Symphony of Salvation

Movement One: Apposition

A Tales of Symphonia Fan Novel

By Secondhand Soul

Chapter One:

Lloyd swayed, digging his heels into the ground and crossing his blades in front of him to block the crushing blow that came down from above. He gritted his teeth and grunted, pushing the morning star away with great effort. Even with his Exsphere, it was difficult to maneuver around the hulking form of this super solider, and he wasn't just accounting for himself, either.

Casting a desperate glance over his shoulder, he could see Colette and Genis darting about, the two of them much slower than he was, their footwork not as sure. They didn't have Exspheres like he did, and were exhausted from the last battle, so Lloyd couldn't really blame them, but right now, in order to protect them, he had to quit looking back at them every five minutes!

Growling, he feinted left, but found the blow he attempted to land rebuffed, his right hand reverberating with the painful impact of his sword against the morning star's taught chain.

"Damnit!" Lloyd cursed, scuffling away before the man could aim another skull-crushing blow at him.

Heart beating frantically, Lloyd searched for some weakness, some way he could land a blow, but adrenaline addled his mind. Worry hit him; worry that he wouldn't be able to hold the man; sthat he would pummel Lloyd into a bloody pulp to wail on Genis and Colette. He couldn't let that happen! No matter what!

Since when had he let himself become so powerless?!

There was no chance for him to answer his own question as the shadow of the giant converged on him. Lloyd knew he wouldn't have time to react this time, even with the Exsphere enhancing his agility, and prepared to feel the crushing pain of death … His heart raced as he awaited the blow, but it never came.

Instead, Lloyd found himself standing in another shadow, a blood curdling scream ripping itself from the giant's throat. From behind the new silhouette Lloyd glimpsed the morning star fall to the ground followed by the man's twitching hand, spurting blood from its stump of a wrist. He gulped, trying to stop himself from going green; he'd never seen something like this before …

Automatically, his eyes darted upward, frozen in place as he watched the man before him spring into action as gracefully as if he were dancing, only far deadlier. Brandishing what was probably a rather heavy blade with one hand, he ducked and weaved about the flailing body, plunging his sword up an into the man's ribcage from below. It should have been hard, Lloyd knew full well that flesh would resist even the sharpest blades because he was a blacksmith, and no sword was perfect, but … But for this man it looked as if he were simply stabbing the air.

In another swift movement, he twisted his weapon minutely at the hilt and wrenched the blade free, and Lloyd was forced to watch the giant stumble backwards, clutching at his chest and gasping. He fell, the noise somehow muffled compared to the thunderous pounding of Lloyd's blood in his veins, and he stared, detached, as their rescuer placed his foot against the dying man's chest.

For a moment the world seemed to slow to a stop, but it moved again when the victor of the battle plunged his blade once more into their assailant's chest. The giant gave a death keen, but fell still, his desperate gasps ceasing even before the silent figure withdrew his sword, flicking the blood from the blade with a motion that conveyed the utmost disgust.

He turned around, arms crossed firmly over his chest now that his blade was safely within its sheath. Now that Lloyd could see his face, he found a man who was younger than he had expected, which caused him to feel a surge of annoyance. How was he that good?

Lloyd forced himself to stand and meet the gaze of their savior, who was carefully scanning them now with a single eye, the other hidden by a frock of dark red hair. His expression held no hint of concern, and only a vague curiosity, something that chilled the young swordsman, who sized up the man as if he were an opponent to be conquered.

Observant eyes caught a blue gleam off the back of the other's left hand and zeroed in on the shape of an Exsphere. Well, at least that explained the man's incredible strength and reaction time. Lloyd absently rubbed the back of his own hand and wondered if he had really reached his full potential after all. This man seemed to scream that there was still so much more he needed to learn.

"Is everyone alright?" the man's voice was deep and bored sounding, but it somehow fit a guy who could so casually dismember someone. "You don't seem to be hurt … "

Lloyd felt a presence at his side and glanced to his left to find Genis and Colette gaping at the tall, deep voiced man in fear-tinged awe. Lloyd fought back a pang of annoyance, forcing himself to concentrate on High Priestess Phaidra, who was conversing with the mysterious man about the Oracle.

"—they fell at the hands of the Desians."

Whatever the man had been about to respond with was silenced by Lloyd's sudden declaration. He'd be damned if he let some random guy protect Colette by himself; how would he even tell if she was tired or scared?

"I'll take on the job of protecting Colette!"

He glanced toward the girl in question, finding her smiling at him encouragingly a closed eye grin, her fingers laced behind her back. It was almost enough to drown out the sound of Phadria's doubt; after all, if Colette had faith in him, he would never fail.

"Lloyd," the sound of his name on this stranger's lips drew him from his thoughts. He spoke in a tone Lloyd couldn't place, his voice laced with the barest hint of confusion. "Your name is –"

XxX

Lloyd woke with a shuddering gasp, the black cloth of his tank top clinging to his sweaty skin. He sat up, lacing his fingers through his messy brown hair and sighing as he took in his surroundings. It was cooler here than it had been in the glaring desert, and darker, a confined space that Lloyd recognized as a cell after the few moments it took his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Light peeked through the bars of the cell from the hallway, so Lloyd could just barely see that he was sitting on a cot at first. Swinging his legs off the edge, he stood, straining his ears as he detected voices.

Looking around, he found his jacket folded up at the foot of the cot, which he hastily grabbed and jammed his arms through in an attempt to fight against the cold, but the action made his head swim.

What had happened to him? It was the question he asked himself, remembering the smart of some kind of energy coursing through his body before he'd lost consciousness and ended up here. Before that, it was a blur of heat and dust, of the sun beating down on his skin as he knocked back Desian after Desian with nothing more than his flimsy wooden blades – But they had been enough, until he'd been hit from behind, and –

"Genis!"

