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I first saw him just outside Bevelle Temple. His clothes made him stand out, as did his height. A stern face, plus a tall and muscular frame, and people naturally veered away from his post. A single glance should’ve satisfied my curiosity, but I soon stole several more, and then got caught by his stare the next time, pinning me where I stood with a bread loaf clutched to my chest. Eye contact always made me uncomfortable, and it felt rather like he was weighing every good and bad deed I’d done in my life with that sharp stare. Finally he turned his gaze elsewhere and I was free to scurry away, heart racing from both nervousness and the fact that someone so attractive had actually stared at me for so long. Kind of scary, but still pretty hot...

Later I realized I had crushed my bread while he was staring, so also unfortunate. Oh well.

I couldn’t resist passing in front of the temple again the next day around the same time, to see if he was there. No luck, though–some other monk was posted, so I left quickly to get on with the rest of my errands and tried to brush it off as a one-time thing. What were the chances that I would get to see someone like that again, anyway? And even if I did, how the hell was I supposed to muster up the courage to actually approach him, let alone talk to him? I doubted he would be the one approaching me, since the one thing I did know about the warrior monks was their dedication. Did they have days off? Maybe I’d get lucky and run into him somewhere else?

It was all well and good to daydream, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Except, next week I did see him again. So maybe it was the same spot in front of the temple, but still… I found an inconspicuous place to sit where I could look for a little while, but wouldn’t be as likely to draw his attention, even if the thought of being stared at like that again was kind of exciting. With the hymn of the fayth softly echoing from the temple and the quiet bustle of people going about their business, it was surprisingly restful to sit there. Not so restful was the stiff way he stood at his post, straight as a pole and paying keen attention to all who passed within range of his sight. His long black hair was pulled back in a tight, utilitarian ponytail with only a few loose strands hanging to either side of his face, still slightly rounded with youth. He seemed to take to his duty with utmost seriousness, even though it appeared to be a post of little importance.

So stern… it was kind of cute. If “cute” was a word that could be used for someone almost a foot taller than me and broad as a brick wall, anyway. I wasn’t about to go calling him that out loud or anything–warrior monks probably didn’t appreciate that kind of compliment.

All the same, I came to realize that I had somehow spent the better part of half an hour just sitting around here, and there was still a list of things I needed to do for the day. Regretfully I picked myself up and cast one last glance his way, only to find myself caught in his gaze again. Oh boy. My face began to heat up with faint embarrassment–had he known I was here the whole time? I hoped not, offering him a weak, nervous smile. There was no smile in return, but the tiniest nod of acknowledgement instead. Even that was enough to set my heart pounding, and I ducked my head in a sort of goodbye nod, then scurried away with all due haste. He must’ve recognized me from the first time he’d seen me! It wasn’t as if my wardrobe had much variation in it, though I didn’t exactly stand out from the crowds because of it either. Overall it seemed incredible that he would be able to pick me out like that again. Perhaps it was just pure coincidence, though? I’d have to test it: if he gave me another nod next time, then I would have no choice but to try and talk to him.

With that in mind, I stayed away from the temple until the next week rolled around, growing steadily more nervous as the day I’d drop by grew closer. What if he wasn’t there this time, or if he was but he ignored me? And either way, I was being foolish for being interested in a warrior monk of all people; his work probably meant more to him than some weekly gawker. If I was smart, I wouldn’t go at all.

Of course I went anyway, tucking away a sweet roll in a pocket before heading off. He was there just like last time, stiff-backed and stoic; I sat myself in the same spot as last time and rested my chin in my hands with a soft sigh. Trying to muster up the courage to approach was a near impossible task for a shy person like myself, and it didn’t help that he had yet to turn his piercing gaze in my direction. I still had an excuse to leave without trying as long as I was unseen, going by my own rules.

“You know, Sir Auron there is a pretty nice person, once you start talking to him. He just looks intimidating, really.”

I, startled at the voice that suddenly spoke up beside me, nearly jumping out of surprise and having to choke on a squeak. Ah, another man… he wore a fanciful robe, and I could only guess that he played some role at the temple as well. Seeming to realize how much he’d spooked me, the man offered a smile. “Sorry. I’m Braska, one of the apprentice summoners of the temple. I noticed you have an interest in my friend there.”

“Ah… I-I see.” How embarrassing to be noticed. “... Chrysanthe. It’s nice to meet you.”

Braska responded with the gentle arm motions of the Yevon prayer, and I merely nodded my head politely. Though he quirked a brow, Braska otherwise didn’t seem bothered by my lack of piety. “Well, Lady Chrysanthe, Auron is a warrior monk in training. Everyone is quite impressed by his diligence and skills these days. If the rumors are to be believed, he could well become an important Maester one day.”

How reassuring. So not only was I interested in a warrior monk, but also one who was probably going to climb the social ladder pretty far. Talk about out of my league…

My discouragement must’ve shown on my face; he gave my shoulder a gentle pat of reassurance as he continued, “But he doesn’t have many friends, and I think he’s a little lonely sometimes. It would do him good to have a friend outside the temple. Perhaps you could help?”

Well, he practically just handed me an open invitation to go speak to his friend, but that made me no less nervous. Flustered by such a straightforward request, I looked away and once more found the monk’s gaze upon me, keen as ever. Just as clearly I could tell he’d seen Braska beside me, and a glance at Braska found him smiling kindly and giving his friend a small wave. Then I found myself being encouraged to stand, Braska giving me a gentle push in Auron’s direction as soon as I did.

“Go on then. It’ll be fine, I promise.”

Yevon have mercy–I stumbled forward a few steps and froze, glancing back at the smiling Braska with a panicked expression, but he seemed content to stand there uselessly while making a small shooing motion. Seriously? I definitely didn’t have a choice now, not unless I wanted to look like a coward. Biting down on my complaints, I slowly crossed the distance and stood in front of the warrior monk, hands clasped tightly in front to keep from fidgeting. Having watched the procession, his brows were raised, the expression on his face seeming to say ‘what has Braska done this time?’ Made it awkward for both of us, that’s what. What was I supposed to say, anyway? Fortunately he saved me the trouble of speaking first, clearing his throat before making a slight nod in Braska’s direction. “Is the apprentice summoner bothering you? He should be attending to his work.”

“Ah–no, he… he was just uh, giving me some advice. I…” Scrambling for something more, I abruptly remembered the sweet roll in my pocket and pulled it out, unwrapping the protective linen napkin before offering it to him with both hands. “H-here! You ah… seem to work very hard, a-and…” I ducked my head, too flustered to finish the excuse. He was silent for a long moment, though just when I was about to peek he snorted, and the weight in my hand was gone; I looked up to find him wrapping it back up and tucking it away in his haori, giving me another nod. That actually worked? I was just a little stunned, honestly. “Thank you. I should return to my duties, though.”

“Oh… uh, of course. It’s nice to meet you, A–I’m Chrysanthe.” I bobbed in an awkward sort of bow, trying to cover the fumble of almost saying his name when he hadn’t given it to me himself yet. He gave a brief hum, seeming almost amused by my behavior.

“Auron.”

“Ah, right. I… have a nice week!” With that I hurried away, trying to ignore any attention I had drawn to myself from that little show. Had that summoner really been trying to help, or was it just to see me make a fool of myself? Braska had seemed nice, but I was still embarrassed. Would Auron mind if I brought him something again next week? I’d just have to give it a shot and see.

Chapter Text

The next week I brought Auron fruit, though I agonized over what kind and how much. At least he seemed to appreciate it–in return he handed back the linen cloth I’d wrapped the sweet roll in, which I accepted with as straight a face as I could muster. Whether Braska was watching the exchange from inside the temple or around some corner I didn’t know, but at least he wasn’t giving me his strange brand of encouragement this time. Still, I did owe him for that, at least. Making the first move wasn’t something I excelled at, so his push had given me a tiny bit of momentum in that direction. Whether I could keep it was another thought altogether, though.

“I ah–did you like the sweet roll? It was fresh…”

I could see the beginnings of smile on his face, his more neutral expression starting to slip just a little. “Yes, though I hope Lord Braska didn’t convince you to give it up.”

(Braska was a nobleman? I’d have to keep that in mind next time I saw him.)

“Oh–no, no! I just–he was just, kind of… introducing himself. I don’t usually pass by the temple very often, I guess he ah, wanted to meet a fresh face?” Well, that was close enough to the truth that it didn’t sound too weird, and other than a slight snort, he seemed to accept it for what it was. “I see.”

“So… is he your friend?”

Braska had sort of implied they were friends, but relying on what little he’d said wasn’t the smartest option. Auron seemed to consider the question for a moment, then gave the faintest of smiles before he said dryly, “I suppose I could call him that.”

I guessed that meant Braska was the more proactively friendly one then.

“Well–next time you see him, could you tell him I said thank you? For uh, the advice he gave me before.”

“You’re quite welcome, my lady. I was happy to help.” Just like before I was startled, turning to find the man in question approaching us. He had a bag looped over his arm, and–a child in tow? She couldn’t have been older than six or seven, dressed in a tiny blue robe with a wide yellow obi tied around her middle. Short brown hair and a blue eye matched with a green one… an undeniably cute kid. Looking up at Braska for approval, as soon as he gave a nod she trotted ahead and made a beeline for Auron, who was prepared for her approach and scooped her up in his arms. An honest smile softened his face just for a moment and I felt my heart flutter a little.

“Sir Auron!”

“Lady Yuna,” he replied amiably, “I see you’ve been keeping your father busy today.”

Her head bobbed eagerly as she giggled, high and melodic. “We bought lunch, Sir Auron, we want to share with you!”

“Lady Chrysanthe is welcome to join us as well, if she would like,” Braska said as he finished his approach, bowing his head in greeting. At the mention of my name the girl seemed to immediately notice my presence, shifting in Auron’s hold until she could properly face me, arms careful but steady in the motions of prayer. Afterwards, she asserted shyly, “I’m Yuna.”

Keeping as neutral an expression as possible, I nodded and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yuna. I’m Chrysanthe.”

“Are you Sir Auron’s friend?”

Oh. My gaze darted between Auron and Braska, the latter of whom clearly took pity and took the child from Auron to hold her himself. “She’s a new friend, Yuna.”

Yuna’s initial smile quickly grew brighter; how precious. For the moment, I was utterly charmed by her, and her smile was infectious. “That’s good! Sir Auron needs lots of friends! We’ll all be his friends together.”

