Faces

Ramza's expression was odd as he stared at the funeral gathering. Alma watched her brother for a long moment before following his gaze. The funeral was hers. After the battle with the false St. Ajora, all had agreed that to falsify their own deaths would make it possible for them to help others. After all, who would search for a dead person? Ramza wanted to help as many as possible, and he knew that his death was the only way to do that. Now, as they stood watching the mourners surrounding her grave, it hurt her to see how his death meant so little when he'd done so much. She was honored and mourned by the church. He was branded a heretic and not even given the proper burial he deserved.

Alma quickly hid the tears, but her brother was too deep in his own thoughts to notice.

"I don't see him."

Alma glanced over at her brother, struggling to wipe her tears while holding firmly to the reins of her pale yellow chocobo. "Delita?"

Ramza nodded, but didn't look away. "You and his sister were close, and you always did your best to look out for her. I thought he'd come."

Alma sighed and refocused her gaze on the rapidly dispersing crowd. "Teta's death changed him. He... he got cold. He began to hate. Revenge was all he wanted. The Delita we loved died with her."

Ramza faced his sister with a shielded look. "We were friends, Alma. As close to blood as you and I."

"I know, brother. I know."

"Why didn't... Why didn't he remember that?"

Alma shook her head, turning away to notice a solitary figure standing at her grave. "Look. It's Olan."

Ramza examined the face of the Astrologer he'd once rescued from a group of thieves. "He believes we're dead. He believes Orlandu is dead, too."

Alma turned to her brother. "Ramza, isn't there some way we can let him know? I know he wouldn't tell. I know he wouldn't!"

"Sh," Ramza said sternly. "Alma, someone will hear."

Alma took in a deep breath and then urged her chocobo closer to Ramza's. "Brother, there's got to be some way. We can't let him believe his father's dead."

Ramza watched Olan a moment more. "Come on. Let's go."

Alma's heart fell. "All right."

Her brother urged his chocobo forward, and she followed at a slower pace. Suddenly, he redirected his mount out of the trees' protective covering. She turned to follow as her eyes searched out Olan's. She looked away when he turned to watch them leave the cemetery.

They rode on in silence. "Thank you, brother. Thank you for doing that for Olan."

Ramza pulled his chocobo to a stop, looking over at her as her mount came to stand beside his. "I remembered something father once said. 'Hope is the real power, for even fear balks in its presence. Hope wins battles thought to be impossible.' When I remembered that, I knew what I had to do. Olan deserved to have that hope, as we all do."

Alma watched her brother's handsome face and smiled, tears trailing down her cheeks. "Papa would be proud, brother. You never forgot what he taught you."

Ramza sent her a brief smile, and then moved on. The two rode in silence for a while longer, but the colorful countryside didn't seem to ease his tension. Alma sighed and stroked the feathers of her chocobo. It responded with a chick-like purr. Where they would stay or go she didn't know, but her brother had always done his best to protect her.

Alma smiled and lowered her gaze. After all that had happened with the church - the false stories of St. Ajora, the evil stones, and the evil behind it all - Alma still felt as if some higher being had been behind it. Guiding her brother on his quest to make things right. Making it possible for their small group of friends to be at the right place at the right time so they could learn the truth and change something within. Something that would make it possible for them to go on; even in the midst of such betrayal.

The only thing she'd never understood was Teta's death and Delita's pain. What good did it do? My brother has lost his friend, and Delita... Delita will never be the same. What will his future be with no friends or family? She had no way of knowing, but something deep within assured her all would be well. After all, because of Delita's separation, her brother had become stronger and wiser. He had become the man that had never been allowed to blossom.

"There's Rafa and Malak. The others are near." Ramza urged his chocobo forward to meet the slowly approaching brother and sister.

"How did it go? Were there many people?" Malak pulled his chocobo even with Ramza. "No one saw you, right?"

Rafa examined Ramza's face and remained silent.

"No one but Olan," Alma said.

