Disclaimer: I don't own anything!
Author's Note: I've been wanting to start this for a while, but I didn't want to do a big epic thing with it since I think I'll run out of patience. The updates on are probably going to be a little erratic.
Some of the events here are mentioned in Photographs of Freedom.
This is all waaaaay before Tales of Symphonia.
A child seldom needs a good talking to as a good listening to. ~Robert Brault
The walls of the kitchen are plastered with photos and newspaper articles. Not that anyone in the family actually knows what the articles say, but they know the faces of the people there. The ones in the articles are important people; generals and war heroes. The people in the photographs, however, aren't famous anywhere but here. In Asgard, everyone knew their names, faces. Had watched them grow up.
Yuan can't remember the people in the photos, despite the fact that they're his brothers. Yuan has been told much about Dehua and Kail, though whenever he looks around, all he sees are strangers. Here was Dehua balancing on the lip of the fountain. Here was Kail grinning with his foot propped on top of a ball. And there they both were, sitting up in the branches of a pomegranate tree.
There were many photos with them and their mother. Helping her put up the laundry, helping her cook and sitting beside her on her birthday. Their mother was lovely once. Her hair had been like midnight silk, or so Yuan remembers Poppi saying once. Poppi said that Yuan had inherited her eyes, aquamarine like the ocean. Yuan has never seen the ocean.
But these days, Mama doesn't leave her room and Poppi's gone with Dehua and Kail in the war. Zaren, Yuan's third oldest brother, was the only one left. They were four years apart, not that it matters overmuch, and look very little alike. Zaren is stocky and looks more human with rounder ears and sharper features.
Zaren spends much of his time with the sheep. Days sometimes, if there's been a drought recently and he has to take the herd out towards the greener pastures and sometimes even the forest. This leaves Yuan home with Mama.
Mama has her good days sometimes. Days when she'll get out of bed and smile at him and that's when she'll look like the woman Poppi talked about. She'll bathe and put on fresh clothes. She'll let Yuan brush her hair and, though he's never actually felt silk, he can see what Poppi was talking about. They'll walk through the town square and the market. They'll eat lamb kabobs, something that they both share a love for.
Sometimes, Mama will bake on her good days and invite the others in their building. Yuan is allowed to lick the bowl and he'll sit back and listen to the people he's called family all his life, even if he knows that most of the people in the room aren't actually related to him. They drink tea and compliment Mama on her baking.
He gets to hear stories of when she and Poppi were younger and he loves those stories.
"My friends and I always used to say that he was the most handsome of all the shepherds." She'd say. "I used to climb over the village gate at night to meet with him in the field. He was always so afraid that we'd get caught and he'd get a whupping from my father. We met secretly for years before, finally, he proposed. Right there in the middle of the field, with sheep all around us. He told me later that the look on my face was priceless."
The talk would inevitably turn to the end of the war and that, when the boys returned home, that they would need brides. Especially Dehua and Kail. Such handsome boys, they'd say.
Yuan never spoke during those talks. He can't remember his brothers, hard as he tries. He'd been little more than three years old when they'd enlisted. Sometimes, he thinks he can remember a laugh or the flash of a mischievous grin, but that's the extent of it.
But her good days aren't often and Yuan will end up wandering the village to be anywhere but home. He likes to sit by the street performers and learn all sorts of things like card tricks and how to flip a coin on his knuckles. They tried to teach him juggling, but he's clumsy with it. They dance to the floaty melodies of wooden flutes and Yuan grins and dances with them sometimes. They laugh and clap and cheer, even though he knows he's not very good.
Zaren is home today after a week of being gone. "How was Mama?" He asks Yuan. They're sitting on the very top of their building where the laundry was hung, their heels bouncing on the sides.
Yuan shrugs and tucks a lock of blue hair behind his ear. There weren't any other kids in the village with that color and Poppi said it was because his mother's father had come from a land far from here. The elven lands, where the trees spoke and where unicorns walked on top of the water on foggy days, or so the stories said. "Good days. Bad days."
"The usual then." Zaren pulls up a leg and rests an elbow on it. "I'm sorry for staying away for so long."
"You could take me with you."'
Zaren smiles, but shakes his head. "You're not old enough yet."
"Am too!" Yuan says indignantly. "This year is my ninth winter!"
"Yeah, and you still look like six." Zaren teased, ruffling his younger brother's hair. Yuan ducked away, sticking his tongue out at him.
It's winter and Zaren is home for a month. They make playing card towers and climb pomegranate trees. They eat sour oranges and tell each other stories that only grow in ridiculousness, but it makes them laugh. They race down cliffsides, dirt clouds puffing up behind their bare feet.
"I must speak with your mother, child." The man says when Yuan opens the door whose wood is cracked and splintering.
Zaren gently pulls Yuan aside. "I'll take care of this. Go on upstairs and get the laundry, won't you?"
Yuan begins to climb the stairs, but crouches and watches as Zaren leads the stranger inside. Mama was in the kitchen today. It wasn't a good or a bad day. An in between day. He watches as the stranger bows a bit from the waist and spoke to them in a quiet voice. Then Zaren's face went white and Mama was screaming and sobbing.
Zaren tells Yuan later what happens and Yuan can see the grief on his face. Dehua and Kail were gone, he'd said. Had been killed by a mine.
"And Poppi?" Yuan had asked.
Zaren simply shook his head and didn't say anymore.
