See You Through
"I didn't think to find you here."
Auron was not a man famed for his diplomacy, but even he spoke more sharply than he meant. It was truly more discomfiture than disapproval--he had not expected to find Lord Braska's robes strewn (unceremoniously!) over a stool, and the man himself up to his neck in the Bevelle Temple baths. To Auron's mind, Braska was nearly synonymous with his priestly raiment; staff and sleeves and headdress, elegant, voluminous. Without--well, without he was pale and made of skin, veined and fragile in ways that Auron did not care to think about, though the baths left little to the imagination. He crossed his arms and frowned. Let the other man think it was dismay.
For his part, the priest did not open his eyes, though the water rippling around those bare shoulders suggested a sigh. "Auron."
It was not a command; it was barely more than a whisper of recognition. Auron stilled, just the same. "My lord?"
"Can't a weary traveler soak his bones after a long journey?" His lips curved upward, just slightly, always wry. The smile, at least, Auron recognized, framed as it was by the unexpected crown of Braska's natural hair, his naked neck, his collarbones.
Despite the smile (or those collarbones), Auron was not to be dissuaded. "...It is three in the morning, my lord."
"Of course." Braska raised his hands: surrender. His eyes opened, stickily; Auron saw then that they were red. Too close, too human, by far. Auron looked hastily away, and held his breath. Braska splashed his face before he spoke again. "I'm sure you think I ought to be asleep."
Auron opened his mouth and shut it again; of course, those would have been his words. He felt the familiar knife-twist of guilt in his belly, so he tried again: "Well, you must be exhausted."
The tentative smile gained strength, though Braska was still speaking to his cupped hands. "Aha, I suspected you would come to bundle me off to bed. It seems it took you a while to find me." Surely it was only his imagination, and Braska was not teasing him. But then he said, "I could not sleep. It was... not my intention to hide from you." His voice had gone pale and quiet again. "I thought that this would be as good a place as any for--for thinking. For solitude."
Conflicting good intentions warred within him, tangled with the ever-present thread of bitterness. Auron still could not meet his eyes. He found himself saying, "Then I should have the grace to leave you to it."
"Please stay," Braska said, and though there was no authority in his voice, Auron could only be grateful for the invocation. Nodding, he sat cross-legged on the warmed tiles there at the lip of the bathing pool, tugged off his sleeves so that his coat fell from his shoulders, careful that it not fall into the bathwater. Impulsively he rested a hand on the other man's shoulder, the unprotected skin warm and alive beneath his calloused fingers.
He meant only to encourage--but both of Braska's hands found his, holding tight, as a spent swimmer clutches at the dry and welcoming sand of a familiar shore. "Thank you." Braska's whisper was no more than another ripple of sound on the surface of the bath, and he closed his eyes again.
Auron found courage to look once more at his face. He lay like a statue, motionless but for his breath causing liquid tremors around him. The steam played games with his still form, flushing his face and curling the ends of his pale hair. But for the grip of his hands, he might have been asleep, or--a soul already at rest-- Don't think of such things, Auron chided himself.
A hundred things Auron might have wished to say flickered beneath the surface of his mind, bright and quick as a school of silent fishes. He waited for the other man to speak; he hoped for some word, some sign. Some way in which he could help. But of course, what help could Auron offer? Conversation was not his art, not unless it were over a sharpened sword and a felled fiend.
He hoped his hands might speak for him where words would fail; moving his thumb in slow and soothing circles over Braska's palms. It was as much for himself as anything, to reassure himself of the other's presence. They shared the silence, just so, for a moment: only the soft noises of Braska's breath, and the friction of Auron's fingers.
After just a moment, he noticed that the skin of Braska's hands was still taut; he had not been in the baths long enough to wrinkle his fingers. If not here, then where had he been for the last long hours, eluding Auron's search?
His frown deepened. Braska had been growing distant for a fortnight now. Since Leyta, Auron did not allow himself to think, though the truth resounded in his head clear as city bells. Since breaking the news to little Yuna. Since the journey to Home, and back again. There had been little time for talking, and when time there was, neither had the heart.
Auron watched the motionless pile that was Braska's garb, thought of the way the robe would bell and billow in the wind of a sending, or just the rush of magics cast. It was as strange to see that raiment untenanted as it was to see Braska without it.
