magibrain: The gateway to the stars stands waiting. (Stargate)
[personal profile] magibrain
Title: Fire and Calm
Rating: T.
Genre: Character study.
Beta: Only in spirit.
Continuity: So far as I know nothing directly contradicts canon, but I'm fuzzy on my Seasons 8-10.
Prerequisites: Maternal Instinct, assorted Bra'tac episodes here and there, Full Circle.
Summary: Daniel wasn't the only one who began a journey at Kheb.
Disclaimer: You must renounce evil to achieve oneness with Oma Desala. Likewise, MGM et al would have to renounce their copyright on Stargate and its associated characters before it had half a chance of somehow belonging to me. The opinions expressed herein are the properties of the characters and not of the tradition of Buddhism. Fic has not been proven to cause discarnation of laboratory mice. I wish I could have given you this beautiful moon. Questions, comments and confessions can be left in replies or directed to magistrata(at)gmail(dot)com. Thank you for reading.

Wordcount: About 4000.

Sleep frightened Bra'tac at first.  Perhaps it was because he knew that final sleep was approaching, the one from which he would never open his eyes; perhaps it was the theft of those precious hours he had used to spend in kel'no'reem, returning again and again to the center of himself to face the truths there.  Bra'tac had heard it said – heard even Teal'c say it, seeming to echo the words of Daniel Jackson – that dreams could teach, that dreams were messages from that place hidden beneath the surface of self. But neither Teal'c nor Bra'tac himself had ever been accustomed to traveling there without control.

It made it even more important to meditate when he could.

Today was perhaps not a good day to do so.  He had been running from the forces of Anubis, who still seemed incensed that the alliance between Tok'ra, Tau'ri and Jaffa had survived.  There were not many ashrak in the galaxy, but there were enough to hunt down one old warrior. Pausing for a moment to reflect on the core of himself and his mortality was perhaps inviting trouble, but giving up the tradition was just as much a form of death.

So Bra'tac settled down in the hollow of an old temple that had fallen into recline, on a world on which he had hidden many times in the last years, lit a small fire, and sat with his wrists on his knees.  He closed his eyes, listening to the chorus of wind and insects and the soft scuffling of animal life in the undergrowth, and let himself reach for a few small moments of enlightenment.

When he felt rested and his mind felt cleared, he opened his eyes to see an old man tending the fire.

A man he hadn't heard, despite his attention to the sounds of this world.

He reached for his staff weapon, but the man raised his hand.  "Be at peace," he said, in the old, high language of Ra.

Bra'tac was not a trusting man.  He had lied for too long to too many to trust easily.  But he sensed no deception from this old slave – and then thought No, not a slave, for all that he was attired as one, for all that he knelt in the posture of a human and not a Jaffa.  There was something strange about him, and even without his symbiote, Bra'tac could feel that he was in the presence of something beyond his ken.  "Are you a spirit?" he asked, in the same old language.  "Come to beckon me on to Kheb?"

The man chuckled, showing teeth to the fire.  "In truth, I am unsure enough of what I am.  I suppose I can be a spirit, if it suits you to say so.  You are Bra'tac, are you not?  Of the Jaffa?"

"I am."  Bra'tac brought his wrists back to rest on his knees.  "And who are you, if it is allowed me to inquire?"

"In life I was called Kasuf," the man said.  "It is rumored that you may make the journey through Kheb one day."

Bra'tac found himself relaxing into his company, for all that his mind was lit with curiosity.  "You say 'in life' as though you have already passed beyond."

"So I have."  Kasuf brushed off his hands.  "In the fires of Abydos, the land where Ra rose and sank beneath the sands."

"Ah," Bra'tac said.

It was all that needed to be said.  Abydos was legend.

Kasuf stretched out his hands to the crackling fire, and it occurred to Bra'tac to ask whether he could feel its warmth.  It occurred to him, but the question he asked was "And how am I so honored that you would come to speak with me?"

"In the land of my birth, it was only polite to visit at a fire glimpsed nearby."

"There must be many fires burning in the universe," Bra'tac said.

