Author's Notes: A single week of trials and tribulations and yes it is finally finished! My ultimate gift to you, Sorrow! The epic Yunalai I've always always wanted to write, the inspiration behind my fragmentary series The Pilgrimage and its spin-off one-shots! I must warn you, this fic will encompass my stretch-of-the-imagination headcanon, many mind-rape worthy emotions and the reliving of traumatic experiences (of the Crimson Squad, Yuna's pilgrimage, etc).

This story will exploit the "New Game Plus" feature as a plot device! (Blame the Persona Series for popularizing this trend) Also, I'm giving a shout out to heaven_monument and Sephiroth_Owa13 (and of course Sorrow has a Human Heart) for sticking with the idea since day one. :3

Extra note: the quotes in bold and italics indicate shadow!Shuyin, italics alone indicate other Unsent characters speaking, for example human!Shuyin, Lenne, and Auron, and also memories and dreams.

Extra extra note: Everything starting from "Baralai's Nightmare" up until the end of chapter one is not actually a dream, but a "my-life-is-flashing-before-my-eyes" moment. I wanted to mention this for the sake of clarity.

EDITED as of 02/21/2014.


Agape in Fugue Minor

Prologue


Memories of Waves and Light

"I've been chasing my past for so long, sometimes getting it back is all I can think about. Other times, I just want to forget. Maybe we should both let go of our past, and focus more on what's to come."

'So many things seem intertwined, but nothing leads to you. Why be a sphere hunter when what I'm hunting for can never be found?'

"The world is changing … New Yevon wishes to help those who feel lost in the winds of change."

"He is dead, and I am still alive. Coming here really makes that clear."

"I'm sure he was a great guy, but… there'll be others."

"Searching the past to find the future…"

"I keep my memories inside."


Chapter 1

Hope & Turmoil

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ஜ۩۞۩ஜ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Shuyin's glowing silhouette pulls Baralai's body to move, and Yuna dares to look into his eyes. Beyond the blue, beyond the brown, beyond the illusion lies a friend in need. Daunted by this most selfless intimate act, Yuna's eyes waver. Hands clasp the phosphorescent sphere, which pulses with a heartbeat of its own, yearning to speak up and steal the spotlight. Colorful light recreates a songstress dress, fusing Lenne's will into her gentle words.

Anxiety weighs on her heart, squeezing at her vocal cords. "Shuyin."

Baralai approaches, feeling remnants of his energy dwindle under the mercy of irrational whims as he hopes for Yuna to perceive the speechless plea hanging on borrowed lips. "Lenne..." Delusions of his beloved blind his retinas, enlightening his mind with memories murky from the millennium. Baralai knows better; he should know better, but he can't break free using logic or inner strength anymore.

"There's something I must tell you. Words left unspoken for a thousand years." Yuna dips her head following a poignant pause, before she lifts her chin to make eye contact, imploring him to understand what Lenne had always wanted to say. "I love you..."

Her confession steals his breath away, and guilt prickles his eyes in the form of guilt.

"...a-and I'm grateful... grateful that you stayed with me, until the end."

"But, I couldn't save you!" He recalls the untimely hour of their demise, the event of their inevitable confrontation. Whether it be an escape route foiled by the labyrinthine Undergrounds and the Warrior Monks hot on their heels, or his benevolent ego intercepted by the Gullwings' meddlesome concerns to terminate the Vegnagun menace, reckless responsibility had proven to be his undoing. Where does Baralai's story begin and Shuyin's story end?

"It doesn't matter. Please, don't go on grieving alone."

Her empathy soothes his soul, quells his hatred, and calms the imminent storm within.

Yuna reaches out to him, her sentimentality symbiotic in its magnitude. "Rest."

'But... I want to live... please forgive me so I can live again...'

Pyreflies tug at his body, pulling to be free from physical restraint. Baralai collapses on his hands and knees after Shuyin rips apart from his host at long last. Vertigo distorts his dim surroundings, as sharp footfalls sprint in the background. Failure. Baralai kneels on and breathes on the personification of his failure; his failure to diffuse a near-Armageddon crisis, his failure to save the world from his own destruction – there are too many failures to count. They personify his past mistakes, his past hatred, and his past secrets; the past several years of his life, which have led him to this point, mock him for his weak strength of character.

He struggles to breathe; clutches a hand over his heart to steady the traumatic rhythm, as strong hands pull and push him to stand, but he can no longer make sense of the world around him. Baralai remembers brisk kindness situating him against cold, organic metal of his making, before closing his eyes wide shut to welcome the comfortable dark. Somebody calls his name, guiding him to drink cool relief, and Baralai coughs when he remembers how to breathe. He sags into the seat of his sin, striving to reign over his insanity as the sound of Shuyin's singular voice fades into the backdrop of his mind.

