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A Guardian's Legacy

Chapter Text

Paine surveyed the group of new recruits standing at attention on the Highroad, on the edge of the cliff overlooking Luca. This, she thought, was one of her favorite parts of this job — meeting the eager young kids who wanted to join the Spira militia and making bets with herself on who would make the cut. "Diverse," she murmured to herself as she looked over the crew of a dozen teenagers: a couple of Al Bhed, a Ronso, a blonde girl she'd seen playing blitzball for the Goers last season. Most were without weapons, although one of the Al Bhed had a gun, and a couple of the other recruits carried swords. In particular, Paine noticed a tall girl with a serious face and a heavy broadsword, slung awkwardly over her shoulder. It looked to Paine like an heirloom passed down by some guardian, the blade inlaid with bright color and wrought with decorative edges. Gorgeous, but inappropriate for a beginner. The blitzer, who was standing next to her, held a wicked-looking ball, studded with spikes and crackling with a thunder enchantment. Also a handsome weapon, even worse for training. She'd have to talk to each of them later.

"Welcome," she said to the assembled group, preparing to launch into her usual first-day-of-training speech, when she heard someone running up behind her. She turned, and saw Tidus jogging up the stairway from the city.

"Sorry I'm late!" he said. "Got tied up with the kid."

Paine smiled. "Everything okay?"

He grinned back at her, taking on the same glow as always when speaking of his young daughter. "Yeah. Just one of those afternoons. Everything's fine now."

"Good." She turned back to the recruits. "Apologies for the interruption. As I was saying, welcome to the Spira Defense Force. Sin is gone, and Spira is at peace, but there are still plenty of fiends and other dangers out there. Spira's people will always need defending, and I commend you all for choosing to serve. I'm Captain Paine, and I'm in charge of training new recruits. I'm also the heavy sword instructor. This is Tidus, another one of your teachers — he'll focus on light swords and thrown weapons. You'll meet your magic and machina instructors later. After learning the basics of everything, most of you will specialize in one or two areas. You'll learn by doing as well as in the classroom — there will be regular field trips to practice on live fiends. But for now, we'll start here, at the Academy." She gestured over to the new building perched on the cliff, finally completed a year ago. "Tidus will pass out training schedules and check in with each of you about your interests and expectations. Please don't go anywhere, but feel free to stand at ease and enjoy this beautiful day."

She saluted her new students, and they responded with polite applause. Then she stepped back and let Tidus take over, letting him pass out the orientation spheres and learn all their names. She'd get to know them later; for now, she preferred to observe. Tidus was the perfect person to put them all at ease. Still as energetic after all these years, he knew how to talk their language, and many of the kids would recognize him from the blitzball stadium as captain of the Aurochs. As Paine watched him circulate, she found her gaze drawn back to the to the tall girl with the ornate sword. "It's because she looks familiar," she murmured to herself. "I wonder who she reminds me of." The girl's straight black hair was swept up into a ponytail that fell halfway down her back. Only a single tiny braid hung free, tied off with a small red ribbon that matched her tunic. Except for the crimson color of her shirt, her clothes were plain — black leggings and boots, simple dark blue accents on the shirt. The bold colors suited her fair skin, strong features, and dark hair. Earrings were her only ornament; she wore a small gold hoop in each lobe, and a crystal stud in her left ear. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Paine thought her eyes were probably blue, or perhaps gray. Who did she resemble? Did she have an older sibling or cousin in the Defense Force? Paine was going to have to ask — it was going to drive her crazy.

"You there!" Tidus said sharply, interrupting her musings. "Where did you get that sword!"

Paine realized that Tidus was talking to the subject of her contemplation. The girl looked straight at him and replied, "It was my father's."

"No way!" he responded, anger plain in his voice. He grabbed the girl by the arm and, over grumbled protests, marched her over to Paine. "Paine, we can't trust this one; her sword is clearly stolen. She says it belonged to her father, but that's impossible! I know this sword — it was Auron's!"

Paine took a step back in shock. She had thought that the sword might have once belonged to a guardian. But to Auron? She looked at the girl. "You're claiming that Sir Auron, the legendary guardian who defeated Sin twice, was your father? And you expect us to believe this?"

The girl nodded, her face calm but defiant. "Yes, because it is the truth. My name is Lissira, and Sir Auron was my father. I can prove it to you, if you'll allow me."

She said this last straight to Paine, who frowned — something in the girl's tone suggested she knew something, something she couldn't possibly know. Unless, maybe, the claim was true. Paine turned to Tidus. "We'd better get to the bottom of this." He nodded. "Take the other recruits to training room B — Maroda can get them started. Then come to my office. I'll call Yuna." He returned to the group of future soldiers and gestured them to follow him. They walked off to the Academy. Paine followed behind, escorting the girl — Lissira — toward the same building. They walked in silence as Paine wondered.

-x-

Yuna hurried up the stairs to the Highroad, replaying Paine's CommSphere summons in her mind. A daughter of Sir Auron? She could hardly believe that anyone would even say such a thing. She turned at the top of the stairs and strode into the Academy building. As she walked down the hall, she spotted Tidus's bright hair. He turned, saw her, and waved. Her heart skipped a beat as she smiled and waved back. It had been five years since his return. Would she ever get used to the idea that he was back? She hoped not.

"Hey," he said as she approached, stepping toward her and kissing her forehead. "Did you get Jecha to settle down?" He swiveled around and fell into step beside her as they continued toward Paine's office.

"Yes, she's fine," Yuna replied. "I made her a snack and then she went to sleep. She'll probably be down until I get back. So what can you tell me about this girl — what did she say her name was?"

"Lissira," said Tidus, scowling. "Not much. She just arrived yesterday and hadn't said much to anyone, beyond giving her name and getting her room assignment. Then she shows up at today's intro session, bold as you please, waving Masamune around like she owns it. I didn't notice from a distance, but when I came around to introduce myself one on one, I recognized it right away. What I want to know is, where did she get it?"

Yuna shrugged. "That's what we're trying to find out, I suppose." She paused at the door to the office, considering whether to knock, when she heard Paine call out.

"Come on in," she said.

Tidus and Yuna entered the room together. Paine sat at the table, her office tidy as always — three swords propped up in a corner of the room, papers stacked neatly on a desk beneath her window, a spectacular view of Luca and the ocean beyond. Her CommSphere lay quiet in the wall, recordings placed in cubbies below. Lissira sat silently in a chair across from Paine, the sword lying on the table between them. It was Sir Auron's blade all right, the one he'd found buried on Mushroom Rock Road — Yuna would have recognized it anywhere. She took a place behind Paine's chair and studied the girl's features intently, looking for any trace of her father's guardian. She had the same jet-black hair, but that was common enough. Was there something of him in the nose, the shape of her cheekbones, the set of her jaw? Perhaps, but it was so hard to tell — maybe she was looking too hard, imaging something that wasn't there. She suddenly realized she wanted this incredible claim to be true. Wouldn't Spira be a better place if something of Auron remained besides her memories?

Paine got up from her seat and leaned in to Yuna and Tidus. "You both know why we're here," she murmured. "I'm going to ask Lissira some questions to get at the truth of this. I've asked you both to join us because, of all the people currently living in Luca, you undoubtedly knew Sir Auron best… but I have some ideas I'd like to try first. So if any of this seems odd to you, please just go with it for now — I'll explain everything. I promise."

Yuna looked at Tidus, who shrugged. "Okay, we'll play along," she responded.

"Thanks," said Paine. She returned to her chair, Tidus and Yuna taking places behind her, and looked at Lissira. "Tell me," she asked, "what was your mother's name?"

"Her name is Arelle," Lissira replied.

Yuna furrowed her brow — the name meant nothing to her. She glanced up at Tidus, who caught her eye and shook his head. She looked at Paine, expecting a similar reaction, but to Yuna's surprise, she was nodding thoughtfully, almost as if she'd expected this particular answer.

Then Paine asked a question that puzzled Yuna even more. "What was my mother's name?"

"Kera," came the answer. Yuna's eyebrows shot up. How could this girl possibly know anything about the notoriously private Paine?

"Where was your mother from?"

"Tzeki Village, along the Moonflow," Lissira responded. "I've never been there, though — I grew up on a small farm on the edge of Macalania Woods, near the Calm Lands."

Paine nodded again, then moved on to her next question. "How did you get the sword?"

"A Ronso named Kimahri brought it to us…" the girl began.

"Oh!"

Paine turned around and glared at Yuna, who brought a hand up to cover her mouth, her heart racing. "Sorry, I'm sorry! It just slipped out." Finally, a reference that made sense to her. Tidus shot her a quizzical look, but she waved him off. "Later," she mouthed.

Paine returned her gaze to Lissira. "Go on."

"I was nine years old, and it was the day after the final battle with Sin. Not that I really understood that, then — I just knew that we had seen a huge explosion in the sky, and that everyone was so happy, except my mother, who seemed sad. That evening, a blue Ronso with a broken horn showed up on our farm. He said his name was Kimahri, and he told my mother that he was there to — let me see if I remember the exact words — 'honor the last request of a great man' — I think that was it. Anyway, then he handed her something wrapped in a cloth, and it was the sword."

"Did you ever meet Sir Auron?" asked Paine.

"Only once," Lissira said. "I didn't know who he was — not that he was a famous Guardian, or that he was my father. It was before Kimahri came with the sword, a few weeks I think. He came to the yard and asked me if my mother was home. We talked a bit. I thought he was a little scary at first, but he was kind to me. Mother didn't say anything then, but when the sword came she sat me down and told me the truth, that the man in red who had come to visit was my father, that he was named Auron, and that the return of his sword meant that he was dead. She gave me the sword and told me that I should follow in his footsteps and wield it in defense of Spira when I was old enough. Last month was my sixteenth birthday, so here I am."

Paine stood. "Thank you, Lissira. Please wait in the hallway while I speak with the others. I'll call you back in if we have more questions for you. I hope you understand that I need to ask you to leave the sword here, for now."

Lissira stood as well. "Of course. I trust you with it." She brought her hands in front of her and bowed, as if making the old-fashioned Yevon prayer, then left the room. Yuna watched her go, and realized with a start that the girl was wearing red and black. Sir Auron's colors.

Paine turned back to Yuna and Tidus. "Well?"

"Whatever," said Tidus. "This is impossible!"

"'Impossible?' Why?" said Paine. "Legend or no, Auron was still a man. We're assuming he never fathered a child because he was a warrior monk who never married, but why should we?"

Yuna gasped. "He couldn't have! Not Sir Auron!"

Paine shrugged. "Of course he could've. If Lissira's story is true — and I'm inclined to believe that it is — she was born about eight months after he fought Sin with Lord Braska. Arelle was Auron's lover for many years. Who is to say that he didn't stop to see her during the Pilgrimage, with Lissira as the result? He'd left the warrior monks by then, and the timing is right."

"How do you know about this Arelle?" Tidus demanded.

After a moment of silence, Paine sighed and ran a hand through her dark silver hair. "All right. I promised I would tell you, and I will, but please, don't spread this around yet. I know about Auron's family, and she should know about mine, because Auron was my uncle."

"What?" Tidus barked as Yuna dropped heavily into Paine's chair and looked up at her, shocked. All these years, Paine had been one of her closest friends, and she never mentioned this?

Paine folded her arms. "Yes. My mother was his sister. But really, it's not a big deal — I barely knew him. He left to become a warrior monk before I was born, and only came back to visit a couple of times a year. When I was still pretty young, he had a big falling out with my mother. Not long after, my father's cousins invited us to come live with them in Luca. My parents thought it would be safer in the city, so we moved. I never saw him again."

"Does anyone else know?" Yuna asked.

"Only Baralai. I suppose there could be some people around who remember our families from the village, but Sin pretty much wiped the place out about eight years ago." Tidus winced; Yuna patted his arm, while Paine shrugged again. "Anyway, enough about my family tree. Yuna, when she started talking about Kimahri and the sword, you definitely reacted. Do you know something?

"Well, it does fit," Yuna said slowly.

Tidus snapped his head around to look at her. "With what!"

"With things that happened …after." She looked up into Tidus's blue eyes and swallowed hard. It was still so hard to think about the days right after their final battle with Sin, when she had lost him for what she thought would be forever.
Tidus's expression mellowed, and he rested a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Yuna. Just say what you need to say."

She nodded, and took a deep breath. "After we defeated Sin, and I had sent the aeons and Sir Auron, and you… were gone. You know that your sword stayed behind — Brotherhood, the sword that Wakka gave you. I picked it up, of course, and kept it. I didn't notice at the time, but Sir Auron's sword had remained as well. Lulu told me later that Kimahri collected it and said that Sir Auron had given him instructions. We assumed that he'd requested some kind of dramatic disposal, that Kimahri buried it on Mt. Gagazet, or threw it into the Zanarkand sea. We never knew for sure. But this story — that Kimahri took the sword to his family — well, it makes sense. It's something Kimahri would do, and I can see why Sir Auron would have asked him; anyone else would've asked too many questions. I don't know anything for certain, but it could be true."

"So," said Paine, "another part of her story checks out. I suppose there's no way to know for sure — she or her mother could be lying, and we can't exactly drag Sir Auron here from the Farplane to ask. But I should mention one other thing in her favor. All day, since the moment I saw her, Lissira has looked familiar to me. While we were talking, I figured out why — she reminds me of my mother."

Yuna stood. "Oh, Paine," she said, and gave her friend a quick hug. "Well. That's good enough for me."

Tidus sighed. "Okay, you've convinced me. I'm still not saying I believe all this, but I concede that it's at least possible. So let's take her at face value, at least for now. But I think we should keep an eye on her."

"Agreed," said Paine. Then she smirked. "But you know me — I keep an eye on everyone anyway."

Yuna laughed. Paine walked over to the door and called Lissira back in. The girl entered, looking wary but hopeful.

"Well, Lissira, we've talked it over, and as far as we can tell, your story checks out. We will accept that you are who you say you are: the daughter of Auron." Paine walked over to Lissira and held out a hand. "Welcome to the Spira Defense Force — cousin."

Lissira's face broke into a broad grin that reminded Yuna of Auron's rare smiles as she clasped the outstretched hand. "Thank you — cousin."

Chapter Text

I woke to the sound of distant music. As I opened my eyes, I saw sun streaming in the window of our small house in Tzeki Village. It was my sister's wedding day, our seventeenth birthday, and the day I would leave home for Bevelle, where I would train to serve as a warrior for Yevon. The music came from the kitchen: a woman's voice, singing. As I recognized the sound, I smiled and stretched with anticipation. Then I noticed the angle of the sun.

"I overslept!" I said aloud as I sat bolt upright. Leaping out of bed, I grabbed at my clothes as I heard a knock on my bedroom door.

"Auron?" The silvery-haired head of Xan, my sister's soon-to-be husband, came around the door, followed by his lean frame.

"I'm sorry!" I said as I threw on my breeches. "Why did you let me sleep so late?"

Xan laughed, his dark red eyes sparkling with amusement as he sat down on the bed. He was three years older than us, and I had thought of him as an older brother since long before he became involved with Kera. "Relax, birthday boy, you still have plenty of time. The priest is running a little late, and you have a long day ahead of you, so Ker thought you should get some extra rest while there was time."

I sat next to him, slipping my feet into boots and pulling on a shirt. "Thanks. With so much going on, I was up late last night, so Kera was right — it was good to get the extra sleep."

"Yes, we gathered, since we saw you head over to Relle's after dinner, and she didn't hear you come back. Frankly, I'm surprised to see you in your own bed." Xan nudged me in the ribs and, to my horror, I found my cheeks beginning to burn; Xan's grin turned into a laugh. "No, no, we're not scandalized. You haven't taken any vows yet. " He clapped me on the back. "You love Relle, and she loves you. I'd have done the same thing in your place."

"Would have done, or have done?" I asked, repressing a chuckle, blush fading.

He snorted, shoulders shaking, trying not to laugh again. "Are you asking me to kiss and tell?"

Amusement combined with sleep deprivation finally boiled over, and the two of us burst into helpless guffaws. When the fit had subsided, Xan looked my way again, wiping the tears from his eyes. "That was fun. Shall we go eat some breakfast? Relle came by to cook for the occasion."

"Excellent plan," I replied as we stood. I could already smell the food. Besides being my girl and Kera's closest friend, Arelle was easily the best cook in town. We entered the kitchen, and there she was, stirring a pot of something that smelled delightful, singing softly as she worked. Kera was there, too, looking radiant, brown eyes sparkling. But I only had eyes for Relle. I hung back in the doorway, watching her work, drinking the sight of her in. She was tall for a woman, only a few inches shorter than I. Her hair, long but worn coiled on the top of her head, was the color of a well-polished copper pot, and her eyes, which met mine as she turned her, were a soft gray. She was glowing, too, and I felt a gentle tug in my gut as I remembered why. She drew me to her, a moth to a flame, and I walked across the room and kissed her.

"Good morning," I said.

"Happy birthday," she replied in her sweet, high-pitched voice, smiling up at me, reaching up to gently stroke my cheek. "Did you sleep well?" The flame burned a little hotter, and I could only nod as I bent down to kiss her again, more thoroughly this time, my hand cradling the back of her neck.

"Ahem!"

Startled, we broke the kiss and turned around to see my sister and her fiance grinning at us. "Breakfast?" Kera asked. "If we're not interrupting anything more important, that is."

I fought the blush that threatened to rise up again. Relle just laughed, though, and turned back to her pot, grabbing bowls and a spoon to serve up the spiced porridge. I took the bowls as she filled them, carrying them over to the table, setting one for my father by his empty chair. Then I sat myself down and ate, suddenly starving. The porridge was delicious, but I barely tasted it — all I really noticed was Relle, sitting next to me, her leg brushing mine under the table. She finished her food, then turned to me. "I should go," she said. I glanced at the extra bowl, steam rising from the porridge, and we all heard the unsaid half of her sentence — before your father gets here. She kissed my cheek and stood up. "I have to get ready. See you when the priest gets here!" I watched her go, staring out the door even after she was out of sight.

After a few moments, I was startled out of my reverie by a gentle poke on my shoulder. I looked up, and Kera was standing behind me. She was grinning broadly. "What?" I asked.

"Nothing, little brother," she said. "Just, it's nice to see you happy."

I smiled back. "'Little brother'? Do I need to stand up and remind you which of us is taller?"

She laughed. "No, no, relax. I'll do your hair." She pulled off the leather thong that held it back and began combing through it with her fingers. "We have to make you presentable for the ceremony, after all. Xan, could you get my brush? And the red ribbon next to it." She started to hum as she worked out the tangles. I realized that I could no longer remember whether she had picked up the habit from Relle, or the other way around.

Xan returned with the heavy silver-handled brush that had belonged to our mother and handed it to Kera, along with the ribbon. "Thanks, love," she said. "Now go get dressed, the priest will be here soon."

He bowed and stepped out, leaving us alone.

"Your hair is getting really long," Kera commented as she brushed. I had recently noticed this myself — it fell halfway down my back. "Do you think they'll let you keep it?"

"I wonder. I've never seen a warrior monk with long hair. But maybe they can put it up under their helmets."

She finished smoothing my hair, deftly braided it, then tied off the end with the ribbon. "There," she said, sitting down in the chair next to me. I studied her face. As always, it was like looking into a smaller, more delicate mirror, except for her hair — it was also black, straight, and thick, but she had always kept it short. Today her bangs were pinned back with sparkling combs. "Very handsome. You almost look fit to get married yourself." I had chosen my second-best clothes for the day — a black shirt and rich red breeches. They were better suited to traveling than my most formal outfit, which I was saving for my arrival in Bevelle anyway. She looked at me hopefully. "You know, it's not too late to ask the priest to do a double wedding…"

I sighed, exasperated, and glared at her. Why bring this up again, during our last few moments alone? "Kera. We've talked about this. I want to be with Relle, I do. I love her. But if I married her now, Father would kill me. You know that as well as I do. Let me get myself established with the temples first. Once I have a good position, he won't have anything to say about it. Relle understands; why can't you?"

She looked away. "I do understand. But I can't help looking at you two, and seeing how happy you are when you're together, and wishing you could be like that forever. If it were Xan leaving, I don't know if I could forgive him." She looked straight into my eyes. "You're lucky to have Relle."

"I know," I said. "I'm lucky to have you, too." I reached out and took her hand, then noticed the tears in her eyes. "Hey. None of that. This is a happy day, remember?"

She sniffed and nodded, wiping the corners of her eyes with her other hand. "I am happy. But I'm going to miss you, little brother."

"I'm going to miss you, too," I responded. "But I'm not going to miss being reminded that you're half an hour older than I am!"

Kera laughed, her face lightening. "Aw, and that's what I was going to miss the most."

When our father finally walked in, he found us holding hands over the table and laughing together.

Chapter Text

It took us the rest of the day to cross the Moonflow and walk through the forest to Guadosalam. I had dispatched a few fiends along the way — mostly large bugs and lizards, nothing too challenging. One of the wasps poisoned me with its sting, but Father Braska healed my wounds almost before I noticed them. It was a quiet journey, except for the sounds of the woods.

We spent the night in the Guadosalam Inn. The innkeeper gave Father Shon a room of his own, while Braska was asked to share with me. I sat on the bed and pulled out the cold dinner I had made of wedding feast leftovers — a sandwich of meat and cheese, some vegetables. Braska did the same, and we ate in quiet companionship. As we finished, I found myself feeling rather shy. What did I have to say to this young priest?

He dusted the breadcrumbs from his fingers, then looked at me with a friendly smile. "Would you like a drink?" he asked. I nodded, so he knelt down over his pack, rummaging through until he found a jug. He pulled it out, and indicated that I should give him my traveling goblet. I did so, and he filled it with a clear liquid. I took a swig, promptly choking as the potent beverage burned my throat.

"What is that?" I sputtered, forgetting my manners in the moment of discomfort.

"Sake," he replied. "It's a kind of wine, made from rice. More of a sipping beverage than one to quaff, especially if you're not used to it. I'm sorry, I should have warned you."

I took a generous gulp from my water skin, both to clear my mouth and to give me time to regain my composure. "It's all right, Father," I said.

He smiled. "Please, just call me Braska. I understand if you want to stand on ceremony with Father Shon, but there's no need for it here."

I considered this. Dix had impressed upon me that I should keep my relationships with priests and superior officers strictly formal, in order to earn their respect. But would it be better to honor Braska's request? Finally, I nodded. "As you wish," I said.

He took a small drink of the wine, then settled back on his bed, his back resting against the wall. "So, Auron, tell me about yourself," he said.

"I fear there's not much to tell," I said, sipping my own cup gingerly. "I've lived all my life in Tzeki Village with my father and sister."

"Your mother?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Killed by Sin. I was only two, so I barely remember her."

Braska closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "Too common a story in Spira. I didn't know either of my parents at all; they died before I was a year old. I was raised by the temple in Djose. Until I married, Shon was the closest thing I had to family." Silence fell for a moment as we both lost ourselves in unhappy thoughts. Then Braska shake himself and straighten his head as he opened his eyes again. "Regardless, we are here now. And High Summoner Pala has brought us a Calm; we should enjoy it while it lasts. What was life like in your village?"

Slowly, in bits and pieces, he drew me out. I found myself telling him about my friends and neighbors in the village, including the retired warrior monk who taught me in the ways of Yevon along with basic fighting skills and inspired me to follow in his footsteps. I talked about Relle, and growing up with Kera and Xan, and Dix's grim determination that I would have a better life than him.

"Not that I don't want to be a warrior monk," I was quick to add then. "It is a sacred duty to defend Spira and the disciples of Yevon, and I feel that I've been called to it. And I know I can be a good fighter, maybe even a good leader. I'm just as ambitious for myself as Father is for me. But Father doesn't understand that I need Relle, too." I paused, thoughtful, and sipped my sake. It filled my stomach, warm and comforting. "Is Father Shon right? Will I need to chose between love and ambition?"

Braska looked into the distance for a time. Then he replied. "There is some truth in what Shon says. Marriage can be an important means of promotion in Bevelle. But if you're careful, you should be able to juggle it." He chuckled without mirth. "Not that I'm really the one to ask."

That raised my curiosity, but I still felt too shy to ask what he meant outright. There was no need, though — he saw the question in my eyes, and answered it voluntarily.

"Oh, I know a little something about conflicts between love and career." He drained his cup and refilled it, then looked straight at me. "I rose quickly through the priesthood, expected to get a good position in one of the temples, even thought about becoming a summoner. Then I married an Al Bhed, and everything changed."

I nearly spilled my drink.

He snorted, reading the shock that I couldn't keep from my face. "I know what you're thinking. A priest, married to a machina-using heathen? They're not like that, not really, but I don't expect you to understand." He leaned back against the wall again, drawing up his legs and crossing them. "Last year, I arranged a meeting with their leader, Cid, after learning their language, and I spent some time in their homeland. I wanted to bridge some of the distance between them and Yevon, to keep war from raging between us again. While there, I met Tessa, Cid's sister. We fell in love, and she came back with me to Bevelle. Her brother hasn't spoken to her since, and my career advancement prospects dried up rather quickly." He glanced at the ceiling. "So much for mutual understanding. I can't even serve in St. Bevelle anymore. I split my time between my family in the city and working in Djose, where Shon has taken me in again."

I sat quietly, considering Braska's story. "Was it worth it?" I asked him.

His mouth quirked up at the left corner, almost but not quite a smile. "For me? Yes. I knew what I was risking when I chose my wife, and I was willing. So was she. Tess just had a baby, and I wouldn't trade the two of them for anything in the world. But is it easy? No." His expression became even more serious, and he leaned toward me, long hair falling forward over his shoulders. "Auron. For your sake, I hope that you'll never need to chose between Arelle and your career. But if that time comes, be sure you think long and hard. Because, however you choose, you'll feel regret sometimes. Make absolutely certain you can bear that regret without bitterness. You don't want to resent the woman, or the job, that you love."

I dipped my head in understanding. Then I asked him, "A baby? Is it a son or a daughter?"

"A little girl," he said, his face and voice softening at the thought. "I named her Yuna."

I raised my eyebrows. "Yuna? As in–"

He nodded. "Maybe she can be the summoner that I never was."

-x-

Lissira entered her quarters, her father's blade slung over her right shoulder. She was going to have to find a better way to carry it eventually — less than a day, and it was already getting heavy. It had come with a scabbard, but the straps would have to be taken in considerably to fit around her back and shoulders. Paine had warned her that she wasn't going to be allowed to use the sword for training -- "It's a hell of a weapon," she'd said, "but its enhancements are way too powerful for you, never mind whoever you'll be dueling in class. I'll get you something more basic from the armory for now" ---- but she would be able to keep it among her personal effects.

Her roommate, Maura, was lying on her back, blonde curls scattered over her pillow as she batted a blitzball in the air. She sat up when Liss entered the room, catching the ball and rolling it under the bed in a single fluid motion. "Hey Liss," she said. "How'd it go?" Liss had told Maura about her parentage as they swapped life stories last night; her new friend had been surprised, but accepted the story at face value.

"Really well," said Liss. "I'm not completely convinced that Lady Yuna or Sir Tidus believed me, but Captain Paine did." She plopped down on her own cot and laid the sword beside her. "I'm going to have dinner with her tonight."

Maura raised her eyebrows. "So having famous family has its benefits. No dining hall slop for you!"

Liss felt her cheeks redden slightly. "It's not like that. The Captain is family, too."

"Like I said," Maura replied, grinning, "the advantages of relatives in high places. You'll have to tell me all about it. But first, your orientation schedule." She tossed Liss a sphere. "Looks like they're keeping us pretty busy."

Liss pressed the catch that would play the sphere, and eagerly took in the list of classes that would dominate her life in the coming months.

-x-

Later that afternoon, Paine walked up her house. She could have had grander quarters in the city, but the cottage perched at the edge of the cliff overlooking Luca was perfect for her. She'd always loved having a view. Every morning and evening, she stood on the front porch and took it all in — the blitzball stadium ringed by boat and airship docks, the sphere theater, the rows of apartment buildings, the new Ruling Council chambers rising up to the north. And it was handy to be situated so close to the Academy. She opened the door and was met by the smell of something delicious. Wandering into the kitchen, she walked up to her husband and put her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder. "Mmm."

Baralai, member of the Spira Ruling Council representing Bevelle, former leader of New Yevon, and amateur chef, stopped tending to his pot and turned around, placing his hands on Paine's waist. "You like my stew?" he asked, smiling into his wife's dark red eyes.

"That too," she replied. He leaned forward for a quick kiss. "Is there enough for an extra person?"

He looked back at the meal he'd been stirring. "Shouldn't be a problem. Who did you invite? Can you help me with the bread?"

Paine stepped out of his arms and walked over to the oven to pull out the bread, then grabbed a knife. "Well. You know we met the new recruits today?" She glanced over to Baralai, who had returned to his cooking, and he nodded. Moving to the table, her back to him, she started to slice the loaf. "It turns out that one of them is my cousin, a cousin I didn't even know existed. Guess who her father was?"

She heard a clatter behind her and turned around. Baralai had knocked down a pot lid and was pointing a wooden spoon at her. Stew dripped off the end, but he didn't seem to notice. "Get out!" he said. "Sir Auron had a kid? And nobody ever knew? Damn!"

Paine grinned, laying down the knife. "That's a good approximation of the general reaction so far. I called in Tidus and Yuna, and we questioned her. I'm almost positive that she's legit."

"How can you know?"

"For sure? We can't. But the evidence is strong. For one thing, she's carrying his sword. Yuna and Tidus both recognized it, and it's highly decorated, very distinctive. The story of where she got it checks out. She knew that I'm her cousin. Her mother was my uncle's childhood sweetheart. Now, she could have found the sword, and done some research into Auron's background, or someone else could have done it and fed her the information. But the kicker, really, is that she looks like him. Well, to me she looks like Mom. A lot like her. Except she's tall."

Baralai nodded thoughtfully. "That's pretty convincing." He glanced down and realized that he still held the spoon. After tossing it back in the pot, he walked over to Paine and lightly touched her arm, his brown eyes filled with concern. "You okay? It can't be easy, someone showing up with your mother's face like that."

"I…" Paine looked out the window to gather her thoughts, then back at Baralai. "You know, I hadn't really thought about it that way. Mom's been gone for so long, I don't think about her much any more. Dad either. But seeing Liss does kind of bring it all back. In a good way, though. I loved my parents, and I'm actually glad to be reminded of them. And Uncle Auron… well, you know I never knew him very well, but I did worship the ground he walked on. He was my idol as a kid. So it makes me really happy that something of him lives on."

"Then I'm glad that you found her. And that you've invited her to dinner — it's always hard to be away from home for the first time." Baralai gently kissed Paine's cheek, then went to clean the stew off the floor.

-x-

Bevelle.

Three days later, I stood on the Highbridge, looking at the entrance to the city in the late morning light, and thought about my first shoopuf ride. We had been on a trip to see my mother on the Farplane. I knew about shoopufs, of course; I'd seen them crossing the river in the distance all my life. But that was rather different from being confronted with one face to face. My four-year-old self felt completely dwarfed by the huge beast, and I'd burst into tears.

No tears this time, but I still felt tiny and insignificant next to this enormous building and the city behind it, and I froze. All Father's stories hadn't prepared me for the sheer size of the place. The priests continued onward, a few moments passing before they noticed I wasn't with them. Father Shon stopped to wait, while Braska returned and stood next to me, his presence reassuring.

"Big, isn't it?" he said. "Especially when all you've ever known is a fishing village."

I nodded, not trusting my voice to respond.

"I felt the same way the first time I saw it. Don't worry. You'll come to feel like you belong here before long. For now, just take a deep breath and get ready to fake it."

I followed his advice and immediately felt better, then turned to him. "Let's go," I said.

He clasped my shoulder for a moment. Then we walked up to the entrance of the city that would be my home for the next several years.

Chapter Text

The next few hours were a whirlwind. Father Braska left us upon our entry to the city to go see his family, after extracting a promise that I would visit at my first opportunity. Then Father Shon showed me to the part of the temple complex where recruits to the warrior monks were received. A bored-looking functionary took my name and waved me in the direction of the barracks.

Before he left, Shon turned to me with a kind look. "Young Auron," he said, "you have done well in protecting Braska and myself from fiends on our journey, and for that I thank you. You clearly have talent with the blade, which bodes well for your future as a warrior monk. Yevon's blessing be upon you in this and all your endeavors."

"Thank you, Father," I said, bowing.

"Best of luck, my son," he replied, laying a firm hand upon my shoulder. When I rose from my bow, his figure was receding in the distance, and I was finally alone.

After a few minutes of walking, I reached the door of the dormitory, and slowly pushed it open. The room was spare: a bare wood floor, white plaster walls, a simple orange and green banner bearing the symbol of Yevon hanging across from the door. There were four bunks in the room, and three heads swiveled toward me as I walked in. I went over to the empty bed, the top bunk on the right-hand side, and laid my bag on it before turning around to see one of my roommates already standing next to me.

"Hello!" he said. He was short, with a round face and close-cropped light brown hair. "My name's Kinoc, and I'm from Luca. And these fellows are Jan and Kal — they're brothers from Kilika." I looked over to the other two young men sitting on the bottom left bunk. Both were tall and lean, with the look of blitzers. One had bright red hair; the other was blond. They nodded politely to me.

"Auron," I said. "From Tzeki Village, on the Moonflow."

"You're just in time," said Kinoc. "We're supposed to meet the Maester in a few minutes. Do you want to get cleaned up from your journey first?" He gestured over to a basin and mirror in a corner of the room.

"Thanks," I responded. I walked over to the basin and splashed water on my face, then pulled out my best clothes: black breeches, a new white shirt, and my long red coat. This last was my favorite item of clothing — I had always been drawn to the color red, and last year at the annual Shoopuf Crossing fair, I had spent half an hour eyeing this particular coat before passing it up as too expensive. Kera and Relle snuck back and pooled all their gil to buy it for me, presenting it as a birthday gift. After my sword, it was my most treasured possession. I changed quickly, pulled my boots back on, then wiped down my sword and strapped it to my back. A quick check of my hair — I had washed and rebraided it the night before, so I needed only to tuck in some stray wisps — and I was prepared.

"Ready to go?" Kinoc asked. I nodded. "We're supposed to assemble in the courtyard in front of the main temple entrance. I've been there before, so I can show you the way."

The four of us left the room, Kinoc in the front. He led us back via the corridors I had used earlier, past the bored bureaucrat, and through the Hall of Summoners. I felt awed all over again by the huge statues there — they were probably twice as tall as the similar sculptures at Djose Temple. But we passed through quickly and exited the room by a side entrance.

We found ourselves in front of the Palace of St. Bevelle with the other recruits. The ground and walls were inlaid with brightly colored tile, and fountains danced all around us. The ocean sparkled in the distance. I glanced around at my new companions and saw about twenty-five young men, most appearing to be within a year of my age. Like my bunkmates, most of them had short hair, and I had to stop myself from fingering my braid nervously. I took a place in the ranks with Kal on my right and Kinoc on my left, and we waited in silence.

After a few moments, a warrior monk dressed in orange came out of the main temple door. Kinoc leaned over to me and whispered, "That's the entrance to Maesters' Court." I inclined my head to indicate that I'd heard him, then returned my attention to the monk.

"Attention, new recruits!" The monk stood before us and saluted, bringing his right arm across his chest with his hand in a fist. I returned the gesture, as did most of the others. "Presenting His Grace Maester Brac, Maester of Yevon and leader of the military." He stepped aside, and another figure appeared through the temple doors.

In unison, we made the deepest, most respectful prayer bows we could manage. Then I straightened to study the Maester. He was very tall, the height of a small Ronso, and dressed in orange, green, and white robes. Although withered with age, his posture and broad shoulders spoke of strength and speed: the stance of a retired but practiced warrior. His hair was pure white and twisted into a knot atop his head. A neat beard framed his chin. Deep-set dark-brown eyes rested above a massive nose and below a heavy brow. I was immediately drawn to those eyes — even at this distance, they sparked with keen perception.

"Greetings," he said, in a voice pitched much higher than I had expected given his size. "Welcome to Bevelle. You have all chosen to receive training as warrior monks, one of the most sacred callings of our people. For the next year, you will train, learning the art of battle and the mysteries of Yevon. At the end of that time, those of you deemed worthy will take the oath of the warrior monk and devote yourself fully to the defense of the temples. I must inform you now that the training is not for the weak of body or spirit. It takes patience, hard work, and total dedication. If you feel that this is not your true path, then you are welcome to leave now and no one will think any less of you." He paused and looked around the courtyard. No one moved. He nodded. "Very well, then. Your work begins now." He bowed to us, and we returned the bow as he turned to walk into a different side door. The warrior monk who had introduced the Maester indicated that we should follow.

My eyes began adjusting to the darkness of the chamber. All around us stood staffs topped with flags. I glanced at Kinoc, who shrugged — apparently he didn't know what was going on now, either.

The Maester waited until we had all settled into place, then gestured with his right arm. Torches suddenly blazed up all around us, and we were surrounded by a riot of color. Dozens of banners hung off their staffs in the still air. Ancient characters and symbols decorated them; I thought I recognized the sigil of Djose on a blue and silver banner but couldn't be certain. Maester Brac stood next to a staff topped with a gray banner, edged in an earthy green and bearing an orange symbol.

"This is the Hall of Monks, the official headquarters of the warrior monks of Yevon and the most holy place for our order," said Maester Brac, sweeping his right arm before him. "What you see here are the standards that warrior monk squads traditionally carry into battle. They are rarely used now, except for ceremonial purposes, but we preserve them all here as a reminder of our ancient traditions. Many of these banners represent squadrons that predate Sin itself!"

An impressed murmur ran through the group. Glancing at the Maester again, I realized that the symbols on his stole matched the one on the banner he stood beneath. His personal sigil, or did it represent his rank?

"You will learn more about the history of our order as part of your training," the Maester said. "But I show you this now to help you realize what a long and glorious tradition you will become part of, should you join the ranks of the warrior monks. I commend you all for choosing to make the attempt. We will meet again soon." He raised his arms in blessing, and we bowed to him as he walked away.

-x-

The following weeks passed in a blur of training and lectures. I quickly determined that the two-handed sword was my weapon of choice — my natural strength made me well-suited to wield the heavy blades. In other areas, I was not so skilled. My attempts to learn archery did not go well; I simply wasn't dexterous enough to handle bow and arrows with the necessary speed. Magic lessons were even worse. Within days, Father Falle, the magic instructor, was readying the healing potions as soon as I walked in the room. During one session in the second week, I managed to simultaneously flood the room with water, blind myself, and singe off my eyebrows with a lightning spell. Falle then excused me from the discipline entirely. Kinoc laughed very hard at me that evening, when I came stumbling back to our quarters sopping wet, face bare.

Kinoc and I became friends almost immediately. He had a relaxed manner that made him easy to like — he reminded me of Xan in this respect — and he broke past my natural reserve right away. We swapped stories of home, practiced dueling, and studied the teachings together. I was the better fighter, though he was faster, but he had a natural feel for healing magic and took a greater interest in tactics and history. We complemented one another and quickly resolved to stick together as long as our superiors would allow us.

Kal and Jan were friendly but more distant. My first instinct was correct; they had been blitzball players in Kilika, but Kal had been cut from the Beasts at the most recent tryout. Not wanting to be separated from his younger brother, Jan had quit the team and joined him in coming to the warrior monks. Both of them were skilled archers, and Jan had a talent for magic.

One sunny afternoon during our third week, the four of us took advantage of a break to look over the walls of the palace into the city below. I hadn't had a chance to visit it yet; our instructors kept us far too busy with training sessions and lectures to get away for more than an hour or so. A cool breeze from the ocean blew over our faces as we took in the scene. It was a festival day, so the marketplace was bustling with people preparing for the evening celebration. "Geez," said Kal, leaning far over the edge, "look at how crowded it all is! It's like Luca at tournament time." Jan and Kinoc both nodded.

"I wouldn't know," I said, almost under my breath. "I've never been to Luca." In fact, I'd never even seen so many people in one place in my life and was starting to feel intimidated again.

Kal grinned at me, running a hand through his messy blond hair, his hazel eyes cheerful. "You always seem so together, I forget you're just a country boy."

I snorted, more amused than offended. "Like Kilika Port is some teeming metropolis?"

Jan punched me in the arm. "How would you know? You've never been there, either!" We all laughed, then fell silent for a moment. St. Bevelle was situated atop a high hill, so the city lay far below us, but we could still hear the sounds of shouting merchants and smell fried street food.

"D'ya think they'll let us check out the city sometime?" Kal asked. We all looked to Kinoc — his father was a recently retired warrior monk, the former commander of Luca Garrison, so he generally knew more about what was going on than the rest of us did.

"They should," he replied. "When Dad was in training, they got one day off each month to visit town. I hope they still allow that. If nothing else, I could use some real food for a change."

Jan groaned. "Please don't bring that up. When I think about our mother's roasted fish, and compare it to that horrible fish stew they feed us here, it makes me want to cry."

"Mmm, roasted fish with vegetables, and Dad's beer to wash it down," said Kal.

"Stop it, you're killing me!" cried Jan, and he started poking his brother in the stomach. Laughing, Kal slapped his hands away. The two started to wrestle good-naturedly.

Kinoc looked away from the spectacle and at me. "How about you, Auron? Any special foods from home you miss?"

Visions of Relle in the kitchen appeared in my head before I could stop them. I managed to avoid thinking about her most of the time, but when I did, I missed her desperately. Unbidden, the memory of the last meal she had made for me popped into my mind. "Spiced porridge," I said, turning back to the wall and staring off into the distance.

Kinoc joined me there and shot me a sideways glance. I could see that he was dying to ask what had provoked my sudden change of mood, but he already knew me well enough to understand that I wouldn't welcome the question. I returned his gaze and managed a smile. "I'll tell you later." Or maybe I wouldn't — I still hadn't decided how much, if anything, to say about Relle. But it seemed the thing to say. He nodded, then turned his face back to the city and the water.

-x-

We got our first evening furlough in the city about a week later. I used most of the pocket gil that Dix had given me to buy a few blank spheres and a small recorder, then went out with my bunkmates. Jan had gotten a restaurant recommendation from one of his former blitz teammates. It was a hole-in-the wall on the waterfront, filled with traveling merchants and off-duty warrior monks. The four of us spent hours crowded at the bar along with half a dozen other trainees, eating fried fish, drinking beer and sake, telling outrageous stories and ribald jokes. I mostly listened and enjoyed the food, drink, and companionship. A few hours into the proceedings, I saw Jan throw his arm around his brother's shoulders and lead him toward the door.

Kinoc had noticed them, too. "Good luck, kid!" he shouted, raising his beer mug in a sloppy toast. "As much as you've had to drink, you're gonna need it!"

Kal grinned sheepishly as Jan thumped him on the back. "C'mon, bro. It's not polite to keep a lady waiting."

All manner of rude catcalls followed them out of the building, but I found I couldn't join in. I turned to Kinoc. "What was that all about?" I asked, resting my glass of sake on the bar, unsure whether I really wanted to know.

"Ancient warrior monk tradition, my friend," he said, taking another gulp of beer. "It wouldn't do to take the vows without knowing what you're giving up, right?" He winked, then lowered his voice conspiratorially. "How about it, Auron? Want to look for some… education?"

"No," I said, too loudly — a few heads turned my way. Suddenly, the room was too hot and crowded, and I felt an overwhelming need to get out. I picked up my glass and drained it, then hopped off the stool and shoved my way outside.

I didn't realize just how drunk I was until I tried to walk in the fresh air. I made it as far as the water's edge before waves of dizziness hit. I grabbed the railing and took some deep breaths, looking up at the starry sky until my nausea passed.

"Auron?" said Kinoc's voice behind me. "You okay?"

I exhaled, then nodded. "I'm fine. Just… a little too much wine."

He stood next to me, curling one hand around the railing and resting the other on my shoulder. "Does it bother you?" he asked quietly. "Do you feel that it goes against the teachings, to take the vows if you've been with a woman?"

I felt the corners of my mouth tug up into a wry smile, and I looked at him. "If I said yes, I'd be a hypocrite."

His eyes widened, then he grinned. "Aha! So you do have a girl in that village. I'd wondered."

"Is it obvious?" I asked, concerned. If Kinoc had figured out the truth…

"No, not at all," he said. "But it does explain some… let's say, gaps in the stories you've told me, if you have a hometown girl but don't want to tell anyone about her. Like, I'm guessing that she makes a mean spiced porridge?"

I chuckled. "The best." I looked back out toward the water. "No, that's not it. It's only… you all seemed so casual about it. I was raised to believe that it was something to take seriously."

Kinoc shrugged. "Some do, some don't. I've known sworn warrior monks, married and unmarried, who go out wenching after every campaign. Others are complete ascetics, never even touching a woman unless they find a wife. Most are somewhere in between — they might have a lover before taking the oaths, then mostly give it up until they marry. If Yevon was serious about wanting chaste warrior monks, they'd start training us before puberty, like priests and nuns. But they don't; they train men. Hell, Kal is the youngest of us, and he's nearly sixteen! So they're going to get a mixed bag, and I honestly don't see anything wrong with that, as long as we don't let it get in the way of doing our duty."

I considered his words. "Maybe you're right," I said.

"I know I am," he replied with a firm pat to my shoulder.

Silence fell, except for the raucous party going on in the restaurant behind us.

"Now what I'm wondering," he said after a few minutes, "is why you kept your girl a secret."

It occurred to me that Kinoc was as good a person as any to ask about Father Shon's advice. "I journeyed here with a priest who advised me to do so. He said it would be in my best interest to be available for arranged marriages." I glanced at him. "Was he right?"

He took a deep breath and dropped his hand from my shoulder, leaning it against the railing. Then he let the air out noisily. "Yeah. I think so," he said. "It doesn't matter so much yet, but once they start handing out promotions… wives do come with the deal sometimes. Not always, but often enough. My own parents' marriage was arranged. Mom was the daughter of the high priest at Macalania; Dad married her and got command of the garrison there."

"Hmm."

"Don't get me wrong; merit matters, and the best warriors get offered the best marriages. But if you aren't available at all, and you're ambitious — and you should be, the way you wield a sword! — yeah, it's a risk. Especially right now."

"How so?" I asked.

"Maester Brac's son recently became a priest in St. Bevelle. He has a thirteen-year old daughter. And the High Commander is about seven or eight years from retirement. You do the math."

Even my alcohol-fogged brain could see the implications. When the High Commander retired, the Maester's granddaughter would be of marriageable age. If all Kinoc told me was true, it was natural to assume that the Maester would want his second-in-command to be his grandson as well.

"You're right, I am ambitious," I said after a long pause. "But I'm not giving her up, Kinoc. I can't. I've loved her since I was fourteen. She's… she's a part of me."

"You probably shouldn't have to," said Kinoc. "Just keep doing what you have been. I promise I won't tell anyone. Besides, there will be more than enough commands where no marriage is involved. You might not end up High Commander, but then again maybe you will. Who knows?" He laughed. "Anyway, tell me all about this girl!"

Chapter Text

The sun was setting over Luca as Liss knocked on Paine's door. She turned around to admire the view: the clouds catching fire over the blitzball stadium, the lamps around the town squares being lit for the night.

"Pretty, huh?"

Liss started at the sound of Paine's voice — she hadn't heard the door open behind her. "Yeah. I wish I had this view, but my room's on the wrong side. You can see it from your office, too, right?"

Paine crossed her arms and leaned against the door frame. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Something about looking out at the world down below you… it's the best way for me to think, or get some peace. Always has been." She smiled up at Liss. "Funny, isn't it, considering my hometown? No splendid panoramas on the Moonflow."

"Oh, but it's so beautiful there! I camped there one night on my way here. The pyreflies… I'd never seen anything like it."

"True." Paine straightened. "Come on in; dinner is just about ready."

Liss followed Paine through the open door into an austere living room, furnished only with a white couch, a wooden rocking chair, and a black and gray rug lying in front of the fireplace. Not a thing was out of place. The kitchen was on the other side of a bare counter and was similarly plain, although polished copper pots hanging on the wall over the cooking stove made the whole room gleam. The other spot of color was the man in the kitchen. He wore a multi-colored long vest over a white shirt and gray pants, and a shock of pure white hair was pushed up and out of his tanned face by a sky-blue headband. He placed the basket of bread he was carrying on the table, then came over to greet the women as they entered.

"Liss, this is my husband Baralai," said Paine as he reached out and took Liss's hand. "Baralai, meet my cousin, Lissira."

"Welcome, Lissira, to Luca and our home," Baralai said as he bowed over their joined hands.

"Thank you. Please call me Liss; everyone does."

"Of course." He straightened with a smile and released her hand. "Take a seat; I'm just serving up the stew now." Liss did as she was bid. Paine pulled out a heavy earthenware pitcher and poured some water into the glass by Liss's place, then set a bowl of a thick soup in front of her. Liss inhaled the rich, meaty aroma. "This smells great," she said, picking up her spoon. "Did my mother teach you to cook?"

Paine laughed as she took her own seat next to Liss. "Are you kidding?" she said. "Pouring your drink and slicing the bread was about all I contributed to this meal. Save your thanks for Baralai; he's the chef around here. I eat in the mess hall when he's in Bevelle."

Baralai sat down across the table from Liss and passed her the bread. She took it with her free hand, but the mention of Bevelle had rung a bell. "Wait," she said, "you're Councilor Baralai? From Bevelle?"

"He is," said Paine. She cocked her head to the side. "I thought you knew."

Liss shook her head. She put down the bread basket, then looked back and forth between Paine and her husband in awe as she laid the spoon back on the table. "Gee. You're one of the most powerful people in Spira!"

Paine chuckled dryly. "High Councilor Winn might take issue with that statement."

"As would Cid. Not to mention the Praetor, and General Lucil." Baralai shook his head. "Don't be too impressed, Liss. I spend most of my days in boring meetings listening to people complain. And I don't really have any more influence than anyone else on the council — pissed too many people off back in my New Yevon days." He dunked a slice of bread in his bowl.

Picking up her spoon, Liss stirred her stew thoughtfully. "It's just odd," she said. "All day, I've been meeting legends — Lady Yuna, Sir Tidus, both of you. This morning, I was just some girl from a farm. And now I'm sitting in the kitchen of the former Praetor of New Yevon, eating his homemade stew? It's a lot to take in."

"Better get used to it," said Paine. "People will start treating you like a legend yourself, once it gets out whose daughter you are. And it will get out, after that scene on the Highroad today."

Liss cast her gaze down to the table. "I'm sorry about that. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything."

Paine reached over and touched her hand. "I'm glad you did." Liss raised her eyes and saw her cousin's smile, the look of quiet happiness on her face. "It's nice to have family again."

Liss smiled back. "Thanks," she murmured. Then a worrisome thought occurred to her, and she pulled back her hand. "Oh. Your relationship to my father is going to become public, isn't it?"

Paine shrugged. "Not much I can do about that. But it's okay. It's wasn't a secret, really; I just didn't talk about it."

Baralai made a strangled noise and raised an eyebrow. "Oh really? Paine. You didn't even tell me until after we were married! And the next time you said anything was, what, today?"

She shot him a glare, then cracked a grin, chuckling. "Okay, it was a secret. But it doesn't matter so much anymore. I didn't tell people at first because I didn't want anyone to think I was trying to ride Auron's coattails. Then it got to be a habit — how could I tell Yuna, especially, after keeping it quiet all these years? Really, I'm more relieved that the truth is out than anything."

"Huh," said Liss, thinking of Maura's teasing about famous family. Maybe she'd only been half joking. "It never occurred to me that people would assume I'm trying to get special treatment."

"It's true, they might. But you can't control what people think," said Baralai. "All you can do is your best. Then you'll deserve everything that comes your way, and no one will be able to say anything about it." He smiled. "Now eat! The stew is getting cold."

Obediently, Liss took a spoonful. "This is amazing!" she said. "Almost as good as my mother's."

"That's high praise," Paine reassured Baralai. "I don't remember a whole lot about Auntie Relle, but I do remember her cooking." She turned to Liss. "Is she still making that fabulous bread?"

Liss nodded through a mouthful of stew. "And her spiced porridge. Do you remember that?" Paine responded with a wmile. "She's tried teaching me to make it, but I don't have her magic touch."

"Sounds familiar," said Paine. "I remember when she showed me how to roll out dough…"

-x-

"Brr." Kinoc pulled the collar of his dark gray cloak up against the wind that whipped through the outdoor corridors as we walked back to our room after an all-day sword session. We were both dressed in the lightweight blue uniforms that signified our status as trainee warrior monks; they were great for sparring but no use against the cold of this impending storm. The cloaks helped, but I hadn't thought to grab mine when I'd left that morning.

I rubbed my gooseflesh-covered arms in a vain attempt to warm them and glanced at the sky. "Let's hurry — looks like it could start pouring any second." My prediction immediately came true as a single drop of rain splashed on my nose. It was followed by a second raindrop, then a deluge.

Kinoc looked around through the downpour. "Over there," he said, pointing down the long corridor to a door at its end, and we sprinted in the direction he'd indicated.

"Please be unlocked," I muttered as I grasped the handle, my fingers numbed by cold and slick with rain. It was, and I pushed my way into the dark room, Kinoc on my heels. He shut the door behind us, then shed his cloak and started shaking it out. I took my hair down from the topknot I had taken to wearing and squeezed it, a sheet of water falling to the floor. Then I checked out our surroundings.

"Where are we?" I asked, hugging my arms around myself as I shivered. The room was huge, largely empty, and poorly heated. I could see paintings hanging on the walls, but most of the lamps were unlit; it was too dim to make out any of their subjects.

"Hey, you must be freezing. Here." Kinoc threw his cloak, now only somewhat damp, over my shoulders. I shot him a grateful look and wrapped it around my drenched body as he walked away. I heard a flint strike behind me, and a moment later he reappeared, holding a lantern. "Found this by the door," he said. I held my hands up to the panes in order to warm them as we walked over to one of the paintings. He lifted the lantern toward the image, and we took it in.

It was a portrait. The subject was a man of middle years, judging by the streaks of white in his brown hair. He wore a midnight blue coat that fell nearly to his ankles and a forbidding expression on his lined face. In his right hand, he held an enormous sword, tip resting on the ground. His other arm was cradled in the folds of his coat, as if it were in a sling. There was a small plaque at the bottom of the frame, and Kinoc leaned forward to read it.

"'Sir Wendal.' Oh, I know where we are! This must be the Hall of Guardians." He straightened to look at the other paintings. "These are all portraits of legendary guardians. Look, the next one is Lord Zaon."

I glanced at it, but I found myself drawn back to the image of Sir Wendal. We'd all grown up hearing the story of Zaon and Yunalesca, of course. But this man I'd never heard of, and I told Kinoc as much.

"He survived a pilgrimage," said Kinoc. "Which qualifies him for this hall almost by itself — he's one of the few people in here who might actually have been able to sit for his portrait. He was guardian to High Summoner Morain, maybe 300 years ago. Sin was defeated, and Lord Morain's other guardians didn't return, but Sir Wendal did. He spent the rest of his life as a lone warrior, defending villages from fiends and Sin. In his later years, other summoners begged him to guard them, but he always refused — said he'd rather serve the people of Spira. He was a great hero."

"How did he fight with only one arm? That's a two-handed sword for sure."

"Oh, his arm wasn't injured. He wore his coat that way to signify that his leader was dead. It's a tradition from some ancient warrior cult, much older than Yevon."

"Huh." We stood in silence for a moment before I turned to look at Kinoc. "How do you know all this, anyway?"

"I pay attention during history lectures, unlike some people," he responded, poking me in the ribs. I chuckled; it was not a charge I could deny. "No, actually, my dad likes the story of Sir Wendal. It's a lot more dramatic the way he tells it, though." Then his voice turned serious. "Would you be a guardian?" he asked.

I considered the question. "You know, I've never really thought about it. Guarding a summoner is an incredible honor, of course. But to spend months journeying? I don't know. I guess it would depend on the summoner, whether I believed in him or her. I can't follow just anyone." I looked around the room again — I was able to see through the dimness now, and I could just make out the faces of the men and women whose portraits decorated the hall. Almost without exception, their expressions showed a mixture of pride and sadness. It occurred to me then how hard it must be, putting so much effort into keeping your summoner alive on the pilgrimage, when the hoped-for outcome of the journey is his or her death.

I shook my head sharply to derail this maudlin train of thought. "How about you?"

"Well, we might not have much of a choice, you know," said Kinoc. "If a summoner doesn't have a personal guardian, sometimes the temples will assign a warrior monk or two. High Summoner Pala's guardian was a friend of my father's, sent on the journey by the Maesters. But if they asked me? Yeah, I'd do it, gladly. If nothing else, I've always been really curious to see Zanarkand."

I shivered, and not from the cold this time. "The city of the dead? I don't know if I'd be so eager about that."

Kinoc raised the lantern toward the painting again, almost in salute. "Sir Wendal saw it and lived to tell the tale."

"I suppose." My thoughts started turning from legends and guardians to my empty stomach. "Do you know the way out of here? If we stand around much longer, we're going to miss dinner."

He made a face. "Not that there's much to miss. How long until we go back into town?"

"Two more weeks, I think. But I'm not waiting two weeks to eat."

Kinoc laughed. The cheerful sound echoed through the hall, out of place in this dark and mournful room. "Okay. Unless I've gotten turned around, the exit should be that way." He moved to leave, and I turned to follow him.

We had taken about three steps when a door at the other end of the room opened. It admitted two warrior monks carrying lanterns, followed by Maester Brac.

"You there!" called one of the monks. We froze. "What are you trainees doing here?"

The Maester stilled his guards with a raised hand, then walked over to us. I had seen him upon occasion around the temple complex, observing a class or visiting the mess hall, but I had never come face-to-face with him before. Intensely embarrassed by my disheveled state — recently drenched to the skin, wearing a cloak about six inches too short for me, my damp hair hanging in clumps down my back — I traced twin arcs with my arms, brought my hands together in front of me, dipped my knees, and bowed until my back was parallel to the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kinoc doing much the same.

"You may rise," said the Maester.

I straightened but still couldn't bring myself to meet his eyes. "Apologies, your grace," I said. "We were caught in the storm and sought refuge here."

"Don't fret, my son. This hall is open to all seekers; you have done nothing improper. Auron, isn't it?" He inclined his head to the right. "And you are Kinoc."

I looked straight into his face, shocked that the Maester knew our names, then remembered my manners and averted my gaze again. "Yes, your grace."

His smile was kind. "I make a point of learning all the trainee monks' names. You have chosen to serve Yevon as well as myself; knowing who you are is the least I can do in return. But I must say, the two of you are developing quite a reputation."

Kinoc and I exchanged a swift glance. I could see the question in his eyes: A reputation for what?

Something good, I hope, I telegraphed in response.

The Maester noticed our silent exchange and let out a soft chuckle. "Kinoc, I have heard many highly favorable reports regarding your agility and grasp of tactics as well as your ability to soak up knowledge." He turned those knowing eyes back to me — my initial impression that they missed nothing was even stronger up close. "And Auron, you are already being talked about as a candidate for best swordsman of your generation. A bit premature, perhaps, after not even two months of training, but I have watched you during drills, and your raw talent is impressive."

It took all my poise to keep my jaw from dropping at such praise. The Maester had watched me drill? Best swordsman of my generation? Me? Surely he was exaggerating.

Kinoc recovered first. "Thank you, your grace. We both look forward to completing our training and using our skills in service to you and to Yevon."

"Yes, thank you." I quickly bowed again.

Maester Brac accepted our thanks with a slow nod, then continued. "Perhaps most interesting, though, are the rumors that the two of you have formed a partnership of sorts. To my mind, this may be your greatest achievement so far. Forging alliances will serve you well on the field and is the best way to rise through the ranks of the warrior monks. Your decision to work together, to choose a comrade whom you trust and whose skills complement your own, shows an understanding of battle and Bevelle politics well beyond your years." He smiled again, and bowed to us. "Kinoc, Auron, continue as you have been. Yevon is with you, and I will be watching. Gibson!"

One of the two warrior monks — the one who hadn't yelled at us earlier — hastened to his side. "Yes, your grace?"

"Please show these two trainees the shortcut to the barracks. Dinner is soon, and they will want to change from their wet clothing first."

"Aye sir. You two, with me." We followed him, but I could not resist a quick glance back at the Maester, who walked in the opposite direction with his other bodyguard. So, he would be watching. I wasn't sure whether to be excited, nervous, or both.

Chapter Text

I sat on the edge of a fountain in the center of Bevelle's busiest marketplace. Dipping my hand in the waters, I scooped up a handful and drank, then closed my eyes and raised my face to the sky. It was only my second visit to the city, but already I felt more comfortable navigating the crowds and merchant stalls.

"Hey Auron!" I opened my eyes and saw Kinoc walking over to me.

"Hey," I responded. "Did you find something?"

Kinoc nodded, pulling a sphere out of his gil pouch and tossing it over to me. "It's a recording of the final game for the Crystal Cup three years ago, the Kilika Beasts' come-from-behind victory over the Ronso. I remember it well — a game for the ages. I hope the recording quality is good."

"I will never understand why anyone would want to watch the same game over and over, but I'm sure Kal will like it." His birthday was next week, and Kinoc and I had decided to go in on a gift. I was clueless about blitzball, so I'd left the shopping to Kinoc. I lobbed the sphere back to him, and he plucked it from the air, tucking it back in his pouch.

"How about you? Finish your errand?" I nodded — I had made arrangements with a supplier of my father's to carry messages back and forth to my family. Today, I had given the man my first recording, and two letters from home were burning a hole in my own gil pouch right now — one from Kera, the other from Relle. I didn't want to read them in public, though; they could wait until I got back to quarters.

Kinoc sat next to me, then glanced at the sun. "We have a couple of hours before we're supposed to meet the guys at the bar; what do you want to do in the meantime?"

I pondered the question. I was enjoying the sunshine, but there was still so much of the city I hadn't seen. "Well, we could–"

"Auron?" I turned my head to see Braska walking up to me.

"Father Braska!" I said as I stood, bowing politely.

"No, no, just Braska, remember? I'm not on duty, and from the look of things, neither are you." I smiled and nodded. "How goes your training?"

"Very well," I replied. "It's hard work, but I feel that my skills are improving every day." Kinoc joined us then, and I introduced my two friends, who bowed to each other. "How are Tessa and your daughter?"

A smile broke across his face. "Both very well, thank you. Would this be a good time to take me up on that dinner invitation? Tess has been wanting to meet you."

It was a tempting offer — I had enjoyed Braska's company very much on our journey, and the thought of home cooking made my mouth water. I glanced at Kinoc. "Well, I had made plans, but…"

"Oh, go ahead," Kinoc said. "Once I give Kal his gift, he and Jan will probably spend the rest of the night talking blitz, so you'd be bored out of your mind anyway."

I laughed, then turned back to Braska. "I accept."

"Excellent," Braska said. "I just need to pick up a few things for the meal; do you mind coming along?"

"Not at all." I bid Kinoc farewell, then followed Braska into the marketplace.

The two of us wandered through the food stalls, shopping and chatting about nothing in particular. He picked up a loaf of bread, some vegetables, and a basket of prickly-looking red fruits that I didn't recognize.

"What are those?" I asked.

"Cactus fruits," he replied. "They come from the desert. Quite tasty once you cook them a bit to soften their skins. My wife likes them; they remind her of home."

"Ah." I fell silent as I realized that I was growing increasingly uneasy at the prospect of spending an evening with an Al Bhed.

To tell the truth, I had never spent much time thinking about the Al Bhed. Like everyone else, I had been taught that using machina was wrong, but I'd never thought of the Al Bhed as particularly evil — more like misguided. I wondered if Braska's trip to their homeland had been a missionary effort to persuade them to stop using machina, or if he had adopted some of their ways instead. The image of a priest of Yevon living in a house full of machina actually stopped me in my tracks.

"Braska?"

He stopped and turned back to me. "What is it?"

I paused, struggling to form a coherent question and failing. "Do you have… will there be… does your wife use machina?"

He lifted an eyebrow and the corners of his mouth quirked up slightly. "Auron, how much do you know about the Al Bhed?"

"Not a lot," I admitted. "Actually, I've never even met one before."

"That doesn't surprise me," he said. "I understand if you're uncomfortable with the Al Bhed — you've been raised to think of them as the enemy of Yevon. So was I. But they really aren't. They just have their own point of view about Spira and its history. I hope you'll take the time to learn a little bit about them. As for the machina, to be honest I'm not the biggest fan either, so you won't see any lying around. Tess wouldn't be Al Bhed if she didn't tinker a little bit, but she has a separate workshop space. Now, if you've changed your mind about coming to dinner, I'll be disappointed, but I understand. But I hope you'll still join us."

"Of course I will," I said, relaxing. Learning that I wasn't about to be surrounded by machina put me a great deal more at ease. "Now you've got me curious. Besides, it would take a lot to get me to turn down a homemade meal right now."

Braska's concerned expression melted into a smile. "Smart man," he said. "Especially if the St. Bevelle dining hall is still as bad as I remember."

-x-

After a short walk, we arrived at Braska's home. It was a cottage, slightly smaller than the one I'd grown up in, on the outskirts of town. I could see a small backyard with a shed, presumably the workshop that Braska had mentioned. Two bushes, blooming with purple flowers, framed the doorway. The curtains were drawn.

Braska opened the door and indicated that I should enter. Taking a deep breath, I did so, and he followed me. I found myself in a perfectly normal-looking living room — two chairs, a baby's cradle, a fireplace — with a kitchen on our left. "Tess?" Braska called out.

A female voice responded from the back. I couldn't understand a word of it.

"I've brought a guest for dinner," Braska responded.

"That's great!" the woman said as she walked into the room where we waited. She was several inches shorter than Braska, who was not himself a tall man. She had strawberry blonde hair cut just above her chin and a warm smile. Her eyes were green, but there was something odd about them. I didn't have a chance to figure out what before she walked into Braska's arms to greet him with a tender kiss.

"Rammu, so cfaad," Braska said. At least, that's what it sounded like. "Tess, this is Auron. He's the warrior monk in training who escorted Shon and I from Djose on our most recent trip. Auron, my wife Tessa."

I suddenly felt awkward — normally, being introduced to the wife of a priest would require a formal prayer bow in response. But somehow that didn't seem appropriate when that wife was an Al Bhed. I settled for a salute instead. "My lady, it is a pleasure," I said.

"Likewise," she replied. To my surprise, she then bowed to me. "Welcome to our home. And thanks for protecting Braska on his journey. He told me all about you, and I've been hoping I'd get to meet you." She spoke Spiran flawlessly, although her voice held a tinge of an accent.

"Thanks," I said. "I hear that you had a baby recently; congratulations."

She beamed. "Would you like to meet her?" I nodded. "Follow me."

The three of us walked back through the doorway into what was clearly a nursery — the walls were painted in soft yellows and purples, and a crib sat by the window. I approached the crib cautiously. There were usually at least a couple of small children around in the village, but I hadn't dealt much with them. However, I was quite curious to get a look at this one. Her hair was brown, slightly darker than Braska's. Wide-open eyes gave her a look of intelligence and curiosity. She didn't make a sound, but when her mother stroked her head, she smiled. I noticed that her eyes were mismatched — one was clear blue like Braska's eyes, the other a sea green that matched her mother's.

I straightened and turned to Tessa. "She's a beautiful little girl," I said.

"I know," she said, her tone ringing with the pride of a new mother. As I looked at her face, I realized what had struck me before — rather than having a round pupil like a normal eye, her pupils spiraled into the center of the iris. The reminder of her background was startling, and I found myself backing away.

She noticed my discomfort but, to my relief, ignored it. "Come on, let's go make dinner. Do you cook?"

"Not really," I replied, recovering my poise, "but I'm very good at following instructions."

"Well then. Let's get started."

A few minutes later, I found myself in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. After so many weeks of swordplay, the knife felt absurdly small in my hands. But I had many hours of experience helping Relle cook, and soon it was familiar again. Tessa seasoned a slab of meat while Braska cleaned the cactus fruit and tossed them into a pot. We worked in comfortable silence. Every so often I would look up to see husband and wife smiling at one another across the room. I could feel the love and affection radiating off both of them. It warmed my heart to see such happiness, but I also felt Relle's absence keenly.

I could see myself slipping into a melancholy mood, so I distracted my mind with a question. "What are you doing with the fruit?" I asked Braska.

"Pulling off the spines," he said. "Then we'll cook them over a slow fire with some sugar and have them for dessert."

"An Al Bhed delicacy," Tessa chimed in.

I turned to her. "Braska was telling me earlier that these are desert fruit. So Al Bhed live in the desert then?"

She exchanged a look with Braska. I thought I saw him shrug ever so slightly, and she let out the tiniest of sighs. "It's a long story, but yes. I'm sure whatever you know about Al Bhed history comes from Yevon, and if you believe everything they tell you… well, I know you're a devotee, so I'm not going to try and change your mind tonight. Long ago, we lived on an island. When it was destroyed by Sin, we scattered. We've made many attempts to build home cities in various parts of Spira, but the Yevonites have always come to drive us out in the end. About ten years ago, my older brother Cid found an uninhabited desert island, filled with machina ruins and scrap — he thinks it may have been a huge junkyard at some point — and built a settlement. He called it Home and invited all the Al Bhed to come together there. Most of us have lived there since. He's the first real leader we've had in a hundred years, but even he needs time to make the place stable. So we're keeping the location a secret for now. Braska is one of the few Yevonites who's ever been allowed to visit. You'll understand if I don't say much more about it."

She had still trusted me with far more information than I had expected. "I do. And you have my word that I won't tell anyone about your Home. Not that I have much to tell."

She let out the breath she'd clearly been holding. "Thanks, Auron, I appreciate it. So, are those onions ready?"

-x-

Dinner had been over for an hour, but Paine and Liss were still talking, chattering away like old friends who hadn't seen one another in a decade. Which they sort of were, Baralai concluded. Except rather than being reunited after a long separation, they actually hadn't known of one other's existence. Well, Paine hadn't, he corrected himself. Liss had known about her cousin, she'd just never met her. The two women had retired to the couch while Baralai busied himself with the dishes and tidying the kitchen. When he was finished, he put a kettle of water on the stove for their evening tea, leaned forward over the counter, and listened.

"I wish I remembered more about Uncle Auron," Paine was saying, her tone almost wistful. "You'd really need my parents for that, and, well…"

"I know," Liss replied softly. She looked away for a moment. "Do you mind telling me what happened to them? My mother told me that they both passed away some time ago, but she didn't know the details, or wouldn't share them."

"Not at all." Paine stared into the fireplace briefly. "Like I told you, we moved to Luca when I was five. Dad's cousins were working on building the original sphere theater, and they asked him to help. At the time, my parents told me we were leaving because they were afraid that the village was in too much danger from Sin — we'd barely survived one attack already, and there were no Crusaders stationed anywhere close. Dad didn't admit until much later that the whole family had just gone through a huge, ugly upheaval, and Mom wanted to get away from them all for awhile."

Liss looked sad. "Mother always thought that was why your parents left the village."

Paine pursed her lips in thought. "Do you know what the fight was about? I heard bits and pieces of it, but I was too young to understand anything really. Then my dad was never willing to talk about it."

"Not really; my mother's never been much for discussing the past. It makes her too sad, I think."

"I can understand that." Silence fell in the living room, and Baralai had to restrain himself from walking over to Paine, taking her in his arms, and kissing her remembered sorrows away. But years of experience had taught him to leave her alone when she got into these moods — if she wanted comfort, she would seek him out. Instead, he brought her a mug of hot tea.

Paine turned when he walked up behind her. "Thanks," she said with a smile, taking the cup in both hands. She blew away the steam, then took a sip. "Mmm. Liss, would you like some tea?" Her cousin nodded, and Baralai returned to the kitchen for another mug. "Anyway, my parents. Two years after we arrived in Luca, my mom died in childbirth."

"Oh, how awful," Liss breathed. "The baby?"

"He died, too," said Paine. "Dad was pretty torn up, as you might imagine. The job was over by this time, and the Calm had started a year earlier, so we went back to Tzeki Village. I lived with him there until I was fifteen, then went off to join the Crusaders. A few months after I left, Sin came through and completely destroyed the place. Dad was killed, along with practically everyone else living there."

Liss bowed her head. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I can't even imagine what it must be like to lose your home and your family all at once."

Paine shrugged. "It was hard, but it was a long time ago. In some ways, I consider myself lucky to have had my father as long as I did — way too many children grew up without any parents at all in the days of Sin."

Baralai carried two mugs into the living room. He handed one to Liss, then settled into the chair next to the fire with his own. "Too true," he said. "It's almost strange to think of the children being born today. For them growing up with two parents will be normal, rather than a stroke of luck." He smiled at Liss. "And it's largely thanks to your father."

"Which reminds me." Paine stood up and walked into the bedroom. She came back holding a sword. Baralai recognized it, and his eyes widened in surprise — was Paine really giving away such a treasured possession? "I know I told you that I'd find you something from the armory, but I'd like you to have this instead." She handed it to Liss. "This is my old sword — I used it when I fought with the Crusaders. It's a piece of crap compared to your father's blade, but it's still better than anything I could pull out of the Defense Force warehouse. I hope it suits you."

Liss's eyes shone as she pulled the weapon from its scabbard. The polished metal gleamed in the firelight. Even from a distance, Baralai could tell that the edge was still sharp and true. "It's beautiful," she whispered. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Paine responded. "I look forward to teaching you how to use it." Liss rose from the couch, and the cousins embraced. Sipping his tea and smiling, Baralai stood up himself. It was time to bank the stove fire for the night.

Chapter Text

Liss was a little apprehensive about starting classes the next day, but she needn't have been. In the first session, the other students had stopped talking immediately when she walked into the room, but Maura had quickly broken the ice with them, and soon everything was comfortable. The instructors must have been under strict instructions from Paine to not treat her differently from the other recruits, because they all took her introduction calmly, as if she were just another pupil. She did turn some heads in the halls, but with her height she was used to that.

Only one thing out of the ordinary happened, at the end of the day. It was in Sir Tidus's class, which was held out on the Highroad; he had gone over the basics of using a sword and demonstrated the beginning exercises. Then he went around to everyone as they practiced, correcting a grip here, a stance there. When he got to Liss, he leaned toward her ear. "Can you stay for a minute after class? I'd like to talk with you."

"Yes, sir."

"Thanks." He leaned back and raised his voice to a normal tone. "You've got good form. Just keep your legs a little farther apart," he commented, then moved on.

After the session was over, she hung back as everyone else prepared to get ready for dinner. Maura caught her eye, then left with the others.

Tidus put his own sword away and walked up to Liss. "I think I owe you an apology," he said.

Liss took a step back in surprise. "Thank you, sir, but you really shouldn't worry about it. I understand that it came out of nowhere for you. I probably wouldn't have believed me, either."

He nodded. "You have to understand, I knew your dad pretty well. I think it's even safe to say that I probably knew him better than anyone else alive right now, except maybe for your mom. It kinda took me by surprise, that there was something so important about his life that I didn't know. I was even sort of angry that he might not have told me. I took it out on you, and I apologize for that."

Liss looked at her instructor, puzzled. "I mean no disrespect, sir. But why would he have told you? From everything that I've heard about my father, he was a very private man, and he held many secrets from you on your journey."

"Oh, he was, and he did. For sure. But I'm not talking about during Yuna's pilgrimage, or even when I knew him in Zanarkand. I meant… after." He looked around nervously, running a hand through his hair. " Have you ever heard that I went to the Farplane and then came back?"

She nodded. Everyone knew that rumor. It had always seemed unlikely to her, but she had an uneasy feeling that he was about to confirm it.

He rubbed the back of his head. "Well… that's pretty much true. I won't go into how or why or anything because that's a really long story, but... yeah. While I was there, I spent time with Auron, and we talked about lots of stuff, things he couldn't really discuss before."

Liss felt her eyes go wide. "So you could tell me--"

Tidus interrupted. "See, that's the thing. I don't really remember being there all that well. I've been back for five years now, give or take, and the memories started to go fuzzy right away. Almost all the details have slipped away now. So when I met you, I couldn't be sure what to think — were you lying? Had he told me the truth and I'd forgotten? Or had he just never mentioned you? A lie seemed the most obvious option. But ever since our meeting, I've been trying really hard to remember, and it finally come back to me this morning." He looked down and scuffed the dirt with his foot. "Auron did tell me about you. And he told me to look out for you if we ever met. Instead, I jumped on you and accused you of lying and stealing and all kinds of other awful things." He met Liss's eyes. "And that's why I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?"

"Of course, sir," said Liss, saluting.

"Good," he replied, his face relaxing. "Like I said, I don't remember so much from the Farplane, but I have lots of stories about Auron from before that. Yuna does, too. Maybe someday you can come over for dinner, and we'll tell you all about them."

"I'd like that."

"It's a deal. Okay, let me show you what I was saying about your foot position…"

-x-

Months passed. I had always been naturally strong, and with pratice I could cleave even tough-shelled fiends with a single blow. I also developed a reputation for my stamina — I could drill for hours without resting. I was excused from archery so that I could concentrate on my blade skills and learn the finer points of unarmed combat. This was typical — by the end of the third month, most of the trainees had found a specialty or two. Only Kinoc continued taking a little bit of everything; he was developing into quite the generalist.

Life fell into a comfortable pattern. Most mornings were spent in instruction: history, tactics, the teachings of Yevon, meditation and prayer. In the afternoon, we drilled. Sometimes we fought one another. Other days, we'd march out into the field and battle live fiends, usually in Macalania or the Calm Lands. The best, though, were the days that full-fledged warrior monks came to spar with us — I found this to be the best method of testing and improving my abilities.

My monthly visits to the city developed into a routine as well. I'd pick up letters and the occasional sphere from home first thing, then spend the morning and afternoon wandering around town with whoever I could find, usually Kinoc. I would drop by Braska's place in the late afternoon, staying for dinner if he was home, having tea with Tessa if he was away. Then it was off to one of the waterfront taverns for a night of drinking and carousing with the other trainees. Sometimes the others would go looking for female companionship; I always found an excuse to go home early on those nights.

It was a good life, and it came somewhat as a shock to me when the time came for it to change again.

-x-

Ten months after my arrival in Bevelle, I packed for my first visit home. We were all being given a month of leave. When it was over, we would return to the temple, finish up the last few weeks of training, and take our vows. Kinoc, Jan, and Kal were all taking a boat bound for Luca tomorrow morning, but there was no easy way to get back to Tzeki Village on the water. So I was traveling on foot, leaving this afternoon to get a bit of a head start. I would lose a week of leave to the round trip as it was, and I wanted to get as much time with Relle and my family as possible.

I strapped on my sword, then checked the buckles holding my bag shut before heaving it to my shoulder. Kal looked up from the clothes he was folding. "You heading out?" he asked.

I nodded. "See you all next month."

"Have a good visit," said Jan, clasping my hand in farewell.

Kinoc, who had been lying in his bunk, swung his legs down over the side of the bed. "Hold on, I'll walk with you." He went to the door and held it for me as I exited the room.

We walked silently down the corridor. When we reached the exit, Kinoc gripped my shoulders, and I returned the gesture. "Thanks for everything," I said. "I don't know if I could have survived these months without you."

"I could say the same." He looked at me thoughtfully. "You are coming back, aren't you?"

I couldn't hide my surprise at the question. "Of course I am. Why wouldn't I?"

"Well, it's a test, you know." I raised an eyebrow as he continued. "That's why the leave is so long. After a month of relaxation, of the comforts of home and family, who is committed enough to Yevon to return?"

"Ah." I shook my head. "I'll be back. This is what I've wanted to do all my life. How could I give up now?"

"I agree," said Kinoc. "So then. I'll see you in a month."

"Right." Impulsively, I embraced him, this man who had become my closest friend in such a short time. He returned the hug, then saluted me. I raised my own arm across my chest in response, and then we went our separate ways.

