a great many Crusaders then, and monks, too, rust-dun and red robes hiding the bloody extent of their wounds. Their eyes, meeting his as he removed his hands from a healing wound, lingered in Braska's memory: dark brown and the occasional blue, bruised and weary, and sometimes—the youngest ones, the ones that stirred something vast and distant in his heart—wet with unshed tears. And, once, a sharp amber stare, young and resentful, that bit into his back as he worked on a broken leg bone, leaving him feeling unsettled and cold—a memory of eyes meeting across a breathless vibrant stretch of air, dense with things unspoken, and the hovering, intent presence...
And he saw many die, monks and Crusaders and civilians alike, though Zakel and the handful of overtaxed summoners laboured to save them. Zakel did not smile as much then. None of them did.
Not until they learned that in their smiles there was healing, too.
Once they had mastered drawing the pyreflies' energy in and then out through breath and spells and comforting words, Zakel began to teach them how to draw the pyreflies themselves.
It was not until they began to study the Sending in earnest that Braska woke in the night again. For the night after he drew the first few pyreflies to his hands, hesitant and warm, he woke feeling cold and watched.
He could breathe this time. But his breath was uneven as he shivered under the expectant touch on his mind, panting in the face of the overwhelming vulnerability even as he pressed his bare back into the sheets.
He closed his eyes and thought of warmth, then of nothing at all.
The Sending lessons continued. Zakel had them practice calling the pyreflies while sitting still, then while dancing, until the bidding came easily—and the parting as well. "You must remember," he cautioned, "to let them go. I know how it feels to have so much power drawn around you—quite heady, isn't it?" An uneasy ripple through the students: a nervous jest here, a jostling of elbows there, in the face of things they would rather not face, not in the hard summer sunlight. Braska watched it, watched the brightness of their courage and ambition casting shadows all the darker for it; watched as Zakel spoke on. "You won't be ready the first time you Send truly, the first time you draw the souls of the slain to you. Trust me, no one is. But the next time, and the next—remember they have a long way to go. Let them go."
Braska found the warning odd. It was true that drawing so much energy felt powerful—but it was a power that pressed, a power that felt alien and expectant, or too familiar, and Braska always wanted to heave a sigh of relief when he let it go. But he watched Zakel, and watched the other young summoners, and said nothing as some of them nodded, casting their eyes down or to the side.
And Sin reaved on, ravaging the land; Zakel took them to heal, again and again. But he would not take them to Send. It was, he said with a wry quirk of lips, not something that should be done any more often than necessary.
He moved on instead to praying to the fayth. He did not say much of the Cloister of Trials other than that the skills they had learned would "come in handy" and that the Trials existed for them to navigate for themselves. Of the fayth, he said even less. "You know the drill. Kneel, and pray. Open yourself up like you do for the pyreflies, and if you are skilled enough, if the fayth wills it, the fayth will come." His ever-present smile had grown hard as he spoke, and no one asked questions afterward.
It was on summoning that Zakel spent the most time.
"Call the pyreflies to you and draw from their energy the lines of power. If you've ever seen a summoning, you've seen the sigils. Pretty designs, aren't they?" Braska had never witnessed it, but a couple of the others nodded. "Well, you're going to have to memorize them." Those who had nodded groaned. "Yes, yes, it's all fun and games until I make you memorize things, isn't it?" Zakel laughed, and some acolytes with him; the strange black humour of those walking open-eyed towards death. "Each aeon's summoning spell is unique. Be glad they are known now, and that you don't have to divine them for yourselves with the fayth watching over your shoulder."
Someone raised their hand to ask a question. "What about the Final Summoning?"
Zakel's smile flickered. "That fayth is different. The High Summoners each knew how to summon it, and if you ever stand at that crossroads, you will too." They all sobered. Zakel didn't give them time to think on it much more; he straightened suddenly and hefted his staff, setting it before him with a deliberate, hollow crack of wood on stone. The noise made some of them flinch, and Zakel's smile ticked up minutely. "Now, I'll show you each spell. Don't try to call anything forth. Just follow the lines. We'll start with someone a few of you should know quite well." Braska started when he thought Zakel met his eyes for a moment, but the glance—fleeting, knowing— it was gone, and Zakel was speaking again. "This... is how you summon Shiva."
Pyreflies gathered around him, condensing, glowing. Slowly, lines of light curled themselves around Zakel's feet, intricate, luminous—beautiful. Zakel's eyes were closed. He had raised his staff, and for the first time Braska saw a true summoner in him—graceful, serene, and full of power.
The designs grew in interlocking circles, and Braska's eyes were drawn away from Zakel's face to the compelling lines of light. They thickened and multiplied and curled around themselves; Braska thought of watching frost form on Macalania Lake, and shuddered. He felt the buzz of the pyreflies thicken around him, felt the condensed energy like the winter sun harsh on his face, felt the call, the yearning, the worship embedded in the spell. And, faintly, snatches of a sorrowful hymn, felt more in the undulation of energies than in the vibration of sound. The design was completely alien to him, but it— it felt familiar. He felt a faint brush across his memory like a light snow falling, and he thought, for the first time in months, of home.
And at the thought he felt a burst of cold in his heart, a soul-deep chill, and his breath rattled in his throat under the warm sun.
"Try it." Braska startled at Zakel's voice— it sounded— not strained, not quite distracted, but— far away.
They all shuffled apart to give themselves room. Braska wanted to close his eyes, but he concentrated on the unfamiliar design, on its familiar feel. It took a long time. Slowly, slowly, the floor around him started to glow with a tracery of light, with circles and squares and shapes he could not name but could feel forming in his mind, with layers of calling and control, with spangles like the glint of snow, with the shimmer of power.
And oh, he felt cold.
His heart hammered in his chest.
It was done and— Braska was panting with effort and a strange resonant ecstasy, with the pressure of the spell and the touch of cold on his heart. He saw that some had completed their spells and stood within a circle of glimmering light, chests heaving with too-controlled breathing, while others were still tracing the outer edges of the design with slow, careful, shining strokes.
Zakel's breathing was heavy, too, and sweat glistened on his brow and lip, but he stood straight and held his staff high, eyes closed. Braska did not know how the summoner could tell when the last student had completed the spell, but as soon as all the designs were done, Zakel drew a long breath in and let it out, slowly. The spell faded with his breath, dissipating like cold mist.
When Zakel opened his eyes, they were twinkling and hard, diamond dust on snow. "Now... let it fade, slowly. Don't cut it off, but let it dispel with your breath. Give the power back. Let it go, like you let the pyreflies go."
Braska closed his eyes, finally, and concentrated on the gentle release, drawing in clean air and breathing out spent power. Slowly, a little at a time. There was not much to dispel, but he felt—he felt it draw him, he felt it calling, he felt it waiting, and he tried not to choke on his own expelled breath, thick with power. There was— something in him shied from it, vast echoes of grief and anger, and a terrible desperate love, urgent and earnest as prayer. It felt achingly familiar, like coming home—no, like leaving home.
He let it go.
There was a last small strain of longing, and then it was done and he felt... strange, distant, something still hovering on the edge of his awareness. When he opened his eyes he was puffing and his legs were shaking. He was trembling. A few of the others seemed to be in similar condition—some were those who had recognized Shiva's spell. Others he remembered had nodded when Zakel talked of clinging to power.
Zakel grinned at them. "Well, looks like that's all for today. Try to draw out the design tonight. Tomorrow, we'll do this again, until you can do this in your sleep."
He was waiting for it, Zakel's last comment echoing in his mind. Staring at the ceiling, back pressed into the thin barrier of the bed, still feeling exposed. Uneasy still at the glimpse of... something. Something vast, something that tugged at his memory— his awareness skittered away from it, seeking stillness, Bevelle's peace. The tracery of Shiva's hymn, the flurry of snow and summoning—they had felt familiar and strange. Like the expectant presence he had felt some nights before... and yet, unlike.
An hour after everyone else had fallen asleep, with the moonlight creeping slowly towards his bed, it had not come.
Braska sat up, his back prickling and open to the cool air. He closed his eyes and breathed into prayer, into meditation, and waited. He could feel the pyreflies flitting lazily about. Far away, he could hear the dim echoes of the hymn.
He thought he felt a touch of expectation, but he could not tell if it was his own or... not.
He shivered again, suddenly cold.
Braska expelled a held breath and lay back down. Exasperated, disappointed, relieved—all three—he could not tell.
They practiced the spell until the tracery would burst forth in an instant, fully-fledged and glowing, on the floor beneath them. The weeks passed, and after Shiva's, Zakel taught them Ixion's spell, fierce and flickering, thundering and complex; then Ifrit's, full of flare and fire and a haze like smoke. Valefor's was almost simple, almost—radiating warmth and open spaces like the free air, and a steadfast sense of loyalty. Valefor's spell was hard to release, and Braska was glad it had not come first.
With each spell Braska waited for the touch of cold fear, the expectant sense of waiting. It did not come. And Braska's heart beat on, and Braska's breath sustained him, and he went through the delicate motions until the last.
Bahamut was last.
Bahamut was hardest.
Bahamut was waiting.
"Our friend here has the hardest spell," Zakel had said, perpetual smile wry and sharp-edged. No one questioned why after they saw it, sigils full of grace and power; searingly intricate and blazing sun-bright and infused with the weight of stone and ages.
Braska had been waiting. And when the choking prickle of wariness ran down his spine and settled between his shoulder blades, he was half-expecting it. He almost didn't have to look at Zakel's spell—he recognized it now, could feel the filigree of energy, could almost trace the shapes of the summoning from the memory of hours of wakefulness in the deep of night. Could feel the chill in his heart as it stuttered. He kept his eyes open and breathed through his nose, slow and controlled. And he traced the spell as he had traced the others. It grew around him, light and dark and shimmering in shades of strength: a pattern wrought in light on sun-warmed stone. It grew, pressing on his mind, powerful and encompassing.
It was complete, and Braska felt nothing.
He stood in the center of the sigil, holding the power balanced, carefully not reaching out to call—exactly as he had stood for the other aeons' spells. Except the first, except Shiva's—he suppressed a shiver of cold.
This was Bahamut's spell, and nothing was happening.
Zakel's voice broke though the numb and hollow haze. "Good job, everyone. We'll do this twice more this week. You're all almost done." Braska caught his breath as the students dispersed, controlled inhalations through his nose. He watched Zakel, and saw that the summoner's face was tight, nostrils strained and dilated like his own. Zakel delivered his usual parting words and smiles and made his way to the hall.
He entered the dark, cool hush of the hall. Blinking as his eyes adjusted, he called out. "Summoner Zakel?"
He heard footsteps stop. And he heard them continue.
He frowned, and made his way further down the hall, following the fading footsteps. His soft acolyte's boots made almost no noise, and he picked up his staff, carrying it in his hurry. He was entering the depths of the temple, farther than he had gone before. It was cold in here—Braska preferred to wander the warmth of the vast, open balconies and upper chambers—a shudder crawled down his back in a vague unease. The steps descended further into the temple, and Braska realized that the hymn was growing louder. Zakel was approaching the Cloister.
Braska hesitated, thinking it ill of him to follow this far, when he heard the steps turn aside to a chamber off the main hall, and Zakel's voice speak.
"Yes, my l— Zakel."
Braska started. The answering voice was female.
"Good. It's about time I came to face the dragon again."
Braska backed away, looking to leave before he made the situation any more awkward. He had turned to make his way back down the hall when he heard a hard, measured step approach from an intersection. A monk. He could ask the way out of here. He was about to call out when the monk emerged from an intersecting hallway. Carrying a gun.
Braska's eyes widened; he choked down on the beginning of his call, feeling it clot thick and dark in his throat; a lie of omission, fear where safety should be sought— He pressed himself back against the wall, clutching his staff higher above the floor lest his quaking hands make it clatter against the ringing; shuffled sideways until he felt the recess of a door behind him. He squeezed himself into the shallow alcove, fumbling his staff, unsure whether to keep it in front of him where it would proclaim him a summoner, or try hide its ornate glint behind him—
He forced himself to breathe, try to stop panicking. But—
What were machina doing in the heart of Bevelle?
The greatest transgression, the evil that had called down Sin upon Spira, the machina that invited death and destruction and—
He was trembling, and the roiling tumult within him felt alien and strange—and half-remembered like the remnants of a dream—was he angry? Was he afraid?
Was he mistaken?
His breath was coming quick, thundering in his ears.
Braska jumped, nearly dropping his staff, and forced his breathing to quiet, willing the thunder in his ears to subside— it was the woman from before, Zakel's companion. Her voice was coming from just a little ways down the hall. Braska could see light spilling from the chamber Zakel had walked into. He listened, fearful of their approach, seeking distraction—
"Are you sure you're— Are you sure this is the right time? When you obtain the fayth, we will be going to Zanarkand..."