"We can finally fade... together..."

Sounds fade; so do voices and colors and faces... but death never does fade, does it? Does a happy memory ever fade? Do ghosts, politics, madmen, and pain and anguish fade over time? Does death ever fade? Does it? Do memories fade, or do they last a lifetime?

'I don't know. Why am I... thinking about all this...? I feel so... tired...'

Baralai resists the call to sleep, afraid he will never wake up again.


~Baralai's Nightmare~

"Baralai!"

He hears voices pleading with him to stop.

"He's panicking. Yuna, end it now."

He hears voices of the deceased encourage their loved ones to stop him.

No. Not him. "Shuyin!" The living shadow of Shuyin.

An Unsent bred from a millennium of hate, guilt, regret, and despair who used to be an ancient Zanarkand soldier; now he possesses the body of New Yevon's beloved Praetor, a young man who possesses similar, yet startling feelings of vengeance. Baralai feels the past seize his senses, ripping him from the realm of reality, as he becomes a wanderer lost inside the prison of his mind. With no direction or sense of true purpose guiding his conscience, other than the hate breeding within his soul – anger without a source, sin without an end – he loses sight of the light.

"Come, Vegnagun. Let us purge this repulsive world."

Darkness threatens to consume what remains.

Baralai remembers brown eyes glazed over in blue, a man full of psychotic rage whose smile glows with a crazed sense for justice. Obsession lies buried deep down alive somewhere, beneath so much baggage and convoluted memories. He hopes to empathize with the spirit who has become so much like him, who reminds him of himself once upon a time, and this gives Baralai all the more reason to plead with the shadow to stop.

'Stop.' 'Please, stop.' "Stop it!" "You must stop!"

"Shut up," Shuyin says, the syllables too violent for a voice so light and gentle.

'Hatred isn't the way.' Baralai tries to reason with him, and yet the Unsent seethes at the soothing soul who strokes at his weaknesses.

"You should listen to yourself. You and me, we're not so different – using power that's not ours to punish those who've wronged us in the past. Surely you can't deny that we're the same." Shuyin scowls at the conscious spasms that wish to disrupt his precious dirge, and he snaps at the man who dares to oppose him. "Why won't you quit?"

'True... I may have done things I deeply regret, and some that I admit I don't...' Control slips from his fingers, returns and slips and returns again until finally Shuyin snarls and smashes his fingers against the piano keys. He abused his body before in order to weaken his control, but this time it works against his favor. Pain only fuels his desire to fight. It frightens the ghost when his host's relentless attempts at dominance are pouring through the gaps of his iron grip, when he won't just give up, and the cutting echo of his self-righteous faith makes Shuyin flinch. 'But it doesn't mean I want to destroy the world!'

Their battle for control escalates into an all-out mental war for supremacy. Shuyin pushes to oppress and Baralai pushes even more, striving against hatred to make way for divine fury to flow instead, striving for the dead to surrender once and for all, and soon Shuyin sifts through the melting pot of fleeting memories to dig out a secret from the ashes, shoves her eminent image in his face, the absence of her name speaking volumes of a butterfly effect unseen to the imagination.

"Does she even know the one responsible for his death?"

Baralai's control falters; it fluxes and flees, and this inner demon that holds responsibility for a corrupt man's death pulls at his heartstrings like an animal, a vicious anime gone viral for survival.

'How can you forgive yourself, if she won't ever forgive you?' And his friends will never want to look at him, 'you are a murderer,' a monster, a despicable human being who doesn't deserve the right to exist.

His absolute obedience pleases him, and Shuyin pets him and keeps him close, yet holds him at arm's length when Baralai looks up with those naive eyes of a young boy too benevolent for reality. Shuyin has to wonder why he looks at him like he's the one who's got nothing left to fight for when in reality he's the one putting everything on the line. And why does he wait with open arms as if wanting to become one when they can't be any more close?

Music echoes throughout oblivion, keys igniting to the pounding of his fingers, his heart pounding away in panic – pounding away at the memory of their brief embrace until bullets cut through them like knives. Grievances reopen the wound, and the past transports him back into the untainted clouds of light waves, seeing happy faces of a man and woman in love, seeing them run to close the distance, cradling each other only to reenact the immortal tragedy.