Well that settled it: I was smitten with her round little face and soft, well-spoken voice. If she wanted us all to be friends then I would simply have to try and do just that so Yuna could be happy. Sighing in resignation, I nodded slightly in agreement, while Braska chuckled and Auron seemed tolerant of the her insistence in a good-natured sort of way. I was not the only one Yuna had enchanted, apparently. “Since we have that settled, how about lunch now? Your shift is almost over anyway, Auron. How about you go let your replacement know, while we wait here?”

“Lord Braska…” Auron looked annoyed, but Yuna turned her gaze towards him. “Please, Sir Auron?”

Auron was silent for a moment, then reached over to give her a pat on the head. After that he turned and headed toward the temple. Standing there awkwardly, I felt like I’d accidentally been included in something personal to them since Braska had arrived. The idea made me uncomfortable, but before I could stew in my feelings for too long, Yuna squirmed out of Braska’s arms and walked over to me, slipping her hand into mine.

“Are you going to have lunch with us, Lady Chrysanthe?”

“Ah… if you want me to, then of course.” I was too weak against those mismatched eyes staring up at me hopefully. Braska seemed to realize it, giving me a smile as he let Yuna do the talking. My confirmation made her smile and she gave my hand a happy tug. “We brought lots of good things to eat, I’m sure there’s enough for everyone!”

I stifled another sigh. Yuna was too sweet for her own good, and I didn’t have the heart rebuke her sincerity. Instead, I just gave her a small smile, and turned a narrow-eyed look at Braska, who pretended to look clueless.

Before too long Auron returned with another monk following behind him. We all moved out of the way so the new man could take up his proper position, seeming unimpressed by the little squad we headed away in (or maybe that was just the default expression for most monks). Braska took the lead, clearly having somewhere in mind for us to go. Yuna and I were in the middle, still holding hands as Yuna peppered me with questions about myself; I felt obliged to satisfy her curiosity despite my usual quietude. Auron took up the rear–despite that he somehow managed to set the pace, keeping us all moving at a brisk speed that didn’t take long to tire out Yuna. Noticing her steps were starting to lag, I took the initiative to pick her up; seven year olds were heavy, apparently. She seemed pleased with the new arrangement though, smiling and wrapping her arms around my neck.

Thankfully we arrived at our destination before my arms could get tired of carrying her–Yuna wiggled free of my grasp and ran ahead into the carefully cultivated little park, while I flexed my fingers and rubbed at a shoulder. Someone like Auron would probably be able to pick her up for a few more years yet, but she’d already outgrown the carrying limit for someone of my weight class. Yuna picked out the tree-shaded spot where we would sit, and Braska pulled a cloth from his bag for us to sit on: there was just enough room for the four of us and a space in the center for the food, as if he’d almost planned it this way….

Okay, maybe I was getting a little too suspicious of him.

But it did seem awfully convenient, watching him pull out sandwiches and other foods, quite enough for four people. I sat myself down on the blanket, finding that the arrangement quickly settled into Braska on my right, Yuna on the left, and Auron right across from me, with that keen gaze focused on me for a moment before he glanced over to his friend, who gently moved his arms in prayer, then offered me a sandwich. Yuna quickly copied him and gave a sandwich to Auron, that tolerant look of ease crossing over his face as he accepted it.

Gingerly accepting the sandwich, I was content to eat in silence while Yuna began asking Auron about his training; he answered the questions in between bites, seeming unbothered by her stream of inquiry. His patience paid off though, and soon she settled to eating, granting our little party some peace for a while.

Still feeling strange about being included, I couldn’t eat much. I glanced up from a half-eaten sandwich, realizing that Auron had finished his sandwich–and was ever so casually working on the fruit I’d given him, deftly peeling off the soft rind in a single long strip. I found myself staring, at least until his eyes lifted and spotted me; that made me look away quickly, cheeks beginning to burn with a familiar blush. Braska was probably having a ball with this, wasn’t he?
But the man seemed oblivious when I glanced his way, and fortunately Yuna looked focused on finishing her sandwich. As for Auron, well, I wasn’t about to get caught staring yet again, and I kept my gaze aimed carefully away while slowly nibbling on my food. Ignoring my innate nervousness, it was actually kind of nice to sit like this, even with barely knowing any of them. I was curious, of course, but prying about about them so soon just seemed too impolite. Once everyone seemed just about done though, I set down the rest of my sandwich and stretched my arms upwards for a moment, then began to rise from my seat.

“Lady Chrysanthe?” Braska was quick to look up, his head tilted to one side.

“Ah, I really appreciate being invited for lunch, but I should be getting back to work, I’ve spent too much time sitting around today…” I bobbed my head apologetically, and the summoner gave a gentle smile. “It’s quite alright, I understand. We’ve enjoyed your company today.”

Being released so easily was a blessing, almost; I gave them all a quickly fumbled farewell and turned to leave, but before I could get too far a soft voice quickly piped up. “Lady Chrysanthe, wait please!”

Oh boy. I paused and turned to see Yuna hastening over with bare feet, sandals left behind at the blanket. Well, at least we were far enough away that if she kept her voice down then Braska and Auron wouldn’t hear anything. I leaned over a little to put myself at eye level, and Yuna folded her hands in front of herself. “You like Sir Auron, right?”

“Ah… well. Yes, I’d like to be his friend.”

The smile she gave was a bit too much like Braska’s, and I was inclined to nervousness again. “Good. I wanted to make sure! I think Sir Auron likes you too–he was watching you.” Yevon wasn’t being merciful today, huh. Doing my best to keep my gaze from straying to said warrior monk, I gave her a light pat on the shoulder and a flustered smile. “Let’s... keep this kind of talk between us girls, okay Yuna? We’ll all be friends, I promise.”

I gently shooed her back towards Braska and Auron, then hurried away with a face that gradually began to burn more and more with embarrassment. Had he really been watching me? I was too flustered to think straight about what it could mean, instead just trying to plan what I might bring him next week. Something sweet again, maybe?

Chapter Text

I settled on cookies this time, again wrapped in a linen napkin and carefully stowed away in a pocket. Feeling nervous about somehow getting drawn into something like last time, I approached the temple more hesitantly than usual, and from a distance I spotted Braska’s elaborate robes, the apprentice summoner blocking my view of where Auron usually stood. Presumably the two were chatting, and I hung back, waiting for the unheard conversation to conclude. It took longer than I wanted, but finally it seemed to wrap up, and Braska moved towards the temple–except with a clear line of sight, Auron wasn’t there. Another monk stood in his place, and for the moment I became alarmed. Where was Auron? Had something happened? Braska would know, hopefully; I kicked into motion at a hasty trot, reaching the gateway just as he disappeared inside the temple’s main doors. Great. I hurried down the main walkway and entered the temple myself, but by that point Braska was nowhere to be seen, further aggravating my concern. The Bevelle Temple was hardly a small one by any means, and being as reluctant to ask for help as I was, a search could take quite a while.

The Hymn of the Fayth filled the large central room that the faithful gave their prayers in–there were few enough people around that my entrance went mostly unnoticed, and despite the urgency of wanting to know if Auron was well, I instinctively made myself small and kept to the edges of the room, looking for signs of where Braska might’ve gone. Nothing seemed to give any clue, and my anxiety began to grow. Going further into the temple might get me in trouble–the clergy were a strict sort like that, and I certainly didn’t look like an acolyte of any kind, though if I tried I could possibly pass muster at the vaguest glance. The idea was a little distasteful, but weighing it against my other worries made it no contest.

Waiting for the right moment, as a clergyman came in through one of the side doors I slipped past within the shadows and through the door before it could shut behind them. The hallway beyond was thankfully empty for the moment, though the song of prayer still filtered through like a solemn backdrop. Now then, where would the warrior monks usually be?

I knew nothing about the temple’s layout, only able to guess that the quarters for them would likely be here on the ground level, further back in the temple. Treading quietly and cautiously took a little work on the tiled floors, and occasionally I had to dart into side rooms to avoid being seen (afterwards peeking in case the passerby might be Auron or Braska). But I did make my way further in without much trouble, with the occasional branching passage forcing me to choose which way to turn. I chose ways that stuck to the outer edge of the building, where windows let sunlight in and kept the way from being too gloomy. I seemed to be on the right track at least; more and more warrior monks would pass by when I hid from approaching footsteps, and soon the passage ended in a pair of wide doors. Hopefully this led to Auron….

One of the doors opened, and a warrior monk stepped out. Too late to hide, so instead I began the motions of the Yevon prayer, and after bowing my head I hastily spoke up, “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but–is Sir Auron here at the moment? I’m… a close acquaintance of his and Lord Braska’s, and I was hoping to speak with them.”

He seemed a little taken aback with the fluidity of my greeting, and it seemed to do what I had hoped it would: avoid questions about why I was back here in the first place.

“Well, my lady, they’re both here at the moment. You shouldn’t stay here long, but I suppose I can take you to them.” Turning, he opened one of the doors for me, and with a grateful nod I stepped through, silently wondering at myself. Almost sounded like a proper noble there, didn’t I? The monk led me through the rooms clearly dedicated to the monastic order’s needs--barracks, weapons, a small medical area… we ended up in a training area, large enough for a squad to train in unison. A few monks were using the area to spar with practice blades, but I could see the people whom I’d come for on the opposite side, and relief replaced concern as Auron seemed to be just fine, resting a large katana on his shoulder as he spoke with Braska. Turning to my temporary guide, I went through the prayer motions again. “Thank you for your guidance, sir. I’m sure Lord Braska won’t mind escorting me out, if that sits well with you?”

“Er, of course, my lady. Yevon be with you.”

I did my best to nod like an elegant lady, and as soon as he turned to leave I hastened over to the two, skirting around the edge to avoid the sparring warriors. Auron spotted me first, cutting out whatever he was saying to Braska in order to watch with a blank expression. Braska was quick to catch on and turned to see, eyebrows disappearing under his headdress from surprise. “Lady Chrysanthe? It’s… certainly a surprise to see you back here.”

Of course, the underlying question in his voice was how, which gave me the urge to laugh at their expressions. I was more capable than I appeared to be, huh?

“I didn’t see you–” I nodded to Auron, “–at your post when I arrived. I… well. I was worried that something might’ve been wrong, so I wanted to check and see…” It sounded a little lame when I put it like that, but I wasn’t about to make myself sound like some sort of fantasy story character sneaking through forbidden areas, since the truth wasn’t really that exciting. Auron looked surprised still, and then… happy? I couldn’t read the expression he wore very well, and then Braska broke the silence with a brief laugh. “That was quite kind of you to worry. It’s just been a change of schedule, however–Auron’s managed to impress his superiors quite a bit lately.”

