The Many Adventures of Walking Man

BY : cognomen
Category: Final Fantasy X > General
Dragon prints: 806
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy X, nor any of the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

“He just went a few minutes ago,” Auron lied - it came more easily than he thought. “To relieve himself, he said.” This was true enough, though several hours had long passed in Auron’s watch. The guardian told himself it was in Braska’s best interests. Who knew what kind of trouble Jecht would have wrought? The summoner’s gentle and forgiving nature had led him into danger before.

“Perhaps he lost track of the way back...” Braska’s mouth had twisted down, concerned. Though he was looking directly at Auron, and not for any signs for Jecht’s return. A sinking sensation pooled in Auron’s stomach and he rose to his feet. He eased the stiffness from his arms and legs, then stretched his back.

“I shall go and seek him.” It came out grimmer than he expected, clearly expressing the task as an onerous chore.

“We’ll both go.” Braska rolled his bedding, then Jecht’s, then paused. “He took his pack.”

This too, Auron had noticed. He nodded evenly. “Looking would be a waste of time.” He glanced toward the road then took the excess bedroll from Braska. “We’re like as not to find him in the closest bar.”

Braska looked measuringly at Auron - who got the sudden uncomfortable feeling he’d been forgiven for something that neither had acknowledged aloud but both knew. He tangled his fingers tighter in the lacings of Jecht’s bedding, shifting his sword on his shoulder.

“We’ll find him.” Braska said at last, stepping easily out of Auron’s reach when the guardian reached to try ease his pack out of the summoner’s grip as well. “After all, we’re certainly intending on some travel.”

-

They did not find him at the next town, instead they found his wake. The traveler’s house homed a bar in its lowest floor, rooms arrayed above. When they entered, the ’keep was sweeping out suspicious debris and the bar was closed to patrons. An angry current rode hard in the air, though the Inn did its best to welcome the summoner warmly. Several of the townsfolk drew Braska aside to encourage or thank, and Auron trusted him to their care.

Town was no safer than field when it came to Sin, but wandering fiends at least did not venture in. Some deep memory of living gave them enough self preservation for that much. If the great beast came, Auron trusted there would be warning enough to return to his duty.

He cornered the innkeeper, under the guise of aid, stooping to steady the catchpan to receive the splinters and sharded glass.

"Trouble?" he asked - carefully. It would be better to avoid involvement in Jecht's troubles if they could. Braska had little enough acceptance, given his past. Auron wanted to avoid hindering him further.

"Oh, plenty," the innkeep grumbled, though his uncertain glance up spoke plainly of his question as to what purpose a summoner's guardian had in aiding common chores. "There was a man through - he drank fit to sink a ship, then refused to pay his due."

Auron's mouth firmed into a grim line against his bidding. The innkeep kept his silence, pushing the last little bits of wreckage into the pan, then he held a few seconds more before curiosity overcame decorum.

"You know him?"

"No." This was mostly the truth. "I suspect we shall fall often in his shadow." Auron wished desperately that Braska would have never taken Jecht under wing. The pilgrimage would already be hard, near impossible. More hurdles only increased the chance of failure.

-

Again they were just a step behind Jecht, though it seemed in Besaid he had more or less behaved himself. The locals had been considering forming a blitzball team, and he’d offered them some training and advice in exchange for his vices. The locals were still abuzz with the excitement, fathers and sons alike juggling blitzballs between them and practicing all manner of kicks.

Auron had never paid much heed to the sport - he’d had more important things to study in Bevelle, and even as a child he’d been too severe to properly enjoy the abandon the sport seemed to welcome. He and the summoner walked the central path between the open tent houses to the temple in peace - perhaps living this close to the temple, they had long since become inured to the presence of those on pilgrimage. It somewhat unnerved Auron - who had previously at least seen a warm greeting given to his summoner out of respect.

For his part, Braska seemed almost relieved. He straightened his back and ascended the temple stairs - the priest, at least, greeted him. They both paused to pray - though Auron’s nerves suddenly prickled to life, reminding him that his summoner was about to go somewhere he could not follow, nor could he protect his summoner from what was to come as his faith and determination were measured by the Fayth they sought aid from.

The temple was open too, the mild weather and hard stone construction rendering doors both pointless and stifling when the heat came. Inside it was cool, a ring of stone to remind severely of the necessity of Fayth. Eventually his eyes adjusted to the dim dark inside the temple, and outside he could still see the children chasing blitzballs around with enthusiasm.

Auron settled himself outside the entrance to the chambers as his summoner was ushered inside, his hands finding firm handholds in the tails of his robe as he assured himself that hundreds of other summoners had passed the cloister of trials before, unharmed.

-

Braska stood firm on the prow, his eyes fixed on the hulking, lurching form that raced landwards before the boat. He was ready to call aid, his staff uplifted, but the beast was out of range. Heedless of the tiny boat with its fierce figurehead, it found purchase for its claws on the seabed and lurched forward, far less clumsy when it did not have to swim.

They weren’t quite out of range of Sinspawn. Though Braska’s eyes never left Sin, his guardian tracked the arc of folded fiend through the air and toward the boat. Wood flew up in sharp splinters as they planted themselves hard point first into the deck, sailors scrambling out of the way as best they could.

They emerged, limbs clattering to the deck, hefting the bulk of unfolding forms from their nests of splinters. They clicked to each other, pyreflies shining brightly in patterns along the wings of the fiends, encouraging their comrades to their feet and encircling the summoner warily. Joints locked into place and the monsters lifted themselves to the ready, maws gaping in anticipation of pray. They were not ungainly, though they shifted as ceaselessly as the sea, unable to remain still.

Auron readied himself, calling to mind the familiar calm of battle. While his enemies shifted and slid, he stood firm. His sword was a comfortable weight in his hands, and he held while they considered. Finally, one lunged, only to be cleaved from the air by the arc of Auron's weapon. The others encircled, twitching and losing what little patience they had for complex strategy.