-x-

By all rights, I should have been exhausted. I'd left Bevelle at three in the afternoon and traveled without stopping until I reached the Thunder Plains well after midnight, avoiding fiends rather than fighting whenever possible. The next day, I rose at dawn and continued my trek, pausing only for brief rest and food breaks. I camped that night a few miles from Guadosalam, then started all over again the next morning. When late afternoon arrived, I ought to have been collapsing, but as the shoopuf station came into view, my tired legs found new energy, and I had practically run to catch the next Moonflow crossing.

Now, an hour later, the shoopuf was arriving at the riverbank. Too excited to sleep, too tired to stay alert, I had fallen into a pleasant stupor. "All departs!" called the Hypello driver as the creature stopped moving. I shook myself awake and disembarked, then walked over to the pavilion where my father usually set up shop. Before I got halfway there, a piercing shriek split the air, and I was hit by a meteor in the form of my sister.

"Hello," I said, hugging her fiercely.

"How did you get here so fast?" she asked, looking up at me with a huge grin on her face. I could feel a similar one spreading on my own. "We weren't expecting you until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest."

"I left half a day early, then I walked as quickly as I possibly could."

"Amazing. I don't know how you managed the trip in less than three days."

"Where's Father?"

"Guadosalam. Like I said, we weren't expecting you today. He'll be here tomorrow." Kera tilted her head back. "Are you taller?"

"Possibly," I said. "Maybe an inch or two. I haven't really measured." I studied her. "You've changed, too." But I couldn't quite put my finger on how — was her face rounder? Maybe she'd put on some weight?

Her smile shifted, becoming less joyful and more knowing. "There's an easy explanation for that, little brother." She stepped back, then took my hand and placed it on her firm, round belly. "You're going to be an uncle in about two months."

My jaw dropped as a small foot kicked my hand. "Kera!" I embraced her again, but more gently this time. The truth was obvious when I actually looked at her. "Why didn't you mention this in your letters?"

She giggled. "Because then I wouldn't have gotten to see that priceless expression on your face!"

I threw my head back and laughed.

"Come on," she said after I had recovered. "Relle should have dinner ready soon. She was going to make something special tomorrow; sorry your first meal back will probably just be some stew or something."

I laid an arm around her shoulders and steered her toward the village. "Believe me, Relle could cook up a pot of mud, and it would be better than anything they serve us at the temple."

We walked together, Kera chatting about everything and nothing throughout the ten minute trip. I mostly listened, just soaking up the sound of her voice. Soon we arrived at the door of my childhood home. "Xan and I are living here now," she said as she opened the door. "We needed the extra space for when the baby comes, so Father switched houses with us. But your old room will still be available if you want to stay in it while you're here. Not that I really expect you to." Her eyes twinkled. "I'm glad we moved back; it'll be nice to be closer to Relle, too. Speaking of whom…"

I entered the house. More than likely it looked much as it had when I left, but I couldn't spare an iota of attention to notice. Arelle stood in the kitchen, filling my vision. She turned around at the sound of the opening door, put down the knife she had been holding, and wiped her hands on her apron. She looked exactly the same.

The door closed behind me. I glanced back and saw that Kera had not followed me into the cottage.

A small smile played at the corners of Relle's mouth as she walked toward me. "You're early."

I started moving forward myself. "I knew every step I took was bringing me closer to you."

Her smile broadened. "I see they're teaching you something about charm in that temple."

"Not really." I was close enough to touch her now. My heart was racing; I could barely breathe. "I've been planning that line for the last few hours." She laughed softly. I placed my hands on her shoulders, and her arms reached around my back. Tremors ran up and down my spine as my eyes met hers and I saw the longing there. I brushed my lips against hers in a swift, gentle kiss.

She tightened her arms, pulling herself close, burying her face in my neck with a sigh. My own arms encircled her; I closed my eyes and rested my cheek against her smooth hair. And we held on for a very long time.

-x-

The next three weeks passed pleasantly, if quickly. I drilled first thing every morning, both with my sword and empty-handed, doing the solo exercises the swordmaster had shown me for keeping sharp without a sparring partner. I spent most of my time with Kera, Relle, or both of them together. One day I spent with Dix in the shoopuf station, telling him tales of my training and my visits to Bevelle — although I left out my growing friendship with Braska; I had a feeling that a disfavored priest was not the kind of connection he would approve of my cultivating. He was happy to learn about Kinoc, of course, and was especially interested in connections my friend might have through his own father. A few afternoons, I worked with Xan on the various repair and building projects he had around the village, and once I went on the daily fishing expedition.

Usually I had dinner at home with Kera, Xan, and Dix. Sometimes Relle would join us, although she preferred to stay out of my father's way. They had recently become business partners — she made meat pies and other traveling foods for him to sell to his customers — so relations between them were cordial, but he still disapproved of her as my choice of future wife. Once a week was the communal meal in the town square. I was always much in demand at these gatherings, as people wanted to know all about life in the big city.

The nights, I spent with Relle.

I enjoyed being in the village with my family, but I was surprised at how much I missed the temple. Somehow, in only ten months, that sparsely decorated barracks room had become as much my home as Tzeki was. Kinoc was my only truly close friend in Bevelle, although I also felt friendship and affection for Braska, Kal, and Jan. But even though I wasn't close to the other trainees individually, I had come to depend on the camaraderie we shared with one another and with all the other warrior monks. I was a part of something in Bevelle in a way that I never really had been here in the village. Before the second week had ended, I found myself actually looking forward to my return.

Really, there was only one thing that Tzeki had over Bevelle. And as the end of my visit approached, I hoped that I would have the strength to leave her.

-x-

On my last night in Tzeki Village, I lay in Relle's bed, watching the moonrise through her window. Her warm body rested on my arm, her back nestling against my chest, and I was comforted by her soft weight as well as the sound of her breathing. I should have been in a state of perfect bliss, but my mind was too busy to allow relaxation.

She moved against me and murmured something.

"What is it?" I asked, kissing the back of her neck.

"I said, aren't you going to sleep? You have a long trip ahead of you." She stroked the back of my hand, locking her fingers in mine, then lifted my palm to her lips.

I chuckled ruefully. "Can't. I'm too busy thinking."

She released my hand, rolled over, and smiled. "I know. I can hear your brain all the way from here." I swatted at her playfully. "What's on your mind?"

I didn't want to tell her. But I also couldn't not. "After I return to Bevelle, I'll be taking my vows. So the next time I see you…" I swallowed as my throat closed, unable to get the words out after all.

"I know," she said. "We won't be able to be together like this for awhile. But it's all right."

"Is it really?" I asked quietly. "I don't know, Relle. I'm not sure it's fair of me to ask you to wait. Bevelle politics seem so complicated, and I can tell that I've only scratched the surface. It might be years before I can marry you. I love you, and I want you to be happy. Maybe that means I should–"

She rolled on top of me and stopped my words with a kiss. Her mouth pressed firmly against mine as my hands slid up her back and into her hair. She lifted her head, bracing herself with a hand on either side of my head. "Auron my love, how long have you known you would be a warrior monk? Since you were seven? You've been on this path for a long time. I knew where it led when I chose to join you on it." She smiled. "You'll be established in a few years. Then, Yevon willing, we'll have the rest of our lives to be together. What's a few years alone when I have that to look forward to?"

I looked up at this sweet, understanding, patient woman and thought that my heart might burst with love for her. "I don't deserve you," I whispered.

She stroked my hair. "Of course you do. I wouldn't love you otherwise." Lowering herself back down, she kissed me again, hard, catching my lower lip with her teeth, and I groaned with the pleasure of it. "And as for those vows," she murmured against my mouth, "let's just give you something to remember in the meantime."

Chapter Text

I climbed up onto my bunk and lay down with a contented sigh, reaching my arms above my head and stretching them out. I'd made the return journey from Tzeki at a more relaxed pace, but the walk was still tiring, and sleeping on the ground always made me stiff.

I didn't get much to relax. Within a few minutes, the door opened and admitted two familiar figures: Kal first, then Kinoc.

"Hey there," I said, sitting up on the bed.

"Hi Auron," said Kal. "How was home?"

"It was nice to be back. But strangely enough, I really missed this place."

"Me too." Kal grinned. "Can you believe it?"

I shook my head, then hopped off the bunk. "Where's Jan?"

The smile faded. "Kilika. He decided to stay."

"Really." I considered this piece of news. "May I ask why?"

Kal ran a hand through his hair, scrubbing at his scalp. Months in the northern climate of Bevelle had darkened it to its natural brown, but just a short time in the Kilika sun had returned a few of his blond streaks. "He decided he missed blitz and home too much. The Beasts asked him to come back, and he accepted."

"That's too bad."

He shrugged. "Eh. This is never what he wanted; he was mostly keeping me company. He was born to blitz. I'll miss him, but it's okay. Being a warrior monk was my second choice, too, but I know now it's the right thing for me, with or without my brother. Yevon guided me here, and here I'll stay."

I squeezed his shoulder. "I'm glad."

He clapped a hand over mine with a smile. "Me too. Okay, I've gotta go pack up the rest of Jan's stuff. I told him I'd send it back soon."

I turned to Kinoc, who was sitting on his own bunk, unpacking. "You're quiet."

"No 'welcome back, how was your trip?'" He smirked.

"I could say the same, you know." I sat next to him. "Everything all right?"

"Sure," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Just, going back was kind of odd. I knew intellectually that life would go on in Luca without me, that my family and friends didn't stop doing their own thing when I left, but everything changed so much — nothing important, just all kinds of little stuff — and I didn't really fit in anymore."

I nodded. "I felt that too, a little."

He quirked an eyebrow. "But it was a good visit?"

I kept my expression blank. "Very good."

"Tell me about it later," he said in a lowered voice. Then, more loudly: "Should we go see what abomination they're calling dinner now?"

"Ugh," said Kal from his side of the room, looking over toward us. "Now there's something I didn't miss."

"Maybe they'll actually make something half-palatable tonight, ease us back into it," I suggested.

Kal and Kinoc exchanged a glance, then laughed. "Gee, Auron, you were never such an optimist before," Kal said.

"Must be the furlough," I said with a smile. "It'll go away soon enough. Come on, let's go."

-x-

The next month passed swiftly, filled with tests and final lessons, and before I knew it, the day to take our vows had come. Kal woke first that morning, jumping out of bed and opening the door to our quarters. "Hey guys," he called out, picking up the wrapped bundles that waited for us, a name written on each. Instantly alert, I leapt down to the floor. Kinoc rose a moment later, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Kal handed me my package, and I opened it to find a new uniform: a dark olive green tunic and a pair of brown pants. It also held a note advising me that I should stop by the armory before the ceremony.

I glanced at my comrades and saw that theirs were the same. I could feel the smile spreading across my face. We had all passed.

"We did it," Kinoc breathed, staring down at his new uniform. Then he looked up at us, his eyes astonished. "By Yevon, we did it!"

"Yeeehah!" Kal's shout of jubilation unfroze us all, and we rushed together, hugging joyfully. We wouldn't be sworn for a few hours yet, but in that moment we knew: we were warrior monks.

The atmosphere in the mess hall was unlike anything I had ever before witnessed. Every single face held a smile, every step had a bounce in it. Even the food was edible, as if the cooks had taken extra care for the occasion. Instructors and other warrior monks stopped by our tables to congratulate us on our success. After breakfast, I went to pick up my new armor, a replacement for the hand-me-downs that I had been wearing, then returned to the room to change for the ceremony.

Everything fit perfectly — the hours we'd stood around waiting to be measured last week had paid off. I twisted up my hair, then checked out the total effect in the mirror. Green wasn't really my color, I decided, but it was better than the dull blue of our training uniforms. And I found the gleam of my armor rather satisfying.

One more thing to do, and then I would be ready. I pulled my footlocker out from beneath the bunk and opened it. A single blank sphere sat inside, along with my recorder. I removed them both, slammed the locker closed, and sat on the floor next to it, cross-legged. I tossed the sphere into the air and caught it, thoughtfully looking at the orb for a moment. Then I placed the recorder atop the trunk before setting in the sphere. I pressed the record button, took a deep breath, and began to speak.

-x-

Barely-suppressed excitement rippled through the group of twenty soon-to-be warrior monks gathered in the courtyard before St. Bevelle as we waited to be lead into the Hall of Monks. Kinoc stood to my right, Kal next to him. On my other side was Nic, a magic specialist whom I knew slightly. He caught my eye and grinned. "I can't believe this is really happening!" he said.

"I know," I replied. "I keep thinking I'm going to wake up in Father Falle's magic lesson with my hair on fire."

He laughed; he'd been present for my early misadventures in spell casting. "Good luck."

I was about to return the sentiment when we were interrupted by a shout of "Trainees!" We all snapped to attention, and silence fell over the assembly.

An orange-clad warrior monk whose uniform and insignia marked him as a captain stood before us. He looked over the group and smiled. "This is the last time anyone will call you that. Congratulations. Now, turn right on my mark and prepare to march."

"Aye sir!" We saluted as one.

"Yevon be with us!" He returned the salute. "One, two, mark! Forward, march!"

I was near the back of the line, so it was several moments before I entered the hall. The torches were ablaze, and the high windows had been opened to admit a cross-breeze, so the banners waved in the air, their colors brilliant in the flickering light of fire and sun. Every standard representing a currently active squad was held by a warrior — all captains and commanders had been called back for the ceremony. Warrior monks stationed in Bevelle were also present, standing behind the standard-bearers and officers. They all chanted an old marching tune and held a salute in our honor, and I felt a chill travel down my back. In a few moments, all these men would be my brothers.

I managed a quick glance up — a small gallery lined the left wall, and it was filled with family and friends of those of us about to take the oath. I saw Xan and my father sitting together near the front. Then I returned my attention forward, to the Maesters standing at the front of the room.

Maester Brac was there of course, standing in front, smiling. Flanking him were the two non-human Maesters. Maester Kelk Ronso stood to his left, his face solemn. He was middle aged, his long white mane streaming down his back, well-polished horn held high. The other Maester, Jyscal Guado, had a place on Brac's right, his cold eyes regardeding us. He was much revered in Bevelle for bringing the Guado into the fold of Yevon. Rumor had it that he'd married a human woman to cement the alliance, then exiled her. Maester Kelk I had seen in the halls and the temple from time to time, but this Guado was largely a mystery to me.

I didn't have long to dwell on my thoughts, though, as I took my place on the floor. Total silence fell over the crowd as the Grand Maester rose from his throne, which sat on a dais behind the other Maesters. Trainees, warrior monks, and spectators all bowed in prayer.

Grand Maester Mika. Leader of Spira and Yevon for over thirty years, a Maester for decades before that. I had also seen him upon occasion, but never in such an impressive, formal setting. He was stooped with age, but I could still sense the power he wielded. "Welcome," he said, in an ancient, quavering voice, "to the Order of the Warrior Monks of Yevon. You have all worked long and hard to gain this honor, and you have all been judged worthy to join these holy ranks. Now all you need do is take and uphold your vows, and Yevon will be with you for all your days. "

He sat, and we bowed again. Maester Brac then took a step forward.

"Do you willingly come to take these vows?" he asked.

"We do," we replied, speaking in a single voice.

"Do you accept the teachings of Yevon? Do you swear to uphold them?"

We responded to both questions affirmatively.

"Then present your blades and say the oath." As we removed swords and daggers from their scabbards, we all intoned the words I had spent the last year learning by heart:

"I pledge myself, my life, and this blade that I hold to the defense of Yevon. I swear to protect the temples along with the priests and the fayth within them. I pledge my loyalty and obedience to the teachings of Yevon, to the Maesters, and to my brothers within this order. This I solemnly swear before my order, before the Maesters, and before Yevon." I touched two fingers to my lips, then to the flat of my sword; the others did the same.

Maester Brac raised his arms to the sky. "In the name of Yevon and with the blessing of the Grand Maester, I accept your vows and hold you to them. Yevon bless you and your steel; may you serve Him well for the rest of your days." He lowered his hands and looked straight at us. "I now officially welcome you all as members of the Order of Warrior Monks. Serve well, and you will be rewarded. Yevon be with us!"

"Yevon be with us!" Every voice in the hall joined in the call as we punched our sword arms in the air.

Kal found me as I exited the hall and threw an arm around my shoulders. I shot him a big smile. Then I saw Xan's head peering for me over the crowd. "See you later," I told Kal as I pulled away, slapping him on the back. He nodded, then ran off to where Jan was waiting for him. I yanked off my helm, caught Xan's eye, and waved. A smile broke over his face as he waved back, then pointed me out to my father. Dix and I strode toward one other through the throng, Xan at his heels. He gripped my forearms as he reached me, looking up at me with tears in his eyes.

"Son," he said, his voice thick, "I'm so proud. I only wish your mother were here to see this day."

Surprised by this open display of emotion, I embraced my father for the first time in many years. "You'll just have to stop by the Farplane on the way home and tell her," I told him.

He made a noise somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. "I may well do that," he said, stepping back. "She'll want to know about her first grandchild, too."

I looked over to Xan, who was smiling sheepishly. "Kera had the baby?"

He nodded, shy but proud. "The day before we left. A girl. We named her Paine."

"For your mother." He nodded again. I embraced my brother-in-law. "Congratulations! So that's why Kera's not here?"

"Right. She said to send congratulations to her little brother, though."

"How did it go?"

"The birth went fairly smoothly, but she was exhausted afterwards, and it's no trip for a newborn. Relle stayed behind to help her."

"Of course." I glanced at my father, who was still beaming at us — the expression looked completely wrong on his normally stern face — and decided my request could wait. Then I heard my name called from behind me, and Kinoc walked over, followed by a middle-aged warrior monk who looked a lot like him.

"Hey!" We embraced quickly, then I turned him toward Xan and Father. "This is my friend Kinoc. My brother-in-law Xan and my father Dix."

Kinoc indicated the man behind him. "And this is my father, Commander Wen. Dad, meet Auron and his family."

Bows and greetings were exchanged all around. Dix immediately engaged Kinoc and his father in conversation, so I took the opportunity to pull Xan aside.

"I have a favor to ask," I said under my breath.

Xan raised his eyebrows. "Sure, anything."

I pulled out the sphere from the pouch where I'd hidden it. "Get this to Relle. For her eyes only. Definitely don't let Father know about it."

He took the sphere. "No problem. I don't suppose I can ask what's on it?"

"My vow," I said quietly, "to her."

-x-

"Hello, my love," I had said, sitting before the sphere that morning as it recorded. "I hope this message finds you well. In a few hours, I will take my vows before Yevon, swearing my oath to the warrior monks. I want you to know that the oath I am about to swear to you, I take no less seriously.

"I pledge myself to you, Arelle: my life, my love, and my faithfulness. No other will ever share my bed or be my wife. This I solemnly swear before you and before Yevon." I kissed two fingers, then turned them out toward the sphere, mimicking a gesture I would make in the ceremony later that day.

"Trust in this promise as I trust in your love. When the time is right, I will return to you." Bringing my hands in front of me, I bowed as far as my seated position and armored torso would allow. "I love you." I gazed into the sphere for a moment longer, as if it were her eyes, then reached out to switch it off.

-x-

Xan nodded, then stashed the sphere in his bag. "So, now what?" he asked in his normal tone of voice.

"I should be learning about my posting any minute now," I said. "They said they'd tell us after the ceremony." As if my words had called it forth, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an officer behind me.

"Brother Auron?" he asked.

I saluted. "Yes, Lieutenant."

He smiled. "Good. I need to talk to you. Brother Kinoc, too — is that him?"

I looked over to where he was still chatting with our fathers. "Yes, sir. Hey, Kinoc!" His head turned. "Over here."

Kinoc joined us. "Auron, Kinoc," said the man, "I'm Lieutenant Gibson." I recognized him then as a member of Maester Brac's escort on that evening we'd met in the Hall of Guardians all those months ago. Did that mean–

Gibson continued before I could complete the thought. "I'm the Lead Sword for Gray Squadron, and I'm here to offer both of you postings as swordsmen."

Though this was the conclusion I had been on the verge of drawing, I couldn't quite believe it. We were being assigned to Gray Squadron? Gray Squadron: the most elite warrior monk squad in Bevelle, the personal guard to Maester Brac. I swiveled my head to look at Kinoc. He stared at the officer, apparently at a loss for words, possibly for the first time in his life. I swallowed hard and turned back to Gibson with a fresh salute. "Sir, this is an unexpected honor, but we accept. Don't we, Kinoc?"

I nudged him with my elbow, and with a tiny shake, he came out of his stupor. "Yeah. I mean, yes, sir! Of course, sir!" He saluted as well, snapping to attention as though he hadn't relaxed since the ceremony.

Fortunately, Gibson seemed amused rather than offended, his brown eyes twinkling. "Excellent. The Maester will be most pleased. Someone will be by to show you to your new quarters this evening. Congratulations." He saluted us and walked away.

Finally Kinoc turned to meet my eyes, a look of utter disbelief on his face. "This has got to be a joke, right? You and me, on Gray Squad?"

I shook my head slowly. "I was hoping for a good posting, but Gray Squad? Not even in my wildest dreams did I think…" I took a deep breath. "Well, the Maester did say he'd be watching us."

"I guess he liked what he saw." The truth was starting to sink in. He reached out and grabbed my shoulders. I grasped his in return, and we grinned at each other like idiots for a full minute. Then he dropped his hands and tore off in the direction of his father. "Dad?" he shouted. "Dad, you'll never believe this!"

"Auron?" Xan was still by my side; I had completely forgotten he was there. "What's going on?"

I turned toward him. "That was my new commanding officer. I've been posted to Maester Brac's personal guard."

"You're kidding!" Xan clapped me on the back. "That's incredible."

"Yes. Come on, I have to go tell Father." I couldn't wait to see his reaction.

Chapter Text

"Besaid? Where on Spira is that?" I asked.

Kinoc looked up from his packing. "It's an island. Way to the south, I think. There's a fayth there, not much else though. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere." He made a face.

Kal rolled up the last of his clothing and stuck it in his bag. "There's a temple, so there's a garrison. A small one, just one squad, but it's there. Also, Sin completely wiped out the village and their Crusaders a few years back, and they need extra help to protect the place while they rebuild." He looked over at Kinoc. "It doesn't sound so bad. If nothing else, it's close to home — Kilika Port is only half a day by boat. Plus, they have a blitzball team."

"Only the worst one in the history of the world," Kinoc snorted.

Kal shrugged. "Better than no blitz at all. Maybe I can work out with them in my down time, give them some pointers."

"Good luck," I said.

"Same to you." He closed up his bag and slung his bow and quiver over his back. "Well, I've got a boat to catch. See ya!" After a quick round of hugs, he was gone.

I picked up my new sword and admired it. It was heavier than my old blade and more decorative, a swirling pattern etched in the metal that was echoed by a gleaming silver inlay in the hilt. It had been a gift from my family. "Congratulations, and happy birthday," Father had said.

"My birthday isn't for another week," I'd reminded him.

"Close enough," Xan had laughed. Then they had left, carrying my well-wishes to Relle, Kera, and my niece. My niece! I smiled and wondered when I'd get to meet her.

Lost in thought, I didn't notice the knock on the door until Kinoc had already let our visitor in. I turned to greet him — it was the captain who had led us into the Hall of Monks earlier that day. Several inches taller than I, he was an intimidating figure. Fortunately, he had a friendly smile that instantly put me at ease.

"Hello Brother Kinoc, Brother Auron," he said as we saluted him. "I'm Captain Scala, leader of Gray Squad. Welcome to the team. You'll both be reporting to Lieutenant Gibson, whom I believe you've already met?" He acknowledged our nods. "Excellent. Your new quarters are ready for you. Follow me."

Kinoc lifted his bag and obeyed. I stuffed the last few items in mine and threw it over my shoulder, carrying the sword in my free hand. I walked a few paces behind Kinoc, sparing one last glance for my old room. Then I shut the door, my thoughts turning to the room waiting ahead.

-x-

Yuna took advantage of a rare free afternoon to sit in the sun on the Highroad and watch the recent Defense Force recruits at practice, her daughter dozing in her lap. This was a fine group, she thought — everyone was making at least a credible effort with their swords, and some were actually quite good, even after only three months. Her eyes kept returning to two pairs of fighters, each a student sparring with an instructor. Normally, her attention would have been focused on Tidus alone — she still loved watching him fight, his sword the color of the sea sparkling in the sun, his quick grace with the blade almost like dancing. Today he was fencing with Maura. Also a blitzer, she was nearly as agile as Tidus but not quite so fast. Still, Yuna could tell she had potential.

Despite this, she found her gaze continually drawn back to another pair: two women fighting on the other side of the road. Paine wasn't graceful like Tidus, but she more than made up for that lack with finesse and strength. Today, she sparred with her cousin. Seeing Lissira in battle was a revelation. Add a couple of inches to her height, broaden her shoulders and throw a red robe over them, and Yuna could be watching Sir Auron reborn. Liss still needed to learn tactics, and her stamina wasn't yet developed, but the sheer power and fluidity of her swings were just like her father's. She wielded the weapon with a breathtaking combination of strength and grace, and Yuna was utterly mesmerized as the heavy swords clashed again and again.

"Hey Yunie!" came a cheery shout from behind.

Yuna turned around, disregarding the sleepy grumble that came from her lap at the sudden movement. "Hi Rikku," she called out. "Come see this."

Rikku plopped down on the ground and gave her a peck on the cheek. "What's up?"

Yuna indicated the fighters. "Watch Paine and the woman practicing with her."

Rikku obeyed, her green eyes widening as she realized what she was seeing. "Wow, that's her, isn't it? I heard the rumors, but I wasn't sure whether to believe them. I mean, I know what you told me, but…" She observed silently for another moment. "That's amazing. She fights just like him!"

Yuna nodded. "Not much doubt that she's telling the truth now."

"Who's telling the truth?" Tidus asked as he walked past them. He took a seat on Yuna's other side, breathing heavily.

"Daddy!" Jecha shifted from her mother's lap to her father's, and Tidus wrapped his arms around her.

"Lissira," said Yuna, taking advantage of her vacated lap to switch positions and stretch out her legs.

"She sure is," he said. "Really floored me the first time I noticed it. It's like the old guy himself returned from the Farplane, except he decided to try on a woman's body for a change."

Rikku giggled. "Now there's an image. Oh darn, it's over. Hey, Paine!" She jumped up and waved to her friend.

Paine lowered her sword and pushed her drooping hair back from her sweat-covered face as she waved back. She turned and said something to Liss, and the two of them started walking toward the waiting group. "Hi Rikku," she called out, catching the flask of water that Tidus tossed her way and taking a gulp. "What brings you here?"

"Picking up Tidus," Rikku replied. "We have to go to Bevelle tomorrow for another one of those stupid sittings. Hi, you must be Liss! I'm Rikku." She bounded forward to Lissira, her hand extended.

"It's an honor to meet you, ma'am," said Liss.

Rikku laughed. "Oh please, don't ever go there. It's just Rikku."

"All right." Liss smiled in return. "Sittings for what, if I may ask?"

Tidus groaned and stood up, depositing Jecha on the ground over her protests. "Some dumb portrait for the old temple."

Yuna whacked his leg with the back of her hand. "Hey! You promised you'd stop complaining. This is important to me, you know." She smiled up at him, then noticed Liss's puzzled look. "The Hall of Guardians in Bevelle Palace. Portraits of many guardians hang there. The Praetor is insisting that I have a statue made, and I will have my guardians honored as well."

An extraordinary set of emotions passed over Liss's face. Yuna thought she saw sadness and wonder, but more than anything there was a powerful curiosity. Yuna had already noticed that Liss wore a similar expression whenever she received a new piece of information about Sir Auron. "Lady Yuna, have you been to this hall?" Liss asked.

Yuna got to her feet. "Are you asking if there's a portrait of Sir Auron there?" Liss swallowed hard, then nodded. "Yes, there is. Not from my pilgrimage, but from my father's. A painting of him with Sir Jecht."

"Hey, come with us!" Rikku looked over at Paine. "You can spare her for a couple of days, right?"

Paine raised an eyebrow. "I don't know — the other recruits might not like it if we started allowing Liss to take extra time off."

Liss shook her head. "I agree. No special treatment. I'm just another cadet here. But I would like to go see it sometime."

Rikku bit her lip. "Aww. Can't you figure something out?"

Paine looked thoughtful. "Well, I do need to meet with the Praetor, and I've been meaning to give the recruits a field trip. You all could spend some time training with the New Yevon Guard. It's not special treatment if everyone comes, is it?"

Liss favored her cousin with a grateful smile. "Thanks."

"Wait, so how many people are we talking?" Rikku asked, sounding worried. "The Celsius is gonna be awfully crowded…"

Paine's eyes glinted as Yuna smothered a laugh. "You'll figure something out."

-x-

"Hah!" Kinoc's sword flew before my eyes. With a grunt, I moved my own to meet it. I found a burst of strength to push his blade aside and bring mine down toward his head, crashing into the shield that he lifted between us at the last moment. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I registered that he was slowing. Then he ducked down, simultaneously freeing his shield and swiping at my legs with the sword. I leapt back to avoid the blow, whirled, and came around with another strike as he stood up. The momentum of my spin created enough power to knock the weapon out of his hand. It flew to the side of the training ground with a clatter. "Yield," he gasped, panting as he dropped to his knees.

I lowered my sword and wiped the sweat from my face. We'd been fencing for what felt like an hour straight — it had taken forever to tire Kinoc enough to find that opening. His stamina had definitely improved over our five months with Gray Squad. I could still beat him most of the time, but a victory was no longer a sure thing.

"Not bad," said Lieutenant Gibson from the sidelines. He walked over to Kinoc, who was resting his elbows on his legs and breathing heavily. "Okay. Brother Kinoc, what was your fatal mistake?"

Kinoc glanced up at our superior officer. "Drawing Auron as my sparring partner?"

I barely held back a snort of laughter as Gibson glared at him. "Very funny," he drawled, then looked around at the rest of the assembled squad, standing in a circle around us. "Anyone who isn't feeling like a wiseguy know the answer?"

"I know, I know," Kinoc grumbled. "Getting fancy when I was tired."

"That's right. If your opponent is wearing you down, stick to basics." Gibson turned his stern face to me. "And I'm giving you the same warning. I don't care who you are, sparring for fifteen minutes without a break is going to tire you out. Fight someone or something your equal in strength, and that spinning trick might get you knocked on your ass. Try it against Captain Scala sometime; you'll see."

I dipped my head slightly. "Understood, sir."

His lecture finished, Gibson cracked a smile. "Well done, boys. That was quite a match." He presented a hand to Kinoc and helped him to his feet, then turned to address someone behind me. "Don't you agree, your grace?"

"Indeed." We all immediately snapped to attention as Maester Brac walked into the center of the circle — wrapped up in the fight, no one had noticed his arrival. Everyone bowed. The Maester gripped my shoulder with a spindly but still strong hand as I rose. "A fine display, Brother Auron." He directed his gaze to my companion. "From you as well, Brother Kinoc; anyone who can hold his own against a stronger opponent is to be commended."

"Thank you, your grace," we chorused.

"Dismissed," said Gibson. "You have the night off; we travel to Macalania in the morning." We saluted and dispersed. One of the other swordsmen handed me a water skin as I walked off, and I gulped greedily from it. Then I wiped my mouth and passed the container to Kinoc, who had just finished retrieving his sword.

"Whew," he said after he drank. "It's almost like we're still in training."

"I know." Gray Squadron was a plum posting, but Bevelle was so well guarded that there wasn't much for us to do besides accompany the Maester on his various ceremonial trips. So we spent a lot of time in practice. "At least we're training with the best." I'd found the opportunity to work with the cream of the crop to be the real advantage of this assignment. A few months with these men had taught me even more than the full year of my official training.

"Training with them, and getting to know them," Kinoc agreed. "The connections we make here will serve us forever."

I shot him a sideways grin. "Always looking for that advantage, aren't you?"

"You know it. Hello, your grace."

I saw Maester Brac a split second after Kinoc did and quickly fell into a prayer bow. How was it that such a large man could be so skilled at sneaking up on people?

"At ease," the Maester told us. "Really fine work today, both of you. You've made much progress over the last year and a half. Now, may I present my granddaughter Lorayn?"

Then I noticed her: a teenage girl standing half in his shadow. Had she been here all this time? She stepped forward slightly and bowed to us, her violet eyes huge, waves of shining black hair cascading down her back. Attractive, but very young.

Kinoc stepped forward with a courtly bow. "Honored to make your acquaintance, milady. I am Brother Kinoc, and this is Brother Auron."

I made a simple prayer bow. "It is my honor as well."

She giggled. "Thank you," she said in a breathy, girlish voice. "My grandfather has told me many stories of you both, and I look forward to learning more." She looked up at him, and he beamed back. Then he addressed us again.

"Rest well tonight," he said, "we have a long journey tomorrow." We saluted, and he took his leave.

"So, that's the granddaughter we're supposed to be falling all over ourselves to marry?" I asked as soon as we were safely out of earshot.

"And why not?" Kinoc shrugged. "She's a pretty girl."

"I suppose, but she seems so young." I shook my head. "Give me a grown woman any day."

"Girl, woman, whatever, don't forget that she's the wife who likely comes with the High Commander position."

"True enough. Let's get moving, I really need to bathe before dinner." And I put the girl out of my mind as we returned to our quarters.

Chapter Text

"And I thought Luca was big," Liss muttered under her breath, looking down over the city of Bevelle from the temple courtyard.

"An impressive sight," Paine agreed.

"I never tire of it," said a third voice from behind them. Liss turned to see a light-haired man in formal robes bowing in greeting. "Hello, Paine. It's been too long."

"Isaaru," Paine responded. "Yes, we have a lot to discuss. But first, may I introduce Lissira?"

He reached for Liss's hand, then bowed. "Ah, the daughter of Sir Auron. I am Isaaru, Praetor of New Yevon. It is an extraordinary honor to meet you, milady."

"Likewise," Liss managed to say. Would she ever get used to powerful leaders treating her as an equal?

"May I request a favor?" Paine asked Isaaru. He nodded. "Could you show us to the Hall of Guardians? I've never been there, and there's a painting Liss wants to see."

Praetor Isaaru smiled. "I can imagine. Of course; this way, please."

About fifteen minutes later, the trio entered a cavernous dark hall. Isaaru turned up the lanterns, and Liss looked around at the paintings on the walls. Dozens of men and women were represented, all sorts of warriors and mages, each one a legend who had played a part in bringing a Calm.

"There's the portrait you're interested in," said Isaaru, indicating a painting on the opposite wall. Liss slowly walked toward it, her eyes going wider with each step.

It depicted two men standing on the cliffs of the Mi'ihen Highroad. The taller one was wiry and bare-chested but for a tattoo — Liss recognized the symbol from jewelry worn by both Tidus and Yuna. A bandana just kept a mop of brown hair from obscuring his face, and he wore a rakish grin. That must be Sir Jecht, she thought. He leaned on the shoulder of another man with broad shoulders and a stern expression, dressed in a brilliant red coat. His hair and eyes were dark; his hands rested on the hilt of a sword stuck into the ground in front of him.

"Wow," Paine whispered. Then she said something else, but Liss was too absorbed in the artwork before her to register the words. She didn't even notice that Paine had left and been replaced by another observer until she heard the newcomer speak.

"Too bad it doesn't really look all that much like them."

She started a little. "Sir Tidus?"

"Hi." He took a place beside her and contemplated the image of their respective fathers standing together. "I asked once; this was painted after Braska's pilgrimage, so there's no way they could have posed for it. The artist must've been working off other people's descriptions. It's a fair interpretation, I guess, but it's not like looking at a sphere or anything."

Liss finally voiced a question that she had been dying to ask Tidus for months. "Do you… do you have any spheres of them?"

"I used to, a long time ago. But I lost them all. I'm sorry — I wish I could show them to you." He cast her a sympathetic look. "It must be weird, having this famous father who everyone remembers when you never even knew him."

"I'd never thought of it quite like that before," Liss said, "but yes. I love hearing other people's stories about him, but I wish I had some of my own. Something more than 'This scary-looking guy showed up at our house once, and I found out later that he was my dad.'"

"Heh. Yeah." They gazed at the painting for a few minutes more, then Tidus sighed. "Well, gotta get back to the sitting. Rikku's probably going insane with boredom right about now, so I should probably take a turn." He thought for a second. "You know, you really do look quite a bit like Auron. More than this portrait does, anyway. Maybe they could use you as his model for this new painting."

Liss considered this idea. "It might be a little weird, but I'll do it if you think it would help people remember him as he really was."

"C'mon. Let's go ask the artist what she thinks." He lightly slapped her back and lead her out of the room.

-x-

Kinoc clambered off the shoopuf and onto the lift, grinning. "That was fun," he said.

"As many times as I've ridden that thing, you'd expect I'd be used to it by now." I looked up at the blue beast. "But you're right. It is fun." I caught my father's eye in the merchant pavilion and waved. He lifted a hand in greeting, then went back to haggling with a customer.

I turned back to Kinoc. "So you've really never been here?"

"Not that I remember. Luca's too far to make the journey to the Farplane very often, and we always went by boat when Dad was called back to Bevelle. We might've come this way when we moved from Macalania, but I was barely a year old at the time."

"It's unfortunate that you don't have time to stay for sunset."

He shrugged. "Djose isn't far. I'm sure I'll make it up here at some point. And speaking of Djose…"

"You could at least come have lunch. Kera and Relle both want to meet you, and you haven't lived until you've tried Relle's cooking."

Kinoc shook his head, laughing. "All right, all right. Show me this village of yours."

Soon I was knocking on my sister's front door. Xan answered. "Auron! Why the orange uniform? Wasn't it green before?"

I smiled and saluted. "Lieutenant Auron, at your service. They just promoted me last week."

"Hey, great!" He hugged me briefly, then greeted Kinoc as we walked into the cottage. Relle was humming in the kitchen, and Kera sat in the living room with a baby on her lap. My sister turned and smiled at me. "It's Uncle Auron."

"Hello, Paine," I said, kneeling down on the floor before them, looking at my niece for the first time. She stared back, her dark red eyes wide. I lifted my face up to Kera's, which was beaming. "She looks just like Xan!"

"Doesn't she?" Kera kissed the top of her daughter's head. "But she's quiet, like you. Maybe it's hard to tell at only ten months, but she seems so serious already."

I reached around the baby to hug Kera, then patted Paine's hair, the same dark silver as her father's. "I'm so happy for all of you." I stood up and introduced Kinoc, then approached Relle. It was an awkward moment — I wanted very much to take her into my arms and kiss her deeply, but given my vows it seemed inappropriate. She searched my face, similarly uncertain. After a long pause, I finally took her hands and softly kissed her temple. She kissed my cheek in return and squeezed my hands, then dropped them.

"Lunch is almost ready," she said. "How was your journey?"

-x-

After the meal, during which Kinoc thoroughly charmed everyone, even the baby, he bid my family farewell. Then he said, "Auron? Can you show me the way back to the main road?"

"Of course," I replied. I followed him out the door.

"So what is it?" I asked after we'd walked in silence for a minute.

"Hmm?"

I shook my head at him. "'Show me the way back'? As if memorizing unfamiliar territory wasn't one of the first lessons they taught us in Bevelle. No, you wanted to get me alone before you left. Out with it."

He grinned. "You know me too well. It's nothing, really, I just wanted to tell you goodbye. I still can't believe they're splitting us up."

"Nor can I." I would have two weeks of leave here in the village, then head off to Luca Garrison, where I would be Lead Sword in the Third Squadron. Kinoc had been given a Lead Sword commission as well, but at Djose Temple. For nearly two years now, he had been my bunkmate and closest friend, and I could barely imagine life without him. "I still wonder whether they sent each of us to the other's hometown on purpose."

"Oh, probably. The Maester never does anything without a reason." It was a conversation we'd had before, and he quickly changed the subject. "I think I understand now what it is about you and Arelle. To be honest, I always thought it strange that you were so stubborn about her. But seeing you together…" He stared off into the distance, considering his next words. "There's no doubt that she's beautiful, but there are thousands of pretty girls in Spira, and you could probably have your pick of them." I felt my cheeks warming; it was true that I never lacked for female attention when we went out into the world. It was gratifying in a way, but I was never comfortable returning any flirtation, both because of my sworn status and because of Relle. Kinoc chuckled and patted his stomach. "And you weren't kidding about her cooking! Seriously, though, I saw the way she looked at you over lunch, and the way you looked back. It's the real thing between you, isn't it?"

I glanced at him, then nodded.

He let out a quiet breath. "You're a lucky man, and yet I'm not sure I envy you. I know how seriously you take your career, not to mention those vows. For your sake, I hope she understands that."

We had reached the main road, and I held a hand out to Kinoc. "Good luck," I said.

"You too, my friend." He clasped my hand, then pulled me into an embrace. "Will you stop by on your way to Luca?"

"Count on it. And give my best to Braska."

"Will do." He turned down the road and walked away.

-x-

A few days later, I tipped my chair back from my sister's kitchen table after another fine dinner. Kera and Relle cleaned up in the kitchen while little Paine sat in the corner, chewing thoughtfully on a doll I had brought her from Bevelle. "Do they give you better food now that you're sworn?" Kera asked.

"If only," I answered. "Everyone eats in the same mess hall. The Maester has a personal chef, though, and Gray Squadron was invited to eat with him sometimes. Rumor has it that Luca Garrison has a decent cook these days, so I have hope for better there." I returned my chair's legs to the ground and stretched with a groan; I'd spent the last few days helping Xan build a house, and my muscles were no longer used to heavy lifting, as opposed to swinging a sword around.

Relle dried the last pot and walked over to me. She put her hands on my shoulders and started to massage them. Her hands were strong from years of kneading bread, and now she kneaded my tired muscles just as capably.

"Ahhh." I let my head fall forward and closed my eyes. "That feels wonderful."

She rubbed my shoulders, my upper back, my neck. Then her hands undid my topknot and slid up into my hair as it tumbled down. She scratched my scalp as I sighed contentedly. Soon she was playing with my hair, stroking it, gathering it up in her hands and letting it fall, running her fingers through it. Her hands rested on my shoulders again, and she placed a soft kiss on the top of my head.

Suddenly, her touch seemed much more intimate, and I found that I wanted her. Badly.

I opened my eyes and reached my hands up to hers, stopping them with a gentle squeeze. Then I stood and stepped away from her, folding my arms across my chest. "Thank you," I murmured. Tension crackled between us as she cast her face down. My eyes focused on her and the rest of the world went away, until a noise from the kitchen made me jump.

Kera cleared her throat. "Time to put the baby to bed," she said, picking up Paine. "And I'm tired myself. See you in the morning."

"Good night," I replied. Relle said nothing. Kera looked at me with concerned eyes, but she left us alone.

Relle and I stood in silence for a long moment. Then she sighed, and finally met my eyes. "This is harder than I thought it would be," she said.

"I know," I said. "I wish I could come home more often."

"No," she whispered, "that's not it." She took a step back and glanced out the window. "I miss you when you're gone, I do. But at least I can pretend, then, that nothing has changed. I think about you, and then I go on with my life. But when you're here…" She looked back at me. "You're so cautious around me, guarded, almost distant. And it makes me wonder whether you might not want me any more."

I was dumbfounded. "Not want you…" How could she have read me so completely wrong? "Is that really what you think?"

Her mouth twisted. "I don't know. Maybe."

"No! No. Why would you– Didn't you get the sphere I sent?"

"Of course," she said. "And I believe that you meant it when you said it. But things can change."

I slowly shook my head. "Not this. Never this. I made a vow to you, and I fully intend to keep it. Never doubt that. As for not wanting you — it's quite the opposite, you see." Her eyes went wide as I took her hands, lacing my fingers through hers. "I want to be with you so much that I don't trust myself to get too close."

Her expression softened. "And I misunderstood… but you seem almost afraid of me!"

"I am," I said in a low voice.

"Oh." Her mouth opened, as if she intended to say more, then it snapped shut.

"Perhaps not afraid of you, precisely. I fear the strength of my feelings for you, of losing control of them. I'm afraid of failing in my duty to Yevon, yet equally afraid of failing you. And I don't know which would be worse."

She reached up to my face, palm cupping my cheek. "You won't fail," she said.

"Your confidence is reassuring. I wish I could share in it." And then an idea popped into my mind, one that would provide a simple solution to this problem. I took a deep breath and looked straight into her eyes. "Marry me, Relle. Not in a few years, now. We could leave this place tonight and go to Djose — Braska is there, I know he'd perform the ceremony for us if I asked. I'm an officer now, so Father will have no cause to complain. And Kera would be thrilled." I raised our intertwined hands to my lips and brushed them over her knuckles. "What do you say?"

She ducked her head, blushing, then looked back at me. "You are so sweet," she murmured with a smile. "Nothing would make me happier, and yet…" She dropped her hand from my face and slipped her other from my grasp. "I don't think you're ready. Surely your ambitions extend further than a lieutenant's rank?"

"It doesn't matter," I said, shaking my head fiercely, trying to make myself believe the words. "So what if I never receive a command? I don't care. This is enough. It doesn't matter!"

She simply looked at me. I had convinced no one. It was a lie, and we both knew it.

Disgust rose up the back of my throat: with Yevon's rules, with politics, with my own ambitions. "Rrngh!" I turned away from her, then flung myself on the couch, burying my head in my hands. "I'm sorry, I should never–"

"It's all right," she said. I felt her take a seat next to me and lay a gentle arm across my shoulders. "It means a lot to me that you made the gesture."

"I wish it could be more," I mumbled.

"I know." She pressed her lips to my temple, then rested her head there.

After a few minutes, I dropped my hands to my lap, turned to her, and kissed her mouth. Her hand tightened on my shoulder where it rested. It took all my willpower to pull away.

I leaned my forehead against hers with a sigh. "Can you be patient with me while I learn where my boundaries are?"

"I can try," she responded. "If you really think this is enough."

"Enough? No," I said, touching her face. "But it will have to suffice."

Chapter Text

I crawled out of the tent pitched next to Djose Temple and blinked in the dawn light as I secured my armor, then pulled on the heavy orange coat that signified my rank. The rest of my squad was up and finishing breakfast. I walked over to them and accepted the biscuit and mug of coffee that Kal handed to me. He was my Lead Archer and had served me in that role for nearly three years. During his time in Besaid, he'd gained quite a reputation for his skill with the bow. I'd specifically requested him when I was first promoted to captain, of Kilika Garrison's Second Squadron. When I'd been offered my current position, I made sure that bringing him along was part of the deal.

"Morning, Captain," he said. "Sleep well?"

"Just fine, Lieutenant. Yourself?"

"Not bad, considering all the rocks under the tent." He rubbed his neck, and I chuckled. "Think you'll have time to see your family on the way back?"

"Probably not," I replied, sipping the strong beverage. "The Maester wants to return to Bevelle within the week, and we're stopping in Guadosalam along the way. I have some leave coming up next month, so I'll get plenty of time to visit then." I felt a pang as I said it, though — my latest promotion had kept me so busy that it had been a long time since I'd made it to Tzeki Village. I tried to spend a few weeks there each year over a visit or two. But lately we'd all had to make do with letters and spheres. I hadn't seen Relle except in recordings for over a year. "Are you prepared for the ceremony?"

"Almost. We just have to finish cleaning up breakfast."

I nodded, bit into my biscuit, and surveyed my troops. Twelve swords, including myself, five archers, three mages, and all among Bevelle's finest, as befitted Gray Squadron. I glanced up at the standard hoisted over my tent, flapping in the gentle breeze. A gray banner, edged in green, the sigil of our Maester's office emblazoned on it in orange — the same banner that had caught my eye on my very first day in Bevelle six years ago. Had it really been six years? I took another gulp of coffee and shook my head to clear the last cobwebs of sleep.

My Lead Sword, Jass, finished putting out the fire and walked over to me. He'd taken his oath just over two years ago and had already risen to be my right hand, as Kal was my left. I'd also brought him along from Kilika, where he'd started as just another swordsman. But his skill with the blade, our easy rapport, and a well-timed vacancy had earned him the promotion to Lieutenant within months. "Ready for the ceremony, Captain?" he asked.

I nodded. "Looking forward to it," I said. "I'm so pleased for Kinoc." We hadn't served together since that year in Gray Squad, but we'd kept up and were still good friends. He was being promoted to Commander and transferred to the Crusaders to lead three squadrons, including the Chocobo Knights. I finished my drink, dropped the cup to my feet, and pulled on my leather gloves. "Gray Squad!" I shouted to the group.

"Aye, Captain!" they replied in unison, falling quickly into formation.

I took my accustomed place standing in front of them. "You all know why we're here today — to fill our traditional role as guard to Maester Brac as he performs the swearing-in ceremony for all the Crusaders receiving commissions. Our role is largely symbolic, but as always we should be prepared for anything. Whatever happens, your first duty is to protect the Maester, then the temple. Understood?"

"Aye sir!"

"Very good," I said. "Now let's break camp; we don't need to go anywhere, but these tents will be in the way once the Maester gets started."

-x-

The ceremony took place outside the temple, in the open expanse before the entrance. Nearly a hundred men and women stood before Maester Brac to watch or participate in the event, a flock of armored chocobos preening and squawking off to the side — many of the knights had come to meet their new leader. First the Maester welcomed the new recruits, and then he worked his way up through the promotions. It was my second time watching Crusaders as they were blessed by the Maester, and this ceremony warmed my heart nearly as much as observing the swearing-in of new warrior monks. Our work protecting the priests and the temples was surely a sacred duty, but the Crusaders served all the people of Spira. In some ways, I thought their cause even more worthy, and hearing these fighters accept such an important responsibility made me proud to be a part of Yevon.

As the person being granted the highest rank, Kinoc went last, and alone. He'd grown a short beard, but otherwise he looked like the same eager young man I'd met six years ago. My friend stepped up to the Maester, grinning broadly with pride. I caught his eye and smiled back.

Kinoc knelt before Maester Brac, handing him his sword as the ritual demanded. The Maester had just began to speak the words when he was interrupted by a cry from behind me, the one we had all been subconsciously dreading for years.

"Sin!"

My head whipped around, in unison with scores of others, to stare at Jass, who pointed a trembling arm out to sea. I turned again, in the direction he indicated, to see a massive gray shape swimming far out in the ocean, and my heart crashed down into my stomach.

The Calm was over.

No time to mourn, though. If we were to protect the Maester and the temple, not to mention ourselves, we needed to swing into immediate action. Not only was Sin approaching, I could see a swarm of Sinspawn coming at us through the water. "Attention Gray Squad!" I shouted.

Their training served them well — it only took a second for the shock to pass. "Aye sir!" came the almost instant response.

"Archers and mages to the bluffs!" I ordered. "Get as many of them as you can before they hit the beach. Go, now!"

Kal gathered his troops together, and they started scrambling for the high ground.

"Brother Rickard, escort the Maester into the temple, then get me Commander Gibson if he's not already roused." Gibson was now the leader of Djose Garrison; I would need to coordinate the defense of the temple with him. Rickard lifted his sword to his shoulder, walked over to Maester Brac, and then took his arm as they hurried away. "Swords, you're with me. Hold the bridge to the temple until I say otherwise — stop anything that gets past the arrows and spells. Understood?"

"Aye, Captain," they called, and we started to move over to the area I'd indicated, when I heard one of the archers call my name. I craned my head around to see Kal indicating at the Sinspawn.

"Captain!" he cried. "It looks like some of the Sinspawn have broken away from the main group, flying up the bluffs behind the temple. I think they're headed toward the Moonflow!"

"The Moonflow," I whispered. My blood turned to ice in my veins and my voice rose to a shout. "No!"

I didn't have time to react further before Kinoc noticed my distress. He broke away from where he was organizing the Crusaders into squadrons and jogged over to me. "I see it! I'll send two squads after those Sinspawn — the Chocobo Knights can probably even beat them to Tzeki. You need to stay put. Sin still appears to be heading for the temple, and your duty is to protect the Maester. You'd never make it in time anyway. Let the Crusaders take care of the shoopuf stations and the village; it's our job."

Struggling to control my feelings, I threw him a look of desperation. "Tzeki… it doesn't have a Crusader outpost… my home…"

He placed a calming hand on my arm and lowered his voice. "We'll keep them all safe, Auron." Anyone overhearing him would assume he meant my family. I knew that he really meant Arelle. "I'll see to it personally. You have my word."

I took a deep breath and looked at the sky, centering myself as I had been taught, clearing my mind of the emotions that paralyzed me. The moment of terror passed, I returned my gaze to him with a grateful nod, unable to speak for a moment. He squeezed my arm and returned to his soldiers, shouting orders all the way, then swung himself up onto a chocobo. The Knights followed suit, and the herd thundered across the bridge as they headed for the river. One Crusader squad followed on foot, marching quickly. Two remained, and their leader ran up to me. I recognized her from the ceremony as a newly-made captain.

"Captain Auron? I'm Captain Ishika," she said, saluting. "These Crusader squadrons are under your command by order of Commander Kinoc."

I saluted in return, but before I could answer, a group of warrior monks burst out of the temple doors: Djose Garrison. Or part of it, anyway, I thought, frowning as I counted heads. Rickard followed on the heels of a captain who was a stranger to me. The two men strode through the crowd and joined me on the bridge.

"Captain Barrin and Second Djose Squad, sir," the officer said. "Commander Gibson and First Djose are away at Mushroom Rock, so Maester Brac has temporarily transferred command to you."

"Understood," I said. "Send your archers and mages to the bluffs. Swords will back us up behind the bridge."

"Yessir." Barrin saluted and went to convey my orders to his men.

I looked around at the men and women who would fight for me today. "Gray Squad, orders are unchanged. Hold that bridge! Crusaders, take the beach! Second Djose, guard the entrance. Nothing gets through to the temple. Understood?"

"Aye sir!"

I faced the ocean and unsheathed my sword in one smooth motion, holding it out in front of me as I stepped onto the bridge. "Yevon be with us!"

"Yevon be with us!" the warrior monks behind me chorused in return. It was the traditional battle cry of our Order, but as we said it that day, it was also a heartfelt prayer.

-x-

Assembled, we stood in silence, waiting for the Sinspawn to approach close enough for the attack. Sin itself hung back in the distance, almost as if it was waiting for some signal. I had never seen the mighty monster itself, only its spawn, and those not since I was a child. But I found that I was not afraid. Nervous, yes, but also almost excited. I had trained for this moment my whole life; now, it was here. Part of me had been hoping that it would never arrive, but given that it had, I welcomed the opportunity to test myself. I glanced over to Jass, standing on my right, the light rapier he favored drawn, and caught similar anticipation in his pale blue eyes.

"Ready?" I asked him under my breath.

"As I'll ever be," he said, a ghost of a smile flashing across his face.

"Fire!" Kal shouted from atop the bluff, and a fleet of arrows passed over our heads and into the sea, cutting down Sinspawn. Magical thunder and fire blazed through the teeming mass as well. But for every one that fell, three scrambled out of the water and onto the beach, where Crusader swords and spears awaited them. The Crusaders held the line for several moments, and I took the opportunity to assess the enemy. The fiends were bug-like in appearance, with many-jointed legs, hard carapaces, and antennae, all covered in sharp spikes. Wicked-looking mandibles snapped in front of their gray heads. I watched the Crusaders in battle and noticed that only the heaviest swords could pierce the exoskeletons — lighter blades seemed to bounce off.

"Go for the eyes and underbellies!" I yelled. "Use magic if you have it." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jass nod and repeat the advice to the swordsmen standing around him. Then there was no more time for talking as the first wave rushed us.

Everything went so fast that I didn't really have time to make conscious decisions. My katana was heavy enough to crack the Sinspawn's natural armor a blow or two, but it took too many swings to hack clear through. Much more efficient to stab it in the eye, or find the gap between head and carapace and decapitate it, or to kick it over and slash through the soft underbelly. Spikes ripped at my arms and legs, and once a sharp mandible caught my chest, but I beat the monster back and kept to my feet. I was dimly aware of Jass fighting beside me and of arrows and spells whizzing past my head, but I concentrated on killing whatever creature happened to be in front of me.

Eventually, I had a moment to breathe. I looked around at the diminishing horde of Sinspawn — were we actually winning this battle? Why hadn't Sin attacked? I turned out toward the sea, checking on the fearsome monster. It seemed to be pulling into itself, perhaps in preparation for something. A dimly remembered lecture suddenly popped into my mind. "Everyone get down!" I shouted, and in a moment that was half training, half instinct, I started to duck. Halfway to the ground, I was hit by a huge shockwave. Thrown backwards with great velocity, I felt an explosion in my head and knew nothing more.

-x-

"Auron. Auron!" A familiar voice called to me through the blackness, and I felt an odd tingling in my chest. "Open your eyes."

I did so, and regretted it as intense pain shot through my head. The world swam before me, and I started to retreat back into unconsciousness.

"No, Auron, stay with me! Come now, it's time to wake up."

I groaned but obeyed the order — something told me that the voice was right. I squinted against the brightness, and a face that I knew came into focus before me: long brown hair, concerned blue eyes. "Braska?" I said weakly as I tried to sit up.

"Yes, it's me," he replied, supporting my head as he helped me into a sitting position. His other hand rested over my heart, and I realized it had been the source of the tingling sensation. "I arrived a few minutes ago. Just in time, apparently."

Memories of the morning flooded back to me. "Sin… the Maester? My men?" I tried to look around, but every move sent another wave of agony through my body.

"Relax," said Braska. "Sin is gone, and the battle is over; the Maester is fine. You were knocked out, and I had to use a revival spell on you. Don't try to move yet, you're still a bit weak." He produced a small flask of green liquid, lifted it to my lips, and poured a few drops in my mouth. I swallowed and felt a little better. He placed the flask in my hand and a water skin next to me as he stood. "Here, drink the rest of this — slowly, please. It's stronger than the healing potions you're used to, and you don't want to shock your system."

I smiled at him, or tried to. "Like drinking sake?"

He returned the smile, but it did not extend to his eyes. "Finish that, then have some water, but don't go anywhere — I'll come back to check on you in a minute."

Obediently, I drained the flask in small increments. With each sip, the pain receded a little more, and by the time I finished, I felt strong enough to stand. I knew Braska meant well, but I couldn't just sit here when I hadn't seen to the safety of the Maester or the soldiers under my command. I was awake and had all my limbs; anything else could wait. I gulped some water and took in the grim scene.

Broken bodies littered the beach, both human and Sinspawn. A few priests wandered among them, healing the injured, praying for the fallen. I thought I saw Father Shon laying his hands on a young woman. My heart sank at the sight. How many Crusaders had died here today?

I couldn't spare many thoughts for them, though — my own men came first. I glanced around the spot where I fell and saw no one, although I did find my sword and helm. There was a serious dent in the back of the latter. "No wonder I was out," I muttered, picking up the now-useless piece of armor. "Must have hit my head on a rock when I went down." I tossed it back to the ground and grabbed my sword instead, cleaned it as best I could, and then sheathed it. I turned toward the temple entrance and saw the Maester standing there with Captain Barrin, as well as Kal and several other Gray Squad members. My next breath came easier, and I strode toward them.

Kal saw me coming and ran to intercept me. There was an ugly gash on his left cheek, but he looked otherwise unharmed. "Auron! Praise Yevon you're awake. Father Braska said you were badly hurt."

"I was, I think, but he patched me up. I'll be fine. How about you?"

"Just a few scratches. Aren't you supposed to be resting?" He rested a hand on my arm, but I shrugged it off.

"I'll rest later," I said. "What about the rest of the squad? Where's Jass?" I could see Kal's hard swallow. "Kal? What is it?"

He closed his eyes and turned away. "Auron…"

Dread settled in my soul as I realized what the truth must be. "Take me to him," I said. "Now."

He led me to the tent reserved for the dead and dying. With every face I recognized, my heart became heavier. Captain Ishika gave me a particular pang — promoted to captain only a few hours ago, now she would never have an opportunity to enjoy her success. Kal stepped over each, stopping short at one point at the side of one of his archers. He stooped down and laid a hand on the dead man's forehead, dipping his head in prayer. Then he looked up to me and pointed toward the back. Braska was there, kneeling over a pallet. He saw me coming over and stood, halting me with a hand against my chest as I approached.

"I'm not sure you're strong enough to be up and about yet," Braska said.

"Your concern is appreciated," I replied, "but I must see him."

He saw the determination in my face and stepped aside with no further comment.

Jass lay on the pallet, unseeing blue eyes facing the sky. His brown hair was matted with blood, and his breathing was labored. I knelt beside him and, taking his left hand in mine, said his name.

"Aur…" It was barely a whisper.

"I'm here." I squeezed his hand and thought I felt a flicker in response. "It's all right, Jass. Save your strength."

He might have smiled. "I… won't need it… much longer. Brac?"

"He's safe," I assured him. "So is the temple. You did well."

A small nod and a sigh. "So thirsty…"

I took the skin from my belt, then held it to his lips. As he swallowed, I searched for Braska and found him standing on the other side of the wounded man's body. I met his eyes and asked the silent question.

He held my gaze for a moment, then looked at the ground with a tiny shake of his head.

I returned my attention to Jass. His breathing grew ever more shallow. I spoke quietly to him, meaningless words that I hoped brought some comfort. Kal soon knelt behind me, a hand resting on my back; I was grateful for his presence. Before long, Jass jerked with a rattling gasp, and his hand tightened in mine, a dying man making one last effort to grasp at a life slipping away. Then his grip went limp, and he was gone.

I looked at the face of my friend for another moment, then drew my hand over it, closing his eyes. Bowing my head, I said a silent prayer for his safe journey to the Farplane. Then I released his hand and stood.

"I am sorry," said Braska, and the regret was plain in his voice. "His head injuries were just too severe. I used a healing spell for the pain, but there was nothing more I could do."

I nodded, my heart empty of emotion. "Thank you for making him comfortable." I turned to Kal. "Are any other Gray Squad members still alive in here?" He shook his head. "In that case, we should return to the Maester." We left the tent, and Braska followed.

Maester Brac stood in front of the temple, deep in conversation with Barrin and a Crusader. The survivors of Gray Squadron looked on in the background — just over half remained. "Auron, you're wounded," the Maester said as we approached.

I glanced down at myself for the first time — I'd been too preoccupied with concern for my men to really take inventory of my own injuries. My coat was in tatters, ripped in a thousand places by the sharp legs and antennae of the Sinspawn. The monster that had bitten my chest appeared to have sundered my armor, resulting in a long gash. Dozens of tiny scrapes and scratches covered my arms. I reached up to the back of my head and found a noticeable bump, but my glove was free of blood when I checked it. "All minor injuries, your grace," I said. "I hit my head when I fell, but the helm protected me from the brunt of it, and Father Braska took care of the rest." I bowed to him. "I am pleased to see that you are safe."

"Thanks to you and your men," he replied. "I heard that Lieutenant Jass was mortally injured?" I nodded, and he bowed his head. "I grieve for him, along with the others we lost today."

"Thank you." I wasn't ready to think about that yet. "Your grace, I have a request."

"Make it," said the Maester.

"Now that your safety is assured, I wish to check on my family in Tzeki Village. The swarm of Sinspawn that Commander Kinoc followed was headed in that direction. I know that my first duty is to you, but I have a duty to them as well. I must know if they are safe."

Maester Brac nodded, then turned to Braska. "Father, is the captain recovered enough to travel?"

Braska bowed to the Maester. "Your grace, I would advise against it if I thought it would stop him from going. However, knowing Captain Auron as I do, I doubt that my opinion on the matter will make much difference."

"Hmph!" The Maester almost smiled at that — he knew me just as well as Braska did. "I suspect you are correct. All right, Auron, you may go, as long as you don't overexert yourself. I will leave here as soon as the sending is completed. Meet me at the shoopuf station when you are finished, and we will make for Bevelle. Some haste will be required – we need to gather the command to discuss the return of Sin as soon as possible. But I can spare you for a few hours."

I bowed deeply. "My utmost thanks, your grace. I will not compel my men to come along."

"No need," said Kal from my left elbow. "We'll join you."

I looked at him, then the remains of my squad. "You don't need to do this."

"You're wrong, sir," said Rickard, who was standing behind the Maester. "It's the least we can do." I saw nods all around.

Maester Brac did smile then. "You should be proud to inspire such loyalty in your men."

"I am, your grace," I said, lowering my head. "I am."

Chapter Text

Five swordsmen, two archers, and two mages followed me as we marched to the Moonflow, Kal walking by my side. He had filled me in on what had happened after I fell unconscious — following the deadly shockwave, Sin had simply turned away and disappeared into the sea. The survivors had killed the rest of the Sinspawn, but no one knew what had caused Sin to break off its attack. After he finished the tale, no one spoke. Part of me knew that I should be grieving for Jass and the others, but I could spare no thought for them, consumed as I was with worry for Relle and my family. Kinoc had promised to protect them, but what if he hadn’t made it in time? Without the Crusaders, if the fishermen were out, there’s be almost no one able to protect those who remained. And what good would an assembly of fishermen and tradespeople be against Sinspawn anyway? It took all my control not to scream with the tension, or break into a run. As it was, I had my men traveling as fast as they could manage, weary from fighting. It took us almost three hours to get there.

As we approached Tzeki from the shoopuf station, we began to see the iron gray Sinspawn bodies littering the ground, interspersed with the occasional fallen Crusader. Soon, I could hear sounds of fighting. "Gray Squad, prepare to attack!" I called, drawing my weapon. They all responded in kind, silently. I could see a group of Crusaders ringing the town, creating a perimeter to protect the village from Sinspawn. The tactic seemed mostly effective, but there were too many of the monsters for it to keep all of them from getting through. I stopped for a moment, preparing to examine the situation, when I heard a piercing scream.

"Kera!" Then I did run, unable to not race to my sister’s aid. I was rushed by a small group of the beetle-like beasts, but I barely noticed as I cut through them. In seconds, I was emerging in the town square. Kera, sobbing on her knees, held something tightly to her. Relle stood in front of her, attempting to hold off a small spawn with a large kitchen knife. I raced to them and took out the creature with a single sword stroke, slicing off its head. Then I noticed the reason for Kera’s distress — Paine was in her arms, unconscious. Relle looked at me for a moment, relief flooding across her face, then went to Kera. There was no time to determine exactly what was going on — another small horde was rushing us. I stood on one side of them, and Kal, who had followed me, took the other. We protected the small group with sword and bow: Kal shot down Sinspawn before they could get too close, then I swept aside any that broke through. Within minutes, the creatures were all dead. I returned my sword to its scabbard and turned to Kera, who held her daughter and wept. Paine had been roused, and she was crying, too. It was a good sign, and I sighed with relief.

"It’s okay," said Relle, standing next to me. "She was hurt pretty badly, but I grabbed some potions from Dix’s stock. I’ll have to find some way to pay him back. Maybe Paine’s life will be enough." She gave this entire speech in an odd, emotionless tone, her gaze never leaving the ground.

I laid my hands on her shoulders. "Are you all right?" I asked.

She nodded, then met my eyes. "No," she said, and burst into tears.

Any concern I might have had for appearances evaporated as I drew her into my arms. She wrapped hers around my neck as she sobbed. "So scared, I was so scared. Xan and the others gone, no one here who could protect us, those bugs swarming everywhere, we couldn’t get inside, then the Crusaders came and Kinoc said that you sent them, that you couldn’t come yourself because you were fighting Sin at Djose, and so then I was afraid for you, too, and then Paine was hurt and now you’re here and it’s all over but I’m still scared!" She cried even harder, and I tightened my embrace, whispering endearments in her ear. It didn’t matter so much what I said; I knew she just needed to hear my voice, to be reassured that I was really here with her.

"Oh Auron," she said, looking in my eyes again, gently touching the chest cut, "I’m so terrified that something will happen to you. All these wounds… You could be badly hurt, or even k-killed…"

"I’m a soldier," I responded, gently brushing a tendril of hair out of her face. "I thought you knew what that meant."

"I d-do," she said, hiccuping. "But it was different before. Somehow, the fact that you’ll be fighting Sin now makes it more real that you might die."

I stroked her head and touched my lips to her brow. "I can’t make any promises. All I can say is that I will do my best, that if it is at all in my power, I will come home to you. All right?" She nodded. "It looks like the danger has passed; let me walk you home." I turned to Kal. In all the years we had known each other, I had never told him about Relle; if he was surprised by the tender moment he had just witnessed, he didn’t let it show. "I’ll be back in a few minutes — keep an eye on things here." He saluted, then went to help tend to wounded villagers and Crusaders.

Soon, we were standing in front of her door. I took in the face I loved so much, beautiful even when tear-streaked and creased with worry and fear. I had been planning to say something reassuring, but no words came. Instead, I buried a hand in her hair and lowered my head to kiss her.

She kissed me back, her lips parting under mine, intense and passionate. The terrors of the day mingled with years of pent-up desire as I responded in kind. Tasting tears and sweat and her sweet breath, I pulled out the pins holding up her hair, and I felt it slither down over my arms. Her hands tightened on my back, pulling me closer to her, and I pressed the full length of my body against hers. My mouth traveled over her face, kissing her brow, her temples, her eyelids, her warm neck. She moaned into my ear, and I pulled back just enough to look at her again. My only thoughts were of her: of wanting to feel every inch of her soft skin, to make love to her for hours, to remind both of us that we were still alive. I wanted to lose myself in her arms and forget the death that surrounded me. I stared deeply into her eyes and saw the same need, burning just as brightly.

"Relle," I whispered.

"I love you," she responded, laying a gentle palm on my cheek. Then she drew me back down to her for another kiss, and there was nothing gentle about it. Her tongue probed for mine, tearing a groan from my throat. The embers of desire whipped into a roaring flame, and we kissed as though our lives depended on it. Perhaps, in that moment, they did…

"Captain?"

I nearly jumped at the sound of Kal behind me. His voice trailed off as I turned around. I let go of Relle and took a step away from her, clearing my throat. "What is it, Lieutenant?" I asked, taking refuge in formality.

"Commander Kinoc has returned, sir," he replied. "The Sinspawn have been defeated. We should be moving out soon, but he said he needs to talk with you first."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," I said. "Please tell the commander that I’ll be there in a few minutes."

"Aye, Captain." Kal saluted and walked away. When he was out of sight, I turned back to Relle. She stood perfectly still, a hand covering her mouth, her eyes round with some emotion I couldn’t decipher. I felt a rush of shame — I had come so close to breaking my vows, right then and there. If Kal hadn’t come along…

"I have to go," I said, my voice rough.

She dropped the hand from her face and reached it out to me, taking my gloved fingers in hers. "Can’t you stay, just for a little while longer? I need you. And I think you need me, too."

Shaking my head, I stepped back, dropping her hand, forcing myself to deny the truth of her words. I didn’t dare even touch her again, not when my control hung by a thread like this. "No. No, I can’t."

"Please," she said, her tone breaking my heart. "Please…"

With all my will, I resisted the overpowering urge to do as she asked, to reach out to her and enfold her in my arms and take her to her bed, or maybe not even bother with the bed. "I can’t!" I said again, almost a shout this time as my temper rose. "Please don’t ask me again."

Relle’s pained eyes bore into me. Then she fled into her house, slamming the door behind her.

My anger, borne of fear, grief, and frustration mixed with horror at what I had almost done, died instantly. "Idiot!" I said under my breath. "Are you trying to drive her away?" I took a step toward the cottage, meaning to apologize, to better explain myself, but I stopped. Even seeing her would be a risk right now — I needed to get myself back under control. I would fix things later, when our emotions weren’t running quite so hot. So I walked back to the center of town, taking deep breaths in a futile attempt to calm myself.

Kinoc was in the town square, helping my remaining mages and some Crusaders heal the injured. Kera was still there, too; her tears had subsided and she sat quietly, Paine in her arms, watching. Sudden, uncontrollable fury surged again as I stalked over to Kinoc and grabbed him by the collar. "You said you would protect them!" I growled. "Then when I arrive, my niece is half-dead, my sister is in hysterics, and Relle is fighting Sinspawn with a knife! What happened!"

"Easy, friend, easy!" Kinoc raised his hands in surrender. "Let me explain."

I dropped my hand and stepped back, folding my arms.

Kinoc straightened his tunic. "We got here and drove the main group out of town, but then it looked like the Spawn were headed back toward the temple. I led the Knights in pursuit, leaving the others here for defense. There must have been another wave after we left."

"I’m sorry," I said, my rage subsiding as quickly as it had appeared. "I know you must have done your best. I shouldn’t have jumped on you, it’s just…" I drew my hand down over my face, the feelings of grief I had been suppressing all afternoon finally catching up with me. "I lost Jass at Djose."

Kinoc’s face twisted in sympathy. "I’m sorry to hear that. He was a fine officer."

"The Maester and the temple are safe, Yevon be thanked, but casualties were high. Over half of my squad dead or too wounded to follow, including Jass, and maybe a third of the Crusaders and Second Djose — I don’t know exactly how many, we had to leave before any casualty reports could be started. Any word yet on losses here?"

"Not too bad," he replied. "Maybe a dozen, included the wounded. And few fatalities among the villagers, praise Yevon — assuming your niece is all right? Does she need to be healed?"

"She’s fine. Relle got potions into her in time." He relaxed, and I let out a shuddering breath that I hadn’t even realized I was holding. "I should pull my squad together. We’re supposed to meet Maester Brac at the shoopuf station and return to Bevelle — now that Sin is back, we need to draw up a plan for defense."

Kinoc looked to the sky. "Getting kind of late to take off now, isn’t it? You won’t get halfway to Guadosalam before nightfall." The ceremony had started in the morning, but fighting and travel had taken up a full day. I glanced at the sun; dusk was only a few hours away. "I was planning on setting up camp here for the night, both to rest and to keep watch for fiends — there’s no summoner here, so things could get hairy later. You and the rest of Gray Squad are welcome to bunk with us, if you like."

I shook my head. "The Maester is expecting us, and he’s traveling unguarded but for a few Crusaders. "

"Auron, you’re exhausted. I’m sure your squad is, too. You really ought to stay, rest up, spend the night with your family. I’m sure the Maester would under–"

I cut him off with an arm motion and stepped closer to him. "Don’t tempt me, Kinoc!" I said through clenched teeth, my hands tightening into fists. He looked startled by my passionate tone. "I can’t stay. If I did, it’s not my family I’d be spending the night with!"

"Ah." He stroked his beard. "All right. It wouldn’t do to leave the Maester waiting without explanation, I suppose, although you do realize that you’ll also have to explain why you didn’t want to spend tonight here."

I sighed. "I know. I’ll think of something." I looked around the square, and saw the daily fishing trip returning. "I’m going to go check in with my sister and her husband, then we’d better move out."

Kinoc nodded. "Let me know before you leave. And promise you won’t push yourself too hard — just get across the river. There are some good campsites not far from the other side."

"Right. Thanks for everything you did today. You probably saved my home." I bowed to him, and he saluted in return. Then he clapped my shoulder.

"Think nothing of it, my friend," he said. "Just remember today the next time you see action in Luca."

I managed a weak smile. "Of course."

"Auron? Is that you?" I heard a panicked shout from across the square and saw Xan running toward me. I quickly walked up to him and put my hands on his arms.

"It’s all right, Xan," I said. "There was a Sinspawn attack here today, but the Crusaders got here before they could do much harm."

All the color drained from his face. "Sin?" he asked weakly.

"Yes. Now listen — everyone is fine now, but Paine was hurt. Relle got some potions into her before any permanent damage could happen. Kera’s over on the edge of the square, you should go to her." I hadn’t even finished the sentence before Xan saw his wife and ran over to her. He held his little girl, then brought Kera into his arms. I considered going over to them but was reluctant to interrupt the family moment. Then Kera caught my eye with an invitation.

"Kera," I whispered as I reached her, then gathered her into a fierce hug.

"Auron. Oh dear Yevon, you’re hurt…" She took in my cuts and scrapes, her gaze lingering on the slash across my chest.

"I’m fine; the priests at the temple already took care of me. It’s all much worse than it looks," I reassured her.

"Then thank Yevon you’re safe, that we’re all safe. Paine…" and she choked up again.

"Father only stocks the best potions," I said. "Everyone will be all right." A sudden thought occurred to me. "Where is Father, anyway?"

"On business in Guadosalam. He wasn’t planning to come back for a few days."

"Ah. That’s a relief." I released her.

Paine looked up at me from her seat on the ground, her eyes grave. "Uncle Auron? Are you all right?"

I reached down to smooth her hair. "Just fine, thank you. I’m glad you’re okay, too. But next time, go into the house and stay there, all right?" She nodded soberly, then stood up to throw her small arms around my neck. I patted her back, then turned to Kera.

"I have to leave soon. Promise me that you’ll check on Relle later?"

Xan looked at us. "Is she okay?"

I glanced at him as Paine let go of me and returned to her mother’s lap. "She’s not hurt, but she was badly frightened. I don’t think she should be alone tonight."

"All right," said Kera, clearly disapproving. "But we’re not who she needs, and you know it."

I cast down my eyes. "I know. But I can’t be there for her right now. Not the way she needs me to be."

"How much longer are you going to make her wait, Auron? She’s wasting away here without you…"

"Don’t start with me!" I snapped, standing up and casting the full force of a glare at her. "Not now. Do you know how many good men I lost today?"

The fire in her eyes died. "Oh… little brother," she whispered. "I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking."

"It’s all right," I said. "We’ve all had a hard day."

-x-

Maester Brac was waiting at the shoopuf station, a small team of Crusaders in tow, when I arrived with my squad. "Is everything all right?" he asked.

"Yes. Praise Yevon, and thanks to Kinoc, the village stands and my family is well."

"I am glad to hear it." We boarded the shoopuf, and I sighed deeply as I settled onto the bench, sitting between Kal and the Maester. It was the first opportunity I’d had to rest since regaining consciousness. Yet I found that I couldn’t. Every time I tried to relax, I saw Jass’s dead eyes, staring. Or the look on Relle’s face just before she ran away from me. In an attempt to block the images out, I pressed my knuckles into my eyes, and to my chagrin found that they were wet. I tried to suppress the reaction, but a single sob escaped my lips despite my best efforts.

The Maester turned to look at me. "Are you all right?"

"Sorry, I know I shouldn’t… especially in front of the men…" I turned away to hide the tears I could no longer hold back.

Maester Brac placed a finger below my chin and lifted my face to his. His eyes were filled with compassion. "No. Do not apologize. Auron, Kal. Hear this now." Kal lifted his head from his hands — he had not been crying, but his face was a mask of misery. "As an officer, you hold the lives of the men you command in your hands. It is right that you should grieve when those lives are lost — it means that you value them, that you will not give them up too cheaply. By mourning openly, you honor their sacrifice. Good warriors will understand this and respect you all the more. It is a mark of a superior officer."

I nodded, calmer now as I wiped my eyes. "Thank you, your grace," I said. "I will remember."

The rest of the ride passed in silence. A few hours later, we made camp for the night. I prowled around the fire, restless, the events of the day playing over and over in my mind. Eventually, Kal took me by the arm. "Let’s take a walk," he said.

When we had gotten some distance away from the main encampment, I stopped and turned to him. "Damn it all!" I shouted. "Why? Why did it have to be Jass?"

He shook his head sorrowfully. "I don’t know. Why any of them?"

The anger started to boil up again. "Jass… He was so young… only nineteen… one of the best men I ever served with, and now he’s dead and there isn’t a damn thing I could have done to save him!" I whirled around with a roar and slammed my fist into the nearest tree with all my strength. I felt skin scrape off my knuckles as they crashed into the rough bark; there was something satisfying about the pain, so I punched the trunk again. I would have done it a third time if Kal hadn’t caught my arm as I drew it back.

Suddenly, it was all too much. A terrible wave of grief crested and broke within me, and I could deny it no more. I fell to my knees, sobbing, hot tears pouring from my eyes.

Kal knelt down next to me, pulling me into his arms, and I clung to him, burying my face in his shoulder as we wept together for our fallen comrades.

