Hello again! Just before we begin, I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed, and/or put this story on their Favourites or Alerts list. It was wonderful to have such a positive response! I hope that you'll all enjoy this next piece as much as the first one. We side-step now, from AF 400 to 4XX, or thereabouts...
Much thanks, as usual, to Poisonberries, who makes it all better. Since many of you liked the appearance of Lightning in the last chapter, I think that Poison's fic The Door of Souls may be relevant to your interests. Set in the aftermath of the events of Dissidia Duodecim, and between XIII and XIII-2, this piece is epic in every sense of the word. I heartily recommend it!
Disclaimer: They're still not mine.
Echoes of Alternate Presents
It begins when she is young.
She is given the task of watering the vegetable garden during a dry patch, because she insists on doing something to help. Even if it means hauling heavy buckets from the well in the high heat, the work is not without reward - the occasional slop of cold water over the rim feels good, though she will have to change clothes afterwards. The chore gives rhythm to her days, and she feels a sense of pride at making sure that although the plants may wilt a little in the heat, they will not turn yellow and brown and die.
The handle cuts a groove into her palm as she hefts the bucket up and begins to tip its contents, carefully, over the plants. The task requires concentration. It is bad for the plants to get too much water, just like it is bad for them to get too little, and Yeul goes about this duty as seriously as she does her other one. So when the sky grumbles unexpectedly, she squeaks a little in surprise and drops the bucket. The remaining water soaks her shoes and races down the furrow between the rows of plants as she looks up. Dark gray clouds had gathered overhead while she had been focused other matters.
They look heavy, and feel as though they are pressing down on her.
The first drops of rain spot her shoulders and bead, icy cold, on her sun-warm skin. Yeul shivers as the cold ripples outwards, goosebumps erupting up and down her arms. The rain feels wrong. Oily, somehow. It reminds her of the sticky mucous that the villagers collect from the flans, and she brushes at her arms to get the wetness off. But the rain is getting heavier, and all she is doing is spreading it.
Even though her hands are warm, the goosebumps remain in their wake. They sting. She rubs harder, faster, but all she seems to do is press the cold closer to her bones. Her hands stop feeling warm.
Yeul looks around for shelter, but everything is melting into grey streaks. She listens for the villagers, but she can't hear anything but the rain. Her hands tremble as they continue to rub up and down her arms - a convulsive movement that doesn't do anything to make her feel better. She feels like the only one left in the world.
But that isn't right, she tries to tell herself. She gives up on trying to warm herself, and digs her nails into her upper arms. Even though she can feel them denting her flesh, there isn't any pain. Her skin feels numb and heavy. In her uneasiness, she licks her lips, but the rain collecting on her tongue and dripping past her lips tastes of rot. She spits with revulsion, until she is breathless, and hunts frantically for a dry patch on her clothes with which to wipe her tongue. She finds none; her clothes hang heavy on her, sodden with the rotten rain.
As she wraps her arms around herself, sick and shaking, something dark and man-shaped looms out of the gray.
"Yeul?" The voice is distorted by the storm, but it is still one that Yeul knows better than any other. She sprints over to Caius, tucking herself into his side and pulling one of his arms over her head. One of his broad hands makes a suitable umbrella, and she tries not to sob as she exhales with relief. His wet-leather smell is comforting.
He doesn't comment on her strange behavior. He only says, "Let's go inside."
Yeul nods. As they make their way back into the village, with Yeul trying to extend her stride and Caius trying to shorten his, she confesses, "The rain tastes bad."
"How so?" His voice is calm and even; Caius never disbelieves her. The cold, scared feeling inside Yeul eases a little. Even though the aftertaste makes her stomach roll, she focuses on it; tries to find the words to describe it.
"Rotten," she says eventually. "Like something dead."
The next thing that becomes intolerable to her is crowds.
The Farseers' have shed most of the traditions of Paddra, but they have not let go of celebrating her birthday. They string up their colored lights and gather together the best food for a night of feasting and dancing. Yeul is usually charmed by the lights - they make her think of colored stars. Every year she waits eagerly for dusk and darkness, when the sun no longer overshadows them.
But this time things are different. As the darkness gathers, Yeul begins to feel uneasy. She does not like to look at the lanterns out of the corner of her eyes, and she definitely does not like the way that they seem to flash when her vision is blocked by someone taller passing.
She notices that Caius remains studiously behind her, and is grateful for that.