Though the battle was welcome enough distraction, Auron was careful to keep track of Braska. He kept his back to the summoner when he could so that his defense could be focused only on three sides and it was harder to drive him astray.

Sailors skittered carefully around the edges of the conflict - some fighting, others wrestling lines and moorings, doing their best to keep the ship afloat and on course. Between the steps and retreats of combat, he heard them shouting worries, assurances. Many were losing family, and some, hope.

Gritting his teeth on the upswing, a fourth Sinscale fell in its attempt to scuttle roundabout toward Auron's summoner. Braska still stood at the prow, silent. He was measuring his opponent. Watching it. Learning. In the brief lull, Auron cast an eye toward Sin, measuring when the next wave of spawn would arrive.

Raising itself on heavy limbs, Sin's jaws split in a cry that resounded all the way back to the ship. It spat whorls of wind from its maw, which spun away to decimate the homes that it did not crush with its ponderous body. Spawn poured from its hide in swarms, ignoring the ship now and focused only on the homes and docks.

The winds, intensity reduced by distance, sent the boat rocking alarmingly. Seconds later bits of debris began to drop from the sky, flung carelessly away like the bones from a meal. Auron barely dodged a heavy boat tie that thudded deep into the deck behind him. He fought the wind to reach Braska's side.

"Lord Braska-" He had to shout to hear even himself. The summoner didn't seem to hear - he was watching Sin, eyes narrowed.

Auron batted shrapnel carefully away from Braska. The summoner seemed oblivious to the dangerous hail of broken dock and roof thatching.

"We should get below decks, my lord." Auron leaned in closer, protecting the summoner with his own bulk. "Please."

Deaf and blind to everything but his own ability to forestall the creature that had killed his wife from claiming countless others, Braska remained. All that kept him upright was his grip on the ship's railing. Auron sucked in a battering lungful of air, and wondered at exactly what point it was okay for a guardian to heave a summoner over their shoulder and hightail it for safer ground.

Suddenly, the port side of the boat listed heavily. Auron jerked around, helped partially by the continued heave of the boat. Slimed tentacles grasped thickly at the railings, hauling a heavy body up onto the deck behind. Its central eye scanned the deck and it reached further out to coil a thick limb around the mast, raising it's self fully onto the broken planks of the deck.

"Braska!" Auron repeated, by way of warning. It rang loud in the stunned silence, and the fiend's eye swept toward him. It made no noise as it reared itself up to its full height. It stood nearly half as tall as the masts, its weight bearing the ship dangerously low in the water. Anchoring itself with two of its six tentacles, the others lashed out. One curled around cargo boxes, ripping them free of their ties and splintering them open to scatter their contents like spilled entrails. The others swept sailors of their feet, some crushed and other tossed overboard, shattered and limp as a child's doll flung aside in tantrum.

Firming his resolve, Auron stepped forward and braced his feet. When a tentacle swung into threat of the summoner, he severed it. The limb dissolved into flecks of light once it the deck, freed pyreflies sliding away to other mischief. The loss caught the creature's undivided attention and Auron barely parried the second lunge. It flung the emptied cargo bin in his direction next, and while it would have been easier to sidestep, he was still conscious of Braska's presence behind him.

He had to commit everything to his upswing so that it would deflect the container. It shattered, pieces flying over the edge of the ship by momentum. Tentacles converged while he tried to recover, and he severed a second, but two more came . One seized him firmly around the middle, crushing. Breath rushed out of him as his ribs creaked together and the sheer force of it as it lifted him off his feet almost cost him his grip on his katana.

Ribs aching, he forced his mind away from its repetition, as it tried to inform him of the imminence of broken ribs and punctured lungs over and over. He firmed his grip on the haft of his sword and swung, effectiveness foiled doubly by angle and proximity. The blade bit, but not deeply. It wasn't enough and the creature tensed sharply around the injury, a dull crunch confirming his earlier thoughts. Strangely, the pain cleared his mind - old lessons returning as panic vacated - and it was useless here anyway. Both hands clung hard to his weapon and he looked about for Braska, suddenly remembering the original need for this fight.

A white blur sped past, wings curled close to its birdlike body for speed. Valefor's claws sunk deep into the fiend's flesh, just shy of its eye. Pained, it made no sound still, but surrendered its hold on Auron, leaving him flightless to crash to the deck. His katana bounced free of his grip, but the Aeon had the battle covered more than well enough.

Faster and more agile than the lumbering monster, she glided easily away from swipes of tentacles. Her beak swung in again at Braska's command, the summoner having finally pulled his attention away from Sin itself to join the more pressing battle at hand. Valefor sped true, fueled by her summoner's determination. Her strike took the creature's eye, and it crumpled, flailing with directionless limbs to try and gain a last strike.

Rearing back her head, Valefor dispatched it with a brilliant beam of light that shone from her jaws. She watched fiercely as the span evaporated, the ship rising again in the water. She landed delicately on the deck, and Braska turned his palms up, reaching up to thank her with a soft touch and his voice. Before she faded, she cast a glance at Auron, understanding.

Sin was nowhere to be seen. Like as not, it was satisfied with it's destruction and had returned to the bottom of the ocean to plot its next attack or rest or whatever it was that it did between appearances. With nothing to fuel it, Auron's adrenaline faded, leaving him tired and without distraction from his injury. Carefully, he assessed. There was no sharp stab with each inhale, only a deep ache of bruise and sudden protest as he shifted.

Fractured, then. Far better than broken, though he'd have rather avoided injury.

Braska crouched beside him, concerned. He began to heal Auron, looking almost apologetic. Pain slowly turned to the softer warnings of old injury.

“You called me by my name,” Braska said, distractedly, almost an undertone. Auron worried more and more that his summoner’s attention was slipping away. The magic coursing from his fingers finished, and he looked up, suddenly alert and attentive. He was, for the moment, thinking of nothing else but the time at hand. AYou were worried.”