"Indeed," Kasuf said.  "And this was one of them."

Bra'tac laughed.  The man was – had been – human, but he was not Tau'ri.  In manner, he was much more kin to the Jaffa.  His words were strange enough to lend humor to the night, but they were also familiar.  Comforting, perhaps.  Even among the Jaffa, the deceptions woven by Anubis and the rhetoric of the remaining Goa'uld and the lofty ideals of the Free seemed to strangle out frankness.  Kasuf's words were a breath of air.

"You are welcome at my fire, Kasuf of Abydos," he said.

"As are you at mine, Bra'tac of Chulak," Kasuf said.

A noise from a near hilltop distracted Bra'tac, and he put a hand to his staff weapon when he looked up.  When he looked back, Kasuf was gone.

The fire crackled on, undisturbed.

And then there was Erebus.

And three months passed without time for the luxury of both sleep and kel'no'reem.  Three months in which the imprisoned Jaffa watched him collapse each night as one stricken with plague a symbiote could not cure.  Three months of being a foundation stone, first for Rya'c's strength, then for Teal'c's.  And after that time, after looking into Teal'c's face as he stood for execution and wondering if he, too, had been offered the road through Kheb, he was returned by the Tau'ri to his people again.

Most of them did not take tretonin.  They respected him as an old warrior, past his prime, but did not understand either his strength or his weakness.  So on his first night he took his leave of them and went to the edge of a creek to meditate.

Kasuf returned.

Bra'tac saw him when he opened his eyes, sitting across the creek with the wooden was staff laid on the ground beside him.  He felt the corner of his mouth turn up.  "There is no fire here, friend."

Kasuf seemed to ignore the remark.  "When I was a child," he said, "I went with my father to the city Awanu, on the banks of the Hupti.  I had never seen such water.  And all the land around it was green!  I asked my father, why should we live in the dry desert, when this land was made so delightful for man? He responded to me that the world had not been made for man, but that man had been made for the gods."

"You were of the city of Nagada, which attended the mines," Bra'tac said.  Teal'c had told him stories.  Amaunet had been hidden there.

"I was," Kasuf said.  "And the people of Awanu were just as much slaves, eking effeta from exhausted soil to grind into flour, pulling enough fish from the river to feed themselves and the city of Nagada as well.  Now I have seen, in my travels, how carelessly men take water and green growth for granted."

"It is astonishing what we take for granted," Bra'tac agreed.

Kasuf looked up from the creek, crossing his arms across his chest.  "So?  Speak."

Bra'tac raised his eyebrows.  "No one has taken such a tone with me since I was chal'tii."

"I just have.  Speak."

Bra'tac regarded him.  "My people are not taught to know their strength as anything other than the might of the gods they serve," he said.  "We are a proud people, and I have learned how deep that pride sinks its roots.  But I have also learned that we can be... shortsighted."  He snorted.  "And faithless, when faith is perhaps most called for."

Kasuf nodded.  "Many of my people decried all order and the Old Law of Ma'at, when Ra was cast down.  Some turned to my good son as a god.  Others said there were no such things as gods.  Awanu threatened war over the ownership of their crops, and we threatened war to take their city as our own.  And then we learned to trade."

"There is no trade with the Goa'uld," Bra'tac said.

Kasuf made a wide, granting gesture with one hand.

Bra'tac sat for a moment.  "But perhaps," he said, casting his awareness to the collapsing space beneath his stomach, where the prim'ta incision was beginning to grow closed, "it is not the Goa'uld I should concern myself with."

"Tend to your house," Kasuf said, and when Bra'tac blinked, he was gone.

Bra'tac found himself looking forward to the visits of his odd, beyond-death friend. It was strange; he had been giving council for so long and had not sought it in so many years that the world changed complexion when Kasuf arrived, with his unsolicited advice and forthright humor. While Bra'tac was old, and as many had told him, his wisdom was great, it was still the wisdom of the Jaffa. He knew of war and courage, dignity and honor, and death – death especially. But of free will and the mutability of cultures and dreams beyond freedom, of art and the minutiae of life outside of wartime, he felt like a child.