Zakel snorted. "Not up to me, is it? Besides, if he will come to me today, it will be good. I'm almost done with teaching." Braska remembered how Zakel's smile had hardened when he talked of calling the fayth, its wry, sharp edge when he demonstrated Bahamut's sigil.
"You don't wish to... stay here a little longer?" He heard the soft hesitation in the woman's voice, an edge of tension... fear? Desperation? He had wondered, often, why someone such as Zakel would stay his path long enough to teach summoning for a season.
But when Zakel spoke, his voice was hard. "There is nothing here for me but Bahamut's fayth. It's time and past I finished this journey. I have nothing left to lose but time."
His voice had grown louder, and Braska saw him emerge, hard smile in place, and turn to continue down the hall. And he saw the woman following. She was small and dark-haired, and as she stepped out, her face caught the room's light and Braska saw a sad softness in it. Not fear, no. But a quiet desperation— longing. She carried a small figure shaped like a shoopuf. A black mage's channeling tool. She was a black mage, a guardian. Braska had never thought to wonder who Zakel's guardian might be.
Zakel turned back to her, looking expectant. Braska pressed himself back in his niche, but not before he had seen her face had schooled itself to calm. Her voice was even when she spoke. "Yes. Let's try again."
Braska heard the shuffle of heavy robes shifting. "I'm s— Did you want to stay longer?" Braska heard an odd uncomfortable note in Zakel's voice, and an strange echo, as if he had turned away. Both were gone when Zakel next spoke—he had turned back. "I can wait a few more days."
"No," Noru said. "You are right. Let's go."
Their steps retreated down the hall.
Braska did not know what to think.
He listened for some seconds more before emerging from the shadows of the doorway, glancing around, taking care to be quiet, painfully aware even of the soft shuffle of his shoes and the gentle rustling of his robes—and of a pervasive quiet hum: machina. He had been engrossed in following Zakel, to ask him about Bahamut, to demand answers, to know why Zakel's gaze slid over him so slow and hard— he'd had no thought for anything else, only a shiver at the cool hush in the deep of the temple. He looked around now, and saw—locks, lights, buttons. Machina, everywhere, subtle and ubiquitous. He was far below ground, he knew. There were no machina in the upper levels of Bevelle, where people came to pray. But here, now, he sensed it—a small high-pitched buzz, like and unlike the pyreflies' whispers.
He was not sure he was supposed to be here. This was not the main way to the temple proper.
Braska looked around, and heard the distant footfalls of more monks on their rounds. A vague guilt congealed in his belly. He walked quickly to the nearest stairs he could find leading upwards, and made his way up and up until he felt the temperature rise a little, until he began to recognize the halls again.
He needed to talk to someone. He needed to ask about Bahamut. And... machina. And... maybe Zakel, too.
He thought of his fellow summoner students. He had... he hadn't been making friends here. His friends were dead, or in Macalania. They had stayed, and he had left. He thought of Dappul's hard, determined smile and his open, likable face.
He thought of Takla's weary eyes.
He went in search of Takla.
When Braska found him, Takla was making to leave the temple. Braska called out, hesitating. "Father Takla?"
Takla stopped and turned; his face creased in a smile of recognition. "Young Braska. What brings you here?"
"I'm sorry to bother you. I... had some questions."
Takla raised his eyebrows. "Well, my son, I would be happy to try to answer them."
Braska felt a little lost at Takla's manner—he missed feeling he could talk to the man as he had when he had been Takla's student.
"I wanted to ask about Bahamut. And... about something I saw."
"Bahamut? Are you sure you don't seek your teacher? Zakel?"
Braska looked away. "Zakel has... some business. May I speak with you instead?"
"Of course you may. Would you like to walk with me? There are not many warm days left to the year." Takla smiled at him, warm and welcoming, and Braska's heart lifted. He fell into step beside the priest, and was startled to realize he had grown taller than Takla. They walked onto one of the vast balconies, to an airy walkway stretching between Bevelle's spires. The day was still warm, but Braska felt the chill in the winds off Macalania Wood. He had come here in the spring, as the air grew warm and wet with the offshore breeze. Winter was coming to Bevelle. He shivered.
"What is on your mind, young summoner?" Takla walked beside him, face uplifted to savour the sun and wind.
"I'm not sure how to explain..." Braska's hands shifted on his staff, as if groping for a place to begin, something to start to make sense of this. Bevelle, Bahamut, Bahamut, Bevelle... "I don't remember coming here very well."
Takla nodded. "Sin attacked Macalania. You likely suffered from Sin's toxins."
"I think so. But... after some weeks, I began... having dreams. Waking in the night. I am not sure how to explain, but I thought Bahamut was calling me. I could... I could feel something watching me. I could hear the pyreflies, and I would wake feeling... very afraid."
Takla stopped and turned to face him. "Tell me, my son, were you in training to be a priest at Macalania Temple before coming here?"
Braska startled. "Yes. I— I had just started my training."
Takla looked thoughtful. "You are probably more sensitive than most to the magics here, then. Most people who come here have not had any teachings in listening to them."
Braska nodded slowly. "I suppose you are right. I would wake most often when... when Zakel taught about listening to the pyreflies, or Sending. I thought it was Bahamut because... I am not sure. It felt like him."
Takla nodded. "Bahamut's presence here is not hard to sense."
"But... today, when we were taught Bahamut's spell, I felt... I felt nothing. I thought— I thought something would happen." Braska's hands clenched on his staff, twisted, relaxed, clenched again. "He has been in my dreams and my sleep for so long. I thought I would feel something when I drew his sigil. I had felt something the first time we were taught a summoning spell, and I'd been waiting, expecting. I wanted to ask Zakel about it but—"
Braska broke off the sudden torrent of words, feeling shamed, eyes sliding sideways. Takla leaned against the walkway's railing, looking out to the distant sea. They stood there in the cooling breeze for some time. Braska was not sure what he wanted ask, what he wanted to say.
Finally, he continued, gazing fixedly at the landscape. "I... followed him." He forced himself to look at Takla again. "I meant to ask him about Bahamut. I called out to him, but he didn't wait for me. I was confused, I'd been waking nights for months and then nothing happened, I did not know who to ask... So I followed him further. I didn't realize how far down I'd gone, when I heard him talk to his guardian."
"Yes, the lady Noru. She was from a small village on the Moonflow. Sin came there some years back."
Braska remembered the black mage's shoopuf doll. "Yes... I heard them talking. I meant to leave then, but— I saw a man. With—" a dull awareness of the enormity of his next words wrung a hesitation from him, but he plunged on: "with machina."
Takla's face hardened, and Braska went cold: there was no surprise stretching Takla's features, and the hardness etched into the weary lines of Takla's face was alien to him: layers and layers, lies under lies. Braska swallowed.
But Takla's features softened once more, and something in Braska eased with it, a terrible comfort at the familiar weariness of Takla's voice when he spoke. "Yes, you went deep into the temple. There are machina there, all through the core of Bevelle."
Braska felt hollow. "But I have always heard that machina are a sin. Against Yevon's teachings."
Takla took a long breath and met his eyes. "There are many sins in Bevelle, my son. It is an irony. We are privileged here. Machina makes the lives and tasks of those high enough to use them easier, but the same ease cannot be given to the people of Spira, for it is indeed dangerous." Takla looked away, then, towards the distant sea, eyes far away and thoughtful. "I do not know what is right. The machina make it easier for Bevelle to guide and govern and give aid. And yet it is unfair. But if the people knew, there would be too much resentment. So say the maesters."
Braska was not sure he understood. But Takla had known. Braska swallowed an irrational sense of betrayal; he had enough to shame him for one day. He was silent for a time, uncomfortable and confused. Takla waited beside him for some minutes, until the priest closed his eyes and spoke again.
"Zakel was much like you in his youth."
Braska's head jerked up, eyes wide.
Takla's smile was gentle and a little sad as he spoke. "He trained here, too, after his village was destroyed. I taught him, as I taught you." Takla sighed. "He was upset, too, to learn about the ironies of our service here. I wish sometimes that I had... I wish I had instructed him better. I have learned much from teaching here."
Braska remembered Takla's final lesson, on hate and anger. He remembered waking and choking on both. "I... I am still not sure what my dreams mean."
Takla looked at him, eyes serious. "You could go speak to Bahamut yourself." Braska turned to meet Takla's eyes, his own grown wide. "Your summoner's training is near complete. If Bahamut has called you, then perhaps you should answer his call. Perhaps he calls on you to speak with him, and begin your pilgrimage."
Braska looked down. He spoke slowly, hesitating. "I think I knew this. But..." He closed his yes. "I did not want to think on it. I was afraid."
Takla shook his head. "You are braver than you think, my son."
Braska squeezed his eyes tight. The words meant much to him. Too much, maybe. A chill wind swept down from the Wood, and Braska shuddered.
"I will go speak with Bahamut." His mouth was dry.
Takla nodded, and when Braska met his eyes, he wanted to look away. Takla did not speak again, but Braska saw things he could not have borne to hear said aloud in those compassionate eyes.
He gripped his staff, hand clenched tight as he headed back to the temple. For once its warm weight held no comfort.
The endless winding staircase, he decided, was a bit much. He felt bitter, and he knew his thoughts were twisted to more irony than was his wont. But each step, going down and down, filled him with more apprehension. The hymn swelled around him, and now that he knew to listen for it, he could hear the faint buzz of machina. It permeated the deeper chambers. He saw the machina all around him.
And the air was growing cooler.
His heart was pounding in his chest, and his mouth was dry.
But Bahamut had called him, and he had come to find out why.
He was nearing the bottom of the stairs, and his mind buzzed with questions, with a vague sense of anger and betrayal—and with fear. He swallowed, and approached the Cloister.
Someone was exiting the sacred room—Braska's heart jumped to his throat.
His eyes widened when he saw—it was Noru, and slumped at her side, one arm slung over her thin shoulders—Zakel.
Braska barely recognized him. His face was ashen, his eyes wide and white; sweat glistened on his brow despite the chill; and in place of his usual relaxed carriage he stumbled now, and bowed under the weight of exhaustion. But it was Zakel's smile that chilled Braska to the core, terror and revulsion running like ice-cold water down his spine and pooling in his belly, and his mind screamed to flee this place of the fayth.
The smile was hard, harder than ice and harder than stone; it held no mirth; it held no hope. It held no soul.
Braska stumbled back—out of their way, or simply away—and Noru looked up.
Her eyes were blue, ice-blue, and Braska wanted to turn away from the hard determination, the hopeless desperation he saw there as she supported her summoner's shaking steps. His stomach turned with his guilt, and he choked on too much understanding.
They ascended, and Braska was left alone on the threshold of the Cloister, shaking and cold.
He was afraid.
He was alone with the machina and the pyreflies, and he was afraid.
He entered the Cloister.
Braska floated through the trial as through a dream, the eerie light rippling around him. The puzzle was vexing, but he was beyond worrying over it. The chamber resonated with magic and machina, his mind buzzed with it, and it was in a daze that he felt the spheres and searched and sifted through the welter of energies for a matching pedestal. When he solved it, he paused a moment. This is where a guardian would stop, he thought. Only summoners were permitted to speak to the fayth.
He wondered what Noru had felt when she had watched Zakel enter without her.
He stepped inside.
The Chamber was not as elaborate as he had expected, but— his gaze fixed upon the statue on the floor. The statue of the fayth. He had never heard them described. It was terrible. It was beautiful. The vast span of a pearlescent wing, the dizzying colours, the ripple of muscle in a strong back.
The statue had no face. He felt sick.
He knelt before it, his heavy breaths heaving in his chest. He tried to slow his mind, meditate and pray and wait.
He was shivering.
He was not sure how long he knelt there, trying to marshal his scattered mind, when he felt an overwhelming, terrible presence swell before him, familiar and alien and vast.
He looked up, and the dragon Bahamut was before him. The dragon flexed its massive shoulders, and the sail-vast wings shuddered. Braska swallowed, and blinked. When he opened his eyes, the dragon was gone.
A boy stood in his place, his robes strange.
And from him, from the fayth, Braska felt it. An overpowering familiarity, a presence that had hovered on the edge of his mind since he had come here, haunting his dreams. Haunting those moments as he woke, and the fayth, the fayth was a young boy, and he remembered wide, hateful eyes meeting his in the dark, like and unlike the eyes he met now—amber, these eyes, a shade that could not be mistaken, the hard yellow of an afternoon sun, inhuman and incomprehensible in a child's face. The countenance of the fayth, his presence, was terrible, full of waiting and weariness and hate, a hate so deep and fathomless that it had grown sympathy as a fast-rooted tree grew leaves, groaning and whispering under the steady pounding of the wind. Braska remembered the hate, remembered waking and shuddering with it.
