A/N: The bunny that started me on this story appeared well over a year ago, when Yuna-flowering made a comment about Beclem in a review of AGL. That's what got me started, but now it's grown into something much more ambitious. Set during the FFX timeframe, spoilers for Beclem and Nooj's backstories. Enjoy. Constructive feedback always welcome.


Chapter One

Awareness returned slowly. Pain first, his right leg mostly, although aches were to be found in nearly every part of his body. Then touch, the sensation of sand and pebbles beneath his back; was he on a beach? As he mulled this question, his other senses followed: the smell of smoke and the ocean air, the tang of blood in his mouth, and the sounds of crashing waves accompanied by cries of mourning and moans for help -- too many of the former, not enough of the latter, he realized, a cold dread presenting itself at the thought. And, with that, the return of memory, accompanied by sight as Beclem cracked his eyes open to the brilliant blue sky spreading above the Mushroom Rock shore. Odd that such a bright and cheerful sun could shine down on a scene as terrible as the aftermath of Operation Mi'ihen.

"Are you all right?" The concerned face of a healer appeared in his view as she knelt at his side. Beclem opened his mouth to answer, but only a croak came out, and so the healer pulled out a water skin, lifted the Crusader's head, and held the container to his mouth. He took a swallow, then another, then wetted his parched lips with the third mouthful. With the healer's aid, he sat up.

"My leg," he rasped.

"Drink this first," the healer said in the manner shared by all of her profession: gentle but firm, carrying the expectation of absolute obedience. She handed a small bottle to Beclem, who drank the healing potion without argument, feeling his pain recede and more strength return with each swallow. "Better? All right. Now let's look at that leg." She moved to examine the injured limb, and Beclem leaned forward enough to see the gash that ran from the top of his thigh to halfway down his calf. Remembering the Sinspawn encounter that had caused the deep, gaping wound made him slightly queasy.

The healer laid her hands on Beclem's leg and caught his eye. "It's not as bad as it looks," she assured him. "I can heal it cleanly." She began to chant the curative spell and Beclem relaxed, allowing the magic to fill him and make him whole. As the pain receded even further, he gained enough strength to ask the question most on his mind.

"How did we fare? Sin--"

Still focused on her work, the healer shook her head grimly. "We failed," she said. "Can you smell the fire? That's the Al Bhed weapon. Sin turned the energy beam back on its source, and it blew itself up. Everyone inside was killed, along with dozens standing below. Including all the Crusaders lost in the first wave, there are hundreds dead, at least, and Sin escaped without a scratch. Disaster is not too strong a word, I fear." She sighed. "Yevon was right. We should never have joined forces with the Al Bhed."

Beclem tipped his head back and closed his eyes in dismay. Almost as long as he had been with the Crusaders, he had wondered whether experimenting with machina might help in the fight against Sin. He had been one of the most vocal proponents of working with the Al Bhed in general and of Operation Mi'ihen in particular. And now, to learn that all his hopes were in vain, and that so much death had come instead... it was worse than a nightmare.

"There." The healer returned to her professional, no-nonsense demeanor. "You should be able to walk now. Just don't overdo it. No long treks today."

She got to her feet, and Beclem followed, carefully, with a stiff prayer bow. "Thank you," he said. The healer bowed in return, then headed over to her next patient. After testing his leg and finding it serviceable, if still a bit stiff and sore, Beclem set off down the corpse-littered beach, vaguely in the direction of Djose Temple. He didn't really want to look at the carnage, but he forced himself to check every face, searching for fallen friends. He owed them that much. And there was always the hope of finding someone still alive and in need of aid, but today he discovered no miracles. Each body he examined was broken, empty, lifeless. He recognized perhaps a third of these, and for each man or woman he knew he paused a moment longer, bowing his head and murmuring a few words to Yevon, praying for their safe passage to the Farplane.

It was a grim trip, this walk through the rows of the dead. Beclem rested against a boulder for a moment and scanned the bleak scene yet again. Were the Crusaders smashed? Not all of their number had participated in the Operation, but a strong majority had. If most of these had been killed, who would watch over Spira now? Beclem's heart ached as he contemplated all the towns and villages that might go unprotected. The warrior monks would do their best, but they were few, and rarely emerged from the temples. And so many promising fighters went on pilgrimage as Guardians and never returned. It was a noble cause, no question of that, but would more lives be saved in the end if these warriors stayed home to guard their families and neighbors instead of heading off on a so-often futile crusade? Sometimes he wondered.