Kasuf came again when Bra'tac was chuckling in a room in the Tau'ri base, after a long night of celebration. He'd lit the candles for kel'no'reem but was delaying it, buoyant on the memories the night had formed, when Kasuf's form blocked the light from the hall.

"You are in good spirits!" Kasuf exclaimed, with pleasure and surprise.

"Ah, Kasuf," Bra'tac said, pulling himself to his feet. His body was warm. It seemed that either age or the lack of a symbiote made him less able to hold his wine, and no doubt Rya'c would long remember this night as the one where old Master Bra'tac drank enough to join in the bawdy songs of the hak'tyl. He was welcome to the memory, in Bra'tac's mind; the boy was a grown man now, and deserved to see the many sides of the men around him. "Have you ever seen a fortress such as this, so overtaken by a matter of love? The Tau'ri had known nothing of the fire in Jaffa blood before today."

Kasuf smiled. It was a good, wide smile, showing his teeth. "A marriage is always the joy of a family."

"And the hope of the future," Bra'tac said, and the words seemed to cool him. "What will the world prepare for them?" he wondered.

Kasuf folded his hands into his sleeves, arms crossing above his stomach. "When my father passed, he told me to be a good man, a good husband, and a good priest of Ra," he said.  "I thought myself fortunate if I led my people well.  And then I gave my daughter to a stranger and saw Ra's servants cast their fire into my people's homes, and I hefted my was on the day we massed to overthrow him.  At times it seemed I was a god."  He shrugged.  "How else would I be a part of their great story? I, a priest?  But my daughter was taken as the wife of Apophis and my good son was raised and cast down from his place in this land beyond the duat.  Now I am here to continue his good work.  Who can predict such things?"

"The path of one's life is unpredictable," Bra'tac agreed.

"And one's death, it seems."

Bra'tac smiled. "I was told by a monk on Kheb that a Jaffa must be willing to die, before he could consider that great journey. I told him I took solace in the fact that the journey lay before me."

"I am aware," Kasuf said.

"I no longer carry a symbiote."

Kasuf nodded.

"Is that why you come to me?" Bra'tac asked. "Was it really my fire that drew you to my side, all these worlds ago?"

Kasuf stared into the flickering candles for some time. "The same monk who spoke to you also told me this," he said. "'Because it is so clear, it takes a long time to realize. If you immediately know the candlelight is flame, the meal was cooked a long time ago.'" He looked to Bra'tac. "Would you refuse me, if I came for such a reason?"

Bra'tac shook his head. "I would say that it is not my time yet. Nor, I hope, will it be, for many years."

Kasuf nodded. "Time enough for hares and hounds, then. If either of us had a board."

"I would offer you wine, if you could drink it."

The Ori swept the galaxy like the plague the Goa'uld had scrabbled to be, and Bra'tac saw less of Kasuf. He failed to appear after the destruction of Dakara, when Se'tak's hubris cost the Jaffa their most tangible claim to glory. He was absent from Bra'tac's side after the catastrophe of Dar Eshkalon. He appeared only once, near the beginning, the night Gerak walked into the council chamber, marked to serve a new god.

Bra'tac had retreated to his chamber, readying his arguments, wishing he knew the art of great speeches, wishing he could rip the film of enamoration from the eyes of those he'd once thought allies. Instead of those skills he found Kasuf standing by the window, looking out over the red-brown vista.

Bra'tac's steps slowed, and he glanced behind him to the empty hall before speaking. "Are we doomed?" he asked. "Will you not help us?"

"I would not know how to help," Kasuf said, quietly. "I am a simple priest of Ra."

"A priest with the power of one of the Ascended," Bra'tac said. "All of Abydos has the power of the Ascended. Do you choose to do nothing?"

