This day's meetings had been interesting, but Isaaru wondered if they were as helpful as he'd hoped they would be. He bade some of the other attendees good afternoon and headed back to Summoners' Rest.
Dee—no, he had to remember that she called herself Mina now—had been cordial to him at breakfast, serving it with the same polite distance that she used with her other guests. Though few people stayed overnight, apparently her place was popular for meals. The only other guests besides him were a Blitzball team from one of the outer islands, the Caska Hunters. Isaaru had never been very big on Blitzball, but the team was friendly and open. They made for pleasant—if noisy—company.
He vowed to find out tonight just what had happened to Mina. Before her disappearance, she had been a popular girl, full of life and bubbling mischief. Isaaru couldn't count the times they'd sneaked off when no one was looking, to find a quiet spot in the woods or on the beach. They would lie in each others' arms afterward, talking and dreaming of the day when they would make their pilgrimages together.
Then the day had come when they both had to face Ifrit, one at a time. Isaaru had come out, shaken but euphoric. Mina had gone in, but never returned. He remembered hearing her piercing scream, remembered pushing his father aside as he ran into the Temple. Only he, a Summoner, could find his way to the innermost chamber of the Fayth, and it was only he who saw the blood: a great splash of it darkening the stone in an otherwise empty room.
Later, when the village had finished mourning, Isaaru had set out from Kilika with his brothers Paace and Maroda at his side as Guardians. He had made his Pilgrimage, earned his right to summon the Aeons. He had met and fought Lady Yuna—what arrogance he'd had then, he thought, to challenge someone so much more powerful than he. She had beaten him, soundly, and he'd known then that she would be the one to defeat Sin.
And then, what could he do? Only one Summoner was needed to fight Sin, and once the Eternal Calm came, his kind were no longer necessary. Indeed, with no more Aeons to summon, he was obsolete.
Hence the Symposium. Anyone affected by Sin's destruction had been invited to attend, in hopes of turning their talents to other pursuits, other jobs that might now be needed. Isaaru wouldn't pretend that there was anything for him to do. He'd never been much of a real leader, like Dona, and he had no interest in sphere hunting, as Lady Yuna was doing now. Zanarkand had been an utter failure…besides, he hadn't realized then how much it would bother some of the other Summoners to see the holy place turned into a tourist attraction.
He reached the door to the inn, hand pausing over the latch. The image of Ifrit's chamber came back to him. Did he really want to know what had happened? What could he do now, five years too late? Would he do more harm than good by dredging up her past, memories that were obviously painful and still raw?
"Are you going to come in, or do you expect me to serve your meals on the doorstep?"
Isaaru blinked. He hadn't even noticed Mina opening the door. "I'm sorry," he said, "I was just thinking."
"Well, think inside. It doesn't look good for me to have people lingering on the stoop in weather like this." She moved aside to let him in. "How was the meeting?"
He shrugged off the outer robe and hung it up. "I don't know. I'm starting to get the feeling that it's not what I need, but I'll stay the whole week, anyway." He moved over to the fire to warm his hands. "I don't really have anything else to do."
She came up beside him. Her limp seemed more pronounced tonight. It obviously bothered her, but she didn't remark upon it. It was as if she was simply used to it. "What about Bevelle? I heard you were doing rather well for yourself there."
"You heard about that?" He looked down at her in surprise. "I wasn't there very long."
"Everyone in Luca was talking about the New Yevon/Youth League cooperation. Of course your name came up." She sighed and picked up some leftover plates. "Sit down; I'll bring your food out to you."
He watched her walk away. Perhaps the change of name had been appropriate: her entire bearing was different. He hadn't seen her smile once since his arrival, even when one of the Hunters had made a joke. Everything about her seemed broken somehow.
She hadn't been gone for more than a minute when he made up his mind. He marched to the kitchen, intending to get her to talk to him. The door swung open on silent hinges when he pushed on it, and he found himself looking into a small, neat kitchen.
Her back was to him again, the braid coming loose in pieces as she worked. One arm stirred a pot of something that smelled delicious, the other placed a steaming plate of food onto the counter. She hooked a foot under the oven door and kicked it closed. The hand with the spoon ladled what looked to be a meat sauce over the plate.