Pyreflies roam the Farplane, illuminating the darkness, and Baralai blinks at the departing scene. Cataracts echo from glorious stone plateaus, pooling into reservoirs of golden light, and he averts his weary eyes from their stinging brilliance. Baralai looks to the island where he bid Yuna goodbye and smiles at the thought she wouldn't have to share his fate. Gazing upon the red star of the black sky, Baralai meditates on an image – a ray of holy light shining down on him, passing through his heart and striking at deep-seated sin – before ruminating upon narrow blessings.

Baralai emerges from another episode of mental supremacy fractured and in pieces, yet still alive. But for how long? To what end? Loneliness lingers in his empty arms, causing his heart to ache for reasons beyond his understanding. Baralai remembers their embrace at this very glen, the tearful reunion of lost soul-mates through the possession of two strangers. His cheeks darken at the memory, downcast eyes distant with sympathy, recalling a separate time, a different place he had once before been intimate.

The young Summoner has become a magnificent sight to behold. He sees a lady dressed in full gown, a pristine white wedding gown worthy of capturing the essence of her very beauty. She stands in front of him, rigid with defiance and ready to march to her doom for her lord Maester and villainous fiancé. Humanity shines strong in her eyes, which once guarded to conceal her emotions, now tear from dread. The gaudy flower bouquet quivers in her shaking hands, and in her silent cry for help, she leaps to close the distance.

Uncomfortable with this emotion pervading his heart, of this want and need for a woman who does not belong to him, Baralai folds his arms at his back and surveys his surroundings until his body aches to sit down. And so he does, seating himself on the flowers to hug his knees and stare off into space. His mind drifts beyond the beauty of this hypnotizing landscape, beyond the oblivion that provides the deceased their paradise. Baralai reminisces on her strong smile, which conceals a history of sadness and righteous anger. It reminds him why he holds her dearer than the first time they met, and newfound hope strengthens his will to keep holding on for the sake of Yuna's promise.

Baralai wonders if she made it out safe and sound; whether or not she reunited with Paine and the others. He begins to think about what Gippal and Nooj are doing as well – wondering if they are still looking for him, or recovering from Shuyin's latest assault – but his attention keeps coming back to Yuna. How did she feel when Shuyin hugged her, when she opened her eyes to see him behind the bittersweet illusion? Did Lenne hold some control over her actions, too? Does Yuna experience the same confusing feelings for him as he does for her?

'Does she even like me?' This unbidden thought makes him blush to the tips of his ears; then he frowns, solemn. Who's to say she feels anything remote to his feelings of turmoil? Baralai doubts she ever considered him a suitable partner given the rumors he heard. Yuna had a curious amount of Guardians during her pilgrimage, and among them were Braska's legendary Guardian Auron and a young man who claimed to hail from the fabled city of Zanarkand. Those two were never seen during the celebrations following the defeat of Sin; therefore Baralai couldn't find the chance to meet the one gossipers say Yuna developed feelings for.

It's a mystery what became of him, that Zanarkand boy.

tweeeeeee~

This innocent sound splits the silence, distracting his worn mind from miserable musings. Baralai lifts his downtrodden head, curious and wary as he jumps to his feet. "H-Hello?" Silence answers the echo among the presence of flowers, waterfalls, and pyreflies.

'...now I feel stupid. Was it a figment of my imagination?'

tweeeeeee~

There it goes again!

"Who's there?"

No reply, except for a whistle – clear, soft, and resonant in velocity. 'Lady Yuna?'

Waves and light gather as the answer to his prayers, coalescing into a pathway, which starts from the glen and leads through the darkness where the world of Spira awaits above. Someone striking and familiar appears from the opposite side, waving at him all teeth and smiles. Impatient of his stalling, the blonde youth raises his fingers to his mouth and whistles. Loud.

His racing heart compels him to take a leap of faith. 'Is he… showing me a way out?'

Baralai moves forward one step at a time, tentative; once close enough, fear places a name to his face and he staggers back in unpleasant surprise. "Y-You…!"

'No, not again! Please, not again. Anyone but him... I barely escaped the last time. I don't think I can repeat the same trick twice.' The thought alone exhausts him, that he must figure out another way to escape from his clutches. It hadn't been that long ago, either, when Baralai found the means to subdue him, and he would rather not do it again or else...

Lifting a hand to squeeze his shoulder, Baralai cringes at the pain that no longer responds to pressure. He has managed to endure the pain for Yevon knows how long that he developed an uncomfortable numbness towards it. Seeing that disembodied soul approach only harrows his will to fight.