He shook his head to clear it and began walking again, still brooding. He had talked so many of his colleagues into taking part in this doomed endeavor. While he didn't delude himself into believing that the Operation would never have happened without his influence, he had belonged to the inner circle that hatched the plan and to the group that had first approached the Al Bhed. And he could name at least a dozen people who might be safe in their Crusader lodges if he hadn't convinced them to join in. How much of this debacle could be placed squarely on his shoulders?

It seemed like hours passed, his thoughts consumed by regret and blame and grief, before he spotted a gathering of the living: about half a dozen Crusaders, standing in a knot near the path to Djose. But before he reached them, his attention was caught by the young summoner who had joined them at Mushroom Rock today. She stood at the edge of the water, performing the rite of sending as pyreflies danced around her. Beclem took a moment to watch, to mourn, to feel the weight of every life the colorful lights represented. He stayed there, leaning against the cliff, until she had finished. Once she was done, he didn't move for a moment, keeping his eyes focused on the ocean and the sky, blocking out all else.

"A swift retreat." The words, harsh and angry, cut through the interior haze. "Satisfied?"

Beclem turned in the direction of the voice and was surprised to see Sir Auron, feet firmly planted, glaring at Maester Kinoc. He had heard the rumor that Sir Auron was one of the Lady Summoner's guardians, but he hadn't expected to see the legend in the flesh. Curious, he took a step closer.

"What do you mean?" the maester asked, shifting uncomfortably under the guardian's gaze. Beclem had never seen the normally confident, commanding Kinoc so ill at ease before.

"Those who turned from Yevon died, while the faithful live on." The accusation fell on Beclem's ears and rocked him to his core. He pressed himself back against the cliff wall, the breath shocked out of him, unable to even hear Maester Kinoc's response over the inner turmoil caused by this suggestion and its implications.

The Crusaders who had gone against the teachings, who had allied themselves with the Al Bhed, were dead. Not all of them, but enough that their influence within the organization would be greatly diminished. Those who had stayed behind and rejected the new ways would take total control now. Even if enough of the machina faction had survived, would they ever be taken seriously again? Not likely, not after this.

All that seemed evident enough, but something about the way Sir Auron spoke... had the maesters actually hoped for this mass destruction? Had they perhaps even manipulated the Crusaders into carrying out this plan? Beclem thought back to some of their early discussions, to the first time Kinoc sent a message indicating that he would turn a blind eye to their plot, promising unofficial support despite the official excommunication. They had been so excited that day, so hopeful. Now he growled with disgust. He had been used. All of them had been used. Lives thrown away, and for what? To increase the power and influence of Yevon?

"Beclem?" Jarred from his thoughts and their sudden black turn, he looked up to see Luzzu walking toward him. "Praise Yevon," Luzzu murmured, grabbing his hands tightly. "Praise Yevon you're all right. If you had been killed too..."

"Who?" Beclem asked, studying his friend's bleak expression.

Luzzu shook his head at the ground. "Gatta," he said, softly still. "You remember, I introduced you yesterday? The boy who came with me from Besaid. Just another friend who I talked into enlisting, just another friend who's dead now." He stared down for a few moments longer, a quick spasm of guilt and anger passing over his face. Then he looked back up and his expression was calm, although it might have been a fa├žade, likely to crack sooner or later. "I'm going to Djose Temple with the other survivors. We need to pray, and to atone for our sins. Walk with me?"

Suddenly Beclem realized that he was tired. Tired of death, tired of atonement, tired of following the orders of maesters who didn't care whether he lived or died, tired of the knee-jerk piety that all Spirans were expected to show. What good had it ever brought anyone? "I'm not going to Djose," he announced, crossing his arms. "Or to any other temple. I'm through with Yevon. I want no part of it anymore." Too exhausted and heartsick for discussion, he turned on his heel and began a return trip down the beach, away from Djose, Yevon, and the confusion in Luzzu's eyes.

-x-

The battle had begun in late-morning and had ended just past noon. Beclem had been walking for some hours and now, as he began moving down the Highroad, it was night, the last light fading as it was replaced by the first few evening stars. He was on his way to Luca, his hometown as well as the place he thought might be the least tainted by Yevon's influence, and he was hurrying to the Mi'ihen Travel Agency despite his aching leg. If he could get there before it shut its doors for the night, it would be worth the pain. As he scanned the landscape, his attention was caught by a familiar figure lurching in the distance, coming furtively down the hill, then ducking into some bushes by the side of the road.

