Turkish Drummers [FFX]

It was dark when he awoke, but lack of sunlight behind waking eyelids came as no surprise to the habitual early riser. What did surprise him was the knowledge that he had been dreaming.

Concentric patterns like that -- a play within a play, a dream within a dream -- had bothered him once, when he was younger; now he simply seemed amused by them. A man's reaction to a situation is his choice, and not the situation's -- this was a lesson he had been taught early on, back in the days when his hands had not been strong enough to lift the swords he would one day swing with ease, but a lesson that had taken a lifetime to learn.

What life? he smiled grimly, sitting slowly upright and letting the bedsheet fall away from his body. A life within a life. Or perhaps a death within a death. These things didn't come with instruction manuals.

But he had been dreaming; that he was sure of. There, in the darkness of the room, he stared at nothing, trying to remember. But it was no good; the dream was gone, scared away by waking, as dreams often are, and he found himself completely alone in the darkness of the place that was his to call home, for now.

Still disoriented, he reached for the light, to see if something might have changed -- things can change in dreams, can change like water -- but found everything in its right place. The few pieces of furniture that had come with the open studio apartment had not moved; neither had any of the occasional objects that dotted his shelves and walls, mostly trinkets and gifts, all from the boy. Auron himself had little interest in interior decorating.

He looked out the window towards the east, where the grey sky was threatening day; shaking his head, he lifted a hand to his eyes. He didn't know if dreaming inside a dream meant that he was only imagining dreaming, or if dead men could even dream at all. His training as an obedient warrior monk hadn't prepared him for these kinds of metaphysical puzzles, and they tended to make his head hurt if he thought about them too long. It was best to do something that didn't necessitate thought. Something to get his mind off things.

So he turned his legs out of bed, and he stood beside it on a flat, clear plane of floor, and he did his stretches, the same as he did every morning. Routine helps for not thinking about the difficult things. Or, really, for not thinking about anything at all.

His muscles knew the patterns better than his mind did, though he concentrated on every inch of movement, as that's what he was supposed to do. The exercises were about discipline; they were about concentration. They had once been about fifty young men raising their arms and legs in combat-like perfection, painfully slowly, every morning of their young lives. Now they were for himself. He needed them to remember. He needed to remember to be able to forget.

Outside, the grey sky turned blue as he moved, bringing into focus first the nearer buildings, then the surrounding water. The fayth had been kind to him and given him quite the room with a view; he supposed he should be grateful, when he supposed at all, which was not now. Now he concentrated on the perfect extension of his right arm.

When he was finished, he let his chin fall to his chest for a few seconds, then turned and headed mechanically for the shower. He turned the hot water all the way on; the water fell, hot, but not hot enough to scald. Perhaps the dream wouldn't let its denizens burn themselves. How thoughtful.

For the first few months, the discipline of stretching every morning had been the routine that had helped integrate him into this new world, this new body; for the first week, they had been absolute to maintaining his sanity. Literally stranded in territory unimaginably unfamiliar, he had been left nothing to cling to but what he had kept inside his head -- that, and a terrible desire to go home again.

His strong right hand twisted shut the valve, and the water ceased its tirade. Once upon a time, he could remember, he had been -- well, not completely ambidexterous, not even functionally, but enough to the degree that had he been forced to pick up his sword with his left hand and fight with it, the enemy being hit would scarce have noticed the difference. Now he did nothing with his left hand that he did not have to do. There was nothing wrong with it, physically; his body was, all things considered, in fine shape. He simply preferred to let his left arm rest.

He bypassed the mirror in the bathroom -- he hated mirrors -- and strode, towel tucked securely around his waist, into the part of the apartment that served as the kitchen. Few walls, few doors, and a lot of empty space left him hard-pressed to decide where, for instance, the kitchen ended and the bedroom began. It helped that he didn't particularly care.

Now the sky glowed an almost artifical rosy pink, as it had nearly every morning he had stopped to behold it. He supposed it was artifical, all things considered, and the thought made him smile a little as he put on a pot for tea, as it had made him smile a little every other time he had thought it. Some things were dependable.