Kasuf raised a hand, catching the light of the setting sun between his fingers. "Every child curses his mother when she cleaves the beautiful snake he thought to make his necklace," Kasuf said. "The humans of every world worshipping the Naturu cursed the Jaffa for their mistreatment. And should we blame the Naturu, your Goa'uld?" Kasuf showed his palms, opening them to the sky. "They were given no choice, driven to evil by the thread of life they were woven from. Should the Ancients unravel that thread and rebuild it pure? Should they remake all the universe to their specifications? We are not gods, Bra'tac of Chulak. We too are on a journey, and we too are often mistaken. So you see the pattern: the children, the humans, and us."

"Even so," Bra'tac said. "You cannot believe that the Ori mean the best for us. They would have us slaughter each other to feed them."

"I do not," Kasuf said. "But I believe I have been wrong in my beliefs before. And to be wrong now, with the power I hold... how would I forgive myself?" He turned from the window.

"They believe the Ori will teach them ascension," Bra'tac said.

"Then they believe a lie."

Bra'tac raised his eyebrows. "And you would let the lie stand?"

Kasuf spread his hands.

Bra'tac stepped forward, studying his friend's face. "You could offer them ascension. You've offered me."

"You came to us," Kasuf said, and folded his hands into his sleeves. "Enlightenment cannot be obtained through avarice and pride, my friend. Ascension is not owed to any being. Nor is truth. Instead it is the grasping for truth which lightens one's heart and makes one worthy."

"Then many of my brethren will never be worthy," Bra'tac said.

"Most," Kasuf said. "Of your kind and mine."

And Kasuf appeared at the first civil war.

It was the first war since his childhood in which Bra'tac did not fight. He retreated to Chulak, to one of the ancient stone houses set aside for heroes of the great revolutions. There, he readied his weapons in case the war should visit him there, and he lit his candles, hoping that the old rituals would calm the anger coiling in his gut. It was as palpable and as unwelcome as a larval Goa'uld.

And this war, just as pointless as the wars fought in the names of the Goa'uld.

He had not been thinking of Kasuf, but as he settled into his meditation, there Kasuf was, watching with his brown eyes. Bra'tac let out a bitter laugh.

"You have not come at our finest hour, friend."

Kasuf shrugged. "It was never my intention to see you at your finest."

"Then you have come at the best hour possible." Bra'tac cast aside the notion of kel'no'reem. "Is it wrong," he asked, "to curse these fabricators of war? Are we simply old men who no longer know the words to the chants the world has decided to sing?"

Unexpectedly, Kasuf laughed. "We have taken up the horn and drums," he said. "We have shouted the new songs until our throats sang blood. Do you look at your life and see yourself a slave to the old ways?"

"I look," Bra'tac admitted, "and see that little has changed. The Goa'uld no longer reign, but Jaffa still kills Jaffa. Politics has become the new god, and it is a bloodthirsty one. Called up by hot-headed men who are no better than the chal'tii of battlefield. They had no battlefield, so they made one."

"It is the providence of the young to be hot-headed, and to make mistakes."

"These mistakes will cost many lives," Bra'tac said.

"Even those best-practiced in the world cause their share of harm." Kasuf showed his palm. "It was with the best of intentions that all of Abydos was consigned to the duat."

Bra'tac considered that.

"Do you have regrets, friend?" he asked, at length.

Kasuf sighed. "I miss my daughter," he said. "I regret that I was unable to protect her. And my good son is changing. There may come a time when the Others deny him ascension, now that our good Oma is gone. In a way, it is well that he should be denied, if he should come to expect it. But I still mourn for him; the light to our people, the husband of my daughter, the good brother to my son."

"You speak of Daniel Jackson," Bra'tac said. "I would not be so quick to underestimate him."

"He should not be so quick to muddy the lines between the lower paths and higher," Kasuf said.

Bra'tac smiled. "And is this the old priest or the mentor spirit speaking?" he asked. "Are you yourself not muddying the paths by choosing to appear to me?"

"Ptah." Kasuf struck the ground with his knuckles. "Mine is a much more careful meddling. We are suffered to speak, if we are... circumspect."

Bra'tac also considered that.