"You didn't respond." Auron propped himself up gingerly, testing. "You were focused on Sin."

"We're chasing it," Braska said, distantly. Auron hefted himself to his feet, eyes trying to track the summoner's attention to its source as sailors pulled the long oars from their stows.

"That's our duty." Auron tried to sound reassuring, but he couldn't. It seemed they were always just on the heels of disaster, carried in on the ripples of it's passage like hungry fiends to devour those remaining.

Three corpses were lined up carefully on the deck, and Braska turned his attention sharply from the wreckage of coastline to them. He lowered himself to the deck, staff leaning over one shoulder. He hummed to them, low, encouraging them to wait for a proper sending. Auron crouched nearby, also, in case they could not.

-

Limping, the ship at last found it's way to Luca's ruined ports. The city deeper in was unharmed, protected by its higher walls and cliff side defenses. Or perhaps only by Sin's boredom and short attention span. Still, the seaward half of the city was gutted as a cleaned fish, here and there a wall jutted upward like ribs while the rest lay ruined, all things that held life extinguished.

The docks were a hopeless rat's nest wreck of floating scrap. What wasn't broken had sunk. Small boats moved about, tired occupants combing for bodies. Their ship cast anchor, then lowered its sole remaining dinghy to take Braska and Auron ashore. No one was there to meet him, and there was no rest to be had. Some noticed the summoner and gave thanks to Yevon.

"We'll need the aid Sending." One tired citizen confided. She was braiding flowers, while other towns women dragged bright burial wrappings from a ruined storehouse. Many worked with tears in their eyes. A few, Auron noticed, worked with no emotion at all. He and Braska both hiked up their sleeves, wading in to assist where strong backs or hands were called for, and there were plenty enough calls to answer.

Braska worked to exhaustion. His robes had been carefully discarded to keep them clean, and the simpler breeches he wore underneath were soaked and gore stained. Auron did not remove his armor, and it suffered as similar fate as he hefted bodies and salvageable materials out of ruins. Remnants of life passed through his hands - torn clothes, broken dishes and water-ruined sphere images. After awhile, he ceased to pay attention, handing bodies to desperate relatives. More still went unclaimed, entire bloodlines now lost.

It was late in the evening when the Sendings began. Workers had reconstructed a short dock so that bodies could be laid beneath the waves according to tradition. Family members surrounded Braska, and Auron was forced several steps away as they crowded close to him. He was at ease with their need for comfort, understanding in a personal way exactly what they had lost - not only family, but what little sense of security they had. Hope. Homes. Everything.

Auron was uncomfortable in the presence of so much emotion. He kept reserved, and people often mistook it for a lack of care. He did his best to keep still and avoid attention, he stood away the crowd that was gathering to watch his summoner dance. It was only his distance that let him to hear a low conversation on the fringe.

Two people suspended a small burial wrapped body between them. It was wet.

"I can't let our son be Sent by him," the woman said, angry, almost indignant. "How could we trust a summoner who would accept one of the Al Bhed?" she spat, tone oozing with self righteousness.

Auron tensed. They had dragged the body out of the water because they did not want Braska to perform the Sending? His exhaustion parted way easily for anger. He turned to follow them.

"He married one," the man agreed, hatefully. Auron tried to forgive them on the merit of grief, but they did not even seem to be considering their son. "No Fayth would aid someone with no regard for Yevon's teachings. "

"Sin struck her down to punish him." They were almost out of sight of the docks now. "And he still can't learn. He pretends to be a -"

It was enough. Auron overtook the couple. Weapons were unwelcome at Sendings, but he was intimidating enough even without his katana that the couple stopped when he put themselves in their path. He did not speak - to be honest, he was too angry. The set of his shoulders and his low glare spoke for him.

"Bring it back," he warned quietly. Silence stretched.

"We want our son to find the Farplane." The man firmed himself at last, his wife's warning glare spurring him. She gathered the body into her arms, and he squared himself to face Auron. "Your summoner would not know the way."

"You would see your son a fiend because of your own foolishness?" Auron stood firm, unable to believe that anyone would act this way. It made no sense, and worse, it was an insult to Braska, who was a good enough man that he would have suffered it with no protest. However, it was Auron who had caught them, and he would defend Braska from this slight, also. He did not give ground as the father approached.

"It is our decision to make."

It was false logic, designed more to rationalize a bad decision to oneself. Auron bared his teeth, then took a deep breath. Why could they not understand that a past was not the entirety of a man? Braska was not just the man who had married an Al Bhed - he was devoted enough to Spira to be an excellent summoner despite his past mistakes.

"You're wasting our time." The woman's voice raised. Behind them, the hymn began. It was too late, but Auron was unwilling to back down. Her husband stood only a step away, not brave enough to make the first move.

"Bring him back." It was, this time, a threat. The man moved to shove him aside, and Auron would not be moved. He seized handholds of collar and shook, violently. He realized, while he was doing it, that it was wrong. He should be with Braska, who could well have ignored all of this.

Unfortunately, the man chose that moment to steel himself, and sank a lucky jab into Auron's left eye. The pain shocked him into action, and he slammed his shoulder down to throw the man backwards on the tether of his own arm. He forced the arm down like a pendulum, the man tied by bone and sinew in shoulder and forced to follow the movement with his own momentum. He slammed to the cobbled streets just as his wife began screaming for the guards.

Auron sneered down at him, and the man looked up at him, just as uncomprehending and unreasonable as before. Honestly, he could not understand why this had happened to him. The realization shocked Auron cold, and he did not resist when the guards closed cold cuffs around his wrists and pulled him away. What reason did these people want? What could possibly prove to them that what they were doing was wrong, and worse, dangerous for no reason?

Auron could not come up with an answer.