The warrior monk snorted lightly at Braska’s explanation, as if he had wanted to explain it himself. I wondered how he’d done that, folding my hands in front of me while the sounds of sparring in the background continued almost monotonously.

“Does that mean you’ll no longer hold the post up front…?”

Auron gave a nod, and my heart dropped. So I wouldn’t get to see him outside the temple anymore. I must’ve looked like a kicked puppy at that moment, Auron’s gaze flicking away almost guiltily while Braska hastened to speak up. “There’s no need to worry–there are still plenty of opportunities for us to see one another…”

As if it wasn’t about just me wanting to see Auron. Nice cover there, Braska.

“The library.” Auron finally spoke up, and I looked to him with confusion. “The temple has a library. Any who seek knowledge about Yevon’s teachings are welcome within, but there are books on other subjects as well.”

“Ah, a good idea, Auron. What do you think, Lady Chrysanthe? Evenings in the library would be nice,” Braska said, seeming pleased that the suggestion had come from Auron. I pondered it for a moment–evenings getting to read with Auron? It couldn’t get much better than that. “It sounds like a great idea! If…I knew where the library was.”

At my sheepish expression Auron snorted with amusement, then strode around the edge of the room with only a momentary pause to place his blade on a weapons rack. Braska and I fell in behind him quickly, with the apprentice summoner tossing a smile my way as if he’d somehow orchestrated this whole thing. Right. Well, I couldn’t be too sarcastic about it when it appeared to be true–pretty much none of this would’ve happened without his nudging, though I couldn’t help but wonder at his motives. Helping a friend was a normal enough, but that still left the question as to how I’d ended up the lady of choice. Luck, perhaps? The right girl at the right time… or maybe I was just thinking too much about it. It wasn’t as if there was anything concrete between me and Auron yet, anyway.

The warrior monk followed an unerring course, the path as always faintly followed by the song of prayer; was there any part of the temple that melody didn’t reach? I thought about it absently as we walked, and before too long Auron came to a halt outside a new set of double doors, near identical to the ones that led to the warrior monks’ quarters–if my sense of direction had been worse, I would’ve thought we had gone in a big circle. But the room behind the door that Auron pushed open was far different from the monks’ headquarters, and as I followed him inside I gazed about the high walls lined with bookshelves, an innate sense of pleasure arising. Enough books to satisfy the most studious of scholars and then some... just as Yuna’s smile had enchanted me before so now was I enthralled by the library, for a moment utterly forgetting about my two companions in order to trot over to the nearest bookshelf. Yevon’s teachings, the founding of Spira’s temples and the histories of the fayths and aeons… books about chocobo care and blitzball techniques, fairytales and wild fantasy stories. More books than I could read in a lifetime, but I didn’t care about that–just getting to read a fraction what I wanted to here would be pleasure enough.

“You like stories, then?”

I glanced up to find Auron standing beside me, and realizing I had completely forgotten him and Braska I looked away with a sheepish nod. “I’ve always liked reading, yeah. There are–good lessons in books, sometimes.”

He chuckled, a low sound and undeniably nice to hear, even if he was laughing at me--I shot a small pout at him, and then it was his turn to look away, hiding his smile.

“So… you’ve probably been in this library a lot. Any reading suggestions?”

He brought his gaze back around, seeming to consider me for a moment before turning to walk across the library. I followed him, pausing for a moment to glance about the library… well then. Looked like Braska had taken the opportunity to leave. How sneaky. But that also meant it was just me and Auron now, and I wasn’t about to bring up the summoner’s absence. Instead, I just scurried to catch up with him, brushing a few loose strands of coppery hair back as he began looking over the books on the shelves. I waited patiently, and after a minute or so of searching he pulled out a thick, rather weathered looking tome, indents in the cover meant to be covered with gold leaf that had long since worn away in the book’s lifespan. He offered it to me, and I took it, a tiny grunt escaping as soon as the whole weight was in my grasp–definitely not light reading by any means! Smiling again, Auron was clearly waiting for a response; I wasn’t about to back down from the challenge, though. Hefting it in my arms, I lifted my chin and narrowed my eyes at him just a little. “And what are you going to read, hm?”

The challenge successfully turned back on him, Auron’s expression was both faintly surprised but accepting of it nonetheless, and the warrior monk turned to the bookshelves again, soon picking out a book that was nearly as large as the one I held. A shrug indicated I would be allowed to choose where to sit, and I turned to look about the library, seeking a spot that would afford the best comfort (and privacy). The study tables spread throughout the place were nice, with candles carefully shielded to prevent any accidental fires, and I took my time by starting a slow walk, measured steps behind me an easy way to tell Auron was following. One of the tables was tucked into a corner, a bit dimmer for being further from the skylights above. It suited my tastes just fine, and I trotted over, setting the book down with a thump. Auron took the chair opposite me, and we spent the evening in quiet (but not unpleasurable) companionship, reading together.

Of course, I completely forgot to give him the cookies in the end.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks were nearly blissful-after taking care of my errands and work for the day, I'd make my way to the temple and from there to the library within, where more often than not Auron awaited me, books ready at the table. Though we were mostly quiet (with good reason, since the chosen books were on the dense side), occasionally I found the courage to ask small questions: his daily life, how he’d met Braska and other tidbits… and in turn I gave him little details about myself. Now I was finally getting to know the man I’d first gawked at more than a month ago–he was stoic, certainly, and with a strict discipline that was well-followed for someone only a few years older than me. But he was also kind, patient, and had a certain dry sense of humor that I managed to tickle every now and then, earning those rare smiles with all due pleasure.

The book Auron had chosen for me was actually about the warrior monks of Bevelle. Not my usual sort of reading tastes, but since the gauntlet had been thrown I wouldn’t give up so easily. Surprisingly enough, reading that book gave me more insight about Auron than I would have expected, and also served to increase my admiration of him. He really was the dedicated type, wasn’t he? Secretly I wondered if I would have a chance at earning some of that for myself, though I didn’t let my hopes rise any more than they already had lately.

One evening as I approached the library the sound of muffled talking halted me outside the doors, and a pair of recognizable voices had me leaning in carefully to listen. “... really is smitten with you, I hope you realize. I don’t want you to throw that sort of happiness away.”

Auron’s voice could have dried out a water elemental. “I’m not blind, Lord Braska. You’ve been paying too much attention to this.”

“Sometimes I wonder, but if you say so–I’m just looking out for my friends.”

Sounded like their conversation was coming to an end–not wanting to get caught eavesdropping, I hastily scooted back down the hallway several paces. It was with good timing; just as I began stepping back towards the doors, one of them opened and let out Braska, who blinked as he noticed me, then smiled and gave a prayer in greeting.

“Lady Chrysanthe, it’s good to see you again. Have you been enjoying the library’s collection?”

I nodded. “I have–Auron’s choice in books is… interesting.”

Braska gave a laugh, shaking his head a little as if he’d experienced such firsthand. “I see. Well, he’s waiting for you inside. I have other things to attend to, but it has been good to see you again. Yevon be with you, my friend.”

And there he went, as if he wanted to be out of the way as quickly as possible. I remained where I was for the moment, quickly deciphering what I’d overheard. Braska must’ve been talking about me… did I really seem ‘quite smitten’? I mean, admittedly I did like Auron quite a bit, but smitten?

…. Well.

Yeah, I guess I was; Braska was undeniably keen about this for some reason, but more embarrassing was thinking of Auron’s response. So, that sharp gaze really was as discerning as I’d first thought. For a minute I could only stand there, covering my face with my hands from sheer embarrassment. Had Auron known this whole time? Perhaps he was just humoring me for Braska’s sake, or… I couldn’t think up any worse scenarios, but the nasty possibilities wordlessly nagged at me to the point I felt frozen in place, too anxious that entering the library again would send some harsh reality crashing in on the time I’d been fortunate enough to have with Auron so far. Building up hopes on something that wasn’t even solid was far too easy. I felt like the rug would be pulled out from under me once I stepped in there, and shame on me for letting myself get led right to it!

“You seem to have a lot on your mind.”

I jumped at the sudden interruption of my worrying–it seemed Auron had opened the doors while I’d been preoccupied with my downward spiral of thoughts, and his intense gaze was almost too much to handle at the moment. Looking away quickly, I searched my brain to find the proper response that wouldn’t make it obvious I’d been eavesdropping. Finally, I just tried to brush it off with a weak laugh. “Something like that, yeah…”

A glance at his face told me he wasn’t buying it; I was torn between confessing what I’d heard and trying to avoid ruining what had grown so far, as I was sure talking about my feelings was bound to do. In the end I gave a sigh, shaking my head and moving to slip past him.

“It’s nothing, really. Don’t worry about it.” Though he let me pass, I could still feel him watching, too closely for comfort, and he followed as I quietly pulled our books out to continue reading. Thick as they were, I was barely even a fourth of the way into the one he’d picked out for me–it’d take me another month at minimum just to get halfway through, no doubt. As I headed towards the usual table, though, Auron’s hand caught my shoulder and halted me.

“Chrysanthe.”

I blinked, vaguely realizing it was the first time he’d actually used my name to address me. Oh… guess he wasn’t going to let the subject slide so easily. Grateful for the library’s sparse population but still reluctant, I turned to him nonetheless with as neutral an expression as I could muster. The warrior monk seemed to need a moment himself, leaving me to wait somewhat nervously. Finally, he gave my shoulder a quick pat, looking away as if having trouble with the words. “You’re not too bad, you know.”

“Uh… bad as in…?”

“I appreciate your company here. Thank you.” The fading light from above wasn’t exactly helpful, but I could’ve sworn there was the faintest hint of red on his face. Naturally, that meant my face wound up with a much more noticeable blush–from him, it was quite the compliment, and despite my earlier worries I was now nearly giddy. I ducked my head quickly, trying to come up with the right kind of response. “I–it’s nothing, I mean–... I like your company too, so. You don’t have to thank me.”

Auron let out an amused snort, pulling his hand away so I could continue forward. The shared moment helped to release the tension I’d built up in worrying, and I gave him a tiny smile as we sat down, one he returned with just a slight one of his own. The evening passed similar to how the others before had, quiet reading interspersed with moments of murmured conversation, voices kept low to respect the few others around. The return to normal was soothing–before long the worries I had conjured seemed far and away, irrelevant compared to the compliment I had received and the simple pleasure of reading together. Eventually we ran out of the last bits of daylight, and when my eyes were too tired to continue making out words by candlelight I stood, closing the book and stretching with a yawn. Auron stood as well, rolling his shoulders and taking both books in order to return them to their proper places on the shelf. I trailed after him out of habit, ready to bid him a good night before I would head out.

