"Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Hmm?" Blank straightened from his idle pose on the railing, turning his head to the deck of the Prima Vista. Zidane Tribal approached with sauntering pace, head kilted to the side, tail swishing behind him. The top deck was quiet this late at night. Blank looked back to the broad expanse of valley below, a long way down from the airship wheeling through the sky. "Yeah, it sure is."
Zidane settled on the railing beside him. The boy was sixteen now, getting leggy and cocksure, yet for all his smart mouth Blank was aware that Zidane still looked up to him. "It's a nice night for stargazing," the boy said conversationally. "So clear...usually we don't see skies like this with the Mist so thick and heavy, and the Prima Vista flying low."
Blank tipped his head up. "Yeah," he acknowledged, picking out familiar patterns, tiny white pinprick jewels strung together on the black-purple velvet sky. "It's a beautiful night for it."
A gloved finger pointed to the brightest star, the one that burned like a diamond so close to the twinned moons. "You know all the names...what's that one? I've always wondered."
"Zidane, what the hell were *you* doing during all those years of education?" Blank asked, startled. "You learned all the literature well enough...and fighting, and thievery..."
"I was never too good at astronomy," Zidane replied with a wicked grin. "Besides, my tutor was a pretty twenty-something and I was far more interested in twitching my tail up her skirts."
"You were ten!" Blank protested, laughing.
"I was precocious," Zidane replied, arching his brows. His smile was abruptly intimate, reminding them of shared instances of that precocity.
"That you were," Blank allowed. A warm comfortable silence settled over them as Zidane stood beside him at the railing a shade too close, their arms touching. Zidane's tail caressed against his leg. He pointed up at the bright, bright star. "It's Canus Mega. And see that smaller one below? That's Canus' brother star, Canus Sol."
"How do you know so much about stars?" Zidane wondered, tone lazy.
"Hmm." Blank's lips curved. Zidane was feeling frisky tonight, which involved a bed, and Blank was feeling philosophical, which involved hanging out by the top deck railing and watching the stars. He wondered which one would win out by the end of the evening. "I never told you about my brother, did I?"
Zidane's startled glance was answer enough. "I -- I never even heard you had one," he replied. "Where is he now?"
"It's not the only story you haven't heard," Blank said, scratching at the skin beneath his headband, where pale skin met dark graft. "If you listen, I'll tell you."
He'd tell him more, perhaps, than Zidane expected to hear.
"Niichan, niichan, look how bright the stars are tonight!"
"Aa, Blank, they are bright this evening," Cipher said with a smile, letting his younger brother tug him along. "Beautiful, aren't they? They'd light up the sky even without the moons, wouldn't they?"
Eight-year old Blank frowned. "Without the moons? They're not goin' to fall, are they?" Panic burred in his voice.
"'Course not! It's just a figure of speech, little bro!" Cipher assured the upturned, wide-eyed face. Blank was pale enough without scaring the tar out of the kid.
"A wha--?" Blank blinked.
"A funny way of saying something that isn't so," Cipher clarified, simplifying the concept a bit. They looked at each other, both mildly confused. Then he cuffed his brother's ear gently. "You behind on your reading? A play-troupe member can't afford to lag, y'know. Baku will tan your bottom if you're not up to speed by the time rehearsals start." Cipher was hardly one to talk, having perpetually lagged behind on his book-learning while diving into the thievery-learning full tilt.
"I'm not behind!" Blank objected, earnestly looking up into his brother's face. He wrinkled his nose. "Besides, Marcus is loads farther behind, and he was an unofficial Tantalus before I was!"
"Thieves don't tattle," Cipher reminded him automatically.
"Hmmph." Blank folded his arms and looked stoic. "But you *are* gonna tell me about the stars, right, niichan?"
"Sure, sure," Cipher said to appease him. "Haven't I already told you a hundred times? But we better get back to the Prima Vista soon, or the Mist will get us."
Blank rolled his eyes. "I know, but I wanna hear it again. Besides, *Mist* can't hurt us." He giggled.