Curious, Beclem continued forward. He thought he had recognized the profile through the darkness, and as he approached the place where the man had disappeared, he called out, just loud enough for someone listening closely to hear. "Nooj? Is that you?"

"Beclem," came the soft reply. "You are alone?"

"I am." Beclem parted the bushes before him to see a tall figure pressed against the trunk of a tree, starlight faintly illuminating his face. "What are you doing here? I thought you were with that new Crimson Squad group."

Nooj winced, the brief shudder taking his whole body. "That's over," he said. "The maesters are looking for me, and I need to find refuge. I know it's a great deal to ask, but..."

"It's not," Beclem replied firmly, still under his breath. He wondered how Nooj, a long-time favorite of Crusader Command and of Kinoc, had ended up on the run from the maesters, but this was not the time to ask. "I have parted ways with Yevon. You needn't worry on that account. Come, let's find some shelter." He peered more closely at Nooj; his former comrade didn't seem to be injured, but he looked awful, drawn and exhausted, as though he had recently been through a hell even worse than the one Beclem had just experienced. They both needed a healer, a hot meal, and a real bed. "The Mi'ihen Travel Agency is neutral ground--"

"No!" Startled by the vehemence of the response, Beclem leaned away from Nooj, who had squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his good fist against his leg. After a moment, he opened his eyes and shook his head. "No," he repeated, quieter now, more controlled. "It's not safe for me there. I must go somewhere else."

"All right." Beclem thought for a moment. "The Old Road," he decided. "We're near the fork, and travelers almost never come that way. We should be able to camp there for a day or two, give things a chance to cool off. Come, let me show you." He stuck his head back out of the brush and, seeing no one, stood and motioned Nooj to follow. The two men made their way down the road and took the turn to the older pathway at the base of the cliff. After a few minutes of walking, Beclem spotted a grove that he thought might make a good campsite, and he led Nooj to it. Neither man spoke as they settled down with their backs to the canyon wall, screened from the front and from above by trees. Nooj leaned his head back and laid his cane across his lap. Beclem nearly sighed with pleasure at the relief of getting the weight off his leg, then began rummaging through his pack. A fire wasn't safe if Nooj were being hunted; they would have to make do without. Fortunately the night was warm. He pulled out two ration bars and handed one to his companion. Nooj nodded his thanks, then nibbled at it with the care of a starving man who doesn't want too little food to disappear too quickly.

Beclem took a bite and followed it with a swig of water. "Need some?" he asked Nooj, holding out the canteen. Nooj took the offered bottle and swallowed from it. "You have no provisions then?"

Nooj shook his head. "I escaped with little more than the clothes on my back." He took another drink, then handed the canteen back to Beclem. "So. Why are you here, alone?"

Beclem leaned back on his hands and looked up at the stars. "Remember how we always talked about attempting a joint operation with the Al Bhed? It was today, and it failed, utterly. But not just that. I'm beginning to believe that we were set up to fail, by the maesters."

"The maesters?" The moonlight was growing brighter, providing enough light for Beclem to see a deep furrow appear on Nooj's brow. "Tell me more."

And so he did, going back to the early days of plotting Operation Mi'ihen and the first contacts with Kinoc and the Al Bhed, through the events of the day itself, including a recap of the conversation between the maester and Sir Auron.

"So you agree with Sir Auron's implication that Yevon was hoping for a disaster." Nooj looked disgusted. "Damn Bevelle for treating us as nothing more than pawns in their political games! Much the same thing happened to the Crimson Squad. It is a long story, but in the end all they required from us was an exploration of a deadly cave. So deadly that only four of us made it out alive. All the others were killed."

Beclem gaped. "All?!" Nooj had been his only real friend on the Crimson Squad, but several of his acquaintances had been in training with the group. Had he lost even more comrades today?

"All," Nooj said flatly. "I'm still not certain of the true purpose of the organization, but it could not have been to train leaders for the Crusaders. That was no training mission, it was a trap. And we stepped into it far too willingly. The others were good soldiers who deserved better than an ignoble death."

"What of those who escaped with you?"