And yet, it did not feel quite right.
Braska pushed the confusion aside, and bowed in prayer. "I have come to pray before you and ask that you lend me your power on my summoner's pilgrimage."
A pause, agonizing with the thick beat of his heart, breaths passing dry through his throat.
And the fayth answered.
"You do not want to become a summoner. I will not come to one such as you."
Braska's mind felt sticky and slow. The words did not seem to be sinking in. "But... you have been calling me. I felt you waiting."
"I am always waiting. It was you who called out to me."
Braska shook his head dumbly. "No, weeks after I came, I woke. In the night, you would come and watch and wait..."
The fayth's voice held no expression. "You do not remember because you do not wish to remember."
Braska shook his head again, numb and senseless.
"You came touched by Sin, but the touch was fading. When your memory began to return, you called out to me."
Braska's breathing was becoming ragged. The fayth did not pause or slow, his words coming in even, measured, toneless tides.
"You were afraid. You are still afraid."
Braska gasped in a breath. "I am not sure."
The fayth shook his head. "You are afraid."
Braska attempted to gather himself and look at the fayth, speak clearly through the thick buzz in his mind. "I do not think I feel afraid of the pilgrimage. Or the Final Summoning."
The fayth's gaze remained steady on him as he spoke again.
"You are afraid of living."
The words hung there for a moment as Braska's mind screamed away from them. But he closed his eyes and swallowed and heard the truth.
And Braska's world crashed down around him. The memories that had been circling came thundering back, writ in the blood that pounded in his ears—so much blood, his blood, their blood, and the pyreflies all screaming their agony and hate, the hate, the poisonous envy a rage of jealousy, Sin's fathomless anger seeping into him, infecting his blood, toxins and poison, the cold, Yevon, the cold, and dreams, dreams of such destruction, and those souls close to fiends with the blood dripping from their teeth, the blinding need to taste life—
Oh, he screamed, and the temple swallowed his screams whole, wrapped them in the hymn and smothered them with the buzz of machina and swallowed them up in the vast hollow spaces of nothing, no heat and nothing closed to keep in the warmth and the blood and the death.
And Braska wept. For the first time since Sin had come, he wept.
He wept for his parents, he wept for his home, he wept for his lost friends. He wept for Shiva's hymns and for bloodstains in the snow, for the closed spaces and the cold; he wept for the machina under the prayerhouses, he wept for Zakel's anger under his pride, for Noru's desperate love and quiet terror, for Takla's sorrow layered over his weariness.
He wept for the pyreflies screaming and then silenced.
He was young, and he wept for himself.
The fayth, ageless and without pity, watched him in silence. When Braska knelt exhausted before the statue, the fayth did not speak.
Braska breathed, shuddering in vast, hollow gulps. He felt weary beyond words, raw and sore. And he felt angry, and full of grief; confused, unsure, lonely. Afraid.
Alive, and aching with it.
His mouth was dry, and his lips had stuck together in the long silence. He pried them apart to croak a whisper. "Thank you." The words tasted bitter coming out, a bitter irony, and yet... his heart beat freer, and he had felt the need to say it.
The fayth said nothing.
Braska sat up. His knees hurt from the stone floor, and his hands looked red and raw. He pressed them against the floor, slow and deliberate, feeling its solid press against his palms, and rose, halting and shaking, to his feet. He felt light and light-headed, and lucid, as if he had woken from a long dreaming. He looked up at the fayth.
He did not know what to say. The fayth granted him no mercy then, either.
Finally, Braska, overcome with exhaustion, drained and stunned, spoke. "I do not know what to do."
The fayth stirred. "You have dreamed. We know something of dreaming. You are waking, and you are free. What will you do with your waking life?"
Braska shook his head, tired beyond measure. "I had chosen my path. You tell me my choice was wrong."
"I am not one to tell you your choice was wrong. But it was ill-founded, and you are afraid and do not know your own heart."
"You will not come to me?"
The fayth shook his head. "You are not ready."
Braska heaved a sigh, too numb to think about how much relief it held. He felt a distant need to eat and drink, and a much more pressing need to sleep. Exhaustion was pulling him into unconsciousness. But there was a thought hovering on the edge of his mind, and he grasped at it before his awareness could slip away entirely. "You say I called you. But you listened and watched. You were waiting for me."
The fayth's chin dipped in a nearly imperceptible nod. "I am waiting."
A familiar chill ran down his spine at the careful words, and Braska straightened enough to bow into prayer with dignity. "I still believe the path I chose was right."
The fayth said nothing, and when Braska rose from prayer, he was gone.
But Braska had his answer. As he stumbled out of the Chamber, glassy-eyed, and made his way through the shimmering Cloister in a daze, he knew.
And when he returned to his bed and slept soundly, warm and dreamless, he knew. When he received his summoner's surplice and set it aside, he knew.
And when Sin attacked a nearby village days later and Braska came with the others to heal the wounded monks anyway, summoner or no, he met sharp amber eyes amongst their number with a shock of recognition like an electric jolt: amber, yes, a darker, mortal shade, edged still with the echoes of fury, an anger so pure that it had resonated between them, echoing his own, echoing the rage of a fayth, of a child who was no child, of a dream that waited with the patience of stone.
Bahamut was waiting.
End of Part I.
Continue to Part II: Waking Life
Chapter 2: Waking Life
Part I: Dreams of Memories | Part II: Waking Life | Part III: The End of All Things
Fandom | Cast: Final Fantasy X. Braska-centric without a doubt. Auron and Jecht, of course, and a bit of young Yuna. Big roles for the aeons/fayth — most especially Bahamut and Shiva, but plenty for Ixion, Ifrit, and Valefor too.
Rating | Warnings: PG, so very gen. Spoilers for the whole game. Canonical character death, death of a bystander with slightly gory detail.
For: darthneko's prompt in ff_exchange 2007 - "FFX: Braska, summoning"
Betas: owlmoose, renay, seventhe, with more thanks than I can say
Total Word Count: 43,000
Summary: Bahamut has a plan. Braska has a purpose. The two don't always coincide, and a pattern slowly grows, drawn in light on stone. A three-part arc detailing Braska's path to becoming a High Summoner.
Chapter Title: Part II - Waking Life
Chapter Word Count: 14,200
Chapter Summary: After his dreaming, there is a waking life. What must Braska bring together in the waking world, that Bahamut would entrust him with his terrible dream?
He had woken once, a memory waking from a dream, and there is a precious eternity of waking to remember before the dreams come again, forever.
Braska's eyes snapped open. He startled awake in his small bed, his heart racing and his hand reaching instinctively out into the blind dark.
She was asleep, safe; breathing soft, small, and calm.
Braska closed his eyes, sitting up and settling the limbs that had splayed in panic; and on the floor where he knelt beside his sleeping daughter, he prayed.
He thought of the whisper of sand across the desert, the cool touch of shadow, the languid passing of hot afternoons. He thought of the towering halls of machina, the comforting electronic buzz permeating the air and the startling soft touch of a hand amidst the hard, cold machinery, the look of laughter soaked in spiraling green...
He opened his eyes, and lay his hand on Yuna's forehead. It felt cool and dry against his clammy hand.
This, he knew they would say, was no kind of prayer.
He had many years of lessons and prayer and meditation behind him. There was, he had found, more comfort now in his fond sacrilege. He had need of comfort. Since she had died... he had been waking nights, hazy recollections of bright, open days and cold, fearful nights.
Tonight was different. He remembered.
Braska sighed, and stood to face what had woken him. His bare back prickled under the touch of moonlight in the open air. He drew breath in, drew the energy in as he remembered doing long ago, as he had done in that first Sending he had not danced. Her Sending, and not even hers but for the other folk on that ship. Summoner no longer, he, not then— anathema, blasphemer-priest, fallen. But he knew the ways, and he had breathed in the energy illicit and precious, calling the pyreflies then, as he did now. And now, with the power came the fear, crawling along his spine, settling there, choking down his throat into his gut.
Braska breathed, and waited. It was only fear.
And as he waited, the fear dissolved into the familiar watchfulness, and from there to simple expectation. Simple, waiting purpose.
The Cloister would be empty this time of night, reverberant with the hymn, with solitude, with expectation.
He could go.
He could go alone.
He touched Yuna's forehead again, brushed away a strand of hair.
Bahamut could wait.
The light of morning spread clear and cool across his bed. The covers lay where Braska had tossed them hours before, and the sun was slow in warming the floor beneath his bare feet. He was sitting up, waiting for Yuna to wake on her pallet across from him.
The light crept delicately across the thin rug, and touched, softly, so softly, on her outstretched hand, landing on a tiny finger like a stray pyrefly. He remembered how she had reached for them during the Sending, and how he hadn't stopped her, had drawn them in himself. He still remembered how...
His elbows were propped on his knees. His feet were planted on the cool floor. The rough sheets lay crumpled and uncomfortable beneath him. The everyday sensations felt alien; he felt empty; and the floor offered no support, his shoulders bending into a sagging bow above his hands.
Oh, Yevon, he did not want to go.
He watched the slow slide of sunshine, watched it pool in Yuna's hand, watched her small chest rise and fall, and his heart lay raw within him. His throat tightened as the light spilled gently across her chest, cresting slowly on her neck.
He wanted to watch her forever. He wanted to watch the sun wake her slowly each day, farther and farther to go each year, wanted to watch her eyes open, blue and green, and watch them find his, instantly. Wanted to welcome that inevitable clutch of grief until it became as familiar as his breath and did no more than make his daughter look all the more beautiful...
What he wanted. What he wanted to give.
Only fear, he had thought. In the dark of night, in the waning moonlight, with Bahamut's breath thrilling down his spine. Only fear. Bahamut offered a purpose, a path.
Yuna. His purpose. His path. He brought his hands up and rested his face in them. He squeezed his eyes shut.
When he wept, it was silently, and Yuna did not wake.
Had he known, always, what he would do? He had used grief to run from decisions before, thinking he had made the harder choice when all he had done was turn his back at the crossroads. Had he learned how to grieve, since then? There were many ways of being what one must be. He had learned that much—in this temple, in the desert. Takla had said it was hate and anger that fogged the path. Zakel had walked his path because he'd believed he had nothing left to lose. Who was Braska to decide that in setting out with a heavy heart, in losing everything, there lay more hope?
Bahamut had not called him. Bahamut had never called him, on those nights Braska would wake panting in fear, in anger yet unnamed. Bahamut's strength lay in the harsh light of day, in the dispassionately cruel light cast into the dark places of mens' hearts, in the sunlight that broke the calm spell of night and crept across the threadbare rug. The light that heralded the end of dreaming. Braska had dreamed, he had remembered the choices he'd made, and he had known what needed protecting most. Bahamut had answered, and along the path Bahamut opened lay a thousand mornings he wouldn't watch the sun frost Yuna's face in gold, and a thousand fathers who could watch their daughters wake, a thousand mothers who would be there with them. And a thousand days Yuna could live without the fear he'd dreamed of, the fear he had woken from on an early autumn evening years ago.
Who was he to walk this path that would not bear the weight of anger...
Along that path...
Oh, Yevon. He did not want to go.
He lifted his head as the sun reached Yuna's face. Through all his wandering vagaries, his indecisions and hesitations, his mistakes... there lay one clear and precious thing. Across from him, waking slowly in the soft light, lay Yuna.
How is one gift to be measured greater than another? He thought of Yuna reaching for the pyreflies, he thought of cold, he thought of Home. He knew that a future without fear was worth the giving.
Yuna opened her eyes, blinking in the sun, and found his own, dry and smiling.
"Come," he said, his throat as dry as his eyes. The familiar hand of grief lay gently on his heart. "We must visit an old friend today."
She nodded solemnly, and took his large hand in hers.
The path to the main temple from their small room was long. Braska had noticed before: Bevelle kept some of her sins closer than others.
His stride was slow. For Yuna. For this morning, first or last or just one of many.
Yuna's hand was small in his. She blinked around in the bright, cool sunshine, quietly taking everything in, as always. He looked around, too, at the vast halls and open spaces that had never quite been his home. He thought of the machina hidden in their core, of the hymn whispering through the buzz of pyreflies and circuitry, a thin veil over the deeper truth. Peace and irony, sin and prayer. Bevelle.
