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Returnings

by P L Nunn

 

Part One

 

Memory of the past. Or the present. Or the future. He wasn't certain, quite which it was that struck a chord within him. Wasn't quite sure what was past, present or future anymore. Existence was a strange and fluctuating thing.

Where was here? Ah, that was a good question. Sometimes, he thought, he knew exactly the answer to that query. Sometimes it was as elusive as the wind. A body could always feel it, but never get fingers about it to slow it down and examine it. What had sparked the thirst for memory? Some feeling - - some emotion that seeped through him like a poisonous arrow of misery. Of sorrow.

Her sorrow. His own, maybe for causing her pain. But mainly hers, that reached him sometimes even here. But it was worse now and it brought him closer to memory of the past/present/future than he had been for a long while. It made him curl up upon himself and sob in silent misery, even though tears were a distant unreality here. But then again, he was an anomaly here, as well. In this place filled with souls who held only partial memory of what they had been - - souls of the dead - - he wasn't truly one of them. He had never truly died the death they had. Had never truly passed from the living to the dead. Had been yanked from the brink of death - - of a dying past - -by a deadman and a dream, and into the future/present that dominated those painful memories. It had been unfair, that abduction. It had robbed him of the fate the rest of his generation had succumbed to. It had robbed him of the life the dream of the future/present had offered. It had left him with - - this place. This farplane where all the peaceful spirits of the dead dwelled.

Unfair - - yet not unpleasant. There was peace here. There were - - familiar presenses. Though not many. The souls from the past - - well, even a soul could forget after a millennia's passing - - the majority of those old souls dwelled in an isolation of time's making. To the newer ones he was nothing more than a dream. A dream that refused to melt into obscurity like the rest of the dreams. A dream that disturbed the constancy of this place with his emotion and his thoughts of unfairness and his - - - spark of life.

Don't cry, boy. The Jecht presence would sometimes draw near, not quite ridiculing, not quite comforting. Something in-between. Some times it would be more than an aura of familiarity. Sometimes it would take shape and the outlines of what Jecht had been as a living, breathing man would appear. Sometimes Auron would hover behind Jecht, silent and disapproving - - maybe of him and the disturbance he brought to this place - - maybe of Jecht for the teasing.

Leave me alone, he would, in futility, try and banish Jecht with a thought, and Jecht would stubbornly ignore him. You don't understand. You don't know - -

Don't I - -? And Jecht would fade with that parting shot. Sometimes Auron would remain. Sometimes Auron would seem as solid and real as he had in that future/present that had become the focus of all memory.

You disrupt the peace. You draw souls out from their slumber that ought not be drawn out. That shouldn't be able to waken at all. Let it go, boy. Let it go.

I can't. She didn't cry for so long. So long. I feel her crying now. My fault.

She's not your concern anymore.

Go to hell. Leave me alone. Alone! He flared outward in anger, always holding to a semblance of physical form, even if most of the presenses that resided here with him did not. He banished Auron with that burst of emotion/power. Banished every drifting soul within a goodly distance of him and was abruptly, astonishingly alone.

In a fit of masochism he sought out her pain again. Sought out the soul deep sorrow that had started him down this path of misery - - and could not find it. It had passed away. She had forgotten him again and this time, when he sobbed in anguish, it was self-pity and not an extension of her grief.

He didn't want to be forgotten. He didn't want to fade away into obscurity.

Please, please don't forget me, Yuna.


Eight months and the world had been so filled with purpose and politics that she'd hardly had time to breath, much less let her guard down. Much less allow the grief to incapacitate her. Eight months of being - - as Wakka liked to put it - - at the top of the food chain in the new governing body that was forming on Spira. She hadn't wanted the honor. Hadn't felt herself capable of accepting it, but when all the people of a world demanded a body take up the reins of responsibility - - it was hard to deny them.

High summoner Yuna. The Lady Yuna who had banished Sin for all time. The savior of Spira. They didn't worship Yevon - - for the most part - - anymore, they worshipped Yuna. And oh, how the devout Yevonites were thrilled with that. She'd spent many a sleepless night trying to figure a way out of the role of deity. She didn't deserve it. She'd done no more than any other summoner in the past - - had sacrificed less - - she had her life after all - - only unlike those martyred summoners who had defeated an incarnation of Sin in the past, she'd had the support of the greatest group of guardians that Spira had ever known. She'd had them to back her up and without them, Sin would never have fallen. Without him - - she'd be dead and Sin would have come back in a decade to plague the world again. They should have made plans to erect statues of him - - but to most of Spira, Tidus was a dream that had briefly faded into their existence and then faded back out again. Most of them would never even know his face, even though his name was mentioned among those of her other guardians.

It wasn't until she thought about the injustice, alone for once in the sanctuary of early morning, that the pain she'd held at bay for over half a year finally hit. It was paralyzing. Her eyes burned and her throat knotted up in pain. She sobbed so long and hard it felt as if her heart would come up out of her mouth. The sobs turned to choking cries that alerted someone outside the doors of her bedroom - - and that someone alerted others and soon there were witnesses to her helpless grief. She hardly noticed them. She hardly heard their voices, or felt their hands. She only felt the pain of a loss she'd held under tight rein for eight long months.

It took herself, immersed in water, in the circle of Kimahri's strong arms to bring her out of it. He'd taken her from the comfort of her bed and into the bath where the sunken pool was always filled with warm water, and waded into the pool to dunk her. She leaned against his stout body, fingers clutching at the wet fur of his arms, trembling and wide eyed and distraught at the worried faces peering down at her from the edge of the pool.

"I'm sorry." She mouthed the words, aghast at her loss of control. Lulu, herself in nightrobe and slippers, her hair as tousled as Yuna had ever seen it, straightened and waved the maid and the personal scribe abruptly away.

"Out! Now! And no wagging tongues, do you hear me."

"I'm so sorry." Yuna gathered strength and pushed herself away from Kimahri. "I don't know what came over me."

"Bad dream." Kimahri summarized.

Yuna looked away, eyes stinging and puffy, new tears welling.

"Long overdue, I think." Lulu was more astute. "You should have shed tears long before this. It was not healthy to hold it in so long."

"I'm sorry." Yuna whispered.

"Don't be sorry." Lulu said softly. "There's no shame in grief."

"Tidus." Kimahri put a name to her pain. She swallowed the lump in her throat and sloshed past him. Lulu held out a blanket, and ushered Kimahri out of the bath while Yuna shed the wet nightgown, dried herself, and downed a soft robe.

"I wouldn't let myself - - cry." She admitted. "For so long, I wouldn't let myself cry, because I kept thinking - - he'll come back. He was more than just - - a dream of the fayth. He was real."