-

Braska looked exhausted when he came to retrieve his guardian from the cell. The guards treated him with quiet respect - though he seemed resigned, they were embarrassed for him. Auron's cuffs had been removed when he'd proved model as a prisoner. His hands drooped now between his knees where he sat thinking - how could anyone judge so strongly on a matter they knew nothing of? When he looked up at last, Braska stood at the bars looking tired. Disappointed.

Auron felt suddenly like an ill behaved child. How did this reaction fit? Surely the parent's dangerous trick had also been discovered. Standing, Auron could find nothing to say. Braska kept looking at him for a long time. He wasn't angry - the summoner rarely was - but the look made Auron regret his actions without fully understanding why.

"I've spoken to the boy's parents," Braska said at last, parental. He stopped himself. "I won't tell you to apologize for your actions, Auron - you are not a child." The summoner's hands hung without their anchoring staff, motionless without its presence. Auron knew that the words meant he had made a grave error, but he wasn't entirely certain where.

"Yes, Lord Braska." He would not have been able to bring himself to mean any apology he made anyway.

The summoner motioned the guard to open the cell, and Auron stepped free. He did not resent being kept. However, he couldn't grasp the reason behind Braska's actions - surely the talk with them had not been warm. Auron imagined the couple had worn their contempt openly. Regret twisted suddenly together in Auron's gut, knotting itself like a serpent. He had made Braska sit through their intolerance because of his actions. Braska would have smiled into the insult, accepting it like a bit lodged cruelly in a chocobo's beak. He had endured this because Auron had been unable to control his emotions. The guardian wondered how it would have been better handled, while still defending Braska's honor.

As they left the prison, Braska glanced once toward the Inn in Luca, and then turned them toward the edge of town. Auron balked. They were both exhausted, in desperate need of rest. He couldn't understand why the summoner would choose to continue.

"Were we turned away?" Auron could not imagine, after all the summoner had contributed today, enduring this insult. He could not keep the irritation from his voice.

"No, Auron." Braska's answer was level. Frigid, almost. "The inns are full."

The guardian sank into silence, apologetic. Of course, with so many homes destroyed, there was a lack of space. Even with fewer living beings, those that remained had nowhere to stay. He shifted his sword on his shoulder and resigned himself to a long walk.

It was surprisingly active on the Mi'ihen Highroad. Those with nothing left putting Luca behind them, or many simply wandering, glassy eyed, to try and escape their past. At least it kept the fiends away.

-

Even late in the evening, the front lights of the first Travel Agency they had encountered burned welcome in the darkness. The light was carefully warm and inviting - the building rounded and speaking of home’s comforts away from home. Auron would be glad to sleep in a bed that did not rock with the waves, or have rocks jarring in uncomfortable places all through the evening. For now though, he kept quiet, still embarrassed. Braska had not spoken during the whole walk, silent except for the slow swish of his steps, the thud of his staff being used for support.

It was he who negotiated their stay, avoiding the friendly banter offered by the woman behind the desk. She was Al Bhed, and Auron avoided her looks. He held no personal prejudice - after all, they’d never done him any harm in the past - but he did not feel any great need to reach out to them for aid.

Steps weary, they both ascended to their rooms. Braska glanced at him - meaningfully, hard and almost scolding, before turning into his room. Auron’s hand hesitated on the knob. How had everything gone so wrong? He had not even explained himself, and yet Braska seemed to know the whole story - had guessed at it somehow from his knowledge of Auron’s character and whatever the family had told him. The thought froze his blood cold. He’d done what he had because Braska wouldn’t.

He turned away from his door, and tapped on Braska’s. The summoner answered, his expression guarded. For a moment, Auron worried that they would lose their chance to discuss this - that it would become a wound that scabbed over and was ignored to never fully heal.

“I’m sorry,” Auron said, keeping himself from sounding desperate. The summoner’s expression softened, and he opened the door to let Auron in. Stepping beyond the threshold, Auron’s explanation began to spill forth - a tide unloosed by worry, dammed previously by more worry. “They were taking the body away - they said...”

Braska turned away sharply, and stepped deeper into the room. When he spoke, his tone was calm. AIt doesn’t matter what they said, Auron.” The summoner’s hands closed over empty air, as if he were fighting to pull the right words from it - to convince Auron of what he was saying. AYou can’t change their minds.”

"I won't let them treat you like that," Auron snarled, aggravated with his Summoner's passive natures. "Can't they see what you're doing for them?"

"That's not what this is about, Auron." Braska's tone swerved dangerously away from its usual level. "I'm not doing this for special treatment."

"I would at least have them respect you, Lord Braska." A deep spark of anger flickered to life, where he felt that his summoner's should also be. "You already have so much to face." He tried altering his tone, pushing aside aggravation and instead trying to plead for understanding.

"You can't protect me from everything, Auron." With knuckles whitening on his staff, Braska raised his voice at last. Auron sank into silence.

"They won't sway me from my course," Braska continued, dangerously quiet now that Auron was silent. "And if you react to them, you give them victory."

Teeth clenching in irritation, Auron forced his thoughts still with no small power of will. He wasn't thinking - something he found himself at fault for more and more. He needed to calm down and consider what Braska had said. He found it impossible in the man's presence.

He had to force himself not to slam the door like a child on the way out.

-

Rin caught Auron alone in his self-imposed exile. He hadn't strayed far from the Traveler's Station, he didn't dare leave Braska completely unguarded. Actually, the Al Bhed surprised him, but he suppressed the jump of his muscles to little more than an irritated twitch.

"May I interrupt your thoughts?" he inquired, doing as much by his presence alone. His voice lilted upwards, light in tone though he had to have been aware of the guardian's mood.

Auron did not turn or respond.

Rin came in close to his left, and leaned into his field of vision, smiling as if he had been welcomed into the conversation, which he seemed fully intent on holding with or without Auron's participation.