The whole process appeared to be something she'd done countless times. It made sense; she seemed to run the inn completely alone, making meals for her guests in addition to keeping the place spotless. Seeing her like that, graceful and confident, made Isaaru forget what he'd been ready to say.
He was startled out of his thoughts when she spoke. "You haven't changed, Isaaru. Impatient as ever."
"How did you know I was here?"
Her expression, when she turned around, was wry. "I practically live in this kitchen. I know when people come in or out." Then, with a faint smile, she added, "That, and I could see the door open in the reflection on the pot."
"I do believe that's the first time you've smiled since I got here," he murmured.
Mina snorted. "Here. Eat." She put the plate down on the wooden block table and pulled up a stool.
"Yes ma'm." He did as she told him to. It was an easy task; the food was hot, comforting, and very good. "Do you order all of your guests around like this?"
"Only when they ask too many questions or put their noses where they don't belong." She began to turn away, but he caught her hand.
She stared, not at him, but at their joined hands. A moment passed in silence as she struggled with something, then her face closed up. "No, Isaaru."
He didn't let her pull away this time, instead holding her hand tightly. "I have a right to know!" Without letting her go, he stood and came around the table to stand in front of her. "I want to know what happened."
"I told you last night." Her eyes blazed, but Isaaru shook his head and ignored them.
"No, last night you spoke in riddles and didn't say anything useful." A sound from the main room made them both pause. Mina took advantage of the distraction to withdraw her hand. As she passed him, he said in a low voice, "Tell me. Please."
She closed her eyes, defeated. "Later."
A nod was his only answer. She reached the kitchen door, composed herself, and pushed it open with a smile. "Welcome to Summoners' Rest. How may I…" The door swung shut, muting her voice.
Isaaru's heart pounded as though it would free itself from his chest. Five years, and at last he'd be able to put one of his demons to rest.
He sank to the stool again, toying with the remains of his meal. Didn't Mina have a right to keep her own demons at bay? She'd changed her name, hidden herself away in the largest city in Spira. She had never returned to Kilika, even after her body had healed enough for her to do so. What did that say about her? Why had she chosen to disappear, when there had been dozens of people who would have been overjoyed to see her alive?
He gave up thinking about it. Mina would answer his questions tonight, and he would just have to be patient.
Until then, he decided, he would try to make it up to her a little. He found an apron, tied it on, and began to attack the neatly-stacked dishes beside the sink.
When she came back in a few minutes later, he was up to his elbows in soapy water, scrubbing fiercely at a stubborn piece of food. He didn't look up at her; he just kept washing as if he didn't see her. He had bothered her enough for one evening, and he didn't want to push his luck.
He heard her pause behind him. Then, inexplicably, the tension dissipated and she moved on. She took two plates and filled them just as she had for him earlier. As she walked out with them, she hesitated again at the door. He could feel her watching him quizzically, but kept his own eyes on the dish before him. She nudged the door open with her hip and left again.
Isaaru smiled a little to himself. He washed the last plate and wiped his hands on the apron. She'd probably stay out there until her guests were gone, which gave him plenty of time to finish drying the dishes.
"I hope you don't think this will make me any happier about dredging up my past," she said without preamble when she returned. "Here, since you're so good at doing dishes, you can do these, too."
"Gladly." Isaaru smiled. "Are they gone?"
Mina nodded and sank onto a stool. "Yes, Yevon be praised, and I've officially closed up for the night." She grimaced and rubbed her thigh. "Damn this weather. I swear you brought the rain with you."
"I wondered about that myself. I was always under the impression that Luca was a sunny city." He looked at her over his shoulder. "I'm almost done here."
"Right." She sighed. "Don't worry about drying those; they'll be fine in the drainer. Come on, we'll talk in my room."
Her room turned out to be a good-sized area down a narrow hall off the kitchen. It was furnished with a pair of stuffed chairs, a double bed, and a low table. This room must have been on the other side of the main room, for a fireplace was situated against the wall in a similar place. A few logs glowed sullenly in the grate. The one window was covered with curtains that matched the hand-sewn quilt on the bed.
"It looks comfortable," he said, waiting for her invitation to sit. "Though I wasn't expecting something so—"
"Simple?" she said sharply.
Isaaru shook his head. "You don't have to be defensive with me."