It's difficult for Yuan to really feel Mama and Zaren's loss. Hard to grieve the deaths of people Yuan can't remember and doesn't really think of as alive. They were like characters in the stories Poppi used to tell. Warriors in a fairy tale.
It was Zaren who was flesh and blood, Zaren who taught him cusswords and who liked salted green beans, who had a scar along his right forearm where he'd fought wolves away from the sheep.
Yuan went through the grieving motions with Mama and Zaren, but to his mind, his only brother was alive and well.
"You should just be grateful that he's alive and well."
"I know. But he's always got his nose stuck in those books of his. I wasn't like that. Not at all nor were the other children I grew up with."
"So? He's a quiet kid."
The chair creaked as his father shifted. "I've seen him sometimes when I walk through the town. He'll be playing on the street and the other boys will push him around, take his books. And he's never once fought back. He just drops his head and…lets it happen."
"He's not violent either. Not all children are."
His father's voice hardened a little. "That isn't what I mean. He's missing something."
"What? A cruel streak? He has the best grades in his class. For most parents, that would be enough." But that would never be enough for his father, Kratos knows.
"Self-defense has nothing to do with being cruel. He lets them beat on him. And when I see him next and I ask him how he got that black eye or that cut, he'll say, 'I fell down.'"
"He's just a late bloomer. He'll find his place."
"His place will be under other people's boots if this keeps up." Kratos flinches at the sharpness in his father's voice. "He'll never be able to stand up for anything."
"You're only angry because you're afraid he won't follow in your footsteps and join the military."
Kratos frowned. His father? Afraid? That wasn't possible. His father was the bravest person he knew.
"That's oversimplifying. I know that you two are a little close and I'm glad for that because I can't understand him. Not at all. It's like…I can't believe he's my son."
Kratos stood from where he'd been crouching by his father's study door. He should've known better than to eavesdrop, but something in him had been hoping that perhaps his father spoke differently about him to his best friend. Apparently not.
He retreats back into his room and, more importantly, into his books. They were a world well away from this place. He read everything. Biographies, fact books, guide books, fantasy stories. He'd even stolen into his father's study once and gotten his mother's old books. They were dusty and their pages were yellowing, but sometimes he imagines he can smell perfume.
His mother had been a teacher of literature at the university. He'd only ever seen the one photograph of her, the one of his parents' wedding day. She was pretty, Kratos thought. She had his same color hair, a strange mix of red and brown, but hers fell in curls down her shoulders. Her eyes were light brown and sparkled with laughter in the photo. The white dress had semi-transparent long sleeves and the skirts flowed to the ground.
She hadn't died. Agenor had told him so. She'd left a week after he took his first steps.
Marrying a well-read woman was one thing. Fathering a son who preferred reading to learning how to fight…well...that was a different matter altogether. And heaven forbid Kratos' father should ever find the sheets of paper where he'd scribbled out short imaginings and stories.
Kratos sighs and takes a pinch of food and has to stand on his toes to feed it to the long, silver and green fish. "Business as usual, then, huh?"
The fish's milky brown eyes almost look intelligent enough to answer him.
"Y'know, someday I'll make him proud. Dunno what I'll do to do that though. I can't even pick up one of those monster swords of his. Or maybe, next time they bully me again and he asks me what happened, I could make something up. Something better than 'I fell.' I'll say that there were twenty of them! Huge guys the size of mountains. I held off for as long as I could, but I couldn't beat them all."
Kratos wonders if he imagines the amusement in the fish's eyes.
"It's a work in progress, alright?"
The fish splashed a little. Kratos thinks that it's his version of a snort.
"It appears you're in need of a new bookshelf. Again."
Kratos turned to the man in the doorway. Agenor was his father's best friend and fellow general. Kratos had known the man all his life. Kratos smiled. "I think I can still squeeze a few more in."
Agenor studied the bookshelves in question. Kratos devoured books. Sometimes Agenor thinks that, one day, Kratos will go to the bookstore and find that there are no titles left that he hadn't read. "Without making it burst?"
"It's tricky, but I've gotten the hang of it."
"I can see that." This is his third bookshelf and there is precious little room there in between the leather bound biographies and the paperback fantasies. "How many books are there, do you know?"
"I stopped counting a while ago."
Agenor hummed in interest. "Have you ever thought of writing books yourself?" Kratos' heart thudded loudly in his chest. That was a little too close to the mark. "You must have some ideas of your own."
"I don't think I'd be very good."
"Even so, I'd like to read them."
Kratos doesn't think he's quite ready to share those scattered pages. Not yet. Not with an adult. It's at times like these that he wishes he had a brother. He'd heard some of the other kids in his class say that brothers and sisters were annoying and they usually wished them away.
Kratos thinks that those kids are dumb.
Maybe brothers and sisters did get annoying, but anything had to be better than the perpetual silence that filled his house. They, at least, had someone to play and laugh with. Other kids to share things with. Agenor was Kratos' friend, but there was a big difference between an adult friend and a kid friend.
Kratos is still thinking on brothers and sisters that night after dinner. He'd already put on his pajamas and, technically, it was bedtime, but he is very much awake and he doesn't think he could go to sleep if he tried. So he sits by the window and stares up at the stars.
What was that old saying? A wish, when offered to a star, would come true?
Kratos searches for the perfect star. There are hundreds of them in the sky—he knows, he's tried counting—but there had to be a perfect one for this wish. He finds his perfect star. It's brilliantly white and has an almost bluish tinge to it.
And he wishes for a best friend. A brother. He wishes hard too, saying it over and over again like a mantra. Please give me a friend. Please, please.