As the sun is setting, Baralai summons more of his courage
When I look at the sky, I sometimes wonder about the point of art. I have nothing against the fine arts, but what could possibly compare to what everyone in Spira sees every dusk? The sun itself is the paint as it drapes its oranges, purples and reds across the easel of the horizon. It all spills down into the Mi'ihen Bay and sparkles like the living crystal in Macalania. An artist's renderings are but cheap imitations. They should stick to portraits and abstractions. Actually, no, because no artist in the world could ever capture the essence of the man who stands beside me.
The wind lifts his hair and carries a few strands over his face. He ignores even as his topknot is also lifted. The breeze loves him, it seems, because it is always caressing his robes, trying to glide across his pale skin. Isaaru holds his head high and looks at the setting sun as though it's the only thing that could ever command his attention, and even then, it's only because he allows it. I gently squeeze his hand. His only response is that he squeezes back.
His gloves are silk. I know this because I can feel the texture when my thumb moves over the top of his hand. I'm not surprised. What does surprise me is that I feel his strength and wonder if he does more than just Summoning. I have no doubt that he would dabble in magic, but I could swear that he has muscle. Not like Nooj or even Gippal, but muscles like my own. I don't dare ask. Not now. Now he stares at the sun and I wish I could see his eyes that match the ocean, but his crimson hair is blocking them from my sight. I have no idea how the both of us look against the setting sun, but I am certain that Isaaru looks majestic against the pink and purple clouds as the bridge-like ruin faces him.
He will never see any of this again. My breath catches in my throat, and I do my best to conceal it, but it's not enough. Isaaru's hand slips away from mine. I suddenly feel cold, like the remaining light has run away from me and taking the warmth with it. He turns to me, his hair now brushing beyond his face and I can see his blue eyes again.
"Are you okay?" He asks, his voice a blanket that warms my blood.
But, I am not okay, so I lie.
"Yes, yes of course I am. It's just that the sunset is beautiful, like a painting, or poetry. You'd never think that Sin would attack anywhere."
Isaaru's first answer is that he looks back at the sun. "The sunset always changes, depending on where you are. You can never see the same one twice if you are always moving. Yet, even if you are in the same place, it always looks different. Like someone washing an easel and then trying to paint identical pictures that never are identical."
"You will never come back here, will you?" I ask while my eyes follow the locks of his topknot. He would look even better with his hair down.
No. He will never come back here. He will continue on his Pilgrimage and see far fewer sunsets than the rest of Spira, and when he is gone, others will see many more.
"Will you be back here?" He suddenly inquires.
I shake my head. "I don't know. I think so."
"You do not know your own fate. I cannot fault you for that. Yet at the same time, you must be frightened."
I shake my head. "No, actually, I'm not. Are you?" Are you afraid of dying? Are Summoners ever afraid of dying?
"I fear nothing." He replies, his smile partially obscured by a new gust of wind that insists on toying with his hair. I should be the one to do that. Later. Yes, of course, later.
"I wish I could say that, but I can't," I answer. A sigh escapes my mouth.
"It's okay. You have courage."
I do? I blink and his smile washes away my shock. I never thought I had courage. I always think of myself as someone who fights only when he has to and is always afraid, not like my friends. Not like the Summoner.
"Don't be so surprised," he continues, taking a small step forward. I wish he would move closer. "You're very hard on yourself, I can sense it."
"I'm not like Nooj," my mouth speaks beyond my brain and I want to jump off the cliff.
With eyebrows raised, Isaaru asks, "You mean the Deathseeker?"
My eyebrows are next to raise, "You know him?"
"I know of him. He is known as the Deathseeker and Nooj the Undying. His recklessness in battle is known throughout the world."
"Indeed." I nod. "I want to be like him."
"So do many people" Isaaru replies. His smile has faded. Clearly he does not approve of Nooj's exploits. "I admire his prowess as a warrior, but I cannot admire his desire for death."
"I don't desire death," I say, hoping that it would correct Isaaru's assumptions about me. "I just want his prowess. I want to be seen as courageous and daring, like he is."
"You already are. Who cares how others see you?"
I blink again. This time, it is accompanied by a questioning frown and a step backward. "Why do you say that?"
"Because you approached me."
"So have many people." I am honestly at a loss, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I still do not know him, and I'd like to remedy that. "You turned them all away. Was it because they were afraid?"
"I turned them away because they were not afraid."
"You mean they were acting foolishly?"
"Yes. Remember when I said that they acted like Yevon's gift to me?"
"It was not born of any sort of courage, it was born out of alcohol, strong egos, and weak wills. I sensed it immediately. It's why I was harsh with some of them." Isaaru narrows his eyes. "It is the only language such people would ever understand."