"There you are…" Shuyin feeds on fear to reawaken from temporary stasis and Baralai stiffens, sweating from apprehension and confusion. Two? How can there be two of them? The kind teenager in front of him and the psychopathic Unsent looming from within – they both have the same face, same voice, and same blue eyes.

This utopian world of the dearly departed – Baralai cannot even begin to understand this place. What used to exist and what never gave breath, the fine line between life and death – it has been blurred through the ages; as old as the Aeons. Far too tired to resist and far too drained to fight, Baralai faints to the sound of Shuyin's voice overlapping his own.

"Thought you could elude me? We have a connection, you know. As long as my spirit still lingers in your soul, I'll always be able to find you."

"N-No… I won't… I-I won't let you… control me again!" Baralai remembers resisting, remembers clutching his abdomen with shaking hands, and hoping against hope that his willpower will prevail against abuse. Cold metal brushes his skin, startling him into clarity. 'My pistol!'

The small amount of self-control Baralai manages to muster gives him all the freedom he needs to withdraw the weapon and clutch it tight. He closes his eyes, reciting a mental prayer of acceptance for his past, of perseverance for his future. 'Take heart. Have faith.' Eyebrows furrow from the strain of psychological oppression, as his breath falls shallower by the second. 'I can't back down now.' Baralai aims the gun at himself, and the trembling of his hands intensifies.

"Don't you dare…"

Baralai cracks a smile in spite of the circumstance, because he overestimated the millennium-old Unsent. Regardless of the magnitude of his grief or the power of his rage, it doesn't change the fact a dead soul possesses no physical medium. Shuyin will need a living body to accomplish the task of using Vegnagun. Motivated by this incentive, Baralai begins to pull the trigger.

"Y-You don't know what you're doing!"

Shuyin's uncertainty quakes his conscience, a sharp interjection that cuts his resolve and cripples his confidence in order to beat down him into total submission. Sweat trickles down his face, as he strives not to budge a single inch. He worries for his friends and fears for his life, because giving up now means allowing Shuyin to destroy everything he holds dear. Baralai hates himself for it; hates that he feels shame for submitting to these moments of weakness when this moment calls for his strength the most.

'What if... Lady Yuna can't save the world? What if all I've done to struggle and fight doesn't make a single difference in the end?' By no means does Baralai have the power to change the world like High Summoner Yuna can, but to endure the harshest of circumstances, no matter the calamity…

"Is it not within human nature to survive?"

Baralai stares straight into Auron's eyes, who makes no move to help him. How can he, when he has already perished? He made the Farplane his home; pyreflies and pretty illusions his company. This man no longer exists.

"Between knowing what you want to do and what you can't… Are you aware of what has to be done?"

Auron's wise words pour strength into his resolve, and the thunderous sound of a gunshot pierces through perpetual nightfall. Baralai remembers blacking out, singing into oblivion.

"Do*... Ti... La... Sol... Fa... Mi... Fa, Sol, Do..."

Pandemonium orchestrates abysmal music. Hope chimes soft and resilient in the face of stereophonic horror. A choir of anguished voices dies to the quiet, fleeting tune of a broken flute. Repercussions from the past strike the chords in his heart, accompanying the violin strokes that manipulate his emotions by the strings while thoughts of insanity soothe his resentment and mercy falls silent on deaf ears. This evil concertmaster continues to create pure electric noise, ignoring the friction of angst that fumes inside imprisonment, interweaving fugues of countless pyreflies that resonate in synchronicity to a passive harp. Baralai stalks the mystical savanna, swinging his staff like a long, dangerous baton, conducting lunacy, singing destruction and laughing at it.

Fiends fall before glowing hands that channel absorption, Fayth fall before whimsical possession only to be reanimated as Dark Aeons, 'and the Eternal Calm will be the next to fall.'

"Sol. Mi*! Re*..."

Swimming in space and dreaming awake, Baralai watches rainbow fireflies float in front of glazed eyelids, acting as spiritual leeches dressed in sheep's clothing. Muscles move without monitor, thoughts speak against truth; deceased voices empower a living's will.

Baralai and this abomination cannot be any more similar. Hate evolves from love. Justice becomes murder in disguise. They each walk the road to Hell paved with good intentions, yet an epiphany quells his reason for vengeance, 'Nooj… wasn't Nooj,' but not his, 'His name...? Shuyin... yes. Indeed, it is Shuyin.' Black emotions are set aflame once again with ire like oil to a single flare of fire, swelling in veins symbolic of his archaic enemy, Bevelle's modern leader.

"Can you hear me?"