"Do you speak Al Bhed?"

Auron decided his best course of action was to ignore his problem until it went away.

"Oh, well then I shall translate for you." Rin answered himself as cheerfully as he asked. He straightened, standing companionably beside Auron, who did his best to recall long past lessons on meditation under duress.

"Dra tatelydat uhac," Rin continued, undeterred. "The dedicated ones.

"An old legend says that Walking Man was so dedicated to his cause that nothing could stop him." Rin’s hands butterflied briefly. "Do you like stories?" he asked, belatedly.
"I shall summarize, then!

"Walking Man had many enemies, but only One Love. To One Love, he made a promise - that he would bring a star down to see. He journeyed a long time and had many adventures while his love waited. And one day, his most cunning enemy said, 'Aha! I shall fool Walking Man. I can change my form to match his One Love, and he will not be able to harm me!' And so it was. Walking Man could not hurt his cunning enemy in this guise, and was struck down. The next day, he rose and continued on his quest.

"There are many more stories after this, but to be short, I shall say that he did bring a star back to One Love, and was quite surprised at the reaction he received. 'Walking Man, how do you not see that you are already dead!' Of course, he had not noticed - he was far too determined to keep his promise."

Rin paused, and despite Auron's best efforts, he had absorbed the story.

"Why are you telling me this?" His tone was less hostile than he intended.

"Because you remind me of Walking Man." Rin declared cheerfully. "Or, well, at the moment, somewhat more of a bristling cat. But overall..."

Auron sighed, impatient.

"The Al Bhed have many wonderful stories, " Rin smiled, having captured Auron's attention and acknowledgment at last. "There is also Big Trick who could detach his..."

"Enough," Auron growled. Rin at last seemed to be finished. He smiled again, broadly.

"Please, enjoy your stay," he encouraged as he took his leave.

-

The path wound. At first, Auron kept himself studiously alert - aware for any sign of a fiend that might jump out and harm Braska. He reminded himself that at any moment they could spring up - fast and lethal, sudden as malice. It was Braska who coaxed conversation from him, leading first with simple questions and remarks. It didn’t seem to matter if Auron responded or not - Braska just kept switching tracks until there was a conversation.

“Have you ever heard any of the stories about Walking Man?” They were descending carefully along the twists of stone - treacherous with loose rocks that threatened to steal footing. Braska picked his path carefully, but spoke anyway - concentration unfaltering in either.

“He promised to bring back...” Braska trailed as he placed himself carefully, one hand trailing backwards to steady himself on Auron’s coat when a stone turned under his foot, unbalancing him. Auron held steady.

“A star, yes.” Auron completed the story, hoping Braska would get the hint that they should both concentrate. But here the path smoothed out, and they were free from its dangers for the moment.

"Oh, you've heard that one." Braska smiled, his eyes wrinkling at the corners as he thought back to when his wife must have told him the stories.

"Rin told me," Auron confided, trying to keep his tone from implying that Rin had forced it on him. "He said I reminded him of some walking man."

Braska made a thoughtful noise. An enigmatic one, when Auron coupled it with the small smile turning up the corners of the summoner's mouth. Auron stared pointedly until Braska clarified.

"He may well have been correct." Auron's expression must have revealed something that Braska found comical - a rare smile spread wide across his features.

"Are you saying I don't know when to quit?" The in-joke at his expense rankled.

"Oh. Auron - no." Braska laughed. "That's not what the story is about."

Auron waited dourly for explanation.

"Walking Man becomes so dedicated to his promise to One Love that he forgets what's really important," Braska related, laying a calming hand on Auron's shoulder. "When he goes in search of the star, he leaves One Love behind. By the time he gets back with it, One Love is long dead and Sent."

Surprise settled suddenly in Auron's chest. "Rin told me that it was Walking Man who died, not the woman he loved."

Braska laughed again, suddenly, and it took him a moment to compose himself . He bought time by patting his robes back into place where they had swayed out of order.

"Walking Man was dead." Braska affirmed, though he guessed also at the meaning of Auron's sudden pointed expression. "One Love was a man - he had many adventures of his own in legend."

It took a long minute for Auron to digest the information. "I always knew there was something strange about the Al Bhed."

"Strange?"

"Folk tales about deviants?"

Braska got suddenly quiet. "What is so strange about knowing that love does not make exceptions for anything?"

The statement surprised Auron - he stopped his wrote response cold before it could hurt Braska with its unthinking nature. After all, here was a man that had already refused to deny his own feelings because he would face the judgement of others for it. His mind seized the idea, turned it over. If it was love, he considered, then what did anything else matter? Of all people, Auron believed that he would know love when it came - after all, the lack of it was why he had left all he knew.

After a moment, Braska's amusement returned. "Al Bhed legend is quite colorful. They have a Trickster character who can detach his - "

"Braska!"

-

"In the evening pyreflies are drawn inexplicably to the waters." The old man indicated the river - little seemed special about it in the afternoon. “The moonlilies blossom, which some say draw them in. The flower’s glow is not unlike the pyreflies’ own, you see. Others say that the lilies unfold in the evening because of the greater gathering of pyreflies - reacting to the feelings and emotions that remain within them. Here stopped the lady Yunalesca and Lord Zaon in their pursuit of Sin, and that, as they say, is that," Maechen concluded, sagely. Braska's eyes looked slightly glazed.

"He's worse than the Al Bhed," Auron confided to Braska in an undertone. Age had not affected Maechen's hearing.

"Ah, the Al Bhed. Now there is a colorful race of people." Auron began to wonder if he could fake some kind of sudden ailment or injury in order to escape. "They tell some fantastic tales about a trickster who can detach his own - "

Auron couldn't tell if it was his sudden glare or the sage's awareness that quite some time had passed that stopped him. "Ah, but that is another tale entirely..."

Auron gently nudged his charge.