"They..." Nooj's words trailed off, and he fell silent for a long time. Even in the dim moonlight, Beclem could see his jaw working as he struggled to put together his next words. When he finally spoke, he seemed distracted still. "We... they... we were... separated. I--" He drew his right hand over his face and shuddered again, pinching the bridge of his nose. When he looked up again, bleak eyes peered over his spectacles. "I believe they survived, but I do not expect to see them again. No. Like the Crusaders, the Crimson Squad is destroyed."

All the anger and frustration that Beclem had felt back on the beach came raging back in a fiery rush. If it had not been for the need to hide Nooj, he would have screamed with fury. As it was, he had to clench his jaw until the urge passed. "They used us," he said in an impassioned whisper. "They set us up to be knocked down. They sit back in their comfortable cities and send us out to die. Well, I'm finished with them! All of them. To the fiends with them all! It will never happen again. Not if I have anything to say about it."

He looked to Nooj, hoping for some sort of agreement, but to his surprise the other man had already fallen into a light sleep, head drooping over his chest.

"Guess I'm taking first watch," Beclem muttered to himself, his anger ebbing back to a simmer. It wasn't like Nooj to collapse like this; more evidence he had gone through an ordeal of some sort. Beclem grasped his friend by the shoulders, planning to move him into a more comfortable position, but Nooj brushed away his attempts to help, batting away his hands with a quick frown. Despite everything, Beclem nearly smiled. Same old Nooj, he thought, stubborn and independent even while unconscious. Maybe Yevon had betrayed them all, but some things never changed. He crossed his legs and settled in to wait for morning.

-x-

It had been a long night. Nooj never woke, but he'd slept restlessly, shifting and groaning and even mumbling, although Beclem was never able to resolve the words into anything coherent. Beclem had stayed awake for as long as he could, but sometime around moonset he, too, had drifted off. The sound of chirping birds woke him, and he sat up abruptly, fully alert as he checked their surroundings. All was quiet, and there was no evidence that anyone had even walked past, but he was still annoyed at himself for having fallen asleep. "Sloppy," he murmured.

He stood up and stretched, stiff from battle and a night spent in an awkward position. The wound in his leg throbbed, but it wasn't anything he couldn't bear. Then he turned around to check on Nooj. The other man still slept, propped up against the stone face of the canyon wall, but Beclem could see his eyes twitching beneath their closed lids, and he moaned softly. Concerned, Beclem knelt to the ground and lightly shook Nooj's shoulder. He jerked away and opened his eyes so wide that they were almost round, his face twisting into an expression of shock. He stared at Beclem: unfocused, confused, mute. For a long second Beclem almost didn't recognize him; it was as though someone else entirely was starting at him through Nooj's eyes.

Then the moment passed. Nooj closed his eyes again and shook his head violently. "What... where am I?" he asked. "What happened?"

"You're near the Mi'ihen Highroad," Beclem answered calmly. Delayed shock after a grueling battle; he recognized the signs and was relieved to be back on familiar ground. Ideally, he would remind Nooj of the previous day's events, but since he still didn't know precisely what had happened, he'd have to skip that part. "You're safe."

Nooj rolled his head around on his shoulders, testing the kinks in his neck and back. "I remember now," he said, voice quiet but steady. "Did I sleep sitting up?"

"Yeah." Beclem got to his feet again. "How are you feeling? Do you still need to avoid the travel agency?"

"I haven't much choice in the matter." Nooj looked down and examined his hands, the machina fingers tightening into a fist.

Beclem nodded. "This is a good campsite if you need to lay low for a few days -- it's well secluded, and I hear water nearby -- but we need real food and some bedding, and the travel agency is really the only place to get that. I don't mind going alone if you'll be okay here for the day."

"Yes, go." Nooj sat up straighter and scooted himself behind the screening stand of trees. "I will be fine."

"Okay. Let me find that water before I go." After checking the road to make sure that no people or fiends were nearby, Beclem exited the small grove and headed for the sound of running water. It took a few minutes and a bit of climbing, but soon he found the small creek. He splashed his face and drank, then filled his canteen. Nooj might be able to make it up here with some difficulty, but not without being seen. So he made his way back to the camp and tossed the canteen into Nooj's lap.

"Thanks," Nooj said, unscrewing the lid and taking a long drink. Once he had finished, he handed the container back to Beclem, who waved him off.

"Keep it," he said. "The shop's not far. I'll get myself another one there."