Cipher looked into his brother's face seriously. "Maybe the Mist can't, little brother, but the creatures that thrive on it can."
The boy looked chastened, then tugged on his brother's hand. "But tell me about the stars!" he insisted. Blank had never liked ghost stories, really, or hearing about frightening things like the creatures that could come from the Mist. He preferred a good adventure or fairy tale. That was why he liked the stories about each constellation.
"All right," Cipher gave in. When could he ever resist his little brother? He lifted a thick finger to the sky. "See that brightest one there? That's the one Cinna steers our ship by. You remember what it's called?"
"...Canus Major?" Blank chirped.
"Nope!" Cipher lowered his hand. "It's called Canus Mega. 'Cause it's the biggest star in the sky, and there's supposed to be a spell named after it, I think."
"Really?" Blank looked up at him suspiciously.
"Well, maybe," Cipher said with a grin. "And that smaller star, winking next to it? That's his little brother, Canus Sol."
Blank recounted the next part himself. "They're brothers just like us! They were great hunters, until one day Canus Mega came up against a monster too big for his bright, shining sword."
"That's right," Cipher said, picking up the thread. "You see the sword, beside them in the sky? That's the constellation Le Sabre...it even curves a little, like the real sabre."
"And that's the monster, beyond Le Sabre," Blank shivered. "When Canus Mega came across a monster too big for he and his sword put together, he was taken into the sky, so that his memory would live forever."
"That's right," Cipher repeated. He knew his little brother had asked him to tell the story so often, he could probably tell it better than Cipher could. "Canus Mega died, but his memories are a part of the sky now. Then his little brother Canus Sol came, and wept over his body, because he didn't know that."
Blank's fingers squeezed around his. "Tell the rest of the story, niichan," he whispered, looking up into the night sky.
"Canus Sol took up his brother's sword," Cipher said softly, "and he managed to slay the beast, though he sustained grievous injuries of his own. And as he died, he forgave the monster for what it had done, for it was only acting out its nature.
"That's why the Bahamut constellation brightens the sky," he continued. "Because Canus Sol forgave it, and because only Bahamut could have fought such strong heroes, so it deserved to be honored."
"And then?" Blank prompted, tugging on his hand. This was the most bittersweet part of the tale, but he always wanted to hear it.
"And then, laying down his brother's sword, Canus Sol succumbed to his injuries, and he died," Cipher said quietly. "And for his bravery, he was reunited with his brother, and taken up into the sky as a bright star."
They stood side by side in the dewy grass, staring up into the night sky. Blank was knuckling his eyes. "And what happened then?"
Cipher was startled. Always before, Blank had been satisfied by the tale. "What then...?" he echoed.
"What happened when they became stars?" Blank asked wistfully. "Are they happy up there? Bahamut doesn't pursue them anymore, does he? But if he doesn't, why do they need Le Sabre, too?"
"You," Cipher told his brother, "are full of too many questions." He picked up eight-year old Blank and swung him into his arms, smiling. "And it's time for your bedtime, to boot."
"No, I don't wanna!" Blank whined, legs flailing. "I wanna hear the stories about the Princess and the Mage, and the story of the Two Moons, and the Dark Star that no one can see, and..."
"Another night," Cipher said firmly. "If we stay out any longer this far away from Prima Vista, we'll be Zaghnol bait."
"Just like the brave Canis Sol," Blank said, brandishing a wooden sword at a non-threatening clump of barking dogwood, "I shall brave the perils of the forest!" He grinned, self-satisfied. Starflowers were few and far between, but Zenero said he'd seen some near the Pinnacle Rocks the other day.
Blank was being especially daring today. He knew he'd be in for a sound whipping if Baku caught wind of him venturing so far from Lindblum, and his brother Cipher would be angry, if not outright disappointed. But if he got there and back, like any good thief, if he accomplished the deed before anyone knew of it, than he reaped only (or mostly) the rewards.