"Thank you." Braska finally seemed to snap out of his trance. "For sharing your wisdom."

"Of course," Maechen nodded. "Good luck on your pilgrimage, Lord Summoner."

While they waited in line, Braska managed to dawdle with the merchants arrayed about the shoopuff’s station long enough so that they missed their intended ride across. Little about it seemed accidental, the creature wouldn’t return for another run for several hours - after sunset, and when the Moonflow’s phenomenon was visible.

He settled down to wait on the banks with his summoner, comfortably silent while the sun set. It was warm enough so that when the evening began to cool that the change was welcome. Auron even felt some relief at setting his sword down - though not out of reach - and relaxing a little. It was a delay, but one that Braska had initiated and therefore acceptable.

Slowly, evening deepened into night. Tiny pinpricks of light became visible all around the river, at first only a few, then more and more. They gathered briefly at the moon lilies, touching down individually and then by the thousand. Where one too many landed, they all took flight again, seeking another space to land. Braska watched intently, unmoving.

“She spoke about this once.” Braska broke the longstanding silence between them, pulling his robes up to expose his sandaled feet to the cool air. Before them, pyreflies formed minute swirling galaxies, whole for an instant before breaking down into individual stars again. For the moment, they were benign. With so many of them in one place, Auron couldn’t help but to be on edge.

Braska, on the other hand, seemed calm. He watched the lights and their rippling reflections on the river’s surface with a smile. “She said that it was one of the few beautiful things a soul could do in this world.”

The summoner smiled at the memories, eyes tracking the motion over the water. “She said the same thing about love.”

To that, Auron could say nothing. It would have been polite to comment on the truth of the statement, but it wasn’t something he could speak of with any real knowledge. Love was kind of an elusive thing, more or less he thought it was well and truly beyond his reach. Certainly, he would know it when and if it hit him, but for the meantime he’d do better to think more of his summoner than himself.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet her,” Auron said at last, trying the words that sounded the least foolish in his head.

“Hmm?” Braska glanced back at Auron, lights from the water gently glowing against his features, illuminating his face before flickering away. The changing light was almost hypnotic. “I’m not so sure you two would have gotten along - well, no, that’s not fair of me to say.” Braska chuckled to himself a little. “She loved breaking little rules - especially if there was someone who would fuss over them.”

He eyed Auron meaningfully. The guardian had to quickly school an exasperated expression from his features - rules were in place for some reason, usually good. The summoner often ignored the smaller ones, a trait that Auron now suspected he’d learned rather than been born with.

Braska laughed a little, then got to his feet. “Come on - we’ll catch the last shoopuff across.”

Rising from where he’d been sitting, Auron neglected to mention exactly how much of a treat he considered shoopuff rides to be.

-

"Aha!" Rin greeted. Braska ducked quickly into the door under the muttered pretense of securing their rooms. "Walking Man. It has been too long!"

Hesitating, Auron briefly considered pretending not to hear, but that had failed spectacularly last time.

"Why did you tell me that story?" Auron wheeled around, deciding to just ask his question. Rin was almost uncomfortably close - somehow the Al Bhed had gotten from several feet away to directly beside Auron while he was debating the best course of action.

Rin seemed genuinely surprised. He glanced toward the door that Braska had disappeared through. "Goodness - you haven't already guessed?"

Auron answered with a flat stare that he hoped would convey the uselessness of asking otherwise.

Rin promptly and cheerfully changed subject. "I hear your summoner is fluent in Al Bhed." He smiled broadly, his teeth seeming whiter against his tanned skin. "Has he taught you any?"

Auron noticed that Rin did not wait for him to confirm. Impatiently, he answered. "No, and I asked-"

"None at all!" Rin sounded disappointed in a downright unsettlingly cheerful fashion. "Let me teach you how to ask - the next time we meet, I can tell you more about Walking Man."

Sensing that he had lost any control he might have once had over the conversation, Auron surrendered his part in it. He suspected that it continued as it would have regardless of his participation.

"Ask him this way." Rin adopted a serious tone and spoke slowly. "E muja oui."

It was simple enough that Auron remembered it, despite himself.

"The stories do not translate well." Rin smiled again, in a sort of final way, and wandered off to inspect his chocobo pens.

Auron sighed, vexed. He wondered if he could ever understand the Al Bhed, even if he spoke their language.

-

In the heat, Braska's robes weighed on him. He kept a smile on publicly, but when it was just him and his guardian, his expression was tired. His steps grew slower, more deliberate, and his staff swung from it's usual position at his side to something upright, supportive. Auron slowed his steps to match without comment. Braska would ask for rest if he really needed it, or Auron would have greater success pleading his own tiredness as reason to stop. It would not imply weakness on Braska's part.

Sweat trickled slowly down his neck, pooling in the small of his back before soaking into the fabric held close by his belt. Once he started noticing it, he couldn't turn his thoughts away. He focused on ignoring it, refusing to let it get the better of him until at last he noticed nothing but the wet scratch of fabric over his spine. He was just reaching back to yank it into a new position when Braska's voice reached him from somewhere behind.

"Auron?" The tone was tired but amused. Turning, Auron found Braska standing outside of a Travel Agency, one hand on its door pull. His expression was trying to remain carefully schooled, but curiosity and cheer both left telltale traces in his eyes and the set of his mouth. "Shall we stop, or did you have somewhere else in mind?"

Unable to think of a better excuse in a timely fashion, Auron returned to Braska's side. "I was distracted. I'm sorry."

"The heat?"

"Mm." Auron headed inside, glancing quickly around for Rin, though they had left him long behind at their last stop. The Al Bhed woman behind the counter was unfamiliar, and no hint of yellow jacket or goggles spoke of Rin's presence.

Braska bumped into him while he stood in the doorway surveying the inside. He steadied himself carefully, hands braced on Auron's back. "What is it?" The summoner's tone was low, playful against Auron's ear. The breath against his neck jangled on his nerves, raising the hairs on his arms. "Do you sense danger?"