“Auron?”

As he turned to respond, I took a step in and stood up on tiptoe to plant a quick kiss on his cheek. It had the effect of freezing him in place, eyebrows lifted with surprise--that meant I could get away quickly, good. “Sleep well–I’ll see you tomorrow, I hope.”

I turned and hurried out of the library, as quick as I could without actually running. The next day would see if anything had changed with that, but right now I needed to go home.

Chapter Text

The next evening saw me at the library once more, my entrance nervous but not completely reluctant. Auron wasn’t waiting near the door like he usually did; glancing around, I finally found the warrior monk in conversation with the usual suspect, Braska. Settled at the table where we usually sat, the two seemed a little more animated than usual. Hanging back to give them their space, it seemed almost as if the apprentice summoner was trying to convince his friend about something, though with Auron’s unreadable expression I had no way of telling if he’d been having any success or not. For several minutes more they spoke while I busied myself with getting out the books, and when I glanced over again they were wrapping it up as Braska stood from his seat. I supposed he had noticed me, for once he gave his farewell to Auron he headed my way, giving his usual prayer in greeting.

“Faring well this evening, Lady Chrysanthe?”

“As well as can be, I guess,” I said and shrugged as well as I could, while holding the heavy tomes. Eying the books, Braska was evidently familiar with them as he restrained his amusement, pressing a hand to his mouth for a moment. I raised an eyebrow, and though he glanced over at Auron (turned away from us for the moment, thankfully), the summoner shook his head--another time for funny stories about books, then. We exchanged a few short words and then Braska was off, leaving me to head over to Auron with the books. He looked to be deep in thought, but looked up as I set his book in front of him and sat down across the table.

“Is everything alright at the temple? You and Braska have been talking a lot.” Maybe it wasn’t really my place to pry, but I couldn’t help my curiosity. Auron eyed me somewhat sharply, then snorted. “Everything is fine right now. You should pay attention to your reading.”

A quick dismissal… maybe a little too quick. Though I was faintly concerned, I tried to focus on reading as I’d been told to–if something was seriously the matter, then they would tell me. Right? I could only hope that I was meaningful enough to them to be included if something was going on, and otherwise just let things continue on like they had been so far. Auron seemed a little tenser than usual, slower to respond to my occasional queries, and my sense of something being off only grew, yet he never gave anything away and the evening drew to a close uneventfully.

We stood almost synchronously as the last of the light from above faded, sharing a glance that caused me to stifle a giggle unsuccessfully and drew a slight smile from Auron. This time I was the one to collect our books and return them to their shelf, but as I turned from them and began towards the door, Auron’s voice halted me.

“Going to say goodnight this time?”

I turned to look at him, and his expectant expression made it quite clear what he meant by that question.

Oh. Oh. Though it was dim enough that he probably couldn’t see the blush heating up my face, I still glanced away out of embarrassment. Was he teasing me about my actions yesterday, or being serious? Another look at him and I was inclined to believe the latter, though it was still flustering just to think about. A few moments later I seemed to have taken too long to respond for his tastes, as I hadn’t yet mustered the temerity to speak when he stepped in closer, leaning down and placing a kiss on my cheek the same way I had on his, a soft and quick gesture that left me frozen the same way he'd been. His hand rose to give me a gentle pat on the head, his voice little more than a murmur. “Goodnight, Chrysanthe.”

And then it was my turn to be left standing there as he left. Well that was one way to turn the tables. Stunned into speechlessness, all I could do was leave as well after a few minutes of standing there, feeling more flustered than ever. A kind of routine I could grow used to if we kept it up, maybe.

When I came to the temple the next evening though, Auron was waiting for me outside the library rather than within, and coming to a halt before him, my curiosity was immediately piqued by the change in our usual routine. Something different this time, perhaps?

“There’s a place I would like to take you, if you’d like.” Quite the mysterious sounding offer, so naturally I couldn’t resist indulging my curiosity. “Sure, lead the way.”

With my quick acceptance the warrior monk headed off on an unfamiliar path, and I followed him with due diligence. As always his pace was brisk, though perhaps it was just the natural advantage of being tall giving him a longer stride; I had to double my pace to keep even with him, silently cursing my shortness. Could he slow down just a little, maybe? Either way, I began to notice we had left the ground floor, ramps and stairs leading us upwards in what slowly became a tighter and tighter spiral–we were going up into one of the temple’s spires, then. I hadn’t realized they had actual rooms up in them, thinking they were mostly decorative. But as our climb came to an end, a narrow door blocked the way. Auron opened it to reveal a small loft, a sparse little room fronted by a large, arched window, masterfully curved and fitted to the spire’s shape (I could barely imagine the work that must’ve gone into it). And beyond that was a breathtaking view of the ocean and the sun sinking into it, staining sky and sea both with a medley of golden hues. It was the most beautiful sunset I’d seen in a long time.

Auron had already moved to lean himself against the wall while I’d been staring, and I hastened to close the door behind me before sitting down in the middle of the floor, facing the window so I could focus on the sight he had intended for me to watch. “Do people come up here often? Even without the sunset it must be amazing up here…”

He replied, “It’s a meditation loft. After festivals the priests may come up here to refocus their devotion to the faith.”

Ah, that made sense. I had no need for such a thing, but the view was still lovely…. We sat in silence for a while, simply enjoying the moment for what it was. Still, my thoughts kept wandering to the past day or two, Braska and Auron’s hushed conversation and the one I’d overheard, the development of exchanged gestures that seemed quick in comparison to the weeks that had led up to it. I didn’t want to think I was just imagining it, but at the same time I didn’t want to think something was approaching, and quickly. All I could do was ask, and hope to be given fair answers.

“Auron, is… something happening?”

He looked away from the sunset, closing his eyes and tilting his head down as if deep in thought. “I spoke with Lord Braska today–tomorrow one of the head priests of the temple is going to offer me his daughter’s hand in marriage.”

My heart dropped like a stone, but it didn’t have a chance to remain there as he soon continued, “I don’t intend to accept.”

It was petty, but I immediately felt relieved, though concern soon took its place. As apolitical as I was, even I could understand what sort of a move the priest would be offering: if Auron married up like that it would tie him more closely to the faith and the temple, nepotism would do its thing, and he would have an easy ride up the ladder, especially considering his usual dedication and drive. So why give up an opportunity like that? I wasn’t selfish enough to believe he would do so purely on my behalf (though I could still hope I was a small part of the equation). I was proven right after a short silence when he looked up, looking as if he’d been debating what to say.

“And tomorrow, Lord Braska will go into the Cloister of Trials and come out a full summoner–we’ll need a day after that to prepare, but then we leave to begin his pilgrimage.”

“We? You mean… you’re going to be his guardian, aren’t you?”

Auron nodded, and I sat there, feeling numb. It seemed only right for him to go with Braska; the warrior monk’s loyalty to his noble friend was unshakable I had learned, and now I could also see the priest’s offer as a desperate attempt to keep Auron from leaving. It seemed they hadn’t judged him right, and would learn that to their woe tomorrow.

For a moment, I almost considered trying to tag along with them, but logic prevailed: compared to either of them I was an unseasoned, rank amateur. I didn’t have any weapons, or know any magic, and the trip would be dangerous thanks to fiends and Sinspawn, especially so considering they would have to double back after traveling all the way south to Besaid Temple in order to travel back north all the way to the Zanarkand Ruins. They’d be gone for a few months, and being a drag on them the entire time would cause more harm than good. Simply put, I couldn’t go on the pilgrimage with them.

Had Braska seen something like this coming from the beginning? Had Auron? I had no way of knowing unless they confessed, but knowing Auron like I did now I couldn’t accuse him of leading me on without lying to myself–it simply wasn’t in his nature to do that. So maybe I was just an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Summoners and guardians left behind family and friends to go on pilgrimage all the time after all, didn't they? Either way, I was too close to tears for comfort, and I didn’t want Auron to see my composure crumble; getting to my feet, I turned away from the view of the sunset and from him, forcing myself to offer a few meager words while blinking back the tears. “I understand, I… I should get going.”

Only taking a few steps, I could hear Auron moving to catch up, and his hand falling on my shoulder was a light grasp, asking me to stop instead of forcing. I stopped. “Wait. Chrysanthe–I…”

He gently turned me around, and I was more teary-eyed than I should’ve been, prompting him to shift his hand upwards until it cradled my cheek. His calloused palm was rough but comforting; I leaned into it and closed my eyes, allowing the tears to escape. With his thumb brushing them away, we stood in silence but for the faint strains of the fayth's hymn echoing through–I wasn't much for sobbing, crying in silence except for a few ragged breaths from time to time. Only when the tears ran out and just a few sniffles remained did Auron move again, drawing me into a hug that felt like he was handling something delicate (considering how I felt, he had good reason to). He radiated warmth, and the fabric of his haori was surprisingly soft. I found myself leaning into his embrace, arms wrapping around him slowly, but soon clinging almost desperately, as if afraid he might leave as soon as I let go.

Gingerly, his fingers brushed over my hair, then began to comb through the short strands. It was a soothing gesture, and the tension began to drain from me until I was simply resting against him, listening to how his voice rumbled in his chest once he finally spoke again. “I doubt the clergy will think well of me after tomorrow–even if I do return to them after the pilgrimage.”

Despite myself, I smiled weakly at that. “Well, they’re just too stiff-necked.”

He gave a low chuckle, brushing his fingers through my hair again. I didn’t want to think about tomorrow’s cascade of events–too much was happening too quickly, and my place in all of it was so minor I felt like a pebble caught up in a rock slide. At least Auron was a comfort, giving me a private moment like this to share before everything began to tumble. I shifted in his grasp in order to look at the sunset again, the waning light fading into deep maroons and blues as twilight gave way to the beginning of night. Still a bit too light for the stars to come out, but dark enough that I would have to hurry to make it home before night really settled in.

As I started to pull away though, Auron held tighter for a moment before letting go; I blinked a little, looking up at him as I rubbed at my eyes to rid myself of the feeling left from crying. He seemed embarrassed suddenly, glancing away and rubbing a thumb over his jawline.

“Auron?”

I waited patiently through his silence, until he seemed to figure himself out. “Chrysanthe, I was hoping that perhaps you would like to… stay the night here. It's up to you, of course.”