Quickly, he covered his own mouth, hearing footsteps approaching from the corridor outside his prison cell. He froze, watching as a shadow blocked out the light filtering in from the outside world. A pair of eyes scanned him, but he stared at the wall across from him, hearing a disgruntled sigh before the shape turned away and stalked back down the hallway.

Lloyd cursed under his breath and stood, looking around for a means of escape, but finding none, until he glanced to the back of his hand to stare at his Exsphere and saw it – The ring. It was really his only option, right? The only thing he could do? He steeled himself and called out down the hallway, watching the guard approach him.

"Hey," he said. "I'm kind of thirsty, do you … Do you have any water?"

The guard came tromping back, annoyance written all over his face, though Lloyd thought there was a bit of pity in those dark green eyes, something that pissed him off to no end. "Sure thing, kid," the man turned around to get the water, and with him so close, Lloyd was easily able to aim a bit of mana at the back of the other's head using the ring.

With a cry, the Desian went down, though Lloyd did not take time to celebrate. In this place, there wasn't any room for basking in the glory of even a small victory, the very air he breathed was charged with the static of the situation, making his throat feel tight with anxiety. Reaching his arm through the bars, he found the release for the lock, stumbling back so that his arm didn't get stuck as it rose. Then, he dashed forward, finding himself in an empty cell block.

He shivered, glancing left and right, balling his hands and breathing deeply before he took off in the direction that led to a more open corridor. Lloyd's breathing was shallow, his eyes darting from place to place, the echo of some footsteps father down the corridor causing him to swiftly duck behind some crates. Another quick look around revealed this area to be some kind of storage bay.

Wait …

Lloyd's dark eyes darted about, eyes lighting on a long, narrow, package wrapped in leather. A sort of weary grin bloomed on his lips and he sighed in relief when he reached out and his hands and could feel the shape of his swords beneath it. He was glad to be right, for once, especially since he was a bit terrified without Genis' or Colette's backup.

Ripping off the packaging, he slung his swords into the sheaths at his side. Even if they were only wood, they were comforting to him right now, since he'd been holding onto them ever since he'd turned fourteen and his Dad had finally decided it was okay for him to have them.

Like a shot from a sling, Lloyd took off down the hall, trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Hearing footsteps, he suddenly hugged himself to the wall, behind a pillar, listening to a babbling pair walk past him. Silently, swiftly, he crept after them at a distance, hoping that they could help him get out in one piece.

They wound through the hallways, and though Lloyd has a few close calls, for the most part he stayed out of sight, hoping that he could make it out in once piece. He tried to psych himself up, but his body actually ached and his head had started to pound, but he wouldn't give in to it. He couldn't give into it, because there was still so much he had to do.

Images of the village and of Marble suddenly flashed through his mind, Dad's words echoing through his mind, making him grit his teeth.

They killed yer mother to get that stone.

"Mom …" he muttered, clenching his fists, and then paused. "Colette … "

No.

He had to get out of here. Had to.

Ahead of him, a door opened and the men grated to a stop, causing Lloyd to dive for cover, his ears pricking as he listened to their loud conversation, dual voices echoing through the cavernous room.

And as they stopped to complain about the complexity of the traps in this weird Desian base, Lloyd was suddenly sure that he was doomed, no matter how much he told himself he wasn't.

XxX

He rubbed his head in annoyance, pinching the bridge of his nose as he watched the women ahead of him weave through the crowded marketplace. They'd come back here after traveling through the desert for some time before the teacher realized she'd forgotten the pack with half of their healing supplies. Agitated, the man had led them back here in hopes that it would still be there, and it was, however …

"We should attempt again tomorrow. We're both tired, Sir Mercenary. Surely you understand that?"

And though Kratos had wanted to explain to her that there would be many restless nights ahead for them when they would simply have to push on anyway, he had held his tongue and allowed her to have her way, just this once. Because honestly? At this point it was not worth risking her fiery temper, and Kratos was a prudent man, if he was anything.

However, he had not expected to take a sudden and unexpected trip shopping.

It was not as if he had some personal vendetta against shopping, however … The drain on their funds for ribbons? He really could not justify such a thing. Not easily, in any case.

But once again, Kratos was a prudent man, prudent enough that he would not embarrass a woman who already seemed reluctant to take his advice publically. Later, when the girl was asleep, he would explain to her the situation in a rational way and was certain that she would listen. With the exception of possibly a few indulgences to make her ward feel better, which Kratos could not really object to as even he had noticed how listless she was without the presence of that boy.

Yes, the boy … He was important to her very psyche, and losing him had completely changed her behavior from what he had noticed in the temple a few days ago. Frowning sharply, he wondered if she would make it on this Journey, for her smile grew progressively less bright the farther they got from the boy, but shook the thought from his head.

He would make sure she succeeded.

Was that not why he was on this journey?

"Mr. Kratos?" his eyes flickered to the girl, who had fallen into step beside him, a serene looking smile on her face.

"What is it, Chosen One?" he responded in a low voice, allowing her to take his hand and pull him along.

"You looked lonely back here, so I wondered if you were okay," she beamed at him, though it didn't quite reach her blue eyes. "You're traveling with me so I want you to have fun, too!"

He didn't have the heart to tell her that this Journey was not supposed to be "fun", so he simply nodded and allowed her to pull him along, toward the silver haired woman, who glanced back at him with a slight nod of acknowledgement. Pricking his ears for noises in the crowded market, where the women received glances for their outlandish garb, Kratos politely allowed them to converse as they lead him through the weave and press of bodies.

That's when he heard the noise.

