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How Many Drops an Ocean

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The beginnings are almost as hard as the endings.

The birth of a new Seeress is a day of great celebration for Paddra. Physically, the babe is the same as any other Farseer, save for its hair, its eyes, the shape of its chin and ears, characteristics carefully marked down on a precise checklist for the priests. The status it confers is a blessing, the parents rewarded as contributors to the great cycle of rebirth that has guided their nation for generations. Craftsmen place new-woven garments upon the baby's crib, repeating identical patterns upon the loom, in beads recast, in wood and metal remade. Only the crystal is retained: the clothes symbolize both what falls away, and what will last throughout the ages.

There are rituals as the parents relinquish their child to the Guardian. There are celebrations that last for a week. Certain ceremonies are extended for a month. The previous parents congratulate the new ones, smiling in public, and murmuring quiet words that are sad and sympathetic when they think no one else can overhear.

At first, Caius followed tradition, and only was an occasional visitor to the family until the child's first birthday -- but as he realized how little time he had with each Yeul, he began to insist on keeping watch from the very start. A single day is full of moments that cannot be saved for later. Losing twelve months entirely is intolerable.

Sometimes the baby seems untouched. It fusses, it wails, it kicks its chubby feet and burps and hiccups and smells. The diapers must be washed and cradles rocked and Caius's bandanna gets drooled on a thousand times as the child yanks on his hair -- and as the eleventh month mark draws close, Caius hopes that this time might be different. This time.

But the first vision always comes at the first year, and the child's eyes go wide. As it spasms, stiffens, Caius pushes past the nurse and scoops up the baby, as if his physical touch could somehow protect the seeress again from the things that she will witness. He takes the child out to beaches, out to mountains, out to ancient temples and sand that glitters like the sun. He carries it into the shadow of Titan; he lifts it to the top of Mt. Fairne. He takes it anywhere and everywhere that might distract it from what it sees -- but it's too late. The visions are already unfolding.

The baby never cries again, after that.

When Yeul first speaks, she does so in full sentences. She does this later than most children would, but her education begins much earlier: she has the weight of centuries of visions poured into her head before she can even walk, knowledge of humanity's works forced into her by default. Her infancy is robbed from her; she does not have the opportunity to remain young. Paddra's Seeress cannot afford such luxuries.

When she weeps, Yeul almost never makes noise. She does this in order not to alarm him, but that only means that Caius is doubly watchful, always primed for the absences of sound that are just as telling as the seconds before a Tonberry's pounce.

He hears her distress precisely because he hears nothing.

Tonight marks another night when Yeul has been overcome by sorrow. A young teenager had been taken by monsters while on the outskirts of Paddra; their parents had spoken rashly, tongues poisoned by grief. The Seeress had not seen their child's death in a vision, they claimed, and if she had, then she was even more of a monster for not warning anyone. Yeul had endured their criticisms and offered back only kind words, but now, in the privacy of her quarters, she has let her facade crumble.

Finally, as the moon stretches high into the sky above, Caius cannot bear it any longer. His hands are gentle with the curtains as he pushes into her room. At the sound of his footsteps -- no, even before then -- there is a tiny, choked-back gulp of breath.

He continues on, until he is beside her bed. "Do their words still trouble you tonight, Yeul?"

"Our nation will fall, Caius." Yeul's body is a seamless blob wrapped in sheets. Her contours fade gradually into view as his eyes acclimate to the gloom; she is sitting up, knees tucked close to her chest. "Even more of our people will perish. But this time, the cause of their deaths will be because of what I see. Yet, I cannot interfere with this. If I was not here, it would not happen. If I were silent, it would not occur."

He reaches out; the mass of his glove blots out the light from the hall. He strokes his thumb over her cheek, collecting the moisture of her tears and smudging it away. "I would not protest if you wished to refrain, Yeul. Your duty is to Etro, not to honesty."

"Some of them will hate me."

"I will kill the ones who dare." Finished with Yeul's skin, Caius shifts his hand to smooth back her bangs. Her frown is a dark worm under his palm. "Offer them a different reason to flee."

She is silent as he soothes the tangles and rumples of her hair. Her refusal to speak is the same refusal to yield to his opinion; as always, Yeul will protect the timeline by obeying it, and he will protect Yeul by obeying her.