The implications were obvious enough that I could already feel my face beginning to flush with embarrassment. I did my best to ignore it while trying to seriously weigh my answer, not that I had to think very hard about what I wanted. I liked him far more than initially planned, and it was clear now that he’d grown attached as well, but…. Taking a step closer, I took one of his hands in my own and slowly twined my fingers between his–the size difference was almost laughable.

“On the pilgrimage, you’ll have to go south first, I know… will you come back to Bevelle for a little bit on the way back?” It probably seemed like I was avoiding his invitation, but Auron managed to take it in stride, placing his other hand over top mine.

“I believe Lord Braska will want to see his daughter before heading to Zanarkand.”

The unspoken yes was enough to help me make up my mind on the matter; I pulled his hands close so I could place a soft kiss on his knuckles, lingering there for a moment before ducking under one of his arms to lean up against him, fingers still twined with his. A glance out the window showed the last dregs of light being swallowed by the sea, the first hints of starlight winking through the dark. After letting the silence stretch for another minute I took a slow breath, measuring my words carefully as I spoke.

“I… do you think you can wait? But I wouldn’t mind a little stargazing.”

He was silent, just long enough to make me nervous that I might’ve hurt his feelings. Then a chuckle that eased my mind, and he dipped his head in a slight nod. “If that is what you would like, I can wait.”

Not trying to pressure me, or make me feel guilty for my decision–Auron really was an honorable sort. It warmed my heart. A yawn escaped me before too long; Auron shifted a little at the sound, freeing his hand from mine and brushing it over my hair lightly before moving away. I turned to watch as he headed to a chest at the back of the room and opened it, pulling out a colorful quilt, carefully stitched with Yevon symbols. Well, even priests needed to rest every now and then, I supposed. Meditating up here in winter was probably pretty chilly, anyway. I wasn’t bothered by the sparseness of the set-up, simply helping to smooth out the quilt when he laid it on the floor and then sitting down on the edge of it while I started pulling my shoes off. At a glance, Auron was apparently following my lead, starting with the buckles on his haori sleeve that kept it cinched tight on his right arm and soon discarding the glove and bracer. Next came the belt that held his haori closed, and when that came off he shrugged off the haori as well. Auron’s gaze slid my way after a moment, brows raised. I blushed and looked away, growing a little more embarrassed when he laughed in response. Once finished removing that outer layer of clothes, the warrior monk sat himself beside me, his gaze focused on the sky that was now faintly dappled with stars. Even with the sunset dying away into true night, the view was still breathtaking, and before long I rested my head against his shoulder, a sigh of contentment sliding free.

I must’ve dozed off leaning against him like that; at some point I vaguely recalled shifting to a more comfortable position, and then my sleep was restful and dreamless.

Awakening was a slow process, comfortable as I was–I had a nice warm pillow, and I wasn’t too hot or cold… wait, pillow? Oh, that was Auron. Snug against his side and his arms curled around me protectively, with my head on his chest I could listen to his heartbeat, soothing enough that I almost fell asleep again. But then he shifted just slightly, and turning my head up a little made me realize that he was already awake–oh. My face began to heat up.

“Ah, good morning, Auron…”

He gave that little hum of amusement, lips twitching in a slight smile. “Good morning. You slept well, I hope?”

“Yeah… thank you.” I began pushing myself up, and his arms adjusted to accommodate without quite letting go. With the early morning light suffusing through the loft, it was just enough to see by without ruining the softness of the moment; stretching up, I placed a light kiss on his cheek before shrugging off the edge of the quilt he’d pulled over me and rising to my feet. He paused for a moment, but quickly followed, just as quick to start folding up the blanket while I went to retrieve my shoes. My outfit was more than a bit rumpled, but it would have to do. Auron’s wasn’t quite so rumpled looking, and he would get to hide it under that haori too, lucky. On the other hand, my hair was fairly easy to fix, while Auron looked like he might need some help with his. Watching him work with the mess of tangles drew a quiet giggle from me–he glanced over with a raised brow, as if inviting me to come help.

So I trotted over, gently brushing his hands aside and pushing on his shoulders until he crouched to a reasonable height. “I used to have long hair too, but I got tired of fighting the tangles. Short hair is easier to keep up with, but you miss out on a lot of fun styles.”

He snorted at that. For a moment I considered braiding his hair just for fun, then decided against it; the priests might start questioning his devotion even before he could turn down the marriage proposal at that, and I hardly wanted their attention shifting to me. So I merely continued combing through his hair until it was mostly tangle-free, taking the hair tie when he held it up and quickly pulling it back into the usual ponytail. Giving me a small nod in gratitude as I stepped back, Auron resumed getting his outfit reassembled. I busied myself with the view of the ocean; it was quite a different sight from last night, no longer aglow with orange but dark and only barely reflecting any sunlight, as Bevelle still overshadowed it. My thoughts strayed to Sin and Braska’s pilgrimage, sending an uneasy chill down my spine. If they had the resolve, eventually he and Auron would face that monster in battle… and I would never see Braska again, maybe Auron as well. I didn’t want to think about it.

Auron cleared his throat to catch my attention, and I pressed a smile onto my face as I turned to face him, though it quickly faltered under his scrutiny. A few steps brought him in close enough to brush his hand over my cheek gently, and I leaned into the touch with the tilt of my head, not quite willing to voice the obvious concerns in mind. The moment stretched until he let his hand drop, allowing me my silence. With that I leaned up on tiptoe, hands resting on his shoulders for balance while I gave him a soft kiss. It was a brief touch, just enough to make my lips tingle as I drew back and gave him another smile, as earnest as I could make it.

“… For good luck, in the Cloister.”

Momentarily frozen, he seemed surprised by the gesture, though as I began to step past him his hand caught on my shoulder; I barely had a moment for a questioning look before he leaned down for a kiss that was much more fervent. Now I was the frozen one, at least for an instant. Then my hands grasped at his shoulders again, while he wrapped an arm around my waist to minimize the distance between us–I could hardly breathe, but it didn’t matter. It seemed both forever and an instant had passed when we parted, still holding onto each other even as we caught our breath. I looked away, too flustered for words. Auron was quiet as well, searching for what could be said.

In the end we couldn’t find any words, and I soon lost my giddiness at the thought of what was to come, resting my head on his chest with a sigh. Auron brushed his hand over my hair gently, first to finally speak up in a low murmur. “Lord Braska must be waiting outside the Cloister now. We should go.”

He was probably right, but that didn’t make me any more willing to pull away, only doing so after a long minute of trying to memorize how his embrace felt. A final caress of his hand, and he turned to the door, moving briskly to make up for the way we had lingered. I paused for a minute; tongues wagging about us was the last thing I wanted or needed, and it gave me time to find composure before I started heading down as well. I took my time traveling, actually–avoiding the few people who were here at this time of day wasn’t much work, but I was still careful. Finally I reached the door to the outermost room that connected to the Cloister of Trials, and voices came into hearing as I entered.

“Sir Auron, please! I believe you are underestimating the importance of this offer–are you really going to throw away everything you have worked for here just for that man’s ill-conceived notions?”

“I can hear you, you know,” Braska’s voice piped up dryly.

I stayed close to the edge of the room, shifting until I had a good view of the unfolding scene. I couldn’t see Auron’s face from my position, but I didn’t need to see in order to hear the unyielding iron in his voice. “I have made my decision, and I will not abandon Lord Braska for any reason. We must enter the Cloister now, unless you intend to stand in our way.”

The priest gaped, hands fluttering helplessly. It was a humorous sight, though I could only watch Auron as he followed behind Braska. The two left my line of sight as they headed through the passage that would take them to the Cloister of Trials.

Chapter Text

There was little for me to do but wait. Only summoners and guardians could go in the Cloister, and I wasn’t about to overstep that kind of boundary, but neither did I want to stray far from the temple. So there I stayed as the hours stretched on, spending my time with people watching. At midday my stomach rumbled–I couldn’t bring myself to leave for lunch, though it was hardly exciting to wait for them like this. I explained it to myself as a desire to make sure they came out alright, and certainly not anything to do with the flutter in my stomach whenever my thoughts strayed to Auron. Auron would be just fine; Braska was the one who would undergo the real trial in the chamber of the fayth.

Afternoon slowly faded to evening, the hymn of the fayth a continuous background to my wandering thoughts. Would Braska be praying all night? Echoing footsteps interrupted my wondering; I picked myself up quickly as the two I had been waiting for emerged from the back passage. Braska looked worn out as he leaned on Auron, and I hastened over while casting hopeful looks between them. They were slow to notice me, but when they did Braska sought to straighten himself, Auron placing a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

“Lady Chrysanthe–you were waiting for us?” I nodded. “I figured I ought to. You’re my friends, after all.”

The summoner looked faintly surprised but touched, and Auron glanced aside with a small hum. Well, maybe a little more than a friend to him, I could admit to myself.

“We should return to your home, sir. You will need to rest up for the journey ahead.”

“Ah… you’re quite right, Auron. Have you any business to attend to here at the temple tomorrow? I have heard of something rather interesting of late, and I would be glad of your company when I take a look.”

Auron snorted. “I have a few matters to handle, yes. It will be quick, of course.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Braska turned his gaze to me. “My lady, could I ask a favor, perhaps?”

“I suppose I do owe you a little…”

His eyes crinkled with suppressed amusement, though maybe he was just too tired to laugh. “If you could, I’d like you to spend tomorrow keeping an eye on Yuna–she quite likes you, and it would ease my mind knowing she has good company while we prepare for our journey tomorrow.”

“I’d be happy to. I’ll show up here tomorrow morning, if that works for you.” With Braska’s nod of approval, we split up for the night: Auron helping the exhausted summoner on his way, while I headed home and finally broke my fast with gusto, only a little embarrassed at my hefty appetite. Though my thoughts were inclined to wonder over the morning’s events and toward Auron in particular, I knew it’d be best to get some sleep the same as Braska–keeping up with Yuna could prove to be a problem if I wasn’t well-rested.

The next morning saw me mostly alert in turning out of bed; I rushed my morning routine and headed out of the house with a sweet roll still hanging from my mouth, which I quickly ate on the way to the temple. No one was waiting there just yet, aside from the usual posted monk, whom I ignored as I settled down to wait. I kept busy with thoughts of Auron, faintly hoping he would arrive before Braska–unless he was already in the temple, in which case I probably wouldn’t get to see him until the end of the day… I was a little saddened by the thought, knowing that he and Braska might be leaving tonight even. And then how long would it be until I got to see him again? Not to mention how dangerous the pilgrimage could be, with all the fiends and Sinspawn they might face. I didn’t doubt Auron’s strength, of course, but I worried nonetheless.