Takla lived close to the temple, respected as he was. Not the head priest, no maester, but too old, too full of strange ideas, and loved by too many to not be kept close. Braska's lip quirked in spite of himself.
The walk was long, but Yuna did not complain, and when they reached Takla's house, she held Braska's hand tight. Braska knocked and waited until the door slid open, much less creaky than its master.
"Father." Braska bowed in prayer. Yuna let go his hand, and bowed quietly, too.
Takla's lined face lit with a smile, and he reached his papery hands to follow Braska's voice. Braska felt the thick, bony fingers slide down his cheek. "My son," rumbling warm and deep and whispery, sounding pleased and weary, and Braska remembered the first time Takla had called him that.
Braska knelt to pick up Yuna, resting his cheek on her soft hair. Takla's cloudy eyes widened, then crinkled with pleasure. "And little Yuna! Hello, young lady."
"Hello." Her voice was small but clear, and Braska's throat went dry again.
"What brings this family to my door before the morning prayer? Come in, come in." He waved them inside, and closed the door. Braska set Yuna down, whispered to her that they wouldn't be long. He touched her nose playfully and she crinkled it at him, shedding for a heart-wrenching moment the recent habit of her seriousness. Braska swallowed, and straightened up, following Takla to the other end of the cramped room.
"Father Takla." His throat had stuck, and he closed his eyes and thought of Home. He did not want to open them again. But he looked up, and spoke, rasping and dry-mouthed. "I think... it is time I walked the summoner's path."
Takla had busied himself pouring them water. At Braska's words he froze, and set the glass in his trembling hand down; for all his care it still clattered against the table before he stilled it. When he turned, the look in his eyes echoed down Braska's memory to another sunlit day when he had contemplated a path to walk. He saw a heavy swallow lodge in Takla's throat, but when he spoke, the priest's voice was steady and tight, the tremula of age painfully controlled. "You are sure?"
Braska glanced aside, across the room, to where Yuna knelt quietly in the corner, tracing tentative fingers over some of Takla's scrolls, mouthing words, her brow furrowed in concentration. He met Takla's eyes again. "There are... some gifts that are hard to give and hard to receive. But they are worth the price. Perhaps in greater sacrifice lies the hope of greater peace."
Takla closed his eyes. "Bevelle will not look favourably on this."
If Braska had laughed, there would have been too much bitterness. He smiled, and his smile was full of irony. "There are many ways to walk one path. They do not need to train me again."
"You will need a guardian."
Braska did not even need a moment's pause to think; his mind slid across a course laid out years ago, down the halls of his memory to a private breathless moonlit moment, to sharp eyes meeting his in a crowd; a face, a fayth, and the story of a fallen monk. He swallowed an acid laugh; oh yes, in the light of day the forming pattern was clear, a path straight and gilded and stormy underneath, like the trail of a sunset at sea. He itched with a faint resistance as the knowledge slid seamlessly into place, like a bitter gift, but he knew the choice a good one. "I think there is someone else Bevelle has little love for who might follow me."
Takla opened his eyes and looked at him. Braska wanted to turn away from the weariness he saw there, from the grief he felt too much kinship with. "Braska." Takla sighed, heavy and rasping. "You did not come here for an old man's stuttering protests."
Braska did close his eyes, then. He turned away before opening them, looked at Yuna as she knelt in the sun, eyes fixed on a scroll, green and blue. "Bevelle... can be cruel..."
He felt Takla's hand touch his cheek again, tremulous with age. "I will watch after her... my son." The emphasis on his last words was slight and soft: a reminder of care, not meant to hurt. Braska did not want to name the things he heard in it. There was only so much irony he could bear.
And for a moment Braska felt both young and old, lost and a little cold, and he could only whisper, "Thank you."
Braska gathered Yuna up and left Takla's house. Her soft little arms clasped around his neck and she hugged him, impulsive and grave, perhaps sensing that he was... a little overwrought. His heart constricted around an urge to keep holding on to her, hold her close for a few more moments, for a minute, forever... He waited until she stopped squeezing, and leaned away from her, a swell of emotion stretching his mouth into a smile. "Tell me, my little lady, have you ever seen the warrior monks?"
Her eyes lit up, but she shook her head with slow dignity. "I know where they are, though!" She turned and pointed unerringly to the training grounds. A soft summer breeze caught her hair and brushed it against Braska's face.
"Well, we need to go see one today." His smile faded slightly, and he set Yuna down. He caught her smooth brow furrowing slightly— she was always quick to sense his moods, if not their causes. So much like her mother...
He knelt down beside her, schooling his face to gravity, meeting her eyes squarely. He spoke with utter solemnity.
Her eyes widened in surprise, then in delight— narrowed in swift mischief and she took off, slippered feet shush-slapping on the walkway. Her laughter trilled across the wide space, and he watched her for a moment, a little girl running across one of the airy bridges of Bevelle, the Macalania forest distant and beautiful behind her.
And then he ran, letting the clenching in his throat bubble up as laughter, edges a little wild and loose-ragged, but ringing true, true and unfettered. The wind rushed through his growing hair—recovering from the Al Bhed-short shearing—and his loose tunic and trousers flapped about him as he made much a production of loudly huffing and puffing after Yuna. He reflected with wry amusement that he would have looked downright silly had he opted for his priest's robes that day—or, Yevon forbid, the summoner's surplice he had earned and never worn—stumbling over the low hem and wallowing in the heavy fabrics. But today he was just a father chasing his delightedly shrieking daughter across Bevelle, spooking the acolytes.
Though, he thought, it would have been quite a show. Perhaps he could race Yuna again sometime soon, properly attired.
He caught up to her as she rounded a corner— and she leapt out at him from behind the curve. His breath wuffed out in a startled bark of laughter, but he caught her up, desert-quick reflexes only a little dulled with time and grief, and spun her around in the air. She spread her arms out wide, laughing with him. "I can fly like Bahamut! Like a speeder!"
Braska's heart skipped a beat, a long wariness and a dull ache, but his laughter continued unabated until he swung Yuna around once more and back down. Her downy hair was mussed, and her eyes, mismatched and lovely, sparkled. He smoothed her hair away, and took her hand again. She was still catching her breath, but she turned willingly to lead on, pulling at their linked hands.
She was a good child.
She was his life and his heart, as her mother had been before her. And she had just begun to recover, the frozen mask of solemnity thawing away from her features—soft, mobile features, too young to be frozen so. They had... both begun to recover, to reclaim memories of deserts and machines as good ones, worth a smile, worth a laugh-laden exclamation of sheer joy. They had just begun to recover... and that was the very reason he was leaving now. He would give anything to see all her days as free and full of laughter as these few moments had been.
By the time they had made their way to the monks' quarters the sun had risen well above the horizon, and the monks were finishing their morning exercises. They stopped at the edge of the court, Yuna's gravity returning as she retreated to an out-of-the-way corner to watch. Braska watched her take them all in, then turned to look himself, searching out a particular face among the many.
There: alone, in the back, movements smooth and fluid. And the eyes, rising to meet his at the end of the exercise, dark amber and sharp below a fierce sweep of brow. No hatred in them now, but a tinge of bitterness and touchy pride in a mobile, earnest face.
Braska knew the name—from Bevelle rumour, a star rising and falling—and the face—from a wakeful night, a healing, a chance encounter years ago. But he had never met the man.
He cast a look back to make sure Yuna had not moved, and went forward to meet Auron, crossing at the edges of the open practice court. No one bowed, but he saw eyes flicker towards him, heard the susurrus of voices rustle up in his wake. His clothes were rumpled from his run, and ill-befitting his station anyway. And he was the blasphemer-priest, the fallen summoner, run away to the desert to wed a heathen Al Bhed, never mind that he had been just as ignominiously rejected there, too. And his daughter with her mismatched eyes stood quietly in the shadow of the courtyard walls behind him. Braska kept his eyes on Auron, but he could still see how the others' gazes flicked furtively to the back wall, and away, back to their practice.
But Auron looked steadily at him as Braska approached, and took a single step to meet him at the court's edge.
Braska stopped a comfortable distance away, though as he took his last step he caught a near-imperceptible tension in the corners of Auron's mouth, in the stiffening of his spine. Braska disguised a half-step back, as if he were only settling his stance into an open friendliness.
"You must be Auron," he said. And again a line of touchy tension, the fierce brow furrowing, mouth tightening, though this time Braska could guess its cause. Auron knew what to expect next: I've heard of you. But Braska continued: "I've heard of your skill with a blade."
Auron still eyed Braska a little warily, but something seemed to ease in him at Braska's choice of words. He inclined his head, a wisp of hair escaping his queue. "Lord Braska." Of course he'd heard of Braska as well, and who hadn't? But at least he had the grace not to say so— and not only with his words, but with his eyes, meeting Braska's own steadily, not looking away, or flitting off to stare at the odd-eyed little girl leaning against the courtyard wall. For all his demonstrated lack of political skill, Auron was not dead to niceties. Braska smiled.
"I have a proposition for you, Auron. I think we know we both have little reputation left to lose. But I have indeed heard of your skills, and I think they show your merit more. I ask you: lend me your blade." Auron's eyes widened, anticipating his next words. Braska still hesitated on them, one last time, willing his eyes to remain on Auron's, not to glance to the shadows of the walls behind him, before committing himself down his path. "I am embarking on a pilgrimage. Please, be my guardian."
He sensed the energy ever-present in the temple thicken slightly, sensed the expectant attention's sharpened focus, the heat of sun-warmed stone beneath his feet.
The nooning sun beat down on them, hard and hot and merciless in the silent moment, their eyes meeting in the clear light and— Braska's throat was dry, and he swallowed, as for an instant he sensed again the edging echoes of a dreamer's restless rage, and Auron's eyes glinting a-sudden with a lighter hue, sun-gold and sharp. The whisper of a vision there, sun-struck, a child who was no child, a child who would never grow into a man, unblinking golden stare layered over eyes of a sullied, mortal umber: a pattern forming in lines of cruel light.
Braska blinked, and the moment passed.
And Auron bowed to him, according him the full respect due a summoner. "I would be honoured, my lord."
Braska's smile, faltering for a moment in the sunlit pause, widened, and a thread of tension in him—around him, underneath him, winding down and down—relaxed, though his heart grew no lighter. "Auron, please stand up. We have no need for formality here." For all that Braska's tone was light, Auron's eyes widened. Braska had layered the meanings carefully, transparent enough on the surface. But underneath, if one knew to look... Auron knew it, too, then: the awkward familiarity, the strange and silent kinship born on a wakeful night, with never a word exchanged. He must feel it, Braska thought, the cord, the chord, that bound them together. Well and so, the link was acknowledged, however obliquely. Braska turned the subject to mundane matters, continuing with barely a pause: "It'll be a long journey. How long will you need to get ready?"
"I have no duties here, sir." Braska caught the barest hint of a wry twist to Auron's lips, and began to suspect that buried underneath the discipline and ruffled sense of honour, there might lurk a sense of humour as well, much put upon. "I can leave immediately."
Braska nodded, and did turn then, to look at Yuna. "Thank you, Auron. But give me a day." He turned back. "I'll meet you outside the main gates at noon."
Braska caught Auron aborting another bow, looking a little lost without a protocol to follow; young, for all his skill, young and full of a fiery conviction. Auron settled on a respectful nod. "Yes, my lord."
They parted ways. And Braska's heart was thudding in his ears, beating through the soles of his feet, much too fast for the song that answered in slow swells from underneath.
Braska sat Yuna down on his bed, and knelt in front of her. He took her hands, and looked her in the eyes, her beautiful eyes. His throat was dry.
He took a deep breath.
"Yuna. I have something very important to tell you." She nodded solemnly. Braska had conceived of no plan but honesty, the pain that cut clean and deep. And still he wished he didn't have to speak. "I have to go on pilgrimage."
Yuna bit her lip and looked down, away. "You're leaving."
Braska chucked her chin gently, prompting her to look at him again. He smiled for her. "I would never leave you for anything that was less important than your safety and happiness. My heart, believe me... I don't want to leave you." His throat was growing thick, his tongue clumsy, as he watched Yuna's eyes fill with tears. They coursed down her cheeks, ignored, as she watched him, shaking her head. Braska stopped himself blowing his breath out in frustration at upsetting her, at getting this wrong. So many reasons, and he scarce understood, himself. How could he explain? He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and took her by the shoulders. She sniffled once, and he looked up to see her swipe a hand across her face, impatient at her own tears.
"Yuna." His voice had a raw edge; it grated on his ears as he tried to gentle it for her.
She shook her head again, stubbornly. "You're leaving. You're leaving like— like mother." She hung her head, and her shoulders shook silently beneath his hands, small and hopeless sobs.