Nooj seemed on the verge of refusing, but finally he nodded. "All right. Now go. And be careful. I need you in once piece."

Beclem resisted the urge to salute. "The same to you. See you in a few hours."

-x-

The walk to the travel agency took most of the morning and was uneventful. Once there, Beclem had bought his provisions with very little conversation. The bad news from Operation Mi'ihen had already spread, so the mood among the Al Bhed who ran the shop was sober, and no one had felt much like talking. The girl at the counter had contented herself with only a greeting and a warning.

"Be careful," she'd said. "We've had reports of bandits in the area, and some people even got shot yesterday. Don't travel alone if you don't have to." Beclem had thanked her for the advice and wished her well, then left, carrying three days worth of food, some salve for his leg, two bedrolls, and a new canteen. Belly filled with lunch, he trekked back to the campsite and found Nooj sitting quietly. By all appearances, he hadn't even moved.

Beclem sat on the ground to get the weight of his complaining leg, then handing Nooj a small paper sack. "Here."

"What is it?" Nooj asked as he accepted the bag and peered inside.

"An Al Bhed sandwich. Some sort of meat and vegetables cooked into a pocket of bread. A little over-spiced for my tastes, but good. I made a guess that you haven't eaten in awhile, so I got two. I hope they're all right cold."

Nooj pulled out the sandwich and took a quick bite, then another. It was gone in moments. Meanwhile, Beclem pulled up his pants to examine the wound on his leg. The scar was already fading; the healer had done good work. The salve he had purchased was mostly for pain relief. He scooped a small handful from the pot and began to rub it on the offending spot.

"Ugly wound," Nooj commented as he reached into the sack for his second sandwich. "From yesterday?"

"Mm." Beclem worked the calf over with his fingers, the salve soothing both the injury itself and the nearby muscles that had been doing double duty for two days. "Sinspawn. Still, I got off lightly compared to so many."

Nooj drank from his canteen, then began eating the sandwich, more slowly this time. "Who?" he asked between bites.

Beclem shook his head. "If I started listing off names, the sun would set before I had finished. Even those who lived were lost as well, in a way, to Yevon. Luzzu was there and made it through, but he lost another friend from Besaid -- a new recruit, you wouldn't know him -- and I think it broke him. When we parted ways, he and most of the other survivors were making ready to run off to Djose to beg forgiveness. Forgiveness! From the maesters who sent them to be slaughtered!" Gorge rising again, he turned his head and spat his disgust into the dirt.

"We have been played for fools," Nooj said, a bitter undercurrent to his tone. Beclem looked over to his friend and saw the resolve set on his face. "But no more! Never again. I will oppose them, Beclem. We will find the others and we will make them see that Bevelle's treachery must not stand."

Beclem nodded solemnly. "Whatever you choose to do, you know that I am with you."

Nooj reached out a hand, and Beclem shook it. They held the firm grip for a long moment, and then Nooj withdrew. "You should get some sleep," he said. "I can take watch for the rest of the day."

"You're sure?" Beclem asked. Nooj looked stronger than he had even this morning, his color better and his eyes less bleak, but he still didn't seem fully himself.

In answer, Nooj hauled himself to his feet, using his cane and the cliff wall for balance. "I've let you do all the work for long enough. And you're injured. You need your rest."

"Fine. Thank you." The salve had helped, but Beclem knew he had pushed the leg beyond its limits, and only sleep would really heal him now. "Are you armed? They told me at the Travel Agency that there are bandits about."

Nooj pulled a knife from a hidden pocket with his good hand and flipped it in his palm. "With this," he said.

Beclem raised an eyebrow. "A knife, against fiends and bandits? Not even Nooj the Undying is that good." Nooj snorted softly at the hated nickname; Beclem smiled, then pulled a pistol and holster from his pack. "Here, take my extra sidearm."

Nooj cast a sidelong glance at the gun and made no move to reach for it. "Thank you, but no."

"Don't tell me that you of all people are squeamish about machina all of a sudden. Come on, you at least need to carry a backup." Beclem shook the weapon at Nooj, who stared at it for another long moment, his expression wary, as if he expected the gun to explode in his face. Finally, reluctantly, he took the holster from Beclem's hand and fastened it around his waist, never touching the pistol itself. He turned away and looked out onto the roadway from behind the safety of the largest tree.