“Good morning, Lady Chrysanthe.”

“Lady Chrysanthe!”

I looked up at the double greeting, thoughts derailed for the moment. As the two went through the motions of prayer while I stood up, a slight smile worked its way onto my face despite my gloomy worries; hard not to smile with two kind people like them around. A few glances around told me Auron hadn’t come with them, so I could only guess the man was already inside, unfortunately.

Braska must’ve already explained things to Yuna, who was trotting over and took my hand with a surprisingly shy smile–too precious, as usual. She’d be playing at my heartstrings soon enough, so long as she didn’t ask any embarrassing questions about Auron. I shot a look at Braska, who just smiled and gave his daughter a farewell pat on the head before heading on towards the temple.

“So Yuna, is there anything you want to do today?” Might as well follow her interests, seeing as I didn’t have anything planned exactly. She seemed surprised by the question, but not for long.

“Could we go to the market, please?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me! I’m ready to go if you are.”

We set off, Yuna tugging at my hand eagerly. She was going to run me ragged early on, huh? I could keep up if I managed things right–the market would hold more than a few good distractions to slow down a kid.

Today was one of the days where dozens of bouquets of flowers were out for perusal and even chocobos in pens were for sale(with several ranchers in heated arguments over their chirping charges). A smart kid was making money by selling gysahl greens to feed to her father’s chocobo, and I was charmed enough to buy some for the both of us to do so. Yuna boldly offered them up to the bird that towered over her, laughing at its chuckling noises, and when my turn came I found myself patting the creature fondly as it gently pinched the greens off my palm. Really a shame there wasn’t enough room in Bevelle for the birds unless one had special arrangements like chocobo knights did… maybe some day.

We bid the chocobos farewell before moving on, listening to the cries of stall owners hawking their wares. Trinkets of all shapes and sizes that gleamed and glittered were spread out on tables, catching Yuna’s eye again and again. We spent far too long dawdling over different bangles and charms, especially the fancy ones with triple enchantments that neither of us would have any need of. Maybe for Auron, though…? A second look at the prices and my thinly lined wallet quickly banished that idea.

“Potions, ethers, accessories, anything an adventurer could ask for! Discounts for summoners and their guardians! You there, the lovely lady and your tall friend, care to take a look at these goods?” That was clever–Yuna was already blushing and giggling as she moved closer to the merchant who had called out to us, and admittedly I was a bit flattered too considering how rarely the word tall applied to me.

“Miss! You look like you’re surely in need of a good accessory to keep trouble off your tail, what would you say to one of these rings, hm?”

He was an older man, flanked by a younger man (fresh-faced and just out of his teenage years I would bet), and an equally young woman. Judging by the family resemblance, I assumed it was a father and his kids learning the family business from him, though the girl seemed rather… preoccupied. I wondered, but decided not to pry as I continued watching the merchant playfully barter with Yuna, who seemed to understand the bargaining game surprisingly well. “You’ve got me by the short hairs, lovely lady! Five gil for the ring it is, then!”

Yuna scrounged in her pocket to pull out the money, and I stifled my laughter at the mock sheepishness with which he handed over the ring, as if bested at his own game. Of course, then he turned his gaze to me, offering a grin and a sly wink as he tucked away the gil.

“And you, madam? Is there anything here that catches your eye?”

I glanced over his wares, wondering again if I could get anything for Auron. A bracer might be good… but again, it seemed unpleasantly expensive, and I doubted he would let me get away with five gil like Yuna had. Finally I gave my head a quick shake, and the merchant gave an understanding smile, leaning back on one leg. “We’ll still be here whenever you come around next, fear not! O’aka XXII and company have the best goods in this here market, guaranteed!”

We moved on after that to grab lunch, and then the afternoon was spent idling around a park, either chasing each other around or relaxing in the shade. My feet welcomed the break from wandering around the market, and Yuna soon calmed down to the point of taking a nap; she splayed out bonelessly as only a child could, head resting on my lap as I combed out tangles in her hair.

“Lady Chrysanthe?”

“Yes, Yuna?”

“Are you and Sir Auron happy?”

If I had been drinking anything I would’ve done a spit-take. As it was I nearly choked on my saliva and was grateful she couldn’t see the look on my face–of course she had to ask something like that! “Ah… I suppose so? What makes you ask?”

Her face scrunched up a little. “My father is leaving on a big journey soon, and Sir Auron is going to protect him. Are you going to miss him?”

“… Are you going to miss them?”

My heart ached a little at her soft reply, trying so hard not to sound sad. “Yes.”

“I am too.”

We sat silently after that, the day’s enjoyment dulled with solemn thoughts of what lay ahead. Yuna curled up closer to me, and I tried to offer what comfort I could, though burdened with the same knowledge as she. And I could only wonder in that silence as to why Braska wanted to do this when he had a child. Was leaving her alone the best thing a father could do, even if it was with the whole of Spira in mind? I wasn’t sure if Yuna could grasp the magnitude of it, but I wouldn’t underestimate her simply because of her youth–she’d proven herself to be rather keen already. It wasn’t entirely my business in the end, and there would be no dissuading Braska at this point, I was sure.

As the afternoon drew late, we finally picked ourselves up, and I let Yuna guide me to her home, a route just familiar enough that I could be sure of finding my way home afterwards. I couldn’t be entirely certain that Braska and Auron would be leaving tonight, and it was best to be prepared.

As we approached though, there were three men outside the house, rather than two; summoner and warrior monk were known, but the third man? Tall and rough looking, tanned skin and bare-chested and looking utterly out of place next to the other two. He rocked a blitzball back and forth under one foot, and the overall intimidating sight made me waver with uncertainty. Yuna didn’t waver, though; once she caught sight of Braska her hand slipped from my grasp and she was running to him with a cheerful greeting. He reacted quickly and caught her, lifting her into his arms with a quiet laugh. The stranger seemed to be watching the scene keenly, but Auron wasn’t–his eyes landed on me with as sharp a gaze as ever, and my face began to redden as I glanced away. For an instant I felt horribly out of place, once more intruding on something I wasn’t truly part of. Not that it kept Yuna from calling for me, of course. “Lady Chrysanthe?”

“Ah, coming.”

I hastened over, suitably embarrassed by my hesitation, but neither Yuna nor Braska said anything about it, and I forced myself to try and seem more at ease as Yuna talked about how our day had gone. After a moment I noticed a solid presence by my side; Auron stood next to me now, as if to shield me from the stranger’s view. He must’ve noticed my nervous look and interpreted it as being about the unfamiliar man, which I was just a little grateful for. Even so, I maintained appearances and merely glanced at him, offering a slight smile of gratitude. Yuna finally ran out of things to say, though before things could become awkwardly silent Braska set her down and turned to me with a smile. “Thank you for taking care of Yuna today. I suppose I should make some introductions now, hm? Our new friend here is Sir Jecht–he will be my guardian.”

He stepped into my view on the other side of Auron, and judging by the disapproving glance Auron gave him, the warrior monk didn’t think much of this Jecht. Must’ve been Braska’s idea, then. I wouldn’t be too quick to judge, though–surely Braska had some kind of reason to abruptly choose a stranger for a guardian. He was a man of mysterious ways, after all, and I’d grown somewhat used to it.

“Jecht, this is my daughter, Yuna. And this is a friend of mine, Lady Chrysanthe.” Braska gestured to the two of us in turn, while Jecht gave each of us a sharp nod and a grin. The smile looked too predatory to make me feel any less nervous, and all I could muster in return was a wan smile that dissipated quickly. Yuna was fearless though, it seemed; she trotted over to the man and looked up at him with that gentle little smile. “Sir Jecht, are you a blitzball player?”

“Course I am!” he scoffed, a gruff voice that matched his rough appearance. “Best blitzer you’ll ever meet! Yer dad’s gonna be fine with me around.”

Auron seemed liable to roll his eyes at that. I slipped my hand into his grasp to distract him, letting Yuna’s wide-eyed wonder go unchecked as he turned his gaze to me with faint surprise. In only an instant it seemed that Jecht was showing off to the girl while the rest of us stood off to the side, my fingers laced with Auron’s. In spite of it all I felt… a little bit of contentment, actually. It had been a great day, the future notwithstanding, and being with Auron made me feel secure, a small piece of happiness I refused to let the coming journey tarnish. Amidst watching Jecht’s acrobatic leaps and kicks, Braska managed to catch my eye with a gesture of his hand, and I looked to the summoner, wondering what it could be this time. I had the feeling he needed something, though.

“May I ask one more favor of you, my lady?” Of course. I snorted lightly, but nodded. “Go ahead.”

His gaze shifted to where Yuna stood, watching Jecht’s blitz techniques with awe; again, I got the feeling I knew what he was about to ask, considering what he’d already asked of me today. Braska’s requests were always for other people in a way, and I could guess that it was just who he was, their needs being his priority. “I would like for you to take care of Yuna during my pilgrimage, if you are able. You and she get along well, and I believe I can trust you…”

“I can do that, no problem.”

Braska blinked at my quick agreement, then seemed to realize how transparent he’d been and gave a soft laugh, shaking his head a little. “You are a kind woman, Chrysanthe. I’m glad we met.”

“Well, it’s better if Yuna has someone she likes around to take care of her, right? If she’s happy, then that works for me.” My gaze was on the child, listening to Jecht tell some wild story–I heard the word Zanarkand and raised a brow. Some stranger indeed. We stood in silence for a short while, until Braska finally cleared his throat. “Yuna?”

She turned and trotted back over quickly enough, Braska leaning over so he could talk to her. “Lady Chrysanthe would like you to stay with her for a time. Would you like that?”

“Yes!” Yuna looked to me with that soft smile, though her enthusiasm showed in the quick bobbing of her head and the excited shuffle of her feet. Braska looked relieved to have it settled so easily, while Jecht merely looked somewhat impatient, and Auron’s expression was inscrutable, as usual. As for myself, well–it was a mixed bag of feelings, too much to handle at once. In the end I could only give Yuna a reassuring smile, squeezing Auron’s hand lightly for my own comfort.

His fingers tightened around mine as he spoke up. “The sun is close to setting. We should be leaving now, Lord Braska.”

“Ah, so I see. Yuna, Lady Chrysanthe, would you like to walk to the bridge with us before we depart? The sunset is quite nice from there.” The summoner was looking to the sky, while faint dismay pooled in my stomach. Leaving now? It wasn’t terribly surprising, but… I still didn’t want to say goodbye, not when I had actually started getting attached. All I could manage was a mute nod as Yuna did the same and latched onto her father’s hand. Jecht was a strangely impatient man, taking the lead for a small while. But it was soon clear he had never been to Bevelle, falling back to let Braska and Yuna lead the way. Though I had let go of Auron’s hand and wanted to lag out of reluctance, Auron didn’t seem to want me to fall behind, glancing back often enough that I begrudgingly increased my pace until I walked beside him. It made me feel wanted, at least.