At last Auron could help himself no longer. "My lord--what can I do?"
There was the small smile again, self-effacing. Braska withdrew his hands but held his eyes closed; dim reflected light played across his eyelids, and the effect was ghostly. His reply was so soft Auron thought perhaps he talked to himself. "What, indeed. What can any man do?"
Auron clenched a helpless fist. "Braska," he said.
The strained silence dissipated like scattering pyreflies; Braska was laughing, and the bathwater danced around him. "Oh, Auron. I am sorry. You must find me very tedious."
Auron coughed, startled. "It's only that I--I am worried for you, my lord."
"Is it 'my lord' again? I preferred the 'Braska.'" He slid underwater and then back out again all in one smooth movement, leaving his hair streaming wet down his back. "Or is that reserved solely for moments that you think I might be going crazy?"
It was not the humidity of the baths that colored Auron's face. "I never--"
"I wouldn't have blamed you, you know." A spell had been broken; some magic had released its hold on him. When he blinked the water from his eyes, there was a clarity to his gaze that Auron had sorely missed. "There have been moments when I have thought that."
"Well." Auron felt the conversation nimbly plucked from his control, and stumbled over his words in foolishness and relief. "You haven't slept for days now."
"Nor have you! I have not been an easy charge for you to guard, have I? You must be glad to return to Bevelle, perhaps to ask your high priest for a better assignment."
Braska's eyes were twinkling, but Auron was thinking of that afternoon, his own return to the Temple, his--conversation with his high priest. He hadn't the heart to give voice to these thoughts, though; what was there to be said? Braska needed no more burdens on his shoulders; his own disgrace was trouble enough, and Auron would not trouble him. "I would not change my station."
For a moment Braska did not speak, but it was a thoughtful sort of not-speaking, and Auron was content to wait as the other man weighed his words. Then: "Would you join me, should I leave again?"
Something prickled, hot and tight, beneath Auron's breastbone. "Of course, my lord, but surely--"
Braska leaned towards him, lifting a hand from the water in a curious gesture of entreaty. "I still prefer 'Braska,' you know. ...And what if I were to leave, say, by the end of the week?"
Now Auron's heart was racing; his mind careening too, as if it struggled to match the other's breakneck pace. Braska was almost-but-not-quite smiling, that familiar look of his, about to laugh, about to pray. Auron swallowed--afraid to ask, afraid not to. "What are you saying? ...Braska?"
The other man smiled, a peaceful, genuine smile, utterly at odds with the words that came next: "I would undertake a pilgrimage to destroy Sin."
Auron's voice died in his throat; his exhalation a cloud of pyreflies unwillingly released. And yet, once the words were said, he could not doubt them: a summoner. A pilgrimage. Come Sin or sunshine, Braska had always done what he set out to do. Auron saw a throng of faithful and Braska standing in their midst, that robe of familiar reds like a spreading bloodstain in the crowd. He saw a spinning staff, a dance; he saw a ten-foot statue, towering and cold. It lasted only for a lightning-flash instant, but it left him shaken. "You are serious."
"Quite serious." Braska's features were softened by some thought, his smile saddened. He shook his head then, as if Auron were about to speak. "For Yuna's sake, if nothing else--to give my child a world free of Sin."
That had not been what Auron would have said, but perhaps it should have been. He could not meet the other man's eyes, turning instead to the hollow headdress that rested, waiting, by the pool. It was no easier to look at.
"You will need to begin here," he said. Think of the journey, he told himself; plan and prepare, and the rest will fall into place. "The temple here at Bevelle. If you're to be a summoner, you will need to--"
Braska looked very nearly sheepish. "Bahamut," he said. "Has agreed to join me."
When Auron realized he was staring, he cleared his throat. The Cloister of Trials was likely the one place he hadn't searched for Braska, and that, of course, was where he had been. A summoner. "You--went alone? Didn't the priests of Yevon try to stop you? You went through the cloister without--"
"A guardian," Braska admitted. "I deserve your censure, I'm sure. I have yet to go about anything in the traditional way. I wanted to see if I could do it, before I troubled anyone--"
"Without me," Auron finished.
Braska met his eyes, and understood. "You would join me, as my guardian?"
"Yes," Auron interrupted him. "Yes I will."