"Olan, huh? Orlandu will be happy. He's been in a bit of a foul mood since you left. He wants to send word that he's alive, but is fearful the message would fall into the wrong hands." Malak gave Ramza's arm a friendly punch. "The old man will be grateful."

Ramza smiled slightly, and Alma caught the look of concern on Rafa's face as she watched him.

"Come," Ramza said. "Let's go meet the others. We need to discuss things."

"Yeah. Like what do we do to have some fun and excitement now that St. Ajora is dead for good? Life's going to get real dull, real fast."

Rafa sent her brother a scowl before returning her gaze to Ramza's face. Alma watched her a moment before moving her chocobo even with Malak's. "Come on, Malak. My brother goes too slow."

Malak grinned. "Still mad about me beating you before? All right. Go!"

As the wind whipped past her ears and the thudding of the chocobo feet rumbled through her chest, she prayed Rafa could get her brother to talk about what still held his heart captive by grief.

*

"I want to thank you again for allowing Malak and I to stay with you and your friends."

Ramza nodded and adjusted his grip on the reins. "You were welcome. You did a lot to help us through this. It is we whom should thank you."

"It was the least we could do," she said slowly.

Ramza knew that wasn't what she had wanted to say, but talking did nothing for him. No one could understand the questions and answers that weighed on his mind. Would Rafa, whose life had been so much... harder...? Her life had been harder. She had watched her family and village burn. She had starved on the streets, living as a beggar. She had been taken in and abused by a man she had come to call 'father'. Wouldn't she understand? Ramza pulled the chocobo to a stop, feeling Rafa's eyes on him as he stared at the distant horizon.

"Does no one mourn your death?" Rafa's question was soft. "Is that what bothers you?"

Ramza shook his head. Then he dismounted to lead the chocobo by the reins. Rafa did the same. "No. I knew long ago that I wouldn't be praised and worshiped as my father was. I never wanted that end."

"Don't all boys wish to be like their father?" Rafa asked.

Ramza heard the smile in Rafa's voice and surrendered to a small one of his own. "I did, but in a different way. I watched everything my father did and wanted to understand why. I don't remember him ever claiming that his cause was self-gratification or the prize of a new land to be called his. There was always something deeper." Rafa remained quiet as she walked beside him. Her head was lowered in silent retrospect as he continued. "I suppose what bothers me most is that when I attempted to do these things, I was branded a heretic." Ramza shook his head. "At times I find myself dwelling on the unfairness of it. Then again, honor and justice are their own rewards."

Rafa nodded. "Do you regret any that you have rescued? Any battle you have fought?"

Ramza remained quiet as the many battles flashed through his mind. "There are so many faces, Rafa. So many accusing faces telling me they were treated too harshly. Judged too quickly by my sword or spear."

"So you do have regrets."

"Only that death was necessary." He glanced toward her. "I don't care for the killing, Rafa. I never have. Not if there might have been another path."

"What of those evil beings you destroyed?" Rafa asked softly. "Are they, too, to be regretted? Gafgarion? Lucavi? Balk? Elmdoor? What of them?"

Ramza sighed. "I don't know."

Rafa stopped him with a hand on his arm and looked up into his shielded gaze. "No one can help you until you forgive yourself. War is a part of this life we live, and sometimes killing is a direct result. Even killing those who may not have deserved such a punishment. I know you hate the killing, and that is why I am sure you offered them another path before the death stroke fell. However." Rafa lowered her hand from his arm with a sad _expression. "However, what I know, Ramza, and what your heart accepts are different things."

Ramza looked away. "My father would have known what to say. What to do. My father was a great man."

Rafa studied him. "You respect your father's wisdom, so you must listen for it now. Only he can help you."

Ramza turned to watch her as she moved away, leading her chocobo to a nearby stump used to help her into the saddle.

After Rafa adjusted her seat, she looked over at Ramza with a slight smile. "You say your father was a great man, Ramza, and I believe you. For his son is also great."

She rode away after another smile his direction, Ramza silently staring after her.

