Footfalls echoed in the overarching vaults of stone long before visible evidence of human intrusion made itself plain. A short, close passage of stone opened onto a wide, deep cavern with an old transport glyph embedded in the very center of the floor. The cavern bounced and reflected the sounds of footfalls, and the rise and fall of conversation once again invaded the caverns' quiet. Clustered near the walls crystallized with quartzite green and purple, rainbowed masses of pyreflies seethed and floated, dreamlike and slow in the shadowy dim recesses of the cave. Some visitors to the hidden caves said the pyreflies were drawn to the stolen fayth deep within. Others pointed to the evidence of long-ago ruins embedded in the walls that might draw the 'spirits.'
Either way, visiting parties didn't stay long. The Cavern of the Stolen Fayth was crawling with fiends, and whether that had anything to do with the abundance of pyreflies was anyone's guess.
A voice pierced the calm and gloom of the caverns, acid tone startling in the quiet hush of the place. "The Temple of the Unknown Fayth, again? What in Yunalesca's name are we *doing* here, Tidus? We *should* be past Mount Gagazet and halfway through the Zanarkand ruins, but no, *you* have to stop every few miles to play blitzball..."
"Um, we're looking for treasure?" the blond blitzer offered, rubbing at the back of his head sheepishly. "We're almost out of money again--"
"Yeah, because you blew it all on blitzball contracts!" Rikku cheered, dancing about.
"Hssst!" Tidus made hushing motions, but it was too late.
"You WHAT?" Lulu exclaimed. The Cait Sith in the crook of her arm bristled and looked militantly ready to leap and perform a Deathstrike on Tidus.
"Uh, I blew it all--"
"Never mind. I heard you the first time," Lulu sighed, shaking her head. She glanced at red-garbed Auron, leaning against a stone railing. "Sir Auron, why didn't you put a stop to this?"
"Not my problem," Auron replied. A faint smile touched the man's mouth. "He always did blow his allowance when he was a kid."
"Sorry. Geez, it's not that bad," Tidus said, scuffling a sneaker on the cracked stones.
"Hey, at least you didn't tell 'em about borrowing from Rin to cover your losses, ya?" Wakka spoke up. Then he blinked. "Wait, you spent that on all those Movie Spheres, huh?"
"Wakka!!" Tidus' tone was anguished. "You're not *helping!*"
"You what!?" Lulu demanded, icy shards of an imminent Blizzara sparkling around her like an aura. Her eyes were black and threatening as Demi for a moment before she seemed to get a grip on her temper. "Never mind, I heard him the first time..."
"Uh, so we're here now to pick up some treasure!" Tidus said, nodding vigorously, looking around. "You're with me, right, Yuna? And while we're here we can pick up that Al Bhed primer Rin said should be around here somewhere..."
"Let's do it!" Yuna said, giving him a brief nod and a smile. She looked around pleadingly at her guardians. "Besides, if we do earn enough money, we can get Yojimbo within the caverns. Right, everybody? We didn't have enough money before..."
"And we won't now if the boy keeps spending it like this," Lulu said darkly, crossing her arms.
"Lulu," Yuna said placatingly, waving her hands as if fanning a breeze, "Tidus. Both of you, stop. Lulu, I know you're not pleased because we spent so much time collecting fiends for the Arena, but really..."
"Sir Auron, was this kind of sidetracking--" Lulu turned her braid-crowned head, addressing the older man, "ever part of your pilgrimage?"
Auron looked back impassively, his good hazel eye shielded behind smoky glasses. "Actually..."
"Don't tell me," Lulu said, bowing her head, one silver-embroidered sleeve creasing in heavy folds around her forearm as she lifted a hand to her brow.
"Jecht wasn't a native to Spira," Auron said, and there was the slightest defensive edge to his voice. "He wanted to see everything, and Braska generally ended up indulging him. Against my wishes, of course."
"Oh, of course," Tidus said sarcastically, folding his arms. "I can believe that, Mister 'I Don't Want to Wait 'Til Evening to See the Moonflow!"
Yuna covered her mouth with a hand to prevent a chuckle. It escaped anyhow.
Auron flicked her a glance, shrugged it off. "One time when Jecht discovered we had missed seeing the Chocobo Races in the Calm Lands, he made us backtrack two days' worth of hiking so that he could film a sphere of it."
"Sounds like my old man," Tidus said, rolling his eyes. "Making everyone go back out of their way 'cause he wanted to do something."
"Oh, and spending all of this time in the caves isn't--" Lulu began hotly, making a sharp gesture. Her Cait Sith's fur began to rise.
"Lulu! Tidus!" Yuna said firmly, drawing everyone's attention with the authoritative tone. When all of the guardians were looking in her direction she smiled apologetically. "Everyone, please. The more fayth I pray to, the better my chances are...so I don't see this as wasting time, to collect all of that money."
"Still don't see what Yojimbo needs it for, ya?" Wakka muttered, kicking a stone. "He's an aeon...what's he gonna do with all o' that gil?"
Rikku bounced, waving a hand around in the air. "Ooh! Ooh! I know! He must buy puppy chow for Daigoro!"