Satisfied, Beclem capped the salve jar, straightened his pants leg, pulled the pillow out of his new bedroll, and settled down. He was fast asleep within moments.

-x-

For two days, Beclem and Nooj camped in the stand of trees off to the side of the Oldroad. Except for a few surprise fiend incursions, it was a peaceful time, and Beclem appreciated the chance to rest in quiet solitude. Nooj, too, seemed to benefit from the downtime. The two men had been friends for many years; they had joined the Crusaders at the same time, going through their training together and then pulling assignments to the same unit. They'd had one another's backs during many battles, up to and including the one that had cost Nooj his limbs. After that, they had been separated as Nooj recuperated and then started taking on special assignments. It had been many months since they had really spoken, and Beclem found himself enjoying this opportunity to renew their acquaintance, although Nooj, never particularly talkative, had been unusually silent these past few days. Their third night at the campsite, Beclem realized why as he told the harrowing tale of the Crimson Squad's destruction over dinner.

They had taken their chances with a campfire that evening, and its flickering light cast sharp shadows across Nooj's face as he talked about their marches through the Bikanel desert, the horrific experience at the cave, and being turned on at the last by warrior monks. The haunted look was back, and he stumbled over his words a few times near the end. When he finished, he closed his eyes and sighed, a terse and weary sound. "My apologies," he said quietly. "I was perhaps not as ready to talk about this as I thought."

"It's all right," Beclem replied. "What a nightmare."

Nooj nodded but did not respond, idly picking up a twig and tossing it into the fire, eyes glued to the small shower of sparks that shot into the air, then drifted away like pyreflies. Beclem let the silence hang between them; he had no words of wisdom or consolation to share. He had been in losing battles and he had seen friends die, but not even Operation Mi'ihen was a massacre of the magnitude of the one Nooj had just lived through. Best to let him mourn and recover in his own time.

Finally, Nooj shifted his position and raised his face, looking Beclem in the eye once more. "We need to get out of this place," he said. "I've sat and waited for them to find me long enough."

Beclem nodded. "I've been thinking about our next move. If the Crusaders were still stationed there in any numbers, I would have said let's take our chances at Mushroom Rock. But I doubt many are left, and anyone still there is probably puppet to the Maesters. I think Luca is a safer bet -- further from Yevon's influence than any other large settlement on Spira, and now that blitz season has started it's easier to get lost in the crowds."

Nooj glanced down at his leg with a derisive snort. "As though I could disappear anywhere," he muttered.

"You'd be surprised," Beclem countered. "They're all so wrapped up in blitz, no one pays much attention to politics. I think we'll be fine once we arrive, but getting there in the first place might be a problem." He tapped a finger against his leg, thinking of how best to suggest the idea that had been brewing for the last few hours. Finally he decided the only way was to just blurt it out. "Can you still ride a chocobo?"

Nooj raised an arch eyebrow. "I haven't tried. Have you forgotten how much I hate those things?"

"I remember." Beclem spread his hands in defensive apology. "But it might take three days to walk to Luca. If we rode hard, we could get there in one."

With a sigh, Nooj nodded. "I suppose I ought to make the attempt, then. But how would we acquire them?"

"Rent them from the Travel Agency. They had a full pen when I was there the other day, and I think I have enough money for two." Beclem shot Nooj a sharp glance. "Do you think it's safe for you there yet?"

"I hope so," Nooj muttered. His machina hand twitched into a fist as he looked into the night sky. "We can't avoid it if we're going to Luca in any case."

"It would be difficult," Beclem agreed. "Perhaps possible, though, if I were to go there alone, get both chocobos and bring them back here. Although..." He cast a doubtful eye over Nooj as he wondered whether it would be possible for the other man to mount one of the large birds without serious assistance, and whether he would be punched in the face if he dared to ask.

Nooj sighed again, with more than a little irritation this time. "Out with it," he said. "If we're going to work together, you'll have questions about what I can and cannot do. I'd rather you ask than make assumptions, shelter me from your doubts, or stare at me in that awkward fashion. All right?"

Beclem nodded with a wry grin. "Of course. All right. Yes, I am concerned about your ability to get up on a chocobo. At the Travel Agency, it would be easy to find assistance, but you'd also be attracting attention to yourself. What do you think best?"

"Hm." Nooj glanced around the campsite. "It will be all right here, I think. Just make sure they give you a bird that's strong enough to bear my weight. The machina are heavier than they look."