Chapter Text

I woke early the next morning. Kal and I had staggered back to camp after about an hour in the forest, exhausted but calm, supporting each other as we walked. My men said nothing about it, but they all treated us both with care and consideration — an extra ladle of stew here, an encouraging word or pat on the shoulder there. Maester Brac had excused both of us from watches that night, and I slept like a rock. My head ached, probably a delayed reaction from the knock I had taken the day before, but otherwise I felt much better.

Kal sat alone by the campfire. The cut on his cheek had scabbed over but was still an angry red; I wondered with a pang whether it would leave a permanent scar. He poked at the coals with a stick as he drank his coffee. I knelt next to him and poured myself a mug. "How are you?" I asked.

"Better," he said, flashing a quick smile. "You?"

"Yes," I replied. "Thank you."

He nodded. After a long pause, he looked at me. "Can I ask you something? You can tell me to butt out if you want."

"Go ahead." I lifted my cup and drank.

"Who is she?"

I swallowed my mouthful of coffee, then took another sip, using the time to collect my thoughts. I had been expecting this question; I just needed to decide how to respond. "Arelle was my girl before I was sworn," I said eventually. "As soon as I'm offered a command, I plan to send for her. I was concerned that being betrothed could hurt my chances for advancement, so I've kept her existence quiet. Kinoc and Braska are the only others who know."

"I see." He finished off his drink, then turned the empty mug around in his hand. "I'm sorry I interrupted you like that yesterday."

"Don't be," I said, staring into the flames. "It was… fortunate… that you appeared when you did."

Kal stood and stretched, tossing the stick into the fire. "Ah. Well, don't worry. I won't tell anyone."

-x-

We broke camp in near silence. The mood was sober, though lighter than it had been the previous night. Maester Brac finished his breakfast and joined me as I observed.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Refreshed, your grace. I thank you for your excellent advice. I still grieve, but my soul is no longer crushed by the weight of it."

"I'm pleased to hear that." The Maester buried his arms in the folds of his sleeves. "But I hope you understand that there is a time to show grief, and there is a time to inspire your men to move forward."

I understood his point right away. "And this morning is the latter."

He nodded, a pleased smile gracing his lips.

I walked over to where our standard had been planted and looked up at the banner, which twitched in the gentle morning air. After a moment, I pulled it up, then carried it to the center of camp.

"Gray Squad!" I called. The men all stopped what they were doing and turned to me, Kal setting down the bucket he was about to use to douse the fire.

I looked at each face. "Every time Sin is defeated and a Calm comes, we have hope: hope that this will be the Eternal Calm, that we have finally atoned for our past mistakes and Sin will never return. Yesterday, that hope was lost, and we mourned. Today, we move on."

I slammed the point of the standard into the earth. The pole trembled for a moment, then was still. The flag floated in the slight breeze, drawing every eye.

"Gray Squadron will stand its ground! We will protect the Maester under our care from all threats, including Sin itself, even if the price is our lives." I bowed my head for a moment. "Many of our number gave themselves willingly yesterday for this cause. We will honor their sacrifice by remembering their bravery and continuing their work." I looked up again and met Kal's eyes. He nodded slowly, then hefted the bucket and threw a cascade of water over the campfire. It hissed and spitted as it died.

I pulled my sword from its scabbard and brandished it over my head. "Yevon be with us!" My men copied my gesture and echoed my cry. "Gray Squad, move out!"

-x-

Rikku shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

"Madam Rikku!" the artist, a woman named Mellie, said impatiently. "How many times do I have to ask you not to do that?"

"Sorry." She'd been sitting quietly for almost an hour, and it went completely against the grain. She wished to be somewhere else, anywhere else: on the Celsius with Buddy, helping Gippal set up machina systems in Kilika Port — even arguing with Brother in New Home would be an improvement. Mellie sat opposite, holding a sketchbook and studying her, occasionally reaching for a different colored pencil and making a few deliberate strokes. "How much longer?"

Mellie sighed. "Please don't talk. It will only be a few more minutes if you just keep still."

Rikku started to nod, then caught herself.

"Hey Mellie!" Rikku noticed Tidus walking toward them, Liss by his side. "Can I talk to you for a sec?"

The painter blew a strand of hair out of her face. "Of course, sir." She put down her sketchbook and went to meet him.

"Finally," Rikku sighed, reaching her arms over her head in a huge stretch. Then she checked out to the huge canvas propped against a nearby easel. The figures had all been sketched in; these latest sessions were for Mellie to record the details of facial features. Yuna's six guardians formed a rough line in the painting: Tidus and Lulu in the middle, Rikku and Wakka on either side of them, Kimahri and Auron standing guard at either end. So far, almost all of the work was still in pencil, so the few strokes of test color really stood out — the blue of Kimahri's fur, Tidus's old yellow blitz uniform, Wakka's bright hair. Mellie was really quite talented; not only was each image a good likeness, she had captured the essence of each personality, even in these unfinished sketches.

Well, except for Auron, Rikku decided. The figure was mostly a generic shape at this point; he could have been any muscular six-foot tall man holding a gigantic sword over his shoulder. Mellie hadn't even made an attempt to draw his face yet, and Rikku wondered how the artist would manage it. Tuning in to the discussion going on behind her, she realized that the others were covering much the same topic.

"It's an interesting idea, sir," said Mellie, "but I'm not convinced. She may resemble him, but the underlying personality is completely different. The painting would probably end up looking like milady in costume rather than Sir Auron himself. Not to mention the fact that her features are feminine, whereas I assume Sir Auron's were not?"

"Most definitely not," Rikku muttered, thinking back to the guardian's usually stern, often forbidding, undoubtedly male countenance.

"Besides," Mellie continued, "I understand that his face was nearly covered by the armored collar that he always wore, not to mention his dark glasses. The details of facial features won't matter much because they'll be largely hidden. Thank you for the offer, milady, Sir Tidus, but I think not. I'd prefer to do a few studies based on the descriptions of those who knew him best, then get your feedback on which representation is the most accurate."

Tidus laced his hands behind his head. "Okay," he said. "You're the artist. So are you finished with us for the day?"

"I think I've had enough time with you both for now," Mellie replied, "but if you don't mind taking a few more minutes, why don't you tell me about Sir Auron?"

-x-

Our return trip to Bevelle had been uneventful. Word of Sin's return preceded us, and the commanders and high priests from Luca and Macalania beat us there. Scala, who was now second in command, had already started drawing up defense plans with them, along with the High Commander and the commander of Bevelle Garrison. The Besaid and Kilika contingents followed us by a day; Gibson arrived from Djose a day after that, along with Kinoc and several other Crusader commanders. We immediately sequestered ourselves in council, discussing plans for defending the temples and towns of Spira. Although I didn't hold a commander's rank, I was involved in these sessions — being the leader of Maester Brac's personal guard gave me more influence than the average captain.

The night after the last members of the war council arrived, I was meditating in my quarters in preparation for bed when I heard a knock. I blew out the candle I had been using for focus and turned up my lamp, then answered the door. Kinoc stood there, still looking strange to me in a Crusader uniform.

"Sorry, were you asleep? I can come back tomorrow." I shook my head and ushered him inside. He looked sideways at me. "It's been ages since I've seen you with your hair down; I'd forgotten how long it is. Isn't it a lot of trouble to keep it that way?"

I pushed some of the loose black strands back from my face, then closed the door. "No more trouble than getting it cut every few weeks would be." I shrugged. "What can I say? It's my idiosyncrasy."

Kinoc grinned. "Okay. You're allowed."

"Your permission is most gratifying," I said dryly. "So what brings you here? Certainly not a conversation about my hair."

"No." I offered him the chair at my desk and he sat, while I perched on the edge of my bed. "After I spent that night in Tzeki, I went back to Djose to collect the rest of my troops. Braska gave me stern orders to check on you, by the way. How are your injuries?"

"Mostly healed," I said, inspecting the fading scratches on my arms. "I got morning headaches for the first few days, but they're getting better."

"That's good. Anyway, I left a group of foot soldiers behind to defend the village. I met up with Gibson and the rest of Crusader command at Djose; they'd heard about the battle and made haste from Mushroom Rock. We headed back, and I stopped back by the village to collect my men — I mean my fighters, sorry, this co-ed thing is going to take some getting used to — for the trip to Bevelle. While I was there, your sister gave me these." He reached into his pouch and pulled out two letters. "Sorry I didn't deliver them yesterday. I figured you'd want to receive them in private."

I took the two envelopes and examined them. One was blank; the other displayed my name in Relle's handwriting. I drew my thumb over the letters.

"Well," Kinoc said. "I expect you want to be alone now. I'll see you in the morning."

I nodded silently, not looking up. I heard him stand and open the door, and I glanced to him quickly. "Kinoc?" He paused in the doorway. "Thanks."

He smiled, then left.

I returned my eyes to the potential bombs in my hands. My fingers trembled slightly as I opened the letter from Relle.

Dearest Auron,

I hope that you returned safely to Bevelle and that this letter finds you well.

I wanted to apologize for running away like that. Though if I had stayed, we might have said or done something we'd end up regretting. And I never want you to feel regret when you think of me. Still, I'm sorry I didn't give you a chance to explain.

I do understand why you couldn't stay, although I won't pretend that my feelings weren't hurt when you left. Kinoc told me that your friend Jass died at Djose Temple, and I am so terribly sorry — I remember you always spoke highly of him. Everything that happened makes more sense now that I know how you must have been hurting, and I'm sorry if I made things worse.

Are you still expecting to take some leave next month? I look forward to seeing you if so, although I will understand if Sin's return keeps you in Bevelle.

Stay safe for me. My most heartfelt prayers are with you, now and always.

Love,
Arelle

I put the letter down on the bed and let out a relieved sigh. I'd been half afraid that she would tell me to go to hell, and I wouldn't have really blamed her for it. I owed her a significant apology, but I'd been putting off making it. I decided to write a note of my own before going to sleep that night.

Then I read the other letter, and my relief ebbed.

Come home, Auron.

Relle won't admit it, but I can tell she's very hurt. She needed you. You rejected her, then left without saying goodbye. Frankly, in her shoes I'm not sure I'd be willing to forgive you, but she seems to want to. That's her decision. But you should make some effort to meet her part way.

I can't stand seeing her like this. I love her so much, and it tears me apart that she's in such pain, especially when my own brother is the cause. Please, please make things right with her. Come home, or invite her to Bevelle. It's time.

I love you, little brother. Don't make me come over there and kick your ass.

It was unsigned.

I frowned in concern. Relle's words seemed genuine, but sometimes Kera could see things in Relle that she wouldn't admit to herself. I glanced over Kera's note again and concluded that both letters were likely true: Relle did understand, but she was also upset. I would have to walk a very delicate balance in writing my response to her. Which is why I'd been avoiding the blasted task in the first place.

"Damn," I muttered aloud. "This is all coming at a very bad time." I certainly couldn't get away now, and I probably wouldn't be able to take my upcoming leave. I had a Maester to defend and a decimated squad to rebuild. Sending for Relle wasn't really an option, either. If I didn't even have time to visit home right now, I certainly couldn't deal with a wedding. And I had a feeling that a command offer was very close. Many promotion and retirement rumors had been swirling around Bevelle lately, even before the reappearance of Sin. No one had said anything to me outright, but many hints had been dropped in private conversations between planning sessions over the last few days.

Was it worth getting a command if it meant losing Relle? Was it worth being with Relle if it meant giving up hope of a command? Would I have to break one vow to honor the other? I thought back on Braska's advice, long ago, about decisions and regret. I hadn't known then how true it was.

I stood up and paced across the room. This was too big a problem to solve tonight. Best to meditate and pray on it, then rest; maybe my mind would be clearer in the morning. I turned off my lamp, re-lit the candle, and sat at my desk in the darkness, blocking out everything but the tiny flame in front of me.

"Yevon guide me," I murmured as I released my thoughts. "Show me which path to follow."

Some time later, peace descended on my worried mind and troubled soul, and an answer came to me.

Chapter Text

Kera sat in front of her cottage, mending in the late afternoon sunshine and watching Paine with the neighbors. They were playing at swordfighting, as usual, Paine waving the new wooden sword that Auron had sent as a gift for her fifth birthday — she had lost interest in dolls already. Another warrior in the family, Kera thought with a silent sigh. Wasn't one enough? She tied off her last stitch, then stood up. "Paine! Come in and wash up. It's time to make dinner."

Paine obeyed. She paused in the doorway, looking up at her mother. "Mom, when I grow up, can I be a warrior monk like Uncle Auron?"

Kera smiled and smoothed Paine's hair. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but girls aren't allowed to be warrior monks. You could be a Crusader, though." Not for the first time, she wondered why her brother hadn't just joined the Crusaders and avoided all of this nonsense about vows and secret engagements. But no, he had to go the noble, difficult route. As always.

"Okay." Paine went into the house. Kera was about to turn and follow her, when an approaching figure caught her eye. It was a warrior monk, garbed in orange, with a longbow strapped across his back, and he was striding toward her.

"Can I help you?" Kera asked. Her heart started pounding with the same fear she felt with every unexpected message from Bevelle.

"Are you Kera?" She nodded. He saluted, then removed his helm to reveal tousled brown hair streaked with blond, a friendly face, and a recent scar on his left cheek. He looked too cheerful to be delivering bad news, and Kera decided it was safe to breathe. The officer looked familiar — was this one of the men who'd been in the village for the Sinspawn attack? "Lieutenant Kal, at your service, milady. I come with a message from your brother, Captain Auron."

"Tell me," she said.

"He asked me to tell you that he has made a full recovery from the injuries he sustained in the battle at Djose and that he has been well since. However, given recent events he will be unable to take the leave he had planned for next month. He sends his apologies and hopes to make up for it soon. Also, I have a letter."

The lieutenant held out an envelope, and Kera took it. "Arelle" was written across the front in Auron's neat hand. She raised her eyebrows at this — normally his letters to Relle came under plain cover or bundled up with a note to the family. He must trust this particular courier. Kera bowed formally to the young man. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Did Auron really send you all this way just to tell me this?"

He smiled. "No, milady. I was being dispatched to deliver messages to Guadosalam and Djose Temple anyway. The captain asked me to make this brief side trip as a favor to him, and I was happy to help."

"Well, you have my thanks. Dinner will be ready soon; would you like to stay?"

"Thank you for the offer, milady, but I must hurry to Djose."

"All right then. Safe travel, and may Yevon be with you."

"And with you." Kal saluted again, then left.

Kera turned the letter over in her hands, fighting the temptation to open it. Instead, she walked next door to Relle's cottage and knocked. Relle cracked the door open, then pulled it wide when she saw Kera there. She had flour in her hair and a streak of berry juice across her forehead. "Come in."

Kera entered to see the kitchen table covered in dough and half-finished bowls of fruit filling everywhere. "What in the name of the fayth have you been doing?" she asked, amused.

"Making pastries for Dix," said Relle. "I swear, that man practically sells these things before they're out of the oven. Now he wants to set up some deal with Djose Temple, and I don't know that I'll be able to keep up. But I hate to refuse him, because… well, you know."

Kera did know — Relle and Dix were getting along fairly well these days thanks to their business partnership, which made life much easier for Auron. "I'll talk to him; no point in working you to death. Would you like to come have dinner with us? I'm cooking."

"Yes please," Relle said with a sigh. "I'm so tired of looking at the kitchen."

"Anyway, I came over to give you this. It just arrived from Bevelle." Kera held out the letter. Relle looked at it, then took it gingerly, opening it as if afraid it might explode. Kera watched her friend's expression carefully as she read the note. It was the same every time — first eager anticipation, her eyes hopeful that this would be the letter summoning her to Bevelle at last; her face falling as her hopes were dashed, her true feelings quickly covered by a mask of false cheerfulness. It was heartbreaking to see, and Kera was getting tired of it.

Suddenly, Relle gasped. Her hands convulsed, crumpling the paper between them.

"What?" Kera asked, reaching out to Relle. "What's wrong?"

Relle shook her head without speaking and handed Kera the letter. She took it, smoothed out the crinkles, and read.

Dear Arelle,

I received the letter that you sent via Kinoc. No apology is necessary — I take the blame for the episode entirely upon myself, and there are no words to express just how sorry I am for the way I treated you. I am glad that you understand my reasons for not staying that night, but I should never have left without saying farewell. It is true that I lost a good friend at Djose that day, along with many others of my squadron. Perhaps this fact explains my behavior, but it does not excuse it. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

These years of separation have been difficult, I know. For both of us, but perhaps more so for you. I well remember your words about understanding what you were getting into when you agreed to wait for me, but I doubt that either of us expected six years to pass with no end in sight.

So let me show you the end. For some time now, I have been planning to make you a formal offer of marriage once I receive a commander's rank. Although no one has approached me officially yet, I have a strong feeling that such a promotion will come within the next six months. Give me these six months, Relle. At the end of that time, I will send for you, whether I have been promoted or not. You have my word.

Unfortunately, it seems that I will be unable to take any leave in the near future, but I hope that the prospect of being reunited for good soon makes up for that. I will keep you updated on the situation. Be well.

All my love,
Auron

Kera's heart lurched. She looked up at Relle and saw her eyes shining with happiness. "Six months," Relle said. "Six months!"

A smile split Kera's face as she embraced her friend, and finally soon-to-be sister. "Six months, then," she whispered back.

Chapter Text

Four months to the day after writing to Relle, I was summoned to Maester Brac's quarters for dinner. We often ate together, but those meals were typically informal working affairs, and almost never in his private rooms. His invitation that night, issued by his aide in florid language, had an altogether different quality to it.

That afternoon, I cleaned my ceremonial dagger until it gleamed. I bathed, braided my hair rather than tying it up, and changed into my best uniform, hanging the dagger at my belt. The last hour, I spent in meditation, mostly to calm my nerves. At the appointed time, I went to his door, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Much to my surprise, Lorayn answered. "Hello, Captain," she said in her breathy voice, its simpering tone setting my teeth on edge, as usual. She had grown up a great deal since we had first met on the training ground, from a shy girl into a beautiful young woman of nearly twenty. But she still seemed immature to my eyes, always blushing and tittering over nothing. The fact that she had an obvious crush on me didn't help matters.

"Milady," I said politely. "Is his grace here?"

She ducked her head slightly with a giggle. "Yes, he's expecting you. Come in."

I followed her into the Maester's sitting room, where he was waiting with two glasses of sake. "Auron!" he said, standing up, a smile on his face, as I made my bow to him. He was dressed in his best robes tonight, and his snow-white hair was down, hanging nearly to his waist. He handed me a glass, then lifted his own in a toast. "To the Order."

"And to Yevon whom we defend," I answered, as custom demanded, and we drank.

"Come," he said, laying an arm across my shoulder and steering me toward the dinner table. "We have much to discuss, but shall we start with the meal?"

It was a splendid dinner: perfectly grilled fish, a salad made with bitter greens from Macalania, a light and flaky fruit pastry, and an excellent vintage of sake to wash it all down. The Maester's chef was talented, and he had pulled out all the stops tonight. Conversation was light, for the most part. We filled each other in on local gossip, discussed the latest progress in finishing Sin — a young summoner named Ginnem had received the aeon of Bevelle just a few days ago; despite concern that her only guardian was a black mage barely into her teens, the priests were hopeful, because such pairs had succeeded before and both women had talent — and caught up on family doings. I had been Maester Brac's personal captain for just over a year now, and we had gotten to know each other well. I wouldn't quite call him a friend; the difference in rank was too pronounced for that. But I certainly thought of him fondly, and I was sure he felt the same way about me.

By the time we finished eating, I was on my third glass of sake and feeling rather relaxed. Then he took one last bite of dessert and pushed aside his plate with a contented grunt. "So, Auron, you're probably wondering why I called you here tonight."

"I will always come at your request, your grace. There is no need for a reason."

He chuckled. "Nonetheless, tonight there is one." He rested his arms on the table. "I have an offer to make."

My heart immediately began to race. This was it! A command… and Relle… With all my inner strength, I hid my excitement and willed my heartbeat to slow, taking careful deep breaths. "Your grace?"

Maester Brac leaned forward in his chair. "You may be aware that High Commander Mazur is planning to retire within the next few years." I nodded; this was common knowledge and had been so for some time. "What is less well known is that Second Commander Scala is also on the verge of retirement. He took a serious wound the last time he saw battle, and he feels that he no longer has the strength to serve. Here is my proposal: I will promote you to commander, and you will take Scala's position, serving under Mazur for the next two years and learning from him — consider it an apprenticeship. When he retires, you will take his place as High Commander of the Order."

I put down my glass and looked at him, stunned to the bone. It was a command offer all right, but at a level far, far greater than I had ever believed possible. I couldn't even move, much less respond.

"Take a moment, son, I know it must be a lot to digest," Maester Brac said with a smile.

His words broke my trance. I took a small sip of sake, fortifying myself enough to speak. "Your grace, I hardly know what to say. This honor — that's not nearly a strong enough word — I am humbled that you would make me such an offer. But are you certain? I've never held a command before; do you not feel that an experienced commander would be better in the role than a mere captain?"

The Maester shook his head. "You lead Gray Squadron, Auron; that makes you more than a 'mere captain'. I've been watching you for a long time. You are ready for this, and you are the best man for the job. There is no doubt in my mind. But before you accept, there is another matter I wish to discuss with you." He pushed his chair back from the table. "As I'm sure you realize, family alliances are very important to holding power here — my son is high priest of St. Bevelle; Mazur is married to my niece; my late wife was the Grand Maester's cousin. Not only do I want you as my High Commander, I want you as part of my family. To that end, my son and I will offer his daughter's hand to you in marriage." He raised his arm in a beckoning gesture, and Lorayn appeared from the other room. She was not giggling now; she didn't even smile, her face sober but for the gleam of joy in her eyes.

An icy hand reached into my chest and squeezed as my worst fear of the last six years was realized: love and duty coming into direct and irreconcilable conflict. I quickly lowered my gaze, hoping to hide my reaction. To give up this opportunity… but what other option did I have? I couldn't marry Lorayn. It was out of the question.

"You need not give me an answer tonight," the Maester said. I risked a glance at his face and saw that he had mistaken my dismay for deepening shock. "Take a day to think about it. Seek the counsel of Yevon before you decide."

It was the first time that he had ever misread me, and I took advantage of his error. "Thank you, your grace," I said, raising my eyes to his after taking a moment to compose my face. "I am glad that you understand just how momentous this decision is. I shall return with my response to you soon."

He excused me from his quarters. I took my leave, and started to walk down the corridor in a daze.

"Aur… I mean, Captain Auron?"

I turned to see Lorayn hurrying up behind me. "Yes, milady?"

She looked at her feet, the calm mask of before already slipping. "I know you don't want to be married to me. But please don't let that stand in your way of taking this position. We can have a marriage in name only if you prefer. Just give me a child; I don't need anything more."

For just a moment, I felt sorry for her — she must have always known that she would have no choice in the man she married. I laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "No, Lorayn. That wouldn't be fair to you. If I were to marry you, I would be your husband in truth as well as name."

Her eyes lifted, meeting mine for just a second. And then, without warning, she pulled my head down and kissed me, her lips soft and warm. Starved of female companionship and finding itself with an attractive, willing woman in its arms, my treacherous body returned the kiss before I could stop it. Then I wrenched back control and pulled away, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath.

"I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't," she whispered. "It's only… I love you."

I looked down at her. I wanted to tell this girl that she couldn't possibly love me, that she didn't understand what love was, that her emotions were a pale imitation at best. But that would be too cruel, and I didn't want to offend her. Rejecting this proposal was going to be a tricky thing; I couldn't afford a single misstep. "Good night, Lorayn," I said instead. And I walked away.

-x-

I would take my problems to Yevon soon, but first I needed some more terrestrial advice. Kinoc was in town, and I hurried to the Crusader lodge where he was staying.

He found me at the door. "Well, you're dressed up." Then he noticed my face. "What's wrong?"

I shut the door behind me as I entered the room, then gave him the details of my evening with the Maester. Kinoc crossed his arms as I finished. "Don't tell me you weren't expecting this," he said.

"What?" I said, incredulous. "Why would you say that?"

"By Yevon, Auron, don't you see the obvious?" Kinoc shook his head. "Brac has been grooming you for one thing: he's chosen you to be his successor."

A wave of dizziness struck me, and I staggered into the nearest chair. What? This couldn't possibly be... Kinoc had infallible political instincts, but this? "Are you sure?"

"Nearly positive," he assured me as he sat across from me on the bed. "I've been thinking about this for awhile, and it seems to me that he had his eye on both of us, ever since we took our vows. But he wasn't sure which of us he wanted at first. So he put us both in Gray Squadron, got to know us, then sent us on the fast track to Captain, in squads far from Bevelle and one another, to see how we handle things on our own. Surely it hasn't escaped you that we were on parallel career tracks for the first few years. But then he elevated you to lead Gray Squad and shuttled me off to the Crusaders, and I knew — he'd made his decision." He glanced away, and I thought I saw envy flash across his features. Then the moment passed, and he looked at me again, eyes calm. "I'm just surprised it didn't come sooner, since Scala's been fading for months. Maybe Sin distracted him; maybe he wanted to give you more experience with Gray Squadron; perhaps he'd hoped to cycle you through a garrison command first. But I think he's been planning this for a long time."

"Why me though?" I gripped the arms of the chair, seeking an anchor in this chaotic new world. "I have no magic, I haven't your innate sense of tactics or ability to navigate politics. So I can fling a sword around; that doesn't make me a candidate for Maester!"

"Not that alone, no, although don't underestimate the power of respect for battle prowess." Kinoc tapped his knees thoughtfully. "But you have charisma, Auron. Men follow you. I saw that in you almost as soon as we met. That, and your sense of loyalty and honor. The Maester trusts you implicitly. I wonder if he would say that about anyone else."

I stared into space and thought about everything Kinoc had said. It all made sense when he laid it out that way, and I felt like an idiot for not seeing it on my own. But then Kinoc had always been the better strategist.

"You may be right," I said, turning back to face him. "But that doesn't help answer my question. What should I do?"

"Do?" Kinoc raised his eyebrows. "Is there even a choice? Look, I know you love that girl, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime, of several lifetimes. You'd be a fool to turn it down."

I unhooked the dagger from my belt and toyed with it. "You don't think there's any way to take the position without accepting the marriage proposal?"

"Are you kidding?" He laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "Refusing the daughter of a high priest, the granddaughter of a Maester? You'd be lucky to get out with your position intact, much less receive a promotion."

"I refuse to believe that," I said, standing. "The Maester is an honorable man; surely he will understand when I tell him that I have committed myself elsewhere."

"You've committed to nothing!"

"I don't see it that way," I said, voice low but firm. "And neither will Relle."

"Maybe, but will the Maester?" Kinoc shook his head and sighed. "Fine, do as you will. It's your career to destroy. Just don't expect me to watch while you do it." He turned away, and I left, stinging from his dismissal.

-x-

I meditated for two hours before bed, but I still slept poorly. When I woke, my mind was no clearer than it had been the night before. The temple was quiet that morning, so I slipped out to go walking in the city. It was a bitterly cold winter's day, but I found the crisp air bracing. Before long, I found myself at Braska's door. I hadn't been coming here consciously, but I realized that he was the perfect person to see today.

I knocked, and the door opened on empty space. I was confused until I thought to look down. Little Yuna was standing there.

"Hi Uncle Auron!" she chirped. "How are you?"

I dropped to one knee, bringing myself closer to her height. "Just fine, Yuna. Is your father home?"

"Yes, come in." She led me inside, where Tessa was packing in the living room.

"Hey, long time no see!" Tess gave me a quick hug, which I returned.

I glanced over to her bags as I removed my coat. "Going somewhere?"

She smiled, and her whole face lit up. "I'm making my first visit to Home since I left with Braska. Cid and I have been back in contact, and he's invited me to come stay for a little while. I wish the circumstances were happier — his wife died recently, leaving him with two young children, and he needs help taking care of them. But I'm really excited to go home and see my family again. My niece is two years younger than Yuna; I've never even met her. I'll be catching a boat this afternoon."

"Are Braska and Yuna going with you?"

"No, just me this trip. Hopefully they can come along next time." She snapped her bag shut. "Braska, you have a visitor!"

He emerged from the back and came to greet me. "Hello, Auron. This is an unexpected pleasure. What brings you here?"

"I need your advice," I said. "Do you have time to talk?"

"Of course. Is this a discussion best held over tea or sake?" he asked.

"Let's start with tea; it is before noon, after all. Then I'll tell you my story, and you can decide whether to break out the sake." He laughed, and we headed for the kitchen.

-x-

Braska sat in sober silence after I had finished my tale. I told him about everything — the incident with Relle after the battle at Djose, the exchange of letters, dinner with the Maester and his offer, Kinoc's theories. "All right," he said after a pause, setting his teacup on the table. "There are a few different issues here, I think," he said. "First and foremost, the marriage offer. Are you considering accepting it?"

"Of course not! The thought never even crossed my mind!"

"Truly?" Braska's eyes captured mine, and suddenly a series of images flashed before me — a royal wedding, Lorayn dressed in a sparkling white gown, her eyes filled with tears of joy, myself wearing a commander's uniform and smiling down at her, the two of us in front of Maester Brac in all his glory, speaking our vows at the pinnacle of St. Bevelle, placing another kiss on that gentle mouth; then surveying rows of troops, hundreds of men, all under my command, Kal beside me as my second; presenting the Maester with a raven-haired great-grandson as my heart swelled with pride; an older version of myself in Maester's robes taking an oath before Mika…

I looked away. "There is a temptation, yes. But--"

The vision was replaced by a simpler scene that I had imagined often, one in which I stood before Braska in the Tzeki Village square, Relle smiling into my eyes as I held her hands and said the words I had thought a thousand times of saying to her. And I knew without a doubt which future I wanted.

"I can't marry anyone but Relle. No matter what the cost," I said, raising my face up again. "I've never been more certain of anything in my life."

Braska nodded. "That's one question answered, then. One other remains. What are you going to do about it?"

I rested my hands on the table, took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. I knew the answer, and I realized then that I always had. "The only thing I can do: tell the Maester the truth, that I am deeply honored by his offer, but that I have promised myself to another and cannot accept. Then he can do as he pleases. With luck, he will appreciate my honesty and find another, lesser, command for me, or at least let me carry on as a captain."

"And without luck?"

I shrugged. "Kinoc seems to think that a rejection puts my entire career in jeopardy. I that hard to believe, though. I know the Maester better than he does, and I can't imagine that he would destroy me over something so petty." I took a sip of tea -- it had grown cold while I was talking, and I grimaced.

"Hmm." Braska poured himself more tea, then refreshed my cup as well. "I agree that Maester Brac does not seem to be a petty man. But might he react badly if he feels his plans are being thwarted?"

I considered this possibility. It was true that I had never seen anyone seriously oppose the Maester before. "If I am honest? I don't know. Not for sure."

Braska reached across the table and covered my hand with his more delicate one. "For what it's worth, I think your plan is the right one. The only one, if you're sure that marrying Arelle is what you really want. As long as you are aware that you are risking your career, no matter how small the risk may be, and that you are content to give it up for her if you must."

I laid my other palm over our joined hands — I suspected that he was no longer talking about only me. "Are you content, my friend?" I asked softly.

He glanced at the living room, where his wife sat on the floor, playing with his daughter, and his mouth curved into a gentle smile. "Always." Then he looked back at me, his eyes serious again. "Good luck, then. My prayers are with you."

"Thank you. And thanks for listening."

"Any time."

I stood from the table, finished my tea in a single draught, and walked into the living room.

"Are you going?" Tess asked as she stood. I nodded. "Well, see you after my trip, then. I'll be back in a couple of months or so. "

"Safe journey," I said, "and Yev-- have a good time."

She punched me playfully on the arm. "You can say it, Auron. I don't mind a prayer on my behalf as long as you're not trying to convert me."

I laughed. Tess was always able to lift my spirits with her natural cheer; Braska, I thought, was a fortunate man. "Yevon be with you, then." After obeying a sudden impulse to bend down and kiss her on the cheek, I said one of the half-dozen Al Bhed words she had taught me. "Vynafamm."

"Hey, not bad," she said. "Your pronunciation was half-decent, even if the emphasis was all wrong. We'll make a native speaker of you yet." She returned the kiss, then winked. "Now shoo. I have to give my husband a proper goodbye."

-x-

I strode purposefully up the stairs to the entrance of St. Bevelle, hoping that the Maester was free — I wanted to get this unpleasantness over with. Maybe I could even write Relle tonight. But as I stepped onto the Highbridge, I was confronted by the last thing I expected to see: my squad, assembled and waiting for me. Kal ran over to me, exasperation plain in his furrowed brow. "Where in Spira have you been?" he asked. "I've been looking all over for you!"

"I was thinking on something and needed a walk, so I went into town," I said. "Why? What has happened?"

"Sinspawn outbreak in Macalania, a bad one. A runner came with the news about an hour ago. The commander is dead, and both squads have had to retreat; they're not sure how much longer they can hold the temple. Every squadron in Bevelle that can be spared is being sent, and the Maester wants you to run the operation. Second, Third, and Fifth have already left. We have to follow, now."

"Now?" I sighed and rubbed at the sudden pain stabbing through my temples — I had largely recovered from the Djose misadventure, but headaches still popped up at the most inconvenient moments. "I have an important issue to discuss with the Maester."

"He said you might bring that up. He said to tell you, and I quote, 'It can wait.'" Kal held out my bag, which he had already packed for me, and I took it. "This can't."

"All right. Lieutenant Bradyn?"

My new Lead Sword stepped forward. He'd only been with us for two months; he was capable, but I still missed Jass. "Sir. I have your sword and armor."

"Thank you." I took off my coat and pulled my plate on over my head, then started to buckle it in place. "Both of you, give me all the information you have. We move out as soon as I'm ready."

Chapter Text

Paine and Liss strolled through the main Luca shopping district, carrying bags and chatting. Spending free afternoons together in the city had become something of a tradition with them over the last few months. Paine particularly appreciated Liss as a shopping companion — there was none of the exclaiming over fripperies that she had to put up with from Rikku and Yuna. Liss just found what she wanted and then bought it. They were headed to their favorite pub for a late lunch when Liss paused in front of a window display that caught her eye.

"Hey Paine, let's go in here," Liss said. "I like the look of these gloves — my old ones are wearing out."

"Um." Paine double-checked the sign on the storefront. "Well, we can. But you should know that this is Dix's shop."

"Dix?" Liss turned around. "Our grandfather? He's alive?"

Paine snorted. "That crusty old bastard will never die."

"Interesting." Liss rocked back on her heels. "Like with everything else, Mother didn't talk a lot about Dix, but the few things she did say weren't particularly kind." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "But I must admit, I'm curious to meet him."

"No time like the present, then." Paine walked to the door and put her fingers on the handle. "If you're ready?"

Liss took a deep breath, then nodded. Paine pulled the door open and stepped through, her cousin following close behind.

No one stood behind the counter, so they started browsing. Liss set down her bags, then picked up the black leather gloves she had been eyeing and pulled one on. "Hmm," she said, looking over her hand with a critical eye, tightening her fingers into a fist, then splaying them.

"They suit you," said a gruff voice. "Perhaps a bit small, though; you have large hands for a girl. I can check my stock for-- oh, Paine. What brings you here?"

Paine turned to see Dix, now in his mid-sixties. He was about the same height as Paine in her heels — easily several inches shorter than Liss — with iron gray hair, deep blue eyes, and, if the lines on his face were any indication, a permanent scowl.

"Hello, Grandfather," Paine said. "I'd like to introduce you to your other granddaughter, Lissira."

"Other granddaughter?" His tone incredulous, he pulled on the eyeglasses that hung around his neck and peered at Liss through them. "Hmph. Well, you certainly resemble your mother, despite your height. But I thought you died when she did."

Liss looked at Dix, confused, a small wrinkle appearing between furrowed eyebrows. "My mother's not dead. She lives near the Calm Lands. And I don't particularly look like her, either."

"Yes, what are you-- oh," and Paine understood. "Liss, he thinks you're my sister." She addressed Dix. "No, Grandfather, you're thinking of my younger brother, who died a long time ago. Liss is my cousin."

"Cousin? How is that poss…" Then all the blood drained from his face. "Auron?" he whispered, his eyes boring into Liss's. The young woman nodded silently. "So who is your mother?" His expression hardened. "Of course. It's her, isn't it? That girl. The one who ruined his life."

Liss recoiled as if slapped. "How dare you speak about my mother that way!"

"He had at all within his reach, everything I'd ever wanted for him and more." Dix gritted his teeth and let out a hiss. "All he had to do was accept the marriage proposal. He could have had the daughter of the high priest of Bevelle, a Maester's granddaughter! But no, he didn't love her. He loved Arelle, and he was going to throw it all away for her." He fixed an upward glare on Liss. "Well, whatever she told you, I did what I had to do. Someone needed to save him from himself!"

Liss's voice turned cold and flat as she responded. "My mother told me very little about you, actually. Mostly that you were not to be trusted. Funny that you think she ruined my father's life; she said the same thing about you once. I don't know what you did, but it doesn't matter. Whatever it was, I don't think I ever need to see you again." She peeled off the glove that was still on her hand and threw it to the floor. Then she turned on her heel and walked out, slamming the door with great force.

"You sure blew that one," said Paine, her tone icy. Dix's face turned gray. He swallowed once but said nothing. Paine gathered up the bags that Liss had forgotten and followed her cousin into the street.

Liss stood out in the open, her hands in tight fists at her sides, her face to the sky. Paine walked up behind her and carefully touched her shoulder. Liss turned, a glint of righteous fury in her eyes. The sight triggered a memory: Paine had seen a very similar pair of gray eyes containing that same furious expression once, long ago, and fragments of an overheard argument floated back to her. "Don't you ever tell me how to live my life." "Fine! Then you can find someone else to pick up the pieces the next time he leaves your heart in shreds! Because I'm not doing it anymore." And another door slammed shut, forever.

"Marriage proposal? High priest's daughter?" Liss shook her head, looking like she wanted to hit something. Her voice rose now, with anger and frustration. "I'm so sick of having all these fiend-damned hints and no real information! All my life, I've respected Mother's wish to leave the past behind, but right now I just want to go demand some answers from her."

Paine crossed her arms and rubbed her elbow as she considered the situation. "What if you wrote her a letter? Maybe it would be easier for her to write it down than to talk about it face to face."

"That's a good idea." Liss let out a puff of air and unclenched her fingers. "Do you mind if we skip going to lunch? I want to get on this right away."

"Of course not." The two women gathered their things and headed back to the Academy.

-x-

We were in Macalania for almost four weeks. The Sinspawn would be thrown back, only to be replaced by a fresh wave within a day. I spent most of my time in the temple, which we had set up as a command center, and it chafed, sending men out in the field without taking any risk to myself. But the other captains were adamant, as was Kal, whom I had put in charge of Gray Squadron for the duration of the operation: the death of the commander had been a severe blow to temple defenses and garrison morale, and they would not chance losing their leader again.

Eventually, we broke the final swarm, and we were able to head back to Bevelle. Overall losses were significant, but not as bad as I had feared they might be, and I'd only lost three of Gray Squadron. It was a relief to be out of the battle zone, but I was not looking forward to the skirmish still to come. Best to get it over with, though. When we returned in the morning, I wasted no time in setting up an afternoon meeting with him.

The appointed hour arrived, and I stood before his quarters, steeling myself for the confrontation that awaited inside. I had finally gotten up the courage to raise my hand and was about to rap it against the door when it opened. Maester Brac was there, smiling warmly. "Come in, come in!" he said, taking me by the shoulders and pulling me forward. The door swung closed behind us. Lorayn waited on the sitting room couch, her face glowing, and she started to rise when she saw me. To my great surprise, the Maester kissed me formally on each cheek, then looked down at me, his eyes sparkling with pleasure. "Welcome to the family."

What?!

The twinkle faded, and I realized that I must have spoken the word aloud. "Pardon, your grace, but I haven't given you my answer yet."

"But you have," he said, the happiness in his expression transmuting to puzzlement, the gentle pressure of his hands slowly becoming a much firmer grip. "Not officially, of course, but I've known for days now. Your father came with your letter, the one telling him that you intended to accept and asking him to begin making the arrangements. "

I stepped away from the Maester as a ball of ice formed in my gut. His arms fell limply to his sides. Just past his shoulder, I could see Lorayn's bewildered face. "My apologies, your grace," I said slowly. "But I wrote no such letter. In fact, I sent no correspondence of any sort from Macalania; there was never time. Lieutenant Kal can confirm the truth of this if you wish."

"How is this possible? I have your letter right here." The Maester disappeared into his study and reappeared after a few moments with a piece of folded paper. He held it out to me, and I took it. Opening the note, I looked it over, and understood. The pit of my stomach was still cold, but with growing anger now rather than fear. How could my father have done this to me? Why had he believed that such an idiotic plan might work? And how had he known?

"This is a forgery." I projected as much calm as I could muster, handing the paper back. "I did not write this letter; my father did. Our handwriting looks similar, so I understand how you could mistake it, especially as he was doing his best to mimic my hand. But if you compare it to something I wrote, the differences should be clear."

"So then…" The Maester looked uncertain. Suddenly he turned to Lorayn. "Leave us," he commanded, his pitch falling several notches lower than his usual medium tone.

"But Grandfather…" she started to say in a shaky voice.

"Go, now!" His body language as much as his words allowed no room for argument. She shot a single pained glance at me, then fled. I felt a quick pang of guilt for stealing away her happiness, but it passed — better for her to know the truth sooner rather than later, even if she had gotten her hopes up falsely thanks to my father's treachery.

His treachery, not mine. Perhaps the situation could still be salvaged.

"Why are you here, Auron?" His tone had returned to its normal pitch, but there was a deathly calm to it that worried me a great deal. His eyes were flat; I could not read them, and that concerned me even more. But I had to tell him the truth, now, or the situation would only worsen.

"First, I want to say again how deeply honored I am--"

"Spare me the flattery." He folded his arms across his chest, a lip curling beneath his beard. "Do you accept my offer or not?"

"I am sorry, your grace, but I regret to tell you that I must decline. Nothing would please me more than to serve you as High Commander, but I fear that I cannot accept the hand of your granddaughter. My heart belongs to another, and I have sworn to marry no one else." I bowed deeply, then rose and caught his eyes. They were no longer blank, and my heart plummeted at the fire they contained.

"How dare you refuse?" he thundered. "You owe everything to me. I made you an officer within a year, a captain after just over two, and the youngest man to lead Gray Squadron in centuries, all because I wanted you for this. I gave you everything you wanted: Jass and Kal as your Leads, power, responsibility, my affection and respect. Now I make you the offer that every accomplished warrior monk has desired for years, and you throw it back in my face because you want to marry for love? It is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard. You have a duty to me, Auron, a duty to accept this proposal."

"I swore a vow to her–"

"And you swore a vow to me as well!" He glared down at me. "Or have you forgotten?"

"No, your grace." I bowed my head. "I have never forgotten."

"Well then." He place a long, bony finger beneath my chin and tipped my head up, forcing me to meet his eyes. "It seems that you will have to chose which vow to honor. Do you understand that the consequences of your decision may be quite grave?"

I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. "Yes, your grace, I realize this. I deeply regret having to disappoint you, but my mind is made up. The decision is final."

He dropped his hand and looked away. "Very well." A minute passed, probably the longest of my life. I stood completely still, bringing all my resources into holding my emotions in check. It was taking a every effort to keep myself from walking out the door and hunting down my father.

When the Maester turned back to me, his anger had subsided. Now he looked sad and disappointed, but resolved. "Auron, you have been a fine officer and have served me well, but this level of insubordination may not go unpunished. By all rights, I ought to excommunicate you. But we cannot afford to lose your fighting skills, especially not now. Therefore, you leave me no choice but to strip you of your rank. You may serve as a warrior monk, but you will no longer be an officer. If you serve well, you may move back up the ranks, but you will never hold a rank higher than captain. This is my judgment before Yevon, and it will stand."

A knot of fury twisted and burned somewhere deep inside as I heard his words. Punishment I understood, but what had I done to deserve losing so much? The promotions I had worked so hard to earn, all hope of ever having a command… Did my dedication and skill count for nothing? The anger I had been saving for Dix suddenly turned against Brac as I removed my coat.

"Don't bother," I said coldly as I tossed the garment to the floor. "I resign my commission and renounce my vows. I am no longer a warrior monk."

The Maester's face registered surprise, then hardened into a mask as he nodded. "So be it, then."

I looked at him for a moment longer. How could I have ever cared for this man, almost to the point of considering him a second father? Then again, given how Dix had turned against me, perhaps it was appropriate. I made a move to leave, then was struck by a horrible thought.

"Is my father still here?" I asked.

"No. He left for Tzeki Village two days ago, to start his preparations. "

Tzeki. Home to Kera, and to Relle. To tell them "the good news."

"Please Yevon no!" I breathed. Every emotion I had been feeling, every bit of anger and disgust and disappointment, transformed into a blind panic. I had to beat him there. If he arrived first, and told Relle… It would destroy her, and then she would kill me. If there was anything left once Kera had finished.

All concern for my career fled, and then so did I.

-x-

"Auron, Auron, wait!"

I did not even pause as I strode down the Highbridge. There was no time to waste — I had to get to Tzeki. In my haste, I had barely even stopped to pick up armor and weapons and to pack some food and water.

Footsteps pounded up behind me. A strong hand grabbed my shoulder and held on. I whirled around, angry at the interruption and ready to knock whoever it was away, but I saw Kal's face and hesitated.

"Maester… he told me… everything," he panted. "Talked to him… convinced him… not to accept your… resignation… please stay… we have to work this out!"

I shook my head and dropped the arm that had been poised to strike. "I have a pressing errand; it is more than life or death to me. I must be on my way."

"Then go," he said, recovering his breath from the run, "but come back when you're done. I'll do what I can to smooth things over with the Maester. This could be good, actually; maybe he'll be more ready to talk when you return." He held out my captain's coat. "At least take this; it's a long cold walk to Tzeki."

My mind finally cleared enough to realize that he was right about the coat. I looked at him and took a moment to think. Perhaps he was correct about returning, as well. "All right. Thank you," I said as I took the clothing from him. I removed my cloak and sword, shrugged into the coat, then replaced the outer garment and the scabbard.

"I wish it hadn't come to this," Kal said.

"So do I, my friend. So do I." We clasped one another's forearms, and I looked him over. He had changed so much in the years I'd known him, growing from a lanky and energetic boy into a strong young officer who managed to be serious yet still cheerful, and I felt a rush of pride in him. "Thanks, for everything. And don't let this, or anything, stop you; you have a fine career ahead."

"As do you, if I have anything to say about it," he replied. "Safe travel, and good luck."

"Yevon be with you." I dropped my hands, then turned my back on Bevelle. I could feel Kal's eyes boring into me as I walked away.

-x-

Two weeks after the confrontation with Dix, Paine was eating dinner in her office when she heard a knock on the doorframe and looked up. "Hello, Maura," she said upon seeing the cadet standing there.

"Captain Paine?" Maura's response was tentative, an uncharacteristic tone for the normally bold young woman, and it caught Paine's attention. "I think Liss needs to see you."

"Is something wrong?" asked Paine, putting down her fork.

Maura shook her head. "She got a letter after class, and she's been in shock ever since. She won't show me, so I don't know what it says. But I'm worried that maybe something happened to her mother."

Paine almost knocked her chair over in her haste to stand. "She's in your quarters?" Maura nodded, and the two women took off in a run.

When they arrived, Maura pushed the door open carefully, and Paine followed. Liss sat on the floor next to her bunk, cross-legged, several sheets of paper in one hand, but she wasn't looking at them. She focused instead on her father's sword, which rested on the ground before her, and she stroked the flat of it, almost tenderly, with the fingers of her other hand.

"Liss?" Paine walked over to the girl and knelt down next to her. "What's wrong?"

"She told me," Liss replied in a choked whisper, not taking her eyes or hand from the blade. "And it's worse than I could have imagined. So much betrayal… no one's hands are clean." She turned her face to Paine, and her eyes were full of tears. "See for yourself."

Paine carefully took the letter, then sat with her back against the bed and began to read.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned sunny and warm, perfect for the festival held every year to kick off the blitz season. Everyone was off duty for the day as well as for tomorrow's tournament. Liss didn't feel like celebrating anything, but Maura dragged her out of the room anyway. "You've never seen Luca at tournament time, and you've just got to. And you don't want to miss Captain Paine's party, do you?" After much cajoling, Liss eventually agreed to check it out. As they headed to the Luca stairway, they ran into some friends: Sam, a tall redheaded boy from Kilika, and a petite Al Bhed named Kenna. Maura and Sam walked ahead, chatting about blitz and trading good-natured insults — Maura had left the Goers to join the Defense Force but remained loyal to her former teammates, while Sam's father had played for the Beasts and was now their head coach. Liss hung back, and Kenna fell into step beside her.

"You're quiet," the Al Bhed girl commented after they had walked in silence for a few minutes. "Everything okay?"

"I suppose." Liss tugged on her small braid. "I got this letter from home-- my mother is fine," she said hastily as an expression of concern entered Kenna's spiraled green eyes. "It's not bad news, just some ugly details of my family history that I never knew before, and I'm not sure what to think about the whole thing."

"Want to talk about it?"

"Not really." She'd had enough of that last night with Maura and Paine.

Kenna smiled. "In that case, we'll just have to distract you. There's lots to do in Luca today, so you're bound to find something that'll take your mind off things. C'mon." She took Liss's hand and started pulling her forward. Liss laughed despite herself, and they raced past Maura and Sam, running down the stairs and into town.

-x-

Later that evening, all of the new recruits gathered behind Paine and Baralai's house for their annual party. Many of their friends were there, too — Tidus and Yuna with Jecha in tow; Rikku and Buddy, who had dragged Brother away from his work in New Home for the occasion; Gippal, Nhadala, and their two children; Wakka and his five-year-old son; and many other friends and comrades from their years with the Crusaders, the Gullwings, New Yevon, and the Defense Force. Even General Lucil had dropped by, taking a moment to introduce herself to each cadet.

Naturally, everyone who hadn't already done so wanted to meet Liss. They shared their memories of her father, if they had any, and then proclaimed their honor at the chance to know her. She was uncomfortable with this dynamic under the best of circumstances, and today she found the whole song and dance exhausting. Before long, she escaped to gather up a plate of food, then settled on the ground, sitting back against a tree. She took a bite and sighed with satisfaction — Baralai had produced an excellent spread. As she ate, she took in the scene around her, mostly observing the interactions of the many couples in attendance. Some of her fellow Defense Force recruits had already started making tentative moves towards hooking up, but she was more interested in watching the adults, especially those who had been married for years. Her parents had never had a chance at that sort of relationship, and she found herself wondering how people made it work. In particular, her gaze kept returning to Tidus and Yuna. Their romance was the stuff of legend, and yet here they were, calmly chatting with friends, exchanging brief, tender glances, and keeping their daughter out of trouble, just like any ordinary couple. Lost in thought, she was startled briefly when one of her hosts dropped down beside her.

"Enjoying yourself?" he asked.

She smiled at him. "Yes, thanks, Baralai. The food is great."

He nodded in satisfaction. "Most years, I have more time to prepare, but it took me forever to get away from Bevelle. I just got home early this morning, and I had to get myself immediately into the kitchen. I'm glad it all came together. So, what are you up to?"

"Just thinking," she replied.

"I imagine so," Baralai said, his voice sympathetic. "Paine told me about that letter from your mother." He followed Liss's eyes to the subject of her contemplation. "Love isn't always like that, you know."

"Like what?"

"A grand, all-consuming passion," he said, "the kind that inspires songs and poems and epic tales. More often than not, it ends up either exploding or burning out, taking the lovers with it either way." He shook his head. "Tidus and Yuna got lucky."

Liss cast her gaze down to the ground. "And my parents didn't." A lump formed in her throat. "Sure, they loved each other, but I don't see that it ever brought them much happiness."

"Maybe, maybe not." Baralai cast her a sympathetic look. "Only one person, now, who can say for sure."

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, still watching Tidus and Yuna. Paine walked up to Tidus, talking and smiling, then took Jecha from Yuna's arms and twirled her in the air. The small girl squealed with delight.

Liss glanced at Baralai. "What about you?" she asked. "How did you and Paine make the transition?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, it was never like that with us. We'd been friends for a long time, and eventually we decided we wanted more." He leaned back, bracing himself on one arm. "Besides, she already had her grand passion, a long time ago."

Liss sat up straighter. "Really?" Paine had never said anything about this to her, but then she supposed that wasn't a surprise. In so many ways, she and her cousin were still just getting to know one another. "So it didn't work out?"

"You could say that." He stared into the distance, his mind clearly far away. "But that's her story to tell you, when she's ready."

"And you?" Liss knew that she shouldn't ask, but the question popped out of her mouth before she could stop it. "What happened to the great love of your life?"

He glanced at Liss, then plucked a blade of grass from the earth and twisted it around his fingers, looking at Paine with a half smile. "She married me."

Liss followed his gaze. Paine was sitting now, deep in conversation with Yuna and Rikku. She looked up to saw Baralai watching her, and favored him with a warm smile.

"I see." Liss touched Baralai's shoulder. "Does it bother you?"

He lurched a little, as if pulling himself out of deep thoughts. "What, that Paine loved someone else before? No, not really. We all have pasts. She wouldn't be the woman I love without hers. She loves me now; I can't ask for more than that."

Liss nodded, and they fell quiet again, each lost in their private musings.

-x-

I marched. It had already been evening when I left, and sleep would have been impossible anyway, so I continued on through that night and the next. I would have preferred not to stop for food, either, but I knew that I couldn't keep up such a difficult pace without at least a little rest, so I took short breaks to eat and drink, fortifying myself for more hours of walking, and for the confrontation I knew was coming. I drew on reserves I didn't even know I had, and the trip to Tzeki took me just over a day and a half. But I did not see Dix on the way, and I worried. I could only hope to have beaten him if he had stopped in Guadosalam.

It was mid-morning when I arrived. As I leapt off the shoopuf, unwilling to wait for the machina to carry me down, my only thought was to find Relle. Then a familiar figure walked toward me from the pavilion, and I was gripped by an overwhelming tide of disappointment. I was too late.

"Son!" Dix called out. He held out an arm to me; clearly, he had not picked up on my mood, which was becoming angrier by the second. "Why didn't you tell me the news? I was on business in Bevelle, and I had to find out from tavern gossip."

Tavern gossip? Had Kinoc talked? I filed this tidbit away for later — there was no way to deal with that information now. "I didn't tell you because I didn't trust you!" I shouted as I pushed him away. "And you deserved that mistrust, more than I could ever have guessed. How could you do such a thing?"

His expression soured. "Because you wouldn't do it for yourself. So you turned the Maester down? Why?"

"You know why. Arelle–"

He drew himself up to his full height and glared, his lips narrowing nearly into invisibility, scorn in his eyes. "Arelle. I always knew that girl would ruin you. Marrying for love? What good does that do anyone? I married for love, and all it got me was a piddling business in the middle of nowhere, alone at twenty-five with two brats to raise alone. I was trying to save you from a dead-end life like mine, like your sister's. And I thought you understood your obligations."

"So you thought I'd just go along with your lie to the Maester?" I shook my head, disgusted. "You don't know me at all, Father, and you never have. Your plan had no chance of success. Zero. All you did was destroy any hope I had of salvaging my career." I started to go.

"Don't you walk away from me, young man!" he snapped. "I'm not finished with you yet!"

I stopped, then slowly turned back to him. "But I am finished with you." Able to contain my rage no longer, I slammed my fist into his jaw, knocking him to the ground. He fell with a cry that was as much surprise as pain, but I had no more time to waste on him. I had to get to Relle.

Within minutes, I stood before her cottage. I had spoken to no one, as the village was largely empty — the fishing trip had left for the day, and it was a cold morning, too chilly for children to play outside or for people to tend to outdoor chores. I took off my helm, then removed my sword and leaned it against the wall. As impatient as I'd been to get here, now I hesitated. I had no idea what kind of reception to expect, but I suspected it would not be pleasant. But I knew that I had to face her, now. I couldn't stand the idea that she might be sitting in there, believing the lie. I rapped on the door, and hearing no response, slowly pulled it open.

The front room was dark, with the curtains drawn and only a single lamp burning on the table. A figure sat there, arms crossed on the table surface, a head resting on them. Relle looked up as I walked in, and I saw that her eyes were red and her skin a blotchy pink; my heart, already pounding, started to ache. A sphere rested between her hands. Her expression turned from one of bereft suffering to a mask of murderous rage. She jumped to her feet, picked up the sphere, and flung it at me. I barely had time to duck as it smashed into the doorframe, hitting where my shoulder had been. It cracked with the impact and fell to the ground in several pieces. I looked down at the fragments and swallowed, hard. There was no way to know for sure what had been recorded on that sphere, but I had a good guess.

"No other will ever be your wife," she said, her voice flat and cold, confirming my suspicions. I shuddered — Relle used that tone rarely, but when she did it meant trouble.

I looked back at her and held up my hands. "It's not true, Relle. I can explain–"

"Please do." She folded her arms across her chest. "What's not true? Were you not offered the high priest's daughter in marriage?"

"The offer was made," I admitted, "but I refused it. My father lied to you, and he lied to the Maester. I'm not marrying Lorayn. I never even considered it." A white lie, but a necessary one, and close enough to the truth. I took a tentative step in her direction, but the look on her face kept me from taking another. "But I am sorry that you had to go through all this."

She remained immobile. "Sorry isn't going to be good enough this time, Auron."

"Then what would be good enough?" I asked, trying to keep frustration out of my voice. "Turning down the chance to be High Commander and resigning my commission? Because I did that, too." I took a deep breath and stepped away. None of this was her fault; taking my anger at Dix and Brac out on her would not do at all. But it was becoming difficult to keep control of my temper.

Her eyes narrowed. "You are serious?"

I nodded, then told her a brief version of my confrontation with the Maester. She was silent for a long moment, in apparent contemplation. The moment stretched into minutes, but she made no move toward me, or away, and she would not meet my eyes.

Finally I cleared my throat. "You're upset," I said, "and I don't blame you. Maybe I should just leave you alone for a little while." I took yet another step backwards and reached behind me for the door handle.

Her head snapped up, and she crossed the room in a few steps, her fingers closing on my arm. "No!" Her voice broke with desperation and despair, finally betraying the depth of her feelings. "Don't you dare leave me again!" She grabbed my coat lapel with her other hand and yanked hard, bringing our faces together and capturing my mouth with hers.

My response was immediate: I returned the kiss, years of longing taking over as I clasped her shoulders, then ran my hands firmly down her back.

"I claim you." Her lips moving against mine as she spoke, as she unfastened my cloak with deft fingers. I felt it slide from my shoulders to the floor as her hands moved to the buttons of my coat. "You will love only me, there will never be anyone besides me!"

"Never," I responded, pulling back just enough to look in her eyes, needing to show her the truth of my words. I brushed her tear-stained cheek with my fingers and stroked her mussed hair. "Never, I swear it. I love you, always you. Always, always, always–"

She kissed me again, hard and punishing and possessive, a hand gripping the back of my neck, her passion born as much from anger as from desire. Still, I was unable not to respond — her touch was intoxicating, and I was already drunk on it. This is a bad idea, said a stern voice in the back of my head. Probably so, but I was past caring. The barriers of control I had built so carefully were smashed beyond repair. She was pulling me to the floor, and I tumbled down with her, the point of no return left far behind me.

It was some time before I had another conscious thought.

-x-

Slowly, I returned to myself. I might have fallen asleep — not unexpected, given that I hadn't slept for going on three days. I was lying on my side, half dressed. Somehow we had managed to get my coat and armor off in the heat of the moment, but I still wore my boots. Relle rested on her back next to me, hands laced behind her head, and stared at the ceiling, motionless. I scooted closer and laid my head on a crooked arm, nuzzling her neck with my nose and forehead, breathing in her scent and luxuriating in the freedom to finally touch her again. She did not respond, so I raised myself up on an elbow and bent to kiss her.

She turned her head away, then rolled over and sat up.

"Relle?" I murmured. "What is it?"

She looked at the floor. "I think you should go."

"But you just asked me to stay." I lifted my body into a sitting position and rested a hand on her knee.

Flinching from my touch, she stood and straightened her skirts, then turned from me. "I changed my mind."

Now I was bewildered. "But why?" I stood up and started to dress, pulling on my pants, then reaching for my breastplate.

Relle took a deep breath. "Because I'm still so angry at you that I can't see straight. Maybe that's not fair, but it's how I feel."

"But it's not my fault!" I clenched my jaw to keep from shouting. It wasn't hers, either. Why did I need to keep reminding myself of that?

"Oh please! Don't pretend you're blameless in this!" She turned to face me again, hands resting on her hips, and cocked her head. "You were the one trying to have it all, the one who let the Maester believe that you might marry his granddaughter when you never had any intention of doing so. Tell me truly: when he made the offer, did you refuse him right away, or did you pretend you needed to think about it in order to stall?"

I froze, caught by the truth of her words. Of course she was right; I had played a part in this disaster, and I was avoiding responsibility by focusing on Dix's treachery. Maybe he had taken cruel advantage of an opportunity, but I had created the opportunity in the first place. She saw the understanding on my face and nodded grimly. "I thought so."

"Please," I whispered. "Please. Let me try and make this right again."

"No!" Her voice rose, and cracked with more anguish than I'd ever heard in a single syllable. She lowered her head again. "The last time I saw you, I asked you to stay, and you refused. Now I am asking you to leave. Will you refuse me again? It's your choice, but be warned: I don't know that I'll be inclined to give you a third chance."

I knew, then, that I had lost. All feeling drained away, leaving only emptiness, almost a physical ache in my gut. "I will do as you ask," I murmured. I walked slowly to the door, gathering up my coat and cloak from where they lay on the floor. "Goodbye," I said as I reached for the handle.

"Auron?"

I paused, and turned around, trying not to hope that she would call me over. Her beauty was undiminished, even in this terrible moment, and my breath caught in my throat.

"This isn't… it probably won't be forever," she said, red-rimmed eyes meeting mine. "I can't live without you, you know that. I just need some time."

"How much time?" I asked, barely able to choke the words out.

She shook her head, a single tear falling down her cheek. "I don't know. A while."

I nodded silently, then pushed my way out through the door and into the bitter cold.

Chapter Text

Thoroughly drained, I wanted only to curl up in a ball somewhere and think about nothing for a long time. But one more confrontation awaited me, one that I could not avoid. I walked to the neighboring cottage and knocked. Xan opened his door and, upon seeing me, stepped outside and shut it behind him, leaving his hand on the knob.

"I wouldn't go in there if I were you," he said, his voice quiet but firm. "She's pretty pissed. So am I, if you want to know the truth."

I sighed. "I'm not marrying the priest's daughter. I never intended to accept her hand. My father was trying to manipulate the situation." I quickly explained what Dix had done, and Xan's jaw dropped in horror.

"We always knew Dix disapproved of Relle, but this… Auron, I can hardly believe it! Does Relle know?"

I gestured toward Relle's home. "I just came from there. Said she needs time, which I intend to give her." Xan nodded. "So will you help me tell Kera?" I asked.

He frowned. "I'll do my best, but I don't know if she'll hear it. Relle basically fell to pieces, and Ker was stuck cleaning up the mess. Still, I'll do what I can. Come on in; no reason you should freeze to death."

"It might be less painful," I muttered.

Xan made a noise that could have been a chuckle. "Just brace yourself." He pushed open the door, and we walked in together.

Kera was also sitting at the kitchen table, and she jumped up with a furious expression that mirrored the one I had seen on Relle earlier. She didn't throw anything at me, but I thought she might have liked to. Her glare could have melted steel.

"Well, you probably broke Father's jaw. I hope you're happy."

"No, but he deserved it," I said, my voice low and rough. "He's lucky I didn't tear his damned head off."

"Deserved…" She shook her head violently. "Get out. Get out of my house! How dare you show your face here?"

I stood and took her anger, not flinching. She deserved the chance to vent, but I would not leave until she heard me out.

"It's not like we thought, Ker," said Xan, who stood beside me. "Give him a chance to explain."

"Explain?" Hands on her hips, she turned on her husband. "What is there to explain? He has the power and position he's always wanted. What does Relle matter in the face of that?"

"She is everything to me, and you know it!" I said, more harshly than I had intended. "Why were you all so quick to believe the worst of me? I turned down the marriage proposal. Everything Father has told you is a lie."

Kera looked from me to Xan and back again. Then we all remembered Paine, who had slunk into a corner, her eyes wide with fright. "Get her out of here," Kera told Xan, gesturing toward her daughter.

"Just promise me you'll listen to the whole story," he said. She let out an exasperated sigh, then dipped her head in a single nod. He touched her shoulder as he passed, then walked over to Paine and took her hand. "Let's leave Mom and your uncle alone for a little while." She followed him, with one last glance at me over her shoulder before disappearing into the bedroom.

"So?" Kera crossed her arms across her chest, and I went over the events of the past month. When I had finished, she walked into the kitchen and looked out a window at the bleak winter landscape, resting her hands on the counter. "Why?" she cried. "Why would he do that to you? To her? To all of us?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. His plan was so poorly conceived, I can only assume he was grasping at straws, desperate to find something, anything, that might change my mind. Maybe he thought I wouldn't want to disappoint the Maester? I've given up trying to understand."

She turned back to me. "And I suppose you think Father is the only one to blame?"

I knew it was a mistake to lose my temper, but I couldn't help it. "Of course not, but dammit, Kera! I had the situation under control. I was working up a plan to turn down the proposal tactfully without destroying my career. Then Father meddled, and it all went to hell. Could I have handled it better? Probably, but not once he got involved with that fake letter."

"But why did you wait so long to turn the Maester down?"

"As I told you, I was called away suddenly, to an operation that lasted a month. I told Brac of my decision as soon as I had time, but it was too late by then."

She snorted. "You couldn't find five minutes to tell the Maester no?" She crossed her arms. "I have a very hard time believing that."

I almost growled in frustration at her lack of understanding. "No, I couldn't take five minutes. I'm sworn to obedience; I go when and where I'm sent. It is my duty–"

"Duty!" She barked out a laugh, her voice rising. "It's always duty with you, isn't it? What about your duty to the woman you say you love? Doesn't that matter to you? You don't know what it's been like, these last few years. Relle missed you so much, she was so afraid of losing you, sometimes she felt rejected. But she needed to be strong for you, so it was always me she came to when it became overwhelming. And this — when Father told us you were getting married… it was horrible. She screamed, Auron, and it was the most bone-chilling sound I have ever heard in my life. Then she collapsed, right here in my kitchen. Somehow we got her home, and I sat with her for two days as she cried, refusing to eat or sleep, watching that damned sphere over and over again."

I trembled as I pictured this scene, grief for Relle and guilt over my own role in this disaster ripping into my soul. "Yevon forgive me," I whispered, putting a hand on the nearby table for balance as my head swam. "What have I done?"

"You've broken her heart, again and again," Kera snapped. "You and Father together. And this time I don't know if I can put her back together. I don't even know if I want to even if I could. I'm starting to think she's better off without you."

I took a sharp breath, unable to believe what I'd just heard, the shock of it clearing my mind. "How can you say that?" I cried. "I love her more than life!"

"But do you love her more than duty?" she shot back. "You've had so many chances to choose love over duty, yet somehow duty wins out every time."

"Not this time! Do you even realize how much I gave up for her? I turned down the opportunity of a lifetime."

"Only because you were backed into a corner!" We were close together now, almost nose to nose as we shouted. "If Father hadn't forced your hand, how much longer would you have dithered?"

On some level, I realized that I was being sucked into a downward spiral, but my temper was roused, all my anger and pain focused into this one argument, and my self-control was simply gone. There was only so much I could bear, and I had passed my limit. Taking our feelings out on one another like this would only lead to more suffering, but neither of us could stop ourselves. Round and round we went for what seemed like hours, yelling and crying and glaring at each other, saying more and more hurtful things, dredging up years of slights real and imagined, neither of us willing to back down even an inch.

"Maybe Relle will be able to forgive you for this someday," Kera said in the end, "but I can't."

At long last, these were the words that deflated me. "Fine." It wasn't true, but I didn't have the heart to continue. I turned away and walked out the door without looking back. I slammed it behind me, then leaned back against the outer wall of the cottage, closing my eyes in despair. I had lost my calling, I had lost my love, and now I had lost my family. It seemed there was nothing left for me, here or anywhere. I picked up my sword, jammed on my helm, and walked away.

-x-

I wandered away from Tzeki Village and found myself standing on the river's bank, by a bend just beyond the shoopuf station bench, wind blowing in my eyes. The Moonflow was large and fast-moving enough that the water never froze over, and the moon lilies lived year-round as well. It was late afternoon, and the pyreflies were starting to gather; just a few lazy specks of light now, but in two hours or so, they would be a riot of color, dancing and flying over the water. I was in no mood for beauty, however. I would leave as soon as I could think of a place to go.

I pulled off my helm and regarded it. It was fairly new, a replacement for the one dented beyond repair at Djose. That helm had saved my life; this one had yet to see real action. Now it never would. Just as well — I had always hated the feel of a helm on my head, not to mention the way it compromised my field of vision. And no one would ever force me to wear one again. At the thought, I realized that I had decided not to return to St. Bevelle. The idea of crawling back to beg forgiveness from Brac turned my stomach. My time as a warrior monk was finished.

With a mighty yell, I heaved the helm high into the air. It traced an arc, then dropped into the Moonflow with a satisfying splash. Noticing the weight of all the trappings of the Order, I unfastened my sword and let my cloak fall to the dirt. Then I pulled off my coat, and tossed it in the water as well. It landed splayed, though, and so floated on the surface rather than sinking. I removed my breastplate and, aiming carefully, hit the coat with the armor. The weight and force of the flying metal pushed down the garment, and they joined the helm at the bottom of the river.

Could I rid myself of anything else? I briefly considered my boots but quickly abandoned that idea — going barefoot in this cold would be suicidal. I needed to keep my cloak and uniform clothes for the same reason, at least for now. So I picked up my sword. I pulled the katana halfway from its sheath and looked at it. Nearly as tall as I, it was a superior weapon in every way — heavy with a keen edge, perfectly balanced, the hilt beautifully worked. Parting with it would be extremely difficult. But it had been a gift from Maester Brac. He'd had it forged especially for me when I was named to lead Gray Squadron. Ten minutes I must have stood there, the blade balanced across my hands, considering whether to throw it into the Moonflow.

"No," I said aloud. I had earned this sword. Brac took away everything else he had given me, but this I would keep. I pushed it back into the scabbard and placed it on the ground. Then I pulled a knife from my belt and lifted it to my head. I gripped my topknot with my other hand and made ready to shear it off.

But I paused and thought, again. The temptation to make a new identity for myself was strong, but was this the way to go about it?

Slowly, I dropped the hand holding the knife. Instead of cutting my hair, I freed it, removing the thong that held it in place. I felt it slip down, the weight of it shifting as the tension on the hairs at my neck was released. Then the wind caught it and started whipping the strands about my face. I hadn't felt the breeze in my hair for many years, and I felt lightheaded with the sensation. A world of options had opened up to me. If only I could have the one I really wanted.

Djose, I decided, was the place to go. I would arrive in time for a late dinner if I left now. With luck, Braska would be there; I could use his support right now. If not, I still considered Djose my home temple, even after so many years in Bevelle and elsewhere. It would be a good place to regroup and search for some peace. I returned my sword to its accustomed place on my back and left the Moonflow behind me.

-x-

Ravenous and tired, head and heart both aching, I arrived at Djose Temple two hours after sunset. I had no gil for a room, but the priest on duty took me in as a pilgrim. I wolfed down a simple meal without tasting it. Then, overcome by physical and emotional exhaustion, I tumbled into a cot and slept like the dead.

I woke late the next morning and went into the temple after washing, pulling my hair into a simple queue, and eating breakfast. The warrior monks on duty were not men I knew, and if they recognized me their faces did not betray it. I knelt before a statue of some summoner whose name I did not remember, bowed deeply, and fell into a meditative trance, swept away by the soothing tones of the hymn.

After an hour or so, I roused myself and stood. No answers had come, but my mind was calmer than it had been in months. Now to find Braska, if he was here. I went to one of the side chambers off the temple and stepped inside. Two priests sat there, and one turned at the sound of my footfalls. It was Father Shon.

"Captain Auron?" he said, rising.

"Hello, Father," I replied with a prayer bow, not bothering to correct him. "Is Father Braska here? I wish to seek his counsel."

His face immediately became drawn and sad. "You have not heard, then."

"Heard what?" My pulse quickened in fear and I sent up an urgent prayer. Please, Yevon, no! Not Braska…

Shon sighed. "Approximately a month ago, Father Braska's wife was traveling to her homeland when her ship was attacked by Sin. It was lost with all hands. Her body was found a week later, when they salvaged the wreckage."

My mouth slowly dropped open. Tessa, sweet funny Tess, gone? "Oh no," I whispered. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes, grief for Braska washing over me.

"My son?" I heard Shon come over to me. "Are you all right?"

Opening my eyes, I looked to the priest at my elbow. "Tessa… I knew her. Not as well as I do Braska, but I considered her a friend." Shon patted my arm sympathetically. "Braska-- did he return to Bevelle?"

"He is in Bevelle. He was there with his daughter when he received the news and has not left since." Shon frowned thoughtfully. "I don't know whether your duties will allow it, but if you can, you should go to him. He is devastated, naturally, and I suspect the support of a friend would be valuable to him."

"I have no duties," I said, some bitterness slipping into my voice despite my efforts to contain it. "I have recently resigned my commission." The old priest's eyes went wide with surprise — for a sworn warrior monk to leave the Order was rare. But he did not interrupt. "So I am available, and of course I will go. Do you have any messages for him?"

"Only that I am deeply sorry for his loss, and that he is welcome back here whenever he is ready."

I bowed to Father Shon again. "Consider it done. I will restock my provisions, then be on my way."

-x-

Within three days, I was back in Bevelle. It felt strange to skip the temple, but there was almost nothing there I needed; I would contact Kal and ask him to send my few personal items as soon as I knew where I was staying. Instead, I headed straight for Braska.

Yuna greeted me when I arrived. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but her manner was calm, if subdued. "Hello," she said, too formally for a girl who wasn't even seven yet. "Can I help you?"

My heart broke for her. "Yuna," I said. "I… I'm so sorry about your mother."

She nodded soberly. "Are you here to see my father?"

"Yes. Is he available?"

She cast a doubtful look over her shoulder. "He's here, but he won't see anyone."

"Perhaps I could at least come in?" I asked. "Maybe he'll talk to me later."

Yuna considered this. "Okay," she said. She opened the door fully, and I walked past her.

The house was quiet as a tomb. A few dirty dishes were stacked in the kitchen, but otherwise it seemed uninhabited. There was no sign of Braska. "Yuna, who is taking care of you?"

She looked at me, her mismatched eyes sad but resolved. "Um, a neighbor lady brings us meals sometimes, but otherwise I'm taking care of myself okay." But then her lip started to tremble, proof that the strength she projected was a facade.

I sighed. This would not do; the child was hurting and had been left alone with her pain for too long. "Where is Braska?" I asked.

"In Sudran's workshop. He goes in there all day and won't come out." Her voice tightened, and I knelt down to hug her. She wrapped her thin arms about my chest.

"Everything will be fine," I said, patting her soft hair. "I'll go get your father now." Yuna let go, sniffling a little. "Will you be all right by yourself for a few minutes?"

She nodded. "Thank you."

I let her go, then walked through the house and into the backyard. I had never been inside the small shed that Tess had used for tinkering with machina, but I knew where it was. I knocked on the door. When I received no response, I tried the handle, but it was locked. I banged harder. "Braska?" I called out. "It's Auron. I know you're in there. Let me in, please?" Silence remained my only answer; it was time for threats. "I don't want to break this door down, but you know I can do it if I must."

At that, the door opened. Braska stood there, staring impassively. He looked terrible — his eyes dead of all feeling, his skin a waxy gray, and his hair hanging lank and tangled. My problems seemed insignificant next to my friend's grief, and I said a silent prayer of thanks that Relle was alive, that I could still hope for a future with her before reaching the Farplane.

I stepped into the workshop and shut the door. The room was filled with small motors, power sources, and half-built projects that would never be completed. I picked up one of these and contemplated it briefly, a tightness in my chest. Empty sake bottles were scattered about as well, although I couldn't smell it on Braska's breath. He walked away from me and settled down on the floor, toying with a shiny gear. I sat down across from him. "My friend, I am so very sorry." I knew the words were inadequate, but they were the only ones I had.

"How did you find out?" he asked. His voice was dry and creaky, as though he had not used it for months.

"I was at Djose Temple looking for you," I said. "Father Shon gave me the news."

"Why were you at Djose?"

"I'll tell you about it later," I said. My story could wait — I had a real crisis to deal with first. I placed my hands on his shoulders. "Right now, I'm here to help you in any way I can."

He looked up at me, and his expression became one of determination, his fingers tightening around the piece of metal he held. "There is something you can do, something very important to me."

"Name it," I said.

"Be my guardian."

"Your… guardian?" I repeated, unsure whether I had understood his meaning correctly.

He nodded. "I will become a summoner. I will defeat Sin. And I want you by my side on the journey. Surely the Order will give you leave to undertake a pilgrimage." He set the gear on the floor, pushing it into a pile of other machina parts.

"That is not an issue," I said. "But Braska, are you sure? What about Yuna?"

He lifted his face slightly, looking at the ceiling. "The temples will care for her if I succeed."

"She needs her father--"

He interrupted, eyes blazing. "What she needs is to live in a world without Sin!"

I had no answer to that, so I squeezed his arms. "If you are certain that you wish to undertake this quest, then of course I will be your guardian. I would trust no one else with the task. But first, I need you to do something for me. I know a young girl who is mourning the death of her mother. She's survived by herself so far, but it is a burden that she should not have to carry alone, and eventually she will break under its weight."

His lips parted, then tears rushed to his eyes. "Yuna… but I can't," he whispered. "I look at her, and I see Tess, and I just can't bear it!"

"It's hard," I said. "I know. But you need each other right now. You shouldn't be doing this alone, either. Just go to her; it will become easier in time. For both of you." I stood, pulling him up by his arms. He looked so lost that I felt compelled to embrace him. Something in him snapped, and he burrowed into my shoulder and cried like a child.

After a few minutes, he lifted his face and wiped his cheeks. "You're right. I can't face this alone anymore," he said. "I'm glad you're here."

"As am I," I replied.

The two of us returned to the house. "Yuna?" Braska called out as we entered.

"Yes, Father?" The girl was in the kitchen, doing her best to make tea, standing on a chair to reach the hand pump as she filled the pot with water. She had to use both hands to move the handle.

"Let me help you with that." Braska took the kettle, finished filling it, and lit the stove fire. Resting the pot over the flames, he then sat down in a kitchen chair and drew Yuna into his lap. "How are you, tayn uha?"

She rested her head against his chest. "I'm sad."

"Me too," he murmured, bringing his arms around her. "I'm sorry I left you alone for so long, but I'm here now."

"Good," she said, and began to cry as he rocked her.

Silently, I stepped out of the room, leaving father and daughter to share their grief.

Chapter Text

Braska, shaken from his fugue state by my arrival and his reconnection with Yuna, bathed that evening, then ate a full meal. After putting Yuna to bed, we sat and talked for hours. He shared the horror of Tessa's death with me, raging and crying and letting out the emotions he had been unable to deal with by himself. Once he was spent, I sent him off to bed as well, watching over him as he slept, praying that he might find some peace in a few hours of oblivion.

The next day, we decided that I would move into Braska's home to begin preparations for the pilgrimage. He left for the temple that morning in order to apply for summoner's training. He also carried a message to Kal requesting the delivery of my personal effects. Rickard appeared with them that afternoon — a few letters, spheres, and trinkets; my small stockpile of gil; some clothes; the sword Dix had given me the day I took my oath to the warrior monks. I took this last item and held it at arm's length, as if it were a dead animal. Maybe this was the weapon to fling into some deep water.