"So, you accepted me because I was afraid?" I ask. I remember how I felt when I first approached him. I thought my heart would stop, but I pressed onward and he is with me now. I still feel my nerves tingling under my skin while I feel my stomach ache just a little.
"I accepted you because you overcame your fear. That is what courage is. It is not the lack of fear, but the ability to feel it and then overcome it. You did that when you came to me, when you spoke to me, and especially when you asked me to come out here with you." He folds his hands over his robes. "There is, however, one shallow reason why I chose to accept you."
I think I have a good idea what it could be. I can feel my cheeks flush. Still, I ask, "Why?"
He takes a step forward. I can see his hand twitching, but he does not move it. "Because you are stunningly beautiful."
I want to melt into the ground when he says that. I wonder what he thinks of himself. When I finally saw his face for the first time, I thought I was rendered paralyzed by his sharp eyes alone. I considered it a miracle to even think, much less speak. Now, I am feeling the exact same way.
"Surely you must know this, Son of Heaven."
In all honesty, I do know it. It's precisely why people do giggle at me, whisper about me, or give me extras when I did not ever ask for them. In the Crimson Squad, my looks never seemed to make a difference and that is fine by me, because while I'll do whatever I can to maintain what I have, I consider what is in the heart a little more important.
"I do know," I reply, my smile reflecting the Summoner's. Does he know the effect he has on me? Does he know how gorgeous he is? He is like the sunset, like the sparkling water below. His voice is the gentle breeze lifting my jacket. His smile is the stars slowly appearing as the sun fades into the horizon. Fades...my face falls and I can see only my hands because the only other option is to be blinded by future tears.
"Is something the matter?" Isaaru asks.
I look up. "You call me beautiful? You..." I sigh. "You are..." I wish I could come up with the words, but they seem to fly like leaves and feathers.
"I am...beautiful?" Isaaru finishes, his eyebrows raised. He has some nerve to even act shocked.
"Of course you are..." My voices comes out a whisper, but the wind carries it to his ears because he is smiling.
"Is this why you approached me?"
"I only got to see your back, but I knew that there was something about you, something special." Someone I wanted to touch, to feel, to know in more ways than one.
"What if I were hideous?" He looks mischievous now, like he is joking.
"What if I were?" I counter, refusing to answer his question. I'd rather not imagine him being hideous.
"I would have either charred you with an Aeon or knocked you into the middle of next year," Isaaru answers. He is as honest as he possibly could be.
"That's shallow..." I say.
"Yes, it is," he replies with a nod. "But, it is reality. Those who are not blessed with beauty must compensate in any way they can. That, however, does not mean that those who possess beauty will be given a free pass."
"Something you can attest to, I'm sure," I reply, trying to hold back my laughter as I remember all the fellow Crimson Squad candidates trying to take him.
Isaaru's tittering is lost in the wind. "Yes, and it's something that you seem to have avoided. Is it because of your friends?"
I nod. "It could be. It could be also be that those who know who I am are aware that I--" was the son of a Priestess and a Warrior Monk. Was. Just shy of a couple months ago, I could have easily said am. That same time, Kilika was still standing. Now, it is gone. As my parents are gone, and Isaaru will be...
"You what?" Isaaru frowns.
I lower my eyes. "I was the son of a Yevon Priestess and a Warrior Monk."
"Was. Your parents are dead."
The way he says it is just so matter-of-factly that it inflames me, but my fire dies as quickly as it is born. Many people die everyday on Spira. If not from Sin, then from fiends. If not from fiends, then from many things. Still, they were my parents and I have every right to be upset.
"Yes, they're dead." I say it harder than I should have and I think my eyes are hard because the Summoner nods in a way that is wordlessly apologetic.
"Forgive me," Isaaru says. "It was Sin, wasn't it?"
"Yes." My gaze is no longer short-browed. "I was in Bikanel Desert with my friends. We were training, and the sergeant was giving cards to people who have lost relatives or loved ones. I always felt for people who received a card, and I told Gippal this. Then, the sergeant came to me and gave me one."
Isaaru shut his eyes, but he is listening.
"I didn't feel anything at first," I continue. "I was too surprised, too shocked, and then there was the denial. I didn't want to believe it, even when people died regularly because of Sin. I guess that's typical. When people you love die, you just don't believe it. My friends tried to comfort me, but I refused it. I felt like it would have just made things worse for me. Gippal went inside the tent I was sitting in. I was angry at first, but then I just gave in to him and cried on his shoulder."
"He's your best friend, isn't he?" Isaaru inquires, his mellifluous voice full of sympathy.
"Yes. We are very close. He encouraged me to approach you."
"I see," Isaaru replied. "So, you are in the Crimson Squad."
That is not a question and my lips part because of it. I don't know what to say. It's supposed to be a secret, but I decide to go ahead and nod. "Yes. It's an elite force to provide leadership for the Crusaders."