With a wave of his hand, he turned on the tiny television that sat on his kitchen counter and leaned back against the breakfast bar to wait for his tea. Tidus had insisted on the television, just as he had insisted on nearly every other piece of technology in the apartment, and Auron had learned very quickly that arguing with Tidus was somewhat like arguing with water -- sooner or later, the water got its way, and all the better the sooner. And so his apartment was filled with electric can openers, microwave ovens, even a computer that sat politely in the corner and didn't mind that it didn't get a lot of use. The priests in the Bevelle had never dreamed of such machina. If Yevon hadn't hated him before, Auron knew, Yevon certainly hated him now.

On the television, two perfectly pressed and moulded people smiled great and artifical smiles as they talked about the weather. Today would be sunny and beautiful, they smiled at those awake to watch. Auron shook his head; he could have told them that just by looking out the window. But perhaps dreams didn't do an awful lot of looking out of windows. And that was the weather, with no nod to what it might be tomorrow, or beyond. Perhaps, along the same line, dreams didn't care to think that far ahead.

But the clear skies would mean a better turnout for that night's game, and Auron knew Tidus would be pleased. Tidus loved the crowds, the larger the better, and pandered to his fans shamelessly. The teakettle whistled, and Auron poured himself a mug's worth. Tidus had tried to convince him to switch to coffee, but Auron had never cared for the taste of what he still thought of as an Al Bhed drink, and so tea it had been, every morning, part of the routine that kept everything in place, the way each stone keeps an arch in place.

So the day would have sun, then. He eyed the refrigerator, wondering about its contents, realising that a trip to the store would probably not be a bad idea. He could do that later, though. As long as there would be sun, he should open his windows, let the apartment air out, maybe clean a little--

The mug slipped from his startled fingers and broke into six perfect pieces on the hardwood beneath his feet. He didn't notice as the hot liquid splashed across the white carpet, or even across his bare feet. His eyes were rivited to the bed he had left barely half an hour ago.

The sheets were still rumpled from sleep, the pillows piled haphazardly against the headboard, just the way he had left them. But he blinked once more and knew he had not left the swords there.

He crossed the distance in three long strides and placed his hand against the cool metal of the longer sword. It was his, no doubt about it. But he had left his behind in Spira ten years ago, scarred and nicked, rusted with blood -- and here it was, as perfect as the day it had been forged, with an edge that gleamed in the artifical dawn. His fingers traced the fine gold engraving; the blade was his, no question of it. He would have known it anywhere.

Similarly, the blade that lay across it was no stranger to his eyes. At first, he had placed greatest importance on Jecht's strength and acquired him a sword almost as big as Braska was. But with time, he had realised that even more important was the blitzball king's speed, and had found him a much lighter and faster weapon, and though they had teased him about the colour, he had wielded it with good humour and a deadly dignity. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen it held fast in Jecht's thick fingers. It had most likely been lost somewhere on the mountain ... and like his own, was here again.

Both of the blades, together again, here in the heart of the dream. But Jecht no longer had use for his blade; Auron first doubted Jecht had hands anymore with which to wield it, then stopped thinking about that altogether. He had known one day Jecht -- Sin -- would come for him. That much had been made clear in the way only things unspoken can be clear. Meaning inside of meaning. He would keep his promise as long as he could, and Jecht would keep himself as long as he could, and when Jecht felt it all slipping from him, he would call Auron back, and Auron would finish it. Or die trying. Again.

He bent his forehead against the cold of the steel; drops of water still clinging to his hair pooled and ran off the blade, victims of mass and gravity. Where they fell they left a dark spot on the sheets.

Then he would not clean his house today, nor any day following, and he would not go to the market for tomorrow's breakfast, for there would not be a tomorrow -- not here, anyway, not for him. There would be a today, and possibly a tonight, but whatever the dream's future might be, he had no place in it anymore. Finally, he was going home.

Home. He chewed that word over for a while. Home, an Al Bhed word, borrowed so long ago that both tongues claimed it as their own, meaning the place where you belong above all other places. A place within a place. Home was where you were supposed to return when you had nowhere else to go.

And this, he thought, lifting his head, this city had been his home for the better part of a decade, as much as it had been the place he slept every night and inhabited every day. But he didn't need Tidus' constant gentle mockery to remind him that this was far from the place where he belonged above all other places. He was a dead man in a dream of a city where he had never belonged.

But it was all about to change.