A desperate scratching of paws against compacted sandy roads made him spin, giving him just long enough to brace himself for them impact of the howling green and white shape that tackled him to the ground, placing its massive forepaws on his chest and whining in his ear. Glancing up into a pair of intelligent, pale blue eyes, Kratos moved to push the beast off of him, growling softly. "What in the name of mana is going on here?"

"Raine! Colette!" an exhausted voice called out, and Kratos' eyes darted around the white shape in front of them to see the small child he'd met at the Chapel stumbling toward them on what he could only assume were legs turned to mush by a grueling journey through the desert.

Reaching out, Kratos braced himself against the beast and muttered a curse, pushing himself to his feet. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, his voice coming out harsher than he had intended. Coughing, taking in the child's stricken and pale face, he cleared his throat and tried again, but before he could, the silver haired woman was descending upon the small boy, gathering him into her arms.

Not without casting him a glare, of course.

"Genis! How in the world did you get here? What's wrong?" He watched her brush the pads of her fingers over his cheeks, a display of nearly-maternal affection that forced him to avert his eyes. Watching the exchange sickened him, though not enough to block out their words; after all, he desired an explanation just as much as she did.

Out of the three of them, only the Chosen One looked unassuming, though still concerned. "Where's Lloyd?" she asked, and Kratos focused on her instead of the siblings, noting how she wrung her hands together, how her voice had increased in pitch due to desperation.

The small child suddenly looked to her with tearful eyes, gulping and taking deep breaths. Kratos had to admit that his attempt at gaining composure was so admirable for one so young, but if that boy were in danger … "Do we really have time to be wasting?" he growled. "Boy, if he is in danger, tell us. We can hardly leave him to rot and die." As he said this, he glanced toward the girl, who cast him a grateful look; had she been afraid he would leave the boy to die, were he in danger?

Genis and Raine both turned to blink at him, and though Raine looked about to say something, she held her tongue and let Genis stutter out a response. "L-Lloyd was taken by Desians, to this base in the desert."

"We have to go save him!" the Chosen sudden exclaimed, moving to run back to the town's entrance. Kratos' hand fell heavily upon her shoulder, and she looked up at him with desperation shining in the depths of her eyes. "M-mister Kratos … ?"

"We will go," Kratos said, looking back toward the siblings. "After the young Sage has told us all he can and has had time to rest from his journey." Turning back to Colette, he gave her the most earnest look he could manage. "I swear to you, we will save him."

She gulped and nodded and then walked forward to take her teacher's hand. The woman had already gathered her brother to his feet and was preparing to half drag, half carry both her wards toward the direction of the Inn. There he was certain she would demand a full explanation of events, and then they would make plans to save the Chosen's rash young friend.

That left Kratos to trail after them like a shadow, never touching them, but ever present.

XxX

He panted, hugging the wall as he watched the shadows of the Desians creep along the walls, taking a risk as he plunged into a dark room. Here, he was safe and hidden, after having explored endless passageways in hopes of finding an exit. Leaning against the wall, he slid into a sitting position and looked up at the ceiling, trying to catch his breath, his heartbeat slowly returning to normal. Lloyd steeled himself, forcing himself not to think of the maze of rooms that lead to nowhere and of the hundreds of people on high alert right now, searching for him.

Shivering, he bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, his exhaustion finally catching up to him. Growling, Lloyd tried to fight off sleep, but his limbs were heavy and his head still hurt, and he found himself drifting off regardless of what he wanted. Darkness swallowed him, holding him close, wrapping him in its warm embrace and dreams took him.

His mind drifted through a fog and before long he was no longer aware of anything around him, standing instead in a field with Colette in front of him, her hand outstretched. It was dark out, Lloyd could tell as he stumbled forward and took her small, soft, hand in his own. The stars spread out about him, swirling and vast, churning and moving so that Lloyd couldn't pinpoint the usual constellations in the sky.

Feeling dizzy, he turned to Colette, who was beaming at him wordlessly, tugging him across the vast field, tall grass swaying lightly about them in a breeze Lloyd realized he couldn't feel.

"Where are we going?" he asked her, but she didn't respond, only smiled more widely.

Lloyd allowed himself to be lead by the hand across the field until they came to a stream, where Colette stopped and looked at him expectantly. He stared at her for a moment, watching her giggle noiselessly and then point. Turning, Lloyd's eyes looked across the stream to see a tall man with broad shoulders whose face was hidden in shadow.

Of course he knew who it was immediately.

"D-dad…?" he asked, reaching out, only to have the man turn and begin to stride away.

Desperately, Lloyd chased after him, but as he ran the other only seemed to be farther away and the earth was falling away beneath his feet. Terror filled him as he realized he was going to fall, fall into an abyss from which he could never return, when a strong hand reached out to clasp his own.

Knees shaking, relieved, Lloyd was pulled out of the pit he had started to fall into and found himself in a sort of temple, the stars still sprawled above him, but stationary this time. Looking around, he found his Dad was replaced by that bastard Kratos, who he realized must have saved him, because there was no one else in the room.

"You-!" He began, but something in Kratos' expression silenced him.

"Look."

It was all Kratos said as he motioned toward something in the distance. Heeding his words, Lloyd turned his head to find a strange sort of altar, filled with a gentle but ominous light. It promised things Lloyd couldn't comprehend a future he couldn't begin to guess at.

"Now wake up," it was an order, and Lloyd spun, about to call him out for his shit, but words wouldn't come. He couldn't speak! "Wake up before you die, boy."

Lloyd stared at him, but something inside of him realized Kratos was right, that this was all a dream and that he had to pull himself out of it. Gulping, he walked back over to the chasm, stared into it, looked back to Kratos, and then leaped into the abyss.