*

Alma straightened as she stood in front of the campfire. Rafa made her way past the late shift of guards. Fordham and Maria waved her through with a smile, always keeping a watchful eye on the little-revealing darkness. They were only two of many that had been with her brother since the beginning. Only a couple had left the party due to concern for their family or a simple disagreement with Ramza's plan; Gailar being the first. Ramza had said the Chemist left because he hadn't felt skilled enough for the group's purpose. But Alma wondered at the truth of it. She'd heard they had come across him studying Wizardry in a later battle.

Rafa dismounted the young chocobo, and Lavian led it to the others. Rafa almost immediately made her way to Alma by the campfire. Alma was afraid of what she would see in the young Heaven Knight's eyes, so she stared into the fire and occasionally stirred the stew one of the others had set to cooking.

"He sees the faces of the dead too clearly."

Alma looked over at Rafa in surprise. The shadows from the fire danced across the young woman's dark complexion and gave it an eerie appearance. "What?"

"The casualties of this war. The innocent. The guilty. He feels their breath on his neck."

Alma's face twisted in a frown as she desperately attempted to understand the meaning behind the words. Rafa and Malak were from a different land, so they had a unique way of explaining things. Alma felt a little ridiculous asking for a deeper explanation, but something inside made her press on. "I don't know if I understand what you're saying. You mean he sees the dead?"

Rafa smiled. "Not as we did in Yuguo Woods, no. He sees them in his dreams. He relives their dying as a way to punish himself for allowing their deaths."

"Did..." Alma chewed her lower lip. "Did my brother tell you this?"

Rafa shook her head. "No, but I have seen the look in his eyes before now. That look haunted Malak and myself for many a night after we watched our family and village burn. Yes, he blames himself for their deaths."

"But... but he couldn't save them all! It's impossible!"

Rafa shrugged. "I only know what I know."

Agrias Oaks strode up to the two then with hands on hips. "Where is Ramza? We must plan our next move."

Rafa smiled, but kept her attention aimed at the stew. "He's out beyond the sight of the night guard."

"Why? What is he planning?"

"I don't think he's planning anything," Alma told her. "He just wanted time to himself. Let him be, Agrias."

"We don't have time for this," she said firmly. She turned toward the place where the chocobos were fettered.

Rafa chuckled. "I shouldn't have told her where he was. Now she will go."

Alma shook her head. "No, it's all right. Maybe her brusqueness will help."

Rafa remained silent and stirred the stew.

*

"Ramza! Ramza Beoulve! Where are you?"

Ramza cringed at the use of his family name as he turned to watch Agrias' approach. "Agrias," he greeted simply.

"Ramza, we must discuss our plan of action."

Agrias strode to where he stood by a large boulder near the top of a hill near camp. She always presented the appearance of being a formidable opponent, and Ramza had discovered how true that presentation was. Not only was she formidable, she was skilled and a quick study in additional areas of fighting. Even her tendency toward abruptness was refreshing after the vagueness and twisted truths of his family, the church, and the 'aristocrats' on both sides of the war. At that moment, however, he wasn't too eager to be submitted to it.

"All in good time, Agrias. I believe we've earned some rest."

"Rest." Agrias said it as if it were the foulest word in her vernacular. She gripped the hilt of her sword, an exquisite blade found in the Deep Dungeon, and laid her fist on her hip. "Resting at this point in the war is unwise. You are believed to be dead, and we should use that to our advantage. Of course you realize this, for you are no fool."

Ramza looked down at the rocky ground at his feet. "Action without an end purpose is just as unwise. We need to know what we're fighting for before thrusting ourselves headlong into the battle."

"I realize this, Ramza," she told him sternly. "That is why I have searched you out. We all must discuss this, for it is not your responsibility alone."

Ramza surrendered to a brief smile. Agrias had never viewed him as leader of their entourage. She'd always offered her many years of experience and expertise on any plan of action presented. This had sometimes received strange looks from his cohorts from the academy, who had naturally deferred to him for direction. Ramza, however, had enjoyed the little bit of pressure her viewpoint had relieved from his shoulders, and he'd learned a lot from her because of it. Now, it made him a little uncomfortable because he'd wanted a brief respite from the additional responsibilities.