Auron stepped forward quickly. "I was looking for someone."

The clerk seemed amused. Braska moved around Auron to negotiate their lodgings. He and the woman had a discussion in Al Bhed, and Auron supposed it wasn't entirely about the weather. He slunk closer, hoping to discourage his summoner from saying anything truly embarrassing.

"Well?" he asked, when they finished. Braska was smiling in a cattish way, reaching up to pull off his heavy headdress as they moved toward the lodgings in the back.

"Another summoner is staying, also," Braska revealed. He handed the discarded crown to Auron, and ran his fingers through his hair to let the cool air at his scalp.

"So?" Auron turned the bundle of fabric and metal in his hands, finding the inner brim warm and damp with sweat.

"They took the room with two beds." Braska hesitated outside their door, then pushed it open.

"I shall sleep on the floor," Auron volunteered automatically, though he knew his muscles would protest the next day.

Braska glanced at the bed - it was large, in typical Al Bhed fashion. "If you so desire."

Auron wasn't entirely certain what to make of the motion. He sank into silence, and crouched to take off his boots. At least he could remove a few layers and disperse some heat. A bath was also in order - the mere thought was quite welcome.

When he looked up, Braska was bare to the waist, the tops of his robes hanging from his belt. He wore a blissful expression. Auron's attention stuck, following the damp trail of sweat over muscle. Braska had a dancer's build - of course - his muscles lean, wiry rather than compact and hard. He was flexible, the shapes under his skin defined, but not profound. His arms stood contrast, muscle packed against bone from the weight of his staff and its heft in battle or sending. His hands also were strong, but agile, and currently they were working his belt free in slow, deliberate motions.

Auron realized he was staring. For a long moment, he couldn't remember what to do when one realized such things. He coughed sharply, wrenching his eyes away as Braska at last freed himself from the heavy layers, wearing only the light cotton pants that he kept beneath.

"What were you and the woman downstairs talking about?" It was the first thing to come to mind, a poor excuse to distract himself from the fact that he had just spent the last fifteen minutes more awkwardly than any teen. He also pulled off his heavy red overcoat.

His armor still trapped sweat against his skin, but at least cool air could touch his arms, wicking heat away.

"Hmm?" Braska had, in the meantime, sunk deeply into a chair that was so draped in fabric and piled by pillows it threatened to engulf him whole. He held his arms and legs stretched carefully away from his body, letting the fabric cool him. He looked indolent, relaxed. Feline. "You."

Auron would have guessed as much, but the short answer did little to comfort or sate curiosity. He waited. His summoner cracked one eye after a little while, then both eased open after settling on Auron.

"E druikrd oui fuimt ryja dryd aqbnacceuh," Braska muttered, an undertone. Auron could only guess at the meaning. "She asked if you were single."

Auron started - it was not anything like the answer he expected was limited, he realized, by his lack of understanding. While Al Bhed was not spoken in Bevelle, it grew more common as they passed further from the city.

"I told her 'no'," Braska continued, eyes sliding closed again as he smiled. "I didn't think you were interested - were you?"

"E muja oui," Auron stated.

The summoner was suddenly attentive, surprised. He went from sleepy to focused in an instant, searching Auron's expression intently. "Huh," he said speculatively, and the guardian wondered briefly if he had mispronounced.

"E muja oui, ymcu," he said slowly, sitting up. "Ruf tet oui ghuf?"

"I'm sorry, that's all I know," Auron admitted, sitting still under the sudden attention. "Teach me?"

"Who taught you?" Braska asked. His expression was strange, hard to read. His earlier amusement was replaced with interest.

"Rin," Auron answered honestly. Braska responded with laugh - a real one, hands curling into the pillowed arms of his seat for balance.

"Fair enough," he said at length. "Come here - lusa rana."

Auron rose, padding barefoot across the cool floor. Without warning, Braska's hand caught hold of his wrist, firm, and pulled. Auron unbalanced, already moving to sit, he collapsed. Braska had the leverage to yank his guardian directly into his lap. Auron's apology - unnecessary and nonsensical - did not make it beyond the first syllable before Braska drowned it with his mouth.

It was warm and familiar, at the same moment that it shocked him. Auron froze - certain the kiss would end at any second, both jerking away awkwardly and leaving discomfort in its wake. But it continued long beyond possible mistake, the summoner's hands climbing Auron's shoulders to catch hold of his hair.

When an apt tongue pushed past his teeth, Auron's body surged with unexpected interest. Braska's fingers unbound the tie from Auron's hair and the guardian hardly noticed when it slid loose. He pursued the retreat of Braska's tongue, and the summoner seemed to relax just a little.

Distantly, it dawned on Auron that the Braska had feared rejection. The guardian probably would have expected it of himself, but now would not dream of it. It was only a need for air that parted them, Braska keeping a tight hold on Auron's hair so that the guardian could not retreat.

"E muja oui," Braska repeated, lowly, looking directly into Auron's eyes. Suddenly, it was undeniable what it really meant. The tone and expression taught far better than simple explanation.

The summoner shifted to redistribute Auron's weight, and realizing belatedly that he was probably crushing Braska, Auron balanced his weight more carefully. He leaned hard on the arm of the chair instead. Braska caught his wrist again, to prevent him from going to far. He needn't have worried.

Seeming completely relaxed again - not in the least bit concerned that everything had changed, Braska sighed. Or maybe, nothing had. "Do not," he purred, playfully warning, "sleep on the floor tonight."

Auron did not need to be invited twice.

-

Sin stood huge and impressive on the plains, but it was also absolutely still. Guarded. Like an animal, it faced pointedly in one direction, head arched sharply downwards on its neck. Its limbs were arrayed carefully - while it appeared huge and menacing, it also seemed poised to flee at any second. And the stillness - no spawn wriggled anxiously on it's hide. No muscle twitched. All of its arrayed eyes were rotated forward, fixed on the one tiny thing that stood in it's path.