Screaming, Lloyd's body jerked but the bond shattering impact of earth against his body never came. Instead, his eyes flew open and he lunged forward, skittering to his feet, heart pounding to his eyes darting about frantically before finally settling on an ominous and vaguely human shaped form on the darkness.

"Well, well, well," Lloyd's vision sharpened and his body tensed as he found himself staring into a shadowed face with burning green eyes. "What do we have here? I come into my office to find a rat." There was the sound of steel hissing as it was freed from leather and in the limited light Lloyd caught the glint of a blade. "I suppose I'll have to do some exterminating."

Lloyd growled and groped for the handles of his swords, pulling them out to point at his attacker defensively, earning barking laughter in response.

"Really? Wooden blades? Kid, you've gotta be –"

Green eyes narrowed and then widened before the man took a step forward, and then two, until he came to stand so closely that Lloyd had to stumble back against the wall to avoid him. "W-what the hell?!"

Lloyd felt like he was being stripped down to his skivvies by those eyes, made completely vulnerable as they analyzed ever bit of him, inside and out. He felt as if they could read his every thought, and he could only brace himself and try to glare at the man in front of him, who Lloyd could now see had terrifyingly long and bright blue hair, making him wonder how he hadn't noticed him before.

"I see the resemblance," the man finally said, backing off. "I never thought you'd cause so many problems, Irving, but I probably shouldn't be too surprised …"

"Just what the hell are you talking about?" Lloyd growled just as the doors slid open and the lights flickered fully on, tensing surprise at the face before him.

It was … It was the Desain who had tried to kill Colette at the temple! Gritting his teeth, Lloyd took a step forward, but the man only looked amused. "So you're Lloyd?" He laughed loudly, making the blue haired man growl under his breath in annoyance. "How amusing!"

"Naturally you'll explain this later, now report," the other man snapped, crossing his arms over his chest; he was ignoring Lloyd now, making the other wonder if he could make a break for it … But when those eyes lighted on him again and a thin and malicious smile spread over his lips. Lloyd knew there was no hope of that happening.

"The Chosen and her group have made a break in," the man announced. "We're attempting to route them, sir, but they'll be here soon."

"Damnit," the oath was hasty and the man spun around. "If he's with them, the whole plan goes up in smoke. I'll leave this to you, Botta. Don't let me down."

Then, a wicked grin still on his face, he turned to Lloyd. "Next time we meet, boy, you're mine."

And for some reason, Lloyd was actually scared he'd go through with it.

XxX

Kratos reminded himself that this girl was a child just as much as she was a saint, trained in the scriptures, as he watched her huddle against the wall. They had decided to all share one room that night, the small boy had been lonely and half in hysterics, though Kratos could not honestly fault him for it.

He simply preferred his space.

"Why are you not sleeping on a bed, Chosen One?" Kratos finally asked, drawing her blue eyes to him.

He watched as she bit her lip, wringing her hands together in front of her, hesitant to confide in him. Understandable, considering they barely knew one another, though the longer he stared the more she seemed to relax. It was the opposite of the usual reaction, but he was not entirely sure she was a normal girl, so expecting her to react in ways slightly unusual should be expected.

"I'm just worried about Lloyd, Mr. Kratos," she muttered, finally turning away from him, her voice muffled by her hands.

His strides were silent as he walked over to her from where he stood by the doorway to their room, lowering himself effortlessly to sit beside her. It earned him a look of genuine shock and then a small, warm, smile. On the bed adjacent from them, the woman and her brother slumbered in one another's embrace.

"You're worried about him too, aren't you?" The Chosen asked, though she wasn't looking at him anymore, instead staring into the darkness.

"It would seem as though we all are."

Attempting to maintain neutrality was important. They were still his clients, not his friends, and he could not risk overmuch emotional attachment to these people, but that didn't mean he had to treat them horribly. Part of his trade was forming a bond of professional trust with the client, and in a case such as this, when they would be traveling together for months on end, it wasn't not only a professional courtesy, but a necessity of survival. She had to know that he had her well-being in mind, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and being concerned for the boy …

It was part of that.

"We're going to save him, right? He's going to be okay?"

Kratos nodded stiffly, in part because he could not say for sure if the boy would be. There were countless scenarios and most of them ended with the boy dead or dying, with very few ending with him capable of joining them on their journey. He did not want to mention that to her, could not destroy her in such a way, so he kept such thoughts to himself and did his best to reassure her.

Still …

The thought of the boy dead was not a comforting one.

"I just want him to be okay."

"He is resilient," Kratos found himself saying. "Now please, go to sleep. In order to save him, you must be well rested."

He could feel her large, blue eyes upon him, could see from the corner of his eye the tears glittering in the darkness. But she nodded and stood, which was enough for him, even as she bowed quickly headed off to bed, where she knelt at its side to pray before finally slipping under the covers to sleep. Kratos wondered if she prayed for her dear friend, or if that were considered too selfish a prayer by the clergymen before he himself stood, fingering the key the clerk had given him, and walked from the room, making sure to lock behind him.

The desert at night was cold, something for which Kratos was grateful as he walked away from the Inn and into the closely knit patchwork of mud brick buildings. Triet was remote, though anyone traveling to the more modern Iselia would use it as a rest stop so it was large enough, but it lacked many of the modern amenities of the larger cities. Not that he particularly minded; actually, he preferred the quiet of Triet to the ever-living Palmacosta, especially when he needed air.

Making his way to the Oasis, Kratos stood by the water side and stared out at the water, his face cooling quickly here. Folding his arms over his chest, he leaned against a nearby palm tree and watched the moon's rays distort upon the surface of the rippling water. It was nice out here with nothing but the wind and the sound of the water to keep him company, where there were no expectant faces attempting to pry his hidden thoughts form him.