"He was real. I don't hold conversations with imaginary things." Lulu said with assurity.

"If they could dream him here - - then it seemed I could wish him back with enough want. But - - he hasn't come. I think I woke up this morning and realized that he won't ever be coming. That just like everyone else that lived in Zanerkand, he's been dead a thousand years and all we ever knew was his shade. It really did hit me - - how much I'd been deluding myself - - all this time. How foolish I've been."

"You are many things, high summoner, but foolish is not one of them."

Yuna drew breath, stared in dismay at Lulu for a long moment, while the sorceress stared steadily back at her - - waiting. "He was my - - first love - - you know?"

"I know. We all have them. First loves. Painful to loose them. But the living move on. We find new loves."

"Is that what I should do? Find a new love? I don't know if I can. I don't know if anyone can ever take his place."

"Then find a new place in your heart for someone else. A new love doesn't mean you have to displace the old one. I will never stop loving Chappu, but it doesn't mean - - it doesn't mean that I can't find it in my heart to love another as well."

"Oh - - oh, Lulu. He only ever kissed me that once and - - and we never had the time for anything more. I wish we had - - I wish - -"

"No more wishes." Lulu put a finger to Yuna's lips. "Not today. Today I think we should cancel your appointments go out to the countryside. Today, I think, we should go and appreciate the wonder of the world we have and not what could have been. Shall we do that, lady Yuna?"

Yuna took a breath, summoning strength. Another for resolve. Half a year of holding back pain because she had been afraid it would incapacitate her. Because Spira needed her to be strong. Spira needed to look to her for the guidance to rebuild. At least that's what they told her, her concilers both old and new. Whether she believed all of them, she still wasn't sure. It was impossible to think of herself in the same light as most of Spira saw her. Easier to hold the pain inside and never let it see the light of day.

"Not today," she said with a sad smile. "I don't think I could appreciate it today. But - - tomorrow perhaps."


She was true to her word and it was on that outing, in the company of Lulu and Kimahri, that she met Gianni. A charming traveler from the north come to Bevelle to see the restoration of Spira at the center of its axis. So many folk came now, from all over Spira to see the Lady Summoner, to bask in the capital city of the new Spira. Gianni was just one more, but he was young and dark and handsome and had a talent for poetic speech that made Yuna smile - - and she was desperate and determined to follow Lulu's advice. To open her heart for new things in the vain hope of driving back the pain. So when this young man flirted with her under the scowling perusal of Kimahri, having no real notion of who she was - - she laughed shyly and blushed and allowed herself to smile at him.

It was for the best, she thought, to find something to let her numb the pain and the memory. And as with everything Yuna set her mind to, she was stubborn in the pursuit of this goal. So it was the start of something. A relationship with a young man who was as different from her first love as night from day. Dark from light.

A beginning. From the ashes, she would try to let - -no, she would make - - new love blossom and the world would be right again.


You don't belong here. You don't belong anywhere. Neither dead nor alive - - you disrupt the balance. You are a plague. A disease and you should be wiped out as such.

That sinuous presence wound around him, malicious and cloying in its summation of his being. He'd woken it up, along with countless others in his restlessness. He knew it by name, though it held no form.

Seymour. He'd had a hand in Seymour's death. He'd hated him in life and in death. He hated him in the farplane as well.

Go away, Guado. Trying to ignore Seymour was like trying to ignore a viper crawling up your leg.

Used and tossed away. Do you think they even remember you now, the living? Do you think she even recalls your face?

Leave me alone.

I would be bitter, if it were me. Denied my rightful death. Denied the company of all those who died when I should have - - and then to have that stolen life ripped away from me simply because they ceased to have a need for me - - tragic.

I did what I had to do. All you want is a spiral of death. I stopped it. It was a sacrifice that needed to be made.

Fool. You weren't dead. You were reality. A dream made true and they let you fade when you could have stayed flesh and bone and blood - - why? Because it was easier. Because when they went - - those oh so wise fayth - - they wanted to take everything that remained of them with them. You could have had her and yet, because they wished a clean severance - - they stole the life you could have had.

He didn't believe him. Seymour was a fount of lies.

You could have shared her bed. Touched her lily white skin - - and now it will be someone else.

He drew in an outraged breath and let it go in a wash of vehemence that he'd not known he possessed. It blew Seymour away like leaves in the wind. The still ether of the farplane was disturbed by it. The souls chattered like agitated hens. The disturbance spread, very much like the disease that Seymour had accused him of being. He couldn't stop it. The denial. The anger. The accusation. Existence rippled like a large stone had dropped unannounced into the center of it, ripples rolling outward in larger and larger concentric rings.

Stop it. Stop it. Auron was there, fighting against his dismay. Or will you rip this plane asunder.

How can he? What power is this? Another less familiar presence, but a strong one. Strong and placid and closely linked with Auron and Jecht and - - Yuna. Braska, he thought.

Life. Auron said.

Ah, his candle was never fully extinguished. He drifts between this reality and that.

More than two realities. Another presence. A deeper, more intrinsically powerful one than the others. A coalition of presenses. Past - - present - - future. All wound up in one, inside him. Our greatest triumph. Our mistake as well.

Well fix him. That gruff demand from the Jecht presence who fought its way though the buffeting gale of disturbance.

We cannot fix him. He doesn't belong. For him to belong - - he needs to die. For him to die - - he needs to live.

You stupid, fucking fayth - - that from Jecht. This is your fault. All your fault. Couldn't solve your own problems - - so you drag me into it. Then you drag my son - -

You were incidental. He was the goal.

Yeah, well then fu - -

Jecht. Jecht. Please. The Braska presence, soothing and placid, even amidst the turmoil.

No. You fix him.

Fix him? To fix him - - he needs true death. For true death - - he needs to live again - -


- - - To live again. He came to in water cold as death. Drew in a lungful of liquid before he could think to hold his breath and choked and gagged on seawater as it invaded his lungs. Reflexively his limbs jerked into movement. His body knowing the motions to move it through the water. It was cold and dark, but there was a glimmering of light from above. It was often dark in that other place - - but never cold. He never felt as if he were drowning. And drowning he was. He knew the feeling. Had felt it often enough when he was young and just getting used to the feel of the artificial "gills" that blitzball players wore while they were playing in the arena. It took a while to get the feel for them. It took a while to learn to inhale water and not reflexively choke on the feel of it. But the gills would pull the oxygen out of it, and feed it to the lungs and after a while, breathing water laced oxygen became second nature. Jecht had pulled him, blue faced and gasping, to the surface on more than one occasion when he'd been a kid. Called him a pitiful, drowned puppy more times than he'd like to recall, before pride and stubbornness had made him get used to the gills.