As the crowds gather, she feels the irrational fear gathering in her again. She drops back until she is beside Caius, rather than in front of him. Even though she knows that the village is relatively small - some of the further-ranging hunters speak of cities many, many times larger than this - the people seem to multiply until they fill the whole world. From the corners of her eyes, the lanterns seem to flash as they are hidden, revealed, hidden again by the people passing by.
The taste of rot gathers in her mouth again, and she seems to feel rain on her skin even though the sky is clear and the stars are shining. She swallows.
Caius, who is standing at an angle where the movement will not be observed, touches her hand gently. His fingertips - calloused by century upon century of fighting - are warm and dry against cold and clammy skin.
"I will not allow you to come to harm," he says.
Somehow, the words are not as comforting as they should be.
Perhaps it is her discomfort with crowds that leads her to her interest in mechanics. The village does not have much use for machines, except for the one that allows them to make changes in the weather (and even the seeress is not permitted to tinker with this - something that Yeul is disappointed by but accepts), and so this means that she must look elsewhere to satisfy her craving.
Caius accompanies her without a word as she begins to make treks out into the Steppe, looking for automata that have finally succumbed to wear and tear and time. If he wonders what she intends to do with them, he does not ask.
She tells him anyway, because she thinks he wants to know.
"I want to understand," she says as she picks through the inner workings of a rusted Scutari. Everything below her elbows is stained with grease, and she keeps her arms carefully away from her clothing. She is almost certain that the marks will not wash out. "And..." A nail catches and breaks on a jagged ridge somewhere inside the machinery, and she withdraws her hand carefully to check that she hasn't drawn blood. She hasn't. She does not immediately plunge her hand back into the wreck, but wriggles her fingers as though checking their mobility. The movement is a nervous one, an outlet for sudden energy that makes her want to get up and pace as much as it asks her to hold her tongue.
She has never admitted to this, and even though she trusts Caius implicitly, it is hard for her to say what she does.
"I want to have some kind of skill," she says. The grass around them rustles as the wind begins to pick up. "I want to have something that has nothing to do with being the seeress."
She feels Caius's eyes flick down to her. She can feel his gaze on the back of her head. She shifts on her knees.
The pause goes on for a long time, long enough that Yeul imagines that he is trying to form an answer.
But whatever her Guardian might have said is lost as a sudden, shrieking cry echoes across the plains. Yeul starts violently, gasping as though she has been hit, and sharp edges tear furrows on the back of the hand still encased in machinery. Biting her lip, she maneuvers the limb out of the automaton as Caius yanks his sword from his back. She knows without looking that his lips are pulling with indignation and frustration. It's clear what he is thinking - how did a Cie'th manage to get this close without him noticing?
Yeul knows. She can feel the broken edges of history in the air like she could feel the broken parts in the Scutari. The abominations staggering through the grass towards them are not of this time, this place. There are always Cie'th on the Steppe, but not of this type.
As she gazes on the clumsy, skeletal forms that Caius is blasting apart with considered casts of Fire, Yeul tastes oil and rot again. She presses herself down in the grass, goosebumps rippling over her skin and pretends that she cannot hear distant screaming.
One of the creatures shrieks, and it feels to Yeul like a knife sliding along her nerves. Something hard impacts her knee, and she scrambles back with a cry.
But the danger is gone. Caius has taken care of it. What she thought was a threat was only a piece of the crystalline corpse, snapped from the spindly body as it collapsed.
The Cie'th's detached head does not glare, because it has no eyes. For the first time, Yeul notices that there are growths covering them, shaped like hands. As though whatever soul remained in the cursed body had not wanted to see itself, anymore.
She doesn't feel threatened. But she does feel nauseated.
She looks up at her Guardian. "They were human, once," she says, and her voice cracks as she says it. Anyone who inhabits Gran Pulse lives with the reality of Cie'th. Yeul does not know why the tragedy of their situation has suddenly struck her so hard.
But Caius does not appear to be impatient with her. "Yes," he says. "But no longer." He holds out a hand, and helps her up. For a moment, the world swirls around her. Instead of leather, Yeul thinks that she feels flesh; Caius's violet eyes become blue. She sways as impossible information imprints itself on her senses; cold, not heat; stone, not grass; rain, not dry...
Then Caius's hand comes down on her shoulder, steadying her, and everything snaps back into focus. He holds the contact as she shifts her footing, trying to reorient herself to the world around her. Yeul swallows, trying to stop her gut from twisting itself in a hard, tight knot. She does not understand what just happened. It was not a vision. But if not a vision, how does she explain what she saw and felt?
"I want to go home," she says, voice small.
Caius only nods, and they return to the village.