Auron squinted - the sight was so unusual that it was hard for him to decide what he was seeing. Beside him, Braska sucked in his breath sharply.

"It's Jecht!" the summoner exclaimed. Inwardly, Auron cursed - what could that fool possibly be thinking, standing alone and untrained against Sin? He only barely caught Braska when the summoner tried to charge forward to Jecht's aid.

"Wait!" Auron tangled his hands sharply into his summoner's long sleeves. "Wait, you may provoke it."

Braska went still, almost as much so as Sin, where it still stood sharply attentive. Auron could feel the hard push of breath from the summoner's lungs against his side.

Then suddenly, Sin drew in a deep breath, increasing its girth - swelling threateningly in size. Braska tensed sharply, Auron tightened his grip.

Instead of striking, Sin held its ground. The breath issued forth as a tremendous roar, deafening and loud enough to cause the ground to rumble. Auron's teeth clacked sharply together before he thought the better of gaping, and clamped his jaw shut. It seemed endless, filling the plains with noise and power. Stones clattered down the cliff face below them, inciting others to small avalanches along the way.

At last, the noise ceased. The silence that chased it rode hard in Auron's ears, leaving a distant ringing in the sudden void of noise. Sin settled into quiet and stillness again, sharply attentive to Jecht who was somehow still standing his ground. A tiny shape spun from his hand toward Sin, crashing uselessly against its skull. The tinkle of broken glass barely reached Auron over the ringing in his ears.

"I ain't afraid of you," Jecht roared back, pausing to crack his neck before he took a step forward, challenging. For certain, it would be his last move. Instead of attacking, however, Sin swung its head low, wary, and retreated a step. Braska made a low sound, echoed by Sin's growl. The noise creaked forth from the Beast's throat, stretching and grinding like snapping tree trunks. It sounded rusty. Auron doubted Sin had much cause to use this threat - its mere presence was enough to make grown men flee without thought.

"Take me back to Zanarkand, you son of a bitch!" Jecht moved forward again, and the unthinkable happened.

Sin retreated.

It braced itself hard on its hindmost legs, wheeling in a slow graceful arc, and took to the sky. For all of its slow confident gait on land, in the air, it raced. Who could guess why it chose so often to travel by land or sea, when it could fly so effortlessly fast? Jecht chased ineffectively for a few steps, bare footed and fierce before he fell face flat into the grass of the Calm Lands.

Braska twisted his robes free of Auron's fingers - gone lax with disbelief - in a sudden motion. He was halfway down the ascending path into the Calm Lands before his guardian shook off his stupor and followed.

Jecht reeked of alcohol, the marlboro's breath stink of cheap liquor. The kind one drank only to have it out of the way and move quickly to inebriation. Braska wrinkled his nose as he examined Jecht. Auron could not see any sign of injury - he suspected that Jecht had simply had too much to drink.

"He seems uninjured." The summoner sounded relieved. Auron wondered, privately, if a few solid thumps to the head wouldn't serve to drive some sense in. "We'll have to carry him."

Auron balked. "No," he interjected, disbelieving. "Lord Braska," He tried reason, when the summoner's expression only became more determined. "He abandoned us. We've done far better without him."

Braska hauled one of Jecht's arms over his shoulders and began to lift, heedless.

Auron growled - if there was no way to win this argument, then it was better that he carry Jecht. He took the man's limp body from Braska with little concern for gentility. As he heaved the unconscious form over his shoulder, he consoled himself with the thought that he could pitch Jecht at any fiend that dared attack.

-

Braska secured them rooms while Auron carried the unconscious man upstairs. The summoner made for the kitchen, tasking Auron with trying to wake Jecht. Briefly, he considered a good slapping - instead, he held the man under the flow of water pumped up unheated from the nearest stream in the bath. It took mere moments for Jecht to wake and start shivering.

“What’re you doing?” He sounded incredulous, both hands gripping Auron’s wrist where he held him firm. Auron answered only with an icy glare, disgusted at having to carry this deserter for a good distance and upset with Braska’s unlimited forgiveness for the man.

“Waking you,” Auron answered, then let go of his collar. Jecht shook himself, doglike, shedding water in all directions. The guardian bore the droplets flung on him without flinching. Jecht shoved his face into a towel and scrubbed hard to sober himself, then shivered, soaked. He slouched his way into the room he had been reserved, and dragged all the blankets off the bed to huddle them around his shoulders like a bird puffing out its feathers for warmth.

Braska arrived with food, and blinked at the pair of them. His best discretion told him not to ask - that the story was far more mundane when he considered Auron’s grim countenance. They settled into a loose circle on the floor, on the unspoken agreement that they should eat together - so that Jecht wouldn’t immediately disappear again.

“I got a kid, you know,” Jecht confided, holding the last quarter of his meal dear. He was savoring it - as if he might not see more food for quite some time. “He’s about Yuna’s age, I think.”

“I know it’s selfish, but I don’t want to go back,” Jecht said, yanking his blanket up around his neck. Braska’s hands folded tighter around his bowl of food, still mostly full.

“I mean, I want to live my own life now.” Confiding these secrets, Jecht seemed more human - lost, certainly. Misguided by drink and unwilling to find a path that was real and true to follow, but still just a person who was capable equally of good and evil. Auron’s glacial dislike for the man began to crack.

“I love it here.” He pushed his face down into his knees, squinting against the light. ‘Everything’s real. People know what to live for.

“If I go to Zanarkand - if we defeat Sin - will that change? Will I have to go back?” No one had the answer for Jecht. Braska sighed, and stood up to move away from the loose circle of bodies.

‘Get some rest,” was the only advice Auron could muster, standing to follow his summoner from the room into the adjoining.


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