"Agrias, aren't you tired of battle?"

"I do not have time to be tired," she countered. "The outcome of this war has turned the tide of power, and it is our duty to ensure the protection of those who are not able to do so themselves. The ones now in power may not be as adept at handling their responsibilities as they believe. This fact alone places more pressure on us."

Ramza scowled as he picked up a fist-sized stone at his feet. "I'm already painfully aware of this, Agrias. Thank you so much for reminding me again."

Agrias studied his features, and then she rested a hand on his shoulder in a surprising and unexpected gesture of comfort and compassion. "You attempt to bear this alone even when it is not required of you. Throughout this endeavor we all made independent choices to follow you. The burden is not yours, nor is the responsibility of our decision to battle these injustices."

"I lead you into battle after battle, Agrias. The orders I give at each encounter are very real, instantly obeyed without question. If a comrade falls, it's on my shoulders." Ramza tossed the stone away and then crossed his arms. "I have responsibilities which you don't realize."

"We all have responsibilities of which no one knows," she told him as her hand dropped from his shoulder. "The fact we share this one great endeavor makes the others more bearable for us. Why do you not give up your burden?"

"And which one is that?"

"This war. These deaths. Betrayals and unforeseen happenings. We must all carry them, for we have all witnessed them."

"I alone had the power to stop them."

Agrias stared at Ramza in disgust. "Only God Himself could have stopped these atrocities. Why He did not is only just beginning to be revealed to me, so I am not free to discuss it. You, Ramza, have done more than what was expected all because of your inborn sense of honor and justice. You are the true hero of this war and not Delita - the brigand - and we all know this. Put aside these false expectations of yourself and move forward."

Ramza heard and understood what Agrias said, but his heart and soul continued to rebel at the seemingly unreal expectation. "My brothers were involved, Agrias. How can I be anything but responsible?"

Agrias continued to glare at him as if she now believed he was a fool. "Your brothers have paid dearly for their involvement, thank God, and you have symbolically washed your hands of any involvement by constantly opposing them. Even God has clearly forgiven you your ignorance by blessing you with survival and victory against a most terrible foe."

Ramza turned his head away. "I could not save my friend or my friend's sister, Agrias. Are you saying I'm not to blame for that?"

Agrias made a sound of exasperation. "Put these childish behaviors behind you, Ramza. Delita made his choices, and because of that he has forever changed. His sister is in a better place, through no fault of her own, and if Delita had been wise he would have left it behind him as well. Looking to these pasts will do no good in our fight for this nation's future. Accept it and move on. Crying over it will do nothing but bitter a good heart."

She turned on her heel and strode back the way she'd come, mounting her waiting chocobo to gallop off as her braid thudded against her back. Ramza watched her leave and then looked back down at the ground as he adjusted his crossed arms.

"Agrias is wise, if untactful."

Ramza looked up in surprise to find Beowulf leaning against a boulder some distance from his own. The Temple Knight stood and moved toward him, a gloved hand holding the hilt of his sword as the other kept his cape drawn around him against the quickly descending chill of evening.

"Beowulf. I didn't know you were here."

He smiled. "This I noticed, and it's the reason I stayed. Your ignorance of my presence made me able to study your mood more freely." Beowulf leaned against the boulder beside Ramza. "They try to understand your lack of celebration for the victory against the false child of God, my young friend. They try but do not succeed, for they themselves have not lived your life nor seen what you have seen."

"I suppose I should appreciate their attempts."

Beowulf chuckled. "You do, as you well know."

Ramza shrugged.

Beowulf studied Ramza a moment. "You have seen much for one so young, Master Beoulve. The next lesson you must learn will be to take what you can from the experience and leave the remainder buried and forgotten."

"That goes against my honor."

Beowulf nodded. "Yes, I understand. Our honor does fight to remember all, but your wisdom must be taught to fight harder. Mark these things toward experience and leave them there. It is for the best."