He flipped his bokken onto one shoulder, well pleased with himself. This was going to be a tremendous venture. It was still very, very early in the day -- the starflower couldn't flourish by night -- but he planned on tucking the blooms into his hide vest and hurrying back to Lindblum to present them to his older brother. He had to hurry, though. Cipher had drilled it thoroughly into his head that the Zaghnol was a creature to be feared, and if he lingered anywhere near the Pinnacle Rocks...well, that would be it.
There was a sign near the beginning of the famous landmark, and it warned him of the ghost of a man that had been seen in the region. Blank wrinkled his nose at it. Ghosts belonged in one of his brother's fairy-tales, not in real life.
Near the base of a tree he found the starflowers, and tucked them carefully into his vest to avoid crushing them or exposing them to sunlight. There. Blank stood, feeling inordinately satisfied. He'd done it. He felt as tall as if he'd just finished his first major performance with Tantalus.
Blank turned, and froze.
The soft snort was the first thing to warn him, then the tamping sound of a cloved hoof pawing at the turf. Blank took in the pinkish-red flesh, the wicked curve of ivory tusks, and the mad gleam in tiny piggish eyes.
*Don'tmovedon'tmove,* the voice of panic whispered in his ear. *It can't see me if I don't move, right?* No, that was for Mus, who had notoriously poor vision.
He gripped his wooden sword tight, and knew that he would never be able to match himself against it. With its first charge the Zaghnol could decimate him, and Blank didn't have so much as a Cure potion on him to help.
Blank thought of Canus Sol, and wondered if he could ever be brave enough to be taken up amongst the stars. He held onto his bokken and hoped he had enough skill to clip an ear, maybe, before it could toss him with its tusks. He was Tantalus. He wouldn't go down without a fight.
A shadow sailed overhead, landing with a thud on the ground and darting forward. he recognized the gleaming length of familiar broadsword before the man struck. A tuft of red-pink flesh went flying, and a boarish cry of rage split the air. Blank staggered back as the sun blinded his eyes, and one hand went protectively to his vest.
"Niichan!" he yelled.
"Blank! Stay back!" Cipher warned him, falling into a defensive position before the Zaghnol.
Blank whimpered, an incoherent sort of noise, and obeyed his brother. He knew that one thrust of that Zaghnol's tusks could tear him up bad, and he shielded his face and body with the wooden bokken, knowing it might not do much good but it could deflect a killing blow.
"Take this!" Cipher roared, darting forward again, tearing a long strip of skin from the Zaghnol's face and cutting across one gleaming eye.
The Zaghnol roared.
"Go Cipher!" Blank cheered, dropping his protective stance, lifting his bokken high in the air.
The Zaghnol fixed its good, burning-piggish eye on the boy, and saw an easy target. It pawed at the turf and launched itself, yellowed ivory tusks jutting forward.
He could hear his brother's frantic yell in his ears, could see the red-pink bulk of the Zaghnol barreling for him, felt the slick grip of the bokken in his hands. None of it mattered. Blank felt sharp points catch and tear beneath his ribcage, then he was borne to the ground and heavy weights pounded into his body. "BLAAANK!" The cry was a distant litany, a cry of grief. A cloven hoof clipped across his face and Blank felt a heavy trickle of blood, but no pain. Not yet.
He raised his head enough to see the shining sword dart for the Zaghnol again. His brother was still fighting. He thought of Canus Mega, and the way the hero had wielded Le Sabre against the monster of old times. He must have looked a lot like this, bigger than life, shouting defiance as he lifted a sword longer than he was tall into the teeth of a demon.
"CIPHER!" Blank shouted, as his brother leapt into the face of the monster, his sword flashing with the rise and fall.
He saw his brother's dark-skinned face looking over one shoulder at him, then he saw the rising yellow-white of Zaghnol fangs, then he was collapsing onto his back once again.
Canus Mega died...his little brother Canus Sol came, and wept over his body...
Blank cried. Without even seeing the crushing blow, he knew his brother must have been hurt worse than the damage he'd sustained, himself. Every breath was shallow, and precious. He couldn't even take up their father's sword to finish the story...
"Blank! Stay back!" That was Baku's rough shout, and he saw the man swinging his Baselard before rushing forward.