Auron cast her a flat look. "The dog's part of the aeon, you know."
Rikku deflated. "Well...doesn't mean he might not eat."
"Okay, so, has everyone got a weapon with 'Capture' equipped?" Tidus said, hefting his own Taming Sword and looking around expectantly. "We might as well kill two Simurgh with one stone while we're here..."
"Is that what this is all about? Capturing more fiends?" Lulu demanded.
"We might as well, Lu," Wakka said, twirling his own fatal-looking spiked blitzball on the tip of a finger. "Kid's got a point. To make money, we gotta defeat 'em anyhow, ya?"
Lulu faced Tidus. "Just promise me you won't waste our money on more blitzball contracts," she said sternly.
Tidus put his hands behind his head, looking everywhere but the Black Mage. "Define waste," he replied evasively.
"Hopeless. You're completely hopeless." Lulu shook her head, then stalked off down a side cavern, back straight and gait stately.
"Uh, hey Lu, wait up; there's a lotta fiends in this cavern..." Wakka loped after her. After a moment of jiggling from one foot to another, indecision scrawled across her face, Rikku bolted after the two of them.
"So, Kimahri, buddy, you with us or them?" Tidus asked the big blue Ronso, who had remained silent as usual during the thread of conversation and bickering.
Kimahri shrugged and glanced at Yuna.
"Oh, go make sure Lulu doesn't kill Wakka, Kimahri," Yuna said, giving Kimahri an encouraging sort of pushing gesture. "You know when she's like this she's as likely to hit *him* with a Thundaga spell as she is to hit a fiend."
Kimahri shrugged his great blue-furred shoulders again, but there might have been a glint of humor in his deep-set eyes. He set off, taking the corridor that Lulu had stormed into.
"Well, let's get going!" Yuna said cheerfully, giving them both a smile. She took her staff firmly in hand and headed down a different branch. "We've got a lot of money to make up..."
Tidus lingered a beat, hands still behind his head, looking curiously at the older guardian. "So whatever happened to that sphere of the Races?"
"...Never mind that," Auron said smoothly, pushing away from the wall and shouldering his heavy black sword. "We've got to get you out of hock."
"So, aren't you gonna ask me how much I owe Rin?" Tidus asked, sounding frustrated.
Auron snorted. "Don't care. You'll pay it back. He's an Al Bhed merchant, the shrewdest one on the planet."
"Yeah..." Tidus trailed after Auron and Yuna, scratching sheepishly at his ear. He should've realized he was in trouble when Rikku, Al Bhed herself, had cautioned him against accepting a loan from Rin.
Now he was desperate to get that money to pay the cunning Al Bhed merchant back. Last time they had stopped at the Calm lands travel agency, Naida had given him a message from Rin. If Tidus didn't pay what he owed soon, with interest, Rin would collect on his body.
Tidus shivered. He did *not* like the sound of that. Rin wasn't...weird that way...was he?
Thirty random encounters later, Auron called a halt. He stood at the cavern wall near Yojimbo's inner chamber as Tidus and Yuna sat cross-legged by the transport glyph, sorting through piles of gil.
"One hundred twenty-nine thousand eight hundred fourteen...and fifteen...no, it's still not enough," Yuna concluded with a sigh, dropping the last silver-denomination piece onto a stack. "I wonder how much Lulu and the others have made."
"Probably not enough," Tidus said with a frown, scooping all of their gil into a dusty heap. "If Rikku's with them they'll be stealing every item in sight, and that takes longer."
"Let's get going." Auron stepped away from the cave wall. "We've been in one place long enough. The fiends are thick here."
"Okay." Yuna stood, brushing at her long midnight-blue skirt.
Tidus finished gathering up their gil and tucked it away. He was amazed Yuna and Auron were still letting him keep charge of the money. He still had to pay Rin back before they hired Yojimbo. And it was true, he'd blown that loan on movie spheres -- hey, they were cool -- and he *had* spent a lot of money on blitzer contracts...
"Hey, wait!" Tidus jogged to catch up. "We still need to find that Al Bhed primer, okay?" Maybe he'd misunderstood that 'body' comment because of the language barrier.
They took a different branch of the twisting cavern. Tidus kept an eye out for anything blue on the rocky floor. He only needed a few more primers to become a Master...
"Heads up!" Auron barked as another trio of fiends came flying at them. Tidus jumped to the fore of battle, blood singing in his ears. A cluster of Thorns, a Valaha, a Dark Element -- it was a powerful group that would yield decent money and maybe a weapon worth selling.
Tidus attacked the Valaha and Auron mowed into the Thorns, felling the creatures like overripe wheat. Yuna put the Dark Element out with a powerful Flare spell.
"No problem!" Tidus gloated, pumping his fist in the victory signal.
They moved to continue up the corridor, and several things happened at once. Rounding the corner, Auron almost plowed into Wakka and his party, coming from the other direction. Yuna tripped and stumbled over something half-buried near the wall and pinwheeled wildly. Tidus leaped to steady her.