"Lieutenant Kal wanted to come personally," Rickard told me, "but he's tied up with training exercises. He sends his greetings."

"Tell him I return them," I said. "How are things at the temple?"

He shrugged. "Not much has changed. Neither the Second Commander position nor the leadership of Gray Squadron has been filled yet. We're all hoping that Kal gets the Gray Squad job, of course, but rumor has it that the Maester is pretty ticked at him for standing up for you the way he did. It won't keep him from being promoted to captain entirely, though; Kal's too well respected, and you still have lots of influential friends to take his part. Commander Kinoc, for one — his star is rising, and he's been making some noise on Kal's behalf. On yours too, for that matter. So has Commander Gibson. You could probably even still come back if you wanted."

I hated to wipe the hopeful look from his face, but I had to nip this in the bud. "I'm not returning," I said, my voice firm. "Braska will need me as his guardian. And I've no more patience for the politics of the temples and the Order. This is my life now, and I am content. But I do appreciate your support."

"Goodbye, then." He saluted me, and I bowed to him. "Yevon be with you."

After he left, I changed out of my old uniform — all other considerations aside, traveling on foot to Djose and back with no change of clothing had left it essentially rags — and into the plain white shirt, black pants, and brown coat that I typically wore while on leave. Then it was time for a much-needed trip to the markets. I required more appropriate clothes for training, and the house was woefully understocked with food and other basic provisions.

My first stop was an armory that also sold travel clothing. I stepped inside and immediately felt overwhelmed by the options. It had been literally years since I'd needed to make a decision about clothes or armor. But I needed an outfit I could fight in. The pants I wore would do, but the shirt and coat were not tough enough for battle, and my boots were wearing out. I wandered the store, fingering different tunics and breastplates, not even sure where to start.

"Can I help you?" A short middle-aged man appeared at my elbow.

I considered him, then nodded. "I want some sort of armored shirt, good for both training and fighting."

"What kind of fighting?" he asked. "And with what weapon?"

"Fiends, mostly. And I use a two-handed sword."

"Hmm." He considered me. "You're strong, so you can take some weight, but you also want freedom of motion in both arms. Hah! I know just the thing." He led me over to a shelf and pulled off a sleeveless black shirt. "Leather," he proclaimed. "Stronger than cloth, almost as good as plate, but much lighter and more flexible. Lined, so you can wear it without a tunic. Very popular style among the Crusaders lately. No sleeves, so your shoulders are completely free. You can wear a coat or cloak over it for warmth and protection. This looks to be your size; try it on." I did so, then took some swings with an imaginary sword.

"Yes," I said to the merchant. "I think this will do nicely."

"Good, good. Now, do you want a coat or a cloak? Or perhaps one of each?"

"I suppose each has its advantages… ah." A rack on the other side of the shop caught my eye as I spoke, and I walked toward it. A long red coat trimmed in dark blue hung there, putting me immediately in mind of the similar one Kera and Relle had given me so many years before. That garment was long gone — after my first six months in Bevelle, it had no longer fit across my shoulders — but I still thought fondly of it, even now.

"That's a fine item," the merchant said as he followed me. "Made of heavy silk broadcloth that will last forever with normal wear. Warm in cold weather, breathes in hot; very versatile. I'd bet it's your color, too." He pulled the coat off the rack and helped me into it; it fit perfectly. I caught my image in a mirror, and it pleased me a great deal.

"Now, take a look at this!" The man walked off, then returned with a wide belt, which he fastened around my waist. "Pull your arms out of the sleeves." I did so; the top half of the coat fell and hung from the belt. "If you're overheated, or the sleeves get in your way, you can pull them off without the coat falling to the ground. Easy on, easy off, and you'll never lose it in the heat of battle."

"Clever," I said. "I will take them all. And then, could you kindly direct me to a cobbler?"

-x-

"Great party, Paine!" Rikku hugged her with a big grin. "As always."

"Do you need any help cleaning up?" Yuna asked as she shifted her sleeping daughter to a more solid position on her shoulder. Tidus was long gone — the Aurochs had drawn the first match of the day tomorrow, against the Al Bhed, so he'd needed to make it an early night.

Paine smiled. "Thanks, but Baralai and I can handle it. It's not a disaster if we have to leave most of it for tomorrow."

"If you're sure. Okay, see you at the game!" With that, the last three guests left. It was midnight, and blitzoff was scheduled for nine in the morning. Most years, Paine skipped the first couple of rounds — she was at best a casual fan of the sport — but she knew that Yuna would be disappointed if she didn't help cheer on the Aurochs.

Paine glanced around at her yard. Fortunately, their friends and the recruits were a tame lot this year, so the mess was minimal. But quite a bit of work still awaited her. She started her mental triage of which tasks needed to be finished before she could sleep, like putting away the food, and which could wait.

A pair of arms slipped around her waist from the back, and a cheek came to rest against hers. "Hey."

"Hi." She closed her hands over Baralai's elbows and sighed contentedly. "Good party, don't you think?"

"Mm." They stood together, enjoying one another's company and the satisfaction of hosting a successful event.

After a few minutes, Paine stepped forward despite her reluctance to leave his comfortable embrace. "We should at least pack up the leftovers."

"I suppose." Baralai walked over to the table and regarded the plates of food. "Three years now, we've been doing this. Remind me why I always make too much food again?"

Paine hid a smile. "You're a good host, and a good host would never run the risk of letting his guests go hungry. Remind me why you're a Councilor and not a full-time chef?" She picked up a cookie and bit into it.

He sighed. "Because much as I try to deny it, politics are what I love, and I can't imagine doing anything else. If Yuna hadn't freed us all from Yevon, I'd probably still be in Bevelle, scheming and plotting and worming my way into the Maesters' good graces." Paine held her breath for a moment, wondering if he would continue this line of thought — he could go several different directions with it, and most of them led into sore spots. He didn't, though; instead, he fell silent, then started consolidating the leftovers onto fewer plates.

They worked in silence for a few moments. As they each lifted a pile of dishes and headed for the kitchen, Paine risked a comment that she hoped would be a change of subject. "You and Liss chatted for quite a while."

"Yeah. She's a great kid. I enjoy having her in the family." His eyes were thoughtful. "But that letter brought up so many issues for her."

Paine pushed open the back door, holding it in place as Baralai entered the house. "It's only natural that she would have idealized Auron. His legend was really all she knew about him. Now he probably seems all to human, a real man with real flaws, and that's a serious adjustment to make. For me, too, frankly. Not to mention discovering such an awful truth about one of her few living blood relatives."

"Your grandfather?" Baralai said as he rested his stack on the counter.

She nodded. "It is simply beyond me how he could have done such a thing."

"The whole affair makes no sense." He pulled out an empty pot with a lid and started filling it with the remaining snacks. "Dix didn't strike me as a particularly stupid man the one time I met him, but to follow through with such an ill-conceived plan…" He shook his head. "Why?"

"Desperation, I suppose. Maybe he just doesn't think well on his feet? I don't know him well enough to say." Paine turned away, to start piling dishes in the washbasin, but also to hide her face. She did know why — it had been in the letter. But she'd held that part of the story back from Baralai and asked Liss to do the same. She wasn't quite sure how he'd react to it. Better to sidestep the issue entirely, at least for now.

"She seemed to relax and have fun later, though," he commented. "What's the name of that boy she was dancing with?"

"That's Sam." She finished with the dishes and turned back toward her husband. "He's a nice guy, and a talented fighter. The reports suggest that he'll probably end up a mage — he's a natural, or so the instructors say. He and Liss hang out with the same crowd. I don't know whether there's anything more to it than that. "

Baralai closed up the pot and set it aside. "If there is, I think it would be good for her. Her faith in love has been badly shaken. She needs to experience it as a joyous thing, not just as a source of suffering."

"Like someone else you used to know?" Paine moved in for a kiss. His arms wrapped tightly around her. "I love you, you know," she murmured as she slid a hand up his neck and buried her fingers in his hair. "Maybe I don't say that enough."

He broke into a gentle smile, and his eyes warmed. "But I know it regardless. You're here, aren't you?"

"Nowhere else I'd rather be," she assured him, and kissed him again.

-x-

Braska's apprenticeship went well. His age raised a few eyebrows — most summoners began training in their late teens or early twenties, and Braska had recently turned thirty — as did his disfavored status, but his determination was beyond question, and no one attempted to stop him. It helped that he already had superior magical ability along with years of the priesthood behind him.

I worked on my solo combat skills and helped Braska care for Yuna as well as keeping him company when the black periods of mourning and despair fell upon him. These lessened in frequency and severity over time, but they never went away entirely. I had my own bad patches but did my best to hide them. Braska knew the basic facts of the episodes with Brac, Relle, and my family, but I didn't want to burden him with my emotional state given the fragility of his own.

"It won't be forever" …but as the months went by with no word, I began to worry. On my good days, I accepted that Relle would either forgive me eventually and take me back or not; other times, I would simply miss her, every fiber of my being crying out with loneliness, and become convinced that I had lost her forever. When I got into these moods, I would spend a hard afternoon with the sword, then a night alone in a tavern with a bottomless glass.

Winter melted into spring, and the day came for Braska to receive his first aeon. He appeared that morning wearing heavy robes and an elaborate headdress.

Yuna sat at the table, drinking a cup of juice. "Will you become a summoner today, Father?" she asked.

"I hope so, Yuna," he replied, ruffling her hair.

"You will," I said, confident in my corner of the kitchen. I finished my tea and set the mug on the counter. "Have something to eat."

"I rose early and ate before getting dressed. I'm prepared to leave if you are."

I took a deep breath and nodded. I hadn't been back to St. Bevelle since the day I'd left the Order, over four months ago now, and Braska knew that I'd been dreading it a little. But I was a guardian, or about to be — accompanying my summoner to the Cloister of Trials would be one of my most important duties. Best to face them and get it over with. "Just let me finish getting ready," I said, pulling my coat on and fastening the belt over it. Then I slipped my left arm out of the sleeve, letting it fall. A gauntlet went over my right hand, bracer and glove on my left. I had hit on this compromise between comfort and protection during my hours of training. It looked a little odd, perhaps, but it suited me. I was curious to try the configuration out in battle. I also grabbed an old sake jug that I had rinsed thoroughly and filled with fresh water, and I tied it to my belt.

"Shall we?" Braska walked to the door, clutching his new summoner's staff. I followed him, lifting my sword from its place on the wall as I passed it.

-x-

I did not know the warrior monks on duty at the entrance to the temple. They knew Braska, though, and nodded to him as we passed. As we walked through the temple complex, I looked straight ahead, holding my head high, focusing on whatever lay in front of me. The temptation to glance around for familiar faces was almost irresistible, but I clung stubbornly to my dignity and kept moving.

The walk to the Cloister took about fifteen minutes. Then we had to climb down a long circular staircase. The entrance awaited at the bottom. Braska glanced to the ceiling, and I saw his shoulders rise as he took a deep, slow breath.

"Ready, my lord?" The formal summoner's title slipped out almost without my noticing.

He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. "Why so formal all of a sudden?"

I lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. "You're almost a summoner; I may as well get used to it."

"There is no need, you understand."

"We'll see. And you're stalling."

"You're right, I am." He looked back at the Cloister doorway. "No longer. Let's go."

-x-

It took us about an hour to puzzle out the maze of spheres and portals inside the Cloister of Trials, but eventually we won our way through and found ourselves outside the Chamber of the Fayth. I could hear a high, clear voice singing the Hymn. It sounded like the voice of a child.

"Shall I go in with you?" I asked.

"No." Braska glanced at the heavy stone door behind him. "This, I must do alone. Wait for me here. You understand that it could be some hours before I return?"

I nodded, then made my most formal bow of prayer. "Yevon be with you."

"Thank you." Then he was gone, and I settled down to meditate the time away.

-x-

The creaking of the door broke my trance. I jumped to a standing position as Braska appeared. He stepped out the door in slow motion, then started to stumble. I was there before he could fall, catching him in my arms. His eyes closed, then fluttered open, shining with the knowledge of new mysteries. "Are you all right?"

He let out a soft breath. "Yes. I am better than I have been in a long time."

I smiled down at him. "Then congratulations to you, Lord Braska."

He stood with great care. I slipped an arm about his waist for support, and we walked out of the Chamber as summoner and guardian.

-x-

It had been morning when we entered the Cloister; now it was late afternoon. The exit was in a different part of the temple from the entrance, and we came out near the main courtyard. Braska's master teacher, an elderly summoner called Nyaki, waited for him there. I helped him over to her, and she took his hands and looked deeply into his eyes. Then she stepped back with a smile.

"You have done it, my Lord Summoner," she said, her voice quavering but proud. "Now show us."

I stepped back as Braska pulled out his staff and held it with his right hand. He spread his arms wide, then spun the staff over his head in a complicated pattern. I looked up, and my eyes went wide with wonder.

It had been a clear day, but mystical clouds gathered overhead, a beam of brilliant sunlight shining through a crack in their mass. A pair of iridescent wings framing a golden wheel circled up to the light, then unfurled to reveal a black, muscular, man-shaped figure. He let out a huge roar; I suspected the sound could be heard for miles. The clouds darkened and flashed with lightning as thunder rolled in the distance. A ghostly pattern inscribed with ancient glyphs appeared in the air beneath the aeon. The wings folded, and the aeon plummeted feet first through the inscription, rushing wind audible as he passed. Then, with an earth-shattering crash that nearly knocked Braska and me off our feet, the creature landed on the ground. It was an enormous black dragon, standing at least 15 feet tall with an even greater wingspan, the wheel hovering over his back. The aeon opened his mouth and roared again, stretching as if waking from a long sleep as the skies cleared again. Then he crossed his arms and stood at attention, awaiting a command. Braska's command, I realized, awestruck by the incredible power that my friend — no, my Lord — now had at his disposal. I took another step back and fell to one knee, bowing my head and closing my eyes. Over the beating of my heart, I could hear Lady Nyaki speaking.

"You have achieved much, my son," she said. "Bahamut, the most powerful of the aeons, is yours. But know that your journey is just beginning. Go now with your guardian and make your preparations. When you are ready, return here so that Yevon can bless you and your pilgrimage."

"Thank you, Lady Nyaki," Braska responded. "I will see you again soon. Auron?"

I lifted my head but did not stand. "My lord?"

He smiled at me. "Please get up, you're making me nervous."

"As you wish, my lord." I rose slowly.

Braska dismissed the aeon with a wave of his staff — it gathered its huge legs, jumped into the air, and disappeared with a rush of sound. "Come, let's go home and tell Yuna the good news."

Chapter Text

Liss wormed her way through the throngs of people pressing themselves into the blitzball stadium. She didn't care enough about blitz to sit through the whole day, but Maura had snagged an extra ticket to the finals and made her promise to use it. It took some doing, but with enough pushing and squeezing through gaps, she made it to her seat ten minutes before blitzoff. Kenna and Sam were there, too, along with an empty space on the end that Sam was holding.

"Hey, you made it!" Maura was bouncing up and down with glee — the Goers had beaten the Guado in a tight match to make the final round despite a strong comeback attempt by the Glories. Liss had seen the final minute on the sphere screens while making her way to the stadium, and it had been thrilling even to her untrained eye.

"It wasn't easy, let me tell you," Liss said, plopping down in her assigned spot, which was between her roommate and Sam. "Who else is coming?"

"My dad," said Sam. "He'll be here as soon as he's done chewing out the team."

"Oh, did the Beasts lose?' Liss sent him a sympathetic glance. "That's too bad. What happened?"

"They were leading almost to the end, but then one of the forwards made a stupid mistake, and the center followed up with an even stupider one. The Al Bhed took advantage of the opening and forced a tie, then won in overtime."

Kenna, sitting on Maura's other side, leaned over her and Liss, then stuck out her tongue at Sam. "Nyah, nyah."

"Lord it over me while you can," Sam replied with a grin. "You know who's gonna do better in the season."

"Maybe, but the cup's as good as ours!" Kenna crossed her arms with a satisfied air. "We upset the Aurochs, we upset the Beasts, and now it's the Goers turn."

"Oh, please." Maura pushed Kenna's shoulder. "Luca was seeded for a reason."

Kenna shoved back good-naturedly. "And we all know what that reason was: hometown advantage."

Liss twisted her head around and fixed her friends with a stern look. "Am I going to have to separate you two?"

"We'll be good," they chorused, then broke out into giggles. Sam shook his head, laughing along. He resumed scanning the crowd, then jumped up and waved. "Hey Dad, over here!" He ran down the stairs.

Liss watched him go to the railing, where he hugged a man who could only be his father — perhaps in his early forties, he was also tall and lean with bright red hair and the permanently tanned skin of a Kilikan.

Maura lightly tugged on Liss's ponytail. "Can't keep your eyes off him, I see."

"What?" Liss turned and met Maura's mischievous eyes.

"No denials, we saw you two dancing at the party last night!"

Kenna leaned over Maura again with a wink. "More than once," she agreed.

Liss successfully suppressed a blush. Sam was cute, and dancing with him had been fun, but she wasn't sure whether she was interested in more. Even if she were, romance wasn't particularly high on her list of favorite things right now. She was content to leave things as they were. "We're just friends. Besides, he's the only guy I know who's tall enough for me to dance with. Now shut up, he's coming back!"

"Whatever you say," said Maura. But the self-satisfied grin did not leave her face, and Liss found herself growing suspicious about the day's seating arrangements.

Fortunately, Sam returned to the seats then, rendering further speculation impractical. His father walked a step behind him. "Hey everyone, this is my dad, Jan. Dad, meet Liss, Maura, and Kenna, whose team is going down!"

"You wish!" the Al Bhed retorted. Maura tossed out a verbal poke of her own, but her jibe was drowned out by the horn blast announcing the arrival of the players in the sphere, and all attention turned to the game as the fans rose from their seats.

At halftime, Maura, Kenna, and Sam immediately started arguing about a questionable foul call that had taken a goal from the Goers, who were down by one. When she grew tired of being talked over, Liss switched places with Sam and sat down next to his father. He turned sideways and fixed her with a smile.

"Not a blitzball fan?" he asked.

Liss shrugged. "I grew up far from anywhere with a team, so I never really learned to get into it."

Jan nodded. "Your father couldn't care less about blitzball, either; when I knew him, anyway." Her jaw dropped at this casual admission, and he chuckled at her startled look. "Oh, Sam didn't tell you? Yeah. Sir Auron and I were roommates for almost a year in Bevelle."

Liss took another look at this tall, rangy, laid-back man. "You were a warrior monk?" He didn't fit her profile of an ex-monk at all; despite her father, or maybe partly because of him, she tended to think of them as more burly and thug-like.

"Nah, not really. I joined as a trainee but quit before taking the vows. Your dad and I were friendly, but I wouldn't say we were buddies or anything; I left before I had much time to know him. My brother's the guy you should meet — they served together for years. Hey, Sam!"

Sam stopped arguing long enough to turn around. "What?"

"You seen your uncle?"

"Not yet. But he should be here somewhere; we talked on the CommSphere a couple of days ago, and he said he's planning to come. We're supposed to find him afterwards — he said he'd meet us at the Academy if we don't run into him here."

"Want to join us?" Jan asked. Liss only had time to nod before the game started up again.

-x-

Three weeks after receiving the aeon, Lord Braska visited the temple for a final meeting with his mentor. I tagged along, mostly to get one last look at the place. When we arrived at the palace, I left him in the Hall of Summoners and made a visit to the Hall of Guardians.

The room was dark, as usual, so I took a lantern from its alcove by the entryway. I started with Lord Zaon, first and greatest of the guardians, and paid my respects. Next I offered a prayer to Sir Wendal, asking for the strength to follow in his footsteps: to defeat Sin and then come home alive. Then I wandered the hall, gazing at portraits, reflecting on the stories I knew and wondering about the tales I didn't. I must have spent two hours there, in the presence of my predecessors.

My thoughts were interrupted by the opening of a door. I turned and froze as I met the eyes of Maester Brac.

He did not move toward me or speak, only regarded me from across the room, his expression hard. My own emotions were a jumble: anger, sadness, regret, a tinge of hatred. But I kept them under control and looked back, matching his calm demeanor, determined that I would not be the first to blink.

The moment seemed to last forever, but in reality it was only a few seconds. In the end, he broke our eye contact, perhaps because the warrior monk standing behind him — Lieutenant Bradyn — touched his shoulder and asked a question. They exchanged a few words, too distant and soft for me to make out, then turned and left.

I sagged against the nearest wall. This confrontation, I had not been prepared for, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache in the back of my skull. I only had a minute to recover, though, as the door opened again, admitting Bradyn. I straightened, then composed my face as he jogged across the room and favored me with a quick salute.

"Cap–" My former Lead Sword bit back the accustomed title, making a face as he did so, and I winced inwardly. He took a sharp breath and started again. "Sir Auron? I have news that you may want to hear. The Maester has finally filled the position of Second Commander; the new man will be sworn in the day after tomorrow."

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Commander Kinoc."

I raised an eyebrow and examined my reaction to this piece of information. Not surprise — somehow, part of me had been expecting this. Was I… happy for him? At least in part. It was what he had always wanted, after all. I wondered how he felt about having been the second choice, and whether Brac had given him the same deal I'd been offered. "So he's transferred back from the Crusaders, then."

"Effective at that time, yes sir. Anyway, I thought you might like to know."

"You were correct." I bowed to him. "Thank you, Bradyn. If I don't see him before I leave, tell him I send my congratulations."

"Yevon be with you on your pilgrimage." He returned the bow as he left.

A few minutes later, I heard a different door open, and Lord Braska was soon by my side. "Are you ready to go?"

I nodded to him. "Yes, my lord."

Braska turned to me with an exasperated expression. "Is there any chance I can get you to stop calling me that?"

I tipped my chin downward. "No, my lord. I know you told me, long ago, that there was no need to stand on ceremony with you, but you were only a priest then. Now you are a summoner, and that is something far greater. You are due respect for the sacrifice you intend to make, and I am honor-bound to give it to you. Using your title does not make me any less your friend. Believe me; I never called Maester Brac anything other than 'your grace' for six years, and I loved him like a fath–"

My voice broke on the word, and I glanced away, my throat closing, a bitter sense of loss I hadn't even realized I'd been burying rising to the surface. Braska rested a hand on my arm. "His rejection hurt, did it?"

I couldn't speak for a moment as I struggled with this unexpected emotion. "Yes," I said, finally. "It still does."

The hand on my arm closed in a sympathetic squeeze, and the burden lightened a little. "Then I am sorry for it, my friend."

I looked at him with a smile that was mostly genuine. "Thank you, my lord. But it has worked out for the best. I can be your guardian, and we will go defeat Sin together."

He returned the smile and dropped his hand. "Speaking of that, I heard a very curious rumor today. Lady Nyaki tells me that there is a man in the dungeon who claims to be a blitzball player from Zanarkand."

Of all the unlikely things I'd heard in my life, this had to top the list. "Zanarkand? But that's impossible!"

"Perhaps, but the guards say he is quite insistent. I have discussed the matter with Lady Nyaki, and I would like to invite him along on the pilgrimage."

I grimaced with surprise and not a little displeasure. "Why, my lord? Am I not sufficient to protect you on the journey?"

He tilted his head. "Of course you are. There is no question of that. Still, if he can fight, there's no harm in having an extra sword, is there? And it could be useful to have someone with us who has been to Zanarkand, assuming his story is true."

I shrugged. "It is your decision, my lord. Wherever you go, I will follow."

-x-

"My lord?" I had been thinking about this question for some time, and as we walked down an underground hallway toward the dungeon of St. Bevelle I could resist it no longer. "If I may ask, what is it like, having an aeon?"

Braska glanced back at me with a thoughtful expression. "Have you ever had a word on the tip of your tongue that you could not quite recall? Or felt a memory poking at the edge of your mind? You know the thought is there, but you can't bring it fully into focus."

"Of course," I said with a nod.

"It is rather like that," he responded. "Except instead of a memory or a word, it's a… presence, I suppose. He hovers at the edge of my consciousness, just out of my reach, until I call upon him. Does that make any sense?"

"It does. Thank you." We had reached the door to the dungeon, and I stepped ahead and held it open for him.

The dingy room was lit by several torches. A single guard, a Crusader, stood at attention on the left-hand side of the room. She bowed to Braska. He returned the gesture, then turned to the three cells along the right wall. Only the center one was occupied, by a bare-chested man who smelled very strongly of whiskey. He sat up, rocking from side to side, as Braska approached the bars that separated them. "Who are you?" he asked, in quite possibly the raspiest voice I'd ever heard.

I narrowed my eyes at the boldness of the question, but Braska simply ignored his tone. "You are the one they call Jecht, the man from Zanarkand, are you not?"

The prisoner snorted. "Yeah. What of it?"

Seeing my friend and lord treated with such disrespect was starting to tick me off. "Watch your tongue!" I snapped, taking a step forward.

Braska stilled me with a look, then turned back to the cell. "My apologies. I am Braska, a summoner, and I have come to help you out of this place."

Jecht stood with the exaggerated care of a drunkard, and I was able to get a better look at him. His light brown hair was disheveled and pulled back with a red cloth. A scraggly beard and several scars covered his face. He was both shirtless and barefoot, dressed only in pants with legs of uneven lengths. His chest was entirely covered by a tattoo, a triangular design that meant nothing to me. He was wiry and tall, probably about the same height as Kal and with a similar build. Another blitzer? The impression was confirmed by the complicated bracer that looked like blitz equipment strapped onto his left arm, and the athletic tape wrapping his right. He looked less like a guardian than any man I'd ever seen.

"Sounds sweet," he said. "So what's the catch?"

Braska let out a friendly laugh. "That easy to see? Yes, I have something to ask of you. Soon, my guardian Auron" — at that he indicated me with a small sweep of his hand — "and I will be leaving on a pilgrimage. To Zanarkand."

That caught Jecht's attention. "Seriously?" he asked.

My summoner nodded. "I would like you to join us. It will be a dangerous trip, and I cannot guarantee your safety. Yet if we do reach Zanarkand, my prayers will be answered, and you will be able to go home, we think." He reached a welcoming hand toward the bars. "What say you?"

"Great," came the immediate reply. "Let's go."

Braska raised an eyebrow. "So quick? You don't wish to think about it?"

Jecht shook his head and crossed his arms. "Anything to get the heck outta here!"

"Then it's settled," said Braska with a smile.

I could stay silent no longer. This man's speech, his manner, and nearly everything else about him seemed perfectly designed to get on my nerves, and he was taking the most momentous thing that Braska and I would do in our entire lives and treating it like nothing more than a free pass out of jail. "My lord, I must protest. This drunkard, a guardian?"

"Hey!" protested the drunkard in question. "You wanna come in here and say that?"

I glared at him and just held myself back from accepting his challenge. He was muscular, but I was confident that I could take him in a fair fight. Maybe that would teach him some manners.

"What does it matter?" Braska's voice was calm. "No one truly believes that I, a disfavored former priest who married an Al Bhed, can beat Sin. I've heard the whispers, and I'm sure you have as well. No one expects us to succeed."

I refused to nod, but it was true. No one had dared say anything in my hearing, but I could sense it, in the way that voices fell silent and eyes turned away when I went about the temple and the town.

"So let's prove them wrong." His smile was pleasant, but his eyes burned with resolve. "A fallen summoner, a man from Zanarkand, and a warrior monk doomed to obscurity for refusing the hand of the high priest's daughter." I flinched a little at that, but again I could not deny the truth of his words. "What a delightful irony if our unlikely band defeated Sin!"

I looked at his face and saw that he would entertain no more discussion of the subject. His mind was made up, much as it had been when he'd decided to become a summoner in the first place. "As you wish, my lord," I said.

"Stop gabbing and get me out of here!" Jecht grumbled.

Braska gestured to the guard, who stepped forward with her keys and unlocked the cage. It swung open, and the now-former prisoner stepped forward, reaching his arms overhead in a huge stretch. Braska left the room, and Jecht and I followed him into the hallway, the door closing behind us.

"Ah… free at last!" Jecht stretched some more, pushing his shoulder blades together, locking his hands in front and pulling them forward, reaching an arm behind his neck and twisting his head to the side.

Braska looked to him, a small smile of amusement tugging at his mouth. "Now Jecht, I am in your hands until we reached Zanarkand."

He nodded absently. "Yeah, right, right. So, what's a summer-ner, anyway?"

"Yevon grant me strength," I groaned under my breath. The headache that I had managed to push away earlier was returning in full force. I had a feeling that this was going to be a very long journey.

Chapter Text

As we approached the exit from the temple complex to the city, I turned around for a look back. I took it all in — the temple itself, the courtyards, the outbuildings, the barracks that had been my home off and on over the years. The faces of men I had known here, my former brothers in the Order, passed before me. One in particular settled in my mind and refused to leave.

Lord Braska stood beside me. "Ready?" he asked.

"Actually," I said, "I was thinking about finding Kinoc. Would it be all right, my lord, if I joined you later?"

"Of course," he said. "Jecht and I will be at the house. Will you be home for dinner?"

"I imagine so. I may miss a few things about St. Bevelle, but the mess hall is not one of them."

He chuckled. "See you later then." He exited, Jecht close behind him, and I approached the nearest man standing guard. He was fairly young; I had seen him around the temple but did not know him by name.

"I'm looking for Commander Kinoc," I said. "Is he here?"

"Yes sir," he replied. "I believe he's in the armory."

"Thank you," I said with a bow, and went to the building he had indicated.

It was a short walk. I arrived and opened the door without knocking. Kinoc was indeed there, talking with the captain of the guard, Julien, commander of Bevelle Garrison. They looked up when they saw me enter, wearing twin expressions of surprise. But soon my old friend's face relaxed into a smile. "Auron!"

"Hello, Kinoc. Commander Julien."

The latter bowed, a tad stiffly. "I hear you are making the pilgrimage to Zanarkand," he said.

I nodded. "Guarding Lord Braska, yes."

Julien covered up the flash of skepticism on his pale face well, but not so well that I didn't see it. "Good luck, then, Sir Auron, Yevon be with you." It was not a heartfelt wish, but then Julien and I had never been allies; he'd resented my youth and influence with Brac and never bothered to make a secret of it. He exchanged a look with Kinoc, then got up and left, brushing past me as he passed through the door.

Kinoc and I faced each other, his bearing slightly tense. Was he nervous, worried that I was jealous of his new position? "So," he said.

The last seven years weighed on me, and I could think of nothing to say. How could I put into words how much this man and his friendship had meant to me? I decided it was an impossible task, so I settled for simple and straightforward. "Thanks for everything, Kinoc."

He relaxed, then nodded. "I know I don't need to tell you this, but guard Lord Braska well."

"Indeed I will." Now the awkward part. "And you'll be busy as well. I hear they made you second-in-command." I forced my tone to be cheery and light. To my surprise, it didn't take too much effort. Perhaps I really was happy for him.

His shoulders slumped with a sigh, which was not a reaction I had anticipated. I had expected him to be proud of the accomplishment; instead, he looked almost guilty. "That was your promotion, and everyone knows it. You were always the better man, all the way to the end."

I shook my head. "You make it sound as if I were heading off to die or something. I will see you again."

Kinoc looked up. "I hope so."

Silence fell for another moment. "Well, then…"

"Going already?" he asked.

I nodded. "We leave tomorrow, and we need to finish making preparations."

He hesitated for a second. "Tell me all about Zanarkand? When you return?"

I smiled at him. "Farewell."

I had gotten halfway through the door when I thought of one more thing and turned back. "Kinoc?"

He took a few steps in my direction. "Yes?"

I dipped my head slightly. "Be good to Lorayn. She's a nice girl, and I'm sure she's nervous about marrying a man she barely knows."

His eyes lit up at the thought of his future wife, and I was glad to see it. Maybe she would have a husband who could love her after all. "We are coming to know one another," he said. "You needn't be concerned on that account."

"Good. When is the wedding?"

"We'll begin planning as soon as the Calm comes. So hurry up and get on that, will you?"

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Anything for a friend."

Kinoc closed the gap between us, striding across the room to give me a fierce hug. "Yevon be with you, Auron."

"With you as well," I said. And then I was ready to leave.

-x-

The Al Bhed Psyches scored four more goals in the second half and held Luca to only one. It was a convincing win; even Maura had to admit that the controversial call had no bearing on the final outcome. As soon as the final horn blew, Kenna jumped up with a shriek of joy and ran off to find the victory party. Maura left as well, heading for the locker room to console her former teammates. Liss remained in her seat, waiting with Sam and his father for the stadium to clear out. She looked over the crowd, mostly subdued except for the Al Bhed in attendance. Then she saw someone waving at her from several rows over: Paine. Liss stood up and returned the greeting.

Her cousin fought her way through and soon stood before them. "Hello Liss, Sam."

"Captain Paine," said Sam, standing with a salute. "Have you met my father Jan? He coaches the Kilika Beasts."

"I have not," she said, reaching out to shake his hand. "I'm the officer in charge of training new recruits to the Defense Force. Your son is quite promising as a potential mage; you should be proud of him."

"You didn't tell me that!" Jan turned to Sam and smiled, as he blushed and dipped his head. Jan returned his gaze to Paine as he dropped his hand. "I'm glad to hear it, Captain, and it's great to meet you."

Paine nodded, then looked at Liss. "What are you up to next?"

Liss glanced at Jan, fighting a bout of nervousness. "Jan has invited me to meet his brother, who served in the warrior monks with my father. I was thinking of going, but if you have other plans for me…"

"No, no." Paine waved her off. "Baralai and I are having some Defense Force brass over this evening, and I have to help him get everything ready. You should go. Enjoy yourself today, but be ready for tomorrow — it's machina training, and you'll finally get a chance to play with some live ammo." She raised her arm to her chest as she left, and Sam and Liss both saluted in return. Liss watched as Paine ran into a blond man at the bottom of the stairway. They exchanged salutes and started to chat.

Then Sam noticed the pair. "Uncle Kal! Up here!" he shouted with a wave.

The man turned, as did Paine. Then they looked at one another, laughed, and headed up the steps together.

"Sam, I didn't know that Commander Kal was your uncle," said Paine as she returned to them.

"Well, ma'am, you aren't the only one who didn't want to be judged by family connections." Sam grinned. "No one asked, so I never said anything."

Paine looked pleased. "Fair enough. Anyway, I really should be going. See you all later. Commander, are you still coming for dinner?" He nodded, and she left amid a flurry of salutes and goodbyes.

Sam hugged his uncle hello, then presented him. "Uncle Kal, meet my friend Liss."

"Hi," Kal said, and Liss saluted him, as he was obviously her superior officer. As she did so, she looked at him more closely. Like his brother and nephew, he was quite tall and very lean, but his physique was more hardened, that of a warrior rather than a blitzer. He might have been as old as forty, but he still exuded a boyish charm, marred only by a faded scar on his left cheek.

"Nice to meet you, sir," she said.

"At ease, cadet," Kal said, smiling. "No one is on duty today." He reached out for a handshake; Liss dropped the salute and accepted the outstretched hand. He had a strong grip and a callused ridge along the top of the palm. Then he turned to his brother for another hug. "Good to see ya, bro," he said, his voice broadening to betray a slight islander accent.

"You too," said Jan. "How much of the tourney did you catch?"

"Got here just in time to see your center throw that terrible interception," Kal replied, grinning. "I hope you handed his ass to him."

"Eh, not really. It can wait for the next team meeting." Jan turned to the cadets by his side. "You kids hungry?"

"Sure am!" said Sam. "Liss?"

She nodded. "Breakfast was a while ago."

"I know just the place," Jan said. "C'mon, looks like the crowd has thinned out enough for us to get out of here."

-x-

When I arrived home, Jecht was nowhere in sight and Braska was making dinner. All our provisions for the journey were ready, although we would need to pick up a few more supplies in the morning to account for our increased number.

I settled into a chair at the counter. "What's the plan for tomorrow, my lord?"

Braska looked up from the pot he stirred. "We should probably leave early, before dawn. I want to get to Macalania Temple before dark, and we need to drop Yuna at the temple before we leave." I saw his face twist with sorrow as he said it, but this course of action had been decided months before. Braska had no family or other close friends in the city. As the daughter of a summoner, no matter how ill-respected, Yuna would be well cared for among the temple orphans. It was really the only option.

"Do we need more provisions to accommodate Jecht?"

"Already taken care of. We stopped by the markets on the way home. He also needed a sword, among other things."

"Like shoes, perhaps?" I asked dryly.

Braska laughed. "No, he refused. Armor as well. Said he can't stand them. I imagine he'll think better of it when we get to Lake Macalania; fortunately, there's a shop in the area. He's a peculiar fellow."

"You can say that again." I looked around the house, but there was still no sign of him. "Where is he, anyway?"

"In the backyard, playing with Yuna. He's showing her blitzball. Actually, she's quite taken with him."

I snorted and looked away.

"Hey." Braska let go of the spoon and laid a hand on mine. I could feel him looking at me. "Thank you for going along with this. I know you're not on board with bringing him on the pilgrimage."

"That would be an understatement, my lord," I muttered, my eyes firmly fixed on the kitchen counter. "You are the summoner, and it is your decision. But I would feel better if I just understood why."

"I don't know that I can rightly explain," he said, then hesitated. "Well, I can, but I'm not sure whether I should." He thought for a moment. "All right, I will tell you. But promise that you won't say anything about this, especially not to Jecht."

"I will keep any secret you ask me to keep, my lord."

Braska looked around and then lowered his voice. "Bahamut asked me to bring him."

I leaned back in my chair. "The aeon? Truly?"

He nodded. "The fayth appeared to me while I was meeting with Lady Nyaki. I don't know the reason, precisely, but he was quite insistent: Jecht belongs with our party. It is the only time he has spoken to me directly, outside our first meeting in his Chamber, and I feel compelled to obey."

"Understandably so, my lord." I made a small seated bow. "I will question Jecht's presence no more."

An awkward silence fell as Braska returned to his cooking. Finally I broke it with another question. "Did you explain the purpose of our journey and our roles in it?"

He frowned. "Most of it. As you might have guessed, he is ignorant of our ways and of Yevon; either he's truly from Zanarkand or another far-off land, or he has lost his memory. I explained about Sin, what a summoner is — he was rather impressed by the aeon — and what is expected of him as a guardian. But…" here he trailed off and looked out the window.

I understood. "You didn't tell him about the Final Summoning."

"I wanted to," he said with a sigh. "But I couldn't bring myself to say it. I've never had to explain it to anyone before — we've all grown up just knowing, learning it at our mothers' knees, even nonbelievers like the Al Bhed. How do you tell a man that he is to guard you with his life in order to give you the opportunity to die?"

"He will have to know eventually, my lord."

"I realize that," Braska said, then sighed again. "But please let me be the one to tell him. I promise not to leave it too long. Anyway, dinner's ready. Could you fetch Jecht and Yuna?"

"Of course, my lord." I stood and walked into the yard. Jecht sat on the ground, a blitzball resting on one side, a bottle on the other. Yuna was curled in his lap, listening with rapt attention as he spoke.

"An' the stadium is filled with people," he was saying, "all yelling and screaming. Then the roof opens up, and the spotlights shine all the way into the sky, loud music playin', and they introduce us players. Then the sphere fills up with water, startin' from the inside and going out to the edges, and we all jump in. I'm captain of the Abes, the best damn team in Zanarkand…"

"Dinnertime," I said, interrupting before the tale could get any taller.

Yuna stood up. "Thank you, Sir Auron." She turned to Jecht as he raised himself from the grass as well, bottle in hand. "Thank you for the story, Sir Jecht, and for showing me blitzball!" She hugged his leg, then ran into the house.

"Sweet kid," said Jecht, watching her go, a slightly wistful expression on his face.

"What do you know about children?" My tone was unnecessarily harsh, but I couldn't help myself. Something about this man just seemed to demand rudeness from me.

He drew himself up a little, then took a swig of his drink. "Hey, I have a son myself, ya know, 'bout Yuna's age. He's a damn crybaby, but I love him all the same. So don't you tell me I can't handle no kid." He stalked past me into the house. I looked at the sky with a small groan, praying yet again for patience, and followed.

-x-

Braska went into the temple with Yuna and came out alone; I left the low wall near the entrance where Jecht and I had been waiting and went to him. "How did it go, my lord?"

His face was pale, but his eyes were dry. "She was very brave. I will miss her, but she knows that I'm doing this for her, for all of Spira's children." He looked at me with a melancholy expression. "Take care of her when I'm gone?"

I gave his arm a squeeze. "You have my word." Then we walked over toward Jecht, who was standing a little way down the Highbridge and carrying… a sphere recorder?

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Well, you said it was gonna be a long trip," he replied. "We'll be seein' a lot of neat things, right? So I thought I'd record it all with this. To show to my wife and kid when I get home, y'know."

It was possibly the most ridiculous idea I'd ever heard. "This is no pleasure cruise!" I snapped, then turned to Braska for support. But he looked almost amused at the thought.

Jecht swung the recorder around, taking images of the scene around us. It was deserted but for the two guards standing watch at the door. "Hey Braska," he said. "Ain't this supposed to be a grand occasion? Where're the cheering fans? The crying women?"

Braska spread his arms wide. "This is it. Too many goodbyes, and people think twice about leaving."

"Huh." Jecht shrugged. "If you say so. It better be a lot more colorful when we come back. A parade for Braska, vanquisher of Sin!"

Braska laughed, but I couldn't. If Braska succeeded, there would be parades in his honor, true. Jecht and I might even get to see them, if we were lucky. But as High Summoner, Braska never would, and it was a sobering thought.

"We should go," Braska said. "Day will break soon."

Jecht turned off the recorder and placed it his bag. "Whatever you say. Let's get outta this place."

I took one last glance at the temple, and for the first time, I agreed with him. It was time to leave Bevelle behind me, once and for all.

Chapter Text

We made good time. Whatever else Jecht might be, he was certainly strong and willing to fight. He was a bit clumsy with his sword the first few times we came across fiends, but he quickly got the hang of using it. He still irritated me, though, with his crude language, continual joking, and insistence on behaving like a tourist, and I had to restrain myself from hitting him over the head with the flat of my sword more than once.

It all came to a head within a day, when we reached the travelers' rest at Macalania late that first afternoon. The original hut had been destroyed in the Sinspawn attacks earlier that year. An Al Bhed businessman had taken over the land and rebuilt several feet further from the lake, transforming the establishment into a shop and inn, but we were only a few hours from the temple and I was eager to press forward. But Jecht insisted on taking a break to record the scene. "Can you shoot this one, Braska?" he asked as he pulled out his contraption. "I want my kid to see that I was here for real."

"Certainly," my lord said, taking the recorder from Jecht and poking at its controls. I held my tongue and stood beneath the sign that proclaimed our arrival at Lake Macalania, facing out over its frozen waters. The last time I'd been here, I'd commanded several squadrons of warrior monks as we held the temple against wave after wave of Sinspawn. I could still see the damage from that incursion: the ruins of the old hut, wiped out remnants of trails, cracks in the lake ice. I'd spent most of that time in the temple's command center, but that particular battle I'd witnessed myself, half a dozen men plunging into a watery grave before my eyes when the ice gave way, and I couldn't stop picturing the horror on their faces. It was all more affecting that I'd expected it to be, and I started to dread the time a week or so hence when we would reach the Djose Shore.

"Auron?" Braska called to me. "Could you stand closer to him?"

I sighed and glanced to my left, where Jecht was standing, and took a few reluctant steps toward him, then turned to face the recorder.

"Good." Braska panned a bit with the camera. "There, that should do it."

Jecht looked at me, a smirk on his face. "What's the matter?" he asked. "'Fraid I might bite?"

I glanced at him, my annoyance rising even further. "Jecht…"

"Braska!" he interrupted. "You should take one, too. It'd make a great gift for little Yuna."

Lord Braska looked doubtful. "I suppose."

With that, I had had enough. "Lord Braska, we shouldn't be wasting our time on this," I said.

Jecht raised his eyebrows. "What's the hurry, man?"

I strode over to Braska, ready to put an end to this mockery. "Let me tell you what the hurry is!" I heard Braska protest feebly, but my ire was roused now, and nothing was going to stop me. I switched off the infernal device, then returned to Jecht, grabbed him by an arm, and dragged him over to the remains of the old hut. "Do you see this? Six months ago, this was a travelers' rest, for pilgrims on their way to the temple. Then Sin attacked and left it in ruins. Five people were inside that night. Four of them died."

His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to comment, but I was nowhere near finished. I pointed out to the lake. "See that rift in the ice over there? That happened as a troupe of warrior monks battled a Sinspawn swarm. The ice snapped, and they all fell into a freezing cold lake. None survived. Maybe all you can see is some cracked ice; I see the marker of a watery grave. I knew those men. They were my men. Some I even considered friends. I watched them all die. One month I spent here at Macalania, fighting Sin, sending my brothers to their deaths. We beat it back in the end, but it's still out there, ready to attack again, to kill. That is the hurry. Every day we dally is another day that people die!" I was shouting now. "Do you have any idea how much we have lost to Sin? Lord Braska's parents. My mother. Dozens of men under my command. Lord Braska's wife, one of the sweetest, kindest, most beautiful women I ever knew, drowned like a rat when Sin sank her ship. And that's just the two of us! Every person in Spira could tell you a story of families lost, of homes and lives destroyed. And you have the gall to ask what the hurry is?" I let go of his arm, which I had kept in a death grip throughout my outburst, and whirled away from him, breathing hard, trembling with anger, with grief. I closed my eyes and dropped my head as I attempted to calm myself.

"Auron?" Jecht's voice had dropped half an octave, losing its typical harsh edge.

I opened my eyes and turned back around.

He spread out his arms in a gesture of contrition. "I'm sorry. Braska told me about Sin, but I didn't understand. Not really. Maybe now I do. You're right, I wasn't takin' this seriously enough. I'll try harder."

Momentarily stunned, all I could do was nod. Then I glanced at Braska, who stood rigid, some distance away. "I'm sorry, my lord," I said to him. "I didn't mean to fly into a temper like that."

"It's all right," he replied. "But I think perhaps we should move on."

-x-

Paine arrived home, Yuna and Tidus on her heels, to find Baralai tidying the kitchen. "We missed you at the stadium," she said, perching on a nearby stool.

He looked up from the dish he was washing and blew a drooping lock of hair out of his eyes. "Yeah, well, I have a three-course dinner to cook and a house to clean, so you can either help out or go away."

She jumped down and held up her hands in supplication. It was rare for Baralai to get frazzled, but when he did, steering clear was the best option. "Sorry. Whichever you prefer. Why don't Tidus and I clean, and Yuna can help you cook?"

"Of course," said Yuna. "What can I do?" She walked into the kitchen and sat on the stool Paine had vacated.

"Do I ever have plans for you." Baralai straightened with a sigh, then pulled out his recipes for a quick debriefing.

Paine turned to Tidus. "Let's get out of their way."

"Whatever," he muttered. "I still can't believe we got bounced in the first round. The Al Bhed aren't even that good!"

"At least they went all the way," Paine pointed out. "Now you can say that only the champions were good enough to beat you."

He sighed and scratched his head. "I guess."

"Come on." Paine pointed him toward the back door. "You can blow off some steam by helping me move furniture." They exited the house and started gathering up the dishes and trash that littered the yard, then dragged the tables and chairs into a dinner party configuration.

"Say Tidus," said Paine after they had worked awhile. "You know that cadet Sam?"

"'Course," he replied. "He's pretty decent with a sword, although they say he's really more of a mage type. Isn't he friends with Liss?"

"Yes. Did you know that he's Commander Kal's nephew?"

He set the chair he'd been carrying down into position. "Really?"

She nodded. "I saw them together at the blitzball stadium after the finals. The head coach of the Beasts is Sam's dad, and he's also Kal's brother."

"Jan and the commander are brothers? I didn't know that, either." Suddenly Tidus laughed. "So that's two out of twelve. How many other cadets from that class are going to turn up with famous relatives? Is Kenna actually Rikku's long-lost cousin? Or maybe someone is Seymour's secret love child?"

Paine snickered. "I suppose it seems rather unlikely when you put it that way." She turned thoughtful. "Maybe not really, though; talents do run in families, after all. It's no stranger than a handful of families dominating the blitz arena, or the temples in the old days."

"Yeah, maybe." He picked up a tray of glasses from the table and headed for the house. "But it seems like we've never had more than one in a year before. Last year it was just Pacce, and that's not the same since he's sort of famous in his own right."

She hefted a garbage sack and followed him. "True. Then again, we've only been doing this for what, four years? Hard to say what's typical yet."

Baralai and Yuna looked up from the cookbook as their respective spouses walked into the cottage. "Paine, how many people do we have coming again?"

Paine dumped her sack and thought. "General Lucil, the three commanders — Kal, Elma, Beclam. High Councilor Winn and her husband. Yuna, Tidus, do you want to stay?"

They looked at each other, carrying on a silent conversation with their eyes. Eventually, Yuna shook her head. "We'd better get home once we're finished helping you; Wakka and the Aurochs are expecting us to eat with them, I think. And I should at least put in an appearance at Cid's victory bash."

"Okay. Six guests then. Eight with you and me."

"Hmm." Baralai flipped through the cookbook, deep in concentration. Then he looked up, a smile of inspiration on his face, an expression that Paine had learned to dread at times like this — she just knew he was rewriting the carefully-planned menu in his head.

She turned to Tidus. "How do you feel about going into the city for some food shopping?" she asked.

He tilted his head. "Today, with half of Spira in town? I'll pass."

"Then run!" She grabbed his hand and pulled him back into the yard.

"Hey!" Baralai protested, his tone somewhere between exasperation and amusement, Yuna's laughter ringing out as Paine slammed the back door shut.

-x-

About three weeks after leaving Bevelle, tired and dusty, nursing minor wounds and running low on gil and supplies — the former lost largely due to an unfortunate encounter between Jecht and a shoopuf; Lord Braska had needed to give up all his money in restitution for the damage his drunken guardian had caused — but still high on our hard-won triumph over a chocobo-eating fiend on the Mi'ihen Highroad two days before and in possession of two more aeons, we found ourselves in Luca just as the sun was setting. We stood on top step of the stairway that lead down to the city and observed the scene.

"Man, a real city," said Jecht with a small sigh. Then he perked up visibly. "Hey! Is that a blitzball arena?"

"Indeed." Lord Braska folded his arms into his robe. "Perhaps we could watch a game tomorrow."

"Watch?" Jecht tossed his head scornfully. "I'm talkin' about playing. I hate to watch other people play; just reminds me that I could be out in the water myself."

Braska smiled as I resisted rolling my eyes. Jecht had become more tolerable over the weeks of our journey, starting after my tirade in Macalania but especially since he gave up drinking — the one good thing to come out of the shoopuf incident — but there were still moments when his brashness and arrogance irritated the hell out of me. Yet Braska always indulged him. "Perhaps something can be arranged," he said.

"Will there be time, my lord?" I asked. "The ferry to Kilika does leave first thing in the morning."

"True, but I think we could use a break. It would be nice to stay in a real inn for a little while, rather than sleeping on the ground or in travelers' rest huts. Plus, we need to resupply, and where better to do that than Luca?"

"As you wish." I brushed some dried mud off my coat. "I suppose we could use a laundry and a bath."

Braska laughed. "That's the fastidious young man I know!"

"Hey," I objected, but without real heat. It was only the truth, after all — for someone who had spent perhaps a quarter of his adult life sleeping outdoors, I was fond of being clean. Each man took the prospect that gave him new energy, and we bounded down the stairs.

-x-

I had to admit it: Lord Braska was right. If we had hurried off that morning, the night before would have been spent rushing around, gathering supplies and booking passage on the S.S. Winno. A leisurely evening meal followed by that bath, then a full night's sleep in a real bed with no interruption to stand watch had done me a world of good. Now it was the next morning, and I had risen early to drop off our dirty clothes and have some tea. Everyone drank coffee in the field because it was stronger and easier to make in quantity over a fire, but I much preferred tea and relished the chance to start my morning with a well-made cup or two. Braska safe with Jecht for the moment, I relaxed and sat in an outdoor cafe that been one of my favorite haunts during the year and change I'd been stationed here in Luca. It sat on a main pathway, but as the patio was partially shielded by bushes, it was perfect for a combination of solitude and people-watching. I poured myself a second cup, blew on the drink to cool it, and then took a sip. As I did so, I thought I heard an unexpected voice calling my name.

"Xan?" I breathed, as I stood up and turned around.

"It is you!" My brother-in-law weaved through the tables and caught me up in an embrace.

"What are you doing in Luca?" I asked, a smile on my face so large that I felt it might crack my cheeks.

"My cousins got me a job on the new sphere theater." He pointed out the skeleton of a building that stood on an isolated section of the waterfront. "Sin took out the old one about twenty years ago. They're finally rebuilding it, bigger and better, and they needed lots of help. It's a good job, and Kera was feeling like a fresh start after… well, you know. Plus, with all the Crusaders and warrior monks around, it's probably safer here than it was in Tzeki. We moved about two weeks after the last time I saw you. But what brings you here?"

"I'm a guardian on pilgrimage," I said. "After my falling out with the warrior monks, I went to Father Braska — Lord Braska now, remember him from your wedding?" Xan nodded. "He had recently decided to train as a summoner and asked me to journey with him. We're heading for Kilika first thing tomorrow." I knew what question had to come next, but I still dreaded asking it. "How is Kera? Is she still unwilling to see me?"

The left side of Xan's mouth twitched upwards, and the excited sparkle our reunion had given his eyes faded. "I have to be honest with you; she's still pretty angry. Maybe if I had a few days to work on her, but if you're leaving tomorrow? Probably not. I'm sorry. She's well otherwise, though, and Paine likes it here."

It was the answer I had been expecting, but it was still a crushing disappointment. I wanted to ask about Arelle, but I wasn't sure whether I could bear bad news on that front, too. I was still considering whether to bring her up when he beat me to it. "Have you heard from Relle?" he asked.

"Not since…" and my voice trailed off. "You mean you haven't?"

Xan shook his head. "She and Kera fought the day after you left. I wasn't there for the argument, and Ker was pretty incoherent when I got home that night. Then she refused to talk about it the next day, and Relle shut me out when I tried to get the story from her. As far as I know, they haven't spoken since."

"And you still don't know why?"

"Not exactly." He would not meet my eyes. "But I can make a pretty good guess."

So could I — it had to have something to do with me. "Best friends for all their lives, not even speaking," I said quietly, "and it's all my fault."

"Hey." Xan took my shoulders and shook me a little. "Don't you take all the blame on yourself. Dix–"

"I know," I interrupted. "But Kera blames me, and she's not entirely wrong to do so. And it weighs on me, heart and soul, every day." I met his eyes. "Tell her that I'm sorry, and that I miss her?"

Xan nodded. "She won't admit it, but she misses you, too. So do I."

I put my hands on his arms. "You've been a good friend, Xan, all my life. Thank you for taking care of Kera. Once this is over, I will do whatever I need to do in order to make things right with her again."

His expression was solemn. "And if you don't make it?"

"I'll make it," I said with a small smile. "I have too many promises to keep to let myself die out there."

That coaxed a small laugh out of him. "Well, just do your best." We dropped arms and stepped away. "I have to get to work, and I'm sure you have your own errands. Yevon be with you."

"And with you, brother." I finished my tea as he walked away, then left to join Braska and Jecht at the blitzball stadium as we had planned.

Chapter Text

Kilika Forest. I looked around at the lush greenery and tasted the humid, living air, lost in my fond memories of this place. In many respects, my years as Captain of Kilika Second had been my happiest with the warrior monks. If only Brac had asked me to take command here.

Lord Braska walked up beside me. "Thinking about old times?" he asked.

"You know me well, my lord," I said with a smile.

"What are we standing around here for?" called an impatient voice from a few feet in front of me. "Don't we have a temple to visit?"

The peaceful mood broken, I shot a glare at my fellow guardian.

"We have time, Jecht," said Braska. "The temple isn't far, and the forest is a pleasant place to walk. No reason not to enjoy it."

Jecht swatted an insect off his chest and glared at the squashed creature on his hand with distaste. I still wasn't sure I bought this Zanarkand story, but wherever Jecht was really from, his attitude toward nature made it clear that he was a city-dweller. "Huh! Well, I'm going ahead. You can enjoy being eaten alive by bugs if ya want."

His words were prophetic, as he then immediately blundered into a nest of wasp fiends. The two of us drew our swords to hold them off while Braska stepped back, gathering his strength for a spell. I swatted at the creatures, but it was an exercise in frustration — they were too fast for me, so I missed two for every one I hit. Jecht, swifter than I, knocked several down, but then slipped on a patch of mud and landed on the ground with a curse. And still more kept coming.

"Lord Braska, the ice aeon!" I shouted. He nodded and lifted his staff, ready to begin the incantation, but one of the giant insects rushed him and slipped in with a sting. He slumped and fell. I swore as I rushed to him, slicing the fiend in half, and then knelt down by him, rummaging through his pack in search of an antidote to the fiend's poison. I found one and forced it down his throat. He swallowed, then coughed, and started to come around. Looking up, I saw two of the wasps buzzing in front of my face. I threw my body over Braska and braced myself for their attack.

Thwack! Thwack!

I raised my head to see two dead fiends, pierced perfectly through the eyes by arrows, fallen to the ground and dissipating into pyreflies. A group of warrior monks stood in the distance. Their leader lowered his bow and grinned at me as his men made short work of the remaining enemies.

"Kal?" I jumped to my feet, and a smile spread over my face when I noticed the insignia on his orange coat. "Or should I say, Captain Kal?"

"The one and only," he said. "Good to see you, Sir Auron."

I glanced back at Braska. "I'm fine," he said, sitting up. "Go ahead."

Needing no more encouragement, I went to Kal. "How's the guardian business?" he asked as we clasped arms.

"It suits me," I replied, letting him go. "Never a dull moment, as you can see. Thanks for your help, by the way."

He waved a hand in the air. "Think nothing of it. Anything to help a summoner on pilgrimage. Say, are you headed to the temple, or have you finished there?"

"We're on our way in."

"So are we. Would you like an escort, Lord Braska?"

By this time, Jecht had helped Braska to his feet. "Certainly," he replied. Then he caught my eye with a swift wink, and I understood — he trusted his guardians to get him through the forest, but traveling with the warrior monks would provide a good excuse for me to spend some time with a friend. I nodded my gratitude, and we headed off. The squadron went first, followed by Jecht and Braska. I fell into step with Kal at the rear.

At first, we made small talk — Kal caught me up on Jan, who was still playing for the Beasts and married with two small children and another on the way; I told some of the more entertaining stories from the pilgrimage. But, inevitably, our discussion turned to the Order. "So, they made you a captain," I said as we reached the base of the temple stairway.

He nodded. "Just a few weeks ago, only days after you left with Lord Braska. They were going to give me Second Bevelle, but after what they did to you, I wanted to get as far away from that place as possible. So they elevated the captain of First Kilika to Second Bevelle, and I got his job."

"Must be nice to be home."

"It really is. I hope I never have to leave it again." He took off his helm and shook out his hair — it was already most of the way back to blond — and briefly lifted his face to the tropical sun. I saw that he still bore the scar he'd earned on the Djose shore; if it hadn't faded by now, it probably never would. I wondered what it was like, carrying a visible reminder of that terrible day. Bad enough that I was still headache-prone. At least I wasn't confronted with those every time I looked in a mirror.

After a moment, Kal continued. "You have many other friends and allies in these barracks. Commander Gibson leads the garrison, and Rickard is my Lead Sword. Actually, about half of Gray Squad followed me here in one role or another."

"Good for Rickard," I said. "You'd have a hard time doing better. But they can't all be officers; isn't Kilika something of a step backwards from Gray Squadron? And Gibson should certainly be closer to the center of power than this."

Kal shrugged. "Maybe. But things are turning ugly in Bevelle. Anyone still loyal to you has found it much easier to leave."

I stopped short, then turned and looked at him, my eyebrows drawing together. "How do you mean?"

Kal glanced at me, and I was surprised to see a rush of anger pass over his face. "A lot of people were upset by the way Maester Brac treated you. The whole affair raised all kinds of questions about the fairness of promotion by arranged marriage and backroom alliances, questions that the Maesters didn't want to answer. So they started shipping the troublemakers out, quietly, mostly here and Djose, far from anywhere influential. Frankly, I was shocked when they offered me a posting in Bevelle, but maybe Kinoc wanted me where he could keep an eye on me."

We started walking again. "I know it seemed unfair at the time," I said, "and I'm truly moved by your loyalty, but maybe it's worked out for the best. Kinoc is a master strategist, after all; in some ways I even think he's better suited for the job."

This time, it was Kal who halted in his tracks, staring at me incredulously. "Are you serious?"

"Of course. Maybe we're not as close as we once were, but he is still my friend."

He stared for what felt like a full minute, then shook his head and resumed climbing the steps. After some time had passed, he spoke again. "You're much more forgiving than I would be, is all I can say."

I laid a hand on his arm, firmly, turning him towards me. What did he have against Kinoc all of a sudden? They'd always been friendly, though I was closer to each of them than they were to one another. "Kal, what the hell are you talking about?"

His eyes went wide and bright. "You mean you don't know?"

"Know what? It was unlike Kal to be this cryptic, and I found myself getting frustrated with him. "Kal. Tell me."

Kal pursed his lips, then looked around us. We had just reached the temple courtyard. "No," he muttered. "Not here, not now." He stepped closer to my ear. "Too many people around. Come to my quarters after you've finished in the temple; we can talk then."

"That could be a day from now. I don't know whether I can wait that long."

He fixed on me with a grim look. "Believe me, you won't feel that way once you know."

I opened my mouth to protest again, but the seriousness of his eyes stopped me. "All right. I'll find you."

"Any time, day or night," he said, a hand gripping my shoulder. "Send someone to fetch me if I'm not in my quarters. I'll leave orders that I am to be found when you ask for me." I nodded, then left him to join Braska and Jecht.

Braska frowned; he had picked up on my mood. "Is everything all right?" he asked.

"That's a very good question, my lord," I replied, "and I'm not really certain of the answer." I sketched out the conversation I had just finished. "Kal promised me the whole story before we leave; maybe I'll know what to think then."

-x-

Several hours later, we emerged from the Chamber of the Fayth, Braska leaning on my arm. Our wait was comparatively short, but I had still been impatient. Normally, Jecht was the antsy one, pacing and muttering while I attempted to hide my annoyance at his restlessness. Today, after only an hour of waiting, he had finally snapped at me — "Would you settle down? You're drivin' me crazy over here!" Then we had caught each other's eyes and shared a laugh. I was calmer after that, but now that we were out of the temple, I felt the jitters return. It was still afternoon, but Braska was clearly too drained to make the return journey to Kilika Port today. And I had an appointment to keep.

"Jecht, can you arrange lodging for us here, then tend to Braska?" I asked.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "You gonna be long?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

Braska raised his head to me. "Are you sure you want to go alone?"

"Yes, my lord, I will be fine." I wasn't at all certain about that, but I didn't want to burden Braska with this, whatever it was. And, though I had started to trust and even grudgingly respect Jecht over the past month, I wasn't ready to share anything personal with him.

Braska didn't look convinced either, but he let it go. "All right. Come find us afterwards, and we can talk about it if you wish."

Jecht took my place as Braska's support, and I left them, following the well-remembered path to the barracks. I soon found Kal's door and knocked. He was there eating a late lunch, and he let me in.

"You hungry?" he asked, passing me a bowl of soup.

I took a bite and had to restrain myself from spitting it out. "Were Bevelle's chefs transferred here, too?" I asked.

Kal laughed. "It has gotten distinctly worse, hasn't it."

"Even the field rations we've been eating are better than this." I handed the dish back. "Thanks, but I'll eat when I get back to Lord Braska."

"Okay, I'm stalling," Kal said. "You're here because I have something to tell you. I don't want to, but someone has to, and not many other people can. So here goes. You, my friend, have been betrayed, far worse than you know." He took a deep breath. "Have you ever wondered how it was that your father found out about the marriage offer, and how he came up with his plan to make you accept it?"

"Many times. He told me, offhand, that he'd heard about it from tavern gossip while in Bevelle on business, but I never got more details. As you might imagine, we aren't exactly on speaking terms. I have never understood why he wrote that letter. It seemed a desperate plan, doomed to failure."

"Yes, it was. By design."

I looked at Kal, uncomprehending. "By… but why would my father attempt a plan he knew wouldn't work? He'd nothing to gain by ruining my career; my success was even more important to him than it was to me."

"Oh, it wasn't your father who intended the plan to fail. It was the man who got him to do it in the first place."

A physical tremor of shock passed through me. "Are you trying to say that my father had an accomplice? But who?"

His chest rose as he inhaled again, and he let the air out with a quiet sigh. Then he reached out and took my arms, gripping them, holding me in place. "Kinoc."

My mind refused to accept the name that my ears had just heard. I searched Kal's face, seeking any sign that he had been joking, or that I had misunderstood him, but none came. His expression was sober, his eyes gut-wrenchingly sad.

"No," I whispered. "No, it can't be." My throat tightened, and yet my voice grew louder. "Kinoc… he's ambitious, yes, but he would never… No! I cannot believe this to be true!"

Kal stared me down. "You have to, Auron. I swear by Yevon that it is. Kinoc bribed a business associate of your father's to invite him to Bevelle. He arranged for your father and the merchant to be in the right tavern at the right time to 'overhear' him discussing the offer with some of his cronies. And he talked with your father and convinced him that the forgery might force your hand and get you to accept the Maester's proposal. Kinoc orchestrated it all. He used your father, he used the Maester, and he used you."

"How do you know all this?" I felt as if a shoopuf were standing on my chest.

He chuckled bitterly. "Would you believe that the arrogant bastard actually told me himself? We were out drinking, we both had a few too many, and he let the story slip out. Seems he thought I'd be impressed by his clever plan, and how well it succeeded. Well, I showed him what I really thought, with a black eye and a couple of broken ribs. I got the offer for Second Bevelle the next day. I'm still not sure whether it was a bribe, or a threat, or both. Either way, I had to get out of there."

My head swam. My lungs were working, but I couldn't get enough air into them, and I started to see black spots before my eyes. I could not, would not believe this. It was preposterous. And yet, it would explain some things…

"Auron, are you about to faint?" Alarm was plain in Kal's voice. "C'mon, sit." He steered me over to his bed, where I sunk down and dropped my head between my legs. He sat next to me and rubbed the center of my back with a strong hand.

Before long, the moment passed and I could breathe again. My shock was fading, and it was quickly being replaced by a rage so deep and all-consuming that it frightened the small part of my mind that could still think rationally. I jumped up, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Whirling around, my hands in tight fists, I looked to Kal. "I will kill him for this!" I roared.

Then Kal was standing again, his hands closing over my wrists. He held me still as I shook and shouted with impotent fury, cursing Kinoc and Dix and even Yevon himself. Once it passed, when I had worn myself out, I fell silent.

Kal stepped away, concern plain on his face. "I'm sorry."

I shook my head. "No apologies. I appreciate your telling me. But I think I need to be alone for awhile."

"I understand. Yevon be with you, my friend."

-x-

The grassy hill next to Kilika Temple had always been one of my favorite parts of the complex. Many hours I had spent relaxing here — reading, writing letters, watching Kal and the others kick around a blitzball — and it had also been my preferred place to train alone, going through the exercises with or without my sword. As dusk fell, I stood in silence, contemplated the wind blowing through the trees, the sea pounding the shore beyond them. I was trying to find peace in the warm evening and in the sound of distant crashing waves, but it wasn't working. My head throbbed, and all the fresh air in the world wouldn't clear it.

"You look like a man who wants to hit somethin'," said Jecht from behind me. "Or is it someone?"

I swiveled around. "The latter," I admitted.

"Me?"

I was startled into a chuckle. "No. Not this time."

"Huh. Well, that other guy ain't here, and I am, so take your best shot. Call it payback for all those other times you really did want to knock my block off."

Shaking my head, I backed away. My anger was too raw, too close to the surface, and I feared controlling it would be impossible. "That's not a good idea."

"Aw, c'mon!" He cracked his knuckles and then dropped into an easy fighting stance, grinning. "Think I ain't tough enough to take ya? Or maybe you're afraid to lose."

Given my foul mood, the taunt combined with his cheery cockiness was all the invitation I needed. "You asked for it," I said, and without further warning I rushed him.

Jecht and I had sparred a few times, but we'd never fought bare-handed. My first blow he dodged, the second he blocked, but the third was an uppercut that connected with his jaw. Some part of me knew to hold back my full strength — Jecht's bravado aside, I would demolish him in a contest of straight physical force, and we both knew it — but his head still snapped up and back with the impact. He shook it off, though, and punched me in return, slamming a fist into my chest. It knocked the wind out of me for a moment, but I shook myself and recovered. With a growl, I jumped forward and pushed him to the ground, pinning him with my weight, bashing his face yet again. Somehow, he managed to roll us over, and I ended up on the bottom, banging my head against the ground hard enough to see stars. He drew back an arm to hit me, but I pushed him off and leapt up in a single motion. He hit the ground again, tumbling and then landing on his feet, and my mind spared a moment to admire his athleticism. We rushed one another again and started grappling. Finally I got him down again and made ready to punch him one more time.

"Wait!" he gasped. "I give!"

I let go, panting, and dropped down to the grass, checking the sore spot on my breastbone where Jecht had connected. I suspected there would be a bruise, even through my leather armor. Somehow, though, I felt better than I had fifteen minutes ago.

Then I checked out my fellow guardian. He sported a split lip and would probably have a black eye in the morning, but he was grinning. "Did it help?" he asked, his breathing already easier.

"You know," I said, with a sideways glance at him, "I think it did. Thank you." I rubbed the back of my head ruefully. No bump, at least not yet. "You're pretty good at that."

He snorted. "Years of bar brawls. It's no warrior monk training, but it does me fine." Then he glanced sideways at me. "Wanna talk about it?"

I didn't even realize I'd made the decision before my story came pouring out. All of it, from the day I'd left Relle to go to Bevelle for the first time to learning the truth about Kinoc earlier this afternoon. I must have spoken for half an hour. Jecht didn't interrupt, not even once.

"Damn," he said once I had finished. "You've been keepin' all that stuffed inside? No wonder you're so stiff!"

"Hm. Possibly." I hadn't considered it before, but now that Jecht mentioned it, I wondered if I had been wound more tightly in recent months. Maybe that's why I was so easily irritated by him, so quick to take offense at his oddities.

"Hey, why didn't you talk to Braska?"

I leaned back on my hands and looked up at the darkening sky. "He knows much of this. But his wife died around the time everything came to a head, so I spared him the worst of it. My problems seemed so inconsequential in comparison."

"Yeah, maybe. But he's been real worried about you, y'know. I bet he'd rather know what's goin' on."

"Perhaps." Silence fell between us, only the calming sound of wind and waves in the distance.

"Well, better get back," Jecht said. "Braska'll be wondering where we are, and dinner's soon." He smirked as he stood up. "And after we beat Sin, I'll go with ya to Bevelle, and help you give that Kinoc jackass a piece of your mind."

I couldn't help but laugh. I looked up at Jecht. He was a strange man, often exasperating, still capable of annoying me beyond all reason. But in many ways, he was becoming a real friend. "Maybe I'll take you up on that someday," I said. "Anyway, I'll be along shortly."

"Okay, see ya in a few." He left me alone, and for the first time all day I was truly able to relax, body and soul, as I breathed in the gentle night air.

Chapter Text

Jan led the party though the crowded streets of Luca, away from the docks, the arena, the central square — all the places that would be overrun by tourists. Sam followed, and Kal and Liss walked together, a step behind. At first they said nothing, as they would have needed to shout to be heard over the teeming masses. But as the crowd thinned, Liss started to feel uncomfortable with her silence, full of questions for her father's old friend and unsure where to begin.

Kal glanced sideways at her, then broke the ice. "So, you're Auron's kid. They told you that I knew him?"

"Your brother did, yes sir. You served together in the warrior monks?" This man didn't really fit her image of a warrior monk, either — too slender, too cheerful — but he came closer than Jan did, with his scarred face and upright posture.

"Yeah. First we were bunkmates as trainees. Later, he was my captain for two and a half years in Kilika and then in Bevelle for almost a year after that. Over four years together, total."

As eager as she was to hear more about her father, Liss found herself wondering about Kal, too. "Sir, if I may ask, how did you end up in the Defense Force? Shouldn't you be in the Bevelle Guard with most of the other former monks, or retired?

"Retired?" He laughed. "I'm only forty. I'm sure that seems ancient to you, but I do have a few good years left. As for Bevelle, I got disgusted with that place a long time ago. When Yevon started falling apart, I quit. I thought I might retire then, but then Nooj founded the Youth League and they needed people to rebuild Kilika, so I had to help out. Over that time, I got to know Nooj. I was impressed by his leadership, and he appreciated my experience, so I joined his command team. I was about ten years older than anyone else there, but I think it was good for them to have an old guy like me around." He chuckled again. "When the Youth League turned into the Defense Force, I stayed on. I've been a soldier almost my whole life; I don't really know anything else. It'll be the same for you if you stay in the Force, most likely. But anyway, enough about me. It must be your dad you really want to know about."

Liss nodded. "But I'm not sure what to ask," she admitted.

"We're even, then," he said, flashing another disarming smile and running a hand through his sun-bleached hair, "'cause I don't really know where to start. I haven't talked about him in so long…"

"We're here!" Jan's voice broke in from ahead. They'd arrived at a small outdoor cafe in the residential part of town. It was crowded but not impossibly so. The seating area was secluded, partially hidden from the street by bushes, so a casual passerby might not notice it.

Kal looked down at Liss. "Later," he promised. Then they followed his brother into the cafe.

Anyone else would have needed to wait for a table, but Jan was a regular. The proprietor found an empty booth and brought a round of ale on the house. The men chatted about the tournament while waiting to place their orders, as Liss sat back and listened. Once the waiter had come and gone, Sam, who sat next to Liss and across from his father, leaned crosswise over the table toward his uncle. "So does this mean I finally get to hear some stories about Sir Auron?" he asked.

"Sam!" Jan gave his son a stern glance.

" S'okay, bro," Kal chuckled. "I don't mind. As long as it's okay with Liss?" He raised his eyebrows questioningly at her.

Liss glanced at Sam. He had the grace to look embarrassed at his over-eagerness, and she giggled a little. "Sure, it's fine. I want to hear them too, you know."

"All right." Kal leaned back in his seat. "I guess it's easiest to begin at the beginning. I — we, really, Jan was there, too — met Auron on our first day in Bevelle. The three of us were assigned to the same quarters, along with one other."

"Who?" asked Sam.

Kal exchanged a glance with Jan, who shrugged. "Better tell 'em," Jan said. "He's part of the story, too."

Kal nodded grimly, then took a long drink of ale and swallowed. "It was Kinoc," he said.

Liss's mug froze halfway to her mouth as Sam's gaped open. "Maester Kinoc? You and Dad knew Maester Kinoc?"

"That lying, scheming, heartless bastard!"

Liss slammed her glass down with so much force that the tabletop rattled, and the others looked at her in unison. The similarity of the shocked expressions on their faces would have amused her if she hadn't been so furious.

"So," Kal said after a long pause. "You know about that, then."

Liss let go of her drink and rested her palms on the table. "My mother told me."

"Is your mother who I think she is?" Kal asked.

"Yes." It came out in a whisper.

"Ah." He glanced down at his glass. "Then Kinoc wronged her greatly." He raised his face to Liss's. "Does it help to know that I beat the crap out of him when I found out what he'd done?"

Liss fought back a smirk. "Maybe a little. But my father–"

Kal pounded the table with a fist. "Your father," he said, enunciating each syllable, "was the bravest, strongest, most loyal man I ever knew. The world is a poorer place without him. Do not doubt that. Ever." His eyes burned into hers. "He made some mistakes, sure, but he's not to blame for what Kinoc and his father did to him. If your mother told you that, she's wrong, and I'm afraid I think less of her for it."

Liss shook her head. "I don't think she blamed him, not really. But you have to understand, she told me nothing of this until recently. I only learned the story two days ago. So you see, it's all very fresh to me."

"I'm sorry." Kal reached across the table and covered her hand with his large rough one.

His touch was comforting, and she found herself fighting a blush. "Thanks." Get a grip, Liss. He's at least twenty years too old for you, and your commanding officer besides. Don't even think about it.

Sam, who had been quiet throughout this exchange, laid a hand on her shoulder, and she pulled away from Kal and turned to him.

"It's okay if you don't want to tell me what this is all about," he said, his expression unusually serious. "But if you ever need someone to talk to…"

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Sam. I appreciate it, truly. And I will tell you sometime. But not today, okay?"

He returned her smile and stroked her shoulder gently. And as he looked at her with warm hazel eyes very like his uncle's, she thought for a moment that she might like to do more than just dance with him after all.

"Hey, I'm sorry this started on such a downer," Kal said.

Liss broke her gaze with Sam and looked back at Kal. "That's okay," she said. "So they were friends at first? Maester Kinoc and my father?"

"Best friends. Almost from the day we arrived in Bevelle, and for many years after." Kal smiled with a memory. "Hey Jan, remember the time Kinoc tried to teach Auron to cast a basic healing spell?"

Jan laughed. "Your dad had many talents," he told Liss, "but magic sure wasn't one of them."

Kal began the story. "It was during the first week of training…"

-x-

The next morning, Kal met us as we were on our way out of the temple. "May I have a moment with Sir Auron, my lord?" he asked with a bow.

"Yes, but we are on our way to catch the ferry to Besaid," Braska replied. "Would you be able to walk with us?"

"Of course." I hung back as Jecht and Braska started down the stairs, Jecht casting a glance back at me. Then we began our descent. "How are you?" he asked.

"All right, I suppose." I still planned to wring Kinoc's neck at the first opportunity, but the immediacy of the murderous impulse had lessened, thanks both to Jecht's intervention and the long talk I'd finally had with Braska before going to sleep the previous night. "I just have one question. Does Brac know?"

Kal shrugged. "I don't know for sure, but I get the feeling that he doesn't. Do you really think he would have tapped Kinoc for the promotion if he did?"

I shook my head. "Six months ago, I would have said no. But after everything that has happened, I'm not so sure anymore."

"I thought about telling him." Kal looked away. "But to be honest, I'm afraid to move publicly against Kinoc. He's getting very powerful, building strong alliances. Complaining is one thing; no one will bother me for that, especially not here. But if I leaked this story and Kinoc fell from favor, I might end up dead in my bed. Or 'accidentally' shot in the back one day."

My hands clenched, and I could feel some of the peace I had gained last night slipping away. "Why did we trust him, Kal? How did we not see this coming?"

"I wish I had an answer. We always knew he was ambitious, but so hungry for power that he would trample over your life? No, I don't think we could've guessed. Either he's changed, or he's a very good actor."

"Maybe both," I said, thinking back to our final parting in the Bevelle armory.

"Anyway, I just wanted to check in with you." Kal stopped, and I faced him. "Yevon be with you, and with your lord."

"Thanks." We bowed to one another. Then I drew him into a quick hug, and he slapped my back in return. "Good luck to you."

This time, I was the one to watch him go, bounding back up the stairs to Kilika Temple. When he was out of sight, I turned and hurried to catch my party before they disappeared into the forest.

-x-

Late the next morning, we made our way down a steep hillside to Besaid Temple. The day had dawned fair and warm. To my surprise, the grassy mountains of Besaid were even hotter than the Kilika jungle, and I was already sweating from nothing more than the two-hour walk from the beach. It was one of those days that almost made me rethink my preference for black. Additionally, I was also working the sphere recorder — Jecht had asked me to carry it for the morning, and I had agreed, with only a little reluctance. Even though I still thought the exercise useless, I felt like indulging Jecht today, partly to repay the help he'd given me at Kilika but also because, on the ferry this morning, he'd as much as admitted that he wasn't really expecting to make it home. Yet he kept making these spheres. I almost had to admire his stubbornness.