"Niichan..." Blank sagged to the ground. The next thing he saw was the white-blue flower of Cure against his eyelids.
"It's prolly not enough," Cinna told him, worried, "but it's enough to keep you, okay?"
He opened his eyes and saw the older man straightening, leaping into battle with his hammer held high. Blank found himself able to half-sit, and saw Marcus too, dancing into battle. He gasped and looked down at the still-bleeding rents in his side. His arms were covered in blood. This was after the Cure... "Niichan," he murmured, barely audible. He couldn't see his brother's shining sword in the battle anymore. He turned over onto his side, and began to crawl.
"GET SOME!" That was Baku's battle cry, as he leapt for the Zaghnol again.
There, in the grass, he saw the glint of their father's sword. His brother's sword. Blank pawed at handfuls of grass to take him on his way, not caring about the bloody rents that still oozed sluggishly onto the turf below. He was headed for his brother, and nothing but hell or death could stop him.
"Cipher?" Blank said frantically, using his brother's given name. For a long moment his eyes wouldn't make sense of what he was seeing. It looked like a heap of discarded clothing and a red, wet mess. Then he began to piece out the details, starting with the shape of an ear and his eyes tracked, horrified, over the wreck of his brother's body. The Zaghnol must have caught Cipher on its tusks, same as it had with him, then trampled over him. "Cipher, please don't be dead."
He stifled a whimper, biting down on his lip. The grass tufts were slick beneath his hands as he pulled himself closer to his brother. The sword lay on the grass beyond Cipher, its shining edge dulled with Zaghnol blood. He wondered if he could pick it up in his hands, which were tiny compared to Cipher's broad capable ones. "Niichan, please open your eyes!"
"Blank...?" The head lolled towards him, and he bit down another whimper as he saw that a hoof had smashed his brother's face, crushing the cheekbone, and one eye rolled in the socket filled with blood. Cipher's breath rattled out in a sigh of relief. "You're alive."
"I don't have any Cure, niichan, I think Cinna used the last one..." Blank stifled a sob. Big boys didn't cry. Would Canus Mega have died if his brother had carried phoenix downs? He knew they only worked if they were cast *soon,* and Cipher looked...bad.
"S'okay, little bro." Cipher moved, agonizingly slow, and his hand came to rest on Blank's head. "Remember...the brothers? I don't want you to follow me into the sky."
He was crying silently, biting down harder on his lip, reaching up to grab Cipher's hand. Fresh pain flared up his side. "Just...no, don't...we can get back to Lindblum, we can..." He knew, though, that the Cure was only good if it was applied right away for the really bad injuries. And Elixir, which could heal completely and instantly, was too expensive, too well-guarded, too far to reach before it could do any good.
"Don't want you to follow me yet..." Cipher's breath rattled out again, and he was trying to smile. "Don't cry, little bro. I'll join the stars...and you will, too, some day...our memories will be a part of the sky.
"But not yet, for you." Cipher patted his head and his hand slipped away. Something in his throat made a wet, meaty sound.
"Niichan...Cipher..." Blank caught his breath, then sobbed. "No, Cipher, please open your eyes again..."
He heard the dying roar of the Zaghnol.
He had little recollection of the journey back to Lindblum; it was a haze of pain and fear for his brother and desperate hope that they could get Cipher back in time to revive him with a phoenix down.
Baku was muttering about safe base periods as Cinna carried him carefully, so carefully, across the fields. Every step hurt. He could barely see for the blood but he knew Baku was carrying his brother, and he knew his brother was dead.
Blank passed out.
He remembered, later, being wrenched from a pain-shallow sleep with screams, Cure blossoming in pale blue fire over his skin but not sinking in. He HURT. He was still bleeding from open wounds.
"It's too late," Baku's rough voice rasped, worried. "It's been too long."
"A doctor, then?" Cinna suggested.
"What the hell could a doctor do to stitch this together?" Baku's voice snarled, and there was a heavy *thump* as he slammed his fist against the wall. "We couldn't even keep Cipher alive, we can't afford Elixir, and the boy's wounds are too huge to just *stitch!*" His fist cracked against the wall again.