There wasn't much time. There was, of course, the length of a day, but the length of a day is capricious and subject to interpretation, and he wasn't ready to bet something this important on a whim, and a whim not his, at that matter. Using prior experience as a guide, he concluded that they would most likely not be able to take anything with them; but there would still be the matter of what might come before they actually left. Somehow he knew they weren't just going to walk away unnoticed.

Yes, they. As he stood, he realised he had known the meaning of the second sword all along.

As he stood, he also realised that he was still wearing only a damp towel. Well, that wouldn't do. And neither would anything else in his drawers or in his closet, all things considered. He had never embraced -- or let himself be talked into embracing -- the more complicated nuances of Zanarkand fashion, prefering simplicity when he could find it: no more buttons, zippers, or velcro fastenings than absolutely necessary. No matter how many times Tidus had dragged him enthusiastically into the most fashionable boutiques, he had never managed to see the appeal.

It was the way it had been from early on -- Tidus had money, Auron didn't, so Tidus paid for everything and neither of them questioned this policy. He bought Auron things the way a parent would buy things for a child -- without hesitation or thought of payback, even without expectation of gratitude. Besides, with his inheritance, the payoffs from two life insurance policies, and his recently acquired pro blitzball salary, Tidus had more money than he could ever spend in his entire life. Auron had felt guilty briefly, then had stopped. It was useless to feel guilt when this was simply the way things were.

He rifled hastily through his closet, past fairly nondescript shirts and plain slacks that suited him just fine. The anonymity of dress appealed to him, even though he knew he could have walked out in the street with nothing on but his bedsheet and no one would have given him a second look. Or, really, a first one. He had a tendancy to simply slide off peoples' minds. Tidus' friends couldn't remember his name. He didn't take it personally.

It was in the last place he looked, of course, but then again, most things are. Stuffed against the back of the closet, neglected for nearly a decade, a red coat hung lopsided on the hangar. Beneath it, folded politely, sat a pair of pants, a dark shirt, a belt, and two heavy boots, none of which were now or had ever been in Zanarkand fashion. Perfect.

He spread his find out across the bed, across the swords, as though a man attired in those garments had been stretched there, then, leaving only his clothing, had disappeared. Vanished like a ghost inside a dream. The thought made him smile, and he reached first for the pants. The ghost, it seemed, had chosen to return.

Had he really spent the last ten years in Spira, he supposed that he would now, at thirty-five, be pleased as punch to fit in the clothes he wore as a young man. As it was, he just shrugged and accepted the fact as concession to the rule that nothing changed. He saved being pleased for the fact that he actually remembered how to put all this on.

Mostly. He fumbled with the belt for a few minutes before realising that one of the buckles had somehow gotten twisted in transit and would not buckle again until its condition had been rectified. The guard across his left shoulder felt a little uncomfortable, but it had always been a little uncomfortable, so this was no change. And fastening left-handed the buckles around his right wrist took longer than it ever had before, but the end result was much the same.

There, then, he thought, brushing away a layer or so of dust; almost done. His drinking jar sat on the top shelf of the closet, pushed so far to the back that he had to retrieve a chair from his kitchen table and stand on it to reach. He pushed away sweaters, scarves, gloves -- the things he had acquired his first winter, out of fear of the coming cold. Tidus had looked at him skeptically, but had made the purchases anyway. Auron had never needed them.

When the jar finally came down, it came wrapped snugly in a cowl that had once belonged to a heavy -- never-worn -- coat. He placed them both on the bed, untangling the jar and attaching it at his hip. It was light -- too light, as far as he was concerned, but he hadn't found anyone so far in Zanarkand who sold to his tastes, and probably wouldn't in the next few hours. Perhaps sake was a Bevelle affectation. Perhaps kerosene was as well.

No matter; now he was attired appropriately, ready to fight whatever fell in his way, ready to return to Spira. Ready to go home. He felt twenty-five again.

His reflection, however, did not. Staring back at him from the mirror was the face of an old man, an old man with greying hair and a cragged jaw that wouldn't shave quite clean, an old man with a scar where an eye used to be. He had lines across his forehead and by his eyes, lines extending from his nose to the corners of his mouth, all of which had been there the day he arrived in Spira, and all of which he had avoided looking at since that day.