Ramza turned to study the battle-worn face of his friend and mentor, instantly wondering what he had been required to leave in the past. All had come from different walks of life with a type of silent understanding that none of their pasts would be the topic of conversation. The present and future had been the only concern; all had agreed to it. Ramza, however, had his family and past displayed for all to see, and yet these comrades had remained to join against a common enemy and injustice.

If they can leave it behind, why can't I? It was a question with no answer.

The Temple Knight faced Ramza with a serious _expression. "This war shall not last forever, Ramza. When the bloodshed ceases, you will need a home."

Ramza looked away. Igros castle was his home, but he could never set foot in it again. Never be near the fond memories of his parents and sister. No longer be surrounded by the laughter of his friend and brothers. What is there for me but war and death? I have nothing else. No way to protect my sister. No way to see that she marry well and be cared for the way she deserves. Ramza raised his face to the sky and let out a long, deep breath. I have failed, father. The world is saved, but what of Alma?

Beowulf gripped Ramza's shoulder. "When Reis and I leave for our home, you and Alma will come with us. She will have the life that you want for her, do not fear."

He squeezed Ramza's shoulder again before leaving him with his thoughts and the faces of those less fortunate than he. Miluda, Zalbag, Teta, Wiegraf, Elmdoor, Vormav, and the names went on. Ramza could see them clearly. All wanting to be heard. All demanding justice for some unknown wrong.

Ramza scowled and pushed from the boulder, striding from the faces and questions and accusations still unanswered. Instinct after ingrained instinct had led him to where he and his small band of rebels now were. Would that same instinct lead them where they needed to go from here? Or would he stumble blindly forward? Grasping at causes. Following hints of rumored injustices for a shadow of a purpose. Would he become more of a problem than a solution?

Ramza clenched his teeth. No, I will never give father cause to be ashamed. He pulled himself into the saddle of the waiting chocobo, staring out at the horizon a moment before urging it forward. Then he relaxed his hold on the reins and allowed the chocobo the freedom to wander. It headed to the woods westward.

Ramza released a deep breath.

'...take what you can from the experience and leave the remainder buried and forgotten...'

'Looking to these pasts will do no good in our fight for this nation's future... it will do nothing but bitter a good heart.'

'You respect your father's wisdom, so you must listen for it now. Only he can help you.'

Rafa's voice drifted past the faces, settling in a quiet corner of his mind and bringing a bit of peace with the statement. Ramza tightened his hold on the reins as he lowered his gaze. All he saw there on his hands was blood and misery and sorrow. Did I do right by them, father? Was the path taken the only one available? But the slight whisper of the breeze didn't offer any answer. Nor did it rescue him from the guilt that attacked him so mercilessly.

'Mark these things toward experience and leave them there.'

'This war. These deaths. Betrayals and unforeseen happenings. We must all carry them, for we have all witnessed them.'

'War is a part of this life we live, and sometimes killing is a direct result... I know you hate the killing, and that is why I am sure you offered them another path before the death stroke fell.'

Ramza lifted his gaze from the view of his hands and the blood and the faces. He pulled the chocobo to a stop and dismounted, walking ahead of the birdlike creature and allowing it to follow at its own pace behind. Scenes and screams and fights and betrayals pelted his soul until it ached... and then he paused, crouching to pick a blade of grass. Ramza stared down at it for a long moment before closing his eyes and lifting it to his lips between his hands and making it whistle. Once more, and then he lowered his hands with a deep sigh as he opened his eyes.

"And what do you attempt to hide with memories and sounds from your youth, son?"

Ramza straightened sharply and turned. He blinked and his throat tightened. "Father?"

Lord Beoulve smiled as he slowly stepped forward from the shadows of a massive tree. "Yes, Ramza. It is I." He opened his arms. "Come, son. Where is my greeting?"

Ramza stepped forward into the strong embrace. "Father..."

Lord Beoulve tightened his arms around his youngest son. Then he pushed back, examining Ramza's _expression before encircling his shoulders with an arm and drawing him forward. Ramza stared at the ground, hardly allowing himself to believe that the pressure around his shoulders was indeed his father's arm. Then he changed his gaze to his right and saw again his father's firm and welcome profile.