"I knew your daughter," Bra'tac said. "Amaunet was much changed in her. I had never known her to show mercy until your daughter, as her host, overwhelmed her." Ordinarily he would never have said such a thing to a father whose daughter had been taken, but Kasuf was no ordinary man, and garnered no ordinary regard.

"She was always spirited," Kasuf said.

"Spirited is not the word," Bra'tac said. "A horse can be spirited. The host of Amaunet..."

Kasuf looked at him, and there was something like longing in his eyes.

It occurred to Bra'tac then that he might have been reassuring this man, this spirit, this once-a-slave. The sky seemed to fall away, whisked from over the world like a bowl concealing a magician's pearl, and he understood the meaning of the words This is only the beginning of the journey. Once, it had been a revelation that the gods were mortal and fallible. Now he understood that no matter what he understood, no matter what glories and mysteries he had seen, he had never seen a being or a land beyond doubt. If there was such a thing, it was still unfathomed.

The Jaffa would continue to spit and spar as the Goa'uld had, as the Ori had, as life itself tended to. And Kasuf had his own troubles, as well.

"Let me tell you," Bra'tac offered, "of the host of Amaunet."

There came a time that Bra'tac sat by a hearth on a late-summer evening, when the white sun of Chulak had sunk below the horizon and the yellow was descending the last few degrees into the night.

The fire was in the hearth, and the warmth it cast out was like a shadow of heat. Bra'tac thought that in his youth, fires had burned hotter, somehow; he also knew what it meant, to hold this belief as the sun set.

He was not surprised when Kasuf appeared before him.

"Teal'c is coming by in the evening," he said. "You have met him, I know. My own good son, in a way."

Kasuf turned to the windows. "It is already evening, friend."

"He will not be late," Bra'tac said. Kasuf clucked his tongue and watched the world go on outside.

They sat in silence for a while.

"Will you stay?" Bra'tac asked.

"Hm?" Kasuf asked, from the window.

"Will you stay and speak to him?" Bra'tac said. "He would listen to your council."

"He loves this world more than you do," Kasuf said, turning back to him. "With its bones and sand and the bodies that lie behind him. But the path will always be open, if he chooses it."

"And I am not allowed to choose it for him, hm? Not even as his old teacher?"

Kasuf smiled. "Not even then."

Bra'tac let out a long breath. "I grow weary more quickly, these days," he confessed. "Teal'c humors me. He brings the stories of the council floor. I–"

Kasuf watched the sliver of the sun grow thinner.

I no longer have the voice to argue, Bra'tac thought, but it seemed a meaningless thought. What did it matter to Kasuf what politics Bra'tac could or could not say?

"It has been a long time," he said instead. Or perhaps he meant, Time has been very long indeed.

The sun slipped under the horizon, pulling the night down after it.

"There is a mountain, I am told," Kasuf said. "Once in every thousand years, a bird alights atop it. Once in every thousand visits, it rubs its beak against the stone. And if it should continue into eternity, the mountain will be worn down to nothing long before the last glimmer of light in the universe is gone."

"In that case," Bra'tac said, each word a comfortable weight on the tongue, "it seems there is nothing to worry about."

Silence, for a time.

Kasuf touched his shoulder and said, with calm assurance, "Come."

"Where are we going?" Bra'tac said, looking into Kasuf's eyes. It was the first time one of them had touched the other. Bra'tac had suspected it impossible.

"There are no more false gods to slay," Kasuf said. "Come. The hour is late."

As if in a dream, Bra'tac lifted his hand to the side of his neck, seeking the channel of pulsing blood. Then, after a moment, he said "Ah," and accepted Kasuf's hand in guiding him to his feet. "A strange time to start a journey of a million miles."

"I can show you the dawn, if you prefer. As many dawns on as many worlds as the sparks cast off from your fire."

"I should put the fire out," Bra'tac thought aloud, and did so. The tongues of flame lapped back into the wood and cooled there. He felt them go out, and felt young again. Like a child for whom war was still glory and the stars glimmering above were unfathomably distant to the outstretched hand.

Then he turned from the hearth of his home and took his first step, toward the multitudes of fires glimmering across the sky.

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