Braska's heart broke, Braska's heart was breaking into a thousand pieces as it had once, twice before. Oh, Yuna! I never meant to hurt you! Yuna's grief, naked with her aching youth, shot like an arrow through his heart, the part of his heart that he had given away, and lost to Sin, twice over. It edged on memories that still lay raw within him, wounds not yet fully healed— but acknowledged, carefully acknowledged, not shut away behind an angry adolescent numbness but accepted, experienced. Living memories, filled with love and laughter and aching grief, filled with hopeless, wanton feeling.
Braska took his daughter's gently shuddering shoulders, so small and fragile in his hands, and enfolded Yuna in his arms. She threw her arms around his neck, the second time that day, seeking comfort rather than giving it, slipping off the bed and falling into him where he knelt. He clasped his arms about her, desperate and gentle, squeezed his eyes shut, and he murmured to her, holding her as she cried, "Yuna, I love you, I will always love you, my heart, my dearest, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Forgive me, I love you, I loved your mother, I want you to be happy, I love you, I love you." He didn't shush her, didn't tell her anything but what poured out of his heart. Cry, cry yourself out Yuna... I'm sorry...
Yuna cried. Yuna cried very quietly, and when her shoulders stopped shaking with it, she simply held him, held onto him, clutching at his tunic. Braska cradled her, one hand buried in her cloud-soft hair, another across her back, inadequate shelter against the vast and pitiless world. He had done his weeping that morning, silently, privately, when Yuna could not know. But he wanted to weep again, kneeling on the hard floor in this little room, holding his daughter in their threadbare clothes.
But there had been enough tears in their lives. More than enough. He opened his eyes, and he knew they were wet and full. He blinked a few times, trying to clear them. "Yuna." She squeezed him harder, burying her face in his shoulder. "Yuna, I will think of you every moment of my journey. You and your mother. I will miss you terribly."
"Come back!" she whispered fiercely into his shoulder, hands fisting his clothes, huddling in his embrace. "Come back come back come back!"
His heart lurched. He wished he could look at her; he wished he could hold her forever and not go anywhere. He wished...
"I promise it. I promise I'll return here, I promise I will see you again." And, lest he break her heart again, and harder: "But you know that afterwards I must leave for Zanarkand."
Her shoulders tensed, and she trembled, a tiny tremor. He could feel her heart, a soft frantic beat like the wings of a caged bird. He clenched his eyes shut again.
"I will see you again, Yuna! I swear it. Yuna, we went to see the warrior monks today. Do you remember, I talked to one of them? His name is Auron, and he's coming with me. He will protect me. He's very strong." He was babbling. But Yuna's trembling eased, and he remembered her watching the monks, sharp little eyes alert. "Auron will be my guardian, and he will make sure I come back here safe and see you again." He eased her back, and but for a brief moment of resistance, clutching at him, she let him. He sought her eyes, mouth running dry as he saw them, red-rimmed and bleary. But he met those eyes squarely, and forced his voice to calm and gentleness. "I love you, Yuna. I promise I will come back."
She nodded, then looked down. He took her face in his hands, and pressed his lips to her forehead. He gave her one last embrace, quick and fierce. Then he sat back on his heels, still clasping her hands in his.
Yuna heaved in one long shuddering breath, corralling the last of her sobs, eyes on the ground. "I'll miss you," she said. Braska's chest felt hollow, chafed raw. She was such a good child... No tantrums, no denials. She cried, just as he had, and then shouldered the burden he placed on her. An aching thread of love and wonder wound around his heart, squeezing his throat, at the thought of this child, this child they had made together, he and she. For her, for Yuna, for both of them... he had to go.
Oh, Yevon, but he did not want to. Yuna was a braver soul than he. Just as her mother had been.
Braska squeezed Yuna's hands lightly. "I'll miss you too, Yuna."
She sighed, very quietly, and looked up at him again. "What will happen to me until you come back?"
Braska smiled at her, aching with pride and regret. "Father Takla will take care of you. Is that all right?"
She nodded, then looked down again. "When are you leaving?"
Braska closed his eyes briefly, swallowed. "Tomorrow. But tonight—" he squeezed her hands, urging her to look up at him again. "Tonight, I will be right here. With you."
She threw herself into his embrace again, and they held each other for a long time before Braska began to make ready for his journey.
Braska's eyes were open, staring into the dark. Yuna was by his side, small and warm against him as they shared his bed, as they had all three used to do.
But it was colder, and he was older, without her warmth beside them.
He closed his eyes, reaching out into the blind black, calling out silently, drawing the pyreflies to him. And they came, and he felt the touch of an alien awareness, vast and implacable. And patient. Waiting. Distant. Bahamut offered him no solace, no companionship, no words. But then, he never had.
He had thought once that Yevon offered such solace, that in Yevon could be found peace, a peace he could carry with him and pass on to others. He had since... come to believe that the peace came from within.
And was that the absence he felt in his life, in his heart? Love... were you my peace, as well as my heart?
He blew out his breath in a slow, lonely sigh, cradling Yuna closer. And he closed his eyes and thought of Home, of hot blazing days, of her. He did not dream that night— he did not sleep, awash in memories, clutching close the present moment, this waking life, this brief spell of time in which he could hold Yuna before he had to let her go.
Braska eyed the layered summoner's surplice with some misgivings. He hadn't worn it since he'd earned it, and he had gotten used to his mismatched mix of Al Bhed and civilian garments. But if he were to play the role he had abandoned... he had responsibilities. Not only to Yuna, to himself... but to all the people of Spira. Do not hate those among whom you will walk... He sighed at the memory of Takla's words, at the overconfident foolishness that had lain behind his puzzlement at them. He knew better, now, what it meant.
He wormed his way into the heavy robe, grown a little tight across the shoulders since he had earned it years ago. He had liked the look of the outfit then: many-layered, deceptively simple. He had found it a fittingly ironic garment. Now it felt heavy, weighing his shoulders down with expectations: the people's... Bahamut's... Yuna's... and his own.
He took his staff, its shaft seeming unfamiliar and delicate in his grip. His hands had grown, broadened, roughened. He smoothed his other hand down the collared vestment, the ornate ceremonial girdle, the long sleeves. They had no mirror here; they couldn't afford it.
He heard a soft shuffle behind him, and turned to see Yuna leaning around the doorframe between the two rooms of their dwelling, watching him. He had missed her waking. He needed no mirror; he saw it in her face, naked with youth: awe, wariness, an edge of fear.
He looked like a summoner. Yuna had never seen him thus.
Braska knelt, and opened his arms to her. She ran into them, unhesitating, and he held her there, dirtying the knees of his pristine robe, his heart aching with fierce joy for every moment of it. "Come back," she whispered once more, voice small and muffled in his heavy surplice.
"I will, Yuna. I will come back to you." Once more, a promise, fierce and gentle.
He held her for a while longer, feeling her minute trembling. She clutched at the wide collar of his vestment. And then her grip eased, if not her shaking, and she stepped back slightly, raising red-rimmed eyes to meet his. His heart stuttered with fierce, mournful pride in her. He put his hands on her cheeks. "I am so proud of you, Yuna. You are brave and strong and beautiful. You just have to be my brave girl a little while longer."
She nodded, silent tears coursing down her cheeks, wetting his hands. He kissed her forehead, and she wiped her face, quickly, and took one of his hands. He stood, and they went to Takla's house, where their goodbyes were brief and unwontedly formal.
Come back. There was nothing more to say.
Braska turned away as Takla rested a tremulous hand on Yuna's head. His steps were steady as he approached the main temple, his robes feeling heavy and hollow.
The Cloister was awash with light and the echoes of Bahamut's hymn. Braska had navigated it once before in the hush of night, alone. He'd had no heart to notice how weirdly beautiful it was, then. He had been too terrified, too angry.
This time he had come in the light of day, with a guardian at his side—one who glared at the priests' dubious looks as they'd ascended the temple steps.
Only the terror had not changed.
But terror was only fact, only the thrum of blood in his veins, the hot-cold rush along his nerves. Braska shook his head, and clicked the first sphere into place. Hands firm, suppressing a tremor of tension.
Auron watched him, hovering, brows furrowing and eyes widening as Braska navigated the complicated puzzle. Braska threw a grin over one shoulder as the second sphere slid home with a satisfying click. "Don't get any grandiose ideas about my acumen, Auron. I've done this before."
"Sir! You have... approached Bahamut?"
"They do call me a fallen summoner, Auron." A wide smile—perhaps a touch hard-edged—at the absurdity of it all. "Yes, I did try, and Bahamut..." Braska had gained the third sphere, and he slid it between his hands, mind far away. "He told me I was not ready. And he was quite right." He slid the sphere home with a confident finality. It was some time, gathering the next spheres, thinking back to that first meeting, the day that had preceded it, before Braska spoke again. "I have a feeling this time..." The sphere felt alive in his hands, vibrating with the energies of the Cloister. Familiar. He knew this feeling, knew this place, knew the familiar touch of foreboding. He smoothed his fingers across the sphere's flawless surface, walking absently to the final pedestal. He paused before it, finishing his thought aloud. "Well. It would be unwise to bet on the whims of the fayth. Let us just say I have had dealings with Bahamut before."
Braska clicked the sphere home, his hands warming as it wakened beneath them. Pushed the pedestal into place, and let the Cloister's path carry him to its end. He glanced once to the side to nod at Auron, who was attempting to mask his perplexed look with a formal stoicism, then opened the door and entered the Chamber once more.
The room still echoed with song and the faint buzz of electricity, and the statue was as he remembered it, mighty and beautiful and strange. Braska knelt before it.
He breathed deep, letting his mind drift in, down, calling out from a place somewhere near his heart, from behind his dreams, from beside his unabated terror. He wondered, was this what calling an aeon would be like? He pled his case—praying, they might call it—silently and briefly, simply laying open his mind to the touch of the pyreflies careening around him, baring it for Bahamut to see: his intent, his tangled feelings. The dark places of his heart, laid out into the light, of his own volition; no other's hand forcing him to it this time, no need for words of a cruel and dispassionate honesty to show him where the flaws lay.
And he waited.
His mind drifted, settling on the thought of the man waiting outside the door. His guardian. And what did Bahamut intend for them? He could feel Bahamut's hand on the both of them, plucking at the chord that bound them... or was it a net, a web...
The vast swell of Bahamut's presence crashed upon his awareness, blotting out all thought.
Braska opened his eyes. The great black dragon was waiting. Bahamut inclined his head— and then the dragon was gone and the boy was there. The boy he had dreamed of, a boy he remembered half-seen in the face of the young monk who now guarded his steps.
Silent, as always.
Braska spoke. "I am leaving on my pilgrimage."
"You believe you are ready?"
"I believe... that I have something of immeasurable value to protect. That is all that matters."
The fayth was silent for a time. "You are still afraid."
Braska replied evenly, "Yes." For Yuna, for himself. Afraid of failing. Afraid of succeeding. This life had been like a dream, lucid and bittersweet. He did not say so aloud. He did not need to, under the fayth's fathomless gaze.
Finally, a shake of the head. "You are not ready. You are angry and afraid, and you are not ready."
Braska nodded, unsurprised. He knelt, still, but he met the fayth's gaze squarely. "I am angry, Bahamut. I am grieving still. And I am afraid."
So easy, to say the words, as if the soul-deep tremor was so easy to compass. And why was he more honest with this not-child than with his own? It was that he didn't wish to burden Yuna with his terror. Yet he laid it on the fayth's shoulders unblinking. Well and well, but Bahamut had ever demanded a ruthless honesty of him.
Or did he demand it from himself?
But the fayth should understand, this wish to live. As well as he had once understood his wish to die. "You said you knew something of dreaming. I have dreamed a sweet dream, Bahamut. I wish I dreamt it still."
Something changed in the boy's face—a flicker—something vast and hot— but Braska couldn't catch it, it was gone. The fayth shook his head once more. "Your dreaming ended long ago, summoner. The waking life can be hard, but do you forget your dreaming so easily?"
Braska closed his eyes, slow and deliberate, his throat dry at the memory. Then he opened them once more to regard the fayth. "No, Bahamut. What will you have of me? My heart is raw, and I wish I could wake from these nightmares. But I live. I live. I have said it: I am angry, afraid, and grieving."
The fayth remained motionless, unyielding. "You are awake, summoner, and you are not ready to dream again. I am not coming with you."
Am not. Not will not. Braska caught the delicate wording, and waited.
"I will watch you for a time."
Braska bowed his head and smiled. "Very well."