Blank wasn't sure but he thought he passed out again. *Cipher, I hope you became part of the sky...'cause I'm gonna be there, too...*
There was more pain, following him even in sleep. He ran and ran and ran and he couldn't escape the tusks of the Zaghnol, he felt it ripping his skin again, he felt its hooves pounding over his body. He saw Cipher run through, and he saw the bright longsword that had been their father's fall to the ground.
He saw it over and over.
Then the pain stopped.
He didn't want to open his eyes, because he was afraid the only thing he'd see was stars. But if Cipher was a star now, too, then he could still see his brother.
"Blank, the Sleep potion should be wearing off now, the doctor said." It was Baku, his rough voice sounding more gentle than he'd ever heard it.
"Baku?" He cracked his eyes open. He was alive, then. He didn't feel quite so badly as he had.
"Thank Odin," Baku said with relief. A hand patted his head. "You're gonna be all right, kid."
"What...how..." Blank tried to sit up and winced. Pain shot through his middle. "I heard Cinna, he said Cure wouldn't fix me anymore."
"Damn him for talkin' in a sickroom," Baku growled. "We thought you were passed out. Yeah, it's true, you wouldn't have survived, 'cause you were ripped up pretty bad, and so..." He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
Blank looked down at his hands. For a moment he just blinked, not comprehending what he saw.
His arms, he was paler than that, wasn't he? It was his brother who had such beautiful naturally-tanned dark skin. His eyes traveled up to the stitching just above the elbow, and he understood. "...my brother's dead."
"We couldn't save him," Baku said, rough with remorse. "I'm sorry, kid, I'm so damned sorry...and the Zaghnol did a number on you, too. Doctor said when he got to you that parts of your body were 'dead' already. But...but your brother's skin...he grafted..." Baku's voice failed him and the big man gripped his hand, hard.
Blank swallowed. "My brother's dead," he repeated. "But...but this way he's still with me, right? I mean, he's part of the sky and he's part of me, too. So...s-so..." His face crumpled. Cipher was *gone.*
Baku held him while he cried.
Zidane was shocked and quiet for several moments after Blank finished. At some point he'd tugged his gloves off and slipped a hand, warm and comforting, around Blank's waist. "I never knew," he faltered at last, an awkward kind of apology for his ignorance.
"It's all right," Blank told him, leaning against him, still looking up at the sky. What time was it? Almost midnight, and the Prima Vista sailed closer to Treno; they'd be able to see it any minute now. "It was a long time ago. Baku did it to save my life, and I know Cipher would've wanted it that way."
Zidane was quiet, tail curled by Blank's leg, brushing up against him occasionally but not making the overtures it had earlier.
"Look!" He pointed on the horizon. "See that one? That bright one, more blue than white?"
Zidane squinted. "Yeah..."
"That one's Cipher's star," Blank told him with a smile. "It showed up in the sky the night he died...I think...and Cinna agreed with me, it was a new star. So you don't need to be all quiet just 'cause I told you, Zidane. It was a long time ago, and I know Cipher still looks out for me, from the sky."
Zidane sidled closer, and now his tail curled tentatively around Blank's leg. There was a grin in his voice as he said, "You've always had the devil's own luck, Blank; he *must* be watchin' out for you."
Blank laughed. He craned his neck to look across the top deck of the Prima Vista. The coast was clear. "No wenching on the Prima Vista, you know," he said, voice low and suggestive. "Wanna take this to that nice private berth of yours?"
"You're on," Zidane told him, slow smile warming and full of promise.
Because, after all, when someone has lost something, they have exactly two choices. They can continue to savor and live for what they still have, or remain tied to that loss forever.
It's that simple.
I'll join the stars...and you will, too...our memories will be a part of the sky.
Blank nudged Zidane in the ribs, breaking away from the railing. "C'mon, I'll race you to the pole."
~end~ 12/15/01 Christmas giftfic ...For my becki.