But the Seeress's duties require a fatal self-neglect, and Caius can only do so much for Yeul when she will not let him deviate from it. He sits on the bed, feeling the mattress groan under his bulk, and wraps an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go to the beach," he suggests.

She straightens up at his words, pushing back the embroidered covers, and looks at him steadily. He cannot tell if she is doubtful, or merely unimpressed. "I have seen the beach already, Caius."

Of course. In her past. In her future. Through her visions, Yeul has seen everything.

But they go anyway the next morning and she loves it, unexpectedly -- the last lifetime he brought her, Yeul had been skittish of the thundering waves, shrinking away from their roar and violence -- and she spends the day splashing in and out of the foam. Caius watches from the safety of the nearest dune, and tries to braid rough strands of beachgrass together. His fingers are clumsy; he breaks half the stalks, knotting them together in messy handfuls. The eye of Bahamut basks sleepily next to him, soaking up the sun.

Yeul shrieks and giggles at the waves, and then she finally comes back, tumbling into his arms, damp and dripping. He laughs, discarding the failed braid without a second thought. She catches it up instantly, settling the tail of it over his head like a broken crown.

"Caius," she says, and kisses the side of his cheek gently. "I am so lucky to be with you, Caius."

She kisses his skin again, just a little too long, and he tenses. This Yeul is fifteen. Among the Farseers, that is old enough by far to start on flirtations that will lead to more permanent dalliances -- but he will not cross that line with her. She relies on him to protect her at her most vulnerable. He will not allow personal appetite to become an influence, lest she begin to fear his strength instead of trust it. Yeul cannot defend herself against him; he will never give her a reason to need to.

"You must save such things for when you are older," he tells her, firmly. Then more kindly, "Or with another, perhaps. There are many Farseers who would be willing to share themselves with you. I will break their bones if they are impolite."

"I will never be older," she replies quietly.

But she relents in her curiosity, and snuggles down against his side. He permits himself a small measure of hope -- there are some cycles where Yeul has lived to sixteen, seventeen, to nineteen even, and each time around there may be a chance for twenty. There is always a chance that a future incarnation will be able to reach outside the tiny box that has been built for her so far, and if Yeul can survive even another year, perhaps she is free to do so much more.

He knows he is lying to himself. For the present moment, however, he is content.

Yeul tucks her feet under his thigh in an absent, childlike gesture. "Do you think I could go sailing, Caius?"

Sailing. For a moment, he lets himself consider this -- honestly consider it, the incongruity of Paddra's Seeress and the Heart of Etro floating away on the tide -- and then recalls himself to his duty. "The tribe wouldn't like it if anything happened to you out there."

She shakes her head, the tassels of her headdress shedding salty drops. "No, Caius," she says quietly. "That is not how I will die, this time."

She is correct, of course. Yeul perishes miles away from the sea, in the middle of a field of wildflowers, when the sun is summer-warm and strong on their backs, and the clouds make puffball gardens in the sky. Fresh leaves stretch out along the blossoms. There are butterflies.

Yeul's visions seize her in the middle of the meal. Caius is occupied in squinting into the bottom of a teapot when they strike, leaping upon her soul and refusing to let go. Her cup spills from her hand as her eyes go wide; her back arches, and then goes slack. She rolls bonelessly to the ground, her mouth lax with astonishment, though the expression is caused by pain, and not by surprise.

Caius kneels, crushing the weave of their picnic cloth under his knee. Yeul's arms flop when he turns her over. Strands of her hair have caught on her lips. The tea is staining her skirt.

He lifts up her body, and leaves the remains of their meal behind.

There is time between each Yeul's birth and each Yeul's death. Her spirit returns to Valhalla, and then is wrenched free to suffer anew. Nine months, approximately, before her next vessel will be born; nine months, and then a handful more before she awakens, and the cycle begins again, to repeat until all humanity has been wiped clean from Gran Pulse and the skies above. Perhaps, even after then.

But this death is still fresh, and -- like the moments of a song between an inhalation and the exhale -- Caius has nowhere specific to be. Prophecies line up in his head, arranged neatly by year and potential. As long as Yeul is dormant, there exists an opportunity for him to act on his own schedule.

More importantly: she is not here right now to say no.

Sailing, he thinks. The word spins in his thoughts like a wet twig, collecting prophecies instead of duckweed. There are other opportunities for what he wants to accomplish, yet -- perhaps it would be fitting, as a last memory for this Yeul.