Outside the Chamber, a sudden weariness overtook him, and he remembered his first exit, stumbling with exhaustion. But— there was Auron's hand, solicitous and respectful at his elbow. He had a guardian now, someone to share this burden, to guide his steps as they inevitably faltered.
He thanked Auron absently, deep in thought. What did Bahamut want? Something was missing.
You are angry and afraid...
He was angry. At Sin. At Yevon. At... himself. Oh yes, he was angry at himself.
Did he hate himself? Was he making the same mistake, that had caused Bahamut to reject him before?
... No. He did not hate living. It was because he loved this life that he was so angry and afraid. It was an old anger, rooted in discoveries he had made years ago, starting with a man with machina in the depths of a temple; fed on the death that had compassed his life. An old anger... why did it burn more brightly and not less?
Bahamut had come to the angry and terrified before. He thought of Zakel's soulless triumphant smile. You are angry and afraid, and you are not ready. Two of three reasons shown to be... inadequate. True, but inadequate.
What was he missing?
I dreamed of fear, Bahamut, and you showed me a path. Why do you close the way now?
He knew Auron was... supposed to be with him. Bahamut had marked him, as clearly as he had marked Braska, with the cold resonance of his implacable, silent anger. They had both rung with its echoes at his touch, like plucked harp strings. He remembered the tension of it making the air between them tremble. But the time of anger was over. And they had both changed, he knew, the blacksmith's son and the Macalanian acolyte. He had seen it in Auron's eyes, in flashes, stolen seconds as their paths crossed: the massive grieving hatred subsiding into implacable determination.
And Braska had changed... he had lost and hated and grieved, and then... he had loved. And that, too, he had lost—but this time... he had let it come: the vast empty sadness, the anger, huge and hot. He thought of home... he thought of Home. He thought of Zanarkand, the last place he would see...
Braska had a guardian. But no guide, nothing but the compass of his heart, that turned inevitably to a small house near the temple. His heart would lead him back to Bevelle— and there it would bid him stay.
It was all leading to Zanarkand...
He remembered a rumour, a whisper. Zanarkand, and a madman, touched by Sin. He remembered the feel of a vast pattern of light seeping slowly through this soul, closing its net about him, a hand constricting about his heart.
He motioned for Auron to follow him to the holding cells.
Braska lay awake, eyes wide, taking in the vast open heavens above him, star-strewn and spectacular. He had not seen open skies like this since... But it was much colder here, the cold as familiar as the vista above him, but the two—the chill, the open sky—each resonated with a different memory, merging sickeningly like a discordant melody.
He felt her absence like a stone in his heart, directionless twin to the pull that was Yuna's; Yuna, his lodestone, pointing him ever homeward.
And he felt, too, the absence of the hymn, of the pyreflies threaded with it. The press of energies, heavy and expectant. Gone.
Open. It was so open here. So cold.
Jecht's snoring really was quite spectacular. The man was a strange addition to their party, boisterous and wildly inappropriate. Strange and... welcome. Braska smiled, remembering the scandalized looks as their party exited Bevelle. A delightful irony, indeed.
And... he had a son. Jecht had gone strangely silent when he learned that Braska had a daughter. It was an awkward, silent kinship between them, though Jecht began to make light of it almost immediately, gathering souvenirs to bring home to their respective progeny. But what an ironic coincidence it was.
Bahamut... what do you want of me?
Jecht snored again, a stuttering snort-honk that stretched Braska's lips into a grin. He turned to look at Jecht, and saw Auron across from him, glaring at the huddle of blankets. Auron caught his eyes, vastly irritated, and Braska's throat stuck on an almost-familiar moment as Auron turned pointedly away— from Jecht, and not from Braska. Braska could see that his shoulders remained tense, the same hard line that echoed down his memory, frame stiff and breathing unnecessarily loud.
Braska chuckled softly to himself. It would be an interesting journey.
And the first stop... Macalania.
He hadn't been back there since he'd left it as a boy, lost and dazed and dreaming.
They ran into their first fiends on the high-paths of Macalania Wood, a flock of Evil Eyes. The clutch flapped out of the thick of the woods, eerily silent, and Braska did not hear them until they were almost upon them.
He didn't close his eyes in time.
His blood ran cold when one caught him with its gaze—pupils huge and blank, a twisted hole of infinite black, fascinating and repellent, sickeningly dizzying, his stomach congealing in a greasy knot as the edges of his vision darkened.
A strange and lumbering form, orange flashing searingly across his vision, charged the flapping confusion of wings and eyes, giant eyes, strangely sharp where all else had gone languid, fluid, forms and colour incomprehensibly beautiful. Another shape, red like a river of blood, huge white eyes, moved as if through thick liquid, hurling something at him, something that sparked and glowed— he was fascinated by it, arcing beautifully towards him, twinkling prettily at him right until it smashed into his head.
The shock of impact alone would have startled him half-sane again, but the pearlescent liquid seeping into his skin—a Remedy, one of so few they had, Auron had thrown it at him from across the path—gave him a sharp-edged clarity. Certainly enough to appreciate the throbbing pain from where it had hit him.
And enough to see Jecht: Jecht, over his initial confusion and fighting hard, grinning; Jecht shooting the fiends down with his blitzball, expert ricochets taking them out in twos and threes; Jecht darting and kicking and flipping.
It was over before Braska had even recovered enough to participate.
Braska thought very hard about that Remedy, about Jecht's quicksilver feet and hands, as he healed a bite on Auron's arm. Auron, precise and graceful, but not as fast, bitten by one of the fiends as it darted away, flapping slither-quick. Jecht bragged, strident and good-natured, as Braska concentrated.
Braska sat still a few moment longer after he finished his healing, replaying the brief battle in his mind. Gauging his strength after the healing. And tallying his money and the supplies the temple had grudgingly provided them.
"Jecht," he called softly.
"And you shoulda seen your face when it bit— huh?" Jecht's head swiveled belatedly, body following a beat later to face Braska. Auron shot Braska a look behind Jecht's back, conveying his annoyance with a tense crackle in his rust-amber eyes. Braska shook his head fractionally, turning his attention back to Jecht.
"I'm glad to have you as a guardian, Jecht. You're very fast."
"Damn straight," Jecht agreed, cheerful, palming his ball absently.
Braska regarded him, resting a hand under his chin in contemplation. Jecht shifted his weight, waiting hip-cocked. Braska watched him, gauging his balance—excellent, even though he knew Jecht was not really quite sober...
As Braska's silence stretched, Jecht began to shuffle his ball from hand to hand, passing it in a slide across his forearm to pop it with an elbow and catch it again. A difficult maneuver; Jecht executed it with mindless grace, a nervous habit in the guise of showing off.
If only the man's mind were as easy to read as his body... Would he be able to do what Braska had in mind?
No way to see but trying.
He'd gotten absorbed in his ball while Braska pondered. Jecht turned to face him again. "Yeah?"
"I want you to start stealing from fiends."
Jecht dropped his ball with a "What! How?" at the same moment as Auron erupted to his feet, sputtering in protest. Braska held up a hand to forestall Auron, but he burst out anyway, "My lord!"
Braska answered Auron first. "It's perfectly safe, Auron. There is no fiend-taint, and no difference between something stolen from a fiend and something bought in a store." He had learned such simple truths, among the Al Bhed.
"Yeah, but it's not like the things have pockets!" Jecht bid for his answer again. "What d'you want me to do, pick a hole and stick my hand in?"
Braska's mouth twitched. "No. I will explain. My wife taught me." The twitch developed into a full smile, sad-sweet and strange on his face, when Auron's eyes widened. "But I'm not very good at it. Not fast enough." Braska looked pointedly at Jecht again.
"Huh." Jecht grunted. "So, sure, I'm fast, but what the hell do I do?"
Braska closed his eyes, trying to remember exactly: a smiling voice whispering in his ear, hands guiding his over the day-torpid body of a desert fiend, seeking the soul-scraps, the splinters of memory, that it still clung to, that gave it shape, that it remembered muzzily through a haze of blood and hatred.... His fellow priests might say it took a certain faithlessness to steal from friends. The Al Bhed... they would say it took a lot of faith. Faith that the fiend had been human. That something human remained in them. That this world wasn't all full of pain and dying, that even fiends clutched some sweet precious secrets to themselves.
Of course, if you thought nothing good would come of it, then nothing good would. You had to believe.
And you had to be really, really fast.
"Fiends are made from pyreflies, mostly from unsent souls, that are angry or frightened or envious in death," he began.
"Uh-huh," Jecht nodded. "I got that much."
"Yes. Have you ever wondered what gives a fiend its shape? Why some are alike, some different?" Braska included Auron in his question, turning to take him in as well.
Auron frowned, but said nothing. Jecht scratched his head, voice slow with thought. "Now that ya mention it, never did, I guess."
"Pyreflies need something to hold onto to give them shape. A memory, a feeling." Braska cupped his hands, as if holding together something small. "In the simplest terms... fiends are given shape by the memories of the people they were once part of. They remember pieces of themselves. If you give the pyreflies a reason to, they can give shape to those pieces, too. These can be mementos from their lives, the last thing they saw before dying, or something they dreamt once... Not always useful. But often such things can contribute to our funds or supplies."
"Huh," Jecht grunted again. "Okay... so what do I do?"
"Touch them. The pyreflies are bound strongly in a fiend. They need a strong connection like touch to become anything else." Braska paused, wondering how much to tell Jecht. "Then, when you touch them... open your mind. Let the pyreflies feel your need and find something in the fiend that will meet it."
Jecht gave him a dubious look. "Open my mind. Right." Auron's own look, from over Jecht's shoulder, was nearly as doubtful. "I'll give it a shot, sure."
Jecht tried it several times that day.
It did not go well.
But after a week and a lot of swearing, Jecht crowed fit to wake the dead as he scrabbled away clutching a vial of gossamer-strands, white blizzard in a bottle, an Artic Wind, and Jecht was laughing even as the cold of it burnt his fingers raw.
Braska explained to him later as he expended a Cure to heal the near-frostbite that he had rather hoped for this plan to conserve his magical resources as well as their material supplies.
Next time, Jecht stole a Soft and three powerful Potions.
He still wasn't a very good fiend-thief, not like most of the Al Bhed Braska had known. One had to believe very hard, every time... in the memories of the fiends, in one's own ability, in the fairness and grace of the world... Braska suspected Jecht suffered from a niggling disbelief, an unwillingness to empathize... But he made an effort of it, and supplemented their supplies on an irregular but welcome basis.
And Auron looked at him with a little less disdain in his eyes, and Braska smiled to himself.
Braska stared once more at the open, empty night. It was strange, not having Bahamut looking over his shoulder, not feeling the erratic resonance of Bahamut's approval or frustration in his bones. He felt hollow. Who was he, to speak of faith to Jecht...?
Perhaps that was why he slept so poorly.
Braska sat up. Auron was facing away from the fire, not letting it blind him to the darkness, staring out into the fiend-filled night. Their encounters had proven that they'd left the safer reaches of Bevelle far behind, and Braska slept with but one guardian at his hand. The other stood watch.
Braska rolled off his sleeping mat and went to join Auron. Auron glanced towards him at the noise, then resumed his stern perusal.
They sat in silence for a time. Braska, sleepless, let his mind wander. Perhaps it would settle on what was keeping him awake.
The night was cool; soon they would leave the Wood and the nights would become glacial and empty. But now the faint music of the Wood sprites trickled among the crystalline trees. A soothing, melancholy place.
So why could it not lull him...
Auron stirred beside them. "My lord," he murmured in an undertone, "look." Braska focused on the edge of the clearing, and saw two eyes reflecting the firelight back at him. "It's not a fiend," Auron said curiously. "It's not attacking us."
"There must not be many fiends around here tonight, for a wood creature to come out."
Auron hummed a low agreement, continuing to scan the area anyway. He stopped his round again, and Braska turned to see what it was this time.
Auron was looking at Jecht: burrowed under his blankets, liquor jug clasped close to his chest, as if it offered him some sort of protection. Braska said nothing, watching as Auron's eyes lingered for a few seconds more, as his brows drew together. And as he shook his gaze away and took up a methodic scan of the wood's edge once more.
The silence stretched. Braska's thoughts felt vague and scattered. He should sleep, truly...
"My lord." Auron's interruption this time was in a tone not unlike his last, as if noting a strange and distant possibility of danger. Braska turned to face him. "My lord, why do you tolerate his drinking?"
Braska closed his eyes, trying to marshal the fluid matter of his mind. Do I tolerate or forgive? And then, floating up in a bubble of disorienting lucidity, Forgive me... Braska blinked his eyes open, shaking his head slightly. An answer, the right answer, reflected in the night-open mirror of his mind, came to him as if summoned by his vague disjointed thoughts. "Jecht is in pain, Auron. He's grieving." And what pain am I in..?