He wished he had a set of them now. But there was nothing but normal human lungs available, and no matter how at home he might have been in the water, they were not equipped to let him survive for long under it. He was too deep. Too much water already swallowed to allow him air to feed his waning muscles. The blood - - blood - - pumping frantically in his veins was testament to impending unconsciousness - - and then death. True death.

Drowned.

How ironic.

He had been an uncomfortable presence on the other side because Auron had stolen his death from him and on a whim of the fayth, taken him to a Spira a thousand years distant from the one he'd been born in. So they gave him life again and in the same stroke took it from him.

Correcting the problem. That's what Jecht had asked for them to do, after all, wasn't it?

His vision grayed around the edges. The strength in his legs gave out and he floundered. A great surge of impact and a rolling wave of water swept him to the surface like so much flotsam. He drew in a lungful of air, coughed up water and flung out his arms to stay afloat in none to gentle water. Floated on his back and breathed, miserable and cold and aching - - but alive? Was this life? This gray sky that filled his vision and this undulating surface of water that supported him? It felt too miserable to be death.

"Ha! You can't beat me." He cried out, but his voice was hoarse from seawater and breathless from near drowning. And he didn't know exactly what triumph he was crowing over. He didn't know where he was, or when or if his egotism would last longer than the few hours it would take for him to succumb to exhaustion and sink back into the water's embrace.

A surging wave washed him off his back and he went under. Came up again, spitting water, angry at the fayth, at Auron, at Jecht - - at the fate that had done this to him, disrupting a perfectly good life and turning it into - - this.

From what he had been told, Sin had killed him the first time in that first incarnation of its evil. Or mostly killed him before Auron had come and taken him away from the destruction of the greatest city on Spira. Before the fayth had willed him there. He didn't understand all of it. Hell - - there was very little of that he did grasp - - save that for Spira's need they had yanked him out of one life and into another. Only the second wasn't a true life, because he wasn't supposed to be there - - in that time - - in that place. He was supposed to be a corpse long turned to dust in the ruins of Zanerkand. Just like everyone he'd ever known in that doomed city. Seymour had been right. He'd been a tool. Used and discarded, because not to discard him, would have left loose ends. And the fayth didn't work that way. The fayth, as a cohesive whole, were more meticulous than that. He'd been okay with that at first. Content with it in the glow of victory. In the aftermath of a titanic struggle. It had seemed a small sacrifice to make - - to save a world its anguish. To release the fayth - - all the countless dead of Zanerkand - - from their eternal dreaming. He never had thought much about himself. Most of his life had been spent trying to live up to the overwhelming legacy of a famous father. Most of his life had been spent resenting that father.

Jecht never had seen him play blitzball. Never had heard the crowds roar for his 'crybaby' son.

He screamed in frustration and it echoed off the undulating waves. Land was nowhere to be seen. Damned efficient, the fayth. He relaxed into a slow, lazy treading of water, shutting his eyes and letting himself drift with the current. He swam for a while after that, until his limbs began to falter, then shifted back to the torpid drifting. He could stay afloat like that for hours - - as long as he was awake, he could beat the water. He'd fall asleep sooner or later. There was no way to avoid it, then he supposed, he'd see what it was like to truly belong on the farplane.

The gray sky turned black with night. A few stray stars blinked here and there. No constellation he recognized. The sea was an overwhelming, inky universe that he was a speck of nothing on the surface of.

He blacked out and gulped water. Came back to himself splashing desperately to the surface, sleep momentarily scared out of him. Funny, how he hadn't been afraid to fade away before and now - - now the thought of succumbing to the peace the farplane offered was terrifying.

"No." He screamed to the black night. "Not again. Not yet." It turned into a sob. Because he was scared now, and desperate and fast losing hope. He wondered what the chances of an Al Bhed freighter picking him up in the night were? He laughed. He had too, or he'd cry outright.

"Yuna," he whispered, when the laughter had dried up. "Where ever you are - - when ever - - I hope you're happy. Please - - please be happy."


The journey from Bevelle to the ruins of Zanerkand was not that far a trip. Yuna had taken it once already, on a much more dire mission. This one was in tribute. Almost two years since Sin had been destroyed and the world was a changing place. People were rebuilding with the optimistic outlook that their hard labor might not be destroyed in a few years time when Sin was reborn. Sin would not be reborn. It and Yu Yevon, the mad summoner of old who had inhabited it, would never come back again.

Yuna had thought she would die at the end of that first pilgrimage. Had been prepared for it for half her life. He'd talked her out of it - - well, not just him, but mostly it had been his voice she'd heard over all the other contributing factors. He'd promised her things that she'd held him to, once upon a time - - and then he'd been the one to go. She didn't hold that against him so much anymore. She'd come to terms. With the facts of the situation. With the result of it. With herself.

She hadn't really wanted to come here, but it had been a political move that high minister Draval had pushed for. That Gianni thought would give the people something to celebrate. The ban on Zanerkand lifted. The ghost city that had died to begin the tragedy that lasted a thousand years, again to have living feet walk its paths. The Al Bhed were all for it. The machina that had powered Zanerkand was a lure that they'd been nipping at for years. The rest of Spira was only just beginning to realize that machina had not been the cause of their problems. That machina had helped to destroy Sin, in the form of a great flying ship in the sky. That the teachings of Yevon were not all the sacred truths they had been made out to be.

Cid took them, Yuna and the high council, the leading voices in Bevelle, the city and town ministers that had wanted to make this journey, up in his flying fortress and across the Gagazet mountains and into Zanerkand. They gasped and cried out at the magnitude of the ruins. Yuna stared down, with Gianni on her one side and Rikku on her other and said nothing. She'd seen it before. She'd walked its shattered roads and fought her way past the beasts that dwelled there to the place where Yunalesca had dwelled. And she'd rebelled against tradition and refused the final summoning that would have killed her and merged one of her guardians into an aeon that would have eventually become Sin.

"Oh, do you remember that? The machina came out and fought us there." Rikku pointed, all of seventeen now and filled with enthusiasm. "Do you remember how Auron took its legs out from under it, and then I darted in and snatched the propulsion gear that powered it? That was a close call."

Yuna remembered.

They sat down in the vast open space of the ancient stadium. Debris littered the ground but the airship settled well enough. The advance force went out first, for some of the machina that had guarded Zanerkand in its heyday still operated, after all this time, and worked tirelessly to defend their city. No one had ever told them that the city was no more, its people dead. Its hope shattered. At least the machina guardians kept the beasts at bay.