An unfamiliar voice – 'his voice' – attracts that of another, "Yes," – ('my voice?') – one that possesses saving grace, an effeminate force beyond human compare. Intimate emotions pour into Baralai's submissive heart without warning, a cavity yet to be touched by love and affection until illusionary warmth invades it. 'What is this emotion?'

"Ah, you can hear me."

"I can't see you. Where are you?"

"Right here!"

'Who is this I feel so strongly for? Lenne? ...no, Yuna…'

Excitement motivates him to seek out the source of light, heart jumping in his throat out of dire anticipation. Baralai wonders if Shuyin stalled his search for Vegnagun to find someone far more important to him than his plans for revenge. Emerging from the mist confirms this when he smiles at the lone figure wreathed in blue and white silk.

"I finally found you."

Heterochromatic eyes flicker with hope and hidden turmoil. "Is that… really you?"

'Who's Yuna looking at? Can't she recognize me?' Perhaps the pyreflies are distorting his image to project Shuyin in Yuna's eyes; but if she doesn't know him as Shuyin, then who? Who does she refer to him as?

"It is me. Shuyin. I've waited so long… Lenne." He savors the intimate sound neglected by time, her name rolling off his tongue like sweet honey. How does he confuse her for another? Baralai muses Yuna must resemble the woman Shuyin loves and, if this hypothesis proves true, questions the coincidence behind their connection.

She looks startled when he calls her name, hurt almost, and the woman lowers her brown eyes (brown?) before facing away from him, orange beads (orange? But her earring...) clicking with the sway of long hair (and what happened to her hair?). "But I'm not Lenne."

'Yuna?' Her cold reaction causes his heart to ache, and the rejection burns.

"Lenne?" Baralai utters her name again, bewildered, and ambles toward Shuyin's lover. "We disappeared together, but when I awoke, I was alone. I looked for you for so long..."

This scorching sensation of unsent desire, an undying love tinted with a thousand shades of grief – it disgusts him. It disgusts him, because they are not his feelings, and yet Baralai still manages to want her above everything. He wants her so much, it hurts.

"While I wandered, I realized something. Spira hasn't really changed at all. Everyone's still fighting over nothing, still dying like they used to. A thousand years have passed, and they can't leave the hatred behind. I'm through waiting. I'll fix it. This world continues to fail us, and what's worse I failed to protect you. Vegnagun will make that all go away." Shuyin halts for a heartbeat, curling his fingers into a clenched fist, and this violent pressure startles Baralai out of his trance for but a small moment.

Baralai remembers he shouldn't be feeling this way towards the world Yuna loved enough to save; towards the new era he believed in enough to govern.

"And we'll fade again, together. Help me do it, Lenne…"

Using hands that do not belong to him, Shuyin touches her shoulder. She doesn't respond, except tilt her face. Her passivity masks whatever she feels inside, further frustrating him.

'Why won't she say anything? Please, look at me, Lady Yuna. See me, Baralai.' His desperate attempts to convey rationality drowns beneath the passionate rise of emotions, and he jerks her around, wrapping her in his arms.

'Finally. We are together again.' Shuyin pulls away and gazes into her eyes in order to convince himself she truly stands before him. The illusion flickers – 'Yuna!' – and he strokes her hair, caresses her face. 'Don't you see? This is not' Common sense fails to reach lovelorn ears. To share this single moment with the one person he held dear, Lenne can receive the affection Shuyin yearned to deliver for a thousand years.

'It doesn't have to be this way.' He wishes, but he has no choice.

Baralai succumbs to Shuyin's control once again; brings her back close into his embrace, basking in this vicarious intimacy, of how his arms cradle the curve of her back, of how her head nestles in the hollow of his neck, how her cheek nuzzles against his jawline – makes him believe she belongs here with him. Longing. Adoration. Desire. The physical and emotional sensations, 'was this what love felt like?'

Baralai feels like an intruder, witnessing such bittersweet and loving exchanges between star-crossed lovers. But he can't stop Shuyin, no matter how much he resists, no matter how much he wants to; no matter how much he doesn't want to. He allows himself to forget, if only to claim a moment he can never have.

"If she was your girl, what would you do?

"...I know you're listening... I was only trying to save the Summoner!

"If she was your girl, what would you do? I want to see her..."

Baralai remembers crying for the most tragic of injustices, daring to understand someone long gone, a ghost who victimized him like no other.

"Huh? Baralai... are you crying?"

'And how can I not?'