Auron's jaw muscles moved, as if chewing over this answer. Auron had little patience for excuses, Braska knew. Only reasons. Braska let him think over the answer and see it for the latter.
After a long silence, Auron spoke again. "Can he not... find a better way?" His voice was soft, still with an edge of tightness. Seeking sympathy inside himself, Braska judged. Finding only a measure.
"Do you think we know all about grieving, you and I?" Braska's tone went wry. He paused, letting his mouth relax, his next words spoken low and serious. "We never learn the right way to grieve, Auron. We can only learn to recognize the wrong ways."
Auron stared at him.
"I'm not perfect, Auron." He had meant a wry, admonishing amusement. It came out too sharp— did he strike too close to his own center? Forgive me...
Auron started and glanced away, as though shamed.
Braska cringed. "Auron, I'm sorry."
"No, my lord, I... I must apologize. For— I don't understand him. I— I will try."
Braska looked once more towards the form huddled by the fire. I don't understand either. We never learn the right way...
"Thank you, Auron." Braska sat beside him for some time still before retiring back to his mat, reaching for sleep that would not come.
It was after they were attacked by a horde of Murrussu that Auron made a first grudging overture. Being Auron, it was in the form of sword training. But it was a start.
It had been a hard battle. Jecht had begun it with what was becoming his usual fierce cheer at fiend-fighting. It had drained quickly away as his ball bounced uselessly off the tough crystalline hides, drained away to be replaced with consternation and a strange lost look that Braska couldn't place at the time, being up to his elbows in a desperate barrage of protective spells to ward against the fiends' vicious tackles. And then— Auron had been everywhere, graceful, fluid motions growing jerky as he tired. And Jecht, recovered from his dismay, stealing for all he was worth—which would not have been much, to an Al Bhed, but Braska was infinitely grateful as powerful Potions materialized in Jecht's hands, as Jecht threw them at Auron, as Auron's coat was soaked, as Jecht cut his hands on the brutal, beautiful, crystalline horrors, reaching again and again to pluck out the dreams of desperate need.
And then they had stood panting, shimmering still with the wane of Braska's spells. It had been a near thing, uncomfortably near.
And Jecht had collapsed. An alarming, boneless lack of grace, a puppet with cut strings.
Braska ran to him, ignored the bleeding hands, and felt for the true hurt, felt it, felt it inside: blood. Jecht was bleeding inside, must have been bleeding inside for most of the battle, must have been tackled early on and had persisted by sheer doggedness. Blood inside, blood that no longer pumped but dribbled. Because Jecht's heart had stopped.
It was beyond a Cure.
But not beyond a Lifecast.
Braska took a deep breath, willing himself to calm. Closed his eyes. He could sense the mass of pyreflies around them, from the slain Murrussu. And he called on every one of them, drew them to him, reached inside himself for a spark of life, reached for every memory of Jecht he could find—every memory: smiling, laughing, joking, drinking, hollering, snoring, staring into the campfire and thinking of Tidus—all across the too-short time—too few, too few shared moments, and Braska pulled out strands of himself, strands of their strange and silent kinship: how much he missed Yuna, how lost he felt, how he was afraid, and angry— dangerous, to throw so much of himself into the spell, but it was all he had, and he wrenched it all together, wove of it a net, a shelter, a splint, a splinter of light to drive into Jecht's stalled heart.
And he threw it over Jecht, a mesh of memories, a lacework of light tracing every nerve, and he drove the node, the life-spark, into Jecht's heart. And felt it shudder to life under his hands.
In that moment, they shared a shard of life.
And Braska felt beneath him a yawning gulf open as their hearts beat together, pounding out a horrible discordant resonance.
And then the Lifecast passed, and Jecht breathed his own breath, and Braska's heartbeat thudded hollowly in his chest, alone. It had not been like any Lifecast he had done before. The expected strange, intimate moment of shared-life— something had been different.
But Jecht was alive. And moaning prodigiously.
"Please don't do that again," Braska said mildly.
Jecht shook his head, waving a hand in acknowledgement, concentrating instead on enjoying his revival hangover. Auron gave him a sour look, but tossed him a Potion of his own. Jecht knocked it back in one swallow with a hand-flop of thanks.
At the very next town—a painfully small clutch of shacks on the border of the Wood—Auron lingered at the market, eyeing the paltry selection of weaponry with his swordsman's sharp eye. In the end he chose a broadsword, heavy and sturdy. Jecht's attention had wandered, ignoring the apparently routine task of a swordsman upgrading his arms. But Braska had seen Auron's blades: slim, long-hilted, one-edged. He saw Auron's eyes flicking towards Jecht, too, taking his measure. And when Auron made his choice, Braska touched him on the shoulder and reached into his own purse, their pilgrimage funds, to pay.
Auron carried the new sword himself until they passed out of the village.
Then he cleared his throat uncomfortably and jerked around to face Jecht. "We need another swordsman."
Jecht blinked at him. "What, you getting jealous?" Braska was learning to read him better: at a loss, Jecht had reverted to leaning on his blitzball career.
Braska settled down to watch the exchange, brows furrowed over intent eyes.
Auron jerked his head in a tense, exasperated denial. "Lord Braska had to revive you. We can't afford your carelessness."
Jecht quirked a brow at him, leaning his ball against a hip. "Anyone ever told you you got a gift for persuading people?"
Auron's hands tensed dangerously at his side. His face went stiff, and his expression slowly acquired a rather stuffed quality. Braska decided to come to Auron's rescue. It had been enough, for now, that Auron had tried.
"Jecht," he said softly. "It would be an asset to have another swordsman. Many fiends are hard to kill with anything but a sword. And we are going to Macalania Lake, where there are many Mafdet, and they are even worse than the Murussu."
Jecht's eyes met his. And Braska understood, in a small flash, what Jecht's lost expression had meant then, when his hard-won skills had proven useless. It was the only thing he knew, the only way Jecht related to the world around him. And for a moment, it had been worth nothing.
An echo of that same frightened, lost man stared out of Jecht's eyes at Braska now.
And then the echo was gone. Or— not gone. Accepted. Shouldered. By the time Jecht had turned to face Auron once more, the easy grin was back in place.
"Hell, all right."
Braska sat patiently and watched as Auron handed him the sword, hovering an edgy arms-reach away as he instructed Jecht on how to hold it, how to position it diagonally across his body in defense, how to strike.
It was a short first lesson. But it was a start.
Braska lay awake again, staring at the sky, sleepless.
He felt... like he had done a long healing, over the last few weeks. Auron and Jecht. It felt right, this slow growth of understanding.
Bahamut, what do you want of me..?
Had it been easier in Bevelle? Where he could look around and say, Whatever I believe, it is not this. No patterns of sun-hard light on sun-warm stone, no guidance but what came from his own heart, out here. He had learned to trust it, once, among the empty sands of the desert.
So what was this strange tug, this little hollow in his heart that felt like it could swallow him whole?
It felt like it had roots somewhere near where he reached for his white magics. Close to where he had prayed from, long ago. A thirst he had used to address with atonement, when he had been a boy, an acolyte-priest...
Was he a healer? A priest?
Merely a man, fumbling for something he didn't understand.
Where had he lost his faith? It had begun with machina in the temple, with learning he was raw and unready, with reaching beyond the teachings to find the truths below the lies. Had her death been the final blow?
No. Her life had been.
Life... I dream of life...
Braska shook his head, to clear it. Perhaps the answers really were out here, beyond the reaches of Bevelle. If he only knew what question he was asking.
He smothered a snort. A summoner on pilgrimage, having a crisis of faith. Oh, if the maesters only knew.
He turned to sleep, and dreamed of nothing at all.
Braska had been mulling subconsciously over the problem for some time before the realization hit him with a slight jolt as he watched Jecht making inappropriate remarks in return for the woman's thanks, Auron standing a distance between Braska and the other guardian, looking impatient and exasperated.
Jecht was a man used to being admired, Braska knew. The small likenesses in mannerism, translating haltingly across cultures, had long coalesced into a deduction. He had seen some few men like that.
He thought involuntarily of Zakel.
He watched Jecht, the easy way he treated with the woman; the woman clutching her half-grown son to her side, gratitude bright and sharp in her face.
Jecht ambled towards Braska, kicking his blitzball lightly before him, hefting his sword effortlessly over both shoulders, earning a frown from Auron. He grinned wide. "Too easy! That fiend was nothing. Bet if that woman had stopped screaming long enough she coulda taken it herself." But Braska watched Jecht glow a little, lit by the woman's effusive praise and thanks, a little surer of his place in the world.
"Was that why you insisted on showing off?" Auron's shoulders were as tense as his voice.
Jecht kicked his ball around deftly in a fit of enthusiasm, Auron's biting tone sliding off his shoulders. His grin widened as he shot back. "Jealous."
Auron emitted a strangled hmph! of indignation and marched stiffly to stand by Braska where he was resting against an outcropping of rock. Braska's role in the battle had been largely auxiliary: a few hasty protection spells, nothing even worth healing. Auron still glittered faintly with protective magics, seeming to reflect his prickly interior. The fading iridescent radius fell short of the usual distance he kept around himself, Braska noted. Can't Protect you from yourself, Auron.
He waited to see if Auron would voice the habitual irritated complaint. The man seethed in silence for some time, holding his temper in check longer than Braska had expected. Braska was considering taking the initiative when Auron finally spoke. "He delays us, stopping to show off every chance he gets." His lips were tight, voice stiff.
Do you wish our journey's end come sooner, Auron? But Braska smiled slightly, watching Jecht juggling the ball expertly with his knees, his toes, his head. In his element, almost; no water here, and an admiring crowd of two. Aloud, he said, "Auron, Jecht is not from here. He comes from a place free from Sin. He's as lost here as we once were." And Braska looked Auron in the eyes, direct and open, calling forth the silent kinship of their bond. Auron shifted uncomfortably, but held Braska's gaze in a misery of unwanted understanding. Braska closed his eyes at length, turning away, and his smile grew. "And he does what he believes is right, Auron. He likes helping people, have you noticed?" After that exchange, Braska felt he need not remind Auron that he should feel a certain sympathy for doing the right, if unpopular, thing. Instead he watched Jecht gather up his weapons with careless ease. Yes, Jecht liked helping people. He liked the reaction it got.
But Braska had realized, had a hunch, that there was something new and pleasant to Jecht in the reactions of the folk of Spira: naked gratitude, honest and complicated. Jecht had talked of hordes of screaming fans. Fans, Braska thought. No fans, here. Lives saved, hearts spared.
Braska imagined that Jecht rather liked being a real hero.
They had crossed the Lake.
Only the canyon left, too treacherous to attempt at night. Past the icy gulch lay the Temple, and Braska woke in fits during the night. When he woke once more as Jecht and Auron changed watch, he gave up, sitting up and huddling closer to the fire. Jecht had taken first watch, and Braska remembered the muted, mulish respect in Auron's eyes. Little trace of that now as Auron took his place facing the night, shaking himself from sleep to alertness.
Braska faced the night, too, turning to where the Temple lay, knowing the direction in his heart, in the memory of his bones. Another lodestone, hanging beside Yuna's. He had roots here...
This had been the place of his faith, once. He had known peace here, a spring of stillness in his soul. His mouth twisted in a wry smile. It would be an irony indeed if he found it here again. And yet... he knew that the answer didn't lie there.
Still, childhood habits... were hard to break. He still reached for that core sometimes, amused at his own surprise when his reaching hands came back cold-burnt. He still prayed by reflex, though what he prayed to he could not say. The fairness and grace of the world...
Love... my love, it was easier, with you... What's the meaning of life? Life, she'd answered. As simple and fraught as that.
We never learn the right way to grieve...
Did he reach for her? Or was he reaching simply for a part of himself, lost along the way...
What can replace a faith that grounded your world? It had seemed almost easy, all those years ago. He had looked at the heart of Yevon and found lies, so turning away must be truth. Oh, simple, yes. But what to turn to, then? A search for truth...
He was going around in circles. Braska's lips quirked.
Auron, scanning their surroundings, noticed. "My lord?"
Braska let the quirk stretch into a full smile. "Auron, did you know I had trained to be a priest here, before I came to Bevelle?"
"You were a priest?"
Braska laughed softly. "An acolyte only. You don't sound very surprised."
Auron pressed his lips together, apparently taking the matter seriously. Of course, it was a matter of faith... Auron, I'm not the only one who doubts here, am I? But Auron answered only to what Braska had said aloud. "You... remind me of some of the priests I've known."