"Don't you mean to spy on the Crusaders?"
I sigh. "Yes, but I think that the Crimson Squad candidates are being spied on too."
"Of course. Yevon's Priests have never entirely approved of the Crusaders, and the Crusaders have never allowed the Al Bhed into their ranks, even though they are using the Machina now. It is no wonder that Gippal is with you. I knew immediately when I saw him with your friends." Isaaru's head tilts to the side, and his topknot is picked up by the wind. "Why did you join the Crimson Squad? You have the look of a Summoner."
I am grinning. I am not in the least bit surprised that he would be able to see what I could have been. "That would be because I was trained to be one for three years. I can send just as well you could, and I can start my Pilgrimage at anytime. Just before I joined the Crimson Squad, I was ready to begin, but my parents had forbidden it. They didn't mind my being a Summoner, I was among the most gifted, but what they did mind was losing their only son." I close my eyes. "So, I obeyed, became part of the Crimson Squad, and lost them instead."
"Baralai, even if you became a full Summoner--"
"I know." I open my eyes. "Believe me, I know." I look out at sun that is now sinking almost entirely into the horizon. "Now, I could easily go to Besaid, and start my Pilgrimage, but I won't leave my friends."
"I understand," Isaaru says. "I know that Nooj the Undying would never be a Guardian of yours, unless he could find another way during your Pilgrimage. I don't know anything about the girl, but I know for certain that Gippal would also object."
"That's right, and as for Paine, she wouldn't want me to be a Summoner either. They're not the only reason."
"Do you believe that there are alternatives to Summoners?" Isaaru's eyes are slight narrowed as he asks that question.
"When I joined the Crimson Squad, I realized that perhaps people like Nooj and Gippal were right, that there has to be another way."
"There is none." Isaaru says this with such certainty that my muscles tense.
"What makes you so sure?" I demand.
"Before I became a Summoner, I was trained to be a Warrior Monk in Yevon's ranks. My parents were killed when I was fifteen years old." Isaaru's lips press into a fine line. "You grieved, I have no doubt of that, but try grieving when you are left with an eight year old and a newborn child. I raised them alone, but I managed to maintain my dedication to knowledge and I learned that every single Crusader effort to defeat Sin was met with disaster."
"This will be different," I insist. "The Al Bhed and the Crusaders are working together. The Machina is powerful-" But, Isaaru cuts me off with the wave of a gloved hand.
"For hundreds of years, both the Al Bhed and the Crusaders have been saying the same things. 'We could defeat Sin without Summoners giving their lives', 'Sure, we lost, but things will be different next time'. Next time..." Isaaru shakes his head. "It's always the same thing. Suffer losses that are grievous, but always claim that next time will be different." He glares. "There is no 'next time'. They will lose, and it will be the worst defeat in the History of Spira."
"Don't say that! You can't predict the future! You can't possibly know what would happen."
"You want to predict the future? One must look into the past, and I have seen the past countless times. The Al Bhed will shoot first, and the Sin will deflect the attack, then strike back. Most of the Al Bhed and Crusaders will be killed. All for nothing."
I shake my head the same way a child shakes their head against a parent's admonishments. "No, no. They could win. They could defeat Sin and you won't have to worry...to worry...about dying."
"I don't worry about dying, Baralai," Isaaru answers. I watch his topknot sway in the breeze when he shakes his head before looking directly at me. "I worry more about you."
"Me?" I frown. I know what he means, but I am not a Summoner.
He is now a foot away from me, and I am tempted to grab him, hold him in my arms and never let go. Instead, I choose to swim in his blue eyes as he replies.
"Yes, you. I can picture it all now. Some will be disintegrated by the force of Sin's blow. Others will die a slow, painful death, their broken bodies sprawled over the jagged earth of Mushroom Rock Road. They will cry for help, but no one will be able to save them in time. When they finally die, they may end up becoming fiends if a Summoner is not available to send them. Then, there are those who will never be the same. If the toxin from Sin doesn't get them, then their own memories surely will."
I look away. I can't help it. I can't look into his when he is saying things like this. I refuse to believe that the Crusaders will fail because the alternative would make me weep a thousand oceans. I feel his hand on my face, forcing me to look back at him, my lips gumming shut. I can feel the silk again, the strength of his hand. I lean into his touch, wanting to feel it all over my body.
He speaks once more. This time, his voice caresses me the same way his hand does. "And what of you? You could be among those who disappear into the FarPlane or become a fiend." Before I could say anything, he cups my chin. "Even if you do survive, you would be maimed, your beauty marred by the force of Sin's blow, your intelligent mind deeply affected by the toxin. Even if you recover, you would never be the same."