"Hey! A primer!" The object winked up, a half-buried shimmer of blue, and Tidus stooped to clear it off.
"No, that's a sphere," Yuna corrected him, reaching to trigger its filigreed controls as Tidus lifted it up. "Ooh, it's an old one!"
"Hey, Sir Auron, how'd you guys do?" Wakka said enthusiastically, speaking over the teenagers. "We got a whole bunch o' items..."
Auron's head swiveled at the mention of the sphere. "No, wait--" He extended a hand.
"Hey, Auron, how many fiends did you get?" Rikku demanded, dancing forward, at his elbow but not daring to touch him. "Wakka was being really mean and said you guys would get more fiends than us 'cause it takes me so long to steal from all the monsters, but *I* think--"
The sphere flickered into life.
"Enough!" Auron barked, breaking free of Rikku.
Tidus and Yuna had crowded around the sphere, oblivious.
"I can't wait to see my father again," the young summoner said, pressing her hands together.
"I bet my father tried to ride one of those rigged Chocobos and gave up after thirty seconds," Tidus snickered.
The watery images swam across the surface of the sphere. Footage of the races blinked out after a few seconds, only to be replaced by--
"What on Spira!" Yuna pressed a hand to her mouth. "Sir Jecht!"
"Dad!?" Tidus' voice cracked. This sphere wasn't like any of the others. Everyone was a lot more, uh, naked.
Their party of guardians drew closer, pulled by the shock in two teenaged voices. Auron's bootheels cracked across the stone floor.
Yuna gasped. "Father! Oh my goodness!"
"And...Auron!?" Tidus sounded strangled.
"I'll take that," Auron said through gritted teeth, plucking the still-playing sphere from Tidus' unresponsive hands.
"Auron...you..." Tidus gestured numbly to the older guardian. "A-And my old man..." He looked like he might faint. Or scream.
"And my father!" Yuna added shrilly.
"I thought I'd destroyed this one," Auron muttered, face hidden by the high neck of his collar but he might -- just might -- have been blushing. He dropped the sphere to the cavern floor and it shattered. The flow of grappling flesh-toned images ceased.
"Uh...S-Sir Auron..." Wakka began, clenching his Catcher ball between his hands. "Not you too...isn't anything in Spira what it seems anymore?"
"I don't want to hear it," Auron grated, and glared 'round at everyone from his one good eye. "As far as you're concerned that sphere never existed, got it?"
"I want to forget I ever saw it," Yuna whimpered.
"Hey, I'm cool with it," Tidus said, arms behind his head. "Just gives me another reason to hate my old man!"
"So do you, like, have one more Overdrive?" Rikku bounced around the older man. "Only I guess this one would be Shooting Se--"
"ENOUGH!" Auron roared, startling everyone. "That's it. We are *leaving.* There will be no further speculation into the nature of my first pilgrimage. Got it?"
The steely tone brooked no arguments. Everyone nodded and, in ones and twos, began to file out of the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth, with Auron glowering in the aft position.
"C'mon," Rikku consoled Yuna, linking arms with her older cousin. "We woulda told you, but Pops told us not to. I mean, everyone in Al Bhed knew that's why Pops didn't want Braska to marry my aunt--"
"That's very comforting, Rikku."
Lulu turned to glance at the legendary guardian once or twice, discreet glances full of curiosity, as they approached the mouth of the cave.
Auron caught her eye on the fifth glance. "Just say it," he said, exasperated.
Lulu's measured tread paused a beat, until they were a discreet distance from the others. "Sir Auron...why?" She glanced after Yuna. "They both had wives and children."
"The sex was good," Auron said flatly.
Lulu's mouth fell open in shock.
Auron relented. Somewhat. "You were too young to remember, I'm sure. Braska married Yuna's mother in an attempt for a young summoner to unite the Al Bhed and Yevon." He cared for her, Auron mused, but he had never felt quite *that* way for a woman.
"So High Summoner Braska was..." Lulu trailed off speculatively.
Auron inclined his head. "Correct."
"And Sir Jecht?"
"Had been away from Zanarkand for months, possibly for the rest of his life," Auron said dryly. There was more but it was complicated. "Jecht was never cut out for celibacy."
"I think that" -- a silver-embroidered sleeve passed over Lulu's pale face -- "was far more information than I needed to know."
"You asked." Auron nearly laughed as she hurried to catch up with the rest of them. He kept it contained to a snort.
Tidus glanced back. "What's so funny, old man?" He put one hand on his hip.
"Hn. Don't you start, too," Auron warned.
"Didja think I was gonna cry?" Tidus challenged.
"Over something like this?" Auron considered it. The grin was in his voice when he spoke. "More than likely. You're too straight not to be horrified." He started walking again.
Tidus blinked and came to a halt. "What's that s'posed to mean?"
Auron kept walking, finally giving in to the urge to laugh.
It echoed behind them in the far reaches of the cavern, making masses of pyreflies seethe upwards furiously in resonance. They left the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth behind, and the laughter lingered. And somewhere in the depths, a fragment of aqua-blue glass glowed with the last liquid remnants of a summoner's passionate kisses.