Kimahri walked out, ever vigilant, at Yuna's back. When it came to protecting her, he shuffled even Gianni aside. But Gianni wasn't a fighter and was not loathe to admit it. He was a poet and a rich merchant's son and he fared better in a pleasantly crowded room than a danger filled road. And since her life was filled more with crowded rooms than danger, he suited her well. He played the diplomat for her, when she floundered. He was tall and elegantly thin, with a neat dark tail of hair that hung between his shoulder blades. He had dark eyes, in the midst of a sun browned face. He was, Lulu told her, a good match. His father owned a large shipping line out of Luca, that he would one day inherit. It was a good match. She liked him. Maybe she even loved him. He made her smile. He made her feel beautiful and womanly. He made her feel safe, even though she doubted he would be much use with a sword should he have to raise one to protect her. If only - - if only he would make her laugh till her sides hurt, then she would know it was all right to commit to him fully. After a year and a half of courtship, everyone thought it was long overdue. Everyone wanted her happy and settled with heirs of her own. And sometimes the will of the people was a very strong thing to fight. She'd let it sway her on her first marriage. What a disaster that. Not only had Seymour been a patricide, he'd also been dead at the time.

"Hey, Yuna, look."

She found Wakka balancing on the arm of the decapitated statue of an ancient blitzball player. The stone hand still held the ball.

"You'll fall.' She laughed at him. And he pretended to loose his balance and windmill his arms. The councilmen moved out of the stadium, under watch of their guards and Yuna moved with them, through a pathway that had already been scouted by a previous expedition, to make sure it was safe for Spira's leaders to tour.

"He's such a bafoon," Lulu glanced back at Wakka under her dark lashes and Yuna thought she saw the older woman smile. They entered the shadow of what had once been the grand entrance hall that surrounded the stadium seating. Most of the roof had been torn off, but the path was navagatable through the debris.

"This stadium alone, was three times the size of the one at Luca." Gianni said, walking backwards beside her to gaze up at the skeletal remains of towering seating. "What a magnificent city this must once have been. All the lore of Yevon that called it a city of machina and of debauchery and of sin - - it can't have all been true, for even in destruction - - there is beauty here."

Gianni saw beauty in everything. Even in ruins.

Wakka and Rikku had veered off from the main group, the later exclaiming over some long dead machina in the ruins, the former scrubbing at a huge metal plate mounted to the inside wall.

"Look, its a list of tournament winners." Wakka said in delight. "Look at some of those team names, will ya." He scrubbed a little more, then stopped dead, staring in silence.

"What is it?" Rikku looked up from her discovery and Yuna's step faltered, something hard and uncomfortable forming in her throat.

"Look," Wakka said, voice strained. "Top scorer in the last tournament they got ta play - - -"

"ooohhhh - - " Rikku said and Yuna knew - - she just knew what name was listed.

"Excuse me." Yuna said softly, and left Gianni and the high minister to pick her way through the rubble towards Wakka and Rikku. She had to see it, even though the lump in her throat was beginning to hurt. She had to see the graven remembrance of him. She had to see the reminder that he had been here a thousand year ago when this great city had fallen.

"See," Wakka said softly, finger tracing the graven letters. "He was the best player back then, too. That's our boy, all right."

"Yes." A tear slid down her cheek.

"Hey," Wakka put an arm around her shoulders. "I thought you was over all that?"

"Some things you never get over, you big goof." Rikku said.

"I didn't mean it like that, ya - -" he said, offended. "I just meant - - tears and all."

"Its okay." Yuna wiped the single tear drop away and smiled. "We'll remember this spot, okay?"

"Yeah," Rikku said. "We'll come back with some sort of tribute. A little wine, flowers - - something."

"Yeah, something." Wakka stared at the plaque, and his lip trembled a little.

Yuna put an arm tentatively about him and pulled him away. "Come on, Wakka, we've got a tour to lead."


Tidus swallowed a mouthful of water and abruptly had it pounded out of him as his body hit solid ground under the water. Sand gritted on his knees. It scraped his palms raw as the surf tossed him violently against ground. He tumbled with it, half conscious, sodden limbs too weak to pull himself further ashore. It was all he could do to lie there and be buffeted by it. He had no real notion of how long he'd drifted, barely able to keep head above water, before the water had given way to land. He had no notion of what sort of land he'd washed ashore on. No real care, at the moment, save that he could shut his eyes and not sink under the waves and drown.

The tide went out and left him there, drying in the morning sun. It was thirst that drove him to move. That made him force himself to his knees and then to his feet to see what sort of place he was. A long sand beach, that rose up to a sparsely wooded barrier shielding the interior island or continent. God, he really did wish he had an inkling of where he was.

He lifted an arm, golden from the sun and brushed damp hair back out of his eyes. Those same crystal-blue eyes narrowed, as he squinted into the sun rising over the ocean. There was no sign of civilization for as far as he could see down the line of beach. For all he knew, he was marooned on a deserted, tropical island.

"If this is somebody's idea of a joke," he yelled to the sky. "It's a sucky one."

No one answered. He clenched his fists and trudged down the beach.

After about a mile, he found a tiny, fresh-water spring trickling down from the rocks a little ways into the woods. He held his hands under the cool, clear water and cupped it into his mouth. He washed his face with handfuls of it after he'd quenched his thirst, and gingerly cleaned the scrapes on his knees. It would have been nice to get the salt and sand out of his clothes, but he wasn't quite willing to strip down here and go through the tedious chore of rinsing them under this small spring.

The drink refreshed him though. And the fruit he found hanging like red jewels from a palpa tree was like some spectacular hidden treasure. He had no real notion of how long he'd been drifting on the farplane, but it seemed like he hadn't eaten forever.

He was happier by far, when he started up the beach again. The land curved and turned treacherous, rising to rocky, sheer cliffs. He had to work his way up through the woods to go around them. It was another half mile of not so easy travel before he could return to the beach. If there was civilization here, it would start along the waters edge, where there might be docks and fishing and commerce. Spira was a world dominated mostly by water, with only a few large masses of land and a great many island chains. All life revolved around the oceans, to one extent or another.

He found it, eventually, as the afternoon sun drooped and the shadows lengthened. The first few fishing huts set away from the water line, tucked in under the shadow of the low cliffs beyond. And beyond those, a few primitive docks, with a handful of small boats moored close by. There was a larger boat at anchor further out, a larger wooden fishing vessel maybe. There were buildings atop the cliffs. Small and thatched, from what he could see. No great city, then. Merely a small island village. There was no one on the beach, so he headed up the steps carved from the cliff face and hoped like hell the villagers held no phobia's against uninvited strangers.