History dictates murder by the heartless hands of war. Bevelle left Zanarkand prisoners to die of starvation in iron-barred prison cells. No one performed the Sending for them; not for this particular man. Bevellian soldiers dumped his corpse in a cave, and didn't even bother burying him; they just abandoned him there to rot. Ever since then, he couldn't move on. The pyreflies prevented him peace of mind, reminding him for centuries his death, her death, and his failure to protect someone he truly cared about.

Baralai knows better than to feel genuine sympathy for this manifestation of evil, the very same spirit who harmed him, harmed his friends, and harmed many people before them in pure manslaughter. 'But he's been through so much. He died, because of Bevelle. Where's the justice in that...?' This visual tragedy of a man who once had a life just like any other human being, denied everything he ever wanted and everything he ever had, prompts misplaced compassion to blind his judgment, compelling him to stand between them, regardless of friend or foe.

"Don't! Stop hurting him!"

"Wha – Baralai! Get back here!"

Gippal and Nooj tried to warn him, but Baralai wouldn't listen. He can't remember how it came to be, repossession in the loving arms of a hateful man, shivering at the chill that courses down his neck as he reaches up to hold his face, because he can't just stop laughing.

"You... oh you... you are just too easy!"

"That damn kid! Fooled us with a replay of his memories."

Those ghosts of High Summoner Braska (Yuna's father?) and his legendary Guardians (Sir Auron? Sir Jecht, too? What are they doing here?) tried to stop him, but Shuyin wouldn't let them. He wants to scream out and cry for eternity, surrender to never-ending pain and take the coward's way out, but his inner warrior reminds him the Crimson Squad did not build him only to break. Baralai went ahead and proved them all wrong by surviving the merciless elements of Sanubia, which pushed him beyond his physical and mental limits. He entered the fray of life as a priest and came out a soldier unafraid of murder, wielding justice as his ever faithful sword.

This situation proves no different. He must rely on personal judgment to diffuse the crisis, no matter the cost. Baralai strives to stave his own resentment and unforgiving rage, to pave the way for kindness to flood from the deepest corner of his heart. If continuous resistance fails to provide eventual victory in the end, he will change his tactic – and give everything of himself to accept Shuyin. By absorbing him and becoming one, Baralai can break Shuyin from within using the pure truth.

Baralai remembers another brutal battle against the very people who are trying to protect him from himself, remembers seeing Gippal collapse under the brunt of Shuyin's illusionary blade. He will never forget the look Gippal gave as he trembles to stand, blonde head bleeding from a severe concussion while fear swirls in his exotic green eye. He relishes the palpable emotion on his tongue, the taste of terror and anguish, and raises his arm for the final strike.

"And then there was one."

'Stop hurting my friends!'

Baralai grunts and grits his teeth, holding his head with one hand. 'Stop!' He shouts and shouts and shouts without stop – 'Stop it! stop it! I said STOP!' – and the words repeat in the plea of another – "You must stop!" – the owner shifting once again. "Stop it!" The memory of Paine running forward, raising her voice out of concern for her best friends, and somehow managing to snap them back to their senses serves as holy water to the devil's influence. Shuyin retaliates in turn, pushing more dark memories into the surface, but Baralai ignores the morbid familiarity of which holding the pistol ignites.

'You… are the reason… I almost died…!'

Baralai exhausts every inch of his magic reserves, even reaches out into mana-laden air to cast extreme gravitation. Tons of invisible magic slam onto his body, causing blood to rush to his head and redden his vision. He would have otherwise smashed himself to death on immediate impact if Shuyin hadn't presented the inhuman capacity to stay standing.

'You… are the reason why Nooj… suffered all this time!'

Lungs suffer ridiculous amounts of duress, compressing to the point of hyperventilation. Kneecaps break as he sinks to the ground fast, feeling the blood vessels threaten to burst from the excruciating strain. Darkness creeps along the corners of his eyes.

'You're the reason our friendship is broken!'

'I can't die here…'

'You're not supposed to exist.'

'I can't, not now, not ever...'

'You died'

'...not again. I can't, I can't, I can't die!'

'–a long time ago.'

'Not again, not again, not–'

'You know that'

'Not until I find her!'

'so why don't you stay dead?'

"What... do you know..." His voice grows hoarse, rising to the vicious dial of pain. "What do you know? What do you know!"

Gravity ripples to the sudden shift of control, sweeping across the entire platform to disorient the living and light waves. Despite his mortal lungs and the violent pangs crippling his legs, Baralai dashes. His body protests against this self-inflicted abuse, somehow managing to surpass human limits as he generates indigo electricity in hand, grinning from psychotic delight. Leaping to skip across the splintered trail, he stops at one of the floating platforms and twirls at the balls of his feet, releasing raw energy to explode from his fingertips, using malignant telepathy to spring an ancient creature from out its inter-dimensional prison – a unicorn built with machine powered by magic.