"Aw, come on!" Jecht's voice, muffled by the blankets, whipped out in indignant defense of Braska's... something. Apparently Jecht was having trouble sleeping, too. "Braska's got a sense of humour, no way he's like those stiff jerks."
Braska caught Auron's mouth twitching before he suppressed it into a stern frown. Braska smiled, too, and spoke before Auron took the chance to ruin the night's good record for the sake of principle. "It's true, Jecht. I trained to be a priest before deciding to become a summoner."
"Huh. You don't lecture much, for a priest."
"I'm a summoner, Jecht, not a priest. I don't see it as my place to."
"Right, right." Jecht sat up, throwing the blankets off his shoulders, to meet Braska's eye. "And you don't buy it, either, do you?"
Auron, facing out into the night, sucked in a breath. But said nothing.
Braska looked Jecht in the face. Yevon says your home is a place of ruins, a holy place. Not the home you knew, not the place you grew up in, not the place where you played. Not the place where your son lives. "I can't tell you what to believe, Jecht," he said softly. Jecht's eyes slid away, staring at his knees for a moment before meeting Braska's again. His eyes looked blurred, with tears or drink, it meant the same thing in the end: a hint of that lost man Braska had glimpsed before. But once Braska held the man's gaze again, he continued, voice still soft. "All I can tell you is that I believe you."
Jecht looked away again, not returning to meet Braska's eyes this time. But Braska could hear the husk-edged sincerity when he said, "Thanks."
Jecht pulled his blankets over his head again. Braska sat some time longer, wondering if Auron would ask the question that still hovered in the air.
What do I believe..?
I believe I must sleep, Braska told himself firmly. He touched Auron on the shoulder, and went to join Jecht on his own mat. He lay a long time listening to the dull crackle of the fire, reaching for the whispers of the hymn that flickered out from the temple on the snow-laden wind, as if it held some echo of an answer for him.
Braska left Jecht and Auron giving each other dirty looks in the Cloister. He shook his head at them, smiling slightly. But as the door to the Chamber opened, he sobered and took a deep breath, relishing the cool air, rich with magic. His breath misted before him.
Shiva's statue lay, serene and lovely and disturbing, in the center of the room. Braska knelt before it, and prayed. He opened his mind, waiting but expecting nothing, thinking only of what set him on this path. Of the morning sun on Yuna's hand...
He did not know how long he had knelt when he felt the fayth's cool presence fill the room. Braska looked up to see Shiva, her cold, proud gaze meeting his. His heart clutched strangely.
"You walk a strange path, son of these cold woods." Her voice was piercing. A chill ran down his spine at the brittle elegance of it, the power held within.
He bowed low. "There are many ways to walk a path. And many reasons." When he looked up again, Shiva was gone— he blinked back startled recognition, for the fayth wore the robes of a priestess of Macalania. His hand made an abortive dart at his own garments before he stilled it, reminding himself that he no longer wore that garb, nor the burden of faith that came with it. That his garments carried a heavier burden now. And yet, the fayth stood before him, a woman in familiar wear... like and unlike...
She spoke again, tilting her head slightly. "You are like and unlike the others." She looked away, not seeing Braska's suppressed twitch as she echoed his thoughts. Braska did not assume she hadn't sensed it anyway. "You were promised to me once before, and left, dreaming. You ask me now to pledge myself to you. It has been a long time, but even we were once human. We remember what it is to feel the heat of anger." She met his eyes again. "Your heart is heavy, yet you do not weep, nor rise in anger."
Braska stayed silent for a time. "Lady... you know that I am angry yet. That I have wept. That I am full of fear." He shook his head. "I do not come here to you to seek surcease from my sorrows." He remembered the cold numbness that had stolen across his heart, stolen his heart, a decade and more gone by. A frostbite of feeling... He met her eyes once more. "You have a dangerous appeal, lady of the snows. I led myself astray once, seeking comfort in your gifts. I sought to run from my pain, to numb it away. I abused the gift of my birthright, calling on your power to shield me from myself. You are a dangerous dream, my lady. I do not ask for your power lightly."
"So, and so," she said. Her eyes glinted with an arch amusement, ice on knife blades. "You know yourself better than most."
Braska ached to look away from the bleeding cut of her gaze. But he whispered: "I know less than I should." Oh, he did not know nearly enough.
The fayth bowed her head. "You speak well, summoner. I will lend my power to you."
And then there was ecstasy. A terrible ecstasy.
The flash of light as the fayth swept through him was blinding, and Braska's frame was wracked with— unbearable cold, and unbearable power, with a pressure like a million pyreflies had drawn themselves to him, and his mind echoed with memories, or dreams, of times long gone and a dreaming city. And cresting the rushing tide came unbearable weariness.
Braska staggered, choking on it, and he could bear no more—
His eyes cleared, and his mind. Shiva was gone, and with her the cold and the power and the memories. But the weariness remained, and Braska collapsed against the Chamber door. He shouldered it open and staggered out.
"My Lord Braska!" Auron hurried to him, reaching for his arms, his shoulders, to steady him. Jecht jerked into an urgent amble, wrapping his arm around Braska, slinging one of Braska's own over his shoulder entirely without ceremony. Auron hovered for a second's indecision, then grabbed their gear, and together they waited on Braska's shaky steps to make their way out of the Cloister.
They negotiated the stairs into the temple. The air felt stiflingly hot after the icy Cloister, after the soul-deep chill of Shiva's power. He heaved in one hot breath after another, and closed his eyes, and willed the white magic to restore his failing legs.
It took a few minutes, but he could stand. "Thank you, Auron, Jecht." He nodded at them both. Auron stepped back a respectful distance. Jecht hovered at his elbow.
"What the hell was that?"
Auron stirred, eyes flashing. Braska waved a tired hand to still him. "That was the fayth. I'll be fine, just give me a moment." He staggered a little away from the others, and rested his head against a pillar.
The cold. Yevon, the cold.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the cold air, and shivered and let the cold come.
It was time.
He stood up straight and walked to the temple entrance. He heard Auron fall into step a decorous distance behind, and Jecht follow a little later.
The faces of the people outside were a blur, only their eyes standing out in sharp, clear bursts. Braska blinked in the light, the sun, the snow, the cold. He bowed in prayer. He closed his eyes. And he remembered.
The sigil came easily, hanging before his mind's eye, Shiva's presence full and cold and pressing in his mind. He drew in the energy, drew it in, breathed it out, and through his closed lids he saw the burst of light, and he summoned his first aeon, the guardian of his home, whose song had lulled him to sleep at night years before, and, later, woken him in dread sweat.
She came, and she was beautiful.
She was majestic and cold and regal.
And she was merciless as the awareness of her broke upon him, greater and more terrible than her acceptance in the Chamber, worse even than Bahamut's pitiless observation: waves of cold, waves of time and waiting, memories and dreams and scorned hope, and under and above and around it all: a terrible love, unconditional and unforgiving.
And Braska, buffetted by the blizzard, cold beyond his memory, dreamed or remembered: warmth by the firelight and a mother's soft voice singing a lonesome hymn.
Shiva was summoned, and she stood before him in her shimmering shawl.
Shiva stood before him, and his mind swelled with her presence, gravid with it. He breathed, and felt the power flex within her; his heart beat in his ears and he felt his life tied to hers as a dream to its dreamer, as a babe's in womb to its mother's, and he could not have said in that moment—her diamond-sharp eyes piercing his—who breathed, whose heart beat, who dreamed and who lived. But in that moment of unbearable cold and unfathomable power, he knew, he knew—
He loved her.
He had always loved her.
His heart swelled with it; his blood—born and bred of her snows, nurtured among her frigid fallow drifts—sang with it, with a thousand nights lulled to sleep by her hymn and the whisper of her snow fluttering through the trees. And mingled with his own memories— hers, hazy and distant and full of sorrow.
He knew her, and he loved her.
She held his gaze, and Braska bowed in prayer before her. She dipped her head in answer.
He closed his eyes and released her.
When he opened his eyes, Shiva and her spell were gone and the snow was blowing in flurries around them, and Jecht was staring.
"Whoa," Jecht said.
Auron rolled his eyes.
Braska lay awake that night.
He'd had a splitting headache for hours afterwards, Shiva's presence howling through his mind with all her fierce, silent, pitiless joy. They stayed that night in the temple, that welcomed home its wayward son and his ignominious companions. The hymn was everywhere, radiating out from the heart of the temple in clear, high song, stinging at his consciousness with Shiva's piercing love.
He had no secrets from her. And she sang for him still.
You are not Yevon's, lady of the snow... or you would not have come to me.
He had not expected to find his peace again here. And yet the knowledge offered him a measure.
He had not expected to find a home here again.
It was not the same. The people he had known were dead, or gone, or different. He could not read their eyes anymore, where once had been the simple conviction of a child: that man means ill, this one means well. They welcomed him here with reverence, and uneasy awe; bitterness, in some. Do not hate those among whom you will walk...
But Shiva sang for him, unchanged and unchanging: lullabies for a son lost and returned, mourning for a priest once sworn and once forsworn, come home to her again.
He carried her in his heart now— or she carried him in hers; it was dizzying and uncertain, and he stared wide-eyed at the ceiling, feeling his blood pulse in slow wonder. Shiva covered the warm room with her insulating cold, the soft tick of falling snow on his roof like a heartbeat, and he swam in memories that were not memories, or maybe he dreamed: a mother's heartbeat from inside the warmth of a womb, ticking away the time until the parting, and for no reason he could understand, he felt his eyes fill, watery and tight.
Shiva whispered to him through the snows, shushing him to sleep with the soft snow-tick of her heart, the pulse of a barren mother's kingdom.
And he dreamed.
He dreamed of snow, cold and smothering, his breath going slow and languid with heart-death, until the sun melted the snow away and he could see that it was a shawl he clutched at, wrapping it around himself, shimmering and blue, and frost curled upon his fingers where he grasped it, beautiful and painful. Shiva stretched out her arm, like a feather of frost unfurling, so graceful that his heart hurt, and snapped her fingers, once: the first crack of ice to herald spring, the first fault in a stone that will shatter along a flaw. And the shawl was gone, floating up into the air, into the sun: Braska's eyes were blinded by the hard light. He blinked, and he saw the shawl falling like a bird alighting, falling to settle about Yuna's shoulders like a surplice.
He dreamed of the sun rising, crawling across the floor, creeping hard and bright towards the bed where Yuna lay.
He dreamed of the first touch of sunlight on Yuna's fingers. He dreamed of Yuna reaching for the pyreflies, again and again and again.
Braska's eyes snapped open into the blind night, and he woke clutching his heart, a formless terror crashing cold through his veins.
And he felt it there, in Shiva's song, the resonance across a dream: sun on stone, patterns of light. Bahamut's vast presence echoed in Shiva's, the dream that bound the dreamers together.
He breathed, hard and fast, his own blood beating in his ears.
And Shiva sang still, whisper-soft behind his heart: a mother's deep abiding care, a lover's cruel honesty. The shadow of a smile in her song, and a merciless sympathy. From a mother that never was to a father that had left: a message, whispered in a dream, the only way his heart could speak to hers, when they were dreamers alike, where the void between life and death was thinnest.
Braska shivered, a bone-deep shudder, and forced his breaths to slow, to come deep and even.
He had loved this land, this aeon whose song had sung him to sleep long before Bahamut's would wake him. The peace he had wrought in himself here. He had loved it all, long ago.
But he felt his heart aching still, yearning back the way they had come: Yuna, his lodestone, compass of his soul. And he felt again the echo of a pattern he had drawn once, years ago: a tracery of light, and he standing at its center.
And he had heard it in Shiva's dream-song, weaving the two melodies together into truths he could not yet name.
Unnamed, but for one:
Bahamut was waiting.
End of Part II.
Continue to Part III: The End of All Things
Chapter 3: The End of All Things
Part I: Dreams of Memories | Part II: Waking Life | Part III: The End of All Things
Fandom | Cast: Final Fantasy X. Braska-centric without a doubt. Auron and Jecht, of course, and a bit of young Yuna. Big roles for the aeons/fayth — most especially Bahamut and Shiva, but plenty for Ixion, Ifrit, and Valefor too.
Rating | Warnings: PG, so very gen. Spoilers for the whole game. Canonical character death, death of a bystander with slightly gory detail.
For: darthneko's prompt in ff_exchange 2007 - "FFX: Braska, summoning"
Betas: owlmoose, renay, seventhe, with more thanks than I can say
Total Word Count: 43,000
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.
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—
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.
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—
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.
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.
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...
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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—
Oh, Bahamut. The plans you weave.
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.
(Read the Notes?)