He supposed it was supper time, from the smell of roasting fish that permeated the small collection of huts - - but still, he'd expect to see somebody about. Kids playing, men out smoking or talking before dinner - - something. There wasn't anybody. Then he heard the faint sound of voices coming from the woods to the east of the village and saw the dirt road leading into them and figured - - maybe the town gathering place was there.

It turned out to be the temple of Yevon. Not much of a temple, compared to some of the one's he'd seen during Yuna's pilgrimage, but it was okay for such a rinky-dink village. Built of stone and wood, it sat in a clearing about three or four hundred yards through the woods from the village. Tables were sat out, laden with food. The smell was so good, Tidus's mouth began to water. There were a few folk out, guarding the food from the village dogs, but most everybody, it seemed was inside the temple.

Surprising, he thought, that Yevon still demanded such faith, considering everything that had happened. Considering what the whole damned faith was based on to begin with.

"Hey - - " he had his explanation on the tip of his tongue when the first woman turned and saw him. How he'd been washed overboard at sea and ended up here. He figured it had a certain merit, having had it happen before, in reality. The woman didn't give him the chance. She pointed and screamed like he was a ghoul out of the woods and he had to stop and wonder if maybe the fayth hadn't sent him back - - wrong - - somehow. Maybe with an extra eye a third nipple or something.

The people in the temple rushed out, yammering and looking for the disturbance and found Tidus, hands held out in a gesture of peace, being backed down by a little old woman with a carving knife. The men cried out and rushed towards him, maybe ten or twelve of them, and he thought that seriously, he couldn't have looked that threatening. Generally he was a people person at the worst of times. Generally folk liked him.

"No - - Wait! I'm not here to cause trouble - - really - -" He yipped as they caught his arms and some overly enthusiastic body twisted his right one painfully up between his shoulder blades. He stopped struggling entirely then, going as still as possible in the grip of an angry mob. They weren't much for talking to him, but he heard the angry words: Intruder. Foreigner. Blasphemer.

He supposed the first two were accurate enough, him having walked into their ceremony uninvited and them all being dark skinned and dark haired and his hair as close to white gold as you could get and pale skinned to boot. The third - - blasphemer - - he wasn't sure how he deserved that.

It was a surprising welcome - - in his limited experience of Yuna's Spira. Even from the Al Bhed, he'd never had quite so hostile a welcome. They jostled him towards the temple, the villagers who'd spilled out of the temple making way for his captors to bring him in. In the atrium of the temple, stood an old, withered village priest and beside him a more finely dressed disciple of Yevon.

"Foreign devil! Come to spew your blasphemies here, have you?" the old priest hissed. "We won't have it. We're faithful to the teachings here."

"No. No! I think you have me mistake for somebody else." Tidus tried to explain and got his arm yanked another few inches up his back for the trouble. He saw spots.

"The faithful of Yevon tolerate no unbelievers." The younger, better appointed priest said. He said it more to the attentive villagers than Tidus. Like he was beginning a sermon. "We'll have no more missionaries come to Quisa trying to spread the evil lies of the unbelievers."

"Please - - can I just say one thing without them breaking my arm?" Tidus asked that very nicely, pleading with his most sincere, most innocent look.

The younger priest looked down his nose at him for a moment, contemplating, then carefully inclined his head. "Let him speak."

"I'm not spreading anything. I didn't mean to end up here. I just got washed overboard of the ship I was on and was lucky enough to wash up on your beach. That's all."

"A ship? What ship? Heading where?"

Oh, of course they were going to quiz him. "A merchant vessel heading for Luca - - we were attacked by the - - by the Al Bhed." He figured if these were devout Yevonites, then the Al Bhed would be a trigger word with them. The Al Bhed who were the worst of the blasphemers as far as Yevon was concerned.

The villagers took up whispering among themselves at that and the Al Bhed name was at the tip of many a tongue.

"Attacked by Al Bhed pirates, you say?" the old priest stepped forward.

Tidus nodded earnestly.

"Devils." Many a villager spat.

The younger priest waved a hand and the men holding Tidus, released him. He rotated his shoulder painfully, rubbing at his arm.

"If this is so, and you are a devout follower of Yevon - - then you are welcome here." The priest made the sign of Yevon and the villagers mimicked it.

"Uh - - thanks." If he could avoid an outright lie, he would, but he did repeat the motion.

"It is thanks to Yevon that you were fortunate enough to find this island and not drown at sea." The young priest said. Tidus shrugged, figuring that in the long run, that was as accurate a statement as any. "I am Maester Krevil. I come here from the temple at Theron twice a year to perform the solstice ceremonies."

Theron was a name Tidus had heard. A larger island to the east of the chain that Besaid was a member of. Quisa island, he'd never heard of.

"Is there any way I can get a ship to Luca?"

"If you come back to Theron with me when I leave, there are ships that stop by our port that will make their way to Luca."

Maybe somebody, somewhere was looking out for him after all. Tidus sighed with relief and summoned the strength for the all important question.

"I've sort of been out of the loop - - but are the rumors true? That Sin was destroyed once and for all?"

Maester Krevil frowned. "There are some that say it is so. But we of the true faith do not believe it. The people of Spira have not yet atoned for the sins of the past and Sin will return to renew our punishment."

"Oh. Is it true - - that High Summoner Braska's Daughter was the one who banished Sin?"

Another disdainful sniff. "The fallen Summoner. The traitor to the faith. We shall not speak Her name for she has betrayed Yevon."

If he laughed in glee, they'd probably throw him back into the ocean. So he managed to keep a solemn face and asked.

"How long ago? Was Sin banished, I mean?"

"Two years."

"Two years! It's been two years?" He blinked, shocked. It hadn't seemed that way to him.

"You have been distant, have you not, young man, to know so little?" maester krevil smiled at him. "But it is just as well, for the evil that is spreading over Spira centers on the mainland. They spread lies of Yevon and its teachings that burn the ears of the faithful."

Two years. What had Yuna been doing for the last two years? Had she forgotten him after all? Was that why, after that last time he'd felt her pain - - he'd not been able to feel her again? Two years. Joy melted into uncertainty.

"That would be great," he said, distracted now, "if I could hitch a ride with you."

Krevil inclined his head. "We are finishing the solstice ceremony now, you may join us in obedience to Yevon and then partake of the solstice feast with us."

He accepted the offer. He could bend his head and pretend devotion as well as the next person. It gave him time to get his wits about him. It gave him time to wonder what him showing up after two years would do to Yuna. If it had been a few weeks - - months even - - it wouldn't have been so bad. But two years!