Lord Beoulve turned his head to meet Ramza's gaze. Concern darkened his father's eyes. "Your pain grieves my heart, Ramza. Why are you so wracked with guilt?"

And with that statement came the faces and the actions and the blood-- Ramza blinked and looked away.

"Ah," his father said softly. "War; how I recognize its haunting look."

Ramza released a deep breath. "Yes. War for power. For supremecy. For greed and lust of that which should never be a reason for war."

Lord Beoulve gave a slow and understanding nod. "And for what did you battle, son?"

Ramza took in a slow breath before answering. "I tell myself I battled for justice," he answered quietly, "but who am I to judge what is just and what is not? I am not God."

"No, you are not, but you may well be His tool for that justice."

"But what can a mortal understand of God's justice, father?" Ramza asked as he changed his gaze to his father. "How do I dare place myself in the role of executor of His punishments?"

Lord Beoulve's _expression showed sadness. He halted to completely face his youngest son. "Ramza, why did you follow those paths chosen?"

Ramza looked away. "The other paths presented would only harm more innocents," he said quietly.

"And the paths chosen? What did you accomplish by them?"

Ramza clenched his jaw. "The revelation of a false child of God and an opportunity to destroy it." Ramza turned on his father with outstretched hands. "But what of the others, father? Why did these others need to die? What evil was in them that made me decree death their punishment?"

Lord Beoulve shook his head and reached out to firmly clasp Ramza's shoulder. "You did not decree this punishment, son. They chose their path long ago. Those that live by the sword often die by the same."

"They fought for the betterment of their people, father," Ramza pressed. "I fought for nothing but the continued supremecy of the nobility."

"No, Ramza," Lord Beoulve said firmly. "No. You fought against a perceived injustice. Then, when the true injustice was revealed to you, the path was eagerly followed."

Ramza lowered his arms with a deep breath as he looked away.

Lord Beoulve gripped his son's shoulder, drawing his attention again. "You have a kind heart and soul, Ramza. Such is the reason you have done what you have done. If the faces will not give you rest, ask their forgiveness for the action done against them. Ask also for the forgiveness of God, for I believe it was His path you followed." Lord Beoulve lowered his hand from his son's shoulder. "Then you must accept His forgiveness and forgive yourself. Only then will you have peace. Only then will you be free to move toward the destiny God holds for you."

"I cannot so simply forgive and forget, father," Ramza said with a shake of his head. "They deserve more than that end."

Lord Beoulve shook his head. "I did not say for you to forget them, son. Let them rest. There is a difference."

Ramza released another deep breath as the memories of battle and war began to press in.

Lord Beoulve gave a slight nod. "Do not fight the memory, son. Take it into you as a lesson needed for what God has planned. Learn from it, but do not regret the action."

Miluda. Wiegraf. Teta. Zalbag... Ramza brought a hand up to rub at his forehead. "I..."

Lord Beoulve gripped Ramza's upper arm. "The past is in the past, Ramza. Do not allow it to bar your way to your future."

Ramza lowered his hand, eyes closed as he tilted his face toward heaven. Faces laughed and sneered and snarled. Ramza opened his eyes to stare at the heavens, seeing nothing but the accusing faces of those long dead. "Forgive me..." he whispered hoarsely.

There was a loud and sorrowful rumble of thunder across the heavens as the faces began to fade and shimmer and vanish...

"You have but to accept the forgiveness, son," Lord Beoulve said softly. "Peace will follow."

Ramza slightly nodded, changing his gaze to the shimmering form of his dead father. "Thank you, father."

Lord Beoulve smiled, a hint of tears glimmering in his eyes. "I love you, son, and always have I been proud of you. Remember that."

"I will, Father," Ramza said, ignoring the tear that escaped to roll down his cheek. "I will."

They clasped forearms, and then Lord Beoulve vanished. Ramza continued to stare ahead, grief bubbling to the surface as the distant thunder grew in volume.... and then the clouds released the cleansing tears of heaven and sky and it began to rain.

(The End)

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