Ixion soars into existence, an Aeon whose dream had been corrupted, a soul twisted from his original valiant design, emitting bursts of electricity that boom beneath the gallop of his hooves. Devilry beguiles the steed to rush to his aid, and as Baralai leaps to the motions of momentum, his body fails to catch the adjacent ledge in time and misses. He plunges into darkness, the temptation to cry out killed by a broken voice, and faints to the last thought he holds true –

'I'm sorry... for being weak... everyone...'

Soaking in the ocean of saccharine energy, free-falling into the depths of the Farplane, Baralai plummets through pyreflies that highlight his demise. Falling up, his heels catch the edge, walking backwards until he faces Nooj once again and tightens the gun in hand.

'This is my chance!'

Déjà vu seizes his senses all over again, repeating the emotions of the Den of Woe incident, machina aimed straight at the Mevyn's head, and Paine's not here to stop him this time. "Now you can have it ... Two years ago it was the same with you, Nooj, seeking your own death ... See, I've found that the mind that hates and despairs is the easiest to break." Repugnant glee warps his benevolent, angry voice beyond recognition. Baralai smiles, relishing the sight of Nooj collapsed on his knees before him, gasping for breath, life hanging on a single thread, and he has the power to tie the noose.

'Watch me kill your friend with your very own hands. This is what you've been waiting for. You've craved this ever since he betrayed you!'

'No! That was you!' Vehemence fails to dissuade its influence, only fueling it evermore.

Baralai remembers that fateful day he lost everything, and why he always dreamed of this day; a heart-rending scream penetrates the tense atmosphere, echoing the memory of a delusional realization.

'My friends betrayed me.'

'Surrender to me so I can end all suffering!'

Baralai awakes alone in a room that does not belong to him.

Orange rays of the morning sun spill through the open window, granting this disoriented teenager warmth from the cold depths of his bewilderment. Bloodshot brown eyes bulge at the violent pangs erupting in his backside. Memories with incredible clarity explode inside his mind, forcing him to recall everything that led up to this moment.

'We lost each other like how you lost your friends.'

The couple screams in chorus a silent, frigid scream of heartbreak.

Gunshots tear them apart from one another's embrace. Fallen to the floor, he reaches out to her. Fingers twitch, but his body won't move. Tears stream down her cheek as he watches the life fade from her brown eyes.

'Lenne died. I died. You almost died.'

One gunshot knocks the air clear out of his lungs.

Pain shoots through his body like white lightning, and Baralai never felt more afraid of dying or living to see the next day after today. Knees collide to the ground, before he collapses face first onto blood-soaked earth.

'Your friend betrayed you.'

Gunshots. "I said your work is done!" One more gunshot.

'You turned your back on the ones you loved.'

She holds him tight, afraid to let go, despite his half-hearted protests.

Baralai grips her hand and cradles it to his chest, promising her a hopeful truth. "I won't be away for too long. Someday, I will return home ~ save your tears, cause I'll be back... but until then, wait for me." Shuyin turns around to start walking, not wanting to see her shed tears for his sake. He would drop everything to stay by her side if only she told him not to depart, and that's why he doesn't dare look back.

'You walked away.'

"I'm sorry, Mother. This is something I have to do."

Baralai turns his back on the woman who loves him most, ready to leave home and enter the world as an adult. He wants to experience life for himself; no matter how much his mother wishes to protect him from the spiral of death and Sin.

'What do you have to show for it?'

And so does Shuyin, ready to enter a war doomed to start with, heeding the call to duty. He wants to fight for love against all odds, because every Bevellian life he fells on the battlefield will be one less danger to Zanarkand – and Lenne.

"I have to do this, Lenne. Sorry. I guess... this is goodbye."

Baralai feels like a child again, sitting alone in a corner and hugging little knees to his chest, crying and reflecting, guilty beyond words of the crimes he committed as an adult. Baralai vowed never to unlock the seal on his inner demons, never to allow his emotions to take over – but nobody ever gave him a choice.

'Mother... Father... I'm scared.'

Darkness. Pyreflies. Voices. Screams. Gunshots.

Utter chaos. Bloody murder.

Perpetual unrest.

"...It must've been the pyreflies."

"...somebody's raw emotions... hijacked my brain..."

"It made me feel fear, regret, and despair."

Negative energy carries unfathomable agony and distress, threatening to consume what remains. Baralai feels himself moving, running further and further away from his body, retreating into the secret confines of his mind only to find himself lost.