The words of the maester went over his head, unheard, uncomprehended. The feast passed in a blur. The maester's ship would not leave until the next morning, so Tidus had all of the evening and night to dwell over the grand uncertainties of this situation that he had found himself in. He sat on the beach, his shoes on the dry sand behind him, his feet just within reach of the most industrious tide.

Two years and what if it wasn't even real? What if it was some joke of the fayth? Some experiment to set things right that hadn't been before. He held up a hand and stared at it, expecting to see it go transparent - - expecting himself to fade out of this one living plane again and into the other, non-living one. He didn't want to do that to Yuna. He didn't want to do it to himself. If she'd got over him - - then it would be simple cruelness on his part to thrust himself back into her life, only to discover that the fayths wanted him back again in the end.

He dropped his forehead onto his knees, clenching his hands about his forearms so hard his nails gauged flesh. If he bled, did that mean he was alive? But then, he'd bled well enough before and he'd still faded when the fayth stopped their dreaming. Who was dreaming him now?

There was wetness on his lashes and he blinked it away.

Feeling sorry for yourself, boy. Came the malicious voice on the wind. Gonna cry over it?

"Go away, Jecht." He whispered, trying to banish the memory.

Weren't happy on the otherside and aren't happy now that you're back. Spoiled brat. Nothing's ever good enough.

Tidus jerked his head up, staring wide eyed around him. There it was, a glimmering little shimmer of a presence. Like a reflection of a shadow in dark water.

"What do you want?" Tidus asked softly, warily.

What do you want, boy? That's the question.

"I want to know if this is real, this time. I want to know if its just a dream that somebody's gonna wake up from. I want to know if I go back - - if I'm going to hurt her again."

You want to know an awful lot. How in hell do I know if you're gonna hurt her. You probably will, knowing you.

"Goddamnit, Jecht, are they playing with me?"

Figure it out for yourself. The presence receded out over the water and Tidus sprang to his feet, sloshing into the tide to chase after it.

"I'm not done with you."

Laughter. It drifted past him - - then melted away in the sound of the waves.

"You bastard." He stood there, knee deep on the water, took a staggering step backwards as a whitecaped wave smashed into him, then retreated back to the beach. He snatched up his shoes in a fit of irritation and turned to stalk back up the beach towards the village. A figure moved in the darkness, the nervous movement of a man surprised to be discovered. It was Maester Krival. Tidus stopped, staring, wondering how much the man had heard. Or seen. Probably nothing. The shades of the dead were personal things, according to Yuna. They didn't appear to strangers.

"Uh - hey." Tidus lifted a hand nervously. "Just venting a little steam - - you know. Sorry." If the man thought he was a little unbalanced, it was better than suspecting he'd just been talking to the shade of dead man.

"Of - - course." Krival smiled.

Tidus passed him. "Guess I'd better get some shut eye, if we're leaving with the tide tomorrow. Good night."


It was a miserable trip to Theron island. It might not have been so bad had Maester Krival not dogged his steps like an insistent puppy. Of course Maester Krival had no endearing puppy traits. He was obsessed with Yevon, obsessed with denouncing anything or anyone who dared say a bad word about it and obsessed with trying to lure Tidus into a theological conversation that Tidus in no way could have held his own in. He kept crying sea sickness as a way out. He really did want to vomit, after ten minutes in the maester's company. If he heard one more sleight against the Al Bhed, Yuna or the lying, evil forces that conspired to make Spira believe Sin was gone forever - - he was going to slug the man. He really was.

Of course, Krival thought he was owed some due, for allowing Tidus to share his rickety old ship. He expected due consideration. Tidus would have been more than happy to swab decks to pay for his passage rather than have to listen to Krival, though he dismally suspected that even were he to offer to do so, the Maester would still stand by him and spout his opinions.

Four days to Theron island. It was a fairly well populated island, about four times the size of tiny Quisa. There was a thriving port that exported the raw sugar that the natives grew in the interior of the island. There was a temple to Yevon that stood out prominently against the smaller buildings around it. A very devout island then. Figured, it being Maester Krival's home.

"You must come and pay respect to our most respected senior Maester, Charis." Krival insisted, his bony fingers practically latching onto Tidus's arm. Reluctantly, Tidus allowed himself to be drawn through the busy port and into the depths of the town. Not a large town. Not like Luca. He'd have no problem finding his way back to port and hunting down a ship that was on route to Luca. Get to Luca, he figured and he could hunt down where Yuna was. He knew a few people at Luca. A few blitzball players that might be willing to help him out. Most of the other people he'd met on Yuna's pilgrimage - - well, not all of them could be considered friends. From what he'd heard already, not everyone was happy with Yevon's fall from grace. He'd had a big hand in that. He'd hesitated telling his name to Krival, but the man hadn't blinked an eye. Hadn't connected him with the Tidus who'd been the lady Yuna's guardian. As far as the Maester was concerned, he was Tidus the merchant.

Inside the domed central devotions chamber of the temple and the air turned quiet and cool compared to the heat and noise outside. A dozen or more dark skinned natives knelt in prayer around the edges, in front of individual devotional niches. The steps leading up to what must have been the chamber of the fayth were unguarded. Nothing to guard anymore, he thought, with the fayth all gone. No more summoners to visit the temple and pray to the fayth in return for the ability to call forth whatever aeon was connected to this particular temple.

"Wait here. Pray if you like." Krival told him and swept off towards the chambers at the back of the temple. Tidus looked around, up at the statues of high summoner's of past. Men and women who'd sacrificed their lives to give Spira a decade of Calm. Men and women who hadn't thought they could do the impossible and beat Sin forever. Yuna hadn't thought so either, at first. It had taken convincing and passion and stubbornness, but she'd seen the light - - eventually.

Oh, God, he wanted to see her so badly. Hear her voice. Smell her hair - -

"Master Tidus - - come this way, please." A Yevonite disciple beckoned him. He took a breath for patience and walked towards the rear, through the ornate door and down a hall to what appeared to be the temple's senior maester's offices.

There was a round window high up on the wall, but the sunlight it let in still kept the room in shadow. A flickering oil lantern on the desk of the senior Maester alleviated the darkness. A man of perhaps thirty sat behind the desk, his hands folded atop one another, his dark hair neatly braided in sections and woven about his head. Tidus thought he might have come from the same people as Lulu, for his dark hair and deceptively pale skin. Also, like Lulu he had clear blue eyes.

Both he and Krival stared at Tidus, as if waiting for him to make some move. He figured out eventually, that he was expected to make the sign of Yevon in homage to men of such rank. He ground his teeth and refused to do it, not dependent on either of their mercy for a ride to populated shores. He wasn't entirely lacking in manners though, he did incline his head and say.

