Part 12

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I step back and raise my sword, holding it in a two handed grip, the blade bisecting my vision. Jecht lunges forward with a quick sideways slash, and I deflect his sword, then make a countermove, my sword arcing towards his neck. He ducks backwards and I think he is about to fall, but instead his feint is revealed as a ruse and he slashes at my upper thigh. I twist sideways bringing my own sword back down to try to avert his stroke. I am too slow, and the point of his sword connects despite my attempt at evasion.

I step back, holding the palm of my hand to my leg as the cut begins to sting and my blood escapes between my fingers, staining the torn fabric of my trousers almost black. Jecht's eyes widen.

"Hot damn! I mean...ahhh, I didn't mean to do that."

I let out a bark of laughter. We have been sparring for almost a week now and I haven't once followed through when Jecht has been vulnerable, always drawing back and allowing him to recover before continuing. But I know that he did not have any reasonable expectation that he would ever break through my defences, so oddly enough I believe him.

"Wipe your sword." I tell him and he looks down at the thin edge of red along the blade.

He crouches and runs the sword along the grass, leaving a smear there when he stands. "Should I get Braska?"

I shake my head. "It's fine." I lift my hand carefully. The cut is neither deep nor particularly long, and the flow of blood has already eased. I resume the pressure on it then follow Jecht back towards our campsite. Braska is sitting by the fire, raising his hand to stir the pot containing our dinner. For a moment I think he is reading but what he holds in his lap is not a book.

He puts it aside as he sees me grasping my leg. "What happened?"

I sit carefully, stretching the injured leg out before me. "Sir Jecht's swordsmanship has improved."

Braska glances at Jecht who looks slightly abashed. "Uh, yeah...sorry about that."

He shakes his head looking ruefully at his sword but Braska is already moving towards me.

"Let me see. How bad is it?"

"Nothing. Just a scratch." I tell him, and he frowns, taking my wrist to lift my hand. "I'm more worried about having to repair my clothing."

Braska laughs, his hands moving to examine the wound and causing the bleeding to start again. I swear under my breath.

"Sorry." His eyes close and his lips move almost silently as he prays. Jecht has picked up the object Braska left on the ground by the fire, and he opens it and stares down for a long time before looking up again. When Braska turns away after healing my wound Jecht hands it back to him. I see it is a small carved frame, it falls open in Braska's hands to show the likenesses within.

"Is that your wife?" Jecht asks.

Braska nods. "It was a present from her, a wedding gift. There was a picture of me, too, but...later I put a picture of Yuna with hers. To remind me...of them both."

I find myself filled with curiousity, but try not show it. Braska holds the frame out to me hesitantly and I take it gingerly. The image is just a pencil sketch, lightly washed over to give depth to the likeness of a pretty young woman with blond hair, framing large green eyes and a straight slender nose, a pink rosebud mouth above a delicately shaped chin. The artist has captured an expression of liveliness, as though the woman was just about to laugh with delight. It is clear from the picture of Braska's daughter that it was made by another hand. Although it copies the style of the first it lacks the delicacy of line and colour and clarity of the first. But the girl is still pretty, with darker hair than her mother's and a slightly rounder face.

I hand it back and Braska folds it in his lap. Jecht is quiet as we eat but afterwards he tells Braska about meeting his own wife.

"I'm not even sure why I fell for her so hard. She wasn't really beautiful, but there was something about her...she was different."

"Different?"

"Yeah. You know, there are always girls who like blitzball. They hang around the sphere and are keen on players. If you score a goal, you know you can score a girl. Score ten goals and you can have your pick of girls...and I scored more goals than most."

He gives Braska a sly look under his lashes at this revelation, then continues. "After a while they're all the same you know? But Marnie, she was just this quiet mousy little girl in the background, and...it's kind of embarrassing actually. I hit on her, asked her if she wanted to go somewhere, you know. And she said no." He laughs. "The great Jecht, refused by this shy little bit of a girl who looked like she couldn't stand up to a flea. So I asked her out to dinner with me, and she hung on my every word, it was like I was the only man who existed. So I thought, yeah okay, and asked her to go to bed with me again, and she refused, again! After a while it became a kind of a joke between us."

"That's a...lovely story." Braska says diplomatically. "And then you got married?"

"Only way I could find out what she was like in bed." Jecht says offhandedly, then corrects himself. "No, I mean I know it sounds like that, but I guess she just showed me that there was more to it than that. So how did you meet your wife?"

Braska tells Jecht the same story he'd told me, How he'd eloped with an Al Bhed girl despite the risks, if her family had caught them before their marriage was a fact, and despite the effect on Braska's standing as a priest of Yevon. Jecht looks a little shocked at how adventurous his tale sounds.

"So they would have killed you?"

"I have no doubt, but by the time they found us we were already man and wife. Her brother tried. I think he would have dragged her off regardless, but she pleaded with her father until he relented. When they left she cried. I didn't know why and all I could do was hold her. Later, after we'd learned to talk to each other she told me she'd been banished, that she would never be able to go home again."

He sighed. "That's why when her brother sent for her she was so happy to be going home again...she wanted to show her father the baby..."

He breaks off speaking, no doubt remembering what had happened next. "I only wish I'd been with her. She was afraid for my safety, and wanted to reconcile with her family first. If I'd known..."

After a pause Jecht reassures him. "You couldn't have known. But it's still hard, to get used to the idea you'll never see them again..."

"Yes. It is. But by the grace of Yevon our daughter was spared. I am thankful every day for that."