Tomorrow, he told himself, tomorrow would come in the passing of only a handful of hours. Then he would go and rescue the boy from that place along with the Chosen and her companions, and from then on … Well, it was not as if they could return to Iselia. The boys would have to come with them on the journey, and though the idea made Kratos nervous, the most rational part of him was forced to acknowledge that the extra muscle may be useful, even if it required additional training.

"How did you manage to get yourself into such a mess?" Kratos grumbled, recalling the stubborn set of the other's jaw as he'd declared he'd protect The Chosen. "It is not as if I actually require an answer. You're very …"

Foolhardy.

Good-hearted, but foolhardy.

He shifted his body, eyes lighting on the heavens, where the stars hung in their array, dusting the canvas of the sky with innumerable points of light. Naturally, The Chosen was correct. He was indeed worried for the boy, who had proven himself to be a well-meaning youth with a infallible moral compass, though he apparently lacked the ability to weigh his actions against the consequences. Normally, being young would be an excuse, but not when it came to the lives of countless villagers.

How Kratos would react would depend entirely upon how the boy viewed his actions.

Sliding down to the base of the trunk, Kratos sat and continued to stare at the water, allowing his eyes to slip closed after a moment as he gathered his wits about himself. Feeling collected at last, Kratos stood and made his way back to the Inn, pausing to scratch the beast – Noishe – behind the ear.

If he were going to be of any use tomorrow he'd best take his own advice and get some rest, and so, attempting to push all thoughts from his head, Kratos returned to the room to court sleep.

XxX

He couldn't die here!

Lloyd glanced back toward Genis, who was clutching his kendama so tightly that his knuckles and turned white with strain. A magic circle had bloomed under his feet like a kind of flower, making the air about Lloyd hum with energy – Even Humans could feel Mana move it was being channeled if they were close enough.

Growling, he launched himself at the monster, bringing his wooden blade hard enough across its chest to make it yowl in pain and lash out at him. Jumping back, Lloyd only narrowly dodged the blow … Maybe he should look into reading that manual after all.

Attacking again, Lloyd tried not to pay attention to the Half Elf leering at him with one, piercingly red eye and the horrified stares of the townspeople. Lloyd knew, knew in his heart of hearts, from the lump that had formed in his throat, that this was his fault, but he couldn't afford to think that way! There was no time, not when -!

A massive arm groped for him as the creature dove, and Lloyd jumped, landing on the creature's arm and almost losing his balance before he launched himself into the air again and landed on its other side. Spinning, he attacked again, again almost getting hit when the creature swung around and tried to smack him away. One blow from those arms and Exsphere or no, he'd be unconscious for days.

A barrage of fire hit the creature's back a moment later, making it yowl in pain, though something else flashed in its glassy crystal-eye, something intelligent, before it froze and turned on the Half Elf instead. Lloyd was tensed to attack it still, but something told him not to, something told him that the creature was no longer his enemy, and yet …

"Genis! Lloyd!" the voice boomed from the creature, sounding chillingly like Marble, despite being amplified and distorted to a warble. "Run!"

"M-marble?" It was Genis' voice that cut through the rushing of the blood through Lloyd's body, a noise that had consumed him. "It … It can't be …!" His voice was tearful, agonized, and though Lloyd would probably feel the pain clearly later, right now he felt nothing but numbness … Numbness and anger.

"I'm sorry, Genis. Please stay safe," her voice was almost a croon, though twisted by her current form. It was difficult for Lloyd to imagine the sweet old lady, bent with age, eyes sparkling with kindness, was the same as the distorted and grotesque ten foot tall monster before him. "You were like a grandson to me …"

Trailing off, she threw her body at the Half Elf Grand Cardinal and wrapped her sinewy arms about him. "Forgive me, Cacao, Chocolat …"

A light began to build and Lloyd dove at Genis, pushing him to the ground and shielding his eyes and a humming turned into a deafening blast that enveloped them all in a blinding light.

"Marble!" Genis was screaming, struggling in Lloyd's hold, and Lloyd steadied him. "Marble, no! Marble!"

Lloyd said nothing, for once at a loss for words, grim faced as he stood, Genis clinging to him. He looked to the Half Elf, who was surrounded by his men, but the chaos was distant, and Lloyd felt beyond it all, as if he were staring at them from a great distance. Brushing away his entourage, the man struggled to stand and stared Lloyd right in the eye, pointing at him slowly, laboriously. "As long as you have that Exsphere, we will never stop chasing you. Remember that."

And then, without another word, he and the others disappeared, leaving Lloyd with a trembling Genis clinging to him amongst a grim-faced populace. Somewhere in the distance a child wailed and Lloyd knew, knew that she was crying over the mother she'd lost, the mother who had been trapped in the house cleaning when the Desians had set it ablaze.

Unwilling to let his friend go, Lloyd looked into the eyes of the people of the village, finding hurt and betrayal. A few of them, the guardsmen and villagers he'd managed to save, looked at him with admiration, but it wasn't enough. Looking around the village, Lloyd could see the ruins of what he'd done, the fact that his actions had … Had killed everyone.

But what was he supposed to do?

What was he …

"Lloyd Irving!" The mayor's voice bellowed, commanding Lloyd's full attention. "We told you not to play by the Ranch! What have you done?!"

"I'm … Sorry," even to him his voice sounded hallow; he knew the words were not enough, that people had died here today, but what was he supposed to do?! What else could he have done …?

He was right, wasn't he?