"Hello. I'm honored to meet you - - Maester Charis. If Maester Krival hadn't given me a lift here, I'd have been in deep - - I've have been in trouble."

"It is the way of Yevon to help our brothers."

"Uh, yeah. Well, I appreciate it."

"I have heard that the Al Bhed are pirating the waters around Quisa. That is a dire thing indeed. They grow bold with the blasphemies that spread from the mainland."

"Yeah. I wouldn't know. I'm just looking to get home."

"Home being Luca?"

"Umm - - Yes." He had never been the best of liars. He had too honest a face - - that's what Yuna had told him once. He didn't know whether Maester Charis believed him or not, but the man didn't blink.

"Perhaps, I can arrange passage for you?"

"Ah - - I can probably find something myself, thanks just the same. I'm a little short on funds. I'll probably have to work for my passage."

"I see. Then surely, being short on funds, you will not turn down supper with us at the temple this evening."

Why the senior Maester wanted to have Tidus's company for supper was a mystery to him. He really, truly did not want to take the man up on the offer.

"That's really nice, but I think I need to start scouting out who's hiring at the port this evening, so I can get a ship to Luca tomorrow."

Maester Charis inclined his head. The man was all smooth manners and unflappable speech. It reminded Tidus too much of Seymour. "Of course, young master Tidus. If you change your mind, the offer still stands."


Being back out into the heat again was a relief. Out of the silence of the temple more so. The street that ran in front of the temple was a main one. It bustled with people coming and going. Carts laden with fresh produce, with merchandise for the market just outside the docks, or to be sold to sea merchants scooted in and about pedestrian traffic. Tidus moved with the flow, avoiding being run over by a cart laden with sacks of raw sugar. He weeded he way towards the dock, looking over the heads of the people in front of him to see a disappointingly few number of masts docked along the piers. Maybe six big ships amidst a dozen or more smaller island to island vessels. The small boats wouldn't be going anywhere near Luca. The big ones - - he didn't know his geography well enough to judge how many possible stops there were between here and there.

He walked along the docks, stopping at each pier, asking if any of the ships were looking for help.

"Nope, full up this trip." Was the answer he heard all too frequently.

By the time he got to the last ship, his enthusiasm had started to pale. He squared his shoulders regardless and plodded up the pier to the rickety plank leading from dock to ship's deck. There were faded letters by the prow, that might once had been done in gold leaf. Sea Hag.

"Hello." He said, from the pier. A bearded, sea-weathered face peered down at him, eyes narrowed in an unfriendly manner.

"Do you need any hands this voyage? I'm looking for work in return for passage."

The old sailor sniffed and disappeared without answering. Tidus bit his lip to fight back the disappointment, stuffed his hands in his pockets and prepared to turn about and leave.

"Yo, boy. What do you do?" Another grizzled face peered over the rail at him. Tidus turned, shielding his eyes against the sun.

"I'm a diver." He said, knowing himself at least honestly skilled in that area. Anything else other than scrub work, he'd be lying if he admitted skill at.

"Diver? We're not scavengers to pick the bones of sunken ships or cities."

"Well - - I don't have a problem with hard work, if you've got a use for me. And I really, really need a ship to Luca."

"We're not headed to Luca. Closest we'll come is Rizna Island south of Kilika."

"That's close enough for me." Tidus grinned up at the man.

"All right then. We don't leave dock till the day after tomorrow. Waiting on a shipment down from the interior. Be here then before the morning tide rolls out and I'll put you to work."

"I'll be there, sir." Tidus waved, backing his way down the pier. He'd found a ride. If not to Luca then close enough to hitch another boat the short distance between Rizna and Kilika and from there it was only a hop skip and a jump to Luca. Maybe, maybe he'd even run into someone in Kilika who recognized him.

Now it was just a matter of finding something to do with himself for the day and half he had to waste before the ship sat sail. And supper. Supper of some sort would be nice, but damned if he'd go near the temple of Yevon to get the free one offered there. He walked past the docks and down to the beach, where fishing huts had been erected and a few women sat repairing nets, or drying fish in the sun. There were a group of young teens playing with a blitzball just outside the reach of the surf.

"Hey, you're pretty good with that." He said to one, who did seem to have a talent for controlling the ball. The boy looked over at him and smiled smugly, obviously well aware of his talents.

"Yeah. I'm going to be a player one day. For the Goers."

"For the Goers?" Tidus lifted a brow. "Wow, you really must be good, then. They still the league champions?"

"Six years running." The boy said and the others nodded. "Will be this year, too. Bickerson's my hero."

Tidus snorted. "Bickerson's a dick. I've met him."

The boys stared in obvious disbelief. "You're lying. Bickerson's the best scorer in the league."

"Just 'cause he can score, doesn't mean he isn't an ass." Tidus said cheerfully. "And I bet you money that the Aurochs take the title this year."

"The Aurochs?" All the boys laughed on their leader's cue. "They haven't come close in the last two tournaments. They're losers."

"I'll tell you what," Tidus stared down the beach at the makeshift goal of fishing net stretched between two poles, they had set up. They were far enough down from it, that no sane player would even consider trying for a goal. "If I make that goal from here, with all of you trying to block - - you buy me one of those sausages from the stand up there at the edge of the beach."

"And if you don't." The boy sniffed, looking down the beach at the goal, then back to Tidus.

"Then I personally introduce you to Bickerson."

"Ha. You don't even know Bickerson."

"You don't even know me and you're calling me a liar."

"He can't do it. Let him try." One of the others called.

The leader shrugged and tossed Tidus the ball. He caught it one handed, bounced it off his palm and into the air. They weren't expecting him to make the shot from here. They simply stared as the ball descended and he lunged up, meeting it with a hard fist. It shot into the air this time, a fast arrow up, then down. He met it half way, launching himself into a spinning jump that ended up with his foot contacting the ball with a impact loud enough to echo off the rocks on the beach. It arced over the boy's heads and bulleted towards the net a hundred yards away. Hit with so much force that the sticks toppled backwards and the net collapsed in upon the trapped blitzball.

The boys stood there, mouths agape, staring at the net. Tidus strolled up and jerked a thumb up to the sausage stand.

"You know, a drink with that would be awesome."

"How'd you do that. I've never seen anything like that. Do you really know Bickerson? You a professional player?" the questions bombarded him. Even the egotistical kid was staring at him with goo goo eyes. The lot of them crowded around him while he consumed his prize and eventually talked him into showing them that shot again. He didn't have anything better to do at the moment, and getting the feel of the ball again felt good.