I found myself growing curious as we approached the village, as this was the only temple of Yevon that I had never visited. Kal was the only person I knew who'd been stationed here for any length of time, about two years, and he'd always said there wasn't much to tell. Going by my first glance at the place, I decided he was likely right.

Jecht went through the entrance to the settlement. "Smallest heap of huts I ever seen!" he exclaimed, wrinkling his nose. The place was less than half the size of Tzeki Village, and instead of cottages the inhabitants lived in tents. It looked provincial even to me. The temple towered in the background, almost out of place in this hamlet.

Lord Braska walked up to Jecht, taking in the scene. In contrast to his jaded guardians, he seemed charmed by the village. "You think so? To me, it looks like a fine place to live." He glanced at the tents, the temple, the view of the ocean as Jecht headed for the temple. "Hmm… Auron?"

I focused the sphere on him. "My lord?"

"When this is over, could you bring Yuna here?" he asked. "It seems so peaceful… I want her to grow up far away from the politics and conflicts and prejudices of Bevelle."

I nodded. "You have my word. I will bring her here."

He turned to me. "Thank you, Auron. You truly are a good friend."

Before I could protest that I promised nothing more than a guardian owed his summoner, I was interrupted by Jecht.

"Hey, what're you doing over there? Let's get moving," he called from ahead. "I'm hungry enough to eat a shoopuf whole!"

Braska started slightly. "Sorry," he said, looking at Jecht, then me. "Well, let's go then." He started walking toward the temple.

I switched off the recorder and followed. "So I assume you're requesting a lunch break before the trials?" I asked as I joined Jecht.

"You bet." He took the camera from me and stuffed it in his bag. "Food's gotta be better here than the slop they fed us at that last place."

I grimaced. "I certainly hope so." Kilika had been the exception to the rule that summoners ate well in the temples. Two nights ago, I'd taken one look at the dinner they provided and pulled out the field rations. It was worse than the Bevelle mess hall. How Kal and the others stood it, I had no idea.

Braska had reached the temple entrance. He stopped there, then turned around to look at us. "Sorry, were you saying something?"

"Jecht wants to eat before we enter the Cloister. If that's all right with you, my lord?"

He shook himself. "Yes, of course. We have time."

The three of us entered the temple together, and Jecht went to ask about a meal. "Are you still thinking about Yuna?" I asked while we waited.

Braska stood still for moment, then nodded. "I do not regret my choice," he said. "But it still saddens me to think of her growing up alone."

"She won't." I held Braska's eyes. "This I swear, my lord. Either I will take care of her, or I will find someone else who can."

He let out a sigh. "I don't know what to say, other than 'thank you', and that's not enough."

"Your thanks will always be more than enough for me, Lord Braska."

Chapter Text

Dusk settled on the south bank of the Moonflow and the pyreflies came with it. We were on our way back, heading for Zanarkand, and had arrived too late to cross the river before nightfall. I suspected Lord Braska of timing our journey today such that we could camp here, that he wanted to view the magnificence of the river at sunset one last time.

I watched him staring at the beautiful lights as they swirled over the water and the lilies, Jecht standing a little way up the bank to take in the scene. Then Braska turned to me. "Auron, would you like the night off?"

"Pardon, my lord?"

"This is a safe area; I'm sure Jecht and I can handle anything that might come up," he said, "Tzeki Village is only a few minutes walk from here. You could drop by if you like."

"Hm." The business with Jecht and the shoopuf had distracted me as we approached the Moonflow on our way out from Bevelle, so the thought of visiting hadn't occurred to me then. On this return trip, I had been trying very hard not to consider the possibility.

Relle… I found myself torn. I wanted to see her, very much — my entire body ached at the mere thought of holding her again, and now that I was thinking about her, letting myself know that she was so close by… But would she want to see me? There'd been no word from her at all since the day she threw me out, so I had no idea what she would do if I showed up on her doorstep. Would she even let me in the house?

I wasn't sure I was ready to face her.

I shook myself from my thoughts and looked at Braska. "I don't know. It's complicated."

"Complicated?" Jecht called out, his tone incredulous. "C'mon, Auron! What is there to think about? You're talkin' about going to see your woman, right? Well, I'll tell ya. If my wife was in that village, nothin' could stop me from seeing her, no matter what happened before. You'll regret it forever if you don't at least try." He crossed his arms and stared into the distance.

I looked back to Braska. "Yes," he said, his voice gentle, his blue eyes sad. "If it were Tess…"

I took a deep breath, fighting a wave of guilt that the woman I loved was both alive and within reach. "All right. Thank you, my lord. I'll be back at dawn. Unless she slams the door in my face."

He clasped my shoulder and smiled. "Good luck."

Ten minutes later, I approached the outskirts of Tzeki Village. I had walked briskly to get here, but now I was reluctant to go further. Could I take it if Relle refused to see me? And I was very nervous about running into anyone else. The village was a tight community; I was sure everyone knew the story by now, and I only had the strength for one confrontation. I slipped stealthily through the houses on the way to Relle's cottage.

When I arrived, I knocked on her door. She cracked it open, then threw it wide when she saw me standing there. She looked tired, her hands dirty from cooking and her coppery hair half-falling from its twist, and the most beautiful sight I'd seen in years.

She stepped back and gestured me in without a sound. I entered the cottage and shut the door behind me.

"Hello," I said, removing my sword and cask and resting them by the door.

She looked me up and down, crossing her arms across her chest. "You've gone back to red and black," she said, her tone neutral. "It still suits you."

I nodded. "I have left the ranks of the warrior monks. I couldn't stay, not after… everything. I'm a guardian now, protecting Lord Braska on his pilgrimage. He's earned all the aeons, and we're going to Zanarkand."

"I see."

I gathered my courage to speak, heartbeat accelerating. "Relle, I know you were angry with me the last time I saw you, and I don't blame you for that. So if you ask me to leave again, I'll understand. But we were camped near here, and I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn't come by. I have the night free. Do you want me to stay?"

She stood for a long moment, not even breathing. Then she stepped close to me and took my left hand, weaving her fingers through mine. Her touch, familiar yet unexpected, sent a shock through my entire being, as if I'd been hit by a lightning spell. She met my eyes, and I saw hers fill with tears. "I should never have sent you away," she whispered. Her other hand reached around my neck, and she kissed me.

I returned the kiss hungrily, gripping her hand, caressing her fingers with my own, my other arm pulling her to me. She moaned and pushed herself closer, overwhelming every sense with her touch, her scent, her presence. I had visions of falling to the floor with her again, and with all the control I could muster, I dragged my mouth away from hers. I raised my hands to her face and cupped her cheeks, wiping away her trickling tears with my thumbs, our foreheads and noses touching. "No," I said, almost to myself. "No, I'm going to do this right. No desperation, no despair. Not like it was last time."

She moved her hands to my waist, a shaky laugh slipping out. "I don't think either of us were quite in our right minds last time."

I chuckled. "You assume I'm thinking clearly now." I breathed deep, her sweet and spicy scent filling my senses. "I want you, Relle. And if you'll only have me for this one night, I will be content with that. But–"

"I wouldn't be." Her voice was firm now. "No. You made mistakes, but past is past. I love you, and I want you back, for always. "

I lifted my head with surprise and saw the truth of it in her face. But I still hardly dared to believe it. "You do?"

She nodded. "If you forgive me for making you leave before."

I pulled her close again, my heart pounding. "There is nothing to forgive," I said into her hair. "You did what you had to do. I deserved to be sent away; I see that now. I even knew it then."

"But we lost so much time," she murmured, her face against my shoulder. "And now you're making a pilgrimage? You're a guardian, that means you protect the summoner with your life. What if–"

"It's no different than before. As a warrior monk, my life was pledged to the temples. Now I am pledged to Lord Braska. But I will do everything in my power to stay alive, to return to you." I kissed the top of her head. "I would die for you, too, you know."

"I would rather you lived for me."

"I know. But that won't defeat Sin. Maybe this will."

"I hope so." She reached up and pulled off the thongs that held back my hair, then buried her hands in it as it fell across my back.

Stroking her from shoulders to thighs, I sighed with deep contentment. "I could just hold you like this all night."

Relle looked up at me. "No, you couldn't," she said, "and you'd better not." An invitation beckoned in her eyes.

I dropped my mouth down to hers and accepted it, sweeping her up in my arms and carrying her to the bed.

-x-

I had wanted our reunion to be tender, gentle, loving. But in the end, it had been too long, with too many emotions between us, and we were swept away together. Afterwards, we collapsed, spent, and I fell asleep, the cares and fears and losses of seven long years momentarily erased by the feel of her in my arms.

When I woke, the moon had risen and Relle was gone. I worried for a moment, but she soon appeared in the doorway, wearing only a robe, carrying a jug and a tray of food. I sat up on the bed with my back against the headboard, my stomach beginning to rumble, and she settled down next to me.

"Bread, meat, cheese, and some ale," she said. "We sort of skipped dinner."

"Other hungers came first," I replied, then kissed her. "But yes, I do need some food. Thank you." I tore off a hunk of bread and bit into it. It was perfectly made and lightly flavored with some herb and the best thing I had tasted in an age.

She took a nibble of cheese, then made two sandwiches with the fixings before her. I took a sandwich in one hand and the ale in the other and made short work of them both. Then I put an arm around Relle's shoulders and drew her against me. She curled up there, head leaning into me, her hand tracing the lines of my chest, and we stayed there for a long time, just talking and feeling one another's presence. I told her about training for the journey, and Kinoc's betrayal, and the amusements and irritations of Jecht; she shared the story of her falling out with Kera.

"She thought I was a fool for wanting you back." Relle sighed. "I can't blame her; I put her through a lot, especially the last couple of years. I wanted to think I was waiting patiently, but really I wasn't, and I took my frustrations with you out on her. But it made me so angry at the time, the idea that she thought she knew what was best for me. We said some harsh things to one another. In the end I stormed off, and neither of us wanted to be the first to apologize. Now she's gone, and I miss her desperately."

I pulled my love even closer. "She will forgive us," I said. "Kera's temper is fierce, but it always burns out eventually. Once my journey is over, we will make amends together."

After all the words, we fell into a comfortable silence. I thought she had fallen asleep when she twisted her head up to mine. "Is this a dream?" she murmured.

I ran a hand over her soft, smooth hair. "Yes. But it's also real."

She smiled, a pure clear smile of happiness, and kissed me. Then we kissed again, and again, and again until all the kisses blurred together. I rolled her over and pressed her into the pillow, and we made love with all the tenderness and care we hadn't had time for earlier. This time, we both drifted off into sleep, bodies still intertwined, whispering words of love to one another in the moonlight.

-x-

Too soon, dawn was breaking. I watched the growing light play over Relle's sleeping face, absorbing every detail — golden lashes lying on tanned cheeks, pink mouth relaxed into a contented smile. She shifted to snuggle against me, my dark hair mixing with her bright strands, glowing in the golden rays of the early morning sun.

Disturbing her was the last thing I wanted to do, but I knew that leaving without a goodbye would be far worse. I kissed her forehead and then said her name.

She opened her eyes. "Hi." Rolling over, she looked out the window. "Morning already?"

"Yes." She turned back to me, and I touched my lips to the tip of her nose. "Sleep well?"

"Better than I have in seven years," she said. She swept our hair aside and planted a kiss on my collarbone. "Happy birthday, by the way."

I was astonished. "Is it really? I must have lost track of the days."

She nodded. "I wish I had known you would be here. I would have found a gift for you."

"Well, there is something you could give me." I leaned over and spoke softly in her ear.

She sat up abruptly, startled into an open-mouthed gape by my suggestion. "Are you sure?"

I took her hands firmly. "Absolutely certain."

"Then yes. Yes, of course, a thousand times yes!" She flung herself down on me, and I hugged her. The hug became more involved, and we sunk back into each other one more time.

-x-

Some time later, we left the village hand in hand, walking back to the campsite where I had left my companions. We had both taken great care getting ready — she had brushed my hair until it gleamed, then braided it, dressed herself in some of her finest clothes, and somehow still had time to make a lunch basket for me and my companions. Jecht sat back by the fire, Lord Braska stood on the river bank, and they both turned as they heard our approach. It was rather later than dawn, but by the smiles on their faces, they understood my tardiness and forgave it.

I introduced Relle to Jecht and reacquainted her with Braska, then drew Braska off for a private talk.

"You look happier than I have seen you in a long time, my friend," he said, his face radiating pleasure.

I glanced back at Relle, still chatting with Jecht. Our eyes met, and we exchanged tender smiles. "I am." Looking to Braska, I dropped my gaze just a little. "She loves me more than I could possibly deserve."

"I don't know about that," Braska replied with a gentle chuckle. "You're a good man, Auron, and you deserve happiness."

"Thank you, my lord." I took a deep breath. "Lord Braska, I have a favor to ask of you."

"Anything I can grant you, I will. You know that."

"I want you to marry us. Here, today, before we continue on to Zanarkand."

He looked stunned. "Me? Now?" On this last syllable, he raised his voice enough to catch Jecht's attention; he came over to us to see what was wrong, Relle on his heels.

Not noticing that we had acquired an audience, Braska continued. "I am honored that you ask this of me, but would it not be better to wait until it can be done according to tradition, under the seal of the temple? I'm technically not a priest anymore; my ties to Djose were severed when I became a summoner. I don't even know whether Yevon would recognize a marriage I performed."

I laid a hand on his arm. "I recognize it, as does Relle. That's all that matters for now. We can always do it again properly in a temple later." The obvious next thought, that there might not be a later, I left unspoken. Instead, I took a step closer to him. "Whenever I have thought about marrying Relle, you have been the one to bless our union. And for that, there will not be another chance. Please, my lord. This means a great deal to me."

Braska looked at me, and our eyes locked. Jecht was chattering in the background, but I could spare no attention for him — in that moment, I only saw my lord and dear friend. I had thought many times about what Braska's death would mean for him, and for Yuna. Never before had I seriously considered what it might mean for me. Soon, he would be gone, and I would have to live in a world without him. For the first time, I wondered if I could bear it.

Relle came up behind me, twining our fingers together, resting her other hand on my back, and I took comfort from her touch. "Please, Lord Braska?"

He turned to her, and it was to her he made his reply. "All right." He laughed then, and the somber mood was broken. "Assuming I can remember the words to the ceremony."

And so it was that I finally made Arelle my wife and became her husband, there on the banks of the Moonflow, Jecht and Yevon and pyreflies over rushing waters our only witnesses. Lord Braska blessed us, his face happy and sad all at once, and I knew he was remembering his own wedding. Relle and I faced each other and held hands as we said the words that would bind us together for the rest of our lives. Her only ornament was a flower that I had picked for her and tucked behind her ear. She was as lovely as she'd ever been. Her hands trembled in mine, but her voice was steady and clear. I spoke my own vows in a hushed, reverent tone, awestruck at the promise I was making. When Braska proclaimed us married and we kissed, it was a moment of pure joy, and I thought my heart might break with it.

Jecht slapped my back; Braska hugged us both. Then the two of them moved off, ostensibly to break camp but really to give us one last moment alone. We stood there, hands locked together, and basked in the glow of our love for each other. Then I bent down and kissed her again, long and hard, and she embraced me so tightly that it became difficult to breathe.

"I'm sorry it wasn't a grander occasion," I said when I came up for air.

"It was perfect," she assured me.

I laid a hand on her cheek, and she leaned into it, her eyes closing.

We stayed that way for some time, drawing strength from each other for the separation we both knew was coming. Finally, the time came for me to give her one last kiss and then let go.

"Farewell," she said, tears close to the edge of her voice. "Yevon keep you safe. Yevon bring you home to me!"

"Yevon be with you, my love," I replied.

Jecht came up beside me, holding my bag and my sword. "You ready?"

Reluctantly, I turned away from Relle and took the offered items. "Yeah. Thanks."

"Sure. Braska's over at the shoopuf."

I looked back at her and found that I had no words. All I could do was smile slightly and nod. She nodded in return. And then I left her, following Jecht to the station.

Braska was waiting as promised, and we took our places on the lift. "Are you sure you don't want to spend tonight here?" he asked. "We could spare another day."

"Yeah, really," Jecht chimed in. "Hell of a way to spend your wedding night, on the road with us!"

I shook my head as the machina began to move. "If I returned to her now, I doubt I could find the strength to leave her again. We had last night; it will be enough."

We stepped off the contraption and onto the beast's back. I was about to take a seat when I glanced back at the land and saw Relle standing there. She waved, and I waved back. Then we stared at each other, unable to look away, even after the creature started to move. She became smaller and smaller as the shoopuf carried me away, and I watched her disappear, not moving until long after the shore was out of sight.

Chapter Text

"Thanks for dinner," Beclem said politely as he rose from the table in Paine and Baralai's backyard.

"Thanks for coming," Paine replied, standing and saluting the commander. "Always nice to see you."

An eyebrow twitched, but otherwise he did not react. Paine had reached an understanding with Beclem since his clashes with Yuna and the Gullwings, but it would be pushing it to say that they were friends. Pleasantries over the occasional dinner were fine, as long as no one raised their expectations any higher.

Beclem turned to his fellow commanders, who were both still seated and chatting with Baralai. The general and the High Councilor had retired some time ago, pleading morning meetings. Since so many people came into town for the tournament, the days immediately following were usually crowded with government and military business. "Elma, Kal? You ready?"

Elma, who had been leaning forward on her elbows, a glass of wine in her hands, sat up straight. "Yep, sure." She finished her drink and set down the glass as she got to her feet. "Great meal as always, Baralai."

"Thank you, Commander," he said with a smile of genuine gratitude at the praise.

Kal also sat up but did not stand. "I'll be along in a few minutes. See you both in the barracks."

Beclem shrugged. "As you like. You're the one who has to teach tomorrow."

"Oh, you're leading the advanced machina weapons class?" Elma shrugged on her coat. "That'll be great for the cadets, learning from the best shot in the Force."

"You flatter me, Elma." Kal laughed. "I've picked it up well enough, but the Al Bhed sharpshooters who've used machina all their lives are far better than I."

"You were an archer in the warrior monks, yes? Do you ever regret switching to guns?" Baralai asked.

Kal shook his head. "Nah. Bullets are superior to arrows in so many ways. Progress is a good thing. Still, I do sometimes miss the feel of catgut and feathers in my fingers — archery is a lot more tactile than gunnery. I still take out my old bow for occasional target practice, just so I won't forget."

"Useless nostalgia." Beclem snorted. "Anyway, I should be going. Elma?"

"See you guys!" Salutes and handshakes were exchanged, and Beclem and Elma headed for the Academy, where they were staying in guest quarters for the night, along with other military officers who had come to see the games.

Paine sat back down at the table, across from Kal. "You must hear this all the time," he said, "but you two really know how to throw a party. Your cooking skills, Councilor… going back to Mushroom Rock after dinner here is always a trial."

"It's not that bad, is it?" said Baralai. "Certainly better than it used to be in the temples."

Kal chuckled again. "No joke. You were Bevelle-trained, right? Food didn't get much worse than that."

"That's why I decided to learn to cook, you know." Baralai leaned back in his chair. "I was a temple orphan, then trained as a priest, followed by a short time in the military and two years in New Yevon. As soon as I was a free man, I swore that I would never, ever eat bad food again. Learning how to cook for myself seemed the sure bet."

"But I get the ultimate benefit," said Paine, feeling smug. "All the meals, none of the work."

"Only because I won't let you within ten feet of the kitchen." Baralai smiled fondly at her, then looked at Kal. "My wife is a talented woman in many respects, but cooking? Let's just say she'd fit right in with the Bevelle chefs."

"Hey. I do well enough in the field." But she still laughed.

Kal smiled, too, then leaned over to Paine. "I had a very pleasant lunch with your cousin," he said.

"Good, I'm glad." Paine took a sip of wine. "Liss is so hungry to learn more about her father, and it sounds like you're the best source she's discovered in a long time. I must admit, I'm rather curious myself."

"But you must know something about him, if he was your uncle." Kal looked more closely at Paine. "Hey, wait a minute! Did you grow up in that same village?"

Paine nodded. "Yeah, Tzeki Village. Born there, lived there until I was fifteen, except for two years in Luca. Why?"

Kal sat up straighter in his chair. "I met you, Paine! When you were a kid. Do you remember the day that your village was attacked by Sinspawn?"

She shuddered a little. Baralai reached over the table and rubbed her hand lightly. "I was playing outside when they came. Mom hustled me into the house, so we were safe at first, but then we thought they were gone so we went back out. Then there was a second wave. I remember a huge gray bug leaping on my face, then nothing until I woke up with my mom sobbing over me. One of the most terrifying days of my life."

"I was there, fighting that second wave. Auron's girl — what was her name again? Liss's mom, right? — anyway, he and I held off the Sinspawn while she treated you with potions."

"Huh." Paine thought hard, then shook her head. "Nope, sorry, I don't recall. I remember my uncle being there, not much else. But I was only five, and I was pretty traumatized."

"Sure, I'm not surprised. But still, small world."

"I remember you," said Baralai.

Kal turned to him with a startled look. "You do?"

Baralai nodded. "From St. Bevelle, when you were in Maester Brac's personal guard. I'd see you walking with great purpose somewhere or another, sometimes with the Maester or with Sir Auron, sometimes your whole squadron together. I thought you were all impossibly heroic."

Kal chuckled. "Are you serious? How old were you?"

"Oh, six or seven," Baralai answered with a grin. "Occasionally I would sneak away from the nuns and watch you all train, dream about being one of you someday."

Paine squeezed Baralai's hand, smiling at the thought of the boy he once was. Then she leaned forward and rested her cheek on her free hand. "So, what stories did you tell Liss?"

"Oh, a little of everything." Kal smiled with memory. "Our days as trainees, the years we served together in Kilika and Bevelle. We had a lot of good times. Not all good times, though. I guess Liss just found out about the incident with the marriage offer?"

"Yes. So did I. We ran into our grandfather a couple of weeks ago. He dropped a lot of hints, and Liss got frustrated with only knowing bits and pieces of the story. So she asked Arelle flat out what had happened, and got a lot more truth than she bargained for." She sighed. "It was an ugly business, as I'm sure you know, and it tore our family apart."

Kal nodded. "Did a real number on the warrior monks, too."

"Really?" Baralai asked. "How so?"

"Oh, you know, the usual Bevelle political crap." Kal let out a sharp breath. " Auron had his allies and his enemies, not to mention the enemies who he thought were allies. People taking sides and falling from favor, Kinoc growing so powerful that nothing could bring him down, not even when his involvement in the affair became common knowledge."

Baralai's hand stiffened in Paine's at the mention of the late Maester. "Kinoc?" he asked, his voice deceptively calm. "What has he to do with this?"

Raising his eyebrows, Kal turned to look at his host. "How can you ask that? He had everything to do with it."

Paine interrupted as she grew cold with dread. "Kal, he doesn't know that part of the story."

Baralai turned a dangerous look to his wife — to any other observer, he would appear placid, but Paine knew that he was seething inside. "So it would seem." He withdrew his hand and crossed his arms. "Perhaps you would care to enlighten me, Commander?"

As Kal explained the facts of Kinoc's hideous betrayal, Paine watched her husband's face carefully. The mask never cracked, but she saw the anger boiling beneath. And she worried.

Baralai lowered his head when Kal had finished. "The atrocities that can be laid at that man's feet," he said, voice low. He rose to his feet and turned around, walking into the house without another word.

"Wow," Kal said. "I struck a nerve."

"Not your fault," said Paine. "Auron's was not the only life poisoned by Kinoc — he tainted ours, too. The Crimson Squad. You know the story, I presume?"

"I do." Kal sighed and downed the rest of his wine. "And I suppose I should have guessed.

"I've gotten past it, but even now, Baralai still takes it personally. That's why I didn't tell him about Kinoc's role in this. But I think I made the wrong decision." She looked at Kal. "Sorry the night ended on such a down note."

"Me too." Kal stood up. "Thanks again for dinner; see you tomorrow?"

"Yes. The Highroad, eight AM?" He nodded, then went on his way.

Once he had gone, Paine gathered up dirty plates in her arms and carried them into the house for the second night in a row. But this time, she feared what she might find inside.

-x-

The night after leaving the Moonflow, our party stopped at the travelers' rest on the Thunder Plains. Jecht built the fire and started water boiling; I pulled out the basket that Relle had prepared for us and started laying the food out on the table in the center of the room.

Relle. I paused in my task, holding a loaf of her bread in my hand, staring into the distance. I wondered what she was doing right now, and when I would see her again. Or if.

Stop that, I told myself sternly. I could not go down that path; it would be madness. I had to let her go for the time being. If I survived, she would be there, waiting. Otherwise, we would meet again on the Farplane. Not my first choice, but if my death meant Braska's success and the end of Sin? Yes. It was a trade I was willing to make.

I set the bread down on the table and finished setting out the meal, pouring sake for Braska and myself, water for Jecht, then sat. Braska took the chair next to me and lifted his drink. "To your marriage," he said. "May Arelle bring as much joy to you as Tessa brought to me."

I touched the rim of my glass to his. "Thank you, my lord. If we are half as happy as you were, I will be satisfied." We both drank deeply.

He set down his glass and then filled it up again. "And another toast." He stood with a smile. "Happy birthday, Auron."

I looked at the floor, embarrassed, then back up at Braska. "She told you?"

He nodded. "Why didn't you tell us it was coming?"

"Because I forgot." A sheepish grin made its way to my face. "Relle had to remind me this morning."

"So, birthday boy," Jecht called from his spot by the fireplace, "how old're you?"

I had to think for a moment. "Twenty-four." Was that really possible? I thought about my twenty-third birthday, which I'd celebrated with Gray Squad. Jass and Kal had gotten the men all together and taken me out to my favorite bar. Kinoc had come into town for the occasion, and Braska had also dropped by. I caught his eye and saw that he was remembering that carefree evening as well. Had it only been a year? So much had happened in that time; it seemed more like ten.

"Twenty-four!" Jecht walked over to the table and dropped into a chair. "You're just a kid!"

I turned to him with a rather indignant glare. "At least I don't act like one."

"Well, that's sure true." He shook his head. "I think this morning was the first time I ever saw you actually, y'know, relax."

Braska chuckled quietly and shook his head as he sat. "This 'kid', as you call him, was a respected military officer before he turned nineteen. Spira's not an easy place to live — we all grew up pretty fast."

"Whatever you say." He took a swig of his water, then started to eat. "Damn!" he said, mouth still full of a meat pastry. "This stuff is good! No wonder you married her, Auron."

I smiled, absurdly pleased by the compliment.

"One thing, though," he continued after he had swallowed. "Why did you rush into it like that?"

I raised an eyebrow. "We were unofficially engaged for seven years. I'd hardly say we rushed into marriage. If anything, we were overdue."

"No, no." He gestured toward Braska with the half-eaten pastry. "I mean, why did Braska have to do it right then and there? Sure, it's a risky journey and all, but we'll make it, right? Why couldn't ya have waited until afterwards, do it all formal-like in the temple with friends and family and all that? Seems more your style."

I looked at Braska, who would not meet my gaze. Then I looked to Jecht, who leaned back and folded his arms. He stared at Braska, then me, then Braska again. "Is there somethin' you ain't telling me?"

I touched Braska's shoulder. "My lord. He has to know."

Lord Braska breathed very deeply, then let the air out, slow and shuddering. "It's past time, isn't it." He looked across the table at Jecht, resolved blue eyes staring into confused and angry brown ones, and the tension in the room grew thick, making it hard to breathe.

I stood. "I'll leave you alone," I said. This was Braska's truth to tell; best for me to stay out of the way. Pushing my left arm through its coat sleeve, I snagged a slice of bread from the table, then stepped through the door and into the rain.

Despite its loudness, I found a sort of peace inside the racket of the Thunder Plains. The patter of the never-ceasing raindrops, each flash of lightning followed by its satisfying rumble. I wouldn't want to live here, but it was pleasant to be part of the storm for a time, especially when I knew a hot fire and dry bed waited inside.

Besides, the noise of the thunder helped blot out what was surely a loud and emotional discussion going on inside.

I'd been leaning against the wall of the hut for about half an hour when the door flew open and Jecht stormed out. "Damn you, Auron!" he shouted, thrusting his face an inch from mine. "You knew about this, didn't you!"

"Of course I did," I said, keeping calm. "I've known what calling the Final Aeon does to the summoner for as long as I can remember."

He flung his arms up in the air as he leaned back from me. "Then why the hell didn't you stop him? Why're you goin' along with this? I thought he was your friend!"

"Why else would I be here?" I straightened up. "I did try to talk him out of it, when he first asked me to be his guardian. But once my lord's mind is set on a course of action, there's no swaying him. So I chose to come along and ensure his success as best I could. Better that than letting him go off to die alone, for nothing."

"But–"

"Would you rather I had tied him to a chair in Bevelle? Because that would have been the only way to keep him there."

Jecht brought his hands back down and covered his face for a moment. Then he dropped them entirely and shook his head. "This whole thing is crazy," he muttered. "Why didn't you say something?"

"It wasn't my place. Lord Braska asked that he be allowed to tell you personally, and I respected his wishes."

"Ah…" He dropped his head and turned away. "Dammit."

"So. Now that you understand what Lord Braska must do, do you still want to journey with us?"

He shrugged. "Don't see what choice I got. He's determined, right? Someone's gotta beat Sin. Like you said, if he's gonna die, it might as well be for a reason." Then he let out a sigh. "And there's still Zanarkand, whatever's really there. Yeah. I gotta see this thing through."

"He will be glad to hear it." I clapped a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Come, let's get out of the storm and finish our supper."

"In a while," he said.

I nodded and dropped my hand. As I started to open the door, I turned back to look at him. He had raised his face to the sky, cool raindrops falling on his cheeks, dripping down as if they were tears. I watched for a minute, then left him.

Chapter Text

Over a week later, just before sunset, we tramped up to the travelers' rest on the Calm Lands. Located far from any building materials that could be used to make a hut, the rest station here was instead dug into the ground — a natural cave had been enlarged and made more comfortable, probably centuries ago. I was surprised to find the area occupied by a handful of Al Bhed. Their apparent leader, a deeply tanned man whom I guessed to be in his late thirties, bowed politely to us as we approached.

"Welcome to Rin's Travel Agency," he said in proficient but oddly accented Spiran. "Do you require lodgings for the evening? For a small fee, we will provide you with a clean bed and a hearty dinner."

I scowled at his impertinence. "You would charge a summoner on a pilgrimage for access to a travelers' rest?"

"Oh!" He straightened up, then bowed again, much more deeply this time and with a prayer gesture. "My apologies, my lord, I did not realize."

Lord Braska waved him upright and said something in Al Bhed. The two of them then carried on a brief conversation, of which I understood almost nothing, though I did catch Tessa's name. When they had finished, Braska turned to us with a smile. "Rin has invited us to be his guests for the evening."

"Thank you," I said to our host with a simple bow.

"It is my pleasure," he replied. "Any service for my Lord Braska, who made such a courageous attempt to reach out to my people. Not every summoner is even willing to patronize my establishment. Why, not an hour ago, a troupe of warrior monks refused to spend the night here, choosing instead to camp on the dangerous open plains!"

"I apologize for the poor behavior of my fellow followers of Yevon. Such baseless prejudice… it is a shame," said Braska, shaking his head.

"Indeed. They were lead by their second in command, and he seemed willing to stay, but the men rebelled. So he chose not to face possible mutiny and led them away instead."

Slowly, I registered what this man Rin had just said. "Second in command?" I asked. "Second Commander Kinoc, you mean?"

The Al Bhed nodded. "I believe that was the name, yes. They headed to the south. I'm surprised that you did not pass them on the way."

Braska said something in reply, but I could hear nothing over rush of blood pounding in my ears. Kinoc, only an hour away, perhaps less since I could cover ground alone much faster than he could with a squadron in tow. I turned on my heel and headed south, first walking with long strides but soon breaking into a run. "Hear this, friend," I growled under my breath. "I am coming for you!"

I hadn't traveled twenty paces when something knocked me down from behind. My face hit the dirt, grass and dust filling my mouth as I struggled to free myself from the one who held me down. It didn't take long for me to push him off and get to my feet. It was Jecht, of course, and he stood as well, snatching at my arms before I could strike him, pulling them behind my back and forcing us both to our knees. It was an effective hold; I could have broken out using all my strength, but I probably would have dislocated his shoulders and snapped a bone in the process.

"Dammit, Jecht, let me go!"

"No," he said, his voice infuriatingly calm in my ear.

"Kinoc is mine!" I attempted to twist away. "You cannot deny me this!"

"I can and I will. You already busted me out of a prison cell once. I'd rather not hafta return the favor."

Part of me heard and understood the sense of his words. But my rational mind was overwhelmed by fury and my need for vengeance, and I continued my struggle. I had no doubt that I could outlast Jecht — eventually he would tire, his grip would loosen, and I could break free without damaging either of us. I could already feel his arms starting to slip…

"Auron."

The gentle voice cleared my mind enough that I could focus on Braska's face. He had knelt down in front of me, and he reached out, laying hands on my shoulders. My anger started melting away, transforming into a deep sadness.

"Please, my lord," I begged. "Please, let me go. You know what he did to me, to Relle, to my family."

"I do know." He looked into my eyes. "I know the power of burning anger, of hatred, of desire for revenge. I know."

"Then why–"

He interrupted me. "Because I also know that Kinoc was your friend once, as dear to you as a brother. And as angry as you are, as badly as you may want to kill him with your bare hands right now, if he dies by your actions, I think you will always regret it."

I raised my head and stared into the reddening sky. I wasn't sure that was true, but what if it was? How far would I go for my revenge?

"Besides," Braska continued, "I am also your friend, and I need you on my journey. I cannot do this without you. Please, Auron. As your friend, and as your lord, I ask you to set Kinoc aside for now. Once Sin is defeated, you may deal with him as you see fit. We are nearly to Mt. Gagazet; it will only be a little while longer."

The last of the rage drained from me at these words, at this reminder of his impending death, and I slumped, my head dropping, my eyes closing. Jecht finally released me, and I heard him walk away as Braska drew me into his arms. I felt his inner strength wash over me, and I took comfort from it as I embraced him in return, resting my head on his shoulder.

"Ah, old friend," he said, his voice tender. "It has been a hard time for both of us. But all this will be over soon. Spira will be freed from Sin, you will return to your wife, I will reunite with mine. And all will be well, I promise you."

As I clung to him for a few moments more, drawing on his resolve, I prayed that he was right.

-x-

Paine opened the door from the backyard with one hand, balancing her stack of plates in the other. The house was dark, lit only by the waxing moon. A shadowy figure stood before the kitchen window, head down, hands resting on the counter. Paine set the dishes down on the table and took a few steps towards him.

"Baralai?" she asked tentatively. "Are you all right?"

She could see his shoulders tense further as he pressed harder into the countertop. "Why didn't you tell me the whole truth?" His voice was quiet, but his tone was hard.

"Because I was afraid of exactly this reaction," Paine said. "But keeping it from you was a mistake. I'm sorry."

Baralai made no reply, only raised his head and looked out the window in silence.

Paine joined him, standing at his side without touching him. "Why do you still hate him so much?"

"I don't hate Kinoc." Baralai continued to gaze out the window at the moonlit Highroad as he spoke. "I fear him."

Paine shook her head. "Baralai. Kinoc is dead. He is gone. I saw Yuna send him myself, five years ago in the Via Infinito. You know that. There's no need to be afraid of him — he can 't hurt you, or me, or anyone else, ever again."

"You don't understand." He turned to her then, eyes dark pools in his drawn face, moonlight catching his white hair and making it glow. "I'm afraid to become him." Paine's breath caught at this confession as he continued. "I am just as capable of scheming, of betrayal. When we escaped the cave, I could have walked away, made an honest life for myself. Instead, I went back and ingratiated myself with evil, all for the sake of power and revenge. Then Yevon foundered, and I let another opportunity to escape get away, eventually becoming the leader of a New Yevon almost as bad as the old. And is what I do now any better?" He lowered his eyes again. "Winn told me tonight that she's going to step down as High Councilor when her term ends next year. She's suggested that I run for the position. And I want it, Paine. I want to lead Spira's government, to play a key part in shaping this world. And my desire scares me to death. What if I turn out to be just as power-hungry as Kinoc, just as evil?"

"You won't." Paine reached out and took his hands. "How can you compare yourself to him? You are an honorable man, with a good heart. Kinoc was a monster."

"Was he?" Baralai shook his head. "He was a man, a man like any other, a man with friends and allies and perhaps even honorable intentions, in the beginning. I saw them together a few times, you know, Kal and Kinoc and Auron, when they served Bevelle. They were friends, brothers. It made a real impression on me, the camaraderie that they shared. Would the betrayal have cut so deeply if their friendship had not once been true? No. I think something changed Kinoc. Something gave him a lust for power, a desire so great that he would take down anyone to get it, starting with his best friend."

"Maybe so." Paine moved her hands higher up his arms, stroking them. "And maybe those same seeds are in you, buried somewhere. But nothing says that you need to plant them, or help them grow." She cocked her head to one side with a small smile. "Plus, you have something the Maester didn't."

"What?"

"Me." She brushed the hair at his temples with her fingers. "If you start grasping for too much power, if you so much as think about betraying a friend, I'll be the first person in line to kick your ass."

Baralai's face softened. "I expect nothing less from you."

"It's a promise, then."

He reached for her and kissed her, fingers twisting into her hair, seeking reassurance in her arms. She gave him everything he sought and more, there in a puddle of moonlight on the kitchen floor.

-x-

In the rays of that same moon, Liss lay awake in her bed, thoughts of the last few days running through her head and keeping her from sleep.

Once past the unpleasant discussion of Kinoc, lunch with Kal had been wonderful. He'd told many stories of Auron as a warrior monk, and now she had a much clearer picture of her father as a bold young man to go with the older, more sober guardian that Yuna and Tidus had described to her, as well as with that of the boy her mother would talk about on occasion. The only piece missing was the time of the first pilgrimage, his journey with Lord Braska and Sir Jecht, and since all the participants were long dead, she suspected that time would always remain a mystery to her.

Still, none of this was a true substitute for meeting the man and getting to know him. Why had he done the things he did? What were his hopes, his dreams, his regrets? How had he felt about the events of his life?

Such thoughts had plagued her before, but rarely did they keep her up at night, tossing and turning like this. But ever since receiving her mother's letter, she had slept little and poorly, wakeful as she pondered these questions.

In the bunk on the other side of the room, Maura snorted softly and turned over. She mumbled something, then fell back into a deep sleep.

Not wanting to disturb her friend with her restlessness, Liss threw off the covers, slipped her feet into sandals, and quietly went out the door. She leaned back against the hallway wall, then slid down, coming to rest on the floor. Drawing her knees up, she dropped her head down on them, then heard a whisper. "Liss?"

She looked up to see Kenna approaching, shoes in her hand as she attempted to tiptoe down the hallway. Repparu, a whippet-thin boy of medium height and few words, the only other Al Bhed in their cohort of recruits, was with her.

"Victory party go past curfew?" Liss whispered back with a smile.

Kenna nodded, then took a seat on the ground next to Liss. "I doubt anyone cares tonight," she said, voice still quiet, "but better not to take chances."

Repparu nodded. "G'night." He silently opened the door to the room he shared with Sam. He slid inside, and the door snicked shut.

"What're you doing up?" Kenna asked.

"Just thinking," said Liss.

"The letter still?" Liss nodded, and Kenna sighed — Liss had told her the story last night, after the party. "Cfaadea, I know it was hard to learn the truth. But it all happened years ago; you need to move on."

"I know, and I'm working on it." Liss dropped her knees and shifted into a cross-legged position. "Commander Kal — Sam's uncle, he was a friend of my father's, you'll meet him tomorrow — made me feel better about some things. But still, I wonder how my father really felt about it all. And that's something I can never know."

Kenna patted her friend's leg. "Yeah." She tipped her head back, touching it to the wall. "Is it weird, missing someone you never met? I mean, I miss my parents, but at least I remember the people I'm missing."

Liss picked at a scab on her knee for a moment. Then she looked over at Kenna. "Yes. It's very weird. Sometimes, I think what I really miss is the idea of having a father, not the man himself. But other times, like when people who did know him start telling stories and get that sad, far-away look, I regret not having the chance to know him. Not some abstract father, but the actual person. Auron." She spoke his name aloud so rarely that it sounded odd to her, almost foreign. Not at all like it did when other people said it.

"Mm." Kenna's hand rested on her leg again, for longer this time. "Well. I hate to leave you alone, but we do have early class tomorrow. You'll be okay?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good." She stood with a grin. "It'd be better if you were staying up late thinking about Sam."

Shaking her head, Liss laughed under her breath. "You and Maura never give up, do you?"

"Well, you shouldn't give up either. Sam really likes you."

Liss lifted her eyebrows, surprised by how much this information pleased her. "You think so?"

"I know so." Kenna's smile became much more self-satisfied. "He told Repparu." She giggled at the look on Liss's face. "Aha! I knew it. Sweet dreams, Liss." And she disappeared into her own room.

In a daze, Liss wandered back to bed and at long last relaxed into sleep.

-x-

The beds were comfortable and the company pleasant — Rin was a fascinating and ambitious fellow with plans to buy all the travelers' rests from Yevon as he had here and at Macalania — but I still woke with a fierce headache and said little over breakfast.

As we were finishing, Lord Braska noticed my silence. "Head bothering you?" he asked. When I nodded, he stood from the table and laid a hand on my shoulder. He spoke a soft incantation, and I felt cool tendrils of healing magic slip up my neck and into my skull, swirling around the pain and then taking it away.

I sighed with relief. "Thank you, my lord," I said, "but you should save your energy."

"It will replenish quickly enough," he replied, "and you needed the help. Will you be ready to go soon?"

"Whenever you and Jecht are ready."

"Good." He smiled. "I've spoken with some of the employees here, and they've pointed out the most direct route to Gagazet. If all goes well, we should be at the base of the mountain within two days."

Two days. I watched him go to fetch Jecht, who was restocking our supplies, and felt a rush of panic. All the lore suggested that it would take another three to four days to climb the mountain, then a day or two to descend. Then Zanarkand. If all went according to plan, we would be there in just over a week. Braska would call the Final Aeon, fight Sin, then die. And I would lose him forever.

I shook myself to clear my head of these useless thoughts. I had known what I was agreeing to when Braska asked me to be his guardian. I would miss him, of course I would. But a summoner's life was the price of the Calm. If my lord was willing to be the man to pay it, who was I to say that he shouldn't? Besides, if I continued this worrying, I would undo his efforts to heal my headache.

With a single swallow, I finished my coffee and went to finish my preparations for the last leg of the journey.

Chapter Text

Braska will call the Final Aeon. He will fight Sin, then die.

It was my first thought each morning upon waking. It was the last to cross my mind before I went to sleep. It was a mantra imprinted on every footstep I took on the grass of the plain, on the snow of the mountain.

I tried to set my feelings aside, to let the words slip away, to clear them from my mind. I looked for answers, going over every scrap of the teachings in my head, searching for some hint of a way to defeat Sin that would not cost Braska his life. I considered whether I could convince him to turn back, to return to Bevelle, collect his daughter, and take her to Besaid, where they could live in peace the rest of their days.

All these efforts were futile.

I gave no voice to my doubts, of course. What could I have said? "Lord Braska, I've changed my mind. I don't think this is a good idea after all. Let's go home." If I couldn't talk him out of it when he was safe in Bevelle six months ago, I had even less chance of dissuading him when he was so close to accomplishing his purpose.

As promised, it had taken two days to reach the base of Mt. Gagazet. The Ronso had welcomed and resupplied us, offering us the home of their leader for the night. It would be our last comfortable rest stop until journey's end. The next three and a half days were spent battling through bitter cold, fiends, a mysterious summoning, treacherous caves, and finally a ferocious dragon to gain the summit. Now, at last, the ancient ruins of Zanarkand lay before us, endless ocean shimmering in the distance.

Jecht stood, unmoving, at the very edge of the trail, a sheer cliff dropping off just inches from his feet. I could not see his face and was not certain I wanted to. He claimed to have given up hope of ever returning home some weeks ago, but the reality of the dead city still had to be a blow. This devastation was not recent; the buildings were hundreds of years old, at least, walls cracked and smoothed by centuries of wind, rain, and burning sunshine. His home was gone, and had been for a very long time.

Braska walked up next to him and laid a hand on his back. After a moment, I joined them, taking my place on Braska's other side.

"I'm sorry," Braska said. I glanced at my companions. Jecht's expression could have been carved from stone, while Braska's face nearly glowed with anticipation.

Jecht shrugged. "Wasn't expecting anythin' different. Not really."

"Your Zanarkand must be out there somewhere," I said. "We'll find you a way back, I know we will."

He just shook his head.

"Shall we move on?" Braska stepped back from the ledge and headed for the trail. After a moment, Jecht did the same, eyes cast down to the ground in defeat. I intended to follow, but I found that I could not move. My feet were rooted to the spot. I had to stop him from descending to that shore.

"Lord Braska!" I called out.

He stopped on the trail and turned. "What is it?"

I read his expression, saw his impatience to move onward, his joy at nearing his goal, and found that I could say nothing after all. "Never mind, my lord."

We went on. It took us just over a day to finish trekking down the dry side of the mountain, the twin forces of gravity and Zanarkand pulling us forward much faster than we had been able to push upwards through the ice and snow. We walked through the night, not stopping until we reached the bottom. There, we pulled up on a bit of flat ground and rested for a few hours. Braska and Jecht napped; I could not, and so kept watch, the words running through my head, over and over again, until I wanted to scream in an attempt to wipe them away.

Braska will call the Final Aeon. He will fight Sin, then die.

When they woke, it was near sunset. "Where to now?" Braska asked, turning to Jecht.

"Beats me," he said with a shrug. "It all looks so different. And it's not like we had summoners lookin' for the Final Aeon in my Zanarkand."

"Well, it can't be too difficult to find." Braska climbed a small nearby hill and looked over the city. "There," he said, pointing, his tone hushed.

We followed his arm to see a large ruin, swarming with pyreflies.

"Damn," Jecht breathed. "It's the blitz stadium!"

I stamped out the fire, and we continued, picking our way across ruined roads and past toppled structures, tackling the occasional fiend as we traveled. None were beyond our abilities, though, and by the time the stars appeared we had arrived at the entrance to the old domed stadium.

A ghostly figure awaited us there, a gray-bearded man in old-fashioned priest's robes. "Journeyer of the long road, name yourself," he said in an ancient, quavering voice.

Braska pulled his back straight as a pillar. "I am the summoner Braska of Bevelle."

"Show me your eyes, my son," said the priest. "Let me see the path you have traveled." Braska took a step forward. The two men were of a height, so they stared directly into one another's faces for a time. "Yes," the man said at last. "You have journeyed well, and the Lady Yunalesca will certainly welcome your arrival."

My mouth went dry. "Lady… Yunalesca?" I stammered.

The priest ignored me. "Go to her now, and bring your guardians with you." He bowed, and Braska bowed in return. We walked past him and into the dome. Once inside, I stopped Braska with a hand to his arm.

"Lady Yunalesca?" I shook my head. "Impossible!"

"I wonder," said Braska. "If she is an unsent…"

I shivered. "It is blasphemy to even suggest such a thing."

"The only way to learn is to move forward." He set out on the path, and Jecht and I had no choice but to follow.

The dome was filled with pyreflies, the remains of our predecessors. Every so often, we would stumble into a scene from someone's memory being played out, and I became more apprehensive with each one we witnessed. I could see from my companions' faces that they felt much the same way, and soon we were running through the ruins.

As we passed through the ruin, we reached a round portal that looked like it might once have been a door. As Braska was about to step through, we guardians a few paces behind, Jecht stopped abruptly.

"Hey Braska," he said. "You don't have to do this, y'know. If you wanna live–"

"Thank you for your concern," Braska interrupted, pausing, his back still to us. "But my decision is made."

"Fine," Jecht replied, crossing his arms. "I've said my piece."

At long last, I could hold back no more. "Well, I haven't!"

Jecht turned to me in surprise. Braska did not move, but he raised his head and stiffened.

"Lord Braska," I said, reaching out toward him, my tone pleading, "let us go back! I don't… I don't want to see you die!"

He shook his head. "You've always known this was to happen, my friend."

I dropped my eyes. "Yes. But now that the time is upon me, I cannot accept it."

Braska turned around. "Auron. I am honored that you care for me so. But I have come here to kill grief itself. What is my life in the face of that? I will defeat Sin and lift the veil of sorrow that covers Spira. Please, try to understand."

I looked into his face and saw his unwavering resolve, tempered though it was by sympathy. "All right, my lord," I said, taking a deep breath. "I will try."

-x-

We worked our way through one last set of trials and killed the fearsome beast that awaited when we had finished. I dealt the final blow, and the fiend disappeared in a cloud of twinkling lights to reveal a lift beneath its mass. Braska turned to us and clasped our hands. "Thank you," he said.

I could not speak. Jecht stood silently as well, and we watched him disappear for what we thought might be the last time. It was a great shock to both of us, then, when he reappeared not two minutes later, a look of bewilderment on his face. "There's no Final Aeon," he said.

"What do you mean, 'no Final Aeon'?" Jecht barked.

"Just what I said. Come see." The three of us piled onto the lift, and Braska led us into the Chamber of the Fayth.

A circle was inscribed in the floor. It was topped by what looked like glowing glass but was clearly some sort of mysterious force. A stone figure of a man lay beneath it. "A fayth?" I asked

"Perhaps it used to be," Braska said, "but no longer. There is nothing inside; it's just ordinary stone."

"That statue lost its power as a fayth long ago," intoned a voice behind us. We turned to see the same unsent figure we had met at the entrance. "It is Lord Zaon, the first fayth of the Final Summoning. What you see before you is all that remains of him. Lord Zaon is… his soul is gone."

"And the Final Summoning with it?" Braska asked, a trace of anger in his voice.

"But fear not," our guide continued. "Lady Yunalesca will show you the path. The Final Aeon will be yours. The summoner and the Final Aeon will join powers. Go to her now; inside, the lady awaits."

The priest disappeared. I looked uneasily at the glowing portal opposite the door we had used to enter. "My lord, I do not like this," I said.

"It's not what I was expecting," he admitted. "But we must follow the path that has appeared before us. Come." And the three of us walked through the door, into a splendid hall decorated with rich tapestries and a deep red carpet, all bearing the symbols of Yevon.

The door at the top of the stairway opposite us opened, and it admitted another figure, this one a breathtaking woman with long white-blond hair, dressed in next to nothing. This apparition, this creature of surpassing beauty swirling with pyreflies, could only be the Lady Yunalesca.

She floated down the steps and spread her arms wide as Braska went to meet her. " Welcome to Zanarkand," she said. "I congratulate you, summoner. You have completed your pilgrimage. I will now bestow you with that which you seek. The Final Summoning will be yours. Now, choose."

"Choose, my lady?" Braska repeated, confusion on his face.

"Yes, choose. You must choose the one whom I will change to become the fayth of the Final Summoning."

Braska's eyes very wide, while Jecht just looked perplexed. As for me, a dreadful pit of cold settled in my stomach, then spread outward. "What?" What madness was this? The teachings said nothing of it.

I had spoken aloud, and she looked at me. "There must be a bond, between chosen and summoner, for that is what the Final Summoning embodies: the bond between husband and wife, parent and child, or between friends. If that bond is strong enough, its light will conquer Sin. A thousand years ago, I chose my husband Zaon as my fayth. Our bond was true, and I obtained the Final Aeon." Her gaze returned to Braska. "There is nothing to fear. You will soon be freed of worry and pain. For once you call forth the Final Aeon, your life will end. Death is the ultimate and final liberation."

Braska's face took on a more resigned, almost peaceful expression. "I understand, my lady."

Lady Yunalesca nodded. "Come to me when you have made your decision. I will be waiting for you." She turned and went back up the stairs, shutting the door behind her.

Braska turned to me, his eyes questioning, and I knew what he was going to ask of me.

Without meaning to, I took an step back, overwhelmed by horror. A bond between chosen and summoner… Braska was right, of course. He and Jecht had become close over the course of our journey, but still they had known each other for only a few months. I had been his closest friend, other than his wife, for almost seven years, and he had been mine. If the strength of the bond was the highest consideration, he had to choose me.

But there was a wrongness to everything about Yunalesca and the Final Summoning. I couldn't explain why, but I knew it, sensed it deep in my bones. And to become a fayth... the thought of being encased in stone, my soul separating from my body while I still lived, repelled me. I could not become a fayth, not even for Braska. Yet if my lord, my summoner, my friend, asked it, how could I refuse? My life was sworn to him; it was his to command. All I could do, the only thing I could think of, was to keep him from making the request.

"It is not too late!" I cried out. "Let us turn back!"

He looked away from me, and I could see disappointment written in the set of his shoulders. "If I turn back, who will defeat Sin?" he asked. "Would you have some other summoner and his guardians go through this?"

"No… but my lord, there must be another way! A better way."

Jecht spoke up from where he stood behind us. "Maybe. But this is the only way we got right now." We both turned to look at him. He dropped his folded arms. "Fine," he said. "Make me the fayth." I opened my mouth to interrupt, but he cut off my impending protest with a sweep of his hands. "I been doing some thinkin'. My dream, he's back in the other Zanarkand. I wanted to make that runt into a star blitz player. Show him the view from the top, y'know. But now I know that's never gonna happen. There's no way home for me, and I'm never gonna see him again. So this'll be my new dream. Make me the fayth, Braska, and we'll defeat Sin together. Maybe then my life will have some meaning."

I shook my head. Didn't they feel how very wrong this was? "Please, Jecht, don't do this! If you live… maybe we can find another way. We'll think of something, I know we will!"

"Don't try to talk me out of this, Auron." Jecht glared at me and crossed his arms again. "I've thought it all through. Besides, I ain't getting any younger. So I might as well make myself useful."

Braska walked over to him. "Jecht…"

"What! You're not gonna try and stop me, too?"

Braska shook his head. "Sorry. I mean… thank you."

With a smile, Jecht rested his hands on Braska's shoulders and looked down at him. But his next words were to me. "Braska still has to fight Sin, Auron. Guard him well. Make sure he gets there." He dropped his arms and looked up, taking a deep breath. "Well, let's go."

The two men headed for the stairway. Dumbfounded, I watched them go. How could they both go along with this exercise in futility? The thought loosed my tongue, and I called out to them once more. "Lord Braska! Jecht!"

They paused halfway up the steps and turned around. "What do you want now?" Jecht asked, his tone impatient.

"Sin always comes back. It comes back after the Calm every time," I said. "The cycle will continue, and your deaths will mean nothing!"

Braska looked down at me, his face thoughtful. "But there's always a chance that it won't come back this time," he replied. "It's worth trying."

"I see what you're saying, Auron," said Jecht. "I'll find a way to break the cycle."

I studied Jecht's face, feeling a glimmer of hope for the first time in days. "You have a plan?" I asked.

"Trust me." He grinned. "Just like you said. I'll think of somethin'." And then he laughed.

I tried to come up with anything more to say that would stall them, give them time to rethink their decision, but no words came. Jecht held open the door for Braska, who walked through. He was about to follow, when he stopped and looked at me. "Can I ask you one last favor? Uh…" He looked at the floor. "Nah, never mind."

"Out with it!" I demanded.

"Okay. This is the thing. Take care of my son. In Zanarkand. He's such a crybaby, y'know? He needs someone there to hold his hand. Will you watch over him?"

I had no idea how to respond to this request. "In Zanarkand? How am I supposed to get there?"

He laughed again. "Hey, you said it yourself. There must be a way back, right? I trust you to find it."

I thought for a moment. By volunteering to become the fayth, he had saved me from that fate. I owed him my life; making this promise was the least I could do in return. "All right then, I will. I give you my word: I will take care of your son and guard him with my life." How I would keep this vow and still return to Relle, I did not know. But if Jecht could stop Sin from returning, I could surely find some way to take her to Zanarkand, or bring the boy to Spira. Hard to say which of us had set ourselves the more impossible task.

"Thanks, Auron." Jecht smiled at me. "You're still a stiff, but that's what I always liked about you." He turned to the door, then returned his eyes to mine one last time. "Goodbye."

He disappeared through the passage, slamming the door behind him. As I heard it clang shut, the sound reverberating through the chamber, the fullness of my despair came crashing down on me. I dropped to my knees, closing my eyes in anguish, and I prayed with all my might for enough strength to carry me through this trial.

-x-

Time lost all meaning as I waited. It could have been hours, it could have been days, it might even have only been a few minutes. But eventually, I heard the door open. Opening my eyes, instantly alert, I stood and saw Braska at the top of the stair, his face deathly pale and slick with sweat. He stood still, then started to sway into a faint, his eyes falling closed.

I rushed up the stairs, catching him as he fell, sitting on the steps and lowering him into my lap. He lay there, perfectly motionless, hardly even breathing, and for a moment I thought he might have died, right there in my arms.

Then he gasped, shuddering, and looked at me, eyes haunted. "Water," he croaked.

I lifted my jug to his lips; he drank a few greedy gulps, then pushed it away.

"Jecht?" I asked, brushing a tendril of sweat-soaked hair off his forehead.

He looked away for a moment, then let out a sigh. "He… is with me."

"Can you walk, my lord?"

Mutely, he shook his head.

I lifted him up, one arm supporting his upper back, the other resting beneath his knees. He wrapped his arms about my neck and laid his head against my chest as I carried him out of the hall, through the Chamber, up the lift, and through the Cloister. All the way to the entrance of the dome I carried him, avoiding the undead monks guarding the pathways, steering clear of anything that looked like it might trigger a memory — ours or anyone else's. After making my way through the ruin, I found an area clear enough of rubble that I could set up camp. Propping Braska up against a wall, I pulled out his bedroll, laid it out, then helped him to it. He lay back, closing his eyes, and fell almost instantly into a restless sleep. I watched with worry. Gaining a new aeon always tired Braska, but I had never seen him so thoroughly drained before. "What did she do to you?" I whispered to myself.

Dawn was breaking overhead. I settled down on the ground, took out some field rations and my jug, and made ready to take another long watch.

Chapter Text

The sun had climbed well into the sky by the time Braska awoke. To my eye, he had slept poorly — tossing, turning, and muttering the whole time — and when he sat up, he did not seem much refreshed.

"Lord Braska?" I lunged to his side. "Are you all right?"

He nodded, his eyes staring past my shoulder and into the distance. Then he blinked and focused on my face. "I… I am fine. Auron, when did you last sleep?"

I had to think about the answer to this question. "Our last night on the mountain," I said. "Three days ago?"

"Too long," he murmured. "Take your rest, my friend, I will stand watch."

Looking him over, I shook my head. "My lord, you are too weak to defend us if anything should happen."

"We will be safe here." His tone was flat, as if he knew it to be a certain fact. "This place is protected. My battle with Sin is coming soon, and I need you at your best. We can spare a few more hours."

I had my doubts, but I couldn't deny my exhaustion. "All right. Thank you, my lord."

I pulled out my bedroll, laid down, and was asleep before I knew it.

-x-

I woke up at dusk, and we broke camp without speaking. Braska led the way through the ruins, and we were able to dispatch the few fiends we encountered without incident. When we reached the outskirts of the dead city, I stopped him with a question.

"My lord, where are we going? Are we returning to the Calm Lands?"

Braska shook his head. "We will battle Sin on the summit of Mt. Gagazet."

I nodded; we walked on, climbing the mountain. The sun rose, then set again, and by the time the moon was high in the sky we had reached the summit plateau.

"We camp here," Braska said; I started at the sound of his voice, which I had not heard since leaving Zanarkand.

"Yes, my lord." I started to ready his bedroll, but he stopped me with a motion of his hand.

"There is no need," he murmured. "I cannot sleep; I will keep watch so that you may."

"My lord…"

He shook his head again, a single swift, sharp turn. "Sin will come at me with all its spawn tomorrow as I try to defeat it. You will need to defend me, so you must be sharp and rested. If you are wakeful, I can use a sleeping spell on you."

"But…"

"Auron." He looked at me with clear blue eyes. "I will rest soon enough."

I wanted to argue. I could not. Setting his bedroll aside, I pulled out my own. After eating and drinking a little, and offering the same to Braska, I laid down and stared up at the stars. Braska settled down next to me, sitting up with crossed legs, his back to the cliff wall rising above us. Then he did something which surprised me: he lifted my head into his lap and began to stroke the hair at my temples and forehead — a pose I had seen him take with Yuna many times during the months we had lived together. His gentle touch was both comforting and relaxing, and I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

The morning sun rising into my eyes woke me. As I opened them, blinking, I realized that Braska still held my head in his lap, cradling it with both hands. Rolling over, I looked up at him; he was staring straight forward, a look of utter peace on his face.

He felt me stir and glanced down at me with a soft smile. "Did you sleep well?"

I sat up and nodded. "Thanks to you."

"Do you need to eat?" I shook my head; my stomach had twisted into a knot as soon as I had remembered our purpose today. At least my head was clear.

"Very well." He pulled out his staff, then turned to me abruptly. "Oh, I nearly forgot. Jecht asked me to give you something." He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a lightweight sword with a red blade — the sword that Jecht had first bought in Bevelle. He had soon found a heavier, two-handed model that he preferred, but he had insisted on holding on to this one.

"He said he wanted you to save it for someone, and that you would know who. Does that mean anything to you?"

It did — Jecht was asking me to take his sword to his son. "Yes, my lord." I reached out and took it by the hilt. It felt insubstantial to me, but then small swords always did. "I will keep it safe."

Braska looked far away for a moment, then returned his attention to me. "He thanks you."

I returned the sword to my own bag. Then I walked up to Braska, who stood at the edge of the cliff, holding out his staff, staring into the empty sky.

He turned to me, and I saw tears glittering in his eyes. "Thank you, Auron. There are no words to express just how grateful I am to you for being my guardian, how honored I am to have had you as a protector and a friend."

My throat had closed shut; I had to clear it several times before I could reply. "The honor has been all mine. Thank you, my… Braska."

He gripped my arm, then embraced me. I hugged him as tightly to me as I dared. He kissed me briefly on the lips, then stepped away and turned back to the horizon.

"Let me tell you what is to happen."

-x-

Some minutes later, I stood behind Braska, my sword drawn, ready. He had kept his place at the edge of the cliff. His staff was held vertically in front of him, head bowed. Then he took a step back, tipping the staff slightly forward. Symbols etched themselves in the air around him, and a huge, multicolored bird of prey appeared out of the sky. My breath caught at the beauty of Valefor in the morning light. Braska called out a command to her; she responded with a cry, then flew away, hunting Sin.

We waited in silence for what seemed a long time. Then a terrible birdcall split the air, and I saw Valefor winging back in the distance, just a few beats ahead of Sin, who followed her at a terribly fast clip. The other time I had seen Sin, it had been in the water, but now it, too, flew through the air, on giant white wings. Braska then called his three elemental aeons: fire, ice, lightning. Each appeared in turn, breaking for the sky to aid their fellow. They were too late, though: Sin took a mighty lash with its tail, sweeping straight through Valefor and smashing her into pyreflies.

The other three reached Sin then, and began to harry it. I wondered if it would be too distracted to attack us, but I was quickly disabused of that notion as dozens of Sinscales flew through the air and embedded themselves in the plateau where we stood. I swung into action then, jumping to each where it landed and slashing it in half with my sword. A few of these creatures would be no match for me, but they just kept coming, and I began to fear that I would be overwhelmed. If too many of these were allowed to open and shoot their deadly spines into Braska, he would be finished, and Jecht's sacrifice would come to nothing. Already I had reached one too late, and Braska had shuddered under the salvo.

Then help arrived, heralded by a roar that shook the ground. Braska had called Bahamut to come to my aid, and the two of us together were able to kill the spawn faster than they could arrive. Once we caught up, he left me to my work and joined the attack on Sin.

I knew that Braska was not expecting the aeons to finish Sin, only weaken and distract it while he prepared the Final Summoning. One by one, the aeons fell. Ifrit was the last; he tumbled into the sea, and I turned to watch Braska.

Braska lifted the staff over his head and turned it, once, in a slow circle. Then he held it out in front of him, parallel to the ground, took a deep breath, and, with a burst of strength, snapped the staff in two.

The entire mountain began to tremble beneath my feet, and a burst of blinding white light appeared from the ruins of Zanarkand. It was followed by a monstrous figure, shaped like a man but a thousand times larger. He turned to us, and I stopped breathing when I recognized Jecht. The same tattoo writ large on his chest, his unruly hair winding and twisting like a nest of snakes, his sword transformed into a blade the size of a tall building, his eyes burning like two white-hot coals.

Braska's Final Aeon, Jecht no longer, lifted his sword and began to slash downward.

"No!" I cried, rushing toward them.

"Auron, stop!" Braska whirled around to me, thrusting out an arm, pushing me away with a burst of magical force. Then he turned back to face the aeon, closing his eyes and holding out his hands in welcome, the pieces of the staff falling out and down the side of the cliff.

Mercifully, the aeon turned the sword at the last second, bashing Braska on the head with the flat of it, rather than slicing him in half before my eyes.

When he had finished the killing blow, he sprang forward, taking swing after swing at Sin. Unable to stay away any longer, I raced to Braska and sat with him on the ground, wrapping my arms around him, pulling him into my chest. He was still alive, barely. Then I returned my attention to the epic battle before me.

Jecht — or what remained of him —slashed Sin to bits. With each stroke, another piece of the mighty demon disappeared. Sin got in a few strikes back, but the Final Aeon shrugged off every blow. In the end, the aeon drew his arm back and pierced Sin straight through with the blade. With a mighty explosion of pyreflies, the huge gray monster disappeared, leaving only a small black creature hanging in the air. The speck hovered for a moment, then plunged into the aeon's chest.

With a terrible cry, the aeon curled into a ball and flew high into the air. Then he plummeted into the ocean with a mighty splash, and Sin was no more.

"You did it," I breathed, looking down in his face. "High Summoner Braska, you have defeated Sin."

He smiled weakly. "Remember… Yuna…" he whispered. His eyes opened wide, focusing on something only he could see. "Tess…" Then his eyes closed, his head dropped, and he breathed his last.

I started to shake uncontrollably as colored lights gathered over Braska's body, came together over his chest, and then shot up into the sky, swirling and twirling their way to the Farplane. Braska had accepted his death and sent himself. At long last, he would see Tessa again.

I dropped the rapidly cooling corpse from my arms. Unbearable pressure built behind my eyes and in my chest, yet somehow I could not weep or wail. My heart started to pound, and my vision to blur, but not with tears. With rage.

Maybe Braska had accepted his death, and Jecht's. But I couldn't.

I found Jecht's sword and sheathed it in my scabbard, lifted Braska's corpse over my shoulder, and picked up my own sword with my free hand. Then I headed back down the mountain, back to Zanarkand.

-x-

I had no detailed plan in mind. All I knew is that I needed to see Yunalesca. For answers? For revenge? Whatever my purpose, I was driven by it, and it took me only twelve hours to descend Mt. Gagazet.

When I reached the bottom, I paused to commend Braska's body to the deep, stopping by the side of the ocean and letting it fall into the waters. I bowed my head for a moment, but I did not pray. At that moment, I had no desire to speak with Yevon, or with any god that would demand this kind of sacrifice from his followers. As soon as my friend had disappeared from view, I continued on.

I fought my way through fiends, through the ghosts of warrior monks, through an ancient machina that once blocked my path. They were as nothing to me. I was focused on my goal.

The Cloister of Trials was deserted; there was no barrier to entry, no giant fiend to kill. The lift waited for me, and I descended, walking past the spirit guide who had met me before. He watched me pass in silence. I went through the richly appointed hall where Yunalesca had first greeted us, climbed the stairs, and pulled open the door to her chamber.

She was waiting, and did not look surprised to see me.

"You are here to avenge your lord's death?" she asked, in her rich voice.

"Perhaps," I said, tipping my sword back over my shoulder. "Tell me one thing first: has Braska succeeded in defeating Sin? Or will it just return as it always has before?"

Her smile was sad. "Sin is eternal. Every aeon that defeats it will become Sin in its place."

No. No. No, this could not be. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. The aeon — became Sin? But that meant that… Jecht…

"You mean to tell me," I said as I struggled for breath, "that the Final Summoning creates the very monster it destroys?"

Yunalesca spread her arms. "In a sense. Perhaps that is one way of understanding it."

A wall burst within me, and I was flooded anew with rage. "So it is all for nothing?" I shouted. "The aeons, the fayth, the pilgrimages? The lives of hundreds and hundreds of summoners and guardians? The teachings of Yevon? I have dedicated my life to a lie!"

"Not for nothing, and not for a lie," she replied. "The teachings, the pilgrimages, the summoners all give the people hope, hope for a world without Sin. Their hope comforts them."

"But if Sin can never be defeated, then there is no hope."

She shook her head. "Still, hope is necessary. The people need it to carry on with their lives, to keep from drowning in sorrow. Surely you understand."

"No!" I did not understand. I did not want to understand. "Where is the sense in all this? Braska believed in Yevon's teachings and died for them." I lifted my sword from my shoulder and slashed at the air. "Jecht believed in Braska, and gave his life for him." The sword came down in front of me; I brought my other hand to the hilt and held it ready.

"They chose to die," Yunalesca said, "because they had hope."

My fury pushed me forward with an irresistible force. I raised my sword with a mighty cry, and charged.

She lifted her hand as I crashed into the magical force that protected her, and it was as if I had been sliced by a thousand knives. Then an invisible force lifted me up and threw me backwards, my sword bouncing back into my face and then flying from my hand. A terrible pain ripped into my right cheek and eye, too much the agony even to scream. I tumbled over in the air, and was unconscious before I hit the ground.

-x-

The next thing I knew, I was at the site of the mysterious Gagazet summoning with no memory of how I'd gotten there, lying in a pool of my own blood. My body ached inside and out, my face was on fire, and I could not see out of my right eye. I tried to stand and found that I was too weak. I reached out my arms and found the hilt of my sword with my right hand. My fingers curled around it, and I pulled it to me.

Still alive, but maybe not for much longer.

Yuna. I had to get to Bevelle and keep my word to Braska. Maybe I would find help on the way. I certainly couldn't save Yuna if I just gave up and died here. And I had to save her, to get her out of the clutches of Yevon.

Yevon. A cruel hoax, a foul lie, poisoning my world for a thousand years. There was no way I could abandon her to them.

I lifted myself as best as I was able, and I started to crawl.

-x-

It took me three days to crawl down the side of the mountain, leaving a crimson trail on the white snow, gripping my sword and sweeping a path in front of me. Somehow, I stayed alive, stopping only to scoop snow and ice into my mouth, letting it melt there and trickle down my throat. The cold saved me, slowing down the bleeding and eventually stopping it. I did not dare rest; I knew that I would never get up again if I did. I held Yuna's innocent face in my mind, and somehow that gave me the strength to keep going, to live through sheer force of will.

Eventually I reached the Calm Lands, where the going was harder with no easy source of water. Soon my thirst began to outstrip even my pain, and I realized that I wasn't going to make it much farther. Only a few hours into the grassy plain, I collapsed.

So this is it. I die here, alone, my promises to Braska and Jecht and Arelle unfulfilled.

Then I heard footsteps and lifted my head. "Help," I croaked.

Strong arms rolled me over, and I looked into the face of an adolescent Ronso kneeling over me. His fur was blue, his mane white, his eyes yellow and concerned, and his horn was missing; the break was jagged, a fresh injury.

"Wait here," he said. "Kimahri will find healer."

I shook my head. "No… time…" I gasped. "Go to… Bevelle Temple… find Yuna… daughter of High Summoner… Braska… take her to Besaid… last wish of a… dying man… please… protect her…"

"High Summoner Braska?"

"Sin is… defeated… by Lord Braska." I let out a sigh. "Please… protect Yuna!"

He stared at me for a moment, then stood with a firm nod. "Kimahri will do as you ask."

"Thank you." I dropped my head back and prepared to let go of my life.

"Here!" the Ronso roared overhead. I heard the rumble of a machina engine — an approaching Al Bhed hover? I was curious but too weak to lift my head and investigate.

The engine noise came closer and dropped in pitch. "Sir Auron? Is that you?" said a familiar voice. "Dear me! We will get you some help at once!" Two pairs of arms lifted me up, carried me and lay me down on something hard and flat. Water poured over my face and into my mouth; I sputtered, swallowed, and opened the good eye. The eyes looking at me with worry were now the green swirls of an Al Bhed: Rin.

"The Ronso?" I whispered.

"He left as soon as we arrived, heading in the direction of Bevelle," said Rin. "Here, take this." He tipped a potion into my mouth, and I drank it. I did not feel anywhere near whole afterwards, but the pain subsided a little. "That is all I have here, but I may be able to do more for you in the Travel Agency." But I saw the doubt in his face, and I shared it. I was not even sure I would survive the trip.

The ride back was excruciating. Every jolt and bump of the hover caused a fresh wave of agony. Fortunately, it was a short journey, and soon the arms were carrying me again, taking me through the agency and to a bed in the back. Rin gave me another potion, a stronger one, and left.

It was not enough. I lay back in the bed, feeling the soft pillow against my head as the last of my strength ebbed away. A single face passed through my mind, that of my love, her copper hair glowing, grief etched on her forehead, deep sadness in her gray eyes, and I whispered to her.

"Relle… I'm sorry."

I closed my remaining eye, turned my face to the wall, and died.

Chapter Text

When I woke, moonlight was streaming through the window of the Travel Agency.

I sat up. The pain was gone, which should have been impossible. Gingerly, I reached up to touch my face. It was crusted with dried blood, and I still could not open the right eye. I would probably never open it again.

But I should not have been able to open either eye: I had died. I knew that as well as I'd ever known anything. My injuries were fatal; I had felt my body fail. How was it that I had even awakened? Was this a miraculous recovery? Had I returned from death somehow?

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood. Then I turned back to the cot and froze.

A man lay there, totally unmoving. The limbs did not stir, the chest did not rise and fall with breath, no pulse throbbed in the throat. The right side of his face was slashed from hairline to jaw and his flesh was a pallid gray. There was no doubt that this man was dead.

And there was no doubt that he was me. I was looking at my own corpse.

I swallowed, hard. For a moment I wondered why I could do that, then dismissed the thought. There would be another time to examine my physical form; first, I needed to figure out why I was still here at all, why I was--

My mind shied away from the word, refused to think it or give it form. Later, I would face that particular truth later.

I had refused to accept Braska's death, or Jecht's. Apparently, I was also refusing to accept my own, and I began to search for a reason. Naturally, my first thought was of Arelle. Was she holding me here, keeping me from the Farplane?

No.

The realization cut through my soul with a pain sharp as a dagger, but I also knew it to be true. Every promise we had made to one another, every oath we had sworn, was said with the understanding that death released us. I still loved her, would always love her. But I was no longer bound to her. She was not holding me to this world, would not in fact want this for me. She would want me to rest, as I would wish for her at the time of her death. No, it was not Relle.

Nor was it Braska. I had seen him to Zanarkand; I had protected him as he defeated Sin; I had done all I could to ensure that Yuna would be safe, well-cared for, and far from Bevelle. My duties to him were discharged as well. So what remained? What promise had I…

Jecht.

I groaned aloud. Was this the promise that bound me? Of all the things for my honor to seize upon as a reason to continue beyond death: a rash oath sworn to a man I barely knew, rarely understood, hadn't respected half the time, and who somehow despite it all had become a dear friend.

But there it was. This answer resonated with me. I had sworn to protect the son of Jecht, and death had not excused me from the vow. Somehow, I would find a way to the living Zanarkand, to the boy, to Tidus.

First, though, I would need to do something about the body.

-x-

The early morning sun shone across the Highroad, promising another gorgeous late summer day. The cadets gathered, shading their eyes against the brightness, peering at the instructors who waited for them on a grassy plain. Lissira stood restlessly, Paine's old sword strapped to her back, the unfamiliar machina rifle the assistant instructor had handed her loose in her hands.

"Greetings." Paine saluted the class, and her students returned the gesture with the usual polite responses. "Welcome to today's rifle session. I'm sure you're all looking forward to using live ammo and hunting fiends for the first time. First, please take a moment to welcome Commander Kal, your special guest instructor." She gestured to where he stood on her right, then melted into the background. The cadets stood a little straighter, saluted a little higher, said "good morning sir" with a little more force. Liss followed suit, although she was having difficulty reconciling the man in the pressed uniform with the jovial fellow with whom she had lunched and reminisced yesterday afternoon.

"Thank you, Captain. Greetings, cadets." Kal looked the recruits over, then began speaking on the use of projectile weapons. Once the lecture was finished, the assistant came around with a stock of ammunition and organized the cadets into groups of three. She found herself teamed with Repparu and Sam. The Al Bhed boy showed the other two how to load their weapons and work the controls, and then they were led to the nearby firing range.

Each team of three was called up to the firing line; the commander took a moment with each cadet to check on grip and stance. Then all three fired on their targets at once, and Kal critiqued their performance, giving praise and correction as needed. Liss's group went last, and she took her place on the line between the boys, nerves jangling. She was filled with a powerful desire to prove her skill, to show this commander that she was worthy to be known as her father's daughter. She lifted the sight to her eye, doing her best to line it up with the target. Kal, who had merely glanced and nodded at Repparu, moved on to Liss and adjusted her grip. "Fine," he said, nodding again. Then he turned to his nephew. "Not like that, Sam, like this." He pulled the weapon from the boy's hands and reseated it. This time Sam was the one to nod, a grim expression on his face.

"Ready?" The assistant's high, clear soprano rang out. "Aim, fire!"

Liss pulled the trigger, hitting the target, although nowhere near the center. The command was repeated three more times; each time, Liss came a little nearer to the bulls-eye, but she never quite made it there.

The commander came back to the group and looked over their targets. "Fine job," he said to Repparu, who had hit near the center three times out of four. "You too, Liss. A little more practice with your aim and you should have it. Good effort, Sam, we'll talk later." Sam's bullets had found their target only once, a hit on the edge of the outer ring. He looked past his uncle and stalked away from the line, refusing Liss's attempts to catch his eye.

"All right!" Kal clapped his hands once. "Nice work all around. Now let's see how you do against the fiends. Cadets, form up and follow me!"

Clutching her weapon and a pouch of ammunition, Liss fell into formation between Maura and Repparu, eyes on Sam's stiff shoulders two rows ahead of her as they marched out to the Highroad.

-x-

Clothing was the first order of business. The night was chilly, and dead or not, I could hardly walk around naked. I had caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I appeared to be substantial, an impression confirmed when I kicked the bedpost and felt pain in my toes. I stripped the corpse and then dressed. The entire procedure was rather eerie, and I only got through it by forcing myself not to think about the reality of what I was doing. Then I wrapped the body in the sheets so that I wouldn't have to look at it any more.

My coat was hanging on a hook on the back of the door, and I put it on, pulling both arms through the sleeves for warmth. Two swords and a jug were propped against a nearby wall. I fastened the smaller sword, Jecht's sword, the one I had promised to deliver to his son, to my belt, opposite the jug. I then picked up my own much longer and heavier weapon and took an experimental swing. It still felt natural in my hands, like an extension of my arms. So I had retained my skills along with my senses; good. I sheathed the sword and strapped it to its accustomed place on my back.

Now for the disposal. Deep water would have been easiest, but there was no lake or ocean for days in any direction. I could build a cairn or dig a grave, probably the former since I had no access to digging implements. But where would I find enough small stones for that on the Calm Lands? I then considered hiking to the gorge and tossing the corpse into its depths but quickly discarded that idea — the chance existed, however small, that someone might find the body, and it would take more than a day to reach the lip of the gorge; I might be seen on the journey. Some instinct told me that I didn't want the fact of my death widely known. Without physical evidence, Rin might assume that I had made a miraculous recovery, then left under my own power.

There was only one solution, really. It would have to be fire.

I took one last look around the room. There was a small stack of paper and a quill on the desk in a corner. I picked up the pen, dipped it in ink, and wrote one word across the top sheet, one of the few bits of Al Bhed that Tessa had taught me: "Drygnc."