'It's so dark... but why I did come here? This is where...'

"This is the final exercise."

'...where...'

"Those who return alive will become formal members of the Crimson Squad."

'...where I want to forget...'

"This is it, gentlemen. You have your orders."

'...forget everything about–'

"Begin!"

'–that horrifying day!'

Light bursts forth from Nooj's torso, before scattering in fluid streams of iridescent soul fragments. Pyreflies slip and pass through the barrier of flesh to swim in Baralai's bloodstream, weaving through his bones and organs, latching onto his nerves and injecting dose after dose of poisonous emotions into his heart. No, that can't be right; the pyreflies are flowing away from him now, returning to Nooj and ... What does it mean to be himself?

"I made him do it. He was too weak to resist me," Nooj says, pointing a thumb at himself in pure evil glee. "I don't expect you to present any more of a challenge. Not now."

Baralai hears his voice, the voice of an enemy, an old comrade, someone who reflects his rage in the eerie glow of his glasses. And he realizes what a fool he's been, unable to notice when his friends are in need, unable to understand when hints float right in front of his face.

"Nooj?"

"Answer me! Why?"

"You shot Paine, too?"

"This has turned out perfectly, wouldn't you agree? Yes, I shot you. You... and Paine were easy targets." And the cold and heartless sound of Nooj's laugh makes his blood curdle. How can a man do such a thing to his own friends?

'I need to know. I have to know why he did it. Unlike Maester Kinoc, Nooj is my friend. I can't just shoot him, give into temptation and... and... what am I waiting for? This can't be Nooj. Friends don't aim guns at each other, friends don't go shooting each other in the backs, friends don't – they don't – do things like that!'

The rage lying dormant in his heart flares to life again, locking Baralai in place.

Things are happening way too fast and everyone wants answers, but nobody wants to give, only take; Baralai has reached the point where he can't take anymore of this, sick and tired of life taking everything precious to him and – 'What does Gippal think he's doing? Is he trying to take back a situation already out of control? He's stupid!'

"If this is what it takes, don't push me." Gippal levels his own gun on Baralai to even the odds, finger trained on the trigger following a plea, "That's enough! Nooj! Apologize already!" and a hope for compromise, "Just calm down!"

"Answer me!" When Nooj says nothing; only stares with his indifferent black eyes, angry tears blur the silver lining. Between everything he thought he knew and everything he once held as truth, Baralai demands clarity on the day he lost everything. "We were friends, and you shot us in the back! Why did you shoot Gippal and me? Why did you shoot?"

"Baralai!"

Lucidity rewinds the reality.

Baralai releases his finger from the trigger.

Mercy prompts him to return the gun in its safe and rightful place.

He turns around to lift his frown into a smile, eyes praying to the glowing sigils of Yevon for forgiveness.

'Why would I ever think of hating you?'

Baralai would never confess to such an impossible sentiment, "I believed in you once," because the past tense insinuates a story, which has every reason to be misunderstood. "When we were training in the Crimson Squad, I thought I'd never find a better friend. It's the truth." He backs away from the edge and turns once more on his heel, tuning out an inner voice "...but you betrayed that, two years ago." This doesn't sound like him at all, and doesn't sound like anything his friends would ever do; why would he ever say such a thing? These two men standing before him what reason could they ever have for betraying him?

Baralai remembers how anxious he felt standing next to Nooj after so much had been left unspoken between them, remembers the bitter words exchanged on a broken bridge where their friendship lies in ruins, and when Gippal's the last to arrive and they reunite in the undergrounds of Bevelle

"The Youth League and New Yevon are crumbling without you guys to hold 'em together. Sure you should be here?"

"If you were on time, then I'd really start to worry," Nooj says, the chuckle sardonic.

Baralai feels his world coming back into order, the way it should be.

"You're late." Baralai lightens his pokerface.

Gippal waves hello."Hey ~ uh, Nooj? My name is Gippal."

"My name's Baralai. I'm from Bevelle. You?"

The horizon ripples beneath a clear blue sweltering sky. Baralai shields his eyes from the sun, hand outstretched to cast shade. Blowing sand and glaring light assaults his sight, and he sighs into impossible humidity, breathing in the Bikanel heat. Hefting the heavy rifle within his trembling arms, he feels the weight of metal burn his skin and the touch of sin test his faith. Once his team leaves for their designated spot, Baralai dares to move and join the group of people he will come to call his friends.

"This moment's enough. I don't need anything else."

Baralai smiles into darkness and lets go.