It was maybe a couple of hours later, when the boys were called home for supper, that he found himself alone on the beach with the blitzball. The fishwives had put up their nets and taken their fish, and the noise from the nearby docks was muted with evening. He tossed the ball around a bit more, from heel to toe, from heel to toe, juggling it with one foot, thinking about all the times he'd spent all day playing with a ball, trying to get better, trying for something - - anything to impress his father. But Jecht had been damned hard to impress. Jecht had been an impatient, demeaning teacher at best. For the longest time, he'd hated him. For the longest time, he'd wanted to be him. Only better. Only kinder and more patient and a better man. A man who'd never abandon the ones he loved.

He kicked the ball out over the water and watched it bob in the tide for a few minutes before walking down the beach to fish it out.

Something hit him from behind. Blinding and fast and smothering. Magic, he thought in those last precious moments of coherency left him. He'd seen the effects of Lulu's black magic enough to know. Felt it himself from the attacks of enemy sorcerers. He went down on the beach, not quite a body length from the edge of the tide. Knees plunged heavily into soft sand. He couldn't quite bring his hands up to break his fall as he plummeted forward. Wasn't even conscious by the time his face hit.

Blackness. Utter, complete blackness. No sensation. No sense of time. No dreams.

The blackness faded to a somewhat grayer shade of the same color. Tidus blinked, slow and lazily up at a featureless, shadowed ceiling. He couldn't quite make his eyes focus. He was lying on a very hard, stone floor. It was cold. There was the swish of robes and the soft sound of sandals slapping against the stone. He managed to turn his head enough to see the hem of a robe as a figure walked around him. He couldn't make out the walls, but they were close. A small, dark chamber with himself in the center.

"Yes. I feel it myself. How amazing."

The soft, cultured voice wove its way into Tidus's hearing. The words almost made sense. He tried to make his voice work, but couldn't. It felt as if his limbs were numb. Drugged then.

The figure pacing him squatted, and the pale face of Maester Charis came into his view. The maester's hand reached out and touched Tidus's face, cold fingers tracing a path down his cheek to his chin.

"He's awake, my lord." The Maester said softly, smiling. Charis tilted his head, as if he heard something Tidus could not. Then quite abruptly, his eyes rolled back in their sockets, showing nothing but white. His body stiffened, and then he fell forward, hands catching himself on either side of Tidus's head. When he opened his eyes again, the iris's were black. Smooth, pupiless black. The maester's hand reached out again to caress Tidus's face. Only this time, when his fingers touched skin, Tidus felt a jolt of - - power. Of distinctly uncomfortable power that had not been there before.

"You witnessed this thing you spoke of?" Charis's voice was strange. His voice underlayed with the echo of another.

"Yes, my lord. At Quisa island."

Tidus hadn't noticed Krival. The young Maester was prostrate on the floor, his forehead pressed to the very stone.

"To reach into the farplane at will - - to pull forth shades from the other realm - - that is indeed a rare talent. How do you come to possess it, boy?" The fingers brushed his hair back, fingering a few errant strands thoughtfully. The Maester shifted, running his hand down the length of Tidus's arm, picking up his limp fingers, one by one.

"Is he mute, or have you merely drugged him insensible?"

"Dr - - drugs, my lord. He had less tolerance for them, than we thought."

"He's no good to me comatose. Bring him to me. You know where. I can think of many uses for such a talent."

"Yes, my lord. But - - but we hardly know the extent - -"

"He has lovely skin. Smooth." The maester's hand slid down his leg and a whimper escaped Tidus. Panic/fear/disgust thinned the lethargy that held him immobile.

"Off - -" he gasped. "Hands - - off."

"Ah," the Maester leaned down, aristocratic face very close to Tidus's own. "He can speak." It wasn't Charis behind those words. It was something dark; something distant and powerful that Charis allowed the use of his body.

"Krival - - get out." The thing behind Charis's eyes said, not even glancing at the young Maester. That one hastily scampered backwards, fumbling for a door in the shadows and quickly exiting through it.

"You and I, I think, shall have long conversations about the shades you call from the farplane. You and I shall explore the nuances of such a power in detail." The hands smoothed up and down the line of his neck, like the thing behind Charis' eyes was getting off on the feel of his skin. Or maybe it was getting off on whatever power that Tidus had dragged back with him from that other place.

"Get - - off - - me." He got the strength up to lift a hand and knock the offending fingers away. He rolled with the last of his accumulated energy and Charis let him, watching curiously. Tidus lay there, panting on his side, glaring at the Maester. The man laughed after a moment, when Tidus did not make attempts at further rebellion, reached out and snagged one of Tidus's ankles and dragged him back across the stone floor towards him.

"The scent of your power is intoxicating. You reek of the farplane - - do you know? Yet, you are not an unsent. You are very much a mystery."

Tidus lifted a hand to fend the man away when he reached for the pendent about his neck. Charis's other hand slashed down, striking him hard across the cheek. Again and his head spun.

"You will fight me in nothing." The hand curled into a claw and clamped down across his face. Pain/power/magic radiated from the fingers, burning into Tidus's skull.

He found he had the energy to scream after all.

Helphelphelphelphelp - - he hardly knew who he called for succor from - - only that he needed it. Desperately, mindlessly needed it. It hurt. It hurt worse than anything he could easily recall enduring. Punishment for rebellion or merely a casual lesson in brutality - - it hardly mattered.

Abruptly it ceased. Abruptly the weight half across his chest was gone and there was a shriek of surprise that wasn't his own echoing in the room. In his wavering vision he saw a flash of red. The shimmering arc of a gleaming blade - - And Maester Charis crumbled, eyes rolled back up in his skull, limbs limp and loose as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. Something moved to block his vision of the fallen Maester. Black and red and almost solid.

Tidus blinked up in confusion. "Auron?"

"Go - -" now. The voice faded from what he heard with his ears to what he sensed in his mind.

"I can't - -" he whispered, body still in the grip of their drugs.

Don't say can't, boy. That wasn't Auron. That faint voice came from the shimmering ghost that was Jecht. Not nearly so solid as Auron.

He tried. He truly did. Got as far as rolling onto his side, before his vision grayed and he lost track of time and place.

Get him out of there, Auron. He thought he heard desperation in that command. Thought he heard a trace of fear.

I can't. You know I can't.

They'll hurt him. That thing comes back - - and they'll hurt him.

"What - - was - - it?" Tidus couldn't quite open his eyes. He wasn't sure he wasn't hallucinating the whole thing.

There was a long silence. Then Auron's fading voice. I don't know. Move if you can. I can't protect you - - -

How had he protected him in the first place? Tidus had felt the force of his presence. Sensed the power behind the attack that had knocked the Maester away from him.

The world blacked out again.

 

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