Rain. Crowds. Cie'th. What holds these things together? Yeul considers this question, staring up at the sky. It is late at night - or very early in the morning, perhaps - and her dreams are haunted by flashes of sinister color and the sound of screaming. She does not want to sleep. The creeping fear still shadows her.
Is Etro trying to tell her something? These feelings, these reactions, they are not a manifestation of Etro's gift as Yeul knows it. Is this something that can only be expressed in an indirect way? Are the puzzle pieces that she has been handed the key to something that she must warn for?
Rain. Crowds. Cie'th. Screams.
Yeul draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. She does not know what she is supposed to do, and this frightens her almost as much as the reactions themselves. Even though she is no longer a ruler, has not been a ruler for centuries, she still feels the weight of responsibility. If what she is feeling is a warning of danger...
She feels movement behind her: Caius. He seems to have a sixth sense that allows him to feel her turmoil. She supposes that this is a useful skill in a Guardian, if only because it will allow him to prevent his charge from doing anything stupid...even if it is disconcerting.
Rain. Crowds. Cie'th. Screams.
"The fal'Cie have been mostly dormant for centuries," she says aloud.
She feels Caius tense. It is a very small movement, but Yeul reads it. He is more transparent than he knows. At least, to her. "Caius?"
There is a patch of greater silence in the night. Then it breaks with something that, if more pronounced, might have been a sigh.
"I will give you your answers," he tells her.
Yeul has heard of Academia. It is now the largest city on Cocoon; the center of government for most of the human race. But stories ill-prepare her for its sheer size, or the way that outshines the stars in the sky.
It is completely unknown - and yet, this view is familiar.
"I don't understand," she says, looking up at Caius. She can make out the contours of his face in the dim light. He looks out at the city, and his face is grim. But there is something about his eyes that stops him from looking angry. There is something about him that looks...sad. Pained.
His voice is quiet and level as he tells her about an alternate timeline - one that diverged three hundred and eighty seven years ago. He tells her about a vanity of Cocoon's fallen - an artificial fal'Cie, subject to the whims of humanity, and the way that it turned on its masters. He speaks of time travelers - ones that Yeul has seen, occasionally, in other visions. He speaks of a city damned, its citizens converted en masse to Cie'th in an effort to erase a perceived paradox. And then he falters.
She waits a few seconds, but he does not resume.
"Should I look?" she asks. "If you do not want to say -"
"No," Caius cuts her off. He takes a deep breath, but he no longer needs to continue. The pieces have fallen into place. Now Yeul knows what she has been feeling - the experiences of her counterpart in the other timeline, bleeding across history's fault-lines. The rain that fell that awful night; the smell of Cie'th and pollution and destruction. The screaming chorus of the damned. The panicked press of the citizenry, already dead on its feet.
"I died," she says.
"Yes," says Caius. His voice has a husky, barely-there edge of pain.
As Yeul stares out at the city, she feels cold anger begin to rise. She clenches her fists.
"Why?" she asks aloud. "Why must we suffer because of something that will not happen?"
Yeul is prepared for her life to be sacrificed in order to guide people on the correct path. Even if the prospect of her own death is frightening, it does not to her seem to be an unfair trade, one life for many. But this series of events is one that can no longer occur. History has been altered. There is no fal'Cie to curse Academia's inhabitants; she will not die at Zenobia's malformed hand.
Since her early childhood she has been living in fear - needlessly. Caius remembers a timeline that never was, and suffers for it - needlessly.
Pain with no purpose. Etro is cruel.
The conclusion is a new one, and for a moment it roots Yeul in place. But even though the thought is unfamiliar and dangerously blasphemous, Yeul finds that it fits. Yes, cruel, she thinks, turning it over in her mind. And suddenly, she wonders - is this what Caius thinks? When he sees the timeline branch arbitrarily, when he sees one life exchanged for another with no equality in the trade, does he, too, conclude that the goddess that they serve is callous, uncaring, unfeeling?
The thought recedes as quickly as it came. It is blasphemy, and useless besides. What can they do? There is nothing to be gained from railing at Etro. They can only control themselves.
Although perhaps at this time, that is enough.
She lifts her head and inhales deeply. "I will no longer be afraid," she says. Reaching out, she fits her fingers between Caius'. He squeezes her hand in answer, and Yeul leans her head on his arm. It is small comfort to him, she knows, but she offers it because it is all she can give.
Together, they watch the lights flicker, and try to let go of what never happened.
End note: This won't be the last time that we encounter the Yeul of 4XX AF. However, just to switch things up a little, the next installment will be taking us back to the days of Paddra...