I opened the window as far as it would go, pushed the corpse through, then followed, rolling onto the ground. I went around to the back of the inn and lifted several logs from the woodpile, then wound them into the sheet. With a grunt, I lifted my grim load and tossed it over my shoulder, an odd echo of the way I had carried Braska to his final resting place only a few days before. And I began to walk.

It took me two hours to be comfortable with the distance I had put between myself and Rin's establishment. After stacking the wood and laying the still-swaddled body across the top, I pulled a flint from its permanent home in my right coat pocket and lit my own funeral pyre. I shaded my eyes from the heat and brightness of the flames but did not look away — I needed to watch this. Perhaps viewing the destruction of my body, of the shell which had housed my soul for twenty-four years, would make the fact of my death real to me.

It did, in a way. Eventually, when ash and bones were all that remained, I could finally bring myself to say the word. "Unsent," I murmured aloud, casting my eyes to the first streaks of dawn in the eastern sky. "I am unsent, and so I will remain until my quest is fulfilled." It was time to make my way to Zanarkand.

-x-

With no real thoughts on where to go, I decided to head for the ancient Zanarkand ruins. Perhaps I would find some answer in that place. I no longer had any doubt that Jecht's Zanarkand was a real place — the utterly bleak expression in his eyes upon seeing the ruins of his home city had convinced me that he was exactly who and what he claimed. It existed somewhere, and I would find a path that led there. I set off to cross Mount Gagazet one more time.

Along the way, I experimented with this new existence. The unsent body with which I had found myself still craved food, water, and rest, though in lesser quantities than before. When I slept, I woke refreshed, but it was an odd sort of sleep — I closed my one working eye and was gone, with no sense of dreams or of time passing between then and waking. I had no supplies, so I hunted for food and melted snow for water. My reflexes and sword-wielding ability seemed unchanged, except that my aim was often off, my sword falling short or missing its target about half the time. I blamed my sudden lack of depth perception; I would need to adjust. Because of this problem, I soon learned that I could still be injured, that wounds bled and hurt as much as they ever had. Since I had no potions or healing magic, I traveled with care and avoided battle whenever I could.

One major difference presented itself: I could choose to be insubstantial. At first I had visions of simply walking through the mountain, but I found that keeping myself ghostly required tremendous concentration, and it took almost as much effort to push myself through solid rock as it would have taken when I was alive. So I kept to solid form and traveled in the conventional way.

With my reduced need for rest, it took me only three days to reach the Gagazet summit. Once there, I paused and looked out over the ruins. Now what?

"Hey Auron!"

I looked around wildly for the source of the familiar voice, resounding inside my skull.

"Auron! Over here." The voice was Jecht's. I felt an irresistible mental prodding in the direction of the Zanarkand ocean; I peered out and saw a small dark shape there. A gray creature, covered in scales, swimming in circles. Sin. A small Sin, a weak Sin, but Sin nonetheless.

If Yunalesca had told the truth, it was also Jecht.

"What should I do?" I thought back.

"Get down here, any way you can," came the reply. "But make it quick! I don't know how much longer he's gonna let me stay here."

Despite the changes to my physiology, it would take me a full day to walk down the mountain trail. But I had another option. After taking a moment to collect myself, I took a running leap off the edge of the cliff, springing forward with as much force as I could.

Even knowing that the fall couldn't kill me any deader than I already was, plummeting through the air was terrifying. At the last second, I made myself insubstantial and aimed for the water. After the moment of impact, I returned to solidity and broke the ocean's surface, splashing and sputtering.

"Okay, now go ghost again," said the voice in my head. I obeyed, and Sin rushed me.

For a moment everything went black. Then my vision adjusted, and I saw that I stood on a platform above a darkened city, my hands resting on a railing. The metropolis before me was just as deserted as the ruins of ancient Zanarkand, but the buildings of this city were intact and lit up with machina tubes and globes. Jecht was standing next to me, absorbing the view. Then he glanced at me. "Hey." He looked me up and down. "So you're dead?"

I paused, then nodded. "Yeah."

"Huh. Looks like it hurt," he said, gesturing to the eye.

"It did." I peered at him curiously; he looked much as he had before disappearing into Yunalesca's chamber. "What about you?"

"Am I dead, or did it hurt? Short answer to the second question: yes." He shuddered. "Don't wanna talk about that, really. And the first, well. I can't say for certain. Alive, dead, maybe somewhere in between? Still not really sure what's goin' on here. But I do know one thing — we can take you to Zanarkand. That's where we're goin' anyway."

"We?"

My friend shrugged. "That's one of the things I don't understand. There's someone else here, and he needs to go to Zanarkand. Not this one; mine. Don't know who he is, exactly, or which of us is in control, but if he wants to head for Zanarkand I ain't complaining. Well, let's go!"

The platform lurched beneath my feet and the world swirled into a confusion of light and sound. I grabbed at the handrail and held on; it was the only thing that remained substantial. Time passed as we traveled — I could not be certain how much. Then we stopped with another jolt and I found myself hurled forward with such force that my grip slipped and I flew through the air, everything in my vision turning white. Perhaps I lost consciousness for a moment. When I was aware again, I found myself standing on a beach at sunrise, gulls crying overhead in a cloudless sky, the dark shape of Sin disappearing into the distance.

Jecht's voice echoed in my head one last time. "Remember your promise. Find my son. I'll be back someday."

I unlatched my jug and raised it to him in salute. Then I turned my back on the sea and was immediately struck by the sight of a metropolis. As large as Bevelle but with much taller buildings, it gleamed with metal and lights and machina.

Machina. I was going to have to get used to that. It seemed that I would be getting used to a lot of things. But worrying about all that could wait. My first priority was finding Tidus. I took my first steps off the beach and onto a metal walkway leading into the city where I would spend the first ten years of my death.

Chapter Text

Rickard stood at the entrance to the Farplane. Neither Commander Gibson nor Captain Kal had wanted to leave Kilika for the official ceremonies commemorating Lord Braska's Calm, so they had sent him to St. Bevelle in their stead. The week of services had been dull, the two weeks of parades and celebration following them more enjoyable but still uncomfortable for Rickard given the political climate. Fortunately, he had been able to plead other duties and escape before Second Commander Kinoc's wedding to Maester Brac's granddaughter, which promised to be a pompous, overwrought affair. Now he was on an extended leave, both to enjoy the Calm and to visit the Farplane; Kal was so glad to have gotten out of a trip to Bevelle that he'd granted the time eagerly. In exchange, Rickard had promised to look for Auron in Guadosalam. No word had come yet of their friend and former captain turned guardian, and the entire garrison was worried for him.

Taking a deep breath, Rickard passed through the glowing barrier that marked the entrance to the afterlife's observation deck. Perhaps half a dozen mourners stood scattered about, most of them gazing at and talking with their loved ones, although one, a young woman with disheveled hair the color of copper, seemed to be staring into empty space -- still gathering her courage to call up the person she had come to see. He walked to the edge of the platform next to where she stood and gave her an encouraging smile. She did not seem to see him there, so he turned to the glowing space beyond.

There were a few greetings Rickard needed to make. He started with his parents, then his younger sister — all had been lost to Sin just over six months ago, in an attack on the Highroad. After he had said what he needed to say to them, he closed his eyes to summon an old friend and former commanding officer. When he opened his eyes, he sighed. "Hello, Jass," he said to the brown-haired, blue eyed young man dressed in lieutenant's garb. "It's been awhile, I know. I wish you were here to see the Calm. We all do."

Jass did not respond; no one who appeared on the Farplane ever did. So Rickard stood with his good friend from Gray Squadron and mourned his loss in silence, remembering the camaraderie they'd shared, cut too short by Sin's re-emergence on the Djose Shore.

When he was ready, Rickard spoke again. "And about that Calm, and the guardian responsible for it. Is he there with you?" Now his thoughts turned to Auron, the captain for whom he had felt such great respect. Some of the other warrior monks held out hope that Auron might have survived the pilgrimage, but Rickard was skeptical. So few guardians ever came back from Zanarkand; why should Auron be the exception to the rule, despite his tremendous abilities? So he was surprised when Jass continued to float alone, not joined by their mentor.

Rickard began to consider possible reasons when his thoughts were interrupted by an anguished whisper from the woman to his right. "Dammit Auron! Where are you?"

Startled by the name, he turned to her. "Pardon me, milady. But are you looking for Captain, I mean Sir Auron? High Summoner Braska's guardian?"

She regarded him, her face pale and drawn, her gray eyes sunken. "Why do you ask?" Her voice rang hollow with grief.

"That's why I'm here, too, in part. He was my commanding officer once, so I came to check on him. But he doesn't seem to be answering my call. Maybe that means he made it."

The woman shook her head. "If he is alive… then where is he? Why has he not come back to me?" She glanced over the ledge again. "I have to find him. He needs to know."

Rickard burned with curiosity at this odd statement but held his tongue. To his knowledge, Auron didn't have a hometown girl, but this evidence suggested otherwise. Instead of bursting out with the question, he cautiously laid a hand on the woman's shoulder. "It'll be all right," he said, more from reflex than conviction.

"How can it be all right?" She burst into sudden tears. "He's gone, and I'm pregnant, and I don't know where to go or what to do!"

Rickard fell speechless at this announcement. He stepped closer and pulled her into what he hoped was a comforting embrace, patting her back gently as she sobbed into his orange lieutenant's coat.

After a minute or two, the woman's tears subsided, and she stepped away from him. "Sorry," she murmured. "I didn't mean to break down all over a total stranger like that."

"That's okay, milady." Rickard bowed. "Anything for a friend of Ca– Sir Auron's. Lieutenant Rickard, at your service."

"Arelle," she replied, inclining her head slightly.

"Is there anything more I can do for you, milady?"

Arelle gazed back out into the empty space before her. "Bring him back? Return my long-dead parents to life? Mend a breach with my oldest, dearest friend? Find me a home where I can live without constant reminders of them all?" She shook her head, shoulders slumping with hopelessness.

Rickard thought for a moment, then glanced at the image of the friend who now resided on the Farplane. "Maybe I can help you with that last one. Did you ever meet Lieutenant Jass?"

"No, although Auron often spoke of him with great fondness." She glanced over to the apparition. "Is that him?"

"It is. When he died, he left a grandmother on a farm on the edge of Macalania Woods. He often worried to me about leaving her alone, and as far as I know he has no other family. Maybe she would take you in. I bet she'd appreciate the company, and you could take care of each other. And the baby, when it comes."

Quiet fell between them as Arelle considered this offer. "That's very kind of you to suggest, but can you really speak for her?"

"I can speak for Jass," said Rickard firmly. "Sir Auron was his commander and his friend. If I bring you to his grandmother in both of their names, how can she refuse?" He looked at Jass again. There was still no real response, but Rickard could have sworn that he saw the tiniest smile and a nod.

Arelle thought for another moment. "All right," she said. "I will speak with her, at least."

Rickard let out a small breath of air. "Good. Do you need to go back to your home, pick up anything?"

"Everything I need is here, in my room at the inn," she replied.

"All right." Rickard offered her his arm, and after a slight hesitation, she took it. "I'll escort you to the inn, and then to the farm — it should only take a few days to get there." She looked a silent query at him. "I just started a month of leave," he reassured her. "Plenty of time to get everything settled with Jass's grandmother, or to find you another place if that doesn't work out."

She relaxed with a small, sad sigh. "Lieutenant, I don't know how to thank you."

He patted the hand that rested in the crook of his elbow. "Like I said, anything for Sir Auron." The pair walked out of the Farplane, leaving mourners and apparitions behind them.

Jass's image lingered for a moment, and this time any observer would have known his smile for what it was.

Chapter Text

"Hey Auron. What're you doing here?" Tidus turned around from his seat on the couch, where he had apparently been watching recordings of old training sessions.

"I came to wish you luck tonight," I said from the doorway.

"You're not coming to the finals?" He looked disappointed but not surprised as I shook my head; he understood that I wasn't fond of blitzball. I had attended his matches upon occasion when he was younger, but now that he was a professional with fans he didn't need me to cheer him on anymore. "I know you don't usually, but I guess I thought you might this time, since it's in honor of my old man and all. Oh well. Want to come in?"

I shook my head. "Just dropping by. I know you need to get ready."

"Yeah, pretty soon." He stretched, bouncing a little on his heels, then scrubbed his fingers through his hair. Normally, when I looked at Tidus I saw Jecht — the boy didn't particularly resemble his father, but they shared a similarity of manner and energy that was unmistakable. But more and more often these days, he reminded me of Kal, especially since the day he showed up with his hair bleached blond. I found myself wondering how Tidus would handle a bow, then realized with a start that, at seventeen, he was older now than Kal had been when we had taken our vows. I thought back to the lonely, bitter child I had met on my first day in Zanarkand, compared him to the confidant young man I now saw before me, and could hardly believe it. Amazing what ten years could do.

"Ten years," I heard him mutter, eerily echoing my musings. "And they're just now having his memorial tournament?" He shook his head and then glanced up, catching me looking at him. "What? Not like I care or anything."

"Hm." I suppressed a smile. Tidus put on a show of being disdainful towards Jecht, but it was clear to me that he burned to impress his father, to prove himself, even if Jecht would never see his son's successes. "You really want to win, don't you."

He shrugged and scratched his head again. "Sure. I want to win every game."

"Of course." I turned to go.

"Auron?"

I paused, then looked back at him.

His expression had turned sheepish. "Thanks for coming by. And for, well, everything. See you later?"

I nodded. "Have a good game." And I left him there, closing the door behind me.

I walked off the deck of Tidus's houseboat and onto the dock, and headed for the city streets, pushing past the handful of admirers who had already gathered. The bystanders ignored me as they always did — I could blend into the background whenever I wished to do so. Today's anniversary had put me into a rare nostalgic mood, so I thought over the time since my arrival in Zanarkand exactly ten years ago. Tidus had been living here with his mother, Elen, when I had arrived to deliver the news of Jecht's death. Not that Jecht was dead, technically. Nor did I ever claim that he was. But Elen had made that assumption, and I hadn't corrected her. Close enough to the truth, and much easier to understand. She had given up on life two months later.

It had hurt to watch Jecht's wife fade away. In her vacant eyes, I saw Relle, a world away, waiting futilely. There was no one to tell her of my fate. How was she, alone in the village? Who was there to help her? She was stronger than Elen, but still I worried for her. I could only hope that she had reconciled with Kera and found some reason to go on.

What to do with Tidus had also been a concern. Elen had no family. Jecht had two brothers, but he'd been estranged from them both and I had no means of contacting them. A seven-year-old could not live by himself. I had been staying on the houseboat at the time and considered moving in permanently, but before I needed to make a decision on that front, Jecht's old teammates stepped in. One of them had a sister who agreed to live with Tidus and take care of him for a modest stipend. I found rooms nearby and stayed a regular presence in his life, and between us, we brought him to young adulthood.

By some miracle — who would have guessed that the man was capable of being so practical? — Jecht had invested his blitzball earnings well. The income had been more than enough to get Tidus through last year, when he himself had signed with the Zanarkand Abes. Now he was their star, much as Jecht had been. I couldn't tell whether he found the inevitable comparisons between them a source of more pride or annoyance.

I paused before a building as my reflection caught my eye. I did not keep a mirror in my quarters, not wanting to be reminded of my foolish assault on Yunalesca every day, but so much of Zanarkand's streetscape was covered in reflective glass that I couldn't escape my image entirely. Normally I did my best to ignore it, but today I couldn't resist taking a look at this tired, broken man who looked so much older than his 34 years. My hair was shot through with gray now, my face lined. The wound that had cost me my right eye also left an ugly scar that ran from my hairline to my chin. For a brief time, I had worn an eye patch, but I decided that it called too much attention to the injury and switched to dark glasses instead. The high armored collar I had taken to wearing helped cover my scars as well. I still wore the red coat, but now I kept my left arm tucked inside most of the time, in the manner I had seen on Sir Wendal's portrait in the Hall of Guardians. No one here knew of Sin, or of summoners, or of Braska's sacrifice. So I honored him in my own quiet way.

I shook my head to clear this gathering of thoughts. Dwelling on the past was something I tried very hard not to do. Most of the time, I succeeded. I looked away from the mirrored glass and moved on.

The walk to my quarters was short. As I pushed open my door, I glanced over my rooms. They were sparsely furnished: a bed, a chair, a table, a small kitchen. I had never gotten used to depending on machina and so kept as few mechanical devices as I could get away with. My own sword rested on the wall over my bed; the blade that Jecht had given me for Tidus was stowed in a closet. I hadn't yet decided when to present it to him, but the time was fast approaching, and I suspected that my duties to Jecht would be discharged at that point. Tidus was becoming a man — living alone, supporting himself, standing on his own two feet. I had been an adult at seventeen, as had most of my peers. His home city was a softer place than Spira, but still, he had matured. Very soon, he would not need me anymore. Not for the first time, I wondered what would happen to me once my promise was fulfilled. I had never seen a sending here, and no one ever talked about the Farplane. As far as I could tell, the only religion in this Zanarkand was blitzball. Would I have to find my way to Spira and a summoner? Or could I somehow send myself as Braska had?

I unlatched the sake cask from my belt — no longer filled with water, the strong drink it contained helped me maintain my connection to the world in small amounts — and poured myself a glass. After setting down the jug, I lowered myself into a chair, took a sip of my drink, and tipped my head back, closing my left eye against memories and my own weariness. The sake settled agreeably in my stomach, fortifying me against the chill that had been my constant companion since death.

"Auron!"

I sat up suddenly, setting my glass on the table with a loud thump, startled by the voice in my head, a voice I hadn't heard for a decade.

"I need you, man. Come find me. Bring the sword."

"Jecht?" I thought back. But there was no reply.

The thought of not obeying never even entered my mind. I walked over to the bed and retrieved my blade, pulling it slightly out of the scabbard and running a finger along the still-true edge. I strapped it to its rightful place on my back, then found Jecht's old weapon. That had maintained its sharpness as well, and I thanked whatever impulse had led me to keep it honed along with my own. I threw my small collection of potions into a bag along with Jecht's sword, reattached the cask to my belt, and went looking for Sin.

-x-

"Ugh." Sam tossed his rifle on the floor and looked at it in disgust. "You'd think all those years of playing blitz with my dad would have taught me better aim."

Maura laughed as she dropped gracefully down on her bed, her own rifle slung over her back. "Different kinds of aim, Sam. Didn't the Commander just finish telling us that?" Kenna and Liss entered the room behind her, the Al Bhed taking a perch on Liss's bed, the other folding herself up on the floor nearby.

Sam sat in Liss's desk chair and sprawled his long legs out in front of him, still scowling. "How can you say that?" he demanded. "You're a blitzer, and you shot like you've been doing it all you life."

She shrugged. "What can I say? Guess I'm just multi-talented."

Liss stretched a leg out and kicked Maura's bed with a booted foot, shaking the entire frame. "Leave the poor boy alone, he's had a rough day." She favored Maura with a stern look followed by a wry grin. "We can't all be born sharpshooters; I'm certainly not."

Kenna leaned forward and tugged on Liss's hair. "Hey, you did fine. You just need some practice."

With a single fluid twist of her head, Liss pulled the ponytail out of Kenna's hand and looked at her friend. "I know, but I'm not a natural. It's a skill I'll have to learn. That doesn't mean I'm hopeless." Her head turned again, this time toward Sam, who was sitting with his arms crossed and his eyes turned skyward. "I'm not a born mage either, but you are."

Sam rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to respond, then snapped up straight with a salute. "Hello Captain," he said.

Maura looked to the door to see Paine standing there, leaning against the frame with a smile. "Hello Sam, everyone, at ease," their instructor said, before the girls could stand to attention.

"Thanks for arranging that lesson, Captain," said Maura. "I got a lot out of it."

"Glad to hear it. Good work, all of you." Sam started to roll his eyes again, but Paine shook her head. "No, even you, Sam. Actually, I'm here looking for you." Maura held back a reflexive grin — so Paine had noticed, too. But then how could she not? It was so obvious. Liss and Sam had been stealing glances at one another for weeks. Her roommate still wouldn't admit to anything, but the body language did not lie.

Paine continued. "I think I may know why you had some trouble out there. Have you ever had your eyes checked?"

He shook his head. "No ma'am. Well, when I was a kid. But they were fine then."

"That doesn't surprise me," she said with a nod. "Vision problems sometimes don't crop up until adolescence. If you'd had poor eyesight since you were small, you'd have learned to compensate. But if this is a recent development, you won't have had the chance to adjust. Come by my office tomorrow, and we'll see what we can do."

Liss patted Sam's leg. "See. You're not hopeless."

Sam's mouth twisted a little. "I guess not. But will I really have to wear glasses?"

Paine's expression shifted. "You wouldn't be the first soldier I've known to depend on spectacles," she said. "You also wouldn't be the first to complain about it. But there's no shame in needing a little assistance. We all use the tools we need to become better fighters." She smiled faintly, as if caught by a memory. Maura shot a look of curiosity to Liss, who raised an eyebrow and shook her head — if there was a story there, she didn't know it.

"All right, ma'am," said Sam. "I'll get my eyes looked at tomorrow."

"Good." Paine's smile became more relaxed. "So what do you all think of Commander Kal as an instructor?"

"He was excellent, ma'am," said Kenna. The other girls both nodded. "I've known Al Bhed who were better shooters but none who could explain technique nearly so well."

"That's high praise," Paine said. "I'll have to be sure to tell him. Do you mind if I quote you?"

Kenna grinned. "Not at all." She bounced slightly forward on the bed. "Hey Liss, Commander Kal knew Sir Auron, right? And he told you some stories yesterday?"

Once again Liss twisted around in Kenna's direction. "Right. Why?"

"Just wondering if Sir Auron was as good a marksman as a swordsman," Kenna answered with a shrug. "Did the commander say?"

"Commander Kal did talk about that," Liss replied. "He said my father wasn't particularly good with bow and arrow. And he probably never even picked up a gun."

"Really." Kenna leaned back.

Liss nodded. "Well, things were different then. I gather he wasn't much of a magic user either."

Maura leaned forward — it was rare for Liss to talk about Sir Auron, and she wanted to take advantage of the moment to ask something that had been on her mind. "Why is it that you never say his name?" she asked. "It's always 'he' or 'my father'. I've been noticing that for months, and it seems so weird."

Liss whipped around and looked at her. "Well, I– it's just, I don't know what to call him." She hugged her knees to her chest, a lost note creeping into her voice with this admission. "Auron by itself seems disrespectful, but Sir Auron is weirdly formal. And to call him Father… it doesn't feel right. He gave me life, but he was never a father to me in any way that counted. It's not his fault, really, but that doesn't make it any less true."

Lifting her face to the ceiling, Liss let out a sigh, shoulders slumping. "Everyone always says that I should be so honored to have him for a father, that I should be so proud." She leveled her head, looking around the room, eyes growing wet. "Well, I don't want honor. And I don't want pride. I want a father. But that's the one thing that I can never have." The tears spilled over onto her cheeks, and she covered her mouth with a hand as she began to cry.

Maura started to move toward Liss, as did Paine, but Sam beat them both there. He slipped down the floor next to her and wrapped her in his arms. She leaned her head on his shoulder and continued to cry, heaving with wordless sobs. He whispered in her ear and stroked her ponytail.

Paine caught Maura's eye, then Kenna's, and gestured them out of the room. Maura nodded to her instructor, then took one last glance at the scene. Deciding that she was leaving her roommate in good hands, she walked through the door and softly pulled it closed.

-x-

The streets of Zanarkand were all but deserted — everyone was at the blitzball stadium, or headed there, or watching a sphere broadcast of the game at home or in a pub. The place was even more crazed for the sport than Luca had been.

There was no sign of Sin yet, but I was convinced that the monster, my friend, had to be somewhere nearby. I first thought of the beach, but then I decided to head for the center of town instead, to see what I could learn from the view atop a tall building I knew. I gained the roof and panned my gaze over the cityscape.

Zanarkand, the city that never sleeps, lay before me, glittering into the distance. It was a riot of color, especially at night, signs and buildings glowing with machina lights. My new home was an odd place. It was isolated, no world outside the seas that surrounded it, and yet no one ever thought that was strange. A steep cliff face rose up where the path to Mount Gagazet ought to have been — despite many hours spent exploring the area, I had never found a way to climb or go around it. The one time I'd asked Tidus about other cities, he'd looked at me as though I'd grown another head. There was some enchantment here, but I'd never been able to determine its nature.

I could see the stadium from this vantage point, of course. It was the heart of the city, in more ways than one. Its roof had opened, shooting beams of light into the sky, exactly as Jecht had described it the night we first met. A sudden burst of nostalgia for those simple days, when I knew that Yevon was holy and Braska's purpose true, hit me like a blow to the chest, and I almost sank to my knees with the rush of grief that followed. So much time had passed, yet sometimes the losses of my friend and my faith could still hurt like it was yesterday.

As always when these bleak moments came upon me, I allowed myself to feel my pain, to recognize the enormity of what I had lost. Then I took a deep breath and let it go, bringing myself back to the world, and to my purpose. I returned my gaze to the stadium, where the sphere was filling with water, the players about to dive in and take their places. Then I glanced out to sea in the opposite direction, where a growing bulge caught my eye. I took a few long, careful strides out on a decorative ledge that jutted off the building's roof. I focused on the distant, huge shape, a familiar snout becoming clear as the creature began to break the water's surface. I raised my jug in a toast to my old friend.

"There you are," he said to me. "Find the boy, then get to me. It's time."

"Time for what?" I silently asked.

I heard Jecht's laugh echoing through my mind. "Time to die. I'm takin' you back to Spira. Both of you. Now go! I ain't gonna be able to keep control much longer."

I turned and strode off my perch, onto the roof, and into the lift that would take me back to the street, to the blitz stadium, and soon, my home,

Chapter Text

I raced through the streets as the city fell apart around me, Tidus a few steps behind, the panicked screams fading into the background. Just as he'd warned me, Jecht had been unable to keep from attacking his beloved Zanarkand. Buildings toppled, lights flickered and went out, elevated walkways cracked and broke under the assault of Sinscales and blasts of water.

As we encountered a swarm of the fiends, I considered the events of the last few minutes. For a boy who had held a sword only a few times before, Tidus was acquitting himself well against the spawn. Once past an initial moment of awkwardness, his father's old weapon suited him well. Being a natural athlete surely helped; I had even seen him execute a crude but effective leaping maneuver. Like Jecht, he would pick up the nuances and get a grasp of this new situation soon enough. As for myself, I had never stopped training, spending time with my weapon nearly every day, and the work had paid off. I could now compensate for my lost eye, and fighting Sinscales came naturally, slicing through their hard scales as comfortable as reuniting with an old friend. Though I was sorry to see the devastation of this place where I had lived for so long, I had to admit that part of me was excited. I was in battle, where I belonged. And soon I would be back in Spira. Home.

We cut our way through the enemies, but more kept coming and soon they surrounded us. Dozens of the creatures gathered on the street and lifted up their flickering wings, in preparation for their deadly spine attack.

I grunted. "This could be bad." Looking around, I saw a fuel tanker propped up against the ledge of the walkway, precariously balanced. Perhaps it would explode if we could push it to the ground. "That!" I nudged Tidus and pointed. "Knock it down."

"What?"

Years of command experience came back to me as I replied in the tone that Kera had come to call my captain's voice: "Trust me."

He looked dubious, but he obeyed the order, bashing his sword repeatedly into the vehicle, metal screeching against metal, while I held off the advancing Sinspawn. After a few moments, I heard the tanker explode. The sound was soon joined by the cracking noise of a crumbling building. Glancing up, I saw the walls tumbling down, the ever-present billboard of Jecht falling onto our heads. In the other direction, I could see that Sin was near, hovering over the next part of the road.

"Go!" I shouted to Tidus, then took to my heels. A chasm opened up in the road before us as chunks of the building fell, taking out Sinscales along with the steel and concrete beneath our feet. I glanced at the boy, and he nodded as the two of us jumped one widening gap, then another.

On the second leap, I landed upright, but Tidus just missed, grasping the ledge with gloved hands and struggling to pull himself up, calling for my help. I was about to drag him to safety when I was distracted by a voice.

"Took your time, didn't ya?" Jecht's chuckle resonated within my head. "Well anyway, let's go."

I looked up and saw Sin overhead, an oculus beaming pure white light appearing in its underbelly, the dense gray hide forming into concentric circles around it. A powerful force sucked us up into that hole, along with the piece of road on which I stood and rubble from toppled buildings all around us. "You are sure?" I said aloud.

"'Course I'm sure! I'll explain in a minute. Just grab the kid so we can get outta here."

I reached down and wrapped a hand around Tidus's shirt, lifting him into the air. He grunted and struggled. "This is it," I told him, some impulse compelling me to add, "This is your story." I looked up at Sin, at Jecht. "It all begins here."

"What?" Tidus gasped. "Hey! Hey!" But his voice came from farther and farther away as I gave myself up to the force that pulled me in, dragging me out of Zanarkand and into the center of Sin.

My vision went blank white for a moment, then resolved. I was back in the silent, empty city that I had seen once before, the first time I'd been transported inside Sin. I recognized it now, of course — it was Zanarkand, Jecht's home, built from his memories. And he stood next to me on the platform once again, staring over the cityscape, arms crossed over his chest. To my eye, he had not aged a single day. "Hey," he said in a quiet voice.

"Hello," I responded.

"How is he?" Jecht asked. He didn't say who he meant; there was no need.

"He's a fine young man," I said, laying my hand on the railing. "Excellent blitzer. Shows promise with the sword. You'll be proud."

He nodded.

I turned to look at my friend. He returned the glance, then started. "Damn, you got old!"

I chuckled. "It has been ten years, after all. And maintaining this unsent existence is… draining."

Jecht's shoulders slumped. "Hell, Auron. I didn't mean for you to–"

Waving him off, I shook my head. "It's all right." We fell into silence for a moment. Then I raised the question that burned in my mind. "So. Do you have a plan?"

"To stop Sin for good? Maybe." He paused in thought for a moment. "Here's my idea. Find a summoner and get 'em to Zanarkand — the one in your world."

"And then what?"

"Dunno." He glanced upwards. "But don't sacrifice anyone. No Final Aeon. You hear me? That's important. Real important. He'll just feed on them like he's feeding on me."

My brow furrowed. "'He'?" I asked.

"No time to explain now. Just trust me on this one." Jecht glanced around, then continued. "If Yunalesca plays nice, fine. If not, if she gets in the way, you may have to take her out."

"With pleasure," I muttered.

"Now, I ain't sure what happens after that," he said. "Still workin' on that part. Just get to Zanarkand. I'll have it figured out by then. I hope." He lowered his head and looked me straight in the eye. "Auron. You're gonna have to kill me, y'know."

"I know," I said.

"Make sure he knows," said Jecht. "Make sure he won't hold back from what's gotta be done."

"I will."

"Good." He turned back out over the deserted city. "Don't take too long, okay? I'm holdin' back as much as I can, but I'm still Sin. I've wiped out whole villages, killed Crusaders and ordinary folks, so many people dead. And I want it to stop. Stop me, Auron. You and my boy. Please."

I looked back at him, unflinching. "I will. I swear it. Whatever it takes, I will do it."

He sighed. "Thanks. Well, we're here. See you later."

"Goodbye," I started to say, when the familiar lurching and swirling began again. The world dissolved into bright nothingness one more time as I felt the platform evaporate, and then everything faded away.

The next thing I knew, I was on another beach. But this time, rocky cliffs stood behind me and the sun was setting. Some familiar ruins rose up from the ocean. I recognized them and knew exactly where I was: the shore below the Mi'ihen Highroad. If I climbed the cliff face, I would probably appear in the clearing near the traveler's rest.

It didn't take much thought to decide that Luca would be our destination. If my sense of the date was correct, the annual blitzball tournament would start in a few days. Chances were good that I could find a summoner on pilgrimage and join up with their party. Then Tidus and I...

Tidus. I looked up and down the beach, but I was alone. Where was the boy? Had Jecht set us down in different parts of the world by accident? Apprehension gripped me — Tidus would not know where he was or how to get by, only that Sin had somehow transported him away from Zanarkand. There had been no opportunity to explain. I could only hope that someone would find him and assume him to be affected by Sin's mind-fogging toxin, and that he would be quick to play along.

I thought over my options and chose my original plan. Tidus was so obviously a blitzer that whoever first encountered him would bring him straight to Luca. Going there was still my most sensible course of action. Something told me that I didn't want to be seen and recognized, though, not just yet. I wondered, then, if anyone would even know who I was. I hoped not; much easier if I could be anonymous, just another soldier. I was a little old to be a Crusader, but I could pass as a retired warrior monk — since, I thought with a grunt, that's exactly what I was. Even if it had been years since I'd thought of myself in those terms. Still, safest to stick to hidden trails, just in case. During the months I'd served in Luca, I had learned the paths and byways of the Highroad quite well. It would take me an extra day or two to reach the city, but it was a worthwhile trade. So I settled in to wait for dusk, breathing in the fresh ocean air with a sigh of pleasure. It was good to be back.

-x-

Liss walked into the mess hall, looking around for any sign of her regular dining companions. She spied Maura and Kenna immediately, seated at their usual table. Typically, Sam and sometimes Repparu would join them, but the boys were nowhere in sight tonight. Letting out a careful breath, Liss went to pick up her meal, then carried her tray to the table where her friends were chatting and eating. She slipped onto the bench next to Kenna, who glanced up. Across the table, Maura did the same. They paused their conversation briefly, and a grin flashed across Maura's features. Then they returned to their talk of blitz, a discussion of the upcoming season.

Relieved not to be pelted with questions, Liss turned to her meal — roasted meat and vegetables, both dishes palatable though no better — and her thoughts about the hour that had just passed. Sam had held her as she wept, and then the two of them had talked. After she'd filled in his gaps in her father's story, the conversation turned to more personal matters. He'd told her of his feelings for her, and she admitted her fears about getting involved in any sort of romantic entanglement.

"All I can see is my mother," she'd said. "Her sad face, her lonely eyes. I realize it doesn't have to be like that, but it's all I know about love, the only way I've ever seen. I understand that I have to get past it some day. But I need some time to figure out how."

"Okay." He'd run his hand softly over her hair and down her back. "If you need time, I don't mind. I think you'll be worth waiting for." She'd sighed at those words and at his touch, leaning her head into his shoulder. Being close to him felt incredible, making her warm and shivery all at once. There was a part of her that wanted to be even closer. But every time she thought of moving in, a cold hand clamped down on her gut. What if she fell in love with Sam and then something happened to him? What if it broke her as the loss of Auron had broken Arelle?

Take it slow for now, she thought, taking a bite of meat and slowly chewing. And be grateful that Sam is willing to be patient. He hadn't even tried to kiss her today, and she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or sorry.

"So Liss, what do you think?"

"I think life is complicated," Liss replied. Then she shook herself aware in time to see Kenna and Maura exchange a fond but amused glance.

"Kenna was asking what you think about using rifles as opposed to blitzballs as ranged weapons," Maura said, grinning. "But if you want to talk about other things…"

Liss felt a blush rising on her cheeks. "Not right now, thanks," she muttered. "Maybe later."

With a gentle chuckle, Kenna patted Liss on the shoulder. "It's okay, cfaadea. Whenever you're ready." She looked back at her other friend. "I don't know, Maur, the advantages of being able to use a sight to aim seem pretty obvious to me." The two fell back into their pleasant wrangling, and Liss cleared her mind of troublesome thoughts and began to listen in.

-x-

It took me four days to walk to Luca. I could have made the trip in half that if I'd pushed myself and taken the main road, but I preferred to take a more leisurely pace on hidden trails and lesser known byways. And I relished being in my homeland again. Though I had grown fond of Zanarkand, I'd never felt like I belonged there. The constant smell of fumes from machina fuel, the colorful lights burning at all hours of the day and night, the press of people: it was all alien to me. Spira was cleaner, fresher, simpler, despite the threats of fiends and Sin.

Arriving in Luca was rather a shock. Except for the odd destroyed building here and new construction there, the place appeared almost exactly as it had when I had made it my home. I thought about Kera, remembering that she had lived here the last time I'd passed through, and considered taking a moment to find her. But from the look of things — the excited crowds, the flying banners, the play-by-play blaring over the loudspeakers — the tournament had already begun. I might not have much time for personal errands. And I didn't know where her home might be, or if she even still lived in this place. Still, perhaps I could make inquiries about my family while I searched for other information. Ever since Jecht had told me that he'd be bringing me back to Spira, I'd wondered if I could find an opportunity to right things with my sister. If she lived here, this might be the best time.

I stepped off the stairs from the Highroad and headed for a blitzer cafe that I knew. It seemed a good spot to pick up news about journeying summoners and by far the most likely place for someone to know the whereabouts of Tidus. If I knew the boy, he'd have picked up a blitzball and impressed someone with his skill within five minutes of his arrival. That being the case, they'd bring him here. Or so I hoped.

Once inside the restaurant, I took a glass of ale and headed for a back corner table. Heads turned as I passed, a quiet murmur of "Auron, Sir Auron, the legendary guardian, he's come back" rippling through the crowd, and the young female barkeep had gone pale at the sight of me — "On the house, sir," she'd said as she passed me the glass, then bowed. So, I was known and would be recognized. I didn't know whether that would make matters easier or more difficult, but it was the situation that existed and I would deal with it.

Apparently, though, even the reappearance of a former legend — a legend? How had that happened? I was just another guardian. Perhaps I had succeeded, by Yevon's weak definition of "success", but how did that distinguish me from a hundred others? Perhaps it was only that Braska's pilgrimage was freshest in people's minds — could only distract the masses from blitz and gossip for a brief moment. I sat back in my chair, sipping my drink, and absorbed the words of the patrons as they discussed the tournament and other matters.

"…believe the Aurochs and the Al Bhed got seeded! No way either team belongs in the finals…" "…Kilika two days ago. Not much left of the port, I hear…" "…that cocky kid on the sphere screen earlier? He said the Aurochs would be taking the cup." "Shyeah, right. Maybe they should plan on winning a game first…" "…sworn in two weeks ago, replacing his father. A half-Guado Maester, I don't know. He's pretty creepy looking…" "…the Goers decimated the Ronso in the first game…" "…true, I saw her myself, getting off the ferry from Kilika." "Well, I guess it makes sense, the High Summoner's daughter becoming a summoner herself." "Maybe that's why Sir Auron…"

At that last, my head whipped around, seeking its source. Little Yuna, a summoner? The speaker saw me looking at her and flushed, then bowed in her seat. "My apologies, sir, no disrespect to yourself or the Lady Yuna intended."

"It's all right," I said.

Embarrassment and curiosity fought a battle on the woman's features. Naturally, the latter won out. "So is it true, Sir Auron? Are you guarding the Lady Yuna on her pilgrimage?"

I turned the idea over in my mind. I had journeyed with her father and watched him die. Could I shepherd his daughter down the same path, even if my intentions were different this time?

Of course I can. The thought was immediate. In fact there was something poetic about it, especially if I could find Tidus and induce him to come along. The three of us avenging the deaths of their fathers and bringing an Eternal Calm together — yes. This felt right. I looked at the woman and nodded.

"Then Yevon be with you!" she said, her companion bowing.

The casual blessing, unheard by me for so long, hit me like a slap. It took more control than I would have expected to keep from flinching. But if I was going to guard a summoner, I was going to have to get used to it, even play along to a certain extent. Yuna would have been raised to revere Yevon, and she would expect the same of me. Fortunately, I had gotten very good at masking my true feelings. There were some advantages to being dead, and the ability to impose emotional distance was one of them. So I merely inclined my head in a respectful nod, then settled in to finish my ale and make my plans.

Chapter Text

I strode through the streets of Luca, the blitzball stadium my destination, slipping through the crowd as inconspicuously as I could. Blending into the scenery was harder here than it had been in Zanarkand, though — for every person who ignored me, another turned and gaped, or pointed and whispered to a companion. Fame brought some clear disadvantages. I did not acknowledge the attention, since I had no desire to answer any of the questions my presence had raised in these people's minds.

As I passed the byway leading to the residential area of the city, I paused and glanced down it. Did I have time to search for Kera? Ought I to make time? The decision was made for me when I caught a glimpse of a familiar dark silver head belonging to a figure perched on the top of a shop. As I approached the man, I realized that he was not Xan — the man pounding shingles into the roof was shorter and stockier than my brother-in-law, although the resemblance was plain. This must be one of his cousins, a member of the family that had lived in Luca for generations and that had invited him here ten years ago. Perhaps he would know the whereabouts of Xan, or Kera, or even Paine.

"Hello?" I called up to the worker.

The man glanced up, his hammer pausing in mid-air. "What?"

"May I have a word?" I asked.

"Hold on a sec." The roofer finished hammering a nail into place, then laid down the tool and clambered down from the top of the building. Once he stood before me, he froze with recognition, and I groaned to myself. Would everyone in Spira know who I was? "Beg pardon, sir," said the man. "How can I help you?"

"Are you by chance related to a builder named Xan? He's an old friend, and last I heard he was living in Luca."

He nodded. "Yeah, he's a distant cousin. We worked on the sphere theater job together. But that was years ago. He and his daughter left town when his wife died, and he fell out of touch with the family."

When his wife died. The words, spoken in such an offhand manner, echoed in my head, growing louder and louder, intruding on my attempts to focus on the man and form my next question. "His wife-- do you know how?"

"Childbirth, I think." His eyes darkened in apology. "Sorry, sir, that I don't know more. Did you know her?"

"Yeah." Lifting my face to the sky, taking in the bright sun shining down and the wisps of cloud floating in the perfect blueness, I took a deep breath. "I knew her." I closed my eye for a moment and saw my sister's face, so much like mine had once been, rusty brown eyes sparkling with laughter or fury — sometimes it had been difficult to tell which. We had never reconciled, and now she was gone, the opportunity for forgiveness forever lost. Then I let the air free and looked at the builder. "Thank you for the information."

"You're welcome, sir." The man brought his hands before him and bowed, then returned to his work as I turned into the side streets of Luca, wandering blindly down its alleys, taking a moment alone with this new sadness.

-x-

"Okay, enough." Paine dropped her sword and took a step back from the student she was fighting — it happened to be Repparu at that moment, using a light blade against her broadsword. He let his arms fall and nodded to her. "Good work Repparu, everyone." She looked around at the group as they sheathed weapons, shared water, and waited for her next order. "Next week, you'll start master classes. Most of you should have a good idea of what your specialties will be, but if you have any questions or concerns feel free to talk with me or any of your superiors. Be ready to make your decision within the next three days. Dismissed."

The cadets murmured a "yes, ma'am" and began to disperse, forming into the loose teams and alliances that had solidified over the first six months of training. Liss stood with her usual gang, chatting with Sam, who kept pushing his new glasses up his nose. He'd only had them a month, and the improvement had been dramatic. He'd never be a brilliant marksman, but he was at least competent, and his swordplay was so much better that Paine, who had been planning to recommend that he stick with magic alone, had started wondering whether he ought to study the sword as well.

Liss glanced away from her friends and saw Paine looking in her direction. She waved, then said something to the group and broke away from them. "Paine, are you available right now? I'd like to talk with you."

"Yes, I'm free," Paine replied. "Although I thought you were had settled on continuing with swords and the large guns."

"I am. It's not about that." Liss glanced over her shoulder. "This isn't so much a commanding officer thing as a girl needing advice from her older cousin."

"Ah." Paine followed Liss's gaze to Sam, who was now talking with Maura as they walked away. She had wondered if this might be coming. Liss had been spending more time with Sam since the blitz tournament, but an observer would be hard-pressed to call them a couple. "Of course. Come on, let's go to my office."

The cousins strolled in companionable silence. The early fall day had been pleasantly warm, but the sun would be down soon and a chill hovered in the air. When they arrived in Paine's office, she shut the window and lit a small fire. Then she turned to Liss, who fidgeted in a chair at the table. Paine settled down across from her and waited.

Liss took a deep breath. "Paine, this may be a dumb question, but I have to ask anyway. Are you happy?"

"Happy?" This was not what Paine had been expecting. "In what way?"

"With Baralai," Liss clarified.

Paine lifted her eyebrows. "Well, sure. It's not perfect every minute, but relationships are like that. We're at home together at the end of the day, and that's the important thing." She shifted in her seat. "Why do you ask?"

Liss leaned forward on her elbows. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry. I know you don't like talking about your life much. But I was wondering, because Baralai told me once that you were in love with someone else. So I just wondered if it was possible that you could be really happy with him."

Paine glanced out the window at the city, taking in the beginnings of the Luca sunset. "Baralai needs to learn some self-confidence," she said with a smile. "That was a long time ago." Returning her gaze to Liss, she continued. "No, Baralai wasn't my first love. But he's here now, and he makes me very happy. Believe it or not, the person you fall in love with when you're sixteen may not be the person you're destined to be with forever. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes you just become different people and move on."

"Which was it for you?"

"Neither, really." Paine laid her hands flat on the table and stared down at them. "He died." She heard a soft gasp, and she looked up, meeting Liss's sympathetic eyes. "It's okay. Like I said, it was a long time ago."

"Do you miss him?" Liss asked.

"Sometimes." Paine smiled again, a little ruefully. "But that hasn't kept me from going on with my life. You mourn, and then you move on. My father did that. He remarried a couple of years after my mother's death, did you know?" Liss shook her head. "Yeah. I was a little slow to accept it at first, but Ilana was a good woman, and she made him happy."

Liss looked thoughtful. "So you saw it then. Love lost, then found again with another."

Paine nodded with understanding. "But you haven't. When Auron died…"

"My mother mourned. But she never moved on." Liss sighed. "And she still hasn't, not really."

Paine reached across the table to touch her cousin's arm. "You aren't destined to be your mother, you know. Maybe you and Sam, assuming it's Sam, will live happily ever after, maybe not. But if you care for him, it's worth taking a risk."

"Thanks Paine," said Liss, standing up. "This helps."

"Anytime." Paine raised her hand in a farewell wave as the girl turned and left the office. She sat for a few minutes, again looking out the window, seeing her memories rather than the view. Then she turned to her CommSphere and punched in an access code. Everything she'd said to Liss was true — she had a good life, she was content, she'd moved on. But just at this moment, she didn't feel like being alone.

"Hello?" Baralai's face appeared on the sphere, his Bevelle office in the background.

"Hi," said Paine, her mood lightening at the sight of him. "It's me."

-x-

It took a long walk and some meditation in a quiet park to clear my head.

Since my death, I could consider almost any situation dispassionately, but I had trouble distancing myself from this news of Kera. I'd lived so long in the cocoon of Zanarkand that I'd forgotten the fragility of life in Spira. Kera's death was a brutal reminder that no one I loved was safe. Was Xan dead, too? Or Paine, or my old friends in the ranks of the warrior monks? Even Relle could be gone. I had sometimes felt alone in the world, but the prospect of this being literally true was almost more than I could bear.

I had promises to keep, though, and brooding would not help me accomplish my goals. All roads in Luca led to the arena, and soon I was climbing the stairs to the bleachers. The crowd was buzzing about the final game, which I gathered was about to start. Most of the talk centered around various players and teams and their chances, but I could not have cared less about that. My interest was in finding Yuna and Tidus. I still had heard nothing about the boy, and my concern was growing. I'd been so certain that I'd find him in this place. Perhaps he'd be in the stands.

From my seat on the end of a front-row bleacher, I took in the arena. I noted that Mika was still Grand Maester. He was flanked by guards and a Maester whom I did not know, a tall young man with Guado ancestry. I didn't see Brac and wondered at his absence — he had been a serious blitzball fan and never missed this annual tournament.

I continued to scan the crowd. It occurred to me then that I might not recognize Yuna. I'd last seen her as a little girl; now she was a young woman, a summoner. Would she resemble Braska? Or--

Her mother.

There she was, seated in a lower box one section over from the Maesters' dais, in a place of honor reserved for summoners and their guardians. Braska's brown hair brushed her shoulders, but everything else about her said "Tessa" — the short stature, the slim body, the shape of her face. In fact, I could almost have mistaken her for Tess but for the hair. A woman with long dark braids and the look of a black mage sat to her right, while on her left was a Ronso, towering over the women but still short for one of his race, with a broken horn. I sat up straighter at this sight. Was he the same youth I'd met on the Calm Lands and charged to take Yuna to Besaid? His height and coloring were right, as was the damaged horn. I felt a small thrill pass through me. The Ronso — what had his name been? Kimahri, that was it — had rescued Yuna from Bevelle and seemed to be with her still. So I had succeeded in one thing, at least.

I rose, intending to make my way over to Yuna and her companions, but then the entire crowd stood with me, roaring their approval for the players entering the arena. Then a familiar face appeared on the sphere screen: Tidus, still in his Abes uniform, playing with the team from Besaid. I shook my head, a chuckle of half exasperation, half amusement escaping my lips. It figured that he would get himself involved in a blitz championship within a week of his arrival in Spira. I glanced over to Yuna and saw her jumping and cheering as the Besaid players were announced. Had they found each other already? I felt an odd prickling at the back of my neck at this incredible coincidence.

Improbable or not, it makes your task many times easier, I told myself. Don't knock it. I sat back down on the wooden plank and settled in to wait out the game. One thing I would say for blitzball: the time passed quickly. Out of habit, I kept my eye on Tidus. Even I could see that he had improved since going professional. Early in the second half, I watched with amazement as he executed Jecht's signature shot to break a scoreless tie. For years, he'd been trying to pull off that move without success. I didn't applaud the feat, preferring to keep a cool facade, but part of me wanted to.

I tuned out after that, turning inward to consider my next move. There was a ruckus in the crowd, and then in the blitz pool, and then in the crowd again, but lost in thought, I didn't pay much attention. Nothing registered until the spectators around me started getting up to leave, chattering about the Besaid team's win. More than one person speculated about Tidus's skills and origins, which made me smile a little into my high collar. Already the boy was making waves in my world. I could only hope that he'd be willing to help me instigate the tsunami I was contemplating.

Should I find Tidus first, or Yuna? I settled on Yuna, although I rather thought now that connecting with one would mean finding the other. Once again, I rose to walk over to her, and once again the sound of screaming changed my plans. But this time, the screams were rather different in nature — they were in reaction to a giant vouivre walking down the aisle.

Fiends? In the blitz arena? Occasionally Sin would threaten here, but the stadium was too well guarded for fiends to slip through. But here they were, and so I had a job to do. I could wonder at their presence later. I pulled my left arm out of my coat, removed my blade from its sheath, and faced the vouivre. The lizard-monster roared in my face, preparing to lunge. With a single stroke, I separated its head from its neck, and the beast fell over, twitching and releasing its pyreflies.

"Hm." I turned away from the dead fiend and looked around. The stadium was infested with monsters — raptors large and small, water fiends crawling out of the sphere pool, vouivres and dingoes prowling the walkways. I was about to wade into battle when two voices called my name from behind, one familiar, the other that of a stranger. I turned around to see Tidus and another blitz player, a tall, tanned man with spiky red hair. Before I could exchange words with either of them, I heard another roar and the beating of wings overhead. The three of us looked up, the blitzer jumping out of the way as the large head of a garuda pecked at him.

"Aye-yah!" the man shouted, hefting his blitzball and throwing it at the fiend. The ball hit the garuda in the face and left a cloud of black smoke behind, blinding the creature. I glanced at the fellow, impressed; I had never seen a blitzball used as a weapon before. The large flying fiend cried its frustration, pecking futilely at the ground and beating its deadly wings in the wrong direction. Tidus and I hacked away, and soon the creature was dead, lying on the ground. As we fought, I noticed that the boy had acquired a much better sword and the ability to use it. I found myself pleased with his progress.

No sooner had we taken out the one garuda, though, when another replaced it, as a vouivre approached from our right and a small pack of dingoes from our left.

"Gimmie a break!" Tidus groaned.

"Look!" his companion shouted, pointing up to the Maesters' box. I turned my head to see what might be worth pulling our attention from an imminent fiend attack.

The young Guado Maester stood there alone, at attention. He brought his long, narrow hands before him, then bowed as magic for a summoning gathered around him. With a screech, a heavy chain fell from the sky and buried itself in the ground, then slowly rose, hoisting an aeon I had never seen before. Vaguely bird-shaped, enveloped in folded wings with a single eye dripping blood, the aeon let forth a series of unearthly screams. With each cry, a different fiend exploded into pyreflies, starting with the garuda flying over our heads. In a matter of moments, the stadium was clear.

"Maester Seymour," the blitzer murmured reverently, bowing.

I looked up at the dais again, examining this Seymour as I put away my sword and returned my arm to its usual position. He looked over the now-secured area with an odd smile on his face, his expression almost smug. A Maester and a summoner: an unusual combination. And his was no ordinary aeon. As perhaps the only person currently walking the face of Spira to have seen a Final Aeon in action, I might be alone in my recognition of that kind of power for what it truly was. But how could Seymour summon his Final Aeon and not be killed by it? And why hadn't he used it to defeat Sin? A puzzle.

"Hey Auron!" Tidus pulled me out of my thoughts. "Is there anything you'd maybe like to explain to me?" He stood next to me, arms crossed across his chest, his expression comprised of equal parts irritation, confusion, and relief.

"In a moment," I replied. "Perhaps an introduction first?"

"Oh, sure," he said, gesturing to his companion. "Auron, this is Wakka, captain of the Besaid Aurochs. He's also one of Yuna's guardians. I guess you know who Yuna is."

"I do." I turned to the blitzer, Wakka, who traced a circle with his arms and bowed deeply.

"An honor, Sir Auron!" he said, his tone still one of awe.

I nodded to him. "Likewise, to meet one of Lady Yuna's guardians. I should like to speak with her as well."

Wakka rose from his bow. "She'll be happy to see you, sir."

"Very well. Shall we meet on the stairway to the Highroad in an hour's time?"

"Sure thing." Wakka turned to Tidus and slapped him on the back. "Thanks again, brudda. Could never've won the cup without you."

"Thank you too, Wakka." Tidus punched him on the arm. "See you later, maybe."

Wakka bowed to me again, then left the stadium. Tidus stayed by my side, the glare that had slipped slightly with his farewell to the blitzer returned in full force. He was right; I owed him an explanation. "Come," I said to him. "We need to talk, privately." I headed out the stadium and to the dock, Tidus right behind, thinking about the difficult conversation about to come.

-x-

The afternoon sun beat down on us as we mounted the stairs to the Highroad. Tidus lagged behind me, walking in stony silence as he digested the information I had just given him. I'd decided that he needed to know that Jecht was Sin, although I hadn't shared many details. He claimed not to believe me, but I could see the doubt in his eyes. The boy had traveled within Sin. Though Jecht hadn't contacted him directly, he must have been able to feel his father's presence. He would come around.

I was not, however, going to tell Yuna or her guardians. Not yet. Sharing that particular fact would raise too many other questions, and I hadn't decided how to deal with them. It would be weeks before our arrival in Zanarkand; I had time. So I would keep the truth quiet for now, play the staunch follower of Yevon, loyal warrior monk, devoted guardian. Should be easy enough; I'd played the part for twenty-four years, after all.

Yuna stood on the final landing before the last set of steps to the Mi'ihen Highroad, chatting with Wakka and Lulu, the woman I had seen by her side in the arena. She was indeed a black mage; Tidus had told me that she possessed considerable skill. Kimahri was there, too, standing silently off to the side, his expression watchful. As I approached, the conversation came into focus.

"…think I'll go see him… Oh!" Yuna gasped as she looked up and saw me walking toward her. "Sir Auron!" She bowed deeply, as did her companions.

"Yuna," I said, making every effort to keep emotion out of my voice. The resemblance to Tessa was still strong, but I could see more of Braska in her now. It was not so much her features as it was the way she carried herself — confident and reverent at the same time, a familiar seriousness in her manner. Seeing my two old friends in their daughter was not unexpected, but being reminded of them both still struck a melancholy chord.

"Sir?"

"I wish to become your guardian," I said. "Do you accept?"

Yuna gasped again, and Wakka let out a sound of surprise. Lulu raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "You're serious?" Lulu asked.

I turned to her. "You refuse?"

"No, no!" Yuna stepped forward. "We accept! Right, everyone?" She looked around to her guardians.

"Of course!" Wakka stuttered. "No problem."

"But…" Lulu shook her head, her expression still skeptical. "Why?" Intelligent eyes, healthily suspicious — I liked the look of this one. Perhaps she would be the first to convert to my cause.

I thought back to my conversation with my friend in Besaid Village, my oath to take care of Yuna. "I promised Braska," I said. Kimahri seemed to have done a fine job so far, but now I needed to get involved. I was the only one who might get her through this alive.

Yuna's eyes went wide. "You promised my father?" she asked softly, almost breathless with surprise. She bowed again, more deeply this time. "Thank you. Thank you, Sir Auron! You're welcome to join us!"

I glanced behind me to make sure that Tidus had followed. Seeing him there, I laid my hand on his shoulder and yanked him forward. He flailed a bit, then regained his balance and sheepishly scratched his head. "He comes, too," I said, in a flat, commanding tone that allowed no room for argument.

"Uh. Yeah. Hi, guys." Tidus scratched the back of his neck, a mannerism that reminded me of Jecht every time I saw it. "Howdy."

Yuna glanced at the ground with a shy smile, while Wakka and Lulu looked to one another, some communication passing between them. Interesting; so they had already formed some opinions of the boy. I wondered what they were. Kimahri, on the other hand, betrayed no reaction, continuing to stare into the distance. "This one I promised Jecht," I said, by way of explanation.

"Sir Jecht?" said Yuna, her head snapping up to attention. "Truly?" I nodded. "Is he alive?"

"Can't say. Haven't seen him in ten years." I kept my tone impassive. Tidus twisted his head slightly in my direction, the barest hint of surprise in his face. I looked at him, making my expression as forbidding as possible; he took the hint and said nothing.

"I see," she responded, her face falling a little.

"I hope you'll meet, eventually," I said.

The young summoner bowed yet again. "I look forward to it!"

I took a moment to evaluate my new fellow travelers. Two athletes, a Ronso warrior, and a mage, all guarding an untested summoner. And me, with my secret knowledge and hidden agenda. I would need to keep them alive, then guide them to the truth that waited in Yunalesca's chamber. A daunting task. I hoped I was up for it.

Settling on Lulu as the most likely to be in charge, I took a step toward her. "What's our itinerary?" I asked. "Where are we headed next?"

"Djose Temple," she replied. "We came from Besaid. Yuna has also gained the aeon of Kilika. We expect to be at Djose within the week." She bowed to me. "But then, I expect you already know that, sir."

I raised a shoulder in a shrug. "I still wish to know your plans. Please, I ask for no reverence or deferral. I am a former warrior monk turned guardian, like a thousand others before me. Treat me as you would any other in your party."

Lulu and Wakka exchanged another look. They seemed to know each other rather well. I wondered if they were lovers. No matter if they were, as long as it didn't get in the way of protecting Yuna. Getting her and Tidus to Zanarkand in one piece was the only thing that mattered to me now. "All right, Sir Auron," Lulu finally said as she turned back to me. "Let me share the details of my plans." The two of us chatted about the itinerary, travel times, and known dangers, with Wakka adding his occasional comments. It transpired that the two of them had journeyed before, as far as the Calm Lands, and I was pleased to learn of their experience. Perhaps I wouldn't need to carry the group, after all.

The talk was productive and enlightening, but I only participated with half my attention. Yuna and Tidus had drifted away as their elders discussed the trip, and now the two of them stood at the railing, talking. Had they already formed a connection? It appeared possible. I watched them out of the corner of my eye and, in the depths of my mind, began to hatch a plan.

Chapter Text

We made fair time, and five days after leaving Luca we arrived at Mushroom Rock Road. The trip had been largely uneventful, aside from our battle with a chocobo eater at the Mi'ihen Travel Agency. Jecht, Braska, and I had fought and defeated another of these ten years prior, and it was a disheartening to find one here again. In fact, I had noticed an overall increase in the number of fiends and wondered at the change. I came up with a number of theories and did not like the implications of any of them.

Our group gelled with few problems. I hadn't traveled with so many others since commanding warrior monks, but our strengths were complementary, and the fiends rarely gave us much trouble. I drilled Tidus every morning and watched his fighting skills improve with each battle. I could feel myself returning to form as well, remembering techniques long unused and rebuilding my strength. The other three guardians worked together as if they had been born to it. Lulu and Wakka, especially, seemed to have a close bond, though it hadn't taken long to determine that theirs was a tie of friendship rather than romantic affection. They were also both devoted to their faith and would hear nothing against Yevon, Wakka in particular. He fixated on the use of machina and the "heathen" Al Bhed — obviously he had no idea of Yuna's heritage, although how he could have missed the story of Braska's Al Bhed wife was beyond my understanding — but I still worried that he would be unable to accept the truth about the pilgrimage and the Final Summoning.

As we walked, we encountered many Crusaders on the road, carrying rumors of an upcoming campaign against Sin. After days of talking with our fellow travelers — Tidus was insatiably curious about this world and paused to chat with almost everyone we saw — we learned that Yevon's fighters had joined forces with the Al Bhed and were planning to fight Sin with some powerful machina weapon. The plan could not succeed, but that wasn't my main concern. What bothered me was the implicit support of the new Maester, young Seymour, whom we had also met on the road. Unless something had changed drastically, machina weapons were still forbidden, and the Crusaders claimed to have been excommunicated for following this path. Yet here Seymour was, providing his stamp of approval by the simple fact of his presence. So what of the rest of Yevon? Surely Brac had not endorsed this mad scheme. I was surprised not to see him here, trying to put a stop to it. Unless Brac was no longer Maester, unless someone else had risen to take his place.

I would have preferred to steer clear of the whole business. But Seymour had asked us to observe from the command center, and coming up with a plausible reason to decline a Maester's invitation would have been tricky. Besides, Yuna wanted to come, to help however she could. So it was that we found ourselves stepping off a lift early one morning after camping at the end of the Highroad the night before, arriving at the high bluffs overlooking the ocean not long after sunrise. A collection of large weapons — one of the Crusaders had called them "cannon" — sat on the edge of the cliff. Wakka approached one, muttered a curse, and kicked it. Then he grunted in pain as he hopped away.

We continued on, watching as the Al Bhed prepared their weapons and Crusaders began opening cages containing Sinspawn of all types and herding them down to the beach. Wakka crossed his arms and shook his head. "Won't work anyway," he grumbled.

"Don't say that," said Yuna. "It might be a hopeless campaign, and they might be defying Yevon. But the Crusaders and the Al Bhed–they're trying their best to beat Sin. And that's what we want too, isn't it? " She turned to look at Wakka. "Isn't it?"

Wakka folded his arms. "Hmph. All right, fine. But I still think machina are bad news! They're forbidden for a reason."

I caught my groan of irritation. True, I had once been a devoted follower of Yevon. But I truly hoped that I had never been so mindlessly pious as this young man. He was going to cause me some trouble. Yuna, on the other hand… her defense of the Crusaders and their unconventional choice stirred me, gave me hope. Perhaps she would be open to the new path I planned to offer. And if she followed me, so would her guardians. Probably.

"Lady Summoner! There you are." Our heads all turned to see an approaching Crusader captain, a Chocobo Knight named Lucil. She had escorted us up Mushroom Rock Road earlier this morning, and she seemed both poised and competent. "The command center is that way," she said, pointing to our right. "Maester Kinoc is also there."

Yuna said something in response, bowed, and turned in the direction indicated. The others followed her, but I froze in place. "Maester Kinoc"? Maester Kinoc?

I found that my hands had involuntarily clenched into fists. Taking a breath, I pulled my fingers in tighter for a swift second, then released them. This should not have come as a surprise — he had thought that Brac was grooming me for the role, he had desired it for himself, and he had taken action. The only real shock was that no one had ever seen through him and known the treacherous, black-hearted worm for what he was. Or perhaps they realized and did not care. I had thought my opinion of Yevon couldn't fall any further. I was wrong.

Another deep breath, and then I turned to follow my party. My recovery only took a moment; I doubted that they had even noticed my reaction. We passed by a soldier, a boy named Gatta whom Yuna and her companions knew from Besaid. "The operation will begin shortly," he droned, clearly unenthusiastic about having pulled guard duty.

"You okay?" Wakka asked.

"Of course not!" The youth growled, the dull facade broken, and made a fist. "I came all the way from Besaid to fight Sin, and they stick me here?"

I looked at this soldier and in his face saw every young warrior monk I had ever known, ready and eager to test himself against Sin. And then I saw the same men, bodies bloodied and broken on the ice of Lake Macalania, against the rocks of the Djose Shore. "If you want to prove yourself," I said as he turned to me with wide eyes, "first you must complete the tasks you are given."

He hung his head, seeming to consider this advice. I nodded to him and turned to go. Tidus stayed behind, and I wondered what they were discussing. But as I entered the command center, I heard a voice that drove all possible wonderings from my mind.

"Ah!"

The voice was instantly familiar. But for an instant, the man was not — who was this rotund figure wearing orange and blue robes, seated on a camp chair decked out like a temporary throne? Then my vision resolved, and beneath the increased girth I saw my old friend, my sworn enemy, his eyes lighting up with surprised pleasure. Kinoc lifted himself from his chair, a smile on his face, and walked straight to me.

"I'd heard from Seymour, but I didn't know if we'd actually meet," he said as he threw his arms around me. I stiffened at the unwelcome contact and did not return the embrace. He took a step back, hands resting on my elbows. "Good to see you, Auron! Ten years, is it?" Then he laughed heartily. Shocked by his audacity, all I could do was stare at him without speaking. Did he really think I might slap him on the back and greet him as a friend?

I heard footsteps behind me, and we all turned in time to see Gatta running into the command center with a salute. "All troops ready to move at your command, sir."

"Good," said Kinoc, his voice shifting into the old military tone that I'd once known so well as he dropped his hands to return the salute. "Dismissed."

"Sir!" Gatta left, Wakka and Lulu following their friend out. Part of me would have liked nothing better than to join them, but my feet were rooted to the spot.

"Tell me, Auron." Kinoc stepped away. "Where have you been these last ten years?"

At last, I found my voice. "We don't have time for this now, do we?" I said.

Kinoc betrayed no reaction to my coldness. He leaned in and lowered his voice, taking a conspiratorial tone. "This plan won't work. You know that as well as I do. But we'll let them dream a little while longer."

Why encourage them to their deaths then? But before I could pose the question, another presence made itself known.

"Lord Kinoc?" Seymour had stepped in to the pavilion from the other side, and he took a place behind the wooden platform where Kinoc's chair rested, raising an eyebrow.

Kinoc turned to face him and started to walk back to his seat. "Oh yes. Proceed."

Tidus sidled up to me as I watched him go. "That Kinoc, a Maester?" I muttered under my breath, intending that only the boy would hear me.

But Kinoc stopped, then looked at me. He said nothing, but I saw a brief flash of emotion in his eyes. Even after all this time, I could still read his expressions, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: He knows.

I stared back at him, holding my head level, unflinching. You bet I know, you fiend-damned bastard.

The silent confrontation lasted only an instant. Then a mask fell over his face. "I heard that, Auron," he said, striding back in my direction. I saw a bit of his old grace then, still evident despite what appeared to be years of sitting behind a desk in preference to training. "A lot has happened in the last ten years." He glared at me. "What were you doing, and where?"

"Fulfilling a promise I made to a friend," I replied, my tone even. "I still am." I shifted my weight as I prepared to walk away, sending every possible signal that our conversation was over.

"Just tell me one thing." He stood shoulder to shoulder with me, almost close enough touch again. "Have you seen Zanarkand?"

I looked briefly to the sky. Then I grunted and kept walking away. I used a map on the other side of the command center as my excuse and studied it, the outline of the Mushroom Rock coastline blending into the familiar shapes of the Djose Shore. In the background, I heard a Crusader talking to Tidus and Yuna, warning them that the Sinspawn would soon be released and to prepare for battle, but I wasn't really listening. With half my mind I studied the map, and with the other half I considered this encounter with Kinoc.

Part of me had always assumed that, if I were to see Kinoc again, I would murder him on the spot. Or I would force him to admit his crimes, try to wring some sort of explanation or apology out of him with my fists. But faced with him now, I found the thought of revenge distant. I still despised the man and everything he stood for, but the heat of my anger had cooled. Was it my death and the detachment from the world it brought me, or had the simple passage of time lessened my rage? I would probably never know.

Regardless, even had I felt the murderous impulse, I could not have indulged it. Kinoc was a Maester, one of the most powerful personages of Yevon. If I killed him, I would be imprisoned and taken from Yuna, and her pilgrimage would go on without me. I could not allow that to happen under any circumstances. I had to be with her when she reached Zanarkand. Jecht's plan meant more to me than any petty vengeance ever could.

I turned away from the map and took a place at the edge of the clearing. The rest of the party scattered about the area: Lulu and Yuna looking at the map, Kimahri standing guard by the doorway, Wakka staring out over the sea, Tidus exploring as usual. As he finished his wanderings, he walked up to me. "Now what?" he asked.

"Go to Yuna," I replied. He nodded and then did so, the two of them exchanging a few words as they examined the map.

"Maester Kinoc, if you please." The Crusader who seemed to be running the command center gestured to a wooden platform at the edge of the cliff. Kinoc stood alone right next to it, his hand on the railing. I wondered then at the absence of Gray Squadron. Surely Kinoc's personal guard ought to be here, protecting him. What other mission could be more important? I suddenly realized that, other than the few guarding the maesters in the blitz arena, I had yet to see an on-duty warrior monk during my time in Spira. There hadn't even been patrols in Luca. Had they been withdrawn to the temples? If so, why?

I had no more time for musings as Kinoc walked out to the end of the platform.

"Will Sin come?" Yuna asked. She and Tidus had left the map and were standing with the soldier.

"Sin always returns for its Spawn," the man explained. "To make sure, we're going to encourage them to call out to it."

"You won't need to." I looked at Tidus. I could sense Jecht's presence not far distant. He hadn't spoken to me, but I had a feeling that it was time. He would want to demonstrate Sin's full destructive power to his son sooner or later, and this was a perfect opportunity. "It'll come."

Silence fell over the command center and a modified hush descended on the gathering of troops below. I saw Kinoc raise his hand in signal, and the cages were encased in artificial thunder. The spawn inside writhed and screamed. One particularly large monster thrashed its powerful arms against its cage door and knocked it open. With a scream, it leapt out of its cell to threaten the bluff.

It took many blows, many spells, and some assistance from Yuna's fire Aeon, but eventually we beat it back. Exhausted, the Sinspawn fell over on its side. Kimahri gathered himself to spring into a mighty jump, intending to finish it, when he paused, looking up and out.

Panting next to him, tired from the long battle, I followed his gaze to the darkness gathering in the water. I could hear the troops below — weapons rattling, chocobos squawking — as they prepared themselves to attack the mighty creature rising from the water. Sin. It was here.

"Fire!" On command, dozens of Al Bhed weapons released their cannonballs, glowing with white heat as they flew through the air, pelting Sin. Most of the projectiles found their target, but they didn't seem to be having much effect. Were these the supposed super-weapons that the Al Bhed and the Crusaders were depending on? Then I glanced down the shore and saw what looked like an enormous gun, perched on another cliff. That must be it. Not that it would work, either.

A distant cry of "Charge!" rose from the beach, and a herd of chocobos thundered through the water, their riders brandishing swords and spears. The foot soldiers followed, attacking the swimming Sinspawn that had fallen off their master. Sin stood above it all, waiting, biding its time.

Gathering its strength?

"Look out!" I shouted, recalling my first battle with Sin on the steps of Djose Temple. I dove to the side, pushing Yuna down with me, both of us hitting the ground with great speed and force. I heard the shockwave passing over my head, ripping through the air. I heard screams as those not lucky enough to duck were tossed about like leaves in a storm, then nothing.

I raised my head, the eerie silence oppressive. Carefully, I stood and took stock of myself and my surroundings. I was still tired and bore a few wounds from our battle with the Sinspawn, but I had not been freshly injured. Yuna lay on the ground a few feet from me, Seymour another step distant. Kinoc and the others were nowhere to be seen. I moved to help Yuna, but before I could aid her, she had risen to her feet on her own.

A howl split the air, and the three of us turned to see that the Sinspawn had come around and was moving to attack again. I glanced at Yuna, and she nodded — she was strong enough to fight. The two of us took places on either side of Seymour, who had pulled out a staff and seemed to be making preparations for battle. He acknowledged me, then turned to Yuna. "Stand back, Lady Yuna," he said.

"Yes, your grace," she murmured, taking a slight step away.

The three of us made short work of the creature. Tired as we were from the earlier battle, it was even more badly damaged, and Seymour was a mage of more than a little skill. He seemed to have all kinds of hidden talents. When it was dead at last, we moved away from it and back toward the bluff, turning our attention to the large weapon that appeared to be powering up.

A beam shot out of the pointed end of the weapon. Sin had mustered another shockwave, though, and it battled with the ray of light. Before long, Sin's power burst forth and hit the weapon with a mighty backlash.

"No!" Yuna cried, raising her hands to her mouth in agony as the cannon broke, the heavy top splitting from its supports and tumbling to the ground, then exploding. We watched it burn. There was no escaping that conflagration — if anyone had been inside, or standing underneath, they were surely dead.

Sin paused again, almost as if it were glancing over the killing field. Again I received no direct communication, but I sensed Jecht there. He was upset with himself, I knew, but he was also satisfied. Tidus had seen Sin's devastating power. Maybe now he could be persuaded to do what must be done.

And then Sin — Jecht — no, Sin, I told myself; long past time for me to stop thinking of him as my old friend and start thinking of him as the scourge of Spira — turned and dove into the water, swimming away into the morning sun.

-x-

Yuna, Seymour, and I made our way down the cliff face, heading for the beach were we could aid the living and the dead. A handful of survivors were moving the bodies in a central location for the sending. I saw Gatta, the young boy from Besaid, among their number. So he had not stayed at his post after all. Rash, foolish, perfectly understandable. I bowed my head for him and for the rest of the fallen: men and women dead in a hopeless battle, one that their leaders knew was doomed to fail. With that, I understood Kinoc's purpose in encouraging this misguided effort, and the knowledge was accompanied by a spurt of anger. To waste human life in this way… what kind of monster had Kinoc become? Or had he always been such a creature, and I was only now seeing it?

I shook my head and backed away, putting as much distance from Yuna and her sending as possible. I hadn't attended a sending since my death and didn't know how my unsent body would react. Best to stay away and not take any chances.

As I walked down the beach, I saw the rest of our party. Somehow all four of them had made it safely down the cliff. Lulu tended the wounded, Wakka prayed over bodies, Kimahri walked past me and nodded, making his way to Yuna. And Tidus lay on the beach, his hair and clothes sopping wet. I almost panicked but then saw that his chest rose and fell with breath.

"I see you're still here," I said to him as he sat up, his gaze turned on Yuna and her dance of sending.

"Huh?" He looked at me with confusion.

I gestured over the remains of the battlefield. "Many stories ended here today," I said. "But yours goes on."

He shook his head as if to clear water from his ears. "What?"

I sighed and moved away. He would understand soon enough. I headed off the beach and in the direction of the road to Djose. Kinoc stood at the entrance to the road, Gray Squad now gathered behind him, his captain at his left hand. So they had finished their errand, whatever it was. I did not recognize any of them; too young, most likely.

"A swift retreat," I said to him, an edge of anger creeping into my voice. "Satisfied?"

"What do you mean?" Kinoc presented innocence, but I could tell it was an act.

I glanced out over the corpse-strewn beach, and Maester Brac's words after my first battle with Sin came back to me. "…You hold the lives of the men you command in your hands… Value them. Do not give them up too cheaply." For all his faults, Brac would never have approved of a massacre, much less presided over one. I missed my old mentor for the first time in many years. I returned my gaze to Kinoc and his retinue. "Those who turned from Yevon died, while the faithful live on."

He looked back at me, and his eyes turned cold. "The last ten years have changed you, I see."

We stared each other down for a long moment. Then we both turned away at the exact same moment, taking our opposite directions. And I found myself fervently hoping that I would never see him again.

Chapter Text

Liss was relaxing in her quarters after a long day of fiend hunting on the Highroad when she heard a rapping against the doorframe.

"Hi Paine," she said, sitting up.

"Liss," Paine replied. "How did it go today?"

"Pretty well, although I feel like there's not much more I can learn by fighting these particular fiends." Liss stretched her arms, sighing. "I'm looking forward to going up against something different." The cadets would leave Luca next week to spend some time at Defense Force Headquarters at Mushroom Rock. There, the young fighters would be sent out on actual missions lead by working soldiers, for testing and evaluation. All the students had been anticipating the change of scenery, and after nine months of training, Liss was more than ready to get into the field for real.

Paine nodded. "I bet you are, and that's sort of why I came by. I'd like you to try something new in class tomorrow. I want to see how you do with Auron's sword."

"With…" Liss felt the blood drain from her face. "Really? Do you really think I'm ready?" Her voice dropped to a whisper.

"I do." Paine leaned against the doorway, crossing her arms. "But if you aren't sure--"

Liss swallowed. "Well, no. I'm not sure. But I do want to try. Especially if you think I can handle it."

"Good." Paine smiled at her cousin. "You might want to take it by the armory before class, make sure it's still sharp and that the enchantments are holding."

"Will do. I mean, yes ma'am!" Liss saluted Paine as she straightened.

"See you, and the sword, tomorrow," Paine said, and then she left.

After watching her go, Liss stood, then turned to look at Masamune, hanging in its place of honor on the wall over her bed. All her life, it seemed, she had dreamed of being worthy to wield her father's weapon. She still wasn't convinced that she was, but Paine had confidence in her, and she had come to respect her cousin and teacher's opinions a great deal. If Paine thought she was ready to try, then she was probably ready.

It still took Liss a few moments to gather the courage to reach for the sword. Curling her right hand around the hilt, she tipped it up, then removed it from the hooks where it rested. Though a bit heavier than the blade she typically used, the balance was perfect. She rang her left index finger along the edge, then brought that hand to the hilt as well. She held the sword up as if poised to attack, feeling the pleasant weight of it pulling down on her arms and shoulders. She thought about the man who had last held this sword in this way, and smiled.

When Sam came by to collect her for dinner, she had not moved, and the smile did not fade for the rest of the night.

-x-

The beach was strewn with rubble, mainly remnants of the cannon that Sin had ripped apart not even an hour ago. Survivors were beginning to gather, the whole assisting the broken, all moving in the direction of Djose Temple. The destination made sense — the priests there would be able to heal, the warrior monks to protect should Sin decide to return. Still shaken by my final confrontation with Kinoc, I took up a post at the head of the trail leading away from the beach and toward Djose and waited for the rest of my party to finish their business.

Seymour, who had been conversing with Yuna, now walked past me with a respectful nod as he headed up the Djose road. I saw Yuna bowing to him in farewell, and then she turned away, beckoning to Lulu and Wakka, who were both waiting for her. I wondered at the Maester, who seemed to have taken a personal interest in the young summoner, but I also thought Yuna was too focused on helping the fallen and continuing her journey to have noticed. Good — if Seymour had been involved in this plot to break the Crusaders, if he were Kinoc's ally, I wanted no part of him. And neither should Yuna.

Bearing witness to this travesty was going to make it even more difficult to conceal my true opinion of Yevon.

My attention shifted to Tidus, who had also been watching Yuna with Seymour. He turned to me then, and I saw a tinge of sadness in his eyes. This horror had to have been especially hard for him, knowing what he now did about Sin's true nature.

"Sin is Jecht," I said.

"Yeah," he said, eyes cast downward. "For awhile there, I thought I could feel him." Then he met my gaze, and his expression was defiant. "But that doesn't mean I believe you."

"Sin is Jecht," I repeated, more forcefully this time. "He came here for you."

His brows knitted together. "So he killed all those people just for a chance to see me?"

"That's what Sin does," I said. "He wanted to show that to you. Do you know why?"

He shrugged and looked away for a moment, then back at me. "How am I supposed to know?" he said, his belligerent tone almost slipping into a whine.