"Do you think that's enough? Look at what's happened because of you! People have died!" The mayor threw up his arms, his upper lip twitching in rage, pulled back into a snarl. "You leave me no choice, Irving. You were an outsider raised by a Dwarf in the first place, but now you have no place in this village –"

"It's not his fault!" Lloyd was shocked when Genis pulled away from him, tears streaking down his face, fists balled at his sides. "I'm the one who told Lloyd to help Marble! So if you're banishing me you have to banish him, too!"

At this the Mayor looked shocked, and ran his hands over his head in frustration before looking Genis into the eye. "The Treaty was there for a reason. Your friend violated it, and look at how many people died because of him!"

"So the lives of the people in the village are more important than the lives of the people in the Ranch? It's okay if they suffer as long as you don't suffer?" Genis' voice was a growl, and if Lloyd hadn't felt so numb at that moment it might have terrified him. "You Humans are all the same. But fine. If you're banishing him, you're banishing me, too. I'll stick by Lloyd no matter what."

The mayor's eyes flashed his stubborn resignation and he sighed. "Very well, if that's what you so wish –" Suddenly, his voice grew louder. "By the power vested in me as Mayor of Iselia, I hereby banish Lloyd Irving and Genis Sage. You are to gather what you need and leave within the hour."

And then, without another word, he turned and left, words hanging like a death sentence.

XxX

Genis watched the tall man as he placed a hand on the side of Noishe's head, whispering something to the animal before the beast whined lowly and trotted up to Colette, shadowing her. It was Raine who was in the lead, staring at a map and barking directions according to what information the reluctant merchant had given them that morning, and though Kratos Aurion would occasionally correct the directions based on his insight, he had been surprisingly silent.

Not that Genis was really surprised, actually, he kind of thought this Kratos guy was always this way, but something about it was different from the temple and he wasn't really sure why.

"So, um," Genis started. "Kratos, right?"

The man looked at him, and Genis found himself suddenly flushed from more than the heat. There was something unnerving about having those eyes on you, though Genis couldn't tell you what it was. He didn't actually think there was a name for it, really, just …

"Yes. That is my name, Young Mister Sage," he nodded stiffly, absolutely no humor or friendliness in anything he said, only a strange kind of remote politeness that reminded Genis a lot of the way some people spoke to the Mayor.

He paused, seeming to deliberate on whether or not to continue speaking. "Did you need something?"

"I was just …" Genis took a deep breath and fell back to walk beside Kratos, who he realized was moving painfully slowly; he looked so cool in this oppressive heat that it almost made Genis feel jealous. "I was just wondering what you think the chances of us actually being able to save Lloyd are," he lowered his voice so Colette wouldn't hear. "You can tell me, okay? I want to go into this realistically so my hopes aren't c—So I'm prepared."

He gulped and stared at his own fists, balled at his sides. Genis could feel himself shaking with the thought of Lloyd's body broken and cold, but he pushed the thoughts from his head. Clenching his fists more tightly, Genis looked up to Kratos, who remained silent for so long that Genis almost thought he was going to treat him like some kid. It made him so furious he nearly forgot how terrified he was –

Until Kratos spoke.

"It depends on why they took him. The very fact that they did not kill him outright and take the Exsphere gives us some hope," the mercenary explained. "However, I expect him to be worse for the wear when we find him, at the very least. Your friend doesn't seem the type to sit still and wait to be rescued."

Genis let out a long sigh. "Ugh. Yeah. He'll try to break out and find us, because he's an idiot and I just know that he'll get hurt …" Rubbing his hand up and down his face in frustration, Genis blinked in confusion as the party walked into the shadow of something or other, finding a massive cliff face and the facility from before looming in the distance.

"I would not worry overmuch about his injuries," Genis tore his eyes from the facility, shivering, finding the mercenary staring at the horizon with a distant look in his eye. "Your sister is a healer and in any case, Triet is near. We can make haste so that he may rest and recover."

Genis nodded, realizing that something in the man's face had softened and that at some point he had grown comfortable speaking to him. He wasn't really sure when, but maybe having Kratos around wouldn't be so bad; and Genis did feel a bit better after hearing the truth, not Colette's chipper "He'll be just fine!" or his sister's "Honestly, Genis, you worry too much for a boy your age. Lloyd is strong. He'll be fine."

"Thanks. I feel better now," Genis said with a small, weary, smile, tried from traveling the desert. "Lloyd is a tough guy. It would take a lot more than a Human Ranch to defeat him."

To his surprise, Kratos' lips twitched up into something like a smile, though it was thin and distant, and didn't touch his eyes. "Somehow I do not doubt that."

And with that the conversation ended.

Feeling less sorry for himself and a bit empowered, Genis tried not to let the mechanical shape of the Desian base get to him and focused on what they would have to do to save Lloyd instead. He hoped Lloyd would be able to navigate the traps inside such a modern facility well, but he had the Sorcerer's Ring with him so hopefully that was helping somehow …

Soon they found themselves in the shadow of the building itself, making Genis shiver with the memory of being lead here by the Desians themselves, unconscious Lloyd over one of their shoulders. It was almost two days ago now, which was almost impossible to believe. Crouching behind a rock, Genis watched Kratos and Raine converse in rapid whispers, ears pricked to try to pick up quiet snippets of their conversation.

"—But what if they trace our activities back to Triet, Mr. Aurion? You cannot possibly be considering simply waltzing in!" Genis felt Colette lean against him and looked into her eyes, realizing for the first time how scared she must be.

Taking her hand, he squeezed it and smiled.

"They will not pursue us. Believe me, Miss Sage, the Desians realize who the Chosen is. The people of the town will be just fine. In any case …" He trailed off, paused, and then turned his face completely toward her. "I know what I am doing."

