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Walking the Path

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The first time Tenzing Sherpa meets Ajay Ghale, it goes something like this.

It's been a peaceful day in Kyrat. Well, southern Kyrat. The parts that Tenzing has walked, anyway. For a given value of peaceful. He's heard very few gunshots ring out over the hilltops, has seen no smoke billowing over one of Pagan Min's outposts signaling that it has been overtaken or taken back by the army. It's about as peaceful as it gets. Which is why he's more than a little surprised to suddenly hear splashing and swearing from the lake on the right side of the path as a young man exits the water as fast as possible, only to barrel into Tenzin. Perhaps he still has water in his eyes.

"Oh, shit!" The man—armed with a bow, he notices, but not wearing the yellow that often signals membership in the Golden Path—steadies him with an apologetic expression. "I didn't see you there—sorry."

Tenzing says nothing, only slides his eyes from the man to the water's edge and back, then raises an eyebrow.

"Ah, yeah...I wasn't swimming," he says. "I was taking down of those posters from the radio tower when a couple of soldiers rolled up on the other side. I was outnumbered, so I shot a wasp's nest, but they came after me too, so I sprinted to the water, but some of the fish in there bite. Hard." He looks faintly embarrassed. "Hi. I'm Ajay."

The name clicks into place; he has heard of this man, son of the legendary Mohan Ghale. Tenzing may not be part of the Golden Path, but he is enough of an ally that talk of Ajay's return reached his ears, and how both leaders of the resistance have come to rely on him.

By sight, he's not a very impressive heir.

Tenzing opens his pack, and pulls out some of the medical paraphernalia he carries. That's a nasty devilfish bite on his arm. Ajay looks surprised, then nods gratefully.

He may not turn out to be another Mohan, but there's no reason he can't be a good customer.

###

Ajay does become a customer after that, a regular one. Whatever he came to Kyrat for, he's settled into the Golden Path lifestyle nicely, as far as Tenzing can tell. He can't recall ever seeing the man not armed, and though he's not exactly keeping track, it never seems to be the same gun twice. Handguns, shotguns, a bow, a grenade launcher, which seems like an odd combination—where the hell's he keeping them, up his ass? The bow in particular strikes him as odd, because he can't really picture a city-bred American, even if he's Kyrati born, being some great hunter, but using a weapon like that against Pagan's army seems like a great way to get shot in the head. Whatever the reason, it seems to work for him, because the bow is always there whenever they cross paths.

That begins to happen regularly, but not incredibly frequently—Tenzing walks a winding but fairly predictable path through Kyrat, but the son of Mohan is more erratic in his travels, and apparently finds it equally convenient to run, drive and fling himself across the landscape in a wingsuit.

Everywhere Tenzing goes, it seems that Ajay has already been there, and when he meets the man himself, Ajay is inevitably in need of bullets and bandages. He makes a point to carry more of the latter after the day he comes down a dip in the road and sees Ajay pulling a stick out of his arm and trying to wrap up the wound with a filthy strip of cloth.

Ajay Ghale isn't the only one increasingly in need of medical supplies, though. Injuries left by skirmishes with and outright attacks on the Royal Army are increasing, and Tenzing can't see any other reason for this to be so but Ajay's presence.

For years now, the Golden Path has been spirited but stagnant, making homes in their bolt holes and sometimes venturing out to launch attacks that never change anything long-term. Tenzing wouldn't call them afraid—men and women who stand up to Pagan's men even that much have to be brave—but up to now, he's sure that no one in Kyrat is more traveled than he is. They can use a trader, a merchant who brings supplies and sometimes messages from far corners of the map, even if he isn't one of them, and even if he's slow. Tenzing prefers to do his traveling on foot, despite being offered one of the Golden Path's commandeered vehicles to make his passage faster. He isn't a fighter, just a merchant, and there's a kind of freedom in what he does, even if they don't see it.

Ajay, though. They see the chance for freedom in Ajay. Tenzing is less convinced.

###

There's commotion in Banapur the next time he stops at the village. He's not privy to the details or to the arguments of the Golden Path's inner circle, but Tenzing can spot the tension as he approaches just from the way its soldiers carry themselves. Also, there's some shouting.

He doesn't bother asking for details. Instead he wanders to the edge of the village, where he can see Bhadra sitting on a rock, enjoying the sunlight or possibly just the distance. He takes a seat beside her and sets his pack down on the ground, pulling out a piece of candy to offer her. Tarun Matara, or not—Tenzing is skeptical. Whatever she'll turn out to be, she's a child now.

"What's that all about?" He nods back toward the center of the village.

"Amita and Sabal are fighting again." She looks mildly unhappy, more resigned. This is nothing new. "They both want Ajay to do something for them. They think it could turn the tide of the fight against Pagan."

"Hnn." He's non-committal. "What do you think?"

Bhadra blinks in surprise, as if that's the first time in a while anyone's asked her that question. "About what Ajay should do?"

Tenzing shrugs. "Or all of this."