It was a long walk, and even with the sun dropping ever closer to the horizon, there were still people going about their business throughout Bevelle, and many of them paused to watch our little procession; Braska had the unmistakable air of a summoner after all (even with Yuna trotting along beside him), and with Auron and Jecht flanking him, each intimidating in their own way, it would be hard not to see them as guardians. And me? A funny little tag-along. Some were polite enough to offer the motions of prayer as we passed by, but a fair number merely shook their heads or showed some kind of disapproval; I had my guesses, but still the mystery surrounding Braska deepened.

We finally reached the bridge that marked Bevelle’s southernmost exit–from here, the three would head down, through the Thunder Plains and Guadosalam. The Djose Temple would be their first important stop on the pilgrimage… I could practically trace the entirety of their journey in my head, and the length of it was almost more intimidating than Jecht looked. But… Auron would come back. I had to believe that much, or else it was too much.

Stopping at the foot of the bridge, Braska and Yuna turned towards the ocean sunset. It wasn’t as breathtaking a view as Auron had shown me last night, but still beautiful nonetheless. Jecht didn’t seem too impressed by the sight; the blitzball player was moving forward, stopping a few paces ahead with bare feet shuffling about in eagerness to get going. Was Braska really going to have this man as a guardian? If Auron weren’t going with him, I would’ve been worried. The warrior monk stood beside me as we took in the sunset, and I glanced up at him, hiding my turbid feelings under a blanket of neutrality. My worrying wouldn’t change a thing, and Auron would have enough on his plate with this pilgrimage–I wouldn’t burden him with my feelings as well.

“Be safe, okay? You’ll be a great guardian.” My voice rose only enough to reach his ears, and he glanced down in turn, snorting slightly but still giving a nod. The last touch I’d get from him for the next two months came as a gentle brush of fingers over my cheek, tucking a few loose strands of hair back into place. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them he was moving away, falling into step with Braska while Yuna came to stand beside me. Silently, we watched until they were across the bridge, and then until we couldn’t see anymore. Yuna’s hand grasped at mine; I gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze and tried to smile for her even as my heart gave an unhappy lurch.

What a long road they had ahead of them.

Chapter Text

Two months passed with grinding slowness, and when they returned the world suddenly regained some of its lost liveliness, even knowing they would only linger for a few short days. The trip had clearly taken its toll so far–Braska’s cheeks were gaunt and his smile thin, but the warmth of his expression remained genuine as he greeted us. Jecht seemed to have gained a few new scars, but what I took more notice to was how easily he and Auron now walked side by side. Perhaps the journey so far had proven him a trustworthy companion in Auron’s eyes? I didn’t want to pry (though it would’ve eased my mind), but I could hope Auron would tell me a little about it later.

We had lunch together that day, at my home. Perhaps Yuna understood her father’s weariness, as she mostly ate in silence and only directed a few curious queries at Auron and Jecht. The rest of us were similarly quiet. But I sat close to Auron, discreetly leaning against him; as always, he radiated warmth.

“So, I hope Yuna hasn't been too energetic for you to handle these past weeks?” Braska’s question caught my attention, and I realized the summoner had mostly finished his meal. I shook my head quickly, sharing a glance with Yuna; she burst into giggles as I discreetly stuck out the tip of my tongue at her. He seemed heartened by the display, though Auron was looking to me with a raised brow. I salvaged my dignity with an innocent look, while Yuna took the change in mood as a sign to unleash her excitement.

“We've been learning magic!”

Braska’s eyebrows hid under his headdress out of surprise, until a smile began to warm his face. “Is that so? It gladdens me to hear that. Will you show me what you've learned so far?”

Yuna glanced to me before hopping out of her seat, dashing off to retrieve her practice rod; upon returning she twirled and presented it with a flourish as the solid crystal orb on the tip began to glow, beaming with pride. The apprentice exercises she’d been learning were mostly about proper rod techniques, though being top of her class meant Yuna had also started on the basics of spellcasting. Schooling had kept us distracted, at least. Now she trotted over to Jecht, who'd seemingly been lost in his own little world since they'd gotten here. But he did look up when Yuna approached him, and held up his hand when directed to. There was a small, half-healed gash along his knuckles–a shallow wound, just right for her demonstration.

Twirling her rod, she bowed forward as a faint green glow pulsed from the rod’s tip–it washed over Jecht’s hand and his skin began to mend, until a only a faint red line remained. Jecht seemed stalled for a moment, then gave a short, barking laugh. “Nice work, kid! Taking after your old man there, ain’tcha?”

Yuna seemed to further puff up in happiness, and the odd hollowness of the earlier mood melted away as she smiled and laughed. Now the room felt comfortable, with the three men at ease and the little mage-in-training overflowing with words about how training was, our trips to the market, anything that seemed to come to mind about how we’d been passing the time. It was adorable, but all the same I began to busy myself with the now-empty plates, letting Yuna captivate her audience while I stole away to the kitchen to begin cleaning up. It was mostly a matter of rinsing off crumbs, but… all this time and I still felt out of place. A feeling that would never quite dissipate, I guessed.

“You’ve been kinder and more welcoming than I had ever thought you might be, Lady Chrysanthe.”

As usual, Braska’s sudden appearance managed to startle me. I managed not to drop the dish I was rinsing, though; he laughed softly before continuing, “Yuna adores you. I cannot begin to voice my gratitude for how well you’ve cared for her. In fact, I would… my friend. On our journey south, we reached the southernmost temple in Besaid. It’s quite beautiful there, peaceful… I’ve asked Auron to take Yuna there when all is said and done, to live there. Would you join him? Yuna would miss you dearly, and… I don’t wish her to be lonely.”

I had gone still as he spoke, not quite surprised but faintly stunned all the same. Just as suddenly it hit me, that once Braska left Bevelle for the last time I would probably never see him again. Either Sin would kill him (and his guardians, an even more painful thought), or he would be the first High Summoner in… I couldn’t even remember how long. Too long. I couldn’t imagine Braska giving up on the pilgrimage, since for all of his polite and kind demeanor an innate stubbornness drove him on, pushing forward where other summoners fell to the wayside.

I couldn’t be certain of my answer so quickly, but I still glanced to him, searching that kindly face for answers of my own. “Braska… would you tell me why? Why you became a summoner.”

He seemed taken aback by the apparent change in subject. I held a steady gaze, and after a moment of returning it, Braska let out a quiet sigh and ducked his head; I could still see a wistful sort of look on his face.

“My marriage was not looked kindly upon by most. My wife was Al Bhed, as you might have guessed, but we were in love, and I didn’t care for what the maesters and clergy had to say of our life. Auron became my friend when most others shunned me, and he’s been there for us ever since. A few years ago, when Yuna was four, her mother went to her people in hopes of fixing that which our marriage had broken–the Al Bhed had cared for our elopement even less than the temple did.” Braska looked up to offer a wry smile, but his face quickly grew more serious. I remained silent to let him continue, offering neither encouragement nor disapproval.

“Her ship was attacked by Sin, though. After her death I was drawn to the summoner’s path. I thought to myself that if I could defeat Sin, I could end the suffering of so many, to bring peace to Spira… and I still feel that way. I wish unity and peace for this land, and I’m afraid Yuna bears the heavy burden of belonging in two worlds, but being wanted by neither. If I can achieve peace for Spira, even for just a short time, then I can hope that Yuna will find the answer to unity. I just wish her to have friends in her endeavors, as I have been so fortunate to have.”

The room was silent after that, save for the murmur of voices in the other room where the others were; Braska had kept his voice quiet, though I supposed it didn’t matter much. I measured his honesty in my mind, the truth of his reputation and Yuna’s mismatched eyes made clear. A story most of Bevelle would’ve shaken its head at in disbelief. Friendship with the Al Bhed, who used forbidden machina and spoke a nonsensical language, was outlandish enough, but marriage?

My own opinion of them was ambivalence. I’d always had trouble swallowing Sin’s origin story, anyway. That Yuna was half Al Bhed didn’t change much–I still adored her.

And including my feelings for Auron, which had only grown during his absence, I supposed I already held an answer to his original question, though reluctance still held me back for a different reason. Bevelle had been my home all my life, and leaving seemed an alarming thought. Was I really so integral now? Yuna of the charming smile and buoyant demeanor wouldn’t have that much trouble finding friends wherever she went, would she? And certainly if Braska became High Summoner, her relation would then provide a boon any place she chose to go. High Summoners were practically worshipped, after all.

In my heart, I knew my reticence would buckle the moment Auron looked at me with that piercing gaze of his and asked me to come with him. But I still couldn’t bring myself to answer just yet.

“Yuna won’t be lonely. She has a way of finding friends.”

I was sidestepping the real question; a glance at Braska told me he knew, but he seemed equally reluctant to push for something more solid. As he opened his mouth to respond, though, a low rumble permeated the air, undulated as though solid–it grew until the ground itself began to shake, and the plate in my grasp slipped through my fingers, clattering to the ground. What in Spira…?

“Lord Braska!” In a heartbeat Auron and Jecht were there, and Yuna wasn’t far behind, clutching at my blouse with a worried expression.

“It’s Sin,” came the summoner’s measured response, “and we should move quickly. Lady Chrysanthe, Yuna, please stay here where it’s safe. Auron, Jecht, and I must see to the safety of the rest of Bevelle.”

Yuna seemed to remember her training rod then, stepping away from me so she could brandish it with a determined look as she declared, “We want to help!”

I was quite ready to snatch the rod out of her grasp, but Braska laughed and knelt in front of her, an earnest smile on his face. “When the fighting is over we will indeed need your assistance, Yuna. Your magic will be of great help to those in need of healing. For now I wish you to not be one of those who will need aid, alright?”

Though she looked a little disappointed, Yuna nodded and lowered her rod, pausing before lurching forward to give Braska a fierce hug and mumbling into his shoulder inaudibly. I turned my gaze to Auron and found it locked with his–he seemed to hesitate, then stepped closer and rested a hand on my shoulder. Words eluded me in my apprehension, but he was wordless as well and merely placed a light kiss on my forehead before turning away. In a swift moment the exchanges were over, still overlaid by the approaching rumble of Sin; Braska and his guardians started out, though Braska paused and stated reverently with a prayer, “Yevon be with you. Stay safe.”