Genis could imagine his sister press her lips together, considering his words, sensed her acquiescence."Very well. Make it quick, Mr. Aurion."

There was no response, but Genis heard the rustle of fabric as the man stood, the sound of light footfalls shifting across the sandy bedrock before there was a shout, followed by a loud crack, and then silence. Standing, Colette still clinging to his hand, Genis looked over the small boulder that he crouched behind to see Kratos standing over the unconscious forms of two fully grown men.

"I did not kill them," he said, voice carrying across the expanse of rock easily. "Now let us go, lest we run out of time. The boy's life depends upon us." He then turned to Raine. "I believe you said the other day that you could open the gate?"

Nodding grimly, Genis tugged on Colette's hand and followed Raine to where Kratos stood.

XxX

"Lloyd!"

The voice, high with hysteric relief, was accompanied by a pair of arms tossed around his torso; he flinched, pushed her away, and stood in front of her, blocking her from the view of the burly Desian, who smiled thinly at him. He could feel shock radiating from her, but he didn't care – The only way to get out of here was to get through this guy …

"So you've arrived," Botta's eyes weren't on him or Colette, instead, they were on the shape of Kratos, whose hand was already on the hilt of his blade. "I can take care of all of you at once."

"I wish you luck," there was something about the way Kratos said that that sounded condescending, like he was scolding a little kid for stealing too many cookies. "Lloyd, Genis, Colette – Prepare your weapons."

"Wait, you're—" Lloyd was about to comment on Kratos allowing them to fight, but he was quickly silenced by the mercenary's harsh voice, making him bristle.

"Enough. We don't have time to discuss this."

Like a brutal punctuation note, the Desian, who had been standing nearest Lloyd and Colette, suddenly charged the both of them, forcing Lloyd to feint right, dragging Colette with him. "Holy shit!"

And just like that, Kratos was a violet colored blur, bringing his blade down with furious strength. Taking a deep breath, Lloyd brushed his hand across his forehead, looked back to Colette, offered her a reassuring smile, and jumped into the fray himself, trying to make himself aware of his surroundings.

To the back and left was Genis, channeling his energies for an attack, and directly behind him was Colette, standing in a defensive position and beginning to move to his left. Kratos, of course, was meeting the Desian blow for blow, a look of extreme concentration on his face. So Lloyd, circling around the back, decided to land a few blows of his own.

With enough force to bruise the other's shoulder, he brought his wooden blade down on their assailant's shoulder, cursing loudly when the brittle and battle worn blade suddenly shattered. Snarling, their attacker spun on him, but as he was about to land a blow, Colette's chakram hit him firmly in the hand, making him stumble, and Genis' spell was launched, three fire balls driving him back. Now behind him, Kratos' blade found home, slicing across the man's back and making him howl in pain, allowing Lloyd an opening.

Charging again, he rammed into the man's chest with his shoulder, sending him stumbling backwards, toward Kratos, who gracefully sidestepped, hooked the tip of his blade under the cross of their assailant's sword, and used the force of the man's own motion to effortlessly disarm him.

"Check mate," Lloyd heard Genis cackle from somewhere, bringing a smile to his own lips.

"Damnit!"

Eyes drawn back toward the Desian, Lloyd watched as the man struggled to his feet from where he had landed, Kratos having kicked his sword far away from his reach. He glanced toward the mercenary, who seemed to be casually deciding whether or not to dismember him, however when the man turned tail and dashed away, Kratos didn't chase him, turning instead to Lloyd.

Glancing away, Lloyd shuffled and turned his attention toward Colette and was about to say something when he was seized around the waist and hoisted over Kratos' shoulder. "W-what the hell?! Put me down, you bastard!"

"Save the chit-chat for later," Kratos said, though Lloyd couldn't see his face, considering that he was looking at the ground behind him; he struggled, but he was more wounded than he thought, and absolutely exhausted. "We have no way of knowing when they are coming back, and I noticed during the fight that you were favoring your left leg. It will be faster this way."

"Wow, Lloyd, you look comfy," Genis grinned at him as Kratos and Lloyd passed, making Lloyd snarl in response.

"Shut up, Genis!"

Genis just laughed.

"I see some things haven't changed," Lloyd's face turned ever redder when he heard the voice of the Professor – He'd almost forgot that she was on the Journey of Regeneration, and now here she was, seeing him thrown over the shoulder of some asshole like he was a little kid! "Are we ready to go?"

"Indeed," Kratos strode past her, leaving Lloyd to try to avoid her gaze; she looked just as amused as Genis looked smug.

Blinking as they stepped outside and his eyes were met by harsh sunlight, Lloyd found himself placed upon Noishe's back, the Professor crawling onto the animal's back behind him. Burying his face in his oldest's friend's fur, he breathed in the comforting scent and tried to ignore the feeling of Colette's worried eyes and Kratos' intense gaze on his back.

"I trust you know the way?" The Professor asked.

"Send him back once you reach Triet and check over his wounds," Lloyd glanced up to finally look at Kratos, who he noticed was holding onto their enemy's weapon; he was about why, but Kratos spoke again. "He will know how to find us."

The Professor nodded, Noishe lurched, and they took off over the hot sands toward the horizon.

XxX

Kratos had long since taken to carrying Genis atop his back, seeing the lad grow drowsy. The sun was sinking behind them, which did give them the benefit of traveling into the direction without the glare, but the Chosen herself was beginning to falter, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to her. He could not say as he blamed her, for if Kratos had been anyone other than himself, he, too, might have begun to falter.

"Do not worry, Noishe will be here soon," he told her as he shifted Genis, feeling the boy's grip on his neck tighten unconsciously. "Then the three of us will ride to meet up with your teacher and Irving in Triet."