"So you would kill him." I gave my words a moment to sink in before continuing. "As long as he is Sin, Jecht will keep killing. He wants you to stop him." Throughout this discussion, I had done my best to keep calm and emotionless, but on these last words, my voice shook.

For an instant he looked stunned. Then I saw the mask of disbelief and denial slam back down on his face. "You gotta be kidding," he said. "How do you know all of this anyway?"

I shook my head with a chuckle and turned to go — the others were forming up a small distance down the road. And the leave-taking provided a good excuse to end the conversation. It was not yet time to discuss the source of my knowledge. I trusted him not to blurt out the truth about Jecht, but since he had no context for the rest of my story, who knew what hints he might drop if I told him more? Best to leave it lie.

"Hey! I'm not done talking to you. Don't you run away!"

"You're the one running," I shot back over my shoulder, not pausing as I walked. I still hadn't really expected him to fully accept the truth, although this talk had gone much better than our last on the topic, in Luca. He would come around. There was time.

-x-

Several hours later, we filed out of the Chamber of the Fayth in Djose and into the temple proper. I took advantage of the free moment to look around and consider the place. I had so many memories here: childhood pilgrimages, Crusader ceremonies, visits with Braska and Kinoc, my first battle with Sin. Watching Wakka comfort a friend from Besaid as the two of them grieved for Gatta, I found myself thinking of my old friend Jass for the first time in many years and said a silent prayer, directed at no one in particular, for his peaceful rest. Thanks to years of indoctrination, praying was a strong enough habit that I hadn't been able to give it up entirely despite my loss of faith in Yevon. I formed the thoughts more or less automatically, though now I sent them elsewhere. Sometimes I prayed to the fayth; hard not to believe in them, after seeing them act through Braska and now Yuna. On other occasions, my words went to the universe in general. I still found it comforting, even though part of me felt that I ought not to.

As our party dispersed — the others to rest, Yuna to help tend the wounded and send the fallen, Kimahri by her side — I found myself drawn to Braska's statue once again. I had paid my respects already, when we first arrived, but still I could not look away from the graven image of my old friend. Lost in thought, I almost did not hear the man approaching me until he stood by my side. I turned and looked into the familiar, and somewhat astonished, face of a warrior monk commander.

"Captain!" he gasped, and then I realized who he was.

"Rickard." I saluted him, the old gesture both welcome and strange. "What are you doing here?"

He shrugged, with a small smile. "Running the place, believe it or not." I found a smile spreading across my face as well. Young Rickard, a commander. Although not so young anymore — he had to be past thirty by now. He had been among my best men in Gray Squadron. I may not have had much use for Yevon any longer, but I was still pleased to see the success of a friend and protege.

His initial shock mellowing into pleased surprise, Rickard bumped my shoulder with his fist. "Do I get to ask the same question, sir?"

I inclined my head to the side. "I am still a guardian. Or again, perhaps. I journey with the Lady Yuna."

"The High Summoner's daughter?" I nodded. "Then Yevon be with you, and grant you another successful pilgrimage!" He saluted me and started to turn away, then looked back. "If I may be bold, sir, what are you doing right now?"

"I have no duties," I said, "and we aren't leaving until morning. Yourself?"

"Nothing I can't put off for an evening. Come have dinner with me. A lot has happened in the last ten years. Including some things you ought to know."

"Thank you," I replied. "I believe I'll take you up on that."

-x-

I had been to the barracks of Djose Garrison many times — Kinoc had served here, as Lead Sword and then captain of the First Squadron, for over four years, and I'd visited him regularly, on both business and pleasure. Very little had changed in the passageway carved through stone that lead from the temple, or in the collection of buildings nested into the side of the bluff, looking out over the sea. Men saluted Rickard and bowed to me as we passed. As with Gray Squad, there were none I recognized, although they had more of a familiar look about them. I could imagine them as monks of the Order in my day. In contrast, there had been something cold and hard in the faces of Kinoc's men.

Soon, I was seated in the commander's quarters across the table from Rickard, a plate of fish and vegetables in front of me, a glass of wine by my hand. I took a sip and found it a surprisingly good vintage, although I could have used something stronger. It would not do to betray that particular weakness here, though; I would fortify myself later.

"So tell me about the last ten years," I said, my voice as commanding I could make it while keeping the tone conversational. Best if I could control this conversation, ask questions instead of answering them. I followed my words with a small bite of the fish, and was pleasantly surprised to find it well-prepared. Djose must have found itself a decent cook this year.

Rickard swallowed his mouthful, then followed it up with a bit of his wine. "Of course, sir. Hmm, where to start? Well, I guess you know I was Kal's Lead in Kilika for awhile? That was about two years, then I got promoted to captain. Bounced around different squads for awhile, then the command opened up here and I was granted it. Just over four years ago."

I was almost afraid to ask, but I had to know. "And Kal?"

"Commander Kal, you mean?" Rickard's eyes glinted with pleasure. "Leads Kilika Garrison, and has for ages. We're still in close contact, and he's doing well. Shall I pass on your greetings?"

"Please do, along with my congratulations," I said. So Kal was alive, well, and successful. That was probably the best news I'd heard since my return to Spira.

We spent the next several minutes talking about other men we had known in the Order — friends, superiors, rivals. Some were promoted, some retired, a few had passed on. But we danced around the two central names until we had almost finished our food. Then Rickard set down his fork with a sigh. "Some more wine?" he asked. I waved my hand toward my glass with an affirmative grunt, and he stood up to get the bottle and pour. "So, I suppose you know that Kinoc is Maester now." His mouth twisted on the words, as though it hurt to say them.

I nodded. "Saw him at the operation. So then, Brac…"

"Yeah." Rickard glanced at the door and saw that it was closed, then sat. "Three years ago. Under… I guess to say 'suspicious circumstances' would be an overstatement. He was old, he'd been slowing down, then got sick the previous winter and never bounced back. But still, there was talk. Nothing too loud, you understand. It's risky to say anything against Kinoc, even behind closed doors. He's put his people in place everywhere."

"That doesn't surprise me." I took another drink, then asked another question. "What was the talk about? If it's safe to ask."

"Well, rumor was that there was some sort of power struggle going on between Grand Maester Mika and Maester Brac, and that Kinoc was Mika's man. I believe it — Mika has favored Kinoc for years, all the way back to his promotion to Second Commander. When Brac took a turn for the worse in his final illness, Mika banished everyone from his quarters, supposedly to give him complete rest. But Kinoc and a summoner loyal to him were both with him when he died. I don't think anyone suspects foul play — Kinoc is Brac's grandson by marriage, after all, a part of the family. But they took pains to make certain that Maester Brac was sent."

"I see." I set down my glass and dropped my head for a moment. So Brac was truly gone. He had been old, our bond broken many years past. But I still felt a hollow ache in my breast at the news of his passing, and at Kinoc's possible hand in it.

"Hey." Rickard tentatively touched my hand, then pulled back. I looked up and met his gaze. "I know you and the Maester had your differences. It was atrocious, what he did to you. But to his credit, I think he knew that. I went back to Bevelle for a couple of years, served as captain of Third Squadron. And it was obvious that he and Kinoc never developed a close working relationship, not like the one he had with you. He never came out and said anything, but I'm sure he regretted driving you away." He tilted his head to the side. "I was also there for the celebration of Lord Braska's Calm, when no one knew whether or not you had made it out alive. And he mourned you, Auron. That day, and ever after." He looked away from me then. "We all did."

I had no idea how to respond to this. Of course people had assumed me dead. And now that I was walking among them again, they would assume the opposite. I pulled the wineglass back to me and tipped it slightly, staring at my dim reflection in the ruby-red liquid. "You honor me," I said.

Rickard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "There's something else you have to know, if you don't already. It's… ah." I looked up as he pushed his chair away from the table, its legs shuddering against the stone floor, then stood and paced to the window. "Yevon, this is hard. "

I stood up as well, the hollow place in my chest spreading in anticipation of what had to be more bad news. "Please, Rickard. Whatever it is, just say it."

He sighed again. "All right. It's Tzeki Village. " He glanced at me over his shoulder. "It's gone."

Struck numb with shock, I could only repeat his words back to him. "Gone?"

A slow nod. "Just about a year ago. Sin, it… it attacked the Djose Shore. Surprised a company of Crusaders and killed almost all of them in a vicious attack. The wounded, the few they had any hope of saving, were brought here. One man… I've never seen anyone sustain injuries that severe and still survive. Most of the others didn't." He paused to shudder at the memory, then continued. "Anyway, Sin passed by here and went up the Moonflow. Because there were so few Crusaders left, I lead both Djose squads up to the shoopuf station in hopes of catching it, but it was too late by the time we got there. Tzeki was completely destroyed. We… we didn't find any survivors." He stared out the window throughout this speech, not looking at me, unwilling to see the pain he knew this news would cause. "I'm sorry."

Hollow no more, the space that had been empty was quickly filling up with agony, my usual stoicism shattered by the sheer magnitude of this news. My home, my childhood, everyone I had known and loved all my life, taken from me in a single moment. Xan, Paine, Relle… I turned away from Rickard and reached for the nearest solid thing I could find, which happened to be the wall. I leaned my hands and forehead against it, pressing my palms into the plaster with all my might, channeling the force so that I wouldn't ball them into fists and punch through.

"Auron." Rickard's voice came from very far away. I dimly heard his footsteps crossing the room behind me. "Auron, there's more. About someone whom I think may be very important to you. A woman named Arelle?"

My head snapped up, and I whirled around. "Relle?" I whispered as my heart started to pound.

"Yes. She wasn't in the village at the time of the attack."

"You are certain?" My words were almost inaudible, grief and hope pressing down on my chest with such power that it was difficult to speak.

He nodded. "I met her in Guadosalam a few weeks after the Calm came. We were both visiting the Farplane, looking for you. We got to talking, and she mentioned needing a place to stay. So I took her to Jass's grandmother — remember he used to talk about her? Anyway, I escorted her to the family farm, which is on the border of Macalania Woods, near the Calm Lands, and got her settled. And she's still living there, as far as I know."

The weight eased, just a little, although I wondered why she hadn't felt she could stay in the village. "And she is well?"

I saw a struggle in his eyes as he wrestled with some decision. He was silent for a long moment, then nodded again. "She is. Last I heard from her, anyway. We communicate, occasionally — just as friends," he assured me. "Acquaintances. You should go see her, if you can manage it."

Alive. Relle was alive. And I knew exactly where, too, because I had once accompanied Jass on a visit to his grandmother. The farm was only a short distance from Bevelle. I leaned against the wall again; my trip from worry to crushing grief to overwhelming relief in the space of a minute had exhausted my emotions. I closed my eye and let the conflicting feelings wash over me, then pulled the sake jug off my belt and lifted it to my lips. I took a gulp, feeling it burn in my mouth and all the way down my throat as I drank. I followed that swallow with several more. Only then did I feel strong enough to open my eye and ask Rickard a question. "My family," I said. "Do you know for sure…"

"I knew Arelle would want this information as well, so I made some inquires," he replied. "I'm afraid that your sister–"

I interrupted him. "I already know that she passed away some years earlier. But my brother-in-law and their daughter? And my father?" I wasn't sure how I felt about the idea of Dix's death, but I needed to know regardless.

"According to some men who had been away on a fishing expedition — they showed up not long after we did — your father moved away from Tzeki a long time ago. And your niece wasn't there either. But your brother…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. He was among the casualties. We found his body in the rubble."

So only Xan was lost. Still, that was bad enough, and I shut my eye again, the automatic prayer forming in my mind. When I looked back to Rickard, I saw that he, too, had assumed a posture of reverence.

"Do you happen to know the whereabouts of Paine, my niece?" I asked. I doubted I would have time to search for her, but if her location was convenient…

"Not precisely," he answered. "They told me that she'd left home a few months before, to join the Crusa–" And he stopped short, silence falling as both of us realized the implications.

"I didn't see her there," I said after a moment, projecting a confidence I did not truly feel. That meant next to nothing; I hadn't seen the girl since she was five. What chance had I of recognizing her? "Not among the living, or the dead. Perhaps she was assigned elsewhere."

"I shall pray that she was," said Rickard. But he looked doubtful, and he shook his head. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of so much bad news."

"It wasn't all bad," I said, thinking briefly of Relle. "And you're right, I needed to know. Thank you, Rickard, for dinner and the information. It was good to see you again."

"You as well," he replied. "If you do see Arelle, give her my best?"

I nodded. "Goodbye, my friend." We saluted one another, and then I left him. I had been away from Yuna long enough; it was time to prepare for the next day's journey.

Chapter Text

Late the next day, we found ourselves assembled in Maester Seymour Guado's chambers, awaiting his grace's pleasure. He had requested Yuna's presence; no reason had been given. This invitation troubled me. I had not known Maester Jyscal well during my time in Bevelle. His son I knew not at all, but his involvement in Operation Mi'ihen was suspicious, his fixation on Yuna even more so. Whatever he wanted from her was unlikely to be good.

It didn't help that I had been ill at ease from the moment we'd walked into Guadosalam. The presence of the Farplane quivered at the edge of my senses, calling to me, and it took more concentration than usual to hold myself together. The sooner I got out of this place, the better.

To distract myself, I took in the room as I leaned against the wall by the door, propping myself against its solidity. Yuna stood to my right, Kimahri by her side as always, betraying nothing of his thoughts. She looked nervous, fidgeting with the edges of her sleeves. Wakka sat on a couch on the other side of the room, also wearing an expression of concern. The newest member of our party, Rikku, the Al Bhed, took a place at the table, munching from the spread of fruits and sweets in front of us. She was the only one in the room eating. That girl was a puzzle. Though she had said nothing about it, I had recognized her as Tessa's kin — the resemblance was unmistakable. A niece, perhaps? One of Cid's children, the family Tess had been going to visit when she was killed? That would make her Yuna's cousin, which might explain her eagerness to be a guardian and Yuna's willingness to bring her along. But why would an Al Bhed join a pilgrimage? Tess had made her people's distaste for the tradition quite clear to me. Coming across Rikku right after the kidnapping attempt on Yuna was suspicious. Perhaps she had some ulterior motive for coming along. Perhaps it was a motive I could use.

Tidus and Lulu were also at the table, talking. Lulu had seemed mistrustful of him at first, but they seemed to be developing more of a rapport now, and I was glad to see it. The more cohesive our group, the better. When their discussion ended, Tidus drifted over to me.

"Be on your guard," I said under my breath.

"Why?" he asked, also sotto voce. "This guy's just a priest, right?"

"Those who have power use that power," I responded. "Maesters have power."

He looked askance at me. "Huh. You sure you don't have something against Yevon?"

I chuckled, startled by his perceptiveness. I hadn't expected him to pick up on my distaste; I would need to take more care with my tone. "I lived a long time in Zanarkand," I said.

He accepted the comment as an explanation and walked away, heading for the food table and a chat with Rikku. I glanced around the room one more time, then grumbled to myself. "What is taking them so long?"

As if in answer, a door at the back of the room opened, and Seymour's attache, Trommell, joined us. "Truly," he said as he walked toward us, "it is good to have guests again." He launched into a speech lauding the greatness of Jyscal and Seymour, which I tuned out. This Trommell seemed ultimately useless, capable only of spouting puffery. At this point, I cared only about what Seymour himself might have to say.

It was a few minutes before Seymour came in through another door. "That is enough, Trommell," he said as he entered. "Much I always endure such praise?" His voice was slippery, his tone ingratiating, and the combination grated on me. Turning to Yuna, he bowed deeply in prayer. "Welcome!"

Yuna bowed in return. "You… wanted to see me?"

He nodded. "Yes, but please. Make yourselves at home. There's no rush."

"Please keep this short," I said, my irritation getting the better of me. "Yuna must rush. She is a summoner on pilgrimage; surely you understand."

"Ah, pardon me," said Seymour, bowing again, this time in my direction. "It has been a long time since I had guests. Very well. Lady Yuna, this way, if you please." He held out a hand to her, and she took a few steps forward.

With a gesture, he activated a huge sphere lodged in the ceiling, and soon it was projecting to the whole room. The sofas, wall hangings, and lush food spread all disappeared, replaced by a night sky swirling with stars and pyreflies. Soon the scene shifted to a skyline that I knew as well as any other: we were looking at Zanarkand.

"This sphere is a reconstruction from the thoughts of the dead that wander the Farplane," Seymour explained as the others looked around, oohing and ahhing. All except for Tidus, who seemed confused, and possibly a little homesick. Soon the scene altered to one of the main shopping concourses, filled with people and shops and intercom announcements.

"Zanarkand!" Tidus blurted out as one of the spectral figures passed through him.

"Correct." Seymour nodded to him. "Zanarkand, as it looked one thousand years ago."

I thought on that for a moment as the other native Spirans marveled at the sight. Had Sin somehow transported Jecht, Tidus, and me through time? Were Jecht and his son visitors from the past? I had considered this possibility before and never found it quite satisfying. It would explain some things, but not all. Bevelle had existed a thousand years ago as well, and no one in their Zanarkand had ever heard of the place. Still, this sphere did display the city that had been my home for ten years. I recognized the buildings, the walkways, the entire cityscape.

"The great and wondrous machina city, Zanarkand," Seymour continued as we saw other views of the city. "She once lived in this metropolis."

I grunted. Was that what this was about?

"She?" Yuna looked up at Seymour. "She, who?"

The scene changed yet again, to a richly appointed bedchamber. And there she sat, lost in thought at the end of the bed, unmistakable in her glowing beauty. Spira's savior and its captor, the woman who had killed me. I knew the urge to attack was irrational, but my fingers still twitched, preparing to reach for my sword.

"Lady Yunalesca!" Yuna said.

"She was the first person to defeat Sin and save the world from its ravages," said Seymour. "And you have inherited her name."

Yuna lowered her chin. "It was my father who named me."

"Lord Braska was entrusting you with a great task," he responded. "He wanted you to face Sin, as Lady Yunalesca did." He looked down at Yuna with a smile. "However, Lady Yunalesca did not defeat Sin alone. To defeat the undefeatable Sin, it took an unbreakable bond of love — the kind that binds two hearts for eternity." He bowed, then stepped away from Yuna as another ghostly figure entered the room. It was Lord Zaon, Yunalesca's husband and guardian — and the fayth of her Final Summoning. I was growing more uncomfortable with this display by the minute. I had always assumed that the truth about the Final Aeon was Spira's best-kept secret, known only to those who reached Yunalesca's chambers in Zanarkand. All this talk of bonds of love and defeating Sin… how much did Seymour know? What was he playing at?

Zaon walked up to his wife and embraced her. Then they, and their room, disappeared, replaced by the halls of Lord Seymour's mansion. The leader of the Guado leaned down and whispered something in Yuna's ear. Her eyes went wide, her hands covered her mouth, and she bolted away, grabbing a glass of water and gulping it down. With a sigh, she lurched over to her guardians.

"What's wrong?" Tidus asked.

"Your face is beet red!" said Rikku.

"Um… ah… well…" Yuna looked around, then leaned forward. "He… he asked me to marry him!"

The rest of the party recoiled in shock. I turned toward Seymour and fixed him with a glare over my glasses. "You know what Yuna must do."

"Of course," said Seymour with another bow. "Lady Yuna — no, all summoners are charged with bringing peace to Spira. But this means more than just defeating Sin, no? Easing the suffering of the people, being a leader and a beacon of hope… I proposed to Yuna as a Maester of Yevon."

I grunted again. Whatever his real reasons for this proposal, it was a distraction that we did not need. "Spira is no playhouse," I replied. "A moment's diversion may amuse the audience, but it changes nothing."

"Still," Seymour said, "the actors must play their parts." Silence fell for a few moments, and then Seymour walked over to Yuna again. "There's no need to answer right away. Please, take some time to think it over." She nodded to him, then looked at me.

"We will do so, then," I said. "For now, we leave." I looked over the group and saw that they had taken my words as a command. We gathered together and all turned to go.

"Lady Yuna, I await your favorable reply." I had taken a few steps away from the Maester when he stopped me with a word. "Why are you still here, sir?"

I stopped dead. Did he know? How? I had been so careful not to betray my true nature, but perhaps…

"I beg your pardon," he said from behind me. "We Guado are keen to the scent of the Farplane."

Tidus walked up to me and sniffed at my shoulder. I swatted him away as I would have a disobedient puppy and resumed walking. My facade remained cool, but my heart was racing. Had the others understood the implications of this exchange? I could only hope not. I wasn't ready for them to learn the truth about me. Not now, and maybe not ever.

-x-

"This place is so pretty," Liss commented as she and Paine walked along the Moonflow's south bank. The two of them had been at Mushroom Rock Headquarters for a week, along with all the cadets in training. Today, they were taking a short furlough to visit the ruins of Tzeki Village.

Paine looked out over the waters without stopping. "It is," she agreed. "Although I've lived in Luca for so long now, I can't imagine coming back to small-town life."

Liss considered this. "I could," she said after some thought. "Luca is exciting and all, but I think I prefer the quiet of the country."

"Wait until you're stationed at Mushroom Rock for a couple of years," said Paine, smiling. "You'll be clamoring for the city soon enough."

"Maybe." The two women rounded a bend in the road and came upon the shoopuf station. It was bustling with merchants and travelers, a handful of Hypello tending the giant beast and the machina used to board it. "With Tzeki Village gone, where do the merchants live?" Liss asked.

"Andal Village, across the river," Paine said. "There were too few survivors to rebuild Tzeki. The few merchants and fisher folk who were away at the time of the attack either moved to Andal or left entirely."

They walked in silence for the ten minutes it took to get from the station to the place where Tzeki had once stood. A collection of ramshackle huts in various levels of disrepair were gathered around an old town square. Some of the buildings remained half-standing; others were little more than piles of rubble. The grounds were covered over with weeds — cattails, wildflowers, reeds where the outskirts of the town blended into the riverbank. A small rotting pier jutted out into the Moonflow. Just from looking, Liss would have guessed that a decade had passed since anyone lived in this place.

Liss followed Paine as she picked her way through the overgrown pathways, pushing the tall grasses aside. Soon they stood in front of one of the more devastated cottages, scattered stones and splintered wood all that remained. "This is it," said Paine softly. "What's left of my childhood home. Mom and Uncle Auron grew up here, too." She glanced to her left and gestured at another ruin. "That was Arelle's cottage."

Standing in place and slowly turning around, Liss tried to imagine this place bustling with people. Failing at that, she then pictured her mother as a young woman standing in this very spot and talking with her Auntie Kera, who appeared in her mind's eye as a shorter, slighter version of herself. That image came more easily. She walked up to the one bit of wall that still stood and rested her hand on it. The stone was cool, and slippery with the moss that had overgrown it.

Then she looked to Paine, and noticed that her cousin had bowed her head, her lips moving silently. She stepped forward and touched the remains of the building. With that, Liss remembered that Paine's father had died here, perhaps at this very spot. Liss was checking out a bit of her family history, a curiosity; to Paine, this trip was more like visiting a grave.

Liss laid a hand on Paine's shoulder. "Are you okay?" she asked.

Paine looked up and into Liss's eyes, her expression sad but calm. "Yeah. I just haven't been here in awhile. It's harder than I thought it would be."

"Do you want to be alone for a moment?"

After looking back over the ruin, Paine shook her head. "I've seen enough." She put her hand over Liss's and squeezed. "Thanks." She turned away from the buildings and walked over to the old pier, Liss a step behind her. They stood on the riverbank and stared out over its rushing waters, where the pyreflies rose from the moonlilies and danced their way into the sky.

"You know, Guadosalam's not far," Paine said, "and we're not due back until tomorrow. If you want–"

"No." Liss's response was immediate and firm.

Paine glanced at her cousin with a raised eyebrow, but Liss did not return the look. Silence reigned for a very long moment. Finally Liss let out a shuddering breath. "Maybe another time," she told Paine. "But not today. " She ought to have wanted to see him, she knew, and there was a part of her that did. Most people were surprised to learn that she had never visited. But the idea scared her, though she could not put why into words. Someday she would face him. Not yet.

"I understand," said Paine. The cousins sat down on the ground together by unspoken agreement, each lost in thoughts of their respective fathers, watching until dusk fell.

-x-

The Farplane.

Every step I took toward it was a struggle. The wall between worlds was so thin here; it would be trivial to break through. The pull was nearly irresistible. "Come home," a voice seemed to whisper in my ear. "Come take your rest." Sometimes the voice was Kera's, sometimes Braska's, sometimes the gentle, barely remembered tones of my mother. On the final landing before the barrier, I stopped. This was as far as I could go. As the others passed me by, I sat on the stairs and gazed into the depths below.

"Aren't you coming?" Footsteps clattered down the steps behind me, and Tidus stood by my side. He seemed almost as nervous about this visit as I was.

"I do not belong there," I lied. Belonging there was the problem. If I passed through that barrier, there would be no coming back.

"Uh-huh," Tidus said. He was far too able to read me today; my struggle against the Farplane must have lowered my other defenses. "You're scared."

I did not look up. "Searching the past to find the future… this is all that is there," I murmured. "I need it not." This, at least, was true. No one I might call upon could tell me anything I needed to know, not to complete this quest anyway. Once my mission was done, I would have eternity to search for the answers I truly craved. "You'd better be going." I waved him up the stairs.

Rikku, who had also hung back, joined us on the landing. "You're not really going to see the dead, more like your memories of them. People think of their relatives, and the pyreflies react to them. They take on the form of the dead person — an illusion, nothing else."

Tidus made a thoughtful noise as I remained silent. I was aware of the Al Bhed conception of the Farplane, but I knew better now. The dead were there all right, all the people I had loved and lost, calling my name. I chose not to alter her world view, however. Instead, I pulled within, ignoring their continuing conversation, taking slow deep breaths to put myself into a state of meditation. My monk's training served me well, and as I slipped more deeply into the trance, the lure of the Farplane lessened. The pressure relieved, I settled in to wait.

The sound of feet on the stairs roused me, and I stood to greet Yuna and the others as they exited the Farplane. "Thanks for waiting!" she said. "I'll go give–"

"Lord Jyscal?" came a cry from behind us. We all turned to a shocking and horrifying sight: the former leader of the Guado, now become a wraith-like figure, moaning and trying to break free of the Farplane as several observers cried his name.

Yuna took a step toward the apparition. "Why?" she asked.

"Yuna!" I took a harsh tone to hide my fear. "Send him!"

She nodded as she ran up the stairs and began the motions that would banish this ghost. Her energies were directed toward Jyscal, but I could feel them combining with his efforts to force himself into the world and creating currents of power that eddied through me. I sank to my knees, gasping with the strength of the sensation — it was not exactly pain, but it pulled at the core of my being and threatened to rip me apart. I closed my eye and concentrated on what remained of my soul, of my humanity. Finding the essence of myself, I gripped it tight and tethered it to earth.

After what seemed like forever, the forces that threatened me eased, and I was able to stand, to breathe again. Opening my eye, I saw that Jyscal was gone, and that the others of my party were all staring at Yuna as she gazed into the Farplane. I hoped that they had not seem my moment of weakness. The group looked inclined to discuss what had just happened, but I could not permit that; I didn't dare spend another minute here. "Talk later," I commanded. "We leave now!"

Thankfully, they obeyed, and I was finally able to make my escape.

Chapter Text

The party spent that night at the Guadosalam Inn. Tired from a long day of travel and battle and troubled by the encounter with Lord Jyscal, Yuna spoke to no one, retiring to a private room rather than sharing with Lulu as she often did. Everyone else took to their beds as well, but I slipped out and found a private camping spot in the forest outside the settlement. I needed to put physical distance between myself and the Farplane; I didn't trust myself to sleep otherwise.

Fortified by the fresh night air of the real world, I woke before sunrise with renewed strength and energy. I returned to the inn before the others stirred. The Farplane still beckoned, but I found its call less enticing. My evening in the woods had cleared my head, reminding me that I had remained on Spira for a purpose. And I would carry on until that purpose was fulfilled. Initially, caring for Tidus and bringing him to manhood had been my reason for continuing to exist, but Jecht had changed things by bringing us to Spira. Now I had one goal, and one goal only: the final eradication of Sin. I would free my world from the eternal spiral of sacrifice and death, expose the lie that had held it captive for so long. And if I smashed the yoke of Yevon in the process, so much the better.

As I waited for the rest of the party to finish their preparations, I thought about Seymour's proposal. My refreshed mind now remembered Seymour's own aeon, a Final Aeon beyond any doubt. Of course he had met Yunalesca and learned about the sacrifice. Was this proposal an attempt to position himself as the fayth of Yuna's Final Summoning? Only one plausible reason for this goal occurred to me, and it chilled me to my very soul: Seymour wanted to become Sin. But for what possible reason? Was he simply insane? Or was there some deeper, more sinister madness at work here?

I broke off my musings when Yuna joined us. We formed up behind her and headed for Seymour's mansion in total silence. Outside the door, she turned to us. "I will go meet with Maester Seymour," she said. "Please wait here."

"Yuna!" I said. "Jyscal is the Guado's problem, not yours."

She didn't even acknowledge my words as she entered the door to the manor. I shook my head and took up a post by the entrance. This time I didn't try to fight the Farplane; instead, I slipped back into a state of meditation, imposing blankness as my mental armor. It seemed like only an instant had gone by when Lulu appeared at my side.

"What do you make of this proposal, Sir Auron?" she asked me as I pulled myself aware.

"It is folly, and an unnecessary diversion," I replied, "but as long as she doesn't delay the pilgrimage, I have no strong feelings one way or another." Not precisely true, but I couldn't go into my concerns with Lulu. If Yuna married Seymour and them left him behind, it didn't matter to me. But I hoped she would not invite him along on our journey. His presence would throw my plans into disarray, no matter what his purpose might be.

"Hm." She crossed her arms and looked thoughtful. "As I said before, it does make a certain sort of sense — the High Summoner's daughter, a Maester of Yevon, three of Spira's races represented in their heritage. I suppose it's not surprising that Master Seymour would think of it; I understand that marriages of alliance are quite common in the upper echelons of Yevon."

I almost, but not quite, held back a noise of derision. Lulu cast me an odd look but asked no questions — she was not the type to waste words on idle curiosity or gossip. It was a quality I appreciated in her, along with many others. Had I not been dead and in love with another woman… but both these things were true, and they kept me from acting on what amounted to little more than stray thoughts.

After a pause, Lulu continued. "I agree that the pilgrimage is the important thing. But what harm can come of a marriage such as this one? And, though as you say it is a distraction, I think it may serve as a welcome distraction from other things." She glanced at Tidus, who was walking toward us. "Surely you've noticed–"

I followed her gaze. "I have." Tidus and Yuna were becoming closer every day. The bond between them hadn't grown into romance, but I had a feeling that it might soon. "I don't think there's any need to worry. Yuna is focused on her goal. She won't let him get in the way."

Lulu looked down at the ground for a moment, then shrugged. "I hope you're right," she said.

"Hey! Everyone!" Tidus joined us, breathless with news. "Did you hear? Seymour's gone!" And as we gathered around to hear his report, I suspected that Yuna had made her decision.

-x-

Twelve cadets sat around a campfire on the shore below Mushroom Rock. Liss rested comfortably on the ground, propping herself up against Sam, who sat back to back with her, her cheek resting on his shoulder. They all listened to Commander Beclem, the officer in charge of their training for the past month, as he went over the most recent mission. They had cleaned out a nest of lizards and drakes occupying a cave on the road to Djose, and overall the fighting had gone well, but Beclem always found plenty to critique. Some of the trainees had complained about his harshness, but Liss thought most of his criticisms were both fair and useful.

"…and so that's why you need to work on your shooting form," he finished saying to Maura, who nodded.

"Understood, sir. Thank you."

"Good." Then he moved on to Liss. "Lissira. Are you comfortable with your new sword yet?"

Liss sat up straight and turned to face her commander. "I believe so, sir. Actually, I think it suits me better than the old one did."

"Then start acting like it," he said. "You still carry it with too much reverence. Yes, it's a fine weapon, but it's still just a sword, not a holy relic."

Liss bristled at this. This was the only place she found fault with Beclem — his insistence on brushing off the role of summoners and guardians in protecting Spira for so many years. "Commander, you don't understand–"

"I do understand," he interrupted. "The sword belonged to your father, and that's meaningful to you. But there's no point in carrying it as a weapon if you're not going to put your full strength into using it. The steel is strong; it's not going to break. And if it does, we have the best smiths in Spira to mend it. Either use that sword as it was meant to be used, or put it away as a souvenir and find another to fight with."

Although she felt an angry retort rising to her lips, she held it back. The commander had a point — she did treat the blade a little too carefully, being reluctant to use it against anything too hard. Besides, raising his ire about the old days would serve no purpose here. "Aye sir," she said instead. "I'll do better."

"Very well." Beclem stood up and stretched. "Fine work, all of you. Just remember everything I've said. Be here tomorrow morning at the usual time for your next assignment."

Liss sighed, and leaned back on Sam, who had shifted so that she nestled against his chest. They had been established as a couple for months now, and she always found his presence solid and comforting. "Why is he so hostile about the whole guardian thing?" she asked.

"Beats me," said Sam. "Hi, Captain."

"Hello everyone," said Paine as she approached the fire. She crouched down next to Liss and Sam, between them and Maura. "How are you finding the training?"

"Tiring." Sam rested his chin on Liss's shoulder and closed his eyes. "Good, but tiring."

"It's all the essence you spend using magic," Paine told him. "Have you considered working more on your hand-to-hand? Magic is useful, but you can't use it against everything."

"That's what these guys are for," he said, waving his arm vaguely at his fellow cadets. Maura snorted with laughter, but Paine just shook her head.

"Teamwork is good, but any fighter in the force needs to be able to stand on his own. You never know when you might be caught without help. Don't forget that."

"Aye captain," said Sam with a bit of a sigh. Liss smiled and ran her hand down his leg.

"So, Liss," said Paine. "I have news for you, and an invitation if you're interested."

"Oh?" Liss sat forward and turned to look at her cousin.

Paine held out a sheet of parchment that was rolled up and tied with a ribbon. "Yuna's sculpture is finished, and so is the portrait of her guardians. There's going to be an unveiling ceremony in Bevelle, and the Praetor has invited you to attend. And your mother, if she's interested."

Liss untied the ribbon and unrolled the scroll. The invitation was written in a flowing, formal hand and addressed to both her and Arelle. Looking up from the paper, Liss met Paine's eyes. "Will you be there?" she asked.

Paine nodded. "Baralai's been invited; all of the Council has. But even if he weren't, Yuna would've added me to the guest list. She wants you there, too. Well, let me know what you decide." She started to stand up.

"No need to think about it," Liss said. "I'll come."

"Oh you will, will you?" Liss looked up to see Beclem scowling over her. "So you think you can just waltz away from training for a couple of weeks, attend some fancy ceremony honoring a dead tradition, and then pick up where you left off? I don't think so."

Liss's heart fell. Beclem was her commanding officer; he would have the last word on this. She looked up at Paine, resigned to changing her answer to no.

Paine rose to her feet, hands on her hips, and glared at him. "Give it a rest, Beclem," she said. "You know that Liss never asks for special treatment. She is honoring a personal request from Praetor Isaaru and High Summoner Yuna. Surely–"

"Surely not!" he retorted. "She is a trainee under my command and I say–"

"You'll say nothing." Paine lowered her eyes and gave Beclem a hard look. "I'll take this to Lucil if I have to, and you know what she will say."

The two stared at each other for what seemed like a full minute. Beclem looked away first. "Fine," he grumbled. "She can go. But I hold you personally responsible if she falls behind in her training."

"I'll train her on the road," Paine replied. "Plenty of opportunity for her to practice fighting while we travel. In fact, why don't I take a small group? They'll build a team and learn how to work together. Liss, that's your first assignment, before we go. Pick a well-balanced group of three — the best for the job, not just your friends — and we'll see how you do as a fighting force. Since we'll be going on foot rather than by hover, we'll leave the day after tomorrow."

"Yes ma'am!" Liss saluted her cousin and resisted the childish urge to stick her tongue out at Beclem. Instead, she looked into the fire and started thinking about assembling a team, and wondering how her mother would feel about coming to Bevelle.

-x-

We gathered in the main hall of Macalania Temple. Except for the addition of Braska's statue, and the temple musicians playing in preparation for the upcoming wedding ceremony, the space was much as I remembered it. Four days had passed — two to cross the Thunder Plains, and most of two more to get through Macalania Woods. It was now early evening, and Yuna had arrived ahead of us to meet with her future husband: Maester Seymour Guado. I mistrusted the man and his motives, but I was willing to withhold judgment a little longer, to see how things would play out.

"So, where's Yuna?" Tidus asked the room at large, echoing the question in my own mind.

Shelinda, a young acolyte who had been following us since before Operation Mi'ihen, responded. "I believe she has gone to the Cloister of Trials with Maester Seymour."

He had taken her to see the fayth alone, without her guardians? That was all I needed to hear; I ran to the stairway that lead to the Cloister and headed up it, the others right behind me. But no sooner had I reached the top than a nun burst out of a side room. "Lord Jyscal!" she cried, as we raced back down. "A sphere in Lady Yuna's belongings…." The woman collapsed as we rushed past her.

The guardians filed into the room, where a sphere sat atop Yuna's bag. I picked it up. "This may well answer a few questions," I said, handing the sphere to Tidus. He placed it on the floor and activated the playback mechanism. And the image of Lord Jyscal appeared to tell us his tale of woe, the dangerous truth about Seymour. The Maester and leader of the Guado had murdered his father, and now the slain man had brought a message from the grave, a message that Yuna had heard and taken to heart: "Stop Seymour! Stop my son."

"Wonderful," I muttered after the playback finished. Jyscal's words convinced me that Seymour was using Yuna to become Sin. If that happened, "destruction and chaos", as the late Maester had termed it, would be a understatement. "The total annihilation of Spira" was more like it.

"Will Yuna be all right?" Rikku asked.

"Hmph!" I made for the exit. "Without us? No." Kimahri beat me out of the room, and the two of us returned to the main hall and strode up the stairs.

A priest barred the door at the top. "The Lady Summoner is at prayer inside," he said. "You may not pass."

"We are the Lady Summoner's guardians," I said, unable to keep the anger from my voice. "You would keep us from our sacred duty?"

"She is with the Maester," the priest replied. Round-faced and officious, he had tried to deny Rikku entry to the temple earlier. I had known and despised his type from my very earliest days in Bevelle —men such as this who had scorned Braska and, later, me. I would not let this fool get in my way.

"Precisely," I responded. "Now, will you let us by, or will we have to use force?"

The priest drew himself taller. "You wouldn't," he said, aghast.

Kimahri growled, grabbed him by the shoulders, and tossed him down the steps, where he hit the ground after a series of thuds. "Bevelle will hear about this!" he shouted as I pushed the door open and walked through.

We entered a corridor made of ice and snow, Rikku on our heels. The Ronso and the Al Bhed ran ahead to the Chamber of the Fayth, while I took up a post to wait for the others. They were only a few moments behind. "Kimahri's up ahead," I told them. "Go."

"Right!" Tidus pumped his fist in anticipation, then headed down the hallway, followed by Wakka.

As Wakka walked past me, I stopped him with a hand to his arm. "We will protect Yuna from anyone," I reminded him. "Even a maester."

Wakka made a noise of distress, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "This can't be happening," he moaned.

Lulu came up to us. "If he is truly at fault, it must be done," she said, her tone sad but resigned.

I nodded to her. "I know how difficult this is. Do you think it any easier for me, learning of such corruption at the heart of Yevon? But our concern at the moment is not Yevon, or what Bevelle might think of us. Yuna is in danger, and we are sworn to protect her. Nothing else matters. Now, no more talking. We go!" I turned on my heel and sprinted through the corridor, down the stairs, and into the antechamber. Seymour knelt at the entrance to the Chamber of the Fayth. Yuna was nowhere in sight.

"Seymour!" Tidus shouted, pushing his way to the front of the group.

"Please be silent," Seymour commanded. "Lady Yuna prays to the fayth."

"Make me!"

Seymour faced us and took a step down the stairway. He stared at Tidus, and Tidus glared back. The face-off stretched into a long moment, and I started to worry about Seymour's reaction. Would he strike Tidus down before any of us could react? Fortunately, they were interrupted by the appearance of Yuna. All of us, including Seymour, turned to look at her as she opened the door.

She gasped. "But… why?"

"We saw Jyscal's sphere," Tidus told her.

I took a step forward. "You killed him." I made it a bald statement of fact rather than a question.

Seymour shrugged. "What of it? Lady Yuna, certainly you knew of this when you agreed to join me here."

Yuna, dismounting the steps, paused, then nodded with a noise of assent.

"Then why have you come?" he asked.

She had reached her guardians. "I came…" She took a deep breath. "I came to stop you."

"I see." Slowly, he turned back to us. "You came to punish me, then." All the oily charm and fake graciousness he had exuded back in his home had fallen away now, leaving his face cold and his eyes hard. He reached out a hand to her, and she backed away, putting Tidus and me between herself and the maester.

"What a pity," he said, the threat plain in his voice. We all closed ranks around her, and he smiled. "Ah, of course. 'Protect the summoner even at the cost of one's life.' The code of the guardian. Admirable." His own guards stepped forward. "Well, if you are offering your lives, I will have to take them." He raised his arms, preparing to cast a spell.

"Maester Seymour." Yuna spoke up from behind me. "I trust my guardians with my life. But they are also my friends. I will not stand by and watch them be hurt. I will fight you, too!"

I risked a glance at her. She was holding her staff, ready to attack, her expression fiercely determined. My heart thrilled to see it — she valued our lives at the risk of her own, so much that she would stand up to Seymour. When the time came, would she also stand up to Yunalesca?

"Maester Seymour!" Wakka's cry rang out from the back of the room, pleading and desperate.

He was ignored. "So be it," said Seymour, and the battle was joined.

-x-

Seymour was defeated, and so were we.

The battle was long and tiring, a contest of aeons in the end — Seymour's personal aeon versus Yuna and the fayth of Macalania. Once she had defeated Seymour's aeon, he had come to a quick end. Tidus dealt the final blow. As he fell, Yuna rushed to him.

"You would pity me now?" the fallen Guado had asked, and then he slumped backwards, dead. Yuna knelt by his side and gently closed his empty eyes while the rest of us gathered around.

Then Trommell had burst in, aghast at the scene before him. Uninterested in explanations, he had taken away Seymour's body before Yuna could send him, destroyed the sphere of Jyscal, and then sent his soldiers after us. We'd had no choice but to run. In the end, they called forth a wendigo, which had confronted us on the lake ice and then sent us beneath it.

Now the party gathered at the bottom of the lake, dejected and betrayed. We stood on some surface, knee-deep in water, surrounded by odd structures with the tune of the Hymn filling the air, and I thought.

I had not expected to have to go up against Yevon so directly. Much easier if we could have just carried out the pilgrimage as usual, learning the truth about our leaders and the faith we followed only at the end. But Seymour had forced events in a direction I had not anticipated. Yuna was still short an aeon, and it was the fayth of Bevelle. Trommell had branded us traitors; getting into St. Bevelle would be difficult at best. I had no doubt that something could be managed, but what if the others balked?

Yuna was explaining her reasons for agreeing to marry Seymour — she had been hoping to confront him about his father's murder and his future plans.

"In exchange for marriage?" Lulu asked.

"Yes, if that's what it took." She shook her head and sighed. "But he didn't say anything. Now, I don't even think it was worth it."

"Enough!" I said, weary of recriminations. "Dwelling in the past is futile."

"Hey!" Rikku fixed a glare on me. "You don't have to say it like that."

I raised an eyebrow at her. "You want to waste time listening to her regrets?" My tone was harsher than I wanted it to be, but my impatience was growing, and I could feel the beginnings of a serious headache. My first in ten years; I'd thought my death might have put an end to them. Apparently not.

Rikku backed down and looked away from me. "You don't have to say it like that," she repeated under her breath.

I bit back another retort, and turned to Yuna instead. "Our immediate concern is your pilgrimage," I said. "Are you willing to go on?"

"I am willing," she replied, "but do you think Yevon will allow it?"

"The fayth are the ones that give power to the summoners, not the temples or the teachings. If the temples try to stop us…" I stood up straight and looked at my companions. "Then we will defy Yevon, if we must."

Gasps rose from Yuna, Lulu, and Tidus, and Rikku's eyes went wide. "I can't believe you said that," she exclaimed.

Wakka stepped forward, scowling. "Count me out," he said. "We have to atone for our sins. It's not like I ever liked Maester Seymour or anything. No way will I forgive him for killing Lord Jyscal. And for trying to do us all in, too, ya know? But still, going against Yevon? No way!" He crossed his arms and glared at me, defiant.

"I agree," said Lulu, and I had to contain my dismay. I'd had such hopes for her, but she wasn't ready to face the truth about Yevon. And Yuna would follow her lead. "We have transgressed, and must face our punishment." She bowed her head in shame.

"We must go to Bevelle," said Yuna. "I will seek an audience with Grand Maester Mika and explain what has happened. It is the only way, I think." She looked at the ground, then me. "Sir Auron…"

I shrugged. "So it is decided."

"Will you come with us?" she asked me.

As if I would allow anything, even her own foolishness, to separate us. "I am the troublemaker, after all." A bitter disappointment, but I should have expected it. A lifetime of training was a difficult thing to shake off. Well, there was still time. I would go along with this farce and regain their trust. As long as Mika didn't throw us all in jail cells, we would find a way to continue to Zanarkand. Perhaps the shock of Yunalesca would finally shake them out of their blindness to the truth. This was far from over.

Chapter Text

We flew through the air, the wreckage of Home burning behind us. Tessa had told me many stories of her beloved city, and I had always wanted to see it. Now my memory of the place would always be that of a fortress crumbling under Guado attack, then an explosion ringing in my ears.

Leaning against the wall of the corridor, I could feel the engines rumbling behind me and the floor shaking under my feet. Flying on an airship over Spira — who would have thought it possible? It was incredible to me. And yet, looked at with an objective eye, it was hardly the most unlikely thing I had ever done.

Tidus walked up to me, his face grim, an accusation burning in his eyes. He had learned the truth about the Final Summoning only a few minutes ago, and he had taken it badly.

"The price for protecting summoners," I said, my voice low and quiet. Too high a price. But I still couldn't betray my true feelings on that subject to him, not just yet. Anyway, I was sure he would come to that realization on his own, if he hadn't already.

He shook his head. "Whatever," he muttered, and stalked away.

I watched him go, considering his burden. If Relle had been a summoner-- I stopped the thought, shuddering. I had no desire to even imagine that kind of pain.

Instead, I thought back on the events of the last day. After our conference beneath the lake, I had intended to go along with the group's plan to throw ourselves on the mercy of Mika and Yevon. Then Sin had interrupted — we'd been standing on its back the entire time. We all fell unconscious from the toxin and woke up on Bikanel Island, hundreds of miles from Macalania. We were all intact, except for the small problem of a missing summoner. Eventually Rikku confessed that we were in the Al Bhed homeland and that Yuna had been taken to Home. But when we arrived, the fortress was under attack, and Yuna was gone, stolen away by the Guado invaders.

I shook my head. Finding Yuna was our top priority. Our only priority. No point making plans until we knew her location. To clear my head and to pass the time, I drew within and attempted to meditate. But the noise and the motion of the ship made the necessary focus too difficult to find, and I gave up after a few minutes. With a sigh, I drew myself up and headed for the bridge. It was time for a little chat with the man who had kidnapped my charge.

Cid — leader of the Al Bhed, Rikku's father, and commander of this airship — turned and glared at me as I stepped through the door. "So, you're Sir Auron. The man who led my brother-in-law to his death and now does the same for my niece."

I had never met Cid before, so I looked him over. He bore almost no resemblance to his sister — gruff, tall, bald as an egg. Only the eyes were the same. He must have been at least fifteen years older than Tess, maybe even twenty. "I never led Braska anywhere that he didn't want to go," I replied. "And I didn't realize you cared."

His eyes narrowed. "Don't you start with me! You don't know nothin' about it. So what do you want from me?"

"After rescuing Yuna, then what?" I asked. "You want to keep her safe, correct? Would you seek to stop her pilgrimage?"

"'Course I would," he growled. "If she continues this fool pilgrimage, she'll die, sure as if you killed her yourself. No hare-brained law or teaching is sending my niece to her death. When I save her, I'll make her give it up faster 'n the desert melts ice."

"Even against her will?" I kept my tone even.

"Better than a dog's death!" Cid spat out. "And I'll take down anyone who don't agree."

In truth, I had even less interest in seeing Yuna die than he did. But I had to play this part a little while longer. I would be so glad when the charade was finished. "You are the captain," was my mild response. I turned to go and brushed by Tidus, who had observed the confrontation from the doorway. "Let him say what he wants," I muttered as I passed. "It will be Yuna's decision in the end."

I took up my post outside the bridge entrance again, and waited.

-x-

Early the next morning, we were awakened by news: Yuna had been found, and she was in Bevelle. The last place in Spira I wanted to go. The first place we should have thought to look.

I hurried to the bridge, where all the others except for Kimahri had already gathered. The Temple of St. Bevelle appeared on the screen before us. Yuna was there, dressed in white, flanked by an honor guard, covered by a shimmering veil. Seymour was also there, and garbed in similar finery. They met on the bridge leading to the highest courtyard, where they were joined by Mika, Kinoc, and several squadrons of warrior monks, all armed to the teeth — with machina. After Operation Mi'ihen, I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but I still shook my head.

Rikku looked at me. "What's Seymour doing there? I thought we took care of him at Macalania."

"He is as dead as Jyscal," I replied. "His attachment to this world keeps him from the next."

"Ooh, scary!" She shivered.

I considered the scene we had observed, and came to the only possible reason that she might agree to this ridiculous marriage. "Yuna must be trying to send him," I said.

Rikku looked thoughtful. "Wonder if it will work?"

I shrugged. "Perhaps he won't expect it." Rikku nodded, then went to speak to her father.

Tidus had been listening in, and I turned to him. "Bevelle…" I murmured. "It's been ten years." I looked out the window. All I could see were clouds, but I imagined the winking temple spire poking through them in the distance. I found myself hoping for a brief journey. The faster we got there, the sooner we could be gone.

-x-

Evrae. From my very first days in the Order, I had known of the guardian wyrm patrolling the skies above Bevelle, protecting the city from Sin and other unspecified threats — such as renegade guardians in thousand-year-old airships, perhaps? — but I had never seen her before today. Now I could claim her as a vanquished foe. Although Wakka had done most of the work in the end, pelting the monster over and over with his studded blitzball, sometimes with an assist from Lulu's magic or Tidus' encouragement or his own blinding spell. I still marveled at the enemies our party had been able to defeat. The Lady Dona had mocked Yuna for having so many guardians, but there was much to be said for teamwork. Maybe there was hope for a successful confrontation with Yunalesca after all.

But that would have to wait. We clung to the deck of the airship as it plummeted through the clouds, toward St. Bevelle, laid out below us in its glimmering glory. As we drew closer to the pinnacle, I saw Seymour grab Yuna's hand and pull her to the highest courtyard, just below the spire. Mika followed, while Kinoc stayed back with his men, shouting orders. I could hardly believe what I saw — not only were the monks equipped with guns, there were machina warriors as well. At the moment, I was most concerned by the cannons, belching their fire into the sky.

"How we gonna get down?" Wakka shouted over the rushing wind.

The ship slowed, and Cid shot two huge metal cables down to the bridge, anchoring the airship to the city. "Everybody gettin' off at Bevelle, here we are!" he called over the intercom.

Tidus stood up and grinned at Wakka. "We slide!" He jumped onto one of the cables and rode it down, sparks showering from beneath his feet. Rikku did the same; Kimahri lifted Lulu up in his arms and followed.

Wakka looked at me skeptically. "Shall we?" I asked.

"If you say so." We each jumped onto one of the cables, crouching down to keep balance. Reaching the bottom a few seconds later, I leapt off with a grunt, then landed on the bridge. The airship broke its tethers and took off, careening into the sky.

Yuna waited in the courtyard at the pinnacle, her expression combining fear and a fierce joy. Seymour stood by her side, his face hard and angry. They were only a hundred yards away, but the might of Yevon, in the form of more than a dozen warrior monks flanked by machina, held the space between us. The only way to Yuna was through.

From the moment I had returned to Spira as an enemy of Yevon, I had known that I might have to go up against warrior monks in battle. Our confrontation with Seymour in Macalania had made the possibility a near-certainty. I did not hesitate in my attacks; I did not pull my punches or blunt the swings of my sword. But I felt a little more of my humanity die with every one of my former brethren who fell to my blade.

In a matter of minutes, we broke through their defenses, and Tidus rushed up to Kinoc, sword drawn. I was less than a step behind him.

Kinoc swung a machina weapon into Tidus's face. "This has gone far enough," he declared.

Tidus tried push further forward. "Stop!" I ordered him, hooking my leg in front of his, imposing myself between him and Kinoc as best I could, gripped by a vision of myself spattered with the boy's blood, all I had worked for ended by a single bullet.

Tidus strained with anger but did not move further. Kinoc kept the weapon trained on him. Overwhelmed by the urge to protect Tidus, I considered wrenching the gun from Kinoc and shooting my former comrade in the head, ending his life right then and there. But our party had been surrounded by warrior monks, with everyone threatened by at least one weapon; it would mean the end of us all if I murdered him now. So I held back and prayed that Tidus would do the same. Instead, I looked to Yuna.

Delight and horror mingled in my soul as she pulled her summoner's staff from beneath her veil. She stepped back from Seymour, holding it between the two of them, and started to twirl it in a perfect circle. I took a surreptitious step back — though probably out of range, given her focus on the Guado, I would take no chances.

"You would play at marriage just for a chance to send me?" Seymour asked. I couldn't see his face, but he betrayed no concern, only mild amusement, as pyreflies started to rise from his body. "Your resolve is admirable."

"Stop!" Mika shouted. He stepped to the top of the stairway, looking at Yuna and sweeping his hand over her guardians where we gathered at its base. "Do you not value your friends' lives? Protect them… or throw them away. The choice is yours."

Yuna looked at Mika, then Seymour, then Tidus, who growled with frustration but did not dare move, not with Kinoc's gun aimed at his chest.

Slowly, she dropped her arm and, with a terrible look of resignation, let go of her staff. It tumbled down the steps and landed at Tidus's feet.

"You are wise," said Seymour. Mika returned to his place between them and murmured a few words. Rikku cried out and tried to leap forward as Wakka let out a groan of angry resignation. Then Seymour rested his hands on Yuna's shoulders, bent down, and kissed her. Bells rang out, announcing the marriage of a maester. I could feel Tidus quivering with rage next to me and laid a calming hand on his arm.

Not soon enough, Seymour broke away from Yuna. He glanced over his shoulder and said, "Kill them."

Yuna gasped, as did Rikku and Tidus.

Kinoc looked straight into Tidus's eyes as he lifted the barrel of the gun and pressed it into the boy's neck. "I am sorry," he said, "but it is for Yevon."

"Aren't those weapons forbidden by Yevon?" I snapped.

He swiveled, changing his target from Tidus to me. "There are exceptions," he said. He leveled his weapon at my forehead, hands shaking.

I looked past the barrel of the gun and straight at him, letting all my contempt — for him, for Yevon — show plainly in my face. You wouldn't dare.

His eyes narrowed as he made his silent reply. Wouldn't I?

I wondered how badly it would hurt to be shot in the head, and how I would explain having apparently survived a wound that ought to have been fatal.

"No!"

Every head, including Kinoc's and mine, turned to Yuna, who had broken away from Seymour to stand on the courtyard ledge, just inches from a deadly fall to the city below. I felt a surge of fear that was soon overtaken by pride. With only a few steps, she had retaken control of the situation, and everyone knew it.

"Throw down your weapons," she said. "Let them go, or else." She took a step backwards, inching closer to the edge.

Seymour looked at Yuna for a moment, as if testing her resolve. Then, with a scowl, he caught Kinoc's eye and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. Kinoc lowered his weapon, and the squadron of warrior monks surrounding us followed suit. Tidus and Rikku raced up the steps to the courtyard, and the others of our party took the top of the stairs; I hung back to keep an eye on Kinoc and his men.

Yuna did not come down from the ledge. "Leave now, please," she told us.

Tidus wouldn't budge. "You're coming with us."

"Don't worry." Her face was calm, her tone determined. "Go!"

Seymour took a step closer to Yuna and held out a hand to her. "This is foolish," he said. "If you fall, you'll die."

Yuna looked straight at Seymour, her eyes flashing with hatred. She brought her arm to her mouth and wiped it clean with a grunt of disgust. Then she turned her gaze back to Tidus, who was shaking his head. "Don't worry," she repeated gently. "I can fly. Believe." Crossing her arms across her chest and closing her eyes, she tipped herself backwards and fell off the ledge.

Seymour ran to the edge and looked over, Mika and a handful of priests and monks joining him. For a few moments, no one breathed. Then we all heard a rushing sound, followed by the beating of mighty wings, and Valefor's cry filled the air. As I had expected: Yuna had summoned the flying aeon, and she would carry her summoner to safety.

Tidus backed away from the ledge and from Seymour, his face uncertain. I also found myself at a loss — we needed to get away and meet up with Yuna, but how to escape?

Rikku found our solution. "Cover your eyes," she called out, then threw something at Seymour. As I looked away, closing my good eye, I heard a clattering noise followed by an explosion, then shouts of confusion. By the time I decided it was safe to look, Rikku was racing past me, down the stairs.

"What was that?" Wakka asked as he turned to follow.

"An Al Bhed flashbomb."

Tidus had not moved from the courtyard — he seemed rooted to the spot. Kimahri darted back and, grabbing Tidus by the arm, dragged him forward.

"Lemme go!" Tidus protested. "I'm gonna kill that Seymour."

"Yuna said leave, we leave," Kimahri growled.

Lulu hustled behind them. "We'll join up with her later," she said.

A squadron of warrior monks was forming up around us. The others had all reached me now, and I turned to meet our opponents. "Break through!" I shouted, knocking one man aside with a backhand fist, then pushing another down with an elbow to the gut. Wakka took out another with a punch to the jaw, and Rikku tossed a grenade into the group closing behind. The rest scattered, and we made our way back to the bridge, following the pathway down to the Cloister of Trials.

"It's too quiet," Lulu commented as we entered. "A trap?"

The same thought had occurred to me. I'd found our escape rather easier than it ought to have been. Either they had let us go, or discipline within the warrior monks had gone completely to hell in the last ten years.

"Who cares?" Tidus gestured with frustration. "Yuna's waiting for us." Since I was also inclined to agree with him, I said nothing either way and looked around instead. This was not the entrance I had used when I came to the Cloister with Braska ten years ago — we'd entered through the base of the temple, not the top. Now we gathered on a landing, a long spiral staircase disappearing into the depths.

"Hmm." Rikku walked up to a panel and poked at a glowing button. A rumble filled the stairway as the top four stairs separated from the others and revealed themselves to be a mechanical lift.

"A machina in the temple?" Wakka was flabbergasted. "What's that doing here?"

Rikku shrugged. "I suppose it comes in handy."

"That's not what I meant! The teachings! What about the teachings?"

I held back a groan, or perhaps it was a laugh. How could he still make pronouncements about Yevon's purity after everything we had seen?

"Hey, don't look at me," said Rikku.

Wakka sighed as we piled on to the lift. When we reached the bottom, another panel awaited us. This one controlled a force field that blocked off the entrance to the Cloister proper, and Rikku activated it as well.

"Another machina?" Wakka asked. "Man…"

"So this is Yevon's true face," I said, a note of perverse satisfaction creeping into my voice at this proof of Bevelle's hypocrisy. "They betray their own teachings."

Wakka's shoulders slumped as he sighed again. "They treated us like dirt," he muttered.

It was a statement with which no one could argue. We made our way into the Cloister and began our search for Yuna.

-x-

Once through the Trials, we piled into the empty antechamber. "Yuna?" Tidus called gently.

"Inside, maybe?" Wakka suggested.

"Then what are we standing here for?" Tidus rushed the stone door and started trying to tug it open.

"Hey!"

Tidus glared at Wakka over his shoulder. "You can stuff your taboos!" He continued lifting in vain, grunting all the while. I was about to take pity on him when Kimahri beat me to it. The two of them working together were able to pull up the door enough for Tidus to slip underneath. I waited a moment, then followed.

Yuna knelt on the ground before the statue of the fayth, bowed in supplication, still in her wedding dress. A figure of a young boy dressed in purple hung before her, suspended in mid-air. Tidus stood behind her, at a respectful distance. "Wh-what's that?" he whispered, possibly to himself.

"A fayth," I told him. He turned to look at me. "The fayth joins with the summoner, and together they receive the aeon. They are human souls, imprisoned in stone by ancient Yevon rites." I shook my head. "The dead should be allowed to rest."

This was not what I had planned to say. Was I talking about the fayth, or myself?

Before I could reflect on my unguarded words, Yuna stood. The ghostly figure rotated onto its side and merged its spectral body with hers. She gasped, then fainted.

Tidus called her name and hurried to her side. I made certain she would be all right, then left them alone, slipping out into the antechamber, which half-filled with warrior monks, guns raised. I recognized their insignia immediately: Gray Squadron. "Figures," I muttered.

"Don't come out!" Rikku shouted, a moment too late to warn Tidus. A split second later, he appeared, carrying Yuna in his arms. The warrior monks trained their guns on him as Kinoc stepped into the room.

"There's the last of them," he said. He drew himself up to his full height, such as it was, and looked us over. "You are to stand trial."

I raised an eyebrow. "I trust it will be a fair trial."

He chortled, an ugly, malicious sound. "Of course it will." And he motioned his men to take us away.

Chapter Text

I leaned against the wall of a Bevelle prison cage, Tidus pacing beside me. The guards had separated us from the others after the mockery of a trial, where we had been branded traitors for questioning Sin's eternal nature and the rule of Yevon by the dead. In the process, Mika revealed himself to be unsent. This should have been a great shock, and perhaps to the others it was. But I wasn't all that surprised — the man had led Yevon for fifty years and looked exactly the same as he had in my youth. The real surprise was that more people did not question the length of his reign. During the trial, Mika had recited much the same speech that I'd gotten from Yunalesca in Zanarkand, proclaiming the impossibility of stopping Sin's rebirth, asserting that false hope was the only hope. So Yevon was unified in this as well.

Tidus grabbed the bars and let out a yell of frustration. "Get me outta here! I want out now! You hear me?"

I glanced over at him. "You waste your breath."

He kicked the wall, then dropped to the ground with a sigh. "Man, I hope Yuna's okay," he said.

"She's strong," I said, raising my gaze to the top of the cell, which was suspended from the ceiling by a heavy chain. The waters of the Via Purifico cascaded down the walls around us. I had been here two or three before, escorting Brac on visits to condemned prisoners. The idea that I would be on the other side of these bars one day had never occurred to me then. "She'll make it."

He snorted. "'She'll make it'? What, so she can die?" Then he let out a sigh. "Why is it that everything in Spira revolves around people dying?"

In spite of our situation, I had to smile. With all that he had been through lately, I sometimes forgot that Tidus had grown up safe and secure in Zanarkand, his greatest daily worries about girls and blitzball. He hadn't feared for his life every single day, as I had. When I thought about it, I envied his innocence. It was what I worked for, the dream that propelled me forward: a world full of people like Tidus. "Ah, yes. The cycle of death," I said.

He glanced up at me. "Huh?"

"Summoners challenge the bringer of death, Sin, and die doing so. Guardians give their lives to protect their summoner. The fayth are the souls of the dead. Even the maesters of Yevon are unsent. Spira is full of death. Only Sin is reborn, and then only to bring more death." I paused for breath and looked at the floor. "It is a cycle of death, spiraling endlessly."

Tidus sighed again, and then silence fell for a long time.

-x-

Several hours had passed by the time I heard four sets of footsteps. Glancing up, I saw Kinoc, accompanied by three men of Gray Squad. My old unit, the pride of the Order, fallen to executioner duty. I wondered what Brac would make of this state of affairs. Kinoc stood on the walkway, his guards flanking him. I stood up straight to face him, and Tidus followed my lead.

"Come out," he said. "Your sentence has been decided."

"'Sentence'?" I responded. "Don't you mean, 'execution'?"

Kinoc actually chuckled. "Really, now. What person would execute a dear friend?"

I stared back, not allowing myself even a flicker of emotion. "You would."

He did not even pretend to deny it. Without a word, one of the warrior monks unlocked the cell door and reached for Tidus, who twisted away and shrank to the back of the cell.

I leaned over him and murmured in his ear. "Don't fight them yet. A better chance will come; save your strength. Head for the temple exit if we're separated." If I knew Kinoc, he wouldn't murder us outright — more likely that he'd throw us into a fiend-infested area and count on the monsters to do his dirty work. Whatever found us there could be defeated. And then, perhaps, we would escape.

He relaxed a little and nodded. Turning to the guard, he submitted to being grabbed and having his hands pulled behind his back. "Remember!" I called after him as he was marched away.

Then it was my turn. Kinoc had the other two guards hold me, one on each arm. It was a smart move on his part — I could have taken either of them easily, but although I could probably also defeat the two together, it would take enough effort that I could then be subdued by Kinoc. I doubted he was any match for me hand-to-hand anymore, but I also assumed that his magic skills had improved. They turned me in the other direction, and we walked.

Soon, we stood before a barred gate, which led into one of the old, deserted parts of the temple. The Via Purifico, where criminals and traitors were purified by death. One of the monks escorting me pulled the gate open, pushed me through, and slammed it shut. I turned around to see them walking away. Kinoc remained, alone. "Nothing to say?" he asked when they were out of earshot.

"To you?" I grunted, a mirthless laugh. "No."

He glanced to the ceiling. "I am sorry, for what it's worth."

I stared at him open-mouthed for a second, speechless at his gall, then found my voice. "It is worth nothing. You are sorry? For what? Pretending to be my friend? Using my father to stab me in the back? Destroying my career and my family? Rising to power via treachery, then presiding over a religion every bit as corrupt as you are? For leaving me to the fiends now?" I shook my head. "Your apology is not accepted."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," he said, his tone even. "I'd hoped to make peace with you before you died, but if you don't want to do that…"

I snorted. "It's too late for that. And it has been for a long time." He tilted his head to the side, and I wondered what conclusions he was drawing from my words. Silence fell again, until I could hold back the question no longer. "Did you kill him?"

He didn't ask who I meant. "No. There was no need. He was old and very ill. I was with him when he died, but I had nothing to do with it."

"But you saw to it that he was sent."

Kinoc nodded. "At Mika's request. There's so much that you never understood. Brac and Mika were locked in a decades-long power struggle. When Brac chose to elevate you, he believed that you would be loyal to him without question. He planned to overthrow Mika with your help and rule Yevon himself, installing you in his old position." He sneered. "Brac knew you would serve him faithfully, do your duty, guard your precious honor and his without asking too many questions. You would've been the perfect yes-man."

"So now you're Mika's yes-man instead?"

He laughed, and for a second he sounded so much like his old self that I had to remind myself not to join in. "I'm my own man and always have been. But when I saw you were going to turn down Brac, I decided to make a move for myself. Get in good with Mika, who saw you as a threat, and take a large step up the ladder. With me by his side, Brac didn't have a chance to take the Grand Maester's throne, and before long he knew it." He spread his arms. "It wasn't anything personal. I admit that knowing you so well was an advantage, but I would have done the same thing to anyone."

"And you think that makes it better?" I shook my head. "How little you understand. Me, or anything." I started to turn away.

"Auron."

I looked back through the bars.

"So you don't want to forgive me. Fine, that's your choice. I suppose I can't even blame you. After all, I'm guilty of nearly every accusation you make, although I was your friend. Believe that or don't as you prefer, but it's the truth. But you should forgive Brac. He was a stubborn, proud old man, but he loved you. When you turned down the chance to be a part of his family, he was so hurt that he lashed out more harshly than he intended." He took a deep breath. "Letting you go off with Braska was his greatest regret. He told me so, on his deathbed. He thought you were Sin, you know." My good eye widened at this. "He assumed that Braska had taken you as his fayth. He went into a deep despair when he learned that you couldn't be found on the Farplane." He cocked his head. "But that wasn't the reason, was it."

So he did understand. I cleared my throat, then answered. "No."

"Then why go through all this?" He took a step forward to the bars, his expression earnest. "Get out of here. Go to the Farplane where you belong. Take your rest; you've more than earned it."

"I can't. I have promises to keep."

Kinoc sighed. "You and your promises. Fine, stay here. Rot with the fiends for all I care." We stared at each other for a moment more. Then he nodded. "Well. Goodbye then."

Goodbye. But nearly two decades of friendship and enmity pressed down on me, the weight of mixed emotions too much to allow a reply. I just kept looking, silent.

He muttered a word and waved his arm, and the heavy metal bars of the gate disappeared, replaced by a solid stone wall, leaving no evidence of a door. I was well and truly trapped. And, once again, Kinoc was gone.

-x-

I wandered the halls of the Via Purifico, sword drawn. There were fiends everywhere, but nothing beyond my abilities. Getting lost was a greater danger. This place was a maze of narrow passages without many landmarks. After what felt like several hours, I found a hallway that was different — the wallpaper pattern had changed, and red sconces lined the walls. I saw a transporter on the floor in the middle of the room, but it was not active.

This different hallway seemed the most likely to lead to an exit. Or a trap. I wondered if Yuna and the others were here somewhere. Should I try to find them first, or the way out?

"I hate this place," I muttered as I looked around.

Then a fast-moving beam of light caught my eye. It traveled along the floor, then gathered over the transporter, forming into human shapes. First Kimahri appeared, then Lulu, and finally Yuna. One question answered then. Yuna stepped toward me, bowing deeply, a flush spilling over her cheeks. Then she looked up at me, and I cut off her apology before she could make it with a silent hand gesture.

"There must be an exit somewhere," I told her. "We search." She nodded, and fell in next to me as we started walking down the red-lit hall. Lulu took a place on my other side, while Kimahri brought up the rear.

"The others?" I asked Lulu.

She shook her head. "I don't know. Wakka and I were held in the same cell after the trial, but when the warrior monks came for us they took him in a different direction."

"The same was true for Rikku and me," Yuna said.

"For me and Tidus as well." I thought for a moment. "Perhaps they are together."

"I hope so." Lulu sighed and drew her wrap higher up on her shoulders. "The daughter of the High Summoner, branded a traitor for fighting a murderer and opposing Sin. I can't believe it."

I knew what she wanted me to say: Neither can I. But I could believe it. All too easily. And soon enough, she would understand why. Assuming we made it out of here and continued on to Zanarkand.

The hallway was infested with fiends and slogging our way through was a slow and difficult process. After a time, the passage opened out into a room. A figure approached from the other side, and by unspoken agreement Kimahri and I stepped forward, blocking Yuna from view, weapons ready.

"Lady Yuna?' The man approached us. It was Isaaru, another summoner. We had first met him at Djose, and then he had escaped with us from Home on Cid's airship. "So it is you."

Yuna pushed Kimahri aside and stepped forward. "Why are you here?" she asked.

"The Al Bhed dropped us off not far from here," Isaaru said. "When we arrived at the gates of Bevelle, Maester Kinoc called us here, ordered me to 'deal with the traitors.' But I never imagined that it might be you, Lady Yuna."

"You will fight us?" I asked him.

"The temple's orders are law!" he replied sharply. "Lord Braska's daughter or no, you are a traitor and must be dealt with accordingly. I am sorry, but I cannot let you pass." He bowed his head, and began to summon.

Yuna turned to her guardians and held up a hand of warning. "Stay back. I will handle this myself."

"As you wish, my lady," I replied, inclining my head as if to bow. She was right — a man, a woman, and a Ronso would be of little use in a battle of aeons. Best for us to stay out of the way. I stepped back against the wall and settled in to wait.

It was a stunning display of power. Yuna had formed a strong bond with each fayth, learning how to exploit their strengths and buttress their weaknesses. Isaaru summoned three aeons, and each fell in its turn. The fight lasted only a few minutes. She had mastered her craft; I had never seen her equal. Not even Braska had handled his aeons so deftly. It gave me hope for the struggle yet to come.

Exhausted by the effort of calling and then losing his aeons in quick succession, Isaaru dropped to the floor, panting. Yuna stepped forward to aid him, and he waved her off. She turned away and returned to us, Kimahri placing a firm hand on her shoulder to restore her own strength.

Isaaru looked up. "There is a way to the surface up ahead," he told us, waving his hand to the right. Lulu, Kimahri, and Yuna took off in the direction he had indicated. I started to follow, then paused at Isaaru's feet.

I studied the young man for a moment. He had been a promising young man; I had been impressed by his intelligence and honor when we'd encountered him previously. But in the end, he was just another tool of Yevon. "Your pilgrimage is over," I said.

He did not meet my gaze or acknowledge my words. So I left him there, walking through the doorway that would take me to the exit and free me from Bevelle for good.

-x-

The corridor leading out of the Via Purifico came up near the main entrance of St. Bevelle, and I led the party the rest of the way there. The four of us had been resting for a few minutes when I heard a splash behind me. We all turned to see Tidus, Rikku, and Wakka climbing out of the waterway that rushed past the Highbridge.

"Yunie!" Rikku ran up to Yuna and embraced her. "You're all right? We were so worried. It's good to have you back."

"Thank you," said Yuna as she returned the hug, then stepped away, looking up at Tidus. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then started at a noise behind him. Seymour and Kinoc approached us, moving down the Highbridge, blocking our path to the exit. They were flanked by three Guado guards and a warrior monk, who seemed to be helping Kinoc along. Then I realized the truth as the monk flung Kinoc's lifeless body to the ground.

"Kinoc!" I breathed, the name coming unbidden from my lips.

Tidus narrowed his eyes and stepped forward. "Why, you…"

"I have saved him," said Seymour, raising his head.

All else blurred as I stared at my enemy, my brother, my friend, sprawled like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Dead. And I did not know how to feel about it. All I knew was that this was wrong. This was not how things were supposed to end between us.

With an effort, I wrenched my gaze away from the body and back to Seymour, who was still talking. "…he spent his days scheming petty schemes. Chased by his fears, never knowing rest. Now he has no worries. He has been granted sleep eternal, death's sweet slumber. All the pain of life is gently swept away… Ah, yes."

He turned to Yuna. "So you see, if all life were to end in Spira, all suffering would end. Do you not agree? That, Yuna, is why I need you." Reaching a hand out to her, he continued. "Come, Lady Yuna. Come with me to Zanarkand, the lost city of the dead. With death on our side, we will save Spira, and then… Then I will take from you your strength, Yuna, your life, and become the next Sin." He dropped his head and looked up at her from lowered eyes. "I will destroy Spira!" he exclaimed fervently. "I will save it!"

Yuna stared at him, open mouthed, as Tidus voiced what the rest of the party was surely thinking: "You're totally nuts!"

Kimahri, though, was the first to act. He strode forward and slammed the point of his lance into Seymour's chest. The maester did not even flinch as he stared impassively at the Ronso guardian. "Unpleasant," he said. "Very well, I will give you your death. You seem to want it so." He raised his staff, and waves of power began to gather around it, pulling in the life essence from the guards that surrounded him as well as from Kinoc. Pyreflies surrounded him, forming a silvery armor as he howled.

Kimahri never moved except to turn his head. "Run!" he called back to us. "Protect Yuna!"

The others hesitated, so I made the decision for them. "Go!" I shouted.

Tidus glared at me, my order provoking sudden obstinacy. "No way! I'm fighting."

I drew my sword and pointed it at him. "I said go."

This time, my tone allowed no space for argument. He and Yuna glanced at each other, nodded, and made their getaway. The others followed, and, putting away my sword, I brought up the rear. I felt a slight pang at abandoning Kimahri. Sometimes I felt as though he was the member of this party with whom I had connected most: a young warrior, outcast from his family, devoted to his summoner. But he was a guardian. Protecting Yuna was his sole purpose; if he died facing Seymour while giving her time to escape, he would have fulfilled his duty.

We were about three-quarters of the way down the Highbridge when defiance came from an unexpected source. Yuna came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the walkway, and I almost crashed into her before I pulled up. "I won't leave Kimahri behind," she declared.

I gave her an exasperated look. "He is your guardian," I reminded her. "Protecting you is everything."

Yuna spread out her arms. "Auron!" she cried, clearly desperate to save her protector -- so desperate, I realized, that this was the first time she had ever addressed me without using some sort of honorific.

Tidus stepped between us. "That's right," he said. "We're all guardians. And you know what that means, Yuna? Anywhere you go, I'll follow."

She looked at him. "Anywhere?"

He walked past me and stood next to her, looking down into her eyes. "Anywhere."

They both grinned and nodded. "Let's go!" they said in unison. And they turned and raced back toward the temple entrance, Tidus shouting "Hey Kimahri! Leave some for us" as they ran.

"Wait up," Wakka called out as he turned to join them, Rikku right behind him. I heard a rustling sound as Lulu came up to my right side, her face glowing with anticipation. "I'll go too," she said, a smile in her voice, and then she hurried on, leaving me alone.

I couldn't help it; I laughed. Then I followed.

Somehow, in the last few minutes, warrior monks and machina warriors had gathered on the Highbridge, and we had to fight our way though. By the time we reached Kimahri, he was already fading, magical frost clinging to his blue fur. Seymour had taken a few cuts from the Ronso's lance, but he was winning this battle. Yuna murmured something, then tapped the air with her staff, and Kimahri straightened, the healing spell giving him strength as he backed away to take a breather.

Seymour looked at Yuna as we approached him. "I am pleased to see you again, Lady Yuna," he said.

"I'll only be pleased when you're gone to the Farplane," she retorted, gripping her staff.

He shook his head with a tolerant chuckle, and I felt a surge of murderous rage course through me. But to my surprise, my anger was not for Yuna, and it was not for Spira. It was for Kinoc.

Seymour's eyes fell on me, and he must have seen the emotion in my face. "Have you something to say, Sir Auron?"

I found myself taking a step forward. The words came slowly, but they were propelled by fury. "Although no longer the man I once knew, Kinoc was still my friend." I turned my eye on him, and I felt the full force of hatred and grief burning there. "You will pay for his death!" I raised my sword, my need for vengeance lending me strength as I rushed him, striking his chest. The edge didn't penetrate his armor, but still he shuddered under the power of the blow, then straightened with a gesture. A thunder spell knocked me away, and I fell to the ground.

"Stay back!" I heard Lulu shout from behind me as she countered with a burst of flame. I stood up and dusted myself off in preparation for another attack, and then the struggle was well and truly begun.

Chapter Text

A team of four cadets and their captain exited the Thunder Plains and found their way into Macalania Woods. Liss walked in the front with Repparu, who as the chief gunner kept an eye out for distant threats. Sam, the group's only mage, held the most protected spot in the middle, along with Paine, who played the part of escorted guest while observing the trainees in action. Maura, the most versatile of the group, brought up the rear and watched everyone's back.

When Liss first named a team of Repparu, Maura, and Sam, Paine had reminded her about not merely inviting her friends along, but Liss had defended her decisions. "Repparu is easily the best shot in the class," she'd said, "and the same is even more true of Sam and his magical abilities. And Maura is excellent with both the sword and the gun, her skills in both areas very different from mine. She can get the quick enemies and I can take the tougher ones. Besides, doesn't it make sense for me to choose the people I know best? We're already familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses, which is an advantage for becoming a cohesive team." Paine had to agree with every assessment, and so she let Liss's choices stand. They had been on the road for a week, and so far had answered every attack with great success — mostly fiends, although a very unhappy pair of bandits had been left tied up against a tree near the north bank of the Moonflow. The group displayed perfect balance as well as the knack for teamwork that Liss had been hoping for, and Paine was pleased with their progress.

"Okay, hold up," Liss called out as the group approached a fork in the road. She stepped onto a small rise to look around, then nodded. "Let's camp here." She turned to Paine. "If that's all right with you, Captain?"

Paine shrugged. "It's your decision, not mine. You're in charge."