"Good point." Beclem stood, bucket in hand to douse the campfire. "We'd best get to sleep, then. I'll leave for the inn at first light."

"Thank you." Nooj backed off from the plume of smoke that rose from the ashes, then stood up from the fallen tree trunk that served as his perch. "Shall I take the watch, then?" He walked to the edge of camp without waiting for an answer, taking his place with one hand balanced against a tree and the other gripping the head of his cane. Only the tightness of that grip and a stern set to his shoulders betrayed any emotion, but Beclem could see that his friend was worried. About tomorrow's ride, about passing the Travel Agency, about finding shelter in Luca?

There was no point in speculating, Beclem decided. Nooj would talk about his concerns, or he wouldn't. The best way to help him was to get him to the city in one piece, and the best way to ensure that was to get some sleep now. After turning over the coals one last time, he settled down into his bedroll and closed his eyes.

-x-

"That was fast." Nooj lurched into a standing position and shaded his eyes against the morning sun that poured in over the canyon walls.

Beclem pulled up on the reins of his chocobo as it came to a halt by the stand of trees. "Stop, right there, that's a good girl," he said, patting the bird on its downy cheek. He dismounted, then unfastened the second chocobo's lead from the saddle as he responded to Nooj's remark. "They gave us some good mounts. I mentioned the weight issue, and your lack of agility, and they claim that this fellow is both hardy and exceptionally patient." He handed Nooj the reins of his chocobo with a chuckle. "I may have implied that you were my overweight arthritic grandfather."

"Many thanks," Nooj replied, not bothering to conceal the sarcasm in his words or his revulsion for the bird as he took the straps of leather in his good hand. Beclem would have laughed again if he hadn't known it would likely mean a black eye -- the first time Nooj had ever ridden a chocobo, early in their Crusader training, the bird had spooked and thrown him, dumping him into the Moonflow in front of the whole company, and then run away squawking. Chocobos were generally docile and so Nooj had taken a bit of teasing. He had been inclined to blame the entire species and went to great lengths to avoid riding after that.

After successfully smothering his smile, Beclem moved to the male chocobo's head. "You ready to go?" Nooj nodded, and Beclem leaned in close to the bird, making soft clucking noises followed by a few words in Al Bhed. With a cheery chirp, the chocobo leaned over, dropping its head almost to the ground and dipping its knees. Together, these actions lowered its back by almost a foot, and Nooj let out a barking laugh.

"I'll be damned," he said. "I didn't know they could do that."

"The ones trained for the Knights can't," Beclem replied, allowing himself a grin. "But the ones used by the Al Bhed for travel need to be able to carry people who aren't in perfect fighting shape, so they're much more tolerant and flexible. Do you need a hand?"

"Just be prepared to pick me up," Nooj said grimly as he hobbled over to the chocobo, standing its the left side. He planted his cane in the dirt, tested the stability of the machina leg, and then with surprising swiftness hooked his good leg over the saddle, stuck his foot in the stirrup, grasped the horn with his right hand, and hauled himself into place. For a moment Beclem thought he might over-balance and topple over the other side of the chocobo, but he regained his seat with a shout and slapped the chocobo lightly on the flank, cursing under his breath as it rose into standing position.

"Everything all right?" Beclem asked as he handed Nooj the cane that had fallen to the ground.

"Fine." Nooj secured the cane on the horn of his saddle, then gathered up the reins again, holding both in his right hand, pulling up a little as the chocobo pranced in place, clearly eager to be off. "Can we get this over with?"

Beclem hopped onto his mount. "Of course. With some luck, we'll be in Luca by nightfall. I know an inn at the outskirts where they don't ask too many questions. Then tomorrow we can start looking for a place to get you settled permanently."

Nooj nodded, then cast Beclem a serious look. "I appreciate your assistance. You have helped me far beyond the call of duty, or even friendship."

"How could I have done less?" Beclem replied. "Just tell me that I haven't gone to all this effort for nothing." He stared at Nooj, holding the other man's eyes; first he saw surprise, then a flash of anger and a clenched jaw. Their gazes stayed locked for another few seconds, until Nooj looked away with a grunt.

"We'll see," he muttered, and then with a flick of the reins and a light jab in the side with his boot, he set the chocobo on its way to the Highroad and to Luca, Beclem following close behind.