She smiled sleepily at him and leaned against him as they walked; Kratos felt rather like he was running a daycare and found himself looking away from the sleepy young woman in embarrassment. This was not what he had signed up for.

"Thank you, Mr. Kratos," she said. "I was so worried about Lloyd, but you kept us strong and helped us save him." He could feel the intensity of the warmth of her smile as she looked at him. "I knew you were a good person!"

"It's simply a job," he told her, refusing to meet her gaze. "It is my job to help you and follow you wherever you so choose to go, Chosen One."

She linked her arm through his and they walked together in silence for a long time, the cliff shrinking to a distant shape behind them, a memory of what they had suffered this day. He wondered if the fact that she was clinging to him meant that she trusted him or if she were simply tired, but he did not ask her, did not seek an answer, figuring that they would be traveling together for months on end and that his answer would come sooner rather than later.

It was around then that Kratos heard a long, loud howl and froze, watching The Chosen start awake and feeling Genis lurch atop his shoulders. Toward them Noishe came, as fast as the wind, skidding to a stop in front of them and panting happily. Nodding, Kratos unloaded his burden onto the beast's back, watching Genis grasp the fur in between his fingers, and then helped the Chosen on before getting on the animal's back himself, sitting between the two. "Hold on tight, Chosen One. We are above to go very fast. If you feel sick at any time, close your eyes."

And then they were off like a shot.

The Chosen One nor Genis had any issues with the ride, both of them nodding off, Kratos staring straight on into the headwind, though the force of it brought tears to his eyes. He could feel Noishe powering on, muscles pumping, panting as he ran across the rapidly cooling sands. Kratos knew that he, too, would need a few days to recover from this, that they all would (except, perhaps, for him, but then again, he was a professional). Colette, Genis, and Raine Sage would all be exhausted from the emotional dilemma and Lloyd and Noishe would be physically worn from all the work they had done.

He would be helping to take care of them all, but he did not so much mind. Their health was important to the sake of the journey. What was the point of wearing them to a place where they could no longer function?

They snoozed as Noishe traveled, so that a few hours later when they arrived to an anxious Raine Sage standing outside of the Inn, her arms crossed over her chest, wrapped in a heavy cloak to keep out the cold, very little time would have seemed to pass to them. Kratos helped the drowsy Chosen down from her perch and handed Raine Sage her younger brother, watching them disappear into the building. Kratos himself took a moment to get Noishe a blanket and some water, throwing him a handful of jerky into the pen where he would be spending the night before following her inside.

In their room she sat on her bed, rubbing her blistered feet. Again, they would be sharing one room. Unorthodox, but … Well, it would have to do for one more night, and in any case, it saved valuable resources.

She glanced up when she heard him enter, watching him for a moment before turning back to her feet and letting out a long sigh. "I forgot what it feels like to travel great distances. It seems that living in Iselia for so long has softened me."

Before responding to her, Kratos glanced toward Irving's bed, finding him sedated and bandaged. It was not a rest that would revive his energy, but it would allow him to heal; he would have to wait for true sleep for his energy to be restored.

"A sedentary lifestyle will erode away your abilities, but I had guessed you had traveled before. You do not act overly naïve, unlike the Chosen," he sat down, tossing his cloak to the ground and taking out his blade to examine it for damage. "You seem aware of the dangers of the road."

She nodded, looking out the window, where moonlight spilled in. "Yes. We moved to Iselia some time ago, but before that Genis and I traveled from place to place. Still …" She glanced to her sleeping brother, and then to the Chosen, before her eyes fell onto Lloyd.

She was worried. He could feel it radiating from her, but he did not mention it, feeling that it might insult her. Instead, he sheathed his sword and leaned back to lie on his bed, arranging his scabbard beneath him comfortably.

"They are still children. I wonder, are they ready for this journey?"

He could feel the hardening of her eyes as they snapped to him; sense the imperceptible tightening of her jaw. "I'm a school teacher and your loyalty is to your money. Are we really in any state to judge them?"

"Perhaps not," he replied flatly, crossing his arms beneath his head. "Still … This will not be an easy journey. Even considering what has happened to them already, what they have caused, they still seem to have a level of innocence. I was hoping they could maintain that."

Kratos' could have brushed her stunned silence with his finger tips if he hadn't been comfortable in maintaining his position.

"I suppose you're right. I would have liked to spare them from this, but it's too late now. Lloyd is too … Too stubborn and good hearted to simply leave someone in need suffering."

Though he wanted to retort, he did not, pursing his lips together and grunting. His hope that it would be taken as agreement was fulfilled when she bid him goodnight, rolling over onto her side and pulling her covers up over her to stave off the chilly desert air.

Soon, her breathing became regular, allowing Kratos to stand again and silently, softly, creep over to the side of Lloyd's bed. Kneeling down, he placed two fingers against the pulse point on his neck to feel for a heartbeat, letting out a breath he had not realized he'd been holding when he could feel life pulsing beneath his fingertips.

For but a moment when he had been conversing with Raine he had feared the boy had stopped breathing, but it seemed as though he was wrong, much to his relief. Hesitantly, he raised a shaking hand to the boy's head as if to rake his fingers through his hair, but pulled away at the last moment, stood, and stalked back over to his bed.

Taking a deep breath he calmed his nerves and told himself that the attachment, like his happiness, was an illusion, and that the boy deserved better than any mangled affection he could offer. It was a comforting bitterness, a lie that he sincerely believed with all of his soul, as old and familiar and worn as the faces of the cliffs battered by the wind.

But as the minutes whiled away and sleep would not come and the reality that this boy would be joining them on the journey set in, Kratos realized he could no more prevent his inevitable attachment to him than he could prevent the rising of the sun or the steady march of time.