For once in my life, I almost wanted to return the gesture.

Chapter Text

As the door opened and shut behind them, I caught the first sounds of panic beginning to arise, the distant cries of fear and dismay that just as quickly were muffled into near silence once more. But the rumble of Sin’s approach hadn’t lessened at all; I could feel it in my bones even, along with a deep chill that ran along my spine. Then came a massive booming noise–Sin landing? Had it collided with the temple? The shaking of the earth subsided a little, only for the sudden screams of fright and the sharp crack of unknown things smashing into the ground to rise to the foreground.

Sinspawn, I was sure. Yuna’s hand found its way into mine, and I clenched my jaw lightly before beginning to tug her along to the safety of the bedroom. Best to hide in the closet, wait for the attack to end. “We'll help when Sin is gone, promise…”

“Sir Auron and my father will chase Sin away,” came Yuna’s tremulous response, somehow still full of conviction. After a moment she hastened to add, “and Sir Jecht!”

I nodded mutely, less than convinced but opening the closet door and ushering her inside all the same.

If they weren't careful the journey could end here and now, couldn't it? One violent move on Sin’s part and Braska could be killed, or else so injured he'd never have the chance to complete the pilgrimage to Zanarkand. The thought left my stomach churning with anxiety that couldn't be soothed. As I started to step into the closet myself–a loud crashing, the house shaking from it, and I braced myself for a moment, panic washing over me at the idea that Sinspawn had just broken into my home of all places. Yuna was tugging at my shirt with wide eyes; taking a deep breath, I lowered myself to eye level and placed my hands on her shoulders, mustering what little courage I could and keeping my voice soft. “Stay here, okay? I'm going to make sure everything's okay in the house, and then I'll be back. Don't leave this closet, understand?”

“Lady Chrysanthe…” Yuna looked to be on the verge of tears, but nodded anyway. I gave her a brief hug, smoothing a hand over her hair before standing and closing the closet door. With Yuna safely stowed away I moved to snatch my own training rod up off the dresser, silently slipping out of the bedroom while holding it at the ready.

A large hole in the living room ceiling confirmed my fears. But where was the monster? I had to step carefully to avoid causing a ruckus with the debris all over the floor, straining my hearing for signs of the beast. There, a rustling in the kitchen and sharp clicking noises gave away its presence. Peeking through the doorway gave me a glimpse of an insectoid creature with upturned, spike-lined wings making its way through the room, and I ducked back to avoid being spotted by what looked to be eyes on those wings. If I did nothing about it, the Sinspawn would either find a way out of the house (unlikely), or else find me and Yuna during its exploration (far more likely). I couldn’t stand the thought of letting it harm her, or anyone else, really; the fiend would have to be dealt with, regardless of how amateur my magic skills were and how outmatched I probably was. The right things weren’t supposed to be easy anyway, right? Sounded like something Braska might say, at least.

Taking a deep breath, I gripped my training rod tightly, stepped into the doorway, and flourished the rod as I was supposed to–a burst of flames danced into existence over the beast’s form, drawing an agitated rattling from it. That certainly got its attention, and as it turned to scrabble towards me I backpedaled with a yelp, then made a beeline for the front door. Definitely a fight I’d rather take outside, to avoid further damaging my poor house, and to keep Yuna safer.

With the Sinspawn hot on my heels I raced out into the open, sparing a few glances around to make sure there wasn’t anyone around that might get hurt by the fiend, or my clumsy attempts at black magic for that matter. It was eerily empty, but the background sounds of destruction and people crying out made it seem even more unnerving.

Time for my trial by fire as a fledgling mage, wasn’t it?

“I can do this,” I mumbled to myself, though my confidence was faltering just a bit, and the Sinspawn seemed to sense this, wings shivering as the spines along the edge began to flash with light. That probably wasn’t anything good; I brandished my rod with a fresh focus, and another flash of fire crackled around the beast. This not only startled it but appeared to be the killing blow, as it shrieked and rattled one last time before dropping. A wave of relief swept over me.

But too soon. Just as the pyreflies swirled away, a distant rumbling and a loud whistling caught my attention. In an instant, a trio of large pods speared the stone of the street with a terrible cracking sound, and soon after unfolded into monsters identical to the one I’d just felled. My feeling of victory just as quickly melted away to be replaced with dismay, an undercurrent of fear making my grip turn white-knuckled. One had been scary enough as it was, but three? This surely wasn’t a fight I could win, but Yuna’s life (and my own) was at stake. Running away simply wasn’t an option.

My hesitation became an invitation, and one of the Sinspawn leapt forward to attack. A loud yelp escaped me, barely able to dodge out of harm’s way and almost falling over in the process. I managed a hasty recovery while another’s wing spines started to flicker. Would an attack at least deter it? I mustered my energy once more and twirled my rod to summon fire again–and it worked! As a distraction to that Sinspawn, anyway.

The third one lunged though, and I wasn’t fast enough to evade the forward slap of its wings. The spines along the edges drew a cry from me, sharp as they were and dragging the tips along bare arms with enough force to draw blood. Nothing to joke about, but not so terrible that I couldn’t handle a few more blows.

At least, I hoped I could.

I attacked as fast as I could, taking down the one I’d hit before, and dodged another lunge–the battle was already taking its toll though, using magic a fitful drain on my energy. I probably had enough mana for a few more attacks, and beyond that… guess my rod would turn into a club instead. Not something I was looking forward to, and I tried to stay in the moment instead with the next fiery attack on one of the remaining beasts. The other’s wings began to flicker, forcing me to make an unpleasant choice: distract it with an attack and let its friend survive a little longer, or take its buddy down and find out what the flickering was for.

Another flourish of the rod, and one more Sinspawn dissolved into pyreflies.This left me to face the consequences of my decision; a scathing lancet of light was thrown at me, stinging worse than a physical blow and leaving me to stagger back with a pained gasp. Though lifting my rod to retaliate, I could feel I didn’t have the energy for another spell, and my legs were starting to tremble with the threat of giving out on me. Surely I could knock its little legs out from under it, right? What little confidence I had left was waning fast, yet I held tighter to my rod as if it might grant me a little more strength.

“Lady Chrysanthe!”

Braska’s voice was like a ray of light breaking through cloud cover; my gaze rose to find the summoner and his guardians rushing my way. No formalities either, as Auron strode right past and used a powerful sword strike to defeat the Sinspawn as if it were almost nothing. The relief that flooded me was so intense that tears began to well up, though I hastily blinked them away before any of them could notice.

“Chrysanthe. You’re unharmed?” That was Auron, his sword returned to its place on his back as he knelt, a hand placed on my shoulder. Wait, when had my legs given out? They were sprawled under me now, but after a dazzled moment of staring at him I started to push myself up off the ground.

“I’m fine, I’m, I’m okay. A Sinspawn broke into the house, so I lured it outside to protect Yuna, then more of them showed up and…”

“And you took ‘em on by yerself?” Jecht scoffed, shaking his head–still, he seemed to be just a tiny bit impressed, if a little skeptical as well. “Ain’t sure if that’s stupid or brave.”

“Brave, I would think!”

Braska moved closer and with a few fluid motions cast a spell that settled over me with the warmth of a hug and a green glow. That certainly took care of the scratches on my arms and trembling of my legs, strength renewing to where I felt I could run a race. I certainly didn’t have the energy for anymore spellcasting still, but at least I was in good health now. Not that it was stopping Auron from staying close, hand yet to move from its perch. No complaints from me, of course.

“Is Sin leaving now?” I didn’t want to sound too hopeful, but cast a look at Braska with wide eyes. The summoner was keeping his usual calm, but the slight smile he gave me seemed a little strained. “Sin has turned away from Bevelle thanks to the efforts of the summoners here, but there are still Sinspawn remaining within the city. We came back to let you know–”

“Damn! I thought we crushed that thing already!”

Jecht’s coarse speech not-so-gently cut off Braska, drawing everyone’s attention to the scrabbling noise of the… thing clawing its way down the street towards us. Unable to decipher much more than wounds oozing ichor, a humped back, and too many legs and mouthparts for comfort, I was filled with fresh fear–this was yet another Sinspawn, but of a greater magnitude than the puny creatures I’d fought off. Braska and the others had taken on this thing before and it still lived? Sounded like I needed to sit this one out.

“Lady Chrysanthe, I would prefer if you returned to Yuna and made sure she is unharmed,” Braska spoke, though looking towards the large creature as it approached. I glanced up at Auron for a moment, his hand squeezing gently on my shoulder.

“That sounds like a great idea,” I replied weakly, turning to do just that–but it seemed Sin was leaving a parting gift, in the form of another trio of smaller Sinspawn arriving. Oh no.

To the other side the larger beast finished its approach, letting out a guttural sort of wail that left a distinct unease in my gut. I didn’t even notice Auron placing something in my hand until he was curling my fingers around it and raising it in front of my face. Ah, a potion. I used it quickly and felt an upwelling of internal strength, no doubt the energy meant for spellcasting. Probably for the best, since it didn’t look like the creatures would let me through without a fight. As for the other abomination… best to hope it kept its focus on the guardians.

“I won’t let them hurt you,” Auron spoke with such finality that I could only nod, clutching my training rod tightly before we each turned to face our respective foes. It wasn’t easy, but I had gained a little experience now, and these little beasts weren’t all that tough! Gritting my teeth, I flourished my rod to attack, and with mild astonishment I watched my intended target crumple immediately. Looked like I was getting a better handle on my magic now, or else these ones were weaker than the last set. I could hear the others making their attacks, felt static tingle along my skin–Braska’s magic skills were definitely much more mature than my one-spell chocobo showing. But at least I had the skill, which was much better than having to cower uselessly behind Auron.

Another one dropped with another spell. When the remaining beast’s wings began to flicker, I was startled by Auron stepping past me to slay it with a powerful downward slash, frozen in place as he turned to me and issued a commanding, “Go back inside with Yuna!”

Before I could do more than give a nod, an unholy sort of gurgling arose from behind me, and I glanced back to see the remaining, monstrous Sinspawn heaving up and spewing out what I could only consider as some sort of vile liquid in Auron’s direction. He dodged the spray with ease, gesturing for me to hurry as he rushed back to Braska’s side; I hastened toward the house, jumping over the ugly greenish puddles left by the beast’s attack and gagging at the nauseating stench wafting up. Was that poisonous? I was glad Auron hadn’t been hit by it.

I made it into the house, closed the door behind me, and stumbled a few steps before collapsing.