Now, though, he stared bravely at that mirror by the front door, the mirror he had never bothered to do anything to save ignore. Now he was being called back to face the past he had left, called back to face all the hurt and mystery he had left behind him, so he might as well begin with facing his own reflection. For the first time in nearly ten years, he took a good long look at his face and realised, surprise above all other surprises, he still recognised it as his own. Behind all the change, he could still see himself. Death, ironically, had aged him, while the life that followed had left his appearance alone.

Tidus had never questioned it; Tidus had never known Auron as anything but an old man, and had never stopped to find out that this old man was younger than Tidus' father had been. But Tidus was not among those who had known his younger face, and when they returned, there would be questions about the damage ten years alone couldn't have done.

Best to stop them before they even started. He picked up the cowl from the bed and set it over his shoulders. It looked a little out of place, perhaps even a little silly, but he really couldn't bring himself to care. It made it clear that asking questions would be impolite, and that would be enough.

His gaze caught something by the beside table, and he reached for them -- his glasses. Not prescription, for his eyes -- eye -- could still see just fine, but a pair of dark glasses that Tidus had given him once as a present. It had been several months before he figured out that they had been intended as a Father's Day present. He didn't dare leave something that precious behind.

So there he was, in the mirror, again the guardian. Braska's guardian, who had fought alongside him and Jecht, and who had wanted to die with them but had died alone instead. Alone and cold.

But this time he wouldn't be unprepared. This time, he would know what to expect, and he would be ready for it. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed. And he would not be alone again.

Three rings sounded in Auron's ear before Tidus answered his cell phone. "Hello?" He sounded out of breath.

"Tidus?" Auron asked tentatively, even though he knew exactly whom he had called and whose unmistakably bright voice had answered. It seemed better than simply starting to talk. Auron had never been very good with telephones.

"Auron!" Tidus sounded pleased to hear from him in the few seconds before his tone of voice darkened. "...Auron, is something wrong?"

Auron smiled a little, running his fingers across the phone's jeweled speed dial buttons. "No, everything's fine." He cleared his throat, suddenly feeling thirsty and wishing the carpet hadn't consumed his mug of tea before he had had the chance. "I was just calling ... to make sure you'd be at the game tonight."

"Of course!" He could hear Tidus' breathing slow; the boy had probably been warming up. After all, tonight was a big night. "Everybody's going to be there!" A small pause. "...Are you?"

Auron nodded, even though Tidus couldn't see him -- another bit of phone ettiquette he had never quite gotten the hang of. "I wouldn't miss it for the world." And it was true. Not for any of several worlds, in fact.

The happy laugh from the other end of the phone made Auron's eyes dart to the smaller of the two blades. Tidus probably wasn't going to be nearly this happy with him again, not for a long time. But it was a chance he would have to take. "Great! You're in box B again, remember?"

"I remember." Auron reached behind to tuck his hair inside the cowl so it wouldn't scratch the back of his neck. This was going to take some getting used to. "I might be a little late, though."

"Just not too late, okay?" Tidus covered the mouthpiece of the phone as he spoke in now-murmured tones to someone else. "Listen, Kira's here and I said I'd go shopping with her beforehand, so--"

"Don't let me keep you."

A woman's voice said something else in the background, and Tidus stopped to listen for a second. "Okay, okay. So I'll see you there later, right?"

"Right." Auron took a deep breath and fingered the beads that held the sake bottle to his belt. "Good luck tonight."

"Thanks!" And like that, Tidus was gone and the receiver of the phone sounded only silence.

Auron sat the phone back into its cradle and looked around the apartment. Well, he had several hours to kill until the game, and the place did need cleaning -- why not leave it better than he had found it? It was only a dream, of course, but perhaps the gesture would show that it had been appreciated, for a time.

And when it was done, he would set out into the city, where barely anyone would notice him, and no one would stop him. A dream within a dream, about to wake up again. After all this time.

The sun outside had already started its descent, down the arc of the ecliptic, down to where it would set over the land and the water behind it. Already the shadows had begun to grow long beside their owners, moving twin-like across the cobbles beneath their feet. He watched them pass, shadow and substance, wondering if either would even notice something in their midst had finally changed. But after tonight, to him, it wouldn't matter. His eyes found the horizon, found the place where in a few hours the sun would go to sleep. In Zanarkand, it wasn't that the days were any shorter; it was simply that the nights were so long.

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