She looks uncertain, about her thoughts or about whether she should answer at all, and takes her time before replying. Good for her. "I think he's doing his best," she says at last. "But so are Amita and Sabal. And just one person, or even two or three, can't win alone. That's why the Golden Path exists. But…"

But the Golden Path is being tugged in two different directions. And so is Bhadra. He supposes he should say something profound, or at least comforting. "It stinks."

That at least makes her smile, and she unwraps the candy. "Yes."

Eventually the two of them make their way back, Tenzing so he can resupply and Bhadra because she has nowhere else to go. It's good timing, or bad, because they're close by when Amita strides out of the meeting house looking unhappy. And there's the man himself following her, looking more regretful than unhappy.

"Hey," Ajay says, nodding at him. "Nice to see you."

Tenzing nods back. "She looked pissed."

Ajay sighs. "Yeah. I wish she wasn't, I get where she's coming from, but it's not—" He struggles for words, then lets go. "Never mind. I gotta go. You got anything for me first?"

This once, Tenzing gives him a discount.

###

It goes from there. The son of the Golden Path's founder quickly becomes its savior, as far as Tenzing can tell, because Ajay is everywhere. Or maybe he really doesn't have anything better to do in Kyrat and no reason to go back to America, and that's why every initiative of the Golden Path seems to involve him. A one-man army, except he doesn't always seem to know what he's doing. One day a piercing warble comes out of nowhere, and Tenzing looks up in alarm to see what might be Ajay's form piloting a buzzer way too high. And the first time he spots Ajay jump off a cliff in a wingsuit, well, this son of Kyrat nearly returns to the land by smearing his body across it, except he catches air at the last second. Tenzing winces and makes a point of looking away every other time he sees it, just in case.

One day Tenzing rounds the corner in a village to see Ajay using a hammer to smash the hell out of...a bunch of masks, before tossing the pieces onto a fire pit nearby. He watches; Ajay smashes.

"What are you doing that for?" he has to ask, finally.

"Because," Ajay says, not even glancing over his shoulder. "They are creepy as hell."

Tenzing decides not to ask anything more.

The thing that finally convinces him that maybe, just maybe, Ajay is worth believing in isn't all that much, really. He isn't even there for it. Tenzing's wanderings carry him to a remote house surrounded by scorched land. Here and there little flames still flicker, and he can see three charred lumps of flesh a ways from the building.

He rushes toward the resident, bells on his pack jingling. "What the hell happened?"

"It was that boy," the man says, some combination of gratitude, awe and shock on his face. "The American. He killed them! He killed all of them! The honey badgers!"

He starts rambling out a story then, something about murderous beasts that killed his family and how Ajay showed up like a blessing, but Tenzing just stares at the scene. He's seen less damage at outposts after an attack, and sure, no one likes honey badgers, but all this?

He starts consciously trying to walk in places Ajay goes after that, if only to see what he does next, and gives him more of a discount. Anyone determined enough to kill three honey badgers with a flamethrower has to be at least a little special.

###

Tenzing never gets the details, but something happens that lands Ajay in the arena, fighting man and beast for the pleasure of Noor and Pagan Min. He must be victorious, because he doesn't die, and afterward the Ghale homestead becomes something of a gathering place for the Golden Path and those they call friend. Apparently, Tenzing qualifies.

There's something like a party going on the first night he visits, Golden Path members drinking and excitedly telling stories about how they're going to kick Pagan Min's ass and about all the asses Ajay has already kicked. His time in the ring is recounted multiple times, each differently; the way Tenzing hears it, the audience must have been packed with the Golden Path.

"He killed thirty men and three tigers with nothing but a knife!"

"No, it was twenty-five men but four tigers. And a rhino."

"He killed them all with his dick out the whole time!"

At some point in the storytelling, Ajay must wander outside, because there's where Tenzing finds him when he does the same—sitting at the edge of the homestead with a bottle of terrible Kyrati beer in hand, looking out over the valley far below.

Tenzing joins him, since he has nothing else to do and Ajay doesn't seem to mind. For a few minutes, there's silence.

"Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing here," Ajay says at last. "I want to help people, it's good that the Golden Path is trying to do that, but I'm not a hero. I'm not even a leader like Amita and Sabal. People talk about my dad like I'm meant to follow in his footsteps, but I don't even remember him." He shakes his head and laughs. "Most days I'm just trying not to get killed."

Tenzing considers this, takes a sip of his own terrible beer. "I think that's what everyone's doing."

"Yeah, maybe." Ajay shakes his head. "I came here to bring my mom's ashes to Lakshmana. Sometimes I wonder if she knew what I'd find here."

"Maybe," Tenzing says, because he really has no idea. He never met the woman.

"Sorry," Ajay says after a moment. "You don't wanna hear me whine."

"Eh. I've heard worse."

There's more silence for a few minutes, but it's more companionable, or at least he thinks so. Hell, he doesn't really know. Tenzing isn't Ajay's friend, exactly, but he's not his follower either.

"So was your dick out the whole time?"

"Yeah."