"Yeah, she's a sweet kid. I wish she and Tidus could meet, they're about the same age." He leans back abruptly. "Who am I kidding? It's impossible..."

Braska is silent, and Jecht broods. The conversation has taken a melancholy tone and Jecht asks me a question, perhaps hoping to lighten the mood. "What about you, Auron? Is there a girl back home pining for your sorry ass?"

My lips tighten. Of course not, I want to say. He and Braska are normal men whereas I am some kind of monster with no feeling for women. I think of Tymarru, who might have pined for me once, but I have no doubt she is over it by now. Jecht chose the wrong question to ask, or the wrong person to ask it of.

"No." I reply and gaze determinedly into the fire, in an effort to avoid what I am sure will be a mocking gaze at my response. There is silence for a while, then Braska speaks softly.

"Auron has been unlucky in love."

"Yeah? Well, it's not the end of the world, I guess. Girls aren't everything, although they sure make your bed warmer at night."

He laughs dismissively and that is the end of the conversation. Jecht takes the first watch of the night while Braska sleeps, and I try to.

XxxxxxXxxxxxX

I'd had a letter delivered to Wen after I found lodgings in the town, not far from Braska's residence. It was just a room in a men's boarding house, with a shared kitchen, laundry and bath. Although I had some money saved I would no longer receive a stipend from the temple and needed to save all I could towards our eventual pilgrimage.

Within a week Wen visited me, perching on the wooden visitor's chair that I'd brought in from the common room and looking around my room with a curious gaze.

"Nice place, Auron."

I laughed. "I saw worse when I was looking for somewhere to live."

At least the walls here had a fresh coat of sky blue paint, and the bathroom was kept relatively clean. I swept the floor daily and although the place was homely it was tolerably comfortable.

"Does anyone else know where you are?"

"No, only you and Lord Braska." I wondered at his question, it seeming directed to some end, but paid the thought little mind.

"I thought to see you at the temple at least for Sunday prayers. Not a day goes by but a dozen people ask me if I know where you are and what you are doing."

"I didn't think I was so popular." I tell him.

"Don't be ridiculous, Auron. You have more friends than just me, and I can tell you the temple is in a virtual uproar over your leaving. And Tymarru...the poor girl has shut herself up in her rooms, consumed by guilt over what has happened. When she heard that you were going to pilgrimage with a summoner, I think it was a big shock for her. To find that a man would prefer almost certain death over marriage to her is a rather unwelcome thought to any girl, don't you think?"

I was surprised, for some reason I hadn't considered that my refusal might affect her personally to such a degree. I felt slightly ashamed of that; although I still blamed her for causing the situation in the first place it hadn't occurred to me that she might see things in that way.

"I am sorry. But I can't..."

"I know that you didn't accept the proposal at face value, but if you'd just talk to the girl..."

I shook my head. "I don't think that's a good idea. In any case, even if I wanted to I couldn't change my mind."

"Lord Braska is not unreasonable. If you asked him to release you from his service I'm sure he would."

"I won't do that. I'm sorry. If you talk to her you can tell her...my decision to become a guardian has nothing to do with her proposal."

"Are you asking me to lie on your behalf?"

"It's not a lie. I would have joined Lord Braska anyway." I tell him. "But you will do and say what you think fit, as always, Kinoc."

"Does our friendship mean nothing? I want you to give up this quest and come back to the temple with me."

I shook my head again. Of course his friendship meant a great deal, but I felt as though I was in the grip of an unseen hand, one I could not negate. We sat silently for a while, then he stood, readying himself to depart.

"I will talk to her, although Yevon knows if it will do any good. I beg you to reconsider, for my sake if not hers, or at least think about it. If you talk to her and give her a chance to explain..."

I nodded, agreeing to think about it, and rose to see him out when Braska appeared in the doorway.

"Auron." He greeted me, then looked at Kinoc and nodded slowly at him. "I'm sorry. I can come back later if you like."

"Lord Braska." I bowed, making the sign of Yevon then introduced him. "My lord, this is Wen Kinoc, a friend of mine from the temple."

Wen looked uncomfortable, something I was not used to seeing as he was usually self-assured in any situation.

"We've met." Braska told me, and I realised that was the source of Wen's discomfort. He hadn't told me that he knew Braska personally.

"Lord Braska. I hope you are well?"

"I am...better than the last time we met."

Wen bowed in response. "I was just leaving."

He turned to me. "Take care, Auron. I'll visit you again next week."

I nodded and saw him out. Braska sat in the chair Kinoc had recently occupied, wearing a slightly abstracted frown. I was curious about their previous meeting and Braska must have been aware of that because he explained my unasked question.

"Wen Kinoc...he was the one who arrested me, you know."

I was shocked, and understood then why Wen hadn't told me about their previous meeting.

"It's alright, Auron. Your friend was just doing his duty as a captain of the warrior monks. He and I spent many hours debating the teachings." Braska smiled. "He is a very learned man, and a clever speaker."

"He never told me. I thought..."

I'd thought Wen had told me a story he had heard, not that he had been instrumental in it. He had told me he'd been stationed in Luca before coming to Bevelle temple, but I hadn't connected the facts together.

"He wants you to give up your guardianship, not to continue on my pilgrimage."

"Yes."

"If that is what you want..."

"No." I told him, with absolute determination. "I won't return to the temple."

He smiled. "If you change your mind I'll let you go, you know that." He rose and put a hand on my shoulder. "But I'm very glad that you want to continue with me."

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End of Part 12