He nudges the histories around in his mind, and decides to set the tangent in motion.

Bahamut's wings carry him away from Yaschas. He indulges in the illusion of freedom through the abandonment of gravity. The stalk of Taejin's Tower is his beacon through the forests; a few of the hungrier monsters lunge for his form, attracted by his shadow, but he rolls effortlessly and does not bother to reprimand them for their arrogance. He soars low so as not to taunt Dahaka, casts a weary eye towards the bauble of Cocoon, and sets his course by the dawn.

Once the towers of Oerba peep out through the morning fog, he lands, shakes off his scales, and walks the rocky paths on foot.

Most of Oerba's sailors are already out along the coast, their boats bobbing like sullen geese on the tide. Anima's temple juts over the village, spires stretched in ominous benediction over its domain. Caius avoids its shadow, traveling down the wavering coast instead, scouting for the hint of destiny.

The lone fisherman he finds on the beach is handling seine nets: older, weathered by Pulse life, delayed from joining the tides by the weight of a task better suited for two. Caius waits until one of the nets gets tangled up while being loaded, and then steps forward to offer a hand.

He barters himself cheaply: an afternoon spent hauling nets in exchange for a portion of the catch. He does not need to eat, but fresh fish -- less common near the massif -- is a treat. The fisherman is chatty, but Caius, for once, does not mind the intrusion. He claims the excuse of food, then boredom, and is finally allowed onto the craft to help.

Once out on the ocean, the boundaries of the world feel compressed down to their tiny craft. Caius braces his feet against the bottom of the boat, trying not to react to each sway of the waters. A pile of spare glass floats are stacked in a spiderweb of marbles beside him, glimmering with a dozen hues.

The fisherman grunts as he wrestles the first net into position.

"So, you're from Paddra?" The grizzled man punctuates his question with a laugh, his words bubbling over the vowels. "I've heard of your tribe. Heard of you. Legendary guardian, tougher than even a l'Cie. Name's Paddra Ballad Caius, am I right?"

Caius nods, using both fists to grip the sodden cords. His handguards are off, the points an unnecessary irritation. Bahamut's sword is shoved far into the back of the boat, where it is doing its best not to snag the ropes. "Caius Ballad is enough."

The fisherman takes his determined meekness for permission to continue speaking. "You're ruled by a seeress, ain't ya? The ones that're always named the same thing? I've wondered about that whole business, ever since I first heard it! If she's the same person each time, then isn't it just picking up where you left off? Or are they really different people, and you just call 'em by the same name?"

Caius feels his eyes narrow. His face is turned away; in the water's reflection, his own disapproval radiates back at himself. "She is Yeul reborn. Of that, there is no doubt." The wood of the boat's rim feels inexplicably fragile as he grabs at it for balance; he knows a stray motion could snap it like brittle clay. He must control his mood. "But each rebirth is a new possibility for her, a new chance to live. Each one is a precious attempt at life. That is why none of her incarnations are the same. That is why they all deserve recognition."

The fisherman makes a thoughtful smack of his lips, and then -- almost immediately -- shakes his head in confusion. "Like a, like a flute, that can play a lot of notes but is the same instrument, yeah?" His gnarled fingers twitch his half of the net; the knots jerk towards the sky. "Well, I can't say it's something I'd know much about. Anima takes proper care of us, but it's no riddler."

The analogy is crude, but Caius lets it pass. The seine net finally slides into the water, glass orbs bobbing and bumping together in an impatient crowd. Currents lick against his bare fingers where his hand dips into the sea. "Anima." Caius allows his tongue linger over the name. "It has protected your village well?"

One browned shoulder shrugs, and the fisherman bends to working on the next net. "Reckon it has. Even have a son who's going into the priesthood. He keeps asking me what I think about helping survivors from other tribes, maybe setting up an orphanage. He says that the Lindzei snakes won't stop harvesting our land. I think if we make it a habit of taking in kids, all we'll do is make Oerba a bigger target. It won't do any good in the long run."

"No," Caius counters, swift and certain as a gut strike. "Tell him -- tell your son to build this orphanage. Tell him to welcome these children into a new home." Water dribbles off his arm when he lifts it; spreading his hand, Caius watches each drop meld back into the ocean, filling it by imperceptible degrees. "After all, every ending must begin somewhere."