###

At some point he stops seeing Ajay, but for all that it's a break in what Tenzing has come to think of as their routine, their encounters have never been predictable, and it's over a week before what might be news and what might be rumors reach him. Ajay was struck down by the Royal Army but taken alive for interrogation. Ajay tried to infiltrate Pagan Min's compound in a stealth assassination attempt but the king himself intervened when his bodyguards attempted to summarily execute him. A third party actor, an American, gained Ajay's trust then turned him in.

None of it seems completely believable to Tenzing, but what is known for certain is this: Ajay fell into the hands of Pagan's forces and taken to Durgesh Prison. A rescue operation was mounted, but before the Golden Path's forces could even get beyond the foothills, lookouts spotted Ajay half-sprinting and half-falling down the mountainside, dodging fire from his pursuers and occasionally jamming a syringe into his arm. Once again, the son of Mohan has returned to them.

Whatever the real, full truth is, Tenzing figures that Ajay must be fucking pissed about his imprisonment, because it's soon after that Pagan's forces start to fall for real. Noore is already dead at her own hand and De Pleur is in a cage in Banapur, but word spreads that Yuma Lau, vicious right hand of the king and nearly as untouchable as Pagan Min himself, is dead and Ajay killed her. Then outpost after outpost fall to the Golden Path's forces until the group has virtual free rein over all of southern Kyrat and there's only the bridge between it and the north. And then not even that.
Tenzing doesn't consciously plan to walk north, just as he doesn't plan most of his wanderings. But once again it seems he's drawn to follow Ajay, a son who doesn't even pretend to be the leader his father was and yet somehow gains loyal followers all the same.

Not once has he ever dared to go close enough to the bridge to see its fortifications for himself. He may defy Pagan Min in his own quiet way by keeping at least one method of free trade open, but he's not a fighter and he most especially is not suicidal. The bridge has stood strong and indomitable for years now, a monument commemorating the fact that any gains the Golden Path might make are useless if they can't get farther than this.

The bridge is still standing when Tenzing reaches it, but everything else is different from what he's heard. It's clearly seen a battle like no other, and bullet holes and scorch marks are everywhere. The bodies of Royal Guardsmen have been rolled into haphazard piles for disposal; the Golden Path's fallen have been treated with somewhat more respect, but when he looks at the dead, he can't see much difference between them aside from the uniforms. Tenzing pauses beside one stack of bodies and wonders how many of them Ajay killed personally.

It doesn't really matter. He moves on without a word. Prayers are for the living.

Despite years of separation, northern Kyrat turns out not to be so different from the south. The people are leaner and more scared, but he does well enough trading with people too beaten down to step out of their villages and trade with each other that he's able to keep following after Ajay and the front-line fighters of the Golden Path instead of going back for supplies. When he asks himself why, he can't come up with a real answer. He just wants to see where this goes.

It turns out to lead all the way to Pagan Min's compound, and by the time Tenzing sets foot inside its walls, the battle is all over. It's even less organized than the aftermath at the bridge, bodies are everywhere, but the mood is joyous as the Golden Path takes absolute control, cheering at a day most of them probably didn't think would really come. Ajay did this, they tell him. Ajay led them to victory.

He can't spot any living members of the Guard as he ventures deeper into the compound, though whether that's because none survived the battle or none were allowed to live upon surrendering, he doesn't care to guess. Inside the main building, people are already taking inventory of what's there, and Tenzing wonders whether it's at the command of Amita or Sabal. He hasn't seen either of them. Outside, he hears the sound of a helicopter taking off, but still no fighting. Perhaps it's been commandeered to bring word to the south.

He must be a familiar face by now, accepted as close enough to one of them, because no one stops him as he walks beyond Pagan's living quarters. There's still no body of the king to desecrate or put on display, and when he sees Ajay sitting on a rock outside a small shrine, Tenzing thinks that there won't be.

In silence, he walks over to sit beside him. For a long time, it's quiet.

"I let him go," Ajay says at last. "I came here to kill Pagan, but he told me…"

It does and doesn't surprise him. Tenzing just waits, and after a minute Ajay sighs.

"He took me to Lakshmana. My sister. His daughter," Ajay says. "My father killed her. And my mom never told me about any of that." He pauses for a moment and shakes his head. "Pagan's not coming back."

This time when Tenzing doesn't speak it's because, for once, he's too damn taken aback. Why is Ajay telling him this? They've got a business relationship of sorts, but they're not exactly friends and he doesn't know Ajay any better than the man apparently knew his parents. Perhaps being here is all it takes.

Ajay turns toward him them. "Do you think I did the right thing?"

It's been a long time since anyone's asked Tenzing his opinion on rightness. Longer still since he's thought he had any kind of insight to give. The revered founder of the Golden Path took the life of an innocent child; Pagan's men have taken many lives. He can't even begin to decide how those weigh against each other.

But he can be honest. So he looks back at Ajay and shrugs. "Eh."

They sit there together for a long while, until the sun dips beneath the horizon in a brilliantly pink sunset. It doesn't look so different from any that came before it.