"I'm sorry. I'm only talking to you because you won't leave me alone. So pardon me if I get snippy about it." She motioned to one of the chairs. "Go on, make yourself at home. Do you want tea?"
"No." He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees and hands clasped before him.
She settled into the other chair. For a while, she said nothing, studying her fingers as they played with a corner of her tunic. Isaaru wondered if she had lost her nerve when she began to speak.
"I wasn't joking when I said I was foolish to try to be a summoner." The fabric bunched and smoothed under her hands in response to her words. "I thought it was simple. I thought I could just waltz into the Chamber and Ifrit would bow down at my feet. I really did.
"But I was such an ass. All the lessons the elders tried to instill in me, I ignored. All the warnings that Summoning was a dangerous occupation, not a game, I failed to heed. And so, when I finally did go into the Chamber, and when I finally did confront my first Aeon face to face, I was totally unprepared."
"What happened?" he asked. "You went through the same training I did. How was it any different for you?"
The fabric fell softly back to her lap. "You were born to be a Summoner, Isaaru. I was only going through the motions, and Ifrit knew." She met his eyes. "He knew. He could sense it, right in the core of my soul. He just stood there, looking at me like I was some annoying insect. I was so afraid of him then, and the moment I took a step backward, he reached out.
His claws—" she halted, but forged on, "caught me. Here." She stood and pointed at her jaw, where the scar began. "Then I was flying across the room. I think I screamed once, but then I had no voice. Everything hurt so badly."
Isaaru could say nothing, could only listen in horrified fascination.
Mina went on. "Just before I lost consciousness, I heard him speak for the first and only time. 'You are not worthy of me,' he said. 'Begone from my sight.'"
She fell silent. Sometime during the telling, she had left the chair, and now she stood by the window, arms hugged tightly to her body. Isaaru found his voice. "What happened then?" he asked, as gently as he could.
"I don't know, entirely. When I woke, I was in a Hypello wagon. I could barely move for all the bandages, and my mouth tasted like one of their potions. They told me they'd found me near the Moonflow, far on the other side of the world. I don't know how I got there; I can only assume that Ifrit sent me there." She dropped her arms to her sides and gave him a wry smile. "Suffice to say that the next year and a half were completely taken up by my recovery, something I hope I never have to go through again. The Hypello got me back on my feet, literally and financially. It was through their efforts that I was able to buy this place a few years ago. Now, any Hypello who comes here stays for free."
"You should have called it Hypellos' Rest, then."
Another of those rueful smiles came his way. "It was named before I got here. It doesn't matter, anyway. They rarely need lodging, much to my distress. I owe them a debt I can never repay."
He stood and crossed the room. "They're like that, though. I think that they'd be happy just to know you're successful." Carefully, so as not to startle her, he slowly put his hands on her shoulders. He was ready to move them if she flinched.
She didn't; instead, she seemed to welcome the touch. "Perhaps. They do come to check on me from time to time."
Encouraged, he slid his hands down her arms. "Why didn't you come back to Kilika?" he asked softly.
"I…couldn't." Her voice was very small. "I was ruined. I couldn't go back. It was better that my family think I was dead." She stifled a sob and leaned back against him. "They wanted me to be a Summoner for as long as I can remember. How was I going to face them like this?"
"Like what?" Isaaru let his arms go around her. It was different to hold her now than it had been when they were younger. As if they had both become different people.
Which they had. "You have eyes, Isaaru. I used to be beautiful, and I knew it. Now—well, you see this." She tilted her head so he could see the scar. "This is only the edge. It gets worse as it goes down. I don't even know if I can bear a child anymore, not that I've tried."
"You're still beautiful."
"I don't lie, Mina." He turned her around to look at him. "Especially not to you."
"Do you think that telling me that is going to make me believe you? You used to love me. You see me differently than most people." She returned the embrace and let her head drop forward to his chest. "Bless you for it, Isaaru, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm damaged goods. I'm dead, or good as, so leave it at that, please?"
Sudden anger boiled up within him. He held her out at arms' length and made her look him in the eye. "I won't accept that, no matter what you think about yourself. You think you're dead?"
"I know it!" she shouted back at him, breaking his hold. "I haven't been alive for five years!"
What possessed him to do what he did next, Isaaru would never know. Before she could protest further, he hauled her against him and kissed her.
The beautiful thing about it was that she kissed him back.