"You're our honored guest, Captain," Maura said with a grin. "Shouldn't you be comfortable with any campsite we choose?"

Paine laughed. "Fair enough. All right, yes, I approve. You can stop here for the night."

Repparu took a seat on the edge of the trail, taking first watch while Sam and Maura set up the tent. The day had been unusually warm for mid-winter, but the night would too cold to sleep rough. Paine stood to the side and watched the two cadets raise the structure as Liss walked up beside her.

"You've done well," Paine told her cousin. "You picked a good team, and they're working well with you, and together."

"Thanks," said Liss absently, her eyes focused on some spot farther down the trail.

"Hey." Paine poked Liss in the arm. "You okay?"

"Sure, I'm fine," she responded, not moving. "Just thinking about tomorrow."

Paine looked up into Liss's face and saw concern there. "You nervous?"

"Yeah. A little. A lot has happened since I left home, you know? I've learned so much, about both my parents and even myself. Do you think that will change things between Mother and me?"

"I'm sure it will," Paine replied. "But for the better. It's always good to have things out in the open."

Liss turned to Paine. "Promise?"

Paine chuckled. "Well, I can't promise. But it seems likely. All right?" Liss smiled and nodded. "All right. Let's get a fire started."

-x-

The battle with Seymour was long and exhausting. He'd discovered some way to negate Yuna's ability to call her aeons, so we had to rely on blades and spells. Eventually, we wore him down and defeated him, but everyone walked away wounded, tired, and dejected. The brave faces most had worn before battle were replaced by quiet brooding as they reflected on the truths they had learned about their faith. They had all been prepared to die to defend Spira, and as thanks Yevon had declared them all traitors. We would need a full night's rest before Yuna could move on. So I'd directed the party to a clearing and a spring that I knew on the outskirts of Macalania Woods — it would be a good place to heal and regroup.

But once they were settled, I headed in another direction, taking my leave of the group on the pretext of needing to check out our status with Bevelle. That errand had been short, though, and so I could put off my true purpose no longer. Slowly, I approached a small farmhouse nestled amongst the trees, the sunset fading behind them. Arelle's home.

I became more nervous with every step. Would Relle even want to see me? From her point of view, I had deserted her for a decade. If she shut the door in my face, it would be her right. But I had to make this visit. I would feel too much of a coward if I came this close without seeing her.

As I approached the cottage, I noticed a girl with long dark hair playing in the yard. She was holding a stick as if it were a sword, fencing with the sunflowers. Then she looked up and, seeing me approach, froze.

I stopped, not wanting to scare her. "Hello," I said, projecting as much calm as I could muster. I stood my sword against a tree, then unlatched my high collar and pulled it over my head. I felt rather naked without them, but perhaps it would put the child at ease if I looked less like a fighting machine.

"Hi," she said, cautiously.

"Is your mother home?" I asked as I walked closer. Because it was obvious to me that this could only be Relle's daughter — the eyes were the same clear gray, intelligent and warm, and there was something familiar about her face. My heart sank a little — had Arelle remarried? Rickard hadn't mentioned a husband, but the existence of a child hadn't come up, either. Well, I could hardly blame her if so, not after ten years.

She hesitated for a moment, as if deciding whether to trust me. "Yes," she finally said, "but she's working. Why?"

"I'm an old friend. I was in the area and thought I'd drop by to say hello." I had reached the gate by this time and, opening it, walked up to her.

She looked up at me, doubt on her face. "You're tall."

I knelt down to bring myself closer to her height, as I had always done for Yuna and Paine when they were small. "There," I said. "Not so tall now, am I?"

She smiled, suddenly more relaxed. "No. Now I'm taller than you!" I nodded agreement — she was going to be a very tall woman, even more so than her mother. "I'm Liss."

"Nice to meet you," I said. "My name is Auron." There was no obvious reaction from Liss, and my heart dropped even farther. Had Arelle cut me from her life so much? Only one way to find out, and I'd come too far to back out now. "Since we've been introduced, may I go in the house and pay my respects?"

She nodded. "Yeah. You're okay."

I stood up. "Thank you, Liss."

"Really," she said, "my name's Lissira. But my friends call me Liss."

"Then I am honored to be your friend," I said, inclining my head in a bow, then moved through the yard to the cottage. I had almost reached the front door when a thought struck me, and I turned back to the girl, who had returned to her battle against the sunflowers. "If I may ask, Liss, how old are you?"

"I'm nine," she replied, not pausing in her attack.

"Thank you," I said, making some quick mental calculations. Then I shook my head, hard. I needed to see Relle before making any more assumptions. I reached up to knock on the door, but it swung fully open at my first touch. I took a deep breath and stepped into the house, closing the door behind me.

There she was, her back to me, standing over a basin of steaming water, a dish in her hand. Her hair, piled on top of her head, had faded slightly, from the copper color I remembered to a softer tone, almost gold. Her curves were softer, too; no longer the body of a twenty-four-year-old girl, but of a woman in her thirties who had given birth to a child. She hummed as she worked — at least one thing hadn't changed. I hated to interrupt the peaceful moment, but I felt too much like a stalker just watching her in silence. I had to speak.

"Relle."

She froze, then straightened up and turned around, eyes wide. She didn't drop the bowl she was holding, but it was a near thing. I saw her hands tighten on it, knuckles turning almost white.

"Auron?" she said, voice faint. "I… I didn't hear you come in."

"I was going to knock," I said, "but the door opened on its own. I hope I didn't scare you."

"It's all right," she replied, looking down at the dish, but clearly it wasn't. "How did you find me?"

"Rickard told me that you were here."

"Oh." She paused. "So you know about Tzeki, then."

"Yes. And Kera, and Xan."

I dropped my head for a moment, then raised it again. Her eyes were still locked on the bowl in her hands. "What brings you here?" she asked.

"Does a man need a reason to come see his wife?" It was a weak response, and we both knew it. "You look well." The triteness of that was even worse, but I spoke nothing less than truth — she was as lovely as the last time I'd seen her. More so, in that I'd left a girl and returned to a woman. All her features had softened and matured. She was radiant. Only the sadness in her eyes marred her beauty.

She only nodded, looking up now, her focus on something in the distance over my shoulder.

"Kinoc is dead," I said abruptly.

An eyebrow just barely quirked. "Did you kill him?"

"No." I glanced at the ceiling as I considered the improbability of what I was going to say next. "I avenged him."

Another nod, then silence.

"I met Liss." I paused, wondering if I should ask. But I couldn't contain the question. "Is she…"

Her response was barely a whisper. "Yes. Lissira is your daughter."

Even though I was half-expecting it, the answer still hit me with enormous force. "My daughter," I breathed, almost dizzy with the rush of emotions. "She… I'm a father? How… "

She looked straight at me then, her expression incredulous. "'How?' The last time I saw you. I'd expect you to remember that visit vividly. I know I do."

I was still at a loss for words. "You… Relle… why didn't you… tell…" My voice trailed off as I realized the utter idiocy of this question. Of course she hadn't told me — how could she have?

The look became a glare, her eyes flashing with anger. "Tell you? How could I have possibly told you? I didn't know where you were. You think I didn't look? You think I didn't visit the Farplane every day for weeks to see if you'd turn up there? No one knew whether you'd even survived the Final Summoning. I once heard a rumor that you'd been seen near Bevelle afterwards, but no one could tell me what happened to you after that. How dare you come here and ask me that, when you disappeared on me for ten years? Ten years, Auron! I thought you were dead!"

I looked at the floor, half in shame at my stupidity, half to hold back a hideously inappropriate laugh. I'd fancied I could avoid this particular conversation, but I wasn't getting out of it. How best to tell her? Finally, I returned my gaze to her face and, controlling my voice, said, "You weren't wrong."

Then the bowl did fall, slipping from her hands as they went slack. It crashed down to the stone floor and shattered into a thousand pieces. "No," she whispered, the blood draining from her face. She took a step back, resting a hand on the table beside her for balance. "No… oh please Yevon no." She shook her head violently, the anger in her eyes turning to anguish. "What… how?"

"After the Final Summoning, I returned to Zanarkand and confronted… someone we had met. She struck me down. I made it as far as the Calm Lands, but it was too late — I died there. There was no one to send me, and I had made a promise to Jecht, that I would find and watch over his son. My promise bound me to this world. I could have come back to you instead, but it would have been a false life, a lie." I sighed and looked at my feet again, then back up to Relle. "I couldn't do that to you. But I see now that it was a mistake not to come earlier. I'm sorry I left you wondering."

"Why are you here?" she asked, her voice breaking.

I looked straight into her eyes. "Because I had to see you one more time. To tell you that I still love you. That I have always loved you. I couldn't leave this world without letting you know."

A hand flew up to cover her mouth, and her face began to quiver as her eyes filled with tears, her control beginning to crack. In three strides, I was across the room, pottery shards crunching beneath my feet. My arms came around her, and I held her close. She cried without making a sound, shaking so violently that I could barely keep her standing. I rocked her, burying my face in her hair and whispering her name, trying to bring us comfort that we both knew could never come.

Eventually, her sobs subsided. She placed her head and hands on my chest, then leaned back to look at me. "I can't believe… why am I able to touch you?"

"I can be solid or insubstantial as I choose," I said.

She nodded. Then she reached up and traced the scar on my forehead. "Your eye… and you look so much older."

"I lost the eye in the fight that killed me. As for the other, I don't know why my hair went gray so fast. It may be because I'm unsent — it's taken a lot of effort to keep going, these last ten years. But perhaps not. Dix was graying by the time he was my age."

"I remember." Relle smiled a little, running her fingers along the streak coming from my right temple. "I like it. Makes you look distinguished."

I smiled back. "Liar. But thank you. You, on the other hand, are more beautiful than you ever were."

She blushed. "Now who's the liar." She paused. "What's it like…" she started to ask, then broke off, shaking her head. "No, I take it back. I don't think I want to know."

"It would be difficult to explain anyway," I said. "If we talked all night, I might be able to make you understand, but I haven't much time. My party will be missing me soon, and I don't want to have to tell them why I was gone. But before I leave, what can you tell me about Lissira?"

The tiny smile touched her features again. "If only we had all night. She'd take that long to explain, too. She's a wonderful girl, Auron. Strong, smart, loving. You'd be proud of her."

"What did you tell her about me?" I asked.

She looked away. "Not much. I said that her father was killed by Sin before she was born — I figured it was likely true, or close enough. I don't… I could never bear to talk about you. I think she senses that, so she doesn't ask many questions." She sighed. "I'm glad you came, even if only for a moment. I'm glad you know about Liss. But, oh Auron, I miss you so much." I looked into her eyes and saw the grief and longing there. Her feelings mirrored my own.

I laid my hand on her face. "I miss you too." I leaned forward, touching my forehead to hers, and found that I couldn't resist kissing her. I had meant it to be quick, but the moment my lips touched hers, a hand came up behind my head and pressed me closer. She hadn't said that she loved me, but she didn't need to. I stroked her cheek with my thumb. She tangled her fingers in my hair.

Then it was over. She stepped back and looked away. "I'm never going to see you again, am I." It was not a question.

"I am sorry," I said, through a growing lump in my throat. "I'm tired, Relle, so very tired. When my mission is over…" But I found myself wondering. Could I stay to see my child become a woman? Get back all the years Relle and I had lost? Maybe I didn't need Yuna to send me in the end. Maybe I could…

No. I quashed the thought before it could take root and become a temptation. Spira had been ruled by death for too long. It was time to return this world to the living. Once this was over, I would rest.

She raised up her hand and shook her head. "You don't need to say it. I understand."

I nodded. "I promise you, the mission is important. I'm on a pilgrimage with Braska's daughter and Jecht's son. I think I've found a way to stop Sin — for good. Imagine it, Relle. Our daughter, growing up in a world free from Sin!"

Her head snapped up, eyes shining with amazement at the thought, as well as with unshed tears. "The end of Sin… really? Oh, how wonderful! How…"

"I can't tell you. I wish I could. There is so much I wish I could…" I broke off, choked by ten years of regrets, of words unsaid.

She started to take a step toward me, then stopped. "It's all right. Whatever you're planning, I'm sure it's the right thing. I believe in you, Auron. I always have."

I bowed my head. "Thank you. I promise that I will not leave you wondering again. If I fail, I'll come back to let you know."

"And if you succeed?" she asked, a small tremble in her voice.

I paused. "You will know. I swear it. And now I must go. Goodbye, Relle."

"Goodbye." She returned to her washing, and I understood — she didn't want to watch me leave again. I turned around and went the door.

Night had fallen, but Lissira was still playing in the garden. She ran up to me as I walked to the gate. My daughter; I could still barely believe it. "Are you leaving now?" she asked.

"I am. It was nice meeting you." A thousand bittersweet emotions flooded my heart. I studied at her face and realized why she had seemed so familiar: she had Relle's eyes, but otherwise she looked just like Kera as a little girl. My throat closed again, and I resisted the urge to lift her up in my arms, to hug her close to me and never let go. Instead, I merely tousled her hair — it was thick and slightly coarse, much like my own — touching my child for the first and last time. "Be a good girl, and take care of your mother."

She nodded seriously. "I will."

I nodded back. "Goodbye then." I opened the gate and walked through. As it swung closed behind me, I heard Liss's answering shout. "Bye! Come back soon." I looked back over my shoulder to see her waving at me. I waved back, but I could not bring myself to speak.

I gathered my armor and weapon and headed back to camp, my spirit simultaneously heavy and light. My joy in the knowledge that Relle still loved me and that she was raising our child warred with a crushing sorrow that I would never see either of them again, and I grieved for the family I had lost, that I had never really had. After a few minutes of walking, I looked back to make sure the farm was out of sight and earshot. Finding that it was, I leaned up against a tree, and quietly fell apart.

-x-

Over seven years later, Paine stood by that same tree, brooding. Liss had lead her team successfully through the woods, and her spirits had become ever more buoyant as she approached her childhood home. But now Paine was uneasy. It had been nearly twenty years since she'd parted from Arelle, under unpleasant circumstances, and she didn't know what kind of reception to expect.

Baralai came up behind her. He had met up with them that afternoon, near the path that lead to Bevelle. "Everything okay?" he asked.

Paine turned. "Hmm? Oh, sure. Just thinking."

He prodded her in the back. "Hey. Relax. I'm sure she'll be happy to see you."

"Okay." She took a fortifying breath of chilly air and continued on the path.

Soon, the small house and garden came into sight. Liss was already poised to knock on the door, Maura waiting next to her, the boys at the bottom of the stairs. "C'mon, hurry up," she called out.

"Coming, coming," Baralai replied.

The two of them reached the gate, then joined the cadets at the threshold. Liss knocked, then pushed the door open. "Mother? We're here!"

Paine's first impression was of a stranger, a soft woman with red-gold hair, shot through with white, hugging Liss fiercely. Then past and present merged, and she recognized Arelle. Rounder, and the hair had faded, but she had the same warm gray eyes and friendly face.

"There's someone here who wants to see you," Liss was saying, but Arelle had already noticed Paine over her daughter's shoulder. She released Liss and walked over to Paine, her hands held out.

"Oh. Oh my dear, you are the image of your father," she whispered as she took Paine's hands.

"Hi, Auntie Relle," Paine said.

Arelle smiled, her whole face glowing. "Paine. My darling girl. Do you know how long it's been since anyone has called me that?"

Paine let go of her aunt's hands and embraced her. "It's so good to see you!" They hugged for a long moment. Then Arelle stepped back and looked her up and down.

"My goodness, I can barely believe it's you. I don't even know if I would have recognized you if it weren't for your resemblance to Xan. I remember you always had his eyes, but your face, your hair, your frame…" She shook her head in disbelief. "It's incredible. "

Paine found herself pleased to hear all this — she had loved her father dearly, and being told she resembled him by someone who had known him so well warmed her heart. "Thanks," she said. "Auntie Relle, may I introduce you to someone?" She stepped aside and indicated Baralai, who was hanging back in the doorway. "This is my husband, Baralai."

He took the tiniest step forward and took Arelle's hand, making his best courtly bow. "Milady Arelle, I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

She smiled broadly, placing her other hand atop the handshake. "Please, no need to be so formal. Call me Relle. After all, if you're married to Paine, then you're family as far as I'm concerned."

He raised himself from the bow. "Thank you," he said, smiling. "I'm honored."

"Come in, come in!" Arelle ushered her guests inside amidst a flurry of introductions, then walked over to the door and closed it, the group settling to become acquainted, and reacquainted.

Chapter Text

Drained of emotion, I put my meeting with Relle to the back of my mind and returned to the group. Everyone but Yuna and Kimahri had gathered in a clearing, surrounded by the trees of Macalania Woods. Wakka looked up from his seat on the ground. "Well?"

"We're all clear," I replied. "We will have to avoid Bevelle in the future." He returned his eyes to the earth. I felt a rush of sympathy for him — he had been a true believer, steadfast and stubborn. But even he could deny the evidence no longer, and his faith in the temples was destroyed. I remembered the feeling. Now I could only hope that he'd be strong enough to bear the rest of the truth. I turned to Lulu. "Yuna?" I asked.

It was Rikku who responded. "She said she wanted to be alone."

"Of course," I said. Would she quit the pilgrimage? Everything depended on her willingness to go on. Yet I could hardly blame her if she decided to turn back now. Quiet fell over our party, and I took a place at the edge of the clearing, where I looked into darkness and cleared my mind. Lost in that still place of meditation, a moment passed before I noticed Tidus standing next to me.

I turned to him. "Maybe you should talk to her?" I said. He moved to leave, then looked at me again, his eyes full of questions that I either could not or would not answer. I exhaled softly. "I am… tired." He accepted that with a nod, then walked away, scuffing his feet on the path, head cast down. I watched him go as remembered words rang in my ears: "This is all your fault!" I had laughed at him then, during our argument in Luca, but there was some truth to his charge. He'd never have been involved in this drama if Jecht and I hadn't dragged him to Spira. If I was being honest with myself, I had to admit that I was using him, and before long he would know it. Tidus was the closest thing I'd ever had to a son — until today, I reminded myself, the shock of Lissira fresh all over again for a moment. If only there had been another way. But there wasn't one. I needed him to make this plan work.

I stood alone and looked at the darkening sky, watching the stars slowly appear, thinking of Jecht, and of Kinoc.

Time passed, perhaps an hour. Then I was drawn out of my thoughts by the sound of footsteps. Kimahri was coming back, Yuna and Tidus a few feet behind. I saw that they were holding hands, and glanced over at Lulu. She caught my eye and raised an eyebrow just a hair. So.

As they drew closer to the group, Tidus dropped Yuna's hand and walked over to Rikku. She looked up at him, and he shook his head. Her face fell, and he squeezed her shoulder as he walked past. I wondered at the interaction, and then realized what it meant: Yuna had decided to go on with her pilgrimage. She stood alone before us, and addressed us each by name.

"Everyone?" she said then, hesitating. "We leave at dawn. And… I'm sorry I put you through all this. And… um…"

"Enough," I said, cutting her off gently. "You need your rest."

She nodded, and went over to where Lulu had laid out her bedroll. The rest of the party followed suit. I looked over to Kimahri, who indicated with the barest motion that he would take first watch. Most nights, that was my duty, but today I was exhausted, with Kinoc's death, the battle with Seymour, and my visit with Relle all taking their toll. I lay down on my bedroll and knew no more for a time.

A few hours later, I arose and walked over to Kimahri. He stood motionless by the entrance to the road. "Anything?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Quiet."

"All right, then. Get some sleep." He nodded, and turned to go, when I had an idea. "Kimahri?"

He stopped, and looked back at me, quizzical.

"I have a favor to ask," I said. "After this is over, when Sin is defeated, could you give my sword to an old friend? Her name is Arelle, and she lives on a farm up in the hills." I gestured in the general direction of the property. "Would you do this for me?"

He thought for a moment. "Kimahri is honored to help Sir Auron," he replied. "On one condition — if Kimahri falls in battle and Sir Auron does not, he does the same for Kimahri. Take Kimahri's spear to Mount Gagazet, present to Elders."

I let out a startled chuckle. It struck me as a strange request; considering the circumstances of our first meeting, Kimahri must have known that I was an unsent. But I nodded anyway. "Of course."

"Then Kimahri does as Sir Auron asks." With that, he left, and I took his place, thinking.

Ever since watching their interactions in Luca, it had been my hope that Tidus would come to care for Yuna. Any Yevonite who fell in love with a summoner would on some level accept death as a natural consequence of their pilgrimage — we had been indoctrinated to expect it. But Tidus hadn't been raised with the same expectations. If he loved Yuna, he would do anything to keep her alive.

And then there was the reverse. If Yuna loved Tidus in return, it would give her a reason to live. Ten years of brooding and hindsight had taught me many things, but perhaps the most important was this: Braska would not consider alternatives to his death because he didn't want them. No matter what he had said, regardless of anything I had told myself, Braska's pilgrimage had been a long, slow, noble suicide. He had welcomed the prospect of dying, embraced it. Yuna had resigned herself to death, but she didn't seem to anticipate it in the same way. I had looked into her eyes, tested her reactions, and I did not see any eagerness there, only determination. Perhaps her feelings for Tidus would bind her to life, make her more open to other options.

I had gambled on their emotions, and the bet looked to have paid off. It was my plan to enlist Tidus and Yuna to defy Yunalesca. With both of them willing, even eager to fight, it seemed more likely that the others would follow along. And if we defeated Yunalesca, we might have a chance to find another way to defeat Sin and break the cycle.

For the first time, I allowed myself to believe that my plans might come to fruition, that we might bring an Eternal Calm. And then perhaps the daughter I would never know, the grandchildren I would never see, could grow up in a Spira at peace.

-x-

Paine, Baralai, and Arelle sat around the table in the cottage, talking. Liss and the other cadets had retired to her old bedroom after an hour of sharing stories of the past several months of training. Half a load of bread remained on the table, the cadets having made short work of the rest of the meal Arelle had prepared. Baralai reached into the bread basket and took a slice, slathering it with butter before taking a bite.

"I know I said as much already, but this bread is amazing." Baralai inclined his head respectfully to his hostess. "As was all the food. Your reputation as a chef preceded you, but it didn't nearly do you justice."

Arelle smiled "Well, aren't you the charmer. Thank you. I hear you're quite the accomplished cook yourself."

Baralai looked at Paine, who laughed. "Must have been Liss," she said.

Arelle's eyes softened as she nodded. "Yes. Liss writes quite detailed letters. She's told me all about both of you. I hear from her at least twice a month — I couldn't ask for a more dutiful daughter."

"You're so close." Paine's smile was a touch wistful. "I wish I had known my mother as well."

"So do I." Arelle sighed. "It's tragic that she died so young, so suddenly. We never reconciled, you know, and it's my greatest regret."

"Really?" Paine's eyebrows lifted in surprise.

"Well, I didn't have much control over the situation with Auron. It happened as it was meant to." She cast her eyes down to the table. "I always knew I might not be able to hold him. You take a terrible risk when you love a hero."

Baralai glanced at Paine, whose only reaction was a sympathetic nod.

Arelle looked up then, her expression sad but clear. "Anyway, it wasn't the same with Kera. I could have mended our breach; all I had to do was agree that she was right about not waiting for Auron any longer. And perhaps she was. But I couldn't bring myself to admit even the possibility that it might be true. And we both let our anger at Auron cloud our dealings with each other. Then, when I had forgiven him, I was ready to go to Kera, to try and make up with her. But then he disappeared, and I was afraid that if I turned up on her doorstep, pregnant and alone, it would confirm all her worst opinions of him and make me look stupid in the bargain. I just couldn't face her. Not facing her became a habit; I never found the courage. And then it was too late. I let fear and pride get in the way, and so I cheated her of her niece and of our friendship."

"It's not your fault." Paine took her aunt's hand across the table.

"I suppose not." But Arelle did not sound convinced.

"Paine?" Liss's head popped out of the doorway to the bedroom. "Can you come here? I want to show you this."

"Pardon me, Auntie." Paine let go of her hand and stood, joining her cousin. The two women stood in front of the door, off to the side, talking and laughing over something. Baralai watched them for a moment, then noticed that Arelle was doing the same. Her face caught his eye, her expression a mixture of sadness, and surprise, and contentment.

"Arelle?" Baralai laid his hand on hers, just as Paine had done a moment before. "What is it?"

"Seeing them together…" Arelle looked at Baralai, but clearly she did not see him — she was looking through him, to the memories that haunted her. "Paine looks so like her father. And Liss resembles Kera and Auron both. It's almost like having all three of them back. And then I remember that they're all gone." She shook her head. "Usually I can look at Liss without seeing Auron. She's always been as much like me as she is like him, and even more like herself. But sometimes, every once in a while…" She stopped speaking and simply watched her daughter and her niece, visions of ghosts in her eyes.

Baralai said nothing as he waited for Arelle to collect herself. After a moment, she sighed and looked back at him. "I'm sorry, Baralai. I didn't mean to ramble on so. It's been years since I've had guests and even longer since I've been able to talk about Auron. I'm afraid I'm presuming on your sympathetic ear."

"It's all right." Baralai smiled. "I trained as a priest, you know. Listening comes with the territory."

"Well, you're very good at it. Paine is lucky to have found you."

"I certainly think so," said Paine as she slid back into her seat.

"Me too." Liss took the chair next to Paine as Baralai fought down a blush. "So Mother, have you thought any more about coming to Bevelle?"

Arelle looked around the table at their faces, all turned expectantly to her. "I don't know," she said. "All those important people. I'd feel out of place."

"No you won't." Liss paused. "Well, maybe you will at first. But I know Lady Yuna will make you welcome, and so will many other people. The High Summoner is so kind, and so easy to talk to. And I'll be with you, and Paine and Baralai. And–" She paused to take a deep breath, looking at her mother hopefully. "I think he would have wanted you to be a part of this."

Arelle blanched. Then she reached across the table and grasped her daughter's hand, the color returning to her cheeks. "All right. Yes. I'll come. We'll both go, and we'll make him proud." She turned to Paine and Baralai. "When do we leave?"

-x-

We moved on.

So did I. I had learned long ago that I could not waste any time or energy dwelling on Relle. Starting down that path would lead me to regret, despair, paralysis. I would not forget her, could not stop loving her, but I set my thoughts of her aside, tucking her back into the corner of my heart, walled off from the rest of me, where she had lived for the past ten years. I stashed Lissira behind that wall as well, along with my sister and Xan, my lost friends and enemies. My first duty was to Yuna, to Tidus, to Spira. My personal feelings had to be put away, and so I did. Just as I had always done.

The journey continued. Across the Calm Lands, through a cavern where a stolen fayth resided, up Mount Gagazet. It was a long journey, sober and arduous. The party was quiet, talking only when necessary, everyone lost in their private worries and fears and disillusionment. Seymour followed us, slaughtering the Ronso who stood in his path, and I saw Kimahri, too, use his feelings and then stow them away as we defeated the unsent Maester yet again. Tidus, on the other hand, finally admitted — to himself and to everyone else — that Sin and Jecht were one and the same. Whether the others truly believed, I could not tell, although Yuna seemed to. Approximately a week after our escape from Bevelle, we found ourselves nearly at the summit, the corpse of a slaughtered guard dragon at our feet.

Rikku finished administering healing potions to the group — Yuna had used up a great deal of her strength keeping us safe and alive during the battle — then turned around. "Can we rest a little?" she asked.

"No need," I replied. "We reach the summit soon."

"I know, that's why I want to stop for a bit." She crouched down, collecting her extensive medical kit. "Soon… that means there's not much time left." She looked up at Yuna, who was standing off to the side, staring into the sunset. I saw the desperation and frustration on the younger girl's face as she straightened and sighed. "Fine," she grumbled. "I'll think on the way." Flinging the bag over her shoulder, she flounced off, looking more like a sullen teenager than ever before.

The rest of us gathered ourselves together and began to follow, when I heard another, quieter sigh behind me. Wakka, who walked by my side, switched direction and moved back to the straggler. "Hey, let's go," he said.

"We really are almost there, aren't we." It was Tidus, his voice soft, his tone deeply unhappy.

"We've come a long way," Wakka replied, missing the point, and I let out a soft chuckle.

"What's so funny?" Tidus asked.

"You remind me of myself," I said, stopping but not turning around. When a quizzical grunt was the only reply, I continued. "Before, the closer we came to Zanarkand, the more I thought about what was to come. 'Braska will call the Final Aeon. He will fight Sin, then die.' I thought my mind was made up long before. But standing here, my resolve wavered."

"Huh," said Wakka. "Never would have figured. Legendary guardians choke sometimes too, ya?"

"Hmph!" I had finally heard that ridiculous description one too many times. "Legendary guardian?" I said, moving to face Wakka, my words dripping with bitter incredulity. "I was just a boy. A boy about your age, actually. I wanted to change the world, too. But I changed nothing." I looked him up and down. "That is my story." And with that, I had nothing more to say; instead I turned on my heel and headed down the path, brooding. How the simple act of leading my best friend to his ultimately pointless death had made me a legend remained beyond my understanding. It made no sense to me, and probably never would.

I continued on the trail. The summit, Zanarkand, and Yunalesca awaited. "Almost there," Tidus had said. "Soon," I had told the others. Yes, soon. Soon I would learn whether my plan had a chance for success, or whether my plotting would come to nothing.

Chapter Text

After an evening of company and conversation, Arelle's guests spent that night at her cottage — the cadets camping in the yard, Paine and Baralai sleeping in Liss's old bed. The next morning, everyone rose early to prepare for the walk to Bevelle. As Arelle cooked breakfast with Baralai's assistance and Paine's other students broke camp, she found her cousin standing on the porch, gazing into the distance.

"Look," Liss said, gesturing to the towering mountain perched on the horizon, just visible through the treetops.

"Is that Mount Gagazet?" Paine asked.

Liss nodded. "Quite a view, isn't it? Ever since learning who my father was, I've thought about journeying to the other side. But I never have." She turned to Paine. "Have you ever been to Zanarkand?"

"Yes. I went with the Gullwings a few times, and the Defense Force gets called there pretty regularly." Liss raised her eyebrows in surprise as Paine continued. "It's very unstable. You could almost call it an outpost of the Farplane, given all the unsent and pyreflies haunting the place. So there are fiend outbreaks, and other problems."

"Hmm." Liss faced the mountain once again. "Is there anything that can be done?"

"The Guado think so. They restabilized the Farplane after what happened five years ago; now they're turning their efforts to Zanarkand. They've been working with Yuna and New Yevon to find some way to make it safe enough for people to visit, then restore it without turning the place into a tasteless tourist trap, like the Al Bhed almost did a few years back. They've been making a lot of progress; Yuna hinted that they might even have an announcement at the ceremony tomorrow." Paine looked at Liss again, questioning. "If you want to visit the ruins, I'm sure Rikku would take us there on the Celsius."

Liss said nothing for a moment, then responded. "Maybe sometime. Like I said, I am curious. But…" she trailed off, uncertainty in her tone. "I wonder. Maybe I should visit the actual Farplane first."

"Up to you," said Paine. "Do whatever feels right."

"I'll think about it." Liss sighed. "Let's get Bevelle over with first."

Paine held back a chuckle. "Sure. I think breakfast is almost ready; come eat?"

"In a minute."

Paine turned back into the house, leaving Liss alone with her thoughts and the view.

-x-

"You knew this was going to happen, didn't you?"

Tidus looked at me, accusatory, as we gathered around Zaon's empty stone form, forever buried in the floor. We had reached the ruins of Zanarkand, fought past unsent, memories, trials, and the Spectral Keeper, and now we were here, on Yunalesca's doorstep, on the verge of discovering the truth about the Final Summoning. Yuna had been about to enter the Lady's chamber when Tidus made his charge, but she paused when he spoke, her back to us, stopping just short of the doorway that led into her lair.

I met his eyes. "Yes."

Now Rikku turned on me. "Why didn't you tell us?"

I addressed the entire room, but the words were for Yuna. "If I had told you the truth, would it really have stopped you from coming?"

She said nothing, unmoving, resolved, much as her father had been before her. Thoughts of Braska led me back to the memory we had encountered in the dome outside. There was no telling what she had made of my moment of weakness, that first attempt to save Braska's life.

"Yuna," Kimahri said softly.

His call broke her silence, and she responded with a shake of her head. "I'm not going back!"

The Ronso nodded. "Kimahri knows." He took his place at Yuna's side, looking down at her. "Kimahri goes first. Yuna is safe. Kimahri protect." He stepped through the energy curtain that filled the doorway, and Yuna followed. I went right after her and took a place at the back of the room, the others filing in behind me. After a few moments of waiting in silence, Yunalesca entered and descended the staircase, looking exactly as she had ten years ago. She looked over us all — if she recognized me from my previous visit, she didn't let it show — and then her eyes settled on Yuna.

"Welcome to Zanarkand," she said, then launched into the same speech she had given Braska, her deep voice filling the room. Listening to her words, I was reminded of Seymour and his romantic ode to the joys of death on the Highbridge. Hypocrites. If death is so appealing, why are you both still here? As she spoke, I watched Yuna and her guardians. When Yunalesca explained the need to sacrifice a guardian, the reaction was much as I had expected — surprise, shock, horror. Rikku, particularly, looked sickened at the thought. Yuna seemed more bewildered than anything else; I found that I had no idea what she would do now. Perhaps she did not know herself. An unsettling thought.

Then Yunalesca left us, and the pyreflies swirling through the room coalesced into three shapes: Braska, Jecht, and me. And the most terrible moment of my life played out before us, as Jecht offered to become the fayth. Living through these events the first time had been difficult enough; reliving them was all but unbearable. As I watched my friends file up the steps and into Yunalesca's chamber yet again, then saw myself fall to my knees, my mounting agony burst in my chest and propelled me forward, sword drawn. I cried out ten years of loss and pain as I swept the blade through this image of my younger self, trying to banish the apparition. It soon faded from view, but not from my mind.

"And the cycle went on," I said, my voice thick, bowing my head.

Tidus, who had been standing in the back of the room, looked straight at me as I walked to the base of the stairway. "We'll break it," he said, his tone confident.

"But how?" Wakka was incredulous. "You got a plan?"

Lulu stepped forward. "If one of us has to become a fayth, I volunteer," she said. Once again, I had to swallow down disappointment in this woman. I had misjudged her willingness to defy convention; she was a blindly loyal follower of Yevon, as bad as Wakka, if less vocal about it.

"Me too, Yuna," Wakka said, predictably.

"That still won't change anything, you know?" said Tidus. It seemed would take the same side of this argument as I had ten years ago, but he was forceful where I had been desperate. "You'd bring the Calm, and then what? Sin would just come back. That won't break the cycle!"

Wakka glared at him. "Listen… you wanna defeat Sin and keep Yuna alive? You don't want Sin to come back? Well, that is just not gonna happen."

Lulu nodded agreement. "If you want everything, then you'll end up with nothing."

"Says who?" Tidus crossed his arms. "Says Yevon? Well, I don't care what they say. Why shouldn't I be able to have everything?"

"Now you're just being childish," said Wakka with a snort.

Tidus threw his hands up in the air. "I give up, then. What would an adult do? Just throw away a summoner and then do whatever they like?" Wakka and Lulu exchanged surprised looks, tinged with guilt. "You're right, I might not even have a chance. But no way am I just going to stand here and let Yuna die. And what Auron said about there being a way? I think it's true."

Rikku raised an eyebrow. "You'll 'think of something'?"

He nodded. "Yes. I'll go ask Yunalesca. She's got to know something more than she's telling us. Maybe it won't work, but I have to try."

My heart leapt up. This was what I had hoped for: a confrontation with Yunalesca to bring out the truth about Sin's rebirth before anyone had to be sacrificed. I clenched my right fist, invisible at my side, the only outward sign of my relief at this first step toward victory. What happened next made me even happier.

"Wait," said Yuna, who had been silent until this moment. Now she turned to look at Tidus. "I will go with you."

Every head in the room turned to her.

"It would be so easy to let fate carry me away, to follow this same path my whole life through. But now… I know I can't." She looked at Tidus and brought a hand to her breast. "I will do what I must do, with no regrets."

Their eyes locked, and it seemed that, for them, the rest of the room went away. The two of them joined together in the center of the room, then headed up the stairs, the rest of us following through the door and onto a stone platform surrounded by an empty night sky, ornate tiles laid in the cobblestone floor, where they formed Yevonite runes. Yunalesca was there, waiting.

"Have you chosen the one to be your fayth?" she asked. "Who will it be?"

"Might I ask something first?" Yuna stepped forward, though she stayed close to her guardians. "Will Sin come back even should I use the Final Summoning to defeat it?"

Yunalesca bowed her head. "Sin is eternal," she said. "Every aeon that defeats it becomes Sin in its place. And thus is Sin reborn."

"So that's why Jecht became Sin," Titus murmured, glancing at me. I responded with a single nod.

"Sin is an inevitable part of Spira's destiny," Yunalesca continued. "It is never-ending."

"Never-ending?" The blood drained from Wakka's face. "But… but… if we atone for our crimes, Sin will stop coming back, ya? Someday, it'll be gone, right?"

Yunalesca smiled ruefully. "Will humanity ever attain such purity?"

Lulu, too, looked pale and flabbergasted as she took a sudden step toward Yunalesca, punctuating her words with sweeps of her hands. "But this… this cannot be," she cried. "The teachings state that we can exorcise Sin with complete atonement. It has been our only hope, all these years!"

"Hope is comforting." Yunalesca spread her arms. "It allows us to accept fate, however tragic it might be."

"No!" Tidus shouted. His voice was joined by another: mine. I turned to see my memories take visible form yet again. All I could do was watch as my remembered self confronted the Yunalesca from the past, first with words, then with his blade. The specter rushed her, rebounded violently off her spell of protection, then landed in a heap on the ground and disappeared.

The Yunalesca of the present looked straight at me then. I returned her gaze, impassive. "Yevon's teachings and the Final Summoning give the people hope," she said. "Without hope, they would drown in their sorrow." She turned back to Yuna. "Now, choose. Who will be your fayth? Who will be the one to renew Spira's hope?"

Yuna bowed her head, mute. I took in a deep breath and held it as I waited for her decision. An eternity seemed to pass before she raised her head and said the words that I had hoped to hear.

"No one."

I let out the breath, my silent sigh of triumph.

"I would have gladly died," Yuna said. "I serve the people of Spira and would gladly have died for them. But no more! The Final Summoning is a false tradition that should be thrown away."

"No." Yunalesca's voice became deeper and harder. "It is Spira's only hope. Your father sacrificed himself to give the people hope, so that they would forget sorrow."

Yuna shook her head. "Wrong. My father wanted to make Spira's sorrow go away! Not just cover it up with lies."

Yunalesca let out a laugh of disbelief. "Sorrow cannot be abolished. It is meaningless to try."

"My father… I loved him," said Yuna. "So I…" She paused in thought, then continued. "I will make my own choice, to live with my sorrow. And I will defeat sorrow in his place. I will stand my ground and be strong, and someday, somehow, I will conquer it. And I will be victorious without false hope."

"Poor creature," Yunalesca replied, genuine pity in her voice. "You would throw away hope. In that case, I must free you before you can drown in your sorrow. Better to die now, in hope, than to live in despair. Let me be your liberator." She began to drift up above us, and I saw my chance.

"Now!" I shouted as I unsheathed my blade. "Now is the time to choose! Die and be free of pain, or live and fight your sorrow. Your fate is in your hands!"

Kimahri was the first to join me, lance at the ready. "Yuna needs Kimahri. Kimahri protect Yuna."

"Well, I'm fighting!" Rikku piped up from behind.

Wakka groaned from my other side. "I can't believe we're gonna fight Lady Yunalesca. Gimme a break!"

Lulu came between us. "You can always run," she said.

"Hah!" I glanced over to see them smiling at each other. "I'd never forgive myself if I ran away now. Where Yuna goes, I follow. Even into death, ya?"

"My thoughts exactly," Lulu replied.

"Yuna?" Tidus reached out to her and clasped her hand. She took it and squeezed back, smiling. "This is our story, right? So let's see this thing through together." She nodded. He dropped his hand and ran straight at Yunalesca, sword raised, Yuna casting a protective barrier over him as he charged the enemy. The rest of us were right behind, and we jumped into what promised to be a long, ugly battle.

-x-

In the end, it was indeed both long and ugly. We came close to annihilation more than once, with only Yuna's protective magic pulling us back from the brink. Like Seymour, Yunalesca was proof against aeons, so it was up to guardian weapons and magic to take her down. But take her down we did, slowly wearing her down as she switched into various aeon forms.

"If I die, so does the Final Aeon," she hissed at me as I approached for the deathblow.

"That was the idea," I growled, slamming the point of my sword into her body, which had grown large and grotesque. I twisted the blade as it went home and felt a surge of satisfaction at avenging myself, and Braska and Jecht, and everyone else who had ever died in the name of Yevon.

"You are destroying Spira's only hope," she sighed, shuddering and falling back, shrinking back into her human shape as she weakened.

"Then we'll find Spira a new hope," Tidus declared, standing over her.

"Fool." Yunalesca crumpled to the ground. "There is no other way. Even if there was… even if you did destroy Sin, Yu Yevon would only create Sin anew."

"Yu Yevon?" Tidus looked up at me. I shrugged — it was not a name I had ever heard before.

Yunalesca let out a gasp and fell flat on her back, rapidly emptying eyes staring into space. "Zaon… forgive me…" Her head tilted to the side, and then she dissipated into pyreflies.

It was a minute before anyone spoke. Then Yuna stepped forward, knuckles white as she gripped her staff, face pale from magical exertion and shock. "I cannot believe what we just did!"

Tidus looked at her. "Let's do something even more unbelievable."

"What?" Rikku asked from the corner, where she was tending Kimahri's wounds.

"Defeat Sin. So that it never comes back. And without the final aeon."

Everyone rose to their feet, Wakka helped by Lulu, everyone else under their own power, and together we exited the room with one question in our collective minds: "How?"

-x-

In silence, we filed out of the Hall of the Final Summoning, through the Cloister of Trials and the byways of the dome, and back into the ruined city. The first thing we saw was Sin, waiting for us.

I did as you asked, I told him. I came to Zanarkand and defeated Yunalesca. The Final Summoning is no more. So. Now what?

There was no reply.

Dammit, Jecht! You promised me that you'd have a plan. I can't do this without your help. Tell me what I must do next.

I could feel him there; I knew he was listening. But still no response came. Was something blocking him? Or was he too far gone to communicate with me now?

Tidus stood next to me, regarding Sin as well, a thoughtful expression on his face. Perhaps he would be able to get through to Jecht, if I could not.

The monster turned away and sailed into the sunrise, passing Cid's airship, which had somehow known to come. It glided to the ground, and a gangway opened to admit us. We all stepped onto the ship and made our way to the bridge. Cid waited there, along with his son the pilot, who immediately began babbling in Al Bhed.

"'Where, where?'" Rikku replied, mockingly. "Is that all you can say? Why don't you think of something?" The youth fell silent.

I turned to Tidus. "Well? Any good ideas?"

His eyes were wide. "You're asking me? You're the one who knows everything!"

I ignored his outburst and began thinking out loud. "What do we know? Sin is Jecht. That gives you a bond with him. Perhaps that is our key."

"Maybe." He scuffed his feet. "So what do we do?"

"We think, and we wait," I said.

"Two things I'm bad at!" He sighed.

I chuckled, then turned to leave the bridge, catching Yuna's eye as I went. She looked at me, and I looked back, then nodded. Whatever else happened, I had succeeded in my primary goal: Yuna had made her way to Zanarkand and would not be sacrificed to the Final Summoning. And neither would any other summoner or guardian, ever again. Even if we did not manage to defeat Sin, I could be satisfied with this. I walked into the hallway and leaned up against the wall, clearing my mind and turning it to the new problem of how to destroy the scourge of Spira once and for all.

Chapter Text

Our discussion had taken us to Bevelle, to discover what Mika might know. As it turned out, the answer was simple: nothing beyond what Yunalesca had told us, and I had discovered on my own journies. But Tidus and Yuna held a conversation with the fayth that brought us many answers. After sharing what they had learned, we decided to sing the Hymn in hopes of making Sin docile, then attack the creature head-on. Our goal was to fight our way inside, where we hoped to find Jecht and Yu Yevon, the summoner responsible for creating the monster in the first place. The plan seemed workable, and Jecht had not contacted me with anything better, so I had agreed to it.

First, however, we needed to prepare. The battle before us posed a daunting challenge, so we began seek out training opportunities, exploring Spira using the airship, which opened up the world to us in a way that no one had known for a thousand years. And so one day, we found ourselves exploring the caves at the Mushroom Rock shore.

"Check this out," Tidus called to the party, pointing out a passageway leading off the main road, which opened out into a small cave where we found a lift sitting on the floor. We crowded onto the lift and rode it to a ledge that sat just over our heads.

"Who's that?" Rikku asked, indicating the statue that greeted us as we disembarked from the lift.

"Lord Mi'ihen," Lulu said. "He was the founder of the Crusaders."

An ancient glyph glowed in the cliff wall behind him. The others went to examine the symbol, but I found myself drawn to the sculpture. A carving of a dead behemoth lay at Lord Mi'ihen's feet, along with several rusty swords. Without really thinking about why, I pulled my own sword from its sheath and added it to the collection, slamming the point into the ground.

The earth shuddered beneath our feet, and a crack opened in the glyph, revealing a nook in the rocks behind it. Tidus, who had been standing closest, took a step back. "Whoa," he murmured. I walked toward the broken glyph, the crowd of guardians splitting to make way for me. Then I reached into the fissure and pulled out a sword.

As I brushed dirt off the scabbard and freed the blade, I could see that it was a beautiful weapon, worked by a master blacksmith. It was double-tipped, flanged at the hilt, and inlaid with colored metal. My first impression was that it might be more decorative than useful, but a moment's examination corrected that notion; the metal was forged strong, and there seemed little chance of breakage. It crackled with enchantment as well, though it would take some practice to determine its exact nature. Perhaps Rikku would know — I would ask her to take a closer look when we made camp tonight. If nothing else, some magic had kept the edge keen for a long time, possibly even centuries. My hands curled around the hilt, which felt as if it had been custom-made for my grip. When I took a practice swing, the weapon's weight brought me nearly to my knees.

"What is it?" Tidus asked me.

I sheathed the sword. "It is called Masamune," I told him. The name simply came to me, along with the knowledge that I would have to leave my old sword behind. It was a trade, an offering to Lord Mi'ihen, and as I walked past the statue, I paused. That weapon had no name, but it had been with me a long time — it was the sword that Maester Brac had presented to me in honor of my promotion to captain of Gray Squadron. It was a superior weapon and it had served me well, but it also represented the last link to my past life as a warrior monk and a defender of Yevon. Finally, the time had come to leave it behind me.

I touched two fingers to my lips and then to the hilt of the old sword. "Thank you," I said in a near-whisper, to Mi'ihen, to Brac, to my true brothers in the Order. Then I followed the others onto the lift and did not look back.

-x-

"Have you been to Bevelle before?" Maura asked Arelle as the group approached the entrance to the old temple.

"Once," Arelle replied. "A few years ago, I met with a merchant who wanted to sell my pastries at the Macalania Travel Agency." She looked around, shrinking back a bit from the building that towered above them. "I've never been in the temple, though. And it's strange to visit it now."

"Because of my father?" Liss, standing on her mother's other side, took her arm.

Arelle nodded. "This was the part of his life I could never touch, the part that took him away from me. Perhaps it makes me a little jealous, seeing this place that was his home and never mine." She smiled Liss. "That sounds silly, doesn't it?"

Liss's hand tightened around Arelle's elbow. "Not at all." As she spoke these words, the rest of the party caught up to them, Paine walking with Baralai, the two boys a few steps behind. Sam joined the women at the front, taking Liss's other side.

"You ready?" he asked.

Liss looked up at him. "I am."

Now Paine and Baralai took the lead as the group reached the doorway that led into St. Bevelle. The guard saluted. "Welcome back, Lord Councilor," she said.

"Thank you, Teera," said Baralai with a small bow. He swept past the guard and into the complex, and the others followed as they made their way down the outdoor walkways and to the temple proper. At the entrance to the old Maester's Court, he halted.

"Auntie Relle, private quarters have been provided for you," said Paine. You'll be just down the hall from our rooms; Baralai will show you the way, and I'll meet you there soon. Cadets?"

"Captain?" Liss snapped into a formal salute.

"You four will be staying with the New Yevon guard. Follow me."

Liss hugged her mother goodbye, with a promise to see her tomorrow at the ceremony. Then she waved her team into the corridor that Paine had started down. Before long, the cadets found themselves in a small barracks room, which contained four bunk beds and a faded wall hanging, which depicted the old symbol of Yevon in green on an orange background.

"These are former warrior monk trainee quarters," said a man who appeared behind them in the doorway. The cadets and Paine turned to look at this member of the New Yevon guard, who winked at Paine, then saluted the younger fighters. "Now we use them to billet visiting soldiers. Welcome; my name is Paxton, and I'm the Captain of the New Yevon Guard. I hope you'll join me for dinner in the mess hall tonight."

"We'd be honored, sir," said Liss, returning the salute.

"Excellent. See you then. Captain Paine?"

"Yes, just a moment." Paine exchanged nods with the guard, then turned back to her students. "Have a good evening. Liss, I'll meet you here at this time tomorrow. Be ready for the ceremony." And then she was gone, she and Paxton leaving together, already talking shop.

Maura sighed and dropped her bag on the floor. "Man. It'll be nice to sleep in a bed tonight." She laid down on one of the lower bunks and stretched out with a sigh, rolling toward the wall. Then she peered at it more closely. "Hey, there are names here."

"Warrior monk graffiti?" Sam asked with a grin. Liss laughed, then sat down on the lower bunk opposite, stretching her legs and then her arms. Sam dropped to the floor at her feet, leaning his back against her calves as she rested her arms over his shoulders. The two of them had kept a formal distance through most of the journey here, since Liss was serving as his commanding officer. She kissed the top of his head with a satisfied sigh — it was nice to have the freedom to touch him with open affection again.

"Yep. Names, lots of them. Carved into the wall." Maura continued to examine the writings as Repparu climbed up to the bunk over her head and started to search the wall next to it for other names. Then Maura gasped.

Sam sat forward. "What?"

"Check this out, you guys," she said, her voice strangled. She sat up on the bed as Sam and Liss scrambled to join her. They both read the name that Maura had pointed out to them, then looked at each other.

"No way!" Sam's eyes went very wide as Liss shook her head in disbelief.

"What is it?" Repparu asked, hopping down from the upper bunk.

"See for yourself," said Maura, moving aside to make room. He took a seat and read the name out loud: "Kinoc." He, too, looked at Liss. "Who's that?"

Sam's eyes were still round as dinner plates. "That means…"

Liss nodded. "Our fathers lived here. And your uncle."

"That's a pretty damn incredible coincidence," said Maura.

Thinking back to Captain Paxton's wink, Liss started to laugh. "Maybe. But probably not." She jumped off the bed, clambered up to the upper bunk, and started searching the names on the wall there. It didn't take her long to find the one she was looking for. Then she turned back to the group, smiling. "C'mon," she said. "Let's explore the temple complex before dinner."

-x-

The next evening, Liss returned to her temporary quarters after a day of training with her friends and several members of the Guard, followed by a stop in the showers. She changed into the only dress she owned, a calf-length black gown, and pulled her hair back, leaving her small braid swinging free as usual. She had capped its end with dark red and gold beads today, and Sam walked into the room as she put in matching earrings.

He favored her with a soft smile. "You look great," he said, placing his hands on her waist.

"Thanks," she replied, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him close. She planted a gentle kiss on his mouth, which he returned, a hand sliding up her back to cup her neck. Then she pulled back, tipping her head enough to look into his warm hazel eyes. "I wish you were coming along."

"Yeah." He ran his hands over her hair, careful to keep from mussing it. "But I understand why Lady Yuna wants to keep the gathering small."

"Still." She moved in to kiss him again, when she was interrupted by a throat being cleared from the doorway. Both cadets' heads turned to see Paine standing there, dressed in the deep blue of a Defense Force dress uniform, hair styled into a soft wave over her eyes. Both were a rare sight; she generally favored her more casual black leathers and her hair in its artfully messy spikes.

"Captain," said Sam, stepping quickly back from Liss and saluting.

"At ease," Paine said, chuckling. "It's fine, Sam. You're off duty." He blushed, and Liss grinned at him. "Liss, are you ready?"

"Yes." Liss stroked Sam's arm. "See you later."

"Have a good time," he said, dropping a formal kiss on her temple. Then she followed Paine out the door, and the two of them went together to the Hall of Guardians.

"You look nice," Liss ventured to say after they had been walking for a few minutes.

"Thanks," said Paine. She turned to her cousin with a sly smile. "A perk of serving in the military: the uniform works for everything. I never have to wear a dress again."

Liss laughed. "Seriously?"

"Seriously." Paine's eyes twinkled. "I didn't even wear one to my own wedding." She looked Liss up and down. "That's a nice one, though, and it suits you."

Soon they arrived at the entry to the Hall of Guardians. Paine pulled open the door, then ushered Liss inside. The girl stepped into the huge room, lit with blazing torches, the firelight illuminating the paintings. One large canvas was covered with a white sheet. Must be the new portrait, Liss thought, then she turned her attention to the people who filled the hall, mostly dignitaries of varying levels of importance. She saw General Lucil and Commander Kal and a few other high-ranking Defense Force officers. High Councilor Winn was there, too, along with the rest of the Council, and of course the Praetor and a few other leaders of New Yevon. She also thought she recognized Cid, the leader of the Al Bhed. Rikku was standing with him, along with Wakka and her brother, and she waved at Liss, who raised her fingers in a tentative return greeting.

Soon, though, she found the person she was really seeking: Arelle, who chatted in a corner with Sir Tidus and Lady Yuna.

"Lissira," said Arelle, hugging her daughter. As soon as the embrace ended, Liss saluted Tidus and bowed to Yuna.

"Hi Liss," Tidus said. "We've been having a great conversation with your mom."

Arelle nodded. "It's so wonderful to meet both of you. So few other people still living in Spira knew Auron well; it means a lot to me to be able to talk about him."

"The honor is ours," said Yuna, smiling. "Have you seen Sir Auron's other portrait, the one that depicts him with Sir Jecht in honor of my father's pilgrimage?"

"I have not, my Lady."

"Well then. Follow me."

-x-

Paine had gone off her own way upon their arrival at the Hall, mingling with her comrades in the Defense Force and then seeking out Baralai, who stood in front of the portrait of Lord Zaon. He was chatting with Luzzu, Besaid's representative on the council. Lulu was with them.

"Hello Paine," said Lulu as she joined them. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"

"Too long," said Paine, taking her hand. "And I hear congratulations are in order. When are you due?"

"In the fall. Six months." Lulu smiled, glancing at Luzzu as he took her arm, which Paine took as confirmation of the rumor that he was the father. "How have you been?"

Paine opened her mouth to answer but was interrupted when Baralai nudged her with his shoulder. "Look," he said, indicating the other side of the room. She followed his finger to the portrait of Auron and Jecht as young men.

"What?" she asked.

"Look," he repeated, and then Paine noticed what had caught his attention: Tidus, Yuna, and Lissira, standing in front of the painting, gazing at it, near-identical expressions of reverence on their faces. Tidus had thrown an arm over Yuna's shoulders, and Yuna clasped Liss's hand.

"Their legacy," Paine said quietly.

Lulu nodded. "And Lord Braska's, as well," she added, her voice also hushed.

Paine felt Baralai's fingers lace through hers, and she squeezed his hand as her eyes fell on Arelle. She, too, was looking at this portrait, but from a further distance, arms crossed over her chest, her face more sad than reverent. Paine glanced up at Baralai and saw that he had noticed Arelle as well. By unspoken agreement, the two of them joined her.

"Auntie?" Paine laid a hand on Arelle's shoulder. "Are you all right?"

Arelle glanced at her and smiled, dropping her tense pose even as a sharp jolt of pain crossed her eyes. "Yes. It was right for me to come here. Hard as it is."

Paine wrapped an arm about Arelle's waist. "I'm glad you decided to join us. Can I get you something to drink? The ceremony will be starting soon."

Arelle looked back at the painting of her lost love one more time, then nodded at Paine. "A drink sounds lovely. Shall we go find one together?" And the two women turned in the other direction, heading for the bar, arms around each other, as Baralai walked behind them.

Chapter Text

One night, after nearly a month of training and exploration, we gathered for dinner on board Cid's ship. It had been a lazy day, and our talk was light and casual. I ate sparingly, contenting myself mostly with vegetables, a bit of fish, and my usual sake as I listened to the others chat about all the sights we had seen. The conversation slowed as we finished eating, and eventually silence fell.

After several minutes of quiet, Yuna put down her glass and stood. "I am ready," she said.

I turned to her. "Ready to face Sin?"

She bowed her head, a solemn nod. "I have put this off for long enough. It's time."

"Well then." Lulu leaned forward. "Shall we call in Cid and plan our strategy?"

"I'll get him," said Rikku as she jumped to her feet. She returned with her father a few minutes later.

"The final showdown with Sin," he said as he entered the room, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "Let's get this show on the road." He took the empty chair next to Tidus, and we began to plot.

-x-

The next morning, I readied myself for battle and then headed for my customary spot outside the bridge where I stood when the ship was in motion. To my surprise, I found Tidus standing there instead, holding up the wall with his back.

"Nervous?" I asked as I stood next to him.

"A little," he admitted.

"I understand," I said. "Still, it's best that we finish this. Jecht was never a patient man."

Tidus chuckled, then turned to me, his eyes serious, and I saw his question as he began to verbalize it. "So, when this is done…" I had admitted to him that I was unsent. He was the only member of the party I'd told. As far as I knew, none of the others save Kimahri had any inkling of the truth.

I nodded. "When this is over, I will leave. I have played at life long enough." He nodded in response, then locked his eyes on the metal deck of the airship. The two of us stood together for a time while I considered him and his progress. He had withdrawn somewhat, become more serious, ever since the battle with Yunalesca, and I wondered why. Was accepting the fact that he was going to have to kill his father weighing on him? Or was something darker at work? The silence grew heavier, and I decided to break it. "Something on your mind?"

He shook his head, but I found myself unconvinced. As he shifted from foot to foot, I became certain that he was hiding something, something important.

"If it is anything that could affect this battle, I have to know," I said. "Are you having second thoughts about facing Jecht?"

"No. It's what he wants, y'know? And it's the only way to save Spira. No, the problem's not my old man." He looked at me again and, to my great surprise, I saw fear written on his face. "It's me." And he proceeded to explain what the fayth had told him, the reason for the mysterious summoning on the top of Mt. Gagazet and the true nature of the Zanarkand that had been our home.

"A summoning," I murmured. "Zanarkand and all its inhabitants, a dream of the fayth."

He nodded. "When we defeat Yu Yevon, he won't be able to summon anymore. So then…" I saw his throat bobbing as he swallowed his next words.

I grasped his shoulder, a spike of guilt piercing my soul. "Tidus. I swear to you that I did not know these things. I had no idea that destroying Sin would mean--"

He placed his hand over mine as he interrupted. "It's all right, Auron. I've accepted it. Ending the cycle is more important than anything. I know it's worth more than Jecht's life, or yours, or mine." He sighed softly. "But… I'm still a little afraid. Will I go with you to the Farplane? Or will I just fade away, like I never existed in the first place?"

I dredged up my knowledge of the teachings and pored over them, searching for anything that might answer his question. In the end, I had to shake my head. "I don't know," I said. "This is outside my experience. If the fayth couldn't tell you, I doubt that anyone else will know."

"I figured." His shoulders slumped a little.

"Whatever happens, I will be there," I told him. "Our stories will end together."

A hint of a smile traveled over his features. "Thanks." He dropped his hand and stepped away, my own hand falling from his shoulder to my side. "Well, I'd better go get ready." He walked onto the bridge, and as the door slid shut behind him, I began to clear my mind in preparation for the final battle ahead of us.

-x-

"You're late, Auron," said the figure on the end of the platform as he looked out over an empty blitzball stadium, arms crossed over his chest.

Using magic and the guns on the airship, we had punched a hole through Sin's defenses, then flown the ship into the depths of Sin. Battling past fiends and Seymour, whom we had defeated and Yuna had sent at last, we had made our way here, to the silent Zanarkand nightscape that I had visited twice before.

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry."

"'S okay." Jecht turned around to face us, dropping his arms. "Hey."

"Hi," said Tidus.

Jecht looked his son up and down. "Hah!" He grinned. "You got tall, but you're all bones. You eatin' right, boy?" Tidus said nothing, staring off into the distance over his father's shoulder. Rikku and Yuna both watched Tidus, looks of concern on their faces. "You've really grown," Jecht continued.

"Yeah, but you're still bigger," Tidus replied.

"Well, I am Sin, y'know." Jecht chuckled.

The attempted joke fell flat as Tidus glared back at him. "That's not funny," he said.

Jecht laughed again, but I knew the laugh for one of bravado, likely covering up a riot of emotions — happiness at seeing his son again, sorrow over the circumstances, anticipation of his upcoming death. "Well, then… I mean… y'know…" He sighed. "Let's end this.

Tidus nodded, then looked at his father. "Dad?"

"Yeah?"

Even at a distance, I could see his fight to hold back the tears. "I hate you." The words so clearly conveyed the opposite of their stated meaning that I wondered how Jecht could bear it.

"I know, I know." Jecht looked away, then back at all of us. "But you'll do what you have to do."

"Yeah." Tidus managed a small nod.

"I can't hear the Hymn so well anymore," Jecht continued, softer and more seriously than I had ever heard him speak. "Pretty soon, I'm gonna be Sin, completely. When the change comes, I'm not gonna be myself anymore. I won't be able to hold back. I'm sorry."

Tidus shook his head. "That's... enough. Let's just... get this over with, okay?"

"You're right." Jecht took one last look at Tidus, and I could see the pain written in his face. "Well… let's go!" And he went back to the edge of the platform, hurtling himself over it and into the empty arena.

Tidus let out an incoherent cry and ran after Jecht before any of us could stop him. But he was too late — Jecht disappeared over the ledge just as Tidus reached him. Then a shower of pyreflies rose up from below as the darkened city blazed with a sudden light. A huge fist appeared from the depths and slammed into the ground at Tidus's feet, followed by the rest of Jecht, but a Jecht changed, made enormous and grotesque: Braska's Final Aeon. I flashed back to Braska's last battle, to the morning I had watched this creature take down Sin with his awesome power, and wondered how we would ever defeat him.

Tidus pulled out his sword and stood his ground at the ledge. "I promise to make this quick," he shouted up at the monstrous creature. "Hit me with all you've got, Dad!"

He did, and we hit him in return. It was by far the longest and most difficult battle I had ever faced. I struck at him with my sword, and Wakka and Kimahri got in their blows as well, but the mages and the aeons did most of the work, slamming him repeatedly with spells. And Tidus played a part as well, shouting at his father, distracting his attention, sometimes even seeming to get through to him. But in the end, Sin fully seized control of Jecht, and Yuna and Bahamut finished him together with a mighty punch and a blast of magic.

The aeon exploded, casting off millions of pyreflies, leaving Jecht's human form behind. Like Yunalesca, he slumped and collapsed on the pavement. I lunged forward, meaning to comfort my old friend, but Tidus beat me there, gathering Jecht in his arms as he fell. Yuna came to their side, and the three of them began to speak, too quietly for me to hear until a hoarse shout rose from Jecht: "There's no time!" He lifted a weak arm, pointing above us to a dark shape flitting overhead, a creature that had risen from his aeon form just before it self-destructed. Then I remembered — this same figure had appeared before, when Jecht and Braska had defeated Sin the first time, plunging into Jecht's aeon form before he disappeared into the sea. This creature could only be Yu Yevon.

"Yuna," I heard Jecht groan as his breath failed. "You know what to do."

She grasped her staff and nodded, then began to summon for the last time.

-x-

The reception had been going on for about an hour when the acolytes of New Yevon who served as attendants this night began gathering the guests together, ushering them into the center of the hall. Liss joined the group, her mother at her left side and Paine to her right, facing the portrait of the Lady Yuna's guardians, which was still draped with cloth. Said guardians took their places next to the painting, waiting. Then Yuna herself stepped forward to the podium and silence fell over the crowd as she stood there, torchlight flickering over her sober face.

"First, I want to thank each of you for coming tonight," she said in her soft, clear voice. "It means so much to me to see all of you here. Thank you, all of you, who have worked to respect Spira's past while leading her into the future of the Eternal Calm. Thanks to the Defense Force for protecting us, and to New Yevon for safeguarding our history, and to the Ruling Council for bringing all of Spira's people together. But especially, I want to thank my guardians." She nodded to them, first to Tidus and Kimahri, who stood on her right, and then to Lulu, Wakka, and Rikku on her left. "We are all here to honor you and the sacrifices you made to help me defeat Sin and bring us this glorious peace."

She took a deep breath and looked around the room, her chin raised. "But our gathering is not complete, and can never be complete. One person is missing, lost to us forever."

Without a look or a word, Liss put an arm around Arelle's shoulder. She leaned into Liss, and mother and daughter nestled together, sharing a lifetime of grief as Yuna continued.

"Before we unveil this beautiful portrait that Mellie has created for us, and share our past adventures and future hopes, I want to remember my absent guardian. The man who served my father before me, and who gave his life in defense of Spira twice over. The man who taught us not to accept the answers presented to us, and who inspired us to search for a better way than the Final Summoning. It is no exaggeration to say that we would not be here without him. And yet now he is not here with us, not here to enjoy the Calm he helped create. So please, I ask you all to join me in a moment of silence for Sir Auron." She bowed her head as she reached for Tidus's hand. Tidus himself looked down and away, unable to hide the sadness in his face. Next to him, Kimahri crossed his arms and looked into the distance. The other three guardians assumed postures of grief and respect as well: Rikku stepping closer to Wakka, who laid an arm around her while placing his other hand on Lulu's shoulder. Lulu cast her eyes to the ceiling, then closed them.

Liss felt a strong, slim hand slip into her own, and she turned to see Paine, who bowed her own head as she squeezed Liss's fingers tightly. Arelle did not move, looking instead at the sheet hanging behind Yuna, her eyes burning as though she could see through it to the figures depicted beneath. Finally, Liss dropped her gaze to the floor, and her mind went blank.

Not a soul moved, or even breathed, the hush filling the room, the crackling of the torches the only sound to be heard. As the quiet deepened, for a moment Liss imagined she could feel a presence behind her, something comforting and solid and strong. But she did not dare turn around, and then Yuna looked up and smiled, breaking the silence and the spell it had woven as the crowd began to shift and murmur again.

"And now," Yuna said, her tone brightening, "I present to you the guardians of the Last Pilgrimage, the warriors who brought us the Eternal Calm."

Stepping back toward the painting, she took hold of the cloth and tugged it down, revealing the likenesses of six people, the five who stood before the painting and one other, a tall man dressed in black, a red coat swirling about his legs, his face hiding behind dark glasses and a high collar, a sword gleaming in his right hand and tipped back over his shoulder. He looked very much like the man Liss remembered meeting in her mother's garden so many years ago. Take care of your mother. The last words he had ever said to her reverberating in her ears, she glanced over to Arelle.

"Mother?" she asked. "Are you all right?"

Arelle looked up at Liss, her face clear. "Yes, my dear. I am fine."

And they stood there together, not moving as the other guests milled and swelled around them, with eyes only for the picture of the man in red.

-x-

My last battle was ended. We had defeated Sin, once and for all, and Spira could breathe easy, the thousand year reign of terror at its end. I could hardly believe it, and yet I also knew it was true, knew it to my core. We stood on the platform overlooking Jecht's Zanarkand, and Yuna danced. She danced for Jecht, she danced for Yu Yevon, she danced for the fayth and the people of Zanarkand, and, though she didn't know it yet, she danced for me.

The Farplane tugged at me as it had in Guadosalam, but this time I felt no threat in its call. Instead, it sent a polite request, an invitation that carried a promise of warmth and peace and rest. And I succumbed to its call, relaxed my grip on physical existence, ready to finish the dying that had begun in the Calm Lands, so many years ago.

Yuna made a turn as she continued her sending, and then stopped short with a gasp. Everyone turned around and looked straight at me. I glanced down to see pyreflies rising from my body, which was turning translucent. The eyes turned in my direction reflected the reactions I had expected — resignation from Tidus, understanding from Kimahri, shock from the others.

"Don't stop," I said.

"But I…" Yuna did not move; she looked bewildered.

"It's all right." I mustered enough energy to make my form solid one last time, glanced up at Kimahri -- "Remember your promise," I thought, and he acknowledged me with the barest nod — and thumped him on the chest with a grunt, then walked through the rest of the group. I took a final look at the faces of my companions, who had come to mean far more to me than I had ever expected. I was going to miss them, all of them, even the hard-headed, strong-hearted Wakka. But my quest was finished at last. Time to go home.

I stopped in front of Tidus, my surrogate son, and nodded to him. "It's been long enough," I said. He cocked his head to the side and lowered his eyes, but not before I could see gratitude and affection burning there. I laid a hand on his shoulder as I moved on, although I didn't know if enough substance remained for him to feel my touch. He showed no signs of fading away; I wondered if the fayth had been wrong about his reality. I hoped so.

My last stop was the edge of the platform. I drew my sword and lowered it over my shoulder, then looked straight at Yuna, who still seemed lost. "This is your world now," I told her. I could see her swallow and nod, and then she resumed her dance. I turned away from her and gazed out over the city. My second home was gone. My first home was saved. And I finally allowed myself to think of the family I was leaving behind, to picture Relle's face along with that of the daughter I had only recently discovered. Sin's defeat was as much for them as it was for anyone. "Live," I whispered to them as their images floated through my mind. "Live, and be safe. For me."

My connection to this world was fading fast, the cohesion of my body disintegrating. I closed my eye, tipped my head back, and let the sword slip from my hands. Everything dissolved and all that remained was peace.

Chapter Text

Arelle led the small party into Guadosalam. Sam walked beside her, chatting about his latest adventures in the Defense Force. Behind them, Paine and Baralai walked together, holding hands in companionable silence. Lissira brought up the rear, hanging farther back as they approached the Farplane. She had never been here before, and frankly she was a little creeped out by the thought of visiting with the dead. She preferred the Al Bhed theory, that pyreflies reacted with the memories of visitors to create images of loved ones long gone, but her mother didn't believe that. "If that were the case, wouldn't I have seen your father when I came looking for him, all those years ago? I didn't find him here because he was still out in the world." Liss could see the logic in Arelle's reasoning, but she was still reluctant to agree.

Too soon, they had reached the entrance. A glowing barrier hung before them. Arelle paused, then turned around. "Liss, are you ready?"

Liss stepped forward and nodded. She opened her mouth with every intention of saying "Yes," but she found the word "No" popping out instead. Her hand flew to her face in shame at her weakness. "I'm sorry, Mother. I guess I'm just scared."

"There's no need to be afraid," said Baralai. "The Farplane is a blessing. It allows us to find closure when our loved ones pass on." He laid a gentle hand on Liss's shoulder. "Come on. We'll all be with you."

Liss looked at Paine, who nodded, although she also looked a tad nervous. Then Liss turned back to her mother. "Okay," she said. "Let's go." She reached over and took Arelle's hand, and they stepped across the threshold together.

Her first impression was of rushing water. She walked up to the edge of the platform and looked down to see a field of flowers sitting by the side of an endless waterfall. Then she noticed the eerie cries of the pyreflies and shivered. Stepping back, she glanced around the platform. A handful of other pilgrims smiled and nodded to their loved ones. Some cried, but most looked content. Paine and Baralai stood to her left, on the other side of Arelle. Liss took a quick peek, hoping to see her fabled Auntie Kera and Uncle Xan, but to her surprise someone quite different appeared: the warrior Nooj. Paine stood stock-still, hands clasped in front of her. Baralai laid an arm over her shoulders and leaned his head against hers. It was clearly a private moment, and Liss, feeling like an intruder, looked away.

Sam was on Liss's right, talking to a woman and two teenage girls. Liss knew that this was Sam's family, lost in Sin's last attack on Kilika. He and his father had escaped only because they'd traveled to Luca several days earlier to prepare for that year's blitz tournament. She ached to reach out to him, to hug him and make all the pain go away, but Sam had said he would want to be alone.

All possible distractions exhausted, Liss looked back to her mother, who smiled. "Now picture him," said Arelle.

Liss obediently shut her eyes and called up her strongest mental image of her father — a huge man with graying hair and a scarred face, heavy with stubble, wearing dark glasses, towering over her in the front yard. She heard Arelle gasp, and she opened her eyes.

He hung in the air before her. Not the grizzled, weary veteran she had met as a child, but a vibrant warrior who looked at least twenty years younger. He wore a brilliant red coat over a black armored shirt, one arm left bare, jet-black hair pulled back but for a few wisps in the front. His face was serious, his eyes — both of them — a rusty brown. He did resemble the painting of him as a youth that resided in the Hall of Guardians, but that was like a bad recording in comparison to this image. She stared at him, trying to memorize every feature. After a moment, she realized that her mother was talking to the apparition, and she focused her attention to listen.

"…that I never visited before. Well, not since I knew you were here. But Paine was coming and invited me along. Your niece has grown into quite a woman, very influential in Spira's new military. She's one of their most respected fighters and teachers. I hope Kera and Xan are proud of her. Anyway, I decided it was time — time to see you again, and for your daughter to meet you. You remember Liss?" She turned to Liss, who found that she had nothing to say.

"Say hello to your father, Lissira," Arelle said.

"Hi," she whispered, mouth completely dry. She cleared her throat and tried again. "It's… nice to see you again." And as she spoke the words, they became true. So what if this was just some sort of shared hallucination born of Arelle's memories? Her mother took solace in it, and Liss could take comfort in that. Besides, she was intrigued by this glimpse of her father as a young man.

"See how tall she is?" Arelle said. "And you should see her with a sword! She's gone off to the military, just like you did, and by all reports she's becoming a fine fighter herself." She paused, looking over at Liss, as if wondering what to say next.

"Mother? Do you want some time alone?" Liss asked.

Arelle shook her head. "No, please stay." She squeezed her daughter's hand. "Everything I have to say, you can hear." She returned her gaze to the floating specter. "Well, that's why I came. To show you your daughter, all grown up, and to tell you that I love you. So much, and I…" Her words trailed off, and Liss could see her struggle with them. When she started to talk again, it was almost a whisper. "That's why I didn't come before, you know. I worked so hard to live without you, even before I knew that you were dead. I was afraid that if I saw you I wouldn't want to keep living, that I would do something rash to join you here. I knew I needed to stay alive for Liss, so I wouldn't risk the temptation. And then you came, and I got you back and lost you forever all at once, and it hurt so much that I couldn't bear the thought of seeing you. But now…" She sighed. "You're here, and you look so peaceful, and happy, and young again — you seemed so old and tired the last time I saw you." Tentatively, she reached her free hand out toward the vision, as if to touch it, then stopped short, curling her fingers into her palm. "I love you, and I always will." She drew her fist in to her chest and placed it over her heart. "But seeing you like this finally gives me the strength to go on alone. I hope you don't mind." She fell silent, and gazed at him for a few more moments. Then she nodded. "Farewell, my love," she whispered. Then she turned away, looking first at the ground and then at Liss. "Are you ready, or would you like a few more moments with him?"

Liss surprised herself by saying "I'd like to stay. Just for a little while."

Arelle nodded. "Take your time, darling." She squeezed Liss's hand, then left.

Liss sat down on the ground, legs crossed, and looked up at the man who was her father. She lost all track of time as she studied his face, looking for traces of herself and of Paine, wondering what it was about him that made her mother love him so much, why Arelle's feelings had lived on for so many years after his passing.

"It's a mystery, sir," she murmured. "I wonder if even you know the answer." She shook her head and stood up. Looking around, she realized that she was alone — Paine and Baralai had left, as had Sam and all the other pilgrims. She turned back to Auron's ghost. "Well, time to go. Nice to see you. I wish I could have the chance to talk with you again. Maybe in the next life." She turned away from the vision to make her way to stairway.

"Lissira."

She stopped dead. Had she imagined it? Slowly, heart pounding, she turned around.

There he was, standing on the platform, looking as he had when she'd met him in person: hair shot through with gray, left arm tucked inside his red coat, right eye lost to some long-ago battle.

"Ahh!" Liss jumped back, and turned to run for her mother.

"Please don't," said Auron, in his quiet yet authoritative voice. Liss turned back to him. "She's made her peace with me, and that's what I want for her. I doubt that seeing me like this would help."

Liss considered his words, then nodded. "Okay. But then why--"

"You," he replied. "The fayth owe me, so they gave me solid form, just for a little while, so that I could spend some time with my daughter."

He reached a gloved hand out to Liss. Trembling, she took it. It was solid, the grip strong. "F-Father," she said, haltingly, the title feeling strange in her mouth.

An undecipherable expression passed across his face. "Well. No one has ever called me that before. I… well." He looked her up and down. "You really are tall!"

She smiled a little, and blushed. "I remember saying that to you." He was taller than she, but not by much — her memories of a huge man must have been colored by the fact that she'd been much smaller then. But he was muscular, with broad shoulders, and she could tell that his presence would command any room.

Auron chuckled. "So you did." He continued to look her over. Then he sighed. "Lissira. I haven't much time. But I want to take this opportunity to do something that no one else can do for you. I want to tell you about your mother." And so he did. As they stood there, father and daughter, holding hands on the Farplane, Auron told Lissira all about Arelle — what she was like as a little girl, their childhood days in Tzeki, how they fell in love, their stolen moments over the years, the pain and joy they had shared. As he spoke, Liss watched his face, saw it soften at the thought of Arelle, and knew that he loved her still, even in death. Her heart broke for them both.

When he was done, he dropped her hand and reached out to stroke her face. "Lissira," he murmured, his deep voice full of sadness, "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you were growing up, that I never had the chance to be a father to you, that I cannot be with you now."

"Oh, Father," said Liss, as tears pricked the corners of her eyes, "but you are with me. Every day. In my heart, and in my sword."

His remaining eye widened. "You carry the sword?"

She nodded, stepping away from him, making room to draw the weapon from its scabbard. She held it at attention in both hands, then turned it flat and presented it to him with a small bow.

Auron reached out carefully and ran his finger along the edge of the blade. "Ah, Masamune. Nice to see it again. You've kept it well honed, and the enchantments seem to be holding. But can you use it?" And he pulled a simple katana from his own back.

Liss straightened and flipped the sword back into battle position. She met his eyes. "Ready," she said. And for a few joyous moments, they dueled. It was obvious to Liss that she was no match for Auron; dead or not, he'd have her bested within moments at his full strength. But she could anticipate his movements, blocking every thrust, forcing every parry. She had never enjoyed swordplay so much, not even fencing with Paine. She found herself regretting his early death more than ever — there was so much she could have learned from him!

After one last bone-jarring clash of blades, Auron dropped his sword, face crinkling into a smile. "Excellent work, my girl! You do honor to the sword, and to me."

Liss sheathed Masamune and bowed again. "That is all I have ever wanted to do."

He nodded solemnly, and Liss was too overcome with emotion to speak. Instead, she stepped into his arms, laying her head against his broad shoulder with a sigh. He squeezed her close and kissing the top of her head, then released her.

"I should go," said Liss. "Goodbye, Father. You can tell the fayth that I owe them one, now."

Auron nodded. "Goodbye, Lissira. Keeping making your mother and me proud."

She turned and walked away.

-x-

I clung to physical form long enough to watch her go. This would be my last chance to see my daughter in life, and I wanted to make the most of the moment. "Father." Lissira's voice echoed in my head, warming my heart while ripping it to pieces, filling me with regret that I would never know this strong young woman.

Still, I was satisfied. My life for hers, and Relle's, and the future of Spira. The trade had been worth making. The world was hers, and nothing could take that away from her. And as she returned to it, walking across the threshold, I stepped backwards and melted back into nothing.