With a quick shake of my head, I pull away. "My death won't be a guarantee, you know that. No matter what you say about The Crusaders, they could just as easily win this time, and many more lives would be spared from Sin. A Summoner's death is a guarantee." My breath comes out in gasps, but I manage to keep speaking. "Your death is a guarantee, you know it, and I know it. No matter where in Spira you end up, you will die."
"Baralai, I have chosen my own path. I accept--"
"I know you do!" I snap, silencing him. He looks shocked. Good, he should be. It is unseemly for me to do something like this to a Summoner, but it cannot be helped. I can feel the tears building within me, and that can't be helped either. "I know..." I take a deep breath, a feeble attempt to dam my eyes. I shut them. I feel Isaaru's hands on my arms, and that action releases a few of my tears.
"What is the matter?" He asks.
"I am picturing you on Mt. Gagazet. You will die alone..." He backs away, but I can still feel his body close to me. "You will be driven insane by grief as your two Guardians fall, the little boy first and then the other. You will wander the bleak Mountain, determined to finish your Pilgrimage, but you will not." I open my eyes, not caring if tears streak my face or not. "I see you...on Gagazet, your body so overcome with cold that you collapse, your hair red as snow as it escapes your topknot, your eyes wide shut as they glisten with frozen tears..." I fall silent. The image is so vivid, that I am frightened, but I still look at Isaaru , who lowers his head.
"Do you really believe that I will die on Gagazet?" Isaaru looks up, his glaring eyes demanding an answer.
I ball my hands into fists and take many deep breaths before regaining control. "If Gagazet doesn't kill you, then Zanarkand will."
"And Sin along with me!"
"You will die..." I grit my teeth. "You will die..." I will never have you...not a even a small chance...
"Why are you so concerned? You don't know me..."
"But, that's just it!" I say with such passion that my own heart jumps and so does he. "I will never know you! No matter what we might end up doing, I'll never do any of it again! I'll never talk to you again! I'll never see you again! " Without even thinking, I wrap my arms around him. I hear him gasp, but I don't let go. If he strikes me or harms me with an Aeon, then so be it, but he does neither. Instead, he answers with an embrace of his own. I could swear that I feel his heartbeat under his heavy robes. Against the crisp sunset air, I feel the warmth and security I yearned for in the tavern. I just didn't want it like this, not with tears, not with facing the reality so soon. I just want to dream, if only for a second. I dream of him ending his Pilgrimage, so I can have a greater chance not just to have him, but to keep him.
My silent tears dry against his coarse robes, and I feel my spine tingle as his fingers gently stroke my back. I can feel his cheek against my hair.
"Even if I did not die, there is no guarantee that we would see each other again. It happens. People meet, and sometimes they part ways, never again to cross paths." His voice is soothing, but his words are not. My chest aches.
"If you are alive, even when we part ways, there is always a chance, no matter how small." I whisper.
I can feel his breath across my hair when he answers me. "I have no intention of giving up nor do I intend to lose to another Summoner."
His answer doesn't surprise me. Of course he won't give up. Very few Summoners truly do. That is reality, and I can't accept it. I look into his eyes. Our lips are close, very close. All I have to do is lean slightly and I will feel his succulent lips. I will taste the licorice flavored Yazu that lingers in his breath. He says I have courage, but I find no evidence of that now because I am frozen. He has me in his dark blue eyes, and it saps all my will away.
"Please..." I whisper with such weakness that I am truly ashamed. Still, I don't look down. "Please..."
"You know I can't give up," Isaaru's reply is also a whisper, but it is stronger. He is always stronger.
"That's not what I mean..." When I see the dawning in his eyes, I decide that I have nothing more to say now. I must do something before it is too late. Summoning my courage, I press my lips against his. I can imagine him pushing me away and even striking me, but he doesn't. I can imagine him yell, 'how dare you', but he doesn't. Instead, he responds, and the licorice is much stronger now that I can taste it rather than smell it. His arms are wrapped tightly around me and I could feel his hands clutch at the back of my forest green coat. My loins ache for him as I wrap my arms are around his neck while my fingers tangle in his topknot. If I had anymore courage, I would undo it, and watch his red hair wave free in the wind, but my courage is spent on his tongue, his lips, and the taste of Yazu.
Approaching travellers force us to pull away. With the heat of our bodies separate, I hold myself in a tight embrace. Isaaru is doing the same. Since the sun is nothing more than abstract shades of crimson rays, I know that people will now be leaving the Agency to head back for Luca or wherever they intend to go before it becomes truly night. We cannot stay at the cliff and we both know it. I look at Isaaru, knowing that I don't have to say anything.
"I have a room of my own," he says. He takes a step forward. "If you wish, you could stay the night with me."
If I wish? This is what I've always wanted. I grab his hands and they become conduits that return warmth to both our bodies.
"I would be honored to."